An Act of Contrition

by Cara-Aimee Long
I cover Cal’s mouth and nose with my hand. He pulls his head back, surprised, then looks up at me and blinks, like we’re playing a game. I count to five. He begins to struggle. I remove my hand and look down at him. He starts to cry.

“Stop it,” I say firmly and he does.

My husband walks into the room. I pick the baby up and cup the back of his head with my hand. My husband asks, “Is he fussing?”

I say, “Yes. I think I’ll put him down for a nap.”


I take Cal into his bedroom. Teddy, my husband, has stenciled ‘CAL’ in cloud letters on the wall next to the crib. Calvin is our only child. We call him Cal for short. He looks like me, only he has brown eyes, like Teddy. I bounce him up and down in my arms and whisper to him, “sshhh, sshhh. Sleep time, nap time, all better now.” I place him in the crib on his stomach and he moves his legs up and down, up and down, like he’s cycling. I switch the monitor on and walk softly out of his room.

Teddy is watching TV in the living room, a nature special. “Did you know that earthworms are hermaphrodites?” he asks me. I look at him, but don’t answer. “Do you want any lunch?” I ask.

“Just order a pizza,” he says. “Pepperoni.”


Teddy and I have been married for three years. We had Cal eight months ago. Teddy owns an auto parts store in the next town over, and I work from home, helping people set up online businesses. We live in a modest three-bedroom house, with an attached two-car garage. When we bought the house, it was white, but I asked Teddy to paint it light blue and he did. I’ve recently taken up gardening. I like annual flowers, even though people tell me they’re more work. I’ve planted zinnias, cosmos, petunias and salvia in a bed at the front of the house. They’re all different heights and colors and none of them go together very well. Teddy says it’s obvious that I wasn’t meant to be a gardener. Maybe not, but I’m diligent. I deadhead the petunias twice a week and fertilize the soil once a month. I pull weeds. I make an effort.

Cal wakes from his nap after only thirty minutes and I bring him outside with me in his car seat. I put a hat on him so the sun doesn’t burn his head. I tell him the names of all the flowers and tickle him with a cosmo I’ve picked. Teddy comes outside and says, “Did you order the pizza?”

“No,” I say. “I’d rather have pizza for dinner. Just heat up leftovers or make a sandwich for yourself.”


Teddy sighs and lets the screen door bang shut on his way back inside. I notice that the paint has begun peeling on the door. “Teddy,” I call out loudly, “can you pick up some paint for the door tomorrow?” Teddy reappears for a moment. He looks at the door. “Sure,” he says, “same color?”

Later that night when we’re in bed, I run my fingers along the seam of Teddy’s chest. I do this so often he barely notices anymore. I’ve known Teddy since high school, but we weren’t a couple or even friends back then. I’m almost two years older than Teddy. I was on the track team and took honors courses. Teddy played the drums until eleventh grade, and took auto tech courses at the vocational school during his senior year. His parents divorced when he was four, and he lived with his dad after the divorce. His mom remarried a year later and moved out to California. When we first started dating I said, “I bet you liked visiting her.” He said, “Not really,” and that was it.


My parents moved to Arizona after I finished college. I was a change of life baby, the only high school senior at my school whose parents were in their mid-sixties. After Teddy and I had been dating for a few months, he told me he thought it was weird, my parents being so old. I said, “I guess a lot of people did.” He said, “Yeah. They did.”


My dad has been battling prostate cancer for about a year now, and Cal and I will fly out tomorrow to stay with my parents for two weeks. Teddy’s mother has never even seen Cal. She barely made it to our wedding, and she was drunk the entire three days she was in town. During our reception, she fell while dancing and then laughed wildly as two of the groomsmen tried to get her back onto her feet. Teddy and I were dancing when she fell and I could feel him burn with shame. I pulled him close to me and we kept dancing, one foot after the other.

