I’m getting high again. Sober for twenty years, and now I’m 64 and buying loose joints from the kid at the Mobil station. Right out in the open when he hands me my change, like it’s my receipt.
I sit on the slab of concrete at the bottom of the back door. The sun sets behind me. It gets dark slowly and then all at once and I light up using the clicky-thing we use for the grill. It’s a body high not a head high—a distinction I’ve learned from television and not one I remember from the old days. We just got high back then.
When Bob delivered the groceries last week, he had another phone message for me. It was from one of the girls. Bob said since it’s only a message now and then, it’s okay, but why don’t I give out my number like everyone else. I told him thanks and started to put the groceries away so he’d change the subject or leave.
My daughters appear to me in odd ways these days. They come in dreams, in waking thoughts that I’m not convinced are memories, and in a phone message or a scrawled letter when they’ve tracked down my contact information and are eager to spill their grievances. Our email address hovers over me like a threat, but Zach has it in his name.
They blame me for just about everything. I left them so they blame me.
Natalie, my oldest, was angry always and she was right to be. But what can I do now? What could I ever have done? I mean, after I left. What’s there to do after that?
Jane, my next, was always so strange, so far-off. Born in California amid the chaos of my travelling, she was this blank slate that could be and then change and then be again. I think she might have been switched at birth because she never really felt like only mine, more like she belonged to all of us. She was a chilly, chilly girl. When I see her perform on her television show, she seems to be playing at being one of us. But then she’s supposed to be, I guess.
Poor Gena, marked from the start. She came out and right away I knew. I thought the midwife might have nodded to confirm what I knew instantly, but maybe the woman’s face just got caught in the brief Vermont morning light. Some kids are born old souls and you see it, feel it immediately as they enter the world from between your legs. Others are born lost. Gena lay on my chest after I gave birth and she felt like a broken doll.
I have no interest in engaging with any of my daughters in an examination of why their mother left them. It’s no-win for them and it bores me to have to repeat myself. I whispered in their ears as they lay asleep, each and every one of them, right before I left. I explained myself once.
You fake it, you live the part. I loved them and made sure someone—their fathers in most cases— raised them well, and that’s all you can do.
And then they blame you. Whether you stay or you go, they blame you.
Maybe it would be better if we didn’t fake it, just treated our kids the way we really feel about them. Maybe they would have it easier. But no matter what you do, they accuse you of not preparing them for their lives, as if you’d told them to go play in traffic.
This morning I feel Zach next to me, heavy in the bed, unmoving. I must have fallen asleep beside him watching the Olympics in China. No, we were bored by the gymnastics and put in a movie. I can’t remember—oh, yes, of course. John Wayne. Even old hippie draft dodgers can’t get free of The Duke. I can see the TV screen with the DVD logo swimming across it. It must have been doing that all night.
I know I need to get up, but I haven’t slept in the bed for weeks, and it feels good not to wake curled on the living room couch with a stiff neck. But now I can feel why I haven’t slept in this bed for weeks. The chilling damp from him has spread.
“I’m sorry. You awake, babe? I’m sorry.” It comes out slurred, sounds obscured and missing, but I know what he’s saying.
“It’s okay. I’ll clean us up in a sec.” I don’t want to move, don’t want to have to begin the day of cleaning and serving and saying It’s okay fifty more times. I’m lying in someone else’s night-old piss as I drift back to sleep.
Washing is easier if we’re in the shower together. He sits on the old-lady stool from the surgical supply store and I arrange the limbs on his bad side so he sits with some integrity. I stand above him, facing away, adjusting the flow and the temperature of the water. I sense his beard graze my ass. His good arm wraps around me. I feel like someone else for a moment and think about turning to kiss him. Then I’m here again, with him this way.
When I do turn to him and start to wash him with the soapy cloth, he mumbles a long speech I can’t decipher because of the water noise. He knows I can’t hear him in here and it’s probably for the best. He’s on about something that restores his face momentarily with shape and energy. His eyes pierce out from behind the shaggy hair and beard and his lips are animated and moving with purpose. His whole body is tense with control and it’s hard in these moments for me to see where his brain has failed him.
