Things That Can Be Cut by Anna Marie Laforest
Fiona’s husband reached over her to the nightstand and pressed the button on the clock radio to keep the alarm from going off in one hour. He grazed the eyelet frills on her nightgown, along the top of her arm, as he brought his own long arm back to the other side of the bed. He took a good breath and scuttled out from under their electric blanket in two surreptitious bursts, which of course Fiona sensed but did not let on.
She wondered mildly why he would be getting up earlier than usual but, yawning and stretching her legs onto his side of the bed, she found herself lapsing back into the breach of sleep. Two hours later she got up shivering – he must have switched off the blanket as well as the alarm – and got into the shower before getting her coffee. Wrapped in double sweaters, flannel pants, and two pair of socks, she finally went down to the kitchen. As she reached for the coffee maker, the sleeve from her outer sweater flicked a piece of paper down off the counter. She left it there while she made her brew, microwaved a piece of bacon, and stirred some jam into a pot of yogurt from the fridge. She knew what it would say.
It would say one of two things: Either “Sorry, forgot to tell you, the company is flying me out to xyz until Friday. See you then.” She had gotten quite a few of those notes over the past couple of years. When he returned, she would ask him how his trip was, what xyz is like, did he send any postcards to their grown kids. He would tell her nothing, and after a while she stopped asking.
Or, it could say, “Goodbye, good luck, we both know it is over.” For the last five years, Fiona had banked every penny from her job against the day her husband would leave her.
She had gotten used to being alone. She had two children, neither married, both working in different states, a cat named Charlie, and this husband of thirty years who had never said much to begin with and now had pretty much stopped talking altogether since their 25th anniversary, five years ago. Concurrent with that, he had started doing his own laundry and stopped going to church. She knew these were mild symptoms compared with things other husbands did after that long. Still, even if you subtracted the 40 hours he was at work, and sleeping time, there were still over a hundred hours left each week that she had to get through in silence. Living with someone, and not being spoken to for five whole years! She might as well be doing volunteer work with the deaf and dumb, and earn that higher place in heaven.
Thank God for the cat. She’d started talking to Charlie, who had originally been her husband’s cat, and Charlie had responded by jumping into her lap and purring, as if to say, there, there, I’ll take care of you. Soon after, she’d renamed the cat Mary. This was for two reasons. First, her women’s group at church had done a week-long study on the Blessed Mother in which it was made clear that Mary is the one who understands problems of the heart. Look at all she went through! She could empathize with anything. Second, Fiona hoped that by calling her husband’s cat Mary instead of Charlie, it might jolt the man into saying something. It did not.
“Brrrr, it is cold!” she said to Mary now. She took her dishes to the sink, ran her hands under the hot tap and looked out the kitchen window at the thermometer her husband had nailed to the side of a shutter twenty-nine years ago. “Minus 3 degrees, Mary. You don’t want to go out.”
But the cat meowed at the door until Fiona opened it. Mary ran out into the cold, and back in, in a shot. “You didn’t believe me, Mary! You should have more faith.”
Fiona got some things together to take to her desk for her morning’s work. She did tech writing for a couple of on-line publications and had recently added some newsletter hours for a local business that paid her in cash. This money she also banked into a private account.
She remembered the note her sleeve had whisked onto the floor, and went back into the kitchen for it. It was a blank piece of paper. It said nothing. It was folded like all the other notes he’d ever left on the coffee maker before taking a work trip, but this time there was no message, not even his name.
“It says nothing. How appropriate,” she said to Mary, and threw it in the trash. She made a stack of cinnamon toast and poured more coffee and went to her desk.
After an hour of chewing on the toast and on the end of her pencil, Fiona went upstairs to look in her husband’s dresser. The drawers were nearly empty. All of his underwear was missing, as were his favorite sweaters, and most telling, his jeans. He never took jeans on a work trip.
She ransacked his part of the closet. The only shirt he’d taken was an ugly plaid flannel he once picked out for himself from a catalog. The others, all the decent ones Fiona had gotten him over the years, had been pushed to the end of the bar, their sleeves hugging each other in a suspended lump. His camera was not on the usual shelf, the extra keys were gone, and – where were all the important papers from the little mahogany box? Either they were moved without her knowing it, or he’d taken those too.
So! It had finally happened. Fiona sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled the covers around her a little. She thought she might be sick from the bacon and cinnamon toast, but when she stood up, she felt okay, a little burp. She ran down the stairs and went back to her chair at the desk. Mary approached and jumped onto her lap.
