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Family History: A Novelby Dani Shapiro
I lie in bed these days and watch home movies—a useless exercise, to be sure, but I can’t stop myself. Ned’s an amateur filmmaker, and ever since we got our first video camera when Kate was born, he has documented our family’s life, not just birthday parties and anniversaries but smaller, more telling moments. When I appear in these tapes, I’m usually laughing and covering my face, saying No, no, I look terrible. Ned is almost always behind the camera. Kate, Kate, Katie, his deep voice cajoles, come here, baby doll. And then, after Kate as a baby, a toddler, a blurry little blond girl, she begins to become sharper and clearer, her features morphing themselves into a face of such extraordinary beauty that sometimes I felt shocked to realize she was my daughter.
My bedroom is dark, the shades drawn against the sun. Even though no one is home, the door is closed. Outside, the occasional car. Voices rise and fall. The dull thud of heels on the street. The walls of this old house are thick, but the windows are made of ancient wavy glass. We had always planned to replace the glass, but we never got around to it. I used to like the way I could hear everything going on outside. It made me feel like part of the world. Now, all I want is to be sealed off. People come and go. They drive their cars to and from work. They take their children to one another’s houses. They go out to dinner and drive slowly, carefully home, protecting what is theirs.
The people on the screen are strangers to me: that pretty young woman, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail; that man next to her, with faint laugh lines under his eyes. Everything was so easy then. That’s what I see in Ned’s home movies. I had no idea my life was easy. We didn’t have enough money, or space, or hours in the day. The boiler had a leak; the dog needed a bath. Little things got the better of me. Now, all that seems absurd. If I could reach a hand back to that last summer, I would slap myself. Hard. Snap out of it! I would scream.
kate was thirteen. she had been a skinny little kid with long stringy hair, always coming home with scrapes and bruises. She’d broken more bones than I could count, playing field hockey, soccer, basketball, softball. Kate was single-minded about winning. She threw her whole body into the final assist, the winning goal, even if it meant a torn ligament, a sprain, a fracture. And to listen to her tell it afterward, after the casts or Ace bandages, the hot and cold compresses, it was a saga: “Jenny McCauley fouled me, but the referee—that would be her father, Mr. McCauley—didn’t call it. And then I got mad and told myself I wouldn’t miss a single other shot,” she said. Her cheeks were bright pink circles, and her blue eyes were framed by long dark lashes. Kate had a sense of competition—we called it “healthy competition” but secretly I wasn’t so sure—that amazed Ned and me. She got straight As and was captain of everything in school. Ned and I hadn’t been like that as kids, and we certainly weren’t overachievers as grown-ups. Of course, we each had our ambitions, but they had changed over time. We wanted our family to be safe and happy. We wanted to make enough money to keep our roof over our heads and have a nice dinner out every once in a while.
Over that last summer Kate had gone away to camp, and I could tell, even through the tone of her letters, that something had changed. Dear Mother, she would begin. Mother? She didn’t say she missed us or dot her i’s with hearts the way she used to. She didn’t write about archery or color war. She sounded hot and querulous when we called her on the phone. I wondered what was going on, but truthfully I put it out of my mind as much as I could and tried to enjoy the quiet, our new freedom to leave the house whenever we felt like it or to climb back into bed on a Sunday morning. For the first time in thirteen years we had nowhere to be: no car pool, no soccer practice, no Sunday school. I was almost scared, when Kate first left. I wondered how it would be, alone with my husband. So much of our time together had been spent discussing Kate and the logistics of Kate. “All Kate, all the time,” we joked. And while we were immersed in the details of parenthood, the years were rolling by and we were getting older. I worried that having Kate early in our marriage had made us prematurely middle-aged. But it turned out I had nothing to worry about: within days of Kate’s leaving, we were like newlyweds, enjoying each other, falling into long late-night talks, sleeping wrapped together for the first time in years. We blinked, and time fell away.
Our first Saturday night alone in the house, Ned cooked dinner. I had been out all afternoon, doing the usual errands—dry cleaner, butcher, grocery store, buying a wedding shower gift—and when I returned, Ned had set the picnic table in the backyard with our best crystal, china plates, linen napkins rolled into napkin rings. His grandmother’s hurricane lanterns rested in the center of the table, beeswax candles already flickering in the pale-orange early evening light.
