On Air


By Kim Magowan

          The pictures Alice has always had of this state, and the idioms she has heard used for it, regard tunnels and holes: one is low, one is in a pit. Like the elderly lady in that LifeCall ad, one has fallen down and can’t get up.
          But she feels the opposite: instead of too much gravity anchoring her onto the earth, there isn’t enough.
          Alice floats. The image in her head is of a Curious George book she used to read when Laurel was small: George the monkey suspended high above a New York cityscape, clutching a bouquet of balloons. (So boring, that book! Nathan refused to read it. Nathan treated parenting as a menu, from which he could choose the entertaining items.)
          Far below, Alice can see her obligations: the shower stall to wash her hair, which is greasy and limp; groceries to put away; Laurel waiting for a ride to school; the portfolios Alice needs to grade. They are hundreds of feet below.
          How will she reach them? By burping, like Charlie in the Willy Wonka film, making himself descend? But Charlie and Grandpa Joe had incentive: they didn’t want to be hacked into pieces by the propeller fan at the top of the shaft. What makes the ground an appealing place for Alice?

          Alice used to care about things: about Laurel and Nathan, massively, but also about her art, her students, her house, potential stains on her black granite countertop. “Mom, calm down,” Laurel would say, while Alice rubbed and rubbed at some smear. “It’s just a—” and then stop, searching for the exact word.
          Even when she was tiny, Laurel was always precise. “No, it hurts here,” she would say to Alice, moving Alice’s fingertip on her stomach half an inch to the left. Alice, precise herself (much of her artwork involves rulers and protractors) would wait, enjoying Laurel’s grasp for the perfect word. Nathan was less patient.
          Now, it’s as if Alice’s ears are packed with cotton, or as if Laurel is talking to her through whatever the aural equivalent would be to the wrong end of a telescope: some mechanism that mutes normal speech to an almost inaudible hum.
          “You should go to a doctor, Mom.”
          What kind of doctor? Alice wants to ask. Someone who will pull the cotton out of Alice’s ears, twirling it like spun sugar onto a long wand? Laurel is thinking of a shrink of course. Alice needs, Laurel recently said, to give a shit. (Odd expression, Alice thinks as she floats: who would want to be given shit?)
          What Alice needs is not pills so much as gravity boots.

          When Nathan first started sleeping with Nina, Alice could sense it, though she didn’t know what she was sensing—a shape was slowly taking form. A shape that had something to do with Nathan’s sudden interest in moving to Portland. Search engine results gradually connected the dots: Portland real estate, Portland radio stations, but also, more randomly, recipes for cassoulet.
          Some of the clues were pure cliché. Nathan started running and the softness around his middle melted away. He bought new sweaters that were black or charcoal, tighter than the kind of slouchy and shapeless stuff he used to wear. But it was also the books he started reading in bed: Garcia Marquez, and Borges. The expression on his face was so attentive. He read with a blue pen in his hand.
          Alice watched her non-reading, non-exercising, non-cooking husband mark lines and lace sneakers and soak cannellini beans overnight, and a shape took form. It was like negative space in a drawing, that blank wedge that determines the solid flesh of the bent arm, hand on hip. Or, more precisely, it was as if there was an invisible person in the room, whose body materialized when one flung towards it billows of ash, or bags of powdered sugar. 
          What is it? Alice thought, before she started asking, Who is it? (Filling the blank of the first question one day, as she drew charcoal along the straight edge of a ruler, Alice had thought: “mid-life crisis.” That, finally, snapped the still bulky shape into place, gave it contours: a waistline, breasts, hips.)

          Alice begged Nathan to go to couples therapy, saw his capitulation as a sign that he was still willing to try, despite indicators to the contrary. (He refused to stop talking to Nina. When Alice said, “I love you” he pressed his lips together as if to keep an involuntary response from seeping out.)
          But when they got there, Nathan spun therapy like a dreidel. Instead of the hour involving him consenting to that baseline first step (stop talking to Nina), he said, “We have a ten-year-old daughter, Laurel. What is the best way to tell her that I’m leaving?”
          If Dr. Stuyvesant was caught off-guard, he didn’t show it. And so the conversation turned: “You need to tell her together. Make it clear that you both still love her. It’s not her,” while Alice’s brain dissolved into particles.
          Brain bits looped that hackneyed break-up snippet, “It’s not you, it’s me,” sampled and twisted it—“It’s not you, Laurel, it’s your mother. Your distracted, flaky, never-wants-to-fuck mother”—“It’s not you I love, Alice, it’s Nina”—until Alice wasn’t sure if anybody had ever said that line to her, or if It’s not you, it’s me was just word-debris, lifted from some cobwebby script that everyone had masticated with grinding, collective-consciousness teeth.
          Both men looked at her expectantly: Alice blinked at them, stupefied. The only thought her smashed brain could form was, Why was I always the one who had to read Curious George?
          That was when Alice began to float.

