Doubts are more cruel
than the worst of truths.
They got there sooner than I expected. I was waiting at the upstairs window, so I saw them when they arrived, their lights flashing, their sirens silent. There were two policemen, in two separate cars, and the paramedics in the ambulance. As they got out of the vehicles, the emergency lights turned everything a strange, pulsing red: the snow, the ice at the edge of the window, the bedroom where I stood. They slipped across the yard on their way to the front porch, their breath hanging white in the air. As they rushed up the front steps and disappeared from my view, I let go of the lace curtain and turned around to look at the body. I suppose I should’ve gone over to the bed and closed its eyes or covered its face, but I couldn’t make myself do it.
The squad stopped at all the other bedrooms on the floor before they found the right one. When they saw me and the body, they rushed in, plying stethoscope, oxygen mask, and blood pressure cuff, calling out to each other in their own telegraphic language. Their hands rushed as quickly as their words, but none of that made any difference. There was no life left in that body. There hadn’t been for ages.
All that time, I didn’t move or make a sound. When the policeman came over to me, he had to put his hand on my arm to get me to look at him. It was almost as if I were the one who was dead.
And to think that was only the beginning.
No, that couldn’t have been the beginning. Everything must’ve started long before I found the body, even if it seems like it all started that day. Dr. Daniels says it doesn’t matter when it started because it’s time for me to let go of the past. But it’s the past that won’t ever let go of me. How could it? Besides, I have to know if I am responsible for everything that happened. I have to know if it was my fault.
Sometimes I think the beginning was over thirty years ago, on the morning of my thirteenth birthday. When I finally woke up and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth, I found a note from foster mother Grace taped to the mirror over the bathroom sink: “Claudia — Get dressed before you come downstairs.”
After I ran a wet comb through my hair and bundled it into a ponytail, I rubbed a damp washcloth over my face. I stood on my tiptoes and moved closer to the mirror, looking for a new outbreak of freckles across my nose and cheeks, then pulled on my jeans and sweatshirt and went downstairs. But my breakfast wasn’t on the table, and no one was in
the kitchen. When I opened the oven door, there wasn’t any French toast with cinnamon waiting for me, not even cold French toast. My heart lurched against my ribs.
“Oh, no,” I thought. “It’s happened again.” I raced through the dining room, through the living room, and back to the kitchen. I scrambled halfway down the basement stairs, leaned over the railing, and called out. I ran upstairs, to the second floor. By the time I’d gone from Roger’s room to Mother Grace’s room and back again, I knew it was true: it had happened again. I went halfway down the stairs and sat, trying to think of a plan. That’s when they pulled into the driveway.
After Mother Grace got out of her car, I saw the two of them in the car behind. Mother Grace stood in the brown grass at the edge of the driveway while the two of them got their briefcases and paperwork out of the car. She kept turning around, looking toward the house, her hand shading her eyes since all the leaves had fallen from the trees.
I grabbed hold of the banister and pulled myself up to my feet as they came up the walk. I knew that when they got to the porch and the front door opened, my life would be over — again. So when that front door opened, I ran.
At least open your mind to the possibility that you’re not responsible for everything that happened, says Dr. Daniels during one of our sessions. But the… No matter what anyone else says. I must’ve done something, I tell her. I feel so guilty. Because of something you’ve done or because other people say you’re guilty? It’s all my fault, I tell her, pulling my bare feet up onto the couch and hugging my legs against my chest. It’s my fault for thinking I could be happy. She goes over to the window and adjusts the heat. When the fan comes on, a fabric butterfly hanging from the ceiling twists slowly. If only I had a chance to do everything over, I say as she sits back down. What would you do differently? Being with Sam in the first place, I tell her. That’s the first thing I’d change.
After that first night, after everything had happened, we lay in each other’s arms, without talking, our clothes scattered on the apartment floor. The countertop, stove, and table were covered with saucers and cups, each filled with a candle, but all the candles had gone out. Though the early morning sun came through the icy windows, the apartment was still mostly in shadows. I raised myself up and leaned on my elbow. Hannah was on the other side of Sam, on her back, her paws sticking up in the air. When I reached over to pet her stomach, her purring vibrated her body.
I untangled the blanket and sheets so I could lie next to Sam again, our skin touching. His chest rose and fell slowly under my cheek, his heartbeat under my ear. Lying there with him like that, I felt things I’d never felt before, and suddenly I was afraid it had all been a dream. I held my breath, closed my eyes as tight as I could, then slowly opened them. Yes, everything was just the same as before. I was still there, and he was still there with me. So it wasn’t a dream after all. Sam shifted his position, hugging Hannah closer and kissing her before he opened his eyes and looked at me.
“Claudia,” he said as I touched his face with the back of my hand.
He took my wrist and kissed it.
“Where’d you get that bruise?” he said.
I didn’t care about the bruise. I didn’t care about anything in the world but his mouth on mine, his arms around me, his heart beating in the same rhythm as mine. When he moved under the covers, Hannah jumped off the sofa-bed, went over to the pile of cushions, and curled up on top of them. The sun slanted through the windows over the sink, shining on Sam’s dark hair and eyes.
