Everything I Never Told You [CHAPTER-4]

 


CHAPTER-4

Just before Marilyn had given Lydia that first diary, the university had held its annual Christmas party. Marilyn had not wanted to go. All fall she’d been wrestling a vague discontentment. Nath had just started the first grade, Lydia had just started nursery school, Hannah had not yet even been imagined. For the first time since she’d been married, Marilyn found herself unoccupied. She was twenty-nine years old, still young, still slender. Still smart, she thought. She could go back to school now, at last, and finish her degree. Do everything she’d planned before the children came along. Only now she couldn’t remember how to write a paper, how to take notes; it seemed as vague and hazy as something she had done in a dream. How could she study when dinner needed cooking, when Nath needed to be tucked in, when Lydia wanted to play? She leafed through the Help Wanted ads in the paper, but they were all for waitresses, accountants, copywriters. Nothing she knew how to do. She thought of her mother, the life her mother had wanted for her, the life her mother had hoped to lead herself: husband, children, house, her sole job to keep it all in order. Without meaning to, she’d acquired it. There was nothing more her mother could have wished her. The thought did not put her in a festive mood.


James, however, had insisted that they put in an appearance at the Christmas party; he was up for tenure in the spring, and appearances mattered. So they had asked Vivian Allen from across the street to babysit Nath and Lydia, and Marilyn put on a peach cocktail dress and her pearls and they headed to the crepe-papered gymnasium, where a Christmas tree had been erected on the midcourt line. Then, after the obligatory round of hellos and how-are-yous, she retreated to the corner, nursing a cup of rum punch. That was where she ran into Tom Lawson.


Tom brought her a slice of fruitcake and introduced himself—he was a professor in the chemistry department; he and James had worked together on the thesis committee of a double-majoring student who’d written about chemical warfare in World War I. Marilyn tensed against the inevitable questions—And what do you do, Marilyn?—but instead they exchanged the usual benign civilities: how old the children were, how nice this year’s Christmas tree looked. And when he began to tell her about the research he was doing—something to do with the pancreas and artificial insulin—she interrupted to ask if he needed a research assistant, and he stared at her over his plate of pigs in blankets. Marilyn, afraid of seeming unqualified, offered a flood of explanations: she had been a chemistry major at Radcliffe and she’d been planning on medical school and she hadn’t quite finished her degree—yet—but now that the children were a bit older—

In fact, Tom Lawson had been surprised at the tone of her request: it had the murmured, breathless quality of a proposition. Marilyn looked up at him and smiled, and her deep dimples gave her the earnestness of a little girl.


“Please,” she said, putting her hand on his elbow. “I’d really enjoy doing some more academic work again.”


Tom Lawson grinned. “I guess I could use some help,” he said. “If your husband doesn’t mind, that is. Maybe we could meet and talk about it after New Year’s, when term starts.” And Marilyn said yes, yes, that would be wonderful.


James was less enthusiastic. He knew what people would say: He couldn’t make enough—his wife had to hire herself out. Years had passed, but he still remembered his mother rising early each morning and donning her uniform, how one winter, when she’d been home from work with the flu for two weeks, they’d had to turn off the heat and bundle in double blankets. He remembered how at night, his mother would massage oil into her calloused hands, trying to soften them, and his father would leave the room, ashamed. “No,” he told Marilyn. “When I get tenure, we’ll have all the money we need.” He took her hand, uncurled her fingers, kissed her soft palm. “Tell me you won’t worry about working anymore,” he said, and at last she had agreed. But she kept Tom Lawson’s phone number.


Then, in the spring, while James—newly tenured—was at work and the children were at school and Marilyn, at home, folded her second load of laundry, the phone rang. A nurse from St. Catherine’s Hospital, in Virginia, telling her that her mother had died. A stroke. It was April 1, 1966, and the first thing Marilyn thought was: what a terrible, tasteless joke.


