When Roger and Ellen Ramsey found their six-month old baby facedown, lifeless in his crib one December morning—his arms and legs splayed like a starfish, his fingers perfect and terrible in their stillness, the soles of his feet unbearably smooth—they both blamed themselves. Wordlessly, they each thought back to the previous night and remembered being the one to put Matthew to bed, remembered hurriedly singing him a bedtime song, kissing his forehead, closing the door. They searched their minds for what went wrong. Whatever distraction, whatever unimaginable reason there was to have placed the baby down on his stomach instead of his back.
There was a moment after the ambulance was called, after Roger Ramsey put one hand over his son’s nose and tried breathing life into his already cold mouth, and Ellen Ramsey began to weep so uncontrollably that she herself had needed medical attention—when they blamed the other. This isn’t my mistake, they each thought, as the EMTs bolted upstairs, two steps at a time. But later, when the baby was pronounced dead, fault became small and irrelevant. The husband and wife looked at one another and somehow, without speaking, made the decision not to place blame.
When the Ramseys decided to have another baby, they told themselves they were meant to be parents. They told themselves they weren’t replacing Matthew. When they found out it was going to be a girl, Roger Ramsey excused himself from the room where his wife lay sprawled on the exam table, ultrasound gel cold and nauseating on her belly, and cried in the privacy of the bathroom. He thought about the delicacy of the little girl they would be bringing into the world, of the utter helplessness of children. He thought how selfish they were to be doing this again.
Ellen Ramsey listened to the heartbeat of her daughter on the ultrasound and allowed the doctor and her husband to believe that her tears were ones of happiness, though neither one of them asked. The little creature on the screen—no, in her own body—did not feel like her baby. She waited for the love she had felt for Matthew to kick in, to fill her up.
When she gave birth to the baby and held the girl in her arms she only felt blank and tired, the way she felt when she watched the news on TV each night, or the rare times when her husband reached for her, or when one of her students accidentally called her Mom before smiling shyly and saying, Oops, I mean, Mrs. Ramsey.
When her daughter’s mouth found itself a home around her nipple, the tug—that good sort of pain that she had felt with Matthew—seemed only biting and selfish. Deliberate almost, as though the baby wanted to hurt her. Get off me, she wanted to cry. But she held her daughter dutifully to her breast and bent down to kiss her ear. She breathed in the baby scent as though it was a drug, then waited—prayed—to feel the effect.
The man Jeannie Ramsey had gone home with was sexy but not especially good-looking, Jeannie’s favorite type of man to go home with. It meant a kind of ugliness could ensue. A letting go of niceties. Jeannie had the ability to make herself quite lovely when she wanted to. She could clean up nice. When she wasn’t paying attention, though—to her posture, to the particular way she arranged her features on her face, to the angle at which her hair fell across her forehead—something vulgar could leak through.
What was sexy about this man, she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but she thought it might have to do with the way he smiled. It wasn’t a tool the way it was for most people—a scheme to ask for more or to gain trust, to appear happy and enchanting and in control, when in fact the opposite was true. For this man, smiling was simply a reflex. He was naked, hunched over by his desk in the corner of his room, searching for a condom. His stomach was soft and reddish, and the places where his skin folded gleamed a little with sweat. Sparse hair stuck out in random patches on his back, and that hair was light-colored—surprisingly lighter than the hair on his head. When he turned around and shook his head apologetically at Jeannie, she found she liked the way his shoulders looked, not held haughtily like the business types she’d been with since she’d moved to the city—men who fancied themselves good catches—but still, his shoulders were nice, attractive accidentally.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t believe I can’t find any.”
Jeannie stretched out along this strange, ugly sexy man’s bed and turned her face into his starchy pillowcase, breathed in the scent of him, a cross between pine deodorant and some sort of oat bread. She felt ravenous, then, in a way that made her grateful for all the types of food in this world, for the very existence of flavors.
“Your bed smells good,” she said, and she saw his reflexive smile.
His room was spare. No TV, hardly any furniture except for the bed and a dresser and a desk with no chair. His closet didn’t have a door and the only things hanging were a few coats and several metal hangers. Half a dozen books were stacked on the desk. She didn’t bother reading the spines. The idea of discussing literature with him didn’t interest her—what he liked, what she liked—but she noted the books the same way she noted his shoulders.
Rolling onto her stomach, she glanced at him. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m on the pill.”
She nodded, feeling as she often did, that her decisions were not really in her control, that as soon as a possibility floated in her mind, she would inevitably go with it. It got her places, this ability to say yes, even when she wasn’t quite sure what she was saying yes to. It was how she had gotten here, barely twenty-one and living on her own; here being New York City, where millions of nobodies came together to become something massive and throbbing, like a heart. And Jeannie was a part of that now.
It was how she had gotten her job with Dr. Anders, without a college degree and with no office work experience. “Are you organized?” he’d asked her at the interview. “Do you know how to use a fax machine? Do you have experience with billing? Do you have any interest in Ophthalmology?” Yes, yes, and yes. Each day when she answered the phone at Anders’ office she imagined her voice floating out into the city, as though she were a spider building her web, one word at a time. She liked answering the phone. Hello, this is Dr. Anders’ office. Jeannie speaking. She sat up straight when she spoke and batted her eyes and said her boss’s name as though speaking the name of a god. And then her own: Jeannie, she’d trill, like an idiotic cartoon secretary. Jeannie speaking! One time, Dr. Anders had poked his head in and watched her while she chirped into the phone. “You’re good at that,” he’d said after she’d hung up.
Jeannie had grown up in a small town upstate, right along the Canadian border, where it was winter seven months out of the year and where most people gave up on their days at around four p.m. That’s when the sun began to set and people started to drink. Televisions were switched on and kept on until bedtime. Most nights Jeannie’s parents fell asleep in front of the TV and Jeannie would shake them awake before heading to bed herself. No matter how many nights this happened, they always looked surprised to see their daughter’s darkened form standing there in front of the glow of the television.
