Rules of Engagement
A short story by Judy Clement Wall
Andy, awake when his radio comes on at six o’clock on Saturday morning, reaches over, taps the snooze button and watches the digital readout blink off, and on, and then off completely. He stares at the blank face and wonders if it’s significant, the death of his alarm clock, if somehow it comments on larger issues, the state of his mind, his troubled soul. He doesn’t think so – it’s just an alarm clock – but he isn’t sure. This is all new to him, these bouts of introspection, this desire to find meaning, to connect things as disparate as human souls and alarm clocks.
Beside him his wife sighs in her sleep and it occurs to Andy that he could make a lot of money selling alarm clocks that make that sound. With his eyes he traces her outline under the covers, from her shoulders to her waist, across her hips, the long line of her legs. Peaks and valleys. If he reaches out, he knows how she will feel, the familiar terrain, the world of her under his fingers, but he doesn’t reach out. He doesn’t want to wake her. He wouldn’t know what to say.
Rolling onto his back, Andy hears his daughter go into the bathroom down the hall and then the sound of her shower.
Yesterday, passing her on the stairs, he was struck by a sudden sense of distance between them. He’d watched her approach and nothing about her had seemed familiar. His little girl had been replaced by a long-limbed, fluidly graceful, other-worldly being, a mirage that might, at any moment, disappear completely. Impulsively, he reached out as she passed, touched her shoulder just to be sure he could. She stopped, and he stared at her, at her long honey colored hair, her fingernails painted black, her purple notebook filled with poetry no one was allowed to read.
She blinked, brow furrowed, whether surprised or annoyed, he couldn’t tell. She was waiting, and he fumbled for something to say. “So, I’m taking you to Megan’s this weekend,” he’d said, feeling relived when she smiled.
“Yeah, I can’t wait.”
“I know it’s been hard for you since she moved,” he said, and then, watching her smile evaporate, he added quickly, “Well, at least she’s not too far away, right? Only a couple of hours.”
“I guess,” Kelly said, but she was moving away from him, talking over her shoulder. “Let’s leave early tomorrow.” And then she was gone, locked safely behind her bedroom door with its pink lettered sign: DO NOT DISTURB.
His wife Rachel tried to reassure him. “Teenagers are like that,” she’d said that night as they loaded the dishwasher.
“Moody, emotional. She’ll grow out of it.”
“Soon. Be patient.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think all teenagers are like that. I wasn’t like that.”
His wife closed the dishwasher, kissed him on the cheek. “You probably weren’t,” she said, scooping up magazines and heading into the art room, which had, until a month ago, been a guestroom. But that was before Rachel, a successful accountant, had learned she was pregnant at age forty-four and decided to explore her artistic side.
Rachel is pregnant.
Lying next to her, Andy stares at the ceiling and that is what he thinks. Rachel is pregnant. He says it over and over in his head, waiting for it to sound right. It is his last thought at night, and his first in the morning. It is always there, camped in his mind like an uninvited guest – someone he wishes he was happy to see but for whom he can only manage a sort of shell-shocked civility.
He’s made room, of course, what choice does he have? He’s cleared a place in his mind and tried to be hospitable, but what he feels is complicated and vague, a sense of something lost, or stolen, something that he’s not quite sure he ever had. Sometimes he tries to figure out what it is because he thinks it’s important, and maybe it’s all tied together – his daughter’s otherworldliness, his wife’s art, the baby, his sense of disorientation and loss, but his efforts at introspection are exhausting and, at times, downright scary.
At those times Andy stops, gets up, goes out into the world and lives his life. Which is what he does now, getting out of bed, careful not to wake Rachel, glancing at the dead clock out of habit. Time is a mystery. That’s what he’s thinking as he gets dressed and heads downstairs to make coffee.
She’d been standing in the kitchen, waiting for him to come home from work, smiling though her eyes were red.
“We’re pregnant,” she’d told him. No hello, no pleasantries, no primrose path to a sweet segue. He hadn’t had a chance to guess what she was going to say, but at 49 years old, we’re pregnant would not have leapt to mind.
“We’re going to have a baby,” she said, pausing while the words reverberated as if they’d been shouted.
“It’ll be okay,” she told him, taking a step toward the table, waiting until he took a step too. She sat down, and so did he, mechanically, the length of the table between them, his palms flat on the briefcase in his lap. “You’ll be sixty-seven when the baby turns eighteen.”
