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Other People’s Lives

ISSUE:  Summer 2002

For six years she had worked in an office where the telephones rang constantly, but in the last week, each time her phone went off, Moira jumped and blanched. She turned the ringer down, but it didn’t help. This reaction to the telephone began when she moved away from Peter. From PJ. She had gone to stay with her brother and his family until she could get herself back on her feet, and she knew PJ would never call over there. If he called at all, it would be to her office. It would not be so bad to talk to him, Moira thought—to gauge how he had taken her leaving—once she got past the shock. She’d let the phone ring several times to give herself a moment to get composed, but when she answered, it was never him. It was someone from the housing department, or from welfare, or a school counselor, phoning her back about one of her clients.

What Moira did was to help settle refugees in Boston—though right now she felt like a refugee herself, a refugee in her own city. She was a social worker. She assisted newly-arrived immigrants in dealing with the mundane aspects of daily life—finding a place to live, getting the first meals onto their tables, enrolling the children in schools, looking for jobs. Mundane but essential. It was not uncommon for her to have a whole family clustered around her desk, each member needing something different, the children spilling out of the laps of their parents, crying and fussing. They came from Haiti, from the former Soviet states, from the rainforests of Central America, from broken-up Yugoslavia, from West Africa, from China. Moira spoke a little Spanish and a word or two of French, but that was about it for foreign languages. The agency had a few people who spoke different languages, but immigrants arrived from so many places that it worked best when the refugees brought relatives or friends of their own who could translate for them.

PJ had never hit her—it wasn’t that. He was not ever, in a physical sense, abusive. But he had turned cold to Moira, after just two years. She would get upset about something, and begin to cry, the cries turning to sobs, and PJ wouldn’t even switch down the sound on the television. His skin, his surface, turned solid like the surface of a rock. He said he still loved her, but she thought his love was hate. She didn’t know what she had done, and it all happened so fast. When she tried to talk to PJ, the rock got colder, a skein of ice forming a shell over it.

People dropped in to her office all the time. It didn’t matter if there were appointments or not. They came by. They showed up when they needed something. The baby was sick, and they didn’t know how to find a doctor, enter a hospital, get someone to pay for the medicine. They hadn’t eaten in three days. They had been sleeping in a park and then it began to snow. Most of the refugees were shy, ashamed of their situations, reticent, but so desperate that they came to Moira anyway.

All around her telephones rang—it wasn’t just hers. But when the phone on her desk went off, Moira thought, PJ. Eventually, she knew, he would call. But he would hold out, wait until he was desperate for something, just like her clients.

She couldn’t wait for the work day to end, but she had no desire to go back to her brother’s. Henry and Anne lived in Wayland, one of the suburbs. They were acting solicitous towards her, but she felt uncomfortable. And they had their three children, always clamoring, always under foot. Moira felt distinctly outside the family. She had never felt so outside in her life.

It was nearly 5:00 when Sam walked in, and Moira was packing papers in her briefcase. Sam had been one of Moira’s first clients, and one of her first successes. He was from Laos. He had shortened his name from Sammanyavang, because nobody in his new country could say it, or wanted to bother to try. Sam was a Yao from a village in Laos’ northern mountains, a Buddhist, who had stepped on a land mine left over from the war and lost his right arm. He was settled now, in a small apartment Moira had helped him find, and he had a job in a grocery store in Boston’s Chinatown. He had learned English, and he was getting along, but he still came by to see Moira. He came as a friend, not as a client. He told Moira that he would never forget what she had done for him, and sometimes he popped in to take her for a treat.

They went to a noodle place that Sam knew, and Moira was grateful to have somewhere to go, someone to talk to. Walking beside him, her low heels clicking on the sidewalk, she was half a head taller than Sam. She felt like throwing her arm around his shoulder, but she stifled that urge. Sam opened the door of the restaurant and held it for Moira while she stepped inside.

