Herewith, a short story about the horror of habits, about the crush of daily life and the way mundane things can multiply into tragedy. Set amongst California wildfires and searing Santa Ana winds, a young couple struggles to balance love, work and sanity in the swirling aftermath of becoming new parents. Tammy Greenwood’s “Vee” is a tale of survival, a domestic war story whose battles lines are drawn around sleepless nights, diaper changes and the unflinching demands of the modern American parent. Greenwood’s novels have been called “heartbreaking, thrilling and painfully beautiful” and “Vee” is no exception. The author of seven novels, Greenwood was born in and often writes about Vermont, but now lives and works in San Diego, California. She is a teacher, a mother, and full-time writer and tireless supporter of the arts. Her most recent novel, Grace, was released this spring by Kensington Books. Read an interview with her here at Numéro Cinq.
Backwards. This is how you live your life now. Beginning with that moment (the only one that matters anymore) and moving in reverse. Backtracking, rewinding, tripping and snagging on every single other moment that distracted you, that precipitated this. You are haunted by the neon clothes hanger sign at the dry cleaners, by your cell phone, by the piece of trash on the ground that you could not ignore. The world mocks you with its endless opportunities to avoid this disaster.
This is the morning, every morning, that morning. Bleary-eyed a little hung-over from one glass too many after dinner and not enough uninterrupted sleep, you piss and then make your way downstairs. Despite having been up crying most of the night, the baby is wide awake in the high chair. Her face is round, dimpled, dirty. So similar to yours. She ignores you as you make your way to the kitchen to the coffee, preoccupied by her own small hands. Your wife, the one you still love though you can no longer always remember why, is standing at the sink, and her hips are wider. You don’t know this body. Sometimes you’ll be sitting on the couch or in your bed and she’ll move past, and you’ll think, just for a second, Who the hell is that? And then you remember: it’s Rachel. Your wife. And that knock of recognition makes you feel sad. Arrogant. As if you haven’t changed yourself. And then as a reprimand, a reminder, you run your hand across the top of your head, acknowledging for the third time this week that your hair is thinner. Coffee? She hands you a cup, you smell toast and the musty scent of her breath, see the newspaper laid out like a lover on the table. She has already pulled out the Business section and put it on top for you. You know underneath is the Arts section and beneath that is the front page. The toast is buttered, the juice has no pulp and fills three quarters of the glass. She has made sure that your phone is charged.
You are victims of habit.
The baby. There are Cheerios scattered across the smooth white expanse of the high chair tray. You glimpse something brownish-orange congealed on the edge of the plastic, sweet potatoes or apricots from a different meal, and you resist the disgust. You are still learning tolerance to filth. The smells of shit and powder, the presence of curdled spit-up on Rachel’s clothes. The sweet smell of breast milk on everything. It has been seven months, and yet you still get nauseous every time you wake up to the sour smell of milk-soaked sheets. “Vee,” you call the baby. She returns your greeting with a small sucking sort of giggle and you notice there is a Cheerio stuck to her cheek. You feel momentarily embarrassed for her, as if she is a full grown man who has been walking around with his fly down or someone who has been yapping on endlessly unaware of a bit of black pepper between the teeth. And then you think, correcting your thoughts as you so often have to do, she’s a baby. It’s cute. But there is something about her obliviousness that tears at your heart.
This is the name Rachel suggested as if she were really asking your opinion. It makes you think of the woman who lived down the street from your family when you were growing up. The one whose hands reminded you of gnarled roots. The one whose house smelled like vegetables: potatoes, rutabagas, dirt. The one who called you dear and pressed wheat pennies into your reluctant palm, the copper green at the edges. But you failed to make this connection for Rachel, to reveal this to her. Instead, you nodded, distracted by something on TV. That’s nice, you said, shrugging. And suddenly Rachel was ordering blankets embroidered with that old woman’s name. Cooing it to her belly. Vivian, Vivian. And all you could think of was creamed corn in chipped ceramic bowls. Salt-n-Pepper shakers shaped like dogs and accordion lampshades.
It’s too late. Vee.
You were ready for a baby in the way that anyone without children thinks they are ready. Meaning, you were thirty-two. Rachel was thirty and not getting any younger, she said. And when she said it, she didn’t touch you. As if it were your fault and as if you had already said no. Her eyes filled up and she had to look away. But what were you waiting for? Half of the things you thought you’d have by then you didn’t have and probably wouldn’t have any time soon (a house of your own, a career you loved, a car that didn’t have 100,000 miles on it and a piece of shit muffler). And so when you said, Why not? You meant it. And you have to admit that the way Rachel’s face lit up, the way she pressed her body into yours in a way she hadn’t in at least a couple of years, made you feel like this might be the start of something new between you. And, remarkably, a few things did fall into place because of the baby. For one, Rachel’s father gave you the down payment for the house, no questions asked. And because of the house, because of the mortgage, you suddenly found yourself working harder at the office, applying yourself, and because you weren’t being lazy anymore your boss started to notice you. You got a raise. You sold the old car and bought a used version of what you’d always wanted, washed it in the driveway every Saturday morning. And all the while you watched your wife swell. You watched your life swell. You put your hand across Rachel’s stomach and felt a sense of ownership. It was primitive and proprietary. Sometimes at night you dreamed that you swallowed her and the baby whole. Don’t forget, Rachel says from the kitchen. I’ve got a dentist appointment this morning before I go to the office. The daycare says Vivian can come early today. And you nod.