He held my face in his hands as he kissed me, and my heart pounded as I stretched my body against his. I kept my eyes open the whole time, saying his name over and over. Everything about him excited me: his unshaved cheek, the weight of his body, the pressure of his thighs. When I tangled my fingers in his thinning hair, when he lifted my hips so my body fit his, when he moved deep in me, I knew I belonged with him, no matter what, for the rest of my life. God, I was so happy. I was so unbelievably happy.
Aren’t you allowed to be happy? says Dr. Daniels. Every single time I’ve ever been happy, something terrible has happened. And you think there’s a connection? There has to be, I tell her. It’s just like when I was a child. She takes a sip of her coffee before setting the mug back onto her desk. If it makes you feel better to believe it started in your childhood, she says, then go all the way back. To my memories of Mother Esther? You tell me, she says. You’re the one who says it all started in your childhood. I don’t think it started with Mother Esther, I tell her, though I suppose it could have.
“There, isn’t this nice?” said Mother Esther as we settled ourselves in the living room in front of the television. “Here we are, just the two of us. My, Claudia, you’re getting to be such a big girl. I remember when you used to go down for your nap right after lunch.”
But not that day. I climbed into Father Jacob’s chair as she sat on the couch. When I stretched out my legs, my feet almost reached over the edge of the chair seat. I put my hands on the armrests, on top of the crocheted doilies, just like Father Jacob did. My half-glass of soda, surrounded by porcelain figurines, was on the table beside the chair. As Mother Esther drank her soda from the bottle, I turned to her.
“You’re my mommy, right?”
“Not your real mommy, Honey,” she said, putting her bottle down on the coaster on the floor at her feet. “Remember? We told you. We’re like Mother Ruth and her husband. Daddy Jacob and I couldn’t have any babies of our own, so we’re your mommy and daddy till…”
“Till I’m all growed up.”
“No, Honey, till the judge finds you a new mommy and daddy. Don’t, Claudia,” she said, frowning as she got up from the couch. “You don’t want to hurt yourself again.”
She hurried over to the chair and held me tight, trapping my hands and arms against my body. I twisted and turned, but she wouldn’t let me go. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t get away from her voice in my ears.
What was she saying to you? says Dr. Daniels, but I don’t want to remember. I get up from the couch and go to the window. The sun is finally shining, and it glints off the heaps of icy snow. It’s so bright it hurts my eyes, so I go back to the couch and sit down. That’s one of your gifts, your memory, says Dr. Daniels. You should be grateful for it. Why don’t I just be grateful for all the suffering and the deceit and the persecution? I say, yanking some tissues out of the box sitting next to me on the couch. Why don’t I just be grateful for all the people who’ve betrayed me? After I’ve emptied the box and crumpled the last tissue and added it to the pile beside me, she gets another box out of her file cabinet drawer. She sits down in her rocking chair and waits until I’m quiet. Do you want to talk about all this anger? she says.
“If there were ever anything you wanted to tell me,” said Roger, standing behind me, “you could.”
“Are you cold?” I said, turning around to look at him. “You don’t think it’s cold in here?”
He shook his head. Sam was outside shoveling again, heaping the snow into waist-high piles along either side of the driveway. All around him, the snow continued to fall, dense and thick, swirling around in great gusts each time the wind rattled the windows. When I went down the hall, Roger followed me. I turned the thermostat up another few degrees. On the way back to the living room, I took one of Sam’s wool sweaters off the coat-tree and pulled it on over my own.
“I’d never tell anyone,” said Roger.
I went to the window, putting my hands around all the edges, checking for cold air, but I didn’t feel any. The shovel scraped loudly against the driveway. When he finished, Sam leaned on the upright shovel and looked out across the deserted street, snow whirling around his head, ice crystals clinging to the scarf over his mouth and nose. Before he’d made it back to the house, the driveway was covered with white again.
“You can trust me,” said Roger, touching me on the back. “No matter what.”
“What about Eve?” I said.
“I wouldn’t tell her.”
“Not him either. Especially not him.”
I pulled the collar of the sweater over my mouth and nose, breathing in the mingled odors of Sam and wool. Roger came up from behind and put his arms around me. He kissed me on the cheek.
“What about the phones?”
“Taken care of.”
Sam came up onto the porch, stamping his boots to free them of snow, leaning the shovel against the house. When he opened the front door, Roger moved away from me fast.
Why does that memory make you angry? says Dr. Daniels. Why does it make me angry? Don’t you realize what he meant? What do you think he meant, Claudia? He thought I was guilty. Did he? He thought I was going to confess to him, for Christ’s sake. And that makes you angry? How could he think that? Roger, of all people? Are you sure that’s what he meant? Did you ask him? I know what he meant. God, I’m so sick of all this. Why can’t I just forget it all? Repressing memories is not the way to be happy, says Dr. Daniels, but I’m not repressing anything. Sam says none of it matters anyway. He says it didn’t all start on the day I found the body or in my childhood: not on my thirteenth birthday or on that day with Mother Esther. He says everything started the day I became his fiancée.
