Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Marisa Silver about her writing process.
Evelyn hadn’t wanted to visit Helene. The women were no longer related, and it had been years since there was a reason for the performance of friendship and mutuality that had once existed between them. In this way, Tom and Ruth’s divorce had come as a relief. But there was shame, too, for Evelyn, an inner collapse when she admitted to herself that she had lived 22 years of her life with that woman shadowing her every thought and decision. Twenty-two years! To think that this could count as one of her most enduring relationships; neither of her marriages had lasted close to that long. And then, with one phone call—Mom, Tom and I have decided to split—the years of clench-jawed diplomacy with Helene simply vanished, as if they had never happened.
Afterward, Evelyn took a small pleasure in ignoring Helene’s friends when she ran into them at the market or the nail salon, feeling absolutely no compunction to make nice, aware that these well-dressed busybodies would report back to Helene about Evelyn’s insistence on keeping her figure when the rest of them had settled into their battle-ready girths. But the truth was, Evelyn hadn’t been released from the woman at all. She avoided Weybridge Road on the off chance that Helene might be looking out her window at the exact moment Evelyn’s Buick passed and might think that, like a spurned lover, Evelyn was stalking her. When she dressed in the morning, she imagined Helene’s silent disapproval of a tight skirt or her bare legs. Evelyn had lately begun to spend her winters in Florida, which turned out to be a freedom, not only from the cold and heavy-lidded Ohio skies, but from the disapproving weather of that woman. But this business with Helene stashed away at Willowdale—well, it wasn’t right.
Ruth, with dispassionate pragmatism—the effect, Evelyn supposed, of having been robbed of a father, a husband, and a daughter in one lifetime—said there wasn’t any point to visiting. “She doesn’t even recognize Tom anymore,” she’d explained when she called from New York. It was February then, and Evelyn was midway through her stay on Sanibel Island. Though it had been unsettling to know that Helene had taken such a bad turn that she could no longer be cared for in her home, it wasn’t until Evelyn returned to Cleveland in early May that the information truly sank in. The familiarity of her apartment on Van Aken was disheartening. Every piece of furniture, every picture on the wall, seemed to have been frozen during her absence, the three small rooms poorer for their attentive waiting. Evelyn felt stranded, and then she thought about Helene in Willowdale.
“You shouldn’t bother yourself, Mom” was what Ruth had said.
How many years had Evelyn been bothered on Helene’s account, arriving at her dinner parties an hour early to listen to her fuss over whether her housekeeper, Erna, would ruin the roast? How many times had she praised that overcooked and pretentious meat? Even in the ’70s, when people were lining up for gasoline and reacquainting themselves with liver and onions, Helene insisted on those charred hunks of beef encircled with puckered and feeble-looking potatoes that reminded Evelyn of the pearl chokers Helene wore so tightly, they pinched the loose skin at her neck. How many hours had she spent consoling Helene after the divorce—Helene, who behaved as if it were she who had been betrayed, even though it was Ruth who had suffered Tom’s many affairs? How often had she kept her mouth shut while she endured the insinuation that Francie’s troubles, first her irritableness, then the drugs, came from Evelyn’s side of the family, because Ruth’s father had drunk his way to a fatal car crash? It was awful to admit, but a few years earlier, when she’d first heard of Helene’s incipient dementia, she experienced—what was that German word? Even thinking of a German word she couldn’t remember gave her a little nip of glee, Helene having banned all things German from her life. The woman wouldn’t sit in a Volkswagen, for God’s sake. Of course, there was a time when Evelyn felt the same; most Jews she knew did. But you couldn’t hold it against the new generation. No one chooses whom they are born to.
“She won’t know who you are, and one minute after you leave, she won’t remember you were there,” Ruth said, and at that precise moment, Evelyn knew what she would do.
