Things You Can Expect From Your Loved Onesby David S. Levinson
While the crickets chirrup beyond the walls of the Blums’ bedroom, Ruth awakens, thrust out of sleep by a terrible dream—of airplanes splitting apart in midair, shrapnel and bloody limbs landing in her front yard. She gropes for her pills on the nightstand. Her fingers throb, her fifty-nine-year-old heart beats hard in her chest. The pills, she thinks, where the hell did I put my pills? She rummages through the drawers of the beat-up nightstand: past pictures of Daniel; piles of recipes that desperately need to be filed; the dreaded manila envelope she hasn’t dared think about, although it’s been in the same spot for over a month. I’m living in a state of confusion, she thinks, hobbling to the bathroom. And I’d like a one-way ticket to someplace else.
She slides the door closed and switches on the light. Thinning, auburn hair, her father’s high, intelligent forehead, her mother’s wattle. Her insomniac’s blue eyes stare back at her from the mirror, wide and glassy. Horrified, she turns away, and there are her pills, on top of the toilet, on top of Norman’s latest issue of Success magazine. She lets out a tiny O as she fiddles with the cap. And under her breath, she curses the young, ambitious do-gooders in Ohio or wherever they are—“Damn them and their childproof lids,” she says. She composes a nasty letter in her head as she abandons the pills and climbs back into bed.
In five hours, Cliff’s plane will touch down and the weekend will be set in motion. The weekend of the unveiling of Daniel’s tombstone. She flexes her hands, and winces. A year ago, I opened the toughest bottles. A year ago, I went speed-walking around the neighborhood, she thinks. She shuts her eyes against the sight of her hands, and tries not to cry.
Ruth opens her eyes as the sun dips into the room and falls across the furniture. For a moment, she has no idea where she is.
“I feel claustrophobic,” she says to Norman, already awake. “Move the furniture back.”
“But, Ruth,” he says, drawing himself out of bed. “You said it made the room look bigger.”
“I never said any such thing,” she says.
She seems to remember thinking at one time the room needed to be opened up. Still, knowing this doesn’t account for much. She loses things somewhere between the last few seconds of day and the first seconds of sunlight.
“Are you all right?” Norman asks from the bathroom. “Do you want me to call Dr. Murphy?”
“I’m fine,” she says, slipping into her robe.
Her hands are barely moveable; her knees swollen like cantaloupe. Any other day, she might stay in bed but today this is impossible. She escapes into Daniel’s room to finish tidying it up.
When Daniel went away to New York, the Blums replaced the bed with a futon, one of those metal-framed numbers with an expensive mattress cover and throw pillows. They sold the teak desk and nightstand and bought a couple of filing cabinets. Against one wall is a bookcase, full of dusty cookbooks and even dustier home-repair manuals. For a while, Norman planned on adding an extension to the house but hasn’t gotten around to it. Something Ruth has had a hard time forgiving him for, since it would make living there more bearable. She hates their house, with its faux wood paneling and dark brown carpet. She’s tried over the years to talk Norman into moving but he simply shrugs her off.
“When your pension kicks in,” he usually says, “then we’ll think about it.”
Ruth teaches geometry to sophomores at the local high school. And though she loves the sense of order it brings to her rather disorderly life, she can’t imagine ever going back there. Since Daniel’s death, the thought of standing up in front of a classroom terrifies her. She has three long summer months to decide what to do. One more box to pack up and I’m done, she thinks, running a finger along a shelf devoted to books on grieving. Elaine gave them to her, when her own daughter died of leukemia, and said, “These really helped me through the worst of it.”
Out in the kitchen, Norman says, “Do you want me to come with you to the airport?”
The open pill bottle sits beside her bowl.
“No, I don’t,” she says, counting out three pills. “And while I’m gone, how about trimming the ivy away from the trees like you promised?”
Norman looks up at her, sprinkles a handful of cheddar cheese over his grits, and says, “Yes, dear.”
