Brooke: Rowena is all set.
Reid: K. What’s the plan?
Brooke: I was thinking we could go somewhere semi-public and have her photograph us ‘candidly’ – like we arranged to happen with you and Emma last May, outside the airport.
Reid: Shit. How did she ever forgive me?
Brooke: You told her the truth when it counted, even if it made you look bad. For what it’s worth, I admired you for that. Hated the shit out of you at the time, but admired you. You were a better man than me.
Brooke: So, one of the hiking spots in the Hills, really early on a weekday? OH – I know – let’s do it the day he transfers from me to you. The kid swap. Like divorced couples.
Reid: Yeah – perfect. That will answer the ‘are they a couple?’ question too.
Brooke: Ok, cool. Rowena is on this. She was stunned that you stepped up, btw. I think you’ve gained a new fan. She’s a single mom, apparently. She said her guy used to knock her around. She left the day he hit her kid.
Brooke: She says she’s always liked me because I don’t take shit off anyone, lol.
Reid: Haha. Truth.
Reid: So have you heard anything more about Paper Oceans?
Brooke: Yeah. Janelle got the call earlier today – they’ve officially offered it to me. But I’d have to be in Australia all of June. I can’t do it.
Reid: Brooke. This is your CAREER. Say yes. I’ll take him in June. I’ll probably be done filming by then. If not, it’ll be a small overlap. He and the au pair we’re hiring can come to New York with me. It’ll be fine.
Reid: Unless you want to do Life’s a Beach instead …
Reid: I’ve heard that Xavier guy is an exceptional kisser …
Reid: And Stan is a gem of a producer and not at all egocentric …
Brooke: I’m crying. Holy shit. Are you sure? Are you SURE?
Reid: YES. We’ll be fine here without you. This is going to be his life. He’ll adjust. I can do this. And yes, I even promise to call on the all-knowing and ever-powerful Graham if I need advice.
Brooke: Is it okay if I kind of love you right now?
Reid: Yeah. Is it okay if I thank you for letting me knock you up?
Brooke: God, we’re weird.
Reid: Hell yeah we are.
‘Hey, Deb.’ I lean to kiss her temple and she blinks, but her fixed expression otherwise remains like the face of an impassive wax figure. ‘I thought you might be getting tired of tulips, and also, one of Dad’s rosebushes bloomed. They’re pink – which I know you think is such a cliché flower colour. But they smell so good that I didn’t think you’d mind.’
Depositing last week’s purple tulips in the trash can, I rinse and fill the vase in her bathroom sink. It’s been five weeks since I’ve seen my sister.
Five weeks since we buried Esther. Four weeks since Reid and I were in San Francisco. Three weeks since I’ve spoken to him. Two weeks since he stopped texting and leaving voicemails.
‘I like Cal. My roommate, Shayma, is from Louisiana. You’d love her. She’s a business major, but she does community outreach projects with me.’
Shayma hadn’t asked about Reid – or the fact that I hadn’t mentioned him in a while – until a couple of days ago. When I told her I hadn’t had a chance to talk to him in a few days, she pursed her lips and said um-hmm, but nothing more.
‘I’m taking all intro classes this semester, but most of my professors are pretty cool. And you were right – the campus is one funky place. There’s a full-scale T-rex model in the Life Science building. The grounds are beautiful, but the architecture is all over the place. And there’s tons of activist history intact – like the building that’s missing an outside handle because during protests fifty years ago, students chained the doors shut, and the administration took one handle off so they couldn’t do it again. In the upper plaza, student groups hand out flyers and sell things to raise money for charity. Sometimes, opposing groups have tables feet apart, but everybody stays remarkably civil.’
Running a brush through Deb’s short hair, I recall what it looked like before her accident. She had beautiful shoulder-length hair, chestnut with auburn highlights she did herself. Now it’s short, dull and frizzy; I make a mental note to bring conditioner with me next time. The bare spots from her surgeries have finally grown back in, though the surgical scar will remain a sort of odd, random part at the back of her head.
‘Berkeley feels like a small town, even though it’s not. It’s definitely not like LA or San Francisco – which you can see from certain spots on campus, if the fog hasn’t rolled in.’
Deb’s chair is positioned so she can ‘see’ the view from her window, which is no more or less ridiculous than me taking her for a stroll in the grounds. My parents insist there is no proof that she’s totally oblivious to what goes on around her, because her brain registers some activity. In some ways, this is more horrifying than if she’d remained medically unresponsive, because no one can assure us that she isn’t aware to some degree and simply unable to respond, though her doctors continue to reiterate that her brain activity is too inconsequential to represent comprehension.
My parents continue to hear what they want to hear.
I continue to speak to my sister because I have to talk to someone.
‘I haven’t spoken to Reid in a while. I miss him. Sometimes it feels like my heart is going to burst, and I almost want it to.’
