Everything I Never Told You [CHAPTER- 10]

 


CHAPTER- 10

Lydia had been wrong about Louisa, of course. Back then, on his daughter’s birthday, James would have laughed at the very idea; the thought of anyone other than Marilyn in his bed, in his life, was preposterous. But back then, the thought of life without Lydia had been preposterous, too. Now both of those preposterous things have come true.


When Louisa shuts the apartment door and returns to the bedroom, James is already buttoning his shirt. “You’re going?” she says. Inside, she still clings to the possibility that Marilyn’s visit was just a coincidence, but she is fooling herself, and she knows it.


James tucks in his shirt and fastens his belt. “I have to,” he says, and they both know this is true, too. “It may as well be now.” He’s not sure what to expect when he reaches home. Sobbing? Rage? A frying pan to the head? He doesn’t know yet, either, what he will say to Marilyn. “I’ll see you later,” he says to Louisa, who kisses his cheek, and this is the one thing he’s sure of.


When he enters the house, just after noon, there is no sobbing, no rage—just silence. Nath and Hannah sit side by side on the living room couch, eyeing him warily as he passes through. It is as if they are watching a doomed man march to the gallows, and this is how James himself feels as he climbs the stairs to his daughter’s room, where Marilyn sits at Lydia’s desk, eerily calm. For a long while, she says nothing, and he wills himself still, keeps his hands steady, until she finally speaks.


“How long?”


Outside, Nath and Hannah crouch on the top step in wordless accord, holding their breath, listening to the voices that carry down the hall.


“Since—the funeral.”


“The funeral.” Marilyn, still studying the carpet, presses her lips into a thin line. “She’s very young. How old is she? Twenty-two? Twenty-three?”


“Marilyn. Stop it.”


Marilyn doesn’t stop it. “She seems sweet. Quite docile—that’s a nice change, I suppose. I don’t know why I’m surprised. I guess you’re long overdue for a trade-in. She’d make a very nice little wife.”


James, to his surprise, blushes. “No one’s talking about—”


“Not yet. But I know what she wants. Marriage. Husband. I know her type.” Marilyn pauses, remembering her younger self, her mother’s proud whisper: a lot of wonderful Harvard men. “My mother spent her whole life trying to turn me into that type.”


At the mention of Marilyn’s mother, James stiffens, as if he has turned to ice. “Oh, yes. Your poor mother. And then you went and married me.” He chokes out a laugh. “What a disappointment.”


“I am disappointed.” Marilyn’s head snaps up. “I thought you were different.” What she means is: I thought you were better than other men. I thought you wanted better than that. But James, still thinking of Marilyn’s mother, hears something else.


“You got tired of different, didn’t you?” he says. “I’m too different. Your mother knew it right away. You think it’s such a good thing, standing out. But look at you. Just look at you.” He takes in Marilyn’s honey-colored hair; her skin, even paler than usual from a month spent indoors. Those sky-colored eyes he has adored for so long, first in his wife’s face and then in his child’s. Things he has never said, never even hinted to Marilyn before, pour from his mouth. “You’ve never been in a room where no one else looked like you. You’ve never had people mock you to your face. You’ve never been treated like a stranger.” He feels as if he has vomited, violently, and he drags the back of his hand across his lips. “You have no idea what it’s like, being different.”


For a moment James looks young and lonely and vulnerable, like the shy boy she’d met so long ago, and half of Marilyn wants to gather him in her arms. The other half of her wants to batter him with her fists. She gnaws her lip, letting the two sides struggle. “Sophomore year, in the lab, the men used to sneak up behind me and try to lift up my skirt,” she says at last. “One time they came in early and pissed in all of my beakers. When I complained, the professor put his arm around me and said—” The memory catches in her throat, like a burr. “Don’t worry about it, honey. Life’s too short and you’re too beautiful.You know what? I didn’t care. I knew what I wanted. I was going to be a doctor.” She glares at James, as if he has contradicted her. “Then—fortunately—I came to my senses. I stopped trying to be different. I did just what all the other girls were doing. I got married. I gave all that up.” A thick bitterness coats her tongue. “Do what everyone else is doing. That’s all you ever said to Lydia. Make friends. Fit in. But I didn’t want her to be just like everyone else.” The rims of her eyes ignite. “I wanted her to be exceptional.”


