I'll Stay, page 29
“My parents don’t have friends over.”
“Not ever?” I asked. She shook her head. “Not even for dinner?”
“My parents don’t have friends. And they don’t talk about politics or books or movies or emotions. My mom doesn’t have a job. She isn’t cool like your mom.”
This was a year before I visited her farm and realized how different our backgrounds truly were. Still, I remembered feeling a little annoyed. “My mom isn’t always like what you saw tonight. Most of the time she’s really moody.”
I handed Lee a wineglass that she dried and placed on the shelf. And then she put one hand on her hip and the other on the counter and said, “Yeah, I guess it’d be really hard living with someone who was that dedicated to her work.”
And I remembered turning to her as she concentrated on drying another wineglass and feeling as if that had been the perfect thing to say. Not how great my mother was or how famous or that she was a good writer. Those were all things junior high and high school friends had said to me over the years.
Would Lee have had the perfect thing to say if I’d called while my mother was dying? Her sympathy card to me afterward was short and to the point. I’m sorry for your loss. Your mom was always so nice to me. I hope you’re okay. No traces of anger. No asking for favors. She’d been busy, I knew now. She was making a film.
I glanced at my dad as the theater lights dimmed. He nodded and said, “Good. Here we go.”
I sat forward in my seat. We were in the dark until a faint light appeared on the screen. Slowly the scene came into view as the camera passed over a vast field with stunted, brittle cornstalks and swirls of snow. I gripped the seat in front of me with both hands. I remembered that weekend when we visited her farm and how everything looked so bleak, just like this.
I was suddenly hungry for something familiar, a snapshot of her farm, her house, the bar where we met her aunt, the long driveway with the fields on both sides. I scooted forward until my knees touched the empty seat in front of me. The camera panned to railroad tracks, and I realized that these were Lee’s tracks, where she’d taken me that day the goose was run over. There was the clump of trees. And the ridge above the river. This was it! Then her voice filled the room—“There’s a particular sound a train whistle makes on cold winter mornings . . .”
I startled—actually, it was more like a slap across the face, so sudden and sharp—and in my mind I saw her smile and how we sat in her theater in Bloomington on Sunday afternoons, our feet on the chairs in front of us, eating stale popcorn while watching whatever was showing. But this was her movie, the one we should have been talking about all these years, and yet we hadn’t. Because I didn’t have the courage to write back. Because I had ended our friendship.
What favor did she want to ask? What peace? I miss all of the good things about us. Oh, God, I missed that, too.
I saw images on the screen. People talking. Cornfields. Empty parking lots. And suddenly the movie was over. I had no idea how much time had passed. As the credits rolled, people around us began to leave but I watched until the screen went blank and the lights turned on.
“That was awfully short but good,” my dad said. “Timely, too. The disappearance of small-town America is happening everywhere. Logan and I were talking about this yesterday. He’s quite a capitalist these days. I think we’ve lost him to the Republicans. Did you like it?”
“Yes,” I said, still staring at the screen. But I’d have a hard time telling anyone what I just saw. I needed to go home and think about it.
That night Ben was home early—around eight—and we ate dinner on the tiny back porch of our condo. We’d bought this place last year. On the top floor of a four-story brownstone in Brookline, it was bright and spacious with two large bedrooms, a new kitchen, and a living room with a fireplace. It was close to the T and my dad and so new to us that we were still a little giddy that it was ours.
“So, tell me about it,” Ben said as he scooted to the table. He’d changed into shorts and a Red Sox T-shirt but he still had that disheveled look I always associated with work. Maybe it was because his hair, longer now than in college, was sticking out haphazardly on his head, as if he’d literally been pulling it out all day. I stood at the table, holding bowls of a new recipe, coq au vin, and then put one in front of him. Ben pushed the frame of his wire-rimmed glasses higher on his nose and dug his fork into his bowl before I’d even pulled out my chair.
“Well, it was good.” I sat and cradled my wineglass in my hands.
