by Eleanor Haglund
The sleepless nights and worrying over the choice between family and career have driven people to drink. I never thought of it as a choice. Children, I knew, were the only thing that would make me happy. Jason, while he had started out as a perfect husband, chose career. He thought babies were cute when he saw them in someone else’s stroller, but he blanched at the thought that they could be in his.
I guess I should have ended it early, when I saw the signs. I should have cried and roped my friends into making chocolate-covered strawberries. Chocolate-covered strawberries that we would all pretend were his head as we chomped down and splintered the chocolate in our mouths. My friends suggested I consider other options, try to find someone else. But I loved him and I thought he would change. But of course, he couldn’t. And of course, I tried.
I know now that the deer was the beginning of the end. I was walking upstairs for a sweater, to protect against the cold edge of the night, when I saw her. Her sweet face was pushed against the door, and her wet nose brushed the glass.
“Jason! Jason, come here!” I beckoned to where he was, still drying dishes in the kitchen.
“What?” He took his time, dishtowel thrown over his shoulder.
I guided his head to the transparent part of the frosted glass.
“What is that?” he said.
“Shhh…you’ll scare her!”
He rolled his eyes.
I would have taken it as a teasing roll of the eyes, but there was something more annoyed in the ways his eyes seemed to flick the image of the fawn away.
“I think she lost her mother,” I said.
“I bet a neighbor fed it and now it’s confused. Please don’t feed it. It’ll imprint on our house and never leave.”
I stared at the side of the youthful, unmarked face I had fallen for just a few years ago. I tried to conjure the patience I had started being forced to practice, to see the fawn as the disruption that Jason believed she was. I felt my heart blister.
I stepped away from him. “What if I did feed her? What are you worried about? The landscaping?”
“Please don’t start with me, Laura. You know you have a weakness for big eyes and small faces. You’d probably want to adopt it as a pet!”
“Why wouldn’t you?” I shot back.
“How is that even a question? It’s a wild animal and should be left alone.”
“Look at her!”
“I don’t need to. Ugh, we’re fighting over a deer. That deer is not important right now. You’re important right now.”
“How can you say that? You say I’m important, but you obviously don’t care about me or what I care about.”
Jason grabbed his head. “Listen to yourself! Or listen to me! Why can’t you be rational and see that children are not something that would make our marriage or our lives better? Why does everything always come back to this?”
“Look at her!” I yelled. I threw open the door.
There she stood, her sage eyes reflecting us and the home we had chosen. Jason stepped back. I stepped forward, welcoming her critical vision.
Jason recovered his senses and closed the door, separating us.
That night, I pad-pad-padded down the stairs toward the kitchen. As I walked through the kitchen, I slammed my hip against the corner of our table.
“Ow,” I said, shattering the silence. I had misjudged the space the table took up in the dark. The table was far too big for the two of us. The salesman had sold it to me as big enough for the kids and all of their shenanigans. Wink. He had sold it to Jason as big enough for the full spread at parties. The salesman was right. It was big enough for both.
I dug through the refrigerator drawers to try to find a vegetable my fawn would like. I pushed aside almost-rotten beets and piled limes on top of each other. When I found carrots, I pulled three from the bag and tried to obscure my work so Jason wouldn’t notice it in the morning.
I tiptoed my way to the door and peered out. Her soft face was only inches away from mine. She had noticed my presence. I loved the way she lifted her soft face to stare back at me when I placed my face near the glass.
I unlocked the door and pulled at it, cringing at the squeak, trying to be inconspicuous. She jumped up and stared at me, waiting for my next move. I pushed a carrot between the crack in the door. She paused for a moment but then took a step forward. And another. She bit the tip of the carrot, as if she was tasting it, making sure it was up to her standards. She took a bigger bite and a bigger bite. As she got closer to my hand, I let the carrot drop, protecting my hand from the deceptively powerful choppers she had in her mouth. I rested my head against the door and watched her nibble away at the carrot nub. I fed her the carrots, one by one. I relaxed, the dark cushioning by vision.
As I felt myself drifting off, I wondered how Jason and I had strayed so far from being happy. It wasn’t so long ago that we had been thought of as the perfect couple, with my friends begging me for our secret. Why didn’t we fight? How did I find someone who was so attentive? Did Jason have any brothers or friends?
We were one of those cheesy couples that went on picnics whenever the weather was nice enough. Jason and I both loved cooking, and we relished the challenge of ensuring that every dish had been adapted to be finger food. Our mini cinnamon buns were our proudest transformation.
“Can you pass the sparkling wine, baby?” I had said.