The night we were going to tell his parents about the change in our wedding date, we left for the restaurant forty-five minutes early. I was so nervous, my hands were cold on my wine glass. Every time the restaurant door opened, my mouth went completely dry. Then Sam stood up, straightening his tie, and his parents were there. Sam shook Harold’s hand. Eleanor kissed me on the cheek and sat beside me, moving her chair closer to mine. She took my hand and held it tightly. She was so close that I breathed in her perfume.
“At last,” she said, “I’m going to have a daughter.”
When she said that, the noise of the other diners was pushed into the background. Sam’s laughter and Harold’s chatter became a blur. Everything in the world faded — all those years making Mother’s Day cards in school then shoving them into my dresser drawers, all those nights staring into mirrors looking for my real mother, all those days following happy children around schoolyards wishing I could trade places with them — all of it, in that one single moment, disappeared. Everything disappeared. Except Eleanor. “At last,” she said, “I’m going to have a daughter,” and something in me stirred.
That night, if you’d told me everything I know now, I don’t think it would’ve made any difference.
“At last,” said Eleanor, “I’m going to have a daughter.” From that very moment, I loved her.
Eleanor loved you, too, says Dr. Daniels, but I’m not sure it was love that Eleanor felt for me all those years ago. I sit in Dr. Daniels’ office, with its pastel walls and its butterfly mobile, and it’s hard to sort out what I know now from what I knew then. It doesn’t matter, Claudia, she says, because it’s time to let go. She makes it sound so easy. Like closing your eyes and opening them up to a new life. I want to do that, but I keep wondering if I am responsible for what happened. That’s what everyone said after I found the body, and even if that’s not when things started, that’s when things got worse. After you found it? Not before? No, it was only after I found the body that my life really deteriorated.
After I found it, I went to the phone upstairs to call for help. While they were on their way, I went back into the bedroom, but I didn’t go near the bed: I stood by the window. After the police and the paramedics got there, after they tried to force life back into the body, after the older paramedic finally took the stethoscope out of his ears and rolled up the blood pressure cuff, all of them turned toward me, but no one said anything. The emergency lights kept flashing their red against the walls.
While the younger paramedic left the room and went downstairs, one of the policemen bent closer to the nightstand to look at the prescription bottles. Then he got down on one knee to look at the bottles on the floor. I swear I don’t remember seeing them at all till he knelt down.
All I saw was the body.
The younger paramedic returned, unrolling a dark bag, which he laid out on the bed. I hugged myself and looked out the window. Roger and Eve pulled into the driveway. Mrs. Adams from across the street stumbled through the snowdrifts to talk to them. Roger nodded to Mrs. Adams, but Eve kept walking toward the house. When Mrs. Adams looked up at the bedroom window, I stepped back behind the curtains. I was still that scared little girl who hid behind Mother Grace’s curtains more than thirty-five years before.
I stood behind those velvet curtains, the hem of my sweatshirt pulled up and stuffed in my mouth, the cold air from the windows piercing my bare back, and listened to what they said about me. As Mother Grace’s footsteps went upstairs, I peeked out. The man and woman stood in the entry hall. The woman, even in her high heels, was much smaller than the man. He bounced his briefcase against his leg as she rifled through the stack of papers she held. When Mother Grace came back down the stairs, leaning heavily on the banister, they both looked up at her.
“I can’t find Claudia anywhere.”
“She didn’t run away again, did she?” said the man.
“Of course not.”
“Why would she?”
“Could she be with your son?”
“No. Roger’s at work.”
“Maybe he took her someplace before he went to work,” said the woman, leaving her fingers in the stack of papers while Mother Grace crossed the entry hall.
“She’s probably outside in the backyard. I’ll call her.”
“We don’t have a lot of time, Grace.”
“It won’t take a minute.”
“I don’t understand why you don’t want to tell her yourself.”
“After everything that poor child’s been through…”
“That’s exactly why we think she’d rather hear it from you.”
I let the velvet curtain slip back in front of my face as Mother Grace went through the kitchen to the back door. She called and called for me.
“How do you think she’ll take it?” said the woman in the hall.
“The same as they all take it.”
“Don’t you think she’ll be surprised?”
“After what she’s been through, nothing would surprise her.”
No, it wasn’t surprise I felt as I hid behind those curtains. I thought of my backpack — filled with my books and some clothes — upstairs under my bed, and I cursed myself for not having hidden it out in the garage. I’d have to leave without it: I couldn’t risk letting them find me. After Mother Grace returned and the three of them went out onto the front porch to look for me, I ran as fast as I could through the house, out the back door, to the garage, and I didn’t look back.
I didn’t run when I found the body, though I wanted to. I stayed right there and watched it all. I saw Dr. Barnett shake his head and put his stethoscope away, I saw the policeman using his pen to roll the prescription bottles toward him, I saw the paramedics wrap the sheet around the body, lift it, and center it on the dark bag.
The policeman beside the bed tapped Dr. Barnett, then pointed to the prescription bottles on the nightstand and on the floor. Dr. Barnett glanced down and shook his head before he continued writing, the emergency lights splashing red on the walls, on the bed, on their faces.
Roger came into the bedroom, still wearing his uniform, with Eve right behind him, and crossed the room to put his arms around me. Eve stood near us, hugging herself, staring at the bed. The bag crackled as the paramedics closed it. When they covered the face, I looked away.
