Authors: Garret Freymann-Weyr
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Boston New York 2009
Copyright © 2009 by Garret Freymann-Weyr
All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections
from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The text of this book is set in Bembo.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Freymann-Weyr, Garret, 1965—
After the moment / by Garret Freymann-Weyr.
Summary: When seventeen-year-old Leigh changes high schools his senior year
to help his stepsister, he finds himself falling in love with her emotionally disturbed
friend, although he is still attached to a girl back home.
[1. Dating (Social customs)—Fiction. 2. Stepfamilies—Fiction. 3. Emotional
problems—Fiction.] I. Title.
Manufactured in the United States of America
MP 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
FOR KATIE AND MATTHEW,
WHO FED ME DURING THE BAD YEAR.
Leigh Hunter thought he'd said goodbye to her almost four years ago. Yet here she was, close enough for him to see that he was not mistaken. He was staring at Maia Morland, and not a woman who simply looked like her.
Their love affair, which he had hoped would follow the happy narrative of a romance, had come to an end in high school. A fairly messy end, Leigh thought. The kind of mess that can only be created by lawyers, parents, and threatened charges of criminal negligence.
Of course he could never forget her, and no doubt dreamed of her, even when awake. He had probably looked for her in every girl he'd tried to love since. But the fact was, even now, with Maia across the room, all Leigh could focus on was an image of her socks. Of blood seeping into her socks, and having that same blood all over his hands.
Maia was talking to the host of the party at which Leigh was an accidental guest, and she hadn't yet turned to look in his direction. There was still time for him to leave. The living room, like the rest of the apartment, was absurdly large, and there was no reason to believe Maia had seen him, in spite of his unabated staring. He could make his excuses to Kathleen, who had brought him along to the party in a gesture of friendship.
"Are you all right?" Kathleen asked, her hand pressing lightly on his arm. "You look awful."
Maia turned right then, her eyes coming to rest on him. She didn't look startled, but neither did she register recognition. She seemed, instead, to consider him. To consider all the variables of Leigh Hunter, her most devoted boyfriend from high school, turned murderous assailant, and now before her.
Leigh, without looking away from Maia, asked Kathleen, "Do I really? As bad as awful?"
Maia spoke to the man she was with—a man older than Kathleen, who at forty-two was twice Leigh's age. The man with Maia was dressed, as Kathleen was, in materials both lush and tailored. Leigh, wearing his one good suit (bought last month for a job interview), watched Maia make her way toward him. She seemed, as she approached, to be full of shifting shadows and light. It was as if she were a painting, one best appreciated by a viewer willing to look from more than one perspective. Colors collided and shot out from her skin, her hair, her eyes.
And yet, in spite of all this, he could barely see her.
"It's that you're pale," Kathleen told him. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
No, not a ghost, just socks,
Socks and blood.
It was inevitable that certain details would forever hijack his ability to think of or even to see Maia. Leigh could remember how his mother, when approaching a deadline or signing a new contract, had often said, with a certain weariness, "The story is always the same; only the details are different."
During his childhood, Leigh's mother, Lillian Hunter, had more than one job, but most of the money that paid bills came from books she wrote with titles like
Duke's Heir, Swept of Passion,
The Silent Governess.
Although Leigh hadn't read his mother's books, he knew enough about them to believe it was true: the story always was the same; only the details were different.
But even then, he'd also known that sometimes details did more than make a story stand out. Sometimes they blocked a story altogether. Like with a girl. Leigh had been barely seventeen when he and Maia met, and his experience with girls was, he thought, far short of the norm.
Even so, he was definitely an expert in the way that the most unexpected parts of a girl could blind you to anything else. He'd lost hours on the space behind a girl's ears, and on the muscles sliding up and down the legs of another, and the way the hands of still another fluttered when she spoke. When Leigh got too caught up in the way a girl's neck curved, he knew he'd forever missed the big picture: her name, her friends, his chances of talking to her. Everything. Gone.
Now, at twenty-one, Leigh was capable of staring at a woman's hands while recalling her name, placing her friends, and assessing the possibility of seeing her again. All while talking to her. But what most clearly told him that he hadn't changed enough were the bloody socks. They demanded his full attention as he thought of Maia and what had happened during his last year of high school.
"Leigh," she said, now standing right before him and holding her hand out, making a hug impossible.
He felt her skin against his, and for a moment he couldn't breathe. He needed to say
How are you?
He would need to shake the hand of her date, and introduce her to Kathleen. He had to find out if she was well and happy. If she had recovered from what had happened, both to them and to her. And he had to do it without her ever knowing how desperately he needed the answer. But she seemed to know everything already, as her eyes remained on his. Her look no longer considered him, but took it all in: the four years since she'd last seen him, his current inability to think, and how he might have come to be at this party.
It made sense that she would know more than he did, for the detail that made his and Maia Morland's love story different was that Leigh was forever a few pages behind in the plot.
The year Leigh's stepsister, Millie Davis, was in seventh grade and Leigh was in eleventh, he heard a lot about Maia Morland. She was new in school, her mother lived in the huge house that had been empty for so long. Maia was really brave, Millie told him, as it was hard to be new in the tenth grade. Everyone had friends already. But Maia was really smart and pretty, only not pretty-pretty. And her mother had been married five times. (It would turn out to be only three, but Millie did say, quite often,
Five times. Imagine it.
