The key to the Vineyard house is where it always is, under the silver measuring cup on the ledge of the outdoor shower. Julia opens the door and envisions her husband, Walter leaning back in his chair by the window, his eyes closed, his big old hands grasping the arms of the recliner as if claiming them, wheelchair on one side of him, his three daughters on the other. They are not there, of course—Walter or the daughters. The recliner is though, and Julia thinks, Walter doesn’t deserve that chair.
The house is warm. The same thick air has been sitting in the rooms for most of the summer. She puts her bag down in the middle of the living room, picks up the phone, and dials Iris’ number from memory. A young voice answers.
“Is your grandmother home?” she asks. “This is Julia Cohen.”
The granddaughter calls out for Iris.
Sinking into Walter’s armchair, Julia finds comfort in the framed print on the opposite wall. Twelve boxes, four squares by three, each filled with imperfect circles within imperfect circles, blues against reds, salmons against deep greens. Beneath, KANDINSKY in big letters. She does it each time she looks at the painting, compulsively. And, din, sky, day, yin, skin, kandy with a k. One thing that Julia has always been better at than Walter is word games.
“Who is it, Darling?” she hears Iris ask. She pictures Iris walking, slowly and deliberately towards the phone, her feet miraculous little instruments that get her from one place to the next.
“Iris, it’s Julia,” she says, when Iris picks up.
“Julia! Are you here? How are you?” Iris says in a way that Julia knows that she knows.
“I just arrived. I took the nine o’ clock ferry. You must have heard about Walter.”
“Oh, Darling, we did. What happened?”
“He left me,” Julia says. Saying the words out loud, she notices that her stomach feels gaping and solid at the same time—an ache. She hasn’t eaten for many hours and wonders what kind of food is left in the cupboards from last summer. She thinks, ridiculously, of ordering a lobster from the Homeport down the road, but moments later feels nauseated by the idea.
“I came back from visiting my mother in Ohio and he was gone. I haven’t seen him since.” She does not mention the letter left on her bedside table. “Julia, you are sick and you need help. I am too old and too sick myself to help you and worry about you anymore,” it had read in Walter’s neat and slanted writing—he always wrote in all capitals. The letter had gone on to say that he had wanted to leave for a long time, that he cared immensely for her, but he needed to live the last years of his life for himself. He said the marriage had fallen apart long ago, though Julia could not recall any sort of breaking point or shift. “Love, Walter” he had signed it, and it was this love that Julia was clinging onto.
“God. You poor thing. It’s really shocking,” says Iris. Iris and her husband Phil were longtime friends of Walter and his ex-wife, Arianne. Now, they are long-time friends of Walter and Julia. Iris was one of the only women who seemed interested in befriending Julia when she came to the Vineyard for the first time with Walter, nineteen summers ago. Then, Iris was stunning with long gray hair that turned jet-black in the water and active blue eyes that always seemed to be paying attention.
“He’s acting out,” Julia says. “Ever since the heart attack.” It’s a phrase she has stolen from Walter, one that he once used to describe patients, and more recently, one he uses to describe Julia.
“Men act out when they’re frightened,” Iris says, though Julia can’t tell if she is being sympathetic to her or to Walter.
“Come over?” Julia asks. Iris is Julia’s only real friend on Martha’s Vineyard. “I have the house all to myself.”
Julia met her husband when she was twenty-six and he was fifty-five. Walter was a psychiatrist in a suite with three other psychiatrists on the Upper East Side. Julia was working as a receptionist for one of the doctors, a stern man, someone she could never imagine telling her problems to, named Dr. Harold Bloomberg. At the time she was five foot four and weighed one hundred and forty pounds. Everyday she tied her hair back in a ponytail and wore pant suits that she recalled being far more flattering back in Ohio. She didn’t wear make-up out, but on weekends would line her eyes with a color called Warm Espresso and try to imagine what she would look like thirty pounds lighter.
