I'll Stay, page 33
When can we go to the zoo?
“But that’s not true,” he said. “She loved us. In her way.”
I shifted my feet. “Do you believe what Oliver said?”
“Why would he make it up?”
“But does it upset you that you never knew this?”
He tilted his head as he thought and then finally shook it. “We all have crosses to bear. It’s what you do with them that matters, Clare. Your mother didn’t like to dwell. I still admire that about her. Besides, do you ever truly know everything about another person? And isn’t that okay?”
I felt my cheeks flush and looked away. Maybe my dad was more like my mother than I’d realized. Maybe people could be split into two groups, those who were doers, who moved forward without looking back, and those who dwelled. My dad, my mother, my brother, and Ben were doers. Who was I?
In December, the parent organization at Meadows put on its annual holiday lunch for teachers and staff in the upper school’s library. Tables were decorated with pinecones, garland, and snowmen that some enterprising parents made out of papier-mâché and cotton balls. Nonreligious holiday music (Frosty the snowman, was a jolly happy soul . . .) played loud enough over the speakers to hear but not overwhelm.
“A few years ago Candy Cosgrove spiked the punch and everyone got hammered,” Kitty told me as we stood in the doorway to the library. I laughed, even though she’d told me this last year. School had ended for the holiday a half hour earlier and wouldn’t resume for nearly three weeks. There was nothing quite like the frenetic energy of three hundred children, all anticipating Christmas and winter break, for weeks on end. The fact that Hanukkah coincided this year made their collective anticipation almost unbearable. We were all exhausted.
“Let’s see what the troops brought in.” Kitty started for the food table.
“I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes,” I said, eyeing something on the library counter. It wasn’t often that I came up here. Our building down the hill housed everything we needed, all classrooms, a small library and cafeteria. The administration prided itself on keeping the middle schoolers away from our easily influenced younger kids.
I said hello to several middle-school teachers—we got together as a large group often enough for me to know almost everyone—and stopped in front of the counter. Standing up and facing out between the card catalogue boxes was a copy of Listen, Before You Go.
How did this get here? It was much too old for middle-school students. I reached to take it down, to hide it, but stopped and put my hand in my pocket. I didn’t want anyone to see me with it, to think I was the one who put it here.
I opened the card catalogue, to give me something to do. Although only a few people here ever asked about my mother, I had a feeling that everyone knew our connection. I glanced at the book again. The plastic cover was new, the edges not yet abused, and the spine wasn’t broken. Maybe no one had ever checked it out. Maybe the librarian put it out today. I glanced around but no one was paying attention to me. Maybe I could just push until it fell behind the counter?
I began flipping through the cards. I hadn’t looked at the cover in a while. Certainly my dad had copies all over the place, but I treated them as I would the refrigerator and water faucet—just part of the fabric of the house. On the cover Whit and Phoebe stood with backs to the camera, Whit leaning on his crutches, Phoebe holding her brother’s forearm with both hands as if afraid she’d lose him if she let go. The blue sky above them faded into the white edges of the book so that Whit and Phoebe always looked as if they were floating. At the time it was published, reviewers mentioned how innovative this cover was. Now it looked old-fashioned.
I stared at Phoebe with her shoulder-length brown hair and stick-figure legs. Toward the end of the novel, Whit told her that everyone had a gift and the trick in life was to find it and that hers was to “help people.” As readers, we knew this was true because she’d kept Whit alive and she’d kept the family together and as one reviewer wrote, “She’s the Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa, and Holden’s Phoebe all wrapped up in one.” This was my mother’s favorite review, not only because she liked being in Salinger’s company but also because it was the only time anyone compared Phoebe to Mother Teresa. I always thought that comparison was over-the-top. But now, thinking about what Oliver had told me at the memorial service months ago, I wondered if it had some kind of other meaning for my mother.
“Thinking of doing some reading instead of eating?”
I turned to see Justine Meachem, an eighth-grade English teacher, behind me. She had a cup of punch in one hand and a plate filled with food in the other.
“Oh, no, I don’t know.” I glanced over her shoulder at the people hovering over the food table. “How is it? Worth fighting the crowd?”
She put her punch on the counter, stabbed a piece of turkey with her fork, and put it in her mouth. She smiled, chewing. “Most definitely. Although I’d say that about anyone who cooks for me. I’m lousy in the kitchen but my husband’s a good sport about it. What about you? Are you a good cook?”
I thought about Logan’s offer to fund a restaurant and my desire long ago to make scones and cookies to sell at Lorenzo’s coffeehouse. Yes, at one time I’d thought about doing something with this interest, but I hadn’t had enough confidence to pursue it. But Justine didn’t need to know this. I smiled. “I get by.”
She stabbed another hunk of turkey and swooped up some salad with it. Justine was tall with short blond hair, thick eyebrows, and big green eyes. She always dressed in long, flowing skirts and wispy peasant shirts, even in the winter, which made her the resident hippie. She and I were two of just a handful of teachers that didn’t live in the suburbs, and I liked her even if I didn’t know her well.
