Authors: Kate Axelrod
WE made a list of the things we wanted to do in the month we'd be home: spend a weekend or two at Daniel's parents' house in the Berkshires, try to see some smaller movies that never made it to our small town, maybe go to a Kurt Vile show at Bowery Ballroom. Daniel's parents owned an apartment on Central Park Westâand I grew up in a suburb about twenty miles north of the city. We figured we'd see each other a couple of times a week, and would probably spend most weekends together.
By four thirty, the sun was already starting to set. We were somewhere in Rockland County and the sky was huge all around usâbands of purple and pink were setting behind the jagged mountains.
“I think I already miss this,” I said. “Post road-trip blues.”
“I know, baby. You're nostalgic for everything, all the time.”
“Always,” Daniel said.
I called my mother, who'd wanted to know if I would be home by dinner.
“I should be back pretty soon,” I told her. “Daniel's dropping me off within the hour, I think.”
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Yup, uh-huh.” I heard some shuffling in the background, but mostly it was the absent quality in my mother's voice that made me wonder.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “You sound distracted.”
“Sorry, I'm just in the closet going through my clothes. I was planning to go through some old dresses and skirts that I never wear anymore and get a big donation over to the Salvation Army. But there's somethingâI don't know, something strange happening.”
“What do you mean?”
“These dresses aren't mine,” my mother said.
“Are they mine?” I asked her. “I don't think I have stuff in your closet but maybe I do?”
“No, no, it's not like that. I'll tell you when you get home.”
“Okay, I'll see you in a few hours. Love you,” I told her.
“Love you too, sweetie. Drive safe.”
WHEN I arrived home, my family and I had something akin to traditional Shabbat dinner. This was something we rarely did; we were culturally Jewish, not at all religious, and that night it looked as though we were a family who savored these customs, lighting a pair of slim ivory candles and blessing the challah. But more likely it was just that there was a special on roasted chicken at the supermarket, and my mother thought it would be a nice thing to do.
She had always been the sort of mother who was extremely attentive, attuned to my moods and needs. When I was a child, I'd come home from school and just by my posture, she could tell if I'd had a bad day, gotten into a fight with one of my friends, or done badly on a math test. She was a micromanager, tooâif I was hungry, she would peel and section clementines for me, toast and butter bagels, even when I was well into my teens. But that first night back, something was off; she was inattentive, preoccupied. I wondered if maybe this was just what started to happen when you got olderâand in going away to boarding school, wasn't I expected to tend to myself, as I'd been doing for months already? And that seemed normal; I was seventeenâI didn't need to be babied. But it also felt abrupt, because during all my other visits home, we had quickly fallen back into old routines; I would sleep late and my mother would come in around noon to wake me, ask me if I wanted breakfast. Did we want to drive to the mall to do some back-to-school shopping?
“Emma,” my father said at dinner, slicing asparagus up into tiny pieces with the side of his fork, “did Mom tell you we're thinking of redoing the basement?” He was tall and thin and balding, with a thick, graying beard.
“At least part of it. I've been toying with the idea of turning the bathroom down there into a darkroom. What do you think?”
“Sounds cool. Are you still teaching photography at school?”
“I'm not right now, but planning to in the spring. I'll probably teach an elective just for juniors and seniors.” My father had been a history teacher at the same public school in Westchester for almost twenty years; this was also the school that I'd recently transferred out of (and his being there was not totally unrelated to why I'd left). He taught a number of different classes, though what he really loved was the comparative American-studies elective. He was beloved at the school, and yet constantly battling the administration on what he could teach and how. The central problem always came down to this: he never understood how he could possibly teach an
history class. The simple retelling of history
of course a political act! It always troubled him when people didn't understand (and this was something he had ingrained in me as a young child) how the stories put forth by textbooks year after year were the rich white man's story, not the stories of the enslaved and underprivileged.
My father, I could tell, was simultaneously envious and proud of the fact that I was at Oak Hill. A private schoolâand a Quaker one nonethelessâgranted a freedom that he was unaccustomed to. It was unabashedly progressive, offered no AP courses so that teachers wouldn't have to “teach to the test,” was the first boarding school in the country to accept people of color, and had a course catalog as thick as any small liberal arts college. (And ultimately they had offered me the most generous financial aid package, so that was why I had accepted.)
My mother was sitting at the head of the table, her back to the refrigerator, which was crowded with magnets displaying cat jokes and photographs of various children in our extended family. She was picking some dark-meat chicken off a thigh, examining it closely, and then she looked up.
“Oh stop,” she said, her voice was quiet but oddly cheerful. “It's really not their fault.”
fault?” I asked.
“You just said, âIt's not their fault.'”
“Oh nothing, sorry.” She looked down again and scooped up a forkful of rice.
My father brushed her wrist. “You okay, sweetheart?”
“Yeah, I'm fine, sorry. Just a long day, four lessons this morning, back-to-back.”
“Your mom is becoming the talk of the town around here. Some crazy mother from Scarsdale called and asked if she could give a piano lesson to her two-year-old.”
“No way. The kid is actually two?” I said.
“Something like that.”
“Are you gonna do it?” I asked her.
My mother was quiet for a moment, and my father immediately interjected.
“She'll have to see if the scheduling will work outâthe kid has SAT tutoring after day care, so it might not work.”
“Good one, Dad.”
I watched as my father slid some of his chicken onto my mother's plate, pushed it toward her with his knife. She was the kind of woman who people were always trying to feed. She had a small waist, dainty wrists, slim fingers, and even my seventy-eight-year-old grandmother was always encouraging her to eat more. Before she moved to Florida, my grandmother often came by with potato salads or bagels and lox, brownies wrapped in tinfoil.
“Thanks, honey,” my mother said, “but I'm okay, I promise. I ate a big lunch.” Then she looked at me, asked if we'd hit any traffic on the way back from school.
