I dream of balloons: full of air, pushing outward, skin taut with life. I dream in colors—reds and greens, saffron gold. I watch them rise higher and higher, until suddenly, they must pop.
What is it like to live inside someone’s memory? Pieces only, improper vignette. Pages of me are lost, torn out, never printed. Parts of me have no detail.
Sometimes I think that I will disappear without him, that I will look in the mirror and see only a mirror behind me. He gives me lovely lace nightgowns to wear, edged with silks. He snuffs out my candle so that I can sleep. When he closes my drapes, I do not tell him that I long to have moonlight. I do not tell him that I dream, every night, of balloons.
My room is all tans and whites; it is filled with antiques I should not touch. Sometimes, when he is gone, I put fingertips on the base of the lamp, to see if I leave a mark. I scratch at the bedpost in my sleep, and I wake up with splinters all over my arms.
It is May, and the sun is shining bright. My son Danny is running in and out holding ribbons, dancing around a Maypole he imagines he sees in a tree. I’m wearing a hat Peter has given me—it is wide-brimmed, white with pink, and it is divine. Peter thinks it is silly to wear it to a little May picnic, but Danny and I know otherwise.
Danny has abandoned his ribbon—it is orange—and is running over to me, arms outstretched. I have a small sandwich (no crusts) ready and waiting, which he plucks from my hands with his eyes shining bright. Peter makes a discomfited noise. He detests picnics, and thinks Danny should learn better manners. But he is kind enough to let us have our day, our May Day, the way that we want.
Danny runs (such quick legs!) back to the picnic, this time joining small boys examining a kite. Danny is an engineer, even at six, so curious and quick. He likes to take things apart, and even (our secret) examine my make-up. When Peter is away we have rouge parties and giggles. He sleeps in the bed with me on those nights, his soft musky hair curled over my arm.
I laugh as I watch Danny run circles with the small kite in his hand. He is born to fly, even if the stick-crepe kite is not. His cheeks are so rosy, and his hair white in the sun. He looks like Peter, my Danny, flaxen, blue-eyed, and pale. I am dark-haired and brown-eyed; he is my angel.
Peter and I have just had a fight. He has thrown our china—my mother’s wedding gift to us—across the room, and a sliver has punctured my leg. Red spills down my calves and over my ankles, silk-run stockings in scarlet. He throws a dishtowel at me before he leaves, slamming the door. “Clean yourself up, Lily,” he says. “I can’t stand seeing your blood.”
It is, perhaps, my fault. It starts before dinner—Danny and I are cooking sweet crepes, Peter’s favorite, for his return from abroad. He’s been away days on business, famous doctor, giving lectures to medical schools, and we want to surprise him. As cooks, Danny and I dress ourselves up, long white aprons (he wearing mine, I wearing my bathrobe) with flour-kissed noses and cheeks. Danny spills some of the flour on the floor, and we skate around, bare-foot, on the white-lined tiles, giggling and warm. The sweet smell of crepes and strawberries tickles our noses.
At six o’clock, the door swings open, and Peter walks in, two hours early. Danny runs to his father, shrieking glee to embrace him. Peter pushes the small, floured hands away, avoids being touched on his suit with the white. Danny’s eyes start to tear up, and I run to him, hug him. Peter stares down at us, sighs.
“Damn it Lily, you have tracked flour all over the carpet,” he says.
I kiss Danny’s head, send him upstairs, ask him to dress for our meal of ‘special daddy surprise.’ Wiping his eyes with his sleeve (white powder on blue), he turns and goes up to his room.
I rise to stand tall, perfect posture, as I know Peter likes. He had been gone for so long, and I know I must prove worthy for his return. I have imagined this moment each day he’s been gone, and I am crushed he has come while I am wearing a bathrobe. But I needn’t worry, it seems, for Peter does not even look at me. He puts his suitcase down near the couch and walks to the back washroom. I hurry to clean the floured carpet as best as I can, and I run upstairs to change. I put on the white dress Peter bought me before we had Danny; I know it is his favorite.
