Driving back from Greensboro, the ten-foot vaulting pole strapped to the roof of her car, Ellie Winters thinks I did not imagine this would be my life. This thought pops up more and more these days. Beside her Mikki is singing along to a hip-hop song on the radio, feet propped against the glove compartment, gold curls fluttering in the breeze.
“You can go more than twenty miles an hour, Mom,” Mikki says.
“I’m doing fifty-five.”
“The speed limit is sixty-five. It won’t hurt the pole.”
“I’m not worried about the pole.”
“My driver’s ed teacher says going too slow is as dangerous as going too fast.”
Ellie’s heart shimmies; Michael used to say those very words. “I don’t know how you talked me into letting you take driver’s ed when you still have two weeks before turning fifteen.” She flicks her eyes to Mikki and catches the rosy flush of triumph on her daughter’s pale cheek. “And while we’re on the subject of perplexing topics, what the he—ck—was I thinking when I agreed to let you jump? I had no idea the pole is so long!” What she really means to say is I had no idea you’d catapult so high into the sky, and then sail back with nothing but a flimsy mattress to catch you. She never says exactly what she means any more.
Mikki lifts her left shoulder, but then leans toward Ellie and with lips like moth wings drops a kiss on Ellie’s right cheekbone. She resumes singing. The time for discussing whether Ellie would or would not allow pole vaulting was before she signed the permission slip: before she’d put another three hundred dollars on her credit card. Her own mother, Helen, hadn’t made any attempt to mask her disapproval: “Michaela is going to do what? But you’re not going to let her?”
“She wants to,” Ellie had said. “Michael wouldn’t have wanted her growing up fearful. She’s a good athlete.”
Helen, a linguistics professor at McGill University, had sighed loudly into the phone, and Ellie could picture the pursed lips; the cocked eyebrow.
“There’s more to life than high school sports—and bravery doesn’t translate into unnecessary risks,” Helen said. Then: “I can’t imagine Michael would have allowed it.”
“Michael would have encouraged it,” Ellie had said, the blood washing into her cheeks. She’d signed the permission slip that night. Now, watching the yellow hazard flags flutter on the ends of the pole, she’s not sure that’s true.
She unloads her daughter and the pole near the grassy high school field, and two lanky boys jog over to help. The taller one, whom Mikki introduces as Jed, bumps Mikki’s shoulder playfully as he hoists the pole onto his shoulder, and Ellie pauses at the look that boomerangs between boy and girl, the smile that blooms on her daughter’s face. Has Mikki mentioned Jed before? She waits to catch Mikki’s eye but the teenagers turn away and Mikki tosses a casual goodbye over her shoulder.
Ellie tries to hold onto the glow of her daughter’s happiness, to use it to push away the fear bubbling around the edges of her heart. She doesn’t stay for practice. Anyway, she needs the two hours to catch up on laundry and groceries. She keeps her head down in the produce aisle at the Harris Teeter, but before long hears her name; as soon as she sees her friend Cecilia beaming in her direction she knows she won’t make it through her to-do list.
Cecilia’s eyes widen as she exclaims, “I was literally about to call you!” And she presses Ellie close. “Ever since Mikki stopped soccer I never see you.
Let’s grab a cup of coffee. My treat.” Cecilia ushers her toward the Starbucks behind the floral department, and before Ellie can say anything else they’re bumping knees at a small round table, two lattes between them, their half-full carts parked at the store’s threshold. It’s unusual, even for Cecilia, to drop shopping in the middle of a Saturday just to talk. Like most of the women she knows, Ellie’s entire social life is shoehorned into the hours in the bleachers during Mikki’s various games, or the occasional cell phone conversation while in line at the checkout. How I’d looked down on women like this when Michael and I were graduate students, she thinks. Women like me.
After Cecilia chronicles her daughter’s recent soccer achievements and repeats how all the girls miss Mikki, she gulps down half her coffee and leans forward.
“So. I’ve been wondering. Are you…seeing anyone?”
Ellie’s shoulders creep toward her ears. “Ah—if you could imagine how busy I’ve--”
“—Just listen for a moment.” Cecilia taps both palms on the table. “Please.”
