Ostdick, past contributor to THE2NDHAND, today lives and writes from downstate Illinois, land of tempestuous weather — and temperaments.
Laurel and I are lying naked on the back porch. It helps ease the effects of the relentless August heat, on full even in the evenings, our skins soaking in the dampness. Her head is tipped back against my chest, her caramel-colored hair in a knotted, hippie mess. We’re not saying much. This is normal. With a glass of red wine against her lips, Laurel says the cicadas are chattier than we are, and through the open porch windows we listen to them bark through the steamy rain splashing around us. Storms are rolling in: thunder and lightning, giving us our newly fenced-in world in flashes. When everything goes bright, I can see the eaves on the east side of our new home clear as day, sagging like Ziploc bags full of water. Brown, dried patches of grass spot the back half-acre. An old green shed at the very back of the property has settled on a slant, still unsure as to whether it wants to tumble or not. Even though the house is old, it’s new to us. We’ve just moved in and we’re getting married soon, and even though there’s much to be done tonight we’re watching the lighting and counting the seconds between the thunder. Laurel kisses my index finger, asks me what I’m thinking, and I tell her about this time my father told me the thunder was his father and Able Lincoln and Aristotle bowling through the clouds in heaven, shooting for that perfect ten. Laurel says that’s cute, tells me her old man would say it was God dropping ice cubes into an empty glass. The rain, the scotch that goes in. The lighting, God taking the liquid down in one pinched gulp.
I tell her I think it’s time. Time we start a family, time to get her pregnant. She tells me she hates how that sounds, the phrase get her pregnant, and that we’re still so young. I tell her thirty really isn’t that young, not for this, and that we have the house now: the backyard, the shed, the space. Laurel hated leaving Milwaukee, but after her father died and left us the house we packed up and headed north along Lake Michigan to the bungalow in the country. Laurel makes a pssh sound and rolls on my stomach, snatching up the murky bottle and tips more red into her glass. She asks me why in the hell I’d want that, and then tells me about the perils of pregnancy. Vomiting. Like a lot. Like a lot a lot. Mood swings. Cravings. Heartburn. Stretch marks. Stretch marks, she says again, and traces invisible craggy lines down the length of her pale Wisconsin torso. She downs her glass in no time and gropes around for the bottle, which I’ve pulled from her reach. I keep it at arm’s length, watching her swat after it, telling her she’s so close. Keep swinging. Oh, strike two. You’re behind in the count. She grows frustrated quicker than normal tonight and lunges out with both hands for the bottle. We collide with a dead thump, head to chin, and she moans and covers the site of impact with one hand and says, Just give it, you asshole! There’s something desperate in her voice and I give up the bottle and ask if she’s alright and she doesn’t bother with her glass anymore.
She gets drunk now. This, too, is normal. After she’s done she rolls over to apologize. I feel her move on me, kiss my chest then my chin, getting ready to go again. She says she loves me and I say she’s lucky she’s so beautiful, placing my hands at her bare hips, and she lets a small grin slip and then grinds down onto me. In the aftermath everything will seem calm, manageable, but after a few weeks, on the heels of her promotion at the co-op, Laurel will find out and tell me that ten year-olds know to put a fucking condom on, for Christ’s sake. We will decide not to tell anyone, preferring to keep a secret between us, at least for a little while, until suspicion arises. September will come and Laurel will disappear into Milwaukee for a day to meet up with some old friends while I unmuck the gutters or replant a row of dying juniper trees along the side yard. As I turn up dirt and bury roots, I will be able to revel for the first time in what our lives are about to become, in the stillness of it. But she will come home very late that night with Styrofoam food containers from my favorite Greek restaurant in the trendy part of town-lamb chops with a bean and rice couscous and stuffed grape leaves. She will plate the couscous and lamb for me, sprinkle some salt on it, and then cry in the kitchen holding my plate to her chest. She will tell me she can’t describe it: that what she has done is just awful. She will say I would not have let her do it. She will say I would have had no right to say so. She will say it’s her body after all. Outside it will begin to rain and she will drink Jack and coffee and tell me she knows deep down she did the right thing, for both of us, and what will kill me is how sober she looks, her face as crystal as the moonlight. It just wasn’t the right time, she will say, and I will tell her I am not going to comfort her and that I hope she is torn up inside. I will wonder what we would have named the child and what color hair it would have had and how on earth Laurel can be so cruel. Most importantly, I will wonder how we get on from this, and there will be this sharp, sad tug in my chest like pulling an accidentally shot staple from your finger that tells me we won’t. This is how it will go.
But tonight we’re just watching the clouds circle around each other, watching the lightning split the sky over our heads. Laurel says this is another conversation for another time, and I don’t want to argue, so I let it go. In a flash, I can see her lips pull back in a sleepy grin, the enamel of her front teeth smeared red. I put my hand across her forehead as if feeling for fever and tell her she drinks too goddamn much. She tells me to shush. She says we’re due for a big one, a tremendous bolt followed by an even more impressive crash. Laurel sits up, rests her head on my shoulder in a sweet way, and tells me to close my eyes and this time to count the seconds between out loud with her. I ask why. She says just do it. I ask why again. She tells me to just have faith. I think about how everything will go tomorrow and the next day and the next after that, and after a few moments I acquiesce. When the lightning finally hits I get a dull blast even through my eyelids, and right after it goes dark I hear Laurel start to count out loud. She takes my hand, which I don’t object to, and whispers one, two, three, and I mumble along with her, waiting for the boom.