Volume 34, Number 4

Cosmic Charlie

B. Elizabeth Beck

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee is not enough to lift my brooding demeanor. I shuffle into the kitchen, locate my favorite mug and pour a cup before joining my husband and our two dogs on the porch. Only eight, the temperature blasts like an oven when I slide open the glass door.

“How can you be comfortable in this weather?” I grumble.

“Good morning, beautiful.” My husband looks up from his phone and smiles. Typical. The man wakes up happy every day, regardless of weather, season or aftermath of yesterday’s news foretelling disaster for all American women. Shaking my head, I sip coffee and sniffle. I sit, open my mouth soundlessly, then begin to weep.

“I never thought it could happen,” my husband says. “Never. It seems unbelievable to me.”

I bite back, “I told you.” It’s not his fault. I know how he votes. It’s not his fault. I love him. He’s one of the good ones. It’s not his fault. The one who got a vasectomy when I said one and done.

Maybe I was in shock yesterday, but it now settles as heavy as the humidity. I lament, “I can’t stop crying. I don’t even want to open my phone to read the news. I could barely sleep. I was up and down all night.”

“I know,” my husband says.

We sit in silence, punctuated only by our dogs’ panting, bird song, and buzz of cicadas. Summer sounds that should be soothing but cannot penetrate my despair. I bite back panic and then question myself. Am I right to be alarmed or am I overreacting? Hell, no. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe versus Wade is terrifying. I am a human in a woman’s body who cannot exercise her freedom of choice. No matter if I’m fifty-four years old, past menopause and unable to have children anymore. I’m a woman whose country stripped her civil rights.

“And it’s not going to hurt women like me,” I say, switching from grief to righteous indignation. “I'm privileged. I can get an abortion as easily as I can buy a Louis Vuitton bag. This hurts impoverished women, women without resources, which means none of us are free. And it's my generation's fault. We scorned our mothers for burning their bras, and we purposefully misunderstood that a bicycle is unnecessary to a fish."

"I thought you used to protest?" my husband asks.

"I did! With a hanger around my forehead, chanting, 'Bush, stay out of mine!' but that was years ago. Years! In college."

When he stands, the dogs rise to follow. "I’m going to walk them and then run errands. Is the list on the counter ready?”

“Thank you,” I say. “Wait, I’m coming in, too. I’m going to garden.”

“Good idea,” he says, snapping the leash on the dogs.

I retreat to the bathroom, brush my teeth and slick my hair into a ponytail. I fill a metal tumbler with ice water in the kitchen, retrieve garden clippers from a drawer and step into rubber boots. In my nightgown, I walk outside to the yard. I’m not the only suburban mother who gardens in her nightclothes. It’s a thing.

My body is already slick with sweat when my husband returns from walking the dogs. While he runs errands, I transplant a hydrangea, then remove weeds, carefully unearthing roots. Hunched over flower beds under the sweltering sun, I don’t stop to help unload the car. Serves him right, I irrationally think. I’ve been mentally arguing with every single man on the planet. Every weed I pull, I picture an injustice. Pruning hedges, I bitterly conjure embarrassing moments because it’s not enough to be angry with SCOTUS. As a woman, I shame-spiral in the process.

I pause to drink water, letting it run down my face and neck like a toddler, gasping between gulps. I leave the bag of trimmings behind, take caution winding the orange extension cord the way my husband prefers and place the electric hedge trimmer on top. Before I abandon the garden, I stop to bow over scarlet begonias, willing the Grateful Dead lyrics to soothe my soul.

“I’m going to shower,” I call to my husband.

Still humming the song, I visualize despair washing away as dirt swirls at the bottom of the drain. My shoulders sting under the spray, sunburned because I didn’t apply sunblock. Lowering the temperature of the water, I let the cool stream rinse my body. Because I plan to wear a wraparound dress to dinner, I shave my legs and carefully moisturize.

Gazing at my reflection in the mirror, I consider the power I once enjoyed, turning heads wherever I went until I was nearly fifty and menopause ravaged my body. Suddenly, it was like I was invisible. As a feminist, an academic, an enlightened individual, I would never confess my vanity. What stupid, superficial things I obsess over. Things that should not matter but do, like picking a red dress to impress the woman of the couple we’re meeting, not my husband. After twenty-two years of marriage, he says he only sees me how I looked, walking down the aisle. I choose to believe him.

