It was pouring rain when they arrived at the Long Beach Island rental house. Craig and the girls huddled on the porch, while Elaine jiggled the key in the lock. She hoped it was the wrong house, but the key turned and the door opened onto a stuffy mildew-smelling living room with dark paneled walls and a matted green shag rug.
“What a dump,” Alice, the twelve-year-old said, before she walked off through the house followed by her younger sister. Craig said nothing, which seemed worse than criticism. She switched on a lamp that was encrusted with seashells, mostly clam, some chipped and broken. “There,” she said. “That’s better.”
He gave her a look then headed back outside. He made several trips to the car, and each time he came inside with their things, he screamed as though seeing the house for the first time. She knew it was meant to make her laugh, but she felt personally insulted. The vacation was her idea, an attempt to corral her wayward family. This late in the season the pickings were slim, and these owners had been savvy enough not to post a photo on the real estate website.
She picked up the soggy carton packed with sheets and towels and carried it into the larger of the two bedrooms. As she made up the double bed, Emma, the nine-year-old wandered in. “What has four legs and is always ready to travel?” Emma said, reading from her book of riddles.
Rain pecked the windows. Elaine snapped the elastic corner of the sheet into place. She hated riddles; life was too much of a riddle. “I give up,” she said.
“Shut up, pig face,” Alice said, coming into the room just then. “Mom, I’ve been all through this dump and there’s no TV.”
Elaine shook a pillow into a case. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Alice said. “There are only four rooms in this dump, and not one of them has a TV.”
Craig appeared in the door with his laptop, and a look of guarded optimism. He reminded her of a door-to-door salesman. “What’s going on?” he said.
“There’s no TV,” Alice said, glaring open-mouthed at her parents. Of all her daughter’s new mannerisms, this one bothered Elaine the most; it made her look stupid or adenoidal.
“With all the stuff I’ve planned, you won’t miss TV,” Elaine said.
“This isn’t a vacation; it’s a prison sentence,” Alice said. “You’re always making us do things we don’t want to do.” She clomped out of the room, and Craig followed her. Elaine closed her eyes, and waited for the shouting. These days his parenting technique was all broad brushstrokes and flourishes; his long hours at Mandragora Advertising left little time for the subtler chiaroscuro of fatherhood. But there was no shouting, and a moment later, he returned.
“I looked,” he said. “She’s right: there’s no TV. What did we pay for this place? Two grand? You’d think they could have thrown in a black and white TV for that.” He dropped his laptop on the bed and unzipped the case.
“Don’t tell me you’re working,” she said.
“You’re missing the whole point of a vacation.”
“Believe me, I’d rather be on the beach than staring at these damn spreadsheets.”
She didn’t believe him. In recent months, he had become so focused on work that he’d once called her by his boss’s name at the point of climax. “There’s plenty you could do,” she told him. “You could help me unpack or make up the girls’ beds.” Emma was tugging on her sleeve. “What? What is it?”
“Not now. Can’t you see I’m talking to your father?” Craig was heading for the door with his laptop.
“He’s leaving,” Emma said. “Knock, knock.”
“Oh, all right then,” she said, after he’d disappeared around the corner. “Who’s there?”
‘Don’t cry, Mommy.”
By morning the rain had ended, and the island was as scrubbed and sunny as the deck of an ocean liner. The good weather seemed to improve everyone’s spirits. After breakfast at Mustache Bill’s, an old-fashioned steel diner with grime-coated ceiling fans and red vinyl banquettes that stuck to the backs of their bare thighs when they got up to leave, the Benson family drove four miles south on Long Beach Boulevard to the Sea Links, a miniature golf course that billed itself as “the best on the island.”
As Craig parallel parked, Elaine looked out at the course. A Lilliputian village with the standard windmill, shipwreck, and lighthouse, the course was indistinguishable from the half dozen other courses they’d passed on the Boulevard. “You can’t tell how good the course is from here,” she said, though no one had complained. “It’s the difficulty of the holes that makes it fun.” She opened the door and looked down into a moat of rainwater. “Watch the puddle when you get out,” she said, but everyone got wet anyway.
