Fly Away Page 33

“Your mom and I had so much fun here,” I say as the gothic pink spires of the university come into view. I remember our toga parties and fraternity mixers and girls passing a candle at dinner to announce their engagements to boys who wore polo shirts and khaki pants and boat shoes without socks. Kate had thrown herself into sorority and collegiate life—she’d dated frat boys and planned social functions and pulled all-night study sessions.

Me, I’d had blinders on. I hadn’t cared about anything except my future career.

“Tul?” Johnny says, leaning over. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I say, managing a smile. “It brings back a lot of memories.”

I get out of the car and help Marah with her luggage. The three of us walk through the campus toward the dorms. McMahon Hall rises up into the cloudless sky, a collection of jutting gray buildings with decks that stick out like broken teeth.

“It’s not too late to sign you up for Rush,” I say.

Marah rolls her eyes. “A sorority? Gross.”

“You used to want to be in your mom’s and my sorority.”

“And gummy bears used to be my favorite food.”

“Are you saying that you’re too mature to join a sorority?”

Marah smiles for the first time all day. “No. Just too cool.”

“You wish, goth girl. If you had seen us in our parachute pants and shoulder pads, you’d be screamin’ jealous.”

Even Johnny laughs at that.

We haul Marah’s luggage into the elevator and ride up to her floor, where we enter a dank, dingy hallway that is crammed with kids and parents and suitcases.

Marah’s “suite” is one of a collection of prison-cell-sized rooms fanned out around a small bathroom. In her bedroom, two twin beds take up most of the space; there are also two wooden desks.

“Well,” I say, “this is homey.” Not.

Marah sits down on the mattress nearest her. She looks so young and scared it breaks my heart.

Johnny sits down beside her. They look so much alike. He says, “We are proud of you.”

“I wish I knew what she’d say to me now,” Marah says.

I hear the way her voice breaks, and I sit down on her other side. “She would say that life is full of unexpected joy and to throw yourself into your college years.”

The door behind us opens. We all turn, expecting to see one of Marah’s new roommates.

Paxton stands there, dressed in black, holding a bouquet of dark purple roses. The streaks in his hair are scarlet now, and he is wearing enough chains to contain Houdini. He sees Johnny and stops.

“Who the hell are you?” Johnny says, getting to his feet.

“He’s my friend,” Marah says.

I see it all in a kind of slow motion. Johnny’s anger—a thin layer over concern—and Marah’s desperation and Paxton’s not-so-subtle arrogance and disdain. Marah throws herself at her dad, clinging to his arm, trying to slow him down.

I step between Johnny and Paxton.

“Johnny,” I say sternly. “This is Marah’s day. She will remember it forever.”

He pauses, frowns. I can see him working to reel in his anger. It takes longer than I would have expected. Slowly, he turns his back on Paxton. It is a comment, to be sure, one Paxton appreciates but Marah does not. I can see how much it costs Johnny to pretend that he doesn’t mind Paxton being here.

Marah goes to stand by Paxton. Next to him, she looks even more dark-side, goth. They are both so tall and thin, like a pair of onyx candlesticks.

“Well,” I say brightly to diffuse the tension in the room, “let’s go out for lunch. You, too, Pax. I want to take Marah down memory lane. I’ll show her where her mom and I used to study in Suzzallo Library, and our favorite place in the Quad, and the Department of Communication—”

“No,” Marah says.

I frown. “No, what?”

“I don’t want to go on your Firefly Lane memory tour.”

This is a defiance I never saw coming. “I … I don’t understand. We talked about this all summer.”

Marah looks at Paxton, who nods encouragingly, and I feel my stomach tighten. This is his opinion. “My mom’s dead,” Marah says, and the flatness in her voice is devastating. “It doesn’t help to keep talking about her all the time.”

I am dumbstruck.

Johnny moves toward her. “Marah—”

“I appreciate you guys bringing me here, but I’m stressed out enough. Can we just call it a day?”

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I wonder if this hurts Johnny as much as it does me. Or maybe parenthood builds calluses on your heart and I am simply unprepared for it.

“Sure,” Johnny says gruffly. He ignores Paxton completely and muscles his way to his daughter, taking her in his arms. Paxton has no choice but to step back. Anger flares in his bourbon-colored eyes, but he banks it quickly. I’m pretty sure he knows I’m watching him.

This is my fault. I took her to Dr. Bloom’s, where she met this obviously troubled young man, and when she told me about him, I acted as a kind of permission board. I should have reminded her that she was fragile and damaged, a girl who cuts herself on purpose. I should have protected her. And when I found out they were having sex, I should have told Johnny. I certainly would have told Kate.

When it is my turn to say goodbye, I want to say all the things I should have said before. It makes me angry at my useless mom all over again—if I’d had a mother, maybe I would have known something about acting like one.

