Melody turns the pages of the photograph album. She has dozens of these; from childhood she's kept what she calls "memory books". She points at a picture. "That's Cy," she says.
In the photograph she sits with a man on a cedar deck, at a table cluttered with empty plates and wine bottles. Behind them, water. In the distance, the San Francisco skyline. The man's mustache is half gray, his face is round, his arms are big but not muscular. The table partly conceals a large belly. He smiles, one eyebrow lifted like a tilted apostrophe. His chin, fat, has a deep dimple in the center, punctuating his smile. Next to him, Melody and her smile, even more vivid than his. They look happy as newlyweds. She had the waiter take their picture so she could remember Cy that way, that day.
They'd walked to the restaurant from a Victorian house converted to a small, luxury hotel. It was their last weekend together, but he didn't know that. Melody had quit her job two weeks before. She'd told Cy she was taking a break; she had another job lined up, a much better one, in an advertising agency. He was always looking for reasons to celebrate, so they'd booked the hotel room. They ate their way around Marin County, sunned at a beach, where Melody took her clothes off but Cy remained fully dressed, and stopped in at several of the wineries.
She knew him; she saw the signs of emotion. She didn't want another marriage proposal, so she spent the weekend making jokes, setting a mood that would make it difficult for him to be serious. Keeping him half-drunk was easy. Keeping him laughing was easy, too; she knew his sense of humor.
She'd spent her free time since quitting her job visiting favorite places, and places she'd never bothered to get to. She loved the walk up Grant street to Lombard, and from there to Coit Tower. She loved the Japanese garden in the park. She loved the wild lands at each end of the Golden Gate bridge, and she loved the beach. She saw them all again. She finally saw Alcatraz and the Exploratorium, places she'd been intending to get to for years. She had dinner with some of the girls from the Lusty Lady, and other dinners with other friends. Last, she went over to Berkeley, to visit Clover. She hadn't seen her recently.
Samuel answered the door. "Melody. Always a pleasure to see you."
"Is Clover home?"
"And I was hoping you were here to see me. Ah, well. No, Clover had to run an errand. She said to wait. She won't be long."
They had tea in the kitchen.
"I wanted to call you," he said, "but we don't have your number."
"Yes, I know." Maybe she would have given it out, had there been only Clover, but she didn't trust Samuel.
"Ah... I wanted to discuss my new hobby."
She hoped the conversation wasn't heading where she feared. Photography? Pornography, more likely.
"I was wondering," he said. "I'd like to ask a favor."
She groaned inaudibly. It was heading where she'd feared.
"Would you do some modelling for me?" He raised his teacup and winked at her through the vapor that came off the liquid. "I'd pay you well."
"Samuel." She used her warning tone. It worked on all but the boldest men.
"Nothing erotic," he said. "Art. You have a sensational body."
She stood. "I just remembered. I have to be somewhere else."
He laid a hand on her arm as she passed. "Wait. Let me explain."
She pinch-gripped the cuff of his shirt, so she wouldn't have to touch him, lifting his arm by pulling up on the fabric. She set the arm gently on the table. "Samuel, I'm not like Clover. I know when a man is making a pass at me. Don't you have any shame? Trying to fuck your wife's sister?"
"But -- "
"Just because I was a dancer you think I'd screw my sister's husband? I'd be screwing her. You don't see that, do you? I was a dancer, not a whore. I can never figure out why people look down on us. You're the problem. People like you. People who don't know where the lines are."
"You don't -- "
"No. We're through talking. Tell Clover I was here. Tell her why I left, if you have the guts."
The next day, Monday, she took the film for processing. The boy behind the counter -- when had she started seeing men scarcely younger than herself as boys? -- said, "You must take a lot of photographs. You're here a lot."
"Yeah. The pictures help me remember things. I have a lot of picture albums."
"So, are you serious about it? I'm majoring in photography. I could show you a few things."
There had been a time when she'd enjoyed men hitting on her. She would even have encouraged this boy, probably gone out with him. He was cute, and shy. It cost him an effort to talk to her, and she didn't want to hurt his feelings, but she was out of his league; he couldn't have kept up with her. She raised her hand and showed him her diamond ring, "That's sweet, but I'm engaged. My fiance isn't very understanding. He's kind of possessive, actually." She leaned forward. "Thank you. You're a nice guy. I noticed you, too."
She cooked for Cy that night: pork chops, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, green beans with bacon, the kind of simple food he liked at home. The kind of Midwestern food she'd seen a million times at friends' houses, and school gatherings, and potlucks. The kind of food she was good at cooking, but had never liked to eat. With Cy, though, meat had to be on the table at every meal. Melody's own diet was vegetables and fruit, rice, beans, and bread.
