When i told Judy that I was going to marry Thom, she didn’t pause before telling me that Thom was a car crash waiting to happen. For my mother, the gestalt psychologist Judy Glaser—and to me always Judy, never Mom—this was typical technique: wallop you over the head and wait for clear-headedness to ensue. A couple of years after her words careened into an actual prediction, I asked if she remembered saying them.
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“Now, how can I answer that?” she asked. “If I say yes, it’s like admitting I knew what would happen to my only child and let it happen. And that’s impossible. For me to have that kind of responsibility in this. So forget it.”
On the day of the car accident that cracked my skull, Thom was wearing a T-shirt he got while presenting a paper at a math conference. It read:
Stop asking me to find your x.
She is not coming back.
And I don’t know y.
For years, he continued wearing it. In certain lights, you could see a faint pink mark on the right shoulder. Thom said the stain was from a pair of our daughter’s brightly coloured pyjamas in the white wash. He’d remind me that on the day he ran the red light (and veered away from the truck and crashed our car into the concrete sound barrier), it was snowing hard. Only logical, Thom said, that he’d have been wearing a ski jacket. It was his jacket that would have taken my blood, not his T-shirt. “I guess we need to be more careful with the laundry,” he said.
“I need to be more careful with laundry?” I asked.
“No! I mean us. We. Both of us. Okay, me. I need to be more careful.”
Thom’s insensitivities go with the rest of him: a man moonwalking through life, the sort who glides in and out of everything with no resistance, his body so slim it nearly disappears in profile. Back when he was studying at Wharton, partly because of the open secret of his IQ and partly because of the way his corduroys flapped around his skinny ankles, Thom was tagged the one who would best everyone after graduation: the genius among the geniuses, who would soon be ensconced in a gilded Geneva office, pulling the levers on world finance. But then the time came, and he simply couldn’t rise to any of the luxury positions he was offered. He maintains the issue was ideology, not inertia. He came back to Canada and took a position teaching at McGill.
My own career got crossed out by the accident. The lingering brain injury, combined with Abigail’s birth, made any kind of return to work extremely remote. We had no savings. Thom still had his student loans. More than once, we’d needed to borrow from Don, my dad. Thom would ask me to ask.
“He’s your father,” he’d say.
“Which is why you should ask.”
So many times, I resolved to divorce him. I’d look up apartments, imagining myself and Abigail in these single sunny rooms. I’d scan au pair websites, unsure where in the single sunny rooms I could put a German teen, the need to be free of Thom thrashing against the impossibility of leaving him. I’d composed a picture in my head, so beautiful and serene, of Abigail and me sleeping together in a big bed with yellow sheets, waking up in each other’s arms. But my internet searches were usually interrupted by my hands, which could only pause over the keyboard for so long before becoming clumsy with tremors.
My father, Don Maislin, bought the chalet a couple of years before he married my mother, Judy Glaser, and adopted me, Iris Glaser, her daughter. Don owned a small chain of physiotherapy clinics, and Judy was by then well known for her books. When they divorced, Don continued being my father, even though Judy was no longer his wife. Every weekend and school break and summer, I was with Don and, usually, at the chalet.
Don remarried a few years ago. His new wife, Heidi Slotsky, was a home organizer by profession. Her company was called Getting It Together Organizing. Heidi Slotsky was a great fan of capitalizing prepositions. Sometimes, you could catch her cackling away on local breakfast TV, where she had a slogan: Love It Or Toss It. She is only ten years my senior but wasted no time in making Don buy matching burial plots, as if, in marrying her, Don became indentured to arrive everywhere, including at death’s door, with Heidi Slotsky.
Heidi called the chalet “the cabin.” She said she couldn’t imagine what Don did up there for so many years—decades!—all those summers and weekends, with nothing but a bunch of trees and no wife. The fact that as a child, a youth, until my twenties, I was often there with him never seemed to pierce the Slotsky thought cloud:
“It boggles me. Just boggles! I mean, I, personally, am not one for rotting away in an old house. I love excitement. That’s why I have such a passion for travel. And you know? So does Donny.”
“Don has a passion for travel?”
