It was a Sunday. She rolled over. "Good morning." It was one of the things he loved about her, so perceptive. It was a good morning.
"It's a girl," she said. "I can feel it."
"Me too." Being a half-truth, he said it with frontloaded conviction. Whenever he touched her, touched them, he felt nothing. His daughter, hiding from him. Waiting to surprise him. His wife felt everything and he was left to imagine the hands stretching and feet kicking and how nothing in his life would ever be the same. "A girl for sure."
As his wife grew, she started wearing his clothes. For the joke first, a parade of his teaching clothes, the marker-stained sweaters and khakis, his Friday jeans, the acid wash double-decade survivors. Then she wore them for the necessity, his yard work t-shirts honeycombed with holes, his pajamas, the priceless Collective Soul longsleeve, his socks. "At least these still fit me," she laughed, and he told her that she wore all of it well.
They were at the movies, the anniversary of their second first date. Everything on the marquee was a sequel to something he hadn't seen. The titles all looked like the names of imported cars. "Anything you want," he said. "But Harrison's got an earring now."
"I know," she said, tugging his ear. "Dead sexy. Think about it."
In the seats, he put his hand on her stomach. "I think you are going to be a scientist like your father."
"No, no," she said. "She'll be a quality control supervisor for heart valves. Like her mother, she will aim for the stars."
"Let's compromise," he said. "President."
"Ah. You're going to be a tiger dad?"
"I'm an optimist."
"I thought you were a biologist."
"I'm a teacher."
"So you're a pessimist."
"Not in the summer."
She laughed, winced, then brushed him away. "I feel weird." She held herself, encircled herself; the future president's first security detail. She frowned. "It's probably the popcorn."
He told her he did not, as a general rule, believe in frowns. A joke, and one of his better ones, but then she was bleeding, and in an hour they were at the hospital.
Self-help books are quick to remind their legion wallowers that it takes more muscles to frown than to smile, but rarely do people mind the extra effort of being unhappy. Reassurance, he thinks, takes the most effort – his students, row after row confident in the architecture of their interest, every day betrayed by misfires of boredom below the mouth and around the eyes, and on their anniversary his wife, now empty, telling him everything would be fine.
They drank more juice. She took all of the vitamins. They bought a Ninja blender that cost more than his first car. They returned the pink of the nursery to beige. She returned him to jogging. "It is important to stay healthy, she said. "Our health is everything. If we are trying again, who knows how long it will take. I want to be the mom at fifty who runs all those skinny young bitches into the ground."
They ran, and most of the time, she was so far ahead that they didn't look like they were together. He wheezed and hacked along, chasing her distance. On the weekends, when everyone was out with their dogs and pushing strollers – they had a nice neighborhood for that – they felt naked.
"We should get a dog," he said as he panted like one.
She shook her head. He remembers when, for the first time, she was more out of breath than he was. They were both hopeful. "Stop that."
"I mean, a dog too."
"I’m not giving up."
"Neither am I."
"Really." She slowed to a walk. "I did marry a man who roots for ties."
"No way. Not now. We're going. All. The. Way."
She stopped and stared at him. "We are, aren't we?" Then she leaned over and threw up. "That's more like it."
On the eighth of July, they lit two Chinese lanterns at the lake. In the unwanted bins of fireworks left over from the Fourth, the tissue paper orbs had been free; too frail, the manager had said, to store and save for next year. The instructions, betrayed in translation, told them to Please do the Waiting of Interval Sixty-Ninety Seconds or Until Hotness Exists, and they did. The lanterns filled, ballooning out from the center, and they could feel the heat on their fingertips.
"Let's name them," he said. They had been talking names.
"No," she said, "that would be a mistake."
He was careful not to argue with her. It had not been one of their better days. This time she had been sick from the beginning. This time the doctors knew from the start. Choriocarcinoma. And another girl.
"It's time," she said, holding hers up, round and heavy with light, before she let it go.
The lantern hovered over their heads and ascended slowly, carried by the wind at a diagonal over the lake. As it spiraled and climbed, orbiting an unseen body, he thought of a leaf falling upward on the sky.
"Let go," she said to him. Her face had darkened, and his lantern kept half of her in shadow. She said again, "Let go." She looked old. They both were old. "Let it go."
His did not take the leisurely circuit. It climbed desperately, caught by a strong updraft, its fire raging, and followed hers over the lake. At the center of the lake, his, traveling lower, was reflected in the water. He moved to hold her. They watched as the lights, a pair again, shuddered and rose, burning and blinking – a passing plane, new fireflies, a binary star whose name they should know.
"You aren't going to catch me," she said.
"Of course it will," he said. "Give it a second."
But she was right, as usual. Hers was flickering in and out, and for minutes on end he worried he'd lost sight of it completely. He asked, "Did you make sure to light yours all the way?"
She laughed. "What a question."
They watched for five minutes or five years. She grew tired and had to sit, and he sat too. The doctors said this daughter would be dangerous, that she should wait and try again. They said not everyone is meant to have children. Biologically, of course. They were all sure if given the chance she'd be an excellent mother.
They stared at the horizon, past hers disappearing, past his hovering where hers had gone out, past the empty sky, past the lights coming on in the ranger station on the far side of the lake. When the sun rose, he let himself imagine the warmth as a fire started by two lanterns finding synchronous orbit beyond the curve of the earth. But he was rational. He was a scientist. The lanterns died out hours before.
"No wonder they were free," he whispered to himself when he was sure she was asleep. "That was really goddamn sad."
"Why?" she mumbled. "They'll land in the same place."
These days, she says this is only how he likes to remember it. She says the lanterns barely made it off the ground; they were free because they were broken, they were goddamn pathetic but not so goddamn sad. She says he only remembers what he wants to remember, and that makes for bad stories. He will admit now he has told his truth so many times that the details have scrambled. Even a small change repeated over time can become a mistake. These days she reminds him it was the first of July. She says it rained.
"Remember toward the end," she says, "when you had to stay up all night?"
"Remember," she says, "when I couldn't eat breakfast? Remember when we blended everything?"
"Remember," she says, "when we moved into the hospital?"
"Remember," he says, "how many times I asked you to let it go?" He remembers telling her about the sea turtles. A bad idea.
"If something does not grow," she says, "if something stays the same, it can be very lonely for all that it should have been. Remember that nature is not always natural."
He remembers repainting the room and putting stars on the ceiling, how they were hopeful until the end. He remembers at the end when she slept all the time, and when she was awake, how he told her she was beautiful and that he would have it no other way. She smiled but didn't laugh. She reminded him that one day he will run out of material. He tried to remember if she had laughed since the movie theater. She said one day he will run out of material and will have to tell the truth.
She left him on a Monday. He remembers finding her last note by the bedside. We will always be with you. They were gone, so this could not be true. He was a scientist. He was rational. She was gone.
Joseph Horton teaches writing at the University of California, Davis. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared with Ploughshares, Colorado Review, Midwestern Gothic, Day One, Joyland, and Hobart. He is a graduate of the Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, and he is playwright-in-residence with Savio(u)r Theatre Company. He lives in the Bay Area.
THE ELIZABETH KOSTOVA FOUNDATION and VAGABOND, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at VAGABOND are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages.