Island Girl ~ L.E. Miller

 

After April moved back to Port Ordway, she saw Ben’s mother everywhere. Like a form of karmic payback, Eulalia appeared, all five-feet-ten of her, whenever April had a coffee stain on her blouse or was buying a candy bar to devour on a bad morning. They attended the same city council meetings and Rotary Club breakfasts, shilling for funds for their respective organizations: Eulalia’s theater company, Players in the Pines, and New Beginnings, run by April, which helps homeless women make a fresh start. April hated it, begging for her mean portion, but Eulalia played it to the hilt, even when her audience was a table of jowly city councilors who had never in their lives heard of Ionesco. No matter how packed the room, Eulalia’s gaze always landed on April. What else could April do but try to return that magisterial smile?

One day, they ended up together at the marble sinks in the City Hall bathroom. Before April could make her escape, Eulalia rested her hand on April’s arm. There, on her index finger, was her ring with its honey-colored stone, which had always reminded April of a throat lozenge.

The antagonist lends a story its dramatic velocity, Eulalia once told her. He or she often reveals a hidden darkness in the protagonist, who ends up fighting a force that comes from within. 

Benjamin’s doing wonderfully, Eulalia’s voice echoed off the marble and porcelain of the Town Hall bathroom. No, he’s not a doctor… he works as a civil engineer in Palo Alto, in green energy… yes ,it’s a field with great potential…married to a lovely Filipina girl—an anesthesiologist—and they have two beautiful daughters. And tell me, dear, what wonderful things are going on with you?

I’m a crack whore, April nearly said.

Well into her seventies, Eulalia Becker continued on as artistic director at Players in the Pines, staging Brecht and Ibsen for an audience who would vastly prefer Neil Simon. She kept the house on Harrington Street long after most of her friends had sold their troublesome houses and decamped for warmer climates. Even after the cancer had spread to her bones—impossible not to know, in close-knit Port Ordway—she remained an eminence, draped in cashmere and tiger’s eye beads.

On the day of her memorial service, April went to work dressed in black, ready to pay her respects at the Congregational Church. Eulalia’s husband was long dead—despite his having been Dr. Clayton Parnell, chief of infectious diseases at Port Ordway General Hospital, April would forever think of him as Mr. Becker—but Ben would surely be there, with his wife and girls. The hours ticked by; April got busy with a million things. She never left her desk. She never made it out to buy a card for Ben.

 

Entrances, exits. One of these actions is generally necessary to advance a story.

One morning in June, April is out walking on the beach. She hears a man call her name.  When she turns to see who it is, she finds Ben standing behind her. He’s wearing jogging shorts. A V-shaped patch of sweat darkens his T-shirt.

His curls have been tamed, cut short; his golden-blond hair is laced with gray. He has broadened into middle age, but like many men who were thin as children, his arms and legs are gaunt, the tendons corded. April had been cruel to him, inexcusably so, but surely she can be pardoned on account of her youth. Ben’s great gift was—is still?—his faith in other people’s good intentions. He opens his arms, and she steps into his embrace, his familiar smell after running.

They talk while he stretches his hamstrings. April takes in the coordinates of his life as if anew: his job with an alternative energy firm in California, his anesthesiologist wife, Corinna; their two daughters. He’s back in Port Ordway this week, getting his parents’ house ready for sale.  Did she know his mother passed away in November? I didn’t know; I’m sorry to hear that, she bluffs. Ben asks if she still lives in Port Ordway, here on the island. Yes, April answers, she does now. She can’t help thinking Eulalia never saw fit to tell him anything about her.

Any children, he asks. No. Married? Not currently. After a pause, he asks if she would like to have dinner with him. There are a million reasons to say no, but she says, sure, why not?

 

That night, April arrives at the restaurant before Ben. Following the hostess to a corner table, she feels disloyal to the spirit of her mother, who always harbored particular scorn for the summer people who flounced into Yanni’s for fresh arugula. Still, this restaurant, the pet project a Fortune 500 developer, is the only place on the island to get decent food. Summer nights, reggae blasts on the patio. Women kick off their Manolo Blahniks and dance on the sandy floor.

Ben walks in: quick, as always; light-footed for a man of his size. April has to wonder, despite all her exhortations to the women she works with, how much of one’s past self it is truly possible to shed.

When the food comes, she finds it hard to do more than pick, whereas he is, as ever, boyishly ravenous. He describes his work, his efforts to devise a method to store wind power as potential energy. He passes her his phone, and she offers up the appropriate compliments about his family. His wife and daughters, posed before various European landmarks, vamping on a tropical beach, are lovely: dark-haired and dark-eyed, slender as dancers.

April tells him about her work: the tiny victories the women manage, the rabbits she pulls from hats, keeping the place going on a few hundred thousand dollars a year.

I can see you doing that, Ben says.

Yeah, right. She punches him gently in the arm.

