Authors: J. Courtney Sullivan
She missed her brothers more now than she had when they died, years earlier. And lately, she was haunted by memories of her sister; of what might have been had Mary lived. That past winter had marked the sixtieth year since Mary’s death. On the twenty-eighth of November, Alice had thought to go to the grave site. She hadn’t been since she could remember. Her parents were buried there, too, all three names on a single headstone, as well as the names of the two babies who were lost back in the twenties. But Alice knew that if she went, she would hope to feel some part of them floating in the air around her, and she knew just as well that they weren’t there.
She tried to put it from her mind, but when she opened her copy of
The Boston Globe
that day, she found a full-page story about the anniversary of the fire in the Metro section, complete with photographs. There were recollections of all of the most famous victims: The old Western film star Buck Jones had been taken to a hospital and died minutes before his wife reached his bedside to say good-bye. The body of a young woman was found in the phone booth, where she had tried in vain to call her father to come save her; a couple married that day in Cambridge both died, along with their entire bridal party. And then there was the one they called Maiden Mary, the woman who perished without knowing that her beloved planned to propose the very next day.
Alice had read her sister’s name and, remembering that night, she was gripped with the sort of guilt she had not felt in years. There was no one she could tell. None of her children would understand. Daniel was dead, and if he had been alive, she still probably wouldn’t have dared to say a word.
She willed herself not to think about it, but minutes later she was sobbing uncontrollably at the kitchen sink. Her chest seized up. She wondered if she was having a heart attack.
Alice wished she could go to church—her own church, which had been the comforting backdrop to so much joy and sorrow. The fact that she couldn’t made the pain all the worse. She hadn’t been able to save the place, she knew that. Yet the fact of the closure still surprised her from time to time. Her priest from St. Agnes had been shipped off to a parish in Connecticut, and she had no idea how to reach him. She felt utterly alone.
She thought then of her summer priest, Father Donnelly. She called him with shaking hands, unsure of what she’d say—she had kept the secret for sixty years. She knew that confession meant telling it all, but for now, she told him some version of the truth, the parts that Daniel knew.
He was impossibly kind to her, and said that she needed to forgive herself, the same as her husband had always said.
“Please,” she said over and over. “Give me a penance. Give me some way to fix this.”
She didn’t know how to say to anyone, even a priest, how terrified she was of Hell. But she knew that soon it would be too late.
“Alice, we all need to focus on doing good work with the time we have left,” he said. “There’s no reason to dwell on the past. Just think about what you can do now.”
In Alice’s day, a priest would absolve you of your sins by making you pray or go without. For Lent, you should deprive yourself of candy or perfume or gin, whatever it was that you liked best in life. But nowadays, it seemed that they wanted you to do something good instead: Paint a house, or collect money for UNICEF, or volunteer with troubled children. Something.
After they hung up, she could breathe again. It felt somewhat relieving to say the words out loud. But even so, she poured herself a glass of wine and got into bed before six.
A month later, right after Christmas, Father Donnelly came to Boston to visit friends, and stopped by Alice’s house for lunch. He asked if she was feeling better after their talk, and she said she was, though it wasn’t really true. Thoughts of Mary had been with her ever since, and his words had lingered:
Just think about what you can do now
. There was nothing she could do to bring her sister back or to redeem herself.
She served the priest a defrosted chicken potpie she had made weeks earlier. They sat in her kitchen and spoke of other things, while outside, snow fell on the rhododendron bushes. At some point the conversation turned to St. Michael’s by the Sea. Alice watched the worry lines that crinkled around Father Donnelly’s eyes as he spoke. Funds were dwindling. The rectory was falling apart. The church roof was in bad shape, and there was mold all over the cellar, which filled up with water every time it rained.
“We’ll be lucky if the place lasts ten more years,” he said. “There just isn’t any money for upkeep.”
Alice couldn’t bear to see it lost like St. Agnes had been. Suddenly, she knew what she ought to do—“Father, it might put you at ease to know that my family and I have decided I should give my property in Maine to St. Michael’s when I die,” she said. “Between the house and the cottage, there’s enough room to sleep probably ten or twelve men comfortably. Or you could sell it. It’s worth over two million dollars.”
Father Donnelly turned red, just as Daniel had when he got embarrassed as a young man.
“Oh Alice,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t asking—”
“I know,” she said. “But really. We had already decided.”
“I can’t impose on your family like that,” he said.
