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Understanding

Understanding

A Story by Katie Foutz Voss
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Story for workshop portfolio #2. The mind of a woman vs. the heart of her daughter.

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          This is the last time, I told myself. This is the very last time I will ever do this. I repeated those words rhythmically in the back of my mind. From the moment I poured my body, still loose and from sleep and the previous night’s events, I had been telling myself it was the last time. The last hangover, the last load of laundry, the last journey into the alley to take out the trash. Just one more night, one last time, and then it would be over.

            I was leaving. Like most things in my life, it wasn’t planned. I didn’t take the time to sit down somewhere in solitude and think long, deep thoughts about how I would escape. I am not the kind of person who thinks long or deep thoughts about anything. I suppose that is why on that Friday morning I found myself repeating bold phrases about “last times” and carrying out my daily tasks like I was holding a ‘Get out of jail free’ card that was about to expire.

            “This is the last time,” I said aloud to the trash can before me.

            Around me, the alley stirred as if I had thrown a stone into a lake. A March wind rippled its way down and between the houses and rustled the weeds around the metal can. Some neighbor’s cat was startled by the soft sound and darted behind a pile of cardboard boxes, where it made low noises of irritation and fear.

            The cat, with its growling and running away and skittish temperament, did not understand me.

            “Go ahead,” I told the cat. “Stay in the recycling. You just stay there. Be afraid.” My words hit the empty wind and were swiftly carried away. The alley had no response, no reply for me, as if I had said nothing.

            “I’m going now.” Again, the sound seemed to cease before it even left my lips.

            I walked back to the house, reminding myself that I wouldn’t have to take the trash out again. It wasn’t my job, anyway. It was his job. It had always been his job and he had never done it. It was the same with everything I wanted him to do, big or small he usually managed to “forget” or tell me that something else was more important.

            The back door slammed shut behind me and I shivered a little as I went into the kitchen. I looked over stacks of dirty dishes and half-consumed cups of coffee, and the whole scene was tied together with the occasional apple core and a random orange peel here or there. I sighed with irritation.

            “Michael,” I would say to him, “please put your mug in the sink when you’re done.” Ages ago I wanted him to put them in the dishwasher, but that was a dream long forgotten. I asked him to put all the food remnants on one plate, or on any surface that wasn’t the counter or the floor, but that desire had also faded into disappointment.

            “Emily,” he would reply, “don’t ask me stuff like that. You know I won’t remember the little things.”

            With my hangover dissipating, but my headache worsening, I mulled over those words and found my red coffee mug amidst all the others on the counter. I heated up some coffee to alleviate the pounding in my head, and while I drank it I put all of the little things in the dishwasher. There were still several dirty plates and bowls left out by the time I had filled the machine to its breaking point. I could almost hear the porcelain cracking under the strain as I crowded the dishes in. There was barely enough space between for the water to get through and clean off the ketchup globs and greasy stains.

            With every gulp of coffee and each dish shoved into the machine, my It wasn’t so hard to put a dirty dish in the sink, maybe soak it in water for a while. And it wasn’t hard to tie up a sack of garbage and haul it into the alley. Grown men should have no aversion to their own alleys, especially if they are inhabited only by paranoid felines. Yet, he found difficulty remembering the simplest tasks. Michael wouldn’t take the trash out, take care of his dishes, and kept his smelly clothes in three or four inconveniently placed piles instead of just one. He could not touch a broom or a vacuum and found washcloths entirely disgusting.

            There were only three things that Michael considered worth remembering: going to work in the law offices every day, raising his daughter to be a decent human being, and being faithful to me, his tolerant housewife. Everything else was too small for his intellect to grasp.

I wished that I had realized this fact about him before we had gotten together. Four years of high school had proved we were attracted to each other, but neither of us wanted to make a move. I was just scared, but Mike hated the concept of dating, the annoying rules of romance, and especially the notion that love could take over someone’s life. He knew what he wanted to do with his life: he wanted to be a lawyer. He didn’t have time to waste on a girlfriend or a fiancée.

