The man becomes a dolphin in her dreams. Only briefly, he is a shining silver arc above her, and then, when his hips push down between her legs he’s a man again. The air is bright around him. His shoulders are rounded, his eyes closed, his mouth is open, gasping.

She had thought he looked weathered when she first saw him, too tired for handsome. She didn’t know when it happened, exactly, when it was that she began to think the deep grooves on either side of his mouth were beautiful. His hair is like hers, the kind of brown that used to be blonde. She has trouble remembering his eyes, though. What color his eyes are. She mostly thinks they are blue, but then everything about him seems brown—his hair, his skin—weathered brown, and so she thinks of his eyes as if they are brown too.

She is sure of her husband. Everyone tells her he is handsome. She knows he is.

She wakes and feels her husband’s hand, warm on her stomach. She inhales and puts her hand on his. “You were dreaming,” he says. He moves closer to her, puts his arm over her, around her, tucks his hand between her shoulder blade and the bed. She lays still. He’ll never ask, not with words. Instead he presses his head against her neck, his nose on her shoulder, and then is still. His breath fans out warm on her skin and she wonders, when did this happen? When did she begin having to force herself to turn to face him, to put a hand on top of his after he had already reached for her? She knows how it will be, exactly what he will do, but she turns toward him anyway out of pity or because there was something left of love, and he smiles.


The snow is deep and forces her to look where she is walking. Closer to the store, she slows down and stops, so she can look up at the windows. The man is there, head bent over his work. It can only be him, even at this distance. The rapid line from shoulder to hip, the hinge of his jaw. She watches him and her breathing turns shallow. She is shaking. She begins walking toward the store again before he sees her just standing there.

He looks up when the door opens, and smiles. “Hi there,” he says. He is looking squarely at her, more than he needs to just to be friendly.

“It’s so cold today,” she says, to make him look up again from his clipboard. “Must be good to be inside.”

“Cold?” he says, “Nah.”

“Sure it’s cold. It was this cold and this snowy every single winter where I grew up. I’m just not used to it anymore.”

“You got spoiled,” he says, and she laughs loudly, taking a basket.

“Yes, I suppose I did.”

Milk, purple grapes, a block of cheese, crackers for her boys, all in one bag. He’s still near the door when she’s leaving, curling his sheets of paper over the top of the clipboard. When he takes the pen out of his mouth to smile and nod good-bye, she drops her eyes, afraid suddenly of the way she would look at him if she could touch his face.


It was supposed to have been enough. When she’d stood in the church to marry her husband and her dress had rustled like dry leaves caught in a rake, she had said it would be enough. Now she stops in her sons’ bedroom doorway most nights to listen to their rasping sleep. This bubble of childhood they lie in, unguarded, is supposed to be enough. She knows, standing here, that she’s meant to be fearful of what lies beyond her control, grateful that, for now, they are safe. Instead she’s mourning what she became when she realized that better and worse and sickness and health had turned out only to be words.

It had come as a surprise to her, sitting on a city bus in bright morning light, to realize she was thinking about the man. So that’s what this is, she’d thought. It had even seemed funny at first, until she’d seen a young woman running to cross the street. She’d watched the woman until she turned the corner, out of sight; her ponytail flicking the collar of her coat, relief on her face at having managed to cross before the light changed, her body unfettered by anything weightier than her purse. But once the young woman was gone, nothing was funny anymore and she was nothing more than herself, sitting on a bus in winter, furtively wiping her eyes. She was reaching back, she realized, reaching a hand to her younger self, reaching one last time past this feeling of things being spoiled. Not for more children, not a new father for her boys. Only a man to draw inside her with no thought of anything but tenderness and delight, free of the tinge of history.

So she goes to the store, and she forgets to buy things on her list so she can go back again. She walks the aisles until she’s met his eye, looks back for him as she’s leaving the store, and looks again through the plate glass windows when she’s standing outside in the parking lot. She laughs. Oh, what she wouldn’t do for this man, falling apart as she is. She’d learn to cook his favorites and watch him eat. She’d launder for him, wash his floors, lift her skirt up high. “Shit,” she mutters, and laughs again. When he looks back out at her there, transfixed on the asphalt, she bolts, elated.


They eat in silence a dull meal, colorless except for the broccoli forgotten in the pot and cooked to sourness. Her husband smiles at her and eats the food on his plate without distraction. The boys wolf their food, shove back their chairs and seize their dishes when she nods that they can be done.

Glasses and forks dropped hard on top of plates. She winces. It’s her they’re fleeing.

She’s shocked when she sees the way her husband is looking at the boys. His face crumpling, his eyes imploring.

“Please,” he says. He’s helpless suddenly, unable to conceal sorrow, desperation, appealing to children not to make things worse.