From what I knew of my father, “far afield” was Stowe instead of Mont-Tremblant. Don isn’t a traveller. He’s an inveterate ski bum from the era when the best skiers kept their legs together as one. “Like a Mommy and Daddy! Like a Mommy and Daddy!” he used to bellow up the hill, hard life facts notwithstanding, coaxing me out of my snowplow by standing at the run base, shaking a box of Smarties in his gloved hand.
“Oh yes, Don! Absolutely. That cruise we took in September?”
“The one in Mexico?”
“Oh no, that was last March. This September it was the Black Sea. You have no idea how much Donny loved it. Now that Donny is retiring, it’s time for him to see the world.”
Even so, Heidi said she had no choice but to do Don’s chalet over. She said she could not spend so much as another weekend with all the “yucky carpet and random old junk.” Heidi preached a kind of high-gloss cleanliness—my mother, Judy, called it “projected anorexia,” a neurotic disorder expressed in decor, where items are only allowed on surfaces if they have a pre-existing appointment. In Don’s domestic universe, Heidi’s overhaul was unprecedented. When I was growing up, Don saw the redecoration of country places as the weakness of city people unable to leave the urban thrum behind. For decades, he continued to have and repair and enjoy the same greenish heather sectional, the same round rag rugs of indeterminate coloration, the same collection of oddities: the ceramic lighter shaped like a lumberjack’s head, the speared Inuit whale sculpture, the clammy, nutcrackerless wood bowl of walnuts.
Heidi got rid of all of it. She stripped Don’s place down and then whipped it back up in furniture whitewashed and pre-distressed to exude some old Cape Cod significance it had no proper claim on, not least because it sat in the middle of Quebec’s black-laked Laurentian bear country, with its dense forests and dark log houses smelling of decades-old woodsmoke. Now, at Don’s, a sun-bleached piece of coral lay on a white-painted mantelpiece in a room redone with white walls and white fabric blinds with even whiter seashells embroidered on them. Decorative candles as fat as tuna cans sat, white wicked, on beds of pale river rocks encased in glass lanterns. It was hard not to feel Heidi’s taunting presence in Don’s house, even when she wasn’t there.
And, increasingly, Don and Heidi weren’t there. While we were driving up for Abigail’s winter break last year—Heidi and Don “doing Alaska” on yet another township-sized pleasure boat—Thom calculated the number of weekends they’d been away in the last year alone and said we could almost start seeing the country house as our own retreat, since Don was going to leave me the place eventually anyway.
“Thom, please stop killing off my family,” I said, looking back at our four-year-old daughter sleeping in her car seat, double-fisting open markers, pink and orange blobs emerging on the two upper quadrants of her snowsuit.
“Oh my god, Thom. Why does Abigail have markers?”
“I packed them. She loves her markers. You always say you are too tired to pack, and then you complain about my packing.”
“You should not have taken out her markers—”
“Take out suggests they were put away,” said Thom, unable to help himself. “I just collected them off the floor. Low-hanging mess.”
Housekeeping no longer held in our home, a compact ground-floor two bedroom where the peeling ’90s Ikea furniture had long been overwhelmed by unrelenting haystacks of play yarn, banana-gritted jigsaw pieces, and stuffed animals scarred with Frozen plasters. Thom liked to say that I treated its growing clutter as a fait accompli and that perhaps what was needed was a “system.” I told him he could try vacuuming.
“I have to work, Iris.”
“People also vacuum evenings and weekends. Even math professors.”
“Well, my brain is tired.”
“Don’t talk to me about brain and tired, Thom.”
The fissure in my skull was like an Alice band; a cruel, lacerating rainbow, complete in its ear-to-ear arc, this side before, this side after, chop, chop. After the accident, Thom had cuts and bruises that faded to nothing after a few days. He felt guilty and, perhaps because of this, was fond of telling people that I’d gotten off lightly, that, like a “typical type A,” I had walked out of the hospital shouldering my own bag.
Before the brain injury, I had only been in hospital once before, when I was eleven, for a broken leg. Don carried me in and carried me out, my blue ski pants cut off above the cast.
