Authors: Lauren Fox
Friends Like Us
Still Life with Husband
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright Â© 2015 by Lauren Fox
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Ltd., Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Days of awe : a novel / by Lauren Fox.âFirst edition.
1. Female friendshipâFiction. 2. Mothers and daughtersâFiction. 3. Marital conflictâFiction. 4. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover art by Clare Elsanesser
Cover design by Janet Hansen
Also by Lauren Fox
A Note About the Author
Reading Group Guide
For Molly and Tess
The morning of Josie's funeral was cloudless and knife-sharp, one of those bitter spring days that comes sandwiched between warmer ones and reminds you not to grow accustomed to good things. I was leaning against my car, face to the sun, trying to breathe, when Mark pulled into a spot near mine. I turned and watched as he got out of the car. He wore the scarf Chris and I had gotten him for his last birthday, soft dark blue cashmere, and my heart slammed inside my chest: that beautiful scarf still existed, warm as a blanket, and Josie was gone.
Geese honked overhead. The funeral was in thirty minutes. I shaded my eyes with my hand. The funeral home shared its parking lot with Meehan's Market, a small upscale grocery store, and Mark and I, wearing our funeral finest, didn't look so different from the well-dressed shoppers in their everyday expensive clothes, although we, of course, weren't lugging canvas bags full of fresh bread and oranges and organic baby yogurts and bottles of red wine.
“Stay close to Mommy!” I heard from two different women almost in unison. “Hold Mommy's hand, Olive,” one added.
Mark stumbled to me like a zombie, silent and dazed. His skin was pasty in the violent light. His face was unusually clean shaven and dotted with a few tiny, fresh specks of blood. His features seemed just slightly, disconcertingly off-kilter. Watching him, I understood that our pain separates usâthat something as monumental as sorrow ought to make us porous, but it petrifies us instead. I understood that, and then, like a goldfish, I forgot it.
“Hi?” I said stupidly, as if we were meeting for coffee, or a blind date.
He mumbled something that sounded like my name and steadied himself on the hood of my car. “This was my fault,” he whispered, an agonized croak, and he looked past me, squinting against the glare of the sun bouncing off all the bright cars in the parking lot, the herd of wild minivans.
Josie had died two nights before at 2:00Â a.m. on an icy overpass just north of downtown. Her rusty eleven-year-old Toyota skidded off the slick road like a can of soup rolling across a supermarket aisle. It crashed into a guardrail and killed her on impact. There was some alcohol in her blood, we learned, but she hadn't been over the limit. She had, though, been going much too fast for the slippery conditions.
I got the call at 4:00Â a.m. Hannah was at a sleepover. The phone woke me, and in a reptile panic I thought,Hannah.When Mark, on the other end of the line, said, “Josie's been in an accident,” I'm ashamed to admit that I felt a split second of relief. But then I understood what I was being told, and the relief sizzled into horror.
“How could this be your fault?” I said, grasping Mark's shoulders. “It's not!”
A noise came from his throat, a high gasp of breath, a not-quite-human cry: the soft, mad sound of grief. Of course it was his fault. And it was my fault, and possibly Chris's, and most definitely Josie's, and some other people's faults, too: we were all guilty, to varying degrees, the calibrations of which I would scrutinize, often and obsessively, for months to come. And let me tell you, that is one joyless board game. The winner gets a toppling stack of misery and resentment and a free pass to therapy.
“Let's go,” Mark said, recovering a bit. He put his arm around me, and we limped into Dalton's Funeral Home together, up the wide wooden steps and into the foyer that was meant to look like a snug, old-fashioned sitting room, with its overstuffed love seats and faded floral wallpaper, as if death had been a more palatable affair seventy years ago, cozy as Mayberry.
Henry Dalton greeted us. He was tall and reedy, with a nimbus of wispy white hair. He spoke quietly to Mark, leaning in close without invading Mark's spaceâ¦.So sorry for your loss,I heard him say,â¦will want to pay their respectsâ¦.He managed to seem both rehearsed and completely sincere.That's quite an undertaking,I imagined saying to Josie. I could almost feel her elbow sharp against my ribs. After a few minutes, he slipped away and disappeared into a side room.
Mark looked around for him, then turned to me and shrugged. “I think the funeral director is a ghost,” he said, and then he cringed. “This is my wife's funeral,” he said, scolding himself, reminding himself. His dark gray suit was wrinkled and hung loosely off of his body, as if he were a boy pretending to be grown. “What would she make of this?” He cracked his knuckles. “I feel like I could just ask her! I keep hearing her voice. Like,Mark, this is a shit avalanche. Let's get out of here and go to a movie.” Despair sparked in his eyes. “Literally, Iz. I'm hearing her.”
My throat tightened. “It's okay,” I said. “Me, too. I've been talking to her, too.” I swallowed hard. “And I hear her, too,” I added, although I didn't.
People began to wander through the front doors, friends, fellow teachers, some of Josie's students and their parents. You could practically smell their collective apprehension, like a perfume. Eau de Dread. I hovered near Mark, suddenly unsure of my place in the hierarchy of mourning.
Josie was my best friend, Hannah's honorary aunt. She was the one who would come over with a bag of chocolate-covered almonds when she thought my voice sounded funny on the phone. She was the one who waited for me in the hospital after Helene had her stroke, and for months she kept me company during the rehab appointments. She had sleepovers with Hannah, cookie-decorating parties, and movie nights, so that Chris and I could be aloneâour S.O.S. weekends, Chris called them, when we were first acknowledging how dire things were: Sink or Swim. (And sometimes, I thought, but just to myself:Same Old Sex.) I told Josie everything, until I didn't, and she told me everything, except she didn't.
People were arriving now in a steady flow. Josie had few relatives, and they were far-flung: a cousin who lived in London, an uncle in Hawaii she barely knew, the casualties of a family rift a decade before she was born. Her parents had died years ago, a fact which had caused her great pain every day of her life and which right now would have given her solace if she'd been hereâthat her parents would not have had to suffer the anguish of attending their only daughter's funeral. And that idea muddied my thinking, because if Josie werehere,she wouldn't have been granted that relief. That's what my brain felt like on the day of my best friend's funeral and for many weeks after: a confounding map of twisted, barely navigable roads that were long and tangled and led nowhere or doubled back without warning and ended up where they had begun.
Mark grew busy and distracted, accepting hugs and handshakes and responding to murmurs of sympathy. I had my first inkling about the comforts of this ritual: the more you were asked to attend to, the less you had to feel. I wandered away and peered out the front window. The sky was such a fine porcelain blue it looked like it might crack.
I had been worried that I wouldn't get through the day without cracking, myself. But numbness seemed to be keeping me together. Relief at feeling nothing shuddered through me. There was probably a long, hard-to-pronounce German word for it: the overwhelming feeling of feeling nothing.
I watched as a small silver car pulled into a parking space, and a trio of teachers emerged from it: Andrea Brauer, Andi Friedman, and Kelly Anderson-Jensen. (Fifth-grade science, sixth-grade math, special ed.) They convened in the teachers' lounge every morning before school and at every lunch hour and at the end of each school day, sitting and sipping their Starbucks half-caff skim lattes or huddled together, tapping away on their phones, or planning their Friday-afternoon drinking sessions at the Leopard Spot, a trendy retro seventies cocktail bar across town where they could enjoy a few well-deserved tequila sunrises away from the prying eyes of local parents. “You're welcome to come,” Kelly used to say to us, shaking her headnoso slightly I'm sure she didn't even notice she was doing it. “I mean, everyone's welcome.”
The Andes were ten years younger than Josie and I, smooth haired and hardworking. They assessed usâthe dark circles under my eyes, the faint lines on Josie's forehead, the pair of pants one of us might sometimes wear two or three or, let's face it, four days in a row. They took disapproving note of our midcareer shortcuts, those self-preservatory downhill coasts that allowed a person to catch her breath in the midst of the drudgery: a joint sick day from which Josie and I would return with suspiciously pretty fingernails; a multiple-choice test administered when an essay would have been a better measure. They evaluated the sad lunches I stashed in the fridgeâpeanut butter on Ritz Crackers, one time just a large bag of pretzels and an expired jar of Nutellaâdetritus of my domestic life huddling pathetically next to their California rolls and their Cobb salads and their tiny portions of pad Thai. We tried, at first, joining them for coffee breaks or tagging along on their Friday-night outings. But their indifference with a thin politeness glaze was too much to bear.
“They reject the decade between us,” Josie said over a glass of wine one night in my living room as Hannah pirouetted nearby. “They refuse to admit that they will one day turn forty.”
“And then die!” I added, raising my glass, and we laughed, because that was it.
Pleasant, though: Andrea, Andi, and Kelly were perfectly pleasant colleagues, and we moved as separate entities through the school, and so all of that was fine until they clicked into Principal Coffey's office in their slim trousers and their confident low heels and helped destroy Josie's career. So the Andes were to blame for this, too. They were most definitely to blame.
“Mark,” Kelly Anderson-Jensen said, the front door blowing shut behind them.
“Mark,” Andrea and Andi echoed, “Mark,” as if they were setting their sights on a clay pigeon, and he came to greet them. They offered their condolencesâwhich, let it be noted, use the same words as apologiesâand hugged Mark, and hugged one another, and first Andrea started crying, and then Kelly, high-pitched little sobs, and before I knew it I was out the door, standing near the building, blinded by fury and trying, once again, to catch my breath.Josie,I thought,you should be here to see this. Josie. You fucking idiot.
That's when I saw Chris and Hannah and my mother walking across the parking lot. I stepped onto the path in front of the funeral home and called out to them, and Chris and Helene came toward me, Chris supporting my mother with his arm, and Hannah wiped her eyes with her hand and extended her thin arm in a small wave, and there they were, my perfect little family, with their flushed cheeks and their ears and their lips and their bones.
Death smashes a crater into your life, and you're left alone to sort through the rubble. But here's something else I figured out in the long months after Josie died: she would always be my wild, grieving, huge-hearted, selfish, confident, insecure, extravagant, beloved best friend. I would define her. You think, during the worst of it, that it's the other way around, but it's not.
And here's something else I learned: you lose some people that wayâfast and blinding. But some people inch away from you slowly, in barely discernible steps.
In the end it almost doesn't matter. They're just as gone.
Was that birthday party the last time we were all together, Mark and Josie, Chris and I? Surely not. There must have been other gatherings, dinners, brunches, movies. But in the highlights reel of our memories, we don't recall pleasant, uneventful Wednesday afternoons or moderately enjoyable evenings out; we remember occasionsâgraduations and recitals, holidays and birthdays, and this one was mine. I think sometimes, if the parameters of existence were somehow different, if life were memory, then happiness could prevail, and nothing fine would be lost.
It was my birthday, and we had just finished dinner at Mark and Josie's house. My best friend was a little drunk, which barely warranted notice. It was just how she amplified a celebration, the way any of us might, how she became giddy and charming and magnetic. She had just sliced the cake and dropped an enormous slab on my plate.
“Congratulations, Iz,” she said, licking frosting from her finger. “Forty-one is officially the end of the line!”
Chris glanced at me with raised eyebrows. My mild-mannered husband was frequently shocked by the things Josie said; he never quite knew how to respond, so he followed my lead.
“Thank you,” I said, smiling. “Happy birthday to me.” I took a bite of the cake, banana with chocolate frosting, my favorite and no one else's.
Josie sawed off another piece and passed it to Chris. “Forty-one,” she said, “is when you come face-to-face with the void!” She laughed at herself, a low, raspy cackle. “The great yawning chasm of oblivion!” She took a big swig of her wine and grinned at me with purplish lips.
Mark put his arm around his wife. With his free hand he reached for her wineglass and drank the rest of it. “Easy there, cowboy.” He looked at me, his face an apology I didn't need.
“Oh, Jose,” I said. “I'm not quite ready for my midlife crisis.” I thought of Hannah at home with my mother, snuggled up together under a blanket watchingPlanet of the Apes,which for some unfathomable reason they both loved. I thought of the pink-and-orange woven bracelet Hannah had given me that morning and the homemade card:You're the best Mommy ever!I'd read that and had to turn away; if she saw me tearing up like an idiot, she'd leave the room. That was the real void, the true earthly terror: being the mother of an almost-ten-year-old girl.
“We're in it together,” Josie went on. She was only a few months behind me. “The next box of tampons you buy could be your last!”
“Stop, Jose,” Mark said quietly.
Her face reddened, and she glanced at Mark, chastened. “Don't scold me,” she murmured. She turned back to Chris and me. “Anyway!” she said, with a merry little kick in her voice to compensate for that blip. “It's not as if it's some kind of a big secret! Doesn't everybody feel that cold lick of mortality on their birthday?” She smiled broadly and held up a paper plate. “More cake?”
“I don't feel that old,” I said quickly. I didn't know what I was going to say next. “I don't feel old, but I do think I'm probably no longer eligible to marry a movie star.”
“Did you have one in mind?” Chris asked. We were taking the reins. A marriage, the entity of it, was capable of a lot of things, and I was grateful for the ways ours could sometimes move and shift with surprising grace; how together, as a force, we could pick up the slack of social discomfort. Our long connection rescued us. Not always, but sometimes.
“Charlton Heston,” I said. I shrugged.
“Of course, he's dead,” Josie piped up, “which gives you an advantage.”
I took another bite of cake. Josie knew how to establish the perfect ratio of banana to chocolate.
“Mark hasn't gotten any cake,” Chris said. It was true. Josie had sliced pieces for me and Chris and herself, but she'd forgotten Mark, or ignored him.
He held out his paper plate, which, like all of ours, hadMARK'S BAR MITZVAH!printed on it. Josie and Mark lived in Mark's parents' old house, much of which was pleasantly frozen in 1982. They'd been living there for just over a year, after his parents became snowbirds and headed south, and Mark and Josie hadn't made it their own yet. You never knew what you would stumble on in the attic or at the bottom of a dresser drawer. A rolled-up poster of a cat hanging upside down by its claws. A Jane Fonda aerobics videotape. A few months earlier, Josie told me she'd found a T-shirt in the back of Mark's dad's closet withWORLD'S GREATEST LOVERprinted on it in fuzzy block lettering. She tossed it in the garbage before Mark saw it, she told me, saved him from that particular image. How much of our relationships are made up of those little mercies the other person never even knows about?
“Sorry, babe,” Josie said, as she passed Mark an extra-large hunk of cake. His hand brushed hers. “Sorry about that.”
And then everything was all right again; all was forgiven. We all felt it, the wave of ease that washed over us.
“Oh!” Josie hopped up. “Izzy! I have one more present for you!” She had already given me an orange sweater, a bottle of pink sparkly nail polish, and an enormous slab of dark chocolate.
Chris glanced at me, with an almost-imperceptible twitch of his lips. We both knew what this would be. In addition to teaching, in her spare time Josie was an artist, and every special occasion brought forth a brightly wrapped Josie Abrams original. In college, she'd received an honorable mention in an art department competition. That was enough to keep her going. Twenty years later, she was still at it. You had to admire the commitment, even if the product was sometimes inscrutable. We had seven Josie Abrams sculptures and five paintings on prominent display around our house, because in addition to making gifts for me, Josie was also in the habit of stopping in unannounced.
She dashed upstairs and thumped around above our heads. “Close your eyes, Iz,” she called, coming back down the stairs. “This one's not wrapped!” I looked at Chris, then at Mark. Mark shrugged, indulgent, fond.Don't blame me,that shrug said.She's your friend.
Josie clomped into the dining room and pressed a large, rectangular canvas into my arms. I could still smell the paint on it. “You can open your eyes now,” she said. She was like a little kid, vibrating with excitement.
I looked. It was a painting of thirteen women sitting together on one side of a long dinner table, in the style ofThe Last Supperbut with middle-aged women instead of apostles. The women were wearing sweaters or high-collared blouses; they wore lipstick and had formal, old-fashioned hairstyles, updos and teased 1950s bouffants. They had vacant, pleasant expressions on their faces, and they were examining clear plastic containers of different sizes.“The Last Tupperware Party!”Josie said.
“Oh!” I said, genuinely stunned. I had a fleeting thought about faith and impermanence, about ambition and disappointment. Those dopey-faced women tugged at my heartstrings. “I love it!” I said, and I meant it. I loved the brain that had imagined this painting, the hands that fashioned the women in their pastel tops. I loved Josie, who had baked me my favorite cake for my birthday, and Chris, whose heart was sometimes still a mystery to me, and Mark, who was like a brother. There were invisible tethers that tied us together, and they extended out from us to Hannah, to my mother, to my mother's family, all lost. And beyond: they flowed out beyond us. You didn't get to feel the tug of these ties very often, the fragile net that held us all.
“Happy birthday, Isabel,” Josie said. She flung her arms around me, her skinny little body all ribs and hips and solid force. She stood on her tiptoes so her mouth could reach my ear. “I love you,” she whispered. “What would I do without you? You're my family.”Â·Â·Â·
Josie and I met at my first staff meeting fifteen years ago. She sauntered in twenty minutes late, took a quick survey of the room, and plopped herself down in the third row, next to me. Bob Coffey, the principal of Rhodes Avenue Middle School, was in the middle of a story. He was in his mid-fifties and fossilizing rapidly. But he was worshipped, an institution in our district. You wouldn't catch anyone saying a word against him.Mr.Â Coffey,parents would whisper reverently,Mr.Â Coffey,like sleepy addicts.
All of his stories, I would soon discover, were about his dog. After taking care of faculty business, he would ramble on about Starbucks the spaniel for a few long minutes, turn the episode into an outdated parable about children and their charming inadequacies, and then adjourn the meeting with a hearty “You are released!” These weekly staff meetings were mandatory. Our school was small, and absences were noted.
“Starbucks woke us up in the middle of the night on Saturday,” Mr.Â Coffey was saying when Josie walked into the room. He turned to her and nodded. “Thank you for joining us, Miss Bryant. As I was saying, Starbucks woke us up in the middle of the night on Saturday, demanding that we take him for a walk. âDon't give in,' I warned Anita.” To everyone's delight, his wife's name really was Anita Coffey. “But Anita gave in, and sure enough, Starbucks needed to empty his bladder. Oh, the chiding I took from her!” He had been walking up and down through the rows of chairs, but now he paused for effect at the front of the room. “Until Sunday night, that is, when Starbucks waltzed into our bedroom at four a.m. and whined to be taken out again. Only this time, he didn't need to, he simplywantedto. The same thing happened on Monday night, Tuesday night, and Wednesday night, until finally Mrs.Â Coffey and I put Starbucks in his crate and broke him of this unpleasant habit.”
I leaned forward in my seat. I had been concentrating so hard, trying to grasp the meaning in our principal's strange homily. Only later would I understand that Bob Coffey viewed children as recalcitrant, barely domesticated animals who needed equal amounts of discipline, affection, exercise, and a protein-rich diet. He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled benevolently. “Children require patience, you see, but not overindulgence.”
There were nods and murmurs, and Janice Van Dyke, the seventh-grade math teacher, let loose with an emphatic “So true!”
“If we choose to give them an inch,” Mr.Â Coffey continued, “it is our duty to see that an inch is all they take.”
I leaned over to Josie and whispered, “Or they get put in their crates.”
Josie looked at me. For a second she seemed puzzled, and then her face opened with delight, her smile huge and toothy and as irresistible as the sun. She nodded to herself. “We need to have dinner,” she said quietly. “You and I. Tonight. I need to know you.” She reached over and squeezed my arm with startling intimacy, and I felt myself heating up, blushing with pleasure.
That's the way it is with certain people. They set their sights on you. They look at you straight on and they choose you, and they are dazzled by their own brilliant choice. It was the first time anyone had fallen in love with me like that. And I was powerless against it.Â·Â·Â·
Lurch forward exactly one year from Josie's death: one tear-lubricated, misery-drenched, grief-addled dung heap of a year. Chris and Hannah and I are meeting Mark at the cemetery for the unveiling of her gravestone.
“I will never get used to this,” Chris whispers, hunching over so I'll hear him, his hand on my back, a familiar pressure.
“I know,” I say, digging my fingernails into the soft flesh of my palm.
Hannah drags her feet next to mine. She won't look at me. The wind whips up around us. A few drops of rain land, dotting the hard ground of the parking lot, threatening more.
I spot Mark from a few feet awayâalone; I wasn't sure if he would beâhis hands jammed into his pockets, shoulders hunched. He looks up and starts walking toward us, and relief calms his features. “Hey, guys. Thanks for coming. I know this isn't easy for any of us.” He hugs Hannah, then Chris, then, finally, briefly, me. And I feel relief, mixed in with everything else, because I wasn't sure he would; we haven't even spoken in more than three months.
“Of course we're here,” Chris murmurs. “God, of course.”
Mark pulls away quickly and I examine his face, which, at least, at last, looks like his: today he looks like Mark, my friend, Josie's widower.
That word,he said to me once, drunk, in the midst of it. He raised his bottle of beer.Who is widower than I? Nobody!
“Let's go,” Mark says, and I can tell he hasn't forgiven me, but we won't talk about that today. Chris and Hannah and I fall into step next to him, picking our way across the pavement and through the dampening path toward the area of the cemetery where Josie is buried: a flat and blanched patch of ground in section E, row 20, as if this were a theater, only the seats are horizontal and the audience particularly unresponsive.
Being only forty-two and in good health, Josie had articulated no specific wishes for her final resting place, so we, her beloved friends and husband, improvised, and this is how she ended up here, at the Eternal Home Cemetery off the highway, may she rest in peace lulled by the honking of trucks zooming down I-94 and the faint but unmistakable smell of fried onions wafting over from Grandpa Zip's Old-Fashioned Diner just across the frontage road. The grass on the western edge of the cemetery is always a lush green because of the year-round humid breath of exhaust. Burying Josie here has made us all wonder:Will we meet up here in a few years? Us, too? Here? Can we do no better than this?This death thing, it seems, never gets pretty, but it sure does have staying power.Â·Â·Â·
The rain is a steady, spitting drizzle now. We're at the grave site, the brand-new pinkish headstone a shiny heartbreak. Karen Josephine Bryant Abrams. Josie rejected the name Karen in college and never looked back. She would have hated her headstone. Then again, who wouldn't?BELOVED WIFE,it says.CHERISHED FRIEND.
“I prepared a little speech,” Mark says, his eyes watery. He looks away and shakes his head. “But nowâ¦I can't.”
Chris moves a step closer to Mark and puts his arm around him, and Mark takes a ragged, heaving breath. “It's okay, man,” Chris says. He's a full head taller than Mark, long and lean where Mark is dense and sturdy. Chris's sharp, even features were chiseled by some cold Northern European ancestral winds, a counterpoint to Mark's dark hair and eyes, the craggy hollows of his face, his perennial stubble. Sometimes when I see them next to each other like this, I can't help but think about the strange miracles of DNA.
Chris removes his arm from Mark's shoulders quickly and suddenly, the way men do, and rubs his hands together. “It's okay. I'll say something. Isabel will say something. Maybe even Hannah, if you want to, sweetie.”
Here's what I want to do: I want to scream. Chris looks at his feet. He looks up at me, his lips pressed together, and swallows. “She was Izzy's best friend, and Mark's wife, and Hannahâ¦well, she was almost like a second mom to Hannah.” Hannah, who still won't meet my eye, sobs quietly. “And I miss her for who she was to you all. But, you know, I loved her, too.” His breath puffs out into the cold air. “She was always at our house,” he says, and I find that I am panting a little bit, trying to contain my fury, trying to hold on to the rhythm of my own breath. As if that solidifies Chris's relationship with her: Josie took up space where he lived!
“She was always around,” he continues, oblivious. He takes off his glasses and wipes them on his shirt, then just holds them. His naked eyes are a surprise to me, vulnerable as a fish. “I didn't, um, I didn't have the same kind of relationship with her that you guys did,” he says. “Sometimes I'd wake up on a Saturday morning and go downstairs, and she'd still be there, crashed on the sofa from the night before.”
