Tracy Manaster is a graduate of Wesleyan University and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was the 2006 recipient of the National League of American Pen Women’s Joanna Catherine Scott prize for novel excerpt. Her nonfiction has appeared in Iagora and Moxie magazines and as interactive exhibit texts for The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and twin daughters. You can find her on Twitter.
Excerpted from You Could Be Home By Now
F+W Media, Inc.
© Tracy Manaster
Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
A Virtuous Start
Intake had Ben show proof of insurance and sign a dozen forms he didn’t bother reading. Sadie claimed a pair of hard plastic waiting room chairs. The granddaughter was off somewhere, taking with her the I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to that had sounded like a metronome in his ear the whole ride over. Sadie stood when he approached, removing the reading glasses he hadn’t known she needed. She popped them into the front pocket of her blouse and the cloth between the buttons gapped ever so slightly. He settled beside her to wait.
She smelled subtly of grapefruit. Veronica used to eat half of one for breakfast so that whatever the day threw at her thereafter, at least she had made a virtuous start. Goosebumps stippled Sadie’s skin. She’d gotten him to the ER without grabbing so much as a sweater.
“Cold?” he asked.
She shook her head.
Sadie smiled, but her eyes weren’t in it. Her cheeks weren’t either. “I’m fine,” she said, but she rubbed her arms. She caught him looking and stilled. She folded her hands neatly in her lap. He could tell her watch had cost a pretty penny. Graceful. Silver. He heard it tick.
“You don’t see those much anymore.”
“Watches. It’s a beautiful piece.”
She fidgeted with the clasp. Odds were, the watch had been a gift from Gary. Ben’s own wife had never liked jewelry that called attention to her hands. Veronica’s nails broke easily and her fingers were stubby. She called them her plebe paws. Sadie crossed her legs at the ankles, uncrossed them, inspected her trousers, and plucked at an imagined speck. Posters hung at intervals around the room, encouraging him to quit smoking, to cover his mouth when he coughed, and to get more fiber, more exercise, and—because Knowing Is Sexy!—regular testing for STDs.
Sadie’s foot tapped a nervy, erratic beat. “I was a debutante,” she said.
“What?” Ben palmed the base of his skull, which still throbbed dully. Maybe he’d hit it harder than he’d thought.
“I’ve got a portrait floating around somewhere. You’d laugh. Crinoline. White gloves up to here.” She patted the full swell of her bicep.
“Huh. I don’t think I’d have ever guessed.” A half lie. There was something country clubby to her bearing, now that he thought about it, more offhand sportiness than innate athleticism.
“It was an age ago and it was silly even then. But—what I mean to say is, I’m really good at manners. And that matters. If you know what’s done, then you do it and it leaves more room in your life for everything else.”
Ben nodded, remembering the note that had arrived in the mail six days on the heels of Gary’s funeral. In it, Sadie had thanked him for the soups he’d had sent from an online gourmet company, the same company that Veronica always used when someone passed.
Sadie’s stationery had been thick and edged with scallops. Her handwriting was pure Palmer Method.
She said, “I could arm wrestle Emily Post.” She flexed. “I could flatten her. But this. I don’t know the polite way to ask. My granddaughter. Are you going to be pressing charges?”
“She doesn’t like me much.” Ben didn’t admit it was mutual.
He thought of the snotty moue of the girl’s lips. The drawn out cadence that laid exclusive claim to her Gra-an. An uncomplicated dart of feeling. Ben loathed the girl. Absolutely despised her. And he was allowed to. She wasn’t his daughter. He didn’t owe her a lick of nuance. Three years post-divorce and he still had his lawyer on speed dial. Picture the shocked, sullen look on Lily’s face when the police arrived.
“No,” Sadie agreed. “She doesn’t.” Veronica would have obfuscated.
Lily likes you plenty. She’s shy. She’s always been a bit undemonstrative.
Tara’s first go at rehab? Veronica told their friends she was off at a summer leadership academy. Sadie’s foot stopped its tapping. Whatever broken face Lily made when the cops came, her grandmother would surely mirror.
Ben said, “Maybe I have that effect on people. On teenaged girls.” He swallowed. He’d been shooting for funny, but of course, it wasn’t.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Lily’s”—Sadie cast about for the right adjective. He was disappointed when she settled for—“a good kid.”
“A good kid,” he echoed. He’d heard that plenty about Tara.
A good kid at heart. A good kid but. Actual good kids were probably called something else. On the other side of the room, a woman clutched her stomach and swore. Ben’s skull felt too heavy for his neck.
“She was in a mood,” said Sadie. “I shouldn’t have put her behind the wheel. She was all up in arms about some Internet—”
“Benjamin? You okay?”
“What they call the real good kids.” The waiting-room floor was scuffed all over, a worn, familiar beige. Every hospital in the Western Hemisphere got its tiles from the same supplier.
“Let me get a nurse.” Sadie was on her feet.
“Sorry. Sit, please.” He tapped the seat beside him. “I was woolgathering.”
“Aah.” She resettled. “Should’ve guessed. You get this look sometimes.” She indicated his head. “There’s a lot going on in there.”