“Come on, give me details,” he said, his mouth full.
I put down my glass and took a bite. The chicken practically melted in my mouth and the sauce was both sweet and rich. I’d been right to make this last night and let it sit in the refrigerator for twenty-four hours. Ben nodded as he ate, his eyes glossed over in gastronomical ecstasy. It was still such a joy to watch him eat.
I took another bite and then a long drink of wine. Because I still didn’t know what to think about Lee’s film. Had I not been paying attention? Maybe it was just that I didn’t like talking to Ben about Lee. I still hadn’t told him what happened between us, not any of it, and now this omission—these lies—seemed almost bigger than the original sin. I cringed. Had I committed a sin?
“It was about a factory closing in Indiana near her hometown and the damage that did to people,” I said, finally. She’d interviewed a man in overalls with a John Deere cap and a shoe store owner who went out of business. Now I remembered.
“Was it any good?” he asked. I nodded. “Maybe you should call or something. Tell her that you saw it. It might be a good way to break the ice between you.”
I looked away because I hadn’t told him about Lee’s letter, either, and what she’d said. I hadn’t told him about any of the letters. I felt this wedge between us and I imagined, suddenly, sitting on broken pieces of ice and drifting away from each other. Married couples shouldn’t have secrets from each other. I had an ocean full.
But this wasn’t completely true. Years ago I’d confessed to not loving tutoring and that I didn’t want to go for a PhD. He knew I didn’t want to teach fourth grade for the rest of my life, either. I’d told him these things. I’d fessed up and it hadn’t been a disaster. He’d been only mildly disappointed.
“You know, if you call her, you don’t have to talk about what happened in Florida,” he said. “She probably doesn’t want to be reminded of that, either. Just talk about regular stuff. Talk about her film. You know?”
Let her go, I’ll stay.
I took another long drink of wine. Maybe Lee wanted help piecing together the events of that night in Florida. Maybe she wanted to press charges against those guys. It was one thing to tell Ben that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. But this was different. What was it that my dad said about Watergate? The cover-up was worse than the crime. He and Ben were talking about this the other night.
“How was work?” My throat felt tight, constricted.
“Pretty intense right now.” Ben’s voice sped up. “Now that Patrick wants me to argue part of the McDougal case, he’s got me working all aspects of it. I found some hilarious laws, though, when looking through the New York state books. Did you know that it’s against the law to throw a ball at someone’s head? And that a person can’t walk around on Sundays with an ice-cream cone in his pocket?”
Ben laughed, took a drink from his wine, and continued.
I stared at my wineglass. How did Lee get those bumpy opening shots of the cornfield and the snow? Maybe she hung out the window of a car. Did her husband help? How did she meet him? Were they thinking about having children, too?
“Hey.” Ben nudged my arm, and I startled and looked at him.
“You’re not listening. But I get it. I’m pretty swallowed up in the minutia.” He chuckled.
“I’m sorry. I guess I’m a little distracted.” I smiled at him. Ben wanted to make partner someday, and he was doing everything possible to make
“Nah, forget it.” He grinned and sat up. “Hey, I got two tickets for the last regular season game at Fenway. I thought I’d take your dad.”
Ben would much rather go to the game with Tommy, a friend from law school who’d moved here last year, or with one of his three brothers who all still lived where they’d grown up, near Baltimore, and would fly up in a moment. I felt the goodness of this—it would help my dad and me—settle heavy in my chest. “That’s so nice.”
“Hard to believe he wasn’t a baseball fan until I moved up here.” He smiled, proud that he’d converted my dad, who’d never watched an entire game in his life.
“It was such an escape for him last summer and fall,” I said, recovering a bit.
