Sunday Scribblings--Fortune (a story)
I really WILL learn to write short SS stories...but not this week. Sorry. This is a quick first draft of a short story, about a woman who is always drawn to what she doesn't believe she has inside, and her husband who believes that growing up means shutting the door on his passions. And the half-eaten fortune that changes both of their minds.
She sat hunched in the passenger seat of their car, counting the telephone poles as the lines swooped by her. One...two...three...four. Anything to quell the rising nausea in her throat. She was six months pregnant...it should have faded by now. But the black bile was relentless, and never more than she was in the car.
She turned towards her husband, watched his profile as street lights washed over him, in rhythm. Tom was in the spotlight again.
Tomandsue...that’s what everyone called them, as though it were one word. Sue liked to see the word hanging in the air, her husband’s name assertive on the breath, her own dissipating like a sigh. No one really remembered when one ended and the other began, and she usually liked it that way. Usually.
They passed a sign for a service area, and Sue’s stomach gave a small protest of hunger. Was that Miranda in there, asking for food? Sue realized that they’d been driving almost continuously all day and into the night. Tom leaned into the wheel, clutching it, determined to get to Sue’s mother’s house that night. Sue couldn’t understand his determination. She wasn’t in any hurry herself. She hadn’t been in any hurry for the last five years.
"I want to stop." Why did her voice sound so alien?
Tom turned to her, briefly. "Where?"
"That rest stop...the one in five miles."
"Do you really want to give the baby Burger King?" That’s how he referred to her, still...as the baby. He didn’t want to know the gender of his child. Sometimes Sue wasn’t sure he wanted to know Miranda at all. Could someone really be happy about changing his life for someone else?
"Not Burger King...the Chinese place. I have a craving." She didn’t have a craving, exactly, but she’d learned that was one way to get whatever she wanted.
His lips tightened into the cold sterile line they fell into more and more these days. Tension, he said. From the new job. Sue stopped asking after a while, knowing she’d never get the right answer.
"You want to eat that fake Chinese slop? Full of MSG? That’s stuff is just..." He trailed off, unable to find a word to capture his horror.
Inauthentic, she thought. Maybe that's why I like it. She closed her eyes, guilt stretched taut over them. She had learned not to bring up China.
"The day I first landed in Beijing, I knew I was home. I knew that I was doing the right thing with my life, in the right place." That was one of the first conversations they’d ever had. She’d been watching him, struggling through their college classes together. He’d walk around campus like an abstraction, his mind clearly back in his beloved China. He was older, carried himself like a man, confident. His passion magnetized around him, his blue eyes like search lights as they scanned her face. They sat in the quad that day and talked for hours, about his deep faith in humanity and the Word of God, about his plans to go back to China permanently, as soon as he could swing it, convince his parents and save the money. He brought it all to life for her, painting a picture of the majesty of the history as it smiled serenely down on people who were intensely engaged with each other, with life, and struggling with their rulers. He took her on bike rides in endless traffic, stopping for rice and squid, the chopsticks clanking against the metal plate as the cook shook spices over it, the fire soot melding with the dense air. Colors and passion and pageantry throbbed in his stories, filling her with a longing for life she had never experienced. His faith was as forthright as his blue eyes, expansive, alive. She turned it over in her mind, searching for the darkness in him. She couldn’t seem to find it, just joy. And she wanted to be near his certainty, even if she couldn't share it. She wanted to sear herself on his flame.
It became more than love, more than attraction. She craved him after that day, decided with a breathless force that she would marry him.
It was the only time she could remember getting what she wanted. Until Miranda.
"You don’t have to eat it." She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice.
"You shouldn’t either. Who knows what that will do to the baby!" His voice and face hard like steel. The boy missionary swallowed.
"I think starving will hurt the baby more." Why was everything a fight lately? Hadn’t they been working towards this for years, this miracle baby?
Lately she felt the vast space between their names—the and between them growing wider, breaking.
Silent, they sat alone in a vast food court, lit up whitely as though for a party.
Sue picked at her food, the taste like pouring salt into her mouth. Tom had been right.
"I guess it’s better in China, huh." It wasn’t a question.
Tom sat nursing a diet Coke, staring at the neutral table. "Any Chinese person I met there would laugh at how wrong this is!" His eyes lit up, momentarily, and Sue found herself leaning forward, like a child wanting to hear a bedtime story for the fifth time. Usually that was all the encouragement Tom needed to go on with his stories, to lose himself in that world. But today he pushed himself back from the table, mumbled an excuse about the bathroom.
Sue closed her eyes, rubbed her belly absently. She could almost hear Miranda’s voice reproaching her. "You have to fix this, Mommy. I don’t think I can live like this."