“Close your eyes, Claudia,” said Harold on my first Christmas with Sam’s family. “You’re not peeking, are you?”
“I already know what it looks like.”
“It’s not the same without the lights,” said Harold.
“Besides, I have one more ornament to hang up,” said Eleanor.
“A special ornament. So don’t look yet.”
“Put your hands over your eyes, so we can be sure you’re not cheating.”
There was more rustling of paper and whispering. I tried to see between my fingers, but their backs blocked the tree.
“How much longer?”
“Just a second.”
“Wait: turn off the other lights.”
God, it was beautiful. The lights twinkled and blinked, the tinsel glittered and sparkled, the boughs drooped with ornaments. I walked toward the tree, its branches covering the entire width of the front room window and its top grazing the ceiling. In the center front of the tree was a crystal ornament engraved with my name and the year. It was lovely. Eleanor hugged me. “At last,” I thought, “I’ve finally found what I’ve been searching for: the tree from my childhood.”
Every Christmas Eve, Mother Anne bundled us foster children up in our coats, hats, scarves, and mittens, then piled us all into the backseat of the car. While Mother Anne’s new husband and her father put up the tree, she drove the rest of us around so we could look at all the Christmas lights and decorations. We rated the trees as if we were Olympic judges. Only one tree ever achieved a perfect score, the tree we always saved for last: Iris Tristan’s.
We drove up the long, icy hill that led to Iris Tristan’s house and sat in the cul-de-sac, our breath fogging the windows as we gazed at her tree. No tree on earth was as wonderful as hers. We sat there in the dark, surrounded by glittering snow, imagining the most fantastic presents underneath her tree. I would’ve given anything to be one of Iris Tristan’s grandchildren and to wake up Christmas morning to the presents under that tree, even if it meant I had to be chubby and wear thick, dark eyeglasses. We sat there looking at her tree till the cold forced us home.
On the way back, I didn’t feel like singing, but I moved my mouth to the songs anyway. When we got to Mother Anne’s house, our fingers and toes numb with cold, the oohs and aahs of the others blended with the sound of coats and gloves and boots dropped in the rush to see the completely decorated tree. I stood by the doorway, looking at the lights and decorations, but every year, the tree disappointed me.
Every year, every tree disappointed me in some way. Christmas disappointed me. Until that first Christmas as part of Sam’s family. It was more than the engraved crystal ornament, more than the gold bracelet Harold and Eleanor gave me, more than the pearl earrings Sam gave me. That night, standing there with Sam and Harold and Eleanor, Christmas carols playing in the background, I gazed up at the star on the tree’s top and thought it was the most beautiful light in the world.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth,
The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
After I found the body, my life turned to darkness again. Only your life? says Dr. Daniels during our next session. What about Sam’s life? Didn’t he suffer, too? Not in the same way. Tell me how his suffering was different from yours. I have told her — many, many times, right here, in this very office, but no matter how often I explain it, she still says people’s suffering can’t be compared. I don’t know how to make her understand. It’s absolutely hopeless.
“It’s hopeless finding a wedding dress I can afford,” I said to Eleanor the third time we went shopping.
“This brocade one’s darling,” she said, holding it up. “What about this one?”
I shook my head.
“You know, Dear, it would’ve been fine with me if Eve had come with us,” she said as she put the dress back.
“I thought it would be nice, just the two of us,” I said. “We never get to spend any time alone together.”
“I don’t like hurting Eve’s feelings,” said Eleanor.
The salesclerk brought out a pale blue dress, but as soon as she saw the look on my face, she turned around and took it back. Chiffon, satin, lace. Beige, almond, blush. Beads, embroidery, seed-pearls. Each dress was lovely in its own way, but none was the dress I’d dreamed of. I sat down on the love-seat next to Eleanor, took off my shoe, and massaged my foot.
“I just thought of one more place we could look,” she said. “Put your shoe back on.”
Instead of going to the mall or to a dress shop, though, Eleanor drove to her house. She pulled into the driveway, stopped the car, and got out, motioning for me to follow. We went upstairs, all the way to the third floor, to the finished attic. After she opened the curtains of the window in the eaves, she went to an armoire and rummaged around in it. I bent down at the window that overlooked the backyard and saw the tree where Sam and Roger had built their tree house: there were still a couple of boards in the lower branches.
From behind me, the crinkling of tissue paper and plastic stopped, so I turned around. The discarded wrappings were on the floor at Eleanor’s feet, and there, hanging inside the open armoire door, was the most beautiful wedding dress I’d ever seen.
“It was my mother’s,” said Eleanor. “I wore it, too.”
I moved toward the dress like I was sleepwalking. I was almost afraid to touch it, it looked so delicate, with all its lace and intricately sewn seed-pearls. As my fingers slid over the gorgeous material, Eleanor lifted the veil and draped it over my hair. She took the dress from the hook, held it up in front of me, and turned me around in front of a full-length mirror.
“Claudia, Dear,” she said, “would you like to wear this dress?”
At that moment, I loved her more than anyone else I’d ever known. I thought she loved me, too. I thought she could give me everything I’d ever missed in my life, everything I’d ever longed for, everything I’d ever lost. How could I have been so wrong?