An old man carrying a bouquet of pink roses wanders past us, head high, peering left and right, unbothered by the wind and the rain. He looks otherworldly to me, as if he's searching for his own grave. I want to say this to Josie, and for the millionth time, I'm stunned by her absence.
Chris falls silent for a moment, then clears his throat and starts again. “There was always a half-eaten container of something on the coffee table,” he says. “Sometimes she would have it for breakfast, no matter how much it hadâ¦” He waves his empty hand in front of him and smiles a little. “Congealed. She was always so happy in the morning.” He glances at me and I can read his mind:Unlike some people.“So easy to talk to. We'd have coffee together before Izzy got up.”
That's it?I want to say, grief and rage reacting chemically inside me, creating a new and volatile alloy, something bright and flaming. Furium.That's it? Leftover Chinese food for breakfast? Coffee on a Sunday morning? Tidying up the living room together, maybe?She was more cheerful than my wife!I want to tear his glasses from his hand and fling them against Josie's headstone. But now Hannah is crying harder, and she pulls up the collar of her red windbreaker and presses her face into her father's solid chest, and I remember how on the night Josie died Chris wrapped his arms around me. We hadn't touched each other in months, it felt like, and he just reached for me in that blank, horrible moment, with everything good that he had. Even if I had wanted to shake his arms off, he wouldn't have let go.
Chris rests his chin on Hannah's head, and they stand there together. The geometry of holding your growing daughter is a changing thing: she fits in your arms a certain way when she's four, another when she's six, unwieldy when she's nine, and hardly at all when she's almost twelve. Some nights when she's sleeping, sprawled out like a starfish on her bed, I crawl in next to her, stealthily, taking up just the smallest sliver of mattress, to feel the ghost of the baby she used to be. Motherhood has reduced me to such a pathetic creature that I don't even care how pathetic I am. I'd like to share that thought with Josie. Having an eleven-year-old daughter is like pining over the college boyfriend who dumped you, I would tell her.
Childless by choice, sweetie!Josie would say.
“It's all right,” I say now, to no one. “We all loved her so much.” To my surprise, my voice sounds clear and calm. Josie observed one of my classes once, as part of Principal Coffey's peer-review program.It's a wonder Isabel sings so terribly,she wrote in her assessment,with that pretty speaking voice.
Mark and Hannah are both crying freely now, they're a chorus of sobs, Hannah still pressed hard into Chris's chest; we're just a huddled mass of mourners in the rain, a single entity, despite all the ways we've been blasted apart over the last year. I'm thinking, with a sort of empty resignation,This is it,this is how it will be for the rest of my life, lost in this darkness. But then Hannah turns and looks at Mark, and there is a moment, a strange moment between them, and as if by psychic agreement, they both start giggling. It comes over them as quick as a cloudburst. Hannah first: a swipe of her nose with the back of her hand and a chuckle, her recognition of the sad ridiculousness of the occasion offering a glimpse of the kind of adult she will be, savvy and kind. Then Mark, a small part of him opening up to Hannah, a clearing in the bleakness, and then they're both laughing, just shaking with it.
Chris looks at me over Hannah's blond head and raises his eyebrows and smiles. She is one thing we usually agree on, the best thing about us. Lately I find myself thinking about the night she was born, just flipping through the details in my mind. I've told her the story so many times:It was three a.m. Daddy blew through four red lights. One of the nurses was on the phone when we walked in, ignoring us, chatting. “Lasagna,” she said to the person on the other end of the line, and I thought,Who is she talking to about lasagna at three in the morning?She held up the “just a minute” finger to us, and Daddy yelled at her. You were upside down, breech, and they were preparing me for a C-section, and then, at the last minute, just for me, you turned. You were born howling, loud as a freight train. But then, when they set you down on my chest, you stopped crying, and we just looked at each other, familiar mammals meeting for the first time.
I never tell her how Chris circled the parking ramp twice, looking for a good spot. I never tell her how as he walked me slowly down the hospital corridor he said, “Actually, I don't think this is such a good idea, Iz,” and then laughed unconvincingly. Some details you keep to yourself; you polish them up in private, smooth, shiny jewels of resentment that you save for when you might need them.
“Okay,” Mark says, after he and Hannah have caught their breath and their laughter has subsided and we have all swung safely back to the right side of miserable. “I think we can leave now.” It's raining harder. Chris is trying to clean his glasses again. I fumble around for the small stone I've been carrying in my pocket and place it on Josie's gravestone. We were here.
Hannah is quiet in the car, texting. Chris drops her at the library to meet some friends. (Are you sure, sweetie?She's sure.) And then he takes me home, driving slowly along the silent streets. He pulls into the driveway and gets out of the car, and before I realize it, we're walking together into the house, wordless routine and muscle memory. In the entryway near the back door he kicks off his shoes, then arranges them neatly on the mat. He shrugs off his jacket, takes mine from me, hangs them up. We're performing the steps of our oldest dance. And even in this strange, sad, suspended state, I know that we are elegant at it.
The house is cold. Someone left the light on in the hallway. Our socked feet pad together past the kitchen, which is still a mess from breakfast, up the stairs, into the bedroom, where the curtains are drawn, where although it's two in the afternoon, it's still twilit and dim: romantic or depressing, depending.
“Well,” Chris says, moving toward me. “If there's nothing elseâ¦”
“Nope,” I say, inching closer. “Bye.”
After fifteen years together, there is very little about this man that surprises me. His arms around my waist, hands tight against my back: not a surprise. His mouth on my neck, breath heavy and warm: not a surprise. The smell of his skin, like celery and oranges. They say you're attracted to a mate based on his scent, that somewhere, in the simian recesses of your brain, you're sniffing out the smell of genes complementary to yours, the intoxicating whiff of healthy offspring. So there's always that, with Chris. And it, too, is not a surprise. The way he pulls at my clothes as if he doesn't understand the mechanics of buttons and zippers. The speed of his heartbeat, animal desire, heightened now and all this past year, crazier than it has been in all of the fourteen years that came before: well, I guess that's been a surprise.
“Iz,” he whispers, the nickname that sounds like an existential proclamation.“I need you.”
And I laugh out loud.Who's writing your lines?Need? Need! I suck in my stomach at the sound of that word. Tiny spider veins crosshatch my thighs, new ones popping up like dropped stitches; I just noticed one this morning. I caught a glimpse of my upper arm in the mirror a few weeks ago and it looked like my mother was in the bathroom waving to me. There are seven wayward pounds that seem to migrate all over my body, like accessories. The signs of disrepair are faint but unmistakable. I flash back to that birthday party, just two years ago, but it seems like a decade:No movie star will have me now!
Okay, I'll admit that Chris and I still want each other. But need? Need is for your first lover on your twin bed in your college dorm. And Chris, whose chest hair is going gray; Chris, who has never had any fat on his frame, and so it's his muscles that are softening, loosening a little, his firm stomach growing slightly paunchy, his biceps starting to sag.Need you?
But here we are again, all the same, answering death with sex. I peel off his sweater, lift his T-shirt over his head. We've lost so much. I run my hands down his back, across his chest, his body as familiar as my own. I can imagine this with someone different, if I try: the ways passion would, or wouldn't, humiliate you. The ways it would release you.
Chris kisses me, unembarrassed. After a certain amount of time with someone, crisis is an aphrodisiac. It's probably best not to think too hard about the implications of that one. And we are desperate for this, the flotsam of our intimacy. It's true. I can hardly breathe for how much I want him. Need him. “Iz,” he says again. “Okay?”
I let him guide me onto our bed, a tangle of soft sheets and heavy blankets. And I don't need to answer, but I do: “Yes.”Â·Â·Â·
I wake up with a start. It must be hours later, still dark, the dead of night. Chris is lying next to me, snoring softly.
“Shit!” I jump out of the bed and scramble for my clothes. “Chris, shit, we were supposed to pick up Hannah hours ago. What the hell? One of us was supposed to get her! Shit!”
Chris glances at the clock and sighs, pulls the covers up to his neck. “It's three o'clock.”
“Holy mother of fuck.” I fumble with my shirt, pull it on backward, wriggle it around until it's on the right way.
“Izzy, it's three in the afternoon. We've just beenâ¦dozing for a few minutes.” He rolls over and runs a hand through his fine, disheveled hair and peers at me. In our marriageâin every marriage?âno annoyed glance holds only the displeasure of the moment. Each one reflects all the irritated glances he's ever shot at me for all of my transgressions: for lacking discipline, for being brittle and sharp, for overreacting, for swearing all the time, even in front of Hannah, for letting my worst self porcupine out before I retract my quills. Every exasperated look Chris gives meâand there have been plentyâcarries the sediment of all the displeasure that has accumulated over the past fifteen years. “Everything is fine,” he says. He exhales through his nostrils like a bull.
I shrug. “Well, that's a relief.”
He shrugs back at me, an unconscious imitation. “I should be getting back to the apartment,” he says, a little embarrassed, and the fact that he is ashamed almost absolves him.
“You don't have to call it âthe apartment,'â” I say, suddenly uncomfortably aware that I am standing next to our bed half naked and about to be abandoned by my sort-of-ex-husband whom I probably should not have just slept with. “Just say, âmy apartment. I have to get back tomy apartment.'â” I step into my favorite old pair of sweatpants, which I wear frequently and which Josie used to call a blend of cotton and self-loathing. “You should get back to your apartment,” I say, the bitterness in my voice turning the edges hard.
Chris sits up in bed and fumbles for his glasses on the nightstand, then props himself against the headboard with a pillow. “Come on, Iz. Don't. Let's justâ¦would you just get back in here for a minute?” He pats the mattress next to him, rubs his hand down the sheet: fifteen years of signals we've been sending each other, fifteen years of fingers and faces, of communication, understood or missed. Our bed. Chris's beautiful face, as alien to me now as it was intimate an hour ago.
“No.” I stand over him, glowering, clothed now. “Nope.”
Sex with your ex,I imagine Josie saying.Never a good idea.I turn toward the door. There's a hallway, then Hannah's room, pink and sweet a few months ago, filled with dolls and pillows and art projects, transitioning now into a sort of burrow, mopey and dark and defiant. (Where did all her stuffed animals go? She used to have a menagerie, a zoo. Where are they? Has there been some kind of teddy-bear Rapture?) There's the bathroom where four pregnancies endedâfourteen, thirteen, six, and one and a half years ago, far away enough that I no longer feel a stab of pain when I think about them, no longer note the anniversaries of what would have been their due datesâDecemberÂ 17, FebruaryÂ 4, NovemberÂ 1, AprilÂ 10âthen feel stupid for remembering.
“Izzy, please,” Chris says, but I'm already at the top of the stairs, and I'm just heading down, my bare feet cold on the hardwood floor, as I hear him sigh, loud and annoyed. It's the kind of sigh that is meant to be heard, part of the vocabulary of our unraveling marriage.
“I'm trying,” he calls after me, and I want to say,Yes, you are.He'll get up in a few minutes, put his clothes on, and get in his car and head to his apartment a mile from here, the two-bedroom on the East Side that I helped him pick out, near the lake and full of light, newly decorated with inexpensive but decent furniture and blue rugs and lots of pillows, and far too cozy to be as temporary as we agreed it was.
He'll bring my socks to me before he leavesâhe'll have noticed I forgot them. He won't hand them to me. He'll place them in front of me on the table, and he'll stand there for a minute in our messy, darkening kitchen, waiting for me to thank him, to say something, but I won't. I won't say a word.
It's amazing, really, the things two people think they know about each other.
I was the one who introduced Josie and Mark. Mark and I had been friends since kindergarten. We were always seated next to each other, all the way through grade school: Mark Abrams and Isabel Applebaum, two little alphabetized Jews, dark haired and slightly lost in a forest of midwestern consonant clusters, all those strapping, blond Schultzes and Metzgers and Hrubys and Przybylskisâstrapping even in kindergarten, if memory serves.
My mother used to tell me things about my classmates, like “Oh, Cindy Eichgrau, her grandparents lived on Locust, right around the corner from us when I was growing up. Once when I was running across their lawn, they yelled at me to go back home and called me a dirty Jew.” She would say these things to me casually, while I was decorating valentines for school or making a guest list for my birthday party or eating breakfast. “Allison Metzgerâ¦Metzgerâ¦Grandma and Grandpa knew a Metzger family in Frankfurt.” Eyebrow raised, head tilted. “Hmm. Probably not the same ones, though. Hope not.” The implications were clear.You never knowâ¦.
This is where my psyche took shape, in the clean white kitchen of my parents' house. This is where my heart let loose its first defiant yelp. It's more or less a straight line from Helene Strauss Applebaum's dark melancholy and gallows humor to my maybe-ex-husband, Christopher Moore: lanky, blue eyed, straightforward to a fault, as likable as Christmas.
But Mark. Mark was my science partner, seatmate on field trips to the nature center and the symphony, and, not coincidentally, Hebrew-school carpool buddy. He was short and quiet and he really, really loved to read, so mostly that's what he did, while I chatted to him. “Mmm-hmm,” he would say occasionally, not even looking up from his book, “yup, sounds about right, Iz,” and the dynamic served us both well. We were pals through grade school, we lost track of each other in high school, and then we reconnected during our sophomore year in college, in a course on Chaucer. It was a small lecture, an English-major requirement, and for the first few weeks the seats were assigned alphabetically. So there we were again, the two of us. We readThe Canterbury Talesin translation, but Mark, king of extra credit, can still recite the entire prologue in the original Middle English. All I remember is the strange, sad, musical sound of those almost-comprehensible words, like a dirge, a dreamâ¦and that the Wife of Bath was a floozy.
We graduated, and there were no jobs, which gave us a certain kind of reckless freedom. My friends and I packed up and moved to cities that seemed appealingâNew York? San Francisco? Prague?âas if we were choosing pastries from the bakery case. Then we signed up with temp agencies and, to make ourselves feel better, we applied to law school or graduate programs in Things We Thought We Might Be Sort of Interested In.
I moved to Chicago. I would have gone farther, but Helene doesn't do well when I'm far away. She has a radius of one hundred miles, or a ninety-minute drive, before an anxious tremor creeps into her voice, which I've never been able to ignore. Mark went to Seattle and tried to get a job at a magazine but ended up working temp jobs in law firms and banks. A few years later, demoralized and broke, he and his all-flannel wardrobe moved back to Milwaukee and started a master's program in English literature.
I had come back nine months earlier, at my mother's encouragement, to try to land a teaching job. I moved back in with her and worked as a receptionist at her doctors' office and subbed for the district and then, finally, Rhodes Avenue Middle School hired me. Mark and I picked up where we had left off. We started hanging out, seeing movies, going out for beers after work. I had just met Chris, and I was overflowing with the smug evangelism of the newly coupled. I wanted Mark to be happy like I was happy. I wanted to find him a girlfriend so he could feel what it felt like to be me.
Mark and Josie were both single, which at the time was kind of enough. I figured that two reasonably good-looking, smart professionals in their late twenties were as likely as not to get along. Josie was on my list for Mark, a list that also included my mom's friend's daughter Miranda, who was a couple of years younger and had just moved back from Portland to start med school, and also Lacy, the girl with the pierced tongue and the winking-devil tattoo who swiped my card at the gym. (I had no such corresponding list for Josie, having only just met Chris and still being in the habit of safeguarding available men for myself.)
When, at their wedding, Mark and Josie raised their glasses in a toast to me, Isabel, for having had the brilliant foresight to recognize when two strangers were meant for each other, I just smiled and shrugged, because, really? I hadn't. It was dumb luck.
We met for drinks on a cold night at Heinrich von Raaschke's GemÃ¼tliche Bierhaus. It was a loud and rollicking place famous for an elaborate drinking game involving a two-liter glass shoe filled with beer and a dirndl-wearing waitress who would inflict physical punishment for rule infractions. (Take your turn drinking beer or get a kick in the rear!) It was my favorite bar at the time, because all my life, whenever Helene drove past it, she would shudder and say something like “Later, after zese beers, ve vill burn down ze synagogue.” Frequenting it as an adult made me feel brave and ordinary.
I'm not sure why I elected to come along on Josie and Mark's first date. I had invited Chris, but he couldn't make it, and rather than bow out myself and leave my friends to their own devices, I decided to orchestrate their meeting, to be a conductor of love.
Josie was twenty minutes late. She came bursting through the door as if she had just gotten her cue backstage. Sometimes, with Josie, you half expected the part of the room you were in to darken as a spotlight switched on and encircled her with its glow. She waved at us and walked over to our table. I remember that when she took her hat off, her hair sprang free as if it had been trapped. She draped her magenta coat over the back of a chair and rubbed her hands together to warm them. It was early March but still the bitter, silent depths of a Wisconsin winter, and we all walked around encased in the long, puffy down coats that were fashionable that year, looking like chrysalises, brightly colored and ready to hatch.
“You guys!” Josie announced, before I'd even introduced them. Mark gazed at her, at this dazzling, unruly creature who'd just vaulted through space and come to rest next to him. We had ordered a pitcher of beer, and Josie poured herself a glass and took a fortifying sip. “You guys, I have such agreat story!” In the years to come, countless get-togethers would begin just this way.I have such a great story!She had wandered into the supply room after school, she told us, and caught Mr.Â Kleefisch, the art teacher, and SeÃ±ora Doherty, Spanish, in a clinch on the floor near the bottles of neon-blue industrial cleaning solution. Young, newly married Angela Doherty, legs splayed on top of a stack of paper towels, and old, long-married Jim Kleefisch, known both for his creative use of potato prints and for the tufts of gray hair that escaped his shirt at every openingâwrists, chest, back of the neck. SeÃ±ora Doherty squealed at the sight of Josie. Kleefisch, hairy back to the door, interpreted that squeal as encouragement and groaned,“SÃ, SÃ, me gusta, me gusta.”
“QuÃ© escÃ¡ndalo!”Josie said to us, leaning against the cushion of her coat, her eyes bright and delighted. She was radiating with the energy of her tawdry tale.
“They're bothmarried!” I said. “And ew, Kleefisch! He's got to be fifty! Oh, my God!” Fifty was decades away and seemed, at the time, like the age at which you would settle in for a short rest before dying.
Josie swallowed another sip, the muscles in her throat working. “Disgusting!” she agreed gleefully.
“Who knew,” Mark said under the din, “that a middle school could be such a den of lust.” He looked at Josie, and on the word “lust,” his cheeks went pink, and she smiled and absorbed the admiration that spilled out of him.
“Oh, you have no idea,” she said. “No idea.”
A little light clicked on in my brain: this was it. These two, here, this night: they were going to decide to become soul mates.
In my whole life I had not, until Hannah was born and a kind of fear-based maternal instinct kicked in, had any moments of intuition, any bold premonitions of anything at all. I have mostly been an observer of people and situations who later thinks,Oh, yeah, that makes sense, I get it now.But at that moment fifteen years ago the night opened up in front of me like a book I had already read. I saw exactly how Mark and Josie would draw closer, fingertips grazing; how they would talk about books and teaching and their families and their dreams; how those details would add up to something specific and amazing (Really? Me, too! Me, too!); how Josie and Mark would want to understand each other, and so they would, and that would be love.
I looked at my life at that bright moment and I knew for sure that it would be joyful and that no one I loved would ever leave me. Unlike everyone else, everywhere, in the history of everything.Â·Â·Â·
I think now about moments that skittered by but left a trace in my memory. I recalibrate the weight of events, and I wonder:How did I miss that? How did I not see who she was?
And so now, of course, I remember this: It was a chilly November afternoon, a Sunday, four months before Josie died. Hannah was sick with a cold and a fever. Josie stopped by, like she did whenever Hannah was sick, with treats for her: a giant bag of M&M's, a little plush stuffed giraffe, a pretty pink notebook. Things had not been great between Josie and me, but I was glad to see her, and Hannah, of course, was delighted.
Hannah was lying on the couch in her pajamas, her forehead sweaty, eyes glassy and tired. “Thanks, J,” she said, sniffling. She tucked the giraffe into the crook of her elbow and closed her eyes. She had been dozing on and off and half watching a show about a group of high-school kids who open a smoothie shop. (All of the TV shows Hannah liked that year were about beautiful teenagers in fantastically contrived situations where there happened to be no parental supervisionâa group of counselors at a camp for aspiring models, a group of talented surfers at surf school. It didn't take a genius to pick up on the theme.)
Josie bent down and kissed Hannah on the cheek, and then on the forehead. Middle-school teachers don't worry about catching viruses; our immune systems are superpowered. “Feel better, H,” she said.
“The customer is always right,” one of the gorgeous smoothie-shop girls shrieked to her gorgeous coworker, “except when she's trying to steal my boyfriend!”
Josie and I left Hannah to her laugh track and wandered back into the kitchen. “I missSesame Street,” I said, as we sat down at the table. My voice sounded stilted, even to my own ears, forced and artificial. I was trying hard.
Josie took a white paper sack out of her bag and pulled out two croissants, set each on a napkin, a display of normalcy. “What was that show,” she said, “the strange cartoon with the little girl and her parents, and the stories were so, so boring?” She slid a croissant across the table to me. “There was never any conflict. Like the biggest thing to happen in an episode would be the family would go for a drive, or someone would get a letter in the mail.” She took a bite of her pastry, chewed slowly.
“Oh, God,” I said, rolling my eyes.“Poca Polpetta.”It was a weird Italian import, inexplicably popular with preschoolers.Poca polpettameans “little meatball,” and, true to her name, she was a very round-headed little girl. She had preternaturally patient parents and a scampering puppy named Ravioli. When Hannah was little, we used to watch it on the weekends in endless repetition.
“It was so soothing,” Josie said.
I pulled off a piece of my croissant. “Once Hannah and I were watching it,” I said, “and the image popped into my mind of Poca Polpetta's parents having sex.”
“Her cartoon parents,” Josie said.
“Yes.” Poca Polpetta's mother and father looked just like her: heads like soccer balls, button eyes, pink smiling mouths. “Mama and Papa Polpetta, just screwing their brains out,” I said, and Josie snorted. “But how else did Poca come to be?”
The rollicking laughter of a studio audience rumbled in from the living room. “I love you, Isabel,” Josie said, “but that is sick, and you should never tell anyone else.”
“Okay,” I said. “I need a confession from you now. A guarantee that you'll never expose my shame.” As soon as I said the word “confession,” I cringed.
There was a crumb on Josie's upper lip. Her tongue darted out for it. She reached up and ponytailed her thick hair with her hand, then let it fall back down, loose. “Hmm,” she said, and looked at me, and her expression was so serious that I had to look away. “Okay. I had this boyfriend in high school. He, umâ¦he dumped me, and then, a week later, he started dating someone elseâ¦this really pretty sophomore, Dawn Grogan. I was so hurt and just furious. Did I ever tell you about this?” I shook my head. “I went to his house one night and I asked if we could go for a drive and talk.”
I sat across from Josie, still and mute. It seemed like she was revealing pieces of something, shards of glass distorting the light.
“We drove for a while,” she went on, “but he was being such an ass, acting so smug andâ¦decisiveabout our breakup. So before he even knew what I was doing, I drove over to theirâ¦to Dawn Grogan's house. I pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine, and I opened the car door, and I just marched right up to the front door. I turned around for a second, before I rang the bell, and I saw him. Roger, that is. His name was Roger. I thought he would get out and try to stop me, but he was just sitting there in the car with his mouth hanging open.
“Anyway, Dawn came to the door, and she looked at me like she didn't know who I was, which pissed me off. And so I said, âListen, you seem like a nice person, and I just want to tell you that when you and Roger started going out, he was still with me. He was cheating on me. He'll probably deny it, but he was.'
“And by that time, Roger was behind me, jogging up the path to Dawn's door, and he was going, âNo, no, Dawn, it's not true! She's lying!' and I just looked at her and kind of smiled sadly and shrugged, likeSee?And then I said, âOnce a cheater, always a cheater,' like I was some kind of bitter divorcÃ©e instead of a seventeen-year-old kid.”
