Psychologists from U Cal recently released a study proving the connections between social and physical pain. According to their research, the heart can, quite literally, break. Feelings really can hurt, just the same as a blow to the head. We use these phrases metaphorically all the time: It hurts, we say, I’m dying! but the fact of the matter is, it really can happen. For example, here’s what happened to Elzbeth when he said he’d never loved her:
The pain hit in the gut, just below her bellybutton. It was hollow and precise, like pms but multiplied; bigger, harder, deeper, spreading down and up and side-to-side. Her mother’d always told her to walk off cramps—get up, Elzie, come on, and they’d walk around the block—but this time, when she stepped forward the pain swelled and she dropped, knees buckling, first the left, then the right hitting the ground and she curled over on her side, legs to chest, arms around legs, head down like a ball.
Of course, there were things that happened before so we’ll go back. We’ll lift her head. Look, there’s her face under all that messy hair. Her eyes are screaming but without the sound. Next we’ll open her arms and uncurl her legs, jack her up sideways ‘til she’s on her knees. The pain is not as bad now. It lightens as we rewind—see? Now we’ll lift her right leg, now her left, now straighten her up. She steps backward once and there—there is Elzbeth, tall beside him, her face morphing from disaster to confusion to normalcy as he tells her, backwards: You love don’t I, Elzbeth and then it’s before the words were said and she’s blissfully ignorant as the saying goes.
When you are small, it goes like this: your superbestfriend takes away her half of the heart necklace ‘cause now she’s superbestfriends with someone else, or else it’s the spelling bee and you forget there’s a p in raspberries. After that it’s about boys, or you got nixed from some sports team or your first choice college sends you a letter that starts Dear Miss So and So we’re sorry to inform you that … Elzbeth had taken all these knocks and more, but it wasn’t ‘til her eighteenth birthday that she could tell you what rejection really was.
July 9, 1998: she wakes up, goes into her mother’s room, and stands by the side of the bed in the dark. Eventually, her mother squirms—the subconscious feels the discomfort of someone watching you sleep. Signals are sent to the brain. Then the squirming, then eyes opening, the shocked gasp (“Ahh!”) of seeing another presence in your space and then (“Elzie, you scared me!”) Joan realizes it’s only her daughter.
“Do you know what day it is?” Elzbeth’s voice is calculated. This question leads to something.
“Of course!” Joan says, stretching. “It’s your—“
Elzbeth interrupts. “His name,” she says.
Joan’s mind floods and she searches for the bedside light. Elzbeth doesn’t flinch at the sudden brightness—her eyes are locked on her mother, her face no nonsense. She’s been planning this moment for a very long time. Joan tries to reason: “Honey, I told you—”
“Elzbeth, it won’t—”
“I’m not asking again, Mother.”
It’s the mother that does it, mother with its reverse psychology is like yelling Richard James Junior at Ricky when you mean business. Elzbeth has never called her that, it’s always been Mom, Ma or—lately, in the past couple years as she’s switched overnight from adolescent to adult, they’ve been spending more time together, getting to know each other woman to woman instead of mother to daughter—Joan. She likes being called Joan. This is why she concedes: her daughter she must protect, but this woman deserves the truth. “Cutler,” she says aloud. Then she reaches for the lamp. The light is too goddamn much. “Roy Cutler. He lives in Dorchester,” and then she goes back under the covers.
You can’t see it in the dark, but Elzbeth is smiling.
The address she got from the White Pages. The car she borrowed from her boyfriend. The outfit she bought at Saks. It’s not everyday you meet your father.
Dorchester was four hours North of the city and storybook pristine. Craft shops, mom and pop diners, and smiling neighbors. The mailman waves. Two brothers play one- on-one in a driveway. Pigtailed girls chalk hopscotch squares in pink and purple and Elzbeth wonders how her life would be different had she grown up here. She stands where the sidewalk and the cobblestone path to his front door connect in a T and takes in the clapboard house with its picket fence, its flower garden, one-eighty opposite to Joan’s third-story walk-up, all asphalt and taxicabs and skyscrapers. Would I be different? Who would I be? and then she remembers that she’s here to figure out who she is and marches to his door. Literally, she marches, like she’s wearing a band uniform with its polyester and duck-billed helmet—knees up, feet down, rolling on the toes—this moment deserves such ceremony—she wants to remember every step. How she lifted her hand to knock on his door. How her knuckles connected with the wood—how her whole life had been in anticipation of this moment—this knock—knock, knock—this click as the door opened—she smiles—he’s never seen her before and she wants to be at her best—she stands tall, it’s all the way open now and it’s him, this is him, her father looking at her and the first thing she ever hears him say is, “You look like your mother.”
