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ISSUE:  Spring 1988

My brother Andrew was never more to me than a round face in a baseball cap smiling out of a photograph on our living room wall. It was the last picture ever taken of him; a month later he drowned. The wall was papered with faded flowers, but the roses behind the frame stayed fresh, and I used to think they kept Andrew partly alive. I would stand in front of the photograph and talk to him, ask him the questions no one would answer for me, about what he had been like and why he had died before I had a chance to meet him, what his favorite color was and whether he thought our mother Lydia was crazy like some people said.

We were different somehow, and not just because of Andrew. Neither of my parents worked, though both were forever busy. I was told that we “managed” on stocks left to us by my grandfather, which the family lawyer kept turning into money. My father was an inventor of gadgets that never quite worked, and Lydia was an opera singer who’d once had the voice of a nightingale, until Andrew died and she left the stage. She was the most beautiful mother I knew, but she never drove the carpool or went to PTA, hardly ever left the house at all, living in a silent, faraway world which neither my father nor I could enter.

“Is Lydia mad at us?” I once asked him, when I was no more than seven and Lydia had not come out of her room for two days.

“No,” he said. “Your mother’s not mad, or crazy. She’s just sad.”

“Because of Andrew?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Because of Andrew. She hasn’t been the same since he died.”

“Was she the same before?” I asked him.

“The same as what?”

“The same as other people,” I said.

“No,” he said, a look of love darkening his handsome face. “Lydia was never like anyone else I’ve ever known. She used to be proud of that. Now it just frightens her.”

Andrew was six years old when Lydia got pregnant with me, a late-in-life surprise. My father started to build an addition onto our house by the sea in Kingston, Rhode Island. Lydia set out to knit me a long, shapeless something, which I kept long into my childhood. She sang opera day and night in the sweet soprano that I never heard, until she drove Andrew and my father crazy, but a good kind of crazy.

And then, when I was no more than a tadpole in the womb, Andrew died. People said that Lydia went over the deep end, that she never grieved the way she should have. She left Andrew’s room untouched, wandered in and out to fluff his pillows and rearrange his toys. The lawn grew into a jungle; the paint on the house began to peel. The wood frame of the addition grew gray with weather, salt, and sadness, before my father tore it down with a sledgehammer one night and left the beams in a heap to rot. The neighbors began to whisper, sent Mrs. Bradwart to tell Lydia that the house was a blister on an otherwise fine hand. And when my father finally did get around to painting it again, Lydia insisted on black.

“Give them something else to talk about,” she said.

All this I have learned in bits and pieces through the tangled grapevine of our small town.

And so I was born to this bruised and troubled family—a bittersweet bundle of only half-felt joy. I began my life in the darkness and silence of my dead brother’s shadow, feeling guilty as pictures of me crept up around his on the rose-covered wall, sorry that I was not pretty and blond, mad that I could not throw a softball far enough or put back together a train. Lydia bought me frilly clothes out of the Talbots catalog, the kind that made her look elegant and me just plain stupid, I got them dirty, ripped them on purpose if they were just too terrible to wear. And then Lydia would call me a careless, ungrateful child, and I’d wish I’d been born Andrew, or at least a boy.

“Andrew was remarkable,” Lydia once told me, soon after my eighth birthday. Lovely in a velvet skirt and white blouse, she was dusting the baseball picture, her warm breath fogging the glass. I was helping her, but she went over everything with her rag that I had already wiped with mine. I was used to that, still believing it took two people, one of them my mother, to do anything properly.

“And what am I?” I asked her, hoping to be summed up by an equally good and comforting word.

“You, Elizabeth,” my mother said, drifting toward the dining room chairs and shaking the dust back into the air, “are more of an enigma.”

I ran to the dictionary to look up that word, that sounded like a sickness and meant me, and when I found out that it did describe me—a mixed-up puzzle of a kid—I had to believe that Lydia had been right about Andrew, too, though I had hoped for so long that he had just been an ordinary boy.

There was a terrible sadness in our dark house by the sea, a terrible silence that roared in my ears when I lay in bed waiting for the waves to lull me to sleep. I used to wonder where they would take me if I slid a raft into the ocean, where they might have taken Andrew if he hadn’t been washed up on the shore that day.