Later, Melody already in bed, he stood in the door of the bedroom, in a tee shirt and boxer shorts, complimenting her cooking and flossing his teeth. Nearly every night he talked to her while he flossed. The habit annoyed her, and she'd never managed to break him of it. At least he showered every day. He always smelled good, and he was the only man she'd known who didn't leave liquid on the toilet rim and floor when he urinated. He actually cleaned up after himself.
"Tomorrow's your last free day, right?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
"Are you ready for the new job?"
"New job? Yes. Can you take tomorrow off?"
He snapped the floss out of his teeth and stood with it wrapped around his index fingers. "How's that?"
"Can you take tomorrow off? Can you spend it with me?"
"But the weekend in the hotel... "
"I have meetings. I can't cancel."
"It's okay. I understand." He opened his mouth to speak again, and she said, "Aren't you ready yet? I'm ready. You know what I mean?"
He dropped the floss in the wastebasket, closed the door, and turned off the light. She wished he'd leave the lights on, but tonight she would do everything according to his preferences.
He slid under the top sheet. She flipped it down. He covered himself again. "Don't," he said. "I'm getting fat."
"You were fat when I met you. How many times do I have to tell you, if it mattered, I wouldn't be here. I like you this way."
He rolled over, his back to her. His little wounded act. He liked to be babied.
She slid against his back and wrapped an arm around him. "Come here," she said. He wouldn't. "Don't sulk. Come here." She tugged. He rolled toward her. She fed him a breast. "There. Feel better?" She stroked him; he was half-hard already. "What do you want?" she asked. He shrugged and continued to suck.
She reflected that sex with him had always been odd, but it did have its tender moments. At least he wasn't like those guys who tried to act like pornstars, all rough and macho. She appreciated that, though she wished he would be a little less passive sometimes.
Afterward, she cradled his head against her breasts. He liked to fall asleep that way, but one of her arms would get trapped under him, or she'd find herself crowded against the edge of the mattress, feeling the downward slope under her. She usually avoided this. Tonight she allowed it.
"Your breasts are different," he mumbled. "They're harder."
She hadn't expected him to notice.
"Did you get the add-on boobs?" he asked.
"Did I need them?"
"Are they bigger?"
"Does that answer your question?"
"But -- "
"Please. I'm tired. You're such an animal, I'm all worn out."
When he started to snore, she sat in the armchair by the window and watched the cars go back and forth across the bridges, processions of headlights passing each other. She wanted to remember what this looked like.
In the morning she dropped him at work on her way to pick up the photographs of their weekend. The same boy was behind the counter, and she talked to him for a few minutes because he didn't say anything at first; she didn't want him feeling hurt. She came home and vacuumed and dusted, and did all the laundry, and the dishes. She scrubbed the tile in the kitchen and the bathroom. She washed the windows. When she'd finished the cleaning she went to the grocery store and used Cy's ATM card to buy enough food to last him for a month. When all this was done she didn't let herself hesitate any longer.
She went to her room and took all her clothes from the closet and the dresser and threw them in a heap on her bed. She pulled her suitcase down from the shelf.
She loved her clothes. They were all she owned, except her CDs, photographs, a boom box, and the usual odds and ends: toiletries, makeup, address book. But she was leaving most of the clothes, taking mainly the photograph albums, and the suitcase, and her sleeping bag. Fewer things made a cleaner break, and the VW was small anyway.
She saw a bulge in the pocket of a blouse she was tossing on the floor, and reached in, and found the cloisonne locket Terry had given her, their Christmas together: a red heart on a silver chain. When she opened it, their picture was on one side, and on the other was the poem he'd written about their love affair, in handwriting so tiny as to be almost invisible. She pressed the locket to her forehead, glad she'd checked the pocket of the blouse; she had longed for it many times. She packed it and Terry's minor-league jersey in the suitcase.
After an hour of sorting into piles she settled on the little black dress, the Mexican skirt and blouse, and sensible clothes: jeans, shorts, tanks, tees, plain blouses, a khaki skirt, a sundress, white cotton panties and simple bras. Running shoes. No heels. The G-strings and thongs and other sexy stuff she should have given to one of her friends, but it was too late now.
She'd intended to throw what she wasn't taking in a dumpster somewhere, but put everything back in the closet instead. It was easier and safer that way. She set the suitcase and picture albums in the darkest corner, behind the evening dress, to conceal them. If Cy came in the room, there would be fewer empty clothes hangars, and no visible suitcase, to alert him.
