Color was blotted out by the white wall of winter. Wet snowflakes landed at the top of my skull and trickled ice water into the black space around my brain. On our musky couch, I waited for Ben to wake up, and the cold would seep in until my brain froze solid. Like a mannequin, I stiffened in my pose in front of the frost-covered picture window.
We’d heard about the impending blizzard that morning. As we sat in Maggie’s Place having breakfast, the truck drivers were abuzz with blizzard talk. They guessed it would shut down the entire northern part of New York. Ben looked at me with his gray eyes as he shoved a corner of egg yolk-soaked toast into his mouth. “I guess we’ll have to shut the store down today,” he said, “if that’s true.”
“I’m sure Jacob and Matt wouldn’t mind sticking around in case anybody comes in.” I hated taking work away from the two men who’d taken care of Ben’s store lovingly, as if they were its rightful owners, for the past three years.
“Silly to pay them for doing nothing.” He pushed his plate away carelessly.
I gulped my coffee and gazed out of the window. One large snowflake twiddled past and disappeared.
The snow fell heavily as we left the diner. We put a sign on the front door of Ben’s store: “Closed due to weather.” Jacob and Matt left reluctantly, and Ben and I went home.
He swung our old pickup into the dirt driveway, which had already gathered an inch of snow, and we descended the hill. We locked the truck away in the garage and headed up to the house. Ben glanced at me, squinting in the blowing snow. Snowflakes attached themselves to his eyelashes and didn’t melt, and briefly he had no eyeballs, just white frost. I slipped on the incline and fell to my knees. Ben continued up the hill and went inside.
When I stepped into the foyer, he had already taken his coat and boots off. He was pouring a couple of thumbs of vodka for himself. “I think I’m gonna rest,” he said.
I looked at him, but he wouldn’t look back.
“I’ll be up later.” He took his glass into the bedroom and closed the door.
In my melting coat and boots, I stood in the foyer staring after him. The eggs I’d eaten churned in my acidic stomach as he closed the bedroom door. The image was on a loop. Again and again, the door shutting, Ben disappearing behind it.
The snow was falling around my brain again. A cold pain crept into my head and I couldn’t move my eyes from the closed bedroom door. I was trapped inside a glass coffin, pounding on the glass, my breath blurring the view.
The only thing I could think to do was sit on the floor. The snow we’d trekked inside with our boots soaked through my jogging pants. It felt like a knife cutting through the backs of my thighs.
When Ben first brought me to Horseheads, I’d been thrilled to leave the city, especially with him—my savior who would protect me and take care of me. City College had been a failure for me and the picture I had in my mind—the picture Ben drew for me—revealed lush trees blowing as if pushed back and forth by some invisible giant and pregnant emerald hills, but the reality was this white, two-room cabin perched atop a hill. A garage cut into the side of the earth, half above ground, half under. The driveway created a steep valley. Either way you went, the dip in the middle made you go downhill, then up again.
I moved to the house with Ben despite its shortcomings because it was a new start, as fresh as the weeping willows that stretched out like feathery tentacles all around the tree-line in the spring.
Then too soon came the thing, growing inside me, that revived those expectations, promised a lifetime of belonging to something—a unit—to being needed as much as I needed. It grew, that thing, and Ben was a different person, more possessive and fussy, and for the bump we bought an antique bassinet and a rocking chair for me to feed it in, to soothe it to sleep during those August nights, the crickets crooning out in the pitch-black globe, the moist air cooling us as it suckled away. We bought the tiniest clothes and mittens to keep it from scratching its face when it came out and a thermometer and a monitor and the smallest diapers we could find. Then we waited. I felt it moving inside, fluttering, a ghost fish swimming in my womb, and as my belly pressed outward, I was filled with more than just life. I was filled with heaven and earth and god and the seas and the sun and all the stars and everything we can’t see but know is there. I became full. I came alive and started breathing.
And then it stopped fluttering. With one doctor’s appointment, I became as empty as nothing, as empty as the fetal carcass inside me.
As they pumped the drugs into my arm and I closed my eyes in a cold and bright and colorless room—a white hell—heaven and earth and god and the seas and the sun and all the stars and everything we can’t see but know is there were pulled out of me. When I woke up, I was dead, and I was still breathing. And there Ben was, sleeping in a chair beside my bed.
