December 11, 2019KR OnlineFiction

Carrying Hands

When Annalise was eleven she was groped by a mall Santa. Groped may not be the right word for it—every few years the word for it changes. Nowadays—at thirty-one—Annalise says he patted her, because a pat implies amoral ignorance, and she wants to feel brave about repressing the sensation as a simple misplacement of a hand. He patted her, then kind of lingered, squeezing ever so slightly, one sliver of intent to show the immensity of his malice: “Don’t you look adorable, honey! Hop up on Santa’s lap and whisper what you’d like for Christmas.” Annalise, unable to think much of anything at the time, climbed up, put her lips to his ears, and said: “A husband with a gun.” Then she turned to her mother as the shutter of the camera snapped, as the flash bounced the scene to the film and froze it. Santa laughed as Annalise’s mother smiled, gleeful and innocent, beside the photographer elf. That photo still hangs above her mother’s mantle, a world away. Since then, Annalise has refused to leave Santa cookies, and even now she’s stubborn about it. She wonders if that yearly slight helped kill off her father, though it was likely just the aneurysm.

For a long time the sensation of Santa’s hand lingering on Annalise’s left buttock was almost always there, as if he’d slipped off the white glove as he’d bent his fingers tender toward the palm and the glove had never let go. Years later, looking back and remembering the swirls and sheen of his beard, and the lumpiness of his belly pressed against her little hip, Annalise took some solace in thinking that he was the kind of mall Santa who had neither a real beard nor a real belly. But this also scared her, because then it was the majority, the men without Santa beards or bellies, who she felt instinctually wary of. In the eighth grade Annalise tried, desperately, to replace the sensation. She let fourteen boys squeeze her left buttock on the same day. It didn’t help, it just added a new, harmonic timbre to the moment. The original sensation fed off each of their grips. After that day she had to fight back those boys, snapping at whoever of the fourteen tried to replace his moment with a new one. When standing and waiting in public, or while walking through crowds, Annalise still puts her hand in her back pocket.

Even now, at thirty-one, she won’t let a man call her honey. It is one of her conditions. Her father called her honey once, when she was thirteen and had come home from school, and she stormed past him, up the stairs to her room, slamming. When he asked what was wrong she said, through tears, “Why don’t you call me sweetie anymore?” Her husband, Donald—52, ten years and four days younger than her father would’ve been—would never have thought to call her honey. He comes from a school of calculated, Irish distance peppered with an occasional, emotionally safe diminutive. His favorite is Annie. Donald never tells Annalise he loves her, he only tells Annie that. Even so, Donald believes that he must do things for her that nobody ever does, so he calls her Lisa as standard practice. This has never changed. Once, in the blank dark of night after coupling, his words disjointed in the darkness—such that she felt predisposed to disbelieve in them, and so she clung to them desperately—he said, “Please don’t let anyone call you Lisa like I do.” That was one of his conditions, and it became the first of theirs. She fell in love with Donald again every time he called her Lisa, and since then she has been vigilant about how she lets people address her. To this day she has never been called Lisa by anyone else. Her introduction is standardized: “I’m Annalise, but you may call me Annalise.”

But why is Annalise now, in the middle of packing the car to go visit her mother for the holidays, unable to avoid feeling that pat? She and Donald are finally taking their one-year-old daughter, Maria, to meet Annalise’s mother, who lives in Italy’s Veneto region. Her mother has a house in the country outside Venice. They are going to spend Christmas together. Her father, who had owned a modest tool shop beside a strip club in Denver for thirty years, finally won it big. All his life he played the stocks like ponies, and on a whim he bought into Dell when it was a long shot and sold before it was just a safe bet. He diversified, sold the shop, and finally relaxed. Annalise’s mother—a life-long professional-failure of an artist—had an obsession with Leonardo da Vinci and the Medici. She took particular artistic interest in the schematics for da Vinci’s war machines. Annalise’s parents lived in the countryside near Venice for two years before her father died of the aneurysm when reaching into his back pocket to tip a gondolier, an American habit he couldn’t shake. He fell over into the canal, long dead before breaking the mirrored surface. Her mother has only recently begun to joke about it. It’s one of her conditions. She jokes about how it was karma for tipping in Europe. Annalise, like her mother, is determined to never spend an extra cent.

