When It Rains

by Audrey Metzger (Denison Univ.)

First Place

She is waking up in the middle of the night, swimming in lukewarm sweat‐‐ there is something here inside of her, but it is something she cannot name. The traffic light outside the bedroom window switches from yellow to red, and this color reflects onto the ceiling of the room, diffused into an almost‐pink. She pulls her knees up to her chest when the light turns green again, and her husband shifts in his deep‐sleeping. She is awake in the semi‐darkness and cannot tell herself why. Her heart stopped momentarily, her brain switched itself off and back on again, or maybe even her body tricked itself into that feeling of falling. An inevitability has awoken her, and the stop light starts blinking yellow; it is now after midnight.

With her knobby child‐knees tucked under her chin, she lays a hand on the sleeping husband’s side, her sleeping husband’s side, he is still breathing raggedly. Which poet put her head in the oven? She is thinking nonsense thoughts through the television static quickly accumulating in her head. She remembers the HAM radio in the barn when she was six years old, she remembers getting through all the way to Texas on clear nights, she remembers picking up trucker’s signals and they always asked what she was wearing. The empty, knob‐twisting static is filling up her head so quickly she feels she cannot breathe in at all anymore, and shakes the body beside her. The yellow light is blinking slower, like it is falling asleep.

A bedraggled head slowly comes up, and he is rubbing sleep from his eyes with his palm. He turns over to face her, propping himself up on one elbow. He looks at her with sleep‐reddened eyes and somber confusion. She doesn’t often wake up in the nights anymore. The window on his side of the bed is cracked open, and the spring breeze is creeping its way into this midnight hiatus from sleeping. “Are you alright?” He is asking, reaching for her hands. She does not wear the wedding ring, she does not hide the scratchings on the insides of her wrists, the skin there is angry and pinkened.

“I woke up, I can’t breathe,” she is whispering, so quiet he leans in to hear her. She lets her knees fall away from her chest, looking out the window absently. “It’s supposed to rain. Do you remember what she said about rain?” These words, too, are just above audible.

He is looking at the curve of her face, back‐lit by the blinking yellow light. It seems urgent now, the color brighter, the pulsing more important. So this is what has got her up and sweating. “Is it? I heard it was going to be cloudy, but no rain,” He answers only the first part of her question, fearful to broach the second.

“Do you remember what she used to say? Do you remember? About the rain?” Her voice sounds like the tide rushing back out to sea. She is still thinking about the radio in the old, leaning barn. She is thinking about how once, late late into the evening, a woman’s voice came over as she scanned stations. The woman had been crying into her own radio, telling anyone who would listen that her life was not worth living. Who was that poet, again? With the oven?

“I do. I remember. Now honey, are you alright?” He is whispering now, too, holding onto her elbow, kind of cradling it. He does not know what else to do, because now he is thinking, too. But the radio static doesn’t come to him, this is only his wife. He is thinking about rain storms in the summertime, late afternoon.

“We had a daughter, you know,” She says this as though she is not even saying it, there is no effort to the words, no weight. They are floating from her mouth and out onto the breeze. He looks up at her, taking his hand off her elbow. This is where things get tricky. This is the part where he must watch for landmines. This is the part where her outside and inside do not match up. He is so tired, and doesn’t want to think about it.

“Yes, we had a daughter. I remember her, dear. She was three years old, and then passed away‐‐” He sighs this last part, and puts his hand in her falling‐down hair, but quickly takes it away. He is getting up to close the window, having noticed she has goosebumps tickling her skin. She is staring out the window at the traffic light and its changing. Sylvia Plath. That’s the poet.

“Did you know Sylvia Plath killed herself? Put her head in the oven?” This is not even her speaking anymore. “I miss her, our daughter, don’t you?”

It has been two and a half years. One year of waking up every night with the radio static splitting open her head, one year of waking up to the blinking yellow light. And then one year of the sleep of the dead. One year of not dreaming. And now six months of unpredictable insomnia, someone dialing through the channels of her brain until they pick up something far away, the same static as before.

“Her name was Sylvia, too. Sylvia May Aldridge. Sylvia May Aldridge. Sylvia.” This is standard to her night ramblings, and he is waiting for her to descend wholly into that other place, now. He knows once she gets to the name that it is all bad from there. The breeze outside is picking up into a wind, pushing young twigs to scratch at the window. The name of their daughter would become a chant, a slow, quiet repetition. Perhaps it was going to rain, perhaps she was right. And as he knew would happen, she is now chanting the name, steady. Steady, and slow. Sylvia May Aldridge. Who is dead and buried in the Courtlawn Catholic Cemetery. He watched it happen. He watched it all happen, and now this is happening, and he is watching this, too. His wife slowly melting into some other being for awhile, whose head is full of static he cannot pull words out of. Six months of nights just on the edge of restlessness, not knowing when she would bolt upright in a sweat, and go through the same script.

