Everything I Never Told You [CHAPTER- 6]

 


CHAPTER- 6

The summer Lydia fell in the lake, the summer Marilyn went missing: all of them had tried to forget it. They did not talk about it; they never mentioned it. But it lingered, like a bad smell. It had suffused them so deeply it could never wash out.


Every morning, James called the police. Did they need more photographs of Marilyn? Was there any more information he could give? Were there any more people he could call? By mid-May, when Marilyn had been gone for two weeks, the officer in charge of the case told him, gently, “Mr. Lee, we appreciate all the help you’ve provided. And we’re keeping an eye out for the car. I can’t promise we’ll find anything, though. Your wife took clothes with her. She packed suitcases. She took her keys.” Officer Fiske, even then, hated to give out false hopes. “This kind of thing happens sometimes. Sometimes people are just too different.” He did not say mixed, or interracial, or mismatched, but he didn’t have to. James heard it anyway, and he would remember Officer Fiske very clearly, even a decade later.


To the children, he said, “The police are looking. They’ll find her. She’ll come home soon.”


Lydia and Nath remembered it this way: weeks passed and their mother was still gone. At recess the other children whispered and teachers gave them pitying looks and it was a relief when school finally ended. After that their father stayed in his study and let them watch television all day, from Mighty Mouse and Underdog in the morning to I’ve Got a Secret late at night. When Lydia asked, once, what he did in the study, he sighed and said, “Oh, I just putter around.” She thought of her father wearing soft rubber shoes and taking small steps on the smooth floor: putter putter putter. “It means reading books and things, stupid,” Nath said, and the soft rubber shoes turned into her father’s plain brown ones with the fraying laces.


What James actually did, each morning, was take a small envelope from his breast pocket. After the police had gone that first night with a snapshot of Marilyn and assurances they’d do all they could, after he had scooped the children up and tucked them in bed with their clothes still on, he had noticed the shredded scraps of paper in the bedroom wastebasket. One by one he plucked them from the cotton balls, the old newspapers, the tissues smudged with his wife’s lipsticked kiss. He had pieced them together on the kitchen table, matching torn edge to torn edge. I always had one kind of life in mind and things have turned out very differently. The bottom half of the sheet was blank, but he hadn’t stopped until every fragment was placed. She had not even signed it.


He read the note over and over, staring at the tiny cracks of wood grain snaking between the patches of white, until the sky outside shifted from navy to gray. Then he slipped the scraps of paper into an envelope. Every day—though he promised himself this time would be the last time—he settled Nath and Lydia in front of the television, locked the door to his study, and pulled out the shreds of note again. He read it while the children moved from cartoons to soap operas to game shows, while they sprawled, unsmiling, in front of Bewitched and Let’s Make a Deal and To Tell the Truth, while—despite Johnny Carson’s best zingers—they sank into sleep.


When they had married, he and Marilyn had agreed to forget about the past. They would start a new life together, the two of them, with no looking back. With Marilyn gone, James broke that pact again and again. Each time he read the note, he thought of her mother, who had never referred to him by name, only indirectly—to Marilyn—as your fiancΓ©. Whose voice he had heard on their wedding day, echoing out into the marble lobby of the courthouse like an announcement on the P.A. system, so loud heads had turned: It’s not right, Marilyn. You know it’s not right. Who had wanted Marilyn to marry someone more like her. Who had never called them again after their wedding. All this must have come back to Marilyn as she ate at her mother’s table and slept in her mother’s bed: what a mistake she’d made, marrying him. How her mother had been right all along. 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. In kindergarten, he had learned how to make a bruise stop hurting: you pressed it over and over with your thumb. The first time it hurt so much your eyes watered. The second time it hurt a little less. The tenth time, it was barely an ache. So he read the note again and again. He remembered everything he could: Marilyn kneeling to lace Nath’s sneaker; Marilyn lifting his collar to slide in the stays. Marilyn as she was that first day in his office: slender and serious and so focused that he didn’t dare look at those eyes directly.


It didn’t stop hurting. His eyes didn’t stop watering.


When he heard the station’s late-night sign-off and the national anthem begin to play, he would slip the scraps of Marilyn’s note into the envelope and tuck it back into his shirt pocket. Then he tiptoed into the living room, where the children lay curled up together on the floor by the sofa, illuminated by the test pattern on the television. The Indian at the top of the screen glared as James carried first Lydia, then Nath, to bed. Then—because, without Marilyn, the bed felt too empty, like a barren plateau—he returned to the living room, swaddling himself in an old crocheted afghan on the sofa and studying the circles on the screen until the signal cut off. In the morning, it all began again.


Each morning Lydia and Nath, finding themselves back in their beds, wondered for just a moment if the universe had righted itself: perhaps they might enter the kitchen and find their mother at the stove, waiting for them with love and kisses and hard-boiled eggs. Neither ever mentioned this most tender hope, but each morning, when they met in the kitchen and found no one there but their father, in rumpled pajamas, setting out two empty bowls, they looked at each other and knew. Still gone.


They tried to keep busy, trading the marshmallows from their cereal to make breakfast last as long as they could: a pink for an orange, two yellows for a green. At lunchtime, their father made sandwiches, but he never got it right—not enough peanut butter, or not enough jelly, or cut crosswise instead of in triangles like their mother would have. Lydia and Nath, suddenly tactful, said nothing, even at dinner, when there would be peanut butter and jelly again.


The only time they left the house was for the grocery store. “Please,” Nath begged one day on the way home, as the lake glided past the car windows. “Please can we swim. Just an hour. Just five minutes. Just ten seconds.” James, his eyes on the rearview mirror, did not slow the car. “You know Lydia doesn’t know how,” he said. “I’m not ready to play lifeguard today.” He turned onto their street, and Nath slid across the backseat and pinched Lydia’s arm.


