By Darleen Coleman
Imagine this: a barely devoured sliver of pineapple stuck in your throat like a barnacle plastered on a ship’s side, its acid eroding the surface, causing a sensation of something being where it doesn’t belong, of damage occurring. You feel the craving, the anticipation, the seductively sweet taste of it in your mouth. Then you swallow and it becomes something else, something you hadn’t bargained for, another thing gone wrong.
Teresa Wujcik grew up an only child in a household ruled by an iron-fisted, truck-driving tyrant and a mother wholly dependent upon God to get her through the day. She can still hear the pacing of her dad’s heavy work shoes across the linoleum punctuated by the slam of the back door as he left for work at dawn. Can still see her mother’s rosary perpetually slung around a wrist, as she sat rocking, lips barely moving. Most people cringe when doors are slammed, but Teresa, at thirty-one, still breathes an involuntary sigh of relief at the sound.
Dinner was always the worst time of day. “Tree-sa!” her father would shout after some grave infraction: eating too fast, pushing food she didn’t like around on her plate, mixing corn into her mashed potatoes. Hot tears would roll down her cheeks, plop onto the vinyl tablecloth. If she didn’t stop, he’d stand and touch both hands to his belt, like a cowboy fingering his holster. “Stop that crying right now or I’ll give you something to really cry about.” If she took small sips of her milk and alternated breathing with swallowing, she found she could muster some control.
Named after St. Teresa, patron saint of lace-makers and headaches, she was sent to Catholic school where she learned the difference between mortal and venial sins and that her first name had three syllables, not two.
She was maybe nine when she realized she’d never live up to her saintly name and decided to call herself Terry. She announced it proudly at dinner one night. She purposefully picked a night they were having pork chops, her father’s favorite. There was silence after she spoke and she thought maybe they hadn’t heard, so she repeated it. “I want to called be Terry from now on.” She started to tell them that most kids in her school had nicknames, but her father rose, banged his hands on the table and shoved his chair with such force, it tipped over his plate and food fell all over the floor. She remembers trying to catch the peas as they rolled under the table in every direction. She was stooping to pick one up when she heard the thunder of her father’s shoes back across the kitchen floor. She waited, eyes wide, for the yelling. It took a minute before she realized his vitriol wasn’t directed at her this time, but at her mother. Teresa quietly backed out of the kitchen, went to her room, carefully said three Hail Marys, then took her safety scissors and cut all the hair off her favorite Barbie.
She remembers her first confession. She knew Father Albert was sitting there on the other side, but his invisibility opened the floodgates and out poured her sins: that although she wanted more than anything to be good, she just couldn’t help being bad. That she hated her stupid last name which everyone at school pronounced woodchuck; hated her hair which resisted gravity and stuck out from her head like rusted bedsprings; hated all the boys in her fifth grade class; hated getting up early on Sunday mornings; hated doing the dishes. When she finished, Father absolved her, dictated her penance, then admonished her for her litany of complaints and asked if she wanted God to give her something to really complain about—like blindness, cancer, or a club foot. She was glad she hadn’t told about hiding an empty Bayer aspirin bottle in her coat pocket and swiping holy water after catechism class. It hadn’t worked anyway.
Remember this: waking from a deep sleep, the tiny rosebuds on the wallpaper are moving like thousands of insects. You rub your eyes. Open and shut, open and shut, they won’t stop moving. Are you dreaming this? Wake up, you shout. Your voice bounces around the bedroom: a squeak, tinny and scared. You bolt from your quilted cocoon, catch your shin on something sharp, stand shivering in the dim light of the hallway. There is light seeping from beneath their door. Light and angry noises far worse than crawling bugs. Are you still dreaming now?