 

Nothing has been offered or accepted, but they drive in Ben’s rental back to April’s house. They’ve exhausted all the safe and almost-safe conversational topics. Everything else is pocked with hazards. But when they turn onto Twenty-Second Street, she finds she’s keen to show off the new porch, the new kitchen, much of it from Ikea, but still. She tossed out her mother’s unredeemed bottles, the stacks of half-finished crosswords, gull bones, seashells crumbled to sand. She ripped up the cracked linoleum, painted the grease-stained walls light, optimistic colors.

See: nothing but sanity here.    

Leading Ben through the rehabbed rooms, she senses his particular physicality, so different from Tyler’s, who was—still is—compactly built. She senses her own body, strong and, with great effort, reasonably lean. When she was younger, her features were too severe for beauty, but at forty-five, she believes she has grown into her looks at last.

You could be a young Angelica Huston.

Eulalia’s voice carried traces of a Louisville drawl, but she will speak forever in April’s memory with an English accent. For April at sixteen, no other accent could contain such grandeur.

“It looks terrific. Did you do the work yourself?”

She tells Ben she did the painting and some of the tiling. “I guess I wanted to keep it.” Ben looks momentarily startled. She catches her unintended double meaning.  “The house. Keep the best of my mother.”

Ben nods and taps the molding above the living room doorway. She glimpses, again, his wide gold wedding band.

He tells her he should get back to his parents’ house, spend a few more hours packing up. She says she understands. They shake hands at the door.

 

Later she wonders: why the need to perform for him? Her life is a good one, filled with meaningful work and friends. She had her own junket to London and Paris: two pound- and euro-pinching weeks, but still. Her divorce is no longer pure heartbreak. She now sees that she and Tyler weren’t destined to last. Nor is she troubled by the flickers of attraction she felt earlier for Ben. Those she writes off as muscle memory. It’s her preening she hates, her need to prove she has amounted to something after all.

She pulls on jeans and a sweatshirt and walks to the beach. She does this on sleepless nights, when a vestigial craving for cigarettes comes back to plague her. Her mother, a career insomniac, used to nudge her awake at three in the morning.

It’s all we need. You and me, the sand and the water.

Together, they spent days looking for sea glass. They built houses from driftwood, seaweed, and mussel shells. Nights, they went out to see the moon. Prowling through the neighbors’ trash cans became, in her mother’s company, a treasure hunt, a grand adventure. Over time, April learned other mothers didn’t root through people’s trash; they showed up at school for their children’s concerts and plays. When her second-grade teacher arrived unannounced at the house one day, April saw the place as a stranger would: the porch piled high with yellowing newspapers, the smelly room-sized weaving she and her mother were making from a scavenged fishing net. April hid in the bathroom while mother talked to her teacher through the door. A year later, her mother quit her job at Yanni’s Island Market. A woman with my intellect has no business selling Scratch tickets. She lived on disability, packaged pastries and Jeopardy! until she died, without ceremony, in a nursing home.

 

***

 

At his parents’ house—and for him it will always be his parents’ house, no matter who lives there next—Ben surveys the boxes he has packed and piled up in the front room. There have to be forty of them, but there are countless more to go, along with the furniture still to be picked up by the antiques dealer. Everything else will go to Goodwill. The pieces his mother once selected with such deliberation are little more than detritus now.

The word is de-tri-tus, his mother once corrected April’s pronunciation of the word.

Can that be true?

Packing up, Ben has wished he had a sibling to help him, a whole raft of siblings the way Corinna does. Siblings would know what to keep or discard of their parents’ things. They would confirm his memories, temper his judgments.

These days, Ben isn’t much of a drinker, but he picks his way through a maze of half-packed boxes to the highboy and pours himself a splash of single-malt. The stop at Smitty’s on his way north from the airport has become a ritual. His father appreciated a good scotch, and later, it offered Ben some release from attending his mother’s dying.

He sips from the broad glass. His father once had a set of six, engraved with the Yale insignia. As a boy, Ben would trace the mysterious Hebrew letters with his finger.

Are you of the Jewish persuasion?

April’s mother never asked the typical parental questions about school and college plans; she asked only inappropriate questions, incomprehensible ones.

He settles into his father’s old wing chair—slated for Goodwill—and calls home. At the sound of his younger daughter’s voice, he feels restored to himself, re-anchored to his tenable roles as husband and father. Mia tells him about the swim race she had that day. She placed second in the hundred-meter freestyle, just two seconds behind the winner, but once she discloses this news, she hands off the phone before he can congratulate her. His older girl, Lina, is chattier. Most days, she’s at war with Corinna but she is, for the moment, enthralled with him. She fills him in on the latest dramas of sixth-grade girlhood, which seem to him as tangled and malevolent as those of the Florentine court. To his great relief, Lina is neither a victim nor an instigator of cruelty; dressed most days in cutoffs and rainbow-colored tights, her role is that of an amused observer. He promises her gifts from his parents’ house. He has already set aside some beaded necklaces and a snow globe for eight-year-old Mia. What will please Lina at this transitional age? What will please Corinna, who favors clean modern lines?