            So he made me his wife instead. Only problem was, he wanted to do it immediately.

“It will be more cost effective,” he told me. “If we don’t waste money on frivolous things like wedding gowns, we can save up for a house.”

“I was going to wear my grandmother’s dress,” I said.

“Well, we’re going to need furnishings in our new house. We can do that if we don’t hire a caterer or a musician.”

            “My parents would have paid for that, Mike!”

            “What about making all the bridesmaids pay for a dress they won’t really like, eh? You don’t have to deal with that at all.”

            “My sister is the only one bridesmaid I had in mind, actually. My parents would pay for her dress.”

            And then he changed tactics. He smirked and said slyly, “Wedding planning takes a while. The sooner we get married, the sooner we can start a family.”

I gave in. It was ultimate romantic experience, of course. I put on a nice dress, we went to the court house and an hour later we walked out married. There was no ceremony, no flowers, no bridesmaids in sparkly scarlet gowns, no father to walk me down the aisle, and no mother to sit in front and weep the complicated tears that usually come when a person gains a son-in-law.

            My mother, in fact, didn’t find out until after we returned from a weekend honeymoon. When we got back to Michael’s apartment I had barely started brushing the sand off my clothes when there was a knock at the door, and my mother was standing there looking more disturbed than I had ever seen her�"even more than that time I decided to get a summer job in a different state and forgot to tell her I was leaving.

            “I knew it!” she shrieked, grabbing my left hand and gaping at my minimalistic wedding ring. “Emily, how could you do this to me?”

            “Financial reasons, I guess,” I stammered.

            “You were going to wear your grandmother’s dress!” she shrieked again.

            “I know, I know. I told him that. It’s okay, mom. I’m okay.” I had both of my hands on her face, forcing her to make eye contact, but she wouldn’t be calmed.

            “It’s too late for a ceremony,” she said with a sigh, “but we have to do something! A reception, that’s what we’ll have to do.”

            “Mike will hate that!” I said, and a knot of worry began to form in the pit of my stomach.

            “Mike Shmike. We’re having a reception, and that’s final. Do you understand me?”

           

            At four o’clock I was still standing in the kitchen with dishes in my hands when I heard the front door open. My mother was still on my mind, and I wondered to myself if she would understand me the way that I understood her actions all those years ago. I had run into the embrace of a monster, and she had just been trying to make me be good to myself. Now I was doing it all on my own.

The door slammed shut, and while the caffeine had taken the edge off of my headache, the noise made my skull pound for a moment. I could hear the familiar sounds of my daughter flinging her backpack to the floor and dropping her coat and shoes in a pile. It would be the last time I would be home to hear it, the last time I would go into the front room and pick up her mess.

            “I’m home, mommy!” she called.

            “I’m in the kitchen, Becca!” I called back.

            A moment later she was skipping in, and she threw her arms around my hips�"it was still the highest she could reach. “Hi, mommy.”

            “Hi, honey. How was school?”

            With a wild wide-eyed looked, she gasped loudly and began describing an entire day of second grade to me, gruesome details included. She had learned about butterflies in science, and read a book about the ocean, and during recess a little boy named Joey had apparently told her she was pretty. As a last thought she added that during her after-school art club Joey had tried to sit  next to her, and she didn’t like that. She then handed me a folded piece of paper with for Emily’s parents written on one side.

            “It’s from my teacher,” she said with woeful eyes.

            I unfolded the paper, scowling slightly, and read Ms. Adam’s slanted writing.

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Hollander,

I am writing to inform you that Rebecca seems to be having problems with aggression, lately. She is usually one of my nicest students, which is why this concerns me. During recess today she punched a boy because he called her pretty. After school she pinched the same boy, for reasons unknown. I know that Rebecca has stayed away from boys in the past and she gets upset when they pay attention to her, but she has never acted in violence. Please call me to set up a conference so that we can discuss your daughter’s behavior.