She stopped and looked at me, her eyes wide, as if she had surprised herself with the story. “I just really wanted to hurt him. Both of them, actually.” She shook her head. “Well, I was in high school,” she added quickly, although of course she had already said that.
I stared at her for a moment. I still couldn't make out the outlines of what was true and what wasn't; it was like driving into fog. “Good thing we grow up, huh?” I said, and she nodded. “What happened to Roger and Dawn?” I asked.
“I don't know,” Josie said, which seemed strange to me. But before I could pursue it, Hannah shuffled into the kitchen and slumped into a chair. Her hair was tangled and her face was flushed. “I was lonely in there, all by myself. What are you talking about?” she asked, and then before either of us could say anything, she sneezed six times. “I need a Kleenex and a Popsicle, please.”
“Poor darling,” Josie said, and Hannah sidled over to her and laid her warm head on Josie's shoulder.
I got up from the table and rummaged through the freezer for a minute, and as the cold air swirled around my face, I thought about all the secrets Hannah would collect as she moved further away from Chris and me, as she moved away from us and into the world, and some of those secrets would be benign, but some would be the kind that slam doors inside a person. But for now she was right here, feverish and sweet and in need of tissues and a Popsicle.
Josie and I would never mention her strange story again. Months later, after she was gone, I would put the pieces of it together with everything else I knew, and I would understand that she had told me something half true that day, true in spirit but not in factâand, in the end, not true enough.
“I saw something interesting on the computer,” my mother says to me on the phone on a Saturday morning. I'm sitting at the table, my hands wrapped around a mug of coffee, staring out the window at an epic battle between squirrels and sparrows at the bird feeder.
Hannah has gone over to her friend Delaney's house. Hannah has a slew of friends with names like that, Delaney and Cassidy and Reilly, and even a tiny, owlish girl named O'Malley: names, it seems, that their parents plucked arbitrarily from the Boston phone book. Over the past few months, a new kind of drama has crept into these friendships, whispered stories full of complicated betrayals. From what I can see, from what little she tells me, Hannah is usually brokering peace between warring factions, but who knows; maybe she's right in the thick of it, lobbing grenades, causing her share of grief. You're always going to err on the side of your own child.
I'mgoingtoDelaney'sokay? she announced an hour ago, and before I could say,I love you, why are you so angry at me lately, you are my life, you own my heart, you are the sole reason I exist, and also close the door behind you,it slammed shut.
“I said I saw something on the computer,” Helene says again. She's growing accustomed to repeating herself, since so many of her friends have become hard of hearing.
“Did you squish it?”
She ignores me. “So I tried sending it to you on the e-mail, but I don't think it worked. I'm going to read it to you.” She puts the phone down for a minute and, after some clattering, picks it back up. “Isabel, it says, âYour marriage may be over, but your life is not.'â”
“Mother, my marriage is notâ¦” But I stop, suddenly worn out. It's been two weeks since the dedication at the cemetery, two weeks since Chris and I slept together. Since then we've barely spoken. We're cordial to each other when we drop off and pick up Hannah, polite and embarrassed and chilly as exes.
“It says here: âYou canrecover.'â”
“Good,” I say. “I hate my sofa.”
Helene sighs, then ignores me again. “I want you to come back to yourself,” she says. “Before you tell me to mind my own business, I want to say that I know how hard it's been. So much loss.” Her voice catches, and I stare hard at the milky coffee in my cup, let the rising steam dampen my face. “I mean,” she continues, “my marriage is over, too! I'll go with you.”
I don't remind her,Your marriage ended thirty years ago;I don't say,This is the worst idea you've ever had, and that includes the time we went to Germany and you glared at everyone for an entire week and whispered to me whenever you saw someone with gray hair: Where do you think he was? What do you think she was up to?Instead, like always with my mother, I stanch the hemorrhaging doubt and agree to the thing she's asking.Â·Â·Â·
A woman wearing aHI!MY NAME IS JILLIANname tag stands up and says, “Hi! My name is Jillian!”
I snort, and then I look around and realize that no one else thinks this is funny. My mother elbows me in the ribs, just for good measure.
“Can we all pull our chairs into a circle?” she asks, squeezing the shoulder of the man sitting next to her. “Can we do that?” I have a feeling that Jillian is fresh out of her social work master's program and that we're her first support group. I imagine that she's newly married and goes home every night with a paper bag full of fresh marjoram and turmeric and dill, and that she and her husband, a young patent attorney, cook elaborate dinners and then eat together at a candlelit table.Gosh, Tim, they all looked so sad!
Jillian tucks her blond hair behind her ears and smiles at us so sweetly that I have the urge to raise my hand and say,I don't know what a circle is.This is the kind of thing Chris never found funny.
“All right,” she says, smoothing her hair again, a nervous tic, as we complete our first group task, and the clank and scrape of chairs subside. “First things first.” She looks around with pride: her circle! “Why don't we all say our names and why we're here.”
Helene relaxes in her seat, her hands folded on her lap, her left hand gently supporting her right one, a slightly awkward position imperceptible to anyone who doesn't know she's had a stroke. “What are you thinking?” I whisper. My seventy-two-year-old mother is still my emotional barometer. If I know what she's thinking, maybe I'll know what I'm thinking.
“Hush,” she says.
The great big bald man two seats from Helene shoots his hand into the air. “I'm Harris!” he shouts, then turns tomato red and lowers his voice. “I'm here because my wife and I decided to end our marriage a few months ago. It was mutual, and we're still great friends.” He laughs like he's blowing out a candle. “Nah, I'm just kidding.” He looks around the room, assesses his audience, and licks his lips. “What I mean is,” he says, even more quietly, “we're not great friends.” He shakes his head a little bit. “I actually kind of hate her.”
Last night, when I told Hannah that I would be going to the Relationships in Transition support group, she got up from the table, looked me in the eye, and yelled,“Goddammit,”which is still one of the worst things she can think of to say. Then she stormed out of the kitchen and didn't talk to me for the rest of the night, her half-finished spaghetti congealing in the bowl until I finally dumped it. I left her alone until bedtime. The house sucked up our sounds and felt huge. Finally, late, I went in to kiss her good night, and she reached up and pulled me toward her, her arms around my neck, her breath warm and a little vinegary. “Mommy,” she whispered, half asleep, her eyes closed. “I don't want you to be sad.”
“I'm not sad,” I said, then immediately, like an idiot, started crying. I swiped my face and hoped Hannah couldn't tell. “You make me happy,” I whispered. “Usually!”
She opened her eyes and looked at me, confused for a second, then laughed. The pinkish glow from her ballerina night-light illuminated her face. While the rest of her room has transitioned into a cave, remnants of its previous incarnation remain, like pottery shards from a lost city. “You make me happysometimes,” she said.
“That seems about right.”
Now Hannah is over at Chris's apartment, probably belly laughing with him at one of the disgusting reality shows they like to watch, shows about rodent infestations or revolting jobs people have involving sewage.
And here, in the warm basement of the East Side Community Center, Jillian fixes her gaze on the pretty young woman next to my mother who looks like she would rather be yanking out her own toenails than sitting on a metal folding chair, poised to reveal her deepest pain to a roomful of strangers.
The woman's long brown hair is held back from her face by an arrangement of bobby pins. She glances around and realizes that it's her turn, that there's no escape.
“Um?” she says, her palms open in front of her. I have a sudden vision of the kind of girl she was in fifth grade, an occupational hazard of mine. I imagine her hair in a tight braid down her back, clipped by those same bobby pins, her eyes wide and serious. The funny canvas shoes she wears that were popular last year. How hard she tries, the B minuses she gets on her spelling tests and math quizzes.Good improvement!Super effort!The small group of sweet, plain girls she hangs out with, steering clear of the clever, beautiful, mean ones. How in that way, she's smarter than she seems.
“I'm Lee Ann?” she continues. “My husband and I met in college, and we've been married for six years.” She's wearing a gold band, and when she says the word “husband,” she touches it with her thumb. “One night he came home and told me that we'd gotten married too young and that he wasn't in love with me anymore, and that he probably never had been?” Her voice rises and breaks on the last word, but she soldiers on. “Even though he was the one who proposed to me.” She sniffles.
My mother is digging around in her purse while Lee Ann is talking, probably searching for a mint. “Mother,” I hiss. “Helene!” Helene looks sideways at me and hands Lee Ann a tissue.
“So, last week he moved out,” Lee Ann says. “And that's why I'm here.”
“That sounds really painful, Lee Ann,” Jillian says. “Thank you for sharing.” She waits a few seconds, then turns to my mother. She reminds me of a doctor delivering bad news to a patient, dispensing a careful dose of sympathy, then moving on to the next case. “And you?” she says to Helene. “Can you tell us who you are and why you're here?”
“Oh!” Helene says, pretending to be surprised. She shrugs and smiles like the little old lady she is not. “I'm just here to support my daughter.”
And then it's my turn, and a river of garbage rolls through my veins, and I just say, “Pass.”
“Relationships in transition,” as it happens, can mean a number of things. There's the forty-year-old married woman who fell in love with her female yoga teacher; there's the woman who lost sixty-five pounds whose husband no longer wants her. There's the man whose wife died after a long battle with cancer; there's the woman whose husband died after a short battle with cancer. There's Barb, the steely-eyed middle-aged woman whose husband left her to pursue polyamory. “And right before I understood what he was telling me, I blurted, âWho is this bitch Polly?' It may be my biggest regret that I actuallyasked him that!” There's Neil, the man with the bushy beard who's thinking about leaving his wife and kids and moving to Alaska “for a while” with a twenty-four-year-old woman named Rainy he met in a rock-climbing class at the Y. You can almost feel the air getting sucked out of the room when he tells his story. Barb, in particular, glares at him hard. Last there's Cal, handsome and impeccably dressed and older, maybe in his late fifties, who tells us that he and his wife have been separated for a decade but only recently finalized their divorce. “And I find myself surprised,” he says carefully, “by the pain this has unleashed.”
At the end of the hour, after the litany of mundane miseries, Jillian shoots laser beams of sincerity out of her blue eyeballs and slays us all. The room, electric before with nervousness and untold stories, is quiet now, hushed and embarrassed as if we'd all just met at a bar and gone home with one another, then woken up the next morning in a fog of regret. Chairs rake backward as everyone gets up.
If Chris were here, he'd be leaking sympathy for the wretched of room B-117.He'd press his arm against mine, barely able to control his kindness. By the end of the night, he'd have exchanged e-mail addresses with Barb; Lee Ann would be nursing a hopeless, mournful crush on him; even bearded Neil would feel understood by Chris, would promise to do better. Then on the drive home, in the private warmth of our car, I would say something sharp and accidental. I would idly wonder if Neil's wife drove him away, or I'd giggle about the way Jillian's makeup stopped at her jawlineâand Chris's concern for a roomful of strangers would freeze before my eyes into a block of solid ice.
And Josie? Josie would throw her arm around me and squeeze.You do not belong here,she would say,among the chubby and the damned.
Helene and I wend our way to the dessert table in the back of the room, her hand on my shoulder like she's the queen. My elegant mother has perfected the art of not looking like she needs help. The table is piled high with sublimated feelingsâbrownies and cupcakes; biscotti and doughnuts and Ã©clairs; light, jam-filled pastries; fluffy, sugar-dusted shortbreads;macaronsand macaroons; several varieties of carefully labeled gluten-free chocolate-chip cookies. Not coincidentally, after the broken dam of the last hour, I find that I am jonesing for sugar, almost shaking for it.
Cal, the recently divorced one, stands next to us, pondering the selections intensely. After a minute, he places two small squares of cream-cheese-frosted carrot cake on his plate and smiles at us. His hair is thick and threaded with gray, and there's an appraising, off-kilter sexiness about him, like he's done a thing or two in his life, but he'll just keep those stories to himself. “I believe if I choose carrot cake, I can justify having two pieces,” he says, making sure to look first at my mother, then at me.
Helene, her hand still on my shoulder, adds a bit of pressure to her grip. “Definitely true,” she says. “You're getting your vegetables.”
We introduce ourselves again, and if a person can die of awkwardness, I think I will, my internal organs about to seize up and grind to a halt as sexy, older Cal flirts with my mother. He even goes so far as to brush a crumb off of her sleeve. My mother, and this stud! Well, now I know why she wanted to come here.
I grab three chocolate-chip cookies, a cupcake, and an Ã©clair and pile them on my plate. Carrot cake, my ass. “Mom,” I say, trying to pull her attention toward me like the needy nine-year-old I suddenly am. “Mom.Mom.Mom.Doesn't this look like the dessert table at my wedding?”
But it's Cal who turns to me and chuckles. “Catherine and I got married at the courthouse,” he says. “There was a row of inmates in orange prison jumpsuits sitting on a bench in front of the judge's chambers. We used to say that they were her bridesmaids.” He smiles at me, and the weird, small, hibernating rodent of my soul opens one eye and looks around before falling back asleep.
I shove a huge bite of Ã©clair in my mouth and feel the overwhelming need to make a run for it. I'm about to guide my mother to the door when Jillian claps her hands three times, loudly. “Can everybody come on back to the circle for a minute? Just for one more short minute?”
Cal looks at me. “She loves that circle,” he whispers. His smile is quick and generous, like he likes to appreciate things.
“Loves it,” I say, smiling back and hoping there's no chocolate on my face.
The air in the room has shifted again, or maybe it's my own lungs. As we head back to our chairs, Helene leans into me and whispers, “Is he the kind of person who would hide us in an attic?” which is her litmus test for every non-Jewish boyfriend I've ever had, which is all of them.
My mother and I sit back down, and I hand her a chocolate-chip cookie, which, with her good hand, she accepts.Â·Â·Â·
Helene was four when she left Germany. In a shoebox in her closet, there's a soft, faded black-and-white photograph of her on the boat, sandwiched between her parents, holding their hands, crying. The railing is behind them and the ocean beyond, gray and menacing in the photograph. I can only imagine how tightly my grandparents must have been gripping Helene's little fingers.
“Oh, Mom,” I said when she first showed it to me. In the photo her dark blond hair is in pigtails, her eyes squinting into the sun, her mouth open in despair. “You look so sad. Like you knew what was going on. Like you knew what you had left behind.” For a moment I thought I felt that sadness. It moved through me, expanded and lifted me. It was the most I had ever felt.
She took the picture from my hands and shook her head. “Nah. I remember that day. There was a man on the deck who had become friendly with Grandma and Grandpa. Grandpa had a”âshe waved her hand, trying to pluck the word out of the airâ“a whatchamacallit, a Leica. And this man offered to take our picture. I didn't want him to take my damn picture. I wasn't sad, I was mad.”
I was thirteen when we had this conversation. My mind had recently been blown by the revelations of history. I had decided that my mother's flight from Germany made me extremely special and precious. I would lie awake at night sometimes and think,It's amazing I'm even here!A miracle!Like I was some kind of unusual, exotic bird.Me!I would think, and it was the beautiful bird's rare chirp.Me, me, me!
It didn't help that my grandparents fussed and hovered over me, their only grandchild, flapping about, even more so after my parents' divorce, tending to me after school well beyond the age I needed tending, feeding me and telling me to be careful and calling meschÃ¤tze,their treasure.
For a long time, I believed I was destined for something spectacular. I didn't know what, but I thought it would probably involve heroically preventing a genocide or possibly producing some kind of work of art, something of such astounding beauty that, upon viewing, no human being would ever again be capable of cruelty. My ambitions were lofty but extremely vague, which made them even loftier.
How can I explain it now, from the vantage point of forty-three?
My mother and my grandparents sail on a boat from Germany, among the last allowed to leave. The rest of the family, a close-knit bunch of brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins, think that the little trio is being hasty. They recognize the danger, of course, but they figure that the trouble will resolve itself, as it always has. They stay behind, and then are gone.
Nobody tells me much. I figure it out slowly, and then suddenly it all pops into place. And that's when I see: it's there in my face, my lips the same shape as my grandmother's, my hair coarse and wiry as my grandfather's, sleepy eyelids like my mother's.
I'm living the life they dreamed of, the one they made possible, and so it turns out I'm just the kid I am, trying to memorize the periodic table, watching TV, eating lemon cake, lacing up ice skates, readingA Separate Peace,passing my Spanish test. As I get older, my life simultaneously shrinks and grows, shedding delusions as it picks up complications. One day becomes the next. Extraordinary circumstances have given me the gift of an ordinary life.
I had a boyfriend in college named Chad Hansen. He, like all Chads, was from a small town in Wisconsinâhis, Waupakakee, was tiny and far north and best known for its native son, Reinhardt Pelican, who, in 1891, invented puffed rice and, subsequently, a sweet puffed rice cereal called Pelican Balls.
Chad wore a baseball cap nearly all the time. He wasn't a jerk, exactly, but he wasn't not a jerk. One morning, sitting cross-legged together on my thin futon on the floor of my bedroom, dust motes sparkling in the sunlight, I tried to explain it to him, this shimmering sense I had of being a child of history, of being destined for something important, and Chad laughedâa loud and genuinehyuk!âand he took off his cap and said, “And what, exactly, would that be?” Then he tapped me on the nose and kissed me and told me I was adorable and that he'd never met anyone like me before. We made out on my futon for a long time, and the next day I declared my major in primary education, which was something I'd been thinking about doing anyway.
When I recall that moment with Chadâand I doâI think that it's when I began to grow old and die. Which is, of course, ludicrous.
Everything adds up to where I am now: my mother and grandparents on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic; Chris, mine and then not mine; Hannah (tiny minnow, staying put where the others couldn't). And Josie, setting her sights on me at the faculty meeting, and then, thirteen years later, skidding across the highway on a rainy night. That, too.
Six years ago, Josie and I chaperoned the fifth graders on their Earth Science Weekend. It was an annual event at our school and a coveted volunteer opportunity for teachers, because you could pack most of your required extracurricular hours into one weekend. You could get almost all of them over with at once instead of having to coach eighth-grade soccer every Saturday for a whole season or head up the After-School Mathletes or the Kool Knitting Klub (yes, although no one ever said it out loud: the KKK) for an hour and a half every Wednesday at the end of an already exhausting day. These activities were informally known as Lobster Duty, as many of us felt that they were the equivalent of being dropped into a pot of water and being slowly boiled to death.
There would be some hiking on this tripâJosie and I accepted this unpleasant factâand much of the weekend would be spent outdoors regardless of the unpredictable April weather, but these were ten-year-olds. The hikes would be easy. Activities would be short and punctuated by breaks. We would not be sleeping in tents but in fully equipped cabins (tents were for the seventh graders and their Outdoor Fitness Weekend in September), and the chaperones would dole out a constant supply of snacks so as to ward off cannibalism if things got dicey. Also, lights-out was at eight thirty, after which our time belonged to usâalthough in fact,in actual fact,as Chris always saidâwe would be sharing a cabin with two of the Andes, Andrea Brauer, the science teacher, and Kelly Anderson-Jensen, our fellow chaperone.
Andi Friedman had not made the cut. She'd expressed her interest just a few minutes after Josie and I had sent our e-mails, and the selection process was based only on time stamps. When they found out they wouldn't be together on this trip, the Andes had howled at the injustice of it. I saw them in the hallway, hugging and keening.Oh, no, Andi! Oh, noooooÂoooooÂoo!On the bus ride to the Lake Kass Wetlands Preserve, amid the hoots of jazzed-up fifth graders, I imagined Andi alone and angry in her dark apartment, drunkenly creating voodoo dolls of Josie and me out of twigs and cotton balls and old socks.
I was ten weeks pregnant then, and so far only Chris, Josie, and Mark knew. I hadn't even told my mother, although I'd wanted to. Helene would have combusted with joy at the thought of another grandchild, and I wanted to delight her, to add another X in the happiness column of her complicated life. But I had had two miscarriages before Hannah, and so I knew the flip side of that expectant joy for all of us. I carried it with me. I felt a little nauseated most of the time; it was just slight enough to be a comfort. I was beginning to entertain the hope that I might get to be the mother of two children. I imaginedâI tried not to, but I couldn't help itâthat this one was also a girl, but dark like me, round and playful and quick to laugh, where Hannah was sensitive and serious. I tried not to think about names.
“We can talk about names,” Chris had said just a few nights earlier, lying next to me in bed, his hand on my arm. “We can talk about painting the spare room yellow and buying a new crib, or what kind of a big sister Hannah will beâ¦.We can talk about anything we want.” He moved his hand down to my wrist, circled it with his fingers. “We can be hopeful,” he said, and I sucked in my breath with the certain feeling that whatever surprising, encouraging thing he would say next would lift me up. “Because being hopeful won't change anything.”
“Oh,” I said, deflated. “Right.” I marveled at how he could be so expansive and nihilistic at the same time, how his darkly rational mind freed him. And I squeezed my eyes shut and thought the only thought I let myself have about this pregnancy, which was,Please.
The bus rolled into the gravel parking lot of the Lake Kass Wetlands Preserve Science Learning and Exploring Center, and our long-suffering driver tapped the horn. A park ranger leaped like a rabbit out of the visitors' center and jogged toward the bus, hoisting herself up the steps as soon as the door opened.
“Hi! My name is Margo! Welcome to NATURE!” she yelled, obviously knowing better than to feed a bunch of fifth graders the lineWelcome to Lake Kass.The kids screamed and whooped with joy, and you couldn't help but let it seep into you, too. One of the Jakes (there were three of them) struck up a chant: “NaTURE! NaTURE! NaTURE!”
I leaned toward Josie. “Just across the highway is the Nurture Center.”
She nodded. “The two camps will duke it out in a series of competitions throughout the weekend.”
“Settle down, please,” Kelly Anderson-Jensen yelled, waving her hand in the air, and I had the uncomfortable feeling she was talking to Josie and me. “Close yourmouthsand open yourears.”
“Yes, friends,” Andrea Brauer piped in, the gentler of the two. “Let's show Miss Margo our best Rhodes Avenue manners!”
The Andes were good at this kind of energetic rallying, a skill set available to former high-school cheerleaders. They teased and cajoled and flirted, and then, the second they felt their control slipping, they would turn chilly and withholding. Their classrooms were a charged atmosphere of primal fear coupled with the children's heartbreaking, puppyish desire to please. They always did well on the classroom-management portions of their yearly reviews. Josie had a different kind of rapport with her students. She made them feel as if they would be letting themselves down if they didn't comport themselves with dignity. She was the tween whisperer. My strategy was to speak softly and hope for the best.
“Lake ASS!” Jake hollered, inevitably, and forty-two fifth graders went wild, as they'd been doing all week, because it never got less funny.
“Jake Byers!” Kelly called, her voice high and tinny above the roar. “Jake B, I'm WARNING YOU.”
Margo rattled off a loud list of park rules of thetake only pictures, leave only footprintsvariety, plus a few more strict mandates about safety:Neverwander off the path.Alwaysstick with your assigned buddy. Just as I was contemplating the syntactic logic of the phrase “assigned buddy,” the kids began a massive lurch toward the exit.
“Isabel, come on,” Andrea said to me, grabbing my elbow. We were in charge of leading the pack. Kelly would bring up the rear. And Josie would be the sheepdog, herding the stragglers, as well as carrying the small black bag of medical necessities a few of the kids couldn't be more than ten feet from at all times: one asthma inhaler, three EpiPens, and a tube of eczema cream.
I was slow to rouse from my little reverie, stuck in the pregnancy fog I'd been unable to shake for the past few weeks, and Andrea looked at me, her expression a mixture ofWhat's wrong?andShape up!It occurred to me that soon I would be able to spill my secret, wouldn't be able to keep it, in fact, and the thought delighted and terrified me.
