In my half-sleep, I hear the tattling sounds of a key unlocking the front door, a tipsy stumble up the stairs, the soft hush of the bathroom door closing, and then the adolescent tell of muffled retching. I surface slowly from unconsciousness, exasperated but relieved that whatever escapade my daughter Caro has been up to this time hasn’t killed her. My foot searches the folds of sheet and blanket next to me, until I realize that the depression in the shape of my husband’s form is cool and empty.
Downstairs, the Scotch bottle makes a scraping noise as it is pulled from the pantry. I picture Matt pouring himself three fingers at least. It must have been Matt fishing ice from the freezer that had sounded so much like Caro’s keys. Hope is such a sucker, I think, at work even while I sleep. The rest—the door closing, the retching—ghosts. Lately, Matt has been patrolling the house at night, checking door locks, peering out windows, sometimes keeping vigil in the front steps, in a drunken parody of my nighttime patrols when Caro was still alive. “Jesus, Christ,” he would say, coming downstairs when I disturbed him. “Lay off her. She stays out just to annoy you.”
Now, Matt gazes up at me blearily, his Scotch glass a good five-fingers deep at precarious rest on the arm of the brocade chair in the den. The blanket I’ve wrapped about my shoulders drags on the ground and I have a brief memory of Matt having once forgotten Caro’s favorite blanket at home on our way to a beach vacation. “What does it matter,” he’d protested as we pulled into a Fred Meyer to purchase a substitute. “It’s just a fucking blanket.”
On the television, Conan O’Brien is making the studio audience laugh.
“I thought you were Caro,” I say.
Matt stares at me. “Holy hell, Susan, do you really think saying stuff like that helps?”
He is more drunk than usual. Today is the day that Caro would have returned from her freshman year. Right about now, we would be arriving home from the airport, girding ourselves for a summer of adjustment after her year away; I picture us chirping in syrupy tones, trying to find some middle ground between her difficult past and the unknowable present. Being a parent is an exhausting act of balance between hope and reality, but all that was behind us now.
“I can’t sleep. If I fall asleep, I dream that she’s still alive.”
“Get it through your skull. She’s not coming back,” Matt says, his voice husky from the liquor. On the kitchen counter, Matt has left out the freezer ice bucket on a red dishtowel, and a small, pink pool is forming around its base. Matt shakes his head. “Not coming back,” he repeats, drawing out the words as if this is helpful to me, as if I don’t know what he knows, as if I have been duped. At the funeral, he clasped and unclasped his hands, and all through the service, especially afterwards at the cemetery, I was afraid he might hit someone.
“You know, if you’d just have laid off her, she wouldn’t have been there,” he says. “You always wanted more for her than she wanted for herself. If you’d have let her be—”
“You wanted her to go away to school just as much as I did.”
“It was you she was running from, you know. You she couldn’t stand anymore.”
“Because you couldn’t deal with her. You left me to do it all.”
“Kids drink, they go to parties. It’s harmless, but you were on her case all the time, you were the one saying that it was unacceptable, as if she were some toddler throwing a tantrum. God, Susan. Jesus.”
I feel knocked off my feet, as if Matt has physically reached over and slapped me. I would pack my bags and leave him except that I don’t have the energy and I don’t know where I would go. Caro’s murder has tethered me to the home in which we raised her—in which I raised her. But part of me forgives Matt. Regret is a whirlpool, anger a life raft, and I am not so far gone that I can’t recognize a lunge for survival when I see it.
If I had been this patient with Caro—well, it’s over now. It’s all over.
The harbinger was a phone call. Phillip from next door, saying, Turn on the television. An architect, he worked at home in a basement office, where he kept the news channels on as a distraction.
The campus had never seemed beautiful to me; it was too sprawling to feel intimate, too new to feel reassuringly historic. When we had dropped Caro off in September, its wide quads between the brick and stone buildings had given me a sense of foreboding. Now it looked even worse through the lens of the television cameras, too institutional, too impersonal a place to have left a difficult, but beloved daughter. Encouraging Caro to go to college had not seemed a reckless act to me; it had seemed instead the end of worry. I struggled now to make sense of the grainy cell phone video CNN was showing; it reminded me of trying to find Caro in the static of the sonogram when I had been carrying her. What kind of mother was I, I had worried, if I couldn’t recognize her? And all her life, she had remained just as inscrutable, just as mysterious to me as the tiny pixilated mass they had sworn was my child. These television images, too, were gray and fleeting, the staccato gunshots nothing like the reassuring, windy swish of her fetal heart beat.
