Rock of Ages
On the morning of her twenty-eighth birthday, nearly six months after the birth of our daughter, my wife Emily forgot how to talk.
It was Live-Through-History Day at Crestview Elementary, an invention of my own, and my class of sixth-graders had risen to the occasion. Around the room were icons in miniature: George Washington, Albert Einstein, Clara Barton. Halloween was two weeks away, and the kids considered this a trial run. The Gale twins made the most of it: Cory, who was tall, came as Napoleon. His brother Rory, nearly six inches shorter, was Abe Lincoln. My brightest student, Sarah Marsh, who had a rebellious streak that would cause her parents untold grief for years to come, dressed in moon boots and a nylon bodysuit—her birthday suit, she called it with twinkling eyes—and as Lady Godiva. I made her put on a sweatshirt.
The students stammered out short prepared speeches, boasting of accomplishments, telling when they were born, who they married, when they died. Now the classroom devolved into a cupcake-eating, orangeade-drinking melee of laughter and horseplay—an anachronistic sugar-fueled battle royale. I was just about to make Eleanor Roosevelt release Genghis Kahn from a headlock when Mrs. Leeuwenhoek, the main secretary, poked her head through the door and beckoned cryptically.
“Your wife’s called twice,” the old woman whispered, as though baffled.
“What does she want?”
Mrs. Leeuwenhoek pondered this question for a moment. She was grandmotherly and sweet, but with a short circuit somewhere—her brain was wired like those goofy children’s straws that loop around in superfluous circles.
“She called twice,” Mrs. Leeuwenhoek said again. “But she didn’t say anything. Your name comes up on the little screen. And I can hear her breathing, but she doesn’t say anything.”
My stomach took a quick step backwards. “Was she crying?”
“I don’t think so.”
That lifted my spirits. Emily was a devout crier—if anything had been wrong, her words might fail, but her tear-ducts would not. I asked Mrs. Leeuwenhoek to referee my class and walked down to the faculty lounge. Nothing was wrong. Nothing major, anyway. If anything major was wrong, it would be wrong with Tessa, and that would involve maternal tears. Maybe the car broke down.
In the lounge, I dug out my cell phone. MISSED 9 CALLS, it read. 9 NEW MESSAGES. That wasn’t heartening. I dialed home. The line picked up immediately, and I could hear breathing.
The breathing quickened into a kind of labored huff, but nobody spoke. I kept calling her name, but after a while it became both silly and terrifying. I hung up. No longer calm, I arranged for Mrs. Leeuwenhoek to watch my class until a sub could be found for the rest of the afternoon, and jogged out to my car.
Emily was a devout crier—if anything had been wrong, her words might fail, but her tear-ducts would not.
Driving home, I listened to the “voice” messages. The first four were silent, except for that half-panicky breathing. The fifth came from my mother, who wondered in her desultory way if there had been some change of plans, as it had been her understanding that Emily worked today and would be dropping the baby off, and it was fine if things had changed, more than fine, in fact, but it would be nice if someone thought to call her, because if she wasn’t needed to baby-sit, there were plenty of other things she could be doing. Her friend, Greta, for instance, had bought a replacement umbrella for her patio table and…
The rest were more breathing. I told myself not to worry and concentrated instead on hastening the lunchtime traffic of West Des Moines with the brute force of my trepidation, which was now a steady drum against my temples and the backs of my eyes.
I told myself not to worry, not to worry. If anything was wrong, Emily would be sobbing. It was what she did. She cried when she was sad, and when she was happy. She cried when other people cried. She cried at movies and the last episode of Friends. It was one of the few important things I knew about her, and I loved her for it.
I burst through the front door, half-expecting something dramatic to greet such a dramatic entrance—a raging fire, a gang of corn-fed hoodlums. Instead I found Emily sitting at the kitchen table, still in her bathrobe. Her face was clean of makeup, but she hadn’t been crying. She didn’t even look at me, but stared dully at the stove. She gripped a pencil in her hand and doodled absently on the TO DO: OR NOT TO DO notepad we kept by the phone.
Emily shrugged, still looking at the stove, and lifted her arm limply to point upstairs. I scrambled past her and bound up the stairs into Tessa’s room. I found her in the crib, sleeping soundly. Catching my breath for a moment, I began tickling her feet until she gave a weary squeal.
“Hey baby, baby.”
I checked her diaper, which was wet. Affixing a dry one, I made a show of blowing out my cheeks against her belly, but she was too tired to be sufficiently amused.
“You’re a tough crowd, Tess. Let’s go see Mommy.”