Morpheus steered clear of our black house. None of us slept very much or very well. My father’s ideas kept him awake most of the time. For days and nights at a stretch he would sit at his desk under a bald light bulb making diagrams and twisting wires and monkeying with batteries and wood. When he was finished, he’d call me in and we’d sip champagne and test out whatever it was that he had just invented —The Perfect Grapefruit Peeler or The Automatic Page Turner. And I was always impressed and proud of this father who could make things that almost worked.

Lydia wandered around in the dark cleaning things that never got clean, sweeping floors but forgetting to pick up the piles of dirt with the dustpan, rinsing dishes but not bothering to wash them. During the day she wore dark glasses and shooed the sunlight out of the house, shutting doors and blinds and windows obsessively. When my third grade teacher told us to write an essay about our mothers, I wrote, “She cleans and chases out the light,” and Mrs. Farwell put circles and question marks around the last part.

Lydia used to cringe at the slightest noise, startled out of faraway places where she traveled in her mind, with Andrew, I was sure. “Hush, Elizabeth, hush,” she told me a zillion times. I practiced walking on my toes and mapped out a blind man’s maze around our old house, which steered me past all the creaky boards and stairs.

My fourth grade teacher told my father that I was too quiet and withdrawn, that I should be encouraged to crawl out of my shell. Thus began the era of our “expeditions”—to the hardware store to look at tools or down to the pier to watch the lobstermen bait their traps or over to Odie’s pond to skip rocks. I slowly learned that everywhere except in Lydia’s house, you had to be noisy to get by. And the day I came home from school with the penmanship award, I forgot about Lydia’s fragile ears and slammed both doors.

“Elizabeth, please!” Lydia said. She was sprinkling Ajax on the stove top, but most of it was falling onto the floor. “How many times do I have to tell you about those doors?”

“Sorry,” I said, stepping over a mop in a pail. “I won a prize in school today.”

“A prize?” she said. “What kind of prize?”

“I have the best writing in the fifth grade,” I told her.

“Isn’t that nice,” she said, and started to slop water on the floor. “Your brother had beautiful handwriting, too.”

“You can’t clean a dirty floor with a dirty mop,” I told her.

“This whole house is a pig sty.” Lydia’s white face turned even whiter, and my father appeared from out of nowhere like he sometimes did and sent me to my room.

I barricaded the door shut with the bureau, but I needn’t have bothered. No one came to get me for dinner. Later, when even Lydia was in bed, I sneaked downstairs for a snack. After licking the peanut butter off the knife, I made a scratch in the glass of Andrew’s picture frame and taped my penmanship certificate over his face. It hung there for two days. On the third day, I took it down and tore it into pieces.

“Sorry,” I told Andrew in tears, trying to rub out the scratch with my finger. “It’s not your fault.”

It was nobody’s fault, I knew—the sad mess of our lives. No one had been to blame for Andrew’s death, least of all the unborn me. But I couldn’t help but think that my brother was the high price paid for my life, and that nobody thought much of the trade.

But time slowly righted our tilted house. Every year that I grew older and stronger, Andrew grew further away. Soon after I made the scratch, his picture disappeared from the wall and my father put up a mirror in its place. I still stood often in the same spot as I grew older, studying my changing face and body. I was not beautiful or delicate like Lydia, but I was pretty in my own way—round and dark and mysterious, a boy once told me. My father sold his idea for The Musical Toothbrush: “Your child won’t ever forget to brush again,” the advertisement read. Lydia started pansy boxes out on the porch and I asked my father if we would always have to live in a black house. He said he didn’t see why, and we painted it white together.

But the white paint didn’t cover the black very well and when it chipped, you could see dark spots underneath. Some things would never change, could never change: Lydia’s fear of the world; my father’s hopeless love for Lydia and his knack for failure; my painful shyness. By the time I left home, I thought I had done all my growing, all my changing. I went to college, found an apartment, chose a career, considering all of these milestones end notes instead of beginning trills. I was lonely, but I had always been lonely. Taking care of sick people was important work, good work. I was grateful that being Elizabeth was so much easier than it had used to be. Had not my early years seemed so long, had I not felt so old and irrevocable at the age of 21 when I entered nursing school, it might not have taken me so long to believe that there might be someone out there in the world—some man, some child, to whom I might one day be remarkable.

Four years later, I was working the night shift in a Providence hospital. I went to Danny’s Deli every day at dawn, for a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of milk. I loved that time when I met the sleepy world in passing as it woke and I went home to bed. One day I noticed a man sitting on the stool next to mine. He was drawing on a napkin.