“I look like you,” she says.
And he shuts the door in her face.
She stands there for a minute. Then she lifts her hand back up and knocks again.
She didn’t just drive four hours for nothing.
She didn’t wait eighteen years for nothing.
Well into the night and her knuckles are now raw. The muscles in her arm are stiff, aching, but she still hasn’t stopped. Her eyes are locked on the peephole in the center of his door: Does he see me? Is he watching? and finally it’s ten p.m. and the streetlights in Dorchester shut down, the light around Elzbeth dimming as each goes out around her. It’s dark now. She’s not used to dark—in the city there’s always light, but here? She cant’t even see her hand knocking in front of her face and so, finally, she stops. Turns around. Heads back to the car, back to all the questions she’s always had except now she’s lost hope for answers and just then—just when her hand starts to throb and she might maybe cry—she trips over something. In the dark, she kneels down and feels for it, and what she closes her hand around is a piece of sidewalk chalk.
It’s five a.m. and Joan wakes up, her sixth-mother-sense on fire. She goes down the hall to Elzbeth’s room and peeks in—nothing. The bed is made, hasn’t been slept in. That isn’t unusual—Elzie sometimes stays at her boyfriend’s. Joan allows this—she’s progressive—but this feels different. After yesterday, everything will be different. Joan goes into the dining room, the table still set for last night’s birthday celebration that Elzbeth didn’t show for. There are the good plates. There are the presents with their stick-on ribbons. There is the homemade birthday cake with its eighteen unlit candles, eighteen unmade wishes. It looks so sad, in the dark. Or maybe it’s sad ‘cause Joan knows that the one wish Elzbeth made, she’ll never get. In a bucket on the table is a bottle of champagne. The ice has long since melted, the liquor certainly warm but Joan feels a sudden need for drink, something to dull her senses and turn off her memory. She picks up the bottle and rips off the foil around the cork, walking across the room as she does so. There is a mirror on one wall and she stops in front of it, watching herself unwind the wire casing. Her features aren’t quite clear in the early morning darkness so she sees herself young—no wrinkles, no laugh lines, no crows feet. Her hair is down around her shoulders and this is Joan as she was at eighteen, when everything was so hopeful, when she first met Roy. Joan grasps the neck of the bottle firmly in her left hand and twists at the cork with her right, aiming at the mirror so when it finally pops, the cork flies square into that long-ago reflection. The force of it cracks the glass and Joan watches it spider web out from her face and shatter.
Joan is not a superstitious woman. Seven years ain’t nothing.
Scott’s alarm clock goes off at six. He jumps up, trying to shut it off before it wakes Elzbeth. She just got to bed a couple hours ago, must be exhausted, poor girl. Scott hasn’t slept much either, but right then he could’ve run a marathon, twenty-six miles across the city, through the finish line and still he’d go, on and on ‘til he runs out of ground to plant his feet on, that’s how good he feels. He looks over at her, twined in the sheet, one bare leg sticking out. He wants to kiss her toes—no, better to let her sleep. He could do it later tonight, or tomorrow, or any in a million days ‘cause him and Elzbeth? They were going to make it. This morning, he was sure.
