I'll Stay, page 19
She’d never told me this. But what was so surprising about what he’d asked? Blowing his brains out. It was, after all, how she wrote about what Whit did. But she was still wincing, even as she sipped her wine, and I wanted to make her feel better.
“You should write a sequel,” I said. Part of me didn’t care if I ever read about Phoebe and her crazy family again. The other part wondered if Phoebe, as an adult, would be like me.
Lee, who’d been staring at my mother, turned her head and looked at me.
My mother shuddered. “For Heaven’s sake. I can’t imagine writing about those characters. They’re stuck in time. I never think about what happens to them.”
“There he is!” Dad stood, grabbed Logan’s arm, and slapped him on the back. My mother smiled as Logan bent over and briefly hugged her. He pulled away, dropped into the seat next to me, squeezed my shoulder, and nodded at Lee.
“Bloody taxi took forever.” Logan was a swimmer when he was younger and still had the body for it—tall and broad shouldered with a narrow waist. Usually he dressed in expensive handmade Italian suits and three-hundred-dollar silk ties (he liked to show me price tags). Today he looked disheveled; chinos with wrinkles across the front and the shoulders of his blue button-down speckled with rain. His light brown hair was longer than I’d seen it in years and fell across his forehead, obscuring his eyes.
“Where’s Elise?” I asked.
“Couldn’t come.” He reached for the bottle of Chateau Montelena and held it in front of his face, reading the label. He poured some into his water glass and took a big gulp. Then he swept his hair out of his eyes, licked his lips, and nodded. “Not bad. Pedestrian but not bad.”
“We were looking forward to seeing her,” Dad said.
“Yeah, well.” Logan took another gulp of wine, then rested his elbows on the table and looked around. “Seems typical that you’d pick the stodgiest place you could find in this bloody city. It looks like a funeral home.”
Something was wrong. Logan was sarcastic and certainly distant—my God, when was the last time he was home for Christmas? —but he normally wasn’t quite so rude. My mother shifted in her seat and my dad sat back and crossed his arms. Lee stared at me. I had to do something. “How was your flight?”
I could count to ten in the time it took him to turn his head toward me. He curled his upper lip into a snarl. “Jesus, Clare. Who the fuck cares about that?”
Dad leaned forward. “That’s just about enough, Logan. What’s this all about?”
“Nothing,” he mumbled as the waiter handed him a menu. He opened it and began reading. Dad asked for another bottle of wine.
Something was wrong between Elise and him. I pushed away my wineglass and sat back in my seat. They’d broken up several times before but they’d always gotten back together. Maybe this was like those times. Maybe they’d had an argument. A row, as Elise would say. I glanced at the bar. The woman in the white linen dress was smiling at me. Then I realized that she wasn’t looking at me but at my mother. She recognized her.
“Is everything okay with work?” my mother asked.
Logan waved his hand at her. “Sure. I’m going to make a shitload of money again this year.”
Logan was drunk. He rarely swore and he was slurring his words. Had I ever seen him like this? Usually he was so much in control. Lee was watching him, too. She’d only been around him a few times, the latest two years ago on the Vineyard when he breezed in for a three-day visit with Elise.
The waiter came back to the table with the wine and took our orders. After he left, Dad said, “I thought you two would announce an engagement soon.”
Logan snorted. “That would require us actually being together. We’re done, this time for good. She’s in love with someone else.” He gulped his wine again.
“Oh, Logan, I’m sorry,” my mother said. Dad groaned. Tears sprang to my eyes, and I held my hand to my chest.
“She said she got tired of waiting around for me,” he said.
“You should’ve asked her to marry you when you had the chance,” Dad said.
“I did! Last Christmas in her parents’ living room! I even had a ring.”
“I don’t understand,” my mother said.
“She said she was tired of waiting for me to get my shit together. She said she wanted someone with not so much baggage. She went after one of those touchy-feely blokes. You know, the kind who’s been on a couch for the last twenty years.”
