Martha Jennings finished scanning the morning newspaper, and tossed it aside with a sigh, wondering
to herself why she even bothered to try to keep up. She took one last sip of
her tepid coffee, and although she didn’t like it if it wasn’t hot, she was too indifferent to bother reheating
it in the microwave. She thought about returning her sister’s call, but
it was still early, and she wasn’t in the mood to listen to the same old speech about “how worried everyone was.”
A pile of dirty pots and plates lay festering in the kitchen sink, neglected for the past several days, despite her
husband’s complaints. The kids could help more, she had said, but they
won’t. They’re teenagers, they’re busy, they have friends,
their own lives, she thought, and I’ll go on making excuses for them. She
plodded past the kitchen sink—her slippers making a faint slapping sound against the tile floor—and down the hall
to the bathroom. She found herself in the mirror, and began to dread what she
saw lately. Her hair, once a lustrous dark brown, and full, was thinning, and
gray. Wrinkles carved deeply into her forehead and cheeks—the result of
too many summers baking in the sun on Cape Cod beaches. Folds of skin hung loosely
under her chin; she lifted her face, and massaged the area with the tips of her fingers, in a vain and absent-minded attempt
to sculpt a Rodin from the sagging tissue. She examined her reflection more closely,
turning her head slowly from side to side. Errant brown macules speckled her
cheeks and the bridge of her nose—unwelcome blemishes she remembered tarnishing her own mother’s face. The stains spoiled what had years ago been a pristine and nearly perfect complexion. She had always been proud of her youthful skin—her milky white, soft, luminous skin, with enough
natural color radiating from her cheeks to give her a vibrantly healthy glow. Now,
well into her late fifties, the image in the mirror belonged to a stranger. Her
eyes, once sparkling with life, seemed flat, dull, and as gray as her hair. Her
shoulders sagged under an invisible weary weight, and her dingy terry cloth bathrobe hung loosely on her slender and nearly
skeletal frame. She reached for the frizzled toothbrush that lay on the side
of the sink, and turned the cold water on.
While she brushed her teeth,
her thoughts began to drift across the vast emptiness of the day that lay before her—unscheduled time, with no commitments,
until the kids came home from school at 3:15, grabbed a snack, and then left for work, or a trip to the mall with their friends. Katie was a sophomore at Wilson High, and Brad was a senior. They were both doing reasonably well academically, athletically, and socially—the three major spheres
of adolescent endeavors. Her son, Brad, was planning to enlist in the Marine
Corps after he finished high school. He wanted to realize his idealized vision
of himself as a man: invincible, the ultimate protector of life and liberty—a man of steel. Martha had observed the warning signs in her son from an early age—his fascination with war, guns,
and conflict, his absolute sense of what was right and wrong, and listened as he spoke of plans to defend his beliefs in a
world gone completely amok. He had his entire life planned out ahead of him. Once out of the Marines, he wanted a career in law enforcement, with the State Police. He wanted a family. He wanted children
and big dogs. He wanted to carry a gun.
Katie had made no such detailed architectural plans of her imagined future.
She lived fully and completely in the present, and spent most of her free time with her pack of bubbly and giggly girlfriends,
who often spoke incredulously about who they had just heard was doing what with whom.
Martha had discovered a half-empty package of cigarettes under her daughter’s bed several months earlier, but
never said anything to Katie about it. Martha had smoked in high school when
she was a teenager, and had managed—aided by her relative poverty—to quit when she was in college. She believed that she would be a hypocrite if she confronted her daughter about the cigarettes, and decided
to push the whole thing out of her mind. With minimal effort, Martha managed
to convince herself that the cigarettes probably belonged to one of Katie’s friends.
It was one of many uncertainties in her life that Martha coolly dismissed. She
added the fear that her daughter might be smoking cigarettes to the pile of other suspicions that lurked in the dark corners
of her life. Corners she chose not to illuminate.
Places she chose not to go.
Although the family lived together
under the same middle-class suburban roof, and shared the same last name, Martha felt increasingly alienated from her children
and spouse. The pace of their lives seemed to accelerate with each passing day,
while her own life became more ponderous, and sluggish. Her husband, Tim, was
either at work, or on the golf course. Mornings were typically a mad rush, with
little or no meaningful conversation between them, rather, an occasional complaint or request for something or other mingled
with the scraping sound of Tim’s butter knife against charred toast. He’s
always complaining about the toast, Martha thought. There’s always some
snarling criticism about something I do or don’t do, or don’t do well enough.
The commuter train departed from the station in the center of town at precisely 7:05 every morning, so Tim
always left the house at 6:33, in his typical whirlwind of activity: downing that last sip of coffee, while he buttoned his
jacket and cradled his bulging briefcase under his arm—the same way he held onto the mud-slicked football as he scored
that blistering touchdown back in ’66, ending a ten-game losing streak for his high school team, and earning the favored
attention of the young Miss Julia Stevens—who went on to become his first wife.
