Paris in a Bottle
Cathy walked out into the water, careful not to let the waves crest the tops of her glittery pink rubber boots. Paul had bought them for her and he’d be angry if she ruined them so soon. She’d noticed that most of the neighbors’ wives had them too; an army of glittery greens, golds and pinks marched across the lawns on their street whenever the sky gave the slightest wink toward rain.
The bottle was floating just a few feet from shore, rolling in and out in the angry noonday surf. Cathy could tell as soon as she picked it up that it wasn’t a normal bottle. It was heavy, even though its algae-coated insides appeared to be empty. She liked the solid feeling of it when she gripped it in her cold, wet hand.
She tipped the bottle upside-down and a thin trickle of water dripped into the frothing waves. Cathy gave the bottle a final shake and tapped its bottom; it still felt heavy.
Paul was waving her in. He had one of the kids by the elbow while the other karate kicked at a garbage can near the car. Cathy shoved the bottle into her raincoat pocket, crushing the shells she’d collected with the kids. Hopefully they’d forget about the shells over the drive home.
By the time she reached the car, Paul had managed to wrangle both children into their seats. She sat down and shut her door just as rain began to pelt the roof.
“You okay?” Paul spoke under the kids’ arguing voices in the backseat.
Paul stared at her for a moment, his face flushed, before he pulled the car out of the lot and onto the nearly deserted highway. The repetitive swish-squeal of the wipers on the windshield was soothing against the kids’ whining. Paul’s news program droned from the speakers. Cathy brought her hand to the bottle sticking out of her pocket and ran her still-damp fingers over its surface. Now, away from the water, she could feel a pattern on the glass. Ridges melted into valleys in an intricate arrangement of what she thought might be flowers and vines.
“Dad! Make him stop!”
Their daughter screamed from the backseat. Paul responded with gruff words and a flailing arm to separate them, sending each child screaming toward their respective car doors.
When the car quieted, Cathy dared a look back at the children. Her son was pressing his mouth to the window, making a blowfish at the people in a passing car and marking the glass with spit. Her daughter was playing with her hands in her lap, entwining her fingers, flipping her hands over and then pressing her index fingers together, pointing them toward the roof of the car to form a steeple.
“Here’s the church and here’s the steeple, open the doors—” here she would open her little thumbs and turn her hands over, her fingers still clutching each other, wiggling, “—and see all the people!” Over and over again.
Cathy wondered where she’d learned that. It certainly hadn’t been from her or Paul. Neither of them went to church as children, and recently Paul had told Cathy he’d decided to become a Buddhist.
The nanny. The nanny must have taught her, Cathy thought.
Paul’s shoulders rose closer to his ears, a millimeter at a time. Their daughter’s voice was gradually crowding out the newscaster; there was only so much room for sound in the small, humid space.
“Honey, please. Can you just stop—” Paul paused and took a slow breath, letting the air run out of his O-shaped mouth. Cathy imagined him thinking of a lesson from one of the parenting self-help books he kept on their nightstand. He’d given up on trying to get Cathy to read them years ago.
“Don’t you want to read your book, sweetie?” he said, his voice high and tight with restraint.
Cathy didn’t need to look back to know what her daughter’s reaction was. Pouting lips, jutting chin, arm-over-arm on her still-flat chest. Had she been like this when she was six? She didn’t remember being that way.
Cathy turned her face back to the window, focusing on the water droplets as they journeyed down the glass, eventually being pulled into the wind. She imagined taking the bottle to an appraiser. He would roll it back and forth in his hands, pull his glasses lower on his nose and then allow a smile to twitch at the corner of his dry lips. “This–this…” He’d be so overcome words would be lost to him. “Where did you find this?” he’d finally say, his greedy eyes sparkling.
Cathy thought back to her third-year archaeology course in university. Hadn’t they studied glassware from the 18th Century? This bottle looked a lot like the solid little Parisian bottles she’d seen in her textbook. It could be worth a lot of money. Her ticket to freedom. She tried to push this thought back, as she always did when they came. She should be happy. She had everything a woman could ask for. She had two children, a big house, fancy rubber boots. But even as she told herself these things, thoughts of Paris flooded in. A musty bookstore. A cobblestone street. The tower, lit up and straddling the city.