Corinna takes the phone. Against the backdrop of cabinets slamming, water running in the sink, she ticks off the surgeries she attended and what the next day’s labyrinth of a schedule holds. Early on, he discovered Corinna’s brisk persona is a mask she wears, to command respect in the OR, to compensate for being small and Filipina. He treasures his private knowledge of his wife’s softer layers. The calls he makes to her, late at night, thick with breath and desire, hint at the reunion they both anticipate once he gets home.

“I ran into an old friend from school. We ended up eating together,” he says, answering her question about what he did for dinner.

If she asked him whom he met, he wouldn’t put the effort into lying. Being with April evoked its share of memories, but everyone knows there’s a huge gulf between thoughts and actions.

Lina’s voice rises in the background, and Corinna snaps, We talked about this already, and I said no. “It’s crazy here,” she tells him. “We’ll talk again tomorrow.”

“Love you,” he tells her.

“Me, too,” she says, “But now I really have to go.”

 

It seems to Ben he has always known April Whittaker, one way or another. The first time their kindergarten teacher called out her name, he had to turn and see the girl whose name was also a month.

Bussed in with the other kids from the island, she was like no one else at school. She wore skirts made of gauze and sparkles or crazy clashing patterns: stripes with dots. Her tangled black hair concealed her pale, fierce face. At recess, she wandered at the edge of the schoolyard and murmured to herself, absorbed in vivid make-believe. Whenever Ben could, he watched her. It was not in his nature to ridicule; he was merely curious.

Rumor was April Whittaker was brilliant, but it was a surprise anyway, having her in his Honors classes in high school. Island girls, girls who wore hobbling pileups of silver rings, who smoked in the courtyard during lunch and sat doodling in the back of every classroom, almost always languished in standard-level classes. But by high school, Ben didn’t think about April much at all. He had his schoolwork, his running, his friends.     

The summer before their sophomore year, he had a job babysitting a girl on his street.  The girl, Cecile, had Down syndrome. Ben watched her mornings before she attended her special education program. Every day, he brought her to the island’s beach. He didn’t let her play in the fierce ocean waves, but Cecile accepted this as she accepted everything, with placid silence. Over the course of their long mornings, Ben developed a protective affection for her. It was dull but also restful to exist in her largely wordless, elemental world. He came to resent the tight, do-gooder smiles some adults granted her, other children’s point-blank stares.

Cecile was the one who noticed April, sitting on a kelp-streaked rock. She must have been drawn to April’s dark hair lifting in the breeze, the glint of silver in her ears. She grunted and pulled him forward by the hand.

April stubbed out her cigarette against the rock. She turned around and regarded Cecile directly.

“Hi,” she said, but not in the fake, sunny way other people addressed her.

“Hey.” She greeted Ben more vaguely, as if trying to determine which preppy jock he was, exactly.

 

He saw April at the beach most mornings. Despite the summer heat, she wore her school-year clothes: dark jeans, dark shirts, suede boots. She came over to their towel and dug with Cecile in the sand. Whenever Cecile pointed to the water, April went down to the foaming edge in her salt-stained boots and filled the pail. She gathered mussel shells, which Cecile pulverized in her hands.

Every morning at eleven, she dropped her cigarette butt into an empty soda can.

“Time to go sell brats more crap they don’t need.”

“Can we walk with you?” Ben asked her one day, startled by his own boldness.

April laughed so hard, she started snorting.

“Walk with me? Why? To protect my virtue or something?”

 

At school that fall, Ben returned to his running and his friends, April to her legendary brilliance and solitude. But she was vivid for him now, with her thick hair, her rounded cheeks and soft-looking lips, her body. It was April who sashayed through his dreams, not the usual lineup of perky blonds. He remembers that year as one of the longest in his life, dogged by chronic sexual arousal and lurching start-and-stop conversations with April that left him wanting to punch a wall. Exactly how, many months later, he managed to cross that treacherous border and take her hand, he still can’t say. Her hand trembled in his like a hummingbird. She kept hold nonetheless.

She continued eating alone in the lunchroom: her choice. She had to study; she had her afterschool job at the toy store and the shopping, cooking, and cleaning to do at home. She didn’t attend his track meets—and sue him for being a Neanderthal, but he wanted her there, cheering him on.  They were a couple only in his room, in the woods, on the beach, in the back of his mother’s station wagon. If Ben often felt he was a step behind her, if her humor had an edge he didn’t entirely like, he understood she was hiding something fragile and unguarded in her, something dreamy and childlike. Once, she read him a poem she’d written in one of her Sharpie-covered notebooks. The images skipped so feverishly from one to another, he found them hard to follow.

“It’s great,” he said told her when she was done.

“Oh, God, Ben, no. It sucks royally.”

One time he asked her, “Do you ever see your father?”

April laughed. “What father?”

 

***

 

Two days later, April’s phone rings at work. It’s Ben.

Whenever someone calls in from the outside world, a foundation director or a bank vice president, she sees anew the shabby, makeshift quality of her office, a slope-ceilinged attic room, which she shares with the case manager and a rotating band of part-timers. Across the room, Annie, the case manager, is meeting with Nicole, one of New Beginnings’ toughest cases.

“He’s a cocksucker! I told you I can’t work for that ass-wipe!” Nicole paces back and forth on the donated carpet.