“Baby,” he hissed. “We can’t swim because of you.


Across the street, Mrs. Allen was weeding her garden, and when the car doors opened, she waved them over. “James,” she said. “James, I haven’t seen you in a while.” She held a sharp little rake and wore pink and purple gloves, but when she leaned on the inside of the garden gate and peeled them off, Lydia spotted half-moons of dirt under her fingernails.


“How is Marilyn?” Mrs. Allen asked. “She’s been away quite a while, hasn’t she? I do hope everything is all right.” Her eyes were excited and bright, as if—Nath thought—she might get a present.


“We’re holding down the fort,” James said.


“How long will she be away?”


James glanced down at the children and hesitated. “Indefinitely,” he said. Beside him, Nath kicked Mrs. Allen’s gate with the toe of his sneaker. “Don’t do that, Nath. You’re leaving a scuff.”


Mrs. Allen peered down at them, but the children, in unison, looked away. Her lips were too thin, her teeth too white. Under the heel of Lydia’s shoe, a wad of bubble gum stuck her to the concrete like glue. Even if she were allowed, she thought, she could not run away.


“You two be good now, and your mother will be home soon, isn’t that right?” Mrs. Allen said. She shifted her thin-lipped smile to James, who didn’t meet her eye. “Our groceries must be melting,” James said, though he and Lydia and Nath knew there was nothing in the bag but a quart of milk, two jars of Jif, and a loaf of bread. “It’s nice seeing you, Vivian.” He tucked the paper sack under his arm and took each of the children by a hand and turned away, and the gum under Lydia’s shoe stretched and snapped, leaving a long, dried-out worm on the sidewalk.


At dinner, Nath asked, “What does indefinitely mean?”


Their father looked suddenly at the ceiling, as if Nath had pointed out a bug and he wanted to find it before it ran away. Lydia’s eyes went hot, as if she were staring into the oven. Nath, remorseful, prodded his sandwich with his knuckle, squeezing peanut butter onto the tablecloth, but their father didn’t notice.


“I want you to forget everything Mrs. Allen said,” James said finally. “She’s a silly woman and she doesn’t know your mother at all. I want you to pretend we never even talked to her.” He patted their hands and tried to smile. “This isn’t anyone’s fault. Especially not yours.”


Lydia and Nath both knew he was lying, and they understood that this was how things would be for a long time.


The weather grew warm and sticky. Every morning Nath counted up the number of days his mother had been gone: Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. He was tired of staying inside in the stale air, tired of the television, tired of his sister, who more and more stared glassy-eyed at the screen in silence. What was there to say? Their mother’s absence gnawed at them quietly, a dull and spreading hurt. One morning in early June, when Lydia nodded off during a commercial break, he tiptoed toward the front door. Their father had told them not to leave the house, but the porch steps, he decided, were still the house.


At the far end of the street, Jack perched on his own porch railing, chin propped on bent-up knees. Ever since that day at the pool, Nath had not spoken to Jack, not even hiWhen they got off the school bus together, Nath tugged at the straps of his bookbag, walking home as fast as he could. At recess, if he saw Jack coming toward him, he ran to the other side of the playground. It was starting to be a habit, disliking Jack. Now, though, as Jack turned his head and spotted him and bounded down the street, Nath stayed put. Talking to anyone—even Jack—was better than more silence.


“Want one?” Jack asked when he reached the steps. Nestled in his outstretched palm: a half-dozen red candies, fish-shaped, the size of his thumb. Head to tail, tail to head, they glistened like jewels. Jack grinned, and even the tips of his ears perked up. “Got them at the five-and-dime. Ten cents a scoop.”


Instantly Nath was flooded with intense longing: for the shelves of scissors and paste and crayons, the bins of bouncy balls and wax lips and rubber rats, the foil-wrapped chocolate bars lined up at the front counter, and, by the register, the big glass jar of ruby-colored candy, the cherry scent wafting out the moment you lifted the lid.


Jack bit the head off one of the fish and held out his hand again. “They’re good.” Close up, Jack’s eyelashes were the same sandy color as his hair, the tips golden where they caught the sunlight. Nath slipped one of the candies into his mouth and let the sweetness seep into him and counted the freckles on Jack’s cheek: nine.


“You’ll be okay,” Jack said suddenly. He leaned closer to Nath, as if he were telling a secret. “My mom says kids only need one parent. She says if my dad doesn’t care enough to see me, it’s his loss, not mine.”


Nath’s tongue went stiff and thick, like a piece of meat. Suddenly he could not swallow. A trickle of syrupy spit nearly choked him, and he spat the half-chewed candy into the grass.


“Shut up,” he hissed. “You—you shut up.” He spat again, for good measure, trying to expel the taste of cherry. Then he stumbled to his feet and back inside, slamming the door so hard that the screen shook. Behind him, Jack lingered at the bottom of the steps, looking down at the fish trapped inside his fist. Later on, Nath would forget exactly what Jack had said to make him so angry. He would remember only the anger itself, which smoldered as if it had always been there.


Then, a few days later, the most wonderful distraction arrived—for Nath, at least. One morning Nath turned on the television, but there were no cartoons. There was Walter Cronkite, serene at his desk just as if he were doing the evening news—but it was barely eight A.M., and his desk stood outside, the Cape Kennedy wind ruffling his papers and his hair. A rocket stood poised on the launchpad behind him; at the bottom of the screen, a countdown clock ticked. It was the launch of Gemini 9. Had Nath known the word, he would have thought: surreal. When the rocket shot upward in a billow of sulfur-colored smoke, he crept so close to the television that his nose smudged the glass. The counters on the bottom of the screen showed impossible numbers: seven thousand miles an hour, nine thousand, ten. He had not known anything could fly so high.


