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With her free-spirited daughter away at college and her "hip" ex-husband living across the country, Charlotte has grown used to being alone. For the most part, she prefers it. She relies on familiar routines: manicures, grocery shopping, game shows. But at night, no matter how hard she tries (and in spite of the Dream Machine her daughter Emily sent her) she can't stop her logical mind from running wild — imagining burglars, strange noises, and all manner of trouble that might ...
With her free-spirited daughter away at college and her "hip" ex-husband living across the country, Charlotte has grown used to being alone. For the most part, she prefers it. She relies on familiar routines: manicures, grocery shopping, game shows. But at night, no matter how hard she tries (and in spite of the Dream Machine her daughter Emily sent her) she can't stop her logical mind from running wild — imagining burglars, strange noises, and all manner of trouble that might befall her fearless daughter.
Having just graduated from Wesleyan with a pierced tongue and an arsenal of opinions, Emily has always been passionate about her beliefs — from mindfulness to vegetarianism to her new live-in boyfriend. Though Charlotte rarely understands her, she's learned to keep her doubts to herself. But when Emily and the new boyfriend arrive for a weekend visit, secrets are revealed that compel Charlotte to take a stand. Forced to examine her own life choices, she's about to learn she can't control everything. What she can do is open her heart to new possibilities, and to the fact that headstrong Emily might have a thing or two to teach them all.
A creak. A shift. The pressure of a footstep on the living-room floor. But if it were a footstep, wouldn't there be more than one? Wouldn't the creak be followed by another? Many others? Unless an intruder just happened to strike the single weak spot in the floorboards — Charlotte doesn't know yet if there is such a spot — and is, at this moment, creeping undetected toward her bedroom door.
But wait. If there's an intruder, he must have broken in. A break-in would cause more commotion than a single creak. A window shattering, a door kicked in. Charlotte would have heard him. All she heard was a creak, a shift, just the sound of a — what had her mother called it when she was a child? — "a house settling into itself."
Then again, what if the creak had been the sound of the door opening? Unlocked by a skinny MasterCard? A toothpick? Bobby pin? Charlotte can picture the sliding door in her new living room, the meager pane of glass separating her from the outside world. It wouldn't be too loud, the sound of that door sliding open. The intruder could have broken the lock, nudged the door an inch or two, and slipped inside. Which would mean he's in her living room this minute. He's easing his feet across the plush beige carpet that came with her new condo and that she doesn't like — not because it's beige, Emily's always teasing her about her wardrobe "the color of pantyhose" — but because a rug that thick could easily swallow the footsteps of a man as he made his way toward her room.
Charlotte snaps on the bedside lamp. The room is assaulted with pasty white light. She swings her legs over the side of the bed, steps into her slippers, walks down the short hall to the living room, the kitchen, throwing on lights as she goes, her white eyelet nightgown billowing behind her. She hums a little, an efficient hum. See? Nothing wrong. Everything intact. The yellow refrigerator with the "Welcome to the Neighborhood!" magnet she received in the mail from Millville County Electric. The coffee table strewn — well, not strewn exactly, but piled — with Prevention, People, the latest TV Guide, Martin Sheen's face gazing sincerely from the cover. On the mantel, Emily framed and smiling at ages four, ten, fifteen, twenty-two.
Just think, Charlotte reminds herself, in less than twenty-four hours Emily will be sprawled on this very couch. Emily will be regaling her with stories of the great book she's reading, the students she's teaching, the foods and philosophies she's discovered since the last time they talked. Emily holds passionate opinions about everything. Charlotte smiles, imagining the way her daughter will flip critically past the celebrities in People, tongue ring clicking between her teeth.
She realizes then that there can be no intruder tonight. It would be impossible, someone breaking in the night before Emily arrived.
In the kitchen, Charlotte retrieves a glass and slides it under the icemaker. She never had an icemaker in the house on Dunleavy Street and likes its efficiency, its dependability, the endless supply of cubes shaped like smooth half-moons. She pours herself water from her Brita (as if water had been her objective all along), then strides back toward the bedroom, nightgown swishing by her heels. She misses having two floors, misses the feeling that the space for sleeping is separate from that for being awake. But the condo is more compact, she reasons: life minimized, simplified. Condensed. Lately, Charlotte can't help but feel that she is en route to old age. That she has entered life's downward spiral, when accumulating begins to seem, well, just not practical anymore.
In the foyer, she double-checks the front door. There are three locks: the standard doorknob, the attractive (but basically useless) linked chain, and the deadbolt she had specially requested. After tugging on the door a few times, satisfied it isn't budging, she makes her final stop: the bathroom. It has an unfortunate underwater theme: fluffy toilet seat cover an algae green, tiled walls swimming with flat blue fish. At night, the fish look vaguely menacing; they don't appear to have pupils. Charlotte keeps her eyes on the floor, avoiding the fishes' blank stares. She is careful not to flush so she doesn't wake her upstairs neighbor — B. Morgan, according to the Victoria's Secret catalogs that bulge from her mailbox for days at a time. Not that B. cares about waking Charlotte. Her first few nights in the condo, Charlotte woke in a panic to the sounds of laughter and footsteps ricocheting in the stairwell. Then, the churn of bedsprings: a grating squeak that reminded her of a dentist's instrument. She imagined B. and her male friend in all sorts of contorted sexual positions. With all that noise, she'd never hear someone breaking in. Sleep was out of the question until it was over.
Marching back to her bedroom, Charlotte is annoyed with herself for letting fear get the better of her. Now it will take forever to get back to sleep. She stops and considers the gadget Emily sent sitting by the foot of her bed. The Dream Machine, it's called. It looks like a miniature white humidifier, a huge Excedrin tablet. When Charlotte moved into the condo, two months ago, she mentioned to Emily that she was having trouble sleeping. The Dream Machine had arrived in the mail two days later, addressed: SWEET DREAMS, MOM! It simulates all kinds of apparently comforting noises: ocean waves, nighttime forest, tropical rain.
Not that Charlotte hadn't had trouble sleeping before. She can't remember the last time she slept through the night. But here in the condo, her worries and fantasies have intensified. For the past twenty-four years, the house on Dunleavy Street was all she'd ever known. She moved there when she and Joe got married and stayed on when he left. It had been a simple decision, staying. She liked the neighbors, the mailman, the supermarket, the teachers at Emily's elementary school. Plus it was important for Emily to have that kind of stability, a home to come home to, especially as a child of divorce. She hadn't stayed (as her book group speculated) because she was clinging to memories of Joe. (It bothered her how the group felt it necessary to find symbolism in everything, as if to constantly prove themselves good readers.) Charlotte had missed Joe a lot, then a little, then only now and then. His absence felt natural, somehow. Even when Charlotte played house as a child, it was the make-believe sons and daughters who were well defined, while the make-believe husband was vague, absent, away at the office or cloistered in his study with the New York Times. In a way, being alone and raising a child, manless, was how she'd always imagined her life would be.
After the divorce, Joe had stayed in the area until Emily was thirteen, picking her up on alternate weekends and Wednesdays, splitting holidays evenly down the middle. Then the year Emily started high school, he moved to Seattle and began claiming Thanksgivings and Augusts. Even now, standing in her bedroom at 2:34 A.M. in the middle of October, the very thought of August makes Charlotte's chest constrict. She used to dread that month — the longest and emptiest of all the months. TV shows were all reruns. Neighbors were all on beach vacations. The air was thick with humidity, and her air conditioner made a nerve-racking rattle. And, worst of all, Emily's birthday was on August 27. Every year Charlotte missed it. Every year thirty-four days — thirty-one in August, plus three for Labor Day weekend — were filled with little else than waiting for her daughter to come home (and worrying every year that she wouldn't). Every Labor Day, when her daughter stepped into Newark Airport, Charlotte's lungs would relax for the first time since July.
On Emily's first night home, Charlotte always cooked the same belated birthday dinner. The presents she'd already mailed, sent overnight on August 26 to arrive in Seattle on the twenty-seventh. As much as Charlotte hated the thought of Joe and Valerie watching Emily open those presents, it was important that Emily receive them on her actual birthday. Charlotte agonized over them. She refrained from sending anything too practical, like the hairbands or rag socks she might have thrown in if Emily were at home. She knew she couldn't compete with the gifts Valerie sent at Christmastime — beaded handbags from Chile, silver bangles from Mexico, essential oils, multicolored candles made of seaweed and vegetable wax — things Charlotte would never have bought, much less found, in the labyrinth of the Millville Mall. The best she could do was send gifts that were, if not exotic, at least not frumpy. A T-shirt from the Gap. A book by Madeleine L'Engle. Matching melon-scented soaps and lotions from Bath and Body Works. Still, when Emily called to thank her, Charlotte couldn't help picturing Valerie in the background, picking over her gifts with an arched eyebrow and a laugh stifled behind her hand.
