I LIKED MY LIFE
A story from debut author Abby Fabiaschi that is “as absorbing as it is illuminating, and as witty as it is heartbreaking.”
Maddy is a devoted stay-at-home wife and mother, host of excellent parties, giver of thoughtful gifts, and bestower of a searingly perceptive piece of advice or two. She is the cornerstone of her family, a true matriarch…until she commits suicide, leaving her husband Brady and teenage daughter Eve heartbroken and reeling, wondering what happened. How could the exuberant, exacting woman they loved disappear so abruptly, seemingly without reason, from their lives? How they can possibly continue without her?
A story from debut author Abby Fabiaschi that is “as absorbing as it is illuminating, and as witty as it is heartbreaking.”
Maddy is a devoted stay-at-home wife and mother, host of excellent parties, giver of thoughtful gifts, and bestower of a searingly perceptive piece of advice or two. She is the cornerstone of her family, a true matriarch…until she commits suicide, leaving her husband Brady and teenage daughter Eve heartbroken and reeling, wondering what happened. How could the exuberant, exacting woman they loved disappear so abruptly, seemingly without reason, from their lives? How they can possibly continue without her? As they sift through details of her last days, trying to understand the woman they thought they knew, Brady and Eve are forced to come to terms with unsettling truths.
Maddy, however, isn’t ready to leave her family forever. Watching from beyond, she tries to find the perfect replacement for herself. Along comes Rory: pretty, caring, and spontaneous, with just the right bit of edge…but who also harbors a tragedy of her own. Will the mystery of Maddy ever come to rest? And can her family make peace with their history and begin to heal?
- St. Martin's Press
- May 2018
- 272 Pages
Audie Award Finalist
“An emotional journey of love, loss, healing, and redemption. I rooted for every character.” —Lisa See, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Snow Flower and The Secret Fan
“I Liked My Life is a treasure of a novel. Warm-hearted and clever, the story will keep you reading until the final delicious revelation.” —Diane Chamberlain, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author
“Warm and hopeful, this marvelous debut stands next to novels from Catherine McKenzie and Carolyn Parkhurst.”—Booklist (starred)
“A heartbreaking and ultimately heartwarming read about life, death, and family.”—PopSugar, A Best Winter 2017 Book
“An absolutely stunning book…remarkable.”—RT Book Reviews, 4 1/2 stars, Top Pick
1. Through Madeline’s past, I Liked My Life explores the day to day of stay-at-home moms. Do you feel Maddy’s experience generally represents the realities of that lifestyle? What, if anything, would have changed if they weren’t as wealthy?
2. Motherhood is a reoccurring theme throughout the book. Was there a relationship you particularly related to—Maddy/her mother; Eve/Maddy; Rory/Linda; Meg/Lucy?
3. Brady had grown up in a religious household but, over time, lost touch with those roots. Have you carried forward childhood religious traditions? Why or why not?
4. Paige and Maddy have been friends for a decade. Did you find their backstory relatable to friendships in your life?
5. Eve finds herself mourning at a tender, uncertain time of life. As part of that process, she no longer feels connected to her group of friends, or even her age group more broadly. How does her inner dialogue compare to where you were at emotionally at 16/17?
6. Eve and Brady have a contentious relationship at the beginning of the novel. What is the turning point where they soften toward each other? Does it happen at the same time for both of them?
7. Brady asserts that Maddy was the “liaison” between he and Eve. Do you feel that’s a common role mothers play between daughters and fathers? How does that compare to your childhood?
8. Do you feel the book would have worked if Maddy had died at the hands of a more common tragedy, like cancer or a car accident? Why or why not?
9. Many themes are touched on in this novel: motherhood, family roles, marriage, mourning. Which most resonated with you?
10. In the end, Brady does not end up with Rory. How did you feel about that?
11. Brady and Eve both grieved very differently. How much do you think one’s age impacts how they mourn? Gender?
12. The story ends with a snippet into Eve’s life at 27. Was she where you would have imagined her?
13. Both Eve and Brady go to a therapist. Do you think that helped? How and when do you see therapy as a positive tool?
I found the perfect wife for my husband. She won’t be as traditional as I was, which is good. She won’t be as intelligent either, but Brady endured twenty years of my unending intelligence. Under my tutelage he learned that kale lowers cholesterol, a little girl wanting to marry her daddy is normal, and no matter how many times you look up at the road, emailing while driving is no safer than drinking and driving. These insights were valuable at the time, but useless given our present circumstance.
It’s humbling, really. I spent my life hell-bent on not turning weak like my mother, who let jugs of Gallo wine make most of her decisions, and yet what Brady needs now is someone softer than me. Not fluffy, not gooey—he’d never fall for a ditzy or fickle woman—but not so damn right all the time either. Someone who won’t be irritated by the intermittent pauses he takes in the middle of a sentence. A good listener, a sleeper-inner, a nonscorekeeping woman naturally inclined to nurture our daughter Eve.
Recruitment is the least I can do.