That night, in the honeymoon suite, he said “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

“Tell me what?” I responded.

“That my mother’s a lousy drunk.”

I turned the lights off and sat next to him on the bed.

“She’s not lousy,” I said after a bit, and he laughed.


I hear Teddy snoring lightly, but try and wake him by kissing his stomach, below his belly button. He groans and pulls me up toward him. I kiss him gently, but then stop abruptly. I can tell he has opened his eyes, even in the pitch darkness. “What?” he asks me. I look at him intently for a few seconds. “Nothing,” I say, and pull my t-shirt off over my head. Cal gives a little whimper and Teddy and I both stop to listen. “Safe,” he says after a bit, and flips me onto my back.


The next morning, I’m up early and I wake Cal to keep me company in the kitchen. He cries and rubs his eyes. I try to feed him, but he’s not hungry yet. He follows me with his eyes as I pour myself a glass of juice. I take a sip, smack my lips and say “Ahh,” which makes Cal smile. “Let’s go outside and watch the sunrise,” I say to him. I bounce Cal on my hip as we watch the sun come up over the skyline. I can tell it’s going to be very hot because it’s already hazy and the sun is a brilliant shade of pink. Cal lets out a shriek. “Alright, alright,” I say to him. My neighbor, Mr. Lawrence, emerges from his house to get his paper in a too short bathrobe. He gives a quick, embarrassed wave in our direction and Cal shrieks again.

Back inside, I change Cal’s diaper and try to feed him again. Teddy comes out into the kitchen. He’s naked and completely unembarrassed by it. He walks over to me and kisses my head. I like the way his bare feet pad across the floor, the sound they make as the soles gently stick to the linoleum. He takes Cal from me, and says, “What time did you two get up?”

I say, “About an hour ago.”

Teddy says, “I didn’t even hear him.”

“Coffee’s almost done,” I say. “I’m going to go finish packing and grab a shower, ok?”

Teddy yawns and nods and Cal gives me a big smile and holds out his arms for me.

Teddy says, “You’re hanging with daddy for a bit.” Cal places both his hands on Teddy’s face then gives him a perfect head butt.

“Oww, shit,” I hear Teddy say as Cal begins to wail.

##

At the airport, Teddy says, “I hope for your sake he’s good on the plane.”

“If not, it’s only two hours,” I say.

“Call me when you get there,” he says. “I love you.” Teddy kisses Cal, then me. Cal and I watch him walk out of the airport. Cal blows a spit bubble that I wipe away with my hand.

“Let’s go to our gate,” I say to him with mock enthusiasm.

Cal sleeps on the plane until we begin our descent. Then he cries and shrieks inconsolably because the pressure change hurts his ears. I try to comfort him, but to no avail. My seatmate looks at us, concerned. She says, “The landing always hurts their little ears.” I nod and blow on Cal’s face to soothe him. Once we’re on the ground he calms down, but I let everyone else off before I stand up. “We’re not in a hurry, are we?” I say to Cal, shaking my head and he laughs.

“Have a nice day,” a flight attendant says as we exit. Cal gurgles back at her.

Only my mother has come to the airport to pick us up. I notice that her hair is a weird shade of burnt orange and it’s not done, which is unusual for her. She grabs Cal from me right away, and showers us both in kisses.

“I know you’re looking at my hair,” she says to me, while pretending to want to eat Cal’s hand.

“I am,” I say. “What happened to it?”

“Ugh,” she groans, “life happened, Renee. Life happened.”

I look at her quizzically and then she says “I tried to save some money by seeing a junior stylist. Not the worst fifty dollars I ever spent, but certainly not the best.”

I load my stuff and Cal’s stuff into the trunk, and slam it closed.

“All set,” I say, and climb into the passenger’s seat.


For the first ten minutes of the drive, we are all silent. As we get onto the highway, my mother says, “Your father is not feeling very well and he’s quite weak.” I turn toward her, and she sees my concern. “I didn’t say anything before because I didn’t want you to worry. It is what it is.”

