By the winter of 2009, I feel almost like my old self. I have even come up with a plan to bring Marah home from school early to decorate for the holidays.
“Are you ready?” Johnny says when I open the door to my condo. I can see that he is impatient, excited. We are all worried about Marah, and the idea of bringing her home from school early is a good one.
“I was born ready. You know that.” I wrap the cashmere scarf around my throat and follow him down to his car.
On this cold, black, mid-December evening, heavy gray clouds collect above the buildings. Before we even reach the freeway, a few snowflakes begin to fall, so small that by the time they hit the windshield, all that is left is a starburst of water, plopping here and there, wiped away quickly, but still it lends a festive air. We talk about Marah on the way, her falling grades, and our hope that she will do better in this sophomore year than she did in her freshman.
The University of Washington’s sprawling, gothic campus seems smaller in this weather; elegant buttressed buildings shimmer ghostlike beneath the stone gray sky. The snow is beginning to stick; a white sheen dusts the grassy lawns and concrete benches. Students move briskly between buildings, their hoods and backpacks slowly turning white. There is a hushed feeling here, a loneliness that is rarely felt on this giant campus. It is the last few days of Finals Week. On Monday, the school will close until January. Most of the students are already gone. In golden windows, professors rush to grade the last of their tests before the holiday begins.
McMahon Hall is particularly quiet. At Marah’s room, we pause and look at each other. “Should we yell surprise?” I ask.
“I think it’ll be obvious when she opens the door.”
Johnny knocks on the door.
We hear footsteps and the door opens. Paxton is standing there, wearing boxer shorts and combat boots, holding a bong. He is paler than usual and the look in his eyes is glassy and blank. “Whoa…” he says.
Johnny pushes Paxton so hard the kid stumbles and falls. The place reeks of marijuana and something else. On the nightstand is a small crinkled piece of blackened foil with a dirty pipe beside it. What the hell?
Johnny kicks aside pizza boxes and empty Coke cans.
Marah is in bed, wearing only a bra and panties. At our entrance, she scrambles back, pulling the blanket up to her chest. “Wha’ the hell are you doin’ here?” she says. Her words come out mangled; her gaze is glassy. She is obviously high. Paxton moves toward her.
Johnny grabs Paxton as if he is a Frisbee and throws him sideways, then pins him to the wall. “You raped her,” Johnny says. The tone in his voice is terrifying .
Marah climbs out of bed, falls to the floor. “Dad, don’t…”
“Ask her if I raped your daughter,” Paxton says, nodding at me.
When Johnny turns and looks at me, I open my mouth but nothing comes out.
“What?” Johnny yells at me. “What do you know about this?”
“She knew we were sleeping together,” Paxton says with a small smile. He is tearing us apart; he knows it and enjoys it.
“Pax … doan…” Marah says, stumbling forward.
Johnny’s gaze turns cold as ice. “What?”
I grab his arm and pull him to me. “Please, Johnny. Listen to me,” I whisper. “She thinks she loves him.”
“How dare you not tell me?”
I am almost too scared to answer. “She made me promise.”
“She’s a kid.”
I shake my head. “I was trying—”
“Kate would not forgive you for this.” He knows exactly how these words strip me bare. He pulls out of my grasp and spins to face his daughter.
She is on her feet, holding on to Paxton as if she would fall without his support. I see now that her eyebrow is pierced and her hair is streaked with purple. She pulls on a pair of jeans and grabs a dirty coat from the floor. “I’m sick of pretending to be who you want me to be,” Marah says. Tears fill her eyes and she wipes them away impatiently. “I’m quitting school and getting the hell out of here. I need my own life.” She is shaking as she puts on her shoes. I can see it from here.
Paxton nods encouragingly.
“This would break your mom’s heart,” Johnny says, looking as angry as I’ve ever seen him.
Marah stares at him. “She’s dead.”
“Come on, Marah,” Paxton says. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Don’t go,” I whisper. “Please. He’ll ruin you.”
Marah turns. She is so unsteady on her feet, she careens into the wall. “You said every girl needed a poet once in her life. I thought you’d understand. With all your my-job-is-to-love-you bullshit.”
“She said what?” Johnny shouts. “Every girl needs a poet? Oh, for Chri—”
“He’ll ruin you,” I say again. “That’s what I should have told you.”
“Yeah,” Marah says, her face tightening. “Tell me all about love, Tully. Cuz you know so much about it.”
“She doesn’t, but I do,” Johnny says to Marah. “And so do you. Your mom wouldn’t want you anywhere near this kid.”
Marah’s eyes go flat and blank. “Don’t bring her into this.”
“You come home with me now,” Johnny says. “Or—”
“Or what? Don’t come home at all?” Marah snaps back.
Johnny looks like he is falling. But he is angry, too. “Marah—”
She turns to Paxton, says, “Get me out of here.”