When I finish rinsing him, his good arm and leg come alive again and bring me into his embrace. He’s partially erect and I wonder if he can fuck me properly in his condition instead of the back-seat fumblings we tried a few weeks ago. Too much to ask? I look down and see that it is.
Right after the stroke, before I could understand how he talks now, he kept saying the same thing over and over, every time I touched him, fed him, wiped his ass. For weeks I was glad about what I thought he was saying. Then I got scared. What if I was wrong? What if he wasn’t asking me to leave?
Today I don’t wait until sundown and right after lunch I sit on the concrete slab and light up a joint. I can see houses along the hillsides and down into the valley where the road leads to town. I need to go, to travel, to move on, but I stay. I wonder if I need to stay as much as I need to go. Well, maybe not quite as much. I want to stay and I need to go. That distinction creates the tension of my days. I inhale long and deep with a little drama as if the joint was one of my long-missed Marlboros and I was pausing in the middle of a complicated story. I hold the peppery smoke down the back of my throat and then stream it through my mouth out into the air. My brain convulses a bit and my body thickens up with a deep humming. I’m keeping myself here with this routine and the weed, deliberately numbing and debilitating myself so I can’t get a travel itinerary together. When Zach gets better… But Zach isn’t getting better. Maybe I can take him with me… But that’s not my kind of leaving.
I’m in the store on Tuesday when Bob says, “I set aside a couple of cans of that soup for you.”
Bob thinks he’s doing me a favor, making it easier for me to disappear into Zach’s needs.
“Do you need help to the truck?”
“That’s great. If you can just help me with the bags when I’m done.”
I move through the aisle of the small store and wonder if he thinks I’m fat. As I pass the corn flakes, I’m afraid that that’s why he likes me. Maybe he has a thing for fat, aging women. I vow I won’t eat dinner and will walk more, but it occurs to me that Bob probably knows what to do with his hands and if he likes fat old ladies, then let’s get it on.
I stare at his tough-guy fingers as he puts the grocery bags in the back of the truck, and when he offers his hand to me for support so I can get up in the front seat, I notice he’s a lot younger than I thought. He’s being polite, not seductive, and I worry about no longer being able to tell the difference. After he returns to the store, I sit in the parking lot and think about driving away from young men with strong hands and old men with weak sides and this hilltop life of sunrises and sundowns.
I don’t bother leaving the house for my second joint of the day. Zach asks for a hit and I figure it can’t hurt. I’ll check with his doctor on his next visit. He’s asleep when I come back from the kitchen with the cookies. I put a blanket over him in the big chair and go to sleep in the bedroom. We’ll have to throw out the chair in the morning after he’s pissed it.
In the morning I hear him in the shower by himself. I edge quietly to the bathroom door and see him standing in the shower stall. He’s braced against the tiled wall and his good fist grips the safety bar so tightly it’s streaked white and red with effort.
“I think we need to have different furniture, babe,” Zach says that evening.
It comes out the way I think Serbo-Croatian probably sounds, but I know what he means. He means more money, more planning, more figuring out how to live around him. He means more accommodation.
“I think we need an expert. Someone to figure this out for us. Maybe hire someone a few hours a day.” The words are out of my mouth when my brain realizes what a great idea this is. If someone else can take care of him, then I can leave.
“I don’t want you to go” is his response.
He knows me well, this man I want to leave.
He gets himself up and I watch the effortful stumbling and false starts and do nothing to help him. He moves from the couch to me at the dining table, half-dragging the bad leg. When he gets to me, closing the distance faster than I expect, he leans heavily on the back of the chair I’m sitting in.
“I can get better, move better. I’ll get you while you wait.”
The last part can’t be right and I ask him to repeat it.
“I’ll get you while you wait.”
I don’t know what this means. He repeats it again and I just nod and half-smile as if it’s all okay with me.
“Can we go to bed now? I’m tired. Long day.”
This I understand.
