She spread their picnic blanket out over the grass, smothering the last of its morning teardrops. The blanket boasted intricate Native American patchwork, sewn for them by the Navajo tribe when they camped in their national parks on the honeymoon. The Natives were quite encouraging about using the blanket for its functional purpose rather than displaying it on living room walls like the couple muttered about during their visit.
“Life is not valuable without death”, the headman chided them, glancing over his dusty spectacles. Feeling followed by those eyes all the way home to Sea Cliff, New York, Esme and Mike ignored the nudity of their walls and brought out their blanket for their anniversary picnic every year instead. Life, indeed, could not be valuable without death.
Esme reached into the wicker basket, a gift from Mike’s grandmother. It always had an odd, mulchy scent to it that the couple couldn’t quite place the origin of, but they always used it anyways. Mike’s grandmother wanted them to pass it down to their kids one day, once they had them.
That was the worst part of the timeline. After people stop asking when you’re getting married, they start asking when the baby is coming. Esme desperately wished she could answer them. Every time someone asked, Mike’s hand searched along her side until he found her own, always shaking. He kept her steady during those times. She didn’t know what she would do without him.
The basket became part of their anniversary routine. The picnics started the day of their first anniversary, when they adopted Aiko before the local dog shelter ran out of room for her. She was timid back then, a gunky knot of crusted curls and mushy food. She didn’t ever stop shaking, not even when Mike would cuddle her in his lap. It took years for their toy poodle to approach them willingly, to sit and to stay, to fetch a ball. Mike and Esme were resilient though- they raised Aiko like they would their very own child. That’s what she was to them, and they made a promise that she always would be.
She pulled on her leash now, ten-year-old legs anxious to be tested over the vast expanses of green and gray. Esme smiled and reached into the basket: sandwiches (peanut butter & honey & jelly), purple grapes (Mike despised green), thermos of iced tea, raspberry chocolate squares, the number for Dominoes. Esme slowly tore at a corner of her sandwich, eyes locked on Aiko’s- she knew what was coming. The dog stood straight as a soldier, her eyes glistening with want. After a long, suspenseful windup, Esme tossed the bread across the lawn. Light retraced from the diamond on her finger, a shooting star in the middle of the day. She giggled as Aiko darted after the bread, pearly curly cues bumping in the wind and sharp barks punching through the quiet chatter of the birds. Aiko disappeared behind a stone, cornering the slice (Wonder Bread of course), her terrifying eleven-inch frame and jingling collar. Esme turned away, knowing where she’d find her later.
Esme felt around the bottom of the basket. The scrapbook was warm after sitting under the food all day. Its letter cover wrinkled under her touch, ten years of living folding under her hands. It was his going away gift to her, supposed to comfort her when he couldn’t. He wouldn’t have imagined it now, cradled memories in Esme’s lap alone, absorbing the rays of a naked sun.
The binding yielded smoothly, worn from use. Esme couldn’t help but smile as she began their story again, the way she did every time their bedroom felt too empty or their movie nights too silent. Two elementary school kids, a boy and a girl, smiled up at her from the parchment, waving flutes in their hands. Mike used to be bullied for playing first chair among a group of girls and Esme would stand up for him. He was always sensitive that way, and that’s what Esme held on to.
She remembers the first time she slammed the book shut, the first time she threw it across the room. It was after the fight, the only fight that mattered. He told her that he had enlisted, slipped the papers from behind his back to show her that it was done, it was done and couldn’t be taken back. That’s when she pulled her hand, always shaking, from behind her own back, knuckles white around the proof that miracles were real, smeared with excited sweat though they were. She thought it would make him stay- maybe if she told him sooner. Maybe if any of it happened sooner. She stopped believing in miracles quickly after that.
The memory woke her up in a cold sweat every night, hammering her skull in stinging yells and tears, ingrained in her mind like the writing on a tombstone- the pregnancy, the hidden letters, the broken promises, the chopper’s hatchet wings slicing through the air, unhidden camouflage against an empty sky. The secrets, the hopes; she had to pretend to understand, for the sake of their marriage. For the sake of their baby. Aiko felt the distance as much as she did, maybe more. She would be sitting at the front door tonight as always, waiting for woods, treats, and tug-of-war to walk through, smile creating its own light. The empty breeze would whisper condolences towards her as the sun sank deeper into the sky.
It was only his first tour, he would try and explain, he’d be back before she knew it. They focused their energy on parenting, desperately pushing out the impending day from their hearts, the day he would leave. The distraction worked for a little while, but the darkness spreading through Esme’s chest couldn’t be restrained for long. The book of baby names kept Esme and Mike awake under the constant sun of lamplight as they poured over imaginary faces and imaginary memories. She knew that if the baby had come any sooner, he wouldn’t have enlisted.
The baby brought them closest to the life they had always pictured when they were still in elementary school. The picnics leading up to his departure were as easy as the ones of their engagement- splayed across the grass on the Navajo blanket that was too beautiful to be used under the smile of the sun, writing their story as they had always wanted to. Esme and Aiko had to adjust the routine a little now, but the breeze was the same and the whistling clouds were constantly inconstant.
They sat like that until the sun was courted over its horizon by tails of gold and pink, pulling taut the strings of night’s inky curtain. The memories thrummed with colors. Esme snapped the scrapbook closed- it wouldn’t be long until the silence brought her back to it again. She raised her eyes to look across the green, found Aiko snuggled into the roots of her favorite tree. They sat like that until the birds stopped singing, under the ivory watch of the moon and the cascading stars that called out to the diamond that clutched Esme’s finger like a child. She caressed her kicking belly with a reminiscent smile, moonlight projecting their memories at the side of her husband’s grave.
© 2019, Annalie Buscarino. All rights reserved.
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