Writer in Residence · 01/28/2011

How We Burn

in response to “Such a Pretty Little Picture” by Dorothy Parker

“Such a pretty little picture!” an old woman called out to us last Sunday afternoon. She never broke stride of her jog-walk, and before I realized what she meant and could reply, the swish of her nylon pants were beyond us. It wasn’t the bench we were sitting on or the lake behind us, nor the small paved path littered with goose shit — it was Jeanine and I hand in hand. My wife really did glow the way everyone says about pregnant women. Her straw colored hair had grown long, unruly, the ends curling under near her swollen breasts. Though her middle was now large and round, all her limbs were toned, tanned and soft. The fuzz of hair along her arms shined in the sunlight.

We were in the middle of discussing the details of our upcoming trip to New York, our last romantic escape before the baby came. “Do you want to see a show?” I’d asked Jeanine. I hated them myself; loathed sitting in cramped seats and pretending to be impressed by the dancing, singing, and production. But I knew she loved them. As the old, fit woman disappeared around the curve in the path, Jeanine smiled at me and rubbed her belly. I thought, we could be that pretty little picture, yeah. Why not?

I leaned down to her stomach and said, “Hello in there!”

Click, click.

A little later we wandered down to the water with the remnants of a crusty loaf of French bread. Starving people all over the world, but we were doling out our gourmet leftovers to some fat ducks. They swarmed us, eager for the small bits that hit the water and rippled out. An aggressive swan showed up too, issued loud honks and chased Jeanine around the perimeter of the water. I can still hear the echo of her nervous laughter, but now it sounds a little too bright, too loud.

This day is the one I hold in my head: the briny smell, the buzz of mosquitoes, and the large puffy clouds reflected on the surface of the lake. There is Jeanine, flashing me those familiar milky blue eyes. She has the kind of eyes that look like whatever force worked in their creation forgot to paint a second coat of color on them.

Still, in that moment, I could see the whole word in her half-finished orbs.

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The fire fetches down and the glare of it arcs along the horizon. Smoke billows out and races upward in thick, acrid plumes. A bright orange light of slow burning dances in the darkness. The glow makes it look so much more impressive. Will our house catch too?

Small embers might float along the cool breeze and land in all that new mulch, or on the small awning over the front door. I hope it burns the dining room I recently painted “latte” and consumes the fake suede couch we paid too much money for over Memorial Day. Upstairs the fire should find our wedding album and the crib still sitting in pieces on the floor. I’m not exactly handy but I was going to try to put it together soon, when she gave me the go-ahead. Jeanine is superstitious. She wouldn’t take the tags off the tiny clothes hanging in the closet either.

I can’t hear the sirens but I can see the swirling lights throwing a red and white scatter shot pattern in the darkness. The valley between the house and my vantage point protects me. The fire begins to fade. Smoke clears and hovers above the house and the life I once loved. Jeanine will be home from work soon. She will pull into the driveway and see the sooty remains of my BMW staining the concrete.

I really had hoped the house would catch too, burn everything clean. It would be easier to leave if there was nothing left. If all I was leaving behind was Jeanine and the baby in her womb, the reminder that continues to grow bigger every week. Everyone thinks that little boy is mine. Even I did for a while.

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Some pictures can’t be deleted.

Click, click.

That is probably the sound the cell phone made when he held it out, an arm’s length away, and captured the two of them kissing. Was that the same park, the same lake in the background?

Maybe it is my fault. I insisted on getting the same cell phone she picked out during the sale a few months back. It was an honest mistake to pick it up this morning, thinking it was mine, and shove it into my briefcase. Hers was black, not blue. I would notice this nuance later when then the text message arrived. “I miss u,” it read. I smiled at first, thinking it was from Jeanine, until I saw the sender’s name. Who was this Paul? All I could find was that grainy image she had saved of their illicit kiss. I studied the photo. His nose was far too big, pressed up against my wife’s round face. So round. Only that round recently, having filled in with the rest of her growing body.

Who would kiss a woman, pregnant with another man’s baby? I thought, before realization burned in me. Me.

I should have known. Years without birth control, years without a baby. Baby. All that was missing from our pretty little picture.

Oh Hell.

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posted by First Footing