Where Have You Gone?

My daughter and I are walking through the cemetery two blocks from our house. It is early summer, the air warm, leaves green, the walk not yet unpleasant. At another time, I will point out to her headstones marked with surnames of those I know, have known, have wanted to forget (one, my first flame: a trickster with a big mouth and restless heart).

           But today, we search for one name: Michael Fleming, dead at forty-seven, two years buried. His daughter, Arielle, visits Michael’s parents by the grudging grace of her mother. Arielle and my daughter have been friends since pre-K, and remain so, even with a state and spotty visits separating them.

           Although we hunt for Michael’s grave, we know why we’re really here. This is a safe place, insulated from traffic and distraction. She knows what’s coming. Yesterday, while Swiffering behind her bed, I found an opened Shock Top, its neck clotted with rotten froth; a merlot bottle, its cork stabbed at a sloppy angle with a paring knife; and the empty belly of a soured chianti. I do not know how much was in there to begin with. When I confronted her, she said, not much. “It was nasty. Like vinegar.”

           The beer? She tightened her lips, shook her head.

           When I told my husband about the stash, he excused it as curiosity, maybe Arielle had something to do with it.

           “Did you drink with Arielle?” I ask.

           “No. She says she’ll never drink because of her father.” 

           Michael told me he was three years clean when I saw him five (six?) years ago at the Quick Check. He’d locked his keys in the car, his cell phone was dead, and he’d just been fired from his job for someone cheaper. And still: the custody battle. “New Jersey favors the mothers, even when they suck.”

           Bad luck had thinned him out. His tattoos’ original imprints bled into his blotchy skin, their vigor exhausted. But Arielle’s name, etched on his inner arm in girly cursive, endured.  

           I ask my daughter why she drank.

           “I don’t know,” she says. “I thought it would help me forget.”

           “Forget what?”

           “I don’t know. The things that bother me.”

           This is beyond curiosity. This is another step into an epicenter of disaster. After the first step—cuts on her arms—I recruited a psychiatrist and psychologist, found myself at mass, thanked God for my life, my family, and out-of-network benefits.

           The small graves are marbled gray bricks pressed to the earth, some titled simply: MOTHER, FATHER, SON, DAUGHTER. My daughter was here last week with Arielle and the family to commemorate Michael. I imagine them tip-toeing around the stones of strangers bedded beneath their sorry feet. No pomp of granite headstones, flowers, or reedy crosses here, just the economy of humble reverence.

           She bends to read the stones. “It has to be here somewhere.”

           At age eleven, she outgrew me and may add an inch or more before her fifteenth birthday. Her body: strong, softly curved. A woman. Strange. Arielle, though dainty by comparison, has black, witchy fingernails, a fake snake tattoo on her calf, short-shorts—their inner pockets spread like silly wings on her wiry thighs—and the specter of a boyfriend, Josh, who my daughter met on FaceTime. “He’s okay,” she said. “Weird.”

           I should not ask, but do. “Did you tell Arielle about the cutting?”

           “No,” she says. “I trusted her with some other stuff. I didn’t want to add on more.”

           Her cuts have healed, yet one inner arm betrays a brown patch like a casual error in pigmentation. On the opposite shoulder: white, horizontal lines, slightly raised. Mine, hidden on my hips, stitched to silence, confess nothing. Not yet.

           In a kindergarten photo, taken the morning of their field trip to The Land of Make Believe, she and Arielle, smiles radiant, clutch hands. Matching BFF bracelets. Sisters inviolate.

           It would be their last year together.

           A slate sky frames the church across the street. Before we resign our search, she says, “They bury the dead babies over there.” She points to a corner nearly hidden by trees.

           I used to hang over her crib, clapped with dread. I imagined her still and hard as stone, blue-lipped as if drowned. I saw myself throw her down the stairs, thieves attacking me while she screamed… you know, don’t you, private terrors such as these? The illusive peril quelled only by pills in the morning, pills at night. The deep breathing and yoga shit do not work.