Maria has never met her grandmother because her grandmother is terrified of flying. She got to Europe on a boat, because her fear of the ocean was less than her fear of the sky, and now she’s determined to finish out her life in Italy, even without her husband. Despite their having moved, Annalise’s father always wanted to be buried in Denver. Her mother had him cremated because she didn’t like the idea of having his coffin go on a plane. She didn’t want people in the airport, looking out from their taxiing flight, to see a hearse on the runway. She sent his ashes via priority mail to Annalise in a vacuum sealed bag to be entombed. Annalise didn’t know if she was supposed to open the bag to let his ashes breathe or just put the bag in the small ebony box they’d commissioned for him. She decided to leave him as-is. The ebony box was much bigger than he needed. It was like a coffin only miniaturized, with handmade, gold-plated handles. Annalise and Donald were the pallbearers, and they felt ridiculous carrying him across the muddy cemetery to his plot. They buried him in the spring when the frost was finally gone. Annalise’s friend Susan videotaped it all for her mother. Donald had almost two feet on Annalise, and at least a hundred and fifty pounds. If her father had watched that video, he would have laughed at them carrying him, so tiny in their hands.

Annalise and Donald tried to dig the hole themselves. They dug the first foot and a half before they gave up and had the groundskeeper bring over the miniature excavator to finish the job. Annalise felt strange burying her father so deep in something so comically small. His gravestone, a marble monolith, was bigger than his coffin, and had been waiting all winter for him. It was already weathered. After lowering the box into the ground, they took handfuls of the cold, wet, muddy soil and dropped it into the hole, Donald’s shovel-like handful covering half the box on his own. The way her father’s box measured up to her memories of him made his absence unable to reach her. She didn’t cry, not then, though Donald eyed her throughout the day waiting for her to burst, as if he’d been practicing his consolation with his poker buddies and wanted to test its effectiveness. But she didn’t burst. Not then. She didn’t realize the many possible permutations of love and size until she had Maria. When Maria was placed in her arms for the first time, two years later, it finally hit Annalise because she could picture Maria fitting in her father’s ebony box, and for the first few days of Maria’s life Annalise was submerged in the dark waters with her father, struck down by the same swiftness as his death. She could hardly look at Maria, didn’t watch her little hands flex at Donald, missed the moment when she opened her eyes for the first time. When she fed Maria, she felt herself pulled at and consumed into the powerlessness of being a daughter. A mother. Alive. When she realized Maria could have fit in her father’s box, every loss in her life compounded.

• •

The car is filled with their bags, and Donald is going to be home from work soon. Maria is crawling around in her pen, occasionally trying to pull herself up to attempt to walk. Annalise cups her left buttock to try again to exorcise the phantom’s grasp. After she’d let the fourteen boys touch her, she decided that hers was a condition only fixable with love. When she was seventeen she lost her virginity to a twenty-eight-year-old, and at eighteen she finally let him cup her there, after he’d finally told her that he loved her. But it didn’t help. She would guide his hand to it and clasp it to her skin, but his grasp was all too familiar. It was hollow lust, yet again. The memory resonated wider. When there was the pregnancy scare, after which he disappeared for six days, she took it as an excuse to leave. When she bled—three days after he left—she took it as a sign of a second chance.

She didn’t fall in love again until she met Donald. She was twenty-six. She was working as a secretary at a therapist’s office when she first saw him, a large man with a big, soul-black beard. He was shy with eye contact, and he was reluctant to come up to give her his name. He was the kind of man who was willing to cancel a two-hundred-dollar appointment to avoid a situation where he felt he wasn’t in complete control. She fell for this vulnerability, for their shared desire to domineer reality. She said, as he stood near the door looking at an Expressionist painting of a subconscious, “You must be Donald Mulligan. I’ve heard nothing about you, aside from your fame as our 9:30 spot.”