She'd cleared out her bank account the week before. She'd paid her way out of the lease on her own apartment. She had her old Volkswagen bug. She was ready.
That night they sent out for a pizza and watched a fight on pay-per-view; Cy was a boxing fan. When they went to bed, she initiated sex again.
"You're being awfully nice," he mumbled, after.
"Don't fall asleep." She poked his ribs. "I want to talk."
He blinked. He was dozing off. He always did. He was the kind she called a "sleeper".
"I'm being nice because you've been nice to me. Hear me?" she said. "You saved me. Giving me a place to live, helping me get my G.E.D. The job training. I want you to remember, I know how much you did for me."
"I love you," he sighed, with his last wakeful breath.
"I love you, too." She didn't. What she felt was the habitual affection of familiarity. Close enough.
He was asleep, and she was sure he wouldn't remember what she'd said,
so the next morning, after he'd gone to work, she left a note:
I have to leave, and I can't tell you why. You have to trust me.
I will always remember how good you were to me.
Believe me I don't want to go, but I have to. I wish I could stay.
I can't. I have a good reason, the best reason. It's not your fault.
Don't try to find me. Find someone else. Please be happy, and forget me.
I have to leave, and I can't tell you why. You have to trust me. I will always remember how good you were to me. Believe me I don't want to go, but I have to. I wish I could stay. I can't. I have a good reason, the best reason. It's not your fault. Don't try to find me. Find someone else. Please be happy, and forget me.
She packed the car. It took only three trips, back and forth, for the suitcase and sleeping bag, and the armloads of picture albums. She drove out of her way to Bud's for a blueberry shake. It was the first thing she'd eaten when she'd come to the City, and there was a nice symmetry in ending with the same thing. She took the Bay Bridge over the water, over the island, and over the water again.
The trip took five days, partly because the old VW was slow, especially in the mountains. SUVs barreled up to her from behind, misjudging her speed and scaring her. Near Salt Lake City the car broke down and had to wait overnight for a part. She got a cheap motel and spent her time riding busses, seeing the temple and the museums, walking and sitting on benches and drinking coffee, much like her early days in San Francisco, except that here were mountains rather than ocean, and everyone had undyed hair and no tattoos or piercings. These people bored her. She already missed her city by the bay.
The car began pausing momentarily, pausing and then catching again, on the climb to the Eisenhower Tunnel, but it behaved on the long downhill. The sun was setting on the mountains in her rear-view mirror when she reached Denver. She'd slept in bushes in the wild, and not minded, but she'd had enough bad experiences in cities that she never wanted to risk those disasters again. She found another cheap motel.
The next day, just beyond Salina, the car acted up the same way as before, hesitating at unpredictable intervals and threatening to die. It quit east of Topeka, and she couldn't get it started for nearly half an hour. When the engine finally caught, it started to backfire, but kept going, all the way to the east Lawrence exit. She kept the engine gunned at the stoplights, but when she pulled into her mother's driveway she took her foot off the gas, the engine died, and the car stopped abruptly. She turned off the headlights.
Her mother stood in the door, wiping her hands on a dish towel. "Who's there?" she asked.
Melody exited the car.
Her mother said nothing, then dropped the towel. "Melody? Is that you?" She raised her arms to the horizontal, as if she would fly. "Oh! It is you! It is!" She ran. "My child. You're home. Oh, my child!" She was laughing. "Melody!" she said, one hand against her girl's cheek, and the other wiping her own streaming eyes. "Oh, I forgot to tell you," she said. "I should have told you, instead of standing here babbling."
"I know, mom. Clover told me about daddy."
"Is that why you're here?"
"No. But I want to see the grave."
"We'll go tomorrow. I take flowers twice a week. He's in the cemetery down the street."
"The one where Gabe and I used to play?"
"Yes. That one. I go and visit him. I can't help it, I miss him so."
Melody took her mother in her arms and said, "Yes. Me too."
She had expected her brother and Julia to be living near, but they had moved to the city, so she was alone with her mother, without anyone to escape to when she needed relief. The house reminded her of everything she'd fled. Soon San Francisco was a story someone else had told about her, not a lived experience. Those years had never happened. The house and grounds and the presence of her mother erased Melody's carefully constructed self and replaced it with the old Melody -- the young Melody. She was back in her former, smaller skin. She was no longer the sexy woman who could make men do anything she wanted, but the child. Now she felt this looming over her, happening again. She had been the troublemaker who never knew why she did the things she did: breaking windows by accident; offering Clover grasshoppers to eat, impaled on a stick, and then eating them in front of her ("yummy"); using Clover's precious belongings; sneaking out at night. Always getting caught. She'd see what she'd done, and wonder why. Too late. The worst thing had always been the disappointment on her mother's face. Melody was the child who failed, unfailingly.
