Behind us, Bobby flicks off the radio, plunges us all into the real world again. Now there is only the roar of the surf and the crackling of the fire. “I know my wish, Dad. What’s yours?”
It’s a long time before Daniel answers. When he does, he’s looking at me. “Starting over would be nice.”
I stare at Daniel, unable to look away, unable to stop thinking what if?
What if I could fall in love again and start my life over? What if I could belong here?
“Well, let’s get going,” he says at last. “We’ve lost our light.”
At that, I think: Have we? Have we lost our light, or have we perhaps just glimpsed it for the first time? All I know is that, when I climb into the truck with this man and his son, I’m smiling.
Suddenly, I know what I have been waiting for all these years, why I’ve been collecting brochures and books and snapping pictures of other places.
I’ve been wanting to start over, dreaming of it.
And now, finally, I know where I want to be when I begin this new part of my life.
All that night, as I lie in my bed, I think of Daniel. Over and over in my mind, I replay our dancing. The way he looked at me, held me, whispered, “Make a wish.” As the night rolls toward dawn, it takes on the shiny patina of myth.
I am just waking up when I hear a noise.
Footsteps on the stairs.
Daniel. I can tell by the sound.
I throw my covers back and get out of bed. A quick run into my bathroom, and I’m dressed. Then, carefully, I peer out my door.
A light is on in the lobby.
I walk quietly down the carpeted hallway. In the lobby, I find no one. It takes me a second to notice that the door is open.
In the purple mist of early morning, I see him standing in the front yard. This time, I don’t even think about hanging back. I am starting over now; this is my new beginning.
I am almost beside him when I see Bobby out on the end of the dock. He is talking to the air. Even from this distance, I can see that he is crying and yelling.
Daniel makes a sound. In this foggy morning the sound is distorted, drawn out until it sounds like a sob.
I lay my hand on his arm. “I’m here,” I say.
He shivers at my touch, but doesn’t turn to look at me. “God . . . how long will this go on?”
The truth is forever and not long. “He’ll talk to her until he doesn’t need to anymore.”
We stand there, side by side. Out on the dock, Bobby is yelling for his mommy.
“He’ll be okay,” I say quietly. “He has a father who loves him. That would have made a difference to me. When my mom died, I mean. All I had was my sister.”
Suddenly I’m thinking about Mom’s funeral and how I’d fallen apart completely. Stacey was the glue that put me back together, held me together. She was my strength during Mom’s long illness.
For the first time, I don’t wince at the thought of her. The memory doesn’t hurt: rather, it takes on the ache of longing. I have missed my sister; this is one of the many truths from which I’ve been running.
Bobby hurtles toward us.
Daniel immediately kneels. “I’m here, boyo.”
Bobby skids to a stop. His cheeks are wet with tears, his eyes are bloodshot. “She didn’t come. I yelled and yelled.”
“Oh, Bobby,” Daniel says, wiping his son’s tears. I can see him struggling for the right words of comfort. We both know that Bobby needs to let go of his imaginary mother, but the letting go will hurt.
Daniel pulls Bobby into his arms and holds him tightly, whispering words in a lilting, song-like language I don’t understand.
Bobby looks at him. “But I’m scared.”
“Forgetting her,” Bobby says in a quiet, miserable way.
Daniel closes his eyes for a moment, and in this reaction I see how hurt he is by his son’s revelation. When he opens his eyes, I can see the sheen of tears. “I should have done this a long time ago,” he says.
Daniel scoops Bobby into his arms and carries him into the house. “Wait here,” he says, depositing his son on the sofa. He runs up the stairs.
Bobby looks so small, sitting there on the sofa, with his glistening cheeks and missing front tooth. “Did I do something wrong?” he asks me.
I sit down on the hearth across from him. I don’t sit beside him because I want him to hear me. To listen. “Tell me about her.”
“Mommy?” His voice breaks, but I can see how a smile wants to start. I wonder how long he has waited for someone to ask.
“She liked pink. And she talked really fast.”
I smile at that. It reminds me of my own mom, who snorted when she laughed. Once, when I was little, she laughed so hard milk came out of her nose. It is a memory I thought I’d lost until just now. “My mom used to kiss my forehead to see if I had a fever. I loved that.”
“My mommy used to wear butterflies in her hair when she got dressed up.”
I lean forward. “You won’t forget her, Bobby. I promise.”
“You’ll leave me, too, won’t you? Just like her.”
The question—and the sad resignation in his voice—is hard to hear. I know I shouldn’t promise him anything—my life is in upheaval right now and the things I want may well exceed my grasp, but I can’t just sit here and say nothing. “I have another life in California.”
“You’ll say good-bye, right? You won’t just disappear.”
My life might be mixed up, but this vow is easy to make. I’d never leave without saying good-bye. “I promise.”
Daniel comes down the stairs, carrying a big brown photo album and a shoebox.