“Is he okay?” I ask dumbly. Cal gives an excited shout from his car seat. My mother glances in the rearview mirror and makes a silly face at him. “He’ll be Okay,” she says, looking over at me. “It’s been hard on him. Your father always thought he was invincible.”

She steers the car into the driveway and beeps the horn. As we begin unloading, my Dad comes to the front door and calls out “You girls need any help?” I turn around and am surprised by my father’s appearance. It’s two in the afternoon and he’s wearing his bathrobe still. He’s very thin, and his cheeks have hollowed out. I haven’t seen him since Cal was born, which was two months after he was diagnosed. He still looked like himself then.


“Dad,” I say, surprised. My mother says, “We’ve got it, Phil. Can you go put some water on for tea?”

My father waves to acknowledge her request and goes back inside. “You see?” my mother says to me, while removing a lock of orange hair from her face.

I take Cal into the bedroom where my mother has placed our bags. “I borrowed this crib from a neighbor with young grandchildren,” she says. “Don’t worry, I cleaned it.” I place Cal in the crib and begin shoving my clothes into the dresser drawers. My mother takes Cal from the crib and says “he’s not sleepy.”

“I know,” I say. I sit down next to her on the bed, and lean my head against her shoulder. I hear my father cough in the kitchen. “Tea’s ready,” he calls out, and coughs again.


In the kitchen, there is a high chair pulled up to the table for Cal, but my mother holds him on her lap instead. My father is letting Cal grab his finger. Cal has a firm hold on it, but looks around, confused. He spots me and gurgles. “I have to call Teddy,” I say, and step out of the kitchen.

I walk down the hall, and breathe in the familiar smell of my parents and their things. This house reminds me of our old house – same furniture, decorations, colors. ‘

I call Teddy and he answers on the first ring. “You there?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say. “We’re having tea.”

“How’s Cal?” he asks.

“Himself,” I say and Teddy laughs.


Growing up, my room was across the hall from my parent’s room. As an adolescent, I lived in near constant fear of one day hearing them having sex. I only ever heard them twice, and both times they didn’t know that I was home, at least initially. At first I would try not to listen, but then I would strain to hear. The second time I was thirteen and didn’t go to track practice after school like I was supposed to.  My parents came out of their room to find me in the kitchen and were clearly startled by my presence. My father was wearing only his underwear and they both stumbled in laughing. “Hi,” I said, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. My mother later tried to talk to me about sex, about it’s being a physical declaration of adult love, but I shut her down with a disgusted “Mom, gross.”

Later, in high school, my friends and I searched the house for pornography, but turned up nothing. “It’s because your parents are so old,” my friend Amber said. Her father, she said, had loads of porn. “That’s grosser,” I said to her in return. “Yeah,” she said. “And the girls in the magazines are always pursing their lips and slapping their own asses.” We laughed, pretending that we thought it was stupid, but were anxious to see the pictures and to try out the poses in front of our own bedroom mirrors.

I return to the kitchen and find my parents still at the table. My mother looks up at me and asks what I want for dinner. Cal is asleep, and I motion for her to go and put him down in his crib. Dad asks me if I want to help him make burgers for the grill. “Sure,” I say and wash my hands at the kitchen sink. He goes out to the patio to light the coals. I lean back against the counter and yawn. “You must be exhausted too,” my mother says, reappearing in the kitchen.

My father comes back inside and puts the hamburger meat in a bowl. I chop up onion and garlic and he adds his secret spice mix and breadcrumbs to the meat. We shape the patties while my mother prepares potatoes for grilling and then chops the vegetables for the salad. Cal stirs, but my mother says “sit” and goes to check on him.

