"Imagined Jubilation" by Literary Awards Finalist, Caryn Coyle

The bed is as difficult to sleep in as the house is to come home to. The silence isn’t the problem. She’s used to that. It’s the thought that no one will join her. The thought slams, hard, when she tries to find a comfortable position in the bed. Alone.

As she stands by the rumpled comforter, the sheets she’s just tossed off, Margo’s hand shakes. She’s waited until after Christmas to do this. For a week, she’s worn a pad in anticipation of the sudden rush of red that would soak her if she didn’t keep checking each time she used the bathroom. Nothing. No red. She won’t see it now. The pregnancy testing stick she is holding has a plus sign on it.

Margo’s head throbs and her breasts — full and sore — ache. They hurt when anything comes up against them, like a seat belt strap. Little winking bits of light appear for a moment in her vision. She loses her balance and falls forward onto the bed.

December second was the last time David came home. He walked out of the kitchen that morning, after wiping off the shredded wheat and milk she had thrown at him. He’d stayed out all night. It was seven thirty and she was trying to eat breakfast.

He returned again that evening, and she let him in. Nervous. She didn’t sound like herself. She could hear the shrill at the edge of her voice. David didn’t say much either. He flipped through the mail, turned on the television. He stepped into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. The routine was familiar to her, and it gave her a headache.

Margo went up to the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and let water fill the tub. She remembered the shower — in the same tub — she had shared with David the night before Thanksgiving. She savored the shower throughout the holiday.

When she pulled him by the hand into the bathroom, Margo watched his eyes as they stood on the black and white tile floor. She unbuttoned each button on her soft, flannel long sleeved dress. Steam feathered and curled light white clouds over the tub, and neither of them spoke. He reached for her when she got to the button at her waist. With the palms of his hands, he slid the material down her hips and the dress landed on the tile floor, covering her ankles. Margo kicked the dress out of the way. She had not worn anything else.

His mouth tasted of the clear water pouring down their heads, soaking their hair. Her fingers soaped every part of him and he squinted when she got to his face. Gently, Margo massaged the foamy soap over his cheeks, his eyelids. David shook his face in the water streaming out of the shower head and grasped her firmly on both sides. “I love you,” he moaned, lifting her up and inside him.

His words had rushed out of him in a moment of passing passion. There was no truth in them.

Margo kept the door to the bathroom closed and let the steam heat up the room. When the tub was half full, she turned off the water and crawled in, letting the warmth penetrate her legs, her arms, her back. The headache eased a little, but the throbbing continued. She focused on the pain and the heat seeping through her skin. It was a relief to have something crowd out all her other thoughts. While she lay in the tub, she heard the door to the bedroom creak open and the dresser drawers glide back and forth.

Margo turned the faucet back on to fill the tub with more hot water, and slipped out once to vomit into the toilet.

*****

She first met David at the restaurant he ran, in the Inner Harbor.

It was a bit of a trek around the harbor from the small advertising agency in Federal Hill, where she worked as an account rep. Margo walked there with Wyatt Thunderfire, the agency’s artist, who created the ads, logos and images for her accounts. Curry’s, David’s restaurant, was located in the Light Street Pavilion, on the second floor, where the souvenir shops sold Orioles caps and t-shirts, or anything with a crab on it. David stood near the entrance, greeting diners. He wore a soiled white apron, tied at the waist that hung well below his knees.

Wyatt and Margo sat on tall stools, next to a full length window through which they could see the U.S.S. Constellation docked by the concrete and brick promenade. Margo split a crabmeat pizza with Wyatt.

David reminded Margo of Mick Jagger. A little thicker than she imagined the rock star was, David seemed mysterious, coy. He wore his light auburn hair long and he shook it when he nodded his head.

“That guy, the one at the door. What do you think of him?” Margo asked Wyatt.

Wyatt looked at Margo, who bobbed her head in the direction of the entranceway. He glanced at the door, and shrugged, “Why? You interested?”

Margo looked out the window. A guy in a red baseball cap snapped pictures of a woman, in an orange t-shirt with letters so large, she could read the word, “Orioles” on it. The woman stood on the edge of the brick promenade, a little too close to the water.

“How’s everything here, folks?” David stood at their table, his arms folded, nodding and shaking his hair. His t-shirt read, “Reaganomics: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

Margo looked from the t-shirt to David’s smile. His lips stretched over stained teeth. He smelled of perspiration and garlic. But her heart thumped in her chest. She said the first thing she could think of, “So, I take it you won’t be voting for Reagan?”

“No, never,” David said. “You noticed my t-shirt?”

He was close enough to touch, and she savored his cracked, rough voice.

“All I know is I got five dollars more in my paycheck after he took office,” Wyatt said.

She looked at Wyatt, shook her head.

“Well, enjoy your meal,” David said, glancing at Margo and smiling before he walked away.

“Why in the world did you have to say that?” Margo asked Wyatt.

“What?” Wyatt got up from the stool, pulled out a twenty dollar bill and placed it on the table. “Don’t worry about it, Margo. He noticed you.”