In Marah’s eyes, I see a carefully banked irritation. She wants us gone so that she can be alone with Paxton. How do we do this? How do we just leave her on this huge campus, an eighteen-year-old girl who cuts herself, with a boy who wears makeup and skull jewelry?

“Maybe you should live with me this quarter,” I say.

I hear Paxton make a sound of contempt, and I want to smack him.

Marah barely smiles. “I’m ready to be on my own.”

I pull her into a hug that lasts half as long as I would like.

“Keep in touch,” Johnny says gruffly. Then he takes my arm and pulls me away. I stumble along beside him, blinded by tears. Regret and fear and worry braid together and become my spine, the things that hold me up.

The next thing I know, Johnny and I are at a bar on the Ave, surrounded by kids doing Jell-O shots in the middle of the day.

“That was brutal,” he says when we sit down.

“Worse than brutal.”

I order a tequila shot.

“When the hell did she make friends with that loser?”

I feel sick to my stomach. “Group therapy.”

“Great. Money well spent.”

I down my tequila and look away.

Johnny sighs. “God, I wish Katie were here. She’d know how to handle this.”

“If Kate were here there’d be nothing to handle.”

Johnny nods and orders us both another drink. “Let’s talk about something less depressing. Tell me how your big-ass book deal is going…”

* * *

When I get home, I pour myself a large glass of wine, which I carry from room to room. It takes me a while to realize that I am looking for her.

I am anxious, edgy, and a second glass of wine doesn’t help. I need to do something. Say something.

My book.

I jump at the idea. I know exactly what to write. I get my laptop and open it up and find my document.

I have never known how to say goodbye. It is a failing that has been with me all of my life. It’s especially problematic, given how often partings have come up. I suppose it all goes back to my childhood—doesn’t everything? I was always waiting for my mother’s return. How many times have I said that in this memoir? I’ll have to go back and edit some of them out. But deleting the sentences won’t delete the truth. When I care about someone, I hang on with a desperation that borders on mental illness. That’s why I didn’t tell Johnny about Paxton and Marah. I was afraid of disappointing him—losing him—but let’s face it, he is already lost to me, isn’t he? He was lost to me the moment Katie died. I know what he sees when he looks at me: the lesser half of a friendship.

Still, I should have told him the truth. If I had, maybe the goodbye to Marah wouldn’t have felt so terribly, dangerously final …

* * *

Christmas of 2008 surprises me.

It has been three months since Marah moved into her dorm, and in that short space of time, life has changed for all of us. I have been writing regularly—not managing to rack up a lot of pages, but I am steadily finding the words that tell my story. It energizes me, this new pursuit, gives me something to do in the long and empty hours of the day and night. I have become a hermit of sorts, one of those middle-aged women who live their lives at arm’s length. I rarely leave my condo; there’s no need. Everything can be delivered, and really, I don’t know what to do with myself in the world these days. So I write.

Until Margie calls me one rainy day in late December. Have I been waiting for her call? I don’t know. I just know that when it comes in, when I see her name on my caller ID, I almost start to cry.

“Hey, there,” she says in that husky smoker’s voice of hers, “what time are you getting over here on Friday?”

“Over here?” I ask.

“To Bainbridge Island. Johnny and the twins are home, so of course we’re having Christmas here. We can’t have the girlfriend hour without you.”

And there it is. The thing I have been waiting for without even knowing it.

* * *

It is a new beginning, that Christmas on Bainbridge Island; at least it seems like one. We are all together again for the first time in so long—Bud and Margie have come up from Arizona, Johnny and the twins have moved back into the home in which they belong. Even Marah comes home for a week. We all pretend not to notice how thin and sullen she is.

When we separate, we promise to stay in closer touch, to get together more often. Johnny hugs me tightly, and in the embrace I remember who we used to be to each other. Friends.

For the next few months, I am almost my old self, at least a paler, quieter version of her. I write almost every day; I make progress, not quickly, perhaps, but some progress is better than none and it helps anchor me, gives me a future. I call Marah every Monday night; it’s true that she often doesn’t pick up my call, and when she does deign to talk to me she exerts a strong rule: if I nag at her at all, she hangs up. And yet I find a way to be okay with that. It is something. We are talking. I believe that our fake, useless conversations will grow real over time. She will find her place at the UW, make friends, and mature. Soon I’m sure she will see Paxton for who he really is. But when her freshman year nears its end and he is still by her side, I begin to worry a little bit more.

In May of that year—2009—Lucas calls and invites me to the last baseball game of the season. I meet Johnny at the ballpark and sit with him in the stands. At first it is awkward being side by side; we are both uncertain of how to treat each other, but by the end of the third inning, we have found a way. As long as we don’t mention Kate, we can laugh together again. For the rest of the summer and into that autumn, I visit often.

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