I’m looking through old notebooks. I find a pink slip of paper in one, on which I have written:
Sometimes, men talk to me as if the world were only possibility – a line uninterrupted by compromise.
Surely, it meant something to me at the time I wrote it, but I can’t recall what would have prompted it.
The story I am about to tell is not entirely true, but it could have been. It is not entirely untrue.
My father loved a woman who was not my mother. Or, he desired her. Is it not difficult at times to recognize the difference? He saw her once a year, at his family’s annual gathering at the home of his half-brother. She was his half-brother’s wife.
The reunion was always in summer – in late July when the air was heavy with the perfume of honeysuckle and violets. She would appear on the front steps of the two-family house they shared with my father’s mother. There, in a sundress and ballerina flats, she would bound down the concrete steps toward where my mother and father stood on the sidewalk, bearing gifts: a platter of baked artichokes or a noodle casserole, or a layer cake sprinkled with powdered sugar.
He tells me this on the last day that I spend with him. I have come to this sprawling, crowded city to visit him in the dingy apartment complex that he has retired to. He insists that I take the one narrow bed while he sleeps sitting up in his recliner. He keeps the cheap, heavy drapes drawn tightly all day. He tries to teach me card games but I lack focus, am easily bored. I sense his frustration.
In the afternoon, we sit by the pool. He offers offhand observations about the shape of my body, its suitability to what I am wearing. There is no one else there at this time of day. The heat – the relentless sun – makes my head hurt.
“Your mother was not an easy woman to live with,” he says, “she was not a very happy person.” I nod, tell him, yes, I know.
“And she could be cruel,” he says. “Cruel.” I think that I can see tears filling his eyes, and I look away, promise myself that I will not look directly at him.
“Now, Lizzie,” he says of his brother’s wife, “Lizzie was an absolute peach.”
A few days after my daughter is born, a crude pipe bomb explodes in the middle of the Olympic Village in Atlanta. A woman, there with her 13-year-old daughter, is struck in the head by a nail and dies.
I spend these days sitting in my living room drifting in and out of hazy sleep while my baby nurses – unceasingly, it seems. It is late July and it is hot. Our bodies are sticky – day and night.
When I am upright, I persuade our landlord – a white-haired woman who walks, in her house-coat and slippers, the two blocks from her own home to check in on us and collect our rent – to let me throw wildflower seeds down in the small patch of dark earth in the front yard. It is too late in the season, really, to be doing this, but I buy a bag of mixed seed that has been treated with fertilizer and I water it obsessively. A couple weeks later, I am rewarded with haphazard, wispy blooms.
A line uninterrupted by compromise.
The scrap of paper is on my desk. I turn it over. It has been torn from a list of requested donations – a fall food drive? – from my son’s pre-school. There is a pixilated image of canned foods alongside the listed items:
Macaroni and cheese mix
My son is no longer at this school, has not been for more than a year. The printed deadline for the donations is December 3, so the lists had likely been tucked into the children’s cubbies – above where they hung their coats – around Thanksgiving. I try to put myself back there – in that long, dimly-lit hallway, my heeled shoes clicking on the hard concrete floors like a continuous self-reproach. I arrive late in the day, when only a handful of children are still there in the “extended day” program the school offers. The teachers are weary, the children hungry and restless.
I try to imagine the conversation I might have had that would compel me, in the front seat of my car, to search around for a pen and a scrap of paper, to find this sheet sticking out perhaps from the front pocket of my son’s backpack, to consider the importance of the paper itself, tear it in half, then scribble down these lines before I back out of the parking lot and merge into the evening commute.
Then, to think the note important enough to keep – to transfer from the inside pocket of my purse, into which I had likely placed it, to my desk, and then to slip it into the pages of this notebook. The notebook in which I had been taking notes for the novel that I will likely never write.
The last notes on the final page - the page where I find the pink paper - I was writing, as I often do, about my mother:
As a means of raising the dead – this is how we raise the dead – my mother fell in love – she did not fall in love – was she ever in love? It’s hard to imagine –
After Olivia’s mother died, she was at a loss.
Lizzie wore her hair long. It was auburn and shone in the sun. She laughed loudly when they were all sitting on the patio, smoking cigarettes after lunch, telling jokes. She wore big, round-framed sunglasses that when she was looking at you – really looking at you, to say something important, that she wanted you to hear – she slid down her nose so that she could peer at you while she spoke, her brown eyes trained on yours – and then when she was done, slid them back.
“And God forgive me for saying this,” he says. We are still sitting by the pool, sweating. “And I’m sorry if this makes you uncomfortable, but let me tell you, she could fill out that dress.”
I turn my head away – less, I think from modesty than from a sudden urge to laugh. The phrase “fill out that dress” calls to mind the cover of a paperback romance novel – her head thrown back, her breasts straining against the fabric of her skimpy dress.
“What happened to her?” I ask. He is wearing sunglasses now, so if there are tears in his eyes as he speaks, I can no longer tell for sure, except perhaps by the way his voice falters, hesitates. Except by the way he brings his fingers to the corners of his eyes, holds them there.
“Would you believe that I don’t know?” he says. “They just left suddenly. One summer, we’re all out there at the house, everyone’s happy and laughing, and then a couple weeks later, my mother calls to tell me that they’re gone.”
“Where did they go?”
“California,” he says. He is wearing a wristwatch and looks down at it now, fumbles with the strap. “Searching for gold, I guess.”
He takes off his watch, places it on the plastic table next to him. There are questions I want to ask that I know I never will. There are secrets, I think, that he will never get to tell.
“OK, bunny duck, it’s hot as hell out here. I’m going to dive in,” he says. “Cool off,” he says.
And so he does.