Her childhood home was a compact bungalow with a dark, damp basement, a postage stamp-sized backyard and a dusty attic. One day, the summer she got her first period, Teresa ascended the attic stairs in an attempt to squelch the boredom of the long unstructured days. The heat felt like an embrace—as comforting as it was stifling. Sunlight streamed through the tiny front window illuminating cobwebs strung across the rafters like a giant sparkling rosary. She was looking up in awe when she bumped into an old blue suitcase. She squatted on her heels to explore it. The metal clasps were rusted, but with a little work, she managed to pop them open. The inside of the case was packed with clothes, as if someone had prepared for a long trip. She was disappointed to find only baby clothes. She supposed they were hers. But no, these were clearly boys’ outfits with trucks and balls and dinosaurs all over them. The top lid of the suitcase had a shiny fabric pocket with an elastic band along the edge. There were photos and papers stuffed inside. One of a chubby baby sitting on a blanket next to a big stuffed teddy bear. She never had a bear like that! When she found a birth and then a death certificate, Teresa plopped down on her bottom on the dirty attic floor. Terrance Walter Wujcik, born August 14, 1957. Died November 8, 1959, two years, five months and six days before she was born. And then, neatly folded, an adoption record for a girl, born on her birthday. Her neck was drenched with sweat, but she felt like someone had dropped a popsicle down her back.
Consider this: it’s easy to confuse heat for light. The energy that produces the sensation of brightness makes sight possible, but you must be willing to see. Love can save you from many things, but it can’t save you from yourself.
Teresa met Oscar Trout the month she turned twenty-one, soon after she had moved into her first apartment. Leaving her family had taken three long years of preparation. The righteous path from parents' home was only through marriage. Her parents thought single women who rented apartments were whores. Teresa kept a cardboard box under her bed and stashed things she surreptitiously bought with money from her part-time job at the community college cafe. Most of her classmates spent their money on Fleetwood Mac and Journey CDs, makeup, cigarettes. She bought sheets, towels, and coffee mugs which she smuggled home in her backpack, and saved the little that was left in an old sock.
Since seventh grade, Teresa had dreamed of living in a dorm, walking across a leaf-filled quad to classes in Eastern Philosophy or Intro to Political Science or Romantic Poetry. The day she took her SAT’s, her dad had a heart attack sitting at the wheel. He managed to drive the two-ton rig back to the warehouse where his boss called Teresa’s mother and an ambulance, in that order at his insistence. All this was quickly followed by two small strokes that rendered him retired, disabled, instantly old. She had aced the exam, but the second stroke put an end to his chronic pacing and to her dreams of going away to college.
Teresa possessed the patience of her namesake. She waited and saved, saved and waited, until one day during spring break of her second year at the community college, she packed some clothes in a duffle bag, grabbed her cardboard box and left a note on the dresser. She took a deep breath and let the back door of her childhood home slam shut.
She got a job in an office and took classes at night. She was happy buying her own groceries at the neighborhood Stop & Shop, sweeping her own floor, doing her own laundry. When Oscar bought her a beer at the cantina on the corner across from the laundromat, the sign out front shone through the plate glass window into their booth, surrounding him in its neon glow. Teresa took it as a good omen. They ate tacos and laughed hysterically at both their names.
When Oscar looked into Teresa’s eyes four months into their relationship and said, “You’ve been a Wujcik for twenty-one years, how about being a Trout for the next twenty-one?” Her heart beat so wildly, she was afraid he’d hear. Was this a proposal? Was twenty-one years going to be the limit? She had fallen for Oscar almost from the start, from the first time they made love on a second date that never really ended. She desperately wanted to be his wife, but fear that maybe she’d misunderstood him coupled with the vision she’d created in her mind of the woman she thought Oscar should want her to be gripped her heart like a vice. She shook her long, frizzy curls, laughed and said, “I’m too used to being a Wujcik.”
Oscar was the polar opposite of her dad: easy-going, soft-hearted, funny. He walked lightly with a spring in his step, wasn’t prone to slamming doors, couldn’t even raise his voice to yell at the scrappy little mutt they adopted. What their relationship lacked in passion, it certainly made up for in friendship.
Trust this: people don’t change. Not at their core. Strip away the window dressing, take away their self-help books, look them straight in the eyes: they are what they have always been. Only God is perfect.
It was Oscar who insisted Teresa call home in the evening when her dad would be home and make peace. “You’ll have regrets,” he said. “You’ll wish you had talked to him. He won’t be here forever, you know.”
