In June Kate’s daughter Megan came home to Massachusetts from college in a strangely exalted state her mother had never seen before. Her husband advised Kate to remain calm. “Much will be revealed,” he said after supper the first night. Walter was a high school guidance counselor. Sometimes his all-purpose utterances were comforting and other times they made Kate want to kick him. In this case Walter was right: Megan announced the next morning that she had been saved.
“Saved from what?”
“You know, Mom. Saved. Born again. Slain in the spirit.”
Kate wanted to cover her ears. She and Walter and most of their friends shared a comfortable agnosticism. How could they have raised a child who would fall for the smug, exclusionary blandishments of the fundamentalists? Kate remembered saying at a faculty party that “Christian” was now her least favorite adjective.
But Megan was unlike her extroverted mother. She had always been polite but remote, given to daydreaming and solitary pursuits. As a girl, she had only one close friend with whom she periodically had a bitter, passionate falling-out. She stayed primly on the sidelines in high school, avoiding everything that had given Kate’s adolescence its headlong careening intensity. Kate seldom missed those years, shuttling between paralytic loneliness and the shallow camaraderie of shared drugs and music, but she never regretted them. Sometimes she looked at Megan and thought her daughter’s entire existence was a protest against herself, an accusation of emotional and moral untidiness.
Kate could muster some sympathy for the conversion of someone who had led a wild, bad life and felt the need for a radical shift in direction. But her strait-laced daughter had nothing to be forgiven for. Squeamishness was sad but hardly a sin. Perhaps Megan was seeking refuge from the baseline incivility of the culture which even to Kate seemed aggressively, pointlessly nasty now. She had driven home from the market behind a car with a bumper sticker that said, Keep Honking, I’m Reloading.
Late at night Kate and Walter tried to reassure each other. Walter spoke of “keeping things in perspective,” predicting their daughter’s conversion was a phase that would pass more quickly if they didn’t react with hostility. He sounded detached, as though counseling the parents of some other derailed child. “She needs to know we still love her.”
“Of course we do,” Kate said, trying to quell the frantic edge in her voice. “But in the meantime we have to go on with our lives here, Walter. What if she makes some crack in front of Gill and Peter?” Gill and Peter were gay colleagues at the university where Kate taught anthropology. Kate wondered dismally if some night at supper she would find herself arguing about creationism with her daughter.
Walter said he would have a talk with Megan. The following night in bed he reported to Kate that Megan had promised not to embarrass anyone. “She’ll make it a point to be out of the house when Peter and Gill come over.”
“Fine,” said Kate, her mouth a narrow line. Walter was right. She knew better than to try to argue with Megan. And there were worse things, certainly. They knew a couple whose daughter had married a paroled convict she had written to while he was in prison.
Megan got a job scraping and painting an old church on the North Shore. Weekday mornings she arose at five and was on the road from Newton in her battered Hyundai by six, just as Walter and Kate were beginning to stir. They waited until they heard the front door close before getting out of bed, relieved not to have to face their daughter at the breakfast table where her ebullience was particularly grating, as if Jesus had been gossiping with her all night long.
With the summer off from their academic jobs, Kate and Walter took life easy, birdwatching, riding bikes, gardening and going to bargain movie matinees. On hot days they swam in Walden Pond. In the frozen slush of February, Kate had looked forward to summer with Megan home, picturing the three of them together on these excursions. Now she and Walter felt relief tinged with guilt at not having to spend much time with her. Megan got home around five o’clock, her thin face sunburned, her blonde hair full of grayish paint chips. She loved working on the church, she said, and liked her fellow paint crew members.
“Are they religious, too?” asked Kate.
“No. Most of them aren’t into it. It’s just a job to them. But I’m working on them. I think a couple of the guys are pretty interested in the good news.”
“Good news?” repeated Walter. Kate elbowed him to keep quiet.
“The good news about Christ.”
Kate was stung by the thought of the painting crew making fun of her daughter behind her back. She herself would have been mean about someone like Megan.
She and Walter were noncommittal when Megan talked about her conversion at college. They did mental arithmetic to see how long their daughter had been this smiling zombie: four months. After Megan left for her Bible study class, Kate accosted Walter. “You must have run across this kind of thing at the high school. When will she snap out of it?”
“Every kid is different. And given the range of problems kids get into, Christianity isn’t as high on the worry list as shooting heroin.”
Kate had to concede this, but there were nights when she thought she’d prefer it if Megan were doing drugs. At least drugs she understood. After a certain point, drugs were about confessing your own appetite for pleasure and degradation, and there were treatment programs. But religious obsession stemmed from a horror of normal, flawed humanity, and nostalgia for a purer world that had never existed and would have been deadly dull if it had.
