The story of my daughter Laura began before she was born, when Ross, my first husband, got sick. I had hardly existed until I met Ross, the focal point on which my overly large, wandering gray eyes steadied and fixed. Ross was a graduate student in the College of Fine Arts at Boston University; I worked in the CFA’s central office. I come from a vast Irish family devoted only to drink and the Church, and I fed my love for art on the sly. I remember sitting in my tiny apartment in the Back Bay poring over an art book from my childhood: an absurdly eclectic collection of Madonna portraits. I adored the one by Titian, whose name I pronounced, respectfully, as “Titty-an.”
Simply to be in that hotbed of art that was the CFA, in the vicinity of those suddenly solid, exotic, forbidden creatures called “artists,” filled my languishing heart. Students in dazzling attire flashed in and out of the dreary office on gusts of emotion, their features lit up like suns. It was real-life opera. We office girls discussed which type of students were the maddest: the musicians, the visual artists, or the theater majors.
Ross was a set designer and not mad in the least, and this impressed me. Tall, thin, and slightly stooped, when unclothed he looked a bit like a flamingo. This rare bird disguised as a man methodically etched dreams onto canvas and boards: thin lines became rocks; rooms flew away into the sky. He built environments that were not of this world but better, because they captured what was perfect in it: the essential forms.
I swooned over Ross, with his magical talent and his ambitions. His falling for me seemed the greatest miracle of all. We impulsively married, despite my family’s utter incomprehension of my choice. After graduation, Ross worked for a local theater company, and I stayed in the CFA office, wondering what Ross was doing or thinking, dashing off to meet him during his breaks. We had a daughter and named her Doria. It was the closest I have ever come to a perfect life.
Then Ross developed persistent fevers. In September 1991, three days after our two-year anniversary — which we’d celebrated at the empty theater, drinking champagne and dangling our legs into the dark orchestra pit — Ross was diagnosed with AIDS. Doria was just nine months old, and if you think you know where this is going, you are right.
By winter Ross and Doria were both very sick. I spent two weeks that February shuttling between their hospital rooms. I must have looked insane. I liked to keep my hair cut short like a boy’s, but since I had no time to go to a salon and couldn’t stand to have strangers touching me anyway, I amateurishly chopped it off myself every couple of weeks. And I always wore my dangling rhinestone earrings, because they gave Doria pleasure.
My parents and relatives were banned from the hospital. I had endured their ugly, ignorant questions and comments for a while before realizing that it would be utterly impossible for me to take care of Ross and Doria with them around. Ross and I never discussed the origin of the virus. It was too perilous a topic. Doubt, shame, and remorse would have torn at the fabric of our relationship, which we desperately needed to keep whole. Entertaining any of my family’s notions would have been tantamount to my standing at the edge of a cliff with Ross, Doria in our arms, and jumping.
Ross passed away first. Doria kept hanging on, her development arrested at the age she’d been when she’d first shown symptoms. She never spoke more than a few phrases, and as her illness progressed, even those evaporated. Sometimes she gathered her strength and reached to touch one of my sparkly earrings in the gloom. Her eyes — blue, like Ross’s — never seemed to ask for anything. Instead they expressed intense concern, as if she knew that, with Ross gone, she was all I had.
But seeing her dreadfully thin and tired beyond all reckoning, and feeling what was left of her life pouring out of her, I finally sat by her crib and said, “You can go. You can go be with your daddy.” And she went.
At my mother’s insistence, I gave up the house Ross and I had rented and moved back into my parents’ home, where I took up residence in the TV room and waited to get sick from the virus I had passed on to my daughter. I thought my body had been delaying the inevitable so that I could attend to my daughter and husband, and that as soon as my subconscious understood they were gone, I would fade fast. This thought gladdened me.
But I hated being thrown back on my family after my long struggle to escape them, and when the end didn’t come right away, I fled to New York City. “Don’t call us for help,” my parents said. “We can’t come running down there anytime you need us.” This didn’t worry me. I had decided that it was perfectly acceptable to die alone; there were charity wards and potter’s field, and many had taken that path before me. I had always been drawn to New York as a center of the arts — Ross and I had visited it together — and I was attracted by the anonymity it provided. In its big, brash, rushing streets I imagined that I would at least feel I belonged. Through an acquaintance in Boston I got a job in the English-department office at NYU, and I found a cheap but clean room in one of the last women’s hotels. I drew up touristy plans for the weekends, but I never followed through on them, because I became ill — not from the virus, as it happened, but from the drug treatment AZT.
