Keren Toledano is a writing associate at The Cooper Union, and a freelance writer and editor. She recently self-published In Light of This & Other Things, and is at work on a young adult novel that is not set in the post-apocalypse. Her short fiction has appeared in Slice magazine, and she is the recipient of the Harvardwood Writing Competition in the short play category. She holds a BA in English from Harvard, and an MA in Humanities Education from New York University.
Author Q&A: Keren Toledano
Keren Toledano is a fantastic writer and a frequent contributor to TBL. We have been fortunate enough to work with her on multiple occasions and are very proud of her multiple publications. Since her work has gone through our Free Editing Program several times, we have asked her to share her experience with working with us. Also included are links to several drafts of a story we worked with as an example of our process.
- What are some of the ways the editing process helped develop your story?
My editor had this amazing ability to edit from the top down. With “Tink,” his approach was so well metered, ignoring the minutia until he had a strong draft to pick apart. So first it was larger themes and character motivations, and the structural elements that were holding back the pacing. Then he got into the minor elements, the word and stylistic choices, the little turns that keep the reader reading. It was never too much to handle at once, which kept me motivated through the process.
- How did having an outside perspective influence your work?
It’s so easy to get myopic when working on a piece, to get too close to the details at the expense of a deeper meaning, the thing that holds the piece together. While editing, the editor moved in and out of the piece to assess it from the minutia to the bigger picture. In short, if I could fall back on a cliché just this once, he never let me lose the forest for the trees.
- What did the editing process look like for you?
Because of our remote locations (I’m in New York and my TBL editor is in Colorado), we worked solely over email. It worked perfectly for me. He would send me edits and comments through track changes on Microsoft Word, and I’d address them directly in the document, which became a kind of palimpsest of our work together as writer and editor. As I was working through this Q & A, it was fun to go back to all the drafts and observe our process in fast forward from afar.
- By receiving notes and going through revisions, what did you learn about your work and about yourself as a writer?
I have the tendency to draft in a bit of a free write style, so my early drafts are messy collections of both productive and not so productive ideas. Some people work from outlines, but I work from a seed of an idea and let it fly. It can be arduous, when you start this way, which is another reason I’m so grateful when a keen editor comes my way. Working with TBL made me a better editor of my own work. Knowing I have a supporter out there (who sees potential in the morass on the page), I’ve been less of a harsh critic of my “writerly” tendencies. I’ve been learning to work with them, not around them. Ultimately, I am a firm believer that you should write what and how you write, and not try to fit yourself into someone else’s box (i.e. a generalized notion of what makes “good writing”). I mean, who wants to share a box with a stranger?
- How would you say the main idea of the story changed throughout the revisions? In what ways is it the same?
Oh boy, did this story change. I originally had the main character (Pru) in prison, awaiting a verdict for burning down her house. Yikes. It was longwinded, confused by a series of backwards time jumps, and I wasn’t really sure what was propelling the story, aside from revenge for a marriage gone wrong. I was relying too much on metaphor, this idea that the “American Dream” can be nothing but a rotten apple, if you cut through the trunk of the tree (see what I mean?) I knew who I wanted these people to be, but they weren’t growing through the story.
TBL helped me find the layer that was working, and I simplified the plot by doing away with all the time jumps. I was actually able to flesh out the character of her husband (Tom) by taking him out of the story as a physical character, and building him up in Pru’s ruminations. The story now moving in one chronological direction, I watched Pru grow as she drove home through town, and when she reached the house, I realized she didn’t want to burn it down at all. She wanted to save it somehow, save the good things she had experienced inside it. There is a redemption in this version that could only come with Pru’s acceptance. She does burn something, but it isn’t the house.
- What was the most helpful/ your favorite aspect of the editing process for you?
Well, I want to say all of it, because it really did feel like such an organic process. But if I had to pick, I’d say opening my inbox to see comments in from my editor. It meant we were moving forward again. Writing is such a demanding venture, asking of us a burst of creative productivity, then a period of patience and agonizing waiting, after we’ve thrown our work into the ether. So yes, I’d have to say that feeling that we were moving forward in the editing process, that once he returned with his comments and ideas, I was back in the driver’s seat with renewed direction.
- How was this kind of editing process different from other editing experiences you’ve had?