Jeannie’s father worked at the pharmacy in town and her mother was a fifth grade teacher. Her mother claimed to love children but Jeannie could see how unhappy she was each morning as she went off to school, clutching her bagged lunch, as though she were a student, one of the quiet ones who kept to themselves. Her father was better at disguising his unhappiness, something Jeannie had appreciated growing up, when they had played out in the snowy yard together and sang songs in the kitchen. When Jeannie fell off the swings and broke her arm, the doctor asked her to rate the pain on a scale of one to ten. The question had baffled her—how was she supposed to know the difference between a four and a six? A five and an eight? That’s when it had dawned on her the type of sadness adults lived with.
Jeannie was still young when she began to notice the terrified way her mother and father looked at her, as though her vitality was something bizarre and dangerous. They loved her but they seemed scared of her. Once, at a mattress warehouse sale, Jeannie’s mother found Jeannie in a far corner of the store touching herself on a waterbed. Though at the time, Jeannie simply thought of the thing that she was doing as some rare and wonderful trick she had taught herself, her mother had yanked Jeannie off the bed and they had left without purchasing the mattress they’d driven all the way there to buy.
“What kind of six-year-old girl has those sorts of urges?” Jeannie heard her mother say into the phone later that day. Jeannie didn’t know which urges her mother was speaking of. The thing that Jeannie did—that astonishing building sensation, the way it left her breathless and humming with relief at the end—seemed so specific to her own body, that it had surprised her that her mother seemed to know what it was. But by the way her mother avoided looking her that day, and hesitated before kissing her goodnight that evening, she knew what she had done was disgusting.
For years afterwards, each time one of her mother’s friends came over for coffee, Jeannie would search their faces for some trace of revulsion, wondering whether it was them on the phone that day. It was only when Jeannie started high school and finally grew breasts, and her body began to curve in all the right places, that she understood what her mother had been so disgusted by—but that’s when she also stopped caring. Instead of searching for looks of distaste on the faces of her mother’s friends, she began to look for ones of jealousy.
It was then, when Jeannie’s body started to develop, that her mother’s fear of her changed shape, became something sharp and jagged, pointed directly at Jeannie. When she got her period, her mother bought her a box of tampons and placed it on Jeannie’s bed along with a spare set of sheets. She had left a note: Use these. You don’t want to bleed on the good ones. And then, scrawled in far messier handwriting, as though she couldn’t bear the thought of the words being true: You’re growing up!
Her father, too, had seemed disturbed by the changes in his daughter, though in a less angry way. When he encountered Jeannie in the house, in the hallway or during a chance meeting in the kitchen, he smiled cordially at her, then would step back to let her pass, so as not to brush arms. One day Jeannie started to sing one of their kitchen songs, but instead of joining in, her father had looked up embarrassed, and then vanished. Jeannie wondered if he hadn’t wanted to sing because her mother was in the kitchen, though that had never stopped him before. Or, she thought, maybe the tradition that had once been okay when she was young, was now, somehow, too intimate for a father and daughter to share. A few weeks later when it was just the two of them, her father had started to sing like old times. He was loading dishes into the dishwasher and Jeannie watched him carefully from her seat. He sang a verse, and then a second one, almost quiet enough for it to be under his breath. When he got to the chorus, and Jeannie still hadn’t joined in, he stopped. It seemed to Jeannie that he felt relieved.
Jeannie began avoiding her parents in a polite but prudent way, and it seemed to make things easier for everyone. It became simpler to live her life separately, out of the house. She found that in all of the ways her new shape upset her parents, it captivated the boys at school. She learned to smile a certain way. She bit her bottom lip a little. She willed her eyes to sparkle.
It was important not to look too eager, but just interested enough. She wore shirts that hugged her chest and she became used to boys looking at her as though she was something they’d like to touch.
And she found she wanted to touch them too. When Todd Lerner, a boy two years older than Jeannie, asked if she wanted a ride home after school, she knew right away what was going to happen. He didn’t drive to her house, but to the empty parking lot behind the bike path that ran through town. Nobody ever really used the bike path—most of the year it was covered with snow and ice and even during the summer months, it just sat there, an escape from their small town that nobody wanted to admit existed.
When Todd glanced over at Jeannie and she saw that he was nervous, she smiled—not the biting lip smile, but a real smile. She pulled off her shirt, unhooked her bra and climbed over the console to straddle him. It was as easy as that. She began sleeping over at different boys’ houses—first Todd’s, but then others’ too, and after a while it became almost like a game. She would spend hours in different basements, in different arms, teaching herself what it meant to be wanted.
It was usually when the room began to blush with morning that Jeannie would start to feel repulsed, feel the urge to run. It was no different that morning waking up in the ugly sexy man’s bed. His window faced the street and Jeannie could hear the sounds of steel shutters clattering open, traffic making its angry stop and start down First Avenue, city buses whirring past. Next to her the man was sprawled on his stomach, one arm circled around her middle. She leaned in and watched his eyelids, the frantic shaking of his eyeballs underneath. The repulsion began to build then, like a chalky residue. Images and sound clips from the night played like a porno in her mind: Jeannie spread-eagle on the bed, the man’s face blank and hungry like a dog’s, her legs thrown up over his shoulders, her tongue on his calves, on his thighs, on places that had seemed at the time, exquisitely intimate. Has anyone ever touched you here? She could hear her voice saying those words, whispering them like a mad woman into his ear.
She shuddered and removed his arm, placed it by his side and climbed out of bed. Her clothing lay crumpled on the floor, her bra still inside her shirt, her underwear still curled inside her jeans. As she pulled on her boots and tied the laces she glanced at the books on the desk. She didn’t recognize any of the titles.
