Everything I Never Told You [CHAPTER- 8]

 


CHAPTER- 8

James is all too familiar with this kind of forgetting. From Lloyd Academy to Harvard to Middlewood, he has felt it every day—that short-lived lull, then the sharp nudge to the ribs that reminded you that you didn’t belong. It seemed a false comfort to him, like a zoo animal crouched in its cage, ignoring the gawking eyes, pretending it is still running wild. Now, a month after Lydia’s funeral, he treasures those moments of forgetting.


Others might have found refuge in a pint of whiskey, or a bottle of vodka, or a six-pack of beer. James, though, has never liked the taste of alcohol, and he finds it does not dull his mind; it only turns him a dark beet-red, as if he has endured some terrible battering, while his mind races all the faster. He takes long drives, crisscrossing Middlewood, following the highway almost to Cleveland before turning back. He takes sleeping pills from the drugstore, and even in his dreams, Lydia is dead. Again and again, he finds only one place where he can stop thinking: Louisa’s bed.


He tells Marilyn that he’s going in to class, or to meet with students; on weekends, he says he has papers to grade. These are lies. The dean had canceled his summer class the week after Lydia’s death. “Take some time for yourself, James,” he had said, touching James gently on the shoulder. He did this with everyone he needed to soothe: students enraged over low grades, faculty slighted by the grants they did not receive. His job was to make losses feel smaller. But the students never turned their C-minuses into Bs; new funding never materialized. You never got what you wanted; you just learned to get by without it. And the last thing James wants is time for himself—being at home is unbearable. At every moment, he expects Lydia to appear in the doorway, or to hear the squeak of her floorboards overhead. One morning, he heard footsteps in her room, and before he could stop himself, he ran upstairs, breathless, only to find Marilyn pacing before Lydia’s desk, opening and closing her desk drawers. Get out, he wanted to shout, as if this were a sacred space. Now, every morning, he picks up his briefcase, as if he is going to teach, and drives in to the college. Even in his office, he finds himself mesmerized by the family photo on his desk, where Lydia—barely fifteen, then—peers out, ready to leap through the frame’s glass and leave everyone behind. By afternoon, he finds himself at Louisa’s apartment, plunging into her arms, then between her legs, where, blessedly, his mind shuts off.


But after leaving Louisa’s, he remembers again, and he is always angrier than before. On the way back to his car one evening, he seizes a stray bottle from the street and hurls it into the side of Louisa’s building. Other nights, he fights the temptation to steer into a tree. Nath and Hannah try to stay out of his way, and he and Marilyn have barely exchanged a word in weeks. As the Fourth of July approaches, James passes the lake and finds that someone has festooned the dock with bunting and red and white balloons. He swerves to the side of the road and rips it all down, bursting each balloon under his heel. When everything has sunk beneath the surface of the water, and the dock lies solemn and barren, he heads home, still shaking.


The sight of Nath rummaging in the refrigerator sets him ablaze again. “You’re wasting power,” James says. Nath shuts the door, and his quiet obedience only makes James angrier. “Do you always have to be in the way?”


“Sorry,” Nath says. He cups a hard-boiled egg in one hand, a paper napkin in the other. “I didn’t expect you.” Out of the car, with its lingering air of exhaust and engine grease, James realizes he can smell Louisa’s perfume on his skin, musky and spicy-sweet. He wonders if Nath can, too.


“What do you mean, you didn’t expect me?” he says. “Don’t I have a right to come into my own kitchen after a hard day of work?” He sets his bag down. “Where’s your mother?”


“In Lydia’s room.” Nath pauses. “She’s been in there all day.”


Under his son’s eye, James feels a sharp prickle between his shoulder blades, as if Nath is blaming him.


“For your information,” he says, “my summer course comes with a great deal of responsibility. And I have conferences. Meetings.” His face flushes at the memory of that afternoon—Louisa kneeling before his chair, then slowly unzipping his fly—and this makes him angry. Nath stares, lips slightly pursed, as if he wants to frame a question but can’t get past the W—, and suddenly, James is furious. For as long as he has been a father, James has believed that Lydia looked like her mother—beautiful, blue-eyed, poised—and that Nath looked like him: dark, hesitating in midspeech, preparing to stumble over his own words. He forgets, most of the time, that Lydia and Nath resemble each other, too. Now, in Nath’s face, James suddenly sees a flash of his daughter, wide-eyed and silent, and the pain of this makes him cruel. “You’re just home all day. Do you have any friends at all?”


