Joyland

New York |

Tremor

by Dana Schwartz

edited by Amy Shearn

It looks like that hotel from The Shining, Rebecca thinks as they pull into the looping driveway of the Catskills resort. She opens the passenger door, fumbling with her new Lucite cane. Her secret hope was that its translucence would render it invisible, but the result has been the opposite. People fawn over it like a flashy accessory rather than an unfortunate necessity. In seconds Jack is by her side, offering his arm.

“I’m fine,” she says, shooing him away with the cane. He hurries around back to unload their luggage.

In unison the girls slink out of the car, both wearing ear buds and moving to different rhythms. Her older daughter Maya shoots a scowl in her direction, still furious that her social media privileges have been revoked. Ellie gives her a hopeful smile and she forces one in return. Leaning hard on the cane, Rebecca ignores the curious stares from an old couple standing beside the entrance.

While Jack checks them in, she and the girls wait in the mahogany paneled lobby. Guests loiter around low tables and cluster on couches. They look like they’ve been bused in from retirement homes. Some are even playing cards. What have we done, she wonders as she lowers herself into a hardback chair, leaning her cane against dusty curtains the color of raw meat. She looks at her girls, their adolescent limbs splayed out over the cushioned chairs, scraping their backpacks over the tops of antique tables as if they were at home.

Three nights in the Catskills and already it feels like purgatory.

Rebecca stares at the couch where they draped their jackets and it takes a few moments for her to decipher the pattern. Bees. Hundreds of golden bees in military formation on creamy beige linen. In an instant she feels them gathering, small numbing swarms pushing against the swollen flesh of her feet and ankles. The near constant pins and needles sensation is something she tries to ignore, but now, as if sensing another hive nearby, her bees have woken up. Desperate for a distraction, she grabs a magazine and flips through half a dozen pages before realizing it’s a marketing pamphlet for the hotel.

Several weeks ago, her husband showed her the same images on his phone while she was getting pumped with a round of intravenous steroids at the hospital.

“It’s retro but modern, and far enough away to feel like a vacation,” Jack said, looking pleased. “The girls can go ice skating, and at night they have live performances. Plus, I found a coupon online.”

She agreed because it was easier than arguing, but wishes she had put up a fight, voted for a trip to Florida, the west coast instead of the Disney side. She could be floating in the Gulf of Mexico or taking a dip in the cool waters of Ponce de Leon Springs, hoping for a miracle. But instead they’re at this resort in the old Borscht Belt. The website boasted a resurgence, a bold second act from the heyday of the 1950s, but from the looks of the frayed and faded carpets it’s not going well. Now she holds the magazine in her hands, squeezing and releasing, trying to ignore the tremor running along the middle finger of her right hand.

Across the room Rebecca watches her husband leaning against the reception counter. The young hotel clerk giggles as she taps her screen. Jack doesn’t consider his behavior flirtatious, and probably would be offended if she suggested it. She focuses on the enormous painting hanging behind them, a sumptuous landscape of the Catskills in a moody arrangement of greens and grays. It could be by a lesser-known artist from the Hudson River School or a skilled imitation. She’d like a closer look, but the idea of walking across the room squelches her curiosity. In art school she dabbled with a similar romantic style, drawn to lush landscapes and rolling hills, but her professors often critiqued her lopsided compositions, how she favored sky over terrain. It wasn’t until after graduation that she eliminated terrain altogether.

When people ask Rebecca what she paints, her initial answer is simple. Clouds. But if pressed, she’ll happily describe the endless varieties. Billowy and soft, striated and stippled, fibrous and silken. She has painted skies during every possible passage of time, dawn, mid day, sunset, and dusk. Despite some initial derision from her fellow art school alumni, she carved out a niche for herself. Her work sold, not only to friends, but also to cafés and boutiques. One Italian bistro commissioned her to transform their ceiling into a Roman sky at sunset, and she did, despite never having been to Italy.

In the early chaotic years of motherhood, her painting business went quiet, but once the girls were in school she started up again, turning the empty space above the detached garage into a studio, complete with east and west facing windows. She’d wake before the girls and return at dusk while they did their homework, coming back hours later smelling of turpentine, the backs of her hands streaked with blue.

