No one knows how lonely you are. She couldn’t tell, okay?
Though you were just standing at the door seeing her off like a middle-aged sap. How pathetic. I can see myself as Julia must have seen me: leaning on the doorframe with my head cocked like an obedient dog, waiting for the cue to show off one more trick. Saying goodbye like she wasn’t leaving after an hour and a half of tutoring Phoebe on her college essay, but like she was parting after a dinner date that went so well it ended with a nightcap in the living room.
Oh boy. What’s with Phoebe, anyway? She’s still sulking upstairs. In the kitchen I have to pour myself another glass of wine. A nightcap. I should take it upstairs and lie on the long couch across from the desk in our family office and ask Phoebe what’s wrong. But not directly. You never say, ‘What’s wrong?’ That’s something Elaine used to have to remind me. The way to go about it is to say something vague but discerning. Like . . . what? Elaine would probably have said, ‘You seem a little distant’ or ‘honey, you seem stressed,’ and then within seconds Phoebe would voice her worries. Elaine could unpack a person in the most delicate and deliberate way.
But I’m not ready to go upstairs. Not yet. I’m staring out the window, and I can see clear to the street because I’ve left the lights off. Julia the tutor is standing beside her car with her cell phone pressed to her ear but her mouth isn’t moving. Then it is moving. Who is she talking to? She holds her keys limply, like she’s not planning to get into the car anytime soon, but then she opens the door and sits in the driver’s seat. She leaves it open so that the car light stays on and I can see the angle of her left shoulder in stark contrast to her dark hair, which is swallowed by the night. The wine tastes better than it has in weeks. I can’t remember the last time it tasted so good. This must be a new bottle.
Phoebe has been drinking the other half of the bottle when she thinks I’m asleep. I haven’t said anything because it weirdly doesn’t seem like a big deal. Once upon a time, it would have been a Very Big Deal. We live in a different time now. She keeps saying she can’t wait to go to college and get out of here. Not to me but I hear her on the phone with her friends. I wish she’d say it to my face so that I could say back that she won’t be going anywhere if she keeps procrastinating on her applications. Sometimes she’s so polite to me I want to scream and tell her that I know what she’s really thinking. But actually I wish she could see how I’d react to her indignant desire to leave because I wouldn’t be cross. Not at all. She’d finally see how sad and scared it makes me feel. My face would betray me. It always does.
I know I shouldn’t be so hard on her. She’s had a tough year. Her younger sister seems to be taking it better, and I thought it would be the other way around. Elaine was sick for fourteen years. There were periods during those years when she was well. There were times the kids didn’t really know what was going on, or what was going to happen. Somehow they sensed the end before I did, though. I heard Phoebe on the phone with a friend the week I kept them out of school. ‘We’ve known for awhile it’s coming,’ she said. ‘It’s only a matter of time.’ She sounded so adult. Like she was a doctor explaining the circumstances to a patient. We’d heard enough of that talk. I leaned my head on the wall outside her room and swallowed back tears. In our bedroom, Elaine was meditating beneath the down comforter, her eyes fixed to the blue circle she’d had me paint on the wall across from our bed. She asked me to do it once she found herself in bed for longer and longer stretches of time, and realized there’d be no change in that routine. I did as she asked, always, without question. After I recapped the small bottle of acrylic paint, she said, ‘That’s earth.’ It pleased me to hear her so satisfied with my handiwork ‘There we are. That’s where we live.’
That was the month before she died. Did she know? Every night I pull the covers over my legs and stare at that dot. I haven’t been focusing on my breathing. Elaine coached me through her death well before it happened like she coached all of us through our lives and without her I sometimes worry that I will forget to inhabit each day the way I did when I lived with her, when I had someone to inhabit the earth with.
Tonight I could hear Julia asking Phoebe the same sorts of leading questions Elaine was always so good at posing. From my bedroom I imagined Phoebe leaning forward on the couch. ‘Do you feel like there’s something you’re not writing about directly that you actually are, in a way, trying to write about? But instead, maybe you’re writing around it?’
‘No,’ Phoebe said.
‘Well, where did you get this idea, to begin the essay with this story about Quasimodo?’
‘Where did I get the idea?’
I knew that incredulous tone. It pinned me down flat every time.
‘Yeah. Where did it come from?’
‘Um. From my brain?’
