I’m so young. I’m so young it nearly breaks my
heart. I’m riding that lime green bike that I love—the
one with the purple flag and the bell and the basket that holds
my striped blanket and the recorder playing John Denver tunes as
I cycle up and down the block. I’m not wearing a shirt, but
that’s okay. This is the last summer—the last summer
of shirtless cycling, of “Rocky Mountain High,” of that
purple triangle flag whipping against air.
* * * *
I’m sleeping fine now. When the
refrigerator clicks on or off I wake up, but running a fan helps.
Do you remember how easy it was to sleep when you were a kid?
You never want to fall asleep because you’re afraid you’ll
miss something, but you always do fall asleep and then when you’re
out you’re out. Now I want to sleep and can’t—well,
couldn’t. I’m sleeping fine now.
When Allen and I were first together
it was really hard to sleep. You know, how you run into the edges
of each other’s bodies and even your sleeping self is amazed
that this person—this one—is warm and breathing and
dreaming there next to you. You always hoped it would be this
way, but never thought it would really and you think, this must
And when he left—he left and I
never did cry about it—I just stopped sleeping so easy.
I lay awake thinking about Allen, wondering if it was me or him
who left first, wondering if it was like this for Dad when Mom
left. I remembered Dad crying at first when he told me she wasn’t
coming back. And he wasn’t alone. He had me. He had the
ladies from church. He had his work. I didn’t even have
a job. I had been working as Allen’s secretary, which I
obviously wasn’t doing anymore.
So I just stayed in bed for about three
weeks, the empty room pressing against me, feeling the great nothing
that can settle into an empty room. Like when you put on the radio,
but the sounds have nothing to grab onto from the speaker to your
ear. You’re surrounded by nothing. So you turn on the TV,
but it seems so distant. The phone rings and you know that it’s
ringing, but you don’t really hear it. It’s just an
understanding. You answer sometimes. Sometimes you don’t.
Because the ringing isn’t really a bother, it’s not
a noise. So you let the nothing slide in through your ears, your
nose, your mouth, your pores. You soak it up and you’re
empty—full of nothing at all.
Then the phone call from Dad came. The
landlady had called him. My rent was overdue and she hadn’t
seen me for too long. When I was moving my stuff out she told
me she’d been afraid to come in and check the apartment
for fear she’d find me dead. I suppose she might have if
she hadn’t called my dad and if he hadn’t called me
and if I hadn’t happened to answer. I don’t know why
I answered. But something in the ring got through the void and
I picked it up.
When I put the phone up to my ear and
heard Dad’s voice there came this shred of something—a
warm breath through a cordless phone. I hung up and decided to
be alive again. Not happy, never happy, but alive. For Dad, not
for my husband, well my ex-husband.
So I set myself to getting home. I thought
I could help Dad in the shop, help get the house back in shape.
He was pretty bad off then. His back was giving him a lot of trouble—his
back and his knees. It’s because of his weight. He’s
been fat most of my life. That’s why Mom left him. That
and the church thing. It sounds backwards, doesn’t it? Woman
leaves man because he’s fat and pious. Not the way it usually
seems to go. And they were so young, too—seventeen when
I was born, eighteen when they got married. The ones that start
that way never last, do they?
I packed some clothes. I gave a lot of
our things—just things, nothing sentimental—to Goodwill,
and put the rest in storage—books, quilts, photos, the Christmas
ornaments and furniture my dad made for us, things like that.
I listened to a half-hour of messages on my answering machine
for missed appointments or from concerned friends. I saw Allen
yesterday. Are you okay? Call me. Lots of those. There was one
from Mom. “It’s Mom. Just calling to check up. It’s
been a while.” There was one from Allen. “Grace. You
don’t have to be like this. Why can’t you just come
to work until you can find something else? I don’t understand
why you insist on…well, it doesn’t have to be like
this.” I unplugged the machine and packed it for storage.
* * * *
We met in college. I was
a sophomore and he was in the MBA program. We met at a Fourth
of July party. I was wearing a white summer dress and some girl
was teasing me about it looking like a nightgown. Allen said it
“And perfect,” he said. “What’s
“Well, it suits you. The dress and the
name.” I blushed, he told me later, which is what made him
fall for me. I thought he was a little corny actually, but at
the same time I felt rescued.
