Sue Miller -- While I Was Gone Chapter One
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While I Was Gone
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While I Was Gone
Fiction | Hardcover
Knopf | May 2000
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Chapter 1
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IT'S ODD, I SUPPOSE, THAT WHEN I THINK BACK OVER that happened in that terrible time, one of my sharpest memories should be of some few moments the day before everything began. Seemingly unconnected to what followed, this memory is often one of the first things that comes to me when I call up those weeks, those months-the prelude, the long, beautiful, somber note I heard but chose to disregard.

This is it: silence between us. The only sounds the noises of the boat-the squeal of the oarlocks when my husband pulled on the oars, the almost inaudible creak of the wooden seat with his slight motion, and then the glip and liquid swirl of the oars through the water, and the sound of the boat rushing forward.

My husband's back was to me as I lay in the hard curve of the bow. He sat still a long time between each pull. The oars dripped and then slowly stopped dripping. Everything quieted. Sometimes he picked up his fishing rod and reeled it in a bit, pulling it one way or another. Sometimes he recast, standing high above me in the boat, the light line whipping wider and wider, whistling faintly in its looping arc across the sky before he let it go.

It was a day in mid-fall, well after the turning of the leaves. The weather was glorious. We always took one day a week off together, and if the weather was good, we often went fishing. Or my husband went fishing and I went along, usually with a book to read. Even when the girls were small and it was harder to arrange, we managed at least part of the day alone together. In those early years we sometimes made love in the boat when we were fishing, or in the woods-we had so little time and privacy at home.

It was a Monday. The day off was always Monday, because Sunday was Daniel's busiest day at work and Saturday was mine. Monday was our day of rest. And what I recollect of that Monday, that fine fall day, is that for some long moments in the boat, I was suddenly aware of my state, in a way we aren't often. That is, I was abruptly and most intensely, sharply aware of all the aspects of life surrounding me, and yet of feeling neither part of it nor truly separated from it. Somehow impartial, unattached-an observer. Yet sentient of it all. Deeply sentient, in fact. But to no apparent purpose.

If I were trying to account for this feeling, I might say that it had something to do with the way I was half lying, half sitting on several pillows in the bow, the way the curving walls of the old rowboat framed a foreground for my view as they rose away from me. I saw them, these peeling wooden inner walls, and then my husband's familiar shape. Above him there was the flat, milky-blue sky and sometimes, when we were close enough to shore, the furred, nearly black line of the spruces and pines against it. In the air above us swallows darted-dark, quick silhouettes-and once a cedar waxwing moved smoothly through them. Layers of life above me. Below, I could hear the lap of the deep water through the walls of the boat.

As a result, let's say, I felt suspended, waiting. Between all these worlds and part of none of them.

But this isn't what I really believe; I think the sensation came from somewhere within me.

We feel this way sometimes in adolescence, too, surely most of us can call it up. But then there's the burning impatience for the next thing to take shape, for whatever it is we are about to become and be to announce itself. This was different: there was, I supposed, no next thing.

I had felt something like this every now and then in the last year or so, sometimes at work as I tightened a stitch or gave an injection: the awareness of having done this a thousand times before, of surely having a thousand times left to do it again. Of doing it well and thoroughly and neatly, as I liked to do things, and simultaneously of being at a great distance from my own actions.

Or at home, setting the table, sitting down with my husband to another meal, beginning our friendly evening conversation about the day-the house quiet around us, the old dogs dozing under the table or occasionally nuzzling our feet. A sense suddenly of being utterly present and also, simultaneously, far, far away.

Now I stirred, shifted my weight. My husband turned, no aspect of his face not dear to me. "Hurting?" he asked.

And with that, as quickly as it had come over me, the moment ended. I was back, solidly in time, exactly where we were. It was getting chilly. I had been lying in the wooden boat for several hours now, and even though I had the pillows under me, I was stiff. I had a bad hip. Replacement had been discussed, though everyone said I was young for it. I liked only that part of the problem, being too young for something.

"A little," I said.

"We'll head back."

"Are you sure?"

"I've got two reasonable ones. I'm a happy man." He began to reel his line in.

