Gone for Good Page 14

I glanced out the window, still hoping Sheila might show up, that this could still all somehow be one big misunderstanding. Part of me—a big part of me—blocked. While my mother’s death had long been expected—Sunny’s cancer, as was often the case, had been a slow, steady death march with a sudden downhill plunge at the end—I was still too raw to accept all that was happening.


I had loved and lost once before. When it comes to affairs of the heart, I confess to a streak of dated thinking. I believe in a soul mate. We all have that first love. When mine left me, she blew a hole straight through my heart. For a long time, I thought I’d never recover. There were reasons for that. Our ending felt incomplete, for one. But no matter. After she dumped me—at the end of the day, that’s what she did—I was convinced that I was doomed to either settle for someone . . . lesser . . . or be forever alone.

And then I met Sheila.

I thought about the way Sheila’s green eyes bore into me. I thought about the silky feel of her red hair. I thought about how the initial physical attraction—and it was immense, overwhelming—had segued and spread to all corners of my being. I thought about her all the time. I had flutters in my stomach. I could feel my heart do a little two-step whenever I first laid eyes on that face. I’d be in the van with Squares and all of a sudden he’d punch my shoulder because my mind had floated away, floated to a place Squares jokingly called Sheila Land, leaving a dorky smile behind. I felt heady. We cuddled and watched old movies on video, stroking each other, teasing, seeing how long we could hold out, warm comfort and hot arousal doing battle until, well, that was why VCRs have a pause button.

We held hands. We took long walks. We sat in the park and whispered snide comments about strangers to each other. At parties, I’d love to stand on the other side of the room and look at her from afar, watch her walk and move and talk to others and then, when our eyes would meet, there’d be a jolt, a knowing glance, a lascivious smile.

Sheila once asked me to fill out some stupid survey she found in a magazine. One of the questions was: What is your lover’s biggest weakness? I thought about it and wrote, “Often forgets her umbrella in restaurants.” She loved that, though she pressed for more. I reminded her that she listened to boy bands and old ABBA records. She nodded solemnly and promised that she would try to change.

We talked about everything but the past. I see that a lot in my line of work. It didn’t trouble me much. Now, in hindsight, I wondered, but back then it had added, I don’t know, an air of mystery maybe. And more than that—bear with me again—it was as though there were no life before us. No love, no partners, no past, born the day we met.

Yeah, I know.

Melissa sat next to my father. I saw them both in profile. The resemblance was strong. I favored my mother. Melissa’s husband, Ralph, circled the buffet table. He was middle-manager America, a man of shortsleeve dress shirts over wife-beater T’s, a good ol’ boy with a firm handshake, shined shoes, slicked hair, limited intelligence. He never loosened his tie, not exactly uptight but comfortable only when things are in their proper place.

I have nothing in common with Ralph, but to be fair, I really don’t know him very well. They live in Seattle and almost never come back. Still, I can’t help but remember when Melissa was going through her wild stage, sneaking around with local bad boy Jimmy McCarthy. What a gleam in her eye there had been back then. How spontaneous and outrageously, even inappropriately, funny she could be. I don’t know what happened, what changed her, what had scared her so. People claim that it was just maturity. I don’t think that’s the full story. I think there was something more.

Melissa—we’d always called her Mel—signaled me with her eyes. We slid into the den. I reached into my pocket and touched the photograph of Ken.

“Ralph and I are leaving in the morning,” she told me.

“Fast,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I shook my head.

“We have children. Ralph has work.”

“Right,” I said. “Nice of you to show up at all.”

Her eyes went wide. “That’s a horrible thing to say.”

It was. I looked behind me. Ralph sat with Dad and Lou Farley, downing a particularly messy sloppy joe, the cole slaw nestling in the corner of his lips. I wanted to tell her that I was sorry. But I couldn’t. Mel was the oldest of us, three years older than Ken, five years my senior. When Julie was found dead, she ran away. That was the only way to put it. She upped with her new husband and baby and moved across the country. Most of the time I understood, but I still felt the anger of what I perceived as abandonment.

I thought again about the picture of Ken in my pocket and made a sudden decision. “I want to show you something.”

I thought I saw Melissa wince, as if bracing for a blow, but that might have been projection. Her hair was pure Suzy Homemaker, what with the suburban-blond frost and bouncy shoulder-length—probably just the way Ralph liked it. It looked wrong to me, out of place on her.

We moved a little farther away until we were near the door leading to the garage. I looked back. I could still see my father and Ralph and Lou Farley.

I opened the door. Mel looked at me curiously but she followed. We stepped onto the cement of the chilly garage. The place was done up in Early American Fire Hazard. Rusted paint cans, moldy cardboard boxes, baseball bats, old wicker, treadless tires—all strewn about as though there’d been an explosion. There were oil stains on the floor, and the dust made it all drab and faded gray and hard to breathe. A rope still hung from the ceiling. I remembered when my father had cleared out some space, attached a tennis ball to that rope so I could practice my baseball swing. I couldn’t believe it was still there.

Melissa kept her eyes on me.

I wasn’t sure how to do this.

“Sheila and I were going through Mom’s things yesterday,” I began.

Her eyes narrowed a little. I was about to start explaining, how we had sifted through her drawers and looked at the laminated birth announcements and that old program from when Mom played Mame in the Little Livingston production and how Sheila and I bathed ourselves in the old pictures—remember the one with King Hussein, Mel?—but none of that passed my lips.

Without saying another word, I reached into my pocket, plucked out the photograph, and held it up in front of her face.

It didn’t take long. Melissa turned away as if the photo could scald her. She gulped a few deep breaths and stepped back. I moved toward her, but she held up a hand, halting me. When she looked up again, her face was a total blank. No surprise anymore. No anguish or joy either. Nothing.

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