Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
[J]ustine stood in the garage surrounded by white bags, large and lumpy, like tumors in a giant’s belly. In their plastic cases they looked benign. Her last contact with them was to put them in the back of her husband Jack’s car, and then he’d whisk them away to be cast off from her, dispersed to new bodies and new lives.
Jack came into the garage with his purposeful stride, his striped blue and white button-up shirt a flag of some kind—not the enemy, it said in its own pastel way. He didn’t stop or smile or make small talk and she was grateful for this, she supposed, though a part of her thought maybe they should make some final words. It had been one year after all. Shouldn’t they have a ritual: walking on a beach at sunset hand in hand, or sitting quietly in the woods somewhere, sharing a mug of hot cocoa or a good cry? But they couldn’t even talk about it, much less mark it in time in any other way than this. To cast off and away.
He lifted the bags with business-like precision, one after the other—it made her think of Wilbur lifting Charlotte’s egg sacs carefully at that near final-juncture at the fair in Charlotte’s Web. He made sure that none sat more on top of the other and then slammed the trunk shut. For one moment he looked at her, his eyes a little heavy, then pecked her on the lips and got into the car.
The heat of his exhaust hit her legs like a desert breeze but her body continued its program of cold; blood failing to reach her extremities. She clutched herself and waited until the garage door had closed fully before turning and going back into the house. She should be in the shower by now. Across town stood a building full of people expecting her to show up. Funny how today she didn’t feel much like what she did was worth being called a job. What did she actually do, anyway? Talk to people, listen to their longwinded stories, write about their events, their causes, their new businesses, their new babies…
Rather than step into the shower she sat before her computer with that feeling that there was someone she owed a message, as if it would ever be possible to thank all the people who had, in the past year—particularly early in the year—sent their notes and flowers and meals and quotes and religious sentiments. And at times she resented this having to muster the energy to thank people for their kindness; just like birth, grief was another of those times in your life when you were freed from all that politeness. But it wore off after awhile and then people went right back to forgetting, considered you rude, expected you to arise from your stupor and Go On Living As Before, as if such a thing were possible.
There were emails, always more than she could read in a sitting, and she scrolled through most of them until she landed on the one from Sofia. Sofia, who, at the interview for HeartWorks had introduced herself as, “Sofia—it means wisdom,” which at first Justine had found incredibly arrogant; but Sofia did turn out to be a bastion of wisdom, or at least information. She always had a tip Justine needed just when she needed it, knew the right people to talk to in difficult places. And even though Sofia had one of those commercial-worthy kinds of happiness—an intact family with a husband who made so much money it was quantified in points rather than dollars, an “allowance” that provided for her to work only on those causes she believed in (which were copious), public recognition and awards—she had also been the one to crawl into Justine’s bed after, almost like a lover, and take her in her arms when all the other friends stood dolefully at the doors and edges of her life, afraid, perhaps, of getting a little death on them. Even Justine’s husband had moved to the opposite side of the bed. But not Sofia. Under her pristine clothes and her smoother-than-normal pores beat the heart of a person who was not afraid of suffering, who didn’t shy away from its ravages when Justine needed exactly that.
So it was Sofia’s email that she opened, the only one.
CANCER RISKS FROM FUKUSHIMA REACTOR MORE SERIOUS THAN FIRST THOUGHT
The hard facts of the article dissipated before her eyes, fell away into the hyperbole of anxiety. She thought about this nuclear fallout, a radiant wind pushed all the way from Japan across the vast oceans to Oregon, Washington, and of course, California, where she sat, buzzing with newfound information that settled into her cells.
The radiation took on almost human characteristics in her mind, a big glowing mass, an amoeba, a deadly Casper the Not So Friendly Ghost moving with intention directly toward this part of the world so egregiously preoccupied with its health.
And while they slept, this radiant ghost had probed with its nuclear fingers through the food chain, lacing itself into the atoms of water, the DNA of crops at the seed level, rooting itself in and around everything, the seed of disease itself.
She looked at her favorite blue mug with the KQED logo, scuffed and stained from many consumptions. A tiny slick of cream greased its surface—her coffee “the color of Halle Berry” as her mother would say. But she couldn’t pick it up for the first sip. She already regretted opening that email, was, in fact, surprised really that Sofia, with all her wisdom, would send such a thing. It was too late, however; her morning coffee was ruined with the knowledge that milk was one of the most contaminated of all food products by radiation; it was the “ultimate nectar,” a miracle result of the entire food cycle: contaminated grass went into contaminated cows and produced contaminated milk.
She couldn’t drink her coffee black. All other milk substitutes were weak, thin, or came with the nutty or beanlike aftertaste of their origins.
