The other Eleanor
In the novel I am writing/editing, Eleanor is fourteen years old and quite unaccustomed to the strange things that have begun happening to her. But in her family there is a long history of strong and sometimes troubled women. One of them is her maternal grandmother, after whom Eleanor was named.
I wanted to explore that family history a bit. Meet the other Eleanor.
She sits in the breakfast nook and watches the rain. It falls with purpose, as if it has a consciousness, as if it intends to eradicate the earth, layer by layer. The front lawn is hard to make out in the downpour, but Eleanor can already see that the top layer of soil has been churned into mud. Her flowers bend sideways, petals yanked off by the storm. By afternoon only the thorny rose stems will remain.
“A little rough out there,” Hob says, sliding into the nook, across the table from her.
Eleanor loves mornings, but particularly mornings like this. It’s why Hob built the nook for her last year, one of the few things he had made for her during their marriage that was truly useful. The nook gave her mornings a sense of place and direction, something they had been lacking before. It isn’t much, just a little slim table jutting from the wall, flanked by short benches just wide enough for a single person on each side. At first Eleanor had thought it presumptuous that Hob had made two benches — she was possessive of her mornings, of the quiet before her day became something owned by other people — but Hob rarely joined her, somehow understanding that he was not building a table for their little family but a submersible, a vessel for a woman who would happily sink to the bottom of the ocean and live there, alone, for the rest of her days, content with the view and with a few good books.
Eleanor watches the rain fall outside and agrees. “Indeed.”
“Rougher than usual,” Hob adds. He sips his tea with the faintest slurp.
Eleanor cringes, just a bit, but Hob notices.
“Sorry,” he says. “Habit.”
She knows. It’s what he says each time. She searches immediately for something to say next. If she doesn’t, he’ll take her silence as an invitation to explain the habit, and he’ll tell her again of his years during the war, the years stationed in Okinawa, of the Japanese way of slurping to indicate their pleasure with and appreciation of a dish.
“Do you think it will clear?” she asks, cupping her tea in her hands to warm them. Her fingers are long and narrow and envelop the mug. Her mother had wished her to play the piano, citing her fingers as the sole reason, but Eleanor had never felt music in her bones. She had tried, for a time, to please her mother. No — she had tried for years to please her mother. But after a few weeks of plinks and clanks on the old upright piano in the hallway, Eleanor had admitted defeat. Her mother had left the keys exposed, the wooden cover open, for the rest of her life, the dust gathering on the ivory plain a sort of tribute to her disappointment in Eleanor.
As if Eleanor had needed a reminder.
“News report says three days of this,” Hob answers, his stories of Okinawa forgotten. “We should stay in this afternoon,” he adds, almost hopefully.
Eleanor shakes her head. “No,” she says. “We don’t —“
“We don’t stay in,” Hob says, completing her familiar sentiment. “I know.”
“Good,” Eleanor says, lifting her tea to her lips. “You know better.”
Hob takes this personally, as he often does, and turns his attention intensely to his tea. He watches the steam curl up, and Eleanor notices his shoulders draw tight, the way that they do when one of his attacks begins. He unfolds his stubby fingers, then closes them around the cup, then unfolds them again. She can hear tiny snaps and pops from his knuckles.
“Hob,” she says, but he already can barely hear her. She knows this, but she speaks gently to him anyway. “Hob. Look at me, please.”
She repeats this three times before he finds the strength to lift his head. And it is strength that he requires, even for such a small thing. This condition has not always been present. When she met Hob — nearly ten years ago now, she realizes — he wasn’t yet bowed by the memories of the war. He was, as men tended to be, proud — and even as they both recognized that something was changing in him, he had rejected her suggestions that he talk to someone.
“Hob,” she says once more, and he meets her eyes briefly, then looks away, trying to focus his gaze on something distant, something through the window. Tears fill the bowl of his eyelids and threaten to spill over, and in embarrassment, he stops breathing, focusing all of his body’s energy on evaporating those humiliating tears.
“Hob,” she says again. She sets her cup of tea aside and slides her hands over his own, feeling the knobs of his knuckles like vertebrae beneath her fingers. His hands are warm and unyielding, as if his skin sheathes bones of iron. Her thumbs find the softer part of his hands, the part between his own thumbs and index fingers, and she rubs lightly, willing his body to relax.
