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Authors: Anna Quindlen

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BOOK: Black and Blue
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“What are those two cops doing going into the school?” I said. The only woman in America terrified at the sight.

“They always come here the first day,” Cindy said. “They talk to the kids about not talking to strangers, not taking a ride from anyone, only going with someone you know, the usual.” She squinted across the lot. “That one’s Officer Bryant, I think. I don’t know about you, but I hate knowing the police are younger than I am.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive,” she said. “He’s a good ten, twelve years younger than I am. The other one, I can never remember his name, but
he’s even younger than that.” She looked at me. “Are you okay? You want to have a cup of coffee?”

It sounds stupid, saying how I felt at that moment. Maybe it was the sheer chemical relief, the balloon deflating in my stomach, the buzz subsiding in my head. Maybe it was knowing that the police officer would see my boy as nothing more than another face in a crowd of children and that this woman saw me as nothing more remarkable than one of the moms. Maybe it was the way Cindy talked about her daughter, that combination of fear, ego, and love that oozes out of a good mother like perspiration when the kids are small, the fuel that had stoked my fires for a decade. Or just the way she stuck one pinkie under the white sunglasses to wipe away a raccoon circle of mascara from beneath one blue eye. Maybe it was that cornpone accent, so different from my own. Or the sense of relief I felt knowing that the police were there to tell the kids to be careful, although the attentions of a stranger toward my boy took a distant second place to my fear of a rental car parked at the corner and his father with his arm right-angled out the driver’s side window, saying “Hey, buddy,” in that rich, persuasive voice.

Or maybe it was me remembering female friendship, what I had with Winnie and with Gracie, too, as much friend as sister. What I had with Bridget Foley in elementary school, until her parents moved to the Island, and with Dee Stemple in high school. I hadn’t had too much of it; I’d never been the kind of girl who traveled with a big boisterous pack. Maybe that’s why I’d been pulled so powerfully toward Bobby, because there was always a circle around him, faces turned toward his, listening, looking,
laughing. I’d had too much to do always, filling jelly doughnuts at the bakery to earn money for nursing school, helping Grace with her papers, taking my father in a taxi to the doctor’s office, waiting for a plumber when the heat cut out on a January day. But I’d always had one good girlfriend, and looking at Cindy Roerbacker, hearing her easy confidences, I remembered how much that friendship had meant to me, that way you could just open your mouth, sitting on a bench in the park, lying across your twin bed, standing over a sink in the girls’ room, pulling the phone into the closet—just open your mouth and let your whole self out, all those small mosaic pieces of self that felt barely held together with plaster of personality half the time. And then it had been wrecked for me by Bobby, who didn’t like my girlfriends, called Dee a tramp, Winnie a dyke, Grace a bleeding heart, and who gave me a secret so big that it might as well have sat in the middle of the friendship like a wild animal, ready to tear it apart.

“So how’s Bobby?” someone would say.

“Good. Good. Fine. Busy, you know?”

“Everything okay?”

“Sure. Everything’s fine.”

So much of my life was stuck in my throat like a bone, and I could never, ever let it out. But I had gotten used to that. Bobby had given me one secret about who I really was, and now I had another. Or Fran Benedetto had a thing she couldn’t tell, not over a beer, a burger, a cup of coffee. But Beth Crenshaw could talk about her life all she liked. Lies were so much easier than the truth. Maybe I’d be good at this.

It was clear to me in only a few minutes that our meeting was chance, that Cindy wasn’t a Patty Bancroft construct. In the minivan
she said her best friend had moved to California over the summer, commiserated with me over the difficulty of divorce, apologized for the juice box and the cracker wrapper beneath my seat. In her kitchen she made decaf and put out a plate of mini-muffins, and something about the way she talked and laughed and sometimes stared out the sliding doors to the deck and the pool told me that she needed company as much as I did. Her life sounded more like an itinerary than an existence, Gymboree with Chad two mornings a week, lunch every Wednesday for the seniors at the Baptist Church, Chelsea’s ballet and gymnastics, Sunday school, selling Avon. But it seemed like the patches stretched a little long once she got back here to her own kitchen table.

