When the Days Were Getting Longer
January was plodding along, dry skies keeping the old snow cold, hard, and crunchy. Patches of ice clung to the road like a layer of hardened oil, enduring for days and even weeks.
As Janet began to feel her legs warming up, her daily run took her off the country road and onto the start of the footpath, her favorite part of the route. Except that the cushy snow she normally savored so deeply had become a tangle of ersatz cobblestones, ice frozen into the past lumpy footprints of every dog and walker and runner and smoker she had ever seen on these paths. Old snow. As much as Janet hated the idea of hurting her ankle or aggravating her calf, which often seized up like a noose when it got this cold, she hated even more the idea of veering from her usual route.
It took longer in this cold, but once Janet’s body warmed up, the aches and pains of exercising outdoors subsided and her mind wandered. Past the empty cornfields, the snow covered barns, the unadulterated sky, the rare car that would pass on this road. Whether it was her ovulation, the desperate fertility treadmill, or something else Jay had done to belittle her, she always found new perspective after a run, a release for the nagging energies that collected in her joints and bones over the course of a day.
The lilacs’ hard buds looked hearty in the naked cold, capping shiny brown and green branches, showing off their ruddy handsome wood, thriving in patient stillness. Jay remembered planting all the scrappy lilac bushes when Janet had come home after work one Monday five years ago, excited at having stopped to dig up a dozen suckers at the edge of an overgrown park hedge. Her trunk had dirt in it for months after that.
The lilacs reminded Jay of the way he used to hold Janet, surprise her from behind when she was pulling weeds. Rub her body down with oil after a long day moving tulip bulbs to get them in a tighter group because that was how he wanted them, not how she had planted them without asking him first. In clusters not rows, he thought it would have been obvious, but he forgave her.
Winter sunsets, however beautiful, carried a more sinister tone for Janet. Not only would the cold set in fast after dark, but it got hard to see the cobbled paths, especially in the darkness of a new moon. On those occasions when she would get to run at sunset, she would feel an extra boost—not only would the beauty of the sky accompany her, she would also beat the darkness, finishing before the paths were too black to navigate, squeezing the last useful minute from the fleeting dusky glow. Too often something would hold her back from getting out to run in time. Too often Janet would finish her day by realizing it was already too dark, too late. Too often another day spent penned up.
Even with the tulips clustered, Jay knew in the back of his mind that there would be stragglers come spring, the smallest peripheral bulbs remaining to throw up a spotty echo of the too-thin tulip row that had so annoyed him. He resented her for the shabby tulips for so long that he took a singular pleasure from binding and tying over the foliage of the plants a bit prematurely, even before some of the blossoms had dropped their petals. At least tied down the tulips looked orderly and made way for the buckwheat sprouts to camouflage the absurd patchy row.
The winter sunrises were beautiful and minimalist, the tiniest pigment cutting into the black of night, bleeding over the frigid horizon.
Whether or not Jay forgave Janet made little difference to him, in truth. He would still wash her dishes after supper. He would still watch movies about dresses and gossip, if that was the only thing she was in the mood for. But in the back of his mind always, it seemed, was the nagging question of why couldn’t his sperm be good enough for her? And how did going off birth control two years ago lead to this insane campaign to get pregnant with tests and procedures and shots in the leg and tightrope nerves each time her period hammered forth early, or four days after the pregnancy test stick came back screaming pale white, sterile nothing, a wasted egg left untouched by feckless sperm.
The first few years were unimpressive. Some of the lilac suckers did not make it, they lost their leaves long before fall. But those that did survive accomplished little else. There was no growth, no new leaves, only a slow thickening of the trunk, maybe an insignificant inch or two in height. Spread throughout the newly dug beds in front, the half dozen shrubs looked sparse, barely justifying the water and space they sucked from the neighboring hostas.
“Low motility. Weak swimmers,” the nurse had said about Jay’s sperm, sounding to Jay as condescending as she could possibly sound. Regardless of the feelings of shame and guilt Jay felt, or perhaps because of them, from that point forward he felt a duty, an obligation, to comply with whatever Janet wanted. And Janet wanted to get pregnant, to do whatever the doctors told her could be done, and the doctors seemed to come up with a new step every other week.
Gingerly trotting onwards, Janet recognized how much she had become devoted to habit, to doing what she knew. This route, without deviation, was what she had come to accept as a viable run, a standardized distance and terrain. To modify the path willy-nilly, impulsively, might leave her feeling a nagging sense of inadequacy when she was done.
Procedures and tests. Appointments made and attended to. Specialists and waiting rooms.