Phillip pounded on my front door. “Call her cell phone,” he ordered.
Of course. Yes. That was the thing to do. What was the matter with me? But my fingers couldn’t dial. I handed Phillip the phone, but Caro did not answer.
“It means nothing,” Phillip said. “We’ll call the college.”
But the lines were busy, giving off that odd, siren-like pattern that happens when the circuits overload. The campus was 2,000 miles away, far from our Washington home. There was no question of getting in the car. Frantically, I flipped back and forth between the news channels, my breath echoing the disjointed unevenness of the gunfire playing over and over.
Matt came home wearing his surgical scrubs, his mask still dangling from his neck. Had Phillip called him? Had I? As soon as Matt came through the door, Phillip began to break down. Matt and I turned to one another. Even I had not yet cried—worry capitulating to denial—but tears were running down Phillip’s face. I was resorting to logic. On a campus of 20,000 students, our daughter could not have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It simply defeated statistics. It is like the mantra you say in the plane as it rushes down the runway: Just because I am on this plane, does not mean it is going to crash. She could be in the shower. She could be asleep. Perhaps there was a boyfriend she did not want us to know about. I pictured a frat house, a messy room, unwashed sheets, the protective comfort of his arms. I suddenly adored him.
Phillip got through on the telephone to the administration offices. It was second semester, and I had trouble remembering what classes Caro was taking. She had changed them twice in the first weeks of the semester as she tried to come to some foregone conclusion about who she was. I thought this desperation to define herself overwrought and premature, even as I was glad that she was still in school. Take classes, any classes, I said. Nobody expects you to know who you are right now. Just being in college is enough for the first year. But she had seen an advisor, she had written down her plans, in an effort, I feared, to please me. (There had been a glimmer of reversal on Christmas vacation; she’d gone out to a movie with me and Matt instead of meeting her friends for a party, a small choice on her part that I had treasured.) Art? I remembered. Biology? A language? Phillip was being so efficient. Soon, we would soon be sighing in relief. We would get on a plane, just to reassure ourselves that she was fine. We would attend the memorial services with her. Take her to dinner. Measure our luck against the sorrow of others and guiltily believe that we had deserved the reprieve.
Phillip hung up the phone. Biology, he said. She is in that building on the second floor. His voice had the timbre of a ringing bell. For whom it tolls, but mixed with a kind of awe, though he was not pleased to be here with us. He hated the words falling from his mouth, hated being the one to tell us.
“Is she out?” I asked. A quick memory surfaced of a field trip I had helped chaperone: second grade, at the zoo, Caro’s teacher lining all the children up outside the lion’s den, recounting three times, so solemn, so dedicated to bringing back every child entrusted to her care.
“They don’t know who’s out.”
Perhaps Caro had turned off her cell phone for class. Perhaps she hadn’t thought to turn it on afterwards, and she was huddling in a group of escapees somewhere; perhaps she was being reassured, not remembering to call to reassure us. There were a hundred reasons why she was not answering her cell.
On our phone, Matt was shouting at the United Airlines clerk. We would go either way; either way, we would be there.
When the call came from the college president four hours later, we had memorized the panorama of violence: police battering doors, ambulances screaming, wounded carried out splayed and bleeding. We had craved something more informative, something less terrifying, but television had not suddenly discovered integrity because we were now involved. My husband and I had retreated to the bedroom to pour something into our suitcases, anything, no rhyme or reason: golf shorts, pink underwear, five bras. At the first ring, Matt pounced for the phone. He shut his eyes, screwed his face into a pursed flower of concentration. Time pulsed in slow beats, fingers to Caro’s wrist.
Matt’s cry was the crackle of gunfire ripping through the room.
I tore the phone from his hands.
