The Soft Room
Excerpt from Chapter 1
They were golden-haired, those twins. They were square-faced with thick eyebrows and strong chins. They had eyes of slate-blue, each with three golden flecks, and abnormally large, dilated pupils. Their mouths were generous and determined. Strong, vibrant girls, they grabbed immediately at anything in reach. Robust, lusty, big babies, their lungs like bellows, accordian-hearted, they expanded and contracted from joy to sorrow, trumpeting with outrage and gurgling with glee. And, no matter what the emotion, even with their crinkled eyelids half-shut on some large sensation, they checked each other to see if their responses agreed.
Abigail was the first-born, and she came into the world howling, no one had to smack her. Megan, however, yawned, gulped air, shook her fists and didn’t cry, no matter how hard she was slapped. Enid, the new mother, strained to hear the second yell and had to be reassured that the child was silent but healthy. The nurse would say no more, exchanging a quick glance with the doctor. Time would tell if the infant was mute; perhaps the yawns were really inarticulate howls, the first of a series of pantomimes against the world.
By the time they all left the hospital--Abby in Enid’s arms, Meg in Ralph’s arms--both twins were equally noisy, faces turning pinched red and vocal chords working furiously when they were hungry or soiled or bored. Ralph held his child tentatively, afraid that the diapers and blankets wouldn’t protect him from the warm, vibrant spill (for such small things, they had already managed to christen him--each one--and he had a new respect for small capacities).
Enid, still exhausted but feeling almost light enough to float now that the great weight had been lifted from her belly, crooned absently. She found herself humming whenever she had a baby in her arms, like a cat with a kitten. She felt accomplished, having two at once, saving herself an extra pregnancy and double bills. A shy, pleased, meditative smile crept around her lips; she had been economical. The future spread ahead of her--dressing the twins identically or not, being the only one to tell them apart, parading down the avenue with a double stroller. She would keep a record, a valuable record, perhaps, on the development of twins. She would join the Twin Society, she had looked it up when the doctor had detected the second heartbeat; she would find other magical mothers, bearers of twins, a new-found community. She had always wanted to join something.
Ralph followed his own thoughts. Enid hadn’t noticed, yet, how kind he was about the fact that they were girls, not boys, and there was no way he could point out his own benevolence. Besides, he suspected that he might actually prefer girls. He imagined two radiant daughters, clinging to him prettily, adoring him, asking him endless questions and waiting breathlessly for his reply. In a few years, maybe, there would be a boy. With his own progenerative powers, probably two boys. For a few steps he walked as if his balls were huge enough to get in his way, one for the record books. But he corrected his step when it seemed to disturb the baby. It would be a while before they chattered and adored him, and for the moment it seemed best to let them sleep.
There were baskets in the back seat of the car for the babies, and Enid sat between them, smiling and glancing down left and right on the slow drive home. Ralph was talking about a station wagon--not immediately; he didn’t think they would be driving around that much with babies in tow; they would be staying home with the sitter, he supposed, for years to come. But his voice had a satisfied, complaining quality to it as he listed the things they would have to get--in duplicate, too, just think of the expense--now that their family had increased so dramatically. He was harboring thoughts of a dog, already he was trying to imagine the situation where he would be obliged to acknowledge, "Children need a dog!" Would they have to get two? He liked dogs, he could handle two, complaining about the cost and having to walk them--or would they, by then, have moved into a house with a large yard? He thought, honestly, that they could soon afford one if he really worked harder at his job, truckled under a little bit more, studied the reports and things, threw out intelligent comments, worked a little later without being asked. It was all possible.
He pulled into the driveway of the house that would soon be too small for them and was certainly already too small for dogs. Luckily they had a four-door, so he could help Enid out, clutching one warm and already smelly daughter in the wicker basket he had thought was so clever of Enid to have gotten. Say what you would, Enid had style. He could imagine himself boasting, "We brought them home in baskets, they were on sale." He and Enid both liked that kind of thing, making the most of a situation, putting a little spin on the usual to make it original.
The girls’ bedroom was ready. It was done in peach and green, very springlike. Of course they had gotten the usual pastel clothes at the baby shower, but both Enid and Ralph agreed that they would dress their children in "real" colors--ochres and oranges, pine greens and gentian violets. Enid had hunted out bright colors and bold patterns in the fabric stores and had made simple dresses and shirts. These children would be distinctive even if their parents were not.
Enid kept the hospital bracelets on the twins until she could figure out a way to tell them apart. She crept in to look at them often while they slept, studying their features. As hard as she looked she saw nothing different. When their hair grew in, she figured she could make slight alterations in their haircut--cut Abby’s hair shorter on the left, say--to mark them. But that would work only if they were together.
She found herself wondering if she could give one of them a small nick on the cheek--and flushed with shame. No doubt she would figure out a gentler way of identifying them.
Abby and Meg gained weight steadily. They were lifted and petted, fed and changed.
"Meg cries less than Abby," Enid said suddenly.
"Yeah?" Ralph asked. "I thought they both cried the same. Constantly."
"No," Enid said firmly. "Abby cries constantly. Meg cries in sympathy."
