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The Missing Thing

By
May 6, 2007

After a year, Phillip said they should try again. He told Muriel what she already knew—that such problems were all too common with first pregnancies. Pressing her hand, he repeated everything the doctors had told them.

“I thought you wanted this too,” he would say, and he meant it kindly, although his flat, Midwestern voice sometimes betrayed a trace of annoyance—as if he were being asked to contribute to one of Muriel’s causes, deal with some petty household chore, or offer reassurance that her figure remained as trim as it always had.

Muriel’s mother pushed too: “You’re not getting any younger, dear.”

“No one is getting younger, mom.”

“Well, you’re thirty-four.”

“Just stop it—okay? You already sent me a birthday card.”

Eventually, Muriel’s clueless boss asked her to a baby shower. Her college roommate called with news of a happy event.

It was May.

It was June.

July came, and her sister-in-law began to point out cute toddlers as the two of them, clad in Spandex, did their evening speed walk through City Park. Even Muriel’s therapist seemed bored with her grief. “I think you need to make some decisions,” she said.

*

None of them had been there, when Muriel lost the child in the St. Louis airport.

She had stayed in the bathroom stall through her layover. The pain had stopped briefly, but she held her breath anyway, still on the seat with her skirt clutched above her waist. She couldn’t flush the toilet. She couldn’t look.

Outside the stall, a young mother was changing her toddler’s diaper.

“Hold still. Be good,” the mother said. “You’re a big boy now.”

The child laughed wildly, as if he were being tickled. And, Muriel shivered then, her cheek pressed to the cool metal divider that separated the stalls. There had been plenty of blood but that had stopped. A rubber glove had turned inside out in her belly. Something had unknotted itself. Something she hadn’t been able to name.

Of course, these were the “negative-type thoughts” that Muriel had been urged to suppress. “Try yoga,” friends told her. Phillip offered gin. The therapist mentioned a new generation of antidepressants that wouldn’t affect her libido.

At the worst times, Muriel’s mother took her to lunch, loaned her lipstick, encouraged Muriel to comb her hair, and said it was all a matter of keeping her chin up: “Look at Evie George—the trouble she’s had and still you see her everywhere on TV. My God, what a trouper!”

Evie George lived in London. “That’s London, England,” Muriel’s mother would say—a place far, far from the prairie suburb where Evie and Muriel had attended high school. The actress trod the boards of the West End and often appeared in those thoughtful TV serials that PBS brings across the Atlantic. She waved to photographers at charity functions. She railed against the cruelties of the foxhunt. She married three times—to the drummer from Sledge, to an actor who kept a boyfriend in Tangiers, to a banker who favored chalk-stripe suits—and, somehow, amid those changes, Evie had managed to birth a child out of wedlock, while flying below the radar of the checkout-line magazines. But, the details never slipped past Muriel’s mother: “Did you love that dress, or what? The green silk one—when she read the letter from Flaubert? ”

“Great color,” Muriel said. “Great with her hair.”

“I thought we’d see a lot more of her.”

“It’s a bit part, Mom—”

“Well, you’d think she was the star the way her mother talks. It was the same, when she played that nurse in Moscow—ten minutes spread over a month of Sundays.”

In their high school yearbook, the two girls had looked much the same—unremarkable teens whose dark hair was cut in the wedge made popular by a gold-medal skater. Both had blue eyes that matched their bell-bottom jeans. Both were shy. Both wore braces, but Evie was the one who smiled despite everything, as though the photographer’s camera were happy to see her.

*

Evie George stirred Phillip’s curiosity too—not enough to drop his skeptical talk about British costume dramas (“drama hardly seems like the right word,” he said) but enough to keep him in the bedroom for the first ten minutes of Episode Two.

“Tell me, when she comes on,” he said, looking up from the Times to make sure that Muriel had registered his request.

She blinked at the screen. “Uh-huh,” she said. “I’ll do that.” Seated cross-legged on the tufted, chenille expanse of their queen-size bed, she looked like an advertisement for the benefits of yoga—straight spine, chiseled nose and a wing of dark hair displayed in profile—but, mostly, she was waiting for her fingernails to dry.

Phillip’s reading glasses sat on the tip of his nose. He smiled in his thin-lipped fashion and watched Flaubert’s phaeton pass down an aisle of bare trees. Cellos sawed on the soundtrack accompanied by the snorts and clopping hooves of the great writer’s chestnut mare.