I remember that one of my straps kept
slipping off my shoulder, and that the dress felt too short. I
wanted to fidget with it all night, make it longer, cover myself
up. But I didn’t. I forced eye contact, forced confidence,
and he didn’t notice. That’s what made me fall for
him. He didn’t notice that my hair was naturally curly and
that I had to blow-dry it straight. He didn’t notice that
I slipped away to reapply my lipstick every twenty minutes. I
never have figured out how some women manage to keep theirs from
rubbing off, and I’ve tried every kind of long-lasting lipstick
there is. He noticed everything I wanted him to and missed the
I would lift my strap casually back up
over my shoulder, eat my watermelon carefully over a plate, not
letting it spill onto my dress, picking the seeds out with a fork.
I remember that when the others were shooting fireworks we laughed
and I spun in a circle and waved a sparkler.
he said and he kissed me.
He wanted to get married. Maybe it could
have been anyone, but it was me. That me.
* * * *
It’s Saturday morning
and I’m sitting between my mom and dad in the third pew
from the front, where we always sit. The lights are dimmed in
the sanctuary because Mission Spotlight is on. There are slides
of black children in stiff light blue uniforms singing songs and
learning to read or sew or play baseball and white missionaries
carrying bibles and smiling and hugging the children. The voice
that narrates is interrupted now and then by the recorded sounds
of the children singing or reciting bible verses.
Mom looks down at me and sighs. I’m
wearing a sailor dress, too tight and pulling at the buttons across
my just-swelling chest. I’m picking at my knee. I fell off
my bike the day before. She usually slaps my hand when I pick
my scabs but she doesn’t this time. She looks so tired.
She’s sinking down in her seat and puts her hands, petit
and pale, over her face. She’s crying. Dad reaches over
and touches her knee and whispers, “You okay?” She
shakes her head and then she’s sitting up again. She picks
up her purse and finds a tissue to wipe her eyes. And then she’s
fine. Strong. Young. She kisses my forehead and then she’s
gone, like she’s going to the bathroom.
Then I think I know what I must look
like to the rest of them. Scabby knees, hair in a sideways ponytail
with too many curls left hanging or only half inside the clip,
sailor dress a size too small, toes stained brown from summer’s
dirt all popping through the stretched out parts of my sandals.
It’s the first time I understand the disapproving glances.
And I know the words that come and will come off of the silent
tongues of the congregation behind us—what they say and
what they will say.
‘What a mess. The poor thing needs
a mother. What kind of woman would do such a thing? Leaving that
child to be raised like a street urchin. Poor Dan. He doesn’t
know any better. How’s a man suppose to do a woman’s
job? I’m sure it’s an embarrassment to him. Everything
happens for a reason. Maybe it would’ve been worse for the
girl if her mother had stayed. God works in mysterious ways.’
Dad doesn’t know yet. He thinks
she just went to the bathroom. I dig my fingers into the space
between his folded hands. The palms are tough and calloused from
working in his shop. I lean into him. His belly is big and hard
and it’s mine and I cling to it.
* * * *
I took the train home.
It’s a pretty ride from Boston to New York. You have to
transfer to a commuter at Central Station to get to Old Westbury.
That’s the bad part—fifty minutes with all the Long
Island yuppies. I think they irritate me because they notice me.
They notice everyone and everything. They have to in order to
figure out who they’re better than and who they still have
to beat to be the best. The City is better. No one cares for the
most part. You don’t get noticed. Dad has always said I’m
like a cat. Ignore me and I’m happy. If I want attention,
I’ll seek it out.
So I got home on a Friday afternoon,
a couple of hours before sundown, before Sabbath. I walked the
four blocks from the Garden Street station. I just had one big
suitcase and one small one. Our old house is on Thistle. Dad had
done some work on it since the last time I’d seen it. He’d
added a line of fine dark green inside the wider light green trim.
I’m proud of this house. I always
have been. It sticks out, odd and colorful, on this street. The
neighborhood was built in the sixties. Every house is identical,
except for the color—there are three to choose from. Our
house, though, you’d have thought we’d torn down the
original and built this one in its place. It probably would have
been easier if we had. Over the years Dad added a second floor,
a wrap-around porch, a swing, a weathervane. Some people in the
neighborhood complained, said it didn’t suit the area and
that it stuck out like a sore thumb, but Dad didn’t care.