One day Dr. Bloomberg handed her an envelope to give to Dr. Cohen. When he left, she found a prescription for Klonopin inside written in Dr. Bloomberg’s loopy script for Walter Cohen. So these are the real crazies, she had thought, amused.
“Dr. Cohen,” she said, the next time he passed. “Dr. Bloomberg told me to give this to you.”
“Oh, of course.” He was all business at first—then he smiled. “Did you look inside?”
Taken aback, she nodded.
His face turned serious. “Do you think it’s okay to look inside envelopes that aren’t addressed to you?”
“No.” She was terrified—she was still not used to such direct questioning. In her hometown in Ohio people skirted around bold questions and intrusive truths, though they did not consider it skirting. Other people’s feelings were what mattered most in the Midwest; in Manhattan, everyone seemed immensely interested in their own.
“Then why did you look?”
She paused, and felt the strange impulse to tell him the truth, maybe because he was a shrink or maybe because she found him handsome. Maybe she wanted to prove that she could be direct, too. “Because this job is boring as hell.”
This made him grin. “And what do you think? Are you surprised?”
“Am I surprised you have anxiety?”
He leaned forward over her desk, resting his chin in his hand and nodded once.
She wondered if this is what he looked like while he waited for a response from a patient.
“Yes.” It seemed to Julia that he wanted her to find him surprising.
When Julia first moved to Manhattan, she thought it was the nature of a big city; people walked straight into her, looked past her, even sat on top of her in the subway. When she ordered food from street vendors they yelled at her to speak up, they couldn’t hear her.
Walter was the first person to notice Julia. Just the sight of her in the morning caused him to smile unabashedly and Julia discovered that the power to bring somebody else happiness was truly addictive. He began to bring her little things—clippings from newspaper articles, poems printed out from the Internet—JULIA written at the top in pen, all capitals, underlined. Sometimes a little message: WHAT DO YOU THINK? Julia would read the articles and the poems over and over again, underlining the parts she liked, the parts that she would later discuss with him during his breaks between sessions. She worked harder on those poems than she had ever worked in school, and she was shocked at how much she enjoyed reading for him, and at how interested he seemed in what she had to say. He told her that he liked the way she saw the world, and it was only then that Julia realized that she even had a particular way of seeing it.
She began going to the bathroom every hour in Dr. Bloomberg’s office while Walter was in session, just to examine her own reflection, which somehow seemed to look different each time. She couldn’t walk past shiny storefronts or parked car windows without glancing, and every once in a while she would catch herself looking quite pretty.
That was another thing about New York—there were mirrors everywhere.
The first time she met Walter’s daughters, all of whom were in their thirties, was at a restaurant called Il Piatto Bella. The three brunette beauties marched into the dimly lit Italian restaurant like some sleek advertisement for shampoo, pea coats, and designer eyeglasses, all at once. They introduced themselves using their doctor titles. Shoshanna was a pediatrician, Elizabeth was an orthopedist, and Allison was a psychiatrist, just like her father.
Julia remained virtually silent throughout the meal as Walter’s daughters spoke to him about their respective careers and husbands and about the school systems in the surrounding suburbs to which they were considering moving. Not once did they mention their mother, and only at the end did Allison, the psychiatrist, ask Julia what she was doing now that she was no longer working for Harold. She said his name as if he was an old friend of hers. The two other sisters had turned to Julia with pointed interest, as if they only just realized she was at the table.
“Not anything at the moment,” she answered. “I’d love to teach art, though.”
It was an ambition she had discussed with Walter the previous night in bed. She had always dreamed of becoming an artist, but Walter had argued that you don’t become an artist, you simply have to create and be an artist, that there is no certificate or plaque or ribbon that signifies “artist status"—it has to be internal. Then he suggested beginning the process by teaching. “Students would take to you immediately. You’re so soft and gentle,” he had said, rolling over to kiss her bare stomach. “Like Tiramisu,” he added.