As I get into bed beside him I can’t but feel I’ve been threatened, but I let the thought melt away as I reach for sleep. I worry Natalie will leave another message. We need dishwashing liquid and paper towels and coffee. We’re out of the hazelnut. Maybe Bob just looks young for his age. I can ask what’s-her-name. The leaves will change. Did I turn off the TV?
On Wednesday Zach stays out of sight while I interview the helpers, saying he’s embarrassed by the whole process. His doctor referred us to a service and they sent out two candidates, girls really, who are finishing up some kind of physical therapy training certificate. I don’t know how to dress or what to ask them. The last job interview I remember was when I asked about a waitressing job at the White Horse in what was probably 1963.
The blonde sounds like she knows what she’s doing and offers a suggestion or two about arranging things in the house.
“I helped both my grandparents when it was their time.”
She makes it sound like needing someone to open mayonnaise jars is where we all end up eventually, stroke or no stroke, and maybe she’s right, but her sense of entitlement about being the one to do the helping creeps me out. And I don’t like her hair—it’s at the trashy end of the blonde spectrum and when I stumble on her and Zach (as I assume I will) and she’s got her head in his lap and his cock in her mouth, I don’t want to see his fingers holding onto that tacky blonde hair. I hire the brunette.
Zach spends every morning with her in the garage, which she has fixed up with used bars and balls and mats for his physical therapy. She drives him to the doctor on Wednesdays and takes care of his refills at the pharmacy. Before the stroke he was going to a massage parlor out by the old mall in Millerton once a week, but I don’t think she’s driving him there these days. Zach pisses when and where he’s supposed to. This means I can sleep in the bed with him, but mostly I just lie there until he falls asleep and then I return to the couch.
My insomnia is back as is a surge of desire that I have no place to burn off. I’m fixated on Bob and go to the store daily unless I’ve worked myself up into a tizzy of stupidity that even I can’t stand. On those days I sit in the truck in the parking lot and read magazines.
I watch Bob come and go between the store and the lot, cleaning up the property and carrying bags and boxes and nodding hello. He sees me and waves, surely wondering why I sit there in my truck, but never coming over for an explanation or mentioning it when I’m in the store.
Bob’s age responds fluidly to my fantasies of the moment. Like daily specials on a menu I’ve made him forty-eight and adventurous; crossed that off and made him fifty-six, trapped in a loveless third marriage; crossed that off and made him my age, ready with a blue pill across the desk in the office. I feel at his mercy and so I hold my breath when I’m around him and wonder if he thinks I’m mean.
For now I sit and read my magazines and think of one or another of my girls, trying to remember they’re grown women now. I worry over which one will call and if Bob will step out of the store with another message gripped in his hand.
The Lake Road traffic light makes me think of Natalie. Every time I pull up to stop at the red or shoot on through the green at Lake and Route 118, something about the place makes Natalie come to me. I can smell her baby smell, maybe. It floated below the cooking smells in the old Grove Street apartment in the city and was closer to the library smell from her father’s books that everyone says is mildew but makes me think of roast beef. Her smell was her own and even I didn’t share it. I had expected something in common with her, something of our bodies, but it wasn’t there.
These upstate days are very much the opposite of those old days with David before Natalie was born. I think often of how the city was then. Manhattan was all about potential and cool transgression and endless rage and talk. I liked being around all those people who did things, wrote and read and had ideas. And then they all got jobs and nights were shaped by days I didn’t live. People arrived after work filled with stories about people who became famous the next week for a turn of phrase, an article, an affair. They spent their days with another part of the city, being productive, starting things, changing things. One week we were burning down the days at Chumley’s and the next everyone had jobs at the Herald Tribune or Simon & Schuster or answering phones at some city commission. David began teaching. There was no one to hang out with in the afternoon so I went to the movies.
The first pregnancy, that first miscarriage, was so brief and unreal that I kept it to myself. I never told David, never said that anything had changed, just kept it to myself as I sat in the dark at the new movie theater on Bleecker Street. No doctor told me I was pregnant and I didn’t need a doctor to tell me what happened when I bled heavily for three days and felt a deep sense of loss that had me wandering the apartment at night looking for my keys.