Ben dropped his eyes as he mopped up the last of his dinner with a huge hunk of bread. Over the last year, he’d been so helpful with things like setting up the hospital bed and taking their cars for oil changes. He fixed their downspout, which sent water into the basement every time it rained, and went to the lawyer with my dad to straighten out their trust. So, who could blame him if he couldn’t be in the same room with my mother, that her pain and paranoia made him petrified and mute? Who could blame him if he could barely stand to listen to me fumble with the grief and confusion I felt when she died? Ben had many strengths. Sitting with extreme emotions wasn’t one of them.
I stood and began stacking dishes. I hoped Sophie and Talia were having a sleepover tonight. I wondered how Paolo, who hadn’t found his mitt, would deal with the wrath of his dad. And I thought of Lee, maybe having dinner with her husband tonight, too, and wondering if I’d write back. I felt a sob start up my throat.
Ben reached for my arm, put the dishes back on the table, and then lowered me into his lap. I wrapped my hands around his neck and buried my face into his shoulder. He felt warm and smelled faintly like coffee and a bit like he’d soon need a shower. He whispered, “What?”
“I don’t know!” I sobbed. But oh, I certainly did. I knew.
“Are you thinking about your mom?” he asked.
I shrugged and kept my face against his shoulder.
“Know what I was thinking?” He nudged my head so that I sat up and looked at him. He had a tiny piece of chicken between his two front teeth and a cold sore in the corner of his mouth. I ran my finger over his bumpy dimple and then tightened my hands around his neck. “Maybe we should start trying again. It’s been a rough year with your mom and my job but that’s behind us now. Well, not my job. But anyway, what do you say? You ready to go at it again?”
He was talking about a baby. Before my mother died, we’d tried for a few months but stopped when she took a turn and had needed so much. He was right. That was behind us. But I didn’t know if now was the right time. I didn’t seem to know much about anything except that being a mother sounded terrifying. I didn’t know how to take care of a baby. What if I made a mistake? But I nodded because I didn’t want Ben to worry, and I needed time to think about this.
* * *
The next morning, Ben got up early, went for a run in the drizzle, and as he showered, promised that tomorrow morning he wouldn’t go in to work until ten. I was still in my pajamas, a cup of coffee in my hand, as I sat on the side of the tub. It was a perfect rainy Saturday to stay in.
“Are you always going to work weekends?” I asked.
“No, of course not,” he said, his wet dirty blond hair shiny under the bathroom lights. “This is just because of what’s going on now.”
I wasn’t sure I believed him.
“I’m sorry, sweetie.” He toweled off and combed his hair and then I followed him back into the bedroom. He kissed me on my lips and yanked a polo shirt over his head. “I won’t be late. Promise. Wanna do something tonight?”
As I listened to him in the kitchen pouring cereal into a bowl, I imagined him standing at the counter, eating quickly, his mind already on the tasks for today. I thought about Kitty yesterday, surprised that Ben worked so many hours. But I’d met the spouses of many of the lawyers in his firm, and their husbands and a few wives worked just as much as Ben. Besides, I was used to it. This was how my mother worked, obsessively, continuously, until two months before she died.
I watched the rain flow in parallel tracks down the window. Had Lee and I passed the automobile plastics factory when we visited her farm? I couldn’t remember what she said in the film about why it closed. Or what the unemployment and poverty rates were. But I remembered how she pronounced Chicago with that sharp emphasis on the first syllable and how her voice climbed, in that familiar way, to emphasize a point.
I hadn’t paid enough attention to the film. Maybe if I saw it again, I’d be able to answer these questions. I put down my coffee and headed for the shower.
Two hours later, I sat in the empty theater. This time when the lights dimmed and the scene opened on the cornfield and snow and I heard Lee’s voice, I tried to concentrate on what she said. The automotive plastics factory had employed 347 people, making it the largest employer within fifty miles. The closing affected every business in the county. The poverty rate doubled. Unemployment skyrocketed.
Why had Lee chosen this topic? How long did it take her to make? Did it consume her? If so, who did the laundry? The shopping? Who made dinner?
When the film was over, I felt as unsettled as I had yesterday.
