Photo Finish

By Dana Bowman

Contemplating the beginning of a run is like contemplating world peace,  cumbersome and impossible.  She proceeded anyway, and slowly her jangled nerves and tired muscled eased into a rhythm.  The soft pad, pad, pad of her feet against the sodden leaves on the road kept time with her heartbeat.  A squirrel skittered across her path, and one of the neighbor dogs barked longingly at her as she passed.  The town felt quilted from loud sounds by the cold.

It was Saturday evening, so she avoided Main street.  Usually this was a favorite part of her run, always someone to wave to; the glowing windows filled with antiques and snow shovels or cheerful floral displays.  But this night she headed out of town, to the dirt road that would lead her to fields brown with stubble. She craved a solitary place so badly it made her grimace.  The dirt road was lumpy and damp, slowing her considerably.  This, she realized, was good.  She could watch things.  She could just run and breathe and look.   In the distance, a creek bed was laced with more of the inky black trees, their branches like spidery cracks in a windshield.  The night glowed behind them creating cut images and silhouettes in the blue.  On a fencepost she actually spotted a hawk waiting for some poor field mouse.  It fluffed its feathers and posed for her, looked cross.  No meal yet.   Tonight was not for speed or pacing or tempo runs.  Tonight was a night to run as far away as possible.  And then, run farther still.

Really, it hadn’t been all that terrible of a day.  Charlie had been his usual cheerful and industrious self, flitting manically from train sets to dump trucks and race cars, all the while giving her a very rapid fire explanation of his every thought.  He brought her train after train, triumphantly announcing that they were “Bwoo!  Mommy!! Bwoo twain!  Choooo chooo!!!.”   With all the diplomacy of a little dictator, he insisted on vehement appreciation with each announcement, so she would stop, admire the train, confirm the color and give him a pat.  He was a specialist in cuteness, and she appreciated it.  A lot.  At times she and Justin had marveled at the cuteness of their children – how did this happen?  They were sweet, agreeable, little blond-haired boys with few tantrums and a fairly decent ability to sleep.  What else could she ask for?

Henry too had circled her ankles and stopping to pat her occasionally with his cold little hands.  He would smile at her and wrinkle his nose like a rabbit.

But there had been that moment in the morning when she was behind a closed door in the bathroom, trying desperately to get a shower in, and all the while they were both sitting outside the door methodically pounding and wailing…  When she had wiped the steam away from the mirror a portrait of an older woman wearily smiled back at her.  She found herself chuckling at her moisturizer, cheerfully promising her that it would “Defy age!” It could not, however, defy two babies.

Dinner had been macaroni and cheese, again, and as much as Justin smiled and exclaimed, “I love mac and cheese!”  his enthusiasm was too loud and a bit plastic, and his eyes were tired.  It was silly, but it unraveled her.  Wet laundry festered in the washing machine, dishes littered the kitchen, and the house was slowly sinking under its own clutter.  Her days had caught her in an endless game of egg in the spoon, racing back and forth, back and forth, surrounded by shattered egg shells.

The run was nearly half over, and she picked up her pace a bit; in the middle of the fields the wind was sharper.  Ahead were two lone hills, scrubbed by wind and black and lurking in the twilight.  Something clattered and flapped away in the roadside stubble of a wheat field, and she stopped running and just stood in the middle of the road.  She listened.  The winter horizon of fields in Kansas can ache with lonely beauty.   She listened to the grass rustle and the low cackle of a pheasant nearby, to her breathing, slowing.  And then she turned to face the town that she had run away from.

At the end of the dirt road, back to town, a pickup truck stopped, turned, squealing its brakes and cracking the stillness.  Country music wailed eerily back at her from its taillights. The town was bordered by a few lone houses, gloomy now in the gathering night.  It was a Wyeth painting.  The grain elevator and water tower in the middle of town were still visible, and, if she squinted, so was the church steeple.  Houses with large front porches lined the street once it was paved.  Windows there would be yellow with light and life and dinner time inside.

Sara thought for just a minute that she heard the squeal and cry of a baby, her Henry, and this almost caused her to stumble.  As much as it made her feel crazy, she knew it wasn’t uncommon.  With Charlie her first born, she would constantly hear him at night, shrill as a kitten, mewing for more milk.  She would anxiously sit up in bed, peering blindly into the darkness and checking the monitor again and again.  Silence.  Just her “phantom baby” noise, as Justin affectionately called it. And then the same thing happened with Henry.  “It’s just God’s way of reminding you that you have a baby,” he joked.  She stared at him, exhausted, and bent to wipe a runny nose.  “Believe me, Justin, I’m well aware,” she shot back, a bit too loudly.  Justin came over to give her a hug, and for a moment she rested her head on his shoulder, breathing in his scent of soap.  She knew things would get better, but she was just so very tired. Now, in the middle of milo and wheat fields one mile from home, she knew the truth of it.  The phantom baby this time was simply leftover reverberations from the chaos of her day.   Once more she looked back to the still hills behind her.  A bit farther and she would reach the creek, and the moonlight would be just starting to glimmer on the murmuring water, thick as it was around the edges with ice.  The sky was turning such a deep periwinkle.  But she had to look down to keep her footing, and her walk quickened.  She turned and slowly resumed her run, back home.