Of all the long and excruciating Augusts, the summer Emily turned sixteen was the hardest. Never would Charlotte have believed as a young mother — nursing her baby, changing her diapers, walking her through training bras and maxi-pads, temper tantrums and Where Babies Come From — that she would not be seeing that baby the day she turned sixteen. It was the day she wasn't a child anymore, the culmination of all those years of crying, pouting, bleeding girlhood. Charlotte wanted to be the one to do something special, something memorable. She had earned it. Instead, her daughter was three thousand miles away, turning sixteen with a woman Charlotte barely knew. She had spent the day trying to distract herself. She watched Oprah. She read People. She spoke to Emily on the phone, chewing the insides of her cheeks to keep from crying. Joe and Valerie — this is what Emily called them, she'd started calling her father "Joe" the year he moved to the West Coast — were taking her out to dinner, she said, someplace "hip." Charlotte spent the night imagining the three of them sitting on the dock of a boat, or at a sidewalk café, Joe and Valerie sneaking Emily sips of cocktails, a frothy, celebratory pink.
That Labor Day, when Emily arrived home, she seemed to have aged much more than thirty-four days. She was wearing clothes Charlotte didn't recognize, clumpy brown sandals and faded jeans patched at the knees. A silver hoop was buried in the flesh of her upper ear, and the patchwork duffel bag slung over her shoulder was crammed with bootleg CDs, sacks of flavored coffee, T-shirts for bands called Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone. (The burned coffee smell had permeated everything in her duffel and would linger in Charlotte's laundry room for weeks.) That night, Charlotte served the usual, carefully meatless belated birthday dinner: oriental salad, vegetable lasagna, and chocolate raspberry torte. Afterward, Emily usually went to her room, chaining herself to the phone to catch up with her friends, but that summer she sat at the kitchen table until midnight. Her body was "on Seattle time," she said, as she brewed cup after cup of Seattle's Best brand coffee — in flavors like hazelnut, French vanilla, chocolate almond — playing her new CDs and talking about grunge music while the curtains in the windows stirred in the thick summer breeze. Charlotte watched her, nodded exuberantly, but she was only half listening. In truth, she felt like crying. Not out of sadness, or loneliness, but sheer joy and thankfulness, that her daughter was here, real, returned, to unstick Charlotte's swollen windows and fill her empty house with sound and life. Charlotte murmured "mmm," "yes," laying slivers of cake on Emily's plate, the raspberry threads like ruby tiaras, as Emily spoke at passionate length about the death of Kurt Cobain.
Charlotte steps out of her slippers and onto the hardwood floor. Hardwood is "in," according to her realtor; people are just dying for hardwood. Charlotte thinks it's too creaky. Too cold. She thinks of her bedroom in the house on Dunleavy Street, the flat moss-green rug whose wrinkles and bald spots she had memorized. She never wanted to leave that house, but with Emily finishing Wesleyan, she could no longer justify staying. As irrational as Charlotte can be at 2:47 in the morning, she also possesses a keen sense of practicality. It didn't matter that the house was paid for, that her parents' life insurance had taken care of the mortgage years ago. The house was simply too big for her to stay in alone.
Charlotte sets her water on the nightstand, switches the Dream Machine to "ocean waves." It sounds vaguely tidal, in that the staticky sound kind of undulates. She climbs into bed, stares at the ceiling. This machine isn't helping. It's covering up the extra noise — "ambient sound," according to the side of the box — but she finds she's only more anxious because of the noise she isn't hearing. What if someone is breaking in and the ocean is so loud she doesn't hear it? What if the sounds of footsteps are swallowed up in the static tide? She tries to conjure up the many tips she's read for falling asleep. One suggested counting backwards from 100, which only made her progressively more anxious. Another said that simply breathing deeply would slow your heart, decelerate your pulse. In other words: force you to relax.
Charlotte shifts, but slightly. She's read that it is important to keep the body as still as possible when trying to fall asleep. She tries to concentrate on the ocean, on letting the waves carry her away. Instead, she's straining to hear the elusive "ambient sounds" under all that static. It occurs to her that the Dream Machine was probably manufactured by the same people who break into houses in the first place. Perfect for concealing the sounds of lock-picking, tiptoeing, breaking glass...This is what the real advertisement must say, the one that circulates privately to all the criminals. Probably on the Internet.
Charlotte turns the Dream Machine off (feeling guilty, but telling herself she'll use it once Emily gets here) and climbs back into bed. She tries to be brisk, assured, yanking the sheets to her chin, smoothing them with her palms. You're being absurd — it's a condo! In New Jersey! She pictures the world outside: tidy mailboxes, arc of parked cars, glowing lampposts. In the morning, she'll chastise herself. Look at where you live. It's perfectly safe! Tonight, remember this scene. PICTURE THIS LAMPPOST.
Charlotte pulls her knees to her chest. Was she this fearful when she was married? She's sure she wasn't. She didn't need to be. She hadn't been alone. It is the particular quality of aloneness — its detachment, its vulnerability — that sets the mind whirling and gives the imagination free reign. With Joe, she was never really frightened, just nervous. "Fussy," he called it, back when he found it endearing. She bit her cuticles. She double- and triple-checked their bank statements. She was very, very careful about cooking chicken and washing fruit.
It was when she became a mother that Charlotte's nerves intensified. Every night, before bed, she would check to make sure Emily was still breathing. It wasn't so unusual when she was a baby — awful things happened to babies in the middle of the night, she'd read it in parenting magazines, seen it on 60 Minutes — but it continued even when Emily was four, five, six years old. It was as routine as making sure the oven was off, the coffeemaker unplugged, the front door chained and bolted, twice.
She would wait until Joe was absorbed in grading papers, then creep into Emily's room and kneel beside her bed. Emily slept on her back with lips slightly parted. Her long brown hair splayed unevenly across the pillow, holding the shape of that day's braids or plastic barrettes. Charlotte would lower her head until it was level with Emily's chest, eyeing the Holly Hobbie comforter, confirming its slight rise and fall. Sometimes, to make doubly sure, she would lean over Emily's face and turn her head, ear hovering just above her mouth, and feel her breathe.
Since graduating, Emily has been teaching in an "alternative learning environment" in Lee, New Hampshire. A middle school, essentially, except with no discipline. No attendance requirements. No report cards. No grades at all.
"But how do you assess their progress?" Charlotte had asked, after Emily got the job.
"The students assess their own progress."
"But wouldn't they all give themselves As?"
"There are no As."
"There are no As?"
"They don't use letter grades."
"What do they use then?"
"The Watt School doesn't represent a child's progress with a number or a symbol," Emily recited, as if from a promotional brochure. "There are other ways of measuring progress. Like increased self-confidence. Ability to think critically. To perform creative problem-solving tasks. To articulate one's own growth."
Charlotte had no idea what she was talking about, but didn't press the issue. Emily had always thrown herself into projects and crusades and causes, most of which Charlotte didn't agree with or even understand. When she was five, Emily came home from kindergarten and announced she was no longer eating hamburgers. She'd learned about the food groups that day and realized her dinners bore a direct relationship to the cows she saw grazing off Route 9. (She would soon make the connections between lamb/veal, pig/pork chop, and the suddenly obvious chicken/chicken fingers.) From then on, whenever Joe grilled hot dogs, Emily would heap her plate with macaroni salad and let out dying oinks.
Charlotte found the strength of her daughter's convictions enviable. Even admirable. They were also, she secretly believed, a product of her youth. As Emily got older, Charlotte suspected the reality of day-to-day living would dampen her enthusiasm a little, make her more practical, less volatile. More realistic. But until then, Charlotte certainly wasn't going to be the one to do it.
Besides, she was sure Joe had no objections to the alternative learning environment. He was probably okay with it. In favor. Having an ex-husband so "with it" only accentuated how very much Charlotte was "without it." Toward the end of their marriage, when Emily was five and six, Joe managed to absorb all the latest fads and trends in a seemingly unconscious way. Emily would mention a cartoon, or sneaker, or video game, and Joe would know exactly what she meant. Charlotte was clueless. (She once pronounced M. C. Hammer "McHammer," thinking it was an Irish rock band.) Now, in such situations, rather than draw attention to how unhip she was, Charlotte had learned to keep her doubts to herself.
Which is why she hadn't pressed the issue of the school with no report cards. Just like she hadn't let on her true feelings about Emily's tongue ring, or belly ring, or women's studies major, or aimless cross-country road trip between her junior and senior years of college. But in June, when Emily called about her new living plans — what Charlotte has since termed the "alternative living arrangement" — she found it impossible to remain her quietly supportive self.
"Walter and I have decided to live together."
It was like a scene from a bad made-for-TV movie: the pivotal moment where the rebellious daughter, chin held high, announces to her conservative parents a decision she knows they won't agree with. Usually the declaration is followed by the parents threatening, the daughter shrieking, possibly the lines, "Not while you're living under my roof!" or "I'm eighteen! You don't own me anymore!" and some slamming doors, stone-faced sidekick boyfriends, Harleys gunning ominously in the distance.
In her version, however, Charlotte was cleaning the bathroom. Her forehead was sweaty, the portable phone clutched between her chin and shoulder. Emily was speaking to her from Hartford, where she was living temporarily, subletting an apartment and working at a day camp for inner-city youth. Charlotte hadn't been crazy about the camp plan (Emily was a Wesleyan graduate, after all) and felt a little hurt that Emily hadn't come home to spend her last few months on Dunleavy Street. But as soon as she lamented any detail of Emily's summer plans, she reminded herself of the only one that truly mattered: She wasn't spending August in Seattle.