I focused on elementary teachers, knowing it takes the unique combination of enthusiasm and patience to choose a profession where you spend most of the day reasoning with six-year-olds. The demoralized state of my family won’t be a turn-on to the easily deterred. I was at first disheartened to find almost every teacher accessorized with a wedding ring. It’s as though men know how tiresome they are and set out to marry women proficient at putting up with baloney. The available pool was so picked over that the few remaining were bitter about it, but as I readied to move on to nurses, I spotted Rory. She was on bus duty, sporting large, circular sunglasses and rhinestone-studded flip-flops. She somehow managed to look cool at forty, hopefully by not having kids. Brady and Eve have no room for additional baggage; there can be no blending of families in their future. Rory’s brown hair was pulled back in a loose braid, every inch of exposed skin covered in freckles. She remained all smiles, even when a shot of snot from a passing boy landed on her skirt.
She’s in the grocery store now. I’m taking in particulars to make sure my instinct is correct. You’d think intuitive faculties heighten after death, a sort of cosmic prize for crossing the finish line, but so far they have not. The Last World sits unceremoniously like a movie screen below me. There’s no spirit offering guidance. I’m not gracefully soaring above in white satin gleaning insight on the existential questions that once kept me awake at night. People think of ghosts as haunting, but it’s the other way around. You all haunt me. My life is now a delicious dessert just out of reach.
Perhaps I’m in purgatory. If I had known I’d cross the finish line in my forties, I might have given formal religion more consideration. Brady’s parents were big into it, and there were a couple years during adolescence when my mom dropped Meg and me off at catechism, leveraging the church as a sort of free babysitting. She got the idea at an AA meeting, which I assumed was where one went to learn new places to hide booze, since after she came home from AA she always relocated her stash.
What did that young nun tell us? I strain to recall the details. Evil souls go to hell, pure Catholics go to heaven, and souls destined for heaven but in time-out for reasons that are now a blur go to purgatory. I’m certain she said one couldn’t go from purgatory to hell or stay in purgatory forever, because I remember finding it odd there were such defined, well-documented rules. Did someone have a direct line with God and, if so, could we kindly request more willpower for our mother?
I do sense there’s more to the spiritual world than my current purview detects but see no path to get there. For me, there’s nothing but space and time. That I put myself here makes it that much more agonizing. I won’t find peace until I make things right for my family.
It pleases me when Rory selects a beautiful cut of veal. Brady would never fall for a vegetarian. Her choices suggest she’s a good cook—pancetta, scallions, artichokes, capers—ingredients you’d avoid if you didn’t know what you were doing. My replacement needs to know her way around a kitchen. Growing up, my mother leveraged the same ten ingredients for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our menu recycled like the school cafeteria’s. Steak and potatoes from the night before became steak and hash browns for breakfast, steak sandwiches for lunch, and beef stew for dinner. Mayonnaise was duct tape in her kitchen; there was nothing it couldn’t fix. Too dry? Spicy? Soupy? Thank God for Hellmann’s. By the time I had my own kitchen I was desperate for variety, leaving Brady spoiled. With me gone he’s lost weight, too much weight. I notice it especially in his face, where his skin suddenly hangs to his cheekbones for dear life.
Dinners were a big event in our house. We ate late to accommodate Brady’s work schedule. I gave Eve a sizable after-school snack and she never complained. We all looked forward to the hour together. Every night, I set the table with clean linens and our gold-rimmed wedding china. The china was mostly to tease my sister, Meghan, who claimed registering for it was a waste. “You’ll never use it, Maddy,” she warned. “No one ever does.” I’d call her sometimes as I set out the plates and we’d laugh.
“Who knew you’d become such a domestic diva?” she said one night. “I thought the ambition of a Wellesley College valedictorian would shatter glass ceilings.” Right before I thought to be offended, she added, “Somehow you were blessed with perspective most intelligent people lack.”
That’s Meg for you.
When Brady got home he’d go straight for the stereo. Hellos and everything else commenced only after the music started. Harry Connick Jr. is Brady’s favorite. I joked it was because people say they look alike, with their brown flowing hair and eyes set wide apart, but really, Brady loves anything that relies heavily on the piano. Music floated through the house as I put the finishing touches on dinner. We’d often sit at the table long after we finished eating, announcing our roses and thorns of the day, making plans for the upcoming weekend, laughing, occasionally debating. I’d advertise the book that had my attention, and Eve and Brady would rattle off all the reasons they were too busy to borrow it when I finished.
Eve came out with some doozies during these meals, often putting her raging hormonal perspective out there to digest with dinner. One night, when her usual vivacity didn’t return with her from school, she said, “My thorn today was realizing that I have nothing to do with who I am. I’m whatever you’ve made me.” I choked on my wine and stared at my Freudian thirteen-year-old, recognizing it was a deep thought. But on a Wednesday night with no context it was also a little over my head. A scary moment for any mother.
