Fiction · 02/01/2017

Pillow Talk

He opened his hand to reveal the peach pit he’d found under her pillow that morning. It rested dry and dull against his wedding ring. His other hand dropped from a pat on Lalo’s shoulder to a suggestive caress of her hip through her nightdress. She felt her skin retract against the bone but didn’t flinch.

“Since when do you eat fruit in bed?” His kiss had startled her awake in their bed, the implicit instruction being to come and give him a proper goodbye. The bed and pillow on his side still held his form, as if his shadow had decided to sleep in that morning.

“Stone fruit.”

“What was it doing under your pillow? Some exotic custom I don’t know about?”

“It’s just an old stone fruit pit, like a worry stone.”

His glance took in the whole of their surroundings, house-cars-lake-empire. “Lalo, sweetheart, what do you have to worry about?” Just after daybreak and he was almost out the door, light trench coat over the blue pin-striped suit and the dark grey tie in spite of the early autumnal warmth, briefcase neatly stacked atop the carry-on he used for trips between two and five days.

Lalo shrugged. She took the pit into her own hand and and tried to leave the anticipation out of her voice. “How long this time?” It came out well, she thought. Nice, neutral, curious.

Henry’s bemused smile stayed hooked where it was, his hand still on her hip.

“Gonna miss me, huh? Three days, back by Thursday night. Wish the twins a good start in the school year for me.” She could smell the coffee on his breath. “Save a peach for me next time, we can share it.”

“It’s an old one, not new.”

She rubbed the edges of the pit under her thumb as he got into his most recent Audi and skippered it down the long driveway that led to the main road.

The sun was just rising above the blue delta behind the house. Beyond that, wooded hills rolled away with few roads and fewer people. Lalo stood for a moment and let the dawn breeze bring the sweep and sway of the forest to her bare feet.

This was the quiet corner of the world Henry said would be the best place for all of them and when he said “them” he meant “him.” A farmhouse of immaculately distressed old wood on the far edge of a small town, far enough from the city to make all the stress of big schools and doctor’s offices and parent meetings seem nothing more than the far cry of a distant loon in retreat.

Henry said the boys would have room to roam. Rory and Zach. No helpful diagnostics to navigate them and the trial meds hadn’t worked, so now the ‘scrip was a life in the country.

Henry insisted that she would have barefoot space to do as she pleased, at least when Henry was away on wing-tipped business. As if she was some kind of country hick. Henry never listened when she told him where she was from, never heard past her accented English, never saw past her most recent history and never saw himself as anything but the hero in her life. He promised to leave his work behind in various cities instead of bringing it home like a sticky souvenir. As if she cared. It was like a life ring asking a drowning person to care about whether it was made of wood or plastic. Lalo was just trying to stay afloat. Sometimes her past and her disappeared home grappled her insides so strongly she thought she might drown while awake. There was nothing to return to but what remained in her imagination.

They’d been in the farmhouse for a year, autumn-winter-spring-summer. She shivered through every season but summer. No matter whether it was turning leaves-falling snow-blossom buds, the great outdoors and running range had only made matters worse for her, but even more for the twins. A trail of destruction and dead bugs/animals/plants at home, a new set of appointments with the school director at the picturesque school at the end of a short school bus ride, stony looks from the other parents after another bout of stapled butterflies or third-graders being fed glue and gravel. Not that Lalo was a parent herself, but she went along and posed as one as part of the deal.

But today was the first day of school and it was time for her real project to get underway.

Breakfast as usual; Rory and Zach ignored her. With Henry out of the house, they called her Lucky, like they always did. Henry had once called her his Lucky Number Three withing earshot and while she’d had no idea what it meant, the boys had clearly decided it was a joke. They packed their own lunches, there was at least that, and they left to embark upon a new year of mayhem. Lalo watched them go. She’d found a picture of their mother, Number One, the first to come and the first to go. Number One must have been a little older than Lalo herself was now, twenty-six, when she had the twins. Number Two, judging by photos found online in old press announcements, had been the same in looks and age. Lalo herself was a departure in the looks department, but then, the others were blonds who could have been cut from the same cloth. Not Lalo, a slender pillar of caramel pepper in the midst of salt dunes.

Sometimes when she was on top of him, her hands on his graying chest hair, his hands moving her to his own rhythm and hearing his voice saying, “Isn’t this better than what you had before? Isn’t it?” she despised herself for feeling any pleasure, and wondered whether the other Numbers had felt the same.

+

She’d been gathering what she needed for the past year, ever since she’d first seen the mist creeping up the lawn from the slow water of the delta during their first few weeks there. She’d asked a couple of locals at the store whether that was a regular weather pattern, this vapor that clung and crept across the land like a creature with countless limbs and fingers and toes but no head. And they had said, in their own strangely accented English of which they seemed so proud, that it only happened for a couple of weeks in fall, the conditions had to be just right, and they usually were. “Good fishing and hunting, the damn beasts don’t even hear you coming.” And looked at her like she was the prey.