"Living together?" Charlotte had been Windexing the mirror and stopped, blue rivulets running down the glass. "Just the two of you?"
"Four of us. Walter, me, and a couple of friends."
"Just some Wesleyan people."
"What Wesleyan people?" It was all Charlotte could do to echo her daughter, even though these other people were not, at all, the point.
"Mara and Anthony," Emily says. "I don't think you've met them....Ant's the guy who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. He's really fascinating."
Her words bounced off the tiled walls, as if mocking Charlotte's practical rubber-soled slippers, her bucket of cleaning supplies. Fascinating. She watched as the streams of Windex snagged and merged, like a map of blue veins on the inside of a wrist. Behind them, Charlotte's blurred reflection stared back at her: faded blue eyes, cheeks flushed and freckled from the summer heat, cropped brown hair she colored dutifully every six weeks. At first glance, she looked younger than she felt. But upon closer inspection, worry lines were rising around her mouth. Crow's feet were nibbling at the corners of her eyes. Every sleepless night etched her wrinkles deeper, though the change was invisible to the naked eye, like a patch of rust forming imperceptibly under a drip in the sink.
"Mara's cool," Emily went on. "She lived in my dorm."
"She's Anthony's girlfriend. Well, sort of."
Emily sighed, an amused sigh. "It's fine, Mom."
"Is it?" Charlotte leapt. "It is?"
"It'll be like one big happy family. I promise."
Charlotte felt a twinge between her eyes. Happy family: it sounded so incestuous, so 1960s. She wasn't sure if this casual, communal environment made the living together better or worse. She thought about calling Joe to discuss it, to have one of their rare parental checkpoints. These had occurred a few times over the years: when Emily had mono, when she was applying to colleges, after she pierced her tongue. (Charlotte had regretted that one, after Joe found her concern so amusing.)
But she suspected Joe had no problem with the alternative living arrangement, just as he'd had no objection to the alternative learning environment. After all, he'd set a precedent for it, living with Valerie before they were married. God only knows what kind of example they set during those endless Augusts. Charlotte hated that her ex-husband had the power to make life-altering decisions, set important examples that she could do nothing about. Of all the emotional aftershocks of divorce — loneliness, jealousy, resentment — the worst was this lack of control.
"I just — it's just that you're so young, honey." She wanted to sound wise and knowing, but instead felt like she always did when trying to give Emily relationship advice: unqualified. What experience did she have to back her up? A strained marriage, a cold divorce, and fifteen years without a man in her life? "And living together, well...that's a big commitment."
"Mom." Emily's tone was matter-of-fact. "We know living together is a big commitment. We're not jumping into this blindly. Walter and I really love each other."
Charlotte was jolted into silence. How could she argue with this? She believed Emily probably was in love with Walter. In fact, it was very possible her twenty-two-year-old daughter knew more about loving a man than she did.
Charlotte had met Walter just once. It was last spring, at the Wesleyan graduation, the event that had been the final impetus for Charlotte's decision to move. That way, she told herself, when Joe asked, "What's new, Char?" she would have something to tell him. She'd imagined the moment many times over: her new sundress, her grayless haircut, and her unwavering tone of voice as she said, "Well, Joe, I've decided to sell the house," without a flicker of self-doubt. Without a flinch.
But the actual graduation was nothing like she'd envisioned. It was oppressively hot. Her new haircut wilted. Her makeup blurred. The new dress hung limp on her shoulders (despite the pert shoulder pads) as if it, too, were defeated by the heat. Her announcement to Joe went successfully enough — in that she said all the words she'd planned on saying — but her satisfaction was dulled by the fact that Valerie was there listening, all sweatless five-feet-ten of her, topped with a stylish, wide-brimmed hat. When the conversation was over, Charlotte snuck away to a Port-a-Potty, a place she avoided except for extreme emergencies, and fished a wad of fuzzy pink tissue from the bottom of her purse to blot her underarms dry.
Charlotte had envisioned many things wrong about that afternoon. But of all of them, the most wrong was Walter. She blames it on his name. Who in this young generation was named Walter? She had pictured someone old-fashioned, traditional, a character from Our Town. Plus, Emily had mentioned Walter played rugby. To Charlotte, this conjured images of boys: real, rough-and-tumble boys. Boys who wore scuffed baseball caps. Boys who never cleaned their rooms. Boys who acted cool around their friends but at home were lovably helpless, who needed their mothers to pick up after them and keep track of their practice schedules and cook them meaty dinners they would inhale before giving Mom a peck on the cheek and clattering out the back door toward a carful of friends honking in the driveway. Charlotte loved having a daughter — she couldn't imagine being nearly as close to a son — and yet she'd always been able to imagine herself mothering a boy like that.
Perhaps, then, it was only natural that when she pictured Walter, it was that boy she imagined. An ally: someone like-minded, someone of her world.
After the ceremony, they stood on the lawn under a yellow pinstriped tent. There were four of them: Joe, Valerie, Emily, and Charlotte. The untidy, untraditional modern family. Getting divorced, Charlotte often thought, was the hippest thing she'd ever done. Joe, Valerie, and Emily were talking about the honorary graduates and keynote speakers whose names Charlotte had already forgotten. She was nodding now and then, but not really paying attention, feeling the self-consciousness that always set in on Wesleyan's campus. As if she had snuck in the side door and was going to trigger an alarm any second: a woman who never finished college mingling with the academics, a woman with a wardrobe the color of pantyhose lost in a sea of stylish hats.
Her eyes drifted to the dessert table, a delicate pyramid of tiny cakes, a colorful cascade of fruit. At the center was an ice sculpture in some sort of angular, abstract design. It seemed to mirror the women strolling past it, all glittery jewelry and chiseled bones. New Yorkers mostly, Charlotte thought. She could make out the sharp lines of their ankles, hips, jaws. Hands and ears were freighted with diamonds, faces sliced with expensive sunglasses, manicured fingers spearing pieces of cake.
She was contemplating how she might eat cake without being seen eating cake when from out of nowhere a large, muscular black boy grabbed Emily from behind. She shrieked as his dark forearms wrapped around her waist, lifting her flailing feet off the ground. Charlotte's heart seized, raced. She glanced wildly around her. Only when she saw the small smiles flirting on Valerie's and Joe's faces did she register the boy's silky blue robe and gold-tassled hat. He was a Wesleyan student, she realized — well, of course. A fellow graduate. Still, it never occurred to her he could be Walter until Emily wrapped her arms around his neck and they started kissing.
Out of habit, Charlotte looked away. This Walter looked nothing like the one she'd spent the last few weeks mentally cooking for and cleaning up after. First of all, she'd had no idea he was black. Not that she cared, not that it mattered, it was just that in all the times Emily had sung the praises of Walter this, Walter that, she'd never mentioned it. Not once. As Charlotte studied the boy, she felt her Walter being erased line by line, detail by detail. This Walter wore his hair in an Afro, peeking out from under his hat, glistening wetly in the sun. Beneath his robe he wore a loose white shirt and faded blue jeans. He had a diamond in his left ear, a patch of scruff on his chin. The last trace of Charlotte's Walter disappeared as she noted, with something like resignation, his eyebrow ring.
Emily and Walter stepped apart. Walter kissed her forehead. Emily slid an arm around his waist. As if observing someone else's family, Charlotte watched an exchange of hands and smiles.
"Good to meet you, Walter," Joe said.
"You too, Mr. Warren. Ms. Warren."
"Please, call me Joe."
"And me Valerie."
"You can call me Mr. Nelson," said Walter.
Joe and Valerie laughed appreciatively. Emily cupped Walter's cheek, like a proud mom. They were affectionate with each other, but it didn't seem overly deliberate. Not like the teenagers Charlotte saw at the Millville Mall who clung to one another with such determination, hands clutching hands, fingers hooked in belts. Charlotte was amazed that Emily had inherited such ease with her body.
"Congratulations to you both," Valerie was saying. "It's a real accomplishment, graduating from a school like this one. You should be proud."
"You're celebrating tonight, I hope," Joe said.
"You know it," said Walter. Laughs all around.
Now that he was facing forward, Charlotte saw that Walter had not just one diamond earring, but two: one in each lobe. Around his neck hung a wooden cross on a fuzzy cord made of something that looked like, well, "hemp" sprang to mind. Charlotte felt her vision blur. Could this necklace be some kind of universal symbol of marijuana? The secret handshake of the drug underworld?
"Walter," Emily interjected. Charlotte blinked. She saw her daughter beaming at her and realized she was about to become a part of this scene. "This," Emily announced, with what sounded like pride, "is my mom."
The boy took a big step forward and thrust a hand out from the silky folds of his sleeve. "Really glad to meet you, Ms. Warren," he said, and Charlotte flinched at the public acknowledgment that she still used Joe's name. "I've heard a lot about you," he said. "Em seriously talks about you all the time."
Charlotte took the hand he held out, felt its firm grasp. He was big (he was a rugby player, after all), with broad shoulders and a wide chest. She sensed she should say something witty — "All good things, I hope" or "Don't hold it against me" — or at the very least return the compliment, but she found she couldn't speak. It was as if, upon physical contact, her brain shut down.
"Please," she heard herself say, a weak echo of her ex-husband and his new wife. "Call me Charlotte."