“What’s this?” I set my bags down on the kitchen floor. The house smelled sweet, a mix of Indian spices. Ned didn’t cook often, but when he did, whatever he made was ambitious and elaborate. I saw several open cookbooks; three pots simmered on the stove.
“Never you mind. Just go outside,” said Ned. He pushed my hair away from my face and kissed my ear.
“But I need to—”
“You need to do nothing,” he said. He uncorked a chilled bottle of wine—one of our few really good chardonnays—and poured me a glass. “I’ll be out in a bit.”
I was confused. Was this a special day I had somehow missed, an obscure anniversary? Through all the years we had been together, we still celebrated the day we met and the day we got engaged, along with our wedding anniversary.
“Relax, Rach,” Ned said, reading my mind. “I just wanted to make you a nice dinner.”
The screen door slapped shut behind me as I walked out back. I particularly loved our backyard in the summer. We mowed the lawn just around the perimeter of the house, and the rest was meadow. Tall grass rustled in the breeze, blowing bits of dandelion fluff through the air. The sun was setting over the tin roof of the barn.
I kicked my shoes off, climbed into the hammock, and balanced the glass of wine on my stomach. It was an odd sensation, having this empty, quiet time. I didn’t exactly mind it, but I wasn’t sure how to do nothing.
“Here you are.” Ned crouched down next to the hammock. He popped something into my mouth.
“What is it?” I asked, chewing. It was delicious.
“A date stuffed with ground almonds and wrapped in bacon.”
“Yum. A nice low-cholesterol snack.”
“Yeah, and after this we’re having that lobster curry thing.”
“You’ve been a busy boy.”
He squinted up at me and grinned. His dirty-blond hair flopped over his forehead, and he shook it away, a gesture I had seen a thousand times in our daughter.
I grabbed Ned’s hand and turned it, palm up, then held it to my cheek. I felt a familiar stinging against the backs of my eyes, tears I was embarrassed to let him see. Some people were able to take this for granted—this beauty, this bounty. But no matter how many years we had been together, I still felt it as something amazing, thoroughly undeserved. How had I gotten so lucky?
“I love you,” Ned said. Then he stood up, with a slight middle-aged groan, and went back inside the house.
weeks drifted by before we admitted to each other how much we missed Kate. Sure, there were advantages to not having her around: sex with the bedroom door open, a clean kitchen sink, listening to Coltrane instead of ’N Sync. But by the time she was due home, we longed for her. At the end of the summer, we picked her up in the parking lot of the A&P. She got off the bus wearing a flowery little tank top I had never seen before, her hair was bleached orangey-yellow, and she had a tattoo of a leaf on her ankle.
Here she is, standing in a group of new camp friends, exchanging hugs and phone numbers. “Katie!” Ned’s voice cracks in the video as he calls her, waving with one hand and holding the camera with the other. I am standing next to our old Volvo wagon with the hatchback open and ready for her mountains of dirty laundry. Ned turns the camera on me for a second, and I grin self-consciously. I’m wearing big dark glasses and no makeup, and again I am struck by how young I look. I was thirty-eight that summer but I could have passed for thirty, especially with the dark glasses.
The camera jerks as I grab it and focus on Ned. He looks like an overgrown college boy himself, wearing a Red Sox baseball cap and a faded sweatshirt. I’d been looking forward to seeing Ned and Kate together. It was a secret pleasure of mine, quietly watching them as they played basketball or watched television or went over Kate’s math homework at the kitchen table. I start to move toward Kate, but she shakes her head, her eyes narrow in warning, and I stop. She turns her back, squaring her little shoulders resolutely away from me. The movie ends there. I turned off the camera and stood alone in a crowd of parents, my arms dangling uselessly by my sides.
downstairs, the doorbell rings. i climb out of bed, the bottoms of my socks collecting dust on the floor. The windows are covered with heavy blue curtains. I peek out, squinting in the glaring light. A Federal Express truck, with its cheery purple-and-orange logo, is parked by the curb. It can be nothing good: a legal document, a collection notice. I go back upstairs. The digital clock reads 1:57. I have to pick up Joshua at preschool at three. I should get out of my pajamas. Slap some cold water on my face, under my arms. Run a comb through my hair. Have I even eaten today?
