issue twenty-seven
art gallery
past issues
current issue
(4450 words)
Nancy Gerber
Oak Tables and Emerald Lawns
       The numbers burned red in the darkness. Reuben moaned and glanced at the digital clock on the night table, then leaned over and nudged his wife. "The baby's up." Hannah mumbled and rolled toward the bedroom wall. "Hannah, Benjamin's crying." He grasped her shoulder and gave it a little shake. Slowly Hannah roused herself, shifted her legs out of bed onto the carpet, and somnambulated toward the baby's room. Her two-month-old son was lying on his back, his tiny mouth forming an O from which staccato, piercing cries erupted.

Hannah scooped up the baby. He latched onto her breast before she even had a chance to lift her nightgown. Settling into the gliding rocker, she slipped a finger inside his mouth to loosen the suction and pulled the gown over her right breast. She felt his tension go slack as he filled himself, his body growing heavy and relaxed in her arms. Lulled by the baby's rhythmic sucking, Hannah felt herself drifting off. She worried she would drop the baby if she fell asleep, so she forced herself to stay awake by focusing on the nightlight casting a lonely shadow in the darkened room.

The baby drifted off before Hannah could shift him to the other breast. The heaviness of his diaper told her he should be changed but she could tell he was not soiled. Carefully, she placed him in the crib and shuffled back to her room. Reuben's arm had splayed into her side of the bed, and with a small cry of annoyance she pushed it out of the way. Reuben did not wake up.

The clock read 5:17 when Reuben's voice awakened her again. "I hear him," he said. Hannah groaned. "Can't you feed him? There's a bottle in the fridge." She wasn't entirely sure whether her words were coherent or a string of mumbo jumbo. But apparently Reuben had understood for he answered, "Sorry. Gotta get ready. Early meeting." He pushed her thick hair aside and let his lips graze her cheek. "See you later."

Hannah found Benjamin thrashing and bleating in the crib. The frantic thrusts of his arms and legs reminded her of a convulsing animal. Again he found her nipple through her gown before she had a chance to pull it up. He started to doze as she shifted him to the other breast and this time he was soiled. Changing the diaper always awakened him, and his cries as she cleaned his bottom filled her with dread. Please, she prayed to the god of newborn babies, please, please let him go back to sleep. She laid him in the crib and waited to see whether the crying would stop. If it continued, she would fetch him. But within a few minutes the sounds had ceased and she could tell he was sleeping.

Downstairs at the kitchen table Hannah laid her head on her arms and shut her eyes. The endless hours lay ahead, and she wondered how she would get through them. What was wrong with her? She did not feel at peace, she was always anxious, even when the baby was sleeping. She didn't love her tiny son. She was an unnatural mother, an awful aberration who resented his relentless demands. What would Reuben say if she told him she felt that way?

The baby would sleep another two or three hours and she knew she should go back to bed and rest, even if she could not sleep. "When the baby naps, the mother naps," the discharge nurse had said cheerfully as she placed a swaddled form in Hannah's arms while Hannah sat in the wheelchair waiting for Reuben. Hannah looked skeptically at the creature wrapped in a white blanket, his head not much larger than a tennis ball. He was just over five pounds, quite small for a full-term infant. This is now the rest of my life she thought numbly as Reuben wheeled her down the hospital corridor. A bolt of terror shot through her as she watched Reuben strap the baby into the car seat that just two days ago had been a basket of empty space. Now it held a miniscule human being for whom she was completely responsible. What did she know about taking care of a baby? She had never even held an infant until they placed her newborn in her arms. Benjamin was so small  that the straps of the car seat slid crazily over his chest, and Hannah sat in the back with her palm against him so he wouldn't slide out on the drive home.

The oak table felt warm and solid. She hadn't wanted to buy this heavy, rustic piece she and Reuben found on a trip upstate soon after they married. But Reuben had insisted. He said it looked sturdy, had lasted several decades and would probably last many more. "It's a symbol of our new life," he said. "The kitchen is the heart of the house. We should have a strong heart." Sometimes Reuben's sentimentalism surprised her. He'd grown up with a father who'd tried to sell everything from women's wear to real estate and a mother who did not earn enough as a secretary to pay the bills. Perhaps, Hannah thought, it was wrong to be impatient with her husband's wish to fill their house with furniture she didn't like. Marriage, everyone had told her, depends on compromise.