          All she wants to make is whiteness. Alice prepares her parchment with gouache, but instead of pulling out her charcoals and paints, layers on more gouache. Layer after layer, the white, thick and shiny, starting to crackle like eggshell: not chicken but something substantial—ostrich—something that one needs a ball-peen hammer to crack. She starts to scratch it with her X-acto blade, but then that seems wrong, just as wrong as a paintbrush or a Conté was wrong. She realizes this time the problem isn’t the implement but the canvas.
          The X-acto blade on the skin of her forearm is satisfying, then throbs: she cross-hatches a grid onto her arm before she stops. Alice rinses the blade under the tap, washing away the blood, then wraps a wet paper towel around her arm. The blood keeps beading. Finally she goes to Walgreens to buy a padded bandage the size of a deck of cards.
          In art school, she got a tattoo of a chameleon on her shoulder blade; it was protected by a patch like this. For Nathan, who thought tattoos were sexy, who loved to lick and nibble her shoulder, and who called Alice, Karma Chameleon.

          Here is another thing that happened: from her floating perch, Alice makes herself regard it. When Laurel was four, and Alice thirty-two, Alice had an abortion. They had a cvs in the tenth week. They hadn’t done any genetic testing for Laurel, but Nathan’s cousin had recently had a baby with Down, and that, combined with her age, made Alice want the test. Nathan had been reluctant, and when they got the results, unconvinced. Because the results were uncertain: there was a deletion on chromosome 19, that’s what the genetic counselors could tell them. But as for what it meant, they had no idea. It could be very serious: it could mean their baby would be born, for instance, without muscles. Or it could be nothing at all.
          “Without muscles?” Alice repeated. She was an artist, but here was an image she couldn’t picture. Did it mean skin would hang on the bone, loose and flapping, like too-big clothes?
          The answer about what to do was clear to her, but inversely clear to Nathan. He had seized onto, “It could mean nothing at all” rather than “without muscles.” They wrangled for three days. In the end her choice prevailed: it was her body. But he was silent at the clinic, his hand in hers inert. Later he had to be asked four times before he fetched a heating pad for Alice to hold against her stomach.
          When Laurel said, “What’s the matter with Mommy?” Alice heard him say, “Mommy’s…” and only after the longest pause, the kind of pause that Laurel would take, looking for the perfect word, “Sick.”
          Is the glass half full or half empty? Ever since, Alice has thought the better conundrum would be, “Is the fetus healthy or damaged?” The genetic counselors couldn’t give them odds, couldn’t give them real information at all. What was happening inside Alice’s body was guesswork, hidden by its own bands of flesh and muscle.
          Finally Nathan pulled himself together. “I need you to be strong for me!” Alice said. After another long pause, he nodded. They took Laurel to the beach (the poor kid had had a tough week, Alice cramping and miserable, Nathan silent, sulking). They watched her crouch beside tide pools, poke at a starfish with a stick, touch its granular, rough body.
          But was that rupture ever really repaired, that stain scrubbed away?
          It was the one time Nathan cried during that couples therapy session. Dr. Stuyvesant asked why Laurel was an only child, and he said, “We almost had a son.”