“Heading out?” the man’s voice said. She turned around, a little scared to face him. He was propped up on one elbow and the sheet fell off his body in a relaxed way.
She nodded. “Gotta be at work in a few hours.”
He smiled a little and for a moment it looked like he might say something unbearable like that was fun or when can I see you again but all he said was, “Bye, Jeannie.”
“Bye,” she said, and gave him a little wave, then gently shut the door behind her.
The subway ride after those kinds of nights always calmed her. It was a relief to be part of the larger world again, after having been immersed in the small, particular world of a stranger’s bed. She felt an affinity towards the other women on the train, found that she wanted to sit near them, to watch them, to know them. She imagined that they all shared something private and unspoken, and once in a while she exchanged a knowing smile with one of them, though she couldn’t quite say what it was they both knew.
A woman across from her yawned, which made Jeannie yawn, too. She glanced around the train to see if anyone else had caught it, but she only ended up meeting eyes with an older man who took the opportunity to smile at Jeannie and glance approvingly at her chest. Another shiver of repulsion pulsed through her, causing the porno to start up again in her head. Skin slapping skin, the rude suction cup sound of sweaty bodies pulling apart. She looked back at the woman across from her, hopeful that the woman might smile at her, but now the woman was facing down, her head bowed over a book.
By the time Jeannie reached the office, the day had turned shamelessly sunny, not a cloud in the sky. White light blazed sharply off the mirrored buildings and the scaffolding all along 68th shone and glinted like painful orthodonture. Jeannie had gone back to her apartment and showered, changed into a fresh outfit, snipped a little at her hair in the mirror and brushed her teeth. She felt good again. The sickening feeling faded, the night before just the blur of an unimportant memory. She could barely recall the man’s face.
It was her responsibility to prepare the office for the day before Anders got in. After two months at the job, she now did this expertly, removing her heels and slipping them under her desk so that she could move around quickly. She tidied the waiting room and replaced the water cooler with a fresh jug. She swiped the exam room chairs and the retinal camera with disinfectant wipes, made sure that the bathroom was equipped with toilet paper and soap. In Anders’ office she neatened stacks of papers and fixed the pens so they were all cap-up in the silver organizer. She examined the two framed photographs he kept on his desk. His wife was blond and dainty, with birdlike features, and the daughter was confident-looking and pretty in a way that made Jeannie think of the term well-groomed. She could imagine the long-haired, big-eyed girl in the photo straddling a brown horse, her torso long and straight, positioned close to the horse’s body, animal and girl squinting into the wind.
Before returning to the reception room, Jeannie toed the line in the hallway marked with masking tape and covered her left eye, read the letters aloud on the eye chart: E F P T O Z. She blinked several times, covered her right eye, and read it again. When she had started the job Anders had offered to give her a free exam and when he announced that she had perfect vision, she had beamed, as though this was an accomplishment to be proud of, some indication of her competence.
“Bet you don’t get a lot of twenty-twenty’s around here,” she’d said to Anders.
He had nodded. “You are a rare breed.” Then he tapped the hinges of his own frames. “I had to get glasses in the fourth grade. Without these I wouldn’t even be able to make out the features on your face.”
She had blushed then, feeling as though he had said something warm by mentioning her face.
The first patient that morning was Karen Greenberg, an older woman who was experiencing pain in her left eye. Jeannie buzzed her in and Karen came barreling into the office, blinking rapidly, a distressed expression on her face. “I’m here for my nine-thirty appointment. Karen Greenberg.” Her voice wobbled.
“Of course, Ms. Greenberg.” Jeannie smiled graciously at the woman. “Have a seat.” She was used to these sorts of anxious patients, their fear thick and palpable, like an odor that could fill up the entire waiting room.
“Eyes are personal,” Anders had said to her on her first day. “If you lose your vision, you lose everything. It’s important to make the patients feel like they’re being heard, that you’re taking them seriously.”
Anders walked in then. His white coat and silver glasses, the gentle yet businesslike expression he wore on his face while interacting with patients—it always had an effect. It was obvious to Jeannie how desperately people wanted to be taken care of, how good it felt to be examined and diagnosed and assured. Anders was good at that. It was why his small practice was so successful.
“Karen,” Anders said, clapping his hands together and striding across the waiting room.
Karen Greenberg stood, tossing a magazine on the chair next to her. She touched one hand to her left eye, consciously or unconsciously, Jeannie couldn’t tell, and smiled.
“Let’s take a look at that eye,” he said. “Please, after you.” He gestured towards the hallway past the waiting room where the exam room was, and Karen nodded gratefully, then walked with purpose towards her fate.
Before following her in, Anders turned to Jeannie and winked. Coffee, he mouthed, and fished in his pocket and handed her a twenty-dollar bill. “Get yourself something, too,” he added, now that Karen was out of earshot. “Pick up some croissants or something, why don’t you? Let’s treat ourselves.”
Jeannie smiled. “Let’s,” she said, and then, as though Anders himself had conjured it, a moment from the night before flashed in her mind. The man, his mouth on her ear, his hand tangled in her hair. I can’t get enough of you, he’d said. You’re so beautiful . It didn’t repulse her to remember it though. Standing there with Anders, the moment seemed raw and pure, almost romantic. She felt her body react, ever so subtly, and she wondered if Anders could sense it, this change in her.
For lunch they ordered sandwiches and ate in Anders’ office, Anders at his desk and Jeannie on the floor, leaning against the wall. Anders was telling Jeannie about blinking. That people blink, on average, seventeen times a minute.
“So how’d you decide you wanted to be an eye doctor?” Jeannie asked.
“What I really wanted to be was a surgeon,” Anders said. “I wasn’t good enough, though. Or these guys weren’t.” He held up one hand and flexed his fingers. “They told me pretty early on that I didn’t have the right hands. Not enough precision.”
“But they’re precise enough to stick in peoples’ eyes all day?”
