Updated: Jun 13, 2021
By Amanda Gibson -
Each time their car passed the farmhouse with its jumble of outbuildings, Sara saw domestic bliss. Despite the weathered clapboards and stones piled next to half-finished walls, a look of decrepitude that ran counter to Sara’s inclination for order, Sara thought the farm was perfect. As if a tuning fork had been tapped in her body, she positively hummed with peace. As Sara and her family drove by the farm this time, evening was in its final flush. In the waning light, Sara saw a woman emerge from a sedan in the driveway. Her silver hair shone luminous against a backdrop of barns and sheds. In one hand she held a Styrofoam container. Beyond her a stocky man moved towards the house. Sara leaned forward in the passenger seat, eager to study these people, who until now had been distant figures driving tractors or shuttling cattle between pastures.
When Sara’s car passed, the woman in the driveway turned to face their vehicle, silhouetted against the tiny red and white lights on the open car door. Sara turned too, looking over her shoulder to examine the woman’s face. For a moment they were tethered, invisibly linked.
Then they were by in a rush of displaced air. Sara shifted back into the scallop of the seat but she remained beside the woman, feeling her lean into the car door to push it closed. Sara imagined the woman following her husband to the house, carrying the leftovers to the refrigerator. The linoleum floor, worn from years of boot traffic, would shift and yield beneath her feet. The farmer’s wife would pour glasses of water for herself and her husband and they’d go upstairs, their silence easy and comfortable, their tread on the stairs echoed by the steps before.
Sara pressed into the headrest, breathing the aroma of hay and manure carried through the open window. They passed the last of the farm, a collection of hay rakes and plows rusting in the hedgerow. How she coveted this hilltop setting, the way the fields expanded under the sky, as if pushed up from the slopes below. Every summer she and her family drove by several times because the farm sat on an indirect route from the main road back to their lake rental. Each time they turned off the main road, crossed the one-lane bridge spanning the swamp of cattails and a profusion of yellow mallow, purple loosestrife, and white Queen Anne’s Lace, and started the steep, twisty ascent up Rabbit Hill, her spine tingled. At the top, when the canopy parted and peeled away and the fields unfolded before them, Sara would realize she’d been holding her breath. Here under an umbrella of blue sky lived an Impressionist landscape: cows and horses grazing, grasses ruffling in the breeze, butterflies stuttering through the air. Sunshine lit up the red barns and outbuildings and the green of the John Deere tractor. Even the white farmhouse with its flaking paint and clutter of mismatched porch furniture seemed to glisten. The rusted cars on blocks and the jumbles of wire and listing fence posts didn’t spoil the beauty.
Now, as they left the farm behind, Sara envisioned life there, a spouse who loved her by her side, working together on a shared dream. She and a fictional husband, whose face was grainy and indistinct in her imagination, would get up at dawn and drink coffee before they went to milk the cows and turn them out to pasture. Feeding the chickens, collecting eggs and scrambling them for breakfast. Afternoons spent pruning apple trees and mending fences. Hard work, and lots of it, but here, on top of this hill under the expansive sky, freedom.
As the car rounded the curve before the house, Joy could just make out in the ebbing light that it was the same dark blue Acura that had driven by repeatedly for the past few summers. Not many cars passed, so this one had stood out. Joy saw a woman in the passenger seat craning to look at her. When their eyes locked, something traveled between them, and Joy felt as if the woman had seen inside her, seen her misery. Joy dismissed the thought with a quick shake of her head. The woman surely was nothing but carefree -- her car was likely headed to one of the rental houses down on the lake. Joy imagined the woman swimming, maybe with her kids, maybe sailing one of the small boats with the triangle sails to the other end. In all these years Joy had gone swimming in the lake only a handful of times.
