Luisa eyes the asparagus I am preparing for our dinner. She says my kitchen is her cooking school—Maggie’s Culinary Institute, she calls it. I tell her she needs to secure more professional instruction before she quits her day job. She is the CEO of a non-profit on the other coast. She makes big bucks. I see her when I can now, when she flies into Boston for a meeting.
We have known each other thirty years. She is still as thin as the day I first met her, when she was twenty-one. There was a gap between the bottom of her pink print T-shirt and her white pants, five inches of flat brown stomach. All young girls dress like that now, but not then, when she knocked on my half-open office door. “Professor Colburn?”
It was late afternoon, a hot spring day in a southwestern college town. Another student had sent her, saying I was reliable. She needed to tell her story. Luisa had spent a month, a month that included her twenty-first birthday, in a secret jail in her country.
She wears skinny black jeans now and boots with heels; her leather jacket is draped over a kitchen chair. The dog lies next to the chair, his nose against the edge of her jacket. He would be in her lap if she would only sit down. He has forgotten I feed him.
“If you cook asparagus a lot,” she says, watching me, “you can tell a very good fresh asparagus from a bad one. If you really know asparagus, Maggie, no one is going to fool you very easily.” She stands close, hanging over my shoulder. Distance is a U.S. thing, she has told me, like squeaky shoes. In jail, if you hear squeaky shoes, you know that a U.S. man is there. Just visiting.
I am at the stove, ready to plunge handfuls of the crisp stalks into rapidly boiling water. I am not watching what I’m doing. I am watching her, as usual, the play of a half-smile on her face. She has worked out more of her experience and needs to tell me what she has learned. This is not going to be about vegetables. Asparagus, ha! Her metaphors surprise; she pulls them out of the air, constructing them from the details in front of her—anything will take her where she wants to go. She clings tenaciously to her Latin inflections, as well, though her English could be perfect if she wanted. Perfect English would not raise millions each year for the foundation that employs her.
“If you have eaten rotten asparagus, then you know all there is to know about rotten asparagus—how it looks and how it tastes,” she says. “And being in the presence of such terribly disgusting parts of human nature shows you just what we are capable of, we humans. If you don’t totally dissociate—and I didn’t—no one can bullshit you ever again. What I witnessed in another human being is there in me, available. I am infected.”
So we are going to talk about evil and about what it has done to her. First, we’ll eat.
She was wary when she came to see me that day but forthright, too. She leaned towards me in her chair, legs apart, elbows on her knees. I turned away from my desk to face her. I had been grading papers from the women’s studies class her friend was taking.
“I need to say it. I need to tell the whole thing from the beginning. It will take a long time.”
I had a small child waiting for me, Susannah, who now has a child herself. “I have an hour,” I said.
“It will take more.”
“You can come back. For starters, what is your name?”
She laughed and relaxed for a second, and I realized how taut her body had been. Her tension returned. I saw it in her arms, the slight bulge of knotted vein running from elbow to wrist. Those arms looked strong, and her calves, extending from the cropped pants, muscular. “Luisa,” she said. “That’s the name I’ve taken.”
I didn’t think about how young she was; I was barely ten years older and, with my round face and ponytail, probably looked less. Susannah was five years old. I loved my job, but in the late afternoons, I yearned to flee the building, to get my car and drive fast home to her. Today, I hoped we would have time together before Claude returned from work. In the last months, things had not been going well in the marriage department. Claude had been fired from his third job since we’d been together, and we were moving at the end of the summer, back east to some indefinite future in which I had no job at all. I liked this one. They had hired me part-time and then shifted me to a tenure track position when my colleague Karen left. “Thank God we found a place,” my department chair said. “I couldn’t stand to lose you.” I was surprised to hear he valued me.
Claude and I had bought a house on a block with a gaggle of children who quickly became Susannah’s friends. Claude and I got along when we first moved in. I didn’t mind the hot summers, and I loved the brief snow that fell last Christmas day. We played outside in the afternoon; it was sunny and warm, nothing like frigid New England. The next week, the department informed Claude that he would not be getting tenure when the time came. We could stay another year, but he wouldn’t. He told me I could stay if I wanted, but he was moving to Boston, where we’d met in graduate school. We would have to sell our house, brick, with a butler’s pantry that had an oval copper sink. You couldn’t buy a garage in Boston for the price we’d paid for that house.
