She learns to walk. We decide to have a party to show off how persony she has become. For days beforehand, she asks me over and over, "Party now? Party now?" On the night of the festivities, I pull her wispy hair up into a ponytail. "She looks like a girl," my husband says. He seems amazed. An hour later, the guests stream in. She weaves her way in and out of them for five minutes, then tugs on my sleeve. "No more party!" she says. "Party done! Party done!"
Her favorite book is about firemen. When she sees the picture, she will mime ringing the bell and sliding down the pole. Clang, clang, clang goes the fire engine bell. The men are on their way!
My husband reads the book to her every night, including very very slowly the entire copyright page.
Sometimes she plays a game now where she scatters her stuffed animals all over the living room. "Babies, babies," she mutters darkly as she covers them with white napkins. "Civil War Battlefield," we call it.
One day she runs down the block by herself. I am terrified she'll forget to stop at the end. "Stop!" I scream at her. "Stop! Stop!"
"Just keep her alive until she's eighteen," my sister says. My sister has two daredevil boys, fraternal twins. She lives in the country but is always threatening to move to England. Her husband is British. He would like to solve all their problems with boarding school and compulsory backgammon. He has never liked it here. Weak-minded, he calls Americans. To make him happy, my sister serves boiled meat for dinner and makes the peas mushy.
* * *
People keep flirting with the wife. Has this been happening all along and she never noticed? Or is it new? She's like a taxi whose light just went on. All these men standing in the street, waving her over.
She falls in love with a friend. She falls in love with a student. She falls in love with the bodega man. He hands her back her change so gently.
Floating, yes, floating away. How can he sleep? Doesn't he feel her levitating?
I will leave you, my love. Already I am going. Already I watch you speaking as if from a great height. Already the feel of your hand on my hand, of your lips on my lips, is only curious. It is decided then. The stars are accelerating. I half remember a sky could look like this. I saw it once when she was born. I saw it once when I got sick. I thought you'd have to die before I saw it again. I thought one of us would have to die. But look, here it is! Who will help me? Who can help me? Rilke? Rilke! If you're listening, come quickly. Lash me to this bed! Bind me to this earthly body! If you hear this, come now! I am untethering. Who can hold me?
What John Berryman said: Goodbye, sir, & fare well. You're in the clear.
These bits of poetry that stick to her like burrs.
Lately, the wife has been thinking about God, in whom the husband no longer believes. The wife has an idea to meet her ex-boyfriend at the park. Maybe they could talk about God. Then make out. Then talk about God again.
She tells the yoga teacher that she is trying to be honorable. Honorable! Such an old-fashioned word, she thinks. Ridiculous, ridiculous.
"Yes, be honorable," the yoga teacher says.
Whenever the wife wants to do drugs, she thinks about Sartre. One bad trip and then a giant lobster followed him around for the rest of his days.
Also she signed away the right to self-destruct years ago. The fine print on the birth certificate, her friend calls it. So she invents allergies to explain her red eyes and migraines to explain the blinked-back look of pain. One day, coming out of their building, she staggers a little from the exhaustion of all of it. Her elderly neighbor comes over, touches her sleeve. "Are you okay, dear?" he asks. Carefully, politely, she shakes him off of her.
Excerpted from Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Copyright © 2013 by Jenny Offill. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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