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I GLANCED DISCREETLY at the wall clock above the ballet barre. Estella Baker had been holding me imprisoned in the YMCA dance studio for the past half hour, talking about everything from her grand-nephew to her gout. Every week after class she'd thank me for the lesson, and then reminisce about some scene from her youth that the taped music had brought to mind. I let her because I assumed she had no one else to talk to, and I knew what sort of poison loneliness could be.
Five-thirty. Shit. By the time I got home it would already be dark out, and I hated walking in the dark. Walking alone at night was like lying in bed waiting for sleep: there was nothing to distract you from yourself.
"Hessie's always been narsistic," Estella said. "Narsistic, is that the word? I seem to be losing my vocabulary lately. You know she's had her breasts done." She pulled a tissue from the arm of her leotard, dabbed at her nose and then tucked it back inside.
I gave her a polite smile. When I'd come up with the idea of teaching dance, I'd pictured a class full of women who looked like belly dancers, with long dark hair and perfect waists, women who, like me, had once imagined they'd grow up to be dancers but had never managed to get past the imagining stage. Instead what I got was a class of ladies in their sixties, wearing leotards that bulged in odd places, who had about as much grace as overstuffed sofas. It was okay, though. They were very appreciative.
"Well, they sure don't look done," I said, since she was obviously expecting disdain. "Maybe they're a work in progress."
"I know!" Estella said. "They're so tiny. You know she had her arms done, too? Her arms!"
When she'd gone I threw a dress on over my leotard, pulled on a pair of sneakers and jogged the twelve blocks home. The streets were crowded with tourists deciding where to eat, mostly young couples alone or burdened with strollers and diaper bags. Cities were made for couples. Go to a restaurant or movie and I'd be stared at, whereas on the island single people were embraced, befriended, invited to join. Here I didn't even like calling for pizza; I was sure the delivery boy pictured me scarfing down the whole pie, wallowing in grease.
I climbed the stairs and locked the inside of my apartment: doorknob, deadbolt, chain. After thirteen years, I still hadn't gotten used to the idea of such surplus safeguards. On the island we'd leave home with our windows and door open wide to vent the dead inside air. In this city you weren't safe unless you fastened a trip wire to the entrance and connected the other end to a hydrogen bomb.
The message light was blinking on the answering machine. I was pretty sure I knew who was calling. Seth Powell lived downstairs. We'd met in the elevator last month and he'd latched onto me immediately, and since he was a single man in a city without any single men, I'd let him latch. He was funny, and cute enough, and we kissed on the first date because sometimes you just want to be kissed by a funny, cute enough guy. But he was also the type of man who called me "babe" and wore red and blue makeup to Patriots games. A prototype of too much testosterone, who in cave days would've pounded his chest at cave women and fathered hundreds of cave children. I sighed and poured a glass of wine.
I wanted to be alone. I'd been out all week attending a training seminar for my "real job" at U.S. Trust Investments, basically just videos and exercises teaching us how to scam strangers. We'd tell them we were born in their town, had graduated from their alma mater. We'd hear a baby in the background and use this to direct our next line of attack: A boy or a girl? How old is he or she? You know I have a son or daughter just exactly that age? And how wonderful it is for me knowing I've already invested in his or her future.
I was real good at casual lying. I'd had skillful teachers in my past. "So sorry," I'd tell Seth, "but I'm seeing someone else." And the truth was I did have plans with this Chianti: full-bodied, Italian and dependable. All you could ask for in a date.
I turned on the CD player to Norah Jones, who, regardless of reality, always managed to make me feel better about myself. We're alone, the music seemed to say, and we're all we have, but also we're kind of cool. . . . So armed, I started the answering machine. I listened to silence for nearly a minute as I studied the buttons, sure I'd done something wrong. But then came the voice.
The glass slipped from my hand and shattered, leaving a full-bodied, Italian, dependable stain on the rug.
"It's your number, isn't it? I mean, of course it's you." He cleared his throat, spoke slower, deeper. "
This is Justin . . . Caine. I need to speak with you about something important, something I can't leave in a message."