Fiona needed to be busy, now that it had really happened; she needed to not think about it. But she could not work. She went over to the couch and sat on the end where the magazines were stacked and started flipping through them. The cat followed. After three magazines she realized she didn’t know what she was reading.
She wanted to get her gym shoes and run around the block, but it was too cold for that.
”What should I do, Mary?”
Now it came to her that she had made a list a couple of years after he had stopped talking to her, a list of things she had always wanted to do, and would do if she was ever finally on her own.
She went back to her desk and flipped through her files. She found the list.
“I’ll pick the craziest thing on the list,” she said to Mary. “And until I do that, I won’t think about what is happening.”
“Meow,” said Mary.
The list had many enticing things on it, like “go waterskiing,” “spend a weekend in Paris,” “buy one piece of every kind of chocolate in existence,” but the craziest item was “take a paper-cutting class.” This last item hailed from a church crafts fair she attended – she could still remember the magic of the cut-out papers hanging like fairy tale ornaments from the booth. How glorious it must be to make something so intricate with such mundane materials as scissors and paper.
“Here we go, Mary. Let’s see if we can find a paper-cutting class. That won’t require any thinking, and shouldn’t cost too much for now.”
And to Fiona’s surprise, there was an ongoing class, at the local crafts store, and it met on Monday evenings.
“That’s tonight, Mary. So much the better.” She got online and registered.
Now that Fiona had a plan for the evening, she found she could get back to work on the tech journals, and she worked industriously for several hours, across lunch time, and into the afternoon. She made herself and Mary a tuna salad sandwich, and opened a fresh carton of milk. It was a good thing the class was tonight, as tomorrow evening she had her church-women’s meeting. What would they say when she told them that her husband had finally bailed? Would they be sympathetic, like Mary? Would they try to tell her it was her own fault? Ask what sins she may have committed as a catalyst for his action? Well. She would wait a few weeks before telling that group anything.
Fiona took another shower, to get warm, before braving the outside. The car, even though it was in their attached garage, was always freezing. She pulled tights on under her jeans, and an extra pair of socks. But when she went out the side door and into the garage, she let out a squeal. The car was gone. He’d taken the car!
They’d gone for thirty years with one car. His job was just off the bus line, and if he had to be early, or if he was on a company trip, the other guys would pick him up. But - and she should have figured this out hours ago - if he was bailing, why not rob her of the car, too? She kicked the stiff rubber trash can in anger. A hollow bop. Empty. What? He took the garbage out before he bailed with the car. Who would do that? Evidently her husband would. She hadn’t realized he was that persnickety.
Well. She wasn’t going to forego her wish-list. She went back inside and called a taxi.
The paper class was in a windowless room at the back of the store, but there were stacks of cover stock in bold colors on a wide table, and only three students besides her, so Fiona was confident she’d get lots of help. The instructor was a square-faced woman who wore a summery floral dress under a bulky box-store sweater, and purple half-glasses attached to a pink chain that went behind her ears and neck. She began with a brief history of paper-cutting, blah blah blah China and blah blah blah Japan, and finally handed out pairs of needle-nosed scissors. They began cutting.
After a few practice slides and swipes with the knife-sharp blades on thin white paper, the students were allowed to choose their color stock. Fiona picked a bright blue, thinking the cat would like it - if her first attempts were bad enough, she would let Mary bat them around on the floor. The pattern the instructor gave them was supposed to turn into a Chinese dog, cavorting among flowers and vines. Well, maybe Mary would forgive her for that.
The instructor turned on some music, and told them not to overthink the pattern, but relax, and more or less intuit their way through it. If they ended up with shredded doilies instead of Chinese dogs, so be it. There was lots of paper and lots of time - lots of things that could be cut.
Fiona was glad to hear it. She did not want to think at all, much less over-think. She listened to the music and let her hand guide the scissors however it wanted. She did not attempt to unfold her cuttings but left them until the end of the session, and unfolded them all at once.
Of her eight cuttings, seven were shreds and shards, but the eighth was magnificent. It was not a Chinese dog, but it was something to behold.
“Oh, my,” said the instructor.
“Oh, my,” said the other students.
“Oh, my,” said Fiona.
“Did you have a special intention, while you were cutting that?” asked the instructor.
“No, I was deliberately not thinking.”
“Well, do you see what figure you have made?”
“Yes,” whispered Fiona.
“I cannot wait to see what you cut next time,” said the instructor.