Though her footing was difficult, Janet forced herself to complete what she had negotiated. She was careful to distribute her weight so her feet would not slip out from under her to the front or back, but with each footfall she still slipped side to side and into the crevices and cracks left behind between frozen ski tracks and footprint craters.
Impromptu Saturdays when they’d make love in the afternoon and stay in bed through dinner, getting pizza delivered, and getting a little drunk while they waited for it, watching Monty Python and smoking a joint. Those days were long gone. The doctor made it clear that cannabis slows motility and generally undermines fertility. No huge thing, Jay thought, so he quit the weed. He never meant to quit the languorous days of goofing off in bed till all hours had come and gone.
Janet had grown used to the lingering strong smells when she was out in the cold still winter air. The synthetic perfumes of fabric softener wafted from one house on a quiet block and could still be smelled way past at the corner. Pungent fumes from a car’s engine starting up could hang in the air for ten minutes after the car rolled away. Grateful for the absence of wind in this hard cold air, Janet would try to breathe shallowly and speed through the sharp poisonous stink.
The last time Jay felt tenderness from Janet, he realized, was in the few minutes after she had helped him come, almost a month ago. The doctors needed a fresh sperm sample for the in vitro procedure. She knew how much Jay hated the process, resented the intrusion on their lives, and in that moment after he had put the top on the container and had put it in the labeled zip lock bag, she held him in her arms a few seconds longer and had given him a slow sad kiss.
Janet would have to sometimes push off harder than normal to avoid an occasional pile of dog crap sullying the pristine white snow that otherwise blanketed the trail. A splash of piss yellowing the scene, here and there, drew Janet’s mind from its rejuvenating wanderings to watching her step. From the vast sky to petty detail.
The halfway point of Janet’s run was marked by the end of the footpath. The trail was made long ago on the route of an old railroad track, elevated about fifty feet above the crops, barns, and houses that adjoined it. The mild elevation made for a few short hills to muscle up, and a well placed descent right in the middle of Janet’s run. However, as soon as she took five steps onto the asphalt, letting her arms dangle a bit as she caught her breath, she felt her calf beginning to twitch like a cramp was coming on. Janet lightened her step, slowing but doggedly keeping the pace faster than a walk. If she were to walk home from here, the half-way point, she’d be out for far too long in this cold. She had walked as much as the last half-mile home before, but never had she hobbled home from this far back.
Lovemaking slowly leveled off into scheduled events, orchestrated around basal temperatures and ovulation prediction sticks. And that still physical connection, even if it were somehow less passionate and care free, eventually gave way to specimen collection sessions. Somewhere along the line the romance got lost, trampled under insurance forms and dosage adjustments. On the surface little had changed, but Jay could feel himself hanging onto the trifling things Janet would do or not do now, a running list of resentments and failures. He kept track also of the things he himself could be held accountable for, and he tried to maintain balance as best he could. Under this unspoken watchfulness, time spent with Janet had become as predictable for him as the rubbing of dental floss against his gums at night, just before brushing and bed.
Janet realized she was grimacing as she ran down the side street that would feed onto the main drag, where she would turn and finish the last five hundred yards of her run. Now conscious of her face, of the crunched muscles around her eyes and nose curled into a dogged wincing. Janet decided to relax her expression and try to change her own sense of the pain in her calf, each step threatening to hobble her should the steady tenderness in her leg snap into a sharp cramped ball. The muscle had already begun to convulse some, spiking with pain at the end of each step. Focusing on the subgroups of muscles in her legs, Janet tried to mentally will her calf into a serviceable aggravation rather than a crippling lockup.
The lilacs came around in year three, and finally began to grow, nearly doubling in size that spring, and all but two of the plants flowered in year four. By year five they were showing off, reaching a foot or two higher each week, it seemed, then blossoming into fragrance so lush and heavy that Jay and Janet would comment about it to each other. It marked time for them, the glory of these scrounged plants that a few years ago looked like hopelessly underfed dwarfs.
By now the pain in her calf was sharp, and Janet was able to keep only the slowest and lightest of jogs as she passed her driveway and slumped into a walk, hands on her hips, feeling the satisfaction of having made it. Despite the pain, she had completed her run, and even with her calf knotted up, even if some days off of running would be required while she healed, Janet could now get on with her list of things to do for the day.
Michael Filas is Professor of English at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where he teaches writing and American literature. His work has appeared recently in Specs, Eleven Eleven, Passages North, Fiction International, and The Information Society. Michael received his MFA in fiction writing from San Diego State University and his PhD in American Literature & Culture from the University of Washington, Seattle. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife, sons, cat, rabbit, and chickens.