The office is cool and sparsely decorated. I count the plants (three), watch the second hand of the brass clock on the bookshelf make two full circles on its axis, stare at the large canvas on the wall, a lone red smear of paint in the center. I look anywhere but directly at Nora, the pristine, chignoned, straight-backed woman sitting in the executive chair across the desk from me—not because she’s flipping through my portfolio and I’ve never quite gotten comfortable with witnessing the judgment of my work, but because she’s wearing a neck scarf. Just seeing it, wrapped tightly like a noose, knotted right at her clavicle, makes my skin crawl with anxiety. How do people wear things wrapped around their throats? I’ve never understood it. Even as a kid, if my mom put me in a turtleneck, I would grasp at it, wheezing and crying and carrying on until she let me change.
I’m pretty sure I was strangled to death in a previous life.
Harrison says that’s morbid, but I once heard one of those late-night television psychics say that a lot of the fears we’re born with stem from events in our past lives. Like, if you are terrified of swimming in the ocean, maybe you drowned or were ravaged by a school of piranha or something.
Harrison also says I should stop watching so many of those late-night television psychic shows.
The room is silent, save the sharp machine-gun-fire rapping of Nora’s pen against the desktop. A pattern has emerged. She pauses the pen when she turns a page and then resumes as she gazes— thoughtfully, I hope—at the photos of my paintings.
There are thirteen art galleries in Hope Springs, Pennsylvania (excessive for a town with two thousand inhabitants, if you ask me, and I’m an artist). Only three show contemporary work, this one, and two others who have already turned down my paintings. Translation? This is kind of my last shot. But I’m hopeful, because at least here, I actually have a third-degree personal connection— my old college professor Rick Haymond called in a favor to a friend, who in turn called Nora, and now here I am.
“Yes?” I say, meeting her eyes.
“Is this a portrait of . . . Keanu Reeves?”
I clear my throat. “Um . . . yes.”
Her pen stills. She looks up at me, expectantly.
“That was part of my latest series.”
She waits, and I clear my throat again.
“Have you ever watched The $25,000 Pyramid?” I ask.
“The game show.”
“I—I believe so.” She narrows her eyes, unsure of where this is going.
“You know how the celebrities start saying a bunch of random words, like ‘wheels, buttons, beach balls,’ and then the contestant has to guess what the category is—like, in this example: Things That Are Round?”
“Well, I find that fascinating—the groupings of seemingly unrelated things that actually do have something in common. That’s how I choose the themes for my series.”
She continues to stare at me, and I can’t decide if she’s perplexed or bored. “And Keanu Reeves?”
“The theme was: Things That Are Mediocre.”
Her eyes remain locked on mine, but she doesn’t respond. She reminds me of a detective on one of those cop shows, the patient one, willing to wait out the suspect. I cave. I would be a terrible criminal. “Also in that series is the orange Tootsie Pop.”
“The orange Tootsie Pop,” she repeats.
“Right, because orange isn’t bad, but it’s nobody’s favorite, right? And then, let’s see, Capri pants, store-bought tomatoes—that’s why I painted them with the sticker still on—Easter . . .” She breaks eye contact as I’m speaking so I trail off.
Then, more to the desk than to me, she says: “How . . . interesting.” But the way Nora’s voice goes down at the end and not up in praise is how I know she doesn’t really think it is interesting. And how I know that I’m not going to get a showing at this gallery, either.
When I step back out into the midday June heat, I nearly run smack into two guys linked arm in arm. The one in man sandals and teal gingham shorts pulls the other back to let me pass. “I’m so sorry,” I say, as my hand goes to my stomach, a protective mother’s instinct for the fetus currently residing there, then I scoot around the men and out onto the street. Dodging in and out of other well-dressed tourists, I pass a chocolatier, an olive oil boutique and a store that sells nothing but spices. Seventeen kinds of salt! I whispered to Harrison when we, too, were another one of those tourist couples five months ago, and ducked in to look around. I never knew there was more than one. Having known me and my lack of culinary skills for the better part of eight years, this did not surprise him.
On Mechanic Street, the cell in my shoulder bag vibrates and I dig it out. A text from Harrison.
How’d it go?
I scroll through my gifs until I find a picture of an army tank and text it back.
That bad? Did you wear the lucky dress?
