A Country Where You Once Lived
By Robin Black
It isn’t even a two hour train ride out from London to the village where Jeremy’s daughter and her husband—a man whom Jeremy has never met—have lived for the past three years, but it’s one of those trips that seem to carry you much farther than the time might imply. By around the halfway point the scenery has shaken off all evidence of the city, all evidence really of the past century or two. Or so it seems to Jeremy as long as he blurs his eyes to the occasional black line of motorway snaking through it all, to the dots of color speeding along the line. Otherwise, it’s pretty much all mild shades of green and milling cows, sheep clustered at copses, church steeples appearing at regular intervals in a gentle, reassuring rhythm. It’s a fantasy landscape really, he thinks. The kind that encourages belief in the myth of uncomplicated lives.
Jeremy is riding backwards so is watching it all recede and the sensation is oddly saddening. Or maybe not so oddly saddening. A scientist, a cancer researcher, he passes his days in the flux and flow between the minute facts of molecular composition and our comparatively clunky selves. He knows well that for all the brain’s cellular elegance, it has too this kind of simple, simplistic aspect to it. Leaving is sad. Even just the illusion of leaving is sad. As each view recedes, his eyes are tricked and in turn trick his brain: he is leaving. . . leaving. . . leaving. . . Of course, he feels sad.
That’s what he tells himself anyway as he rides along, that his settling melancholy is at least in part the mechanical product of a cause and effect process of sensory input and reflexive response.
Maybe it will wear off as the day goes on, he tells himself.
The reason Jeremy Piper has never met his son-in-law is that he hasn’t seen his daughter Zoe in just over four years. The reason he hasn’t seen his daughter in all that time is a bit harder to determine, some lethal blend of ancient angers and the seductive ease of separation three thousand miles granted them thirteen years earlier. In the early days, back in Boston by himself, Jeremy was capable of working himself into a strangely personal anger at the Atlantic Ocean, as though it were some kind of bully standing between him and his family, as though he were overmatched. But increasingly he’s aware of how much blame belongs to him.
The fulcrum of his life, the fateful before and after line, was the year they all spent in London, starting June, 1996. “Our very own annus horribilis,” his wife called it at the time.
They went to England, he, Cathleen, and Zoe, so he could begin the work for which he has since garnered much acclaim, a study of the potential cancer fighting properties of an enzyme found in a particularly deadly mushroom growing only in Britain—or, as Cathleen began saying some months in: on the potential cancer fighting properties of an enzyme found in blah, blah, blah. Neither Cathleen nor Zoe, sixteen at the time, wanted to make the move but Jeremy won Cathleen over with the argument that taking Zoe away from her thoroughly dislikeable, probably criminal friends could only be a good idea. But then just about one month into the stay, Zoe ran away from home with a Boston boy, a school friend back-packing the Lake District over his summer break. And she didn’t just run away; she left no word about where she had gone, no sign that she had gone on her own steam.
Jeremy could only ever remember bits and moments from that two weeks, the ones when she was gone. Merciful amnesia, a friend once called it—except it wasn’t very merciful, because it was the worst of it that stuck with him. Or so he assumed. Like the first shock at her absence, as too many hours passed for it to be benign teenage tardiness; like walking the streets of London, night after night, as though she might have become a nocturnal creature waiting to reveal herself in the dark; like the dawning nightmarish realization that he himself was a suspect in her disappearance. “We’re not making any accusations. You wouldn’t want us to leave any stone unturned.” He imagined himself on trial, wrongly convicted, locked away, the headlines, clever if obvious plays on his name: Tried Piper Lured Own Daughter. That was a uniquely vivid memory. But still, there were long stretches from those days during which, for all he could ever remember, he might as well have been dead.
That wasn’t true of what followed her return. The difficulty was never remembering that period, but letting it go. Particularly his own trouble accepting that she hadn’t been abducted, she had left of her own free will. And that she hadn’t been unable to contact them, she had chosen not to. His own disbelief at the disappearance of the villain he had conjured and blamed for it all, the man who had been the target of his rage while she was gone, the object of revenge fantasies so violent and so vile Jeremy had barely admitted them to himself. The man who had doubtless killed his daughter, doubtless done God knew what else to her and in the process— minor collateral damage, Jeremy understood—destroyed her father.
Except there was no man. There was only his Zoe, sixteen years old and sorry, really, really sorry, for what she had done.
Or so she said.
At home, he would watch her. He would study his daughter the way he studied the animals in his lab, as though doing so might provide some kind of solution. She had returned rail thin, all eyes and bone. Her honey hair was jet black. Her lips were perpetually chapped as though she’d been drained of some essential human moisture. She looked like a wraith, otherworldly, but she did normal things. That was what kept him mesmerized. The way she sat at the kitchen table eating yogurt. The fact that she spoke on the phone. That she listened to music. That she walked through the doorways of their elegant rented townhome without falling to her knees at every threshold to reflect on what she had done.
For reasons he never understood, Cathleen had escaped official suspicion. And she had also resisted the idea that there was a villain to the piece—so she hadn’t learned to hate as elaborately as he. That was his theory anyway, the foundation on which he built his resentment, that it had all been much easier on her. So he envied her, and he was angry at her and about six weeks after Zoe’s return, Jeremy embarked on a standard issue, utterly predictable affair with a colleague at the lab, despite the fact that he didn’t like the woman very much. Liking her or not liking her seemed oddly irrelevant to the decision to have sex with her a few times a week. The truth was, he wasn’t a bit sure he would ever like anyone again. He seemed to have lost the thread of how affections worked.
