Everything I Never Told You [CHAPTER-3]



Until the day of the funeral, Marilyn has never thought about the last time she would see her daughter. She would have imagined a touching bedside scene, like in the movies: herself white-haired and elderly and content, in a satin bed jacket, ready to say her good-byes; Lydia a grown woman, confident and poised, holding her mother’s hands in hers, a doctor by then, unfazed by the great cycle of life and death. And Lydia, though Marilyn does not admit it, is the face she would want to see last—not Nath or Hannah or even James, but the daughter she thinks of first and always. Now her last glimpse of Lydia has already passed: James, to her bewilderment, has insisted on a closed-casket funeral. She will not even get to see her daughter’s face one last time, and for the past three days, she has told James this over and over, sometimes furious, sometimes through tears. James, for his part, cannot find the words to tell her what he discovered on going to identify Lydia’s body: there is only half a face left, barely preserved by the cold water of the lake; the other half had already been eaten away. He ignores his wife and keeps his eyes trained on the rearview mirror as he backs into the street.

The cemetery is only a fifteen-minute walk from their house, but they drive anyway. As they turn onto the main road that circles the lake, Marilyn looks sharply to the left, as if she’s spotted something on the shoulder of her husband’s jacket. She doesn’t want to see the pier, the rowboat now re-moored, the lake itself stretching out into the distance. James has the car windows rolled up tight, but the breeze shakes the leaves of the trees on the banks and corrugates the surface of the water. It will be there forever, the lake: every time they leave their house, they will see it. In the backseat, Nath and Hannah wonder in unison if their mother will turn her head away for the rest of her life, every time she passes by. The lake glints in the sun like a shiny tin roof, and Nath’s eyes begin to water. It seems inappropriate for the light to be so bright, for the sky to be so blue, and he’s relieved when a cloud drifts over the sun and the water turns from silver to gray.

At the cemetery, they pull into the parking lot. Middlewood is proud of its garden cemetery, a sort of graveyard and botanical garden in one, with winding paths and small brass signs to identify the flora. Nath remembers middle-school science trips with sketch pads and field guides; once the teacher had promised ten extra-credit points to the person who could gather the most kinds of leaves. There had been a funeral that day, too, and Tommy Reed had tiptoed between rows of folding chairs to the sassafras tree, right in the middle of the eulogy, and plucked a leaf from a low-hanging branch. Mr. Rexford hadn’t noticed and had complimented Tommy on being the only one to find Sassafras albidum, and the whole class had stifled giggles and high-fived Tommy on the bus ride home. Now, as they walk single file toward the cluster of chairs set up in the distance, Nath wants to go back in time and punch Tommy Reed.

In Lydia’s honor, the school has closed for the day, and Lydia’s classmates come, lots of them. Looking at them, James and Marilyn realize just how long it has been since they’ve seen these girls: years. For a moment they don’t recognize Karen Adler with her hair grown long, or Pam Saunders without her braces. James, thinking of the crossed-out list of names, finds himself staring and turns away. Slowly the chairs fill with some of Nath’s classmates, with juniors and freshmen he finds vaguely familiar but doesn’t really know. Even the neighbors, as they file in, feel like strangers. His parents never go out or entertain; they have no dinner parties, no bridge group, no hunting buddies or luncheon pals. Like Lydia, no real friends. Hannah and Nath recognize a few professors from the university, their father’s teaching assistant, but most of the faces in the chairs are strangers. Why are they even here, Nath wonders, and when the service starts and they all crane their necks toward the coffin at the front, under the sassafras tree, he understands. They are drawn by the spectacle of sudden death. For the past week, ever since the police dragged the lake, the headlines in the Middlewood Monitor have all been about Lydia. Oriental Girl Found Drowned in Pond.