Willowdale was neither surrounded by willows nor nestled in a dale. It sat on a heavily trafficked street and looked like the nursery school that Francie had gone to. What was it called? Miss Brunner’s? The Brunner woman had painted her house red and called it a barn. She’d put a couple of dirty, undernourished goats and some chickens in her backyard and called it a farm. The woman dressed in overalls, for heaven’s sake. Ruth had been delighted by the idea of Francie spending time in a “rural” environment, as if cars were not shooting by on the street, causing the goats to shriek. For Evelyn, who had grown up on an actual farm in Nebraska, the whole thing was phony baloney, and if she remembered correctly, Francie had caught a bad case of fleas. As a matter of fact, she realized as she pulled into the driveway, it was the same place. The planter in the center of the roundabout that held impatiens, those unimaginative blooms of office parks, had replaced the flagpole and the sun-bleached flag that the children had raised and lowered every day, their little hands placed uncertainly over their chests as they stumbled through the Pledge, unsure where their hearts were.
The nursery school had been turned into a nursing home, she thought with amusement as she parked the car. One babbling population exchanged for another. Helene probably wore diapers. Evelyn had been having a lot of these thoughts lately. Mean thoughts. Morbid thoughts. She’d see a man’s bloated face and imagine his heart attack. Or she’d watch a deer cross the road and picture it under the wheels of her car. It was necessary to think of the worst things, when the worst was so near at hand. She was 76. Reasonably healthy, but as the Floridians, those wrinkled prophets, reminded one another darkly: All it took was One Bad Fall.
Cradle to grave. Nursery to nursing home. She wondered if Helene was aware of the irony. According to Ruth, she wasn’t aware of much. At any rate, she wouldn’t have found it funny. She had refused to set foot in that school after the flea incident. It was one more thing she blamed on Ruth, and by extension Evelyn. Well, it was Ruth’s fault, Evelyn supposed. The school had been a frivolous choice. It boasted a progressive curriculum that, as far as Evelyn could tell, taught children nothing except how to fling dirt at one another, write on their skin, and lick paint. Francie had begun kindergarten well behind the others. It was Evelyn who had made the girl sit on her hands when she did math sums in her head, to rid her of the habit of counting on her fingers.
But, oh! Francie’s little hands! The dusty, bodily smell of them. So disgusting to think where they had been during the day, fingers digging in sandboxes and nostrils, heedlessly scratching a haphazardly wiped bottom. And yet, when Francie slept over, Evelyn could not help but give them a little sniff before making the girl submit to a good scrub with a nailbrush and then a session with the orange stick. She’d taught Francie about cuticle maintenance and that she must never wash her face with soap. And the girl had never suffered even a pimple in adolescence. Evelyn felt a shiver. She did not think of Francie all the time. But every so often she did. When she was in her late teens, and her experimentation had turned to addiction, Tom and Ruth did everything they could. By the time she was 25, and the marriage was over, they were at a loss. It’s her life, they said. A weak justification, Evelyn thought. Whose life was ever their own?
Florida was supposed to help. A land of forgetting. People there gloried in reinvention, marveling at how they were suddenly able to leap around tennis courts or walk 18 holes without resorting to the cart. But Evelyn never forgot, not during viciously competitive rounds of canasta, not while she lay out in the sun, enjoying the scandal of her bikini. For a moment, she felt petulant about Helene’s vacant mind, imagining that, as with all things, the woman had imperiously commanded senility into being to avoid the cruelty of memory.
Upon entering the lobby of the nursing home, Evelyn was relieved to see that the room that had once housed low tables, pint-size chairs, and cots for nap time had been turned into a pleasant lounge, where caramel-colored faux-leather couches were adult-size and stain-free. The young receptionist, who wore scrubs printed with a pattern of teddy bears, motioned her vaguely to one of the couches. She let Evelyn know that it might be a while; sometimes the clients, as she called them, had to be encouraged—she curled her fingers into air quotes—to greet visitors. Evelyn thought instantly of cattle prods. She couldn’t remember. Had Miss Brunner kept a cow?