Ultimately, the smug satisfaction of doing something behind Cathleen’s back lost out to the impulse to hurt her, so one night toward the end of the year, motivated more by spite than by anything like remorse, he confessed. She looked momentarily confused—shock at his disclosure, he assumed—then confessed her own affair right back at him. Under different circumstances, that might have signaled a chance to start over, one betrayal canceling out the other, the slate wiped clean; but as it went, they were like the dueling pair that shoots simultaneously, so both end up dead.
There were never any fights, never any open acrimony, just an overwhelming atmosphere of defeat in the house. With all the predictable unkindness of irony, as the family broke apart it turned out that Cathleen and Zoe had both grown to feel at home in England and they decided to stay on. It was while driving Jeremy to Heathrow for his miserable, solo flight back to the States that Cathleen borrowed the Queen’s phrase.
“Our very own annus horribilis,” she said. “I feel positively royal.”
It’s Cathleen, unmistakably Cathleen, waving from the platform of the Thomas the Tank Engine station when Jeremy’s train comes to its stop.
“Hello, you!” she calls out, as he steps down.
He wasn’t expecting her there. He waves—a small waist-level gesture, one arm pulling a bag, the other weighted with his computer. “Hello, you,” he echoes, too quietly to be heard.
He’s a bit numb as he walks toward her. It’s been fully five years. He used to see her quite a bit at family events when she would jet over, sometimes with Zoe, sometimes alone, moving across the ocean with an ease he never thought about too clearly when cursing its role in his life. Over time, they progressed from avoiding one another at those events, to seeking each other out as people with whom they could at least be themselves. They even once drunkenly stumbled into a sexual encounter that they tacitly agreed neither to repeat nor ever mention again; and the next few times they saw each other after that, he noticed they’d adopted an oddly jocular, teasing style of conversation that reminded Jeremy of the way his brother Jonathan and his old high school football teammates spoke to one another in middle age. But that was all years ago, as ancient in its way as their wedded days.
“I wasn’t expecting you,” he says, as they embrace. “I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Well.” She says it with a slight shrug, as though to convey that it should be obvious why Zoe thought her presence necessary. “I hope it’s at least an okay surprise. Can I help you carry anything?”
“It is. No, I’m fine.”
He’s startled by how entirely known she is to him. Not just familiar or even evocative, but inevitable in some way, as though she were the mama duck and he the little one on whom she long ago imprinted her heart-shaped face and her dark blue eyes, the straight lines of her posture, the angle at which she held her head, a certain sighing sound she would make before she spoke.
As they walk toward a small lot filled with cars, he feels her settle over him like a climate in which he used to live.
Driving through the village in Zoe’s ancient black cockroach of a sub-sub-compact, Cathleen points out what she calls the big sights—a tea shop, a pub, a bank, an unlikely looking hotel covered with a profusion of ivy that Jeremy remarks looks more spooky than quaint.
“There’s always a fine line between the two,” she says. “Isn’t there?”
Conversation for conversation’s sake. It doesn’t have to make much sense.
Once they’ve left the village and are onto country roads she asks him if he’s seeing anyone. He isn’t surprised by the question. It’s always been a point of honor with Cathleen to show no discomfort discussing such things. So he says that yes, he supposes he is, that yes, he is seeing someone, you could call it that; but he doesn’t volunteer much more. Not that her name is Rose—a syllable he loves for sounding more like an endearment than a real name. And not that she is thirty-four years old. Nor that he met her when she rented the third floor of the house he and Cathleen moved into the year after Rose was born. And not that he is in love with her, marrying her in four months. He isn’t planning to tell Zoe any of these things during this visit, and Cathleen has always been a bad liar.
“She works in the university library,” he says.
“Interesting.” But her tone doesn’t quite match the word, as though having proved that the idea doesn’t disturb her she’s lost interest. Or maybe it does disturb her, and a brief display of equanimity is the best she can do. Either way, after a pause, she volunteers that she’s recently ended a longish relationship with a Russian pianist; and Jeremy recognizes one of her words: longish. Along with shortish, noonish, Fridayish. A deep vein of imprecision has always run through Cathleen.
“I spent the whole last few months with Uri trying to decide if he was more of a boooor or a bore. Until I realized it wouldn’t much matter if he were out of my life.”
They drive in silence for a bit after that.
“What about Colin?” he eventually asks. “What’s he like? Will I like him?”
“Well, if you don’t, you’ll be the first. But you will. He’s one of those people who doesn’t ask the world to worship him, so of course everyone does. And he’s very good to her.”
Jeremy would give low odds on any husband of Zoe’s lacking a little wash of saintliness. “She seems much happier. In emails, I mean. As far as I can tell, anyway.”
“As happy as any of us, ” she says.
“As happy as any of us,” he echoes a moment after that, struck, as he says it, by how happy he’s been of late. Happier than most. Happier than Cathleen, it seems.
“She’s very changed, Jeremy. You’ll see.” There aren’t any intersections in sight when she flicks her turn signal, only property entrances, so he realizes they must be very close. “She’s grown up a lot, you know. ”
But of course he doesn’t know. “I’m glad,” he says. “By nearly thirty, that’s the idea. We were parents by her age.”
“That hardly means we’d grown up.” Cathleen turns into a gap between high, thick hedges, onto a long dirt drive. Its ruts and ridges bear witness to a persistent cycle of rain and heat. On either side, anywhere Jeremy looks, vast fields stretch, acres and acres of fields blanketing gentle hills. It is as though they’ve gone through one of those magical gates in children’s stories, into a universe that couldn’t possibly fit into the space concealing it. There are at least three barns in sight and a large half-timbered house right ahead.