All morning Nath absorbed the news reports, savoring each new term like a fancy bonbon: Rendezvous. Orbital map. Lydia curled up on the sofa and went to sleep while, all afternoon, Nath repeated Gemini. Gemini. GEM-in-i. Like a magic spell. Long after the rocket faded into blue, the camera stayed trained on the sky, on the fading plume of white it left behind. For the first time in a month, he forgot, for a moment, about his mother. Up there—eighty-five miles high, ninety, ninety-five, the counter said—everything on earth would be invisible. Mothers who disappeared, fathers who didn’t love you, kids who mocked you—everything would shrink to pinpoints and vanish. Up there: nothing but stars.


For the next day and a half, despite Lydia’s complaints, Nath refused to switch to I Love Lucy reruns or Father Knows Best. He began to refer to the astronauts—Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan—by first name, as if they were friends. As the first transmission from the astronauts was patched through, Lydia heard only garbled, scratchy gibberish, as if the voices had been pressed through a grinder. Nath, however, had no trouble making out the words: Gene, breathless, whispering, “Boy, it sure is beautiful out here.” NASA had no television feed of the men in orbit, so the station aired a simulation: an actor on wires, a prop set on a soundstage in Missouri. But when the space-suited figure lumbered out of the capsule and floated gracefully, effortlessly upward—feet to the sky, tethered by nothing—Nath forgot it wasn’t real. He forgot everything. He forgot to breathe.


At lunch, while they ate their peanut butter sandwiches, Nath said, “The astronauts eat shrimp cocktail and beef stew and pineapple cake.” At dinner, he said, “Gene is the youngest man ever to go into space, and they’re going to do the longest spacewalk ever.” In the morning, as his father poured cereal that Nath was too excited to eat, he said, “The astronauts wear iron pants to protect their legs from the boosters.”


James, who should have loved astronauts—what were they but modern cowboys, after all, venturing into the newest frontier?—did not know any of these things. Tangled in his thoughts, Marilyn’s torn-up note pressed to his heart, he saw his son’s new obsession through the other end of the telescope. The astronauts, far off in the sky, were mere specks. Two little men in a sardine can, tinkering with nuts and bolts, while here on earth people were disappearing, even dying, and others were struggling just to stay alive one more day. So frivolous, so ridiculous: actors playing dress-up, strung on wires, pretending to be brave. Dancing with their feet above their heads. Nath, mesmerized, stared at the screen all day with a serene smile, and James felt a hot resentful flare in his gullet.


On Sunday evening, Nath said, “Daddy, can you believe people can go practically to the moon and still come back?” and James slapped him, so hard Nath’s teeth rattled. “Shut up about that nonsense,” he said. “How can you think about things like that when—”


He had never hit Nath before, and he never would again. But something between them had already broken. Nath, clutching his cheek, darted out of the room, as did Lydia, and James, left alone in the living room with the image of his son’s shocked, reddening eyes, kicked the television to the floor in a burst of glass and sparks. And although he took the children on a special trip to Decker’s Department Store on Monday to buy another, he would never again think of astronauts, of space, without recoiling, as if shielding his eyes from shards of glass.


Nath, on the other hand, took down the Encyclopaedia Britannica and began to read: Gravity. Rocket. Propulsion. He began to scan the newspapers for articles about the astronauts, about their next mission. Surreptitiously he clipped them and saved them in a folder, poring over them when he woke up in the night dreaming of his mother. Tented by his blanket, he pulled a flashlight from under his pillow and reread the articles in order, memorizing every detail. He learned the name of each launch: Freedom. Aurora. Sigma. He recited the names of the astronauts: Carpenter. Cooper. Grissom. Glenn. By the time he reached the end of the list, he was able to sleep again.


Lydia had nothing to keep her mind off the mother-shaped hole in her world, and with Nath distracted by docking adaptors and splashdowns and apogees, she noticed something: the house smelled different without her mother in it. Once she noticed this, she could not stop noticing. At night she dreamed terrible things: she was crawling with spiders, she was tied up with snakes, she was drowning in a teacup. Sometimes, when she woke in the dark, she could hear the creak of the sofa springs downstairs as their father turned over, then turned again. Those nights, she never fell back asleep again, and the days grew sticky and thick, like syrup.


Only one thing in the house still reminded Lydia of her mother: the big red cookbook. While her father locked himself in his office and Nath bent his head over the encyclopedia, she would go into the kitchen and take it down from the counter. At five, she could already read some—though not nearly as well as Nath—and she sounded out the recipes: Chocolate Joy Cake. Olive Loaf. Onion Slim-Dip. Each time she opened the cookbook, the woman on the front looked a little more like her mother—the smile, the folded-back collar, the way she looked not right at you but over your shoulder, just past you. After her mother had come back from Virginia, she had read this book every day: in the afternoon, when Lydia came home from school; in the evening, before Lydia went to bed. In the mornings, sometimes, it was still on the table, as if her mother had been reading it all night. This cookbook, Lydia knew, was her mother’s favorite book, and she leafed through it with the adoration of a devotee touching a Bible.