While Craig paid admission at the shack, Alice and Emma ran ahead to the child-sized Victorian house on the fifth hole. They stood on tiptoe to peer inside the Plexiglas windows, elbowing each other aside for better views. Elaine watched them from the entry gate, her stomach twisting with every jab and shove as though she were taking the blows.
The day was heating up, but a soft breeze blew in from the ocean, which was only a half mile away but hidden from view behind a strip mall. Seagulls circled in the clear blue sky; the screeching reminded her of the sound made by the rusty pulleys on her childhood clothesline, a homey sound, calling out across the yards: Mommy is home, taking in the wash. All is well. Would her own daughters connect her with the hum of the clothes dryer, she wondered, the cacophonous clatter of zippers and coins rattling inside? She hoped she would be able to leave them with a more meaningful association like her easy laugh or her fun ideas. But who was she kidding? They hated her ideas, and the opportunities for laughter were few and far between.
Craig returned, grasping four putters in one hand and four neon-colored balls in the other. He motioned for the girls, who pushed and shoved each other to arrive first. “Choose your weapons,” he said. After a brief scuffle over the pink ball, which Emma won, they stepped up to the first hole.
“All right ladies,” Craig said. “Ready to lose?”
He teed up the ball then swung the putter. The ball sailed beneath the riverboat’s spinning paddle and made a bee-line for the cup. Emma clapped, and he took a bow. If all the world was a stage, Elaine thought, then Craig was a star player and she was a lowly stagehand, scurrying backstage, hauling scenery, working the lights, making it all work. The applause and the holes-in-one went to Craig, while she got the stretch marks and the double bogies. She picked up her ball and moved on to the next hole.
Craig lagged behind, recording their scores, while Elaine and the girls planned a strategy for getting their balls up a narrow ramp and through the front door of a decent wooden replica of the Barnegat Lighthouse. “I thought we’d go see the real lighthouse tomorrow,” Elaine said, “after the beach and before the bluegrass concert at the Arts Center.”
Neither girl spoke. Alice scraped her putter back and forth along the ground, while Emma took a couple of giant steps backward.
“What’s the matter?” Elaine asked them.
“Why do you have to plan every single second of our vacation?” Alice said.
“I just want us to have fun,” she said.
“Maybe your idea of fun is different from ours,” Alice said. “Did you ever think of that?”
“Watch your tone,” she said. “And close your mouth before someone mistakes it for one of the golf holes.”
Craig joined them, finally. He looked from Elaine to Alice. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Elaine said, glancing at Alice, who was still dragging the damned putter back and forth on the painted concrete.
“Okay, let’s move on,” he said. “Where’s Emma?”
Elaine spun around. Another family had entered the course, a husband and wife and two young children. The toddler was making a beeline for the Victorian house where Emma was crouched in front of the door. “Emma!” Elaine called out. “What in the world are you looking at in there?”
“Nothing,” Emma said, skipping back. “The whole family was wiped out by a tidal wave. They never knew what hit them.”
Elaine looked at Craig, but he was staring at the letter A scraped into the green painted concrete near Alice’s feet. “What did you do that for?” he said.
Alice shrugged, but tentatively.
“Well?” he said.
“It’s my initial.”
“Your initial? Does that make it okay to destroy other people’s property?” he said. “I think you should go apologize to the manager and offer to paint over it. Don’t you, Elaine?”
Elaine thought the punishment was too harsh, but in matters of discipline, she believed in presenting a united front. Besides, the other family was behind them now, listening to every word. “I suppose,” she said.
“Come on, Mom,” Alice pleaded. “Don’t make me do that. I’ll be so embarrassed.”
“Maybe you’ll remember that the next time you get the urge to vandalize property,” he said.
“Go on,” Elaine said, quietly. “Do as your father asks.”