“Is this a bad time?” Ben asks.

“No more than usual.”

“When I was packing up my mother’s things today, I found some stuff you might want. For the women, I mean. Jewelry and scarves and so forth.”

Nicole wails, “I am depressed! I’m dual diagnosis! I got a doctor’s note!”

“Do you want to stop by later and take a look?” Ben’s voice sounds faint, as if he’s calling from a distant country, one with white-gloved butlers and croquet. “I can make dinner.  This is the last night I can make this offer, because the furniture’s leaving tomorrow. Thirty-eight Harrington.”

“I know,” April says. “I remember.”

“Right, luvvy,” Annie croons to Nicole. “Let’s take it down a notch.” With her earthy Liverpool accent, she has talked many clients off the psychic ledge. It’s no secret why she handles the crises while April manages the balance sheets.

She tells Ben, “Sure.  Dinner sounds fine.”

 

Now she stands on the porch outside Thirty-eight Harrington Street with a loaf of fresh bakery bread. How many times has she stood in this very spot,weak-kneed with nerves and lust?  What harm can come of it? Annie said earlier. You’ll keep your knickers on. Still, April knows her wisest move is to get back in her car and drive away. Forget the donated baubles.

Ben comes to the door with a dishtowel slung over his shoulder, as if she has caught him burping a baby. He looks puzzled, and she wonders if she has come on the wrong day.

“The bell’s not working?”

“I probably didn’t ring hard enough.”

“Old house; stuff’s broken,” he says tactfully. He thanks her for the bread.

Inside, she sees the fleur-de-lis wallpaper, with its hypnotic repeating pattern. The carpets have been taken up from the floor, but the familiar smell, cinnamon and raw wood from his father’s basement workshop, still lingers. The Kennedy Compound, her mother called the place. Here, April learned that hush has a cosseting density, thick like good towels, and there’s a vast difference between antique furniture and that which is merely secondhand. Now, the rooms are a mess of boxes, packed and half-packed.  She knows what a job it is, packing for the dead.

She walks with Ben to the kitchen, with its six-burner cast-iron stove. Spiced wine used to mull there, for the Players’ closing night parties.

Would you like some tea? Eulalia asked April the first time Ben was home late from a meet and they were stuck in the house together.

I don’t like tea, April replied, blunt in her social unease.

There was an awful wordless moment. Then Eulalia laughed. I see you’re a woman who speaks her mind. 

“The chicken’s not ready yet. But there’s wine.” Ben gestures to a bottle of Chardonnay on the counter.

Wine is probably not the best idea in the world, but April says she’ll have a little. She keeps a tactful distance while Ben wrestles with the corkscrew. Finally, he curses softly, and she steps in to help. She waitressed her way through college; she can handle tricky corks. Once she pries it out, she hands the bottle back to him so he can pour. Without quite meeting each other’s eyes, they clink glasses.

“You probably want to see the things,” he says. “Why don’t you just go up? Second door on the left.”

April takes her glass—a juice glass from the dish drainer—and wanders into the dining room. Manila folders cover the table. She remembers the formality of eating there: matching linen napkins, no Jeopardy!, the silverware so solid in her hands.

This is April, Benjamin’s friend. She lives out on the island. But you just watch: she’s going to set the world on fire.

At the cast parties, Eulalia threw the pocket doors open so the actors and crew members could move easily from room to room. Everyone vied to tell the most outrageous stories: about a brilliant English director who showed up blindingly drunk, another who was caught screwing the lead actress minutes before her entrance. And did I say he’s queer as a three-dollar bill? Eulalia sailed from one group to the next, her red curls seemingly aflame.

Oh, go ahead, she said when one of the caterers mistook April’s age and offered her champagne.

Under Eulalia’s direction, April saw Anouilh’s Antigone. She saw Waiting for Godot, Orpheus and Eurydice and The Seagull. The actors performed in an outdoor amphitheater; the audience watched on backless wooden benches.

Would your mother like to come see a performance? I can easily give her a complimentary ticket.

The two mothers met once. Eulalia was fluttering, gracious, pretending mightily that April’s mother wasn’t morbidly obese. Small-town talent, April’s mother declared afterwards.

Even at sixteen, April understood that Eulalia overreached, strained the capabilities of her actors. Nonetheless, the world became radiant in Eulalia’s plays. Love and grief, rage and regret assumed mythic proportions. April wept when Orpheus lost Eurydice forever, when Konstantin shot himself at the end of The Seagull.

Sometimes she believed she’d been born to the wrong mother.

The front room is empty except for the boxes stacked against the wall. Looking up, she notices a stained glass window high up in the wall. Fitted with squares of red and yellow glass, it is not a spectacular one. How could she have seen it before, with Eulalia sitting across from her, bright as a planet?

My sisters were the perfect ingénues, soft-spoken and charming. That was a role I never could play. I’ve always lacked the inclination to be demure.

            The name is pronounced Na-bok-ov. Most Americans get it wrong.

I believe the role of theater is to challenge and transform the audience.

Every love story is also a ghost story.