“You’ve dropped out of book group?” she asked. I nodded and looked away. I felt bad about this and that I’d only been to one meeting. “It’s okay. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. You probably read more compelling books, anyway. I know I do. But it’s fun to be with everyone, you know, just hanging out.”
“Everyone’s so nice,” I said. And they were. The novel we’d read was compelling enough, too. I didn’t know why I couldn’t go to the group and hang out. It was only one night a month.
“Should I read that one next?” She nodded at Listen. I felt a little flustered as I glanced at Phoebe but then she laughed. “I’m kidding. I know your mom wrote it. I read it a long time ago. My question is, why is it in a middle-school library?”
“That’s what I was wondering,” I said. “The ending is so bleak.”
“The book’s language makes it accessible to eighth graders and it certainly addresses important topics.” Her voice was slow and thoughtful. “But that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate. I worry that if kids read certain novels before they’re ready, it might turn them off reading. Or scare them unnecessarily. I don’t know. I think I’m just annoyed at these parents in our school who push and push. So what if a kid wants to read comic books. At least they’re reading?”
“So, do you see your job as cultivating happy readers or making sure they’re prepared as critical thinkers for the next grade?” I asked.
With her fork, she poked at the remaining turkey on her plate. “Honestly? Sometimes it’s all I can do just to get them through the day with their little self-esteems intact.”
We laughed. Maybe she worried about her students’ friendships, too, and whether she was a good enough teacher. It had been a while since I talked to anyone like this. With the lower school teachers, our conversations were mostly about lesson plans, benchmarks, misbehaving kids, and lately about the new gym teacher. I heard a burst of laughter and we turned to watch Kitty and some of the others who had formed a tight circle around him. He was too young for them and a little too sporty, but he was good looking. I could see the attraction.
“What are you doing over vacation?” Justine asked.
“My husband and I are going to New
“Lucky!” She smiled. “For fun?”
I wasn’t looking forward to going, despite the promise of an amazing meal at the Christmas party tonight and the fancy hotel where we were staying, all expenses paid. “Ben, my husband, has a work party. The New York office of his law firm invited us down for it. For the rest of vacation, we’ll be here. He has to work through the holidays. Unfortunately.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know the feeling. My husband will spend this vacation trying to finish his dissertation. I’ll be so happy when it’s over. Hey, I was going to suggest that we get together for dinner with our husbands. But maybe just you and me for coffee sometime over break? To commiserate?”
I startled. What did she want? It was one thing to work together and talk, but to have coffee? To do something together out of school? That meant something more, like a friendship, and I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to go there. I didn’t really know her. She didn’t know me, either. She didn’t know anything about me.
I saw the corners of her smile droop, and I tried to recover by saying, “Okay. Sure. That’d be nice.”
But it was too late. She’d seen my hesitation.
“Have you guys tried the lasagna yet? It’s awesome.” Kitty was beside me, thrusting her heaping plate between Justine and me. The lasagna was stacked nearly two inches high and oozing with cheese, spinach, and a garlic red sauce. And then two middle-school teachers walked up, also with plates of lasagna, and soon I lost Justine in the crowd.
After a while, I helped myself to some food, although I didn’t feel hungry. I tried to catch Justine’s eye several times but she wouldn’t look at me. I couldn’t tell if that was because she was hurt or if she’d simply written me off. Not long after this, I left. I had to go home before picking up Ben at the office. We needed to be on the road by three in order to get to New York, settle into our hotel, change clothes, and make our way to the Manhattan partners’ Christmas party.
At home, I found a message on the answering machine from Ben, who said he was running late. If I picked him up at four o’clock, he promised to be ready. I sat at the kitchen table, still in my winter coat, and felt irritated in a way I usually didn’t. Most likely we wouldn’t leave until at least four thirty and then what were we supposed to do, change clothes in the car on the way to the party? Why did he work so much? Why did we have to go to this party? I didn’t want to go to Manhattan. Ben wasn’t friends with the lawyers he worked with. He liked to keep these two parts of his life separate. That was what he always told me.
That was what I’d done with Justine today, too. But I cringed because this wasn’t completely true. I put my elbow on the table and sunk my head into my hand. I didn’t want to go to coffee and then maybe a movie and then after that to dinner with our husbands because eventually we’d talk about ourselves and our lives and at some point she’d realize I wasn’t the person she thought I was. I’d disappoint her.
But wasn’t I being ridiculous? After all, I tried so hard to be a good person now. I could be a good friend, too. But as I looked out the window at the bare brown tree branches, like spider legs across the pale blue sky, I felt such longing pull at me. Could I name my close friends? Did I even have any? Instead, I counted coworkers and acquaintances and people I saw at the gym and while waiting in line at Dunkin’ Donuts and the supermarket.
“You had so many friends when we were in college,” Ben said to me one morning several months ago as he headed off for another fourteen-hour day. “Why don’t you call someone? You know, get together for dinner or something?”
