Read an Excerpt
“Mom,” Helen’s daughter says. “Mom. Mom. Mom. Don’t.”
Helen leans into the mirror to pick a clot of mascara off her lashes. This mascara is too old. She’ll buy a new tube today, now that she intends to be a regular working woman, someone who, rather than making a thirty-foot commute from bedroom to study and working in her pajamas, actually dresses up and goes out of her house to be among other human beings. She’ll buy some antiaging mascara, surely they’ve come up with that by now. What she really needs is an antiaging mirror.
“It’s not cute, what you’re doing,” Tessa says. “It’s not funky or cool or fun. You’ll hate it.”
Helen turns to face her. “How do you know? You’re talking about yourself. Just because you didn’t like working there doesn’t mean I won’t.”
“Mom. Imagine yourself folding the same sweater one hundred times a day. Imagine saying, ‘Welcome to Anthropologie!’ to hostile customers who only want to be left alone.”
“I hardly think they’ll be hostile.”
Tessa waves her hand as though flicking away the blackfly of her mother’s ignorance. “You’ve never worked retail. You have no idea how rude people can be. Or how weird.”
Helen refrains from answering, Expect the worst, and you’ll get it! She applies a thin coat of coral-colored lipstick.
“Too yellow for your complexion,” Tessa says. She is the beauty editor at an online magazine; she makes pronouncements like this with some regularity.
“You gave it to me!”
“I know, but it’s too yellow for your complexion. Throw it out. I’ll get you more red tones.”
Helen looks at the tube. “I don’t want to throw it out. I’ll donate it somewhere.”
“Mom. Mom. It’s used.”
“Well, then, I’ll give it to Grandma.” Helen regards herself in the mirrror. She sees that Tessa is right about the color of the lipstick on her. She wipes it off and puts on a pinkish shade. Then she walks to the front hall closet to get her coat.
“This is going to be a complete waste of your time,” Tessa says. One eyebrow is arched, and her head is tilted in the “I can’t wait to say I told you so” position.
“The operative word being ‘your.’ ”
“It’s my time. I can waste it if I want to. And anyway, it won’t be a waste. I need a change of pace.”
Tessa puts on her coat. She does not button it, and Helen does not tell her to. As she is frequently reminded, her daughter is twenty-seven years old. Still, it’s November and cold outside, an insinuating dampness in the air. Tessa does wrap her muffler securely around her throat, Helen is happy to see.
“You aren’t going to listen to me no matter what I say,” Tessa says. “You’re going to go down there and apply and they’ll hire you because they’re desperate and then you’ll see how disgusting it is to work with spoiled brats and then you’ll quit.”
“Well,” Helen says. “It will be something to do. Won’t it. Do you want a ride back downtown?”
Tessa wordlessly exits the house, letting the storm door fall shut instead of holding it open for her mother, who is close behind her. Helen figures the whole way downtown, Tessa will continue to punish her, and she considers for a moment telling her daughter to take the el home, but she won’t. It’s her daughter. She wonders how many times in her life she’s told herself that.
There is silence until they are out of Oak Park and onto the Eisenhower, and then Helen looks over at Tessa, who is pointedly staring straight ahead.
“Who’s spoiled?” she asks, and is gratified to see Tessa smile, then reach over and turn on the CD player. It’s over.
Tessa selects Nicole Atkins’s Neptune City and turns the volume up. Helen boosts the volume a bit more. On music she and her daughter agree completely. They have even gone to concerts together, and Tessa never seems to be embarrassed by the fact that she is there with her mother. Oftentimes, they will both hear something in a song, and turn to smile at each other like girlfriends. They feel music in the same way; it is a source of pride for Helen. Helen’s best friend, Midge, has a daughter Tessa’s age, and Amanda plays music that Midge says makes her feel like shooting herself, twice. But Tessa custom-mixes a CD for her mother every Christmas, selecting her own favorite songs of the moment, and it is always Helen’s favorite gift.
Helen’s husband, Dan, died suddenly eleven months and three days ago, dropping his coffee cup and sliding almost noiselessly out of his kitchen chair and onto the floor. Helen, who’d been standing at the sink, still feels guilty about yelling at him for breaking his cup before she turned to see him sprawled on his back, his eyes wide open and startled-looking. She believes the last thing Dan felt was surprise, and to her way of thinking, it wasn’t a bad way to go. The bad part is he left her here without him, ignorant of . . . oh, everything.
People used to accuse her of being overly dependent on Dan, and it was true. “You give away your power,” one friend told Helen. “You infantilize yourself.” On that occasion, Helen looked down at her salad plate as though acknowledging culpability and feeling bad about it, but what she was thinking was, Oh, shut up. It feels good to infantilize myself. You ought to try it. Might take an edge off.
