Read an Excerpt
The ArrivalsA Novel
By Moore, Meg Mitchell
Reagan Arthur BooksCopyright © 2011 Moore, Meg Mitchell
All right reserved.
It was eight thirty in the morning, June, a Saturday, and the sunlight was coming in the kitchen window at such an angle that William’s granddaughter, Olivia, had to shield her eyes with one hand while she bent her head to sip from the straw in her glass of orange juice. In a couple of minutes the sun would shift and begin to move over the garden, out of Olivia’s eyes—William had sat at that table for too many years not to know that—but even so he rose and pulled the cord on the shade, lowering it six inches.
Sitting back down, he pushed aside a stack of coloring pages on which Olivia, who had been up for two and a half hours already, had begun making halfhearted scribbles and swirls and even, in the corner of one sheet of paper, a small triangular object that she claimed was a dog. He opened the front section of the Burlington Free Press, unwittingly setting the sports section on top of a small puddle of orange juice.
Olivia watched him. She was three, but she would tell you with no small amount of dignity that she was three and five-eighths. William, who had been the one to get up with her, was on his fourth cup of coffee. A fifth was not out of the question. At the stove, Ginny, his wife, was scrambling the eggs Olivia had requested for breakfast.
“Well,” he said, “when do you suppose Lillian will be down?”
“I don’t know,” Ginny said without turning around. She extracted the saltshaker from its berth in the spice cupboard and shook. “Eventually, I’m sure. I’m surprised the baby is still sleeping.”
“That baby cries all the time,” said Olivia. She screwed up her tiny, perfect nose. “He’s a bad baby.”
“He’s not a bad baby,” said William. “He’s your brother. That’s just what babies do: they cry. You cried too, when you were a baby.”
“I did?” asked Olivia airily. “I bet I didn’t.”
“Oh, you did,” said William. “You cried all the time. You cried oceans.”
Ginny carried the plates to the table and set them down before William and Olivia.
“No toast yet,” she said. “I’m working on it.”
“I don’t like scrambled eggs,” said Olivia.
“You liked them yesterday,” said Ginny. “Five minutes ago, when I asked you what you wanted for breakfast, you liked them then, too.”
“But I don’t like them anymore,” Olivia said implacably. “I like soft-boiled.”
Lillian had called two days ago to let them know she was coming. Not to ask them if it was all right if she came, but to tell them. William listened to Ginny’s end of the phone conversation from the deck, where he had the Red Sox game on the old portable television, a beer in his hand. He was looking out over the garden, still tentative in early summer.
“All of you, then?” he heard Ginny say. “The whole kit and caboodle?” Then a pause. Then “Oh, I see,” but in a way that said she didn’t see. At last she appeared at the door, flushed from her energetic dinner preparations, faintly flustered.
“They’re coming,” she said. “Lillian and the children. Tomorrow!” And off she went in a frenzy of arrangements, which took her long past their usual bedtime. There were fresh sheets to put on the beds, and the Pack ’n Play to set up for the baby in Lillian’s old room. A last-minute trip to the grocery store, to purchase the very eggs at which Olivia was now turning up her nose.
Later, in the semidarkness of their bedroom—the moon was full, or nearly so—William finally had an opportunity to ask her.
“Why just Lillian and the children? Why not Tom?”
“He has to work, I suppose.” Ginny was on her side, turned toward him, her hands settled tidily under her chin.
“Over the weekend? He has to work over the weekend?”
“I got the impression Lillian might stay a bit longer. Have a bit of a vacation.” Ginny’s eyes were closed. Her words came out in a fragmented way; it was as if she were speaking through a net. She wore a sleeveless nightgown of a color that had once been a vibrant blue but had long ago faded to muted gray.
“How long?” He was thinking of the weekend plans that would now have to be changed: the dinner with Hal and Maria canceled or postponed, the Sunday papers unread, the Saturday-afternoon baseball game unwatched.
“I don’t know,” Ginny said. “But shame on you for asking. You should be happy to have her.”
“Mmmmh,” said William.
Lillian was the oldest of their three children. She had left home ages ago. William supposed he could begin counting her absence when she went off to Boston College as a freshman, with a giant paisley duffel bag and a tangle of auburn hair. Though there had been a brief postcollegiate stint when something—a lack of money, a broken heart, a lost job—had driven her back home for six months, during which she’d slept away the days in the very bed in which she now reposed and passed the evenings in a sullen state in front of the television or out with friends, returning from those outings in a state of mild hysteria or ebullience.