The doctors called it “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”, and part of him believed it. Part of him, though, did not. She took the medications and saw the psychotherapists and none of it helped. The doctors said this was normal. It was a tricky disease to treat. This is what soldiers got when they went to war and saw what war meant. His father had this same thing. He remembered being young and watching his father sit in the crushed velvet armchair for days at a time, wearing his crumpled fatigues‐‐ he did not eat, and his eyes had looked dead. But she had not been to war, not really in the same way, he thought, but maybe, he reconciled, this was war for her. He remembered the small body, and the slanting rain, and the banshee screech that came from her open mouth. The window was closed, but a chill ran through him.

She was not saying the name now, but was just mouthing nonsense syllables. She was becoming exhausted. The dark circles under her eyes has started two and a half years ago and they had never gone away‐‐ now they were deep and looked the color of rotting red grapes. He passed his hand lovingly over her skinny arm, squeezing her wrist. Her mouth did not shut, but hung slack as she started to cry. She wanted nothing more than to wring all the tears from her body, to be rid of it all. To let go of the aching in her wrists, to dial into a quiet station instead of static, to never cry again. She was coming back from the other place, but it was always so painful. She did not remember the descent ever, though her husband told her how she would collapse into broken‐record repetition for so long. Sometimes, he had told her, she would say the name for an hour in the middle of the night, over and over, slow and steady like she was praying a rosary.

She is surfacing, and scratching at her wrists and crying like a child might cry out of fear. The yellow traffic light is winking at her from the street. Thunder is sounding now, not very far away. 1,2,3 miles away, maybe‐‐ moving fast. She knew it, the rain would come. He is still propped on his elbow, his head nodding around with almost‐ sleep, jerking back into place every few seconds. He is beginning to dream of rain in the summer, and how his father stopped flying kites with him after the war. He is not dreaming about her, or their daughter, or the glossy road that night. She takes her hand gingerly over his face, mapping the details slowly, feeling his exhales and their languor. She wishes she could be sleeping like that. The radio static is slowing down, becoming just a small buzz right behind her eyes.

She is saying this to herself, under her breath, only that ghosts may hear it: Sylvia May, your mother loves you. Sylvia May, I love you, my small one.

Her hand comes to rest in the tangle of his hair, while her other hand is softly wiping at her crying eyes. She is getting up to look into the medicine cabinet. Instead of flicking on the light, she rummages in the dark, through a veritable library of drugs‐‐ all of which do nothing. But she is taking an ativan now, hoping for the static to fizzle out entirely.

The doctors call it PTSD, she remembers. The trauma, her daughter’s death. This is the era Post‐Sylvia. This is the age of antipsychotics and ativans and lukewarm night‐sweats. She is closing her eyes, and sitting down on the closed lid of the toilet. The wind is whistling with the coming rain. Sylvia in the rain. Sylvia. She knows a flash of memory is coming. The static is getting louder instead of settling deeper into her skull. She is moving to the floor, as close to the ground as she can be before this second wave crashes down. There is thunder rumbling low and long, much closer now.

Sylvia in the rain, playing in the rain after dark. A school night. It comes in snatches and pictures, some with sound, some without. The doctors say this is normal. It is memory coming back. She does not want these memories back, and so she is covering her mouth with one hand, and clawing at that wrist with the other. This keeps her from waking him, this keeps her from screaming with remembrance. Sylvia’s flash of long hair, white‐ gold illuminated by the cloud‐to‐cloud lightning. Jumping puddles in galoshes. Sneaking out of her room, of the house, pulling on those so‐small boots. Leaving the front door wide open, and lifting her face to the roiling sky. She is too eager.

Clamping her hand down over her mouth, she is waiting for the ativan to start working. It is supposed to be a fast‐acting anti‐anxiety. It is supposed to make her limbs numb and heavy, and her eyes finally fall closed. Instead, she is dreaming with her eyes open about everything she wants to forget.

Sylvia is running across the sidewalk, through the suburban lawns, glistening with rain. The street lamps burn orange, and the lightning blazes white every few seconds. Sylvia’s running body seemingly darts across the street. And so, the sedan, going the legal 25 miles‐per‐hour, does not see her whirling body as it slips into the street. The sound that followed was sickening.