Jason poured some into my glass and reached for my hand. He brushed his lips against my fingertips, sending goose bumps jumping from their previously sleeping positions.
“Of course you can, love.”
I popped a mini cinnamon bun into my mouth. It melted, still warm from the oven.
I scooted over to Jason and curled up at his side. We spent the next hour lolling around and talking about the latest drama with my younger sister’s job search and we debated what was going on in Libya. We were so open with each other. I figured we could talk about anything. I wish we had discussed children as much as we discussed everything else.
The fawn pushed her small head through the door and rested it on the hardwood, near my leg. I chained the doors together, but left them open so she could stay with me. I ran my fingers over her velvet ears. As my eyes started to close, I curled up beside her and fell asleep.
I was jarred awake by Jason scooping me from my slumber. I pretended to be asleep, keeping my eyes closed and my breathing as even as possible.
He plopped me on the couch and knelt down beside me.
I cracked one eye open.
“Jason,” I yawned. “Is that you?”
He ignored my question. We both knew who it was. “Sweetie, why didn’t you sleep in our bed last night?”
“You snore like a lawnmower.”
“I’ve snored for years.”
I ignored him. He knew what the problem was. This deer was the closest I had gotten to having what I really wanted.
His face took on his lost puppy look—a look I tried to pretend didn’t still melt my heart. “I miss you. I want us to be like we were before. You used to smile when I walked in the door. I don’t feel like…like you want me anymore.”
“I do. How could I not?”
He tried to smile. “But you don’t really. You don’t want me. You want the me who wants what you want. It’s something I can’t give to you.”
I put my hand on his cheek, stroking his sandpaper stubble. “It’s not what I want.”
* * *
I had just fed her a carrot lunch, and I was about to close the door when I saw her. My fawn’s mother held her head high, like a queen, taking her surroundings in slowly. When she saw her fawn, she took a few steps forward, toward the house. I stood by my fawn, ready to jump in between them if my fawn moved. I know the thought was wrong, but I couldn’t help what I felt.
There was an energy radiating from my fawn. She had stood up when she saw her and wouldn’t take her eyes off of her mother. I was frozen. My mind raced through possibilities. What could I do?
My fawn moved quickly. She walked away from the door, straight toward her mother. I tried to grab her before she got away, but she had already vacated the space my hands occupied.
When my fawn reached her mother, she put the cold little nose that had been pressed against my front door against her mother’s side. She nuzzled her mother and her mother bopped her on her head with her own chin. I imagined it had been a light scolding. And when they were done with their reunion, they walked away. My fawn left without a backward glance. I watched them until they disappeared into the forest.
And then I crumbled. I don’t know how to describe it, unless to say that I could feel a part of myself being ripped away. Every step my fawn had taken away from me was a kick in the stomach. I doubled over, gasping for air as my eyes rained misery. I wished for more tears so they could form a river and take me away from here and everything I had lost, and everything I had not gained.
When Jason found me, I was weak, exhausted by my own despair and lying on the ground. I was curled into the smallest formation my legs and arms could handle. He became frantic, trying to figure out what was wrong. I struggled to speak and when I did, I sounded like a coal miner.
“I can’t live like this.”
He picked me up and hugged me close. I let him. There was nothing else my exhausted body was capable of.
“Please, Laura. Please try. I’m trying. I’ll try harder.”
I wonder if he felt the end coming then. I was too empty to feel.
But I tried again anyway. For him and for us. Every day for the next week I put all my effort into trying to rescue what was left of our short marriage. I kissed Jason at surprising moments like a fairy godmother bestowing blessings. I cooked exotic foods for us to enjoy and discuss. I even put away the picture frame containing the pre-printed insert of a baby girl that bothered Jason so much. I made us a romantic dinner on Friday of oysters and lobsters in butter sauce. I dimmed the lights in the dining room and lit the tall candles.
As we ate, we were quieter than usual. The clinking of our knives against the plate felt like a clock, our plates counting every second wasted. We went through two bottles of wine. After dinner we carried out plates into the kitchen and placed them into the sink. I whirled in my short dress and kissed him, holding his head between my hands.
We danced and tripped our way to the bedroom upstairs, trying not to let go of each other. I tugged at the buttons on his clothes, and he let me take my time, patience he had learned over the years. He pulled off my dress in a swift motion and enveloped me in his arms. We were in bed. I kissed him hard, proud of my victory. We tumbled like teenagers, almost falling off the sides and rescuing each other just in time.
“Yes, yes. Come to Momma,” I whispered as he kissed my neck.