I come down the stairs, and Peter is sitting, staring still, on the couch. He looks straight ahead, his face calm, his brow low and firm. I walk over to him, put my hands on his shoulders to rub them, as I know he likes me to do. But he moves my hands, large pale fingers push my slim ones aside. I move to sit down across from him on the arm chair. I want to sit next to him, but something tells me I shouldn’t.
Peter looks up at me, his eyes on my pearl earrings, his eyes on my hair. He glances at my white dress, he examines my small ankles. He lifts his blue eyes to mine, and his pupils are still.
“Lily,” he says. I wait for him to continue. He does not.
“Yes, Peter?” I ask, as softly and gently as I can.
“Lily, I need to tell you something which has happened, and I do not want you to get hysterical.” I nod, try to keep my face calm. I know Peter hates it when I get what he calls hysterical. I try to be still, and demure.
“Lily, I am in love with another woman, and I want to marry her.” My palms start to sweat. I feel like I can’t breathe. I feel like I can’t move.
“I… made you crepes tonight, Peter, your favorite.” It is all I can think of to say. My crossed leg slips off the other, my kitten heel falling into the carpet. Peter sighs, looks down.
“Lily, do you hear me? I am leaving you. I am in love with someone else,” My eyes fall to the floor, but they do not tear. I can’t blink.
“I have been seeing her for a year.” My ears tremble, turn cold. I take out my pearl earrings, set them on the arm of the chair beside me, digging their gold posts into the fabric. But still, I can say nothing.
“Damn it Lily! Do you hear me? I am leaving you!” He says, angry now. He slaps his palms onto his thighs. I can feel him glaring at me, at my forehead—always too large—even though I look down. He is moving now, upset, even irate. I lift my eyes up, large black pupils focused on his.
“Why, Peter?” I whisper. I don’t even know if he has heard me. I don’t even know if I said it out loud.
“What is wrong with you, Lily?” he is seething, “you’re husband is leaving you, your husband doesn’t love you!” I know he wants me to cry, to beg, and I want to, just as much as he wants me to. But I can’t. It is like I am flat, deflated, empty. There is nothing inside me. I am shivering.
Peter is up now, walking around, slapping walls and furniture.
“This is why I can’t love you, Lily! You say nothing! You do nothing! Ever since,” he pauses, quiets his tone, “ever since Danny, you have nothing for me.” I let my irises dilate, my pupils fall to my lower lids. I am a black hole. I am sucking in everything. Peter tenses his fingers, claws at his face. Then he strides over to me, bends his knees, hunches down.
“You are not the girl I married, Lily. You are not the girl I know.” I blink my eyes now, slowly, and I try to turn my face away. He grabs me by the hair, comes in close to my ears. I feel his hot breath as he whispers.
“It is your fault I do not love you anymore. I cannot love a ghost.”
When I don’t respond, he rises, throws the china, and storms out the door. I see Danny upstairs, peering down through the railings. Only then, legs inking red, eyes focused up, do I begin to cry.
Peter disappears, but not completely. On Danny’s birthdays, he leaves a balloon and a gift on the porch with a note “love from dad.” Danny never opens them. He pops the balloons, cuts the cards into confetti. We make dinner together at night, but we never make crepes.
I am getting ready for a night out. Danny, eight-year-old hero, is standing beside me, checking over my ‘look.’ He takes my gold locket, the one with his picture inside, and gives it to me to wear.
“This will look better than the pearls,” he says. I bend down to kiss him. I know he wants me to feel like a princess, and I do, for he is my prince.
There is a knock at the door, and Danny insists on going to open it. I watch him run down the stairs, his blond curls bouncing in stride. I am glad he lets me leave them long, lets me not cut them. He is beautiful in a way so very few people are.