I turned and stretched. "How nice, to be a happy man," I said.

He looked over his shoulder at me, to get my tone. "It is nice," he said.

"And I meant it," I answered.

As we rowed back, as we drove home, I found myself wanting to tell my husband about my feeling, but then not knowing what to call it. The shadow of it lingered with me, but I didn't say anything to Daniel. He would hear it as a want, a need. He would feel called upon to offer comfort. Daniel is a minister, a preacher, a pastor. His business is the care of his flock, his medium is words-thrilling words, admonishing or consoling words. I knew he could console me, but consolation wasn't what I felt I wanted. And so we drove along in silence, too, and I looked out the window at the back roads that sometimes seemed utterly rural, part of the nineteenth century, and sometimes seemed abruptly the worst of contemporary suburban life: the sere, beautiful old fields carved up to accommodate the too-wide circular asphalt driveways, the too-grand fake-garrison-colonial houses.

We lived in the center of town, an old, old town-Adams Mills, the Adamses long dead, the mills long burned down. Our house was a simple square farmhouse, added on to repeatedly at the back of the first floor over the years, as was the custom then with these old New England homes. We had an unpainted barn behind it, and behind that was a small meadow which turned to pinewoods at the far edge, woods that hid our neighbors to the rear, though in the summer we could hear them fighting, calling each other things that used to make the girls laugh with joy. "You fat-ass pig!" they'd imitate. "You stupid shithead!"-which for some years they had, uncorrected, as "shiphead."

We used the barn as a garage now, and Daniel had his study out there, in a small heated room at the back. When we'd moved in, it was still full of rusting old tools and implements, the kinds of things people clean up and hang on their walls as folk art. There were still mason jars of unidentifiable fruits and vegetables in the old root cellar, a dark earthen space you entered by lifting a sort of trapdoor in the kitchen yard. Because of all this, we felt connected to the house's life as part of a farm.

Yet at the front of the house we were townsfolk, connected to the village. Our view was across the old common to the big Congregational church. Not Daniel's church, it's true, and we looked at its back side-its rump, the girls had called it-but it was a splendid civic vista nonetheless. Beyond the church, we could see the row of grand Georgian houses lined up face-to-face with its front.

Along one side of the green was an inn, where we could get a fancy and tasteless meal in the main dining room, or a beer and a good hamburger in the bar, with its large-screen TV always tuned to the sports network. Along the other side of the green there were shops: a small, expensive grocery, a video store, a store with high-quality kitsch-stoneware, cute gardening tools, stationery, rubber stamps, coffee-table books, Venetian-glass paperweights. Everything in town was clapboard, painted white with green or black trim. If you tried another color, the historical commission descended on you and made you very, very sorry you had.

We turned into our drive now and pulled up next to the horse chestnut that shaded the dooryard. It dropped its leaves early every year. They littered the yard now, and our feet made a crunching noise on them as we crossed to the back door. The nearly bare ancient branches, twisted blackly above us in the dusky light, made me think of winter. When we opened the door, the house was silent. Daniel began to put his gear away in the spare room off the hall, speaking loudly as he clattered around. "Boy, it is sure nice to have dogs! Dogs are so great, how they come running to greet you when you get home, how they make you feel like you count, even when you don't." This was a familiar riff, and as I headed to the john, I threw back my contribution: "Dogs! Dogs! Man's best friend!"

When I came out, a few minutes later, all three dogs had finally bestirred themselves from wherever they'd been nesting and were whacking their happy tails around the kitchen. Daniel was cleaning his fish at the sink-the smell already suffused the air-and there was hope of food for them. Nothing excited them more. They barely greeted me.

The answering machine was blinking. I turned it on. There were three messages, all for Daniel, which was the way it usually went, except when I was on call. I'm a veterinarian, and the crises among animals are less complex, more manageable, than those of humans-actually very much a part of my choice of profession.