            -Ms. Rachel Adams

 

            As I finished reading the note Becca looked up at me, her face contorting in fear. “Are you mad?”

            “Mad? At you?” I knelt down in front of her. “I don’t have time to be mad at you.”

            “Oh,” she said. “Is it today?”

            “Yes,” I said with a nod. “Today is the day. You remember what we talked about?”

            “Yes, mommy. I remember. But you’re not going till after bedtime, right?” Her little worried expression almost broke my heart.

            “Right, honey.” I gave her a big smile. “I have to read you a story before I go.”

            I had talked to Becca earlier in the week, knowing that she would listen to every word and wouldn’t make too much of a fuss when I was gone. Of course, I was coming back for her later. My daughter and I were very close. I knew she would understand.

            With Becca consoled I took the note and set it on the desk in the living room, which was covered in short stacks of envelopes. Each small pile had a sticky-note on top explaining what was in the pile. It was Michael’s desk, and Michael’s pathetic method of organization. Certainly there were other ways of keeping mail in order, but I didn’t think he’d mind one little note drifting among the rest of the mess. He would find it eventually, and if he didn’t I was sure Becca’s teacher wouldn’t fail to send another note home.

            As a final act of kindness I made dinner. It would be my last time in my own kitchen, with familiar pots and pans, dishes and flatware I’d come to call old friends. Still, I couldn’t wait to leave it all behind. Standing in front of the stove I compiled a list in my head, an order of the evening’s events. 1. Mike would come home. I wouldn’t mention that I’d cleaned up his mess. 2. We would eat dinner as a happy family. He wouldn’t tell me how good the meal was. 3. I would read a story to Becca. 4. I would pack while Mike took a shower, making sure to leave him a goodbye letter on the bed. 5. I would escape.

            Mike had always laughed at my lists. Even if I wasn’t much into planning, I did like to figure out some things ahead of time. I liked to make a grocery list and decide what meals we’d be having two weeks in advance. I took great pleasure in writing down all the family birthdays and other important events in the new calendar every January. When we were younger, Mike had been tempted to hire me as his secretary for my organizational skills. I found it ironic that Mike was an intellectual, clear-minded lawyer and yet it took all his strength to arrange the documents on his desk in an orderly manner or to remember to take out the trash.

            The soup was just coming to a boil when I heard the distant rumbling of the garage door. I had been thinking so intently that an hour had already passed. The rolls in the oven were almost finished as well.

            “Daddy’s home!” Becca squealed from the living room, where she’d been sitting happily with a coloring book .

            I sighed. “Becca, come here please,” I said. When she began merely trudging towards me slowly, I firmly repeated the command.

            I knelt down on the crumb-covered linoleum to meet her eyes. “Becca, remember what I told you,” I said.

In the garage, my husband was getting out of the car.

“But, Mommy�".”

The car door slammed against a shelf full of ceramic pots.

“You know I’m leaving tonight, honey. Do you want me to come back for you later?” I placed my hands on her small shoulders.

Her lower lip trembled as she nodded, and she tugged at the hem of her shirt.

“Then you have to forget about Daddy,” I said urgently.

Michael cursed loud enough for us to hear through the walls. Something about “that bleep door” and “those bleeping pots.”

“I know, Mommy.”

“You have to ignore him. You have to forget about Daddy like he forgot about your piano recital, and the science fair.”

Becca’s eyes widened with what looked like clarity. “And when he forgot that the yellow cup is my cup, and left coffee in it and got it all brown and yucky,” she said, her freckled face scrunching up in disgust.

“Yes, he forgot that too. ”

 The door to the garage opened, and my husband came in grumbling.

“So you know what to do now, right?” I asked Becca, smiling in assurance.

“Yes, Mommy.”

Then Mike was standing above us, holding a briefcase in one hand and his jacket in the other. His pale yellow necktie was loosened and dangled from his neck like an anxious noose.

“What’s the problem with my girls?” he asked with a grin.

