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WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU A NOVEL IN STORIES MOLLY RINGWALD DEDICATION FOR PANIO EPIGRAPH A pity. We were such a good And loving invention. An aeroplane made from a man and wife. Wings and everything. We hovered a little above the earth. We even flew a little. YEHUDA AMICHAI But the disparaging of those we love always alienates us from them to some extent. We must not touch our idols; the gilt comes off in our hands. GUSTAVE FLAUBERT CONTENTS Cover Title Page Dedication Epigraph The Harvest Moon Redbud My Olivia Ursa Minor When It Happens to You The Little One Mea Culpa The Places You Don’t Walk Away From Acknowledgments About the Author Also by Molly Ringwald Credits Copyright About the Publisher THE HARVEST MOON AS FAR AS GRETA KNEW, there was nothing in the sky that night. Lying on her back in the bathroom on the cool of the white marble tiles, she heard the summons again. Her husband tapped the horn of the car: one long, noisy beep followed by two shorter taps, as if in apology. She strained to close the zipper on a pair of jeans without pinching the soft flesh of her midsection. It was a task she found both onerous and humiliating, primarily since she had purchased the pair less than a month ago, having gone through the same depressing experience with every other pair that lay folded in her dresser. Another short beep to remind her (in case she had forgotten) that her husband and daughter were waiting in the idling car, but this really had been sprung on her, and there might be photos. She wanted to at least make an attempt at presentability. There weren’t many photos of the two of them anymore, not like the early days, before Charlotte was born. Now any photo seemed to be taken from their six-year-old daughter’s height—hardly a flattering angle: the upward tilt of Greta’s crooked smile, and the heavy lower lids of Phillip’s distracted and vaguely startled eyes, as though he didn’t quite expect to find himself t; here. Finally she managed to maneuver the zipper most of the way but left the top button unbuttoned. She pulled her oversized T-shirt over it and grabbed a sweater on her way out the door, stuffed it into her bag, and ran to the car. Phillip had backed it out of the driveway and waited at the curb. “Sorry,” she said through the open window. “We’re going to miss it, Mama!” Charlotte pouted. Greta glanced at her daughter strapped into the backseat, still dressed in her pink gymnastic unitard and flip-flops. The air had begun to cool and Greta could see the gooseflesh on Charlotte’s skinny arms. “Did you pack her a sweater?” Greta asked Phillip. “I thought you did. Isn’t that what was taking so long?” Greta didn’t answer, ashamed that she had packed a sweater for herself but not for Charlotte. “I can go back,” she said, but Phillip was already driving down the street, away from children’s sweaters and dinner half-prepared. She tried to remember if she had locked the door behind her but figured that they would be gone for such a short amount of time, the chances of a break-in were unlikely. “I’m not cold,” Charlotte insisted. She had her legs stretched out onto Phillip’s seat in front of her. “I know, honey, but we aren’t outside. Put your feet down.” Charlotte dropped her legs in a dramatic fashion. “Daddy lets me.” Greta studied the side of her husband’s face. Squinting into the sun, he almost looked as though he were smiling. But his jaw was rigid. Greta could tell that he was grinding his teeth and thought about reminding him of the warning their dentist had given Phillip at his annual checkup but decided against it. He careened down the hill, running through yellow lights on their way to the ocean. Charlotte made excited noises that increased in volume with each turn. “Whoaaaaa . . . whoaaaa!” She exaggerated with the movement of her body as though they were thundering along a roller-coaster track. “What do you think, the ocean or the mountains?” Phillip asked. “Well, I hope the ocean because that’s where we’re headed,” Greta said. Phillip glanced over at her, did a quick inventory of her face, and then looked back at the road. “I mean, this is your thing,” she said. “I didn’t even know anything about it.” “They only happen every twenty years,” he said quietly. “It seems like a shame not to at least make the effort.” “That means that the next time there’s a harvest moon, I’ll be a grown-up!” Charlotte told her mother. “Right, Daddy?” “That’s right, sweetheart.” Phillip smiled at her in the rearview mirror. Greta watched the lines appear around his eyes and along the sides of his mouth as he smiled. It made his face look like it was melting, softening, but then just as quickly his jaw set and the determination reappeared. “What makes this one so special is the fact that it’s so close to the equinox,” Phillip explained in a louder voice so that his daughter could hear him from the backseat. “Usually it’s days, or maybe even weeks apart, but this time it’s only six hours!” “ ‘Equinox,’ ” Charlotte repeated gravely. Greta was sure her daughter didn’t know the word. She turned around and said, “Equinox means when day and night are about the same length.” “I KNOW!” her daughter screamed. Phillip startled and the car swerved slightly into the other lane and then back again. Greta grabbed onto the dashboard, hitting an imaginary brake with her foot. “Jesus Christ!” She ran her hands through her hair, grabbing little fistfuls of it. “Charlotte!” Phillip said, raising his voice. “You told me already, Daddy! She’s always telling me things I already know.” Charlotte pointed at her mother accusingly, and when both parents were silent, at a loss for words, she started to whimper for effect. “It’s true, I did tell her,” Phillip said to Greta in a low voice intended only for her. “While we were in the driveway.” Greta waited for Phillip to discipline Charlotte. Paternal authority always carried more weight—though perhaps it only seemed this way to Greta, since it had been the case in her own childhood home—but when Phillip failed to say anything, Greta turned around to lecture her daughter herself. Charlotte was no longer trying to cry, her tiny shoulders folded inward with an approximation of sadness, but staring at a bug scuttling across the windowpane beside her. She watched it in silence, patiently and oddly still. Just as the bug reached the edge of the glass, Charlotte reached out her little hand and squashed it with her thumb. Greta half expected her to lick it off like their big overweight tabby would have done. Bile rose up from her stomach to the top of her throat, shocking her. She clamped her hand over her mouth. “Stop the car!” she tried to yell, but with the bile flooding into her mouth and her hand pressed tight to her lips, the words were indecipherable. Phillip pulled over to the side of the road, and Greta lurched out of the car before he came to a complete stop. She took her hand away from her mouth and spit onto the ground. The ocean air slapped her skin and whipped her hair around her face. Hunched over, she waited to see if there was anything more to come, but all she had was the sour taste in her mouth. She could hear Charlotte’s muffled voice coming from the backseat, asking Phillip if Mama was okay. The blood rushed to Greta’s head and she straightened up slowly, feeling dizzy. When she looked across the beach parking lot and up at the darkening sky, she couldn’t see the moon. If it was there, it was covered in the heavy low-slung ocean mist. Phillip got out of the car and told Charlotte to stay where she was. Greta watched the overgrown palm trees swaying in the breeze. She had always felt a sort of kinship with the palm trees, transported here from somewhere else. Having grown up outside of Seattle, Greta was accustomed to her oceans surrounded by the great majestic cedar trees of the Pacific Northwest. “What happened?” Phillip said, skirting along the gravel. He reached Greta and placed his hand on her shoulder. She shrugged. “Could be the hormone shots. It’s a possible side effect,” she said. He took his hand off of her shoulder and brushed the hair away from her face. It nearly made her cry from the tenderness. A tenderness long absent, but somehow unnoticeable until it’s back—even the smallest taste of it. “I hate to break it to you,” she said, trying to smile. “But I don’t think there’s any moon tonight. Harvest or otherwise.” He scanned the sky, searching for a sign of the moon. The setting sun cast a reddish glow over everything, briefly turning his blond hair rosy-colored, like the frosted pink mane of one of their daughter’s stuffed ponies. Greta giggled at the image. Phillip glanced at her with annoyance. “We’re missing it,” he said. “I’m sorry,” she said. She tried to assume the right expression, the patient, wifely expression that would say, even though this isn’t my fault, I’ll accept the blame. “I guess we should have gone to the mountains.” He sighed. Greta took his hand and laced her fingers through his. “We still can. It’s not all the way dark yet. Why don’t we do that?” Opening the door for Greta, he kissed her quickly on the forehead and headed around to the driver’s side. “Charlotte has her violin lesson,” he said. “Theresa’s probably already at the house waiting.” “Theresa!” Charlotte shrieked with excitement. “I didn’t even know that you scheduled a violin lesson. Didn’t she already have one this week?” “It’s on the calendar,” Phillip said. “All you have to do is check it.” He shifted the car into drive and signaled to the oncoming cars that he wanted in. Greta craned her head to help him look. It was a habit that Phillip had first teased her about, citing it as a lack of confidence in his driving. Then he had cajoled, criticized, and finally flat-out asked her not to do it. Despite his insistence, even now she could not stop herself. Though why she thought she was any more capable than her husband at spotting danger, or opportunity, Greta couldn’t say. Greta had found Theresa on Craigslist two years earlier. A student from the Berklee College of Music, Theresa had originally intended to take a semester off, but that had stretched into a year, and now almost two. Greta had always assumed it was because of a boy, but Theresa had never mentioned anyone. Then again, Theresa had barely spoken to Greta since that first lesson when Greta had asked if a check was okay or if she preferred cash. Not that Theresa seemed even remotely concerned about money. She took the thirty-five dollars from Greta with barely a nod and stuffed it into her back pocket. Greta wondered how often she forgot the money there—how many times she found the bills and peeled them dark and wet out of her jeans before they went through the dryer. All that Greta knew about Theresa was that she lived with an older sister and her older sister’s boyfriend, Grady Rizcoff, in Venice. Grady Rizcoff was a musician who’d had marginal success as a drummer in an early ’90s grunge band. The band’s success stalled after the lead singer overdosed, found Jesus, and subsequently refused to write the kind of music that had put them on the charts. Greta wasn’t sure what Theresa’s sister did. She was either a waitress or the manager of her boyfriend’s career, possibly both. Theresa taught violin to a handful of children, including Charlotte. According to her résumé, she was one of the youngest people to have attended Berklee, matriculating at age seventeen, but now she didn’t seem to have much motivation to return. She was standing on the front step with her violin case in hand and a single iPod headphone in her ear when Phillip pulled the car into the driveway. Charlotte burst out of the car and threw her arms around Theresa’s slender frame. “Sorry we’re late,” Phillip called out of the window as he switched off the ignition. “We got stuck on an errand.” “We were looking for the harvest moon!” Charlotte told her. “There’s one every twenty years!” Theresa took off her purple Wayfarers and propped them up on top of her head. She knelt down and ruffled Charlotte’s hair. “How’s my girl?” she murmured. Everything Theresa said sounded like a murmur to Greta. Charlotte lunged for Theresa, clamping her body around her like a marsupial and knocking her off balance. “Charlotte!” Greta said. Charlotte released Theresa and sprinted up the steps to the house. “Come on, Theresa!” she yelled over her shoulder. Theresa stood up and smoothed out the back of her jeans. “You could have just gone right in,” Greta said. “I don’t think we even locked it.” She didn’t know why she said this. The thought of having anyone in her house while she wasn’t there wasn’t