I glance in the mirror, check my cheekbones and lips. I am seeing a man tonight, named Kelvin, whom I met three days ago. Actually, it is Danny who met him, when he was picking out oranges. Kelvin had leaned over to Danny and said with a wink,
“Oranges are good—sweet, and if you don’t want to eat them, they make a good size ball.” Danny, a lover of all things athletic, fell in love with Kelvin immediately, and invited him to dinner ‘with a princess.’ That Kelvin stayed when he saw I was the princess pleased us both.
I expect to hear Danny and Kelvin chatting downstairs, and when I hear the door open and close, followed by silence, I feel something flutter anxiously inside me. I run out to the hall and look down, and see no one, nothing. The living room is empty. I get frightened for a moment, but then smile, knowing that the two comrades must be hiding, waiting to jump out and scare me as Danny now loves to do. Danny says he likes it when I get scared and scream, because usually I make almost no noise at all. He says that, in a way, it is comforting.
I brace myself for the double-springing of Danny and Kelvin as I walk down the stairs, gripping the banister. Sure enough, as I reach the last step, they run out from behind the mantle and shout. I give a start, and can’t help a small squeak, and we all end up laughing.
“You look beautiful, my lady,” Kelvin manages through his chuckles. And I, red-cheeked, bow my head. My neighbor arrives moments later to look after Danny, and, widely grinning, Danny shooes us out the door.
When Peter knocks on the door late in December, three years after he left, I feel my knees give out. I move my left hand to steady myself against the door frame as I take in his face, unsmiling and pale. I am stunned, paralyzed, and I don’t know what to say—but it doesn’t matter, it seems, because he talks without my saying anything.
“Lily, I want you back. It is over with her, over—I don’t know what I was thinking.” He pauses, breathes. “Lily, you are beautiful and I need you.” I stand still in the doorway. I do not move until he reaches his hand out to touch my cheek, when I step back and away, out of his range.
“Lily, say something, please. I need you. I made a terrible mistake!” I bite my lower lip, and I remember how he used to hate when I did this. But I do not correct myself. We are silent for a moment. Then I move my hand off the wall, where it has been holding me up, and I show him the ring on my finger.
“I am married, Peter,” I say softly, gently. “Danny and I, we have a new family.”
He looks at me, his pleading blue eyes opening black and hard. I see his jaw muscles clench, the way they used to when I spoke too loudly, or said too much. He says nothing, and I say nothing, and then he turns and walks away. I close the door slowly and gently. It barely makes a click as it latches into the wall.
Kelvin and I are expecting a child. Danny is so happy, and he talks to his new brother through my belly every day. He reads him his favorite old books, sings him songs. He says he hopes the baby will have blond hair like he does. I do not have the heart to tell him that it will not be so, born as the child will be from two dark-haired parents.
The pregnancy is difficult for me. My frame is too small and my belly too big. My back aches and I have trouble walking around. Danny and Kelvin do their best, bringing me juice and ice chips to cool my throat when I must lie on my back. I feel ill in the mornings, and in fact almost all the time. The doctor worries constantly, insists Kelvin report in every day. Kelvin does this, and tells me soothingly at night that everything will be beautiful.
I do not tell Kelvin about Peter’s visit. I mean to, but the pregnancy starts and then everything is so lovely I do not want to stain it. I forget about it, or at least I pretend to.
When Danny turns 12, we plan a large party. He is almost a “teen” Kelvin says, and this calls for a celebration. I am sewing him a knit hat for the winter. Kelvin is going to purchase Danny a new baseball mitt. He is going to get him oil for it, and they will take care of it together. In the spring, Kelvin is going to take Danny to play baseball with the other boys in the park.
The day of the party, I am having strong pains in my stomach. Kelvin has gone out to pick up the cake and some last minute napkins, and Danny is downstairs arranging his placecards. Where people sit for cake, he explains to me, is very important.