Last night, he hadn’t been. They’d had plans for nine: birthday dinner at his house. He’d cooked, bought wine, the whole nine yards ‘cause this night was special. This night, he would ask her, he’d take her hands in his and say, El, I know we’re young and all, but it’s been two years. Lots of marriages don’t even last that long and— But nine came and went, and so did midnight and one a.m. and anger and despair and at midnight, he gave up. He blew out the candles, changed into sweatpants and had just turned out the lights when he heard the knock, not the sharpness of knuckle but the muted thump of palm. “El— ” he started as he opened the door, but before he could get to the beth she was on him, slamming his body into the hallway wall and kicking the door shut. He’d never felt her this ferocious: kissing, grinding, pelvis bone-to-bone, her hands in his hair, tongue down his throat, him hard as a rock like zero to warp in ten seconds flat, her hands under his shirt now sliding stomach to chest to neck and pulling at the collar, yanking it away, the material stretching, ripping, tossed to the side. He tried for her buttons but she pulled away, not letting him undress her as she went for his drawstring, dropping to her knees in front of him as she pulled the pants to his ankles and off, her hands sliding up his calves—up—up the back of his thighs—up—gripping the muscle of his ass and it was fast, all of it so fast, him naked against the wall and her fully dressed with his dick in her mouth and he went rigid, then slack, her tongue tip to base, tip to base, swirling around the tip and repeated, rhythmic, again, again, again—then— slow. Again. Again. And she released her grip on his ass and reached for his hands pressed palm flat against the wall. She pulled, downward, not taking her mouth away, not breaking the rythym, not breaking her control: lie down her body said—tip to base, tip to base—lie here, yes—tip to base—feel this and speeding up again, again—tip to base—her mouth relentless and her hands up under her own skirt now, hiking it over her hips, wiggling her underwear down her legs faster-faster-faster and then she was off him—then on again—not her mouth now but her—a knee on each side of his waist poised over him, pausing there to tease, to torment, you feel that, baby? then—downallatonce, DEEP, and he drowned.
Now, watching this girl he loved sleep, Scott feels a new kind of sure. He will get dressed and go to work. Paychecks had a different purpose now—there was something to put them towards. He leans over and kisses her pinkie.
Every morning promptly at seven, Roy Cutler wakes up. His internal clock is set, it never varies. He gets out of bed, showers and dresses, and leaves the house by seven-thirty. He picks up his delivered newspaper from the front path, walks the three blocks to a local diner and has breakfast while reading the paper. Today isn’t much different, except his mind keeps wandering and he has to remind himself to stay focused.
I wonder why she—no, you’re brushing your teeth.
She looks exactly like—no, pull up your sock.
If he keeps his mind on what he’s doing, it won’t get bogged down with all that’s past. Get your coat, lock the door behind you, get the newspaper—and then he sees it. There is writing up and down his front walk, big block letters in pink and purple sidewalk chalk. It says this: My name is Elzbeth. I was named after an old teacher of my mother’s. Did you know that? I don’t know how much you know. I’m eighteen today. I’m supposed to go to college in the fall but I don’t know where. I play soccer. I sunburn—do I get that from you? I’m stubborn. Mom won’t tell me anything about you, so maybe I get that from her. Do you— the words stop because there’s no more room; the whole front walk is filled from the porch to the street. Roy’s stomach sinks. It’s started, he thinks, all this time and—no. No, you’re going to breakfast. Pick up the paper and go.
Elzbeth opens her eyes and first thing sees the clock. Two p.m. She gets out of bed, walks naked into the bathroom and stands in front of Scott’s full-length mirror. There are her legs, long like Joan’s. There is her hair, black like Joan’s. The blue eyes, the curve of hip, the small hands—all Joan’s. Elzbeth has known this her whole life, this You look just like your mother sentiment. It’s the other stuff that confuses her: her chin, whose is that? Her ears. They stick out too much. Her skin like skim milk, the shape of her mouth, her broad shoulders, where did these come from? Her father, that’s who, and until yesterday, every time she looked at herself in the mirror she saw his absence.
It was kindergarten when she first realized it.
“How was school, honey?” Joan asked, driving home that first day.
“It was good. I made Paris. She said nap but the mat was crusty. There’s a boy named Chauncy and he’s got a daddy.”
Joan felt the word like a punch to the chest. “Oh,” she said, and gripped the steering wheel. For years, she’d been stealing herself for this conversation. Now she said, “Made Paris out of what?”
Elzbeth opened and closed the glove compartment. “The sticks inside popsicles. Red and orange popsicles. My Paris is red and orange. Do I have a daddy?”
In consultation with a child psychologist, Joan had prepared an answer to this question that would tell Elzbeth the truth while simultaneously impressing upon her how loved she was. The delivery of this answer would vary depending on Elzbeth’s age, but in that moment the entirety of Joan’s rehearsed speech evaporated and she said, “No. You don’t have one.”
“Okay,” said Elzbeth, and went back to the glove compartment. At six, this didn’t seem so out of the ordinary. After all, in Sunday school they had learned about Mary and the baby Jesus and how Mary was blessed and Jesus was special. Elzie knew she was special, so it didn’t seem much of a stretch that hers had been a virgin birth. No big thing.
