After her daughter rejects her offer of a lift to school for the third time in three days, Jane calls out with strained enthusiasm, “Have an excellent day!” The door slams and Jane sags. To cheer herself up, she’ll walk to the library. God knows she can use the exercise. She’s put on ten pounds since summer, mainly in the caboose. But she’ll wait five minutes so Tessa can’t accuse her of stalking again.
She finds Thomas’ goose down parka on a hook in the mudroom, his fleece-lined boots in the back hall where she left them. When her husband’s away, she likes to wear his clothes. A geologist for a mining chemical company, he travels a third of the year, mostly to Asia. They’ve been married ten years, but given all his absences, she still thinks of herself as a newlywed. Time zones and Thomas’ field schedule limit them to three phone calls or Skypes per week. He never complains, but she’s worried they’re losing the habit of intimacy. In the fall, she’ll go with him to Bali—where they can reignite the old pilot light—but for now she’s grounded in New Jersey while Tessa finishes her senior year.
Her tree-lined street of stately older homes connects to all the local schools, and twice a day it’s a drag strip. As she walks to the library, minivans spray her shins with slush and force her into the snow heaped on the sidewalks. She turns the corner onto Orchard Road, dodging cars returning passenger-less from the high school. When her seventeen-year-old walks to school, she says it’s for the exercise, but Jane knows it’s for the smoking. Three days ago, she found lipstick-tinted butts in the holly bush under Tessa’s bedroom window. This was a week after the latest piercing, the stupid silver stud above her lip that jumps up and down when Tessa talks like the animated ball over song lyrics. The piercing appeared a few months after Tessa stayed out all night. Another Friday in November that she elected to hang out with friends rather than work on her college applications. When Jane intercepted her, Tessa had a pair of ice skates dangling from one shoulder. “I’ll do it tomorrow,” Tessa said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get rid of me soon enough.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” she said. “I won’t watch you screw up your future.”
“You mean your future,” Tessa said. “I hear you talking to Thomas.”
Jane hadn’t been careless; she’d wanted Tessa to hear. She was fed up. She was a coward. “Why am I the only one worrying?”
“Who asked you to worry? Go to Bali!” Tessa waved her arms and the skate blades gnashed like teeth. “I can take care of myself. I don’t need you.”
When Jane mentioned Tessa’s smoking to Thomas during their last phone call, he said, “Sorry to hear that. I’m sure you’ll handle it,” sounding as unconcerned as the guy who snagged the last seat on the last plane leaving a toppled democracy. Blindsided by his stepdaughter’s cyclonic moods, he admits that Tessa’s the reason he’s added a fifth trip to his overloaded schedule. He claims it’s to help with college tuition.
Cigarettes are the least of Jane’s worries, but with Thomas in Australia, it’s easier to focus on smoking.
At the intersection near the high school, Galina, the tall, heavyset crossing guard, swaddled in Day-Glo regalia, stops traffic for a straggler. Jane hustles to cross behind the boy, and then lingers to chat with Galina. Some days, when Thomas is away, the librarian and the crossing guard are the only people she talks to. “You see Tessa?” she says, breathless after the short walk.
“Not today.” Galina squints at her. “You are worried. Don’t worry. They all cut through woods. You know: always late.” Her heavy Eastern European accent scoffs at Jane’s concern. “Tessa is good girl.”
“Thank you, I know.” Now she’s worried about the woods.
Galina glances up. “Storm is coming.”
Ordinarily, small talk soothes Jane, but today it sounds portentous. She’d like to ask about Tessa’s new friends, especially the boy who arrives after dark in the black BMW SUV, but her anxiety embarrasses her. “Doesn’t it ever get to you?” she says. “This cold?”
“Is nothing.” Galina lowers her scarf and spits. “In my country we swim in sea on days like this. I got bigger problem than cold. I am between two fires. In two hours, I have interview in Newark for green card.” She holds up her cell phone. “Substitute just backed out. If I miss one more day, I lose job.”
“You’re not a citizen?” That explains why a capable woman in her mid-thirties would do a job most people consider a joke.
“I have temporary work permit, but can get marriage-based adjustment. Today, they must to interview husband and me. Joe is U.S. citizen. He comes any minute. I am wracking brain for solution.” Galina narrows her eyes, looks Jane up and down.