After the diagnosis Rebecca continued her regular studio hours, but something was off. Not in her hands, not yet, but in her mind. She became overly critical, finding error where she hadn’t before, searching for clues of distress in every brushstroke. Several weeks earlier she shut down her online site. She still hasn’t told Jack, or anyone at all. Despite a rising wall of despair, she hopes a switch will flip, and her creativity and confidence will return when her disease goes into remission.

A sleek silver haired couple sits down on a nearby divan, no canes in sight. They immediately launch into a debate about the merits of the neighboring ski slopes, and she glances Maya, relieved that her ear buds are still in place. The ninth grade ski trip had not gone well. Most of the other kids had skied before, at least once, but not their daughter. This did not seem to affect her excitement level, which was alarmingly high. Rebecca realizes now that had been a sign. Even as a little girl, her first child often built up events to unattainable heights. Disappointment was almost mandatory.

A week before the trip, Rebecca stopped at a farmers’ market to pick up a few things for dinner. Halfway across the gravel lot, she fell, and could not get up. After calling Jack, he drove her to the closest emergency care center, which led to a specialist, and finally to the hospital. Like a cruelly organized scavenger hunt, the prize turned out to be a diagnosis. Multiple sclerosis, a disease whose name rightly suggests a plentitude of symptoms and suffering.

Most parents would’ve had their child skip the ski trip, especially since it coincided with her first bout of intravenous steroids, but Jack wouldn’t consider it. He organized a car pool with a friend’s father and made a last minute trip to the sporting goods store for a particular brand of ski pants, determined to keep everything status quo.

But it was all for nothing. Maya spent most of the day struggling to keep up with her friends, ending up alone in the lodge loading up on hot chocolate. When Rebecca received the news from her hospital bed, she tried to be sympathetic, but secretly felt vindicated. She wanted to shout, I knew it was a mistake, but sent a sympathetic text instead, peppered with appropriately mournful emojis.

She hears her name being called and looks up. There he is, her husband striding toward them, his handsome face split open in a smile. He moves with such ease, his legs unperturbed by the complicated mechanics her body can no longer manage, and for a moment her breath catches in her throat, wondering if he’s showing off. Her face flushes with guilt as he helps her up, careful to make it look gentlemanly rather than necessary, tucking the cane beneath his other arm. The bellhop goes ahead with their luggage and the girls drift along in their wake as they head toward the elevator.

“What are we supposed to do?” Maya complains the moment they enter their adjoining rooms. “This place is like an old age home.”

“I like it. Makes me feel young,” Jack says, but no one responds. Rebecca watches the girls withdraw inward like turtles, Ellie twisting an armful of faded friendship bracelets around her wrist while Maya flops on the bed with a groan.

The room feels overly warm, the air stale and smelling faintly of cigarettes even though she is pretty sure no one smokes in hotels anymore. Rebecca starts to stand, one hand poised on the bed, and all six eyes fly at her body as if magnetized. Sighing, she plops back down.

“Why don’t you girls go explore? I think there’s a game room,” she says, ignoring Maya’s rolling eyes, “and an ice rink.” She hands Ellie the glossy brochure from the lobby. On the cover is a red-cheeked family of four holding skis, the tops of their knit hats dusted with snow.

“We’ll meet in the lobby at five before dinner. Don’t forget your coats and gloves,” she says, stuffing a twenty-dollar bill in each girl’s hand.

When the door closes behind them she lets out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. The air tastes different and beneath the smoky aroma she smells something yeasty and warm. People still have sex in hotel rooms, that she is certain. She tugs off her sweater. Jack’s eyes widen. Using her cane, she pokes the top of his thigh.

“Hurry,” she says, her unhooking her bra. “We don’t have much time.”

***

“Your turn, Hazel,” the boy with the peroxided hair says as he passes Maya the joint. She pinches it between her fingers as if she’s done this many times instead of once, last Thanksgiving, in her cousin’s basement.

“My name isn’t Hazel.”

