Ana gets married in flip flops. Twenty minutes before the ceremony, she’s sweaty, red-faced, with anxious rats chewing holes in her stomach, with bare feet in the church basement, rummaging through the residue of her bridal party, kicking aside empty gift bags and garment bags, and where are they, the little white shoes? Nowhere. Escaped. They were pricey, they had heels just tall enough to wobble, but you get married once, Aunt Marcia said, so splurge. The basement smells stale and cinnamon-y like old Christmas wreaths, with boxes and boxes of junk, crevices for mice and shoes to sneak away to. Anger, hot and desperate, brews like indigestion in Ana. Where where where.
And then, it’s time, they call her name, she must go. There’s flip flops, old and curled at their tops, faded with sun and grime, lying scrunched between boxes. Ana slips into them: her dress is unhemmed, the bottom drags, no one will see.
At the altar, she imagines an itch, fungus creeping between her toes, and shame blossoms on her face, but to everyone watching, that’s just the blushing bride.
Judd gets married at the ranch to Judy. His own bride wears boots, and her face glows with wisdom, with simplicity, a whole poppy field in her freckles, a breeze twisting her loose hair. They’re both 18, perhaps too young. Who cares. They know what they’re doing, and the mountains and prairies and great dusty sky around them loom ancient, solemn, approving.
Ana booked the honeymoon tickets wrong. The dates are off, and they’re leaving next morning. They spend the night at her parents’ – they live close to the church. Ana’s room has changed little since she moved out: the twin-sized bed of girlhood is still there, with polka-dot pillows and quilted blankets and a big blue feather comforter with years-old chocolate stains. She insisted they paint the room neon green when she was thirteen, and boy band posters are still dutifully tacked in; her parents keep this mausoleum of adolescence in tact fully.
She smooshes against her new husband in the old bed. His feet dangle off the edge, too long. They’re a spider together, four arms four legs, with elbows pressed to chest, a back fused to a ribcage, a face inside a neck, hot flesh on hot flesh. Is this marriage? Already too close, each breath expelled onto each other, the wooden frame of the kid bed a parameter they’re already too big for. Ana apologizes quietly for messing up the tickets, and he shushes her, not even with words, with animal grunts.
They do not consummate the marriage then, for they can hear her parents shuffle around just on the other side of the wall.
Judy was once a ballerina, early retired. She spends their first morning of marriage milking the cow, her arms slender and muscular, as graceful around cow teats as they were in on-stage fifth position above the head. Judd watches her, leaning against the splintered doorframe of the barn, sipping black bitter coffee. To him, she is perfect.
The ranch has two cows, three horses, a gaggle of fat white geese, some chickens, and a dog named Yappy. Well, Yappy II. The first one, a glorious shepherd mutt, died ten years ago. Judd had seen his father cry once in all his life, and it was at Yappy the First’s funeral, when they plopped his withered body in a deep deep hole under a cherry tree. Yappy II they got soon after. He weaves between Judd’s legs now, eager, tongue lolling, eyes bright. A shepherd mutt too, but weaker, smaller than the original. Judd’s father never took to him, so the dog was teenaged Judd’s companion instead.
Judy looks up, smiles at man and dog. Her mouth alone is metaphor inscribed in flesh. Judd’s hands itch, craving a pencil. He’s writing poetry again, and wants to seal this, all this, on paper.
For Ana and husband, the first weeks post-honeymoon are sloppy. In the new house, paint flakes like hangnails from the door frames, and dozens of dead moths build up under the porch light. The rhythm is not set yet, when trash ought to be taken out and dishes washed and laundry laundered, and so often, something rots and smells. Their bed is huge, and the bedroom is tiny, and there’s little room to walk in there. Usually, getting ready means brushing past, bodies colliding, hips against elbow, elbow against back. Somewhere in that daily friction, Ana gets pregnant.
She doesn’t know that yet, though. They’re in bed, curved apart like parentheses facing out, he’s asleep and muttering, she watches the moon spilling milky through the window, its glow casting tree shadows like spider webs. The trees dance unsteady under wind, the shadows shoved back and forth. Ana remembers childhood, insomniac nights just like this, when toddler fears gripped her in the dark, pirates and robbers and invisible snakes creeping through the window. Memories recalled always sting, dislodged from within and replaced with a pin, a pang of pain, not quite nostalgia, but a realization: time has passed, and past things are dead, only their somatic, moist memory residue remaining inside the body like a greasy streak. Memories are tied to each other like string pearls, and one pulled out brings another, another, another. The waves wash up on Ana: there’s her teenage self too, awake at midnight, feeling lonesome and alive in a way impossible to feel by daylight. How deeply she craved then. For what? Love perhaps, romance, to have someone to share bed with.
Another realization, bittersweet, a pleasant ouchie like nails dug into mosquito bites: she’ll never sleep alone again. Never again will her lonely girlhood cocoon around her, her bed, her room. Her husband talks in his sleep, mutters gibberish, sniffs, flips over, and continues the conversation on the other side. He sleeps loud even when he’s silent, snorting and puffing air between his lips so it sputters like a horse. A symphony of exhales, clicks of dry mouth, sharp exhales, and mattress springs creaking under his shifting weight comes every night, so no night will be silent for Ana again.
Judd wakes next to Judy. She’s pregnant now, swollen and asleep beside him. There’s something sudden, violent, and afraid in Judd’s intestines, a parakeet thrusting against its cage. He’s out of bed, and Yappy follows eager behind. Judd snakes through their home, chilly in summer morning, moist with condensation soon to become dew. His notebook lives on top of the old, yellowed refrigerator now. He grabs it, steps outside, into the tender glow of early golden sunlight.