Jane shrinks back, defenseless against personalities stronger than her own. The library is a quarter-mile down the road, but it might as well be in another solar system. She’s eager to resume her research for a former New Jersey senator’s memoir. Brain Novocain is how she thinks of her ghostwriting job.
“To tell truth,” Galina says, “I need favor.”
Jane realizes she’s nodding.
“You are good friend.” Galina claps her on the back. “I need substitute at noon. I hide clothes in bush–”
“What? I can’t do that.” She expected a phone call to a supervisor or help with an application.
“Trust me. Is okay.” Galina winks: they’re co-conspirators now. “We are same height and weight. If you push orange hair inside hat, and cover face with scarf like this, no one will know difference.” She looks challengingly at Jane. “If I don’t get green card, they send me back to Abakan. Is stink hole. I cannot leave Joe and Boris.”
She nods sympathetically but feels like she’s viewing Galina’s shaken world through the fragile glass of a snow globe. What does this have to do with me, is what’s she’s thinking. I have my own problems.
“You are good friend.” Galina crushes her in a hug. “So many people, on tongue is honey, on heart only ice.”
Behind the stacks in the airless library, Jane stares unseeing at the ancient microfilm reader, remembering other times she got mixed up in someone else’s business. The time she wrote that paper on Twelfth Night for Nick Perrillo, her school’s quarterback, in exchange for a movie date, her first. At sixteen, she was taller than most of the boys in her private high school and what her mother called pleasantly plump. Her parents called her Big Jane even though there was no other Jane to distinguish her from. In the end, her ghostwriting debut earned her an F for her own paper, a week’s detention, and no date.
After several romance-free years at Sarah Lawrence, she made a play for Donny Whitmore, a clever, effervescent boy in her senior film seminar who called everyone dude. She invited him to her room and made sure one thing led to another. People often mistook them for siblings. They were both fair with similar husky builds, and they finished each other’s sentences. He laughed the first time he heard her family’s name for her. “There’s nothing big about you, Dude,” he said. It was Christmas break, and they were squeezed into her old twin bed, which made his compliment all the more delightful.
Four years and one child later, Donny tiptoed out of the closet. “I love you, but like a little sister or a cool cousin,” he told her, crying. “I wish that was enough.”
When Jane broke the news to her parents, they seemed puzzled. “We thought you knew, dear,” her usually clueless mother said. “We figured you had an arrangement.”
Maybe she did know. So what if sex was tepid and sporadic, she was married to her best friend. She’d still be married to him if he were willing. But Donny had other ideas—in particular, a corporate lawyer named Greg—and he’d moved to San Francisco’s Nob Hill and opened a revival theater on Geary Street.
“You’re only twenty-seven,” her friends said. “Clean slate!” But that would mean erasing her three-year-old daughter. No, there would be nothing clean about the rest of her life. It would be forever marked with the indelible fact of motherhood, a relationship that was so thoroughly consuming, so gorgeously satisfying, she feared she might drown in it.
Four semi-celibate years later, she met Thomas on Match.com. He had the compact dark good looks and unyielding composure of a Spanish torero. Five years her senior, he was married briefly in his twenties to a dancer, a lunatic he called her, but they had no children. For most of the clingy women he dated after his divorce, he said, his travel schedule was an obstacle. Not for me, she remembers thinking. I have Tessa.
The trick of reading newspapers on microfilm is not to get sidetracked by the more compelling developments of 1981—the first appearance of AIDS among homosexual men, for example, or the fairy-tale wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana—events that seem more connected to her than John T. Dayton’s Senate race. A small item at the bottom of the Times quotes passages from his Rutgers University stump speech. His Korean War stories, the leadership lessons learned at the Battle of Bloody Ridge, must have seemed crusty at a time when even Jane Fonda had abandoned her political activism to make a workout video. It would never have occurred to Dayton to produce a boot camp exercise video for soft suburban dads, for example, even though he might have made a killing, the kind of killing Fonda could get behind.
Women are the true shape shifters. Maybe Jane will take a page out of her namesake’s playbook after Tessa goes to college. Bali strikes her as a good place to foment her own corporal revolution. She’ll pack running shoes and set off each morning before sunrise. She feels buoyant at the prospect, Walt Whitman buoyant. A line from “Song of the Open Road” comes to her: Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, / Strong and content I travel the open road.
She checks her watch. Her palms sweat as though she’s about to make a speech. The challenge will be not speaking, unless she can pull off a convincing Russian accent. She packs her things and leaves her laptop and coat with Betty, the elderly librarian.