It felt odd confiding in a former client—someone who had once been forced by circumstances to confide everything in her—but Sam had a calm way that put Moira at ease. Sometimes he even made offhand jokes about his arm, cut off at the shoulder, as if to demonstrate that nothing should be taken too seriously. Everyone else got their legs blown off from stepping on those things, he said, or else was killed altogether, but somehow he had his arm ripped from its socket by the explosion, while the legs were okay. In fact, both legs had been fine afterward, not even a cut. When he was in the hospital, he was in a ward with all leg amputees, people being fitted with wooden prostheses and learning to hop about on crutches. Sam was the only one with an arm missing, he chuckled, and they didn’t have anything to give him that could take its place. He had told Moira that he remembered the flash of the explosion. He remembered it as if it were a dream, a particularly violent one, not something real. The flash was very quick, very bright, and it was as if Sam saw it through a narrow horizontal slit, black above and black below—as if in his dream he were peering through the slit, everything but his eyes protected by some sort of wall. He’d been afraid the flash had blinded him and in the hospital he hadn’t wanted to open his eyes after they took the bandage off his face, hadn’t wanted to test them, for fear they wouldn’t work. But when Sam tried his eyes out, they still worked fine. He wanted to count himself fortunate for that, but there were times that he couldn’t. “What was so lucky about it?” he asked, turning serious. Not lucky in a world where most everyone took sight for granted, and also could still swing both of the arms they were born with.

It was a Vietnamese restaurant, and Moira ordered a pho dish with mushrooms and tofu. Each time she started to talk about PJ, tears sprang into her eyes. She didn’t want to love him any more. The way she felt now, she didn’t even want to remember him. But Sam encouraged her to talk. Moira wondered if it was a technique he had picked up from her, that patience, the way they both had to get people to open up to what was bottled up inside them. Moira knew that once she was pried open, once the crack appeared, everything would come spewing out of the hole like a geyser.

“Your husband may be going through a phase,” Sam told her. His face looked grave. The skin was dark and smooth, pulled tight over the front of his skull but a little fleshier at the cheeks. He held a pair of black cloisonne chopsticks in his hand, empty, his fingers at rest, the sticks crossed near their tapering tips. They were chopsticks that Sam had brought with him, produced with a flourish when they sat down. “I’m sure he still care for you, Moira. Maybe pressure from job make him that way. Maybe he need room.”

“If it’s the pressure from his job,” Moira sniffed, “why doesn’t he say so? Why doesn’t he tell me? He never talks to me about his job. It’s like he goes off to work for eight hours and those hours don’t exist. He steps into some kind of black hole of time.”

There was a puddle of tea on the table, but the waitress had only given Moira one small paper napkin, and she didn’t want to waste it sopping up the drink. It was a formica tabletop, so she figured it wouldn’t stain.

“Black hole of time,” Sam smiled. “Better than black hole of Calcutta to step into.” He had a way of picking up phrases and colloquialisms and using them in his own sentences, but Moira was never certain whether Sam understood what the phrases meant.

Moira didn’t want to cry, she didn’t want to talk. She trapped a mushroom against the side of the bowl with her own chopsticks— hers were wooden ones, like giant toothpicks, supplied by the restaurant, the kind of throwaway chopsticks that could leave splinters piercing her tongue—and she snared the mushroom, slipped it between her lips. She bit down, releasing a squirt of dark fungal flavor, which went straight to the back of her head, somewhere above her ears. Mushrooms had a taste that always made a beeline for Moira’s pleasure center—she loved them.

“He miss you,” Sam said. “He miss you already. One week. Good to wait for him to call. He miss you more.”

“Sam, I doubt that,” she smiled sadly. Sam had never met PJ. It was hard for Moira to imagine PJ missing her—not the indifferent way he had been acting—though she hoped he did. She hoped he had lost his center, and without that, without her, he was dizzy, nauseous, that he couldn’t stand up straight or keep a bite of food down. Maybe he had broken out in itchy hives. Maybe he had gotten a ringing in his ears that wouldn’t go away. Tears came into Moira’s eyes as she sat there thinking about PJ not missing her. They rose as if from a spring and pooled in her eyes, not falling, not going anywhere, just burning. It was as if Moira was looking at her friend through hot water.

Sam sat hunched over the table, concentrating on his pho. Occasionally his bowl moved slightly when he thrust his chopsticks into it. He didn’t have a second hand with which to hold the bowl still. When Sam laid down his chopsticks, Moira reached across the table. She covered his hand with hers. His skin was warm, hot. The back of his hand was hairless, slightly puffy. She rubbed her thumb over it, wanting to communicate something, wanting to let Sam know how much she appreciated his being there. But when she saw his face turn darker, embarrassed, she withdrew her touch.

“Would you like more coffee?” Anne asked.