Brady recovered more gracefully, laughing off her drama. “Whoa there. Mom and I aren’t signing up for that responsibility. You own who you are.” It still sounded strange to hear Brady call me Mom. We swore we’d never be that couple, but when Eve’s first word was Maddy we abandoned our adult identities without much discussion.
Eve looked down at her plate and let out a practiced sigh. “I knew you’d say something like that.”
“It’s true; I’m predictable,” Brady said. “But my parents didn’t make me that way. It’s who I am.” Eve gave a half smile at his cleverness and I beamed at the impressive level of communication from my highly functional family. There was always plenty to talk about then. Now our house, which used to be inviting with its oversized wooden door and broken-in welcome mat, is so dark and silent that passersby assume it’s empty.
“Miss Murray,” a girl shrieks, approaching Rory and ending my reverie.
“Well hello, Annie.” Rory abandons a sweet pepper mid-inspection to crouch down and squarely meet the girl’s eager eyes.
“Mom’s taking me to Boston tomorrow.”
“That’s wonderful. You’ll have to tell the class about it Monday.”
“Okay,” Annie agrees, the trip now more exciting. “See ya.”
She runs away but Rory remains caught in the moment. Her expression saddens. I need to know why. There must be a way to intuit underpinnings and have impact on the world I left behind. Why else would I be stuck here watching? I keep perfectly still, focusing all my energy on Rory. She clearly craves something, or maybe someone, but I can’t discern what.
I’m impatient as she walks to the parking lot. Without the ability to intervene, I can’t repair the damage done. My attention drifts as I recall Brady dutifully leaning in for a kiss good night. Sometimes a peck, but sometimes so much more. I linger there until my mind catches the impossibility and substitutes me with Rory. It’s a wrenching thought. During those nutty hypothetical conversations married people have I always claimed I’d want Brady to remarry if I died first. I pictured him in his late sixties, needing a partner to tackle aging with. I hadn’t realized how cruel afterlife would be, that I’d have to personally select my replacement because Brady would be disoriented and Eve would need support, that I’d have to watch the whole thing from this front-row seat.
I stay with Rory as she loads the trunk of her light-blue Volkswagen Bug. Everything about her is adorable. I struggle to think of the single adjective that would have described me. I come up with reliable, maybe charismatic on a good day. Certainly not adorable. My face was too angular and my opinions too sharp for a word like that. Rory shuffles around for the bag with eggs in it, moving the delicate goods to the floor. A planner.
Her cell phone rings as the engine starts. The noises compete, so Rory doesn’t hear the call until the second ring. The car is in drive as she rakes through her bag. She grabs the phone, looks over her shoulder, and releases the brake in one motion, not realizing the car is moving forward until she hears the crunch of metal. The collision is with a pristine Audi A7.
“Augh,” she says, tapping a palm to her forehead in an exaggerated gesture I’ve never seen anyone do without an audience. That was it—Augh—before answering the call on the fifth ring. “Hello?” She stretches her neck to assess the damage.
“Glad I caught you, honey. Your mother is having a tough go of it. Any chance you can get home early? She could use your magic touch.”
“I’m about to drop off groceries, but then I’m supposed to tutor. Did Brian show? He promised he’d grace you with his presence at lunch.” She laughs uncomfortably at the spite in her words.
“No, but he called. Said work was crazy. I’m sorry.” The woman sighs. “I hate to add to your plate, but I can’t fork over more meds without something in her stomach.”
Tears well in Rory’s eyes but don’t spill over. “It’s no problem, Greta.”
“Thanks, sweetheart. I wish everyone I cared for was as lucky as your mother.”
Rory cringes at the inaccuracy of that statement. “I’ll be home in a bit.”
It’s borderline superhuman to me that Rory didn’t share the news of her fender bender with Greta. Her self-control reminds me of an old deodorant ad from the nineties that featured a woman maintaining total confidence in any situation. The ad ended with a jingle that went, “She stays cool, soft, and dry.” I never related to that ad. I would’ve retold every detail of THE ACCIDENT. It may have even made the Christmas letter. For Rory, it wasn’t worth a mention. This quiet calm is exactly what Brady needs to counter the resurgence of his temper.
I know from often-exaggerated tales at Fourth of July barbecues that Brady was a hothead growing up. His college nickname was The Fireman from some drunken night when he yanked the fire alarm to evacuate a fraternity pledge who’d made a move on his girlfriend, then punched the guy as he exited the building. For as many times as I heard the story, I could never picture Brady in it. Sure, he could be a jackass, but he was my jackass and his temper was never a source of concern. Until now.
Rory walks around to gauge the damage. Her fender is dented but the A7 is unscathed, exposing the fifty-thousand-dollar price difference between the two cars. Still, she leaves a note: Guilty of an accidental tap … Don’t see any marks, but here is my name and number in case. It’s the perfect response. The Fireman is no match for this level of serenity.
Rory hops back in the car and again digs through her bag. She grabs a red leather book with a Buddha imprint on the cover. It takes me a moment to realize it’s a genuine, tab-for-each-letter, impossible-to-change-when-someone-moves, pages-falling-out-of-the-binding address book. A lost art. I can hear Brady ribbing her already: 1984 called and wants its address book back. Perhaps Rory will come up with a good retort. Over the years I came to think of Brady’s iPhone as physically attached to his hand.