Lillian had been gone from them for so long, in fact, that sometimes, despite not-infrequent visits, William found it difficult to call her image to mind, and when he did it was an outdated picture that presented itself. A girl on a soccer field with two missing teeth and scabbed knees, not a woman who had transformed herself—effortlessly, it seemed, almost magically—from befuddled youth to capable adult and mother. Witness Olivia here on the stool beside him, witness the baby asleep in the room upstairs.
So why did he still feel this irksome responsibility toward Lillian, this desire to protect her? And protect her from what? Because, now that she was here, it turned out that despite his initial lack of enthusiasm, despite the concern about the paper and the game and the plans, nothing made him happier, nothing made him feel safer and more at ease with the world, than having one of his children under his roof once again.
“I’ll go and look in on them,” he said now, standing.
“You haven’t eaten your eggs.” Ginny’s voice rose an octave. “Is nobody going to eat these eggs I cooked?”
“I’m not,” said Olivia with great cheer.
“I’ll have a look, and then I’ll eat.”
“Don’t, William. If the baby’s sleeping—well, you’ll only make things worse. And the eggs won’t keep. Nothing drearier than cold eggs.”
“What’s ‘drearier’?” interjected Olivia.
“Worse,” said Ginny. “Nothing worse than cold eggs.”
“I’ll go and listen, then,” William said. “Outside the door.”
And he did exactly that. Ginny had put Lillian in her old room, which she done over as a guest room, with a cheerful flowered comforter and a vase of pastel marbles on the white dresser. Olivia was deposited in Rachel’s old room, which remained much as Rachel had left it, in a state of organized chaos, with a Kurt Cobain poster on the back of the closet door. Stephen’s old room they had done up as absolutely nothing, and as a result it had become the receptacle of myriad suitcases, once-used mailers with bubble wrap sticking out of them, winter boots packed in boxes after the spring thaw had come, however late and reluctantly, to Vermont.
William paused outside the door. They had lived for so long in this house, the bunch of them, that he failed, mostly, to take in any of the details. For example: in this hallway, with its various nicks and chips, evidence of the children’s (and then later Olivia’s) propensity for banging things inappropriately against the walls, hung a school portrait for each of the children. Here was Rachel, toothy, dark-haired, eagerly leaning toward the camera. Stephen, the year he got his braces, pulling his lips forward purposefully to hide them, his cowlick standing at attention.
And here, next to Stephen, was Lillian. She must have been in junior high in this picture. You could see, even there in the dim light of the hallway, despite the age of the picture, the luminous skin, the beauty emerging from the little girl.
From downstairs came Ginny’s voice, strident now. “William? William! What are you doing? I told you, these eggs aren’t going to keep!”
He could hear Ginny as clearly as if she had been speaking through a megaphone aimed directly at his ear. That was one of the strange and delightful things about this house, the way the sound carried from one place to another, even if the first place was geographically distant from the second.
But in addition to Ginny’s voice, something else. He could hear the sound—muffled but unmistakable, familiar, even, in a way that he would not have thought possible, this many years removed from when he had last heard it—of his daughter crying.
Lillian woke in her childhood bed. Beside her, in the Pack ’n Play, the baby had begun to make tiny, mewling noises, which Lillian tried to ignore. She opened her eyes just a fraction, but it was enough to see the pale strips of sunlight coming through the slats in the blinds.
She lay still, as still as possible, forcing her breathing to become deep and even, willing the baby back to sleep. He had woken three times in the night, twice to nurse and once for no discernable reason—belly full, diaper dry, that time—and on each occasion she had consulted the numbers on the digital clock that sat on the pristine white nightstand. Just after midnight, then two, then three.
She had turned on the lamp that last time, and studied the baby in the glow the bulb cast over the room. He was three months old now. He had lost the boneless look his body had had at the beginning of life, when he had curled like a semicircle on her chest to nap; he had lost, too, the alien shape to his head with which he had emerged from her womb, blinking and whimpering, then fixing her and Tom with an uncompromising stare that seemed to say, Well, here I am. What are you going to do with me now?