Alice threw down her putter and walked off in the direction of the shack. Bony and angular, she’d grown two inches since Christmas. It seemed to Elaine that Alice was outgrowing her girl’s body long before she was ready to give it up. The good-looking teenage boy inside the shack braced his arms on the counter and grimaced at her approach. Or maybe he was squinting into the sun – Elaine couldn’t be sure – but she knew that Alice would make the negative assumption and suffer.
“What’s wrong with her?” Craig said.
Half-heartedly, Elaine hit her ball up the ramp. It rolled back down and stopped at her feet. “I have no idea,” she said, but she knew exactly what was wrong with Alice. Her breasts were not developing as fast the other sixth grade girls’; K.L. was in love Kiera; Melissa had been shipped off to a camp in Maine; and Alice had spent the last term of junior high in remedial math. Elaine had read all about it in Alice’s diary, a little pink book with a lock so flimsy it could picked open with a hairpin.
Elaine forfeited her shot, and stepped aside for Emma, who scored par for the hole and accepted her father’s high five with an athlete’s cockiness. Craig looked behind him, then at the entryway, as though realizing for the first time that Alice was not with them. “It’s her turn,” he said. “Call her back.”
“You do it,” Elaine said.
“Alice!” he called out with a forced cheerfulness (the other family had caught up to them now). “It’s your turn!”
Alice shook her head, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Leave her be,” Elaine said.
“You’re just going to let her quit like that?” he said.
“Please lower your voice,” she said, glancing at the other family. The husband and the older child were chasing after the toddler, but the wife, a petite blond with the bulky muscles of a weight lifter, was staring openly.
“I will not lower my voice,” he whispered.
“Fine. Just let her cool off,” Elaine said. “People are waiting.”
“Forget it.” He handed her his club. “She ruined the game for me. How can I concentrate with her sulking over there?”
“It’s miniature golf, so you only need a tiny bit of concentration,” she said, trying to lighten up the situation.
“Go ahead and make jokes,” he said. “But it’s not funny.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s a family vacation.”
After lunch, they set off for the three-minute walk to the beach loaded down with folding chairs, and boogie boards, and a cooler. Coming up over the last sand dune, Elaine froze when she saw the ocean. The monotonous cresting and crashing left her feeling edgy and exhausted. The others moved forward, zigzagging between the blankets and beach chairs and portable playpens. She trailed behind, stopping when they stopped at a vacant spot beside the lifeguard’s chair.
As Craig worked the umbrella pole into the sand, she set up the beach chairs. Alice, still angry, spread her towel ten yards off. Emma started to follow, but Elaine called her back. “Come sit with me, honey,” she said, patting the empty chair. The girl hesitated; she seemed torn between her older sister who embodied her future and the mother who was the guardian of her past. “I used to have to sit right on top of you to make sure you didn’t eat sand,” Elaine told her.
“Really?” Emma drifted over, sat down. “Sand? Why did I eat sand?”
“I don’t know. Your father thought maybe you had a mineral deficiency or something that you were trying to make up for.”
“Is that true, Daddy?” Together they turned to look at Craig. He was working away on his laptop, which he’d set up on the cooler. “Uh, what?” he said, without taking his eyes from the screen.
“Never mind,” Emma said. She got up and grabbed her boogie board. “I’m out of here, dudes.”
“Do you have sun block on?” Elaine called out.
“I did it at the house,” Emma called over her shoulder. “So did Alice.”
“Have fun, honey.” Craig lifted his hand in a wave without looking up. Elaine took off her tee shirt and shorts and then rummaged in the beach bag for the sun lotion. She rubbed the cream into her exposed skin. “Craig?” she said.
“You should put some lotion on.”
“Huh? Oh, maybe later. I’m in the . . . . I’m in the . . . . The . . . uh.”
“Shade?” she said.
“Yeah, sure,” he said, typing. “Okay.”
