The Star of the North [story] by Cathleen Calbert

What would happen,” I mused aloud.

“God,” my husband said.

Simon hated What Would Happen. I think he feared this game would incriminate him for fantasized infidelities. Actually, I’d only gone that route a few times. What would happen if you ran into your old girlfriend? What if you ran into her and I were dead? What if I’d never been born? I also had asked him to consider the consequences of avalanches and wind tunnels, cliffs and broken legs. I don’t know why I worried then about disasters and their aftermath. When an earthquake rolled me out of bed as a child, I loved the surprise of it, the promise of something different.

“What if I put my bare foot in the snow at fifteen below?” I said, gazing at the crooked Christmas tree as I waited for Simon to quit tapping his keyboard. Rows of lit red peppers and green cows encircled the tree, which wouldn’t stand up straight. Still, the red and green looked festive. Watching my neighbors, I’d figured out that you had to have something bright and cheerful to look at once the snow descended. Strings of white lights framed the windows and circled the shrubs of the bungalows surrounding our flat. Inside, lamps glowed pink, gold, or yellow, as if staying inside were a matter of choice, as if doing so had nothing to do with the car not turning over and the garage door no longer opening.

“Why wouldn’t you have your boots on?” Simon said, finally.

“What if I got locked out of the house without any clothes?”

“Why wouldn’t you have clothes on?”

That’s how Simon always responded to What Would Happen. He’d point out that his ex-fiancée was happily married and probably inclined to remain so whether I lived or died and that I never went camping so was not likely to backpack twenty miles into Yosemite, lose both contacts and glasses, then have to be led back to civilization virtually blind.

“Well.” I drew out the word. “What do you think would happen if we threw boiling water into the air right now? Would it actually turn into snow?” The six o’clock news had highlighted such tricks: how you could use a frozen banana as a hammer, crack an egg onto the icy sidewalk and see it petrify, create your own snowfall at home.

That got the laptop off his crotch and Simon off the couch. When not at the college, he lived on that couch, his long legs taking over the striped pillows, his eyes on the computer screen. But I’d managed to pique his interest: he wanted to make snow. We both watched the pot of water come to a boil as if waiting for a mother’s homemade pudding. Together, we trotted down the stairs to carry out our experiment. Cringing, Simon swung the pot upward. Hot water shot out and came down as a miniature snow shower.

“Wow,” we both said.

“I can’t believe I live here,” I stuttered because my lips had frozen.

“Here” was St. Paul, where people were nicer and taller and grayer than in San Francisco. Whenever I mentioned that we’d come from California, I received a thoughtful wrinkling of the Minnesotan brow. I saw longing in people’s faces as well as concern, which I took to mean that they wondered two things: Was I a crazy Californian? Did I look down on them? St. Paulies are touchy about the film Fargo, the lilt of their accents, and the fact that they live in the middle of the country. They’re protective of the bland Canadian Walleye that shows up on every restaurant menu, even Mexican or Thai, and defensive about F. Scott Fitzgerald, who hated this city.

Personally, I was happy to come to St. Paul, to try somewhere different, and amused to be a “faculty wife,” which conjured images to me of 1950s martinis and homemade sugar cookies, of sherry and cubes of cheese at the dean’s. I pictured myself wearing a frilly apron over gold lamé. Simon and I did go to an opening reception at the Chair’s house, all walnut wood and leather books, where we were plied with sweet wine along with an array of local cheeses, but no one seemed to regard the party as ironic or to understand that I was only playing the role of faculty wife.

“Yep, I’m at home, making curtains and babies,” I told one of Simon’s new colleagues, a man who looked like a shy but smiling Freud.

Simon broke in, “Laura’s an artist. She’s had several shows in the Bay Area.”

“You must meet some of the other spouses, Laura,” Freud said, still
smiling benignly as if Simon had commented on my collection of commemorative spoons. “Everyone’s done such interesting things.” He left it at that. Simon and I left the party early.

Throughout the fall, which was brisk and fresh and not frightening, I tried to think of myself as an artist even though I wasn’t making any art. I was an artist taking in the Walker, an artist taking a walk, an artist gazing up at the clouds passing over Summit Avenue—for several hours at a stretch. But I never opened up a sketchbook.

“I’m absorbing,” I told Simon over watery Indian takeout. “This afternoon I went to Camp Snoopy. At the Mall of America. It’s the largest mall in the country.”

“Is that right,” Simon said, a model of neutrality.

This was the sort of conversation we’d begun having over dinner.