“It began,” Luisa said to me, “my jail thing.” Her English was pretty good even then, though no one would have mistaken her for a native speaker. “Not when the guys stormed in and pointed their machine guns at my friend Teresa and me, nor when they blindfolded us and threw us into the van, but when they put me alone into a small room, totally dark, with a door like you see on a meat freezer—heavy, with a vacuum seal. There was a tiny window above the door; I could see only a crack of light, but I could hear the voices, shouts and singing, from the prisoners in other cells down the hall. In time, I learned, of course. They did that when the new ones were brought in—to bolster our spirits, to let us know they were with us.”
I saw her, this slender girl, inside a meat freezer. It began for me, too.
“I stood against the wall right next to the door, and it started for me then, when they told me not to venture farther because Daniel’s body was in the cell with me. They said he was dead. They said enormous rats chewed on him. That’s when it began for me. I could see nothing inside the cell, not my own hand. I did try to move a little way, and I tried to smell—to smell if there was a body.”
She searched my face at that point. Her brows knit together. Did I believe her? She needed to check. So, I thought, it’s important that she made those few steps into the room towards the body of this man, whoever he was.
“But I retreated to the door. I felt horrible about this, that I had moved only a few inches, that I hadn’t searched the whole space for him. I felt terrible about myself, that it was a defeat, but now I know, of course, he wasn’t there. I talked to Jorge about it and to others, and of course he wasn’t there. They had shot him in the morning. He was in the morgue.”
I was interred with her. All I could see when I looked away from her face was the square of light, the window across the room. I didn’t ask questions: Who is Jorge? Why did they arrest you? I would learn. In those early meetings, her words bypassed my mind. I didn’t hear the story as much as I lived it in her telling. When she left—that day and several other days in the next few weeks—I sought out my closest friend in the department and compelled her to listen to the words I had absorbed. Only then could I go home with a heart open to Susannah.
Before Susannah, I lost a baby. Until that wrenching Fourth of July night, I had never felt real grief. The doctor came early the next morning to my hospital room, and I am sure he heard me sobbing as he came down the hall. When I realized he was standing in the doorway, I hoped he might help. He had been kind the night before.
“Stop it,” he said. “You will have other babies. One floor up, I have a patient younger than you who is dying. She has reason to cry.”
It’s hard to believe he said that, but he did. And soon I did get pregnant again. My new obstetrician suggested we wait, but I didn’t want any more waiting. I thought this second pregnancy would be an anxious time, but it wasn’t. I knew my baby would be fine: everything about the pregnancy was different, from the reassuring nausea to the fact that I didn’t bleed. And she was a big beautiful baby, and as soon as I saw her I knew I would never love anyone as much as I loved her. When she got some hair, it was blond like Claude’s and curly like mine—though now she is as dark as I am and the mother of a blond baby boy.
So there we were, Claude and I, both loving Susannah, but increasingly unhappy with each other. I couldn’t understand why Claude had to run: Why couldn’t he find another job where we were? Couldn’t we postpone any move until I had tenure?
“You’re talking five years,” Claude said. “You must be kidding.”
Claude thought this would be a good time for me to get pregnant, but I didn’t want another child. I had had two babies, and I didn’t want a third. Perhaps I didn’t want to be more tightly bound to him. Later, when Susannah became estranged from me, I wished I had been more receptive. I needed a child to love.
After we eat the asparagus and the fish I grill and walk the dog around the block, we settle in my small living room. The room, with its dark red walls, is best in the evening, when the two lamps make spots of light in the warm, enclosing space. I sit with my knees up at one end of the couch, Luisa at the other, our feet on the middle cushion. I hold a cup of tea and Luisa a mug of coffee, black and strong—why it doesn’t keep her up all night, I don’t know. Perhaps it does. She likes to feel wired.