His father has said things like this for years, but at this moment Nath feels something snap, like an overstretched wire. “None. I’m not like you. No conferences. No—meetings.” He wrinkles his nose. “You smell like perfume. From your meetings, I guess?”


James grabs him by the shoulder, so hard his knuckles crack. “Don’t you talk to me that way,” he says. “Don’t you question me. You don’t know anything about my life.” Then, before he even realizes the words are forming, they shoot from his mouth like spit. “Just like you didn’t know anything about your sister’s.”


Nath’s expression doesn’t change, but his whole face stiffens, like a mask. James wants to snatch the words back out of the air, like moths, but they’ve already crawled into his son’s ears: he can see it in Nath’s eyes, which have gone shiny and hard as glass. He wants to reach out and touch his son—his hand, his shoulder, anywhere—and tell him he didn’t mean it. That none of this is his fault. Then Nath punches the countertop so hard it leaves a crack in the old, worn laminate. He runs out of the room, footsteps thundering up the stairs, and James lets his bag fall to the floor and slumps back against the counter. His hand touches something cold and wet: the crushed remains of the hard-boiled egg, shards of shell driven deep into the tender white.


All night he thinks about this, his son’s frozen face, and the next morning he rises early. Retrieving the newspaper from the front porch, he sees the date black and stark in the corner: July 3. Two months to the day since Lydia disappeared. It doesn’t seem possible that just two months ago he had sat in his office grading papers, that he had been embarrassed to pluck a ladybug from Louisa’s hair. Until two months ago, July 3 had been a happy date, secretly treasured for ten years—the day of Marilyn’s miraculous return. How everything has changed. In the kitchen, James slides the rubber band from the newspaper and unrolls it. There, below the fold, he sees a small headline: Teachers and Classmates Remember Departed Girl. The articles about Lydia have grown shorter and sparser. Soon they would stop entirely, and everyone would forget about her. James cups the paper toward him. The day is cloudy, but he leaves the light off, as if the dimness will soften what he’s about to read. From Karen Adler: She seemed lonely. She didn’t really hang out with anyone. From Pam Saunders: She didn’t have a lot of friends, or even a boyfriend. I don’t think the boys even noticed her. At the bottom: Lee’s physics teacher, Donald Kelly, remembered her as the lone sophomore in a class of juniors, noting, “She worked hard, but of course she stood out.” Beside the article, a sidebar: Children of Mixed Backgrounds Often Struggle to Find Their Place.


Then the telephone rings. Every time, his first thought is: They’ve found her. In that instant, a tiny part of him shouts that it’s all a mix-up, a case of mistaken identity, a bad dream. Then the rest of him, which knows better, pulls him down with a sickening thud: You saw her. And he remembers again, with awful clarity, her swollen hands, her pale and waxen face.


It is because of this that his voice, when he answers the phone, always trembles.


“Mr. Lee?” It’s Officer Fiske. “I hope it’s not too early to call. How are you this morning?”


“Fine,” James says. Everyone asks this, and by now it is an automatic lie.


“Well, Mr. Lee,” Officer Fiske says, and James knows now it is bad news. No one called you by name so insistently unless they were trying to be kind. “I’m calling to let you know that we’ve decided to close our investigation. We are ruling this case a suicide.”


James has to repeat these words to himself before he understands. “Suicide?”


Officer Fiske pauses. “Nothing in police work is ever sure, Mr. Lee. I wish it were. It’s not like the movies—things are hardly ever clear-cut.” He does not like breaking bad news, and he takes refuge in official language. “Circumstances suggest suicide is by far the most likely scenario. No evidence of foul play. A history of loneliness. Her grades were slipping. Going out on the lake when she knew she couldn’t swim.”


James bows his head, and Officer Fiske continues. His tone is gentler now, like a father consoling a young child. “We know this isn’t easy for you and your family, Mr. Lee. We hope this at least helps you move on.”


