Circle of three, p.1
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       Circle of Three, p.1

           Patricia Gaffney
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Circle of Three


  You and me, Jen.

  Separated at birth, no question.

  Contents

  E-book extras:

  A Woman is Her Mother

  Books by Patricia Gaffney

  1 Nature’s Way

  2 Not Enough Points to Be Anything

  3 The Power of Nostalgia

  4 Good Help

  5 Who Is That American Girl?

  6 Sensible Meals at Appropriate Hours

  7 Two of Everything

  8 The Decency to Feel Bad

  9 What Can You Do But Laugh?

  10 Arrested Development

  11 Texas Two-Step

  12 Actively Growing Before Your Eyes

  13 Ballroom Dancer

  14 Elephant Day

  15 Blah Blah, etc., etc.

  16 So Much for Candor

  17 Party of One

  18 Good, Good

  19 Not That I Care

  20 Giveaway Intimacies

  21 Total Bullshit

  22 No Sin Goes Unpunished

  23 Flash

  24 When She Was Me

  25 Payback

  26 Floating the Ark

  27 The Last Straw

  28 Celtic Circle

  About the Author

  By Patricia Graffney

  Praise for Circle of Three

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  1

  Nature’s Way

  IT’S NATURAL TO feel guilty after the death of a loved one. Guilt and grief go together—that’s what they say. Because you’re still alive, I suppose. Well, lots of things are “natural,” including infanticide in some cultures. My teenage daughter’s extremely odd friend Raven recently shared with me that the female coot pecks to death all but two of her baby chicks because feeding them just gets to be too big a hassle. It’s nature’s way.

  The presumption behind the guilt-is-natural bromide is that one hasn’t actually done anything to precipitate the loved one’s death. And there’s the rub. I provoked my husband into an argument five minutes before he smashed the car into a tree and killed himself. (That wasn’t the only thing I did, but it’s the showiest.) An incredibly stupid argument: why couldn’t he drive Ruth to her soccer tournament the next day, why did I always have to do it? When was the last time he’d gone to a parent-teacher conference, a science fair, anything? In six years Ruth would be twenty-one and out of his life; did he really want to spend the rest of his only child’s adolescence shut up in his office grading papers and writing—yes, I said this—obscure articles on mathematical minutiae that even more obscure journals only published once in a blue moon?

  It was eleven o’clock, a Friday night. We were driving home after dinner with my parents, a dinner Stephen hadn’t wanted to go to in the first place—but then he never did, so I don’t take that so much to heart; I forgive myself for that. He said he was tired, but I thought nothing of it. Ruth, thank God, thank God, wasn’t with us; she’d gone to a birthday sleepover at a girlfriend’s. I’d spent the evening keeping a tense peace, smoothing over this, rephrasing that. My mother always liked Stephen, I’m not sure why, but he never liked her, and to this day she doesn’t know it. That’s my doing. For eighteen years, the length of our marriage, I constantly respun and reinterpreted his rudeness to her, at times his outright contempt. “He’s thinking higher thoughts,” I’d joke when he couldn’t bother to come out of his study when Mama made one of her (admittedly irritating) unannounced drop-ins. And she’s so easily intimidated by what she takes for intellectual superiority—except, interestingly, where my father’s concerned—so it was never hard to make her believe that Stephen wasn’t cold and disdainful, no, he was a genius. Geniuses are eccentric and brusque, they keep to themselves, they don’t have time to be ingratiating to their mothers-in-law.

  What triggered the argument in the car was fear. I had seen something that night that scared me: a sickening similarity between my husband and my father. Getting angry at Stephen, trying to get a rise out of him, trying to make him yell at me—that would’ve been ideal—was a way to convince myself I’d seen no such thing.