The minister looks like President Ford, flat-browed, white-toothed, clean-cut, and solid. The Lees do not attend church, but the funeral home had recommended him, and James had accepted without asking any questions. Now James sits up straight, pressing the chair’s back into his shoulder blades, and tries to listen to the service. The minister reads the Twenty-third Psalm, but in the revised text: I have everything I need instead of I shall not want; Even if I walk through a very dark valley instead of Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It feels disrespectful, a corner cut. Like burying his daughter in a plywood box. What else could you expect from this town, he thinks. On his right, the scent of the lilies on the casket hits Marilyn like a warm, wet fog, and she nearly retches. For the first time, she wishes she were the sort of woman, like her mother, who carried a handkerchief. She would have pressed it to her face and let it filter the air, and when she lowered it the cloth would be dirty pink, the color of old bricks. Beside her, Hannah knits her fingers. She would like to worm her hand onto her mother’s lap, but she doesn’t dare. Nor does she dare look at the coffin. Lydia is not inside, she reminds herself, taking a deep breath, only her body—but then where is Lydia herself? Everyone is so still that to the birds floating overhead, she thinks, they must look like a cluster of statues.

Out of the corner of his eye, Nath spots Jack sitting at the edge of the crowd beside his mother. He imagines grabbing Jack by the shirt collar to find out what he knows. For the past week, his father has called the police every morning asking for new information, but Officer Fiske says only, over and over, that they are still investigating. If only the police were here now, Nath thinks. Should he tell his father? Jack stares at the ground in front of him, as if he is too ashamed to look up. And then, when Nath himself glances back to the front, the coffin has already been lowered into the ground. The polished wood, the white lilies fastened to its top—vanished, just like that: nothing but the blank space where it had once stood. He’s missed it all. His sister is gone.

Something wet touches his neck. He reaches up to wipe it away and discovers that his whole face is wet, that he’s been crying silently. On the other side of the crowd, Jack’s blue eyes are suddenly fixed on him, and Nath blots his cheek in the crook of his arm.

The mourners begin to leave, a thin line of backs filing toward the parking area and the street. A few of Nath’s classmates, like Miles Fuller, give him a sympathetic glance, but most—embarrassed by his tears—decide not to speak to him, and turn away. They won’t have another chance; in light of Nath’s high grades and the tragic situation, the principal will exempt him from the last three weeks of school, and Nath himself will decide not to attend commencement. Some of the neighbors circle the Lees, squeezing their arms and murmuring condolences; a few of them pat Hannah on the head, as if she’s a tiny child, or a dog. Except for Janet Wolff, her usual white doctor’s coat replaced by a trim black suit, James and Marilyn don’t recognize most of them. By the time Janet reaches her, Marilyn’s palms feel grimy, her whole body dirty, like a rag passed from hand to soiled hand, and she can barely stand Janet’s touch on her elbow.

On the other side of the grave, Jack stands off to the side, waiting for his mother, half-hidden in the shadow of a big elm. Nath weaves his way over, cornering him against the tree trunk, and Hannah, trapped at her parents’ side by a thicket of adults, watches her brother nervously.

“What are you doing here?” Nath demands. Up close, he can see that Jack’s shirt is dark blue, not black, that though he’s wearing dress pants he still has on his old black-and-white tennis shoes with the hole in the toe.

“Hey,” Jack says, eyes still on the ground. “Nath. How are you?”

“How do you think I am?” Nath’s voice cracks, and he hates himself for it.

“I gotta go,” Jack says. “My mom’s waiting.” A pause. “I’m really sorry about your sister.” He turns away, and Nath catches him by the arm.

“Are you?” He’s never grabbed anyone before, and he feels tough doing it, like a detective in a movie. “You know, the police want to talk to you.” People are beginning to stare—James and Marilyn hear their son’s raised voice and look around—but he doesn’t care. He leans in closer, almost to Jack’s nose. “Look, I know she was with you that Monday.”

For the first time Jack looks Nath in the face: a flash of startled blue eyes. “She told you?”

Nath lurches forward so that he and Jack are chest to chest. Blood throbs in his right temple. “She didn’t have to tell me. Do you think I’m stupid?”

“Look, Nath,” Jack mumbles. “If Lydia told you that I—”

He breaks off suddenly, as Nath’s parents and Dr. Wolff come within earshot. Nath stumbles backward a few steps, glaring at Jack, at his father for interrupting, at the elm tree itself for not being farther away.

“Jack,” Dr. Wolff says sharply. “Everything all right?”

“Fine.” Jack glances at Nath, then at the adults. “Mr. Lee, Mrs. Lee, I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you for coming,” says James. He waits until the Wolffs have started down the curving path out of the cemetery before grabbing Nath by the shoulder. “What’s the matter with you?” he hisses. “Picking a fight at your sister’s funeral.”