Emily laughed, the affectionate Oh, Mom! laugh she had honed to perfection. But Walter just smiled, warm and genuine. "Okay, Charlotte," he said, then reached out and lightly touched her shoulder. It was as if he sensed her discomfort and wanted to put her at ease. Before Charlotte could respond, he was wrapped in a bear hug by another graduate, a boy with a nest of unruly blond dreadlocks and bare feet.
Charlotte was staring at the locks when she heard a whisper: "So?"
It was Emily, materialized by her shoulder. She hooked Charlotte's elbow and steered her away from the group.
"What do you think?" Emily's voice was hushed, conspiratorial. "Isn't Walter amazing?"
Charlotte glanced at her daughter. Her cheeks were flushed, teeth nibbling on her lower lip, as if to restrain herself from squealing. She looked again at Walter, who had Valerie, Joe, and the dreadlocks engaged in one big conversation, their hearty laughter rising and falling as if they'd all been friends for life.
"Well, I'm sure he is, honey," Charlotte said. "But I hardly know him."
Emily stopped by the tower of fruit. "First impression."
"First impression? Well — I'm just not sure." She watched as Emily plucked a fat strawberry off the top. "He's not exactly what I pictured, I guess."
"What had you pictured?"
Was it wrong to say she hadn't pictured Walter black? Charlotte didn't know the politically correct way to handle these situations. But why would that be wrong? It was true. She hadn't. Would she be hesitating if he were Asian? Indian? What if Walter was French? Well, I hadn't pictured him French. She wouldn't have thought twice!
"I hadn't pictured him black, I guess."
"Right." Emily was smiling slightly, as if she had anticipated this, was even amused by it. She bit into the strawberry and kept walking, arm still hooked in Charlotte's.
"And also, I just thought," Charlotte hurried on, "well, I think it was the name. Walter. I don't know. I pictured someone..." She glanced again at the boy. He was gesturing animatedly about something, Joe and Valerie nodding in recognition. Probably a grunge band from Seattle.
"Wait." Emily stopped walking and released Charlotte's arm. Charlotte turned, sure she'd offended her somehow, but instead found Emily nodding, the amusement gone, the forgotten strawberry held aloft in midair. "Mom, yes."
"You're exactly right."
"It's like, he defies his name. The name Walter — it's so uncool he actually manages to make it cool. Right?"
Charlotte hadn't thought the name Walter was uncool, just old-fashioned. As far as she was concerned, Walter's name was his most winning trait. But as she opened her mouth to explain, she was stopped by the expression on her daughter's face. Emily looked so excited, so expectant, her eyes bright, shining, as if lit from behind. She's in love, Charlotte thought. She's in love.
"Yes," Charlotte answered, and forced a smile. "That's exactly what I meant."
The next morning, driving to the Super Fresh, Charlotte is humming. The sun is shining. She is right on schedule. Emily is on her way. She reviews her mental Emily checklist: lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers (red, green), grapes, Boca Burgers, soy milk. She assumes Emily won't be here for lunch; New Hampshire is a good six hours away. Still, it's possible she could arrive by midafternoon. It would mean leaving New Hampshire by dawn, probably — but who knows. Maybe they're early risers. They're nature types, after all. A happy vegetarian family living in the wilds of New Hampshire.
Charlotte gives her head a shake, airing out the cynicism. She wants to be home by noon regardless, in case Emily calls from the road. She might be running late, or lost. The condo is only about fifteen minutes from the house on Dunleavy Street, but still, Emily's never been there. Charlotte doesn't have an answering machine (a point Emily argued with her about regularly) but maintains she doesn't need one. "Anyone who really needs to reach me will call me back," is her defense. She won't admit the real reason: she doesn't want to record an outgoing message because she hates the sound of her voice on tape.
She is humming the Today Show theme — pitch perfect, she thinks — when, two blocks from the Super Fresh, traffic stops. Charlotte cranes to see around the massive back of an SUV and glimpses a long line of taillights. ROADWORK AHEAD, says the sign propped tiredly in the breakdown lane. The car behind her lets out a long honk. Charlotte's fingers tighten on the wheel. She feels her temples start to pound, her careful itinerary unspool. She can hear the phone ringing inside her empty condo as she sits here, hour upon hour, in a clot of giant, overheating SUVs. She imagines herself standing on the hood of her Toyota, shouting: "My daughter is coming! I must be let through!" at which point the traffic will part and a squad car will arrive, siren wailing, to escort her to the Super Fresh like a pregnant woman in labor.
The car behind her honks again. Charlotte glances into the rearview mirror. It's a woman in a tailored blouse, talking agitatedly on her cell phone. A businesswoman, Charlotte thinks, and feels a pinch of guilt for what Emily calls her "life of leisure." Charlotte has never worked full-time. When she was married, Joe worked, and she stayed home with Emily. Then when Emily was starting third grade, a year after Joe left, Charlotte's mother died — two years after her father, neatly bracketing Joe's departure — leaving behind not only life insurance but a surprisingly large savings account. She'd never known her parents had that kind of money; they'd always scrimped and saved like they were on the brink of ruin. At the time it had seemed like a sign: work wasn't financially necessary, so she should stay at home and be with Emily. But deep down, as Charlotte grieved for her parents, sifted through their house, packed up her father's books she'd never read but couldn't bear to give away, guilt gnawed at her insides. Because she knew it was her parents' deaths, and their lifetime of frugality, that freed her to do what she really wanted: stay home, take care of her child, and avoid the world.
She stares hard at the bumper sticker in front of her: PROUD PARENT OF AN HONORS STUDENT AT MHS! Mentally, she recites all the things she still has to do before Emily's arrival: make egg salad, make fruit salad, vacuum, clean the bathtub. Last time Emily came to visit, she was fanatical about her bath taking. She talked at length about the bath's "healing properties," the various salts and soaps, oils and beads, how necessary they were to one's "spiritual well-being." (Charlotte herself never takes baths, too preoccupied by how easy it would be for someone to break in while she was in there.) Last week, she went to the Millville Mall and picked up some lavender bubbles and a "bath glove." She'd never heard of one, but the saleswoman told her it was very popular. She called it "restorative" and "revitalizing." The very ambiguity was its selling point; if it was unfamiliar to Charlotte, chances were Emily owned five.
Now, Charlotte digs her nails into her palms. No point in getting upset, she reasons. Nothing she can do about her checklist from in here. She decides to try being mindful — in part because mindfulness is supposed to be particularly effective in traffic, in part because she knows Emily will be quizzing her on it later. In August, Emily sent her a book called The Miracle of Mindfulness. It was her personal copy and had her excited reactions spilling into the margins, asterisks and exclamation points and comments like YES! or WALTER. Charlotte had picked loyally through a chapter or two, more interested in Emily's notes than the book itself. She tried to grasp the concept of meditation, but just didn't get it. To sit alone with her thoughts? Her thoughts? She could think of nothing less relaxing.
"It isn't really about thinking, Mom," Emily had explained over the phone. It was the week Emily moved into the alternative living arrangement, and she was talking to Charlotte while she unpacked. "It's kind of the opposite. Like being really inside your body, not your mind."
She paused, and Charlotte heard a zipping sound.
"It's being engaged in what you're doing while you're doing it," Emily said. "Like, if you're stuck in traffic, instead of spazzing, just stop and be in the traffic. When you're doing laundry, really experience the moment of doing laundry. Do the best laundry you've ever done."
How in the world Emily came across these things Charlotte had no idea. It wasn't just her youth. Charlotte had been young once and hadn't found herself exposed to radical approaches to grading report cards and doing laundry. She had lived as she lived, known what she knew. But with Emily, new ideas seemed to just land in her lap. Charlotte might have chalked it up to a liberal arts education if her daughter hadn't always been this way. When she was nine, and Charlotte took her on a day trip to Philadelphia, Emily grabbed at every crumpled piece of paper strangers thrust at her on the street. Greenpeace literature. Concert flyers. Psychic hotlines. Anti-Bush propaganda. "Thank you," she smiled, stuffing all of it in her Hello Kitty backpack. Once, when Emily was in eighth grade, Charlotte had come home to find her sitting on the back porch after school, snacking on trail mix with two ambassadors from the Church of Latter-day Saints.
It was wonderful that Emily was so engaged in things — so interested. But most of the time, Charlotte found her daughter's ideas exhausting. She preferred the concrete world. Coupons to snip. Bathtubs to scrub. Jeopardy! every night at seven. Lean Cuisines to microwave for three to five minutes. She couldn't admit this to Emily, but she had no interest in adopting a new philosophy, a new religion. She didn't want to make her life more complicated, not at this stage. Besides, having opinions invited differences of opinion, which invited conflict. Charlotte believed more strongly in avoiding conflict than she did in any stance or slogan. It might sound lame, or weak, or passive, but she didn't feel a need to be a highly opinionated person. Some people just weren't cut out for it.
On the phone, explaining mindfulness, Emily's voice had alternated between loud and muffled. Charlotte had pictured the portable pinned under her daughter's chin, resting in the bony hollow of her collarbone. She hadn't seen Emily's new home and naturally was imagining the worst. Brown tap water. Moldy tub tiles. Weeds growing through the floorboards. Roommates in bare feet or bath towels or worse.
