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Megan Staffel’s stories have been published in The New England Review, Ploughshares, The Common, Seattle Review, among others, and collected in The Exit Coach (Four Way Books) and Lessons in Another Language (Four Way Books). She is the author of three novels, The Notebook of Lost Things (Soho Press), She Wanted Something Else (Northpoint Press), and A Length of Wire And Other Stories (Pym Randall Press). She has published essays on craft in A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on their Craft edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi; and Letters to A Fiction Writer, edited by Fred Busch and Cerise Press. She teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
In the Conditional Mood
From WTP Vol. IX #7
When Ada was nine years old, the big people forgot to give her a present at Christmas.
The big people were accidental parents, not in the sense of surprise pregnancy, but as surprised owners of relentlessly demanding pets. As a matter of principle, they didn’t give much thought to presents, and each year they purchased them hastily, close to the deadline, when merchandise in the stores was sparse. They were artists and didn’t have much money, so they preferred cheap, and the commercial extravaganza of the holidays only hardened their resistance.
Ada and her sister believed in Christmas. The cartoons they watched on TV, the songs and pageants they performed in their respective grades at public school, grades 4 and 2, involved Jesus and Santa Claus and the hysterical happiness of gifts given and received in the oblivious days of the nineteen sixties.
On the Christmas morning that would change everything, the daughters woke early. Ada and Leonora crept down the stairs while the big people were still sleeping. It had snowed the night before and their street was transformed by nature’s visit, the pavement hidden under a blanket of pure white, the shapes of the trees in stark outline, the city hushed and gentle. Through the banisters, they could see their own piece of nature, the evergreen tree they’d picked out from hundreds of others that had leaned against the chain link fence in the empty lot next to the supermarket. It was dark and lifeless, but as fragrant as an entire forest, or what they imagined an entire forest might smell like. Ada, being the older, plugged in the lights, and the bulbs snapped into brilliant colors, revealing the ornaments nestled in the boughs. In the early morning quiet, it felt to Ada as though the actual baby Jesus, a person never referred to in their household, was floating above the mountain of gifts rising beneath the tree, blessing them with a special secular beneficence.
On some years they had received things it was impossible to wrap. A bicycle or a scooter would be parked close to the tree, shiny and perfect, but this year the presents were small enough to wrap and pile. The daughters knew they were not allowed to open anything until the grownups woke up, but Ada suggested they separate them into piles, one for each family member. Each package had a card with a picture of a reindeer and underneath it, a name written in their mother’s hand. There were only two for the parents, the one for their mother Noreen was written by their father, Ralph. Many had Leonora’s name and those went into her pile. Many had Ada’s name, but they didn’t go into Ada’s pile because Leonora had been added in different colored ink like an afterthought. Those required another pile, the shared pile, which was a new concept.
When they were done, there were two piles of equal size, the gifts for Leonora, and the gifts for the girls to own jointly. Somehow, there wasn’t a single item for Ada alone. Leonora, busy trying to guess what her packages contained, didn’t notice, and Ada, experiencing the same desolation she sometimes felt at school, said nothing. At school, when the gym teacher appointed two captains to choose their teams, Ada was inevitably the last player chosen. It hurt, but she was expert at hiding her feelings. Jesus had left and maybe He had never been there in the first place.
The day rolled out in the usual way, presents, breakfast, and the steady destruction of the peace and beauty of the early morning. Once everything had been ripped open and exclaimed over, ribbon and wrapping paper littered the carpet. Some of Leonora’s presents were already broken. Her toy toaster didn’t pop the rubber bread up anymore, the doll’s eyes were stuck closed. Of course, the parents were happy with the one gift each had given the other: a beautiful blue sweater their father had chosen for their mother, a braided leather belt with a silver buckle that their mother had chosen for their father. Ada waited for one of the big people to notice that she hadn’t received a gift for herself alone, but they were content and happy, traitors to their own righteous views.
“When I was a little girl,” their mother said, thumbing through a book that was one of their shared presents, “I used to love Tales of King Arthur and I can’t wait to read them out loud to you. These are the same illustrations that my book had. Oh, it gives me chills. I wonder what happened to it? When they sold the house, maybe, oh, I would give anything to have it again. Ralphie,” she asked dreamily, “didn’t you read King Arthur?”
“Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn. You forget, I grew up in Texas. People in Texas didn’t know about King Arthur, they didn’t care about England.”
Ada didn’t care about England either, but then it was breakfast, and even in her desperate state, she was hungry. Christmas breakfast was always pancakes with frozen blueberries. They ate at the dining room table with the good china and silverware. Ada poured a lake of syrup over hers, hoping someone would stop her, but they said nothing.