April must have noted the window finally because of her ex. Tyler was a stained glass artist. Still is. Still has his studio near Boston.

 

She needs no reminder which was Ben’s room, with the Hendrix poster, his trophies, his spunky teenage sheets, nor has she forgotten which one was Eulalia’s—Eulalia’s and Dr. Parnell’s. More than once, Eulalia led her there, to a closet practically larger than April’s entire bedroom, to drape a scarf across her shoulders: something to lend your outfit some panache.  With a few twists of the silk, Eulalia deemed her fit to join the glittering world downstairs.

On the dressing table she sees the scarves and berets Eulalia used to hide the effects of her chemotherapy. Her jewelry box is there, too: a hinged contraption of stacked trays. April remembers: she pulls on the knob and the trays come apart like sections of a tangerine.

There are the necklaces of amethyst, jade, bloodstone, tiger’s eye, the ring with the amber stone. Removed as they are from Eulalia’s person, they are like treasures from a tomb.

Once, in the blush of universal permission April always felt after sex, she sat at this dressing table, trying one pair of earrings, then another, up against her ears. What are you doing here? The earring she had been holding slipped from her fingers, but Ben had merely sounded amused.

Just finding a gem to wear to dinner, she answered in a ringing Queen Elizabeth voice. Seeing him with his jeans loose and his curls wild, she recalled a line in a pop song:  You’re so beautiful, I could die.

“Find anything?” When she turns toward him now, he is middle-aged just as she is, graying, slightly harried.

She thinks of the New Beginnings women, hunkered in their sexless hoodies. Diamonds are what they want, that manufactured symbol of love.

“Sorry. The women I work with like more bling.”

“My mother definitely had her own sense of style,” Ben says with a levity April is quite sure he doesn’t feel. “Dinner’s ready, such as it is.”

 

He has made such an effort, given what little he had to work with. He has cleared the folders from the table, set out paper plates and plastic forks and knives. He has carved a roast chicken, made salad, sliced April’s bread, set out the Chardonnay. She’s hungry; she loads her plate.  She doesn’t protest when he tops off her glass with wine.

“Cheers.” He lifts his glass in her direction.

A few more inches here or there, and their hands would be touching. A few more drinks, and they might end up on the floor, shedding clothes. Will her body still remember his?  Will his body still remember hers? This is not a road she should be going down, but here she is; she can’t help it.

“Tell me about the woman who’s taken over the theater,” he says, looking up from his plate.

“She’s young. Severe. Her first production was The Beauty Queen of Leeanane.

“I don’t know it.”

“It’s a claustrophobic mother-daughter thing. The ending’s pretty brutal. Obviously, she’s keeping up your mother’s tradition of tweaking Port Ordway’s bourgeois sensibilities.”

Ben frowns. He studies her for a beat longer than is necessary, comfortable.

“Listen, I’ve been wondering…and if it’s too personal, tell me…what happened with your marriage?”

April closes her eyes. What she finds most humiliating is its clichéd aspect. “He couldn’t keep it zipped. I mean, one time. Actually, it happened more than once but with just one person. Which ultimately makes it worse.”

“Did you two go to counseling or anything?”

“We had a few obligatory sessions. But there isn’t really much to work out after something like that.”

“I suppose not.”

“Yeah, well….” The wine she gulps stings her nasal passages. “Now I have a question for you. What happened with med school?”

“I kind of flamed out in college. But it’s fine. I like what I do.” He pours more wine into his glass and holds the bottle in her direction. She should have stopped one glass earlier but she nods. He refreshes her glass, too.

“Listen,” he says. “There’s something else I’ve been wanting to ask you.”

April’s heart begins to pound. She’s had too much wine and not enough of the food piled on her plate. He’s asking her to reveal too much, strip away one layer after another. She cannot dredge up one more deflecting joke.

“I’m wondering, and if it’s too personal, that’s fine…I’ve been wondering why you never had kids. I mean, I hope there weren’t any complications after, which made you…physically unable….”

She blows out a long breath. “No, there’s no medical reason. Tyler and I…I guess it wasn’t that much of a priority for us. Looking back, it was probably all for the best.”

“I’m glad. I mean that there weren’t any complications.”

After Godot closed, Eulalia was uncharacteristically somber.

Something was off with the production. It never quite hit the mark, did it?

At each performance, April had the impulse to laugh at Vladimir and Estragon, those two sad sacks. Yes, they were tragic, she told Eulalia, but weren’t they funny, too?

Some directors play it as comedy, go for the easy laughs. But Beckett wrote Godot after the war. Europe was in ashes. I don’t think playing it as slapstick really fits the bill.

“Now, I have a story for you,” April says. “Something I never told you.”

Ben sits up, but his face merely reveals curiosity, betrays no dread.

“One night, your mother gave me a ride home. You had a test or something the next day at school, so she drove me.”

Driving, Eulalia was uncharacteristically quiet as they passed the river and crossed the bridge onto the island. When they reached April’s sagging little house, Eulalia cut the engine. April, she said, just her name, and April froze, braced for whatever was coming next.

