If Only the Bombs

Fiction / Ilana Masad

:: If Only the Bombs ::

I.

Take a sweater with you, Glen! Glen? You hear me?” But he was gone. Patri­cia watched his car fum­ble out of the garage, back onto the lawn with one wheel, and begin to plod down the street. Boun­cy, it was, had thump-thumped beneath them the night they met, Glen just back from the war, Patri­cia a col­lege girl who didn’t mind the boys get­ting fresh. He had a rep­u­ta­tion as a solid­er. She had a rep­u­ta­tion. Match made in heav­en.

Of course he didn’t take the sweater. Wouldn’t want to wrin­kle his per­fect­ly ironed shirt. As if his own labor had brought about its state. And if he got sick because of the fans and the A/C units they had at his office? Well. There was only one per­son who would take care of him, and she wished to all the gods she didn’t believe in that it wouldn’t be her this time. That he’d found some twig­gy mis­tress. Some oth­er rep­utable girl. Else­where. Sweet dreams that nev­er matched real­i­ty, Patri­cia knew, and went to check on the kid.

The kid lay in the dark room, dark as far as the kid was con­cerned. Deaf and dumb and blind to boot, the kid had escaped polio only because there was no pool in the state that would allow the kid to swim in it and no sand­box where the kid wouldn’t get shoved and made fun of by oth­ers. The spe­cial doc­tor came twice a week and worked with the kid while Patri­cia smoked in the kitchen until he called her in to help. The spe­cial doc­tor told her not to take so many pills. But her doc­tor, the reg­u­lar one, gave her pills to get up and pills to keep going and pills to put her to sleep and they worked just fine.

It was feed time. Clos­est to life on a farm she’d ever get, this. When Glen had said he had land in New Jer­sey all those years ago, she’d pic­tured a sin­gle goat, a barn­yard, some clean pink pigs, fresh cream. No, his par­ents, like him, had no skill for such things. Like her, they were city trans­plants play­ing at the sub­urbs. Patri­cia took Glen’s left­overs out of the fridge. Since the man didn’t have an appetite, she’d begun split­ting the meals between him and the kid. The kid wasn’t par­tic­u­lar, and throw­ing away food was a waste. She’d read arti­cles about those poor Jews after the war, how they’d squir­reled away food, scrimped and saved it. They had the right idea. Not every­one was rich like Glen’s par­ents. She’d gone to col­lege on a schol­ar­ship and her par­ents were dirt-poor fac­to­ry work­ers and dead by now. Prob­a­bly hear­ing about the kid in her let­ter all those years ago had killed them. She didn’t know. Her sis­ter had tele­phoned to say they were dead and already buried. No use ask­ing why she wasn’t invit­ed to the wake. After she’d got­ten preg­nant and mar­ried Glen with­out approval, they had all but dis­owned her, their eldest daugh­ter, their pride and joy col­lege girl. They were proud peo­ple that had no use for a col­lege dropout with a bun in the oven, and her mar­ry­ing a Protes­tant to boot. It all amount­ed to the same thing. They’d been dead to her when they were alive, and now they were just dead and she was alive. If this was liv­ing.

The kid’s room had the cur­tains drawn and the smell of its piss and shit swept through the air as she opened the door. The kid made signs and nois­es at her, its mouth smack­ing open, emp­ty eyes star­ing in her direc­tion. Sat up on the bed and reached for her. Some­how, the spe­cial doc­tor explained it but she didn’t under­stand it, the kid knew she was Moth­er. The kid knew her and hugged her and put its face against her bel­ly and sighed. In any oth­er kid, Patri­cia would take it as hap­pi­ness. But not here. Here she knew what came next, and sure enough it did. Face turned up and mouth opened again and hand reached to her breasts, to catch and suck­le from. She slapped its hands away. She didn’t let it do that any­more, not since its fifth birth­day, when she had to reck­on with the fact that it would nev­er be a reg­u­lar child. From the begin­ning the neigh­bor-women said it was dan­ger­ous, let­ting the kid drink her milk, and now they blamed her for what the kid had become. Patri­cia didn’t know what to believe. The spe­cial doc­tor said noth­ing was her fault. And then he would kiss her in the bath­room and lock the door and bend her legs up so her feet were near her head like a gym­nast. Since Glen didn’t want to pay the spe­cial doc­tor, Patri­cia found anoth­er way to reim­burse him for his time. And she need­ed him, the spe­cial doc­tor. He was the only one who made the kid calmer, less fright­ful.