Rory finds the number she needs and musters up a good mood voice while it rings. “Hi, Nancy, it’s Rory. I’m terribly sorry to cancel last minute, but can we reschedule tutoring for tomorrow?”
With her calendar now out, a separate leather-bound book, she scrawls an arrow toward the following day, gets off the phone, and immediately dials another number. This one she knows without consulting the Buddha. Before the voice on the other end has an opportunity to greet her, Rory starts in.
“Where the hell were you?” Her teacher’s voice has turned aggressive and hollow, almost daring.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“If you were sorry we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Again.”
“I’m expected to all but sleep here.”
Rory holds the phone away from her ear and talks loudly into the receiver. “She is your mother. This cancer will kill her. Soon. Did they skip the definition of hospice in law school?”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a child,” he says, though he sounds like a child.
Rory slams her hand against the steering wheel of her still-parked car. “Damn it, Brian, THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU. We’re talking about forty-five minutes, once a week.”
“That I don’t have. I wish you’d stop treating me like a pile of shit for it.”
“God. This is my fault, now?”
He clears his throat, which seems to strengthen his resolve. “We can’t all be Rory Murray, Salt of the Fucking Earth.”
“Fine,” Rory says, defeated. “Focus on you. That’s what you’re good at.”
This is my chance to get deeper into her thoughts. I zero in with willful concentration, intense to the point of exhaustion, and suddenly I feel it. A sensation. A flash. An understanding. Rory is alone and scared. She does not know what to do.
Brady and Eve can relate. And if I can read people’s minds then certainly I can influence their actions. This woman is my chance to make things right. My family deserves more than I left behind.
Today is Mother’s Day.
My first thought is stupid: my mom isn’t here, so the holiday doesn’t exist. But the rest of the world doesn’t celebrate my mom, they celebrate their moms, and their moms didn’t recently jump off a building.
My father claims he’ll be stuck in a hotel conference room negotiating a deal of “strategic importance” with a bunch of people I’ll never know. I guess it’s possible. He says when it gets to the end of a merger you work straight through till it’s done, but the timing is suspect. Today is going to suck. A meeting that goes from freaking eight in the morning to eight at night on a Sunday is something even Mom would’ve considered a little too convenient.
I’m swirling cereal around the bowl when Dad walks in, suited up for his big meeting. If he’s lying to get out of the tennis tournament he at least feels bad enough to wear a costume that matches his cover story. I wonder how he’ll handle this moment. Baby me? Ignore the significance of the day altogether? Without Mom telling him what to do, he’s a dud at parenting.
“Say you’re sick,” he offers. His eyes shift around the room, working hard not to land on me.
“Skip the tournament. Everyone will understand.”
He did not just say that. I give him an icy glare. “Pretty sure Mom wouldn’t tell me to bail on a commitment just because it was gonna be rough.” He doesn’t have a comeback, so he grabs a water bottle from the fridge and leaves for work.
I don’t have time to be pissed that my father has the emotional maturity of a toddler, because my ride arrives. I wait for the horn to blare before getting up, delaying the start of this depressing day. It takes Kara all of thirty seconds to lose it. She’s a spaz. On our eighth grade trip to D.C., she jumped in a fountain because she was hot, then freaked when they sent her home for it. She seriously has zero self-control. I ditch breakfast, grab my tennis bag, and head out.
Kara’s ghostlike coloring gives away her hangover, which is strange since we never party before game days. I wonder where everyone met up, then remember I don’t care. John is with his family opening their Cape house for the spring, so I’m not surprised no one thought to call. Mourning a parent is way too heavy for my crowd.
Kara drives while her mom rides shotgun, so at least I have the backseat to myself. Like my dad, they both avoid looking at me. Apparently, not having a mother on Mother’s Day is something I should be embarrassed about. Whatever. Anything is better than the hysteria Kara brought to my mother’s funeral, where she bawled as if she were the one left behind. I didn’t get why she’d make such a scene until my father and I led the procession out and I saw her folded up in Jake’s arm, a spot she’d been jonesing for all year. Always nice to see a tragic death exploited for a high-school hookup.
“Wind will be twenty miles an hour from the northwest,” Kara reports. I nod, not that anyone’s watching. “The end courts will be the worst, especially the side closest to the field.”
Kara always talks up an excuse for getting her ass kicked. When her ball hits the net it’s because of the wind, or a baby crying, or the sun’s glare. It’s never because she tilted her racket too far.
“Good point,” Mrs. Anderson pipes in. “The court we get will matter.”