When Julia first moved to New York she had taken several painting classes in a dusty basement studio on the Lower East Side. Her teachers appreciated her unpretentious style, her effort, the way she said thank you at the end of each session. One teacher had even told Julia that she had a spectacular eye for detail. Julia often painted scenes from her childhood—barns in fields, wisps of clouds in the sky, hints of cows in the distance. Beautiful, pastoral, lonely—or that’s how it appeared on the canvas. And in a way, that’s how Julia’s childhood had been. When she was young and imagined herself grown-up, it just seemed natural that the loneliness would replace itself with something bright and vibrant and adult. Sometimes, when Julia walked to class in the evenings, the city streets glinting and the taxis streaming by like yellow rivers, she felt closer to that thing, like she might be getting there.
But as the prices of the painting classes increased, Julia used that as an excuse to stop signing up. Besides those glimpses she felt on her walks she felt boring and restless and decided to take painting up again when her own life became more colorful. When she met Walter, she considered signing up for another class—she no longer felt bored—but ultimately she decided to keep her evenings free in order to spend time with him.
“I used to take classes here in the city,” she added to Walter’s daughters so they might think she had a life outside of their father.
They nodded, unimpressed. “I always liked art class in elementary school,” Elizabeth, the orthopedist, said.
“Julia, here, is a very talented painter,” Walter then declared, putting an arm around Julia. She shrugged him off, humiliated.
Julia and Iris walk down to the harbor to watch the sunset. This one is like block art: an electric pink sun against a shy violet sky. Sunsets don’t interest Walter; he finds them sentimental. Julia tells him that sunsets can’t be sentimental; it is the people who ooh and ahh and snap pictures that are. One summer night a large party of people belted out America the Beautiful as the sun was setting. She thought it was funny, almost sweet, but Walter felt affronted by it, so much so that he made them leave the beach before the sun was all the way down, as if leaving was not only making a statement to the patriotic
tourists, but to the sky itself.
“Why are you here?” Iris asks Julia.
Julia immediately feels hurt by the question, though she knows Iris doesn’t mean it in a hurtful way.
The two women are on the edge of the dock overlooking the water. The jetty is shimmering in the distance and the quiet laps of waves against rocks are like deep breaths. Julia realizes that people might easily mistake them for mother and daughter and she moves a fraction closer to the old woman. She is used to seeing herself through the eyes of others. When Walter married her, she became an object of interest to a world of people who otherwise would not have noticed her. People didn’t know if she was Walter’s daughter or his lover, or more recently, his nurse. When she caught people looking at her, it was like accidentally catching her own eye in a mirror.
“Walter is here, with his daughters, at Elizabeth’s house in East Chop,” she says. “I know because I tracked his credit card. They took him away, those bitches.” Julia doesn’t usually curse, but she is worried that Iris might defend the daughters, and she wants to make it clear that that is not option. “I’m here to take him home. I still love him.” She says it fiercely, because it is the only defense she has.
Iris doesn’t respond. She is looking out at the harbor, the wisps on top of her head dancing wildly, like the grasses lining the water’s edge.
Years ago Iris had convinced Julia to skinny dip with her at Lucy Vincent Beach. Their husbands had gone for a walk and had already disappeared behind the clay-caked cliffs. Julia always felt like an abandoned child when Walter left, even for a short time.
“Julia, you have to just let go,” Iris had crooned. Within seconds she was naked.
Her arms and legs and neck were long and smooth-looking and her small white breasts glowed in the afternoon sun. She stretched, her palms opening like lilies, her shoulder blades rising delicately. Sand sprung with each step as she ran to the ocean. Seeing Iris naked sent a jolt of panic through Julia’s stomach and throat, so that for a moment she thought she might be sick. Such beauty was almost incomprehensible to Julia and she felt jealous and worthless in a kind of way that she knew was pathetic. She knew Walter would find it pathetic, too. Iris waved from the water for Julia to follow. She glanced behind her at the dunes but her husband was nowhere to be seen. She imagined him spotting her from above, a white blob, and then turning away.