“Where’s your friend?” Phillip asked.

“She wasn’t my friend. We talked maybe once.”

“But, you knew her.”

“Uh-huh.”

That seemed to satisfy Phillip. He turned to his paper, folding pages decisively. He sighed at the state of the world and thwacked a photograph of the vice-president: “You can’t believe what this asshole is saying.”

“Uh-huh,” she said. “I believe.”

*

On the following Sunday, the third in August, Muriel watched Evie throw herself on a plump chaise longue as the camera pulled back to show a banked fire, a mantel bearing an ormolu clock, a spider web and a stuffed parrot in a bell jar that needed dusting. Framed by thick, velvet curtains, a steady rain fell on the Norman countryside.

It seemed to rain a lot in France. People wept a lot too. Even Muriel, perched on the end of the bed, dabbed her eyes as she fiddled with the bent rabbit ears of the old TV. Then, she heard Phillip’s key in the lock.

“How does your mother persuade you to watch this stuff?”

Phillip paced the bedroom in thick-soled white athletic shoes that wheezed with each footfall. Sweat had glued his thinning blond hair to his forehead, and he was red-faced, having jogged his three miles, as he did every night, in every weather, including this, the thirteenth day of a record-breaking heat wave.

“She just wants to help.”

“Of course, she does. And, it’s really a big help to find you in tears, when I get home. Maybe, I need to sit her down and explain the entire concept of clinical depression.”

*

After he showered, Phillip tried a different tack.

“If you’re watching that, you really should read Madame Bovary. He gets inside that woman’s head. He nails her, really nails her—and, of course, that drives the feminists crazy. “

“What do you mean?”

“They say a guy can’t write from a woman’s point-of-view.”

“Do you understand me?”

Phillip shook his head warily. “I think we should stick with Flaubert.”

“So, tell me more.”

Phillip got half the details wrong—the husband, the lover, the infamous carriage ride. Twenty years had passed since he’d read it. But the bad ending, he remembered: How Emma, betrayed, had taken poison and died. Phillip didn’t stint on the details. He wanted to make his point and was still talking when Muriel raised her hands and interrupted: “I’m convinced,” she said. “I get it. That seems about right.”

*

Later that night, as Flaubert concluded his first, momentous encounter with Ivan Turgenev, the kitchen light, an ancient fluorescent, blinked twice and flooded the bedroom. A cabinet door creaked, and Muriel heard the slap-slap of Phillip’s bare feet on linoleum.

“You’re still watching that?”

“It’s my TV night. I’m keeping up the national average,” she said. She couldn’t explain the rest of it. How it got under her skin to see Flaubert at his desk—especially when he moaned and pulled at his hair. If a window were close by, the writer might stare for hours, though a wall or a blank page served him as well. At other times, he couldn’t make himself sit. He padded between his rumpled bed and the office door, a pale, nocturnal animal with velvet slippers, a silk dressing robe, and lips blackened by decades of mercury treatments.

Muriel sighed and leaned toward the television, a dusty portable that Phillip had pulled from a dumpster the year they were married. When she did so, a flurry of static hid Flaubert’s corpulent face. Sitting back made it worse, however. If she slumped against the pillows, the writer began to roll vertically, undoing the mood Muriel had set with candles, clean sheets, and a single glass of chardonnay from the box she kept in the fridge.

“Let me help.” Phillip played with the antenna, and the picture cleared. He had a touch, acquired with time, and he chuckled with satisfaction, stepping back to admire the television. He called it “the artifact.” He said they ought to frame it and hang it with the family photographs on the bedroom wall. It bore as much of their history: the changer knob that he had snapped off during the first Mondale-Reagan debate; the ring of red candle wax that remained atop the cabinet after a Christmas bash in their grad school apartment; the new cord, replacing the one that their puppy had chewed before it had run away.

Flaubert had eyes like the dog: dark pools half-hidden by drooping lids; red-rimmed, sleepless-but-wary eyes that gazed down at horsemen through the lace curtains of Evie George’s front parlor. The Prussians had encircled Paris. The villagers had closed their shutters and put out their cats. Fruit hung, unharvested, in the walled orchard of Monsieur Bourais.