“It’s huge,” he says. “It’s enormous. I hadn’t expected anything on this scale.”
“Oh, that’s right.” She beeps the horn with three sharp hits of her fist. “I keep forgetting. You haven’t been here before.”
And Jeremy doesn’t say anything to that. No response comes to mind.
It wasn’t Rose’s idea that he write Zoe and ask about a visit, but it was on her account that he did. Jeremy had long been ashamed of this aspect of his life, this glaring lapse of his, this daughter across the water, but he had never before cared so much about having done something shameful.
It was excruciating telling Rose. They were walking. They liked to take walks together in the neighborhood, commenting on the houses he had lived among for three decades but of course never quite seen before. They were just a few blocks from the house when she asked a question that had clearly been on her mind for some time. How often did he see his daughter?
Even before hating the answers he had to give, he hated the tone in which she asked. A reluctant, eggshell-walking tone. As though she knew she was in danger of learning something about him she wouldn’t like. Her voice, always low, both deep and quiet, seemed to emanate from somewhere close to the ground. Her hand tightened its grip on his—as though defiant against the impulse to unclasp it.
He told her the whole story. But what did it amount to? He had let his daughter go. Like a kite that requires too much attention, too much sensitivity to its ways. Too much care.
Rose listened, quietly, and her grip on him never loosened, but she didn’t pretend it was a matter of indifference to her. In the end, though, Jeremy didn’t write to his daughter because he was ashamed of himself or wanted Rose to think better of him, but because something about loving Rose, about Rose loving him, made him believe that it might not be too late.
The reality of his reunion with Zoe isn’t a bit as he’s imagined it. For one thing, he wouldn’t have recognized her if he’d passed her on the street. Ever since the year in London—or since London, as he thinks of it—she stayed a collection of jagged surfaces, bones poking out at her collar, on her wrists, her knees, her ribs. Her shoulder blades, jutting straight out from her back, had seemed like vestigial wings, reminders of her flight. But now she’s grown plump, round and soft, as though nature reversed a sculptor’s work encasing her true form in this obscuring one. Her hair is back to its honey tones. The heavy, Goth make-up is gone. She looks like the woman he pictured her becoming when she was a child, not like the woman he believed she had become.
He’d also thought there might be a moment, a few words spoken by them both, something to mark this as a new beginning. But the tentative hug they exchange in the drive and his first impressions of her become tiny details in what is quickly a bustling, comic scene that includes their reunion and also an errant cow wandering over as though she too wants to catch up; a large dog jumping onto Jeremy, leaving prints and long muddy streaks on his pants; an ancient man on a small tractor waving, calling something unintelligible as he passes; the husband, Colin, appearing from a barn, smiling and ginger-headed, shaking Jeremy’s hand, taking his suitcase; a tabby cat circling them all; a sense of rush and hurry in the air, something about the vet having been there, about dinner being close to ready, all of it conspiring to carry them through those first few minutes and through the front door of the house with a lightness that doesn’t allow for anything as potentially heavy as an acknowledged fresh start.
“You must be very respectful with Jeremy,” Cathleen says as they sit at the round, oak kitchen table—so large Jeremy has images of the house being built around it. “He’s become quite famous, you know.”
“Not really.” He hasn’t come to be admired. He has come to be forgiven. “Not outside the field.”
“Well, I’m certainly outside the field,” Colin says, with a smile. His face reminds Jeremy of a well-disposed marionette, the jutting chin, the cheekbones like hills, a seemingly simple good nature beaming through it all. “Most of the time, I’m outside in the field. But I’m very impressed, from what I’ve heard.” Jeremy tries not to think about what this young man has heard about him. More bad than good, no doubt. “It must be rewarding to do work that helps people.”
“Your work helps people,” Cathleen says. “You’re feeding the world.”
“Oh, yes. Indeed we are. One head of designer lettuce at a time. We’re not quite up to the cancer research standard.”
“We’re not there, yet.” Zoe is peeling a potato—with a knife—so rapidly Jeremy is fearful for her hands. “But we’ll get there. We do have bills to pay and designer veggies are like gold.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing all about it,” Jeremy says. His gaze is fixed on the course of her blade, on the flying strips of skin. “I’m looking forward to seeing it all.”
“I’ll give you a tour,” Colin says. “The whole operation.”
“Not today, though.” Zoe’s potato falls into a ceramic bowl; another takes its place in her hands. “Dinner’s in just a little while. I hope everyone’s hungry.”
“I am,” Jeremy says right away, though he isn’t. Prodigal father and obliging guest—the roles overlap. “The whole house smells incredible,” he says. “How could anyone not be hungry sitting here?”
After a few more such innocuous exchanges—the weather, a pregnant cow—Colin excuses himself to make quick rounds in the barns, calling back no rest for the wicked with all the good humor of a man who knows himself to be anything but; and for a time, no one speaks. It’s as though a gust of tension passed him in the doorway. Zoe has grown more intent on her potatoes. Cathleen is staring off in space, the corners of her lips drawn down, as though she’s gone somewhere troubling, as though a bomb could explode without her noticing.
The last time the three of them were alone together in a kitchen, a kind of bomb had gone off. It was the final morning of that awful year. Sitting there now, Jeremy feels a churning of shame, like nausea, as he remembers the profound ambivalence of his goodbye to Zoe that day. How insincere he must have sounded. How insincere he was as he asked her one last time if she was sure she didn’t want to go back home with him. What relief he felt at her sullen certainty.