“I am a suicide bomber,” Luisa says. “You didn’t know that, did you?” She smiles mischievously.
I sip my tea and wait.
“I need to tell you what happened—no, why, that night with Susannah, why it happened.”
I don’t want to hear what she will say. I don’t want to go back there.
“Before jail, I never experienced that human beings could be so violent to each other. I never knew such horrible meanness. There was nothing like this in my life, in my family, but it plays in me now. My family taught me to love. We didn’t have much, and each day before my mother went to work, she would ask my father for money: We need money for rice, for beans, and maybe is there enough for some cheese? But when a poor person would knock on the door, as they did a few times a week, my mother would spoon some of what we were having onto a plate and give it to him to eat by the gate, and when he returned the dish, she would give him a banana. It wasn’t his fault he had nothing to eat, and you must help.”
Why does she tell me this? I know about her family. I have always thought that the love she experienced as a child inoculated her against the terror. Oh, not completely, of course not, but against being utterly broken. She often repeats herself, fearing I don’t understand. To this day, she doesn’t trust her ability to communicate in English.
“The torturers worked in teams of three, each with a different role.” She has told me this before, too. Her tone tonight is matter of fact, cool, and she punctuates her sentences with sips of coffee from the cup she holds in both hands. “Remember the guy I told you about who always played the good guy? He was in the engineering school at University. I’ll never forget anything about him—his voice, how he moved, his haircut—I remember everything. We talked a lot.”
Never in the hours I’ve listened have I heard her say, “We talked.” Her jail experience was a silence punctuated by screams.
“He was maybe a couple of years older than me, not bad looking. He was always the good guy, never touched me. He would come in after and say, ‘Talk to me, answer these questions, and we can stop.’ Shortly before I was released, I asked him, ‘Why do you do this? You had to take hard exams to get admitted to engineering school. Are there no other jobs?’
‘The money’s good,’ he said.
“Once, I collapsed and a doctor came in. I remember that she took my blood pressure. ‘Okay,’ she said to them. ‘You can go on.’”
“Yes, a doctor. They were all monsters—the torturers and their—” She searches for a word. “Their support staff. But I have come to believe we are not so different. That guy, that monster—he looked just like my favorite cousin.”
At this point, I go to the kitchen for more tea and coffee and a plate of cookies. The dog jumps into my spot on the couch. I won’t let him stay there, but right now I have to consider whether I can take this trip. I feel I have no choice, so I will protect myself as best I can.
“When I met you,” she says as I shoo the dog to the floor, “I knew I had to process what happened, but I thought then I would be fine. I thought I was going to be the Luisa I was before. I thought I was like a street in Boston. I ran into an intersection—there was a violent crash—but I crossed over, and now I would be that street again. I would be the same person.” And then she says, as she does so often, “Do you understand? Does that make sense, Maggie?”
“You seemed fine,” I say. What I don’t say is that she amazed me, a young woman so full of energy—and, yes, love—that she lit my life and Susannah’s and even Claude’s for a while.
The summer after I met Luisa we did move back to Boston, and I managed to land a job. I tried not to compare it to the one I’d left; I tried not to think about whether I liked it or not. I tried very hard to let my resentment go. We bought a house, too, a house that was way too big for us—three floors, twelve rooms—in the city because no one during the energy crunch wanted to heat it. Susannah turned six and started first grade, and Claude, who had not found work, took care of her the afternoons I taught late. We were hanging on, Claude and I, but Susannah thrived. She seemed to start talking each morning before she woke, finishing her first cheerful sentence as she climbed out of bed. She had new friends, one just next door, and she read like a demon, a book a day. I had friends whose children were difficult, who had tantrums, who wouldn’t go to bed at night. How did I get so lucky?
When Claude found a consulting job in February, it solved our financial problems, but created a childcare crisis. The semester had started, and there was nothing I could do about my teaching schedule. Like other families, we pieced together what we could. Two afternoons a week, Susannah went to a friend’s house from school; one afternoon, I raced from my job to pick her up and take her home to a babysitter. When the traffic was bad, I was late getting back for my class. Claude, who had taken care of her for six months, said it was my turn. You moved us here, I thought. Now I’m an adjunct again, with no status, at a university with no childcare for staff. My resentment had only been sleeping.