“Becca got into some trouble at school today,” I said, and stood up to face him. “Her teacher left a note for us. I put it on the living room desk, if you can find it in there.” For a moment I just stared at him with my arms crossed, daring him to come up with some angry retort to my comment.

But Mike never believed in fighting in front of our daughter. Instead, he scowled. “Hi, Emily,” he said, his voice stilted with unexpressed frustration.

As I went back to the soup on the stove, which was almost finished, Becca went back to her coloring and Mike went to read the note from Ms. Adams.

The living room, being connected to the kitchen, allowed me to watch my little girl closely. I wondered then, for the first time, how long it would take me to get on my feet. I wondered how long I would have to wait to come back for Becca. Weeks? A few months? Surely it wouldn’t be a more than a year. I gripped the handle of the pot on the stove as if the tightness of my fist would determine my success.

I told myself quite sternly that I would not leave her alone with Mike for a year. I reminded myself with similar sternness that he had changed me, an adult, rather intensely in just ten years. There was no telling what he could do to my child in a small amount of time.

He beckoned to her from the desk, his voice calm but concerned. “Becca, do you want to come tell me what happened at school today?”

Becca sat up for a moment, contemplating her father, but when she made eye contact with me she immediately hunkered back down over her picture. “I hit a boy,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Yes, that’s what this note says. Do you want to talk about it?”

“Nope.” Her little fingers, smudged with magic marker, continued their furious mission to color in a picture of a princess surrounded by butterflies.

“Becca,” Michael said slowly. “I don’t like this note from your teacher. You should know better.”

I could tell that Becca wanted to admit she was wrong. She was biting her lower lip with such resolve that I thought she might start to bleed. Eventually she managed to say, “Uh-huh,” to her father.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mike frown deeply. A moment later he had come to stand next to me in the kitchen, his face bent towards my shoulder. “Emily…”

“We’ll talk to her after supper,” I told him before he could say anything. I didn’t turn to look at him.

“I don’t think this should wait.”

“It’ll wait,” I said, “because the soup is done.”

I called Becca to come set the table, still sticky from Mike’s mess I’d cleaned up earlier. We ate in state of such silence it almost felt ceremonial. The only sounds were of clinking spoons in the bowls, papery napkins being wiped across a soiled chin, and occasionally someone slurped their soup obnoxiously. Once, Mike asked me to pass the salt. Becca kept looking between me and her father, her brown eyes wide and thoughtful. I figured she was just as nervous about the whole ordeal as I was. She probably had some fears about living without me, about living only with her father.

            When we’d finished eating, I went over what would happen next. I needed to read a story to Becca, and the moment Mike took a shower I would have to quickly pack and get out of there. I bit my lower lip, pondering the amount of time I would need to get everything finished.

            I was standing next to the table with a bowl in my hand, still thinking hard, when Mike came and took the bowl from me. “Let me do the dishes, honey,” he said.

            I gaped at him. “Uh… what?”

            He faltered for a moment, clearly wanting to say something but not having the guts to do it. And then he finally said guiltily, “I broke a couple of your pots in the garage. Let me do the dishes.”

            Ten years of frustration and bitterness almost melted away in that instant. My forgetful, inconsiderate, unromantic husband wanted to do the dishes for me because he’d broken my pots. This same husband consequently kissed me�"so quickly I could not move away�"then said, “Just let me do the dishes.”

            I nodded, dazed, and went to the bedroom. Deep inside myself I felt a few gears starting up again, something jerking awake and turning my stomach into knots. This deep part of me didn’t want to leave, this part wanted to forget all my plans and rip up the letter and just stay. This part wanted to work things out. I could already see us sitting in the office of a marriage counselor, getting a family portrait taken, going back to church every week, and spending weekends watching movies together and eating picnics in the backyard. Becca would stop being so aggressive towards boys and would start getting better grades. Our family would blossom. I could even see us having another child, a little boy. He would be blue-eyed and with hair like straw, just like his father.