The first time they made love he said he wasn’t crazy, but he was still crazy about her. She believed him. She said she could get him an appointment with her boss to try to fix that, but that she wasn’t an easy thing to shake, even with therapy. He wasn’t the kind of man to laugh, he had a limited bank of words, very few moments of deep expression left in him, and he was careful with how he doled them out. But he did grasp her then, pressing her to him, and though it was the small of her back and not her buttock—and perhaps because of it—it helped. The next morning she woke up and showered and for the first time since she was eleven, under the hot stream of water, she felt naked and alone. For the first time in a long time there was nothing making her completely aware of her body. And after that day, while she still remembered the “pat,” it no longer felt as if it was always there.

But Donald was haunted, too, hence the therapy. He had killed a man once, though it wasn’t out of cold blood. He strangled a man who, drunk and driving, hit and killed Donald’s neighbor’s dog. The dog was a huge wolfhound, and at the time of its death it was leashed to his neighbor’s wrist, an anxious young woman who’d gotten the dog so that she could feel safe in her world. One Friday evening when she was taking the dog out on a walk, the dog, in an attempt to pee on a hydro pole, stepped off of the curb far enough for the men in the speeding, drunk car—only legally men, as Donald framed it—to hit it. He spun around the pole by the leash and was killed instantly, winding three times with a broken neck. The woman didn’t have time to scream, she was tripped by the dog and woke up in the hospital two days later, lost, terrified, and alone. Donald had watched it all unfold. He was smoking on his porch. The guys were inside playing poker and four out of five were trying to kick the cig. He heard the cackling laughter from the driver’s seat as it came down the street, the smashing thud, the tire screech, and silence. He froze and memorized the car’s shapes and colors as it kept driving. He called an ambulance and, while he waited, untied the dog from the pole, its head loose in its skin from snapping off its spine, and swaddled it in an old blanket. His poker friends came out and held a compress to the girl’s head to slow the bleeding and tried to keep her warm without moving her from the cold sidewalk. When the paramedics arrived the girl was awake but barely conscious, lying next to the covered body of larger size. Donald felt like her dog’s proximity would help her hold on. When the ambulance arrived, he had to tell the paramedics that it wasn’t another person. That it was already very much dead.

After the ambulance took her away he got in his own car and looked for the culprit. It wasn’t hard, and not far away. He found the car parked on the front yard, its right light smashed, the driver passed out at the steering wheel, and his passenger, with a six pack on his lap and three more on the floor, face-first on the dash with vomit still drooling into his shoes. The party they were trying to get back to was still raging inside when Donald opened the door of the car and—without taking a beat to reconsider—placed his huge hands around the driver’s throat and squeezed. He said it was the easiest and most satisfying thing he’d done in his life before meeting Annalise. The fact that they didn’t check the boy’s neck for fingerprints was a miracle or an indication of some divine grace—a sign of a second chance, Donald said, as he looked over to Annalise, who wasn’t even one bit afraid of him. She understood him. She forgave his hands. She guided them with hers to grab her neck, for love. She tightened in around him. She was absolution too.

• •

The plane tickets are paid for already so there is no turning back, Annalise tells herself as she is dressing babbling Maria in her winter clothes. Annalise’s mother passed some of her fear of flying onto her, and now that Annalise is a mother, any fear she has is doubled. Donald is home now, and he is packing some food, just in case there is a delay at the airport. She hopes there is no delay and has checked compulsively all afternoon. They will first fly to Toronto, where they’ll take an overnight to Frankfurt, and then to Venice. Unlike Annalise, Donald isn’t afraid of flying. Donald knows the statistics and isn’t afraid of chance. He doesn’t believe in it, and so he can’t fear it. It’s one of his conditions. But he can tell that Annalise is nervous in the way she is tightening the tiny scarf around Maria. Donald comes over to her, places his whole family within his huge armed nest, and coos as he loosens the scarf from around Maria’s neck. “Lisa, don’t worry. That’s not your job.” Little Maria looks up at him and she smiles; she smiles so hard that all fear breaks. Annalise falls in love again and again.

