Laws of Conservation.

By: Jen Shoop

A fictional piece. I simultaneously published a trend-focused post this morning in case you’re more in that headspace.

It rained the morning of J.D.’s Baptism. The windshield wipers of Skip Halliday’s Volvo station wagon were moving nearly erratically across the fogged glass, clearing nothing in their wake. Skip stared out the window, clenching his jaw, calculating the incalculable: when might there be enough of a break in the downpour to steer his wife and three small children into the vestibule of Holy Trinity Church before the scheduled 10:45 A.M. Baptism?

“Oh Skip,” Lee said, in her breathy way, tilting her head back against the headrest. “It’s just water.” Of all the things to say, not remotely the right one, thought Skip, and he felt something inside coil. He stared at her, blinking, as if to provoke an explanation, and then exhaled loudly. Lee placed her hand on his, and he flinched — a bit too abruptly, he decided, as he then tapped his fist lightly on top of her palm as if in apology, and then returned to staring out the near-opaque window.

Charlotte, in the back seat, observed all of this, and wondered what had been so bad about the water comment.

“Then you go out and get soaking wet, Lee,” said Skip finally. Lee turned in her seat to smile at Charlotte, her brown eyes crinkling at the edges.

“You ready to run, love bugs?” she asked, and she patted Thomas on the knee and then squeezed the tip of Charlotte’s Mary Jane. “Unbuckle your seat belts so you’re ready. On your mark –“

“Lee –“

“Get set –”

And Lee flung open the door, and a wall of rain pelted in against the leather of the front seat.

“You’re getting it everywhere –”

“Grab the baby!” she said, and she slammed the door and swung open Charlotte’s, and as she did, she realized how pathetically she had underestimated the impact of the rain on her white boucle Chanel suit, which was, even after the seconds she’d stood outside the car, entirely soaked. She laughed, then, and dropped her shoulders, and trotted around the car and up the stairs with Charlotte and Thomas flanking her. Skip stared after them and then cursed, loudly, before swinging open his own door, retrieving the baby in his carseat, and ducking his head as he jolted through the rain.

Lee was in the vestibule, possibly the only creature improved in beauty by a run through a downpour, her skin radiant, the delicate bones of her face incandescent with the rush, her hair slicked back from her forehead. She was dabbing at her neck with an ineffectual tissue provided by her mother —

“Oh, Lee, you poor things –“

Lee smiled as she brushed her palm over her son’s wet forehead. Skip was swiping at the shoulders of his navy pinstripe suit in exaggerated movements.

“Skip! You got caught in it!” And Skip turned, and smiled courteously, disguising his foul humor with small-talk. His eyes skimmed the vestibule: the Winfields, Lee’s parents, Father Burke, and a slight, earnest-looking girl with brown hair whose name he momentarily forgot. Jennifer? Julie? She approached him:

“Hi, Mr. Halliday.” He looked back blankly. “Oh, Mrs. Halliday asked me to help with the children during the ceremony.” Skip looked down at Thomas, who was clinging to his left pant suit leg as he swung his body around in an arc, dangling his head backward.

“Oh, good, good,” he said, and he peeled Thomas off his leg and pushed him in her direction. “Thanks. F-Frances.” That was it, Frances.

When they stood up at the altar, J.D. in the arms of his godparents, Bud and Milly Winfield, Lee leaned her face against Skip’s chest. He was on a razor-edge between persisting in his righteous rage and letting it go. Earlier that morning, while feeding J.D. a bottle with one hand and riffling through the Sunday paper with the other in the starched white sheets that she had insisted they buy — “Yves Delorme, the best! It’s what all the girls use” — she had cradled the house phone under her chin and told her mother: “Oh, I’m not going back to work. I’m done.” Skip had actually craned his neck out of his walk-in closet and waited until she looked up to make eye contact with her. It was the way she had said it, as though a foregone conclusion, and his hermetic seclusion from whatever mental and emotional gymnastics she had navigated to arrive at that decision, that irked. There had been a time where they had laid on the back patio of the house they’d bought in Georgetown, holding hands as they stared up at the sky, and she had said: “There’s no daylight between us.” And he had believed her. He knew the way she shaved her legs in the shower — always against the same corner of the tub — and that she loved the smell of cigar and hated to drive on the Beltway — to the point of paralysis, or hypnosis — and that she could often be found eating saltines absent-mindedly while looking out the window at the neighbor’s backyard, where small birds bathed in the standing water of the morning rain. He carried these intimacies with him as though they were apotropaic.

