By the time she left Victor, it was too late.

She did not have a decisive nature. It was not so much that she second-guessed her choices, she tended not to make choices at all. She’d had qualms about Victor. Still, didn’t everyone have qualms? Which qualms were red flags? Which were only annoying? Was there a hierarchy of qualms, even if the prospective mate had none of the dark vices?

Sometimes she imagined herself testifying before a relationship judge to those traits and tendencies that gave her pause. The judge would start out dubious, then become gradually exasperated, waving her away, admonishing her that a good man is hard to find. And true enough, even amortized over the prospective course of a lifetime, Victor’s defects would not have added up to much when she considered what other people did for love.

For example, Victor did not have an unnatural relationship with his mother, but he did drive to her house whenever he needed to put eyedrops in his eyes. This didn’t happen all the time, only when he suffered from what his family called “hay fever.” During a two-week period when his mother was in the Maldives, he drove forty minutes each way to his grandmother’s house so she could put in his eyedrops in. To be fair to Victor, when she encouraged him to put in his own eyedrops, he did try. He laid his head on the kitchen table while simultaneously maneuvering an ice cube and the eye dropper.

“Is the ice cube in case you stick yourself?” she asked.

“No!” he said. “It’s so when I feel the cold, I’ll know my hand is near my eye.”

“You don’t know when your hand is near your eye?”

“My eye is closed!”

She offered to put the eyedrops in.

“I can’t,” he said. “I just can’t.”

For their first date, they went Christmas shopping downtown. She was enthralled. Who would not have been enthralled by such sweetness, when her girlfriends were being dragged to sports bars? On subsequent dates, they went to the aquarium, to the glass gallery, all the way up to the Peshtigo Fire Museum.

In late spring, they went camping. The ground was flat but not level. Victor laughed because his side of the tent floor was pitched higher and he kept rolling toward her. A downpour sizzled against the fabric all night. In the morning, we’ll move the camp site, Victor murmured. But by midnight, she was lying in two inches of cold water. She crawled out of the tent, but the car was locked. She didn’t want to wake Victor, so she slogged to the shower house and huddled in a stall as cold as a meat locker.

Finally, she went. Back to Victor. “I’m going to go to a motel. Or a gas station. Give me the car keys. Maybe I’ll just sleep in the jeep.”

“You can’t sleep sitting up in a Jeep,” he said. “Your back will kill you.”

 But after ninety minutes outside in 50-degree weather and a lashing rain, even her eyeballs were wet, a phenomenon she would have considered an invention if anyone else had told her about it, she would have lain down on a cold barbecue grill, if it was dry.

In the morning, she was furious, Victor nonplussed: How could he have known how miserable she was? He was asleep. Did he have different receptors tuned to valid emergencies, she wanted to know? What if there had been a guy outside the tent with a hook for a hand? What if there had been a seiche? What if a tree had fallen?

“I’d have heard that!” he assured her. But when he dozed off a few weeks later, while she was preparing his birthday dinner, and she couldn’t rouse him, she accused him of having narcolepsy. He confessed then that his mother did have narcolepsy. So terrified was he of developing those symptoms that he sometimes didn’t sleep for three nights straight and slept too hard when he did.

“People get embalmed who aren’t sleeping that hard,” she said.

He got tears in his eyes then. That broke her heart.

For after all, Victor was clean and kind, very kind, and he had good politics. He said he was fiscally conservative and socially liberal. She’d heard that line one too many times, but Victor explained it logically: He didn’t mind paying for free lunch and textbooks but not Irish dance lessons … unless the children were Irish in Ireland or if ethnic dance was a Phys Ed elective.

She was in Australia when she became pregnant.

She hadn’t intended to become pregnant. But then, she hadn’t intended to go to Australia. She would sometimes wonder, how had she reached the age of twenty-eight with such a curious absence of intent in her life? Why did she say she wanted to study art therapy when she didn’t care much at all about art? Or even a little about therapy?

The little village outside Brisbane, called Woolooberry, was both strangely welcoming and exceedingly strange. It seemed moored in another era: She kept expecting to see someone drive by in a Chevy Bel Air. People smoked cigarettes without the reflexive shame.

There was also the forbidding uncanny nature of the animals. Every second creature looked to be made from spare parts of more customary species, and every third creature was lethal, poisonous, or venomous.  A platypus was a tiny otter finished off with bird components. A sugar glider seemed fashioned from a bat and a lemur miniaturized; a koala was a teddy bear with eagle claws. Mammals laid eggs. Cow-like creatures with short five-fingered arms stood on their hind legs and bunny hopped.

The place she lived with Victor was not far from a wildlife corridor of open eucalypt forest, home to hundreds of native plant species with laconically poetic names — stringybarks, bloodwoods and spotted gums. The animals lived in the forest and though she didn’t see them often, they were much on her mind. They reminded her that she was probably a human animal of fey construction, like a flying hamster, a bat the size of a condor, a fanged opossum, something assembled not quite according to standard rules.

Perhaps, she thought, I belong here.