Fiona wrapped her bright blue cutting into a fold of tissue paper, and called the taxi for home.
The taxi could not pull into her driveway because two cars were there. Fiona paid him and pulled her coat tighter for warmth as she walked up the front porch. Before she could get her keys out, her husband opened the door for her. He was holding what looked like a package of new underwear. He put the package under his arm and motioned to the driveway.
“I got you a blue one,” he said. “I figure it’s time we each have our own cars. You still like blue, right?”
Fiona said nothing, but handed him the fold of tissue with her cutting inside. He opened it and held up a crisp blue paper shot through with the outline of the Blessed Virgin, unmistakably Mary.
“I’ve named your car Charlie,” he said.
The clouds of the morning finally dissipated thanks to a westerly wind, and the winter sun followed lazily into the café where Tom sat, a hundred miles from his home, watching the white curtains near the booth take on a certain luster. He lifted his coffee mug in quiet salute. The day, in spite of its dead, dull beginning, had decided to come to life. In twenty minutes it would seem like an entirely new day.
The hours since he had stretched his long arm across his sleeping wife to flip the alarm setting to “off” and slide out of his side of the bed to begin his venture, did seem, now, like part of a different day. He had been propelled by at least five years’ worth of pent-up feelings that, unexamined, had created a powerful fuel for “getting out of there,” as he had dubbed his escape.
“I’ve just gotta get out of there,” he would say to the bartender at his neighborhood steak house where he went once a week to sit at the rail and eat rib-eye and fries. “Give me the one marbled with the most fat,” he’d say.
“One of these days, I’m gonna get outta there,” Tom’s church pals heard him say every month when the men of the congregation met for spiritual guidance and prayer. “I’ve tried listening to her side of things, but all he does is talk, talk, talk, without saying a damn, sorry, thing. And never stops for me to respond – I tune her out, but it’s not like I can switch to a different station.”
“Get an I-pad, man,” said one of the younger men, who hadn’t really been listening.
“I am ready to get out of there,” he said two days ago to a late-night radio show host whose family-life tips were sometimes amusing. It aired later than Fiona would ever stay up, and Tom had stretched himself blatantly onto the sofa to do his call-in. Unfortunately, he didn’t hear what the counselor said to him, as the words were swallowed up in the noise of Fiona’s stack of magazines that fell off the end of the couch when he stretched his foot.
Now the sun had brightened enough to put a little glint on Tom’s spoon. He stirred his coffee again and raised the mug toward the window. “Should I pull the curtains,” said the waitress, moving along the row of booths. “No, not mine,” said Tom. “Thanks.”
The waitress, though probably Fiona’s age, looked nothing like the wife he had just left. This woman was skin and bones with wire-colored hair pulled severely back behind the cap of her uniform. Her eyes were submerged above her cheekbones, as though guarding her soul from the public; one side of her chest was flatter than the other; and the sweater she held closed with one raw-looking fist had holes and lots of those little fuzz balls that women usually groomed off their woolens with one of those small battery lint remover things. She probably couldn’t afford the gizmo. In sum, he thought, mentally putting on his Sherlock cap, this woman has possibly never had a vacation.
This, in contrast to Fiona. Fiona the coddled, Fiona the healthy, Fiona the plump, Fiona the fully-supported woman in all her phases, as young wife, as twice mother, now as senior and church event organizer. Fiona, whose pampered skin had never been anything but dewy and fresh. Whose curves had never suffered from most of those women’s complaints, or anything else.
Fiona would protest him thinking of her as a senior. He hated the term too. He could not bring himself to take the over-55 discount at movies or order the senior specials at cafes like this, for example. He had not held up, physically, as well as his wife, but then he had worked every day so that she could hold up well.
He pushed his coffee to the middle of the table, and put his weight onto his ankles and wrists to pivot himself out of the booth. He had a “white-collar guy” stomach, and his knees were having more and more trouble holding him up. Now, for example, he had to shake his left leg out a little before taking a step. Well, that was about to change. He had successfully pulled off Phase 1, “getting out of there,” and now he could concentrate on Phase 2, which he thought of as “getting back to my old self.”
Tom pulled a $5 tip out of his parka for the waitress and left the café. He circled the car twice shaking out his arms and legs before getting behind the wheel again. There were 100 miles between him and Fiona, and he took a deep breath hoping it was the cleansing kind his coworkers always talked about after their noon yoga.