Jane takes up Galina’s post under the massive chestnut tree on the high-school side of busy Piermont Road. She’s decked out in the acid yellow gear she found stashed in the nearby arborvitae. The jacket fits tight in the armholes. The acrylic hat is pulled to her eyebrows, and the scarf, infused with the funereal scent of lilies, covers her mouth and nose. She finds gloves in the pockets. Her shoulders hunch, her head juts forward buzzard-like. In this costume, she feels suddenly hopeless. She buoys herself with the prospect of spying on Tessa in her natural habitat. According to Galina, few kids leave the warm cocoon of the school for the walk into town—coddled eggs, she called them—but that surely excludes the smokers.
Perhaps she’ll see the boy who pulls into the driveway night after night. From Jane’s second-story bedroom window, she can just make out the kid’s face behind the windshield: the consumptive cheekbones made sharper by shadows cast by the streetlight and by his grim reaper’s hoodie. When she asks about him, Tessa snaps, “Why? You wouldn’t know him. He’s no one.”
Mr. Zero is how Donny, Tessa’s father, refers to him now when Jane phones San Francisco with updates.
It’s a few minutes after the 12:05 bell, when three strapping white boys stumble from the high school. After all these years, her insides go cold at the sight of those varsity letter jackets. The boys wage a brief but brutal snowball fight before arriving at her intersection. Show time. She signals them to wait, and then steps into the street with her stop sign extended. The slowing silver Subaru fishtails before coming to a stop. She motions for the boys to cross and is pathetically offended when they stroll past without a word of thanks or greeting.
The demographics in Rockridge have shifted since Thomas grew up here in the old Victorian house where they now live. Actors, musicians, authors, and media moguls—attracted by the easy commute to Manhattan—have replaced the mid-level professionals like Thomas’ mechanical engineer father. A laxness abounds. On the one hand, Jane envies the other parents’ trust of their teens, their ability to let go, but on the other hand, she suspects it’s a lazy cop out.
Last June, when Tessa came home in hysterics from one of the summer’s many unsupervised house parties, she climbed into bed with Jane and Thomas at one a.m., smelling of beer and bonfire. When Thomas grumbled, Jane walked Tessa to her own bed and slipped under the covers with her. In between hiccupping sobs, Tessa got out that a boy put Sushi in the washing machine on the spin cycle. Harmless stoner fun, Jane thought, until Tessa explained that Sushi was the host’s Shih Tzu. “I’ll never get that horrible picture out of my head, Mama,” she said. “I keep putting myself in his place, trying to swim, crying for help, and nobody hears me.” In the morning, Tessa would regret her drunken confession and punish her mother with scornful looks and terse answers, but for now she allowed her to stroke her hair and insult her idiot friends.
She never told Thomas. No use in harping on the booze or even a dead dog when she had a live daughter tucked safely in bed. As the parent who spends more time in the trenches, Jane picks their battles now. Thomas would say: “It’s Tessa’s job to push the boundaries, and you conveniently move them for her.” Senator Dayton would approve of Thomas’ interminable groundings and bans on the family car. People want a strong leader, the Senator claims, someone who leads by example. If only Jane had enough confidence—or was it arrogance?—to presume that hers is the best and only way.
The temperature drops, and the slush freezes on the road. Traffic, thank god, is sparse and slow. A harsh scraping sound scatters birds from the trees. The toothless DPW worker, perched high up in his snowplow, toots his horn and waves. Seconds later someone calls, “Yoo hoo! Galina!” Jane ducks behind the thick and deeply furrowed trunk of the chestnut tree. It’s Mayor Maggie and her Jack Russell terrier thirty yards in the distance. As Jane watches the mayor pick up her dog’s shit with a blue plastic bag, she thinks of Donny. For years they’ve played “Guess What I’m Doing Now,” trying to one up each other with outrageous situations. She can never compete with his celebrity run-ins, last month’s cocktail with Ali MacGraw at the Hi-Lo Club, for example. Her offerings are Kafkaesque. Last year she sent a furtive text from airport security, while TSA agents examined her baggie of loose tea leaves.
Now Jane phones him. “Guess what I’m doing!”
“Wait. Don’t tell me. Artificially inseminating a cow?”
“What?” she says annoyed. “Why would you guess that?