One evening towards the end of that first summer, when I finally enjoyed a break from teaching, Luisa called. She had graduated! To this day, I don’t understand how she managed to get an honors degree in two years. She wanted to move to Boston. Could I help her with the transition? She had a couple of job leads, but where should she live? Was there a difference between South Boston and the South End?
I picked her up at the bus and brought her home with me. I showed her the third floor, its three small rooms and a bathroom. I put a fan in the window of the one room we had furnished with a single bed and a dresser, and I said she could stay as long as she liked. Of course, I would help her find an apartment and show her how to search out roommates, for she didn’t have much money.
When Susannah came home from next door, I introduced them. Luisa greeted my child warmly. She said she was delighted to meet her, that she was about the age of her own little sister.
“How old is your sister?” Susannah asked.
“She’s nine.” My almost-seven-year-old beamed.
“I made a mistake with her birthday present,” Luisa said. “Do you like football? They call it soccer here.”
“I know,” Susannah said.
“I sent her a beautiful soccer ball, so nice I wanted to keep it for myself, but my mother told me she prefers dolls. Are you football or dolls, Susannah?”
My child, who had a treasured collection of dolls in her room, looked Luisa straight in the eye. “I like football,” she said.
We had fun that first evening, eating piles of corn and ripe tomatoes. Grilling our steak on the deck, Claude was expansive, and Susannah—Susannah was in love. She had fallen instantly, just like the dog so many years later.
The first job Luisa got was in a community library in a Latino neighborhood. It wasn’t full time, and it paid poorly, but she finished each day at 2:30 when the after school program began and was free to pick Susannah up from school and stay with her until I got home. On Sunday mornings, she and Susannah played soccer with a group of guys and a couple of women in a field off Fresh Pond. I drove them the first time to check out the situation, and I took the only snapshot that documents their Sundays. Four tall men stand in the back row, Luisa and two others kneel in front of them, and on the ground, cross-legged and clutching the ball, is Susannah.
That fall, our house was a happy place. There have been whole years when I denied the fact, but it’s true. We knew this would end, that Luisa needed a place of her own and friends her age. “She’s so full of life,” Claude said to me one night in bed. “I hate to think of her leaving.” His voice was full of emotion, unusual for him. I knew he was comparing that “life” to the dead space between us, our repetitive conversations and polite, patterned lovemaking. But I thought Luisa helped us stay together. We needed another adult to talk to, and we were never angry in front of her. And Luisa or Susannah, usually both, seemed always around.
From a notice posted at Today’s Bread, Luisa found an apartment less than a mile away with three roommates. She said the interview went well; they wanted her. Of course, I thought, everyone appreciates a housemate who never leaves dishes in the sink. She would move the first of January, giving me some time with Susannah before she started her new after school program. Luisa promised to visit often—hop on the T at her house and off at ours, that was the plan. But before that, we would have all of December to be together. Luisa and I talked about holiday traditions, how her family celebrated and how much she missed them. She couldn’t go home, even if she had money for a plane ticket; an uncle in the military had whisked her out of the country, but to return might mean more jail. She had put her family through so much already, she said. I assured her we would have a good Christmas.
But that was not to be. The second Friday in December, Claude made a dinner reservation for the two of us. Susannah was staying overnight next door, and Luisa was going out. Claude wanted to talk. I assumed it would be about our childcare schedule for the following months—what else did we talk about?
“I’ve rented an apartment in Cambridge,” he said after we ordered. “I’m leaving.”
“Leaving?” But I was thinking, How like you to announce this in a public place so I can’t react! And, I’ve always been the one wanting to split up—where do you get off? Then I felt crazy because I didn’t want him to go after all. He looked especially nice that night in a charcoal suit that fitted him beautifully. It’s hard to remember, but we used to dress up.
“Leaving,” he said again; he was leaving.
“Right away.” We could tell Susannah tomorrow, when she got home from the Reilly’s.