She put some cold eggs on a fork and pushed it into the kid’s maw. The kid coughed and almost choked and some of the goo fell onto its shirt but the jaw chewed and throat swal­lowed and the mouth opened to take more, yel­low crumbs left on the small sticky tongue. Patri­cia gagged. After she fin­ished feed­ing the kid Glen’s uneat­en bits of break­fast, she pushed and pulled it onto the chang­ing table that was too small for a kid that age. Almost nine now. So many years of doing just this. She ripped the dia­per off and wiped, breath­ing through her mouth and keep­ing her eyes almost shut. She put a new dia­per on, took the emp­ty plate and fork, and shut the door to the room.

The moans the kid made when it played with the toys in the cor­ner of its room scratched at her back. But she stood there, lis­ten­ing to her scion, to what she’d made, what she’d done. After stand­ing in front of the closed door for a quar­ter of an hour, she took a cig­a­rette out of the pack in her apron pock­et and went to stand by the kitchen win­dow where she could blow the smoke out into the gar­den.

II.

Glen came home with a whis­tle to him. “Dar­ling,” he said when she took his hat and his coat. “You know what day it is today?”

Patri­cia didn’t much care. It could be their anniver­sary, and she still wouldn’t let him do what he want­ed. It could be the last day on earth before the Reds bombed them all straight to hell, and she still wouldn’t. It could be his dying day, and it wouldn’t mat­ter.

It wasn’t their anniver­sary, and the bombs weren’t falling yet, and he wasn’t dying as far as she knew, but she expect­ed him home every night with some excuse or oth­er to make her let him in again. But she wouldn’t. She thought him cursed. Since they found out the kid would nev­er be nor­mal, she stopped let­ting him get any­where near her when she was less than halfway dressed. And she didn’t let the spe­cial doc­tor fin­ish inside her, not ever. She might be the cursed one, after all. Wouldn’t sur­prise her, real­ly.

What day, Glen,” she asked.

And he said, “Today’s the day the new plane is released!”

That’s very excit­ing.”

It sure is. That means more peo­ple fly­ing, more peo­ple mov­ing across the globe, in this big uni­verse of ours. And I was there, I helped. It’s the begin­ning of the future, Pat­ty.”

His hands rest­ed on her hips, and he tried to pull her toward him from the coat-rack, but Patri­cia elbowed him in the chest and said, “At present, there’s sup­per ready in front of the TV for you.”

The Dash 80 was fin­ished, with its Pratt & Whit­ney JT3C tur­bo­jet engine. A civil­ian air­plane by Boe­ing. Patri­cia read the papers, includ­ing her husband’s papers in his brief­case when she couldn’t sleep at night. She read any­thing if it would put her to sleep even­tu­al­ly, and if it didn’t, she got some of that edu­ca­tion she threw away when she left col­lege and mar­ried Glen.

That the project was launch­ing final­ly could mean one of two things. Either Glen would start com­ing home ear­li­er or he wouldn’t. She hoped it was the lat­ter. The kid was enough. She couldn’t imag­ine hav­ing Glen around again as ear­ly as five or six. She would end up tak­ing her­self to the Hud­son and putting rocks in her pock­ets like the famous Eng­lish author did. She could see it hap­pen­ing. She hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Then again, maybe a cat­a­lyst for that was just what she need­ed.

III.

The first Tues­day of every month was ladies’ night. Patri­cia and her girl­friends from high school, Don­na and Mil­ly, met at a din­er on 42nd Street and talked, their insides spilling out of them in unmea­sured tones. It was the only night of the month Patri­cia looked for­ward to. Don­na usu­al­ly brought some of her husband’s whiskey in a flask, and they would pour it into their milk­shakes and get gig­gly. When­ev­er she was there with them, she remem­bered she was still two years shy of thir­ty. She wasn’t an old lady yet. Not quite.