This was once such a happy house. The sunny kitchen with its refrigerator covered with magnets and drawings; the dining room dwarfed by an enormous old pine table, a bowl of fresh fruit in a ceramic bowl at its center; flowers arranged in empty wine bottles along the windowsills and side tables. I took pride in our house, in the accumulation of objects that had character and meaning for us. Other people could buy expensive photographs, but they wouldn’t have the framed black-and-white photo Ned took of a fence curving along the dunes on Nantucket one summer, when we were visiting our old friends Tommy and Liza Mendel. Our summers with the Mendels are another thing I miss. Every August, our families used to spend a few weeks together at their house on the beach; their daughter Sophie was a year younger than Kate. Tommy and Liza had done phenomenally well over the years. Tommy had started a series of restaurant and hotel guides, then sold his company to a big German corporation. And Liza was a senior partner at a small prestigious Boston law firm. Our daily lives may have been worlds apart, but the Mendels were like family to us.
That photograph, along with a lovely one of Kate and Sophie, still hangs on the landing. And then this room, the bedroom: the bed is still soft and creaky, and the wing chair needs reupholstering. The Art Deco vanity we found in a flea market on the Cape before we were married is gathering dust. My perfume bottles, seven of them, are arranged on a china tray, next to a jumble of jewelry: African silver earrings, a pair of gold hoops, some dangling semiprecious stones. The good pillows and sheets I bought from a catalog a few years ago have served me well. Who knew how much time I would spend here, by myself?
If I let my mind wander, I can recall nearly every moment we spent in this house, in this room. I don’t need Ned’s video to see Kate at two, climbing onto the bench at the foot of our bed and flopping down on the old patchwork quilt we used to have there, giggling. Or Ned, up on one elbow, his gray-green eyes looking down at me as my belly swelled with Joshua, whispering that he was so lucky to be a new father all over again. On the mantel above the fireplace is a photograph in a hammered silver frame: Ned, Kate, and I are standing together near the base of Stratton Mountain. (There are no photographs of the four of us—not a single picture of Kate and her baby brother together.) It is early fall, and we are dressed lightly in sweatshirts, shorts, and hiking boots. I remember Kate’s confusion when I said I wasn’t hiking. I was always first one up the mountain. “Do you feel okay?” she asked, in a rare moment of concern. I wasn’t ready to tell her the reason why. Too soon. The waistband of my shorts was a bit snug around my waist, and my breasts were sore and heavy, but no one would have known. “I’m fine, honey,” I said. I sat at a picnic table and watched over my newspaper as my husband and daughter began climbing until they disappeared from sight. the phone rings all morning, but i don’t pick it up. The caller ID flashes unavailable. I want to know who’s calling me before I answer. A thin stream of light from between the curtains plays against the wood beams, shadows of leaves from the elm tree out front flickering against the chipped white paint. Ned and I made love countless times in this bed. Sleepy too-tired-to-do-it sex. Wild, scratching, grasping sex. Makeup sex, both of us bruised and tender. All of it here, under this quilt, in this place where I now lie with so little sensation in my body it’s hard to imagine ever having given or received pleasure. I try to bring Ned into bed with me in my mind. I’ve lost his smell. It was the first thing I loved about him, breathing him in and knowing, inexplicably, that I was home. I remember his long fingers and the way he brushed my skin lightly with the back of his hand until I shivered. I can describe it, but I can no longer feel it. I still see him, though: strong, powerful chest with just the right amount of curly blond hair; the way that hair got thicker below his belly button and thicker still until it ended in a soft tangle. The phone rings again, and I reach over and unplug it. Lately, I’ve come to think about what it takes to unravel a life, not just one life, but the fabric of a family, carefully woven together with love and faith over the years. It doesn’t happen in a moment but in series of moments—insults, improbabilities, just