“Don’t get me wrong, Claudia,” said Harold. “I’m happy to help out with a bookstore…”
“But you don’t think this building will work?”
“It’s been neglected for years.”
“The underlying structure’s sound,” said Sam.
Harold walked around the room, tapping on the walls, rocking on his heels on the floor. Near the back wall, he took out his tape measure to check the distance between the doorframe and the corner.
“What are you planning to do with the kitchen?” said Harold.
“Keep it the way it is. It might come in handy having a kitchen here.”
“You’re sure you can run a bookstore by yourself, Claudia?”
“Eve will help out.”
“Is she going to be your partner?”
“No, this is going to be my bookstore.”
“Is she okay with that?”
“Eve just wants to work till she has the baby. And she wants to sell some of her jewelry here. Sam’s going to make her a glass display case.”
“Her jewelry?” said Harold. “You mean she makes that stuff she wears?”
“Did she make that necklace you gave Eleanor for her birthday?”
“Why? Don’t you like it?”
He shrugged before he took out his pocketknife to unscrew one of the switch-plates. He put his glasses on to examine the wires, then replaced the plate. He went back to the front windows and looked out at the street.
“Prime frontage,” he said.
“The best of any place we’ve seen,” said Sam.
“How much do they want down?”
“You mean, you got enough inheritance from Mother Grace to cover the whole down payment?”
“Roger gave her his half of the inheritance.”
“As a loan,” I said. “Sam gave me a loan, too.”
“Not from our business, Dad.”
“Did I say anything?” said Harold.
“I’d want to hire you and Sam to build the shelves…”
“You’ve got a lot of work to do before you get to any shelves.”
“You won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t want to do it, Harold.”
“He’ll do it.”
“Sam, I told you not to pressure him.”
“Who said I didn’t want to do it?”
“You see?” said Sam.
“How much?” I said.
“How much what?” said Harold.
“How much do you think it’ll cost?”
“Jesus, Claudia, I’m not going to let you pay for this.”
“You can’t do it for nothing. You just said it’ll be a lot of work.”
“You’re buying the materials, Claudia.”
“All right. Give me a discount on books.”
“You can have books for free,” I said, kissing him on the cheek. “For the rest of your life.”
While he and Sam took measurements and discussed materials, I stood in that neglected building and saw my dream. I didn’t see the holes in the plaster or the cracks in the wood floor or the dangling electrical wires. All I saw was what I wanted to see.
The eyes couldn’t see by the time they closed that bag over its face, but it wrenched me anyway. When they lifted the body to set it on the stretcher, it felt like something was tugging me along with it. As they maneuvered the stretcher, it hit the doorframe, so they had to wrestle the stretcher back into the room several times before they got it into the hallway. It was as if, even in death, it didn’t want to leave me. It was as if, even in death, I’d never be free.
As we followed the paramedics, Roger took my hand and whispered something. On the stairs, we had to wait while they fought the stretcher around the turn. Suddenly, I was hot and cold all over. Nausea overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t breathe.
It felt like it was me in that black bag, like it was my eyes in that darkness, like it was me who’d stepped into another world and could never go back. I reached out before I remembered that Sam wasn’t there.
Then Eve cried out, and Roger grabbed me as the darkness swallowed me.
After I opened my eyes, the darkness scattered. I lay on the living room floor, with Eve wiping my face and Roger waving smelling salts under my nose. When I jerked my head to the side, I saw the body-bag on the stretcher, abandoned in the entry hall, and the pulsing red lights of the emergency vehicles through the windows on the front door. As Dr. Barnett listened to my heart, the paramedic checked my blood pressure. The policeman stood over us.
“I knew something like this would happen,” said Roger, brushing the hair from my forehead.
“She’s exhausted herself,” said Eve.
“These situations are always so difficult,” said Dr. Barnett.
He wrote on his clipboard as the policeman who’d looked at the prescription bottles frowned at me. The red lights from outside swept across the body-bag. I closed my eyes. Eve’s fingers were cool on my face. Roger murmured something I couldn’t understand. Dr. Barnett’s pen scratched and scratched.
It seems like we haven’t even scratched the surface of my life, I tell Dr. Daniels. Not even scratched it? she says with a laugh. We’ve excavated it, cataloged it, mourned it, then started over again from the beginning. It doesn’t feel like that to me, I tell her. It feels like I’m trapped. You are trapped, Claudia. By choice. I want to get up and walk out, but, of course, I can’t, so I go over to the window instead. On the windowsill, next to a picture of Dr. Daniels’ two children, there’s a figurine of a white-bearded wizard wearing a purple robe. Next to him is a kneeling angel, her white wings fanning out behind her shoulders. You can live in the past with your wounds, says Dr. Daniels, or you can heal yourself and live the rest of your life. Oh, God, I am trying, I tell her, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes I go for days without thinking about everything that happened, but then I have to go to the Home or the Hospice for the afternoon, or someone in the grocery store will look at me over the display of tomatoes, nudge her friend, and… And that’s when you’re thirteen again, fumbling frantically with your bike-chain in the garage.
