I thought of us that night on the phone, the way her voice had softened suddenly, when I’d brought up the divorce. My mother had always had her cold, hard shell, this brittle armor she put up between her and everyone else. But maybe, all along, she’d seen it differently. That I was not outside, banging to get in, but in there with her, protected and safe, giving her all the more reason to stay that way.
‘You didn’t ruin my life,’ I told her. ‘I just wish we’d talked more.’
‘About the divorce?’
She nodded, and for a moment, we just sat there, both of us watching Isby, who was studying her feet. Then she said, ‘That’s never been my strong suit. The emotional talking thing.’
‘I know,’ I agreed. She looked at me. ‘It wasn’t mine either. But I kind of got a crash course this summer.’
‘Really,’ she said.
‘Yeah.’ I took in a breath. ‘It’s not that hard, actually.’
‘Well.’ She swallowed. ‘Maybe you can teach me sometime.’
I smiled at her. I’d just reached to put my hand over hers, feeling it warm beneath mine, when I felt Heidi’s phone buzz in my back pocket.
‘Shoot,’ I said, pulling it out. ‘I better get this.’
‘Go ahead,’ she replied, sitting back and resettling Isby on her lap. ‘We’re fine.’
I got to my feet, then hit TALK without checking the ID. ‘Hello?’
The fact that my dad didn’t recognize my voice said something, although I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about what, exactly. I considered just hanging up, taking the coward’s way out. But instead I said, ‘No. It’s Auden.’
‘Oh.’ A pause. ‘Hi there.’
‘Hi,’ I said. I looked at my mom, who was watching me, then turned my back, starting into the foyer. It still seemed too close, though, so I headed upstairs. ‘Um, Heidi’s not here. She left her phone by accident when she went to the Beach Bash.’
It was very quiet on the line, so quiet that I had to wonder why there is interference or static only you really want to hear what the other person is saying. ‘Well,’ he said finally. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m okay,’ I told him. ‘Busy.’
‘I figured. I’ve left you some messages.’ He cleared his throat. ‘I’m assuming you’re angry at me.’
‘No,’ I said, going into the bedroom, where my purple dress was still lying across the bed. I picked it up, carrying it to the closet. ‘I’ve just been working some things out.’
‘And I, as well.’ He coughed again. ‘Look, I know you’re there with Heidi, hearing her side of things –’
‘Heidi wants you to come home.’
‘That’s what I want, too,’ he said. ‘But it’s just not that simple.’
I pushed the dresses down the closet rod, the hangers clacking against each other, and stuffed the purple dress back in. Instead of shutting it, though, I kept moving through the line, looking at the other things there. I asked, ‘Then what is it?’
I pulled another black dress out, this one with a pleated skirt, then shoved it back. ‘You keep saying that, how it’s not simple. So tell me what it is, then.’
I could feel his surprise, tangible, which I guess shouldn’t have been that shocking itself. He was used to me chalking up whatever decisions he made to a peculiar kind of logic, all his own. It excused so much: it excused everything. He was a writer, he was moody, he was selfish. He needed his sleep, he needed his space, he needed his time. If he’d kept himself apart from the rest of the world, these things would have been just quirky annoyances, nothing more. But that was just the thing. He did involve other people. He reached out, drew them close. He made children with them, who then also could not separate themselves, whether they were babies or almost adults. You couldn’t just pick and choose at will when someone depended on you, or loved you. It wasn’t like a light switch, easy to shut on or off. If you were in, you were in. Out, you were out. To me, it didn’t seem complicated at all. In fact, it was the simplest thing in the world.
‘See,’ my dad said now, ‘this is what I meant when I said you were angry. You’ve heard Heidi talking, and you’ve only gotten one side of the story.’
‘That’s not why I’m upset with you,’ I told him, pushing more dresses aside. There was something so satisfying in the sound of the hangers clacking, all those colors blurring past. Pink, blue, red, orange, yellow. Each one like a shell, a skin, a different way to be, even if only for a day.
‘Then what is it?’ he asked.
Black, green, black, polka dot. ‘It’s just,’ I said, ‘you have the opportunity for a second chance here.’
‘A second chance,’ he repeated.
‘Yeah,’ I said. Short-sleeved, long-sleeved, narrow skirt, full. ‘But you won’t even take it. You’d rather just quit.’
He was quiet, the only sound the hangers sliding. I was almost to the end now, the choices narrowing to few, then fewer still. ‘Is that what you think?’ he said slowly. ‘That I’m quitting on you?’
‘Not on me,’ I said.
‘On who, then?’
And then, suddenly, there it was. A simple black dress with tiny beads hanging from the skirt, matching those along the neckline. A dancing dress, a flapper dress. The perfect dress, the one I’d been looking for all along. And as I stared at it, I found something else as well. The answer to his question, and the reason, I realized suddenly, why this summer had brought so much of this to the surface.
‘Isby,’ I told him.
When I said her name, I saw her face. Squawking, cooing, wailing, drooling. Sleeping, wakeful, fussy, content. The first day I’d seen her, asleep in Heidi’s arms, and how she’d been only seconds ago, her eyes following me as I left the room. All these little parts of her, just the very beginning of who she would and could be. It was early yet. She had everything ahead of her, and more than anything, I hoped that she wouldn’t need a lot of second chances. That maybe, unlike so many of us, she’d find a way to get it right the first time.
‘Isby?’ my dad repeated. ‘You mean the baby?’
‘That’s what I call her,’ I told him. ‘That’s who she is to me.’