The only sound in the room is the rhythmic rasp of Zoe’s peeler. This is one of those moments, Jeremy knows, at which he can pierce the social membrane and acknowledge what they’re all thinking about anyway. This is an opportunity to be direct.
“Are those your potatoes?” he asks instead. “From here, I mean.”
It’s too soon, he tells himself. He’s just arrived.
“They are.” She doesn’t look up. For all he’s seen of her face, she could be wearing a veil. This was a point of contention way back when. She seemed eternally to be avoiding meeting his eye. “I’m making potato salad for tomorrow,” she says. “We thought we’d try a cookout if the rain holds off. Grilled chicken.”
“It’s their own chickens, you know.” Cathleen is back in the conversation as though woken from a trance.
“I’m very impressed.”
“You don’t know the half of it. She slaughters them herself. Killed two yesterday. Does it without batting an eye.”
“You make it sound like I do it for pleasure, Mum.” He has noticed her unmistakably British intonations, but the syllable startles him. Who is Mum? The characters have new names. “It’s just that Colin can’t bear to. He’s quite soft about such things.”
Apparently she isn’t soft about such things. Of course not.
“They have an abattoir and everything. She goes in there and does murder most . . . well, fowl. F-o-w-l fowl. It’s a little hard to imagine, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is,” he says—though in truth it isn’t. Not at all. In truth, this is the first information he’s received since arriving that makes sense to him, that connects this quiet, seemingly diffident woman to the razor sharp girl he knew. Why don’t you just go fuck yourself, Dad? Why do I even make these fucking trips? “I imagine it’s all in a day’s work, at some point,” he says.
“It has to be done.” She brushes her hair off her forehead with the back of her hand. “So I do it. I don’t enjoy it.”
“I’ve always felt that way about the lab animals. People assume you have to be callous, but I don’t think that’s it. It’s not callousness. It’s a kind of acceptance. I’m truly sorry about what we put them through.”
“Like father, like daughter,” Cathleen says. “I think I’m in the Colin camp.”
“Someone has to do it,” Zoe says. “If people want to eat.” She drops another potato in the bowl. “Or cure diseases,” she adds.
He feels as though she’s handed him a bouquet. “I’m amazed by how you’ve taken to this life, Zee. I really am.”
She puts down her knife and stands, gathering the big crockery bowl of stripped potatoes in her arms. Her hands, flat against the pale brown glaze, are red and chapped, he sees. Her nails, clipped down to the nubs. “Dinner’s probably twenty minutes off,” she says. “If you want to wash up or anything.”
Cathleen has told Jeremy that there isn’t much hope for a cell signal, though occasionally one seemed to roll through. “Like a beneficent mist,” she said. She told him there is internet, wireless, inside the house; but his computer is still packed up and he can’t quite bring himself to ask if he can use theirs. Better to roam the fields in search of the beneficent mist.
The day has cooled, a chill leeching into the mild air. It reminds Jeremy of New England—and the farm smells too take him there. Weekend escapes up to Vermont in the early fall. Apple picking, leaf peeping. And then, later in the season, the ever earnest selection ritual in a pumpkin patch. They had been big on that sort of thing, he and Cathleen, when Zoe was small. They didn’t want her to be one of those city girls who seemed to be made of plastic, to exist outside the natural world. It’s a little jolting to him now to see Zoe so connected to nature, over her head as she is in crops and livestock. It’s disorienting in a way. He’s unused to the possibility that any aspects of his parenting, even minor ones, may have stood her in good stead.
As Jeremy kicks his way over the tangle of grass and weeds and brambles that run along the drive, past a barn and then around another, he checks his phone, then checks it again and again, but to no avail. When he passes a square little structure, white plaster, flat roof, strikingly unadorned, he has no doubt it’s the abattoir. Its function is evident from the deliberate lack of evidence about what its function might be. He thinks he may see a glimmer of a bar on his phone right around there and begins taking one step at a time, forward, to the side, back again, as though chasing a shifting shadow; but it’s gone. If it was ever there.
He so wanted to hear Rose’s voice. Now, he knows, it’s too close on dinner to fuss with the computer, so he begins a text. Here with Z, he writes. He decides against mentioning Cathleen. It’s too complex a circumstance for the form. He’ll tell Rose when they speak. Who knows, he writes. All polite chat so far. All very civil. Not awful except no cell. I love you more and more.
He knows it can’t go right away, but sends it even so hoping that if the mist does roll in it will find the message waiting there and carry it to her. It’s an act of faith of a kind.
As Jeremy walks back toward the house, he remembers for the first time in years and years that when Zoe was missing, even though he didn’t believe in God, he would pray.
“She doesn’t slaughter the cows,” Colin says, as he passes around the plate of steak. “We send them off for that. Though I’ve seen her in moods when she might.”
“He’s joking.” Cathleen has a frown of mock disapproval on her face. She’s pulled her hair back for the meal and a line of silver shines at the roots. Jeremy wonders what similar details of decline she sees on him. “Not everyone here knows you’re joking, Colin.”
“Oh, I’m definitely joking. She’s a little lamb herself.”
“Well, it’s delicious, whatever the process,” Jeremy says. “Perfectly cooked, too.”
“I always eat my best meals here,” Cathleen says.