          “Alice, we need to talk about Laurel.”
          Through the invisible cotton packing in her ears, Alice hears Isabel Kopensky, the babysitter, say this. She hears her daughter’s name and then, delayed, she hears her own. She snaps, “Call me Mrs. Haven.”
          “But you said—” Isabel bites her lip, then complies. “Okay. Mrs. Haven.”
          Call me Alice, is of course what Alice said, what she always tells her students. Isabel took her painting class before she ever started babysitting Laurel.
          Alice was twenty-six when she married Nathan. Most of her friends kept their maiden names, and when Alice did take Nathan’s, it was for aesthetics: “Haven” sounded prettier than “Horowitz.” Under the name Alice Haven she has had seven shows, one in Chicago. She can’t give it up now, any more than those famous actresses who still cart around the last name of some long-forsaken first husband. This is the story Alice tells herself.
          But how does this account for her snappish insistence on “Mrs.,” which she can tell from Isabel’s face, almost twitching to repress an eye roll, sounds absurd?
          Alice isn’t like her grandmother. Grammy believed that divorced women should hold onto their ex-husband’s last name until they marry again: like moving to a new horse on the carousel ride, clutching its pumping pole.
          The truth is, it’s something closer to spite. Alice is almost sure Nina would never have changed her name had Alice been willing to release her own hold on it. But she is entitled to it! she wants to shout at Nina Durante-Haven. It belongs to her.
          So immersed is Alice in this imaginary conversation with her grandmother’s nodding head, Isabel’s grimacing one, Nina’s outraged one, that she hears only the end of Isabel’s speech.
          “So I’m really worried about her.”
          “What?”
          Again, Isabel twitches: the effort to summon up patience is so visible. It is intended, Alice thinks, to be visible. “You must notice! I know Laurel wears all those layers, it’s easy to disguise, but you must see she’s too thin…”
          “I was a skinny girl too,” Alice says.
          Isabel shakes her head. She sits at Alice’s computer. (“Do you mind?” she asks, though she doesn’t wait to see if Alice objects.) Alice watches Isabel’s shiny nails click across the keyboard.
          These pro-ana sites, what on earth? Alice combs through them, after Isabel leaves. She reads recipes for cleanses that remind her of the days when she was confronting the negative shape of Nina, and one of the dots to connect was Nathan’s interest in cooking. (Tuscan food, Sardinian food; he went to the seafood store in the Mission to buy octopus.)
          Alice has not noticed any red thread bracelet on Laurel’s wrist, but suddenly she can picture that wrist: delicate, bony. The image is a hairball coughed out of her mind.
          She remembers a fairytale she used to read to Laurel, about a fairy who ate only air. Alice goes to Laurel’s room: the bed is neatly made. Laurel’s yellow bear with the spectacles sits on her pillow, guarding it. On Laurel’s bed is a green vellum book, her new journal. Alice has never touched it because (she tells herself) she respects Laurel’s privacy. But the truth is it was a gift from Nina, for Laurel’s recent fourteenth birthday, which makes it Kryptonite.
          What will she find if she opens it? This pro-ana crap? Lists of calories? Or anxieties about Alice, herself? “Mom is so fucked up…”
          Avoiding it, Alice studies the bookshelf instead. It takes her a minute to find the fairytale book. There it is, the story about the fairy Rosebud who lived on air. “Like this,” Alice remembers Laurel saying, opening and closing her mouth like a fish.
          There’s another familiar story. Hunched over the book, Alice straightens when she sees it. The story about the two sisters, one bad, one good. Every time the bad one speaks, toads and lizards hop out of her mouth; the good one, instead, utters pearls. Laurel had loved that story too, but it horrified Alice. How awful, to have to spit out, whenever one talked, pearls! And what are pearls, anyway, but irritations: the speck of sand that the oyster protects itself from, sealing and resealing the grain to keep it from hurting the oyster’s sensitive tissue. What a thing to convert into treasure.
          Alice pictures her white gouache, shiny and thick. She touches, protectively, the grid on her forearm (the scab has fallen off; it will definitely scar). If she were the good sister, the one who speaks pearls, Alice would never open her mouth again.

          Nathan doesn’t want to be here. Every line in his body broadcasts resistance: the way he avoids contact with Alice, his rigid face. She can picture him narrating all this to Nina, how remote he was, how loyally distant.
          Alice has the cotton-in-ears problem again, but she hears his distrust in the way he says the word, “tactics.” Spits it, really: a round, luminous pearl.
          “Look at your daughter,” Alice says.
          She gestures: they are standing on the porch. Laurel is walking towards them, skateboard under her arm. She has not looked up yet; she doesn’t yet realize her father is standing here, six hundred miles from where he lives. Alice hasn’t mentioned any of it (her call, the unplanned visit from Dad), because she didn’t know if she could persuade Nathan to come, or if he would trot out the same excuses: no time, so busy with the new baby.
          “What—”
          “Just look at her, Nathan.”
          While he looks at Laurel, Alice looks at him. She is descending, a long, slow fall from a precarious height. First her toes, then her heels land on the wooden slats of the porch. She feels wobbly, as if she has sea-legs, but under her feet there is solid ground. She watches the expressions (annoyance, perplexity, then concern) shift and slip across her ex-husband’s face.
          “I’m looking,” he says at last.


Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department at Mills College. Her stories are published in Atticus Review, Breakwater Review, Fiction Southeast, The Gettysburg Review, Gravel, Hobart, JMWW, Sixfold, Squalorly, Word Riot, and other journals. She is working on a novel and a story collection.