Just before the world got bad, I married, for love, a man who was funny and brilliant but small. He could not pick me up the way men picked up women on television. I’d never been twirled, laughing, head back, leg in a kick, chewing gum, all to some lighthearted song. But no matter. I loved him. I rested my chin on the top of his head when I got tired, and when he did, I wrapped my stronger arms around his small body.
Once, when I was feverish and unable to leave our bed, he ventured outside to find medicine at the pharmacy. He said, “Be right back, my love,” grabbed an umbrella, and left. I’m told that even though he swung the umbrella wildly, he was set upon before he’d even left the front stoop of the building.
My next lover was funny but not as bright. He was much taller, however, and with a little more muscle that showed under his flesh, though sometimes it just made him seem hungry rather than strong. He twirled me once, but when I kicked my leg his back gave, and we tumbled to the floor. I brought hot pads to place under him, and made a bed for us where he had fallen, so he wouldn’t have to move. He told me jokes as we lay there and he laughed, then grimaced, always forgetting that it hurt him to laugh. But I liked that about him. We planned to marry.
My ribs crunched if he was on top, and my hips were belted with bruises if he was behind. He twirled me until I puked.
One night, very late, the door buzzer woke us. He sat up, stepped into his slippers.
I said, “Don’t go out there.”
He said, “But someone’s at the door.”
The buzzer rang again, insistent. It’s the kind of awful shrill buzzer found in old cities full of angry people. The kind that always catches you off guard.
I said, “Don’t go,” and I grabbed his arm.
He shook me free. “What if someone needs help?” Did I mention he was also a very good-hearted man? He was.
“No one needs help,” I said, feeling like an awful person. “It’s a trap.”
He looked at me like he didn’t know who I had become. I was so ashamed I couldn’t look back, even though I knew I was right.
“Someone needs help,” he said resolutely, shrugging on his robe. I’m told he fought hard, scrappily, but was dragged to his knees, and then dragged down the street. Bits of his torn pajamas blew around the neighborhood for days afterward.
Eventually, I married a man more than twice my size. He terrified me. Making love felt like getting run over. I was pancaked like in cartoons. My ribs crunched if he was on top, and my hips were belted with bruises if he was behind. He twirled me until I puked.
He was not particularly bright, but he wasn’t stupid. Sadly, he wasn’t funny. When I ventured to crack a joke he just stared. He was violent.
But he took me to the park. It seemed like forever since I’d been outside, but we could go to the pond and feed the remaining ducks, the ones too diseased to consume, and my husband felled all those who set upon us like they were tiny saplings. It felt like a small miracle to be able to go outside.
By the end of each day, our street was littered with bodies. My husband left the house swinging a baseball bat. When it splintered, he used his fists. I dressed his knuckles with ointment at night, wrapped them in bandages, and did it again the following night, and the night after. The tenuous scabs broke open each morning; the wounds had no time to heal.
When I went into labor, he carried me outside and we were set upon. Someone punched my round belly. But this was a momentary scourge. My husband drove through the wall of them like we were all on a football field and I was the odd-shaped ball in his arms. All around us were sick moans, hands grabbing as we ran. I thought, “How can I bring a child into this world?” Then I thought, “At least our child will have half my husband’s genes. Whatever the world brings, surely the child of a man like this can meet it.”
I almost didn’t make it through the delivery, the child was so large. Its aggressive squirming tore things in me. I was put under.
I was weak from the pregnancy and now my boy took every last nutrient; he sucked me dry. I couldn’t walk after nursing. He grew to an enormous size, a size that scared me but also delighted me. I was desperate for him to be so big and so strong that nothing could ever harm him.
We were a sight. I was all bones; my husband was bruised and bloodied from his nutrient-pack outings. Our boy, though, was magnificent; he stomped around the house, able to reach things on the highest shelf for me.
By the time he was six months old, he was too big for me to lift. And still he was hungry all the time. To nurse, my husband positioned the child on my chest while I lay still beneath. He stayed home to lay and lift him off me all day. Eventually, he lost his job.
“I think you should stop nursing,” he said one night.
I lay beneath our boy, flattened, barely breathing from the weight of him.
“But how will he grow?”
“Look at you.” He squeezed my flaccid bicep. I tried to make a muscle but the arm just trembled. “I doubt you’re giving him the kind of nutrition he needs.”
We switched to nutrient packs that he bought from the corner market.
We were a sight. I was all bones; my husband was bruised and bloodied from his nutrient-pack outings. Our boy, though, was magnificent; he stomped around the house, able to reach things on the highest shelf for me. His shoulders were broad like a draft animal and he carried me around on them like I weighed zero. He teetered on his trunkish legs like a toddler because he was one. It was scary and thrilling to wobble up so high. I traced the filigree patterns on the ceiling of our once fine home.
My husband insisted we all eat the nutrient packs for strength. We needed it. A man on a lower floor had been attacked in his home. But they had the opposite effect on me. I grew heavy but not strong; my muscles quivered under the extra weight.
My husband insisted we run sprints across our living room. Three times a day we did circuits. After lunch, we bench-pressed. “We need our strength,” he commanded. He spotted me on the bench but mostly he lifted the bar for me, shamed me while I blubbered. Our son watched us with curiosity.
By twenty months, he could bench almost as much as his father. He no longer wore clothes; nothing fit him. We wrapped him in bath towels instead of diapers. He stomped around and soaked through them onto all the furniture. I did load upon load of laundry. Nothing smelled right in our house any longer.
