This fine Saturday morning in April, Nell woke up alone. As always. Sunlight flooded through the windows of the bedroom and lay across the floor in such delineated golden rectangles that Nell fancied the day spread out before her like a length of shimmering bright cloth. She yawned and twisted about in her bed, pleased with the luxury of the easy morning, smug, messy-haired, lazy-limbed. Stretching, she knocked a paperback mystery, two cookbooks, a three-ring notebook, a box of stationery, and a pile of catalogs off the bed onto the floor. They all went with a great slither and thump.
For five years now, Nell had used the vacant half of the queen-size bed as a sort of table. It worked well. There was so much space, and things were so handy, at just the right height. Nell loved her bed and was seldom more pleased than when, after an exhausting day, she could crawl into it, plump up the pillows, and rest her body while her mind roamed off in new directions. She made lists, wrote letters, read books. When she was especially tired or anxious, she looked through the glossy, optimistic pages of mailorder catalogs. She was oddly reassured by the knowledge that this was a world in which there were people who spent their lives inventing dog jewelry or writing such copy as “Nouveau is better than not riche at all.” She would look at all the pretty dresses and imagine which ones she would buy if she had the money—although where she would ever wear the sweeping white silk with the sequined waist was past the powers of her imagination.
Sometimes she came across a dress or top that she thought the boutique she worked at might sell, and she would clip out the photo and mail it to her boss. At other times the catalogs worked like sleeping pills. The bright and orderly pictures would then seem inanely comforting, like children’s building blocks, lulling Nell into such a state of relaxation that she had only enough energy to reach out her arm and switch off the bedside lamp before falling asleep.
Now and then in the middle of the night, her turning might cause a magazine or book or box to go over the edge of the bed and fall to the floor with a thud, but now such sounds no longer awakened her. She had assimilated into her subconscious the harmless nature of such noises, just as she had learned to sleep through the knocking sounds of the dog scratching herself under the bed or the eerie morning cry of her cats singing just outside the window about their springtime catch.
Nell loved being alone in her bed. She loved sleeping there, reading, writing letters there; she loved eating there. Almost no pleasure surpassed reading a mystery in bed while eating a giant bowl of salty buttered popcorn or a hot fudge sundae. It was true that her sheets were often less than clean. She had gotten used to sleeping with grits of salt against her skin and thought this was surely no stranger than sleeping in a beach house on sheets speckled with sand.
Her secret desire in life was to own a hospital bed. She often dreamed of the power of it, of pushing a button and having the back of the bed automatically raised or lowered, the section under her knees bent and angled . . . To have a hospital bed and one of those wonderful tables that would swing over her or away to hold her sundae or popcorn and book—well, those seemed like real luxuries in life, and ones that, if ever obtained, could not fade or vanish like other, more social pleasures.
When Nell got divorced, she vowed to herself that she would not disconcert her children with the sight of a man in her bed in the morning. She had kept that vow for five years now, and she was glad. Not only for the children’s sake: It seemed to her such a commitment, sleeping all night and waking up to face a new day with someone. Making love was one thing, but waking up in the morning was something completely different, a serious act. She did not want to confuse her children by that—and she did not want to confuse herself.
When her children were smaller, they used to crawl into bed with her at night after a nightmare or a tummyache, or simply when they awakened early and wanted to cuddle. It had been a long while since that had happened. Jeremy was ten now and didn’t want to climb in bed with her anymore—Nell was not sure whether this was because of prepubescent shyness or simple indifference. Hannah, at eight, still had an occasional nightmare, an occasional need for a long warm snuggle, but those too were becoming rare. The children did always come into Nell’s bedroom first thing in the morning, though, just to look at Nell. Often they tiptoed up—Nell could hear them—and peeked their heads around the corner of her bedroom door.
“Hi, sweeties,” Nell would call from her bed. “Come give me a kiss.”
“Oh, Mom,” they would say, and would wander away.
Nell came to realize that they just wanted to be sure she was there so they could feel free and safe in the world and could get on to more important things. She saw that her body had taken on a sort of utilitarian function in the lives of her children. On arising, Jeremy and Hannah visited her and the toilet, then were able to enter their day. Well, her body always had had a utilitarian function for her children: she had grown them in her body, nursed them, rocked and carried them in her arms until they were too large for her to lift; she had bathed and shampooed them and tended to their injuries. These days they needed only an occasional hug; their need for her body was taking on a necessary distance. Her children were growing up.
She could hear them now, mumbling around in their rooms. Because it was Saturday morning, they didn’t have to go to school, and Nell didn’t have to go to work, and there was no need to rush. Still, she couldn’t stay in bed all day, dreaming like this. She had things to do.
Nell rose, put the dog out, let Medusa in, made coffee, set out an easy Saturday breakfast of milk and doughnuts for her children, put a load of laundry in the wash, glanced at the morning paper, polished Hannah’s good shoes because they had been sitting in the fruit bowl on the middle of the kitchen table for two weeks waiting to be polished, talked on the phone to a friend, stared at the doughnuts for five minutes, longing to eat one, forced herself from the kitchen, doughnutless, nagged her children into actually brushing their teeth, braided Hannah’s hair, and pulled some cockleburs off the coat of Medusa, the unappreciative long-haired cat. Her day had begun.
It was time to do her exercises. She hated doing her exercises about as much as she hated anything in the world. But they made an enormous difference in the way she looked and felt. And they provided her with a sense of achievement—afterward, she always felt smug.
They also helped her view the world differently. She managed to force herself to exercise because she knew from past experience that, at a certain point in the middle of her exercises, she would have an adrenaline high. She would put on a rock record— ABBA, Bob Seger, Supertramp—and after ten or fifteen minutes of vigorous movement, she would smile. Bob Seger would be singing his secrets to her, about her. As she felt her limbs grow warm and supple in their moving, so she felt her whole life grow more supple in its meaning—and if this optimism was some kind of lie, she didn’t care. She was old enough to know that the cause of any pleasure or optimism was not the point. If she felt good, she wanted just to go with that as far as it would take her. Life was too short to live any other way.
Now she lay on her back in her white tights and lavender leotard on the blue living room rug and did scissor kicks to ABBA. Whenever she lay here, she found herself confronted with five gray oval-shaped blotches on the white ceiling. They were her daughter’s fingerprints, and as Nell kicked her legs back and forth, she amused herself by wondering just which man it had been who had lifted Hannah above his head so that she could touch the ceiling. It couldn’t have been Steve; he was too short. It hadn’t been Ben, either, though he was certainly tall enough; Ben hadn’t been the type to lift Hannah. Hadn’t been the type to touch Hannah. Ben, with his trim clipped beard, his careful clothes and body. Ben, whose touch made Nell’s blood turn to ice. Yet he was the one man since Marlow whom Nell had seriously considered marrying, and only because he was rich.
Copyright © 2014 by Nancy Thayer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.