She is crying on the cold linoleum floor, clutching at her own face, pulling at her eye sockets, mouthing words over and over stop stop please stop stop, oh please. But is shifting again, and the thunder outside is on top of the house now, oppressive and close. She hears the rain clattering down from the clouds onto the roof. She hears it hitting the new leaves outside, the soft thuds so painful to her ear. The static is turned all the way up now, and she remembers again the crying woman she heard so long ago saying her life was over, it was not here anymore, her life was not meant to continue. She wishes, instead, to hear the truck drivers with their thick drawls, asking over the airwaves hey darlin’, what you wearin’ tonight, pretty thing? Instead she is closing and opening her eyes over the image of a small crumpled body, soaked through with April rain. She feels now, the asphalt digging into her bony knees again, her hands rubbed raw from stumbling into the street, her silk nightgown torn up the side.

He is sleeping, and dreaming of his daughter now, and this startles him, even in dreaming, so he is awake, suddenly, remembering Sylvia’s tiny hands in his own. It is enough to make him turn ghost‐pale. He hears the rain before he hears her muffled sobbing. She is having an episode, a “flash back”, and finds her curled on the linoleum, her nightgown bunched up around her thighs, her long hair slung across her face, sticking in places, with her tears. The ativan bottle has tipped, and the small white pills litter the floor. His is kneeling down, then laying down, putting his hands on her face. He is seeing it too.

He is seeing his wife knelt over the small body of a three year old girl‐child he loved with all his being. His heart is aching so painfully, he begins to cry. The rain is falling on the newborn leaves, and the yellow light blinks with its own sense of confidence, its own need to continue. It is a lighthouse, it is a beacon, as it reflects upon the long ceiling of the bedroom. He is seeing a face, streaked with rainwater and asphalt. He hears ambulance sirens and the far away cries of I’m sorry oh my god, I’m sorry, is she breathing? Is she breathing?

She is taking his hands from her face, and holding them so tightly in her own shaking ones. The static is getting dimmer. She is hearing the rain more clearly, and seeing the tear‐streaked face inches from her own. The second wave has crashed, and there is no third. She is relishing the silence as it filters through the last of the radio static. She rubs at her eyes, hoping to push away the lingering image of her dead child. Hoping to erase again the street and the night and the car. To push it back to a place she can’t reach during the daytime. The doctors call this repression, she calls it relief. She knows what happened to her daughter, she visits the small headstone once a week, leaving flowers. It is another thing, she knows, to relive. And this is a reliving, not a retelling. She is not, in simple terms, remembering, the doctors told her, she is experiencing anew. This is not something she wants to experience anew. This is something she buries until it bubbles over into a bad night. The rain is still pattering softly on the leaves and windowpanes. The yellow‐blinking traffic light continues its routine.

He is laying beside her, amid the scattered pills, resting soundly on the cool linoleum, his face sticking a little. He is dreaming of flying a kite with Sylvia. He never got the chance too, the wind was never right, but in this dream is doing it. He is doing what his father wouldn’t do after coming home. In this dream Sylvia’s face is upturned towards a bright sky. She is laughing, and he laughs quietly in his sleep.

She is breathing again, finally, feeling her lungs move freely inside her chest. The rain‐scattered silence is delicious to her ear, she is not thinking about the HAM radio in the barn, or the truck drivers, or the crying woman. She is not thinking at all. She is taking note of all her limbs and faculties again, a self‐diagnostic to make sure everything is still working. She closes her eyes slowly, and opens them again‐‐ she does not see Sylvia’s crumpled body behind her eyelids. She is picking up the round white pills up off the floor, and shuffling them into a child‐safe plastic bottle.

This is over for tonight. No more ghosts behind her eyelids as the rain begins to move off to the east. She wraps her scratched wrists, splashes cold water onto her face, tracing the dark circles beneath her eyes. In those hollows she finds she has gotten older, quickly. Quicker than he has, as she runs her fingers gently beneath his eyes. She looks in the mirror, hanging above the sink, and she is staring at her own eyes, hoping to see something swimming around in them. But it isn’t like palm reading, or tea leaves, she cannot look anywhere but here. There is no future to decipher. For a moment, she smiles, just to see what that looks like, just to see the mother of a dead child smile. And she sees in her teeth and her hair and the bridge of her nose, Sylvia, once more, but as she wants to remember her. Just like the Sears’ portrait framed up on the dresser, that’s how this Sylvia looks. The mother of the dead child smiles in earnest. For the first time, she is looking at her daughter, and not the vessel, not the body. This, in the darkened mirror, is a true reflection. She kisses her fingertips and presses them to the mirror. Goodnight, Sylvia.