I’ve mainly worked in workshop settings, where the writer is literally on the hot seat in front of a throng of eager critics, unable to speak, required to receive even the harshest feedback with the Dickensian, “Thank you, sir, may I have some more.” It’s also pretty overwhelming to have that much feedback to sift through. Too many choices is a major challenge. We know implicitly as writers that we cannot please everyone, that not every reader will enjoy, or even receive, our work. But making editorial choices when bombarded by a group whose ideas you respect is serious business. It can be hard to walk away from a good idea for a better one, and it can be a challenge to make that valuation. Working with TBL gives me clarity. Here is one voice ringing through the fog.
I am not disparaging workshops, in which I still participate as an exercise in giving and receiving feedback. But there is always that day after a workshop meeting when your work has been cut up by seven different pairs of scissors, and you want to walk away from the mess. I never feel that way working with TBL. Their editors never cut up your work. They dot it with a series of penciled marks, giving you a clearer sense of direction.
Not that Tom would know the difference. He rests his palms on the metal table, like the judge that he is, recently tapped to the district court. He’s always had a healthy ego, a gift from his over-bearing mother. And now he has this to lord over Pru, a professional license to sit in judgment.
“I always knew you were a little eccentric,” he says, eyes on the door. “But I never thought you were full blown nuts.”
If he’d been listening, he’d have heard her confess. But he never listens, not anymore. They’ve floated apart over the years, to opposite ends of the three-level Tudor. He came to think her silly, with her knitting clubs and desire for kids. He told her she should find a career, as if a job replaced a family. It was his mother’s coaxing that finally convinced him. She wanted grand-kids and Tom felt he owed her. How strange, thought Pru, eight months pregnant with their first, to procreate as a form of payment. But she was happy he agreed, and let him calculate his reasons.
She exhales her cigarette, blowing the poisonous air in his face.
Tom slides the ash tray towards her on the table. “Filthy habit,” he says. “You really should quit. I can’t believe you’re allowed to smoke.”
Pru lets the ashes fall onto her lap, imagining the embers catching fire, burning her jumpsuit and then her skin. She wonders what Tom the Pragmatist would say, what logic he’d find for self-immolation.
The thought makes her laugh.
“What could be so damn funny?” asks Tom.
“I was wondering what’s for lunch,” says Pru. She’s looking at him but he’s looking away. “It’s nice to have someone cook for me, you know. You never did appreciate my cooking.”
Tom coughs into his palm and looks down at his shoes. They’re covered in muck from the February snow. She’s told him countless times these are summer shoes, that the salted roads will shrink the leather. But he never listens. Or maybe he does, and he’s worn them spite her.
He gives another pointless cough and squirms in his seat. He wants to leave, but he hasn’t gotten what he came here for. It’s the way he darts his eyes, grinding his thumb into a groove on the table. He hates it here. Tom is tall as average men go. But he’s dwarfed in this room, with its high metal ceilings and stale blue light.
It makes Pru feel taller to see him this way, so small and hunched. She feels like Alice with a mouthful of mushroom.
She takes in the room—the Fireproof sign, the wire meshed windows, the droplets of coffee slipping out of the machine. It’s the strangest thing, but in here she feels free. She cannot leave. She cannot roam. She cannot even take a piss on her own. But her life is moving forward again, destination unknown. For years she’d been marooned, like a ship in the ice. But then she’d done it—such a small thing, really, a tiny motion that had picked up momentum. And here she is in this fireproof room, waiting for the wind to pick a direction.
She loves this feeling. It reminds her of the time she almost died. She was six, too young to be on the upside down ride. And when it broke, her father had to hold her in with his arms. She dangled like a tonsil for over an hour, her thoughts moving back and forth between, I’m going to die, and Daddy will save me. At the time, it had been the worst kind of torture. But afterwards, especially years on, when things had “settled down,” as they so often say, Pru thought of that fair as the ride of her life.
There’s a young woman at the table beside her, a pretty girl with dyed pink hair. Across her is a man with a neck tattoo. It looks like a python eating a mouse, but it’s too small to tell. They’re smiling at each other, but their cheeks are wet.
How lovely, Pru thinks, to cry out of love.
She dashes out her cigarette and picks up the lighter, flicking it onto her naked palm.