The third day of July, when her mother had been gone for two months, she curled up in her favorite spot under the dining table with the cookbook once again. That morning, when she and Nath had asked their father about hot dogs and sparklers and s’mores, he had said only, “We’ll see,” and they all knew this meant no. Without their mother, there would be no barbeques, no lemonade, no walking down to the lake to watch the fireworks. There would be nothing but peanut butter and jelly and the house with the curtains pulled shut. She flipped the pages, looking at the photos of cream pies and cookie houses and standing rib roasts. And, there, on one page: a line drawn down the side. She sounded out the words.


What mother doesn’t love to cook with her little girl?


Beneath that:

And what little girl doesn’t love learning with Mom?


Little bumps pocked the page all over, as if it had been out in the rain, and Lydia stroked them like Braille with her fingertip. She did not understand what they were until a tear splashed against the page. When she wiped it away, a tiny goose bump remained.


Another formed, then another. Her mother must have cried over this page, too.


It’s not your fault, her father had said, but Lydia knew it was. They’d done something wrong, she and Nath; they’d made her angry somehow. They hadn’t been what she wanted.


'If her mother ever came home and told her to finish her milk, she thought, the page wavering to a blur, she would finish her milk. She would brush her teeth without being asked and stop crying when the doctor gave her shots. She would go to sleep the second her mother turned out the light. She would never get sick again. She would do everything her mother told her. Everything her mother wanted.

•   •   •


Yet often, when she opened her books, Marilyn’s mind whirled. Equations jumbled and rejumbled, hidden messages jumping out at her. NaOH became 
Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful. One morning, consulting the periodic table, instead of helium she thought He and James’s face floated up in her mind. Other days, the messages were more subtle: a typo in the textbook—“the common acids, egg. nitric, acetic . . .”—left her in tears, thinking of hard-boiled, sunny-side up, scrambled. At these times she slipped her fingertips into her pocket for the barrette, the marble, the button. She turned them over and over until again her mind was smooth. Far off in Toledo, Marilyn did not hear the silent promise her young daughter was making. On the third of July, while Lydia huddled beneath the dining table, Marilyn bent over a new book: Advanced Organic Chemistry. Her midterm was in two days, and she had been studying all morning. With her notebook in hand, Marilyn felt like an undergraduate again; even her signature had gone soft and round, like it had been before she married, before her handwriting stiffened and tightened. All the other students in her course were college kids, some diligently trying to get ahead, some reluctantly trying to catch up from failed classes and bad semesters. To her surprise, they treated her no differently than they treated each other: quiet, polite, focused. In the cool lecture hall, they all sketched molecules, labeling them ethyl, methyl, propyl, butyl; at the end of the class, they compared notes and hers were exactly the same: beautiful little hieroglyphs of hexagons and lines. Proof, she told herself, that I’m just as smart as the others. That I belong.


Some days, though, even these talismans lost their power. Two weeks after she left home, she woke in her rented twin bed, her body one sharp ache. Suddenly she felt drowned in the incredible wrongness of the moment, that she should be here, so far away from them. At last, caped in a blanket, she tiptoed to the telephone in the kitchen. It was six forty-one in the morning, but it took only two rings. “Hello?” James had said. A long pause. “Hello?” She said nothing, not daring to speak, just letting that voice soak into her heart. He had sounded hoarse—just static, she told herself, though she did not truly believe this. At last, she pressed the hook down with one finger and held it there, a long time, before replacing the receiver again. All day she listened to that voice in her head, like a familiar and loved lullaby.


From then on, she called every few days, when the yearning for home became too much. No matter what time it was, James picked up the phone, and she worried, imagining him sleeping at the kitchen table, or in his study beside the extension. Yet the one time she received no answer—James and the children, out of food, had been forced to the grocery store at last—she had panicked, imagining house fires or earthquakes or meteor strikes, and called again and again, every five minutes, then every two, until James’s voice had come across the line at last. Another time, when she called in the middle of the morning, James, exhausted, had fallen asleep at his desk, and Nath had picked up instead. “Lee residence,” he had answered dutifully, just as she’d trained him, and Marilyn wanted to say, Are you all right? Are you being good? but found her throat swollen shut with longing. Nath, to her surprise, didn’t hang up at the silence. He had knelt on the kitchen chair, which he’d climbed to reach the phone, listening. After a moment, Lydia had tiptoed in from the doorway and crouched beside him, the handset sandwiched between their ears, for two minutes, three minutes, four, as if they could hear everything their mother was feeling and wishing in the gentle hiss on the line. They had been the ones to hang up first, and after the click, Marilyn had cradled the phone for a long time, hands trembling.


Nath and Lydia never mentioned this to their father, and James never reported the calls to the police. He had already begun to suspect that they were not much interested in helping him, and deep inside, where his old fears lay coiled, he thought he understood their reasoning: it had only been a matter of time before a wife like Marilyn left a husband like him. Officer Fiske continued to be very kind, but James resented this even more; the politeness made it even harder to bear. For her part, Marilyn told herself each time she put down the receiver that it was the last time, that she would not call again, that this was proof her family was fine, that she had begun a new life. She told herself this so firmly that she believed it completely, until the next time she found herself dialing their number.


She told herself that everything was possible now, in this new life. She subsisted on cereal and sandwiches and spaghetti from the pizza joint down the street; she had not known it was possible to live without owning a single pot. Eight more credits, she calculated, and she would finish her degree. She tried to forget everything else. She rolled Nath’s marble between her fingers as she wrote away for medical school brochures. She snapped the clip of Lydia’s barrette—one-two, one-two—as she penned tiny notes in the margins of her textbook. She concentrated so hard that her head ached.


