Norwegian Wood

Christie Cochrell

It wasn't the headache that bothered Leonie most when she woke up with it, but Jake's singing, in the garage workshop just underneath the open bedroom window.

Jake was singing, as always, "Norwegian Wood"—ignoring everything that had gone by since 1965, all the worn-out, outmoded skins the world had shed since then.  Leonie was prodigiously tired of "Norwegian Wood" after three years of marriage to Jake.  And despite vows made in good faith on the great lawn at Villa Montalvo in front of family and thirty friends, she found she was worryingly tired of Jake, too, after three years of "Norwegian Wood."

Then there was the headache.  Sitting like an incubus on her forehead, a mighty frown between her eyebrows.  No, there was a frown as well—she'd wakened frowning, while Jake sang heedlessly and heartlessly below.

How dared he sing, when he was the direct cause of her headache, her heartache, and her waking; when he had kept her up, fighting, most of the night?  (We talked until two, and then she said 'It's time for bed.'  She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh . . .)  Of course he'd fallen off to sleep almost at once, when he had had enough of fighting (I told her I didn't, and crawled off to sleep in the bath), leaving her riled and roiled like a stream turned bottom up, that wouldn't settle again for several sleepless hours.


It was Jake's charm to be untouched by any doubts or indecisions.  It was Leonie's charm—if such it was—to be charmed, simply and fatally as a child.

Leonie was writing her Ph.D. thesis on oriental philosophy in early poetry.  Jake made doors.  He had come within a month or two of finishing his own dissertation in art history, then inexplicably soured on academia, rebelled against all she studied and they had both believed—that one succeeds by being rather than doing, by attitude rather than act.  The doctrine of inaction suddenly infuriated him, so he took action and hadn't stopped moving since—a brisk, brusque new broom, trying to sweep her along with him.

The house they rented was soon overrun with doors, cellular as a honeycomb.  They had Dutch doors both front and back, brass-inlay doors on all the kitchen cabinets, a teal door with a peacock's tail of stained glass on the medicine cabinet, and something that should have been on a Renaissance cathedral instead hiding the cluttered recess off the bedroom where they piled shoes and dirty laundry.

"Do you see a door as something that opens, or something that closes?" Leonie asked Jake curiously, sure that she would find in his answer the essence of the differences that had arisen between them.

"I don't see doors that way at all," he said coldly, and she had her answer.  He went on to point out the absurd futility of her pursuit, the harm her studies were doing them in spent resources of all kinds.

Leonie tried to tell him about the Chinese sage who saw a huge, wonderful tree and realized it had only been allowed to get that way because it could not be put to any practical use:  food, varnish, lumber.  But Jake preferred Norwegian wood—with all its complexities.  And since, as Lao-Tzu noted way back in the 6th century B.C., "Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good," Leonie yielded once again to Jake's superior persuasion.  He was wearing her down, daily, like soft wood.  Soon she'd be whatever serviceable shape his planing demanded.  It distressed her—and the result wasn't nearly as pleasant as the pine he'd just distressed for a neighbor's shed door.


She got out of bed, stepping into the watery sunlight slopped on the floor like when you forgot to tuck in the shower curtain.

The kitchen tiles were cold under her bare feet.  The sink was so full of dirty glasses—threatening to fulfill their designation as tumblers—that the orange teakettle wouldn't fit under the faucet.  She moved them two by two from sink to sideboard, filled the kettle, and turned the burner on; found a bag of Pike Place coffee behind an ornate inlay door (a rather failed experiment of Jake's); then hunted for the plastic filter cone.  It turned up on the cupboard, holding up a wobbly pyramid of dirty plates which she had to dismantle cautiously to retrieve it.

With no spoons anywhere in sight, Leonie had to guess at how much coffee to put in.  Not enough, it turned out—the result was awful.  She needed to take some aspirin, but knew her empty stomach wouldn't tolerate them.  They were out of milk, so she poured half and half into one of the dirty glasses to wash down the aspirin after she'd forced down a few Ritz crackers.  A headache like a frown.  Coffee like dishwater.  A day like a banana peel, lying in wait for her incautious step.

