A Blueprint for Escape

By Anna Farro Henderson

Featured Art: Pomodori by Nina Battaglia

The Italian smells of mint and chocolate, but when I blink my eyes open there is only the Midwest sun. While it’s dawn here, it’s siesta for him. Champagne bubbles up my spine—I’m sure a message awaits me.

In my sleep I had kicked off the sheets and thrown my T-shirt off. Rob doesn’t believe in air conditioning. It lets you go on as if there aren’t seasons. The humidity in our bedroom has the weight and press of a crowd without the fun and excitement of a concert. I blink at the thought of smashing into and exchanging air with strangers. While the initial lockdown lifted in June, the world has largely stayed on pause.

I roll over to watch for the slight rise and fall of Rob’s chest. Nothing. I pull a feather from the duvet he sleeps with and hold it under his nose. No quickening. Julie tells me, in our daily calls, that I’m crazy. But I swear he has no heartbeat either. I design cardiac medical devices for a living, and Rob’s vital signs baffle me.

In graduate school, Rob and I raced our bikes around city lakes. We’d fall into the grass and make out. I pressed my head to his chest, delighting in the booming announcement of him over and over. Now we ration flour and toilet paper. The least important of supply chain problems, but the most immediate in our house.

The hallway is dark, and I feel my way through the house. I expect the air on the deck to be fresh, but it is like stepping into an open mouth. The heat will build until we reach the right level of violence when, finally, the sky darkens, tornado sirens shriek, and, as if punctured by a bullet, the humidity shatters into a crackling light show. Most of summer is build up—the dramatic storms are rare moments of punctuation.

I hold the phone in my hand but don’t open it. I’d asked Julie if she ever felt like this, like she could eat time—when the view was too beautiful or, like now, the anticipation too delicious. She laughed. “Honey, I got nothing but time.” If I could bite into this scene, it would give the satisfying crunch of corn nuts.

I open the phone and watch the slight feline sway of the Italian in a video made while walking past a café with outdoor tables. His wide smile closes into a kiss. I laugh and feel the glow under my belly button. Will I send a photo of myself naked? Or just the hint of naked? The pulse between my thighs starts. I bite my lip. Double clicking the image, a heart appears at the corner.

Our first videos were just hands—we’d met in an online origami workshop the first month of the pandemic. I am known on Instagram for translating any object into a series of paper folds. He specializes in birds and seashells. He DM’d me a video with his long fingers caressing life into the form of an albatross. Paper rubbing paper makes the sound of footsteps in the sand. I sent back an octopus.

The game went on for a week before he lifted the camera to his face. He had waves of shoulder length black hair and high cheek bones. At the end of the video, he winked and bit his lower lip.

As if that wink was a question, I sent back, in answer, a photo of me. I lay bare chested on my bed with the soft paper edges of Battlestar Galactica raptors nudging my skin. Waiting for his response, I administered a spelling test to Owen, gave performance reviews to three employees, and ran to the bathroom four times. I alternated between holding my breath and choking on air. When it finally came, I had to lean against a wall to read his answer. For the two months since then, our images have flown back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, blueprints of what we want.

The phone buzzes in my hand, “I need to know. Is this just fun and flirtation? Or do you mean it?” I turn my face up to the burn of sun coming over the trees. So much emotion and we’ve never actually walked side-by-side.

Texting with him is like opening a door to the intense colors of wet paint. Why would I not walk out? I start to type, “Of course—” But I hear Julie’s voice in my head, You don’t have to respond right away. She had been talking about the kids and how I catapult from cooking to a Zoom meeting to cleaning showers to playing Uno to checking on extended family. Momentum propels me through each day.

I hold up my phone and lean back on one elbow. Our teenaged selves would never have believed I would be the one with a family and Julie single in her forties. My body was always too thin and my hair too limp—You are flatter than a highway—but texting with the Italian, I transform into a gorgeous creature. I become someone who wants to make love in a vineyard or on a train through Tuscany.

I never wanted to be sweet and pretty and friendly. Julie teased me in high school for being a wallflower. I trained myself to not look in mirrors. The only time I went to a dance was when Julie got dumped before prom and needed a date. With a pink eyeshadow brush, a padded bra, and cascades of ruffles, I was a woman cross-dressing as a woman.

