The Empty Nest

A poet balances marriage, betrayal, and mythology at the Met.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty

I can’t write in there. With all his stuff. It’s his room. It’s not like he isn’t coming back home. The prodigal son, my husband says, and sighs. He misses him too. I move the gold heart on the chain of my necklace back and forth. It’s wobbling. Heavy. I hear him in the kitchen chopping vegetables. I come to join him. Let me help, I say. Once we delighted in making all-day pot roasts and splendid layers of potatoes au gratin, tomato pie. Long mornings in bed. He’s a kind man. Generous. When I’m sick, he makes me cups of tea and strains the chicken pieces from the chicken soup. When we grocery shop, he carries the heavy bags home. When I travel, he plants a set of earplugs in my carry-on so I can listen to films on the airplane screen. On the weekends, he gets up early and goes to Fairway for fresh muffins. He splits the household chores, brings home tulips for our table. This week they’re bright yellow, they’ve opened slightly, revealing delicate black stamens and dusts of pollen like a shedding of blood at the end of the month, fallen to the table. There is no map to follow. Marriage is a geological problem. Two forces of competing desires create instability in a rock formation. I must step carefully, watch where I tread. Don’t start anything. We haven’t learned how to be alone together again since my son’s been gone. I’ve got it, he says. Go finish reading your article.

The rain falls down the windows, leaving puddles overflowing on the outdoor sill. Cars on the street slosh through flooding water. The window, a dark kaleidoscope. Streets damp and dark. Like a madman, Poseidon continues to wield his rage, tumbling trash cans, hurling garbage into the streets, forcing rats underground. My mind won’t quiet. The impending review. The Visiting Poet. The work it requires to repress. My mind grinds through it all.

My husband checks out the scores on the TV with a dish towel tucked into his pants. Boyish, with nerdy black glasses that leave indentations on each side of his nose, hair tousled and a sheen of sweat on his face from the game’s excitement. He points at the screen, raging at the quarterback for making a terrible pass like he does to the pundits on CNN who won’t confront the political spin. He’s become an alarmist. He listens to the news at night and shakes his head. It’s a zoo out there, he says.

I look from the review to see my husband staring at me. He does that now, as if he knows something I’m not telling him. What, I say. Nothing, he says. He goes back to the kitchen and stops at the dining room table. Are you planning to clear off your work, he says, raising his eyebrows, so we can eat? He picks up the advance reader copy—ARC—of my new book. The Rape of the Swan. A sonnet sequence that ends in violation and loss. In her email yesterday, my editor said it’s the first book from the press that the NYT has deemed worthy of review. Why would they review a book from a small press only to trash it? They Wouldn’t give it to Hugh Pynyon, would they? I feel sick.

I tuck my papers in my tote bag for Monday and bring the rest into the bedroom. Put down my ARC on the dresser. Wander into my son’s room, collapse on his bed, thrust my face in his pillow, smell the Axe shampoo he insists upon. He has a touch of vanity, something new I have noticed in this generation of boys. I long to smell the top of his head, to see him flash me his smile.

I go back to the bedroom, to the ARC of my book on my dresser, and flip through it. All the years of tinkering that went into each sonnet. All the years of rejection before my first book was taken. The Bell Jar was rejected by Plath’s poetry editor, until it rose from the ashes to become a sensation. Published only a month before she died. A poet who never knew the depth of how she was admired. It doesn’t seem fair. I roam back to the living room still holding the ARC. In graduate school I sometimes questioned whether I had a gift or was just wasting time, whether my desire to write—my need—was stronger than my voice. Even after publishing in established literary magazines, two critically acclaimed books, the doubts still creep in.

My husband attacks vegetables in the kitchen with a paring knife. He does everything with force. I stand on the other side of the counter. I can no longer contain it. I heard from my editor on Friday. My book is going to be reviewed by The New York Times Book Review, I say. That’s great, my husband says. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? I nod. So what’s wrong, then? he says looking up.

What if it’s bad? Mehta can’t wait to humiliate me in our department meetings. Did I tell you what he did last week? He accused me of treating the boys like my children after a scuffle in the hallway. Said that I’m not tough enough. He thinks he’s teaching at a military academy. Do we have to talk about him again? my husband says, going after the carrots now as if they will run away. He looks back at me. That’s great about your book, he says again. Really.

I retreat to the bathroom, slam down the toilet-seat cover. Sit. Lean over and put my head in my hands. How can I tell my husband my hope is that the review will elevate me, a minor poet, into the limelight? How would he understand how important this is? If it’s good, I might win a prize. Leave my institution for something bigger, grander. No. I shake my head. But he would understand. I steel myself before wandering back into the kitchen. What’s happening to me? I take out the plates, wine glasses, and silverware to set the table. Our best linen napkins. Why not celebrate?
My husband uncorks a bottle of red while the sauce in the pan simmers. I put Swan Lake in our CD player on the counter. Why not? I love Tchaikovsky’s opening. I’ve heeded to the magical story of the water nymph, visualizing her long, welcoming gestures waiting for something grand and magical to happen while composing my long poem.