On that awful day when Helen realized her husband was dead, it nonetheless occurred to her to ask him what to do about the fact that he had just died. She had called the paramedics; she had tried CPR, now what should she do? When it came to her—slowly at first, then in a breath-snatching rush of feeling—that she could not ask him this or any other thing ever again, Helen ran to the bathroom to vomit. Then she ran back to kneel beside Dan, and called his name over and over again. And then she called Tessa, to ask her what to do.
As soon as Tessa heard her mother say her name, her voice dropped to a flat and foreboding pitch to ask, “What happened?” But she knew, she later told Helen, she knew right away that her dad had died. After Helen hung up the phone, she swept up the shards of broken china, including one that had cut Dan’s hand. Then she put a Band-Aid over the wound on his little finger because although he was now clearly beyond needing her care, she was not beyond needing to care for him. She sat staring at the cuff of his sleeve, trying not to think, until the paramedics finally arrived and pronounced Dan dead. Helen thought, Those words don’t even go together, “your husband” and “dead.” And then she experienced the oddest sensation. It was of feeling herself ascend—her, not Dan. She felt as though she were leaving the planet and her own life, never to return. Because she was herself, but she was also Dan: they had merged their two personalities to create a shared one, that was what their marriage was, and she lived inside the marriage more than she lived inside herself. For her to lose Dan—especially so suddenly—was to step off a cliff where the falling seemed never to stop.
In addition to her greatest love, Helen has lost the person who handled the practical side of their life together. All this time later, Helen is still shaky on managing the simplest aspects of her finances, despite the fact that she has an accountant to ask questions of. She trusted Dan to take care of his own income and hers; she didn’t want to know anything about what he was doing. Numbers had made her nervous since early on in elementary school, when her teacher had announced ominously that tomorrow they were going to start learning fractions, and the whole class had groaned. Helen remembers sitting in her plaid dress with the little bow at the neckline, laying her pencil down carefully in the desk trough and thinking, Okay, that’s it for me. She’d been having trouble enough with what they were doing; long division made her jiggle her leg and yank at her bangs; she was not interested in being challenged further. Later she would learn about math anxiety and the things one might do to help oneself, but by that time it was irrelevant. She and Dan both were used to her making astonishing mistakes in the world of numbers: “It was four hundred and fifty dollars,” she once told Dan about a refrigerator she had looked at and wanted to buy after theirs had broken. “Are you sure?” Dan asked. “Yes!” she said. “I remember exactly! Four hundred and fifty dollars.” It was, in fact, four thousand, five hundred. “Oh,” Helen said, when Dan came with her to the appliance store and showed her the price tag.
She didn’t see her shortcomings as serious problems. What she believed was that each person brought to a marriage certain strengths and weaknesses; so each became naturally responsible for certain things. She rolled out the piecrusts and scheduled doctors appointments; Dan balanced the checkbook and managed their holdings at Morgan Stanley.
After her husband’s death, Helen had left the investment firm’s monthly statements sitting unopened on Dan’s desk until a few days ago, when she mailed them to the accountant. She’ll get around to looking at them when she’s ready, if she needs to. She knows that whatever is there has been both wisely and conservatively invested and is earning a fair amount of interest; that much of what Dan told her she retained.
Mechanical repairs have become a more immediate problem. This morning, in fact, Tessa had taken the forty-five-minute el ride out to her mother’s house to reset Helen’s garbage disposal, adjust the flapper on her toilet, and replace a lightbulb in the ceiling of the front porch while Helen steadied the ladder, she was really very good at steadying ladders. Helen knows she should hire a handyman since she is unable or unwilling to learn about such things, but thus far, Tessa has not complained about helping her mother—in some ways, Helen feels it is her daughter’s legacy.
“Do I have to do everything?” Dan used to say, kind of kidding and kind of not, and Helen would say, “Yes,” and she was not kidding at all. She figured cooking and cleaning and the better part of child rearing were enough of a contribution, that and the money she made from writing, which was not insignificant. She contributed her imagination to the relationship, didn’t that count for something? It may have been Dan who built the playhouse for their daughter, but it was Helen who had conceived of the idea for the design, complete with take-out window just off the kitchen, this because Tessa’s ambitions at the time included having a drive-up pie shop.
Still, Helen had meant to help out a bit more at some point. She’d had glittering intentions to roll up her sleeves one day and become a citizen of the hands-on world, to acquaint herself with Dan’s toolbox, with the way to change batteries and filters and fuses. She meant to learn to jump-start a car and change a tire. (“Well, why do we have Triple A?” Helen asked when Dan offered one day to show her these things. And Dan said, “What if Triple A doesn’t come?” “When would that happen?” Helen asked. “Believe me, it happens,” Dan said, and Helen said oh all right, she would learn but not today, she was wearing white pants today. On her way back into the house, she deadheaded some petunias in the garden, thinking, See? I help!)
