Authors: Elaine Wolf
“Sorry, Mrs. Harris. I can't stay today. Just need to see you for a minute.”
“Excuse me, ladies.” Callie unfolded her body and reached for her sandals. “I'll be right outside. Susanna could use some help with this tree. Oh, and a few of you might want to count the leis in those boxes by the window.”
Callie and I stood in the empty corridor, the building still, the eye of a hurricane. Callie pulled two Tootsie Rolls from the pocket of her jeans. She handed me one. “What's up?”
“Peter finally did it.”
“Whaddaya mean?” Callie unwrapped her candy and stuck it in her mouth. I told her how Peter had spoken to me in the meeting. “What a freakin’ zoo this is,” Callie said, shaking her head.
“He humiliated me, Cal. And I let him, dammit!”
She rested her hands on my shoulders and smiled a weak grin. “How ’bout lunch in your office today? Just us. No rat. No wit. And we'll close the door so the gorilla doesn't see us. I'll grab my stuff from the fridge next period.”
“That's the other thing I came to tell you. Kate Stanish just invited me to her house for lunch. I'm sorry.”
“You mean you said yes?” Callie dropped her hands.
“I like her. She's easy to talk to.”
“And I'm not?” Callie pushed open the door to the art room.
“Come on, Cal. I thought you'd understand. It's a gorgeous day, and she talked about eating outside. I guess she tempted me.”
“Yeah, well, the serpent tempted Eve too.” Callie slipped into the art room and shut the door. Was she simply jealous that I was having lunch with Kate instead of with her, or did she sense something about Kate that I couldn't see then? In the silent hallway, I gasped for breath, loneliness heavy on my chest.
Three hours later, I turned onto Pebble Lane and saw the cherry tree that canopied Kate's lawn. She used it as a landmark, the only thing that differentiated her dormered Cape Cod from other houses on the block.
Kate hugged me as if I were a youngster returning from summer camp. I breathed in her perfume as a gentle breeze poked through my cotton sweater. “What a glorious day, isn't it?” She loosened her grip. “I'm so glad you decided to share it with me.” Kate took my hand and led me through the front door, into a living room dipped in sunshine. Even the sofa and wing chair shimmered in pale yellow, accented by sky blue pillows.
“Your house is beautiful,” I said as we walked to the kitchen. A large wicker tray on the table held two luncheon plates with sliced turkey, cheese, and perfect, tiny tomatoes. Condiments and olives filled miniature dishes. A pitcher of iced coffee and crystal glasses completed the arrangement. As Kate lifted the tray, I picked up a basket of dark bread in one hand, and in the other, silverware bundled in green cloth napkins. For a moment, I thought of Callie in the faculty room, rummaging in the refrigerator for her brown paper bag amid containers of moldy cottage cheese and an open carton of milk.
But Meadow Brook disappeared as soon as Kate and I moved to her brick patio, bordered by tidy impatiens. Kate placed the tray on a wrought iron table and pulled out a chair with a floral seat cushion. “Please, dear. Make yourself comfortable.”
“Danny used to help Joe plant impatiens on Mother's Day,” I blurted out. Kate came up behind me and squeezed my shoulders. She asked about Joe's relationship with Danny. And she listened, not like Joe did, even when I thought our marriage was good—glancing up from the sports section or racing out the door—but as if what I had to say was more important than anything else.
Yet, what I remember most about my first visit to Kate's house that late May afternoon isn't the conversation but the ease of being with her, that sense of absolute acceptance I hadn't felt since Rayanne and I had gathered with friends at the student union decades earlier. When I spoke, a smile rose from Kate's lips to her deep blue eyes. And when I cried, Kate swept her hand to my face, tracing tears with her index finger. No friend, not even Rayanne, had ever done that.
As I finally pulled myself away to go back to work, Meadow Brook didn't seem to matter so much anymore.
heard the phone before I walked into the house.“Hey, Beth,” Callie said, when I picked up.“I was just about to hang up. Glad you're home. So, tell me about lunch with Mrs. Stanish.”
“Cal, I'm sorry.”
“It's okay. I shouldn't have been so snippy. It's just that it's not the same without you. But anyhow, how was it?”