She looked at her husband of fourteen years. When had the man she loved turned into this uptight, preoccupied person who could not relax on a beach? Were there signs that she’d missed in the beginning of their courtship? She thought back to their first meeting, instigated by his grandmother, Alice, a resident at the Knickerbocker Nursing Home where Elaine had worked as the director of recreation. Alice liked to boast about her grandson’s gifts: an angler’s vest with pockets for her frequently lost eyeglasses, crochet hook, and TV Guide; a knitted poncho to replace her leg-tangling bathrobe; a Walkman and a book light to relieve her frequent bouts of insomnia. Elaine had to admit, the grandson’s gifts were inspired. One day Alice had shown the grandson’s photo to Elaine. Tall, dark, and bespectacled, he looked like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her interest piqued, Elaine had contrived to work on a Sunday, his usual visiting day. When he arrived at four o’clock, she was calling out Bingo numbers in the sunroom. Between games he introduced himself then offered to take over for her.
“You look like you could use the break,” he said.
She touched her hair, wishing that she had thought to brush it during her lunch break. “Do I look that bad?” she said, stepping aside from the Bingo drum. “It’s been one of those days.”
“No, no,” he said. “You look wonderful. I can see why my grandmother is so crazy about you.”
Throughout their courtship and early marriage, Elaine had never felt so well-loved; Craig had made her the center of his world. But soon the children were born and Craig’s career took off, and Elaine learned that he could only focus on one customer at a time. Before long, she was being called Ray in bed.
Without a word, she got up and walked down to the water’s edge, making a wide arc around an ancient woman soaking her feet in a bucket of seawater. She spotted Emma riding a wave toward shore. She held her breath as the churning surf deposited Emma’s sleek little body on the shoreline. Emma came running over, shiny green strands of seaweed woven into her long dark hair.
“Did you see me, Mommy?”
“You were amazing, absolutely amazing!” She understood the need for witnesses; she suspected that was her main motivation for getting married and having children. She touched the board. “Mind if I try?”
“Yes, me. Why not me?” Affronted, she took the board. “Run and tell your father to watch.”
Emma hesitated, and Elaine gave her a little push. “Go on, I’ll be fine. I was body surfing before you were born.” The girl ran off and Elaine waded out into the cool water, ducking under a couple of breakers before she reached the place where the waves were cresting. All around her were shrill, shivering kids, waiting for the wave of waves. Elaine waited, too, bobbing and watching. The noon sun burned the top of her scalp.
For the second time that day, she thought about her mother. Not once in all those years of family vacations to Seaside Heights could she remember her mother swimming. It was because of her hair, she’d said. If her hair got wet, she’d have to roll it in curlers and sit under the mushroom-shaped hair dryer cap until the tips of her ears turned scarlet. But even after blow dryers had been invented and hairstyles had changed, her mother had clung to her curlers and to her beach chair. How sad that seemed. She dipped her head backward into the water to cool her burning scalp. Was she sabotaging her own life in any way, she wondered. But she didn’t have long to wonder. A wave was looming in the distance, and the kids were shouting: “This one! This one!”
With her heart slamming against her chest, she turned her back to the great moving swell, and pointed her board toward shore. In another moment, she was lifted high above the beach where her family sat huddled under the green-striped umbrella as tiny as dolls. Then, all at once, she was hurtling toward the beach, screaming into the salty spray, “Look at me!”
When she returned, shivering, to the blanket only Emma was there, pawing at the sand. “Daddy’s folder blew open and all his papers flew away,” she said. “He made Alice help catch them.” Elaine looked in the direction she was pointing. About twenty yards up the beach, Craig and Alice were running and leaping in a clumsy pas de deux.
Elaine wrapped herself in a towel. “Why aren’t you helping?”
“I’m in charge of guarding the laptop.”
A cell phone started to ring, and Elaine traced the sound to the chair. She snatched it up. “Craig Benson’s office,” she said, with dripping sarcasm. Emma giggled.
It was Craig’s assistant, Miriam, an officious middle-aged woman.
“He just ran out,” she said, winking conspiratorially in Emma’s direction.
“And he’s still running!” Emma said.