My father says, “Cal sure looks like you.” I say, “He does, but he has Teddy’s eyes.” He says, “You and me look alike.” And I say, “Yeah, people back home still tell me ‘you look just like your dad’.” My father gets a kick out of this, and playfully slaps one of my meat spackled hands with his own. I notice how thin his skin is, how blue the veins are. He notices me noticing and says “Dying ain’t pretty, is it?”

“You’re not dying,” I say.

He says, “Eventually.”


That night while lying in bed, I try and recall the last time I slept alone. Before Teddy, I think. Teddy and I have not spent a night apart since I moved in with him, even before we were married. Cal makes a soft cooing noise in the crib. I can see the light from my parents bedroom shine through the crack between my bedroom door and the floor. I hear my mother moving around, opening and closing drawers. I think about what life will be like when they’re both gone. I wonder if Cal will have time to remember them. My mother knocks softly on my door. “All set?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say quietly.

“Goodnight, Renee,” she says and closes the door.

She turns her bedroom light off and then the house is still and silent. I fall asleep quickly and wake up to find Cal sitting up, staring at me, light now streaming in through the blinds. He holds his hands out to me, wanting me to pick him up. I watch him want me, watch him start to cry for me, and I count in my head “one, two, three, four, five” before rising to go and get him.


In the two weeks I visit with my parents, not a lot happens. My mother and I go shopping, we get our nails done, we cook dinner. My father and I watch movies, eat popcorn and talk about old times. One night, we all play Scrabble in the kitchen. Two nights before I’m supposed to leave, I wake a little after midnight with an unsettled feeling, and can’t get back to sleep. I go to the kitchen for a glass of water and see my mother out on the patio smoking a cigarette. I watch her for a minute then join her outside.

“Mom,” I say softly, so I don’t startle her, “I thought you quit.” She looks at me and then at the cigarette. She shrugs. “What’s the point?” she says then offers me a drag. I accept. We hand the cigarette back and forth between drags, alternately inhaling and exhaling.

“Is dad going to die soon, very soon?” I ask her, gulping down smoke. She exhales slowly, then drops the cigarette onto the concrete surface of the patio. She grinds it out with her heel, sending a few glowing red ashes into the air. “I don’t know,” she says, “The cancer is fast growing.”

”What will you do?” I ask her. I have never known my mother without my father. “I’ll live,” she says. “You get married knowing that one of you will die first.”

“I suppose,” I say, then look down and say “shit” for no particular reason. I reach for her pack of cigarettes and light another.

“I never thought you’d marry Teddy,” my mother says suddenly.  I take a long drag from the cigarette and try to blow a smoke ring.

“I like Teddy,” she offers. “It’s not that I don’t.”

“Teddy’s a good man,” I say in response.

“Should I not have said that?” she asks me.

“Why shouldn’t you have?” I ask, and look at her.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I never seem to have learned when to keep my mouth shut.”

The bluish glow of the patio light makes my mother look twenty years younger than she really is. She’s fine boned and slender, with a long, graceful neck. She seems like a stranger to me for a brief moment, until I notice the motherly look of concern still present on her face.

“Your hair is really ugly,” I say. We start to laugh, but stop when we hear my father cough. “Let’s go in,” my mother says, and turns off the light.


Lying back in bed, I’m slow to realize that I don’t need to keep to my side. I inch toward the center of the bed and find it cold. If I wake up in the middle of the night at home, I reach for Teddy, comfort myself with his body. The first time I saw Teddy again as an adult was after I’d finished college. I had returned home to be around my friends, most of whom had never left. My parents had already moved out of state by that time, and I was living in a small two bedroom apartment with a friend of a friend who was a nurse. She was engaged and would be moving out in a few months. She spent most nights at her fiancé’s house. Teddy was a friend of the fiancé. He came over one night when my roommate was gone and invited me out for dinner. Since I was already eating dinner, I invited him in to join me.