She knew. She also knew she had a stockpile of regrets about things she’d never said, like, I love you, Oscar. I want more than anything to be married to you. She examined these regrets periodically, like people who clean their closets once a year, take everything out and have a good look; dust off old, worn shoes, ones they know they’ll never wear again, ones that gave them blisters; try on old prom dresses and allow themselves to bathe in the glow of memories embellished with age before they shove the shoes and dresses back into their dark corners. Teresa was already an expert at regret, but she wanted to please Oscar, so she picked up the phone.
Know this: fear is the opposite of love. The same tough scars and calluses that shield your heart from pain create infertile ground for the seeds of love to grow roots.
Is love the glue that binds people together or is it the vacuum created when love leaves, producing such powerful suction? Maybe her parents didn’t need love. Between them, they had God and secrets and anger. It’s no wonder they didn’t need her to hold their marriage together.
Her mother said the usual, that she missed her and prayed for her daily. Her father said she could come home and all would be forgiven. Didn’t she know she was breaking her mother’s heart? Didn’t she care what people thought? “You’ve proved your point, Treesa, you’re grown up. Now do the right thing. Come home. One day, you’ll get married, then you can leave.”
When she told him she wasn’t going to come home, ever, the line went quiet. She thought he’d hung up the phone, but then she heard him breathing. “You’re my only child.” She wanted to ask about the papers she’d found in the attic long ago. There were a lot of things she wanted to say. Instead, she promised to visit soon and hung up the phone.
Nine years later, she and Oscar were the only childless couple in their circle of friends. Her biological clock went into overdrive. Teresa reconsidered Oscar’s question and the couple quietly went to city hall and got married. Although both sets of parents had capitulated to their living together by then, the couple had no desire to push them over the edge by having a child out of wedlock. Oscar told his folks that very evening; she showed up on her parents' doorstep and broke the news to them a week later. Her mother wept and her father shook his head, lowered his eyes and said, “I can’t believe you took that away from me.” When Teresa looked confused, he pulled a cloth hankie from his pocket, dabbed at his eyes and said, “God robbed me of walking my only daughter down the aisle, but I thought at least one day I’d still be there to give you away.” Teresa imagined heavy phantom footsteps echoing down the church’s long aisle and thought, I wasn’t yours to give.
Teresa thought they were ready to be parents. She was eager to be the kind of mother she wished she’d had and she knew Oscar would make a perfect dad. She got pregnant the first month they tried.
When she miscarried just before the end of her first trimester, Teresa thought Oscar seemed relieved. Her obstetrician was unconcerned. These things just happen, he said, but Teresa wanted to know what she’d done wrong. Had she forgotten to take her vitamins one day? Was it because of vain worries about stretch marks? Was it that she hadn’t set foot in a church in a decade?
Teresa had a recurring dream in which she held Oscar in a death grip and shouted, Tell me what you want and I’ll be that! I’ll make myself into whatever it is you want! He was always faceless in these dreams, but she would hear him plead, What do you want, Teresa? Her answer, a benediction: I want to be what you hunger and thirst for. I want to be the air you breathe. I want to be someone you can’t live without. Just tell me what to do so I can be that.
All Teresa could think about was getting pregnant again. Once that was accomplished, she focused on staying pregnant. She stopped drinking coffee. She ate a carrot and a stalk of broccoli every day. She drank a gallon of milk a week. She took prenatal vitamins and prenatal classes and read What to Expect When You’re Expecting cover to cover, twice. She wouldn’t let Oscar near her. Wouldn’t even let him kiss her.
Oscar put in extra hours at work. To save for the baby, he said, but she had her doubts. She sniffed clothes he threw in the hamper. He caught her once, examining the collar of a shirt. He looked at her then turned and walked away. She waited for the apartment door to slam—a familiar sound—but there was only the television. Oscar sat on the couch, not looking at the screen.
That night, Oscar reached a hand to lightly cup her chin as he looked into her eyes. “Talk to me, Teresa. Please tell me what’s going on. Don’t shut me out like this.”