Him and Yappy walk long, towards the sun that spreads its long fingers out, over the grass like fur, the soil wet and warm and soft beneath them. The clouds sit in tall bunches like pink grapes. The last smells of summer pool in Judd’s nostrils. He perches on a rock, the dog spread over his feet, and writes, poems like he used to. He feels quite alone.
When he returns, the kitchen is sweaty, yeasty. His wife stands red-cheeked and proud, her hands sticky with the dough rising in little lumps inside the oven. She pours him a cup of coffee, though pregnancy makes her nauseous from the smell. She points to the notebook, asks if he’s writing poems again. He says yes, and fights an urge to hide it under the table like a little boy. Has Judy always talked to him like this, so maternally, so patronizingly? Like the poems are a child’s silly, fleeting obsession. He could’ve really been something, you know. He sits on his hands and says nothing.
Ana doesn’t recognize herself. She sleeps in big mumu dresses that spreads around her like a deployed parachute. Her aunt wore these, Ana recalls from childhood, floral gowns down to the ankle, stinking of perfume and cigarettes. Ana had vowed then to never wear them – they made her aunt look like a tropical, shapeless ghost. But, she knows now, they are comfortable to sleep in, and with the baby now born, putting on just one garment is less to think about. At least she wears these dresses only to bed.
Judd doesn’t recognize himself. He’s never worn real pajamas to bed, and Judy bought them all a matching set: one for him, her, the baby. The baby is not yet born, but the beige-striped onesie lies patient, waiting, crisply ironed atop the dresser. They’re comfortable, the pajamas, a soft material like something already washed for years. But, what’s happened to the Judd sleeping naked and hairy, on unwashed sheets reeking of man smell, peppered with cigarette ashes, with crumpled papers of genius poems not quite fully carved?
It’s autumn, and he’s taken to horseback riding again. For his birthday, Judy got him a cowboy hat, a real leather piece. It smelled masculine, and sits heavy in his hands. It felt like getting crowned, putting it on. But as he sways in the saddle, back and forth, the hat feels like a prop, his whole attire like a costume, his ride like a little boy’s fantasy He remembers his father, the speech when Judd told him he was leaving the city, leaving college, to go back to ranching: It’s not just playing cowboys, Judd. It’s work, real work, hard work.
Ana’s broken her resolve. They take their first family vacation, a week-long cabin stay in the gold-leafed mountains, by a lake reeking of peat and swarming with brown fish, and she’s so exhausted with forever soothing the baby that the mumu dresses come with her. Her son is like a hot loaf in her elbows, her dress spread over the armrests of a wooden chair. It’s on a tiny square dock jutting into the lake, and she watches her husband on the water, making lazy circles in his canoe. She wants to stand up, badly. Her legs are prickly with inactivity, but the boy has just finally fallen asleep. She can’t yell for hubby to come back, it’ll wake him, and she doesn’t want to disturb the man’s excursion anyway. All her days, she worries about him feeling trapped, like something caged and tamed that will one day demand release. But no, after only a few minutes, he dutifully circles his canoe back to the dock, climbs up the rickety wooden ladder, and silently holds his arms out to receive the child.
“I think I’ll go for a walk,” Ana whispers, and he nods.
Ana’s trail lies through the woods. Post-rain, they smell of rot. Her shoes dig into wet leaves. She walks so far, and thinks about walking even further. A sudden thought, a silent chuckle, what if she never came back, just kept walking, but no, no, that’s silly. Just enjoy this brief repose. There’s chickadees whistling happy, titmice chirping, everything is alive and dying, breathing and decomposing, and she feels overwhelmed, the moisture gathering inside, enough to cry, almost.
There’s a little chapel in the woods like a cabin ten feet long, with a red door and a metal bell hung at the entrance. She walks in, and dust rises from abandoned pews. There’s a stained glass window, modest but colorful, at the back, casting purple and yellow and green squares of light on the planked floor.
Ana is on her knees, fingers clasped. She cries, sobs. It’s a religious feeling, mostly selfish, but she feels better after. She feels full when she returns back to the cabin, not heavy as in pregnancy, more like the contentment of a good meal. She sees her son sleep on her husband’s chest, and she is happy.
Judd’s father comes to visit. The first flakes have fallen, a thin layer of snow like white crochet on dried grass. In the summer, the landscape feels fuller, heavier, heat like echoed laughter, always present, then silence comes in late fall, and the earth dies once more.
His father is a dramatic man, and it seems to Judd, has a need to forever upstage his son. He’s come bearing gifts: an inflatable bouncy castle awaits them outside, comically red and round and artificial on the snow. A futile gesture, Judd thinks. His son can’t even hold up his head. But the older man holds the infant and crawls inside, his still-stony calves bulging as he leaps and bounces. He’s careful with the baby, cupping his neck and gripping him tight, but quick as a frog too, jumping with childish delight. Judy sits smiling at the bouncy castle entrance, her eyes glazed with maternal joy and exhaustion. Judd feels like an extra presence. He walks away, boots soft against thin snow. He wonders where the castle came from. How did his father bring it over, inflate it, without anyone noticing?
Yappy bounds from the house, pants between Judd’s legs. A phone buzzes in his pocket, his sister.
“Hey, Judd. Did Dad make it out okay?”
“Yeah. Did you know he would bring a bouncy castle?”
“No. He didn’t bring a bouncy castle for my son.”
“No room in the city. Where would he put it?”
“What’s up? Why are you calling?”
“Just wanted to check in.”
Ana talks quietly on the phone. They’ve returned home, their son sleeps, her husband watches TV. He’s gone awful silent, fixated on the screen with something sad and far-off in his eyes. It’s an old cowboy movie they’re showing, the soft colors of the film painting his face blue and pink.
“I’m doing alright,” Judd says.
“Good, yeah, me too.”