*****

Before she made it back to his restaurant, she found David at a fundraiser, held in a typically narrow Baltimore rowhouse. It had to be over a century old, overshadowed now by the sky scrapers nearby. The brick walls had been resurrected, they looked like they’d been dusted with what looked like white powder. The ceiling was ornate. It had a relief design in the eggshell colored plaster: circles of little fleur-de-lys surrounded the chandelier that hung from the center.

Beside her were two well made up women, possibly sixty years old. Maybe older. They each wore severe red lipstick and one wore her hair in a solid blunt cut. Thick burgundy bangs and layers of hair swung out in a wedge from her head. The other, a harsh, honey blonde, had teased the hair on the top of her head into a single barrette at her crown. The rest of her hair hung in thin wisps just above her collarbone.

Across the room, Margo could hear a loud voice, and watched a man in black ridiculous looking totally round glasses, talking about a scene in a move shot here, “…they closed the street, put the diner right on the empty lot, nowhere near where it was really located back in the fifties…”

A pretty teenager, dressed entirely in black, except for a short, clean white apron tied around her waist, walked awkwardly around the people in the room. She held a tray of mushroom caps stuffed with crabmeat, and the man in the glasses touched her arm. “Yes, please. Oh, these are delightful.”

Margo was startled to see David, also dressed entirely in black, jog through the room and dart in between the two older women. Teal furniture, a loveseat and couch in smooth shiny leather, were grouped by the door, stopping him. She watched him veer around them and head into the next room, a parlor.

Though she wanted to talk to David, Margo wandered anxiously through the house. She thought he might be too busy for her. Glasses clinked. Laughter broke the murmuring she could hear over the Mozart being played by a pianist in the parlor.

Margo felt broken inside. Like something was wrong with her. She imagined she was looking down on herself from someplace else, dark, frightening, she was swimming in blackness.

She slipped out the back door.

Margo was surprised to see David standing in the garden before a brick lined pool of falling water. There were water lilies in the pool. Margo could see them because she did not look up at first when she stopped in front of him. She remembered thinking that the lilies were bright green, that the water looked black because the pool liner was dark. She could not explain why she closed her eyes and kissed him, craving his mouth, his lips, his tongue. She didn’t think about what she was doing. She thought the kisses had the flavor of what she imagined jubilation would taste like.

“Come home with me,” he whispered.

His words were bright in her mind. Like a light had snapped on, her mood lifted. She took his arm and he led her out of the garden.

David shared a run down rowhouse on Guilford Avenue with several others, both male and female. Margo couldn’t sleep on his air mattress. David didn’t appear to care that the sheets were soiled, or that the air mattress took up most of his room. It was about five or six inches off the scabby floor, where wall to wall carpet had once been laid on the hardwood surface. Bits of dusty rose carpet padding still clung to the wood. It reminded her of a price tag that wouldn’t come off. The glue stuck to her fingers like the pink scabs on the floor that held onto the heels of her shoes.

The next time, she took him home with her and he stayed.

The hours David spent at the restaurant and catering business were strange, late. She’d go down to Curry’s and sit with him at the bar, but she had to be in the office at nine each morning, so she’d leave him there and go home, alone.

She knew there probably were other women, but Margo was the one who had his socks in her bureau drawer, his toothbrush next to hers on the counter by her sink. Each night, the “thud” sound her front door made when it opened woke her. She’d wait under the comforter for his cold feet to brush along her thighs. His kisses smelled of cigarette smoke and Margo clung to them.

*****

On Christmas Eve, Margo went to the eight o’clock Mass. She chose a seat in the middle of the church, knelt and tried to pray. She could smell Christmas pine; the altar was surrounded by deep green spruce trees. She placed her head on her folded hands and asked God for a miracle. She wanted David back, and she wanted blood, please. She was seriously late.

She remembered the Midnight Mass she went to with David the year before. She hadn’t noticed the spruce trees by the altar then, because they’d huddled together in the last pew. David had wiggled his hand inside the back of her skirt as they leaned against the wooden back of their seat. She’d kept her coat on to cover his hand, and stayed seated throughout the service, exalting in the sensation of his warm fingers on her skin.

Tonight, the trees by the altar looked like they were bathed in black. Night time shadows enveloped them. None of the trees were decorated, and their stark appearance was somehow comforting. They looked natural, untouched, they turned the area around the altar into a forest.

Away in a manger

No crib for his bed…

She enunciated each word in her mind as she rose from her seat in the pew to go to Communion. Margo grew warm and sweaty when she recognized the back of David’s head several rows in front of her. She had not seen him for twenty-two days.

Her heart beat faster as she walked up the aisle, closer to his pew.

David was kneeling, his head bowed. Margo saw a woman leaning on his shoulder, whispering to him. As she passed their pew, Margo glimpsed the woman digging her left hand into Paul’s back pocket. She could see the spine of the woman’s fingers beneath the black cloth, spreading across his cheek. Her hand stayed there, holding his butt.

*****

Wyatt leans against the rod iron railing on Margo’s front porch. He wears a green, fur lined parka, and his hands are stuffed in his pockets. Wyatt’s hair is long, black as ink, and tucked behind his ears. His black eyes focus on Margo’s. Wyatt’s kindness towards her, especially today, makes Margo gag. She feels a new wave of nausea engulf her.

