Fiction / Ilana Masad
:: If Only the Bombs ::
“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 soldier. 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.
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.
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.
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.