She began to imagine hiring a deprogrammer for Megan. Walter would say she was crazy if she mentioned the idea so she kept silent about it. But the fantasy rooted itself and soon she carried a mental image of this man: fiftyish, with a narrow, careworn face, thick dark hair graying at the temples, rimless glasses over pale blue eyes. He looked nothing like Walter who was pear-shaped and balding, with a reddish fringe he laughingly called his laurel wreath.
The deprogrammer would need to come to the house a great deal to work on releasing Megan, and after the session, his final appointment of the day, Kate would drink bourbon with him on the porch. Where was Walter while this was going on? Oh, he was off somewhere, maybe upstairs at his computer memorizing bird calls. The deprogrammer would fall in love with Kate. He would waive his fee. No. Walter would ask questions about that. And what was she doing, anyway, imagining this man? She vowed not to let it get out of control, but she wasn’t altogether sure what that meant.
June and July passed, with Kate looking forward to September when Megan would go back to school. Maybe she would meet a boy in class who would lure her out of the clutches of the God Squad, a group she pictured as pimply and overweight. Megan’s car sprouted Christian bumper stickers that made Kate cringe. She’d arrived with one. Now there were five.
Walter laughed it off. “You can start freaking out when she slaps one on your car. Until then, don’t sweat it.”
Kate had seen a bumper sticker that said, Jesus Loves You, But Everyone Else Thinks You’re An Asshole. She let herself imagine putting this on her own car, something only a terribly childish mother would do. But a smile crept onto her face at the idea. She was perhaps too comfortable with her moral failings, but it was better than turning herself into a robot like Megan. She missed her daughter. The pre-Christian Megan seemed perfect now, making Kate regret her former dissatisfaction with her. Was her conversion a kind of cosmic retribution against Kate for being a bad, intolerant mother? She found herself thinking a lot more about God these days, as if Megan had infected her with the religion bug. She believed her daughter’s conversion must be her own fault, and this idea reduced her to tears whenever she was alone in her car, the safest place to cry. She didn’t let Walter in on her sadness and guilt, fearing he’d accuse her of overreacting. Around him, she tried to affect an air of sardonic cheerfulness, like a bartender who loved his team but still knew they would never win the pennant.
Walter adjusted to changes more easily than she did. Once Kate had seen this as a mark of depth, but now she suspected the opposite: the only depth it indicated was how far he had his head in the sand. And he was so patronizing these days. “The only thing I know is this,” he said, with his fingers locked behind his neck and his stomach puffed out, “All this stuff is going to look very different in six months.”
But Kate wasn’t mollified—you could say that about any situation. She knew that when he was out of ideas, he used this line on distraught kids in his office, where he had hung a poster of a kitten dangling from a rope, captioned, Hang In There, Baby! She wanted to feel grateful for his calm acceptance of Megan’s conversion, but she resented it, feeling isolated and tired of her role as the designated neurotic in their marriage.
In August they flew to Texas for their annual birdwatching vacation. They went to a new spot every year, adding to their life lists of species seen. Kate hoped the trip would refresh her, and make her see her husband again, instead of the deprogrammer whom she now conjured every night before she fell asleep. Her fantasy always began with the deprogrammer touching her shoulder.
“I thought you liked it.”
“Maybe I like it a little too much.”
After these opening bars, matters could proceed in any one of a number of satisfying directions.
On the plane she and Walter ordered drinks even though it was barely nine o’clock in the morning. “Let the stewardess think we’re a couple of high-rolling drunks,” whispered Walter, and Kate felt a tiny cataract of relief, liking him again for the first time in weeks. This trip would work out. They knocked their plastic glasses together in a toast to the Lucifer hummingbird they hoped to see in Big Bend State Park. Kate had warned herself not to mention Megan but now she put down her drink and said, “I’ll say one thing for this religious crap: at least I’m not worrying that she’ll throw wild parties in the house while we’re away.”
“Right,” said Walter. “Christ, remember what we were like at her age? I’m amazed sometimes that we survived our misspent youth.”
“I plan on misspending some of my middle age on this trip,” said Kate. “Maybe even on this plane.” But she was suddenly overcome with fatigue. They had gotten up at five. She finished her gin and tonic and fell asleep until the wheels bumped down in Houston.
For three days they had a wonderful time. Walter had upgraded his spotting scope in the winter. Through it they could now count the legs of a crayfish in an egret’s beak.
