Each night since the phone call, Annie has dreamed of falling. The dreams are horribly specific. She slips in the shower and breaks out a front tooth, then watches her blood swirl down the drain. She trips over a supermarket curb, spilling her groceries, and hears the crunch of her shoulder dislocating on the pavement. This time she stands before a fitting room mirror looking young and formidable, even beautiful. She thinks that she's found the perfect dress for the awards banquet. She's relieved, until her eyelashes sprinkle out and her hair drops in thick clumps onto her shoulders. Even the dress is coming apart, seams popping, threads unraveling and buttons flying like bullets. When she tries to run, her feet get tangled up and the fall seems to last forever, her body slicing through the air until her cheek finally scrapes against the department store carpet.
Annie sits on the edge of the bed, heart knocking. She looks for a long time down at her legs, afraid to get up. She remembers that she was opening a can of soup when the call came, still tweezing the dripping lid between thumb and forefinger. She glanced over at her daughter Eden standing in front of the refrigerator, eating olives out of a jar. Trying to listen to the professional voice on the other end, she felt a pang of guilt (it was automatic) that she doesn't cook like her mother. Even scribbling information on the hall table notepad, Annie had barely heard about the award. Later she tried to decipher her own shaky handwriting, and ended up calling back for details.
The dreams hadn't started that night; the phone call had only worsened them. It was that embarrassing spill she took on Richard's doorstep. She'd had this idea of putting on a short black skirt and making him sorry. She would show up unannounced and he would feel ashamed. And she might get a look at the woman. So she rang the doorbell of the apartment where her husband lived with someone else, holding a box of his things. When Richard opened the door to let her in, she stumbled across the threshold and fell at his feet, scattering green tennis balls everywhere. He asked with real concern, "Are you O.K.?" Annie had kept her mouth shut, hiding her bleeding tongue.
Now Annie has fallen at Richard's feet, and she is sure to fall at the banquet on her way to the podium. She wants to spring out of bed and go running (she has ten pounds to lose), but her legs might collapse beneath her. She crawls back under the sheets instead, the pillow cool against her face. She breathes deeply, picturing the farm again, and her six-year-old reflection in the pond. She's wearing an outgrown sundress, a strap hanging off one shoulder. Her hair floats like anemones, tentacles alive and searching in the wind. She tries to think about swampy water, brown shadows and lying on her back in the dirt. She tries to remember her dog standing with heavy paws on her chest, his pink tongue dripping and ticks growing fat behind his ears.
Annie wants to be happy. She's being given the Salesperson of the Year Award by her real estate firm. She deserves this because she never tires of showing houses, as if she's searching for her own home. She should be excited, but she's only scared. She's beginning to worry that she's losing her mind. It's probably stress about the banquet and about leaving town with her mother in the hospital. Annie's mother got sick the same night Annie fell across Richard's threshold. When she returned home, the message light was blinking on her machine. It was her mother, saying that she had decided to check into the emergency room. Annie had driven all the way to the hospital crying, not only because of her mother but because of the way her scraped knees throbbed and burned. She'd hidden her wounds from Eden until they healed, as if they were dirty tattoos.
But Annie's mother is getting better, while Annie is only getting worse. She can't eat, and when she sleeps there are these dreams, which have now come seeping into real life. Lately her heart races and she begins to sweat before standing up. Basiphobia, she's heard the word in a college psychology class. It means a fear of falling, but it's mostly an affliction for old people. Annie feels ridiculous. If she doesn't take hold of herself, Eden will notice. She's six now and watches Annie closely all the time, as if taking notes.
Annie has named her daughter Eden, after the biblical garden. Eden is wild, savage with life and color and scent. She used to eat bugs as a baby. Now she plucks garter snakes from the bushes, stalks birds and squirrels in the fenced backyard. She has managed to become a nature girl in the city suburbs. Annie thinks it must be in the blood. Sometimes she feels guilty, watching Eden running on their patch of lawn, watching her splash in the muddy creeks she makes with a water hose. They don't go to the farm enough; the drive is too long and Annie is busy. But it must have all paid off, because Annie is being given an award.
Annie lies rigid on her side, eyes squeezed shut. If she stays here on the pillow she will keep thinking of things like this, guilt and sickness and falling at the banquet. This bed where she dreams feels like an island. She flings off the sheet and leaps up suddenly, like plunging once and for all into icy water. She keeps moving as she pulls on her rumpled sweats, barely pausing to force her feet into running shoes with the laces already tied. She leaves the front door standing open, even though her daughter is sleeping inside. She can't stop to close it; she feels as if she's being pursued.
She almost slips in the dewy grass and her terror mounts. She runs and runs, and when her toes strike a stick or skitter over a pebble she feels like screaming. She tries to focus on the shopping she needs to do, on the dress she will buy for the banquet, but she can only think of the ten pounds she needs to lose. Richard used to jokingly poke at her middle. Annie hates him, wishes to bite him and scratch him and pull out his hair, the way he used to say to her, smiling, "Look, a gray one," and pluck it from her scalp. She always tried to smile back through the stinging.