Don­na and Mil­ly both lived in Man­hat­tan, not in the New Jer­sey sub­urbs like Patri­cia and Glen, and she was glad for the excuse to come to the city. It meant she got to dri­ve, and Patri­cia loved dri­ving, even more so since Glen had bought her the car. It was all her own, even if his mon­ey had brought it about. The kid had nev­er been in it, and Glen had only been inside that one time, dri­ving it home from the deal­er­ship with a grin ear to ear and his pants just about falling off him in antic­i­pa­tion. Patri­cia had agreed to touch him a lit­tle and let him touch her after that, but only for a few weeks before she got tired and dis­gust­ed by him again.

When she walked into the din­er, Mil­ly was already in a booth, smok­ing, flip­ping through an old mag­a­zine. She was preg­nant again, just start­ing to show now. She’d been flat as a bal­le­ri­na last time Patri­cia had seen her. “Hel­lo,” she said, slid­ing in across from her.

Hel­lo, Pat. How’s tricks?”

All right,” she said, though it was only all right now, now that she was there with Mil­ly, watch­ing Don­na walk through the door with her hips sway­ing wide­ly in their pen­cil skirt. An office gal, she was still sin­gle, and she claimed to like it that way just fine.

Sor­ry, girls, my boss’s ankle-biter was in today, and he’s a lit­tle demon. Tear­ing up the place, try­ing to look up my skirt.” Don­na pressed her­self into Patri­cia, and bumped her side­ways to make room in the booth. “You’re look­ing bonier than usu­al, Pat.”

It’s the kid. It’s stress­ful.”

Doc­tor not help­ing?” Mil­ly asked.

He’s help­ing all right, but not in the ways I wish he would.” The girls laughed and Patri­cia smiled at the wait­ress approach­ing them. She thought they must look just like all the oth­er reg­u­lar city girls, out on the town for a good time. If it weren’t for her ring or Milly’s tum­my, they could even be bach­e­lorettes sit­ting and laugh­ing there. But when she caught her reflec­tion in the dark win­dow beside her, dig­ging in her pock­et­book for her cig­a­rettes while Don­na ordered them the usual—one vanil­la, one choco­late, one straw­ber­ry, which they would share and pass between them—she real­ized that no one could mis­take her for a young woman any­more. The care­worn wrin­kles on her fore­head and the lines around her mouth were too deep by far.

Mil­ly caught the wait­ress by the arm before she left and asked for a slice of pie, what­ev­er was fresh­est. The wait­ress rolled her eyes and nod­ded. “Preg­nant women,” they heard her mut­ter as she walked away, and that got them start­ed again. Mil­ly did have a ten­den­cy to get handsy with every­one when she was hun­gry, and she was hun­gry espe­cial­ly when she was preg­nant.

Look at that one,” Don­na said a while lat­er, the rum she’d brought swim­ming through her veins, mak­ing her bold. “Sit­ting at the bar. The one read­ing the paper.”

Mil­ly squint­ed. She nev­er wore her glass­es. Said she thought they made her look too smart. She didn’t need peo­ple know­ing she was until she was good and ready to make sure they knew it. “Too skin­ny,” she said, shak­ing her head. “Hon­est­ly, Don­na, I’ll nev­er under­stand your taste.”

I see it,” Patri­cia said. “The cheek­bones, right?”

And I do like them clean-shaven, not all scruffy. All that hair makes them look dirty,” Don­na said, swig­ging straight from the flask. “I’m going to go talk to him.” Patri­cia and Mil­ly protest­ed, but it was no use. When Don­na want­ed to be tak­en out for a drink, noth­ing would stop her. They watched her lean on the counter next to the man, pre­tend­ing to look at the desserts in the glass cas­es. Pre­tend­ing to look at the menu. Pre­tend­ing not to look at the man. But when he didn’t look back, she pulled out a cig­a­rette and asked for a light. He turned, said some­thing, and Don­na balked, her hand try­ing to clutch at her skirt fab­ric which was too tight to take hold of. She hur­ried back to the booth, found the match­es and lit one, but it sput­tered out before she could bring it to the tip of the cig­a­rette.

Hey, hey, what’s wrong? What did he say?” Patri­cia took the match­es and lit anoth­er for Don­na, whose hands were shak­ing. Mil­ly reached out, her breasts lying on the table as her pro­tu­ber­ant eyes bugged, con­cerned.