“When we got to my house, she asked me if I was on the pill. I mumbled something about not having to worry, but she offered to take me to Planned Parenthood anyway.”

“Tell me she didn’t.”

“She did.”April laughs mirthlessly, her face hot from the wine. “She talked to me about hormones and how powerful they are. How it’s good to be prepared before temptation strikes.”

Ben shakes his head. “Not that I wouldn’t say the same type of thing. But Jesus. My mother.”

“My mother, your mother. They were both a piece of work. Shall we clear?”

They carry everything to the kitchen. The windows are open. April is grateful for the breeze. She and Ben work silently, wrapping food, tossing paper goods in the trash. With Tyler, she enjoyed cleaning up. They’d blast merengue and dance while he washed and she dried. Shopping, cooking, doing dishes: married at twenty-four, she’d relished these tasks, because they seemed so grownup, so normal. Playing house. For a long time, she had believed this would sustain him, too.

Ben says, “My eleven-year-old would call me on the carpet for throwing out all this paper. She’s very strong-willed. She gets it from both sides, from my wife and my mother.”

His wife: one more ghost in the room.

“Strong-willed is good. It’s healthy.” April reaches for her purse. “Early day tomorrow.”

“You’re good to drive?”

“Right as rain.”

He walks her to the door.  Most likely, she’ll never see him again. Once the house sells, he’ll have little reason to come back. Or if he does, he won’t call her. He has accomplished what he set out to do: to know she’s more or less okay and he can live the rest of his life scot-free.

If there’s a candle to blow out, she wants to be the one to do it. At the door, she rises up and kisses him squarely on his mouth.

 

***

 

Whenever Ben’s older daughter bumps her head against a cabinet, she hits it again in the same place, claiming the second bump takes the pain away. Why is that, Lina asked once, and Corinna speculated about endorphins and neural pathways until she finally admitted she had no idea. Ben wonders if he has been enacting something similar with April, returning to the locus of the pain to exorcise it.

Back home in California, it’s still late afternoon. Corinna’s finishing up at the hospital; the girls are at their various activities: swimming, art class. He opens his laptop and tries to chip away at a presentation his team is due to give next week. Yet another venture capitalist has come knocking, some thirty-five-year-old software tycoon looking for a socially responsible project with which to occupy himself.

An hour later, he has gotten nowhere with his presentation. He still feels April’s kiss on his lips. Did he honestly believe street women would want his mother’s hand-me-downs?

He thinks of the Sucrets tin upstairs in a nightstand. The tin was once packed with joints, procured and rolled by Jeff Radtke, his mother’s one-time lighting designer, to relieve her pain and nausea. A few times during her last year, she and Ben sat out on the back porch and smoked together. He always lit the joint for her, like a suitor.

This may surprise you, Benjamin, but I am on familiar terms with marijuana.

When he last checked, there were three joints left in the tin. But he knows too well the sequence of events that will ensue if he smokes it: a pleasant detachment, then a gnawing, generalized horniness, which will lead to an hour lost trawling for porn on the Web. He’s in no shape for it now, not after a big dinner and the wine, but he shuts his laptop and changes into his running clothes. He gets into the rental car and heads out toward the island, where there will be miles of relatively empty beach.

He takes the road that skirts the river, one of the places where he and April used to park.  Every damn place in town holds a memory of her: her smoky breath, the weight of her breasts in his hands. The pain isn’t much relieved by his experiencing it again.

Over the bridge, Ben passes the salt marsh, the flats, where his father used to take him to dig for clams. His father taught him to burrow through the sand with his bare toes, and when he found one, to pry the shell open and swallow the briny thing whole. Now, like everywhere, the island is in peril. Algae’s blooming in the marsh. The beach loses several feet to erosion every year. Ben no longer dares eat anything raw.

He passes Yanni’s Market and the overpriced restaurant where he and April ate several nights ago. He turns north. At Twenty-Second Street he slows. Here arguments were loud and public, fueled often by booze. One woman kept spider monkeys in a trailer parked in her yard; another let her half-feral dogs roam the neighborhood. April’s mother had a beef with everybody, shouting at them from the street in her ripped-up jacket.

Ben drives on, past the luncheonette where he used to park his bike and trailer and guide Cecile to the beach. During his mother’s last year, he brought her here too, leading her down the same path so she could have an hour at the ocean.

Can I bury you, Nana? Just last summer, his younger daughter pranced on the sand with her pail and shovel. His mother smiled ruefully and offered up her swollen feet.

It was easier to love her after she got sick.

Ben drives to the island’s northernmost point. He gets out of the car and walks to the far edge of the parking lot. In the distance, a party boat sails by, its masts twined with lights.

It was here, November of their senior year, that April produced a plastic wand, wrapped in a paper towel, from her knapsack.

“Look,” she told him.

He had never seen a home pregnancy test kit up close before, but she didn’t have to say anything more.

“I’ll marry you,” he blurted out.

“That’s okay,” she said quickly, letting him off the hook.

 

April knew right away what they should do; she said there was no other decision to make.  People always tell you to have the baby and then give it up for adoption, like it’s no big deal being pregnant for nine months, giving birth, and then handing it over. He wasn’t the only one with plans, she finally yelled at him. She had a life, even if it didn’t look like it to anyone else.