This is my prince, my husband, with his dish towel tucked into his waist, his uncombed hair pushed back. He has beautiful hair, thick with little gray, and a cleft in his chin. He bears a scar on his left cheek that runs from the corner of his ear to his cheekbone. A tussle with his good-for-nothing father (his words), when his mother asked him to fetch him for dinner from the bookie who lived in one of the neighboring apartments in their building. His drunken father pushed him away, my husband fell, gashed his cheek on the corner of a table. It’s raised and bubbly from never having healed properly. I’ll never forgive his father.

I set the table. Fold the napkins into little pockets I learned waitressing in college and place the fork inside. I put the yellow tulips in the pitcher in the center of the table, fuss with their arrangement until I’m satisfied, then stand back to admire them.

That cover of your book. What is it? I left the ARC at the other end of the table. He picks it up. The Rape of the Swan, he says, that’s what it’s called?

Five acts. Each act a crown of sonnets where the first line of each sonnet repeats the final line of the preceding one. The poem is meant to realize the music and destruction of romantic love. Its relentlessness. Its repetition. Its agony. In an early draft, I composed it in free verse, but it felt like it needed to be reined in. And then I thought of Shakespeare’s sonnets of love, tried it in blank verse, and it spun to life. One slant rhythm allowing me to find another. How to explain. How when I’m composing, I sail into the ether of my imagination. Places where desire, loss, anger, confusion reside. Dark, raw, dangerous. I sometimes don’t like what’s revealed. The painful abduction in The Rape of the Swan left me blanched and quivering. Two swans are a strong team when together, but if the male is away, the female will often stop eating. Male swans are loyal, they help to incubate the eggs and care for their cygnets for eight to nine months after they’re born. Male swans vigilantly guard their nests, preventing their mates from being with another male. If another male threatens the nest, the male swan will busk, flaring his wings, grunting and honking in agitation. When the perpetrator threatened the female swan, I felt her fear, as if it were my own life threatened.

How relieved I used to be to hear my husband come home from work, the jangle of his keys dropped on the wood counter. I’d go into the bathroom and take a shower like a guilty lover, embarrassed by the smell and deceit of my mental labor, and out of the shower, while I listened to him chop onions to the sound of the NewsHour I’d feel calm again.

It’s an engraving by Cornelis Bos I saw at an exhibition of drawings and prints at the Met a few years ago, I say. He made it after a painting by Michelangelo. It inspired the earliest version of the poem. It’s an image of the myth of the rape of Leda by Zeus disguised as a swan. So, your book is about a rape? he asks. I pause. Possibly. Or a transgression. I pause again, draw my finger to my lips. It’s for the reader to decide, I say.

Photo: Cornelis Bos/The MET

He looks curiously at it. Leda naked, the swan ecstatically curled into her abdomen, fanning his wings. He’s not literary. At dinner parties with my faculty, nodding through debates over David Foster Wallace and whether it was fair to release his unfinished novel, if Roth deserved the Nobel, fair enough, with his colleagues from the research institute, I’m treading water, with little to say. Suddenly, though, through my hus band’s eyes, the cover’s suggestion of rapturous, bestial lust makes me uncomfortable enough to want to hide it under the sofa. What does he gather when he reads my poems? He has secrets too. The Russian bride he corresponds with on his computer. He thinks I don’t know.

If it’s bad, will the academy want to fire me? If they think my work betrays the high standards of our institution? Why are you going there? He shakes his head. There’s a touch of gray along his hairline. He’s still in his T-shirt and sweatpants. Veins of tension throb in his neck. What does he think?
You can’t control what critics will say. You must stand behind the work regardless, he says, impatient with my doubts and concerns. I know he’s thinking about the reception of his own research, which he agonizes about, testing and retesting before he publishes a paper. Still, it doesn’t make me less anxious. Look at you. You don’t see it, do you? he says. I wonder what he means. I reach for my hair. It’s pulled up with a clip at the top of my head. I look down at my yoga pants. Touch my chest. What does he see that I can’t? What don’t I see? You’re in your own world, he says.

I’ve never been reviewed in a major venue, I say, going to the refrigerator for the Parmesan and putting it in a small bowl for the table. This is important to me. How does that make me in my own world? I bump my hip on the edge of the counter and let out a gasp. He gives me that look, joins me in the kitchen, plates our dinner. How childish we are.

Our plates in front of us, across from each other, my husband pours me a glass of wine. To your review, he says, and clinks glasses. And your new book. Thank you, I say. I take a bite. The broccoli is overcooked and the sausage too spicy.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful I have a husband who has made us dinner.

The cover, he says. It doesn’t look like rape. It looks more I don’t know. Sexual, he says.