“Are you an artist?” I asked him, peering over his shoulder. I didn’t often talk to strangers, didn’t often talk to men. But I was my boldest at that in-between time, knowing that nothing would come of it, because the lives of passing strangers never really met.

The man looked up at me, startled. “I wanted to be,” he said. “But my parents thought art was frivolous.” He had the same kind of neglected elegance that Lydia had, fine features and fair hair. And there was another familiar look about him, one of sadness. I saw it in his light eyes and cast mine downward, noticing that the hem of his pants had come unsewn. He started to draw again and I watched his slender fingers dance back and forth, making bleeding streaks on the paper napkin. He finished and held the drawing out to me.

“Keep it,” he said. “If you really like it.”

I looked at the sketch, a good likeness of the short order cook behind the counter. “Thank you,” I said. “I do like it.”

He got up to pay his check, and I felt an unfamiliar ache of longing, an overwhelming desire to stop him from leaving. If I’d been anyone else I would have said something sensible, like “So, what do you do?” but being Elizabeth, I said the first crazy thing that came to mind, mortified to find that I had offered to sew up the hem of his pants. I’d brought a needle and thread to work the night before to mend my uniform on the bus.

The man looked up at me curiously and then down at his pant leg. I started to tell him that I had only been joking, but he had already slung his leg up onto a stool.

“Please do,” he said, still looking puzzled. “Tell me. Do you often sew up the pants of strangers?”

“No,” I said, knowing as I took out my needle and thread that what happened next was out of my control and feeling strangely calm. “I never do.”

The grill man brought over my sandwich and shook his head. I sat there on the stool and sewed up the blond man’s pants, brushing the bone and the hair of his ankle from time to time. The warmth of his leg shot up to my neck and into my cheeks. I pricked him with the needle, fumbled my apologies.

“That’s OK,” he said, and rubbed the drop of blood away. “Would you marry me?” he asked, then added as an afterthought, “My name is Michael Woods.”

I laughed but he didn’t laugh back, and I just kept on sewing, too scared even to breathe, to blow away whatever it was in the air that was keeping me and the blond man together. Because by the time I had tied the knot and broken off the thread with my teeth, I had decided that if, for some crazy reason he had meant it, I would marry him.

We had a small wedding that summer at City Hall. Michael had no family to speak of, just uncles and cousins who didn’t know him from Adam, he said. Lydia came out of the house for the occasion, lovely and ageless in pale blue silk, blinking and baring the whitest skin in Kingston. My father wore his only suit—a double-breasted pinstripe from another era but still like new—and a red carnation in his lapel. We slipped into the judge’s chambers, and I turned instantly from a child into a wife. Five minutes later, when we parted on the sidewalk, my father kissed my cheek and slipped an envelope into my hand.

“From your mother and me,” he said. “And The Musical Toothbrush.”

Neither Michael nor I liked Rhode Island very well, but neither of us had the courage to move somewhere we might like better. We used our wedding money as a down payment on a small house just outside of the city. Michael ran an accounting office downtown, and I kept on with my work at the hospital.

I did everything I could to make our house warm and light and airy, the kind of house I had dreamed of as a child. I tried to fashion our rooms after pictures in magazines and store window displays, but I had no knack for comfort or coziness. More Lydia’s daughter than I knew, I could not live without spareness and disorder, and so I created both. And like my father, Michael was a kind but brooding man, not happy in his work, one who marched methodically on the black squares of the checkerboard, but who would have liked to dance off on the red. Though a different house, it was a familiar home.

“Are you happy, Lizzy?” my father asked me a year later over one of the lunches we tried to arrange from time to time. I mashed my baked potato with my fork, found no answer right away, for him or for me.

“Michael’s a wonderful man,” I told him. “He reminds me of you.”

“But are you happy?” he asked. He was bright-eyed, I noticed, breathless.

“What is it, Dad?” I asked him. “What are you about to tell me?”

“Lydia and I are moving to California,” he said.

“You’re kidding,” I said. My fork clattered onto my plate. “How did you ever convince her to leave?”

“She’s suddenly taken it into her head that she’ll last longer in the sun. I want to go soon, Lizzy, She may change her mind. I’ve got a great idea for a sandproof beach towel.”

I was touched that he wanted my blessing, sad to know I was going to lose him.

“I hate to leave you,” he said.

“Go to California and make the sandproof beach towel,” I told him and leaned over to kiss him. “I’m happy.”

