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Authors: Claire Lombardo

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“We’ll talk in the morning,” Marilyn repeated, louder this time, apparently for David’s benefit, and she jerked her neck once in his direction, urging him down the path around the side of the house.

He was preoccupied, on the drive home to his father’s house in Albany Park, not with the fact that he’d just had sex for the first time, and not with the fact that—sex or no—he was reasonably certain he was in love with the woman who’d just taken his virginity, and not, even, with the fact that his girlfriend’s father had just erroneously identified him as Italian, but with the look on Marilyn’s face as she’d led the man inside. With the strange note in her voice when she’d whispered to him—
stay calm,
just slightly off-key. Not a voice he recognized, nothing of the devil-may-care amusement with which he usually saw her move through the world. And he realized, then, how silly it seemed that you could ever know another person—really know her—and how silly it was to think that he had any idea what it was like to be her, day after day after day.


H
e was accepted to medical school, conveniently, on a Friday when her father was out of town for the weekend. In her living room, in the house on Fair Oaks, he’d relayed his news—he’d gotten into the University of Iowa; he would be moving to Iowa City—and Marilyn had pushed all dark thoughts of separation from her head and gone immediately to her father’s liquor stash to find a room-temperature bottle of Veuve.

David was moving. Not far away, but far enough away that she would no longer have a person in her immediate vicinity who felt like home. On their first date, they’d swapped origin stories: his mother lost to lymphoma when he was five, hers to liver failure when she was fifteen.

“It’s a strange feeling to have as a kid, like you’re responsible for your parents’ happiness,” she’d said to him, surprising herself with how frankly she was able to describe the way it felt to be the daughter of her parents. He’d been an attentive audience. “Not that you’re the
cause
of it, but instead that there’s some obligation on your part to ensure it. I didn’t really realize until recently that that wasn’t normal.”

“Well, who’s to say what
is
normal, I guess,” David had said, and he’d shrugged.

“Look at the two of us,” she’d said, and they’d both glowed at the phrase,
the two of us,
“carrying around all of this emotional baggage.” And then, before she kissed him for the first time: “This is the most depressing date I’ve ever been on, David.”

Two motherless children; two young, fumbling people who’d somehow happened upon each other, and until he announced his impending move to Iowa, she’d felt safer than she ever had, sharing a little space on the earth with a person who felt like a necessary element of her being. By the time she returned to him in the living room she was on the verge of tears.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said, and immediately started weeping.

He pulled her close to him, stroked at her hair. “All right,” he murmured. “Hey.”

“I’m so happy,” she said, and they both laughed.

“I thought I’d see,” he said, “if you wanted to join me.”

She moved back from him, appraising.

He rose from the couch and went to where he’d draped his jacket over the rocking chair. He removed a small box from one of the pockets and then he sat down beside her. “So I,” he said, and then he took a breath. “I’m nervous.”

Unable to speak, she touched his arm.

“I love you,” he said. “I hope you know that. I know it’s not my—my strong suit. Telling you that. But I’m trying.” He shifted to face her, suddenly emboldened. “I think we make each other happy. Not always the same amount, and not always at the same time, but I…”

“We do.”

“That’s what I thought.” A smile had found its way onto his face. “Good. That’s what I was thinking. So I got you this.” He handed her the box. “If you’ll have it.”

She opened it tentatively and then looked up at him.

“What do you say? Marry me?”

She kissed him, leaned in and kissed his mouth and the vulnerable curve of his left cheekbone and the asymmetrical slope of his right cheekbone, and then she passed the box back to him and offered him her hand.

PART TWO
SUMMER
CHAPTER FIVE

He’d come with a heartbreakingly meager amount of possessions, a garbage bag of clothes and a dirty JanSport and a Vera Bradley duffel—a castoff from his foster mother, Wendy guessed—which rattled when she carried it to the guest room; she entertained the possibility that it was full of artillery but then reminded herself that he was fifteen and his luggage most likely contained electronics, comic books, and porn. He didn’t look anything like the baby she remembered from that dark day over fifteen years ago—a blessing indeed, because the baby she remembered, despite whatever platitudes she’d soothed Violet with at the time, had looked like a cross between Dick Cheney and Gollum. But now, he looked like Violet. The resemblance was undeniable, especially with the two of them standing uncomfortably side by side in her foyer.

“We meet again,” she said, holding out her hand to Jonah. He’d been politely quiet the day she’d taken him to meet Violet at the restaurant. Idle chatter about social studies and martial arts. Now she felt her scalp prickling to attention.
I was the first person to hold you,
she thought.
I saw you get born and I sang you a lullaby version of “Shoop” because it’s all that I could think of and I counted your toes because your mom couldn’t.
This kid would never have any idea how much he’d incited, how much he’d done to them simply by being.

He reached out and shook, a good handshake, a man’s handshake. She liked kids this age; they amused her and they were likely to be intimidated by her in ways that adults generally weren’t. He was handsome and peevish and awkward and he made her heart ache, both because he was so instantly familiar and because she remembered how much it sucked to be fifteen.

“We should be all squared away,” Violet said, like she was dropping off a flower arrangement. “Unless there’s— Jonah, is there anything you need?”

He looked up at her like
how the fuck should I know
and Wendy felt a momentary pleasure that he seemed to treat Violet less kindly than he did her.

