Knit, Purl, Breathe
“Why in the world would you want to do that?” Frank said, spewing bits of bacon from his breakfast onto the blue flowers of the tablecloth, his newspaper abandoned in front of him.
“I want to try something new, mix it up a bit. And I’ve always wanted to learn ballroom dancing, you know that,” Louisa said, crossing one arm over the other on the dining room table and looking right at Frank. She could hear the the reassuring tick of the clock on the mantle, and a lawn mower humming somewhere down the street.
Hunched, quiet and predictable, Frank had been Louisa’s husband since she was eighteen, almost twenty years now. It seemed that everything about Frank was losing color; his head, once lush with dark, curly hair, was now covered by a thin fuzz of grey; his disregard for clothing had resulted in a washed out black and blue wardrobe; his previously flushed skin was now pale and vein streaked from too many weekends spent inside with his radios.
“What about teaching that knitting class over at the community college? Maria’s been trying to get you to do that for years now,” Frank said.
Louisa shook her head, enjoying the way her newly bobbed hair tickled across her cheeks. Her sister Maria had been bugging her to teach a knitting class for years, but all Louisa could picture was a classroom full of old woman, needles clicking and clacking. Not exactly a good way to add some excitement to your life. And not exactly a good way to fix her marriage.
“I think it would be fun for us to learn something new together, step out of our routine.”
Louisa and Frank stared at each other, years of arguments roiling just below the surface. Their marriage had been peppered with subtle, quiet standoffs like this one, but lately, they had become less frequent, which was somehow worse. Last year Frank had become a licensed amateur radio operator. He threw himself into studying for his license for three months, and had spent the nine months since in the study, the door shut and radios blaring. Louisa watched as Frank retreated from their already tenuous marriage, every new radio part that arrived at the door driving them further apart.
“I’m busy with the radios,” Frank finally said, looking back down at his half-emptied plate.
She looked at the egg yolk drying on his stubbled chin and tried to remember a time when she had felt something other than amicable, familiar warmth towards him. Before she was able to dredge a memory from her mind, Frank pushed his chair back from the table and went to the study, likely to check-in with his radio buddies before work.
Louisa stared at her plate and tried to imagine what it would sound like if she threw it across the room at the mantle, like a Frisbee, shattering the the perfect white ceramic into tiny little shards.
The radio crackled and screeched down the hall. She often wondered who the voices on the other end of the speakers belonged to. Did they have families and wives too? What did they talk about all the time?
Louisa was cleaning the sidewalk at the far edge of the yard when Dante pulled his father’s sparkly blue Mazda up to the curb. Music pumped from inside the dark-windowed car.
She was wearing Frank’s giant green rubber boots, her sweat pants rolled up to her knees to keep them from getting wet. She realized the boys hadn’t noticed her at the edge of the lawn, garden hose in hand, water pouring out across the berry-riddled concrete. The Mulberry tree’s fruit, just last week plump and swollen, now stained the cement and squished under the too-big boots. Louisa could barely make out Brenton through the dark car windows as he reached into the back seat and pulled his soccer bag onto his lap. He turned towards the door, popped it open, and then leaned back into the car. Louisa felt her face flush, and concentrated on stuffing her thumb into the opening of the hose, aiming a high-pressure stream of water at a bunch of berries, washing them into the street. She kept her eyes on the sidewalk as Brenton walked up the stone pathway to the house. She heard Dante squeal the tires as he turned the corner at the end of the street.
“Mom. I didn’t know you were out here. Are you hiding over there?”
“I’m not hiding, I’m gardening,” Louisa said, holding up the hose for Brenton to see.
“Are you watering the sidewalk? God, why do you do that?”
“It’s dirty, honey.”
“It’s the ground. It’s supposed to be dirty.”
Brenton tugged the front door open, soccer shorts hanging low on his thin hips. Louisa resisted the urge to run behind him and hitch them up.
“Are you sure you saw them kiss? Like an actual lip-to-lip kiss?” Maria pressed her teabag to the side of her mug with her spoon, squeezing out the hot water before setting it on her plate. Louisa had married Frank right after high school, while her sister Maria became a photographer, traveling the world until three years ago when she was lured home by a teaching job at the community college.