  My father, George Danziger, taught English literature at Remington College for forty years. He recently retired, to write a book with a colleague on some minor eighteenth-century poet whose name I’ve forgotten. My father is a short, heavyset man, balding, slope-shouldered; he has a paunch; he slouches; pipe ash usually litters his vest or his coat sleeve. He frequently wears a vacant expression, and I suppose he’s as close to the cliché of the absentminded professor as a human, as opposed to a cartoon, can be. But there’s still a rumpled dignity in his sagging face and his gentle, phlegmatic movements, at least to me. Stephen was his physical opposite. Medium tall with a hard, compact, runner’s body, he had handsome, sharp-pointed features—like Ruth’s—and a full head of crisp, curling, sandy-gray hair. Quick, economical gestures. And always a restlessness about him, an impatience with his surroundings that could be insulting if you took it personally.

  Mama and I did the dishes while the men went outside so Pop could smoke his pipe, a forbidden pleasure in my mother’s house. I watched them idly through the kitchen window, standing beside the wrought iron table in the late-August hush, their shoulders hunched, chins pulled into the collars of their short-sleeved shirts. They didn’t have much to say to each other, but then, they never did. The college was all they had in common, and Stephen still, after three years, secretly resented Pop for his help, such as it was, in getting him his teaching appointment. They kept a manly distance apart, and even when they spoke they never looked at each other. They shuffled from foot to foot, hands jammed in their pockets, and squinted up at the night sky over the roof as if they were watching a movie.

  Just in that moment, as different as they were, they looked the same to me. Identical. I had my hands in hot water, but I remember the coldness that came into me, like the flat of a blade on bare skin. The chill thought crept in that they were the same.

  Impossible—Stephen had stubbornness in him, a temper, a mean streak, Stephen was alive. I thought of my mother’s discontent and disappointment, what they’ve turned her into and who she blames them on, and I thought, What if, by marrying a man as absent and unreachable as Pop, I’ve made the same mistake she made? Not a similar mistake, the exact same mistake.

  So I started a fight. Unlike my father, Stephen could give as good as he got—better. His trusty weapon, cold, withering logic, always trounced my teary, incoherent furies, no contest, a sword fight with a balloon. But that night I didn’t care, I wanted noise, racket, action. I waited until we were driving home on Clay Boulevard, a straight, well-lit stretch of four-lane highway, no distractions. It didn’t matter to me what we fought about, but I was tired, and driving Ruth to her soccer game in Charlottesville on Saturday would mean getting up at six in the morning. So I chose that.

  Stephen never said a word. It’s been four months, and I can’t recall anything he said that night in the car. That makes me inexpressibly sad. I, on the other hand, had quite a lot to say before he rolled down the window—the first indication that something was wrong. It was chilly, I was still fiddling with the heater knobs trying to get warm, I thought he was opening the window to thwart me. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”—I can still hear the shrill nastiness in my voice. He made a face, a grimace, but I couldn’t see his coloring in the dark, only that his mouth was contorted. “What’s wrong?” I still wasn’t worried, only puzzled. He said my name, “Carrie,” and nothing else. He never clutched at his chest, that cartoon gesture of a man having a heart attack; he clutched his arm, before he slumped over against the door. It happened very fast. One second we were driving in our lane, the next we were careening across the grass me
dian with headlights in our eyes, horns blaring, cars swerving. I grabbed the wheel and we slowed slightly, but Stephen still had his foot on the gas and I couldn’t get my legs untangled fast enough to kick it away. Panic swallowed me. Under it, I remember feeling sad because here was the end, the end of me, broken and smashed in high-velocity metal and glass. Ruth wasn’t a conscious thought, but she was the weight, the shadow in my brain closing down over everything. Oh, my baby.

  Steered isn’t the right word, somehow I got us across two lanes of eastbound traffic without hitting anything. We lurched onto the verge and down a gravel embankment, bumped up a shallow rise. The car’s violent motion shoved Stephen back, finally threw his foot off the accelerator. We might’ve come to a natural stop, but we clipped a line of trees just over the top of the ridge. The car spun around when the bumper caught, and smacked in back against a tree trunk. My head hit something, I think the window on my side before the door snapped open—my seat belt kept me from flying out.