By then she had not spoken to her mother in almost eight years, since her wedding day. In all that time, her mother had not written once. When Nath had been born, then Lydia, Marilyn had not informed her mother, had not even sent a photograph. What was there to say? She and James had never discussed what her mother had said about their marriage that last day: it’s not right. She had not ever wanted to think of it again. So when James came home that night, she said simply, “My mother died.” Then she turned back to the stove and added, “And the lawn needs mowing,” and he understood: they would not talk about it. At dinner, when she told the children that their grandmother had died, Lydia cocked her head and asked, “Are you sad?”


Marilyn glanced at her husband. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I am.”


There were things to be taken care of: papers to be signed, burial arrangements to be made. So Marilyn left the children with James and drove to Virginia—she’d long since stopped thinking of it as home—to sort out her mother’s things. As mile after mile of Ohio, then West Virginia, streamed past, her daughter’s question echoed in her mind. She could not answer for sure.


Was she sad? She was more surprised than anything: surprised at how familiar her mother’s house still felt. Even after eight years, she still remembered exactly how to wiggle the key—down and to the left—to get the lock to open; she still remembered the screen door that slowly closed itself with a hiss. The light in the foyer had burned out and the heavy curtains in the living room were closed, but her feet moved by instinct despite the dark: years of rehearsal had taught her the dance step around the armchair and the ottoman to the table beside the sofa. Her fingers caught the ribbed switch of the lamp on the first try. It could have been her house.


When the light came on, she saw the same shabby furniture she’d grown up with, the same pale lilac wallpaper with a grain, like silk. The same china cabinet full of her mother’s dolls, whose unblinking eyes gave her the same cold tingle on the back of her neck. On the mantel, the same photographs of her as a child. All the things that she needed to clear away. Was she sad? No, after the daylong drive, only tired. “Many people find this job overwhelming,” the undertaker told her the next morning. He gave her the number of a cleaning company that specialized in making houses ready to sell. Ghouls,Marilyn thought. What a job, clearing the homes of the dead, piling whole lives into garbage bins and lugging them to the curb.


“Thank you,” she said, lifting her chin. “I’d rather take care of it myself.”


But when she tried to sort her mother’s things, she could find nothing she wanted to keep. Her mother’s gold ring, her twelve settings of china, the pearl bracelet from Marilyn’s father: mementos of an ill-fated wedding day. Her demure sweater sets and pencil skirts, the gloves and hat-boxed hats: relics of a corseted existence that Marilyn had always pitied. Her mother had loved her doll collection, but their faces were blank as chalk, white china masks under horsehair wigs. Little strangers with cold stares. Marilyn leafed through photo albums for a picture of herself with her mother and couldn’t find one. Only Marilyn in kindergarten pigtails; Marilyn in third grade with a missing front tooth; Marilyn at a school party, a paper crown on her head. Marilyn in high school in front of the Christmas tree in a precious Kodachrome. Three photo albums of Marilyn and not a single shot of her mother. As if her mother had never been there.


Was she sad? How could she miss her mother when her mother was nowhere to be found?


And then, in the kitchen, she discovered her mother’s Betty Crocker cookbook, the spine cracking and mended, twice, with Scotch tape. On the first page of the cookie section, a deliberate line in the margin of the introduction, the kind she herself had made in college to mark an important passage. It was no recipe. Always cookies in the cookie jar! the paragraph read. Is there a happier symbol of a friendly house? That was all. Her mother had felt the need to highlight this. Marilyn glanced at the cow-shaped cookie jar on the counter and tried to picture the bottom. The more she thought about it, the less sure she was that she had ever seen it.


She flipped through the other chapters, looking for more pencil lines. In “Pies,” she found another: If you care about pleasing a man—bake a pie. But make sure it’s a perfect pie. Pity the man who has never come home to a pumpkin or custard pie. Under “Basic Eggs”: The man you marry will know the way he likes his eggs. And chances are he’ll be fussy about them. So it behooves a good wifeto know how to make an egg behave in six basic ways. She imagined her mother touching the pencil tip to her tongue, then drawing a careful dark mark down the margin so that she would remember.


You’ll find your skill with a salad makes its own contribution to the quality of life in your house.