He’s not a he,” Don­na spat, and took a long drag. “She’s a woman, can you believe it? And she asked me whether I was try­ing to pick her up! Said some­thing real­ly nasty about my…” She ges­tured to her amply filled blouse.

Inde­cent,” Mil­ly said, touch­ing her stom­ach and tak­ing Donna’s hand. “Don’t wor­ry about it, hon.”

Dis­gust­ing,” Patri­cia added, star­ing. The man—the woman—was watch­ing their booth now. She raised the glass of Coca-Cola she was drink­ing and salut­ed them with it, and tipped her hat, which she wore inside, at them. At her. At Patri­cia. The woman winked, and grinned, and she had big teeth that were only a lit­tle yel­low, and thin lips, and her cheek­bones were still high and beau­ti­ful, and if only she weren’t wear­ing the suit and the hat, she could be pret­ty, maybe.

Stop look­ing,” Don­na hissed. “You’ll only encour­age her.”

So what? She’s the freak,” Patri­cia said. How could a per­son do that? Wear a suit out in pub­lic, right in a busy din­er, with no shame. “You know what? I’m going to go give her a piece of my mind.”

It wasn’t until she was at the counter that she real­ized she’d tak­en her pock­et­book with her. As if she were leav­ing. And when the woman leaned towards her and said that her friend had been mean, called her a hussy and then left, Patri­cia nod­ded, say­ing, “She can be like that. Con­trary.” The woman looked at her for a long moment before ask­ing if she want­ed to go get a drink next door, and Patri­cia nod­ded. The rum, the dar­ing of it. The escape. Noth­ing could be more unpleas­ant than Glen or the kid, and if some­one want­ed to be nice to her this way, with a hand at the small of her back as they walked out of the din­er and a com­ment on how beau­ti­ful she looked, noth­ing vul­gar like what Don­na had implied, some­one who looked like a hand­some and well-dressed man—well. It was more than Patri­cia had bar­gained for and just enough that she knew what to do with it.

IV.

The papers and the radio kept telling every­one the same thing all through the first week of June. At ten in the morn­ing, peo­ple in New York City and over fifty oth­er cities around the coun­try were to be ready to go to shel­ter. It was a test to see if the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca was ready for the bomb. Any bomb, real­ly. Just in case the Ruskis end­ed up drop­ping one some­time soon. Patri­cia had thought there was more of a chance that the kid would start speak­ing than any of that hap­pen­ing, but she rea­soned that she was prob­a­bly all wrong and why not be pre­pared.

But on the morn­ing of the test, she was noth­ing like ready. She woke up in the bed she’d fall­en asleep in, where things she had nev­er thought could hap­pen hap­pened. The mus­cle aches were proof that it wasn’t an alco­hol fueled dream. The booze still ran through her, though, her head pound­ing. She could have stayed in bed, feel­ing sheets on her naked skin for the first time ever, rev­el­ing in the silky smooth touch for hours. But she had to pee, and she’d have to get up even­tu­al­ly, even if it meant fac­ing the night in per­son.

But her own mass was the only human thing in the bed. On the pil­low where the hair she’d played with after mid­night had splayed, there was a note, a tidy lit­tle dis­patch fold­ed into quar­ters with the word Dear­est writ­ten out in neat cur­sive. Patri­cia made her­self leave it be. She didn’t want to know what was in it, her body flush­ing already with the shame of it as the depths of what she’d done sank in, the impos­si­bil­i­ty of it all. As the stream of urine trick­led and then sprang forth between her legs, and her head dan­gled down­wards, she saw the way she yel­lowed the water in the toi­let and won­dered what else she was taint­ing. Only her­self, or Glen and the kid too? Or the note-leaver?

She cleaned her­self up and found her pock­et­book on the floor near the hotel room door. She clawed inside it, try­ing to find her pill­box, but of course it wasn’t there. She’d left the damned thing at home. She hadn’t bar­gained on being away this morn­ing. Glen must be wor­ried sick. He wouldn’t know what to do with the kid. And there was a sat­is­fac­tion in that, a cold heat bloom­ing in her chest from it. Patri­cia felt a thread of pas­sion jump from her groin to her bel­ly and up, and a strain­ing want surged over her. Not for Glen. Not for the kid. For the shame­ful night.