“I’m sorry, I am so terribly sorry,” the voice was saying. No second grade teacher counting noses, but a college president who had lost the sum of an entire second grade class. “But your daughter wasn’t in the class. She was in her bed. We found her in her bed. He shot her in her bed. He knew her. We found emails, pictures. But she was asleep when it happened. At least we think so.”
All day, I’d been suppressing a picture of Caro, arms upraised, defenseless, her mouth slowly opening, her brown eyes growing big and round, her uncanny ability to argue her way out of any situation useless as she ducked or rolled or screamed or fled. Now I saw Caro curled up in her bed, two, three, four-years old, her soft ringlets a messy halo about her face, her mouth the shape of a kiss. All the rebellion ahead unanticipated, while I had leaned against the doorjamb, a cup of coffee in my hands, marveling at the generosity of the universe.
Phillip came running up the stairs and took the phone from me as I crumpled to the bed, where so many mornings Matt and I had made silent love, coming with soundless cries in order not to disturb Caroline with our carnality. Orgasm of agony, silent parody of love. My Caro, asleep in her bed.
Grief separates the afflicted from the unafflicted; people generally leave the dying to die, the grieving to grieve, a primal guarantee of survival, but Phillip abandoned protocol, reaching through the invisible scrim to weep with us, and then to care for us, filling our suitcases, making us each drink a shot of whiskey, turning off the house lights, locking the door, and then driving us through tears to the airport, where he shepherded us through the ticket line and on to the metal detectors, explaining to the guards, making clear with his hushed rendition that the ordinary had evanesced and that the extraordinary had now descended.
The plane ride, the car sent to retrieve us, the school’s ambassador who accompanied us to the morgue, none of this remains in my accessible memory. Of that three-day trip, all that survives is the moment when they pulled open the stainless steel drawer, and there was my Caro, looking nothing and everything like herself: hair dyed an unfamiliar, hennaed red, a new piercing in her lip, those beautiful eyes that had flashed in rebellious fury whenever I had crossed her, the thick eyelashes that made strangers audibly exhale at her beauty. Caroline. Caro. Little girl, stumbling into adulthood, her skin an opalescent canvas of relative innocence. Her torso was covered, to conceal the damage. Matt and I stood on either side of her tray, which was too high, so that it was awkward to try to hold one another and her, too, but we stayed for an immeasurable length of time so that when we finally emerged, after having flown through the night, we were shocked that it was past noon, and that the day was unrelentingly beautiful.
Widow. Widower. Orphan. But what was the word for parents who have lost a child?
I leave Matt to his Scotch and Conan O’Brien, and go into Caro’s room, where I had often slept in Caro’s spare bed her last year of high school, keeping drowsy vigil until she flopped across hers at two, three, four in the morning. After she died, I could not bring myself to clean out her room. Among the artifacts that Caro left behind—bright photographs of her high school friends scotch-taped to the walls, drill team posters, dried bottles of nail polish, American Girl dolls, and an array of forgotten boas, scarves, camp neckerchiefs, ribbons, trophies, shells, yearbooks and other preserved cast-offs we had intended to clean out this summer, when she returned—I slip under the sheets of one of her beds. Matt and I bought the twin beds when Caro was four-years old. Maple, whitewashed, solidly-built, they were meant to be with us always, a bridge of permanence between Caro’s childhood and her future. The picture wasn’t quite clear—either we would keep them or we would give them to her—but somehow, the image of tousle-haired twin granddaughters went into the decision-making. Now in the dark I clutch the little jaguar she had loved into disrepair when she was five. Downstairs, Matt drinks his highballs, the ice, like keys, clinking against one another, mimicking promise. I don’t know whose mornings are more painful, mine or Matt’s. Daily, we each have to decide in our respective hangovers—his alcoholic, mine solely wretchedness—whether or not to go on without her. But we never speak of this subterranean possibility. We hardly speak of anything, because coming together poses the dangerous possibility of revealing, in the end, that neither of us possesses the strength we secretly wish the other to have.