Does anything make you feel so pleased with yourself as baking bread?


Betty’s pickles! Aunt Alice’s peach conserve! Mary’s mint relish! Is there anything that gives you a deeper sense of satisfaction than a row of shining jars and glasses standing on your shelf?


Marilyn looked at Betty Crocker’s portrait on the back cover of the cookbook, the faint streaks of gray at her temples, the hair that curled back from her forehead, as if pushed back by the arch of her eyebrow. For a second, it resembled her mother. Is there anything that gives you a deeper sense of satisfaction? Certainly her mother would have said no, no, no. She thought with sharp and painful pity of her mother, who had planned on a golden, vanilla-scented life but ended up alone, trapped like a fly in this small and sad and empty house, this small and sad and empty life, her daughter gone, no trace of herself left except these pencil-marked dreams. Was she sad? She was angry. Furious at the smallness of her mother’s life. This,she thought fiercely, touching the cookbook’s cover. This is all I need to remember about her. This is all I want to keep.


The next morning, she called the housecleaning company the undertaker had recommended. The two men who arrived at her door wore blue uniforms, like janitors. They were clean-shaven and courteous; they looked at her with sympathy but said nothing about “your loss.” With the efficiency of movers they packed dolls and dishes and clothes into cartons. They swaddled furniture in quilted pads and trundled it to the truck. Where did it go, Marilyn wondered, cradling the cookbook—the mattresses, the photographs, the emptied-out bookshelves? The same place people went when they died, where everything went: on, away, out of your life.


By dinnertime, the men had emptied the entire house. One of them tipped his hat to Marilyn; the other gave her a polite little nod. Then they stepped out onto the stoop, and the truck’s engine started outside. She moved from room to room, the cookbook tucked under her arm, checking that nothing had been left behind, but the men had been thorough. Her old room was hardly recognizable with the pictures peeled from its walls. The only signs of her time there were the thumbtack holes in the wallpaper, invisible unless you knew where to look. It could have been a stranger’s house. Through the open curtains she could see nothing, only panes of dusk and her face faintly reflected back to her in the glow of the ceiling light. On her way out, she paused in the living room, where the carpet was pockmarked with the ghosts of chair feet, and studied the mantel, now a clean line under a stretch of bare wall.


As she pulled onto the highway, heading toward Ohio and home, those empty rooms kept rising in her mind. She swallowed uneasily, pushing the thought aside, and pressed the gas pedal harder.


Outside Charlottesville, flecks of rain appeared on the windows. Halfway across West Virginia the rain grew heavy, sheeting the windshield. Marilyn pulled to the roadside and turned off the car, and the wipers stopped midsweep, two slashes across the glass. It was past one o’clock in the morning and no one else was on the road: no taillights on the horizon, no headlights in the rearview, only farmland stretching out on either side. She snapped off her own lights and leaned back against the headrest. How good the rain would feel, like crying all over her body.


She thought again of the empty house, a lifetime of possessions now bound for the thrift shop, or the garbage dump. Her mother’s clothes on some stranger’s body, her ring circling some stranger’s finger. Only the cookbook, beside her at the other end of the front seat, had survived. That was the only thing worth keeping, Marilyn reminded herself, the only place in the house there was any trace of her.


It struck her then, as if someone had said it aloud: her mother was dead, and the only thing worth remembering about her, in the end, was that she had cooked. Marilyn thought uneasily of her own life, of hours spent making breakfasts, serving dinners, packing lunches into neat paper bags. How was it possible to spend so many hours spreading peanut butter across bread? How was it possible to spend so many hours cooking eggs? Sunny-side up for James. Hard-boiled for Nath. Scrambled for Lydia. It behooves a good wife to know how to make an egg behave in six basic ways. Was she sad? Yes. She was sad. About the eggs. About everything.


She unlocked the door and stepped out onto the asphalt.


