An Honest Mistake
By Mary Beth Caschetta.
Mornings after, very early, I used to sneak out of strange beds. I left a friendly note whenever I could, propping it against the pillow where my head had recently made an indentation. “You were a peach,” I wrote. Or “Thanks for everything.” The message was clear: Don’t call; don’t drag this out.
Inevitably, people called.
I began to issue warnings as early as the first phone call; and yet still feelings got hurt, egos bruised. This went on for years, lasting well into my marriage with William, who didn’t always appreciate the information.
I remember his tossing a note of mine on the breakfast table of our honeymoon suite. “What’s this supposed to mean?”
I looked up at him over a bowl of corn flakes. The hotel stationery with my scribble was ruffling in a tropical breeze.
“Had a great time,” it said.
I shrugged. “Habit?”
He cleared his throat. “Are you going somewhere?”
When you’re married, I soon found out, there’s nowhere to go.
Because William spent most evenings and some weekends away from home, I managed to hang on for a long time, a record for me: four years. I still sometimes look back and marvel at his talent for disappearing, which gave me room to breathe.
I was still a graduate student in Romantic English Poetry when William had found me in a remote corner of campus. He was stuffy but handsome, with a hint of something wild, even though he worked as an administrator, tucked away in the Office of Campus Finance, sometimes until after midnight. I was an insomniac, a wanderer. I felt that I had stumbled upon some sort of treasure. But our connection was complicated, ill-fated maybe, and like most things it could be boiled down to essential differences.
In short, I wanted a baby; he didn’t.
After a while, rumor had it I was having an affair with a brilliant undergraduate poet seeking scholarship recommendations, but that was neither here nor there. In truth, I was stunned to realize that William was a mere mortal, who crunched numbers for fun—for actual fun!—, worried about cash-flow and played campus politics the way other men played squash. Whatever mystery I thought I saw in him lying behind the silk tie and smooth calculations was my own imagination.
He said it was an ambush when I walked out on our four-year marriage. He said what everyone ultimately concluded: “This is all your fault.”
I used to think everyone was wrong until I met Gregor.
Gregor was new on campus, a celebrated addition to the Physics Department, the honored guest at several university parties and receptions. I’d seen him a few times –– loping across the science quad, head down, hands like snow shovels swinging at his side –– he seemed tall, friendly, shy. One particularly grim afternoon in the middle of fighting with William about alimony, Gregor appeared in the campus cafe, towering above a line of students waiting on cappuccinos.
He joined me in the dining room. “Everything has a way of circling back, don’t you think?”
My private life, I knew, was a topic of conversation in certain faculty gossip mills.
“What’s that, the laws of physics?” I asked him. “Part of your brilliant theory of everything?”
“Actually, I was speaking of love,” Gregor said. “Humans, specifically.” His smile was alluringly crooked, his long legs stretched uncomfortably under my side of the table.
“What are you—a chubby chaser?” I pinched the layer of fat that had gathered around my middle during the winter months of depression after moving out of William’s beautiful house and into a terrible little shared efficiency.
“I don’t know that term.” Gregor’s voice was low and gentle, a slight accent rumbling through, like a train going somewhere peaceful –– Moscow, Siberia.
I explained: “A person who makes a career out of romancing fat girls.”
“My career is physics.” Gregor picked up his coffee cup with gigantic fingers, holding it in the air.
I laughed. “I can’t tell if you’re joking.”
“You’ll figure it out.” His expression didn’t change. “Go to the movies with me.”
That’s when it happened: love came around to suffocate and strangle me, its weapon simple joy. I’d never felt more perfect, more loving, more present. During an entire blissful year of courtship, I suffered only the guilty dreams of a person who’d once been careless. I regretted all the hearts I’d broken, feeling pained at the very hint of losing Gregor, even momentarily, as he drove away to his lab or to the grocery store.
A year later, when my divorce came through, we married.
Gregor was a dying breed: a physicist in search of the ultimate answer, the most promising scholar of his discipline. People loved and admired him, literally wanted to be near him to hear him think. If anyone could figure out a viable theory for the mysterious universe, it would be Gregor Gregorovitch. Of that one thing, I felt certain.
Our daughter, Ilyana, came nine months later. I used to hold her tiny body near my beating heart, marveling with Gregor at her perfection: the pink “o” of her mouth, the tiny rectangular fingernails soft as corn husk, the sweet robin’s-egg lace of baby veins under her porcelain skin. I knew right away that, as far as happiness was concerned, I’d undeservedly hit the jackpot. Gregor and I were perfectly content to lie around and watch Ilyana sleep and stretch and sleep some more.
“Now I’ve found a reason to ask the question,” he said.
Love made us giddy, distracted.
We were so out of step with world events that we used to say we got our news from the Dissociated Press.
With the baby, though, our lack of focus didn’t seem funny. I’d feed Ilyana carrots and strained peas, forgetting altogether about the little jar of chicken in the cabinet: protein. Gregor would take her for an afternoon in the park without diapers, or milk, or any of the other necessary paraphernalia. I’d dress her in a wool jumper on an unseasonably warm day, as we headed for a picnic by the lake on campus, only to get stuck in traffic. After sitting in an overheated car over an hour, I stripped her down to sweaty diapers.