What they were going to do to with him, with the baby, Baby Philip, who might one day (but so far hadn’t) become a Phil, was upend his tiny universe before he’d even had a chance to become accustomed to it. Or rather, that’s what Tom was going to do. Tom was going to drink a few too many gin and tonics at the company party in May and sleep with his assistant, a snub-nosed snowboarder named Nina, while Lillian sat at home with leaky breasts and dark circles under her eyes, blithely unaware, nearly comatose, watching an episode of Supernanny and eating chocolate chip Breyers straight from the container.
Which transgression Lillian was going to learn about from a (formerly) dear friend of hers named Marianne, who had attended the party with her own husband, a leader of the product development team at the same company, and who had come to Lillian contritely and had, in painstaking detail, laid out the scene.
“He was awfully drunk,” Marianne had said. “It was that kind of a party. People did crazy things, all sorts of crazy things. He wasn’t the only one, not by a long shot. You know that type of party: the office party gone awry.”
“I’m not sure I do,” Lillian had said coolly. “I haven’t worked in an office since before Olivia was born.”
“Well, for example—”
“That’s it,” said Lillian. “I don’t need to hear any more.”
“He wasn’t the only one,” said Marianne. “If that helps.”
“It doesn’t,” said Lillian.
“We’re going, then,” she said to Tom fiercely later that day—God, only Thursday, just two days ago. “I’m taking the children, and I’m going.” There was some satisfaction in saying this, in watching the color rise to his cheeks—those pale Irish cheeks, quick, like hers, to display exposure to sun or alcohol or embarrassment—but not enough.
She had packed like a person in a movie, quickly and dramatically, pulling suitcases onto the bed, emptying the contents of drawers into them without considering her choices. (So it was that when she unpacked she discovered that she had brought along an old red shawl she had worn over a black dress years ago to a friend’s wedding. Not quite vintage, she supposed, fingering it later in the quiet of the guest room. But certainly outdated. And pantyhose. She’d brought pantyhose! In June, to Vermont!)
Tom was remorseful, appropriately chagrined, embarrassed, all of the things he should have been. He didn’t try to get them to stay. (If he had, Lillian thought partway through the four-hour drive north, she might have acquiesced, her anger and hurt considerable but not necessarily strong enough to negate the effort of transporting the two children on her own.)
Olivia had been finger-painting in the yard in a plastic smock. When Lillian went to fetch her, the little girl was completely absorbed in her work, smearing alternating circles of blue and green on the page. Watching her for a moment, Lillian was filled with such a fierce love, such a desire to envelop and protect, that she hardly knew what to do next.
Now, in the guest room, which was formerly her room but which now bore very little resemblance to the room in which she remembered sipping from a purloined bottle of vodka her best friend, Heather, had procured from her mother’s liquor cabinet, and in which she had spent numerous hours talking and listening to that very same Heather on her pink Princess phone (back when phones tethered you firmly to your location), Lillian pushed herself up on her elbows. Four minutes past eight. The baby, having settled himself again after his initial murmurings, was still asleep. Lillian could hear her mother’s voice from downstairs, and Olivia’s too, and a low baritone that belonged unmistakably to her father.
“Wake up,” she whispered to Philip. It was time for a feeding—she could feel the tightness in her breasts that meant the ducts were filling. “Wake up,” she whispered again. “I’m ready for you now.”
But he slept on undeterred, curling a fist, raising it to his mouth, letting it fall again. She watched his chest move in and out, imagined the inner workings of his body, the astonishing efficiency with which his heart moved the blood around to the proper places.
Her sister, Rachel, seven years younger, not yet thirty, had driven up from New York City in a rented Impala to meet Philip four hours after he was born. Lillian had sat with sweaty, limp hair, watching Rachel, who looked particularly put together and glamorous, hold Philip. “God,” Rachel said. “He looks so vulnerable.” She worked for a casting director in New York City; she had, in her years in Manhattan, adopted a brisk, no-nonsense way of talking that was a far cry from the volubility she had shown as a child. “I mean, Lilly, I think he’s adorable. The fingernails and all of that—really, so tiny and perfect! But I wouldn’t know what to do with him, day after day after day.”
Then, in the flush after childbirth, in the brief stage of elation before the real fatigue set in, Lillian had felt pity for her younger sister, who had recently ended a relationship and was, as Ginny liked to say, “foundering.” But now she thought that maybe her sister had the right idea after all: all that free time, all that Sex and the City posturing, all those brunches at sidewalk cafés.