My brain became overactive on the medication. I couldn’t sleep or eat, and if I tried to focus on something, technicolor emotions spread out from inside me and engulfed the object of my attention. I was twenty-five and thinking seriously of hanging myself from one of the pipes in the basement off the laundry room of the women’s hotel. One day, after spending most of my lunch hour kicking dirt in Washington Square Park, I passed out on the ground by the fountain. My friend Arnie Glass found me. He told me later that he’d seen people laughing at me, perhaps thinking I was fooling around or was a drunk or a druggie who deserved to lie there for a while. A kid had even jumped my outstretched arm on his skateboard until Arnie told him to fuck off and get out of the park and out of civilization; that for such an act he should do penance in a sewer somewhere until he understood that we were all in the same boat and that the whole goddamned boat rocked precariously and was close to tipping over completely, and we should be grateful just to be alive. . . .
I awoke to his speech, with cold, dry leaves stuck to my face. I saw Arnie’s black shoe and then his glossy black hair and narrow green eyes with thick lashes peering down at me. He was handsome and kind to everyone, and had struck up a friendship with me after spotting Faulkner’s Light in August on my desk. I always looked forward to running into him in the NYU English department, where he was a graduate student, just as Ross had been at CFA. He would peek at my books and smile a smile that was warm and carried no hidden meaning, because he didn’t know anything about me. But even if I hadn’t been fundamentally dead inside, I could never have imagined a romance with Arnie, and he never suggested it.
Leaning over me in the park, Arnie helped me sit up. I sobbed wetly into his jacket, not out of fear or pain or embarrassment, but out of simple exhaustion. The crowd receded now that I was taken care of, and the park returned to its normal cacophony. Arnie took me home to my room, where, perched on the edge of my narrow bed, drinking the weak tea he had prepared for me, I made him the first person in New York I told about my condition. I didn’t tell him about my dead husband and child.
“I’ve got a class,” Arnie said when I was done talking. “Then I have a couple of calls to make; then I’ll come back here.”
Arnie left, and I reclined into the pillow and fell into the first heavy sleep I’d had in months. The next thing I remember, I was awakened by his knock. It was night, and the neon glow from a sign across the street filled the room. Arnie had brought food and a new story he’d just finished writing. He switched on my tin desk lamp, sat in the chair, and read to me in bed.
In the story two teenagers from broken homes, a boy and a girl, form a garage band. They get high on each other and music and being free and powerful together. In the end they become rich and famous and happy and fulfilled.
“What do you think?” Arnie asked.
“It’s ironic, right?” I replied. “The ending?”
“Well, it’s so . . . perfect.”
“I didn’t mean it ironically,” he said, a bit hurt.
He sat there, theatrically bathed in neon, and I realized that Arnie, who had alluded so eloquently to the broken boat of humankind in the park, believed in happy endings. His belief renewed my own hope. I felt less dashed and ruined. I thought I might even want to live.
Arnie’s father worked for the National Institutes of Health, where Dr. Anthony Fauci was ahead of everyone else in the country with his AIDS trials. Arnie’s father set me up at the best clinic in New York. They determined that my viral load was small and my T-cell count was steady. They took me off AZT, promising that in a few years HIV would be largely manageable, like a chronic illness.
I moved to the Village, renting an apartment on Thompson Street with a fellow office worker. Six months after that I threw out the junk food I routinely ate — my “dead-anyway diet” — and resumed eating well. I signed up for extension courses and planned to get my college degree. My appetite for the arts returned, and I became a reborn “culture vulture,” as Ross had called me. I saw that museums, galleries, theaters, and concert halls were my church, where I lit candles over and over for Doria and felt my daughter’s suffering and sought her forgiveness. Superimposed on a line of music, or a brush stroke, or an actor’s impassioned soliloquy, I heard Doria’s cries and saw her small hand reaching out for the cheap baubles and rhinestones she couldn’t have.