“Sometimes, maybe. Not right now.”
A nurse in pink scrubs appeared and summoned a patient who was not Ben, a narrowly built fellow with no outward evidence of injury. The woman with the stomach pains moaned. Sadie said, “I do believe Lily when she says it was an accident.”
“Yes. She’s got the family temper, but I’d swear it’s all backtalk.”
“Girls that age are terrifying.” Tara used to make her face colorless when they fought, eyes stolid shutters against any attempt to reach her. She was six pounds, fourteen ounces when first settled into his arms. And just like that his heart weighed six pounds, fourteen ounces. His sternum could never protect it again.
“Terrifying,” Sadie agreed. “And Lily doesn’t have the easiest path ahead of her. I tell you she’s a lesbian? Came out last year. None of us had the least idea. She just wanted us to know. It wasn’t—I don’t know—laying the groundwork to introduce some Jenny with a rainbow flag she wanted to take to prom. Lily’s always been like that.
She’s . . .” This time, the adjective was more worth the wait. “Adamant. Absolutely herself. Fifteen.” Sadie sniffed and smiled, like the number was inherently funny. “That age, the only coming-out on my radar involved a white dress.” Something warm swept across her face.
“I went up to Chicago three times for fittings. It was the most delicious moonlight-colored silk.” An easy flick of her wrist, as if to smooth remembered cloth. “I’m not saying I was some holy innocent. But I was young. It was more along the lines of figuring out regular sex.”
Ben feigned interest in the nearest poster, a cartoon syringe that had something to do with H1N1, so that Sadie wouldn’t catch the flow of his thoughts. Which were, no surprise, a lot like water seeking the lowest point. Teenaged Sadie, figuring out sex. The archaic smoothness of long gloves. Pearl buttons on a white dress slipping one by one from their slits. A twist of something must have shown on his face; a twist of something easily misread.
Sadie was defensive. Her chin jutted out. “I don’t mean regular sex like Lily’s kind is somehow abnormal. But young seems like it was younger then.”
“It’s young enough now.” Bearing down on him, Lily’s hands had been at ten o’clock and two o’clock exactly, a position you never saw outside Drivers’ Ed. “It’s plenty young.” The fledgling frailty of fifteen. He’d forgotten. Or, rather: he’d stopped himself remembering. The ways a body could break.
“Ben.” Sadie produced a pack of tissues. “Here.” He was crying. It had been ages since he’d done that. “I’m sorry,” he said.
She brushed away the apology. “Hospitals bring it out in people. And for all I know you’re in a hell of a lot of pain.” She pointed at the receptionist. “Bet I could sweet-talk her into finding someone who’d give you a pill.”
He took a second tissue. “I have a daughter. Had. Have.”
Silence. Everyone he offered this story to accepted it in silence.
“Everyone called her a good kid, too. Only, you know how they say everything before the but is bullshit? Tara was a good kid but. Good but high strung. Angry. In and out of trouble. In and out of rehab. She ran off at sixteen. The police didn’t give a damn. They made a few calls but that was it. Veronica and I checked all the shelters.
We handed out her picture everywhere. Hired a detective. This was in 1995. We never saw her again.”
“About your Lily. I’m not going to press charges.”
“There’s nothing about that story that isn’t terrible. I’m sorry. What’s her name?”
“Tara.” You could tell a lot about people from whether they asked is or was. Their base level of optimism, or what they wanted you to think that base level was. “She’s been on my mind. More than usual, I mean. I think seeing your Lily around—” He indicated the sodden shreds of tissues in his hand. “It’s not the hospital. I hate hospitals, but—it’s not the hospital.”
“Eh. Hospitals are okay. They’re clean. They’re organized. Everyone in them tries their best.”
“Maybe.” He’d had enough of hospitals for a dozen lifetimes. The cheap, waffle-weave blankets, the Tommyknocker clangs of the MRI. “My wife and I—I hate that everyone thinks we split because of Tara. We hung on for years with her gone.” Ben heard how that sounded. Hung on.
Sadie said, “It must have been—I don’t like to think about how that must have been.”
“Veronica traveled a lot for business. All over. Six, maybe seven trips a year.” That sounded like the setup for something licentious. That or Cro-Magnon. Thog want meat, Thog want fire, Thog threatened by career of second-wave spouse, and so forth. He spoke quickly. “I went along whenever I could. We’d research beforehand.
It got a lot easier with the Internet. Where the missions were. Food pantries. The shelters. It was sometimes a trick to find the women’s ones. They don’t always publish addresses. A lot of times when women run it’s to hide out from a man. So evenings, Veronica would be off for cocktails and networking and I’d hit the streets, hoping. We never actually thought—we’re not stupid people. But she was our little girl.”
All those times he’d dressed, midsized hotel rooms in midsized cities—Minneapolis, Baltimore, Detroit. The clothes that he and his wife had selected with the specificity of theatrical costume designers. You didn’t want to look sleek and prosperous. You didn’t want to look shriveled and desperate. He wore a knit cap over the haircut Veronica had him spend more on than he was strictly comfortable spending. Jeans, about to fray but not quite there. Army-surplus parka. Off-brand sneakers. A too-big, no-color button down.