"Hang on a sec," Emily said, and Charlotte wondered what she was doing. Talking to one of her new family members? Talking to Walter? Kissing Walter? Unzipping Walter's — She blinked away the thought.
Charlotte heard the clicking sound that she recognized as Emily's tongue ring swatting against her teeth. It was a habit that usually signaled something was making her agitated. Charlotte wondered if it was their conversation, or something else.
"What was I saying?"
"I was doing the best laundry I'd ever done."
"Right." Emily paused, exhaled a long breath. For a second, Charlotte was convinced she detected Walter's breath on the line too. Maybe he was on a different extension, listening to their conversation. Worse, maybe his face was huddled next to Emily's, nibbling her ear above the phone.
"Basically," Emily said, "mindfulness comes down to living in the moment."
"No matter what you're doing. Even if it's the most boring, mindless thing in the world. Don't you think that makes so much sense?"
"Oh, yes," Charlotte answered automatically. At the moment, her main concern was not sounding foolish, especially not with Walter possibly listening. Maybe, if she acted as though she had a firm handle on this mindfulness business, they could move on to something else.
"The whole practice really boils down to awareness," Emily went on.
Charlotte felt the beginnings of a headache, each temple a pulsing dot of pain.
"Being aware of your breath. Being aware of your body."
"I am aware of my body," Charlotte snapped, a touch more defensive than she meant to be. Emily's tongue ring clicked, twice.
Well, it was true: she was aware of her body. She was meticulous about her doctor's appointments. She had regular mammograms and dentist's cleanings. She knew all there was to know about what had killed her parents: her father's cancer (stomach, liver, and finally brain, phases of hope and hopelessness strung out over seven years like some kind of extravagantly awful tease) and her mother's sudden heart attack two years later. She was aware of the risk factors, vigilant about the symptoms. She'd memorized the cycle of her seasonal allergies, her stubborn patches of dry skin, the right eyelid that twitched when she was tired. "I'm in perfect health," she said. "Just ask Dr. Weiss."
Emily laughed the Oh, Mom! laugh. "Not that kind of aware," she said.
Charlotte felt tired. She wondered if it was possible that the human body existed on a sensory plane that other people experienced but of which she was biologically deprived, and therefore couldn't understand — like a blind person who couldn't begin to conceive of sight.
Focusing on the bumper sticker in front of her, Charlotte tries hard to be mindful. She listens to her breath: yes, there it is. She hears it. She tries to be aware of her breathing — is that the same thing as listening to it? — and notes it going in and out, in and out. She knows this can't be what Emily was talking about, that "being aware of your breath" implies something much deeper, more internal, involving the whole body. But when Charlotte tries to be aware of her whole body, she succeeds only in being aware of her whole belly. It seems to be getting softer lately, rounder, the kind of belly women trap under jeans with elastic waistbands, gardeners and grandmothers, proof that they have paid their maternal dues.
That night at 8:00 P.M., precisely the hour Charlotte had decided she would call someone — the Jersey police or the highway patrol or, least appealingly, the roommates in New Hampshire — she hears Emily's car. Charlotte knows the rattle of it by heart, an old barn-red station wagon Emily inherited from Joe when she first got her license. Charlotte rushes to the foyer and presses her face to the cloudy glass blocks framing the doorway, like a child in a toy store window. She watches Emily's thin silhouette open up the trunk, hoist out a bag. Hears the dull bang of the trunk as she shuts it. Sees her pause, chin lifted, surveying the row of condos for the right address.
Charlotte yanks open the front door and starts waving. "Em! Here!" She pushes open the screen door, and cold air wraps around her, snaking under her sweater sleeves and up the legs of her tan capri pants. "Over here, honey!"
Emily lifts a hand and starts walking across the lawn. Charlotte feels a rush of love just looking at her daughter's familiar shape: the thin shoulders, bowed head, pointy chin. Emily has always been tiny, but what might otherwise come across as fragile is challenged by the utter confidence of her stride. Emily has walked with this same assurance — a near defiance — ever since she was two years old and took her first fearless lunges toward a neighbor's kiddie pool.
Emily arrives at the porch step with an emphatic clomp. "Hi, Mommy."
Emily gives her a kiss on the cheek. As she steps inside, Charlotte takes a quick inventory of her daughter: hair, clothes, accessories. It wouldn't be unusual to discover something new, something that's been pierced or altered since the last time she saw her. But today, nothing radical. Nothing permanent, anyway. Emily is wearing rust-colored corduroys, a white T-shirt, brown hiking boots. A wide pink silk bandanna, like something women wore in the 1920s, is swathed around her head and knotted at the nape of her neck, the tail of the scarf tangled in her long, messy brown hair. Her eyes look tired. Sunken. Well, naturally. She must be exhausted from the drive.
"How was your drive?" Charlotte asks. "Any problems? Any traffic? Did you get lost? I was expecting you a while ago — "
"I got a late start."
There is a pause, a silence that feels tentative, unfamiliar. For a long minute Emily gazes around the house, and Charlotte just watches her, a nervous smile pasted to her face. Then Emily shrugs off her duffel and starts rooting around inside it. "Here," she says, and holds out a plastic bag full of what look like green flower petals.
"Arugula. From our garden."
"Your garden?" Charlotte takes the bag. "You grew these yourself?"
"Me and Walter."
"Oh! Well, they're just — that's just great. Grew them in your garden!"
Her enthusiasm is too much, she can feel it, but it's better than the awkward quiet a moment before. Charlotte isn't used to awkwardness around Emily. When Emily used to arrive for visits on Dunleavy Street, there would be an immediate flurry of activity, familiarity, dropping bags on the floor, flopping on the couch, digging through mail, rifling through the kitchen cabinets.
"Well, here, here, come in, come in," Charlotte blusters, shutting the door. "Let me give you a tour of the place. This is the foyer."
"God, Mom. You have a foyer?"
"I didn't specifically ask for one, but you know. It comes with the place."
Emily nods. She probably considers living in a condo community "selling out." A house with a style and layout exactly like all its neighbors, no personality of its own. Charlotte is comforted by the predictability of the complex; Emily probably finds it stifling. Dehumanizing. Depending on her mood, she might start comparing it to some kind of Communist state.
"I don't spend much time in here," Charlotte prattles, "but, you know. Nice for greeting guests." She heads quickly toward the living room before Emily can ask her to elaborate on who these guests might be. "And this is the living room."
The clop of Emily's boots disappears as they step onto the plush carpet.
"Are these my digs?"
"If it's not comfortable, you could sleep in my — "
"It's great," Emily says, dropping her duffel on the neat stack of pink bedding. Charlotte readies herself for some comment about the room's neutral tones, "the color of pantyhose." Instead, Emily wanders toward the built-in shelves lined with their framed photos, tiny tea sets, careful rows of books (one for the book group, one health/nutrition, one loans from Emily). She kneels down to peer at the fireplace that, despite the bundle of cedar logs in the cast-iron basket, hasn't yet been touched.
"I was thinking we could use it while you're here," Charlotte volunteers. "It just hasn't been quite cold enough yet."
Not to mention she's too paranoid to build a fire on her own. The flames might leap out of the grate, a burning ember might fly onto the carpet, she would have to stay awake until every last bit of ash was cold, oh — she feels tired just thinking about it.
"But this weekend it's supposed to go down to the thirties," she says, "so we could definitely build one. Would you want to? That would be cozy, wouldn't it? A fire? I always wanted a fireplace on Dunleavy Street."
Emily says nothing. Which isn't like her. Maybe she's concentrating on absorbing the place, taking it all in before unleashing her assessment. She pauses in front of the thick, tweedy curtains that conceal the sliding glass door.
"What's out here?" Emily reaches into the curtains and taps glass.
"That's the garden patio," Charlotte says, quoting from the brochure. "Isn't it nice? Let me open it up so you can see."
As a rule, Charlotte keeps these curtains closed. As far as she's concerned, the "garden patio" is the condo's biggest drawback. She doesn't like to be reminded of the half inch of glass separating her from potential robbers, murderers, rapists, wild animals. Every night at 7:00 P.M., the porch light automatically snaps on; from inside, the curtains emit a faint yellow glow.
Charlotte tugs the cord, and the heavy curtains shrug apart, creaking on their metal hinges to unveil a perfect square of smooth fake stones. The patio's only furnishings are two metal lounge chairs and a glass-topped table with an umbrella poking through the middle, bound tight as a swizzle stick. Under the glare of the lightbulb, the glass tabletop is marred with stray leaves, sticky pine needles, bird droppings. The puffy, flowered chair cushions are still folded and stacked in the corner, exactly where Charlotte found them.
Emily leans into the glass and cups her hands around her eyes. Charlotte watches a moth attack the porch light as she waits for Emily to speak. It's amazing how much her daughter's opinion matters. The opinion of a person whose diapers she changed, whose temperature she took, whose milk she made — a person she herself created.
After what seems like several minutes, Emily turns. "This room must get great natural light."
Charlotte thinks she can literally feel her heart swell. "Well, yes," she says. "I guess it does, now that you mention it." She gives the cord a few tugs, smothering the window in tweed again. As she heads for the hallway, her steps feel more confident. "The bathroom," she says, snapping on the light.
Emily points to the fish on the walls. "Yikes."