            “No!” I said aloud to the bedroom.

            The bedroom, for the briefest moment, asked me if I was alright. I then realized with a good amount of surprise that it was actually Mike calling from the kitchen, wanting to make sure I was okay.

            “Stubbed my toe!” I called back.

            Then, remembering the extra time I had, I began the crucial process of packing. I pulled my suitcase from under the bed and opened it on the floor. I started with clothes. A nice outfit for job interviews went in first, then jeans and t-shirts, and one pretty red dress in case I ever met another man. I looked around the room to see if there was anything else I needed. There was a picture of Becca beside the bed, and after a cheerless sigh I put it in the suitcase as well. I would have to get some of my things from the house when Mike was in the shower.

            After hiding the suitcase back under the bed, I went into the living room. Becca was on the floor coloring again, and some insignificant sitcom was on the television behind her. Mike was still in the kitchen, now putting away the dishes I’d literally stuffed in the dishwasher earlier in the day.

            “It’s your bedtime,” I said to Becca. “Go get your jammies on and brush your teeth, then I’ll read you a story.”

            She rushed off to bed, and I took her coloring books and markers and put them in a plastic bin nearby. Would Mike remember where to put all her things? He could barely organize himself, how would he be able to keep a little girl organized? I was already imagining her homework going missing, her clothes would be perpetually dirty, as would her hair. Her room would be a constant disaster, not to mention the rest of the house.

            “You alright in there?” Mike asked. “You’ve just been… sitting. Not moving. Something wrong?”

            “I’m fine,” I said. “Just … uh… thinking about the note from Becca’s teacher.”

            “Well, she’s going to bed now. We can talk to her about it in the morning.”

            “In the morning, of course,” I lied.

            With the living room floor back in order I went into Becca’s room. She was still in the bathroom brushing her teeth, but her favorite book was already sitting on her pillow, waiting for me.

            She came bouncing into the room a few seconds later, grinning excitedly. She was wearing her pajamas with the little yellow ducks on them, and the happy look on her face matched the expression a woman makes when she finds the perfect wedding dress.

            “Story time!” she squealed, and crawled under the blankets.

As I began reading The Lorax, I could still hear the distant clinks as Mike put the dishes away. It was a long story I had to read, and I wanted to have enough time to pack, but I also didn’t want to upset Becca. If I went through the book too fast, she would complain and I needed her to be contented and asleep when I left the house. Apprehensively, I read the story with the same detailed pace as always.

I wasn’t quite done with the story Mike got into the shower. Faking a yawn, I told Becca I was tired, and asked her if I could read the last few pages a little faster. She sleepily gave me her permission. When I’d finished I kissed her forehead, turned out the light, and left her room for the last time. It took a good deal of control not to just stand in her doorway, to let the tears come, to linger on my fears about how long it would be until I saw her again.

Yet I knew how little time I had left. Mike usually showered for 20 minutes and half of those minutes were already gone. I made a quick trip through the house, picking up books and little artifacts that I wanted to take with me. There wasn’t much I wanted, which I realized with only about five minutes remaining.

On my way back to the bedroom, however, my gaze was caught by an old picture on the wall. The dusty frame was tilted and without thinking, I moved to adjust it. Before I could move on I realized that it was a picture from the reception my mother had thrown for me and Mike.

I had actually purchased a white dress for the occasion, and it flowed just past my knees. Michael was in a white shirt, with a dark red tie, which I had asked him to wear. For years the picture had gone unnoticed on the wall, gathering dust and being forgotten. But there I was, gazing at it, noticing again the gleam in my husband’s eyes as he looked at me,  the blissful happiness in our smiles. I remembered looking into the camera’s lens but wanted to look back at him.

But I would not be swayed. With a deep breath I tilted the frame back into its crooked position, and went to finish packing.

A moment the water turned off in the bathroom. He would be toweling himself off, putting on his pajamas. I could hear the faint rustle of cotton.

