We hit cruising altitude. The ground, out the window, is an expanse of blank salt flats, or Midwestern snow. Two dimensions of white, anyway, shot through with meandering streams or ruts or roads. They look like the veins on the back of an ill woman’s hand. My mother’s hands, say. Or they look like the smoke from Adrienne’s cigarette when we sat on the dock just two summers ago, the way it curled snakily in the windless air. Smoking, Adrienne unfolded her history for me like a map. In the twilight, her hands were luminous, and seemed to leave trails in the darkening air as they moved. Trick of light or memory?
The man beside me cannot stop clearing his throat. His Adam’s apple is the size of a marble. I watch it leap an unlikely distance up his gullet and settle again back down near his topmost shirt button, where some kinky reddish hair peeps out. I watch it until he gives me a searching sideways glance, assessing my interest. Rude to stare at another’s affliction,says my mother’s voice inside my head. An Adam’s apple is not an affliction, I respond. But she’s right—I shouldn’t stare. I turn to the window. The sun outside is heartless. A gaze cold and pitiless as the sun, my husband would quote. That never made sense to me, but now “pitiless” is the right word. The sun’s a tyrant up here.
I’m on my way to another funeral.
Five summers ago, my mother died. Her hands clutched the afghan I’d knitted, my first and only knitting project (“Well, you tried,” she’d said when she saw it). Her knuckles were white with strain. The doctor told us she was drowning. Her eyes darted with animal terror. Her breath came in rattling gasps, and my father and I wrung our hands in anguish at the sound. There’s no other way to say it. My right hand wound around the left. We stayed in the adjacent room when we could, doing our time with her in turns. My left hand wound around the right. I wasn’t there when she died. It was morning. It was silent. Not even a dog barked in our Boston suburb. The dogs gave a moment of silence. I walked in to find my father clutching her hand.
“Look!” he said with hysterical cheerfulness. “Her breath isn’t rattling!” His connection with her, unlike mine, was corporeal, and all he could see was her relief. I could see immediately that her body was empty. I said nothing, just stood still. My hands, finally at rest, fell to my sides.
I look at them now, my hands. They look older. They’ll be gone someday too. In whose memory will they leave traces?
“First time in Boston?” the man beside me says. His Adam’s apple jumps. There’s a cough coming, and I brace myself for it. I open my mouth slightly and watch. His expression changes. Oh, I’m staring, and I’ve not responded to his question.
“I’m from Boston,” I say.
We both fall quiet, looking at the hands I’m holding before me. I have pearl-colored polish from over a week ago, chipping off, and the nails are all different lengths. One of them is jagged from a break. I nibble at it, to even it. I hate sloppiness in my physical person. It suddenly pains me very deeply that I’m on a plane with no way to fix my nails, and I feel the warning signs of panic in reserve. I have a leg pulled up under me, the other wedged against the seat in front of me. I must look a sight.
Adrienne often looked a sight, but didn’t care. One could even say she reveled in it. She always sat cross-legged, even in her chair at school, deepening her delicate little clavicles with the freckles on them. She was thin, and her hair was a series of uncontrollable cowlicks. She didn’t care what people thought, unless she thought they thought she cared. Then she was indignant. “See this?” she’d say, brandishing a lit cigarette at an indifferent teller at the bank. “You think I care I’m not supposed to smoke here? See?” Took a drag. “See?”
The last time I saw her, she didn’t care for real. She sat all night on the stairs, smoking, waiting for the morning. She wore a purple sweatshirt that looked like it came from a battered women’s shelter, which was, by that time, just about the only institution she hadn’t been in. It said LOVERMONT! across the chest. Vermont? I couldn’t remember her ever going to Vermont, and then it hit me: That was my mother’s sweatshirt. Adrienne had taken it from the bedroom drawer that no one was allowed to open. Its sleeves were frayed, and she worried her thumbs into the holes. She didn’t say word one to me. It was the last straw. I vowed not to cross the country for her again.
Now I’m crossing the country for her.
My mother? She’d have swum to McMurdo Station for Adrienne.