"Oh, I know. Aren't they awful? I try not to look them in the eye." Charlotte laughs, swinging open the lacquered bedroom door. "And last but not least."
The moment Emily steps into the bedroom, Charlotte is struck by what a comfort it is to have her in it. These four walls have already contained so much anxiety, so much fear, so many exaggerated dreams and overblown nightmares, that the mere fact of Emily's presence punctures some of that unreality somehow, connects the room to the real world. Next time she's scared at night, Charlotte thinks, she'll remember Emily being here.
Gratefully, she watches as her daughter moves around the room. She is as thorough as a prospective buyer: peeking in the closet, peering through the plastic slats of the blinds. Charlotte tries to see the room as her daughter would, but has spent so many countless hours staring at every crack and crevice that it's impossible to view it now through fresh eyes.
"Cool fan," Emily says, swatting at the gold chain dangling from one of the ceiling fan's wooden fins.
"It is nice, isn't it? Not too much of a breeze, but enough. Enough to keep me cool if I need it."
In truth, Charlotte rarely uses it. The whirring noise is too distracting. Like the Dream Machine, it's capable of concealing other, more important, sounds.
"Do you like the hardwood floor?" Charlotte asks, as Emily wanders toward the dresser. "The realtor said hardwood is popular these days. At first I wasn't sure, but it looks nice, don't you think?"
"Yeah. It's nice."
Emily hasn't commented on the Dream Machine sitting by the foot of the bed or The Miracle of Mindfulness on the bedside table. Instead, she pokes listlessly in Charlotte's jewelry box. Charlotte is sure her daughter has no interest in her bland clip-on earrings and unassuming gold chains. In the mirror above the dresser, she has a perfect view of Emily's blank expression. Something is clearly bothering her, something more than a long ride. She's lacking her usual spunk, her spirit — her engagement with the world.
"Honey," Charlotte ventures. The chain from the ceiling fan swings slightly. "Is everything all right?"
Emily doesn't look up, doesn't change expression, as if she's been expecting this. She fingers a knotted clump of necklace chains. "I'm fine."
"Are you sure? Are you tired from your drive? I could make you some tea. Or coffee? I could make you coffee."
"How about a nice hot bath? I bought some lavender bubbles. And something called a bath glove."
Emily looks up. "You use a bath glove?"
"Well, no. I bought it for you."
In the mirror, Charlotte sees a smile.
"Remember last time you were here, you were taking lots of baths? Do you — are you still?"
Emily shrugs. Without her usual volume and energy, she looks smaller. A wisp of a thing, really. Her corduroys hang loose on her hips, boots are weighing down her feet. Under the bandanna, her naturally big eyes look enormous, like the starving children on those infomercials.
"It's just that" — Charlotte inhales — "you don't seem like yourself."
Emily clicks her tongue ring slowly, once, twice, like a metronome, as if measuring her response. Then she gives the tongue a decisive click and claps the lid shut on the jewelry box. "It's all good," she says, turning and smiling broadly. "I'm good. Just starving. Got anything to eat?"
Charlotte stashes the arugula in the produce bin — she'll have to use it during Emily's visit, but what on earth will she make? — while Emily starts opening cabinet doors. It feels good to be in the kitchen: a place of briskness, efficiency.
"What do you feel like eating?" Charlotte claps her hands. "I have egg salad, I have fruit salad — "
"You have Suddenly Salad." Emily yanks the box off the shelf and frowns at it. "Is this for real?"
Charlotte laughs, always the good sport. "It's not as bad as it sounds," she says, then opens the freezer to reveal a box of Boca Burgers propped against a bank of diet dinners-for-one. "I have Boca Burgers, honey. Want a Boca? It'll take ten minutes."
But Emily is surveying a shelf of boxes: pasta, rice, instant mashed potatoes. "Mom," she says, "do you realize almost everything you eat is off-white?"
Charlotte laughs again. She knows her food and clothes are easy bait and accepts this as part of her role as "the dowdy mom," especially if it will make Emily feel more like herself. She can't stand knowing her daughter is in pain and wants to find the origin immediately: trace it, name it, like a sound in the night. Watching Emily poke in these unfamiliar cabinets, it occurs to Charlotte she might feel unsettled by the new house. She hadn't anticipated this, but it would make sense. It would be strange if Emily didn't feel a little displaced. The house on Dunleavy Street was the only consistent home she'd ever known — the place where she'd had her own room, her closet, her bulletin board full of concert tickets and photos and dried corsages. It was the den where she studied for every test, the living room where she curled in front of the TV under a pile of fuzzy afghans, the pantry she shut herself inside to talk on their single phone — a rotary attached to the kitchen wall — before convincing Charlotte to get a cordless.
Charlotte can still remember that beige phone cord, how it strained under the door to the pantry — or "Emily's Office," as they later called it — and the serious tones of her daughter's voice leaking from within. On any given night, Emily would be dispensing advice to one of her many girlfriends or arguing heatedly with one of the boys in her class. Charlotte would try not to interrupt, but sometimes, if she was cooking, she couldn't help it. She would rap on the door, sing "Ex-cuse me!" and reach in quickly to grab whatever ingredient she needed. Emily would be sitting on the floor, knees bunched under her chin, head resting against a shelf of canned peaches or Cheerios. "Hold on," she would tell her caller, then press the phone to her chest until Charlotte closed the door. One afternoon, when Emily was a freshman, Charlotte found her at the kitchen table decorating a square of poster board with bubble letters: EMILY'S OFFICE. She wrote IN SESSION on one side, OPEN FOR BUSINESS on the other. They laughed about it and hung the sign on the doorknob from a piece of red yarn. Even after the pantry became a pantry again, and Emily and the cordless began disappearing to her bedroom, that sign remained on the pantry doorknob until Charlotte packed it, last summer, in a box labeled MISC.
That's what the kitchen on Dunleavy Street felt like. A hodgepodge, a treasure chest, a room packed to bursting. The refrigerator door was crowded with scribbled notes, photos, coupons, postcards. In the "junk drawer" was a sludge of matchbooks, takeout menus, rubber bands, recipes ripped from magazines, extra packets of ketchup and sugar three inches deep. The kitchen — the whole house — had a sense of accumulation. History. Here at the condo, the refrigerator door was blank except for a Bed, Bath and Beyond coupon attached with the magnet Charlotte received in the mail from Millville County Electric.
"I was thinking," Charlotte says, voice lurching as it always did when she broached an uncomfortable subject. "That it must be hard for you, honey, being here. At the condo."
Emily faces an open cabinet, back turned.
"I know it's different from the house on Dunleavy Street. It's smaller, and the stove's electric, the closets aren't as deep..." Charlotte sucks in a breath. "I felt strange too, at first. But you get used to it. Believe me." She pauses and asks, hopefully, "Is that what's upsetting you? Do you miss Dunleavy Street?"
Emily turns. She smiles, but it is a sad smile, the kind of smile an adult gives to a child who has said something so naive it is endearing. "It's fine, Mom," she says. "I'm fine. Don't worry."
Charlotte waits, wanting something more. A "but" or an "except for." A sag of the shoulders, even a tear or two. Instead, Emily hops up on the counter with a burst of new energy. "If you really want to know what's upsetting me," she says, "it's that my mother's taste buds are dying a slow death." With a flourish, she grabs a wire whisk and stands up, head inches from the overhead light. "Charlotte Warren?" she announces into the whisk.
"You are today's lucky winner."
"You and your daughter and your deprived taste buds have won an exciting trip for three to" — she drums the whisk on a cabinet door — "a fabulous restaurant in southern Jersey. There you will try something new. Something exotic."
"Oh, but I can just make something here — "
"We're going out." Emily points the whisk at her. "No excuses."
"But you must be tired from the — "
"But," Charlotte protests, voice rising, "it's almost nine o'clock!"
Emily's arms flop to her sides. "Fine. We don't have to eat out. We'll go get takeout and bring it back. How's that?"
Charlotte looks up at her daughter. She has lived this moment, felt this feeling, countless times before. Does she want to go out? No. She really doesn't. But she knows that once Emily has a plan, there's no stopping her, especially when it comes to exposing Charlotte to new things. Joe was the same way, always trying to cajole her into trying sushi, or mussels, or dousing her food in garlic or pesto or curry, then seeming disappointed — no, more than disappointed, truly let down in some larger spiritual way, as if Charlotte's basic moral fiber were in question — when she declined. Why, Charlotte wonders, is her taste in food a character flaw that needs correcting? She hates when people felt the need to make her adventurous: to sing in the car or dance at a wedding reception or try the bite of raw, pink, glistening fish dangling from the end of their fork. Why should it matter if she doesn't want to? If it doesn't bother her, why should it bother them?
She doesn't want to leave the house. Doesn't want to go out in the chilly night air, drive in the dark, eat something unfamiliar. But, more important than all the things she doesn't want to do, is the one thing she wants most in this world: to see her daughter happy. And, like every moment before this, Charlotte will choose her daughter's happiness over her own. Maybe that's what being a mother is all about.