Julia removed her long t-shirt that she wore over her bathing suit, and quickly peeled off the one-piece and balled it up and wrapped it in the shirt. She weighed thirty-five pounds less than when she had started working in Dr. Bloomberg’s office, though the numbers seemed to betray her because when she looked in the mirror she still looked the same. One time Walter had heard her vomiting in the bathroom and afterward held her tight and stroked her hair and told her that she was beautiful the way she was. Never had Julia felt so loved.
She glanced down at her body then; it was the first time she had seen it in bright light for a while. She had gasped to see the pouch of her stomach and the swell of her thighs. Her breasts appeared bloated as if they were in pain, and she covered them instantly with her hands.
She ran then, to the water, where she wouldn’t be so exposed. She felt like a giant emerging from the dunes leaving a trail of footsteps behind her, inches deep into the sand. The faster she ran, the bigger she became, as if her body was playing a joke on her, as if her bouncing stomach was expanding like a balloon and chortling up at her like a mean old man.
The shock of the cold water brought tears to Julia’s eyes and she felt awake enough to scream out, and did so, amazed by her ability to make such a sound.
“Isn’t it glorious!” Iris exclaimed, her toes emerging dreamily from the surface of the ocean.
“It is,” Julia said, kicking her legs to keep afloat. And for an unexpected moment she did feel nice—small and smooth at the edge of something so vast. Beneath the water her skin felt silky and electric and when she dunked her head into the cold each nerve ending on her scalp sparked and sang.
“Do you remember when we went skinny-dipping at Lucy Vincent?” Julia asks.
“I do.” Iris squints at the water.
“Maybe we could do that again,” Julia says, though just thinking about it makes her cold and queasy.
Iris exhales and drums the railing of the dock with her wrinkled hands. “Julia, I’m old now. You still have so much time to be young. Sometimes I fear you forget how much life you have ahead of you.”
Julia knows Iris wants her to imagine a life without Walter, as though it were a fresh start or a new beginning. She shrugs, clutches the railing and leans back on her heels. Her own hands look young and able in comparison to Iris’s. She thinks about when her hands used to be chubby, how swollen and graceless they looked holding on to the metal poles in the subway, how clumsy and childish they appeared in Walter’s own perfectly-shaped paws.
Now her fingers are thin, so thin that she had to get her wedding ring resized, and when she shakes people’s hands she watches her own in amazement, thinking: that, ladies and gentlemen, is the hand of Dr. Walter Cohen’s wife.
Before she left for Ohio to visit her mother, Julia had found Walter in the living room still as a statue, listening to music. He was sitting in the corner chair, adjacent to his empty wheelchair as though he was expecting someone to join him—his chin lifted towards the ceiling so that she could see the tears on his face from across the room. The classical station was blaring at full volume and the walls were humming so when she stepped inside the room, she was enveloped in the music, as though she’d just stepped into Walter’s head.
“What’s wrong, Walter?” She rushed to his side and knelt before him.
“Nothing, Darling,” he said with his eyes closed.
Julia never called Walter anything but Walter. So many times she wanted to call him Darling or Love or Dear, but those were his names for her. She worried that if she used an affectionate nickname with him, he might laugh at her, or tell her she was trying to be somebody that she was not.
“Why are you crying then?” She grasped his hand and squeezed, but his fingers remained limp in her own.
“I’m not. You’re imagining things.” He said it with such certainty that Julia wondered if she was. She reached up to touch his cheek.
His eyes flickered open. “Please don’t touch me.”
Ever since his heart attack and he had been bound to a wheelchair, Walter had seemed scared of his own body in a way Julia felt she understood.
