Two days after his dog gets hit by a car, my son starts playing dead. I'm washing dishes when I see him through the kitchen window: sprawled in the backyard, neck bent in a tight angle against the bottom of a tree, the undersides of his arms mushroom pale. I run for the back door, plates rattling on the counter, my sudsy hands slipping on the knob. "Chris!" I yell, on my knees next to him. "Chris!" Crying as I reach to straighten his arms and legs, lift his head from the hollow of the tree root. But I force myself not to touch, not to damage him further. "Please," I whisper.
Arms wobbling, I push myself to my feet to call 911, and then I see him smile. Just slightly, the corner of his mouth tucking into the cheek. Squinting up at me through one slitted eye. "Gotcha."
Behind the bushes, at the back of our yard, was where I'd dug Jake's grave. It was dark as I shoveled pieces of wet earth and piled them to one side, and I wasn't sure how well the shrubs would camouflage. But Chris had already seen the heavy garbage bag dragged behind the garage and the towel, rusty with blood and dirt, stuffed into the bin. I'd said it would be better to stay in his room, knowing even as the words pressed past my lips that he wouldn't. His face against the front window, watching me pass. Me slapping the mound with the shovel, knowing it wouldn't matter how flat it was; he wouldn't forget what he had seen or turn his mind from what was gone.
The next night, my ears twitch as Chris fizzes motor sounds in the bath, varying them for each boat, each speed. My breath loud in my ears at any silence.
"Hey, Mom," he calls. "Can you get me a towel?"
I jump from my bed at his voice, try for nonchalance in mine. "I thought second graders remembered that kind of thing," I say from the bathroom doorway.
"Come on, Mom."
"Just going with what you've told me." The phone rings, and I point a finger at him. "No splashing all over the floor."
Wet head flipping water with the nod, a fierce motor sound. I'm busy here.
Back down the hallway, I grab the phone just before the answering machine clicks. "Hello?"
Silence. "Oh, sorry, I almost hung up."
Ben. "Hi," I say, no nonchalance this time, just a compression, a loss of air.
"I thought you weren't there."
"Chris is in the bath."
"Well, that's what I was calling about."
"His bath?" I joke hollowly. Faint motor sounds buzzing down the hallway.
"Come on, Elise. Chris. When I should pick him up Friday."
I can't get used to visitation rights. Sometimes, I want to shake Ben at the front door and make him explain why he's so good about getting his two weekends a month, when four years ago he couldn't wait to leave us both. Other times I feel sorry for him. On the good days.
"And why aren't we doing Saturday like normal?" I flip through my desk calendar, phone cord twisting around my wrist.
"Because I want to take him up to the cottage. I told you last time." He had, but I want to make him tell me again. This is my game. Playing amnesia.
"Are you sure he's up to being away from home two nights in a row?" I bargain.
"Elise, he wants to go, and you know it."
"So it's just going to be you two?"
"Guys' weekend, huh?"
"We might look for a dog. I know he misses Jake."
"No dogs for a while unless you keep it," I say, and he sighs. I've won this round, but it doesn't matter. My ears twitch again, scanning for splash sounds, but there are none.
"All right, whatever. When can I come by?"
"Six. See you." I'm already hanging up, his good-bye tiny and canned. I glide down the hall, remembering playing Indian when I was Chris's age, silently moving over leaves. I'm on patrol, ready to catch him at it this time.
I push open the door, and he's face down, arms and legs splayed, hair clouding out from his scalp.
"Chris," I demand. Then shout. I look for a heartbeat to tremble the surface, but then I can't wait; I'm on my knees, sliding on tiles, dragging him from the water, maybe more roughly than necessary. He twists, reflexively throwing his arms around me, sucking in air. But his eyes are still closed, as if that alone can maintain the illusion.
I sit him on the mat and lean against the tub next to him, not caring that the water's soaking through to my underwear. "Why are you doing this?" I watch him breathe, touch dripping horns of hair, try to replace my grab with gentleness.