“Remember when I thought I was going to be an archaeologist?” she said.
“I do,” Paul said, keeping his voice low to avoid waking the children who had finally fallen asleep. “That was a long time ago.”
Cathy stared straight ahead and pressed her frizzy hair behind her ears. She thought about how tomorrow was Monday. Paul would get dressed, eat breakfast, kiss the kids, go to work. She’d get up, drink coffee, watch the nanny send the kids off to school, and sit. All she had to do was sit.
Right around the truck stop that all the big rigs parked at, Paul reached his hand across the car. His thin fingers caressed her knee and rubbed back and forth on her jeans. “This is nice,” he said, giving her a pressed-lip smile. The newscaster was talking about the stock market, or banks, or something else she didn’t care about. Cathy waited for a few minutes and then shifted her leg away from Paul’s hand. She leaned her forehead on the cool window and clutched her arms around her stomach, making herself as small as she could. This car holds my whole life, she thought. This is my life. My whole life.
When they got home, Cathy helped Paul carry the damp beach gear from the car to the garage. The kids were inside with the nanny.
The nanny had been Paul’s idea. Cathy hated her because she could barely tell her apart from the other nannies on the street and she couldn’t tell anyone that because they might think she was a racist. She hated her because when she smiled at Cathy her eyes didn’t crinkle at the corners the way they did when she looked at the children, or Paul. She hated her most because she filled the mommy-sized hole in their home.
“Cathy.” Paul grabbed her arm before she was able to return to the car for a second load. “I don’t think you’re better.”
She looked at him, but she was thinking about the bottle, imagining herself in a Parisian café, sipping coffee and wearing red lipstick. Beautiful people smiled around her, talking about art, books, movies. She could smell sweet cigar smoke, expensive perfume, cool rain on the warm sidewalk.
“Are you listening to me?” Paul’s grip tightened.
Could she be fast enough in the boots? Cathy’s free hand went to the bottle in her pocket. She squeezed it and imagined gaining strength from its solid little body. All she needed was a few hundred dollars and the courage to run.
Paul’s fingers dug into her, pinching the soft skin of her tricep. “You need to go back to the therapist, Cathy. You’re not here—I don’t know where you are.” His voice was softer than his grip.
She only had to make it to the strip mall at the end of the street. There was an antique store; she’d seen it when she took the kids to get new shoes when she had been doing better.
“It not good for the kids to see you like this. They miss their mother. They’re scared.”
Paul was talking, but the sounds and smells of Paris were more real than his pleas or blue-bagged eyes. There was no way she could go back to that therapist and her thick-rimmed glasses and dark, judging eyes. “Do you think you need to learn to be a better mother, Cathy?” she’d said during their last visit. “Why do you think the kids like the nanny so much?” Hundreds of dollars an hour to be asked rhetorical questions, but it kept Paul happy.
Cathy wrenched her arm free and ran down the driveway, her coat billowing out behind her, the bottle safe in its pocket-bed of shells. Her boots slipped on the newly coated double-driveway, but she held steady. Her legs, though shaky, didn’t fail her, and she caught her stride as she rounded onto the sidewalk, heading east towards the shop.
She was flying, but instead of propelling forward toward the shop and Paris, the grass of the neighbor’s lawn rushed at her face. She heard crunching in her pocket as she landed.
Paul stood over her, his face reacting in waves he couldn’t control; pity, anger, and embarrassment rolled in and over each other, one being sucked out as the next crashed in. Cathy reached her hand down into her pocket and felt for the bottle.
“You’re not okay, Cathy. This is not okay.” Paul’s voice was high-pitched like it was when he scolded the kids. He reached for her arm and tried to pull her to her feet before anyone saw. Cathy yanked her elbow away from his grip and continued to dig in her pocket.
The bottle was still there, whole, amongst the crushed shells. She squeezed it firmly in her hand and pulled herself to her feet.