"Why?" her mother had always asked.
She could never explain. She gave up saying, "I don't know." Her mother didn't believe her, but Melody wasn't avoiding the question. Her mother didn't comprehend that she was simply doing things, without thinking.
Mother tried to help. She was a teacher; she tried to instruct her daughter. How to behave. How to carry things so she wouldn't drop them. How to do her homework as soon as she got home, so she wouldn't forget. How to lay out her clothes at night, so getting ready in the morning would be easy and fast. And always to count to ten instead of speaking or acting on impulse.
She followed Melody around. She had Melody do homework at the kitchen table, where mother could watch, because the girl forgot, or shirked. Mother tried to improve the child's penmanship, and her grammar and composition, and arithmetic.
The youngest child, the one who couldn't learn, was mother's project. The child who took every kind of dance lesson there was, and left them because she always expanded on what they were teaching, instead of mastering the basics. The child who failed ninth grade and had to repeat it. That was humiliating, especially when mother took it as her own failure. Mother worked on posture and table manners and language, too, and encouraged Melody to choose different friends, and reminded her about chores, and showed her better ways to do them, and pointed out the clothes on the floor of her room. Every minute of the day, it seemed, when she wasn't grading her students' homework or doing lesson plans.
"Why doesn't she leave me alone?" Melody asked her father.
"She's trying to help," he said. "Trying to teach you to take care of yourself. She wants you to grow up right. To have a good life when you're on your own." She sat in his lap, in the big armchair, with her arms around his neck. She kissed him and pressed her nose against his neck. He was her comfort. She had one parent who loved her.
Melody saw the worried looks on her mother's face. Mother was happy around everyone else, but Melody could only do wrong. She was a disappointment. She gave up trying because trying was useless. She couldn't be what her mother wanted. She could only be what she was, and she'd show her mother by being more that way. Eventually the woman had to understand, and give up, and leave her alone. All Melody wanted was her love. Mother never hugged her the way she did daddy, or Gabe, or even Clover, in spite of Clover's dislike of being touched.
All one night a week after her return she lay awake, remembering, and sucking every breath through her dense personal history: this place, her failures, and the admonitions that still echoed in her head, the admonitions that were beyond her control, and recurred at the oddest times.
The next night the two of them were walking home from a movie on campus, waiting to cross Massachusetts Street catty-cornered from the junior high where Melody and her brother and sister had gone to school, and where her mother still taught.
"Why didn't you ever hug me?" she asked.
"I tried," her mother said. "Constantly. It was like putting my arms around a board. You stiffened up."
"It's true. You melted in your father's arms. You froze in mine."
"It wasn't like that at all!" Melody shouted.
Ada embraced her daughter, and Melody went tense. Ada pressed her cheek against Melody's and held her until she relaxed. The traffic had cleared and they stepped into the crosswalk.
"I thought you disapproved of me," Melody said.
"Oh, no. No. I wanted to help you."
"I thought you didn't love me."
"Of course I loved you. Didn't you know how alive you were? Are?"
Melody shook her head.
She said, "You were the most beautiful child I ever saw. So intoxicated with everything. The way you laughed! I looked out the window once. It was pouring rain and your clothes were plastered to your skin. You had your face raised and your hands to the sky, and you were dancing. I'd never seen such joy. Do you remember?"
"No." What she remembered was a different time, spinning in the yard, and chanting, "Oh when, oh when will my life begin?" Now, she no longer had the choice; her life was about to be remade in a way that would set its course permanently.
Her mother looked into her face with a puzzled expression. "You were my magic child. My beautiful girl. People came to the parties simply to watch you dance."
"Yes. After you left, your father's heart wasn't in it any more. First we were spending all our time searching for you. Then, after you called and we visited you out there... There wasn't any point trying to bring them back, trying to wake them from the dead. No more parties. They reminded him of you. They reminded me, too. I was glad to see them end."
"But -- you loved them. He loved them."
"No. Not any more. Not after you were gone."
"I know I hurt you. I -- "
"Don't be. It's past, now. You took a terrible risk, but it seems to have turned out all right."
Don't be so sure, Melody started to say. "I guess. I wish you hadn't stopped. Everyone loved the parties."
"They weren't important. You were. We loved you. Didn't you know that? Didn't you see how much I loved you?"