No response. Even now, shivering, arms wrapping around his chest, he doesn't open his eyes. He grits his teeth to stop their chattering.
"It scares me when you play dead. Is that what you want?"
He opens his eyes and hugs himself tighter. "I want my towel."
That night, I stare at the ceiling for a good hour before finally giving up on sleep. Downstairs I'm looking through bills. Too late to call Marcie, my closest friend, even with her late hours and the time difference.
In our small town, Marcie was the only child whose parents were divorced. Her father had moved out to the Midwest and remarried. My father was gone, too; dead of a heart attack only two years after I was born. So Marcie and I were linked, daughters without fathers, and our mothers let us wander between our houses like sisters.
But it was the summer of the endurance tests that glazed our friendship, preserving it for later years. The drills started by the creek that ran behind all of the houses on our street. The first test involved walking barefoot over the sharp stones that washed down from the quarry. Sandals for markers. That first day, Marcie moved them farther and farther apart as the sun angled down through the trees, and I wouldn't back down, even when the wrinkled skin between my toes bled. We limped home. Then at it again, the next day. It was Marcie who pushed me to get up when I crouched, soaking my raw toes in the trickling water, our secret preparation.
In bed again, I set my own marker in the gravel. There won't be any discussion about playing dead. Something tells me there might be better choices, that I should be patient and communicative, talk through the problem, all the wisdoms I might offer a parent complaining of a homework-refusing child on teacher conference night. But in times of discomfort, we turn to what we know, and my accountant mother wasn't one to facilitate self-esteem through family involvement after a full day of crunching numbers, for which she was paid far less than her male counterparts. So the next night, I'm all business, helping Chris pick out school clothes and making him a lunch downstairs while he selects a story to read to me. But when I come back upstairs, he's already turned out the overhead light; only the night light glows beside his bed. Stretched on his back, eyes pinched closed, chin pointing up in an angle defying the relaxation of sleep.
I sit on the bed, my hip against his rib cage, and run my fingers through his fine brown hair. His father's hair, exactly. "Chris," I whisper in his ear, letting my lips tickle him. "You aren't fooling me. OK?" This is too much; he squirms and opens his eyes.
"Mom," he moans, stretching the word into two syllables, "I was sleeping."
"No, you weren't." I match the singsong in his voice.
"Yes, I was."
"Honey, please. Give me a break."
"No!" Angry now, he twists away from me, shoulders curled into his neck.
Much as I had done, those nights of fiercely whispered arguments, to Ben.
Marcie and I were writing and occasionally visiting in college when I met Ben. I was new to dating, on which Marcie alternately teased and coached me. During fall break of my senior year, I spent a weekend with her at Amherst, where she was studying political science on scholarship and secretly dating her married professor. When I told her Ben and I were going to get married when I graduated, she shook her head. "With all the men I've dated, you'd think someone would've asked me by now." Books and notes surrounded her on the narrow kitchen table. She rolled a tube of lipstick under one hand. "Not," she said, "that I would say yes."
That spring, my mother flew with me to Ohio, where Ben's large family lived. She walked me down the aisle of the small church; Marcie was my maid of honor. The reception took place on Ben's family's farm -- sweet wine and slices of roast beef on sun-dappled paper plates. I would have agreed to live there, if he had suggested it. But we came to this town because Ben and a college friend planned to start their own architectural firm.
Ben wanted to design a house for us, but there was never time between my teaching and his fledgling business. We bought this house, and I was happy that it was near the elementary school and that it had a big front yard, which I imagined crowded with our future children and their neighborhood friends. Over the next six years, Ben knocked in walls, moved doorways, and added skylights and porches and landscaping, as if these would make him believe we weren't living in a row of houses as uniform as beads on a string. When I wanted to discuss children, offering to quit my job, Ben said we couldn't afford it; what with a mortgage and the firm's uncertain future, we needed my teacher's salary. I knew exactly what he was trying to do when he brought Jake home from the pound; he wanted to put me off, substitute a dog for a child.