I was probably functioning the best I had since I’d left Boston. I felt physically well, and the electrical storm that had raged in my brain from the AZT had died down. But I was changed. The pain seemed to have settled deep into my soul, where the questions Ross and I had refused to address bubbled up. My marriage no longer seemed good in my memory, though I knew it had been. I still carried my dead daughter inside me, like a seeping wound. It seemed she’d been born for nothing. Why had I been such a fool? Why hadn’t I asked Ross straight out if he’d had sex with men before we’d gotten together — or even while we were together? Had he really loved me? Had he loved Doria? Yes, I knew that he had. I knew that whatever had happened surely had come about before we were married. But I yearned to hear it from him, and now I never would. The hardest question of all was: Why had Ross and I neglected to get tested before we were married? I’d never imagined he was HIV-positive, and perhaps Ross hadn’t either. Or maybe he hadn’t wanted to know.
Even after I’d stopped taking AZT, I remained more tired than any twenty-seven-year-old should be. Ross and Doria and I had fought a bloody battle in which they had fallen and then ascended from the scarred field. I had been too young during the war to register its reality. I had endured it, out of the ignorance and strength of youth, in a trance. Now, as I’d healed and matured, its impact had taken root.
Jeremy appeared in my life like an apparition, at a holiday party in a loft on Great Jones Street. Swarthy, shy, and sexy in a quiet sort of way, he watched me so obviously from his post by the overloaded coat rack that I excused myself from the group and walked up to him.
“Well?” I said.
“Aren’t you used to being watched,” he replied, no upward inflection. It was the most interesting question I had been asked in a while.
We escaped to a bar, where he told me he’d almost become a doctor but had gone into medical research.
“AIDS?” I asked.
“Oh, cancer’s OK,” I said.
“Relieved you approve.”
I slipped my shoe off under the table, raised my foot up along the inside of his leg, and rested it on top of his thigh.
“That’s nice,” he said.
“Does it hurt?”
So he rubbed my foot with his strong hands, and we talked about proliferating cells, a subject I found strangely restful and abstract. He had a melodious baritone voice. I thought that, in another life, he and I would have done very nicely together. As it was, we could only linger in this bar until the place closed and then wander the streets, kissing at crossings and on my stoop before the cold drove us inside, where I’d let him hold me in the shadowy foyer but go no further. Then we would do it all over again another night, and maybe once more, if he was patient. If he was too patient, I would pick a fight, and off he would go.
That’s how it had happened with other men I’d met, but it didn’t happen like that with Jeremy. Nothing derailed his pursuit, and I couldn’t be as gruff and combative as I usually was. When I told him, after weeks of our just kissing and going out to dinner, that I was HIV-positive, he put his face in his hands and cried. We shivered outside on a park bench, and, after a bit, he got up and took me by cab to his apartment. Anxiety had kept me from sleeping with anyone since Ross and Doria had died, but Jeremy assured me that safe sex was just that — safe. As he made love to me, I was alternately insatiable and hyperventilating with fear.
I felt suspicious of my good fortune. In the months that followed I enjoyed Jeremy as if on vacation, but also walked around frowning and trying to discern what disaster would get me this time — besides AIDS. I made him keep proving himself. I accused him, without any grounds, of being attracted to men, and when I finally told him about Ross and Doria, I used my confession aggressively, hurling my dead at him as a defense against the hopes he had awakened in me. He flinched, then slumped, his large brown shoulders rounding, a posture of vulnerability that I hated. It was dawn, and the sheets rippled around us in the watery light of his bedroom.
“We should get married,” he said.
“I think it would be best.”
“What, you’ve taken on cancer, and now you’re taking on me?”
“Don’t do that,” he said, and he grabbed the back of my neck, causing the short hairs there to stand up and laugh, even as I strained to get away. He pulled me over and cradled me against his beautiful, mortal body and held me fast.
“But you have to marry an Indian woman,” I said. His parents were British, by way of Bombay.
I began finding joy instead of pain in my museum-gallery-theater churches. At night, while Jeremy slept, I would sit on his little balcony ten stories up and commune with the sky. If it was windy, I felt as if the rickety platform might be ripped away from the building. I thrilled to this sensation, imagining myself flying out into the night sky, a small missile tossed up among the stars. I wanted to die like that: up in space and not cowering on the ground.