Her love for her boys was as wide and bright as the sun.  This she understood.  But in all that illumination she had lost the picture of what she had imagined this life would be.  She had expected a woman with a bright smile, smooth hair, and a soft voice to show up and mother these babies, always so composed and easy. Instead, things were different. Her life was blurry with activity and as unfocused at times as her attempts to photograph her endlessly running boys.

Seven years ago, the summer that she had just met Justin, she had taken a trip to Venice.  She was by herself, and she remembered being both terrified and exhilarated while wandering the glorious city alone.  Of course, she missed Justin terribly, but it was a tender joyful ache.  He would be right there for her when she returned, how amazing!  She gloried in the pain of missing of him, of having someone to ache for.  Meanwhile, Venice felt like a walking dream, its streets cinematic, draped in gauzy veils of sunlight.  And yet her memories of those days were as cut and defined as a photograph.

One hot afternoon she had stopped and bought a peach at the market place.  The man who sold it to her smiled widely and she smiled back. He was so handsome.  But then, all Italians were; everyone was to love in Venice.  The peach she carried to the edge of the dock.  She sat, feet over the water, and ate it.  It was so fragrant and sweet it made her teeth ache.  Water lapped below her feet, and she leaned over and caught its reflections to make sure the juices ran off her hands into the canal below.  The sun warmed her skin, sticky with peach juice, and someone was singing.  Yellow buildings glistened across the canal.  The man she would marry (she knew this already; he did not) waited for her at home.

Sara’s run was almost done; she had started down the final block before her house.  Here, now, amidst her small town that sun-fragranced world seemed… not even far away but just gone, a movie set that had been disassembled.  As impossible in its existence as world peace.

She remembered that somewhere stuck to her refrigerator there was a picture of that very afternoon in Venice.  She wanted to find it. In it she is red-lipped and laughing, pointing to someone beyond the camera.  One hand rests almost seductively on her hip, as if flirting with the cameraman, but the shot had been entirely candid.  In Venice she felt beautiful and poised in ruby red lips and nails; the sunlight there seemed to bless the sensual colors.  She hadn’t worn such a bright crimson since.

She creaked up the porch stairs and hesitated at the door, peering in the warmly lit window inside.  There was no sign of anyone, just the framed cozy living room and softly flickering television.  That gave her the courage to take a deep breath and push open the door.  Almost tiptoeing, she crossed the living room, dining room, and found the three of them in the kitchen.  Absolutely covered in shaving cream.

“Hi honey!” Justin smiled loudly.  “We had gotten a bit cranky with our toys, so I figured it was time clean the floor.”  The three boys froze for her, and then Henry smiled.  His mouth was full of shaving cream.  Charlie was wide-eyed with the glorious mess he was making and looked a bit apologetic.  Justin laughed again at her rather weak attempt to smile.  “We meant to have it cleaned up before you got back… “

She caught her breath, said nothing, just crossed carefully over to the ‘fridge, slipping a bit, and started looking for the photo.  It was hidden probably behind numerous coupons and clippings for baby furniture or hair colorant.  At that moment, Henry decided he did not like the taste of shaving cream, and started to wail pitifully.  Sara turned rather clumsily in all the mess.  Her husband looked up at her hopefully as if to say “Isn’t this great?” and Charlie started inching his way towards Sara and muttering toddler condolences.   Henry just flapped his arms as if to take flight and wailed on.

And then, Sara was very, very tired and suddenly lightheaded.  Her heart fluttered a bit for her son.  It leapt for Charlie reaching up to offer her his sippy cup, and it leapt for her silly and handsome husband.  She leaned back against the ‘fridge and closed her eyes and laughed.  Henry’s head, when she held it to her lips, felt downy as a peach.   And she laughed so hard tears pooled in the corners of her eyes.  Justin, a bit worried, grabbed a rag and started daubing at her and at a now cooing Henry.

“Well, my dear, how was your run?”

Sara wiped away tears and a dollop of shaving cream, and her smile was bright as the Venetian sun.

“My run? My darling.  I’m pregnant. “

Dana Bowman is a mother, a teacher, a writer, and a runner, simultaneously.  This is possible because her children donate loads of material.  She has been published in numerous magazines, and is the proud author at Momsieblog.com.  She writes  because the toddlered life is too hilarious not to be recorded.

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