Being pregnant with Natalie blunted David’s angry edges into sentimental hovering. What happened to the pounder of typewriter keys, the man who stormed out of rooms? He ran home between lectures to make grilled cheese sandwiches and open cans of tomato soup for me. He was everywhere and soft and the whole idea of family surpassing the couple like an eclipse left me cold. And so I went back to the movies.
I went into labor near the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and waddled out of the uptown theater with a spreading wet blotch on the front and back of my dress. I used the pay phone in the lobby. My frantic husband pulled up in a cab twenty long minutes later and folded me into the back seat with him for the ride back downtown to Saint Vincent’s. I curled on my back with my head against his thigh and turned my face into his shirt. I was more curious than frightened about what my next days would be like. But making a baby held more mysterious power for me than having a baby.
I left Natalie, my small-mouthed, loud baby with her often angry, always pacing, ever frantic father. It was an early afternoon in the early 1960s and there was low winter light slanting in the windows of the Grove Street apartment. The two suitcases and my purse were packed. Natalie howled with some need I couldn’t hear. How was I supposed to know I was leaving her with a man who would shut her out? I wanted to say something that would get me out clean, but I just said goodbye. Do they make movies like that, movies where you don’t have to own up and there’s still an ending you can live with?
By late Spring Zach can make our lunch with the PT girl’s help. He lopes around the kitchen and I smile while he makes a mess. He overcooks everything and his salads have oddly chopped vegetables and his dressings have traces of blood. He doesn’t like his soup anymore and I wonder what I’ll tell Bob.
I eat everything up like a good little unmarried wife and then drive to town and breathe furnace sweat through my yoga class. Coming out of class with glowing moist skin and strong bones, I look across the street to Bob’s store. Still fixated but in action mode now, I wave goodbye to my classmates, hoping Bob will step out of the store and wonder who that serene thin yogini is and then realize it’s me.
On Thursday, while I’m reading People in the truck, Bob comes out into the lot to clean up the previous night’s teen debris of cigarette butts and beer cans.
“Does anyone call you Ginny?”
“Yeah, you.” I look up from my magazine to see him smiling idiotically, and I’m unsure if he’s cackling at the flirtatious old broad or at the seductive spark between us.
“You hiding out here?”
“Just getting out of the house. Find some peace and quiet.”
“I know what you mean.” He bows a little. “My parking lot is your parking lot.”
“I’ll sit somewhere else if you like.”
“No, I mean it. It’s fine. Makes the place look busy. My son won’t be able to make cracks about the state of the business when he comes by.”
“You have a son?”
I’m breathless and frozen hoping he’ll tell me how old his kid is so I can once and for all figure out his age.
“I have four of them. Well, three now.”
There’s something there for a split second that goes beyond language and so I don’t interrupt to ask what he means.
“The oldest checks my books every year or two with his downstate MBA. He and his wife are coming next week for a visit with the grandkids.”
My brain reels with all the new information and I realize I’m about to push my hand through the partially rolled-down window glass.
“I have three.”
It’s the first time in years I’ve said it out loud. Zach isn’t really curious about the precise numbers.
“We should share photos sometime,” Bob says.
And then he’s waving down the couple who run the good restaurant as they get out of their car.
I want to focus on his details, sort through them and stack them up against my own, but the four-no-three idea won’t leave me and when I light up the roach in the ashtray I wonder where Gena is, if she’s alive, if all of mine are accounted for.
First Natalie, then Jane, then Gena, always Virginia. It’s a mantra that anchors me, integrates me into a thing that rarely feels like a lifetime and always feels like pieces.
Zach lumbers between me at the kitchen table and the PT girl in the garage, spilling water from the American flag class he insisted on buying on Fourth of July weekend. He gives me big winks and assures me they aren’t involuntary muscle spasms. I have never liked winkers. Too groovy, too much pretend about how everybody is in on some joke no one has heard yet.
He moves past me to the sink for a refill, so proud of himself and his progress, so eager to get better.