“We saw it on Discovery Channel last night. Check this out, Janie: you have to put one hand, arm actually, up the cow’s rectum–”
Jane peeks around the chestnut tree at the mayor who is knotting her bag o’ shit. Two girls have appeared on the corner, waiting to cross. Jane hangs up without a good-bye. She steps into the road with her stop sign, irritated at Donny’s disinterest.
Lately, it’s Tessa’s drama she reports on, not her own. When she told him about the smoking, he emailed Tessa a photo of his partner’s emphysemic father, lounging bare-chested on China Beach, arm slung over a silver oxygen tank. The caption read: Wish You Had Air.
Donny sees Tessa twice, maybe three times a year. She flies out for the Bay to Breakers Footrace in May, and he comes east for the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. In between, they talk on the phone and send funny stuff through the ether. Around the time that Thomas had entered their lives, so did talking dogs and babies, song parodies, and movie spoofs. Recently, Tessa complained that her father turned everything into a joke. He’s exuberant, Jane told her. He’s exhausting, Tessa shot back.
When Jane returns to the curb, the mayor is gone. A few minutes later, the varsity jackets return, eating pizza with red raw hands. Their talk is peppered with fucks as though she’s not an adult to be respected or feared.
A crossing guard, a librarian, and a ghostwriter walk into a bar. Nobody notices.
The wind picks up. She paces to get warm, but stops when she smells the mulchy scent of cigarettes. When she looks behind her it’s Tessa waiting. Rattled, Jane turns away and steps into traffic a second too late. The garbage truck skids with a terrifying screech of brakes before stopping a few feet short of her stop sign.
Tessa drops her cigarette and grinds it out with the toe of her red cowboy boot. Her daughter’s new face is even more startling away from home: the kohl-rimmed eyes, black lipstick, and silver studs in her eyebrow, nostril, and lip. She’s inherited Jane’s pale red hair, her height and sturdy frame, but it’s counterbalanced with Donny’s physical self-assurance.
“Thanks, Galina,” Tessa says as she passes. Her smile is lovely. “Take care. It’s like a war zone the way some of these maniacs drive.”
Jane’s mouth hangs open behind the scarf as her daughter walks away. It’s the first nice thing Tessa has said to her in weeks.
The night in November when Tessa didn’t come home, Jane knew where to find her. At two a.m., she walked the half-mile to the Nature Center, her flashlight’s beam bouncing ahead of her like a happy yellow dog. The night was brisk, the houses dark, and the air carried a lingering odor of wood smoke and decay. Her spirits lifted. Alone in her kitchen, waiting for Tessa, she’d succumbed to melancholy, drinking Sambuca from a juice glass, reading “Song of the Open Road” and dreaming of Bali.
As she trudged along in Thomas’ boots, Whitman’s lines kept beat with her steps: (Still here I carry my old delicious burdens, / I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go, / I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them, / I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)
She crossed the footbridge over the shushing Tenakill Brook and entered the Nature Center. The long paved road carried her past the moonlit ball fields and bleachers, the fenced-in playground where she and Tessa spent many happy hours. She followed the sound of voices, the scent of wood smoke. Fifty yards from the clearing at the edge of the woods, she switched off her flashlight. She could make out six kids, ghoulishly lit by bonfire. And when her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw Tessa behind them, skating alone on the shallow pond, the red spark of her cigarette like a laser point, tracking a moving target. My old delicious burden.
If you erased the beer and the joint the kids were passing around, the scene was worthy of Norman Rockwell. What did it say about her that she imagined something more depraved?
“Shhh! Quiet!” someone said.
Jane held still.
“Did you hear that?” a boy with a deep voice said. A girl tittered.
“Oh shit, see that? Some big fucking dude. See? In the trees, over by the road.”
Jane held her breath. Gauzy clouds passed over the moon. A breeze stirred oak leaves at her feet.
“It’s a shadow,” a girl said. Laughter erupted. “Tyler’s afraid of a shadow!”
Now, the sun dims behind murky clouds. Wind slices through Galina’s jacket. The crossing guard must have diesel fuel in her veins. Ten minutes left in the lunch hour. Jane imagines her daughter wandering lost in the woods. As Galina predicted, it begins to snow, a few tentative flakes gather into a blustery whiteout. If school closes early, she’ll have to stay on, trapped in this Russian fairy-tale.
