Lucia arrived not long after Dante woke up. She hustled the kids off to school.They were hardly out the door when the phone rang. I froze with my hand above the receiver. Two rings, three, four. Then I could hear Charlie’s baritone projected from the out-going message on the answering machine, informing himself that there was no one there. Immediately after the beep, the live Charlie’s voice replaced the recorded one.
“Adrienne? Hello? Are you there? If you’re there, babe, pick up the phone.” He paused. “Adrienne? We need to talk about this. Call me, right away, okay? Let me know when you want to meet, and where.”
“In Hell,” I said without picking up the phone.
After that I called the department secretary and said I was sick. Then I put in a couple of calls to doctors who’d have to cover for me. I spent the next two hours mostly standing still in the living room, or on my back on the couch. Once, I actually booted up the computer with some thought of working on the blood thinner data I was researching.
As I stared uncomprehendingly at the screen, my mind kept pawing over the fabric of my life history, searching for the flaws that had led me to this place. I should have avoided marriage, should have seen a therapist, should have married someone else. I never should have had children. I should have spent less time working and more time nurturing my marriage. I should I beg Charlie to come back to me now. I should smash him over the head with a five iron.
I needed someone to help me think. I dialed the phone number of my friend Janice, from college, but her secretary said she wasn’t in. Oddly, her home number was disconnected. And I realized with a start that I hadn’t been in touch with any other friends in months or years. What did people do when they were in circumstances like mine? Where did they turn?
Into my head came the vision of a room far away with a door Charlie couldn’t find. Inside it was a bed big enough for my children and me, its covers turned down. So where was this room? Clearly California was the place. There was plenty of room at my mother’s house, and the kids would love to see her. They could also visit with their cousin Cody. And if things got tight there, we could always retreat to Dad’s house in Humboldt. The more I thought about it, the more relief I felt.
By the time Lucia had brought the kids home, I’d made plane reservations and packed their bags. I wrote her a check big enough to cover the next couple of weeks. But when I told her about her unplanned vacation, she frowned. “What about Dante’s school?”
“He’ll be okay. I’ll call his teacher to get a couple of assignments we can do in California.”
“Is too quick. They need time to get ready.”
“Look, Lucia,” I said. “Don’t worry. It’s only for a few days. Then I promise to bring them back again.”
She knelt, and pulled the kids into her, slathering them with kisses. When she stood, her face was covered in tears and I hugged her, as if she were the one who needed comforting. Chloe began to whimper, Dante’s mouth inverted. It was all I could do to keep from joining in.
I couldn’t, though. There were phone calls to make, bags to pack. I’ve never done anything so impetuous in my life as to snatch up my children, board a plane and leave for two weeks without explanation. Fortunately, I had a great reputation at St. John’s. I always put in the extra hour, got my reports submitted, my forms filled out on time.
More important, my research had attracted attention. So the appointments that would have to be covered, the cases that would have to be reassigned, the paper that would have to be shuffled — the massive disruption I was causing — probably wouldn’t get me fired. My main fear was for my patients.
In the taxi to the airport the kids were full of questions. But I couldn’t tell them what they really needed to know. And because my answers were so unsatisfying, they kept after me.
“Why isn’t Daddy coming?”
“He has to work.”
“Why don’t you have to work?”
“I’m just very tired. I need someplace to rest and think.”
“Is Daddy tired?”
“He might be”
“Where is he?”
“With his friend.”
“Doesn’t he want to be with us?”
“With you, yes. Just not with me.”
“Why not with you?”
“I don’t know, Dante. I don’t know, Chloe. I don’t know, I don’t know.”
The air was cool at the Oakland Airport, and drier than the thick atmosphere I’d left in New York. Waiting in line at the rental car office, I tried her on my cell phone and couldn’t get through. I hadn’t reached her in three calls from New York, or from the sky phone over Nevada, or after landing. It was only as we sped over the hills that I suddenly remembered an email she’d sent a week earlier, detailing her plans to spend a month in Sierra Leone. She came and went so often that I hardly could keep track of her travels. Now the realization sank into my stomach like a gulp of lead. I took my foot off the accelerator for a moment, letting the car coast.
In my old handbag, hanging in my bedroom closet at home, I still had a key to Mom’s house, but I never remembered to bring it when was in California. I couldn’t reach Darby either, and even if I went there, I figured her tiny place couldn’t hold the three of us. Then where? To get to Dad’s place from Pleasant Valley was a good five-hour drive and it was already after 7 p.m. I accelerated again, looking for motel signs.
Within five minutes, I passed a sign reading “Gas, Food, Lodging, Next Exit,” but I motored on. The logos of various hotel chains were displayed at the next exit, but still I didn’t stop. As I sped past them, I pictured a swayback bed on thin-pile carpet under a velvet painting next to a fiberboard nightstand. In the nightstand, was a Gideon’s Bible. And I realized I couldn’t do that. I needed something warmer, a live human being who could listen to me, say something comforting, at least acknowledge who I was. I needed somebody who had some connection to me. And just about the only person within a hundred miles, besides Darby, was Matt.