There is a tear in your shirt. You don’t notice it until after you are dressed and showered, smelling clean and feeling prickly. It is hot outside, and inside. You deny yourself the luxury of air conditioning, but the Santa Anas have made it almost unbearable lately. There’s a sewing kit in the kitchen drawer, Rachel says. I’ll get Vivian in her car seat. It seems strange not to be leaving them behind at the house, Rachel standing in the doorway with the baby on her hip, waving as you back out of the driveway. Rachel has started to work again, just two afternoons a week. On those days she drops the baby off after lunch at the daycare, the one with the painted sign with Raggedy Ann and Andy out front. The one whose yard is littered with palm fronds and rusty tricycles. You drive past the daycare on your way to work every day and feel badly that you can’t send her someplace better. But childcare is one expense that your father-in-law has not offered to pick up. Rachel’s father doesn’t think she should be working yet. Only you know that it makes her feel good to put on makeup and heels and get away from the house a few hours every week. Only you know that without the job things would be even tighter than they already are, that without this job you might not be able to make that car payment.
You find the sewing kit. The only thread left is purple. Shit. Instead of trying to fix it, you decide it might be easier just to change. Bring the shirt to the dry cleaner to repair; you’ve got some pants to pick up anyway. Love you, she says, as you each get into your cars. And, rolling down the window, she asks, Can you also pick up the challah?
Vivian, asleep, nestled in the car seat. And you envy her.
It is Friday. Shabbat. In your family only your father is Jewish and not a very good Jew at that, but Rachel is. Every Friday night her parents come over fromLa Jolla to your house and your father-in-law leads the blessing, a dreamy artifact of Friday dinners with your grandparents when you were small. You are expected to light the candles, whisper the prayers. You feel as though you are trespassing, but these traditions matter to Rachel. These rituals. They are, she says, what bind a family together.
On Fridays, you have your staff meetings. Today you are going to present your idea for the new website for the client you somehow managed to convince to go with your company instead of that place in LA. You know this may be your last chance to redeem yourself. It may even be your last chance to save your job. Because since the baby came, your work has suffered. You are too tired. Sometimes, the images on the computer blur and spin and all that ambition and drive you had when Rachel was pregnant has been sucked away by the sleepless nights, by the demands. Sometimes you close your office door and put your head down, waking up like a kid caught sleeping in class, a puddle of drool at your cheek and your heart pounding. They have let four of your twenty-five co-workers go in the last three months. There is no reason why they should keep you. This is the other reason you do not sleep.
Some days you drive to work and realize you don’t remember getting there. You heard about this once, this fugue state. The way a body remembers while the brain vacates. Rachel says it happens to her too. She says she’ll get in the car, turn on the radio, and then suddenly realize that she’s in the grocery store parking lot and can’t remember getting there. You share these somnambulant stories. Wonder at how it is you’re still alive.
You reach for your cell phone to find out how late the City Deli is open. You hope you can grab the challah after work. If not, you’ll need to go during lunch. But you’ve forgotten your phone at home. You picture it sitting next to the bowl of brown bananas and wrinkled apples, the black umbilical of the recharger crawling across the countertop. Without it, you feel, momentarily, like an amputee. The sense of absence, loss, bigger than it should be. It’s just a phone, you remind yourself. You have a phone at work. But something nags at you, and then you remember the tear in the shirt, and the rest of the dry cleaning that needs to be picked up. And so you take a different route than usual, turn left instead of right at the end of your street. There is a detour: orange cones against so much gray asphalt. It is labyrinthine, this path away from your neighborhood, unfamiliar but familiar at the same time. Each house you pass could be your own.
But finally, you find yourself at the strip mall, the one with the cleaners’. You are running late now, but you stop and run inside and ask the old woman at the counter to mend the hole, exchange the torn shirt for six pairs of your pants swaddled in soft plastic. But just as you are about to toss them into the backseat, you see a candy wrapper someone has discarded on the ground. Litter pisses you off. The arrogance of it. The carelessness. You bend over to pick it up with your free hand and then bump your head hard on the side view mirror when you stand back up. The sting and warm trickle tells you it’s not just a bump but a cut as well. And so you get in the driver’s side, toss the pants on the passenger’s seat, and tilt the rearview mirror toward your face to examine the wound. You dab at the blood, shake your head.
It is so hot.
You start the car, and sweat rolls down your sides in cold beads. Have you forgotten deodorant? You wrack your brain, remember the shower, the sting of aftershave. You try to remember whether or not you opened the medicine cabinet door, try to recollect the smooth roll under your arms. You can’t. Shit. You glance at your watch. The meeting is at 9:00. There isn’t time to go home. You imagine yourself standing before the expectant faces of your boss and his boss. Your co-workers who are all hoping it will be you next instead of them. You touch the tender spot on your head again and are glad it’s stopped bleeding. The air conditioner blows cold air through the vents, numbing your knuckles as they grip the wheel and your way to the freeway.