“I’ve been going to St. Michael’s every summer since before you were born,” she said sternly. “It’s given me plenty. It’s only right to give back. Besides, it’s not like my children cherish the place.”
Once she said it she realized that all of the kids, especially Patrick, would be furious with her for not consulting them. But why should she? It was her property, after all. They had certainly never asked her opinion about the cottage schedule. Clare and Patrick didn’t need any of the money. And Kathleen had spent most of Daniel’s savings already. Every time she thought of this, Alice was forced to remember the way she had cast aside her pride and asked Kathleen to help her talk sense into Daniel when he got sick. Kathleen had refused, a fact that Alice could never forgive. Daniel might still be alive today if not for his decision and Kathleen’s willingness to go along with it. But Alice was powerless to change that now.
“You should take some time to think about it,” Father Donnelly had said. “Talk it over with your family. It’s a huge decision, Alice.”
She knew it was as good as made.
“I already spoke to my family about this and we’re all in agreement,” she said.
Later that week, she met with the lawyer and changed her will. The three acres and two houses in Maine would go to St. Michael’s.
She called Father Donnelly to tell him that it was finalized.
“Oh, thank you,” he said, his voice filled with relief. “Please tell your children how incredibly grateful we are.”
“I will,” she lied.
Alice had decided not to tell the kids. They should be able to make their memories the same as always, without feeling the weight of an ending coming on. Plus, she didn’t want to face their reaction if it was bad. They could be angry with her once she was dead and buried.
It was the first Sunday in June, the day before she and Gabe were set to leave for Maine. Maggie had taken two weeks off from work. Usually, before her annual trip, she felt that same giddy excitement she’d had as a child, when she watched her father packing up the car to head to Cape Neddick. But today she felt terrified.
Tomorrow they’d be at the beach; tomorrow she would finally tell Gabe the news. She imagined taking his hand and leading him down to the stone jetty. She would start off simply, not a lot of beating around the bush: “Honey, there’s something I have to tell you.”
Soon thereafter, they’d start their real life together—their two-year anniversary, their two-bedroom apartment in the East Village. Or else he’d panic, and none of that would come to pass.
She woke him up with a flurry of kisses all over his face and neck and chest, which she hoped would disguise her nerves.
“Let’s get you packed!” she said.
Beside the bed stood her own stuffed suitcase, the hand-me-down Louis Vuitton her aunt Ann Marie had given her for study abroad over a decade earlier, angering Maggie’s mother but delighting Maggie herself. She had brought it from her apartment the night before. She would be staying with him again tonight, and they would leave around noon the next day, after he wrapped up an early shoot. He wanted to spend two nights in a row with her before the trip—this in itself was a good sign, since Gabe was the type who needed his space. Until recently, she had gotten used to having to lobby for their time together, but maybe that was changing now.
He laughed into his pillow. “Maggie, it’s dawn. We’re not leaving until tomorrow,” he said.
Really it was almost ten, but she decided to leave it, getting up to make coffee. Usually he woke before she did, and often had breakfast ready by the time she got out of bed—Denver omelets and hash browns and sausage and waffles, all served together, as if they were a couple of truckers. She had gained seven pounds since they had started dating two years earlier, though he didn’t seem to notice.
In the kitchen, she looked out the window at a homeless man dragging his cart along the sidewalk, a group of hipsters in tight dark jeans sharing a cigarette on a graffiti-covered stoop across the way. She had never been able to see the beauty in this neighborhood, no matter how much Gabe praised it. She wondered, not for the first time, how it was going to feel to leave her lovely tree-lined Brooklyn Heights, with its streets of perfect brownstones, the view of the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge from the Promenade, the Sunday farmers’ market where she and Gabe had so often gone in early autumn to buy fresh vegetables, and apple crisp, and dahlias for the fire escape, which she could never manage to keep alive for long.
It was hard to imagine living here, in a neighborhood meant for young late-night partiers, a neighborhood full of dive bars and concrete. Especially with a child. Or maybe they would move again by then, someplace quieter and more kid friendly. Park Slope perhaps.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she thought that maybe they wouldn’t ever have a life together, and this whole situation would turn out to be an extension of her foolish history with men—huge, impossible hopes that eventually came to nothing.
Maggie hadn’t told anyone that she was pregnant, even though she had known for nearly two weeks. There were plenty of moments when she panicked and picked up the phone to call her mother or her best friend, Allegra, but she resisted. Gabe should be first.