The noise outside the car was deafening: a million marbles hitting a million tin roofs, a million radios all crackling on the same non-station. By the time she shut the door she was drenched. She lifted her hair and bowed her head and let the rain soak the curls beneath. The drops smarted against her bare skin. She leaned back on the cooling hood of the car and spread her arms wide, letting the rain needle her all over.


Never, she promised herself. I will never end up like that.


Under her head she could hear water thrumming on the steel. Now it sounded like tiny patters of applause, a million hands clapping. She opened her mouth and let rain drip into it, opened her eyes and tried to look straight up into the falling rain.


Back in the car, she peeled off her blouse and skirt and stockings and shoes. At the far end of the passenger seat they made a sad little heap beside the cookbook, like a melting scoop of ice cream. The rain slowed, and the gas pedal was stiff under her bare foot as she coaxed the car into motion. In the rearview mirror she caught a glimpse of her reflection, and instead of being embarrassed to see herself stripped so naked and vulnerable, she admired the pale gleam of her own skin against the white of her bra.


Never, she thought again. I will never end up like that.


She drove on into the night, homeward, her hair weeping tiny slow streams down her back.

•   •   •


At home, James did not know how to make eggs behave in any way. Each morning, he served the children cereal for breakfast and sent them to school with thirty cents apiece for the lunch line. “When is Mom coming home?” Nath asked every night, crimping the foil tray of his TV dinner. His mother had been gone for nearly a week, and he longed for hard-boiled eggs again. “Soon,” James answered. Marilyn had not left the number at her mother’s, and anyway, that line would soon be disconnected. “Any day now. What shall we do this weekend, hmm?”


What they did was head to the Y to learn the breaststroke. Lydia hadn’t yet learned to swim, so James left her across the street with Mrs. Allen for the afternoon. All week he had looked forward to some father-son time. He had even planned out how he would begin: Keep your arms underwater. Whip your legs out. Like this. Although James himself had been a swimmer in high school, he had never won a trophy; he had gone home alone while the others piled into someone’s car for celebratory hamburgers and milkshakes. Now he suspected that Nath had the makings of a swimmer, too: he was short, but he was wiry and strong. In last summer’s swim class, he had learned the front crawl and the dead-man’s float; already he could swim underwater all the way across the pool. In high school, James imagined, Nath would be the star of the team, the collector of trophies, the anchorman in the relay. He would be the one driving everyone to the diner—or wherever kids would go in the far-off 1970s—after meets.


That Saturday, when they got to the pool, the shallow end was full of children playing Marco Polo; in the deep end, a pair of elderly men glided in laps. No space for breaststroke lessons yet. James nudged his son. “Go in and play with the others until the pool empties out.”


“Do I have to?” Nath asked, pleating the edge of his towel. The only other kid he recognized was Jack, who by then had been living on their street for a month. Although Nath had not yet come to hate him, he already sensed that they would not be friends. At seven Jack was tall and lanky, freckled and bold, afraid of nothing. James, not attuned to the sensitivities of the playground, was suddenly annoyed at his son’s shyness, his reluctance. The confident young man in his imagination dwindled to a nervous little boy: skinny, small, hunched so deeply that his chest was concave. And though he would not admit it, Nath—legs twisted, stacking the toes of one foot atop the other—reminded him of himself at that age.


“We came here to swim,” James said. “Mrs. Allen is watching your sister just so you could learn the breaststroke, Nathan. Don’t waste everyone’s time.” He tugged the towel from his son’s grasp and steered him firmly toward the water, hovering over him until he slid in. Then he sat down on the vacant poolside bench, nudging aside discarded flippers and goggles. It’s good for him, James thought. He needs to learn how to make friends.


