Things she dreaded having to learn. What haunted her most was his physical presence: his thin, graying hair, his crooked teeth, the mole on his neck. Even the faded paisley pajama bottoms seemed a part of his body. He breathed through his mouth, but when his allergies were bad or he slept on his back he snored loudly. At one time or another she had had nearly every inch of his skin in her hands, on her tongue. The memory of those moments of intimacy most terrified her now as he lay beside her, large as life. There was something the boys at school were saying this spring, one of those momentarily popular all-occasion expressions: Dead meat.
Like a bee at a picnic, the phrase buzzed behind and beside and around every thought. She hated the way Terry looked when he slept. In the middle of honors geometry one morning she paused, exhaustion passed over her, and she suddenly had no idea what she had been saying. What theorems?
Elizabeth thought. What class is this? The moment, horrifying, stretched on. She thought she would have to leave the room. The next day she sat in her room during her free period meaning to write comments for the awards ceremony, only to be awakened by her fourth-period class. I thought it was end-of-the-year overload. She was so tired. Terry smiled at her across the dining room table.
But whatever, sure. Meeting Terry at school, that first awful date, the wonderful Indian dinner, seeing Casablanca in that horrible smelling theatre, his clumsy proposal, her mistake with the wedding invitations, first jobs, trying not to get pregnant, then trying to, losing the first two, finally getting all the way through with Rachel…why was she the one feeling this way, as if the door to the past was about to be shut tight, locked, sealed off?
Why was she the one who felt she was suffocating, being drawn toward an unavoidable horror? Was Rachel thinking these things?
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Rachel had forgiven Terry the affair; did that somehow make it easier for her to accept this? Elizabeth pictured the three of them as an isosceles triangle, then realized the sides should be uneven.
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Were Rachel and Terry closer to each other than she was to either of them, or was Terry the distant point? She pictured triangles turning like images on her computer monitor, turning in space but also distorted by time. She imagined three triangles, one to represent the way each of them saw their family—or was it that she saw it three different ways? She tried to count them all. She awoke without having slept. Her head ached, her body was sore. She smelled coffee, which Terry no longer drank, so must have brewed for her. Repulsed by her selfishness, she rose to shower.
Sitting on the edge of the jetted tub, he handed her a warm cup when she finished drying off.
With the word guilty , the snake dropped into view. In this room, the trees in front of the house filtered the sunlight. Despite the coffee, Elizabeth felt a chill.
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He held them out. Or a trip to the Loire valley. However you want to think of it. Vision corrected, she glanced into the mirror expecting to see bags under her eyes. Craving sleep, she drank coffee. Whatever you want to do. The walk-in closet allowed just one person to stand between the lines of clothes, shoes regimented below, sweaters stacked on the head-high shelf.
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She put her hand out, comforted by the cloth all around. She should put a pillow down in here. When she came out he was sitting on the end of the bed. The light angled across Terry so that his outline, particularly his head, seemed to glow. He was already gone.
The thought of going to school the next morning was nearly unbearable. She made chicken salad sandwiches. She was starving; she had no appetite.
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They looked like something in one of the fine homes magazines, but she had never liked them. Rachel moved back home. There was only a week left in the semester, followed by final exams. She was glad for the excuse to have more time near her father, but worried about her mother.
Even when she was rested, Elizabeth carried a hint of desperation around the edges, a woman on the verge.
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She devoted herself to her work at school, staying late as extra-curricular projects met their end, had the members of the math team over for their annual dinner. They finished third in the state this year. Rachel had a lifeguarding job for the summer, her ongoing gig at the country club pool. She thought about applying for a position as summer school tutor, but the idea of staying indoors all day was too dreary.
Maybe next year. Not the daylilies, or the peonies. But the butterfly weed and echinicea and liatrus. The kit also included dozens of stickers, green branches on smaller and larger circles meant to represent plants. Terry, who had been a design engineer for a tool company, had carefully measured off the length and curve of the hillside and transcribed it here, to scale. I was thinking two white, one pink. Most of them you should be able to get around here. It was impossible for her to think of preparing the ground without picturing his grave being dug, but she liked the idea that, instead of a tombstone, he would have this: not just the yard, with the footbridge he had built over the creek that rarely ran, and the hemlocks and sugar maples he had planted when he and her mother built the house, but this last creation, his attempt not at immortality—plants had their cycles, in a dozen or fifteen years the heathers would be spent—but at life transferred.
As Terry had feared, the best landscapers were booked at least until August.