July 31, 2009
PASSAIC, NEW JERSEY
The cigarette hanging taut between her lips, she struck a match on the restaurant’s matchbook and lit up. No explanation for the day’s events could possibly placate Abbey right now. May the eighth, 1947, was their ninth wedding anniversary, and it was supposed to be a remembrance and celebration of the love between the two of them. Nothing could be further from where she was tonight.
They had left the restaurant early, before dessert, because Nathan had decided abruptly that he wanted to check on something at the office. Nathan already worked weekends, and was late home every day, and in Abbey’s strong opinion this was to the detriment of their entire family. Whatever he was working on this week – and who cared, it wasn’t like he was curing cancer – it was clearly something that was more important to him than his wife or his two children. Bringing Abbey here, today, was a complete insult. While she stood under the streetlight by the car, Nathan searched for the key that opened his office door, at a leisurely pace that was annoying. This was supposed to be something special. There wasn’t any time left to make this a good day.
Abbey flicked embers and ash into the gutter and Nathan finally unlocked the double doors. “Come in, okay?” he called from the top of the stairs. “It’s cold.”
“It’s not that cold.” It was really cold. “I want to wait out here. Are you going to be long?”
“It isn’t safe for you to be out here by yourself,” Nathan said. “Come inside; you shouldn’t be alone.”
Nathan’s extended absences were a problem. That Abbey didn’t ‘get’ the nature of his work made it all the worse. His job had been too technical, too dull for her when he’d attempted to explain it on their first date. She’d tried to understand, but it wasn’t meant for her. And she never understood what on earth could be so important that he needed to constantly stay late into the night and neglect his family. What was so important that it was worth his wife falling asleep every night alone, and his children only seeing him a couple of times a week?
Abbey pulled her coat around her and walked stiffly up the stairs. Nathan held the door for her to enter the building.
“I don’t like it when you smoke,” he said, stepping inside and closing the door behind him.
“Why not?” She took another drag and tried to make it look indignant, if that was something you could express with a cigarette.
“It makes your clothes smell. It makes me not want to be around you.”
Abbey shrugged as she exhaled.
“I’ll be a minute,” said Nathan, and set off down the hall. Abbey waited by the doors, and looked through the small window to the street outside. She breathed in again.
Abbey’s younger sister Bethany was baby-sitting the children, and Abbey found some solace in not having to worry about how they were doing. Bethany was fun; she had been fun since she was born and had never lost the ability to get people to like her. Abbey’s sons liked her more than they liked Abbey. Bethany had her own apartment in Manhattan, and kept the details of her life private from her sister. When Abbey had married and become pregnant in a fit of excitement, it immediately made her boring in Bethany’s eyes; as if Abbey would be scandalised by anything that Bethany could reveal about herself.
Abbey stabbed her cigarette out on the nearest wall, the clicking of her heels against the floor echoing down the hall as she left her post. At the restaurant earlier, she’d introduced a leading question into the conversation.
What you would be if you could be anything in the world? I mean, what would you really want to be if you weren’t already who you are?
She had been thinking about what she used to do before she’d decided to have a normal life instead. She tried creative things throughout her early twenties, and as she explored them in her spare time, she hoped that she could one day make a living at it. She did think that she was talented.
Abbey had given up doing what she loved in order to fall in love. At her young age, giving her hand away was both the responsible thing to do and the exciting thing to do. The responsibility part took over fast.
Abbey knew it had been thrilling to wear an engagement ring for the first time, and that she’d shown it off, rotating her fingers in every possible direction and watching it reflect under every available source of light. At 35, dulled and circling the band idly around her finger, she could not remember what it was like to feel that way.
She didn’t remember the person she was in 1938. What had she wanted to be when she was twenty? What had she wanted to be when she had married him? What hadn’t she been for the last nine years?
“A writer,” she had said at dinner. “I want to be a journalist.”
“Well,” said Nathan, “that was predictable.”
Nathan had asked her what she would write about, and Abbey had difficulty coming up with an answer. At the end of the hall, Abbey looked back to the windows set in the double doors, and saw the streetlight outside faltering.