Of course, once Ben had agreed to fatherhood, he seemed to embrace it, but somehow I felt his meticulous preparations were more for himself than our child. He built a crib with high slats; he installed an intercom system -- the speaker on my side of the bed. He spent long hours working at the growing firm; we needed a safety net, he said one night, pulling a pillow to himself. Instead of me.
Eating dinner Friday evening, I study Chris as he checks the bright-green watch his father gave him with the same upward snap of his wrist. He glances at me, as if he feels guilty to want to know the time. His duffel bag waits by the front door. "Are you excited?" I ask.
"Yeah. Dad says he's going to take me out in his boat."
"That sounds good."
"And he's gonna let me ride with him on his jet ski."
"Would you like some more milk?" I'm at the fridge without waiting for Chris's answer, imagining him in all that water, all those cold waves.
"Dad said he knows a man who has beagles, and he might get me one."
"How about you let Santa bring you one."
"But Christmas is far away!"
"Did you do your math homework?"
"Yes, but -- "
"Did you pack your toothbrush?" I ask, although I'd watched him drop it into his red bag.
He doesn't bother to answer; he knows this is my way of derailing him. Playing distracted. Instead, he gets up to help me clear the dishes. He's unfailingly polite on the weekends he goes with his father, as if to make it up to me for leaving. It doesn't help, even though I appreciate the gesture. I already feel rattled and lonely, anticipating the time without him. The first couple of years after the divorce, I got dressed up when Ben came because I wanted him to think I had suddenly developed a full social life. I knew it was ridiculous. I felt like those soap opera actresses Marcie and I despised, waiting for our cartoons to begin. We sneered at the rich women answering phones in silk dresses, sleeping in red lipstick. How fake, we said. We didn't know adults ever needed to pretend. So I hated how I couldn't help myself at first. Playing desirable. These days I don't bother to dress for those few minutes at the front door.
Doorbell, two short rings. Efficient. I let Chris get it. Ben steps in, and I take my time coming to greet him. He's still tan from the summer, started a beard. Button-down shirt open at the throat, a sweater loose across his shoulders. He catches Chris in his arms and bends to pick up his bag.
"Have a good time," I say. Smiling like he's someone I'm passing on the street.
"Thanks," Ben says. And then, "OK, give Mom a kiss."
I lean in for it, closing my eyes so as not to face Ben that closely. Then I shut the door behind them and hold on to the knob, not wanting to walk through the empty house, touch what Chris has left behind.
Saturday night: video rentals and lesson plans. I give up and call Marcie, tell her about the playing dead.
"I don't know either," she says. "I don't even know how to get along with Phillip's kids!"
"I can't even talk to him about it. I couldn't say, 'Don't," I tell her, "'do this with your father,' because I don't want to give him ideas." I'm looking out the kitchen window, the backyard
tree where Chris folded himself yellowed with porch light. How long did he wait for me to notice?
"Did you tell Ben about it?" Refrigerator door opening, a cork pulled from a bottle. I pictured the sound bouncing against high ceilings, paintings.
"No. He'd have ten ways I should have handled it. And I can already see him deciding all Chris needs is a new dog," I say, yawning. The thought exhausts me. "Such a problem solver. But I'd be the one training the thing and cleaning up after it."
And then there's what I really feared about telling Ben: Chris playing dead in the white lake waves -- only not playing dead but drowning -- and Ben lulled by my explanations. Playing tough.
But Marcie has moved on to Chicago's latest snowstorm and the competition for her job in the prosecutor's office. She's living only a couple of hours away from her father but refuses contact with him. Says he had his chance. Me pouring a glass of wine I don't need, wanting to say the same to Ben. Trying to imagine her life in that lake city, her apartment in some tall, narrow building, her freedom to choose her future, as Ben chose his. We hang up, and I think of the years gone, the tests by the creek, the day she pushed her curly hair behind her ears and then pulled mine into a rubber band; she never stopped talking, never gave me a chance to object. A lawyer even then. "We don't have any choice but to be strong," she'd said. Words flattened by the rubber band held in her teeth. "You know? We have to stick together."