“Best money I’ve ever spent,” said Walter on their third night. They were returning from drinks and dinner and he was slightly drunk. At the front desk, the motel clerk handed him a telephone message. He squinted at it in puzzlement, saying he didn’t recognize the number and wanted to take a shower. So it was left to Kate to dial the number in their room.
A doctor at Mass General Hospital came to the phone after Kate identified herself. The conversation unwound in slow motion, with her mind refusing to take in what the doctor was saying, always several beats behind, although he wasn’t speaking fast. It was a mistake, she thought, when he told her that her daughter had had an accident. It must be someone else’s daughter. But then the doctor said Megan’s name. It was a fall, he said. Well, her mind instantly countered, how bad could that be? People fell all the time.
Megan had fallen from a steeple.
Through the sound of the shower and the static roaring in her brain, she heard a few phrases: “grave internal injuries . . . severe head trauma . . . did all that we could . . . injuries were just too severe . . . very, very sorry.” What the doctor didn’t actually say was that their daughter, their only child, was dead, so she had to ask.
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
She scribbled the doctor’s number on the cover of the motel room phone book. She didn’t say good bye, but absurdly, “Thank you for calling.”
She looked around the room where she had been so briefly, foolishly happy and listed the things she would hate from now on: Texas, birds, the color of the curtains, the month of August. The shower stopped and Walter stood grinning in the doorway, a towel around his waist. She had to tell him then.
They flew home early the next morning. On the plane Kate, wrapped in an airline blanket, drank four Scotches. Walter donned headphones and watched the in-flight movie about cheerleaders robbing a bank. Kate wondered how she could have married a man who would do this, thinking it would probably be the first in a series of small unforgivable acts.
Years ago she had seen an article about parents coping with the death of a child. Many couples broke apart, the writer stated, with guilt and recriminations swamping the marriage, while other couples drew closer. Kate remembered thinking all this would be fairly obvious even to a moron. What it didn’t say was which group was larger. Hearing the faint, tinny dialogue leaking out of Walter’s earphones, she knew the answer and which group she belonged in. But the thought was too frightening to hold longer than a few seconds. It was the liquor and the shock, she decided firmly. It was too early to decide anything.
They drove from Logan to the hospital and met with the surgeon. In a nasal monotone he went over the events of the day before while they perched uncertainly on metal chairs in their wrinkled clothes. Kate was visited by the furious realization that even now she was anxious to behave correctly for the doctor, suppressing her questions and nodding with simulated comprehension. Her mind had skipped ahead to the funeral when he asked, “Did you know that your daughter was pregnant?”
“She can’t have been!” said Walter.
Kate was meanly satisfied to see him upset. She had been aware of the doctor noticing the Scotch on her breath when they shook hands. I’m not the only bad person here, she wanted to say. My husband watched a movie on the plane. How you do you like that?
“Well, I know kids sometimes keep these things secret from their folks.” How dare he call them folks? “But Megan was around twelve weeks pregnant.”
Why tell them now? Kate wondered angrily. Weren’t things bad enough? She and Walter thanked him for seeing them and left his office with a grief counselor’s business card. In the gleaming fluorescent corridor Kate dropped it in the trash.
“Honey,” said Walter.
“I don’t need anybody telling me how to feel right now. Do you?”
He looked at her and finally shook his head.
The day of the funeral was humid, under a stifling white sky that reminded Kate of her hangovers at Megan’s age. Gill and Peter and the rest of their friends who weren’t out of town stood on a hillside, hot in their black clothing. Kate held Walter’s moist hand until she couldn’t stand it any longer and let it drop.
She had cried all morning and now she had no more tears, having sunk to a level below them where any bad thing could happen in her mind. Life is a revolting business, she thought, as sweat slid down her sides. She had gained weight in Texas and had kept eating frantically since then, plowing through casseroles that friends brought to the house, eating in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep. There was comfort and rightness in making something already awful even worse, a secret most women knew, but not Walter, who was already back at the gym, taking sedulous care of himself. This enraged Kate. What on earth was the point?
Since Megan’s death they found little to say. They were embarrassed around each other, as if together they had witnessed an obscene thing they would have preferred to have seen alone.
Gill and Peter invited them to stay at their Provincetown cottage for the week before school started. They were relieved to be out of the house where they passed Megan’s neat pink bedroom every night. Something would have to be done eventually with her things, but neither of them could face that yet.