“Well no, but I definitely saw something. They leaned together before Brenton got out of the car,” Louisa said. She sat across the table from her sister at their favorite café, a small, trendy spot near Maria’s bachelor apartment.
“’Leaned together’? Lou, you’ve got to stop looking into things so much. They could have been high-fiving. Maybe Dante had something in his eye.”
Louisa clenched her hands together around her mug, folding the warm cup into her palms so tightly that it burned.
“I just know that something’s changing with him—I’m not sure I know him at all anymore. Not to mention that he never spends time with girls. Teenage boys spend time with girls, right?”
Maria shrugged and took a sip of her herbal tea. “Have you tried to talk to Frank?”
“If I wanted to talk to Frank I’d have to buy a radio,” Louisa said. She knew she sounded jilted and pitiful, but she couldn’t help it.
Maria tipped her cup and stared down at the watery dregs, as if the crushed green leaves would help her respond. “Let’s go get you an outfit for your class,” Maria gave Louisa’s hands a quick pat, and then stood, whisking her wrap around her shoulders. “I still can’t believe you’re doing this.”
“Oh I’m just full of surprises,” Louisa said.
Louisa watched as Frank stepped out of his khaki pants and dropped them into the laundry basket in the corner of the room. He stood in his underwear in front of the dresser, digging in a drawer in search of his pyjama bottoms.
“When was the last time you talked to Brenton?” Louisa asked. She set the sweater she was knitting on her lap.
“I talked to him this morning. I asked how soccer was going.” Frank scratched his chest and then sat down on the edge of the bed to pull on the bottoms.
“When was the last time you really talked to him—asked him what he thinks or feels or…likes?” Louisa could feel anger seeping into her words, bitter and strong, as she spoke to Frank’s slumped shoulders.
“I don’t know, Louisa. I’m tired.” Frank glanced at Louisa over his shoulder before he punched his pillow into place and lay down on his side. He’d been up late, playing with his radios.
It was right there on the tip of her tongue, poised, ready to be spat in his direction. She’d spent hours imagining the tight look of surprise that would flash across his usually flaccid face. Or anger—it was anger she really wanted. She’d never kept a secret from him before.
Instead of letting it spill free from inside her, she pushed it back down into its hiding place, somewhere between her sternum and her heart, and stared at Frank’s pale back. She thought of the last time they’d had sex. It was Memorial Day, two years ago, a week after Brenton’s fifteenth birthday. Frank had been at the company golf tournament all day and arrived home saturated with beer and sun. That night when Frank had slipped her thin cotton nightgown over her head and climbed on top of her, she was pleasantly surprised at his aggressiveness. The smell of Frank’s beer tinged breath reminded her of the years before Frank’s radios, when they used to sit on the veranda together, sipping beer and talking about Brenton, their future, their life together.
Louisa watched until Frank’s shoulder began to rise and fall with his soft snores and then picked up her knitting.
Louisa cleared her throat.
“Brenton?” Louisa waited for Brenton to look at her, but he kept his head bent over his homework, hair covering his eyes. She watched his fingers pushing a pen across his notebook. “Honey, do you ever talk to the girls at school?”
Brenton looked up from his textbook.
“Mom, I told you, the girls at school are lame.”
Brenton rolled his eyes and turned back to his biology assignment. Louisa picked up her knitting, eyes still on her son.
“And the boys?” Louisa tried to sound casual as she purled her next stitch. She had spent almost two months on the forest green sweater now, even though she knew it was unlikely that Brenton would ever wear it. Frank’s voice boomed from the study, loud spurts of conversation and muffled answers crackling across the radio waves.
“Dante’s okay. We hang out.” Brenton said after several moments. He kept his head down, his cheeks flushing red.
Louisa’s eyes widened and she quickly looked down at her yarn. Knit, purl, breathe. Knit, purl, breathe. She waited until she was sure she could keep her voice steady before speaking.
“Hang out sometimes? Does that mean that Dante’s your…”
Brenton’s head snapped up to face Louisa. “He’s not my boyfriend, Mom, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Louisa pulled more yarn from the ball tucked at her side in the recliner. She looked across the room at Brenton as he glared down at his book, his hand no longer moving across the page. She wondered what Maria would say, something gentle and encouraging, no doubt.