I didn't know. Not then. I closed my eyes and tilted back my head as she pulled the ends of my ponytail to tighten the band. "This stuff could come in handy," Marcie continued.
"You never know when you'll have to give it all you got." She clenched her fists, and I knew she meant it.
We kneeled on a large, flat stone beside a deeper point in the creek. Between our two pairs of hands sat the watch Marcie had just gotten for her eleventh birthday -- narrow, orange-gold, made for a small wrist. "OK, I'm gonna count to three and then dunk." I felt my heart speed up as she counted; my breaths caught higher in my throat. "Go!" she said and then gulped in air as she plunged her face into the water. Me watching from the corner of my eye as I did the same, skin slapped by the stinging cold. Hands sliding down the side of the rock, digging into smaller, rounded stones in the creek bed. Holding ground. I imagined my face becoming stone, the blood rushing to my head and freezing there. But I did not want to be the first one up. I dug farther into the silt, bit my lip, squeezed my eyes shut tighter. Then I half heard, half felt Marcie pull up to breathe. I followed, and we collapsed on our backs, gasping and coughing. Water running into my ears like cold tears.
Marcie checked her watch. When she could speak, she sat up. "A minute and three seconds," she said, after she caught her breath. "Now, let's try for a minute fifteen." On our knees again. While we were under, she grabbed my hand, and we twisted our fingers together. When she started to rise, I held her for one last moment so we could come up together.
Sunday evening, Ben at the door with Chris over his shoulder, asleep. "Could I get some coffee before I hit the road?" he asks.
"Sure." Heading for the kitchen, wondering if he had questions for me. Any idea why Chris pretended to fall out of the boat? Playing the better parent.
"It's OK; I'll make it," Ben says, following me. Chris awake now, reaching for me in a way that makes me pull in my breath in gratitude. Ben hands him over. I help him upstairs, into pajamas, into bed. Downstairs, Ben's opening cabinets, lost in the silverware drawer. I wait until the coffee maker finishes gurgling before I come back. Ben is in the living room, looking out the front window, although in the dark all he can see is his own reflection. Tips the mug back, almost finished. Holds the liquid in his mouth as if he can't bear to let it in, a habit I recognize.
"So, was it a good time?"
Ben swallows, nods. "I think I completely wore him out."
"Well, I guess that's good," I say. He looks at me, then inspects his mug, and I can't find anything in his expression as he takes it to the kitchen.
"I have to get going," he says. I'm at the door, waiting to open it until he's close enough, so as not to appear too eager. Playing polite. He breathes a good-bye, barely looking at me as he passes, hunting the keys in his pocket.
Next day, Chris and I are heading home from school, the backseat loaded with his backpack and my students' geography tests. Mondays are art days for the second graders, and in his lap Chris cradles something wrapped in a brown paper towel.
"What is it?" I ask.
Chris pulls back a corner of the coarse paper, allows me a peek. "I made it last week, but we had to let 'em dry."
"Did you start anything new today?"
"No, I painted it today."
"What is it?"
"Wait until we get home," he orders, and I laugh, knowing this is payback for all the times I've made him wait to open fast-food, grocery-store trinkets.
"So, was the lake fun?" My hand on his arm as we turn a corner. Wanting to press him against the seat, hold him safe. Every time.
"Yeah. We went out in the boat a lot."
"Sounds like fun."
"Yeah," Chris says, but he lets his head fall back against the seat.
"Well, he didn't let me drive."
Good for you, Ben, I think. We pull into the driveway; I wait while Chris lifts the garage door. It takes all his strength, but he can do it, insists on it. We carry our respective bundles inside. I can't hold back my question. "You didn't give your dad any scares this weekend, did you?"