The problem with memories was that they were as willful as children: totally uncontrollable and always interrupting. You could not make a journey from here to there without abrupt cataclysms of recollection that sent your organs do-si-do-ing inside your body and that made you feel like you might be dying. Maybe it was all going to end right now, while she sat in a Naugahyde chair in a room perfumed by Comet and Windex with an undertone of decay.
But there was also, incomprehensibly, the smell of the sea, and the sound of room-service carts clattering over a carpeted hallway. And there she was in that hotel room she and Helene had shared in the summer of 1975, when they’d gone with Tom and Ruth to meet Francie on the Mediterranean coast. The four of them arrived, after two flights and an uncomfortable car ride, only to find that the girl had left a message at the hotel saying that she wasn’t coming. She would meet them at Charles de Gaulle in a week for the flight home. Looking back, Evelyn supposed that was the start of things with Francie, although at the time they had all simply chalked it up to adolescent peevishness. What 16-year-old wanted to end her summer in France by having her family, grandmothers included, show up?
Evelyn had thought it was a bad idea to begin with, and she tried to convince Ruth to let Francie travel home on her own. But when Tom got a notion into his head, he couldn’t be moved off it. Ideas galvanized him; the more irrational they were, the more he believed in their unassailable rightness, which made him a reasonably successful stockbroker and then a terribly failed one. Ruth, already burdened by the strain in her marriage, was in appeasement mode. It had been awful for Evelyn to witness her daughter’s panic, to see her try to fold herself into ever-smaller packages in an attempt to be so inconsequential that she would not cause a final rupture. Evelyn was not interested in the self-help many of her friends were newly dedicated to, discovering that illness was really a gift, death only a passage, but she would admit that a girl who had lost her father as young as Ruth had might have—what was it called?—abandonment issues. So there they were, the four of them, dumbfounded by the exhaustion of travel and embarrassed that their extravagant gesture of family unity, flying halfway across the world and checking into a hotel so expensive that Helene and Evelyn were to share a room, had been met with a shrug by the object of their thwarted affection. The fact that neither Tom nor Ruth seemed alarmed by their daughter’s decision was only testament to the fact that the marriage was coming apart at the seams. This new crisis was only one more thing.
Helene and Evelyn settled into their room, while Tom and Ruth went off to make phone calls to the couple in Tours that Francie had lived with and the language school she had attended, in order to track her down. The room was a rococo folderol outfitted for romance. Luxurious curtains plunged to the floor like half-shed gowns. The wallpaper boasted a design of fat, nasty-looking cherubs.
“What’s this?” Helene said to the porter, pointing to the room’s one queen-size bed as if the previous guest had defecated on it. “No, no, no! This is not possible.”
“For God’s sake,” Evelyn said. “There’s nothing he can do about it.” She went into her purse and produced a dollar bill, which the boy examined as if it were a turned piece of fish.
“The French,” Helene said, once the boy left. Afterward, she made a call to the front desk, but failed to secure a double room, a cot, or even an apology. Evelyn laid her purse on the side of the bed nearest the phone. She would be the first to receive any news of Francie when Tom and Ruth called. For the next 10 minutes, the women silently unpacked, taking turns hanging their clothing in the armoire.
“What in the world?” Evelyn said with a light laugh, pointing to Helene’s open suitcase. She walked over to confirm that, indeed, a miniature American flag was anchored inside the upper lid of the case, the stars and stripes poking out of the silk pocket that was meant for delicates.
“I am not ashamed to be an American,” Helene said. “We saved these people’s lives.”
Suddenly, Evelyn felt overwhelmed by the intimacy of the room and the anticipation of the shared bed, and she announced that she was going to see the concierge about changing money.
At lunch, Tom and Ruth reported that the phone calls had yielded nothing. Francie had bid her hosts goodbye two days prior. They knew nothing of the plan to meet her family in the south.
“They made it seem like we were bothering them,” Ruth said.
“What did you expect?” Tom said.
“They are supposed to be her French family. That’s what the brochure said.”
“That’s a little sentimental, even for you. They do it for the money.”
