I was trying to keep my emails to Jason upbeat and reassuring, but after day two, I couldn’t help but vent a little bit about Bethany and Amanda and the way they’d been treating me. That was even before another dressing down in front of a patron, this time from Bethany, who felt compelled to point out—twice—that, to her trained ear, I’d mispronounced Albert Camus’ name while directing a sullen summer school student to the French literature section.
“Cam-oo,” she’d said, holding her mouth in that pursed, French way.
“Cam-oo,” I repeated. I knew I’d said it right and wasn’t sure why I was letting her correct me. But I was.
“No, no.” She lifted up her chin again, then fluttered her fingers near her mouth. “Cam-ooo.”
I just looked at her, knowing now that no matter how many times I said it, even if I trotted Albert himself up to give it a shot, it wouldn’t matter. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” she said, swiveling in her stupid chair, back to Amanda, who smiled at her, shaking her head, before going back to what she was doing.
So it was no wonder that when I got home that day, I was cheered, greatly, to see that Jason had written me back. He knew how impossible those girls were; he would understand. A little reassurance, I thought, opening it with a double-click. Just what I needed.
After I scanned the first two lines, though, it was clear that my self-esteem and general emotional well-being were, to Jason anyway, secondary. After your last email, he wrote, I’m concerned that you’re not putting your full attention into the job. Two full paragraphs about the info desk, but you didn’t answer the questions I asked you: did the new set of Scientific Monthly Anthologies come in? Have you been able to access the tri-country database with my password? Then, after a couple of reminders about other things it was crucial I attend to, this: If you’re having problems with Bethany and Amanda, you should address them directly. There’s no place in a working environment for these interpersonal issues. He didn’t sound like my boyfriend as much as middle management. Clearly I was on my own.
I looked up. Across the table, my mother was looking at me with a concerned expression, her fork poised over her plate. We always ate at the dining room table, even though it was just the two of us. It was part of the ritual, as was the rule that she fixed the entrée, I did the salad or vegetable, and we lit the candles, for ambiance. Also we ate at six sharp, and afterwards she rinsed the dishes and loaded them in the dishwasher, while I wiped down the counters and packed up leftovers. When we’d been four instead of two, Caroline and my dad had represented the sloppy, easygoing faction. With them gone, my mother and I kept things neat and organized. I could spot a crumb on the countertop from a mile off, and so could she.
“Yes?” I said.
“Are you okay?”
As I did every time she asked this, I wished I could answer her honestly. There was so much I wanted to tell my mother, like how much I missed my dad, how much I still thought about him. But I’d been doing so well, as far as everyone was concerned, for so long, that it seemed like it would be a failure of some sort to admit otherwise. As with so much else, I’d missed my chance.
I’d never really allowed myself to mourn, just jumped from shocked to fine-just-fine, skipping everything in between. But now, I wished I had sobbed for my dad Caroline-style, straight from the gut. I wished that in the days after the funeral, when our house was filled with relatives and too many casseroles and everyone had spent the days grouped around the kitchen table, coming and going, eating and telling great stories about my dad, I’d joined in instead of standing in the doorway, holding myself back, shaking my head whenever anyone saw me and offered to pull out a chair. More than anything, though, I wished I’d walked into my mother’s open arms the few times she’d tried to pull me close, and pressed my face to her chest, letting my sad heart find solace there. But I hadn’t. I wanted to be a help to her, not a burden, so I held back. And after a while, she stopped offering. She thought I was beyond that, when in fact I needed it now more than ever.
My dad had always been the more affectionate of the two of them, known for his tight-to-the-point-of-crushing bear hugs, the way he’d ruffle my hair as he passed by. It was part of his way of filling a room. I always felt close to him, even when there was a distance between us. My mom and I just weren’t that effusive. As with Jason, I knew she loved me, even if the signs were subtle: a pat on my shoulder as she passed; her hand smoothing down my hair; the way she always seemed to be able to tell, with one glance, when I was tired or hungry. But sometimes I longed for that sense of someone pulling me close, feeling another heartbeat against mine, even though I’d often squirmed when my dad grabbed hold and threatened to squeeze the life out of me. It was another thing I never thought I’d miss, but did.
“I’m just tired,” I told my mother now. She smiled, nodding: this she understood. “Tomorrow will be better.”
“That’s right,” she replied, with certainty. I wondered if hers was an act, too, or if she really believed this. It was so hard to tell. “Of course it will.”
After dinner, I went up to my room and, after a few false starts and a fair amount of deleting, composed what I thought was a heartfelt yet not too cloying email to Jason. I answered all his questions about the job, and attached, as requested, a copy of the school recycling initiatives he’d implemented, which he wanted to show someone he’d met at camp. Then, and only then, did I allow myself to cross from the administrative to the personal.
I know it may seem petty to you, all this info desk drama, I wrote. But I guess I just really miss you, and I’m lonely, and it’s hard to go to a place where you’re so spectacularly unwelcome. I’ll just be really happy when you’re home.
This, I told myself, was the equivalent of touching his shoulder, or resting my knee against his as we watched TV. When you only had words, you had to make up for things, say what you might not need to otherwise. In fact, I felt so sure of this, I took it a step further, closing with I love you, Macy. Then I hit the send button before I had a chance to change my mind.
With that done, I walked over to my window, pushing it open, and crawled outside. It had rained earlier, one of those quick summer storms, and everything was still dripping and cool. I sat on the sill, propping my bare feet on the shingles. It was the best view, from my roof. You could see all Wildflower Ridge, and even beyond, to the lights of the Lakeview Mall and the university bell tower in the distance. In our old house, my bedroom had been distinct for a different reason. It had the only window that faced the street and a tree with branches close enough to step onto. Because of this, it got a lot of use. Not from me, but from Caroline.