“I think it’s time to shave the beard. What do you think, babe?”
I survey his receding hairline and the homeless-man beard with a piece of salad or cookie in it. I’m taking too long to answer and he moves closer, putting his hand on my shoulder, and slurring out a few words of intimacy.
“You liking the beard, babe?”
I smile, cooking up an idea, knowing he’ll read me before I say it.
“You think? Really?”
He likes the unspoken thought between us.
He yells for the PT girl, who he has taken to calling Drill Sergeant, and she comes running in as if he’s lying in a pool of blood from a gushing head wound. She’s flipped open her cell phone and is prepared to dial 911 when she sees us both smiling.
“I’m shaving my head, Drill Sergeant. And a trim of the beard as well, for my lady love.”
The girl huffs back outside to the garage, shaking her head at the wacky old hippies she has to work for. Zach and I are left with a moment that feels like it’s before his stroke, before I started thinking about Bob, before I felt like some kind of on-demand complaint line for everybody.
“See? It’s okay to stay,” Zach slurs.
There are too many Ss for him to feel sure I understand what he’s said, but I heard him.
After weeks of getting high in tandem, Zach shakes off the offer of a post-coital joint. He says he thinks it’s messing with his meds and his stamina. Maybe he’s gone back to the massage ladies in Millerton.
“I don’t want to pant all the time, like some old man dragging a tank. You cool with that, babe?”
I am cool with that. I also feel the need to get straight or at least hear straight talk. Zach is right: it’s time to put down and go back to meetings. I know I don’t mean it, but that’s how I work my program. I need some bad behavior and some healing and the best place for that combo is in a meeting in a small town at the end of the line for all the half-way survivors of earlier wars.
I need a target other than myself. I want to knock someone else off their twenty-year wagon with a lost weekend of drugging and drinking and fucking, and I want to go to a meeting and say how bad I feel and how I know I’ll do it again if I pick up and so I won’t pick up, and I’m a drunk and an addict and it’s all about shame and my parents and it’s no one’s fault except my own, and I’m going to go to a meeting a day and say the Serenity Prayer and keep coming back because it works.
Before August begins I’m back in program. My first meeting breaks up and I can see Bob standing by the coffee. I don’t know why, but I’m not surprised. Suddenly I see him clearly. It doesn’t matter if he’s interested or age-appropriate or married or not. It doesn’t matter if he cares or if he’s playing or if he’s not paying attention at all. He’s just another broken down was-been trying to survive the downward slope.
Bob gives me the high-sign head-tilt and I extract myself from the old crowd and go over to him and take the cup of coffee he offers.
“I didn’t know you came to meetings.”
“I usually go to the one in Newton.”
Lying feels almost like getting high. I know I’m going to be fine.
While I’m answering with the minutia of Zach’s daily routine of improvement, I realize the man I’m talking to wants to kiss me. He doesn’t look at my mouth or touch my arm or any of the appetizers men serve up when they can’t get the words out or see their way to just leaning in and planting one. It’s thrilling to realize, but it bothers me that I can’t figure out what he’s doing to make me think this.
“…and I’ve got to drive over to the VA for my annual check-up, but maybe…”
He’s talking and I’m not really listening, but some words penetrate.
“Vietnam, mostly behind a desk in Saigon in the early years, but benefits for life. And I like my doctor.”
And there’s more about his aches and pains and the hassles of getting older. I’m bored and relieved like when I would meet movie stars in the California years. They’re shorter and the things they say don’t sound like movie poetry and you don’t really want to stare at them in bad light—so you don’t.
Having established his age-appropriateness with the Saigon early years, Bob now clearly establishes his interest and availability with the mention of his friend, the lawyer who handled his divorce eight years ago. I feel a compulsion to put an end to this.
“Don’t end it before it begins, Ginny.”
How did we get here? We’re talking like we’ve been lovers for weeks and someone’s trying to end it and someone’s trying to save it.
“But there’s Zach.”
I say it like I mean it, but he’s on to me, all the years of me.