“Thank you,” James says. He sets the receiver back on its hook. Behind him, Marilyn hovers in the doorway, one hand on the jamb.


“Who was it?” she asks. By the way she clutches her robe, tight over her heart, James knows she’s already heard everything. She flicks the light switch, and in the sudden brightness, he feels exposed and raw.


“They can’t close the case,” Marilyn says. “Whoever did this is still out there.”


“Whoever did this? The police think—” James pauses. “They don’t think there was anyone else involved.”


“They don’t know her. Someone must have taken her out there. Lured her.” Marilyn hesitates, the cigarettes and condoms surfacing in her mind, but anger muscles them aside and turns her voice shrill. “She wouldn’t have gone out there by herself. Do you think I don’t know my own daughter?”


James does not reply. All he can think is: If we’d never moved here. If she had never seen the lake. The silence between them thickens, like ice, and Marilyn shivers.


“You believe them, don’t you?” she says. “You think she did this thing.” She cannot bring herself to use the word suicide; the mere thought of it sets her aboil again. Lydia would never do such a thing to her family. To her mother. How could James believe it? “They just want to close the case. Easier to stop looking than to do any real work.” Marilyn’s voice quivers, and she clenches her hands, as if stilling them will still the trembling inside her. “If she were a white girl, they’d keep looking.”


A rock plummets into James’s gut. In all their time together, white has been only the color of paper, of snow, of sugar. Chinese—if it is mentioned at all—is a kind of checkers, a kind of fire drill, a kind of takeout, one James doesn’t care for. It did not bear discussion any more than that the sky was up, or that the earth circled the sun. He had naively thought that—unlike with Marilyn’s mother, unlike with everyone else—this thing made no difference to them. Now, when Marilyn says this—If she were a white girl—it proves what James has feared all along. That inside, all along, she’d labeled everything. White and not white. That this thing makes all the difference in the world.


“If she were a white girl,” he says, “none of this would ever have happened.”


Marilyn, still fuming at the police, does not understand, and her confusion makes her angrier. “What do you mean?” Under the kitchen light, her wrists are pale and thin, her lips set, her face cold. James remembers: long ago, when they were young and the worst thing they could imagine was not being together, he had once leaned in to touch her, and his fingertips had left a trail of goose bumps across her shoulder blade. Every tiny hair on his arm had stood up, electrified. That moment, that connection, seems far away and small now, like something that happened in another life.


“You know what I mean. If she’d been a white girl—” The words are ash-bitter on his tongue. If she’d been a white girl. If I’d been a white man. “She would have fit in.”


For moving would never have been enough; he sees that now. It would have been the same anywhere. Children of Mixed Backgrounds Often Struggle to Find Their Place.The mistake was earlier, deeper, more fundamental: it had happened the morning they’d married, when the justice of the peace had looked at Marilyn and she had said yes. Or earlier, on that first afternoon they’d spent together, when he had stood beside the bed, naked and shy, and she had twined her legs around his waist and pulled him toward her. Earlier yet: on that first day, when she’d leaned across his desk and kissed him, knocking the breath out of him like a swift, sharp punch. A million little chances to change the future. They should never have married. He should never have touched her. She should have turned around, stepped out of his office into the hallway, walked away. He sees with utter clarity: none of this was supposed to happen. A mistake.


“Your mother was right, after all,” he says. “You should have married someone more like you.”


Before Marilyn can say anything—before she knows whether to be angry or sad or hurt, before she really understands what James has said—he is gone.


This time, he does not bother to stop at the college. He drives straight to Louisa’s, speeding through every traffic light, arriving out of breath, as though he’d run there on foot. “Is everything all right?” she says when she opens the door, still smelling of the shower, dressed but wet-haired, hairbrush in hand. “I didn’t expect you so early.” It’s only quarter to nine, and James hears the questions that ripple behind her surprise: Has he come to stay? What about his wife? He does not know the answers. Now that he has finally pushed those words out into the air, he feels strangely light. The room wobbles and spins, and he sinks down onto the sofa.


“You need to eat something,” Louisa says. She steps into the kitchen and returns with a small Tupperware. “Here.” Gently, she pries open the lid and nudges the box toward him. Inside lie three snow-colored buns, tops ruffled like peony heads ready to blossom, revealing a glint of deep tawny red within. The sweet scent of roast pork wafts up to his nose.