Back in the bedroom, the singing picked up where it had left off, holding the house under siege.  Leonie got back into bed to try to summon up some energy, leaving a trail of coffee droplets behind her like Hansel and Gretel and the breadcrumbs.  Wouldn't someone, please, come follow it and rescue her?

It was nearly eleven, already, the morning wasted.  What day was it?  Friday!  She'd forgotten that she was supposed to have lunch with Colin, her long-suffering dissertation adviser.  She reached for the telephone.

"Oh no, I couldn't eat, thanks.  And anyway, I don't have anything ready to show you."

"Come on.  You sound as if you could use a little sustenance of one kind of another."

She never could resist kindness.  "Noon, then."

But it was after twelve when Leonie left by the front door (carved from some exotic wood—Norwegian, probably).  Huge terracotta pots of scraggly orange nasturtiums sat atop the steps like shape-shifting Chinese dragons pretending to guard the threshold.

"The threshold of pain," Leonie thought, crossing it.

They lived near downtown Palo Alto, where the streets all have the names of literary men, shade trees are generous, and edging plants have long since overgrown the neatly laid out borders like copious margin notes.

The gas gauge read almost empty; the MG started reluctantly.  Jake came out of the workshop at the noise, but Leonie only waved at him crossly and roared off down the street.


She drove up into the hills above campus where Colin Tremaine lived, and dear serene Peggy, his wife, a nurse.  Peggy had been brought up in China, the child of British colonists.  She and Colin had three daughters:  lovely Jenny, who played the harp; comical Laura, who studied medicine and beat them all at mahjong; and sloe-eyed Helen, who'd lived for three years in an old farmhouse in Brittany, writing a series of sociological articles on the region and learning to do wonderful things with butter and herbs.

Theirs was a graceful, L-shaped house of pale gray stone with fresh white trim.  Leonie went by habit around back, where Colin's book- and glass-walled study looked out on the garden and the spreading oaks.  Two alabaster vases of tall dahlias stood on the polished flagstone floor, propping French doors open to the warm late-October day.  Liquidambar trees on the north lawn were starting to blaze in their radiant colors.

Colin brought out a new translation of court poetry he wanted her to see, sent by the publisher for him to review.

"Peggy sends her warm regrets for missing you—this is the day she goes to Woodside to give Faye Dunne her diabetes shot.  But she's left us a casserole."

They sat out under the oaks, and ate on bone china:  the casserole, of chicken and almonds and cellophane noodles; fresh asparagus; tiny, flaky rolls with raspberry preserves.

Leonie never thought much about Jake here; those thoughts were like wolves kept at bay by a golden circle of light.  She looked at the lacy shadows of the oaks dappled with sunlight, like the pieces of paper which children fold and snip into snowflakes with their scissors.  But which was the cutout, sun or shade?  Was it the laughing times or those other, often dreadful times that were real?  It was all a matter of focus, she realized—like an Escher print.

"Coffee?" Colin asked.

"If you only knew!"

There was no greater contentment in the world, she decided, than good, French-press coffee drunk from china cups.  She touched her lips to the smooth, cool rim, like a kiss.  There were madelines too, on a little plate.

She almost didn't have the heart to say what she had come to say.

"I'm thinking, actually, of giving it up," she said casually, breaking a teacake into crumbs.  "The dissertation."

"Again?" Colin said.  Then, "Jake."

"No, this is my decision."

"Of course," he said, suspiciously agreeable.  They looked out together toward the hills above campus, above the graceful house, silent for a long time before he asked with impeccable nonchalance, "And what will you do?"

Her nonchalance was less practiced.  "Oh, you know.  Get a job of some kind.  Roast a turkey every Thanksgiving.  Have children.  What other people do."

"'Grow up?'  'Learn to face reality?'"

"Exactly!" Leonie said enthusiastically, sure she could convince him after all.  And if him, then surely herself . . .

He gave her his infinitely knowing, infinitely amused smile, the smile of some inscrutable eastern mask.  "I see."

There, that had been easy enough.