Isn’t it amazing, what goes on in children’s heads when we don’t ask them what they’re thinking? If you don’t explain things, they’ll come to their own rationale. Why does the sun rise and set? Well, honey, a Greek guy in a chariot pulls it across the sky everyday. Why do my teeth fall out? Well, baby, there’s a little fairy with pliers who jumps into your mouth while you’re sleeping. Why don’t I have a father? Well, God impregnated your mother like Mary. He does that sometimes for kids He really likes. Ohhhhhh, I see! And they do see, they do understand, until that inevitable day comes along to shatter all your carefully constructed fabrications: Science class. Welcome to fifth grade science class, with its illustrated textbooks and informational cartoons and infallible proof.
“I know I’ve got a father,” Elzbeth announced when Joan picked her up that day.
On the steering wheel, the knuckles went white. “You do?”
Elzbeth thought of the sperm swimming down the tunnel. “Yes,” she said.
“Hmmm.” Joan was muted sarcasm. “Have you seen any father?”
This is the only argument that can render science obsolete. Elzie and hundreds of other kids around the world used it last week in Sunday school: Why should I believe in something I can’t see? “No, but—” she said, then stopped, confused. “It’s important not to confuse her,” the psychologist had said. “Just tell her the truth.” But Joan sees it like this: there is truth and there is truth. The former you get over with time and the latter might destroy you. “But nothing,” she said to her daughter, and Elzbeth, curious as she was, knew not to press it.
Then she was a teenager, and that’s when you press everything.
“It was another woman, right? That’s why you won’t talk about it!” she yelled after dinner. Her hair was dyed bright pink and she wore black studded things. “He left you for somebody else and you’re hurt, I get it, but that’s not about me!”
“It was another woman!”
Joan’s memory shot back, quickly, before she got control of herself. “It’s not your place, Elzbeth.”
“It is my place! It’s not fair not to—”
This was the sixth night in a row they’d had this fight; Joan was tired. “You’re right, Kiddo,” she said, dropping plates into the sink. “Life isn’t fair.”
That was the truth, as far as Joan saw it, but at fifteen Elzbeth saw a little farther. “You have to fucking tell me!” she yelled.
“I do not have to fucking tell you!” Joan yelled back. It was the first and last time Elzbeth’d ever heard her mother swear. It acted as the final period on a big long sentence, one that had stretched over her whole life. This was it—the end. She would never know her father and she had to accept it and move on.
This is how Elzbeth moved on: she started dating older men. Not older like eighteen or nineteen, but thirty or forty. It was only logical: if you’re missing something in your life, you search for it. Elzbeth couldn’t get that man, so she’d get a man. This involved a push-up bra, a fake ID, and sneaking out at night, going to bars and acting, purposely, like bait. Like a chunk of fish for all the bottom-feeders.
“Hi, honey,” they’d say, and she’d say “hi.”
“What’re you doing here,” they’d say, and she’d say “I don’t know.” There was a lot of eyelash flutter, of crossing and uncrossing legs. She played it one part nervous, two parts naive and they all fell hard.
Later, in the heat of it—back at their place, in the back of their car, out back in the alley—she’d never fail to say, “I’ve been looking for you my whole life.”
It went on that way for a year.
“Hi honey,” he said. He came and sat next to her at the bar. It was early yet, so the place was dead. Just the two of them and a bartender washing glasses.
“Hi,” Elzbeth said, glancing at him sideways. Forty, maybe. Hair receding, kind of chunky, nice suit—perfect.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
“I don’t know,” she said, sugar-sweet.
This was his cue to move in, but what he said was, “Shouldn’t you be at school?”
“It’s five,” she said.
“After school stuff then? Sports? Dance?”
Elzbeth stared. This was a language entirely foreign to her, as if this man were speaking German. German was easier to digest than Paternal.
“How do you know so much?” she snapped, trying to regain control.
“I got a daughter your age.”
The pause was long.
“I’m not your daughter,” she said finally.
“No, but you’re somebody’s.” He was looking at her so disapprovingly, as though she’d just broke curfew or forgot to take out the garbage. “So what are you doing here?”
“None of your business.”