Windows rolled up.
When you do sleep, your dreams are filled with disasters. You see your fears like bullet points in a Powerpoint presentation. Enumerated and illuminated.
- A sink hole swallows the house.
- Elevator cables snap.
- Brakes fail.
- You fail.
- Things catch on fire.
All of the ways that everything can come undone. When you wake up, trembling and sweating, Rachel is sometimes already awake, sitting in the glider by the window, nursing Vee, both of them bathed in blue light. And this pulls you back to reality. Back to the safety of the moment. You feign sleep and watch her, watch them. And it is in these moments that you remember. It is so overwhelming sometimes it feels like falling through an open window.
A pang of guilt hits and you know you should do something to show her that you do still love her. That you love Vee more than you thought possible. That you are a good man. A good husband. A good father.
Vivian. The baby. Vee.
Sometimes when you hold her and she is sleeping, her lips puckered into a pink pout, her black eyelashes kissing the tops of her cheeks, you feel happiness so deep it is almost the same as sorrow. You don’t know how to tell Rachel this without sounding crazy, and so you keep it to yourself.
By the time you get off the freeway and navigate the traffic to the office park, you have cooled off and have mentally prepared for the meeting. You practice your speech in your head. You park the car at the far end of the lot in the shade. You lock the car door.
They are waiting for you. No time to call the deli about the challah, no time to check the messages, though the red light is blinking on your office phone. In the conference room, the men sit around the table with their coffee cups and sarcasm. “Look what the cat dragged in,” they joke at your expense. Then you get started.
By noon when you spill out of the conference room, your boss slapping your back, “Good work,” he says, and you are overwhelmed with relief. Safe for now. The sun is beating in through the one window in your office. You have to adjust your computer monitor to avoid the unfortunate glare. You think about pulling the blinds, but you worry that darkness will only make it harder to stay awake. You glance out the window at the parking lot. This is when you see the Bloodmobile and are suddenly filled with purpose. The wild fires have been raging in the mountains east of here for two weeks. The Santa Anas and this incredible heat are to blame. Your blood type is O-. You are the Red Cross’s dream.
Normally, you bring a lunch. Rachel packs leftovers into Tupperware, throws in a bag of carrots, a bottle of water. But on Fridays you and Logan Jones take your car to a place down the road and get cheese steaks and chicken wings. Sometimes you’ll have a couple of beers too and come back to the office happier than when you left. But today just as you are about to check your messages and then call the deli, Logan comes in, “Ready?” and you say, “Not today. Giving blood.” The messages can wait. Instead you take the stairs two at a time and open the door to the hottest day of the summer. You loosen your tie and make your way to the Bloodmobile.
In your mind you imagine telling Rachel that you gave blood today. What a good guy, she’ll say. And then you’ll give her the challah and a bouquet of flowers from the flower shop next to the deli. Daisies maybe. Irises in a cloud of baby’s breath. You’ll tell her that you’ll say the blessing tonight at Shabbat. That you’ll get up later when Vee cries.
You are paralyzed whenever Vee cries. Powerless. In the first few weeks, sometimes Rachel would look at you, waiting to see what you’d do, challenging you, which made you even more reluctant to respond. And then, exasperated, she’d shove you aside and go to Vee, latching her onto her breast, eyeing you angrily, swaying and whispering secrets into her small ears. You used to worry they were conspiring against you. But tonight, you will go to her. You will not pretend to be asleep. You will whisper, Shhh, I’ve got it, don’t get up. And you will go to her crib, pick her up. Make her stop crying, hold her until she falls asleep.
You close your eyes as the needle goes in and as the blood drains from your arm, you feel sleep coming on. An undertow of exhaustion. You lean your head back on the crinkly tissue paper, opening your eyes only when the needle slips effortlessly out of your arm and the nurse hands you a plastic cup of orange juice. You glance at your watch, there’s still time to run to the deli. To get the bread. The flowers. Maybe even a bottle of wine to celebrate.
There are waves of heat rising from the pavement. You are light-headed, your knees weak. You go to the car and think maybe you shouldn’t be driving. You put your hand on the hot trunk, to steady yourself. Shake your head, stretch your neck. Look in through the rear window at the back seat.
The car seat.
Vivian. The baby. Vee.
Windows rolled up. It is so hot.
Vivian, asleep, nestled into the car seat.
And you envy her.
Vivian. It’s too late. Vee.
You are victims of habit.
Backwards. This is how you live your life now.
— T. Greenwood
T. Greenwood is the author of seven novels. She has received grants from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and, most recently, the Maryland State Arts Council. TWO RIVERS was named Best General Fiction Book at the San Diego Book Awards in 2009. Five of her novels have been BookSense76/IndieBound picks; THIS GLITTERING WORLD was a January 2011 selection, and GRACE is an April 2012 selection. She teaches creative writing at for San Diego Writer’s, Ink. She and her husband, Patrick, live in San Diego, CA with their two daughters. She is also an aspiring photographer.