I hold the phone at arm’s length, making sure my prize possession—a yellow wrap dress I scored at a thrift store and was wearing the night I met Harrison—is in the frame and press send. Not so lucky, I guess.
I slip the phone into the front pocket of my portfolio case, exchanging it for my car keys. Then I unlock the door to my Toyota, get in, turn the key and start the fifteen-minute trek home.
Five months ago, Harrison and I decided to move to this tiny town on a whim, which sounds like something I would do, but not Harrison. It was January, in Philadelphia, and it was snowing. Again. The kind of cold, wet snow that seeps into your clothes and your bones and makes you want to never leave your apartment, and if you do, makes you feel like you’re never going to be warm again.
“Let’s get out of here,” Harrison said one Friday afternoon, when he got home from an extra-long shift at the hospital. He had had a tough few weeks, long hours on top of losing an eight-year-old boy during a routine emergency appendectomy. He didn’t talk about it much—he never does—but I could tell it affected him.
“And go where?” I asked.
“Anywhere but here,” he said.
Harrison is not the spontaneous type, so I immediately agreed. We drove north on 95 and ended up in Hope Springs, a tiny town west of the Delaware River. It was full of more antique stores and art galleries than any town needs, and I was drunk on its charm, and the way that the snow, for some mysterious reason, didn’t quite feel so wet and cold and was piled up in pretty white mounds alongside the road instead of the gray, slushy heaps we were accustomed to. By Sunday, when we were packing up to leave, and dreading the drive back to the city, I said, “I wish we could live here,” which is what I say every time we go on vacation anywhere. Harrison said, “We can.”
Then he said he’d been thinking about it for months—how the city hospital was so stressful and how maybe at a smaller hospital he could scale back, breathe a little—so why not now and why not in Hope Springs. And maybe it was because I had just had my second miscarriage and my first huge career failure and all of those things happened in Philadelphia and not in Hope Springs, or maybe because I really was convinced that the snow here was less cold and less wet and more beautiful, or maybe because the name of the town, Hope Springs, suddenly seemed significant, like an omen, but I said, “OK.” And though it took a few months of interviews and tying up loose ends in Philadelphia, that’s how we ended up moving from the apartment we’d lived in together for seven years and living here.
Two right angles of white picket fencing flank our driveway, which is the only way I know where to turn, since everything on the two-lane road that runs past our house looks exactly the same—green and tree-lined. I pull the car between them and roll slowly over the gravel until the stone house comes into view. It’s a renovated three-bedroom farmhouse from the 1800s, so it has that great mix of old-world charm and a Sub-Zero fridge. The studio—a detached one-car garage behind the house—has windows on all four sides. Amazing light. That’s what sold me on it. Or maybe it was simply the idea of having my own studio, instead of a one-hundred-square-foot den that also held a TV, a small bookcase and a futon, all flecked with hardened bits of acrylic paint, shellac, egg yolk (from an ill-advised DIY tempera phase) and various other substances from my artistic endeavors over the years.
The futon. Where, in my early twenties, I ate countless bowls of buttered noodles and slices of Nutella toast and watched reruns of Family Feud and then, in my late twenties, made furious love to Harrison on his all-too-short breaks home from his surgical residence shifts at Thomas Jefferson. Harrison convinced me to give the futon to charity when we moved—It’s starting to smell, he said, gently, as if he was trying to talk me into euthanizing a beloved pet whose quality of life had deteriorated. And now instead of turning the car off and going into my studio to paint, which is what I should do, I have the sudden urge to turn my rusted Corolla around and drive to every single Goodwill store between here and Philadelphia until I find the futon and bring it home.
“Sorry I’m late,” Harrison says when he walks through the front door that evening around nine, even though it’s the third time that week he’s gotten home past dark. Harrison’s one of only four general surgeons on staff at the Fordham hospital, which serves not only the eight thousand residents of Fordham, but many of the surrounding smaller towns, including Hope Springs. Though he said a smaller hospital would mean a slower pace, lately it’s seemed like the opposite is true. He tosses his keys on top of an overturned cardboard box in the foyer that serves as our entry table, since I haven’t gotten around to buying one.
Harrison leans over the back of the butter-yellow sofa I’m sitting on—one of the few new things I have managed to purchase for the house. I offer him my cheek and he kisses it, his full beard (also new since we moved here) scratching my face.
“Did your day get any better?” he asks.