What I remember most clearly about my mother is not her generosity toward strays and orphans, but her speaking voice, which was low and melodious. At the same time, she could whistle so shrilly that dogs from all over the neighborhood would howl. In fact, at night, when she called Sadie the setter in from wherever that old girl whored around (dogs were allowed a lot of leeway in our neighborhood in those days), the dog population up and down the street seemed to have been waiting for it. They let out a joyous chorus of howls. One round of howls, two rounds. Then they fell silent all at once, their fun over, as though cut off by a humorless orchestra conductor. Sounds are still clear in my memory, but her looks? I call them up only with effort. Her hair was thin, feathery, a very pale orange, like apricots. She was heavy-thighed and narrow-waisted, like a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary. Her skin was clear and light. But was it really? I can’t bring her skin to the front of my mind. It’s just a milky blur. I remember the consequences of her: Like her namesake, Flora, she was gentle with her garden, and it rewarded her extravagantly. Her death was like Agent Orange, sweeping through the garden, browning and sterilizing as it went, even the little tree out in the front of the house. My mother was gentle with people too. When she was a young woman—so the family story went—four men had asked to marry her.
My mother and “Obstreperous Adrienne” (her words) got on like a house on fire. She only flinched a little, pickling her green beans, when Adrienne festooned her origin story with all that ornamental cursing. Adrienne’s mother, Sarah, left her in a fucking orphanage for ten months while trying to get “That Asshole” to marry her (“Your mother said that? Lovely,” said my mother). The cocksucker didn’t marry her, and Adrienne never knew him, or even about him, except that he was a doctor somewhere down South. As a consequence of the orphanage, Adrienne missed the formative bonding years with her mother, which, she claimed, had fucked her up, probably forever. As a consequence of the absent father, she had troubles with men of all fucking stripes. I didn’t disagree. I sat quietly beside my mother and Adrienne, readying each plum tomato for the pickling jar—pricking it with a paring knife.
Just the other day, Adrienne’s mother, Sarah, called with the news.
“Adrienne has … passed,” she said. “It was pills.”
After that, I broke three cut-crystal wine glasses in two days.
“Those were my mother’s,” my husband responded in his chilliest, WASPiest voice. By nature, he’s a warm person, and full of poetry, but anger brings out his inner Calvinist.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m not usually clumsy. I’m sorry.” It wasn’t true: I’m very clumsy. We were both quiet at the lie. Sometimes a lie tells a kind of truth. Looking back, I think he was right in that I broke those glasses on purpose. Communication with my husband is full of complex and tacit little stratagems. Over the years, I’ve learned to speak WASP. When my husband’s angry, until I’m back in his good graces, he works late and falls asleep on the couch. The trash piles up in the kitchen and the dog goes unfed.
Pay attention to me, I said with the first glass. Or pay the price, said the second. The third, I don’t know what I was hoping for.
My father has a girlfriend that I hate. Such a petty, ordinary little hatred. It’s a comfort and a sanctuary. I’m bonded to her by a mutual dislike so strong its almost like love. She’s my anti-mother. When the airplane lands, my father’s girlfriend—who considers herself a great beauty because she won a local contest a hundred years ago, yadda, yadda—will not be with my father at arrivals. She’ll be at home, reading a fashion magazine on the couch, or standing beside the koi pond in the back yard, in her pink quilted coat, in any kind of weather. We will greet each other with as few words as possible. Our little Kabuki of loathing generally plays out in scowls, sniffles and huffs: We rarely waste language on one another. I understand. When my father and I are together, it’s clear, even to us, just how much my mother has been canonized. When we’re together, our memories of her are brought out and handled delicately, like the good china. No living person could compete. My father’s girlfriend, frangible, disposable, stands aside and fumes. I would too, probably, if thus reminded of my obsolescence.
When my mother was dying, she looked scared, and that scared me. She clutched my arm tightly on top of that furrowed and perforated afghan, which by now I wanted to burn, wishing I’d never laid hand to knitting needle. She could hardly speak. Her last words to me were choked: “I’m dying, Pixie.” She wasn’t communicating the fact to me; she was shoring herself up against it (These fragments I have shored against my ruins, my husband quotes in my head, and I say, Shut up already!). For some reason, the difference between those two things—communication and internal dialogue—made my heart feel garroted. I was too winded to howl out like one of the neighborhood dogs.