“You’re right, it’s not,” he said. “But if it was my girl sitting here I’d want to—”
“Fuck off,” Elzbeth said. “Fuck. Off.” She jumped off her chair and went to the bathroom, breathing fast to match the pace of her pulse. There in the mirror was a girl staring at her. She looked about thirty, with heavy eye make-up and smeared lipstick and eyes glassy from the two earlier vodkas. Her hair was ratty, her shirt low-cut and rising over her hips. She was a stranger, and Elzbeth looked at her and felt suddenly frantic. She pumped out handfuls of liquid soap and dropped her head to the sink, rubbing away the make-up, and when she stood upright again the dripping girl looking back at her was equally as unfamiliar as the first. This one was sad and pale, her blue eyes filling.
Who knows how long she stayed like that, watching this person cry in the mirror. Eventually, a woman came into the bathroom, took one look at the little girl there sobbing and jumped into action. “My goodness, sweetheart!” she said, wrapping Elzbeth in her grown-up arms. “What happened?” Elzbeth let herself be held. She cried into this woman’s shoulder. Then she looked up into her kind, worried face and whispered, “Could you please call my mom?”
After Joan got Elzbeth in the car, she went back in to give the bartender a piece of her mind. That’s how she found out. Everything. Everything her daughter had been doing. In that moment—watching his lips move with all the words—Joan began to age. Every line, every wrinkle formed fast-forward and when Joan went back to the car and got into the driver’s seat, she knew she’d never again have the energy to mother her daughter. Their relationship was forever changed.
“Just tell me, Elzbeth,” she said. “What needs to happen for this to stop.”
Elzbeth was slumped in the passenger seat, a strange white shell. “I need to know him,” she whispered.
Joan sighed deeply and rested her forehead on the steering wheel. “Fine,” she said. “You promise me, just normal fifteen-year-old behavior and so help me God, Elzbeth, I will tell you.”
Joan’s head was still down, her now graying black hair spreading on the dash. “On your birthday,” she said. “Your eighteenth birthday. That way, if you don’t want to come home, you’ll be an adult.”
Elzbeth nodded. “Thanks,” she said. “Thanks, Joan.”
In the mirror now, at Scott’s, eighteen-year-old Elzbeth knows about her chin. Her ears and her mouth and her skin—she knows where they all came from. But there are still all these things that she can’t see in a mirror, and these are things she needs to know.
Elzbeth leaves the bathroom and gets dressed. She has a long drive ahead of her.
Roy has just finished dinner when the knocking starts. What he does is ignore it. He gets up and does the dishes. Pours himself tea. Sits down in front of the television for the NBC line-up—four back-to-back sitcoms and the hour-long emergency room drama and the nightly news—and all the while, she knocks.
I should answer the—no, go to bed.
She might be co—no, go to bed.
I could just peek—yes, yes you could. Just peek at her, that’s what a peephole is for. See her through the blurry distorted circle: her face, her hair, her eyes so completely like—no, go to bed.
So he does.
But in sleep, you can’t escape, and in the dream there is Joan. She’s eighteen years old in a blue bikini, laying on her stomach by the side of the pool. She stands and he sees her body. She lifts her arms over her head and dives, cutting cleanly into the chlorine-blue water. In the dream, Roy climbs down the ladder, watching his hands move down the side poles, then his legs beneath him tredding water. She swims up to him. She is so close, he can feel her heat—and then he sits up straight in bed. It is seven o’clock, time to get up, because today he has a mission.
It’s this: forget.
Shower, dress, forget. Coat, briefcase, forget. Leave, lock, forget. Bend to pick up the newspaper and you can’t forget now, can you Roy? Because there are her words on your front walk—red and blue letters twisting together: I know this is weird. But I thought if you got to know me it would be easier. So this is me. Elzbeth. I’m a Cancer if that means anything. I don’t believe in that stuff although Mom and I went to church a lot and I do think there’s a God.
The following morning, it says this: Maybe it’s too soon to talk about God. Maybe we start simple. So. I like Thai food. I like older music, like the Beatles. I have this reoccurring dream where my elementary school floods. I had braces once, when I was nine.
Every morning from then on, there is more:
I’m scared of heights.
When I was younger I wanted to be a doctor. Now I’m not sure.
I’ve done some bad stuff.
I’m seeing this guy, Scott. He’s twenty. He works in a bank. He loves me, I think. I’m happy, I think. Content.