We just kept on with the changes. Mom never liked that either—sticking
out in a respectable neighborhood.
He replaced the old crank-out windows
on the front of the house with stained glass windows, bizarre
and colorful. My favorite window looks like it’s full of
different kinds and colors of hair. It’s hard to describe.
You almost have to see it. But there’s this strip of gold
that sweeps down from one corner and some red that curls around
in the middle. There’s a black fluff on the bottom and a
few different shades of brown—some spiky, some smooth and
waving. It’s the living room window.
I went up onto the porch and set my big
suitcase down to ring the bell, but Dad was already there, door
open, arms open. His body, still huge and firm at forty-five,
filled the doorway. “Hey, pal. Why didn’t you call?
I could have picked you up.” We hugged then. I clamped down
on his belly and breathed in. Dad smelled like wood and sweat.
I’m sure most people would think this is gross, but I love
this smell. I always loved hugging Dad and picking up sawdust
from his overalls in my hair and on my clothes. I smelled this
and I thought, this is the right thing, the right place for me
to be. Everything happens for a reason, I thought. This is where
I could understand myself. Myself only. Without Allen. With Dad
I could just be myself and he would understand everything, so
I would too.
He picked up my suitcase, but I could
tell it was killing him. You can see pain in a familiar face,
even when no one else can. I took it from him. “Don’t
treat me like a sissy. I carry my own bags now.”
We went inside and I could smell Dad
all over again. The inside of the house was mostly the same. The
living room was filled with newly-made pieces of furniture—benches,
mirrors, desks, rockers—waiting to be picked up and paid
for. The hair window cast a blur of colored light onto the carpet.
The house had been vacuumed for my benefit, but only the areas
that were cleared of stuff. Dad never bothered to move anything
when he vacuumed. Sure he’d move the little stuff like pieces
of paper or a pen, but never a chair, never the piano bench or
a basket of magazines. I don’t think I ever noticed this
as a kid, but it bugs me a little now.
“You look tired, Gracey. You want
to shower and rest for a bit.” He was looking at me and
seeing me notice the dust collected under and around things. Or
maybe he didn’t. Maybe he doesn’t even realize he
does this. I don’t really know.
“I think I’m just hungry. Let’s have something
to eat. Are you hungry?”
So we left my bags and went into the kitchen. We opened cabinets
and looked at cans of things that didn’t sound good. We
opened the refrigerator and looked at old produce and a pot of
spaghetti and a couple of week-old casserole dishes covered in
saran wrap. “The ladies are still bringing you casseroles?”
Dad made his big-eyed so-sweet and innocent grin. “That
is so ridiculous.” I rolled my eyes and he switched to the
eyebrow-lifting devious grin. Our ritual. I pulled out the tater-tot
casserole dish and he got a couple of plates. We ate in silence—we
always have—concentrating on each bite. We would only speak
at meals if we had guests and they would have to fight for our
attention. So different from the dinner parties of the last seven
years with Allen.
* * * *
It was that night after the office
party that it really started, I think. You never know exactly,
do you? But I think it must have been after that party. I drank,
which I don’t usually do. When we got home, we sat at the
dining room table and drank water—Allen sober, me drunk.
“You just weren’t being yourself tonight, Gracey.
That’s all I’m trying to say. I’m not even saying
it’s a bad thing. I’m glad you had fun.”
“Yes, you are. I can tell that you were embarrassed of me.”
I licked my thumb and pressed it onto some crumbs on the table,
picking them up that way. I almost brought them to my tongue,
but caught myself. It’s something my dad does, something
I used to do when I was a kid.
Allen saw, and shook his head at me. “What
are you doing?” He laughed.
“Nothing, okay. Nothing. Just not being myself according
to you, just drunk. That’s all.” I picked up my water
and purse and stomped up the stairs towards bed.
Allen followed me up. “Jesus, Grace.
You’re a terrible drunk.”
“Just…goodnight, Allen, okay? Goodnight.”
* * * *
We’re having people over for Sabbath
dinner. The Swains. I shed the sailor dress as fast as I can and
try to find something in my closet that will make my dad proud.