Daniel had turned slightly from the counter to listen to the calls, and I watched his face as he took them in-one about relocating a confirmation class because of a scheduling conflict; one from Mortie, his assistant pastor, reporting on the worsening state of a dying parishioner Daniel was very fond of, a young mother with cancer; one from another minister, suggesting he and Daniel try to "pull something together" among their colleagues about some racial incidents in the three closely adjoining towns around us. Daniel's face was thin and sharp and intelligent, his eyes a pale gray-blue, his skin white and taut. I'd always loved looking at him. He registered everything quickly, transparently-with these calls first annoyance, then the sag of sorrow, then a nod of judicious agreement-but there was something finally self-contained about him too. I'd often thought this was what made him so good at what he did, that he held on to some part of himself through everything. That he could hear three calls like this and be utterly responsive to each of them, and then turn back and finish cleaning his trout. As he did now.

"Will you go and visit Amy?" I asked.

His plaid shirt pulled and puckered across his shoulder blades with his motion. His head was bent in concentration. "I don't know," he said without looking at me. "I'll call Mortie back and see when I'm done here."

I refilled the dogs' bowl with water and poured some more dry food for them. Daniel worked silently at the sink, his thoughts elsewhere. I went out the front door and got the mail from the box at the road. The air was getting chilly, darkness was gathering around the house. I turned on the living room lights and sat down. I sorted through the circulars, the bills, I threw away the junk. While I was working, I heard Daniel leave the kitchen, headed across the yard to his office in the barn to make his calls.

WITH THE CLOSING OF THE DOOR I FELT RELEASED FROM THE awareness of his sorrow that had held me in his orbit. I began to roam the house, with the dogs as my entourage, feeling restless, a feeling that seemed connected, somehow, to that moment in the boat, and maybe also to Daniel's sad news. I went up the steep, narrow stairs to the second floor, where the girls' rooms were.

All the doors were shut up there, and I opened them, standing in each doorway in turn. The sloped-ceiling rooms were deeply shadowed. Light from the hall fell in long rectangles on the old painted pine floors. In the older girls' rooms the beds were made, the junk was gone-boxed in the attic or thrown away forever. Only Sadie's room still spoke of her. One wall was completely covered with pictures she'd cut out of magazines. There were stark photos of dancers in radical poses, of nearly naked models in perfume or liquor ads, engaged in moments of stylized passion, there were romantic and soft-focus views of places she dreamed of going to-Cuzco, Venice, Zanzibar. There were guys: Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt. In the corner of the room where the ceiling sloped nearly to the floor, all the stuffed animals and dolls she'd ever owned were standing wide-eyed in rows by height, like some bizarre crowd in the bleachers at a high-school event.

I went into Cass's blank room and lay down across her bed. Maybe it was the girls I wanted. Maybe I just missed the comfort of their noise, of their smells and music and flesh.

And then I laughed out loud, thinking of how angry I'd gotten at them, and how often, for these very things. Allie, our old retriever, barked at me, for my odd sudden noise. "Sorry," I said, and dangled my hand off the edge of the bed so she could lick it. "Sorry, old girl." Suddenly I was thinking of a morning years before when all three girls had climbed into bed with me and Daniel. I kept trying to get up to make breakfast, and this became the game. The twins held me in their bony hard arms, they wrapped their long stringy bare legs around me. They were shrieking, "No! No breakfast! You must stay in the nest! You must!" Sadie, sleepy, plump, all our baby, lay in front of Daniel in the curve of his arm, her pink, wet thumb resting at her lip. The two of them-Daniel and Sadie-were turned to watch us wild wrestlers, but they had moved out to the edge of the bed, trying to avoid the odd knee or elbow.

I reached over, making my hand a desperate claw. "Help me, Sadie," I croaked dramatically from the flailing mound of bony flesh. "Help, help!"

Sadie sobered and looked for a moment up at her father. Was it real? She believed in everything. He made a face that put her at ease. She laughed.

She lay thoughtfully still for just a few seconds more, before she, too, threw herself forward into the fray-my rescuer. And then Daniel's arms were encircling all of us, and he grabbed somebody from behind-Nora, I think-and swung her up. I felt his legs push powerfully against me.