“It’s okay if he is, sweetie. I mean…” Louisa’s heart raced, pumping too much blood into her cheeks and limbs, making the knitting needles shake in her hands. “I mean I think it’s great, either way, whatever you are…er choose, you know.” Louisa kept her voice down, even though she knew Frank would never hear her over his radios.
“Mom, just drop it, alright?” Brenton said.
Louisa knit two whole rows on the long, green sleeve. She thought about her wedding day. Frank standing at the front of the church in his dark suit, his hair slicked down, a few rebellious wisps still curling around his ears, just like Brenton’s did now. Louisa remembered feeling panic that day, her father tugging her arm gently as they walked down the aisle. She had known then that it was wrong, a strong certain knowledge that started in her stomach and spread to every recess of her body, but she hadn’t stopped it.
She held the partially finished sweater up in front of her chest for Brenton to see.
“Does Dante look good in green?
Louisa rubbed her sticky palms across the front of her new fuchsia tights and took a deep breath. I can do this, she thought. A pop song she had once heard coming from behind Brenton’s locked bedroom door pulsed in the background. Louisa tried not to look at herself in the mirrors that covered the wall in front of her, but she caught herself peeking constantly, unable to take her eyes off herself. What would Brenton think if he knew where she was? Or Frank, for that matter.
Louisa’s body bulged in all the wrong places as she adjusted the band in her hair and tugged her tank top down over her belly. Maria was a liar–the tights most certainly did not look good, and the headband was giving her a headache. Her instructor’s peppy clapping brought her attention to the front of the mirrored room.
“Okay laddddiesss! Left legs up the pole, right arms reeeacching towards the floor.” A construction site foreman by day, Paulo’s spandex outfit hid little of his muscled body. Louisa found it hard to imagine such a graceful man wielding a sledgehammer or drill, but when Paulo moved one of her legs or adjusted an arm or placed his hand on the soft curve of her back to make sure she didn’t fall, she could feel the thick calluses of his hand pressing into her skin. When she met Paulo in line at the grocery store three months ago, and he told her what he did, she surprised herself by asking if she could join his class.
Paulo swung his leg up the pole at the front of the class, arched his head back, and stretched his hand to the floor in one fluid movement. His black hair hung down, circling his head and brushing the wooden studio floor. Over the past few months, Louisa’s strength and flexibility had improved with the classes, but she still couldn’t imagine having the elegance that Paulo did.
“See? Nothing to it.” Paulo righted himself gracefully and clapped his hands. “Your turn laaadiiesss! Let’s see you work it!” A few women let out excited whoops. They had been working to perfect this move since Louisa’s first class: the Inside Leg Hang. Louisa reached her hand out to the brass pole in front of her, raising a skeptical eyebrow at her own reflection.
The smell of brass, sweat and bad perfume hung over the room as she secured her hand and then tried to match her classmates as they whirled around their poles, pumping their hips to the music.
“And three, two, one. Swing those legs!” Paulo said. He walked around the room, making small adjustments to the ladies’ positions on their poles. Louisa breathed deeply and then hefted her leg up, trying her best to look graceful and sexy. She felt relief as her leg found the pole, and her hair hung down, just like Paulo’s had. Sweat prickled her armpits, itchy and foreign. With her leg securely wrapped around the pole, Louisa tentatively removed her right hand and stretched it toward the floor, just as she had practiced. For a moment, she hung there in perfect form, her body stretched along the pole just as Paulo’s had been. And in that moment, something began to unravel inside of Louisa—a long, sinewy piece of yarn that stretched down through her body from her head to her heart, winding itself around her center, suffocating and keeping in line. As blood rushed into Louisa’s head, the piece of yarn that had been pulled so tight for so many years snapped and retracted, and everything was clear.
Carrie Mumford is a writer and editor living in Calgary, Alberta. She writes short stories and non-fiction articles, and is chipping away at her first novel. Carrie’s fiction has appeared in Full of Crow’s Quarterly Fiction. She blogs weekly at carriemumford.com/blog and tweets up a storm at @CarrieMumford on Twitter.
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