Hannah could feel the lure of sleep pulling her into its netherworld. She saw herself passing through a field of tall, wild grasses that made a shushing sound even though there was no wind. Suddenly she stumbled and felt herself getting short of breath; she was aching to rest but couldn't stop moving. Confused and lost, she didn't know whether she was running toward something or running away.


       Hannah sat in the library at a carrel that faced a large window. When she needed a break she gazed at the massive Dutch elms that lined the brick campus walk. She'd been sitting at this same carrel for two weeks, ever since she'd noticed a slim young man with dark, curly hair pushing a cart with books to be shelved.
There was something about this young man that made Hannah shiver. When she heard the approaching wheels at the end of the aisle she turned to look, hoping he was far enough away that he couldn't see her staring. She liked the way his jeans clasped his hips like a glove. She liked his wide shoulders and the musky scent he gave off as he passed by. The rough, inconsiderate way he shoved the books into place made Hannah think he couldn't be much of a book-lover. She'd been a reader ever since she was old enough to turn the page and wondered if she could like someone who cared so little for something which meant so much to her. She decided she could.
After two weeks of silent admiration, Hannah determined to gather her courage and speak to the young man. In class she doodled in her notebook while considering various opening lines. "Hi, I'm Hannah." That seemed straightforward but dull. She hadn't dated in high school and had no experience beyond a few chaste lip kisses at summer camp the year she turned 13. What did one say to boys? Perhaps she should strive for something clever like, "There seems to be an endless supply of books in this place." That would catch his attention, since it implied she'd noticed his comings and goings for a while. But on the day Hannah had decided would be The Day She Spoke to The Handsome Young Man, she felt her heart thrum as the cart approached. Swiveling in her chair, she turned to face him, looked up just as he was pushing a volume into place, and said to his back,  "Do you work here?"

The young man laughed and turned around. "Hi. I'm Reuben," he said.
Hannah felt a flush creeping up her neck. What an idiotic thing to say! Of course he worked here! But he didn't seem to be mocking her, or at least it didn't feel that way. Lowering her face to hide her burning cheeks, she mumbled. "I'm Hannah."

"That's a nice name," he said. "Old Testament, like mine." Reuben told her he'd noticed her as he went about his job but she always seemed so intent on her studies. "You do a lot of reading," he said. "I'm guessing you're an English major." Hannah nodded. She wanted to ask him his major but found her tongue thickened by self-consciousness. The boldness that inspired her to speak was gone. He must think there's something wrong with me, she thought. Just ask him what he's studying. But the words were locked in her throat.

"I'm a numbers geek," he said. "Finance is my thing, business school, you know?" He looked down at her and smiled. "Look. I get off here at 5:00. Would you like to grab a beer at the Rat?"

Hannah didn't look up, afraid she might drool or something equally repulsive. She nodded.

"Ok, see you later," he said as he pushed the cart away.

He must think I'm a complete social reject, she thought as she studied her watch and wondered how she could possibly concentrate for the next two hours.


       Three weeks later, after Hannah and Reuben had agreed they were a couple, Hannah began to question him about the girls he'd dated. What color were their eyes, their hair? How long had they been together? Who broke up with whom? Reuben brushed aside these questions with laughter and frequent I don't knows, which only irritated Hannah and fanned her persistence. Finally he said to her, "Why does it matter? That's all in the past. I'm with you now. Why do you care?"

"I'd like to know that down the road, when someone asks you about my eye color, you'll say something besides 'I can't remember.'" Hannah was vain about her eyes, which were a dark hazel, and was pleased when she'd asked Reuben their shade and he'd said they were green, not brown. "I'd like to know I meant something to you."

Reuben reached for her hand. "I don't think that's something you need to worry about," he said.

They decided to spend one weekend at each other's homes during spring break.