Slumped in their saddles, the Uhlans swayed with exhaustion, their march announced by the clatter of hooves on cobbles, swords clinking, the jingle of spurs. They came in long files of grey, climbing past the Hotel de Ville, past the Jesuit school, past the church with its silenced bells—“a relief,” the author would come to write, “although, the stillness proved more distracting than any call to Mass.”

Phillip snorted. He stood between Muriel and the television, mopping his face with a kitchen towel. “If this guy was such a genius, how come he didn’t go to England? He didn’t have to wait for them to arrive.”

“I thought you weren’t watching.”

“Oh, I’m watching—that’s the problem, “Phillip said. He waved at the TV dismissively. “I just wish I had never dragged that thing home. What we need—”

“You told me,” Muriel said. “We need a new air conditioner. But, we’ve been over that already. There’s no sense in buying a window unit this late in the summer.”

“The mayor just declared a heat emergency.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means people are dying. The city is opening shelters for people at risk.”

“I guess we better pack our bags,” Muriel said.

*

Phillip cleared his throat. He stood in the doorway and wiggled a glass at her. “Do you want one?”

“Uh-uh. Not me.” Muriel watched as Flaubert wept at George Sand’s funeral. How hard it was to see his dear friend’s coffin! She had teased him for “spreading unhappiness” with his books. She believed that he hid his true tenderness, but at her grave, he hid nothing. It was, he said later, “as if I were burying my mother for a second time.”

Phillip banged an ice cube tray in the sink. “Is this the last of the gin?”

“Check the pantry,” she said, refusing to turn from the screen. “And shut the door, Phillip. I’m trying to watch.”

“Cross ventilation— ”

She waved him off, but he wouldn’t let it rest. They had battled over this ground, and now, they went at it again, sparring about the broken air conditioner, the open windows, the placement of fans and the likelihood that an escaped mental patient might shimmy up the drainpipe, swing onto the balcony, step through the clutter of potted plants and enter their bedroom, while they were sleeping.

“There’s no chance of that,” Phillip said.

“How about that nurse? They killed her on Lyndale—ten blocks from here.”

“No, I mean there’s no chance of sleeping,” Phillip corrected. “It’s way too hot for that.”

*

Later, with the lights off, each pretended that the heat kept them from touching. They lay side-by-side, atop the sheets, like tomb effigies of husband and wife.

“What you want to hear gets in the way of the things I’m trying to tell you,” she said.

“But, you’re so much better now.” He touched her cheek, groping in the dark. “Please don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying.” She shook her head violently, as if a bug had buzzed into her ear. Then, she tugged a pillow over her face and turned her back to him.

Phillip propped himself on one elbow. Sweat trickled from the pool at his throat and breastbone. His heart thumped, and he asked what she was thinking. He repeated his question.

Muriel pretended to sleep. She said nothing when Phillip sighed disgustedly, when he climbed out of bed and began to dress in the dark. She kept still and didn’t reveal her thoughts, which cycled back to Gustave Flaubert, to his terrible laugh, so full of judgments and sorrow, to the rage flickering in his eyes, to the tremble of his shoulders as another friend went to the grave. The wake had been appalling—a typical Parisian affair, a drunken dinner during which his high-pitched voice had carried furthest: “You’re ready to write, but you lack a decent plot?” Flaubert raised his eyebrows and smiled obligingly at his host. “Let me help you,” he said. He closed his eyes like a medium conjuring spirits from the beyond. Candles fluttered down the length of the table. The dinner party fell silent. “A man meets a woman, and they fall in love—there, you have it—a plot—now, you need only add genius.”

Everyone at the table laughed. The host, abashed, looked from guest to guest, and a camera panned over their candlelit faces: glittering eyes and jewelry, side-whiskers and décolletage. Then, Evie George smiled and slipped her slim hand over that of the writer.

Evie understood. Everyone at the table got it. But, Muriel had been forced to think about it awhile. She was still thinking now as she heard Phillip leave the apartment. She thought about the man and the woman. She thought about love. She thought about the stories she would come to tell herself—the story about Phillip, the story about the thing that was missing.

Chris Waddington lives in New Orleans and writes about classical music, jazz, and dance for The Times-Picayune newspaper. His fiction has appeared in The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse and The Rake.

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