“Sorry,” I said. Andrea snaked through the aisle and managed to get off the bus before any of the more-squirrelly kids could bust loose and head for the woods. I climbed down the steps and scanned the crowd, beginning the first of the endless head counts we would tick off that weekend. You had to look at these events as prison outings, as chain gangs without the comforting security of the leg irons. I walked more slowly through the mob, patting heads, touching backs, whispering,Hey, hey, this will be fun, hey, huh.I was taking a page from Principal Bob Coffey's handbook of child-and-canine obedience, trying to bestow a calm authority.
“Mrs.Â Moore!” Dylan NuÃ±ez nudged up against me. He tugged on my shirt. They did that, all of them, all the time, yanked and pulled on me, no matter how often I reminded them,Respect personal space, people!“Mrs.Â Moore, look! I found a grasshopper!” He cradled the insect tenderly in his cupped palm and stared at it.
“Wow,” I said, leaning down. “That'sâ” but before I could finish my sentence, he popped it into his mouth.
“Dylan! No! Ew!Dylan!” I spun him away from the other children and clamped my mouth shut to keep from screaming.
“Just kidding, Mrs.Â Moore!” He opened his mouth to reveal a green gummy bear and then began chewing it up with disgusting glee.
“I'm going to sneak up behind you at dinnertime, Dylan,” I said, “and I'm going to slip a real grasshopper into your hot-dog bun.” He laughed and bumped into me with his shoulder in what I had come to understand was a boy hug, then dodged back into the group.
This was what I loved about being a teacher, back then, when I loved it: that every child was some family's most precious gem, the joy of their hearts, and I could see that, even sometimes when their own parents probably couldn't; I could see that spark of perfection in every kid, in whatever form it took, a devious sense of humor or a disheveled sweetness, and I loved them all for it. They were grubby and loud and chaotic, and occasionally mean-spirited and dim-witted, sometimes feral and once in a while borderline psychotic. But they had beauty in them.
Josie smiled at me over the children's headsâwhich were, I had noticed on the bus, frankly dirty, along with the rest of them. It was as if their parents had collectively given up on them this week, in preparation for this field trip. They were on the brink of adolescence, these rangy fifth graders, and before the hormone artillery advanced, their bodies were sending out early warning shots. They were greasy haired, gamy little things. As much as I loved them, I also couldn't ignore their collective resemblance to chimps.
I thought about Hannah and felt a sharp pang of longing, almost physical, even though I'd only been away from her for a few hours. She would turn into this species of primate soon enough, but she was six then, still a sweet monkey, just a tall baby who liked to follow me around the house, kissing and petting me. Her body was a satellite to mine. Sometimes at night I would lie in bed and revel in the space between Chris and me, the way my skin touched only my own T-shirt and the sheets. It would be the blink of an eye before Hannah turned into the girl she is now, the one who disdains my affection and cringes from my touch. If I'd known then, I would haveâ¦well, what would I have done? Recorded a caress? Taken notes on a hug? You can't preserve anything; every happy moment is already on its way to becoming nostalgia. That's the problem.
Margo quickly organized the children into a red and a green team for the treasure hunt. We decided to leave their bags on the bus, give them a chance to run around, and then come back later and get them settled in the cabins.
Audrey Franklin and Zoe Meckleheim-Wald rushed over to me as Kelly and Andrea handed out color-coded name tags. Audrey was guiding Zoe, her hands on her friend's bony shoulders, and Zoe, I noticed with alarm, was sobbing.
Mrs.Â Moore, I! She forgot! Mrs.Â Moore! Glasses my glasses! Zoe at home forgot!They spoke over each other in a rush to impart this exciting news. Zoe sobbed and wiped her eyes. Audrey smiled at me, expectantly. Audrey was a lightning rod, a heat-seeking drama missile. She was one of those girls who tried to help everybody, especially when they didn't need it.
“What will I do?”
Zoe. It was one of the names on the list I wasn't letting myself make. Also Iris. Phoebe. Louisa. It was so hard to keep this baby an abstraction when every thump of my heart brought her closer.
I bent down close to Zoe, my hands on my knees. “How many fingers am I holding up?” I wasn't holding up any. She tilted her head at me, tears still wet on her flushed cheeks. “How many?” I repeated.
“None!” she said, and started to laugh.
“How well can you see without your glasses?” I asked.
“Mrs.Â Moore,” Audrey said. “Sheneedsthem!”
“I mostly wear them for watching TV at home.” Zoe shrugged.
“I think you'll be okay,” I said. “There's no TV here. And it's only two days. Be careful, and don't mistake any of the coyotes for your friends.”
“Coyotes?” Audrey clapped her hand over her mouth.
“Audrey, there are no coyotes. Can you be an extra-good friend to Zoe this weekend? Help her if she needs it?”
She nodded and took Zoe's hand, guided her friend away as if she were legally blind. “There's a rock on the path,” she said. “And another one! Be careful!”
Josie was standing next to me now, had witnessed my expert land-mine defusing. “Mrs.Â Moore, I forgot my Xanax,” she whispered. “Ineeeedit.”
“Mrs.Â Abrams, I forgot my vodka.”
Josie sighed. “Honestly, I'm exhausted already.” She fiddled with her ponytail and looked around. “You know what it's going to be like. The psychological warfare of the girls. The grievous bodily injuries the boys will inflict on one another.”
The sun was high in the sky. The spring had been unseasonably warm. Josie and I had assured each other that we were excited about this trip, that we would embrace the intensity of it and enjoy the opportunity to spend time together. And wehadbeen excited about it. But that was the thing about teachingâit could be a tightrope. The slightest fumble and you were falling, falling.
“Jose, come on,” I said, as we headed toward the lake, which had a wide wooden dock that crossed over and around it, so that you could observe the wildlife almost as if you were walking on the water. “We have to find a marsh wren and a water lily and see if we can spot the beaver dam.”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she said, falling into step next to me. The kids were darting alongside and in front of us, shrieking and laughing.
When we got to the shore, Margo motioned for us all to gather around. She shushed everyone with a finger to her lips, like magic. “Listen,” she whispered. “Look.” She pointed, and forty-two ten-year-olds lifted their faces to the sky as a great blue heron glided overhead. We all watched it swoop and soar. Suddenly the sky was a cathedral, the children silent worshippers. The heron landed in a tree, and then four more of them appeared, elegant necks, crooked legs, a prehistoric convention. My breath caught.
“OMG!” Claire Whitley said loudly, and she did a wiggly little dance in place, throwing her shoulders and hips about. Claire was tiny and redheaded and wiry, pale as a cloud, and she liked to rile things up. Her social studies presentations were stand-up comedy routines. She could turn quiet reading time into a hoedown. She was a walking disruption. It was physically impossible not to like her.
The kids around her started laughing. “Shhh,” Kelly whispered, laying her hands on Claire's shimmying shoulders. “Hush.” And like a miracle, just for a moment, everyone did.
For the next half hour, we wandered around the shore and across the dock, searching for the wildlife on our list. A turtle. A lily pad. A pussy willow. A school of fish.
“It's a fun game,” Margo told us, “and being quiet is the only way to win.” I was liking Margo more and more.
For many of our students, this weekend was their first experience of nature beyond the brightly colored playground at school, with its giant slide and its one perennially broken swing and its wood-chip-covered ground that was meant to cushion their falls but probably hurt worse than concrete. They were soaking up the day's brilliant sunshine, unfettered and free as the swooping heron. It made them bonkers.
Which is why, when Brady Kieslowski shoved his best friend, Kyle Gilson, into the lake, no one was surprised: not me, not Josie, not Kelly or Andrea or Margo, not even Brady. Not even Kyle. We heard the scream and the splash, and we went running, our feet making hollow clopping sounds on the dock.“Stay here!”we shouted at the other kids. “Stay right here!”
And of course not one of them did. They came tearing after us, a commotion of arms and legs and scrambling feet and fear and delight, and it was only sheer luck that no one else fell in the water.
“Help!” Kyle yelled. “Somebody help me!” He thrashed and sputtered in the four-foot-deep water, coughing and crying, looking tiny and terrified, and even though we all knew the water was shallow, we felt his terror.
Fleet-footed Margo got to him first. Josie was just a second behind her. They squatted at the edge of the dock, and Josie calmly extended her arm to Kyle. In truth he was only a few inches away from the dock in water he could stand in.
“It's okay, buddy,” Margo said.
“Take my hand,”Josie murmured. A breeze ruffled the wisps of curly brown hair that had escaped her ponytail. She rearranged herself so that she was balanced on one knee now, braced to pull Kyle up. Her T-shirt blew flat against her stomach.
Brady, who was responsible for the whole scene, hunched next to Josie, his face in his hands, sobbing. I put my arm around him. Some of the kids were screaming and jumping and calling out for Kyle. A few ran back to the shore. Others stood silently, awed or terrified, taking it in. Someone yelled, “Stay calm, dude!” and another cried out, “Oh, my God, he's going to die!” Above the din I could make out laughter. Some kids, predictably, probably from nervousness but maybe it was meanness, just laughed and laughed.
For better or worse we were all our elemental selves for those few moments. I have understood this since the first playground fight I had to break up: how a crisis can reveal the inner workings of our nervous systems before we even know our own hearts.
In just a few seconds, Kyle was out of the water, shaking himself off, refusing comfort, glaring at Brady. His shaggy, dark hair was plastered to his forehead and his cheeks. He gleamed in the sunlight like a seal pup.
“We've got some towels in the visitors' center, hon,” Margo said.
“I'm sorry, man,” Brady sobbed. “I'm sorry!” But Kyle turned his back to him and let himself be surrounded by the mob of kids eager to celebrate his newfound status as the kid who ALMOST DROWNED AT LAKE KASS.
“I'm really, really sorry!” Brady called after him, high and bereft.
I corralled the children, who were still howling with excitement, back to the shore, and I thought,This is the end of that friendship.
But it wasn't. It would take Kyle and Brady all of forty-five minutes to reconcile. They would be pelting pretzels at each other by the end of the day. They would come back together with the purity of ten-year-old boys, until, four years later, Kyle's parents would split up and his mother would move Kyle and his sister to Kenosha, where she would find a job as the manager of an apartment complex.
Josie came up behind me, shepherding her own group. “Jose,” I said, “you're an American hero.”
She chuckled and held out her hand to me. “I'm still trembling.”
“I swear to God,” I said, shaking my head.
She leaned into me for a second as we walked. There was a feeling between Josie and me, the goodness and pleasure of our friendship an electric thing humming and buzzing. We had this new story to tell Chris and Mark, and we shared the full and mutual delight of having survived it. I was already picking out phrases to quote to her later.Oh, my God, he's going to die!
When more screaming erupted from the horde of kids on the shore, I figured it was residual drama, an aftershock. We weren't even concerned. We wandered back down to the dock. We lollygagged. And the screaming grew louder.
“Ugh, what now?” Josie said.
“I'm gettin' out of this here racket,” I said, hooking my thumbs through the belt loops of my jeans. “Thinkin' about gettin' into real estate.” We hurried the stragglers along, started jogging toward the confusion. Kelly and Andrea were there already.
“Claire Whitley has been stung by a bee,” Kelly announced, her words sharp and fast. “We need the med bag now, Mrs.Â Abrams. Can you please give me Claire's. Epi. Pen. Right. Now.”
The children huddled in little groups, staring and whispering. Claire Whitley was still and scared at the center of it all, tears pouring down her face, which was, impossibly, paler than usual, a blank moon edged in pink. She was holding her wrist. She coughed a few times. Her lips were already starting to look swollen and strange. “I am very allergic,” she whispered, which of course we already knew.
And Josie was gone, sprinting toward the bus.
The medical bag was her responsibility, and she had left it on the bus. Later I would think,It could have happened to anybody. Anybody could have made that mistake,which both was, and was not, true. It didn't matter. It was Josie's mistake.
I sat on the ground and eased Claire into my lap, and I rocked her while we waited, the longest minutes, endless breaths. Andrea rounded up all the other kids and hurried them over to a spot on the shore about a hundred yards away. Kelly stood nearby, her terrified eyes a mirror to mine. “It's okay, sweetie,” I whispered into Claire's fine, red hair, which smelled earthy and sharp and not pleasant, like cheese. I had the feeling that I was whispering to Hannah, the odd sense that I was in my daughter's bedroom in the middle of the night. “It'll be okay.”
Claire wheezed. I felt her heart thudding through her narrow back. I thought that she would die in my arms while her mother was oblivious back in Milwaukee, probably enjoying a margarita or watching a movie or sending an e-mail or grilling a steak as her daughter gasped for air.
Lake Kass was placid and clear. There was the sound of birds. My heart pounded with Claire's.
Josie was back four minutes later. The parking lot was two minutes away, down the path and up the hill. We heard her banging on the bus door; we saw her flying back to us, black med bag at her side.
Kelly grabbed the satchel and whipped out the EpiPen, snapped out the syringe, and jammed it into Claire's thigh.
Anaphylactic shock can set in in moments. The slightest delay can affect the patient's outcome.We were subjected to a mandatory student-health tutorial every fall. So we knew.
I held her. She was no bigger than Hannah.Please.She slumped over on me, her eyes closed. Kelly crouched next to us; Josie stood, her arms at her sides, fists clenched, breathing hard. Her face was gray and sweaty. I couldn't meet her eyes.
“Claire? Claire, honey?” Kelly touched Claire's cheek, her forehead.
The other children were a brightly colored, frightened flock in the distance: a hassle of children, an irritation of fifth graders, a vexation of tweens. I closed my own eyes for a second to make them disappear.
From far off, an ambulance siren rose and fell, rose and fell: incongruous here, coming closer.Â·Â·Â·
She drops her littlest sister off at Rhodes Avenue every morning before heading over to the high school two blocks away. Usually she's in a mad rush to say goodbye to Nora and make her 7:55 bell. But every once in a while she pops her head into my classroom and waves to me, her smile bright and familiar. She's not the live wire she was six years ago. Adolescence has rounded her edges and calmed her manic energy. She's almost, but not quite, graceful nowâshe's still elbowy and kinetic, but I can see that in her, how she'll inhabit her adult body in a few years, balancing a backpack full of books or a bag of groceries, holding someone's hand, a husband's, a child's.
“Mrs.Â Moore,” she says, when she has time to pause. “Have a good day!” And to any of my other former students I would just wave back and say, “You, too!” but with Claire, when I can, when I'm not surrounded by children or trapped in the middle of some minor crisis, I'll hurry over to her and give her a quick hug, just to feel her sharp little shoulders beneath my arms, her breath and her bones, the working machinery of her fragile body.Â·Â·Â·
Maybe Earth Science Weekend should have concluded then and there, after little, limp Claire was carted off on a stretcher to Kass Memorial Hospital, after Kelly snarled at Josie, “You should have had that bag with you!” and stalked off, and Josie bowed her head, horrified, remorseful, defeated. But we decided to soldier on. After all, there were still mallards to identify, inchworms to count.
But the molecular structure of the field trip had disintegrated beyond repair. Josie was remote, barely functioning. Kelly and Andrea were icy and efficient. The kids were uncharacteristically snarly and combative with one another. We separated so many children so many times that day that enemies had to be seated together by dinner; girls who had made each other cry at lunchtime were paired up in cabins by nightfall. We trudged through the swamp, all of us, weighed down by the psychic burden of one ten-year-old's near-death experience.
Some darkness descended on Josie that weekend, and it never quite lifted.
And I barely noticed that my pregnancy nausea and lethargy had disappeared, until two days after we got home, when I started to bleed.
“Promise me you'll never let Hannah go skydiving,” my mother says. “I just read the most awful story in the newspaper.” She breathes out, a familiar littleachhthat signifies her disapproval of a world in which anyone thinks skydiving is ever a good idea. “I want you and Hannah Banana to come over for dinner tomorrow night,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. “Right after her parachuting lesson.”
“And you need to wear decent clothes,” she says.
“What? Why?” I look down at my sweatshirt, which is decorated with a little archipelago of coffee splotches from this morning.
“Because I'm tired of seeing you in sweatpants. And I'm cooking something nice.”
The last time my mother made us dinner, a few weeks ago, it was boiled carrots, boiled potatoes, and a chicken so overbaked that by the time it came out of the oven it had turned into a vaguely chickenish kind of cardboard. “Hey, I have a super idea, though! Let's order from DiPalma's.”
“No, no, no,” she says. “I want to cook for you.”
“I won't even tell Hannah. You can come out of the kitchen wiping sweat off your brow, like you slaved over a hot stove. It will be our little secret.”
Helene laughs, and her voice turns girlish and high. “Oh,you.”
“Oh,me,” I say, laughing, too. “But seriously.”
“You're coming. I'm cooking,” my mother announces, no longer joking, and when Helene stops joking, you stop arguing.Â·Â·Â·
When I was in eighth grade, like eighth graders everywhere, I was given the assignment to explore my family history by interviewing a close relative. I figured this was my chance to get the answers to the questions my mother had been evading for months. I hounded her daily, right up to the night before the assignment was due. Every time I asked, she said things like, “Why don't you call your dad's second cousin Sascha in Lansing? He was a Communist!” Or “I'm so tired. I've been talking at work all day. I can't say another word. Let's do this tomorrow.” And finally, “For God's sake, just make something up.”
“Fine!” I said, and picked up my pen. “Helene Strauss Applebaum was born on Jupiter.” I scratched my head and pretended to write, drew circles and loops on the page. “Her parents abandoned her, and she grew up in a large family of green aliens, the only one of her kind. When she was thirteen, she embarked on a”âI sketched an alien with long antennaeâ“alifelong searchfor her human parents.” I looked up at my mother, who was standing in the doorway, and scowled. “I think Mrs.Â Murphy will love this.” I snapped my notebook shut and said, “Hmph.”
Helene had been about to leave the kitchen, but she turned and came back, sat down with me at the table, and sighed. “All right, Isabel. But you're going to be disappointed. I'm telling you, I don'tâ¦Grandma and Grandpa never really talked about Germany. And what do I remember?” She shrugged, answering the question. “A child's memories. Not much of a story. Only bits and pieces. Fragments.” She shook her head. “Aâ¦a room with a red painted toy box. The smell of bread baking. A yellow apron. A cloth doll one of my cousins gave me. I named it Gustav. I thought that was the most beautiful name in the world. But Trude told me it was a boy's name and insisted I change it, and I cried.”
“Cousins?” I asked, my heart pounding.
“Mmm-hmm. I had three girl cousins. We played together all the time. They lived in an apartment above their parents' grocery store, and we played hide-and-seek there. There were so many places to hide, so many little closets and pantries. For years I thought, well, maybe they hid.” She brushed a little pile of crumbs from dinner into her palm, then got up and dumped them into the sink. Her back was to me now. “I remember when we left, everyone gave me presents and sweets, and I didn't want my cousins to come, because I felt so special. I don't remember anything else.” She turned on the water for no reason, turned it off, sat back down. She looked tired, and I thought, with a flicker of resentment, that I was seeing what she would look like when she was old. “Oh, I know who you should interview!” she said. “Dr.Â Fraser. He's from Utah!” She said “Utah” in a strange, drawn-out way,Youuu-taw,as if it were an exotic place you could never go, as if magical elves lived there.
“You know this is afamily-history assignment, right?”
“Well, I know, but Dr.Â F has a really neat story!Mormons,” she whispered. She smiled brightly at me, turned it off like that. So we were done. I knew I had to give up. After she went to bed, I sneaked off and called my dad, who told me detailed stories about growing up in Detroit after the war. I got an A.Â·Â·Â·
Hannah and I walk the three blocks to my mother's duplex. Daylight saving time has just kicked in, and the air feels strange and brittle, too bright for 6:00Â p.m. When Hannah was younger, she was always so confused by the time change. For weeks she would ask me, “Is it four but it feels like five, or four but it feels like three?” It would take her body weeks to catch up to it, too; there were nights when she couldn't fall asleep for hours, mornings when she would wake up before the birds. “Mommy,” she would whisper beside my bed, the night sky outside our window still inky black. “I would like a waffle.” She is sensitive to change, cast adrift by it. I should have remembered that.
I look up at the bare trees, the branches clawing at the bright sky. Chris works for the state, monitoring tree diseases. He and his buddies in the Department of Natural Resources can wax poetic on the history of the devastating Dutch-elm epidemic of the early 1970s or the dogged persistence of the emerald ash borer. Chris can hardly walk past a tree without fondling its leaves, tenderly stroking its bark. I used to make fun of him for it, his physical, almost-sexual communion with the trees.Oh, baby, let me feel your trunk.Now it's just one more thing I miss.Baby, don't leave.
“It's six, but it feels like five twenty-seven,” I say now, my old answer to Hannah's question, our joke. She turns and looks at me, her face impassive, a mask. But then she loosens, almost imperceptiblyâexcept I'm her mother, so to me it's a tectonic shift.
“It's six, but it feels more like five fifty-eight,” she says.
Most people celebrate the lengthening light. But I prefer the shorter days, the way winter darkness wraps itself around me like a blanket.
“It's six, but it feels like spaghetti,” I say, and then Hannah sighs, annoyed, because she's not five years old, and because these days I never, ever get it right.Â·Â·Â·
“Darlings.” Helene kisses me, then wraps Hannah in a long, worried hug. “Where are your coats?”
“It's practically spring, Grandma,” Hannah says, her sweetness blinking back on for Helene, and I try not to be jealous. “It's like a hundred degrees out! No coats.” Hannah slides past my mother and through the entryway into the kitchen, and we follow. She plunks herself down on the window seat and pulls out her phone, hunching over it like a mama bear guarding her cub.
My mother moved into this duplex four years ago, when she had recovered enough from her stroke and realized that she wanted less space for herself and fewer miles between us. So now she lives shouting distance from Hannah and me on the ground floor of an old brick house, the kind of place real-estate agents describe as charming, which of course means creaky floorboards, ancient pipes, an unpredictable furnace, and drafty windows. Helene transported all of her furnishings from her old house to this one, and her modernist aesthetic is boldly out of place in this century-old shrine to crown molding and stained glass. It looks like a time traveler came back from the future to decorate. Here in these tiny rooms are the thick glass end tables and boxy vinyl couches that once fit perfectly in the open-planned expanse of her midcentury modern house in the suburbs: the same geometrically patterned pillows, the same uncomfortable chrome chairs that look like they belong on a spaceship. Every time I step inside, my childhood greets me with a befuddled wave.
“Hi, Mom.” I hand over a bottle of wine and simultaneously remember that she'd asked me to bring a salad. “Oh, crap. I'm sorry. I forgot theâ”
“It's all right, darling,” she says. “I made one, just in case.”
I manage to feel infuriated by this. “Sorry,” I say again.
I hear a sound from the living room and then music, and I look at my mother, who has her back to me now, stirring something on the stove that undoubtedly does not need stirring.
“Helene,” I say, and she turns to me over her shoulder with herI'm just a slightly confused little old ladysmile.
Hannah is still huddled over her phone, muttering softly to it.“McKinley!”she whispers.“That is so not true!”My mother turns back to the stove and hums something tuneless. Hannah chuckles andtap-tap-taps away on her phone.
“Come,” my mother says. She drops the wooden spoon into the sink and leads me through the kitchen and into the living room.
And there, perched on the sofa, is handsome Cal, the divorcÃ© from the support group. “Isabel.” He smiles, stands.
Lately circumstances just seem to sneak up on me, situations I thought I understood but realize, too late, that I don't.
Cal is wearing a purple button-down shirt and jeans. I'm wearing the shirt I slept in last night. Josie got it for me from the Lake Michigan Bird Sanctuary; it saysWISCONSIN IS FOR PLOVERSon the back. I silently resolve not to turn around. The CD Cal has put on is something Hawaiian and trendy; Chris gave it to my mother for her birthday last year.Perfect,I think.
I'm ready to kill my mother, who is resting against the doorframe. I've noticed this about her recently, how wherever she goes, she finds a place to pause. Observing this vulnerability makes it slightly more difficult for me to sustain my murderous impulse, but not impossible.
False pretenses. She has brought us here under false pretenses, and I'm not even sure what they are. “Oh, Mom,” I say, through clenched jaw. “How fun.”