On their first evening in Provincetown they ate at Gallerani’s, then walked down Commercial Street admiring the gardens. Flowers seemed to do better here than at home, Kate noticed. As they passed gay couples holding hands she thought of Megan and wondered what she would have made of the scene. Would she have handed out tracts to the sinners? She felt her daughter’s judgment on her more than ever now, along with Walter’s, who said she was too hung up on finding explanations for the inexplicable. He believed insoluble mysteries studded human existence. She didn’t see how he could go on with his life without coming to some understanding of their daughter’s death, however faulty and patched-together it might be. If she couldn’t figure it out, she had no ground under her. It was as simple as that.
Back at the cottage, Walter said he was going up to bed to read. “You coming?” he asked Kate.
“No. I think I’ll stay up for a while.”
From the screened porch she heard the upstairs toilet flush. Peter poured white wine.
“What a party pooper,” said Gill, who had never entirely approved of Walter.
“Actually, I’m relieved. I wanted to be alone with you guys.”
Peter grabbed Kate’s wrist and pretended to take her pulse. “I’m not getting a reading here. How are you?”
“Give me a drink and I’ll be better.” She took a sip of wine followed by a gulp, welcoming its inward loosening heat. On the drive to the Cape she had silently vowed not to complain about Walter but now she thought, To hell with it. Peter and Gill were really more her friends than his. She pulled one knee up to her chest and drank more wine. Then she told them about Walter watching the movie on the plane from Texas. They looked gratifyingly outraged. One of the things she loved about them was the way they blanketed her with acceptance. The crazier she sounded, the more they liked her. Walter was given to cleaning his fingernails during her tirades, as if she didn’t warrant his full attention when she was riled up about something. She told herself it wasn’t personal: he had to filter the histrionics of the teenagers he saw at work and it had become a habit.
She told Gill and Peter the story of their summer with Megan, exaggerating the contrast between her reaction and her phlegmatic husband’s, hoping to get a laugh.
“Oh, you poor thing! You should have called and told us much sooner,” said Gill.
“You were too embarrassed, right?” said Peter, who prided himself on being the sensitive one.
“Exactly. And now I’m even embarrassed to admit that. I’ve made such a mess of things. I wish I had told you guys about this church business. It would have made the summer easier.” She poured herself more wine, leaving the bottle at her elbow. “Although given what’s happened, that hardly matters now, does it? But there’s even more, something else we found out after the accident. She was pregnant.”
“Wow,” said Gill gravely.
Peter picked up the bottle. “That calls for another drink.”
After a silence Gill said, “I hate to ask this, but you don’t think she killed herself, do you?”
“For God’s sake,” said Peter. “Could you be any more insensitive if you tried? I’m sorry, Kate. It’s this new medication he’s on.”
Kate had no idea if he was joking.
Gill said, “Oh, please. Let’s not blame my shortcomings on some pill. That’s so Valley of the Dolls.”
Kate said, “No, don’t apologize. It’s actually a relief to hear someone else say it. Walter won’t discuss it. He’s started going to a support group for parents who’ve lost their kids, but it’s not really my kind of thing. Maybe it’s helping him. He files her death in his big Shit Happens drawer. It’s truly amazing. His life is completely back to normal now. He’s back at the gym, working out like a maniac. All I do is sit home and eat.”
Peter said gently, “I’m not a parent, so please tell me to shut up if you want, but I’m sure Walter’s just as torn up as you are. Cut him some slack. He’s got a different way of coping with it, is all.”
“I agree,” said Gill. “It’s classic straight male behavior. It’s bound to look weird to us.”
Kate sighed, squeezing Gill’s hand. “I know. I know you’re right, but it just leaves me feeling so alone and insane. Why are my coping methods always the ones nobody admires? Drinking too much and overeating. Walter is getting disgusted with me, I can tell.”
“I’m sure he’s not, sweetie,” said Peter.
She wanted to go on talking about Megan’s death, but something stopped her. Had it been suicide? It struck her that this death was a kind of letter to her from Megan. What she couldn’t admit aloud was that she didn’t know her child well enough to read it.
They finished the wine while she let Peter talk her into checking out a yoga class when she got back home. Why not, she thought dully, imagining a mellow vibe, a vacation from her shattered life, scored by droning collective humming.
The week went by quickly. Kate had brought down three novels but couldn’t get beyond their opening pages. Her mind, stubbornly self-referential, seemed to be slipping its gears, unable to engage with anything beyond her own pain and rage. The image of Megan’s body, crumpled on the dusty ground like an empty suit of clothes flashed through her mind as she walked the beach at Race Point. She couldn’t picture any blood, although there must have been some.
At breakfast on their last morning Walter announced that he was driving to the Audubon sanctuary in Wellfleet. Kate gazed at him in horror. She had a sudden sense that one of them must be insane. Knowing she shouldn’t, she said slowly and distinctly, “You’re actually going birding?”