She might as well have planted a flag, he thinks as Colin launches into a long story about a supposedly famous chef of whom Jeremy has never heard—though he tries to look impressed—and how the man came to the farm armed with a list of bizarre requests. Colin turns out to be one of those people who takes on the heavy lifting when the conversation sags.
“He didn’t quite ask that we hold séances over the cabbage, but it wasn’t far off. There was certainly some mention of only harvesting with a full moon.”
“What did you tell him?” Cathleen asks. “Did you tell him to piss off?”
“We lied,” Zoe says. “We lie to him every time he’s here.”
“Right through our teeth.” Colin taps his front tooth with his finger. “We describe the rituals to him in detail,” he says.
“Oh God! That must be hilarious. And they look so trustworthy, don’t they, Jeremy?”
“They do indeed,” he says, a little shocked, despite his own spotty record, about the apparent ease of it for them. “I would never have guessed.”
As the conversation moves on from there to other local matters, Jeremy has the growing sense of being an outsider, almost as though he is literally being pushed from the table. It’s unpleasant, but also inevitable—unless of course they’re going to discuss what lies behind his visit, which they clearly are not. Not at the first meal. There are so many people the three of them all know, Colin’s family, the neighbors, Cathleen’s London set. As the cast of characters swells, so too does the effort it takes to catch him up. She’s Colin’s aunt on his mother’s side and the first time I met her, she was about to get married but then just a year later. . . It’s Cathleen mostly, who tries, and occasionally Colin who seems most bothered when Jeremy can’t appreciate a good joke. Zoe, more animated than he’s seen her yet—as though his exclusion has energized her—makes no effort at all. She doesn’t even look his way, and as the minutes pass, he finds himself sinking into the conviction that at best what’s possible between them at this point is a kind of truce, superficial and civil. That they’ll stay in touch—though now that he’s met Colin, his guess is that it will be he who keeps up any regular contact. But Jeremy and Zoe will at least be over the worst of it. At least and at most.
He is preoccupied enough with the demise of his hope that a three day visit might do any more than that, that he almost misses it when Cathleen brings up the subject of his personal life.
“She’s a university librarian, isn’t that right, Jeremy?”
He tells her it is. “In the rare books library.”
“How did you meet?”
One bedroom, lots of charm. She had seen it on Craigslist. “The usual. A cocktail party. That kind of thing.”
“What’s her name?” Cathleen asks.
“That’s very English,” Colin says. “I have at least two aunts named Rose.”
“She was named for a grandmother, I think. Not English. They’re Jewish.”
“Is she observant?” Cathleen asks.
He frowns. “No. Not at all. She knows how to cook all the food, but that’s about it.”
“Uri was always hinting at being in the midst of a terrible religious crisis. But he never went into details. I’m not even sure what religion. Russian Orthodox, I suppose.”
“He sounds like quite the character,” Jeremy says. “Was he actually a good pianist, or more of a dilettante?” He’s uncomfortable discussing Rose and trusts that the abundant world of the others will assert itself again if given the least opportunity, as it quickly does. Colin and Zoe spent lots of time with Uri, it turns out. He was a regular visitor at the farm for a time. Oh, God, remember when . . .
He misses her terribly, sitting there. Saying her name has done it, tipped him over some kind of brink. He misses the soothing quality that first attracted him when they started talking on their shared front porch. He misses her skin, her smell, the daily walks, their funny domestic arrangement. He misses the comfort of sleeping in her little apartment on his third floor, an unexpected womb in the aging body of his home.
I never believed him about having trained horses in his Soviet youth. . .
It seems to be going on forever, the supply of Uri stories never ending, the relationship Cathleen described as longish, eternal in the recounting; but eventually Zoe pushes her chair back from the table and stands, saying she’s tired and thinks she’ll turn in early.
“Are you all right?” Cathleen asks. “You look pale.”
“I’m fine. Just tired.”
Jeremy tries not to take either her weariness or her early exit personally. Colin says he’ll do the clearing up and turns down his immediate offer to help.
“Mom, do you mind showing him his room?”
“No, of course I will.”
It’s unexpectedly painful to have become a pronoun. “I’m sure I can find it,” he says. “Just point me the right way.”
“I wanted to ask you. . .” Zoe is turning toward him. “I was wondering. I’m giving a chicken to our neighbor for some work he did on our roof. Tomorrow, if you want to see how it’s done . . ?”
It’s the first time she’s really looked at him, the first time he can see that her eyes haven’t changed, brown and almond shaped, sorrowful even when she isn’t. A poignant camouflage, he’d always thought. “I’d like that very much,” he says.
“We’ll do it in the afternoon, then. After lunch.”
“I’ll be there. Thank you. For asking me.”
“See you all in the morning,” Zoe says and she walks out into the hall.
“Nothing says rapprochement like slaughtering a bird,” Cathleen whispers to him a few minutes later, on the stairs.
The ceiling of Jeremy’s bedroom slopes so drastically that he has to slide into his bed as though negotiating a limbobar. He’s brought his laptop with him, and in the magical way of these things it quickly finds the wireless network that then finds the universe that then brings him the woman he loves.
When Rose appears, alive and speaking, listening, smiling through the screen, it’s as though some kind of angel were making a visitation to this small, simple room, carrying a message of comfort and hope. Rossetti’s Annunciation comes to mind. As he watches her, he feels something akin to what he had on seeing Cathleen earlier, that same impression of inevitability, but he feels a kind of surprise as well. He’s perpetually stunned that he hasn’t made her up. Rose doesn’t just make sense to him, she seems to make sense of him, and he can feel himself emerge from behind the stiff and frightened version of Jeremy Piper he’s worn all day. A thaw spreads, loosening him up, allowing him to expand back into himself.