“I made them yesterday,” Louisa says. She pauses. “You know what these are?”


His mother had made these, long ago, in their tiny cinder-colored apartment. She had roasted the pork and crimped the dough and arranged the buns in the bamboo steamer she’d brought all the way from China. His father’s favorite. Char siu bau.


Louisa beams, and only then does James realize he has spoken aloud. He has not said a word in Chinese in forty years, but he is amazed at how his tongue still curls around their familiar shape. He has not had one of these buns since he was a child. His mother had packed them in his lunches until he told her to stop, he’d rather eat what the other kids were eating. “Go on,” Louisa says now. “Taste.”


Slowly he lifts a bun from the box. It is lighter than he remembers, cloudlike, yielding beneath his fingertips. He had forgotten that anything could be so tender. He breaks the bun open, revealing glossy bits of pork and glaze, a secret red heart. When he puts it to his mouth, it is like a kiss: sweet and salty and warm.


He does not wait for her to wrap her arms around him, as if he is a small and hesitant child, or for her to coax him into the bedroom. Instead he pushes her to the floor as he reaches for his fly, tugging her skirt up and pulling her onto him right there in the living room. Louisa moans, arching her back, and James fumbles with the buttons on her blouse, peeling it away and unsnapping her bra and catching her breasts, heavy and round, in his cupped hands. As she grinds herself against him, he focuses on her face, on the dark hair that tumbles down into his mouth, on the deep brown eyes that close as her breath grows faster, her thrusts more urgent. This is the sort of woman, he thinks, he should have fallen in love with. A woman who looked just like this. A woman just like him.


“You’re the kind of girl I should have married,” he whispers afterward. It is the kind of thing every man says to his lover, but to him it feels like a revelation. Louisa, half-asleep in the crook of his arm, does not hear him, but the words snake into her ear, giving her the tangled dreams of every other other woman. He will leave her—he will marry me—I will make him happy—there will be no other woman.

•   •   •


At home, when Nath and Hannah come downstairs, Marilyn sits motionless at the kitchen table. Though it is past ten o’clock, she is wearing her bathrobe still, hugged so tightly around her that they cannot see her neck, and they know there is bad news even before she chokes out the word suicide. “Was it?” Nath asks slowly, and, turning for the stairs without looking at either of them, Marilyn says only, “They say it was.”


For half an hour, Nath pokes at the dregs of cereal in the bottom of his bowl while Hannah watches him nervously. He has been checking the Wolffs’ house every day, looking for Jack, trying to catch him—though for what, he isn’t quite sure. One time he even climbed the porch steps and peeked in the window, but no one is ever home. Jack’s VW hasn’t puttered down the street in days. At last, Nath pushes the bowl away and reaches for the telephone. “Get out,” he says to Hannah. “I want to make a phone call.” Halfway up the stairs, Hannah pauses, listening to the slow clicks as Nath dials. “Officer Fiske,” he says after a moment, “this is Nathan Lee. I’m calling about my sister.” His voice drops, and only bits and pieces come through: Ought to reexamine. Tried to talk to him. Acting evasive. Toward the end, only one word is audible. Jack. Jack. As if Nath cannot say the name without spitting.


After Nath puts the phone down, so hard the bells jangle, he shuts himself in his room. They think he’s being hysterical, but he knows there’s something there, that there’s some connection to Jack, some missing piece of the puzzle. If the police don’t believe him, his parents won’t either. His father is hardly home these days anyway, and his mother has locked herself in Lydia’s room again; through the wall he can hear her pacing, like a prowling cat. Hannah raps at his door, and he puts on a record, loud, until he can’t hear the sound of her knuckles, or his mother’s footsteps, anymore. Later, none of them will remember how the day passes, only a numbed blur, overshadowed by all that would happen the next day.


When evening falls, Hannah opens her door and peers through the crack. A razor of light slices under Nath’s door, another under Lydia’s. All afternoon Nath had played his record over and over, but he has finally let it wind to a stop, and now a thick silence, like fog, seeps out onto the landing. Tiptoeing downstairs, she finds the house dark, her father still gone. The kitchen faucet drips: plink, plink, plink. She knows she should turn it off, but then the house will be silent, and at the moment this is unbearable. Back in her room, she imagines the faucet dripping to itself in the kitchen. With every plink, another bead of water would form on the brushed steel of the sink.