Behind his mother, Jack gives a quick backward glance, and when his gaze meets Nath’s, there’s no doubt: he is frightened. Then he turns the curve and is gone.

Nath lets out his breath. “That bastard knows something about Lydia.”

“You don’t go around making trouble. You let the police do their work.”

“James,” Marilyn says, “don’t shout.” She touches her fingers to her temple, as if she has a headache, and closes her eyes. To Nath’s horror, a dark drop of blood runs down the side of her face—no, it’s only a tear, stained black by mascara, leaving a dirty gray trail on her cheek. Hannah, her small heart awash in pity, reaches up to take her hand, but her mother doesn’t notice. In a moment Hannah contents herself by clasping her own fingers behind her back.

James fishes in his jacket pocket for his keys. “I’m taking your mother and sister home. When you’ve cooled off, you can walk.” As the words leave his mouth, he winces. Deep inside, he wants more than anything to calm Nath, to put a comforting and weighty hand on his shoulder, to fold him into his arms, on this day of all days. But already it takes all his strength to keep his own face from crumpling, to stop his own knees from buckling and spilling him to the ground. He turns away and grabs Hannah’s arm. Hannah, at least, always does what she’s told.

Nath sinks down on the roots of the elm and watches his parents head back toward the car, Hannah trailing after them with one wistful backward glance. His father doesn’t know what Jack is like. Jack has lived down the street from them for eleven years, since he and Nath were in the first grade, and to Nath’s parents he is just a neighbor boy, the scruffy one with the dog and that old secondhand car. In school, though, everyone knows. Every few weeks a different girl. Every girl the same story. Jack doesn’t date; there are no dinners out, no flowers, no boxes of chocolates in cellophane wrap. He simply drives the girl out to the Point or the drive-in or a parking lot somewhere and spreads a blanket across the backseat of his car. A week or two later, he stops calling and moves on. He’s known to make a specialty of deflowering virgins. At school, the girls are proud of it, like they’ve joined an exclusive club; clustered at their lockers, they whisper a giggling, salacious play-by-play. Jack himself talks to no one. It’s common knowledge that he’s alone most of the time: his mother works night shifts at the hospital, six nights a week. He does not eat in the school cafeteria; he does not go to the dances. In class, he sits in the back row, picking the next girl he’ll ask for a ride. This spring he had picked Lydia.

Nath huddles in the cemetery an hour, two hours, three, watching the cemetery workers stack the folding chairs, gather the flowers, pluck balled-up papers and tissues from the grass. In his mind, he dredges up every single thing he’s ever heard about Jack, every fact, every rumor. The two begin to blur, and by the time he is ready to head home, he is bubbling with a terrible fury. He tries to imagine Lydia with Jack, tries desperately not to picture them together. Had Jack hurt her somehow? He doesn’t know. He knows only that Jack is at the heart of everything, and he promises himself he will find out how. Only when the gravediggers lift their shovels and approach the open grave does Nath clamber to his feet and turn away.

As he skirts the edge of the lake and turns onto their street, he spots a police car parked outside Jack’s house. About goddamn time, Nath thinks. He sidles closer to the house, slouching below the line of windows. Behind the screen, the front door stands open, and he climbs the porch stairs on his toes, sticking to the edges of the worn boards, making sure they don’t squeak. It’s his sister they’re talking about, he tells himself with each step; he has every right. At the top, he leans toward the screen door. He can’t see anything except the entryway, but he can hear Jack in the living room, explaining slowly, loudly, as if it’s the second or third time.

“She had skipped ahead into physics. Her mom wanted her in with the juniors.”

You were in that class. Aren’t you a senior?”

“I told you,” Jack says, impatient. “I had to take it over. I failed.”

Dr. Wolff’s voice, now: “He has a B-plus in the class this term. I told you you’d do fine if you would just do the work, Jack.”

Outside, Nath blinks. Jack? A B-plus?

A rustle, as if the policeman has turned the page of a notebook. Then: “What was the nature of your relationship with Lydia?” The sound of his sister’s name in the policeman’s voice, so crisp and official, as if it were nothing more than a label, startles Nath. It seems to startle Jack, too: there’s a sharpness to his tone that wasn’t there before.

