Authors: Molly Ringwald
HAPPENS TO YOU
A NOVEL IN STORIES
A pity. We were such a good
And loving invention.
An aeroplane made from a man and wife.
Wings and everything.
We hovered a little above the earth.
We even flew a little.
But the disparaging of those we love always alienates us from them to some extent. We must not touch our idols; the gilt comes off in our hands.
AS FAR AS GRETA KNEW,
there was nothing in the sky that night.
Lying on her back in the bathroom on the cool of the white marble tiles, she heard the summons again. Her husband tapped the horn of the car: one long, noisy beep followed by two shorter taps, as if in apology. She strained to close the zipper on a pair of jeans without pinching the soft flesh of her midsection. It was a task she found both onerous and humiliating, primarily since she had purchased the pair less than a month ago, having gone through the same depressing experience with every other pair that lay folded in her dresser. Another short beep to remind her (in case she had forgotten) that her husband and daughter were waiting in the idling car, but this really had been sprung on her, and there might be photos. She wanted to at least make an attempt at presentability. There weren't many photos of the two of them anymore, not like the early days, before Charlotte was born. Now any photo seemed to be taken from their six-year-old daughter's heightâhardly a flattering angle: the upward tilt of Greta's crooked smile, and the heavy lower lids of Phillip's distracted and vaguely startled eyes, as though he didn't quite expect to find himself there.
Finally she managed to maneuver the zipper most of the way but left the top button unbuttoned. She pulled her oversized T-shirt over it and grabbed a sweater on her way out the door, stuffed it into her bag, and ran to the car. Phillip had backed it out of the driveway and waited at the curb.
“Sorry,” she said through the open window.
“We're going to miss it, Mama!” Charlotte pouted.
Greta glanced at her daughter strapped into the backseat, still dressed in her pink gymnastic unitard and flip-flops. The air had begun to cool and Greta could see the gooseflesh on Charlotte's skinny arms.
“Did you pack her a sweater?” Greta asked Phillip.
“I thought you did. Isn't that what was taking so long?”
Greta didn't answer, ashamed that she had packed a sweater for herself but not for Charlotte.
“I can go back,” she said, but Phillip was already driving down the street, away from children's sweaters and dinner half-prepared. She tried to remember if she had locked the door behind her but figured that they would be gone for such a short amount of time, the chances of a break-in were unlikely.
“I'm not cold,” Charlotte insisted. She had her legs stretched out onto Phillip's seat in front of her.
“I know, honey, but we aren't outside. Put your feet down.”
Charlotte dropped her legs in a dramatic fashion. “
Greta studied the side of her husband's face. Squinting into the sun, he almost looked as though he were smiling. But his jaw was rigid. Greta could tell that he was grinding his teeth and thought about reminding him of the warning their dentist had given Phillip at his annual checkup but decided against it. He careened down the hill, running through yellow lights on their way to the ocean. Charlotte made excited noises that increased in volume with each turn.
“Whoaaaaa . . . whoaaaa!” She exaggerated with the movement of her body as though they were thundering along a roller-coaster track.
“What do you think, the ocean or the mountains?” Phillip asked.
“Well, I hope the ocean because that's where we're headed,” Greta said.
Phillip glanced over at her, did a quick inventory of her face, and then looked back at the road.
“I mean, this is your thing,” she said. “I didn't even know anything about it.”
“They only happen every twenty years,” he said quietly. “It seems like a shame not to at least make the effort.”
“That means that the next time there's a harvest moon, I'll be a grown-up!” Charlotte told her mother. “Right, Daddy?”
“That's right, sweetheart.” Phillip smiled at her in the rearview mirror. Greta watched the lines appear around his eyes and along the sides of his mouth as he smiled. It made his face look like it was melting, softening, but then just as quickly his jaw set and the determination reappeared.
“What makes this one so special is the fact that it's so close to the equinox,” Phillip explained in a louder voice so that his daughter could hear him from the backseat. “Usually it's days, or maybe even weeks apart, but this time it's only six hours!”
“ âEquinox,' ” Charlotte repeated gravely.
Greta was sure her daughter didn't know the word. She turned around and said, “Equinox means when day and night are about the same length.”