I told Callie about lunch with Kate: that I wished Callie could have seen the wicker tray and the luncheon plates and the sunlight in Kate's yard. But I didn't tell her how I had thought about Kate as I drove home, and how, when I raced for the phone, it was Kate's voice I was hoping to hear. “I really wish you could have been there, Cal. You'd love Kate. Now I know why Zach's such a great kid.”
“Well, I've always said there're advantages to being a counselor. You don't have to jump when the bell rings. I couldn't have come with you even if you'd asked. Forty-two minutes isn't time to go anywhere.”
“We just jump to different sounds. You listen for the bell. I listen for the gorilla.”
“I know. And bells are easier. They can't hurt you.”
“So, how was lunch with Joanne and Denise?”
“Same as always. Denise asked for you. And Joanne … well, when I said Zach's grandmother had invited you for lunch outdoors, you know what Joanne said?”
“I couldn't begin to guess.”
“She said your leaving us on a sunny day puts a new spin on the expression
fair weather friend”
“You know, I've been thinking. I'm glad you met Mrs. Stanish. I mean, I guess she knows what you're going through in a way that I can't. But just don't abandon me at school, ’cause I couldn't stand that hell hole without you.”
“Rat hole, you mean, don't you?”
We laughed. But even as we did, I knew I'd continue to choose Kate's patio over the faculty room. After that first lunch, I began calling her every day during homeroom, when Peter broadcast announcements on the PA system and then headed to the cafeteria for his bagel. Kate always invited me to lunch outdoors when the forecast called for sun. And on dark days, she'd ask if I could meet her at the Athena.
Those phone calls became as much a part of my daily routine as my afternoon check-ins with Dad. I'd anticipate my chat with Kate as I drove to work, sometimes even turning off the radio to replay our previous conversation in my head. At traffic lights, which I had developed the strange habit of counting, I'd let Kate's words wash over me, cleansing the pain of the night before, when Joe and I barely spoke, when he stayed late at Mike's, or when he found me in Danny's room, cuddling with Moose.
Callie started coming by my office every day during third period for my lunch decision: Kate or Callie, sunlight or faculty room. Kate's house was a magnet on bright days, pulling me to the wrought iron table where we'd eat and to the chaises where we'd unwind for a few minutes before I'd race back to school. In our quiet time on the lounge chairs, I'd listen to the birds and to the breeze sweeping the bushes by Kate's back fence. And I would smile at the easy silence between us.
Silence at home with Joe had grown heavier yet, pushing us down in a sea of grief. We had whittled our conversations:
How you doin’? Fine; Everything okay at work? Uh-huh.
We protected ourselves with lies as if they were life jackets.
Still, I had to ask Joe about Dr. Goldstein. I waited until two days before the appointment. Joe was working late, taking advantage of the longer spring days. I had gone to the mall after work with Callie and Mollie. Callie encouraged me to buy black nubuck sandals at the shoe store as Mollie begged for a new pair of Nikes. Mollie and I swung our purchases as we strolled from the shop, her free arm linked in mine.
As we approached the food court, Mollie pulled me in step to her off-key rendition of
The Wizard of Oz.
Callie winked when I looked back at her.
I asked Mollie where we were heading. “Just follow the yellow brick road.”
“To the Land of Oz and thirty-one flavors.”
We slowed to a walk. “And your mom knows this?”
“Sure. I asked her while you were buying those geeky sandals, and she said it was fine.”
I boxed Mollie's arm as Callie caught up with us. “This is really okay with you, Cal? Ice cream before dinner?”
“Sure. What's the big deal? We're having pizza tonight. It's not like we won't eat if we have ice cream now. And you said Joe won't be home till much later. So you're joining us.”
“Oh, is that so? I don't even have my car. You drove here, remember?”
“So what? We'll get you home. I just want more time with you. We hardly talk at school anymore, if you haven't noticed. But I'm looking forward to tomorrow.”
“And why is that?”
“It's supposed to rain. Kate's patio'll be closed. So you'll be stuck with us peons in the faculty room.”
Mollie sidled next to Callie and studied the tubs of ice cream at the Baskin Robbins counter. “You know what you're having?” Callie asked her.
“Either jamoca almond fudge or chocolate marshmallow. And Mom, what's a peon?”
“Just another word for loser, honey. So, what'll it be? We're next.” Callie draped her arm around my shoulder. “You, too, Beth. Choose your poison. My treat.”