The day for Helen’s baptism into practicality had never come, in the way that most people never get around to cleaning the attic or garage, leaving their survivors to argue with their siblings over what stays and what goes. And so now she has made her daughter her fix-it man. She knows it’s wrong, but she tells herself it is temporary. She’ll be glad when she and Tessa go to visit her parents for Christmas. Then Tessa will get a break from being on call, for Helen’s father is the consummate fix-it man: one of the first things he always does is ask if anyone has brought anything for him to repair. He’s a specialist in stain removal, harbors some now illegal substance in his basement that works like a charm.
Last July, when Helen and Tessa came to visit, they took a walk around the neighborhood and Tessa asked her, “Mom? How come Grandma and Grandpa live in such a tiny house? Everything’s so tiny.”
“It wasn’t so tiny when they bought it,” Helen said. “People didn’t used to have such big houses. Look around: all the houses in this neighborhood are tiny.”
Carefully, then, Helen said, “I kind of like it. I’ve been thinking about downsizing, myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just . . . You know, I think it might be nice to have a smaller place. Not so much to take care of. When Dad and I first got married, we lived in a really small one-bedroom apartment, and I loved how cozy it was. We lived above the landlady. Her name was Mrs. Assolino, and she had this really low and distinctive voice. She used to call us all the time, complaining about this thing or that: we were too noisy, or our blinds weren’t pulled down evenly.”
“What?” Tessa said.
“Oh yeah. When we moved in, she said”—and here Helen spoke in a low, gravelly voice—“?‘This is my house, see? And I don’t like the blinds to be uneven. It looks sloppy from the outside. So keep the blinds even.’ We would try to remember, but we never did and then she would call us to complain and she could never get our name right. She would say, ‘Hello, Mrs. James? I’m calling about the blinds. This is Mrs. Assolino.’ As though it would be anyone else!”
Tessa was silent. Then she said, “You love our house.”
“I know,” Helen said. “Don’t worry. I’m not doing anything yet. Just thinking about it.”
“Was that apartment you guys lived in in San Francisco?”
“Why didn’t you stay there?”
“I didn’t like it,” Helen said, remembering the way she would sit at the window staring out at the piece of the ocean she could see, homesick for the Midwest, for the flatness of the land, the plainness of it. It was taxing to live in a place like San Francisco, where tourists crowded the sidewalks and exclaimed over the beauty, and the people who lived there were so happy; did everyone have to be so happy all the time?
“How could you not like it?” Tessa said. “I would love to live in San Francisco!”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“You always do this. You can’t decide for me what—”
“I know,” Helen said. “I’m sorry.”
Helen supposes downsizing might be inevitable, but she can’t give it much thought now. There is, after all, a more pressing concern: she can no longer write. Bad enough that writing was the way she made her living; it was also her anchor, her lens, her abiding consolation. Next to Dan, it was her greatest love. Without her husband or the practice of laying out words on a page, she feels that she spends her days rattling around inside herself; that, whereas she used to be a whole and happy woman, now she is many pieces of battered self, slung together in a sack of skin.
In what she now thinks of as the olden days, she would leap out of bed, her mind watered, as she used to say, by the rich blankness of sleep. She would pour herself a cup of coffee, go and sit in her study in her pajamas and write for four to five hours, then get dressed and carry on with the rest of the day. That meant first scanning the newspaper, trying to focus on the stories about the better side of humanity, and reading the want ads for dogs, she liked particularly to see if there were any English mastiffs being offered. Dan was allergic to pet dander and they’d never had so much as a parakeet, but Helen grew up with dogs and missed them, their glad eyes, the way their paws smelled like corn chips.
After the paper, there was grocery shopping and laundry; expeditions about town to run errands; and always, always, always, people watching. Helen thought of observation as a kind of shopping, too: into her writer’s basket would go snatches of conversation, the sheen of someone’s long black hair, an exaggerated limp, the look that passed between lovers. Natural events that she witnessed—furious summer thunderstorms, the oblique flight of migrating birds, the cocooning of caterpillars, the formation of fuzzy stars of frost against her window—all these seemed rich with potential for metaphor. She would walk past a nursing home and see an imaginary Elwood Lansing, trembling hands resting on his knees, waiting for his five o’clock supper; she would see a couple arguing in a car and create lines of blistering dialogue for them both. She would walk along a narrow dirt path in the woods hearing things characters in whatever novel she was working on were saying to each other. Oftentimes, embarrassingly, she used to blurt lines of dialogue out loud. Once, a man turned around and said, “Well, hey. You, too.”