If we’d had that conversation two years later, I could have said it with more conviction. Because when Michael and I had a son, I didn’t think any one person had ever been happier. The baby arrived five weeks early and without a fuss. The doctors examined him worriedly, so tiny and flushed with yellow. But there was nothing wrong with Andrew; he was just impatient to get on with his life.

My parents came back East to see the baby, who was still dark and wrinkled and sleepy—pretty only to me. I put my son into my father’s arms. He held him awkwardly, studied him painfully, finally smiled.

“Sturdy little fellow,” he said, opening and closing his arm at the elbow. “Good pitching arm.”

Lydia’s arms stayed folded tight against her chest. She touched the baby’s clenched fist fearfully, as a child reaches out to pat a strange dog. “What an odd little prune,” she said. “I’d forgotten.” We ate hospital food around the bed—tired sandwiches and soft, warm fruit. Andrew slept in his crib and cried out from time to time. We talked of each other’s weather and houses and how it was always good to get home. None of us called the baby by his name.

It just never took. Though he remained Andrew on his birth certificate, we took to calling our son John, which was his middle name and the name of Michael’s father. But as fate would have it and years passed, he grew to look like his uncle in the baseball photograph, the same sunny round face and blond curls. My smiling brother had finally come walking out of the picture frame, come all the way to life as my son. I wanted to tell John about his uncle, thought he should know, but a wind of panic took my breath away each time I tried.

Lydia wrote once and asked for a picture of her grandson. I sent her a letter instead, full of apologies for a broken camera and vague descriptions. I told myself that I was doing it to save her pain, to save us pain, and not to spite her. She didn’t ask again and so she never knew how much my son resembled hers. Soon we did nothing more than exchange Christmas cards and occasional phone calls. And we might have gone on forever that way.

The telegram came one summer day when John was nine. I’d always thought that I’d have bad news about Lydia first, but it was her message and it read: YOUR FATHER HAD STROKE. CAN YOU COME. It was late afternoon and I cried as I started to make dinner. Lost in sad thought, I peeled all of the carrots in the house to the core, two bags full. Michael came home from work, looked at my bleary eyes and the pile of carrot shavings.

“What’s going on?” he asked. I handed him the telegram.

“Oh, Lizbeth, Lizbeth,” he said, taking me in his arms as if to dance. “I’m so sorry. Go as soon as you like. Take John. I can manage for a while on my own.”

“I can’t just up and leave,” I told him. “What about work? What about the garden?”

“The garden!” he said. “These are your parents, your father. You mean you actually might not go?”

“Of course I’m going,” I said softly. “It just isn’t easy.” I couldn’t explain to him about Lydia and me and my father and Andrew, how we were different and how I was scared.

I went to the travel agency in town, feeling all over again like Lydia’s daughter, a straggler left behind from the last century, with my long straggly hair and one of my father’s old sweaters and my tie-up shoes. The young travel agent had a streak of green hair and wore a black dress, tight and carefully ripped on one shoulder.

“I like your outfit,” she told me, as she wrote up the tickets.

“You do?” I asked.

“It’s wild,” she said. Each of her pointed fingernails was painted a different color. “L. A. ‘s wild too. I’ve been there three times. You going on vacation?”

“What?” I looked at her, confused. “Oh, no, not really.” I wondered if she could tell that taking a vacation was something I didn’t know how to do.

“My father,” I explained. “He’s ill.”

“Oh, the family factor,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “The family factor.”

Lydia met us at the airport. In nine years, I’d aged more than she had. She stood small and pale in a crowd of bouncing, tan people, wearing dark glasses on her forehead and a shawl around her shoulders. John ran ahead down the ramp. I saw the shock on Lydia’s face when she saw him, and felt a prick of guilty happiness, washed by shame.

“My god,” I read her lips, which still trembled as I reached her side. She stared at John as we all fumbled hello. Then she smoothed her dress and pretended he was like any other boy.

“You’ve grown,” she said.

“Maybe you got smaller,” he said.

“John!” I said sharply, mad that he had shown Lydia his wise-guy colors before any others.

But she only laughed, and the tinny sound rang strangely in my ears.

“You’re right,” she said. “I’m shrinking in this sun.”

Lydia drove us home in a white convertible. Two gleaming headlights and fins gave it the look of a hulking shark.

“I didn’t know you knew how to drive,” I said, sliding onto the seat.