I backed away, staring at the machine.
"Look, this isn't easy for me. You have to understand how hard it was even looking up your number. I know it's been so long, but there's things happening, something you need to know."
Deep down part of me had been waiting to get this call. Part of me knew he'd figure out the truth about Eve, see what she really was. I'd played it over in my mind so many times, even practiced how I'd react, how I'd steel my shoulders. I'm sorry, I'd say, but you're ten years too late. Go back to your wife. In my mind the words sounded strong and indifferent and slightly accented, like a British aristocrat. But hearing Justin's voice, older maybe, with a new edge but so much the same, everything loosened inside me. My legs felt like putty. There was no strength, no indifference, only the loss.
"Listen, I need you to call me back. I can't tell you through a recording, this is way too important."
I shook my head, looking through the bars on my front window. The window had been barricaded by the last tenants, who'd owned a cat and a small child. I'd never taken the time to remove the bars, even though they made me feel like I was living in the type of place where people drank from unbreakable glasses and made license plates. But even without the bars I'd still feel it, looking down at the lights that flickered day and night: neon pizza, laundromat, the sign that flashed red letters, C-R-E-D-I-T, each in turn, bright enough to stain the walls I'd painted sage green into a sickly brown.
"She's dying, Kerry," he said suddenly. "That's why I'm calling. It's just a matter of time now. She's dying."
I stopped the machine and blinked, blinked again. Nuh-unh. No way. I knew the truth. All these years I'd been able to close my eyes and see it, see her with Justin, with their child, living my life. And always, always happy. I would've felt it if there was anything wrong. I would've known.
I swallowed hard, rewound the machine, listened again.
She's dying. The words smacked me in the chest with the pain of a broken rib. "What?" I asked the machine. "What? What?"
"You need to come down here, really as soon as you can make it. She needs you here." His voice hitched and there was a beat of silence before he continued. "The number's the same. I'll talk to you soon, right? I'll talk to you."
I stopped the machine, my hand trembling so much that it took two tries, then stood with my eyes closed, palm flat against the telephone. "Dying," I whispered, then pressed my lips between my teeth. I turned off Norah Jones and replayed the message, hearing the tone rather than the words. "Justin," I said. "Justin?" I had to see his face. If he was lying, I'd see it in his face. I went to the bookshelf and pulled out one of the thin novels I'd read so many times I knew the words by heart. I stared at his face on the back cover, noises rising from deep in my throat like a hurt kitten or a pleading dog. Justin wouldn't lie about this. Even Justin wouldn't.
Justin Caine, the blurb read, is one of America's best-loved children's writers. His magical Canardia series, named for himself and his wife, Eve Barnard-Caine, have become bestsellers in three countries. He and his wife and daughter live in their childhood home in Rhode Island.
The photograph on the back cover was of Justin with Gillian. She had his sandy blond hair, my square chin, his cocky smile and my gray-green eyes. She was the child we would have had, and she was Eve's.
She's sick, Kerry, she's dying.
I stared down at the faint scars on my wrist, two lines intersecting, jagged and angry. LoraLee had said long ago that sheer wanting could make things happen. I'd thought once that I wanted this. I'd tried to make it happen. And up till now I'd thought it would be a release.
OUR DADDY ALWAYS LIVED on the edge of two worlds, between the present and the past we never talked about. It was what made life so hard for him, and in the end it was why death came so easily. I think we understood this all along, but on this day, his dying day, it was the last thing on our minds.
It was one of those late summer days that always come way too soon, slapping you in the face with all your June plans (Let's learn how to drive! Let's get dreadlocks!) that never got past the planning stage. Last night the temperature had managed to touch fifty before changing its mind, and this morning had been cold enough for sweatshirts and wool socks. Sun and moon shared the sky, twin gray spheres behind the haze of clouds. It was the summer of our sixteenth year.