Moira jumped at the voice. She had not heard Anne come into the kitchen. Her sister-in-law walked about, even in her own house, like a ghost. A pretty ghost. A ghostly beauty. When the children were out, the clamor was transformed into a silence so absolute that it made Moira more tense than all the noise did. Anne never played music and rarely had turned on the television. It was a kind of silence akin to leaning out over the top of a cliff and peering down. It was a waiting kind of silence she had, as if something terrible was about to happen in it. If not this time, then the next.

“No coffee. No, thank you,” Moira said, composing herself again. She turned from the newspaper to smile. Anne had on her bottle-green bathrobe, the tops of her firm, full breasts showing where she hadn’t pulled the flaps of the robe together tightly enough. Moira knew in her heart that Henry had married Anne precisely for those luscious breasts. She hated the catty feeling, but she knew her brother. Anne had slippers on her feet, and Moira didn’t understand how she kept them from swishing when she walked.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Anne giggled. The coffeepot was in her hand, and a lazy wisp of steam rose up from it. Moira hadn’t heard her pick up the pot from the stove, either.

“You didn’t scare me. I was just focused on this article I’m reading. I didn’t hear you come in. You’re so quiet.”

Moira knew Anne wanted her to open up about PJ, but she couldn’t do it, not with her. Moira had never really taken Anne seriously. She was trying, now that she was a guest in her home, but it was hard to change the way she thought about her. She liked Anne, but it was hard to take someone seriously who was four years younger than herself and who had married her brother, of all people. And who was a ghost, on top of it all. Then she had gone and had those children, one, two, three. It hadn’t seemed smart to Moira, any of it. Nothing had been thought out and planned. There was something frivolous about the way Anne and Henry went about their lives. And yet it seemed to be working for them, which Moira didn’t understand. It was certainly working better than her own life these days.

Anne pulled out the chair across from Moira and sat down. She wouldn’t give up easily. She poured herself a mug of coffee. The walls of the kitchen were painted a cheery yellow, and the morning sun was strong through the windows, brightening the room even more. A large, old-fashioned clock was perched on the wall above the stove, the kind that used to be in all of Moira’s classrooms when she was a child, the red second hand sweeping steadily around. Moira had an evening appointment with one of her clients, so she was taking the morning off. She’d hoped to just sit by herself and read the newspaper and relax.

Anne sighed heavily. She held the mug in both hands and blew across the top of it, then took a sip, never removing her eyes from Moira. The little slurp she made ballooned in the silence to the sound of a crashing wave.

“What is it?” Moira said. “Go ahead. Spill.” She rattled the newspaper. She knew perfectly well what was going on, but if Anne was going to be persistent, she would at least make her say what she had on her mind. And she wished Anne would close her robe, so she wouldn’t have to stare at the tops of those perfect breasts while she waited.

“I was just thinking about you and PJ,” Anne said. She set her mug down, but kept her hands circled around it for the warmth.

“Now why couldn’t I guess that?” Moira answered. “Not in a million years, silly me. Silly old me and silly old PJ. So what’s making you think of that?”

“It’s just so sad.” Anne had thin blonde hair that was pulled back in a ponytail, and that tail wagged as she shook her head. She reached up to slide off the band that held her hair, smoothed the hair down a couple of times, then rolled the band back on. “Don’t you think it’s sad, Moira?”

Moira was surprised that her sister-in-law couldn’t read her, but she was also glad about that. She didn’t want to be transparent, or to wear her loneliness and misery right out on her sleeve. She looked away, blinking back sudden tears, then stared up at the clock. It wasn’t even 9:30 yet. “I guess it depends how you look at it whether you think something’s sad or not. I’ve certainly heard of sadder things than a little old break-up, I’ll tell you that. I see sadder things every day at my job.”

“The things at your job aren’t sad, they’re tragic,” Anne corrected her. “It’s tragic when you have to leave your country, or when somebody in your family gets murdered. Sad is different. Sad is when love doesn’t work out.” Her eyes were round, wide, earnest.

Moira was tempted to ask if Anne had been reading greeting cards at the drugstore again, or memorizing fortune cookies, but she held her tongue. She knew she was only trying to help.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what love is,” Moira said. “Sometimes I think it’s nothing, it doesn’t exist. Or if it does exist, it’s only something people invented to make themselves feel better. I mean, what does it signify to say you love somebody? What does it imply about yourself or about the other person?”