At dinner, the conversation around the decision is somber, yet a relief compared to dining with some of my husband’s family members who have lost their damn minds. It’s almost like quarantine from the pandemic fundamentally changed society, like shock waves after an earthquake. But these dinner companions are like-minded friends, so I relax as I look around the restaurant. Rainbow-clad patrons crowd the bar; a musician plays piano, couples dine in booths and a boisterous group dominates a long table. Driving to the restaurant, I enjoyed opening the car window to hear the Gay Pride Festival celebration downtown. Despite the heat and humidity, drag queens don their wigs, DJs turn up the tunes and rainbow capes flow behind revelers, making me feel a bit heartened the world has not gone completely mad.

I sip wine and eat scallops and lobster ravioli as we discuss boycotting next weekend’s holiday by not attending the parade, not unearthing patriotic décor and not raising a flag. Yet, when our son returns from college, his friends will fish at our pond, so my husband will grill. That’s not patriotic. That’s just hospitable.

After dinner, we drive to a small venue to see live music, arriving after the band has launched first set. We make our way to the front and dance to “Sugar Magnolia.” A round stained-glass window dominates the stage's unpainted shiplap backdrop, and blue spotlights enhance a spiritual atmosphere. The band seamlessly segues into “Friend of the Devil,” and the crowd picks up the energy. I consider the Grateful Dead’s lovely spirit captured by local bands like these all around the country and how Jerry would smile in response.

An inebriated man aggressively dances in my space, seeking my attention. I turn around, but my husband isn’t behind me. The man continues to dance, occasionally stumbling as I smile and nod, politely turning my shoulder away from him, muttering, “It’s cool. Go on, now.” Before I can walk away, the intoxicated man puts his hands on my arm, my shoulder, my back. Suddenly, I hear, “Get your hands off her.” I turn to see a young man who reaches out and says, “Seriously. Leave her alone. You need to go.” Fortunately, the obnoxious man acquiesces, ambling his way back through the crowd, away from the stage. I put my hands together in prayer at my chest, smiling, and nod at the young man.

Since I now have more room, I dance while reassuring myself that I would have spoken up had that young man not interfered. Surely, I would have told the dude to fuck off, right? Or maybe I should be grateful a well-mannered young man was willing to defend a middle-aged woman, and I need to bite back resentment I know is unjustified. Why had I not walked away? As if in response, the band ends the set with “Man Smart/Women Smarter.” The men graciously step back as women flood the front to dance the rallying cry. I’ll bet they play “Throwing Stones” for encore.

At set break, I locate my husband on the patio when the young man approaches.

“Thank you,” I say. “That was kind of you. What’s your name?”

“Charlie,” he replies. He holds up his hand to reveal a wedding band, shakes my husband’s hand and says, “I would appreciate the same if it was my wife.”

“How long have you been married?” I ask.

“A year,” he says, opening his phone to show me pictures of his bride.

When the band returns to the stage, my husband and I remain on the porch because I feel dizzy. I begin to sweat. I danced hard but only drank two glasses of wine at dinner, not enough to feel nauseated.

“I think I’m sick,” I say to my husband, who ushers me to the car. I concentrate as we drive the few miles home. The last thing I want to do is vomit in the car or on the side of the road. Please let me make it home. I do my best not to think about the seafood. I will not consider shellfish. I know it’s food poisoning. Why did I order the fish?

Fortunately, I make it home, walk upstairs, unwrap my red dress and kneel in front of the toilet in time. I hate throwing up. I mean, who doesn’t? But this time is different. For whatever reason, I want to purge. Alone, I succumb to heaving waves until there is nothing left. My husband knows better than to offer assistance. I don’t want my hair held or a cool washcloth. I’m mortified. Please go away.

At the sink, I rinse my mouth, clean my face, and lie on our bed. My husband enters with a glass of water.

“Anything I can do?” he asks. “Was it the fish?”

I look at his dear face and reply, “Yes, it was the fish.”