It’s 1977 in a small New England town peppered with academics from the nearby colleges. Physics professor David Asken has just lost his pregnant wife and young daughter. Molly Carmichael is the sixteen-year-old babysitter from across the street, not in any hurry to grow up and eager for almost any refuge from her mother’s notorious art career. Her summer job is to keep house for the recuperating widower, a man who’s quietly planning to end his life as soon as he can drive again. Events will force both of them to grow up the hard way, and it’s their unexpected connection — fraught with potential scandal — that will help them do it. THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE explores the nature of love, and raises the question: Is there ever a time when doing the wrong thing might be exactly right?
There is a code of behavior, she knew, whose seventh article (it may be) says that on occasions of this sort it behooves the woman, whatever her own occupation might be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames. Then, she thought, I should certainly expect Mr. Tansley to get me out. But how would it be, she thought, if neither of us did either of these things?
―VIRGINIA WOOLF, TO THE LIGHTHOUSE
WHAT WAS THE POINT OF BEING MARRIED, David thought, if he couldn’t at least have a little company while he was pretending not to be terrified?
Elaine must have been really tired to sleep that way, with her mouth open and drool trailing down her face. He knew she’d hate to be seen like that, which gave him another reason to wake her up. “Honey?” he said, using his thumb to gently rub the drool away.
She opened her eyes and looked blank for just a moment, before a jolt of turbulence made her grip the arm rest. A small, evil part of him was pleased to see his wife the fearless flyer scared for a moment, even if it was only because she hadn’t fully wakened. “They said it was going to get bumpy. And we’re starting our descent, so the seats need to come up.” She’d missed the no-smoking light coming on, which might have cheered her up if the cabin wasn’t already layered with a haze of cigarette smoke.
She pressed the button that straightened her seat, then did the same for their daughter Emily, who slept on in the window seat. Her little face, still a little too pink from the Florida sun, was sweaty with child-sleep, and a few stray strands of hair clung wetly to her forehead.
It was probably just as well she was out, what with the steady shaking they were getting. Either she’d be scared about something neither Mommy nor Daddy could fix, or she’d decide it was fun and he’d know he was the only natural-born weenie in the family.
Was it evil to hope that the next child would take after him a little more? He put a possessive hand on Elaine’s belly, which still wasn’t showing anything that couldn’t be put down to the airline meal. She gave him a tight smile in return, one he easily translated as must you?
He withdrew his hand. She didn’t want him to tell anyone yet – not even total strangers in Florida who didn’t know their names and could hardly run off and share the news with her boss or her mother. He checked to see if the woman who had the opposite row all to herself suddenly had a knowing look on her face, but she was bracing one arm on the seat in front of her and gripping the armrest with the other. Her eyes were closed and her lips were moving – presumably in prayer – but her eyes opened wide at a sudden clanking.
“It’s just the landing gear going down,” he offered, with far more nonchalance than he felt. (Were they really going to try to land in this?) She didn’t look comforted.
Another sharp jolt made someone further up scream. Outside the window a spike of lightning briefly illuminated startlingly high towers of storm clouds and was followed immediately by the crack of thunder. Raindrops began to trail across the window as the lightning began to intensify, its cracks and booms and rumbles and murmurs overlapping so much that David gave up trying to count seconds in order to estimate distance.
Between flashes, the red and yellow glow of the plane’s lights pulsated eerily.
“I thought we were supposed to miss all this bad weather by leaving as late as we did.” Elaine might not be a nervous flier, but she was definitely an irritable one.
“This time of year storms can form pretty quickly.”
“Lovely.” She started checking the seat pockets in front of her and Emily, tidying compulsively as usual. “Should I wake her?”
“She might start singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song again.”
“At least it replaced It’s a Small World.”
“Don’t even mention it!” Elaine wouldn’t be above teasing him with the tune just for kicks, so he quickly added, “She had a good time, didn’t she?”
“That she did,” Elaine said. “She’s not hard to please.”
Unlike you, he thought. What wouldn’t he give just to hear her say he’d done something right? Something like: “Going to Florida was such a great idea, David!” But she just wasn’t given to that kind of thing.
Instead, it seemed to him, long recriminating silences were beginning to replace the easy exchanges they’d once had. He thought they’d each talked and listened in fairly equal measure, back when they were dating and first married. These days, it seemed to him he did more of the talking, and often all he got for it was that tight smile.
Like when he’d come home from the last day of class with these plane tickets.
Aw, fuck it. “Did you enjoy it?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said. “A lot more than I expected to.”
That was an admission, wasn’t it? She hadn’t expected to have fun. She could still be lying about having any, though. “What was your favorite part?”
“Oh, watching Emily get so excited, of course.”
Of course. Emily. Not her.
Not that this vacation hadn’t been a bit of a marathon for him, too. It had been so hot and humid, and the lines so long, and everything so relentlessly, cheerfully commercial. It had also been a lot more expensive than he’d counted on, and just to top it all off, Elaine had begun to have a little morning sickness. It hadn’t really occurred to him until too late that maybe this trip wasn’t the best timing for her.
“You feeling all right?” he asked now. This bouncing around couldn’t be easy on a queasy stomach.
“I’m fine,” she said, as if surprised.
They had to be nearly at the runway by now, surely? He peered outside looking for lights from the ground, and thought he might see a few. This was really very bad weather to be landing in. It wouldn’t even be safe to let them off the plane, not onto those metal steps – though he would be willing to run for it just to get the hell out of this thing.
Another strong jolt punctuated the general shaking. He took Elaine’s hand, then leaned forward and peered at Emily. Her lips were doing that adorable suckling thing. A few rows ahead, a baby started screaming.
“I bet that baby’s ears are bothering it,” Elaine said. “They should give it a bottle.” There was a perceptible increase in conversation, probably as every mother on the plane said some variation of the same thing, while everyone else on board wondered, like him, how long they were going to be trapped on a shaking plane with a screaming baby.
No longer just peppering the windows, the rain could now be heard pounding furiously on the roof.
The engines suddenly roared and the plane lifted steeply up again. The conversations around them stopped dead at this change in the routine. Only the baby continued crying.
David felt the plane straining for altitude even as it continued to buck. With one hand he held on to Elaine’s and with the other he held onto his seat.
Emily whimpered and Elaine pulled her hand away to attend to her, just as the plane suddenly lurched left.
And that was the last thing he remembered of his life before the crash.
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