“But . . . ” I kept saying, “But.”
“Why the surprise? We’ve talked about this,” he said. “We’re unhappy together. We have been unhappy for at least three years. Everything is my fault because I dragged you back to Boston.”
The waiter was advancing with a bottle of wine. “I’m going,” I said and grabbed my coat and headed for the door. Claude paid for the food we hadn’t eaten and drove me home. He slept in the guest room. His things, even his toothbrush, had disappeared from our bathroom.
Nothing I said the next day budged him, so Sunday morning we told Susannah together. For half an hour, he dropped his stony demeanor; he took her on his lap and tried to be reassuring. “I’m only moving to Cambridge,” he told her. “And you will stay with me every weekend.”
She seemed to take it in. She asked if we were getting a divorce. Claude said she didn’t need to think about that right now. We would tell her ahead of time if it happened.
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
“I know that. We talked about it at school.”
At some point, she went upstairs—I thought to cry—and reappeared fifteen minutes later with her little pink suitcase.
“I’ll live here with you and Luisa,” she said to me. But I will visit you, Daddy. I packed my suitcase so I’ll be ready.”
That did it. I burst into tears, and I cried harder when I returned from taking Susannah to him Christmas afternoon, cried and cried while Luisa held me.
I did at least wonder if Luisa’s leaving would be hard for my child, and Luisa agreed to put off her move for a month. “Pay January’s rent on the new place,” I told Claude on the phone.
“No way,” he said. “Luisa made it very clear that her loyalty is to you, Maggie. You can pay her rent if you want her to stay with you.”
So something had happened between them, something that pushed Claude to leave. Still, she must have felt some loyalty to him, as well, because she never told me what it was. He suffered some unexpected wound, I thought—like getting fired—something that made him retreat, emotionally, geographically. But I was not jealous of Luisa, didn’t blame her for his leaving me. I was jealous of him and what might have happened between them.
In fact, Luisa stayed the whole semester, finding an apartment and moving out only when I finished teaching in May. This time it was to a tiny apartment that she would inhabit alone—no roommates, she said. Claude and I started the proceedings that would end in our divorce a year later and his immediate remarriage. Luisa’s apartment was a few miles away this time but still on the green line, so she could get to us easily and often.
And at first she did. She would call and ask if we were free a certain night, and she would come over for dinner. Or, knowing Susannah’s schedule with Claude, she would suggest something for the two of us to do when Susannah was with him. What she didn’t do, as I thought she might, was appear spontaneously. Once, finding myself in her neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon in October, I rang her bell; although I thought I saw someone in the window, there was no answer. Gradually, she seemed to arrange meetings less often. Susannah would beg, “Mommy, when will she come?” But if I called her, she was always busy and suggested a time the following week. In those days, if we did make a plan, she never let me down. She was always on time, always herself, always exuberant Luisa—hugging me, cavorting with my child.
For Susannah’s eighth birthday, I planned a party at a restaurant with a few of her friends and two of the parents I enjoyed. I thought it was a success, but when we got home to the huge house we could not sell, Susannah burst into tears. “Where was Luisa?” she wanted to know. In fact, I had tried to invite her, but though I left a message, she never called me back. “What did you do to her?” Susannah said. “Why doesn’t she come anymore?” Of course I tried to reassure her—she comes when she can, she’s busy, she has a life of her own—but I recognized my feelings in her sadness and anger. Unlike my child, I didn’t know who to blame.
The next time I saw Luisa, I said that her absence hurt Susannah. She said she felt horrible, and I believed her. She said that as a child she went to confession; she knew she was supposed to feel bad, but she couldn’t—she didn’t think that anything she’d done was so wrong. “This,” she said, “this is what I was supposed to feel, what the church said I should feel. I didn’t care about God, but I care very much for Susannah.”
However, nothing changed. If anything, our contact became more sporadic. I think I gave up. Certainly, I waited for her to call me. I waited, that is, until the night Luisa wants to talk about. It was a cold night in January, and I had an important meeting with a publisher who wanted my textbook, a meeting at which I met the man I would later marry. I also had a babysitter who cancelled at the last minute. I called Luisa, told her that it was an emergency and asked her if she could come. She said she’d be there in half an hour, and she was. Susannah threw herself into Luisa’s arms, and I was out the door.