Ellie lifts an eyebrow, which the other woman interprets as permission to proceed. “So, our new goalie on the soccer team, sweet little girl from California? Turns out her daddy’s a widower—wife died a year ago, aneurysm. He moved here to be closer to his family. So I thought…” she drops her eyes and sips her latte. Heat lashes through Ellie’s chest. She watches her friend wait, and sighs.
“You thought since we’ve each lost a spouse maybe we’d be a good match?” she says.
“I only thought—well, you’ve been alone for so long, and you handle it so well…but he seems a little lost, a little—dazed. Doesn’t always get his daughter to games on time, and doesn’t talk much to the other moms. I mean parents. Though we did manage to get out of him that he’s not attached,” and Cecilia winks and smiles. She exhales loudly. “He’s a nice-looking man, Ellie, and he works over in the Research Triangle Park—some kind of software engineering company. Malcolm Albertson is his name. When I mentioned that I have a friend who has sailed through raising a daughter as a widowed parent—“
“Sailed through--?” Ellie stiffens.
“Well, you do fine! You do! Anyway, he perked up when he heard that. It’d help him, I bet, to hear how you do it. Can I give him your number?”
Ellie chokes on her coffee, spills some, ridiculous because she’d seen that question coming the moment Cecilia began and it’s no big deal. Hadn’t she just been thinking something needs to change in her life? Cecilia darts from the table toward the condiments bar. Ellie stands too, suddenly too twitchy to stay in one place. She helps Cecilia blot away beads of coffee. Cecilia says, “I’m not trying to be pushy, honestly I’m not—you’re free to say no--”
Ellie squeezes her arm. “No—I mean, it’s OK, Cecilia. It’s fine. Give the man my number.”
Picking Mikki up from track practice a week later, Ellie finds herself calculating: the soccer team must have had at least two practices by now, giving Cecilia ample opportunity to pass along Ellie’s number. Mikki, glancing at her as she slides into the passenger seat, says, “What?”
Ellie blinks and flushes. “What do you mean, what?”
“You looked like you were about to say something.”
Ellie pulls into traffic. “No, nothing. How was track?”
“I might have sprained my thumb. Whoa, Mom, don’t go psycho on me!” Mikki says as they roll across the rumble strip onto the shoulder. Ellie presses on the swollen pad of her daughter’s palm and scrutinizes the taut red skin.
“I wonder if we should turn around and go to urgent care before it closes…”
“Coach said it would be fine with some ice. Can you please drive? I have a ton of homework and Jed said he’d message me at eight.”
Ellie chews on her bottom lip. “Maybe I should at least call Dr. Wilson. I told you vaulting was dangerous!”
“No--I fell jumping the hurdles. Please drive.”
Michael would say, don’t worry so much. Kids sprain things. Slowly, arms still tingling with adrenalin, Ellie pulls back onto the road. “I guess kids sprain things,” she mumbles to Ellie. “And what’s with Jed this and Jed that?”
“Mom!” Mikki sighs. “Jed’s just a friend. “He vaults too. He has some tips for me.”
What would Michael say about Jed?
When they enter the house, Ellie heads straight for the answering machine, surprised when her heart accelerates at the blinking light. Surprised even more at the sinking feeling when it’s only her mother’s voice on the message. Maybe Cecilia hasn’t even given this Malcolm guy her number yet. Why, why does she suddenly even care?
“Mom?” Mikki is squinting at her, hand on her hip, head tilted.
“What?” Ellie busies herself with pulling out pots and pans, their aluminum bottoms clanging against the stove.
“I asked you like two times what we’re having for dinner. Is something going on?”
Her gut contracts. “No—nothing. I’ve got a deadline coming up for my copy for the press.” Which is true, but Mikki looks unconvinced. The demands of Ellie’s part-time free-lance editing job don’t usually make her zone out. “Go do your homework,” Ellie says, and Mikki scowls, but complies. Ellie’s jaw tightens. Damn Cecilia. The last time Ellie waited around for a guy to call her was…she does the arithmetic in her head, and then steadies herself against the counter. Twenty-five years! Her daughter is almost the age she’d been then.
She dated two other boys after that, and then in college she met Michael, and they were inseparable within a month.