Hannah had grown up in Scarsdale with a father who spent all his time in the surgical theater at Presbyterian Hospital and a mother who spent all her time on the tennis courts. An only child, Hannah thought it was no wonder she'd turned to reading. Books were everything: companionship, solace, entertainment, safe little worlds. Her favorite novel was Jane Eyre, the tale of an orphan who'd been sent away by a hideous guardian who did not love her. Jane had no family, no siblings. And she loved to lose herself in books. She fell in love with a dark-haired stranger who turned out to be married to a madwoman. Eventually things worked out between Jane and Rochester after the madwoman died, but in the process he was badly disfigured in a fire. So the ending of the novel did not mirror Hannah's relationship with Reuben, thank heaven. And besides, Mr. Rochester was much older than Hannah's handsome young man.

During the winter holidays Hannah had spoken of Reuben to her mother one morning at breakfast. Her father had left for the hospital and she and her mother were alone in the kitchen drinking coffee while her mother read the style section of the Times.

"I'm seeing someone," Hannah had said. "He's Jewish."

"Oh?" her mother glanced up.

"He's really smart. From Long Island. Bayshore."

"That's nice," her mother said, returning to the paper.

"I think you'd like him," Hannah said. She knew what her mother was thinking: not rich. A nobody.

"What are his plans after college?" her mother asked.

"He wants to work in finance. His first choice is Columbia Business School. "He has a 3.8. He'll probably be accepted."

"Hmm," her mother said, but Hannah could tell the Ivy League name had made an impression. "Do we get to meet this young man?"

When Hannah thought of Reuben as his future self, she pictured him in the Stock Exchange even though Reuben had told her he planned to trade bonds, not stocks, and would probably be working in a glass tower. She saw him with his sleeves rolled up, holding a phone in each hand and screaming first into one receiver and then the other, even though Reuben had told her bond trading was not as manic. But Hannah couldn't let go of the image of the Exchange, with its fluted columns and marble statues. It reminded her of the main branch of the New York Public Library. She thought the grandeur of these two buildings meant she and Reuben belonged together, even though one was filled with books and the other with tickertape.

When it came to her own future, Hannah was filled with uncertainty. She thought she'd probably enroll in a master's program in English even though there was no practical application for such a degree. If she wanted to teach in a secondary school, she'd have to continue for more training. And she wasn't sure she saw herself as a teacher. She pictured herself in a white rocker on a farmhouse porch, maybe somewhere in the mountains. She imagined spending her days immersed in books. Maybe Reuben would give up his dreams of financial success and turn toward a more contemplative life. Even though Reuben had confessed he hadn't read a novel since Catcher in the Rye in 10th grade and hated to write, arranging his schedule around classes that required tests rather than papers.

Hannah thought her mother had grown even more attractive over the years, her blond hair short but stylishly streaked. Claire was a few inches taller than her daughter, with a slender, firm body. She'd studied dance in college and abandoned her aspirations for a career in order to marry Hannah's father. Was this the reason her mother was so remote? Hannah's bone structure was larger than her mother's and her unruly hair seemed to grow outward rather than downward, no matter how much anti-frizz spray she used. Claire once commented that Hannah had inherited her paternal grandmother's build, a peasant stockiness more suited to the Carpathians than the Westchester hills.

When Hannah was twelve, on the way home from a shopping trip to Neiman Marcus, she'd asked her mother if she was pretty. The two were stopped at a traffic light and Claire studied her daughter as though appraising a piece of furniture. After a few moments she said, "You're cute," and returned to driving.

Hannah was stricken. Waves of pain rolled through her as though her mother had punched her in the stomach. Cute? she thought. Our poodle Mrs. Beasley is cute. I know I'm not beautiful like you but can't you at least give me pretty? Reuben was like a Greek god, not that tall but muscular and strong, with blue-gray eyes that reminded her of the Atlantic. Hannah couldn't believe she was his girlfriend with her frizzy hair and stocky build. He could have chosen any number of beautiful girls on campus.

Hannah had warned Reuben about her parents' lavish lifestyle, assuring him their values were not hers. They were collectors, she said, sports cars for her father, Cartier for her mother. "None of what they own has made them happy. I'm different. I don't want expensive things. I think they're frustrated because I'm their only child and they can't see anything of themselves in me," Hannah had said.

Reuben assured her he understood. "I love you for who you are, not where you come from. "Although," he added,  "you have quite an impressive collection of books."

