Everything I Never Told You [CHAPTER- 11]

 


CHAPTER- 11

In April, home was the last place Nath wanted to be. All month—weeks before his visit to campus—he stacked books and clothes in a growing pile. Every evening before bed, he slipped the letter from beneath his pillow and reread it, savoring the details: a junior from Albany, Andrew Bynner, an astrophysics major, would escort him around campus, engage him in intellectual and practical discussions over meals in the dining hall, and host him for the long weekend. Friday to Monday, he thought, looking at his plane tickets; ninety-six hours. By the time he took his suitcase down, after Lydia’s birthday dinner, he had already sorted the things he’d take with him from those he’d leave behind.


Even with her door closed, Lydia could hear it: the click-click of the suitcase latches opening, then a thud as the lid hit the floor. Their family never traveled. Once, when Hannah was still a baby, they’d visited Gettysburg and Philadelphia. Their father had plotted out the whole trip in the road atlas, a chain of places so steeped in Americana that it oozed out everywhere: in the names of the gas stations—Valley Forge Diesel—and in the diner specials when they stopped for lunch—Gettystown Shrimp, William Penn’s Pork Tenderloin. Then, at every restaurant, the waitresses had stared at her father, then at her mother, then at her and Nath and Hannah, and she knew, even as a child, that they’d never come back. Since then, their father had taught summer classes every year, as if—she rightly suspected—to avoid raising the question of family vacations.


In Nath’s room, a drawer shut with a bang. Lydia leaned back on her bed and propped her heels on the postcard of Einstein. In her mouth, the sick-sweet taste of frosting still lingered; in her stomach, the birthday cake roiled. At the end of summer, she thought, Nath would pack not just the one suitcase but a trunk and a stack of boxes, all his books and all his clothes, everything he owned. The telescope would disappear from the corner; the stacks of aeronautics magazines would vanish from the closet. A band of dust would border the bare shelves, clean wood at the back where the books had once stood. Every drawer, when she opened it, would be empty. Even the sheets on his bed would be gone.


Nath pushed the door open. “Which one’s better?”


He held up two shirts, a hanger in each hand, so they flanked his face like curtains. On his left, a plain blue, his best dress shirt, the one he had worn to his junior award ceremony last spring. On the right, a paisley she’d never seen before, a price tag still dangling from the cuff.


“Where’d you get that?”


“Bought it,” Nath said with a grin. All his life, whenever he needed new clothes, their mother dragged him to Decker’s Department Store, and he agreed to anything she picked out in order to go home faster. Last week, counting over his ninety-six hours, he had driven himself to the mall for the first time and bought this shirt, plucking the bright pattern from the rack. It had felt like buying a new skin, and now his sister sensed this, too.


“A little fancy for going to class.” Lydia did not right herself. “Or is that how they expect you to dress at Harvard?”


Nath lowered the hangers. “There’s a mixer for visiting students. And my host student wrote me—he and his roommates are throwing a party that weekend. To celebrate the end of term.” He held the patterned shirt against him, tucking collar beneath chin. “Maybe I’d better try it on.”

He disappeared into the bathroom, and Lydia heard the scrape of hanger on shower rod. A mixer: Music, dancing, beer. Flirting. Phone numbers and addresses scribbled on scraps of paper. Write me. Call me. We’ll get together. Slowly her feet slid down to rest on her pillow. A mixer. Where new students got whirled together and blended up and turned into something new.


Nath reappeared in the doorway, fastening the top button of the paisley shirt. “What do you think?”


Lydia bit her lip. The blue pattern against the white suited him; it made him look thinner, taller, tanner. Though the buttons were plastic, they gleamed like pearl. Already Nath looked like a different person, someone she’d known once a long time ago. Already she missed him.


“The other one’s better,” she said. “You’re going to college, not Studio 54.” But she knew Nath had already made up his mind.


Late that night, just before midnight, she tiptoed into Nath’s room. She had wanted to tell him all evening about their father and Louisa, about what she’d seen in the car that afternoon, what she knew was going on. Nath had been too preoccupied, and pinning down his attention had been like catching smoke in her hands. This was her last chance. He would be leaving in the morning.