When I was very young, I had chronic ear infections and a grandma with unconventional ideas about what constituted a helpful story. ‘Back in my day, there were no antibiotics for such things,’ she told me during one particularly excruciating episode. ‘Your eardrum just swelled up till it popped.’
‘Oh, Mother! Don’t tell her your horror stories!’ Mom said, aghast.
‘Well, after it popped, it stopped hurting!’ Grandma huffed. ‘Problem solved.’
I keep waiting for my heart to pop.
‘He has a son. River. He thinks that’s why I stopped talking to him – he thinks I’m angry he kept it from me. He doesn’t understand how easily I could forgive and understand that choice. It’s true that when he told me, and I looked at his picture on Reid’s phone, that was when I felt myself detaching. But anger wasn’t the reason for that.’
I place a blanket over Deb’s lap and take a light sweater from her closet. Clothing her is very much like dressing an infant on the cusp of being a toddler – she doesn’t help, but she doesn’t fight against me as I bend her elbow gently and pull her arm through the sweater.
Once outside, I resume our one-way conversation.
‘I’m such a coward – I’m terrified that if I meet River, he’ll become important to me. And when everything ends with Reid, I’ll lose him too.’
I find our spot – a secluded bench surrounded by waist-high camellia shrubs covered in white blossoms. Taking a seat, I face Deb’s chair to me and stare at her beautiful hazel eyes. She blinks slowly, seemingly focused on something in the distance over my shoulder. Positioned as I placed them before we left her room, her hands rest in her lap, fingers twitching as they sometimes do – just another involuntary movement, doctors insist.
‘I know you’d tell me I’m being spineless,’ I say to Deb now. ‘Only you’d say it more gently, like: Dori, you’re braver than this. It’s true, though – I’m gutless where Reid is concerned. If I talk to him, I’ll want to believe in everything he says.’
My eyes fill, my heart compressing as I wait for the pop that never comes. ‘I know I’m hurting him, and I hate that.’ After his last text: Please, goddammit it, not again – I almost caved. It took every ounce of willpower not to answer him. ‘But it wouldn’t be fair to try to keep him when I have nothing to offer him in return.’
I swipe the tears away before they have a chance to track down my face.
‘There’s something I never told you about that decision I made four years ago.’ I take a shuddering breath. ‘I’ve never felt a middle ground between acceptance and remorse. Every day for the last four years, it’s been one or the other. Black or white. There was no grey, but I could bear it, because I had you. When I lost you, I began slipping into perpetual guilt. Carrying that secret, alone, for the first time, while trying to balance the idea of a benevolent God with a God who could let this happen to you – it was like falling into quicksand.’
Reid saved me from going under. He’d needed me to help him see who he could be, and in return, he allowed me to be myself in a way I never have. I was content to accept that happiness as long as it lasted. To try to make him happy while he was mine.
‘Deb,’ I whisper, leaning closer. ‘I feel hollow. I feel separate from everything and everyone. Nothing is touching me except the things that hurt. You always told me that if I helped other people, even if I was just going through the motions, it would keep me grounded. It would eventually help me define and know myself again. But it’s not working this time. I don’t know who I am, in relation to anyone else. I’ve lost me.’
When I get home, Dad is brewing his Saturday afternoon ‘sermon-busting coffee’.
‘Hey, sweetheart. How was Deb?’
I almost say the same, but that’s not what he means. ‘The roses looked beautiful in her room, and when we got back in from a circuit in the garden, the whole room smelled rosy.’
He smiles. ‘You don’t think she minds that they’re pink?’
I don’t think she notices that they’re pink.
‘No, Dad.’ I smile, handing him the keys to the Civic.
‘If you might need the car later, just keep those,’ he says.
I shake my head. ‘Nick is coming over. We’re going to get an early dinner and catch up before he goes back to Wisconsin tomorrow. Our breaks are on consecutive weeks instead of the same one.’
‘Oh? That’s a pity.’ He looks hopeful, and I bite back the desire to tell him that ship has long since sailed.
‘It’s okay.’ I shrug. ‘At least I get to see him once.’
He clears his throat, and I know before he speaks what he’s about to say. He and Mom are so transparent. ‘Seeing Reid this week?’ he asks as I’m walking towards the stairs, my face turned away so he won’t notice the way I close my eyes and breathe through my nose, schooling my voice not to betray me.
‘No. I don’t think so.’
‘Oh. Have you two –’
‘Dad, I’m not ready to talk about it,’ I say, and thankfully he drops it.
I’ll never be ready to talk about it.
Nick arrives an hour later. The doorbell echoes through the house, and then I hear his voice in the foyer, comparing notes with Dad on the Badger basketball season. My father never took that relaxed tone with Reid … but I have to quash my irritation over that. There’s no purpose to it, after all.