Authors Note: “‘Natalie’ plays with the concept of reality: a highly subjective and individual experience, yet a noun carrying meaning in our collective consciousness. When it loses touch with what most of us agree is the truth, we call this experience a psychosis. My unnamed narrator tells the story of existence from her point of view, and it is up to the reader to pick the version that agrees with them. I hope that I convey my compassion for this lost soul who is temporarily overwhelmed by her shame, fear and the weight of being human.”
I COULDN’T VERY WELL TURN HER AWAY⎯not in her state. Her eyes bore imprints of sleepless, anxiety-ridden nights, her lips were dry and chapped, her hair hung unkempt around her face, split ends touching her shoulders. A woman like that was in need of a helping hand, no two ways about it.
So, I took them in. She was absent, of course, only showed up for drop-off and sometimes not even for that. I would just find her children in my house, her baby boy crawling around curiously, reaching for a toy or other brightly colored item. Her daughter generally found something to play with in my kitchen cupboards, which never ceased to amaze me. If I had expected them to miss her, cry for her, or⎯in the case of the girl⎯ask for her, I was mistaken. They rarely, if ever, spoke of her, but must have been happy to go with her when she finally showed up to collect them.
The days with the children passed slowly. There was some screaming, of course, that was to be expected from a baby. Sometimes, there were vocal and fierce protests from the girl, but stretches of time also passed in idleness. While they busied themselves, my favorite pastime was to gaze out the window. The leaves had recently turned, and I watched them, one by one, float toward the damp grass below. There was a sad kind of beauty in autumn. I envied the leaves. To know when it was time to let go, to gracefully take the fall toward their own obliteration and land on surprisingly soft grass.
The baby poked at my bare feet. I hadn’t bothered with socks that day, and his sticky fingers tickled my rough soles. I smiled at him, stroked his few wisps of angel hair. An odor that I couldn’t quite place whiffed past me. I patted his head and rose to boil some more water for tea. It was that kind of day.
Their needs weren’t relentless, but constantly humming in the background. She sometimes asked me to play, I sometimes obliged. Now and then, we ventured outside, but it was a challenge finding the appropriate outerwear. They both looked so ill dressed by the end of our hallway scramble that I didn’t have the heart to take them to the park. Luckily, the garden shielded us, and the previous owners had left a sandpit and a swing set. I wondered if they had known her. Did she come around, back then? Perhaps her gaze had been less devoid of life and her appearance more inviting. Where did she live? I only knew her name, Natalie, and her daughter didn’t give me much in the way of answers.
There was some relief to be had from the monotonous routine of caring from them. From somewhere, perhaps the intricate spidery web connecting women through generations, my mother-in-law had sensed there was a place for her. She came by in the early evenings, gently ushering me to go and rest while she set the table with plastic dinnerware and held the baby. This must have been when Natalie came to fetch them, because by the time I woke up, they were gone. The house was strangely quiet when I sat down to have dinner with him. We still did that, even though I now slept in the guestroom and he in our king-sized bed. I chewed my salad and listened halfheartedly to the voice that had once enveloped me in warmth and a love so overwhelming that I had forced myself to think this union was a mistake. There was the odd question⎯how had my day been, had I been outside? I said that we had been, and no, I wasn’t lonely, I had Natalie’s children. This seemed to shift his gaze somewhat. He looked at me with newly awakened interest.
“Natalie?” he said. “I like that you have a friend around.”
I nodded, carefully avoiding letting on that had he caught a glimpse of Natalie, he would likely not have approved of her being my friend. But he hadn’t, and he wouldn’t.
The guest bedroom in itself didn’t bother me. At times, if I were honest, it was a relief to have my own space. My used clothes strewn on the floor, my bed unmade and messy, my books piled haphazardly on top of each other. No one to tell me to clean up my act. I could just close the door and be done with it, emerging in my nightgown, making my way to the bathroom when I woke up. I had taken to keeping some spare underwear in one of the drawers, so I didn’t need to bother him.
A while ago, he had spoken about working from home on Mondays and Fridays, but that plan seemed to have evaporated. His face was tired. New lines had appeared, and branches of crow’s feet had left imprints near the corners of his eyes, not looking like they planned to go anywhere. But then again, we were both getting on. At times, I felt guilty for roaming our house while he was stuck under the wheel of fulfilling financial obligations and upholding proper adult standards. I tried to smile at him for putting food on the table. I stroked his cheek to convey my gratitude while he leaned over to clear the table, but this small act seemed to unsettle him. Had I not been able to suppress such worries, I would have let that flickering impulse to recoil from my touch weigh me down all night. As it was, it floated out of my mind, bobbing up and down for a while before sinking to the bottom of my consciousness. Besides, I whispered to myself when I lay in bed that evening, my last bonus alone had been enough to cover an entire year’s worth of mortgage payments. Already in my third year out of university, I had started making more money than I knew how to spend. The hours were ruthless, of course, and the pressure on par with my paycheck, but what else had I expected from corporate law? Many times in my decade-long career had I been hunched over the sleek office toilet, my insides a mess of knotted cords and my head spinning from the potential losses that would follow if this or that massive deal would go haywire. Then I would emerge, and in front of my colleagues and clients, I present a cool, standoffish, effective demeanor that betrayed none of the burning inferno inside.
