After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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“I can’t come to New York,” Edith says over the phone to her only living daughter. She is squeezing a sponge that doesn’t need to be squeezed, standing at her kitchen sink, where a window looks out at skeletal tree branches. It is early April, and the trees of Boston have weathered much this winter: blizzards that smothered cars, wind that twisted metal, hail that punched through glass.
“Why can’t you come?” Alex asks, a slight pleading in her voice. “It’s not like I live exactly where Melina did.”
True, Alex now has an apartment on the other side of Central Park, five blocks away from where her sister lived. Edith has noted this on an old laminated map of Manhattan that looks to her like a graph in which people’s lives and fates are plotted out in numbers.
“Daddy died in Boston, and you still can be in Boston.”
Your father wasn’t murdered, Edith thinks but doesn’t say. Instead she glares at her stainless-steel toaster and the distorted reflections in it: a melting wooden chair, a table bent inward, a bloated spice jar filled with cinnamon.
“Maaaaa . . . ,” Alex says, and her subtle distress drifts like wind on grass, from blade to blade, down Edith’s spine. After a long pause Alex says softly, “I feel like you don’t want to see me anymore.”
Edith is inhaling the mustiness of the sponge in her hand and considering taking a bath, drinking a glass of Baileys, and falling asleep.
“That’s why you won’t come,” Alex says. “It’s about me. It’s about you being too tired to be with me.” Somewhere in her voice, Edith can perceive that a tear has formed in her daughter’s eye, and now she imagines Alex patting it away with her fingertip. Alex is probably standing near an open window, barefoot, with her cellphone’s blue light cast against her flushed cheek. All of her hair is probably tied up in a ponytail, a ponytail so high that all the shorter, finer hairs at the nape of her neck are exposed. Edith has always been able to picture her daughters and what they are doing, as if some part of her mind contains footage of their every move.
“It’s not that I don’t want to see you,” Edith insists, although she can sense that her voice is not forceful enough. “It’s that I wish you wouldn’t live there.” Alex runs the faucet as Edith says this. She’s in the kitchen washing out a mug, Edith decides, and this mug is blue. When talking to one another on the phone, both of them have a tendency to migrate into the kitchen. It is the least sentimental place to speak.
“But, Mom, it’s hard for me to come home right now,” Alex explains in an even tone, as if, after a breath or two, she has decided to not let herself get upset. “I’m going to have summer classes, and you’re working less than you used to, and I just feel like if you’re working less, you could come here. You could stay in my apartment while I went to class. Afterward I could make you dinner, or we could go out to dinner somewhere nice. While I was studying, you could walk around, shop, or maybe sit in a cafe and talk to a nice man. There are lots of nice older men in my neighborhood. Successful older men.”
“I have nothing to say to successful people.”
“Mom, yes, you do. Remember that man last year in the mall? The one who said you were a petite Sophia Loren?”
“No,” Edith says and walks toward the refrigerator.
“OK, fine,” Alex says, sounding as if she is stretching her arms and pulling her ponytail loose. “But I need to get off the phone, then.”
Before hanging up, the two of them say, “Loveyou,” so quickly it becomes a single word.
“Why does it seem that after a certain amount of time, there is this expectation that I have to pretend I’m OK when I will never be OK? If anything, time only increases the distance I must cross to see her, to hear her, to have her near.”
So begins a chapter in the self-help book Edith has started reading: Mothers Who Lose Daughters and Live. It is written by and for surviving mothers whose daughters have been raped and murdered. Its writings contain the secret language that this community is familiar with: skin found under a daughter’s fingernails means she fought, whereas nails missing or broken means she really fought; bruises on the wrists signify that her hands were restrained, her body potentially dragged; and the word sodomy does not necessarily connote anal sex — it could also mean the use of objects.
The book is a gift from a woman at work whom Edith barely knows. Originally Edith was bothered. She has grown increasingly tired of being told that she must accept what happened to Melina in the same way that she accepts the date of her own birth, December 15, 1953, or any other aspect of her life: that she moved to Boston to attend a nursing-studies program at Emmanuel College; that she was married to a man for nine years, and that six months after their divorce he died. But how? How can she possibly accept that her older daughter moved to New York City to go to law school, and one year later her body was found next to a highway, wrapped in a motel blanket?