She longs to climb into her sister’s bed and sleep, but with her mother there, she cannot, and to console herself, Hannah circles the room, checking her treasures, pulling each from its hiding place and examining it. Tucked between mattress and box spring: the smallest spoon from her mother’s tea set. Behind the books on the shelf: her father’s old wallet, the leather worn thin as tissue. A pencil of Nath’s, his toothmarks revealing wood grain beneath the yellow paint. These are her failures. The successes are all gone: the ring on which her father kept his office keys; her mother’s best lipstick, Rose Petal Frost; the mood ring Lydia used to wear on her thumb. They were wanted and missed and hunted down in Hannah’s hands. These aren’t a toy, said her father. You’re too young for makeup, said her mother. Lydia had been more blunt: Stay out of my things. Hannah had folded her hands behind her back, savoring the lecture, nodding solemnly as she memorized the shape of them standing there beside the bed. When they were gone, she repeated each sentence under her breath, redrawing them in the empty spot where they’d been.


All she has left are things unwanted, things unloved. But she doesn’t put them back. To make up for them being unmissed, she counts them carefully, twice, rubs a spot of tarnish from the spoon, snaps and unsnaps the change pocket of the wallet. She’s had some of them for years. No one has ever noticed they were gone. They slipped away silently, without even the plink of a drop of water.


She knows Nath is convinced, no matter what the police say, that Jack brought Lydia to the lake, that he had something to do with it, that it’s his fault. In his mind, Jack dragged her into the boat, Jack pushed her underwater, Jack’s fingerprints are pressed into her neck. But Nath is all wrong about Jack.


This is how she knows. Last summer, she and Nath and Lydia had been down at the lake. It was hot and Nath had gone in for a swim. Lydia sunbathed on a striped towel in her swimsuit on the grass, one hand over her eyes. Hannah had been listing Lydia’s many nicknames in her mind. Lyd. Lyds. Lyddie. Honey. Sweetheart. Angel. No one ever called Hannah anything but Hannah. There were no clouds, and in the sun, the water had looked almost white, like a puddle of milk. Beside her, Lydia let out a little sigh and settled her shoulders deeper into the towel. She smelled like baby oil and her skin gleamed.


As Hannah squinted, looking for Nath, she thought of possibilities. “Hannah Banana”—they might call her that. Or something that had nothing to do with her name, something that sounded strange but that, from them, would be warm and personal. Moose, she thought. Bean. Then Jack had strolled by, with his sunglasses perched atop his head, even though it was blindingly bright.


“Better watch out,” he said to Lydia. “You’ll have a white patch on your face if you lie like that.” She laughed and uncovered her eyes and sat up. “Nath not here?” Jack asked, settling down beside them, and Lydia waved out toward the water. Jack pulled his cigarettes from his pocket and lit one, and suddenly there was Nath, glowering down at them. Water speckled his bare chest and his hair dripped down onto his shoulders.


“What are you doing here?” he’d said to Jack, and Jack stubbed the cigarette out in the grass and put on his sunglasses before looking up.


“Just enjoying the sun,” he said. “Thought I might go for a swim.” His voice didn’t sound nervous, but from where she was sitting, Hannah could see his eyes behind the tinted lenses, how they fluttered to Nath, then away. Without speaking, Nath plunked himself down right between Jack and Lydia, bunching his unused towel in his hand. Blades of grass stuck to his wet swimsuit and his calves, like thin streaks of green paint.


“You’re going to burn,” he said to Lydia. “Better put on your T-shirt.”

“I’m fine.” Lydia shielded her eyes with her hand again.


“You’re already turning pink,” Nath said. His back was to Jack, as if Jack weren’t there at all. “Here. And here.” He touched Lydia’s shoulder, then her collarbone.