If I sleep, I will see things I should not see. But awake, it is worse. In these beds I read her “Good Night, Moon,” and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” And when a third-grader spilled the beans to her about sex on the playground, I explained that yes, what she’d heard was essentially true. I remember the gravity of her gaze as she filed the information, possibly tossing out the Santa Claus myth in the process. But what surfaces most now are my million, tiny infinitesimal mistakes—a curt phrase here, a sharp word there—and the squandered gaggle of seconds, minutes, hours and days in which I had foolishly disregarded the essential fact of human mortality. I spent hours despairing over her capricious disregard for responsibility and its effect on her prospects. She was smart, but rebellious. She refused to study, eschewed note taking, disdained reading. No college for me! I’m going to cut hair! I want to join the circus! I think I’ll be a tattoo artist! She flung these declarations at me like mini-grenades, exploding my sense of wellbeing. But Caro’s brilliance defied her wayward intentions. She aced the SATs in impressive fashion, and in return, received benefit-of-the-doubt-we’ll-ignore-the-abysmal-GPA acceptance letters from three colleges. In a fit of my own adolescent pique, I refused to pay tuition to her most recent infatuation, beauty school, and pushed and prodded until she agreed to attend the college she found the least offensive. The day before she left, her room a tornado-swept catastrophe, she stood over her open suitcases, holding the little jaguar in her hands. When she saw me watching from the doorjamb, she tossed the stuffed animal aside.
“You’re going to love it, Caro. College is the best.”
“At least I’ll be away from you.”
The hair on the back of my neck began to rise, and I marked this warning sign, striving for equanimity. The next day, we’d be on the airplane and then we’d drop her off, and in the year to come, she’d come to appreciate how easy her life had been and how much we loved her.
“Don’t you want to take your little jaguar? A bit of home with you?” I asked, giving her the permission she could not give herself.
But Caro rolled her eyes in an exaggerated tantrum. “I’m going to college, Mom. Not nursery school.”
“Honestly, I had the most fun in college. You just don’t know.”
She was throwing things in her suitcases—hair dryer, pillow, makeup—everything but the jaguar.
“It’s stupid to spend all your money on me this way when I don’t want to be there. Why can’t I just get a job?”
I held back, because we’d had this conversation a hundred different times. “Working a minimum wage job for nothing? Making bracelets and selling them at county fairs? Bagging groceries? No, Caro. No. You do that, you go live somewhere else.”
The fact of her economic dependence weighed more heavily on her than she cared to voice. It was a wedge I used because it was the only weapon I had. “Listen. It’s going to be great. Trust me.”
Her moue was a great rolling wave of disdain, more pronounced than any she had flung at me before.
“Listen, Missie, this little act, this little thing you have going about how terrible your life is and how awful it is to be my daughter is really old. So just be grateful and pack your bags.”
Essentially, I was saying, Get out. You either move away to college or you move out.
“Hey,” I said.
She turned. “One fucking year. And that’s it.”
It is now a month after the funeral, and Matt goes back to work, and our days begin to go like this: he leaves early, waking me with his showering, but I feign sleep; he does not call me during the day; he never did before, but now, when I need him to, he still doesn’t. He makes the excuse of his surgeries. I picture him in his scrubs, hovering over his anesthetized patients, removing the offending tumor or gall bladder or bullet, while I take walks, go to the grocery store, and in the late afternoons, read a book in the circle of walkway just outside our front door. After Caro left for school, I had been in the midst of discovering what to do with myself. What she left behind when she went to college was space, but now there is even more space. Sometimes Phillip joins me, emerging from his house with bemused, quiet solicitude. He asks me how I am, holding my gaze while I say things like, God, I just want to kill myself. For some reason, this makes him weep, and we end up weeping together on the terrace until I go inside at five-thirty to cook dinner. I keep a schedule of strict punctuality; any deviation, and I think I might fall apart. Pills? Slit wrists? Narcotics that I would steal from Matt’s hospital? I contemplate these options while I cook, and then Matt returns at seven o’clock, glancing at the mail I have placed on the kitchen counter before he ever looks at me. Then he pours himself a Scotch and we sit down to the pork chops or lamb or pasta that I have prepared. He answers my questions—How was your day? How are you?—in monosyllables, and then sits in the armchair opposite the television and drinks himself to sleep.
