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Paul and Miriam met the old-fashioned way. He was working in her father’s law firm. She didn’t work much. When the mood struck, she’d accept substitute teaching gigs at public schools on Chicago’s south side, then, rather than battle traffic on the long drive north to her posh little condo in the nice part of suburban Evanston, she’d instead retreat to her old room in her father’s big house in Hyde Park. The house was near the University of Chicago, where Paul attended law school and was editor of Law Review. There, in her old childhood room in her father’s big house, she’d bleed out poems about her experiences with the colorful and troubled children she inspired in their colorful and troubled schools.


She’d been her father’s date at his law firm’s annual summer gala at Lincoln Park Zoo. Her father had introduced her to Paul in the Children’s Zoo. Paul and a gaggle of other summer law interns were watching the children of the firm’s lawyers feed hay to a row of cows in a barn. The children screeched in terror when the cows’ big wet mouths tried to grab hay from their little hands. Miriam liked how Paul laughed at the children. He was the only intern who didn’t gush over the children, who didn’t crouch next to them to steady their trembling, hay-filled fists under the cows' mouths. She liked how he towered over the other law students and lawyers. S’e liked that his nose was large and lumpy and that his hands had strong knuckles and calluses. Despite his stylish short hair, khaki trousers, and pale blue polo shirt, he looked more like a boxer, or a truck driver, than he did a smart young law student.

She liked that.


They got married 12 months later, right after Paul graduated from law school. They had a lavish, old-fashioned June wedding. Miriam took his last name. She willingly let him be the breadwinner, though she continued to accept the occasional substitute teaching gig and compose the occasional poem.

Everything about their union was old-fashioned, except for one thing. By their tenth wedding anniversary, it was still just the two of them.

*

They celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary at the Signature Room. The restaurant is on the 95th floor of the John Hancock building on Chicago's North Michigan Avenue. Paul had proposed to Miriam at the very table where the two of them are now seated on a Sunday afternoon in June.


Paul is distracted. They'd had a little disagreement that morning. He'd wanted romance. She knew it was a dangerous time for romance. Rhythm was the only contraception she could tolerate. It was the only method for her that didn't trigger weight gain, cramps, or allergic reactions. She is very meticulous with her calendar and temperature charts. She knows when romance is safe, and when it's not.


Paul will be in New York tomorrow for some lawyerly business. He still seems a little down, Miriam thinks, and so she is glad when he excuses himself after their dessert to use the restroom. Miriam pulls out her cell phone, calls her father, and makes her special request. She wants the firm's limo to take Paul to the airport. She doesn't want to drive Paul. Driving to the airport is stressful even under friendly circumstances. Today driving will be particularly stressful because Paul is reviving the one issue they can't agree on. After 9/11, he’d backed off. He’d sighed but nodded when Miriam said it was too dangerous to bring a child into the world. But 9/11 had happened almost two years ago. The world hadn’t blown up.


Her father is happy to send the limo to wait for them in front of the John Hancock. He's refused her nothing since she hit him and bit him and cursed him and promised to hate him forever.


He's refused her nothing since she was 11 years old.


She's always been careful not to take advantage of that. She asks him only for what she truly wants or needs.


She is saying "goodbye Daddy love you" when a commotion occurs by the entrance.


She looks up. A family of eight fills the doorway to the restaurant. There are six children, from baby to school age. The oldest is maybe 12.


Dear God. She knows them, the mother and the father.


Miriam looks away, out the window, 95 floors over Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. Sailboats on Lake Michigan slice the horizon, their sails pregnant with wind.


As the family weaves its way inside the restaurant, one of the children, a chubby girl wearing unattractive glasses, trips and falls. She shrieks, then laughs as her mother pulls her up. Her noise punctures the soft melody rippling from the piano.


Ridiculous, Miriam thinks, to schlep kids to an expensive, upscale place like the Signature Room. Rude of the parents, she thinks to inflict their children's destructive mess and rowdiness on the other diners who've all managed to come child-free.


She's glad that she and Paul are just about ready to leave. She signals the waiter, asks for the check. She'll pay it, she decides, then wait for Paul in the sitting area near the restrooms


The family is following the maître d’. They approach Miriam's table. Miriam bows her head so that her long, straight hair obscures her profile.


The family is so noisy! Chattering, laughing, bumping, and then two quick sneezes explode from one of the girls. Miriam shudders.


A floppy straw hat hides the mother's face. The hat is lumpy with plastic flowers, and horrors, a cluster of plastic purple grapes. Clunky flat sandals and socks thicken her feet, and a yellow splotch stains the breast of her untucked white blouse.

Baby drool, Miriam suspects, or leaking breast milk. The mother is seriously fat, probably a size 12, maybe even a 14.


Miriam shivers. She's thinner now than she'd been on her wedding day. She's never been bigger than a size six. She's blessed with her mother's figure. In all the photos Miriam saved from the trash basket in her father's study, her mother is slim, posture-perfect, beautifully dressed.