“I got a bunch of stuff I cleaned out of Craig’s mom’s house when they moved to a condo,” she said. “It’s just sitting in the basement, if you’re short anything. Curtains or chairs or whatever. I had a girlfriend from high school, she was so busy holding onto the big pieces, the armoire and the entertainment center, that she didn’t even notice till after her husband was gone that she hadn’t saved one single chair. She was standing around in her own place for the better part of a week.”

“It’s all right,” I said.

“Sure, now?” Cindy said. “There’s a mess of stuff down there. Go look if you want. Some of it’s real nice. Well, not
real
nice, but presentable. And clean. Craig’s mother’s a real clean person.”

Our kids give us courage, I think. The only way I’d gotten through Robert’s first day of first grade had been to remember the stalwart set of those little shoulders, and the thing that kept me in my seat during soccer games when the coach yelled at him was the dignified way he’d lift his bony pointed chin. And I thought of
how he’d refused to let me unearth his fears about a new school, a new name, a new life, of how he’d decided to swim in alone in the stream of children I’d seen that morning, with only Bennie and his backpack as life preservers. He was beginning a life, a life as Robert Crenshaw, making a place for himself. And so would I. Goddamn Bobby Benedetto, so would I. Maybe I was supposed to hide behind my blinds, to make myself invisible. Maybe that was what Patty Bancroft thought would be safest. Maybe that was what most of the women did. Not me. I’d changed my hair and my clothes, my name and my address, so that I could live, really live. I needed a job, and a friend, and a shot at changing that closed-up little apartment, with its thin carpeting and colorless couch, into someplace that seemed like people lived there, lived ordinary uneventful lives.

“Actually,” I said, “I could use some curtains.”

“Couldn’t we all?” said Cindy Roerbacker, laying on the drawl plenty thick, her eyes bright, smile big, a smudge of lipstick on her teeth. “Girl, let’s decorate.”

R
obert started his second week of school, liked the kids, liked his teachers, slept less, spoke more, although not as much as another kid would have done. And I splurged on a gallon of butter-yellow paint, to mark a month in Lake Plata, living through it, learning to let some of the fear out of the tight muscles in my shoulders. That’s how small the living room of the apartment was: one gallon of paint was enough. I’d hung a sampler in the kitchen that I’d found in Cindy’s basement: in cross-stitch it said, “May you be in heaven an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.” Mrs. Roerbacker’s old multicolored afghan hung over the back of the couch, and some throw pillows were plumped up at either end. From Cindy’s basement I’d taken an old oak rocker, a seascape in a maple frame, a chenille spread with blue and yellow pompons, a set of café curtains with cherries printed on them, and some drapes with stripes so bright they made you dizzy. “You sure about those?” Cindy said when we put them in the back of the minivan. She didn’t try to patronize me when she helped me carry all the stuff into the apartment on Poinsettia Way. She just looked around and nodded as though it was what you could expect from a divorce, a dislocation. That’s how she was, realistic but never grim. “You can work with this,” she said. It didn’t take long to paint the place, it was so tiny. But when I was done with the downstairs it looked like a feature in a
woman’s magazine on decorating on a budget. Except that the venetian blinds were still closed tight. The overhead light stayed on all day.

“It looks different in here,” Robert said when he came home from school and dropped his backpack on the table.

“You don’t like it?”

“It looks different.” At dinner he slumped over his buttered spaghetti, mumbling. School was fine. Bennie was fine. Mrs. Bernsen was fine. The spaghetti was fine.
Fine
is a kid’s way of telling you he doesn’t want to talk. I’d watched parents ignore that in the emergency room; fine, fine, fine, the kid would say, and Mom and Dad would probe deeper, like dentists with those little sharp silver instruments. Kids used
fine
as the Novocain.

“It smells like paint in here,” Robert said.

“The smell’ll be gone in a day or two.”

“I guess if you painted we’re going to stay,” he finally mumbled. His voice was hollow, deep, with grace notes of tears.

“It’ll get better, Ba. You’ll see. You’ll make more friends, play sports, figure out the fun things to do around here. Maybe once I get a job we’ll find a bigger place.”

“Can I write to Anthony?”

“No,” I said. I rubbed my hand along his arms. There was yellow paint around my cuticles, faint autumn moons. “This is really hard, I know. You’re being so good about everything. And maybe someday things will be different. I don’t know yet.”

“I have homework,” he said.

“I know, Ba, but I want to talk for a while.”

“I want to do my homework first.”