“Stop it,” says Tom.
“Am I scaring you?”
“No, I love it when you play with fire.” His sarcasm has teeth, like actual fangs.
“Remember the last time I cooked?” asks Pru.
He doesn’t answer.
“I do,” he says, his eyes on the door.
Without another word, he escapes to the bathroom.
It was three weeks ago, though it feels like more. This room has a way of telescoping time. Pru can’t really say that she cooked for Tom, never having made it past the unpacking. And Tom, of course, had never said sorry, not about dinner, or fucking that girl. These things happen, was all he’d said. It’s a co-working hazard. But what Pru heard him say was: You don’t understand because you’ve never had a job.
And Pru had been feeling so sorry for him. He’d been working late and vying for the judgeship. His competition was twenty years younger, thirty-six to his fifty-seven. When she thought of him at work, she felt so protective, like a lioness sitting over her pride. She imagined the other lawyers in the bathroom, straightening their ties and combing thick tufts of hair. And there was Tom with his widening bald spot.
But at home she avoided him like the dust, swirling around the antique chandeliers. The house felt so empty without the kids, the kind of kids who seldom come home. And Pru understands this. She feels close to her kids even when they are far, traveling the world like intrepid explorers. They send her gifts from far off places, like alligator bracelets and rattlesnake soap. The soap had come in a cellophane wrapper, a dried out rattler attached with a string.
She loves that her children are travelers. And though there is a pain when the kids are away, Pru feels it as a comfort. It reminds her that they belong to her, like lobbed off limbs that still fire neurons.
She returns again to that fateful day, when she’d failed to cook Tom that final supper. She had wanted to go to her knitting class. But she’d decided she needed more time in the kitchen. On the way to the market, she thought of how Tom disparaged her hobby. Fusty, he called it, a pastime of another era. The women he worked with didn’t knit. They didn’t have time. But knitting kept her fingers busy. And it wasn’t fusty, despite what Tom said. Most of the people in Pru’s class were younger than she was, women in their thirties and even some men. The men came with girlfriends and sometimes with boys. Things were so much different now, more open, more complex. Not everything had to fit in a box. Often the group would go for drinks, and talk about their adventures in purling. Then talk would turn to music or sex. It was usually the music that lost her in the end. She didn’t think of herself as a prudish person. When she got up to go, they’d beg her to stay. “Come on,” they’d encourage, “just a little more wine.” And Pru would say, “You kids have fun,” as if they were her own.
But when she got back to the giant house, where the wind seemed to whistle even on windless nights, she’d wished she hadn’t left her friends. Tom was usually still at work, or fast asleep on the couch in his office.
Her plan was to cook Tom his birthday meal. He was turning fifty-eight, which meant they’d been married for thirty years. As she chose the fish, she remembered how they met. Pru’s father, who was Tom’s boss at the law firm, had set them up at the annual dinner. “A good egg,” her father said, “an absolute keeper.” And when she opened the door, she knew he was right. Handsome, established, going places—Tom wore these labels like pins on his sleeve. She was smitten by him. Smitten is a funny word, like she’d been struck ill, but that was how she’d felt, as if she’d been hit by a blow to the head. In those early years, they were seldom apart. She was getting her masters in Spanish Lit, and often she’d read to him poems in translation. Neruda. Lorca. Mistral. Theirs were the words to which she fell in love. Tom would often giggle as she read. “You’re such a hopeless romantic,” he’d say, and smother her with a barrage of kisses. They’d sit in Cambridge cafes and drinks vats of espresso, linking their legs beneath the table. Then they’d go to Tom’s place and almost make love. He was the one who always stopped. He said he didn’t want to get Pru in trouble. It was best to wait until they’d sorted things out. It was so very Tom to be so very planned. She never left him wanting, of course. There were other things they could do, he said. And at twenty-three, Pru received this as foreplay. She wanted him more because she couldn’t have him.
Pru fell in love with Tom over poems. Tom fell in love with Pru over coffee.
They were married after two years of dating, when she was twenty-five and he twenty-eight. Then this business of having kids had begun. It had been foolish of her not to ask him before. But she assumed he’d want them. Why else would he want to get married? When she asked this, he said, “Because people just do.” And she’d suggested that people also had children. “Some things,” said Tom, “have become obsolete.” Marriage made sense because you pooled your resources. But children drained them. The biological imperative no longer held. There were already too many sould on the planet.