I look for something attractive, something right for an eleven-year-old
girl. There is nothing. Mom left less than a year ago, but she
was really gone way before that. I don’t have anything that
would be right. I imagine what Susan Swain will wear. Her mother
takes her shopping at Filene’s. She will wear the perfect
thing. I put on my bell-bottomed blue jeans with the deep pockets
and my newest green T-shirt that I got at camp with the yellow
stripes on the sleeves. I try to part my hair and comb it down
to the sides, but the cowlicks and the curls make it impossible.
I try for the ponytail again, and push all the loose bits behind
my ears. I wash my hands and clip my nails. I push my dirty clothes
into the closet as the doorbell rings.
“Such an interesting house.” I hear Mrs. Swain as
I’m coming down the hall. She was friends with my mom before
she left us. They used to come over all the time, but I’m
nervous to see them like I’ve never been before. I step
into the living room and there is Susan. She is wearing pink bell-bottoms
with big red roses all over them and a red blouse with a pink
vest. Her hair is long and straight and she has a perfect part.
She sees me and smiles with glossy pink lips. I want to be her.
I want what she has. I want her mother who takes her shopping
at Filene’s and her tall slim father who is a doctor and
who is proud of his daughter and her perfect clothes and her perfect
part and her glossy lips.
“Hi, Grace,” say the glossy pink lips.
“Hi, Susan.” I will watch them and I will act just
like them and then I will be just like them. I won’t be
like my dad and I won’t be like my mom. I will be Susan
* * * *
For the first week or two I was home I didn’t do much. I
slept a lot and ate a lot. Things I hadn’t been doing much
of for a while. Dad worked out in the shop all day and in the
evenings we went for drives or sometimes for a walk. Dad can’t
take very long walks anymore. It kills his knees. So we drove
out to Jones Beach and sat on the raised cement walkway under
the lampposts. We used to go out there all the time, when it was
nicer. I helped Dad get his shoes and socks off and then we both
stuck our feet in the sand and watched the waves and the sandpipers
in the sunset. There was a family with two dogs and a frisbee,
some kids around a fire pit, and a couple making out on the beach.
Neither of us said anything for a long time.
“Will you come to church with me this weekend?”
He had asked every week and I said maybe every week, and then
just didn’t get out of bed until I could hear that he was
gone. I kept having this dream that I went to church in some torn-up
brown corduroy overalls, with a red T-shirt and black boots. I
am supposed to give the invocation. My hair is a mess of curls,
and I hold tight to my Bible, face blanched and knuckles white.
I get as far as about the fifth pew from the front every time,
when I see my dad’s head from the back and to the side.
I can see just enough of his face to know that he is expecting
me and that he is expecting a woman in a dress, hair pulled back,
nylons, heels, sophisticated and eloquent. I have been this before.
Allen married me as that woman.
So we sat on the cement walkway at Jones Beach with our feet in
the sand and didn’t say anything else for another long while.
Then Dad talked about his next project, a hall tree for the youth
“He’s single, you know. About your age. His name is
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, nothing.” He smiled the devious smile. “I
just invited him for Sabbath dinner tomorrow.”
“Pat, the youth pastor. You did not.” He kept smiling
and looking ahead at the shore. “Dad, please. Be serious.
That is the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard. Please
“What? He’s my friend. He’s coming to have lunch
with me.” He was enjoying this. I was so mad. I didn’t
want anyone to come to the house. I didn’t want to see anyone
“And what? Convince me to go to church. You of all people
should know that doesn’t work.”
Dad’s head jerked back and I saw the quickest flash of pain
pass over his face and then turn to a red anger.
“What? It’s true, isn’t it?”
He raised his hand. It hovered above us, poised to strike. He
had never hit me before. Never even threatened to. I flinched.
He dropped his hand. We stared at each other, eyes wide. “Dad,
I’m sorry.” He turned and started walking back to
the car barefoot. His shoes and socks sat next to me on the walkway.
“Dad.” He wouldn’t stop or turn around. “Dad,
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry. Please.
He can come, it’s okay. I don’t care.”
He stopped but didn’t turn around.
I grabbed our shoes and ran over to him. I stood in front of him.
He wouldn’t even look at me. The lampposts flickered on.
“Dad, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.
I didn’t mean it.”
“It wasn’t the church, Gracey. It was me, you know.
I was an embarrassment to her. Do you know that she loved me at
first? We were happy at first.” He still wasn’t looking
at me. I didn’t want to hear this. I didn’t want to
talk about her. She had nothing to do with us. We’d never
talked about her.