  Lights, noise. I was out cold until two boys, Remington students, unbuckled me and pulled me out of the car. They wouldn’t let me sit up, made me lie flat on the ground. “Where is my husband? How is he, my husband?” They wouldn’t say. Then the police, the ambulance, the rescue squad truck. “Is my husband dead?” I asked a young man in a paramedic’s jacket, holding on to his sleeve, not letting go until he told me. “Ma’am,” he said, “we’re doing everything we can.” They were at that moment doing CPR, I discovered later, trying to restart Stephen’s heart. But it never beat again.

  That’s what I did. One can make a little or a lot of it, I’m aware. I’ve done both, countless times. Either way, I think it’s plain that my guilt, alive and well four months after my husband’s death, goes beyond the province of “normal.” Ruth and my mother say it’s time I pulled myself together, started functioning again, found a real job, got on with life. Is that heartless? It’s true I’m a mess, no good to anyone, and my daughter needs me now more than she ever has.

  What they don’t know is that there’s more. The argument in the car was only the most conspicuous of my numerous failings and regrets. One in particular pains me. It’s a little thing in itself, quite petty. Commonplace. But shabby, you know, distressing to admit. Although nothing truly shameful. Oh, well, it’s only this—Stephen and I made love the night before he died. That ought to be a kind memory, a comfort to me—at least we were intimate that one last time—a blessing, an incremental notch in favor of life on the big, overbalanced scale. But I ruined even that. I know it’s a little thing, but I can’t forgive myself. The very last time my husband’s body came inside my body, I shut my eyes and dreamed he was someone else.

  2

  Not Enough Points

  to Be Anything

  I LEFT MY mom this really chirpy note on the counter before school. “Yo, yo, I made killer tuna fish salad, eat it for lunch or else! XXOO, Ruth. P.S. Jamie and Caitlin might come over this afternoon to do homework. OK?” I drew two big puffy lips and wrote “smooch” underneath, with an exclamation point.

  That was, like, code. It meant, “Eat something healthful for a change, and when I get home could you please have some clothes on so my friends don’t have to see you in Dad’s old bathrobe.”

  Well, Jamie and Caitlin didn’t come home with me, that was more of a trick anyway, but it didn’t work because Mom was nowhere in sight and she’d left her own fake-cheerful note in the exact same spot as mine. “Hi! Drinks and snacks in ref.—don’t overdo.” She drew a smiley face. “I’m taking a little nap, so could you guys work downstairs? You don’t have to be quiet. (Within reason.) Love & kisses, me. P.S. Want to get a pizza tonight?”

  Since Dad died, this is so par for the course. She’s asleep when I go to school, she’s asleep when I get home. I don’t know what she does during the day, except that it’s not cooking or cleaning. Eating—I know she’s doing that, because she’s gained about ten pounds in four months. She eats spaghetti with butter on it, mashed potatoes and gravy, Minute rice in a can of mushroom soup with no water—really gross stuff, nothing but carbohydrates. She’ll eat right if I’m watching or if I make it, but otherwise it’s hot cereal, couscous, popcorn, and pasta. Comfort foods, I guess.

  The other thing she does when I’m at school is make flower arrangements. She has a “job” with a craft shop in town owned by this woman who pays her like two cents per flower arrangement, so you know it’s only a matter of time before we’re living in a packing crate under the Leap River bridge. God. I guess I can’t talk, though, because I haven’t found a job yet either. I baby-sit for Harry, the next-door neighbor’s one-year-old, but the Harmons don’t go out that much at night so it’s not like I’m getting rich.

  I don’t know what’s going to happen. About a month after the accident Grampa came over without Gram, which was pretty scary in itself, and had a long talk with Mom that I wasn’t allowed to hear. After he left, she sat me down and gave me the bad news. Bottom line, we’re poor. I thought it was sort of cool at first. “You mean, like, destitute?” No, just poor, which in a way is worse because there’s no, like, drama. Apparently my dad didn’t teach at Remington long enough to get a pension, so all we have is savings, Social Security, and his tiny little insurance policy.

  I don’t let Mom know I’m disappointed, but I was supposed to get a car, either a nice used one or a cheap new one, next summer when I turn sixteen. That’s out now. Also, I might have to go to Remington. Which is the worst, nobody who lives in Clayborne goes there unless they have to—not because it’s terrible or anything, just because it’s local. All my life I wanted to go to my dad’s alma mater, Georgetown (if I could get in), or else UNC, but they’re both impossible now. UVA maybe, but wherever I go it has to be in-state.

