Falling Home

Here is an excerpt from my (yet-to-be-published) novel Falling Home, which features a twenty-first-century family trying to find a footing in our profoundly pixellated culture.

Robert collapsed onto the sofa after [his brother] Luke left. Luke had been such a good sport, and not much like his father after all. He peered across the condo at the apple-faced clock in [his ex] Carole’s kitchen. After midnight. His first sentiment was relief — a bizarre day was over. But a wobbly joy flooded his throat too, even tugged at his lips: Taylor had surfaced, and in the flesh this time, not on line. He’d spoken to her for the first time in weeks. Apart from a bad cold, she was all right: Judith and Courtney were with her, and they would look after her. He would see her himself at the end of the day, at the shelter, as he’d promised. Eighteen hours from now. To his surprise, his back was quiet. He closed his eyes, hoping the clamour in his head would die down. The unruly stack of files he’d flung into the back seat of the car flickered before him, sporadic static on his mind’s screen. It occurred to him that he could read the dossiers of the candidates now, then drive back to Medway early in the morning, and still preside over the interviews. He’d have Theo stay on for the interviews, of course; it was only fair, since he’d asked him to be ready to stand in for him.

Across from him in the arm chair, Carole had sunk into one of those stony sleeps that descend despite all efforts to fend them off. Still she looked poised to leap up, the fingers of one hand clutching the arm of the chair, and her feet anchored to the floor. In the hours they’d been together, she hadn’t had one drink. Maybe he’d been wrong about her. Her mouth hung open, and her face looked slack and old above the chaotic zigzag of the afghan. In the chic angular space of the condo, she seemed out of place, and so did her quaint things. At this moment, it was hard to imagine she had ever belonged in his life either, that he had ever thought she could have belonged. But she had thrown herself into harm’s way for their daughter, more than he had done. 

He would still do his part, but perhaps he could delay his visit to the shelter until Friday, just over a day and a half away. If Taylor wanted him to come by then. That way, he could go home and change his clothes, collect himself on the surface at least. As soon as the office opened, he could get Eunice to arrange someone to take Judith’s Thursday and Friday classes at Medway. She might have classes at Pierce as well; he’d get Eunice to call and find out about that too. (So many teaching hours – all the more reason for a full-time frosh lecturer at Medway.) Then he’d come back and convince Taylor to return to class, salvage her courses. Maybe Judith could get started on that campaign now, since Taylor listened to her much more readily than to him.

But then he imagined Taylor at the shelter; she’d glance every few minutes at the door, her mouth hardened into a thin line. Her disappointment cemented into irreconcilability. He’d be alone in Emberley. Decidedly alone. He remembered the exhilaration when he delivered a fine paper to a conference a few years ago, just after Carole and Taylor had left. He had applied an audacious new theory to a revered text — built a breathtaking new vision — all without a safety net. Afterward, he’d come home still charged with the heady adrenaline of his feat, only to find a silent house. No one to report his daring tightrope performance to, no one to bask in his euphoria. He sat alone, his self-satisfaction like a ridiculous hat in the dark rooms.

The smugness was hardly called for: he’d get published in a prestigious journal that few faculty would read, and even fewer would cite from. In reality, he was a past-prime professor peering at the display on the hand-held telephone for familiar phone numbers, for the blink of the voice mail indicator. Now only Judith and Taylor would call, if he were lucky; his male colleagues (they weren’t exactly friends) never called him at home. Those heated encounters with grad students, no longer on offer, had produced no lasting ties, whatever the promises. It was only the gilt-edged reference these women had wanted, nothing more, and part of him had known that all along.

Judith had never asked for a job, explicitly or implicitly. In fact, Judith rarely asked for anything except his attention. She had been collected before the surgery; she went to the doctor on her own after she found the lump, an almond-shaped hardness just where the upper right breast molded into chest muscle. The same for the biopsy: just meet me at home afterwards, she insisted, and when he did, she was fiercely optimistic about the results. She’d surprised him the night before the surgery, too; she came up behind him while he was at the bathroom sink, slid her hands around his waist and untied his dressing gown.

But after the surgery, she needed him, as though she had lost not only her breasts, but some internal navigational system as well. She’d always been quiet and capable, and never expected too much for herself. Just back from the recovery room, she lay still, her arms flung wide to avoid her chest, her face sealed over like those eyeless mannequins in store windows. Panic sprang from his pores; he could think of nothing to do other than hold the hand free of the intravenous, and that he did gingerly, like the stricken Pygmalion waiting for his statue to come to life. In the next few hours, she asked for a drink, a pillow. He delivered them, grateful to be useful, all the while keeping his eyes off the wrenching flatness of her chest. The muted roar of nothingness. He touched only her face, brushed her hair off her cheeks, as he had done for his mother at the end.

He stayed with her for the first day; then, for the next three days, left only for a few hours at a time. At first, it troubled him to do his work in small bursts, but he was surprised to find that he looked forward to that full-bellied feeling that settled in him each time he drove away from campus to see her – he felt not the charge of performance this time, but a warm suffusion in his whole being, as though his very cells, sensing a new and fuller purpose, flooded themselves with fresh blood. It was as if her struggling body had awakened him to his own.

When she came home from the hospital, she disappeared between the sheets of their bed, like an insubstantial form of herself, an empty garment bag. He paced around the bed, sat on the edge on his side, considered lying next to her, and then thought better of it. When he sank onto the living room sofa, fatigue swelled around him. He swung his legs up and stretched them out. The shoes on his feet looked oddly irrelevant. He had just closed his eyes when he heard the rustle of Taylor’s jacket next to him. He raised his head and saw her in the armchair next to him, her face inert.

“She’s going to be okay, Tate.” He reached a hand over to squeeze her blue-jeaned knee. “She just needs time to heal.”

Taylor forced a nod, left the room. She hadn’t come up to the hospital at all after the surgery.

One evening, a few weeks after the surgery, when he bent down to kiss her before leaving for the couch, Judith lifted one arm and put it around his neck.

“Stay here tonight?” She sounded stronger, even resolute.

“You’re sure?” He suddenly wasn’t sure himself, although he’d been waiting for this for a week at least.

He slid under the covers next to her, his body feeling oversized and presumptuous next to her thin one. She wore a long lilac shirt, the one that almost matched her eyes, with just two buttons done up in the middle. She shifted onto her side and propped herself on one elbow.

“Sorry to keep to myself for so long.” She laid a hand on his chest, met his eyes. “I had to start getting used to it. To looking different.”

“I know. You look good to me.” He ran his hand down her warm bare leg.

She reached for his hand, stopped it. Her forearm looked a little swollen.

“You’ll need to get used to it too.”

She undid the two buttons and pushed the fabric to the side. He felt the blood dropping away from his face. Her collarbone stood out sharply, delicate wings in full flight. Below it, on the right side of the breastbone, a crude line arched like a closed eyelid on a plateau of tight skin. On the left, a puckered crater, the breast and the flesh beneath it scraped away. Like an eye socket, excavated. The inner arm illicitly visible. He forced himself to raise his eyes slowly, not knowing if he succeeded.

“When I look down, I think subtraction – crazy, huh?” Judith looked at him and then looked down. “But I’m still here.”

She pointed at her breastbone.

“You’re very brave.” Robert stroked her hair, leaned into her to steady himself.

“Touch me.” Judith brought his hand down from her hair and held it out in front of her chest.

He looked at the violated chest, the absence of body. He slipped his hand out of hers and reached for her shoulder so that he could move her close to him. She pulled back, drew the fabric over herself again, and turned away.


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