Then his mother had finally worn him down, and Tom surrendered like a lawyer: “I concede on this point for both of your sakes,” like he was doing them some kind of favor. Pru wasn’t close with her mother-in-law, had never once asked for the woman’s help. But still her husband had lumped them together.
Pru was pregnant at thirty, thirty two and thirty four. And motherhood was everything she had hoped, herculean, volatile and so much fun, especially on the days when the ship ran smoothly, and she could sit back and enjoy the ride. And sometimes the ship even sailed itself, like on her birthday, when she’d wake up to find fresh flowers in the vase and a tray of home cooked waffles by her bed. Even Tom was in on these breakfasts, though it was always the kids who reminded him. “Once a year,” he’d say, filling her mug with piping hot coffee, “even the captain needs a break.”
But Pru didn’t see herself as a captain, even when she saw her home as a ship. She saw herself as more of a gardener, sewing the ground with unknown seeds. And she was just waiting to see what she’d planted. She did the same thing in her yard, going to the store and buying handfuls of packets. Then she’d mix the contents and dump them in the soil. Roses mixed with daisies and vied with the clover, an amazing jumble of color and thorns.
It was perfect.
But as she tended her garden, the houses grew larger, and she and Tom grew further apart. When the children had all left for college, she’d enacted the tradition of Tom’s birthday meal. Anniversaries were like loaded guns, with the burden of romantic notions long gone. But birthdays were anodyne. She wasn’t trying to change today, only to dwell in the past for a night. She saw the past as a distant locale, like a quarantined room in the attic of the Tudor.
She chose the salmon and stopped by the greens. She bought some kale and a fruit she’d never seen. It had a horny yellow shell that looked like an urchin. She thought she might throw it in with the kale.
She called Tom at the office, but he didn’t pick up.
When she got home, his car was in the driveway. He hadn’t been home that early in years.
Tom has given up on his metal chair. Now he’s pacing like an expectant father. He didn’t even do that when the kids were being born. Pru’s sister told her. He’d sat in the waiting room and read the paper.
But now he looks nervous, biting his nails. “You tell me now,” he says. “How did it start?”
“An accident,” says Pru. “I won’t say it again.”
An overweight guard lays a tray on the table. “Lunch,” he says and smiles at Pru.
It isn’t customary to have meals in this room. But there was a flood in the mess hall and lunch got pushed into visiting hours.
“Thanks, Mel,” says Pru, and pushes the food around with her fork.
Pru likes all of the facility guards. They’re kind to her and stay out of her way. So do most of the other prisoners. They’re in for petty crimes, prostitution and theft, maybe a fight that went too far, but no murder, no death. Pru’s is probably the worst of the offenses. Her lawyer, a dear friend of her father’s, arranged for her to be here until the trial, if there is one. She’s been here now three weeks to the day. Thanks to Tom, she didn’t make bail. He convinced the judge she was a danger to herself. Why just myself? she had thought at the arraignment. What about the rest of the goddamn city? She’d leaned over and said as much to her lawyer. These things have a way of spreading, you know, like a virus brought on to a ship. Her lawyer had hushed her by pinching her arm. But Pru had thought it a clever comment, even as she pled ‘not guilty’ to her crime.
Tom makes an exaggerated gagging sound. “How do you keep it down?” he asks, pointing at her tray of prison food.
She shoves a large forkful of food in her mouth. “Sit,” she says. “You’re pissing me off.”
She feels a jolt like she’s coming alive, like Alice has eaten some more of the mushroom. Here she feels free to speak like this, in the visitor’s room of the Cedarbrook Jail. She’d never have spoken like this in the Tudor. She hated that place, had wanted to stay in their split level ranch. But Tom got promoted and insisted they buy it. “Status,” he said, “is evolutionary.”
And so the Tudor had become her life, though that had never been Pru’s intention. Tom assumed it was, of course. Isn’t that what all women want? She’d wanted babies, why not a mansion? Hadn’t she asked him to settle down? “Jesus Christ, make up your damn mind.” He said that right after their daughter was born, the last one, who’d packed up and moved to France after college.