“We should have checked the traffic report,” I said to Gregor, over Ilyana’s crying. Inevitably, I feared, this situation would make her catch a cold, or something worse.
Tall and thin with giant ears that stuck out, Gregor was not a handsome man, but he was kind. He patted my hand. “An honest mistake.”
“No,” I said, “we spaced.”
Although my love was unprecedented, there were many before him who’d suffered, many who’d happily borne my inadequacies. I knew because I carried them with me.
Gregor smiled. “Space is actually dense and varied, a highly conscious phenomenon. There is actually nothing absent-minded about it.”
This was bad news for someone trying to outrun her own karma.
The doctor was perfunctory, an efficient woman with her hair gathered neatly in a bun. She listened through a stethoscope. She tapped Ilyana’s chest.
“She hasn’t stopped crying,” Gregor said.
I felt my heart hardening into a waxy shape; a bitter lemon, squeezing against my ribs. “She’s been crying since yesterday.”
“It’s nothing. Really.” The doctor put her hand on Ilyana’s tiny bare body. “Maybe a little infantile colic.”
“Something happened,” I insisted. “She’s been crying since the baby-sitter.”
I knew the minute the girl walked into my house that something was wrong. It was in the air all around her. She was an A student from Medieval Women in Literature, a strange beauty with lovely teeth, a winning personality, and something else. Something I could see in her face. Her boyfriend was there; he’d come to make out with her.
“Have a good time, Professor Lyle,” she’d said.
Pearl Simon-Daly was wealthy, one of the kids at the University who reeked of family money due to some sort of agricultural equipment invention in the 1920s. I remember precisely how she stood there in expensive pressed blue jeans and a white blouse, with a sweater hanging off her shoulders; I wanted to slam the door, put my nightgown back on and crawl into bed.
“I’d like to stay home,” I whispered to Gregor.
He was already partially dressed, tuxedo jacket hanging on a hanger off the closet door. He was combing his hair in anticipation of accepting an important award on behalf of the institution.
“This is an important night for me,” Gregor said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, a funny feeling,” I said. “Never mind.”
Every time I close my eyes, I see the baby-sitter’s sandy hair, her bright blue eyes, and glassy smile. At the end of the evening, she held her hand out when I paid her in cash, as if she were a grocery clerk.
Gregor was in the car with the engine running, waiting to whisk her back to the dorms.
“Ily was cranky,” she said, the smile never leaving her lips. “She cried a lot.”
The doctor patted Ilyana, lifting her off the steel table. “Maybe she needs to be held more.” Ilyana’s face was beet red, pinched with pain, her mouth a pink open slash. I wanted to take my baby out of the woman’s arms, but the official white jacket stopped me; here was the doctor. I needed her help.
“We’d like a second opinion.” Gregor took Ilyana away from the doctor.
“Listen, it’s late.” The doctor sighed. “There are procedures in Emergency, and you still haven’t filled out the forms. Take your daughter home and put her to bed. If you’re still worried in the morning, come back.” In her father’s arms, Ilyana howled, sucking for air between wails.
“Listen to me,” I yelled at the doctor, who was ushering us out to the hallway. “Something’s happened, something terrible.”
We are suing the Simon-Daly family, the hospital, the attending physician, and everyone else we can think of. If I could, I’d sue Gregor for putting his lab first, for making us go to yet another award banquet, for calmly accepting our fate. The papers are in Gregor’s office neatly arranged in a file folder that reads, Baby.
At home that night after the hospital, I hovered over Ily’s crib, where she lay whimpering. Gregor tried to reason with me. “She’ll fall asleep,” he whispered. “She has to sleep some time.”
The next time I checked, less than an hour later, I could see in her crib what the future held. I remembered the sign that had caught my eye in the hospital hallway on our way into emergency. Something about shaking a baby.
The word never stuck in my head.
Our life now is tenuous and tedious, a paralyzing combination. Every morning, Gregor dresses casually for the lab in jeans and a tweed jacket. I don’t usually manage to get out of bed, to throw on some clothes or meet him in the kitchen for coffee. He expects me to bounce back quickly, to begin making another daughter with him, a brand new baby.
Instead of getting up, I lie in bed listening to the music of my youth, non-stop CDs, loaded six at a time. I watch out the window and spy on the neighbors. They seem like another species: suburbanites, bus drivers, mail carriers. I never used to pay attention, but now I think of them as the real people.
I have my favorites: the housewife who pulls down the driveway with a five–year–old strapped in the passenger seat; she waits for the bus to appear at the corner before releasing her child with a lunch box and rubber boots whether or not it’s raining. The depressed teenager who smokes pot in his parents’ garage. The happy newlyweds who kiss deeply before heading off for work in separate cars.
Nothing prepared me for this.
Gregor peeks his head in to say good-bye for the day. “Please not that song again. Even the cat is depressed listening to the same misery over and over.”
I spit names at him: “Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison! Masters of the art!”