Nath circled the girl who was It with the other children, bouncing on his toes to keep his head above water. It took James a few minutes to recognize Jack, and when he did, it was with a twinge of admiration. Jack was a good swimmer, cocky and confident in the water, weaving around the others, shining and breathless. He must have walked over by himself, James decided; all spring, Vivian Allen had been whispering about Janet Wolff, how she left Jack alone while she worked at the hospital. Maybe we can give him a ride home, he thought. He could stay to play at our house until his mother finishes her shift. He would be a nice friend for Nath, a good role model. He imagined Nath and Jack inseparable, rigging a tire swing in the backyard, biking through the neighborhood. In his own schooldays, he’d been embarrassed to ask classmates to his house, afraid that they’d recognize his mother from the lunch line, or his father from mopping the hallway. They hadn’t had a yard, anyway. Maybe they would play pirates, Jack as the captain and Nath as the first mate. Sheriff and deputy. Batman and Robin.


By the time James focused his attention back on the pool, Nath was It. But something was wrong. The other children glided away. Silently, stifling giggles, they hoisted themselves out of the water and onto the tile surround. Eyes closed, Nath drifted all alone in the middle of the pool, wading in small circles, feeling his way through the water with his hands. James could hear him: Marco. Marco.


Polo, the others called back. They circled the shallow end, splashing the water with their hands, and Nath moved from one side to the other, following the sounds of motion. Marco. Marco. A plaintive note in his voice now.


It wasn’t personal, James told himself. They’d been playing for who knows how long; they were just tired of the game. They were just messing around. Nothing to do with Nath.


Then an older girl—maybe ten or eleven—shouted, “Chink can’t find China!” and the other children laughed. A rock formed and sank in James’s belly. In the pool, Nath paused, arms outstretched on the surface of the water, uncertain how to proceed. One hand opened and closed in silence.


On the sidelines, his father, too, was uncertain. Could he make the children get back in the pool? Saying anything would draw attention to the trick. He could call his son. It’s time to go home, he might say. Then Nath would open his eyes and see nothing but water all around him. The smell of chlorine began to bite at James’s nostrils. Then, on the far side of the pool, he saw the blur of a body sliding silently into the water. A figure glided toward Nath, a sandy head broke the surface: Jack.


“Polo,” Jack shouted. The sound echoed off the tiled walls: Polo. Polo. Polo. Giddy with relief, Nath lunged, and Jack held still, treading water, waiting, until Nath caught his shoulder. For a moment, James saw sheer joy on his son’s face, the dark furrow of frustration wiped away.


Then Nath opened his eyes, and the glow vanished. He saw the other kids squatting around the pool, laughing now, the pool empty except for Jack in front of him. Jack himself turned to Nath and grinned. To Nath, it was a taunt: Joke’s on you. He shoved Jack aside and ducked underwater, and when he reemerged at the edge, he climbed straight out without shaking himself. He didn’t even wipe the water from his eyes, just let it stream over his face as he stalked toward the door, and because of this James could not tell if he was crying.


In the locker room, Nath refused to say a word. He refused to put his clothes or even his shoes on, and when James held out his slacks for the third time, Nath kicked the locker so hard he left a dent in the door. James glanced back over his shoulder and saw Jack peeking through the door from the pool area. He wondered if Jack was about to speak, maybe apologize, but instead he stood silent and staring. Nath, who hadn’t spotted Jack at all, marched out into the lobby, and James bundled up their things and let the door swing shut behind them.


Part of him wanted to gather his son into his arms, to tell him that he understood. Even after almost thirty years, he still remembered P.E. class at Lloyd, how once he’d gotten tangled up in his shirt and emerged to find his pants missing from the bench. Everyone else had already dressed and was stuffing gym uniforms into lockers and lacing shoes. He had tiptoed back into the gym, hiding his bare thighs and calves behind his knapsack, looking for Mr. Childs, the P.E. teacher. By then the bell had rung and the locker room had emptied. After ten minutes of searching, mortified at being in his undershorts in front of Mr. Childs, his pants were revealed under a sink, legs tied around the U-bend, dust bunnies caught in the cuffs. “Probably just got mixed up in someone else’s things,” Mr. Childs had said. “Hurry along to class now, Lee. You’re tardy.” James had known it was no accident. After that, he had developed a system: pants first, then shirt. He had never told anyone about it, but the memory clung.