“I KNOW!” her daughter screamed. Phillip startled and the car swerved slightly into the other lane and then back again.
Greta grabbed onto the dashboard, hitting an imaginary brake with her foot. “Jesus Christ!” She ran her hands through her hair, grabbing little fistfuls of it.
“Charlotte!” Phillip said, raising his voice.
me already, Daddy! She's always telling me things I already know.” Charlotte pointed at her mother accusingly, and when both parents were silent, at a loss for words, she started to whimper for effect.
“It's true, I did tell her,” Phillip said to Greta in a low voice intended only for her. “While we were in the driveway.”
Greta waited for Phillip to discipline Charlotte. Paternal authority always carried more weightâthough perhaps it only seemed this way to Greta, since it had been the case in her own childhood homeâbut when Phillip failed to say anything, Greta turned around to lecture her daughter herself.
Charlotte was no longer trying to cry, her tiny shoulders folded inward with an approximation of sadness, but staring at a bug scuttling across the windowpane beside her. She watched it in silence, patiently and oddly still. Just as the bug reached the edge of the glass, Charlotte reached out her little hand and squashed it with her thumb. Greta half expected her to lick it off like their big overweight tabby would have done. Bile rose up from her stomach to the top of her throat, shocking her. She clamped her hand over her mouth.
“Stop the car!” she tried to yell, but with the bile flooding into her mouth and her hand pressed tight to her lips, the words were indecipherable.
Phillip pulled over to the side of the road, and Greta lurched out of the car before he came to a complete stop. She took her hand away from her mouth and spit onto the ground. The ocean air slapped her skin and whipped her hair around her face. Hunched over, she waited to see if there was anything more to come, but all she had was the sour taste in her mouth.
She could hear Charlotte's muffled voice coming from the backseat, asking Phillip if Mama was okay. The blood rushed to Greta's head and she straightened up slowly, feeling dizzy. When she looked across the beach parking lot and up at the darkening sky, she couldn't see the moon. If it was there, it was covered in the heavy low-slung ocean mist.
Phillip got out of the car and told Charlotte to stay where she was. Greta watched the overgrown palm trees swaying in the breeze. She had always felt a sort of kinship with the palm trees, transported here from somewhere else. Having grown up outside of Seattle, Greta was accustomed to her oceans surrounded by the great majestic cedar trees of the Pacific Northwest.
“What happened?” Phillip said, skirting along the gravel. He reached Greta and placed his hand on her shoulder.
She shrugged. “Could be the hormone shots. It's a possible side effect,” she said.
He took his hand off of her shoulder and brushed the hair away from her face. It nearly made her cry from the tenderness. A tenderness long absent, but somehow unnoticeable until it's backâeven the smallest taste of it.
“I hate to break it to you,” she said, trying to smile. “But I don't think there's any moon tonight. Harvest or otherwise.”
He scanned the sky, searching for a sign of the moon. The setting sun cast a reddish glow over everything, briefly turning his blond hair rosy-colored, like the frosted pink mane of one of their daughter's stuffed ponies. Greta giggled at the image. Phillip glanced at her with annoyance. “We're missing it,” he said.
“I'm sorry,” she said. She tried to assume the right expression, the patient, wifely expression that would say, even though this isn't my fault, I'll accept the blame.
“I guess we should have gone to the mountains.” He sighed.
Greta took his hand and laced her fingers through his. “We still can. It's not all the way dark yet. Why don't we do that?”
Opening the door for Greta, he kissed her quickly on the forehead and headed around to the driver's side.
“Charlotte has her violin lesson,” he said. “Theresa's probably already at the house waiting.”
“Theresa!” Charlotte shrieked with excitement.
“I didn't even know that you scheduled a violin lesson. Didn't she already have one this week?”
“It's on the calendar,” Phillip said. “All you have to do is check it.”
He shifted the car into drive and signaled to the oncoming cars that he wanted in. Greta craned her head to help him look. It was a habit that Phillip had first teased her about, citing it as a lack of confidence in his driving. Then he had cajoled, criticized, and finally flat-out asked her not to do it. Despite his insistence, even now she could not stop herself. Though why she thought she was any more capable than her husband at spotting danger, or opportunity, Greta couldn't say.