She stared at Anne and waited about a half a beat, then started again. “Let’s say for the sake of discussion that you think you love my brother. What exactly does that mean? You have compatibility with him? There’s sexual attraction? Does it mean you share the same ideas, you think the same way, have the same beliefs? Or is it just a word—love— that’s shorthand for, hey, this is somebody I’m going to be with for a while, because it’s convenient, or because that will keep me from being lonely, or because it makes me feel better about myself? Love can be so many thousands of things that maybe in the end, it isn’t any of them. Maybe it’s nothing, it’s not even there, it doesn’t exist.”

“I just think it’s sad that you moved out, I can’t help it,” Anne persisted. “I guess I’m old-fashioned.”

“Old-fashioned and romantic,” Moira smiled. She could tell she had lost her sister-in-law with her little rant. Left her somewhere back there in the dust. Anne wanted to focus on the details of the specific case, not on some semantic philosophizing that might or might not underpin the case. And Moira could understand—she was the exact same way with her clients. She didn’t want to hear about the politics of which group had done what to which other group back in the Ivory Coast, or in some obscure northern province of China. She just wanted to get the child enrolled in a school, settled in a classroom.

“We might get back together,” Moira said, though until that second, she hadn’t even entertained such a thought. “We’re just seeing how it goes. Testing the waters, as they say. We have to find out how we feel about being apart, as opposed to how we feel about being together.”

“Really? Then there’s hope?”

“There’s always hope,” Moira assured her, somewhat sardonically. “Of course, nothing’s definite—far from it. But we didn’t do anything permanent. Not yet.”

She could see that what she said made Anne feel better. And, she had to admit, it made herself feel a little better, too.

Sam could not forget the touch of Moira’s thumb on the back of his hand. He began stopping by her office frequently. If she was busy with someone else, he took a seat in the foyer and waited. His schedule at the grocery store was such that when he worked weekends, he had corresponding weekdays free. And when he was free from work, Sam had all the time in the world to sit in a foyer and wait.

Sam had not been married in Laos, though there was a girl he had intended to wed, a girl from a nearby village whose mother’s side of the family was a spin-off from his own family many generations back. But everything changed when he lost his arm. After that Mei cringed whenever she saw him, and began to weep. She couldn’t stand his deformity, the ragged edge of sewn-back flesh, and it got worse as time went on, not better. It got so that once Mei started her weeping, she could never stop until Sam got up and left.

For him though, the arm wasn’t actually the worst thing—not at all. And even the loneliness wasn’t worst. Sam missed the mountains of his homeland more than he missed either his right arm or Mei. There were mountains outside Boston, up in New Hampshire and Vermont, and he had gone to see them, but they weren’t the same. Not even close. They were tame in comparison, they were way too low, and they had trees growing nearly to their tops. What he missed were the oversized rock formations, the deep crevasses, the impenetrable tangles of growth, the sharp winds that blew over the mountains’ tops, the mystery. There were stories about every one of the mountains, stories about the people and spirits that inhabited them, roamed them, ruled them, spooked them. Sam missed home, and those mountains were home to him.

He told Moira this. He told her over tea, his voice growing husky, plaintive. He said he wanted to go back to Laos, not to live, just to look. It had been six years. Those mountains were the one thing that he couldn’t get out of his head.

“If you go back,” she cautioned, “you might decide you want to stay there. Then what would you do?” She was glad to talk about him instead of herself.

“I can’t stay,” he answered. “I live here now.”

“I know you live here. But seeing it all, it might be hard to leave again. Leave your family, too. Your friends. Your old village.”

“My village not there. I could find the ground it built on, but the village gone. The people gone.”

Moira looked at him. It was rare that she had a conversation like this with one of her clients. She focused on the practical, and she forced them to. She was skilled at setting the direction of a consultation, holding it to a path no matter how slippery the path became. But Sam was different. And she knew why he kept coming around—his heart was empty. Moira found herself wondering what his Mei had been like, but she didn’t want to ask him. She wondered if Mei was pretty, guessed that she was. Sam was still a young man, 32, a couple of years younger than herself. He was too young to have been emptied out. Moira wondered what he saw when he looked at her. A white woman who felt sorry for him, and condescended to help? An American, somebody who knew her way around, who could guide him in this new world? A woman who was just a woman, one with an understanding, sympathetic ear? A woman who was attracted to him? She wondered if Sam thought she was attractive. She wondered if he compared her in his mind to the way he remembered his Mei.