But then, as he tells her about the proposed visit to the abattoir, he grows aware of a certain shyness—even with her. Not because of the act itself, but because of the significance he’s beginning to attach to it. It’s embarrassing to admit, but what Cathleen said in jest resonated with him. It’s strangely appealing to imagine himself and his daughter slaughtering a bird, engaging together in so blessedly impolite and uncivil an act, making it impossible to keep the niceties so unremittingly nice after that, impossible to ignore life’s darker, more difficult side. And it’s more than that. They would be killing something. It’s fitting somehow. He’s hesitant to pin the symbolism down, to let the thoughts go very far, but he’s aware of a longing in himself that he hadn’t thought possible. The desire to solve a problem without working it through for once, the hope that a ritual might do all that labor for him.
“I don’t want to make too much of it though,” he says. “The fact is, she barely said a word to me all day.”
“Well, it’s something that she wants to do this. That’s the real meaning. Why would she invite you, if she didn’t care?”
“I suppose that’s right.” He is amazingly stupid about people sometimes—still. About his daughter, anyway. “Of course that’s right,” he says.
Later, after telling him this and that about her day, Rose leans toward her computer, toward Jeremy, a smile like mischief incarnate on her face and she propositions him. They had joked about it before he left, about having every possible form of distance sex while he’s away. Phone. Email. Skype. “We’ve lived together since before we were going out,” she said. “We’ve never experienced the pleasures of absence.”
And Jeremy, to whom absence had brought such great pain, signed on for the idea, only because it was hers, because it seemed just possible that she could make even that cruel quality beautiful.
But now, in this small, soft bed, his daughter down the hall, his former wife across the way, it’s unimaginable. He tells Rose he’s just too tired, too jet-lagged still to be of much use along those lines. He makes a joke about his age.
She says he should watch her then, just watch. “I need it,” she says, in that straightforward way of hers. “You only have to watch.”
As she moves, she dissolves into pixels—Seurat from too close—then reassembles; and unmoored as he feels, it’s that process of dissolution and resolution that mesmerizes him. The way the tiny squares of cream and pink and red and brown and white fall apart into nothing, then emerge reorganized as a nipple, an eye, her hand between her legs, her smile. It’s as though the computer screen is complicit in the tease of it all and complicit too in some greater, grander conspiracy of elusiveness. Finally, with a response he’d thought impossible, he joins her as she evaporates with each shudder of release, as she gasps from behind a curtain of shimmering color blocks.
It takes him some time in the morning, when he wakes, to pull the simple fact of where he is into his consciousness and once he has, he lies in bed for a while, staring up at the ceiling, its slope like a lid about to close on him. Eventually though, he showers and dresses, then makes his way down to the kitchen, where he finds Cathleen, sitting at the table, her elbows resting there, her hands folded together in front of her chin.
“Good morning,” he says. “It’s quiet today. The farmers off farming?”
“Zoe’s not here.” She frowns. “They’re not here. Zoe had a miscarriage during the night.” Then she looks up at him.
“I’m sorry, Jer. I should have done that better. I’m not thinking well.”
The wooden chair creaks ridiculously as he sits. “I didn’t even know. . .”
“She didn’t want anyone to know. Not yet. It’s actually their third. Third miss. They’re at the doctor now. Colin’s calling as soon as there’s anything to report.” She lifts the cup in front of her, peers into it, then looks back at him. He didn’t think one way or the other yesterday about whether she was wearing make-up, but can now see the difference. Her features aren’t so clearly defined, her face is paler. He always preferred her this way. She stands—slowly. “You must need coffee,” she says. Her back is to him as she opens a drawer and takes a paper filter out, opens the freezer and takes a bag of coffee out. “Fuck it, Jeremy. She was all the way through the first term. Fourteen weeks. We were all starting to relax.”
He asks if they know what the problem is, and she says no, it’s all a big mystery.
“Last time, at Christmas, she made a point of telling me she’d never had an abortion. That it wasn’t that kind of damage. I felt awful because of course that’s exactly what I’d been thinking. That she was probably paying for those crazy years she had. Okay,” she says. “Coffee will be ready soon.”
When the phone rings, Cathleen walks it out into the yard. Jeremy watches her through the window, her face drawn, her body somehow tiny, as though she’s retreated into a smaller self.
“She’s more or less okay,” she says, as she walks back in. “He says there was no great blood loss which is the big concern. She has to have a D&C though. They’ll be there for some time.” She puts the phone back in its charger.
“Jeremy, he’s asked if we could clear out. Being Colin, he was very nice about it, but she’s upset and they need some privacy. He’s upset too, of course, though he’s being the stoic one. There’s a schedule here somewhere. The trains run every hourish, I know. He told me just to drive her car to the station. They have a friend who can bring it back. All I have to do is change the sheets on their bed before we go. Apparently they’re a mess. I’d like to do the dishes too. Colin never finished them last night. The place should be clean when she gets home.”
“I can help,” Jeremy says, standing up. He walks over to her, meaning just to put a hand on her back, but then she falls a little into him.
“Fucking children,” she says, into his shoulder. “Fucking heartaches. All of them.”
They move through the house together as though every task requires four hands. He washes the dishes, she dries them and puts them away. They strip the bed upstairs, then remake it, tugging at opposite corners of the fitted sheet.
“I’m just throwing these out,” Cathleen says, bundling up the old, bloody ones. “I’ll buy her new sheets. I don’t want these waiting here when she gets home.”
