A Good Woman
The summer Lizzie was eleven, her father left her mother for the most beautiful woman Lizzie had ever seen. Her name was Sheila and her hair was ash blonde, long and feathery; her nails were perfect peach ovals. Her neck was draped with gauzy scarves and her thin brown arms were stacked with gold bangles. She smelled of the perfume Opium and Virginia Slims, and when she hugged Lizzie, Lizzie did not pull away, though she knew she should.
Her mother didn’t understand yet that she was no longer someone’s wife. She spent her days polishing silver that no one used and making casseroles that no one ate. She organized closets and vacuumed the drapes, sorted Tupperware on the shelf above the refrigerator. She loaded dishes into the new dishwasher and folded clothes Lizzie had outgrown to take to the donation box in the church hall. In the morning, she sat at the table in her yellow rayon nightgown with a cup of instant coffee and the newspaper folded shut, while outside the kitchen door June sprawled, heedless, lush, and green.
Days Lizzie drifted through the spotless rooms, trailing along hallways and staircases in the humming quiet. She lay on the floor in the living room with stacks of library books and listened for her mother’s footsteps, the creak of the floorboards overhead, bedroom to bathroom and back. In the books, beautiful girls hitchhiked across the country, worked in roadside diners and danced with soft-eyed shirtless boys, fell asleep in wide fields under skies Lizzie had never seen.
She spent weekends with her father, and on Friday nights she waited by the front door with a pink nylon duffel and a paper grocery bag of things her mother had packed for her to take: cough drops and shaving cream, new Stafford socks with the tags still on and cellophane-wrapped packs of Pierre Cardin handkerchiefs, shampoo. Lizzie’s mother packed these things with a grim dedication, as though she did not believe her husband could find such necessities where he’d gone, as though he lived in a place where peril was everywhere and sustenance was uncertain.
Lizzie watched, waited for the dented Datsun hatchback to make the turn up into their pretty hedged driveway, Sheila behind the wheel and her father in the passenger seat, an arrangement that had never—could never have—happened when he was at home. She shouted good-bye to her mother upstairs, but did not wait for a reply before struggling through the door with her bags, out into the warm breath of summer. Sprinklers flicked across lawns and fireflies blinked in the low bushes. Sheila’s sunglasses were propped on top of her head and her father’s tie was loosened. He opened his door and stepped out, tilted the seat forward and handed her bags into the back of the car before sweeping her into his arms.
Lizzie had never kissed a boy, never even been close. That summer she wore white canvas sneakers and terry cloth shorts, plastic barrettes and tiny gold starfish in her newly pierced ears. She went for days eating nothing but bread smeared with cream cheese and strawberry jam. She was thin as a blade of grass and her knees were mottled with fresh pink scars where scabs had been and if her father had asked her to come live with him she would have gone in an instant, a heartbeat, a blink of a firefly’s light.
Elizabeth works in an office down the hall from a room with wall-to-wall carpeting and contract chairs, end tables gouged and water-marked beneath stacks of ragged magazines. This is the room where people—patients—wait. There are other rooms where they go for treatment; still others where they go for news. All these rooms, and the hallways that connect them, are cold. Cold for Elizabeth, and she has a sweater. She has an immune system. She cannot imagine how cold it must feel to the patients, wearing their collapsed veins and paper gowns, their blue lips and fingers.
The news here is different from the news anyplace else. There is less of it, but all of it matters. The treatment is working, or it isn’t. There are only so many variations on this theme, so many spots on the continuum where information can fall.
On Wednesdays, the staff hours are staggered and she works from six in the morning until two, when she shuts her computer down. She drapes her sweater over the back of her chair and shrugs into her overcoat, takes the back stairway down to the lot behind the building. Her car is fifteen years old. It has never been fashionable. She drives crosstown toward the street where she lives, where she’s been living less than a year in a house she does not think of as home. The street is potholed and oil-stained and crunchy with gravel, lined with midcentury houses, low brick boxes built for GIs returning from Europe, from Japan. There is nothing pretty about them, with their thin lace curtains and wreaths of plastic flowers on the doors, their algae-green birdbaths.