“Then you should go back to look,” Moira said, “if it’s that important to you. If you think it won’t make it harder.”

“You want me to leave?” Sam said slyly.

Moira smiled. “Of course not. I didn’t say go back to stay. I’d miss you if you left for good. I’d miss you a lot, Sam.”

Sam sat back in his chair, his tea drained. The look that passed over his face reminded Moira of the one Anne had given her that same morning when they’d finally started talking about love and hope.

He took her to his apartment—a fourth story walk-up, two narrow rooms, a corner slot in an old brick building just outside Chinatown. Directly behind the building was the freeway, and Moira could feel the stream of traffic vibrating through the soles of her feet on the stairs. The stairway was dingy, the stairs themselves sagging, creaking.

It just happened that they went there. They were strolling in the vicinity, and Sam asked Moira if she would like to see what he had done with his place. She had helped him find the apartment, years before, but at that time the building had been vacant, derelict. A new owner had taken it over and was making promises to bring it back to life. The new owner had put locks on the doors and chased the junkies away. Sam was only the second tenant to sign up. Moira negotiated the lease for him, getting him two years at a fixed rate with a maximum four percent increase per year after that.

The apartment was neat and clean, but crammed with knick-knacks, photographs, and trinkets. Every surface was covered with something. Pinned onto the walls were large travel posters of Laos, unframed, their edges curled and fraying, so old that the colors were faded and the captions were written in French. Since Laos was landlocked, without sea or beach scenes to depict, most of the poster images were of mountains or temples.

One room of the apartment was a kitchen and dining area, the second a living and sleeping space. Sam’s bed was a futon folded up against the wall. In one corner he had constructed a small shrine on top of a teak cabinet, with candles, a brass lamp, a clear bowl filled with oil, two tiny scrolls, and a small statue of the seated Buddha, bloated belly and all, the kind that every store in Chinatown had on display.

Moira walked over to the shrine. The Buddha was situated in the center of it. The sculpture was a dark red. It was made of alabaster, and when she got close she saw that there were a few places where tiny chips were missing, as if it had knocked around a bit. The Buddha’s face was set in a fierce scowl, and a single twist of red alabaster hair zigzagged down the back of his head, past his shoulders. There was something about the image that drew Moira, but she thought it might be inappropriate to touch. She wondered about Sam paying homage to something that looked so unfriendly. She was certain she had seen Buddhas with smiles, and others that looked content and peaceful sitting there with their bellies stuffed full. She wondered what it was that had made Sam pick this one out.

“You know, we’ve never talked much about your religion,” Moira said. “I don’t know many Buddhists.”

“Yes, I’m a Buddhist,” Sam told her. “Most of my people are not. My Yao people. We Yao believe in different kind of spirits. Our mountains full of spirits that make things happen. But I went to Luang Prabang, and I studied. There many Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang. Teachers. I still believe in spirits, but I learn Buddha way, too. It’s a way to think, to live. You can believe in both.”

“A way to live. Now wouldn’t that be nice? It must be lovely to go study the right way to live a life. I should become a Buddhist. Maybe I’d learn something.”

Sam smiled. “You know right way to live already.”

He stepped over to Moira, and with his one hand, deftly, he lit a match and touched it quickly to the three candles. Then he shook the flame out, raised his arm, and Moira felt herself drawn to him, just as she’d felt pulled to the statue. She touched her cheek to Sam’s forehead. He let his raised arm drop and folded it around Moira, like a bird taking in its baby with a wing.

She decided it was time for her to call PJ. Four weeks, and she hadn’t heard a word from him. She had stopped cringing when the telephone rang, no longer thinking he was going to phone her. She knew she was wearing out her welcome at Henry and Anne’s. Either it was time to move on and find her own place, Moira thought, or else she should see about going back home. She wondered if PJ was seeing somebody else yet. She had suspected him of that even before she’d left.

Moira knew it wasn’t good that she was sleeping with a client. Even if Sam’s case was closed, and he’d been more like a friend for so long, a client was still a client. There were rules of ethics for her profession, and guides to responsible practice. It wasn’t unheard of, but Moira had never considered that she would allow herself to get involved like that.