Then winter hit.

The screen went red on the weather channel. Winter Warning Advisory. Winter Storm Watch. Snow Alert. Snow Emergency. We received automated phone calls telling us to stay off the roads. You’d think Minnesotans would be unfazed by heavy snowfalls, yet they didn’t take winter lightly. The schedule for contra dancing at the college remained constant, and new posters went up advertising “curling,” which involved ice and brooms. But my neighbors also bought enormous bottles of water and snowblowers as loud as Volkswagens. They had deerskin gloves, and thick, knitted hats that they wore under the hoods of their down parkas. Even our apartment stood at the ready, with eight coat hooks in the front hall and six in the stairwell.

In response to the concern expressed by our adopted town and rented digs, I stopped wandering haphazardly around town and concentrated on the inside of the apartment. We squeezed our queen-sized bed into the second bedroom, and I made the master bedroom my studio. Simon encouraged me to do so, shrugging his husbandly shoulders over the sacrifice, but I felt as though I’d accepted a bribe. He was busy professing—grading, meeting students, meeting colleagues, meeting students, grading—and wanted his wife to occupy herself in some way that didn’t intrude on any of this. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.

When I met him, I found Simon unusually beautiful—his skin a rich olive, his hair the color of chocolate—and dreamy for a historian. Everyone connected to the College of Arts and Crafts thought of grad students at Cal as stiffs, little better than the business majors down at Stanford. Yet Simon spent whole mornings at Mama’s Royal Café in North Oakland, an open book before his faraway eyes. I had to pass by his table several times before I got his attention.

After we hooked up, he still spent mornings at Mama’s, watching me contentedly over cups of heart-jolting coffee. He finished his program on time even though he leisurely picked out coffee beans with me at Peets, picked out tomatoes with me at the farmers’ market, and fell in love with me. But in his first year as a Visiting Assistant Professor, he developed a ferocious energy, devoting himself to the job as if he never had wanted to do anything else.

Once I commandeered our bedroom, I also felt compelled to do something. At first, I considered giving the walls a fresh coat of lemon cream, but that smacked too much of feminine nesting. Carefully, I prepared six square canvases instead.

Then Simon surprised me, whirling me into a kiss. “There’s my girl,” he said.

I laughed, spinning free. “Don’t you have a class?”

“Yep, I’ve only got a minute, but I wanted to tell you, I talked to my Chair,” he said breathlessly. “The department just got approval for this line to become tenure-track.”

“Tenure-track,” I repeated after him. I thought of a long line of railroad tracks. Johnny Cash echoed in my head, “Folsom Prison Blues” and a train coming ’round the bend. “As in permanent?”

“As in, it could be permanent in seven years.”

“Seven years?”

Simon furrowed his brow. “Why are you repeating everything I say, Laura? That’s what my students do when they don’t know the answer to something.”

“I’m not your fucking student,” I said, reaching for my coat.

“Sweetie, stop. What’s up?”

At that, I whirled to face him. “What happened to ‘We’ll be academic nomads’?”

“Well, now I could have a job for life.”

“Who wants a job for life!”

For a minute, we stared at each other. Then I ran down the stairs and slammed the door behind me.

The following morning, Simon and I drank our coffee separately, but he kissed me before he left for the college.

That day, I painted white on white, white with a shading of blue, with a shading of gray, more white. I did a whole series of these as snow fell steadily outside our windows.

“What do you think?” I asked Simon as soon as he came home.

He blinked at me as though trying to adjust his focus, then turned to the paintings. “They’re nice, Laura,” he said. “Maybe they could use something . . . but what do I know. You’re the artist.”

After Simon left for his Pagans and Christians class, You’re the artist stayed with me as I rinsed brushes, as I did the dishes, as I scoured pans. His comment didn’t sound like an acknowledgment so much as an accusation. You’re the artist.

I was an artist when I met him in San Francisco. Passionate. Unpredictable. I could laze with my lover the whole of a morning, then stay up all night, painting like mad, my clothes flecked with color, music crashing off the walls. But since we’d come to the “Star of the North,” I had only done those six white squares in the living room. What if I weren’t an artist anymore? Would that make me a bona fide faculty wife? Did all faculty wives imagine they were artistic in some way? Doing lots of interesting things.

By the time I clanked the last pot into its cupboard below the kitchen sink, I felt ready to jump out of my skin, so I put on Green Day and let their fast beat bounce off the walls. Then I unrolled all my tampons, and stuck each one into the thick, wet paint on White Painting #6. Afterwards, I added gashes of red. The tampons formed a halo in the middle of the painting, and the red cheered me up.