Once inside she strips, leaves her clothes in a pile where they fall. She showers away the smells the day has left behind: antiseptic, wan hope, animal terror. By three o’clock she is in her bed, warm and still damp and slick with jasmine oil. By three-thirty David is there with her.
Elizabeth wraps her warm legs and arms around his dry cold skin, brings his arm to her mouth and presses her lips on the smooth scar there. Outside the sky is gray and heavy with snow that will not fall. Neither speaks; both know better.
She is neither a doctor nor a nurse. She does not heal, or soothe, or comfort. She sits at a computer at a desk and types names into cells on a monthly schedule, numbers into cells on a payroll spreadsheet. She keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer on her desk and is ashamed every time she uses it. She can count on both hands the number of times she’s been sick in her life. She has never run a fever over a hundred and one, never had to stay home from school or work for more than a few days. On the rare occasion she feels the hot-eyed fatigue of incipient illness, she curls into her bed with tea and vitamins and aspirin and sleeps, wakes every four hours to drink and dose herself, and this is enough.
June slid into July and he did not come back. The summer settled over them, deep and green and slow. They drifted through it. Lizzie walked the neighborhood in the seethe of midday heat, kicked through the dust of empty lots that weren’t empty. There were prizes: dented toy cars, rotting cardboard, raveled gloves, and cigarette butts. Once, a page of loose-leaf covered in a hectic purple scrawl, ragged, still partly legible in spots but blurry as though the letters themselves had wept: if you don’t . . . I swear . . . one more time . . . You promised . . . the you underlined with a shredding fury. Tangled roots, a damp swollen wallet, a torn pair of nylons. She poked with a brittle stick, pried pink plastic doll’s arms and rusted pull tabs from the dusty summer earth. Around her the neighborhood shimmered, silent. The houses were locked drum tight and air conditioners hummed and in the glaring afternoon she was a brave small explorer, intrepid, daring; and in the dark she slid unwashed into bed, her hair a damp snarl at her neck and melon juice sticky on her chin, the day still clinging to her hands and feet.
Lizzie’s mother woke up in the morning and made the bed and washed her face with the same constant faith she took with her to Mass, where she went alone on Saturday evenings when Lizzie was with her father, slipping early into the same pew the three of them had sat in for years and fishing her rosary from its brown felt pouch, touching the crucifix forehead-chest-shoulder-shoulder and kissing it. She lowered herself onto the kneeler and the feel of the sticky cracked leather against her skin was familiar, a comfort.
She was home before dark was even close, a slow ghost in an empty house. She checked the doors and windows and flipped off all the lights downstairs but one. In the bedroom she folded the spread down, stepped into a yellow rayon nightgown and out of the bright day. She slipped into bed while the sky was still blue, her prayer book by her side. The window was cracked open: frogs and cicadas, the chit and whirr of August. She closed her eyes and when she slept her sleep was dry, and every morning she woke to the day before.
The summer poured over them and he did not come back. On Monday mornings, Lizzie imagined herself at the top of a slide, the metal hot on the backs of her legs, mirrored and glaring, angled down; bumpy and sticky and then gaining speed, growing steep; shooting her out to the soft sand of Friday, of the weekend, of trips to the mall to buy throw pillows for the living room floor and bags of carob-covered raisins and Swedish fish, Amaretto sours for Sheila and her father and a root beer float for her in a booth at Farrell’s when the shopping was done. On Sunday nights she raced up to her room to empty her duffel of what Sheila had sent home with her: pots of flavored lip balm and waxy sticks of perfume, scented eye pads made to look like cucumbers. She tucked them into the back of her dresser and took them out on a Wednesday or Thursday to sample, to practice; to rehearse for the life that was waiting for her.
These are the things that Elizabeth knows about David: his parents raised him on organic baby food and handmade toys, all-natural fabrics and public radio. They raised him on universal compassion and benevolent sanctimony. They instilled in him a profound respect for women, for their particular gifts and talents, for the empathy and nurturing energy they brought to the world. By the time he graduated college he could get a girl out of her clothes with as much effort as it took to slit open an envelope, and by the time he met his wife it was even easier than that.