There were phone numbers to look up—it amazed him to see the numbers right there in the Yellow Pages. There were places to call. They learned she would have to cross state lines to avoid needing her mother’s consent. They learned it would cost three hundred dollars. With that news, she broke down, clutching him. He sat next to her on his bed when she made the appointment: Tuesday after Thanksgiving.

Trying to live normally—sit in class, do his homework, eat Thanksgiving dinner—was a joke. At night, he lay sleepless, rearranging the variables, sending the hypothetical marble down different chutes. If he had done Y instead of X, would they have gotten an alternate result?

 

Tuesday after Thanksgiving, Ben told his mother some story and got use of her car for the afternoon.  He and April left school together and drove up the Interstate, past the turnoff for the beaches north of the island, past the shuttered boardwalk games, where’d he won a stuffed Dalmatian for her the previous summer. At the state line tollbooth, he half-expected police to swarm, but he just paid the toll and drove through. Bare trees, a package store, brown fields. April read off the directions, which she had scribbled inside her notebook. Along a bypass road, past the Agway and a McDonald’s gleaming from the top of a hill. The clinic was in a converted farmhouse, the kind of place where, up in ski country, a lady might be selling pies. At the edge of the gravel parking lot, he noticed several protesters, older men and women, standing quietly. At least no one screamed at them. At least no one shoved gruesome pictures in April’s face.

Inside at the receptionist’s desk, there was a bowl of condoms set out like peppermints at a restaurant. Ben glanced at April, hoping the share the absurdity of it—hot sex at the abortion clinic!—but she just gave the receptionist her name. Her hands shook when she pulled the bank envelope out of her backpack. She counted out three hundred dollars: money he had earned mowing lawns over the summer.

They were sent down the hall to a waiting room, where April filled out a stack of forms.  While she checked things off and signed her name on dotted lines, he looked circumspectly around the room. Of the five other women sitting there, only one girl looked young like them. Her skin was very pale, the rims of her eyes pink like a rabbit’s.

After some time passed—impossible to say how much; everything about the place, the shades over the windows, the formless music playing on the sound system, seemed to have been put in place with the goal of effacing time—a woman appeared in the waiting room. She was like dancer in an MTV video, Ben thought, with her skinny, unisex body; her studded earlobes, her hair buzzed short, except for one dark sheet of it, which fell across her face and skimmed her left shoulder. He didn’t know what he had expected, but it wasn’t anyone who looked like her.

“April?”

When they both stood up, the buzz-cut woman said, “Just April. I’m Sage, one of the counselors here,” she added, holding out her hand.

He expected April to throw him a look that said, Sage? You’re kidding, right? But she just said hi and followed the counselor out of the room.

On any other afternoon, April would be working at the toy store, and Ben would be heading to Scott Fisher’s house. Once, just once, Ben had run out of condoms, but April nodded: go ahead; it’ll be fine. When they lay together afterwards, rain pattering against his windows, they forgot to worry about it or anything else. So here he was now instead of in Fisher’s basement, suspended in the pseudo-stoned bliss of air hockey. The young girl had her mother beside her. Couldn’t April’s mother drag her three-hundred-pound self out of the house, do this one thing for her daughter?

Of course he was glad they were here instead of some sketchy back-alley place, but if he didn’t leave the room, with its mauve walls and endless track of Windham Hill music, he was going to start punching walls. He was going to rip the CD out of the player and break it in two.

He fled the waiting room. He fled the clinic. He stormed past the protesters with their earnest, handmade signs. He hated their quiet self-righteousness. He hated them for denying him his chance to fight.

He began to run, down the gravel driveway and along the road. The cold air seared his lungs, but he kept running, past a church and a tiny graveyard. The cross country season had ended, and his conditioning was already starting to slip. His jeans chafed his thighs; his ski jacket bounced heavily on his body, but his feet kept pounding, past small Capes, woodpiles covered with tarps, a scarecrow left out from Halloween. He knew, in general terms, what was happening to April now. When she’d made the appointment, the woman on the phone had explained the steps to her, and she, in turn, had laid them out for him. When she asked if it was going to hurt, the woman said, probably some. If he went back, could he rescue her? Marry her?

Ben’s strength as a runner was speed rather than distance, but he labored up a hill, kept running. The burn in his legs subsided to a faint hum. The sun was low in the sky. He wanted to follow the light west, cheat the gathering dark. He wanted the future to be now, now, now.

Spent finally, he turned back. Only the worst kind of asshole would abandon his girlfriend at a time like this. And at least he wasn’t that.

 

When he saw April again, she could hardly walk. He didn’t know if he should touch her, if his touch would make things worse, but he took her arm and guided her past the front desk with its bowl of condoms. “Take care, now,” the receptionist called to them. April raised her hand to wave. Ben said nothing. He led her across the empty lot into his mother’s car.

“At least the protesters are gone,” he said.

“I would kill for a cigarette,” she answered.