Instead, I stroked her. I said, “No, Mama. This will pass. Everything’s going to be all right. Just let it pass. Your breath will come if you just relax.” Pure bullshit. I was saying what the hospice nurse had told me to say. And it sounded rational enough in the form of an instruction: Stay calm around the dying … Passing away is hard enough without the terror of loved ones to compound the inborn fears of the dying person … Speak soothingly … Reassure. I did as the nurse instructed, but ugh!—how counterfeit! I’ll never know, but I thought I saw my mother’s eyes narrow at the betrayal. As her daughter of more than three decades, I owed her my honesty. I owed her that howl. It must have been lonely to die like that, among the toothsome lies of her near and dear. In my mind I cry, “Mama! Don’t go!” Then I whimper, “Mommy, I’m scared.”
That, I feel sure, is what Adrienne would have done.
My eyes, on the plane, start to blur. The man beside me clears his throat, looking concerned. I look away. I remove the flight instructions from their pouch, then return them. The tears clear of their own accord because I actually don’t have that many left.
There’s a question that plagues me: Where the fuck was Adrienne when my mother died? She was off somewhere, on one of her druggy vision quests.
Adrienne’s problems began in earnest when we were teenagers. She moved out of my circle into a faster crowd. Drugs, promiscuous sex, all that. I felt abandoned and a little jealous of her new lifestyle. I was a prude and a wimp who couldn’t hack the life. She liked to talk to me about sex, which mortified me. Nothing about her descriptions appealed—not the bodies with their weird, machine-like motions, not the strange sounds like sounds of pain, or the moistness and redness where there wasn’t supposed to be.
Two days ago, two days before I boarded this plane, my husband looked at me over the dinner table.
“Do you know what I think?” he said, smiling. He was drinking wine out of one of the remaining cut-crystal glasses. I noted that the glass he’d placed in front of me was one of our cheap, ordinary glasses, and that there wasn’t any wine in it.
“What?” I said.
“I think you’re pregnant.”
That got my attention. I sat silently, thinking about bodies. My body, closed to me. A body gives pleasure, gives pain, gives sanctuary to another. Bodies are weak—they let down and betray. Or they give …nothing. Radio silence.
He said, “It’s been two months since you’ve had your period. I think you’re pregnant.”
I didn’t need evidence. The moment he spoke the words aloud, I felt in perfect communion with my body, knew I was pregnant, and I knew, beyond doubt, that my baby was a girl and that her name was Flora.
“Tissue?” says the man beside me, holding out a travel-sized packet of tissues.
I take one. “Thanks,” I say.
“My eyes always water on planes,” he says. “It’s the dry air.” He waves his hand in a circle. He has a nice smile, a little Irish in his voice. I smile back at him, full of gratitude. He clears his throat. “Maybe you could use a drink,” he says. The flight attendant is approaching our row. “A nip’ll cure what ails you.”
“A whiskey,” I say, and he nods his approval.
My mother and father both called me Pixie, Pix for short. The name is ironic. I’m over six feet tall and was always tall for my age. When I was sick, my mother used to give me a tiny cup of warm whiskey, sweetened with honey. She sang old prohibition songs in her smoky voice: Bring me little whiskey, Pixie, Bring me little whiskey now … And, The internal revenue is comin’, They’re gonna shut your alehouse down … Those are the lines I remember. When my mother sang, the night warmed around me and I fell asleep with her hand on my brow.
In those days, women drank when they were pregnant. When the whiskey’s in front of me, however, I can’t touch it. The smell, roiling up from the cup, sickens me in far-flung parts of my body.
Adrienne helped me develop a taste for whiskey. She drank bourbon in homage to her absent Southern father. Boy, could she knock it back, small as she was, swallow after swallow. She had translucent skin and tiny bird-bones. Her eyes were big and blue and a little crazy. She was beautiful in her way, that kind of woman you might be able to save. She was ethereal-looking even as a scratched-up tomboy: a little fairy out of Norse mythology. Her delicate hands could snatch tadpoles and fireflies quick as you please. As we grew up, the two of us next to one another became increasingly preposterous. I got tall and curvy, and Adrienne stayed tiny, flat-chested and narrow-hipped. Giant and sprite, tromping through the wood behind the houses with Sadie the setter. Sadie and I liked the smell of skunk, at a reasonable distance. Adrienne liked the feel of cobwebs on her face. They felt to her like threads of silk. In the woods, I lifted Adrienne to the trees with the most intact webs and she held her breath as her face passed through them.
