Ruby had a birthday gift for her husband, Tallis. They had plans to celebrate the night of the accident. They were going to make an evening of it because Tallis was turning fifty and not at all engaged in the event. Ruby didn’t plan a party, no department colleagues or secretaries would embarrass Tallis with their attention. He said, “I wouldn’t say no to your carrot cake.” It was the children who had come up with a way to please their father on this one day of his life. After mocking him for years because of his love of folk music, Cal and Em, along with Ruby, had bought him tickets to a reunion concert of one of his favourite bands. Ruby got tickets for all of them to go and watch Tallis enjoy the music live. What else could they do for him? A half century should be marked, Ruby thought. Tallis would just have to endure it. Though she knew he would have preferred to listen to the music in the living room, that he was, in fact, discomfited by performers – “all those earnest brows pointing heavenward. Men singing. It’s embarrassing” – and although she knew Cal and Emmeline would, at best, be good natured about it and at worst, use the occasion to be mortal enemies, she decided that a birthday concert followed by a fancy dinner, with photographs and cake, would make a happy man of her husband and magically sweet offspring of her children. She arranged it. Tallis would pick his children up at school. Off they would go.
So far, the only thing he’d done in honour of his fiftieth year was to have a physical. The doctor had sent him months before for his first prostate check. Tallis informed Ruby that it was a digital exam and she thought, great. Trying to imagine what kind of computer calibrator could assess prostate cancer so that men didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of a finger poke.
She said to Tallis, “Wow, everything is all digital now.”
“No,” Tallis said. “Digital, Ruby. Like digits.” He wiggled his fingers, blushed and left the room.
He’d survived, though he didn’t want to respond to any of Ruby’s questions.
“Did you have to cough? Were you actually naked?”
She was curious. Tallis was so private. His father died of prostate cancer. His brother was treated for it. He made himself go to the doctor. Once Ruby knew he was fine, bloodwork fine, digital exam, unremarkable, she wanted to know and also to tease him. Bad enough, he had to bend over. Talking about it would be worse. Ruby would enjoy that. She wanted to remind him that she had endured childbirth. She did remind him.
He said, “You always say that. It was a long time ago. And women are used to that sort of thing.”
“What sort of thing?”
“You know, gynecologists, obstetricians. You’re socialized to expect interference.”
“Yes, you know, interference, access. Getting the Netherlands checked out.”
Ruby ended the conversation. She hoped he had enjoyed his interference. “It might be a while before you are allowed to interfere again.”
Cal and Em were resigned. They had already requested and received permission to pack their headphones, to plug into their own playlists should the folksinger become unendurable. They had promised to try listening first. They had suffered years of their father, standing by the fireplace, warming his ass, and explaining to them, as the music filled the living room, how spare and evocative the lyric was, how the allusions contained and revealed the anxiety of a generation, the search for meaning. Cal and Em, at ten and twelve years old, listened and agreed. By fifteen and seventeen, they were laughing out loud.
For their father’s birthday, they agreed to come and to get along. Concert and then dinner. The timeline was tight. Ruby got home first that day and showered and dried her hair. She was dressed, made up for the evening, heels on, best turtleneck and earrings. Chic as she could be. She poured a glass of wine and watched the greys deepen in the living room. Grateful for some time alone to let her eyes rest where they may. Her mother had called it wool gathering, as so many mothers had. But Ruby loved looking out the window at leaves moving, cats crouching to pounce on squirrels, children trickling past, dragging packs on the ground as though they were returning from Annapurna. Weary, they all looked. She was glad her children were not small any more. She watched the neighbourhood kids slip into their homes with keys or garage door codes. She sipped and stared, caught glimpses into foyers and tool walls, watched the garage doors close and hoped that someone left cookies on plates for such weary and lonesome stragglers. She couldn’t have said why her heart broke at the sight of children coming home.
Cal and Em were staying late at school. There were auditions for the fundraising concert and as at odds as they were in conversation, they suspended hostilities in order to outdo each other in music. This one-up-man-ship served them both well. Cal played the guitar like a boy who had sold his soul and won it back again. Emmeline played piano, fast and loud and then suddenly tender. They played against each other and, since they couldn’t speak, it was fun to watch. Tallis arranged to meet them at the teachers’ parking lot on his way home from the office. Ruby set aside the frustration and incipient panic. She didn’t know why everything happened at once, on the same night. Why couldn’t there be two audition times? Or two concerts? She stood, fretting, and that in itself was exhausting. She could have put her head on a pillow and slept – her usual response to anxiety. Ruby tried to summon some energy. They would be home soon and the wine wasn’t helping. They could have postponed the birthday dinner, but not the folk singer.
Ruby paced the house. Stood in front of the bathroom mirror where the light was best. Well, the light was good. Too good. Without her glasses, she coped all right with mirrors. Facing her own face in this one, she had to adapt, console, talk herself through the twenty years and two kids and plenty of days at the beach without sunscreen. She just couldn’t stand the smell. She poked at the incipient jowls, imagining a face lift, or that scraping thing they could do, grinding off the layers to restore a baby’s bum smoothness to her old face. She could try some Restylane, or maybe a dose of hair dye.
She turned away. Snapped off the light. Maybe another glass of wine. She did not look at her watch. Tallis, resigned to his birthday party, would not be late.
When the doorbell rang, Ruby thought about not answering it. She didn’t want to engage in a conversation about driveway sealing. Or aluminum soffits. Or pesticides. The bell rang again.
All that happened in the months after the accident, the mourning, the empty house, glaring windows framing the brute fact that nothing changed outside leveled Ruby. She had heard of people, listened to stories of ones who had faced disaster and loss. And then they stood up and kept going. They summoned what they called depths of courage. Ruby had no depths. No courage, no steel in her. After the accident, she lay on the floor. If she had had the strength she would have torn her clothes. If she had a wood fireplace instead of a sealed gas one, she would have put ash on her head. She didn’t need to cover mirrors. She kept her head down. Her gums bled. Her tongue furred. She did not move forward. She used to feel the longing for solitude like a flu, a chilled aching to be alone. She walked past the rogue’s gallery of family shots, candids taken here and there, everyone smiling all the time and she would think, why can’t you just all go away? Away to some happy place, safe and warm, where you could phone once a week or maybe once a month and Ruby could lounge in her pajamas, eating almonds and watching movies til her eyeballs hurt. She used to be the family Garbo, always wanting to be alone. Now she lay on the beige rug with a velvet cushion against her cheek, the sole inhabitant of her family.
She packed up the photographs. Wrapped and boxed them and put them away in the crawl space. Ruby shoved the boxes in as far as she could. She got the mop and pushed them further so that she couldn’t reach them and would have to climb up and in and crawl under the family room floor on her belly across rough cement to see them again. She didn’t want to see them again. She took paintings off the wall and put those away, too. She worked up a sweat. Showered, shampooed and lay down again on the floor. With her chest braced low to the ground and her arms spread, she could almost stop the feeling that the house was rocking, shifting against a wind.