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Permanence by Wendy Cholbi
published in Volume 3, Issue 3 on July 8th, 1996

On May 22nd she saw her first gray hair. She had just finished washing her face and patting it dry, and was smoothing foundation on her forehead as usual, when she noticed the silvery strand nestled among the dark brown ones.

Her eyebrow tweezers were always in the same place, so she reached for them without looking down. The intruding hair was soon floating down into the trash can. She didn't even bother to check for more. She knew there could only be one. Not much about her own body could sneak up on her. She knew herself, knew her rhythms, and was perfectly in control. Even though she sometimes averted her eyes from her wedding picture as she passed it, because she knew that in the picture she would always remain young and slender and pretty, but now she was thirty-eight, and a little heavier, and there were tiny lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She smoothed them over with foundation and powder.

It didn't worry her, this lone gray hair. Tastefully conservative, as always, she picked out a light gray wool suit for work, black flats, pearl stud earrings. She made the bed, smoothing her husband's pillow fondly.

She fixed herself a slice of toast only to discover that there was no jam, but a note from Langston saying he would pick up more on the way home from work, signed with a heart and a big cursive "L". His consideration calmed her momentary irritation at being surprised by jamlessness, and she contented herself with butter. No gray hair could unnerve Helen Sapienza.

She had married Langston fourteen years ago when he was a conductor on the same train they now rode to work. Trains had a schedule; she liked that. She liked the idea of her husband riding into and out of the city, calling out stops, checking his watch to insure that everyone got where they were going on time. She had almost left him when he announced that he had secured a higher-paying position, repairing phone systems. He had meant it to be a wonderful surprise, of course. They would be able to move out of their small apartment next to the train tracks, he had told her excitedly. They would be able to go out to eat more often, and maybe she wouldn't have to work so many hours at the bank. Maybe she could stay home, maybe this would give them the time for starting a family...

Her sudden rage had surprised him. She had screamed that she couldn't believe Langston would do this to her, that he wanted to wreck her life. She hated moving. She couldn't understand what was wrong with his old job. She had fallen in love with a train conductor, not a telephone repairman. How could she stay married to a man who went to a different office every day? Eventually, after two days of stalemate, Langston broke the silence. He had just wanted to make her happy; he didn't understand what had set her off. She calmed down and they were able to discuss it, if not reasonably, at least without screaming. She said she was sorry, but that she felt strongly about moving. Her father had been in the Air Force, and before she was twelve years old she had lived in Alabama, the Philippines, Panama. Langston knew all that, but he obviously hadn't realized what those memories meant to her. They'd been married for six years, and Helen thought he was finally beginning to understand the reasons she wanted so desperately to stay in the same place.

The military had always stationed her father somewhere new just as soon as she had made some good friends. Helen, as the oldest, had the primary responsibility of helping her mother pack, supervising her younger brothers, and setting up the house when they arrived at the new officers' quarters. She grew to hate it. Her greatest wish became to finish one entire year at the same school. And when she married Langston, with all the promises about health and sickness and richer and poorer, 'til death do us part, she was in love with the idea of staying somewhere, the same somewhere, forever with him. Their little apartment became the place she had wanted to be for her whole life. Now she found that her faithful husband wanted something different--even if it was something bigger, something that she deserved. She felt as if the floor had suddenly tilted underneath her feet and she was sliding back towards the Air Force.

When she finished explaining, she was exhausted. She had never managed to explain so much to one person. She finished by telling him that of course if it would make him happier to have the telephone job, then he should take it. But she didn't want to move. She liked this apartment with the creaky wooden floors. She had made it their home, with comfortable rugs and pictures on the walls and sturdy wooden furniture that was much longer lasting than the flimsy aluminum stuff they were selling these days. She didn't want to leave.

He reassured her, took the job, and they stayed in their little apartment which was so convenient to the train in the mornings. After that fight, there had never been any real question of moving. He was so good to her, to understand what their home meant to her. They were happy.

Eight years later, he still had the same job with the telephone company, and she was still head clerk in the loan department of the bank. She had been offered promotion several times, but she had refused. She liked her job. She enjoyed filing the loan applications, separating them into neat piles for the loan officers. She saw so many people on those triplicate pages, so many people with dreams bigger than their pocketbooks, who wanted homes and cars and boats, and occasionally racehorses or a college education. So many different people, yet the pages were always the same yellow and white and pink, and the very variety of their requests was comforting in its monotony. Those pages represented the other kind of people. There were people like her, who nested firmly with what they had, and then there were the people who applied for bank loans, to buy what they wanted with what they did not have. She was happy where she was.