“But you didn’t even want me to work in the first place,” she had said that morning, with the sharp though not unkind reasoning that occasionally startled Skip. Lee could be so spacey, so — silly — and yet. A law degree from Harvard, a successful career she’d put on pause to raise their brood: he was reminded, on occasion, that just beneath the feline movements of her body, her malingering gait, the slow smile that crept up her face as she digested a comment, was a quick draw.

It was true. Skip hadn’t wanted her to work in the first place, and they didn’t need the money. But it was so like her to glide through life and its decisions with such carelessness, such wide-open opportunity. Oh, today, I’ll practice law; tomorrow, I’ll stay home with babies. Meanwhile, Skip was the one pushing her to meet deadlines (“aren’t the school checks due this week?”) and schedule repairs. How was it that he was perennially putting himself in the role of Norm the Accountant when he would just as much like to be free of such responsibilities? He would watch her place her gin-and-tonic, frosted with chill and dripping with condensation, down on the ornate wood table she had inherited from her parents, and wince at the compulsion to chastise her for not using a coaster. She would jump into the vintage Jaguar her father lent her with her wet bathing suit right on the leather seat. She would shrug at bedtimes, and forget the oven was on, and go to the supermarket for milk and return with three pints of ice cream, and oh God! He had grown to hate the man he was forced to be: tightly-wound, needling about paperwork and due dates, put out by the incessant presence of repair people and their estimates. “Fine, fine,” he’d say, waving his hands, not even capable of the effort it would take to get a second estimate on the HVAC. But was it envy beneath it all, or its neighboring love?

She read these thoughts as though they had materialized in a cartoon thought bubble above his head, and she nestled her cheek against his chest, and looked up at him. He looked back at her. She reached up and cradled his chin in her hand, and it was done. She felt his body relax against hers.

“Do you reject Satan and all his empty promises?” Father Burke’s reedy voice returned him to the moment, and he looked over at his son, and he succumbed to the pleasant warmth of realizing that all of these good people — and they were, truly, good and well-turned-out people, the kind who cared enough to write thank you notes for dinner parties (“thanks much for the lovely send-off, we cannot wait to return the favor when we return from Italy in August — until then, ciao!”) and would inquire quietly and knowingly about his ailing aunt — were gathered in this cold Church on a Saturday morning to celebrate his boy in this age-old tradition. He felt, as he marched through the renewal of the Baptismal promises, his wife radiant and now-forgiven at his side, as though something had been restored to him, as though some line gone slack was now pulled taut.

They filed back into a pew, and his six-month-old son was deposited in his arms.

Frances, observing all of this, had registered the tenor of their strained rapport from the minute she had seen Lee appear in the vestibule, a vision in white. She had once, while baby-sitting their children, observed a similar tenseness stain the afternoon air, and then watched as Skip had stood, perhaps intentionally, she reasoned, behind the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the dining room, drinking a glass of milk, when Lee had fanned into the room, bumping into him. Skip had pantomimed the impact, spilling his milk in great performance all over the counter, though Lee was a hundred pounds dripping wet and could not have possibly achieved such force.

Lee!” he had near-shouted. “For God’s sake!”

“Oh!” said Lee, “I’m so sorry, Skippy.” And then she had laughed, and Skip had stormed out of the room. Frances, having four siblings herself, understood the implied, though bristled at the juvenility of his tack. There were other, more meaningful forms of retribution, and Frances felt Skip had misplayed his hand.

But what she couldn’t understand was how anyone could find fault with Lee Halliday.

Lee Halliday was always late but never in a hurry. She moved with the ease of the privileged, having never found herself in a mess too big she couldn’t extricate herself with a phoned-in favor or the winning apologetic tilt of her beautiful face. Frances had once watched her stop her car in the driveway while backing out of it, then climb out, then actually take the key from the ignition before leaning herself against the car door to speak with her neighbor, Doug Winfield, even though it was 10:42 a.m. and Frances knew she had been asked to look after the children for her 10:30 a.m. doctor’s appointment.

“…those damned aphids…” she had made out through the plantation shutters, and Frances had nearly lifted her hand to her mouth in shock. Lee was running 15 minutes late to an appointment and she was talking about aphids with the interest one might have pegged to an illness in Doug’s family?