Don called my cast Casper. “Casper the Plaster Caster!” we chimed on the phone to my mother. Judy was leading a twelve-day gestalt training intensive in Florida over the Christmas holiday. She seemed annoyed by our giddiness, but Don and I were pleased with our set-up: he’d brought nearly everything from my downstairs bedroom into the upstairs living room, even the teddy bears I said I was too old for, and pulled out the bed part of the heather sectional, laying it with fresh sheets. Don also put a bell, a big Swiss cow thing for bonging at ski races, by the pullout in case I needed him when he wasn’t close by. He stocked the fridge with marshmallow Whippets and Nathan’s hot dogs and baked beans in maple syrup and chickens that he would roast with his special potatoes, which he placed right in the fireplace, encased in tinfoil.
For the rest of that holiday, Don said he would join me in abandoning downhill. He would use the cross-country trails behind the house, so he’d never be away longer than a couple of hours. Don said I also needed sun and air. So, for an hour a day, he had me sit on the porch, on a heavy wooden deck chair he’d hauled out from the shed. Don positioned the chair to face the solid, snowed-over lake and its background of bulky, rounded hills, the giant sleeping bears in their pencil-scratch sweaters.
“Now I am going to give you a challenge,” he said as he brought me out one morning. “See how on the mountain, the parts where it’s not all pines, you can see between the trees, because it’s winter?”
“Yes, I see it.”
“Well, we know moose and deer live in those hills, right? But you never see one, not one, between the trees. You can stare at the mountain for hours. It’s a real mystery. But maybe you can get lucky and see something.”
At that age, I had yet to consider Don with any complexity. He was my parent, a human figure I believed existed for me alone. I was old enough to have been bushwhacked by the school-bus epiphany that every other person’s head contained as much stuff as mine and that their thoughts were made of them, not me, but I never saw it as eccentric, or even sad, that Don was so often up in the country by himself, never with a grown-up companion. I couldn’t imagine his loneliness because I still held the unexamined belief that he disappeared when I wasn’t with him, as if summoned only by my presence.
Sitting in the deck chair, I took my mission seriously, spending hours under a wool blanket scanning the mountains for animals, my cast shod in a plastic bag. It was a child’s winter, the sky radically blue, the snow pearl white. I daydreamed about telling Don, “Don, I just saw a moose between the trees, I saw two moose, I saw a family of three!” as if this would be a true contribution to our lives, a filling in of blanks.
But I didn’t see anything deer- or moose-related. Not until that August, when the hills behind the lake had been densely blotted in with green and the smell of wild berries rose from the gravel-road banks. One morning, Irving Wexler, a lawyer who owned the double A-frame down the slope, walked up and asked Don if he would mind if he snooped around Don’s property. His miniature schnauzer, Nookie, kept on disappearing into the woods that separated the two houses, and there was nothing of interest that Mr. Wexler could find on his side. Mr. Wexler said Mrs. Winnikoff was reporting something similar with her two dachshunds, Coco One and Coco Two. They had her in a complete panic three days before, gone for something like four hours.
“I bet somebody’s dumped a bunch of garbage between the trees,” said Mr. Wexler.
“Well, I’ll come help you,” said Don, locating some yellow rubber gloves from under the kitchen sink. He re-emerged from the woods twenty minutes later, padding across the grass. When he saw me standing on the porch, he waved something over his head, club-like.
“I’m Fred Flintstone! Yabba dabba doooo!”
The bone’s whiteness was something we both noticed—its dry cleanliness. It was not the type of bone you’d expect from a moist mulching summer forest edging two dozen country homes; it was more like something from some sun-flared Western place with a cracked desert floor and shelf-like cliffs that dropped straight down with no warning.
Don said it had to be from a young moose, a yearling. I asked Don if it was the dogs who killed the moose.
“Nookie and Mrs. Winnikoff’s Cocos?” laughed Don, walking into the unfinished part of the basement. “No. This would have to have been something big. Like a bear.”
Don found a garbage bag and wrapped it carefully around the bone. “Exhibit A,” he said, putting the bag on the woodpile and then quietly leaving the room, as if the bone contained something that needed to remain undisturbed, something Don needed to keep for himself.