It wasn’t the same lake mist as back home, but Lalo suspected it would do well enough for her requirements. A dreamy fluid to air to land transition that could precipitate all manner of change. She spent the second year harvesting and hedging her hopes on this short season of pillowed brume.

She and her brothers had laughed at her grandmother’s old methods, at least until those secret tricks had gotten them across the big water. When the other heads were going under the surface, Lalo and her brothers had stayed afloat, one on each side of her. Too bad her brothers had gotten the trick of invisibility while Lalo herself had gotten just the opposite. No, her grandmother wanted her to be seen if she was to be rescued. “The boys need to slip between the cracks in the dry earth. You need to blossom and be picked.” That kind of authority brooked no opposition; the parents were dead, her brothers insisted on taking her with them to wherever they were going. When the boat went down, the three of them were the only ones who were picked up, thanks to Grandmother. They’d carried small pillows sewn into their clothes, such as they were, and kept them close. When they made their first landfall, the brothers disappeared, thanks to Grandmother. Lalo was picked like a flower by a family that wanted to sponsor a safe refugee, thanks to Grandmother. At least for a short time, until the wife decided a blossoming Lalo wasn’t such a safe refugee after all.

These days, Lalo thought her grandmother had left out some vital ingredient, the one that would have let her find her brothers again or let them find her. They were her entire history. How could invisibility work for so long; how long could she stand in the wind before her roots withered and they would never see her? Why hadn’t Nana also provided them with a special sight to see one another?

If there was a word to describe her first of meeting of Henry, their quick courtship and his deep fascination with her, it was “transaction.” Lalo had been picked and ringed and pressed into a glass picture frame like a rare orchid.

As for the twins: She’d tried friendliness, but that slid off the boys like rain on a window. She tried little tricks to endear herself to them. Stitching their trousers into itchy discomfort, then offering to fix them as a kindness. The boys just threw the offending clothes away. She offered to play games and then gamely lost but they never seemed to notice. When she gamely won they walked away. They put sand and dead insects in her clothes and books and shoes. Any admiration she expressed for one of their favorite songs, movies, characters, games, books, celebrities, shoes, sport teams or activities was met with vocal disgust at the newly offensive item. With the boys, all the doors were shut to her; Henry only kept open the doors to places she didn’t want to go. He thought he was saving her, but by now she’d discovered he was only saving himself.

She’d felt herself desiccating by the day until she’d seen that mist rise off the delta, and the plume of an answer rose with the infusing mist.

While Henry was away and the boys at school working their own dark spells, Lalo labored at the house. She laid out her harvest, along with the fruit pit, on a wire mesh, which she balanced between two chairs placed outside the house. She watched the morning mist rise up and conceal the chairs for a few hours, then retreat like a magician’s cape. She did this for the first two mornings, retrieving the mesh when the boys came home and hiding it in Henry’s study. Everything was pleasingly soaked in mist, and each evening she said the words that she’d already said over the stone fruit pit she kept with her at all time.

The third morning, she was ready. She waited for the boys to leave, left the wire mesh out one more time, brought it in to dry, and then began sewing. This was a slow project, and the gathering, mist-infusion, and sewing were only the very beginning.

A sandpiper feather, barred and buff on one side and simple brown on the other, gathered the previous summer during a “romantic” beach visit, infused with mist, was stitched into Henry’s pillow. Alongside it, a cluster of red, white and yellow roses, so fragrant she hoped he wouldn’t smell them through the down and fabric.

The twins were only twelve years younger than Lalo herself. She’d imagined, at first, that this small family might be more nest than lifeboat. As it turned out, the twins were nothing like her invisibled brothers. This little lifeboat was springing leaks.

The ingredients she knew from home weren’t the ones she would need or find here. She researched books and dreams for weeks before beginning her collection. By September, she had layers of treasure placed between sheets of paper in a bottom drawer of her dresser.

For Rory, the one with a muscled jawline from nightly ground teeth, three slate-serifed heron feathers in his pillow, tied together with flowers and stems of white daisies and purple crocus.

For Zach, the one with a little more red in his hair, the freckle under his left ear and a mind both more humorous and more cruel than his brother’s, a bundle of bound pelican feathers, because one would certainly not be enough.

Her own pillow contained sharp razorgrass to carry her through to the end, an iridescent blackbird wing and an oak leaf for what would come after. If everything worked. Maybe the mists here didn’t transform the way they did where she came from.

Besides Henry coming home and a few bouts of despising herself while with him on the pillows, nothing much happened during the first week. A brief glance in her direction over the cereal bowl from Zach caught her attention on the fifth day, but he only sneered something about hating the country . Later that day, while the boys were at school, she found his phone near the sofa. It flickered to life and she saw two messages to both boys from their mother, Number One. “My schedule is really so full, boys, and the baby so demanding right now, I don’t think it’s the right timing for a move.” So they’d asked to leave, and had been turned down.