When he met his wife he liked his girls dark—black hair, black eyes, skin like burnished wood. He liked them wrapped in gauzy skirts, barefoot and off balance, smelling of musk and roses. He liked them drunk on cheap wine, mouths soft and blurry, cheeks dimpled and damp with laughter. He liked them on their backs.
This was just after college, in that hazy in-betweenness of temporary jobs and temporary roommates, of underfurnished apartments and refrigerators stocked with too much beer and too little food, scattered with packets of soy and duck sauce and cartons of Chinese takeout.
David’s wife was tall and blonde and solid, starched and accessorized. She worked for a commercial real estate development company and carried a briefcase when the rest of David’s friends were content to answer phones or wait tables, secure as they all were that something better would be waiting for them when they decided they were ready for it. She had gone to school on scholarships and student loans, and this was a chance she was not willing to take. She drank whiskey on ice with a splash of soda and made pierogi from her grandmother’s recipe, browned and dilled and slippery with butter. She had grown up in Wisconsin and was terrified of riptides, which she had read about in magazines. She brought David home the first night they went out and stripped for him in the living room of her apartment, stone sober, absolute. Her feet were wide, her toenails strawberry-pink.
She brought her own comb and brush to the salon, her own manicure set to the spa. She took her tea with milk and honey, she got carded on her thirty-fifth birthday. She got sick, and then better, and then sicker. She could hustle pool. She moved in papery silence through the halls to lay shivering on a table across the hall from where Elizabeth sat at her desk and she knew it would make no difference. She did not lose her hair but her skin darkened then burned then sloughed where the radiation hit and so David covered her with Aquaphor, with kind and desperate lies. She got sicker, and then. Her toenails were sky-blue. She was buried in a cashmere dress.
When they finish they pull apart, back into their separate skins. They are careful not to touch or speak. There is a cadence to these afternoons, quiet and slow; it begins with the creak of the door opening as he lets himself in, his deliberate steps to the bedroom and the hush of her waiting, then the whisper of skin and sheets, and breath, and stillness. At four-thirty she touches his shoulder, squeezes it. She dresses with her back to him. This is the script. She does not stray.
“Are you thirsty?” she says, as she does, and waits for him to refuse. Her hair is tangled, still damp from the shower. Her bare feet are chilled, and she remembers the summer feel of softwood floors beneath them, dust and bits of grass sticking to the soles.
“I’m fine,” he says. He rubs his face, runs his hands through his hair and glances at his phone. In these weeks he has taken nothing she’s offered him, not tea and toast the first time, not whiskey or wine or water since. She is Pluto in worn jeans and a thermal jersey.
He had been standing in the parking lot, in the cold beside his car, watching the back door of the clinic when she came out on a Friday afternoon. She did not recognize him, could not remember having seen him. She had asked if there was anything she could help him with and his laugh was the sound of dead leaves.
“I should go,” he says, as he does, and she watches him dress, watches his heavy hands, his wide white back. He does not hurry, he does not have to: his freedom is awful and complete.
He folds his tie into a pocket and wraps his scarf around his neck, looks around the room to be sure he’s forgetting nothing. And he isn’t—he’s never left anything behind, these Wednesdays—not a handkerchief or receipt, not a pen or comb. When he leaves he leaves entirely, and this is how she knows the folded bills she finds tucked under her jewelry box or behind her makeup case are not accidents, not oversights; that they have not fallen from a pocket and come magically to rest in small neat packets in places they won’t be lost.
When she finds them she slides them into her purse without counting. She unfolds them only on Fridays, when she stops on her way to her parents’ apartment at their favorite bakery, an ancient corner shop that smells of burnt sugar and weak coffee and surrender. She takes her ticket and waits for the sullen girl behind the counter to call her number and when she does she points through the slanted glass at jelly pies and éclairs and turnovers, crullers and strudel, and the girl fills one white box and then another, the tissue in her hand translucent, the pastries gleaming, enough sugar to ply the stoniest heart.