Kara’s mom considers her and her daughter a single unit, using words like we and our when referring to things Kara will experience on her own. She even puts her hair in a high pony and wears a tennis skirt to our matches, as though she might be called in to sub. My mom hated gossip, but I once heard her rag on Mrs. Anderson, “The coach needs to pull that lunatic aside and break the news she didn’t make the team. Our turn ended three decades ago. Christie seriously needs to get over it.” When Dad joked that my mom sounded jealous she said, “I’m not gonna lie, I’d take her body if it was completely detached from her heart and her brain.” I find the memory particularly funny as Kara and Mrs. Anderson agree their court assignment will be critical.
“They still haven’t fixed the crack on court three. Coach claims it isn’t a tripping hazard, but I took a digger on it yesterday.” Mrs. Anderson clucks like a chicken to show her disapproval. I swear she could be the billboard for what annoying looks like.
They’re talking about this pointless shit because they don’t know what the hell to say to me. It’s the same at school. What no one understands is that it doesn’t matter what’s being said—everything makes me think about my dead mother because that’s all I ever think about. Kara literally breaks out in a sweat when we’re alone, as if suicidal mothers are contagious. I should tell her not to worry; her wannabe of a mom is way too vain to take her own life.
I’ve learned to completely block out my friends. I don’t listen to their words, just the pattern of their speech. Each person is different. Kara doesn’t take many breaths, so her sentences come out in little sprints: There’s-a-sale-at-Nordstrom-today-and-I-need-a-new-strapless-bathing-suit-that’s-not-plain-black-so-let’s-go-right-after-school. As long as you keep a smile on your face, she doesn’t notice you’re not listening. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anyone’s opinion anyway. I haven’t yet perfected zoning out Mrs. Anderson—though I’ll be sure to get right on it after this car ride—so it’s hard to ignore when she jumps in with more of a squeal to ask why I’m not wearing my team ribbon.
“Couldn’t find it,” I mumble.
“You should’ve called, dear. We have extras at the house.”
Of course she does. I’m not her dear.
“I might have one in my bag,” Kara says, “but it’s in the trunk.”
I stay silent while the two of them debate whether Kara does in fact have an extra bow in her bag and, if not, whatever will we do? There’s a long list of possibilities here: ask the other girls, Mrs. Anderson running home, going to Jo-Ann Fabrics for a new one.… The topic isn’t dropped until we arrive and Kara uncovers that—praise Jesus—she has an extra bow for me. Mother and daughter sigh with relief, proud of their impressive problem-solving.
I leave them in the parking lot congratulating each other only to discover that the make-believe-it’s-not–Mother’s-Day plan didn’t stop with my dad and the Ribbon Police. I don’t know who coordinated it, but there isn’t a single cheesy WE LOVE OUR MOMS! sign, even from opposing teams. The buckets full of roses we usually hand out are nowhere to be seen. Mother’s Day has poof disappeared, just like my mother.
As people spot me they look to their feet, pausing whatever pointless conversation they’re having. Eventually the uncomfortable silence passes and heads pop back up like I’m a freaking zoo exhibit. They expect a dramatic breakdown, but I refuse to be the entertainment. I change my shoes without a word.
The match starts on time. Refusing to give the crowd even a frown, I take everything I’ve lost and put it in the force of my racket. Each time I connect with the ball I think, Screw all of you. My form suffers when I go all in with strength, causing a few stupid errors that catch the net or fall out-of-bounds, but I win all three matches. The losers will play it off as intentional. They’ll go home to their intact families, proud of their sensitivity in pretending Mother’s Day didn’t exist. “I’m glad she won,” they’ll lie. “She needed it more than me.”
Screw all of you.
No matter how people justify it, these cover-ups are not about comforting me. They’re so people can skip the depressing conversation. Or not feel guilty they still have a mother. Or stall a private consideration that if it happened to me it could happen to them.
A week after the funeral I went back to school because Dad and I were such a mess together I was afraid we’d off ourselves too. It’s hard to say which is worse. At school people are so desperate for me to talk that when I finally speak, even if it’s just to say I have to use the restroom, they’re all like, “Really, Eve? Wow. That’s soooooo amazing.” It drives me apeshit. Unlike the deep pain I experience with my dad, I feel nothing at all with my friends. In some ways it’s creepier.
At lunch there’s pressure to eat. Nothing is more loved at my school than a good eating disorder to diagnose, so I’m careful to finish what I pack. Anything is better than sitting through a food intervention with a bunch of teary-eyed girls and our clueless guidance counselor. We had one for Becky when she was making herself puke. I was all into it at the time. Lindsey told her mom, who told the guidance counselor, who helped us set Becky on the right course. All Becky took from it was the tip that everyone knows the sound of someone throwing up, so unless you’re in a private stall, anorexia is a better option.
I’m at no risk for that particular societal trap. I despise puking and get wicked headaches when I go too long without eating. My problem is mental. Whole days pass where I don’t remember physically walking from one class to the next. The dismissal bell rings and I can’t remember where I parked or even driving to school. Teachers are divided on how to react. A few completely ignore what happened. They have no idea how to respond, so they treat me no differently than they did when I had a living, breathing mom at home. Most of the older ones are on a compassion mission. They ask how I’m doing before and after each class. No matter what I say, they flip their lips into their teeth and nod. The remaining teachers believe life is hard and, although it doesn’t seem like it now, my mom’s suicide will somehow serve me well later in life. They use the word grit a lot. Most of these assholes are now tougher when grading, as if to prove nothing is fair and life hasn’t come to a stop.