Gath­er­ing the bits and pieces of her cloth­ing and putting them on, she glanced at the fold­ed paper on the pil­low again and again, until, dressed, she approached it. The clothes felt like armor, guard­ing her against its con­tents. But her mind wasn’t so iron-clad, and as she read the words she sank to the bed, her head spin­ning and pang­ing with the hang­over.

June 14, 1954

Thank you for trust­ing me when you knew you shouldn’t. I had to leave ear­ly to get to work, but I watched you sleep and you seemed so sad that I want­ed to wake you up and make you cry with hap­pi­ness again. But I let you sleep. I sense, from what you told me last night (yes, I remem­ber, despite your accu­sa­tions that I wouldn’t!), that you don’t sleep enough.

Please, let me hold you again. I’ll take you out and show you the grand­est time. Meet me dur­ing the safe­ty test today, and we’ll make a date. I’ll be out­side my office build­ing on the cor­ner Broad­way and 54th Street. Every­one else will be run­ning to shel­ter. We will be alone to talk for a few min­utes. Please?

Patri­cia traced the words, which had been writ­ten into the page with such force that they left dips on the front and dents on the oth­er side. She couldn’t fath­om how some­one with such soft hands, with such a but­ter­fly wing touch, could be so ruth­less with a pen. It only proved that the first line was true: she shouldn’t trust this per­son.

But the test. She’d for­got­ten all about it. Had no rea­son to remem­ber, since she was sup­posed to be home twelve hours before it start­ed and it wouldn’t affect the sleepy sub­urb. Stuff­ing the note in the pock­et of her skirt, she grabbed her pock­et­book from the floor and hur­ried out of the room. The hall was emp­ty, but she kept her head down and rushed to the stairs. The lob­by of the hotel was qui­et, too—it was late, she real­ized, glanc­ing at the big clock in the foy­er, past the break­fast hour and more. Peo­ple would be at work now, or at home, doing what peo­ple do. Prepar­ing to run to shel­ter. What women do. She couldn’t recall, in that moment, what she did at this hour every day.

Her car was parked two streets over. She remem­bered the walk from it last night, hushed with sup­pressed and drunk­en laugh­ter, and won­dered how her com­pan­ion had got­ten to work. The sub­way, she sup­posed, though she would nev­er have guessed that some­one like that would fre­quent the dirty tran­sit sys­tem. Stu­pid, she berat­ed her­self. Stu­pid. The kid was prob­a­bly yaw­ping and howl­ing and out of con­trol, and she only hoped that Glen had remem­bered to lock its door or there would be hav­oc wreaked all over the house. The room itself was like­ly filled with shit and piss and vom­it already. She would be on her knees clean­ing all day. For once, the thought struck her as good and true. Elbow grease had been the way her moth­er had made her atone for her sins every Sun­day. A prop­er pun­ish­ment.

Cof­fee or food was out of the ques­tion. She had to get back to New Jer­sey as quick­ly as pos­si­ble or she’d be stuck in the city for the test. She might be any­way, and she had no idea where to go. She pulled the car out of the space and into the road, greet­ed by honk­ing behind her—she’d for­got­ten to check her mir­ror, but her head pound­ed too bad­ly to care much about the man ges­tic­u­lat­ing behind her—and began to dri­ve.

Not toward New Jer­sey. She found her way to Broad­way and began climb­ing the city street by street.

When the alarms began to wail, she knew the pro­to­col. She was sup­posed to pull to the side and leave the road clear for emer­gency vehi­cles and find shel­ter. But the howl­ing bells were like the cries of the kid before she knew it wasn’t nor­mal. They were like her screams last night. Like the woman’s moans. Patri­cia braked hard, the car behind her honk­ing, and the one behind that, and the next one. She was in the mid­dle lane and traf­fic was get­ting tan­gled up around her. Peo­ple were run­ning out­side. She jumped out and fol­lowed the run­ners, check­ing the street cor­ner when she reached it. 50th. She peeled away from the crowd going to wher­ev­er it knew it was sup­posed to go and head­ed up, one block and anoth­er and anoth­er. Peo­ple were yelling behind, around, their noise as deaf­en­ing as the alarms. Could she real­ly leave her car there in the mid­dle of the road, her beloved car? Could she dis­ap­pear for­ev­er? She kept run­ning. The wail­ing didn’t stop. She could pic­ture the land around her explod­ing to pieces every time her heels hit the side­walk.