He stared at her.
She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, made a sound that was almost a laugh. “That’s where you were going. Sooner or later, you’d have done the math, so I thought I’d just tell you. Get it over with. You’ll be sixty-seven. I’ll be sixty-two.” She looked down, traced the table edge with her finger. “Kind of old, I guess… compared to other parents.”
“Yes,” he said, and in the quiet of the moment his voice startled him, betrayed him. In retrospect, he shouldn’t have spoken at all. He should have put his briefcase down, walked to the other end of the table, folded Rachel into his arms. If he’d have done that, maybe it would have been different. Maybe they would have connected, Rachel and Andy and their unborn child, and it would have been okay. They’d have been okay. But he didn’t. He sat at his end of the table, startled by the strangeness of his voice, holding his briefcase as if it were a shield. He sat like that for too many minutes, without talking, without reaching out, until finally Kelly came home, and both parents stood up, and life went on, the way it always does.
Andy pours his coffee, listens to the sound of his daughter’s footsteps upstairs and feels nervous about the two-hour drive to Megan’s. It’s been a while since they spent that much time together, the two of them, alone. Not since she was little and he could fill their time with Dr. Suess and coloring books and Saturday morning cartoons.
He sips his coffee and thinks about time, how sometimes it flies and other times it crawls, but the damage it does is devastating either way; the landscape of one’s life becomes unrecognizable. And when those thoughts start to make him feel even more nervous, he begins to wander. When he reaches the door to the art room, he hesitates.
It’s not like he isn’t allowed in. Rachel has invited him many times to “come play.” Still, stepping across the threshold, he feels like a trespasser. He has to make a conscious effort to walk instead of creeping.
Stuff is everywhere, stacks of magazines and newspapers, books, paper, paints, works in various stages of completion. In the corner on an easel is a penciled drawing of a woman. She looks like Rachel, in profile, standing in a field of grass, naked, looking up at the sky, dark hair falling against her back.
She has no stomach. Her breasts are there, and her hips, but there is nothing in between. He reaches out, touches the empty space with his finger. He stares at the picture until he hears footsteps on the stairs and then he hurries out of the room.
She’d asked what he wanted to do. They were lying in bed with their eyes open. The backs of their hands were touching.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not what we planned,” she’d said.
“No, it’s not.”
After a few minutes she asked, “What did we have planned?”
Andy considered the question, looked at the moon outside their window. “I don’t know,” he said, “get old, I guess. Retire. Travel. Learn to golf.”
She turned away from him so that her spine rested against his fingers. “That sounds nice.”
Her skin was warm. Andy held still.
Her voice, when she spoke was soft, sleepy. “Not really a plan, though, when you think about it.”
Faintly, Andy could hear music from Kelly’s room, wind chimes in the backyard, a dog barking in the distance. He imagined he could feel the movement of the earth, time like a breeze blowing over him, or under him like water, a current rushing beneath a surface calm.
“No,” he said, finally, “I guess it isn’t really a plan.” He waited, but before long he could tell by her breathing that Rachel had fallen asleep.
Kelly fiddles with the radio station, rolls her window down, then up, then part way down again.
“Excited?” Andy asks her, and when she doesn’t answer, he says, “I’ll bet Megan is, too.”
Kelly bobs up and down, lip synchs to the music. The wind blows her hair into her face.
“So, how’s school?” he asks, regretting the question as soon as he’s asked it.
She rolls her eyes, shrugs. “Okay,” she says, turning the radio up. When, a few seconds later, a commercial comes on, she reaches for the dial, but Andy beats her to it, turns the radio off.
“I thought maybe we could talk.”
“Yeah, talk. We never talk any more.”
Kelly slumps in her seat, exasperated, and Andy feels foolish, but forges ahead anyway. “Tell me what’s happening with you,” he urges.
“What’s happening with me?”
“Yeah. I want to know.”
“I’m just interested, that’s all.”
“You sound like one of those parenting commercials. I’m not doing drugs, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Of course I’m not worried about that,” Andy says, and though the thought hadn’t occurred to him before she’d said it, he feels a surge of relief.
“Can’t a father be interested in his daughter’s life? I would think you’d be happy I’m interested.”