especially desirable. “We were on one of Phillip’s ‘commando missions,’ ” she added, smiling. Theresa smiled back at her. It always took Greta by surprise how this timid and mild and slightly uncomfortable-looking girl would suddenly come alive with that smile. It illuminated her face, lifting it out of the mundane and into something radiant. “It’s really okay, really,” Theresa said. “I was enjoying the sunset.” Greta nodded and then absently looked at her watch. They weren’t late at all, she noticed. They were early. Charlotte practiced chromatic scales and arpeggios with clear and confident agility. Occasionally, Theresa’s bowing could be heard instructing and harmonizing and the sound of the two playing together echoed throughout the lofty house, bouncing off the tall walls and into the kitchen where Greta was preparing dinner. Once it was in the oven and two places had been set, Greta laid out the myriad hormone drugs on the kitchen table, the Follistim, Lupron, and Clomid, the two different syringes, and the red plastic container with the alarming illustration of a skull and crossbones and black lettering on the side, warning, HAZARDOUS WASTE. HANDLE WITH CARE. She took out the black-and-white composition book where she had scribbled extensive notes while the nurse at her fertility specialist’s practice had told her which shot to administer, when, and in which order. Considering that this was to be their third and—after a lengthy and alternately logical and emotional debate—the mutually agreed-upon last try, it was frustrating that the drugs were as bewildering and the self-administered shots as harrowing as the first time. At least once a week she relied on a homemade YouTube video of a woman with rosacea-flushed skin expertly mixing the drugs and giving them to herself with the exhibitionist zeal commonly found in IVF veterans. Phillip walked into the kitchen just as Greta gave herself the last shot in her thigh. “Ow,” he said. He shielded the side of his face with his hand. From the beginning, Phillip had been explicit in his refusal to have anything to do with the shots. “I’ll masturbate in the plastic cups, I’ll let them count my sperm as many times as they want, but no needles,” he had announced. Greta had laughed. “Such a sacrifice. Really? You’ll masturbate in a plastic cup for me?” “For her,” he had said, drawing a ring around her belly with his index finger. “Another girl?” she had teased. “What’s wrong with a boy? Haven’t you had enough estrogen for one lifetime?” “You would think, wouldn’t you,” he had said, stretching himself across her while they breathed each other in. Twenty-two months and three tries later, they didn’t talk about the possible genders anymore. Nor did they discuss VBACS, epidurals, hospital versus birthing centers, or whether doulas really were worth the cost or not. Now Greta tried to shield him from everything about the process in an attempt to make it all appear as effortless as possible. He walked over to the oven and peered inside. “Hello, lasagna,” he said. “Aren’t you cute.” Greta recorded the amount of hormones she had injected, broke off the tips of the syringes, and stuffed them into the red disposal box. Then she put everything in the wicker pie basket her mother gave her years ago, still unused for its intended purpose but surprisingly handy for this one. “Did you finish packing?” she asked. “I laid the shirts I picked up at the cleaners on your dresser.” “I packed them, thanks.” Charlotte’s scales increased in speed. Phillip walked to the doorway and cocked his head, listening. “She’s getting pretty good, isn’t she?” he said. Greta walked to the cupboard and replaced the basket. “I don’t know. I can’t tell. They’re just scales.” “I mean, I think there’s been some noticeable improvement since we’ve added the extra lessons,” Phillip said. He listened for another moment with his eyes closed until the scales stopped and there was quiet. “Theresa said Charlie’s one of the most naturally gifted students she’s had,” he added. “Coming from a nineteen-year-old music-school dropout, that’s high praise.” It came out before the thought had fully formed in her mind. But it was out, and Greta scrambled to come up with something that would soften the edges. “It’s nice that she likes it so much,” Greta said finally. She sat back at the table and looked at her husband. Phillip leaned against the kitchen counter and idly began to organize the various objects—prized flea-market finds, old medicine bottles, ashtrays from long-shuttered hotels—in horizontal lines. He nodded steadily as though listening to a song in his head. She watched him go far, far away from her, and then snap back. “Hey, I wanted to let you know that I’ll do the long-term parking. I don’t want you driving me to the airport so early.” “I don’t mind. If we put her in the back, she’ll fall right back asleep.” “No, you can use the sleep. And the company will cover it.” He walked over to where Greta was sitting and kissed the top of her head. “Christ, your hair smells good,” he said. “What does it smell like?” she asked, eager for the compliment. “Apples,” he said after taking another long inhalation. “Green apples.” He turned to go, but she grabbed his hand. “Don’t leave,” she said. “It’s just for three days.” She pulled him close, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her cheek to his stomach. It didn’t seem fair that his stomach remained firm and hard while hers softened as the hormones accelerated her body into thinking it had to conceive. “No, I mean don’t leave right now. This second. We never have any time without Charlotte . . .” “And yet, you want to do it all again.” She drew back from him and looked up at his face. “ ‘You’? Don’t you mean us? Or is this divine conception we’re talking about?” “Us,” he corrected. Charlotte’s hasty steps ricocheted down the hallway and into the kitchen as she bounded into the room, stopping at the sight of her parents embracing. “I saw that,” she said, with a knowing look. It was a habit she had picked up the same month she had turned five. Greta wondered where. At a playdate? Did she hear someone else say it? What did the kids talk about all day at that strange neighborhood Montessori school? Following at a short distance behind, Theresa approached the kitchen. She paused at the doorway, shifting her weight from foot to foot as if awaiting permission to enter. It was exasperating to Greta, and straining to hide her annoyance, she motioned for Theresa to come in. It seemed to Greta that Theresa was one of those girls who spent all of her time being an imposition while obviously trying not to be an imposition. Almost everything Theresa said or did broadcast the message “I won’t take it for myself. You’ll have to give it to me.” So Greta felt perpetually obliged to invite her to sit down, offer her food, and question her about her life, only to receive the same elusive and monosyllabic answers. Their conversations inevitably dwindled into silence within minutes. “Those scales sounded great!” Greta said. “Her fingering is getting much more confident—can you hear it?” Theresa murmured. “I can definitely hear it,” Phillip said. He grabbed Charlotte and hugged her close as she flailed for show. “You are my brilliant girl.” He extravagantly kissed the top of her head and then opened his arms to let her free. She lurched forward and then flung herself back into his embrace as he closed his arms around her in a familiar display of their father-daughter choreography. Greta was anxious to finish their dinner. She had deliberately fed Charlotte early to give her and Phillip the chance to have dinner by themselves. Their daughter’s long and arduous march to bedtime was looming ahead and with Phillip leaving in the morning, she desperately wanted at least fifteen minutes alone with him before the hormone drugs put her to sleep. These days, the mere touch of her cheek on the cotton pillowcase made her eyes heavy. She knew that she should invite Theresa to dinner—it’s what she had learned in the house she grew up in, where anyone who dropped by unexpectedly was given their own place at the table before they were even asked. And knowing that Theresa would decline, there was even more reason to offer. But she might say yes. There was a chance, however minuscule, and Greta didn’t want to take it. “I’ll walk you out to your car,” Phillip said to Theresa. As Theresa quietly followed Phillip down the hall to the front door, Charlotte scrambled to her feet and ran after them. It was at this late hour, when she was punchy and tired, that Charlotte became wildly unaware of where her personal space ended. Her arms became elastic and floundering, and she ran too fast, inevitably failing to see the edge of the table, the corner angle of the hallway, or the slick bathroom tiles. Recently Greta had rifled through Charlotte’s bedroom to find her sticker collection so she could apply them to all of the plate glass windows, out of fear that, if they were left unmarked, her daughter would fly right through them one night. “Theresa,” Charlotte called out as she ran, “I want to hug you good-bye!” Greta got up and followed them, arriving at the front door just as Charlotte threw herself at Theresa. She collided against her with so much force that Greta heard Theresa take a little involuntary breath. She staggered back a step, accidentally dropping her violin. Somehow Phillip caught it before it hit the floor. “Easy, Charlotte, easy now,” he said, holding the violin and motioning for his daughter to disengage herself. “See you next week, Lottie,” Theresa murmured. It was a nickname that Greta had never used, but what surprised her the most was the lack of reaction from Charlotte. It must not have been the first time her daughter had heard it. “Okay, that’s enough,” Phillip said, touching Charlotte on the shoulder. “You’ll see her very soon. Say good-bye now.” But Charlotte only grabbed on tighter. Theresa laughed nervously. She looked to Phillip with a helpless widening of the eyes. Greta noticed Phillip’s expression hardening, Greta’s signal to intervene. “Charlotte,” Greta said, her voice raised. “I’m going to count to three, and then there will be a consequence. One . . . two . . .” Just before Greta reached three, Charlotte released Theresa. Then she tipped forward on her toes and very quickly and deliberately kissed Theresa’s breasts—first the left, then the right. Theresa gasped and instinctively crossed her arms to cover her chest. Her face flushed as she looked apologetically at Greta and Phillip and then down, clearly disoriented by their daughter. Both parents were stunned. Charlotte looked at them, challenging with a smile. “Charlotte!” Phillip yelled. But before he could say anything else, she had raced off to her room. They heard the door slam behind her. “What the fuck?” he said to Greta. “I’ll deal with it,” she told Phillip. “Sorry, Theresa. I don’t know what is going on with her.” Theresa smiled and waved her hand dismissively “Kids love me,” she said. “Come on, I’ll walk you out,” Phillip said as he glanced back at Greta. “I’ll be just a minute.” Greta set off down the hallway, preparing to initiate the long slumbering process, calculating in her mind just how many books she was required to read before she could turn off the light and lie with her husband in their own bed. Phillip returned minutes later and interrupted Charlotte’s supervised teeth brushing with the news that Theresa had accidentally locked her keys in her car. “I don’t understand. How did she—” “They were in her purse,” he said. “She forgot.” “Does she have Triple-A or . . .” Greta trailed off, noticing that Phillip already had the keys to the Volvo in his hand. “You aren’t driving her home, are you?” Charlotte jumped up and down with her mouth full of toothpaste. “Can I come? Can I come?” Greta put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder and directed her back to the bathroom sink. Charlotte cupped her little hands together, rinsed her mouth, and spat. “Her sister has a spare key, but she’s stuck at the house and can’t come over.” “I wanna come!” Charlotte pleaded. She ran over to her father and stood on his feet with her own. “Sorry, sweetheart. It’s past your bedtime. Next time, I promise.” “Mean Daddy!” Charlotte shrieked. She ran out of the bedroom and down the hall to her own room, slamming the door once again. He sighed and turned off the faucet that Charlotte had left running. “Phillip! You’re leaving in the morning! Couldn’t she take a cab?” Greta tried to sound reasonable but failed to disguise the neediness in her own voice. “It’s not far. I’ll be back before you even have a chance to wash