“I’ve had to learn,” she said. “This was your father’s idea of heaven, driving around in this car.”

She adjusted the rear view mirror, her head barely reaching above the leather-covered steering wheel. She revved up the engine, and I laughed.

“What’s so funny, Elizabeth?” she asked.

“The car,” I said. “It’s wild.”

We drove down Ocean Boulevard, and I looked out at the clean, uncracked sidewalks and the spying palms. I saw why my father had believed that California might save him, felt a sadness because he had come too late. But I was happy to be in this blessed spot, where everyone except Lydia seemed to be having fun, where movie stars cavorted and splutched their hands in cement, where even the most ordinary people drank sweet drinks from coconuts and lived inside glistening brown skins—people so different from me.

It was a miracle that I had ever sprouted John. He was the kind of boy everyone calls a good kid at first glance—happy-go-lucky, all of a piece. California was filled with them, I saw—white-haired urchins with brown skins and popsicle stains around their mouths. I turned around to watch him. He was bouncing back and forth in his seat, whispering “wow,” his angel hair blowing in the wind.

Lydia began to talk about my father. “I think he wants to die,” she said. “Two months now he’s been home from the hospital, and he won’t eat or drink.”

“Two months?” I whipped back around to face Lydia. “Why did you wait so long to tell me?”

“I didn’t want to burden you,” she said.

“You should have told me, Lydia,” I told her. “He’s my father, and I would have wanted to know.”

“I thought I could manage alone,” she went on. “But it seems I can’t.” She blurted out her xigzag thoughts, tripping over the words as if she hadn’t spoken to another human being for years. “Just like that it happened. He was just sitting in his chair, reading. But the way he looks at me, you’d think it was me who had reached in and stopped his heart. He’s so changed.”

“Bad hearts never give much warning,” I told her, but her next words drowned out most of mine. The odd feeling came over me again. This wasn’t the Lydia I knew, this Lydia who drove a convertible and talked incessantly.

“It’s so much work taking care of a sick person,” she went on. “Cooking, cleaning, bathing, shopping. He needs a nurse is what he needs.”

“I am a nurse,” I told her.

She turned to look at me curiously. The white shark swerved toward the sidewalk.

“I’d forgotten,” she said, and patted the silver bun of her hair.

We turned onto a quiet street lined with bougainvillea and pulled up in front of a small stucco house.

“It’s pink!” John whispered to me with disgust, as we followed Lydia inside.

“That’s nothing,” I whispered back. “The house I grew up in was black.”

“It was?” he asked.

“Didn’t I ever tell you that?” I asked him.

“Nope,” he said. “You never tell me stuff about when you were a kid.”

We set our luggage down in the hall. John ran off to explore. My father sat in a wheelchair away from the window, looking out into space. I went over and kissed his cool, grey cheek.

“I’ve come to take care of you, Dad,” I whispered, my eyes filling with tears to see him so twisted and sallow and furious. “I’ve brought John with me. Your grandson, John.”

John came over and shook the limp, spotted hand.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, just the way strangers do, just the way I’d taught him. A sad and wasted introduction. It was too late for a friendship between my father and my son.

In the days that followed, John spent most of his time with Lydia. He liked her because she demanded nothing of him, did not insist on his being a child.

“Why don’t you go out and play, honey?” I urged him. “We don’t get to California too often.”

“There’s no law says you got to spend all day outdoors,” Lydia said. “Stay inside if you like.”

“Too much sun gives you cancer,” John reported.

“Wrinkles too,” Lydia said, and John nodded his head in agreement.

“Yes, I’ve noticed you’ve aged quite a bit lately,” I told him with a smile.

They understood one another, Lydia and John, without ever having met but that once, when John was a baby. While I took care of my father, they sat inside at a card table playing Crazy Eights, exchanging no more than a handful of words as the hours passed, all of them about rules and points. They went out on expeditions—to buy medicines and rubbing alcohol and cotton, and came back with chocolate sauce on their faces.

Sometimes I caught them at the door as they came in, eyes shining with the secret of some adventure they would not share.

“Did you have a good time?” I’d ask one or the other.

“Just errands,” one or the other would say.

I spent most of my time with my father, but there was such pain and bewilderment in his one good eye that I could not often bear to meet it. The stroke had left him partially paralyzed and one side of his face sagged down in folds, like the creases of a dried apricot. I nursed him as I would any other patient. I did not chatter to him the way Lydia did, feeling sure that just as silence had been her choice for all those years in the black house, now it was his in the pink house.