I try changing positions, but I can’t ease the pains in my torso. I reach over to my nightstand, where my medicines are stacked. The pain in my stomach is so strong that it is blurring my eyes and I have a hard time reading the labels. I locate the small blue pills which I remember soothe my cramps and I take three, for good measure. In a few moments, I am heavily drowsy, and I fall deeply asleep. I don’t remember to tell Danny to take the sandwiches out for his guests. I am asleep before I can even put the bottle back down.
I wake up in a white room. Everything is white, and still. I try to sit up, but I find that I can’t. My arms seem to be bandaged, and I still have those terrible cramps in my stomach. A woman is standing next to me, clad in white. She has a cap on, with a cross on it. She tells me I am in the hospital.
I feel my veins collapsing in my arms, my throat tighten. This isn’t right. I am not supposed to be in the hospital. I am supposed to be at home. Suddenly, I remember the pregnancy, and I look down at my stomach, which is noticeably deflated. The nurse watches me, clears my hair back from my face with her hand.
“You lost the baby, sweetie. The baby is gone.” I look up at her, at her calm, reassuring face, and I collapse. I am weeping, weeping everywhere, salt coating my skin, my sheets. I curl into myself, dig my nails into my legs. The nurse tries to restrain me, but I push her away. I want to disappear.
We are interrupted by another voice, telling me someone is here to see me. I come out of my curl, my eyes blurring.
“Danny…” I say, as I try to look up. But it isn’t Danny before me, it is Peter.
“Lily, my Lily,” he says, stroking my hand, “Danny is dead.”
It takes reams of drugs and several days before I understand what has happened. My Danny is gone, dead; my baby is gone, dead; Kelvin is missing, and Peter is here. Peter says the police came to our house when they heard a scream, reported by the neighbors. They saw Danny, dead, stabbed, leaking blood onto the carpet. They found me, passed out in bed, blood covering my sheets, an empty bottle on my nightstand with traces of powerful hallucinogens. Two child deaths in one house. A woman dead to the world.
Kelvin is missing for days, and then found, dead in his car, which apparently rolled over a hill-pass. He is found clutching a baseball mitt, as if he tried to save it from being hurt when he first felt the crash. The road was muddy, policemen explain. He probably couldn’t make the turn.
I wake every day, asking for Danny. When finally I wake without asking, I am released into Peter’s care. When we reach his home, he asks me to tell him what happened. I tell him I don’t remember, that I remember only being asleep. He says to me, ‘Good, try not to remember, and maybe we can save you.’
I am put on trial for the death of my son and of his unborn brother. By the time I take the stand, I don’t know what is real and what is dream. Peter tells me I took pills which made me miscarry and which put me into a trance, that my blood is mixed with Danny’s on the downstairs floor. He reminds me how unsettled I seemed when he visited me before I got pregnant. He explains to me about post-partum depression.
At night, I dream that I am killing my son. He is crying, and his blond curls are matted with crimson. I wake up covered in sweat, claw marks on my face. Peter has to cut back my nails, so that I do not leave permanent scars. In my dreams, I can’t make out Danny’s face. It has no features, no eyes. Peter prescribes me small white pills, so that I can sleep without dreaming. He also gives small blue ones, so that I can live without feeling.
In a few weeks, my lawyer asks me about Kelvin, my husband. I do not know who he is talking about, and I stare at him blankly. He points to my ring. I tell him I am married to Peter. He looks up at Peter, who looks back at him. They never ask me about Kelvin again, and eventually, I remember almost nothing at all.
I am ruled unfit to stand trial. Peter is given my custody; as a doctor, and a husband, he will help me get well. He will help me purge out the evil inside me. He will help me repent. I owe him my life, and the life of our son.
Every night, when Peter puts me to bed in the nightgown he’s given me, he kisses my forehead.
“I still love you, Lily” he murmurs.
I close my eyes, and I dream of balloons.