Never in her life had her emotions run so hot and cold—she could talk herself into the possibility of this being a superb idea and feel at ease for all of three minutes, before completely freaking out and deciding she’d made the biggest mistake of her life.
She knew exactly how it had happened. For months, she had been thinking about babies. Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, she wanted one, and understood for the first time what women meant when they talked about biological clocks. She found herself gazing longingly at toddlers on the subway or at brunch. At certain points in each month, she thought she might kidnap the closest person in a high chair.
Maggie knew that she and Gabe weren’t exactly ready. But one night in mid-April, they had a long, winding freshman-year-of-college-type talk about the way events unfold, how, as her mother often said, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. They were both artists in their way, and they ascribed so much meaning, too much, to how they’d met. Gabe said that their next chapter could likely be as random, as accidental, as fated, however you chose to look at it. That night at eleven, when she was supposed to take her pill as she had done every night at eleven since her first year at Kenyon, she left it in the package instead. She did the same the next night and the next, before panicking and swallowing all four pills in one gulp on the fourth night.
After the initial shock of it, this crazy, exhilarating game of Russian roulette, she waited, without telling Gabe what she had done. Her period never came. She took a home pregnancy test. Even though she probably shouldn’t have, she felt stunned when the result was positive. All you heard about in New York these days was how impossible it was to get pregnant. How could she have accomplished it in a single try?
Hiding the pregnancy test from Gabe was one thing, but she knew there was something truly, deeply, wildly wrong with her when she found herself making a doctor’s appointment, sitting across from her middle-aged female gynecologist in a paper gown calmly talking about prenatal vitamins, and then going to meet Gabe for dinner afterward as if none of it had happened. They had even had sex that night.
On average, they did it six times a week, a fact that stunned her group of friends from back home in Massachusetts, most of whom were married, as well as Allegra, her best friend from college, who considered herself exceedingly liberated in every way, but found this amazing even so.
There was an electricity between them that never diminished, even when they were fighting. So Maggie couldn’t be sure when it had happened. For some reason, this seemed important, a real omission on her part. She remembered them having sex in the shower that second day with no pill—she was bent forward with her foot up on the edge of the tub, and he stood behind. She cringed thinking about it. That was no way to make a child. She knew this was the least of her problems, but it seemed like a sign of just how unfit they were to become parents.
Then again, they weren’t teenagers. It wasn’t exactly a scandal for two people in their thirties to have a baby, even if it wasn’t planned. They could do this. She thought she could, at least.
She decided that she would tell him in Maine. There, he’d have time to process, time to get accustomed to the idea. Maybe he would be happy.
Gabe knew she wanted children someday in some abstract way, though they had never really talked about kids. But Gabe was impetuous. He made decisions on a whim, and managed to be happy with them—
move to New York, leave New York, come back to New York
. She herself had never been that way, but he brought it out in her, which perhaps accounted for that business with the pills. She hadn’t been sick at all so far and she took this, at least, as a good omen.
Maggie turned away from the window and pulled two mugs from the cabinet over the sink. She filled Gabe’s with coffee and poured cranberry juice into her own. She had stopped drinking caffeine two weeks earlier, and no one had noticed. She wasn’t drinking booze either, but she hardly ever did that anyway. She was mindful of the family history around drinking—her mother had dragged her along to enough AA meetings as a child, presumably because she couldn’t find a sitter, but more likely as a sort of cautionary tale. As a result, all these years later Maggie rarely had more than a single glass of wine during the course of a night. She had never been drunk in her life, aside from two or three times with her extended family at Christmas.
For months, she had been looking forward to Maine. She could almost smell the ocean. The cottage and her grandmother’s house next door were built on three acres of grassy land. Beyond those was a stretch of sand and miles of dark blue sea. You couldn’t make out a thing on the other side. As a little girl, Maggie believed that the world dropped off out there, that if you swam far enough you might fall into a starry sky.
She and Gabe had had a marvelous time the previous summer. They did all the activities Maggie had loved to do with her family as a child. They lay on the beach reading for hours; they canoed through Penobscot Bay while loons serenaded them from the shore; they watched fireworks in a field in Kennebunkport, sitting on an itchy blanket in a crowd of families sitting on itchy blankets of their own. They brought a picnic dinner—turkey sandwiches, cheese and crackers, a thick slice of chocolate cake, and a bottle of wine. Children ran here and there, shaking glow sticks in the darkness, eating Popsicles that melted too fast and dribbled red, white, and blue down their chins. When the display started, a young father near them lifted his excited daughter up onto his shoulders, while his wife consoled a fearful younger brother, bribing him with a whoopee pie.