But Annalise is worried because it’s nearing Christmas and she doesn’t want to see Santa. But she is preparing herself for it. She finished her Christmas shopping in September. She wants to make it all the way to Venice without seeing one Santa, and she is hoping that the Italians don’t have the same traditions. But she also knows that the photo of her and him will be there, and she will have to see it, because her mother will pull her over to the mantle and tell her about it. Remember this one, Anna? This was always your father’s favorite photograph of you. Check out that silly grim look you’ve got on! Nothing made your father laugh more. She has long suffered for her father’s memory, and now she will have to suffer for her mother’s memory of him. Annalise almost destroyed the picture years ago, how easy it would have been to have accidentally dropped it in front of the lit fire. How easy it would have been to say that it had been too close to the hot flames for her to grab it out before it burned. Chance is not a real thing to her, but fate is a constructible thing. It’s how it was meant to be, the universe’s intent.

Before she left the house she Googled “Denver Airport Santa” and found a press release, a few years old, telling how the airport spread a red carpet for the fifty millionth passenger that year, a passenger who turned out to be Santa Claus. She’s afraid that there might be some new milestone destined to occur while she and Maria and Donald are trying to catch their flight. She’s afraid they will have a Santa in-house, and that their flight will be delayed, and that Donald—Maria in his arms—will say “Why not?” What, then, could Annalise say?

She doesn’t want to tell Donald because that would invoke it into a reality beyond her solitary phenomena—and “When I was eleven I was groped by a mall Santa” sounds too much like the beginning of a joke. She knows that Donald will wish to cleanse her of her ghost, and she knows there’s nothing he can do that he hasn’t already done.

This year, though, everything is compounded. Maria has survived long enough that she is beginning to seem like she’ll eventually be a person, and Annalise more and more is able to see the shape of her future, upright and independent. She can see her walking, just as she can see her running off alone and keeping things to herself. Annalise can see her daughter’s life fracturing out into things she will never know, things she will never be able to comfort. She has a fear that the horrors of Maria’s life will be just Annalise’s repeated. There are so many hands in the world, too many things to bear. Annalise is afraid because she feels like she has too little power to put a stop to anything. That being a mother means knowing exactly how little control you have.

• •

At Denver International Airport they park for the long term. They will be gone for a week and a half. There is hardly room for them due to the holiday rush. An airport near Christmas has more people than snowflakes. They unpack the luggage, three checked bags and two carry-on, and Donald finds a way to bear them all. The sky is perfectly clear and perfectly cold, and they walk as three fog machines, progressively shrinking in size to Maria in Annalise’s arms. As they walk all Annalise can think of is the words of DIA’s press release, the manager of aviation’s quote: “I mean, Santa is the original frequent flyer, but who could have anticipated we’d actually get to see him at DIA during his busiest time of year?”

As they enter the terminal, all their cheeks rosy, Annalise becomes silently enraged about her absurdity. She is letting a cheesy press stunt misplace more practical anxieties. She shouldn’t be worrying about Santa, she should be making sure Maria doesn’t get upset and anger an entire plane against them, and she should be worrying about each of them catching some kind of super virus and giving it to her mother and all of them dying in Italy, becoming a whole fleet of tiny coffins flying back to oversized plots in Denver. Or about the plane crashing into the same canals that her Father fell into. But of course none of this helps. Each thing is simply, calmly, added to the list.

Their bags are checked. The halls are decked. But this is an international airport, so the theme is more generically winter festive than specifically Christmas, which calms Annalise some. But people around her are wearing his hat, which sets her back on edge. The invisible hand holds her. Maria starts to cry in her arms. Donald pries Annalise open and pulls Maria free from the tight clutch. He holds her in one arm and Annalise in the other, and they say nothing. They walk it off. As they line up for security, a line which winds labyrinthine and moves slowly, Annalise calms herself some as a lookout in the enclave of his arms, wary but keen. Her hands go pale, gripping the baby bag in her hands. As Donald talks to and makes faces at Maria—and while she is gawking, gleeful, cheery—Donald rubs Annalise’s neck and she turns to liquid under his touch. For the moment, her body flows seamlessly again, head to toe.