She smooths the fabric of her beige linen pants: slacks, she used to call them when I was younger, and maybe she still does. She gives her thick, caramel-colored hair a pat and lays a warm hand on my cheek. “It's a little get-together,” she says.
“Yes, it is.” The background music to our exchange is the festive, high pluck of a ukulele.
“I told you to wear nice clothes.”
“I thought you were kidding.”
Cal looks at my mother, then at me, with an amused sort of scrutiny, like he's got us all figured out.Smug,Josie would say.One of those men who thinks he can teach you all about yourself!I'm ready to make up an excuse and flee (by backing out of the room) when he walks toward me and takes my hand.
“I'm really looking forward to this evening,” he says, with no obvious sarcasm, which seems suddenly like more than we deserve. His palm is warm and dry.Give me your paw,I used to say to Hannah when she was little and we were crossing a street. The phrase comes to me now, unbidden. There is something generous about all of this, suddenly, a feeling underneath logic, a shift. He holds on to my hand for another comforting second, then lets go.Â·Â·Â·
I never really knew my father. I mean, I knew him; I know him. His name is Jack. Hannah and I have dinner with him every couple of months. He lives in a condo in Herman, a sprawling exurb forty minutes west of here, with his wife, a retired dental hygienist named Sheila, pronounced “Shyla.”
After the divorce, I spent every other weekend at his apartment, and on Tuesday nights we would go to Riddle's for pizza together, until my sophomore year of high school, when I managed to convince both him and my mother that I had way too much homework to continue that tradition. As far back as I can remember, he was distant, sour as a pickle, and delicately nursing a festering grudge against my mother.
Early on, just after they separated, he would try to plumb me for details.How's she doing? Does she go out much? Does she go out with anyone in particular? Does she seem happy?
I would take a giant bite of my mushroom-and-olive thin crust and roll my eyes. “I dunno, Dad,” I would mutter through my mouthful. “She doesn'tseemanything. She doesn't tell me anything. Ugh.”
And my father's face would grow pinched and tight, his forehead furrowed and his mouth set in a peevish frown. “Well,” he said to me once, “I could never get past that wall of defensiveness and anger, and it looks like you're turning out just like her.”
I suppose it's possible my mother mourned the divorce in private, when I wasn't around, but I'm pretty sure she just breathed a huge sigh of relief and never looked back. There were empty spaces in our house after my dad moved out, but she filled them with work and friends and meâat least, I think so; I think I filled that space. She was the office manager at the Fraser Feldman Medical Group, a dermatology clinic downtown. She got home at six thirty, and she heated up Lean Cuisines for us or threw together meals involving far too much canned tuna and/or frozen corn. (I was in college before I realized that not all vegetables came from a bag with a huge green man on the label.) She played cards with her single lady friends every Saturday night: her gay divorcÃ©es, she called them cheerfully, without subtext. And every night she kissed me and told me I was the best thing that ever happened to her. She didn't cry when my father moved out. She cried when I went off to college. She cried at my wedding. She cried the first time (the first five times, actually) she held Hannah.
So, Cal: Cal squeezing my hand sweetly and smiling at my mother like he wants to know more about her? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will allow it.
“Excuse me for a moment,” my mother says, and heads back through the hallway.
Hannah, still in the kitchen, lets out a high-pitched, bloodcurdling scream. Just after my heart stops but before I can race in to stanch the blood flow, she comes rushing out to me.
“Mom mom mom mom! Can I run over to Chloe's please please please just for five minutes she got a new puppy A PUPPY oh my God can I PLEASE?”Hannah's hair is loose and long and uncombed, her eyes bright and pleading. She tilts her head at me. “Woof?”
“No!” I say, because of course she can't leave her grandmother's house where dinner has been made and company invited and the table set for four. And then, “Yes.” Because Chloe lives just two blocks away, and Hannah is not asking if she can get a tattoo or toss back her first shot of whiskey, and am I really the kind of mother who says no to puppies? And also, if I'm being honest, because every no these days has the potential to become a dull and endless battle, the cause of another snarl of disdain, another reason for Hannah to turn away, and sometimes I just don't want that; sometimes, right now, I just can't. “Yes. Okay. Go on. Tell Grandma, and be back in a half hour.” I lay my hand on her head for a second. “Got it?”
“Got it,” she says, three-quarters pleased, one-quarter mocking, which is a good ratio these days. “Igotit!” She tucks her blond hair behind her ears and smiles at me with the face of her father and she's gone.
“I'm Cal,” Cal says to the space where Hannah was, holding out his hand as if to shake hers. “It's a pleasure to meet you,” but just like before, it's gentle.
“Hannah, say hello to the nice man.” I shrug at Cal. “I'm sorry.”
“My son is thirty-five,” he says.
“Kids, huh?” And why do I feel as if Cal has just seen me naked?
“Well, now,” he says. “Shall we arrange our chairs in a circle?”
It takes me a second. Then I clap my hands twice. “Tonight we're going to try something different,” I say, my hands on my hips. “Tonight we're going to arrange our chairs into a trapezoid!”
Cal gigglesâthe real, live giggle of a human male, so rarely heard. It catches me completely off guard. “And then,” he says, “we'll load up on cookies and grouse about how much we despise our former spouses!”
“How miserable we are!” I exclaim, caught up in it. And then we stop short, because I've cut a little too close to the bone, and we both know it.
“How Miserable We Are,”Cal says, more quietly now, “is the title of a musical I've been working on.”
A ping sounds deep down within me, a submarine's sonar echoing somewhere unexplored. Is this a man who could make my mother happy? Is there such a creature? “I would see that,” I say.
Helene brings out a plate and sets it on the low glass table in front of the couch. “CruditÃ©s,” she announces. “I like to say that word.Croo-dee-tay.But it's really just raw vegetables!” She's nervous, I realize, and I understand that it's my filial duty to make this work: that this is the reason I'm here. Unfortunately I haven't showered in two days, and I haven't had a social exchange with anyone over the age of twelve in weeks.
“We were going to name HannahâCruditÃ©s,'â” I say. “Helene talked us out of it.”
“Ah, Hannah's better,” Cal says. “There would have been so many other CruditÃ©s in her class.” He takes a polite bite of a baby carrot. What is it about him and carrots? “My son's name is Peter.”
Helene sits down next to Cal on the couch and turns to him. Is she batting her eyelashes?
“Hmm,” I say, liking this man more and more. “Really?Peter Abbott?”
He flashes me a smile, quick and conspiratorial. “No. It's Michael.”
My phone plays a few notes fromThe Twilight Zone,a text from Hannah:Can I stay at Chloe's 4 dinner I know u will say no but the puppy is soooo cute! I luv u pleez can I? pleeez?
I pass the phone to my mother. “Oh, let her,” she says.
OK,I type.u can but u will need 2 make it up 2 Grandma. & b back by 8. don't b L8 or u will meet a dire f8.If Hannah and I could just text, our relationship might be perfect. Although I can also entertain the possibility that she gets my messages and just rolls her eyes.
During dinner, which is a surprisingly tasty pasta primavera (didshe order in?), the talk turns to Relationships in Transition, as it was bound to do.
“It's been very civil,” Cal says. “My lawyer tells me that in the cleanest cases, both parties approach the divorce as if it's a business transaction.” He wipes his mouth and then takes a sip of water. “And we have. Truly, we've treated each other with utmost respect, much as we did throughout our marriage. Catherineâmy ex-wifeâis doing very well, I think. She would be shocked to hear that I'mâ¦struggling.” At that word, the crack that exposes the depth, he grows quiet, reddens a little, smiles.
“A business transaction is easier when there's not an eleven-year-old girl in the mix,” I say, more vehemently than I had intended.
Cal nods. “I would imagine.”
“Hannah's with me half the week, with Chris the other half. But the days rotate, so sometimes he gets the weekends and sometimes I do.” There's a pair of tongs in the salad bowl I don't recognize, clear plastic with blue-tipped handles. When did my mother get new salad tongs? “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I have to go into her room, because I don't know where she is.”
“Divorce was harder back in the day,” Helene says. “But it was easier in some ways, too. The mother kept the kids, and the father sent the checks. I think maybe it was better for the children. Well, it was better for you. None of this confusion. Joint custody was unheard of.”
“Unless you were talking about who got the marijuana,” I say.
My mother gives me a look, and Cal laughs.
“Mom, this is yummy,” I say, and she points to a spot on my T-shirt in response. “No,” I say, smiling. “That was there before.”
My motherâperfectly put together as usual, well coiffed, her makeup, as always, applied carefullyâgives me a look and changes the subject. “Isabel is a very talented photographer,” she says.
“Indeed, I am! I like to take photographs of babies nestling in oversized teacups.” I spear a pea with my fork and hold it up. “Or sometimes I dress them in little green pea costumes and arrange them as if they're peering out of gigantic pods.”
“Sounds whimsical,” Cal says.
“Oh, and then I also have a series I'm working on of cats wearing bonnets.” I don't know why I act like this around my mother.
“Isabel, stop it.” Helene sets her own fork down and straightens her necklace, a string of gigantic, shiny yellow beads. “I'm just sharing with Cal that you areâ¦interesting.”
I haven't taken a photograph of anything except Hannah since college. But it's true that I loved photography, way back when, loved the way shadow separated light, the intersection and overlap of angle and curve, inanimate and alive. And color! How a burst of azure would stand out unexpectedly in a background of emerald green. But whatever. The things we love when we're twenty, we replace them with things that weigh more, that require care and feeding: the things we are obliged to love.
“The talents your parents nurture in you,” I say, looking at Helene. “I think that if you're lucky, they become hobbies, and if you're unlucky, then you pursue them seriously as an adult.” Helene is staring at me as if I've just grown scales. “I mean, how many gymnasts do you know? Who's a ballerina? Who ends up doing that?”
Nobody says anything for a minute (and, really, what did I expect?). There are the sounds of chewing, swallowing. Josie managed to follow her passion without deluding herself, more or less. Then again, she and Mark didn't have kids.
Before she died, she was working on a project in which she reimagined famous works of art from a strange, possibly brilliant, but definitely confusing feminist perspective. There was a Rodin Barbie and a three-foot-tall Hello Kitty Mount Rushmore. Her theory was that when you see a work of art flipped on its side, you ask questions of it that wouldn't have occurred to you otherwise. (“LikeWhat the fuck?” Chris said later, gazing at those four pink-bowed, unknowable, yet still-vaguely-presidential kitties.) All but one of her artworks is gone from our house now, packed away in the basement. I keep the smallest one next to my bed, though. It's a little painting of the Mona Lisa as a bearded man in an Italian soccer jersey, looking for all the world as if he'd just scored a goal, or possibly missed one.
I get up and go into the kitchen to refill the pitcher, running the tap until the water is icy cold. I hold my wrists under the stream for a minute, let it chill my pulse.
What if you make the right choices? What if you shelve those immature and solipsistic pursuits in favor of the grown-up occupations of family and careerâhappily, you do it without regret, in love, looking forwardâand then those fall apart? You turn around and you're staring at the moonscape that used to be your life.
“Are you an avid bird-watcher, Isabel?” Cal asks as I walk back into the living room. I pour water into his glass, then my mother's.
“Your shirt,” he says. The lines around his eyes deepen with his smile.
“Oh!” I can't tell where my comfort with Cal comes from, but I'm no longer embarrassed to be wearing old jeans and this ridiculous shirt. “Well, we had a robin's nest in one of the bushes in front of our house last year,” I say, sitting back down. “When those birds first hatched, I would go outside and watch them all the time.”
“So, then.” He nods. “You are.”
“Uggch,”Helene says, that familiar sound. “Birds are horrible creatures. Filthy. Those beady, reptile eyes.” She shoos an imaginary sparrow away from her face with her good hand.
“Oh, I don't know,” Cal says. “I've gone birding a time or two, years ago. It can be very serene.”
“When the robins were just a day or two old, I would go out and chirp at them.” I make a little tweeting sound. “And they'd look up at me with their blind, bulbous faces, and they'd open their beaks like they thought I was their mama. But after another day or two, they figured it out, and then they ignored me.”
“Like life,” my mother says, “except the baby birds grow up and ignore their real mothers.” Helene reaches over and gives me a little squeeze.
“Sorry, Mom, did you say something?”Â·Â·Â·
After dinner, my mother and I are alone in the kitchen while Cal is gathering plates in the dining room.
“He's nice,” I whisper to her. “I like him!”
“I'm glad, honey. I do, too.” She rests her hip against the edge of the sink and adjusts her enormous necklace. “He could be aâ¦diversion. A little confidence booster.”
“Oh! Okay. I guess so.” The idea of my mother having a casual fling is, of course, disgusting to me, but I try to roll with it. “I guess I thought he might be more than that?”
“Well, that's not up to me.”
“Oh, Mom, of course it is!” Maybe all these years of being single have made her feel powerless. Or maybe she's stuck in the prefeminist world of dating, where the men make all the rules.
“Huh.” She smiles. “That's sweet, butâ¦”
We're standing inches from each other. Up close, her skin is pink and powdery. The wrinkles around her eyes and mouth make her face look delicate and lacy, like a pastry. She smells good, tooâmelony. I'm suddenly filled with tenderness toward Helene. “He'd be lucky to have you, Mom.”
Dishes and silverware clink together in the dining room. Helene looks at me like I've lost my mind. “Izzy,” she says, “honey,” then bites her lip.
Cal breezes into the kitchen with an armful of plates, sets them carefully on the counter. “Ladies,” he says, then goes back out for more.
My mother leans toward me and whispers urgently in my ear. “This whole evening makes a lot more sense now! He'd be lucky to haveyou,sweetheart. Not me.”
My mouth falls open, and the room suddenly feels a little tilted, which, now that I think about it, the real-estate agent might have mentioned. “Helene!” I whisper back, just as fervidly. “He's a hundred and six!”
“Pretty well preserved,” she says, rinsing a cup.
Cal comes back in with the last of the dinner plates, which he sets down gently. My mother's kitchen is warm and small. There is a threadbare pot holder hanging from a metal hook near the sink that saysI LOVE YOU, MOMMY. ISABEL APPLEBAUM, FIRST GRADE.
Cal steps away from us, backs up against the Formica-topped table, puts his hands on a chair. “I have to confess something.” He looks genuinely abashed. He's going to tell us he's married, still married, newly married, and all of my mother's sincere efforts will have been for nothing. Oh, God. What an ass. But how was he supposed to know this was a setup? How could he have known he was a pawn? For the second time this evening, my emotional compass spins and spins.
Helene turns off the water and looks at him expectantly. She's not wearing shoesâshe likes to kick them off under the tableâand her stockinged feet on the kitchen floor look bony and translucent, little foot skeletons.
“I brought dessert,” Cal says. “But I left it in the car.”
“Well, that's nice.” My mother cups her bad hand with her good one, the way she does.
“And it's ice cream.” Cal smiles, twinkly and embarrassed, and I think again how he might have made my mother laugh, and then I wonder about his lips, the way his skin might feel. What his warm hands could do.
And now I'm so confused and unsettled that I hear a strange little mewling chirp, which has come from my own mouth. “I'll go get that ice cream,” I say, “if you give me your keys? Maybe it's not completely melted.”
“I think it probably is.” Cal reaches for his coat, shrugs it on. “I'd like to go out and get more.”
“No need!” My mother opens the freezer and starts rooting around. “I think I might have some in here. Remember last Thanksgiving, when I served that low-fat butter brickle? I don't think I ever finished itâ¦.”
“I'll go with you,” I say to Cal, surprising myself.
“Well, all right. I'll tidy up in here,” my mother says, and as Cal holds the door for me, Helene stays behind, in the kitchen.
If I turn around, I know that I will see her grinning, pleased with herself. And if I look for more than a second, underneath the satisfied smirk I'll see all of the wide-open hope she holds for me, her bottomless desire for my happiness, the way her sorrow mirrors mine. And I am a lot of things, but I'm not a glutton for punishment. So I keep walking. Cal is right behind me; I can feel his footsteps. I don't turn around.Â·Â·Â·
Meehan's Market at night is almost deserted. Its upscale clientele apparently has better things to do than shop for unusual gourmet items at 8:00Â p.m.
In the car on the way over, Hannah sent me a text:can I sleep here 2nite? Lucky is soooo cute i can't be away from him!!!! if U don't let me sleep at chloe's we will have 2 get a dog!!!!!!!!!
“This is it,” Cal says. He takes a pint from the freezer shelf and examines it. “Once you try this, you'll never be able to enjoy any other kind of ice cream.”
“Oh, good,” I say. “I'm always looking for opportunities to stop enjoying the things I once loved.”
Cal hands me the pint. “Hmm,” he says. “You are dark.”
My cheeks heat up. “I know. Chris hates that about me. I'm sorry. It's aâ¦bad habit.” I feel like sticking my face into the ice-cream freezer to cool it off.
Cal takes the pint of ice cream from my hand and points to the label:DEEP CHOCOLATE EXTREME.“This one's phenomenal.” He reaches in and grabs another pint. “I like dark.” He closes the freezer door, and it fogs up.
I turn to look at Cal. We're next to each other, close, so that when I turn my face, he's near enough to examine, near enough to kiss. His eyebrows are wiry. The lines around his eyes that looked distinguished from across the dinner table are just wrinkles up close, worn tracks on his face. His eyes are greenish. On his lower lip there is a small dot, like a freckle, but blue. There is a tiny spot just under his chin that he missed with the razor, less than a centimeter, and the stubble growing there is gray.
He's taking my measure, too. I know it. And he sees the same signs of deterioration, I suppose, if he's inclined to look for them, but better disguised. My skin probably looks pretty good; it usually does. But I used to have thicker eyelashes. Fuller cheeks. An entirely different neck.
We're just marching toward the end: slow steps, fast steps, faster. Probably there is no point in trying to connect. It takes so much effort to let someone in. Maybe there was reason for it ten, twenty years ago; maybe then it made sense to try to drum up a partner for the long journey. But now? It will only end soon, and in heartbreak. It always has; it always does.
“My mother is trying to set us up,” I say.
“How old are you?”
“Are you as nice as you seem?”
“It depends whom you ask.”
“Do you realize that this ice cream is seven dollars and fifty cents a pint?”
“Yes.” He drops the two pints into the green basket he's carrying. “I need bread. Do you mind if we make one quick detour before we check out?”
And no, I don't mind. The light above us flickers, bright and unforgiving. The freezer's fan gives a littlethumpand then hums into action. I'll stay here wandering the empty aisles of Meehan's Market with this kind man for a few more minutes.
Six months after Josie died, Mark decided to move out of his parents' house. He thought they would insist he hold on to his childhood home, but, Mark told me, Mr.Â and Mrs.Â Abrams immediately agreed that he should sell it.
“Of course you have to get rid of the house, sweetheart,” his father said to him over the phone from Florida.
“Of course you do,” his mother echoed. They were each on an extension, elderly Jews in stereo. Mark repeated the entire conversation for me, flawlessly imitating his sweet parents.
“Your good memories will go with you,” Mr.Â Abrams said.
“And the bad ones you can leave behind.” Mark's mother swallowed a gulp of her ever-present Fresca. “Remember Larry Bachman?” she said. Mark was about to tell her he had no idea who Larry Bachman was, but it turned out she was talking to his father anyway.
“Oh, sure. Larry.”
“He sold the condo after Janet died. He got less than he paid for it, remember? But it didn't matter. He had to get out of there. He's dating Marilyn Epsteinandher sister June now!” Mr.Â Abrams laughed appreciatively. “Both of them!” Mrs.Â Abrams repeated.
They were ten years older than Helene, in their early eighties (Mark was their late-in-life miracle, as they frequently reminded him) and living in a retirement community in Boca. They had become experts in the field of loss.
I went to the house on a warm Friday afternoon to help Mark. TheFOR SALEsign was poking out of the front lawn like an unusual species of tree.LAKEVIEW REALTY,it said.EXCLUSIVE HOMES FOR FAMILIES. CALL TRINA COHEN-PUGH FOR SHOWINGS.Trina Cohen-Pugh was the best real-estate agent in suburban Milwaukee. She'd gone to high school with Mark and me, a year ahead of us. She'd been editor of the school paper, the star of the cross-country team, and the president of the debating society; she'd graduated from Northwestern. In high school, everyone thought she'd be the first female president. But who knows, she might have ended up sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office thinking,I wish I were pricing bungalows right now.Anyway, if Trina Cohen-Pugh took you on, you'd be closing within the month.
Mark said once that the weirdest thing about living in your childhood home as an adult was sleeping in your parents' bedroom. You were your parents, he said; not that you felt like them, but that on some molecular level you actually were them, waking up on a Sunday morning in a king-sized bed with the sun coming through the white curtains at exactly the same angle as it did when you were five and would pad in from your bedroom early and quietly slip into the big, safe space in the middle.
Josie took a swig from her beer bottle and snorted. “That's so sweet.” She was slurring a little.Thassosweet.She put her hand on Mark's. “But no way. Noooo way. It's not the sleeping. Let me tell you.” I was looking at Josie, but I could sense Mark next to me, nervous. “The weirdest thing about living in your husband's childhood home as an adult is fucking in his parents' bedroom!” She let out a throaty laugh, and Mark pretended to be fascinated by the edge of his chair.
In the fading light of that Friday afternoon six months after she died, I walked through the front door I'd walked through a thousand times, and everything was familiar to me: the green slate tiles in the entryway. The big silver mirror in the living room. The worn Formica countertops in the bright yellow kitchen. The smell of the house, like coffee and toast and a pot of noodles overboiled in 1981. Layers of years accumulated, one on top of the other.
It was messy, though, disheveled and grimy in a way Josie never would have tolerated. Dishes were piled up in the sink, newspapers scattered on and around the kitchen table. The sofa in the living room was pulled out and made up for sleeping, white sheets and a light blue fleece blanket messily thrown over it. Mark had ended up on the couch the night after the funeral, he said, and he hadn't moved back into their bedroom. That couch was thirty years old at least. There was a deep depression in the middle of it, a canyon, and I could see the outline of bedsprings through an exposed corner of the mattress. It didn't look like a place to sleep. It looked like a punishment.
“Welcome to the House of Usher!” he boomed, throwing his arms wide, as if he'd rehearsed it, and then he hugged me and said, softly, “Thanks for coming, Iz.” I waved him away. “I mean it. There's no way I could have started this without you.” He handed me a beer.
“I know. I'm gladâ¦I mean, you know I wouldn't have let you go through this alone.”
The truth is I had tried sending Chris in my place, but he'd refused. “You have to do it,” he said. “You have to get your head on straight.” He was fed up with me by then; I knew that: the way my sadness was a suit of armor. How securely I kept him out.
“Hey, Happy Yom Kippur,” Mark said. It was our joke, what the non-Jews of Milwaukee had been saying to us since we were kids.Happy Yom Kippur! Have a good one!It was late September, three days until the Day of Atonement, in fact. We were smack in the middle of the Days of Aweâten days of introspection and repentance, and if you're lucky, and you've introspected and repented enough, at the end of it your name gets inscribed in the Book of Life. Although neither of us believes that.
“I'm feeling introspective as hell right now,” Mark said, clinking his beer bottle to mine.
“Me, too,” I said. “And I'm repentant as shit.”
We were blowing hot air. Nonbelievers are the worst. The window is slammed shut, but there's always a crack where the cold air gets in. Anyway, who was I kidding? Helene's history, my historyâit's etched in my soul. I secretly suspect there might actually be a God, and if so, he's mean as a hornet.
We wandered around the house, Mark and I, like clumsy tourists, poking our heads into rooms and closets. We walked through the living room, with the crystal candlesticks Mark had given Josie for their fifth anniversary, the photographs on display of the two of them: in Paris, in front of a tent in northern Wisconsin, on the urban shore of Lake Michigan. I shook my head. “Not here.”