Elizabeth’s parents’ church is just a few blocks from the senior housing complex where they live. They can walk the distance easily in good weather, in calm winds and daylight, stepping carefully down curbs and over broken asphalt, squinting up, waiting for the light at the intersection.
Next to the church is the parish hall, its door by the right side of the altar, by the statue of St. Anthony, the rows of candles and the money box. The hall gets use—Wednesday night is bingo, Friday night the middle-school mixer, Sunday afternoon ravioli dinner. It smells of cigarette smoke and burnt popcorn, dry and acrid drugstore talc.
On Sundays after Mass, they make their slow way down the steps of the church, her mother gripping the handrail and her father gripping her mother. They stop at the back of the hall, at the long table covered with white paper and set up with tall metal urns of coffee and clear plastic platters of doughnuts and Danish. Once they are safely inside they separate, her father to a table by the television where men are playing cards and her mother across the room with her friends from bingo, the women perfumed and powdered. They cut pastries in halves, in quarters, with plastic knives, and pass the pieces around on napkins. They talk about the visiting priest, the price of lettuce and tomatoes at the market, their children.
Well, you know Lizzie’s work is so demanding, her mother says. She says this every week. Working with the cancer patients, she says. Her friends nod their acknowledgment politely. Their daughters are married, with children of their own; they live in enormous houses with vaulted foyers and media rooms. They drive in car pools and belong to book clubs. Their husbands are distracted and their children are medicated and their mothers feel sorry for hers, although they would never say as much. They say instead:
Darlene and Jim are taking the kids to Florida next week.
That new principal at Kayla’s school thinks he’s such a wheel.
I don’t know how Gail and Bruce are going to manage when that little girl who cleans for them goes to college.
Well, her mother says, I’d better go check on Carl, see if he’s ready for some lunch. She stands and the metal chair clatters behind her and the conversation goes on.
You should see what Joey got Theresa for their anniversary.
When Sheila left there was no scene, no confrontation or explanation. Elizabeth’s father came home to the apartment after work one Friday to find her gone. She’d left an empty pack of cigarettes in the bathroom and a full one in a kitchen drawer, faux-tortoise bangles and a turquoise comb on the dresser. Elizabeth’s father called her mother, weeping, inconsolable, and her mother waited for him to beg her forgiveness and profess his love, to say how wrong he’d been, to promise he’d make things right. She had been waiting for years. She stood in their kitchen and listened to her husband speaking from the ruins of someone else’s.
Barbara, he said, oh God, Barbara—what am I supposed to do without her?
On Friday nights, Elizabeth’s mother cooks linguini with tuna and the three of them eat in the bright kitchen light. They eat their salad from their empty pasta bowls, and when they finish Elizabeth clears the table and her mother sets a plate of pastries in the center, sticky dough wrapped around dabs of blueberry or cherry jam, sprinkled with slivered almonds. Her father, who claims he does not like dessert, tears into them. They’re not dessert, her father insists, they’re left over from breakfast—tell her, he says to his wife.
Your father doesn’t eat dessert, she says to Elizabeth, you know that, and Elizabeth knows better than to argue.
She was on her way to see her parents when he stopped her in the parking lot.
You work in there, he’d said, and Elizabeth pulled her coat tight. It was not quite a question. In the clinic, he went on, and she nodded. It was after five and dark already and the cold was sharp, exquisite.
We’re finished with appointments for the day, she said. If you need to schedule—
I know that. He opened his hands and held them out: they were empty, harmless. It didn’t work, he said. What you did.
And then she understood, she remembered, him and the woman he came with. She’d caught glimpses of them at the reception desk, in the waiting room, when a door swung open or closed, he with a canvas tote bag filled with newspapers, bottles of water; she with a blue scarf wrapped around her neck and shoulders and sunglasses too big for her wasted face.