The boarding passes and passports are sweaty in her hand as she shows them to the agent, who directs them left. At the checkpoint, Donald and Annalise invert their burdens, Annalise taking Maria as Donald works on preparing the baby bag and their carry-on bags for the tubs. They take time, pulling off shoes, removing electronics, organizing their winter clothes. A man with a briefcase pulls some tubs from the pile and puts them on the ground. As Donald pulls out the bags of baby food, the milk, the diapers, Annalise holds nothing but her child. Cradling her to her chest, clammy hands on her so soft hair, Annalise stands at the empty doorway of the metal detector, waiting until an agent comes over, stands at the other side, and gestures to her to move forward, hands in his white rubber gloves. Gestures at her to move through, toward him. After a few seconds, Donald’s warm hand is on her back, “Let’s go, Lisa.”

When she makes it through, the agent doesn’t touch her, doesn’t even look at her. When she gets to their things on the conveyor, she turns to see the agent rubbing his gloved hands along her husband’s body. Donald, a head above the agent, smiles at her, arms wide, eyes disappearing. When he makes it to Annalise, he kisses her on the top of the head, and repacks the bags. Maria squiggles in her hands. Business men rushing to the tubs beside them.

• •

Annalise attempted to figure out what it was that bothered her about the Santa, and for a long time she thought it was simply the uninvitedness of the touch. It was something that happened when it wasn’t wanted—it felt a little too much like chance, and maybe that was why she became leery of it. But it wasn’t exactly that. It was partly that, but more specifically it was the initiation into a whole group of unwilling participants, similar only in their being the same faceless victims of the same masked hand. She knew, at eleven, that she wasn’t alone, and she’s had to know it ever since. It was about being sectioned off into a group effected by a single thing, a single being, a single idea. It was the atom of plutonium to the bomb. That was the thing. It was a feeling of being something ever tiny in something supermassive, a decimal in an endless chart of statistics. It was being a one-year-old child in an international airport, that served at least fifty million passengers a year, on December 20; it was being a fifty-two-year-old giant in an international airport on December 20; it was being herself in her precise moment. It was more than an invasiveness, it was a tether into an ever-present realization of one’s place in the world, of one’s facelessness. Her existence in a subsection simply reinforced her presence in the whole. She was alive, and that’s what it reminded her of, and she hated him for it. She hated Santa Claus.

• •

On the plane to Toronto there is a close call with a Santa-hatted man while on her way to the bathroom. He is one of eight she spotted on that flight, one of three with a seat on the aisle. He gets up from his seat as she makes her way to the front, also trying to go to the bathroom. When he sees her, he smiles and ushers her to go first. He is probably Canadian. Annalise freezes and returns the gesture. After a reluctant moment, he goes—his sense of chivalry unwinding. She goes back to her seat and resolves not to go to the bathroom until they land, and succeeds. Maria hasn’t slept the whole flight, but she has been quiet, aside from some laughing. Donald has been making goofy, bearded faces for her the entire time.

• •

And he was nothing but an unattributable him, wasn’t he? The flesh that filled the folds of the red suit in a working-class mall, taking grabs at young girls. He probably had a wife he didn’t love anymore, plus a few snot-nosed kids. Or maybe not. That’s what bothers Annalise, that even he, this he who may have similarly gripped, “patted”—the hand similarly haunting—was absolutely nobody, just like everyone else. He was, despite the interchange, absolutely no different from anyone. Not the worst of criminals nor her most beloved. No different than the man with the Santa hat who went to the bathroom, no different from her mother, from Donald, the untipped gondolier. That’s what it was. There was no specialness, no specificity to him, he was a simple him, garbed and garbage, like everyone else. Perhaps there was no malice to him, except for the momentary, present want to reach out to another human, to make an impression. Was it jealousy? Had she made an impression? She must have. Those fourteen boys, her first love, Maria, her father. No, it wasn’t jealousy, and yes, it was malice, but it wasn’t targeted so much as enacted. Done to the world through the human medium, because being noticed by the world is a thing that requires neurons and consciousness, what other way is there? There are better ways, yes, harder ways. She hates him for taking the easy way, but he still lost, didn’t he? Because he is yet unnamed. Just another Santa. Just another cotton-wrapped heartbeat.