But Pru had never thought of it as settling down. She couldn’t think of anything more clamorous, more chaotic, more unchartered than a family. Having kids was a form of expansion, beyond Tom, beyond herself, beyond the house with the high stone wall. Each time she was pregnant, she’d lie in bed and put her hands on her belly, imagining one cell splitting in two. Then two became four until tiny hands formed. It sounded sentimental, but she’d wonder what those hands would touch in their life. That’s why she’d wanted to start a family, to spread herself across the world like a fog.
But the house Tom bought had shut her in. The place was like a giant net, ensnaring her in unbreakable fibers, collecting dust like a fluttering moth. It just took so much looking after, even with the help, with all its rooms and unused parts. Raising kids had nothing on the Tudor.
After she’d unpacked the salmon and kale, she’d gone upstairs and found them asleep. Tom looked like an old man next to the girl, with her squid ink hair and pale young skin. They were sprawled across Pru’s Parisian sheets. She wasn’t even angered by the fucking at first. But she’d bought those sheets while visiting her daughter. And now they were ravaged with semen and saliva.
She went up to the attic and lay on the floor. It was a country of its own, with streets and alleys carved out of debris. She kicked her feet at the piles of things, tiny dresses and old prom boutonnieres. She took out her lighter and lit a cigarette. Why do people keep things? She wondered. They only remind you of all that is lost.
Pru finishes every last bite of her meal. Tom is right, it’s awful. But she wants him to watch her eat it with relish. She wipes her mouth and crumples her napkin.
“Bullshit,” says Tom. He’s sitting again with his hands on the table. “It started in the attic. There’s nothing up there but all your crap.” He’s looking at her like he must look in court, like a python about to unhinge his jaw.
Pru leans forward, and in her best lawyer-instructed voice—she’s certainly known enough lawyers in her life—she says, “The causes of the fire remain undetermined.”
Tom stands up fast, knocking over his chair. This is his third visit here. He wants her to admit that she started the fire. But she never will. Her lawyer says the State will return her indictment. He’s an ace, her lawyer, the very best. He took the fire investigator for drinks. Four Jacks in, the investigator slurred, “Faulty wiring. Old mansions are pretty, but their insides are rotten.”
And when her lawyer makes his case, he’ll be on point. It was faulty wiring that started the fire. The question is how it became so faulty.
Pru had seen to that herself, coating the wires in lavender honey. The honey was a gift from her son in Peru. She hated the taste, like flowers left too long in the heat. It stung the roof of her mouth like bees.
But that’s jumping ahead.
After she found Tom and the girl in bed, Pru had climbed to the attic of the Tudor. She used to enjoy going up there, to visit the sediment of her life.
But that day it mocked her. And she became aware that the house was empty, even this attic packed with debris, that even the people downstairs weren’t there, Tom and the girl entwined in the bed.
She left the house without waking them up. Three hours later, when Tom would have expected her home from knitting, she returned. They were gone by then, the bed neatly made with the soiled sheets. Pru threw them in the bathtub and doused them with Drano. Tom didn’t return until late that night, quoting some emergency meeting at the office. The dinner was ruined, the salmon stinking like death in the sink.
That night she dreamed of a hideous fire, the shingles peeling away like ash, the chimney spewing out black plumes of bile. But the aftermath was pure transcendence, just Pru and the kids, returned home from their corners of the world, huddled together on the scorched front lawn. They comforted her that she hadn’t saved their father. If she had tried, they might have lost her too. And she told her children how much she loved Tom, because she did just then, remembering all that was lost in the fire.
Three days later, she checked on the wires. They were nearly split, the mice having done a remarkable job. She’d seen it once on a Lifetime movie, and she thought it might work, that simple is always the way to go. She’d waited until Tom was at work, of course, the neighborhood children all safely in school, and held her lighter up to the wires.
It caught quickly. And as the fire ran through the attic, lapping up everything in its path, her life seemed to run in a backwards line. It was like the fire knew where to go, eating up things from the past year first—Tom’s old sneakers and her busted tennis racket—then earlier—baby photos and handprints in clay. Her insides ached as she ran outside. She wanted to save it all, and she wanted it to burn.
And the pain was good, connecting her to the dying house. She’d never felt a thing for that house until then.