Jason shot up. “What?”
“It’s nothing. Why did you stop?” I tried to pull him closer.
He resisted. “I can’t. This is wrong. You don’t want me.”
I propped myself in a half-sitting position with my elbows. “Jason, that’s not what I meant.”
He rolled away from me.
“It’s not,” I said again.
“I don’t know what we’re doing anymore. I think we’re pretending were happy. I don’t think we are.”
“Are you ever going to want a child?” I said.
“You know the answer to that. I want you though. I love you. It wouldn’t be right to have kids and not want them.”
“I guess that settles it then.” I let myself fall back onto the pillow.
He didn’t answer. The light turned off and he pulled the covers up to his chin.
“I guess it does,” he said.
* * *
When we woke up, it was like we were strangers. Roommates but strangers. He didn’t look at me as we dressed to go to my friend Sheryl’s house. I stared at the odd assortment of sweaters and shirts I had accumulated over the years and had the strange urge to throw them all away. I shook my head to clear my thoughts.
When we arrived, Sheryl’s floor was littered with toys in primary colors. They were positioned so close together that we couldn’t walk without hearing the squeaks of plastic under our feet. I almost sprained my ankle trying to avoid breaking any of them. I breathed in, trying to stay calm.
I hugged the kids and they started trying to drag me toward the playroom.
“Aunt Laura, come play!” they said. Their soft, buttery hands implored me. I felt Jason’s pleading stare at my back.
I pretended I didn’t notice. “Sure, guys. What would you like to play?” He had made it very clear that this wasn’t going to work.
I felt him withdraw, his entire demeanor going cold.
Sheryl felt it too.
“What would you two like to drink? Water? Juice?” she said.
“Water’s fine,” Jason said. He followed her into the kitchen.
A few days later, I sat in the window seat overlooking our front yard. I was wrapped in a blanket, and the window was open. I loved the feeling of the wind stinging my face. It brought tears to my eyes. I closed my eyes and let the numbing agent wash over me.
There was a crunch. And another. And a rustle of a bush.
I opened my eyes again. I was staring straight into the eyes of my fawn. She had come back to me! I reached out my hand. I tried to stop it from shaking so it wouldn’t scare her. I touched her ear and she shied away. She came back and I reached my hand out again, petting her soft, spotted coat. She nuzzled my hand and my eyes started tearing again.
From my spot in the window seat, I watched Jason’s car pull up the driveway. The tints on the window prevented me from seeing his face or gauging how he was feeling. I wish we had spoken more after that night, but what had followed had been polite and nothing more. We didn’t speak about anything unless it was absolutely required that we did. I was hurt by his silence. I wanted screaming and fighting. Anything to show he still cared. But he had shut himself off to me, and I didn’t feel any better about it.
His footsteps echoed up the stairs as he entered the house. He let the keys clang as he dropped them into the metal bowl instead of placing them there, like he always did. He clomped up the next set of stairs to change his clothes from work. He always changed when he got home, his way to transitioning out of being an in-control engineer to being a husband. I was surprised to see that he was still trying. But perhaps it was just habit.
I tensed as he started descending the stairs. My fawn looked up at me, confused at the change in the air’s energy. Her little white tail went up, something she had learned in her absence. I sat up a little straighter. His steps slowed as he reached the bottom and entered the room. I stared at him, a dashing figure in blue.
He tried to speak, but his words lodged in his throat.
“Are you OK?” I said.
He took a step forward and began to try again. But at that moment, he saw the fawn. His face slammed shut and he began to breathe as if unsure where his next breath would come from. He ran for the front door.
“Jason, no!” I leaped after him.
Jason sprinted for the fawn. The fawn sprinted for anywhere Jason wasn’t. When Jason got too close, the fawn would shoot off in a different direction, disorienting Jason and causing him to stumble.
Unintelligible garble began to spew from Jason’s mouth to try to terrorize the fawn.
“Please!” I said. “Stop this.”
He didn’t stop chasing until the fawn was well off the property. When he stopped, he bent to catch his breath. I stared at him, this man whom I had thought to grow old with, doubled over in flannel pajamas. I wanted him and his brand of crazy to match with mine. I wished I had been beside him in red flannel pajamas chasing away our demons.
I sat down on the grass and inhaled, welcoming in the frigid air. We both caught our breath.
BIO: Eleanor Haglund is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s creative writing program. She wrote her first novel, entitled Glass Wounds, in 2016. She received an Adamson Award for her screenplay Pippa. Currently, she works as a business analyst in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter (@EleanorHaglund).