We traipsed up the stairs and past their big bedroom, and we paused at the door of his childhood room, which Josie had converted into her art studio. It was draped with canvas and still full of supplies and tools, buckets of clay and bottles of paint, as if she were just in the middle of an afternoon's work, as if she'd just gone downstairs for a cup of coffee. “Nope,” I said, and obediently he followed me down the hallway to the bathroom. “Here.”
Surely the bathroom was the place to start when you were faced with the task of dismantling your home. Here in this plain, utilitarian roomâwhite tiles, a striped blue shower curtain, a sink, a toiletâwhat ghost could possibly haunt us here?
We got through four things: a half-empty (half-full!sure!) bottle of basil-apricot facial scrub. Two little, mostly used-up containers of HumiditÃ©, an antifrizz serum Josie swore by (although it did not work). A comb. A bottle of Zealexifor, a low-dose antidepressant Josie had begun taking a few years ago. She'd been on one before that called Ebulizor, and before that, briefly, one called Dynamizole, until Zealexifor seemed to do the trick. The names were so goofy and obvious. Their sheer absurdity could cheer you up.
We used to make up our own. We'd send e-mails to each other when we had prep time between classes:Oh, I'm a little down today; I forgot to take my Gladiprene. I'm way too cheerful right now! I need to up my dose of Despairizeme! Despondizac! Hopelesse!
I stood close to Mark in their tiny bathroom and watched as he picked up that little orange pharmacy bottle, then set it back down gently on the shelf and placed his palms flat on the edges of the sink. The sound he made came up from a place inside him no one else was ever meant to know: a howl from his cracked heart. “Oh, my God, Iz. Oh, my God.”
I'd seen him cry before. But not like this. Sorrow contorted his face, pulled and twisted his features with raw force. Time had not mitigated his grief; six months had done nothing to relieve his pain.
I wished Chris were here. I wished he could see Mark's face, could understand how, if you loved Josie, you would never feel better. You wouldn't even want to. “Come on,” I said, putting my hand on my friend's forearm, gently pulling him away.
We ended up at one of our old haunts, a dark, overpriced, self-conscious English pub called the Pig's Knees. There was a statue of a Buckingham Palace guard in the doorway, and a huge television set over the bar that was always tuned to a soccer game. I led Mark to a little booth toward the back of the place. The bartender nodded to us. He'd seen us here in various formations over the years: in twos, threes, fours.
Mark shoved his hand through his hair and immediately began drumming his fingers on the nicked, dark brown table between us. “It's not always this bad,” he said. “You know I'm not always this wrecked.”
“Only ninety-four percent of the time.”
“That's good!” I said. “Six percent unwrecked!”
“Nobody understands,” he said, even though I did; I also understood, fleetingly, that Mark was flourishing in isolation, although negatively, like a poisonous mushroom or a blind cave fish. He swiped at his cheek and blew his nose in a napkin. His face was stubbly, the skin under his eyes dark. The handsomeness of his features was smudged, altered. “There's a schedule to this, apparently. Six months. I'm supposed to be healing by now.” He leaned in. “I am notâ¦healing.”
He was distant from me, lost in the particular way each person goes his or her own kind of crazy: sleepless, obsessive, hungry, crushed.I'm here, too!I wanted to say.I'm sad all the time.But what good would it have done? I just nodded.
“I'm finding some solace in alcohol, though,” he said. “That's an unexpected benefit.”
“Keep up the good work with that,” I said.
His rubbed his eyes, looked down at his hands. “Maybe the worst part is how hard things had been between us,” he said, “before she died. We would have worked through it. I know that. But now it's just this open wound.”
I waved my hand in the air, shooing the whole idea away. I knew how hard it had been. I knew more than Mark. “Of course you would have worked through it,” I said. “Of course you would have.”
“Sometimes when I can't sleep I go to that place near the bowling alley,” he said.
I took a sip of my beer, a thick, brown English swill. It tasted like something dredged from a river. The only places near the bowling alley I could think of were sleazy, gentlemen-only establishments with blinking neon boobs in the windows.“Mark.”
“No, God, Iz, I'm not that far gone. It's just a little Milwaukee dive. I can't sleep, and I get in my car, and I just drive for a while, and then I go there. And I just have one or two drinks. I don't have a death wish.” He winced. “I just go there some nights.”
“You could come over to our house,” I said. “Always. No matter how late it is. You know that, right?”
The Pig's Knees was pretty deserted, but it was never empty. A beefy man in a shiny green soccer shirt was sitting at the bar, watching the game, occasionally pounding his pink fist on the counter and shouting “Oi!” or “Yellow card! Yellow card!” Two women sat at a table a few feet away from us, sharing a greasy plate of something. They were using lots of napkins, pressing them on top of their food, sopping things up.
Mark looked at me for a moment that stretched out too long, like he had just lost his ability to calibrate social interactions. “I need to tell you something.”
A lightning bolt of awkwardness struck me on the top of my scalp and traveled right down my body. I felt my head tingling, my face flushing, my fingers becoming trembly. My body knew before the truth settled over my brain. It was a stage of grief, wasn't it? The inappropriate transfer of affection to your dead wife's married best friend?Oh, no,I thought.No no no no no no.
Chris and I were stuck in a thick and murky swamp of discontent. We talked about separating all the time. You would think that once one person brings up the subject of separation, the marriage train starts to hurtle down that track, unstoppable. But it doesn't; not quite.
He said it first, in the middle of a fight.
“You refuse to understand me!” I yelled, or “You have never understood me!” or perhaps “You only understand my feelings when I'm feeling what you're feeling!” There was a certain refrain to these arguments.
“You take all your crap out on me,” he murmured back, low and dark and growly. Chris never yelled. The angrier he got, the more quietly he spoke, until sometimes, when we were fighting, I would have to ask him to speak up.Wait, sorry, what was that about shellfish?“You take it out on me,” he continued, practically whispering, “and I'm just supposed to stand here and be grateful to be married to someone with so much passion. Lucky me.”
“My best friend is dead!” I wailed. “It's like you forget that!”
And then he looked at me, and icicles formed in the air between us, and he said, “I don't want to do this anymore, Iz.”
“Fine,” I said with a shrug. I didn't want to fight anymore, either.
He shook his head and slumped into a living room chair and if I didn't know better I might have thought he was about to reach for the remote at the end of a long day. “I really don't want to do this anymore.”
“Okay,” I said. “Iheardyou.” And then I understood what he was saying.
There is a peculiar kind of terror you feel when the person you are closest toâfor better or worseâbegins to formulate the idea of a life without you. I could practically see the vision he was creating, right there in front of me, of a life alone in a cozy apartment, of Hannah on the weekends, of girlfriends and baseball games and books and friends. A medium-sized dog. A game of darts at a bar on a Friday night. It actually looked pretty appealing. I felt something pulsing and hard rise up in my throat, and I swallowed.
“No,” I said, squeaky and pitiful. “You don't mean that.” I was a tiny version of myself, the tiniest one, amatryoshkame.
Anything can be said in a marriage; anything can be unsaid. We weren't going to separate. I knew that for certain, and I was wrong.
“I'm sorry,” I said. Fear squeezed my vocal cords into a kinked hose. I almost said,Even though I don't know what I'm sorry for,but I managed to stop myself.
Chris closed his eyes. “Forget it,” he said. “It's okay. Forget it.” I stood there for a while, hovering over him, until it became clear to me that he wasn't going to say anything else, and then I walked into the kitchen to start dinner. I may have been mistaken, but after a while, I thought I heard the soft sound of my husband snoring.Â·Â·Â·
“Listen,” Mark said. “I, uh, asked the bartender at that dive on a dateâ¦a couple months ago.” He looked at me with a twitchy, embarrassed smile. “She's twenty-five. I think her name might be Brandy.”
Relief flowed through me like water. “That's a good name for a bartender.”
“It's not Brandy,” he said. “It's Simone.”
“That's good, too.”
“She said no.” He shrugged, in a resigned, old-mannish way. “She said she doesn't date clients. Isn't that funny? I know she meant customers, but she said clients, like she works at a law firm or something.”
“The bar,” I said.
“Ha.” Mark started drumming his fingers again, then caught himself, stopped abruptly. “She has that kind of face that looks like it was carved from a bar of soap. Like you couldn't imagine her ever having a bad day. Whatever. I was glad she said no. I would have said no to me! Crazy insomniac alcoholic old guy blubbering about his dead wife.”
“Sexy,” I said. The wordsdead wifelingered. The image came to me of the beach a few miles from my parents' old house, where every July, a mass of alewives washed up on Lake Michigan's shore. There were thousands of them, a herring massacre, their tiny, rotting bodies shiny and silver and sparkling in the sun.
“Do you want to know how I asked her out?” He glanced down at the table and touched one of the grooves in the dark wood with his fingertip. He had taken off his wedding ring a few weeks ago; if you looked closely, you could see its ghost, the thin pale line of skin where it had lived. “I said, âUm, you'd never want to get dinner with me sometime.'â”
I laughed. “That's an unusual pickup line,” I said. “Grammatically unusual.”
“She just looked at me like I was the saddest thing she'd ever seen. Like I was an injured bird. Like I was a dead puppy. A sad, drunk, dead puppy.”
“She probably thought you were an emigrant from the Czech Republic.”
Mark nodded. “And/or Slovakia.”
The owner of the Pig's Knees, a guy from Racine who pretended to be British, came over with a basket of fries for us. “Right you are,” he said. “Your chips, mates.” He set it down. “Cheers.”
“It's okay if it's too soon,” I said.
“It's never too soon for chips, mate,” Mark said. He saluted me with a french fry.
One of the women at the nearby table looked over at Mark and smiled. I noticed that she was wearing a thick coat of lip gloss, but then I realized it was probably just the grease. I could see that, despite his failure with Simone, Mark might be very attractive to women now. In public, at least, he wore his sadness like a rumpled shirt. He made you want to come over and fix the collar.
“Iz.” Mark grabbed my hand from across the table. “There's a little more.” He let go of my hand abruptly, left it stranded in the middle of the table, five pale, shipwrecked fingers.
I looked at his face, and I had the sudden memory of something that happened when we were kids, one day after school. It was dusk, one of those Wisconsin midwinter late afternoons when the sky and the snow turn a ghostly lavender for a half hour, and then it's completely dark by 5:00Â p.m. Mark was standing in the front hallway of our house. His mother had just pulled up to collect me and take us to Hebrew school. Mark hadn't rung the doorbell, because I'd seen them driving slowly up the street in their unmistakable old brown station wagon and I'd opened the door while I went to get my coat. They never honked. Mark's mother didn't believe in disturbing the neighbors. (My mother didn't care.)
Mark walked in just as Helene was finishing a sentence. I'd been telling my mother about a new kid who'd moved into the neighborhood, a blond girl named Ellie Krakowski. Ellie and I had been assigned to do a science project together, and I was describing it to Helene. It had something to do with magnets, or maybe gravity; I don't recall, but I remember that I was pretty excited about it. Ellie, I told her, seemed nice. We were in the seventh grade, so I was twelve. I definitely remember that.
“I'm glad you have a new friend, honey,” Helene said from the kitchen as I made my way toward the front closet. She was emptying the dishwasher. Plates and silverware clattered and clanked. “Krakowski,” she said. “Krakowski. Just make sure her family didn't put our family into the ovens.”
She just lobbed it out there, as casually as some parents, I imagined, admonished their children to look both ways before they crossed the street or to bundle up in the cold. With Helene, specific family stories were off-limits, but grim admonitions about gas chambers were perfectly fine. Every time she said something like this, the blood rushed to my face. What kind of family ended up in ovens? Whose mother talked about it like this, like we'd better invest in good running shoes that are easy to tie, because our neighbors were probably coming for us with pitchforks any minute?
I had, until that moment in our foyer, been able to keep this particular habit of Helene's a secret.
Ugh, my parents are so embarrassing,kids were starting to say to one another at school.My dad wears black socks with shorts! The other day at the mall my mom called me “sweetie” in front of all my friends! Ugh, they're so embarrassing!
But really.Make sure her family didn't put our family into the ovens?It was so much more than embarrassing. It was bright and primal, practically alive, something veined and hissing in the attic: a genetic mutation of familial shame and tribal terror. Although I wouldn't have said that then.
I stared at Mark, paralyzed. He stared back. His mouth dropped open a little bit.Into the ovens,I thought. “Um, my mom's baking bread?” I muttered, hoping he would think he'd just misheard, and then I looked down, waiting for the humiliation explosion in the form of Mark's inevitable guffaw.
He pulled off one of his heavy gloves with his teeth, then eased the other one off with his free hand. His puffy nylon jacket squeaked as he moved. “Hey, Iz,” he said. “I've been reading theLord of the Ringstrilogy. It's so cool. It's all I can think about, even when I'm not actually reading. My mom says she called me for breakfast three times this morning and I didn't hear her, I've been so distracted. Come on, let's go.”Â·Â·Â·
The bartender was putting out clean pint glasses. The soccer fan was shouting obscenities. The girls at the table a few feet from us were finishing their oily lunch. Mark and I had more than just memories of Josie in common, more than just the deep puncture wound of her loss. We had loved each other for a long time.
“What is it?” I asked.
“One of the, umâ¦” He stopped talking, took a sip of his beer, and smiled at me.
“Well, that's good to know!” I said.
“No, listen, one of the, one of yourâ¦Andes called me the other day. You know how you and Josie used to call them that? You used to laugh at them?”
Mark always chided Josie and me for making fun of the Andes. He never understood that mocking them was our only defense. “Oh, no, Mark, we weren't laughing. Well, okay, we were. But only because they wereâ”
But Mark wasn't interested in hearing my explanation. “Andi Friedman,” he said. “She called me.”
Andi Friedman was the most purposeful of the Andes, and the one who seemed to have the most differentiated inner life. I could give her that. I'd see her alone sometimes, striding down the hallway in her heels,click-click-click,lost in thought. On Monday mornings, when the three of them would sit together in the lounge and scroll through their phones, sharing photos they had taken over the weekend,Oh, my God, that guy! I know, right? How was I supposed to know he had a girlfriend?Andi Friedman seemed to listen more than the other two, to absorb rather than constantly emit. She sat still. She was not the prettiest or the sparkliest. But if you had to choose which of them to be trapped with in a mountain cabin in a snowstorm, you would probably choose her. Or if you were trapped with all of them for an extended period of time, you'd eat her last. Plus she had not been there with us, on that trip to Lake Kass. Although later, she was just as culpable. She'd had just as much to say as the other two.
“Andi's grandparents and my parents used to go to Beth Shalom together.” Mark was still talking about her. “They knew one another pretty well. Isn't that funny? She was really sweet. She said her grandma told her to call me, but that she had wanted to, ever since Josie died.” Mark fiddled with his glass. His knee had begun to bounce under the table, thumping a dull, repetitive rhythm against the wood.
“Her grandparents and your parents,” I said. I took another sip of my horrible, horrible beer.
Mark grew still, and then he looked at me with pity. There is nothing worse than pity from the pitiful. “We went out for dinner the other night,” he said. “We went to that new Vietnamese place on Brady. We, Iâ¦I don't know, Iz. She wasâ¦nice. She was so nice. It was just good to be out with someone whoâ¦I don't know. It was easy. I like her.” He shrugged, as if that last part were a question. “I like her a lot,” he said.
And there it was, the image of Mark and Andi, a vision I didn't want, but I was having it: Mark's mouth on her bare neck; her smooth, traitorous face flushed with pleasure.
“I don't want to know this,” I said, clipped and furious. “Is this why we're here? Is this why I came to your house, why you cried over Josie's hair-care products? I don't need to know this.” Now I was blind with rage. A bright red scrim appeared in front of my eyes; I thought,Wow, it's not just an expression, you do see red.“I'm so happy for you,” I said. I was out of breath. My tongue was a slab of meat. I tried to slide out of the booth. I wanted to make a swift and elegant exit, but I was so clumsy. Instead of sliding, I scuttled along the bench like a crab,thunk, thunk, thunk,until I was out, until I was standing at the edge of the table. “I'm delighted,” I said, my voice high and loud and embarrassing, the tears already starting to pool up behind my eyes.
“Izzy, don't. Please don't. I'mâ¦this is so hard. You can't feel worse than I do.” Mark put his hands up to his stubbly cheeks and rubbed.
“You know she just wants to save you,” I said. “You know there are women who want to do that. That's all she wants.”
I understood that Mark and I were in a competition I would never win. The betrayal of my dead friend spooled out in front of me like an unraveling skein of yarn, and I had the feeling, right then, of losing something that was already gone.Â·Â·Â·
Cal calls me the morning after our trip to the grocery store for ice cream, our strange and jolly evening with my mother.
“My son tells me there are rules,” he says, by way of hello. “A requisite three-day waiting period before I'm allowed to call you. But I don't think that applies when you're nearly sixty. Time is of the essence!” He laughs to himself, that easy sound I already know I like. “So I'm calling right now to see if you'd like to go out with me. On a date.”
It's Saturday, and too early for this phone call. I'm standing at the stove, listening to the sizzle of pancake batter on the frying pan, waiting for it to bubble. I'm wearing my fuzzy pink robe, my green monkey slippersâthe kind of getup that saysmarried, done trying.
Hannah just got home from her sleepover, grouchy, with dark circles under her eyes and a wild, tired look on her face. She's thumping around upstairs now, music coming through the ceiling.Girl, you look so fine fine fine. Say that you'll be mine mine mine.This is the same song that was playing in the car the other day, the one Hannah asked me to stop singing along to: “Mom. Please. Ew. This song isheinous.”
Come over right now,I want to say to Cal.Can we just skip all of this? Come over.
He walked me home last night, kissed me sweetly on the cheek at my front door in a pool of light. I went inside and I poured myself a glass of grapefruit juice, splashed some vodka into itâChris's, a birthday present from his fatherâand I stood in the middle of the kitchen and I said, out loud, to myself, to an empty house, “Well, Isabel, how do you feel?”
And the answer was stirred. Gently stirred. Pleased to be the object (finally, again) of someone's affection. I was happy, if I let myself admit it, happy for the first time in months, like I was being given a chanceâ¦.And also, if I was being completely honest, I felt a tiny bit like I'd been kissed on the cheek by Dr.Â Carlsson, my old orthodontist, who used to like to talk about the trip to Alaska he and his wife had taken in 1976. He would jabber endlessly about itâthe elk! the moose! the midnight sun!âto his captive audience as he tightened the wires in my mouth, his dexterous fingers working around my canines and bicuspids, his face always so near and intimate, every detail held close for my examination: the spotty brown sun damage on his cheeks, the hairs in his nostrils quivering as he breathed. This is the price you pay for expertise. The rough planes of a lived life. Attraction, repulsion. Cal's kiss was maybe just a little bit like that.
Hannah clomps down the stairs and throws herself into a chair, drops her backpack and Clucky, the rubber chicken she sleeps with, on the floor next to her, and rests her elbows on the table, her face in her hands. Chris will be here soon to pick her up, my poor nomad, itinerant victim of her parents' failure.
“I would like that,” I say to Cal, quietly, the phone tucked between my shoulder and my ear.
“Are you free this afternoon?” he asks. “I have some ideas.”
“Yes.” It's a sweet secret now, a tiny jewel nestled among the lint and old Kleenex in the pocket of my robe. “This afternoon.”
I end the call and set a pancake in the shape of a teddy bear down in front of Hannah, round ears and a slightly misshapen face, into the middle of which I've placed two chocolate chips for eyes, a smiling row of them for a mouth. I know the risk I'm taking and brace myself for a sneer. But she looks at it and grins, delighted. Then she looks up at me and dials back her smile. But it's still there.
“Thanks, Mama,” she mutters. The tender skin under her eyes is so dark it looks bruised. Is she wearing mascara?
I turn back to the stove, busy myself with the pancake batter. Hannah and I are slipping back into the cogs of our Saturday morning routineâa functioning twosome, but still, after all these months, I feel Chris's absence like a presence, an object. It's there in the chair by the window that stays tucked under the table, the gallon of milk in the refrigerator that always ends up going bad before we can finish it, the extra pancake batter.
“I'm starving!” Hannah says, and for a second I envy her hunger, how easy it is, still, when you're almost twelve, just to want something. I make more teddy-bear pancakes, bunnies, snowmen, a fat H. She devours them all.
“Hey.” I slide another one onto her plate. “How was the dog? Lucy? Was she so cute?”
She tips her head up to me, her body still hunched close to her food. Her hair is a tangled mess, and there's a dot of syrup on her chin. She looks a little feral. “NotLucy,” she says. “Lucky. Annoying. Unlucky. Barked all night.”
“So you probably didn't sleep much,” I say.
She glares at me full on. “I didn't sleep at all.” She touches the back of her hand to her chin and wipes off the syrup. “Whatever. I wouldn't have slept anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
Hannah rolls her eyes. I have to stop myself from backing away from my child.
“Do you think Ieversleep? Do you think I, like, lie down at night and just close my eyes and, like, dream about princesses?”
When she was little, four or five, Hannah used to crawl into my lap in the mornings, her hair sticking up in tufts, her little body warm from sleep. She would rest her head on my chest and whisper, “I stayed awake and played in my bedall night! I did not sleep one wink!”
“What do you mean?” I ask again.
“I haven't been sleeping!” she says, the high, frantic voice of my little girl, and she starts to cry. Without warning the tears are just rolling down her cheeks, a flash flood. “I can't sleep! I keep thinking it's likeâ¦dying.” She takes a ragged breath and looks at me like she's drowning, and I'm just standing here, balancing a teddy-bear pancake on a spatula like an idiot, like a clown, doing nothing to save her. “You fall asleep,” she says, “and where do you go? You're gone. It's likeâ¦it's like you're practicing to die!”
Well, okay. I have the urge to cut up this pancake and feed her. Actually I want to chew it up and drop it into her mouth like she's a baby bird. “Sleep,” I say, as gently as I can, “is what every living creature needs.” At least, I think it is. Do ants sleep? Spiders? “It's reallyâ¦Honey, it's the opposite of dying.”
She shakes her head, holds out her hands in front of her to stop me from hugging her. And I wasn't even going to hug her! Because I knew she wouldn't let me. And now I'm just hacking through the underbrush: Why wasn't I going to hug her, anyway? Because I'm so accustomed to her rejections that I've given up? Should I have tried? Are those hands held up in defense just showing me that she needs me even more? My maternal instinct is buried underneath an unexcavated pile of clutter, along with the missing check I wrote for her field trip to the Art Museum and the bike key I lost last year.
“Sweetie,” I say. “You have to sleep.”
She gets up from the table with a clatter of dish and fork and a snort of disgust. “Oh, okay,” she says. Her hair brushes my arm as she breezes past me. “Okay, I'll do that.”
A month or so after Josie died, we took Hannah to a psychologist, naturally. Dr.Â Melody van Kamp was a middle-aged woman whose practice advertised specialties in adolescence and grief counseling and, peripherally, pet therapy, about which I always wondered: With, or for? She met with Hannah alone a few times, and then with Chris and me.
“She's doing really well,” Melody told us. The sun streamed into her cheery office, which smelled like Lysol and was decorated with pictures of dogs, cats, and, oddly, chickens. “She's not hiding anything. Hannah is open about her feelings, and that's marvelous. And she's not defensive, either. A lot of children have their claws out at times like this.” Melody smiled encouragingly at Chris and me. We were perched on opposite ends of a long couch. Chris was studying his thumbnail, and I was trying to catch his eye, because it seemed that Melody van Kamp had confused Hannah with a different child. “Of course, you never know, with adolescents,” Melody continued. “Anything could come up for her at any time. They can seem fine for a long stretch and then go rabid with no warning!” She laughed and gazed out the window. “But that's parenthood, right?”
Luckily, our insurance covered these sessions.Â·Â·Â·
Hannah has gone back up to her room. The doorbell rings: he's right on time. Even this is a new and jarring development, Chris a tentative visitor in what is still, technically, his own home.
“Come in, come in!” I yell, feeling generous. And because he still has a key, he does.