When the police arrived, she was standing on the lawn, smoking a cigarette. That part was a mistake. But at least she had thought to get rid of the lighter.
It wasn’t until a few days later, when Pru was Prisoner 782, that she’d told Tom she’d caught him with the girl.
And Tom’s great defense was, “It’s a co-working hazard.” It was just sex, he said. “At our age, you can hardly blame me.” It wasn’t what he said but how he said it, accusing Pru of turning cold.
But Pru had never lost interest in sex. It was Tom who was never around to have it.
“Sit down,” she says, leaning back in her chair.
He doesn’t move.
She points to his chair.
He doesn’t move. “Why didn’t you—?”
He stops himself, doesn’t see the point in asking it again. He’s asked it on every one of his visits. Why didn’t she pay the insurance bill? He knows the answer, pragmatist that he is. If she’d paid the bill, she might as well have confessed.
Tom shakes his head as he walks to the door.
She loves this part, how resigned he looks, his shoulders slumped like a scorned little boy.
He turns back to her one last time. “Why?” he asks, and leaves before she refuses to answer.
When he’s gone, she lights a cigarette. She’s expecting her son, the one who lives nearby. She’s seen him more since the fire than she has in months. The others have been calling every day. And they flew in for visits from Paris and Lima, though Pru had to pay for both of their tickets. But she was happy to pay. It made feel like a mother again.
She pushes the tray to the center of the table.
Mel comes and clears it.
As he walks away, she mouths this to his back, “I burned it down because nobody lived there.”
But thirty passed, and she was childless. Pru thought of it often, like she’d missed something, dropped a stitch in her knitting, or forgotten to lock the house in the morning. It slid into her day like a storm rolling in. I filled the gas tank, but never had kids. When she thought of it, she reached for her needles. She always had a project at hand. She made sweaters for friends and blankets for their children. She made hats and gloves and tablecloths and socks. She was currently at work on a futile scarf, too long to fit a normal neck. But she couldn’t stop knitting. The act was encoded into her fingers.
This afternoon, she was on her way to Tink, her favorite knitting store, to pick up some extra circular needles. She didn’t need them. Her attic was filled with a glut of supplies, skeins of multi-colored yarn, stitch counters set with mother of pearl. But she needed to get out of the house. The place was like a giant net, ensnaring Pru in unbreakable fibers. Even with the help, it was a full time job, collecting dust like a fluttering moth. Lightbulbs were always burning out, pieces of wood peeling off the facade. She imagined raising kids had nothing on the Tudor. She’d said as much to Tom, when he signed the deed. It was only one year into their marriage, and Tom already on the partner track. But status, he said, is evolutionary. A house was a body, and as such it should reflect the people inside.
Pru pulled into Tink’s parking lot. It was one of those frozen days when the little town felt like the surface of the moon. No one was about. The shops were open but exuded no light. As Pru locked her car, she looked forward to Tink. The place was the definition of cozy, small and low ceilinged, a wood burning fireplace lit in the winter. If the Tudor spit her out, then Tink drew her in. At the center was always a circle of knitters, chattering away as they clacked their needles. The sound was organic, like an arrhythmic heart. When Pru walked in, their heads would turn. “Prudence,” they’d say, in one booming voice, “we’ve been waiting for you.” And she’d believe them, as if her body completed the circle.
But today, the door was double locked, a handwritten sign reading “Closed For Inventory.” Pru felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. She milled around the parking lot for a bit, facing the gaping hole in her schedule. Where to go and what to do? Her shoulder had been hurting, so she couldn’t play tennis. And the sun was too high to go shopping for dinner. She liked to shop when the sun was low, when the lines were long, and she had to duck and weave around people. It put a crimp in the fabric of her day. She did this sometimes in her knitting, made mistakes just to see if she could fix them. She liked to leave jobs for herself in the morning, wounds to heal with her agile hands. Best were the errors she failed to fix, that followed her all the way through the garment. She saw these as signs of life in the yarn.
Pru climbed into her car and pulled out of the lot. She didn’t know where she was going, which felt both wrong and exhilarating. Maybe she would just keep on driving. She’d listened to a podcast about a woman who did that, just got in her car and drove out to Seattle. Six months later, her husband got a postcard from Mt. Rainier. She didn’t write a note, but the text on the card read, “Washington Rocks.”