It took me a few seconds but I knew what Logan meant by on a couch. Freud. Therapy. As I watched him, I thought about something Elise had said that night on the stone wall. She was talking about how family members inadvertently “assign” roles for each other and then she’d turned to me and said, “I know that your mum’s fame has been hard for Logan.” Was this what she meant by baggage?
My mother folded her arms and sat forward in her seat. “We all have baggage, Logan. I’m not sure that wallowing in it is any way to live.”
“Wallowing?” He shook his head. “We don’t wallow. In fact, we don’t even talk. According to Elise.”
“Ah!” Dad grunted. “That’s where she’s wrong. We talk all the time.”
“She meant that we don’t talk about emotional things,” I said. Everyone looked at me. Logan raised his eyebrows, as if impressed, but I didn’t trust him. Had I ever seen him this drunk and angry? I didn’t want him to pounce on me again.
“I think my friends and business associates consider me a very friendly and open person,” Dad said. “Your mom and I have not shied away from our opinions.”
“That’s the truth,” Logan mumbled. He signaled the waiter and ordered a Dewar’s on the rocks.
“I think you’ve had enough to drink,” my mother said.
“I’m just getting started,” he said.
Dad kept turning his knife over next to his plate. Lee sat stiff and straight and stared at something on the table. My mother’s thin lips were pinched into a frown again. When she began rocking, I picked up the breadbasket and passed it to her. I passed her the butter plate, too, and said, “Maybe you should eat something.”
She took it from me but didn’t eat anything.
I frowned at Logan. I had seen him angry like this, years ago, when I visited him in the hospital after he’d had his appendix out. He was angry with our mother for leaving him behind while we went to New York for the award ceremony. Now he was mad at Elise for leaving him. Or at our parents because they didn’t talk about emotions. Or at me because I’d asked about his flight. Maybe he wasn’t mad but upset. I wasn’t sure about anything because staring at the way his lids drooped over his eyes and how the freckles on his cheek looked like a star—why hadn’t I ever noticed this?—I realized that I didn’t know my brother that well. How could this be?
Lee raised her eyebrows at me again, and I began bouncing my leg.
“What was she referring to, Logan, with your baggage?” Dad asked. “The way you were raised? Your heritage?”
“My heritage? Ah, you mean our relatives. We know all about your family, Dad. Your father, the engineer who bolted, and your poor mum.” Logan pointed his drink at our mother. “But this one’s family is a mystery. Maybe they were all bloody, gun-toting murderers.”
“Logan!” I glared at him. How insensitive could he be? He knew as well as I did how our great-grandfather had died.
For a moment my mother looked stricken. But then her cheeks colored and she shook her head. “There’s no mystery. What do you want to know?”
“Why didn’t we ever meet anyone?” Logan began weaving side to side.
“Who was there to meet, Logan? You met my mother. I had no siblings. My father died when you were a baby. My cousins are scattered all over the globe. You’re trying to make me feel guilty or responsible or something. But it’s not my fault that I had such a small family. And it’s not my fault that Elise left you.”
“Oh, Chrriiisstttttt,” he slurred. “You don’t get it!”
“Witness what?” Logan hissed. “What are you sorry about?” Then the waiters swooped down on our table, delivering chicken marbella for my mother and me, steak for my dad and Lee, and fish for Logan. A bouquet of roasted garlic, butter, and lemons surged into the air above the table, but no one seemed hungry. Staring at my plate, I was no longer glad that Lee was here. This dinner was embarrassing, and I was furious with Logan for treating our mother so poorly. The sooner we ate, the sooner we’d leave.
“Excuse me.” A voice, soft and unsure.
I looked up to see the woman in the white linen dress standing next to my mother and wringing her hands in front of her. She said, “I’m sorry to interrupt. We’re on our way to our table but I wanted to say how much I loved Listen, Before You Go. I reread it every couple of years. Phoebe is such an interesting character, and she had to deal with so much at such a young age. I saw in the paper that you were in town and I just, well, want to thank you for writing it.”