But it's not only Richard chasing her through the fog, up the hill, past picket fences and tall Victorian houses. It's the award, and all that it does or does not mean (she thinks the promotion to general manager should matter more to her). It's the image of her mother shrunken and old in a hospital bed, when she used to race with Annie piggyback across the pasture, sending up flocks of brown birds. Annie is afraid to stop. She runs until her chest hurts and her sides are on fire, until she bends over and vomits into the bushes.
She stands in front of a three-way mirror at the department store. This moment is so much like last night's dream that her hands are shaking. She tries to be casual because Eden is here, bored and fidgety. Annie has found a tailored pantsuit that flatters her figure, and shoes that make her look taller. She glances over at Eden, thinking of popping seams and flying buttons with a mixture of dread and longing. Eden watches as always, her eyes reflective green ponds.
Annie has found the perfect outfit for the awards banquet, just like in her dream. If Richard could see her now, slim and powerful with highlighted hair, he would be sorry. She should feel relieved. But leaning close to the mirror (her eyebrows need waxing) she discovers a new line in her face. Her nose is studded with blackheads. Her eyes have dark circles. If Annie were more like her mother, who wears shapeless dresses that sway in the wind, it wouldn't matter so much. Annie thinks how wind is always blowing at the farm, livening everything (dresses and hair and sheets on the line). It scares Annie when her mind wanders like this. She will have to focus now on keeping her eyelashes and her freshly-done hair; she will have to concentrate on not falling. She almost walks off with the pantsuit, tags dangling, until Eden asks, "Are you going to pay for it, Mom?"
Annie spends more money than she expected to. Absurdly, she hides the receipt from Eden. She will stop at the hospital on her way home. She tries to sing along with the radio as she drives, but now she worries that someone will steal her pantsuit while she's visiting with her mother (it was the last one in her size). Annie tries to smile at Eden, who looks up at her searchingly, but she's too sick inside.
Annie and Eden stand together at the foot of Nell's hospital bed. Annie doesn't like seeing her mother this way, and resists clapping her hands over Eden's eyes. It's true that Eden doesn't seem disturbed, but she's never seen this woman leaning off a wooden bridge, long hair hanging forward, to show Annie a frog. She's never seen this woman rinsing fresh-cut grass from her feet under the wellhouse spigot. She wasn't there when Nell covered dark paneling with fresh white paint, decorating herself with splatters, every door and window of the old house thrown open.
Nell is still like that, all her doors thrown open. But Annie can barely remember how it felt drifting in to grab an apple, then drifting back out to roll with new puppies in the grass. She can't smell the wind anymore, billowing the curtains and ruffling the newspapers spread across the floor. Annie keeps her own doors and windows fastened, not because the neighborhood is unsafe, but because she's come to hate insects. Even moths, which she used to catch and cup in her hands just to feel their wings tickling.
Standing at the foot of Nell's bed, Annie thinks how she's changed as much on the inside as her mother has changed on the outside. She's suddenly terrified for both of them, and for Eden. She decides not to bring Eden back here anymore (Nell will be well enough soon to go home). She will take Eden to the awards banquet instead. She wants Eden to be there when she strides to the podium, trailing perfume and fire.
At least Nell has remained cheerful. She doesn't seem to care what's happening, that she's getting old and sick. But this angers Annie a little. It seems wrong that Nell should accept it all so easily, the wrinkling and the flabbiness and the dimming eyes. Annie remembers gathering fodder to adorn the porch posts, lugging a heavy pumpkin between them, getting the big knife, scooping out slimy guts, collecting the seeds to plant as an experiment, and thinking all the while how much like autumn her mother's eyes were.
Annie sends Eden down the hall to watch television in the waiting room. She knows what her mother wants tonight. Nell needs a sponge bath but she doesn't like the nurses. She insists that she could probably do it herself, but Annie knows that her mother is still weak. If she were to fall in the bathroom, Annie would never forgive herself.
Helping Nell to undress, Annie hears blood rushing in her ears like the sound of the ocean (she could get tangled up in her mother's IV, the pole and bag crashing down with her). She tries to breathe normally, first washing Nell's face and then moving downward. Annie dreads the sagging planes of Nell's breasts (they will need cleaning beneath). Bathing the freckled hills of her mother's shoulders Annie tries to plan how the cloth, squishy with soap, will move across Nell's breasts when the moment arrives. They are beaten flat, pressed soft by a man and a baby and loads she has carried against her chest (groceries, firewood, animals, and when she was younger, school books). Annie aches for Nell when she thinks where these breasts have been, round and sweet in the cups of her brassiere beneath a high school sweater, straining against a sterile-smelling gown in a maternity ward, bent over an assembly line in a toothbrush factory. And so many times mashed against Annie's own face as she tried to squirm closer. Now they rest deflated on the ribs of a sick, aging woman being washed by her daughter in a hospital room. Annie's thigh muscles tremble as she struggles not to fall.