She shakes her head, shudders briefly, and then sets a pot of water on the stove. She tries to crimp shut the edges of her memory, but it’s no use. Even as she turns on the radio her head is full of Michael, of the confident way he’d crook his arm around her neck so that her head rested in the soft crease in front of his elbow when they walked to class together. His fearless plunges into the future, first during their senior year, when he asked her to marry him so she wouldn’t have to go back to Canada too soon-- before they could properly decide whether they wanted to spend their lives together or not—and then a few years later, starting his own business just two years out of his MBA program. Moving forward with his plan even though his first cancerous mole was removed that September, right after he’d leased space and hired his first employee. The way the doctor’s mouth twitched when he said the cancer hadn’t been that deep had been like a kick to the back of Ellie’s knees. Michael told her not to worry. The doctor recommended quarterly check-ups. Michael always went.
And she sees him going white that first time, at the basketball game when she was five months pregnant with Mikki, white straight to his lips, then blue, and she thought he’d gotten too warm with all the bodies around them and the shouting because she was sweating, but no he stiffened then fell, jerking, people staring and a boy in the seat next to her starting to cry and it seemed like a year before the paramedics—students, volunteers, too young surely to know what they were doing!—surrounded them and carried him out on a stretcher. There were several seizures after that first one, and worse things once they understood the cancer had spread to his brain, his liver, a wildfire that had jumped its plow line…but for some reason it’s always that moment at the basketball game which she relives first, that moment that slaps the breath right out of her even now, all these years later, when anyone else would have learned to suppress it.
The metallic clattering pulls her back into the kitchen and she lifts the lid off the boiling water and dumps in the pasta. As she leans back to avoid the cloud of scalding steam, a lock of hair falls across her face and she recalls how Michael would reach over and brush her hair back, his fingers light against her brow, and her own fingers tracing the same arc melt the frozen blankness that usually paralyzes her in the wake of remembering. Her chest is full and warm. She presses garlic into the olive oil she’s allowed to get too hot, and it sizzles and instantly darkens. She blinks. She scrapes it into the trash and starts over, because Mikki won’t eat things that taste burnt.
She jumps when the phone rings.
“So how long was it before you went on a date, after?” Malcolm asks this on the heels of a great conversation about teenage daughters and driver permits, just as she’d relaxed into noticing his fresh scrubbed scent and the warmth radiating from his square hand. Now a tremor passes through her. She tips up her wineglass, heat feathering into her cheeks. She’d lie, but something about the way he leans toward her in his poorly ironed button-down oxford, with the diagonal crease across the chest, instead extracts from her the truth: “Fifteen years.”
He blinks. His mustache twitches. “I thought you said—I’d understood your husband died fifteen years ago.”
She lifts her eyes to his and nods slowly. He colors. He runs his hand over his mouth.
“I’m not advocating anyone wait that long, believe me,” she blurts out, drowning out his quiet “So this is your first--” She continues, “If you’d asked me fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. It just…one year kinda became the next…” No need to mention the awkward set-ups, the way the occasional single man would materialize at a friend’s dinner party, leaving her confused and tongue-tied. No need for him to know she’d worn her wedding band until last year. She’d married Michael because she loved him and needed time to decide on her future before being forced to return to Canada, but once married, it felt like all she’d ever wanted to be with him. When that was no longer possible, there was Mikki, and Mikki needed holding and breast milk and gentle fingers brushing her forehead; Mikki needed upbeat games and doctor check-ups and someone to pay the bills.
“I’m glad that you came out tonight,” he says. She nods. Malcolm has a creased face and a sprinkling of white in his chestnut hair, but he’s just a few years older than she. Men her age look so much older than they used to.
“Don’t you—ahem. I mean, I don’t--I honestly don’t think I could make it that long on my own,” he says. She winces at the look of despair in his eyes. “The third child was Lara’s idea. And since we’ve moved he’s started wetting the bed again, and my older girl says I’ve ruined her life by making her leave her friends. But here I’ve got people—my parents can be in the house after school.” He sniffs. “Do you think it was a mistake, moving?” His eyes pierce hers and he twitches his mustache again. They’ve known each other thirty minutes.