The business with Tom was so awful, really so impossible to contemplate, that if Lillian let herself think too much about it she feared she might crumble, rendering herself incapable of taking care of either of her children. Which was partly—no, mostly— why she had come to Vermont, to be taken care of herself, and to deliver Olivia and Philip into the loving and doting arms of their grandparents.
Not that they were going to find that out. She would never—she would not, she would absolutely not— tell her parents. Nor would she tell Rachel, nor her brother, Stephen, whose wife, Jane, was expecting a baby later that summer, and who was so wrapped up in attending to her considerable needs that even if she told him her tale of woe he wouldn’t have much time to absorb it.
Maybe, after all, she would tell Heather. Or maybe she wouldn’t tell Heather. Maybe she would soldier through on her own, like those hardy and relentless women from long ago, working the fields in faded dresses and wide-brimmed hats, shouldering the burdens of the household while the husbands were off fighting in wars. Doing whatever they could, these women, to ensure the survival of the family.
She hadn’t cried yet. Not when she told Tom she was leaving, not when she packed the car, not when she’d caught sight of her pouchy stomach in the bathroom mirror as she looked for the little cap shaped like a duck that was meant to go on top of Olivia’s toothbrush. Not when she bent down to Olivia and told her to pick out three of her favorite toys and collect all of her bathing suits because they might be staying a little while.
“All my bathing suits?” Olivia’s eyes grew wide.
“Yes, all of them.”
She hadn’t cried then, nor had she cried pulling out of the driveway or saying good-bye to the dog, who twice hopped into the back of the station wagon, thinking she was going along with them, but whom she entrusted to Tom because whatever his failings in the marriage department he was devoted to the dog.
But now, in the quiet of the room, surrounded by the things that were familiar and yet decidedly not so, it all began to seep out: the sorrow, the grief, the humiliation. Softly, with the pillow pressed to her nose, with her abdominal muscles clenched to keep the shaking of her shoulders to a minimum, Lillian began to cry.
The car eased through traffic on the West Side Highway. Beside Stephen, Jane closed her eyes. He put his hand on her arm and she let it stay there until he had to shift the car into a lower gear. Traffic had stopped.
“Mmmm,” she said. “Tired.”
This impromptu trip to see his parents had been Stephen’s idea, to get them out of the city. Which really meant to get him out of the city, or, more specifically, out of the apartment. He worked there, in their massive Tribeca loft, reviewing business books for a variety of publications, many of them obscure. He didn’t, he often thought, know as much about business as he should for someone thus employed, but he was a good enough writer that he could generally fake it. Occasionally he took on a bit of freelance editing. The loft was big and open, with soaring windows, and, sitting in the corner that he had claimed as his home office, looking out at the trendy furniture boutiques and funky art galleries, he could nearly pretend that he was in an altogether different building from the place where he ate and slept. He said, if anyone asked (and they rarely did), that he took on the extra editing to pay the bills, but the truth was (and probably most people who inquired already knew this) that it was really Jane’s job that paid the bills. His work provided something more akin to pocket money.
Jane worked as a managing director in midtown, in an office so sleek and so quietly stylish that each time he visited it Stephen came away with the feeling that he had been to a foreign country. The muted gray letters on the glossy black front of the building, the expensive art hanging on the walls, Jane’s pale, graceful assistant with the emerald eyes: all of these spoke to Stephen of a world so immaculate and precise, so tidily prosperous, that he, with his overflowing desk and piles of books stamped with Post-it notes, could never hope to join it.
“So wonderful,” his mother had said during a recent phone conversation, “that Jane enjoys her work so much. It will be a real adjustment for her when the baby comes.” He had not, at that moment, or in any moment since then, corrected his mother. He had not told her that Jane was planning to return to work three weeks after the baby’s birth. He had not told her that he himself, Stephen, with a master’s degree (in English Literature, to be sure, but a master’s degree nonetheless), was going to take a hiatus from working to care for the baby full-time.
He and Jane had talked about it ad nauseam (literally, it seemed to Stephen, because even into the middle of her second trimester Jane had suffered from bouts of morning sickness). They had agreed on the plan, they were both completely on board with it, and really it was a financial no-brainer, but even so Stephen found that he carried the plan around with him like a burden—like a terrible secret, which he had so far been able to divulge to nobody. Not to his friend Gareth, with whom he ran six miles every Saturday morning, not to either of his sisters, and certainly not to his mother.
Jane’s mother was an altogether different story. Robin, a divorced psychologist with her own practice in midtown, was all for the arrangement in a way that Ginny certainly would never be.