Annie sits on the hotel bed, listening to her coworkers' muffled laughter in the adjoining room. Eden is coloring stomach-down on the carpet and Annie thinks distantly of germs, the possible dead skin and stray hairs of strangers. She feels trapped. All the doors are closed; this is nothing like that day with her mother covering up darkness, white paint flying from the roller in spangles and dots that seemed magical to Annie, landing everywhere (on skin, hair, clothes, newspapers, and the cats twining between Nell's ankles). All is hot and stale. This is the air her daughter breathes. Her daughter, named after the biblical garden.
The fear of falling has never been more oppressive or dangerous. Annie thinks she might not get up this time. If she sits here, at least until tomorrow, there will be no chance of stumbling as she steps forward to receive her award (no chance of falling in front of Eden). Since leaving the house yesterday morning, Annie has been second-guessing her decision to bring Eden along. Maybe if her daughter wasn't here, Annie wouldn't be so afraid. She sees it happening again and again. Her name is called and she steps smartly into the aisle. She glances back at Eden as she approaches the podium, watching wide-eyed. Just when Annie reaches out to claim her award, the heel on her shoe breaks and she pitches forward onto her hands and knees, hairpins scattering and curls tumbling into her eyes. She can hear the exclamations of surprise and concern, the embarrassed murmurs (and after a stunned pause, the hands will come to help her up). But Annie won't let herself picture Eden, sitting on the first row red-faced and scared, confused about what has happened.
Annie closes her eyes and goes back to the farm. She sees herself shucking corn on the front porch with Nell, licking rain beads from the tender pink heads on the peony bush. She sees herself walking with her mother into the woods behind the barn with a gallon bucket for blackberry picking, wind tearing at their clothes (they have to hurry before a storm comes). The wind on the farm smells so good. Annie needs a breath of air, but there is no wind in the city. Even if there was, this room has no balcony and faces a hallway that leads to the elevator which will take her down, down to the banquet. She's seen the conference room, mostly empty right now, with chairs in a semi-circle and bunches of drooping flowers that would probably make raindrops taste bitter. She looks at Eden, messy hair and sandaled feet swinging (little toenails painted pink). If she doesn't begin getting ready soon, she'll be late.
In the hotel bathroom, changing clothes in a hurry, Annie catches a glimpse of her own breasts in the mirror. She stops moving, mildly shocked to discover how much like her mother's they look. The stretch marks are fresher but the nipples are the same (pale, flaccid, ineffectual). In all likelihood Annie has fed her last child with these breasts, impressed her last man with them. She's ashamed that Richard has ever seen her this way. She wonders what the new woman's breasts look like.
She hears her coworkers moving outside the bathroom door, playing with Eden now, and wants to shout angrily, "Look at this!" She has an urge to point out the injustice, but she will tell no one what she has seen (what she has realized). If she doesn't tell, maybe no one will notice. Someday the daughter that she nursed with these breasts will bathe them in a sickroom. Until then, her breasts will be her secret, the way Nell's breasts had been a secret.
Annie goes down in the elevator, holding tight to Eden's hand. Her coworkers might be speaking to her but she's preoccupied. She's trying to feel attractive but her self-image is trapped in a square of hotel mirror, a big irreverent postcard showing her aging breasts and surprise-widened eyes. She clings to Eden like a cane or a crutch. Without Eden, it feels as if her legs would give out early, even before the award. It wasn't supposed to be this way (this is not what she meant to show her daughter).
When the elevator doors ding open, Annie thinks she might vomit like that morning after running. Her coworkers will have to step around it. She squeezes Eden's hand. Her heels click as she emerges onto the marble floor, moving forward on automatic pilot. Inside herself, she searches for another memory of the farm. This time Nell shows her a tightly-woven nest edged with a chain of hard, glossy bird droppings like decorative pearls. Nell bestows it ceremonially, a prize for good behavior at church. She's taken a ladder from the shed and brought the nest down carefully, the way she might convey a holy relic. It's the most magnificent thing Annie's ever seen, not just for its artfulness but for its emptiness somehow, because she knows that its former occupants have flown away to ride currents of wind, to skim treetops and sit on wires overlooking green fields.
Annie stands in the wide conference room entrance as it begins to fill up. A suited woman is tapping on the podium microphone. The light is dirty in there. She can smell wilty flowers. She sees, on a table among others, what must be her award. It is small and glass, like a paperweight. Annie's not sure what she expected. Looking at the award, there is a sudden sense of everything else (the high ceiling, the vast floor, the noise, the gathering people) shrinking back into place.
Slowly, she lets out the long breath she's been holding. The tailored pantsuit seems to loosen its grip on her body. Someone touches her back, speaking to her graciously on his way inside. Annie doesn't respond. She is thinking about driving straight to the farm when this is over. She imagines pulling up alongside the field, stepping across the mucky ditch with Eden and running fast through the weeds, grasshoppers leaping into startled flight all around them. Inside herself, she feels they are already gone. Her daughter looks up expectantly, pond-water eyes alive with all creation. They walk into the banquet hand-in-hand, Annie floating on air she knows will be strong enough to hold her.
Copyright © Amy Greene 2006. Title graphic: "Blanquet" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2006.