At a certain age, Adrienne got sick a lot. She stayed over at my house at least three nights a week, because my mother kept inviting her. My mother gave her cups of warmed whiskey and sang to her like she was part of our family. Adrienne was included in most of our holiday celebrations and often accompanied us to mass, even though she was an Episcopalian and her mother disapproved of the emotional excesses of Catholicism. She loved our church with its iconic characters in their ecstasy of pain. She loved confession. She liked to be asked about her transgressions, and to talk at length about them. I’ve never seen a Catholic so serious about penance. She knelt in her pew with her eyes closed, her mouth moving in a very sober dialogue with God, or whoever listens to penitent non-Catholics.
Presently, my mother started taking Adrienne to church without me. Where my interest in God and His institutions was casual and perfunctory—meeting but not exceeding the minimum requirements of the faith—Adrienne’s was passionate. So I didn’t mind. Much. I wasn’t wild about being relegated to the hinterlands with my agnostic father, who wasn’t home enough for me to form an alliance with him. It rankled not to be sick or religious enough for my mother. Not to have a need that was quite great enough.
My mother couldn’t conceive after me. She’d dreamed of a big family. So Adrienne wasn’t a burden to her, which was good for Adrienne because others I could name did find her a burden. My mother fed us plates of healthful raw vegetables to eat while we played. She made us lemonade to sell at an exploitative mark-up. We sold it off a plastic card table with one of my father’s dress shirts laid over the top of the pitcher to keep out flies. My mother sat just inside the house to make sure no creeps bothered us. In the evenings, she read us A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, slight Southern drawl in her voice. On the best nights, crickets chittering in the heat, Adrienne and I slept with our heads at opposite ends of the bed. My mother sang to us both in a rich contralto. Each note seemed to hang in the air like an individual glass bead. She supervised outings into the woods and to the seashore, where we took nature walks, prompting us to keep tabs of the animals we saw, down to the insects. Adrienne frequently scraped her knee, and my mother tended to her gently, letting Adrienne cry against her soft shoulder. Most living things prospered under my mother’s touch. It was like she had a balm in those large, strong, flat-nailed fingers, because one touch healed like magic. I was hungry for that touch.
I don’t remember being touched much until my honeymoon. Not unusual, I suppose. Bermuda, a thatched hut. Wind through the open window as my new husband cupped and smoothed my shoulders. He traced a finger along my collarbone, and dipped his tongue into the well above it. His thumb trailed up my neck, exerting a mild pressure there. I closed my eyes. His mouth found my chin, my cheek, the hairless space behind my ear. He touched me for twenty, thirty minutes before we made love.
“You haven’t touched your drink,” says my neighbor.
I’m holding the cup far from my face. “Oh,” I say. “Yes.” I pretend to sip. The taste is dreadful on my tongue.
“Special plans here in Boston?”
“No. Well, sort of.”
“Michael,” he switches the drink to his left hand and holds the right to me in the little space. I take his hand but don’t offer my name. His grip is strong and capable. Rough, dry hands. He works with these hands. The thought arouses me slightly.
“Pardon me for asking, but are you all right?” says Michael. “You don’t seem well. Pardon me for saying. It’s just … if there’s anything I can do.”
I look at him in the way I sometimes look at strangers: as though they have the key to some salvation; as though they are on the other side of some dark river that I could ford. We could make friends on this plane, flirt cautiously, drink deeply of one another’s problems—deaths and biopsies and the like—putting our most intriguing selves on display. At the end of the flight we could exchange numbers or not, numbers that could be tossed away, or kept, becoming old and tattered could-have-beens in a pocket of the wallet.
“Yes,” I say. I clear my throat. I try to look graceful and composed, crammed into the little seat. “I’m a little blue.”
But the words flood into a chaos and refuse to take coherent shape.
When my mother was young, she must have been desirable. Maybe it was her gentleness, or her luxuriant sadness. She was a tireless receptacle for other people’s agony and listened with equal patience to everyone’s life story. The more extreme the story, the more patient my mother. Her interest was sincere. I think her interest was sincere. Anyway, she declined to marry three young men before settling mysteriously, intractably, on my father, who didn’t need anything, and revealed nothing.
She’d wanted a big Catholic family, but she got my father and me. My father wasn’t home, so the family was basically us two. And then it was us two and Adrienne.