Thus, though it was selfish, a First World problem—after all, she should be thinking of the poor Japanese children whose radiation exposure went so far beyond a ruined cup of coffee—this was the groove into which her needle stuck. Beneath that thought was one of all those Japanese parents, keening with grief over wasting babies, but it was fleeting. Her brain rerouted back to the coffee she couldn’t drink, and therefore she couldn’t muster the energy, the proper speed to get moving. By the time she dragged herself, a body already in some stage of decay into the shower—just think of all that tainted cream she’d consumed since the reactor’s breach, not to mention the caramel swirl ice cream which was, for a time, the only food she could bear to eat, or the stacks and stacks of cereal bowls—like those commercials that showed how man of the competitors’ brand you’d have to eat to get the same amount of fiber—she could almost feel the hint of tumors beginning to swell around her healthy cells, ballooning and morphing like cells dividing, only darker, doppleganger versions, evil twins.
She lathered her long hair wondering how she was going to face the newspaper planning meeting. She had a big story on the new construction of salmon habitat in the recently restored stretch of Edmundson creek. “They’re all doomed” she might as well write. If not now, several generations from now they’d find fish without fins unable to complete the life cycle, barren fish, fish that swam in existential circles wondering what was even the point.
When she reached for her razor there was a tiny plink that didn’t come from shower water hitting the stall doors. For a second she froze; she felt more naked than nude. It was only as she lifted the razor to her ankle that she waw the faint white line around her ring finger, a bare, hairless place like a newborn’s scalp, where her ring had been.
She dropped to her knees, an act so desperately out of proportion for the situation. Her kneecaps throbbed as they slammed the porcelain. She slid a few inches on the slick surface and jammed her fingers into the drain. Just last night she’d taken out the fucking hair catcher net to put the bathtub plug in. In that moment of luxuriating—ha, what luxury was there in being alone with her thoughts, as if her muscles ever relaxed anymore—she’d set up the circumstances for the loss of the last material thing that meant anything at all to her.
She’d been married for ten years and the gold band with its three different topazes had never been more than the slightest bit loose. With soap still in her hair she leapt out of the shower and stood naked in front of the mirror, which fogged at her presence as though drawing a veil over her.
She wiped her hand through the condensation, an almost violent act that rocked the mirror on the wall, and saw a faint outline of a woman. A gaunt woman. This woman was too thin for her frame, her flanks seemed to hang like curtains from jutting hip bones. Bones were the theme: collar bones, ribs, the circular ridges of the pelvis; she could see them all like the outline for the person she was supposed to become. Her breasts hung sadly like they’d given up all hope.
She wasn’t even old.
As she stood staring at this haggard version of herself in the bright bathroom fluorescence, she could make out a faint outline of greenish glow at the edges of herself. She clasped her hands to her mouth as though her teeth might fall out next.
“Hi Justine, you know honey, there aren’t…there just aren’t any sick days left.” The HR secretary, Betsy, took that cloying tone that told Justine the woman was in the wrong job, a job of denying people their most basic needs.
“There has to be a sick day. I only took…it was bereavement leave.”
Betsy was silent a long moment. “I’m just telling you what the computer says.”
“Fine!” She knew her tone was snippy, petulant but she felt as though the insides of her body were now riddled with fine cancerous bumps that she could all but feel rubbing against the smooth surfaces of her. It made her want to scream. “I’m just taking a day then. Not sick, not bereaved, and not paid for.”
She hung up. She missed the days of actual phones where she could slam the handle down into the receiver with real passion. Pressing the “end” button bore no such satisfaction. But suddenly she thought of an article she’d done on a local neighborhood protest over a cellphone tower that AT&T wanted to put in their neighborhood. They hadn’t wanted the radiation that the tower would produce, radiation she’d since learned all phones and pads and tablets emitted as well. Sure, a small amount, miniscule really, but in the doses that people pressed their phones to their body parts, the constant, daily exposure, it was only a matter of time. She tossed the phone across the room and it clattered in a less than dramatic manner off the wall, leaving a small dent, and landed, unscathed so far as she could tell, on the carpet. She left it there.
The idea came upon her all at once, an explosion, the rising swell she felt at the thought of carrying it out so satisfying it almost felt like happiness, a feeling she hadn’t had in so long she wasn’t sure she’d even recognize it.
Now that she knew about the radiation that poisoned them all, that had moved with almost malevolent force across oceans to reach them, the very air took on a greenish tinge, as though someone had lit a noxious incense in the other room. She threw on one of her husband’s plain white t-shirts and boxer shorts and thrust open the cabinets. She pulled out the heavy items first: cans and bottles and anything that might hurt if it accidentally landed on her body parts. And then, for the rest of it— the cereal boxes and half-eaten crackers, salted nuts and packaged rice and the seasonings that never quite made it into the appropriate meals—she simply swept it out onto the floor with swipes of her arm, over and over. They tumbled out like an earthquake was shaking them. The pale blue floor was soon a sea of lentils and tea bags, boxes and rice grains, pasta that would never get eaten and the carcasses of tiny moths that had infested her cabinets despite all her best efforts.