Evelyn wanted to reach across the table and twist his earlobe. Or she wanted to slap her daughter on the cheek and tell her to do it herself.
Their only hope of tracking down their daughter, Tom continued, was to wait until Francie ran out of money.
“But that could take who knows how long!” Helene said, her voice rising.
“Only if she doesn’t eat,” Tom said.
“Tom read this book about Europe on five dollars a day,” Ruth said, a history of argument in her tone.
“Which turns out to have been a very good idea,” Tom said. “She must be running out about now.”
“So what do we do?” Helene said, alarmed by the vacation’s sudden lack of structure.
“We wait,” Evelyn said.
“Wait here?” Helene said, staring at her coquille St. Jacque as if she would have to take up residence in the shell.
“Whatever she’s up to, Francie will be fine,” Tom said.
“You don’t know that,” Ruth said.
No one spoke, but Evelyn knew they were each thinking of all the ways Francie had recently been less than fine. In the past year, she’d lost her buoyancy. She’d become sullen, remote, even unfriendly. It was to be expected; she was a teenager. Ruth had been no picnic at that age. But the change in Francie was so abrupt. And then she’d gotten herself into drugs. Nothing terrible, according to Ruth. But she’d been suspended from school for a week. Even though she was a smart girl, her grades were falling. Ruth admitted to Evelyn that she suspected that Francie was already having sex, but, wary of her daughter’s tendency to fling every criticism in her mother’s face, Ruth had not talked to Francie about that. They had all become frightened of her. Francie was an unexploded grenade in the middle of the family.
“She’s already been on her own for a month and nothing went wrong,” Tom said quietly. “And it could be worse,” he added, trying for optimism. “We’re on the Riviera. The Mediterranean is right there.”
He pointed, and the other three dutifully looked out the arched picture window next to their table and stared at the dark sea below. The enormity of the world, and the fact that Francie was lost in it, silenced them.
Evelyn had never been to Europe. Her friends made a fuss when she told them about her trip, but she wasn’t much interested in travel. She didn’t like to admit it, because people considered you close-minded or fearful, or cheap, none of which she was—well, she was a little cheap, but a person had to be if she were to make do on a secretarial salary without taking handouts from her children. But she’d been forcibly marched through enough vacation slideshows to know that it was a waste of time and money going to a place to see something you’d already seen in photographs just so you could come back and show people a set of inferior photographs. Of course, there were those serendipitous encounters travelers were always bragging about. How they ran into a nice local man in Spain who brought them to a darling place where they had a kind of ham that’s illegal in the States, or how they happened upon the most wonderfully friendly Berber nomads in the Sahara who invited them to tea. The idea that people should make a fetish out of happenstance seemed the height of egomania. Happenstance occurred every single day, everywhere, all over the world, whether you were there to take a picture of it or not.
She might not have been much of a tourist, but she knew how to lie out with the best of them, and so that afternoon, she put on her blue swimsuit and her paisley caftan, followed the signs posted on the hotel grounds, and climbed down a treacherously steep stairway to the shore. She was disappointed to find that the beach was rocky and uncomfortable to walk on, but she didn’t mind when the cabana boy, who wore a jaunty neckerchief, set her up with a lounge chair and a wide blue umbrella, and gave her, she was sure, a little grin. After she lathered herself with Coppertone, she drew a cigarette out of her purse and was pleased when the same boy rushed over to light it. She lay back, closed her eyes behind her sunglasses, and exhaled into the sea air.
“You are groaning,” said a voice.
Evelyn turned her neck and held her hand to her brow so that her eyes could adjust to the surprise of Helene. She was still wearing her traveling dress and matching pumps. Her pocketbook was lodged in the crook of her elbow.
“You got down here like that?” Evelyn said. “In heels? You could have broken your neck.”
“Tom and Ruth are going back to Paris,” Helene said.
Evelyn got out of the chair. “I’ll have to pack,” she said.
