Authors: Katrina Kittle
For Monica, Rick, and Amy Jia Schiffler
Beside a well, one does not thirst. Beside a sister, one does not despair.
anny wondered if people looked at his family and knew. Did it show?
Sitting there, in his childhood home, hours before the wedding, he was astounded they’d all come so far. He looked back and remembered a time he’d never dreamed there’d be a scene like this.
He wondered if anyone else looked at them and still thought,
My God, it’s amazing.
He knew that his family still thought it. And that’s what he loved about them. On days like this one, or on their graduations or holidays, they sometimes caught one another’s eyes and it was there. That sparkle of “we did it, didn’t we?” This light of how lucky they were.
Danny loved the days when they remembered that.
Because they didn’t always. They couldn’t. He knew that it went against human nature to truly savor every moment and continually remain aware of all they had to be grateful for. They couldn’t
like that. They’d never get anything done. There wasn’t always time to savor every damn little thing, like electricity, or your car starting, or the shipment of specialty cheeses arriving on time. He thought about how much effort and energy it would consume to perpetually relish everything. It wasn’t practical.
But he thought his family did it more than most.
And with good reason.
His favorite days were when he knew they were all doing it at the same time.
The bustle here in his mother’s kitchen gave him a rush. Mom looked great, but he was careful not to tell her too many times. He’d finally convinced her to color her gray hairs, and he didn’t want to make too big a deal out of being so obviously right; he just grinned every time someone else told her, “You look fabulous, Sarah.”
Danny had already taken off his tux jacket and tucked a cloth napkin into his shirt as an apron. He envied how Mom could stir up the brown-sugar frosting and never get a drop or a splatter on her ivory dress. It was so like her to make the cake herself. Danny had told her he would do it—she had a ton of other things to worry about today—but, as usual, she tried to do everything. At least she was letting them all help, even though that added to the chaos. She’d embraced the frantic quality of the day and turned it into a party instead of a hassle. She caught his eye and laughed, then dipped her finger into the melted butter and brown sugar she stirred. She closed her eyes to express her approval.
Danny’s brothers stood nearby, looking like movie stars in their tuxes, eating the scraps of the buttermilk chocolate cake Danny had trimmed off. They laughed at something, and Danny tilted his head and studied them; his brothers looked as different as two members of a family could look.
Most of the time Danny forgot to remember. But today that was impossible.
Odd things brought it all back to him. Sometimes the triggers were obvious, but occasionally they surprised him—the scent of a swimming pool, the sight of a flowering dogwood, a glimpse of a black-and-white cat, the sound of his laser printer, police in uniform, or a blond woman wearing pink.
Today it was everyone taking pictures. The flashes and the video cameras reminded him. They always had, since the discovery on that rainy, cold day twelve years ago.
Twelve years. Damn. Sometimes the memory seemed so recent it could still make the panic thicken in Danny’s chest. Other times it was difficult for the man he was now to recognize the boy he had been then. But Danny couldn’t pose for a picture, or have someone film him, without remembering it all.
“That summer,” his family called it. Even though it started in the spring, in April. Or “that year.” If they just said “that summer” or “that year,” they all know what it meant. Anything else would be specific: “the summer that Nate left for med school,” or “that summer I was sous-chef at Arriba Arriba in Manhattan.” But if someone just said “that summer,” the rest of them knew what was meant.
Danny didn’t believe that everything happened for a reason. He refused to believe it. He hated that image of a God, of a world. Too many things were just petty and mean if he looked at them that way. But in college he’d studied a bit about reincarnation in a comparative-religions class. Some people who believed in reincarnation thought that there was a place somewhere, a place they couldn’t ever recognize in this world, from which they chose the path of their lives on earth.
Danny pondered that when he encountered certain people or contemplated his family’s history. If it were true, what made some people choose a remedial, cush life and others choose an advanced-placement course? What would have made his family
the shock, the betrayal, the heartache? He wished he understood it.
On days like this, he felt he got a little closer. Knowing everything he knew now, seeing how it had turned out so far, from this better place, he thought he’d choose this life again. He really thought he would.
“Ready with the raspberry?” Mom asked.
Danny opened the raspberry preserves he’d canned himself. Certain items held a family history. A jar of raspberry preserves was bound to set off a family story.
