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Intercourse, Recall.

In the strange, heavy-curtained dark of a hotel room, I turned over three different times then gave up. Beside me, my younger brother pumped his arms like a jack-in-the-box, then stilled--his sleep active but lasting. It was too dark to see over to my parents' bed, but I heard the sound of their breathing. This was the first night of family vacation, and I was wide awake. The digital alarm clock displayed a series of neat, squared-off numbers; the first was a two. I had just learned how to tell time, and when I woke up at night, I always looked to see how many hours stood between me and daytime. Two a.m. meant a long wait. I wanted a drink of water, and I wanted out of bed.

On the wall, a narrow angle of light shone from behind the cracked bathroom door-in hotel rooms my mother made a nightlight by leaving the bathroom light on and the door ajar. Sliding off the mattress, I felt my nightgown twist up around my belly then straighten, the hem falling back to my knees as I stood. I walked around the foot of the bed and toward the bathroom light.

What stopped me--pulled my feet abruptly together, curled my toes into the carpet--was the sight of my parents on the floor in front of the bathroom. They were illuminated just enough: the brown, corkscrew hairs on my father's long legs, the nipples outlined on his chest, his chin tipped down--and my mother's body, pale and whole, moving in the ambient light, the arched soles of her bare feet, the long, unbroken swoop of her back widening into her hips, her breasts lilting above my father. Her skin nearly shined. Her bobbed hair curtained her face. She moved in entirety, in completeness, all of her rising and falling with her breath. She was beautiful, and I could not move. Not toward the bathroom but not back to my bed either. My father's hands slid up and down my mother's length, and she rocked inside that grasp.

I stood, sponge-headed, absorbing, my toes inches from my parents' toes. I did not know the word for what I was seeing, but I had the sense I had walked up to something secret and should turn away. But I didn't-not until I heard the sudden sound of my father's voice.

"Erin?" he said. "Erin, it's okay. Co back to bed now. We're just doing what two people do when they're in love."

Another family vacation, this one to the woods of northern Michigan: We stayed in a small A-frame cabin with lichen growing on the roof and cracks running up and down the cedar walls. My parents slept in the only bedroom, and my brother and I shared an open loft with a large window cut high into the wall. I was thirteen and spent wakeful nighttime hours looking out the window and through tree leaves at snatches of the northern sky. On one of those nights, I decided to go outside, just to see the deep-woods night without having to look through glass. I climbed down the ladder from the loft and walked as quietly as I could through the living room and along the tight cedar-planked hallway toward the back door. I had to pass by the room where my parents slept. Only they were not sleeping. The bedroom door was closed, but there was a large crack in the planking. Lamplight poured out, and I could see in.

I was barefooted, quiet. My parents did not know I stood outside their room. They did not even know I was awake. I should have kept walking, but their voices slipped through the crack too, and something in the particular timbre of them held me. I'd never heard this exact sound coming from them before. They sounded drunk, but there was something else too, and whatever it was, it stopped me, drew me right up to the opening in the cedar wall.

I looked.

My mother sat on the bed, one leg folded before her, one dangling down, knee hooked over the side of the mattress. She was naked, bald. Where her right breast should have been, her chest was concave, scraped-out, rib-shadows visible beneath the reddened skin and purple scars--a sharp contrast to the rest of her soft, fleshy body. In the lamplight the bruises around her arm veins softened, and the fresh scar from the latest biopsy made a dark pucker, a shadow's kiss against her skin. Her shoulders slumped forward. Her back curved. Her remaining breast slumped toward her belly. The fingers of her right hand kneaded the quilt beneath her then curled. Still, her neck was long and arched, and she held her face up, looking directly at my father. She was crying; I saw the wet trail down her cheeks and the moisture gathering beneath her eyelashes. Low in my stomach, I felt a squeamish tightening, a vague sense of sickness.

To avoid my mother's tears, I looked at my father. He stood very near her, but was not touching her, not touching the bed. He leaned into a dresser, his hands behind him, grasping the edge. His body faced hers, but his face was turned down, away. He was naked too. I looked away from him.

This time I knew I should not watch. What I was seeing between my parents seemed not only secret but also sad and shameful. They were not having sex, and the not I understood, or intuited, was a wrong thing.

"Come on, Bill," nay mother said. Her voice held such keening. I felt that pain beating from her like a pulse.

Sometimes there are nights like this: My husband and I are naked, or semi-naked or wearing pajamas. We are standing by the bed or sitting on it or lying. We travel toward each other in increments, our fingers roving up and down long lengths of body or focusing on particular snatches of skin. Our legs touch. We breathe onto each other. But then one of us--why?--moves again, a small movement, subtle, but distinct--a moving away, a signal, a stop. And there we are: not moving, not lovemaking, not apart, but not fitting together, either.

I cannot say which of nay parents failed the other that night in the cedar bedroom, or whether what came between them was, as I imagine now, my mother's cancer or something else.

Either way, I did not see my parents having--or not having-intercourse again. There are only those two memories, and they come back more solidly now that I am in my thirties and near the age they were then. I would like to un-remember both the hotel floor and the cedar bedroom so that each time my husband or I turn away, I could face the moment looking inside my own marriage, without craning back toward the one that belonged to my parents.
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Author:Pushman, Erin
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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