She had, eventually, convinced Hob to see someone. She had offered to join him, but Hob, proud even in moments of weakness, had refused. So Eleanor had stood in the hallway of the clinic, her ear pressed to the door, listening to the doctor’s sonorous murmur, and to Hob’s reluctant, gravelly replies.
“Shortness of breath?” the doctor had asked. “Muscle tension? Mental distraction?”
She hadn’t heard Hob’s reply, but had taken it for an affirmative.
“Can you describe what you’re feeling? Not medically,” the doctor had clarified. “Just — tell me like you’re telling a child. Close your eyes. What do you feel when it happens?”
Eleanor had listened to the long pause, and when Hob finally answered, she bit her lip.
“I carry the world,” he had said, after a long pause, his words muffled by the office door. “Sometimes it’s just too heavy.”
She strokes Hob’s hands now, and reminds him to breathe, and he nods and hears her. The tears brim over and fall onto the table and onto his hands, his hard hands, and she can feel him try to shake her loose so that he can wipe them away, as if they are evidence of a crime he is ashamed to have committed. Eleanor lets him, wondering at this man who loves her so, and yet cannot find it within himself to simply be himself in her presence.
“I’m sorry,” he says. His voice is thick, the voice of someone trying not to betray his emotions. “I’m sorry, it’s —“
“Hush,” Eleanor says softly. “You’ve nothing to apologize for.”
He blinks rapidly to clear his eyes, then takes a deep, restorative breath. She still finds him handsome, though she must admit to herself that his anxiety — for that is what the doctor had told him he was feeling — was taking its toll on him. He had put on weight in the last few months, and had taken to shopping for his clothes alone, as if he could hide the changes he was going through. But she watched the numbers on the tags of his pants, and they kept climbing. She felt terrible for wishing that she knew how to fix him, as if she harbored resentment towards his condition — not for his sake, but for how it affected her. They slept together rarely now. Hob often drifted off in front of the television, in the recliner that she had given him for his birthday last fall, and she would sometimes creep downstairs and find him awash in the light of dead air, static or an off-the-air program card on the screen.
“Rough out,” Hob says again, as if nothing had happened.
“Indeed,” Eleanor answers. She almost tells him that she loves him, then thinks better of it.
From the doorway comes the sound of small feet, and they both turn and smile at the little girl standing there, dark hair in need of a brush, too-large nightgown floating around her like a halo.
“Good morning,” their daughter says in her sing-song way. She crosses the kitchen and clambers up onto the bench beside Eleanor, small enough to squeeze in beside her mother.
“Morning, Ags,” Hob says. “Breakfast?”
“Cinnamon toast!” Agnes says, patting her palms on the little tabletop.
“Oh, Hob, I’ll take care of it,” Eleanor says, but he shakes his head and waves her off, and goes to the breadbox and the spice rack and stands there, assembling his daughter’s breakfast, his back to both of them. The three of them settle back into Hob’s stage play, everybody back on-script, the world firmly upon his shoulders once again.
“Mama,” Agnes says, drumming on the table with her little fingers. “I’ve made up my mind. I’m going swimming with you today.”
“Oh?” Eleanor says. “What about that?”
Agnes follows her mother’s pointed finger to the rain outside. “Oh,” she says, crestfallen. Then she brightens. “I’ll just swim under the water instead.”
“There you go,” Eleanor says. “It’s all just water.”
“It’s all just water,” Agnes repeats, singing the words. “But really, I want to come!”
“I know,” Eleanor says. “Maybe we’ll go to the city pool after. What do you say?”
“Noooo-ooo,” Agnes says. “The ocean!”
“Ocean’s too dangerous for little girls,” Hob says, turning to show Agnes a plate with three slices of bread. “How’s this?”
Agnes inspects the buttered bread and the fine layer of cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top. She points at one of the slices. “This one is sad,” she says. “It only has a little cinnamon.”