She shakes her head. “Whatever.”
“You don’t feel like talking, then?”
“You should have told me in advance. I’d have prepared a report for you.”
Andy sighs, retreats, reaches for the radio. “I’m sorry. We can listen to the music. It’s fine.”
Kelly nods and for a long time she stares out the windshield mouthing the words to songs he’s never heard and can’t understand. He watches the scenery pass, tries not to think, is startled when suddenly she turns off the radio. “You know why they moved?”
“Who, Megan?” A stupid question, but Andy’s been prone to that lately.
“They moved because Megan’s dad was having an affair.”
“Really?” Andy considers Megan’s father. Shortish, balding, on the verge of a paunch. He has nice teeth, though, very white and straight – movie star teeth – and he smiles a lot.
“Some slut at his work,” Kelly continues. The word takes Andy off guard. The harshness of it. He wonders if it’s Kelly’s word, or Megan’s. Her mother’s. He doesn’t say anything. “Megan’s dad broke it off, but then the other woman called Megan’s mom, and it all came out. And it was totally weird for a while with her dad sleeping on the couch and her mom freaking out or crying constantly. He kept begging her not to divorce him, and finally she said she wouldn’t.”
Andy nods. He’s trying to think of what to say, but Kelly goes on. “Of course now he totally has to do whatever she says, and she said he can’t work there anymore. She made him apply for the transfer. Which, you know, I get that. Megan’s pissed, but I sort of understand. New job, new house, new life, I guess.”
Kelly turns to look at him and in her gaze Andy feels the weight of possibility. Having shared something important, she is waiting for his reaction, his comment, his insights. He could say anything, probably a hundred things that would sound fatherly and wise, but what he says is, “Wow.”
He hears the word come out of his mouth and it’s all he can do not to pull the car over and throw himself into traffic. Wow? The weight of possibility is crashing down around him as he scrambles, searching for something else to say, something profound, or at least competent, but Kelly surprises him by saying, “I know, right? That’s a crazy lot of stuff to deal with.”
He glances at her. She doesn’t think he’s an idiot, he can tell. She puts her feet up on the dashboard, clasps her arms around her knees. “I think they’ll probably still get a divorce.”
“Maybe they’ll work it out,” Andy says, emboldened.
“I don’t think so.”
“I don’t think they like each other. Megan says they hardly ever even look at each other anymore. I think that’s a bad sign.”
“So do I.”
“Yeah, well, you and mom do stare at each other a lot. It’s sort of creepy actually,” she says, and then she laughs.
And it’s then that Andy feels it, a shock of recognition, like a ray of light. She’s there, his bright beautiful little girl, smiling at him the way she always did, uncomplicated and expectant, happy. He starts to reach for her hand but stops. Her phone is ringing. She answer it and, just like that, vanishes as quickly as she appeared.
He turns away, puts on his blinker and heads for the exit ramp. He holds the glimpse tight inside him, like the treasure he knows it is.
He calls her name and Rachel answers from the art room. He finds her standing in front of the easel, which is turned away from the door so he can’t see the portrait.
“How’d it go?” she asks him.
“Okay. Did you know Megan’s father had an affair and that’s why they moved?”
“He just… He doesn’t look like the affair type.”
“No… but I’m not sure there’s a specific look.”
“I guess not.”
“He does have nice teeth.”
Rachel laughs. Andy walks around to stand behind her. She’s begun adding color to the picture. The field of grass is green, the woman’s hair is brown. And now she has a stomach, but it isn’t a stomach, it’s the world where her stomach should be. The planet earth, big and round and protruding, continents and oceans and sun and sky, thin wisps of clouds.
“What do you think?” she asks him.
He tilts his head. “What does it mean?”
“I’m not sure,” she says, but when she looks at him he thinks maybe she is sure.
He stares at the woman in the picture, reaches out, traces her round earth belly with his finger. For a few seconds Rachel just looks at him and then smiles a smile that is, above all else, utterly familiar. Picking up a colored pencil, she turns toward the canvas, and Andy steps closer, his front pressed against her back. He drops his hand from the canvas to Rachel’s own belly, lays his palm flat against it. He rests his chin on the top of her head, watches as she colors the ocean blue.
The original version of “Rules of Engagement” was published in the literary journal, Occam’s Razor in Spring, 2004.