Her mind ran to speculation about how her life could have been different, thoughts she’d been having a lot lately. Joy expected the woman in the car lived back home in a house with updated appliances and air conditioning, a house resting on a rectangle of lawn that would take only an hour or two to mow. She pictured the woman’s garden, a colorful mix of flowers and shrubs within a tidy border. The garden would have a buried irrigation system and her husband would mulch it for her every spring. Joy envisioned it as if it was her own, where she’d sit on a bench and drink coffee after seeing her children off to school. She imagined the children climbing the stairs of the bus. The oldest, a boy, looked just like her own son when he was young, sturdy and smiling, healthy, and very much alive. And the smaller one, a girl, her face an indistinct pinkish blur – Joy wasn’t sure what a daughter of hers would have looked like. In this imagined life Joy could choose whether to pick up the dry cleaning or to visit the fabric store for new material for the window seat. Or maybe she’d go to work every day in a city office, with her own desk and computer, with photos of her husband and children arranged around her cup holder of pencils and pens. She’d wear pant suits with silk tops and silver chains at her throat. At lunch she’d ride down the elevator to the street and go left for the salad bar or go right to eat a sandwich in the park.
Joy sighed. How she’d welcome freedom from the uncertainty that loomed over them. A week ago her husband found their son unconscious under the hay baler, where he’d crawled to adjust the threshing mechanism. He’d lain in the half-cut field for a long time, until her husband realized he hadn’t heard the tractor roar back to life. It didn’t seem fair to Joy that a 35-year-old healthy man could have an aneurysm, but the doctors seemed unsurprised. Now their son lay in a hospital bed, a white sheet pulled up to his shoulders.
A current of air delivered the heady scent of moonflower blooming on the trellis. Joy heard the car retreat into the night, the engine’s hum an undercurrent to her husband’s boots on the stairs. Turning, she pushed the car door hard so it would latch.
The car passed new houses on large parcels of land. Cool air caressed Sara’s forehead and cheek, pushing her hair aside. She closed her eyes, listening to their daughter in the backseat chatter about her American Girl doll. Their son was silent, no doubt his ears stuffed with ear buds streaming music. The car climbed a short rise and fell again, just enough that she felt the drop in her stomach. Now her daughter was talking about releasing the doll’s hair from a bun and braiding it instead. For a moment Sara put herself in her daughter’s place, abandoning herself to the memory of adoring a doll. Such a simple, uncomplicated love.
Her husband was driving and Sara was careful not to look at his profile. Instead, she shifted her gaze out the window, just catching the glint of the lake below from their vantage point at the highest spot on the road. She’d swim again tonight. Night swims had become regular for her since they’d been at the lake. It was a place she could indulge her sorrow, replaying the confrontation with her husband. He’d resumed his habit of calling her long after he was supposed to be home from work. But the last time he’d called he didn’t bother to conceal it; in the background she could hear the ambient noise of the casino: the metallic bells of the slots, the jangling of coins, the hum of voices intent on winning.
That night she’d demanded to know why he was at it again. As in the past, she’d expected contrition. But as they stood in their bedroom, eyeing each other across the bed, instead of talking about the gambling, he told her that he wanted a separation. He planned to move out after they returned from their vacation, just a few days away. Shocked, she watched his lips move, the face that framed them she once considered so handsome. He was emotionless, as if he was ordering pizza over the phone. While he spoke, he matched a pile of his socks strewn on the bed, mechanically rolling the tops of each pair and tossing the joined mates into his dresser. When he stopped talking, she went to the guest bedroom and cried. For days her anger and despair were conjoined twins. It took all her self-control to behave normally around her son and daughter.
As they turned onto the lake road, she thought about her husband saying that they wanted different things out of life. She didn’t know what she wanted, but until her husband’s announcement she thought it included their family intact. Now she was forced to consider otherwise. She realized how much she’d abdicated to her role as wife and mother. The repetitiveness of her days – shopping, cleaning, cooking, driving the kids – she’d been living in an airless box. She’d loved her former career as a journalist, particularly the special assignments that required travel. Sometimes it would be a small town in the Midwest, sometimes a big city. But travel interfered with family life, and since her husband earned more money, she’d left her job when the kids started school. Sara recalled how juiced she’d get following leads, uncovering new things, both the story she was investigating and the places and people. The thrill of discovery – she missed that.