How quickly and quietly he had left this morning. Everything he needed - underwear, important papers, camera - he had placed in his laundry bag the night before and set just outside the side door, in the attached garage. Later still, when he was sure Fiona was asleep, he collected the bag and the car and drove a few blocks away, where he parked it in front of Old Man Jackson’s house and walked back. All he’d had to do this morning was use the bathroom, pull on his coat, and slip out. In the end, being a conscientious man, he’d stopped to feed the cat and take the garbage out too.
100 miles from home. Wasn’t there a lake near here? That one they’d taken the kids to back in the old days? It might be a good place to stop and take the first photos of his new life. He turned off onto some crusty back roads, circling and returning to the highway a few times before finding it, but when he did he was very pleased. It had been at least twenty years, probably thirty, since he’d been here, but Tom recognized it - the shape of the lake, its thick sand run-ups, the forested paths around it, the white painted cottages here and there, and, peeking out above some shorter trees, the single all-weather home, an architectural wonder house, modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright, which Tom’s children had dubbed “the lucky house,” because the kids there got to live next to a lake year-round.
Had they ever met anyone who lived in that home? Probably not. At any rate the lake paths would be deserted today; it couldn’t be more than 20 degrees out, even with the sun. Tom was halfway up one of the paths before he remembered his camera and ran back to the car and popped the trunk. He had to reach through his stack of old underwear to get to it at the bottom of the laundry bag, and he found it faster to dump it out into the trunk. The bright winter sun of his new life shone immediately into the trunk and onto the shabby greyed skivvies, shaming him. This would not do! He would dump them all into the next highway dumpster and buy a whole set of new ones.
He grabbed his camera, slammed the trunk shut, and puffed back to his path. By the time it emptied him out onto the lakeshore, he had taken several photos and found that his eye was still inspired by the forms and shadows of trees, needled and bare-branched. He followed the frozen edges of the lake and wondered how far he could slide out before the ice might give way under his weight. He would not tempt it, but bent close to where the frosted edges met the heavy sand, the crystals of the stiffened lake magnified through his camera lens. He took another deep cleansing breath, without knowing it. How beautiful things were when you stopped and looked close.
He put his gloves down on the ground and knelt on them for warmth as he continued snapping. After a while he became aware that his left wrist was unusually warm. He took one more shot, pulled his camera away from his face and looked down. An inquisitive dog with heated breath had attached itself to Tom’s side.
“Hey, fella,” Tom said, “where did you come from?”
He looked around for the owner of the dog, but did not see anyone. Well, boy, let’s walk back up the path; it’s pretty cold out here.” He held his other hand out for the dog to warm, then put his camera back into its case and pulled on his gloves.
“Race ya!” Tom found himself playing with the dog all the way up the path, forgetting his weight and puffing lungs.
At the top, not far from his car, Tom found the dog’s owner picking icicles off a spruce tree, to keep the newer branches from snapping.
“Hi-yo, here, Mary!” called the owner. And to Tom, “Hey-ya, wondered who’d come out here in the cold.”
“Hey,” said Tom. The owner was a white-haired man, healthy, with a straight back and long walking legs. He wore a parka like Tom’s, dark blue jeans, and expensive well-made boots.
The dog cavorted between them, ran off through the spruce trees, and returned with a thin-scaled cone in its mouth for Tom.
“He likes you,” said the owner.
“Did I hear you call him Mary?”
“Yes. My daughter named him when she was three, thinking he was a girl dog, and it stuck.”
As simple as that.
“I thought about re-naming him last year after my wife died. My daughter is out west now, with her own kids, she wouldn’t care.”
“But you probably won’t,” guessed Tom. The spruce cone was soft and flexible, its scales making him think of a frozen snake.
Tom wanted to tell this man about how his wife had renamed his cat Mary, out of spite, but instead said, “You live in ‘the lucky house’ up there?”
He explained about his kids and their summer trips to the lake. The man did live there, gave tours until five years ago. They decided their kids had likely played together in the sand. The old man was gentle and calm and undoubtedly lonely, and Tom wanted more than anything to blurt out how today was his first long-planned day of freedom, but found himself feeling stupid instead. He tossed the spruce cone to Mary in a retrieval game while the man chatted awhile more.
“Come up for coffee?” the man offered. “Or have you given coffee up for Lent?”
“I’d forgotten it is Lent,” Tom said. “I’m on a sort of mission today, but it was nice meeting you.”
“Rain-check, then. But don’t come when it’s muddy – too hard to get the wheels up the path…”
“Gotcha,” said Tom, climbing into his car. He rolled down the window. “Bye, Mary.”