She put a finger to her lips as she listened to Miriam. Craig was needed at the office the next day for an eleven o’clock client meeting. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell him as soon as he gets back,” she told the anxious assistant. As she returned the phone to the chair, one of Craig’s papers flapped past her ear on its way to the sea. She and Craig charged at it from opposite directions, but she got there first, scooping it up as it touched down on the wet sand.
“Nice job!” he said, patting her back.
She opened her mouth to tell him about the meeting, but then someone shouted her name. Irene, a woman from their neighborhood, struggled to come out of the water to meet them. Craig waded out and extended his hand to help her. They all kissed and hugged something they would never have done at home. Irene invited the girls to the Seaside boardwalk that evening with her family, and she offered to keep them overnight. Before Elaine had to time to answer, Alice approached her with Irene’s oldest daughter, Little Irene, begging her to say yes.
“Absolutely not,” Elaine said. “I planned for us to go fishing on the pier after dinner at Old Barney’s. It’s all planned, so close your mouth, Alice. That’s my final answer.”
“Oh, god, fishing?” Alice said. “Are you serious?”
“It’s a family vacation,” Craig winced, looked down at the sand. Irene jumped in. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interfere with your–”
“It’s not a family vacation,” Alice told Irene. “It’s her vacation. We’re doing everything she wants.”
“Alice!” Craig said. “Apologize to your mother.”
“I’m sorry,” Alice said, but she seemed to be talking to Little Irene.
Elaine bit her lip. It didn’t matter; the apology didn’t interest her. She looked out at the smudged line of the horizon where a ship was traveling south at a deceptively slow pace. That was how she was losing Alice, she decided: day by day at a deceptively slow pace. She looked at Alice. “Go,” she said. “It’s okay.”
Her daughter ran off into the water with Little Irene before her mother could change her mind.
“Are you sure?” Irene said.
“Absolutely,” Elaine said, forcing a smile. “They’ll have more fun on the boardwalk. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Craig stepped closer to her and slipped his hand into hers. “We can still go fishing,” he said in a tone that made Irene blush.
Elaine and Craig never made it to Barney’s for dinner, or to the fishing pier. At eight-thirty, she left him sleeping in the double bed and walked naked to the kitchen for a snack. The sun was just setting, but she made her way through the sepia-colored shadows without turning on the lights. The out-dated kitchen, with its dark cabinets, head-cheese patterned linoleum, and avocado appliances made her feel as though she were trespassing in another woman’s house, making love to another woman’s husband. The feeling was not so far-fetched, since every minute that she did not tell Craig about the next day’s meeting was in fact stolen time. While making love to Craig, she had decided to put off telling him until after they’d enjoyed a cozy breakfast in bed. She’d leave him plenty of time to shower, shave, and make the two-hour drive to his Manhattan office.
She opened the refrigerator then slammed it shut when the phone started ringing. She thought of Craig sleeping, and she ran across the room and picked up the phone on the second ring. It was Miriam again, asking for Craig. “Oh, Miriam,” she said hurriedly. “Craig’s on his way home right now, but you won’t be able to reach him because he forgot his cell phone here. I told him about the eleven o’clock meeting and he’ll be there in plenty of time.”
“Are you sure?” Miriam said.
Elaine resented her doubtful tone. What had Craig told her that would lead her to believe that Elaine was capable of lying? “Absolutely,” she said, and hung up the phone. She noticed her hands were trembling when she opened the refrigerator and took out the bowl of tuna salad. She made a sandwich and ate it standing at the window, looking out at the clothesline where a few of Craig’s spreadsheets were drying alongside the family’s bathing suits. She smiled, imagining him at the beach, wearing only his spreadsheet like a modern day Adam. That would make her Eve, she realized, the first woman to compete with her husband’s boss. She laughed out loud. Surely, Eve would have been jealous when Adam had first cried out, “Oh, God!” at the point of his climax. She would have to remember to tell that to Craig.