She opened to the door to Nathan’s office, which for some maddening reason didn’t have the lights on even though Nathan was sitting right there at his desk amidst rows of television sets.
“Nathan,” she said, and thought about everything that she could say, and something that she might say that would fix everything, “I want to go home.”
“Let me do one more thing,” Nathan said, getting up from his desk and switching on one of the televisions. “Watch this, this is interesting.”
“You’re showing me a television set.”
Nathan knelt down to make sure the cables were properly connected.
“Come on, let’s...” She watched him not pay attention. “Nathan, I don’t think I – ”
“Wait,” he said, and the monitor sparked into life; spawning green dots of light arranged in a pattern across the spherical monitor. It looked to Abbey like a targeting device; like something she imagined would be standard issue on a submarine. Nathan stood up and twisted one of the monitor’s dials. The lights jumped across the screen.
Abbey took a step closer. “What was that?”
“See this?” he said, pointing to an overlay sheet placed across the monitor. It looked like graph paper, with a crude sketch of an airplane in the middle. “I’m trying to hit that.”
“What are you talking about?”
“These dials,” Nathan said, pointing to the deck of controls assembled underneath the monitor, “determine the angle and speed of the missile. You don’t see the trajectory until you turn the third dial. That launches the missile along the path that you’ve set.”
“I don’t see a missile.”
“This dot. Think of it as a missile.” Nathan pointed to the lower right corner of the screen. “You start here. You’re trying to hit the plane here, in the center. Watch.” The dot jutted out in a path across the monitor, where it soared over the airplane by half an inch.
“It moved. You moved that,” Abbey insisted, as though she’d caught him at something. “Did you make this?”
“The goal is to hit the plane.” Nathan aimed again, controlling for the speed and height of his shot, and they watched his shot rise and fall in a parabola underneath the target.
“Why can’t you shoot in a straight line?” asked Abbey.
“Because that would be too easy.”
She looked at him, confused.
“You’re not supposed to just be able to hit it,” he said, turning to her. “You have to take care, and you have to develop some skill. If you don’t, then there isn’t any point otherwise. The idea is that it’s a game. The idea is to make it a challenge. It can’t move in a straight line, it needs to be made a little bit difficult, because then there’s something at the end for you to win. Pretend as if this is real.”
“Why is it fun when you can’t even hit it, twice?”
“Because you get better at it.”
Abbey looked back at the expectant light show. “I can’t believe you made this.”
“Do you want to try?” he asked.
“What?” She shook her head. “No. No. Nathan, I don’t know how.”
“Come on. Put your hands here.”
“On the dials.”
Abbey tentatively stepped up to the monitor and placed each of her hands on the dials under the screen.
“The left one,” said Nathan, pointing from over her shoulder, “controls the angle.”
Abbey turned the dial clockwise in minute increments without any idea of what she was doing. “Nathan, no, I can’t do this.”
“It’s fine,” he said, “just picture it. Imagine that it’s the war.” Nathan laid his left hand over Abbey’s, and she tensed up at the contact.
“Move, okay? We’re aiming now,” he said.
“Okay,” Abbey said, concentrating, “go up. Let’s go up.”
The dial turned, and she imagined the path of the missile tracing upwards across the target.
“No,” said Abbey, quickly, “no, you just had it.”
“Go down. A little bit.”
“How far? Now?”
“Yes -- don’t – stop!” She laughed. “Alright, now, now!”
“Yes! Go now!”
The shot launched out of the corner and as she watched the trajectory her throat clenched. The missile inched closer, bearing down on the center of the screen, and at the moment that it struck the airplane, the picture jarred out of focus. The reverberations withdrew, and the spot where the missile had collided changed into an expanding circle that grew by sudden degrees before receding. Abbey’s hands went limp.
The monitor flickered and reset. In the dark, the lights shone on her face: green light poised to touch green light, inviting her to start again.
Nathan slipped his hands off hers and stepped back from the monitor. “That’s all,” he said. “I’m ready to leave now.”
“Wait,” Abbey grabbed his hand. “Tell me how it works.”