“That’s it,” Robin said approvingly, as the three of them sat over dinner in a restaurant near her office one Thursday evening not long ago. “Enough of this rubbish with gender roles. You two do what’s best for you, and never mind what the rest of the world says about it.” Robin had blondish hair cut in a stylish manner, all angles and points, and she had, in the way that seemed unique to women of a certain age in Manhattan, failed to age a minute since Stephen had first met her, seven years ago.
“Though,” she’d added patiently, laying a soothing hand on top of Stephen’s, “you’ll have to stop referring to the poor thing as it.”
“I’ll try,” he had said.
Stephen, for all the time he spent waiting for and preparing for the baby’s arrival, had not managed to develop an actual picture of what his days would entail once the baby turned from an it to a he or a she and acquired a name, a personality, clothes.
Sometimes, at lunch, he walked to a small, fenced-in playground near their building and sat with his wax-paper-wrapped sandwich to observe the children and caregivers he saw there. Mainly he saw foreign nannies of indeterminate origin, but occasionally the children were accompanied by their own mothers: smart-looking women in their midthirties, drinking from stainless-steel Starbucks mugs and comparing the features and faults of their strollers. Rarely did he see a father, and when he did it was typically a harried, expensively dressed bag of stress, typing frantically into a BlackBerry and glancing up intermittently to survey the action on the playground—clearly a stand-in for the regular caregiver.
Stephen had read all the requisite books about parenting that seemed to him to offer useful advice. He had learned—as much as one can learn from a book—all about diapering and feeding and burping, about the Back to Sleep campaign and the Ferber method and Dr. Spock’s advice on soothing a teething baby. He was ready for the tremendous change that was going to come into their lives.
He was not, he was realizing, quite so ready for the changes in Jane. She had entered pregnancy as if entering a cocoon, protecting herself from the newly perceived dangers in the outside world. Caffeine. Mercury in fish. Bacteria lurking in seemingly benign slices of lunch meat or rounds of Brie. He watched her sometimes, when they were sitting in front of the television or when they went out to dinner, and on her small sharp features he could see evidence that she was pulling herself inward, girding herself for the battle she and the baby were going to wage against the world.
Now, in her seventh month, she had emerged from the cocoon into something altogether more brittle and unknowable, despite the new roundness in her breasts, the swell of her belly underneath the smart maternity pantsuits she wore to work.
They were on the New York State Thruway now. Jane opened her eyes and said, without turning her head toward him, “You should call them.”
“I will, when we get a bit closer.”
“I will, when we get closer.”
“We just don’t want to show up there without any notice.”
“Why? Who needs notice? They’re always asking us to come up for a weekend. Every week I get an invitation. It will be good for you, you’ll see. We’ll do the sights of Burlington.”
Jane, a lifelong New Yorker, snorted. “Such as they are.”
“Such as they are!” he said ebulliently. “I’ll take you to a cheese farm or something. Give you a taste of country life. We’ll eat samples!”
“I can’t eat soft cheeses.”
“Well, then, the Ben and Jerry’s factory. Free samples there too.”
She laughed, reluctantly. “Still. I don’t think they mean for us to show up without telling them first. Anyone wants notice before having overnight guests. Just call them. Please? Stephen? I don’t want to just… arrive. I already feel conspicuous, dragging this belly around. I look awful. I don’t want to show up uninvited on top of it. You know how your mother makes me feel—”
“We’re always invited. A standing invitation. And I think you look beautiful,” he said loyally. (He did think so.) “And my mother loves you to pieces.” (She didn’t.) But he relented, and said, just before Jane closed her eyes to fall properly asleep, “Fine. I’ll call them. In just a few minutes. Promise.”
But they hit a dead zone and his phone first lost reception, and then it lost its charge altogether, and they were making such good time that the act of stopping to find a pay phone seemed, in this day and age, anachronistic to the point of being foolish. So he just drove on and beside him Jane slept, her lips parted, a slight wheezing sound coming from her nose, both hands laid protectively over her belly.
“Hello,” Stephen said softly to the baby inside her, the baby he couldn’t quite picture but whom he already loved deeply, devotedly. “Hello, you little life-changer. Hello, thunderstorm.”
Excerpted from The Arrivals by Moore, Meg Mitchell Copyright © 2011 by Moore, Meg Mitchell. Excerpted by permission.
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