Anders laughed. “Ophthalmology can get repetitive. I love my job, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something exciting about surgery—the immediacy of it, the stakes.”
“You want to be the hero,” Jeannie asked, but it came out sounding like she was telling him. He looked at her sharply and she stuffed more sandwich in her mouth.
“No, it’s not about being a hero.” He studied her. “What do you want to do, Jeannie? After this, I mean.”
She swallowed and flashed Anders a smile she hoped seemed casual enough. “What are you talking about, after this? I want to work here forever.”
Anders smiled but then raised an eyebrow at her. “No you don’t.”
“No, of course not,” she said. “I think after this I’ll run for president or maybe become an astronaut.”
“You’re a bright girl, Jeannie,” Anders said. “You could do anything you want.”
Jeannie shrugged, careful to keep her expression cool and unaffected. His compliment was something she would slip away for later, like a present, words to savor late at night when she was alone with her thoughts.
When Jeannie imagined what it would be like if Anders brought her home one night, she spent more time on the build-up than the actual act. He’d ask if he could treat her to a drink—that she’d been doing such a good job at the office, it was the least he could do. She imagined the elevator ride up to his apartment, the way they’d look at each other. Once inside, she’d walk around, examining all his nice things, running a finger over the dining table, along the bookshelves. She’d test out the couches and the chairs in the living room, put her feet up on the ottoman. If he had a cat, she’d swoop the thing up in her arms and kiss its little ears. He would follow her through the rooms, watching her looking at his life and she’d make sure nothing was left untouched or unnoticed. She’d make it so he wouldn’t be able to sit in his own living room again without remembering her being there.
When the last patient of the day left, Jeannie tidied her desk and waited for Anders to appear. Anders was old, yes, and perhaps more problematic, he was her boss, but it was precisely these things that made it appealing, that made Jeannie want it. The sheer wrongness of the whole thing was like a blanket they could slip under together. Once one rule was broken, who says a second or a third or a fourth couldn’t be, too?
He came out, finally, no longer wearing his white coat. The look on his face was tired but peaceful, and as Jeannie watched him walk towards her, she sensed that he, also, was waiting for something to happen.
“Any nice plans this weekend, Jeannie?” He set his briefcase down on a waiting room chair and leaned casually against the wall.
“Not really,” she said. “What about you?”
“Oh, not a thing. Looking forward to some nice R&R.”
Jeannie nodded. Something in her body shifted, became activated. “That sounds nice.” She looked at Anders, didn’t allow herself to look away.
He smiled at her and for several moments silence hummed between them. Then he nodded, as though answering a question in his own head, and reached for his briefcase. “Well you have a good weekend, okay?”
Jeannie squirmed to the edge of her seat. Anders was pulling his coat out of the closet and buttoning it up. She wondered then, if he wanted her to follow him. “See you Monday,” he said, moving towards the door.
He turned and looked at her.
“Do you want to get a drink or something?”
Anders’ brow furrowed. “Jeannie, you’re underage, aren’t you?”
“Oh. Well I’ll be twenty-one next month.” She tried to think of something else to say. She didn’t know why he was making this difficult. “I have a fake,” she said finally.
Anders smiled but he still looked concerned. “It’s a nice idea, Jeannie, but I should get home. I’m beat. And I’m sure you’d have more fun with your friends anyway.”
Jeannie’s eyes burned, and for one ridiculous moment she thought she might cry. But the sensation passed quickly and then all she felt was the dread of going home to an empty apartment, all those looming hours ahead. She felt angry and desirous and bored, all at once. She wished her feelings could somehow mesh together, cancel each other out, so she’d be left feeling neutral. Though—feeling neutral was maybe worse.
“Is everything okay?” Anders asked.
Jeannie nodded. “Fine.” She smiled and bit her lip a little and willed her eyes to sparkle, a final attempt. Foolish and clunky was how it felt, to smile at him like that. “I’m fine,” she said.
“Okay. You take care.” He walked out then, leaving Jeannie alone in the office with the empty waiting room chairs and the eerie, darkened exam room down the hall with the strange medical machinery. She stood up and began her clean-up routine. First the reception room, then the exam room, then Anders’ office. She passed the eye chart without stopping to test herself. The truth was she knew the letters by heart from having read them so many times, so the test no longer really proved anything.
If Roger Ramsey was asked to describe what his daughter looked like, he could have answered well enough. She had brown hair and brown eyes, both a dark oaky color. A pale complexion, eyebrows light as shadows, a beauty mark on her left earlobe like a piercing. Her neck was long and delicate, practically translucent in a way that reminded Roger of a fish’s belly. Jeannie’s curves, it seemed, had appeared overnight, transforming her into somebody quiet and unknown, somebody who men noticed on the street. Jeannie had a subtle but deliberate way of looking back at these men, filling Roger with a panicked unease with which he had no idea what to do.
So it wasn’t that Roger couldn’t remember what his daughter looked like; it was more that he didn’t have the ability to combine all of these features in order to construct a whole. It was similar to the sensation of having a word on the tip of your tongue. It was all there—the knowledge existed, but not somewhere accessible. When Roger closed his eyes, he could conjure up his wife’s face without thinking twice, the twitch of her mouth as she watched TV, as though having a private conversation with the newscaster, the way she stared at Roger blinkingly from across the room. He knew the view from his spot behind the pharmacy counter by heart. The aisles of painkillers and vitamins, the way the florescent lights reflected off the speckled tiled floor. He could navigate the rows of white pharmaceutical shelves with his eyes closed, could even see the face of Dave, the head pharmacist, with his wide expressive mouth, bushy mustache to match, the stony blue of his eyes, no problem. Jeannie, though, was harder to find.