An elf-like jogger appears on the opposite corner, a woman in her late forties, wearing a peaked red cap and cobalt blue running shoes. Laura McCauley, Tessa’s former Brownie leader. A million years ago, on a brilliant June afternoon, Jane marched with the troop across the George Washington Bridge to mark the girls’ transition from Brownies to Girl Scouts. Massive steel cables and beams dwarfed the eight little girls in brown sashes. Drivers, heading into Manhattan, honked their horns, shouted encouragement. It was the sort of kitschy American scene that she and Donny would have enjoyed mocking, but she was choked with emotion.
Now Laura forms a megaphone with her hands, shouts something indecipherable, and starts to cross. If she insists on chatting, Jane will pretend to have laryngitis. She gives Laura a friendly wave and checks the road for oncoming traffic. A racing engine makes her turn. It takes her half a second to recognize the black BMW SUV barreling down Orchard. It’s Mr. Zero, and he’s driving too fast for the icy conditions. Laura freezes. Jane waves her sign, but the car shoots past her into the intersection and goes into a spinning skid.
Later, when she recollects the scene, the car slides sideways in slow motion like a piece of driftwood floating on a wave before it jumps the sidewalk and slams into the chestnut tree on the driver’s side. In reality, Laura has just enough time to get out of the way. Jane sees her own fear and confusion mirrored in Laura’s face. How long ago did she see Tessa—ten, fifteen minutes ago? Without knowing how she got there, she finds herself reaching for the passenger door handle. The airbags have exploded. Through a cloud of sulfur-smelling dust, she sees the familiar spark of red hair. Her heart ignites.
Jane ducks inside the car. Her daughter’s eyes are closed, but she’s breathing. No visible injuries. Jane unbuckles the seatbelt.
“Don’t.” Laura is behind her. “In case there’s spinal damage. You have a phone?” Jane hands over her cell without taking her eyes off Tessa.
“Get her out,” Laura screams. “Hurry!”
“What?” Jane twists to look at Laura. “You said–”
“Fire! Quick! Move so I can get the boy.”
Jane slides one arm around Tessa’s back and the other behind her knees to pull her free of the airbag. She tries to straighten, but staggers under Tessa’s weight.
“Hurry,” Laura says. “The boy.”
Jane finds her balance, and then lurches down the sidewalk with Tessa until she’s a safe distance from the car. She lowers Tessa to the snow. Her daughter’s lip is swollen; there’s blood on her chin. Jane kneels to wipe it with her scarf. She takes off the Day-Glow jacket and places it over Tessa. Wind penetrates her thin sweater.
“It hurts,” Tessa says.
“Hush. Don’t talk.” She strokes Tessa’s hair with a trembling hand.
People are gathering. They stand in clusters a safe distance away. Jane shakes violently with the cold. Her snow-soaked jeans are as stiff as plaster casts, but her head is clammy with sweat. Someone tugs on the back of her sweater.
“Let EMT take care of the girl.” It’s Mayor Maggie. Jane looks up, confused.
Two fire trucks and an ambulance have arrived with shrieking sirens. They park haphazardly on Piermont. Two police cars block traffic.
“Come on, Galina,” the mayor urges. “It’s okay.”
The mayor helps Jane to her feet, and then holds her steady with one arm around her waist. Jane cannot stop shaking. As two technicians, a man and a woman in blue jackets, lift Tessa onto a gurney, she cries out in pain. Jane moves to comfort her, but the mayor and another woman restrain her. No, they aren’t restraining her; they’re guiding her arms into Galina’s jacket. The technicians cover Tessa with a thin blue blanket, secure canvas straps, and hustle the gurney to the ambulance. Jane follows. They lift the gurney inside with the help of a third technician. Mr. Zero is already there, sitting up, eyes unfocused. The female technician hoists herself up and reaches around for the door.
“Wait,” Jane says. “I’m her mother.”
The technician hesitates, looks past Jane to the others.
“Galina, what are you saying? Let them go.” Mayor Maggie tries to pull her back, but Jane twists free with a violent shake of her arm. Laura steps between them.
“Go on, Jane, get in. Hurry, before the police make you stay,” Laura says, offering a hand. She passes the cell phone up to Jane once she’s inside. “Good luck.”