So part of him wanted to tell Nath that he knew: what it was like to be teased, what it was like to never fit in. The other part of him wanted to shake his son, to slap him. To shape him into something different. Later, when Nath was too slight for the football team, too short for the basketball team, too clumsy for the baseball team, when he seemed to prefer reading and poring over his atlas and peering through his telescope to making friends, James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, this first disappointment in his son, this first and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams.


That afternoon, though, he let Nath run up to his room and slam the door. At dinnertime, when he knocked to offer a Salisbury steak, Nath did not respond, and downstairs, James allowed Lydia to nestle against him on the couch and watch The Jackie Gleason Show. What could he say to comfort his son? It will get better? He could not bring himself to lie. Better just to forget the whole thing. When Marilyn arrived home early Sunday morning, Nath sat sullen and silent at the breakfast table, and James said merely, with a wave of the hand, “Some kids teased him at the pool yesterday. He needs to learn to take a joke.”


Nath bristled and glared at his father, but James, cringing at the memory of all he had left out—Chink can’t find Chinadidn’t notice, and neither did his mother, who, preoccupied, set bowls and the box of cornflakes in front of them. At this last outrage, finally, Nath broke his silence. “I want a hard-boiled egg,” he insisted. Marilyn, to everyone’s surprise, burst into tears, and in the end, subdued and unprotesting, they all ate cereal anyway.


It was clear to the entire family, however, that something had changed in their mother. For the rest of the day, her mood was sulky and stormy. At dinner, though they all anticipated a roast chicken, or a meat loaf, or a pot roast—a real meal at last, after so many Swanson’s dinners warmed in the oven—Marilyn opened a can of chicken noodle soup, a can of SpaghettiOs.


The next morning, after the children went to school, Marilyn pulled a scrap of paper from her dresser drawer. Tom Lawson’s phone number still stood out, sharp black against the pale blue college rule.


“Tom?” she said when he answered. “Dr. Lawson. It’s Marilyn Lee.” When he didn’t reply, she added, “James Lee’s wife. We met at the Christmas party. We talked about me maybe working in your lab.”


A pause. Then, to Marilyn’s surprise: laughter. “I hired an undergrad months ago,” Tom Lawson said. “I had no idea you were actually serious about that. With your children and your husband and all.”


Marilyn hung up without bothering to reply. For a long time, she stood in the kitchen by the phone, staring through the window. Outside, it no longer felt like spring. The wind had turned biting and dry; the daffodils, tricked by the warm weather, bent their faces to the ground. All across the garden, they lay prostrate, stems broken, yellow trumpets withered. Marilyn wiped the table and pulled the crossword puzzle toward her, trying to forget the amusement in Tom Lawson’s voice. The newsprint clung to the damp wood, and as she wrote in her first answer, the pen tore through the paper, leaving a blue “A” on the tabletop.


She took her car keys down from their hook and lifted her handbag from the entry table. At first she told herself she was just going out to clear her head. Despite the chill, she rolled the window down, and as she circled the lake once, twice, the breeze snaked its way beneath her hair to the nape of her neck. With your children and husband and all. She drove without thinking, all the way through Middlewood, past the campus and the grocery store and the roller rink, and only when she found herself turning into the hospital parking lot did she realize this was where she’d intended to come all along.


Inside, Marilyn settled in the corner of the waiting room. Someone had painted the room—walls, ceiling, doors—a pale, calming blue. White-hatted, white-skirted nurses glided in and out like clouds, bearing syringes of insulin, bottles of pills, rolls of gauze. Candy stripers buzzed by with carts of lunch trays. And the doctors: they strode unhurried through the bustle like jets cutting their steady way through the sky. Whenever they appeared, heads turned toward them; anxious husbands and hysterical mothers and tentative daughters stood up at their approach. They were all men, Marilyn noticed: Dr. Kenger, Dr. Gordon, Dr. McLenahan, Dr. Stone. What had made her think she could be one of them? It seemed as impossible as turning into a tiger.