“But your eyes are.” His dimpled smile unhinges her and she almost drops the burning stub in the snow.

They met that day in the game room, though she noticed him at dinner the night before. How could she not, with that shock of white hair and all those piercings up one ear? He looked as miserable as she felt until he caught her staring.

Smiling, Maya ducks her head, unable to believe her good luck. Right now her family is in the ballroom being tortured by a no-name comedian while she’s shivering with a joint in her hand next to a boy who has already forgotten her name. She’s pleased by her subterfuge, feigning a headache after dinner and then sneaking down the fire stairwell. It’s her parents’ fault. If she had her phone she probably wouldn’t have noticed him. Her mother was so bent out of shape about her messaging with that older guy. Maya never intended to meet up with him. It was a joke, a game. Her parents take everything so seriously, yet they just don’t get it, how every text, each post, is a test, a tightrope walk. Missing out is sometimes worse than falling off.

“Your turn,” he says again. “Hurry, before it burns out.” They’re standing behind the dumpsters near the kitchen exit. A few of the waitstaff came out earlier to smoke, but no one lasted long. Maya’s fingertips are tingling and her lungs ache, but there’s no way she’s going inside without him.

He inches closer, brushing up against her arm, and the electricity of it makes her shudder. That’s his cue. In seconds his arm loops around her shoulders. Now they’re tethered.

Pinning her jacket shut with one hand, she raises the joint to her lips, trying to keep her fingers from shaking. Her mind leaps back to dinner, her mother’s trembling hand smacking the water glass off the table. They all froze like paper dolls, mouths gaping. A waiter hustled over to sweep away the broken glass. No one said a word. When the meals arrived, Ellie dug in while she and her father pretended not to notice her mother’s rigid grip on the fork, the white bones of her knuckles popping up against the pink flesh.

“Inhale,” the boy says, and Maya smells him, a spicy blend of deodorant and pot. “Like this.” He puts his fingers to his lips and sucks in the cold air.

Without thinking, she mimics him, and for a moment the smoke swirls in her lungs as if it belongs there, but in seconds she is coughing, eyes streaming. She hands him back what’s left of the joint anticipating laughter, but instead he nods with approval. “That’s better.” He takes a final hit before flicking it into the snow, a brief arc of orange and then it’s gone, like the tiniest firework.

She looks at the sky, freckled with stars. Clouds drift by in dark swatches, blotting out the sliver of moon. She feels a strange twisting in her stomach and hopes she’s not getting her period.

“Let’s go inside,” the boy murmurs, leading her by the arm.

They end up in the locked game room, somehow he has a key, and in seconds he pushes her against the pool table. Maya feels the hard heat of him beneath his cold jeans and grips the back of his jacket. Maybe the pot is working because her legs feel like melted wax, molding against his body, and she no longer cares if she is bleeding or not. His lips press down on hers. They’re rougher than she expected, so she focuses on the warm wet of his tongue. She knows how to kiss, thanks to her best friend whose boyfriend always brings a companion when they sneak out during weekend sleepovers. Never the same boy, and this has honed her skills. But she’s not stupid. Unlike other girls who use their bodies as currency, and for nothing, she keeps everything above the waist. Tonight, far away from prying eyes and smart phones, she considers something different. Her hand fumbles with the button of his fly. Pulling back, he looks at her with something like alarm, but she pivots them around so he’s against the pool table and drops to her knees. Glancing up, she marvels at what she’s orchestrated. With one hand he unzips while the other rests on her hair. Electricity crackles down the roots, shooting into her belly and between her legs. Reaching up, Maya takes him into her hands, but before she can slide him into her mouth, his pelvis rocks and he convulses. A jet of hot sticky fluid fills her palms and for a moment she holds it there, like an offering.

Then she stands, shaking off her hands in disgust, wiping them on her jeans. He’s stuttering apologies, red-faced, when the game room door opens. Both of them go silent as he hunches forward to zip up. The brightness of the light is blinding at first, and she shields her eyes, watching the silhouette in the doorway turn into the shape of her sister.