By the time her husband rushed out of the house in the morning, slamming the heavy oak door behind him, Martha
was just stumbling into the kitchen, trying to find her way to the coffeepot. She
pushed her long frizzed hair out of her eyes, while she mechanically assembled the kids’ lunches, and sipped on steaming
black coffee. Both Brad and Katie slept as late as they possibly could on school
mornings, and no amount of coaxing from Martha ever had any effect on the inevitable morning mayhem as the siblings fought
over the bathroom shower, and accused each other of vague but serious offenses. There
were days that she felt like giving up playing the role of diplomat in these battles—and those days were more frequent
lately. She wanted to crawl back to bed, bury herself under the blankets, and
let the kids hash it out on their own. But she never did. She could imagine no end to the interminably repetitious morning scenes, although she knew perfectly well
that Brad wanted out—and if he did ultimately leave home for Parris Island, all of their lives would be changed forever. Sometimes she wondered how Katie would manage without the verbal swordplay she engaged
her brother with every day. Most of the time, though, she didn’t wonder
about it at all. She felt that so much of her life was out of her control anyway,
and that it mattered little or nothing what she thought or did. It was easier
not to think—and she chose simply to move, or crawl through her existence, from one task to the next, even if those
tasks had little or no meaning for her. She hadn’t always been so careless
about performing her quotidian domestic duties. There had been a time when neatness
and order had mattered to her, and she had been proud of the gleaming results of her efforts.
However, as the school year progressed, the seasons warmed, and the climbing sun marked the passage of time, she felt
increasingly paralyzed, and empty.
Many evenings during the week, Tim
didn’t return home from the office until after seven o’clock; then there were the increasingly frequent nights
that he socialized with friends after work, and caught an even later train home. By
the time he turned the key and released the deadbolt in front door, he was in no mood for conversation, and typically collapsed
in his leather recliner in the family room in front of the wide-screen television that he had purchased six months earlier. Martha usually brought her husband a cold glass of beer—although she no longer
chilled his glass in the freezer, the way she used to—and then retreated to the kitchen to warm something for them to
eat. Lately, Martha lacked her culinary spark, and her cooking became more repetitious
and mundane. She had a shelf of cookbooks—from Julia Child to James Beard—and
an entire box of recipes that she had collected over the years, but rarely referred to them, preferring to make something
simple like spaghetti, or hamburgers most of the time. If Tim complained about
her cooking, Martha wanted to explain that it was hard for her to prepare a decent meal with everyone on a different schedule. The family rarely ate together anymore—like they used to when the kids were
little, and Tim didn’t come home so late, when they’d all sit down together at six o’clock and enjoy a meal,
when life was so full that they both innocently believed—without even realizing it—that this family ritual would
last forever. Instead, Martha would stare at her plate and silently pick at her
food. Then if Tim started in about how much weight she’d lost over the
past year, Martha defended herself by claiming that she had actually gained a pound.
She almost believed these little lies. Martha had not stepped on the scale
in months, unwilling to put a number to what she knew was happening to her. She
felt that she was simply melting away, and that one morning, everyone might wake up only to discover that she had vanished.
After dinner, Tim usually retreated to his study, to tackle the work that
he lugged home from the office every night. Martha had no idea what he was working
on. She had stopped even pretending to show an interest in his work, and he rarely
volunteered any information. Their lives had become mutual mysteries; they were
each opaque to the other and themselves.
At ten o’clock each night,
Tim packed his briefcase, undressed, and climbed into bed to watch a half hour of the news.
By ten-thirty, he shut the lights out, and ten minutes later, his respirations were heavy and regular, punctuated by
a deeply resonant snore.
When the kids were younger, Martha had always
enjoyed staying up late at night—well past the hour that her husband went to bed.
It was then that her hectic yet constricted world finally became peaceful, quiet, and still. In the middle of her frantic days, Martha eagerly anticipated the calm that would eventually envelop the
house while children and husband slept. It was then that she indulged her appetite
for nineteenth-century romantic English novels such as Emily Brontė's Wuthering Heights, or wrote long letters to distant
friends and family, and even attempted an occasional poem or story of her own. Martha
had once considered writing the story of her life, as she put it, but never knew where to begin—how to start. Sometimes she’d have an idea during the day—and jot it down, along with the grocery list, hoping
to develop it further when she could sit at her writing desk in the spare bedroom and concentrate. But many times, her efforts were frustrated, and she was content to return to her reading, and melt into
the author’s consciousness, imagery, and fantasy. Sometimes she’d
call her sister that was living in California at the time, and talk for an hour or so.
But now that she had most of the day to herself, and the house was more often empty than not, Martha found that she
was increasingly unsettled at night. She’d move from room to room, unable
to occupy herself with any one task. She rarely read anymore, and often gave
up and watched the syndicated sitcoms on cable TV until she was no longer able to fight the increasing weight of her fatigue
and boredom, and went to bed.
After Martha finished brushing her teeth, she
turned the shower on, and waited for the bathroom to fill with a hazy fog from the hot water.
She hung her bathrobe on the hook, and slipped out of her white cotton nightgown.
The mirror was fogged, and she could no longer find her reflection. She
had never liked looking at herself when she was naked. She avoided the bathroom
scale, slid the shower curtain open, and stepped into the white porcelain tub. Martha
kept thinking about the call she needed to make—the call she had promised her sister she’d make. That’s what she wants to talk about, Martha thought; she wants to know if I kept my promise. It was just then that she felt the sickening skip in her heart, when she palpated
the hidden terror with her wet soapy hands—the lump in her left breast that wouldn’t go away. The lump that she was sure was only imagined—unreal—transient at worst. The lump that wouldn’t behave and hide in the dark corner like all her other problems. The lump that came back every day.
Deborah Vatcher is a physician who practices near Boston, and the publisher of the web
Copyright © 2004 –
Deborah A. Vatcher, MD [ used with permission ]