“Perhaps we should discuss you going back to work,” he said after dinner one evening. “I mean,” he added, searching my face for clues that would betray how I felt about this, “if you feel you are ready and that it might help.”
The tone in which he spoke to me was cordial, but there was something simmering underneath our seemingly normal conversation that I did not care to put my finger on. I nodded. Then I nodded again, expecting an answer to form inside that would reveal how I did feel about this, but none was forthcoming.
“Perhaps,” I said, just to fill the silence.
He nodded, too.
“But we would need to think about childcare, of course. It’s a jungle, from what the guys at work say.”
I chuckled. Discreetly, quietly, but I couldn’t help myself; there had to be limits to what Natalie could expect from us.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” I reasoned, “I mean, ultimately, we won’t make that decision.” I rose to put the kettle on, and the aftermath of his confusion followed me to the kitchen sink.
“Green or black?” I called out to him over my shoulder, already knowing his answer. We were falling into a routine, one that could have been called comfortable had it not been so glaringly unlike a marriage.
Natalie’s children were a comfort, though. I started looking forward to them appearing, to them bringing meaning and chores into my days. I had learned what soothed the baby, when he liked to sleep, and how he wanted his blanket folded around his chin. Besides an unsettling episode when I had allowed him to suck on a cracker that he happened to choke on, he was a joy to feed, devouring the baby food Natalie had stocked in our fridge. The girl was trickier, eyeing most of what I put in front of her suspiciously before taking a tiny mouse bite or pushing the plate away. I tried to coax out of her what her mother usually fed her so I could copy that, but she just looked at me with large eyes, sucking on a strand of hair that I kept meaning to cut but never had the courage to. Perhaps Natalie would think that I had started taking liberties, and I had become wary of losing them, not least because the girl had startled me a few times by calling out for mummy, not looking above our hedge but in my direction.
“You could take on some contract work to start with or look for in-house positions.”
It only took a week for him to bring up the question of me working again. This time, we were about to head off to our opposite bedrooms and I was looking forward to picking out a new book to read, having finished one just that afternoon. In truth, his direct approach startled me.
“Mm-hmm,” I concurred vaguely. He paused for a minute, holding on to the staircase railing.
“Perhaps you could even find a position locally.”
Something surged in my stomach, spun my insides around. I waited for it to fall back into the shadows. It didn’t. I tried the breathing technique I had learned, tried waiting it out, tried focusing my thoughts. Still, it persisted. He was watching me intently, but my facial expression gave away none of the performance unraveling inside. I nodded. He finally averted his gaze and disappeared into the bedroom. I could hear the sliding wardrobe doors moving as he undressed, no doubt flinging his used clothes into the beige baskets I had put there years ago.
I tried reading, I tried the breathing technique again, I tried listening to one of the meditations I had downloaded for when anxiety hit. Still, sleep refused to find me, and the pit burning in my stomach spread slowly, making its way through my intestines towards my head. Before long, everything had turned into a crackling chaos, and I was unable to grasp a single thought in the mayhem that was my mind. The intense, unbearable pressure and raw shame of those final few weeks bore down on me and made me want to recoil, made me want to turn into a speck of nothingness. With the remembering came the weight of understanding my own unspeakable failure to live up to my commitments as a professional. My body remembered the sleepless nights, the guilt, the stress that tore me in two, the omnipresent worry that I had left her in inadequate care while I toiled the days away in my office to cover up the huge fuck-up that only I was guilty of. My body’s untimely nudges and embarrassing fluid production ensured that I couldn’t forget my weepy, needy woman-ness, even if I tried.
My breath started coming in shallow bursts; I had notably failed at steadying it. No, I thought to myself, not this again. I stood up abruptly and started pacing the floor. There was just me and the room now, just me and these unforgiving, shrinking walls. I sank to my knees, wrapped my arms around them and started counting.
It didn’t take me long this time. Despite the risk of possibly sleeping through Natalie’s drop-off tomorrow, I made my way to the bathroom, steadying myself by holding on to the walls. My fingers shook slightly as I found the paper box locked in our medicine cabinet, released one pill from plastic captivity, and placed it on my tongue. It could be swallowed without water, though I took several greedy sips from my cupped hands afterwards. Then, I waited, leaning my head against cool porcelain.
I was out cold the minute I placed my head on the pillow and sank into a dreamless sleep that offered the only remedy I knew. Despite taking in his concerned face surrounded by daylight and attempting to respond to his questions, I sank back into blissful sleep again, not possessing enough vital energy to rouse myself and slice through the thick fog of tiredness.
Coming out of the smog was now more familiar territory, but it still presented the usual challenges. My eyes wanted to shut every chance they got. My brain was a soggy mess that swam around inside my skull, preferring not to be interrupted in its non-being state. I had to use every energy particle in the room to fight for wakefulness, to force myself to respond accurately to reality.
