You wake up early and you take a shower and you get in the car. When you put the key in the door of the bookstore, you realize that Jesse is gone but maybe your life is still here. Maybe you can do something with it.
Three days before Marie is supposed to return to the store, she tells your parents that she doesn’t want to come back to work. She has tears in her eyes. She says she’s sorry that she’s disappointing them but she just wants to stay at home with her babies. She says she can’t imagine spending her days away from them. Your parents are caught off guard. They quickly become supportive.
That night, you overhear them talking about it. You hear your mother console your father, you hear her tell him that the store doesn’t have to go to you or Marie. She says it’s going to be fine.
The next day, they start looking for a new store manager.
You know what you need to do.
You sit them down at the kitchen table that night and you ask for the job. When they ask if you’re sure that’s what you want to do, you say you are but the truth is somewhere in the gray area between yes and no.
Surprised but pleased, your parents agree, saying nothing would make them prouder.
Now, you have a job.
And then, slowly, day by day, minute by minute, at such a snail’s pace that you can barely register that anything is happening at all, you find a life’s purpose again.
It is right there, in Blair Books, the very place you’ve spent your life running from. It is in the children’s reading nook and the messy stockroom. It is in the curated display table at the front of the store and the bargain bin in the back. You look at the bookmarks. The ones that say “Travel the World by Reading a Book.”
You have already seen the world.
Marie and Mike bring the girls over for dinner one Sunday, and right before dessert, Mike mentions that they have an appointment with a hearing specialist on Tuesday. That night, you overhear your parents saying that it’s about time. You realize that you spend so little time with your nieces, so little time with your sister, that you didn’t realize the twins have stopped responding to the sound of their names or to loud noises.
You resolve to call Marie after the appointment. You are going to be an attentive sister. You are going to be a good aunt.
Marie answers the phone in tears but you are able to piece together what has happened.
Your nieces are going deaf.
It has something to do with a gene called connexin 26.
You go over to Marie’s house that night and bring her what you used to love on a bad day. You bring her Diet Coke and Ben & Jerry’s. You find a flavor with coconut and chocolate because you know her favorite candy bar is an Almond Joy. She puts the ice cream in the freezer and leaves the Diet Coke on the counter. But she hugs you so hard you think it might leave a mark. You hold her and let her sob.
You move out of your parents’ house into a studio apartment in Cambridge. You say you’re moving out because you want to live in a brownstone but the truth is you’re moving out because Olive agrees that it’s time for you to start to meet people. Any people. New people.
Five months into your job as the manager, you sit your parents down and pitch them on selling e-books and e-readers. You outline how to do it. When they tell you that you’re great at your job, you start crying and you miss Jesse. Happy moments are the worst, that’s when the ache is strongest. But you wipe your eyes, get back to work, and when you put your head on the pillow that night, you consider it a good day.
An old college friend of your father’s comes into the store looking for him but he’s not in. The man sees that you are the manager and asks your name. You say your name is Emma Lerner and the man frowns. He says he knows Colin always wanted one of his girls to take over the store. You say that you are one of his girls. The man apologizes for his mistake.
Marie and Mike buy a house down the street from your parents. Mike will have to commute far to the sporting goods stores but Marie thinks it’s important to be near your parents.
After she’s settled in, you call her and ask her if she’d like to take a sign language class with you in Boston. You tell her you’re excited to learn how to talk with your hands. She agrees and it is the only time she takes to do something out of the house, without her children. After a few weeks, you realize that you are your sister’s entire social life.
One day after class, Marie asks if you’d like to stay out and get lunch. You take her to a Mongolian barbecue place and you run into Jesse’s older brother Chris. You say hello and you catch up and you are surprised to find that you do not cry.
As you and Marie are walking back to the T, she asks if you’re okay. As you’re explaining how you feel, it hits you like a ton of bricks. For years now people have said to you, “May his memory be a blessing.” You realize, finally, that’s exactly what it is.
You are happier to have known him than you are sad to have lost him.
You wonder if grief is less chronic than you think. If remission can last for years.
You go to the hairdresser one day and she asks you if you’ve ever considered highlights. You tell her to go for it. When you walk out of the salon, you feel like a million bucks. You start scheduling future appointments.
Your parents partially retire and give you the store. You are so proud, so happy, so eager to take it over that you decide to change your name back. You are a Blair. You haven’t ever been more proud to be a Blair. The day your new license comes you cry and look up to the sky, as if Jesse is there, and you say, “This doesn’t mean I don’t love you. This just means I love where I come from.”
When Marie finds out the store is being handed over to you, she gets upset. She accuses you of taking it from her. You tell her you’re just picking up the ball that she dropped. The two of you erupt. She’s yelling and you’re yelling. In anger, she screams, “Oh, please. We all know you’re the favorite. Perfect Miss Emma who does everything exactly as Mom and Dad want.”
You start laughing. Because it’s so absurd.
But then you realize it’s true.
You have become the person your parents always wanted you to be and you’ve done it almost entirely by accident.
You didn’t think you wanted to work with books or live in Massachusetts or be close to your sister. But it turns out you do. That’s what makes you happy.
And then you say to yourself, Wait, no, that’s not right. I can’t be happy.
Because you don’t have him. He’s gone. You can’t be happy, can you?
And then you stop and truly ask yourself, Am I happy?
And you realize that you just might be.
You apologize to Marie. She apologizes to you. You spell out, “I was being an idiot,” in sign language. Marie laughs.
Later, you ask her if it’s a betrayal to Jesse to feel good, to like your life now. She just says, “Not at all. That’s all he’d want for you. That’s exactly what he’d want.”
You think she might be right.
You take off your wedding ring and you put it in an envelope of your love letters and pictures. You will never let it go but you do not need to wear it.
You go back to your hairdresser and ask her if she thinks you’d look good with a pixie cut. She says you’d look great. You trust her. You go home, newly shorn, and you aren’t quite sure what to make of yourself.
But then Marie sees it and tells you that you look like a movie star, and when you look at yourself in the mirror again, you sort of see what she means.
Six months later, you decide to take up the piano.
And just by walking into a music store, you set a whole second life in motion.
I could have started by trying to take piano lessons. But I decided to just leap into it. I wanted something to do with my hands at home. It was either piano or cooking and, well, cooking seemed messy.
So I found a secondhand-instruments shop in Watertown and drove over on a Sunday afternoon.
The doors chimed as I walked through them and they caught on themselves as they closed behind me. The store had a leathery scent to it. It was filled with rows of guitars. I found a magazine stand and rifled through it for a minute, unsure of what I was actually looking for.
I suddenly felt uncomfortable and completely out of my element. I didn’t know what questions to ask or of whom to ask them.