‘Okay,’ Julia said. She seemed to have an endless reserve of patience. She was going to make a great teacher. ‘Let me take a different approach. I’m not sure I understand how Quasimodo relates to your narrative about the initial challenges you felt when joining the crew team.’
Silence. That’s when I went downstairs and poured two glasses of pinot noir, one of the dozens of bottles our friends brought by this summer. Wine for the Weak, Elaine called it, and she didn’t know how right she was. Grief lurks at the edge of each day. By nighttime, I’m fatigued, either from trying to cope with the fact that she’s gone, or fending off any reminder of my reality. It takes enormous strength just to turn on the kitchen light when darkness falls.
‘Hey,’ I said, tapping on the office door. ‘Julia, would you like a glass of wine? This one’s got your name all over it. If you do want it, that is.’
I could feel Phoebe glaring at me as I walked in. If Julia hadn’t been in the room, this would have been a great moment to say something like, Don’t worry, kid, there’ll be plenty for you later. I only need one or two. Just so she’d know I’m not completely absent from our lives. So she’d know I’m still paying attention.
‘Sure,’ Julia said, and her smile was so warm and large that I felt better.
When they were finished upstairs, Julia found me in the living room, empty glass in hand. ‘Thanks,’ she said, and smiled again when I looked up from the newspaper I’d been pretending to read.
‘Of course. You’re welcome.’
‘How are you?’ Her voice had the same worried lilt I heard over the phone when one of my sisters called. But coming from her, it was welcome.
‘I’m okay. The girls are doing okay.’
‘Yeah. I think so, anyway. How’s her essay coming along?’
‘It’s good. She’s doing a great job. She’s a smart girl. She just needs to focus on it a bit more. Don’t worry, though. Once the deadline is staring her in the face . . .’
I nodded. I was imagining the essay I wanted Phoebe to write. In it she would tell her nameless reader all about how her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the cruel age of thirty-eight. And how for fourteen years she never so much as complained. How she calmly closed her eyes and meditated on all that she’d been given and all that she’d been spared as tumors spread throughout her lymphatic system like a forest fire in the height of a summer drought, leaving behind a husk of a human being with spindly arms and a bloated belly, an alien body shirking off what were once her toned biceps and midriff. It would be among the most beautiful of all the essays the admissions panel had ever read. It would tell my daughter’s story and my wife’s story and through it my place in that story would become clear as a night sky on a far off island with no electricity.
The island—purely of my imagination, nowhere I’d ever been—was a place I thought of often, a place I wished I could go. Sometimes I worried it was a metaphor for my brain, or my new approach to parenting.
‘Would you like another glass?’ I asked.
‘I should get going. But thank you.’
So I watched her go, my head hanging a bit lower than I wished it had, standing in the doorway like the old sap I am.
And now she was still waiting in her car before taking off. Should I go out and see if something was the matter? I didn’t have the words or the energy.
In the days leading up to Elaine’s doctor visits she and I were both so full of tension we could hardly speak to each other. We spoke through the girls, asking how their days had been, asking what they’d done at school. They gave such disinterested answers that we were left fumbling for more questions. Then driving down the highway alone together on the way to the hospital neither of us had anything to say. We both felt like vomiting. But we also knew to anticipate that no matter what we were told that day we’d leave feeling renewed. We’d leave with the promise of fresh conversation channels opening up to us. Yet again, we’d devise a plan together. Even at the end, I thought we had a plan.
No one warned me that dying rarely happens quietly. So many mornings I awoke gripped with the inevitable fear that when I touched Elaine’s body it would be cold. She knew this without me telling her and once said sharply as I rubbed her shoulder with relief that she didn’t want to go in her sleep. ‘I don’t want to leave this world thinking that one day is just about to turn into the next.’ When she died she kept gasping for breath. It sounded like she was trying to scream. Her hands held tightly to the sheets. Then they let go.
Outside, Julia starts her car. I imagine she has a boyfriend to go home to, maybe someone she will marry. They will have children, and together, they will watch their children grow older, and leave their home. I can hear the upstairs floorboards creaking, and I know Phoebe is pacing while on the phone with a friend. What do they talk about? No part of me wants this to be the year that my elder daughter leaves for college. I watch Julia drive off, and I think of the day I will drive off from Phoebe, a widower with just one daughter left in his care. Will I ever be able to tell her and her sister that they are all I have on this earth? I am afraid of how lonely I might sound. But I can feel the words taking shape in my mouth. It’s not that this is a life I don’t want, I will say. It’s just not what I had planned.
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