A year ago. A strange man on the other end of the telephone telling her in-between sobs the news about Daniel. The voice kept repeating her name, Ruth Blum, as though he weren’t sure he’d dialed the right number. Everything he said ended with a question mark so that even she felt he’d made a mistake. Hadn’t he?
Ruth still hasn’t gotten over the way she handled the news, as if it were happening to someone else entirely. She expected to react differently, to run through the house screaming, to chop off all her hair, to set fire to the backyard. But she isn’t this kind of woman. She’s more like her mother than she cares to admit.
She recalls her mother’s absolutely bizarre behavior after her father died of a massive coronary. For many months, she condemned her mother’s gunshot wedding. She refused to speak to her when she called; she made excuses not to visit. No wedding gift was sent, no note of kindness or congratulation.
She summed it up for Elaine: “Fifty-seven years of marriage, escaping Hitler, building a life together in America mean nothing to her. Well, it means something to me. Where is her loyalty, I ask you?”
Almost ten years ago, the cruelty of silence was a part of her youth. She regrets those months, wishes she could have seen past the loneliness, past the arbitrariness of marrying a man half her age. When she finally spoke to her mother again, things between them were strained. She didn’t recognize this other woman or what she was saying about her father and it frightened her.
“I loved your father,” her mother said, “but I never should’ve married him. Frank makes me feel like a teenager. We went dancing last night, Ruth. And then we stayed up to watch the sunrise. It was the most romantic evening I’ve ever had.”
“You’re in shock, mother,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“If this is shock, darling, then I’m loving it,” her mother replied.
Ruth imagined that beneath the glibness, the giddiness, lurked the mother she had always known. Teutonic, cold, brutal. They spoke every Sunday and each time they did, she expected the same thing—this other woman to emerge. But she never did.
Feelings haunt her, especially the feelings of not having done enough when her mother was alive. That if she’d been a better daughter, she might have made a better mother. This same principal she applies to Daniel as well. If I’d been a better mother, she thinks, he might still be alive.
Ruth grips the steering wheel tightly in her fingers. Everyone handles grief differently, she thinks, easing the window down to grab the short-term parking ticket. She hears her heart, like rain against glass. She catches her face in the rearview mirror and gasps. When she left the house, Ruth was sure she’d put on some makeup, a little lipstick at least. Now, the face staring back at her is blank as any note she might have found among Daniel’s possessions. If only he’d left a note, she thinks. There wasn’t any note, not even a goodbye.
At the gate, passengers pour off the gangway, bewildered, arms loaded down with bags. She looks for Daniel among them, always looks for him in a crowd, as if the last year were nothing more than a magic trick. Sometimes, she convinces herself that it is and any day, Daniel will call and say, “Come to New York, mom. We’ll take in a show.”
All around her, sons and mothers are reunited. She watches them in horror, seeing how easily they take this singular, beautiful moment for granted. Just like Ruth used to do. Pain is hearing the word mother in an airport on a bright and sunny summer day, she thinks.
While she looks through her purse for her lipstick, a hand touches her shoulder and she jumps.
“Ruth Blum?” the man says gingerly. She wheels around slowly and faces him. She’s carried around a picture of Cliff in her mind, which barely matches the man before her. For one thing, this man is tall and thin and black. For another, he’s strangely familiar-looking. She recognizes something in his eyes, set diligently into his wide face. The full lips, the angular jaw. “Cliff Williams, pleased to meet you.”
“Oh, yes, well, we—me and my husband—we’re so pleased you could make it. It means so much to us that you’re here,” she says, though she never expected Cliff to come in the first place. In fact, when he’d called last month to ask if he could stay, she’d done her best to talk him out of it.
It was Norman who’d said, “It’s not like we don’t have the room, Ruth. Three days go fast. You’ll see.”