Sometimes, awakening and finding me gone from his side, he would come and scold me and bring me back to bed. I would talk for hours, and often he’d fall asleep to the sound of my murmuring. In his presence I could safely imagine being alive again and rehearse for life. I would inhale Jeremy’s bittersweet scent, like sugar and moss. I’d taste him, licking swiftly and carefully at his skin and examining its texture with my fingertips. Despite how much I wanted all of this — him, the night, the stars — my caution and fear would not go away but followed me like the giant shadow I remembered casting on the grass as I’d played in my parents’ yard on late afternoons.
At last I would sleep. I was beginning to dream good dreams, ordinary dreams that gave sustenance to my waking life. And I was beginning to have the outrageous desire for another baby.
And so I married Jeremy in England, amid the forced cheer of his family, without any of mine in attendance — they wouldn’t have come if I’d invited them. Several months later Jeremy and I discussed going to China for a baby. China would have entrusted a daughter to us, we learned, but because of my HIV status, we would not have been allowed back into the country with her.
Then, in a shift that seemed nothing less than heavenly deliverance, protease inhibitors changed everything. The new drug would prevent me from passing along the virus to my unborn child. I’d be able to get pregnant.
When I was carrying Laura, I knew that, even with all the precautions and tests, there remained a slight chance that she would arrive infected, but I never believed she would. I talked to her in the womb, telling her of clouds and water and ships and kites and ducks and giraffes and earthworms and home computers and cellphones and movies and every other thing she would soon discover for herself. I wasn’t even relieved when she was born healthy, for I had foreseen it.
Since meeting Jeremy I’d completed a bachelor’s degree in art history, but after Laura’s birth my academic and career ambitions dissolved. I wanted nothing but her, though I sometimes “acceded,” as Jeremy put it, to being with him. I still loved my husband, but he had to accept that Laura was my life, my air. It became my habit, if the weather was mild and clear, to spread a blanket on the lawn of our new home in Westchester County and lie there with Laura for hours, gazing up at the trees, everything so quiet that the sound of the wind in the leaves was all-encompassing. At seven o’clock we would get into the car and pick Jeremy up from the train station.
Laura was dark and strong like her father; a fat, happy child whose temperature ran rather hot. But despite her warm constitution, Laura craved sun. After she’d started to crawl, she traveled to patches of brightness on the carpet and stretched out and rolled in the light.
I no longer felt I had to “let go” of my first family, as some had counseled. I had two daughters, one I held in my arms and one I held in my memory, but both were equally real. In this new present I could remember and cherish Doria without pain. Feeding Laura in her highchair, I told her that Doria had opened her mouth the same way, like a baby bird.
“Your sister’s favorite was kiwi,” I said. Laura liked bananas above all.
In the afternoons, on our blanket under the trees, I described Ross’s childhood to her. A dairy farm had adjoined his parents’ yard, and Ross had painted pictures of cows and cut them out and placed them into shoe-box dioramas, which had expanded and grown elaborate as he’d gotten older.
“Ross was one of those people,” I said to Laura, now a toddler, “who knew exactly what he would do from a young age. And his parents were kind Midwesterners who did not understand him but always supported him.”
I spoke to Laura about her own father as well, about England, and about India, where we would travel one day: how elephants lumbered in the streets with reflectors pasted on their hindquarters to prevent their being struck by cars in the dark. Laura fell back on the grass, clapping her hands in an ecstasy of elephants, which she had seen in picture books.
Someday I wanted her to see the place where her father was from. I even began to make room in myself for my own family, and I taught my daughter the ballads my father had sung to me when I was a child. I was passing on to Laura all of her people, not just the ones who had died.
How can I express the hopes I had for Laura? I wondered how one small child could embody such dreams, just as I’d wondered how poor Doria could hold so much pain. And yet they did, as children do everywhere, every day, whether fed, clothed, and housed by adults or riddled by our bullets and starved by our greed.