She leisurely finished her sandwich, licking mayonnaise from her fingers. Then by moonlight, she washed out the empty bowl and left it on the countertop to dry. When she returned to the bedroom, the light was on and the bed was empty.
“How could you do this to me?” Craig was up, standing near the closet, fully dressed.
“Craig!” she said. “You scared me!”
“I said how could you do this to me?”
“I heard every word,” he said. “What are you trying to do? Make me lose my job?”
She’d forgotten about the phone on the night table. “Of course not,” she said. She sat down on the edge of the bed. “I was going to tell you in the morning.”
“Gee, thanks,” he said. “When are you going to get into your head that my job isn’t some kind of hobby that I’ve taken up just so I can escape from you and the kids? I need this job. We all need this job.”
She looked up at him. “Yes, but when you start calling your wife by your boss’s name in bed then it’s time to get more balance in your life. Don’t you think?”
“For the last time, I didn’t call you Ray.”
“You said Ray. I distinctly heard it.”
“Oh, Christ, will you–”
“Forget it; it’s over,” she said, swatting the air. “Look, I just wanted us to have a nice night together, and I knew that if I told you about the meeting, you’d get all tense and distracted, and probably even leave.”
He rubbed the back of his neck, looked down at the floor. “You’re right about that,” he said, after a moment. “You know me pretty well.”
She grinned. “Fourteen years is a long time.”
“Well, maybe too long if you think you can mess around with my life like that.”
She said nothing; the fishlike coldness of his eyes frightened her. He went to the dresser where he had stacked his briefcase and laptop as though for a quick getaway. “You’re leaving,” she said. “When are you coming back?”
“Maybe never,” he said.
“How am I supposed to get home then, if you have the car?”
“Call a car service or catch a ride with Irene. I’m sure you’ll figure something out, since you seem to have all the answers.”
She watched him pick up his things and leave the room. This was the moment she was supposed to dive for his ankles and beg forgiveness. But she couldn’t move, not even after she heard the door slam and tires crunching the gravel. She lay back on the bed and tried to sort things out, to figure out how she had ended up alone. He was wrong, she thought. She had no answers.
The next day, she was unable to get out of bed. Her head felt fuzzy and her body was impossibly heavy. She recognized the symptoms: she was depressed. After Emma’s birth, she’d felt the same way. Her doctor had blamed hormones, as though the malady was beyond anyone’s control, but she’d blamed Chow Bella, the dog food company that had summoned Craig to Chicago, leaving her alone for two weeks with a newborn and a four-year old.
She rolled over and stared up at the yellow water stains on the ceiling. She thought about Mr. and Mrs. Urstadt from the Knickerbocker nursing home. They had bickered constantly over the most inane things. Mrs. Urstadt had forgotten the name of their friend’s daughter. Mr. Urstadt insisted on wearing the green cardigan that Mrs. Urstadt hated. There were many days when they had to be wheeled to opposite corners of the sunroom like a couple of punch drunk boxers. When Mr. Urstadt died, however, his wife lasted just one day without him. The staff thought she had died of a broken heart, but Elaine thought it was the guilt that had killed the old lady. Mrs. Urstadt had spent the last day of her husband’s life criticizing his old green sweater.
She looked at her watch. If Craig’s meeting ran two hours and he left immediately afterwards, he should be back by three o’clock, give or take a half hour for traffic delays, bathroom stops, or map consultations. It was only eight o’clock now. The weight of the hours pressed down on her. She rolled over and went back to sleep.
The ringing phone woke her. She had dreamed that her mouth was filled with glass shards, making speech painful and dangerous. She swallowed before saying hello. It was Irene, asking to keep the girls until dinner. Next to the telephone was Elaine’s itinerary for the day: Breakfast at Owl Tree. Shopping at Hand’s. Beach. Barnegat Lighthouse. Bluegrass Concert. She crumbled the paper and tossed it. “Sure,” she said. “Keep them as long as you want.”