She herself came from a little village, from St. Germain, Wisconsin, home to not even two thousand residents, deep in the big northern woods. It boasted the Snowmobile Hall of Fame. Her father was the Vilas County Fire Inspector. People up there did not make very much money and were eager to confide this fact to visitors.  The trees were pine and birch. The animals were customary, whitetail deer and shy black bears, chipmunks and bunnies, the occasional lynx and bobcat.

She thought back through her progress.

She moved to Madison for the university.

She left the university to follow Victor to Australia, calling it a break (she had no idea what it really was) after he inherited a building there from his bachelor uncle.

Victor was not the first choice of heir: The son of the bachelor uncle’s sister had been offered the building but didn’t want any part of it, except that he’d agreed to help Victor repurpose it. There had been a dry cleaner on street level and an apartment above that (where, she often reflected, they slept in an invisible broth of deadly chemicals).

Victor was making the dry cleaner over to be a fast-food pasta place, the kind of place he always wanted to go when he was a boy in Milwaukee, where you could choose from rigatoni or bow ties with meat sauce or marinara and get it in a three-compartment Styrofoam container with garlic bread and salad. A real home-cooked meal on the hoof. These sorts of places were uncommon where they came from, downright unique in New South Wales. Victor predicted a brisk trade. She could think only of the vats of steaming, spicy gravy with Perchloroethylene wafting over it, despite Victor’s increasingly irritated assurances that the place had been thoroughly unpolluted. He wanted to call it Fasta Pasta but that name was already taken … so he was toying with Hasta Pasta or Ready Spaghetti.

“This is a British kind of country, isn’t it?” she said one night. “Maybe you’d do better with Curry in a Hurry.

Victor just snorted.

“And whose curry recipe would we use? Yours? Lamb or goat? Or chicken? Spinach? Red or green? Honey, I don’t know the first thing about curry.”

“You don’t know the first thing about spaghetti,” she reminded him. “You’re Swedish.”

“I guess I thought you could work on that.” Victor replied with a sigh. “I’m doing everything else.”

It was the first time he’d ever spoken to her sharply, with anything resembling anger, but it was then that she knew for sure that their time together would be limited. Of course, he was tired – played out, even – but life was hard. There would be many times when it would require an effort to avoid impatience or unkindness, and he had not made the effort. That night, he was asleep before she could point out that, although she was Italian, when it came to spaghetti, not even she had known the first thing, at least until recently. This was in part because of the feminist dictum issued by her single mother, who preached to her two daughters that learning how to cook was the first step toward domestic enslavement. The three of them never had to worry about weight gain, since they all subsisted mostly on big salads from the gourmet grocery and peanut butter toast with the very occasional ping-pong-ball-sized scoop of gelato.

So why, once she’d moved out of her mother’s house, did cooking become her passion? It wasn’t because she loved eating. She remained thin, eating mostly big salads and peanut butter toast, but also because eating food that she had cooked herself was sometimes too disturbing. Yet, without ever resorting to recipes, she became a decent-enough baker and a truly terrific book, a sensei of savory not sweet.

Until Victor brought it up, It further didn’t occur to her that she really did want to perfect spaghetti sauce. The times in her life that she’d eaten a beautifully balanced spaghetti sauce she could count on the fingers of one hand. The times she had cooked for Victor she could count on the fingers of two hands, although he extravagantly praised her thin-crust pizza and shepherd’s pie and vegetarian chili.

Why did none of this cohere until it was too late? Why, when in Woolooberry, she had, set before her, the invitation to do untrammeled spaghetti-sauce alchemy, as well as a pretty good boyfriend, a clean, thoughtful boyfriend, who could at least potentially be rehabbed along with the dry-cleaning building?

Was it her old problem of intention?

Whatever the reason, as days collapsed, it seemed clear to her that, once Victor got established, if not much sooner, she would leave. She had to go back. She didn’t even have an undergraduate degree and no idea if the concept of art therapy even existed in Australia. When she lay awake at night, she took again to juggling the question in her mind: Why did it exist at all? Could people actually draw themselves sane? Or throw themselves sane on a potter’s wheel?

She and Victor parted tenderly. He kept asking her if he had “missed something.” She assured him that he had not. Although she was genuinely sad, she hated herself for making vague noises about coming back, for that was the last thing she intended.

She was home for not even ten days when the cousin called to tell her that Victor was dead. She protested … how could this be? Did something fall on him during the remodeling because she had warned him … but no, that was not it. In post-construction cleaning, they found themselves sweeping up hordes of spiders, dozens, hundreds of spiders, and as it emerged, all those spiders – in true Australia style – were red recluse spiders. Doctors estimated that Victor was stung at least thirty times.

 “That … that seems impossible,” she stammered. “I’m so sorry.”

“I’m sorry for you,” the cousin replied, bemused, apparently in the belief that he was consoling an unwed widow. That very night, she took the test and confirmed her suspicion: She’d come back home with a passenger. This would in due course be her daughter.

It was Victor’s death that sealed her decision to see the pregnancy through. She might have done this anyhow. But his death made it certain. She had loved Victor, she supposed. His death made it easier to love him. – JM

Leave a Comment