Then, through the double doors from the emergency room: a slender dark-haired figure, hair pulled back in a neat bun. For a moment, Marilyn could not place her. “Dr. Wolff,” one of the nurses called, lifting a clipboard from the counter, and Dr. Wolff crossed the room to take it, her heels clack-clacking on the linoleum. Marilyn had seen Janet Wolff only once or twice since she’d moved in a month before, but she would not have recognized her anyway. She had heard that Janet Wolff worked at the hospital—Vivian Allen, leaning over the garden fence, had whispered about late shifts, the Wolff boy left to run wild—but she had pictured a secretary, a nurse. Not this graceful woman, no older than she, tall in black slacks, a white doctor’s coat loose around her slim frame. This Dr.Wolff, a stethoscope looped around her neck like a shining silver necklace, who with expert hands touched and turned the bruised wrist of a workman, who called clear and confident across the room, “Dr. Gordon, may I have a word with you about your patient, please?” And Dr. Gordon put down his clipboard, and came.


It was not her imagination. Everyone repeated it, like a mantra. Dr. Wolff. Dr. Wolff. Dr. Wolff. The nurses, bottles of penicillin in hand: “Dr. Wolff, a quick question.” The candy stripers, as they passed by: “Good morning, Dr. Wolff.” Most miraculous of all, the other doctors: “Dr. Wolff, could I ask your opinion, please?” “Dr. Wolff, you’re needed in patient room two.” Only then did Marilyn finally believe.


How was it possible? How had she managed it? She thought of her mother’s cookbook: Make somebody happy today—bake a cake! Bake a cake—have a party. Bake a cake to take to a party. Bake a cake just because you feel good today. She pictured her mother creaming shortening and sugar, sifting flour, greasing a pan. Is there anything that gives you a deeper sense of satisfaction? There was Janet Wolff striding across the hospital waiting room, her coat so white it glowed.


Of course it was possible for her: she had no husband. She let her son run wild. Without a husband, without children, perhaps it would have been possible. I could have done that, Marilyn thought, and the words clicked into place like puzzle pieces, shocking her with their rightness. The hypothetical past perfect, the tense of missed chances. Tears dripped down her chin. No, she thought suddenly. I could do that.


And then, to her embarrassment and horror, there was Janet Wolff before her, bending solicitously in front of her chair.


“Marilyn?” she said. “It’s Marilyn, right? Mrs. Lee?”


To which Marilyn replied the only words in her mind: “Dr. Wolff.”


“What’s wrong?” Dr. Wolff asked. “Are you ill?” Up close, her face was surprisingly young. Beneath her powder, a faint constellation of freckles still dotted her nose. Her hand, gentle on Marilyn’s shoulder, was steady and assured, and so was her smile. Everything will be fine,it seemed to say.


Marilyn shook her head. “No, no. Everything’s fine.” She looked up at Janet Wolff. “Thank you.” And she meant it.


The next evening, after a dinner of canned ravioli and canned vegetable soup, she planned it out in her mind. She had all of her mother’s savings, enough for a few months; when her mother’s house was sold, she would have more, enough for a few years, at least. In a year, she could finish her degree. It would prove that she still could. That it was not too late. After that, at last, she would apply to medical school. Only eight years later than planned.


While the children were at school, she drove an hour to the community college outside Toledo and enrolled in organic chemistry, advanced statistics, anatomy: everything she’d planned for her last semesters. The next day, she made the drive again and found a furnished efficiency near the campus, signing a lease for the first of May. Two weeks away. Every night, when she was alone, she read the cookbook again, steeling herself with her mother’s small and lonely life. You don’t want this, she reminded herself. There will be more to your life than this.Lydia and Nath would be fine, she told herself again and again. She would not let herself think otherwise. James would be there. Look how they had managed while she was in Virginia. It was still possible.