“They’ve already left.” Helene did not hide the pleasure she took in being the first to know. “The famille in Tours called back. Apparently one of the other children they are being paid to keep knew what Francie was planning.” Helene took a step and her heels sank between the rocks, throwing her off balance. Evelyn reached out to steady her, and for a brief moment, the women held one another awkwardly.
The cabana boy arrived with another lounge chair and set it up, disappointingly, so that the two could share the umbrella. Helene sat, slipped off her shoes, brushed sand from the leather, and then, after an indecisive moment, lay back and placed them on the mound of her stomach. Her only concession to the idea of leisure was to cross her feet at the ankles, where, Evelyn noticed, grit had become lodged in the mesh of her stockings.
“Don’t you want to put on something … cooler?” Evelyn asked.
“I’m fine,” Helene said, adjusting her dress so that it didn’t ride up past her knees.
“I feel like I’m sitting next to the abominable snowman. They have a dressing room down here. Let me run up and get your swimsuit.”
“I have none.”
“We’ve come all the way to the Riviera, and you didn’t pack a swimsuit?”
“I do not wear one.”
Helene’s silence was her answer.
“What about when—” There were so many ways to finish that sentence. What about when Tom was young? What about when Helene was young? But Evelyn said nothing. Acknowledging that she had never worn a swimsuit was Helene’s inadvertent confession of a life lived at a remove from matters of the flesh, possibly from sex. Evelyn wondered how often Helene and her deceased husband, whom she referred to as The Doctor, had made love. “Well, you’re better off,” Evelyn said. “What with the skin cancer they’re talking about now.”
“Obviously not something you concern yourself with.”
“I don’t want to get skin cancer, but I do want to get a tan. I don’t want to get lung cancer, but I do want to smoke cigarettes. I do more than I don’t, I guess.”
Evelyn tapped the prescription sunglasses on her face. “Bingo.”
They were quiet for a while. Evelyn was conscious of the sound of the sea, the rhythmic crash and suck punctuated, every so often, by the shouts of a child or the caw of a gull. The unpleasant noise of a motor grew louder until a biplane appeared, dragging an advertising banner behind it. On it, a woman smiled hugely, her red lips open to reveal a set of gleaming white teeth. A moment later, the airplane released what looked like a flurry of confetti, but turned out to be small tubes of toothpaste. Children rushed to collect the treasure as if money had just dropped from the sky.
“The French,” Helene said.
“I’m going for a dip,” Evelyn said, standing.
“I will hold down the fort.”
Evelyn was not certain whether Helene was being ironic. She might have, in all seriousness, been promising to guard Evelyn’s towel and cigarette case from the marauding hordes for whom trial-size toiletries were a prize.
The water was so cold that Evelyn briefly reconsidered, but she didn’t want to appear squeamish. She waded in until the water reached the tops of her thighs, and then her waist. The tide was strong. After considering her hair, which had survived the trip without losing too much body, she eschewed vanity, and dove. When she surfaced a few feet away, she instinctively turned and waved toward the beach, then felt silly for this bit of exuberance. Even if Helene were looking at her, she would not be impressed by Evelyn’s bravery or her late-stage athleticism. The cabana boy was busy with some teenage girls. It occurred to Evelyn that with Tom and Ruth gone to Paris, the only person she knew in this foreign place was a woman she disliked, and who she was sure disliked her.
Suddenly she understood that it was possible to feel so barely tethered to the world that with one snip of a single thread, you might float away, like that smiling woman in the sky. For the first time all day, she felt anxious about Francie. Tom and Ruth, worried about their daughter’s restless anger and, more disturbingly, her ennui, threw money at the problem. Thus, this summer in France. It wasn’t the best solution, but it was also understandable. If she’d had any money when her husband died, Evelyn would have bought her daughters whatever they asked for. No one said that material things could compensate for sorrow, but inconsequential pleasures could at least fill time, and time was all that Francie needed. Evelyn was sure of it. She needed the years to pass as quickly as possible so that she could look back and realize that she no longer felt the way she once did, when her rage and her despondency battled each other for advantage.