I picked her up and headed back downstairs, feeling rather pleased. I had acquitted myself with adequate heroism. Not only was I a good provider, but a devoted family man who had dashed valiantly home when confronted with the first scent of danger. This reaffirmed my worth beyond any doubt. Or did it? Would a better man have played it differently? No, no. I had done pretty well today. And not only that, but it would provide some leverage, a quick chance to gain a pinch of fleeting superiority in the battle of one upmanship that was marriage.
Emily knew quite well that my sick days and personal days had long been used up during the pregnancy and birth and after-birth—and that we, as a union, as a couple joined at the hip by God and Johnny Law, could not afford to lose a dollar. Not if we ever wanted to give Tess a sibling, or give either of them a college education. Nor, I thought, could Emily afford to miss work, which she had been missing all morning and was missing now, while she sat stone-faced in the kitchen staring at the stove.
“It’s nice to know,” I began, twirling Tessa around as I strode into the kitchen, “that no emergency demanded my prompt return.”
Emily sat there, not looking at me, not speaking.
“It’s nice,” I repeated. “After my heart stopped four or five times, after driving like a maniac to get home…”
Emily was taking deep breaths, long gulps of air, but kept silent.
“And to realize that in fact nothing is amiss.” At this, I twirled the baby again, but Tessa’s patience was at an end. She was hungry and decided to flail and wail her way towards lunch.
“I’m all a-flutter, Em, really. What did I do? Is this about your birthday?”
Tessa’s cries gained new momentum. I held her out for the hand-off, but Emily waved me away. She bent down and scribbled something on the notepad. The blank look on her face did not change.
I stared at the paper, then at her.
“What do you mean you can’t talk?”
She tore off the top sheet and wrote, I can’t remember how to. With this, she stood up and almost mechanically took Tessa from me, then retreated to the sofa in the living room and loosened her robe.
I comforted her as best I could. It was a role I always played badly, with put-on confidence that no one believed was real, least of all me. And in truth, I was rather dumbfounded. I called the hospital to inform them their duty-nurse had taken ill, then called my mother and made excuses and apologies. But I wasn’t too worried, and spent the afternoon playing with Tess while Emily sat and stared at various inanimate objects. Maybe it was like the two-day flu. Something that would just blow over.
But at dinner, I realized something was very wrong. Emily and I sat facing each other at the table, hardly eating, our separate forks just pushing around the soggy rice I’d made. I asked her the last time she remembered speaking, did she feel sick, was her throat sore?
She barely acknowledged me, but kept flicking her bangs with one finger in an international gesture that meant, Keep talking, sweetheart; talk all night if you want to. Talk until you’re blue, but leave me out of it.
Eventually, I threw up my hands in a gesture that tried for drama and achieved it badly. “Well,” I said, “we could drive down to the ER and ask them to find it for you.”
At this, she perked up a little and grabbed her pencil. I didn’t lose it. I just can’t remember how. Then she frowned and changed the periods to exclamation points. And she glared.
I met her eyes for one sharp moment, and faced with a variety of options, decided to flee. I checked the baby, who was conked out good, and proceeded to dig a small, silver-colored package from one of my shoes in the closet. Back in the kitchen, I came up from behind and placed it in front of my wife. She’d been staring at the stove again and jerked upright, but emitted no sound.
I sat back down. “It’s that watch you liked,” I said. “The one we saw last month.”
At first she only stared at me, that look of patient sufferance I knew so well—and then she licked her lips. She took a deep breath. She tried to smile. And then she cried.
She cried for hours, cried without sound—the distraught heroine from a silent film. Finally, I was on solid ground. This was a reaction I understood. I knew what to do. Holding her hand, stroking her shoulder, letting her lean on me.
Around midnight, she stopped crying and took a shower, applied a modest amount of blush and lipstick, and put on her favorite dress—a sleek blue number that was too formal for any school function or mid-priced restaurant. She stood in front of the mirror, fussing and fidgeting in preparation for some imaginary gala. Throughout this process, she kept nodding her head forward in rhythm, as though momentum and wishful thinking might kickstart the words.
I lay on the bed, watching her preen away. “You look lovely,” I said, but she ignored me and stepped into the pair of sleek blue pumps that I couldn’t remember seeing before. Shoes to go with the dress she never wore. I briefly imagined a dashing tuxedo-clad alternate husband who would whirl her off to the kind of swanky event that was fitting for such an outfit. Then I made him disappear and it was just the two of us again: the dowdy schoolteacher and the muted beauty. She looked truly fetching, if rather overdressed to pace up and down the stairs and wear out the carpet between our room and the baby’s room. And eventually, she ended up right back where she started, at the kitchen table, staring at the stove.