Pru and Tom had never traveled much. When they did, it was to one of Tom’s legal retreats. They’d stay at five star resorts in places like Denver. But they’d never left the States. And that was fine with Pru. She’d never sat well with prescribed bouts of leisure. She had been an overachieving child, graduating first in all of her classes, earning her masters by twenty-three. When she met Tom, her plan was to go for her PhD. She’d study and teach until she had children. She’d never thought of it as settling down. It would be an adventure. What could be more clamorous or uncertain than a family?
But after five years of marriage, Tom had finally confessed. He didn’t want children. He thought the practice had become obsolete. Marriage made sense because you pooled your resources. But children drained them. And the biological imperative was dead. There were already too many feet on the planet. Pru thought he would warm to the idea. They were still young and there was plenty of time. She waited ten years, and asked again, on the morning of her thirty-ninth birthday. She made buttermilk pancakes–Tom’s favorite–and asked him over his third cup of coffee.
“I love you,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?” He took her hand and kissed it gently. Then he handed her his plate to take to the sink. “I’m going to be late for dinner,” he said. He didn’t remember to say happy birthday. Later that day, she got a dozen roses. The card was signed by Tom, but she knew they had been bought by his secretary.
The trouble was that Tom was a decent husband. True, he was a workaholic, but he was kind to Pru and they seldom fought. They “fit,” Tom said and “made good sense.” That wasn’t exactly how he’d proposed, but it wasn’t far off. It was Pru’s father who introduced them, when Tom was an associate in his firm. Her father called Tom a very good egg. And in truth, he was. Handsome, smart, going all kinds of places–Tom wore these labels like pins on his suit. Their marriage was a kind of contract. The trouble was, they hadn’t worked out the terms. Tom thought Pru would make a very good wife. And Pru thought Tom would make a very good father. She’d thought about leaving a number of times, when Tom would sleep at the office for days. Her thoughts of divorce coincided with his work load. But the thought was more frightening than the empty Tudor.
And now, at fifty-five, Pru’s life with Tom was a facile pattern, a piece of tracing paper with lines. She knew exactly what each day would bring. Drinks at the club. A charity for every season. The bumps in her day–the long lines, the bad weather, the sore shoulder she nursed from over-practicing her serve–were welcome obstacles. And there was her knitting, of course, a constant series of challenges. People thought it benign, but it was far from that. Pru found it exciting, a practice fraught with expectation of failure.
Driving slowly through the town, veering around black patches of ice, Pru had a momentary thought to turn the wheel, quick and sharp. What would happen, she wondered, if she had an accident? Nothing major, just the kind that came with some scrapes and bruises. She imagined Tom at the hospital, a worried look on his handsome face. They were both of them aging what most would call well, few wrinkles, no furrows Pru thought of as parenting lines. At the hospital, Tom would put his hand on the small of her back. “Of course I’m here,” he’d say, and lean down to kiss her. “Where else would I be?” He’d let his lips linger on the brim of her forehead. “Dear Prudence,” he’d call her, a pet name he hadn’t used in years.
She shook her head in the empty car. Tom wouldn’t leave work for a fender bender. He’d send Trish, his secretary, with a handful of flowers as he did on her birthdays. Pru liked Trish, a middle-aged woman with a gummy smile. She was the kind of secretary you wanted for your husband, past her prime, her bottom spread out to fit the seat of her chair. But when she did this part of her job, filling in when Tom was remiss as a husband, Pru hated Trish like she was some kind of threat, a mole implanted at the center of her marriage.
She reached into her bag on the passenger seat, pulling out the tale of the futile scarf. She kept on pulling, and the scarf kept coming. It was a lovely color, a marled red with flecks of pale blue. She was still driving, so the next part was tricky, but she managed to unthread the scarf from the needles. Now the scarf was a vulnerable thing, a ball of yarn on one end, a row of unbound stitches on the other. This was the point of the open wound, when the scarf could unravel at the slightest tug. She pulled the car onto the shoulder, tossing the ball of yarn out of the window. Then she started driving again, and the scarf began to unravel on the seat. She watched it unwind with a feeling of correction. The official word for this was to tink, which was really only knit spelled backwards.