Evelyn had been a powerful swimmer as a girl, and even now, as she swam back and forth, parallel to the beach, she felt her strength. She tried different strokes—the crawl, the breaststroke, even the sidestroke, which always seemed invented for ladies who did not want to sacrifice femininity to sport. She flipped onto her back and moved her hands in figure eights. The sun was still high, and she closed her eyes against it. When she opened them next, she looked toward the beach, but it wasn’t there. She tried to stand, but her feet didn’t touch bottom. Fighting a rising panic, she spun herself around. There was the beach, but it was so far away. The sculling of her hands was no match for the tide, and she had floated much farther out than she’d intended, farther than the other swimmers.
She began heading toward shore, but somehow, in her agitation, her accomplished strokes deserted her, and she flailed sloppily, sending up geysers of water but making little forward progress. After a few minutes, she righted herself, holding her chin high to keep her nose and mouth above the waterline, and pointed her toes until her foot scraped against something hard. The connection calmed her, and she started to swim again, but her body began to feel odd. This was not exhaustion. It was something more sodden, as if her bones had turned to cement. Soon, she could barely move her arms through the water. She called out, but the wind was coming off the shore and no one heard her. Her body felt gluey now. Something was happening in her brain, too. For a moment, she considered how nice it would be to stop moving, but then she swallowed water, and the shock of it reminded her that she was about to drown.
By the time she was within reach of the shore, a crowd had formed. She was dragged out of the water, her knees scraping against the broken shells and pebbles. Someone said “oursin” and then there was a clamor of shouts.
Bodies hovered above her, blocking out the sun. Or maybe she was blind. There was a heated discussion. She plucked out the word médecin.
Yes, she thought slowly, I need medicine.
“What is this? What is happening? Let me through!”
There was general murmuring and the onlookers parted. L’Air du Temps wafted over Evelyn’s head.
“This woman needs medical attention!” Helene bellowed. “Someone call an ambulance. Ambulance! I am the wife of a doctor. Do what I say!”
Do what? What was this ridiculous woman going to do to her? Evelyn tried to speak, but she couldn’t get her mouth to work. She attempted to sit up, but once she was resting on her elbows, she had no strength to go further. There was that nice cabana boy. He might take care of her. But why was he unzipping his pants? And then, before she could object, she felt warm liquid splattering over her toes. She would die, and the last thing she would see would be the self-satisfied smile on Helene’s face as she watched a boy urinate on Evelyn’s foot.
“I’m sorry, but Mrs. Brenneman does not want to see you.” The receptionist stood before her.
Evelyn tried not to react to the insult. “I was under the impression that she doesn’t remember me or anyone else for that matter.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean it that way,” the girl said, her face reddening. “They can’t get her out of bed.”
“Then I’ll go to her,” Evelyn said, standing.
“She didn’t request a room visit,” the girl said.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Evelyn said. “How would she request a room visit if she doesn’t even remember there are people who might want to see her?”
“It’s the rules. She has to make a request.”
“Do you have a supervisor?”
The girl’s eyes widened. At any moment, she would start to cry. “Listen, dear,” Evelyn said calmly. “I’ve come all this way. From Florida.” And then, throwing in a bit of Helene for good measure, “I demand to see her.”
The memory wing was set apart from the rest of the nursing home by a door of the sort, Evelyn thought, you’d find in a prison.
“Flight risk,” an orderly said as he unlocked twin safety locks, then led her down a hallway. In the other part of the home, old people were moving about in wheelchairs and walkers, and nurses engaged them in loud, barking conversation. In this wing, the halls were empty. The silence was unnervingly suggestive of the minds of the residents.
Helene’s room wasn’t awful. It was private, at least, and bright; a window had a view of the back lawn, where, Evelyn supposed, Miss Brunner’s mangy goats once grazed. The room was overheated, probably because old people had trouble maintaining their body temperature. Evelyn had begun to notice this in herself; even in the Florida sun, she was often chilled. Tom must have brought a few of Helene’s things from the house to give her some sense of familiarity. The blue upholstered chair she liked to sit in when she was reading the bridge column. Her bureau, painted with a pattern of roses and vines.