He heads toward the kitchen, where I hear the fridge door open and then the muffled pop of a beer bottle being unscrewed. When he reappears in the doorframe, the beer’s turned up at his lips. He takes three deep mouthfuls, pausing to swallow in between.
“I think I’m killing the tomatoes,” I say. The house came with a large vegetable and herb garden that hadn’t been tended to since the previous owner moved out. I planned to care for it, starting with weeding, but then realized I couldn’t exactly tell what was a weed and what was a plant. And then the irrigation system stopped working. And rabbits or rodents or bugs started having their share until each leaf (on plants and weeds) looked like Swiss cheese. And I realized that gardening actually takes a concerted effort and I have no idea what I’m doing.
“Well, I’m sure they deserve it,” he says.
“Harrison. I’m serious. The leaves are yellow, which according to this website I’ve been reading means they’re getting too much water or not enough or there’s a lack of nitrogen in the soil or they’re diseased.”
“Huh,” he says. “That narrows it down.”
I stare at his profile, taking in his black square-rimmed glasses, his undone bowtie, the ends hanging loose on either side of his unbuttoned collar like a disheveled groom, the ruffian beard that I’m still getting used to—and I get that fleeting inkling of wonder that I ended up with him. I had a type— and Ph.D. educated was not it. I preferred guys that had gigs to real jobs, missed rent payments. Abandonment issues were a bonus. But to be fair, Harrison was wearing a Skid Row T-shirt and standing in an art gallery when I met him, so it wasn’t clear off the bat he was a functioning member of society.
I smile, remembering how it used to be, in the beginning. The anticipation of seeing him. The pure thrill of reading his name on caller ID or hearing his knock at the door. It’s unsustainable of course, that level of elation and delight. Infatuation is like a rushing river that over time either dries up to a trickle and then nothing at all, or begins wearing its way into the earth, until one day it’s a deep, yawning canyon.
Harrison and I are lucky.
We’ve got the canyon.
“You know— it’s weird.” He slides his beer onto the antique trunk that doubles as our coffee table and sinks into the couch cushion beside me. “They should have stores that sell gardening supplies and are staffed with people knowledgeable about plants that could help novices in situations just like this.”
I jab my elbow to the side, connecting with his stomach. “Oof,” he says, then grabs my hand, lacing his fingers through mine. He gently turns it over. Looks at it. Rubs his thumb over the red and blue splotches. “D’you paint today?”
“A little,” I say. And by little, I mean forty-five minutes. Though it was Harrison’s idea that I focus on my art when we moved here, I haven’t had a serious session or painted anything decent in the five weeks since we pulled the yellow Ryder truck up to the front curb. At first, I told myself it was because we were getting settled. But at this point, I know it’s something more… permanent. A zap to my confidence that started when that mustachioed Phillip Gaston typed “an incohesive amateur display relying too heavily on an overly clever theme, without the talent to add depth and substance” regarding my first-ever solo exhibition in Philadelphia last year.
“Did you wear a mask?”
He’s teasing me. I’ve been extra-cautious with this pregnancy— to the point of asking Harrison if he thought the fumes of the acrylics I work with could be bad for a developing fetus. He said no, but even after he showed me proof online that they were safe to use while pregnant, I wondered aloud if I should wear a mask anyway.
“I didn’t,” I say. “Do you think I should have?”
“No,” he says, and then pauses, a half-grin on his lips. “But if our baby comes out with twelve toes, we’ll know why.”
We sit in silence for a minute, the words “our baby” hanging in the air. At least they are for me. I think of the two babies that we lost, and suck in a lungful of air to steady myself. I had no idea how much I could grieve the loss of something I never really had. A person I never met. But I do. I am. And I wonder if the sadness will lessen with time— or if the fear of losing yet another will ever dissipate. I place my hand on my belly, silently willing this one to stay.
As if reading my mind, Harrison wraps his long arm around me, pulling me to his chest. They were out of his regular deodorant when I was at the store on Tuesday, so I picked out a new scent and the soapy pine forest tang of it tickles my nose. I burrow my head into him, as if I could tunnel a path and stay there for all of eternity. “You smell good.”
“Really? I thought it was a little teenager-drenched-in-dad’s-cologne-ish.”
“No,” I say. And even though it’s different, a new scent, it’s still him. Still my Harrison. “It’s you.”
Copyright © 2020 by Colleen Oakley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.