Later, we went out for a drive and it felt a lot like a high school date. We ended up parked near the river, watching the occasional train roar past on the tracks. He showed me how to angle my wrist to skip a stone across the water so that it wouldn’t just bounce and then sink. We had sex in his car. Afterward, he told me that he had just finished up his associate’s degree in business at the local community college. He hoped to combine his knowledge of cars with his newfound knowledge of business. I told him I wasn’t sure what I wanted. Things were casual, but steady between us for a few weeks until I found a job two hours west, in the city, and then that was that.

A couple of years after I had moved to the city I got a call from Teddy. He was headed out for a few days and wanted to know if I’d like to meet up with him. “Sure,” I said. He stayed with me for the entire three days of his trip. He was familiar, even back then. I would wake up in the morning comforted by the smell of his skin, his hair. On the final day of his trip he said, “You know, I came out here just to see you.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m flattered.” He pushed my hair back away from my face.

“Well,” he said, “back to life, right?”


We kept up our relationship by phone and the occasional weekend together. Then, during one visit ten months after his first, Teddy asked me to marry him. I said yes without hesitation. I left the city and moved back home and in with him. Things felt right. We bought our house and fixed it up. I started working for a local advertising and marketing firm. After we were married awhile, we started trying for a baby. It took me six months to get pregnant with Cal. My parents came back and stayed with us for a few weeks after he was born. My mother helped me figure out diapers and feedings. I struggled. “It doesn’t just come so easy, like people think,” she said to me.


The sound of coffee brewing gently awakens both Cal and me. I climb out of bed to get him, and hear my father coughing, a sound which has now become familiar. I take Cal out into the kitchen. My mother comes in and tells me she is not feeling well, and is heading back to bed. I eat cereal with my father. Afterward, I take Cal on a morning walk through the neighborhood, before it gets too hot. He shrieks with delight when he sees all the little lizards running across the sidewalk, darting into the scraggly, almost bare shrubs. Looking down on them and at Cal, and feeling the openness of the Arizona landscape makes me feel vast and enormous. I suck as much air as I can into my lungs and don’t exhale. I start to push the stroller very fast and then let go. Cal does his happy gurgle and claps. I think about what it might feel like to just keep walking out into the desert, out to the horizon line. The car zooms past me and Cal, creating a rush of wind, which Cal turns his face into, not away from.

The plane ride home is not so bad; Cal sleeps the entire time. We arrive and find Teddy waiting for us right outside the gate. “There’s my family,” he says to us once we’re within earshot. He kisses me and takes Cal. “How was your trip?” he asks.

“It was fine,” I say. “My mother has started smoking again.”

Teddy sucks air into his cheeks. “How’s your dad?” he asks.

We head to the baggage claim and stand there talking until the bags come out on the carousel. Teddy hands Cal back to me and grabs our luggage. “Christ,” he says when he retrieves my suitcase.

“My mother bought stuff for Cal,” I say to explain the added weight.


In the days and weeks that follow the trip, my mother and I go from talking once a week to at least twice a week as my father grows weaker. I brace myself for his impending death, knowing that I will likely not see him alive again. Teddy tells me to go out there and says that he’ll take care of Cal, but I can’t bring myself to go. I begin getting up very early every morning. I use the time to tend to my garden, which is now bursting with flowers.


One morning, Teddy joins me outside with Cal. Wordlessly, he spreads a blanket on the ground and he and Cal spread out beside me. I keep pulling weeds, adding them to the now burgeoning pile of dying things that I’ve created beside me. As I pull, Cal crawls up next to me. He reaches for a petunia, and yanks a wilted flower from its stem. He holds it out for me to take from him. Teddy laughs. “He’s just like you,” he says. I take the petunia from Cal. “Thank you,” I say to him. Inside the house, the phone begins to ring. I silently count “one, two, three, four, five” before standing up to go and answer it.

##
Cara-Aimee Long currently lives in New York State, though not New York City. She is not especially good at writing short bios.

© 2013, Cara-Aimee Long