She shakes her head and says, “No.”
He nods. “I couldn’t stand it in that house, the furniture she’d picked and the walls she painted.” He kneads his brow with thumb and forefinger, then leans toward her. “It would’ve been so easy for you to move, with a newborn. Start over. Did you think about heading home to Canada?”
Ellie shrugs. Everyone used to ask. “Of course. I just wanted to finish my degree—I had about a year to go when Mikki was born and Michael died. I thought a year’s worth of work would only take a year.” Malcolm’s eyes crease and they both laugh drily. “But somehow after…”
They sigh in unison, which makes her smile. He holds her empty wineglass up for the waiter. She shakes her head and hinges her fingers over the glass’s rim. The hunger in his green eyes quickens her breath. “I have to get Mikki in a little while,” she says. He motions for the check.
“So did you finish your degree?”
She nods. “But I hold my department’s record for the longest time to a PhD: ten years. You’re considered a failure in academia if you take that long.”
“But you finished in the end. That’s great,” he says.
“Well, you can’t let life stop just because—you know. I try to raise Mikki the way Michael would have. I don’t want her to hold back, to be afraid, just because she doesn’t have a father. I don’t want her to be like me.” She chews her lip. “I mean, I was going to be a professor, and write books…” and she’s thinking of the way one hour flows into the next, groceries becoming meals becoming trash, the trips out to the bin…the scatter of toys across her living room morphing into sporting gear and notes and books, the books suddenly Mikki’s and not hers. The way two years slide by and still she’s in the temporary job she took to pay a month’s bills, and then it’s five years and it’s hard to even find appropriate interview clothes in her closet…
She starts when his hand closes around hers on the table; surprised at the heat it sends shooting through her abdomen and down her thighs.
“It sucks you had to go through all that,” he says, his voice low and deep. She swallows, her pulse in her throat. She wants to touch the sharp line of his cheekbone. She wants to feel his fingers brush her chin.
“Hey, I’m supposed to be the one comforting you. Showing you how well I’ve adapted,” she says.
“Well, you’re doing that too,” he says. “Cecilia raves about your daughter.”
She beams. She wonders how his lips feel. “I’m just lucky that she’s such a great kid,” she says, because she should say something, but what she’s thinking is people looking at us would think we’re just a regular couple, and not one touched by tragedy. This was how it used to be. Then the room spins and she frees her hand from his. “I can’t leave Mikki waiting too long,” she says. Her head clears. “Let’s do this again.”
He invites her to a movie and she doesn’t know what to tell Mikki. She wipes her palms against her jeans when Mikki, eyes popping, says “A date?”
“Not really. Just a movie with a friend.”
But in the car afterward Malcolm turns to her while they’re still parked and before she can react his bristly mustache brushes the tip of her nose, and then he’s kissing her as if his life depends on it. She’s wrapped in fire, remembering what it is like to be caressed, kissing back, thinking any second she’ll combust, and when headlights sweep over them she pushes him away and says, “Wow—it’s like high school all over again, necking in the car,” but he doesn’t laugh, just turns the key in the ignition and says “I don’t know how you’ve gone as long as you have but I don’t think I can last another week—I can probably leave the kids at my sister’s on Saturday night, if you can come over then…” and Ellie fiddles with the radio knob as she murmurs, “Yup, I will.”
“How was your date?” Mikki asks, eyes on the TV as Ellie walks in from the garage. Ellie stiffens, and Mikki glances at her right then. “Aw—you’re blushing! That’s so cute!”
“It was a good movie. Do you have any plans for Saturday night?” Ellie asks.
“Saturday? I think a bunch of us might go to Kelly’s house for a movie. Why? You wanna go out with your boyfriend again?”
Mikki’s voice is gentle, teasing, and she’s smiling, but Ellie is mortified.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she says. “But yes, I may have dinner with him.”
Malcolm’s house, in a brand new development in Cary, is flanked on either side by empty lots; small red flags outline the foundations of his future neighbors. Straw covers the hard red clay of his front yard, protecting the dusting of grass seed. Pebbles wedge into her sandals as she totters across the gravel path. He opens the door before she rings the bell, and they both giggle.
