Excerpt from "The Press"
The materials had finally arrived. On the porch lay twelve body-length planks, a cardboard box, and three Styrofoam tubs shaped like lozenges. Cliff nicked the planks free of their straps and ran one shaking hand along the grain. Nestled in a wad of bubble wrap was a jar of screws in a shade so silver they were almost blue. Cliff considered calling in sick, but he had double history in the afternoon, and his class was already behind.
As he shuttled the lumber inside, Petra sat on the sofa and tapped her cigarette ash into a mason jar. She’d been wearing the same cat shirt for a week. There was a throw tied around her neck like a cape, so that she could nap wherever. It had been three months since the morning on which Cliff had found his wife immobile in the shower, hair sluicing over her face. She announced to the drain: “There is something rotten in the state of Petra.”
Cliff got all the materials off the porch just as the sky started to spit soft dollops of rain. He gave Petra his best kiss, and said, with what he hoped communicated both concern and absolute faith in her recovery, “Maybe you should try for a walk today, Pet?”
Petra did not look up. Her fingers dissected a piece of French toast.
* * *
Cliff wanted to be the sort of husband who could will his wife out of her worst-ever slump, but he was only the sort of husband who hovered anxiously and made her meals that she let spoil in their Tupperware, preferring instead to eat French toast and sheaves of cheese slices. The house had become a ripple of brick and mortar fanning from under the weight of her depression; the kitchen existed only to contain the smell of her dishes, the hall plummeted into nothingness with the rising of her unwashed foot. She moved slow, like the iron in her blood had precipitated into fishing sinkers. Cliff tried to get her sketching, but the pad and pencils he arranged on the table for her each day went untouched. He tried to read with her for an hour every day, to keep her used to human contact.
Before Petra’s depression, Cliff would come home from work and pour her a glass of wine to signal the end of the work day. They would talk. She’d read an art magazine and he’d grade, pausing to read out particularly egregious sentences. Now in the evenings, Cliff paused on the porch and felt a dread akin to that of Amboise Paré just before lifting the flap of the cauterization tent. Who knew whose leg had burst with infection, who had died in the night? Usually, Cliff found his wife asleep. He’d feel for her breath on his hand, and when it came, he was overcome with relief, but also a weariness. It was by no means certain that the woman he loved would ever emerge from the woman he now lived with.
When he needed to breathe, he would go on walks. On weekends, the school was closed, but on weekday evenings he circled the concrete walkway around the football field and thought. There had been dips in Petra’s mood before, but she always cycled out of them. When this depression had lasted a month, he’d convinced her to see a therapist, who had done nothing except prescribe two fluoxetine caps in the morning and an hour of sunlight a day, which sounded more like growing instructions for tender seedlings than medical advice. Cliff had considered calling Petra’s parents, but they’d blame him for indulging her. They thought he was a pushover. Was it passivity to stand with a person who you loved and refuse to abandon them? Then he was passive. The too nice thing bugged him, though, because he wasn’t even. It was more that he had an inner rectitude that prevented him, like a spinal brace, from ever relaxing. An extra good self raced ahead of him and agreed to painful and inconvenient things, like moving a photocopier from the dean’s office to the reception building, while a second, bitter self followed behind, doing all the schlepping. But he had failed, failed as a husband. He’d taken up extra grading to offset Petra’s lost income, but it was a kind of penance too.
It was on one of his sad evening walks that Cliff decided to build a printing press. The light was failing by this point, pulling streaks of cloud into pink relief. A breeze picked up. He’d make this his last lap, then. As he neared the gate, he saw a pair of lovers kissing on the grass. He felt a flip of irritation — thank goodness he didn’t recognize the male student.
As he neared the couple, he noticed that they weren’t kissing, though. The boy was holding up his pointer finger. Some thick threads were tied around his finger’s base, from which the girl was rapidly weaving a braid. Or trying to weave. Just when she got a good rhythm going the boy would tug his finger back into his chest, or thrust it towards her, and she’d lose her hold on the strings. She slapped his shoulder and started again. They could probably play this game for hours.
As he walked past, Cliff dipped his gaze. How wonderful to be with your love, making something. It crushed his heart.
Cliff had first met Petra on a night like this — not cold until the wind gusted. Back then, night was the most real time in the world, a shroud that could catch and lift to reveal some completely new thing — a terrible accident, a beautiful face — to answer the mad thrumming in his bones. He had been going to a party, though he never got inside. Outside was a girl, backlit and calmly smoking. She was all Sturm und Drang, with painted nails and safety pins through her ear cartilage. He called the effect she’d had on him at that moment, Petra-fication. After that, Cliff drove from Berkeley to her studio at Cal Arts twice a week. He didn’t know how to negotiate the space between his stool and where Petra stood, working her scalpel with insectile speed while listening to his art history anecdotes, but he knew that if he dwelt there for long enough, that he would eventually become her boyfriend.
One night, she sank a blade deep into her thumb. There was blood everywhere. She refused to go to the hospital until Cliff promised to smuggle the cube in under his shirt, so that she could keep working on it. That was the Petra he’d fallen for: exact and exacting, hard-hearted and meticulous, deep in the service of an excellence that only she could see. She didn’t care what people said about her work, if she knew it was good; likewise, if it was bad, nothing could save it. She’d pour waste water over an inferior print until it was a sodden mass she could disarticulate with a paintbrush. That was Petra as Galizia Fede Gallici, or Hypatia. A beauty brightened by genius. Careless with her talent like only the rich could be. That was who he used to go to art shows with, every guy in the room wanting her (and she knew, dripped wit with the certainty of it), and the looks on their faces when they saw him (milquetoast with a set of shoulders curved like a protractor), because — right? — his brains were sexy. So she had made him believe.
That girl was a distant version of the woman who now sat at home. Young Petra had almost exclusively done wood-block carving. An honest medium, she called it, because it accepted its belatedness. She’d only switched to painting when she left Cal Arts and could no longer run her blocks through their press machine.
Cliff turned into their street. TV light flashed onto the lawn; the grass was a swathe of tinkling neon tines.
What if he was to make her a press machine? The image of a press rose before him. He saw the liquid body of the machine setting beneath his hands into handsome brown wood. It would be a process, saving his wife, but he would do it slowly, beautifully, with manful craft. He of all people knew the lesson of history: that with patience and forethought and infinite pains, even the past could be recovered.
. . .