But it has. This is a small town. I’ll forever be branded the daughter of the stay-at-home mom who jumped off the Wellesley College library. My mom took my life with hers. I considered taking off in her BMW, but that only ever works out in movies. If I showed up in New York with no money I’d be spit right back out and my story would be even sorrier than it is now. This neighborhood already grieves my potential like a lost life. College is my ticket out, but I can’t handle another year of this shit. I use Kara and her mom’s silence over their devastating loss to finalize my plan.
When we pull into the driveway, I say good-bye and hop out. Kara doesn’t say a word. No amount of pity could turn her into a good sport. When she didn’t make varsity freshman year, she smashed her two-hundred-dollar Völkl racket into the court, probably causing that crack she’s been bitching about all season. How was I ever friends with her?
Mrs. Anderson offers an insincere congratulations as I shut the car door. Her excessive mascara is smeared under one eye, so I know tears were shed over the loss. Real tears. From a grown woman. Over a tennis tournament. My mom was never that ridiculous. When I lost she’d sing that Sugarland chorus “Let go laughing,” then ask what I wanted for dinner. She could’ve picked sound tracks for movies—the woman had a song for every situation. Like when she belted out the Rolling Stones that time I sulked because she refused to buy me Tory Burch flats: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” I never admitted it, but the unique delivery did make her point stick. I wonder what she’d sing now? Would she encourage leaving Wellesley or want me to stick it out for senior year? As if in response, that Cat Stevens song she loved floats to my mind: It’s not time to make a change.… I shiver, looking around the kitchen as if she could really be here, offering an opinion. The words echo through my head once more before I shake them free. Screw that. She’s the one who ditched me; changing wasn’t my call.
Dad isn’t home yet, thank God. I leave the admissions folder I’ve been carrying around for a week on the kitchen counter with a sticky note that reads: I want to be a boarder at Exeter next year. Need fresh start. Here’s the info. He’ll worry what people will think—first Mom bails, then me—but in the end he’ll agree. He has no energy to fight, and I know when he looks at me he sees her.
She died on Good Friday. She wasn’t religious but maybe it was symbolic, like her death was a sacrifice or something. Everyone at the funeral went on about how my mom was a giver, which means everyone at the funeral thought of Dad and me as takers. So that’s it. We were both taking and taking and taking, and my mother, like a keg after only a few hours at a crowded party, was tapped. Her nod and smile meant the same thing as my middle finger. I just didn’t know it. She certainly made her point. I imagine her looking down and shouting, “Do you see all I did for the two of you? Are you capable of being grateful yet?”
The struggle Dad and I have now is totally ironic. We’re so used to her caring for us that we have no idea how to care for each other. We play a reverse game of hide-and-seek where the goal is to never be caught in the same room. Do we not know what to talk about or is there really nothing to say? We discuss only necessities, and even then he seems limited to specific words: yes, no, maybe, when, where, why, who, okay.
Every three or four days he attempts a deep talk, usually after he’s had a few. Last night he asked if I knew “all about sex.” I said it was a determination of whether you’re male or female and laughed. His eyes watered. I felt bad, so I told him not to worry about it, that I was “all set in that department.” When I realized how much I sounded like Mom, I started crying too. We both ditched the living room in opposite directions.
The truth is, I’ve been sleeping with John since my sixteenth birthday. I wish I’d told my mom while I had the chance, but I overheard her on the phone with Aunt Meg the night my cousin Lucy announced she was planning to do it with Keith: “It’s so special she told you. I hope Eve trusts me when it’s time.” I knew instantly what she was talking about. “Make sure Lucy’s smart about it, so you aren’t a grandma at forty.” There was a pause while my aunt spoke. “Well, I’ll certainly keep you posted, but I don’t think Eve is ready yet. Lucy has it right; seventeen is a respectable age to take the plunge. Not too old, not too young.” I play the conversation over and over in my mind. I did trust and respect my mom, but I figured there was no harm waiting until I was the same respectable age as Lucy to tell her, which will be next month.
I was always deliberate like that. I got my first period when I was only eleven, not even in middle school yet. I calmly grabbed a quarter from the bottom of my backpack, snuck into the teachers’ bathroom to buy a pad from the machine that we hid notes under between classes, and went on with my day. When I got home and told my mom she looked alarmed. “You could’ve called,” she said. “I would’ve picked you up so we could talk about it.”
“We already talked about it.”
“I mean about the details of what to do.”
“What details?” I asked, genuinely concerned I’d missed something. “Blood comes out and something needs to be there to catch it, right?”
“Huh, well, yes, but your independence does scare me sometimes. I hope you know I’m here if you need me.”
“I do,” I said. “That’s why I can be independent.”