When she got home on the evening of the day she saw the gray hair that she was not in the least concerned about, she washed her face and applied evening makeup. Langston would be home in a few minutes, and they were to drive to a little Thai place for dinner. When he arrived, she greeted him warmly but noticed that there were gray circles under his eyes. "You look a little tired."

"To tell you the truth, honey, I didn't sleep so well last night. I think I might be coming down with something." He sank into his chair and stretched out his feet.

She felt his forehead. "Do you feel well enough to go to My Thai tonight?"

"I...I don't know. I think I'll be OK if I can rest just a few minutes..." he trailed off, pressing his fingertips to his eyebrows.

She frowned, then walked into the kitchen, murmuring, "Well, at least we don't have reservations..." When she came back into the living room with a glass of water and two Tylenol, she had arranged her face in a forgiving smile. "Lang, it's all right if we stay home. You're tired. We can always wait until next week to try this place."

"Are you sure you don't mind?"

"Of course." She smoothed back his hair.

Langston closed his eyes in obvious relief as he kissed her hand. "You're great."

She sat down to compose her shopping list, starting with the A's.

Langston felt well enough to go to work in the morning, though he was restless during the night. That evening she forgave him for keeping her from sleeping very well, and fixed him hamburgers with her special blend of spices for dinner. It was one of his favorite dishes, and he always wolfed down at least three burgers. Tonight he ate only one, and barely spoke to her over the meal. He said he was feeling OK, but his face looked pinched. He finally excused himself. She cleared the table in silence, wondering what could be bothering Lang.

When she went into the bedroom to change her shoes for slippers, he was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at his knees. He didn't say anything to her. His behavior seemed unnatural. As she left the room, she rested her hand on his head for just a moment, so he would know that she was there. Then she went out into the living room and picked up a magazine.

She had just begun reading an article about the special interior decoration needs of the blind when Langston came in. He gave her a tired smile. "Hi, honey. I know I haven't been very talkative. It's been stressful at work lately. Tell you what, I'll cook tomorrow."

"If you want to. I know you haven't been feeling well. Come sit by me and relax." She patted the couch beside her.

He sat down and put his arm around her. "Whatcha reading?"

"Ladies' Home Journal. There's an article about people who have blind children. Everything in their houses, the furniture and things on shelves and everything, has to stay in the same place so that a blind person can find it. If you move something even a few inches, they can get confused."

"Hmm. Don't blind people have dogs to help them? Or those things, those canes, to tap the floor with?"

"I don't know. Maybe not when they're children." She could tell he was trying to find something to say. She closed the magazine and leaned her head on his shoulder. "It's not important."

They sat in silence for a few minutes.

"Helen." He tightened his arm around her shoulders and took a deep breath. "I need you."

"Oh, Lang. It's been really hard at work, hasn't it? Maybe you need to take some time off." She thought she felt him flinch. "What is it?"

"Nothing...nothing. I just..." He gave a nervous laugh. Pulling away slightly so she could look up at him, he said softly, "Do you know you're as beautiful as you were the day I married you?"

The words made her warm. She felt rooted, in the most wonderful way, attached to Lang on their couch in their little apartment, secure. "You," she said coyly, "need some rest."

When he bent to kiss her she was ready and they melted together, but she was unprepared for the strength with which he held her. It was not a rough embrace, but rather a silently searching one. Poor thing, she thought. What would he do without me?

As they made love, Helen pictured them from different angles. She imagined how they would look from above, or below, with her on top, him on top, on their sides. But her pictures were like stills from a movie; they were a single shot, unmoving. Her imagined views helped bring her to her peak, and a few minutes later when it was over, she felt blissful. This was the part she liked best. The stillness and warmth, only their breathing lifting the blanket.

She rose after a while to go clean up. "I love you," she whispered to Langston as she pushed off the covers, and he answered her with a squeeze.

She tried to avoid noticing her sagging breasts in the mirror as she brushed her teeth and took her pill. She had been on the pill for the entire time of their marriage. She never wanted to have children because she knew they would grow up and leave her. Langston didn't understand, but Langston was an only child. She had watched her two younger brothers grow and change, become not-like who they were. How much more difficult would it have been with a child of her womb?

As she was about to turn out the light, she saw, curling from behind her ear, a gray hair. She carefully plucked it, dropped it in the trash, and covered it with a kleenex.

She slept that night in peace, next to her husband who needed her, who she was sure would always need her.