“Yes. Why not?”
“I just can’t believe it, that’s all.”
“I take it this means you’re not coming with me?”
She didn’t answer, just shook her head in sour amazement, seeing his sweat-stained golf hat on the table between them, decorated with enamel souvenir pins from bird sanctuaries. Walter didn’t push her to accompany him. He gathered his hat and binoculars, and let the screen door slam behind him. Good riddance, she thought.
Among the theories she had concocted to explain Megan’s death was one she had named Guilt By Birdwatching. Looking at winged creatures at the moment of her flightless child’s plunge, Kate was implicated in her death. In some obscure sense she had caused the fall by not preventing it with her attention, like a mother who looked the wrong way in the second when her toddler wandered into the path of a car. It needed a mother, not a father, to extract this perfect lunatic pearl of guilt from the circumstances.
Her entire relationship with Megan had been plagued by remorse and missed connections. But she had always assumed it was a work in progress, and that when Megan had a child of her own she would understand Kate better and forgive her imperfections as a mother. Kate’s fractious relationship with her own mother had improved markedly after Megan was born. She had died of a brain tumor in the summer following Megan’s high school graduation.
Once, when Megan was nine, Kate woke from an afternoon nap to find she was half an hour late to pick her up at school. Not bothering to dress, she raced in the car to where her daughter waited alone on the sidewalk, her shoulders hunched against disappointment as one wrong car after another passed. Kate stopped and gave the horn a single shy beep. Pale and exhausted from her vigil, Megan entered the car, silently taking in her mother’s stained nightgown and flip-flops.
Kate reached for her hand but Megan jerked away from her and began to cry.
“I’m sorry I was late, OK? I fell asleep.”
“It’s not that.”
“Well, what is it then?”
“Why can’t you get dressed like other mothers before you come get me? I could have waited another five minutes. Somebody could have seen you!”
They were forever bumping irritably up against their differences. For Kate, the pain of knowing her daughter wished for another sort of mother was matched by her own secret wish for a less judgmental, humorless child. It would have been easier to have a rebellious kid who reacted to discipline by screaming, “I hate you!” Megan never did this, and Kate could only imagine the voluptuous pleasure of hearing her retract her wild statement with tears and hugs. Her daughter’s silent hopeless scorn was a slower poison that did its work around the clock.
Although she knew it was wrong and cruel, she sometimes let Megan see her own frustration with her. After Megan and her friend had retreated from each other following a quarrel, Kate would listen to the story and pour herself a drink. Looking at her daughter’s blotchy face, she sighed.
“What?” Megan exploded.
“Nothing. Only, this is why you need to have more than just Karen for a friend. So you don’t get left high and dry like this every time you have a fight with her.”
Megan’s face went utterly still, as if she were summoning a force field to deflect her mother’s useless advice. “Can I please go now?”
Kate nodded. Megan was too polite to leave a room without permission. Kate remembered storming out on arguments with her own mother, slamming the door so hard that a picture once fell off the wall.
She sipped her drink alone in the backwash of guilt over having added to Megan’s suffering by her criticism. What if she couldn’t make any other friends? Karen might be the best she could do. Kate’s mother was no help. She thought Kate was a fool for wanting Megan to be more like her. When Kate complained about what she called Megan’s timidity, her mother retorted, “You’re lucky Megan is such a sensible girl. Do you think raising you was easy? I was always having to leave work to go talk to your principal. You almost got expelled.”
This conversation left Kate with the dispiriting sense that she was part of a chain gang of unhappily paired-off mothers and daughters, and she stopped raising the subject of her troubles with Megan. Still, she missed her mother now that she was permanently unavailable for consultation. She might have had some useful advice about what Kate should do or avoid now in her marriage.
The problem was that she was surrounded by advice these days but nothing anyone said seemed likely to help. Since Megan’s death she felt as if she’d spent her time invisibly rolling in broken glass. Nothing was getting better. Walter had reconnected with his former life, birding and working out at the gym and cooking. She knew she hadn’t been a very good mother. This fact tore at her at night when she recalled times when she could have said something kind to Megan but didn’t. But even bad mothers were more tightly, fatally bound to their children than fathers, it seemed. Perhaps it was biological.
In October she got on the scale for the first time since school had started and found that she had put on fifteen pounds. Food had become her secret friend, and now it was her enemy. How unfair, she thought, when she had so little enjoyment left in her life. She decided she would try Peter’s yoga class. She was out of shape and lacking in flexibility, but several other women in the class were reassuringly plump, and after the second week she bought herself a green yoga mat. After a month she found she could hold the poses a little longer, although she was still in agony a good deal of the time.