What are you saying? Is it too much? It inspired the poem. That’s not what I’m saying. He takes a bite. It’s just a little strange, he says. That’s why I like it, I say defensively. It certainly makes a statement, he says, and gives me that look again. A cover should make a statement, I say. I bite my lip. He cuts into a piece of sausage. Shakes his head. You sound like your mother. Always obsessing. Never standing behind your instincts. Always second-guessing.

Please let’s not talk about my mother. Why is he doing this? You’ve done your best, he says. Have I? I’m not so sure. It’s awful, the care home where she’s living. They give it five stars. I didn’t go to see her this week. Sometimes it’s too hard, I say. And I’m not sure she notices how long between visits. Are you going to take care of her? my husband says. It’s around the clock. You couldn’t do that. He’s right. I had no choice. She could no longer feed or bathe herself, or do her business on her own. My husband is the practical one. He doesn’t question. He waits for the right answer and doesn’t look back. It’s one of his many traits that I admire.

I bring my wineglass to his and clink it again. Cheers, I say, to divert. To cheer us up. What’s going on with you? How’s your new assistant working out? Another crack of thunder shakes our glasses and plates. Not tonight, he says. There’s been a new strain of virus. Some new pattern in the disease his lab’s been re searching after an outbreak in a rural community in the South. When he comes home, he doesn’t like to talk about work. After he unloads his pockets, he turns on the faucet in the kitchen sink, pumps soap into his hands, and scrubs them until he’s washed it all away. So what’s it about, your long poem? he inquires.

Threats to our civilization . . . the fear of the loss of belief, of loyalty. Of encroaching danger, I blather. You know those two swans in Central Park? On the way to school, through the park, I started watching their courting dance. They inspired it. I pause to take a bite. It’s not for the poet to know what her poems say to the reader. Will you read it? Of course, he says. I always read your work. When it’s finished. Do you? You never tell me. I don’t know what you think, I say. That’s just the way I am, he responds. But why? I ask. Do I have to have a reason? He puts down his fork. Do you want me to tell you how much I love your poems, how brilliant they are? Is that what you want? I thought we were past that. He shakes his head.

My eyes fill. Why should I expect him to understand? Doesn’t he know what I’ve sacrificed in our marriage? That yearlong fellowship in Rome I had to decline. International conferences, summer residencies I frequented before we were married. What dreams I’ve deferred. I didn’t mind so much when my son was little. I drew strange comfort when I trailed behind my husband and son deep in conversation, on the way to a restaurant or store, as they walked ahead taking long strides. I sometimes lingered just so I could stay behind them, still not quite believing I was part of a family that did not include only my mother. But now it’s different.

Your work comes first, he says. The sky cracks and the lights go out. Across from each other in the dark, I want to disappear. Doesn’t yours? I say. What does he want from me? The tension has been nesting there, since our son’s been gone, and now that we can’t use him as a buffer, I fear our pent-up anger the last few years wanting to let loose.

My husband fetches the candles in the cupboard, moves the pitcher of flowers to the end of the table, lights the candles. Takes a sip of expensive wine that should be drunk for a celebration and, after savoring it, looks at me as if attempting to read the unspoken in the candles’ shadow.

I’m sorry you feel that way, I muster. It may seem to you like I’m in my own world . . . I stop myself. How can I presume my husband understands? I move the sausage and broccoli around my plate. He’s tapped into my constant debates on what I should and should not say in my work, what to reveal, hide. I can’t eat. I take a sip of wine.

The Iliad and The Odyssey, the two greatest poems of ancient Greece, inspired me and fueled my love for books at an early age. Who would I be without poetry? Books saved me. Reading on a bench in one of the changing rooms of the dress shop in Hoboken where my mother worked when she wasn’t at home making decoupage boxes she sold at craft fairs. Our living room, her studio. Littered with her wooden boxes of antique postcards, ribbons, glitter, and trinkets she used to create her miniature masterpieces, it smelled of glues and adhesives. There was no money for babysitters. Reading in those changing rooms crammed with undesired dresses hanging on racks, I understood that the characters in novels, extremes of emotion in poems, are more engaging and profound than life itself. How to explain that the imagination flourishes under the poverty and synthetic smell of retail in a secret chamber of a dress shop? How can I expect my husband to understand that I’m a captive? Writing is like a dream. You have to stay inside it, but this I cannot say for fear he’ll think me self-serving. I quail with my deviance. My anger roils inside me.

We haven’t had sex in months, he says. Maybe a year. Ah, this is what it’s all about. Has it been that long? Maybe it isn’t so bad, I say. After twenty years. Maybe we’re allowed a period of exile. He raises his eyebrows. Is that what this is? he says.

I rise for a glass of water, bump the table. The pitcher with tulips pushed to the edge falls to the floor and breaks. Sex . . . I don’t know. I don’t want it. I can’t. Not now. Not yet.

Adapted from The Deceptions by Jill Bialosky, to be published by Counterpoint Press. Reproduced by permission of The Wylie Agency. Reprinted with permission from Counterpoint Press. “ExcerptCopyright © 2022 by Jill Bialosky.

The Empty Nest: An Excerpt From The Deceptions