This felt somehow taboo, like an adult would come around the corner and stop her with a scold. And then, when she realized nobody would stop her, at least not for the six or so hours until her husband came home from work, a freedom blossomed in her chest and visions of destruction haunted her. What she wouldn’t give for a mallet, a heavy iron bar, the sharp gouging end of a hammer. What she could undo with just a little elbow grease. What good was any of this wood and pressboard and copper piping anyway? Radiation was as fine as air, and twice as insidious—you couldn’t smell it or see it. Maybe it made your teeth buzz or your ears ring, or put a weird taste in your mouth, but those could be written off to the stress of work, your B-vitamins, or how you had not Gotten Over It.
But one thing at a time. The cabinets now empty, she took the big push broom and opened the front door and swept it all out there onto the cement porch. The neighbors could wonder. They all began to slowly avoid her anyways after the initial rush of neighborly good will. She could clean it up later, put it all into the big grey garbage bin outside when the time came.
Next she went at the refrigerator, longingly pouring out her half and half, which ran like white satin down the silver steel surface, like a coating, a protective membrane. She set pints of ice cream—often the only thing she could choke down past the invisible barrier at the base of her throat that would refuse food if not for Sofia’s gentle urging—into the sink and filled them with hot water. Flakes of chocolate rose to the surface, whorls of melting caramel greasing the top of the water like oil. It all went. Her husband’s Sam Adams ale and the remains of frozen dinners that he’d scrounged out of the deep freeze in the garage and resorted to making since she no longer cooked. Couldn’t cook. Couldn’t bring herself to engage in that much life, that much nourishment of the self. Out went the Greek yogurts and “organic” berries—what a joke that label was now. There would only be two kinds of foods soon: radiated and not-so-radiated. Maybe they’d strike up a new labeling system with numbers for how much poison you were about to consume. Sticky jars of jam and squeezable mayonnaise with glistening yellow globules clinging to its lid. Everything scooped, squeezed and rinsed down the drain. Her kitchen smelled like a restaurant for the first time in a year.
There was a marvelous lightness to this getting rid of business. She almost wanted to leave the cabinets empty, or place just a couple of items in each—something poetic, almost Zen about that. One box of cereal. One carton of orange juice. One. A dangerous number, one. Irreplaceable. After one, none. After none, nothing. So much nothing.
And though she knew she should replace some kind of food before her husband got home, she didn’t think she could bear to be in the company of other bodies, make pleasant smiles, force her face into a mask of okayness.
She propped up the ladder into the rafters of the garage and pulled out all of the camping equipment she could find. The sleeping bag, the tent, the propane stove and little tin dishes. Waterproof matches and bits of rope and the cooler. And the rifle. The unshot, never needed rifle. She put it all in her trunk except for the sleeping bag. It was May, not freezing anymore. She would sleep outside tonight, under the stars. The house was like a fist closed in around her, absorbed of all the poisons, theirs and those that came like a hot silent wind from across the world. What protection did wood and paint really offer except against the rain and tiny insects that might traverse her in sleep?
She kept at this sweeping away. Her husband had already removed the small clothes, the tiny soft animals once clutched in sweaty fists, gnawed into crusts by tiny teeth. She hadn’t had to see it, though she could feel the absence of all those things as though someone had removed little pieces of her internal organs. The house seemed to echo more, but only when someone actually bothered to speak, which was rare. Only if Sofia was stopping by with a meal, a bottle of wine, did the house resound with words.
She wriggled inside the sleeping bag on the back lawn and stared up at the newly leafy fruitless mulberry tree. The bag was snug, a womb, and warm, and the afternoon sun made her feel drowsy, a sensation so elusive at night when she needed it most. She let herself fall away into that sweet nothing, that temporary space, though she knew she would wrench out of it with the same chest-thump of pain that nothing, not time, not Sofia, not her husband, could soften…
…and was awakened by a startled sounding grunt. Light had dimmed to the pale throb of late afternoon. Had she slept so long? And her husband, tie loosened, face pulled down into skeins of fatigue, stood over her. It was a strange angle, looking up at him from the ground, up his nose, to the underside of his chin. It made her giggle. She was torn by the most bizarre urge to pull him down to the ground with her, rope him into the sleeping bag and straddle him. Not out of a sexual urge—ha, she couldn’t remember the last time her body could accept pleasure, a foreign shore now—but to bypass this need to speak to each other in words, as though she could be a computer port and through his entrance, he could download all the contents of his brain and heart.