Later, the grownups went into the kitchen to call relatives, Leonora introduced her new doll to the teddy bear and clown she’d had since she was a baby, and Ada went upstairs to her room and shut the door. She didn’t slam it, she shut it softly, making sure it was closed securely. Part of her wanted the big people to wonder where she was, but another part of her, new and unfamiliar, hoped the big people stayed down in the kitchen, talking on the phone. It was important the door was shut because she wanted to have a moment to address her private self. She was done with baby Jesus. She was done with the stupid entanglements that made her miserable, including team sports.
Her room had a south facing window and the sun was strong that afternoon. The snow had melted so completely it seemed never to have been there. The electric wires bisecting the sky were ugly, but the sun slanting through her window threw a golden rectangle on her wooden floor. She sat down inside it, keeping all of her inside the glowing shape, being careful to not let her knees drift out. Then, she gathered herself up, took in a breath, and like the psychologist she would become one day many years in the future, gave herself counsel.
Tell her, go down to the kitchen now and tell her. If you tell her, she’ll say she’s sorry, and give you a big hug. You’ll cry; you’ll feel even worse, and she’ll hug you again. And then she’ll continue to apologize, and for the rest of the day, she’ll be very careful around you. “Ralph,” she’ll say, “we’ve made a horrible mistake.” And he would suggest that some of the shared presents should be yours alone, but redoing them in front of Leonora would feel nastier than the original mistake. And then, she’ll make sure that your sister isn’t in earshot and tell you why it had happened, that poor Leonora was having a hard year at school and mommy and daddy wanted her to know that she was very loved and very special. You understand, don’t you? And her mother’s eyes would plead. A clever salesman, her mother, her whole body would be pressed into the theatrics of trying to explain. I know you understand, she’d say, and then, what could you do? It would be impossible to say no.
Say nothing, she advised. Stay in your room and the day will end. The day always will end.
It was a philosophy that would get her through all kinds of future difficulties, but as an adult, it had a certain limiting factor and she wondered if the alone moment had counseled the best action after all. It had made her strong and self-sufficient, but was restraint a good thing? Was not standing up for yourself, not acting on desire a good thing? Those were the things she wondered about when she was older, and especially on another sunny day in December twelve years later when she was halfway through her third year at college. The term was ending, she’d finished a big research paper, and she wanted to do something to celebrate. So, she took the subway into Cambridge and as she walked down Brattle Street, she was thinking about a movie or a concert or a visit to a museum, or even buying something for herself, a blouse, a necklace.
She fell into step with a man she had noticed when she came up out of the subway. She liked his looks.He had a luxurious mop of uncombed hair and a purposeful, confident walk, head upright, shoulders sloped. His clothes were wrinkled; even his jacket looked like he’d lately picked it up from the floor. She glanced his way and when he turned to meet her gaze, he gave her a nod of recognition, and in that instant, he seemed familiar, a favorite cousin, brother, or old friend, though of course he was none of those.
“It’s so cold, can I interest you in a cup of coffee?”
“You can,” she said simply.
There was a coffee house on the next block called Bailey’s, a place that also served sandwiches and pastries. They sat at a metal table in the center of the room, heads bent over the menu. Ada was hungry, but with the idea of celebration, of having earned a special day, she decided to order not a sandwich, but a piece of the chocolate cake she’d noticed in the glass case at the entrance. The room was decked out for the holiday in the more restrained, secular fashion of the nineteen seventies. Ropes of evergreens festooned the walls, lights glowed along the ceiling, but a jolly Santa Claus, the last cultural icon to get wiped out, glowed by the register.
Their conversation went along familiar lines: where they grew up, what they were doing that day in Cambridge (he was returning home from his work-study job at a science lab), what they hoped to do in the next few years. There was nothing extraordinary about anything he said, but she could feel electricity from his body, and realized it was sex, and it was so explicit, she couldn’t look at his wrist without noticing the beauty of his hand, she couldn’t see his neck without imagining how it would tilt close to her to say something she would definitely want to hear, and as she looked into his eyes, she knew these fantasies were being communicated without her permission, even though, out loud, they were talking about other things. All the while he was drinking coffee—he drank it with cream, but no sugar—and she was eating dark chocolate cake, and with each dense and buttery forkful, her body felt more awakened.
They sat at the table for a couple of hours. When they paid and were on the street again, he said, “I don’t live far. Why don’t you come over?”
She wasn’t a virgin, and in those days, the birth control pill was new and exciting and young women like her took it even when they didn’t have a boyfriend. So, pregnancy wasn’t a consideration and though she desired experience, she also desired love. But those were abstractions. What felt urgent to her was the reality of his voice, his face, his body. She ached for him. To say yes to all she was feeling, all she wanted, to say yes to this man who would be safe and beautiful, to say yes to this moment in time, to complete it in a necessary and adult way, would be an act of spontaneity, of truth.
But the subway entrance was right there, and she could hear the rumble of a Boston bound train and she knew, if she caught it, she’d be home in half an hour. The earth would continue its orbit around the sun and the day would come to an end whether she went with him or returned to her room on Beacon Street. The room called. It was hard to resist.
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