That third day of July, Marilyn flipped a page in her textbook and black cotton clouded her view. Her head went heavy as a melon, pulling her off balance, buckling her knees, dragging her toward the floor. In a moment, her vision cleared, then her mind. She discovered a spilled glass of water trickling off the tabletop, her notes scattered across the tiles, her blouse clammy and damp. Only when her own handwriting came back into focus did she stand again.


She had never fainted before, never even come close, even during the hottest days of summer. Now she was tired, almost too tired to stand up. Easing herself onto the sofa cushions, Marilyn thought, Maybe I’m sick, maybe I caught a bug from someone. Then another thought arrived and her whole body went cold. It was the third; she was sure of this; she had been counting down the days to this exam. That meant she was nearly—she counted on her fingers, alert now, as if she’d been doused with icy water—three weeks late. No. She thought back. Since before she left home almost nine weeks ago. She hadn’t realized it had been so long.


She wiped her hands on her jeans and tried to stay calm. After all, she had been late before. When she’d been stressed, or sick, as if her body hadn’t enough attention to keep everything running, as if something had to be put on hold. Working as hard as she was, perhaps her body could not keep up. You’re just hungry, Marilyn told herself. She hadn’t eaten all day and it was nearly two o’clock. There was nothing in the cupboard, but she would go to the store. She would get food and eat it and then she would feel much better. Then she would get back to studying.


In the end, Marilyn would never take that exam. At the store, she put cheese and bologna and mustard and soda into her cart. She lifted a loaf of bread from the shelf. It’s nothing, she told herself again. You’re fine. With the grocery sack under her arm and the six-pack of bottles in her hand, she headed to her car, and without warning the parking lot spiraled around her. Knees, then elbows, slammed into asphalt. The paper sack tumbled to the ground. Soda bottles shattered on the pavement, exploding in a spray of fizz and glass.


Marilyn sat up slowly. Her groceries lay scattered around her, the loaf of bread in a puddle, the jar of mustard slowly rolling away toward a green VW van. Cola dripped down her shins. She had cut herself on the glass: a deep gash right across the center of her palm, straight as a ruler’s edge. It did not hurt at all. She turned her hand from side to side, letting the light play on the layers of skin like sandstone strata: clearish pink, like watermelon, with flecks of snowy white. At the bottom, a river of rich red welled up.


She dug in her purse for a handkerchief and touched its corner to her palm and suddenly the cut was drained dry, the handkerchief blotched scarlet. The beauty of her hand amazed her: the pureness of the colors, the clarity of the white flecks and the thin lines on the muscle. She wanted to touch it, to lick it. To taste herself. Then the cut began to sting, and blood began to pool in her cupped palm, and she realized she would have to go to the hospital.


The emergency room was almost empty. The next day it would be full of Fourth of July accidents: food poisoning from bad egg salad, burned hands from grill fires, singed eyebrows from rogue fireworks. That afternoon, though, Marilyn walked up to the front desk and held out her hand, and in a few minutes she found herself on a cot, a petite young blonde in white taking her pulse and examining her palm. And when the young blonde said, “Let’s get you stitched up,” and took a bottle of anesthetic from a cupboard, Marilyn blurted out, “Shouldn’t the doctor do that?”


The blond woman laughed. “I’m Dr. Greene,” she said. Then, as Marilyn stared, she added, “Would you like to see my hospital badge?”


As the young woman closed the gash with neat black stitches, Marilyn’s hands began to ache. She clenched her teeth, but the ache spread into her wrists, up to her shoulders, down her spine. It wasn’t the surgery. It was disappointment: that like everyone else, she heard doctorand still thought—would forever think—man. The rims of her eyes started to burn, and when Dr. Greene tied off the last stitch and smiled and said, “How are you feeling?” Marilyn blurted out, “I think I’m pregnant,” and burst into tears.


After that everything happened very fast. There were tests to be run, vials of blood to be drawn. Marilyn didn’t remember exactly how it worked but knew it involved rabbits. “Oh, we don’t use rabbits anymore,” the pretty young doctor laughed, slipping the needle into the soft crook of Marilyn’s arm. “We use frogs now. Much faster and easier. Isn’t modern science wonderful?” Someone got Marilyn a cushioned chair and a blanket to drape over her shoulders; someone asked for her husband’s phone number, which Marilyn, in a daze, recited. Someone brought her a glass of water. The cut on her hand was closed and mute now, black sutures binding the raw flesh shut. Hours passed, but it seemed only a few minutes before James was there, radiant with amazement, holding her good hand while the young doctor said, “We’ll call you with the results on Tuesday, Mr. and Mrs. Lee, but it looks like you’ll be due in January.” Then, before Marilyn could speak, she stepped into the long white hallway and disappeared.


“Marilyn,” James whispered when the doctor had gone. His tone made her name a question that she could not yet bring herself to answer. “We’ve missed you so much.”


Marilyn touched her unwounded hand to her belly for a long time. She could not take classes pregnant. She could not start medical school. All she could do was go home. And once she was home, she would see her children’s faces, and there would be a new baby, and—she admitted it to herself slowly, with an ache more painful than her hand—she would never have the strength to leave them again. There was James, kneeling on the floor beside her chair as if in prayer. There was her old life, soft and warm and smothering, pulling her into its lap. Nine weeks. Her grand plan had lasted nine weeks. Everything she had dreamed for herself faded away, like fine mist on a breeze. She could not remember now why she thought it had all been possible.


This is it, Marilyn told herself. Let it go. This is what you have. Accept it.


“I was so foolish,” she said. “I made such a terrible mistake.” She leaned into James, breathing in the heavy sweet smell of his neck. It smelled like home. “Forgive me,” she whispered.