Thai Heaven is in the same strip as Bed, Bath and Beyond, though Charlotte has never noticed it before. From the outside it's easy to miss, the front window obscured by a forbidding film of steam. But inside, the dining room is an explosion of the senses — deep reds and golds, tassels and sconces, brass emblems of elephants and gods. The place is nearly empty, it being 9:00 p.m. on a Thursday in Millville. The only customers are couples. There is an intimacy about the place — its steaminess and smallness and spiciness — that makes Charlotte uncomfortable.
A pretty Asian woman appears at the front desk. Charlotte gives her the encouraging smile she reserves for people who don't speak English, and is embarrassed when the woman says, "Are you ready to order?" with a perfect American accent.
Emily looks at Charlotte.
"Nothing too hot," she manages, before Emily begins rattling off questions and selections, fingers flying around the Vegetarian section. Charlotte doesn't mind eating vegetarian when she's with Emily. She's not hiding the fact that she eats meat, just doesn't see the point in forcing Emily to be around it. She watches her gesture to dishes with several intimidating little red spice leaves lined up next to them. One involves something ambiguously described as "brown sauce."
Maybe she's better off not knowing. She takes a seat by the door and occupies herself by dropping mints into her palm with a tiny silver spoon until Emily is done.
By the time they return to the condo, the bottom of the brown bag is damp with some unknown seeping sauce. Charlotte agrees to try a little of everything — what choice does she have? — and cringes as Emily piles her plate high, all of it drenched in sauces and spices, colors and flavors running together in an indefinable wet mess.
Charlotte holds her tongue and says, "It all looks delicious!" When she tries what looks like a relatively safe piece of celery, all she can taste is heat.
"Good," she manages, taking a gulp of water. "Very interesting."
Emily laughs. "If you don't like it, you can say so."
"It's not that — it's just hotter than I'm used to."
Her water is gone before she's made it through the first three bites.
"So," she says, grabbing the Brita pitcher and getting up to refill it. "Tell me all about your house. Is it all decorated?"
"Pretty much? What do you need?" Charlotte turns on the tap water, sticks a finger in it, lets it run until it's cold. "I know there's always those odds and ends you don't think of before you're actually in the place...shower curtains, can openers, kitchen towels. Tomorrow we can take a ride to Bed, Bath and Beyond, and I'll buy you whatever you need."
"You must need something. And I just got a coupon in the mail. Twenty percent off any purchase over — fifteen dollars, I think." She plucks a clean bowl from the dish rack and holds it under the icemaker. At the churning sound, Emily looks up.
"Icemaker," Charlotte explains. She was hoping to sound nonchalant, but even she can hear the note of excitement in her voice.
Charlotte carries the pitcher and bowl to the table. "It's just that sometimes the things you need for a new house don't occur to you until you see them in the store." She drops two ice cubes in her glass. "Just the other week, I was out shopping when I saw this soap dish and realized I needed one. Remember how on Dunleavy Street, the soap dishes were built into the walls? Here, I had my soap just sitting on the sink, which was fine, but the soap dish looks so much nicer." She takes a sip of water. How mundane her life must sound. "Besides, I want to buy you something. Something fun. You need a housewarming gift. It's your first house!"
"But there's really nothing we need." Emily shrugs. "We just deal, you know? Walter built some shelves. Anthony has this great old trunk we're using as a coffee table. Mara made some tapestries and rugs. We're pretty self-sufficient."
Charlotte looks down at her plate. She often feels, when talking to Emily, as if she's dodging tiny, invisible barbs. She doubts they are intentional; most likely, they are the product of her own insecurities. She and her daughter just live so differently, think so differently, that she could take virtually any comment Emily makes and twist it into a subtle criticism even if it wasn't meant that way.
"Yes, well, I guess you are." Charlotte forces her fork into a spongy broccoli head. "I'm still so impressed by you, growing that arugula." She pops the broccoli in her mouth, and her tongue goes up in flames.
Emily, she notices, has barely touched her dinner. She feels a flicker of panic as she adds up tonight's strange behavior: her moodiness, her thinness, and now, her untouched plate. Could she have some kind of eating disorder? Charlotte doubts it — Emily has never worried about food, except to make sure it's organic — but then again, these eating problems are so rampant these days. Linda Hill's daughter, Rachel, was just diagnosed (was that the right word, diagnosed?) with anorexia. She'd gone to live at a clinic in Philadelphia. Linda told the book group that Rachel had been hiding rocks in her pockets, trying to trick her doctors into thinking she weighed more than she did.
"You know," Charlotte ventures, careful to keep her eyes away from Emily's food, "Rachel Hill has anorexia."
"No kidding," Emily says. "Rachel Hill hasn't eaten a meal since fifth grade."
Charlotte looks up. "Fifth grade?"
"She always threw her lunches away in the cafeteria."
"Fifth grade?" Charlotte repeats. "How in the world would a fifth-grader even know to do a thing like that?"
"Easy." Emily twines her legs onto her chair lotus style. "Girls in this generation grow up much faster. It's a biological fact: puberty now starts earlier than it used to. So being in fifth grade is the same as being, I don't know, thirteen."
Charlotte puts down her fork.
"If you ask me," Emily continues, picking up a chopstick, "schools need to stop showing filmstrips in health class. Do they really think kids watch them and worry about overdosing on drugs or starving themselves to death? Wrong." She jabs the chopstick in the air for emphasis. "They watch them and get ideas. They leave class psyched to try out bulimia or take some Ex."
Charlotte stares at her daughter. Her daughter, who is so startlingly, endearingly, terrifyingly honest. Charlotte reminds herself, as she has many times before: I'd rather have an honest child than an evasive one.
"Well," Charlotte says, picking up her fork, "Rachel's at a clinic in Philadelphia." She struggles to keep her voice even. "In-patient."
"That's great. Good for her."
"Apparently she's been putting rocks in her pockets." She can't help but feel a hint of pride, relaying this tidbit of inside information. "To trick the doctors into thinking she's heavier than she is."
"Yeah, I've heard that."
Naturally. Nothing she could reveal would surprise Emily. She reaches for her water. At this rate, she'll be up all night.
"One of my students was in a clinic last year," Emily says, absently poking the chopstick at the palm of her hand. "Her parents forced her to go when she started growing fur."
Charlotte almost chokes. "Fur!"
"It's the primal survival instinct kicking in. If the body gets too thin, it gets cold because there's not enough fat to keep it warm. It starts growing fur to protect itself."
Charlotte is speechless. Emily sounds more animated than she has all night.
"It's amazing, isn't it? At the end of the day, humans are all just animals, you know?" She shakes her head in fascination. Not a morbid fascination, but a genuine awe for the natural workings of the world. "It's really incredible, if you think about it."
Well, Charlotte thinks, at least she's not being so listless. She'd rather Emily be acting animated and fascinated, fur and all.
With renewed energy Emily turns to the shelf under the window, where Charlotte keeps miscellaneous piles. Two packs of moving announcements she bought six weeks ago and hasn't been able to bring herself to open. The Book Group snack schedule. A pink soap shaped like a hippo that she saw in the mall, thought was cute, then never used, realizing she didn't want to watch it disintegrate bit by bit each day. On the bottom is her dust-filmed laptop. It's Emily's old computer, the one she used in high school and gave to Charlotte when she left for college and Joe bought her one that was "cutting-edge." Emily had encouraged Charlotte to use it as a journal, but she was so confounded by the technology that the few times she tried to use it, she only got frustrated. It froze on her two years ago, and she hadn't opened it since.
Charlotte braces herself for a comment on the unused computer, the unsent moving announcements, but Emily reaches instead for a book with a bright logo stamped on its cover. "What's this?"
"I didn't choose it," Charlotte says quickly. She knows Emily's opinions on corporate book clubs. "It's for my group."
"You still do the group?"
"The second Saturday of every month."
Emily looks up. "Isn't that this Saturday?"
"Well, yes, but I'm not going, obviously. Not with you here. I'm still reading the book, though, for, you know. Pleasure."
Emily scans the inside flap.
"So," Charlotte says. She knows she has to ask sooner or later, and the brink of a book discussion seems as good a time as any. "How are things with Walter?"
Emily lets the book fall shut. "Fine."
Charlotte pauses, a forkful of brown rice halfway to her mouth. It's the first time she's ever heard Emily mention Walter with anything short of unbridled enthusiasm. "Honey?" She puts the fork down. "Did something happen?"
"Then what is it?"
"It's nothing." Emily tosses the book back on the shelf. "I don't want to talk about it."
"So it's something."
"Mom," Emily warns. "I'm serious."
Charlotte watches as Emily pokes at her food with a chopstick. She knows if her daughter doesn't want to talk, there will be no convincing her otherwise.
"Okay." Charlotte nods. "Fair enough."
Emily doesn't look up. Watching her, Charlotte realizes that this entire evening — Emily's moodiness, her quietness, her lack of appetite — now makes sense. Emily doesn't have an eating disorder. She isn't upset about the condo. She's having problems with Walter. Charlotte doesn't know why she didn't suspect this in the first place. In retrospect, it's obvious — inevitable. Living together was such a big step, an adult step, they were bound to have trouble. They couldn't have known how hard it would be, no matter how in love they were. Besides, it only makes sense that Emily's fascination with Walter would fade eventually. She's always lived from cause to cause, passion to passion, phase to phase. When one hobby loses its novelty, she throws herself into the next, and the next, and there's nothing like utility bills and dirty socks and caking toothpaste tubes to speed up the process.