your face,” he said, and quickly kissed her. “Don’t you dare fall asleep without me!” Mother and daughter curled up limb over limb next to each other in the narrow twin bed. Hair had been brushed, books read, closets checked for monsters, and nightlights strategically placed around the room. Greta ran her fingers through Charlotte’s hair and tried to keep up her end of the conversation while her eyes ached with fatigue. She wondered if Phillip had left Theresa’s sister’s house yet and if he would try to multitask on the way home—use every moment wisely, as his consultant brain told him (and often told her). Pick up bread, Saran Wrap, and two-percent milk from the local twenty-four-hour supermarket. He might try to buy an early edition of the Wall Street Journal or the Times, even though he could get either of these online; for years now he still insisted on buying the print edition. “I like the dirtiness of the ink on my fingers.” She remembered him saying this to her in grad school, when he was getting his MBA, and how it would never fail to make her hot and embarrassed. Charlotte reached up under Greta’s arm and scratched the back of her neck. “And what if I grew extra arms and legs, and they were furry like a spider, would you still love me then?” Charlotte asked. “Yes, I would,” Greta answered, though there was really no need to. This wasn’t a game about answers but about questions. How outrageous, unpleasant, and fearsome could we become and still be loved? Charlotte snuggled into Greta deeper. “Okay,” Greta said, “Two more, then I’m going to my bed.” “Where’s Daddy? I want a Daddy snuggle, too.” “Not tonight, honey. He’ll come give you a kiss when he gets home.” Charlotte’s body went rigid for a moment, preparing for a fight, but then she yawned as exhaustion overpowered the desire to protest. “And what if . . . I had a nose like this?” Charlotte took her little finger and smushed her nose down and a bit to the side. “Like this all the time . . . or, no. Just on Tuesdays.” She lifted her head up for Greta’s inspection and frowned when she saw that her eyes were closed. “Mama, you have to look!” Greta opened her eyes halfway and glanced at her daughter. “Well, since it’s only on Tuesdays . . .” “No, all the time,” Charlotte emended the question. “Yes, I would still love you.” Greta sighed and closed her eyes again. “One more, honey, so make it a good one.” Charlotte was silent for a moment. Greta could feel the sleep beginning to overtake her. She tried to breathe in the same rhythm as her daughter, to make as little noise as possible so as to gently lull her to sleep. The trick was to get her to sleep without falling asleep herself. She hoped to be able to take a bath and change into something pretty. Maybe the sheer cotton lace nightgown that Phillip bought her in Spain during that long-ago year they took off from school together. He had seen her fingering the lace trim and asking the old woman the cost in her halting Spanish before putting it back on the rack. It was more money than she allowed herself to spend on clothes in those days. Not with more than a hundred grand in student loans and the cost of the wedding they were hoping to save up for. While she was at the pensione taking a nap, Phillip had found his way back through the maze of the Andalusian streets to the tiny store and bought the nightgown. He presented it to her with such boyish pride when she woke up that her heart swelled with her love of him. She put the garment on just for him to take off. Oh God, how she missed him. How she missed the closeness in the years before Charlotte, when they would excite each other with only a look, a word, or a promise of what they would do to each other later—after class or after a party. Those days when they would come at each other breathless from the sheer force of their desire and make love until their bodies rebelled against them, leaving the two trembling and happy and raw. Charlotte’s sleepy voice jarred her back to the present. “And what if . . . I didn’t love you? Would you still love me?” The question puzzled Greta. She looked at her daughter in profile. How much she looked like him! The fair skin and the freckles and even the exact same blue vein across her forehead. The slender nose and the green-and-blue sea-glass eyes and the eyelashes curled to blond tips. There seemed to be virtually nothing of her in her daughter’s face that she recognized as her own. Not that it should matter, of course. She had read somewhere that offspring resemble the father at birth so that he has visible proof of paternity and won’t abandon the child or, worse, attack it. Charlotte was living proof of Phillip’s virility. She was a carbon copy of him. Could this be an obscure motivation for wanting to do it again, to create a child that looked like her instead of her husband? Could she possibly be that narcissistic? Greta and Phillip had tried unsuccessfully to have a second child since Charlotte was two. Their failure was surprising to both of them since they had conceived their daughter within weeks of Greta’s stopping birth-control pills. It didn’t seem possible after all that time trying not to get pregnant to suddenly try and then fail. But as months and then years passed, they finally had to accept that they were going to be one of those statistics. They briefly considered adoption, but Greta worried about the possibility of favoring their biological child. Greta’s mother had been raised by a stepfather who treated her half siblings with far more indulgence and care, and Greta could never quite silence her mother’s voice intoning, “Better to have all adopted children—don’t mix the two.” The transition to assisted conception was gradual. They bought books that Phillip diligently highlighted with questions for the doctors. Greta learned about checking her cervical fluid and making fertility charts. They took her basal body temperature and made love according to its fluctuations. The doctors started Greta on low doses of Clomid, and several attempts of the “turkey baster” were all met with no success. By the time they prepared to try in-vitro fertilization, they were already so stressed-out and exhausted that they silently dreaded it. They would wait in the doctor’s waiting room like weary warriors on the sidelines of a battle that already seemed to be lost. “Important to keep positive outlook!” their first doctor’s Chinese nurse practitioner would tell Greta while she searched for a vein to take blood. Chin Lau Wong was fond of quoting inspirational aphorisms to keep her patients’ spirits up. “If you are in hurry, you never get there,” or “A journey of a thousand miles begin with single step.” When Greta repeated one of these platitudes to Phillip, flawlessly imitating the accent for laughs, Phillip told her that Chin Lau Wong should shut the fuck up and write for a greeting-card company. The rancor and dismissal of her husband’s reply stunned her. They had always made each other laugh in the worst of times. It was one of the things that she felt they relied upon when everything else faltered—when his parents died or when her nephew went missing and they found out he had been doing heroin since dropping out of school at fifteen. The only thing dependable in times such as these was the comfort of their love, the thing that she believed in above all else. She realized at that moment that she had never answered Charlotte’s question. “Yes. I would love you,” she whispered into her daughter’s hair. “Even if you didn’t love me. I would always love you.” What is it that keeps us in fear of revelation? By whose design it is that we are held, suspended, hovering over our own lives? Bearing witness to it, yes, but not remembering. Choosing not to remember. The shy glances, the nervous tenor, the new gym membership, the unnecessary errands. What keeps us from noticing? Or if noticing, then not telling ourselves that these details matter. We need to pay attention. Because if we don’t . . . then what? What is it that keeps us safe from what we know, should know to be true? Is it really ignorance, or is it a sort of kindness that we give to ourselves? A part of us takes over. Just put it off until we’re stronger, it would say if it had a voice that we could hear. You’re not ready yet. You’re not ready. Let everyone else see it but not me. Spare me this. Please, not this. It was past three in the morning when Greta awoke to the sound of the shower running. She was alone in bed. Twice already during the night, she had reached her arm across to Phillip’s side and found it empty. She had thought about getting up and going into his office, where he was probably working on the case as he often did before he left on business, but the bed was so warm and Charlotte would certainly be up at six and demanding her attention. At least, that’s what she had told herself. She got out of bed and walked to the bathroom. Phillip was standing in the shower with his eyes closed, hot water streaming over his head. The moon shone down on him directly from the skylight above, and his pale skin looked even paler in the light. She stared at him, thinking that he looked like something holy. He opened his eyes and gasped at the sight of her. “Jesus!” he said, and put his palm over the left side of his chest, over his heart. “You’re awake.” “So are you.” Greta stood just outside the open tiled shower in her cotton nightgown. If he noticed that it was the nightgown, he gave no indication. He took the bar of soap, lathered it up between his hands, and then ran it over his body, turning away from her as he washed between his legs. “You were sound asleep when I got home,” he said to her over his shoulder. “I hope I didn’t wake you up.” He put the soap back, but it slid out of the holder and hit the floor and found its place on the drain. He left it there. “What time did you get home?” she said. “I tried to stay up reading for a while after I put Charlotte to bed, but—” “How is she?” “She’s fine.” “Good, good,” he said. Greta pulled the nightgown up over her head and let it fall to the floor. She stood for a moment and waited for him to take in the sight of her naked body. He looked at her, smiled dimly, then looked away. “Can I join you?” she asked as she entered the shower without invitation. “I’m almost done,” he said, stepping aside. She bent down and picked up the bar of soap. “Let me do your back,” she said. She rubbed the soap over his broad shoulders and along his back, then put the soap aside and ran her bare hands over his warm, slick skin. Her hands traveled around his sides and down his stomach and found his penis. It was soft and wet. She cupped it in her hands as she would a small and delicate animal. “I’m really tired,” he said by way of apology. She took her hands away and turned him around to face her. “It’s okay, honey. We’re not supposed to anyway.” “Right.” “And remember while you’re away, no—” “I know,” he said. She noticed the edge in his voice. “Hey.” She put her hands up to his face. “Don’t do that,” she said. “I’m sorry.” He took a deep breath. “I’m just really, really tired.” “I know,” she said. “Did you prepare the presentation?” “Mostly,” he said. “Mostly?” She stepped back and looked at him. “It’s after three in the—” “I mean yes,” he said. “It’s a hard one, and some of the data is just . . . The details are unclear and . . .” He trailed off, shaking his head. Suddenly, he pulled her to him and embraced her. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m sure that once you get in there and sit down with them, all of the—” It was then that she noticed that his body was shaking. “Phillip?” she said, but he only held her tighter. She saw the tears now, and it scared her. It was such a rare occurrence for Phillip to cry; the last time was when Charlotte fell off the monkey bars at school and briefly lost consciousness. When Greta had finally managed to get through to Phillip’s international cell phone and tell him that the tests had come back as only a “slight concussion” and that he didn’t need to fly home, he started crying so violently that he had to pull to the side of the road. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” “For what?” Greta asked. He didn’t answer. “For what?” she repeated. The water started to run cold. She reached her arm out from under his and turned the handle to the left. Phillip’s eyes were bloodshot, the sea-glass irises sharp and bright in contrast to the red. “Everything is going to be okay,” she told him. He grasped on to her tighter. “Do you hear me?” she said. “Yes.” His voice sounded very small. “Oh God,” he said, and started to speak, but the words caught in his throat. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I . . .” “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s all going to be all right. Do you understand?” Greta was surprised by the authority she heard in her own voice. “It’s all going to be all right.” She repeated it again. And again and again and again. REDBUD ILSE O’HARA CLOSED HER EYES when her daughter Greta cut across two lanes of traffic and swung a U-turn to secure the parking place in front of the nursery. For years, Ilse had refused to let any of her children drive her, but now as she found herself fading into that increasing invisibility of the elderly, she no longer bothered protesting being relegated to the passenger seat. “You know that’s illegal,” she said. She would sit it the passenger seat, but that didn’t mean that she would keep quiet. “Yeah,” Greta said. “But if I didn’t do it, we’d get stuck. They won’t let you do a U-turn for miles.” Greta turned down the radio to concentrate and expertly backed into the spot. “And look at this. It’s the Ko!” “The what?” Ilse peered out the window at the espaliered apple trees trained beside the entrance. Although she had always admired the art, along with bonsai, she couldn’t help but feel that there was something cruelly manipulative about it. She supposed that you could argue that all landscaping was manipulation of a kind, but these trees looked crippled, like the victims of Chinese foot binding. “The Ko,” Greta said. “You know, as in the Kojak?” “You mean the bald man?” Ilse narrowed her eyes and frowned at having lost the thread of conversation. “I don’t understand.” Greta attempted to explain the concept: in college, her friends used to refer to ideal parking spaces as the “the Kojak” because in the 1970s television series, the main character would inevitably pull into an empty parking spot just in front of the location where he was about to bust the bad guy. “Get it? The Kojak. Or, for short, the Ko.” “Kojak was Greek,” Ilse said as she carefully climbed down out of the SUV. Why everyone felt the need to drive these enormous gas-guzzling monstrosities was beyond her. She drove all three of her children in a powder-blue 1966 Chevrolet just fine, but now everyone’s car was bigger, fatter, and taller, blocking your view of the road and forcing you to succumb and purchase a big ridiculous car yourself. It was like being in a restaurant where some loudmouth decides to raise his voice, and everyone else raises theirs in turn in order to be heard. After a while, it becomes a cacophony of dinner conversations that no one wants to hear. While Greta rifled through her purse for change for the parking meter, Ilse walked to the back of the car and examined the dents on the bumper. All of her children were terrible drivers. Well, her daughters. It was ironic that her son, the only good driver, had died behind the wheel. He had been just shy of his twenty-second birthday at the time of the accident, and though ultimately it was deemed a suicide, Ilse still believed that Rory didn’t really want to die. He wanted to live; only, he could never truly figure out how. “They weren’t me,” Greta said, gesturing to the dents. “It’s not going to help the resale any,” Ilse said. “Well, then I guess it’s a good thing I’m not selling it,” Greta said. It was impossible to be with her mother for any length of time without reverting to their old mother-daughter animosity—something that began in Greta’s teen years. At age thirty-nine, however, Greta understood that this antagonism was no longer just a phase, as she had once hoped it would be, but something that would remain throughout her life, like a chronic stiffening of the bones. As much as Greta would have liked it, they would never revert back to the easy comfort she had once felt as her mother’s last child, her “change of life” baby. Greta grew up far too early, and for this she felt she was never entirely forgiven. Ilse sighed, giving Greta the eerie impression, as she often did, of her mother listening to her thoughts. “Is this place even open?” Ilse said. “It doesn’t look open to me.” As she shuffled across the gravel, Ilse took off her prescription sunglasses and replaced them with her trifocals. She stood at the entrance of the nursery and examined a row of succulents. Greta strode past her into the entrance. “It’s open,” she said, waiting for Ilse to join her. “I never much cared for cactuses,” Ilse said. “Cacti,” Greta corrected. “Cacti,” Ilse repeated. It was one of her daughter’s most maddening traits, her quickness to point out when Ilse was wrong. She knew it was “cacti” the moment she said “cactuses”—of course it was “cacti”—but Greta was so fast in correcting her that Ilse hadn’t had the chance to do it herself. She thought of all of the times her own mother made a mess of her English grammar, yet Ilse had never dared to correct her. Her mother was already in her early twenties when, with only the barest knowledge of English, she had emigrated from Germany. Her first husband and Ilse’s birth father, Gunther, had died early in the war, and by the time the kind, curly-haired Irish-American soldier showed up in their village just south of Düsseldorf and fell for Ilse’s mother, she was all too happy to be claimed. The fact that she had a three-year-old daughter didn’t seem to diminish the soldier’s ardor at all—at least, not yet. It didn’t hurt that Ilse was an exceptionally beautiful child. She had inherited her father’s rosy-cheeked complexion, and her hair, as pale as the wheat fields surrounding their village, hung in elegant natural curls around her fine-boned face. It took less than a year, after the hastily formed family arrived in the Pacific Northwest, for Ilse’s mother to learn rudimentary English. Determined to allay the obvious discomfort of her new husband’s family, she spoke only English from the moment she moved into the forbidding, drafty Victorian home; whenever Ilse tried to speak German with her mother, she was either hushed or ignored. As a consequence, before she had even turned six, Ilse had surpassed her mother in English, and despite her early efforts, Ilse’s mother would speak a heavily accented broken English for the rest of her life. Yet she lived without fear of challenge, whereas Ilse’s own daughter never failed to correct Ilse’s grammar or pronunciation. Greta waited for her mother at the entrance with a spiral notebook in hand. She had asked her mother to come and help with a new landscaping project, and now she was trying hard not to regret it. Ilse was an expert amateur botanist; any house that she had lived in had possessed a lush and wild garden. Bursting forth in all directions, her gardens were so remarkable in their untamed beauty that strangers often stopped by the house to admire them. A local Oregon paper once even sent a reporter to interview her mother, photographing her posing awkwardly next to a row of heirloom tomatoes—this well before the proliferation of everything heirloom at the local farmers’ markets. Much of the charm of these gardens arose from such pockets of exoticism. Throughout Greta’s childhood, her mother had steadfastly refused to grow anything standard. How Greta had longed for a classic Red Delicious apple or a perfectly round beefsteak tomato as a child, but Ilse had insisted that these were for the ordinary. It seemed to Greta that Ilse was a perfectionist who coveted the imperfect. The quote the paper ran to accompany the photo was “There is no such thing as a green thumb. Only people willing to get brown knees.” Greta remembered how proud she had been of her mother’s aphorism, assuming that she had coined the phrase, only to see it years later embroidered on a pillow in a mail-order catalog. Although it was true that Greta had taken on the new terrace garden project, calling on her mother’s aid was mostly a pretext, what her husband had always referred to as her tendency to “bait and switch.” A few days earlier, her mother had casually mentioned over the phone that she and Greta’s father had agreed to take in Greta’s sister’s son Milo who, at twenty-two, had announced that he was serious about getting off drugs. It had taken considerable effort on Ilse’s part to get Milo to even consider coming to live with his grandparents on the tiny Pacific Northwest island where they had more or less retired, but it seemed that life in the Los Angeles suburb where Milo had been raised by Greta’s older sister, Laurel, and her string of unsuitable men, had become untenable. He ran away from home for the first time when he was fourteen years old, choosing to live with the mild if vacuous cannabis-dealing parents of his girlfriend, Summer. By the time he was fifteen, the girlfriend had moved on to an older man she met at a local mini-mall coffee bar, and the pseudofamily, no longer interested in sympathizing with Milo or discrediting his mother, from whom he had been growing impossibly estranged, kicked him out of their house. The last thing Summer’s mother had said to him after he had waited on the front porch for hours for her to return was, “Milo, you will never be able to take care of Summer, and she will never be able to take care of herself. You must let her go.” That night, he tried heroin for the first time in a stranger’s garage and imagined that he was a baby again in Laurel’s arms before everything went bad. Greta couldn’t help but judge her sister harshly as a parent. Laurel had Milo when she was in her early twenties, and it seemed to Greta that she spent Milo’s childhood distractedly pursuing a replacement father for the one that Milo—and Laurel—never really knew. By the time he was nine years old, Milo was so angry at Laurel for not being there, for choosing other men over him, that he became a master of the insult. He disparaged Laurel for everything. She couldn’t cook or clean; she was forgetful, clumsy, careless; and she had no money. She didn’t even have a college education, as he was quick to remind her, especially in front of a suitor. Why would you want to be with her, he asked, if you didn’t have to? He wore her down with his relentless reproaches and punishing judgments until she found herself actually hoping, when he walked out of their apartment at the age of fourteen, that he wouldn’t come back. This was confessed to Greta one night after too much wine, hastily retracted, and never spoken of again. And now it had been over a year since Laurel had become entrenched in a New Age yoga practice—“a cult,” their father insisted, despite other higher courts deeming it a “new religion.” Whatever it was, it was clear to Greta that it took Laurel away from her sorrow, from her son, and most of all from the question of what she would do with her life which, at age forty-four, had transformed into the question of what she hadn’t done with her life. The “self-realization” she had recently experienced was a balm for all of the feelings of failure, imbuing her with a sense of direction and purpose that she claimed not to have felt since she was pregnant with Milo. All of the meddling and overbearing instruction that she had steadfastly rejected from their parents Laurel welcomed from the religion. She had all but moved to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to help with the construction of a new mission, and a few weeks ago Greta received a disturbing e-mail that hinted of an impending marriage arranged by the leaders of the religion. Laurel had written to Greta to enlist her assistance in getting Milo to join her in Sri Lanka so that they could live as a big happy family. Though it was Milo who was detoxing when the e-mail arrived, it seemed to Greta that it was her sister whose head had been irretrievably altered. Outside, Ilse shuffled past Greta and peeked into the unlocked front office. “Is there anyone here?” she called out. She was careful to keep both of her feet behind the entryway, as though a simple step would provoke a charge of trespassing. This fearfulness, so deeply ingrained in her parents, was something that Greta had combated (not altogether successfully) her entire life. “I don’t see why it should be closed,” Greta said. “It’s the middle of the day. Why don’t we just take a look?” She headed toward a narrow dirt pathway running along the outside of the building. Enormous potted palm fronds flanked the trail, tipping toward each other to create an inviting tropical canopy. “Come on, Mama.” Ilse hesitated. Then, with a sigh, she hurried after her daughter. “I don’t have much time, you know. We’re going to have to be quick about this.” It was shaded and cool along the path, and for the first time since seeing her daughter that day, Ilse felt herself relax. Walking in Greta’s slim