On Saturday mornings, Phillip and Matt chat before they enact the rituals of suburbia: lawn mowing, trimming, weeding, though of what they speak, I do not know. The walls of normal life came ripping down that evening in our bedroom, and I expect the two are rebuilding them, mundane word by mundane word, about fertilizer and weed killer and perhaps, how I am doing.
Two months after the funeral, Phillip and I begin to meet in a bar on a little used road that runs out of town toward North Bend. The bar is the kind of place where people who have given up on ordinary life seek release in the pine-knotted comfort of bad lighting and gin. No one knows us here. Phillip waits for me in a booth that has become ours, under a row of drafty windows, a television hanging from a contraption bolted to the ceiling, the red Naugahyde seats leaking stuffing. The trim man whose bar this is brings Phillip a martini and me a lethal combination of something in coffee. I knew once what was in the drink, now but I no longer care. It does the job, both of insulation and anesthesia, and I welcome the warmth of the ceramic cup in my hands and the odd slant in the bench that causes me to sink backwards into its chrome edging.
The owner leaves us alone. His name is Benjamin. He is about forty-years old, and his round, wire-framed glasses make him look as if he should be an accountant. He talks mostly to the solitary patrons hunched over glasses at the smooth maple bar. Occasionally, someone asks Benjamin about his wife, and he sighs and says, “Alabama, last I heard.”
Usually, Phillip and I stay and drink all afternoon, but after a while the intimacy becomes unbearable and so one day we bolt our drinks and rent one of the rooms in the drafty hotel across the road with its broken neon sign and bad beds. I am not even aware how the decision to engage in sex got made; it’s just that I know I am not being taken advantage of. The window faces north and the mattress is cold. Kneeling on the quilted bedspread, I begin to unbutton my blouse. I wonder, is this cause and effect? A boy kills my difficult daughter, and so I begin to drink with my next-door neighbor, which leads me to fling myself across these sheets much as I had hoped that Caro was doing that awful morning in the arms of some imagined, nameless boy? I begin to cry, fumbling as I wrest the buttons from their holes. Phillip is lying on the bed, his gaze flickering from my hands to my face, his blue eyes watchful, alert. I unbutton the last one when he puts his hand to my wrist and says, “Stop.”
Twenty-five years of marriage, and I have not once strayed. About Matt, I don’t know. At hospital receptions, there is one nurse in particular who leans in for pictures with an ease that I think betrays them. After the Christmas party one year I asked, “Who is she?”
“Who?” he’d said, his distraction sufficient answer for me, or maybe I just avoided the confrontation. Courage is required for a new life, and I wasn’t certain I had any.
“Do you want to do this?” Phillip says.
“She’s not coming back, is she?”
Phillip rebuttons my blouse and pulls me down beside him. “When I was twelve, my mother shot herself. I came home from school and called for her, but she didn’t answer.” He weeps now when he tells me that he did not go in search of her, that instead, gleeful, he watched afternoon cartoons and sneaked Cheetos, after first arranging his schoolbooks on the dining room table as a ruse of studiousness for when she returned. But the afternoon wore on and he began to worry. It was deep winter, dark by four-thirty. He turned on the lights and crept up the stairs, wiping Cheeto dust from his lips. Perhaps she was sick? Perhaps she had fallen and hurt herself? He was a terrible son. The upstairs landing was dark. In the bedroom, his mother wore a brown tweed skirt and white blouse, pearls, stockings, pumps, and perfume. To this day, Phillip pictures his mother in front of the mirror applying her makeup, affixing the gold hoop earrings later fished from the aftermath, combing her hair, and then pausing for a minute for a last look before she taped blue plastic tarps over the bedspread and walls along the bullet’s planned trajectory. (So much fastidiousness among murderers. Caro’s had chained the doors of the science building, to keep everyone out.)
“Is she coming back?” Phillip remembered asking his father, who was to have come home that day at noon, but who had been prevented by an unexpected meeting at work.
“That boy. The gunman. Do you suppose he loved Caro?” I ask now.
Phillip winces when I utter the word gunman but I would take a gun to my own head if I didn’t say the word once a day. Gunman. I could be my own gunman, like Phillip’s mother. To murder yourself. The ultimate in being hard on yourself. But what had Phillip’s mother done that was so terrible? Her little boy was alive, whereas I had failed to keep my daughter safe.