I got home late, not worrying about the time because Luisa was a night owl. Four of us, including Jim, a vice president of the company and son of its owner, had a drink at the Middle East. All the lights in our house were on when I got there, and when I came in, I heard screams. It was one in the morning, and somewhere above, Susannah was screaming her head off. Dropping my purse, still in my coat and boots, I raced to the third floor and found them in the small room where Luisa had lived so many months. It was freezing. The window was open. Luisa was sitting on the sill, her legs outside the house. Susannah had her arms around Luisa’s waist and was pinned to her back. I’m not sure Susannah heard me come in. I grabbed her by her red flannel nightgown and yanked her away, and she screamed even louder, if that were possible, and flailed at me. “No, no,” she yelled, whether at me or Luisa, I don’t know, but I carried her as she kicked my legs down to a phone on the second floor and called Claude, who answered on the first ring. I told him it was life or death and he should come. At this point, Susannah struggled free and raced up the stairs to Luisa. I ran after and held on to her so that she would not fall out if Luisa jumped. I held on. I held on to my child. I dared not try to pull Luisa in.
But Claude did, though he smacked her head against the window in the process. He told Susannah to let go, that he had come to help Luisa. He put Luisa over his shoulder, and he got her downstairs and into his car and drove away. The next day, he told me that he had taken her to Cambridge City Hospital. At first, I didn’t want to be in touch with her, and then when I tried, I couldn’t find her. No one would tell me anything.
From that night on, Susannah became impossible, distant and hostile. Her teachers didn’t complain about her: she was an angel in school, but she hardly spoke to me. Susannah wasn’t a sullen teenager; she was eight years old. After some weeks of this, I made an appointment with a child psychologist, and since he wanted to meet with both parents, I told Claude he had to come. I didn’t give Susannah any choice or any advance notice: I picked her up from school and drove her to the building in Harvard Square and took her up the elevator to the sixth floor. Claude was already in the waiting room. The therapist was a man, Bill O’Connor, who’d been recommended by Susannah’s puzzled third grade teacher. He wore chinos and a Mister Rogers cardigan. He escorted us to his office and let us choose our own seats—Susannah sat by Claude on a loveseat, leaving me the armchair closest to Bill. “Tell me what’s going on,” Bill O’Connor said, nodding in my general direction.
I told him how the last two months had been hell. When I’d finished, he looked at Claude. Claude said that Susannah wasn’t hostile to him but she had become very quiet and withdrawn and, yes, he was concerned about her, too. And then Bill O’Connor looked at Susannah. “So what do you think?” he asked. “Are they just making a big deal out of nothing?”
I expected her to say, “Yes,” but she didn’t. “My mother drives everyone away,” she said. “She gets rid of everyone who loves me.”
And then the therapist told Claude and me to go to the waiting room while he talked to Susannah. For the next half hour, Claude thumbed old copies of the New Yorker, and I stared out a grimy window onto a parking lot, thinking I could understand the desire to jump.
When he called us back in, he explained. “Zan says this is connected with your treatment of a woman who lived with you, with Luisa. She said you made her want to kill herself.”
“Zan?” And then I repeated, “Zan?”
“She says that’s what everyone calls her, all her friends. And you didn’t know that?”
When our time was up, my child said she wanted to go with Claude. I went home to a cavernous house and cried. Like Susannah, I felt I’d lost everyone who loved me: Claude and Luisa, of course, but most especially my child.
“All right,” I say when I return and reclaim my place on the couch. I’m as ready as I will be. “Maybe you should know—I don’t think Zan’s forgiven me to this day.”
“I’ve told you about my time drinking and drugging,” she says. And she has, of course. She told me years later, when she visited Boston from her new home in California. She wanted to make amends, and I agreed. She said it started when she first left our house and continued for three years. I asked why I never knew, why she always seemed sober when I saw her. She said it was too painful to let me see that hated part of herself. She said she had been careful. “On the wagon, they say here. I went on the wagon before I came to your house.”