"Yes, all of them paperback. They're valuable for what's inside, not for what they cost, which, by the way, wasn't much." Reuben liked to rib her about her prodigious personal library, which she found irritating. If he really understood the value of books he wouldn't make jokes.

On the way to her parents' house Reuben was quiet. She had described to him the sprawling Tudor, the towering spruces and oaks, the housekeeper who would open the front door. But as they drove up the cobblestone drive in his battered Ford Pinto, his silence was different from other silences she'd experienced. There was something unfamiliar, maybe envy. The picture she treasured of the two of them in the mountain cottage began to fade. He won't want that, she thought. He's more about an estate in the Hamptons with an emerald lawn. When her father offered to let him take the Porsche for a spin, Reuben nearly yelped in excitement.

At dinner in the formal dining room, surrounded by crystal wineglasses and expensive china, Hannah's father quizzed Reuben about his family. How long had he lived in Bay Shore? Where were his parents from? What did his older brother do for a living? Later her father told Hannah he was impressed that Reuben had been working since freshman year in high school as a stock boy, cashier, pizza delivery guy, caddy at the local country club. Hannah's father had also come from modest roots; it was important for a young man to know how to make his way in the world. Hannah's mother was most impressed by Reuben's eyes.

Hannah was looking forward to seeing Reuben's home and meeting his parents. He had not told her much besides the fact that his parents were always worried about the bills. Hannah had pictured a tidy ranch with an attentive father and friendly mother. She was surprised at the dismay she felt when they drove up to a dingy Cape with worn shingles and cracked front steps. Reuben's house was neither cozy nor charming. She found herself wondering if she was more like her parents than she'd realized.

Reuben's father turned out to be a silent man who was already tippling from the bottle of Dewar's on the kitchen counter when they arrived in the afternoon. Reuben's mother sat at the formica table and stared out the window, twirling her lank hair around and around her index finger. She gave Hannah a bleak smile but did not ask her to sit down or offer her something to eat or drink.

"Let's take a walk," Reuben suggested after Hannah had stowed her suitcase in his brother's room.

On their way to the beach Hannah asked Reuben what was wrong with his mother. "She looks so sad," she said.

Reuben told her his mother had had a breakdown when he was 15. "She went to a hospital for shock treatments but she's never been the same," he said. "They fried her brain, those fuckers."

There was no one else on the beach, and a chilly wind swept the damp sand into rivulets. Reuben studied the flat line where the sea met the horizon. "Do you ever wonder what the point of all this is?'

"What do you mean?"

"Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing or why I'm doing it. I feel as though I'm living someone else's idea of my life and not my own. That everything has been preordained and I'm just following the plan. To redeem my parents, so they can feel successful too. Do you know what I'm talking about? Do you ever feel that way?"

Hannah was silent. She'd never heard Reuben speak like this before. She'd always thought of him as an optimist and a pragmatist, someone who wasn't concerned with abstract questions about the meaning and purpose of life. She was the one filled with existential angst, the one who'd just started seeing a psychiatrist to talk about her fears. Reuben was her anchor. This new shadowy side disturbed her. She realized he found his home life as hopeless as she found hers.

"I do feel that way," she admitted. "Sometimes." She found herself thinking about Reuben as a baby, crawling around a cramped living room with no one to take care of him.

Two years later they were married at her parents' country club. Hannah had told her mother she preferred the Highlands Arboretum with its sweeping views of the Hudson but Claire had frowned. "It will be so much easier at the club, she'd said. "And besides, we're paying."
Alone in the bridal room on the day of the wedding, Hannah felt her stomach quiver as she studied the wallpaper's cream rosettes. What if this was all a colossal mistake? She loved Reuben but how well did she really know him? And how well did he know her? How could two people possibly pledge a lifetime of commitment to each other? What if they were not well suited as a couple? What if love was not enough to sustain them? There was no one to whom she could say such things, not the cousin she'd chosen as her maid of honor and certainly not her mother. Hannah imagined sharing her worries with Claire. "You should have thought about all that beforehand," her mother would probably say.


       Hannah woke to the screeching sound of cries coming through the monitor. The clock on the microwave panel read 9:54. She'd been asleep for nearly three hours! She wondered how long the baby had been crying. There were two large spots soaking the front of her nightgown.

