At the breakfast table, Grace sits eating instant oatmeal she warmed in the microwave all by herself. The fake peach scent makes her stomach turn a little, but this is the only thing she knows how to fix and her mother—Diane—isn’t around to prepare anything for her, again. Her father, Frank, is in the shower, weeping and telling himself he needs to stop. He’s got to get to work, got to earn money to pay for things someone convinced him and his family they need or want. But first he must take his daughter to school so she doesn’t have to catch the bus. That was his promise last night. Grace said she couldn’t sleep, and he told her she could crawl into her mother’s empty spot in their bed.
Grace had been lying on the floor beside her parents’ bed, pressing her hand over her mouth to not make noise as she cried, but he heard her. A parent knows his child’s cry, and if Diane had been the one to get up and check when Gracie was just an infant wailing in the middle of the night, his turn is now. He held her little hand and they slept. Grace, no longer an infant, eight years old, will grow up to look like her mother, which will break Frank’s heart over and over again.
But this morning Diane is across town, in a hotel room where the television is bolted down and the toilet runs all night. She watches morning talk shows and tilts a glass bottle into her cup of hotel-lobby coffee. She watches the smiles on the television screen and fights the voice inside that says good mothers don’t leave their children, like she did last night. They don’t watch their husbands drive off with their babies in the back seat. But maybe this will be better. She swirls the contents of her coffee cup. Maybe now she won’t have to anticipate when a husband needs her to stop talking or start talking or when a child needs her to be firm or to coddle. She won’t have to look at that always-frightened look on Gracie’s face, like she never knows when Diane is going to screw up again. She walks through the halls during parent-teacher conferences, pulling on the strap of her purse for some sort of support and people still stare at her, she thinks: What has she ever done to these people? And what business of theirs is it how she lives?
Back in the kitchen, Frank pats Grace’s still-wet head, “Be sure to dry your hair. It’s chilly out. I don’t want you catching cold.” These are the sorts of things her mother would say if she were here. He and Grace haven’t talked about it: the heavy quiet in the house this morning. They won’t talk about it either, not in the way they need to.
Grace can still feel the warm spot from her father’s hand on the top of her head. When she was younger, she always loved it when he would brush her hair after she got out of the tub. He gripped the brush by the head, not the handle, and started at the ends of her hair, running his other hand along her hair behind the brush. He was always so gentle—he dreamed once that he pulled too hard and she came away in chunks of scalp, then pieces of bone, then nothing at all—that was what safety felt like to Grace. She brushes her own hair now; she’s too big for her father to do it for her. She will most likely remember her father brushing her hair, though. She will put it in the corner of her head with other things, like getting into a warm car on a chilly fall day, or the way her mother kisses her forehead to feel for a fever. Some things she won’t want to remember, like the veins in the backs of her mother’s hands. Those blocky hands with their square-tipped fingers. And the way they sometimes shake when she concentrates.
Diane’s hands tremble only slightly as she smokes her day’s first cigarette, even though she has rented a non-smoking room. This is one of the simple things she is supposed to be grateful for: that first cigarette and cup of coffee. But instead, the filter flutters to her lips in a way that is unsatisfying. She should eat something. What if she’s not just hungry and this hand thing is a sign of something else? Diane’s mother died when she was very young, but she has an idea of what she inherited: a tendency toward self-cutting and suicidal thoughts. Was this what it was like for her mother, Diane thinks, did her mother feel this persecuted? Do most people?
She should call in sick to work. Her head hurts and she craves greasy biscuits and gravy. She will miss out on one day’s pay. But it shouldn’t make too much difference in the paycheck; they should still be able to buy groceries. For skipping out, Frank will probably call her irresponsible once again. Last night he was yelling at her, accusing her of being defective. (He was only trying to tell her she’s sick, that she needs help.) Whatever it was he was saying, all she could think to tell him was, “I thought you loved me.”
Last night as the two of them stood there on their friends’ porch—they’d gone over for dinner and drinks, maybe a little cards after, but she just kept drinking—each could see the other’s breath. He tried to get her to come home, it was time to come home, and Grace—she sat in the warming van with the radio turned up and her eyes clamped shut—just wanted her mother in the car with her, just wanted her home with them, just wanted them to be a family and for that to be good enough.