The next morning after Ben ran, showered, and ate his cereal standing at the counter, I told myself that I wouldn’t go back to the theater. With school in session all week, I should spend today getting things in order for the memorial service next weekend. I needed to pick out an outfit and plan Friday night’s dinner. Logan had called to say that he and Beth would arrive on the four o’clock ferry, earlier than planned. Oliver would be there for dinner as well.
Maybe I’d look through the recipes I’d started to collect. Or, while shopping for a new outfit, I’d stop at the bookstore and look through cookbooks. Would the Vineyard farms still have produce available? Should I bake a few loaves of bread? See, these were the things I needed to figure out.
Instead, I showered and took the T back to the MFA. Because I needed to be critical. This time, I’d critique it as I would a novel. I’d been good at this as a student. It was the creative part that always stumped me. What kind of interesting, original point did I want to make about a text? I couldn’t ever come up with anything.
At the theater, I took my regular seat in the second row. When the door opened and an older woman walked in, I frowned. But I had no claims on this film. When it started and Lee’s voice filled the theater, I began to pick it apart. The music was too depressing. The man complaining about the food in the soup kitchen was too predictable. And wasn’t it self-indulgent to think anyone would care about a small town in Indiana? How ironic that she’d returned to her hometown for her first professional film after she’d spent so much time plotting to leave.
But as the poor woman who’d lost everything talked into the camera, I felt myself sucked into the narrative. Just look at her! She lost her job, her house, and then her husband died of heart disease. Lee had done a noble service, calling attention to this. And she’d lived her dream.
When the film was over, I stayed seated while the woman left and the credits rolled. I didn’t move when the lights came on, either. Because this was it. All next week, I’d be in school when this was shown, and the following weekend, I’d be on the Vineyard. I rubbed my temples. It was time to go.
I took the T back to Brookline, stopped at the market, and picked up a few groceries for my dad. On my way to his house, I saw a girl on the sidewalk in front of me, her long black hair shimmering in the sunlight. I sucked in a quick breath and stopped walking. When she turned, I saw that she wasn’t Lee. But I’d been looking for her. Maybe that was why I’d gone back to the theater. Maybe I was looking for her so she could explain what favor she wanted from me.
I found my dad asleep on the living room couch, his shoes on the floor next to him and the newspaper, open to the crossword puzzle, across his chest. I tiptoed back into the kitchen, put away the ice cream, milk, and other groceries and then stood at the counter. I could clean although the kitchen was spotless. Instead, I walked into my mother’s office.
A small room, it had most likely been a large pantry or the maid’s room back when the house was built. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases covered two walls. A small window, on a third wall, looked out into the backyard. My mother’s desk, a wood behemoth she’d bought from the widow of a Shakespearean, floated in the middle of the room. I sat in the leather chair and pulled myself up to the desk.
Growing up, I hadn’t come in here much. It wasn’t interesting in the way that some of my high school friends’ parents’ offices were. There were no pictures on the wall, no snacks in the drawers, no surprises (we found a bag of pot in Mr. Kepler’s drawer). Just books. Her typewriter. A box of typewriter paper. Pens. And because she threw nothing out, stacks of manuscripts and correspondence. Which were now conspicuously missing. We’d gone through most everything, giving much of it to the university library for its Eleanor Michaels collection.
All that was left to go through were these drawers.
Not long after my mother died, my dad told me that he’d finally read over what she’d been working on for the last five years. It was about a ground patrol company in Europe during the latter part of the Second World War. Did I want to see it? No, I’d said. I was tired of her war stories. And I needed space from her.
When my mother became terminal at the beginning of last summer, I came here every day. I stayed with her while my dad ran errands or rested. I went with them to appointments at Dana Farber. I made meals and read to her. Occasionally my dad and I were alone together while she slept or the visiting nurse was with her. During those times, he never complained or criticized her. He was so crushed by what was happening that I didn’t have the heart to complain or criticize, either.