I push the laptop aside and check my watch. I have been “writing” for hours and have nothing to show for it. That depresses me, but I push it aside.
Any writer has to begin with research. I know that from my days in journalism. Once I was a cub reporter. I know about digging for a story.
And my life story is no exception. I have been the subject of several magazine articles and TV news shows, but I have carefully managed all of it. I have spoon-fed people my past. Through the magic of TV I have turned a bad childhood into a Cinderella fairy tale. Poor Tully, abandoned by her evil mother, becomes an American success story.
My audience wanted the fairy tale, so I gave it to them, and ours is an age of Disney tales, not Grimm’s; evil has become animated lions and singing octopi.
These new fairy tales are perfect for me. How many times did I say that it had been a blessing of sorts, how often I’d been abandoned? The lack of a mother’s love made me try harder; this was the truth as I packaged it. Ambition, I say, saved me.
In a memoir, for once I will have to tell the truth. That is what George asked me. I blithely said yes, but can I? Really?
I have to. Maybe I even need to.
A bestselling memoir could give me my life back.
I don’t have much from my early years, but what I do have is in my storage unit downstairs in the parking garage. I haven’t been in the unit for years, let alone looked into the boxes within. It has not been an oversight, either. I have made a point of not looking through the boxes.
I am going to do it.
But the decision is a weak one, like all made-in-desperation decisions are, and I can’t make myself begin. Instead, I go to my window and stand there, drinking one glass of wine after another until the sky begins to cloud over and darken.
“Do it,” I say to my reflection. I force myself to turn away from the window. On my way out of the condo, I grab a pen, a pad of paper, and, of course, a glass of wine.
In the parking garage, it takes longer than expected to find my unit.
I unlock the metal door, flick on the interior lights, and step inside.
It is about twelve feet square. I have never been in any of the other tenants’ storage units, but I am pretty sure that most of them would be full from floor to ceiling with stacked plastic bins and cardboard boxes marked with words like Xmas, Holiday, Winter, Summer, Baby Clothes, etc. In those boxes would be evidence of lives, the boxed trail that leads one back to the beginning.
My unit is practically empty. There are my skis and tennis rackets and golf clubs—equipment for sports I have tried and given up but hope I might someday try again—and my extra luggage and an antique mirror I’d bought in France and forgotten all about.
And two boxes. Two. The evidence of my life doesn’t take up much room.
I reach for the first box. Across it is written: Firefly Lane. The second box says: Queen Anne.
I feel a shiver of dread. These two boxes represent the two halves of my former life, my grandmother and my mother. Whatever is hidden within, I haven’t seen for decades. At seventeen, I’d become the executrix of my grandmother’s estate. She’d left me everything—the house on Queen Anne and the rental property on Firefly Lane. Alone, abandoned again by my mother and headed into foster care, I packed up the house on Queen Anne and kept only these few things, whatever could fit in this single box. The Firefly Lane box contains the few things that my mother and I collected in our brief time together. In my entire life, I lived with my mother only once, in 1974, in the house on Firefly Lane, until one day when she simply disappeared. I have always told people it was a blessing, that short time with my mother, because I met the girl who would become my best friend. And that’s true. It was a blessing. It was also another abandonment.
I grab an old coverlet and kneel on it. Then I pull the box marked Queen Anne toward me.
My hands are shaking as I peel back the flaps. My pulse is washer-on-spin-cycle fast, heartbeats tumble over one another. I have trouble breathing. The last time I opened this box I was in my grandmother’s house, kneeling in my bedroom. The social services lady had told me to be “ready” when she arrived to take me away from the house. I had packed carefully, but even after all the terrible years with my mother, I expected her to save me. I was seventeen, I think. All alone and waiting for a mother who wouldn’t save me. Again.
I reach inside the box. The first thing I find in the shadowy interior is my old scrapbook.
I had forgotten all about this.
It is oversized, and slim, with Holly Hobbie on the cover, her profile hidden by a huge pioneer-girl bonnet. I run my fingertip over the white cover. Gran had given me this album on my eleventh birthday. Not long after, my mom had shown up, drunk and unannounced, and taken me to downtown Seattle.
I never knew what my mother intended to do that day. All I know is that she abandoned me on a doorstep in Pioneer Square in the middle of an antiwar protest.
Your mom has problems, Gran had said later, while I sat on the floor, crying.
Is that why she doesn’t love me?
“Stop it,” I say to myself. This is old news, old pain.
I open the scrapbook and see a picture of myself at eleven, posing for the camera already, leaning over a cake to blow out the candles.
Pasted on the other side is the first of hundreds of letters I’d written to my mother and never mailed. Dear Mommy, today is my eleventh birthday—
I close the scrapbook. I have barely looked through it, hardly glimpsed what is here, and already I am feeling worse than when I began. These words bring her alive, the me I have spent a lifetime outrunning, the girl with the broken heart.