But Diane heard him say she was sick, heard, “You’re not a good mother,” though that may not be what he really said. Still, that’s what she heard. And that’s why she promised—the word seems improper now—she promised to leave him. Them. Out loud she said she would leave when she was damn good and ready. Inwardly, though, she was imagining him staying up all night waiting for her to come home. He was too proud to come get her, and he would just fall asleep while he waited. He would realize how great she was and how lucky he should consider himself since she even chose to date him in the first place and then said yes when he asked her to marry him. He’d plan his apology and then he would treat her good for once, ask her her opinion of him and how much she thinks he’s worth. Or she’d sneak in and crawl in bed with Grace and let him know who she trusted more until he begged her to come back.
When she was ready to leave, Diane called a cab and the driver asked where she was headed. Maybe she was still a little drunk. Maybe that was just an excuse. Maybe she wanted, just once, to see what life would have been like without any of them. For years she secretly wondered how things might be different if she hadn’t gone to the grocery store the day she met Frank.
He’d come running out behind her as she dug through her too-big purse to find her keys. “Ma’am, miss?” He changed his mind about what to call her as soon as she looked up at him. It was her hair. She wore it back in a bun at the nape of her neck, lending her a matronly look. He thrust a sack in her direction. “You left these,” he said, peeking into the bag. Generic orange juice and bread and a box of adult diapers. No, they were not hers, actually. He had mistaken her bun for that of some other old lady’s, and they laughed about it there in the parking lot. That was how it started, and now she was in a cab that reminded her of rotten potatoes and the driver asked her again where she wanted to go. She leaned her head against the cool window and allowed her breath to fog it over.
“Motel Six. That’s cheap, right?”
The cabbie peeked at her through the rearview mirror. He considered asking her if she was okay—it was his nature to be concerned—but he thought better of it. If this lady wanted to go somewhere and cry herself to sleep or numb herself into oblivion, that was none of his business. His business was to avoid traffic, not ask questions, and hope for a big tip. As a consolation, he took her to the second-cheapest hotel in town, on account it was less likely to have bedbugs.
But before the cabbie took this sad and lonely woman into consideration last night, Grace peeked out of the window of the van at her parents, at all that angry breath. They were yelling. He pointed to the van. Grace should not have been born, she knew. Her existence threw off an equilibrium established well before she showed up. She was the wrongness. She’ll probably end up being the one thing they’ve done right together, but little girls don’t know these sorts of things, and she’ll carry the guilt of that night with her. Grace’s guilt will manifest itself in an ever-so-slight tremor of the hands. Maybe she’ll think about why that is. Maybe she’ll remember where she’s seen that before and wonder what on earth her mother must have been going through.
Frank got into the van and tried not to slam the door. Gracie was already crying.
“Daddy?” was all she could say between sobs.
He sighed, shook his head. He put on his seatbelt and put the van in reverse. He looked over his shoulder to back out, and his baby had snot bubbling out of her nose. She knew it was there, but her hands were too cold to wipe it away.
“It’s okay, baby. Mom’s coming home later.” As he pulled out of the driveway, he would not look back at his wife, who he knew still stood on the porch, crying tears that weren’t from just drinking. He was tired. He was tired of all of it. He’d asked her, like he had so many times before, what to do to make her happy. She didn’t know, she said, talk to her. So he told her what he could remember—what he worried about—but that didn’t help, either. He wasn’t the deep, passionate, brooding man she thought she married. So she drank, and it made him tired. He had to be up early in the morning, so he’d said, “Fine,” and left her there on the porch.
He would go home, and she could leave whenever she wanted. She could come home or not. It was her choice. It was always her choice. Maybe they’d do better without her. Bring some stability to their lives.
She was surprised by how easily it happened this time. She stood on the steps a moment for lack of anything else to do. She was hurt and proud and scared and lonely, but she was also giddy in a way that felt inappropriate. She couldn’t yet label her giddiness as that chance to make decisions for her, and kept her feet where they were to think about it.
Grace cried most of the way home, and when they got there, her father carried her—he hadn’t picked her up in a while and now he remembered why—into the house and sat her down, groaning as he did so, talking about how heavy she is and how big she’s gotten, trying to make her laugh.