Chris pulls his bag and art project closer to his chest. "I told him we're gonna wait for a while to get a dog."
"OK." But I'm not satisfied. I drop the keys, the papers in my arms threatening avalanche. Chris sets down his bag, picks up the keys, unlocks the door. Faces me for a moment before stepping back to let me in. "It's easier when I'm away," he says. "When I'm here, there's everything. You know?" Doesn't wait for a response, which is good because I don't have one. Except: You think I don't remember everything, too?
But I keep it to myself, watch him unwrap his creation on the kitchen table. A red and blue lump. Red for him and blue for me -- he told me these were our colors once. "Why red?" I had asked. "Because it goes with blue," he said.
I lean to hug him, breathe in the bubble-gum scent of his Ninja Turtle shampoo. "It's beautiful. Where do you want to put it?" The colors blend as I turn it.
"Watch out, it's still a little wet."
He's right. Smudges on my fingertips. I put it down. "The mantel?"
"No. It's for Jake."
I try to add up what he means. But he's ahead of me. "I want to put it on his grave." Holding the back door open with his foot.
"OK," I say, pretending to have known what he meant all along. Playing smart. Wondering how many times I've missed the point. I pull a mason jar from a cabinet. "Let's put it in this so the paint doesn't get messed up."
Chris slides the lump gently through the mouth of the jar, his hand still small enough to set it gently on the bottom. I follow him through the yard, past the tree, through the bushes to the mound. He squats beside it, digs a shallow pit with his fingers, places the jar in it. Pats the dirt back around it to make sure it won't fall.
Tonight Chris's light is off when I come upstairs from packing his lunch. He's on his side with his back to me, and I lean against the door frame, weighing whether to come in. He rolls over and squints at me. "Can I have a back rub?"
"Sure." He flips on his stomach, and I give him the Chris version of a back rub -- long, gentle strokes from his shoulders to the base of his spine. We don't speak. When his arms relax and his cheek sinks against the pillow, I slowly swing my legs onto the bed, prop myself on one elbow, pull his body into the curve of mine. I hold him close, as I did the day Jake was hit.
It was wet -- that was the driver's excuse. Chris and I were getting ready to take Jake for a walk. Streams of rain on the windowpanes still thinning, and Chris tying his shoes while Jake circled and sneezed with excitement. I grabbed a light jacket and called out for Chris to do the same, but he was chasing Jake outside. At the open front door, I bent to pick up the leash and my beat-up loafers, watching Chris rearing back to toss a bone treat to Jake. Jake knew this game; he was already backing up, preparing for a long chase.
"Good throw!" I said, the bone sailing high into the air. Jake lost track of it but kept running full speed toward the edge of the yard. And then the silver-blue car rounded the curve. I think Chris and I realized at the same time what was going to happen, but he had a head start on me as he took off down the driveway. I dropped the leash and my shoes and jumped off the steps onto the grass, fear already so heavy in me I thought my knees would buckle. In two running strides, I was on the driveway, and I don't remember if what I heard were the squealing wheels or my own screams to Chris as my feet smacked against cement. I don't think I have ever seen anything move so fast as my own son, running toward that car. But I caught him -- tackled him, actually -- and pressed his face into my neck as Jake was thrown from under the front wheels.
The man got out of his car as I hurried Chris inside, ushering him upstairs. "I'm so sorry," the man said. He said it again. He looked truly dismayed, brown raincoat frowning with wrinkles. Did I speak to him? To the garage and back outside with an old towel and garbage bag; maybe the man said nothing and just watched me cross the street to collect the body, eyes narrowed so as not to see clearly how the skull had been crushed.
That night, holding Chris until his eyes closed in tear-
swollen sleep, I wanted to call Marcie, but it was late. If I had called, I would have said that she had been right all along about the tests, how we had to be strong. But I would have told her those creek days were pale preparation, that we never could have held our breath long enough or set our shoes far enough apart.
Copyright © 2005 by Quinn Dalton