“Wait,” she mumbles and turns around, running to the bathroom.

Wyatt is standing in the doorway when she comes back, holding the door open.

“You all right?” he asks. Cold air is pushing around him into the small foyer.

“Yes, let’s go,” she does not look at him.

Wyatt was the first person to shake her hand when she joined the agency. She sat caddy corner from him and asked him questions about the accounts she’d inherited and his advice on the new ones she was courting.

“Margo, can we finish this in the morning?” They were frequently the last two left in the building.

“I’m almost through, just one more question.” She would think of the most pressing thing she needed to know. “Why do you think they want to switch agencies?”

“Their ads are stale. But that’s my opinion.”

“And you can do better?”

“Oh, yeah. But not now. Tomorrow. C’mon, I’ll walk you out. It’s dark. You don’t want to be in the parking lot by yourself.”

Wyatt is still the only person at work who knows Margo’s pain. She wonders, sometimes, why she chose to confide in him. His presence in the office near hers was comforting. She’d wander into his cubicle and confide in him, stopping herself in mid-sentence when she realized what she was saying.

“It’s all right. I can keep a secret.” He’d smile at her and she’d believe him, telling him how it felt to grow up without a father, how she often felt an overwhelming blackness creep up on her. There was the ache of wondering what his voice sounded like. How would it have felt to hug him? Margo told Wyatt about a childhood memory of not being invited to a birthday party, and how she connected the shame of being fatherless to it.

She’d watched the other fathers, wincing when she passed one — and she could not remember a mother ever doing this — holding onto the legs of his daughter, seated, giggling on his shoulders. Her small arms would be securely folded around his neck. Just once, Margo wanted to know what it felt like, how the world looked from up there. She wished she’d known that her legs were held in place by strong arms, that her father would never let her fall.

*****

Because he has never turned her away, or told her he’s too busy, Wyatt drives her to the clinic. Through the window of his pickup, Margo watches all the brown and black limbs of the winter trees. She thinks of death.

At the clinic, she takes a seat next to a woman in a white nurse’s uniform. The woman motions to Wyatt, who stands behind her. “You will be taking her home? She won’t be able to drive herself.”

“Yes,” Wyatt says. He clears his throat and places his hand on her shoulder. Anguish pours over Margo. She knows that Wyatt’s wife and son are not aware that he has taken the day off. Margo looks up at Wyatt, who smiles at her. She holds onto the kindness of Wyatt’s smile.

He goes back out to the waiting room, and Margo follows the nurse down the hall. The curtains to a small cubicle are pulled back and Margo is told to take everything off. She is given a flimsy, yellow striped cotton gown that ties at the neck. She puts her shoes in the basket the nurse indicates she should use, and she unzips her jeans.

Her throat tightens and her eyes are wet. She remembers how David ignored her at the Christmas Eve Mass. The shock of seeing the woman leaning on him in the pew — her hand on his butt — hit her so thoroughly, she felt a cramp growing in her stomach, eating at her chest. She cried as she walked up the aisle to Communion.

Margo lies on her back, her feet in stirrups, breathing deeply as she stares at the ceiling — pockmarked square sections of off-white. An Asian doctor in green scrubs appears by her feet. He is frowning. His expression jags at her memory. She’s seen that look before, one grade school teacher after another comes to mind.

Though she has been given a local anesthetic, Margo feels sick when the doctor disappears to sit down in front of her. She turns her head to the right, and then the left, but the sheet covering her legs blocks all view of whatever the doctor is doing.

Margo imagines she feels the suction because she can hear a whirring sound from the apparatus the doctor is using. She tries to pray a “Hail Mary” but can not remember the words.

The whirring noise stops. She can see the doctor again, standing between her legs. He is still frowning.

Wyatt holds onto her as he guides her back outside and into the truck. She feels like a raw egg being placed carefully in its cardboard compartment. Her arms lie limp by her sides, and the seat belt strap still presses down on her sore, swollen breasts.

Neither of them speaks.

Though Margo has confided much in Wyatt, she has not told him that her mother and father never married. Her mother tried to hang herself when she discovered she was pregnant. Margo doubts she’d be alive at all if abortion had been legal in 1953. She rests her head on the cushion above her seat and folds her hands. Wyatt places his right hand over hers, briefly, before he grips the stick shift and backs the pickup out of its parking spot.

Caryn Coyle writes in Baltimore. After a thirty year hiatus, she started writing fiction again and her first stories were published last summer in the online literary journal JMWW. She received her bachelor’s degree from the College of Notre Dame and her master’s degree in liberal arts from the Johns Hopkins University.


2 Comments

  1. Dan Cuddy

    Masterfuly written. Just enough detail to paint scenes but not excessive. The relationship and its drama are the main thing. I think the story delivers a surprise at the end. By the end of the story most of the vacant spaces in the story are filled in. You feel for Margo; you care. The future is left uncertain. The beginning paragraph is the present.

    Reply
  2. Sherrie

    This one was good Caryn. I would love to see you again soon. My new number is 443-636-0554. Much love! S

    Reply

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