gray shadow, she eyed the trees set in large terra-cotta containers and faintly shook her head. “Never much cared for palm trees.” “I know,” Greta said. “I think maybe that’s one of the reasons I don’t like them.” She realized even as she said it that it was an offering. You see, Mother? We are alike in some way. Even though we disagree on everything, part of me will always be part of you. Ilse removed her glasses, breathed on the lenses, and wiped them with the tail of her faded red flannel shirt. “Now, what is this garden you are doing, exactly? What happened to that lady you used? The one who charged you an arm and a leg?” When Greta and Phillip were building their dream house, their architect had persuaded them to use a ridiculously overpriced landscaper, and for some reason Greta had made the mistake of telling her mother how much she had paid the woman. Ilse had never spent over a hundred dollars on a pair of shoes, and the extravagance that Greta had shown appalled her mother. Think of what could be done with that money! Who knew if that money would be there the rest of their lives? And what about Charlotte’s college education? It was shameful. To make matters worse, the landscaper designed with ornamental grasses to match the house’s modern aesthetic. Grass! Her daughter spent her husband’s hard-earned money on weeds. If that landscaper knew anything at all, she would have known that pampas grass was a menace. She may as well have planted purple verbena or lantana. Of course, Ilse didn’t say anything about it to Greta, but privately she railed against the development to her husband, Graham, surprising even herself by the tears of rage it provoked. Graham was perplexed, as he often was, by his wife’s upset. Why should it matter so much to her? Newspapers had come to glean hard-earned knowledge from her, she spat. She couldn’t count how many times people asked when she would go into business for herself. And her own daughter shut her out as though she was nothing but an amateur, some provincial farmer selling pickles at the county fair. She asked after the designer now, not because she cared a bit about her but because it would be so lovely to hear Greta admit, for once, that it was a mistake. “Oh . . .” Greta said vaguely, “I don’t want to bother Lindsay with this. It’s just something I’m doing on my own.” Annoyed, Ilse stamped her foot and felt something lodge itself in her shoe. Holding on to the edge of a container made of reclaimed wood, Ilse removed her shoe and shook out the offending pebble. Greta lingered by a small white flower entwined on a trellis. “You know, I think ‘cactuses’ is correct, too. Like ‘octopuses.’ It just sounds wrong.” “Oh for heaven’s sake,” her mother muttered under her breath. “What’s this?” Greta took hold of a glossy leaf and rubbed it gently between her fingers. “Stephanotis. Wedding flower,” Ilse said, slipping her shoe back on. “Always tried to grow that one but never figured out a way to overwinter it. It would grow for you nicely in this climate.” Greta immediately released the flower and stepped away. The mention of the word “wedding” sickened her. It was four months now since she and Phillip had separated, four months since the revelation of his infidelity and deception and, inadvertently, the commencement of her own painful duplicity. Phillip had begged Greta to withhold the information from everyone until they made a definitive decision regarding their fate, and while Greta had agreed that this was best, the ache of concealment was all-consuming. Watching and judging her every sentence while at the same time studying to see if her duplicity managed to go undetected was an exhausting and insidious exercise. If she failed, she risked harming her daughter’s sense of well-being and would be forced to make a decision she was not yet prepared to make. And if she succeeded, she had the dubious satisfaction of knowing that she could lie just as well as her husband, a quality for which she continued to malign him on a daily basis. Her mother, whom she had tried without success to deceive as a teenager, took every lie now without question. Was it the distraction of Milo that kept her from questioning the signs? Phillip’s protracted absences, the wedding pictures removed from the frames—even Charlotte noticed the missing pictures almost immediately. Scrambling to come up with a suitable lie, Greta told her daughter that they were ready for their annual cleaning; otherwise they wouldn’t survive. Greta consoled herself that in a way what she was saying was true, if the photographs could be looked at as emblems of their marriage. Charlotte seemed to take this explanation willingly, even gratefully. Of course, Greta understood, she didn’t want her world to end. Watching her skip away, believing the lie, was the bitterest triumph of all. At six years old, already her daughter was learning the art of deception as self-preservation. It was times such as these when Greta’s hatred of the only man she had ever loved reached its zenith. An enmity so fierce and jagged she could almost feel it cutting her body from the inside, as if she had swallowed a handful of broken glass and the shards were struggling to work their way out. She looked up just as Ilse disappeared around the bend. With the sounds of the ocean and the freeway on the one side and the camel-colored mountains on the other, Greta had the pleasant feeling of wandering down a secret garden path. So far they had encountered no one and Greta was increasingly unsure if she even wanted to. As the trees gave way to flowering shrub hedges and potted false cypresses, Greta found her mother staring at a vine with variegated heart-shaped leaves. Balancing on the stem, a peculiar brown flower resembled a small sea creature. “What is that?” Greta asked. “It’s amazing.” Ilse stared at the plant, frowning. She pressed her finger up to her forehead, as though the pressure would somehow retrieve the memory. She knew this plant—had even planted it and made cuttings of it for her friends—but now the name of it stubbornly eluded her. “I don’t know,” she muttered. “What do you mean you don’t know?” Greta kneeled down and looked around for a label. “You know everything, Mama.” Ilse shook her head and walked on, defeated by her failing memory. Aging was an insult, any way you looked at it. It was God giving you the raspberry. “Hang on!” Greta held up her phone and aimed it at the plant. “I’ll Google it when I get home.” “Well, if you could do that, what do you need me for?” When Greta caught up to her mother again, she was anxiously winding her old Timex watch. “What time do you have? I can’t be late to the clinic.” “We have hours, Mama.” “Just want to make sure we aren’t late, is all. Milo hasn’t had anyone to depend on for most of his life. He needs to know that he can depend on me.” “And how is Dad with Milo moving in with you?” Greta tried to sound casual, merely curious, but her mother bristled. “What do you mean, how is he with this? He’s fine. He knows it’s what we have to do.” Greta considered dropping it, but then she remembered her father’s high blood pressure, the heart-attack scare years earlier, and all of the agonizing months they spent as he recuperated. The thought of her parents spending their twilight years taking in an addict who had done little to aid in his own recovery made her alternately frustrated and scared. Surely it could come to no good. It would only endanger the health of her father. “Well . . . you don’t really have to,” Greta persevered. “There are places for kids like Milo. He could go to a halfway house. Someplace where there are other kids who are struggling with the same issues—” “So when he relapses, he’ll have a buddy right there to do it with?” Ilse said. “No, thank you. We are family. This is what family does.” She pointed to a hanging plant whose leaves resembled the horns of an animal. “Did you say this was a sun or shade garden?” “I didn’t say.” It was clear to Greta that her mother was changing the subject. And if she had learned anything, she would be wise to just let it go. Her mother’s mind was made up, and nothing—not Greta, not Greta’s father’s health, not even Ilse’s own better judgment—would change her mind. “Shade,” Greta said, resigned. “Mostly shade, I guess.” They walked farther down the path, talking little, as Ilse pointed at the flora and commented and Greta dutifully took notes. “Ficuses don’t like to be moved. They will go in decline and die. . . . Spice bush has red flowers that smell like red wine. . . . Most people seem to think Sticky monkey-flowers require full shade, but it will flower for you more in partial shade. . . .” It was pleasant for Ilse to watch Greta transcribe her words as if they mattered. Greta had been an assiduous student from the time she had entered the Presbyterian preschool. She would sit with pictureless books in her little lap before she even knew how to read, studying the writing as though all of the mystery and wonder of the world were contained in the strange indecipherable symbols. Her academic achievements were legion, and Ilse often found herself marveling at the natural depth of her daughter’s intellect. Greta sailed through middle school and high school, and though she secured a full scholarship to the state school, Ilse and Graham scraped together whatever they could to send her to the Ivy League school of her choice. Greta met Phillip her first year of Stanford, and although Ilse liked him, there was something about the relationship that galled her. Her daughter no longer seemed driven to succeed, preferring instead to rally behind Phillip’s achievements. Gradually it seemed not to matter to her at all—like the language of a country she no longer lived in. She ceased being at the top of her class in college, and her postgraduate career existed only until Phillip completed his MBA and started to earn a hefty salary. Then Greta set her sights on homemaking and, later, on mothering, with the same intensity that she had once possessed for her studies. “Changing hydrangeas from pink to blue requires aluminum in the soil,” Greta repeated, scribbling in her notebook. As her dark blond hair fell in her face, she tucked it behind her ear with her pencil. It was a gesture Ilse had seen her daughter make thousands of times, but Ilse noticed that there was something different about it. The change was almost indiscernible, and she set about trying to locate its origin. Greta’s face had grown fuller in recent years, due to those fertility drugs she was taking Ilse supposed, but now her face was back to normal. In fact, it was a little gaunt. Had she stopped them? Could she be pregnant? Surely Greta would have told her . . . but then again, Greta had become more and more secretive over time. Ilse considered asking her daughter if she was pregnant, but she resented once again having to fish for information. Besides, upon closer examination, Greta wasn’t pregnant. She just looked . . . worn. Greta, though never a great beauty, always seemed to have a light that illuminated her from the inside. And now, for the first time, it was dimmed. “Are you eating enough?” Ilse blurted out. Greta looked up, startled to see her mother’s inscrutable gaze focused on her. “Eating? Yes, I’m eating.” She threw her notebook into her shoulder bag and wheeled around, turning her back to Ilse. For a moment, as she felt the adrenaline coursing through her veins, Greta made a quick conversational inventory in her mind, attempting to locate the misstep. Reviewing their short conversation, she decided that she had said nothing that would have raised suspicion. Her body had simply betrayed her. Quitting the fertility drugs upon discovering Phillip’s affair, combined with her inability to keep almost anything down for what seemed like weeks, had made her skinnier than she had been in high school. And the lack of sleep from lying in bed at night trying not to imagine him mounting Theresa had given her eyes a haunted look. She had tried makeup to compensate for the dullness that had settled on her face like dust on a painting in a junk shop, but this only made it worse. Whatever beauty she thought she might have possessed she realized had only been through her husband’s assessment of her. The shock of his infidelity was matched only by the pain of no longer seeing herself through his eyes. Now she saw herself as cruelly as he must have seen her. How foolish Greta had been to think that she could have held him in her thrall, that he would be immune to beauty. The object of his desire had been as fluid as molten glass—not yet formed, ready to bend to his will. Theresa was truly something blooming. Greta