Greta had found Theresa on Craigslist two years earlier. A student from the Berklee College of Music, Theresa had originally intended to take a semester off, but that had stretched into a year, and now almost two. Greta had always assumed it was because of a boy, but Theresa had never mentioned anyone. Then again, Theresa had barely spoken to Greta since that first lesson when Greta had asked if a check was okay or if she preferred cash. Not that Theresa seemed even remotely concerned about money. She took the thirty-five dollars from Greta with barely a nod and stuffed it into her back pocket. Greta wondered how often she forgot the money thereâhow many times she found the bills and peeled them dark and wet out of her jeans before they went through the dryer.
All that Greta knew about Theresa was that she lived with an older sister and her older sister's boyfriend, Grady Rizcoff, in Venice. Grady Rizcoff was a musician who'd had marginal success as a drummer in an early '90s grunge band. The band's success stalled after the lead singer overdosed, found Jesus, and subsequently refused to write the kind of music that had put them on the charts. Greta wasn't sure what Theresa's sister did. She was either a waitress or the manager of her boyfriend's career, possibly both.
Theresa taught violin to a handful of children, including Charlotte. According to her rÃ©sumÃ©, she was one of the youngest people to have attended Berklee, matriculating at age seventeen, but now she didn't seem to have much motivation to return.
She was standing on the front step with her violin case in hand and a single iPod headphone in her ear when Phillip pulled the car into the driveway. Charlotte burst out of the car and threw her arms around Theresa's slender frame.
“Sorry we're late,” Phillip called out of the window as he switched off the ignition. “We got stuck on an errand.”
“We were looking for the harvest moon!” Charlotte told her. “There's one every twenty years!” Theresa took off her purple Wayfarers and propped them up on top of her head. She knelt down and ruffled Charlotte's hair.
“How's my girl?” she murmured. Everything Theresa said sounded like a murmur to Greta.
Charlotte lunged for Theresa, clamping her body around her like a marsupial and knocking her off balance.
“Charlotte!” Greta said.
Charlotte released Theresa and sprinted up the steps to the house.
“Come on, Theresa!” she yelled over her shoulder.
Theresa stood up and smoothed out the back of her jeans.
“You could have just gone right in,” Greta said. “I don't think we even locked it.” She didn't know why she said this. The thought of having anyone in her house while she wasn't there wasn't especially desirable. “We were on one of Phillip's âcommando missions,' ” she added, smiling.
Theresa smiled back at her. It always took Greta by surprise how this timid and mild and slightly uncomfortable-looking girl would suddenly come alive with that smile. It illuminated her face, lifting it out of the mundane and into something radiant.
“It's really okay, really,” Theresa said. “I was enjoying the sunset.”
Greta nodded and then absently looked at her watch. They weren't late at all, she noticed. They were early.
Charlotte practiced chromatic scales and arpeggios with clear and confident agility. Occasionally, Theresa's bowing could be heard instructing and harmonizing and the sound of the two playing together echoed throughout the lofty house, bouncing off the tall walls and into the kitchen where Greta was preparing dinner. Once it was in the oven and two places had been set, Greta laid out the myriad hormone drugs on the kitchen table, the Follistim, Lupron, and Clomid, the two different syringes, and the red plastic container with the alarming illustration of a skull and crossbones and black lettering on the side, warning,
HAZARDOUS WASTE. HANDLE WITH CARE.
She took out the black-and-white composition book where she had scribbled extensive notes while the nurse at her fertility specialist's practice had told her which shot to administer, when, and in which order. Considering that this was to be their third andâafter a lengthy and alternately logical and emotional debateâthe mutually agreed-upon
try, it was frustrating that the drugs were as bewildering and the self-administered shots as harrowing as the first time. At least once a week she relied on a homemade YouTube video of a woman with rosacea-flushed skin expertly mixing the drugs and giving them to herself with the exhibitionist zeal commonly found in IVF veterans. Phillip walked into the kitchen just as Greta gave herself the last shot in her thigh.