He walks through the house quietly. In the kitchen, he leans toward me for what I think, with surprise, is going to be an uncomfortable kiss, but which he intends to be an uncomfortable hug, so that, after some maneuvering, our shoulders collide, my forehead bumps into his cheek, and then Chris pats my back twice and quickly moves away.
“Awk!” Josie used whisper to me in weird social situations, an echo of what we sometimes write in the margins of students' essays.Awk! Awk!The embarrassed cry of the flightless dodo.
“Hannah will be right down,” I say. “What are your plans?” Before last night, my plans for today were to clean the bathroom, buy some groceries, call my mother, and breathe. I think about Cal, and the amazement of my day opens up before me. With a swoop of my arm, I offer Chris a seat at the table, a pancake. He sits, unsure of what to make of me. I set a plate down in front of him.
When I was in middle school and would come home upset about something, a fight with a friend or a bad grade, Helene used to say to me, “The worst has already happened to us.” It was mortifying, of course, but it was also a perversely comforting sentiment. “The loss of our family,” she would say, “is in our bones.” You could make serious hay with that one. She still trots it out occasionally. I want to explain it to Chris now, although I'm certain he wouldn't understand.I have a date,I would tell him,with an older gentleman. And here is a pancake in the shape of a bunny!
“Life goes on,” Helene sometimes says, “but only if you're lucky.”
“We need to do a few errands.” Chris's knife makes a hideous screech against his plate. “Take Mrs.Â Reinhoffer to the vet.” Mrs.Â Beverly Jean Reinhoffer is our cat, of whom Chris has full custody. I never liked her and was glad to see her go. Over the last few months, the absence of Mrs.Â Reinhoffer has, at times, been my sole consolation. She used to jump onto my lap and dig her claws into my thighs if I tried to move her. Also, she had the habit of finding me, wherever I was in the house, and throwing up. “And I want to pick up that part for the dishwasher. I can try to fix it when I drop Hannah off on Tuesday.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“I know we were just at the vet,” Chris says, “but Mrs.Â Reinhoffer needs shots.”
“Okay.” Does Chris think I care how many times Mrs.Â Reinhoffer sees the vet? I really don't care about that cat. “Oh, listen, by the way.” I slide another pancake onto his plate and pull out a chair for myself. “Hannah has not been sleeping well. She says she's scared to close her eyes. She thinks it's like dying.” Morning sunlight plays across the kitchen table between us, reflects in Hannah's abandoned glass of orange juice. I feel, for a brief moment, proud of this intimate knowledge that I possess about our daughter, something private and delicate and mine. In this endless, silent jockeying for position that neither of us would admit to, I am, for one shiny, ugly moment, on top.
And then Chris looks at me in complete confusion. “I know,” he says. He sits up a little bit straighter in his chair. “I know. This has been going on for weeks. Maybe a month. Howâ¦” His eyebrows are about to skyrocket off of his forehead. “Iz, how did younotknowthis?”
I look down at my monkey slippers. They sneer back at me.Stupid human.“She just told me.”
“We've been listening to a relaxation CD I got from the library. I bought her some lavender oil for her pillow. I was going to talk to you about signing her up for a yoga class at the rec center.”
“Okay, that's great,” I say. “Good. Lavender oil. Excellent.”
“I don'tâ¦” He looks out the window and waits a few seconds. The sleeves of the shirt that I bought for him are pushed up on his arms. The hair that I used to run my hands through needs a trim. “This is kind of a big thing you've missed, Iz. Our daughter is terrified tosleep.”
“Yes,” I say, fidgeting in my chair, the proximity of our bodies still reflecting the harmony of five minutes ago, not the defensive anger that's boiling up now.
Hannah has turned on the music again upstairs. It's a different melody, but a similar bass line thuds down to us, deep and intrusive, the soundtrack to a low-grade panic attack.
“I know that now,” I say. “Is this really the time to rub my face in it? When Hannah needs our help?” I see that I am still holding the spatula. “Good for you, that she's confiding in you. Maybe next time she shares such abig thingwith you, you could let me in on it.”
“Jesus,” Chris says, his voice soft and maddeningly calm. “Uh, I thinkâ”
“What?” Is he asking me to make him more pancakes?
“Your pancakes are burning,” Chris says, gesturing toward the stove with the slightest tip of his chin.
And, yes. They are.Â·Â·Â·
Chris and I met just after I moved back to Milwaukee, fifteen years ago. I was living with my mother and working part-time as a receptionist at the Fraser Feldman Medical Group, where Helene was the office manager. I got the job through sheer nepotism and hung on to it the same way.
The doctors (that's what she called them, reverently:the doctors) loved Helene. She was the smiling face of their practice, efficient and organized and compliant in an old-fashioned,may I bring you some coffee?kind of way. I was less efficient and more bored and incompetent, still trying to get over the shock of adulthood. (My favorite thing to do was to say, when people asked me to validate their parking, “You're excellent at parking!”) But Helene loved having me with her. She introduced me to everyoneâpatients, consultants, drug reps, valetsâwith outsize, wildly misplaced pride.This is my daughter, Isabel. My darling daughter!She would pack us identical lunches or treat me to a bagel and soup at the cafÃ© on the first floor of the building; she'd schedule our breaks together, because she was the office manager, and scheduling breaks was her job. Although I complained about it to MarkâIt's too much! She made me wear her sweater today! I was doing some filing and she complimented me on my alphabetizing skills!âI actually loved working with my mother, basking in her judgment-free love, gossiping about coworkers, stealing gum and M&M's from her purse. Still, I worked on my rÃ©sumÃ© during downtime and was counting the days until I could find a teaching job.
Chris limped in on a sunny Monday morning, the first appointment of the day. (Well, there were no windows in the office, so for all I knew the morning sun had given way to dense fog or a tornado or a dust storm; the Fraser Feldman Medical Group was a climate-controlled pod in the heart of a downtown high-rise.) He had a huge brace on his knee, his wrist was wrapped in an Ace bandage, and a large white piece of cotton gauze was taped over his right eyebrow. He was tall and sexy in a wounded way, my favorite kind. He propped himself up on my desk with one elbow and exhaled, smiled at me, and then winced.
“Wow. What the hell happened to you?” I said.
He laughed, then winced again. “It really hurts to smile.”
“Oh. Psychiatry and Mental Health are down the hall.”
He looked at me, baffled. “No, Iâ¦I have an appointment with Dr.Â Feldman. He's taking out my stitches.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I was just kidding. Because you said, you know, that it hurts to smile, so Iâ¦” I was always doing this, cracking dumb, inscrutable jokes in the presence of handsome men. It was as if I were programmed to alienate, as if somewhere deep down I wanted to be single forever.
“Ha,” the handsome man said, shifting his weight. “My appointment is at nine. Christopher Moore.”
I nodded. The office was empty. My mother was in the back, and the doctors hadn't arrived yet. “Please have a seat,” I said. But Christopher Moore didn't move.
“I was playing basketball,” he said. “I went for a layup and took an elbow right above the eye. I went down like a bag of bricks.” I could tell he wanted me to be impressed.
“That's impressive,” I said. I thought sports were stupid, but I managed not to say that. What I did say, after an awkward silence, was “We're having a special this week, if you happen to also have syphilis. Two for one.” Then my face got so hot I could feel it turning red: a boiled tomato, a roasted pepper, a steamed, dying lobster.
“Noooo,” Chris said, scrunching up the unbandaged side of his face in confusion. “I'm good. Thanks.” Then he walked away slowly toward the rows of empty chairs.
Forty-five minutes later, as I was replaying the whole exchange for the three-hundredth time, Chris hobbled out of Dr.Â Feldman's office and stood in front of me. He cleared his throat. “My syphilis is cured!” he announced. A woman in the waiting area visibly flinched and stared at us. “Would you like to go out with me?”Â·Â·Â·
“Daddy!” Hannah whirls into the kitchen, carrying her pillow, throws it at Chris. “Mama made teddy-bear pancakes. Do you want some? She could make you some!”Let's be a family!
Chris pulls her into a hug and kisses her on her head, and the ease of affection between them feels like shards of glass in my chest. “She already gave me some. They were good. But we have to go, Banana. Mrs.Â Reinhoffer is in the car, and she's probably mad as heck by now.”
“Heck!” Hannah says. “Do you mean hell?” She grabs her backpack and Clucky. “What's she doing in the car?”
“We need to stop at the vet,” Chris says, and I notice he's not meeting anyone's eyes now. “Mrs.Â R is due for her shots.”
“Oh, goody! Annabelle! I love her!”
I slide the burned pancakes into the sink, run the hot pan under cold water just to hear the hiss. “Who's Annabelle?”
“Dr.Â Lundy. Our vet!” Hannah says. “She's so great. We love her. She's going to let me help with some of the animals, she said. Like when they come in for shots, they need someone to just pet them and keep them calm? She said I could come in and do that sometime. Right, Daddy?”
“Yep.” Chris himself looks like he could use some sedation right now. “We've got to go now, Hanners.” He looks at me over her head. “I'll be back Tuesday after school. With the part for the dishwasher. Okay? Bye.”
A few hours later, twenty minutes before Cal is supposed to arrive, I pull my robe tight and sit down with a piece of paper and a pen. I can't do this. I realized it this morning as the front door slammed behind Hannah and Chris, and the smell of burned pancakes lingered in the air. I can't. And so, dear Cal,
I have a cold
I have a cold sore
I have a tapeworm
I have a twelve-year-old
I have issues
I have a little lower back pain
I'm not looking for a relationship right now
I'm looking for a relationship right now
I need to focus on me
I need to focus on cake
I'm a shell of a human being
I'm so self-absorbed that I managed to overlook my daughter's debilitating insomnia
I think my (ex?)-husband might be dating a veterinarian named Annabelle
This will never work, because you're too old and I'm too asshole
I set my pen down and examine the list, cock my head to blur my vision just a little, let the letters skid and slide and transform into their component blue lines and dots and squiggles before my eyes: mysterious, unintelligible.
And then, with my remaining seventeen minutes, I go upstairs, brush my teeth, and get dressed. I even put on a little makeup.Â·Â·Â·
“My mother is eighty-nine,” Cal says in the car on the way to the nursing homeâthe assisted-living facility, as he scrupulously calls it.
“Eighty-nine is the new seventy-four,” I say, meaning it.
“For some people.” Cal taps his horn at the car in front of us, whose driver is lolling at a green light, texting. “But she'sâ¦she's eighty-nine. Anyway, thank you again. This will only take a few minutes, and you really should feel free to wait in the car. This is awkward, and there's no reason for you toâ”
I cut him off by putting my hand on his knee. “Cal, it's fine. I'm happy to come in with you.” He smiles and pats my hand, then moves his back to the steering wheel. “I've always wanted to meet your mother,” I say.
“I know. I'm sorry I've kept you two apart for so long.”
When Cal walked in the door fifteen minutes ago, I could tell something was wrong. I'd come downstairs and was eagerly waiting for him in the living room, even as my own emotions left me with a feeling of psychic whiplash. But I had exorcised my demons, at least for the day, left them impotent on a scrap of paper in the kitchen, and now I was just looking forward to seeing Cal. I even briefly considered seducing him. I had a hunch it would be easy, although I had never actually seduced anyone before.
I invited him in. I thought for a second that he'd been here last night, but then I remembered we'd said goodbye outside. We walked into the living room. There were things I hadn't noticed just a few minutes ago: a bowl of soggy cereal on the side table next to the couch, a pair of Hannah's socks in a ball next to the TV. The afternoon sunlight cast a theatrical beam on a tumbleweed-sized clump of dust in the corner. “My house needs a little attention,” I said. “Don't look at anything too closely.”Including me.
“Okay,” he said. He sat down on the edge of my favorite chair and stared at his feet, sighed softly, then looked up at me with big, sad, regret-filled eyes.
Shit,I thought.So soon.Such a quick turnaround from this morning. I sympathized, though, even as I felt stung; after all, I'd composed that list. What would his excuse be?I don't want a woman who's sixteen years younger than I am; I want one who'sthirtyyears younger? I'm not looking for anyone quite so still-married?Well, I wasn't going to let him be the one to end thisâ¦whatever it wasâ¦first. I'd salvage a scrap of dignity from the wreckage.
“Um, Cal,” I said, a little shakily. “I'm so sorry, but I'm not really up forâ”
“Isabel.” He cut me off. “I spoke with my mother this morning.” He paused and glanced around the room as if he were just realizing where he was. “She's elderly. Obviously.” He smiled, or possibly winced. “We speak every morning. Today she seemedâ¦well, she wasn't herself. She seemed a bit disoriented, or maybe just unusually sad. I tried to convince myself that she was fine and that you and I could still spend the day together. But I'm afraid I do need to go check on her.”
My system flooded with a relief-shame cocktail. I took a breath, delighted that I wasn't being rejected, then quickly adjusted my face into a sympathetic frown. “It's okay,” I said. “Of course! Some other time!”
Cal shook his head no and said, “Yes,” as if he'd suddenly confused assent with negation. He was troubled, flustered, the opposite of the calm and assured man he'd been the other two times I'd met him. The sands shifted; my perception of him altered in ways I couldn't figure. I felt my chest click open one tiny notch. And then I offered to come along.Â·Â·Â·
My hand is still on his knee in the car, which I realize, too late, was a poorly planned gesture. What will I do, just keep it here until we get to the nursing home? In fact, I have no idea where we're going. What if it's forty-five minutes away? What if it's in Detroit? Maybe I'll just leave my hand here forever, deadweight, heavy and growing increasingly sweaty, on Cal's sharp knee. Finally, desperate, I snatch it away, pretend to cough and cover my mouth.
After a few minutes of silence, during which I contemplate what a mistake it is for me to ever leave the house, we finally pull into the parking structure of Lutheran Manor, Assisted Living for Seniors.
“We have arrived atLyootheran Manor!” I announce in an English accent, and luckily Cal laughs. It's a beige, defiantly bland rectangle of a building, pocked with tiny windows. If you didn't know better, the Manor could be a plain old apartment building built in the 1960s, a brick-and-concrete fortress against whimsy.
We drive down into the bowels of the parking structure. “The Manor is very charming, isn't it?” Cal says, as he pulls into a space next to a pillar.
Cal walks around the car and opens the door for me, just like nobody ever used to do. “This will be more fun,” he says, “than a colonoscopy.”Â·Â·Â·
Chris introduced me to his parents for the first time on his mother's sixtieth birthday. Chris and I were newly in love, and my heart was wide-open. His parents were hosting a party at their country club. When we arrived, the champagne had been flowing for quite a while.
“Isabel!” Chris's mother flung her bony arms around me. “Isabel Applebaum! Christopher has told us sooooooo much about you.” As a result of vigilant, military-style maintenance and the diet of a squirrel in February, Ginny Moore is the size of a sapling. Her hug was like being poked by the spokes of a broken umbrella. “Your name sounds like a poem! IZZZZabellll APPLEbaum!” She trilled it.“It's dactylic!”she whispered, and kissed me on the cheek with an actualmwaaah,then moved on to hug Chris, who looked like he was being asked for directions to Neptune.
Chris's father, a tall, graceful man with a crinkly Robert Redford grin, handed me a party hat and blew a festive paper horn in my face.
I laughed and looked around the Lakeshore Country Club party room, at the sprays of white roses and lavender irises and the beautiful tables and the slim, bejeweled ladies draped lightly on the arms of their portly men, and I felt weightless, free. These were people who drank champagne and told stories about golfing. Did they carry burdens? Probably. But did those burdens involve the lingering, inherited terror of imminent loss? I felt certain they did not.
Chris had told me that his parents were snobbish and reserved, inaccessible, emotionally hobbled by their devotion to complicated rules of propriety. But none of that restraint was in evidence at Ginny's party. Chris's mother touched my arm, and his father brought me a glass of white wine, and I could practically see our loving connection arcing across the divide.That Isabel,they would say to Chris later.She's one of us!That was the moment I decided that if Chris and I got married, I would take his name. It wasn't that I thought that changing my last name would erase the murky, old-world echoes of disruption and loss; I wasn't deluded. It was the sound of it, the way it seemed that Chris's last name could round out my edges, smooth me down to a polished gem. Isabel Moore. I was through being dactylic.
But Chris was right, of course. That day was just a tipsy aberration. As it turns out, Ginny and Edward Moore might as well be extras from the cast ofOrdinary People.They skulk about their well-appointed home in suburban Chicago in brooding silence. You can go a whole weekend with them, and the only sounds you'll hear are the wingbeats of magazine pages and the clink of ice in their glasses.
In the fifteen years since that party, the most effusive I've ever seen Ed and Ginny was when Chris and I told them we were getting married. We were staying with them over Memorial Day weekend and had just finished a very light lunch on their deck. I was fantasizing about bread when Chris broke the news.
“Ah, well done,” Ed said quietly, and popped out of his seat to get a bottle of champagne, while Ginny raised her wineglass and said, “Hear, hear!” Later that day I overheard Ginny stage-whisper to Chris, “It's just that we always pictured you with someone moreâ¦athletic.”
All of this slides through me now, a decade and a half of ambivalent connection to Chris's family, the pinpricks and knife wounds that eventually became, through some benevolent, gravitational pull, hilarious: How Ed wandered away in the middle of toasting us at our wedding. That they sent Hannah a fruit basket for her fifth birthday. How Ginny insists on things about me that aren't true:You don't like the theater! You're allergic to mascara! You never eat cheese at night!These stories, repeated, were threads that wove Chris and me together.
The thought of having to accumulate a new history with someone makes me feel uneven, as if my legs are two different lengths. I take a deep breath of stale air and steady myself for a second against a Honda Civic. Just when I think I've dug down as far as I can go, a new layer appears, silty sediment underneath the rock.
“I should tell you something about my mother,” Cal says, pressing the elevator button in the parking garage. “She'sâ¦opinionated.”
I picture a frail old lady in a magenta tracksuit, ranting about the Democrats. “Noted,” I say. “I promise not to start a kerfuffle with her.”
Cal doesn't bounce anything back to me. He just nods, and I feel foolish and a little chastised. How is it that, at forty-three, I still can't read the room? We're inside the overheated building now, walking down a carpeted hallway that smells like macaroni and disinfectant. It's long and wide, with rubber bumpers on the sides, like a bowling alley at a child's birthday party. I have the urge to stop in my tracks and pivot, to head straight back down the hall and out the broad, pneumatic door through which we entered.
But Cal reaches for my hand instead. “ââOpinionated' may be the wrong word, actually. She'sâ¦she can be kind of hateful. I probably should have warned you earlier, but honestly, I didn't think you'd need to know quite so soon.”
We pass the dining room, empty; the TV room, where seven or eight people sit in wheelchairs in front of a game show; and the recreation lounge, which is decorated to the hilt with blue and green streamers and balloons and a huge banner strung across the wall,HAPPY 95TH BIRTHDAY, BETTY!The lounge, like the dining room, is completely empty, a ghost ship.
We take the elevator up to the fourth floor, where, Cal explains, the more independent residents live in small apartments until they're unable to live on their own. It's like the day-care center Hannah went to when she was two: children progressed from classroom to classroom as they got older, from the Bunny Room to the Dolphin Room to the Penguin Room. This is just like that, except not at all.
Cal drops my hand in front of apartment 447 and knocks, more of an alert than a question, since he has his key in the lock before his mother has a chance to sayCome inorDon't.He turns to me, raises his eyebrows, and smiles in a way that reminds me of the look on Hannah's face at last year's spelling bee, right before she started to spell “psychology” with ac.
Vivian Abbott is sitting in her small, warm living room in a blue armchair, her back to us, staring out the window, as if she had been sent from central casting: Old Woman, Waiting. There is an intermittent clicking noise that I at first attribute to the heating system. As it turns out, she's staring not at the scenery but at her computer screen, typing.
“Goddammit,” she says, turning to us. “I was in the middle of a sentence.” She holds up a hand and waves to us. “Cal, what are you doing here?”
“Hi, Mom.” He walks over to her, leans down, and kisses her on the cheek. “You sounded a little funny when we spoke this morning. I wanted to come check on you.”
“You're a good boy,” she says. “And you always have been.” She sets her computer down on the table next to the chair, then stands and pulls her lavender cardigan around herself. Even here, aged and frail in the independent-living unit of Lutheran Manor, Vivian Abbott is a beauty. Her eyes are bright blue and clearly appraising as she looks me up and down. Her skin is pale and delicately lined, softening her fine, sharp features. I wouldn't have guessed how old she is. She looks slightly younger than Cal.
“Hello, darling,” she says to me. Then, to Cal, “Is she Michael's friend?”
“No,” Cal says. “Isabel is my friend.”
“My goodness,” Vivian says.
I walk over to her, and she takes my hand in hers. Her palm is dry and papery. With her left hand, she pats my upper arm. I want to hug her. How can Cal say she's hateful? I guess we just cling to our old misunderstandings, those early injuries.
“You have very unusual features,” Vivian says, squeezing my hand. “Such thick hair and dark eyes. Are you a Turk?”
“Mom. Isabel is not a Turk.”
“Are you sure?” she asks me. “I'm sorry, but I don't trust Turks. I had a cleaning lady who was Turkish. I don't need to tell you what happened there. Well, I don't trust Spaniards, either, for that matter, so I can't be a bigot, even though Cal says I am.” She smiles sweetly. “I'm just happy to hear you're not a Turk.”
“Oh, Mom,” Cal says. “And I'm just happy you're feeling okay.”
“I certainly am.” She winks at me, and I wink back. “You are darling. I can see why Michael likes you.”
“We brought you some cookies,” Cal says, handing her a bag I hadn't noticed he'd been carrying.
“Pecan Sandies. My favorite! How is Michael?” she asks me.
“He's fine, Mom. He's in San Francisco, remember?”
“Of course I remember! He's out there working for that Internet security company. We Skyped last week. He looked so handsome. I'm just wondering if you've spoken to himsincethen.” She waves her hand dismissively at Cal and clucks her tongue. “Elizabeth,” she says to me, “my son brought you all the way out here just to show you that I'm not in full possession of my faculties. Well, I am.”
“Mom,” Cal says. “That's not whyâ¦”
She waves him away again and will now make eye contact only with me. “We'll enjoy these cookies. Pecan Sandies, my favorite. Would you be so kind as to go into the kitchen and get me my sterling-silver serving platter? It's in the cupboard over the sink. I would do it myself, but I might get lost on my way back from the kitchen.” She puts her hands on her hips and juts out her chin imperiously, like a much-younger woman, then, exhausted by all the effort, eases herself back down into her armchair.
In the cupboard over the sink there are three plastic cups, a butter knife, and a bottle of antacid. I'm searching the rest of the spotless kitchen, quietly, for the serving plate, when I overhear Mrs.Â Abbott say, “If not a Turk, then what? Sicilian?”
“No, Mom, she's Irish,” Cal says loudly, for my benefit.“Black Irish.”
This is the weirdest situation I've ever been in, including the time a squirrel tried to climb up my leg in the park.
“Oh, I know black Irish,” Vivian says, “and she's not that. She's has lovely skin, though.”
I feel a little puff of pride. I do have lovely skin! This is why you go on a date with a man who is almost twenty years older than you are: so that his elderly mother will compliment you behind your back.
“She's a little heavy in the hips, though. Pretty enough, but nottoopretty,” she continues. “That's important. Catherine, you'll forgive me for saying, was too pretty. Too pretty for you, too pretty for her own good.”
“Mom, please, shush.”
“What? A plain Jane will treat you better!” She's practically shouting now. “It's common knowledge, Calvin.”
“I don't think I've ever had a Pecan Sandy before,” I announce, carrying out a large green plastic plate shaped like a Christmas tree. “This was all I could find. Sorry.” In fact, I did find the silver platter she was looking for. But it was too pretty! Ha!
Cal looks at me like we're both disappointed fans of the losing team. I wink at him.
I sit down and bite into a cookie. “They are well named.”