Danny knew he loved the family stories more than anyone else did. Everyone else would complain and cry out, “Not again!” but Danny adored them, longed for them, and secretly devised ways to get them started.
He spread the raspberry preserves between the three layers of dense chocolate cake. When served with homemade vanilla ice cream, this cake was, as Mom called it, “just about as close to culinary ecstasy as is possible.” This cake had been his father’s favorite, and so it touched Danny that it had been requested for today. Thinking about his dad reminded Danny of a family story. An old one. One that used to be told at all the weddings, the Thanksgivings, the bar mitzvahs, and the birthdays. Always on Danny’s birthday. At Danny’s expense. Before, back before Dad had died, Danny was embarrassed when the story was told. But now he sometimes asked his mom to tell it.
He’d been very small. Four, maybe five. And he’d been playing by himself in the backyard of this very house. Mom and Dad loved to tell how Danny came running into the house and shouted, “Did you know that when you jump, both your feet come off the ground?”
Everyone thought it was so cute and dumb, but really, to Danny, it had been a scary moment and an amazing realization. He had seen his shadow against the garage. He had jumped into the air and had seen this space between his body and the grass. Against the white wall of the garage, he saw himself floating, not connected to anything.
What kept you from floating away?
Dad had told him about gravity, but it was Mom who listened to Danny explain his fear and who hugged him and said, “I’ll keep you from floating away. There’s a connection between us, even though you can’t see it. You’ll always be connected to us.”
When Danny used to think about his father dead, he sometimes thought of a shadow floating. Dad was like Danny’s own shadow. Danny couldn’t really touch it, and it was sometimes really hard to see, but it was always there. Danny knew it. He couldn’t lose it.
And that was family. That was the feeling of safety.
And so even though he used to be embarrassed when they told that story, now he liked it. That story was a connection, too. It connected everyone who told it to each other.
But that story was from Before.
There were new stories. The stories of After.
And the story of how Before became After.
The story of how they became who they were now.
henever Sarah thought back to that morning twelve years ago, she remembered the chick.
She cracked open an egg, but instead of a yolk, a bloody chick embryo fell into the bowl. She stared at its alien eyes and gaping mouth, and the hair rose on her arms and neck. The maimed chick felt important somehow, a sign of how bleak and bad things had become. Sarah sensed that this was an omen, but she couldn’t imagine for what or how to prepare herself.
The chick—in addition to giving Sarah second thoughts about buying free-range eggs at the local farmers’ market—made her remember the robin’s nest she’d found the day before in the apple tree. There had been four eggs, pale and delicate, like the sugar-dough decorations on the wedding cakes she was known for.
Sarah looked at the chick in the bowl and wanted to make sure the robin eggs were all right. She knew that this need was irrational—her sons were expecting breakfast, it was typical springtime in Ohio with the rain running in sheets down the window, and the robin certainly didn’t require her assistance. Sarah knew she had more pressing things to focus on—she had to cater Thai red seafood curry for twelve today, she needed to start production on a wedding cake, and she was supposed to be developing recipes for a “salads as whole meals” spread for
Food & Wine,
whose deadline was rapidly approaching. Sarah mentally inventoried these obligations, but she slipped out the back door anyway. She jogged across the sodden ground and stepped onto the bench under the tree. At the sight of Sarah’s gigantic head, the mother robin shrieked and fluttered to a higher branch. Sarah peered down at the nest, dry and cozy even in this downpour, and the eggs that, to her relief, still sat there like jewels. Four perfect eggs. Nothing but promise and potential ahead of them.
She’d once felt that way about her own family.
The eggs and that contorted chick reminded Sarah of the sappy assignment she’d been given in her grief support group two years ago, back when Roy, her husband, died. The counselor had told her to find three things each morning for which she felt grateful. The counselor told her not to count her two children—they were “givens.”
The robin screeched at her in urgent, one-note cries, and Sarah tried to think of
that inspired gratitude. Weariness and regret weighed her down, but she stubbornly shoved them away. She could do it, damn it; she could come up with three blessings. She scanned the yard, appraising it, as if it were a property she’d never seen. She looked at the old sandbox the boys used to play in and at her garden, its recently tilled earth as dark as Black Forest cake. One of these days, if the rain ever stopped, she would plant.