She wouldn’t stay over at Sam’s because she didn’t want to alert her brother and his wife that something untoward was going on. She would see Sam after work, depending on his schedule at the grocery store, and sometimes even on a long lunch break. She felt foolish, and guilty, like a teenager, trudging up the three flights of stairs on the way in, slinking back down when they were done. Meanwhile Sam was talking about love. Moira cared for him, but love was out of the question. She was still married. And they were from such different worlds. She’d as likely fall in love with a Martian who happened to land in Boston.

Sam would wait until she arrived before unfolding the futon and spreading the sheet. He liked to watch Moira undress, but he never helped her. For her part, she could not keep from looking at the blunt way his arm ended just below the shoulder. The scar was uneven, the skin there still a mottled red. It looked poorly sewn, although it was possible that was the best anyone could have done with the shreds of skin that had been left. Sam couldn’t feel Moira’s hand when she accidentally brushed him there. There had been no nerves left after the explosion. The stories amputees told about feeling their own phantom limbs didn’t apply to him. Sam never had even a fleeting sense that his hand was still there.

It was hard to confuse Sam with PJ, they were so different, but there were moments when Moira managed to do that.

“Peter?” she said. “PJ? Is that you?” His voice was unfamiliar, his “hello.”

“This is Peter,” he answered stiffly. “Moira? What’s up? Is something wrong? What do you want?” He sounded annoyed, like she had interrupted something.

“Want? Nothing. I just thought I’d call. It’s been a long time since we talked. I wanted to see how you are. Nothing’s wrong.”

“I’m fine,” he told her shortly.

She could hear his breathing. PJ had asthma, and sometimes when he got excited, or tense, that would spur the beginnings of an attack. He always kept an inhaler close by, carried it around in his pocket. More than once the cover had loosened and spray had leaked out, and Moira had had to take his pants to the cleaners.

“I’m glad you are,” she said. She felt disappointed—both that PJ claimed he was fine, and that he didn’t seem excited to talk to her. “Things are okay here, too. I’m still over at Henry’s. The kids are a little much, that’s one thing. They’re fun and all, but they never shut up. Kind of makes you want to go and be a hermit.” One thing she missed was being able to share little observations with PJ, the naughtier of her opinions. Moira always knew when he would agree with her, when he would laugh. They had their secrets together, although at the moment, she couldn’t remember any.

“So you’re fine and I’m fine,” he told her. “Is there anything else to say?”

“You don’t want to talk to me?”

“Moira, you’re the one who moved out, not me. You’re the one who left me high and dry. Now you want to talk? Chit chat? Catch up? Be old friends?”

“Is that how you see it? I went away from you?”

“I see it the way it is, pussycat. That’s how it happened, isn’t it?” he said. “That’s certainly my memory. How do you think I’d see it? You put your things in the suitcases; I didn’t.”

“But PJ, you stopped talking to me. You stopped listening to me. You stopped caring about me.”

“So you said. I’m sure whatever happened, it was my fault. It always was. I caused it, whatever it was.”

“But you did.”

Moira didn’t want to fight, so she hung up. What she had wanted was for PJ to tell her how much he missed her, and for her to be able to set the conditions of her return home. But it didn’t sound like he missed her at all. He didn’t want her to come back.

She sat on the edge of her bed and tried to think what she would do next. She couldn’t imagine moving into that tiny apartment up above the freeway like Sam wanted her to, although it would be closer to her job there, more convenient. She couldn’t picture staying where she was, trying to keep out of her brother’s way, trying to ward off Anne’s sympathy, trying to hold the smile on her face for those three kids. But that was it, those were her two choices—nothing else came to her.

Moira threw herself back on the bed and shut her eyes. She tried to think up a different world altogether. What came to her finally were the faded posters hanging on Sam’s walls. Laos, and his beloved mountains. Now that was a different world, all right. As she lay on the bed, Moira tried to set herself there. She couldn’t make the picture quite fit, but it wasn’t a whole lot more skewed than the other one she was in.