One morning an annoyingly flexible woman spoke to her in the locker room.
What was the correct response? “I guess so. I’m hopelessly bad at this stuff but I want to keep trying.”
“Yoga’s not about being bad or good,” the woman replied snappishly. “You’re missing the point.”
“Well, you’re right, I suppose. I’ll try not to be so hard on myself.”
But the woman had already lost interest and turned away.
“Winter is the kidney season,” said the yoga teacher in December. “The emotion of the kidneys is fear. So if you notice you’re feeling extra fearful, it’s because you need to heat up your kidneys.”
Kate wondered if she were extra fearful. The phrase had an oddly bouncy ring, reminding her of television commercials for cleaning products that portrayed drudgery as glamorous and fun. The yoga teacher rubbed her whippet-thin back to demonstrate while Kate pictured a silver chafing dish of kidneys on a sideboard in an English novel. She was firmly barred from the yoga teacher’s world of golden light, spinning energy and beatific sensations.
At the end of class the teacher had the women lie on their backs while she played a tape of Indian flute music, alternating some weeks with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. She lay on her mat, stiff with dread, waiting for the teacher to say in a dreamy Californian voice, “I want you to accept yourself, your body, your life, and all the people in it, just as they are at this moment. Let this moment be perfect, just as it is.”
Kate held her breath, willing herself not to cry, but humiliating tears of non-acceptance leaked into her ears. She imagined the other women cordially accepting themselves, planning supper for their intact families.
She had hoped the class would make her feel better, but instead of being distracted, she felt the loss of Megan moving through her like a dye, bathing every cell. She checked her reflection to make certain she hadn’t actually turned violet from grief. The other women didn’t notice her red eyes or pretended not to, a conspiracy of female tact that made her feel desolate and invisible. Why did she continue going? She wasn’t sure, exactly, but on some level she felt certain it was helping her. Yoga class was the one place where she was forced to experience her life as it was now, even though it felt like the clammy walls of a cave. One day she realized that she hadn’t thought of the deprogrammer in weeks. He had died, along with Megan. She didn’t need his services now, anyway: her sex drive had fallen to a new low. Walter hadn’t commented or complained. She could be grateful for his inattention or she could see it as ominous. She chose gratitude.
He was back to birdwatching regularly on Saturday mornings, driving to Halibut Point to look for migrating sea ducks while she stayed in bed. He had stopped asking if she wanted to come although she knew he missed her. The first few Saturdays she fixed his breakfast before he set off, but then she decided it would be easier on both of them if she pretended to be sleeping when she felt him slip out of bed. Her life was filling up with questions she couldn’t ask him.
One Saturday when he was in Rockport she took her binoculars to the Audubon sanctuary at Broadmoor, intending to donate them to the nature center. She thought of the sour pleasure she would get from telling Walter what she had done when he returned at lunchtime, watching sadness spread over his boyish face, ruddy from the ocean air. Trudging across the gravel parking lot, she slung the glasses one last time around her neck. Their familiar steadying weight sent a shock of recognition through her. The binoculars had accompanied her during some of the happiest hours of her marriage. What was she thinking, giving them away? Was she trying to goad Walter in asking her for a divorce?
She entered the nature center and used the rest room before setting out on the trail through the woods. She wouldn’t see much, she knew, apart from the common species that wintered over, but it felt good to be taking a bird walk again. Walter would be so happy when she told him about it. It struck her that this scenario would be far more satisfying than making him unhappy. She was sick of herself doing that. Should she tell him the whole story? She had kept so much from him in the past few months. It occurred to her that she had never assumed the control over the future of her marriage lay with anyone but herself. She didn’t see Walter as an agent of change in his own right. But of course he was, or could be, she realized with a flash of fear. For all she knew, he could have fallen in love with some bereaved mother at the support group he’d joined in September. She had gone to one meeting but hadn’t liked the way it made her feel to be sitting with other parents trapped in a shared nightmare. The collective horror in the room was too much for her, and she had spent the second half of the meeting staring at the yellow cinderblock walls, longing for a drink. “It’s just not for me,” she said when they got into the car afterwards. Walter was disappointed but he didn’t push her to try another meeting. He was good at letting her be different from him, a talent she lacked entirely. She felt a bracing sense of having faced a hard truth about herself, and hoped his car would be in the driveway when she got home.