At two years and eight months, Laura changed. Her temperature grew highly unstable; she complained of being too hot or too cold. She developed fiery rashes and allergies to most detergents and many foods. Bright light stung her eyes, and in direct sun she held her fists to her face.
Then this seemed to pass, or at least diminish, but whatever had happened to her caused her to stand stiller now and respond to people with a grave expression. If another child fell and hurt herself on the playground, Laura quivered and fussed and had to be comforted the same as if she’d been hurt. With us, she absorbed both psychic and physical states. If I was out of sorts, so was she. On days I felt tired, she would limp through the house at my heels.
Mostly she was still a happy, albeit more volatile, child, and doctors assured us of her health. But as the months passed my own certainty felt under siege. Holding her in the crook of my arm after an upset, I wondered guiltily whether I hadn’t passed along some emotional illness to her, just as I’d passed on the virus to Doria.
I found a child psychologist in our town, Dr. Raymen, and met with her without Laura there at first.
“Do you feel that anxiety over your HIV may be affecting your daughter?” the doctor asked. She had auburn-gray hair the same shade and style as my mother’s, and this distressed me.
“No,” I said. “There is nothing anymore to be anxious about.”
“But surely a certain uneasiness remains,” Dr. Raymen said. “Do you have side effects from the meds?”
Yes, I told her. My intestines roiled, my sleep was disturbed, and I’d spotted signs of facial wasting. Stress made it look worse. I was ugly, skinny, and sick. But this was really not much to bear, given what I’d been through before.
The next day I brought Laura with me to meet Dr. Raymen. We went into a playroom and sat at a short table. Laura touched a painted yellow chair with pleasure before sitting down in it. Her sensitivity extended to colors and nature and pretty things and was positive in that way; I was proud, in fact, of her appreciation for beauty.
I noticed that Laura’s overalls hung loosely on her; her eyes appeared huge, and the topknot we had made of her hair, which had seemed pert and jovial that morning, listed to one side. Her age was three years and five months.
At one point in her conversation with the psychologist, Laura mentioned that “things happen to people.”
“What happens to people?” the doctor asked.
“Which people?” asked Dr. Raymen.
“Daddy and me.”
“When will you die?”
“Soon, I think,” Laura said.
“I believe you’re wrong there,” said Dr. Raymen.
Laura squinted, considering.
“What about Mommy?” the doctor asked. “Will Mommy die?”
Back home I called Jeremy at the lab and told him what had transpired, and we discussed how to make the situation clearer to Laura. At dinner Jeremy produced four simple charts he had composed on the train, showing two fathers and two girls and how they were different on their insides. Laura listened and watched, contemplatively chewing her lamb chop. That night, after she’d fallen asleep, I took two framed photographs off the top of the piano in the living room: a snapshot of Doria at six months, and a studio portrait of the three of us — Ross, Doria, and me.
“You don’t have to do that,” Jeremy said.
He was too perfect, I thought. Too patient, even too handsome in his faded blue shirt, wearing his black hair longer these days because I liked the waves in it. Who was this man?
I began to put the pictures away in the drawer where we kept DVDs, but then I reconsidered and took them up to the attic. When I returned, my nostrils filled with mustiness, Jeremy was sitting on the couch waiting for me. He patted the cushion beside him. I sat. Too easy, too perfect, my new life. The damage I’d done to Laura could not be so easily rectified. I could not wish the dead away, nor, it seemed, could they coexist with the living.
“I should never have had her,” I said.
“Oh, bosh,” Jeremy answered.
The next week I found Laura in my bedroom holding the dangly earrings I had worn for Doria and lifting them up to the sun-filled window behind the dresser. I didn’t wear those earrings anymore. I’d never shown them to Laura and kept them in a velvet pouch of old jewelry at the back of my underwear drawer. She must have found them there.
Laura didn’t hear me as I stood in the doorway. She was mesmerized by the way the earrings caught the light, which was why Doria had loved them, as would any small child.
“Laura,” I said sharply. She turned, and I composed myself. “Would you like those earrings?” I asked, wanting to grind their glass beneath my heel. Why had I kept them?
Laura grinned and ran off with the earrings to her bedroom, where I knew she would place them in her pink treasure box.