Eleanor smiles and watches Hob swirl back into the kitchen, a fresh and changed man around his daughter. With a flourish, he dashes more cinnamon onto the piece of bread, and then Agnes leaps up to help him arrange the bread on the oven pan and slide it into the broiler. Eleanor turns back to the rain, musing for a moment on the father that Hob has become — a cheerful entertainer of their daughter — and wonders if, years from now, Agnes will remember him as a man who hid his feelings from her. He certainly tries to hide them from his wife, but perhaps fails only because Eleanor is older, and more perceptive, than their little girl.
She thinks about this for a moment, but the rain takes her attention away again.
Despite the steady rain, the sea is warmer in the early afternoon. This is a moderate acknowledgment; warmer does not mean that the water is warm, only a few degrees less cold. Eleanor stands in the shallows, wearing the thermal wetsuit that Hob ordered for her. She always feels restricted in the suit, at least until she is submerged, and it begins to flex with her movements.
Each afternoon, at two o’clock, Eleanor and Hob drive down to the ocean shore. The Pacific spreads wide and gray before them like a rippling, dark parachute. Behind them, their little town of Anchor Bend goes about its own routines. The first wave of fishing trawlers return at this time, chugging into port a few miles up the coast, trailing inky belches of oily black smoke. The fishing lanes are crowded, and the patchwork sound of collision horns is nearly constant.
It is Eleanor’s favorite time of day.
Hob says, “Hold up a second, there,” as if Eleanor were about to plunge into the sea and leave him far behind. She looks over her shoulder at him, holding her hand up to her eyes to block the glare of the bright gray sky, and watches him cross the gravelly beach on unsteady feet. He is fully-dressed, and carries a waterproof duffel bag, inside which are Eleanor’s clothes and a short stack of fat, fluffy towels. Hob’s boots echo on the short pier, heavy and hollow sounds that she has come to love dearly.
She crouches and inspects the water at her feet. It is clearer than usual, even with the rain dancing on the surface. She watches a tiny crab pick its way over the pebbles, its delicate shell wobbling on its back. It passes her toes, almost touching her, and then moves along into deeper water.
Eleanor flexes her toes, digging deep into the sand beneath the layer of smooth stones. She’s ready to go.
“Come on now, Hob,” she calls.
“All right, already,” comes his faint reply.
She squints and watches as he pulls at the lashes that keep the old rowboat moored to the dock. It isn’t their boat, but it has been there for as long as either of them can remember. It belongs to the town now, which means that sometimes when the two of them come to the beach, the boat isn’t there, and Hob cancels the afternoon swim altogether.
She doesn’t like it when Hob takes charge.
“Come on,” she shouts again.
But he’s got it. He throws the duffel down into the boat, then steps above himself. By the time he settles in and grips the oars, Eleanor is already away, fifty yards off the short and stroking hard against the current.
In her younger days, Eleanor had been a competitive swimmer. As the star member of the high school swim team, she had set district and state records in freestyle events. Her achievements carried her to college, and she swam alongside equally strong women and still claimed record after record. Her coach at Oregon State had registered her for an Olympics qualifying event, but Eleanor had never made it. At twenty-two years old, she had already met and fallen in love with Hob, despite their age difference. They had married between her junior and senior years of college, and then Agnes had arrived, a slow and steady swell that began small and built into a wave that swamped Eleanor’s dreams of the Olympics.
For a time, things were unbearable for Eleanor. Marrying while still a student wasn’t so bad. She could work a husband into her routines. Hob cheered at her events, and even liked to come to her practices. He would just sit high in the bleachers and watch as she carved through the pool, the water collapsing into her wake behind her. Afterward, he would take her to dinner, and then they would go home. Their first year was almost magical.
With the birth of Agnes, Eleanor had left school a semester shy of graduation. She’d transformed before Hob’s eyes from a girl herself into a mother. Her body changed, responding well to the pregnancy and the early months of breastfeeding and healing. For Hob, there could be nothing better. Eleanor knew that he was the happiest he would ever be, the conquering soldier returned home to build a family from raw materials.
Eleanor hadn’t felt the sea’s quiet tug until Agnes was nearly two. By then, Eleanor had given up her own dreams, and had settled contentedly into this unexpected rewrite of her life. Agnes was a lovely child. She picked up words quickly. She furrowed her brow like a small, grumpy old man, reducing Eleanor and Hob to laughter.