“The guest room’s all ready,” she said, addressing Jonah more than Violet. “There’s an attached bath. You should have everything you need, at least bare-bones.” She’d bought little French goat’s milk soaps shaped like anchors for his bathroom.
Bare-bones
was perhaps an overstatement, particularly given his history.

“Thanks,” Jonah said.

“Well, I should be going,” Violet said. They both stared at her and she twisted her hands together, looking back and forth between them. Wendy enjoyed, as ever, watching her squirm. “As long as there’s nothing else you need, Jonah,” she said. “I’ll—see you, I guess.”

Jonah was silent, blinking at her.

“How about if you guys have dinner?” Wendy asked. It spilled from her like vomit. Yes, she had volunteered to take the kid in. Yes, she was happy to have him. But she didn’t feel like Violet should be let off the hook
quite
so easily, sweeping in and out with the ease of a summer storm. She didn’t feel like she should once again be solely responsible for the fallout of her sister’s whims.

Violet looked positively murderous, eyes aglow, teeth clenched so tightly that the hinges of her jaw bulged. “I’m not sure that we—”

“I actually have something coming up,” Wendy said. “I’ll text you when I pin down the exact date. How about if Jonah comes to your house that night?” She turned to him. “Just so you don’t have to spend the evening alone in a strange house right off the bat.”

“I have no way of knowing if we’ll be free on whatever night it is,” Violet said, unsurprisingly trying to cancel the plans before they’d even been made.

“It’s important to me. Old friend of Miles’s who’s going to be in town. One night only.” A lie, but Violet always acquiesced when she played the dead-husband card.

Violet breathed out slowly. “Fine, then, I guess. Sure.”

“Great.” She nudged Jonah. “Wait’ll you see the tree house.”

“I should go,” Violet said. She waved with both hands, like some kind of weird children’s show performer. Wendy waited for thanks that Violet declined to provide.

“Bye,” said Jonah. As if to make a point, he wandered into the living room.

“Happy trails,” said Wendy. But when she watched Violet walk out her front door, she felt a nauseated catch in her throat, fought the urge to leap into the hall and yank her back inside. Instead she took a breath, latched the deadbolt and turned to face Jonah, who was seated rigidly on her couch.

“Make yourself at home,” she said ineffectually, and he blinked a few times and rested one of his elbows on the armrest. “Perfect,” she said. “It’s like you’ve lived here all your life.”

That got a little bit of a smile from him and she buzzed with pleasure.

“You’re rich, huh?” he said, pulling nervously at the piping on the couch.

She came to sit across from him. “What makes you say that?” Though of course it was obvious; she’d chosen the blandest and most cookie-cutter modern construction when she moved from her and Miles’s house, a massive glassy expanse, clean white lines and cool gray accents. She found the boring sterility of it soothing.

“Isn’t that a first-edition Lord of the Rings?” He nodded to the bookshelf by the window.

“Astute observation. You’re a nerd, then? It’s my husband’s.”

“So he’s rich,” Jonah said.

“He was rich, yes.” Her throat felt suddenly dry. “Now he’s dead.”

Only a second’s pause before he replied: “So you’re rich.”

“I’m comfortable.”

“Violet’s rich too.”

“Yes, turns out marrying Honey Bunches of Snores was quite a lucrative decision.”

Jonah watched her.

“Her husband’s rich too,” she clarified.

“Are your parents rich?” he asked.

“What is this fixation?”

“Are they nice?”

She paused, considering. “They have their moments,” she said, but she felt bad and stood up, drifting over to the wine rack. “I mean, yes. They’re nice. They’re great. They’ll love you.” She pulled out a bottle, studying the label. When she turned back to him, Jonah was watching her again. “What?”

“How do you know?”

She rifled through the drawer for a corkscrew. “How do I know
what
?” Nobody had prepared her for how irritating it would be to converse with an adolescent.

“How do you know they’ll love me?”

“They love everyone,” she said.

“Nobody loves everyone,” Jonah said.

“That,” she said, yanking out the cork with an accusatory pop, “is the goddamn truth.” Jonah looked nervous so she tried to smile at him as she went to the cabinet for a glass. “I’m kidding. They’ll love you because you’re their grandson and they’re sadistic child collectors who delight in seeing their own genealogical inklings on the faces of malleable offspring.”

“What?”

She tried again. “They’re very excited to meet you.”

“Are you drinking wine
now
?”

She glanced at the clock. It was not even four, but she’d had a long day.

“My parents had us too early, and they had more of us than they should have had. But they’re nice people with nice intentions. Don’t you want to know anything about me? About your new house? About—Christ, I don’t know. Anything?”

“How did your husband die?”

She swallowed painfully and the wine went down the wrong pipe and she coughed while Jonah stood by, alarmed. “I’m fine,” she croaked, eyes watering. “Renal cancer. Way to bring down the mood.” She watched him go pale. “I’m joking.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. Life is kind of shitty sometimes. If anyone knows that, it’s you, right?”

“Me?” he asked.

“Joking again,” she said, realizing her error. “Listen, should we— Want to order some takeout? Boys like food, don’t they?”

It took everything she had to not bolt out the front door on her way to the kitchen.


V
iolet had, previously in her marriage, sensed the acute need for a babysitter, for a night out with her husband where they were both bathed and respectably dressed, where they could speak at conversational volumes without fear of waking sleeping children and where their conversation was unlikely to be interrupted by the bodily effluvia of others. Time alone with her husband was a pedestrian and universal need, understandable by any and all fellow parents if she’d deigned to share her hardship with the Shady Oaks moms.

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