In the dim room, only the small desk lamp was on, and Nath was in his old striped pajamas, kneeling at the windowsill. For a moment Lydia thought he was praying, and, embarrassed at catching him in such a private moment—like seeing him naked—she began to close the door. Then, at the sound of her footsteps, Nath turned, his smile as incandescent as the moon just beginning to swell over the horizon, and she realized she’d been wrong. The window was open. He had not been praying, but dreaming—which, she would realize later, came to almost the same thing.


“Nath,” she began. The rush of things she wanted to say churned in her head: I saw. I think. I need. Such a large thing to break into tiny granules of words. Nath didn’t seem to notice.


“Look at that,” he whispered, with such awe that Lydia sank to her knees beside him and peered out. Above them, the sky rolled out a deep black, like a pool of ink, littered with stars. They were nothing like the stars in her science books, blurred and globby as drops of spit. They were razor-sharp, each one precise as a period, punctuating the sky with light. Tipping her head back, she could not see the houses or the lake or the lamps on the street. All she could see was the sky, so huge and dark it could crush her. It was like being on another planet. No—like floating in space, alone. She searched for the constellations she had seen on Nath’s posters: Orion, Cassiopeia, the Big Dipper. The diagrams seemed childish now, with their straight lines and primary colors and stick-figure shapes. Here the stars dazzled her eyes like sequins. This is what infinity looks like, she thought. Their clarity overwhelmed her, like pinpricks at her heart.


“Isn’t that amazing,” Nath’s voice said softly, out of the darkness. Already he sounded light-years away.


“Yeah,” Lydia heard her own voice say, barely a whisper. “Amazing.”

•   •   •


The next morning, as Nath tucked his toothbrush into its case, Lydia hovered in the doorway. In ten minutes, their father would drive him to the airport in Cleveland, where TWA would carry him to New York, then Boston. It was four thirty A.M.


“Promise you’ll call and tell me how things are going.”


“Sure,” Nath said. He stretched the elastic straps over his folded clothes in a neat X and clapped the suitcase shut.


“You promise?”


“I promise.” Nath shut the latches with one finger, then hoisted the suitcase by the handle. “Dad’s waiting. I’ll see you Monday.”


And just like that, he was gone.


Much later, when Lydia came downstairs for breakfast, she could almost pretend that nothing had changed. Her homework lay beside her breakfast bowl with four little ticks in the margin; across the table, Hannah picked pebbles of cereal from her bowl. Their mother sipped oolong and leafed through the newspaper. Only one thing was different: Nath’s place was empty. As if he had never been there.


“There you are,” Marilyn said. “Better hurry and fix this, sweetheart, or you won’t have time to eat before the bus.”


Lydia, who felt as if she were floating, made her way to the table. Marilyn, meanwhile, skimmed the paper—Carter’s approval rating 65 percent, Mondale settling into role of “Senior Adviser,” asbestos banned, another shooting in New York—before her eyes came to rest on a small human-interest story in the corner of the page. Los Angeles Doctor Revives Man in Coma for Six Years. Amazing, she thought. She smiled up at her daughter, who stood clinging to the back of her chair as if, without it, she might drift away.

•   •   •


Nath did not call that night, when Lydia shrank and shriveled beneath her parents’ undeflected attention. I got a course catalog from the college—do you want to take statistics this summer? Anyone ask you to prom yet? Well, I’m sure someone will soon. He did not call Saturday, when Lydia cried herself to sleep, or on Sunday, when she awoke with eyes still scalding. So this is what it will be like, she thought to herself. As if I never had a brother at all.


With Nath gone, Hannah followed Lydia like a puppy, scampering to her door each morning before Lydia’s clock radio had even gone off, her voice breathless, just short of a pant. Guess what? Lydia, guess what? It was never guessable and never important: it was raining; there were pancakes for breakfast; there was a blue jay in the spruce tree. Each day, all day, she trailed Lydia suggesting things they could do—We could play Life, we could watch the Friday Night Movie, we could make Jiffy Pop. All her life, Hannah had hovered at a distance from her brother and sister, and Lydia and Nath had tacitly tolerated their small, awkward moon. Now Lydia noticed a thousand little things about her sister: the way she twitched her nose once-twice, fast as a rabbit, when she was talking; the habit she had of standing on her toes, as if she had on invisible high heels. And then, Sunday afternoon, as Hannah climbed into the wedges Lydia had kicked off, she delivered her latest idea—We could go play by the lake. Lydia, let’s go play by the lakeand Lydia noticed something else, shiny and silver beneath Hannah’s shirt.