On and on she went. It was clear to Leigh that this Maia Morland was the object of his sister's crush—the kind a twelve-year-old girl develops on the girl she wants to become. He almost wished Millie were still obsessed with collecting stickers or building Lego palaces. Listening to his sister go on about her stickers would take less time than her endless talk about this other girl.
Eleventh grade was a lot more demanding than Leigh had thought it would be, and he had to work so hard to maintain his B average that he ended up with straight A's at the end of the first term. This in spite of being on varsity soccer, which not only took up most of his afternoons but twice sent Leigh to the emergency room: once to tape up some bruised ribs, and once to be checked for a concussion after getting knocked out cold.
A lot of soccer matches were on weekends, and as his father, Clayton Hunter, was lenient about enforcing the custody agreement, Leigh wound up seeing his father, Millie, and his stepmother even less than usual. It was a long train ride from New York to D.C., and one he hadn't made so often that year.
In March, when Clayton called on a Monday, which was rare, Leigh assumed it was to say,
Of course, it's no problem. Go to the game in Pennsylvania this weekend.
Lillian was in the tiny living room, which she used as a study and was where they kept the TV. Before the divorce, they had lived with Clayton in a big apartment on West End Avenue, but this one, on a side street off Broadway, fit them better. Leigh's bedroom didn't have a desk, but he generally had the kitchen to himself in the evenings to do his assignments or to read.
That night, he felt like he should be watching the news, as the president was giving Iraq a new warning before the much-promised Shock and Awe could start.
While Leigh was glad that the war had stopped his mother's ravings against the
of a little girl from Utah who was abducted from her bedroom, he didn't want to think of the men not much older than he was who were about to go into battle. He felt lucky and relieved, of course, but mostly baffled by the knowledge that short of a draft he would not be going. And even then, he probably wouldn't go. Clayton, more than once in the past year and a half, had mentioned cousins he had in Canada.
"I'm a lawyer," Clayton had said to Lillian when Iraq turned from a question of
"I'll get him whatever documents are needed."
Lurking behind all this was an amount of good fortune so large, it was impossible to be grateful for it. It wasn't the same as being rich, which was an obvious advantage, as only an idiot would be unable to see. The good fortune that Leigh knew as his wasn't something he could feel or point to. It was more like oxygen or blood; it was that intrinsic, so you took it for granted even though you really shouldn't. That the impending war unleashed confusion in everyone was clear, but for Leigh it highlighted how little he understood his own life.
So, in spite of vaguely despising himself for not facing the disquiet brought up by images of teenagers massing on the Kuwaiti border, Leigh pretty much tried to ignore the news. He happily picked up the phone when it rang and exchanged hellos with his father, preparing to discuss his soccer game in Pennsylvania. Maybe this time his father and Millie could drive up from Maryland.
Instead, Clayton wanted to speak to Lillian.
Right away, Leigh braced himself for something bad. His parents got along well, mostly because Lillian refused to blame anyone for Clayton's affair with Millie's mother. But even so, it was very clear that neither of them wanted to be in touch more than necessary.
Leigh brought the phone to his mother and then, so as not to overhear anything, made as much noise as he could doing the dishes. When Lillian came into the kitchen, she sat down at the table. He looked at her and asked, "Tea?"
"Scotch," she said, and he pulled the bottle from under the sink and watched her pour about an inch into one of the jam jars they used as glasses.
Millie's father was dead.
Which meant that Millie was half of an orphan. Leigh refused to let his brain spin out the possibility of creating fractions from orphanhood, if that was even a word, and he listened as his mother answered his half-formed questions.
Seth Davis had flown to Kansas to attend a seminar and had died in a rental car on the way from the airport to his hotel. There'd been a five-car pileup—three deaths and countless injuries. A mention was made of black ice, although it was also possible that someone had been drunk. Autopsies would confirm that.
Leigh thought of the fetal pigs his biology class had dissected the year before, and wondered why anyone had to bother with an autopsy. Black ice or a drunken driver. The reason wouldn't bring Seth back.
"Insurance," Lillian said. "Liability, litigation. If someone caused this, money will be involved."
The money paid out to the families of people who'd died in 2001 had been a detail Leigh had been unable to grasp when the planes flew into history. He had barely started tenth grade when it happened. He thought he'd been having a math problem with the insurance story. Now he saw that what he'd been incapable of understanding back then was the attachment of a price to a person.
It wasn't that such a thing was right or wrong that bothered him. It was that such a thing was necessary.
"What kind of seminar?" Leigh asked, also wanting to look at a map.
Where was Kansas, exactly? Next to the Dakotas or farther west? In a little more than a year, he'd be living in Montana and would know all the states bordering the Dakotas—Kansas was not one of them. But on the night Seth Davis died, any state not on the Atlantic Ocean was, for Leigh, a landlocked blur.
"It was a teaching intensive," Lillian said. "For high school English teachers. I think Seth was giving a talk or getting an award."
Seth Davis taught English in the city's public schools, and was also a literacy advocate for communities in need.
Lillian once said,
is an old-school idealist.