I’m not a doctor, she said, could not stop herself from saying. I’m sorry but I didn’t—
Listen to me, he said, blinking his dry eyes, nodding as though he were agreeing with something Elizabeth had yet to say, I was going to leave her. Before, I mean—I didn’t love her anymore and I made up my mind and then—
He smiled, clasping and unclasping his harmless hands, and even in the dark Elizabeth could see that he was not there, not standing in front of her in a freezing, emptying parking lot at the edge of a commercial complex, buildings and lots laid out in a grid around them, white lines and divided medians, geometric, inert, immense. He was somewhere she had never been.
Friday nights Lizzie played Scrabble with Sheila and her father while records played, a stack of them balanced over the turntable, ready to drop. He’d moved into Sheila’s apartment, a one-bedroom on the third floor of a garden complex with a cracked parking lot, open stairwells, and thick metal doors. Inside the rooms were small and the ceilings were low and there was barely space for her father and Sheila to sidle past each other, laughing. There were hanging plants in baskets and a pearly Chinese screen in a corner, a tapestry thrown over the fold-out couch where Lizzie slept. Sheila heated frozen French bread pizzas for dinner, burned at the edges and cold in the middle, and made salad with green grapes. She brought the food into the living room and the three of them settled on the floor around the coffee table to eat. There were candles burning on the stereo speakers and rough cloth napkins with a fringe, ticklish, that Lizzie was afraid to use, and white wine from a pretty carafe, and when Sheila splashed some into Lizzie’s grape soda her father did not stop her.
On Saturday mornings there was always some reason for Sheila to leave the apartment early, to squeeze past the open couch with her sunglasses on and her keys jingling—You two go ahead and have breakfast; I’ll grab something out, she’d say, blowing kisses at Lizzie and her father, but I’ll be back for lunch so wait for me!
You understand what she’s doing, don’t you? her father said, stirring Ovaltine into her milk, and Lizzie nodded, not understanding at all.
So we can have time alone, he said. She’s worried that we don’t have enough time together. He handed her the milk and sat at the foot of the mattress, set his coffee on the table. She’s a good woman, he said, and sighed. Your mother is too. But your mother . . . He rubbed a hand over his unshaven face and squeezed her foot through the sheet. Sometimes, he said, sometimes people who love each other make each other unhappy, even if they don’t mean to. Do you understand how that can happen? he said, and Lizzie nodded, eyes wide and eager, ready as any scrabbling dog to agree with him.
I know exactly what you mean, she said, and hugged him, her strange new father, thinner and whiskered and smiling, in that apartment that smelled of incense and Jiffy Pop. She had no idea what he meant and it didn’t matter. Her father had been supplanted by a man who was loved by someone new, someone made of silk and clouds, who lived in a world she did not know. And she had taken him with her into that world, shadowy and sweet-smelling and serene. He was not the man her mother had married, not one her mother had ever seen. Lizzie did not need to know what this man meant; she knew what he was: wanted, desired, coveted. Her father was a man who could be taken, who could leave.
Elizabeth’s mother says it to everyone she meets, at the first opportunity, or sooner: My daughter works with cancer patients.
But of course she doesn’t. She works at a safe distance, as she has throughout her life, each job just on the periphery of real help, real healing; the premed undergraduate major dropped for biology and then the biology abandoned for the history of science; the concentric circles growing wider, more diffuse, her orbit farther and farther from the sickness at the center.
But the center is everywhere, in the end.
My daughter works with cancer patients, her mother says, and shivers a bit, flutters her eyelids at the enormity, the immeasurable importance, of it all.
As opposed to what her father says: My daughter works in an office.
Oh, Carl, her mother says, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
But of course he does. He does not speak often but when he does he is so careful of mistakes. It is late and he is finished making them.
He went home after Sheila left. He was heartbroken but not irrational; he was not going to stay in a shabby apartment in a dilapidated complex where the neighbors tossed empty beer cans from the balconies on weeknights and full ones on weekends, where cars backfired and left fresh oil stains on the crumbling parking lot, where the door frames and doorknobs were greasy. Not when his house, his wife and daughter, were where he’d left them.