Three years after Melina’s death, Edith still has days in which she feels violent toward people, particularly those who cut her off to get a good parking space or purposely ignore her when she waits at the drugstore counter or tell her with their eyes glazed over that she is in the wrong place, in the wrong line, at the wrong store. Some days she wants no one to know what she has suffered: she is through with the camera crews and the ringing telephone and the word slain in newsprint. But then there are moments when she thinks everyone should know: the stranger who bumped her so hard she lost her balance; the dentist who told her that she needed a mint; the salesclerk who gave her a sarcastic grin when her expired credit card was declined. Into those faces, and many more, she wants to scream: My daughter was murdered! Murdered! And look how you treat me!
During the past year Edith’s best friend, Lucy, and Lucy’s husband, J.R., have introduced her to bachelors they know: a Con Edison worker with a cushy retirement plan; a man named Jud who wore a Red Sox hat and had a raspy, nervous laugh; an international traveler they’d met while standing outside the Cologne Cathedral in Germany; and now Carl, an old friend of J.R.’s who once worked with him in a rifle factory. When Edith first arrived for dinner, Lucy trapped her in the hallway to tell her about Carl’s two years in Vietnam; his failure running his own business; his wife leaving him for another man; and, most notably, his son’s recent death from brain cancer.
“It’s really nice to meet you, Edith,” he says when she walks into the surgical brightness of Lucy’s kitchen. He is seated at the table set for four.
Initially there is the awkwardness of physical appraisals. Edith has light green eyes, olive skin, and a white flash of teeth, but she is no Sophia Loren. Her hair is frizzy and shapeless. There is a visible patch of eczema on her neck, and, despite her flattering gray slacks, she’s wearing a hooded sweat shirt with stains on the cuffs. Carl rises to shake her hand, and Edith notices that he is dressed with care: brown corduroys, a white T-shirt that hints that he may be rather svelte for fifty-seven, and a tweed jacket with corduroy elbow patches that match his pants. His hair is richly peppered with gray.
Alex has told her if she doesn’t like dealing with these dinners, she should say something. But Lucy and J.R. are the type of friends that Edith’s book categorizes as “angels.” Angels do not shy away from talk of Melina or try to change the subject or look concerned for Edith when she speaks of her too much. “Angels,” she has read, “do not deny the existence of someone who was very much a part of you, and still is.”
Thus, if Edith suddenly begins talking of the trial, recounting a particular morning when she stood alone on the front steps of the courthouse watching the defense lawyer finish a cigarette; if she describes how he snapped his cellphone shut once he saw her; if she tells them of the tea she held in her hand, how hot the paper cup felt against her fingertips; if she speaks of any of this, Lucy and J.R. will listen. They’ll rub their temples; they’ll lick their lips; they’ll ask questions.
“It’s nice to meet you, Carl,” Edith says when she sits down. Her voice is not flirty or gracious. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” she adds and smiles at J.R. He smiles back at her, an anxious smile, as if he is nervous for her, or maybe for Carl.
“Been hearing a lot about you too,” Carl says.
He has a thick Boston accent, the kind she shied away from when she first moved here from Holyoke. It sounded too rough to her and, strangely, too proud. The accent suggested the speaker was a native, and this irked her. She felt like a native nowhere. Often, in an attempt to irritate Edith, Melina would adopt the Boston accent, speaking not like JFK but like a fisherman with a gun stashed in his boot. Melina adored the toughness of the accent. For her first few months in New York she had a boyfriend named Fran, who lived in Queens. She’d leave messages for Edith, mimicking his gruff voice: “I’s callin’ you, but . . . not home so . . . I’m just gonna say hiya. Hope you doin’ all right. Seeya.”