“Is it some sort of feminist statement?” Flicking snowflakes from his nose, Simon stood in front of my areole.

“It’s the sun,” I told him. “The sun above an uninhabitable tundra.”

Maybe I had a moment of prescience, because I wouldn’t be needing those tampons for a while. Mid-December, I took myself out to breakfast at the Coffee News and slipped runny eggs down my throat as I perused classifieds in the local alternative paper. Those ads cracked me up: the man looking for a lactating woman, the man who called himself “an analyst,” the woman in need of a golden shower. They made me happy to be with Simon instead of dating someone new, someone who might want to pee on me. They also unveiled another side of the granola intellectuals and orange-clad huntsmen: lonely souls in the market for spankings and diaper-changes.

Wrapping my scarf over my mouth, I trudged back to the apartment, only a five-minute walk. By the time I got inside, my face had numbed and the earrings I’d stupidly put on made my head ring. As I struggled out of my boots, coat, hat, and gloves, dripping water in the entryway, a wave of sickness rolled over me. I threw up on the floor of the bathroom before I could raise the toilet seat.

This was what we wanted.

It made sense, we had said on the drive east. Both of us through with school. Simon with a job and insurance for the year. Besides, we said. Making a baby might take a while. Some of our friends had had unreproductive sex for years. Couples we knew, straight and gay, struggled with their bodies and the bureaucracy of babies. But when winter descended, Simon’s sperm must have gotten moving, despite the constant baking of them with his laptop. Or my egg had frozen in place.

The afternoon after I spewed Coffee News eggs all over the bathroom, I took half a dozen pregnancy tests. First, I watched for a red line, and my urine magically conjured a red line. I knew I was pregnant then, but I couldn’t resist trying the rest. They rewarded me with pink stains, blue squares, and purple triangles. I painted the wands onto a new canvas, creating another halo. Apparently, all I could come up with was circles.

“Great,” Simon said when I told him the news that night. Great. As if I said I’d ordered Chinese and he was eyeing the moo-shoo chicken. He sounded pleased but not surprised—as though he had gotten exactly what he’d ordered. Wangled a job for life, check. Knocked up the wife, check. After a few kisses and a hand to my stomach, he sat on the couch and slid the silver rectangle of his computer back onto his lap. I thought for a minute that he wanted to look up information related to the pregnancy—about the formation of little fins or how to pleasure a hugely pregnant woman—but Simon returned to an article he’d been hammering out about Sumerians and sodomy or something like that. I called up T’ang Dynasty and ordered ten dishes, with extra fried rice.

Simon must have figured out that anyone who emptied that many greasy white cartons really was hungry for something else, because the next day he brought me home a clear, beaded necklace that looked like a string of diamonds and long-stemmed roses, which made me feel like I’d won something. There she goes, Miss America. Pleased, I put the roses into cut glass, a wedding present, and placed the vase on the windowsill. I liked the contrast of blood-red petals against the falling snow, though the flowers chilled within a day, and the petals chipped when I touched them as if they were made of glass.

I received more accolades at the doctor’s a week later. My new ob/gyn, a blond Viking in clogs, congratulated me. How often does a doc do that? His nurse and the receptionist gave me toothy smiles, a prescription for prenatal vitamins, and a palm-sized blue and pink bear wearing a tiny diaper. “Congratulations,” they chimed. “Congratulations.” No copayment for any prenatal visits, the receptionist assured me as she booked four more appointments on the spot. I gave them my winning wave as I left the office.

With nothing in my stomach, I spent the morning after my exam at the kitchen table, leaning my chin into my palms and snorting over the personals. I didn’t always understand the ads even though I’m from a city of drag cabarets and shops filled with lesbian sex toys. Big-bottomed Baby. Bad boy. Tantric massage for women: focused, free-flowing, personal.

I thought of the “impersonal” massage Simon had arranged for me at a spa in Napa before we left California. The dim lighting, the Middle Eastern rhythms, and the curling smoke from a stick of incense made me feel like I was back in high school and about to be seduced by the local stoner. Still, I stripped, then lay between a pair of sheets waiting for the return of Wanda, the handsome young woman whose handshake had assured me of her strength. “Close your eyes and let go,” she told me. Wanda circled her fingertips on my forehead, let the circles move into my scalp, then took my neck in her hands. When she reached my left hand, rolling each of my fingers in her oily palms, I murmured, “I love you.” Flushing, I corrected myself. “I mean, I love this.” She laughed as if she heard that all the time and moved onto my thigh. But I felt shy with Simon that night, as if he’d caught me flirting with another guy at a party. Of course, it was a slip of the tongue, that I love you, but half of me meant what I’d said. How could I not love someone who touched my body like that? How could she not be half in love with me?