At 54th, she saw her. She ran to her. She was under a fire escape, look­ing entire­ly dif­fer­ent than the night before. Blouse and skirt, a lit­tle like Donna’s. Lip­stick. Her hair swept up ele­gant­ly. Cheek­bones high, eyes sparkling with wor­ry until she saw Patri­cia and she smiled with relief, unex­pect­ed after the swag­ger she’d had last night. She was all con­fi­dence then. But this—this too was beau­ti­ful, Patri­cia thought. She won­dered if she was still drunk. “Come here,” the woman said.

If only the bombs came now, Patri­cia knew, every­thing would end per­fect­ly.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

When I first sent this sto­ry to a read­er, they told me it remind­ed them of Car­ol, the film based off of Patri­cia Highsmith’s nov­el The Price of Salt. I hadn’t read the book nor seen the movie at the time, though the movie was in the zeit­geist and so may have seeped into my consciousness—must have, real­ly, since the protagonist’s name is Patri­cia. I swear, I didn’t put that togeth­er until writ­ing this account.

The idea for this sto­ry actu­al­ly came from an odd fac­toid I dis­cov­ered while I was look­ing at one of those sites that list impor­tant events in his­to­ry that hap­pened on a par­tic­u­lar day. There, I read about this nuclear alarm test that hap­pened in some fifty cities around the U.S. in 1954. I found an arti­cle that described one woman in New York City who ran when the alarm sound­ed, leav­ing her car and a ter­ri­ble traf­fic jam behind her. I wondered—what is her sto­ry? I wrote this piece to find out.

The thing that scared me most about this sto­ry, and that I didn’t fore­see going into it, was the kid. I think the kid’s existence—and the kid’s lack of gen­der, lack of human­i­ty in the eyes of the protagonist—came part­ly from my need to por­tray mon­sters as human. The mon­ster is not the kid, of course. The mon­ster is Patri­cia. Good­ness, moral­i­ty, these things are so relative—they depend on con­text, on the infor­ma­tion shared, on the social con­sen­sus at the time. In the 1950s, there was an even deep­er stig­ma regard­ing dis­abil­i­ty than there is today. Helen Keller was still alive then, but she was the anom­aly, the mod­el of per­fect dis­abil­i­ty that func­tioned in a social­ly accept­able (and very Amer­i­can) way. Patri­cia wouldn’t have known about her, I imagine—or, if she knew, she would have been dis­ap­point­ed that her child was not sim­i­lar­ly “mirac­u­lous.”

I hate how Patri­cia treats the kid. I hate how she refus­es to see the kid as human, call­ing the kid “it” rather than what­ev­er gen­der the kid was like­ly assigned at birth. But I also think that for Patri­cia, the kid is some­how the sum of her life’s disappointments—she sees the kid as a sym­bol of every­thing she’s failed at, her own dis­ap­point­ment and self-hatred. She can’t under­stand the kid, and that the kid loves her hurts her even more because she’s not capa­ble of lov­ing the kid back. Is it fair? No. Is it right? No. Is Patri­cia a good per­son? Not real­ly, no. But she’s human, just like the kid is human, and capa­ble of love, of hap­pi­ness, of plea­sure. Mon­strous human­i­ty fas­ci­nates me, espe­cial­ly when it inter­sects with com­plex iden­ti­ties and trauma—I’m not talk­ing about how “love­ly” the Nazi next door is, à la New York Times features—what I mean is specif­i­cal­ly when peo­ple who have been oppressed, whose bod­ies have been tak­en from them, whose minds have been shut­tered by a sys­tem that doesn’t see them as impor­tant, react by pass­ing on that hurt.

 

Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-Amer­i­can book crit­ic and fic­tion writer. She is the founder and host of The Oth­er Sto­ries, a pod­cast fea­tur­ing new, strug­gling, and estab­lished fic­tion writ­ers. Her work has appeared in The New York­er, The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, the L.A. Times, Sto­ryQuar­ter­ly, Joy­land Mag­a­zine, and more. She is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka-Lin­coln.