One evening they went to Hob’s sister’s house for dinner, and returned by way of the coast. The sea had sparkled under a fat moon, and Eleanor had fallen into a trance as it passed by. Lying in bed that night, Agnes finally snoring softly in the corner crib, Eleanor had nudged Hob and said, “I want to swim again.”
The college pool had been closed for repairs, and the municipal pool was stuffed with children and teenagers, and Hob had been ready to throw in the towel when Eleanor said, “Let’s go to the beach.” He had resisted this at first, muttering about sharks and frigid water and such, but Eleanor had pooh-poohed all of these excuses. That day, Hob had stood on the shore watching as Eleanor swam parallel to the land, reveling in the slow suck of the tide at her belly.
At twenty-four years old, Eleanor was already at a disadvantage. She’d given up two years of training. She hadn’t medaled. She was forgotten. Her peers had been practicing while she was home, soothing her daughter to sleep or mashing up bananas for lunch. Competitive swimming was a ghost that haunted her. At some point, her life had forked away from the water.
“You could just swim for the fun of it,” Hob had said.
“I want to win something,” Eleanor had answered. She began dreaming of the Olympics qualifying events that she had missed two years earlier. She left Agnes with Hob one day and drove to Oregon State to visit her old coach, who confirmed her fears: Eleanor was too far removed from the world of competitive swimming. Motherhood weakened a woman, the coach had said. It wasn’t her fault. Women fell beneath the steamroller of real life obligations every year. Some of the best swimmers he’d ever seen never medaled.
“I’ve seen a few of them try to come back. It’s not pretty. You’d probably place in the back of the crowd,” he said, patting Eleanor’s hand. “It’s a shame, Els. You were really good.”
“I can come back,” Eleanor protested.
“Summer games are in two years,” her coach had said. “You won’t be ready by then. So — what? You train for the next one, in ’68. That’s six years, Eleanor. How old would you be then?”
Eleanor looked away and didn’t answer.
“Thirty,” she answered.
The coach sighed. “Thirty. Well, that’s that, then.”
Driving home, Eleanor had mourned her past life. She pulled the car onto the side of the state highway, and as trucks and buses and station wagons roared by, she put her hands over her eyes and cried.
But after a good cry, Hob had convinced her that she wasn’t through yet.
“So you’re too old to swim,” he had pointed out. “Are you too old to dive?”
Eleanor leans into each stroke. The waves diminish as she puts distance between herself and the mainland. She can’t hear the horns bellowing in the port lanes anymore. The sound of the water in her ears is too close, too loud. She loves the sound of it. It’s almost a part of her, her momentum stripping molecules of water from the ocean. The water clinging to her skin. Her arms breaking the surface once more, returning the water to its source.
Hob rows a safe distance away, giving the oars a long, lazy pull now and then, matching Eleanor’s pace.
He loves her. She knows that he’s different. She can’t think of a single man in her life who demonstrated an interest in a woman’s dreams. In her cooking, yes. In her figure, of course. But what man would insert himself into a woman’s heart and embrace the things that moved her most deeply? Hob is unique, and she supposes this is why she loves him.
But here, in the ocean, the water sluicing over her face, the scent of the sea filling her nose, she imagines what it might be like to return to a distant time, to the days before she met Hob. Knowing what she knows now — knowing his love, and the sparkle of her daughter’s eyes — would Eleanor make the same decisions? Would she allow herself to fall in love?
As she swims she glances in Hob’s direction. He’s a good man, quiet and patient and gentle.
She dives beneath the surface for a few strokes, kicking to a depth at which she knows she cannot be seen. And only there, where the sunlight begins to dim and the warmer surface water turns abruptly cold, does she permit herself to answer the question.
No. Of course she wouldn’t choose this life.
Eleanor is not a natural diver. She learned this early, standing atop the island cliff for the first time. The fifty-foot drop was significantly higher than any competitive diving platform. Until her first visit to the island, she had only ever dived from the three-foot board at the municipal pool. The island, called Huffnagle, was on all sides but one a disaster zone, its shallows a minefield of broken rock. But if a girl was to go ashore, and if she were to discover the gnarled path that led to the top of the island, she might find that the side of the island that faced the Pacific horizon also overlooked a deep blue cove mostly free of skull-shattering rocks.