She pulled a bag of peanut butter cups from her backpack. Her main pregnancy symptom had been a fierce craving for sweets, and she peeled the foil off one candy after another and gobbled them down. She shoved the wrappers in the armrest beside her. There were many other scraps of foil jammed in there from the ride up.

April chewed extravagantly, a blazing fuck-you to whatever he might think about her stuffing her face. She slid one tape after another into the car’s player.  A few seconds into every tape, she punched the eject button and tossed the cassette between them on the seat.

“Careful,” he said. He felt like a first-class dick.

She reached for another Reese’s cup and dropped the wrapper on the floor.

“Are you just going to leave those there?”

April said nothing. They passed the package store, the dead fields. At the tollbooth, Ben paid and drove through. As they approached the sign welcoming them back to Massachusetts, she finally spoke. “Not that you asked, but it hurt like a motherfucker.”

He reached for her hand, found empty space. “You know I would have gone in your place if I could.”

“Yeah, well…”

He had never before heard so much animosity packed into two small words.

 

The party boat blasts its horn. It might be a cruise for high school seniors. Their class had a similar excursion. He didn’t go.

“What if there’s only one girl who’s meant for you and you lose her? What do you do then?” he mused a year later, in his dorm room at Syracuse. He was doing shots with his roommate and some guys from down the hall.  His plans for medical school were drifting down a river of beer and poker, Pac-Man and weed.

“Sheesh, man,” his roommate said. “That’s deep for a Friday night.”

From time to time throughout their senior year, April came up to him at his locker.

What did she want? Just to hand over fives and tens and the occasional twenty and walk away when he tried to refuse them.

“There,” she said, once she’d paid what she thought she owed him. “We’re done.”

 

***

 

After Ben closes the door behind her, April stands out on the Becker-Parnell porch, desperately needing a cup of coffee. Under the circumstances, it would be plenty awkward to ring the bell and ask for some. Better to walk ten blocks to the convenience store for a cup of sludge— penance for her indiscretion: the story and the kiss.

There is one part of the story she didn’t tell him. The night his mother drove her home, Eulalia didn’t end her speech by musing on the unpredictable nature of teenage hormones. She said this:  I’m asking you to be careful with my son. He’s idealistic. Emotionally young. He’s not worldly like you are.

The light in the sky is starting to fade, but at this time of year, the sun will set slowly, streaking the sky with bands of orange, gold, and violet before it disappears. It is good to walk.

April continues along several blocks, passes the turnoff for the high school. She walks a few blocks more and comes to the town cemetery. When she was young, her mother instructed her to hold her breath whenever she passed it so the spirits wouldn’t enter her body. Later, her mother told her not to enter the graveyard late at night, always stay on the lit side of the street.

By her senior year of high school, April always walked on the dark side, the graveyard side, daring whatever psycho killer might be lurking behind the wall. Once, she had sex there with a boy who spent his afternoons skateboarding in the brick plaza behind the toy store. His inability to string three coherent words together never gave her a moment’s pause. Go have a great life, her counselor at the abortion clinic had advised her when it was done, but while Ben continued to win his trophies, April did the opposite. She drank; her grades dropped; she had sex with boys she despised.

She walks through the cemetery’s gate. Later, some of the New Beginnings women will slip inside; this is one of the places in Port Ordway where they trade sex for drugs or cash. She and Annie come here on night outreaches, to offer them the possibility of change.

Eulalia must be buried here; a granite slab must mark her place. April’s own mother wanted to be cremated, her ashes scattered at the beach. April knows she should feel her everywhere, but her absence is just a hole inside her, an aftertaste of guilt.

One night during her senior year, April dropped a tray of microwaved lasagna, and she began to bawl. She hadn’t realized tears were coming—even in the Aftercare room at the clinic, where everyone else cried, she did not—but months later, with that crummy lasagna on the floor and her life a total wasteland, she let go.

One week after the procedure, when she was still bleeding, Eulalia had ushered her through a party like a show dog.

This is Benjamin’s friend. She lives on the island. Watch out for her. She’s a live one.

April forced herself to smile. The guests smiled back indulgently. Inside her, something snapped and fell away.

At the door, she said to Eulalia, We don’t have to do this anymore.

Do what, April? What on earth are you talking about?

I don’t have to pretend to like you anymore and you don’t have to pretend to like me.

April waited for Eulalia to touch her wrist and tell her not to be silly; she liked her very much. But she merely replied with frayed dignity, much like Irina Arkadina at the end of The Seagull: All right. If you don’t like me, by all means stop pretending that you do.

The night April dropped their dinner, her mother pulled herself up from the table and looked at the mess on the floor. She lumbered over to April and held her.

He’s not worth it, she said, misunderstanding the source of April’s grief. But the pressure of her mother’s hands on her back steadied her. A junior in college and pregnant from a one-night stand, she had let April grow.

Now, in the graveyard, April reaches inside her pocket. Her fingers meet smooth amber.  In the distance, she hears nerved-up teenage laughter. She closes her hand around Eulalia’s ring.

In truth, she does feel her mother’s presence sometimes, when the wind picks up before a storm.