He whisper-hisses it through bared teeth and I see his meanness and his selfishness and the action he intends to take regardless of petty obstacles like other lovers or what people might think. And I’m on board.
Out in the parking lot of the church we move toward the darkened edges where the truck is parked. He opens the door for me and offers his arm to lean on as I step up into the seat. My long skirt hangs down into the door well and he lifts it up gently with his hand and places the folds onto my lap. He rests his fingers high up on my thigh while he says goodnight and then he moves back and firmly shuts the truck door on me.
I drive home toward Zach.
I confidently make the left turn across the two-lane and up the mountain road in the bad dusky light, but I don’t feel so sure about other things. Bob feels like a mistake I used to make, but I also feel the need to embrace old habits.
Zach stands hulking in the light of the back door as I pull up. He calls out something about cookies. I don’t go in, but I know I can’t stay in the truck. It takes a full minute for him to lurch out of the house and get to me.
“I just need some alone time.”
“Not a good meeting?”
“I want to get high.”
“The meeting didn’t help?”
We make love like people who have loved each other for a long time but in a good way. I breathe deeply when he circles his tongue where it feels good. He presses his thumb where I like it. After, Zach holds me close across his chest and at first I think it’s because he can’t move his weak side this late in the day, but slowly I realize he’s holding onto me because he wants to.
We sleep all night together in the same bed and when I wake up there’s no wetness just warmth where we’ve slept and cool refreshing sheets where we haven’t lain.
The next morning I run errands in Newton to avoid Bob and when I start up the truck outside Target I notice a new billboard, one with a screen that plays video. Jane’s TV show is starting its new season and it’s one ridiculous scene of her after another. Jane with a gun, Jane running down an alley, Jane staring into a microscope.
I wonder if somewhere deep within her she remembers being born in 1973 just as I arrived in the west after that yearlong trek across the country. She was conceived on that journey of gorgeous freaks stomping leather boots in the desert dust. I wonder if she can feel that, if she realizes she has so many mothers and fathers. I wonder if she remembers the way California was when she was little, if she remembers the sun and the winds and the weird low morning light.
She wandered off from me at a party near the end of our time in California and I found her in a walk-in closet playing with the metal links on some man’s loafers. There was clothing strewn trail-like from the closet through the bedroom and out onto the deck where I could see a couple going at it. I picked her up and told her we were leaving.
“Down the hill and to the water?”
“We’re going to really leave. We’re going to leave California.”
“We’re going to California?“
“No, we’re leaving this place.”
“Down the hill?”
She always seemed to be deliberately dense. The beginning of her playacting, I guess. She may have been five, but she knew what I meant.
As I carried her out of that walk-in closet in the canyon, she reached for the sparkly feathers of a colorful dress, all pink and yellow, hanging on the rail. I figured, why not? I took it off the hanger and shoved it to the bottom of my big straw bag.
“Is that thieving?”
“No, it’s Pucci, my darling daughter.”
“Is that good or bad?”
How did a daughter born of Western sand and sun end up sealed in ice like this? I never should have taken her to Vermont with me. I should have left her with her other mothers and all those fathers who weren’t her father.
As I move the truck out of the Target lot I scrape the car next to me. I sit for a moment. It seemed like I had enough room to maneuver. My depth perception isn’t what it used to be at dawn and dusk, but it’s the middle of the day. Another doctor to see.
Near the end of August I go to a sober party with Bob. I sip my cold sweet drink, the light in the room lifts me and I know no one can see what weighs me down. Bob stands by me and I sense other men turn away. The women pivot in our direction because they want to see how this plays out. I have decided not to resist Bob but simply to prolong the prologue, knowing it will likely be the best part. Wanting Bob, wanting him to give me something new, fills me with a sense of success and achievement I haven’t allowed myself in a while. Being loved makes me feel solid, but being desired makes me feel triumphant.
Bob takes my glass from me and swallows a sip. It’s a move to assert his ownership and pretend our lips have touched. But the glass has fruit juice and seltzer in it, not the wine that would really seal the deal for me.