In the car, Ruth thinks about the last PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meeting she went to months ago. Many years later and she still blames herself, as any mother might, for Daniel’s homosexuality. Elaine, who runs the biweekly meetings, told her that getting used to it was like getting used to an amputated limb. But for Ruth it’s more like getting over the surprising idea that she never knew her own son. Like when she accidentally found, while cleaning up Daniel’s room one afternoon, a stash of magazines: Playgirl, Hustler, Cherry, Swank, Kandi, Lick. She counted over a hundred of them scattered under his bed. She didn’t wonder how or where or why he’d gotten them. He was a teenager, awkward and gaunt, he spent hours in the bathroom, lighting candles and listening to Bauhaus. He wore a lot of black.
On the way home, Cliff says, “I hope you don’t mind but I took it upon myself to invite the cast of Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My.”
This was Daniel’s last Broadway show, an all-male revue, in which he played The Great and Powerful Oz. The show was a tell-all, told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. Cliff played the Wicked Witch.
“No, not at all,” Ruth says, though she can’t imagine what sort of people might show up.
“Daniel was quite an Oz,” Cliff says. “A wonderful wizard.”
“Yes, we read a review of the show,” she says. “I wish we could’ve seen it.”
“Luckily, we’re starting the road-show in about a month,” Cliff says. “I’ll get you tickets.”
“Splendid,” Ruth says. “I’ve always thought the witch got the short end of the stick. It’s about time someone shined a little light on her suffering, too.”
Cliff says, “Well, I’m glad you see it that way. A lot of folks think that what we’re doing sort of goes against everything L. Frank Baum stood for. The guy was a communist, did you know that?”
“No, I did not,” Ruth says as she pulls into the parking lot of Winston Churchill High School. Mid afternoon and the sun is beginning its slow descent. Ruth smells Cliff beside her, his aftershave, which Daniel might have given him. She wrings her hands.
“I have to run inside quickly,” she says, “to pick up a box of stuff. I’ll only be a minute.”
“I’ll wait here, I guess,” Cliff says, lighting a cigarette while rolling down his window.
Ruth wanders into the building, startled by its disquietude. Men wax the floors as other men paint the lockers. One black, one red; the school colors. Someone’s screwed up this arrangement: three black lockers in a row. She wants to point out this snafu but doesn’t. She isn’t there to instruct; she’s there to get her box and go home. But she can’t help linger in the hall. Something undeniably lovely about being in school when school isn’t going on around her. Almost beautiful, this afternoon before the halls fill up for the summer.
After explaining to her boss, Principal Burkehardt, that she needed the summer off, she broke down and told him about Norman and Elaine. She hadn’t meant to say anything; it just slipped out. Principal Burkehardt told her to take as much time as she needed; he said he understood, since his own wife had left him for a mechanic.
Ruth looks out her classroom window. In the parking lot, she notices the grit and grime on the roof of her car and a message etched into the dust of the rear window: I love you!
She gathers up the box. Files, folders, her “Teacher of the Year” award, rulers, graph paper, protractors, all the things that mean so much less now that they are crammed in a box. Before she leaves, Ruth goes to the bathroom at the end of the hall. And catches sight of Cliff strolling toward the football field. She applies some lipstick, and, box in arms, hurries to the car.
The trunk overflows with junk: some of Norman’s old shirts she’s been meaning to give to Goodwill, an unusable spare tire, a stack of newspapers, a box of Daniel’s full of what she doesn’t recollect. She places her box in the backseat and then pulls this smaller box out. Using one of Norman’s shirts, she smears I love you! off the rear window and heads toward the bleachers.
Cliff sits on the risers, smoking a cigarette. He waves at her from across the field, a curl of smoke escaping out his mouth.
He calls, “Are you ready to go?”
“Not quite,” she says, rearranging the box in her arms.
Far heavier than she anticipated, she wonders what part of Daniel’s life is inside of it. She wants to open it but is afraid of what she may find. More magazines, hateful letters to her he never sent? Some things are better left unknown.
She’s not too sure how Cliff will react when he sees what she is about to do. If he wants an explanation, she thinks, I’ll simply say that compulsivity often accompanies grief.
In the center of the overgrown field, she lowers the box down. She extracts the lighter fluid and matches from her purse. For a moment, she realizes how crazy this must seem but she doesn’t care; grief is crazy.