From the floor where I’d fallen, I moved my eyes to the frosty window that revealed the swelling snow.
I used to believe Ben’s sleeping was an illness, and I couldn’t remember if it had started before or after the thing came, and then went. But either way, after years of it, I understood that it was a curse.
I often couldn’t go to sleep at night for hours. I’d sit up and hear Ben’s snoring. It formed its own limb in our bed: a hand that prodded and poked me all night. After several hours of lying awake with bloodshot eyes, I would finally pass out from exhaustion. But then forty minutes later, Ben would turn over and let out a tumultuous snort. I would wake with a shudder and there he’d lie: flat on his back, his left hand flat on his forehead, his mouth flat and closed, that rumbling emanating from his flat face.
I’d go and eat breakfast and sit in the living room waiting for him to wake up. Nine-thirty would pass, then ten-thirty, then one-fifteen.
“C’mon Ben,” I’d say impatiently. “It’s time to get up.”
He’d close his dry mouth to wet his rubbery tongue and say, “I’ll be up in a minute.” From morning past sundown, he would utter the same deceiving response: “In a minute.” And I’d wait for that next minute to arrive hour after hour. I’d make my bread and my cookies and clean the kitchen and the bathroom.
I would run the sponge over the surface of the sink again and again and again. Sometimes, I’d imagine Ben’s face, separated from his body, slowly disintegrating, the flesh drawing away from his murky eyes, the skin turning blue and purple and brown and then vanishing. And I’d look down and realize I’d been cleaning the same little spot for several minutes. And the white void underneath the sponge was so potent that my eyes got sucked into it and I couldn’t look away. Inside it was everything I’d ever seen, ever done, ever been, ever had, ever wanted, and it was like I was pushing it away with my hands but it pulled so hard that I just couldn’t fight it and into it I fell and there was no coming back out.
Snow now seven inches. Ben still lay in the bedroom, his snoring seeping under the door.
I thought of going to the diner in town for lunch. Maggie and Don, the owners, would probably have kept the restaurant open for the truck drivers who fled the highway for a respite from the snow. I knew that if I showed up there, Maggie would inevitably ask where Ben was, why I was alone in the storm. But no matter, I put on my plaid wool coat, my fleece mittens, and my snow boots and took a deep breath as I opened the back door. The snow reached halfway up my calves as I stepped down from the threshold. It melted through my jogging pants as I trudged toward the garage.
The snowdrifts were like ocean waves, frozen in mid-motion. Some of the trees were covered with white, the branches weighed down. Others were only dusted by snow. The wind howled.
Then came a soft crunching in the snow down the hill from where I stood.
The buck was as big as a horse, at least 350 pounds. With him were a doe and their fawn, painted with white spots.
The family froze in mid-stride when they caught me in their view. Their dark eyes were vacant. I looked idly away to say, “I’m no predator.” As they continued down the hill, I felt envious of the doe. She had her strong male buck, awake and leading.
A gust of snow hit my face like tiny needles. When I opened my eyes, the deer had vanished.
I pulled open the old, paint-peeled door with a creaking roar. The musky smell of the old wood in the garage hit my runny nose immediately.
A sheet of snow had formed on the flatbed of the pickup. The wind had blown the snow in through the broken window on the door. I’d broken it two years before, one weekend in April when Ben had slept for almost twenty-four hours straight. I had become itchy and restless, so I went into the garage and pitched a stale loaf of rye through the garage window. The smash of the glass and the pollen-filled breeze gave me a small measure of satisfaction.
When Ben had finally gotten up and gone to the hardware store to check on things, I told him I didn’t know what had happened to the window. He assumed the kids from down the road had broken it as a practical joke.
Bringing myself back to the present, I climbed into the truck but didn’t start the engine. Highway 40 wouldn’t be plowed, not for hours. I wasn’t going anywhere. It occurred to me to put a plastic bag over the broken window, start up the truck, and sit in it until I fell asleep. But when Ben finally did wake up, he wouldn’t be able to comprehend it. And he certainly wouldn’t assume it was a practical joke by our neighbor’s kids.