Roy reads that last part, standing on his front walk with the words beneath his feet. He reads that last part and drops his briefcase. That last part, see, is what makes him decide to remember.
Joan hasn’t been sleeping well lately. It’s been a month since Elzbeth’s birthday and she hasn’t seen her daughter since. At night, she reads magazines or watches infomercials, anything to dull her mind. When the sun comes up, she pours a cup of coffee, walks down the stairs of their building and sits on the front steps like an old woman. She is thirty-six but acts twice that, in her dressing gown shushing loud kids and yelling at reckless drivers.
But today is different. Today she walks out the front door, takes one look at the street and goes back upstairs. She goes to the phone and dials.
“Hello?” Scott says, his voice full of sleep. It’s not quite six and he’s exhausted. Every night he waits up for Elzbeth, pacing the apartment, planning what he’ll say. Where do you go, Elzbeth? Why do you get home so late? Who are you with? But when she does arrive, midnight, one a.m., sometimes two, there isn’t time between the sex and the alarm clock. She is living with him now, her body has never been more his, yet he’s never felt so distant.
“El,” he’d said last night, just afterwards. “Can we talk?”
“Shhhh,” she’d whispered into his chest. “You have to sleep, baby, you have work in the morning.”
“But I want to talk,” he’d said. “I want to know about you.”
“You know everything.”
“Not lately,” he said. “And I want it to be more, you know? More than just—”
“Shhhh,” she’d said, and what did that mean?
“Tell her to come home,” Joan is telling him now, and he flips over in bed and sees Elzbeth stretch under the bed. “Tell her there’s something for her to see.”
It’s a beautiful morning, warm and windy. Elzbeth’s hair blows wild as she rides her bike to her mother’s. She watches the sky pass overhead. Buildings to her sides. Sidewalk below, and it’s then—as she turns onto her old street—that she sees it. The words. They are green and blue, chalked over nearly a block of concrete in tiny, careful penmanship. Elzbeth stops and gets off the bike. The amount of words before her might be the equivalent of twenty pages, some of them smudged or blurred where people hurrying to work have stepped on them. Elzbeth looks up and sees her mother sitting on the front steps of their building, then looks back down and sees where it all began
This is why, it says.
I was married. Her name was Aurora and we both worked for a landscaping company, and when we moved in together we built a little garden on the roof. We planted flowers and herbs in clay pots. It was an eight story building and at night you could see the city all lit up around you. It was nice. Aurora and I could talk and we had the garden and I was content. Do you know how that feels?
So one day I got sent to this fancy house to do some yard work. Clipping hedges, stuff like that. And they had a daughter who was eighteen, and she was always out back by the pool. I’d see her and I felt—I felt—it was something totally different than Aurora. It was like a fever, like fire under my skin. I thought about this girl all the time, at home and at work and in her parents’ yard cutting their lawn, I couldn’t not watch her, I would try not to stare but it was impossible, she was too beautiful. That’s how I met your mother.
Elzbeth looks up from the concrete to Joan, who has come up behind her. She is in her dressing gown and smoking a cigarette, her first in eighteen years and seven months, since the day she found out she was pregnant with Roy’s child. “I loved him,” she says simply. “A crazy, insane I’ll risk it all love. For a long time, we just looked at each other, and I’d have to get into the pool to cool off. But one day, I came up for air and he was in the water with me. And I knew then that my life had changed.”
Joan takes a long drag on her cigarette and looks into her memory. Elzbeth goes back to the sidewalk.
I figured, it says, that few people are lucky enough to have this. This crazy, passion, this all-consumming thing. That’s what I told Aurora. We were up in the garden and she was cutting the ends off an ivy. She was crying very softly while she did it, and then she looked up and said,“I thought you loved me.”
I told her that I did, I did love her, so much, but this was a different thing entirely.
“You’d throw me away on that?” she said. “On a single moment with this girl?”
I told her yes.
“I don’t understand,” she said, and I said I hoped she someday would. I hoped she could experience something like this—the side of love that boils. “What you and I have is very real, but it’s still. And for some people that’s enough, but not for me.” That’s when she did it.
“Did what?” Elzbeth says aloud.
“She put down the shears,” Joan says.
And walked to the edge of the roof.
“No,” says Elzbeth.
I didn’t think she would do it.
“But she did,” says Joan.