He came home with one small bag, no larger than the ones Elizabeth had taken on the weekends she’d spent with him. He brought nothing back from the life he’d tried, not the suede coat Sheila had given him for their first Christmas or the table lamp with a stained-glass shade he’d let Elizabeth pick out when Sheila’s old lamp had broken. He parked his car in the driveway and opened the front door and walked through it. They sat for dinner at the table her mother had set and Elizabeth stared down into a plate of food she could not eat next to a man she could not look at. She was sixteen. She had kissed a boy or ten. She had allowed their hands to stray from her shoulders down her back, around her waist and up, tentative but eager on the cotton of her blouse, on the flesh of her stomach, fingers moving quick and light as tadpoles. She had leaned in, let the blouse fall away from her waist, touched the tip of her tongue to impatient lips.
Aren’t you hungry? her father said, her mother’s husband again, nothing more than that. Sheila had broken him and he had broken her mother and now they sat in pieces around the table, balanced at the edges of a hole plundered and left gaping.
Let her be, her mother said. She had waited, and won, but the waiting had been unkind: the skin around her eyes was puffy, her cheeks were powdery leaf. Let her go, she said, and Elizabeth slid from her seat, disappeared up the stairs to polish herself into something delicious. She twined her wrists with silver and wound her neck with beads and her hair smelled of green apples, of pouring rain. She slipped from the house while the sky was still silver-blue and pricked with birds, hurtled across the lawn and into a waiting car, into a boozy tangle of bare arms and legs, a different car every night but the same pulsing joy inside, the same cheap beer and cheap weed and keening guitar and so much yearning it spilled like molten candy from the windows.
Of course she was hungry. Her legs were long and brown and entirely hers and she wrapped them around boys who were dim and sweet and grateful, safe as shallow water. She crawled the stairs past midnight smelling of sweet wine and smoke, her knees scraped and caked with dirt, her mascara smeared and hair matted, shoulders kissed and bruised and bitten.
This is what David knows about Elizabeth: that she left home as soon as she could after her father returned, to a college far enough away that trips back were infrequent and polite and brief enough for her to carry just another duffel, no bigger than the one she’d used on weekends as a child. During this time her father aged with the same alacrity as her mother had while he was gone until one Christmas Elizabeth saw that they had reached a kind of symmetry, both of their faces pulled flat and smooth, both of their bodies torpid.
She drifted restless through her twenties. She found a job as a receptionist at a walk-in clinic in the country and moved in with a man who’d brought his father in for heatstroke. He’d sat in a molded plastic chair in the glass-fronted waiting room with listless children and gray-faced women in housecoats and slippers and the warm gold of his skin was an affront, an insult she could not refuse. His house was sprawling and primitive, one room built onto the next over damp green hills, briar rose and blackberry climbing the edges of rough wooden decks. It was peaceful and he was kind and she stayed just long enough to recognize that kindness and peace meant nothing more to her than a glass of iced tea on a hot day or a cool pillowcase at night: pleasant enough but inessential, replaceable.
When she left she did so gently. She packed in the bright morning and he watched her, sitting at the wide wooden table with a cup of coffee growing cold. He followed her outside, gave her a paper bag of ham biscuits and peaches and cucumbers his father had packed. She took it and set it on the passenger seat of her car and he told her to drive carefully, to be happy, to come back.
She hopscotched her way through jobs and towns until her mother called to tell her they had decided to sell the house, that the stairs were too steep and the lawn too wide and the rooms too full of remorse. It’s time, her mother said. Your father and I are ready.
She went back and saw how time had worn them, how they had worn each other. She stayed. She took the job at the treatment center and rented a house and made herself necessary, cleaning and sorting and packing chipped dishes and folded clothes, greeting cards and photographs ordered and dated, everything her mother had treasured and her father had suffered. When she finished, she stacked the boxes of her parents’ lives in neat small rows against the walls in the dining room, the den, and when she saw how few there were she looked away, ashamed.