“That’ll be us someday,” Gabe had said. She had felt joyful at the thought.
They always seemed to do better outside of their everyday environment, as if away from the stresses and distractions of New York life, they were suddenly able to imagine themselves as different people.
In Maine last summer, Gabe had patched the screens on the cottage and helped install an air conditioner in her grandmother’s house next door. He had taken her grandmother’s photo, falling in love with Alice as people outside the family often did, taking notice of her beauty and her charm, not sensing the iciness that lay beneath. The picture—a stunning portrait in which Alice looked like an old movie star, with a highball glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other—was taped to Gabe’s refrigerator, along with dozens of others he had snapped. It was slightly disconcerting, meeting her grandmother’s gaze every time she went to get an orange, or milk for her tea.
When Gabe finally emerged from the bedroom, sleepy-eyed and gorgeous in just his boxers, Maggie blurted out, “I wish we were leaving today.”
“I wish I didn’t have to work tomorrow morning,” he said, coming toward her, wrapping his arms low around her waist, sending a current through her, even though he had done it a million times before. “Should I blow off the assignment so we can leave sooner?”
She felt a nervous twinge when he said it, in spite of herself. He hadn’t had a job in weeks.
“Nah,” she said, trying to sound breezy. “We’ll wait. Anyway, this is pretty nice, too, having a quiet morning here together.”
A while later, she led him back into the bedroom, and placed his open duffel bag on the bed. They filled it with his swim trunks and T-shirts, sunblock and books they both wanted to read. Maggie’s whole body felt filled up with light, as it always did when things were good between them. At the same time, she felt a trace of trepidation: when they hadn’t fought in a while, there was the chance that a big one was coming, and she needed him in a good place for the news she was about to deliver. So she tried to step around problems, tried not to agitate, as he said she tended to do.
Maggie found three sundresses hanging in the closet, left over from the previous summer. She put two of them in the bag, but left the third on its hanger.
“You want to take that to your place?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Only to bring it back here in two months?”
“By then, summer will be two-thirds over,” he said.
In August, when the lease was up, his dopey roommate, Cunningham, would be moving out and Maggie would move in.
Gabe had asked her in the middle of May, not long after she found out she was pregnant. They were having an argument, which had started off as a discussion about marriage: He thought it was a stupid, outdated institution. She halfway agreed, but also thought people said that only when they hadn’t met the right person yet.
“When are you going to start believing in us, huh?” he asked, in a wounded tone of voice that made her all but forget about the fights they had had, the lies he had told. Maybe they had finally turned a corner.
“I’m one hundred percent committed,” he said. “I’ve even been thinking about asking you to move in.”
Though her gut told her this was a consolation prize, that it didn’t necessarily mean he was ready to be a father, she felt elated by the thought. He wanted to live with her; they were one step closer. Maggie knew her mother and her friends would tell her she was crazy, but she said yes, she would love to live with him. She took the offer as a sign that it would all work out. She had never been one to believe in signs, but then, she had never needed one quite so much. Maggie pushed any doubts from her head that night, running a flat palm over her flat stomach as he slept beside her. Soon enough everything would change.
The next morning, she asked him if he was sure, and he said yes; he loved her, wanted to wake up next to her every day. She asked if his roommate would be okay with that. Ben Cunningham was one of Gabe’s two best friends from childhood, along with Rich Hayes. Gabe mostly referred to them only as a unit: “Cunningham and Hayes,” or more often, “the Goons.”
Gabe said he was the one who had found the place, so it was his call. Besides, Ben, like Gabe, was thirty-four, and had been making rumblings for some time about the fact that he was getting a bit old to be living with another dude and should probably bite the bullet and move in with his girlfriend of seven years, Shauna. No matter that he had cheated on her countless times since leaving their hometown in Connecticut, where she still lived.
Maggie believed the move would improve their relationship, in ways small and large. No more arguing about who was going to spend the night at whose place, no more schlepping her blow-dryer to and from the office three days a week. No chance that she might be standing in his kitchen cooking pasta, hear the door open, and see a man other than her boyfriend walk through.