“Fine, go,” Johnny snaps.
I stand there, unable to draw a breath. How has everything gone wrong so fast? When I hear the door bang shut, I turn to Johnny. “Johnny, please—”
“Don’t. You knew she was sleeping with … that kid…” His voice cracks. “I don’t know how the hell Kate stayed with you all those years, but I know this: it’s over now. This is YOUR fault. You stay the hell away from my family.”
For the first time ever—ever—Johnny turns his back on me and walks away.
Over the faint whir of the ventilator and the beep of the heart monitor, I hear the disappointment in Katie’s voice. I forget where my body is—or try to—and live in the memory of where we are supposed to be. The Quad at the UW. Good times.
I lie back in the grass. I can almost feel it beneath me; tiny tips poking into my skin. I can hear the murmur of voices distinct and indistinct; they sound like waves washing up on a pebbled shore. That pure, beautiful light envelopes everything and gives me a sense of peace that is totally at odds with the memory I just shared with Kate.
You let them both walk away?
I roll onto my side and stare at this beautiful, incandescent vision of my best friend. In the pale glow of her, I see us as we once were—a pair of fourteen-year-old girls wearing too much makeup, with overplucked eyebrows, sitting on my bed, with an array of Tiger Beat magazines open between us. Or in the eighties, wearing shoulder pads the size of dinner plates and dancing to “We Got the Beat.” “I ruined everything,” I say.
She sighs quietly; I feel her breath like a whisper against my cheek. I get a whiff of the bubble gum she used to love, and the Baby Soft perfume that she hasn’t worn in decades.
“I missed having you to talk to.”
I’m here now, Tul. Talk to me.
“Maybe you want to talk to me, about what it’s like where you are.”
About the kind of missing that wakes you up at night, about forgetting how your son’s hair smells right out of the bath or wondering if he’s lost a tooth or how he’ll grow up to be a man without a mother to guide him? She sighs quietly. That’s for another time. Tell me what happened after Marah ran away and Johnny said he didn’t want to see you anymore. Do you remember?
I remember, all right. December of 2009 was the beginning of the end. Last year. It feels like yesterday to me.
“After that horrible scene, I …
run out of the dorms and find myself alone on campus. It is a cold, snowy mess out here now; slush is furring the streets. I go to Forty-fifth Street, hail a cab, and get into the backseat.
At home, I am shaking so hard I slam my thumb in the door. I go straight to the bathroom and take two Xanax, but the pills don’t stop me from falling apart. Not this time. I know it’s because I deserve to feel bad. What had I been thinking, to say those things to Marah, to hide the truth from Johnny? He’s right. This is my fault. How is it that I keep hurting the people I love?
I climb onto my big king-sized bed and curl into a ball on top of the silver silk coverlet. It absorbs my tears as if they’d never been.
I remember time passing in weird ways—in the slow charcoal darkening of the sky, in the lights coming on in high-rises around me, in the number of Xanax I take. In the middle of the night I eat everything in my fridge and am halfway through the pantry when I know I’ve overdone it. I stumble into the bathroom and puke it all up, along with the Xanax, and afterward I feel as weak as a kitten.
When the phone beside me rings, I waken, so groggy and lethargic that I forget where I am and why I feel like someone rolled over me with a dump truck. And then I remember.
I reach over and answer my phone.
“Hello?” I say, noticing how dry my mouth is.
“Margie.” I whisper her name, afraid to say it out loud. I wish she didn’t live in Arizona. I need to see her now.
I hear the disappointment in her voice and know why she is calling. “You heard?”
I am so ashamed I feel sick. “I screwed up.”
“You were supposed to be taking care of her.”
The truly pathetic thing is that I thought I was. “How do I fix it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe when Marah comes home—”
“What if she doesn’t?”
Margie draws in a sharp breath, and I think: How much heartache can one family handle?
“She’ll come back,” I say, but I don’t believe it, and Margie knows. Instead of making me feel better, this conversation is making me feel worse. I make a mumbling excuse and hang up.
An Ambien helps me sleep.
* * *
For the next two weeks, the weather matches my mood. Gray, swollen skies cry with me.
I know I am depressed. I can feel it, but the strange thing is that I find it comforting. All of my life I have run from my own emotions. Now, alone in my apartment, cut off from everyone, I revel in my pain, swim in its warm waters. I don’t even pretend to work on my book. The sleeping pills I take at night leave me feeling fuzzy in the morning and slow-moving, and even with them in my system, I toss and turn at night; sweats and hot flashes have me alternately boiling and freezing.
Until Christmas Eve. Thirteen days after the fight at Marah’s dorm room.
On that morning, I wake up with a plan.
I stumble out of bed and make my way to the bathroom, where a mirror reveals a middle-aged woman with bloodshot eyes and hair that needs to be colored.