Outside the ground is frozen, the grass brown and brittle. The sky will not move. Inside Elizabeth lies in bed with David next to her, with David so far away his skin beneath her fingers is already a memory. There is no reason for this to end: no wife will call, no husband will accuse, no children will sob in confusion. They have stolen nothing from anyone.
“Were you a good husband?” she says. He looks at her with something close to hate, and she is pleased. She wants to make it easy for him to end this—it is all she can give him, it is his barest need. He has refused everything else she’s offered him.
“Not good enough,” he says. He stares out the small high window, the piece of winter sky. There is no room in this house where he loves her, no corner of this world where he could. “But you stayed,” she says. “What matters is that you stayed.”
Bread, wine, expiation: he has accepted none of it. The afternoon is so gray and small.
“I wouldn’t have,” he says. If she had lived, he doesn’t say. But Elizabeth hears. She thinks of her mother, her life small and tidy enough to fit in a dresser drawer. She imagines pulling it out and shaking it open, made beds and washed dishes and half-answered prayers flying free and coming to rest again in perfect order.
David slides from the bed and begins to dress. She checks the clock; it’s time. She has no idea where he goes after he is finished with her because she’s never asked. When he leaves she stands at the open door, watches as he disappears into the raw dark, into whatever cold relief waits there for him. She does not wonder or worry; there is nothing she can do for him once he’s gone.
Her life so far is smooth and clean as a new shroud and her heart is calm and ready.
“Then stay now,” she says, and David turns, his shirt still open, his wallet already in his hands. This is what he pays for, the chance to leave and leave and leave and know that she’s still breathing. He would no sooner stay than he would rake and scrabble the icy dirt on his wife’s grave.
On Friday night Elizabeth pushes their cart through the fashionable new grocery store by her parents’ apartment. Her father waits napping in the car and her mother ranges just ahead of her, lost among the shelves of vitamin supplements and gluten-free snacks, the aggressive displays of organic exotic fruit. At the end of an aisle she stops, reaches out for the edge of the cart and steadies herself.
“What are we looking for, Ma?” Elizabeth says. It’s bright inside and crowded with men and women in tailored overcoats and smart shoes angling their baskets past one another, half of them balancing cell phones on their shoulders and the other half staring glazed and blank into the middle distance. Among them her mother is small and faded and Elizabeth wants nothing more than to hurry her back into the safety of the early dark.
“Milk, for your father’s cereal tomorrow. And a few grapefruits. And I wanted to get some of that marinated chicken for tonight.”
“I could’ve gotten all that for you, Ma—you didn’t need to come in.” But her mother is moving again, still holding onto the cart, pulling it behind her.
“And if they have those nice pecan buns,” she says, as though she has not heard Elizabeth, and it’s possible she hasn’t, “those buns your father likes but from the other place . . . ” She pulls the cart after her and stops short at the wall of dairy, of soy and almond milk and tubs of flavored vegan cheese. She lifts a thin hand toward a row of cartons and hesitates and her skin itself is pale as milk, tissue thin, translucent.
“Here, Ma,” Elizabeth says, reaching over her from behind, “the two percent?”
“Your father is worried sick about you,” her mother says, and Elizabeth sees she is fighting back tears, there in the bright hum of the dairy display. “You have no idea—no idea, Lizzie—he’s beside himself. What’s she doing, he keeps asking me, she’s throwing her life away, she’s going to end up alone, with no one, and what can I tell him?” She’s almost gasping, her narrow shoulders heaving in the overcoat that’s too big, that’s swallowing her mother whole.
“Ma, come on,” she says. “It’s late. Here—take the car keys, I’ll get all this.”
“Lizzie, honey—” her mother lays her hand over Elizabeth’s on the cart and it is so cold and dry, “you two are just alike,” she says. “You know that? Stubborn and impossible.”
“This is ridiculous,” Elizabeth says. “There’s nothing to worry about—I’m happy this way, all right? Tell him not to worry—tell him I’m fine, and I’m happy.” She yanks the cart backward and swivels it to face the front of the store, the parking lot and car where her father is sleeping, is dreaming.