Panic spurred me into motion then. I extracted the wrinkled goodbye letter from my pocket and dropped it on the bed. I was about to grab my purse and run out of the house, but the bathroom door opened.

I was trapped. I could put everything back under the bed and not leave at all, but I wouldn’t have any time alone to put everything back in its place, and Mike would notice that things were missing. The only thing I could do was leave. If he tried to talk to me, I would ignore him. I would not have a confrontation, not after all the work I’d done to keep my escape a secret.

“Emily?” he said, standing in the door of the bedroom. He was in his boxers and a t-shirt, hair still wet, and the look on his face seemed both enraged and despairing.

I stood up, suitcase in one hand and purse in the other. I cleared my throat. “Goodbye, Mike.” I moved towards the door.

However, contrary to what I had expected, he stopped me. His hands were gentle on my shoulders, and yet I felt I could not move past him. “Why?” he asked, almost in a whisper.

The incredulity in his voice almost broke my determination, but I didn’t give in. “I said goodbye, Mike.”

“Don’t,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all in the letter,” I said, tearing away from him.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

The door was just there, within my reach. I could just go. I was all ready to leave. I had made all the preparations, I had said goodbye to the alley and the alley cat, I had read my daughter a story and made her promises I hoped that I could keep. I had even written a nice goodbye letter for my husband, although it had been crumpled by the long day of hiding in my pocket. All I could do was stare at the door.

“No, you don’t,” I replied, my voice almost breaking. “But it’s all in the letter.”

“I’m sorry, Emily. Don’t go.”

“You don’t get it, Michael!”

“I’m sorry.” He was behind me then, with one hand on my elbow. “Please, Emily. Don’t go. Don’t do this.”

“After everything you have done to me… after all you have forgotten…” I swallowed. I hadn’t wanted to say anything. Why was I talking to him? Why couldn’t I just take those next few steps out the door?

“I’m sorry. I’m forgetful. Please, don’t�".”

“Don’t act like you care about me!” I half-sobbed, turning to face him. “You can’t keep me here. You can’t control me anymore.”

“Emily, I never did anything to hurt you. I… I’m sorry. Can’t we talk about this?” He reached for my hand again, and I jerked it away.

“No.”

“Please. You’re my wife. We can work this out.”

“No,” I said more vehemently. “I’m leaving now.”

Mike’s face contorted in confusion, in a sort of desperate rage that almost made me fearful. He swallowed.

 “What about Becca?” he asked.

“She understands,” I said slowly, painfully.

I practically dragged myself away from him, and as I opened the door and then slammed it, ten years of bitterness dropped from my shoulders like a great weight.

I walked out to the street where my car was parked. It was the one thing Mike had given me that I was taking along. Everything else was still in the house. My ring was in the crinkled letter on the bed. I put my suitcase in the backseat, and then went to the driver’s side door.

            One of Becca’s stuffed teddy bears was sitting in the passenger seat. It’s large golden eyes stared up at me, as if to say Becca would miss him. I comforted myself knowing that she would get it back someday. She understood the situation, she knew that it wouldn’t be forever. I wouldn’t leave her with Michael for too long. She understood.

            But as I looked up from the car, I saw through the front window the bewildering image of my daughter throwing her little arms around the shaking shoulders of her father.

© 2010 Katie Foutz Voss


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Everything else was too small for his intellect to grasp. What an amazing line!! I love this story, Katie. I left my husband, and it captures perfectly the quiet landslide of disappointment that ends a marriage. But aside from personal relatabilty, the story has a sound structure, and beautifully unfolds as well-written works should. Wow. My monosyllabic gratitude for this work. Thanks for sharing!

Posted 8 Years Ago



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Added on May 9, 2010
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Author

Katie Foutz Voss
Katie Foutz Voss

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About
1. My name is Katie, Kat, Kate, or Katherine. Never Kathy. 2. You will find me with flowers in my hair and paint on my hands. 3. I love: Jesus, my husband, art, coffee, pajamas, chapstick, the color.. more..

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