I stand, feeling shaky on my feet. This is a private moment. I don’t belong here. “I should go. I’ve . . .”
“Don’t go,” Bobby says. “Tell her, Daddy. Tell Joy to stay.”
“Please, Joy,” he says, pulling Bobby close against him. “Don’t go.”
It is the way he says please that traps me; that, and the knowledge that Bobby is fragile now. I cross around the makeshift coffee table and sit down next to Daniel.
“Make room for her, Dad.”
Daniels scoots toward his son.
“I have plenty of room,” I say.
Bobby looks up at his dad. “Joy says I’ll always remember things about Mommy. Like the butterfly clips she wore. And the way she gave me fish kisses at naptime.”
“Fish kisses,” Daniel says, his voice gruff. I know he’s remembering her now, too.
“She always got the words wrong in the Winnie-the-Pooh song.” Bobby’s voice is stronger now, less uncertain.
“Her nighttime prayers went on forever,” Daniel says, smiling now. “She blessed everyone she’d ever met.” He looks down at Bobby. “And she loved you, boyo.”
Daniel opens the photo album on his lap. There, in black and white is a series of pictures: a boy playing kick-the-can on dirty streets, and riding his rusty bike, and standing by a stone stacked fence, with a kite. The boy has jet black hair that needs a cut. Daniel.
There’s another shot of a dirty street and a pub called the Pig-and-Whistle.
“That’s Nana and Papa,” Bobby says, pointing to the couple standing at the pub’s wooden door. “They live in Boston now.”
“Still spend their time hanging around the pubs,” Daniel says, laughing as he turns the page.
Her face looks up at us, wreathed in bridal lace. She looks young and bright and gloriously happy. Her smile could light up Staples Center.
I can’t help thinking of my own wedding album, tucked deep in an upstairs bookcase, gathering the dust of lost years. I wonder if I’d even recognize my younger self, or would I look through the images of my own life like an archeologist, studying artifacts of an extinct race?
And what of Stacey? Can I really stay away from her wedding, her big moment? We have always been the witnesses of each other’s lives. Isn’t that what family is? Even broken and betrayed and bleeding, we are connected.
I push the thoughts aside and focus on the photographs in Daniel’s album.
The next few pages contain dozens of wedding shots. Daniel goes through them without comment; I hear his relieved sigh when he comes to the end of them.
“There’s me,” Bobby says, pointing at the first photo of a baby so tiny his face looks like a pink quarter.
“Aye. That’s the day we brought you home from the hospital.”
“But Mommy’s crying.”
“That’s because she loved you so much.”
From there on, as Daniel turns the pages, he talks, telling the story of their family in that musical brogue of his, and with every passing moment, every syllable that sounds like a song lyric, I can see them moving closer together, this boy with a broken heart and the man who loves him.
“That’s your first friend, your cousin Sean . . . your first birthday party . . . the day you said ‘Mama.’”
In time, I begin to notice that there are fewer pictures of him and none of him and Maggie. The whole album is Bobby.
I know how a thing like this happens. Not all at once, but day by day. You stop wanting to record every minute of an unhappy life. In Bakersfield, I have a drawer of similar albums, where the oldest versions are of Thom and me, and the newest ones are mostly scenery.
By the time Daniel reaches the last page, Bobby is asleep, tucked in close to his father. Daniel says softly, “Joy?”
At my name, whispered as it is in the quiet between us, he sighs and smiles.
“I’m here,” I say, waiting for more.
When he says nothing, I decide to be bold. I lean toward him, say, “Maybe you and I . . .” I don’t know how to finish, how to ask for what I want, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve gone too far, revealed too much. Daniel shakes his head and pulls away from me.
“I’m losing my mind,” he says without looking at me. Then, he gets up from the sofa and carries Bobby to the stairs.
What was I thinking to say “you and I” with the photographs of his lost wife between us?
As always, I am a master at timing.
Once again, I am alone.
I try to fall back asleep, but after the predawn show, it’s impossible. Somewhere around seven o’clock, I give up and take a shower. I am in the kitchen, looking for coffee when I hear footsteps on the stairs, then in the hallway. I turn just in time to see Daniel coming in to the room. He looks haggard, worn down. The lines around his eyes are so deep and dark they appear to be drawn in charcoal.
He sees me and the coffeemaker, in that order, and he smiles. “Ah, coffee.”
“I guess we have an addiction in common. That, and wanting to start over.” The minute the words are out of my mouth, I want to call them back. Even worse than the words is my voice; it’s all breathy, Marilyn-Monroe-Mr.-Presidenty.
He stares at me a moment longer, then leaves the room.
I stand there, feeling like a fool. Everything I say to Daniel is wrong.
It’s hardly surprising. I haven’t exactly had a lot of experience. There was Jed Breen in high school and Jerry Wist the summer after graduation, but that’s all. I met Thom at a party in my sophomore year at Davis, and Lord knows I haven’t dated since our divorce.