***

Rivers of sweat run down Jack’s body, filling his armpits and crotch, staining his shirt. It’s their last night at the resort and he’s determined to squeeze in a workout before dinner. Everything orbits around meals, which could’ve made for a tedious holiday, but there has been nothing tedious about it.

He raises the incline several notches, grunting with exertion, feeling the muscles strain beneath his skin. All he wants to do in this interim between meals is work himself into a sodden heap and then retreat to the sauna, covering his face with a towel until he is restored.

Despite every attempt not to, he thinks about his wife. Asleep in their hotel room, naked beneath the damp sheet, her face pink with exertion. She sleeps on her side with her hands pressed in prayer position beneath her cheek much like his daughters did as infants. Rebecca is declining. He can see the deterioration in her body as if he has X-ray vision. Through her pale flesh, he imagines the frayed edges of her nerves, unraveling like copper wire. He is more in tune with her body than his own, watching the uneven rhythm of her walk, catching the subtle tremble of her right forearm days before she shattered the glass at dinner. There is power in knowing, but sometimes it feels like a betrayal. Jack keeps tabs in secret, researching next steps in medical treatment and mobility assistance while she holds onto hope.

Her hands. Dread pools in his stomach. One thing he hasn’t allowed himself to contemplate is what will happen if the disease takes away her hands. There’s her painting, of course, but also basic abilities one takes for granted, feeding, bathing, and the intimacies of self-care. With effort he pushes down the most selfish worry of all, what about him?

During this long weekend Rebecca has reminded him, sometimes twice daily, of the power she wields over his body. Last night he woke up to his wife feeding on him like a beautiful vulture, her dark hair in a swirling pile across his belly and thighs, her back heaving. It’s all come rushing back this weekend, the lustiness of their early years together, how she shocked him with her daring, pulling him under the awning of a closed shop to give him a blowjob, having sex on the side of a mountain, in a sculpture garden. They married, had kids, and the wildness quieted, but now, somehow, it had returned.

Jack didn’t mean for things to progress with that woman from the gym back home. It started out harmlessly enough. Some playful banter in the weight room, sidelong glances on the elliptical machines, him checking out her ass in those skintight lycra pants every woman seems to wear nowadays. Then one day she stopped him outside the locker room, hair damp, cheeks rouged from the heat of the sauna. She twisted her wedding ring as she explained the arrangement she had with her husband.

“I don’t have an arrangement,” he said, edging backwards.

She smiled, the plump pink of her lips giving way to whitened teeth, the kind seen only on television and dental office pamphlets. “That’s okay,” she said, handing him a slip of paper with her name and number.

For weeks he kept it tucked behind his license, pulling it out until the numbers were faded. Then, one day, he texted her.

Jack’s body responds on the treadmill thinking about her pictures and texts, and he almost loses his balance. Guilt courses through him and he still feels the burn of shame at what could’ve happened, at what he almost ruined, and for what? A quick thrill, an ego boost. Some alleged proof that he was more than the static roles in his life, husband, father, businessman.

The day his wife fell, he’d been preparing for a meeting in his office. When his cell vibrated he grabbed it, eager for a distraction, but it wasn’t who he thought it would be. He sped down the highway, screeching into the gravel lot. He saw her sitting on the ground chatting with a man. Rushing over, he felt confused and a little annoyed. She didn’t appear hurt and smiled at his approach.

“What’s going on? Why don’t you get up?”

“I can’t.” Her voice was calm, but her eyes were glassy with fear.

The gym door squeaks open and an older couple enters. He watches the way they walk in tandem, hands clasped, before choosing separate machines. Even then they share a quick smile, a wave. His vision blurs and he grabs a towel to mop up the sweat streaming into his eyes. Days after Rebecca’s diagnosis, he sent a final text to the woman and ended things. One brief exchange and she was gone, as if it had never happened. Some days he pretends it didn’t. To be safe he changed gyms, telling his family he found one closer to home. But that doesn’t explain why he kept the pictures, transferring them from his phone to a flash drive that he now keeps in a locked drawer at his office.

Outside it begins to snow, and he watches it come down in languid drifts, coating the arms of pine trees. He wishes he had taken his daughters on a hike or snowshoeing, but he couldn’t leave Rebecca, her need and his. The other night he worried about the girls hearing them.