“I love you,” she said, knowing immediately that it would irritate him, but lately it was the only thing she could think to say to her husband. She sensed that he was frightened, and nothing scared Julia more than seeing Walter frightened. She squeezed his hand again, pleading with him to respond, to reassure.
When Walter didn’t say anything, Julia whispered again that she loved him—it was like a tick—and kissed him gently on the cheek.
“Julia, please, I love this part,” he said, turning his face upwards as if the orchestra was looking down at him. “I’m trying to pay attention.”
She got up to leave the room.
“I used to recommend this concerto to my patients all the time,” he said. “Music can be very therapeutic, you know.”
His eyes were closed again and the small smile on his face seemed put on, though for no one’s benefit but his own. Julia stood across the room from him with her arms wrapped around her body. Lately she always felt cold, even with a sweater. There was a false sort of calm in the room except for the dramatic music that still seemed, to Julia, to boom directly from Walter’s thoughts.
“I can barely hear myself think,” she said loudly.
“Often times my patients would get stuck in cycles of destructive thinking. Sometimes a shift in perspective, a new frame of mind, can do wonders. Music has the capacity to do that, I think, in a fast and visceral way, more than any other art form. Three minutes later, you can be somewhere entirely different.” He opened his eyes and looked at her in a way that made it seem as if it had just occurred to him that he was speaking to somebody in particular. “What do you think?” he asked curiously, though there was no kindness in his voice.
Julia looked at Walter, so much older, yet still so regal in his chair, and wondered if he remembered her fondly, the way she remembered him. She knelt down on the floor then, the beige carpet warm and soft beneath her. Gently, she rubbed her hands and her feet and her cheek against the carpet, feeling that if she closed her eyes she could drift off into sleep almost immediately. She wished Walter would turn down the music.
It occurs to her now that Walter was crying because he already knew that he was going to leave her. She thinks of Walter’s daughters, scouring the apartment for their fathers’ things, rolling their eyes at Julia’s taste in curtains and coasters and clothing; three tall slim silhouettes moving through their home while Walter waits by door in the wheelchair, shouting at them not to forget his toothbrush or his Yankees hat or his copy of The Plot Against America. She knows this, because these are some of the things that were missing.
The last time she had seen his daughters was at the hospital after Walter’s heart attack. Julia sat dumbly by Walter’s bedside as Shoshanna, Elizabeth and Allison spoke in low voices to the doctors in a medical language Julia could not understand.
“What did the doctors say?” Julia asked them afterwards in the hallway.
“He’ll recover,” Elizabeth said. “But he is old—surely you realized that this would happen when you married him.”
At this Julia had begun weeping. The daughters patted her back, told her it would be okay, but none of them embraced her. Suddenly exhausted, she sank down onto the floor and held her face as she cried to block the sounds erupting from her. Help me, she had wanted to say, to wail even, but she only whispered the words into her hands.
She heard the clicks of Allison’s shoes as she made her way down the hall to the vending machine and then back. “Drink,” she had said, handing Julia a water bottle, crisp and cold, as if to quiet her. Julia obeyed, swigging the water in loud, inelegant gulps as Walter’s daughters stood by.
Shortly after the heart attack, Walter had signed Julia up for a painting class. “We both need to get on our feet again,” he’d said. She hadn’t painted in years and as she got ready for the first session, she found she was looking forward to it. She dressed in all black like the young artists did in the classes she used to take. She carefully applied lipstick but couldn’t decide if it the red looked sophisticated or merely bloody and proceeded to dab it with a tissue so that it faded into a subtle rose color. She practiced her smile into the bathroom mirror. When she saw that one of her front teeth was smeared with red, she rubbed it furiously with her finger. This alone had made her want to skip the class altogether, but then she thought of Walter and how disappointed he would be.
She had expected the classroom to look like the studio on the Lower East Side from many years ago, but this one was fancy with big glass picture windows, polished floors and perfect wooden easels set up in a circle. They began the class by going around and introducing themselves. “Tell us your name, what you do, and why you paint,” the teacher instructed. “I’ll start. My name is Melissa Myers, I’m a computer programmer by day, artist by night. I paint because it keeps me sane and reminds me that the world is dazzling.”