Edith had always pictured Fran in a worn leather jacket, ripped jeans, a pack of Marlboros in his pocket, and Melina admitted that, yes, he did have a leather jacket and, yes, he did smoke and, yes, there might be holes in some of his jeans, but he was beautiful. A model, Melina claimed, but Edith did not take that notion seriously until months later, when Melina took them on a detour during one of Edith’s visits. Walking along Fifty-seventh Street, Melina said, “OK, now look up.”
And there he was, this Fran, in a Banana Republic ad plastered to the side of a building. He wore a white collared shirt, the cuffs rolled up, and bluejeans with no holes. He was doe-eyed with full lips, a gentle chin, and a pink flush to his face, as if he had been up there in the heat for far too long.
“And you decided not to see him anymore?” Edith asked.
Melina shrugged and whipped her long, dark hair over her shoulder as if it were a scarf. “We had nothing in common.”
As she said this, she gazed up at Fran, a look not of regret but of satisfaction. She seemed pleased that he had been a part of her burgeoning, suddenly more interesting life. It was then that Edith saw the appeal of New York over Boston for Melina: Here she could date someone who would later appear Godzilla-sized on the side of a building. Here she could go with Godzilla to a restaurant at 2 a.m. and eat oysters prepared by a man she knew by name. Here she could take Edith to get a fifteen-dollar manicure, and they could buy beer in a convenience store, and they could carry those beers into the park; and later in the day, after a nap and a shower, they could take a taxi to Fifty-fifth Street and watch Kathleen Turner get bawdy in a living room, chanting, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Virginia Woolf?”
And then the next day, a whole other day, could begin at Tiffany’s. Edith and Melina could take an elevator to the fourth floor and pick out the perfect ring that the perfect suitor might offer; they could look at sandals and scarves and handbags that smelled richly of bottled perfumes and leather; then they could drink iced coffees together and share chocolate-filled pastries; and they’d walk so much, so long that later that night they could go to sleep despite the rush of traffic outside the bedroom window. They’d be so exhausted from all they’d seen, all they’d done that screeching brakes, loud voices, a car tire going ka-pop all became light and lilting, like the twirl of a fan.
Edith ruminates over all this while half listening to Carl at dinner. What was Fran’s last name? she wonders. Why didn’t she ask?
“Lucy tells me you work at Brigham’s,” Carl says after they’ve finished eating.
Edith nods. She is a nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“You like it there?”
“It keeps my mind working.”
“Yeah,” he says, “that’s a good thing.”
They walk to the back porch, sit in rocking chairs, and drink beer from chilled mugs while Lucy and J.R. clear the table. A calico cat moves through the yard with slow, measured steps. Seeing them beneath the porch light, it freezes, then darts into the backyard, where a fence divides Lucy and J.R.’s property from a vast field. Edith stares out into the dark field as if someone is out there, looking back at her on this porch.
“You must miss her,” he says after a pause.
His attention is on the glass in his hand, which he is swirling around slowly.
“I’m not going to say it’s not hard for me,” she says. He looks up at her now, his blue eyes unwavering. “But I suppose it’s not easy for you either,” she adds uncomfortably.
“Well,” he says, “it’s different for me. With disease, even if it’s too early, it feels like God willed it. But with you . . .” He gestures at her. “With you, it’s like God didn’t choose it. A person did. A piece-of-shit person.”
She looks toward the field again.
“But you got another one, right?”
“Yeah, I have another one,” she says and frowns. It sounds as if she were talking about a replacement of some kind, a spare tire, a backup hairbrush, an extra blender under the sink.
“She’s a great kid,” she adds. “She goes to Columbia. She’s getting her master’s in psychology.”
“Columbia,” he says. “So she’s smart like her sister?”
It is then that Edith realizes that he remembers Melina from the news. There was much emphasis on her being a straight-A student with great promise. The papers called her a “raven-haired beauty,” the “stunning student.” In real life she was pretty to everyone, beautiful to only Edith. But dead, they gave her all these descriptions, as if they were trying to make her into a mythological figure, not a girl who’d struggled with geometry and wished she were taller and hated the wide moon of her face.
“And is she OK?” Carl asks about Alex.
“She’s fine,” Edith says. “She thinks her sister watches over her.”
“She probably does. And over you too.”