“We’ll have to put a brick on your head to keep you from growing.” He smiled weakly at her.
She was not amused. “Dad.”
“Okay, maybe not. Listen, I want to talk to you about—”
“When’s Mom coming home?”
And here Frank blinked rapidly several times and looked over his shoulder at the front door. He hadn’t cried in front of his daughter before and she was already terrified enough. He was pretty sure she didn’t need to see this, too. He cleared his throat several times, blinked some more, and sniffed loudly.
“I don’t know, sweetie. When she’s ready, I guess.”
Grace nodded. She wanted hard and fast answers: How would she get home? When—to the minute—would she arrive? Why did she leave? The sooner she knew for sure, the sooner she could fix it and begin focusing on something else. She will probably become a woman who wastes no time with mourning. She will make lists. She will work to cross items off her list, but that’s it. There will be no wallowing.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“Mom.” Her voice was quiet. “And why she’s mad.”
If she had been there listening to her daughter explain—this little bit was all that counted for explanation from Grace—how she was sorry she ruined her parents’ lives, Diane would have wrapped her baby in her arms and rocked her. And Diane would reassure her that her life—their lives—were richer because of Grace, and that they’d figure it out together.
But Frank simply reverted to the honesty that befell him when he didn’t know what else to say.
“I don’t know what to do about your mother,” he said. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Do I still have to go to school tomorrow?”
He smiled. “Yes.”
“Do I have to ride the bus?”
“Tell you what.” He stood and offered his hand as he led her to her bedroom. “I’ll take you. How’s that?”
She nodded. “A compromise.”
Frank lay in his bed and Grace in hers, though neither really slept. She knows too much, he thought. She will always know too much. She hugged her stuffed cow, but that wasn’t enough, so she hugged her pillow and cried a wet spot into it.
From down the hall he heard her sniffing and rolled over. For fifteen years he had fantasized about having a bed to himself once again. He could sprawl and kick and roll and tuck and un-tuck and scratch and do whatever he wanted and there was no one to sigh heavily in the dark to let him know in her own way that she was also annoyed with the situation. Nobody to poke him in the ribs or jab him with her elbow or hold his nose to make him stop snoring. God, how he hated when she did that.
But then again, on mornings when they could peacefully sleep in, she snuggled up to him and pressed her body against his. Fifteen years together and he still loved the way Diane felt next to him in the morning. She threw an arm around him and as she breathed in, her stomach billowed and pressed against his back. Those, he thought, were their most intimate moments, and they very well may have been. He held still for as long as his bladder would allow on those days, just trying to keep her there for a little longer.
So many times he felt like she was just trying to escape him, her life, who they’d become.
And she was gone now. Her place in the bed sagged next to him. He felt as if he was falling up into space, as if the very earth shuddered to be rid of him. He reached out a hand and placed it in the empty spot where his wife should have been. The sheets were cold. This was not what he had wanted.
Down the hall, Grace’s breathing slowed. She fell asleep just as across town her mother paid the driver, then entered the hotel lobby. She checked into her room and blinked in the fluorescent lighting of the bathroom. She didn’t look at her face. She didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to think. She peed first and held her head in her hands. It felt too heavy for her neck. She stayed that way, replaying the night until the nausea overcame her. Diane kneeled in front of the toilet to vomit. Grace awoke in the middle of the night.
Grace was supposed to remember something. When she was frightened and confused in the night, she crawled into her parents’ bedroom to sleep on the floor beside their bed. She had to be quiet, otherwise they’d wake up and send her back to her own room—she was too big to do this anymore. She lay on her back on her mother’s side of the bed, attempting to steady her breath. She listened to see if she was making any noise.
The only breathing in the room was her father’s heavy wheeze. Then she remembered her mother. She began crying again. Frank’s breathing grew quieter as he listened to her try to stifle the noise she made. He called her name and she sat up. In the darkness he could barely make out the top of her head as it appeared just above the edge of the bed.
“What are you doing?”
“I can’t sleep. Can I get in bed with you?”
“Okay, but you have to go to sleep.” He pulled back the covers and fluffed his wife’s pillow.
She wanted him to hold her and rock her and to tell her he would fix it, but instead she reached across the middle of the bed and took his hand. That was enough to allow them both to fall heavily to sleep.
