Contronym


It takes an hour to find Raine’s passport. May thinks it’s still in the bank vault; Robert says she took it out. He’s right, the bastard. May finds it in the desk drawer with Raine’s immunization card, pre-school graduation certificate and sixth-grade math award.

Told you, Robert says.

What, are we 13 too now? May says ignoring the smug look on his face.

They are in Raine’s bedroom, Robert on the glider chair they’ve kept since Raine’s infancy, sliding forward and away again, as if, May thinks, he were trying to push himself out of the room. Raine is packing clothes into the suitcase on her bed, whispering Bonjour, Merci, Je vous en prie, continuously, like a mantra.

Do you have the sweater I laid out? May asks her.

Oui, Raine says.

She’s got this, May, leave her alone, Robert says. May narrows her eyes at him and then turns back to the suitcase, pulling out the nightgown Raine just packed to refold it flatter into the suitcase.

She’s almost 14, Robert says between clenched teeth.

J’ai treize ans, Raine confirms.

Oh, well thank you so much for the information, May says. The blue t-shirt she is handling won’t fold right; the right arm is wrinkled into itself and will not lie flat. She gives up and drops it into the suitcase in an aquamarine clump.

Maman, Raine says, flopping down on the bed, Je m’excuse, mais je ne peux pas rester.

May looks blankly at her.

Je ne peux pas rester, Raine repeats, patting her bedspread with the flat of her hand.

Rester? May says. You want to rest?

Non! Rester! Ugh. Stay, mother, I can’t stay, Raine says and rolls her eyes.

Oh, May says, thinking how exotic it sounds to hear Raine speaking English for once.

Raine reaches out to touch May’s wrist. Her touch is warm and dry and achingly familiar. Ne soyez pas triste, Raine says, almost kindly. Je reviendra dans une semaine.

Without meaning to, May emits a long, confused groan.

I think she said she plans to be back, Robert says, curling his lip.

Oui! Raine says with a bored smile. She takes the blue t-shirt out of the suitcase and drops it on the floor without noticing as she reaches under the bed for her tennis shoes. May is reminded of Raine’s favorite childhood doll—a flat-faced orange-yarn-haired girl with fat limbs that swung at the joints, much as Raine’s did in those days. There is no trace of that earnest child clutching the floppy doll in this lithe figure whose long gestures and smooth gait have developed into something just this side of graceful.

May looks over at Robert and sees him watching Raine, his eyes shining; she knows he is having the same memory, the same thoughts. It is hard to breathe in this room, she decides. She mumbles something about Raine’s toothbrush and leaves.


In her bedroom May sinks onto their unmade bed and pulls one of the pillows hard against her chest. The pillow is Robert’s—she can tell from the spicy mint smell he always brings to bed. And yes, even now, she still lies down next to him each night, immobile on her side of the bed, rigid with longing and fury, lack of sleep the price she pays to preserve Raine’s ignorance just a bit longer. She feels as if she were holding on to her last breath, as if the coming seismic shift would be delayed indefinitely as long as she didn’t take another one. Robert, never one to let an earthquake—metaphorical or actual—disturb his rest, falls asleep every night within minutes of laying down his head.

She grips the pillow tighter. Robert has used the same soap for as long as she’s known him, and in spite of herself, she breathes in his scent and sees the two of them there, in bed, May curled sleepily against his hairy chest, Robert’s right hand holding the television remote, his left cupping her buttocks, firmly, proprietarily, a black-and-white movie flickering on the television as they talk softly about the day and breathe in unison, his goodnight whisper in her ear: Here’s cooking with you, kid, or, You had me at Merlot, because they both love classic movies and cheap puns and the clearest expression of their love has always been that they could make each other laugh.

She sits up abruptly and reminds herself that her faith in their shared language is as much an illusion as the movies they loved to watch together, Robert having recently stomped, Godzilla-like, through the casual architecture of their life. Squeezing her eyes shut, she replaces Robert in her mind with an image of her rakish lawyer, whose thick black hair falls in a Kennedy-esque wave over his brow. When she met with him, May had to resist the urge to brush the hair back, to let her hand linger suggestively on his scalp. Robert, she notes, gleefully, is already working on a comb-over. Let what’s-er-name enjoy his burgeoning baldness, she thinks, while she, May, moves on to thicker pastures.

The lawyer advised May that she should wait till Raine came back from her school trip before telling her about the impending divorce. Get all your ducks in a row, the lawyer said. He said, You don’t want to shut the barn door after the horse has left. You can’t, after all, get the toothpaste back in the tube, he said. Are you for real? was May’s first thought, but the lawyer’s sonorous voice was as smooth as chocolate pudding and the more he talked, the more she wanted to curl up permanently in the burgundy leather chair across from his desk, lulled by his facileness and gorgeousness in equal doses; except that he had made clear that every minute they spent together was calculated and rounded up to the nearest 10-minute mark, which meant that she was another 67 dollars in the hole just admiring the resemblance of his eyes to Hershey’s kisses. When he ushered her out of his office, May felt his hand on the middle of her back, his half-bow as he opened the door, his expiration of breath—a sort of sigh—almost bringing her to tears as she took one last look at his unruly hair, his compassionately brown eyes. Love is a battlefield, he said sadly as she stepped across his threshold into the hallway, and they nodded almost simultaneously, as if acknowledging the profundity of his perceptions. When she hit the hard blacktop of the parking lot her head cleared, and then she tried unsuccessfully to wade through the lawyer’s lengthy aphoristic counsel to figure out whether she’d just been advised to take Robert for everything he was worth or she had just been propositioned.