But she wasn’t sure she could fix anything. She wasn’t sure she had ever learned how.
In her eyes, Tom had always been sharp while she was blurry, her boundaries fluid. Easily breached.
He returned now, eyes red rimmed with exhaustion and driving and something else she glanced away from. There were two fortune cookies on the table, and absentmindedly, she picked one up and bit into it. The paper slid down her throat before she realized it.
Tom smiled wanly. "Still that hungry?"
She tried to match his lighter tone. "Let’s see what I didn’t eat." for all the things that came before That was all. She couldn’t tell if it had begun or ended with that.
"Well, no one said fortune cookies had to make any sense." But she wished she’d gotten a coherent fortune. She could use some guidance.
Hours later, they arrived rumpled and exhausted at her mother’s house. Sue’s mother was always pristine, her surface polished and every detail accounted for. She’d always been that way, and she’d always expected Sue to follow.
It was incredibly tiring to be there again.
"My darling! How I’ve missed you!" She barreled towards Sue, who put her arms around her belly protectively. Her mother softened. "God, you must be so tired. I suppose I should have given you a night off, sweetheart. I just wanted to share this bounty with..." she trailed off, for once unsure.
Her mother turned towards Tom, nodded coolly. They’d never gotten along. Too much alike, although neither of them could see it.
"Sit, sit!" Sue was shocked by how little the room had changed since she had left. Her mother had been fond of frequently redecorating, watching the shows on HGTV and stretching her secretary’s salary to make sure the room could be photographed at any moment.
"My first grandchild..." her eyes grew misty. "Thank you for calling me."
"It was Tom’s idea."
"Well, thank you, then, Tom."
Tom was pacing restless around the room, stopping in front of the bookcase with a look almost like pain. The shelves overflowed with titles by Paul Tillich and Albert Schweitzer—books about Christianity and faith and doubt. Books on China, the culture, the languages, the food.
"I wanted to understand." She said simply.
Sue felt small, insignificant before the hunger in Tom’s eyes. She hadn’t seen that light in them since he’d started his new job. "Just a cog in the wheel." He had complained on that first day. "I’m nobody now. But it’s all for the baby. The baby needs a daddy who’s a grownup. I had my time."
"But we can go to China...all, together, once the baby’s born." She had said as she cradled his head in her arms, tasting a comfort in comforting him. Wanting to want something the way did. Something besides him.
"No. My parents are right. I can’t subject our child to my whims. I need to make money. I can find God in my life in other ways."
And he hadn’t brought it up since. And here they were, all those dreams, crowding her mother’s bookcase.
She wanted to leave him to them.
Sue went outside, leaned against the porch doorway, overwhelmed. The kitchen door swung open, quiet. Her mother.
"I am trying, Susan. I want to be a part of your life again. You are all I have."
Wearily, Sue nodded. "I don’t even remember why I left."
"Because you were headstrong and furiously in love with Tom and your romantic vision of what life would be like with him."
Sue shook her head. "That doesn’t sound like me." She paused, considering. "I guess I’ve always been attracted to special people. Like Tom."
Like you, she added silently, to her mother and Miranda both.
Sue’s mother hugged her suddenly, fiercely. "You ARE someone special. You have a secret inside of you, Susan. You make people better than they are. You inspire. Can you inspire yourself now, as well?"
That night, lying in her childhood room, Tom curled around her like a question mark. She leaned into his closeness, responding to a different charge in his air. Tenderly, softly, they began to make love, a wave, a sigh that gasped with tension and release. Sue sobbed his name with relief.
Some moments later, Tom spoke up. "I want to go to school...divinity school." He said in a quick breath, sudden and shy. "I thought I could live like this, serve God another way, but...it’s not in me, Sue. I need this. I need to find a way to go back, if not to China, then at least to that work. Everything in my life has led me to this point." For all the things that came before.
What had come before for her? What had come before Tom? Her mother, her history. What would come now? Miranda. And somewhere in all that, Sue. She felt her name separate from his, float free in space. Sue and Tom. Together even in their division. It ached like a limb long unused...with pins and needles. With life.
"This is going to work, you know." Sue tested her new fierceness, conviction. And it was right. "She’s going to be so proud of her divinity student daddy. This is our time. "
She hugged Tom closer to her, laughing as he bumped her belly. "She’s going to be beautiful," he whispered to her. "Giving strength...just like her mother."
I have a secret inside of me. She’s going to help me find my China.
Sue smiled in the darkness, warm with possibilities. Her baby drowsed, content. And her fortune lay within her too, half read, half unknowable.
For more fortune telling, go here.
Labels: sunday scribblings