“Oh, my goodness, thank you.” My mother turned her entire upper body toward the woman. And then she beamed, as if they were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while.
“I always wondered how you came up with the story,” she said. “You know, where you got the idea.”
I watched my mother blink rapidly—as if she’d been caught in a car’s high beams—before dropping her eyes. Normally I wouldn’t spend time thinking about this, but now, remembering Lucy’s accusations, I wondered. Why was it so hard for her to talk about this? Where had the story come from?
I glanced at my dad but he was swirling his wine and smiling at the woman. Finally, my mother looked up and smiled slightly, too. Then she pointed to her head and shrugged.
“I’ve read both your books. I liked Saigon, too, but Listen is my favorite. I think that’s because, well, I had an uncle who killed himself. And you wrote about this so well. How the family suffers. Anyway, sorry again for interrupting.” She nodded at my mother, smiled at the rest of us, and walked to the back of the room.
“That was nice,” my mother said, her big brown eyes widening. “After all this time to still be recognized. And how lovely that she liked Saigon, too.”
People didn’t often mention her second novel. Relief seemed to wash over her. The other day Dad showed me an article he’d kept hidden from her. The writer questioned the “merit and future of minimalism” and suggested that Listen, Before You Go may not hold up to scrutiny in coming years. I was glad that he’d kept it from her, especially now that her editor didn’t like her new book.
“Of course you’re still recognized,” I said. “You should remember this the next time you start doubting yourself.”
My mother nodded.
When Logan slapped the table with his palm, I jumped and the couple at the table next to us turned to look. He said, “That’s it! Our heritage! That’s where we came from, good ole Phoebe and Whit!”
“That book put you through Dartmouth,” my mother said.
“That’s right,” Dad said.
Logan drained his drink. “Well, fuck Dartmouth. And fuck Phoebe and Whit.” He was weaving so much that I thought he might fall off his chair.
“Stop raising your voice and stop using that language,” my mother growled. “It’s rude and people know me here.”
“Oh, Christ, people know you,” he sputtered. “That’s always how it’s been. Your books and image have always been more important than anything else. What, you don’t think I know this? Think about how you left me to die while you went off and got your award for that goddam book.”
“What are you talking about?” Dad asked.
“When Clare and I went to the book award ceremony?” my mother asked. “Logan, you weren’t dying. You had appendicitis.”
What kind of sick joke was this?
“How was the zoo, Clare?” he asked. “Pet any elephants?”
What the hell was he talking about?
He laughed. “Phoebe and Whit. Well, maybe Phoebe and Whit aren’t so good for us, after all. Just think about how much they’ve fucked up Clare. She can’t decide if she should be Phoebe or your mother. They’re basically one and the same.”
“I am not fucked up!” I felt a rush in my cheeks and then a hot pulsing.
“Really? You can honestly say that you don’t think you’re supposed to be Phoebe?” He turned to Lee. “Did you know that she thinks she’s supposed to be Phoebe? And that we’ve always called her ‘Claretaker’? Jesus, Elise loved to talk about this crap.”
“That’s enough!” Dad roared.
The tables around us went silent, and then it was so quiet that I heard the bartender pour ice into a glass across the room. My mother dropped her head into her hand. Logan reached for the wine bottle. I had a sense that everyone was looking at us, although when I glanced around, all heads were down. I was so angry that my entire body shook. Me, fucked up? I wasn’t the one so drunk that I could barely sit in my chair. Ever since I could remember, Logan thought he was smarter than everyone else. The way he’d breeze in and out with no thought to helping her, helping anyone.
Logan, eyes closed, began weaving again. My dad stood, threw his napkin on his chair, and walked behind Logan. He ripped the bottle out of his hand, reached under his elbows, and helped him up. Then my dad put his arm around Logan’s waist, guided him around the table, and said, “I’ll get him settled and be back.”