The family settles themselves around the table next to Miriam's. The father is nearly bald, the curly black hair Miriam remembers is mostly gone, but his crooked nose is the same, tilted just to the side. A salt and pepper mustache and beard add weight to his long thin face. The skin under his eyes is pouched and delicately stained.


Miriam's heart squirms.


The father suddenly glances at Miriam. Recognition twists his eyes and mouth. He shoots his gaze down at the baby in his lap. Miriam feels a blush heat her face.


The waiter approaches the family, Miriam's waiter. A big smile dimples his cheeks. The dimples surprise Miriam. The waiter had not dimpled any smiles at her or Paul.


"So, who's the young man turning 10 today?" the waiter asks.


The children giggle. One of the boys, 10 apparently, blushes and raises his hand. He has his father's round brown eyes and sturdy dark eyebrows.


"My real birthday was two weeks ago," he says. His voice is soft and sandy, a bit like Miriam’s own voice, she thinks.


"Well, sir," the waiter says to the boy. "How do you like this special table we've saved just for you, right by the window, so you can see the boats on Lake Michigan? Maybe one of those yachts out there is yours, eh?"


"We're celebrating for my mom and dad, too," the boy says.


"They got engaged here!" the chubby, clumsy girl shrieks.


"So this is really a special celebration for all of you," the waiter says.


"Do you like my mom's hat?" the girl who sneezed yells. "We made it for her! For her nanniversary!"


"Anniversary, Stella," the 10-year-old boy corrects.


The waiter laughs. "Very charming, ma'am," he says.


"Thank you!" the mother exclaims. "This is such a treat!"


That voice. That loud, rather nasally voice has not changed. Miriam feels her stomach flip-flop. The mother's face is obscured by the ridiculous hat, but the voice Miriam knows.


Miriam and Paul's Christmas cards to Leo and Sophie had not been reciprocated, and so Miriam had stopped sending to them years ago. Their dinner invites to Leo and Sophie in the first year after Miriam and Paul had married somehow never materialized into any actual dinners, to Miriam's relief. Probably because Miriam had emphasized that the dinners were just for the grownups, no kids, just like she'd insisted at her wedding, and just like the wedding reception, Sophie couldn't manage to attend. It seemed like she was always nursing another newborn, and so wanted to bring the latest baby. But Miriam had been firm and prevailed.


After Paul graduated law school, he began working 80 hours a week at the firm where Miriam's father was a senior partner. Paul no longer had the time to squeeze in handball matches with his old high school and steel mill buddy, Leo. Then Leo and Sophie had moved to Indiana to be closer to the steel mill in Gary where Leo worked.


Paul stopped mentioning them. A few years ago, Miriam erased them out of their address book so vigorously the paper thinned into a hole.


*

The waiter returns the little black folder containing her credit card. She scrawls in the tip and her signature, then gathers her purse and shawl. She stands. Her feet wobble in her high-heeled sandals. An ankle turns, and she hits the table. The table shakes. Her empty wine glass rolls to the floor.


The glass shatters. A bus boy materializes with a whisk and dustpan. From the corner of her eye, Miriam can see Sophie and the children turning to look at the commotion.


Miriam sees that Leo’s eyes stay on his children.


Miriam mutters an apology to the bus boy.


“Miriam?”


The voice stabs her gut. She will not be able to escape.


Miriam looks at Sophie. She keeps her face blank. “I’m sorry?”


“It’s Sophie,” Sophie says. “And Leo.”


Leo looks at her, lifts his lips into a smile that doesn’t crinkle his eyes.


“Oh my gosh,” Miriam says. “I didn’t recognize you under that hat. It’s great to see you guys. And wow, look at your brood!”

Sophie laughs. She pats her stomach. “Number seven on the way. Found out just this morning. How about you? Any kids?”

“Oh!” Miriam feels dizzy. “Not yet. But congratulations.”


Leo has yet to speak. He reaches across the table and strokes his wife’s hand.


“Is Paul here, too?” he asks.


“He’s in the restroom. Oh gosh, and we’re on the clock. I know he’d like to say hello, but he’s got a plane to catch.”


“Are you a movie star?” The chubby clumsy girl gazes at Miriam, her eyes magnified behind her glasses. “You’re pretty.”


Something thick fills Miriam’s throat. She swallows. “No, I’m not a movie star,” she murmurs. “But thank you.”


“Well, tell Paul we said hello,” Sophie says.


“It’s great seeing you,” Miriam says. “We’ll give you a call when Paul gets back from New York.”


“Sure,” Leo agrees. Now his smile crinkles his eyes. “We’ll look forward to it.”


Miriam hears the irony in his voice.


She hurries toward the exit. Her cheeks burn.


She sees Paul emerging from the men’s room. In the overhead light, the lines bracketing his mouth are too deep. She decides she’ll schedule a collagen consult for him with her dermatologist. He looks so sad droopy.