One by one, the class went around and gave their introductions. Julia felt herself begin to panic. Everyone had these neat titles, these words so readily available to them—account executive, real estate development, public relations. She searched frantically for a word to describe herself, then felt an undirected and wild rage for having absolutely nothing. She deliberated simply running out of the classroom but she was not one to make a scene.
When it was her turn she forced herself to smile and glance around the circle. Most people were dressed in work clothing—women in silky blouses and tailored pants, men in button up shirts and slacks. Her all-black get-up now seemed juvenile.
“Hi, I’m Julia Cohen,” she said. Saying her last name gave her a brief moment of solace that then passed. “I’m a psychiatrist,” she went on, attempting to look stern and content at the same time, the way Walter used to look when he would speak with a colleague over the phone about a case. She glanced down, her heart pounding, waiting for somebody to call her out.
“And?” the teacher prompted.
Julia looked up, her face flushed.
“Why do you paint, Julia?”
“Oh, right,” she muttered. The question seemed impossible. She thought back to when she was young and had wanted to be a painter and tried to remember why. Long ago, painting had made Julia feel truly lovely.
As she stood in the circle though, she could not even imagine picking up a paintbrush. She turned to the teacher, the computer programmer by day, artist by night, and shrugged. “I paint because it helps me unwind after a long day.”
She didn’t tell Walter, but after that first class Julia didn’t go back. For the next five Tuesday evenings, she continued to dress in all black and apply red lipstick. She would kiss Walter goodbye, leaving an imprint of her mouth on his cheek. Instead of taking the subway downtown, she would circle around Central Park until it turned dark. Then she’d wander the residential streets of the Upper West Side, peering into the bay windows of the brownstones. The apartments looked just like hers and Walter’s—soft lighting, floor to ceiling bookshelves, artwork on the walls.
The class had been Walter’s last gift to Julia before he left her. She wondered if things would have played out differently if she had continued to attend the classes, even brought Walter home a few paintings. Maybe seeing her with streaks of color on her hands and forearms would have been enough to endear him to her. Perhaps the class would have made her happy, and that probably would have been good for both of them.
The next day Julia and Iris drive to East Chop where Elizabeth has a house and where Julia is sure she will find her husband. Iris waits in the car while Julia gets out and knocks twice at the East Chop mansion. No one answers. She pushes the door to find that it is unlocked and that nobody is home. The front hall is strewn with dozens of pairs of shoes, some as small as her palms, belonging to the children that are technically her step-grandchildren. The oily smell of sunscreen lingers in the kitchen and Julia imagines the whole family rubbing their bodies down in preparation for the day, the mothers getting the backs of the children’s shoulders, then the back of Walter’s shoulders.
His shoulders, the sad shock of them, pop into her mind—old and spotted and hairless. She thinks of his bare back, unaware and childlike in its vulnerability—imagines shoving into him from behind so that he topples from his wheelchair and onto the floor. The thought of Walter on the floor makes her unbelievably lonely.
Julia finds the room she is looking for down the hall from the kitchen, the only bedroom accessible to somebody in a wheelchair.
The room smells like Walter; like a mix of his cologne and the subtle scent of old age. His reading glasses lie on the night table, one arm out and one in. Next to his glasses is The Plot Against America. His bookmark, a receipt with several phone numbers scribbled on the back peeks out. She sees he is almost finished.
On top of the dresser are a few of Walter’s shirts, folded, in Walter’s hasty way, with sleeves inside out and corners not matched up. His watch, black with a silver band, a handful of coins, and the business card of a divorce lawyer are cluttered next to the clothing. Julia picks up the card and holds it by the edges, as though it might later be dusted for fingerprints. Robert Egan with a string of letters attached; embossed. It reminds her of Walter’s own business card, and of all the four-syllable named men she wishes she could forget about. Harold Bloomberg, Walter Cohen, and now, Robert Egan.