           Many veins travel a tangled path to the artery of original pain. Even the right road veers without signals. Avenues of destruction shimmer the promise of easy reward, their gates open and clear. Talk of this will come in the Fall when she, pill-weary, school-stressed, says, “I feel like I’m stuffed with cotton. I just don’t care.”   

           We pass through the black iron gates toward home. The first drops of rain turn our bare arms to gooseflesh, though it is not cold; it’s the surprise of difference. On our front porch, we sit on the plastic Adirondacks. She lights the citronellas. She is old enough now to be trusted with fire. There is more to say, more to ask. Stuff. Things. Her father, my husband, will soon find us. Time ticks in my throat.

           The wind heaves, driving the rain into angled needles illuminated by the orange street lamp. Our Japanese maple, which we do not clip for fear of killing it, rustles its full skirt, waves its fanned arms either in celebration or warning.

           My daughter curls her long hair around her neck and across her shoulder like a luxurious scarf. The candlelight accentuates the gentle features of her father’s kind genetics. I am all sharp angles: pointy nose, jutting chin, small cruel eyes.  

           I have pushed and screamed at her, pressed her to humiliated tears. When she was two, I squeezed her arm so tight you could see my finger marks. Upon return from my second (not last) hospitalization, she, nearly four, would not come to Mommy. Guilt, my just overseer, clutched my throat. “I want to see your eyes,” she said. She took off my sunglasses and, smiling, came to me. I have tested many mirrors, searching for what her eyes saw, the trick of light that hid the shadows where I crouched in cowardice.

           But this is not a story of self-pity (is it?). It is early summer. Soon, she will lead me to the ocean, teach me to brave the waves as if Jaws never existed. We will crack crab and lobster shells, dig out the sweet, salty meat with our fingers. We will climb the pale mountains of sand dunes until we reach the sound that swallows the sun.

           Not yet.

           The rain splatters on the asphalt. I shiver. She says, “I’m getting cold.”

           I want to touch her, just stroke her hair as if by accident, but she would pull away.

           “I’m cold.”

           I can already imagine her gone. I, alone in her room, its white walls peppered with postcards, my hands in her abandoned mittens, will whisper to memories I love you.

           But she is here, and there are many I love yous left. I offer her one now.

           “I love you, too,” she says, eyes on the rain.

           One last try: Arielle’s Josh. “Has Arielle ever talked to you about sex?”

           “Yes,” she says.

           But it is too late for talk of tricksters.

           The porch light, cruel interloper, reminds me of what is already broken between us. We have yet much harm to do, some reserved for each other. We will suffer in shared and separate sorrows. This is our bond, a tenuous peace beyond my husband’s reach.

           He opens the door. “There you are,” he says to her. 

           She stands up, blows out the weak candle.

           “Com’on,” she says to me like a mother.

            Will I live to see her children’s children?

            A gentle voice, itself a shadow, says, let tomorrow care for itself.

            But I’m already planning tomorrow. I will take a solitary walk through the cemetery, follow the sinuous path to the baby graveyard, and whisper prayers for the untimely dead, for the living, for those who live but want to die.

            My daughter told me that when Arielle called to inform her of Michael’s death, she didn’t know what to say.

            “I wouldn’t either,” I said. “So, what did you say? Anything?”

            She shrugged. “I don’t remember. I think we just stayed quiet. Then I played her one of my favorite songs.”

            I want someone to turn the porch light off so I can sit here in darkness.

            The porch door squeaks. Here she is again, phone in hand, earbuds in. I want to say, “Come sit with me again. Share with me your song.” 

Christine C. Heuner has been teaching high-school English for 18 years. She lives with her husband, in-laws, and two children in New Jersey. Other than reading and writing, she enjoys spending time with family and exercising before dawn. This is her first published piece.