In the quiet dark, she packed her old college textbooks into cartons and tucked them in the attic, ready to go. As May approached, she cooked lavish meal after lavish meal: Swedish meatballs, beef Stroganoff, chicken Γ  la king—everything James and the children liked best, everything from scratch, just as her mother had taught her. She baked a pink birthday cake for Lydia and let her eat as much as she wanted. On the first of May, after Sunday dinner, she sealed leftovers in Tupperware and put them in the freezer; she baked batch after batch of cookies. “It’s like you’re preparing for a famine,” James said, laughing, and Marilyn smiled back, a fake smile, the same one she had given to her mother all those years. You lifted the corners of your mouth toward your ears. You kept your lips closed. It was amazing how no one could tell.


That night, in bed, she wrapped her arms around James, kissed the side of his neck, undressed him slowly, as she had when they were younger. She tried to memorize the curve of his back and the hollow at the base of his spine, as if he were a landscape she would never see again, beginning to cry—silently at first and then, as their bodies collided again and again, more fiercely.


“What is it?” James whispered, stroking her cheek. “What’s wrong?” Marilyn shook her head, and he pulled her close, their bodies sticky and damp. “It’s okay,” he said, kissing her forehead. “Everything will be better tomorrow.”


In the morning, Marilyn burrowed beneath the covers, listening to James dress. The zip as he fastened his trousers. The clink as he buckled his belt. Even with her eyes closed, she could see him straightening his collar, smoothing the cowlick in his hair, which still, after all these years, made him look a bit like a schoolboy. She kept them closed when he came to kiss her good-bye, because if she saw him, she knew the tears would come again.


At the bus stop, later that morning, she knelt on the sidewalk and kissed Nath and Lydia each on the cheek, not daring to look into their eyes. “Be good,” she told them. “Behave. I love you.”


After the bus had disappeared around the curve of the lake, she visited her daughter’s room, then her son’s. From Lydia’s dresser she took a single barrette, cherry-colored Bakelite with a white flower, one of a pair she seldom wore. From the cigar box beneath Nath’s bed she took a marble, not his favorite—the cobalt with white specks like stars—but one of the little dark ones, the ones he called oilies. From the inside of James’s overcoat, the old one he’d worn in her college days, she snipped the spare button from the underside of the lapel. A tiny token from each, tucked into the pocket of her dress—a gesture that would resurface in her youngest child years later, though Marilyn would never mention this small theft to Hannah, or to anyone. Not something treasured and loved; something they might miss but would not grieve. No need to tear another hole, even a pinprick, in their lives. Then Marilyn took her boxes from their hiding place in the attic and sat down to write James a note. But how did you write something like this? It seemed wrong to write to him on her stationery, as if he were a stranger; more wrong still to write it on the scratch pad in the kitchen, as if it were no more important than a grocery list. At last she pulled a blank sheet from the typewriter and sat down at her vanity with a pen.


I realize that I am not happy with the life I leadI always had one kind of life in mind and things have turned out very differently. Marilyn took a deep, ragged breath. I have kept all these feelings inside me for a long time, but now, after being in my mother’s house again, I think of her and realize I cannot put them aside any longer. I know you’ll be fine without me. She paused, trying to convince herself this was true.


I hope you can understand why I have to leave. I hope you can forgive me.


For a long time Marilyn sat, ballpoint in hand, unsure how to finish. In the end she tore up the note and tossed the shreds into the wastepaper basket. Better, she decided, just to go. To disappear from their lives as if she had never been there.


To Nath and Lydia, who that afternoon found themselves unmet at the bus stop, who let themselves into an unlocked and empty house, that was exactly how it seemed. Their father, when he came home two hours later to find his children huddled on the front steps, as if they were afraid to be in the house alone, kept asking questions. “What do you mean, gone?” he asked Nath, who could only repeat: gone, the only word he could find.


Lydia, meanwhile, said nothing at all during the confused rest of the evening, in which their father called the police and then all the neighbors but forgot about dinner, and bedtime, as the policemen took note after note until she and Nath fell asleep on the living room floor. She awoke in the middle of the night in her own bed—where her father had deposited her, shoes still on—and felt for the diary her mother had given her at Christmas. At last something important had occurred, something that she ought to write down. But she did not know how to explain what had happened, how everything had changed in just one day, how someone she loved so dearly could be there one minute, and the next minute: gone.









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