That first day, Hob had rowed the little boat into the cove and drawn close to the cliff, where he waited, craning his neck to see her high above. It had taken her almost an hour to gather her courage and actually dive, and when she did, her dive was formless, like a crumpled origami pattern, and she had hit the water like a child pushed down a flight of stairs.
But now, a full season later, her dives are precise and fluid. She is no longer rattled by the height, but craves the moment of flight before gravity snatches her out of the sky. She practices for as long as her body can stand it, fancifully throwing herself from the cliff time and time again. After each dive, she swims around the island to the nearest beach, then goes ashore, climbs the path, and repeats the routine. On a good afternoon, when it isn’t too cold, when the water isn’t too hard, she might dive a dozen times.
Hob has learned to keep his mouth shut. The first few times, he would give her feedback when she surfaced. “You weren’t keeping your knees together,” he would say. “Your shoulders aren’t square to the water.”
But now he just waits in the boat, reading a book or his newspaper, as though he is a parent waiting patiently for his daughter to wear herself out on the playground equipment. He has found the right spot to hover in the boat, where the slow ocean swells keep him pinned to the cliff wall. He can turn his pages without worrying that he’ll drift away.
This day the rain has made reading difficult, so Hob waits beneath his umbrella, watching Eleanor’s dives more carefully than usual. Her first dive is graceful, maybe the best yet. He has advised her that learning to dive from non-regulation height might work against her — after all, a fifty-foot dive provides a woman with more opportunity to adjust her form — but Eleanor has only ignored his comments, so he keeps them to himself.
He huddles in the boat, beneath his raincoat, enjoying the damp smell of the cliff beside him, watching the occasional fish break the surface. A quarter-mile out, seven or eight sea gulls bob on the water, unconcerned about the rain.
Eleanor dives again, then smiles at him before swimming around the rocks. It usually takes about seven or eight minutes for her to go ashore and reach the top of the cliff, so this time when more than ten minutes go by, he feels the first twinge of worry. He tilts his head back and looks up at the cliff, but he can’t see her there. He calls her name, and she answers — but her voice is smaller than it should be.
Hob grabs the oars and begins to row.
Eleanor sits in the breakfast nook and watches the rain fall. The tree that Hob and Agnes planted two summers ago is bent sideways in the wind. Even from here Eleanor can see the earth around its base beginning to pucker. If the storm gets much worse, the tree won’t survive.
She can hear the rain lashed against the house with each gust of wind. Up high the attic moans like a Coke bottle as the wind pushes into the rafters.
“No swimming today,” Eleanor says aloud.
She’s surprised to have spoken the words, but more surprised that they crossed her mind at all. She and Hob haven’t gone to the ocean since the accident, which had been minor enough. A misstep on the island path, a twisted ankle. Normally that sort of thing would have kept her out of the water for a couple of days, no more.
But Eleanor had turned up pregnant. And that, according to her doctor, made swimming in the ocean a no-no.
“And no throwing yourself off of cliffs, either,” he had advised, upon learning why Eleanor was swimming in the first place. “I’m surprised you’re still pregnant, to be quite honest. That kind of physical abuse can terminate a pregnancy in a heartbeat.”
Hob had babbled on the way home about having a son, but Eleanor had barely heard him.
As if Eleanor didn’t already feel that her life was being written by someone else’s hand.
She sips her tea now and sighs. She sighs an awful lot now, the air pushed out of her lungs by the weight of her thoughts. Dark, awful thoughts. A few nights before she had dreamed about a man who bothered her at the grocery store. He was holding a clipboard and a pen, and instinctively she had tried to step past him. He’d said, “I’ll see you on the way out,” and let her pass, and she had forgotten about him. But he was there when she finished shopping, and this time as she tried to slide by, he said, “Vote for Eleanor,” and she stopped.
“Excuse me?” the dream version of herself had asked.
“Eleanor,” the man had repeated. “The town is voting on her issue.”
“What issue?” Eleanor asked.
“It’s simple,” the man said, folding back one of the pages on the clipboard and holding it up for her to see. There were two big words on the page: Yes and No. Below each word was a list of names, some scrawled illegibly, some in neat cursive. “Either Eleanor can start over, or Eleanor can stay in prison.”
“Right,” the man said, without explaining further.