“What’s that?”


Hannah tried to turn away, but Lydia jerked her collar down to reveal what she’d already half glimpsed: a lithe silver chain, a slender silver heart. Her locket. She hooked it with one finger, and Hannah teetered, staggering out of Lydia’s shoes with a thump.


“What are you doing with that?”


Hannah glanced at the doorway, as if the correct answer might be painted on the wall. Six days ago she had found the little velvet box beneath Lydia’s bed. “I didn’t think you wanted it,” she whispered. Lydia wasn’t listening. Every time you look at this, she heard her father say, just remember what really matters. Being sociableBeing popular. Blending in. You don’t feel like smiling? Then what? Force yourself to smile. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. Hannah, so pleased in that little silver snare, looked like her younger self—timid, gawky, shoulders just beginning to stoop under the weight of something that seemed so thin and silver and light.


With a loud crack, her hand struck Hannah’s cheek, knocking her back, snapping her head to the side. Then she looped her whole hand through the chain and twisted, hard, jerking her forward like a dog on a choke collar. I’m sorry, Hannah began, but nothing emerged except a soft gasp. Lydia twisted harder. Then the necklace snapped, and both sisters found they could breathe again.


“You don’t want that,” Lydia said, the gentleness in her voice surprising Hannah, surprising Lydia herself. “Listen to me. You think you do. You don’t.” She bunched the necklace in her fist. “Promise me you’ll never put this on again. Ever.”


Hannah shook her head, eyes wide. Lydia touched her sister’s throat, her thumb smoothing the tiny thread of blood where the chain had sliced into the skin.


“Don’t ever smile if you don’t want to,” she said, and Hannah, half-blinded by the spotlight of Lydia’s whole attention, nodded. “Remember that.”


Hannah kept her word: later that night, and for years to come, she would look back on this moment, each time touching her throat, where the red mark of the chain had long since faded away. Lydia had looked more anxious than angry, the necklace dangling from her fingers like a dead snake; she had sounded almost sad, as if she had done something wrong, not Hannah. The necklace was, in fact, the last thing Hannah would ever steal. But this moment, this last talk with her sister, would puzzle her for a long time.


That evening, in the safety of her room, Lydia pulled out the piece of loose-leaf on which Nath had scrawled his host student’s number. After dinner—when her father retreated to his study and her mother settled into the living room—she unfolded it and picked up the telephone on the landing. The phone rang six times before someone answered and, in the background, she could hear the raucous sounds of a party just getting under way. “Who?” the voice on the other end said, twice, and at last Lydia gave up whispering and snapped, “Nathan Lee. The visiting student. Nathan Lee.” Minutes ticked by, each ratcheting up the long-distance charge—though by the time the bill came, James would be too devastated to notice. Downstairs, Marilyn clicked the television dial around and around: Rhoda. Six Million Dollar Man. Quincy. Rhoda again. Then, finally, Nath came on the line.


“Nath,” Lydia said. “It’s me.” To her surprise, tears welled in her eyes just at the sound of his voice—though his voice was deeper and blunter than usual, as if he had a cold. In fact, Nath was three-quarters through the first beer of his life, and the room was beginning to take on a warmish glow. Now his sister’s voice—flattened by long distance—sliced through that glow like a blunt knife.


“What’s the matter?”

“You didn’t call.”

“What?”

“You promised you’d call.” Lydia wiped her eyes with the back of one wrist.

“That’s why you’re calling?”


“No, listen, Nath. I need to tell you something.” Lydia paused, puzzling over how to explain. In the background, a burst of laughter swelled like a wave crashing ashore.


Nath sighed. “What happened? Did Mom nag you about your homework?” He tipped the bottle to his lips and found the beer had gone warm, and the stale liquid shriveled his tongue. “Wait, let me guess. Mom bought you a special present, but it was just a book. Dad bought you a new dress—no, a diamond necklace—and he expects you to wear it. Last night at dinner you had to talk and talk and talk and all their attention was on you. Am I getting warmer?”


Stunned, Lydia fell silent. All their lives Nath had understood, better than anyone, the lexicon of their family, the things they could never truly explain to outsiders: that a book or a dress meant more than something to read or something to wear; that attention came with expectations that—like snow—drifted and settled and crushed you with their weight. All the words were right, but in this new Nath’s voice, they sounded trivial and brittle and hollow. The way anyone else might have heard them. Already her brother had become a stranger.