When the wind died for a minute, I was sure I could hear Ben’s snoring coming from the bedroom in the house. The sound vibrated everything—the trees, the ground, the family of deer—like an earthquake, and it rumbled under the ground. Inside the rumbling, like a worm under the dirt, was a ghost-newborn’s primitive whimper.
My sex drive died when Ben opened the hardware store in town, a couple of years after the bump went away. One day, while wandering through the store straightening shelves and dusting—all those axes, screws, shovels, and the horse harnesses and cattle branders—I stared in awe at the drill parts nestled together in baskets that hung from the wall. One drill bit caught my eye. It was longer than any of the others—six inches—and thicker too. I remembered Ben telling a customer once that it was for installing cable. With its deep, twisty ridges, it occurred to me that it looked like Ben’s penis.
I wasn’t able to take him inside me after that. I wouldn’t even kiss him. Just the sensation of his hand on my shoulder made me want to slug him.
Ben’s curse became worse. He would doze off in the middle of our conversations. Once, as he told me about Mary’s daughter, Shelly, who’d gotten pregnant by a truck driver (Ben had heard about it from one of the nincompoops that frequented his store), I asked him a few questions about the whole business, and I noticed that his eyelids were slowly lowering like stage curtains. His breathing became heavy and his eyes closed completely.
I slapped his leg. “Ben.”
“Hm?” he said, startled awake.
In the days when I still gave him physical pleasure, I did it at least once a week even if I really didn’t want to. Penetration made me numb. Blowjobs were no better—the chemical taste of his semen left me nauseated.
My discovery of the drill bit in Ben’s hardware store, and the revelation that followed, was a relief. He was just a drill bit attached to a sleeping body.
By the time I decided to go back into the house, the purple light of the sunset over the smooth mounds was deceiving—like there was any real beauty in it all.
As soon as I’d closed the back door behind me and stomped my boots off, it was as if my ear were pressed against Ben’s mouth. The sound of his snoring scraped around inside my head like a sick cockroach.
The living room window was now covered in matted snow.
I poured myself a glass of vodka and guzzled it, slammed the glass on the coffee table—and a crack slivered up the side of it. It wasn’t just boredom and loneliness that haunted me. There was something else—buzzing, shivering, a wind tunnel in my chest—that needed the most primitive kind of relief. The disgust and rage that was directed toward Ben was possessed by desire and before I had a chance to counter the argument in my mind, I was walking towards the bedroom.
Ben lay in the bed, sprawled on his back, his mouth wide open. The light that came in from the living room lingered over his face.
I crept to the bed and crawled over him. He snorted and startled awake as I pulled back the quilt and slid onto the warm mattress with him. I leaned over him. His tired grey eyes looked back at me. I gave him what I imagined was a seductive smile. With an energy that was familiar from years before, he wrapped his hand around the back of my head and pulled me to him.
Instantly, I could taste his foul breath. His tongue was slimy with stale saliva. The warm feeling between my legs was quickly fading. He kissed me harder and leaned up, pushing me on my back. I could feel his hope and surprise as if a disease that he’d suffered for years was suddenly leaving.
His erection pressed against my bare leg through his pajama bottoms. The drill bit twisted in my mind, ripping through a white wall, and then my flesh. Ben’s taste buds were furry and coarse. I tried to back away and fell on the floor. As I landed, I heard myself grunt in a voice I didn’t recognize.
Ben stared over the edge of the bed at me. There was no hope in that face now. His pale skin and blunt features were unfamiliar. The sharpness and color that I knew and remembered was gone. I wondered how long it had been gone, how long I’d not noticed its disappearance.
My lungs hurt as I struggled for air. Got up and ran out of the room, knocking my knee on the corner of the bed. Ben collapsed back onto the bed as I slammed the door behind me.
A creeping sensation on my leg, like a piece of hair tickling my skin—a small brown spider crawled up my pale calf. It stopped crawling when I looked at it. I slammed my hand down on it and cradled its maimed body in my hand. One of its legs dangled in the air, moving back and forth. Slapped my hand against the wall to finish its suffering.
The glass with its crack down the side on the coffee table stared at me. Out the window, in the distance, the snow climbed higher. It surely had reached a foot by now. The taste of Ben’s tongue still lingered in my mouth.