It had been two months since Jeannie had moved out and the absence of his daughter seemed louder and more pronounced than her presence had ever felt. As a teenager, Jeannie had rarely been home. When she was, she spent most of the time in her room, coming downstairs only occasionally to get food from the refrigerator. In the few months of warm weather that their town ever saw, Jeannie would stretch a bath towel out in the yard and read books and play music through tinny portable speakers. If he or Ellen ever approached her in the yard, she’d switch off the music and dog-ear the page, then glance up with a pained expression. She disappeared at night, and because he and his wife were both poor sleepers, they always heard the creak of the front door when she left, and then again, in the early morning hours when she returned.
The first time this happened, Ellen confronted Jeannie in her bedroom the next morning, asked her where she had been. Roger was in the bathroom brushing his teeth and he had turned off the faucet and opened the door a crack so that he could listen. Jeannie told Ellen that she had a boyfriend, a classmate named Todd. Ellen asked Jeannie how long she had been seeing Todd and what it was they did together so late at night. Jeannie reported that she’d been seeing Todd for several months now, and that mostly they watched movies, but also—and then she had paused—they were having sex. Her honesty had shocked Roger, and he could tell by Ellen’s response that she was surprised, too. Ellen told Jeannie that she would make an appointment for her to see a gynecologist about birth control, that it was important that she be safe. Then she asked Jeannie if she’d like to invite Todd over for dinner one night.
“That’d be nice,” Jeannie said.
“In the future, let us know if you’ll be out late,” Ellen added. “We worry about you.” And Jeannie must have said okay because the conversation ended shortly after.
Ellen never discussed this conversation with Roger, and while he considered bringing it up with Jeannie, in the end he never did. It seemed as though things were under control, and while it disturbed Roger to know that Jeannie was having sex, he preferred not to think about it too directly. If there was something Roger was supposed to be doing to protect his daughter, he didn’t know what it was. He was not the kind of father who would know. All he did know was that Jeannie had continued to go out at night, with or without Ellen’s permission. Todd, however, had never showed up for dinner.
After that conversation, Roger found himself waking up frequently, listening for Jeannie’s soft footsteps climbing the stairs, the gentle way she closed the bathroom door behind her, the click of the lock, then the stream of the shower. It had been like living with a ghost—but a familiar ghost whose patterns were domestic and predictable. He couldn’t say why, but those faint sounds of his daughter in the middle of the night conjured up an awful ache in Roger.
Now that Jeannie wasn’t at home, her ghostliness was everywhere and nowhere and Roger wondered what exactly he was missing. Roger knew that Ellen sensed it, too, the feeling that something had been lost. He heard Ellen at night. Her words were nonsensical and agitated, whispered pleas punctuated by frantic breaths. “Watch over her,” she would say. And then, like someone with a verbal tic, she’d chant, over and over: “Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.”
That first year after Matthew died, Ellen had also prayed. It was the closest they ever got to talking about what had happened—Ellen praying in Roger’s vicinity. They’d go to his grave and Ellen would speak—usually a prayer but once in a while a poem, or sometimes just what the weather was like that day. It’s sunny but freezing. You can see your breath. People are ice-skating. We miss you every second. While Ellen spoke, Roger would keep one hand on her back. They both felt uncomfortable standing so close to one another, but they had stayed that way, touching, as though something bad might happen if they broke apart. After Jeannie was born, they continued to go visit their son’s grave, but separately. Roger would go on Matthew’s birthday in June and Ellen would go six months later, in December, on the day he had died.
Roger turned on his side away from his wife and tried to fall asleep, but of course, trying to fall asleep always meant it wasn’t going to happen easily. Sleep had become something impossible and elusive for Roger, and Ellen’s muttering made it that much more difficult. He thought about the bottle of sleeping pills in the bathroom, but getting up would mean acknowledging that he could hear her, and after so many nights of pretending he hadn’t, he didn’t see the use of letting on now.
One day, Roger thought. One day, one of them would turn to the other and say that it was over. It was inevitable now that Jeannie had moved out. But he and Ellen had lived in a space of silence for so long that he no longer thought it was their family that bound them together, like it had been when they were younger. Now it was a matter of literally not knowing how to open their mouths and speak. Not knowing how to get up and walk out. Walk to where? What came next? Roger was counting backwards from one hundred in his head when he felt something on his back. His wife’s hand. Before he could stop himself he tensed up, and he could feel her fingers recoil, sensing his discomfort.
“Are you asleep?”
Roger turned over. It was dark but he could make out the familiar outline of her face.
“Do you think she’s okay?” she whispered.
“She’s fine,” Roger said. “Try to sleep.”
Ellen nodded and turned away from him.
Roger used the opportunity to get up and go to the bathroom. He poured two of the little pills into his palm and swallowed them dry.
The next morning while Roger ate his cereal, he watched Ellen make lunch to bring to school. When she squeezed the bottle of mustard onto her sandwich and nothing came out, she shook it forcefully up and down. It made a rude sound and a few beads of yellowed water landed on the bread.
“We need more mustard,” she said, turning to Roger.
Roger nodded. “I’ll stop after work. Anything else?”
Ellen pursed her lips and surveyed the kitchen, eyes wandering from the cabinets above the stove to the refrigerator to the pantry. “Maybe something for dinner.”
“I’ll get chicken.”
Ellen didn’t respond. Turning back to the kitchen counter, she wrapped the sandwich in tinfoil and placed it in a paper bag.
Recently, Roger had started playing a game with himself. If Ellen toasts her bread, I’ll leave. If she doesn’t, I’ll stay. Or , If Ellen licks the mustard from her finger, I’ll leave. If she wipes her hands with a napkin, I’ll stay. It wasn’t that Roger was superstitious, really. It wasn’t that he was waiting for the world to tell him what to do. But there was a kind of comfort in believing that something as arbitrary as a piece of bread could change his life. Not that he’d ever acted upon anything, or even come close.