“I gotta go,” he said.

“Wait. Wait, Nath. Listen.”


“God, I don’t have time for this.” In a flash of bitterness, he added, “Why don’t you go take your problems to Jack?”


He did not know then how those words would haunt him. After he slammed the receiver back onto the cradle, a twinge of guilt, like a small sharp bubble, bored its way through his chest. But from far away, with the heat and noise of the party cocooning him, his perspective had shifted. Everything that loomed so large close up—school, their parents, their lives—all you had to do was step away, and they shrank to nothing. You could stop taking their phone calls, tear up their letters, pretend they’d never existed. Start over as a new person with a new life. Just a problem of geography, he thought, with the confidence of someone who had never yet tried to free himself of family. Soon enough Lydia, too, would head off to school. Soon enough she, too, would cut herself free. He gulped down the rest of his beer and went to get another.


At home, alone on the landing, Lydia cradled the handset in her hands for a long time after the click. The tears that had choked off her voice dried away. A slow, burning anger at Nath began to smolder inside her, his parting words ringing in her ears. I don’t have time for this. He had turned into a different person, a person who didn’t care that she needed him. A person who said things to hurt her. She felt herself becoming a different person, too: a person who would slap her sister. Who would hurt Nath as much as he had hurt her. Go take your problems to Jack.

•   •   •


Monday morning she put on her prettiest dress, the halter-neck with the tiny red flowers, which her father had bought her in the fall. Something new for the new school year, he had said. They had been shopping for school supplies and he had spotted it on a mannequin in the store’s window display. James liked to buy Lydia dresses off the mannequin; he was sure it meant everyone was wearing them. The latest thing, right? Every girl needs a dress for a special occasion. Lydia, who aimed for unobtrusive—a hooded sweater and corduroys; a plain blouse and bell-bottoms—knew it was a date dress, and she did not date. She had kept it in the back of her closet for months, but today she pulled it from the hanger. She parted her hair carefully, right down the center, and clipped one side back with a red barrette. With the tip of her lipstick she traced the curves of her mouth.


“Don’t you look nice,” James said at breakfast. “Just as pretty as Susan Dey.” Lydia smiled and said nothing, not when Marilyn said, “Lydia, don’t be too late after school, Nath will be home for dinner,” not when James touched one finger to her dimple—that old joke again—and said, “All the boys will be after you now.” Across the table, Hannah studied her sister’s dress and lipsticked smile, rubbing one finger against the rusty scab, fine as a spiderweb, that ringed her neck. Don’t, she wanted to say, though she didn’t know: don’t what? She knew only that something was about to happen, and that nothing she could say or do would prevent it. When Lydia had gone, she seized her spoon and mashed the soggy cereal in her bowl to a pulp.


Hannah was right. That afternoon, at Lydia’s suggestion, Jack drove up to the Point, overlooking the town, and they parked in the shade. On a Friday night, half a dozen cars would cluster there, windows slowly fogging, until a police car scattered them away. Now—in the bright light of a Monday afternoon—there was no one else around.


“So when’s Nath getting back?”


“Tonight, I think.” In fact, Lydia knew, Nath would land at Hopkins Airport in Cleveland at five nineteen. He and their father would be home at six thirty. She peeked through the window to where First Federal’s clock rose, just visible in the center of town. Five minutes past four.


“Must be weird not having him around.”


Lydia laughed, a small, bitter laugh. “Four days wasn’t long enough for him, I bet. He can’t wait to leave for good.”


“It’s not like you’ll never see him again. I mean, he’ll come back. At Christmas. And summers. Right?” Jack raised an eyebrow.


“Maybe. Or maybe he’ll stay out there forever. Who cares.” Lydia swallowed, steadying her voice. “I’ve got my own life.” Through the rolled-down window, the new leaves of the maples rustled. A single helicopter, leftover from fall, broke free and spiraled to the ground. Every cell in her body was trembling, but when she looked down at her hands, they lay calm and quiet in her lap.


She opened the glove compartment and fished out the box of condoms. There were still two inside, just as there had been months ago.


Jack looked startled. “What are you doing?”