“I’m fine,” Lydia said again, swatting him away with her free hand and lying back again. “You’re worse than Mom. Stop fussing. Leave me alone.” Something caught Hannah’s eye then, and she didn’t hear what Nath said in return. A drop of water trickled out of Nath’s hair, like a shy little mouse, and ran down the nape of his neck. It made its slow way between his shoulder blades, and where his back curved, it dropped straight down, as if it had jumped off a cliff, and splashed onto the back of Jack’s hand. Nath, facing away from Jack, didn’t see it, and neither did Lydia, peeking up through the slits between her fingers. Only Hannah, arms curled around knees, a little way behind them, saw it fall. In her ears, it made a noise, like a cannon shot. And Jack himself jumped. He stared at the drop of water without moving, as if it were a rare insect that might fly away. Then, without looking at any of them, he raised his hand to his mouth and touched his tongue to it, as if it were honey.


It happened so quickly that if she were a different person, Hannah might have wondered if she’d imagined it. No one else saw. Nath was still turned away; Lydia had her eyes shut now against the sun. But the moment flashed lightning-bright to Hannah. Years of yearning had made her sensitive, the way a starving dog twitches its nostrils at the faintest scent of food. She could not mistake it. She recognized it at once: love, one-way deep adoration that bounced off and did not bounce back; careful, quiet love that didn’t care and went on anyway. It was too familiar to be surprising. Something deep inside her stretched out and curled around Jack like a shawl, but he didn’t notice. His gaze moved away to the far side of the lake, as if nothing had happened. She stretched her leg and touched her bare foot to Jack’s, big toe to big toe, and only then did he look down at her.


“Hey, kiddo,” he said, ruffling her hair with his hand. Her whole scalp had tingled and she thought her hair might stand up, like static electricity. At the sound of Jack’s voice, Nath glanced over.


“Hannah,” he said, and without knowing why, she stood up. Nath nudged Lydia with his foot. “Let’s go.” Lydia groaned but picked up her towel and the bottle of baby oil.


“Stay away from my sister,” Nath said to Jack, very quietly, as they left. Lydia, already walking away, shaking grass off her towel, didn’t hear, but Hannah had. It sounded like Nath had meant her—Hannah—but she knew he’d really meant Lydia. When they stopped at the corner to let a car pass, she peeked back over her shoulder, one quick glance too fast for Nath to notice. Jack was watching them go. Anyone would think he was looking at Lydia, with the towel slung around her hips now, like a sarong. Hannah shot him a little smile, but he didn’t smile back, and she could not tell if he hadn’t seen her, or if her one little smile hadn’t been enough.


Now she thinks of Jack’s face as he looked down at his hands, as if something important had happened to them. No. Nath is wrong. Those hands could never have hurt anyone. She is sure of it.

•   •   •


On Lydia’s bed, Marilyn hugs her knees like a little girl, trying to leap the gaps between what James has said and what he thinks and what he meant. Your mother was right all along. You should have married someone more like you. With such bitterness in his voice that it choked her. These words sound familiar and she mouths them silently, trying to place them. Then she remembers. On their wedding day, in the courthouse: her mother had warned her about their children, how they wouldn’t fit in anywhere. You’ll regret it, she had said, as if they would be flippered and imbecile and doomed, and out in the lobby, James must have heard everything. Marilyn had said only, My mother just thinks I should marry someone more like me, then brushed it away, like dust onto the floor. But those words had haunted James. How they must have wound around his heart, binding tighter over the years, slicing into the flesh. He had hung his head like a murderer, as if his blood were poison, as if he regretted that their daughter had ever existed.


When James comes home, Marilyn thinks, speechless with aching, she will tell him: I would marry you a hundred times if it gave us Lydia. A thousand times. You cannot blame yourself for this.


Except James does not come home. Not at dinner; not at nightfall; not at one, when the bars in town close. All night Marilyn sits awake, pillows propped against the headboard, waiting for the sound of his car in the driveway, his footsteps on the stairs. At three, when he still hasn’t come home, she decides she will go to his office. All the way to campus, she pictures him huddled in his wheeled armchair, crushed with sadness, soft cheek pressed to hard desk. When she finds him, she thinks, she will convince him this is not his fault. She will bring him home. But when she pulls into the lot, it is empty. She circles his building three times, checking all the spots where he usually parks, then all the faculty lots, then all the meters nearby. No sign of him anywhere.