She smiled. She had the best smile.
Technically I’m more independent than ever since there’s literally no one looking after me, but independence isn’t liberating when it’s involuntary. I’ve been discarded like day-old milk. Even if I accept there’s a lifetime ahead, I cannot picture how I’ll live it without her. No Christmas cards will be sent, the vegetable garden will die, our sheets will have visible dirt before Dad or I think to change them, and we won’t do anything to celebrate my birthday this year. Which is fine by me.
My wife is dead. She jumped off a fucking building. I could watch the movie a thousand more times and still be shocked by the ending.
At the funeral her sister Meg kept throwing out possibilities like closet depression or a hidden trauma, but it’s all bullshit. Maddy wasn’t a secret-keeper. She couldn’t tell a lie, even when it was the socially acceptable thing to do. A friend once hounded her for details on childbirth. She endeavored to avoid the question, advising that you don’t think about the experience once that precious baby is in your arms, but the lady wouldn’t relent. “You’re sure you want the truth?” Maddy asked. The lady nodded. “Labor is like shitting a watermelon while getting felt up by your mailman. And when it’s all over, you still look pregnant.” The woman blanched. With Maddy, it was ask and you shall receive.
There’s no room for a hidden life with a personality like that, so if Maddy jumped it was to abandon us. The total contradiction between who she was and what she did is unfathomable. The last text I got from her read: I have no idea how we’re going to fit everyone @ the dining room table on Easter. I have a hard time reconciling that this dilemma was enough to end it all. The psychologist at the police station claimed suicide is often an impulsive act, especially in cases with a “family history” like Maddy’s, a history he pulled from me in pieces, then exaggerated to support his conclusion.
Maddy was nothing like Janine. She had one glass of wine a night. One. Maybe two. Sometimes three on Friday and Saturday. It was social. She considered her mother’s suicide selfish, described it as a last fuck you to the few people who still cared. I remember the words exactly because it wasn’t like Maddy to be so harsh. She walked in other people’s shoes more than her own.
I’m avoiding the bedside drawer where her journal lives. Yes, I want answers, but only if they prove reality to be what I remember.
I made her laugh. I know I did.
Sometimes when she wanted to relax before bed, she’d ask me to tell her a story, any story. I reserved an arsenal for those moments. The key was to get her laughing straightaway. Laughter was Maddy’s elixir. I’d jump right into a scene, as though she’d put a quarter in me. “Have I ever told you about the time I was six and got a tick on my dick?” Or, “Last night there was a guy at the airport so drunk he couldn’t drive his luggage.” The stories never had a point; they weren’t supposed to. Current events or work updates revved her up, and the fact that I knew it pleased Maddy. When I was home, she was happy. But I often wasn’t home.
I take another sip of bourbon. Is this my second glass? Third? I open the drawer and stare at the journal, curiosity fighting pride. When the glass is empty, I grab it with such force that my knuckles scrape against the bottom of the drawer. “Damn it,” I mutter to the empty room. If Maddy were here she’d say something crafty like, “The drawer is winning, huh?” Of course, if Maddy were here I wouldn’t be awake after midnight, drunk, pillaging her most personal thoughts.
I count the entries, an occupational hazard from my days as an accountant. There are just under three hundred spanning two years’ time. If I read an entry a day, it’ll last until after New Year’s. It’s unclear whether the ritual will be a source of torture or a gift. I pour another bourbon since no one is here to keep track. A small perk.
June 10, 2013
All I need is a unicorn on the cover and a heart-shaped key and I’ll be seven all over again. As far as journals go, mine will be a bore. My life has been drama-free since my mom sucked back her last jug of wine with a handful of Klonopin. More on that later, I’m sure. Even dead she occasionally manages to be the center of attention.
Let me introduce the people I’ll write about. My husband is Brady. He’s short, 5’8″, but I had a tall boyfriend once and spent a lot of time looking at nose hair. He’s the CFO for HT (a company that makes software I don’t fully understand). I refer to HT as Husband Thief, but I’m not allowed to be bitter about his working hours because we live a good life off his sweat.
Since my daughter landed her first serious boyfriend it’s gotten a bit lonely—hence this pathetic journal. Eve turns fifteen next week. She’s currently more a pain in my ass than the love of my life, but there is a bright light at the end of this teenage tunnel that keeps me warm. I can overlook that she says “like” every other word because she’s bright and bold in a way that suggests her life will be fun to watch.
Today, she came home from school and declared, “I’m, like, so dropping out of confirmation class.” She wanted me to be shocked, so I stayed silent. It’s Brady’s side that’s invested in church. After I’d put away all the dishes without responding, she said, “You know what it is, Mom? They claim it’s wrong to be on birth control, and then they teach everyone the rhythm method. But the rhythm method is birth control—it just, like, sucks. Why would I want to be part of an institution that totally sets people up?”
She’s fifteen! I couldn’t help but ask if she needs to be on birth control. Her face contorted with disgust. “You don’t get me at all,” she said. But she was wrong. I admired her point; I just had to be a mother for a second before continuing the conversation. But, being a mother for a second abruptly ended the conversation.