The vibrations between Bob and me feel as if they might rebound down the road toward the house where Zach sits on the couch, slightly hunched over his weak side, watching a movie he’s seen before. But what’s happening with the man in front of me is not at the expense of the man down the road. This is meant for me, this is all meant for me.
Bob is a rough fuck the first time we meet at the motel on the other side of Newton. I worry I’m dry because of age and not because he doesn’t know me like Zach does. I worry that I’m worrying. I enjoy the awkwardness and the pain and take my punishment with joy. I wash before I head home to Zach because it’s the least I can do.
“It’s a small town, Ginny.” Bob explains the facts of hill town life to me from the bathroom doorway. “People see things. They talk.”
“Wife swapping or real estate taxes?” I joke as I use the thin motel wash cloth.
“It’s not funny.”
“I’m the one with something at stake. Do you want a sip of this?”
I hang up the towel and offer him the can of beer, but he shakes his head with the easy judgment earned from decades of AA.
“I only want to taste it second hand.”
This seems like a strange kind of hypocrisy and for a moment I don’t find him attractive. My desire wanes and my sense of adventure is squelched by his pursed face. Is this ending already?
“I’ll be the villain—the woman always is. Didn’t your wife tell you that when you divorced her?” I’m so bored I can barely hear the words coming out of my own mouth.
I think about Gena almost every day now. Is she alive? Her father Peter offered something I used to call comfort when I first met him in California. After he moved back east he would call me in the middle of his night. He promised we could make Vermont work. He told me to bring Jane with me and we would build from there. It was easy to have a baby with him. It was just the wrong baby. There had always been miscarriages and even up until the moment my labor started, I expected to lose Gena in a flurry of spasms and blood and focused grief.
I often think of Peter and my lady of the canyon routine in chilly Vermont, the baby I wanted to make and the child we did. She was born broken, but it was easy to think there was nothing wrong with her when she was little. She hit her milestones a little late, but no one worried. Everyone in Vermont then seemed to have lower expectations. She was so little. There was no way to know yet exactly what she needed.
When push came to shove with Peter, I packed like the sloppy drunk I had become and stood in Gena’s doorway wondering what else I should take with me. She slept, mouth agape ready to take in whatever was offered, her drool crusted on the side of her chin. She seemed to be waiting to be revived. Her skin blazed hot when I touched her cheek with my palm, cupping her head as I adjusted her in her pillows and blankets. I leaned down and whispered in her ear. I had a moment of echo, but then it was gone.
“Good morning, sweet Gena.” I felt as if I was getting something wrong, like a song lyric. I was on the New York bus twenty minutes out of Burlington when I realized I hadn’t said goodbye to Jane.
Zach is feeling sassy these days, pointing out how little his leg drags now.
“I think I can probably handle a car now. I can drive you around again, babe.”
“That’ll be nice.”
“We could take a road trip. Maybe Canada, that town outside Toronto where I lived before the amnesty.”
He’s thinking about moving us again. I’m sure there’s a Bob Dylan song for what I’m feeling, but I can’t narrow it down. All I know is I’m too tired, feeling like the line has strung itself out too far for me to move again. I wouldn’t mind the packing, but I’m fairly certain I would never get around to opening all those boxes.
Bob drives me a few towns over so we can have dinner in public.
“You were enjoying this more when we were just flirting,” he says during the appetizers.
“I’m enjoying all of this,” I lie.
“Would you think about stopping drinking and leaving Zach? Come live with me.”
I hold my breath and wonder how long I should pretend I’m thinking about his offer. The waitress brings our food. I hear plates rattle into a sink in the kitchen. I let out a breath dramatically as if he’s impressed me.
“Okay, so those weren’t the best choices to give you,” he says.
Bob is getting the hang of me.
He pours me a glass of wine from the bottle I’ve ordered. He watches me sip at it.
“I’m sober twenty-six years and it’s all about to go out the window because of you,” he says.
We smile at each other with spectacular grins and I wonder where a couple of geezers can get cocaine in this town. It will be time soon anyway to clean up, sober up, wise up, to go back to big apologies and smaller, private lies.