Robert has agreed to keep his treacherous mouth shut until Raine comes home from her trip. But May still fears that Raine might know, or at least suspect. With every passing day May has been finding it harder and harder not to just sit on the floor and scream; surely Raine, the child of her heart, has noticed? Raine, who has never been gone from her mother for more than 24 hours, leaves tomorrow for a week in Paris with her French class, to gorge on croissants and culture and to converse with people who actually understand what she’s saying. Is she blithely unaware that when she comes home her father will be breaking her heart, or has she, with her surprising teenaged astuteness, sussed out the impending calamity? There was a time when May would not have had to wonder. A time when Raine’s feelings didn’t even seem like Raine’s alone—all May had to do was look at her daughter to experience in her own gut, in all their exquisite agony, Raine’s every joy and sorrow. Those days went out with the training bra. Now Raine speaking French all week has been no more unintelligible than the way she usually speaks—in acronyms and ellipses, using letters and numbers to mean words, words to mean something other than what they mean—words like “sick” and “sketch” and “dip” of all things—whose adolescent definitions are as slippery as wet bars of soap, leaving May feeling like a clueless and embarrassed teenager at every attempt at communication with her daughter.

Papa, laisse-moi tranquille! Raine proclaims from her room. May turns her head. She doesn’t know what Raine said but she knows it’s not friendly. Ha. She imagines Raine returning from Paris and unleashing a newly-learned string of French curses upon her father, rolled-r words for “bastard” and “traitor” and “whore” and “bimbo.” It almost makes the trip worth it, May thinks.

But what will she do this week that Raine is gone? She would have thrown Robert out a month ago when he came home tipsy and slaphappy, not even trying to defend himself against her accusations, turning quickly contrite and rhapsodizing about what's-er-name and how he’d finally found himself and true love. She’s so . . . quiet, Robert said, grinning like a crazy person. So . . . I don’t know . . . demure, he said. It’s like she’s hardly there, sometimes—I mean, she’s there, but she’s just there, not saying anything, just, like, happy to be there, you know? It’s so incredibly . . . peaceful. Don’t I deserve that? Don’t you and I both deserve that? A shot at real happiness?

I can be quiet! I can be fucking peaceful! May started to say, but her mouth kept opening and closing like a gasping fish’s and no words would come out.

I know I know I’m a cliché, he continued, the crazy grin still plastered on his face. The archetype of the midlife crisis, I know.

Don’t flatter yourself, May managed to whisper, you couldn’t be more banal, but he didn’t hear her; he was too busy giggling like a 40-year-old adolescent and exclaiming, It turns out all that cant about finding your soulmate is true!

He, the English major turned Accountant, uses words like “cant” and “archetype” and “cleave” when he’s on the defensive. Words that stop you short with their dual definitions. Or words that scoop out your insides and dump them at your feet, because they don’t refer to you and all this time you thought they did. Soulmate.

The next morning, when the first wave of speechless shock—not at finding out what she didn’t know but at finally knowing for a fact the thing that she had dreaded—had cleared, May’s thoughts settled into three words: What an idiot, repeated endlessly in her head till she thought it would burst open like a dropped watermelon. What an idiot. She thought she was referring to him, but soon realized she was the idiot, for thinking life had just recently taken a turn for the vastly improved, that last round of marriage counseling having rendered Robert softer, sweeter, like a ripening peach, even the sex more frequent and gentler—not, she realizes now, because he was recommitting himself to her, but because he was saying goodbye.

And what kind of bastard has sex with the wife he’s been cheating on?

She opens the laptop next to his side of the bed and Googles English to French Dictionary. Con. Encouler. Cunnard: Asshole; cocksucker; motherfucker. She rolls them around her tongue in her best approximation of a French accent. She’d like to think Raine would be outraged to hear such words out of her mouth, but it’s more likely that Raine would simply shrug and walk away, the teen years having heralded—among other things—the end of her shockability. May says the words again, savoring their nasal smoothness in her mouth. Raine probably doesn’t know them anyway, as it’s unlikely that French Two covers cheating husbands.