Sitting beside her, I fell asleep with my cheek pressed against the tabletop. I woke up in the same position, but with a soft dishtowel for a pillow and Emily’s hand on my head, sifting through my hair.
“I would’ve brought flowers too,” I mumbled, and dropped my head back down.
At dawn, I called school and arranged for a sub. Emily switched out her dress for jeans and a sweater. She washed off her makeup and painted it back on thickly, to cover the dark circles beneath her eyes. We dropped off Tessa with my mother—I told her Emily was ill, but was sketchy enough on the details that my mother knew instinctively that I was lying. She flashed a benevolent smile to let me know she knew, then reached out and took the baby basket from my hand.
Emily insisted that we avoid Iowa Lutheran, where she worked, so I drove downtown to Mercy. She had her notepad and insisted on seeing the doctor alone. I objected, casting back through the ages for help from all the other husbands of history; they offered scant assistance. I knew there might come a point where I would have to take charge, to overrule her emotions with my steely masculine resolve. But the argument died pretty quickly. After all, I was the only one arguing. So I shut up and let it go.
In the waiting room, I pretended to read through outdated magazines, mostly for the benefit of the receptionist, who undoubtedly didn’t care. But I wanted to appear the absolute paragon of normalcy. My wife seemed to have similar concerns, and came back to the lobby with a big fake grin. She kept it on in the elevator and past the nurses at the desk downstairs.
I assumed the tears would start as soon as we got to the sanctuary of the car. I readied myself, steadied myself. Time to shine. Be her rock. Be a man. But instead, she looked deep in my eyes with more sadness than I’ve ever seen, and wrote very deliberately on the notepad, which had become a kind of chain. She tore off the page and handed it over.
“Well,” I said, giving a half-hearted shrug.
She bent down again, scrawling furiously. He’s a doctor, she wrote. He doesn’t know anything. I’d think the same thing and be wrong.
At home, Emily returned to her bathrobe and sat in the kitchen. Behind her, I worked fingers-to-bone to prepare a first-rate lunch, wondering when, if ever, I would gather the strength for my pep talk. “Of course I believe that you believe,” I’d say, with the kindest lilt I could muster. “But you’ve been under stress and back at work, and you’re not seeing Tess as much, and maybe, just maybe—” I spread out jelly and peanut butter and mashed the bread together. “Maybe it’s all in your head.”
But I wouldn’t say it, because I wasn’t sure, and if I had learned anything in four years of marriage, it was to never, under any circumstances, guess. In part because I never fully understood why Emily fell in love with me, I often treated our relationship with no small degree of superstition. I spent our year-long engagement walking on eggshells, waiting for the other shoe to drop—pretty much bedeviled by all the applicable clichés. Each time I did something well, something that pleased her, the victory seemed perplexing and accidental. For her part, Emily couldn’t read me too well either. We loved each other without understanding. From my parents, I had learned that this uncertainty would probably never go away, but rather settle into a dull acquiescence—the kind of pleasant banality that strangers mistake for intimate understanding. My parents had made it work somehow, living as they did in a bubble of routine: Wheel of Fortune and microwave lasagna. Emily’s parents had split up years before, remarried different people, and stayed with them only because the prospect of another divorce seemed quite onerous.
And it wasn’t that I didn’t know her: I knew her favorite color was soda blue; her favorite book Jane Eyre; I knew she loved Meg Ryan movies but pretended not to; she loved the smell of woodsmoke and vanilla incense; and she loved how Aspen trees were all connected underneath. A dozen, a hundred, a thousand preferences and idiosyncrasies that could be memorized easily enough. A mile of useless nouns strung together with plus signs that equaled a big question mark, no matter how creatively they were added up. I wanted something concrete, something fundamental. I wanted to uncover the secret places and find some language beyond words. I had assumed I’d find it once the vows were said and done.
Instead we bickered. We played silly games. Whose turn to wash dishes, whose turn to fold laundry. We were very much like roommates who shared a bed and partook of little niceties, like signing grocery lists with Valentine hearts and ending phone conversations with “I love you.” It was all done by rote, conditioned as we were by over two decades of watching married couples on television and in movies. But it was a tired act and we were bad actors. Our victories were told to each other in foreign tongues. Our personal defeats, much the same way, were taken by the other with befuddlement and the awkward, forced pat on the back one gives an ailing stranger. Something would have to change. We needed an intermediary.