For money and goods, my husband ran errands for the other apartment owners in our building. He went to the market for them, and deposited their paychecks. He acted as a guard when they had to go outside. He escorted many men to work. Our apartment became stocked with supplies and strange luxuries, all bartered for my husband’s services. Fine sheets, china cups, silver trays. I hammered those silver trays onto one wall so my boy could watch himself do push-ups, bicep curls, across their reflective surfaces.
One night, my husband came home with his shirt torn, his abdomen gashed with thick, bloodied lines like from the tines of a garden fork.
“It’s getting much worse,” he huffed. He made me do extra sets of jumping jacks and planks and then squeezed all my major muscle groups while I tensed. I wanted this to lead him to make his violent kind of love to me, but he just went to the table and put his head down.
I pressed down, and his breath pushed out, and I felt the contraction while his head and shoulders lifted like they were tethered to the sky.
I checked the door, and turned all the extra bolts. Sometimes my husband locked just two, like it was some test of fate. Could he ward off the intruders with brute strength if they got through a measly two locks? Three? We all knew he could, but I liked eight, a nice curvy number that had a lot in common with infinity. At least in looks. I bolted eight.
Our boy carried me to his room where I read him a book while he tried to do crunches like his dad.
“You want to feel it deep in your belly,” I instructed. I knelt beside him as he struggled and failed and placed my palm right below his navel. I pressed down, and his breath pushed out, and I felt the contraction while his head and shoulders lifted like they were tethered to the sky.
My husband made plans to move us to another city, one that was reportedly safer. He said, “We can’t raise our son here. I thought we could, but we can’t.”
“Going elsewhere is much more difficult than staying put,” I argued.
“He needs to be able to go outside. To grow.”
He looked at our boy and nodded and our boy nodded back, but he was only mimicking his father; he didn’t understand what was happening. He lay on the crashed-down couch, broken long ago by his weight and his father’s, and sucked down a nutrient pack. He appeared to grow in chest circumference right before my eyes.
“He’s fine,” I said.
But my husband had made up his mind. He sighed and looked me up and down. “I’ll protect you as much as I can,” he said. “We both will.” Then he looked at his hands.
I went to the window. Of course I knew what he meant, and I was angry. I had been strong once. Now, because I gave him a son, I was weak and would be left behind.
I thought about how I might fare here alone. I looked through the lattice of the window gate at the smoke from the many fires that licked the sky. As the sun fell for the night, it glowed a sickly purple like it had an awful flu and was giving up.
I could maybe last a week or two. If they noticed my husband no longer patrolled the street, they might investigate the apartment, find me there, and have a field day. I looked at my son. I wondered if he would fuss at having to say goodbye. How would he remember me? I’d be that funny woman who used to ride on his shoulders. He might remember the feel of me there, almost weightless in light of his strength. But what more could he remember? That I taught him crunches? Gave him all my fortitude? Even though he looked like a man at times, he was just a baby still. It was strange to know, looking at them, that they would make it and be fine. And stranger to know they looked at me and knew that I would not. And that still, we would go.
My husband unfolded maps at the table. He traced routes with his giant fingertip.
“We have to cross the mountains. The people there are wild,” he warned, his tone defeated.
But maybe he was a good man and I wondered, under different circumstances or given more time, if he might surprise me. We might surprise each other. And isn’t that really what makes for a nice life with someone?
But I felt buoyed by the idea. Mountains are beautiful. I thought, “It must be springtime and maybe there would be flowers.” Maybe we would dip in a mountain lake, blue like my boy’s eyes, cold enough to pucker my skin. We might hear birds calling rather than people hollering once the lights shut off. If we went for a hike were we as likely to be set upon as we are when we leave this building? I found it hard to believe anyone could be as brutal as our neighbors.
I remembered seeing pictures of people living in the bottoms of large trees. They were old pictures, even back in my childhood, but surely it was still done. I’d seen whole cars being driven through big hollowed trunks as a stunt. “Maybe we could live in a tree,” I dreamed.
My husband said angrily, “Don’t be foolish. The mountains are dangerous. They’re not like the cities. The city is civilized.”
I laughed even though he’d said it straight-faced.
I took his damaged hands in mine. With his arms slack and heavy, I could barely lift them to my lips. In another time, I thought, I wouldn’t have given him a second glance walking down the street. He’s outlandish; his body triangular. But maybe he was a good man and I wondered, under different circumstances or given more time, if he might surprise me. We might surprise each other. And isn’t that really what makes for a nice life with someone?
“You told a joke,” I said proudly.
He said sadly, “Ha.”
We made love that night and it was almost tender. Like he felt bad and wanted to remember me in some soft-lit way. So I pulled at his hair and I scratched away the bandages on his hands, bit open the scabs until they bled. His eyes watered but he took it. I was trying to show him. Don’t give up on me yet.
Finally, he batted me away like a pest. My eye swelled shut, a tinny ring expanded in my ear. He turned away from me and sulked.
With my good eye, I looked toward my son’s room, where he slept, peaceful and trusting. I could be brutal too, right here, in the safety of our once fine home.
Diane Cook received her MFA from Columbia University, where she was a teaching fellow. Prior to that she was a producer for public radio’s This American Life. She won the 2012 Calvino Prize, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a story in Redivider. She has been a resident at Yaddo, The Albee Foundation, and at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.