“We were friends. That’s all.”

“Several people said they saw the two of you together after school in your car.”

“I was teaching her to drive.” Nath wishes he could see Jack’s face. Didn’t they know he must be lying? But the policeman seems to accept this.

“When was the last time you saw Lydia?” the policeman asks now.

“Monday afternoon. Before she disappeared.”

“What were you doing?”

“We were sitting in my car and smoking.”

A pause as the policeman makes a note of this. “And you were at the hospital, Mrs. Wolff?”


The policeman coughs gently. “Pardon me. Dr. Wolff. You were at work?”

“I usually take the evening shift. Every day except Sundays.”

“Did Lydia seem upset on Monday?”

Another pause before Jack responds. “Lydia was always upset.”

Because of you, Nath thinks. His throat is so tight the words can’t squeeze through. The edges of the door waver and blur, like a heat mirage. He digs his fingernail into his palm, hard, until the doorway sharpens again.

“Upset about what?”

“Upset about everything.” Jack’s voice is lower now, almost a sigh. “About her grades. About her parents. About her brother leaving for college. Lots of things.” He sighs then for real, and when he speaks again, his voice is brittle, ready to snap. “How should I know?”

Nath backs away from the door and creeps down the stairs. He doesn’t need to hear any more. At home, not wanting to see anyone, he slips upstairs to his room to ruminate over what he’s heard.

There’s no one for him to see anyway. While Nath fretted under the elm tree, his family has dispersed. During the car ride, Marilyn doesn’t look at James once, focusing instead on her knuckles, picking at her cuticles, fiddling with the strap of her handbag. As soon as they come inside, Marilyn says she wants to lie down, and Hannah too vanishes into her room without a word. For a moment James considers joining Marilyn in their bedroom. He’s filled with a deep longing to burrow against her, to feel her weight and warmth surrounding him, shielding him from everything else. To cling to her and feel her cling to him and let their bodies comfort each other. But something scratches and scratches at the edge of James’s mind, and at last he lifts his keys from the table again. There is something he must do at the office, urgently. It cannot wait another minute.

When the police had asked if he wanted a copy of the autopsy, he had given them his office address. Then yesterday, a thick manila envelope appeared in his mail cubby, and he decided he’d made a mistake: he didn’t want to see it, ever. At the same time, he could not bring himself to throw it away. Instead he slipped it into the bottom drawer of his desk and locked it. It would be there, he thought, if he ever changed his mind. He had never expected to.

It is lunchtime, and the office is almost empty; only Myrna, the department secretary, still sits at her desk, changing the ribbon of her typewriter. All the other office doors are shut, their frosted-glass windows dim. Now James unlocks the drawer, takes a deep breath, and slits the envelope open with his finger.

He has never seen an autopsy report before and expects charts and diagrams, but it opens like a teacher’s progress report: The subject is a well-developed, well-nourished Oriental female. It tells him things he already knows: that she was sixteen years old, sixty-five inches tall; that her hair was black, that her eyes were blue. It tells him things he hadn’t known: the circumference of her head, the length of each limb, that a small crescent moon scarred her left knee. It tells him that there were no intoxicants in her blood, that there were no signs of foul play or sexual trauma, but that suicide, homicide, or accident could not yet be determined. The cause of death was asphyxia by drowning.

And then it begins in earnest: The chest is opened using a Y-shaped incision.

He learns the color and size of each of her organs, the weight of her brain. That a white foam had bubbled up through her trachea and covered her nostrils and mouth like a lace handkerchief. That her alveoli held a thin layer of silt as fine as sugar. That her lungs had marbled dark red and yellow-gray as they starved for air; that like dough, they took the impression of a fingertip; that when they were sectioned with a scalpel, water flowed out. That in her stomach were snippets of lake-bottom weeds, sand, and six ounces of lake water she’d swallowed as she sank. That the right side of her heart had swollen, as if it had had too much to hold. That from floating head down in the water, the skin of her head and neck had reddened to her shoulders. That due to the low temperature of the water, she had not yet decomposed, but that the skin of her fingertips was just beginning to peel off, like a glove.