“They’re probably not even there,” she said. Alarmed at the prospect, he crept out of bed to check before returning to her. She hooked one leg around his waist, cinching him in, the other lying limp beneath the floral comforter.

Nothing has to change, is what he said at their family meeting, the day they returned from the hospital. The girls looked so young, sitting around the kitchen table, surrounded by homework and dirty dishes. His wife remained silent, hands folded on her lap, head bowed, as he stood above them, explaining everything and making promises he couldn’t keep.

Maya leapt from the table, a cascade of books plummeting to the floor, while Ellie watched, as if trying to decipher the meaning of her flight. Throughout it all, Rebecca did not move.

“Nothing will change,” he repeated to the audience that remained. The words turned over in his mind like a scratched record, looping faster and louder, until everything else was drowned out, until he believed them.

***

The ice is scrubbed clean. No dents, no scratches. A fresh palette. Some spots still gleaming wet. As usual, Ellie is the first on the rink and her skates glide over the glassy surface with ease. In a few hours the ice will be pockmarked and jagged with scars, but by then she’ll be gone. Her parents are packing while she enjoys one last skate. No one knows where Maya has been spending her time, but stranger still, her parents don’t seem to care.

Ellie skates harder, faster, trying to obliterate the memory of her sister and that boy, but it’s stuck, like a movie on pause. Maya didn’t speak to her at all on their walk back to the room. No thank you for covering up her lies, or bothering to ask why they left the show early. Typical. Her sister is ice princess cold, but not the pretty kind with a heart that warms. Of course she could tell her parents what she saw, but then she’d have to describe the scene and watch their faces as they listened. No, it’s not worth it. Besides, she isn’t a tattletale.

A few younger kids arrive at the rink with their parents. Maya’s wrong about this place being like an old age home. The other families are just busy having fun together, not sequestered in their rooms or moping around the lobby between meals. She wishes her father took her snow boarding, but every time she asked he came up with another excuse.

After the third time he admitted the truth. “I don’t want to leave your mom alone. It just doesn’t seem fair for the three of us to go off without her.”

Ellie let that sink in, the idea that her mother might sometimes be left behind. Then her father’s face brightened.

“You’ve always been good at making friends. I bet you could find some kids to go skating with.”

He was wrong, but instead of correcting him she grabbed her coat and left. Since entering middle school things like making friends no longer comes so easily. Her mother seems to understand this, but where has she been all weekend? Resting, her father keeps saying, but Ellie’s starting to wonder if that’s another one of his lies.

At least she has the rink. She skates every chance she can. The lady behind the rental counter doesn’t bother putting her skates away until closing. This morning in the shower she noticed new muscles in her calves swimming up and down her legs like fish. She thought about how the man at the rink said skating was good cardio. He was right. One time he let her ride alongside him in the Zamboni, explaining the mechanics. Ellie wonders what her parents would think if they knew he is the one friend she managed to make.

The first time he spoke to her, complimenting her skating form, she assumed he was a creep and ignored him. But he was there when she returned that evening.

“I was just trying to say you’ve got a knack for it. You could be a figure skater.”

She glared at him. “Not a chance.”

“Ice hockey, then?”

That made her pause. “Girls do that?”

“Of course,” he said, his lips curving into a smile. “The smart ones.”

Soon after, he closed the rink and took out the Zamboni, transforming the cratered ice into a smooth glistening mirror. Every time she saw him after that, he’d offer her advice on technique. “Squat lower,” he said yesterday, coming onto the ice to adjust her stance. He put his hands on her hips and for a moment she froze. “That’s it,” he said, his hands pushing her down. “Now keep your head up, and swing your arms forward not sideways.” Then he gave her a little push and she was off.

Later he brought over a bottle of water and sat beside her as she unlaced her skates. “Hockey is all about strength and speed. You’ve got both.” Ellie blushed to the roots of her hair. No one ever called her strong. Sturdy, yes, but it was never meant as a compliment. On the ice she felt weightless and powerful.