“Mrs. Blum, are you all right?” he says.
“Don’t tell Norman,” she says, as the wind blows out match after match. “I read about this in a book.”
Cliff takes another drag off his cigarette.
“Isn’t this against the law?” he says. “I mean, public fires.”
“This is Texas,” she says. “Everything’s against the law.”
This isn’t the first time Ruth’s set fire to a box of Daniel’s things. The first week after his suicide, she packed up a box of his books and burned it in Goodwill’s parking lot.
“I don’t know what this means to you,” he says, “but I guess it’s really important.”
“Yes, it is,” she says. She opens her hand and Cliff places his lighter in it. “Thank you.”
Ruth, thumb poised on the lighter, looks around her. No one, nothing.
The box catches instantly.
The sun hangs low in the sky, shadowing the field and the school. Soon, the fireflies and June bugs will come out and the air will fill with a different kind of light. Ruth looks forward to this light as things lose their angles and softly fade. When she can look at Norman and feel something stir, something besides regret.
In a matter of minutes, the box is a smoldering pile. Ruth stamps out the last of the remaining embers and then the two head back to the car.
At the house, Ruth shows Cliff to Daniel’s room and says, “If you need anything, I’ll be in the kitchen. There are towels in the bathroom. The knobs are funny. You have to play with them. Norman should be home soon. We like to eat at six sharp.”
Cliff stands with his back to her, his face folded in shadows. From this angle, he seems much smaller to her; his suit hangs off him like a drape. But maybe this is simply an illusion. Men carry their grief differently, she read, shrinking into it rather than expanding away from it. While a woman’s grief is lodged inside her body, a man’s is a reflection of posture, his clothing. She senses this about Cliff as she closes the door behind her.
Halfway down the hall, she hears Elaine and Norman.
“Ruth,” Norman calls, “are you home?”
She stops short of the doorway. Behind her, sunlight falls from the window, catching the multitude of stains in the brown shag carpet. An urge comes over her to get on her hands and knees with a sponge; instead, she’ll call a cleaning service later. And yet every time she goes to the Yellow Pages, she has trouble remembering why. As if between thought and action, she has slipped into another universe. She can’t explain it.
“Here I am,” she says, smiling, “What’s all the fuss about, Norman? Oh, hello, Elaine.”
Norman rises and greets her warmly with a kiss on the cheek. Ruth watches Elaine watching them and a momentary scowl slips nearly unnoticed across Elaine’s tanned face. She’s a handsome woman, with frosted blond hair and large cat eyes. Always smelling of expensive perfumes, Elaine works at a department store, selling specialty soaps.
“We ran into each other in the mall,” Norman says, holding a bouquet of flowers out for her. “Where’s Cliff?”
Ruth says, “I think he’s taking a nap. Did you know, dear, that Cliff is an actor on Broadway?”
“I just think it’s marvelous that you invited him this weekend,” Elaine says perkily. “It really shows how far you’ve come.”
“Yes, well, I don’t know about how far we’ve come,” Ruth says, going into the kitchen. “But I do know how far I’d like to go.”
To Elaine, Norman says uncomfortably, “Let me walk you to your car.”
“Yes,” Elaine says, rising, though it is Ruth who takes her by the arm. “We really did run into each other at the mall, Ruth.”
Ruth says, squeezing Elaine’s arm until she feels bone, “I’ll have those books back to you next week,” and sort of half-hurls Elaine out the front door.
I’ll leave her a little present in her front yard, Ruth thinks.
Norman puts on the TV. Ruth takes a seat at the opposite end of the couch. The flowers sit in a vase on the kitchen table, already wilted. Even from where she sits, she feels the heat of Norman’s body. It makes her aware of how cold she’s been the entire day. Suddenly, she wants to kiss him, the way they used to when Daniel was asleep and they had the house to themselves.
Norman says, “I have to check on the stocks,” and leaves her to the TV. She follows him into his study, a place usually off-limits to her. The chime of the computer and she knows she’s lost him again. He will sit for hours, charting his portfolios and retirement funds.