Ellen washed her hands and folded the top of the paper bag over, creasing it meticulously with her thumb and forefinger. Ellen’s movements often struck Roger as so painstakingly precise that he wondered if she, too, felt that someone out there was making decisions for her, based on frivolous things, like how tightly she tucked in a bed sheet, how thoroughly she washed a dish. That day Ellen was wearing a blue dress and her hair was tied into a neat bun at the base of her neck. He pictured her sitting at her desk at school, watching the students as they filed in. “Good morning, Mrs. Ramsey!” the nice ones would sing out. Little girls, he imagined, eager to please. What did Ellen say back to them, he wondered. Did she smile? Did she kneel down at their desks? When she read books aloud, did she do the voices?
Ellen had to be at work earlier than he did, and usually he was upstairs washing up when she left the house, but that day he lingered at the table after he’d finished his breakfast. He pretended to be engrossed in the newspaper as she put away the sandwich makings and wiped down the counter.If Ellen says goodbye to me, I’ll stay, Roger thought. If she goes silently, I’ll leave. He kept his eyes on the sports section but listened as she rifled through her bag, making sure she had her keys and her papers. Her footsteps moved from the kitchen to the front hall. He heard the front door.
“See you tonight,” she called out.
Something collapsed in Roger’s chest and he put down the paper. “Bye,” he called back. He waited until the door closed behind her and the car sounded in the driveway before he stood up to go upstairs.
Her husband hadn’t come home after work and Ellen found herself alone in the house, or at least as alone as it was possible for her to feel. There were ghosts in their house, just as surely as there was a sink in the kitchen, curtains in the windows. Roger could be a number of places. Sometimes he went out with Dave and the other pharmacy staff on Fridays, but she knew that he never really enjoyed those evenings, that he only ever went to pass the time, to maintain the superficial friendships he had with his colleagues as some sort of gesture. Or, Ellen thought, Roger could be driving aimlessly through the spider webs of roads that surrounded their small town. Eventually these roads led to other places. If he drove far enough north, he’d reach Canada. If he drove south, eventually he’d hit New York City, where Jeannie was.
Ellen fixed herself a salad for dinner. She rinsed the lettuce, cut a tomato into slices, chopped up a cucumber. To her surprise, she found an avocado, dark and perfectly ripe, like a gift on the counter. It occurred to her that there might be a bottle of wine in the cupboard and when in fact there was, she opened it and poured herself a glass. Roger drank almost every night but Ellen rarely did. She couldn’t remember the last time she and her husband had shared a bottle of wine. She ate her salad slowly. She drank her wine and refilled the glass. It felt nice, to be a little drunk.
As Ellen got ready for bed she noticed that Roger’s toothbrush and razor and sleeping pills were missing from the bathroom counter. She checked inside his closet and saw that most of his clothing was gone, too. It occurred to her to feel sad or angry or frightened, but all she felt was a mild sense of relief that Roger’s disappearance seemed to be deliberate; planned. In a life where things happened—things over which Ellen had no control—she’d long ago given up on the illusion of choice. Often it seemed that Roger had given up, as well. As she climbed into bed alone though, she wondered if maybe something had shifted. Maybe after all these years, Roger was allowing for something new—something good—to open up.
In the middle of the night, Ellen woke with a start, one leg flailing out spastically. She looked over and saw that her husband’s side of the bed was still empty, covers pulled tight over the pillows. This time his absence made her tremble. Ellen slipped out of bed and down the hall, turning on lights as she went. Jeannie’s bedroom door was closed like it had always been when she still lived there. Despite herself, Ellen knocked gently, twice.
Inside, her daughter’s room was just how she’d left it, posters hung up on the walls and ceiling. Musicians in dark clothing and dark eye makeup staring out intensely in all directions. Barrettes and jewelry, dried out tubes of lip gloss everywhere. There were hints of Jeannie’s childhood, too—butterfly stickers made out in the shape of a J on the surface of her desk, a few stuffed animals propped upright at the foot of the bed. A photograph of Jeannie with Ellen and Roger was tucked into the frame of her mirror. Jeannie, eight years old, dolled up for a dance recital, a bouquet of roses in her arms. Roger and Ellen both had one hand on each of their daughter’s shoulders. Ellen could see why Jeannie had chosen this photo to display. All three of them were beaming.
Ellen began searching through stacks of books and old papers, under Jeannie’s bed and through her desk drawers. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for. A journal maybe, or more photographs, an old post-it note— Hi Mom, at the movies, be back later, xox J—which was how Jeannie had always signed her notes, back when she’d bothered to write them. Mostly though, it was old schoolwork that Ellen found, a few postcards sent from friends who Ellen couldn’t place, song lyrics printed out from the internet, margins filled with doodles. Under one stack of notebooks, Ellen found a CD. In permanent marker somebody had written, “For Jeannie. Listen to these songs and think of me.” The sort of lopsided, misshapen hearts that only a lovesick boy could have drawn. Ellen had graded enough schoolwork to know.
Ellen clicked the CD into Jeannie’s red and black boom box and pressed play, leaned back against the wall. For several seconds the CD whirled soundlessly in the box, but then when the first few chords of “When a Man Loves a Woman” rang out into the room, it was enough to send chills up Ellen’s arms and neck. Percy Sledge’s voice, warm and sweeping, like the first breath of summer. It filled her up, thinking of somebody loving Jeannie that much. She imagined a young boy listening to this song, thinking of her daughter. She imagined Jeannie listening, a hint of a smile threatening her daughter’s stoic expression. Ellen listened to the song all the way though, and then a second time. She moved from the floor to Jeannie’s bed, crawled beneath the covers and laid down. It saddened Ellen, to think that Jeannie had left the CD behind.