They had stopped on the sidewalk on the other side of the street, next to the curb. Melody sobbed. Ada held her again, there on Massachusetts, traffic rushing by, college students gawking, while Melody soaked them both with tears. She wept until she couldn't breathe, and her face stung, and the mucus from her nose covered her upper lip, and the fit had passed through her. Ada offered her a tissue and Melody wiped her face and blew her nose.
They walked home in silence, ate dinner in silence, and afterward built an unseasonable fire and sat on the sofa to watch the flames. They held hands until the fire began to die down. Ada spoke first. "When are you going to tell me?"
"Tell you what?"
"You can't hide it much longer."
"When I was carrying your sister, Nina knew. When you've had children, you learn. You notice things you didn't notice before. They become obvious."
"I wasn't sure how to tell you. I thought you'd... "
"Disapprove? No. There had to be a reason you came home. So I watched. How far along are you?"
Ada thought for a moment. "Not long after your father died."
"Did the one have anything to do with the other?"
"Have you told the child's father?"
"He's not father material. He's forty, and he's had four wives, and he doesn't want children."
"I see. Is he the one who bought you that nice diamond?"
Melody looked at the ring finger of her left hand. "Oh. I always forget that I'm wearing that. Yes. He proposed a couple of times. He made me keep the ring, and I started wearing it as man repellent." Melody went for a photograph album. She flipped through. "Here." She pointed to the picture of herself with Cy on the cedar deck of the restaurant. "He was really generous, he helped me with a lot of things, not just money, but he isn't husband and father material."
They flipped through the book for a while, Melody showing her mother pictures of the places she'd lived, of her friends, of her favorite places in the City. They reached the end of the book, and closed it.
"What should I do?" Melody asked, hand on her belly.
"We'll raise it together. I want you to make an appointment with an obstetrician tomorrow. You have to start thinking about the baby now. You're going to have it, so you have to take care of it."
"I don't have much money. The doctors... "
"Your father left enough." She squeezed Melody's hand. "Don't worry. This will work. You'll see. This house needs a child. I need a child. It's empty and cold here, and I'm lonely. I tried to convince your father to adopt, but he wouldn't. I tried again and again, and he wouldn't listen. Now he's gone, and I need... A baby will bring this house back to life."
"I'm afraid. I'm afraid I won't be a good mother."
"Of course you're afraid. I was, too. All women are, if they have any sense. But the human race has been around a long time. You're no different. You'll figure it out. You'll be a wonderful mother. You have the energy, the loving nature. You'll see."
They watched the flames and when her mother fell asleep Melody covered her with a blanket and watched her for a moment, half-tipped over at the end of the couch. She'd always been able to sleep in the oddest positions and places. When had her hair started going gray?
The dog whined at the door to be let out, and she opened it. She sat on the porch steps, and he lay next to her, settling his head on his paws with a sigh through his nose. Her first day home, when he had come back to the house from his wanderings, he had recognized her, and put one paw on her knee, and made a continuous whine, so high-pitched it was almost inaudible, while he stared at her face. She had patted his head, saying "You remember me, don't you? Yes. You missed me", and noticed that his eyes were filmy. The spring in his step was gone. Now, sitting on the porch, she rubbed him behind the ears. "They still let you wander around the neighborhood? Animal control? Mom can get away with anything, can't she?" Apache looked up at her, sideways, from under his brows, without moving. "Now it's just you and me and her," Melody said, "And baby on the way."
Clover lived in Berkeley and Gabe an hour's drive from Lawrence, in the city, with Julia. Her father was dead. All she had left was her mother. Starting a family with the woman wasn't what she'd wanted, or expected, but her mother seemed to have mellowed -- or Melody had, or Melody had misinterpreted her entire childhood. She sighed; all that unnecessary time apart, all that feeling that she was lost, and sundered from her mother. What a waste. At least her mother had been through this child-rearing business already; she knew the territory.
Melody had always known she would get married and lead an ordinary life.
Even when she'd run away and was trying simply to survive, she'd been sure of this.
She'd expected to have a husband, and children, and a house where they all lived
together. Now she was back here, in the old place she'd been so frantic
to escape that she'd run away and lived on the street, in a city by the ocean,
at seventeen. Her only skills were typing, and dancing naked. She smiled at the disparity.
The office jobs had dried up in the bad economy, and the dancing was impossible
because her pregnancy would start to show soon -- or already was showing,
to trained eyes like those of her mother. Her mother was her lifeline.
Melody should have trusted her. She should have listened.
It wasn't too late. Her mother's optimism... Melody thought that
perhaps motherhood would work after all. It seemed to have worked
for her mother. All three of her children had turned out okay.