I tossed the paper and gathered all the sheets and towels into a ball, which I held in front of me as if it were my nine-month belly—how would that feel?—and huffed to the Laundromat on Grand. As our stuff sloshed, making satisfying shug, shug sounds, I watched other launderers. A girl who looked as wholesome as a milkmaid—big-boned and red-cheeked—washed her sweatshirts and jogging pants. A large Indian family acted as if this were a day of celebration, chatting animatedly as they folded bright squares of color. A thin, shallowly bearded guy, young and delicately good-looking, tacked up a flyer on the community bulletin board. He lacked the height and the breadth of most Minnesota men, so was able to fit himself easily between me and the youngest of the Indian girls, who whispered endearments to her long-haired pink pony. I smiled at him because that’s what people do in St. Paul. They smile and look away. He smiled back, then dipped his head in the direction of the notice he’d put up.

“Tantric massage,” he told me.

I was surprised into saying, “Free-flowing and personal?”

“Have you seen my ads?”

“No,” I said, not wanting to admit my daily intake of others’ fetishes. “I think my husband mentioned it.”

“Did he think something like that might interest you?” he asked, pressing his palms together. He had the hands of an artist—long, thin fingers.

“No, he just thought it was…funny.” I shook off the words, not liking how my pretend-husband sounded—oafish and guffawing. Of course, I was the one who snickered over the classifieds. Simon never found things like that amusing.

“Do you know anything about tantric?” he asked me.

“Is it anything like tandoori?”

He widened his eyes, a pure green, the color of grapes. “Tandoori? No—”

“I’m teasing,” I assured him.

No one in the Midwest bantered, but I hadn’t gotten used to that yet. At bookstores and community centers, St. Paulies spoke seriously about important things—noise pollution, recycling, how to reignite the Democratic Party—but did so without jokes or innuendos. Lawns in our neighborhood proclaimed homeowners’ allegiances to worthwhile organizations and pleas to insensitive transients: We live here. Please don’t speed. World peace. At any gathering, I was the only one with a smirk or lipstick. “I’ve heard of tantric,” I told him. “Woody Harrelson and Sting, right?” The Indian girl eyed me, then swung one brown arm in the air. Her pony flew around the Laundromat. Suddenly, I felt wonderful. My stomach had stopped jumping. I couldn’t even tell I was pregnant.

He stroked the smooth cheek above his hopeful beard. “Tantric’s a whole philosophy,” he said. “Not just something celebrities do. It involves feeling one’s self within one’s body. Women especially get out of touch with this. They forget to feel. That’s what I help with.”

I laughed. “You sound Californian.”

“People have bodies even in Minnesota.” He gave me an uneven grin. “Some of them even enjoy them.”

“But aren’t you really talking about sex for money? Isn’t that a form—”

“It’s so much more than that,” he said, as earnest as any other Minnesotan. “You just have to open your mind.”

At his plea to open my mind, I got up: conversation finished, time to dry.

He put his hand in mine from behind. I twisted around to get another look at him.

“Jesse,” he said, pressing a softened business card in my hand. “Call me.”

I saluted him with the card, then stuck it into the front pocket of my jeans, so I could plunge both arms into the wet linens and pull them up.

The afternoon that I spoke with Jesse, Master of Tantric Massage, was the last time I felt free of the pregnancy. As the days accumulated, my breasts tightened; so did my belly. Simon and I opted to stay “home” for the holidays, not going back to the snow-free streets of San Francisco, where Christmas meant cool rain and dim sum. Instead of indulging in shrimp puffs and spare ribs and tiny custard pies that dissolve on your tongue, we made snow and watched TV. Those custard pies didn’t do much for me anyway. I still couldn’t keep much down except saltines and milk, which I’d begun mashing together as though I were my own baby. I stopped painting again after I had circled the living room with white squares, leaning the canvases against all four walls. I liked the bloody sun, but the rest looked blank to me, empty.

“I’m incubating,” I said, having spent New Year’s Day lying on the couch, Simon’s couch. Without complaint, he had moved his computer and his books to the kitchen table. “Do you suppose that makes me poultry?”