The garage door was open, but since it faced the alley behind the yard, no one from the house could see me. I knelt on the concrete floor of the garage, wrestling with my bike-chain. Every time I had it almost completely on, it slipped off, and I had to start over. After the fifth or sixth time, Roger’s car pulled in behind me. I wiped my eyes and nose on the sleeve of my sweatshirt as he opened the car door and got out.
“Hey, Claude,” he said. “Kinda chilly for a bike ride, ain’t it? Did the chain fall off again? I’ll do it.”
“Let go. Get off.”
“What’s wrong with you, Claude?”
“Nothing. And stop calling me that.”
“Okay, Claude-ski. You don’t have to yell. I thought you’d be in a good mood today, seeing how it’s your birthday and all,” he said as I struggled with the chain. “So, don’t I get a hug or something? The present was my idea, you know.”
“Thanks a lot, Marble-head.”
“Whoa: what’s that for? What’s going on, Claude?”
“Stop calling me that. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“What’s the matter with you? I thought after you got your present you’d be… Hey, wait a minute: you don’t think that… No, you can’t believe that we’d… after we promised… Geez, Claude, you are so stupid.”
When he yanked me away from my bike, it clattered over onto the garage floor. I yelled at him as he lifted me over his shoulder and carried me toward the house. All the leaves had fallen from the trees, and they rustled loudly as Roger marched across the yard.
“Put me down. Put me down, you jerk.”
“Not till you get your birthday present.”
“Let go of me. Put me down, you big, stupid, ugly…”
“Hey, quit scratching, Claude.”
“I hate you, you Marble-head.”
“Heavens, what’s all that screaming? Roger, what are you doing? Put her down,” said Mother Grace as the back door swung open. “Put her down, I said. Claudia, Dear, where have you been? We’ve been looking everywhere for you. Roger, let go of her.”
“Not till she gets her present. You won’t believe what she thinks it is, Mom.”
“She was running away,” said the man with the briefcase.
“No, she wasn’t,” said Mother Grace.
“I knew this wasn’t a good idea,” said the woman.
Roger pushed me into the living room ahead of him and sat me down on the couch, across from everyone else, who remained standing. Mother Grace wrung her hands, her eyes filling with tears.
“I never dreamed it’d be like this,” she said. “I wanted her to be happy. That’s all I wanted. For her to be happy.”
“It’s like a bad dream,” said foster mother Ruth that first time in court. “Tell me this isn’t really happening.”
“Mrs. Irving, please, you’re not supposed to say anything,” said the lawyer.
I tried to sit still between them, but the lace on my socks was stiff and scratchy, and my new shoes pinched my toes. The judge, sitting far away and high above us at his bench, shuffled papers back and forth. There were two flags on poles behind him, and one of the poles had a gold eagle on top. There were open curtains behind him but no window. When the judge closed the folder and spoke, he didn’t even glance at us.
“Due to the marital status of the applicant,” he said, “the motion for adoption is denied.”
Mother Ruth’s breath went in so sharply that I looked up at her.
“The court hereby rules that the minor child be placed in the Children’s Home until a suitable family can be found.”
He hit his gavel once before the lawyer rose and started piling his papers and folders into his briefcase. Mother Ruth caught hold of his jacket while the caseworker tried to take my hand in hers.
“What if my husband and I don’t get divorced?” said Mother Ruth as the lawyer snapped his briefcase closed. “What if we get back together? Can I have her then?”
“Once you’ve re-established a secure and stable environment for the child, Mrs. Irving, you can always reapply.”
“It’s more secure and stable without him. You’ve seen the police reports. You know how he gets when he drinks.”
The lawyer nodded to the next group of people coming to the table. When the caseworker tried to take my hand again, Mother Ruth pulled me closer to her side.
“Why can’t Claudia stay with me,” she said, “at least until they find her a new place?”
“The judge denied that motion, Mrs. Irving,” said the lawyer, opening the door to the hall.
“I don’t understand why.”
“He doesn’t feel it’s in the child’s best interest.”
“He didn’t even talk to me. Why didn’t he talk to me? You said he’d ask me some questions.”
“I said he might.”
“Why didn’t he? You said he would.”
The lawyer stopped and turned around, sighing loudly.
“Apparently, Mrs. Irving, he didn’t feel it was necessary.”
“But that’s not fair.”
“I have another appointment, Mrs. Irving,” said the caseworker. “You’ll have to say goodbye now.”
Mother Ruth knelt in front of me and hugged me hard. There were people all around us, going in and out of courtrooms. When I put my arms around Mother Ruth’s neck, she said something in my ear, but she was trembling so hard that I couldn’t understand her.
“Now look what you’ve done, Mrs. Irving: you’ve upset her,” said the caseworker. “Come here, Claudia. Come here, Honey. That’s a girl. Don’t cry. Really, Mrs. Irving, you didn’t have to do it like this.”
Mother Ruth stood up quickly, her handkerchief covering her nose and mouth. She didn’t look at me as she stumbled down the marble hallway, as she put her hand on the doorframe to get her balance, as she went out the courthouse door. I pulled and tugged, trying to get free of the caseworker. I kicked and screamed and bit, but the caseworker didn’t let go. She held me so tight, my stomach hurt. She held me so tight, I thought I died.