Jeremy notices a white pitcher filled with wilted flowers atop the chest of drawers. “These are depressing as hell,” he says.
They decide to go out to the garden for new ones.
“I know nothing will cheer her up,” Cathleen says. “But at least when she gets home it will look like someone cares.”
It’s the same phrase she used over and over thirteen years before during those terrible two weeks. When she gets home. When she gets home. When she gets home.
“She isn’t ever coming home, Cathleen,” he finally said. “You have to stop saying that.”
They assemble a bouquet of red dahlias and small purple flowers Jeremy doesn’t recognize. Cathleen points to the ones she wants, while Jeremy cuts the stems, handing them to her, one at a time.
“Where’s the minister?” she asks as she carries the bouquet just in front of her chest. “Honestly, if I weren’t so miserable, I could laugh.”
At the station, she parks the car in the same small lot.
“Should you be taking those?” Jeremy asks, seeing her drop the keys into her bag.
She looks at him as though he’s crazy, then the penny seems to drop. “Oh, their friend has a set. I’ll bring these back next time I’m here.”
Inside, Jeremy springs for two First Class tickets. “Why not?” he asks. “We could both use it.”
“I’m not arguing,” she says.
On the train, they sit across from one another. Jeremy thinks she looks as though the morning’s news has literally taken the air out of her. Her skin seems to have drooped, her body to have crumpled, softened. She seems emptied, somehow. It’s as though she’s physically connected to Zoe still.
“You look tired,” he says.
“Tired and sad.” She adjusts her seat and leans back.
When the train starts to roll, Jeremy watches the same scenery he watched the day before. It’s oncoming this time, but again he is filled with a terrible sense of leaving something behind. So much for optical stimuli tricking his brain. Apparently, it’s just his fate to carry this sense of departure in himself.
They speak very little for the first hour, just a few passing comments about the passing scenery, how endlessly pretty, how English.
“Believe it or not, I miss the ugliness sometimes,” she says. “There’s nothing like the Jersey Turnpike over here. Hideous as it is, it was home.”
“But you love it here.”
“I do. I love it the way you love something that isn’t ever going to be yours. Not really. I hate the idea of being buried here, you know. Funny, isn’t it? Odds are I’ll have lived here for decades by then, but I still hate the idea.”
He almost asks what keeps her there, but catches himself. “It’s good for Zoe that you’re here,” he says instead.
Cathleen shrugs. “I don’t seem able to protect her,” she says. “You know, I think it’s all these pregnancies that made her. . .made her agree to you being here.” He doesn’t say anything. “I couldn’t tell you this yesterday, but that’s what I meant about her changing. She’s a more sympathetic person now. More tender. I see her trying to take care of people now. And I’m sure it’s because of all this heartache. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
It makes perfect sense. “It must be terrible for her,” Jeremy says. “I can’t imagine it.”
“Terrible all around.” Then, with a sigh of resignation to something greater than having to pee, Cathleen pushes herself up and goes to use the loo.
While he’s alone, Jeremy stares out at the painterly landscape, thinking it all through, and it begins to be obvious to him that he’s gone about this all wrong. All of it. Not just the shameful thirteen years during which he more or less abandoned her, but this visit too. This meekness. This civility. Why did it never seem real to him that time was a limited quantity? Only with Rose was he aware of moments flying by, of a strand of pain running continually through him because of that. What did he think he was doing? He should have taken Zoe aside and begged for her forgiveness right away. He should have asked outright how he could make amends. Or not taken her aside at all, but begged in front of Colin and Cathleen and the wandering cow and the old man on the tractor and the cat and the dog.
What had he been waiting for? A slaughtered bird?
When Cathleen comes back, she trips over the handle of the little leather bag tucked beneath her chair and he steadies her with his arm.
“It’s a wonder I didn’t walk in front of the train,” she says. “I’m barely in my own head.”
She pushes the bag back under the seat. It isn’t much more than a big pocketbook, he realizes, nothing possibly big enough for the many days she’d been planning to stay. He asks her if she’d forgotten her things at the farm. “It would be understandable,” he says. “Given what’s going on.”
She frowns, looks puzzled.
He points to the bag. “I just mean, that can’t be enough luggage for all those days.”
“Oh no, it isn’t.” She seems to hesitate. “I keep some clothes up there.”
“Right.” Of course she did.
The train comes to a halting stop at a dingy little station. The building’s brick is practically black, the windows either boarded or shattered. As far as Jeremy can tell, no one gets on or off.
“She told me last time it’s an impossible kind of grief,” Cathleen says, as they start up again. “That people are always hurrying you past it. Telling you just to go get pregnant again. I feel bad sometimes that it never happened to me. It was so easy for us. I feel guilty about it.”
“I can’t believe the doctors have no explanation.”
“You know, she wasn’t letting herself think about there being a real baby, this time. She told me that. Christ, it was just yesterday. Right before dinner. Not even wondering about the sex. She and Colin had a pact not to talk about it.”
When the food cart comes through, they both shake their heads, no.
At one point, his phone vibrates in his pocket. He lets it go, then checks. Rose. Just waking up, no doubt. “Not feeling very chatty,” he says to Cathleen, as he puts it back.
“No. Nor am I. Was that her?” she asks. “Rose?”
After a few seconds, she says, “I can’t tell, Jeremy. Is this something serious?”
He thinks for a moment. “Not really,” he says. “It’s not frivolous, but it’s not what you mean.”
She nods, turns to the window.