On the stairs, Hannah holds her breath. She is afraid to move anything, even a fingertip. Maybe if she stays perfectly still, her parents will stop talking. She can hold the world motionless, and everything will be all right.


“Well, now you can marry this one,” Marilyn says. “She seems like the serious type. You know what that means.” She holds up her left hand, where the wedding ring glints dully. “A girl like that wants the whole package. Matchbox house, picket fence. Two-point-three kids.” She lets out one hard, sharp, terrifying bark of a laugh, and out on the landing, Hannah hides her face against Nath’s arm. “I suppose she’ll be more than happy to trade student life for all that. I just hope she doesn’t regret it.”


At this word—regret—something in James flares. A hot biting smell, like overheating wires, pricks his nostrils. “Like you do?”


A sudden and stunned silence. Though Hannah’s face is still pressed into Nath’s shoulder, she can picture her mother exactly: her face frozen, the rims of her eyes a deep red. If she cries, Hannah thinks, it won’t be tears. It will be little drops of blood.


“Get out,” Marilyn says at last. “Get out of this house.”


James touches his pocket for his keys, then realizes they are still in his hand: he had not even put them down. As if he had known inside, all along, that he would not be staying.


“Let’s pretend,” he says, “that you never met me. That she was never born. That none of this ever happened.” Then he is gone.

•   •   •


Out on the landing, there is no time to run: Hannah and Nath have not even stood up when their father emerges into the hallway. At the sight of his children, James stops short. It is clear they’ve heard everything. For the past two months, every time he sees one of them, he sees a fragment of their missing sister—in the tilt of Nath’s head, in the long sweep of hair half screening Hannah’s face—and he leaves the room abruptly, without truly understanding why. Now, with both of them watching, he edges past, not daring to meet their eyes. Hannah presses herself to the wall, letting their father pass, but Nath stares straight at him, silently, with a look James can’t quite parse. The sound of his car as it whines out of the driveway, then speeds away, has the ring of finality; all of them hear it. Silence settles over the house like ash.


Then Nath leaps to his feet. Stop, Hannah wants to say, but she knows Nath won’t. Nath pushes Hannah aside. His mother’s keys dangle from their hook in the kitchen, and he takes them and heads for the garage.


“Wait,” Hannah calls, out loud this time. She is not sure whether he is chasing their father or if he is running away as well, but she knows that what he has planned is dreadful. “Nath. Wait. Don’t.”


He doesn’t wait. He backs out of the garage, nicking the lilac bush beside the door, and then he, too, is gone.


Upstairs, Marilyn hears none of this. She shuts the door of Lydia’s room, and a thick, heavy quiet wraps itself around her like a smothering blanket. With one finger, she strokes Lydia’s books, the neat binders in a row, each labeled in marker with the class and date. A coarse fur of dust now coats everything—the row of blank diaries, the old science fair ribbons, the pinned-up postcard of Einstein, the covers of each binder, the spines of each book. She imagines emptying Lydia’s room piece by piece. The tiny holes and unfaded patches that will mar the wallpaper when the posters and pictures come down; the carpet, crushed beneath the furniture, that will never rise again. Like her own mother’s house after everything had been cleared away.


She thinks of her mother coming home alone all those years to an empty house, the bedroom kept just as it was, with fresh bedsheets, for the daughter who would never return, her husband long since gone, in some other woman’s bed now. You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.


With one hand, she pulls Einstein from the wall and tears him in two. Then the periodic table, useless now. She yanks the earpieces from Lydia’s stethoscope; she ravels the prize ribbons to satin shreds. One by one she topples the books from the shelf. The Color Atlas of Human Anatomy. Women Pioneers of Science. With each one, Marilyn’s breath becomes more fierce. How Your Body Works. Chemistry Experiments for Children. The Story of Medicine. She remembers every single one. It is like rewinding time, working her way backward through Lydia’s entire life. An avalanche piles up at her feet. Downstairs, huddled beneath the hall table, Hannah hears heavy thumps, like stone after stone thudding to the floor.