But that was Lee’s way. “How are you feeling today, honey?” she had asked Frances, her head cocked, her eyebrows furrowed in concern, after Frances had gone home with a fever the day prior. And the way she looked at you — as if there were no one else in the room and nothing more important than what you were just about to say — could convert a doubting Thomas.

Lee was also plainly, unignorably beautiful. It was not the patrician beauty of her mother and sisters — it was delicate, doe-like, unanswerable. “The kind of face that launches a thousand ships,” she had once overheard a family friend call it. Frances had laid in bed that night and imagined important men in dark suits slamming their fists in courtrooms in her defense, or the well-heeled gentlemen at the country club chastising untoward gawkers as she’d pass by, obliviously flashing too much leg in her brief tennis skirt. Of course, that was all well after Frances had drawn the same conclusion herself, which was itself long after Lee’s reputation had proceeded her: “Well, that Lee Halliday — she is just a bombshell,” was what Frances’ mother, Edie Bartlett, had said. “She’s svelte and angular and — she’s…!.” And she threw her hands up and let her mouth go slack, as though words were too trammeled a tackle box to capture it. Edie was kind to other women in this way. She would stop strangers on the street to compliment their hair, their shoes, their nail polish color. Edie had learned long ago that women gained nothing from jealousy. In other words, it was possible that Edie had undersold Lee to Frances. Frances had been stunned into stammering when she’d first knocked on the door of Lee’s home.

“I’m – I’m Frances, the – I’m the sitter? My mom is Edie Bartlett?”

Lee took nightly dips in Doug Winfield’s pool. The habit often irked Frances, who would be waiting in the kitchen, vaguely tidying things up, depositing cups in the sink, wiping down counters, with J.D. happily nestled in the rocker and the children coloring at the breakfast room table, in advance of her promised 5 p.m. clock-out time, and Lee would glide down the steps at 4:53 p.m. in her black one-piece, her waist winnowed to nothing, her limbs long and tan, and fumble around in the junk drawer for the key.

“Hi honey,” she’d say to Frances. “I’m going for a swim.” And Frances would smile encouragingly, like a dummy, and watch as Lee Halliday would cross the street of her Spring Valley neighborhood in bare feet, wearing nothing but a black bathing suit and a white towel around her neck, and disappear behind the white picket gate that led to the Winfields’ backyard.

“Do you swim?” asked Lee one night, wiping the pads of her feet against the doormat, beads of chlorinated water still-dotting her shoulders.

“I mean, I can swim. I don’t, like, compete, though,” fumbled Frances. Why was everything so elegantly trim with Lee, and so clunky with Frances?

“Come for a swim tomorrow,” she had said. Frances didn’t understand who would look after the children, or if this was part of her job, but she chose, for once, the tidier path and just nodded.

The next night, Lee called down the stairs after changing into her swimsuit — this time fire engine red — “Skippy? Franny and I are running next door for a swim. We’ll be back in ten.”

“Mmmhmm,” he returned. Frances worried for a minute about J.P., who was laying in his crib. Would Skip know to…? She interrupted her own thought: he was their Dad; he had to know these things. She instead changed quickly into her own bathing suit, a stretched out pink Speedo, and tied a small towel around her waist, sliding her feet into pink platform flip-flops. They crossed the street together, and Frances, though uncomfortable in her own body, had to admit that she felt like somebody standing next to Lee, whose shoulders were thrown back, whose long legs stretched strong and bronzed.

She watched as Lee dove in a perfect arc into the pool, cutting a clean line through the water, and then emerged at the other end, transitioning into a seasoned freestyle. Frances’ movements lacked finesse, but she strained to rotate her arms and propel her legs with as much intention as she could muster. Lee, however, did not seem concerned with Frances. In fact, she seemed totally unaware of Frances’ ungainly windmilling. Instead, she slipped through the blue with purpose, her movements barely registering as ripples on the surface. After a few turns, Lee pulled herself up the silver ladder on the far end of the pool, her hair slicked back, and tilted her head this way and that. A light rain began to dot the flagstone terrace around the pool.

“You ready, honey?”

As they left the backyard, Lee tapped three times on the sliding glass door leading into the Winfield home and Frances saw the outline of an old man sitting at a kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal with newspapers spread out around him. Doug. He looked up over his glasses and smiled, put his hand to his lips, and then tapped his hand to his heart. Lee did the same, raising her shoulders as if in embrace.