I felt an overwhelming love for my sick father, who had taken such good care of me. I mixed him a martini each evening, the way he used to, and held it up to his mouth. He sipped at it with a straw, and though most of it dribbled down his chin, he seemed to enjoy it. I read to him, too, the newspaper, the back of the cereal box, a mystery novel I had brought, or one of John’s comic books. I sat beside him and held his hand and wiped his brow and the drool from his chin, desperate to perform small acts of love, as I had been when John was small, to change a dirty diaper, to kiss a scrape and make it better.

One evening, I sat in the plaid armchair while my father dozed, listening for the screen door to slam. Lydia and John sauntered in an hour late for dinner without apology. I put the food on the table. They sat down giggling, then became glum.

Lydia always ate like a bird, but it was not like John to play with his food.

“Why aren’t you eating, honey?” I asked him. “You love macaroni and cheese.”

“Lydia says you shouldn’t eat bright-colored foods,” he said. “Besides, it’s all cold and rubbery.” He picked up a pile of orange macaroni and goo with his fork and let it fall back onto his plate.

“You’ve never had a problem with bright-colored food before,” I said. “And it was warm an hour ago, when you were supposed to be home.”

“We were out shopping,” Lydia leapt to John’s defense. “We had to get lotion.”

“You just bought some the other day,” I said. “How much lotion does Dad need?”

“He needs an ocean

Of lotion

To keep in motion,” John sang out of tune.

“I take it you’re finished,” I said. “Go get ready for bed.”

“What did I do?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I snapped, and put another spoonful of macaroni on my plate.

John stomped off to his room, and I looked up at Lydia. “You’re spoiling him, you know.”

“He’s my only grandchild,” she said. There was a clearness in her eyes, a ferocity I had never seen there before. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“He hasn’t been himself since we got here. He’s secretive. He’s . . .moody. I want him to get out, meet some other kids,” I told her.

“He likes me,” she said.

“I’m glad you two hit it off so well,” I said. “But that crack at dinner wasn’t like him.”

“That wasn’t a crack,” she said. “They put dyes in the food, Elizabeth, poisonous, cancer-causing dyes. And your father did need more lotion, I rub him down every night before bed. It’s the only thing that makes him feel good any more.”

I ate the last bite of my macaroni, and Lydia played with hers. We both had our secrets, she with her backrubs and me with my martinis.

“California’s a good place for children,” she said suddenly. “Your father tried to tell me that years ago. Have you and Michael ever thought of moving out here?”

“No,” I told her. “We’re very settled in Rhode Island.”

“It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to keep the family together?”

“I didn’t know the family meant so much to you,” I said, before I could stop myself.

“I didn’t either,” she said. It wasn’t an apology, just a new-found fact. She got up from the table and went to check on my father.

I put the dishes in a sinkful of water to soak and went down the hall to make peace with John, to read him a story as I had almost every night since he was old enough to listen.

“What’ll it be?” I asked, plunking down on the bed. “”Wrinkle in Time,” or “Spiderman”?”

“Nothing,” John said. He was beautiful in paisley pajamas that he hated. I smoothed the hair off his forehead. He pushed my hand away. “I want to read by myself tonight.”

“OK,” I said. “Then I’ll just say goodnight.” I got up off the bed. “I’m sorry I snapped at you at dinner,” I told him.

“Why did you?”

“You were being rude,” I said.

“It was just a joke,” he said.

“Well, your timing was lousy,” I told him. “That’s part of being a good comedian.”

“How come you’re acting so weird, Mom?”

“I’m not acting weird.”

“Yes, you are. You’re always in a bad mood. You’re different out here.”

“That’s funny,” I said. “I was just thinking the same thing about you.” I sighed, pulled my feet in and out of my slippers. “It’s kind of hard for me to be here, Johnny. A lot has happened between me and Lydia, things that have nothing to do with you. And with your grandfather being so sick. . . .”

“I like Lydia,” he said.

“I know you do,” I said. “I’m glad.”

“She told me about Uncle Andrew,” he said. “How come you never did?”

I sat down again on the edge of the bed. “I never knew him, John. He died before I was born.”

“You could have at least told me that I had an uncle once,” he said.

“Well, technically, you didn’t.”

“Well, almost,” John said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I almost had a brother, too.”

“How did he die?” John asked, pulling his legs up under him, lotus style.