At last, perched in the far corner of the bookcase: the very first book Marilyn had ever bought for Lydia. Slender as a pamphlet, it teeters alone on the shelf, then tips. Air hovers all around you, the splayed pages read. Though you can’t see it, it is still there. Marilyn wants to burn the books that litter the carpet, to peel the wallpaper from the walls. Everything that reminds her of Lydia and all she could have been. She wants to stomp the very bookshelf to splinters. Stripped bare, it lists unsteadily, as if it is tired, and with one push she knocks it to the floor.


And there, in the hollow below the bottom shelf: a book. Thick. Red. A Scotch-taped spine. Even before Marilyn sees the photo, she knows what it is. But she turns it over anyway, with suddenly unsteady hands, still astonished to find Betty Crocker’s face implausibly, impossibly staring up at her.


Your cookbook, Lydia had said. I lost it. Marilyn had been thrilled, had considered it an omen: her daughter had read her mind. Her daughter would never be confined to a kitchen. Her daughter wanted more. It had been a lie. She flips the pages she has not seen in years, tracing her mother’s pencil marks with her fingertip, smoothing the pockmarked pages where she had cried all those nights, in the kitchen, alone. Somehow Lydia had known: that this book had pulled on her mother like a heavy, heavy stone. She hadn’t destroyed it. She had hidden it, all those years; she had piled book after book atop it, weighting it down, so her mother would never have to see it again.


Lydia, five years old, standing on tiptoe to watch vinegar and baking soda foam in the sink. Lydia tugging a heavy book from the shelf, saying, Show me again, show me another. Lydia, touching the stethoscope, ever so gently, to her mother’s heart. Tears blur Marilyn’s sight. It had not been science that Lydia had loved.


And then, as if the tears are telescopes, she begins to see more clearly: the shredded posters and pictures, the rubble of books, the shelf prostrate at her feet. Everything that she had wanted for Lydia, which Lydia had never wanted but had embraced anyway. A dull chill creeps over her. Perhaps—and this thought chokes her—that had dragged Lydia underwater at last.


The door creaks open, and Marilyn slowly raises her head, as if Lydia might somehow, impossibly, appear. For a second the impossible happens: a small blurred ghost of little-girl Lydia, dark-haired, big-eyed. Hesitating in the doorway, clinging to the jamb. Please, Marilyn thinks. In this word is all she cannot phrase, even to herself. Please come back, please let me start over, please stay. Please.


Then she blinks, and the figure sharpens: Hannah, pale and trembling, her face glossy with tears.


“Mom,” she whispers.

Without thinking, Marilyn opens her arms, and Hannah stumbles into them.

•   •   •


Across town, at the liquor store, Nath sets a fifth of whiskey on the counter. He has tasted alcohol exactly once in his life: at Harvard, his host student had offered him a beer. He’d gulped down four, more excited by the idea of it than the flavor—it had tasted, to him, like fizzy urine—and for the rest of the evening, the room had wobbled slightly on its axis. Now he wants the world to spin loose and careen away.


The man behind the counter studies Nath’s face, then squints at the bottle of whiskey. Nath’s fingers twitch. At eighteen, he is allowed to buy only three-two beer, that watery stuff his classmates chugged at parties. But 3.2 percent isn’t strong enough for what he needs now. The clerk eyes him again and Nath prepares himself: Go home, sonny, you’re too young for this stuff.


Instead the clerk says, “Your sister that girl who died?”


Nath’s throat goes raw, like a wound. He nods, focusing on the shelf behind the counter, where cigarettes rise in neat red-and-white stacks.


Then the clerk takes down a second bottle of whiskey and puts it in a bag with the first. He slides the bag toward Nath, along with the ten-dollar bill Nath has set on the counter.


“Good luck to you,” he says, and turns away.