She thinks for a moment that she hears the sound of Walter’s wheelchair rolling over the planks of wood on the ramp leading up to the house. She freezes, her chest thudding, but she has only imagined it.
Hurriedly she opens each of his dresser drawers and checks inside the pockets of his empty suitcase in search for a hint of herself. Maybe he brought along one of her paintings from years ago, or a photograph of her. He has always kept a wallet-sized photo of Arianne in a desk drawer at home. When Julia first married Walter and found the photograph, she used to take it out, once or twice or three times a day to look at it. Arianne had thick black banana curls and small sharp features. If she were to be represented through any medium, it would be through pen and ink—there was something precise and unforgiving about her look. Even though the photo was in black and white, Julia could tell she was wearing deep red lipstick. She seemed used to having her picture taken.
When Julia doesn’t find any such picture of herself, she feels hot and touches the beads of sweat on her neck and under her nose the way a child might touch drops of rainwater on a window. She gathers up Walter’s belongings and stuffs them into his empty suitcase. She leaves most of his clothes, but takes his ties and his favorite burgundy sweater. She grabs his book and his glasses and his watch and the three quarters and two dimes and single Canadian coin and his beloved Yankees hat. From the bathroom attached to his room, she takes his toothbrush. She thinks for a moment of taking his days-of-the-week medicine organizer, but doesn’t. She pockets the business card and leaves the house with Walter’s things slung over her shoulder.
As they are about to drive away, a car pulls up next to them. Allison the psychiatrist is in the driver’s seat, though she doesn’t look anything like a psychiatrist in her cream-colored bikini and floppy sun hat. She is deeply tanned and her brown shoulders look warm to the touch. When she sees that it is Julia, she leans her head out the window.
“What are you doing here?” She says it in a way as if any response Julia were to give would make her an absolute lunatic. There are children in the backseat and they are staring out the window curiously.
“I’m looking for my husband. He disappeared.” Her voice sounds angry and this pleases her. Later, when Allison will recall the interaction to Walter, she wants him to be surprised by her gusto. She imagines screaming into Allison’s face Yes, he is my husband, and it’s about time you admitted that to yourself, but the children are watching and their eyes melt the gusto away. They are staring at her as if she were something on display.
Allison sighs. “Right now my father just needs to rest and not worry about all of this, Julia. It’s important for his health, for his heart, you have to understand.” Allison puts a hand on her small tanned breast, where her heart is. “I know this is hard for you, but you have to take a step back right now.” She takes her hand from her breast and gestures a metaphorical step back, though it feels as if she’s slapped Julia across the face, in front of her own children. “My father’s lawyer will be contacting you soon. ” Her psychiatrist voice is in play, calm and condescending, professional and solid as rock—but with that irritating lace of compassion.
The two women look at each other and Julia realizes how little she has made direct eye contact with Walter’s daughters in the past nineteen years. She has always done her best at avoiding that, and now as she stares at Allison who is staring back at her, Julia squints her eyes so that Allison no longer looks like a person, but rather a series of shapes and lines and angles. She looks at Allison’s eyes, now two little objects, like marbles, down to her shoulders which morph into simple brown surfaces, and further even to the dip and shadow between her breasts, an empty space.
“Are you okay?” she hears Allison ask.
“I’m fine,” Julia says. She could have said anything; it doesn’t really matter, after all, to Allison, who has her kids and a husband and a declining father to worry about.
“Let’s go, Julia.” Iris’ voice comes out of nowhere and Julia remembers that Iris is beside her. Iris puts a hand on Julia’s knee. Her eyes are kind and worried but the skin on her face is like a piece of paper that’s been crunched up into a ball and then unfurled—Julia longs all of a sudden for a younger and more stable Iris, for someone who has many years to live.