She hears Robert’s voice from down the hall, sharp and impatient. No doubt Raine is packing some item of clothing that doesn’t meet his standards of modesty, which have become increasingly convent-like as Raine’s baby fat has disappeared. But Raine is holding her own; May hears her dismissive voice, a sort of clipped whine that sounds like French even when she’s speaking English. Robert, the encouler-ing English major, doesn’t know a word of French. Even if Raine stayed home, May could hurl French epithets at Robert all day long and neither he nor Raine would know what she was saying. Of course, if Raine stayed, it would be time for Robert to go.

She listens, but there is no further sound from Raine’s room. Is he trying to placate her now? Shore up her loyalty? May can imagine his campaign to win her including a breathtaking vision of his future amatory bliss, complete with a beautifully appointed bedroom for Raine, frou-frou-ishly—and wordlessly—decorated by what’s-er-name and well stocked with all the latest technology and designer sheets. May strains to hear what they are saying, but there’s nothing but silence, thick and crushing, mute as her looming future.

She inches back down the hall but still hears nothing, so she peeks one eye around the doorway to Raine’s bedroom, but all she sees is Raine and Robert leaning over the closed suitcase, straining to latch it. She hears their tiny grunts, their simultaneous heavy breathing. Eventually, Robert straightens up and takes Raine’s shoulders, holding her square in front of him with a somber expression on his face. May stiffens, thinking again that he’s going to break his word and confess, but he only says, Guess you’ll have to sit on it, kiddo.

Raine stares at Robert with her usual blank curiosity, almond eyes wide, pink nostrils flaring, the look that appears to question whether Robert exits at all. More than once May has assured Robert that Raine looks at her in the same way, and this has formed another of the cornerstones of what she thought of as the edifice of happiness in their middle years, this partnership of often-thankless parenting, this co-piloting of the rudderless vessel that is their family life.

Honey, Robert says, not letting go of Raine’s shoulders. We can make this work. There’s something thick in his voice, as if he swallowed a spoonful of peanut butter before speaking.

May moves into the doorway and gives a short, derisive laugh. Ya think? she says.

They both turn to look at her.

Robert’s fixed, falsely lighthearted smile withers and Raine raises her eyebrows quizzically. Tu crois? she says.

Robert lifts his shoulders, seemingly about to shrug, but instead, he spreads his hands out in front of him, as if he were offering May and Raine something, or as if he were showing them that he had nothing at all to offer.

The three of them stand unmoving for what seems to May like a lifetime, fixed like those plastic figures on a foosball table: wordless, eternally close and just out of reach. It’s a tableau, she thinks, an Arbus photograph. Still Life with Betrayal; The Calm Before the Storm. She examines the two faces turned to her, each at once familiar and unknowable. Raine so silent and determinedly cynical that it occurs to May with a painful jolt that she knows—not any particulars, but Raine knows there is something to know, and Robert with his eyes wide, empty arms outstretched—May would like to think he is silently pleading with her to forget the last month ever happened, but almost certainly he is simply surprised to find her still there.

Then Raine, in one of those split-second mood swings of adolescence, unfreezes. She grins at Robert, turns, and plops on top of the suitcase, grunting and comically teetering. Dropping his hands, Robert looks puzzled for a moment, then starts laughing. Raine utters a string of beautiful and incomprehensible French phrases and Robert goes over to her, repeating I know, I know in between guffaws, even though he doesn’t understand a word she is saying. They grab each other’s upper arms and rock with laughter as the suitcase closes and gapes open again like a silent mouth under Rain’s bottom. Nothing comprehensible is being spoken but May sees that they are communicating nonetheless; father and daughter laughing together, grasping at each other over the precarious suitcase, as if they knew it might be for the last time.

Papa! Tu es fou! Raine shouts over hiccoughing giggles. Oui oui, Robert replies, and at that moment their words come through to May with sudden and perfect clarity; her frenzied thoughts seem to have flown out of her head, leaving it momentarily becalmed, no longer trying to translate the incomprehensible. In the simplicity of Robert and Raine’s senseless language she apprehends their evanescent glee, their possessive grip on each other. And of course she comprehends the enormity of their impending grief, but that is in the future, not here in this room right now with this man, this child, who are right now laughing as if their lives depended on it.

How funny, May thinks, finding tears in her eyes. Funny strange, of course, not funny ha ha. She remembers an exercise from her high school drama class designed to demonstrate that feelings could be created from actions. The assignment was to hit a table repeatedly with your fist until you actually felt the anger you were imitating. The outer creates the inner, the teacher used to say, in his on-again-off-again English accent, feel the action and you will feel the feeling.

May forces out a laugh. It sounds harsh, more like a cough. But she does it again. And again, until a rhythm begins, staccato, guttural. At first the falseness is pathetically obvious, but before long the laughs seem to be coming of their own accord, despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing May finds funny. Raine and Robert have noticed; they look in her direction and laugh more, grinning at her, inviting her into their inviolable circle. And so she continues; she opens her mouth to both of them and laughs and laughs. She laughs even as her bruised heart throbs, even as she pleads, too low for either of them to hear, Restez, mes amours, je vous en prie. Restez.  

Copyright © 1999-2017 Juked