By 1986, after fleeing Vermont, I was deep into my second New York tour. One night just before I walked out of my dealer’s basement apartment, I stood watching him and his boyfriend freebase. Watching them, meeting my dealer’s eyes as he beckoned me to join them, was a kind of end for me. And I stepped forward, ready to be with them. I felt a hand on my shoulder turn me back. It was someone I hadn’t thought of as a friend of value, just a running buddy who had appeared and disappeared repeatedly over the years.
“Don’t. Let’s go,” my buddy whispered.
My friend, maybe his name was John, kept his large hand on my shoulder and steered me up and out of the basement apartment on East Twenty-fifth Street. Once we were on the sidewalk, he took both my hands in his.
“Maybe it’s time to try something else, V. You know?”
I knew he didn’t mean a different kind of drug but a different way of being.
“Maybe you could go back to New Hampshire?”
“Oh. Well. Something new, huh?”
As he walked away from me, leaving me on the sidewalk alone, it occurred to me extremely slowly that it was the middle of the night.
In these late summer days I can see Zach is thinner, harder in his middle and only shows small signs in the evening of dragging his weak side. He’s joined the gym in town and has signed up with a trainer who specializes in getting guys like Zach into shape to get through the day. The membership is month-to-month and Zach keeps talking about visiting his Canadian town.
“It’s not far from Toronto. I bet it’s still beautiful, babe.”
“Maybe. Let’s research it some more.” I bet the town is a suburban mall.
“I can tell you all about it.”
“It was a long time ago,” I say, stalling. Suddenly I want to come clean with him, but I don’t know how. “I have three daughters,” I say a little too loudly. “I left them.”
Zach looks sad. He knows I’m trying to turn him against me and he can’t figure out why.
“I know all this. Gena’s dad raised Jane and Gena because you were a mess. You told me that when we first met.” He knows something is coming that he can’t Hey, babe away.
“I left them,” I repeat, hoping and not hoping that he can hear all the meanings.
This should be a knock-down fight, but Zach won’t play his part. For such a big man, I’m surprised how small his voice sounds.
“We’ve all done things. It was the Sixties, babe. And the Seventies. We all have pasts. I’ve done shit. We’ve all got shit we’ve done.”
Then he’s on again about our future Canadian small-town paradise.
On a Saturday in late September I tell Bob this is our last time. He’s inside me when I say it, so I’m not sure what I mean by the words. Maybe it’s just another way to turn him on.
“How long will we go back and forth about whether or not it’s over?” he asks as he pushes deeper into me.
I am comfortable, but the threat of loss is all around me.
I think of my daughters strewn across the country like a game of jacks on a plastic placemat of the United States. I think of leaving things behind by accident and on purpose: those nice green towels in California and the mildewed wicker chair on the porch in Vermont, and my children.
I wish for a place where my daughters and I are all together infused with festive lights and sparkling warmth. It would be a long glowing room. There would be a glass of something fizzy in my hand and a silky shawl around my very slim shoulders. As I turn to greet them, the room shines and all the colors pulse. And then they are coming toward me and each is thinking, There she is. There’s my mother. Virginia.
This morning Zach sits across from me at the kitchen table. He dips his bald head toward me in a kind of plea for permanence or maybe just agreement. I get lost in his lips and his beard and our time together. I shake it off. I don’t want to cross another border, but I don’t want to get caught heading for the exit.
“C’mon, babe. Take another trip with me.”
He has never asked me too many questions. He has never issued a verdict on anything I’ve ever told him. He won’t fight. He won’t judge. This is the astonishing and alluring thing about people like Zach, this open-ended forgiveness, this permission to never care about why.
• • •
Katie Rogin’s debut novel, Life During Wartime, is forthcoming from C&R Press in March 2018. Her other work has appeared in VICE, PANK, Intellectual Refuge, The Chattahoochee Review, Terrain, Streetlight, Quartz, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, The Millions, and Sports Illustrated. She lives in Brooklyn.