Droopy and sad can be fixed. Miriam prides herself on her youthful appearance. Though she is now 36, two years older than her own mother was when she died, she still looks younger than the stylish mother preserved in the photos.


Miriam was only 11 when her mother died. A weak heart, her father explained. But Miriam, digging a few months later in her father’s study, found the death certificate. And other papers from the University of Chicago hospital.


An ectopic pregnancy. A ruptured fallopian tube. A massive hemorrhage.


*

She'd looked up the words in the dictionary. She'd yanked the heavy Mayo Clinic Family Health Manual from the shelf in her father's study. She'd sat cross-legged on the hard oak floor, reading and weeping.


When her father returned from work, when the housekeeper left, Miriam confronted him. She screamed, "You killed Mama, you killed Mama!" She punched his gut with her fists until he grabbed her arms. She wouldn't stop screaming. He pressed his hand over her mouth and whispered, "No, Miriam, baby. It wasn't me. It wasn't me."


"What do you mean, it wasn't you?" Her voice was muffled by her father's hand over her mouth.


"I'm so sorry, baby," was all he said over and over.


She bit her father's palm. He still has the scar.


*

Paul stands motionless outside the restroom. His shoulders slump. Then he sees her. He nods. He doesn't return her smile, but when she takes his hand, he doesn't pull away.


Together they move to the elevators. She imagines Sophie's voice ballooning into laughter. She imagines the children yakking in their high voices, every utterance prefaced with "Mama" or "Daddy."


Soon, she tells herself, they'll be crying and spilling things and fighting and throwing food. She tells herself this all the way down, 95 floors down, alone with a silent husband in a cold, walnut-paneled elevator.


Paul and Miriam emerge into sun. Wind gusts North Michigan Avenue, swirling her skirt like in the famous photo of Marilyn Monroe. The wind lifts her long hair off her shoulders, blows her bangs from her eyes. Paul rubs his eye and blinks. The wind, she thinks, has flung a bit of grit into his eye, lodging it under his contact lens.


He has large, beautiful blue eyes, but he is very nearsighted. Her eyes are thin, an unremarkable hazel, but she has perfect vision.

Suddenly, she wonders how that mix would show up in any children. Would they get the best of each parent's traits, or the worst? A nearsighted, thin-eyed child, or a dazzling blue-eyed babe with vision sharp enough to pilot jets?


The law firm's black limo is parked illegally at the curb in front of the John Hancock. The firm's chauffeur is leaning against the car, smoking a cigarette and chatting and laughing with a policeman.


Paul stops abruptly. Pedestrians spill around them. "What's the limo doing here?"


"When you were in the restroom, I called Daddy. I asked him to send it."


"Why? I thought you were driving me to O'Hare."


"I thought you'd like to go in style. And we can stop by our condo, grab your bags."


"We?"


Until that moment, Miriam had not planned on a "we." She'd envisioned Paul grabbing his bags, then kissing her goodbye. She'd stand on their balcony, 20 floors over Lake Shore Drive, waving as he disappeared into the limo parked below.


By the time he returned from New York, romance would not be dangerous anymore.


But she hears again the chubby clumsy girl telling her she's pretty, her brown eyes shiny as melted chocolate behind the thick glasses. She sees Leo stroking Sophie's hand. She hears the birthday boy's sandy voice explaining how they're all in the fancy restaurant not just for his birthday but for his parents' anniversary, too.


She is shocked by what she hears herself saying.


"I'd like to ride in the limo with you," she says to Paul. "We can put up the black glass for privacy. And pull down the shades."

"And why would we be needing privacy?" Paul asks, but he is smiling. He holds her hand tight, and he doesn't look sad and droopy at all anymore.


"Are you sure?" he asks.


"No," she replies. "I'm scared."


He doesn't laugh. He guides her to the limo, steadies her arm as she slips inside the car.


She's never told him about her mother's real death, only that her heart was weak. Which it was. Metaphorically.


The pregnancy had not been her father's. He'd had a vasectomy. A gift to her mother after Miriam's birth. Because her mother hadn't wanted any more children. All this revealed to Miriam much later, when she was older when her father told her that he could no longer bear the accusation in her eyes.


Miriam and Paul settle into the soft warm leather. Miriam presses the button which raises the thick dark privacy glass.

She'll tell Paul about her mother's real death someday, she tells herself, but not today. Today is for celebrating their wedding anniversary.


BIO

Marie Anderson is a Chicago area married mother of three millennials. Her stories have appeared in about 65 publications, including The Saturday Evening Post, Woman’s World, Mystery Magazine, Sunlight Press, and After Dinner Conversation. She’s been leading a writing critique group at a local public library since 2009.

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2件のコメント


不明なメンバー
2023年9月02日

Very interesting & engaging. Loved how you expertly peeled back the layers of Miriam's past trauma & the struggles it causes her in her current relationship.

いいね!

不明なメンバー
2023年8月31日

Great story! Had me engaged the whole time and loved the Chicago setting. Happy for Miriam and Paul too :)

いいね!
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