The quietest spot Nath knows is out on the edge of town, near the county line. He parks by the side of the road and pulls out one of the bottles. One gulp of whiskey, then another, burns its way down, and he pictures it torching away everything raw and red and painful inside him. It’s almost one, and by the time the first bottle is gone, only one car has passed by, a dark-green Studebaker with an old lady at the wheel. The whiskey isn’t working the way he’d hoped. He’d thought it would wipe his mind clean, like a sponge on a blackboard, but instead the world sharpens with each swallow, dizzying him with its details: the spatter of mud on the driver’s side mirror; the last digit of the odometer, frozen between 5 and 6; the stitching in the car seat, just beginning to fray. A stray leaf, caught between windshield and wiper, rattles in the breeze. As he works through the second bottle, he thinks, suddenly, of his father’s face as he’d walked out the door: the way he hadn’t even glanced at them, as if he were focused on something far-off on the horizon or deep, deep in the past. Something neither he nor Hannah could see, something they couldn’t touch even if they’d wanted to. The air inside the car grows thick, filling his lungs like cotton. Nath cranks the window down. Then—as the cool breeze rushes in—he pitches over the side and vomits both bottles of whiskey onto the curb.

•   •   •


In his own car, James too mulls over that moment on the stairs. After he’d pulled out of the driveway, he had driven without thinking, jamming his foot onto the gas pedal, heading wherever he can slam his foot to the floor. This is how he finds himself driving not back to Louisa’s, but across town, right past campus, onto the highway, nudging the needle to sixty, sixty-five, seventy. Only when a sign—Toledo 15 miles—flashes wide and green overhead does he realize how far he’s gone.


How appropriate, he thinks. Toledo. It strikes him that there is a beautiful symmetry to life. Ten years ago, Marilyn had fled here, leaving everything behind. Now it is his turn. He takes a deep breath and presses the pedal more firmly. He has said it at last, what he had been most afraid to say, what she had most longed to hear: Pretend that you never met me. That none of this ever happened. He has undone the great mistake of her life.


Except—and he can’t deny this, no matter how he tries—Marilyn had not seemed grateful. She had flinched, as if he’d spat in her face. She had bitten her lips once, twice, as if swallowing a hard, painful seed. The car veers toward the shoulder, gravel shuddering under its wheels.


She left first, James reminds himself, nudging the car to the center of the road again. This is what she’s wanted all along. Yet even as he thinks this, he knows it is untrue. The yellow line wavers and weaves. To James, years of unabashed stares prickling his spine, as if he were an animal in the zoo, years of mutters in the street—chink, gook, go home—stinging his ears, different has always been a brand on his forehead, blazoned there between the eyes. It has tinted his entire life, this word; it has left its smudgy fingerprints on everything. But different had been different for Marilyn.


Marilyn: young and unafraid in a classroom of men. Draining the urine from her flasks, plugging her ears by filling her head with dreams. A white blouse in a sea of navy-blue blazers. How she had longed for different: in her life, in herself. It is as if someone has lifted his world and turned it sideways and set it down again. Marilyn, packing those dreams away in lavender for their daughter, disappointment layered beneath her smile. Triply sequestered by house and dead-end street and tiny college town, her hands soft and uncalloused but idle. The intricate gears of her mind ticking silently at no one, thoughts pinging the closed windows like a trapped bee. And now, alone in their daughter’s room, surrounded by the relics of their daughter’s life, no lavender, only dust, in the air. It has been so long since he thought of his wife as a creature of want.


Later—and for the rest of his life—James will struggle to piece words to this feeling, and he will never quite manage to say, even just to himself, what he really means. At this moment he can think only one thing: how was it possible, he wonders, to have been so wrong.

•   •   •


Back in Middlewood, Nath does not know how long he lies there, sprawled across the front seat. All he knows is this: someone opens the car door. Someone calls his name. Then a hand grips his shoulder, warm and gentle and strong, and it doesn’t let go.


To Nath, fighting through a deep and groggy stupor, the voice sounds like his father’s, though his father has never spoken his name so softly, or touched him with such tenderness. In the moment before he opens his eyes, it ishis father, and even when the world comes into focus to reveal hazy sunshine, a police cruiser, Officer Fiske crouching beside him in the open car door, it is still true. It is Officer Fiske who peels the empty whiskey bottle from his fingers and helps him lift his head, but in his heart it is his father who says, with such kindness that Nath begins to cry, “Son, it’s time to go home.”








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