Worse than all the physical symptoms was him. His obvious disappointment that I had yet again taken the route to oblivion turned to shame inside. His resentment transformed into anguish, to a self-hatred so filling I had difficulties containing it inside myself. Slicing carrots for Natalie’s daughter, the idea of turning the knife on myself suddenly seemed appealing. If it didn’t kill me, it would divert the pain to a focal point, to a wound I could show to a doctor, a wound he would most likely be able to heal.
My mother-in-law hovered for a few days in my peripheral vision, minding the children here and there while I lay down on the sofa or napped in my room. Though her presence also shamed me, I secretly revered her kindness. She, too, showed up for Natalie. An interconnected network of female web-keepers, soundlessly appearing when the web vibrated ever so slightly.
The thought of leaving came to me in the same soundless and undramatic fashion. Even as my head started to clear, shame was a constant presence now, wide out in the open, there for everyone to see. Its denseness thickened the air in our house. It threatened to suck in all the remaining humans unlucky enough to be in my proximity. But I wasn’t completely powerless; I could at least save them from perishing with me. Knowing that I could perform an act of grace for them buoyed me somewhat, and before long, I started plotting the practicalities of my escape. It would need to be on a day when I knew that my mother-in-law was coming, which would leave me enough time to disappear while the baby napped after lunch and the girl had some downtime in front of the TV. They would never know I was gone in that time, yet I would possess enough of it to walk down to the train station and get on the next one to London. From there, I would fall into the crowds and into oblivion. London was kind enough to grant it to those who didn’t fight the grayness, the masses, the drudgery of common life. Its streets and tube connections were photocopied into my mind. I would get there and see where my feet took me next. Up to rejoin life above, walking on irrationally from one pavement to the next. Or down, falling weightlessly for a split second until I hit metal and rocks, experiencing excruciating pain for a moment. Many before me had made that same choice for the promise of endless relief beyond.
Yes. I would go to London.
It took a few weeks before the perfect conditions presented themselves. Since I had supposedly resurfaced, my mother-in- law pitched in less often to care for Natalie’s children during the daytime and I had to make an actual agreement for her to mind them in the afternoon.
Throughout the last morning, I mounted the stairs a few times to throw random items into my overnight shoulder bag. When the time came to leave, it sat waiting next to the door, urging me to finish up lunch so I could get on with my plan. I left the dishes in the sink but leaving them proved more difficult. Though the baby quickly fell asleep without much effort on my part and the girl was watching the children’s channel, their mere presence held me back. I lingered for longer than I had planned, tracing the contours of her silhouette, committing it to memory, hovering above his face to feel the dampness of his breath form tiny, condensed drops on my cheek. Something unspoken held me back. I hesitated. A quick glance at my wristwatch confirmed that my mother-in-law was a mere half-hour away and that I was falling behind on my schedule. I started towards the hallway, threw on my coat and gloves, and found my shoes. Then I opened the door, breathing in the musky scent of late autumn, of wet leaves turning to muddy soil. I imagined myself walking briskly across the driveway, saw myself punching the code that would release me from captivity and back into the real, relentless world. I waited for my feet to make the first move.
Afterwards, I gently closed the door and rested my head against the dark wood for a few short seconds. What I had in front of me was small, but it was, at that moment, the only world I knew and existed in. Would my presence here make a difference? I had no way of knowing, and I doubted it would. But I dropped my bag, slid out of my shoes, hung up my ridiculously expensive woolen coat. In my socks, I padded across the hallway, through the open space connecting the kitchen to the living room. There they were, she watching cartoons with her mouth slightly open, popcorn suspended in the midst of traveling from the bowl to her mouth, he sleeping peacefully in his portable cot. I sat down on the sofa and placed my hands in my lap, staring at the TV screen but not taking in the simplified plot.
Yes, I thought to myself as I felt something I hadn’t experienced in years settle in my stomach and spread throughout my extremities. Here, in this house, in this strange in-between state, was a place for me.
I would stay. Perhaps, if I were to make a difference, I could even help Natalie, starting by staying awake so I could address her when she came to collect them. It was clear now that I had grown quite attached to the children in the time I had known them, and in truth dreaded their permanent return to her.
Yes, I nodded to myself as I folded my legs underneath me, making myself more comfortable. Though I was likely the most ill-suited person on earth to help her, I would persist, and perhaps we could stumble forward together, united by her children. Their faces would loom on the hazy horizon, and together we could at last make it so close that we could touch them. And if she couldn’t, I would take her hand and gently, ever so gently, I would place it on his round cheek and then on hers. I hoped that when she felt the warmth of their skin, sensed the presence of life pulsating within, she would cease being Natalie and start being their mother. And I could slip back into the shadows, no longer lingering between sleep and wakefulness but facing the darkness with eyes wide open, poking at the shame and fear until it loosened its grip and disintegrated, merging with the damp soil underfoot.
Anna Elin Kristiansen, from Denmark, has a passion for writing psychological drama. She only recently started sharing her work, and Natalie is her first published short story. For many years, she was of a travelling tribe but has now settled in Copenhagen with her husband and two young daughters. During the daytime, she creates content for one of the city’s universities.
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