The office air-conditioning clicks on and a cool breeze floats up from the floor. His whole body trembles, as if he’s caught a sudden, lasting chill. With his toe, he closes the vent, but he can’t keep his hands from shaking. He balls them into fists and clenches his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering. In his lap, the autopsy report quivers like something alive.

He can’t imagine telling Marilyn that these things could happen to a body they loved. He doesn’t ever want her to know. Better to leave it as the police summed it up: drowning. No details to catch in the crevices of her mind. The air-conditioning shuts off, silence ballooning to fill the room, then the whole department. The weight of everything he’s read settles on him, crushing him to his chair. It is too heavy. He cannot even lift his head.

“Professor Lee?”

It’s Louisa, at the door, still wearing the black dress she’d worn at the funeral that morning.

“Oh,” she says. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think you’d come in after—” She stops.

“It’s okay.” His voice crackles at the edges, like old leather.

Louisa slips into the room, leaving the door ajar. “Are you all right?” She takes in his red-rimmed eyes, the slouch of his shoulders, the manila envelope in his lap. Then she comes to stand beside him and gently takes the papers from his hands. “You shouldn’t be here,” she says, setting them on his desk.

James shakes his head. With one hand he holds out the report.

Louisa looks down at the sheaf of papers and hesitates.

Read, James says—or tries to say. No sound emerges, but to him it seems Louisa hears anyway. She nods, leans against the edge of the desk, and bends her head over the pages. Her face doesn’t change as she reads, but she grows stiller and stiller, until, at the end of the report, she rises and takes James’s hand.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Louisa says again. It’s not a question. With her other hand, she touches the small of his back, and he can feel her warmth through his shirt. Then she says, “Why don’t you come to my apartment. I’ll cook you some lunch.” And he nods.

Her apartment is a third-floor walk-up, only six blocks from campus. Outside apartment 3A Louisa hesitates, just for a moment. Then she unlocks the door and lets them in and leads him straight to the bedroom.

Everything about her is different: the flex of her limbs, the texture of her skin. Even her taste is different, slightly tangy, like citrus, as he touches his tongue to hers. When she kneels over him to undo the buttons of his shirt, her hair curtains her face. James closes his eyes then, lets out a long, shuddering sigh. Afterward he falls asleep with Louisa still atop him. Since Lydia was found—the only word he can bear to use for it—the little sleep he’s had has been restless. In his dreams, no one but him remembers what has happened to Lydia; he alone is acutely aware, and over and over he must persuade Marilyn, Nath, complete strangers that his daughter is dead. I saw her body. One of her blue eyes was gone. Now, still slicked to Louisa with sweat, he sleeps soundly for the first time in days, a dreamless sleep: his mind, for the moment, gone blissfully blank.

At home, in their bedroom, Marilyn too wills her mind to go blank, but nothing happens. For hours, trying to sleep, she has been counting the flowers on her pillowcase: not the big red poppies that sprawl across the cotton, but the blue forget-me-nots of the background pattern, the chorus dancers behind the divas. She keeps losing track, moving from eighty-nine back down to eighty, crossing a fold in the fabric and forgetting which are accounted for, which have yet to be numbered. By the time she reaches two hundred, she knows that sleep is impossible. She can’t keep her eyes closed; even blinking makes her jittery. Whenever she tries to lie still, her mind whirrs to life like an overwound toy. Upstairs, there is no sound from Hannah; downstairs, no sign of Nath. At last, just as James sinks into sleep across town, she rises and goes where her thoughts have been all this time: Lydia’s room.

It still smells like Lydia. Not just the powdery flowers of her perfume, or the clean scent of shampoo on her pillowcase, or the trace of cigarette smoke—Karen smokes, Lydia had explained when Marilyn sniffed suspiciously one day. It gets all on my clothes and books and everything. No, when Marilyn breathes in deep, she can smell Lydia herself under all those surface layers, the sour-sweet smell of her skin. She could spend hours here, drawing the air up and holding it against her palate like the bouquet of a fine wine. Drinking her in.