plain bad luck—that finally begin to pile up until all hope is gone. Recently, I saw a story on the news about a man who lived somewhere out west. He went into his attic after dinner, loaded a shotgun, and killed his whole family: wife, two kids, and then himself. When they interviewed the neighbors on the news, they shook their heads and described him the way these people are always described: quiet, no trouble, never saw it coming. But it turned out that the man had been fired from his job and had no prospects and no health insurance; his wife was having an affair; the younger child had a chronic illness. It must have seemed to him, that cold and starless night, that there was nothing left to do but destroy what remained. There are things I still do, even if I walk through them like a robot. I wake up when Joshua cries and take him a bottle. I rock him to sleep with the same lullaby I sang to Kate: Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Mommy’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. What a crock that lullaby is. I used to think it was good for them, to believe that no matter what went wrong I’d be able to fix it. I feed Josh his breakfast and take him to preschool. I pick him up on time. I can’t afford to be late or to miss a single day. Everyone is watching me. They think I don’t know it—that with their good manners they’re fooling me—but I know what it feels like to be judged. I must have brought my own misfortune down around myself, is what they believe. They have to believe it. If it was all just a random series of events, if it could happen to anybody, where would that leave every one of them? I glance at the clock. Time to get up. The bathroom is dirty, with strands of hair—mine—in the sink and tub and fingerprints all over the mirror. Even though the afternoon sun floods through the grimy window, the black-and-white tile floor is cold against my feet. My eyes throb as I squint into the medicine cabinet mirror. I try to look at my face only in pieces: my mouth, when I brush my teeth; my hair, when I try to arrange it into something other than bed-head. It’s too awful to take in all at once. I was never particularly vain, but now that my looks are gone, I miss them. Ned has only improved since all this began. He’s lost his middle-aged bloat, and he looks edgy and angry. He bought himself a black leather jacket and wears it around town with his oldest pair of jeans. It’s as if he’s dressing the part of the bad guy, giving the finger to all the people who have doubted him, who assumed his guilt. And I guess at the top of that list would be me.
The sweater, jeans, and boots I wore to drop Josh off this morning are where I left them, on the wing chair. My bra, panties, and socks are crumbled into a ball on the floor. I throw it all on again, smear a little lipstick on the apples of my cheeks, rubbing it in. Maybe if I look healthy, people will leave me alone. The stairs creak as I walk downstairs. Sure enough, a Federal Express envelope is lying on the faded old rug outside the front door. I pick it up without glancing at it. I head into the kitchen and pour myself a cold cup of this morning’s coffee, heating it in the microwave. The Globe is unopened on the kitchen table, where I left it this morning. I sit down and try to focus. All I have to do is drive ten blocks, pick up Joshua, and come home. Usually he goes down for a two-hour nap, exhausted from a whole day of playing. Then I can take off all my clothes again and climb back into bed.
The answering machine is blinking with five messages. I hesitate for a moment, then push the play button.
“Hi, Mrs. Jensen, this is Bill Sommers, from New England Gas and Electric. I’m calling about an outstanding bill—”
“Rachel, this is your mother. Enough is enough. I haven’t heard from you now in at least—”
delete. Whatever she’s saying, I can’t bear to hear it.
“Mrs. Jensen, this is Charlotte Meyers, from Stone Mountain. There’s a small problem with Kate. Please call us as soon as you get this.”
My heart starts to race. Small problem?
“Mrs. Jensen? Charlotte Meyers again. I’m going to call the next person on our list of contacts. I guess that would be . . . let’s see . . . Mr. Jensen.”
“Rachel? What the hell is going on?” Ned’s voice fills the kitchen. The air is as thick as molasses, and I’m having a hard time taking a breath. Ned sounds concerned and angry. “You can reach me on my cell phone. Where are you?”