If Katie were here, I could go through this box, pull up my pain, and examine it. She would be there to say, Your mom, what a loser, and Look how pretty you are in that picture, and all the other little things I need to hear. Without her, I don’t have the strength.
I climb slowly to my feet, realizing that I have drunk too much wine.
Without bothering to close the box, I leave the storage unit, forgetting to even lock it. If I am lucky, maybe someone will steal these boxes before I have to go through them. I am halfway to the elevator when my cell phone rings. It is Margie.
“Hey, Margie,” I answer quickly, grateful for the distraction.
“Hey, Tully. I’m making reservations for Saturday night in Los Angeles. What was the name of that restaurant you love?”
I smile. How had I forgotten, even for a moment? This weekend is Marah’s high school graduation. I will be with the Mularkeys and the Ryans for two days. It is a gift I won’t take for granted. Maybe I will even ask Johnny for help in getting a job. “Don’t worry, Margie. I already made reservations for all of us. Seven o’clock at Madeo.”
This weekend, I am going to be my old self. I will pretend that my life is ordinary and that not everything has changed. I will laugh with Johnny and hold on to my goddaughter and play Xbox games with the boys.
I will not walk into their new house and see only empty chairs and missing people. I will focus on who is left. Like the Wordsworth poem, I will find strength in what remains.
But when the Town Car pulls up in front of a contemporary house on an uber-landscaped lot in Beverly Hills, I feel panic tug at my resolution.
Kate would hate this house.
A Xanax calms my runaway nerves.
I get out of the car and haul my single suitcase up the stone walkway. I go to the front door and ring the bell. When no one answers, I open the door and step inside, calling out.
The twins come bursting down a wide stone staircase like a pair of Great Dane puppies, bumping into each other, laughing loudly. At nine and a half, both have long, unruly brown hair and wide, toothy grins. They shriek at the sight of me. I have barely a moment to prepare before I am knocked back by the exuberance of their hug.
“I knew she’d come,” Lucas says.
“You liar,” Wills says with a laugh. “I said it.” To me, he says, “What did you get Marah?”
“Probably a Ferrari,” Johnny says, coming into the room.
In one look, our history rushes past like a river, tumbling images. I know we are both thinking of the woman who isn’t here, and of the distance that has grown between us. He comes toward me.
I hip-bump him because I don’t know what to say. Before he can respond, I hear Margie call out for me. In minutes, I am surrounded by them—the boys, Johnny, Bud, and Margie. Everyone is talking at once, smiling and laughing. When the twins drag their grandparents back up the stairs for some “sick Xbox game,” Johnny and I are left alone again.
“How is Marah?” I ask.
“Fine. Doing well, I think,” is what he says, but I hear more truth in his sigh. “How are you? I keep watching for The Girlfriend Hour to start back up.”
This is my moment. I could tell him the truth, maybe even ask for help. I could tell him about my collapsed career and ask for advice.
I can’t do it. Maybe it is his sorrow, or my pride, or a mixture of the two. All I know for sure is I can’t tell Johnny how ruined my life is, not after what he has been through. I don’t want his pity. “I’m fine,” I say. “I’m writing a memoir. George tells me it is sure to be a bestseller.”
“So you’re fine,” he says.
He nods and looks away. Later, even when I am swept away by the sheer joy of being with these people again, I can’t help thinking about my lie to Johnny. I wonder if I am the kind of fine that Marah is.
* * *
Marah is not fine. We learn that lesson the hard way. On Saturday, the day of her graduation, when we are gathered in the living room, Marah comes down the stairs. She looks—ghastly is all I can think of, or ghostly—pale and thin, with slumped shoulders and dull black hair that falls like a curtain in front of her face.
“I need help,” she says at the bottom of the stairs, and lifts her arm. She is bleeding profusely. I rush to help her, and so does Johnny. Once again, we bang up against each other, say things we shouldn’t; what I know is this: Marah needs help and I have promised to be there for her. I swear to Johnny that I will take care of her in Seattle, get her in to see Dr. Bloom.
Johnny doesn’t like letting her go with me, but what choice does he have? I say I know how to help her and he has no idea what to do. In the end, he decides to let her live with me for the summer. But he doesn’t like it. Not at all. And he makes sure I know it.
* * *
In June of 2008, Marah moves into my condo on one of those scaldingly beautiful early summer days that make Seattleites come out of their darkened homes in last year’s shorts, blinking like moles in the brightness, looking for sunglasses that have been lost and unused for months.
I feel proud; never have I fulfilled my promise to Katie more completely. It’s true that I am not my best self these days, that panic often crouches in my peripheral vision, pouncing into the foreground when I least expect it. And, yes, I am drinking more than I should and taking a few too many Xanax. I can no longer sleep without sleeping pills.
But all of that will fade now that I have this obligation. I help her unpack her small suitcase and then, in our first evening together, we sit in the living room together, talking about her mother as if Kate is at the store and will return any moment. I know it is wrong, this pretense, but we need it, both of us.