God knows Adrienne didn’t have any other family. I remember the first time I went to her house. We were in second grade. Her mother, Sarah, was on the couch smoking a cigarette. Even though she was only watching a soap opera, she had a wide, elegant hat on. She wore a close-fitting polka-dot dress. She looked like a woman in an old movie. I was aware, even then, that all this effort was being wasted. I sensed that such beauty should have a superintendent. A husband, an adoring public—even a friend or two—should be fostering it and paying tribute to it. But Sarah, I could see, was alone inside her beauty, which surrounded her like a miasma. She watched the television in a sneering sort of way, her face bunched up with disgust. She pointed at the screen when we entered. On it, an older woman berated a younger one, whose eyes were radiant with glycerin drops. I couldn’t tell whose side we were supposed to be on.
“Fuck,” said Adrienne blithely.
“Language,” said her mother.
As we were walking upstairs Adrienne said, “Sarah was almost Miss South Carolina, but she couldn’t because she had me. That’s why she hates me.”
“She doesn’t, probably,” I said.
“Yes she does!” said Adrienne, and did a gleeful little shimmying dance at the top step.
My mother did everything but legally adopt Adrienne. She fed her like a stray. The worse Adrienne got, the more my mother gave. I think of her as a painted Madonna with a child on her lap, but the child isn’t me.
She was taking a turn for the worse when I met my husband. I was feeling pretty low. It was in an airport. We weren’t on the same flight, we just happened to be looking at the newspaper in the airport gift shop. It was the last one. The headline was about a disaster in some country I couldn’t pronounce.
“What section do you want?” he asked. He had a thick brown hair and a strong jaw, but the hands on the newspaper were soft and feminine, with some kind of red ink beneath the nails. He was too handsome for me.
“Oh, none,” I said, “Just browsing.”
“But I insist,” he said.
We sat down in the airport lounge to read our sections of the paper. But we didn’t read. An hour later, I said, “Oh! I’m going to miss my flight! When is yours?”
“I’ll take the next one,” he said.
I knew somehow that Adrienne wouldn’t survive my mother’s death. She was unwell and wasting already. She did a round in the hospital, shock therapy, restraints, and Thorazine in the “quiet room” after a violent outburst in group therapy. Two rounds in rehab. For her birthday, I took her to a fancy bar. Fake-fancy. Fake ferns “grew” everywhere in fake pots. Adrienne seemed okay, talking in a normal tone of voice about something normal. But suddenly, without provocation, she hurled her rocks glass into the mirror behind the counter. A few vituperative sentences flew out of her mouth as the barback dragged her out. A day or so later, my mother, weakened by chemotherapy, hobbled in and paid the bill for a new mirror.
There were good times. Adrienne and I could send each other into fits of shrieking, bawdy laughter. Even in our early thirties, when I was in town, we still slept in the same bed at my parent’s house, in boxers and T-shirts, taking shots of the cheap bourbon they sold in plastic bottles by the gallon. We’d stored the same brand beneath the bed for fifteen years.
My husband, the writer, said of Adrienne, “She was a window box with a few struggling impatiens in it, on the windowsill of an abandoned cement factory.”
This is the kind of thing he likes to say. I like that he likes it. On the plane, I think about his easy way with words. I suddenly miss him. The missing is almost unbearable.
“What are you thinking about?” says Michael, my seatmate. Then, “You were smiling.”
“Oh. An old friend, Adrienne.”
“A good mate?”
“A good mate indeed. Visiting her?”
I stare at him. He clears his throat. His Adam’s apple jumps at least two inches and nestles back down in his chest hair.
I say, “She’s dead.”
That is the end of that. There won’t be an exchange of numbers.
I hand my full glass to the flight attendant and settle back in my seat. The sky is blue, blue, blue. There’s nothing ambiguous about that sky.
But everything’s a little ambiguous, isn’t it? Adrienne’s mother might have looked emotionless as a china doll, but I remember the time she cried. She had the kind of eyes that shone like glass eyes, and always looked surprised, but hardly sad. Her lips were very full and tulip-shaped. Her manicures were spectacular. She dressed immaculately and conducted herself with exceeding politeness. She was cold and courteous to Adrienne, and everyone else. She was punctual. She disliked being touched. Even though she was beautiful, she was the locus of no passion. She had an opiated air about her, as though everything was coming to her out of a fog. The heaviness, impenetrable, never seemed to lift. Except one time, when she was dropping Adrienne at my house. My mother, per ritual, invited her in for a highball, and she uncharacteristically accepted. Adrienne and I were in my room when we heard a thin, high-pitched keening from the kitchen. We quaked. It was the kind of sound that could never be unheard. We ran to the kitchen door and peeked into the room and there was Sarah, shuddering into her hands, her wails coming in long, even glissandos. My mother sat across the table from her, speaking in the kind of voice a vet might use. When she saw us in the doorway, she gave a violent wave, Go away. Adrienne and I never spoke of it.