But I didn’t die that day. I didn’t die the day I found the body, either, though sometimes I wished I had. After I’d fainted and was lying on the living room floor, Roger held my hand so tight it hurt, but I was glad for the pain. When I looked up at Roger and Eve, Roger put his hand against my face.
“If you cried,” he said, “it might make you feel better.”
When I blinked, my eyes felt like they were being scratched with sandpaper. Roger gave me his handkerchief.
“Don’t try to be brave,” he said. “It’s all right to cry in front of us.”
I stared at him.
“It’s shock,” said the paramedic as he rolled up the blood pressure cuff.
“Shock, huh?” said the other policeman.
“Undoubtedly,” said Dr. Barnett.
“That’s what you think it is, huh? Shock?”
“What else could it be?”
Roger and Eve stayed with me after they took the body away. Roger wanted to stay all night, but I told him to go home with Eve and not to come back after dinner. All alone, I wandered from room to room. The house was so quiet. So empty. I sat on the stairs, at the bottom, for a long time. I sat there, all by myself, all alone in that emptied house, and I thought, “At last, it’s over. After all these years, it’s finally over.”
Then I wept.
There were no tears left on my thirteenth birthday after Roger dragged me back into the house. Even after we were inside and sitting on the couch, he wouldn’t let go of my wrist. He was afraid I’d run, but there was no point in running then: it only worked if you did it before they found you. Afterward, it was best to get it over with. I sat there on the couch, with Roger’s fingers around my wrist like a manacle, and I made myself a statue — deaf, dumb, blind. Safe.
“Pay attention, Claude.”
“Roger, please don’t call her that. You know she doesn’t like it.”
“But she’s doing that Zombie thing again, Mom.”
“Roger, don’t. Claudia, Dear, did you hear what they just told you?”
“She can’t hear you, Mom. I told you: she’s a Zombie.”
“Grace, what’s he talking about?” said the man.
“Nothing. It’s a game they play. Claudia, Dear…”
“Claude, listen up.”
“The court has approved a family who wants to adopt you,” said the woman in the high heels, perching on the edge of the overstuffed chair across from me. “Unfortunately, the father has passed away.”
“But the mother is very healthy,” said Mother Grace.
“She’s not listening to a word we’re saying,” said the man, dropping his briefcase on the floor beside the flowered love-seat as he sat down.
“Due to the family’s keen interest in you and to its relative financial stability,” said the woman, “the court has decided to award permanent custody to the family.”
“If you agree to the adoption,” said Mother Grace.
Suddenly they were all staring at me. It was so quiet, I could hear the grandfather clock ticking in the dining room. Roger elbowed me, but I didn’t move.
“You’re old enough to have some say in the decision, Claudia.”
“Aren’t you going to answer us?”
“This must be a terrible shock for her.”
“What she needs is to be turned over somebody’s knee.”
“Claudia,” said Mother Grace, “do you want to stay with us, Dear?”
“Yeah, Claude, do you want to be my kid-sister permanent or don’t you?”
Roger let go of my wrist then, but my hand and arm lay there, cold and still, like I really was a statue. When Mother Grace came and sat beside me on the couch, when she touched my arm, her fingers warm and soft against my skin, I did the only thing I could do.
“Christ, you’d think she’d be happy,” said the man.
“I knew we shouldn’t have done it this way, Grace,” said the woman.
“My sweet baby girl,” said Mother Grace, taking me in her arms.
“Hey, now we’re stuck with you for good, Claude-ski,” said Roger, and he punched me in the back.
“Don’t hit my hand,” I said.
“Don’t put your hand over your glass,” said Sam after he came up to me at the table.
“I said, don’t hit me.”
“I didn’t hit you. I was just moving your hand.”
“I don’t want any more to drink, Sam. I’ve already had too much.”
“It’s a wedding. There’s no such thing as too much champagne.”
“Oh, shit, sorry. Did that get on your dress? Sorry. I told you not to put your hand over your glass.”
I blotted the front of my gown with a napkin as Sam, his arms full of champagne bottles, sat down in the chair beside me. Two flower-girls, chased by the ring-bearer, darted around the table, giggling when Sam reached out for them, squealing with laughter as they eluded his grasp and raced back onto the dance floor, disappearing among the long gowns and tuxedos. Sam pushed my hands away when I tried to take the champagne bottles off the table.
“Hey, there you are, Claude,” he said suddenly. “Where’ve you been? I’ve been looking all over for you. Jesus, Claude, something terrible’s happened. I gotta tell you.”
“You haven’t called me ‘Claude’ since we were kids.”
“I call you Claude all the time. Listen, Claude… Here, have some more champagne,” he said, pouring from the second bottle. “You’ll want some when you hear what I gotta tell you.”
I moved my glass, so he filled the one next to it, then drank that one along with his own.
“Claude, listen: I’ve got something to tell you. You should wear pastels more often.”
“That’s what you wanted to tell me?”
“And you look really good in that dress. Did I tell you that?”
“Quite a few times.”
“You look really, really good in it. I really think you should have some more to drink, Claude.”
“Where’s Bethany?” I said as Sam emptied another glass without pausing for breath.