It lasted only a minute or so, the shrieking, the laughter, everyone's nightie hiking up, all the bare flesh, the bones and angles, feet big and small, soft parts, damp parts. Our familiar smells.

Ordinary life. Flesh. It was my world then. I was wrapped in it, held in it, I thought. And now I'm not. Now I float.

Allie was steadily licking my hand. I turned, and she stopped and smiled at me, panting, her long curled tongue flicking upward slightly with each breath. "Laughing Allegra" we had named her, because her face fell into this happy, dopey grin when her mouth opened.

"It was fun, wasn't it, Allie?" I said. She thrust her head forward and licked my face, once.

I got up and went downstairs, into our bedroom. At one time it had been the front parlor of the house. It had a working fireplace with a painted wooden mantel, but no closet, so we'd mounted a row of hooks on the wall and hung them with what we most frequently wore-Daniel's slacks and jackets, jeans and scrubs for me and one or two nighties; both our bathrobes, homely, wrinkled shapes. A motorcycle blatted rudely past on the town road, only a dozen yards or so from our bed. We had talked about moving upstairs to the back of the house now that the girls were gone, but we hadn't done anything about it yet.

I stood for a long time in front of the mirror. Flesh, indeed. From time to time Daniel felt moved to say to me, "God, you're a beautiful woman," but this was kindness, or love. I examined myself objectively, clinically now. I saw a nice-looking middle-aged person, someone you wouldn't look at twice if you passed her on the street. And I'd never been beautiful, in fact. I'd been attractive, tall and blond and strong-looking. I'd had a notable kind of energy, and people-men-were drawn to it.

Now, though, when my face was in repose, I looked tired. The downcurving lines at the corners of my mouth made me seem judgmental and stern, even a little pissed off. Sometimes my receptionist, Beattie, a woman I'd known and loved for twenty years, would ask me-out of the blue, from my perspective-"What's wrong?" and I'd realize my face had fallen into those lines again. "Nothing," I'd say. And then consciously try to open my face, to make it pleasant. To make it, I suppose, younger.

Here's what else I knew: I was no longer sure exactly what color my hair would be if I didn't regularly rinse it a color called Silver Ash. I was about an inch shorter than I'd been in youth, and had earned at least that much more waistline as my body had compressed. I had arthritis in my hips, and it was starting a little in my back.

And I was lucky, I knew this too. There was no cancer in my family, there were no blood pressure or cholesterol problems. Though my father had died when I was small, it had been an accident of nature-a quick, brutal case of hepatitis. No, I was a good specimen, from good stock. My mother, eighty, still worked part time as a secretary, typing articles and papers for two or three retired professors who'd known her since she was a young woman. She still lived by herself in the house where I'd grown up-though I suppose she was technically not alone, since she rented rooms to students at the university, and I suspected that more and more they did the work of keeping the house up. Still, she managed it all. She managed it well, she kept herself going through the long Maine winters.

Thinking of her, looking at myself, I wondered if she'd ever felt this sense of dislocation from her past, from her present, from her own reflection in the mirror. This empty unease. And then I smiled at myself, remembering her answer to questions of this nature. "Now, why would I bother to do that?" she'd say. She wouldn't stop what she was doing, she wouldn't turn to look at the eight-year-old, or ten-year-old, or thirteen-year-old girl who stood next to her, asking. She wouldn't wonder where the question had come from or what its deeper meaning was. She'd slap the sifter to loose the flour, she'd slam the iron down on the shirt under attack, she'd rat-tat-tat even harder on the typewriter and violently fling the return across. "Now, why would I bother to do that?"

"Just 'cause, Ma," I said out loud now. And then I turned and said it to the dogs, who'd gathered in a circle behind me and were staring up, pondering my immobility. "Just 'cause, guys and gals." Their tails thudded the floor. The little one, Shorty, growled in pleasure just at being spoken to. I felt, somehow, comforted. This was all of it, no doubt, the strange passing feeling that had come to me in the boat. Age. Vanity. The impossibility of accepting the new versions of oneself that life kept offering. The impossibility of the old version's vanishing.

Ah, well, it had vanished, hadn't it? As surely as the rooms upstairs stood empty and neat in the dark.