“Are you planning on mowing the yard?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says. “Are you planning on using that tone of voice with me for the rest of our lives?”
“What tone is that?”
“Ruth, one day we’re going to have to talk about—”
“No,” she says. “No, we don’t have to talk about anything, Norman. I just want to get through the next couple of days.”
“Okay,” he says. “But you can’t tell me that I haven’t tried.”
She watches the screen come to life with flashing boxes and dollar signs. She rests her hands on Norman’s chair. She almost kisses the back of his neck.
After dinner, Norman and Cliff sit outside on the patio, discussing the stock market. It seems that Norman has found an ally and this helps her relax. Though she finds this hobby of his—gambling with their life savings—somewhat horrifying. She remembers that day in 1987, Black Tuesday, when their IBM stock fell fifty-six points and they lost half a million dollars. They took a second mortgage out on the house. The money was not the issue—not to Ruth anyway. The issue was funding Daniel’s college education.
She remembers the afternoon he came home from high school after track practice. She was finishing up dinner and as he came through the door, she said, “Danny, we have to have a talk.”
She wanted to bear his anger and disappointment because she was his mother, because they were closer.
“We can’t afford Cornell,” she said. “You’re going to have to make other arrangements.”
“What are you talking about, mom?” he said.
“We were a bit reckless,” she said.
“I understand,” he said.
She was surprised by his reaction, more grownup than she had thought he’d be, more resigned than she had hoped for.
“If it’s important to you, I’m sure you’ll find a way,” she said offhandedly.
On the wall of his bedroom, she looks for the missing diploma, the graduation pictures never taken. She hates herself for not being the kind of woman strong enough to handle her husband. Daniel might still be alive, she thinks, if you’d been a different kind of woman.
She shuts the door, lays on the futon face-first, and screams into the pillow. She screams and screams, pushing her voice down into every fiber of the pillow, the mattress, the carpet beneath. She screams for five minutes straight without stopping, just one long continuous scream that burns her throat, shakes her teeth.
When she is done, she gets up, straightens the futon, and then, suddenly, she goes to the closet. Her joints ache as she reaches up and takes down a box marked taxes, 1985. She pulls the dusty, cardboard lid off and peers down at Daniel’s bright and glossy magazines.
She sees what Daniel must have: the candy-eyed girls with large lips, the men with smooth unadulterated skin. She comes to Playgirl. On the cover, a man who resembles Cliff. Ten years younger, the exposé speaks of Cliff’s likes and dislikes when it comes to women. He likes a girl who reads Shakespeare; he dislikes a girl without a sense of humor. The pictures of Cliff reveal ridges of muscle and a navel ring. Ruth runs a crooked finger over Cliff’s face and thinks, The world is a strange place and I’m a stranger in it. My best friend sleeps with my husband and my child jumps off a forty-story building.
She lugs the box into the den and, on one of the shelves above the Encyclopedia Britannica, Ruth locates the bowl of matches. She’s never understood why Norman collects matches since neither of them smoke. Since they have no fireplace. People collect all sorts of stupid things, she thinks, passing the bay window.
The moon through the trees lights up the men’s faces. Norman sits in his discussion posture, feet extended in front of him, one curled over the other. Cliff raises a hand across his face to bat away a mosquito. They discuss. Their faces are serious, potent. Ruth tries to read Norman’s lips and, catching random words—sick, marriage, wife—decides that she can’t despise him for his affair with Elaine any more than she can despise herself for allowing it to happen.
She walks past Norman and Cliff with the box and out into the yard.
Norman says, “Ruth, Jesus, not again.”
This is the sixth box in a year.
“Why don’t you just set the whole house on fire?” Norman says.
“Why don’t I just set you on fire,” she replies.
Cliff stares up into the trees, shifting uncomfortably. He lights a cigarette. Ruth sets the box down on the spot where the pecan tree used to be.
“Think about the neighbors,” Norman calls. “They aren’t going to like this.”