“Melina . . . ,” she says and stops, hearing footsteps. Lucy has come to check on them, and now, having heard that name, she retreats, knowing that they are having a real conversation. “Melina,” Edith begins again after a long pause, “used to think that her father was with her all the time. I used to encourage her to think that. She was so young when he died. She said that one time she was brushing her teeth, looking in the mirror, and she felt his presence come over her.”
“There’s nothing wrong with thinking like that,” Carl says. “It’s natural. And I believe there’s truth to it.”
“I have trouble with it now,” she says. “If he was watching over her, then why didn’t he stop it?” She knows she is being irrational, but Carl seems receptive, squinting his eyes and nodding.
“Maybe there’s a limit to how much he can do?”
“Well, if he couldn’t protect her, then why was he watching over her in the first place?”
“Because he loves her.” Carl rubs the nape of his neck. “That might be all he can do. Ever thought of that?”
The notion that a good man can save a good woman bothers Edith. She did not raise Alex and Melina to become the kind of woman who waits for a prince. Alex herself is not even dating anyone presently, and Melina did not have a boyfriend at the time of her death. But now Edith wonders whether they weren’t safer with men around them, men loving them, men standing guard. Even if those men weren’t the right men, just stand-ins for a period of time.
On the evening Melina was killed, she had been out with a group of girlfriends. She told them she was going to get a snack at the deli, then catch a cab on her own. Her friends offered to wait, but it was cold, hard to get a cab, and they already had two waiting.
“Just go,” she said. “It’s not a big deal.”
In the deli she was reported to be intoxicated and a bit obnoxious. When the cashier told her how much she owed, she mimicked his accent while she unfolded her bills. She took a long time paying for her items: a liter of water, a bag of Doritos, a small container of sour cream, some pieces of ginger candy.
The cashier was Indian. Edith saw him on the news and later at the trial, and she continued to see him whenever she reimagined Melina’s last hours. Sometimes she began with his face, with the counter where he stood, the cigarettes behind him, the special on Newports, the way the cash register slammed open when Melina handed over the money she owed.
“She was pretty,” the cashier said, “pretty and drunk, and that is not unusual to me. I did not worry for her.”
Outside Melina could not find a cab. It was 4 A.M. on a Saturday. She waved and waved; no one stopped. Until a black Lincoln Continental pulled up: a gypsy cab.
She got in.
If she had been with a boyfriend, it wouldn’t have happened. If she had had a boyfriend, he would’ve told her to go back into the deli to wait until he’d hailed a legitimate cab. If she had had a boyfriend with her, she would not have been so appealing to Thomas J. Brindle, better known to his friends, both in his Brooklyn neighborhood and in prison, as Tom, Tommy, and Tomcat.
“I picked her up on the corner of Houston and West Broadway,” he said when questioned by the police. “I took her to her apartment, and she asked me in. She was good-looking. What was I going to say? I went in, had sex with her, told her I had a nice time, and then I left. I don’t know what happened to her afterward. If I remember right, she said she was going to go for a walk.”
In her grief Edith has become more imaginative than anyone else she knows. And yet she still cannot fathom how this man could have ever thought his story would stand. How could he have thought that they wouldn’t know that Melina had never set foot back in her apartment? How could he have thought that the hair on his head, the scraped-off layers of his flesh, his DNA would not betray him?
“What kills us the most is how stupid these men are,” begins another chapter of Edith’s book. This chapter explains the pros and cons of facing the perpetrator in prison. According to these accounts it is not unusual to discover that his family does not visit him; that he has grown sluggish and somehow diminished; that he has found Jesus. And if you want him to say he is sorry, he probably will, although he might cite an excuse: drugs, his upbringing, a co-conspirator, Satan. One mother explained how the man she visited had become a nervous insect “that I could squash beneath my shoe.”
The majority of the mothers who contributed to the book are from the South, and their antagonists are often on death row. Thomas J. Brindle will not be executed. Originally Edith was outraged, but upon reading about mothers who had visited these men, Edith realized death was an easy way out. Leaving Brindle alone in a room seemed more punitive. For decades all he had to look forward to was his own death, then his day of judgment — which one mother compared to sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to be cut open without anesthesia.