In my phone, my eyes are bright, my hair flows, my long nose leans a little to the left, and I am beautiful. I am the kind of woman who sits on the steps of a fountain waiting for her lover. Chest arched, neck long, I land on a natural smile when I hear a crash. I click a few photos. There is a cry and, after a moment, footsteps behind me. I turn and see Charlie, my seven-year-old, a naked cherub rubbing his eyes.

“Mama?” he says. The Jenga puzzle of the day has started. I list my options: tell him to watch a show or read a book or put his laundry away. I got up early to be alone. How many pieces can I pull out of the tower before it falls? My body acts before I make up my mind. I hit send, turn to Charlie, and hold out a hand to him. He plops into my lap, leans his head against my chest, and sighs.

“Good morning, love.” Sweat trickles where the furnace of his body nestles into me.

Charlie is our Dionysus. Before he was born, Rob, Owen, and I sat in silence working on our own projects. Charlie spins tales, makes jokes, and pulls us into games. I get Owen, but Charlie throws me.

“I know I can’t play with Logan right now, but can we have a sleepover next week?” Charlie asks.

“You miss your friends?” I ask.

“I want to go to the state fair and ride on the giant slide and eat corn dogs. Like in two weeks, can this be over?”

“How about I make you an animal? Any kind you like.” I can’t answer his question, so I don’t. I breathe like I’m blowing into a straw. My throat is gritty. I know it is this feeling—the need to fill the black hole in my kids’ lives—that created the bell jar.

“What about Julie? Can Aunt Julie come over? I’ll wear a mask. I’ll make sure it covers my nose.” Julie and I met in fourth grade. She is more like family than our family.

“Sweetie, Julie has asthma and is being really careful. She won’t even see me. She only leaves her house at night for walks.” I lean into Charlie’s soft hair. While Julie is only a mile away, I have not seen her since the world hit the giant pause button in March.

“I want a half-wolf half-unicorn,” he says. My phone buzzes, and like I tell the kids, excitement is the next-door neighbor to nervousness. I reach for my satchel of paper and another part of myself acts as a shield to hold the phone at bay. I want to see what the Italian has said, but it has to wait.

I take paper with me almost everywhere. I hadn’t even realized I’d grabbed my satchel when I came outside. Rob calls it a tic, the way I translate the world into geometry.

“What’s going on?” Owen’s voice calls from the door and then I feel his slight figure position itself against my back. I have to lean into his weight to not be pushed forward. At twelve, he is almost my size.

“What are you reading?” I ask. I am intent on forming the snout and jaw of the wolficorn.

“These people go live on the moon and have to eat dehydrated food,” he says.

“Awesome,” I say, but I’m in the twisting landscape of paper.

“It’s CSA day,” Owen says.

“Right.” I blow into the form in my fingers, and it fills out with a long horn pointing upward. Every Tuesday, a farm drops boxes of vegetables on our porch. The twenty-five members who bought shares collect their boxes throughout the afternoon. Today is the magic day when everyone gets a box of berries with their veggies. The kids have been plotting pies and fresh ice cream.

“What a sweet scene,” Rob’s voice booms.

“Wolficorn.” I hand Charlie his animal. I smell the tang of myself sandwiched between Charlie with his head in my lap and Owen with his back against me. I turn to Rob: “Maybe I can shower?”

“My mother emailed, again. She really wants us to drive out and for all the cousins to be together,” he says. His shoulders crumple forward.

“Tell her that this sucks for all of us,” I say, but he looks sadder than before. “Blame it on me.” I sigh.

Eyes cast down, lips suck in, and Rob’s face is a map of tiny creases and grooves. I see what I normally cannot: we are getting older.

“I’ll call your mom and talk to her for you,” I say.

Shoulders back and head up, Rob says, “It is a beautiful morning!”

Extracting myself from the children, I stop in front of him and kiss his cheek.