“It’s okay. Don’t worry. I won’t regret anything.” He was so close she could smell the sweet saltiness of his skin. “You know, you’re not like people think,” she said, touching one hand to his thigh. “Everybody thinks, with all those girls, you don’t care about anything. But that’s not true. That’s not really who you are, is it?” Her eyes met his, blue on blue. “I know you.”


And while Jack stared, Lydia took a deep breath, as if she were diving underwater, and kissed him.


She had never kissed anyone before, and it was—though she didn’t know it—a sweet kiss, a chaste kiss, a little-girl kiss. Beneath her lips, his were warm and dry and still. Beneath the smoke, Jack smelled as if he had just been out in the woods, leafy and green. He smelled the way velvet felt, something you wanted to run your hands over and then press to your face. In that moment Lydia’s mind fast-forwarded, the way movies did. Past them clambering into the backseat, tumbling over one another, their hands too slow for their desires. Past untying the knot at the nape of her neck, past the peeling away of clothing, past Jack’s body hovering over hers. All the things she had never experienced and, in truth, could barely imagine. By the time Nath came home, she thought, she would be transformed. That evening, when Nath told her everything new that he had seen at Harvard, everything about the new and fabulous life he was already beginning, she would have something new to tell him, too.


And then, very gently, Jack pulled away.


“You’re sweet,” he said.


He gazed down at her, but—even Lydia understood this instinctively—not like a lover: tenderly, the way adults look at children who have fallen and hurt themselves. Inside, she shriveled. She looked down at her lap, letting her hair screen her burning face, and a bitter taste bloomed in her mouth.


“Don’t tell me you’ve grown morals all of a sudden,” she said sharply. “Or am I just not good enough for you?”


“Lydia,” Jack sighed, his voice flannel-soft. “It’s not you.”

“Then what?”


A long pause, so long she thought Jack had forgotten to answer. When he spoke at last, he turned toward the window, as if what he really meant were outside, beyond the maple trees, beyond the lake and everything beneath them. “Nath.”


“Nath?” Lydia rolled her eyes. “Don’t be afraid of Nath. Nath doesn’t matter.”


“He matters,” Jack said, still looking out the window. “He matters to me.”


It took Lydia a minute to process this, and she stared, as if Jack’s face had changed shape, or his hair had changed color. Jack rubbed his thumb against the base of his ring finger, and she knew that he was telling the truth, that this had been the truth for a long, long time.


“But—” Lydia paused. Nath? “You’re always—I mean, everyone knows—” Without meaning to, she glanced at the backseat, at the faded Navajo blanket crumpled there.


Jack smiled a wry smile. “How did you put it? Everybody thinks, with all those girls—but that’s not who you are.” He glanced at her sideways. Through the open window, a breeze ruffled his sandy curls. “No one would ever suspect.”


Snatches of conversation floated back to Lydia now, in a different tone. Where’s your brother? What’s Nath going to say? And: Are you going to tell your brother we’ve been hanging out, and I’m not such a bad guy? What had she said? He’d never believe me. The half-empty box of condoms gaped up at her, and she crushed it in her fist. I know you, she heard herself say again, and cringed. How could I have been so stupid, she thought. To have gotten him so wrong. To have gotten everything so wrong.


“I gotta go.” Lydia snatched her bookbag from the floor of the car.

“I’m sorry.”


“Sorry? For what? There’s nothing to be sorry about.” Lydia slung the bag over her shoulder. “Actually, I’m sorry for you. In love with someone who hates you.”


She glared at Jack: one sharp wince, as if she’d splashed water in his eyes. Then Jack’s face grew wary and pinched and closed, like it was with other people, like it had been the first day they’d met. He grinned, but it looked more like a grimace.


“At least I don’t let other people tell me what I want,” he said, and she flinched at the contempt in his voice. She had not heard it in so many months. “At least I know who I am. What I want.” His eyes narrowed. “What about you, Miss Lee? What do you want?”


Of course I know what I want, she thought, but when she opened her mouth she found it empty. In her mind words ricocheted like glass marbles—doctor, popular, happy—and scattered into silence.


Jack snorted. “At least I don’t let other people tell me what to do all the time. At least I’m not afraid.”


Lydia swallowed. Under his eyes her skin felt flayed away. She wanted to hit Jack, but that would not be painful enough. And then she knew what would hurt him most.