It was not until Friday that her world twisted into unrecognizability. She came home from work to find Langston already there. She was momentarily jolted by this deviation from the normal routine, but she thought about what a hard week he had had and decided that he had quit early this Friday to get some much-needed rest. She said a cheery hello to him, but then she noticed that his eyes were red and his hands were trembling. Suddenly he looked small, sitting there on the couch surrounded by interior decorating magazines.

She knelt in front of him, taking his hands. He looked down. I am here for him, she thought. "Lang, what's wrong?"

He finally met her eyes. "Helen, honey, do you remember last month when I told you about the changes in management at work?"

"Of course. Are they making things hard for you again?" She remembered how harassed he had felt.

Langston closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Just when she thought he had forgotten her question, when she was opening her mouth to repeat herself, he let it out and said quickly, "They fired me."

She didn't understand. He began to talk very rapidly and all the sentences blurred together. Job gone cutbacks of employees management tax trouble scaled down operations unemployment apartment expensive bank hours longer sacrifice move

"No," she said firmly, squeezing his hands. She stood up. "No." Then she walked into the bedroom and lay down, perfectly straight, hands at her sides. She counted her breaths. I am breathing rhythmically, I am breathing normally. She could almost feel the oxygen filling her cells with peace. No.

The door opened with a horrible sound and Lang clanged into the room, saying in an awful lopsided voice "Honey, please, we need to talk. I don't know what's going to happen. I didn't mean we have to move, I've been looking for another job, you have to believe me I've been trying!" Langston was crying. "I just...I knew this would be hard to tell you. I didn't know how, I didn't know how, I've been trying everything I could think of to fix things, I didn't want to worry you until I knew for sure." She was still staring at the ceiling. He sat down on the edge of the bed and grabbed her hands. "Honey, listen, I think I can get a job in the train system, I mean, I'm sure they'd take me back there. Really there's nothing to worry about..." He let his head drop.

Helen's head was spinning. The company had fired him. Her life was suddenly out of control and that was very dangerous. She had to get her feet back down on the ground, had to make things right again. But Langston didn't know what would happen, and neither did she. She felt the room spinning around her and she concentrated on being still. If she could just remain the center of the chaos, she would be all right...everything was moving around her. She must not move.

When she was a child she had a game that she played with herself when she was in the car with her father. She often accompanied him on tours of whatever base they were on, just the two of them. The game was called the Parade of Lands, and it went like this: Once they were in the car, when her father turned the key, the game began. Her father's car became stationary, and the ground moved beneath them. It was like a giant amusement park ride, with scenery that was incredibly realistic. Sometimes she had to concentrate very hard to overcome the illusion that the car was moving over the ground, and stick to the truth that the ground was moving underneath the car. But she became good at it. She came to treasure those moments when she and her father in their car were the only fixed point in the universe. Everything else revolved around them; the world shifted every time her father turned the steering wheel. It steered the world, not the car.

Now her truth was undergoing a test. She must stand fast on the truth that everything was moving around her. She felt as though she were being shaken, she felt herself moving, but she slowly closed her mind to that feeling and began to feel the security that came from being the only fixed point in the room, in the world, in the universe. She was still. She opened her eyes.

Lang and the room were moving crazily around her. He was talking loudly. She wished he would hold still so she could understand what he was saying. In response to her wish, the room settled down and Lang released his grip on her shoulders.

"Helen!" He bent close to her. He was breathing raggedly. "I thought you had passed out. You wouldn't answer me..."

"I'm all right. There's nothing to worry about." She smiled in what she hoped was a reassuring way, and sat up.

"Don't get up too fast, do you want me to get you some water or something?" He squeezed her hand.

"I think it's time for dinner. It's your night to cook."

"Of course..." His brow wrinkled a tiny bit, then smoothed. "I hadn't really planned anything. What would you say to ordering a pizza?"

"It's your night to cook," she repeated, patting his hand. Poor Lang. His hard week at work had made him lose track of the routine. "I'll help you if you want."

"No, that's all right. I'll manage, OK?"

"I'll go shopping tomorrow, then. Go on in the kitchen, I won't bother you." She reached for the latest issue of House Beautiful.

Lang made a wonderful dinner, and she slept well that night, despite two gray hairs that she pulled from the nape of her neck and flushed down the toilet.

She left the next morning to do her shopping. She lingered in the beauty section, because she wasn't exactly sure what color Miss Clairol to buy. And when she stopped at the hardware store, she had had no idea there were so many different kinds of nails.