He put down the champagne flute and sat there for a few seconds without saying anything. Then he gripped my hand in his.
“She’s gone, Claude.”
“She’s going to have to drive you home.”
“She’s not here, Claude. Jesus, how many times do I have to tell you?”
He ran his fingers roughly through his hair, making some of it stick out. I leaned toward him and smoothed it down.
“You don’t have to raise your voice. I was just asking where Bethany was.”
“Sorry, Claude. I didn’t mean to yell. Are you sure you don’t want some more champagne? ‘Cause I think you’re gonna need some. Just as soon as you ask me where Jerry is.”
“Jesus, Claude, don’t you even remember your own boyfriend’s name?”
“His name’s Gary.”
“Oh, yeah, Gary. Okay, so ask me where Gary is.”
“He left. With Bethany. Wow, you think that’s funny? I never thought you’d laugh about it.”
“Where are they, Sam? Really?”
“They left, Claude. D’you see them anywhere?”
I glanced around the reception hall, crowded with people in their best clothes. Everyone was laughing, dancing, eating, drinking. Everyone except Bethany and Gary. I pulled my cell phone out of my beaded purse, and dialed Gary’s number. No answer. I didn’t leave a message. I called again.
“Bethany’s went right to Voicemail, too,” said Sam as he held up his phone. “Wanna see all the texts I sent her?”
I shook my head.
“That’s okay. She didn’t answer any of them anyway.”
I glanced around the reception room again.
“Maybe they went out for… cigarettes.”
“They left in a state of partial undress,” said Sam, “so I don’t think they went out for cigarettes. Besides, Bethany quit smoking. But ask me if I care if she left with Dildo. Sorry, I mean, Jerry. Go ahead: ask me if I care. No, I do not. And you wanna know why I don’t? ‘Cause I was going to break up with her anyway. The only reason I brought her with me tonight was so I’d have a date for the wedding. But right after the reception: ‘hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no…’ Aw, come on, Claude, don’t start crying on me. Wait. Where are you going?”
“To find Gary.”
“He’s not here, Claude. Christ, d’you think I’d make something like that up?”
“Let go of my wrist, Sam. You’re hurting me.”
“Hey, Claude, d’you wannna dance?”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Come on. Best man’s supposed to dance with the maid of honor.”
“You must be really drunk to think I’d want to dance after…”
“Who you calling drunk? You stand up if you’re going to call me that. I don’t care if you’re already standing. Okay, then I’ll stand up. Hey, don’t go. Come on, Claude. I didn’t mean it. You know I didn’t. Come on, don’t leave me all alone.”
After I sat back down, he picked up a piece of ham and a portion of deviled egg from one of the abandoned plates and shoved them into his mouth.
“Hey, Claude, did I tell you that dress looks really, really good on you?”
The flower-girls came running back, this time without the ring-bearer, their organdy dresses rustling as they leaned against Sam, their hands sticky with sugared almonds. Each time Sam opened his mouth, one of them popped another candy in. When there were none left, they licked the sugar off their empty palms. Then they dashed back into the crowd of dancers. While Sam was texting and calling Bethany, I took the extra champagne bottles off the table.
Roger and Eve were waltzing in the center of the group, and the chandelier’s light sparkled on the silver embroidery on Eve’s gown. When Roger said something, she smiled up at him, and he kissed her on the forehead. They looked so happy, gazing at each other while dancing slower and slower, closer and closer. Lots of people were dancing, but Gary and Bethany weren’t among them. Sam stood up, taking his keys out of his pants pocket.
“Hey, where’s my champagne? Somebody took it. Quick, Claude, call the police. Call Roger. No, don’t call Roger. Not today. Call the other police. The ones who aren’t here. Nobody leaves till we find my champagne. Hey, what are you doing? Gimme my keys.”
“I’d better take you home.”
“Okay, but quit pulling on my arm like that. I’m not the one who left with somebody else. Hey, Claude, you look really, really good in that dress. Did I tell you that? You’re the greatest, Claude. Hey, why’d you take my phone?”
“If Bethany calls, I’ll answer.”
“Gotchya. Make her jealous. Good one. Gimme yours. I’ll answer if Jerry calls.”
“You’re dating two guys?”
I sighed as I handed him my phone.
“Don’t let anybody ever tell you, you’re not the greatest, Claude. In the whole wide world. The absolute greatest. Jerry’s an absolute, complete, and total jerk. And Gary’s a jerk, too. Jerry and Gary and Bethany — they’re all jerks. They deserve each other, as far as I’m concerned. ‘Cause you’re the best, Claude. Really, the greatest.”
He slipped my phone into the inside pocket of his Tuxedo jacket. Just as I pulled my shawl around my shoulders, Sam leaned forward and kissed me. Just like that. He took my face in his hands and kissed me. Right there at the reception, with everyone dancing and eating and laughing around us, he kissed me. After what he’d just told me, he kissed me.
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Excerpt from Only with the Heart, Revised & Expanded,
Legally & Medically Updated, 12th Anniversary Edition
© 2000, 2012, 2013 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
May not be reprinted or excerpted without written permission.
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(1st edition published by Arcade 2000)
(originally published under pseudonym “Sherri”)
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