“Sorry,” her older boy says. Her husband is looking at his plate again. God damn, she thinks. He’s bewildered, but he has figured out there’s something to worry about. It’s a slap in the face, finding out he’s been the defter chameleon. After the slap comes a stab of guilt that pinches her lips. The boys are still standing there, clutching their plates. “Sorry,” the older one says again.

She waves a hand. “Just go.”

The nights, then, are her doing. The older boy’s sweating himself half out of sleep. Muzzy eyes, startled and pleading for explanation. Lie back down. You’re dreaming. Fold back the covers, keep the sheet. Rub the sweat into his bangs with your palm. Then the little one appearing between them in the bed. Tiny, hot hand inside her nightgown, reaching for a breast, crowding her to the edge of the bed till she’s balanced there like she’s lying on the ridgepole of a house.

She looks back at her husband with his face in his hands and hears that he is struggling to control his breathing and his voice. “I don’t know what to do,” he says. “I have nothing left.” He hears her exhale and looks up. She can’t meet his eyes, but she stays at the table to let him look over her face and see that she is, for the moment, chastened.


It was nothing you could point to easily, nothing obvious from the outside. No humiliations or profligacy, just selfishness in different forms. His early habit of pulling out of her and spurting on her belly while her mouth was still forming a dumbfounded “Oh.” His terror when her body drew that little bit of him up high and made the first child. The way he withdrew his hand from her hip when it had strayed too far forward and met the hard, new slope of her belly. The way he was able to stay seated while she howled in the metal bed.

She knows, of course, the other truths about him as a father. His weeping at the first sight of each purple, squalling boy. His tenderness, his willingness to make himself foolish if it made the baby laugh. But she cherishes the hurts. The straps they’d tied her arms down with, crucifying her under the operating room lights. The staples for a truss after they’d lifted out each boy. Her bruised nipples, dribbling their bluish milk. All of these remind her of what he seems always to forget; that the grief and the wounds she bears are simply the results of his rutting.

She excludes her boys from all of this as naturally as she would exclude her own eyes or ligaments. Her boys are of her, from her, integral as sleeping and waking. She could no more desert or blame them than she could prevent her blood entering and leaving her lungs. It’s bitter for her to realize how long it is since her husband was this necessary. But whereas she had chosen him, her boys had always been there, coiled inside her, waiting for the swimming seed to wake them.

She beds her husband to shut out the man, but his bones, his mouth, the moons of his fingernails won’t leave. She presses harder, hips and mouth, catches her husband’s hair in her fists. Please, please.

He stops her to say, “There aren’t any condoms.”

“It’s OK, I’m safe.”

"Are you all right?” He asks, hesitating. He actually still expects her to tell the truth.

“Yes,” she says and closes her eyes so he won’t see what’s there. He rolls her back and she relaxes her fists and holds the sides of his head while he lowers his face against her. He’s good at this, she thinks, and she’s relaxing. The room recedes, blood billows in her ears, and it’s easy.

A few weeks later, she feels it. Light branching from her core, the customary hum. Cells divide, multiply. Another heart beats time. She sits with her husband in lamplight on the sofa and they say the agonizing words. We were done. There’s no money, no room. Do it quick, before it can feel. She hears the boys’ deep, open-mouthed breathing, a bed slat’s creak. It’s too much, she needs to say, I don’t know how to decide. Then her husband says, “It’s up to you.”

He’d warned her, of course. He’d told her before they’d married that he suspected he was the type to detach himself from a difficult situation, to simply walk away. She’d congratulated herself silently at the time for recognizing the seriousness of the warning, for nosing out an introspective man. Now she can’t forgive him, for managing to abandon her without leaving, for being as good as his word. She begrudges him, too, his slowing. The loss of his bounding stride, the intimation of jowl. That his frailties now fail to rouse her tenderness enrages her; his was once the dear face. He’s grown too mild now, too beaten down to stake his claim. If he could draw himself up again to his full height, she might take notice. If only he could put up a fight.

They had taken a walk once, after a hard snowfall, long before the children, before they were even married. Tramping through knee-high canyons on newly shoveled sidewalks, one of them had flicked a handful of snow at the other. Laughing, shouting, they had shattered the silence and played in the snow like children until they ran home, red-cheeked and dripping, to make love in the warm, wide bed.

She hasn’t learned anything new about him since that day, only that the things she was willing and able to overlook before matter terribly now. When they were already heading home and he pushed her down that last time in the snow, she’d looked up astonished, gasping. He’d pulled her up again and knocked the snow off her coat, said sorry, and kissed her, laughing. It had seemed irrelevant at the time.


“My period started,” she says the next morning. It’s a lie and she’s staring at him baldly for his reaction, nothing at all in her own face. He’s frozen for a moment and then he says, “That solves that.” She gives him a tiny smile and a nod. He runs his hand down her arm, kisses her cheek before he leaves the room. This is the trick, she thinks, to know when you are done. To know when thoughts will simply turn into secrets and there’s no use asking anymore. He’s neither passed nor failed; he’s given her the slip and somehow they’ve agreed that no baby is better this time.