"It comes to the same thing."
The children went to the pediatrician, Dr. Wolff, for their checkups and their shots. He was young and handsome and he had been recommended by Enid’s friend Jill, who once rolled her eyes and claimed, "I’d steal a baby just to get in to see him."
Enid also fluttered when she took the children in. She dressed her best, no matter how distracted she felt, and she set her hair the night before. But she never permitted herself any fantasies. A mother of twins doesn’t have time for daydreams.
"Ah, Mrs. Gallagher," he said, smiling and taking a child out of the stroller. "And which one is this?" He grabbed the nearest child.
"Sweet Abby," he crooned, weighing her, listening to her heart, letting her crawl across the table, observed clinically by his soft brown eyes, his wavy hair somewhat ruffled by the sticky hand of an earlier patient.
"Two more pounds, Mrs. Galloway. Healthy, healthy."
Enid blushed. Her hand fluttered lightly, at her throat. She pureed the baby food herself, scooping orange mush and green mush into her daughters’ wandering mouths, hearing Dr. Wolff’s voice praising her.
At nine months the girls were due for another innoculation. Enid pursed her lips, wondering what to wear. Her eyes were focused automatically on the twins, crawling on the floor. She could tell them apart fairly easily, now, by the differences in their scars and bruises. At seven months Meg had held on to the coffee table, stood up, and then fallen, splitting her chin open. It took three stitches and left a scar. She was an incredibly good child; she had let out one indignant howl and then crawled away, leaving a trail of blood. Dr. Wolff had been surprised at how docile she was--though he applied some kind of local anesthetic, the baby was still quieter than he expected her to be, and even tried to grab the thread. She was so unlike Abby, who screamed her lungs out at
the least bump, who needed to be held and soothed and calmed and distracted. It was amazing how different their temperaments were. Enid was determined to be fair; still she was tempted to tell Abby, "Your sister would never cry about that!" as the child held up a hand pinched by a drawer and screwed her face into a prune.
And Abby was so difficult with needles. Enid automatically handed Meg to Dr. Wolff first. Meg would be good, staring and smiling or talking nonsense; but Abby would scream and howl and then Meg, her eyes narrowing in concern, would join in, looking around in distress for the source of the problem. Meg loved Dr. Wolff, Abby hated him.
Enid liked to believe she was a stoic herself; after all, she had gone through natural childbirth (and what is a pinched finger compared to that?). She hated to think that Abby would turn out to be a wimp, a hypochondriac. She saw herself the mother of Amazons.
Enid was running late for the appointment with Dr. Wolff. She was still dressing Abby when she heard a crash from the living room.
Meg sat on the floor looking worried. She had knocked over the ironing board, and the apprehensive look on her face would degenerate into screams if Enid wasn’t careful.
"You’re such a good girl," Enid crooned. "See? The iron’s all right." She picked up the iron and grinned for Meg’s benefit. The child smiled tentatively.
"Good girl," Enid sighed, and put everything away, checking her watch hurriedly and giving a final brush to her hair.
The two-seater stroller was already in the car, so she straddled a twin on either hip (a very difficult way to walk), crawled into the backseat with them, strapped them into their car seats, combing her hair in the rear-view mirror, noting how ugly she looked when her face was flushed, and drove off to Dr. Wolff, already ten minutes behind.
She was feeling pressured and apologetic when she reached his office. But the nurse smiled nicely and told her the doctor was running late anyway, and Enid noticed that Abby needed to be changed, so she took her off to the changing room and by the time she got back, Dr. Wolff was standing in the doorway, smiling and friendly.
(to read more, buy the book)
has accepted my short-story collection, The Inner City, for publication--in 2013. Sure it's a long wait, but think how the excitement will build!
Drabblecast has made a podcast of a story of mine. This is fun!
2010 Fiction Award
has selected my story,
"Searching for Penny"
as the winner!
Pick up the current issue to read "Searching for Penny:.
Links to stories online:
Nonfiction: Outside the Fence
Why we go into the forest ....
*Starred Review* This absolutely stunning novel is told from the perspectives of twin girls, one of whom is born without the ability to feel any physical pain. The mesmerizing prose and deep characterizations nearly render the plot--while excellent in and of itself--almost unimportant. Meg, born with congenital analgesia, is in constant danger of sustaining some fatal injury that she would be unable to detect until too late for safety. Her "normal" twin sister, Abby, falls quickly into the role of protecting Meg from injury. Each is fascinated by the other's vastly different physical interactions with the world, and, at the same time, they face the normal struggles of growing into adults in the expected unique ways. Meg becomes a voyeur, always on the outskirts of sensation, both physically and emotionally, eventually driving Abby to seek her own life away from Meg. The two separate, but they find, as twins are known to do, that their very essence lies in their similarities and codependences. In the end, they are made to experience life as it seems to have been predetermined for them, with one caring for the other's life--but in a surprising fashion. This novel does not find its strength in the cliche "what does it mean to feel pain?" but, rather, in the wonderfully expressed self-examination by both women on ethics, values, and, indeed, love. Debi Lewis
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