Her father looked old and lost, standing there on Jeannie’s stoop. He was wearing the same jacket he’d owned for decades, the gray one with the deep, felt-lined pockets. When Jeannie had been young she used to stick her hands in those pockets, pull out lint and crushed receipts and gum wrappers, offer them up to her father in the palm of her hand. He would take the little pieces of trash from Jeannie and gasp, feign surprise, as though she was offering him gold. “Where did you find this?” he’d exclaim, then pocket the crap again, for the next time.
She stepped outside and closed the door behind her. “What are you doing here?”
Her father smiled something pinched and pained. “I needed to see you,” he said. He reached out and pulled her into an urgent hug.
Jeannie felt her heart begin to thwack against her chest. “Is Mom okay?” she asked, pulling back, imagining her mother in a litany of painful scenarios: unconscious at the wheel of the car, pale in a hospital bed, crying and unable to stop. There was a fragility to Jeannie’s mother that wasn’t quite apparent in her expressions or the way she spoke. It was more in the way she moved, as though at any moment, somebody might throw out a leg and trip her.
“Mom is fine,” her father said. His hands dropped to his sides. “She misses you. I just wanted to come see you, make sure you were getting along okay.”
Jeannie’s heart settled, began to beat more normally. She sat down on the stoop, the cement of the stairs ice against her bare thighs. She was wearing her pajamas, a pair of shorts and an old t-shirt. “I’m doing okay,” she said. She swallowed, wondering if that was true.
“So this is where you live?” her father asked, sitting down beside her.
She nodded, glancing behind her at the brick apartment building, suddenly proud of the solidity of the building, the fact that it was her home. “This is where I live.”
“It’s nice,” he said, looking admiringly at the building. Then he turned back to Jeannie. “I hope I’m not interrupting you. I should have called first.”
“You’re not interrupting me,” she said, struck by the formality of his apology. “It’s nice to see you,” she added, though this felt just as formal, if not more so.
“Would you like to get a cup of coffee?”
The idea of sitting at a diner with her father drinking coffee struck Jeannie as so painfully uncomplicated that she began to feel a little breathless. She sucked in cool mouthfuls of air and watched the taillights of a taxi stream down the block and disappear around a corner. “Okay,” she nodded. She felt the urge to hug her father again, but she held back.
She considered asking her father up, but in the end, decided not to. Her apartment still seemed something magical to her—she couldn’t quite believe it was hers, and she worried that seeing him inside might diminish that magic, make her feel young and girlish again. Inside she put on clothes while her father waited in the foyer. She chose one of her favorite outfits and played with her hair and face a little in the mirror. “I’m getting coffee with my father,” she said into the mirror, to test out the casualness of the words. “This is my father,” she tried. “Oh,” she said, gesturing to the empty space next to her, as though some invisible stranger was asking. “This is my dad.”
It had only been two months since she’d last seen her father, though it felt now like a much longer time. He had been the one to drive her to the bus station the day she left home, helped lug her suitcases, two bursting duffel bags, from the trunk of the car into the underbelly of the bus. “Be careful,” he’d said roughly, hugging her, and she’d realized that he was trying not to cry. Handed her a bagged lunch for the bus ride and an envelope with two hundred dollars inside. A post-it note:Don’t spend it all in one place, in her father’s scrawl. Love, Dad.
She pictured her father downstairs now, waiting for her. Hands in coat pockets, rocking back on his heels. She wondered if he’d noticed the mailboxes, the one all the way to the left with their name, Ramsey, printed in little black letters. She figured that would be the kind of thing a father would take pleasure in seeing. It made her smile, thinking of him noticing it.
When Jeannie came back out, she was holding herself differently. When she had opened the door the first time, his daughter had looked young, almost childlike in her t-shirt and shorts, her hair pulled back into a plain ponytail. She had been startled to see him standing there, disbelieving, and it made Roger almost tearful to see. Now she was Jeannie again, cool and reserved, wearing dark jeans and a denim jacket, a gray scarf wrapped around her neck. Her shoes gave her an extra two inches so she was practically his height. She had put on makeup and combed her hair a certain way so it covered half her face. She was expecting him this time, so when she appeared on the stoop, she regarded him with a look that lingered between apprehension and politeness, the way you might nod hello to someone you know but whose name you have forgotten.
“There’s a place right around the corner on Avenue C,” she said, and Roger was surprised, though there was no reason to be, that his daughter knew this city far better than he knew it. “Great,” he said, feeling impressed and out of place at the same time.
They walked quietly beside one another, past lit-up storefronts and tenement buildings with endless windows. It dizzied Roger, to think of Jeannie living by herself amongst so many people. He tried to think of what to say then, to his daughter, this self-possessed person who was leading him through the maze of the city. “How’s your job at the eye doctor’s going?” he asked.
“It’s good,” Jeannie said.
For several moments there was silence and Roger felt nervous, thinking maybe this whole thing had been a bad idea. It had happened halfway through the workday. The decision to leave, the impulse to go see Jeannie, an urge so strong and unexpectedly parental, he’d felt no choice but to act on it. He’d left work, barely offering an excuse, and driven home. He’d packed one suitcase, and that had led to a second, then a third, until almost all of his clothing were stuffed into bags. Then he’d loaded the car and driven the five hours down to the city, stopping only once to use the bathroom. It was at the rest stop when he’d thought to phone Ellen, though he had no idea what he would’ve said to her. Ellen also could have called him, he reasoned. And the fact that she hadn’t told Roger something.
“Do you know that all babies are born colorblind?” Jeannie asked abruptly.
“No,” Roger said. “I had no idea.”
Jeannie nodded. “Also, we blink on average seventeen times a minute.” She glanced at Roger. “That’s more than six million times a year. We spend ten percent of our waking hours with our eyes closed. Isn’t that crazy?”
Roger nodded, absorbing the facts, aware of the feeling of his eyes fluttering open and shut. “That is crazy,” he said. “You know, when you were born, your eyes were blue.”
“Really?” she said.