I washed my face and put on fresh makeup. Daniel came back from the barn and we began to move around the kitchen, making dinner. He hadn't been able to reach Mortie, but he'd talked to everyone else he needed to talk to. Now he turned the radio on to the news. As we did our separate chores, we listened and commented idly to each other on what we heard-the politics, the plane crashes and crimes, the large disasters of the day, which we all use to keep the smaller, more long-term sorrows at bay.

When we were sitting at last at the kitchen table, with a curry I'd quickly put together and a salad he'd made, he looked over at me and frowned. "What's wrong?" he said.

Beattie's question. I laughed.

"What's so funny?" he asked.

"Now, wait a minute," I said. "It's either 'What's wrong?' or 'What's so funny?' It can't possibly be both."

"But it is both. I can't keep up with what goes on in your face, it changes so fast." "Well, nothing's wrong," I said.

"Aha! But something"-he lifted his fork and waved it in rhythm-" 'is not right.' " And we smiled at each other, in honor of Sadie's favorite book. We began to eat.

"That's about it, I guess," I said after a moment. "The unnameable something." "Give it a shot," he said. "Name it."

I took a breath. And then, abruptly, I had the sense of how much I loved this, this conversation freed of the reports of what one or another of the girls had done in school that day, of what she needed, wanted, had to have before the junior prom or the class day or the party at Sarah Malone's. We'd had five months of it, alone together, and there were times like this moment, Daniel pushing me, wanting to know me again, that made me feel it would be enough, more than enough. That it would call forth all that was in me. Later I would remember this moment, too, and wish I'd held on to that feeling of possibility.

"I don't know," I said. I shrugged. "Earlier, in the boat today, I was feeling odd. Just a sense of . . . dislocation, I guess, in my life."

"From what?" And when I didn't answer right away: "Dislocation from what?"

"From . . . just one thing from another, I guess. I don't know." I looked at him and made a face. It seemed, suddenly, an embarrassing, even a foolish feeling to have indulged. I settled for an easy answer. "It's probably a little bit about the girls, actually. In a way, missing them. But more . . . just all that energy, all that work and closeness. Where did it go?"

"It went into making them wonderful. Making them who they are."

I made a noise, and he frowned, which with Daniel was the tensing of a single faint line between his brows. "Don't go pfft. It's true," he said. "I'm not consoling you, Joey. I'm not humoring you, so don't act as though I am."

"Ach. I know," I said. "I know."

More gently, he said, "You always go pfft when I say something good. You should let me be loving to you."

"I know," I said again. "I need to learn to just say thank you." I reached over and rested my hand on his arm. I could feel the wires under his skin. "Thank you," I said.

"Thank you," he said. "And you're welcome." After a minute, "But name it better than that."

"Oh, Daniel!" I cried.

Still, I stopped and thought for a moment. "I really don't know. I don't. I've just felt . . . creepy. Crepuscular? Weird, anyway, all day. It feels . . . admonitory or premonitory or something."

"Which?"

"What's the difference, exactly?"

And he explained, Latin-lover that he was, the derivation of each. "But I don't believe in premonitions," he said thoughtfully, after a moment's silence.

"I don't either, really." And then I remembered. "Except, remember the time that Cass and Nora got up on the roof?"

"That wasn't really a premonition, though."

"I saw them. In my mind's eye, I saw them there, with the sky behind them, toddling around."

"But that was the result of thinking. You hadn't heard them in a while, your brain ran through a few options, the kind of stuff they might be up to. You thought of the ladder and the skylight-"

"I didn't, Daniel. That's not the way it happened. I just saw them in my mind and ran upstairs. I knew. I knew where they were, and I knew I needed to get to them."

Daniel was helping himself to more curry. He looked over at me. "Yeah, but I bet that somehow, maybe so quickly you never remembered it discretely, you went through those steps."