“Sorry about all this…” he says, sweeping a hand past the unpacked cardboard boxes pushed against the walls of the living room. “Lara was the one with a decorator’s touch. I just haven’t…but I’ve got the kids’ rooms all set, and that’s what counts, right?” She takes in the sofa, TV, the soccer ball wedged under the coffee table. The one framed painting of a log cabin in the snow. She feels as if she’s missed a step, and sucks in a breath. She thrusts forward the wine bottle she almost forgot she was holding.
“Oh—let’s open this right away,” he says.
“It smells good in here.” She trails him to the kitchen.
“Take-out Italian,” he says. “I’m really good at take-out.”
They drink the wine standing beside the kitchen counter while their dinner spins in the microwave, and she feels shy. She says, “You know, I’ve never been both mother and wife at the same time.” He cocks his head. She tucks her hair behind her ear. “I mean, I never thought I’d have to be a single mom—it wasn’t what I signed up for, you know…I mean, seems like I was just telling my daughter the facts of life, telling her to wait and then to use protection if she’s gonna—“ and she stops abruptly, face burning, and finishes her wine. Malcolm is grinning. He touches her shoulder and she takes a step toward him, and then his fingertips are releasing sparks as he brushes her neck, her throat. He runs his hands across her breasts and down her hips and the house disappears. She follows him down another hall and skirts the boxes in his bedroom, while he lights candles and fumbles to dim the overhead lights. She kisses him, thinking I remember this, thinking it’s so good to feel wanted; she’d begun to fear that part of her died with Michael, but no. When her skirt drops away, between breaths she says, “You do have a condom or something, right?” and he groans and pushes away from her to rummage in his nightstand drawer, and then the bathroom. When he returns, fiddling with the foil packet, his eyes are hooded and a chill passes through Ellie’s body.
“I’m sorry—it’s just, this is new for me and I don’t know you well and I’m trying to do it right—“
“There’s been no one but Lara for years,” he mumbles, “and we were both clean, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Then he curses and suddenly he’s hanging his head, sighing, and she realizes his erection is gone.
“I’m—sorry,” she repeats. He’s turned away from her and she puts her hand against his shoulder blade and squeezes. “It doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s too soon—“
His eyes flash when he turns back toward her. “It’s not too damn soon for me. Is it too soon for you?” he snaps, and then squeezes shut his eyes and apologizes. Her stomach turns.
Dinner is cold by the time they get to it, but Malcolm rushes to reheat it. “I’m just not used to that happening to me,” he says over their risotto with mushrooms.
“It really doesn’t matter.”
“All this crap that’s not supposed to happen. I was so looking forward to tonight—maybe I rushed things. Can we try again later?”
Be flexible, give it a chance, she tells herself.
But they’re interrupted by a phone call just as they’re finishing the bottle of wine: Malcolm’s youngest is running a fever and asking for his dad.
“Damn—I’ll bet he’s picked up what his sister had at the beginning of the week,” he says, stepping into his sneakers. He starts to wrap the leftovers even though Ellie is holding a forkful of salad. It’s OK, she tells herself, scraping her plate into the trash. He’s a concerned father. She opens the dishwasher to load it but it hasn’t been emptied yet. She fills the sink with soapy water and stacks everything there. Three kids, she thinks with a pang.
“Thanks.” He kisses the back of her neck. “Can we take a rain check on this?”
But then the next week he’s out of town on business, and the following weekend she decides to go to Mikki’s track tournament in Pinehurst, as she’d planned. On the drive out goose bumps tighten her skin for no good reason, and her mind keeps flashing to Malcolm kissing the hollow of her neck, the backs of his fingers brushing her nipples. She lets Mikki blast the radio, rap, hip-hop, she doesn’t change the station.
He calls while she’s in the bleachers, and as she struggles to make out his words over the static—“…hoping…maybe they’d…Saturday…”—a cheer explodes and she flushes when the woman in front of her twists around and says, “Did you see that? Mikki was fabulous!”
“Let me call you right back—you’re breaking up,” she says to Malcolm. She catches Mikki’s glance toward the bleachers, and thrusts both thumbs up into the air, guilt a fist beneath her ribs. So she missed Mikki’s hurdles win; there’s still pole-vaulting. Mikki’s first competitive vault.