He drove back to the highway. Well, he had re-connected with his camera and he had made a new friend. But he had not figured out Phase 2. He had spent five years figuring out Phase 1. How could he figure out Phase 2 in one afternoon? He would go back to the café and make a list. He could leave the wire-haired woman who had never had a vacation another $5 tip.
He got lost in circles again but eventually found the highway and turned back toward the café. He was going in the direction of Fiona, but just temporarily. A good coffee and maybe a burger, and a nice flat formica table on which to spread the paper napkin and write a plan. He hit the gas pedal and made it roar. This was fun.
But when he got to the café it was full of noisy after-schoolers, his waitress was not there, and the sun was on the windowless side, unable to stream in and offer Tom any insights on his new freedom. He managed to get the same booth, but he was flanked by giggles on one side and burps and catcalls on the other. The juke-box was lit up but he could not hear the song above the general shouting.
He ordered a double burger, a coke, and gravy fries. When he stuffed his gloves into his parka, he found the spruce cone, a parting gift from Mary. Maybe he should go back with a dog to annoy Fiona. He could name him Charlie, ha!
The food came, cooked but congealed and unwarm. The coke was imitation and tasted like toothpaste. He asked about the noon waitress and was told she was the wife of the owner and had just gotten back from a trip to Spain. Was nothing as he had thought it?
He asked for a slice of pie and coffee and a stack of napkins, and pushed everything else aside. He’d force himself to focus now. First he made a list of questions. Where should I stay tonight? How far can I go from Fiona and still make it to work on time in the mornings? Can I use the photo shop at work after hours? Why did I stop using my camera for so many years? Why is it Lent suddenly? What were the chances that there would be another male animal named Mary within 100 miles of my poor cat?
Tom folded the napkin with the questions and put it into his breast pocket. He had not written, “Do I want an affair with someone else?” That was not a question. That had never been a question.
He took another paper napkin from the stack and folded it into a small hat, or boat. From a third one he cut a snowflake with the little scissors on his Swiss army knife. The snowflake reminded him of the paper cutting class Fiona kept talking about going to, back when he still listened to what she said, but she never went.
Fiona made lists constantly, just like she talked constantly, but never did any of the things on her lists, just as she never said anything meaningful when she talked. Tom had read many of her lists. What if, instead of reading her lists, he had written his own list? What if instead of chanting a zillion times, “gotta get outta here,” he had made a list of what he really wanted to do, and acted on it?
But if he had made a list and acted on it, would he have needed to leave? This thought flew so fast through his mind, he nearly didn’t catch it.
But, no, it had taken real courage to leave. He had done it! But was it courage? Wouldn’t courage be to stay and re-build? No, it was too late to re-build. Fiona would never do the things on her list, why should he? And it wouldn’t be courageous at all to slink back, would it.
The waitress came back to collect the uneaten food. The gravy was so thick and cold, Tom had stuck some of the fries in vertically and made a little fence. “Playing with our food, are we?” she said.
Did she think he was ready for a nursing home? Fiona, with all her sins, would never say anything like that. Tom abandoned his lists, left a $1 tip and walked out to the car. He noticed he did not have to shake his legs out this time, and decided the photographic trip up the lake path had been a good choice.
On the way out of the café he heard a student complain about a history assignment. Well, he thought, as he got back on the highway, not paying attention to his direction, the men of history were courageous, of course. All the battle leaders, all the dragon slayers had physical courage. Ghandi had moral courage. Socrates and Darwin had intellectual courage. Aristotle said courage was somewhere between fear and recklessness. Joan of Arc had religious and physical courage. And she was a woman. See how easy this list is to compile, because it is not about me.
Now Tom noticed he was driving further in the direction of Fiona. Just as well find a hotel somewhat closer to his workplace. He put on the radio and stopped thinking about anything for a while.
What would the white-haired dude with the expensive boots advise? Should have taken him up on that coffee. Perhaps he is the local guru of the lake country.
When Tom finally returned home, having bought Fiona a car for herself which the dealer’s gopher drove home and up the driveway behind him, he went in to an empty house. Fiona’s list was on her desk, and her computer open at the registration confirmation for tonight’s paper class.
When she came to the front door and he pointed to her new blue car, she said nothing for the first time in five years. Tom took this as confirmation that he had done the courageous thing. When she handed him a paper cutting that looked like the snowflake he made earlier at the café, he went one better, and said:
“I’ve named your car Charlie.”