“I’m sorry, Dad. Here. Let me put your shoes back
on. Let’s go home.”
He wasn’t even hearing me. “I always wanted you to
be more like her. She was, well, she was beautiful and she wanted
us to be like her. There was no room in that vision for a fat,
slobby husband, so she left. And you, well, you were more like
me. You weren’t enough like her to go along, I guess.”
“I know, Dad. Let’s just go home. I’m sorry.”
I handed Dad his shoes, and we walked back to the car without
talking. It was dark when we got home. Dad went upstairs to bed
without saying goodnight and I got in bed but couldn’t sleep.
* * * *
When Allen and I got into bed that night after the party, he fell
asleep quickly. It was late. He sleeps like a baby, breathing
deep, loud, content.
I wished, then, that he would wake up, talk to me. I would say
that even after seven years he does not know me. I know him. I
know how his jeans pull outward at the knees a little differently
than most men’s. How he sometimes clips his fingernails
while on the toilet. How he likes to drink cold water from a metal
cup. Tender details--common, ordinary, familiar.
I wanted to say, “I always rub my lips together when I’m
nervous,” or “I like to eat cold pizza right out of
the refrigerator before you get up in the mornings,” or
“I have the funniest little hair that grows out of my back.”
Pointing, “Have you ever noticed this?”
* * * *
I sleep over at Susan’s a lot, almost every weekend. Dad
gives me some money and her mom takes us shopping at Filene’s.
We buy matching outfits and strawberry lip smacker. This Saturday
night we are wearing our matching shirts with the embroidered
leaves and Mrs. Swain says that my mom is on the phone and she
wants to talk to me. I say no, no way, I hate her. This wasn’t
what Mrs. Swain wanted to hear. But I am proud of myself. I’m
standing up for my dad. I’m proud that she left me, too.
Better that I should grow up without her. It would have been worse
for me if she had stayed, I think, like the ladies at church say.
Mrs. Swain gives me a sad look, a disappointed look. I say no
* * * *
The day after the beach Dad acted like the words had never passed
between us, and it was life as usual. I didn’t go to church,
but I got up and showered and dressed for Sabbath lunch. Pat the
youth pastor was coming over. I looked through my closet. I hadn’t
brought much, mostly sweatshirts and jeans and T-shirts. I left
my hair out, a curly mess. That was it. The good pastor would
just have to cope.
Dad got home around one and the pastor would be there soon. We
fell into the old routine. I do the salad and the bread and Dad
boils the pasta and makes the sauce. This is our standard guest
We stood at the counter, side by side. Dad redid the tile on the
counter years ago with purple and green and blue shards of broken
factory tile. We didn’t talk. We just worked quietly at
the meal. We set the table and then stood back to admire our work.
The doorbell rang and I ran my hands over my hair, and noticed
then that I was barefoot. Dad saw me notice.
“It’s fine. You look just fine—perfect. It doesn’t
* * * *
I woke Allen up. I said his name and nudged him and then rubbed
my hand in circles across his chest. “What? What is it?”
“Allen, what do you love about me?”
“Gracey, what are you talking about? Of course I love you.”
“That’s not what I said. Why? What is it that makes
you love me?”
“I just do.” He rolled onto his side, facing away
from me. “Come on, go to sleep.”
He fell back into his deep and regular breathing, and after a
while he smacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth like
an infant. I got out of bed, carefully. I didn’t wake him
again. He looked so soft in the moon’s shadow. I stood at
the open window, 3 a.m., and pulled my nightgown over my head
* * * *
I’m so young. I’m so young it nearly breaks my heart.
I’m riding the lime green bike that I love—the one
with the purple flag and the bell and the basket that holds my
striped blanket and the recorder playing John Denver tunes as
I cycle up and down the block. I’m not wearing a shirt,
but that’s okay.
But then my back tire hits the curb and my right knee hits the
pavement as I fall. My palms get a little scratched up, too. The
recorder is fine. The bike is fine. A neighbor lady comes out
of her front door. “Are you okay?”
I wave. “I’m fine.”
She watches me pick up my bike and climb back on. As I’m
riding away I hear her call out, “Aren’t you a little
old to be going without a shirt?”
“I’m fine, thanks.” This is the last summer—the
last summer of shirtless cycling, of “Rocky Mountain High,”
of that purple triangle flag whipping against air.