"I suppose I might have. But that's not what I remember. What I remember is popping up through the skylight and seeing them just as I'd seen them mentally, staggering around, happy as larks. As close to death"-I held my fingers an inch apart-"as that." I remembered their faces lifting in delight at the sight of me, just my head sticking up through the open skylight at first, then my hands rising too. They laughed, as though I were doing a kind of magic trick, conjuring myself out of thin air. I stayed right where I was, on the ladder, so they wouldn't be tempted to tease me by running away, a favorite game. So they wouldn't step back, back over the edge and down. I made my voice as richly cozy and seductive and welcoming and calm as I could through my panic. I spoke as slowly as ooze. "Hi! Hi, you cuties. Come here and tell me what you been doing. I didn't see you for a long time. Come right here by me, come by Mumma. Come for smoochies, sillies. Come right here"-and as they ran forward into my grip, "Oh, my good girls, my loves."

"But you know," Daniel was saying, "the way memory works, you might have attached that image-the real image, the way they truly looked-to your earlier thinking."

"Which was premonitory."

"Yeah, but maybe not in that exact, image-based way."

I stopped and looked at him. "Why are you arguing endlessly with me, Daniel?"

"I'm not. I don't mean to be." He looked sheepish suddenly. "I just think it's interesting. I've been doing all this reading about memory, how it actually gets laid down and altered over time. It's fascinating. 'Memory,' " he sang suddenly in his light tenor, " 'lights the corners of my mind . . .' " He let the song trail off. I was smiling at him. "Plus, of course"-he smiled back quickly-"I do like to talk. Talking is life. Right?"

"For you, yes."

"So what was this feeling? Today. Talk. Talk to me."

"Oh, I don't know. It was silly." I leaned back. "No. Here's what it was. I was looking at myself in the mirror, and I saw myself, and I don't know how I got this way." I made a dramatic gesture down my body. I wanted to amuse him. He had amused me.

He looked me up and down. "What way?"

"Older. Not young. Not what I once was."

"Ah, but which of us is?" He grinned, a flash of dry pleasure.

"Of course. It's silly. But just, from time to time, don't you kind of get swept by it? By the sense of separation between the parts of life. Don't you? Doesn't the part that was crazy and doing drugs and having random sex in the sixties sometimes sit up and wonder what you're doing here? Look at that," I said. I pointed to the counter. "There's a Cuisinart there. There's a dishwasher. That's indefensible."

He laughed. And then he said, "People change, my Jo. That's all you're saying."

"No it isn't. I don't think it is. What I'm saying is I don't like this business of whole lives being taken from me." "Who's taking? Who's taking anything from you? 'Whole lives.' " He made a face. "Too melodramatic. It's just life."

For a few moments we ate, we talked about the food, I poured myself more wine. Daniel wasn't drinking, because he thought he might be going out later.

Then, abruptly, he pointed at me with his fork. "I mean, Jo, look at my parents. Born on farms, raised on farms, both of them. Farming, raising their kids on a farm. And lo and behold, the kids don't want to farm, so they sell it. They move to town, they grow old looking out at the parking lot by Meadow Glen Acres. That's disjunctive as hell. But that's the way life goes."

"See, I don't think it has to. I think it can feel more connected. I bet it used to. I bet this has something to do with goddamned modernity."

"Could be," he said.

I sighed. I drank more of my wine.

"It's life, Jo," he said after a few moments of silence.

"It isn't," I said.

We both laughed, small, rueful laughs.

"Ready to clean up?" he asked.

After dinner, Mortie called back. Daniel turned his back to me while he talked. His voice was grave, a series of quick, short responses. Okay, okay. Yes. Okay.

When he hung up, I said, "She's dying."

"Yes," he said.

"I'm so sorry."

"I know." He went to change, and I moved more slowly now around the kitchen. The windows had gone black, they were steamy with our life. I was thinking of Amy, his parishioner. I'd met her only a few times. She'd been pregnant the last time I'd seen her, singing in the choir. Her hands, holding the music, had rested on the shelf formed by her big belly in the maroon robe. When he came back, he said, "I'm not sure how late I'll be." His face was stricken, frightened-looking, and I thought about how difficult his job was. "I know," I said.

"Don't wait up."

"I want to," I said.

He nodded, and gripped my arm for a second, and left.

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