“I think we need to divide and conquer some housecleaning,” he says, hand grazing my butt. I look at him—an open question. Foreplay for us is a set of necessary transactions: turn show on for kids, turn ringer off phones, lure dog to yard, and, finally, remove clothing. In the heat of it, I push off the to-do list that fills my mind like sand caving into a hole at the beach. I know that by the end we will find it nice, the same way you know you will find your keys when you drop them in a dark car.

I lock the bathroom door and open the closet door against it. In retrospect, our home before all this was a train station: a place to arrive and depart. It was not made to hold all of us all the time.

I place tea candles along the sink. As each flame flickers and catches, I breathe deeper. The champagne bubbles start again. I take out my phone and send three photos starting with my face and working down my body.

“Gorgeous. Every inch of you,” the Italian texts.

I turn on the shower, get in, and let the hot water melt me.

“You didn’t answer my question. Is this just fun or do you feel what I feel?” I read when I towel off. Candlelight bounces off the walls. I put a foot on the edge of the tub and snap a photo of water droplets on my calves.

In my leadership meeting, I try to muster the nerves I used to feel in the glass room looking down on the Mississippi River. As one of two women, out of fifty managers, when I spoke it felt like taking punches at that glass ceiling. But gender and clout don’t translate in two-dimensions. On the screen, everything is flat. It’s hard to muster my pith when I know the men have cats on their laps and children screaming behind them. I’m sure they are wearing sweatpants below their tailored shirts and ties. Outside my video frame is a pile of laundry on the living room couch that Rob and I are daring each other to ignore. The lingering smell of hot oil from Owen’s pancakes reminds me of the piled-up dishes by the sink. And across from me, at the dining room table, my kids attend “summer camp.”

My phone buzzes and my stomach flips. I position the phone on my laptop keyboard so I can read the Italian’s text and still appear to be paying attention.

“I want more and more, and yet I don’t understand our relationship. It has no shape. It is like a mist filling spaces that are already full. My body was yearning for you, but I was bicycling to the store to pick up la torta for my wife’s birthday. And you, what were you doing in that moment?” There are two videos! But they will have to wait.

As I look across the table to Owen, his tongue out, his hair growing in all directions, he types madly on Minecraft. I look to Charlie; he is staring off into space. I shut off my camera and lean over: “Charlie, you need help?”

“Which is the shift key?” Keyboard literacy hadn’t occurred to me as a thing.

“Guys,” Owen hisses.

“What?” Charlie whisper-shouts.

“What if someone doesn’t pick up their CSA share?” Owen says. We organize
the CSA pickup, and the countdown of boxes coming to our place and going away from it is about to start.

“Triple berries!” Charlie whoops.

I’m on a work call weeding in the garden when I get the idea. I go around front and grab a large veggie box and a smaller berry box. I carry these into the garage. If everyone really picks up, these will just be our share. But usually someone forgets and we get double. If that happens, these garage boxes are mine.

I kneel on my bed, phone leaned up against a water glass. Our videos expire after playing, spontaneously combust like in a Inspector Gadget cartoon. The Italian sits on the edge of his bed, and his eyes turn to slits as a grin stretches across his face. He wears nothing. “Bella donna, don’t let the next one play until you have an ice cube.” I hit pause.

I slither past the boys and into the kitchen. They click away.

“You talk to my mom?” Rob looks up from his laptop, and I close my fist around a frozen cube. He worked from home before the pandemic and is at ease with software development bleeding into domestic routines.

“I’ll call after work,” I say. I want to find out what the ice is for.

Back in my room I stand on tippy toes to reach for the box from my bachelorette party. At the time, I was convinced Julie threw the party out of revenge. I grab a blue wig, but then trade it for the black one. I pull off my shirt and tuck my hair into the slick black bob with bangs. Earbuds in, I hit play.

“Follow along, carina.” The Italian holds the ice cube to his lips. “Bene?” I watch myself lick ice in the mirror.

“Moan for me,” he says running the ice down his neck, over each shoulder, and circling his nipples. At first, I moan just in my head, but as the ice burns into my skin each exhale comes with a soft whine.

“Are you cheating?” he laughs, and I see that his other arm is moving. “Even if you are, time to cool you off.”