This is where they failed, all those years back, he believes. In taking care of one another when tragedy struck. It broke them, broke them all. The truth about his life can wait for a better time.
“I suppose neither of us has had much luck along those lines,” she says. “Finding true love.”
“Not yet maybe,” he says. “But there’s still time.”
It isn’t romantic jealousy he’s protecting her from now. It’s something else. Not that he’s found love with another, but that he’s found love first. That he’s leaving this limbo they’ve shared for thirteen years.
The train makes another quick stop and this time a quartet of boys get on. To Jeremy’s surprise they settle in First Class. “I hope to God they’re not too rowdy,” he says.
“I can’t imagine who buys kids First Class tickets.” Cathleen checks her watch. Then, just a couple of minutes later, she checks it again. He can’t imagine her hurry.
“I was thinking we could have lunch somewhere,” he says.
Little furrows appear in her brow. “I’m sorry, Jeremy,” she says. “I should have told you. There’s somewhere I need to go.” One of the boys laughs raucously and another passenger shushes him. “I have to leave you at the station, I’m afraid. I’m heading the other way.”
He almost asks “The other way from what?” since he doesn’t have a destination, no hotel room, nowhere he has said he needs to be, but he catches himself. It isn’t a mistake, he realizes. It’s a lie. “That’s fine,” he says. “I know my way around.”
“Maybe another time.” She’s looking down the open, empty corridor. He watches as her brow’s furrows begin to smooth, some knot of tension leaving her face. Gradually, the ridges vanish, the shadows disappear. A network of thin lines remains. Lines that weren’t there a decade before.
When she catches him staring, he smiles without much conviction, then turns to the window once again.
It doesn’t make any sense. There’s no reason for her to lie. Though it’s possible that she made an appointment, a rendez vous, while in the bathroom. It occurs to him that she may be protecting him in precisely the way he just protected her. The thought is an appealing one. Two lies told for kindness, a bookend to the parallel confessions they made years before.
Outside, the landscape begins to show unfortunate signs of civilization. Beige, concrete buildings spring up like the mushrooms he has studied all these years. Just as ugly, just as poisonous in their way.
“We’re going to be late,” Cathleen says, just as they enter a tunnel. “A little over fifteen minutes. Nothing to do about it, I suppose. Did you notice, Jeremy? I’m not afraid of tunnels anymore. Remember how bad I used to be?”
In the darkness, the glass has become a mirror. He watches her reflection as she checks her watch again, then begins to drum her fingers on the armrest. She’s clearly impatient to meet whomever it is.
The train stops.
“Dammit,” she says, looking toward the black window. “God dammit! We’re already late.”
“They’ll get it moving,” he says. He can’t imagine what’s gotten into her, the woman who normally would shrug and say so, I guess we’re running latish.
She sits back in her seat and closes her eyes. “I just don’t believe it,” she says. “This train is never late.” She begins to take deep breaths, long and even. Labor breathing.
The train starts up.
“Oh, thank God!” she says—as though for salvation. “Oh, thank God.”
When their eyes meet, her face falls slack. Her mouth opens then shuts. She looks unmistakably as though she’s been caught.
“You’re going right back, aren’t you?” he asks. “To Zoe?”
For a moment, his certainty fails, but then she nods. “Yes, Jeremy. That’s right. I’m going back.”
“You mustn’t be angry,” she says, as they stand together in the chaos of the station, unsure and unfinished, a phantom version of lovers who don’t want to part. “Not at her. She meant well. It’s an impossibly personal time for her, but she didn’t want you hurt.”
“I’m not angry.”
Cathleen looks at him, appraisingly. “I believe you. Though you do seem upset. But I suppose we’re all upset.” Then her eyes open wide. “You can’t tell her you found out. Not ever. You know that, right?” She looks fierce, suddenly fierce—and he loves her for that. “She thinks she’s spared you pain. I know her, Jeremy. She’ll always be proud of this. There’s nothing she can feel good about today. Except there’s this—that she did something kind. For you. You can’t ever let on.”
“Don’t worry,” he says. “I won’t.”
And he doesn’t say more, though there is more to say. But he wants her to go. He wants her to hurry to the next train so it can carry her back to where she’s needed. He doesn’t want to slow her down explaining how he feels. That he isn’t angry. That he isn’t insulted or hurt at being sent away. He is overwhelmed—by his daughter’s kindness to him. By the kindness of them both. It’s so much more than he deserves. It breaks his heart.
“I’m so sorry, Jeremy,“ Cathleen says, a hand on his arm.
“Me too.” Small words to cover a lifetime of all they might be sorry for, symmetrical, like wedding vows, like confessions. I do. I do. I did. I did.
“Where are you going?” she asks. “Do you need any help?”
He shrugs, shakes his head. “No. I used to live here, remember? I’ll figure it out. Just tell her. . . tell her I’m so sorry for her loss.”
Cathleen kisses his cheek. “Thank you for not making this a thing.” She hitches the little bag up onto her shoulder. “I’ll let you know what’s going on,” she says. Then she turns and walks away, hurriedly, as though late.
Her path is lined by pigeons pecking crumbs off the vast marble floor and Jeremy watches as one by one they fly into the air at her approach, then one by one descend and settle just behind her, when she has passed. As he stands there, admiring this spontaneous choreography, Jeremy knows that he’ll tell Rose about it when he gets home. He knows that she can help him understand why this seems so beautiful to him, why the sight brings tears to his eyes.
As soon as Cathleen is gone, he begins to walk himself, in no particular direction, no destination other than that one in mind.