She recognized the rose-colored comforter, but she hardly recognized the woman who lay underneath it. Helene took up so much less space than Evelyn remembered. Her body, once so obdurately thick, barely made a shape beneath the bedclothes, and her head was nearly swallowed up by the pillow. Her cheeks, without their normal mask of foundation and powder, appeared translucent. Oddly, her hair looked recently set, the sprayed bubble of it holding its own against the insult of so much diminution. Evelyn wondered if Tom was thoughtful enough to realize his mother couldn’t live without her weekly wash and set. Or maybe this was Ruth’s doing. Tom and Ruth’s bitterness and recrimination had given way to a protective tenderness, as if they each knew how breakable the other was. Suddenly Evelyn missed her daughter terribly. She hoped Ruth would want to see her, that she would invite her to New York for a visit.
She pulled the blue chair to the bedside. Helene’s eyes were closed, and she was breathing shallowly but evenly. Evelyn started to speak, but then stopped. She didn’t want to frighten the poor woman. Helene was so defenseless. Her hands rested on top of the covers. The joints of her fingers were arthritically askew, the knuckles swollen and painful looking. Evelyn took one of Helene’s hands in hers. The skin was satiny and warm. This heat seemed to come not from the temperature of the room but from within Helene’s body. The determination of her blood, continuing to pump so fiercely despite everything, was a loyalty that made Evelyn’s throat tighten. Tom might have been keeping on top of his mother’s hair, but Helene’s fingernails were a mess. They had been cut short and blunt by someone who clearly didn’t want to take the time to shape or file the sharp corners. Her cuticles were ragged and dry. Evelyn reached into her purse and found the small tube of moisturizer she carried with her. She poured out a generous dollop and massaged the cream into Helene’s skin, paying particular attention to the frayed nail beds. This wasn’t the right product for cuticles, and she wished she had her manicure set so she could really get to work with her file and clippers.
Helene sighed deeply and slowly opened her eyes. She stared at the ceiling. Evelyn couldn’t tell if she was aware that anyone was in the room with her, or that someone was holding her hand.
“It’s me, Helene,” Evelyn said quietly. “It’s Evelyn. I’ve come to see you.”
Helene’s gaze fell vaguely in Evelyn’s direction.
“Have you had a good rest?” Evelyn said.
Helene’s eyes shifted away toward whatever middle distance marked the outer limit of her view.
Evelyn must have fainted after the boy peed on her, either from humiliation or from the effects of the sea-urchin poison coursing through her system. Someone had carried her all the way up those perilous steps to her room and laid her down on the bed. She must have slept for a long time, because when she woke, it was night, and Helene was sleeping beside her. The lamp next to the bed was still turned on, and it cast a shallow glow. Both of them were wearing their nightgown, although Evelyn had no memory of changing. It must have been Helene who had pulled off her suit. She must have washed the salt from Evelyn’s skin and dressed the cuts on her knees. She must have demanded that someone find her the bandages she used to wrap Evelyn’s foot. She would have leaned Evelyn against her so that she could fit the gown over her head and shoulders and pull her arms through the sleeves one after the other. Just the way Evelyn had done when Francie was little and slept at her apartment, the drowsy girl so sweet in her floppy acquiescence. Just the way Helene must have done, too, Evelyn thought, when Francie stayed with her. She felt embarrassed that Helene had seen her naked and helpless. She reached for her foot. It was swollen, and the slightest touch sent sharp pains up her leg. But that gummy feeling was gone, and her sight and hearing were sharp. She brought her hand to her nose and sniffed. There was no smell. Helene must have washed off the urine as well. Helene’s breasts were loose underneath her nylon gown, and Evelyn could see their flattened, oblong shapes. Yummy pillows. It was something Francie had said once, when she had laid her head on Evelyn’s proudly firm chest. She’d said her other grandmother had yummy pillows there, and implicit in her heedless observation was a preference.