“I love you, Laura,” Simon responded as if this were an answer to my question.

Those days, he left the couch to me, spending more time at his office. “Better for networking,” he said. He brought me whatever I wanted—usually hot cross buns and the City Pages—then thunked back down the stairs, his boots muffled once he hit the snow on our stoop.

When his lecture on homosocial bonding and the beginnings of the nuclear family was cancelled because of burst pipes, Simon did spend a dark morning kissing me before he parted my legs and pressed his face between them. I stretched my arms up under the pillows, ready to be swept out to sea. After a minute, he pulled away.

“You taste different,” he said.

“Bad?”

“Just different. Like you’ve been eating dandelions.”

I drew the comforter over my waist. “What if—”

“Sweetie,” he cut me off.

“I’m never the same? What if from now on I’ll taste like…motherhood?”

“Does motherhood taste like dandelions?” He squinted as if trying to determine the answer to his own question.

I said that he probably should leave the room before I vomited on him, and he did, scooting into his pants as if I meant what I said. It was no big deal, the dandelion comment. Simon had wanted to make love to me. He’d admired the small swells of my breasts. But I lay in bed for the rest of the day, weeping as if bereaved under the billows of down.

That Monday, I went to Planned Parenthood for an “initial consultation.” I told the “counselor” I was poor, single, and uninsured. “It’s not the right time,” I said. “It’s a terrible time. A terrible place.”

“A terrible place?”

“I’m in a terrible place,” I corrected myself.

“Okay,” she said. “Sure, okay.”

She scheduled me for Thursday. Over the next three days, I lived on a whole new moral plane. I was doing the most awful thing I’d ever done, something unimaginable, unforgivable, divorceable. Because I didn’t plan to tell Simon I no longer wanted to have a child. I planned on lying. Miscarriages happened all the time. My husband would come home to a pale and bleeding wife understandably consoling herself with a glass of wine. He’d be nice to me for weeks—take me out to dinner, for drinks, maybe even dancing. This deception seemed better than confessing that I didn’t want to be trapped in St. Paul, where winter lasted more than half a year, that I didn’t want to be saddled with a child, this Minnesotan inside me. Minnesota had nothing to do with my art or my life. I was nothing here. But I’d become something: the worst woman I knew.

It took my breath away, to be that woman. I felt like I did when an art school friend turned me on to a few lines of coke: stronger, taller, grander. I had my first cup of coffee in weeks, relishing the smoky aroma as well as the burn when it went down my throat. I stretched a new canvas, laid down a base coat, and spread out what I’d bought. Humming, I stuck each object onto the surface of white waves: rubber nipples, pacifiers, and inch-long, plastic babies. At the center of this circle, I painted an eye, my left eye. Wide open.

On Thursday morning, the cab I’d ordered pulled up in front. Our old Civic had started up and the electric garage door had opened, but the driveway was ice. After I’d slipped forward and backward half a dozen times, I finally had slid the car back in its place, then made the calls.

“Seventh Avenue, Miss?” the driver said, smiling.

I peered down at the address. “Lyndale,” I told him.

I was operating by instinct then and sure of myself. This certainty stayed with me even as Jesse, wearing a white t-shirt and madras pants, led me through a string of red beads into a room filled with a sweet scent—cinnamon rolls or incense—that made me hungry.

“You haven’t made a mistake,” Jesse said, wet licks of hair around his ears; he must have just showered. “I promise.”

I nodded without saying anything.

What Would Happen, I began, but didn’t go any further than that. What if, what if, what if circled pleasantly in my head as if it were a complete idea on its own. Jesse left me to step out of my clothes. I shook off the wet coat, pulled off my black boots with their white rime. I unwound and unbuttoned, peeling away layers until I stood in the middle of my things. Stepping free of them, I lay face down on the massage table, my breasts full and firm, my belly round and hard. What if, what if, what if I said to myself as Jesse lifted the sheet that covered my body, as he poured warm oil over me, encircled my shoulders, my soles, with his hands, even as he parted my legs.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

Image by j.c.winkler

Cathleen Calbert’s poetry and prose have appeared in many publications, including the New Republic, the New York Times, and Paris Review. She has published three books of poems: Lessons in Space, Bad Judgment, and Sleeping with a Famous Poet. Her fourth, The Afflicted Girls, is forthcoming from Little Red Tree. She has been awarded the Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College, where she is a professor of English. “The Star of the North” originally appeared in The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women (Shade Mountain Press, 2015).