In this room a deep ache suffuses her, as if her bones are bruised. Yet it feels good, too. Everything here reminds her of what Lydia could have been. Prints of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, of Marie Curie holding up a vial—every poster she’d given to Lydia since she was a child—still hung proudly on the wall. Since childhood, Lydia had wanted to be a doctor, just as her mother once had. Last summer she had even taken a biology course at the college so that she could skip ahead into physics. On the bulletin board hang blue ribbons from years of science fairs, an illustrated periodic table, a real stethoscope that Marilyn had special-ordered for her thirteenth birthday. The bookshelf is so full of books that some are crammed in sideways at the top: A Brief History of Medicine, she reads upside down. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. All the books Marilyn had given her over the years to inspire her, to show her what she could accomplish. Everywhere, evidence of her daughter’s talent and ambition. A fine layer of dust has already begun to coat everything. For a long time, Lydia had shooed her out when she came to vacuum and dust and tidy. “I’m busy, Mom,” she had said, tapping the tip of her pen against her textbook, and Marilyn would nod and kiss her on the head and shut the door behind her. Now there is no one to turn her away, but she looks at Lydia’s boot, tipped on its side on the carpet, thinks of her daughter kicking it off, and lets it lie.

Somewhere in this room, she is sure, is the answer to what happened. And there, on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, she sees the neat row of diaries lined up by year. Marilyn had given Lydia her first diary the Christmas she was five, a flowered one with gilt edges and a key lighter than a paper clip. Her daughter had unwrapped it and turned it over and over in her hands, touching the tiny keyhole, as if she didn’t know what it was for. “For writing down your secrets,” Marilyn had said with a smile, and Lydia had smiled back up at her and said, “But Mom, I don’t have any secrets.”

At the time, Marilyn had laughed. What secrets could a daughter keep from her mother, anyway? Still, every year, she gave Lydia another diary. Now she thinks of all those crossed-out phone numbers, that long list of girls who said they barely knew Lydia at all. Of boys from school. Of strange men who might lurch out of the shadows. With one finger, she tugs out the last diary: 1977. It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can. Who she had been seeing. Why she had lied to them. Why she went down to the lake.

The key is missing, but Marilyn jams the tip of a ballpoint into the catch and forces the flimsy lock open. The first page she sees, April 10, is blank. She checks May 2, the night Lydia disappeared. Nothing. Nothing for May 1, or anything in April, or anything in March. Every page is blank. She takes down 1976. 1975. 1974. Page after page of visible, obstinate silence. She leafs backward all the way to the very first diary, 1966: not one word. All those years of her daughter’s life unmarked. Nothing to explain anything.

Across town, James wakes in a blurry haze. It’s almost evening, and Louisa’s apartment has grown dim. “I have to go,” he says, dizzy with the thought of what he has done, and Louisa wraps herself in the sheet and watches him dress. Under her gaze, his fingers grow clumsy: he misbuttons his shirt not once but twice, and even when he gets it on properly it doesn’t feel right. It hangs strangely, pinching him under the arms, bulging at his belly. How did you say good-bye, after something like this?

“Goodnight,” he says finally, lifting his bag, and Louisa says simply, “Goodnight.” As if they’re leaving the office, as if nothing has happened. Only in the car, when his stomach begins to rumble, does he realize there’d been no lunch at Louisa’s apartment, that he had never actually expected there to be.

And while James clicks on his headlights and eases the car into motion, stunned at how much has happened in one day, his son peers through his bedroom window in the growing dimness, staring out at Jack’s house, where the porch light has just turned on, where the police car has long since pulled away. Up in the attic, Hannah curls up in her bed, sifting through each detail of the day: the white spot on each of her father’s knuckles as he grasped the steering wheel; the tiny beads of sweat that clung to the minister’s upper lip, like dew; the soft thump the coffin made as it touched the bottom of the grave. The small figure of her brother—spied through the west-facing window of her room—rising slowly from Jack’s front steps and trudging home, head bowed. And the faint questioning creak of her mother’s bedroom door opening, answered by the quiet click of Lydia’s door latching shut. She has been in there for hours. Hannah wraps her arms around herself and squeezes, imagines comforting her mother, her mother’s arms comforting her in return.

Marilyn, unaware that her youngest is listening so closely, so longingly, blots her eyes and replaces the diaries on the shelf and makes herself a promise. She will figure out what happened to Lydia. She will find out who is responsible. She will find out what went wrong.





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