The phone woke them both the following morning. Evelyn listened and then hung up before Helene had a chance at it. She took an extra few moments to get herself out of bed, hobble painfully to the wardrobe, and put on her robe, before delivering the news.
“They’ve found Francie. In Paris.”
Helene made a frightened noise, shot out of the bed, crossed the room with uncommon speed, and frantically began to pull dresses from hangers, filling her arms until she could carry no more. She stopped suddenly, holding the wadded mass of her beautiful clothing like a bale of dirty laundry. She looked as if she had woken up in the middle of a dream and had no idea where she was. “Poor Francie,” she said.
“Poor Francie?” Evelyn said. “Poor us!” She felt a sudden rage toward the girl who had her family wrapped around her finger, who had dragged them across an ocean and then back and forth across a country. All this money spent! Who knew how long it would take Evelyn’s foot to heal? Tom and Ruth’s marriage was in trouble, and the daughter they’d raised together, whom the four of them had doted on, and praised, and believed to be so special, had turned out to be nothing more than a selfish teenager. Poor Francie indeed!
Evelyn took Helene’s clothes from her and began to fold and pack them, while Helene stood before her suitcase, as if befuddled. Then Evelyn gathered her own clothing and did the same. “We need to get a move on,” she said, rattled by her earlier outburst and Helene’s uncharacteristic incompetence. But then she realized that Helene was no longer confused. Her hand was over her heart. Her lips moved. Evelyn heard “allegiance.” She heard “the United States of America.” Helene’s faith in the things she counted on was as imperative to her as her breath.
Just as Tom suspected, Francie was broke. She’d left a message with the hotel concierge the previous night, asking for money to be wired to Paris. Tom and Ruth had waited at the American Express office. Evelyn never asked what kind of reunion it had been, whether Tom and Ruth had managed to contain their anger, whether Francie, in the end, had been grateful to see her parents and sorry for the trouble she’d caused. The whole event got swept up in the drama of the separation and divorce, and then the story was lost following the greater tragedy.
Nine years after that trip, Evelyn had picked up her ringing phone. She was startled to hear Helene’s voice on the other end. They had not talked for so long. She had never heard Helene cry before, and for a minute, she couldn’t make out what she was saying through the awful strangulated sounds. Until she could. And then she didn’t want to believe what she heard, but after years of failed psychiatry and unsuccessful rehabilitations, and the hopeful, hopeless questions Evelyn asked every time she spoke with Ruth—Have you heard from her? How is she doing?—it all made a horrible sense. Later, after the emergency room and the calls to Tom and Ruth in their separate cities, Evelyn had an unforgivable thought, one that haunted and shamed her. She was upset that Francie had shown up out of the blue at Helene’s house, that she had taken advantage of the offer of her shower and guest bed before she used what turned out to be too much of the drug she carried with her. Evelyn knew she couldn’t have saved the girl, but she would have liked to know that, in her despair, Francie had chosen her. She would have shown Francie that her love abided, before the girl let herself be dragged down beneath her dark sea.
Evelyn stood and leaned over the hospital bed so that she was looking into Helene’s eyes. “It’s Evelyn,” she said gently. “It’s Francie’s Nana.”
At the mention of the girl’s name, something shifted. Helene didn’t move, nor did she make a sound, but Evelyn sensed a charge in the room. Or maybe she was imagining things, and the mention of Francie meant nothing to Helene, who was no longer able to remember what Evelyn longed to forget.
Evelyn was suddenly cold. She slipped off her shoes, lifted the edge of the cover, and slid into bed beside Helene. She stared at the cracks in the ceiling paint, tracing their jagged pattern with her eyes. Poor Francie. Helene had been right about that. Because look what had happened to their beloved girl. She’d lost herself, and not one of the four of them had been able to find her. Somehow, Helene had known how it would all turn out.
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