We slapped down Water Street in our flip-flops, hand in hand, past the swanky hotels with their mansard roofs and attitudes, the not-so-swanky shops below them with their doors flung open to plead for end-of-season business. It was always a little weird in summer not knowing the faces we passed, all versions of the same stereotype with their sunglasses and pasty legs. The tourists made me and Eve feel lucky as we watched them cooing over flowering bushes and ocean views. They made us remember that not everyone lived this way.
We ran down to the jetty with its week-too-old-fish smell and sat with our legs dangling above the water, listening to the boats clock against their moorings and waiting for Daddy to come back from his last charter. Sunday afternoons were our time; at four o'clock when the day-trippers were drying off and changing to hop on the five o'clock ferry, Daddy would fold his sign down early and take us for a run. It had been that way every summer for as long as I could remember.
After a minute of sitting, Eve crossed one leg over mine and began combing her fingers through my hair. "What kind of mood're you in?" she said.
I shook my head. "Hunh?"
"It's just if you're in the wrong mood you overreact to things."
"I'm not in a mood. I mean, you're annoying me a little, but other than that I'm fine."
She was quiet a minute, and then she said, "Okay, I think today's Mom's birthday."
I felt an aching stretch, like my lungs had grown too big for my ribs. "How do you know?"
"His calendar. D B-day, it said. Diana's Birthday, it has to be."
I watched a wave lick against an algae-stained hull, dimly felt Eve pulling my hair back into a braid. "It could be anything, an appointment with Dr. Bradley or . . . a day to Drink Beer."
"Right, Kerry. He needs a reminder to drink." She peered into the distance at a departing ferry, the people waving like they were setting off on a journey that mattered. "You know I can't even remember her face? I remember her hair was dark and real long, past the waist. I remember she was tall and she could blow smoke rings with her cigarette, but that's it."
I fingered the birthday bracelet at my wrist. Our mother had given us the bracelets soon after we were born, and we wore them always, had added links to them when they started to pinch, and gave each other tiny charms to dangle from them, a new one for each birthday. Other than our thick brown hair and ability to tan without burning, they were the only things she'd ever given us that were worth having. "I think she was a dancer," I said.
Of course I had no idea if she was a dancer or a plumber, but I'd always imagined her in ballet shoes and swirly skirts. Since Daddy danced like a spastic turkey, I thought that must be where I'd gotten the genes for my one talent. In my heart I was a dancer, even though we couldn't afford real lessons. When I was eight the instructor of my Modern Movements class had told my father I was destined for greatness if he wanted to ship me to ballet school. Which of course he didn't, so the only type of dance I knew was Modern Movements, which tended to make one look like a flat-footed hippopotamus. But I was painfully sure that dancing stardom was one of those things I would've had, if only.
"If she dances, it's in a strip club," Eve said.
I didn't react to this, so she added, "On men's laps."
"You're so full of it," I said, but the image of our mother (still in ballet shoes) doing a lap dance was now lodged firmly in my mind. "I have this dream sometimes," I said to shake it, "Mom out on a boat somewhere, and she's writing in a journal about everything that's going on, and she's thinking about when she'll come back and show us."
Eve pulled my hair so tight I felt strands popping from my scalp. "Don't be an ass, Kerry."
I bit the inside of my cheek. It was dumb, sure. Obviously. But part of me still believed it, since it upheld the two basic tenets of childhood, that mommies don't leave, and daddies don't lie. Daddy told us when she first left that she was sailing round the world and would be back before we knew it. And for years we'd believed him, had stood for hours at the New Harbor dock waiting for her to emerge from a ferry with a book's worth of stories and piles of exotic gifts (castanets! berets! jalape–o condiments!). We'd speculated on what she was seeing: African tribes with bongo drums, beautiful geisha girls wearing red kimonos and chopstick-fastened buns.
But even though we never talked about it, inside we knew something darker. We remembered fractured images of spat words, a thrown vase, and darkest of all, bloody sheets washed in a sink, red water spiraling down a drain. We didn't know what they meant. We had chosen not to know.