It haunts me, that crying. I must supply her reasons, since I can’t ask my mother. Sarah was crying for her lover, lost to her, who left her pregnant and alone inside her prison of beauty. That’s my story. I’m sticking to it.
My husband was my first lover. Groping in high school and later had been humiliating: Sex embarrassed me, and my body didn’t respond like Adrienne said it should.
“It’s like … this tension,” she’d said. “And it builds and builds and then finally it gets … resolved. And you’re just all over the place. You never want it to end.”
But when my husband first touched me, though at first I felt anxious (is it supposed to happen now, the tension? Or now?), my body did respond. He touched me very slowly, my arms, my back, my neck, my breasts, lightly at first, then with more aggression. And I did start to feel something that was almost painful, and throbbed like a heartbeat.
“Is it your first time?” he whispered.
“That’s precious,” he said, aroused by the idea. He removed my clothes piece by piece. “Your body is beautiful,” he said.
“It’s too big,” I said. I tried to cover myself with my arms.
“It’s not too big. To me, it’s perfect.”
When we were finished I said, panting, “Can we do it again?”
My mother didn’t weep at my wedding, but Adrienne did. She sobbed, holding my mother’s hand. She sobbed in the procession, where she was maid of honor, and she sniffled through her speech at the reception. Then she got really drunk. A week later I got a note from her in the mail. I’M SORRY!!!! it said, but it hadn’t occurred to me to be angry.
Adrienne helped us unwrap our wedding gifts. She snorted at the tacky salad tongs, the gravy boat, the white faux-leather photo album. She opened the gift from my husband’s mother and held up a cut-crystal wine glass.
“Beautiful!” she said.
They aren’t my taste, so I said nothing, just watched her. Her little elfin chin quivered with the effort not to cry. Who knows why.
“Oh dear,” said my husband, “my sister wanted those. I’ll have hell to pay.” He looked at Adrienne conspiratorially. “It’s one of those Byzantine family feuds,” he said.
Adrienne nodded as though she understood. So frail. She stared at the glasses. I wanted to give them to her. In my mind they belonged to her: fragile things, beautiful and intricate, in need of great care.
My father’s house has a manmade pond with a rock fountain in the back. It was built in the ruins of my mother’s garden, and was an act of grief. My father can’t make things live. Growing living things must be instinctual in all of us, but few of us do it well. My mother was one of the few. When she died, the plants died. The little glossy birds that used to visit abandoned her feeder, and the cats now bypass the house, where no plate of milk is set out at night.
The pond, though, is within my father’s purview and is something my mother would have appreciated. Every day, in the sun, he built that pond and a little dock extending out onto it, upon which he placed two lawn chairs. He bought baby koi and released them into the water. Four committed hara-kiri, leaping from the pond, but the rest are still there, grown to six times their original size. Somehow, they survive the freeze every year. My father can’t bring himself to visit my mother’s grave, but she’s entombed, in a way, in that pond. In it, her memory floats, growing ever larger and more perfect.
My father, workhorse, wealth-accumulator, worked doggedly for success and took no pleasure in its achievement. What am I to do with him? He regrets it now, all that misplaced sacrifice, that deferment of intimacy. I can tell. He calls me twice a week. He tells me his private thoughts, even though it clearly tortures him to do so, and embarrasses me. He always closes with, “I miss her.” I respond in my own measured way, slowly opening myself to our new roles in each other’s lives. It was always women who nurtured me, and now it’s men, my husband, my father. Who else do I have?
Because all that time, Adrienne was wasting away. My mother’s death had exhausted my resources, and I didn’t take care of her. She went back to the hospital. They put her on heavy meds. I flew to see her, grudgingly. Sarah was there, sitting motionless beside her bed for the duration of visiting hours. She and I exchanged a word or two in that stifling yellow room. “How are you?” she asked with a little feeling in her voice. I thought she might be trying to make up for something. Why do we all make up for something with someone else’s daughter? She was finally beginning to show her age, lines around her eyes and mouth, gray showing at her temples, under the brittle dye job. Beauty wasn’t completely done with her yet, though. And she might never lose beauty’s queenliness.