But it wasn’t. She checked her watch. It was nearly three. He could have stopped in Rowley for pancakes. They used to treat themselves to lovely breakfasts there after spending a Saturday morning on Plum Island. Would he actually go there by himself? From this question she zigzagged across some mental black ice. Was he by himself? She shook her head at her foolishness but she was rattled.
The house was silent except for the hum of the refrigerator. Before Megan’s death they had discussed replacing it. Now it no longer seemed to matter.
She knew she was going to make herself a drink. She deserved one. The noise from the refrigerator suddenly comforted her, connecting her with her old life. Settled by the window in her favorite armchair, she would begin to calm down. She could start making plans after her glass of Scotch.
She had a drink, and then another. She thought of calling Gill and Peter and inviting them for supper, but then she remembered they were in Vermont. It didn’t matter. It was better that she and Walter be alone tonight. She would make one of his favorite dinners, if she had what she needed in the house. She could go to the market now but she was a little drunk, and besides, she wanted to be home when he arrived. She tried to remember if he had ever stayed out this long on a Saturday without telephoning.
She went into the kitchen. It was beginning to get dark outside and she switched on the light. Too bright, she thought. Kitchens were too well lit now, as if cooking were a kind of surgery. Her mother’s kitchen had been dark and womb-like. She opened the cabinet and a box of oatmeal fell out, hitting her shoulder before spilling on the floor. She knelt down and saw that it was full of writhing grain moths. She was ashamed of her own neglect. She was going to change all that, though. The problem right now was she couldn’t think what to do with the mess on the floor. She dumped a handful down the disposal in the sink and flipped the switch. Several moths flew out as if escaping a volcano. In the end she swept the oatmeal into a bag and scattered it at the far end of the back yard. The birds would eat it.
Back inside, she began talking to herself, lonely and a little scared now. “OK, now that little problem’s been taken care of. What did I come in here for, anyway? Ice? No. Something else. Dinner! That’s right. OK, Walter’s dinner.”
Walter had driven up while she was outside, and now he stood in the hallway listening. His wife was drunk, imagining she was alone in the house, at four o’clock on a December afternoon.
He walked into the kitchen and cleared his throat, startling Kate who dropped a saucepan on the floor. “Oh, my God, you scared me to death!”
“Sorry.” He knelt to pick up the pan.
Boxes and jars lined the counters, as if Kate were thinking of opening a small store.
“What are you doing?” The careful mildness in his voice stabbed her. He was trying so hard, she thought despairingly, and look at her. Look at them, for God’s sake. They should cancel Christmas this year. She would talk to him about the idea tonight. He would be relieved by her good sense.
She gazed at the counters, trying to remember what she had been doing when he came in. “I thought I’d clean out the cabinets. Some of this stuff has been in here since the Vietnam War.” She held up a box of dried onion soup. “I don’t even think this company still exists.” She laughed. She wouldn’t tell him about the grain moths in the oatmeal. Now she was seized with the fear that they were in every box and jar. She would have to do a purge after he’d gone up to bed. “But I could use a break,” she said. “Let’s have a drink.”
He moved toward the liquor cabinet but she stopped him, not wanting him to see the depleted bottle of Scotch. “No, I’ll get them. You go put on your slippers and get settled. You could make a fire. I’ll be right in and you can tell me all about what you saw.”
He was on the sofa when she came in with the drinks. A smoky fire sputtered in the fireplace. She considered sitting next to him. But he would smell the liquor on her breath.
“You won’t believe what I did today,” she said brightly, settled again in the green armchair.
He looked at her warily. Rage leapt within her. Must he constantly telegraph his sense of her limitless capacity for poor decisions? Never mind. Perhaps she deserved this assessment. She was going to change her life, starting now, take a leaf from his book and get back to all the things she’d been neglecting.
“I went birding. At Broadmoor.”
“That’s nice. What did you see?”
“Oh, nothing great, nothing you wouldn’t expect. Cardinals, chickadees, a couple of juncos. But the funny thing was I never meant to take a walk at all. I actually went there to donate my binoculars to the nature center.”
She had told him how she associated birdwatching with Megan’s accident but she left out the guilt. Now, in a tumbled rush, she described her Guilt By Birdwatching theory. If he could withstand this insanity of hers, she could take another step toward him, as if fording a brook by moving from one rock to the next.
He looked at her and sighed.
“Well?” she finally said. It was so like him to let her teeter there on her slippery rock in the middle of the stream.
“What do you want me to say? That is so screwed-up I don’t even know where to begin. Listen. What happened would still have happened if we’d been at home, or out at a movie. And then you would have come up with another theory making it all your fault. Isn’t losing her bad enough, Kate? Why do you have to pile on all this other crazy shit to make yourself feel even worse?”