“My relationship with Zan has never fully recovered,” I say again.
“Zan is a woman now, Maggie. She loves you.” And then she tells me again that she used to think she had nothing in common with the torturers. “I did not help them one bit when I was in jail. I didn’t do anything to hurt anyone I loved. And before jail, I never drank—but then I never felt this horrible contempt for life. They poisoned me, Maggie.”
“But why hurt us? Zan and I loved you. Maybe Claude did, too, though it’s always hard to tell with him.”
“The drinking was against myself, not against you. Stopping didn’t help much because I was the same me. For years, I couldn’t reconcile that moment on the window ledge with who I was. It never dawned on me that I was behaving in a way that related to jail. I felt if I just did my twelve steps better or if I understood the torture experience enough, I could recover everything. I thought I could be Luisa like before.”
If I were a different person tonight, listening to her talk, I think I could understand what she is saying. But, instead, I am angry all over again. I pull back against my pillow. I don’t want her to touch me.
“So I stopped drinking, but I couldn’t integrate the things that were imprinted. If you are driving your Honda along the highway and you get crushed by a semi-truck, you are not going to react to semi-trucks like other people do. It’s not just one week and you are better. You are always looking, you are always wondering if you will recognize the semi-truck, will you see it in time?
“Then, less than a year ago, I realized every day I am waiting to die. Either I will go to jail or the person I love will get shot in the street. I was jogging that day, and I realized that I needed to kill each relationship before they do it for me. I try to take off the bomber belt, but I have been imprinted with the fragility of things. I can see a person one day and never see him again. The one you love is killed, then you go to jail, then exile. Kill, jail, run away.”
“But that’s what you’ve done,” I say. “You kill the person who loves you. Well, not kill,” I begin.
“Yes, kill. That’s what I am trying to tell you, Maggie. Do you understand? Kill the love. Kill something precious in the other. Kill the person for me. Make you never want to see me again so I never lose you. So you don’t die.”
Of course, my life improved. I married Jim a year after that frightening night, and his calm presence steadied me. I think Zan welcomed him, too, if only because it relieved the intolerable pressure of my claim on her. Unlike Claude, Jim was short and almost bald, but an athlete who got me playing tennis again. We moved to a smaller place that suited all three of us better, and his friends were in and out of the house. Now mine were, too; they told me Claude had intimidated them.
Zan developed her own life and, as she grew, could be out on her own with friends. She was reasonable, always telling us where she was going and when she would return. We had none of the adolescent battles you read about, and I enjoyed watching her grow. I took pride in her independence, her school success, and I even liked her boyfriends. The girl I mourned was not this admirable teenager, but the child of eight or nine or ten. Girls that age are so beautiful—their faces open, their skin perfect, their bodies lengthening each day. All of them are beautiful to me. When I see them on the street in animated groups, I stop and watch and feel love and sadness wash over me.
At twenty-nine, Zan married a man she’d known since law school, and the day after her wedding, my Jim died of a heart attack. He had been so happy: Zan had insisted that both her father and Jim, one on each side, escort her across the lawn to Richard. I still miss Jim, but I am closer to Zan now. After years of holding me at a friendly distance, she has pulled me closer, knowing that only she and Richard could love their baby more than I do. I see her with her little boy, and I experience her baby self again. I see her mother him as I mothered her, and I think that if she has not taken much from me, still what she has taken is important.
And that’s where I stopped writing. I was done, so I put these pages in a folder and stashed it at the back of a file cabinet. And then, three years after the visit I described, the “asparagus” visit, I was diagnosed with one of the worst diseases you can get, a disease that is a code for death. Years ago when a character in a novel or movie was diagnosed with leukemia, you knew she—it was always a she—would die. Now my disease is that narrative device: give the wife my cancer, and she will be out of the way by the end of the hour so the detective can romance his partner.