In the pediatrics wing, Jane sits on a hard chair beside her daughter’s bed, still wearing the crossing guard’s jacket. Sedated, Tessa looks younger. The doctors removed the silver stud from her swollen lip. That’s the bright side. But considering that Tessa’s injuries are minor: a dislocated jaw, three fractured ribs—it’s all bright side. Mr. Zero, with his broken ankle and mild concussion, is lucky too. She tells this to Thomas on her cell. It’s five a.m. in Australia, but he’s at the lab, correcting a technician’s mistake.
“What’s she doing out? Didn’t you ground her?” he says. “For smoking?”
“Yes, she’s grounded,” she lies. “This happened at 12:45 p.m. She was at school.” Her voice pitches higher. “At school.” Her anger surprises her. It’s an honest mistake, one she makes herself. Their hearts beat in different time zones. But his distance seems more emotional than geographical now.
“You don’t sound like yourself,” he says. “Is someone with you? You shouldn’t be alone.”
Was that a joke? “I’m not alone,” she says. “I have Tessa.”
In his silence, she senses him revising his schedule, checking flights, shifting course. Seven years ago, she and Tessa traveled with him to Papua New Guinea, hoping to see an endangered tree kangaroo. On the second day, while they were still miserable with jetlag, Tessa got food poisoning. Tending to her daughter’s vomiting, diarrhea, and spiking fever while Thomas was off setting up a temporary lab is all she remembers about that trip. Never again, they all agreed.
“I have to wrap up a few things,” he says. “It’ll be four days before I can get there. Best I can do.” His voice sounds farther away, as though he’s stepped back from his phone. “Can you hold on for a few more days, honey?”
“What the hell do you think I’ve been doing? Don’t rush home for my sake,” she says, but regrets saying it the moment she hangs up. Of course she wants him home. Doesn’t she?
She calls Donny next. “Miss Janie!” he says. “Twice in one day! I’m such a lucky boy.”
She breaks down when she delivers the news. They cry together for a few minutes, and then breathing raggedly, he says, “One more spin of the car–”
“Everything would be different.”
“As arbitrary as–”
“A roulette wheel,” she says.
“How did we get so–”
“Lucky?” she says. “I don’t know.”
On Tessa’s first day home, Jane tells her that she’s grounded until college. No parties, no after-school activities, no car. They are sitting on the couch under the bay window in the family room. “Sorry,” Jane says when her daughter’s face crumples.
“I know, Mama,” Tessa says, wiping her tears with her pink pajama sleeve.
With her face scrubbed, piercings removed, and hair plaited, it’s easier to see Tessa as the sweet, eager to please girl who played with her American Girl doll on the secret back staircase not that long ago. But there’s something bothering Jane. “Who’s the boy?” she says.
Tessa looks down. “Jason Santini.”
It takes Jane a moment to connect Mr. Zero with Jason, the sulky boy with the mean little mouth, playing drums in the middle school band. “How serious is it?” she says, realizing that serious is the wrong word to use with teenagers.
Tessa shrugs, plucks at the acrylic pills on her pink pajama pants. “We hooked up a few times. He’s not my boyfriend if that’s what you mean.”
“Good.” She prefers not to parse the jargon. “You aren’t going to see him again, not if you want us to pay for your college.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Tessa says, her bottom lip trembling. “He likes my friend.”
Tiny pink fuzz balls float in the beam of sunlight. Jane should be happy. So why does it feel like Mr. Zero broke her heart, too?
The next afternoon, the cops phone. They need Jane’s witness’ report. She puts them off, blaming the storm. It’s been snowing since morning. The heavy drifts edge the windowsills, muffle sound, and soften the light in the family room. She and Tessa have eaten all their meals—soups and yogurt shakes—cuddled up on the couch, watching Tessa’s favorite movies. Dopey with painkillers, Tessa has reverted to a needy child, holding her mother’s hand, and protesting when Jane gets up to use the bathroom or carry their dirty dishes to the kitchen.
“Don’t go, Mama,” she says, her swollen lip pouting. “Don’t leave me.”
Jane sits back down. Tessa shifts carefully to lay her head in her mother’s lap. Don’t get used to this, Jane warns herself, stroking her daughter’s soft hair. This won’t last, and it shouldn’t.
In the morning, when the streets are cleared, Jane escapes to the grocery store. With every mile she travels from the house, her spirits lift a little. She misses her routine. She misses her days in the library, filling in the details of another person’s life. She misses her soothing chats with Betty and Galina. She misses her independence, the pockets of solitude where she can follow a thought or mull a line of poetry. Thomas will be home soon, encroaching. There’s always an adjustment period, short in duration, but each time she worries it’ll be permanent.