Her newest family was from Sierra Leone. Five of them—a father, three sons, and a daughter less than a year old, a little girl swathed all in white, only her tiny face showing. She was gripped tight to her father’s chest as if he were afraid someone might try to yank her away. The mother was dead, apparently, back in Africa, and it appeared to be a delicate subject. When Moira asked what had happened, the two older boys shot wide-eyed looks at each other and then their looks flew off in opposite directions, like magnets repelling one another. The father, a man named Oyonde, peered down at his baby and muttered something Moira did not fully understand, although it seemed to involve soldiers, or police, more than one armed man, some argument, a scuffle, and then Moira lost the thread. The family spoke English. Oyonde told Moira they had been well off. Everything had been fine. He owned a large store in Freetown. Then things happened, one after another. In the end their house had been burned to the ground, and they had fled.

Her sister-in-law was right, Moira thought, for all her simplicity and grating naivete. It was tragic. Every story she heard, there was something like that. The details were always garbled, or wrapped in a thick mist, the mist of a faraway place and a different way of seeing the world. The world Moira knew had old, staid buildings, triple-decker homes, a newer financial center with skyscrapers, subways, bustling roads that came together at odd angles, and historic sites that were tended and groomed. But behind the walls in Boston too, she told herself, there were details and there were mists and there were tragedies. They couldn’t all drop down from elsewhere.

The first thing was to find them a place to stay. Right now they were with Oyonde’s cousin, but there were six people in that family, he said, and they only had three rooms. With his English, and his background, getting a job shouldn’t be so hard, but that also meant finding someone to watch the baby.

Moira felt competent when she was dealing with other people’s lives, more so than with her own. She could stand back and pull the lives apart—place to live, source of income, doctor, transportation, education, child care—then cobble the pieces back together in some new pattern. But with her own life, the first little piece she pulled out made the whole thing crumble, fall apart.

She wanted to know more about Buddhism. She wanted to know about a religion that was more a philosophy of living than a strict system of belief in unverifiable deities and myths. That was what she needed. But Sam said he wasn’t qualified to teach her. He was just a humble practitioner. To really learn anything, Moira would need a master.

She laughed. “So you think I should go to Luang Prabang to study? Would that make sense?”

She had his head in the hollow between her shoulder and her breast, and she rolled toward him to give him a kiss. Her lips pressed against his hair. Sam had the smell of the grocery store on him. On days he worked with seafood, if he didn’t shower when he got home, it stayed with him.

“You already know how to live. You live right. You live good life, Moira.”

“Thank you,” she said, “you’re very kind. But I’m sure I could improve in a few areas. Nobody’s perfect, Sam, not even me.”

Perfect—she felt like the center was gone. What had started as a small hole inside her had grown, and what had been there surrounding the hole, the substance containing it, was no longer there. She couldn’t imagine where it had gone, unless the hole itself had eaten away at it.

“You not perfect but you pretty close,” he smiled. “For me.”

Moira turned her head away. When he started talking like that, she knew the next thing would be to say she should move in with him. He had also been asking her to marry him again—and he had stopped telling her how much PJ must miss her. The pillow her head was on was flat, old, barely more than pillow for form’s sake. She thought about all the things she would have to change about the apartment to be comfortable in it. It was overwhelming, the whole idea of changing her life around, and tears came into her eyes. Then there was the matter of dragging herself out of bed and driving back to Wayland. It was raining outside, she could hear it. First she would have to get dressed, then walk to the subway station in the rain and take the train to where she’d left the car. It would be past one by the time she got back to Henry’s, and a few hours later she would have to drag herself back out of bed and head off to work again. There, she would be inundated with more tragedies.

She had spent a few whole nights at Sam’s, and Henry never said anything to her about it. Anne didn’t either, though Moira could tell by the way her sister-in-law looked at her that she still thought the whole thing was sad. It would stay sad unless Moira got back together with PJ—and Anne didn’t even know the man Moira was sleeping with was a former client, a refugee from a tiny village in foreign mountains who longed for those mountains but now laid fish out on a chopping block and cut their heads off. A man with just one arm who had learned to do things like that so deftly, bring the knife down so sharply, that no fish had a chance to squirt away even when no second hand held it in place.

Meanwhile, back in the other half of her life, PJ wouldn’t even talk to Moira.

She drove Sam to the airport. He was flying to Vientiane. The trip would take more than 24 hours. He would fly to Los Angeles via Dallas, changing planes in both cities, then to Tokyo, on to Hong Kong, and finally to Vientiane. The last plane, he said, would be a small one, a propeller plane. There was not much air traffic going into Laos, and not many tourists.