Groggy and cotton-mouthed, she dragged herself upstairs to the baby's room. After she nursed him and changed his diaper, she put him in a fresh sleeper, then sat in the rocker and laid him on her knees. She gazed at his dark, expressionless eyes. "What if I just can't do this?" she said aloud. Her voice reverberated against the blank walls. They had never hung up any prints to decorate the room.

Yesterday at 11:00 in the morning Hannah had called Reuben at the office. "If you told your boss your wife wanted to kill herself would he let you come home?" she'd said. "Hannah, don't be hysterical. I'm in the middle of a trade." His voice was as tight as a rope and for a moment Hannah saw herself as a wirewalker, trying to cross from one end to the other without falling off. "I'll call you later," Reuben had said.

After he'd hung up, Hannah picked up the phone and dialed her mother. "Do you think you could come down for a few days?" she asked. "I'm having a rough time." She forced herself to utter the words, which to her sounded like a dreadful admission of failure.

"Oh dear," Claire said. "I wish I could but I'm chairing the gala this Saturday. You know how much work that is."

Don't make me beg, Hannah thought. "Mom, I'm begging you," Hannah had said. Claire replied in a voice that sounded like breaking glass. "I just can't right now," she said. "I have other commitments. Maybe you should think about someone beside yourself. I'll try to come next month."

The baby stared impassively into space. Hannah thought he looked like an alien. She put her index finger on top of his pale pink lips. "Who are you?" she whispered. "I don't even know who you are."

When the microwave clock read 12:00, Hannah made herself a grilled cheese sandwich. Seven hours until Reuben gets home, one hour till naptime. She had gotten into the habit of letting Benjamin sleep all afternoon. Sometimes he napped for four hours even though the pediatrician had told her to wake him every two to three hours for feeding. "The more he eats during the day, the less he'll eat at night," the doctor had said.

"Do you know how hard it is to wake a sleeping baby?" Hannah said.                                 
"It's good for both of you," the doctor had pointed out. "He'll get used to being awake during the day and you'll get more sleep. Sometimes babies need a little help learning the difference between their days and nights." But even though this advice made sense, Hannah had been unable to follow it.
At 1:00 Hannah brought Benjamin upstairs and lay down on the living room couch. Her nightgown felt like an unwashed sheet, but she was too tired to change into jeans.

Hannah was lying on the sofa in her soggy nightgown when Reuben came home at 7:00. "Hannah, what's wrong?" Reuben said as he approached her. "Where's Benjamin?"

"I don't know," Hannah whispered.

"What are you talking about? What do you mean you don't know?" Reuben's voice was rising and Hannah put her hands over her ears. He cries, the baby cries. I can't take it, she thought.

She heard Reuben run up the stairs and then back down. "If you don't tell me where Benjamin is, I'm calling the police," he said. Hannah wondered why his voice was so threatening. She couldn't recall him ever speaking that way to her.

"He's in the basement," she said.

"The basement? What the fuck?" Reuben ran to the cellar stairs.

At 5:00, Hannah had nursed the baby, placed him in his infant seat, and put him on the laundry room floor near the dryer. She'd turned the dryer to the "Leave On" setting, gone upstairs, and curled on the couch. This seemed like a solution to the baby's endless crying. The humming of the dryer would soothe him, she reasoned, and he would be warm.

Reuben came back upstairs with Benjamin clasped tightly to his chest. He stood over the mounded form of his wife. "Hannah, what is the matter?" he asked. Hannah thought his voice sounded like a black door opening but she said nothing.

Reuben stood in the middle of the room holding the cordless phone in one hand and the baby against his shoulder with the other. He was relieved when Hannah's father picked up. Claire would probably have said to call back after dinner.

"No, everything isn't okay," Hannah heard Reuben say. "No, it's not the baby, it's Hannah. She's acting very weird. As if she's on drugs…. She put the baby in the basement… You're calling a psychiatrist and then you'll come? Of course I won't leave her alone. That's great. Thank you."

Hannah heard Reuben drop the phone on the floor and sink into the chair near the fireplace. She thought he was crying. What is the matter with him? she wondered. Maybe he needs a bottle. She giggled at the idea.

"I have a presentation first thing tomorrow," Reuben said to no one in particular.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Nancy Gerber. All rights reserved.