Julia leaves Martha’s Vineyard that afternoon on a freight boat. Sitting on the hood of her car on the ferry, she watches the island grows smaller behind her. A stream of white bubbles trails the boat and green water smacks against the sides in a measured beat. She wonders if Iris is watching from the shore, and she lifts her hand and waves.
A family nearby is huddled together, looking over the railing. The kids are dropping bits of food into the water, in hopes that a fish might leap out of the ocean. They have no such luck and quickly get bored and go inside where it is warmer. The wind is strong. Julia’s hair whips in front of her face and she tucks it behind her ears.
She pulls out Walter’s sweater from the suitcase inside the car and puts it on, tucking her hands inside the sleeves and burying her nose beneath the collar so only her eyes show. She breathes in deeply, smelling the familiar scent, smelling the ocean, and closes her eyes.
She is reminded of the day she left home to move to New York. She had driven by herself, taking her fourteen-year-old station wagon that had later broken down in Pennsylvania. The passenger seat was covered with Tupperware full of baked goods that her mother had packed her. From Mount Vernon to Columbus she had listened to Patti Smith with the windows down.
She drove through Ohio as if seeing it for the first and last time—the endless rippling cornfields, the golden rows of haystacks, the barns that looked like they’d just fallen from the sky. She passed by shining green fields dotted with white horses and silent manmade ponds like cookie cutters in the earth. The drive had left her with a tangible and throbbing bump in the back of her throat. It was a feeling she had tried to label as nostalgia. She had thought, this is me changing, this is me about to change.
She thinks, now, for a brave moment, huddled in Walter’s sweater in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, that she might be having that feeling again. This time though she is older and she doesn’t have a big city to move to or Patti Smith to serenade her and all of Walter’s things are piled in a heap in her car, reminders of what is no longer hers.
She lugs out the suitcase and stares at it as if it might come to life, as if Walter may come speeding down the deck in his wheelchair to reclaim what is his. In one swift motion she hurls it over the railing of the boat, practically toppling over with it. It cannonballs into the ocean, coins and Walter’s red toothbrush shooting out like confetti.
She stares down at the blotch of color in the water, her eyes prickling, trying to convince herself that she is changing.
Are you okay, she hears somebody ask, but when she whirls around nobody is there. She glances behind her to see if anyone is watching and catches her own eye in the reflection of a car window. She is stick-figure thin, swimming in an old man’s sweater, cheeks hollowed, eyes caged with black—the Warm Espresso days are long gone. She says this last part to herself, like a narrator, or somebody who writes taglines for movies. The thought seems funny for a passing moment but then she feels deeply troubled about the way she looks. And then she feels sad for feeling deeply troubled about the way she looks. Self-pity is never attractive says Walter’s voice in her head, though she can’t recall if he’s ever actually said that or not.
She thinks of the suitcase and the tangle of Walter’s ties sinking into the ocean. All of a sudden, she remembers a zippered pocket in the heart of the suitcase that she had forgotten to check. In past summers Julia had used the pocket to bring shells and sea glass back to New York so that stray salt or sand wouldn’t get over their clothing. One time Walter had been unpacking and found a spare crescent of white shell left in the pocket and had placed it on Julia’s bedside table, like a rare and elegant gift.
She leans over the railing into the cool spray and for a moment she allows herself to indulge in the fantasy of her photograph zippered into that pocket. A pretty photo, she imagines it to be, one from when her hair was long and thick and draped over her shoulder; her gaze not at the lens but a little off to the left, as though she is noticing something beautiful, worth pausing for. She feels soothed by the thought of her photo fading into the ocean along with all of Walter’s things—the ties and the toothbrush, the worn hat and the book—as if somewhere, she is still somebody’s darling, lovely and intact.
HANNA HALPERIN-GOLDSTEIN grew up in Massachusetts and has lived the past few years in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently en route to Madison, Wisconsin where she is an MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is her first publication.