could see that, and yet somehow stupidly she never once considered the possibility. She wanted him, he told Greta in one of the most raggedly honest moments of their marriage, during the brief pause before she closed her heart to him. The girl wanted him and that had been enough. A man who had only just begun to suspect that he would never rise above the ordinary. It would have taken a god not to heed the siren’s call. Ocean mist traveled over the tops of the trees and shrubs and enshrouded the limbs of the two silently advancing women. Ilse was curious as to how long the path would go on, and even though walking had become more difficult these past couple of years, she forged ahead. Greta trailed behind her, moody and restless. The sunlight that filtered through the trees cast a light that looked to Ilse like needle lace, the kind her mother had specialized in. If she hadn’t been caught up in the memory of this, the boy wouldn’t have taken her by surprise. “Oh!” Ilse cried out, staggering backward. She reached out to the trunk of a coral-barked maple for balance. A faded tattoo of an ornate crucifix covered one side of the boy’s neck, and both arms were covered with other religious imagery and Spanish writing. He was bending down, tinkering with the plastic tubing from an automatic watering system. When he stood, he seemed as surprised to see Ilse as she was to see him. He jutted out his chin slightly in a quick gesture of recognition and then crouched down again. Greta rushed forward to help her mother, but Ilse just brushed her away with embarrassment. “Hola,” Greta said to the boy, demonstrating the extent of her Spanish. “Hello, Missus,” the boy said in accented English. “Is closed today. Tomorrow is open.” He smiled, and his teeth shone against his brown skin. He was a beautiful young man, in his late teens or early twenties, Greta guessed. It might have been the proximity of age, or the strong healthy air of the boy that caused Ilse to hurry back in the direction from which they had come. “Wait!” Greta called after her. But Ilse didn’t slow down. Greta hurried to catch up to her. When she did, she grabbed her by the elbow, and her mother instinctively jerked her arm away. “What are you doing?” Ilse kept walking. “I don’t want to be late picking up Milo. I told you that.” “And I told you that you won’t be.” “You don’t know that. I’d rather get there early and wait than—” “Than spend any more time with me than you have to?” Ilse glanced at Greta with a withering expression of annoyance. Greta had seen it many times over the years when she resorted to sarcasm. “I came here for Milo,” Ilse said. “I want to get him home safely. I want to take him home before he changes his mind.” “And what makes you think that he won’t change his mind when you get him there? You’re just going to bring a heroin addict into your house? How are you going to feel when you wake up in the morning and find everything of value gone? Your jewelry? Or Dad’s models. Think about that, Mama. He shoots heroin, and has since he was fifteen—” “He wants to stop,” Ilse said, her voice rising. “Yeah, what he wants and what he’s capable of are two different things.” Ilse raised her hands to the side of her face. “What can I do, Greta? Milo is my grandson. My only grandson. You expect me to lie down and not do everything in my power to save him?” She shook her head. “I don’t expect you to understand this.” “He isn’t Rory,” Greta said. “God forbid you will ever think to yourself there was something that you could have done to save someone that you love. God forbid you should ever have to lie awake at night, playing it over and over again in your mind. What if I had called him that night? Rory would have come if I asked him. What if . . .” She stopped herself and closed her eyes. She reached her hand across to the nearest tree to steady herself. Pain, regret, and guilt mingled just under the surface, the aggregate of all her profound sadness. “He isn’t Rory,” Greta repeated softly. “I know,” Ilse said, her voice tinged with anguish. “But I see so much of Rory in him. He’s lost, Greta. He needs me.” “He needs his mother,” Greta said. Ilse flicked her hand, brushing away the unpleasant thought as if it were a cobweb. “And who is going to bring Laurel back? You? Please . . . your sister has made her choice,” she added bitterly. They walked on, retracing their steps through the mist. “I just don’t want you and Dad to be disappointed,” Greta said. “You raised your kids—you ought to be enjoying life now.” “You never stop raising your kids, Greta. And your kids’ kids. Maybe some people can go on and wash their hands, but I can’t.” “Mama, he stole from you. He took money from you and Dad and went out and bought drugs with it. You are inviting danger into your home.” “And what about second chances, Greta?” Second chances. Greta tried to envision her own six-year-old daughter desperate and addicted. It was nearly impossible to imagine, but even in the hypothetical, it was clear that the chances Greta would give her were endless. Phillip had betrayed her, but unlike her daughter, the thought of giving him a second chance was agonizing to consider. Would it have been different if he had betrayed her in another way? Gambled the house away? If she had discovered that he was an addict? But even as Greta considered the limits of her own tenuous capacity to forgive, she knew that it wasn’t really Milo to whom her mother was giving a second chance. That was clear. By saving Milo from himself, she was attempting to right the past. She was reaching her hands into the wreckage of the car that Saturday night and carrying her son away with her alive. It was a chimera her mother was chasing, Greta knew, but she also knew that it was no use trying to hold her back. Her mother would die trying. As they neared the exit, the mist had begun to dissipate. Sunshine was burrowing through gaps in the bushes and trees. Ilse pointed to a small tree with a dark brown trunk and heart-shaped leaves. “Do you remember when you were little, you dragged one of these all the way home from the bus stop? Someone left it by the trash, and you insisted that we plant it in the garden. You took it on yourself to rehabilitate it. You stripped the quilt from your bed and wrapped it around the trunk.” Ilse smiled. “You remember that?” Greta stared at the tree, searching her memory. “I think so. . . . But are you sure it wasn’t Laurel?” “Laurel never had any interest in the garden. It was you.” Greta tried to connect the memory of the girl who nursed a dying abandoned tree to the woman she was now. “It was a redbud,” Ilse said. “Like this one.” “Mama?” Ilse turned and looked at Greta. “What?” Suddenly the urge to confess was overwhelming. Greta placed her open palm against her own mouth to stop herself. Phillip betrayed me. My marriage has been over for almost half a year, and I don’t know how to tell my daughter. I don’t know what to do with my life. I’m so scared. But something in her mother’s expression arrested her. Perhaps it was the worry etched in her forehead or the frailty that had manifested itself in the gentle but marked curvature of her spine. As she stood in the returning sunlight, looking down into the pale blue of her mother’s eyes, Greta felt the strange and heretofore unfamiliar sensation of something being lifted from her—a weight that only later she was able to identify as her childhood. “What?” Ilse asked again. “What is it?” “Let’s go get Milo,” Greta said. “He’s waiting for you.” MY OLIVIA OLIVER WAS JUST SHY OF four years old when he asked his mother to buy him a dress for the first time. It was a simple red shift, almost a tunic, with a band of metallic rickrack just above the hem, but something in the color or the cut or the way that it was modeled on the fiberglass child-size mannequin in the boutique window made it unmistakably a dress. Oliver was Marina’s only child, the result of an impetuous island holiday she had taken with girlfriends in order to lift her spirits after yet another failed relationship. She had never been to the Caribbean, and her girlfriends Merle, Trudie, and Una pooled their funds to splurge for a suite right on the water. It was a raucous, rum-soaked weekend full of girlish tear-stained confessions and ninety-minute massages in the height of hurricane season. When Marina returned to California with stuffy sinuses and a sudden dislike for the smell of coffee, she was sure that she had contracted a bug. Being in her late thirties and never having had anything close to a pregnancy scare, Marina had always assumed that she was simply infertile. But unlike her friends, who went from fearing pregnancy to pursuing it, Marina viewed her situation as a convenience or even a luxury since she had never once heard the ticking of her own clock. She assumed that the clock was broken along with her reproductive machinery and didn’t concern herself much with it. The inability to sustain a relationship with a man was far more worrisome. It was Trudie who first suggested to Marina that she might be pregnant, after Marina ran to the bathroom twice while watching Trudie feed her baby pureed leftover spaghetti and meatballs with a spoon. It had been just over three months since the Barbados holiday. “It isn’t possible,” Marina insisted. “I got my period.” “You might want to get a test, just in case,” Trudie told her in a singsong voice. “Zachariah was a surprise. Weren’t you, my little Zach pack!” She kissed her boy extravagantly on the mouth and licked the sauce from the sides of her own lips, sending Marina sprinting to the toilet again. That night she picked up a pregnancy test kit on the way home from the gym and was stunned to see the plus sign materialize. She stared at the contraption in disbelief, doubting its accuracy. When the blue cross appeared on the second test, even more rapidly this time, she sat down on the edge of the bathtub, shaking her head. Holding the innocuous-looking piece of plastic in her hand, she was transfixed by the bright blue stain in its tiny window. It was like she had found a bruise that had appeared on her body overnight, with no knowledge of how or when the injury had taken place. What Marina had assumed to be her menstruation was actually implantation bleeding; the cluster of cells that would later become her son was burrowing into her uterine wall. By the time she discovered the pregnancy, she was already well into her second trimester. Marina was dumbfounded. The thought of becoming a mother was unfathomable to her. She had only ever been vaguely interested in her friends’ children, a notable source of contention with her last serious boyfriend. One of their recurring arguments had been her patent lack of interest in having a family. “There’s something wrong with you,” he insisted. “You have the maternal instincts of a black widow.” “Black widows eat their mates, not their young,” she replied. It was a useless correction, however; she could tell by the sad smile and the way that the corners of his eyes tilted down that it was already over between them. And it was true, Marina had no interest in motherhood. She relished her freedom with a zeal that only grew stronger as she watched her girlfriends’ steady marches toward maternity. One by one, their personalities became as disfigured as their bodies. They were perpetually fatigued and unkempt, their walls were covered with sloppy finger paintings housed in expensive frames, and their speech was taken over by motherese—peppered with the words “potty,” “wee-wee,” and “wa-wa.” One night, Una actually licked her finger and rubbed it across Marina’s cheek, only realizing her gaffe when she saw the dumbstruck expression on her childless friend’s face. “Oh! Sorry, honey.” Una laughed. “Mommy’s got baby brain!” Marina wanted no part of it. As soon as she escaped the mommy brigade, it took twenty minutes on the elliptical until she began to feel like herself again. And then for five long months, she watched her body metamorphose into exactly what she disparaged in her friends. The years that she had spent perfecting those twin lines down the sides of her abdomen, the delicate sloping inside toward her navel—she would have to say good-bye to these forever. At night, if she was really quiet, she felt as if she could hear the muscles tearing. Marina followed her obstetrician’s advice and ate the minimum amount required to sustain the life of what she viewed as the alien growing inside of her, but even with that, there was no stopping the ruthless expansion; once she hit the thirty-pound mark over her ideal weight, she stopped stepping on the metal-and-glass bathroom scale. She grew deeply