I place the ice between my legs and watch him fall into his own trance. It bothers me that for all the directness of sexting, what we say is still only an approximation of our fantasies. When I try to pinpoint them, I find that my fantasies are just a montage of snapshots. A trying-on of different images. I discard and edit as I search my body for reaction. Some of the images that come to mind are disturbing. Then there is the search for language, how to describe desire in words?

It took weeks for me to let the Italian see me in more than bits and pieces. I hadn’t wanted to confess the lines (like so many sets of parentheses) around my belly button. Rob tells me that he forgets they are even there. But the Italian says that everything about motherhood is beautiful. I see it now—both the deflated skin and how it is like an infinite echo, the blast of a bomb that will never end. Owen and Charlie. I made that shit.

I’m lying on the bed when I hear Charlie behind me, “Ma, we’re taking a survey.” I didn’t lock the door. “Do you want to make a pie?” I sit up and smile through my tingling panic.

“How did you do that to your hair?” Charlie asks.

I reach up and feel the wig, look down and realize my skirt is around my waist.

“Wanna try it?” I ask.

“Can I try your lipstick, too?” he asks. “Red or pink?”

I’m washing dinner dishes from the pasta carbonara I made when my phone buzzes. I’m sure it’s Julie. It’s not. The Italian. Insomnia. I remember his question and my answer in calves, tits, and blown kisses. Everything is a mist, I want to say. Nothing solid. I feel my own edges dissolving. But I don’t open his text.

“All the boxes were picked up except ours. We just get one.” Owen looks out the front window.

“Bring it in love,” I say, thinking of my stash in the garage.

“I wanted something special to happen.” Charlie leans into my leg.

“You get what you get and you don’t get upset,” Rob quotes his mother’s famous line.

It is only as I am tucking the boys in that I realize the ice cube was another version of our bedtime meditation. “Charlie, what color is your ball tonight?” I ask. Sunlight forces itself through the curtains, the days too long.

“Red.” He pulls my hand to his chest.

“Breathe in.” I feel Charlie’s chest expand. “And breathe out.” His chest falls. “There is a red ball floating over your head. Each time you breathe in a little red goes in.” My hand floats up with his breath. “Red light slides down your throat and fills your shoulders, it slides down your arms, it’s in your elbows . . .”

“I’ll be back in a while,” I shout to Rob who is reading the online news with COVID maps.

I don’t call Julie until I am standing on her lawn. Humidity lies like a second skin against me. The dimming light is a relief, the magnifying glass no longer focused on us.

“Hey babe, you get the kids to bed?” she says.

“Ummm, what is outside your window?” I ask.

“Did you leave me another pup?” I’ve been leaving origami dogs on her windowsill. It’s my campaign for her to get a pandemic pup.

I watch the yellow and blue blur of her come toward the window and take shape. It is a good sign that she is dressed. When she sees me, she stops. I press a hand to the window, she hesitates, but then comes forward and places her hand against the glass.

“We had an extra box from the farm. I thought you might like it,” I say into my ear buds.
She smiles. “You know how I am with berries.”

“An asshole.”

“How are things?” she asks.

“Oh, same old,” I say.

“You still talking to that guy?” I hear the acid in her voice.

“Just a little here and there,” I say.

“You can leave town, but you will still need to wear a mask. And it still won’t be safe for you to go indoors. Wherever you go, the pandemic is there too,” she says with a flat voice. “And you can leave Rob for an Italian, but the excitement will tarnish. Whatever escape you create, eventually, it will become a trap.”

“Just because you taught me to insert a tampon doesn’t make you my boss,” I say.

“Girl, you know you’re drunk, right?”

“Am not,” I say.

“Are too.”

“Fuck you,” I say.

“The kids without any childcare? The only time they aren’t talking over your thoughts is when you go to the grocery store. And that is only because the store won’t allow children because we are in a fucking global meltdown.”

“It has not driven me to drink,” I say.

“Working full-time, with kids to take care of, is the equivalent of two beers,” she says.

“Two beers is just a buzz,” I say.

“When was the last time you sat around laughing with a group of friends?” she says.

I cross my arms and try to give her what Owen calls my mom-evil-eye.

“That’s another beer,” she says.

I say nothing.