She hung up, and rolled out of bed. In the bathroom, she lifted her night shirt and sat down on the sandy toilet seat. The house was too quiet; it made her think of the Victorian house at the Sea Links where Emma claimed the family had been wiped out by a tidal wave. It occurred to her that she was that tidal wave. She had washed her family out of the house, and now she was sloshing around the empty rooms seeking her own level. After flushing the toilet, she looked at herself in the mirror. Gaunt and gray, she resembled Mrs. Urstadt on the last day of her life. If she was going to die of guilt, she would go out in style. Before returning to bed, she gathered some provisions: a stack of fashion magazines, a bunch of grapes, and a cup of tea. She arranged the pillows against the headboard and settled back to read an article about a British fashion designer who created clothes from recycled materials.
“An aluminum bra? You’d never get me to wear that!” she said, and then laughed nervously when she realized that she was talking to herself. Women who whiled away the day in bed were either crazy or lazy, unless, of course, they were legitimately ill. That had been the case near the end of her first pregnancy when she’d inexplicably started to bleed.
For two weeks, Craig had come home early to prepare their dinner. He was a competent cook, but if he liked an ingredient, he tended to add more of it than the recipe required. The results were often quite good, and just as often inedible. They had eaten from trays in their bed, watching Jeopardy. He answered all the history and geography questions, while she answered the ones about the arts or science. Together, he said, they made a perfect brain. Sometimes they just talked. Wrapped in the wooly cocoon of blankets, they’d imagine what life would be like with a child: the vacations; the Christmas presents; the Easter egg hunts; the extravagant birthday parties. So pleasurable were these conversations, it sometimes seemed to her that they were planning their own childhoods. But instead of becoming children, they had become her parents, boring and inflexible.
By three-thirty, the fashion magazines began to weary her with their bossy prescriptions for sartorial perfection. She pushed them aside and listened for Craig’s car. In her family, she was known for her good hearing. That was why she could be so sure that Craig had called her Ray. When the girls were babies, she had to use a white noise machine so that their little sighs and exhalations wouldn’t keep her up all night. Now that she thought about it, the white noise was similar to the sound made by her mother’s hair dryer: a soothing monotonous drone that shut out all extraneous noise. Was it possible that her mother had enjoyed her time under the hair dryer cap, out of reach of her four demanding children? She was considering a whole new view of her mother when she heard the front door open and her children running through the house calling for her. When they reached the bedroom doorway, they stopped short and grew quiet.
“Are you sick?” Emma crossed the room and laid a clammy palm on Elaine’s forehead.
“I was just taking a little nap.” She threw off the blanket and sat up.
Alice remained in the doorway, eyeing the piles of magazines, the tea cup, the plucked grape branches. “Where’s Daddy?”
“He has a meeting in New York,” she said.
“Is he coming back?” Alice said.
“Yes,” she said, though she was no longer so sure. It was four o’clock, way past her estimated time of arrival. “Maybe not today, though.”
Emma sat down on the bed and banged her heels against the frame. “I almost won a stuffed skunk for you, Mommy. But I didn’t get the last ball into the cup.”
“Thanks for trying.” Elaine gave her a hug.
Alice came tentatively into the room, holding out something big and blue that she had been hiding behind the doorframe. “I won this for you,” she said, laying the boogie board on the bed.
“It took her a whole month’s allowance,” Emma blurted. “She had to borrow five more dollars from Irene.”
“Oh, Alice! You were so sweet to think of me,” Elaine said, running her hand over the board, blinking back tears. She wished she could have been there, cheering on her daughters, offering guidance. But maybe it was better this way, maybe she would have been too heartbroken by their losses. She spread her arms and pulled both girls to her.
The sound of tires crunching gravel made her stiffen. The girls took off as though they, too, had been waiting all day for that sound. Elaine got out of bed slowly, feeling dizzy and fragile as though she were recovering from a long and debilitating fever. She stripped off her sweaty night shirt and put on clean shorts and a tee shirt. Craig was in the living room now, calling her name. She had to admit, it sounded a lot like Ray.