“I don’t know. It’s just the way I am. I don’t claim to be the most well- adjusted person on the planet.” She wanted another drink, but now wasn’t the time, in front of Walter.
“And you think I do, I suppose?”
“No. I wasn’t saying that.”
“Good. Because this has been the worst year of my life, you know. You act like you think you’re the only one who’s suffered. I lost my kid and then, I don’t know, I feel like I’ve been slowly losing you, too, ever since it happened.” He thumped the arm of the sofa to stop himself from crying. She could have told him thumping didn’t work. Nothing worked.
She felt a current of danger in the room with them and shuddered. She needed exactly the right words now but she had no idea what they were. She realized she didn’t know this man any more, or what he might require of her. If he still required anything, after all these weeks. But he must, he had to. She simply hadn’t been trying very hard since the accident, that was all.
“I was thinking,” she began, “I’d like to come with you next Saturday. If you go out to the North Shore, I mean. Or we could go anywhere else you like. It doesn’t have to be there. You’re probably sick of it by now.” She heard herself babbling, on the edge of hysteria.
“Do you want to know why I came home so late?”
“I just figured you were having a good day.”
“No, I wasn’t having a good day. I haven’t had a good day since Megan died. I spent the afternoon in a bar with a woman. Her name is———”
Kate held up her hand. “No, don’t tell me her name. That’s not important.”
“Who are you to say what is and isn’t important?”
“Sorry. Go ahead. Will we be sending her a Christmas card this year?”
Her waspishness surprised them both into a terrified silence.
When Walter spoke, it was in the slow measured tone she most feared, indicating he was going to say something he’d prepared. “I think we’re in trouble here. I think we’ve been in trouble for some time now. I was going to ask you about a separation tonight. Only I needed a couple of belts before I could face you.”
“Oh.” The color drained from her face. “Wait a second, will you?” She went into the kitchen where she poured herself another whiskey. “Do you want another?” she called, playing for time.
“That is so typical,” Walter said, an unfamiliar sourness edging his voice. How many drinks had he needed to allow this to emerge? Some people really shouldn’t drink, she thought wildly. It brought out their ugliest side.
Her husband’s voice interrupted, returning her to the thudding fear the word separation had set off in her heart, a bird gripped by a huge black glove.
“Here I have something serious to say and all you want to know is whether I want another drink, and do I want you to come with me next Saturday? It’s a little late to ask me that.”
“How can you say that? You haven’t exactly been talking to me either. It’s a two-way street.”
“You made it clear you didn’t want me to. I know what you think of me. I’m a shallow plodding fool who’s deluded himself into thinking the glass is permanently at least half-full.”
How in hell did he know? If he could figure that out about her, he wasn’t the man she took him for, but someone far more dangerous and necessary to her.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “I do not see you like that at all. You’re projecting. Isn’t that what they’d say in your group?”
“Don’t you dare bring that up. If you’d been going with me to the meetings we might not be in this mess now. But not you. You always know better than the rest of us needy emotional types. You don’t need any help from anyone, do you?”
“Look, let’s not do this now, OK? We’re both tired and we’ve had too much to drink.” “No, Kate. This time you’re not running away. If you don’t want to deal with this tonight, if it’s not important enough to you, for God’s sake, then I’m going upstairs to pack.”
She was out of ideas. He was being unbelievably unfair. He had already decided to leave her. Falling for his sham offer of a chance to change his mind in one final conversation before he went would only leave her feeling more exhausted when it was over, just that much closer to the faithful black dog of suicide. “I give up, Walter. Go ahead and go if that’s what you want. Just know this is your idea, not mine. It’s taken me a while, yes, I admit that, and I haven’t been much of a wife since she died, but I am trying to turn things around. Today something new happened to me when I didn’t get rid of my glasses. I think I’m starting to get better.” He folded his arms and looked at her. “Keep talking. You’ve got my attention.”
“Look. Just tell me what you want, OK? I’ll do it. Do you want me to go to your group? I’ll go. Do you want to try couples therapy?”
“I don’t know. Yes. Why not? Why do we have to resign ourselves to losing everything this year? I can’t believe that’s really what you want.”
“It’s not. OK? It’s not.” He was crying now.
He knelt at her feet and allowed her to stroke his head, its nakedness recalling Megan’s infant baldness. She didn’t know what she had just saved or how long she could keep it alive. She only knew that the terror had receded, at least for now, and she felt grateful and a little proud. She might be a mess but she had a few instincts left that weren’t totally shot.
“So, tell me about this woman.”