depressed when she could no longer wear her own clothes, and yet refused to buy anything that she wouldn’t need again, thinking it wasteful. Her friends donated boxes of frumpy, drool-stained maternity clothes to her, which she thanked them for as she resigned herself to the ugly garments. Gritting her teeth, she avoided her own reflection and waited and waited and waited for the reprieve. And then, exactly on the due date, Marina woke up with contractions. Three hours later she was holding her seven-and-a-half-pound son in her arms, staring in awe as he snuffled around her breast and fastened on with a hungry little rosebud mouth. She had never seen a face so fine and symmetrical in her life. He didn’t look anything like her, but very much like the caramel-skinned surf instructor she had rolled around on the beach with during those last nights of her holiday. Her baby had a soft carpet of circles covering his tiny head, and gray eyes the color of pussywillows. He was the most beautiful creature she had ever laid eyes on, and Marina was shocked to find herself at the age of thirty-seven so deeply in love. She named him Oliver. For the first few weeks, Marina was terrified that she would not be able to keep Oliver alive. Never had she had even so much as a plant to take care of, let alone a little boy. Growing up, her family had an outdoor dog, but mostly her father took care of it. Marina personally never had anything to do with the dog, and if her parents went away on vacation, they would hire a dog walker to come by each day, feed the animal, and give it a modicum of affection. This was so that they wouldn’t return to a situation, as they did the first time they had left Marina home alone, where the dog nearly starved. When Oliver was a baby, Marina found herself waking up in the middle of the night terrified that he had stopped breathing. She stripped his crib of any potential smothering hazards, getting rid of stuffed animals, pillows, bumpers, and blankets, but even with this precaution in place, Marina would find herself in his room night after night, camped out next to his crib, listening for the sweet inhalation and exhalation of his tiny lungs. And despite or perhaps because of her fears, Oliver thrived. Though not particularly hefty, he hit all of his developmental milestones and was thought to be an exceedingly healthy child. He was breastfed longer than most children and never exhibited anything resembling an allergy: peanuts, shellfish, soy, dust, dander . . . nothing threatened him. The only thing to which he demonstrated an adverse reaction was a haircut. Oliver screamed anytime a pair of scissors came close to his long, curly hair. The first two words he uttered in sequence occurred when Marina brought him to a children’s hair salon for his first haircut. “NO, MOMMY!” He held out his arms to her, his gray eyes widened in terror. The experienced stylist tried to distract him with cartoons and, when that didn’t work, to bribe him with lollipops and Hershey’s Kisses, but Oliver continued to howl in protest. When it was clear that Oliver would not submit, Marina scooped him up and paid the woman anyway, overtipping as she mumbled an embarrassed apology and rushed out of the salon. Now, at six years old, Oliver had dark, curly, shoulder-length hair. Marina mastered the French braid so that she could fake a short haircut when necessary, but most of the time Oliver wore his hair loose in soft glossy waves that arranged themselves around his delicate face. He was beautiful, but more than that, he was pretty. Marina was used to people asking her the name of her little girl. “His name is Oliver,” she would say. “He’s a boy,” she would add, and smile at the ill-disguised looks of disbelief. She wasn’t exactly sure when Oliver became Olivia at home. Most of the time she called him Oll, or Ollie, but just after his fourth birthday—shyly at first and then with more insistence—he asked that she call him Olivia. “But Oliver honey, you’re a boy.” “I want to tell you a secret,” he said. They were snuggled in her bed reading Raggedy Ann in the Deep Deep Woods. She put the book aside and looked down at him. “Okay, honey. What’s the secret?” “Well . . .” He looked nervous, and then grinned at her. “I wasn’t going to tell you, but you’re my mommy.” “That’s right, hon. I’m your mommy, and you can tell me anything. Anything at all.” “I’m really a girl,” he said in a whisper. She stared at him, wanting to say the right thing, fearing to say the wrong thing. “You may feel like a girl sometimes . . .” she began. “No! I am a girl,” he said, his voice rising. She waited a moment for him to calm down and then, gently, she tried again to explain. “Do you remember when we had that talk how what you have between your legs is different than what mommy has and—” “My penis is going to fall off,” he said. “And when it does, everyone will know that I’m not lying. I’m a girl. My name is Olivia!” He put his head down in her lap and cried. She ran her hands through the tangle of his hair and did the only thing that she knew how to do. She comforted him. Marina sat in the shade of a silver maple tree next to the father of Oliver’s best friend while they watched their respective offspring swing from the monkey bars. Though it was April in Southern California, the promise of spring seemed to have become the unseasonably punishing heat of summer. Marina hid beneath her sunhat while her friend sat beside her, exposed, getting redder and redder. “Don’t tell me you aren’t wearing sunscreen,” she said to him. Phillip fanned himself with the sheaf of papers in his hand. “I’m a man,” he said. “You’re an idiot,” she said, grinning, and punched him in the arm. She opened her bag and took out a packet of moistened sunscreen wipes. “You aren’t going to put that on me, are you?” “Are you kidding?” she said. “These things are expensive! I don’t like you that much. Charlotte!” She yelled at the blond girl dangling from the monkey bars behind her son. “Ollie, honey. You and Charlotte come here!” The kids dropped to the soft dirt and raced over to their parents. “Feel how hot I am,” Charlotte said as she climbed up on Phillip’s lap and touched her cheek to his. “You are hot,” he said. “And Daddy wasn’t thinking when he didn’t put any sunscreen on you this morning. . . .” “Mama always puts sunscreen on me,” Charlotte said. “I’m sure she does.” Phillip took a deep breath and let the air out slowly. “Here, let me help . . .” Marina reached out and swiped the towelette across Charlotte’s face, neck, and bare arms. “I don’t need sunscreen!” Oliver crowed. “I don’t get sunburned ’cause I have dark skin already!” “Not so fast,” Marina took another towelette and performed the same task on her son. “Skin cancer is for everyone,” she said, handing the used towelettes to her son. “Go throw these away, and then you can do more monkey bars.” The children scampered off, screaming something unintelligible. “Thanks,” Phillip said. “And the neglectful parent of the year award goes to . . .” “Whatever. You owe me a Coke.” Phillip smiled at her and then glanced down at his BlackBerry. “Sorry, I have to put this fire out.” “Go ahead,” Marina said. She took off her hat and wiped away the perspiration from her forehead, then put her hat back on. It had been several months now since she and Phillip had begun meeting for a standing playdate, usually every other weekend when it was Phillip’s turn with his daughter. Phillip and Charlotte’s mother had separated some time after the holidays, and though Charlotte seemed to be taking the situation in stride, Phillip carried the air of a man condemned. Not wanting to pry, Marina didn’t ask for the specifics of his marital difficulties, but she surmised from his guilty countenance that he was in some way responsible—while knowing enough about relationships to acknowledge that their failure was rarely, if ever, unilateral. They all have a built-in expiration date, Marina thought, and if people would just realize this up front they could save themselves a lot of pain. Why not just appreciate the time they have together—the exalted sex, the precious antecedent moments of rapture, the delight of finding the sublime in the banal? Instead, we demand that the other hold up a mirror and reflect back to us everything we hope to believe about ourselves. And we love them for it . . . until the mirror becomes too heavy to hold, or breaks altogether, and then the punishment never ceases. But, ah, this was coming from Marina. She had not had even one sustained relationship since her son’s birth, and strikingly few before. For years she had more or less resigned herself to a life alone, but then recently she found herself drawn to the sad and guilty man beside her. Phillip bobbed his knee up and down while he listened with mounting impatience to the caller. “Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” He nudged Marina with the tip of his foot and mouthed the words “I’m sorry.” She waved her hand at him and deliberately turned to watch the kids playing in the distance to give him space. The children had taken a break from the monkey bars and now sat facing each other, their legs in a V, toes touching, talking. She could tell that Oliver was telling a story, and she tried to decipher its subject from the grand hand gestures. Charlotte threw her head back and the high tinkling laughter traveled all the way to the bench where their parents sat. “God, it’s nice to hear her laugh,” Phillip said. He had finished the phone call and slipped his BlackBerry into the breast pocket of his broadcloth button-down. “I think Ollie could make anyone laugh. He could make the Taliban laugh,” she said. Phillip smiled and ran a hand through his closely cropped blond hair. “Christ, it’s hot. I’d like to round up all those global-warming naysayers shoulder to shoulder and just watch them bake.” Marina laughed. “Well, that would be my entire family.” Phillip raised an eyebrow with interest. “No kidding.” “Yup. No such thing as global warming. Evolution is questionable. And, of course, homosexuals are all going to hell.” “And where exactly did you come from?” Phillip asked. “Orange County,” she said. “From the virginal loins of Joyce Pennock née Hartcourt. I think my parents did it precisely three times in their lives, and each time she got knocked up.” “Brothers? Sisters?” Phillip asked. “One of each,” Marina said. “And boy-oh-boy do they toe the party line. Ollie and I are the black sheep of the family. Literally.” She laced her fingers above her head and stretched. She noticed his eyes flit across her ribcage and then just as quickly dart away. “Holidays are loads of fun at the Pennocks’.” “All families are horrible, aren’t they?” Phillip said. “I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who just straight-out likes their family.” “That’s depressing,” Marina said. “I shouldn’t say that. I mean, mine really wasn’t so bad.” She was about to ask for details when he took the vibrating phone out of his pocket and looked at it. She glanced over at the screen and saw the face of Charlotte’s mother. “Go ahead,” she told him. Phillip jumped up and walked a few feet away from their bench. Marina had only met Phillip’s estranged wife once in passing at their children’s school, when they found themselves standing alone in the school parking lot several minutes too early for pickup. Marina introduced herself as the mother of Oliver, Charlotte’s friend. The woman nodded and smiled, but Marina had the strange feeling that she was looking through her, as though Marina were invisible. They exchanged e-mail addresses and the vague promise of setting up a playdate. This was at the beginning of the school year. Marina sent her two e-mails that remained unanswered. A few months later she and Phillip got to know each other, and she was relieved that a friendship with her was never forged. Marina watched Phillip pace while he talked on the phone. His back curved suddenly as though a weight had been placed on his shoulders, pitching him forward. With the phone up to his ear and his other hand wrapped around his forehead, he pressed his thumb and index finger into the pressure points of his temples. “He’s a disaster,” Marina thought. “Toxic,” she could hear Una say. “Unavailable,” said Merle. “Damaged,” said Trudie. As her gaggle of married girlfriends listed the litany of his many obvious failings, Marina knew that given the chance, she would surely go to bed with him anyway. “Okay, okay! I hear what you’re saying. And I’m sorry,” she heard Phillip say. He walked back to the bench and began gathering Charlotte’s things. “I’m just in the park with her now. I can meet you in a half