We sat together on the couch after dinner, watching situation comedies, families fighting and making up in the span of a single half-hour, while an unseen audience laughed at everything they said or did. Direct conversation had never been the way to engage Robert; I had always had to wait through the silences for his words to swim up at me. It was like the time Bobby and I had spent a week in the Bahamas and gone snorkeling off a steep reef, how the bright fish would appear from the dark navy shadows of the sea, dart past, disappear. That’s how Robert’s words were, small pretty fish swimming up at me and then disappearing into the depths. After we put our dishes in the sink, two cheap china plates, two forks, a saucepan, Robert sat next to me, my arm around him. From the time he was a little boy he had rubbed a strand of my hair idly against his cheek when we sat side by side. It was an automatic tic, a habit like thumb-sucking or nail-biting; it had driven Bobby nuts. “It’s fucking weird, Fran,” he said. Now that my hair was short Robert couldn’t do it anymore, but I dipped my head down close to him, so that at least my hair was near, so he could smell it, sense it. I was letting it grow a little bit, as much as was safe.

“Bennie’s parents came from Cuba,” he said, his eyes bright in the glow of the TV.

“A lot of people came here because the government was bad for them. A lot of them came to Florida. It’s the farthest south you can go in the United States before you get to Cuba.”

“His mother can’t speak English that much. Like Mrs. Pinto, the way she mainly spoke Italian.”

“It’s really hard to learn a new language if you’re older.”

“Jonathan in our class says people in America should only speak English. That’s stupid. Everybody in Brooklyn speaks another language. Or lots of people.”

“I wish Bennie would teach me some Spanish.”

“How come you don’t know Italian?”

I shrugged. “I know how to say ‘What a beautiful face’ because every lady in the neighborhood used to say that about you when you were a baby.” He wasn’t looking at me but I could see that he was smiling slightly.

“Jonathan says he has a pool in his backyard.”

“The lady I had coffee with the other day, the one I told you has a girl in fourth grade? They have a pool, too.”

“Above ground or in ground?”

“What?”

“Jonathan said his pool is in ground. He said above ground pools were cheap.”

“The lady I met, Mrs. Roerbacker, her pool is sort of both. Because it’s built into the deck in back of their house but it’s sort of above the yard. You’ll see. She wants you to come swimming.”

“Jonathan is kind of a jerk,” Robert said, leaning into my shoulder, his hooded eyes at half-mast, black onyx glinting from beneath the lids and the heavy fringe of lashes.

I could hear his breathing deepen, could hear the second hand of the old kitchen clock jerking around, hear the faint sound of a car out on Poinsettia. Both of us started to nod off. Sleep had become a refuge in which, for at least a few hours, the world seemed less uncertain. Both of us, I think, could imagine that we were still where we belonged. Or had once belonged. Maybe Robert
dreamed of everyday life, dreamed of those mornings when he’d come downstairs to the sunshine splashed across the linoleum in the blue-and-white kitchen in Brooklyn, on one of those mornings when Daddy was eating bacon and eggs, pushing his food around the plate with a half piece of toast, and Mommy was standing at the stove with not a mark on her.

“No offense, Mom,” Robert has said several times, trying to make things the way they used to be, “but you look better without glasses.”

Both of us flinched when the phone rang. The sound seemed so loud, so strange in the quiet room, and we stopped as though we were playing “Red Light, Green Light,” and whoever was It had wheeled around to catch us moving. But I was paralyzed, not so much by the sound, but by the look on Robert’s face. It was transfigured by a combination of hope and fear so strange and strong that it made me want to look away, the way you look away when someone’s weeping. I did not know who was on the phone, but I knew who Robert imagined it was.

“Answer it, Mommy,” he finally said.

There was the sound of background noise: the screech and honk of a public address system, the sharp
bing
as coins hit the insides of a pay phone, the insect clicks as the phone recognized and accepted the payment.
Clang, clang, click:
I knew who was on the other end. Patty Bancroft always says she fears any attempt to trace her women. That’s what she calls them, her women, as though she oversees a harem, or is a madam in a bordello. My body must have relaxed at the noises, for when I looked up at Robert I could see by his face, blank again, that he knew it was not
his father on the phone. “Christ, does that kid know how to read you,” Bobby had said sometimes. Sometimes I thought he was jealous, when he said that.

BOOK: Black and Blue
12.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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