They swooped up the steep driveway to the house, her husband accelerating at the top. Sara couldn’t imagine how treacherous it must be in winter, but the hill afforded a gorgeous view of the lake. The 1890s house was a sprawling structure cut into the hill. On the wall inside hung black and white photos of women in puffy dresses and big hats posing on the porch. In past summers the history permeating the house had delighted her, but now the echo of family dinners around the sixteen-seat dining table rubbed her raw. The glass eyes of the massive buck mounted in the living room had once seemed full of mirth but now stared blankly as she and her husband maneuvered the space between them.
Her navy swimsuit hung over the towel bar in the bathroom, waiting for her to slip it on. She’d head down to the lake, eager to feel the water sliding over her limbs. Just like air, water took on deeper characteristics of itself at night – it seemed somehow wetter, softer, more nurturing. She’d float on her back listening. In the moonless darkness, her anger would dissolve into tears, rolling from her eyes to merge with the lake. Just last night she’d laid like that until she became aware of the water washing its gentle lullaby against the shore, a short wave, followed by a long. “I am,” it murmured, “I … am.” She’d whispered back, “I am,” in time with the waves, until she began to believe it, just a little.
Before making her way into the house, Joy paused to look up. The sky had darkened to yield stars. On clear nights their abundance was riveting. Sometimes she’d lean out the upstairs window when she got up from bed to go to the bathroom and imagine the many worlds out there that might exist. But not tonight. Standing in the driveway Joy sent a prayer to the heavens. She saw in her mind’s eye their son lying in the hospital bed, machines doling out his breaths. Try as she might, Joy couldn’t reconcile that image with the one that lived in her soul: the hearty, grinning boy who had grown into a young man with a fierce work ethic and easy smile.
As she studied the planet shining so brightly just above the horizon (Venus? Mars?), Joy thought of her husband. At dinner, they’d said little, any talk awkward and pointless with grief a third party at the table. After the waitress cleared their plates, her husband had reached across and taken Joy’s hand in his. Thinking about it now, her throat closed, her eyes pricked with tears. Joy had never seen her husband’s shoulders more stooped, his face so haggard. She’d sense him watching her as she moved to the refrigerator or hung clothes in the closet, as if in forty years of marriage he hadn’t done so enough. She understood, though. Several times in recent days she’d found herself in the mud room, inhaling her son’s scent from the extra work clothes he left hanging there. She’d stand, her face in his clothes, the hard knot of pain threatening to choke her. This was when the thought of life without him would steal into her brain and she’d chase it away, putting it off for another day, when she’d have to allow it, dark and smothering with its weight.
From far off a whippoorwill began its insistent trill. The bird would keep calling for hours – she didn’t know if it was hailing a mate or claiming territory – but she admired its persistence. All living things were like that, really, never giving up. She’d seen a mare push out a foal until her last breath, a hen battling a marauding fox, a sparrow frozen to death still clutching a branch of a shrub. Only humans let despair get in the way, she thought.
Joy stepped forward, fingers grazing the hood of the Buick as she rounded the car. She pieced her way over the hard-packed dirt to the porch stairs, holding the container of leftover steak and potatoes. Tomorrow’s lunch before she headed to the hospital to sit beside her son.
At the base of the stairs she looked up. Her husband waited at the top, where, when she got there she knew he’d reach for the container. Then he’d hold open the screen door with his elbow, allowing her to pass into the house, his free hand a guide in her back’s hollow.
Amanda A. Gibson is an environmental lawyer who has transitioned to writing personal essays and short stories. She's currently working on a novel based on an under-celebrated 19th century female photographer. Her work has appeared in The Common (online), Under the Gum Tree, and Orca, A Literary Journal, among others.