• •

Annalise sleeps a few broken hours on the overnight to Frankfurt. She dreams of damp, cracked windshields and procrastination. She is back in college, though she has never been to college, and she is realizing that she hasn’t been studying for or attending a course for the entire semester. She wakes up and she grabs Donald, and Maria is asleep, still quiet. “What is it, Annie?” Donald says, low. “I haven’t gone to Accounting all term, and now I’m going to fail,” Annalise says, timorous. Donald, smiling his dim noncommittal smile, raises a large, dark hand to her face, and there is nothing but the darkness and him. “Don’t worry, I’ll help.”

And when they fly to Venice? There are no more Santa hats, and Maria is awake and she is restless and hungry and babbling. Annalise is numb, but somewhat revitalized. All her anxieties have cooked her, her body a crucible, the excess burned off. She has had a moment of revitalization and viewership. She finds Donald’s hand. She takes it. Thinks of its own conversation through the human medium. Thinks of her own smooth hands holding his, and how much control she has over them, at least. How much of a difference they can make in a few small lives. They hold hands as they fly over Venice. The flight attendants make announcements in German, then Italian, and finally English. There are clouds, but through one small opening Annalise catches a glimpse of the tiny city, its dark veins, its greenness despite it being winter.

Maria is sleeping on Donald’s chest, her soft-haired head nestled underneath his chin, by the time they make their final descent. His eyes are half-asleep, too, but his hand still returns Annalise’s grip. If Santa were here, he’d be wearing black, and if he were here, maybe she wouldn’t care. Maybe she wouldn’t even notice.

• •

When they land and get off the plane, Annalise collapses on the floor outside of Arrivals, on their way to the baggage carousels. Thankfully Donald is holding onto Maria. At first he stoops to help her up, but then, seeing her as she is, decides to sit on the floor with her. He encircles both Maria and Annalise, his beard propped on the top of his wife’s head as she burrows into his chest, wiping her face on his sweaty travel clothes. People flow around them, each one carrying hands, but nobody reaches for them. The little family simply sits there, in the middle of the airport, in the Venetian December, in Italy, clutched by Europe and the Eurasian plate. Meanwhile, Earth spins east, and the sun sprints west across the sky. The Milky Way is still there, swirling wide around them, and supposedly the stars from afar have already burned out, but they can’t tell, not here, not yet, not in this particular moment. They aren’t even looking.

Maria, groggy on Annalise’s lap, laughs and grasps at her—she finds her mom’s tears silly—and Donald hears his mother-in-law, only four years his senior, calling to them, waving her hands in the air, moving against the stream of bodies. But she’s getting there. And Annalise is finally taking the time to just let all the small things out, like a clam spitting pearls at the bottom of the ocean: a little coffin deep in the darkest Denver dirt; a small choking of a faceless, everyday villain; the slim mishandling of a miniaturized her. And this letting out takes a while, and, from a different angle, it takes no time at all.

• •

Later that day, worn, Annalise will walk along the dark canals with her mother, as Donald will sit down in the shade of an outdoor café, sipping espresso as Maria naps. On their walk, Annalise will see a rat jump from a footbridge and swim across a canal. She will see gondoliers sculling the world along. She will hear Italian yelled out across the water, friendly and sharp. This walk will be an hour but will feel as if a compression of the years that have passed since Annalise and her mother have seen each other. She’ll hold her mother’s hand and they won’t say much. Her mother will not take Annalise to the place where her father died because she won’t want her to know it, so Annalise will instead feel him flow through every swirl of the water, traumatizing the city—every brick, rat, and splashed tourist.

Annalise will, for the first time, understand why her mother could not come back to Denver, and when they finally finish their little walk, past the hot blasts of bakery vents and the well-tanned people leaning over high balconies to flop freshly laundered sheets like flags—when they circle around to where Donald is waiting, weary, with the baggage—Maria will be awake and flat out in his huge, bare arms. When Annalise and her mother arrive, Maria, in Donald’s arms, will pedal her little bare feet into his thick arm, and one of her tiny hands will be wound up and tugging his beard, while the other will yank down at that empty, endless, widowed air.