“I bet Nath would love to hear about all this,” she said. “I bet everyone at school would. Don’t you think so?”


Before her eyes, Jack deflated like a pricked balloon.


“Look—Lydia—” he began, but she had already shoved the car door open and slammed it behind her. With each step, her bookbag thumped against her back, but she kept running, all the way down to the main road and toward home, not stopping even when a stitch knotted her side. At the sound of every car, she wheeled around, expecting to see Jack, but the VW was nowhere in sight. She wondered if he was still parked up there on the Point, that hunted look still in his eyes.


When she passed the lake and reached her own street, slowing to catch her breath at last, everything looked unfamiliar: strangely sharp, all the colors too bright, like an overtuned TV set. Green lawns were a little too blue, Mrs. Allen’s white gables a little too dazzling, the skin of her own arms a little too yellow. Everything felt just a bit distorted, and Lydia squinted, trying to squash it back into familiar shape. When she reached her own house, it took her a moment to realize that the woman sweeping the porch was her mother.


Marilyn, spotting her daughter, held out her arms for a kiss. Only then did Lydia discover the box of condoms still clutched in her hand, and she shoved it into her bookbag, inside the lining.


“You feel warm,” Marilyn said. She picked up the broom again. “I’m almost finished. Then we can start reviewing for your exams.” Tiny green buds, fallen from the trees, crushed themselves beneath the bristles.


For a moment Lydia’s voice froze, and when it finally emerged, it was so jagged neither she nor her mother recognized it. “I told you,” she snapped. “I don’t need your help.”


By tomorrow, Marilyn would forget this moment: Lydia’s shout, the shattered edges in her tone. It would disappear forever from her memory of Lydia, the way memories of a lost loved one always smooth and simplify themselves, shedding complexities like scales. For now, startled by her daughter’s unusual tone, she attributed it to fatigue, to the late afternoon.


“Not much time left,” she called as Lydia pulled the front door open. “You know, it’s already May.”

•   •   •


Later, when they look back on this last evening, the family will remember almost nothing. So many things will be pared away by the sadness to come. Nath, flushed with excitement, chattered through dinner, but none of them—including him—will remember this unusual volubility, or a single word he said. They will not remember the early-evening sunlight splashing across the tablecloth like melted butter, or Marilyn saying, The lilacs are starting to bloom. They will not remember James smiling at the mention of Charlie’s Kitchen, thinking of long-ago lunches with Marilyn, or Hannah asking, Do they have the same stars in Boston? and Nath answering, Yes, of course they do. All of that will be gone by morning. Instead, they will dissect this last evening for years to come. What had they missed that they should have seen? What small gesture, forgotten, might have changed everything? They will pick it down to the bones, wondering how this had all gone so wrong, and they will never be sure.


As for Lydia: all evening, she asked herself the same question. She did not notice her father’s nostalgia, or her brother’s illuminated face. All through dinner, and after dinner, after she had said goodnight, that one question churned through her mind. How had this all gone so wrong? Alone, record player humming in the lamplight, she dug back through her memory: Before Jack’s face that afternoon, defiant and tender and hunted all at once. Before Jack. Before the failed physics test, before biology, before the ribbons and books and the real stethoscope. Where had things gone askew?


As her clock flipped from 1:59 to 2:00 with a gentle click, it came to her, falling into place with the same tiny sound. The record had long since spun to a halt, and the darkness outside made the silence deeper, like the muffled hush of a library. She knew at last where everything had gone wrong. And she knew where she had to go.

•   •   •


The wood of the dock was just as smooth as she remembered it. Lydia sat down at the end, as she had so long ago, feet dangling over the edge, where the rowboat knocked softly against the pier. All this time, she had never dared come so close again. Tonight, in the dark, she felt no fear, and she noted this with a calm sense of wonder.


Jack was right: she had been afraid so long, she had forgotten what it was like not to be—afraid that, one day, her mother would disappear again, that her father would crumble, that their whole family would collapse once more. Ever since that summer without her mother, their family had felt precarious, as if they were teetering on a cliff. Before that she hadn’t realized how fragile happiness was, how if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it. Anything her mother wanted, she had promised. As long as she would stay. She had been so afraid.