Joe got home before I did. Buoyed by my time with Callie and Mollie, I started right in as soon as I returned.
“I've got to talk to you about something, Joe.”
“Shoot.” Joe folded the sports section, clearing the kitchen table.
“I made an appointment to speak with someone. A therapist. And he wants to see you too.”
“You did what?” Joe's eyes narrowed.
“I have an appointment to meet with a therapist this Thursday at six. Maybe he can help us.”
Joe walked to the sink. “And you just decided to do this on your own without talking to me first? Don't you think you should've at least asked before you made an appointment that includes me?”
I didn't turn to look at him. “But I knew you'd say no.”
“And what the hell do you think I'll say now?” I heard the cabinet open, a glass bang on the counter.
“I'm hoping you'll say you'll go with me.”
“Well think again, ’cause there's no way I'm gonna go talk to a stranger. Jesus! We can't even talk to each other anymore. What makes you think we'll be able to talk to someone we don't even know?”
“But I spoke with him on the phone. He has years of experience in bereavement counseling. Dr. Goldstein's helped lots of people who've suffered losses.”
“Oh, so that's what they call it nowadays, huh? Our son dies, and they call it suffering a loss. And tell me this, Beth: How many of his own children has this therapist guy buried? Because I don't need to talk to someone who can't possibly know what it feels like. Someone who's gonna throw mumbo jumbo words around. Because it won't make a difference. Danny's dead. And there's nothing anyone can do about that.”
Joe's anger caused a quake in my chest. I recognized this feeling: the shakiness I felt around Peter. I breathed slowly, willing myself to stay calm. “But
not dead, Joe. And neither are you. And I'll do anything that might help me feel even a little better.”
“Then go. You go and talk to the shrink. Why not? You talk to everyone else. Everyone on the planet probably knows our business. But see, I don't believe what's going on with us is anyone's business but ours. I don't broadcast our problems to the world.”
“But you talk to Mike.”
“Sure. We talk. We talk about the Mets and the Yankees and the Knicks. I talk to forget my problems, not to think about them. So, if you want to talk to Dr. Whatever-His-Name-Is, you go right ahead. But leave me out of it.”
“Please,” I said as he came back to the table. “Maybe if we see Dr. Goldstein together, we'll learn how to help each other. We've got a history here. We've had a life together. We can't just throw that away like garbage.”
“Why not? Seems to me you already have. You threw it away the moment you blamed me for the accident. But it was an accident, God dammit! It wasn't my fault!”
“But you told him he could go.”
“Jesus, Beth! Accidents happen. Nobody
That's a lie
, I screamed in my head as I stormed from the kitchen.
You caused it when you said he could drive.
I headed upstairs.
When it was supposed to snow again. When another storm was coming. You caused it, Joe. You caused it.
I crawled into bed, pulled a pillow to my face to muffle sobs.
And so did I. So did I when I didn't say no. Dammit! Why didn't I just say no?
I awoke in the middle of the night to find that Joe hadn't come to bed, and I realized it didn't bother me. I simply turned over as images swelled with my thoughts: Joe and Danny; Mary and Liz. I tried to still the questions in my mind: Do we ever really know our children? Can we hear their messages, told in half truths and glances? Or, do we plug our ears and close our eyes for fear of what we'll find?
And I wondered: Are our children as afraid of us as we are of them? Afraid that we'll blame them? Afraid of our lies? “Trouble finds you if you go looking for it,” Mary had told Liz.
I saw it then: I had been afraid of Danny. Afraid of his anger, afraid of the distance it could put between us. And Danny, I suppose, was afraid of me. Afraid I'd try to trap him in my world forever. Afraid I'd say no to his requests to grow up.
So Danny went to Joe the day of the accident because Joe wasn't afraid. “You've got to let him grow up,” Joe said. And then Danny hugged me, and I couldn't say no. It was fear that had stopped me—a fear stronger even than concern for his safety. I feared confrontation would drive a wedge between Danny and me, and I'd lose him for a while. So I let Danny drive, and I lost him forever.
In the morning the rain came—a New England kind of rain, a curtain of water. Callie's car wasn't in the lot when I pulled in fifteen minutes later than usual, just as the bell rang for homeroom. I propped up my umbrella but didn't even take off my coat before I called Kate. I had to make sure I would reach her before homeroom ended.