Arlene had felt like a criminal the first time.
You’re thirty-seven, she thought to herself.
Don’t remind me, she’d say in jest, whenever her age came up in conversation.
But here she was again, sneaking into the back yard in the dark. The first time she had done it on a whim, its strangeness a thrill in itself. It gave her a rush that was illicit, maybe? She wasn’t sure if that was the word. Now it was almost second nature, though she might still freeze a moment before beginning, not sure whether anyone could see her, wondering if there were any neighbours’ eyes out there peering from behind almost-closed blinds in some darkened bedroom nearby. Not to mention the joggers and the dog walkers, who would half-look as they passed the back fence, unable to help themselves. They never broke stride, though, not fully. They just went on their way and pretended they hadn’t seen a grown woman bouncing on a child’s trampoline in the dark.
At first, the jumping had been a release, a girlish fancy that became a form of what her friend Jackie called mindfulness, which was some kind of meditation she had heard about on Oprah. Initially, Arlene had felt this to be true, the night air and the silence of the neighbourhood punctured only by the sound of her feet meeting the trampoline with every gravitational descent, a sound akin to a mantra repeated over and over and over again. After a while her thoughts would become muffled as she rose and fell, the physical exertion coupled with the sensation of falling through the air barefoot, producing a kind of childish joy at being alive.
Lately, though, the feeling produced by jumping had started to change, curdling slowly from innocent release into a nightly compulsion that had replaced her sneaked cigarettes after the kids had gone to bed or, to be more accurate, after they had closed their doors for the night. Who knew when they actually went to bed.
Now she found herself unable to dissociate as she jumped, and instead her worries and regrets, her ‘tendency toward drama,’ as her husband Brad had put it during one typically orderly disagreement, were unmuffled and seemed to grow louder each night as she leapt. What does Breanne do after she closes her door at night, Arlene would wonder, her hair flipped upside down mid-descent. Is she on her phone with someone, some inappropriately older someone, or sending those pictures you hear about, or texting her friends the latest crime of embarrassment caused by her mother’s chronic misunderstanding.
Arlene worried about Breanne, it felt like 24/7, each day a torture of guessing her whereabouts or mood, unable to stop visualizing her 15-year-old daughter as the six-year-old girl who had made her a Christmas card that said ‘Merry Mama, Xmas’ on the front, in her earnest crayon scrawl.
And Jayson, that was another story. Her adorable, cheeky little Jay now a sullen 13-year-old from whose room came foul outbursts as he played that awful war video game online with who knows who. He had quit volleyball, diving, and band, all in the last year. He no longer wanted to do anything with Brad and her, and answered the playful queries of family members at Christmas and Easter with monosyllabic responses or vacant shrugs, trends that felt somewhere between normal pre-teen boy and future inmate.
Was it something she had done?
She had yelled at Jay so awfully that time when he was three.
And his face had crumpled, then straightened out into defiance, a sequence that had never left her mind and that seemed horrifying in retrospect, and that she had – bounce – watched for carefully ever since, fearful of any lasting damage to his personality she may have inflicted. Had it lain latent since?
And now curdled into mistrust and loathing, aided by a hormonal shift that tricked his better nature?
And why, on another topic, had Jackie stopped calling or stopping by? They used to get together for girls nights, drinks down at The Cruise Ship, where they’d talk and confide and roll their eyes when the university boys looked them over. Arlene had always considered herself a guarded person, not one to give herself away too easily. But she had been uncharacteristically disclosive with Jackie, lured in by her friend’s allusive gossip about the teachers at their kids’ school, and her frank assessment of the men of the neighbourhood, including Jackie’s own husband, Dean, whose online activities and struggles with personal hygiene had been both shocking and delicious to hear.
After a few glasses of wine and tales of this nature, Arlene had let slip some of her own previously unaired opinions about their mutual friends and neighbours, even, worst of all, about her own family, emboldened as she was by the alcohol and how Jackie leaned in when she knew something good was coming. Jackie, too, had been a flatterer, and Arlene was easily flattered, a weakness she now rued as she reviewed nightly the sentences she had spoken aloud to Jackie. And all because, what? Because Jackie had once said that Dean had once said that Brad was the most respected man in Woodlawn? Had he ever even said that, Arlene wondered now as she bounced. Had there ever been any truth to Jackie’s gossip and compliments, or was it all some elaborate long game to get to know the secrets of the quiet mum?
Whatever the case, she didn’t hear from Jackie now. Arlene thought she must have said something to offend Jackie, maybe some thoughtless, half-drunk comment at The Cruise Ship that carried deeper meaning than she’d intended. Who knew. They had drifted and it was over, and Arlene could only assume it was her fault. Sometimes they’d run into each other at the grocery store or at some neighbourhood thing, but it was like they had never even been friends, like they had meant nothing to each other. Jackie was, Arlene noticed, back to her old friends, the ones she had gossiped about, the ones who had once seemed part of Jackie’s past as the two of them looked forward to a lifetime of Cruise Ship nights, maybe even family vacations together. Now, clearly, that was not to be, though the two might half-heartedly resurrect the idea in passing, Arlene imagined, at some future Woodlawn Christmas party, for lack of anything else to talk about in the company of their husbands and the neighbours about whom they had once speculated so cavalierly.
Some nights, she would try to ignore these thoughts, gulp them down like some necessarily foul medicine, like the kind Brad had to drink before his colonoscopy. She would try to think of other things, like how she liked when people said ‘So long’ instead of goodbye, like in old movies. She also thought about how women don’t name their daughters after themselves. You never hear a woman say, ‘I’m Wendy Smith, Junior,” or whatever, she thought. Only guys do that.
Other nights, Arlene might take notice of her surroundings as she bounced, and wonder, for example, why she had never learned the names of the plants in her own yard, had never learned them and then taught them to her children, patiently explaining their provenance and import. What were those, anyway, over by the shed? Rhododendrons? No idea. What kind of trees, even, were these in her yard? Oak, maybe? Beech?
Sometimes, she just titled her head way back as she jumped, so it was perpendicular to the sky, almost so she felt like she might fall over completely, and tried not to think of anything.
Breanne stood at her bedroom window, as she did most nights, and watched her mother bouncing up and down, twisting this way and that under the moon. She never told her mother that she saw her or had seen her, or whatever the right way of saying that was. In her pettiest moments, she considered filming it on her phone and saving it for some kind of child-parent blackmail. However, even though the urge to use her phone to film something unusual was pretty much irresistible, she never did.
She just watched her mother bounce up and down on the trampoline and then finally stop and sit on the edge, Arlene’s shoulders moving a little. With the effort, or whatever.