So every time her mother said Do you want—? she had said yes. She knew what her parents had longed for, without them saying a word, and she had wanted them happy. She had kept her promise. And her mother had stayed. Read this book. Yes. Want this. Love this. Yes. Once, at the college museum, while Nath had pouted about missing the star show, she had spotted a nugget of amber with a fly trapped inside. “That’s four million years old,” Marilyn whispered, wrapping her arms around her daughter from behind. Lydia had stared until Nath, at last, had dragged them both away. Now she thought of the fly landing daintily in the pool of resin. Perhaps it had mistaken it for honey. Perhaps it hadn’t seen the puddle at all. By the time it had realized its mistake, it was too late. It had flailed, and then it had sunk, and then it had drowned.


Ever since that summer, she had been so afraid—of losing her mother, of losing her father. And, after a while, the biggest fear of all: of losing Nath, the only one who understood the strange and brittle balance in their family. Who knew all that had happened. Who had always kept her afloat.


That long-ago day, sitting in this very spot on the dock, she had already begun to feel it: how hard it would be to inherit their parents’ dreams. How suffocating to be so loved. She had felt Nath’s hands on her shoulders and been almost grateful to fall forward, to let herself sink. Then, when her head had plunged beneath the surface, the water was like a slap. She had tried to scream and coldness slid down her throat, choking her. She’d stretched out her toes looking for ground and there wasn’t any. Nothing when she reached out her arms. Only wetness and cold.


Then: warmth. Nath’s fingers, Nath’s hand, Nath’s arm, Nath pulling her back up and her head coming up out of the lake, water dripping out of her hair into her eyes and her eyes stinging. Kick, Nath had told her. His hands held her up, surprising her with their strength, their sureness, and she had felt warm all over. His fingers caught hers and right then she had stopped being afraid.


Kick your legs. I’ve got you. Kick.


It had been the same ever since. Don’t let me sink, she had thought as she reached for his hand, and he had promised not to when he took it. This moment, Lydia thought. This is where it all went wrong.


It was not too late. There on the dock, Lydia made a new set of promises, this time to herself. She will begin again. She will tell her mother: enough. She will take down the posters and put away the books. If she fails physics, if she never becomes a doctor, it will be all right. She will tell her mother that. And she will tell her mother, too: it’s not too late. For anything. She will give her father back his necklace and his book. She will stop holding the silent phone to her ear; she will stop pretending to be someone she is not. From now on, she will do what she wants. Feet planted firmly on nothing, Lydia—so long enthralled by the dreams of others—could not yet imagine what that might be, but suddenly the universe glittered with possibilities. She will change everything. She will tell Jack she’s sorry, that she’ll never tell his secret. If he can be brave, so sure of who he is and what he wants, perhaps she can, too. She’ll tell him that she understands.


And Nath. She will tell him that it’s all right for him to leave. That she will be fine. That he’s not responsible for her anymore, that he doesn’t need to worry. And then she will let him go.

And as she made this last promise, Lydia understood what to do. How to start everything over again, from the beginning, so she would never again be afraid to be alone. What she must do to seal her promises, to make them real. Gently she lowered herself into the rowboat and loosed the rope. As she pushed away from the dock, she expected a surge of panic. It didn’t come. Even once she had rowed, stroke by clumsy stroke, out onto the lake—far enough that the lamppost was just a dot, too small to contaminate the darkness around her—she felt strangely calm and confident. Above her the moon was coin-round, sharp and perfect. Beneath her the boat rocked so gently that she could hardly feel its motion. Looking up at the sky, she felt as if she were floating in space, completely untethered. She could not believe that anything was impossible.


In the distance, the light from the dock shone like a star. If she squinted, she could just make out the dim shape of the dock itself, the pale line of boards against the darker night. When she got a little closer, she thought, she would be able to see it perfectly: the boards worn smooth by generations of bare feet, the posts that held them up just above the surface of the water. Carefully, she got to her feet, spreading her arms as the boat swayed. It was not so far. She could do this, she was certain. All she had to do was kick. She would kick her way to the dock and reach up to the planks and pull herself up out of the water. Tomorrow morning, she would ask Nath about Harvard. What it was like there. She would ask him about the people he met, the classes he would take. She would tell him he’d have a wonderful time.


She looked down at the lake, which in the dark looked like nothing, just blackness, a great void spreading beneath her. It will be all right, she told herself, and she stepped out of the boat into the water.








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