hour.” Phillip’s face was red. “If we hurry, maybe fifteen, okay? I’m sorry. I . . .” He stood for a moment with the phone in his hand. It was clear to Marina that she had hung up. “Everything okay?” she asked him, knowing it wasn’t. He grabbed Charlotte’s tote and his messenger bag. “I’m sorry. I—” “Hey. You don’t need to say you’re sorry to me.” “It’s a habit,” he said. She reached out and grabbed his wrist. She could feel his pulse race against her fingers. “Well, you need to stop it,” she said, still holding on to him. Phillip looked at her, clearly surprised by the touch. He snapped his head around—to find his daughter, she figured—and she dropped his hand, embarrassed by her forwardness. “Let me be the person you don’t apologize to. That’s all I mean.” Phillip reached out and turned up the brim of her sunhat. She looked straight into his eyes. She had never seen that color on a man. They reminded her of an old Edwardian ring that she had inherited from her grandmother—what was the stone? Tourmaline? Aquamarine? She noticed a birthmark next to his left eye and wanted to kiss it. “Thank you,” he said. When he turned away from her, she felt herself exhale, not realizing that she had been holding her breath. “Where are they?” Phillip said. Hearing the panic in his voice, she ran toward the playground, scanning the monkey bars and jungle gyms. “Ollie!” she screamed. Frightened children looked up at her. She could feel her heart beating wildly and her stomach drop as though she were descending in the elevator in a skyscraper. Several kids scattered, running into the protective embraces of their multicultural nannies. She saw Phillip sprint in the direction of the stone bathroom fixtures on the other side of the playground, along the edge of the parking lot. Just as he reached the building, she saw the two kids run out, holding hands, with their fingers interlaced. Even from a distance, Marina could tell that the children had swapped clothing. Charlotte wore the gender-nonspecific tunic that she had purchased for Oliver in a store specializing in beachwear, while Oliver was dressed in Charlotte’s floral sundress and her pink patent-leather sandals, his hair unbraided and bunched into two ponytails. By the time Marina reached the children, Charlotte was crying, frightened by Phillip’s anger. He was on his knees holding her while she whimpered. Marina looked down at her son, who watched the father and daughter with an uncertain expression. “Ollie . . .” “We wanted to play opposites,” he told his mother quietly. “It’s opposite day.” “It’s okay, honey,” she said, running her hand up and down his neck. “It’s not okay,” Phillip said. “You don’t just run off without telling anyone.” In Phillip’s eyes she imagined that she could see the flicker of blame. “He’s right, Ollie,” Marina said. “You both scared us.” Charlotte kept her head buried in her father’s shoulder. “It was Ollie’s idea,” she heard her say in between sobs. Oliver grabbed on to his mother’s leg, blinking back tears himself. “It’s opposite day!” he said again. Marina remembered the things that they had left on the park bench. “Hey,” she said to Phillip, “Do you want me to take them into the bathroom and change them, and I’ll meet you at your car?” Phillip stood up, carrying Charlotte in his arms. “Can we just do the exchange later? She’ll kill me if I’m not there in the next few minutes.” Charlotte popped her head up. “Who’s going to kill you, Daddy?” “No one,” he said. He ran off in the direction of the car. Marina took her son’s hand, and together they walked back to the bench in rare silence. “Are you sure he was blaming you? Did he actually say it was your fault?” Marina perched on the kitchen island in Trudie’s restored Craftsman and watched her friend assemble a complicated pasta dish. Oliver played a game on Marina’s iPhone while lying on the living room couch; Trudie’s two girls were already asleep in their bedroom. “No,” Marina said. “He didn’t say it was my fault. He didn’t say it was anyone’s fault. But it was the way he looked at . . .” Marina didn’t say Oliver’s name, but she pointed in the direction of the living room. Trudie nodded. “Well, anytime kids take off their clothes . . .” She didn’t finish her sentence. Marina chewed on an olive and spit the pit in an ashtray with the words THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING written on it. “Please, Trudie. They’re six years old. What are they going to see?” She grabbed another olive. “And I think we all know that Ollie is not interested in Charlotte’s body. He wanted her clothes. He wanted the sundress with the flowers on it and the pink sandals. There’s no desire there. Or if there is desire, it’s the desire to look like her.” Trudie poured the pasta into a baking dish and refilled Marina’s glass. “Have you thought of taking him somewhere?” Trudie asked. “Like a therapist or something?” “To do what? What’s a therapist going to do? No one is going to convince him that he’s a boy. And I can’t make him a girl. He already resents me for it. It’s like he thinks it’s my fault that I gave birth to him and made him a boy.” She craned her head around to see if Oliver was eavesdropping. He seemed entirely absorbed in his game. “I don’t know what to do with him.” She shook her head and drank deeply from her wineglass. “I really don’t.” Trudie set the timer on the oven and poured herself a glass of pinot noir. “I wouldn’t discount therapy. You know Ellie was seeing someone.” “No, I didn’t know that,” Marina said. “Why?” “Night terrors. She’d always been a perfect sleeper. We ‘Ferberized’ her just like we did Alice, and then out of the blue she started screaming at night. Sometimes two or three times a night.” “Jesus!” Marina said. “I had no idea.” Trudie shrugged. “Ron doesn’t want me to talk about it. I tell him it’s silly, I mean it’s the twenty-first century. Therapy is hardly taboo. But he says he doesn’t want to ‘pathologize’ our child.” “Sure, sure,” Marina said. “I can understand that.” She didn’t understand. But then again, she didn’t really understand what her friend even saw in her husband. Ron was a drip, Marina thought. But unlike most drips who at least manage to be innocuous in their drippiness, Ron asserted himself by thrusting his opinions on his gentle and conflict-avoidant wife. “It’s been months now, and Ellie’s sleeping through the night just fine again. Personally I think she was a miracle worker. I was at the end of my rope.” “Mommy?” Marina looked over at Oliver who stood in the doorway holding her cell phone out to her. “Charlotte’s daddy is on the phone. He wants to talk to you.” The smell of early blooming jasmine and honeysuckle lingered in the air as Marina sat on her porch with her laptop, distracting herself with work while she waited for Phillip. He had asked to see her, and she had told him to stop by after she put Oliver to bed. Picking up on her nervous energy, her son dragged out his bedtime even more than usual, begging for more pages to be read, more water to drink, and more trips to the bathroom after lights-out. Marina surreptitiously texted Phillip three times asking him to come later. After the last time, when he didn’t reply for ten minutes, she was afraid that he would cancel and found herself unjustly furious with her son. “Are you still mad at me, Mommy?” he asked. “I won’t do it again.” Marina took a deep breath and grabbed him in a tight embrace. “No, my love. I’m not mad. I just have work that I need to get to, that’s all.” She felt guilty for omitting the fact that she was expecting Phillip, but until she knew what the visit was about, she wasn’t comfortable mentioning it. Oliver was extremely possessive, never having had to share Marina with anyone. She hadn’t even spent the night with anyone since before he was born. Perched on the teak bench, she tried to concentrate on the catalog layout she was designing. A small soy-candle company had hired Marina to glamorize its image—to take it out of the crunchy patchouli-scented air of its origins and into something trendier and upmarket; but frustratingly the company kept asking her to go back and change the layouts every time she tried anything new. She was resizing the candles against different-colored backgrounds and fussing with the fonts when Phillip’s Volvo pulled up. “Hey,” he said as he walked toward her. He carried a six-pack of Heineken in his hand. Marina’s heart leaped into her throat, and all of the boldness and brashness that she relied upon with most everyone deserted her. “Hi, hi,” she said shyly. “I didn’t know this was bring-your-own-beer.” She snapped her laptop shut and tucked it under her arm. Phillip leaned back against a post and looked down at her through eyes half-closed. “Long day,” he said. “Yeah.” She wasn’t sure if he was referring to his day or hers. She got up and took the six-pack from him. He seemed taller than she remembered, though most of the time they spent together they were seated in a playground. “Let me open one of these for you,” she said. “Unless you want to do it with your teeth and impress me.” “Oh, I would hope I could find other ways to impress you,” he said with a smile. Marina turned away from him and headed into the house. His comment set her mind into a flurry of interpretation. What did it mean? Did he mean . . . Was he just bantering? Are we flirting? She could feel her pulse quickening, and as much as she wanted to be near him, there was something about the proximity that felt sudden and painful. Like sticking your toes in ice-cold water before submerging yourself entirely. There is always that deliciously uncomfortable bit you need to get through. When she returned to the porch, Phillip was sitting on the bench. She handed him the beer and a glass and sat cross-legged beside him with a mug of peppermint tea. “You probably don’t want the glass,” she said. “Straight-from-the-bottle kind of guy,” he said. He took a swig and leaned back against the wall of the house. “It’s nice to hang out at night for once.” “Yeah, we’re really branching out,” Marina said. “Sitting on a completely different bench.” Phillip laughed. He looked at her sideways. “I like your hair like that. It’s funny, I always thought I would marry a redhead.” Marina touched her hair, piled up on top of her head and casually fastened with a pin. “I’m sorry I had to keep postponing,” Marina said. “It’s like Ollie has this sixth sense . . .” “I’m the one who wanted to apologize,” Phillip said, sitting forward and touching her knee. “I was a jerk today, when the kids—” “Oh, that,” she said. “I figured you were just stressed about your . . .” “Wife. She’s still my wife,” he said slowly, as if he was telling himself as much as her. “Right. Okay. I didn’t know what was going on with that. . . .” She felt a shock of embarrassment, suddenly realizing that perhaps this attraction she felt was entirely one-sided. “Well, apology accepted,” she said, trying to sound bright and carefree. “I know it’s late and if you need to—” “Marina, I really like you,” he interrupted. “A lot. Probably too much, considering that I’m a mess right now.” “It’s okay,” she said, feeling somehow both relieved and anxious at the same time. “Listen, you don’t have to explain anything. I know. I mean, I don’t know, but I can just imagine how messy these things are.” “I fucked up,” he said. “I fucked up in the most monumental, bastardly way.” “Is that even a word, ‘bastardly’?” she said. He ignored her and continued. It almost seemed like a recitation. “I hurt, my wife . . . I hurt . . . well, let’s just say that I have hurt and disappointed every woman that I have come into contact with—and I’m including my daughter in this—and I don’t want to do it anymore. I can’t do it anymore.” Marina nodded and blew on her tea before taking a sip. “I’m a big girl,” she said. “Well, actually I’m a size four, but . . .” “Do you understand what I’m saying?” He looked at her without a trace of irony. “I think it’s the not talking that got me into this shit mess I’m in now. And I like talking to you. I don’t want to lose that.” Marina felt dull with the loss of intrigue. He was being honest with her, and in her experience that usually didn’t come until months, even years, later, if ever. Her body suddenly felt cold even while her face seemed to burn with embarrassment. “I get that,” she said. “And thanks. You’re a good guy. Don’t let anyone tell you different.” Phillip shook his head and she could see the sneer of self-loathing on his face. “Enough about me,” he said. “Hey, I have Charlotte’s dress,” she said. “And her shoes. Don’t let me forget to give those to you.” “So . . . what is going on there anyway? I’ve been meaning to ask you.