She walked ‘til her toes were at the edge and then she turned, faced me and said, “I love you, too.” Then she took a single step back and was gone.
“No, she didn’t,” Elzbeth says.
“Yes, she did,” Joan says. “And your father went to the edge and looked over and saw her, eight stories below.”
I walked down all those stairs, and the closer I got to the bottom the bigger it got—the guilt— and by the time I got down to the sidewalk and picked up her up, I knew I’d never again be able to let that go.
“He came to me the next day and said it was over,” Joan says, lighting a second cigarette with the first one. “He said love was too dangerous and the only way he could ever really love me was to stay as far from me as possible.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Elzbeth says.
“Of course it is, honey,” said her mother. “But think about what he’d seen. Think about how you would react if you were in his place.”
However good love can feel, and here the handwriting was shaky, is nothing in comparison to the bad, and never again would I put anyone through that. Certainly not your mother. And, two months later when she told me she was pregnant, I knew I couldn’t put you through it, either.
Elzbeth stares at the ground.
I’m sorry, Elzbeth.
Joan takes her daughter’s hand in her own.
But I don’t love you.
This time, she doesn’t knock. Small town residents never do lock their doors. There’s no fear of “those kinds of people” in such high tax brackets, unless of course “those kinds of people” are confused, angry, estranged daughters. Elizbeth throws open the door and walks right in, yelling “Roy!” as she walks through his house. It’s in perfect order: neat and tidy with lots of earth tones. The kitchen is spotless. “Roy!” The hallway perfect. “Roy!” And there, in the matching living room, she sees the mantelpiece and stops. There are three framed photographs: the first is of her mother, young and beautiful and smiling, the sky impossibly blue behind her. The second is Elzbeth as a baby, her face covered with chocolate. Joan’s got the same one by her bed at home. The third is a blonde woman in a garden, her arms full of weeds. She’s smiling at the camera—not a dazzling smile like Joan’s, but a peaceful one. This woman is calm and content and, Elzbeth now knows, dead.
“You shouldn’t’ve come, Elzbeth.”
She whips around. “I need to hear you say it.”
Her father sighs. “It won’t do any good.”
“It will for me. I need to hear it.”
“I don’t love you.”
She takes one step back.
“I don’t love you, Elzbeth.”
And this is where she doubles over.
Had they been there, those psychologists from U Cal might’ve won the Nobel Prize. My heart is breaking! people cry, and this is true. My feelings are hurt! they say, and this, too is true. It hurts, it hurts, I’m dying and all that’s true, true, true, but as Joan says, there is truth and there is truth. The truth for Elzbeth is this: when he says he doesn’t love her, the pain hits hard and she falls over. Roy watches his daughter fall and tries to remember what love feels like, but he can’t. We’d have to take him back—back to yesterday, writing Aurora’s story all over the street, and before that, to the knocking. We’d fast reverse out of his cushy town to the ten years he spent on the road, working odd jobs, meaningless stuff with random women as he tries to outrun his memory. His age erases as we go—see, his gut pulls in, muscles punch out, face smooths, hair grows down his forehead, and now he cries like a baby crouched on one side of a door, and there is Joan, shocked, standing on the other side of it. She’s just told the man she loves that she’s pregnant. He’s just slammed the door in her face. He’s dropped to his knees to cry—but wait, that’s the wrong direction. Where we want to go is here: a woman’s body, broken on the ground, lifts up into the air, bones reassembling as it flies to the top of an eight story building. Aurora, alive. Then the day before that, in a swimming pool with a girl in a blue swim suit and this—this is the moment when Roy Cutler felt love. This is when his brain-image would light up like the fourth of July, exploding all that fancy equipment at U Cal.
Do you remember when you felt like that?
When you loved someone so much it could kill you?
Elzbeth opens her eyes and sees her father’s shoes. They are expensive and spitshined, connected to well-ironed pants and a shirt from the dry cleaners on a man who is too far gone to feel anything. And there, in the soft, plushy carpet, Elzbeth decides that this will not be her. She will sit up, then stand. She will stand on her tip-toes, kiss this man on the cheek, walk out of his house and never look back. She will look forward: to the drive home where she’ll sing along with the radio, to seeing the city appear through the clouds against a purple sky, to going home to Scott, to taking his face between her hands—so small, so smooth, like her mother’s—and telling him that she’s ready for whatever will happen the next day, and the next.