James guided Marilyn to the car—his car—with his arm around her waist and helped her into the front seat as if she were a child. The next day, he would take a taxi from Middlewood back to Toledo and make the hour-long drive again in Marilyn’s car, warm and aglow at knowing his wife would be there when he got home. For now, though, he drove carefully, scrupulously obeying the speed limit, reaching over every few miles to pat Marilyn’s knee, as if reassuring himself that she was still there. “Are you too cold? Are you too warm? Are you thirsty?” he asked again and again. I’m not an invalid, Marilyn wanted to say, but her mind and tongue seemed to move in slow motion: they were already home, he had already gone to get her a cold drink and a pillow for the small of her back. He was so happy, she thought; look at that little bounce at the end of each step, look at how he tucked the blanket so carefully around her feet. When he came back, she said only, “Where are the children?” and James said he had left them across the street with Vivian Allen, not to worry, he would take care of everything.


Marilyn leaned back against the couch cushions and woke to the sound of the doorbell. It was almost dinnertime; James had retrieved the children from Mrs. Allen’s and a pizza deliveryman stood at the door with a stack of boxes. By the time Marilyn wiped the sleep from her eyes, James had already counted out the tip and taken the boxes and shut the door. She followed him, dozily, into the kitchen, where he put the pizza down right in the center of the table, between Lydia and Nath.


“Your mother’s home,” he said, as if they couldn’t see her standing there in the doorway behind him. Marilyn touched a hand to her hair and felt frizz. Her braid had come undone; her feet were bare; the kitchen was overly warm, overly bright. She felt like a child who’d overslept, wandering downstairs, late to everything. Lydia and Nath stared at her warily across the table, as if she might suddenly do something unexpected, like scream, or explode. Nath’s mouth puckered, as if he were sucking something sour, and Marilyn wanted to stroke his hair and tell him that she hadn’t planned any of this, hadn’t meant for this to happen. She could see the question in their eyes.


“I’m home,” she repeated, nodding, and they ran to hug her then, warm and solid, slamming into her legs, burying their faces in her skirt. One tear trickled down Nath’s cheek, one ran along Lydia’s nose, catching in her lips. Marilyn’s hand burned and throbbed, as if she were holding a hot little heart in her palm.


“Were you good while I was away?” she asked, crouching on the linoleum beside them. “Did you behave?”


To Lydia, her mother’s return was nothing short of a miracle. She had made a promise and her mother had heard it and come home. She would keep her word. That afternoon, when her father had hung up the phone and said those astonishing words—Your mother is coming home—she had made a decision: her mother would never have to see that sad cookbook again. At Mrs. Allen’s, she had made a plan, and after her father had picked them up—Shh, not a peep, your mother is sleeping—she had taken it away. “Mama,” she said into her mother’s hip now. “While you were gone. Your cookbook.” She swallowed. “I—lost it.”


“You did?” To her astonishment, Marilyn felt no anger. No: she felt pride. She pictured her daughter tossing the cookbook onto the grass and stomping it into the mud with her shiny Mary Janes and walking away. Tossing it into the lake. Setting it ablaze. To her own surprise, she smiled. “Did you do that,” she said, curling her arm around her small daughter, and Lydia hesitated, then nodded.


It was a sign, Marilyn decided. For her it was too late. But it wasn’t too late for Lydia. Marilyn would not be like her own mother, shunting her daughter toward husband and house, a life spent safely behind a deadbolt. She would help Lydia do everything she was capable of. She would spend the rest of her years guiding Lydia, sheltering her, the way you tended a prize rose: helping it grow, propping it with stakes, arching each stem toward perfection. In Marilyn’s belly, Hannah began to fidget and kick, but her mother could not yet feel it. She buried her nose in Lydia’s hair and made silent promises. Never to tell her to sit up straight, to find a husband, to keep a house. Never to suggest that there were jobs or lives or worlds not meant for her; never to let her hear doctor and think only man. To encourage her, for the rest of her life, to do more than her mother had.


“All right,” she said, releasing her daughter at last. “Who’s hungry?”


James was already taking plates from the cupboard, distributing napkins, lifting the lid of the top box in a whiff of meat-scented steam. Marilyn put a slice of pepperoni pizza on each of their plates, and Nath, with a deep, contented sigh, began to eat. His mother was home, and tomorrow there would be hard-boiled eggs for breakfast, hamburgers and hot dogs for supper, strawberry shortcake for dessert. Across the table, Lydia stared down at her portion in silence, at the red circles dotting the surface, at the long thin threads of cheese tying it back to the box.


Nath was only half-right: the next day there were hot dogs and hamburgers, but no eggs, no shortcake. James grilled the meat himself, charring it slightly, but the family, determined to celebrate, ate it anyway. In fact, Marilyn would refuse to cook at all after her return, each morning popping frozen waffles into the toaster, each evening heating a frozen potpie or opening a can of SpaghettiOs. She had other things on her mind. Math, she thought that Fourth of July; she will need math, this daughter of mine. “How many buns inside the bag?” she asked, and Lydia tapped each with her finger, counting up. “How many hot dogs are on the grill? How many won’t have buns?” At each right answer, her mother smoothed her hair and cuddled her against her thigh.


All day Lydia added up. If everybody ate one hot dog, how many would be left over for tomorrow? If she and Nath got five sparklers each, how many would they have all together? By the time dark fell and fireworks blossomed in the sky, she counted ten kisses from her mother, five caresses, three times her mother called her my smart girl. Every time she answered a question, a dimple appeared in her mother’s cheek like a little fingerprint. “Another,” she begged, every time her mother stopped. “Mama, ask me another.” “If that’s really what you want,” her mother said, and Lydia nodded. “Tomorrow,” Marilyn said, “I’ll buy you a book and we’ll read it together.”