“Fine, Sarah,” I said wearily. “You?” She nodded curtly and turned away with a loud exhalation, as though this short exchange had required immeasurable effort. I wanted to touch her in some way—I wanted to have hands that gave life and absolved—but I’m not one of those people.
Adrienne lay on her cot, her face shiny from the mood stabilizers. She didn’t even look to me to save her. Still, I got her out of the hospital. I took her to my father’s empty house. She didn’t come with me to bed; she sat all night on the stairs, smoking, not saying a word. Early the next morning, she walked back to the hospital. Back to the hospital! They had to release her after seventy-two hours. I was somewhere over Utah when she overdosed. She spent twelve days in a coma, and during that time, I didn’t fly back. Then she died. By then I had nothing, not even tears, to give her. I was a sacked city.
“I can’t cry,” I said to my husband. “Why can’t I cry?”
“You don’t need to cry,” my husband said gently, “you aren’t betraying anyone.”
Gratitude came in torrents. I let him wrap his arms around me. I rested myself against him. He held me up, no problem.
My mother used to lean against my father when they read together in the backyard, on a blanket. Those were rare days when my father wasn’t working. Sometimes they interlaced their fingers, reading and sipping drinks, my father a highball, my mother a bourbon. My mother’s potboiler was propped on her knees, a drink in her left hand. It didn’t seem all that intimate at the time, reading different things in the same proximity, but I’ve changed my mind about that, because now I sit next to my father beside the pond, reading. He drinks highball after highball. It’s intimate. I’m too tired to be alarmed by his drinking, which has always been his vice but is more acute in the last five years. He’s from the generation of liquid lunches and four cocktails before dinner. He’s never sloppy or inappropriate, so I’ve decided to quarantine my worry to a remote part of my mind. He’s seventy-one, and I doubt it’ll be what kills him.
My husband, when he saw me off at the airport, placed his hand on my belly.
I said, “This is what you want? You want this?”
“It’s what I want.” He was quiet a long time before adding, “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in mystery, like you Catholics.”
“I don’t deserve it,” I replied, placing my hand over his. “I’m not her.”
“No. You’re better.”
I surely haven’t been easy for him, the last few years, though he’s never shown any signs of tiring of me. My grief is a source of interest to him, and he has an almost anthropological fascination with it. His own family isn’t close, and he doesn’t think much of them, with their silent WASP warfare and good manners and unyielding principles, principles that trump emotion, always. My preoccupation with my family is foreign to him. He finds my grief wild, disturbing, almost tropical. Through his eyes, I can parse my grief into adjectives and anecdotes, and it helps.
The captain of the plane murmurs a garbled landing protocol over the loudspeaker. My thoughts wind slowly down. I check my seatbelt, move my seat into the upright position. Michael, who has fallen asleep, wakes up beside me, clearing his throat. I don’t look at him, but he places a gentle hand against my arm. Am I crying? I’m not even sure, but I feel a small surge of something that’s either anger or gratitude. I draw a deep breath as the plane begins its descent into the Boston winter. Time for another funeral. The setting sun’s a fallen empire, spraying orange debris across a landscape ploughed and tortured into false shapes, towns and cities. My hands are clasped together in my lap, a lap with a little bulge to it, or maybe it’s my imagination. We drop and my stomach gives a little lurch. A baby, a girl. Will I have the same touch my mother did—will I have her patience? Will I love my daughter above others? The objects on the ground grow larger and clarify, changing like magic into their recognizable aspects.
“Goodbye,” says my neighbor, standing, pulling down a bag.
I don’t move for a long time. I’m thinking about a garden. About things that collapse into the soil—things that emerge from the frozen soil.
Saramanda Swigart is thrilled to be writing fiction exclusively after years of writing advertising copy and corporate literature. She completed an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and a supplementary degree in literary translation. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Alembic, Border Crossing, The Broken Plate, Caveat Lector, Diverse Arts Project, East Jasmine Review, Euphony, Fogged Clarity, Glint Literary Journal, The Grief Diaries, The Literati Quarterly, OxMag, The Penmen Review, The MacGuffin, Ragazine, Superstition Review, and Thin Air; her work has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train and a 2017 Pushcart Prize nomination. Saramanda is working on translating some of the more salacious stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Saramanda teaches at City College of San Francisco.