That’s it. A book report. It’s what I wanted—confirmation we were normal—but now I’m irritated. Blame doesn’t stick well to the deceased; they can’t fight back. I need Maddy to have a skeleton big enough to exonerate me, like a stash of cocaine in the laundry room, or a lover threatening to expose the affair. Something I played no part in, an offense larger than my offenses.
I’m haunted by her laugh. The first time I heard it was when the hospital receptionist requested my name and I blanked. I could describe Maddy’s lemony smell. I could recall that her favorite color was yellow, her favorite movie was Revenge of the Nerds, and her favorite pair of socks were old and torn with little pigs jumping over the moon and jealous cows looking up from a field below, but I could not remember my goddamn name.
“Not trying to trip you up here,” the receptionist said, giggling. Then Maddy joined, her laughter echoing in my mind. They hadn’t yet discharged her body from the morgue but she was already with me. I cupped my hands over my ears to focus on the sound. This confirmed for the receptionist I was crazy. It was Eve who ultimately answered.
The second time I heard Maddy laugh was when Susan Dundel stopped over with a casserole after the funeral wearing a tight Red Sox tee that read BAT GIRL over the chest. Susan is a shameless flirt. At a neighborhood gathering when we first moved to Wellesley over a decade ago, Susan cornered Maddy and said, “You better take care of him. He’ll have plenty of takers in this town, myself included.” That same night Todd Anderson made a bizarre comment about how hot Maddy was—in front of his daughter Kara—then added he sometimes wished marriages had short time-outs. Maddy and I were shocked by their audacity, and she joked I should consider Susan a prime suspect if she ever mysteriously disappeared.
When Susan showed up at the door, it crossed my mind that she had something to do with Maddy’s death. The thought triggered Maddy’s casual laugh. It was exactly the sort of paranoid conspiracy theory she always teased me for. The sound of her laughter left me flustered, and I dropped Susan’s dish onto the large Spanish tile Maddy redid a couple months ago. It shattered, spewing sticky chicken everywhere, the perfect excuse for Susan to come inside. She headed straight for the kitchen, grabbing a roll of paper towels and disappearing under the sink to collect cleaner and a trash bag. Susan looked so comfortable, like she’d staked out our kitchen with this exact scenario in mind. Soon she was splayed in front of me, collecting the mess. She looked up and in an absurd attempt at a seductive voice said, “Brady, you and Eve need a woman around to help with your grief or you’ll become overwhelmed by it.” I couldn’t muster a response, so I walked out the front door and kept going, a move I’ve resorted to a few times with Eve.
It’s horrible, I know. But I have no choice. When the reality of my new life hits me, my response has to be physical—flee or fight. My instinct was to backhand Susan; it took great restraint to simply exit. It’s Maddy’s voice that calms me in those moments. Leave, her memory tells me, and so I do. I probably walked seven miles that night, mostly wondering why my wife went through the headache of changing the foyer tile when she planned to kill herself.
Things aren’t as bad when I hear her laugh. It’s far worse when people invade my grief and Maddy doesn’t come to the rescue. That’s when my anger clots and detonates. It started a week after the funeral when Eve hightailed it to school. Maddy’s best friend Paige offered to work with the guidance counselor and homeschool Eve the last two months of the year, but Eve rejected the idea outright. She glared at us—chin jutted out like Maddy’s—and said, “So you think it’s a stellar idea to isolate me even more?” Paige and I cowered.
The next day Eve left for school, so I went to work. What else could I do? Paula greeted me outside my office door with a rehearsed look of sympathy. Maddy loved that my assistant was old enough to be her mother. “How are you holding up?” she asked, patting my back.
Each time her hand connected with my shirt my jaw clenched tighter. “Fine,” I replied, realizing I’d be answering that question all day. “Is everything rescheduled? Can Jack catch up this afternoon?”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Paula said with the curt smile of a flight attendant. “I was talking to Sally this morning … we agreed you probably aren’t ready just yet. Maybe spend a little more time with Eve? Work some half days?”
Sally is the CEO’s assistant and evening companion when he’s not with his wife, an interesting person to dole out family advice.
I clenched my fists, willing them firmly by my sides, and enunciated every word as if English was Paula’s second language. “Something tells me the auditors won’t care about my wife’s death, and I still have a daughter to support with a career of some sort. Reschedule. My. Goddamn. Calendar.”
Paula stood there, stunned, expecting an immediate apology. I’d never been terse with her or anyone else at the office. But given the giant pile of shit that recently became my life, I enjoyed the power of it. I shut my office door and got back to work.
There is nothing Maddy in my office. Not even a family picture on my desk. There never was. I treated the two separate: there was my career and there was my family. Now, there’s work and there’s my daughter. Buying and selling companies is infinitely easier than communicating with a pissed off sixteen-year-old. And being wronged is easier to accept than being made a fool.
Copyright © 2017 by Abagail Katherine Wittnebert