When she got home, Lang was sitting at the table, writing. She put the paper bags from the grocery store on the counter. "Hi, Lang, whatcha writing?" Out of the corner of her eye she saw that the top of one page said APPLICATION FOR EMPLOYMENT and quickly averted her gaze.

"Oh, just some forms." He rustled them and smiled at her. I need to do some errands, if it's OK to take the car."

"Of course." She nodded. "I'll just clean up a little around here."

She was done with the kitchen and the living room, almost done with the bedroom, and her hair was nearly dry when he got home. She heard him call out a hello from the kitchen and quickly hid the hammer under the bed. She checked her hands for splinters, and then quickly gave herself the once-over in the mirror. She was barefoot in a new spring dress. She was fine. When she entered the kitchen, he was trying to pull out a chair to sit down. She smiled and braced herself.

When he noticed that the chairs and the table had all been nailed securely to the floor, Lang first shook each one of them, and then turned to her and said calmly, "Did you do this?"

"Of course, dear. Who else?" She continued to smile.

"May I ask why?" His voice was strained.

"I just wanted to keep them from being moved around. You know how that bothers me. Besides, what if a blind person comes to visit? We wouldn't want them to get confused, would we?"

"Of course not." His knuckles were white as he gripped the back of the chair. "Honey, I'm hungry. How about a late lunch?"

"I've already eaten. Go ahead and fix yourself something. I'll be in the bedroom." She went in to hide the hammer and nails somewhere more secure. As she was closing the drawer of her nightstand, she heard Langston pounding his fists on the counter. Perhaps he had discovered that she had superglued all the dishes to the cupboard. But as she was brushing her hair in the bathroom, he called, cheerfully:

"I'm leaving in a minute, dear. Come say goodbye?"

She smiled at herself in the mirror. He was doing a remarkable job of adjusting. She loved her husband so much.

When she went into the kitchen, Langston handed her a paper cup of orange liquid. She frowned; she had forgotten about the paper cups. But hammering for all that time had made her thirsty, so she drained it. It was fruity, tasted almost like a mixture of fruits, with a slight bitter aftertaste. She had had trouble getting the couch secure enough, because of the upholstery, but she had finally gotten nails through the feet. She was glad she had chosen the three-inch construction nails instead of the two-inch roofing nails.

Lang took her cup. "I know you're busy. Why don't you go ahead and get back to...what you were doing." He kissed her on the cheek.

"You're very considerate." She smiled and turned to go back into the bedroom. She heard him pick up the phone as she closed the door.

She sat down on the bed and tried to remember what was left to do. She had secured all the light, movable items first, like the kitchen chairs and the magazine rack. Then the table, the couch, the bookcase, and now the bed. She reached for her night table and felt a wave of dizziness. She knocked something over as she grabbed the edge of it to keep from falling. She breathed deeply and lay down on the bed to let it pass. Closing her eyes, she regained her center of peace. She was getting better and better at this, and right now she almost felt as if she were floating, distancing herself from the illusory solidity of the world.

Low noises filtered into her thoughts, and she recognized her husband's voice: "No, doctor, I gave her a tranquilizer a few minutes ago. I just don't know what do to when she wakes up."

And another voice, unfamiliar, "Why don't you bring her down here and we can see about getting medication and therapy."

She had knocked over the phone on her nightstand, and her husband was talking about her. His words suddenly made sense. She was dizzy because she was drugged. He was going to take her away to someplace where they would not let her retain her control of the world. Her anger rose and she mustered all her stability to carefully replace the phone on its cradle. She would not let them take her. She took deep breaths, concentrated on seeing clearly through the darkening tunnel of her vision. She carefully slid open the drawer of her night table. The hammer was much heavier now, and she had trouble getting her fingers around the nails. She grabbed a few as she fell to the floor. If she could just sit up... It took all her strength to right herself to one knee. She would have to balance. It would be difficult, but she had to keep them from taking her away from here. She gasped for breath and placed the point of the nail on top of her foot with shaking hands. She managed to hold it there fairly steadily with one hand as she tried to lift the hammer with the other. She missed with the first blow and the head of the hammer landed on her little toe. She gritted her teeth, but the pain cleared her head sufficiently for her to coordinate a second blow. She put all her strength into it because she knew she might not be able to hold the hammer much longer.

She heard screaming and felt her hands slipping, something was making them slippery. Her knee was beginning to ache from kneeling on it. Her head was so heavy... One more strike and she felt the nail bite into the floor beneath her foot. I am secured, was her last thought before the hammer slipped from her hand.

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