She felt a tight stitch wrinkle her heart. She knew the treacherous pull to escape a bad situation, a fateful hook that yanked and tugged until you either bled and left or bled and stayed.

She fluffed all the pillows, and once the house was empty, took them out to gather mist every morning. By the evening, everyone laid their heads down on dry pillows again. Someone mentioned how nice the pillows smelled these days. Somone else mentioned how well they were sleeping. She kept her fruit pit close and hidden.

By the end of the second week, the delta mist receded and still nothing had changed. Lalo worried that she had made some mistake, and despaired as the first chill knife of autumn cut the air.

Then Henry cancelled a planned business trip. It was only supposed to be for two nights, but he was packing his carry-on when he stopped as if stayed by a hand. He shook his head, looked up at Lalo as she came out of the dressing room, and said, “I don’t really need to go to this, I can call it in.”

Lalo nodded, and said, “Sure, if you think so.”

It took another two days for the twins. Zach asked her to pass the milk, please, to a smirking frown from his brother. Then Rory said goodbye and have a nice day to Lalo and his father as he left the house to a similarly puzzled expression from Zach. Who then said the same thing. They exchanged a glance of surprise at one another.

“Told you,” said Henry from the front door, as if there had been a discussion. “Less city, more country.” He fireworked both hands at the boys’ backs as they walked down the driveway. “Poof! They just needed time.” As if he himself had been the hand of fate.

Lalo felt for the pit in her pocket and rubbed it so hard she cut her finger.

Another month passed. Henry hired someone to come to the house and install enough equipment that he could easily hold the occasional virtual meeting from his office. “I mean, why have a place like this if all I do is stay in hotel rooms.”

Rory and Zach brought home a boy named Jason one day after school. Jason straightened from his hands-in-pocket slouch when he met Lalo, said, “Nice to meet you, ma’am, nice place,” as he walked in and the twins didn’t roll their eyes. He was polite, they played video games and ate the pizza she set out for them.

Rory said, “Thanks, Lucky!” He blushed.

“Is your name really Lucky?” Jason’s pizza stopped halfway to his mouth.

Before she could answer, Zach said, “It’s just what we all call her. Dad was lucky to find her.”

Lalo would have to adjust the pillows. It was a subtle art, and the goal wasn’t to make everyone love her. Fortunately, she had infused other items, dove feathers-playing cards in the suit of clubs-lengths of red twine, and kept them in the drawer for this and other eventualities.

Nights were calm caves of quiet dreams. Henry sometimes embraced his pillow as closely as he held Lalo’s hips. It was almost endearing. Lalo added more razorgrass to her own pillow and slept with the peach pit against the back of her ear.

+

Ten months later, Lalo walked a city street freshly washed by rain, the storm cloud already passed and the heat of the summer sun raising mist fingers from the sidewalk in front of her that she could have sworn caressed her bare ankles in a seduction that invited her to stay. She carried on at a brisk pace, ignoring the heads that turned, the whistles, the up-and-down glances of other women. Class had run late and she would miss her train.

The cafés were filling up with people finishing work, other students sitting down to talk about the day’s intellectual acquisitions or just to flirt, she saw people from her course who waved her over but she smiled, shook her head, and carried on. The boys had developed such humor and compassion over a few weeks that Henry had given up traveling and decided he wanted to work from home. Rory and Zach had made another couple of friends, there were no more flinty meetings with angry school administrators; Henry was enthused with his paternal abilities (that was the sandpiper feather) and turned an eye to what he could do for Lalo, who everyone now only called Lucky. He’d helped her get into a graduate program and sent her off to the city with his blessings. She could prepare for the day when he tired of her, as he must, and the eventual advent of her own replacement. Then she would go in search of her brothers. It would be just like she’d imagined.

If only she hadn’t made a mistake with that peach pit, the one meant to turn her heart to stone and harden her to any affection. Back home, the stone fruit had smooth, unridged pits, impenetrable, unbroken. Here, she’d been careless and used a peach pit full of ridges, deep-cut indentations that allowed all manner of emotion to get stuck worse than a bit of fruit between the teeth, a sharp point at the end that caught love like a clingy tuft of wool on a barbed fence.

And now she was stuck, snared in her own trap. She despised herself for not leaving the happy trio in search of her real family, she despised herself for not wanting to be late for dinner. She despised herself as she skimmed up the stairs to the train and skipped on board just as the doors closed behind her. Henry was cooking tonight.

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Paula Read is a French-American writer, raised in California, living in France. Her most recent story, “Render,” was published in Bartleby Snopes. Another, “House of Doors,” was included in the Bristol Short Story Anthology. Other stories and non-fiction pieces have been published in literary journals, magazines and newspapers, including The Feminist Wire. She writes for the Huffington Post and MidCentury Modern.