“I’m Eleanor,” Eleanor said.
“Oh!” the man said. “Well, then you definitely should consider voting. Right now it’s a tie. You’d be the tiebreaker!”
“Isn’t voting a private affair? This looks like a petition to me.”
“Not at all,” the man said. “But bananas eat for free on Thursday afternoons.”
“What?” Eleanor asked.
“I said, you better hurry and vote, because I think you’re about to wake up.”
But she had woken from the dream before she had time to cast her vote. The dream has remained with her since, her brain working on the question of her vote while she makes dinner for Hob and Agnes, while she washes dishes, while she sits in the bath tub, the deepest water she has been in for months.
What vote would her dream self have cast?
Eleanor rubs her belly idly as the storm worsens. She’s showing now — not much, but enough that strangers have begun complimenting her when she goes to town. She and Hob haven’t made love since they found out. She hasn’t been in the mood, and he’s been worried about hurting the baby, something she thought he had figured out during her first pregnancy.
She’s grateful that this new baby seems to have distracted him from his worries, though.
At least one of them is excited.
She slips out of the house before Hob or Agnes wakes. The sky is dim but growing lighter. She sits behind the wheel of the Ford and stares up at the clouds, leaning forward to see them through the windshield. They’re ominous and dark, almost black. She wonders what the view from above the clouds is like. She thinks that it is probably all blue skies and sunshine up there, the absolute opposite of life down here in Anchor Bend.
The rain pounds on the Ford like a bag of rocks in a tumble-dryer. Eleanor drives slowly, both hands tight on the wheel. She rolls through town, the only thing moving for miles. None of the shops are yet open. There are no pedestrians on the sidewalks. Days like this feel a bit like the end of the world. Everything is still and murky and slow.
She drives for a little while, eventually leaving the heart of the little town behind. Like a magnet, she is drawn to the ocean. She parks the hatchback in the small lot beside the beach and kills the engine and turns off the wipers. Rain courses down the windshield in waves. She can see little blips and plops on the hood, one for every drop of rain that lands on the car. In the distance she can see the shape of Huffnagle, blurred by the rain until it is only a cottony shadow.
Eleanor closes her eyes and lets out another long, weary sigh. She listens to the pounding rain on the roof. Hears the slap of it against the asphalt outside. The ocean has some life today, every wave a low roar as it breaks on the beach.
When she opens her eyes again, she has made up her mind. She leaves the keys in the ignition and opens the door and steps out into the rain. In an instant, she is soaking wet, her nightgown and housecoat clinging to her swollen body. The only other person in the world has arrived at the beach while Eleanor has had her eyes closed. There is a pickup truck parked at the opposite end of the small lot. Eleanor can see the shape of a person inside, perhaps enjoying the weather. She doesn’t wave, and doesn’t care.
The beach stones are black and wet and shiny. Eleanor crosses them slowly, but she isn’t worried about slipping and falling down. There are two sandpipers pattering around, dipping their beaks into the sand after each receding wave. The clouds in the distance are pulling apart like taffeta, black feathery tendrils separating from their bodies. More rain. Harder rain.
Eleanor walks to the edge of the beach and stands there a moment in her heavy wet housecoat. The waves are needle-sharp as they smack her ankles and feet. She closes her eyes again, hands deep in her pockets, and she thinks of Hob and his pleasant smile and his broad shoulders and secrets and his carefully-parted slick hair and his deep sad true eyes. She thinks of Agnes and her knotted hair and the wrinkle lines around her little dark eyes when she smiles and her cute small ear lobes and her favorite song.
They’ll be alright, she knows.
Eleanor pulls her housecoat off, sleeve by sleeve. It grabs at her skin as if resisting, but she casts it onto the beach. She bends over and grasps the hem of her nightgown, the wet flannel squishy between her fingers, and gathers it into her fists and then lifts it up and over her head. Naked, she faces the ocean calmly. The rain is bitingly cold, the wind worse.
Behind her she hears the muffled sound of a car door opening, and then a distant male voice shouts something.
She doesn’t answer or look back.
Eleanor steps into the ocean and strides forward, the water reaching her knees, then her hips. When she has waded in waist-deep, she spreads her arms wide behind her and lunges forward into the water, and she begins to swim, and swim, and swim.