Sam looked so forlorn standing in the check-in line that Moira had an attack—pangs and fears. She was certain he would not come back. He would not be able to leave Laos again. Or else something terrible would happen while he was there.

She had loaned him matching black suitcases for his trip. Two cloth cases, with zippers and tiny padlocks. One he slung over his shoulder by the strap and the other he carried in his hand. All Sam had of his own was a single cardboard case, dented and worn, and one of the clasps was broken. He had tried to cram everything he wanted to bring with him into the suitcase, but when Moira had seen it, she had broken out laughing. When he managed to close the cardboard case, the top of it bulged out so much that it looked like his clothes would pop through.

“I be back in two week,” he told her. The plane was boarding. People were walking past Sam, but he seemed unable to move.

“I’ll come to the airport and meet you,” she answered. “And you have yourself a wonderful time, Sammanyavang. Don’t worry about America while you’re gone. For two weeks we can get along without you.”

Moira had asked Sam if she could borrow his Buddha while he was away. She said it helped her stay calm, and also that it reminded her of him. She had it now perched on the dresser in the guest bedroom at Henry and Anne’s, looking out disapprovingly over the room. She gave Sam a last hug, then spun him around and with a little nudge of her fingers, sent him on his way toward the plane.

For all his homesickness, he was scared to go back, Moira thought. Then she thought about going back to her own home. It was five miles away from where she was standing right then, but the trip would be even harder for her than Sam’s was for him.

Anne was making coffee. Moira had called in sick to work, and she sat at the table watching. Anne made coffee so much that she could have done it in her sleep, eyes closed, both hands tied behind her back, Moira thought. The house was quiet—Henry was at work, and the children were at school.

The papers had come the day before in the mail. They had been addressed to Moira, care of Henry. They came from a lawyer’s office, not from PJ. He was filing for divorce. He was accusing Moira of abandonment.

“Does he really think I abandoned him?” Moira had asked her brother the evening before. “What a thing to say.”

“What do you call it?” Henry had answered.

Anne filled two mugs and brought them to the table. She took her coffee with plenty of cream and sugar. So much that it was amazing, Moira thought, that she hadn’t got fat. But she hadn’t. She was still a beautiful woman. With three children and a husband, and her own house to live in. Moira wanted her own coffee black. No sugar either. She wanted to taste the bitterness of it. Wallow in it.

“Maybe you should call PJ,” Anne said. “Explain things to him. Explain why you left. He probably doesn’t even know.”

“You mean beg him to take me back.”

“No, just call him. Talk.”

“Yup, great idea. He doesn’t want to talk to me, he doesn’t want me in his life anymore, but I should call him. I could ask him to go to a movie, huh? We could go out on a date.”

Anne looked at her, then looked away. “You’re always helping other people solve their lives, and you won’t try to solve your own.”

Moira knew for certain then that she had become an imposition. She had been with her brother’s family for nearly four months now. She was helpful when she was around the house, but she wasn’t particularly friendly. And she was around a lot. Sam had come back from Laos on schedule, but he had changed. Something had happened while he was away, though he denied it. But he hardly stopped by the office anymore. And he rarely wanted to go back to his apartment with Moira. The first time she did go back with him, she saw that the walls were bare. Sam had taken his posters down. When Moira asked him why, he wouldn’t say.

Anne pushed her chair back and got up to fill her mug again. She asked Moira if she wanted more coffee, but Moira answered by placing her hand over the top of her cup. After Anne mixed in her cream and sugar, and stirred the coffee, and licked the spoon, she turned away from the table and walked out of the room.

Moira sat by herself. The house was silent. The words Anne had said were still sounding in her head: she wasn’t trying to solve her own life. Wisdom came from the strangest places, and at the oddest times, she thought — if it really was wisdom.

She finished her mug, shook her head clear, and thought about work. She had had appointments for that day, and the families who were scheduled to meet with her would be frustrated. And there were always the drop-ins she would miss. She would go back tomorrow. It was not a tragedy, what had happened to her. She would find her own lawyer and send papers back to PJ. She would find a new place to live. She would thank Henry and Anne for their kindness, then move on.

From the other room Moira heard music, a CD. Anne never played music, but here it came now. Bach—she recognized that much. The music was thick and lush, slow, soaring, lugubrious. Despite herself, it brought tears to Moira’s eyes. She wiped the first few away, but they kept on coming, so she let them collect and fall.


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