Tessa was something we could share. Emily carried the load and I cleared the path. She vomited, and I painted the spare bedroom pink. She ate and I made appointments, re-checked appointments, and served as chauffeur. She ate, and I took a job on weekends at Breadeaux Pizza. The bond between us grew, and had kept growing, until I was confident we were well on our way to constructing a delightful bubble of our very own.
That evening Emily went to bed early, exhausted by silence. I retrieved Tessa and fended off my mother as best I could. It was a warm night for October, and back home, instead of going inside, I bundled my daughter in her soda-blue blanket and tucked her snugly into the crook of my shoulder. I walked up and down the block as she slept. I had read once that Lincoln used to borrow neighboring infants and do the same—it helped him think while he was composing his speeches. I composed the speech I would give my wife, then revised, edited, threw it out completely and began anew. I sorted through trite similes and metaphors, as though sifting flakes of gold from the rough dirt at the bottom of a miner’s pan. But the gist of my speech was very simple: Look what I’ve got, Em, right here. Right here in my arms. Look what we’ve made, what binds us a thousand times more than some document at City Hall. Pull it together, darlin’, because I sure the hell can’t do it alone. Don’t go crazy, or I’ll lose my mind.
Two weeks passed. Emily saw another doctor, then a therapist, but nothing helped. I made no speeches, and our lives settled into a bizarre routine. Emily didn’t shed another tear, and instead spent her days staying close to Tessa and working immense jigsaw puzzles with thousands of pieces. I worried at first leaving her all day with the baby, but Emily’s maternal instincts were as honed as ever. Per her request, I bought a miniature dry-erase board and she kept it close whenever she wanted to communicate in words. She lapsed into a strange, silent existence and seemed content. I wrangled Iowa Lutheran into giving her a leave of absence by inventing an illness for my mother-in-law in Arizona.
At work, I received hourly updates by email and text messages, dispatches that Emily kept both short and intimate. She won’t be crawling long, sweetie. She holds onto my fingers and pulls herself up—she wants to walk so bad. She’s sleeping now. I just kissed her for you. I settled in, rather comfortably, to the role of reliable husband—the indefatigable head of the household.
One day I took Tessa to the doctor for inoculations. She had cried herself out by the time we got home, and didn’t stir as I transferred her into Emily’s arms. I looked at the two of them and felt quite happy.
“I picked up the cleaning,” I said. “And the groceries. And made an appointment for her annual check-up.” I flashed Emily a drained smile. “I’m becoming the stereotypical long-suffering housewife,” I said.
Emily lifted her eyes, bemused, and shifted Tessa in order to free her hand. She uncapped the dry-erase marker. Start menstruating, she wrote. Then we’ll see. And she drew a little smiley-face, with Valentine hearts for eyes.
As Emily got more and more used to this new routine, her libido returned to normal, then quickly escalated far past where it had ever been. As if I didn’t have enough to run me ragged, I now had to contend with a wife who was in the mood three or four times a day. There was no longer a “right” time—if Tessa was sleeping and I was near, the time was right. It didn’t matter if we were in the laundry room or the kitchen, the hallway or the bathroom. I woke up straddled by a mute woman who no longer had the slightest aversion to my morning breath, and drifted off at night, worn down past exhaustion, with Emily cradled in my arms. It took some getting used to, because she made only the slightest gasps of sound, but I learned to gauge her stages by the rhythm of her breathing and the way her fingers touched me. At first, the increased frequency had been a nice surprise, but after eight or nine days I had spent all reserves. This didn’t seem to bother her, and instead of sex, we shifted to a kind of “extreme cuddling,” during which Emily would wrap herself tightly around me as though attempting to cut off both our circulations. As though we couldn’t be too close.
But still there was the elephant in the room that only one of us could talk about. I chose to keep silent, thinking the situation could certainly be worse—who was I to complain? Most men would kill to have a lusty wife who couldn’t speak. It was like the punchline to some off-color joke.
Other times, I felt the darkness coming in. I ran out of excuses for my parents and finally just had them over for dinner to explain the whole thing. My mother acted as though the situation was quite ordinary and became instantly over-supportive, offering Emily anything she needed—even chiding my father to purchase a long-promised computer so that the two women might better communicate. My father, to his credit, ate his dinner in respectful silence. Later, on the porch, he smoked his daily cigar and put his arm around me, a gesture he hadn’t extended since I was twelve.
“Your mom’s worried,” he said.
“Forget what I think. If she’s worried, you should be too.”
“It’ll work itself out, Dad.”