Roger nodded. “The bluest blue. Before we decided on a name for you, Mom called you My Baby Blue.”
Jeannie smiled then, so happily, that Roger felt encouraged to keep talking. “The nurses also,” he went on. “They couldn’t get over your eyes. Even they started calling you that.”
Jeannie looked curiously at him. “I wish they hadn’t changed color,” she said.
Roger opened his mouth to respond but Jeannie stopped mid-stride. “Here we are,” she said and Roger followed her inside.
The diner one of those twenty-four hour places, with green plastic booths and a counter upfront with mini boxes of cereal stacked like building blocks, entire cakes in glass cases. Before he and Ellen had gotten married, they used to drive into the city on weekends and eat at places exactly like this. They’d split huge slices of cheesecake and plan their future, talk about the life they wanted to build together. They had wanted all of the same things. They had loved one another completely.
“Sit wherever you want,” a woman called from behind the counter, gesturing towards the rows of empty tables.
Jeannie and Roger slid into a booth and flipped through the big plastic menus that were folded into the napkin holder at the end of the table.
“I’m going to get toast,” Jeannie said. “Do you want anything to eat?”
Roger eyed the cakes up front. “If I get a slice of chocolate, would you help me out?”
Jeannie smirked a little and rolled her eyes. Not in a cruel way, but in a way that emphasized to Roger just how young his grown-up daughter still was. “Sure,” she said.
When the waitress came to the take their order, Jeannie clapped the menu shut. “Two coffees,” she said. “Wheat toast, please, with jam. And one slice of the chocolate cake for my dad.” Her eyes flitted towards Roger and she smiled.
The waitress nodded, jotting the order down on her pad. “Anything else?”
“That’s it,” Jeannie said. “Thank you.”
Roger swelled with pride. How easy she made it look, existing in the world. Ordering toast and coffee and cake, like it was the most natural thing.
In the morning, Ellen woke up in a patch of light. Jeannie’s bedroom faced east, and the sun that flooded through the window danced off the white of the pillowcase, surged hot against the fan of her hair. She eased out of bed and walked from room to room, checking for Roger. This was just a precaution, though. She knew she was alone. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Ellen felt relief, knowing the day would be entirely her own.
The cemetery where Matthew was buried was a twenty-minute drive from their house if she took the highway, but Ellen preferred the backroads, despite the fact that it almost doubled the time. There was something crass about the highway. The highway was what she took when she needed to go to the mall or the DMV or the airport. On the backroads, the country stretched out for miles on either side—in the winter, snow-covered and mute—and in the summer, strewn with wildflowers and tall, whispering grasses. She had made the drive so many times that she had started to feel that Matthew could sense her approaching, even before she arrived.
Ellen parked where she always did, in a sandy lot, a five-minute walk from her son’s grave. On the edge of the parking lot was a yellow cottage with a restroom and a drinking fountain and a small sitting room. The first time Ellen had been inside the cottage was the morning they’d buried Matthew.
That day had been bright and frigid, the sky a hard unrelenting blue. Ellen had refused to fill the benzodiazepine prescription her doctor had written for her, so Roger had taken it instead; filled it at his pharmacy and attended the burial as a blurred, half version of himself. A version, Ellen thought, that he’d never quite came back from.
Ellen hadn’t allowed herself to close her eyes or look away. When they lowered the casket into the ground—the wooden casket, twenty-eight inches long, fourteen inches wide, with the blue fleece lining inside, and her son wrapped up in his baby blanket—she didn’t fall to her knees or call out. She didn’t sink into anybody’s arms or cry onto anybody’s shoulder. She didn’t fall apart the way Roger was doing beside her. That moment was not about her. That moment had been about Matthew.
No, Ellen did not believe in a god. She didn’t believe in an afterlife or angels or ghosts. But—if there was even one millionth of a chance that she might be wrong—if there was a sliver of a possibility that in some incomprehensible way, Matthew might be able to feel her there with him—Ellen was not going to fail her child. She would try, with everything she had, to be present.
It was only later in the privacy of the yellow cottage when Ellen had collapsed, crumbling into herself, as though the floor might swallow her up. She had been there dozens of times since that day, and fallen apart dozens of times. She knew everything about that cottage. The blurry mirror above the sink and the white tiling of the bathroom floor. The drinking fountain with its porcelain basin, the water, its slightly metallic taste. The dusty, lilac scent that seemed to live in the air.
Just like all her visits before, Ellen used the bathroom and fixed her hair in the mirror before emerging back out into the day. On her walk to the gravesite, she found a flat, oval-shaped stone, an even gray color. It was warm from the sun, soft, almost malleable inside her palm. At the end of her visit she would place it on Matthew’s grave with the others that she and Roger had gathered over the years. Though the sight of her child’s grave with all the collected stones would never bring Ellen peace, she had grown attached to it after so much time.
Without her husband present, Ellen was able to speak freely to her son. With Roger, she felt strange speaking out loud. She knew that he found it peculiar and upsetting. She sat in the grassy patch next to Matthew’s grave and spoke about Jeannie—the sister Matthew had never known. She told her son that if he were alive, he would be almost twenty-four, and she wondered aloud what he would have looked like, what he would have been like. She thought how nice it would be, if Jeannie were to have an older brother with her in the city.
Then Ellen was quiet. She understood that Roger wasn’t coming home. Grief flooded her, and though the sensation was familiar, she was still surprised by the sharpness of it, the way it left her breathless, as though someone was pushing down hard on her chest. Carefully, she placed the stone on top of three larger ones, and walked away.
In the car, Ellen turned on the radio. It was a song she knew; a sad one, if you listened to the lyrics, though the melody was sweet, deceptively cheerful. Ellen drove, singing, filling the car up with her voice. It was different that day, driving home to an empty house. No Roger waiting in the kitchen. No Jeannie in her bedroom. It startled her, how much she already missed them.