I tell the shrinks in Outpatients that I’m close to recapturing my faith through rock–and–roll. “Good,” says Dr. Whatever. “We call this stage reconnection.”
I call it something else.
At 5 PM, Gregor wakes me up from a nap. “Ready for a trim, sleeping beauty?” He’s invited home for dinner some budding young atom-splitter who cuts hair to pay tuition. The thought depresses me.
I stare at the ceiling. “Can you make the student go away? Or maybe you could go away with her. Or maybe you should marry her.”
“It’s a him, but his wife is a her. She’s here, too.” Gregor stoops through the doorway, still in his raincoat, looking exactly as he did when he went to work this morning, as if the weight of another passing day has made no impression whatsoever.
“What do you have behind your back?”
He pulls out a fist full of irises, my favorite, and smiles.
“I thought you had scissors.”
“Martha, ” he says, sitting on the bed. “The haircut was just an idea. Come down and socialize a little. These are nice people. It’ll make you feel better.”
“I can’t afford to give up even a single strand of hair, Gregor.”
He nods. “Wash up and come down.”
“Thanks for the flowers,” I say after he’s gone.
In my living room, a young couple perches on the sofa, sitting close enough to snuggle. I am unprepared for the young woman’s large belly. Pregnant, I think, preparing to turn back around. “There she is!” Gregor says, handing the young man a scotch.
“Professor Lyle,” says the young woman. “I’ve read all your criticism on Wordsworth. It’s brilliant.” I take a few steps downward, tempted. There are words, I know, but they escape me. I nod.
Gregor smiles. “I was just telling Frederick here that the hard part is finding an applicable theory that encompasses the vastness of black holes and the diminution of quantum molecules.” He turns his attention to the young man. “Large and small all at once. It’s difficult. We are always having to explain this to our sponsors. They are getting impatient.”
“I see.” Frederick is serious and thin. His glasses slip slightly toward the tip of his bony nose. “To explain everything, yes, yes. It must be difficult.”
The young woman, who is dainty despite her burgeoning stomach, turns to me sympathetically, on the sly. “I’m sorry,” she says. Again, words begin to take shape, but they are not anywhere near my mouth, so there is no answering. I don’t know her name as there have been no introductions. Her clear complexion and soft expression alarm me. I stutter for a moment, then look at the carpet.
“Humans haven’t been around long enough to understand the universe,” Gregor tells her to fill in the silence. “We’re like monkeys trying to understand calculus. Really, there’s no evolutionary need for monkeys to do math; there’s no evolutionary need for humans to understand vastness. What good will it do?”
“I don’t know,” she says, earnestly.
Frederick takes her hand. “I read somewhere that you scribble mathematical formulas on the back of supermarket receipts,” he tells Gregor. “Newsweek?”
“Not so much anymore—but at the beginning of my work, I did.” Gregor brings me a seltzer, not letting go of my hand around the bottom of the glass until it’s secure.
“And how long does it take to develop an evolutionary need?” Frederick asks.
Gregor’s mind is always working. “Think of it this way: 5 million years ago, chimps and humans shared a common ancestor. In some ways, we’ve come a long way in a short time. How much more to go is hard to say.”
“It’s fascinating.” The young woman keeps track of me out of the corner of her eye. “To think you might explain everything in one fell swoop.”
At last, I find something relevant to contribute. “Explain this!”
As I stand up, the glass leaps from my hand to the floor, shattering. My arms make a circle that is empty. You can see right through the hole to my blouse, which has a floral design: poppies, I think.
“Martha,” Gregor says, rushing to my side. He crushes me, and my emptiness, against his enormous chest, an embrace. I can still see the woman through the crook in Gregor’s arm.
“Please,” I beg.
After they leave, Gregor sits on the bed. He has run out of things to say, and then suddenly, it is morning. He rises, dresses for work, and turns to me. “I’m starting to worry about what you’re going to do.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” I tell him. “I’m on sabbatical.”
“This is not a sabbatical, Martha.”
“Days off,” I reason. “Vacation.”
“Martha,” he says, “this is sick leave.”
When he drives off to work, I turn up the music. Janis Joplin reinterprets my situation as freedom. I sing along, out of tune, nothing left to lose. This is how it feels to be left behind, I tell myself, thinking about William, and all the others, nameless and faceless, who people my past. Calling it free is a distortion.
I never deserved Gregor’s love; I was too selfish for motherhood. William will nod his head when he hears the news that I’ve caught a train going somewhere –– disappeared back to New York City. Or somewhere warm –– Florida.
Outside my window, the newlyweds kiss, the teenager smokes, the little girl sits trapped by her mother’s seat-belted car. I pull up the window and lean out at the waist, thrashing my arms to get the mother’s attention.
“Don’t let her go!” My voice rings in my ears, so I can’t be sure she hears what I’m saying.
The little girl looks up and sees me waving.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Beth Caschetta is a recipient of the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Foundation Award and the W.K. Rose Fellowship for Emerging Artists. She is the author of a book of short stories, which Ms. Magazine called “a spectacular collection….a sensitive and telling portrait of contemporary American life.” Mary Beth lives in Massachusetts, where she is working on a novel.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 12th, 2009.