“Save my seat—I’ll be right back,” she says to the woman beside her. She’s so restless she’d drop down from the second rung of bleachers if there weren’t all these other parents around. What was Malcolm saying? Does he miss her? She’s only been away three hours and already he’s called; why does that fill her with energy? She sprints lightly across the freshly mowed grass on the far side of the field, eyes on her phone’s display of signal bars. When they finally light up, she stops and, plugging her free ear, dials.
And it’s just like high school: she’s flying though he says nothing of consequence. She’s telling him about the perfect green of the grass beneath her sandals, saying “how do you suppose they do that?” and he’s explaining over-seeding and fertilizer in his rich, deep voice; she’s nodding as if it’s all fascinating, minutes ticking by, the roar from the bleachers like the background murmur of waves lapping the beach at low tide, until suddenly there’s a socked-in silence. Ellie frowns, stomach clenched. She spins toward the track. Parents are standing in the bleachers and Carla White’s dad, who is an orthopedic physician’s assistant, springs down and jogs toward the field, where girls cluster around someone on the ground. It’s a big team—it could be anyone, she tells herself, then sees the woman she’d asked to save her seat standing and looking fixedly in her direction. Ellie’s blood freezes. She snaps shut her phone. She cuts through air thick as water, running. It’s a big team, anyone could have fallen, but it’s Mikki, writhing in agony on the blue vaulting mattress, Mikki clutching at her ankle while the coach swats her hands away and a teammate wrestles a baggie of ice onto Mikki’s foot. When Mikki lets out an anguished “Mom!” Ellie pushes her way through the crowd and kneels by her daughter’s head, smoothing her hair, whispering, “it’s OK, honey, we’re getting a doctor,” but at first she mistakes the distant hum of ambulance sirens for her cell phone ringing again.
She doesn’t turn her phone back on until Mikki is in the recovery room. The string of missed calls from Malcolm ends with one concerned message asking her to call him. Instead she calls Helen. She remains calm delivering the update on Mikki and then without warning erupts into tears.
“This is not something to cry about!” she stammers, blowing her nose in the napkin she’d stuffed into her pocket after her fast-food lunch. “Mikki is fine!”
“Of course you cry when your child is hurt!”
“But she’ll be fine. It’s not like some life-threatening illness.” Ellie hiccups, and then breathes. “I wish I’d never let her vault!”
“Ellie. You’re a great mother,” Helen says. And again the sobs choke Ellie.
“I wasn’t—I wasn’t even watching—I didn’t even see what happened,” Ellie gasps between breaths. “I was on the phone. Flirting! With a man!”
She has to check her sobs to make sure that the rhythmic sound brushing her eardrum is indeed her mother’s laughter.
“It’s not funny, Mom!” she barks. “Mom!”
“Honey, I’m so glad!” Helen says. “I’m so glad you were flirting on the phone with a man. I’m—so—glad!”
Ellie paces, fanning herself with her free hand. “I—think—I’m losing my reception,” she lies, and when Helen says, “You can’t be doing all your living through Mikki--” Ellie snaps her out.
“You haven’t mentioned that Malcolm guy in a while,” Mikki says to Ellie as they sit through previews a few weeks later, waiting for a movie to start. Ellie is glad the lights are too dim for Mikki to see her flush.
“I’ve been too busy to see him.” She keeps her voice even.
Mikki shoots her a sideways glance. “Too busy? You mean, because of me?” She nods toward her crutches, leaning against the seat in front of them.
“No…lots of things going on…”
“Good,” Mikki says, turning back to her phone. “Because I wouldn’t want you to use me as an excuse for anything. Y’know?”