Instead of just one book, Marilyn bought a stack: The Science of Air. Why There Is Weather. Fun with Chemistry. At night, after she tucked Nath in, she perched on the edge of Lydia’s bed and lifted one from the top. Lydia huddled against her, listening to the deep, underground drum of her mother’s heartbeat. When her mother breathed in, she breathed in. When her mother breathed out, she breathed out. Her mother’s voice seemed to come from within her own head. “Air is everywhere,” her mother read. “Air hovers all around you. Though you can’t see it, it is still there. Everywhere you go, air is there.” Lydia snuggled deeper into her mother’s arms, and by the time they reached the last page, she was almost asleep. “Read me another,” she murmured, and when Marilyn, thrilled, whispered, “Tomorrow, all right?” Lydia nodded so hard her ears rang.


That most important word: tomorrow. Every day Lydia cherished it. Tomorrow I’ll take you to the museum to look at the dinosaur bones. Tomorrow we’ll learn about trees. Tomorrow we’ll study the moon. Every night a small promise extracted from her mother: that she would be there in the morning.


And in return, Lydia kept her own promise: she did everything her mother asked. She learned to write the plus sign, like a little stunted t. She counted on her fingers every morning, adding up over the cereal bowl. Four plus two. Three plus three. Seven plus ten. Whenever her mother stopped, she asked for more, which made her mother glow, as if Lydia had flicked on a light. She stood on the step stool over the sink, aproned from neck to ankle, and pinched baking soda into a jar of vinegar. “That’s a chemical reaction,” her mother said, and Lydia nodded as the foam gurgled down the drain. She played store with her mother, making change with pennies and nickels: two cents for a hug, four cents for a kiss. When Nath plunked down a quarter and said, “Bet you can’t do that one,” their mother shooed him away.


Inside Lydia could feel it: everything that was to come. One day the books would have no pictures. The problems would grow longer and harder. There would be fractions, decimals, exponents. The games would get trickier. Over meat loaf her mother would say, “Lydia, I’m thinking of a number. If you multiply by two and add one, you get seven.” She would count her way back until she got the right answer, and her mother would smile and bring in the dessert. One day her mother would give her a real stethoscope. She would undo the top two buttons of her blouse and press the chestpiece to her skin and Lydia would hear her mother’s heart directly. “Doctors use these,” her mother would say. It was far away then, tiny in the distance, but Lydia already knew it would happen. The knowledge hovered all around her, clinging to her, every day getting thicker. Everywhere she went, it was there. But every time her mother asked, she said yes, yes, yes.

•   •   •


As soon as James and Marilyn had gone, Mrs. Allen turned the TV to a soap opera and sat down on the couch. Lydia hugged her knees under the dining table, cookbookless; Nath picked lint from the carpet and glowered. His mother woke him up and tucked him in, but Lydia filled up all the spaces in between. He knew the answer to every question their mother asked, but whenever he tried to jump in, she shushed him while Lydia counted on her fingers. At the museum, he wanted to watch the star show in the planetarium, but they spent the whole day looking at the skeletons, the model of the digestive system, whatever Lydia wanted. That very morning, he had come down to the kitchen early, clutching his folder of news clippings, and his mother, still in her bathrobe, gave him a 
sleepy smile over the rim of her teacup. It was the first time she had really looked at him since she came home, and something fluttered in his throat like a little bird. “Can I have a hard-boiled egg?” he asked, and, like a miracle, she said, “All right.” For a moment he forgave her everything. He decided he would show her the pictures of the astronauts he’d been collecting, his lists of launches, everything. She would understand them. She would be impressed.Two weeks later, Marilyn and James drove to Toledo to retrieve her clothes and books. “I can go alone,” Marilyn insisted. By then the marble and the barrette and the button nestled quietly, forgotten, in the pocket of her dress in the closet. Already the dress was growing tight and soon Marilyn would give it away to Goodwill, with her tiny, forgotten talismans still tucked inside. Still, her eyes stung at the thought of emptying that apartment, sealing her books back into cartons, tossing her half-filled notebooks into the rubbish. She wanted privacy for this little funeral. “Really,” she said. “You don’t have to come.” James, however, insisted. “I don’t want you lifting anything heavy in your condition,” he said. “I’ll ask Vivian Allen to stop by and watch the kids for the afternoon.”


Then, before he could say a word, Lydia padded down the steps, and his mother’s attention flitted away and alighted on Lydia’s shoulders. Nath pouted in the corner, flicking the edges of his folder, but no one paid any attention to him until his father came into the kitchen. “Still mooning over those astronauts?” he said, plucking an apple from the fruit bowl on the counter. He laughed at his own joke and bit into the apple, and even across the kitchen Nath had heard the hard crunch of teeth piercing skin. His mother, listening to Lydia recount last night’s dream, had not. She had forgotten all about his egg. The little bird in his throat had died and swelled so that he could hardly breathe.


On the couch, Mrs. Allen let out a little stuttering snore. A thread of spit oozed down her chin. Nath headed outside, leaving the front door half-open, and jumped down off the porch. The ground slammed into his heels like a jolt of electricity. Above him the sky stretched out pale steel gray.


“Where are you going?” Lydia peeked around the door.


“None of your business.” He wondered if Mrs. Allen would hear, if she would wake and come out and call them back, but nothing happened. Without looking, he knew Lydia was watching, and he strode right down the middle of the street, daring her to follow. And in a moment, she did.