But there is surgery for some of us. I have only the haziest notion of the operation that is the only cure for this disease. The surgeon handed me a pamphlet that included a diagram that looked like a Boston T map, the route from where I was, through surgery, and home again. There was a diagram of the surgery, as well, but I could make no sense of it. It seems they slice you in half, chop your digestive system into pieces, throw parts away, and stitch the leftovers together, taking most of the day to do it.
I survived but came home in great pain. The dog never left my side, lying by the couch during the day and by my bed at night. Zan took care of me the first four days, changing dressings, cooking, and trying to get me to eat. I assumed I would die—not immediately, but in the next year or two. However, Zan was upbeat. It maddened me. She quoted my maniacally egotistical surgeon. “He got the tumor, there are no metastases, you can live if you want, it’s all up to you,” she said. Zan believed this crazy man who, when I asked about autologous transfusion before surgery, said his patients don’t bleed. Now it will be my fault if I don’t survive.
Zan left her little boy to be with me. She and Richard organized a squad of successive caretakers to follow, the first of whom was Luisa. She flew in on Sunday so that Zan could get back to Vermont for the workweek. The dog, once so traitorous, barely registered her arrival. When she saw me, Luisa’s distress was evident, but she listened carefully to Zan’s instructions, noting how the wound pump worked and the best number to reach the visiting nurse. Alone together, she was all agitation—what could she do for me, what did I need—and I thought she would drive me crazy. But that night, when she was lying on Jim’s side of the bed, I found her presence comforting, and for the first time, I slept till morning.
The next day, between my drug-induced naps, we talked. It was easy to tell her how I felt about dying. I knew she would not try to reassure me. And she didn’t. She listened off and on for hours. I slept on the couch downstairs in the late afternoon, and when I woke, she brought us both bowls of soup, which we ate in companionable silence. I felt I’d said it all, though of course that turned out not to be true. She took our dishes to the kitchen, and when she came back into the living room, she slid onto the couch behind me, and I leaned back against her knees.
“There is one story from my jail time I never told anyone,” she said.
“I think for me it contains all the horror of my situation. And the horror not only for me, but for all of us there. Maybe it was too much to say.”
“And now you’re going to tell me,” I said, “in my weakened state.”
She reached out and took both my hands in hers. “Yes, I’m going to tell you now. Do you want me to get you something first?”
“You talk,” Luisa said. “The important thing is not to tell them anything important. It’s okay to tell them things they already know, but you aren’t always sure what these things are. You can tell them about people who are dead—that’s fine. Me, I constructed mental garbage bins.”
Listening to her, I saw from Zan’s childhood the set of Sesame Street, a battered silver can on the left, another on the right.
“I put everything I couldn’t talk about in one bin and things I could say in the other. When I needed to tell them something, I went to the okay garbage can. I’d reach in and pull some garbage out. But when I used up all the safe garbage, all the orange rinds and apple cores, I created some people who couldn’t be hurt because they didn’t exist. And, naked and hanging from the ceiling, I told them about meetings that weren’t going to happen.”
This trick bought her a break from jail. “They said they were going to let me out to go to my make believe meeting.” At first she was excited—just to be in the streets! But of course they were there, as well, two behind her, two on one corner, two on the next, all with guns. She wandered up and down the block where she was supposed to meet her imaginary friends, wondering how long it would be before they would collect her. She had picked a part of the city she never went to, where no one would know her, no one would speak to her and place themselves in danger. “I walked up and down this unfamiliar block, unable to face getting in that van again. It was going to be worse for me now. It was so tempting to run.”
She stopped here, and I know she was back in that neighborhood of her city. I was there, too, looking for guns on the roofs of gray buildings.
“Oh, yes, I wanted to run. Then I wouldn’t have to go back, no more torture.”
How could she, how could anyone, face more torture? I would run. I know it. Imagine: six high-powered rifles trained on me. I run on instinct—I don’t have to choose. They don’t miss. I don’t suffer.
I measure her courage by the fact that she did not run. “How could you not?” I asked.
She squeezed my hands. “Because I would be dead.” We were silent for a long time, and then she added, “Because I wouldn’t be holding Maggie, my precious friend.”