Now sometimes Phillip cannot get away. He sees clients who want him to build homes for their families, an optimistic foolhardiness on his part that I cannot abide, so he does not tell me this any longer. On the phone, he says, Not today, and I answer, Pity. On those days, I huddle in our booth alone and nurse my coffee and alcohol so that I am not too drunk when I get behind the wheel of the car. I am scrupulous, like Phillip’s mother. But the owner, Benjamin, is concerned. I do not fit the type. He doesn’t know my story, because he chooses to be adamantly ignorant of the goings-on of the world. He likes his corner of Washington, next to a stream, above a bar where he makes enough money to take a holiday the second week of every July. The world is sorrowful enough, I heard him say once. CNN, newspapers. People have got enough troubles of their own. Human beings weren’t made to carry the whole world. We’re too fragile.
“Fragility. Agility.” Maybe I am drunk, which makes me furious because being drunk is Matt’s thing, not mine.
“More, please,” I ask, but Ben is studying me.
“Husband busy?” he asks, though he is no fool; he knows Phillip is not my husband.
“I don’t think he’s coming back,” I say.
It is four o’clock in the afternoon, about the time Ben’s business usually picks up, but he flips the sign on the door that says, Closed and turns to me. “I want to show you something.”
It is mid-August, and out back a garden slopes to the stream that runs behind the bar. The garden is an imitation of heaven, imperfectly wrought, like the place I imagine God has stashed my Caro. (This is the last vestige of any hope: Caro at rest in a perfect garden.) We walk under an arbor that forms the entrance. A little dog that looks like Caro’s jaguar is leashed to a pot made of staves, and he rises and wags his tail at me. His hair is brown, with a combed glossy shine and eyes the shape of black buttons. Benjamin lifts the pot and takes the little dog by the leash. We make a little parade along the gravel paths that wind between overflowing beds. A breeze rustles the blue petals of dahlias in the sunshine. The dog sniffs at my ankles, but is careful not to trip me up. Not even Phillip has been as solicitous as this little puff of a dog, who leaps into my lap as soon as I sit on a bench next to Ben.
Ben says, “My wife hated it here. But she loved this garden. Every spring, she’d wait for the snow to thaw and then she’d start with the raking and the digging and the planting. Ten years she did that. Then she left.”
“Fuck the garden,” I say. And then I let the little dog go and I kneel in the gravel path, but I do not feel the stones cutting into my knees. All those years, I should have said, The circus? Yes! Crafts? Brilliant!
I tell Ben about the shooting. All my friends make sounds of sympathy and kindness, but Ben says nothing. I tell him about all the years in which Caro was defiant and argumentative. “It was a relief when she went to college. Whole days went by and I never had to raise my voice. It was a relief, you know?” I am telling him what I have not been able to admit to myself, that I was happy she had gone so far away to school, happy that I no longer had to steel myself every day for the battle that was Caro, happy that I thought that I was finally able to stop worrying.
I lie down in the dirt, sun-warmed so that it feels like a safe bed. I think I wouldn’t mind dying here, like Caro.
I see Ben walk away toward a shed, hear keys jingling and the sound of rummaging. He returns with a hedge trimmer, its wooden handles worn smooth. The blades are sharp enough that he is able to sever with some precision the slender stalks of the diaphanous hollyhocks that line the walkway. Whack. Whack. Pop. Pop. The schwooping sound of the trimmer echoes my waking nightmares of the noise of my daughter’s death. He works faster and faster, imitating the precision, the deliberation of the gunman. You there, you lovely delphinium. And you, cowering beneath the overspreading branches of that rock rose. Whack. The violence makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Was that what it was like for Caro in her bed? Safely warm, did she hear the gunman coming, time stretching to encompass the devastation, or was it mere seconds, a breath, only, from when she feared to when she knew? You worry too much, Mom, she used to say when she left for her high school weekend nights. I’ll be fine. Nothing is going to happen to me.
Ben comes toward me along the path between the slain stalks, his shoes découpaged with crushed poppy petals. He kneels beside me and pulls a gun from his waistband. The barrel is long, made of a dark metal that I cannot identify.