And the lights dim further, and Ellie misses the first five minutes of the movie, turning Mikki’s words over in her mind. Malcolm had called a few times in the week after Mikki’s injury, but not since. How is this supposed to work, anyway? she wants to ask someone. Did he seriously think she could go out with him while her child was injured? What am I supposed to feel? Is she supposed to neglect her daughter for—what—some sex? And who has time, really, with a kid to raise? That day before Mikki’s accident, the tingling, dizzying excitement over nothing. Not like the full, deep joy she used to feel with Michael. If she’d been watching Mikki, if she’d shown the universe how seriously and completely she cares for this one small girl, perhaps…she jumps when Mikki passes her the tub of popcorn. Mikki laughs at something on screen and Ellie forces her focus on the movie. It would’ve been nice if Malcolm kept calling—acted like he really cared. She shifts her weight, pulling her numb foot out from under her, and her throat tightens. Thinks: maybe it’s like when a limb falls asleep: when it’s stinging with the blood rushing back through it, you suddenly remember it exists. Maybe this is what it feels like to come alive.
She leaves a message for Malcolm on Saturday night. There’s a message from him on her home phone the next day, and she’s surprised he didn’t try her cell. In the afternoon she treats herself to a stop at the German bakery off the highway, and there’s Cecilia’s high-swinging ponytail
on the check-out line ahead of her. Her spirits lift until she reads the familiar expression of pity the moment Cecilia sees her.
“I couldn’t believe it about Mikki—what rotten luck! But I hear her ankle only needed a screw, and not a plate. How’s she doing? How’re you holding up?”
“She’s fine—these things happen,” Ellie says. “How are you? And your girls?” The words spill out too fast, filler conversation she can barely control, answers floating above her head, unheard, as she tries to pace herself for the question she really wants to ask.
“So…I guess I never told you how much I enjoyed meeting Malcolm,” she says at last. “Great idea to introduce us. Have you seen him at soccer practice this week?”
“No, not this week,” Cecilia says, handing the cashier her credit card. He must be out of town, Ellie thinks, just as Cecilia tucks her baguettes under her arm and swivels back toward her. “Of course, now that Colleen Norris is bringing his daughter, Malcolm’s doesn’t come that often any more.”
Ellie stiffens and accompanies Cecilia toward the door.
“It’s nice that they’re carpooling,” she says gingerly, watching Cecilia. Cecilia’s eyes crinkle.
“Well, you know, don’t you, that she finally got what she wanted!” she says, and Ellie swallows and struggles to neutralize the expression on her face. “The way that woman went after him! Bringing casserole dinners to practice, offering rides…and she’s only been divorced two months! I think maybe they’re in the same church, too.” And
Now they’re behind Cecilia’s Volvo in the parking lot, Ellie’s legs shaky, her heart a lump of iron in her chest. Cecilia stares.
“Weren’t you going to buy anything?” she asks, squinting at Ellie. Then, her face going pink, “You did know, didn’t you, about Malcolm? You weren’t--” the rosiness turns crimson—“I mean, you and he hadn’t started dating or anything--”
Ellie forces a crooked smile. “No, no, not quite—but I didn’t know that he’s already—I mean, gosh, things happen quickly! Good for him,” she says, and then again, with a small waggle of her chin, “Good for him.”
The orthopedic surgeon presses his thumb against the bony part of Mikki’s ankle, and then gently flexes her foot.
Mikki shakes her head. A clap of thunder interrupts the rain’s staccato beat against the flat roof of the clinic. The doctor maneuvers Mikki’s ankle the other way, and to the side. She winces. He nods.
“It’s healing very nicely,” he finally says.
“Can I vault next season?” Mikki asks.
Ellie snorts. The doctor turns toward her. “Vaulting is probably better for that ankle than other things she could do on it, since if she’s doing it properly she shouldn’t be landing on her feet,” he says.
“Yeah, it was totally my technique—I told you that, Mom!”
“I’ve read the statistics,” Ellie says. “Lots of injuries with vaulting--”
“Well, I’ll leave this up to you two,” the doctor says, rising, frowning out at the rain. He looks fresh out of residency, tall, strong shouldered; childless, surely.
“But surely now that she’s had one injury she’s at increased risk,” Ellie says to him, narrowing her eyes, willing him to agree with her. He meets her gaze and then addresses Mikki.