After they’d gone, my mother waved both of her hands in front of her and said, “Let’s eat, you two. Don’t let it get cold. Go on, eat!”
But she wasn’t eating and I certainly had no appetite. Lee held her knife in her hand, but she kept looking at me, then at my mother, unsure what to do.
My mother was hurt—I felt it and saw it in the way the corners of her mouth sagged and her nose flared—and this made me even angrier. How could Logan treat her like this? How could he be so ungrateful?
“Logan’s a jerk. He shouldn’t have said those things to you. They weren’t true.” I reached across the empty seats, picked up her fork, and held it out to her.
My mother sighed and took the fork, staring at it as if she had no idea what to do. She watched as I cut into my chicken and put a piece in my mouth. It was tasteless as I chewed. Lee, still holding her steak knife, had a surprised look on her face, as if she’d just remembered something important. I tapped my watch—we had to go soon—and she nodded and started to eat, too.
The people at the next table began to talk again. But the silence at our table was excruciating.
As my mother started to eat, Lee continued to glance at me and then at her. Finally, she said, “Mrs. Michaels, I know you’re familiar with Southeast Asia because you wrote about Vietnam. But have you ever been to Thailand?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Just wondering what you knew about it.”
Then my mother began a long explanation of the history of Southeast Asia, starting with the French colonization of Vietnam in the 1800s. I was pretty sure that this wasn’t what Lee was asking, but I was grateful for the help with my mother.
I sat back, rubbed my chin, and thought about a scene in Listen when Whit and Phoebe drove to the lake. The night before, Whit woke from a nightmare and Phoebe read to him until he fell back asleep. But it was an unsettled sleep and Whit was exhausted. Phoebe hoped a walk in the woods would “pep him up.”
Once at the lake she ran ahead as she spotted a bunch of wildflowers that she wanted to pick. As she got closer, she saw a deer lying on its side in the flowers, half of its right flank torn to the bloody bone. She was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the deer’s peaceful, beautiful body among the flowers and its gruesome, fatal injury. She was able, I heard my mother once explain, to tolerate such graphic images of death. Then Phoebe, thinking quickly and knowing a scene like this could unhinge her increasingly desponden
When I was younger, I thought about that scene a lot. I imagined that I’d have been just as strong had I found the deer. For a while I even found myself saying, when something challenging happened at school, what would Phoebe do? She was so helpful, such a lofty model to emulate. I hadn’t meant for this to happen. Over the years, others had pointed out my connection to Phoebe, but there was something mortifying about Logan acknowledging it so publicly tonight.
I glanced at my mother, who was now into the late 1800s in her Southeast Asia dissertation. Did it mean something that she’d dropped her eyes and wouldn’t answer when the woman asked about Listen’s origins? I rubbed my eyes and looked at my watch. It was almost nine. Everyone would be expecting us soon.
“Well, that was a disaster.” My dad kissed my mother on the cheek and sat. He took a long drink from his wine and began cutting his steak. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Logan like that.”
“Where is he?” my mother asked.
“In our room, passed out in the bed next to ours,” he said, mouth full of steak. “He’ll sleep it off and be fine. Nasty hangover tomorrow, I’m afraid.”
“Logan was totally obnoxious tonight,” I said.
“Logan is very drunk and very heartbroken,” he said. “I can’t imagine that he believed anything he said.”
“And so that excuses him?” I asked.
My dad sighed. He’d had a lot to drink, too. Maybe in the morning they’d all blame this on a night with too much alcohol and we’d never speak of it again. If there was one thing I could count on in my family, it was that we didn’t dwell on conflict. We didn’t discuss bad behavior. My mother set a good example for that.
It didn’t take Dad long to finish eating. Now that Lee and I were done, too, I wanted to go. Nothing we were facing tonight could be as awkward as this dinner.
“Thank you,” Lee said as we stood. “Dinner was really good.”
“We could have done without the fireworks.” My dad pulled out his wallet and handed me a twenty-dollar bill. “Here, take a cab up north, not the subway.”