“Four years ago, in Chicago, I was robbed and beaten by two men. In Hyde Park. We were under this footbridge. They said at the mission the overflow sometimes bunked down there. It wasn’t even the worst neighborhood I’d been to that trip. It’s right by the university, you know? They have that house by Frank Lloyd Wright.”
“I can’t believe you’re talking about architecture. Benjamin.”
“A first-year law student found me the next morning. I don’t remember any of this. He was out for a morning jog. I was unconscious for nearly a week. That’s why I wanted to come here. You have to be careful, you know? Have them give me a solid looking-over.”
“You were out cold.” She sounded appalled. He didn’t know if she was talking about Chicago four years ago or The Commons this afternoon. “Of course you need a doctor.”
“Maybe. Anyhow. They think now I might be predisposed to”—he made a vague gesture in attempt to indicate breakable.
“Veronica had a hard time. She’s a—she solves problems. She tries to make things balance. The kid who found me? We paid for his books till he made JD.”
“That’s lovely. A lovely gesture.”
“I’m not saying it wasn’t. But it shows the kind of person she is. Always an eye out for that one thing that will make things right. And that’s fine, except—it’s hard as hell, excuse my French, when you’re the thing that needs fixing. When I got out of the hospital, she’d get this look like she was waiting for some kind of PTSD crackup. I think she wanted it to happen so she could put me back together already. She’d get real quiet in bad neighborhoods. Flick on the power locks. Or we’d be driving along, talking or what have you, and then we’d pass under a bridge and she’d clam up. Not even a footbridge like the one where—a regular old bridge. Like you use to get to the other side of the river. You know how many bridges there are in Portland?”
“No.” A sad, shaky smile. “And I can’t believe we’re back to architecture.”
“She was on me all the time to see a shrink; she got Stephen on her side so I was getting it from all directions. I’d mispronounce a word or forget the name of a street and she’d call in the brain docs like I was one breath away from another coma. I wanted—you know that thing they say about sharks? How they have to keep moving or die? I needed to go on and on. If I stopped—” He shook his head. “People never used to dwell as much. Have you noticed that?”
“It was a huge thing that happened to you. To you both.”
“I know. But to talk and talk. That would make it huger. Sorry. I know that’s not a word.”
A focused flush had come to Sadie’s cheeks despite the waitingroom cold. “Maybe not. But it’s a feeling.”
“Veronica started having these business trips pop up at the last minute. There’d never be a chance for me to reshuffle my appointments or plane fare would be through the roof. But these were conferences, right? She used to have to register months in advance. So I’d call up her secretary and it’d turn out they’d been on the calendar forever.”
“I can see why she—”
“I know. I can, too. And I’m sure I wasn’t a peach to live with either. I’m not trying to make it sound like it was just the one thing. It never is. We’d been fighting for years but we were happy in between. After Chicago, the in between got shorter and shorter. Less happy too.”
Beside him, Sadie waited for him to say more, but that was that. Another nurse summoned the stomach woman. It was bound to be a good sign that they’d let him stew in his seat this long. Veronica wouldn’t have stood for it though. She’d have whipped through her cell phone contacts, found someone who knew someone whose daughter-in-law was a hospital trustee.
“Your granddaughter’s been gone a while,” he said so he’d be saying something.
“I sent her for water. She’ll be back.” Sadie paled at the appalling casualness of what she’d said.
“It’s fine.” He laid his hand briefly over hers. Over the hand on the armrest, not the one on her thigh. “Really. It is.”
“I’m glad you told me.”
“Me too.” It was true. Usually when he told people he regretted it right after. They sat a while.
“So,” he said.
“So. You’ve got that look again. Daydreaming.”
“Nah. I wonder. What would Emily Post want you to say next?” Sadie snorted. The last sound you’d expect from a white-clad bloom of high society. “I think it’s fair to say you and I are somewhere beyond Emily.”
“We probably are. Still.”
“I don’t know. She’d probably have me steer us to a less personal subject.”
He bowed slightly as if to say, after you.
“Okay then. Let’s talk about your putting.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my putting.”
“Maybe. If you’re up against a baboon.”
The nurse reappeared then, scrutinizing her clipboard. She butchered the pronunciation of his last name. Ben stood so fast it made him dizzy. He didn’t want her crossing toward them and saying something to show she mistook Sadie for his wife. He said, “Here’s hoping the doctor’s a bit older than twelve.”
Sadie stretched, then nestled back into the chair. “Oh, I like it when they’re young. The young ones are going to fight harder. They still take the bad stuff personally.”
Ben looked at Sadie, really looked. This was the only ER for miles. They must have brought Gary Birnam here, post-collapse. Her husband must have come here to die. He took her hand again and squeezed. He said, “I’m probably still a little in love with my wife.”
By her face, Sadie didn’t know what to make of that. He only had the guts to say what was next because of the easy exit, the nurse on standby to lead him away. “I’m still in love with Veronica, but I like you more.”