“So who cares. We don’t like our neighbors, Norman,” she calls back. “Besides, this is half of my property.”
“Thirty-seven years of marriage and this is what I have to show for it,” she says to the box. “Half an acre of land, a husband who cheats on me, a house I hate, a dead son, and the Wicked Witch of the West on my patio.”
The box catches on her first try.
She turns to face Norman, who now wields the garden hose.
“Step away from the box,” he says.
“You bastard,” she says.
“Get away from the box, Ruth,” he says. “Don’t make me do it.”
Ruth digs her bare feet into the soft, cool grass. “Blast away,” she says.
A stream of water hits her in the face. Behind her, the box burns steadily; she feels its heat on her neck and arms.
“You’ll have to do better than that, old man,” she says.
Cigarette in hand, Cliff makes his way between the Blums. He closes his eyes and draws a hand across his face, which becomes, when his hand lowers, the face of the Wicked Witch of the West. As he draws on his cigarette, Cliff sings, “Those ruby red slippers/they hold me in their thrall/I am nothing without them/no, nothing at all.”
His countertenor’s voice rises as he runs his hands over a pretend crystal ball. He scrunches up one shoulder. Norman increases the water pressure.
“Listen, Cliff, no offense but I’m kind of having a fight with my wife,” he says. Then, to Ruth, “This isn’t funny anymore. What if one of those sparks ignites the fence? Who’s going to pay? Who?”
Cliff stops singing and turns to Ruth. “Mrs. Blum, he’s right you know. This is sort of dangerous. The wind and all. Who knows what could happen?”
In the distance, the sound of sirens as Ruth thinks about the manila envelope in her drawer, the pictures of Elaine and Norman.
When Norman accidentally hits Cliff with the water, Ruth says, “Norman, you idiot.”
Cliff raises a hand up to his face again, either to wipe away the water or prevent another attack.
“Not a problem,” he says and disappears into the house.
Norman sprays Ruth until she can no longer tell the difference between the water on her face and her own tears. She turns to the box, and he shoots her back. The fire warms her, the smoke curling into the air. The ink in the magazines colors the flames blue and green and pink.
“This is no way for a grown woman to act,” Norman shouts.
“I could say the same for a friend of yours,” Ruth shouts back.
Norman finally turns off the hose, says, “I’m calling the fire department,” and leaves.
Ruth, slightly chilly, stands above the box and waits until the last embers die.
That night, her arthritis unbearable, Ruth climbs out of bed and instead of the pills, she pours herself a jigger of brandy. It’s the same bottle they’ve had on the shelf at the back of the cupboard for years. The same one they shared the first night they spent in the house. She drinks it down and then refills it. Drinks this down, too. She stares out the bay window at the ivy snaking its way up into the trees. She’s angry and tired and her body hurts as if God himself has taken a mallet to it.
After a while, Ruth doesn’t feel angry or tired or hurt. She’s drunk. For the first time in years. She goes into the living room, where Norman’s hi-fi, a relic from the 1970s, sits against the wall. Ruth rifles through the albums. She puts on “Pink Moon” and sings along. She drinks straight from the bottle of brandy. She thinks nothing of Daniel or Norman or Cliff, nothing of the cemetery, the mourners, the prayer for the dead. Nick Drake croons and she loves him. The rich warmth of his voice, the smooth texture in her ears. She drinks. And dances.
She imagines the parties never thrown and the wine never spilled. The trips never taken and the houses never built. She dreams of another boy, the real love of her life, Steven Melman. And dances with him around the room until the album ends and she is dizzy and giddy and sad. She drops the bottle to the carpet.
Before going back to bed, she stops at Cliff’s door. She presses an ear up against it. The house shifts under her—the foundation, the floor, everything unsettling. She loses her balance, plants a hand on the wall. Her throat burns. She burps. In her haze, the phone rings and it is Daniel thanking her for showing him how to be The Great and Powerful Oz.