Although Laura seemed to accept that she and Jeremy were not dying, she remained high-strung and hypersensitive. We had to be careful about music and storybooks and other types of stimulation too close to bedtime, or she’d never settle down.
Jeremy, who was working weekends to meet an important deadline, sometimes came home with a migraine. One late afternoon, as he lay in our darkened bedroom, Laura put her hands to her own head and moaned loudly.
“What is it?” I said crossly, recalling that she must have overheard our conversation about his headaches on the ride back from the train station.
“Head. Head,” she said, and she let her forehead sink down onto the table, on top of the picture she had been drawing.
“Sit up,” I said. “Nothing’s wrong with your head.”
She wouldn’t. “Head. Head.”
I took her by the arm and forced her to her feet. “We’re going outside,” I said. “You’ll wake your father.”
“I can’t,” she cried, pulling away.
But Jeremy had already gotten up, and now he found us. “Come on, Laurie,” he said, taking her hand and leading her back to the bedroom. “We’ll lie down and sleep the hurt away.”
“You’ll just reinforce the connection . . . or whatever it is,” I said to him later. “And neither should you contradict me in front of her. Don’t you agree that we need consistency in our discipline?”
“I don’t see that this is about discipline,” he said.
“She has to brace up!” I said. “How will she fare in preschool next year with ruthless, cruel children? How will she survive?”
“The same as we all do,” he said. “Look, things will change, or they won’t. But you must stop seeing this as your fault. What happened to you was not your fault.”
But I believed it was. I had mentally poisoned my second daughter, just as I had literally poisoned the first. In my head they’d merged. Some days I even disliked my living child, convinced that she had been sent to remind me of my past, instead of to help me heal from it.
Jeremy was athletic, and he decided that building up Laura’s physical confidence might offset her emotionalism. Out went the tricycle and in came a big-girl bike with training wheels.
Before long the training wheels came off. As I stood at the kitchen sink one Saturday, washing dishes and gazing out the window, I heard a scream that seemed to come from inside my head. It came again, from the street this time, from Laura.
At the door, I ran into Jeremy, who was rushing in with Laura in his arms, her head pressed to his chest, where redness bloomed rapidly from a gash in her chin.
“She’s all right,” he said.
She would not let me take her from him, so I drove to the hospital while he held her fast. What the hell had Jeremy been thinking, removing the training wheels? As I parked, the paper-thin trees near the hospital entrance shivered in the breeze. Laura was silent — that is what I will never forget — bearing her wound with an eerie calm.
The ER doctor stitched up Laura’s chin, reassured us, and sent us home. I sat by her bed through the night, holding her hand whenever she woke, and like the last hiss of air released from a worn-out bicycle tire, my shadow passed decisively from me. Watching the good, healthy blood flow from Laura’s chin, I had seen that I needed to back off from her. Her blood didn’t carry the virus that mine does, that Doria’s did. She’d have accidents; I couldn’t always protect her. But Laura’s hand, with its firm, puffy flesh, lay in my own and affirmed that I had given her life, that my body had been able to do that. And that was all. I let her go. I let her be.
This story turns out to be mine, and not Laura’s. Laura will write her own story. In the last four years I have nearly completed an advanced degree in art history. I study composition and design, the intricacies of the relationships among various elements. I’ve come to understand that my love of art is in part a longing for perfection: I want to make everything stop, so it can be arranged just so. I love to sit in the dark staring at slides, alive in color and form, but also not alive, motionless. In paintings, even the sunlight doesn’t shift, so that I can almost cup a pool of it in my palm.
My life seems much less provisional. I have let myself feel that, finally. Laura has gotten stronger. She still draws pictures of people’s emotions, but she’s also a formidable soccer player. Perhaps some of Doria’s essence passed into Laura; perhaps it was more than my own dark moods. Who can be sure?
I have learned that what Arnie said that day in the park is right: we are all in the same boat and should be thankful to be alive. There are no lines, no divisions.
Jeremy struggles to get ahead in his lab; I work on my thesis and study; and Laura is busy becoming Laura. Some days, as I stand at the sink doing the breakfast dishes, if there is a particular lilt to the breeze and the ghosts swell the trees, I focus instead on the clatter of Laura’s feet on the stairs, and I turn from the window and see the living off to school.