Almost Life

By Kate Berson

7.1 O-smalln the full moon night of our wedding, she tucked flowers in her hair, we hummed earnest happy vows, and the glass burst under my heel, as joyful tradition required. I looked at her and thought, this, this is what I’ve been missing since the early morning I alive and cried out of my mother and into the hospital wing built for the happiest people on earth. She was a woman who gestured up and out, gripped your arm to stress a point, stepped close in to you, bestowing her covetable intimacy. The pitch of her voice hit the brink between a laugh and a cry in a way that kept me wondering.

When it grew cold, we buried seedlings in basement beds under florescent lights. In summer, she searched for corner pieces to get a giant jigsaw started. Wanting a challenge, we did the puzzle face down on a glass table, later crawling underneath to look up and see the completed picture above. When our heater fuel ran out, we filled it back up. When the porch paint chipped, we scraped and rolled over it with bright new white. Then we started trying for a child. That night, the moon was new, absent.

The bathroom became a laboratory for back and forward counting of days. The balcony was a post to watch the street from, so many people in their bunches and huddles. The cabinets were places of pause and reaching for this or that new remedy. The empty room was what we kept the door closed to when we had guests. The car was the shuttle I up and went in when I could take no more, and the study was where she stayed behind and waited for me to come home, where when I returned she’d fling her stare on me and call me mean. The covers were what we burrowed deeper and deeper under until we didn’t know what we were looking for anymore.

The park was where she had us stand, what I couldn’t stand, beholding the trumpeting seesaws, cowering by rejoicing swings. We carved into a public tree. We carved all these lovely, blank, impossible names, with a tiny knife later confiscated at the entrance to the Children’s Museum (another pilgrimage site, where patter parade little feet in and out of plastic moon craters and up lift little arms the key stone to a soft block arch). As we dug into the trunk, she said she could feel – actually feel – the grooves we were making. And as soon as she said it, I started to feel, too. Tingling abrasions on my forearm. Nicks at the base of my thumb. Like phantom limb patients who see their existing arm wave in a mirror and finally feel some relief.

When she had frequent headaches, I suggested making an L with one hand then pinching the web between her thumb and pointer with the other hand firmly. I advised her to put her palms flat on the table and so so slowly lift her middle fingers, feel the movement through her hands, her arms, a wash through her whole body. I told her to think, darling, of being submerged in warm water or floating up, up somewhere. She asked me did I want to know what this reminded her of – all these ridiculous cures. I didn’t want to know. I knew.

She slept on her side, one cupped hand nested inside the other, like a beggar. I woke hurling myself into whole-body salutes, ready to speak but no words on my tongue.

We tried displacing the new vocabulary we’d come to know so well, used the words for stupid comparisons in order to win back some control, saying something was as thick as endometrium, thorough as a hysteroscopy, irritating as a fibroid. The verbal equivalent of a secret handshake.
But there is no language for one December night spent mourning the single flicker of a chance we had and lost. That red brown mess of almost life.

And in that hard hibernating winter, we knew what exhaustion meant. We stopped trying.
Our cave was a place of quiet and shame. She began to see ghosts, this intelligent woman. They folded themselves into our house – bending into the wavy stairway runner, blending into wallpaper patterns, dangling with the pans from the rack above the kitchen island. When I said that maybe the ghosts were a manifestation of something deeper, some cavernous bottomless, No, she told me, they were a manifestation of someone who was fucking alive and now is dead.

Hearing a dog howl into the darkness, I howled back, scratched the walls, got down on all fours, collapsed into a curl. Seeing a storm soak the night, she ran out into it, darted behind black trees, chased and hid herself, full of wet.

I tried to remind her what didn’t need remembering, reminding of the complicated things going on here, pegging us to distant invisible walls, and I couldn’t, neither of us could explain them, the end. But it was she who would say the end, as it were.

Her story would squirm and wiggle when she left me for good, or when we left us, she’d say. I wouldn’t recognize myself in any of it. In our final moments, I’d be ladling eggs into a pot of boiling water on the stove, which when I cradled them down, would knock and crack and bleed out their white tie-dye of guck. I would scoop it all up with a hopeless slotted spoon, diligently, down up out, down up out.

There are many ways to miss, but only two I know well: The unbearableness of missing what you can’t go without – a wagon its wheels, a fish its gills, a heart its beat. And the bewilderment of missing what you’ve never had, must imagine how to miss.


Kate Berson recently concluded a yearlong staff artist position at the Vermont Studio Center, where she completed a residency in 2011. She will be pursuing an M.F.A. in fiction writing, beginning in Fall 2013, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She studied English and Latin American Studies as an undergraduate at Tufts University and has since worked in the US and abroad with immigrant and refugee organizations. She has participated in a number of writing workshops including the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, the Tel Aviv Writers Workshop, and the 92nd Street Y’s Advanced Fiction class.

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