Inching closer, Teresa closed her eyes. She took Oscar’s hand and lightly placed it on her belly. His other hand rubbed small circles along her back. She breathed into the warm nest of his chest and thought about the dusty blue suitcase.
The carrots, broccoli and milk worked and Teresa gave birth to a big, pink, healthy boy. Oscar bent over his son, tears streaming down his cheeks and Teresa looked up and whispered, “Thank you—”
Oscar smiled and brushed the damp tangled curls from her brow and was about to utter, “Thank you, Teresa.”
But then she finished, “God.”
Believe this: be careful what you set in motion. Thoughts manifest, gather steam like runaway locomotives, and when they do, they cannot be stopped. The shrapnel they leave along their mangled tracks is nothing you will ever want to see.
When they told Teresa’s parents they’d named the baby Gabriel Terrence, Teresa studied their faces, expecting to find a flicker of surprise or anger or sadness. Instead, her parents smiled and made silly cooing sounds to the infant. Teresa’s mother lay Gabriel on the sofa next to her and re-swaddled him snugly, remarking on the soft fuzz which sprouted from his head like an orange halo. “Look!” she beamed, “He’s got your hair, Treesa.” Like it was a good thing.
Teresa wondered if she’d only imagined those papers in the attic. For days, she obsessed about returning to the house, ascending the steep attic stairs and finding the blue suitcase. But she never seemed to muster the energy and eventually she stopped caring.
On nights when Gabriel didn’t cry every two hours, Teresa would wake anyway and stand squinting over his crib, watching his little chest rise and fall. She was afraid his umbilicus would get infected, was certain he wasn’t getting enough milk, worried he’d slip in his little plastic tub and slide quickly under, his little lungs filling with water. She called the pediatrician’s office nearly every day. She made Oscar wash his hands up to his elbows before touching Gabriel. What if either of them forgot to support his head and his neck snapped like a twig?
Instead, it was Oscar who snapped. He stood red-faced in the middle of the living room. “Gabe’s fine, Teresa. Stop expecting something to go wrong. Our son is fine. Okay?” Teresa stood hugging herself, her eyes squeezed shut. “You think it’s a brain tumor every time you have a headache. You’re always waiting for the car to crash, for the rung on the ladder to bust. What kind of a mother do you want to be, Teresa? I get it that your mother was neurotic, but you are not your mother and I—” he poked himself hard in the chest“—am not your father.”
Teresa stood at the crib, tears dripping over their wailing child. This was the first time Oscar had ever yelled at her. And then she started laughing. Hiccupping and laughing through her tears. He sighed, shoulders slumped. Teresa had never seen him like this. She wanted to hold him. She stepped towards him and could see his face was wet, his eyes drained of their usual light. But when Oscar lifted his arms to embrace her, she stepped back.
”You really want to hand this down to our son, Teresa?” He said this so softly, she wondered for days afterward if he had really spoken the words or if she had only read his thoughts.
Keep this in the secret chamber of your heart: no one wins. Nobody gets out alive. We all pay to play, though the cost is negotiable. In the end, what you take away is only what you brought to the game.
Oscar tiptoed around Teresa as she did around their baby, a familiar dance she found comforting.
Her parents were pressing for a baptism. Her mother announced she had a beautiful old gown saved. “Where?” Teresa wanted to know. “In the attic? Whose was it?”
“In the closet and it’s yours, of course.” Her mother looked perplexed, but even Oscar noticed the pale, sunken face of her father.
“Let’s just do it,” Oscar said later. “If it’ll make them happy. I don’t mind, do you?”
Teresa did mind. And if she could have stopped envisioning Gabriel choking on a hot dog one day, or falling from his highchair, or dashing into a busy street, she would have spared him that shock of cold holy water that made him shudder and kick and wail. Maybe there is no Heaven, maybe there’s nothing in the end. But if there is a Limbo, no child should ever be there.
Darleen Coleman is a refuge from Chicago who crossed the Cheddar border nineteen years ago to live in southeastern Wisconsin. She has a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a member of the Kenosha Writers Guild. Her work has appeared in Great Lakes Review.