Every morning over Abigail’s winter break, Thom and Abigail crept upstairs before me and ate marshmallow cereal they thought I didn’t know about. There was a lot of hushing and shushing about not telling Mama, even though the incriminating rainbow-hued family-sized box was on the top pantry shelf, about as hard to make out as a traffic light. I would stay in bed the extra half hour, in the guest room that used to be my bedroom, listening to the glucose dissolving in their blood. The knotty pine panelling that once covered the room’s walls was now painted over, all the wood’s old friendly black eyes lidded and shut.
I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal! Nanny nanny boo boo!
No, I’m king of the castow, Dada! You a dirty rascow, you nanny boo boo head!
Abigail and Thom loved going crazy together. He’d drop her onto the bed headfirst; he’d swing her by her feet like a pendulum. The times I said it was too rough for a little girl, Thom replied that there were fathers in Siberia who tossed their naked newborns into the snow, and those babies became the hardiest children alive.
One morning, it went silent too suddenly. I got out of bed and climbed the stairs and found a cushion missing from one of the two white sofas in the living room. The sound of running water came from the kitchen.
“A bit of an accident,” Thom called out, not turning from the sink when I entered the kitchen. Abigail was hugging Thom’s leg, scowling in my direction. “A accident Mama,” she yelled, pre-emptively. “It was a accident!”
Thom was rubbing the sofa cushion with a dish sponge, trying to overtake a fairly large beige stain.
“Oh fuck, you’re kidding me—”
“Abigail jumped on me. It’s coffee—”
“Thom, why were you drinking coffee on crazy fucking Slotsky’s white sofa?”
“I don’t know! Because it’s the morning and I was sitting? And watch your F-bombs please.”
Abigail began crying.
“Ok, Abbie, okay, don’t worry,” said Thom. “Mama will calm down now.”
“It was a accident, Mama!”
I rushed to the fridge for some soda water. “Thom, stop rubbing the stain like that! You need to dab it. You’re only making it worse—”
Before leaving on their Alaskan cruise, Don and Heidi came over to our condo to drop off the remnants of their fridge: a plastic bag that included a heel of Jarlsberg cheese and a few of the kind of apple that everyone has in their crisper, not yet rotten enough to throw out but too mealy for good eating.
“Well, I am so excited!” said Heidi. “Aren’t you excited, Don?”
Why was this woman bringing me old rinds, like I was a homeless person? Over the din of water and Abigail crying, the outrage of it expanded again in my chest. The father who gave me everything now giving me horse fruit and cheese wax. As they left, I had heard Heidi say: “See? I told you she’d take it, Donny. Food is food.”
Thom found the apples in the garbage bin that evening. “Why don’t you bake these?” he asked, gently lifting the fruit out of the trash. “Oh man, you used to make the greatest baked apples. I still remember the recipe. The butter and raisins in the middle.”
“Why don’t you bake them, then?” I asked, and we fought. These fights tended to rear up after Abigail was asleep. I convinced myself that they never woke her up.
“Why don’t I bring you breakfast in bed every Sunday morning while I’m at it?”
“Honestly, Thom? Why don’t you?”
“Because I’m not Don putting a bell by your bed, okay? I’m just a person.”
In that summer of the moose, Don said the only person around who could help us solve the bone mystery was Mrs. Naimer, because Mrs. Naimer knew a lot about nature. Around the lake, people had names for Mrs. Naimer. Irving Wexler called her the Astrologer.
Judy, who “knew her from around,” meaning somebody at the office had probably seen Mrs. Naimer as a client and told Judy about it, called her “troubled.” Mrs. Naimer had been married to Mr. Naimer, who was the Naimer from Naimer’s Supermarkets. In the city, everyone shopped at Naimer’s—every mom’s hatchback trunk was as likely as not lined with their stiff paper bags. You heard “Naimer’s” and immediately saw the orange logo, a rounded, thick-and-thin N that looked like a curled-up fox.