  I can’t stop thinking about what might’ve happened if I’d been there the night he died. For one thing, I’d probably have been driving, because I’ve got my learner’s and Mom usually lets me drive, even at night, to practice. So even if he’d still had his heart attack, the car wouldn’t have crashed, so I could’ve driven him to the hospital and he’d probably have been saved. Or, I think it’s entirely possible he wouldn’t have had the attack to begin with, because everything, the atmosphere, the whole night, would’ve been different if I’d been there. I just have this really strong feeling that if I hadn’t gone to Jamie’s, he’d still be alive. His fate would’ve changed. Who’s to say the blood in his heart wouldn’t have stayed to the correct path or beat in the exact right amounts if he’d been sitting in the car relaxing, looking up at the moon instead of down at the road? I could make him laugh sometimes. What if he’d been listening to me tell some stupid story instead of to Mom or the radio? I just think things would’ve been different.

  I have this picture, I keep it on my bedside table, of Dad, Mom, and me, about three Christmases ago, right before we moved to Clayborne, which is the town my mom grew up in but left when she was like eighteen. The three of us in this picture are lined up outside the old house in Chicago, showing off our new presents. Mom has her coat sleeve pulled up and her arm out, to show the watch Dad gave her. I gave him a green scarf and matching mittens, so he’s posing with his hands straight out, with the muffler wound around half his face so only his eyes show. I look even sillier in my new jeans, boots, and down parka, grinning and pointing to my ears to show they’re pierced. What a dork.

  Sometime around when this picture was taken, maybe the next day but definitely during those same Christmas holidays, my dad and I went ice skating on the lake. Mom was supposed to go with us, but at the last second she said what she’d really like to do was have the house to herself for one whole afternoon. So it was just the two of us. I felt shy around him at first. We hadn’t done anything alone since…well, I don’t even know when. I felt sort of giddy, having him all to myself, almost like a date. I pretended we were a couple, and I watched other people watching us, wondering if they thought he could be my boyfriend. He was forty but he looked pr
etty young then, it wasn’t impossible.

  After the skating, we went for hot chocolate in a fancy silver diner on the shore, and I had the feeling, sitting across from him in the red vinyl booth, fingering my sore ears, putting quarters in the jukebox to play fifties songs like “Hound Dog” and “Lipstick on Your Collar,” that this was the beginning of our real, true relationship. My dad had just been waiting for me to grow up. I talked a lot, told him about school and my teachers and even this guy I liked in history and how math was my favorite subject by far, a slight exaggeration, and how I’d probably major in math at Georgetown and then go on to teach at some prestigious university.

  It was so great. He talked, too, and laughed at my jokes, and told me things I didn’t already know. Like one time he and some of his friends from high school cut class to go sledding down Cashbox Hill, which is out in the country in New Jersey where he was from, and he slid into a barbed wire fence and cut his neck in back, under his hairline. He showed me the scar, which for some reason I had never seen before in my life, and just in that moment, everything felt right. Nothing was left out or dangling or mysterious, everything belonged.

  The funny thing is, though, nothing ever came of that day. When it was over, we went back to who we’d been before, and it was like nothing had ever happened. He was nice to me, same as always, but he never again suggested we do something together, just the two of us. He went back into his study, you could say, and closed the door.

  What I think happened was that I hadn’t grown up enough then—I was only twelve—and what’s sad is that now I’m probably finally old enough to be his friend and he’s gone. We lost our chance. It can never be the way I dreamed it. I thought—maybe this sounds stupid—I thought we’d be partners after I got my degree, my doctorate and everything. I saw us teaming up, having an office in some funky old building in Georgetown and writing books together, solving complicated formulas that have stumped the entire math community for years, for centuries. I could see us with our feet up on either side of his desk when the day was over, drinking coffee, giving each other compliments on our work, planning the next day.VAN ALLEN & ASSOCIATE, it would say on the door. Stephen and Ruth Van Allen, Mathematicians.

 

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