In the morning, when the children come downstairs, Marilyn sits stiff-necked and bleary-eyed at the kitchen table. “Where’s Daddy?” Hannah asks, and her silence is enough of an answer. It is the Fourth of July: everything is closed. James has no friends on the faculty; he is not close with their neighbors; he loathes the dean. Could he have been in an accident? Should she call the police? Nath rubs his bruised knuckle across the crack in the counter and remembers the perfume on his father’s skin, his reddening cheeks, his sharp and sudden fury. I don’t owe him anything, he thinks, but even so, he has the feeling of leaping off a high cliff when he swallows hard and says at last, “Mom? I think I know where he is.”


At first Marilyn will not believe it. It is so unlike James. Besides, she thinks, he doesn’t know anyone. He does not have any female friends. There are no women in the history department at Middlewood, only a few women professors at the college at all. When would James meet another woman? Then a terrible thought occurs to her.


She takes down the phone book and skims down the Cs until she finds it, the only Chen in Middlewood: L Chen 105 4th St #3A. A telephone number. She nearly reaches for the receiver, but what would she say? Hello, do you know where my husband is? Without shutting the phone book, she grabs her keys from the counter. “Stay here,” she says. “Both of you. I’ll be back in half an hour.”


Fourth Street is near the college, a student-heavy area of town, and even as she turns down it, squinting at building numbers, Marilyn has no plan. Maybe, she thinks, Nath is all wrong, maybe she is making a fool of herself. She feels like an overtuned violin, strung too tight, so that even the slightest vibration sets her humming. Then, in front of number 97, she sees James’s car, parked beneath a scrubby maple. Four stray leaves dot its windshield.


Now she feels strangely calm. She parks the car, lets herself into 105, and climbs the steps to the third floor, where with one steady fist she raps at 3A. It is nearly eleven, and when the door opens, just wide enough to reveal Louisa still in a pale blue robe, Marilyn smiles.


“Hello,” she says. “It’s Louisa, isn’t it? Louisa Chen? I’m Marilyn Lee.” When Louisa does not respond, she adds, “James Lee’s wife.”


“Oh, yes,” Louisa says. Her eyes flick away from Marilyn’s. “I’m sorry. I’m not dressed yet—”


“I can see that.” Marilyn sets her hand on the door, holding it open with one palm. “I’ll just take a moment of your time. You see, I’m looking for my husband. He didn’t come home last night.”


“Oh?” Louisa swallows hard, and Marilyn pretends not to notice. “How terrible. You must be very worried.”


“I am. Very worried.” She keeps her eyes trained on Louisa’s face. They have met only twice before, in passing at the college Christmas party and then at the funeral, and Marilyn studies her carefully now. Long ink-colored hair, long lashes over downturned eyes, small mouth, like a doll’s. A shy little thing. As far from me, she thinks with a twinge, as a girl could be. “Do you have any idea where he might be?”


Louisa blushes bright pink, and Marilyn feels almost sorry for her, she is so transparent. “Why would I know?”


“You’re his assistant, aren’t you? You work together every day.” She pauses. “He speaks of you so often at home.”


“He does?” Confusion and pleasure and surprise mingle in Louisa’s face, and Marilyn can see exactly what is running through her mind. That Louisa—she’s so smart. So talented. So beautiful. She thinks, Oh Louisa. How young you are.


“Well,” Louisa says at last. “Have you checked his office?”


“He wasn’t there earlier,” Marilyn says. “Perhaps he’s there now.” She sets her hand on the doorknob. “Could I use your telephone?”


Louisa’s smile vanishes. “I’m sorry,” she says. “My phone’s actually not working right now.” She looks desperately at Marilyn, as if wishing she would just give up and go away. Marilyn waits, letting Louisa fidget. Her hands have stopped shaking. Inside she feels a quiet smoldering rage.


“Thank you anyway,” she says. “You’ve been very helpful.” She lets her eyes drift past Louisa, to the tiny sliver of living room she can see through the doorway, and Louisa glances back over her shoulder nervously, as if James might have wandered out of the bedroom unawares. “If you see him,” Marilyn adds, raising her voice, “tell my husband that I’ll see him at home.”


Louisa swallows again. “I will,” she says, and at last Marilyn lets her shut the door.








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