Opening the door, she wobbles into the room. His damp face cut by moonlight, Cliff mumbles something incoherent. Lines from the play. Lines from his life. She remembers his voice over the phone last year, three thousand miles away. She remembers him saying, “I would’ve called sooner but Daniel told me his parents were dead.”
Ruth thinks about jumping, as she moves silently to the bed. She leans over Cliff. She says his name. She says it again. She bends even closer to him. He opens his eyes and stares at her, surprised to find her there. Ruth reaches out and touches his face, her bony fingers painful.
She says, “I couldn’t wait to get away from my horrible mother and Daniel couldn’t wait to get away from me.” She pauses. “I don’t know what happened here, in this house. I can’t explain it.” She sits down on the edge of the bed.
“Mrs. Blum, you should get some sleep,” Cliff says.
“I loved a boy once. It was devastating.” As soon as she says it, she feels funny, a tingling. “I was still getting over Steven when I met Norman in the elevator of the Time-Life Building. He lavished me with expensive dinners and chocolates and flowers. Unnecessary things. And he did something no one had ever been able to do,” she says. “He used to finish my sentences.”
Cliff says, “You have any more scotch?”
Ruth shakes her head. “There’s some wine for tomorrow.” The clock by the bed registers four-thirty. “Oh, my. It’s . . . very late.”
“I’m usually up at this time,” Cliff says. “I go for a run in Central Park, before all the annoying people get there.” He puts on a pair of sweatpants over his boxers and laces up his Nikes. “I’m going for a jog.”
“If you wait, I’ll drive you up to the school,” she says.
“No, that’s all right,” he says. “But if I’m not back in an hour, send out a search party.”
There is a moment, just before he disappears, that she wants to ask him: why did Daniel jump? And yet she feels that anything he says won’t be enough. There aren’t any words to make sense of what she’s going through. This bewildering, which shifts furniture around in the middle of the night, makes people feel things that probably aren’t even there.
Cliff opens the front door and wanders outside. She can almost hear him in the grass. She steps into their bedroom, closes the door, clicks on the light.
“Jesus, Ruth, what is it?” Norman says, rising up onto his elbows and rubbing his eyes. “Do you need your pills?”
“You blame me for Daniel’s death,” she says.
“Don’t be absurd,” Norman says. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“I blame you,” she says. “Someone’s got to take some responsibility, Norman. I can’t do it any more.”
Ruth opens a drawer in her nightstand and pulls out the manila envelope. She dumps the contents out on the bed and spreads the photos across the sheets. Pictures of Norman and Elaine, pictures she’s gone over a thousand times. When the man who took the photographs delivered them to her, he said, “Prepare yourself.”
Norman reaches out to touch her and she withdraws.
“Ruth, please,” he says. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
“Don’t patronize me,” she says and flexes her burning fingers. She reaches down for one picture in particular. Norman and Elaine lying on a grassy lawn with the University of Texas’s Main Building in the background. The Spanish tiled roof glimmers in the sunlight, and all around them hangs the spiny fruit of Mesquite trees.
“The three of us used to go there all the time,” she says. “God, I feel like an idiot.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Norman says. “Listen to me—”
“I’ve been listening to you for years,” she says and gathers the photos in her hands. “We’ve never been happy together.”
She replaces the photos in the envelope, dresses, and then walks out the door.
Envelope in hand, Ruth moves slowly through the field to the bleachers. She marvels at how everything is exactly as it was when Daniel used to run here. She remembers coming to watch him jump the hurdles, the way he flew from one to the other. His speed was uncanny and she wondered where he’d gotten it.
She pulls out a picture of Norman, his face full of an _expression—happiness, relief, joy—she hasn’t seen in ages. The same _expression when she told him he was going to be a father. Having a baby was supposed to hold us together, she thinks, taking out the matches. But then, with bloated fingers, she begins to fold the picture, first one corner then another. There is something in the folding, turning something flat and square into an object of dimension and depth. And she realizes that this is what loss really is: sharp corners, hard edges, unknowable quantities. For a moment, she cradles this odd arrangement of paper in her hands. Then, she stands up and sails it into the air, where it catches briefly, soaring.