“Every fucking day,” he says, “I look at this damn thing, and at night I put it back in the case.”
We make love in a disconnected, desperate fumble: clothes ripping, shoes flinging. There is nothing safe about this; it is dangerous a hundred different ways. If Matt finds out, if I, in a fit of despair, pick up that gun and kill Ben out of my need to obliterate myself, we will not really have accomplished the narcosis I am after.
I stumble to my feet.
She’s not coming back,” he says.
Whether he is speaking of his wife or Caro makes no difference.
At home, I find Matt in Caro’s room, clutching her little jaguar, asleep on one of the twin beds that once had seemed the beginning of everything. His sleeping form echoes the shape of Caro’s when I would wake and find her passed out on her purple comforter, her yellow sheets peeking out untidily from underneath. A scotch glass perspires on the bedside table, the ice melted, forming a clear layer above the amber liquor. The windows are open to the garden; the summer evening is quiet except for the hysterical trill of a thrush in the dogwood. I hear Phillip’s car pull into his driveway, the sharp crack of his door slamming shut. I imagine him rushing into his empty house, calling, Mom, Mom.
Asleep, devoid of animation or defense, Matt looks like the child Caro once was. She was just beginning, I think, just getting to that stage when the caverns of risk that exist in all adolescent minds—the emptiness that terrifies them and causes them to leap into voids believing they can survive anything—fill in and heal over. I nudge Matt’s shoulder and he wakes slowly. Small, red veins spider out from his dark pupils.
“Tell me. Were we good to her? Was she happy?” I ask.
Matt says, “Of course we were good to her. Caro was difficult. I was difficult. We are all difficult.”
I search his eyes, which are undisturbed by doubt. I want him to read my mind, follow both the spoken and the unspoken, as my daughter had once raged that I couldn’t. I’d been yelling at her once about why couldn’t she just clean her room, did it need to be a pigsty, and she had sunk to the floor and said, But it’s never about the room!
Matt rises to his elbow and says, “Do you remember that time when Caro was three, and she ran into the street in front of a car? God, she ran like a flash, and that car coming? I thought she was going to die.”
A vague memory of my back being turned and Matt crying out comes over me.
“I spanked her. God, how she cried. And the way she looked at me? All I wanted was for her to be safe.”
“Have you been having an affair?” I ask.
Matt’s hips are touching mine. It is as close as we have been since we hovered over Caro in the morgue. “I ended it the day that Caro died.”
We needed Caro’s future, Matt and I. We needed that Thanksgiving dinner when she returned home with her husband and children, her life an improved semblance of ours. Matt and I would eye one another over the turkey and think with relief that we hadn’t screwed up. She was okay. All those nights we’d worried, and Look now. We would tuck Caro’s twins into these beds, and watch them sleep because we understood just how difficult it is to be a parent.
Matt makes room for me on the bed and I hold him the way I used to snuggle Caro next to me, all her rebellion before her, her ringlets tickling my chin as we whispered, Good night, moon. Good night, cow jumping over the moon, her jaguar tucked in her arms. If I could just go backwards, I could avoid the pitfalls. I could say, I love you to every bitter word she flung my way.
Matt begins to weep.
“Once upon a time,” I begin, “There was a little girl with beautiful curls who didn’t get to grow up.”
It is our bedtime story, the one I will repeat until we know every word by heart. I will never conjure a false ending, the one in which everything turns out fine. Caro is never coming back, and I will worry about her forever, though it will do none of us any good.
A month later, I drive to North Bend. I have not been back since that afternoon, and the bar is shuttered. A hand-lettered note on the door says that Ben has gone to Alabama to look for his wife. In the garden, in preparation for her possible return, the clippings have been swept away. What grows now is stark, but beautiful, a bud here, a blossom there, baby soft leaves, winding tendrils, everything new.
Robin Oliveira holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the fiction editor of upstreet, a literary magazine, and the winner of the 2007 James Jones First Novel Fellowship for her novel, My Name is Mary Sutter, which is forthcoming from Viking in June, 2010. An excerpt from that novel, previously entitled The Last Beautiful Day, was published in the 2008 Provincetown Arts.