This morning her eyes burn from all the crying. She rubs them and rubs them with the backs of her knuckles as she sits in the front seat on her way to school.
“Something wrong with your eyes?” Frank let her sit in the front to help her feel better. It sort of worked.
“Can’t keep ‘em open.” It’s not that she wants to stay home today, but going to school seems disrespectful.
“Yeah, crying will do that to you. I’d share my coffee, but you wouldn’t like it.” He sips from his travel mug and they say nothing else until they arrive at the school, when he says goodbye and watches his little stranger trudge into the building.
Instead of going to work, Diane goes for a walk. The air is crisp, but the sun is out and she is warm under her coat. She’s a receptionist, so she doesn’t get to move around a lot. The walking is nice. She used to worry about getting fat and ugly, about being unattractive to her husband, who never seemed to gain anything except bags under his eyes. Each year, her pants have grown tighter and tighter across her thighs and through the seat. At first she stopped eating lunch and dinner and took walks on her lunch breaks. When she wasn’t losing anything and Frank said she was cranky all the time, she gave up. Now she just buys bigger clothes every other season.
She tucks her nose into the collar of her coat and checks the traffic before crossing the street. Maybe she should change jobs. Try physical labor. She would love to work in a greenhouse planting and weeding and doing whatever they do. That work is probably only seasonal, though. She’s got a daughter to think about.
But she’s not thinking about leaving yet. They’ve been through versions of this in the past, and it will probably take her several attempts before she gets it right, before she can leave for good. Each time there will be a big scene and mean things will most likely be said, and each time it will be her fault. As she passes the windows of a strip-mall, her reflection looks lumpy and disheveled. This is not what she meant to happen last night. She has a husband. He’s a good man, and God knows he puts up with the stuff she puts him through. Granted, he could be a little more vocal, a little more involved, but she still considers herself one of the lucky ones. And for some reason, she’s still so unhappy.
She is thinking about change. She’ll change her job, maybe her hair. She should go on a diet again, cut back on her drinking a little.
The day wears on and she makes lists: talk to Grace about sex, tell Grace she is beautiful, compliment Frank more, give Frank more space, make quality time for family. They pile in her head only as ideas, not as plans. It is this lack of foresight that keeps her from understanding that she will never be happy as long as she continues this way. But she won’t make plans for change. She can’t think about that now.
Grace can’t concentrate in school. She keeps seeing her parents fighting and can’t shake the feeling that maybe her mother is lying hurt in a ditch. Her mother is gone and she’s not coming back, and it’s all her father’s fault. But her instincts aren’t true yet. It will be a few years before Grace shrinks from her mother’s hug for the first time since she can remember. Maybe she saw this coming, and she felt the first hints of it when she was eight, trying to read along with Mrs. Clark, who sometimes skipped sentences and whole paragraphs as she read Little House on the Prairie. Out loud, she wants to say, the world is not right.
At lunch, she picks at a tray of chicken and dumplings—her favorite. No one has asked why she doesn’t eat or why she doesn’t want to play or why she doesn’t want to do group work. Grace has always been shy and has assumed people don’t like her. Why would they bother to ask? This is something she’s going to have to face alone.
They are all alone. While he stocks shelves at the sporting goods store, Frank feels as if he might be the last man alive. He remembers that episode of The Twilight Zone where the man emerges from the fallout shelter to find he’s the sole survivor and he can read all the books he wants, but then he steps on his glasses. Frank’s glasses have been stepped on.
“Guy should’ve just killed himself,” Frank mutters as he pulls boxes of golf balls to the front of the shelf. He checks his watch. He’s been here for five hours now. He and Grace didn’t say anything about him picking her up from school, too. With his luck, she expects him to and he won’t do it simply because they didn’t agree about it. Then he’ll be one of those parents.
He pushes a dolly back toward the stock room and it gets stuck on a piece of floor stripping. He shouldn’t say “those parents.” Diane walked out of the grocery store once when Grace was still at the cash register playing with the bagging station. Grace noticed they were separated before Diane did and went running and screaming out to the parking lot. Diane called him at work to tell him the story. She sounded pretty rough over the phone. He spent five minutes just telling her to calm down. It happens. People leave their kids. They leave their families.