Would I call Diana, whom I hadn’t seen in five years, since I quit working at the coffeehouse? Lorenzo, whom I had nothing in common with now that we no longer worked together? Friends from high school, most of whom I didn’t know anymore? I barely even talked to college friends. I didn’t know why.
Of course I knew why.
I was a coward.
I stood and went into our bedroom, pausing in the doorway. We’d recently had the walls painted dark beige that matched the new comforter cover. Antique wood nightstands stood on either side of the bed. Our condo was beginning to resemble the distinct parts of our personalities. Clean, modern, and neat (Ben). Antiques and books (me).
What was Lee’s apartment like? And what about her husband? Did she want children? Was she trying to conceive and not having luck, either? I imagined tomorrow, out for a walk in midtown, and running into her. What would we say? How would I defend not calling or writing after receiving her letter months ago? Although I’d put it away in my nightstand drawer and hadn’t looked at it in a while, I knew it by heart. I’ve learned some things that have given me some peace with all that has happened. Maybe it would give you some peace, too. I have a favor. I need your help. And below that her address and phone number in Manhattan.
I walked to the nightstand table, opened the drawer, and took out the letter. Maybe it was because I felt bad about Justine or because I couldn’t get rid of the longing in my heart or maybe because I just wanted some peace, after all, but I put the letter in my pocket. And then I turned out the light and went back to the kitchen to wait for Ben’s call.
Ben threw open the curtains. The hotel window was massive and the shockingly bright sunlight made me flinch. I pulled the down comforter over my head. After a few moments, I peeked out and groaned, “What time is it?”
“It’s late, seven forty-five.” Ben, showered and dressed, stood in front of the mirror knotting his tie. Usually I never slept this late but last night Ben had been so keyed up when he came back from his dinner that we’d talked until two. He’d even skipped his run this morning.
“Are you sure you’re okay alone again today?” he asked.
I bunched the pillow under my head, turned away from the window, and nodded. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. We were supposed to have time together. But at the Christmas party two nights ago, one of the partners asked him to come into the office and so yesterday he worked all day—and through last night’s dinner—and now was working again today. But there was an upside, he said. The New York office was going to lobby for him to be made partner sooner than anticipated. Ben was so excited that he’d jumped on the bed when he got back to the room. It was hard to be disappointed when there was so much good news.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll make it up to you.”
“No, you won’t,” I said. We’d been trying to get away together since June. Each time—and there were two others, in addition to this trip—work got in the way. That was what happened when you wanted to make partner, he’d said. Everything in our lives had to revolve around work.
He turned from the mirror and frowned. “Yes, I will. I promise.”
“I’m kidding.” Was I?
“I’m doing this for us,” he said. “So we can have a good life.”
“And because you don’t know anything else,” I said. “You’re a workaholic.”
“I know,” he said, his voice a little defensive, a little proud.
A good life meant money, a lovely new condo, and a fulfilling career. I looked back out the window and thought about Meadows and the math lesson I’d botched last week. And how frustrated Max was with his writing. And that I had no answer for Abby’s parents, who wanted to know why their precocious daughter didn’t like to read. What a relief to be on vacation for a few weeks. But I shouldn’t complain. I was lucky to have a job. It was my own damn fault that I was so ambivalent about it.
Ben put on his suit coat, draped his dress coat over his arm, and picked up his briefcase. “What are you going to do today?”
“I don’t know.” I sighed, pulling the blankets down to my waist. Yesterday I’d gone to the Met and walked through Central Park. Last night I had room service and watched a movie. I felt a nervous rumbling in my stomach and rolled onto my side.
I was nervous because I couldn’t stop thinking about Lee. All day yesterday, I
Ben walked over and stood at the side of the bed. His cheeks were red from shaving and he’d missed a clump of hair in the middle of his dimple. He reached out and rubbed my shoulder with the knuckles of his right hand.
“I just thought we’d spend more time together, that’s all,” I said.
“I know, I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “But it’s something else, too. You’ve been edgy ever since we got here. I thought you liked New York.”
“Is it because we haven’t been able to get pregnant?” he asked.
I shook my head.
He stared at me with his little green eyes not blinking, and I knew he was totally present and trying to figure out what he’d missed, what was wrong. I brought my knees to my chest in a fetal position and suddenly felt so small as he loomed over me that I reached for his hand. It wasn’t fair to keep him guessing. And it wasn’t his fault, either, that I kept secrets from him.
“I’m thinking about calling Lee,” I said.
He squeezed my hand. “You should. That’s a great idea. Do it, Clare.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why not? It’s been such a long time. It’ll be okay, I bet.” He dropped my hand and readjusted his tie. “I won’t be late. I’ll be back by five and we’ll grab a quick dinner, okay? Before we leave?”
“Okay,” I said as he started for the door. “Ben?”
He turned but I saw in his face that he was already gone. He was thinking about the case on which he was working and the New York partners. And I realized that he’d never make it back by five. I was looking at another day and evening alone. I felt nervousness grip me again, as if my stomach were in a vise.