Impotence. I picked up the glass and threw it at the wall, watched it shatter.
As each minute passed, the house grew darker and the only noise was the wind howling outside.
I put my wet snow boots on and pulled my wool coat from the closet, grabbed the utility flashlight from the foyer table, switched it on. Out the back door, stepping into the snow.
I could barely see through the blowing snow that spattered my face and stopped for a moment to catch my breath. Behind me snow crunched like footsteps. The flashlight shined on nothing.
I headed in the general direction of the garage, and again, snow crunched behind me. Again shined the flashlight, and ten feet away stood the buck, his eyes shining yellow in the light from the flashlight. He was perfect in the blue color of the night, and perfection disgusted me. I wished I had a rifle to destroy it.
“What?” I yelled, my voice muffled by the wind’s moan.
I imagined his web of antlers impaling me, my deep red blood seeping into the snow. I turned and ran as fast as I could away from the buck. Over the whistle of my breath and the groaning wind, I didn’t know if the snow crunched behind me.
I pulled open the garage door. The snow that had gathered outside crumbled, scattering over the concrete floor, and I slammed the door down behind me. I stood the flashlight on its end on the garage floor. The room filled with shadows, ghosts, tiny bodies swimming on the walls.
Inside Ben’s tool chest was a folded-up tarp that we used when we went camping. I grabbed his hammer and a box of nails and unfolded the tarp. I put the thick blue plastic against the broken window and hammered a nail into each corner of the window frame. But I could still feel the wind hitting my face, so hammered four more nails in, one on each side of the window frame.
Inside the pickup truck, turned the key in the ignition. The engine started with a growl. I opened the car windows and waited for sleep to come.
Then I caught a glimpse of Ben’s drill lying on the floor next to his tool chest, and the way it lay there was cruel, it was intentionally mocking me, that thing that breaks through the walls, the white walls that always surrounded me. Ben wasn’t worthy of such a tool.
Turned off the ignition, stepped out of the pickup, grabbed the drill, heavy in my hand. I opened the garage door, half expecting to see the buck on the other side staring back at me. I walked around to the back door, inside the house. Off with the coat.
To the bedroom, twisted the doorknob and the door squeaked open. The light of the living room hit Ben’s face, but still it looked gray. I went to Ben’s side and held the drill, cradled firmly in both my hands, over Ben’s heart. The long, thin drill bit attached to it twisted in my mind.
Ben snorted as I stood over his sleeping body, my shadow towering over me on the wall. In the black space between us was the whirling abyss, the infinite emptiness, and there was the sound of the never-born thing, my daughter, the promise of fullness—I heard her whimper and saw her future the way I had, joyfully, before she abandoned me, saw her growing up, and I remembered the way my womb mourned, pulling in on itself, strangling my hope, then bleeding it out between my legs.
Down came the drill, cracking through his chest and staying there. Ben’s eyes shot open. I backed away. The weight of the drill pulled at the bit awkwardly.
He looked up at me, confused and breathless. He pointed to the snow-matted window. “Is that part of the wall?” he said.
I tried to come up with an answer.
“I think it’s in my chest,” he said. He looked at the drill being held up by his flesh. “What’s this doing here?” He tugged at it and pulled it out of this chest, threw it on the floor. He took a deep breath as if he were resting after a hard day’s work.
“Go back to sleep,” I said.
“I’ll be up later,” he said.
“I’m gonna rest now,” he said.
“With kings and counselors,” I said.
And then the only sound was the moan of the wind wafting through the hole in the window.
Hours later, as I lay next to him in the silent, frigid bedroom, my toes and fingers turning blue and freezing at the tips, I tried to remember what Ben’s voice had sounded like. It had been unfamiliar to me for as many years as I could remember; what had been before was now as blank as the white wall of snow outside. And in that moment before the whiteness closed over us, having forgotten Ben’s voice, and my own, the silence cradled us in its palm and took us to the end of the earth where the last snowflake had fallen and birth was as obsolete as hell and paradise, and nothing was unforeseen because love was obsolete too—there we lay, the two of us, sleeping and holding each other and letting the whiteness close us in completely, because inside the whiteness was where we belonged and where we always would remain.