As sorry as she is, Charlotte can't help but feel relieved. She doesn't know what she would have done if Emily didn't like to come visit. And although she'd never admit it, she feels the tiniest bit validated. She's known all along Walter and Emily weren't right for each other. In fact, she's always known exactly what kind of man Emily will settle down with. He'll be her opposite: proper, reserved, conservative. The man who provides the sense and steadiness to counter her impulsiveness, contest her radical ideas, soften her stubborn will.
Emily, of course, would hate that Charlotte presumed to know this, so she's never told her. She doesn't need to. She is secure in her prediction. She knows that one day — maybe at Emily's wedding reception, as Charlotte raises a glass of wine, wearing a pale blue dress with mother-of-pearl trim — she will say: Even back when my daughter was young and impulsive, even when she got that pierce in her tongue (laughs), I always knew she would settle down with a man like...
"So what about you?"
Charlotte blinks, refocuses. "What about me what?"
"Do you have a man in your life? A beau?" She leans on the word just enough to undermine it.
"Emily." Charlotte reddens. "Don't be ridiculous. Have you seen a parade of men lining up at my door in the past fifteen years?"
"And? That doesn't mean it can't happen. Maybe now's the perfect time. You have a new place. You have time on your hands. You're only forty-seven. There have to be some eligible bachelors in The Heights."
On the surface, her words sound supportive, but Charlotte can hear the hint of a challenge underneath. Emily is prying into her mother's personal life in exchange for Charlotte prying into hers.
"Don't be silly."
"Why is that silly? It's the exact opposite of silly. It's what people do."
Charlotte stabs at her plate. "I have plenty of things to do."
Emily pauses. Charlotte knows well what her daughter thinks about the "things she does." She's never watered down her opinions on Charlotte's lack of career ("It's not about needing to have one, Mom, it's about wanting to") or the eight college credits Charlotte needs to graduate ("But wouldn't it feel satisfying?") or the fact that she's never had a "real" job. Which isn't exactly true. Before she was married, Charlotte did part-time clerical work at LaSalle University, where her father taught philosophy. And for two years after Joe moved out, she was an office aide at Emily's school. The pay was low, but with alimony and child support it was enough; plus, it allowed her to be home after school with Emily.
"Fine," Emily concedes. She's peeled apart a spring roll and is now dissecting its insides like a lab experiment. "You're busy. I respect that."
Charlotte pops an unknown vegetable in her mouth: white, seemingly innocuous, shaped like a poker chip. Her throat burns.
"But dating doesn't have to mean a total lifestyle change, you know?" Emily says. "It might just add some spice to your life."
Maybe I don't want more spice in my life, Charlotte snaps, but only on the inside. She stares at the forbidding orange-red sauce that has now pooled in front of her, invaded her sinuses, tinged everything on her plate a warning shade of red. Her throat is burning, nose starting to run. Suddenly she feels intensely resentful of everything: the Thai food she was made to eat, the worry she's continually made to feel, the footsteps she treads in tiny, careful circles around her daughter, only to get ridiculous inquiries about her love life in return.
Beau. What a silly phrase. It's so old-fashioned. Embarrassing.
Charlotte plucks a napkin from the plastic holder and looks directly at her daughter. "Why aren't you eating?"
Emily pauses for a second, then says evenly, "I am eating." She picks up a wrinkled pepper, leans her head back, opens her mouth, and drops it in.
Charlotte looks away. She presses the napkin to each eye. She hopes Emily knows it's the spices that are making her cry.
"Mom." Emily sighs. "I don't have an eating disorder, if that's what you're worried about."
"That's not what I'm worried about." Charlotte blows her nose.
"I mean, well, fine. Yes. It did cross my mind. Because you've barely touched your dinner." She folds the used napkin into a tiny, damp square and places it in her lap. "But I didn't really think you had one."
"Good. Because I'm not that trendy."
Charlotte picks up a teabag and fingers the paper tassel. "Good Taste Tea Bag," it says, in sticklike orange letters.
"Want me to put on some water?" she asks, knowing the answer.
"No, thanks," Emily says. "You should try some, though. It's good."
"Oh, I could never drink tea before bed." Charlotte laughs. It's an unattractive laugh, bitter and self-deprecating. "I'd lose more sleep than I do already." Then she scrapes back her chair and starts packing up the leftovers, pinching the plastic lids to the sides of the sagging foil containers.
Emily uncrosses her legs and stands to help. "You know what you need, Mom?" she says, her voice more gentle.
"Sleepytime tea. It'll put you right out."
"Wouldn't that be nice." Charlotte picks up the bowl of half-melted ice and dumps it in the sink. The truth is, she's considered taking something to help her sleep, but the thought of being alone in the middle of the night, drugged, semiconscious, makes her feel more vulnerable than she does already.
"Just don't take No-Doz." Emily starts stacking dishes. "Janie took it cramming for our Chem 101 final and didn't sleep for the next four years."
Charlotte pauses, dripping foil pan in hand. "Janie Grobel?"
"She got addicted to it."
"She started taking it to help her study and got completely hooked." Emily is carrying a stack of dishes to the sink, where Charlotte stands frozen to the spot. "Senior year we had this whole intervention thing where we flushed all her pills and Janie started freaking out." She starts scraping plates into the garbage disposal. "It was all very 90210."
"Why didn't you ever tell me?"
Emily turns the disposal on and raises her voice. "I don't know. I mean, over-the-counter caffeine pills? It's kind of lame as far as addictions go." She flicks the disposal off and looks at Charlotte's face. "Oh, come on, Mom. Please don't get all freaked out."
But it's too late. Charlotte is all freaked out. She can't help but be all freaked out. She pictures little Janie Grobel, Emily's roommate freshman year at Wesleyan, a sweet blond girl from Minnesota. She was on the swim team and always had a pair of pink goggles dangling around her neck. Her mother used to send the girls packages of home-baked banana bread.
Watching her daughter, Charlotte feels fear. The same fear that creeps over her when she sees drunk driving commercials. The same fear she feels watching 20/20 and Dateline about raves and date-rape drugs and AIDS. The fear she felt reading Reviving Ophelia (a book group favorite) and absorbing story after story of happy, well-adjusted adolescent girls who suddenly, and with no warning, turned addictive, delinquent, rebellious. Now, like then, Charlotte senses the presence of an ambiguous, dangerous world — a world of girls addicted to over-the-counter pills and girls staging interventions and girls growing fur because they've starved all their body fat away — a world from which she can't begin to protect her daughter. She can't protect her from these dangers because she doesn't understand them. Because she isn't even aware of them. When she hears about such things, and thinks of her own sleepless nights, she sees her fears for what they really are: imaginary.
Copyright © 2004 by Elise Juska
Posted October 24, 2006
The Hazards of Sleeping Alone is a nice contrast to Juska's first book 'Getting Over Jack Wagner.' Juska shows versatility and energy in her writing. Her take on mother daughter relationships is sometime's too accurate. Well done, I look forward to future work!
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Posted April 21, 2006
The misleading title and cover art might suggest a shallow romance, but Juska's novel goes deeper to reveal profound truths about human relationships. Beautifully observed and elegantly written, 'Hazards' works as both a penetrating character study and a well-spun story. Juska's expertly rendered images--like a scene set inside the giant heart exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia--will linger in your mind long after you've finished the book.
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Posted November 26, 2004
Elise Juska's characters are so real, so believable, so well developed that you feel like they are in the room with you as you read. Juska understands the complexities of the human condition and she never takes the easy way out. Her books are fun to read AND they make you think...a lot. You'll be blown away by this book. Each line pulls you into the next. It is graceful, stylish, true-to-life. Buy it. Read it. Give it to a friend as a holiday gift. Bravo, Elise Juska. This writer is a star.
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Posted November 19, 2004
Posted December 9, 2008
In her late forties, Charlotte Warren has become increasingly neurotic about life as she is a compulsive worrier. Unable to sleep at night and a bundle of nerves during the day, Charlotte has been divorced for fifteen years from Joe, who she sometimes misses in the lonely darkness. However, her biggest concern besides some imaginary thief breaking and entering her home is her passionate living twenty-two years old daughter who lives life with gusto.................................... Emily arrives home on a visit, but this time has brought with her Walter, the black man she plans to move in with. Charlotte is stunned but has a new reason to panic as she fears her daughter¿s ¿alternate living arrangement¿ selection as mixed relationships are difficult. However, the appearance of Walter and Emily does more than just turn Charlotte into a nervous wreck; that first weekend shatters the older woman¿s memories as events she buried in the furthest reaches of her mind has arisen like an avenging Phoenix.......................... This is an intriguing look at an individual struggling with a compulsive disorder that keeps her from fully functioning in society. Readers¿ hearts will go out to Charlotte whose palpitations and fears can be felt on almost every page of the tale. Of interest is how opposite her daughter who lived much of her life with her mother (Joe had visits and ultimately moved far away to Seattle) has turned out; sort of as if she has had a reaction formation to the phobic driven lifestyle of her mother. Though somewhat dark in tone, Elisa Juska paints a portrait of a woman in trouble from demons running amok in her head...................... Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 18, 2011
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Posted November 13, 2008
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Posted June 19, 2009
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Posted April 7, 2009
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