Wind rushes through her hair as she whips around the turns. She’s gotten used to the cold and doesn’t bother wearing a hat anymore. A little boy and his mother have taken over the center of the rink. He’s using a walker for balance. Every time his mother reaches out to help, he bats her hand away. He falls several times, but laughs when his mother scoops him up, covering his cheeks with kisses. They make slow wobbly circles and the boy pretends to chase her. Hunched forward over his walker, he looks more like a tiny old man than a child.

Her mother has a walker. She found it in the back of her father’s closet, the price tag still attached, when she went searching for a suitcase. Ellie felt strange, almost embarrassed, like the time she found a package of condoms on the floor by her parents’ bed. She didn’t say anything to her father, and now she wonders if her mother knows it’s there.

A high-pitched cry pierces the air. The boy has fallen again, but this time he’s hurt. She twists around, intending to help, but she’s traveling too fast and loses control, crashing into the sidewall. The impact is startling and for a moment everything goes black. When she opens her eyes the sun above her dazzles. As shouting voices grow closer, she stares at the slow moving clouds and thinks about her mother’s many skies. She has several cloudy portraits mounted on the walls of her room. One day, she hopes her mother will paint her ceiling.

Arms lift her up off the cold ice and she moans at the pain blossoming in her head. Ellie recognizes the man’s voice as he takes steady strides over the ice. “You’re going to be okay.”

He settles her down on a bench using his jacket as a pillow, and returns a few moments later with a first aid kit. The mother of the little boy presses a square of white gauze on the cut above her eye. The two confer about the damage. “I don’t think she needs stitches,” the woman says to the man who agrees. They’re talking about her as if she’s an invalid or a small child and this annoys her. Ellie forces herself to sit, taking hold of the gauze.

“I’m fine,” she says, wincing. Her mouth floods with a coppery taste and realizes she must have bitten her tongue.

The little boy stands beside his mother sucking on a baby food pouch. His eyes are as brown as his skin, but the whites surrounding them are clear. There is no sign of his previous distress. She tries to smile to show she’s okay, but grimaces instead.

The woman picks up her son and balances him on one hip. “Do you want me to find your mom?”

Ellie shakes her head. After they leave, the man brings her a cup of water. She takes small sips, grateful for the cold liquid on her swollen tongue.

“You survived your first wipe out,” he says after applying tape to the gauze. “Don’t let it stop you.”

“I won’t,” she says. But the problem is she doesn’t know who could take her to the local rink. Her mother hardly drives anymore. With a sigh, she lets her body sag against his. He puts his arm around her and pats her shoulder. Across the rink, a woman hobbles toward them and it takes Ellie a few moments to recognize the crooked gait, the crystal wink of the cane. “Poor lady,” the man says.

“That’s my mom.”

They watch her approach and the man stands, gesturing to the wet floor. “Be careful,” he says, but she ignores him. Seconds later she’s standing in front of the bench. The cane clatters as it hits the ground.

“What happened?” her mother asks, sitting down. She turns Ellie’s chin toward hers and lifts the gauze.

Unable to speak she shrugs, taking a deep inhale of her mother’s shampoo, the familiar lemon and lavender aroma filling her up. Tears threaten to spill out of her eyes but she swallows them down with the blood.

“I fell,” she finally says. “No big deal.”

The man stands in front of them, rolling back and forth on his heels. “Do you want me to call a medic? The resort has some on staff.”

“You haven’t called anyone yet?”

“No, but I can.”

Her mother shakes her head. “That’s okay. I’ll walk her back.”

“I can call for a golf cart.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

He nods, saluting them both as he turns to go. “See you later, champ.” Ellie is about to explain that she won’t be back, but her mother gives a sharp look.

“Who was that man?” she asks the moment he is out of sight.

“My friend.”

Her mom opens her mouth as if to say something, but then changes her mind. “You’re bleeding again. Lay down.”

She pats her lap and brushes Ellie’s tangled hair with her fingers. Soft, slow strokes, barely a tremor.

Closing her eyes, Ellie lets her head sink into her mother’s thighs. They are strong and solid, and she feels a sudden urgency to remain exactly where she is for as long as she can.