Frank wonders what it would be like if he’d been the one to leave. He’s thought about it before. Just take a couple hundred from the bank and go. Then maybe Diane would have to straighten out—take care of the kid. Frank pushes through the swinging doors of the store room, leading with the dolly. He’d miss her. He’d miss them both. But what if he were dead?
He wouldn’t want them to feel bad if he killed himself. Frank drops off his equipment and heads to the bathroom. He’s got to sit down. Really think. His knees are killing him. He hates this job, but it pays well enough. There’s insurance. They’d get some money if he died on the job. He wonders how to kill himself and not make it look like a suicide. Where to find a hit man?
He pictures the girls coming home to find him. He’s all bloody and probably crapped himself. Diane sees a hand peeking from behind the couch and automatically knows he’s dead, only she freaks out and doesn’t have the sense to shield Grace from seeing. And she’s scarred for life while her mother just keeps drinking until there’s no more liver left. Diane is mean to Grace and Grace resents her for it, even after Diane dies too young in a too-painful death and it’s all Frank’s fault.
He washes his hands and chuckles a little. He’s really thinking this? He smiles and cries some. A co-worker enters the bathroom and sees Frank.
“You okay, man?”
Frank just dries his hands and walks out of the bathroom to call the school. He’ll be picking up his daughter today.
When Grace climbs automatically into the front seat of her father’s car, she hugs and kisses him and lets the tears go right there in the parking lot, and she doesn’t care who can see.
Frank hates this. “Oh, baby, don’t cry.”
“But it feels better when I do.” She whispers these words to keep from sobbing them, so he can understand what she says.
“Okay.” He pulls out of the driveway and heads home.
“Dad, I didn’t say anything to anybody all day. I have to tell you. If Mom’s hurt. . . . I want her back. I want her to be home when we get there.”
“I can’t guarantee anything.”
“I know. But I’m just saying.” She’s being honest, and he appreciates that. It doesn’t happen much, but when it does, he feels like he knows her better.
When they get home, Diane is there, waiting. Vodka is supposed to be odorless; it was just a sip. The television is on Jeopardy and she is smoking at the coffee table when Grace enters.
“Hi, Gracie.” It’s a whisper into the girl’s ear. As always, Diane watches out for the cherry on her cigarette when her daughter is in her arms. She hears Frank enter. “Come sit,” she says to him. Now, everybody is crying. She sits Grace between herself and Frank and they all sit there sniffing for a long moment.
“First I want to say I’m sorry about the way I acted last night.” No one speaks during Diane’s pause. It’s a familiar line. “I didn’t go to work today, but I did do a lot of thinking. Frank,” she says. He is expecting her to leave. She might give this speech again and again, and each time, he will probably expect her to actually leave for good, just as he always has. That is, until she ever really goes; by then he might not believe it’s happening. “I don’t want to leave. I want to stay and make things right.”
“Me too,” he says, but she doesn’t understand he was thinking about leaving them, too.
“I’ve got all kinds of ideas that I want to talk to you about. But first I want to say I love you, and I’m sorry. I’d like for us to sit down and discuss our plans.”
They will order a pizza and Diane will do all the talking. She’ll mention family game night and date night and dinners and extra-curricular activities. Grace will be moved to hope by the tone of her mother’s voice. Frank will become worried that he’s never going to have any more free time, and Diane will panic once she realizes they expect her to be the one to organize and initiate all these things.
If Diane finally leaves, she might rent a little green apartment above a garage. A new job working for the state in social work service would finally bring her some satisfaction. She’d miss her family, but she would be grateful they were hers. She could go for walks in her spare time, and because the thinking would allow her to calm down, she might not need as many drinks.
Though Grace would become estranged from her mother, she and Frank might be brought closer. He might even begin to think he knows her. He would become deeply depressed if Diane left. He would stay single for the rest of his life. Grace, on the other hand, would probably go through man after man, trying to find one who seems right. She wouldn’t recognize that “right” would mean just like her father. But she’d continue through them coldly, crossing their names off her list.
But for now, they sit side-by-side on the couch, watching Jeopardy, holding hands, and not knowing the questions to the answers the program gives.