“Is it the taste, or the grainy texture?” Cal says.
I make a face at him, try to make it look like I'm eating sand and also that I forgive him.
“Well, as long as you're here, I'll tell you,” Vivian says with a sigh as she reaches for a Sandy. “Marie over in four fifteen had a stroke, and they moved her down to the first floor. She's a young one, too. Seventy-nine.”
“I'm sorry,” I say. “Is she a friend of yours?”
“That's not the point, is it?” Vivian snaps. “And no.”
It goes on like this for a while; hours, possibly, although according to the clock only twenty-three minutes. Addie Warner in 445 took a fall the other day and did not report it to the nurses, can you imagine? Was it really a Mennonite holiday last week, or were Mr.Â and Mrs.Â Messerschmitt across the hall angling for special treatment from the staff?
Finally Cal stands up. “Mom, thanks for the visit, and I'm glad you're okay,” he says. “I will see you on Saturday. I have to go now.” For an awful moment I think he's leaving me here. Then, for the second time today, he reaches for my hand, pulls me up. “Isabel and I have something arranged for this afternoon.”
Mrs.Â Abbott looks up at her son. Her face is as open and vulnerable as a baby's, her pale lips slightly open, her eyes bereft.Don't leave me,don't leave me.She might as well be saying it out loud; her gaze is so naked and pleading that I have to look away. All I want right now is to leave this too-warm apartment, this old woman who has nothing to do with me, her sour, calcified, aching need. My hand is in Cal's as if it belongs there. I am the opposite magnet pulling him away, going, going.
“I'll be back on Saturday,” Cal says again.
Vivian Abbott's expression hardens. Still sitting in her blue armchair, she runs a bony hand down her pants, swooshes off cookie crumbs, pats down her hair. “Well. Fine. Knock before you come in,” she says. “And next time wait for an answer.”
I didn't think of them as babies. They weren't. They were pieces of me, though: secrets, sweet hazy dreams, the thrumming anticipation of surprises. I guarded them tenderly, selfishly, and so when they were gone I grieved them like amputations, silent deaths, down, down, deep at the center of me.
After two of them, we got Hannah, warm and fat and loud, throbbing with life, oblivious to its alternative, but then, a couple years later, another one lost, and then another one almost two years ago, and by the end of it, for sure, a part of me was broken, just shattered, gone.
When I called my mother after the last one, she said, “I always hoped that maybe, after everything that happened, we would be spared.”
“Ridiculous,” I said, sobbing. “Say something useful. Make me feel better.”
“I wish I could,” she said.
Chris held me and said, “We can try againâ¦if you want to,” and that was sort of helpful, but I felt almost as sorry for him as I did for myself, at least partly because procreational sex with an anxious, grieving woman is a pretty dismal affair. There are frequently, for example, tears, and I don't know for sure, but I don't think you can mistake those little half-suppressed sobs for moans of pleasure no matter how badly you want to.
Mark said, “Oh, man. Oh, wow. I'm so sorry, Iz. I'm really sorry.” There was a long pause, and then, “Here, let me go get Josie. Here, here she is. Here's Jose.” And that was helpful, because he got Josie.
Josie said, “I'll get you drunk,” and that was the most helpful of all.
We met at Heinrich von Raaschke's. It was Oktoberfest. For some reason we thought this would be a good idea. It was unseasonably warm, and you could sit outside in the Bierhaus's biergarten, which was cozy and strung with lights and smelled like apple cider.
“I love the way everything's agartenin German,” I said, pulling my chair out and sitting down. “Biergarten, kindergarten.”
“I think the two should be combined,” Josie said, “into a kindergarten where beer is served.”
“Or a beer garden where children are served.”
“You mean like children are served alcohol,” Josie said, “or children are served as food?”
“Yes.” She unfolded her napkin and glanced around for the waitress. “Everyone knows five-year-olds make the tenderest cuts of meat.”
“Their little thighs and their butts,” I said, thinking of Hannah, who was already in fifth grade. And then, without warning, I started to tear up.
“Oh,” Josie said. “Oh, Izzy.”
I squared my shoulders and waved away her sympathy. “It's all right,” I said. “I'm just crying because when you eat a five-year-old, the portions are so small.”
Josie nodded. “And it's like, do you order two, or do you just order one ten-year-old?”
I blew my nose in my napkin. Noises rose up from the people around usâboisterous laughter, glasses clinking, silverware scraping. “I'm so sad,” I said.
This was the thing about Josie and me, how we understood each other: goofy jokes skating on the surface and the truth of what lay underneath, the complicated architecture of it all. It was how we loved each other.
“Goddamn,” she said. “Where is Katie?” She was our favorite waitress. And we had been coming here for so long that we not only knew the servers, we knew which sections of the restaurant they worked. When the biergarten was open, Katie had the back half, Leni the front.
“Here I am, ladies!” Katie waddled up to our table. It had been a while since our last visit: she was hugely pregnant.
“Oh, my God,” Josie said.
Katie laughed and crossed her arms over her chest. “I guess I haven't seen you two in a few months. But don't worry, I won't go into labor until after I bring you your drinks.” She paused for dramatic effect, then leaned down conspiratorially. “I'm actually only six months along. It's twins!”
“Congratulations,” I said, and smiled like my face was being pulled apart. I'd been through this before. After my first miscarriage, I saw a pregnant woman sitting on a bench eating a sandwich, and I burst into tears. After that, except for work, I didn't leave my house for a week. But you can't live that way. So I taught myself how to fake itâsmile, smile, smileâand it turned out not to be that hard. Practice makes perfect.
“Don't you alreadyhavetwo kids?” Josie asked, aghast, and I loved her.
“Yep, sure do.” Katie rolled her eyes. “Fertile Myrtle, that's me.”
I swiped at my face with my napkin and looked away.
Josie stood up then and swooped around to my side of the table so fast the silverware rattled. “Oh, my God, I'm so sorry! I just realized I forgot something at home. I forgot my, um, my stuffâ¦that I need. We have to leave! Is that okay with you, Iz? Do you mind? Can we go? I'm sorry, Katie.” I nodded and stood, ready to bolt.
Katie was already calmly clearing our water glasses. “Oh, gosh, don't worry about it,” she said, a little distracted, holding the glasses with plump, swollen fingers, efficiently moving on to her next table, because this was her job, and no matter how much she liked us, paying customers were the ones who tipped. “Come back soon!” she called. She blew a stray hair away from her face. “Come back before these darn babies are born!”
I walked quickly, ahead of Josie, through the biergarten and around the building to the parking lot, where our cars were parked next to each other. The early October evening was humid, almost tropical; in a couple of weeks, the autumn cold would move in, icy and dank, and these last warm gasps would be a memory.
Josie steadied me with both hands on my shoulders and stared at my face like a lover. “Crap on a cracker,” she said.
“It's fine,” I said. “I'm fine.”
“That pregnant bitch,” she whispered.
“I know! So rude, how she flaunts it.”
“Let's go for a drive,” she said. “My car.”
Josie was always good at navigating, compensating for my innate directional inability. She drove everywhere, unless we didn't care if we got lost. The compromise, though, was that she got to make the rules. “Where should we go?” she asked, and turned left out of the parking lot without waiting for me to answer.
“Why don't we go to the maternity ward at St.Â Luke's and admire some newborns,” I said. “Or let's see what's going on at the Mommy and Me class at Gymboree.”
“Hmmm,” Josie said, pretending to consider my suggestions. “No. Let's do something illegal!” She slapped her palm on the steering wheel.
I turned to her. My whole life, anytime anyone suggested doing something even slightly dangerousâgoing for a ride on the back of a motorcycle, swimming in a lake with no lifeguard on duty, taking a particularly large bite of somethingâI would hear my mother's voice:You're my life.Helene staked her claim against the risk takers, the gamblers, the brave.We don't do that,she would say.Please never do that.
And then came Hannah, and I understood. I was so risk averse when she was a baby that some days just crossing the street with her in my arms seemed fraught with peril. “Jose, you know I don'tâ”
“I'm kidding, I'm kidding,” Josie said. “I know you don't. And I know where I'm taking you.”
She drove through downtown, veering east along mostly deserted streets that were familiar but nevertheless confounding to me. I relaxed against the back of the seat and let her drive. An empty plastic cup rolled around on the floor at my feet. Josie's car was the manifestation of her id: a familiar mix of candy-bar wrappers and packs of spearmint gum and empty Diet Pepsi cans and napkins, a few stray student papers, and a medium-sized purple stuffed mouse and a small stack of art magazines in the backseat. It smelled like her, coconut shampoo and vanilla oil, sugary, a little burned. I had been with her when she bought this car, years earlier, almost new. The end of it was just a few months away.
We drove for about twenty minutes in relative silence, the kind of peaceful quiet you don't really note as unusual until it's pointed out to youâhow rare and peculiar it is to feel comfortably alone without being alone. I thought about Hannah, home with Chris. It was nine o'clock. She was almost eleven years old, but she still liked to fall asleep in our bed, and then, hours later, one of us would carry her to her own bed. Sometimes she would wake up just enough to mutter somethingâMomorThirstyorWhere's Clucky?âbut mostly she would just stay asleep, slumped over and heavy on Chris's shoulder or mine.
By the time I focused on where we were going, we were there.
She had taken me through the city and out of it, into the dark heart of the suburbs. We were coasting down one of the beachfront lanes in Porcupine Bluff, a wealthy enclave. This was a private road;NO TRESPASSINGsigns were posted all the way down the dark hill toward the lake. Weweredoing something illegal! She parked on a little promontory overlooking the water, sandwiched between anotherNO TRESPASSINGsign and aNO PARKINGone.
“Jose!” I said.
“Come on, you love it here.”
I did. We'd been coming here for years, although less often recently. Technically, you could get ticketed just for being here, but the suburban police force was an inconsistent entity. Some nights they would be out in force, lights flashing, sirens blipping, power mad and bored, with nothing better to do than order a couple of giggling women off the rocks. Other nights you could roam the wild, dark, deserted beach and feel like you were somewhere else completelyâthe rocky coast of Maine, or Mars.
We got out of the car and scrambled down the gradual slope to the sand. Once we were underneath the rocky outcrop, there was a little stretch of sand where we were invisible to anyone walking or driving by on the road above. Other people must have known about this spot, and theNO TRESPASSINGsigns seemed like they would be catnip to teenagers. But this beach was rare and untouched, the sand blown smooth and perfect. We'd never seen anyone down here besides the occasional jogger or dog walker.
Josie stood a few feet from me, staring out at the calm water. “How can this be private property?” she said. “How can twenty or thirty suburban homeowners claim this beach? Is Lake Michigan theirs, too?” She spread her skinny arms out wide as if she were reclaiming the land for all of humanity.
I shrugged. The moon was tiny and dim behind hazy clouds. The night sky, muted by those clouds, was a dirty shade of pewter. The waves thwapped against the shore, water and earth perennially fading into each other.
“We should take the kids on a field trip here,” Josie went on, riling herself up. “Oh, my God, Iz. How about that? An illegal field trip!”
It was hard to know when she was kidding about a thing like this. The Claire Whitley incident at Lake Kass was long past. Josie never wanted to talk about itânot onceâand so, eventually, I had stopped trying. But it had peeled away a fine layer of her, and what was underneath was a little strange and raw. Three or four of my students had come to me just since the start of the school year with reports of Josie's off-the-wall comments. “Don't listen to every single thing your parents tell you,” she had said a few times, and, “Learn it for the test, you guys, and then go ahead and forget it. You will never need to know the history of the cotton gin.”
“I think that's a fine idea,” I said. “Maybe we could take them to a bar after, and buy them cigarettes and condoms.”
She laughed, an appreciative littleheh,and shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans.
I slipped off my shoes and walked to the edge of the lake. Josie followed. The freezing water lapped up onto our feet. Josie yelped and jumped back, but I liked the shock of it, the icy pain and then the bone ache, the way it pinned your focus. I moved back only when I couldn't stand it anymore. And then we stood there, just quiet again in the soft darkness, for a few minutes.
“No more babies for me,” I said. I hadn't even known I was thinking it until the words came out of my mouth. But I heard the truth of themâthat it didn't matter if Chris and I tried or didn't, if I kept on wanting or just stopped, raged against the unfairness of the universe or managed to find peace. This was finally the end of it. I felt a wave of sadness rise in me, flood my lungs, and I squeezed my eyes shut to it. I let it have me. I was done.
“Hannahâ¦is spectacular,” Josie said.
“I know it,” I said. I wasn't even thinking about Hannah. I was thinking about how I had been pregnant four days ago. A Monday. I was thinking about how you could wake up in the morning in one place and then go to sleep that same night somewhere else. It was like traveling to another continent.
“Do you want to know something?” Josie said.
“It has nothing to do with this. Is that okay?”
It was windy this close to the water but still warm, wetly cloying and a little fishy. It felt like we were being breathed on by an enormous dog. Josie pulled an elastic band from her pocket and gathered her hair into it. “I'm not telling you this so you can fix it, or to distract you from what you're going through.” She looked at me. I nodded. “This is just something I've wanted to say for a while. Okay?”
With her hair pulled back, her face looked small, childlike. I nodded again. Was Josie going to tell me she was pregnant? She and Mark had never wanted children, but these things happened. Was this what she had to confess? I wrapped my arms around myself, my lonely body. Smile, smile, smile.
“Sometimes I thinkâ¦sometimes I feel pretty sure that Mark and I aren't going to stay together.” She spoke quickly, then bent and picked up a small stone and chucked it into the water.
I thought,What?and, on its heels,Oh, of course.Miscarriage, mismarriage. Nothing stays. I released a breath I hadn't realized I was holding. “I don't get it,” I said.
“It's not that I don't love him. I mean, of course I do. Of course I love Mark. Who doesn't love Mark? But sometimes I feel like I'm not meant to stay married to him.” Josie started walking, still barefoot, down the shore. I fell in next to her. “I don't even know,” she said. She hadn't rolled up her jeans against the water, and the bottoms were wet, indigo. “There's nothing keeping us together, you know, the way you and Chris have Hannah. And some mornings I wake up and he's still sleeping, and he's snoring, or whateverâ¦I can smell his breath, or his hair is greasy, or he rolls over and farts in his sleep.” She laughed, shuddered. “It's all so disgusting! People! Are so disgusting! I know it's not just him. But I think, I don't want to be awitnessto this, you know? I don't want to spend my days next to someone justâ¦charting the decay.”
“Wow,” I said. “Tell me how you really feel.” We were nearing the end of the beachfront before it angled up sharply to the road, where we would turn back.
“I know. It's justâ¦do you remember Teachers' Convention last fall?”
She knew I did. Teachers' Convention was the highlight of our year. A few weeks into every fall semester, we went to Madison for two long days of keynotes and focus groups and breakout sessions about everything from how to teach math to girls and how to keep at-risk boys from dropping out of high school to Integrating Drumming into the Teaching of Algebra and Curses, Cursive! and Grammar: Whom Needs It? Some of it was interesting, even enjoyableâ¦but that wasn't why we attended Teachers' Convention. We went for the nights.
When I was growing up, I figured that my teachers existed solely to expand our young minds. Maybe they had interests outside of schoolâspouses or families or, more likely, catsâbut if they had lives, they lived them, I presumed, in a minor key. Their nonschool hours were just filler, a place to sleep and maybe a microwaved meal for one until theyâdedicated altruists, all of themâcould bound back into the classroom where they truly belonged. If you'd shown me photos of Teachers' Convention when I was a kid, I would have gone hysterically blind.
Those two nights in October were an orgy of raucous complaining and drunken revelry, foul-mouthed ranting, sloppy flirting, and hilarious, alcohol-fueled gossip marathons. Transgressive desires that lay dormant during the school year surfaced during those two nights. For the unattached or the ethically unbothered, those desires were made literal, although the women outnumbered the men, so there was an extra buzzy, competitive edge to it. Teachers' Convention was a massive steam-vent, a wild party, and we giggled over the memories of it until June.
“Do you remember that social studies teacher we hung out with?” Josie continued. “Alex Cortez?”
Midmorning on the first day of the convention, Josie had gone to a session on current events, while I debated the finer points of close literary analysis with six elderly fussbudgets, three of whom sported what we called the Wisconsin perm. I'd come out flushed with a clearer understanding of how the BrontÃ«s used weather, and Josie had come out with Alex.
We all had falafels together on State Street. I accidentally dropped one on the sidewalk. Alex was a handsome, married high-school social studies teacher from Middleton whose wife was an environmental lawyer specializing in lawsuits against windmills, and until this moment on the beach, that was the last time I'd thought about him.
“Well, we struck up a sort ofâ¦friendship,” Josie said, a little dreamily. “An e-mail thing, just back and forth, the two of us. A lot of back and forth. A lot.”
We were standing at the edge of the beach now. The wind was picking up a little, blowing away the night clouds. Solid darkness had settled in. The moon was higher and fatter. Josie was barreling through this confession. I knew not to interrupt.
“We kissed once. And believe me, I feel terrible about that! But it was just a kiss. That's all. It was nothing.” She looked down. Her lips twitched in a secret little smile she could barely contain. She was lying. “We talk about everything, though. That's what's amazing. Loriâhis wifeâwas pregnant when we met, remember?” I didn't. “And they were thinking about moving to Madison, they were tossing the idea around, and Alex was really decisive about it. One day they were thinking about moving, and then, a few weeks later, they moved. I mean, can you imagine Mark doing that? First he'd have to spend two months making a flowchart of all the pros and cons of moving. Then he'd have to spend another month researching moving companies.” Right before my eyes, Josie was molding Mark's talents and quirks, the imperfections and habits that made him Mark, into her own unappealing little sculpture. It was like I was watching her work. “Well, I mean, nothing happened,” she said again, to the lake. “But, Iz, I think something could. If we lived in the same city. If we let it. There's just this energy between us. Alex is so different from Mark. He's, like, bold and eager and straightforward. He's the anti-Mark.” She looked at me, her eyes bright. “And he paints! In his spare time. Which of course he doesn't have that much of, since the baby was born. And he has two older girls, too, Maya and Elena, so his work's cut out for him! But he's a painter. An artist!”
I turned slightly away from Josie; I couldn't keep her gaze. I clasped my hands in front of me like I was praying. I had the unaccountable feeling that all the days of my life were like the pages of a book fluttering away from me in the breeze, that I was blank, without history.
Was this how easily the ties of a marriage could be loosened? I didn't adore Chris every day. I didn't! Sometimes I looked at him and saw nothing more than a random collection of disgusting habits and dirty socks. The way he slurped his cereal. The dry spit on the corners of his mouth when he woke up. How he cringed when I got angry or upset, as if all emotions aside from gentle amusement and mild annoyance scared him. Sometimes he was unfamiliar to me, alien, a strange choice made by someone who used to be me.
Josie rocked a little on her feet. “Would you say something, please? This is really embarrassing. I'm suddenly really embarrassed.”
I had the thought that, if Josie and Mark split up, I would be one of those friends who took sides, who discarded one for the other. And I would take Mark's side. I would be a terribly loyal friend, I realized suddenly, to Mark. I squinted against the wind, against my rising fury. “This is so fucked up,” I said to Josie, and then regretted it a little, but not completely.
She gasped. “Oh. Yeah, okay. I'm sorry, Iz. I'm sorry I said anything. I'm an idiot.” She glanced at my belly, then quickly looked away and shook her head. Her ponytail bounced like a cheerleader's. “I'm really sorry.” Her voice was small and sad. “My timing sucks.” She jammed her hands into her pockets again and started walking. “We should get going, huh? Let's go.”
I waited for a few seconds, let her move several paces ahead of me. It didn't take us long to get to the other end of the beach, and we climbed back up the rocks, Josie ahead of me, quick as a goat. I had to concentrate hard on the slight, uneven incline, stepping from stone to stone, wobbling a little, righting myself. My body was off-balance, just like after my first three miscarriages, my center of gravity realigning. Josie waited for me at the car. I was out of breath. She wasn't.
“I wish we could forget this ever happened,” Josie said to me over the top of the car.
Just before I opened the door, I scanned the dark street, half hoping to see a police car's flashing light, to hear its siren revving up. I was wishing for a dramatic end to this, but there was nothing. It was just us and the warm, black, empty night.Â·Â·Â·
My mother picks a bit of fluff off of her scarf and adjusts herself in her chair. A weak, liquid March light seeps in through a wall of windows. From somewhere nearby, there is the sighing, rhythmic shush of an oxygen machine. We're in the kind of waiting room that stops time.
Behind the desk, two receptionists, both wearing pink sweaters, are speaking into their headphones. “Does it itch?” one of them says. “Tuesday, Tuesday,” the other says. It reminds me of an assignment I give my fifth-grade students every year, where they have to write poems from bits of overheard conversation.
Helene looks around and sighs, then plucks a yellow foam ball out of her purse and begins squeezing it rhythmically, like she's been taught but rarely does. Printed on the ball in jaunty, bright red type are the wordsSQUEEZE ME FOR STRENGTH!With her good hand, she reaches up and touches her hair.
She looks around the open-plan room, the rose-colored chairs clustered in little groups to give the illusion of cozy sociability. “I've spent too much time in waiting rooms.”
I called in for a substitute so I could keep her company at this appointment, where she will find out how much more of her strength is likely to come back after the stroke. These last couple of months her progress has slowed, like a train coming to a halt. She drags her right foot still, especially when she's tired, and her right hand is so weak she can't open a quart of milk. At her last few appointments Dr.Â Petrova has started saying things like “Yes, but under the circumstances” and “Well, all things considered,” little linguistic inoculations against further hope.
“Isabel,” Helene says. “Thank you for coming with me today. I know you had to give up a personal day.” She picks up a magazine from the side table, then puts it down. “Then again, I gave up my youth for you.”
“Oh, Mom. Doctors' appointments always make you so sentimental.”
“You're all right,” she says. “But do you know who I really love? Hannah.”
“Why are you keeping her from me?”
We had, of course, come over for dinner two nights ago. And the two of them had gone to a movie together last weekend. “I'm punishing you for things you did to me when I was a kid that neither of us remembers.”
She smiles and takes my hand, then presses the squeeze-me ball into my palm. “This damn thing,” she says, “is just an attempt to keep me from dwelling on my troubles.”
“What troubles?” I ask, thinking we're still just joking around, trying to make each other smile here in the hushed waiting room of the hospitalâthe architectural equivalent of a clenched stomach. I'm a little distracted, thinking about Cal, the visit with his mother, and everything that came after. I feel a blush rise to my cheeks and hope my mother doesn't notice.
“That I won't regain any more strength. That I'll be limited for the rest of my life. That I'll always need help. Your help.” She shakes her head. Her hair is sprayed hard, the way she likes it. She's wearing a turquoise scarf knotted around her neck, little gold hoop earrings, and a long, soft, camel-colored sweater with small shoulder pads and pockets. She looks like she's ready for a ladies' luncheon in 1985. “That I'm at a steeply increased risk for a second stroke. That it will happen some night when I'm alone, and it will be so much worse than this one, and I won't be able to call for help.”
I stare at her, speechless. Sometimes I just want to crawl into the lap of the person who has loved me the longest and the bestâand how is it possible that this is the same person who is looking at me now as if I'm the only one who can save her?
The other day on my way out the door I caught a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror: heavy-lidded brown eyes and thick, slightly uneven eyebrows in desperate need of grooming; long, inelegant nose and lips that curve up at the ends; wavy, uncooperative dark hair with strands of gray shooting up at the crown like popped wires in a burned-out lightbulb, and I had the strange and fleeting feeling that in that moment I was both Hannah and myself: I was staring at the face Hannah sees when she needs her mother. This was the face that came to her when she had to get a signature on a permission slip or when she wanted a grilled cheese sandwich, when she hated me or woke up from a bad dream or wanted to know if she could use the microwave, when she missed me in the middle of the day at school and no one else would do. And even after twelve years, the idea that I am someone's mother stunned me.