She followed him all the way to the lake and to the end of the little pier. The houses on the other side of the water looked like dollhouses, tiny and scaled-down and perfect. Inside, mothers were boiling eggs or baking cakes or making pot roasts, or maybe fathers were poking the coals in the barbecue, turning the hot dogs with a fork so that the grill made perfect black lines all over. Those mothers had never gone far away and left their children behind. Those fathers had never slapped their children or kicked over the television or laughed at them.


“Are you going swimming?” Lydia peeled off her socks and tucked one in each shoe, then perched at the end of the dock beside him, dangling her feet over the edge. Someone had left a Barbie doll in the sand, naked and muddy, one of its arms gone. Nath pried off the other and threw it into the water. Then the leg, which was harder. Lydia began to fidget.


“We better go home.”


“In a minute.” In his hands, the head of the Barbie had turned around to face her back.


“We’ll get in trouble.” Lydia reached for a sock.


The other leg wouldn’t come off, and Nath turned on his sister. He felt himself unsteady, struggling for balance, as if the world had tipped to one side. He did not know exactly how it had happened but everything had gone askew, like a teeter-totter unevenly weighted. Everything in their life—their mother, their father, even he himself—slid, now, toward Lydia. Like gravity, there was no resisting it. Everything orbited her.


Later on, Nath would never be able to disentangle what he said and what he thought and what he only felt. He would never be sure whether he said anything at all. All Nath would know, for sure, was this: he pushed Lydia into the water.


Whenever he remembered this moment, it lasted forever: a flash of complete separateness as Lydia disappeared beneath the surface. Crouched on the dock, he had a glimpse of the future: without her, he would be completely alone. In the instant after, he knew it would change nothing. He could feel the ground still tipping beneath him. Even without Lydia, the world would not level. He and his parents and their lives would spin into the space where she had been. They would be pulled into the vacuum she left behind.


More than this: the second he touched her, he knew that he had misunderstood everything. When his palms hit her shoulders, when the water closed over her head, Lydia had felt relief so great she had sighed in a deep choking lungful. She had staggered so readily, fell so eagerly, that she and Nath both knew: that she felt it, too, this pull she now exerted, and didn’t want it. That the weight of everything tilting toward her was too much.


In reality, it was only a few seconds before Nath jumped into the water. He ducked under, grabbed Lydia’s arm, pulled her to the surface, pedaling furiously.


Kick, he gasped. Kick. Kick.


They floundered their way to the edge of the lake, moving slowly toward the shallows until their feet hit the sandy bottom and they lurched aground. Nath wiped mud from his eyes. Lydia vomited a mouthful of lake water into the grass. For a minute, two, three, they lay facedown, catching their breath. Then Nath pushed himself to his feet, and to his surprise, Lydia reached up to clutch his hand. Don’t let go, she meant, and, dizzy with gratitude, Nath gave it.


They trudged home in silence, making damp slodges on the sidewalk. Except for Mrs. Allen’s snores, there was no noise but the sound of water dripping from their clothes to the linoleum. They had been gone only twenty minutes, but it felt as though eons had passed. Quietly they tiptoed upstairs and hid their wet clothes in the hamper and put on dry, and when their parents returned with suitcases and boxes of books, they said nothing. When their mother complained about the water spots on the floor, Nath said he had spilled a drink. At bedtime, Nath and Lydia brushed their teeth sociably at the sink, taking turns to spit, saying goodnight as if it were any other night. It was too big to talk about, what had happened. It was like a landscape they could not see all at once; it was like the sky at night, which turned and turned so they couldn’t find its edges. It would always feel too big. He pushed her in. And then he pulled her out. All her life, Lydia would remember one thing. All his life, Nath would remember another.

•   •   •


“It’s okay,” James said, and for a moment Nath felt better. Then his father added, “Now, if they had a contest for reading all day—” All month he had been saying things like this: things that sounded like jokes but weren’t. Every time, as he heard his own voice, James bit the tip of his tongue, too late. He did not understand why he said these things to Nath, for that would have meant understanding something far more painful: that Nath reminded him more and more of himself, of everything he wanted to forget from his own boyhood. He knew only that it was becoming a reflex, one that left him smarting and ashamed, and he glanced away. Nath looked down at his broken egg, yolk trickling between blades of grass, whites seeping into the soil. Lydia gave him a small smile, and he 
ground the shell into the dirt with his sneaker. When his father turned his back, Nath spat into the lawn at his feet.Middlewood Elementary held its annual welcome-back picnic on the last weekend in August. Their mother pressed one hand to her belly, where Hannah grew heavier every day; their father carried Lydia on his shoulders as they walked across the parking lot. After lunch, there were contests: who could hit a Wiffle ball the farthest, who could toss the most beanbags into a coffee can, who could guess the number of jelly beans in the one-gallon Mason jar. Nath and James entered the father-son egg race, each balancing a raw egg in a teaspoon like an offering. They made it almost all the way to the finish line before Nath tripped and dropped his. Miles Fuller and his father crossed the line first and Mrs. Hugard, the principal, gave them the blue ribbon.


And then came the three-legged race. A teacher looped a handkerchief around Lydia’s and Nath’s ankles and they hobbled to the starting line, where other children were tethered to their parents, or to siblings, or to each other. They had hardly begun to run when Lydia caught the edge of Nath’s shoe under her own and stumbled. Nath threw an arm wide for balance and wobbled. He tried to match Lydia’s stride, but when Lydia swung her leg forward, Nath pulled back. The handkerchief around their ankles was tied so tight their feet throbbed. It didn’t loosen, yoking them together like mismatched cattle, and it didn’t come undone, even when they jerked in opposite directions and tumbled face-forward onto the soft, damp grass.









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