These days, Helen looks around the places she goes to, and nothing seems worth noting, or even quite there. These days, she comes into her study, sits at the desk, starts up the computer, and drinks coffee while she tries to avoid looking at the blinking cursor, that electronic tapping foot. Sometimes she moves to her little white sofa to read from volumes of poetry she used to find inspiring, and sometimes she reads from her own previously published novels. Irrespective of what she reads, though, when she goes back to sit before the computer, there is the same stubborn emptiness, the same locked door. So she shuts the computer down and leaves the room, pulling the door firmly closed behind her. Her study, once bright with bouquets of flowers and Post-it notes and various ephemera meant to inspire whatever story she was working on (once she strung a clothesline across her office and hung vintage dresses on it, items her main character would wear), that study has now become a mausoleum. The framed book jackets on the wall and the gold trophy Dan gave her when she published her first book rebuke her; the three fetish stones she always believed brought her luck have been revealed as the false idols that they are; daily, they gather more dust.
Financially, she is fine: she and Dan created for themselves a nice nest egg. It is in other ways that she is not. “You still have Tessa,” her mother told her shortly after Dan died, and Helen nodded, recalling the friend of the mother who lost her child on that day so long ago, the friend who offered the same words of consolation. But love for one child does not make up for the loss of another, and anyway, the love of a child is a very different thing from the love of a husband.
Naturally, she had expected great sorrow and disorientation after Dan’s sudden death. But she had expected, too, that she would eventually get better, becoming one of those women whose well-managed grief endows them with an enlarged capacity for empathy and kindness and perspective, and with a newfound ability to manage things they never could manage before. Instead, in the time since Dan died, Helen’s feeling of disconnection and helplessness has grown worse month by month, if not day by day. Now she thinks she has reached a kind of crisis point, and she is afraid.
Last time she and Midge had lunch, Helen tried to explain how she felt. She said, “Honest to God, Midge, I feel like I’m moments away from everything just . . . imploding. I can’t even think, I’m not thinking right. I forget words, whole thoughts. I wake up at night and I don’t know where I am. I mean, I know I’m at home, in my bed, but I don’t know where I am.” She cleared her throat against the embarrassing tremulousness in her voice.
Midge waved a hand that held a heavily buttered piece of French bread. It was unsalted butter, and Midge had remedied that with characteristic gusto—when she shook the saltshaker, grains had flown so far as to land in Helen’s lap. Now she spoke around her bite of bread to say, “Oh, well, that.”
“No, not that,” Helen wanted to say. “This.” But what good would it do to try to explain? Midge was the kind of woman who had no problem knocking down walls in her house—herself. She knew how to upholster sofas, how to change the oil in her car. As a young woman, she had climbed mountains in a way that required driving spikes into rock, and run marathons, and gone through men like Kleenex until she finally found one who could stand up to her. Helen and she had agreed early on in their friendship that opposites really did attract, and anyway, they were alike in many ways, too—their love of food and cooking and gardens and books, of sappy movies, of old people and children, of trench coats and white orchids. So Helen shook salt on her bread and smiled and shrugged, as though she agreed with Midge that all this angst was really rather amusing, at least in daylight, in a pretty little French restaurant, sitting opposite your best friend. She tried to act like it was all to be expected, and, once expressed, was no longer anything to be afraid of—it was a boogeyman jerked out from under her bed, a bad dream whose power slowly dissipated with the turning on of the bedside lamp. It was just problem number 445.173 in some fat medical diagnosis book, something for which there was surely a pastel-colored pill that, if it didn’t fix you, made you not care that you couldn’t be fixed.
“What’s Amanda up to?” Helen asked, but the lightness in her tone was glaringly false.
“Listen,” Midge said, leaning over the table to speak quietly. “I don’t mean to dismiss all you’re going through. It’s just that I don’t always know what to say—or do—anymore. It’s been almost a year. I know you’re still hurting, of course you are, but I would think that by now you would be starting to normalize, at least a little. You seem so stuck, sweetheart. Not that you’re doing anything wrong! Grief takes many forms, it takes varying lengths of time to move through, there are all those stages; everybody knows that. But maybe you need to find a way to change channels, you know?” She took a drink of iced tea, and it seemed to Helen that in this small act was evidence of the yawning difference between them. Midge’s husband would come home that night and sit around the living room with his shoes off. He would find a movie for them to see that weekend. Midge would go to sleep beside him and wake up beside him, and she, like most people, took all of this for granted.
Midge was not experiencing grief. When you were, you did not remark upon it and then sip your iced tea. If you spoke about your pain in any truthful way, you clenched your fists in your lap. You looked out the window to find something to distract you, to stop a flow of thoughts that would quickly overwhelm you. Or you laughed that thin laugh that is not laughter at all but tears, rerouted. So on that day when Helen had lunch with Midge, she decided not to talk about her problem anymore. She decided to finally do something about it.