“He drowned, back in Kingston,” I said. “I never really knew what happened. Your grandparents didn’t like to talk about it”

“Lydia says he had a sprained ankle from baseball practice and got stuck in the undertow.”

Stunned, I bit the inside of my cheek. In three weeks, John had learned more about Andrew than I had in 37 years. I sat on the edge of the bed, staring at John’s caterpillar eyebrows, listening to my heart race.

“How come you don’t call me Andrew?” John asked. “That’s my real name.”

“We decided you were more of a John.”

“Then why did you call me Andrew in the first place?” he asked.

“I wanted to honor your uncle in some way,” I told him. “But then I decided that it wasn’t fair. I wanted you to have a name that was all your own.”

“That’s dumb, Mom,” John said, but he smiled. “You know how many guys are named John?”

“Lots?” I guessed.

“Tons,” he said, and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “What was he like, Uncle Andrew?”

“Lydia says he was remarkable.” I told him all I knew.

“What does that mean?” he asked. “I mean, I know what it means, but. . . .”

“Oh, I don’t know. Talented, unusual, special in some way.”

“Am I remarkable?”

I reached over to pull down the leg of his pajamas, grateful for the chance to be friends again. “You’re better than remarkable,” I said.


“Why? Because you’re artistic like your father and musical like Lydia and you’re a great putterer like your grandfather and you’re handsome like your Uncle Andrew was. And because you’re my son.”

John smiled again. I thought I was forgiven.

“I want to be called Andrew,” he said.

“You can’t,” I told him.

“Why not?”

“It’s too late,” I said.

John stood up on the bed and started to jump up and down, chanting, “Andrew Turner! Andrew Turner! That’s! My! Name!” plugging his ears to block out my voice.

The door opened slowly, and Lydia came a few feet into the room.

“You see?” I gestured to John. “He’s having a tantrum. His first.”

“He has every right,” Lydia said. “You gave him that name. Then you took it away.”

Why didn’t you ever stick up for me, I wanted to ask her, like you do for my son? Why has your strength and caring come back too late for me?

John jumped off the bed, still chanting, “Andrew Turner,” and ran for the door.

“Where are you going?” I yelled.

“To the bathroom,” he shouted back. Lydia brushed his arm as he reached for the door.

“Don’t run,” she whispered to his deaf ears. “You’ll slip on your pajamas.”

When he was gone, I turned back to Lydia. “I only named him that for you,” I told her.

“For me?” she said. “Whatever for?”

“An apology, I guess.”

“An apology?” Lydia looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Or maybe it was a gift,” I said. “I was always looking for just the right thing, something that would make you happy.”

Lydia slumped down in an armchair by the door, piled high with dirty clothes.

“I didn’t want to be happy,” she said.

“You didn’t want anyone to be happy,” I told her. “That wasn’t fair.”

“How could I be fair?” Lydia put her hand to her cheek.

“It was all I could do to get you safely born after Andrew died,” she said. “People thought I was crazy, you know.”

“I know,” I told her.

She looked up at me. “And what did you think?”

“I wasn’t sure,” I told her. “I was confused. You were my mother, but I thought I was supposed to take care of you.”

“Don’t be silly,” Lydia said. “You were only a child.” The old look of vacancy and sadness came over her face. Strands of long grey hair dangled from her bun. “But you didn’t ever really need a mother, did you, Elizabeth? You were always so grown up.”

“Not always,” I told her, slipping into the whisper of my youth. “Not always, Lydia.”

I stood still before her, listening for the sounds of water moving in the bathroom. All was quiet except for the ticking of a clock. I was saddened by the years gone by, by our distance and our misunderstandings, touched by Lydia’s frazzled hair and the slump of her slight body on the heap of clothes. She closed her eyes, and I went out into the hall to look for John.

The bathroom was dark and empty, and I ran downstairs. The front door was open wide. As I stood in the doorway, a warm breeze brushed my face. Shadows passed by on the street. Soft Latin music blew over a backyard fence and I smelled meat cooking on a barbecue. Someone walking by said, “Hi,” and I waved back. I was not afraid for my son; I knew he hadn’t gone far. I stepped out in my bare feet onto the night-dewed grass and looked up to find no stars. Cupping my hands to my mouth, and drawing a deep breath, I called out his name with a kind of wild, hopeful abandon, hoping that of all the Andrews who could hear me, the right one would answer.


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