“And remember this is all on an empty stomach. You haven’t had sustenance. No museums, no theater, no hugs.”

“I miss hugging you,” I say.

“Your origami dogs hug me,” she says.

I swallow the rising wave in my throat, feel the sting in the back of my nose and the corner of my eyes.

“I’m sorry I always made fun of you for being so nerdy. You really are talented,” she says.

“It’s pretty cool to design tiny machines that keep hearts beating,” I say.

I hear the screech before I realize what she is doing. The window slides up five inches and Julie sticks her hands out. I pass her the berries. But then she does something I never expected. She holds out her hands. It’s my turn to apologize.

“And I’m sorry I always accused you of being superficial. I get it now, why it mattered to you. Why you wanted to be seen.” I feel the calluses in her hands from guitar-playing and look down at her bright red nails.

For once Julie is quiet. She squeezes my hands. I squeeze back. I do a quick hit of morse code knowing she can’t translate. I love you. I hear the giggle through the window a split-second before I hear it through my earbuds. I laugh. She squeezes back at random. My mind tries to find a message in her pattern. Our eyes lock through the glass. She open mouth laughs. I pull away, but her hands crush mine. I hear her snort.

“I just peed a little,” Julie shouts.

We laugh harder. If she were to let go, I would fall back. Tiny earthquakes dissipate out of her hands. They come up my arms and reverberate in my chest. The sweat runs down my cheeks. I see a clear stream of snot running over her lips.

In the dark of my garage, I open the Italian’s text from hours before. “Donna, per favore. Is this just a game to you?” I hear it as if he yelled though the only sound is night crickets. I should answer. Lack of response carries its own message. Maybe if I put my wig on, the right thing will come to me. I move toward the house.

I yelp, jump a little. Rob takes me by surprise. His beige pajamas blend in with the back steps. No way around him.
“Honey, we need to talk,” Rob says.

I expect terror but only come up with exhaustion.

“I saw you today.” He looks at me.

“Rob, let me be straight.” Something hard forms in my chest. Whatever he says, I will not stop talking to the Italian.

“The kids—” he starts.

“The kids said something?” My guts liquify.

“If they had, you would have heard,” he chuckles.

Julie and I ate the berries, me sitting in the grass and her on the windowsill. What tasted of sugar now pushes up acid in my throat.

I start to speak not knowing what words I will use, but Rob grabs me and pulls me into his chest. His beard stubble tickles my cheek, but I don’t melt into him. I remember trying out a thousand butterfly kisses in a tent the first time we camped: eyelashes blinking against lips, a ponytail slid over the inside of an elbow. Do you feel that? What about that?

His whole body shakes against me, and I pull back. We define ourselves by the choices we make, noble or not. I want to look him in the eye when I explain. His face catches the streetlight. I see his laughter, not tears.

“Rob?” I’m a coil of wire. I want to have it out, but he grins like the Cheshire Cat.

“Julie, right?”

“You have me all wrong,” I say. The hard rock of anger grows, pushes against my ribs.

“I saw you hide the boxes in the garage,” he says. “Now we only have one, but you knew Charlie was excited about double berries.”

“You’re upset about the berries?”

“You turn everything into a puzzle, you think it expands your world. But you know what, there are no wolficorns. It’s all just paper.”

“You throw out our games before we finish,” I say.

“Lions with eagle heads, fish that walk, girls who turn into seals on the full moon. The kids worship you. They can’t tell the difference between real and imaginary.” Rob’s voice gets louder and louder.

“Why is everyone insisting we distinguish?” I dig my nails into my fists.

“You just make things complicated. Why can’t you—” Rob pauses. He breathes hard. “Why can’t you just be part of the team?”

Floating above the scene, I watch. The man stands as if looking down at the woman though she is of equal height. The house behind has light in two windows: lopsided eyes looking outward. He anticipates punches from all sides like a boxer. She watches the moon. Her breath slows, calms. And I slide back in.

I don’t have to respond right away.

Anna Farro Henderson (previously published under E.A. Farro) has a book of essays forthcoming in 2024 about being a climate scientist and going to work in politics. She teaches creative writing at The Loft Literary Center and lives near the Mississippi River with her family in Minnesota.

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