“Sweet old man,” sighed Lee. Frances emitted a strange half-laugh in acknowledgement and then winced before offering a sheepish compensatory smile — none of which Lee seemed to register, or perhaps, Frances reasoned, all of which Lee had just batted away with the kind of social largesse Frances one day hoped to possess. It’s nothing, Lee might have said. It’s just water. Frances felt for the first time in a long time a clandestine hope for her own future, one in which she was capable of confident arcs and triple taps on the neighbor’s window.

As they crossed the street, Skip glanced out the window of the second floor landing of his home and caught sight of his wife, her slender arm around the sitter, and leaned against the window frame to watch. Lee held up her hand in a loose gesture of gratitude to a car that had slowed to a stop to accommodate their ambling jaywalk through the drizzling August evening. Frances was clutching her towel around her body, her shoulders sloped downward, and the look of awe on her face as she listened to Lee pained Skip. They were making their way up the red brick path to the front door now, their conversation suddenly legible.

“Oh Franny, you are gorgeous,” Lee was saying, tugging the teen to herself. “Those eyes of yours are going to be trouble.” Skip felt a shiver of pride rush through him. He had not previously thought about the sitter as anything but a sitter, but he saw now, against the obvious silhouette of the girl’s insecurity, the kindness of his wife.

He looked over the banister, and Lee, now in the foyer, tilted her head up towards him. Pearls of rain and pool water ornamented her cheekbones, her clavicle. He felt a mantle of frustration slip off his back. He let go of the tweezer-like grasp he’d maintained all day long over the situation that morning: the children, not yet dressed or fully fed, lazing in front of the television at 8:21 despite the fact that they were due for dental cleanings at 8:30. He had gritted his teeth as he hastily flung his tie around his neck in the door frame. He only knew about the appointment because Dr. Mattis had mentioned it the night prior in the clubhouse after the driving range, and he begrudged the acquisition of this information. Now this, too, had become his responsibility.

But as he looked down at his wife, he saw the girl who had knelt over him in the alley between Copley and Healey Halls at Georgetown University all those years ago. He had suffered a concussion from a lacrosse play the night prior, and was violently sick, and though he couldn’t blame the other students for scurrying by — likely presuming his retching the result of debauchery — he also resented them, and then there she was, her face angelic, her palms cool on his arm and then the back of his neck. She hadn’t said much, just stayed with him, the light pressure of her hand on his back reassuring, and then, after he had explained the situation, only an empathetic tsk, as though dissipating the severity of the situation. Then: “Shh, we’ll get this sorted out.” And of all the things to say, it was precisely the right one. She had escorted him slowly and without registering any disgust to the hospital, and sat with him in the waiting room, and then he couldn’t remember her ever leaving his side since.

As he looked down at her, he was struck by the way in which love seemed to operate according to laws of conservation. It was as if his wife’s tender ministrations to the girl had returned some displaced affection to him, and now here he was, standing at the top of the steps, mouthing down to his wife so the girl wouldn’t hear him:

“I love you.”

P.S. More of my fiction here.

P.P.S. I love Ann Patchett.

P.P.P.S. Beauty products I won’t quit.

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16 thoughts on “Laws of Conservation.

  1. LOVED reading this! Echoing everyone else … more, please! Thank you for sharing your gifts with us.


  2. Echoing the calls for more – your writing is somehow familiar, transportive, and casually melodic, all at once. I love lingering on certain observations or turns of phrases, you make it feel so effortless as a reader (though I’m sure it’s not!).

    Loved the call out to Holy Trinity too & could picture that entire scene – was married there a few years back and just attended mass there this past weekend. Despite having switched our membership from that parish to a more convenient church on the Hill, it will always be one of my favorite, cherished places in the city 🙂

    1. Thank you SO much for the generous words – so appreciate the encouragement. I love the personal inflection this story had for you. I have so many memories right on that street / in that area from graduate school, from attending high school next door, from weddings and Baptisms, from late night drinks at The Tombs…!


  3. Oh my goodness. What a gift you have. Your connection with words and emotions is outstanding and I wanted/needed more. Your voice reminded me of a more gentle Pat Conroy (who I adored). Please continue to write. Your talent is rare and much welcomed in a world seemingly filled with a loss of romance, gentle kindness and sophisticated nuance. Bravo. Jen!

    1. Thank you so incredibly much, Jan. Your encouragement means more to me than you know! Thank you! xx

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