On the way, she stops at the police station. She gives her name to the older woman with the long gray, Willie Nelson braid, sitting behind bulletproof glass.
“Wait right there. Don’t move,” the woman says in her phlegmy smoker’s voice. She flips her braid over her shoulder before she picks up the phone. “The imposter’s here,” she says.
Jane eyes the door. Make a run for it? She imagines calling Donny from jail: “Guess what I’m doing now?”
Seconds later, the cop appears. He’s shorter than she is and impossibly young. His hair is slicked back with amniotic fluid. His holster is too big for his skinny frame.
“Do you realize the seriousness of what you’ve done?”
“Should I be calling my lawyer?”
“We take the crossing guard job very seriously. There’s a six-day training class. We conduct background checks, require medical tests. People can’t go jumping into the job willy-nilly, you know.”
She relaxes. Just a lecture. She has a momentary understanding of how Tessa must feel. Jane wants to explain her position, she wants to bite back, but she bites her tongue instead. “You’re absolutely right, officer,” she says, lowering her eyes in submission. “I didn’t think. It’ll never happen again.”
By the fourth day of Tessa’s recuperation, the coffee table is cluttered with balled up tissues, plates of half-eaten food, and textbooks. Jane spies her dark green volume of Leaves of Grass peeking out from under Literature Matters and Physics of Everyday Phenomena. She and Tessa are watching another horror movie. It has the same requisite half dressed teenage girls, gratuitous sex scenes, and gruesome violence of all the horror films they watched in the last four days. Tessa’s eyes keep drifting to her buzzing iPhone. When Jane looks at Tessa, she’s startled to see that her daughter is watching her. “What’s wrong?” Jane says, annoyed. “I thought you loved this movie.”
“Mom.” Tessa’s tone is chilly. “I know it was you.” She waves her phone. “Everyone knows.”
She sighs. “It’s always me,” she says after a moment. “Do you have any idea how damned tired I am?”
On the morning that Tessa returns to school, Thomas phones from LAX. Jane hears the cavernous echo of voices in the background. For a brief instant it feels like he’s calling not from another time zone but from the future, their future. If all goes well, he’ll be home in time for dinner. Tessa sits across from her at the table, eating poached eggs. Her jiggling leg vibrates their coffee cups.
“Want to talk to Thomas?” Jane mouths, pointing at her phone.
“Why? So he can yell at me? So he can take away my phone and my driver’s license and my…my…hairbrush?” Her lips are painted black; the silver studs are back.
Jane takes the phone to her office. “Listen, Thomas, I don’t want you to give Tessa a hard time; she’s been through enough.”
Her tone must warn him. “Sure,” he says. “I understand.”
When she returns, Tessa is gone. Jane walks through the house, calling her name, panicked and angry. She finds Tessa in the front hallway pulling on her coat. “Why didn’t you answer?” Jane says. “I’ll give you a lift.”
“No thanks. I need the exercise.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she says, buttoning Thomas’ coat. “You can’t walk with broken ribs. The roads are slippery. I’m going to the library anyway.”
“The library?” Tessa glares at her. “Are you sure you’re not going to show up in my physics class dressed like an astronaut or something?”
Tessa’s fury exhausts Jane. “Get your stuff,” she says. “I’ll wait in the car.”
They drive in silence. Tessa looks out the window, hands wedged between her thighs. The feeble winter light turns the neighborhood into a grainy scene from a forties film noir. Danger lurks at every corner. Grim faces stare out from the passing cars. She turns down Orchard Road, dodging escaping minivans. The house will feel too lonely without Tessa. She’ll work in the library until three.
The crossing guard that waves her through the intersection is not Galina. It’s the skinny old man who’s usually posted near the elementary school. She checks to see if Tessa notices, too, but her face is turned.
The parking lot is chaotic with cars coming and going, kids dashing out of nowhere, shouting to people Jane can’t see. She joins the long car line behind a red Porsche, and her car inches forward.
Before they reach the entrance, Tessa opens the door, throws one leg out.
“Hey, wait,” Jane says, grabbing for Tessa’s sleeve. “Let me stop the–”
Tessa jumps. Stumbles. Catches herself. And then, she’s gone.