The box said Heathkit. It brought to mind candy or enticement. My husband stood beside me, smiling— I ordered it for you. He pulled out the little knife he carried. Here.
Actually, he wasn’t my husband yet. It was 1980s Boston, and I’d recently moved in with him near the university where he taught physics. I slit open the carton— more boxes. The month before, we’d gone to a department store where he bought me clothes prescribed by a salesperson: tweed skirts and a blazer, a trench coat. All for faculty life as it was then.
Twelve years later, after our divorce, I arrived one day at his place to find him polishing his car with one of my old nightgowns. Blue flannel, Lanz. It wasn’t something I’d probably wear again but he rubbed the nightgown back and forth across the finish. Our two children had been with him for the weekend. I could hear my son on the piano, and my daughter waved from a window. Soon the three of us would go to our small house a mile away and re-watch The Lion King before they took their showers.
The nightgown. Why hadn’t he cut it into pieces first? A friend would tell me later that using it as a rag was a form of spite, but I thought there might be sentiment. His car gleamed. He started polishing the wheels.
Soon after I’d moved in to his place, we went to a birthday party colleagues held for him. The hosts grilled shrimp, and I wore the new blazer. You look like a fucking Boy Scout, he’d said when I dressed one morning in green capris and a tan blouse. Hence the trip to the department store.
But is this fair? I recall unkindnesses on his part— yet over time have I whitewashed mine? He was steady, and generous in many ways. I was 24 when we moved in together, traded self-determination for a destination. In the garden, we planted a dozen kinds of plants— including dictamnus albus, which blistered the skin if you rubbed against it. I was the one who initiated our break-up.
There was this: laughter and a love of adventure. During one of his spring breaks, we decided on a road trip. Nine hours to Chesapeake Bay with his retriever. We arrived at 2 a.m., lay in moonlight on a pebbly beach while the dog raced the surf. Driving home the next day, it felt as though the inside of the car was the whole world.
The Heathkit box held an assemble-your-own oscilloscope: circuit boards with resistors and capacitors packed in tiny bags. This was a time when my husband had more ideas about my future than I did. I had, accordingly, enrolled in a graduate program that would use my background in mathematics to turn me into an engineer. Classes would begin soon.
You can build it in the basement, he told me. He loved to spend time down there, assembling remote-controlled model airplanes that he flew in a field outside the city. Okay, I said, and tried to mean it. Downstairs at the workbench, we sat side by side. The furnace kicked on, kicked off. While he smoothed mylar over a balsawood frame, I soldered resistors to circuit boards and double-checked diagrams. He explained the concept of capacitance: two conductive plates insulated from each other that store and discharge energy.
I got pregnant the fall after that birthday party. We married, and I left the engineering program. The oscilloscope was stored away— I don’t know what became of it. In our conversations about the kids’ activities and schedules, my ex-husband and I have learned to tread carefully. There’s little talk of feelings or the past. He got the contents of the basement, including the half-built oscilloscope. I’d like to think he finished it and took it to his lab.
In his driveway that day, I wanted sentiment. He’d kept that nightgown for years. When we were together, I’d worn it sitting with him by the wood stove on wintry nights. We drank scotch and listened to the jazz he liked. His eyes on mine, he nodded out the beats. That’s my old nightgown, I said to him as he stood by his car. Yeah, he said. It is. I laughed but felt tears. We lived on opposite sides of town.
Blue flannel lay heaped on the car hood as we walked toward his house. The ache of mismatch and love for our son and daughter were with us.
Before the kids were born, we’d often driven to the field on Sundays. I read in the shade while overhead whichever plane he’d brought looped and rolled. Evenings in the basement, he’d taught me the controls—back for more altitude, forward for less. Right and left aileron. He had nice hands, with square pink nails and half-moons at the cuticle. One afternoon at the field, he pressed the transmitter into my hands. You know what to do, he said. No, I told him, I can’t, but the plane was already in the air. My fingers were all wrong on the levers. The plane climbed, stalled for a long second, then dropped to the ground. Don’t cry, I’ll fix it, he said, and when I didn’t stop, more pointedly: I told you I can fix it.
We gathered all the pieces we could find. The sun slid into the trees. We’ll stop for pizza on the way home, my husband said, but he wasn’t my husband yet.
CB Anderson’s work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Pleiades, Tupelo Quarterly, Indiana Review, The Masters Review, and Hayden’s Ferry. Awards include the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize and 2nd place in the Zoetrope: All-Story Fiction Contest. She holds a B.A. in mathematics and has worked as a software developer and university instructor.