“Here and there. It wasn't terrible.”
My father asked if Daniel was a good driver. “I never trust those city kids,” he said.
“He actually is! His dad taught him to drive stick shift upstate when he was fifteen. He's barely a city kid.”
“Oh right. The second home, of course.”
“Speaking of second homes, I'm gonna go over to Annie's after dinner.”
“Well, of course,” my father said, “you've been home for forty minutes and it's already time for you to leave.”
“Very funny. Annie was away over Thanksgiving so I haven't seen her in so long.”
“Emma,” my mother said, and turned to me. “Before you leave, can you just take a look at the closet with me? It won't take long, I promise.”
“I'll clear the table,” my father said. “You guys can go.”
MY mother and I went into the master bedroom, which suddenly struck me as so old-fashioned and outdated. Something about the way the sun had drained the color from the wallpaper, and the clutter of photographs, the framed artwork from when I was a child. The walk-in closet was narrow but long, with a single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling. There was a shoe rack on the floor that held a dozen pairs of pumps and leather flats, shoes that my mother had bought decades ago and probably hadn't worn since the eighties.
“Okay, look,” she said. Her small, unadorned hands brushed past various fabricsâcotton skirts, velvet and silk dresses. “Just look.”
“I'm looking. And I don't get it,” I told her. “All your stuff is here.”
“I know it seems that way, but just look closely.”
“I don't understand what you're talking about, Mom. All your stuff is here. This is the same stuff that's been in your closet since forever. Maybe that's the problem. You've had all of it for so long, you don't even remember it.”
I realized that I sounded exactly like my mother and I felt a faint prickle at the back of my neck, a warning that, unaccountably, there'd been some strange shift in her thinking. Maybe she'd just had a long day or a bad night's sleep, but I felt a sliver of panic creeping in.
“No, Emma, just listen to me. I know everything looks the same, but it's not. Everything's nearly identical, but that's the problem. Someone switched it all, as if I wouldn't notice. Look at this dress.” She lifted up the hem of a floral dress. “These flowers used to be tulips and now they're lilies.”
Someone switched them?
What are you talking about! You're being crazy.”
Was she drunk? Was this a brain tumor? Or was she just getting olderâwould this be the place where that irrevocable shift toward dementia would start to occur? But my mother was barely fifty. It seemed absurd, way too early.
What about the person who broke into the house and stole my clothing and then tried to replace it?”
“Mom, you're being ridiculous and you're actually freaking me the fuck out. Please just stop!”
I'd only cursed at my mother one other time that I could remember. I was in the sixth grade and we'd gotten into this huge fight over practicing the violin, which I hated and was terrible at. I could never quite get my fingers coordinated enough, was never able to play without thinking, couldn't just feel the music and move effortlessly, the way my mother seemed to be able to do with every instrument she played. It had been a stupid idea, taking music lessons from her, but it seemed so logical at the time. And as I fumbled over scales, my fingers tripping over the strings, my mother had said she'd had enough.
You're never going to be good if you fake your way through practicing, Emma. You have to practice.
Jesus, Mom, will you stop being such a bitch?
And as soon as I'd said it, I'd felt my face flush, the shame seeping into my cheeks. I'd avoided any eye contact with her, hurried into my bedroom, and slammed the door behind me. I'd sat down on my lavender carpeted floor, pressed my back against the door, and started to cry.
I took my father's car over to Annie's that night. It was an old Volvo, with a navy cloth interior, and the smell of coffee was thick in the stale air. The car was cluttered with papers everywhere, a stack of photocopies in a couple of piles on the passenger seat. I turned the CD player on and something folky floated through the speakers. I didn't know who it was; it sounded a little like the Grateful Dead. When I was a kid, my father would give me a quarter if I could correctly identify the music playing in the car. Once, when I was eleven, he gave me five dollars because I knew it was Fleetwood Mac before Stevie Nicks joined the band.
I'd never felt so accomplished.
On my way over to Annie's, I felt slightly calmed by the driveâby the smooth, even pavement, the empty roads, the Christmas lights looped around people's trees. I'd always loved driving through these neighborhoods that time of year, past the colorful lit-up homes, the ones whose roofs were lined with mazes of red and green lights. I got to Annie's just a few minutes later; her house was at the end of a cul-de-sac, with a wide sloping lawn that was covered with that kind of hardened snow that crackled beneath my feet.
Annie threw her arms around me at the door. She was wearing plaid pajama pants and a Columbia sweatshirt; her hair, long and wavy, was swept up into a bun.
“I'm so happy you're home!” she said.
“Me too, me too.”
“Henry's just in my room. Can we go hang out there for a little? Is there anything you wanted to do tonight?”
“No, this is perfect,” I told her. “I'm tired, had a long day, long drive.”
“Oh right, obviously.”
Henry was lying on Annie's bed with a TV remote in his hand, scrolling through the channels. He had shaggy brown hair and his face was unexpectedly scruffy.
“Hey, Emma. Welcome home.”
“Henry!” I leaned over onto the bed to give him a hug and playfully rubbed his hair, which had grown so long since the last time I'd seen him. Henry and Annie had begun dating right after I'd left for Oak Hill. Annie liked to joke that this was precisely why they'd gotten together, but I knew it wasn't really true. We had all been friends since middle school and I think he had been vaguely in love with her the entire time. He was quiet and thoughtful, had an understated sort of humor. In the ninth grade yearbook, he was voted “Talks Least, Says Most,” which was precisely the sort of person he was.
In a way, Annie and I had always monopolized each other, fulfilled every role and function in each other's lives, and so it was only fitting that it would take me leaving to allow room for somebody else. By October of that year, she and Henry had fallen into a sweet and comfortable romance.