It wasn't until Leonie was in the car, ready to leave, that Colin stopped her and spoke, standing with one hand on the MG like a benediction.

"You know," he said, "perhaps you try too hard to be accommodating."

"I'm selfish, not accommodating at all."  She knew that lesson by heart.  "Whatever can you mean?"

"Last summer," Colin said, "I had three scholars from Hokkaido as house guests.  The heat, and too much walking, caused their feet to swell.  Peggy and I drove them around to shoe stores, but they could find nothing that fit.  Apparently the oriental foot is shaped differently from the occidental shoe.  Finally, I saw an ad for some odd-size shoe outlet in South San Francisco, and we all piled into the car and drove up there to buy three pairs of odd-sized shoes.

"The scholars seemed very happy with their new footwear, but the next day I noticed that they were still hobbling, in pain.  I expressed my concern, and offered to take them back to the outlet to exchange the shoes.  All three of them assured me that wouldn't be necessary.  When I looked puzzled, one politely explained.

"'The shoes,' he said firmly, 'must learn to fit the feet.'"


            The man at the gas station took Leonie's credit card through the open window, and said sympathetically,

"Money just disappears anymore, doesn't it?"  He showed her a quarter on the flat of his palm, closed the fingers, and it was gone.

Leonie realized it had been an strangely nice day, after all:  to get to eat under the oaks, and hear the story of the shoes, and have the man at the gas station show her magic tricks.  How wonderfully adaptable we are, she thought.  The possibilities seemed endless, like brilliant silk scarves pulled out of a sleeve.

So she went home cheerful, and she and Jake had a great evening, laughing at nothing and everything, as they were sometimes able.


But then the rains came.  Leonie struggled with her thesis and Jake's sarcastic disapproval and the constant disarray of dirty dishes, clothes.  She felt the rainclouds heavy with discouragement and doom.  Birnam Wood was headed for the castle.

"I need to talk to you," Jake stated one morning.  Or no—Norwegian Wood.  There'd been a belligerent edge.  She looked up warily from her writing.

"Okay, what?"

"My brother's going to build a house this spring.  He needs me.  He needs doors.  There will be twenty doors," Jake said dreamily.

"And what will I do there, in Bernalillo, New Mexico?"

"Just that.  Do something, for a change.  No better time to learn."

"Wait tables?  Sell Coors beer to ski bums?  Pick cotton?"

"Not cotton, chile.  But more to the point, Leonie—why not?  Are you too good for any of those things?  Or just not good enough to pay your way, for once?"

"I thought all of that 'back to the land' business went out with the 60s?" she said defensively, chilled to the core.

"Why do you always have to make everything into a social movement?  Connect all threads into a fancy tapestry, all thoughts into some arrogant philosophy?"

She couldn't answer; knew with dreadful certainty there would be no dissuading him, or practicing some canny sleight of hand to make the whole idea disappear.  She tried hard to picture pulling a rainbow of silk out of her raggedy sweater sleeve, with a shimmer of bright impossibility at the far end.

"So," Jake said, turning away.  "Decide.  Are you coming, or not?"


A simple enough question, wasn't it, for one professing to be a philosopher-in-training?  There was a fitful rain.  Leonie drove down the deserted downtown streets, trying to see her way clear.  The wipers only smeared the windshield.

The shoes still hadn't learned to fit the feet, and she could barely walk now.  She was late for class, but had to stop—eternally!—to get gas.  There must be some maxim in that, but let it go.

She was dismayed to see the man at the gas station pull out the quarter again, and manipulate the conversation.  He didn't recognize her, didn't really care.

She saw that, after all, it was the only trick he knew.


quotes:  "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," John Lennon, Paul McCartney, 1965


Christie Cochrell's work has been published by Catamaran, Orca, Cumberland River Review, The Wild Word, and Tin House, among others, and has won several awards including the Literal Latté Short Short Contest. Chosen as New Mexico Young Poet of the Year while growing up in Santa Fe, she now lives and writes by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California. She loves the play of light, the journeyings of time, things ephemeral and ancient.

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