“I hope God shoves a spiked club up his ass,” the woman wrote, and, reading this, Edith smiled grimly.
“It’s nothing serious,” Edith tells anyone who asks, after she’s started seeing Carl. She likes having a beer with him, or maybe some Baileys. She likes getting in his car and driving with him to a restaurant outside of Boston. She likes the names of the restaurants — the Dolphin House, Schooner’s, Harbor Lights — as well as their dark-wood interiors, their lamps that hang on chains above each table.
Over dinner she and Carl do not speak only of sad topics, like the heartbreaking necessity of closed coffins. That is, however, a topic that they can discuss with one another; they both know when to segue into such territory and when to stave it off for another time. But a confrontation occurs on their seventh dinner date. After they agree to share a dish of mussels, Carl glances at the menu and asks, “Do you want a white-wine sauce or a tomato sauce on the mussels?” Looking up at Edith, he adds, “I have a preference for tomato.”
“I have a preference for white wine.”
“But,” he says, “did I mention that I have a preference for tomato sauce?” He’s joking, she knows, yet she still eyes him with disdain. “OK, tomato sauce this time,” Edith says. “But in the future —”
“Oh,” he interrupts, “we have a fewcha?”
“In the future few days.”
“I see. So we’ll be eating mussels again tomorrow?”
“Maybe,” she says and looks down at the menu. He is still gazing at her while she debates whether to get the baked sole or the baked shrimp. Alex’s favorite dish is baked stuffed shrimp, and she has made the statement that she cannot marry anyone who does not feel the same.
Edith glances at Carl and considers how difficult it will be for Alex to find the right man. It is hard enough, she thinks, to find someone you love with whom you’re also compatible; but now Alex bears the additional burden of having to find someone who understands what she’s lost. How can Alex stand to be so wise, so young? How many people her own age has Edith met who don’t seem to understand the gravity of life, the delicate border between what has happened and what can?
“I’m getting the baked stuffed shrimp,” Edith says.
Carl takes a sip of water, watching her closely. She is wearing mascara and sheer lipstick, and her hair is covering the eczema, which has retreated to the back of her neck.
“But let’s go back,” he says. “To before. Is there a fewcha? I mean, you’ve kissed me, only after drinking a Baileys — I cannot imagine a kiss without a Baileys — and I’ve been a complete gentleman. I enjoy being a gentleman, but . . .”
“It’s six o’clock,” she says. “It’s too early, too bright to be talking about what you’re talking about.”
He stares at her as if seeing for the first time how difficult she can be.
“We are in a bright room in public,” she says. “There is a wooden oar hanging over your head.”
He looks up, craning his neck. The oar lurks. “It could fall on me,” he says.
“It could kill you.”
He smiles at this, as if this admission is beautiful. And for a while the fewcha is successfully averted.
Later, on the long drive home, there is silence and woods and stars. Finally Carl’s sedan pulls into her driveway, its wheels grinding the gravel. Their windows are down, the car engine off. The crickets have begun their symphony of summers long past; summers full of bee stings, sunburned backs, potato salad with too much mayo.
Looking at her house, Edith realizes she dreads going inside. The potted plants, the creaky floorboards, the way the hall light creates a half-moon on the wall — all of it seems to match the limitless, dull ache of the crickets.
“I’m not exactly the happiest person,” she says suddenly. “Why would you want a future with me?”
“You’re a very attractive woman.”
“And funny when you want to be.”
“I’d rather be with an attractive, funny, unhappy person than with a plain, serious, happy person.”
She shrugs. “I don’t know what you want me to say. Sometimes I enjoy myself. With you.”
Carl stirs, then leans across the seat. His touch is intense. He tastes of salt and sprigs of rosemary. His stubble is pleasingly rough. There is friction in her face against his, friction in the way he’s pressing his weight into her, friction in the way that she leans forward and grasps the seat-belt buckle. For a moment it seems to Edith as though the crickets and their sad weaponry could actually be disarmed.