“Oh, Lizzie,” her mother says, “no one’s happy alone.”
After dinner, Elizabeth measures decaffeinated coffee into the maker and sets out a bowl of oranges.
“What about those pecan things?” her father says, and her mother puts one on a saucer, tears off a paper towel to set beneath. She sits down across from him and takes one of the oranges, works at the navel with a crooked thumb.
“Here, Ma,” Elizabeth says, and her mother hands the fruit to her, grateful. She watches her father as she peels, his clumsy fingers, the soft dough pulled between them. The smells of orange and coffee fill the quiet kitchen.
“Is that good, Dad?” she says, and he nods.
“Not as good as the ones from last week.” He presses a finger to the saucer to collect fallen shards of icing. “They had a chocolate glaze. Your mother got them.” He taps the bits of icing back onto the last bite of pastry before he eats it.
“Okay then,” Elizabeth says. She hands the peeled orange back to her mother, bends to kiss her. “I should go,” she says, “today was a long one,” and her mother clucks, smoothes her hair.
“You do so much, honey,” she says. “Carl, next week let’s take Lizzie out for dinner, someplace nice—won’t that be nice, for a change?”
Her father wipes his hands and face with the paper towel, leans back in his chair and closes his eyes and says, “Whatever you want to do is fine with me,” and Elizabeth sees how easy it is for him to say this, and mean it, because he was finished with wanting years ago, and because he is too exhausted to lie. Her mother pries an orange segment free and places it on his saucer and her fingers are chapped and stiff and his are rough and swollen at the knuckles. He must be so tired of so much forgiveness, Elizabeth thinks, of so much mercy.
Elizabeth has no idea what happened to Sheila—where she went, to whom she ran—after she left. Her father might—if he did he would not have told her—but she doubts it. For some time she did not know whether she was terrified to see her or desperate to: out to dinner with her parents on a Saturday night after church and she’d scan the dining room, looking for Sheila’s red hair and flashing earrings at every table, her heart racing and sick with desire and dread. But she was not there, she was never there, and eventually Elizabeth’s heart calmed, and she realized she was no longer looking.
Because what was there to find? Sheila was kind. She worked for a commercial flooring company, drove to an office in a strip mall in a rusting Datsun hatchback. She smoked Virginia Slims and gave herself a manicure every Sunday night and ate rocky road ice cream from a rainbow-striped bowl. She was generous to a stranger’s daughter, a stranger’s husband. She was all of these things, and more, and none of them mattered. She disappeared back into the world and there was nothing extraordinary about her.
Elizabeth steers the car off the highway and onto a surface street, slows down even though there is no traffic. It’s nine o’clock on a Friday night—the people who are home are home already and the ones who are out are out for as long as hope will last. The houses are locked boxes, curtains drawn, shades down, windows wide blind eyes. She turns onto her street and the houses march themselves backwards past her moving car, square and still, their foyers and kitchenettes and master bedrooms dark. But when they were new those houses must have glowed with importance, with promise. Inside they would have smelled of White Shoulders and Old Spice, cigarette smoke and roasting meat, while nervous brides waited, manicured and powdered and cinched, for their husbands to come home, to mix the drinks and light the fire and flip the radio on; and their husbands slipped their shined shoes off at the door, hardly more than boys, hollow cheeked and gangly, proud and spent and ready for the happiness they’d been promised to begin.
Elizabeth pulls into her shallow drive and kills the ignition. On the passenger seat is a bag filled with the pecan buns—You take them, her mother had said, I’ll get the kind your father likes better tomorrow.
Make me disappear, David said to her that first white afternoon, Make me well. He had asked for nothing else.
Her mother’s life fell away from her in ribbons and she wove it up again, imperfect and inviolable. Her hands are worn and graceless now but invincible: they will be the last to touch her husband before he dies.
Elizabeth turns the key in the lock and shoulders the front door open and the house is silent, filled with waiting dark, with ghosts that are not hers—those boys and their brides, with a war behind them and their lives before them. They drift through the rooms like snow, like love.