I dial the number for Stone Mountain, which is posted on an index card and taped to the wall above the phone. I frantically look for the school’s brochure, which is wedged between grocery receipts and take-out menus in a drawer. I need to see where Kate is, to hold it in my hands: the bucolic campus with its Tudor buildings, old trees, tennis courts. The thick glossy pages of the brochure are designed to make parents feel better about having to send their child to such a place. Inside, there are pictures of normal-looking girls doing normal-looking things: sitting in a circle on the lawn, walking in pairs along wooded paths. The high fences, the infirmary with its antidepressants and sedatives, the outer buildings where girls are kept in isolation—those are not part of the picture.
Finally someone answers.
“Hello, this is Rachel Jensen. I’m calling about my daughter, Kate?”
I’m put on hold. I look wildly around, trying to find anything of comfort to focus on, but instead my gaze falls on the knives in the knife block; the glass cupboards full of crystal; the wall of family photos—the three of us in the snow or on the beach—looking so perfect we could be modeling for Parenting magazine. I grab a pen and start to doodle. Blocks within blocks within blocks. I check my watch. If I don’t leave home in the next five minutes I’ll be late to pick up Josh.
“Mrs. Jensen? Frank Hollis here.”
Hollis is the head of the school.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, too loudly.
“Well, I don’t want to alarm you, but we’d like you and your husband to come up here,” he says.
“Did something happen?”
“Not one specific thing, but—”
“Is Kate okay? Is she hurt?”
“There’s been an incident, a fight with another girl, and—”
“Fight? That’s impossible.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Jensen.” He pauses here, waiting for a reaction from me. But I have no words. I try to imagine Kate, her skinny arms punching someone, her nails scratching. I feel like we’re talking about somebody else, someone I know so slightly that I would have to call her a stranger.
“Also, a pill—the hallucinogen ecstasy—was found in her pocket during a random check.”
“Well—isn’t it possible that one of the other girls put it there?” Even as I ask the question, I know how lame it sounds.
“No,” Hollis says slowly. “She admitted it was hers.”
“How did she get it? Aren’t you supposed to make sure that kind of thing doesn’t happen?”
“We do our best, but it does happen sometimes. It’s under investigation—”
“I thought the whole point of your school is to protect her,” I blurt out. I’ve been gripping the table so hard my fingers hurt.
“Look, let’s discuss this when we meet. I’ve spoken with Dr. Esposito, and he agrees that we should all sit down and come up with a game plan.”
A game plan. I try to picture Hollis, sitting in his slightly shabby office. He’s a pale stooped-over man with bags under his eyes. The night—nearly a year ago—when we first left Kate at Stone Mountain, I kept staring at the framed degrees on the walls of his study (A.B. Harvard, Ph.D. Cornell), trying to make myself feel better about leaving my daughter in the care of someone who looked like he hadn’t taken a deep breath in a couple of years.
“In the meantime, she’s back to Level One,” he says.
Level 1 is where all the girls start when they come in, no matter why they’re there. It’s pretty much isolation, along with daily therapy. Going to classes, contact with other girls, even eating in the cafeteria are all privileges they have to earn. Kate hasn’t moved past Level 2 since she’s been at the school.
My teeth are chattering. I wrap my arms around myself, trying to stop the shaking. I agreed to put her in that school because I thought it was the only place we could keep her safe. They promised to watch her twenty-four hours a day and make sure nothing happened to her. In the meantime, she would grow, grow up and out of the terrible twisted confines of her own mind.
Stone Mountain is two hours away. If I leave now, pick up Josh, and find someone to watch him, I can be there before dark.
“I’m on my way.”
“We were thinking about tomorrow, Mrs. Jensen.”
“I need to see her now.”
“We would prefer that you wait. This is something that has to be carefully orchestrated. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”
He’s talking to me in a slow, careful monotone. This is how they talk at the school. They’re used to crazy people, parents and children both. I try to take a deep breath, but my chest hurts. Fights? Drugs? The words don’t even belong in the same sentence as Kate. Her skin is so pale you can see the network of veins in her arms, close to the surface—just like the rest of her.
“How would noon tomorrow be?” Hollis asks.
“Fine,” I say. “I’ll call my husband and let him know.”
I look down at the paper on which I’ve been doodling. There must be a hundred boxes there, each smaller than the next, until finally you can’t tell that they’re boxes at all.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2003 by Dani Shapiro
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