He keeps kissing her. The soft rhythm of his tongue in her mouth, the taste of him, the sense of how firmly he can hold her — all of this is an awakening. Carl’s budding touch seems to suggest that Edith has more than one choice, that there are doorways and hallways of possibility. And then Edith has a glowing vision of Alex, alone in bed, spooning a pillow laid lengthwise beside her body.
“Do you want to come in?” she murmurs into his ear.
“Think so,” he says.
Later, her cheeks still tingling from being kissed and abraded, Edith holds the phone in her hand.
“Is something the matter?” Alex asks in a sleepy voice. “Did something happen?”
“No,” Edith says and looks at Carl in her bed. He is sleeping on his stomach, clutching a pillow close to his face.
“But I’ve decided,” she says. “I need to try.”
“To come. See you. OK?”
“All right.” Alex’s voice sounds as if she has fallen back against the pillows. “That’ll be good.”
Ten days later Carl drives Edith to the train station in New Haven. They drink coffee from styrofoam cups and share a doughnut. Carl is pleased. He seems to think that Edith has chosen to take the train from New Haven so that he can drive her there, and she lets him think that. In truth she has chosen this route to avoid Penn Station. Just the thought of the giant arrival/departure board at Penn, of everyone gazing up at it, is unsettling to her. Arriving in Grand Central via Metro North seems a more pleasant choice. Edith has a vague recollection of its sea-foam ceiling, its golden etchings of heavenly bodies, a horse with wings.
Leaving Carl — after two kisses and a mutually prolonged hug — she enters the train with a suitcase and her copy of Mothers Who Lose Daughters and Live. She has only one chapter left, and she has saved those pages for her trip beneath the empty skies of Connecticut. As she enters Manhattan, she reads: “You can take the girl out of this world, but you can’t take her energy. Energy converts to energy, and that energy wants you to live. It’s asking you to live right now. That’s how you found these words. She put them here. For you.”
The train shuttles past 125th Street and into a dark tunnel. There is just the feeling of forward momentum, the train car jostling on the tracks, and the sound of mechanical squealing. Then suddenly there is light again, the yellow surge of Grand Central ahead.
Energy converts to energy. Edith considers this not only for her own sake but for all of the mothers she has come to know in the book. In reading about them, she has often left herself momentarily, finding herself on that mysterious pathway known as prayer, and she has grown to care for these other mothers, which is both a release and a pleasure. It has been hard for Edith to feel for other people. She does not feel for her neighbor who lost her job or for her other neighbors who are having a hard time with their teenage son.
After the doors slide open at Grand Central, Edith steps into the crowd and walks toward the marble hallways. A slick-haired man in a suit, about to dart in front of her, stops himself.
“Please,” he says, nodding politely.
She smiles, then passes by him. A woman carrying a brown Bloomingdale’s bag billowing with clothing nearly hits Edith in the calf with her bag.
“Almost got you,” the woman says with a laugh. “Sorry.”
Edith tucks her hair behind her ear and grins, gliding through the archway with the words main concourse. People who might crash into her see her in advance. They turn, swerve, stop. Heavenly bodies unfurl on the sea-foam ceiling overhead: floating stars, microscopic organisms, godly paisleys.
Once out onto Vanderbilt Avenue, Edith easily finds a cab. No lines, no hailing. Its yellow bulk simply awaits her like a horse and carriage. As she gets in, she tells the driver confidently, “Eighty-fourth and Third,” and up Madison Avenue they proceed.
Energy converts to energy.
Edith is aware in the feel of her palm, in the beat of her heart, in the scatter of faces on the street that there is, in fact, energy. And she feels no desire to brace herself against it.
Of course, she cannot say for sure if the Metro North conductor hadn’t called her “sweetheart,” if the people at Grand Central weren’t so cordial, if the crowd around the information kiosk had not been so thin, that her own energy would feel so positive.
Perhaps it is the sky of towering windows above her. Perhaps it is the man wearing a sweatband and dancing for change on the sidewalk. This city, she thinks, as a car horn blares, this city is Melina. She is in this cab with me, and I am driving through her. I am heading north up her crowded spirit.
I am here, Edith thinks. Here with you.