Ellen Ahead (1995)

As he watches his wife undress, he tells her why it was such a bad day:

It started with the flat tire. Well, it was the flat tire mostly, really. He had to change the tire with Julie sitting in the passenger seat looking deflated, wishing she was invisible. Dad, she said, we’re already late anyway, oh nevermind.

He was late picking Julie up for dance lessons; he couldn’t remember why. Oh, because he forgot to drop his shirts off at the laundry yesterday, Thursday, when they’re open late, and he had to try to drop them off today before taking Julie to Dance—that’s why.

Julie didn’t want to go to Dance, then, because she’d be at least ten minutes late. He made some feeble argument. Better late than never, and it costs fifty dollars whether you go or not anyway, whatever. But he remembered being thirteen. The other kids would look. Just take me to the Market, she said. Jessica and some boys are going to be at the Market. Her eyelashes did the asking, really, but she expanded: take me to the Market, I’ll ride the bus home.

Boys are the newest worry. Already some girl Julie knows (Lori? Lisa? It was an “L” name, whatever, and anyway, not like a friend of hers, really, just a girl she knew at school) had gotten pregnant but wasn’t going to get an abortion. Julie was more level-headed, not as boy-crazy, thought she was too fat or too tall, like all thirteen-year-old girls. There was also some trouble with what he called “secret underwear girl stuff” to which he was, by default, not privy.

His wife says: thinking you’re not pretty is the fastest way to get pregnant. Being levelheaded, that’s got nothing to do with it. Still, both parents agree, it was easier when they were kids, certainly, less pressure or whatever, or maybe they just thought more about how life could go badly wrong. These days—you have to be very careful, as a kid. Guns, abortions, gangs. They don’t worry too much about drugs, they did drugs at that age—some pretty hard drugs—and turned out OK, basically. Although, his wife reminds him, she did have a flashback once.

Anyway, the Market. He decided to go to the Market, to buy some coffee and tea at the coffee house. Not the coffee house, Julie protested, Jess will be at the coffee house; meaning: the boys will be at the coffee house. Okay, she said, after frowning over it a little, just wait a few minutes before coming in, so they don’t see you.

He let her out of the car, around the corner from the coffee house, circled the block and parked in the alley, with the hazards flashing. That took a few minutes; long enough anyway, whatever.

When he went to go buy his coffee, he tried very hard not to look at the booth by the window where Julie and Jessica sat with not two (as he had imagined) but four boys. He heard them, though, that is, he heard these boys. Loud and foul-mouthed, with baggy pants and baseball caps turned backwards. After buying the coffee, he turned to leave, but scanned the room, resting his eyes, momentarily, on the corner booth by the window. His daughter saw him, or rather, her eyes moved over the spot where he stood. Just another old guy, pushing forty, just a guy at a coffee shop. He had a low feeling, like betrayal, like a heavy piece of metal sliding down his chest, or inside it.

And there was a ticket on the car. Five minutes he left it, got a standing ticket, twenty-five dollars.

And he forgot it was his turn for supper, so he had to order Chinese.

And Julie didn’t get back until late. Or later than they’d hoped, anyway, since she didn’t really have a curfew. They didn’t think she needed a curfew, being only thirteen. Besides, the parents agree: curfews are just another thing to get in arguments about. Arguments with parents and arguments with friends, and being thirteen is hard enough already, isn’t it?

And, he said, we have to meet with the accountant Monday and I can’t find all the forms. And I haven’t even begun the sympatry paper. The research assistant changed majors, to psychology—psychology!—and I’ll never get the damn thing done before the conference. I had to worry all day today about trying to find someone to do the analysis.

His wife, wearing only a big t-shirt, rubs his back. She presses her fingertips expertly over the spots she’d learned would be trouble: shoulderblades, back of the head, left kidney (lightly!), around the front to the tummy. He shuts his eyes. Against his back, as she massages his chest, he can feel the tips of her breasts. She kisses his ear, says: you need this, tonight. He agrees.

After fifteen years they’d worked out all the kinks, they know what to do, what works. She knows tonight he needs something a little weird, a few things she usually finds too, um, unusual. But tonight she makes an exception. She does these things to him quietly, since Julie is still awake, watching TV in the basement.

Wrapped in the tangle of the bedspreads, they lie on the floor, a little sore. His wife is beginning to fall asleep, pressing her face into his stomach. He starts to tell her, sometimes I wonder how life would have come out otherwise. But then he stops.

He remembers this: driving, alone, east down North Dakota state highway 200, at midnight. A Talking Heads tape played on the car stereo, and he moved through silent towns lit only by fierce industrial lighting from the grain elevators. And even these towns are far apart, and no one drives between them late at night. The roads in eastern North Dakota are long, flat, unerringly straight. Approaching headlights take minutes to reach you.

It was his first summer after college, working at a site near Killdeer. He’d just fallen in love with a girl named Ellen, who was on the field school at the site. She’d left early to return to fall classes, and when his season was done in September, he drove east to visit her. He vibrated with anticipation in his car seat: Grand Forks was ahead, and so was Ellen.

When he finally got to Grand Forks, he pulled into the parking lot of her apartment building. He didn’t know which door to go to, which one would she expect him to ring her down to? But he was barely out of the car when she was there, right there next to the car. He stood a moment, looking at her, looking at the light from the building shine through her hair. He stood there feeling like he would split open with happiness, and something inside his chest would emerge, glowing, like a butterfly or a laser ray.

The next morning they sat at the edge of the bed, looking out the window past the parking lot, at a traffic light, the traffic light he had turned at to get to her building. You know, she said, that light is red for twenty-five seconds this direction, eighteen the other. He watched the red of that light, like it was a buoy in a harbor.

East of Carrington, coming into Grand Forks, he had seen something in the road: a line of flashing red lights. They were miles off, he figured, but almost blindingly bright, maybe brighter than headlights. As he got very near to them, they seemed almost to twist around themselves, moving in a strange angular pattern upwards. He had never, until this moment, believed in the possiblity of UFOs (or Bigfoot or God, either, for that matter), but became immediately and irrationally afraid of aliens. He knew that the brilliant moving pattern of red lights was painted on the side of a spaceship, and his heart thundered; he hoped they were friendly.

The lights weren’t painted on the side of a spaceship, of course, they were just the lights on a railroad crossing arm. He was seeing the arms rise, as the train had just passed the crossing.

Now, when he remembers Ellen, he thinks of those crossarms. He was afraid, really very afraid, afraid like a child of monsters under the bed.