A wrenching doubt will always be there to seize her. Grief erupting out of ordinary things. She disconnects each element and assigns it weight and value. Sets the man out under a light, her two boys next, under a third, a beating heart, and then her husband. Each is indivisible from the others, essence and proof of the whole. And through all the years, there is the simple why that will never leave her.


She is calm at the clinic. It’s surprising how calm she is. She follows silently when she is led from the waiting room, nods when she is shown a bed and the gown she is to change into. There is a metal basket built in to the undercarriage of the bed, like the bottom of a grocery cart. She’s meant to stuff her clothes in there, her coat, her purse. She is calm while she’s lying in the bed with the line in her arm, and still calm when they wheel her into the room with all the people, so many people, and the mask is coming down toward her face. So this is how it happens, she thinks. The mask is coming, last chance to turn away, but she lets the mask approach and watches the room go black.

When she wakes, she is lying on her side in another room, a nurse looking down at her. There is a sound in the room she has never heard before. The kind smile falls off the nurse’s face. When the nurse turns away with a hand over her mouth, she understands that she is making that sound. Choking and wailing, she is making that sound.

They order a cab for her when she is calm again and dressed. The nurses give her their embarrassed, relieved smiles when she’s leaving. I’m going, I’m going, she thinks. Sanitize the place where I lay, boil the sheets, snap the curtains, open the window to dispel the shock. Outside, the cab is idling at the corner, but she passes it and walks several blocks to take a bus instead. She shouldn’t be able to just walk like this, she thinks. There should be pain, debilitation, some fee exacted. A weakness in the knees at least, a giddiness on the stairs, but there’s nothing. Nothing at all.

Her apartment building in sight, she goes to the store instead, walks the aisles until she finds the man.

“Hi there,” he says, and smiles when he sees her.

“I have to tell you something,” she says.

“I’m all yours.”

She has never stood this near to him before, never looked closely at him for so long. He is waiting to help her. He is smiling at her because it’s his job.

She’s shocked at the sensation of finally being fully awake, of standing in sudden, blinding light. She’s sifting for the exact moment she should have known she got it all wrong. Now there’s nothing left but knowing, forcing herself into his consciousness. There was a baby, she could say. There was a baby and I let them take it out of me.

“I love you,” she whispers.

“Are you all right?” he asks.

She says it again, “I love you,” not sure if she has even made a sound. Her breathing is shallow and loud. She begins to gasp.

“I love you.” She says it loudly this time. She takes hold of the edge of a shelf, knocks a few small boxes to the floor.

“You what?” He heard her this time; she sees it in his eyes. She clutches her belly, sinks to her knees. More boxes fall.

More store employees come when they hear the noise. The man is reaching to her to help her up. She looks at his hand, then waves at the air in front of her until he takes it away.

“Ma’am?” says a stock boy. He’s a teenager, just a kid.

She looks at his brown hair, curls cropped short, blue eyes, black lashes. A pretty young man.

“Are you all right?” he asks.

“You have no idea,” she says.


“You have no idea what’s waiting for you,” she says, gripping his hand.

“She needs to sit down somewhere,” says the man. She can’t look at him now. She feels his voice as if it’s tearing her. She sees his shoes and legs peripherally. She’d know him anywhere from any distance, just by his stance.

“Come sit down,” says the boy. “I’ll get you some water.”

She sits on the bench inside the entrance to the store under a bulletin board stuck all over with apartments wanted, pets lost, phone numbers on paper fringe. Rest, they had said at the clinic, nothing strenuous. She takes hold of the plastic cup of water the boy hands her too hard. The sides cave in and water runs over the edges, splattering her feet. She bursts out in idiot laughter.

“I’ll get something to wipe that up,” the boy mutters. He leaves her there where the old people usually sit, waiting for their taxis and shuttles to take them back home with their shopping. She looks quickly for the man and, when she does not see him, puts the water on the tile floor beside the bench and leaves.


“I’m thinking of finding a new grocery store,” she says in bed that night. She puts her book on her nightstand, switches off her lamp, and turns onto her side, facing away from her husband.

“Why? What’s wrong with the store here?”

“The produce hasn’t been good for a while.”

“So, say something to the manager.”

“I did. Nothing changed.”

Her husband isn’t one to argue, will never try to persuade. He turns out his light and lays a hand on her hip, then takes it away when she doesn’t move.

She feels hot, ashamed. She sees the man’s eyes and his face in the moment he understood. She smiles a little because she pities herself and turns her face into the pillow.

When she dreams, the dolphin is gone. She sees white light and then a hand. Between the thumb and forefinger hangs a pendant sac, heavy as a water drop before it falls from the faucet. The clear membrane, the golden liquid, the embryo suspended there. A boy, perhaps, a fiddlehead curl, hanging in his golden sac. He’s swimming. In the white light, in his bubble, he is swimming.