“Yes, you are at increased risk,” he says, and Mikki’s shoulders slump. Then he slides his eyes back to Ellie, smiles, and winks. “You’ve done your homework, I see.” She returns his smile, her body buzzing with the electricity of connection. The thunder drowns out his words and she waits, smiles, and he begins again. “OK, my wife would want me to say there is an increased risk of injury if it were our son sitting in that chair…”
She nods her head, surprised to feel disappointed rather than validated by his words, just as he adds, “but sometimes you just gotta get back on that horse,” and then it’s just her and Mikki in the cubicle of a room, Mikki lacing up her ankle brace, frowning and muttering.
“I know there are risks, Mom, but the coach and I totally understand why I landed the way I did and I know how to avoid it now. Plus the feeling when you’re up there—you just can’t imagine! I mean, I was just starting to get good, it was a freak accident, are you listening?”
Ellie has spent hours on the
internet reading about freak accidents in pole vaulting, some of them fatal. Cold fingers of fear rake through her chest at the memory of Mikki on the ground, the agony in her eyes, Ellie’s own sense that she hadn’t adequately protected her daughter. Michael’s only child.
She closes her eyes, trying to feel the moment in the air, the moment when her daughter releases the pole and hangs weightless above the world, just before the tug of gravity captures her. Instead of field and sky and vaulting pole she sees the orthopedic surgeon’s clear blue eyes, his sandy thinning hair, the boyish pit on his left cheek when he smiled. Things she hasn’t noticed, or hasn’t let herself notice, in a long time. And she thinks about desire, and love, and the order of things, how it can all get mixed up and not go right and sometimes it’s easier to just hit the snooze button than rise in the morning. But life can go right by while you’re hitting that damned snooze button. She opens her eyes.
“Mom? Look, if it really upsets you that much, I don’t need to do it,” Mikki says, her voice husky and quiet, and Ellie realizes her daughter has grabbed her icy hand and is rubbing it between her own warm palms. Ellie’s thoughts are tangled. She shivers, as if tiny splinters of ice are prickling through her veins. Maybe she’ll ask Malcolm out for a purely platonic coffee, just for practice. It’s been a while. She didn’t really get to know him at all, and still, still, something about just being out and about again felt so good. She takes a breath and hears herself saying,
“Not bad-looking, your orthopedic surgeon--but alas, married.”
Mikki’s jaw drops and she goes crimson, laughing, saying “Ma-ahm!”
Ellie laughs too and adds, “I have to get out more,” gathering the paperwork for the front desk and Mikki’s bag and her own purse. I can’t believe I just said that to my daughter, she thinks, then chuckles again. Mikki is still smiling too, walking into the hall, saying, “Yeah, you should get out more.”
“And the vaulting—I don’t know. I’ll talk to your coach. You really like it that much?”
Mikki claps her hands together and jumps, careful to land on her good ankle.
“Yes yes yes! I love it! And I’ll have all summer to rest up, heal…yes, go talk to Coach Willis.” She pauses, flushes, and adds, “He’s not bad-looking either, you know, and there’s never been mention of a Mrs. Willis!” and Ellie swats her arm.
As they walk out toward the front desk Mikki hooks her arm around Ellie’s neck like Michael used to do, emphasizing her three inch height advantage over her mother, and Ellie floats beside her daughter, beside this one lovely fragile infinitely breakable person whom she has to entrust daily to the weak forces of gravity, not to mention entropy. Whom she can adore but must release.
“Thanks for not completely forbidding me,” Mikki says, taking her MP3 player from her pocket. “My friends are always saying I’ve got a cool mom.” Ellie pauses, blinking, wondering if that’s a good thing. Sighing, she says, “Well, I’ve always said carpe diem, right?” But Mikki’s ears are plugged with her MP3 speakers and she is bopping to her music, lips moving soundlessly. “And…I’m talking to myself again,” Ellie murmurs, eliciting a knowing glance from the receptionist on whose desk she deposits Mikki’s paperwork. As the glass doors slide open for them, the smokiness brightens: shafts of sunlight slice the heavy air outside, and Ellie fumbles for her sunscreen. Mikki squirms away as she tries to dab some on her freckled nose, then brandishes her own miniature tube. “I’ve got it, see?
,” She says, too loudly over her music. Ellie sighs. “Fine—I see,” she says, slipping her sunscreen back in her purse. But Mikki puts up a palm and tosses her tube to her mother. “Now you,” she says, sweeping her palm back up toward the sun.