She drove through the streets of the quiet town, leaving a trail of clotted red. She checked here and there in the rearview mirror. It looked like a trail of blood in the snow. The scarf on the seat was getting smaller. She had a momentary thought to stop the car, and salvage what was left of the knitting. Whittled down, it was now the perfect size for Tom. If she drove another block, it might fit her neck, or she could give it to one of her friends. But she kept on driving. It was thrilling, knowing that something was about to be lost, and she hadn’t done a thing to save it.
Sometimes it wasn’t just one mistake, but the entire project that must be undone.
When she arrived home, she trailed the remnants of the scarf to her door. Balled up in her arms, it was a mess of yarn with entropic potential. When she entered the house, she was hit with the smell, roses and organic cleaner. The roses were seated in a vase in the foyer. Long stemmed and thriving, the maid must have just replaced the bouquet. Pru hated cut flowers. They were dead long before you even bought them, life leaking out through a gash in a stem. What was the point? She wound the yarn around the vines, and continued to wind through the halls of the Tudor.
She stopped in the kitchen, winding some yarn around the crock pot, the waffle iron, the coffee maker, the juicer, the tea kettle, the faucet, and the iron pots hung from hooks on the ceiling. By the time she was done, the kitchen was strung in a web of red veins. She did the same in Tom’s office, winding yarn around his stapler and blotter. Then she handled the bathroom, the guest room, and the downstairs closet. She didn’t descend into the basement. She never did. The last person down there was the man who came to read the electric meter. It was nothing but a gaping hole, with concrete walls and a vinyl floor, an ulcer in the belly of the Tudor.
It didn’t deserve the life giving yarn.
Pru went upstairs, to the bedroom first. There she only wound the yarn around the pillows, hers and Tom’s. Then she climbed the pull-down steps to the attic.
No one came up here except for Pru, not even the maid, and surely not Tom. She had a system for keeping it in order. She kept her patterns in clear plastic boxes, and her yarn in color coded rows. Her needles were lined up like surgical tools, atop an old mahogany dresser. She liked to lay them out so she could see them all. When things were hidden, they were easily lost. That’s one of the things she despised about the Tudor. There was so much storage space, there were so many hidden rooms and compartments, to keep things looking tidy, it made the place look even more empty.
But the attic was alive, packed with the energy of potential. If the basement was the gut, then the attic was the heart. Pru saw it as a kind of laboratory, filled with experiments, some failed, some successful. There were pieces made for disfigured bodies, three arm holes, an opening too small to pass a head. There were fair isles sweaters that had won her competitions. Pru hung all of these beside one another, because she wanted to remember–it was failure that made success feel so potent.
She lay down the remaining ball of yarn, and sat herself on a pile of patterns. If she listened hard enough, she could hear the termites biting through the rafters. The house was so old, it was just a matter of time before it fell. If it was a body, then it was geriatric. And Tom’s desire to bolster it, to pay all that money to renew old systems and excavate rot, was like life support for a dying patient. Tom loved the house because of its status, the matronly gem of a jeweled gold coast. He loved it because it glorified his now. He was far from a bad man, but he never saw beyond his own nose. If he did, he might have seen the purpose of children, to expand yourself beyond your own body, your own home, to spread yourself across the world like a mist.
To continue on as the shingles decay.
She closed her eyes and lay back on the patterns, thinking of the unmade things beneath her, a mother hen roosting on an empty nest. It wasn’t that she needed children, that she couldn’t find meaning in a life without them. That thought set women back hundreds of years, that they must reproduce or dry up like well beds.
What she couldn’t abide was that a house had replaced them.
She looked around the attic, imagined she was holding a lighter in her hand. She picked up the tale of the futile scarf. If she lit it on fire, it would travel like a fuse, burning first through the attic, then the bedroom, the downstairs closet, the guest room, the bathroom, Tom’s office, the kitchen, and the dying roses in the vase by the door. Then the Tudor would explode in a bright burst of color. Fire was best, above wrecking balls and cranes, above termites and time. Fire cleansed on contact, returning a body to its elemental dust.
Her cell phone rang from the depths of her pocket. It was Tom. He wanted to know what she was making for dinner.
She starred at the screen before typing her answer. Antonellis, she wrote. We shld get out of the house 2 night.