“It won’t,” he spat quietly, and I realized he was choked up. “You owe it to that little pumpkin in there to get her mom some help.”
“There’s nothing physically wrong with her, Dad.”
He took his arm off me and turned away. I watched his cold breath mix with unspooling clouds of cigar smoke. “She won’t talk. Don’t you think that qualifies?”
“Can’t talk, Dad. Not won’t.”
He half turned back to me, but changed his mind and spoke to the cold night instead. “And if she never talks again?”
I didn’t answer him.
They didn’t seem like us. They were other people.
After my parents left, Emily put down the baby and cornered me in the living room, but I told her I wasn’t in the mood, which was true enough. I went for a long walk. Terrible things passed through my head, images of Zelda Fitzgerald and Francis Farmer, images of imposing grey buildings with bland, euphemistic names full of words like health and convalescence in lieu of asylum and lunatic. Places where women who no longer lived in reality went to die. Of course, I was overreacting. But I couldn’t find any middle ground between overreacting and ignoring it all. What happens if it doesn’t work itself out?
I didn’t sleep that night. Instead, I sat downstairs and watched and re-watched the video from our wedding. I listened to us reciting vows, to her cracking wise at my expense moments before I shoved a handful of cake in her face and she returned the favor. They didn’t seem like us. They were other people.
I sat there and thought about Tessa, about the mortgage, about plastic debt and my piddling public-school salary. The young man on the screen had slightly more hair than I did, and fewer lines on his forehead. Don’t be stupid, I told him. As soon as the honeymoon’s over, ditch your plans and go back to school—get a computer science degree, get a business degree. Have some goddamn foresight. Be the kind of man who can support his family on a single income, the kind of man who’s prepared for such eventualities, as when his wife forgets how to talk. A better man would know what to do. A better man wouldn’t be sitting on the couch at 3:00 am., weeping.
Emily, perhaps sensing my mood, stayed away.
The next morning was our annual Thanksgiving Day party. Mrs. Leewenhoak looked me over in the morning—haggard face, circles under the eyes—and I could see her mind slowly wondering if I wasn’t hungover. Class was worse. The Gale twins acted out a kind of “Who’s on First?” routine between Pocahontas and John Smith that involved the latter desperately trying to get to second base. And Sarah Marsh, true to form, began a meticulously researched lecture on the premeditated genocide of our continent’s native peoples. I cut her off brusquely halfway through. She sat down in a huff, with that rage-filled look of someone unjustly punished. She had been, and I felt bad enough about it that I intercepted her after the final bell and told her to write her notes into a paper that could be submitted for some contest or the other. I didn’t know of any but if need be, I’d make one up and give her a prize. She left with uplifted spirits and assured me she’d begin writing it the moment she got home.
I went back into the classroom and put my head on the desk for half an hour.
That night I returned to an empty house. A note had been left on the table. T’s at your mom’s. Back soon. Love, E. I unthawed two hot dogs under warm water and ate them raw, then drove over and picked up my daughter. Emily didn’t return till almost eleven. She found me asleep on the couch, shook me gently awake. She sat and guided my head to her lap and combed her fingers through my hair. Thick, warm silence all around us; I never wanted to get up. Could we just stay like this, where it’s quiet and safe, with the baby upstairs, quiet and safe—couldn’t we just stay here forever and leave the rest of it alone?
Instead I sat up. Emily grabbed her dry-erase board.
At the hospital, she wrote. I told them I’m not coming back.
I nodded, already conjuring up images of debtor’s prisons that no longer existed.
We’ll get by. We can live in an apartment if we have to.
The marker against the board was so quiet, like the barest whisper. I tried to match the tone. “I guess so.”
I went to the chapel there, she wrote. I tried to pray.
Absently, I stroked her arm. There was a pair of tiny freckles, just above her wrist. I hadn’t looked at them in a long time, and leaned down now to kiss them quickly.
“How’d it go?” I whispered.
I don’t think I know how. She dabbed her finger with spit and smeared the board clean, then reached out and brushed the ink against each of my cheeks. She tilted her head, examining her work, and smiled sadly. She bent down to write.
Please don’t hate yourself.
You do. You hate yourself so much and you love the people around you even more. I know.
“I’m scared, Em.”
She nodded and set aside the board. I took her hand, because she wanted me to. We walked upstairs to Tessa’s room and stood looking down at her. We watched her toes curling up, caught in what I hoped was a very pleasant dream. Emily turned to me in the dark and parted her lips, but the words she was thinking of must have been too hard, if not impossible, to pronounce.