It is only the third week of class. We don’t know each other well, but here we are, flat on our backs on the floor, the lights down low. A confession. In the dark. Tell the class. In those days, there is only one thing I want to tell – one thing I ever want to tell. About the man I followed here from New York. Who even as I am lying there on my back in the dark, is in my apartment, waiting. He has come down from Boston. Arrived at the train station the night before, with his toothbrush in one hand and orange daylilies in the other. In his back pocket, several photocopied pages from a script about a fisherman off the coast of Ireland and the woman who falls in love with him. Here is the monologue you should read, he tells me as he shows me the paragraphs he has marked off with red pencil. “You will be brilliant,” he says. “You will be stunning.”
I am neither of those things, in the end, but he doesn’t stay long enough to find out. I return home from class and he lists the reasons he’s come up with for why “this thing we’re doing” can’t work. It’s something I have heard before. It is not surprising, but it is wearying and so I go through the necessary steps that will take us to his leaving – that will lead to his kissing my forehead, both his hands on it, before he backs toward the door and is gone.
It is just weeks later that we first learn of my mother’s illness. She drives me back to Providence from a visit home one weekend and we have lunch together before she turns around and drives back. I talk to her on the phone after she arrives home and she complains about her stomach. “It must have been something I ate,” she says.
Hours later, I will receive the call from my aunt that my mother has been rushed into emergency surgery for the tumor in her appendix that has burst. And soon after that, I will be on my way back to New York myself, the first act in the drama that will unfold over the months ahead.
My mother disliked C. on sight. “Too old for you, and a little too slick,” she declared, upon meeting him, backstage of the show we were working on together. “And I don’t like the way he looks at you. Like you are some kind of little cake that he’s about to unwrap.”
“You mark my words,” she says, months later, when I tell her I think we’re dating. When I tell her about the flowers he has delivered to my dorm. “He’s only there for one thing and one thing only. You’ll see. You mark my words.”
Cambridge in early autumn is glorious and in those weeks before my mother falls ill, I wander the streets with C. in the bright sun and we duck into the dusty bookstore to browse the bins of used books – the poetry volumes that have been purchased for classes, then returned, with their slim spines still intact.
Along the Charles River, the white sailboats on it, we walk past the boathouse beneath the branches of trees, their leaves so brightly colored they seem unreal. Handpainted. The spires and towers of the university buildings rise up in the distance.
When I think about C., it is those hours that I try to remember. The bright light on the river. The long, aimless afternoons. The secret rooms he sneaks me into one morning, in the stone building to which he is not supposed to have access. I know nothing of the rules being broken here, only that he is all whispers and slow, quiet footfalls as I follow him through long corridors. “Here,” he says, and arranges the square pillows on a velvet-covered sofa. “Right here.”
I return to school later that fall, after the surgery has been successful, we think. But I have missed many weeks and I am distracted, confused. Anxious. I am encouraged to take leave, to go home, spend some time attending to matters there. So I do. The days and weeks pass. The fall turns to winter. The cold, it seems, brings forgetting.
My mother, one afternoon when we are home together, tells me this:
“It was Christmas time, and we had gone into the city to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and all the department store windows, decorated. I was little – maybe five or six. I was all dressed up, of course, to see Santa. My mother had bought me a new white coat with a little white fur muff for my hands. There was snow on the ground, but with all the traffic in the city, you know, the sidewalks were a little dirty, there was slush on them. We were crossing the street to Macy’s, and I could see the giant Santa in the store window. In front of the entrance was the big red kettle for the Salvation Army. And the man standing there, ringing his bell. We were almost across the street – it was wide, I remember – it seemed so wide – and the light must have changed, because my mother hurried me along a little, pulled on my arm. And when she pulled me, I dropped my muff in the street, right there in the slush. I cried out, and when she turned around and saw it, she snatched it up off the ground and ushered us across. It was soaked. Filthy and gray. She looked at it, and looked at me, and then right there in on the sidewalk, she slapped me hard on the cheek. Then she didn’t say anything, just took my hand and pulled me into the store. I held my other hand on my cheek, which was hot and the rest of my face was so cold. I didn’t cry for a long time. Not while we rode the escalators up all those floors to the top. Not while we waited in the long line to have my picture taken with Santa. Not even on the train home. I think it wasn’t until I was home, much later, when I hung up my coat that I sat down on the floor in my dress and tights and cried.”
“Do you know,” she says, her eyes red-rimmed, “that my mother has been dead for almost twenty years now, and I haven’t forgotten that? Twenty years she’s been gone, and this is what I remember.”