“Are you…What happened?” Jack’s face was a pinched fist, a series of questions writ in his wrinkles. They never asked if the other was okay, not anymore. “What’s all the shit on the porch?”
She sat up, dizzy and blurry. An aura of light radiated out from around his head.
“It’s the anniversary, isn’t it? It’s doing you in?” His words were clipped, delivered in a rushed exhale of breath, as though he tried to soften them but ultimately failed at the last moment
She shivered a little. “It’s the radiation. We’re being poisoned. It’s been sweeping over here from across the ocean poisoning everything. I want to get away from it all.”
He sniffed in, a bracing breath like he was about to bench press a really heavy set of weights or punch a bag. “I think you should go to your mother’s for awhile. I think you need something I can’t give you.”
“You can’t give me love?”
His whole face sloped into a frown, and for a moment she felt sorry for him. “I can’t give it and give it without getting any back. I’m empty, too!”
“Okay,” she said quietly, because it made sense that he wouldn’t get it. He’d never been a man of urgency, but a man of slow, measured, calm decisions. A man who’d drawn a pros and cons sheet for having a child in his bid to convince her. A man who had not let her uncertainty derail him. A man who always thought they had time on their side.
Now time was like a bomb on a bus in an action movie. It hurtled at them, it would be stolen away, like everything good.
“You want me to go away?” She wasn’t trying to be obtuse, only genuinely not sure she’d understood him. Couldn’t quite picture him coming home to this house without her in it. Cooking his own food, putting himself to bed without her cool body to lie beside him. Not that she offered him anything special anymore that he couldn’t create for himself. It’s just that they had made that contract, by dint of marriage, sealed in the blood of the person they’d made together.
But then it became clear. Without the blood contract of the child, their bond was loosening, seams unraveling. Maybe in some way she had known all along that the child could just as easily tear apart what he was so sure it would bind.
“My mother’s.” She said it to sound like a fact, to conjure a specific place of concrete destination. Her mother’s, that little house in the tiny little town where all the old hippies lived. Old hippies with new money. Her mother’s, where she would…what? Help her mother with the organic garden that was no less vulnerable to these vapors of death traveling across the world? Join the parks and rec committee? Bake gluten-free cookies and tend to the elderly shut-ins as her mother did once a week? She shuddered.
She’d sooner gouge out her eyes than pretend that there was any place safe, any idyll that the radiation couldn’t penetrate.
“Okay. I’ll go away if it’s too much for me to be here.”
Her husband’s lips pressed hard together, as though holding something precious between them that couldn’t fly away. His hands clenched and unclenched into fists, and then not-fists, his long fingers like flags signaling surrender.
“I’m sorry.” He didn’t sound sorry so much as determined. “I just don’t know what else to do.”
There wasn’t any fanfare. They didn’t rush into each other’s arms or caress each other’s faces softly. They stood staring at each other. She thought she could see the greenish outline around him, a buzzing aura of death come for him, too. Maybe it didn’t matter. They had done all they could do. They had made life, and it had been taken from them, and now, maybe all life would meet the same fate. Maybe that was all there was to it.
She turned on her heel and went back into the house. Swiftly, without a lot of thought, she began to pack her bag. She knew exactly what she wanted to take, and what would be left behind. Most of it left behind. Would he pack it all up in the same white plastic bags that had taken away all remembrances of their child? Would he cart it away to the Goodwill with the same level determination, and once he’d dropped off all the clothes that had caressed her skin so intimately, would he be through of her. Everything they’d had and been a memory put away?
Something sat lodged between her ribs. It was a feeling, but she couldn’t name it, couldn’t even really feel it except that it hitched her breath, gave her a pain that was more physical than emotional, like a tiny snake wrapped around one pink lung.
She threw bags into her car, opened the garage door with the push-button opener, and backed out into the driveway. Her last glimpse of her husband, that man she’d met when he still carried traces of boy in his cheeks and awkwardness, was of him hunched over the porch, bent like an old man, sweeping all the food that she’d tossed there into a bag.
Jordan Rosenfeld is author of the novel of suspense Forged in Grace, Night Oracle (as J.P. Rose) and the writing guides Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, and, with Rebecca Lawton, Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life. Jordan’s freelance articles have appeared in such publications as AlterNet.org, Boutique Design, Hospitality Style, Marin Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle, Whole Life Times, The Writer and Writer’s Digest. Her book commentaries have appeared on The California Report, a news-magazine produced by NPR-affiliate KQED radio. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars and a B.A. in Liberal Studies from the Hutchins School. She now lives in Northern California with her husband, son, and their cat.