At the beach, Mrs. Naimer didn’t anoint herself with suntan lotion or do what Don called the mechiah stroke, the bobbing, hairdo-conscious paddle favoured by the other mothers. I’d seen Mrs. Naimer tramp onto the beach in her dark-green bathing suit and walk right into the water, her long maroon-red hair unfurling behind her like ribbons. I’d also seen her between the trees by the lake bank with a jar, picking the blueberries that usually only kids bothered with. The other mothers said that Mrs. Naimer had “abandoned her child.” And, given that none of the mothers spoke to Mrs. Naimer and that Mrs. Naimer was always alone, I assumed the words were true.
Sometimes, I’d see Mrs. Naimer swim the whole way across the lake and back, an amazing feat everyone on the beach ignored on purpose. People said that Solomon Naimer—Mr. Naimer—took the daughter because Mrs. Naimer smoked marijuana and refused to convert. The mothers on the beach said her sin was not that she was a Gentile, or a drug user, but that she was so airy-fairy that she just let her daughter be carried off, full custody.
“If someone was going to take my Jessica away,” said Connie Wexler, “I would convert to Blue Alien Martian. I’d become an Arab if I had to.”
That summer, I took Don’s rowboat out to the middle of the lake alone a few times. I brought a fishing pole but never caught anything. I wondered if the fish sensed I wasn’t serious, if they knew that I was floating alone so that I could think about kissing boys—kissing boys in brick-walled alleyways under falling rain, kissing boys in swimming pools (our hair as sleek as seals), kissing boys on a real beach, the non-Canadian sort with palm trees and the frothing ocean crashing into us.
Don told me one afternoon, completely out of the blue, “You know, you shouldn’t listen to what people say about Mrs. Naimer. I mean about her daughter. It’s a bunch of yentas picking the wrong side because that’s where the money is.”
Don had little patience for the mothers at the lake. He actively avoided them, taking his swims at times when the beach would be empty. I put his defence of Mrs. Naimer in a frame of familiar complaint: those ladies have nothing to do but sit around and gossip all day.
But then one afternoon, I came home with my fishing rod, thinking about settling into the green sofa with a bowl of Ritz crackers and Family Feud, and walked in to find Mrs. Naimer in my place on the couch, holding a glass clinking with ice. She was wearing a faded orange sundress with shoulder ties and smocking that went the whole way around. Her torso curved into the sofa as if unhindered by anything as hard as a skeleton, her whole body like a long, inviting, question mark. By her bare feet were sandals of the sort I’d only seen in Hanukkah plays—a foot-imprint sole and laces that tied up the leg. Mrs. Naimer’s laces were loose in a puddle at her feet, which were big but very narrow, the nails neat and transparent, everything so slim and clean and natural, as if made to be naked.
I could sense my face going red, like my feelings were seeping out of my pores. “I’m just going to have a delicious snack now,” I said, trying for nonchalance and veering into the kitchen. “Some refreshing juice.”
“Okay,” said Don. Don was kneeling by Mrs. Naimer, holding the moose bone with upturned palms, like an offering.
When I came back into the living room, I’d taken my shoes off like Mrs. Naimer, although my toenails were grimed by a green peel of dirt.
“Honey, you know Kristin, right?” said Don. “She says this bone was definitely a moose bone.”
I nodded, even though I thought we’d figured that out already.
“A young moose,” said Mrs. Naimer, directly to me, this soft, whispering voice, so different from the mother voices at the beach (Jennifer! Jordan! Jodi! Joel! Come here and eat your sandwich! Your lips are blue!). Mrs. Naimer’s voice sounded like it came from a TV commercial about a vacation package, an orange disk of sun behind the figures of a man and a woman holding hands, their bodies shadowed all black from the blazing sunlight, so you could put yourself in their place, just step into their outline and there you are.
“The poor thing must have been in trouble,” continued Mrs. Naimer. “Maybe it was hurt or got stuck in some way. Moose are very wary. They know better than to hang around so close to where people live. I mean, humans hunt, right?”
In addition to people saying that Mrs. Naimer was airy-fairy and troubled and a drug freak and a child abandoner, they said she was just plain crazy. Only a crazy person could come back for the whole summer and live in a big lakeside house like the Naimers’, shorn of both husband and kids. But after meeting Mrs. Naimer, even I could understand that if she had gone coo-coo it was because she was the one who had been hurt. Even I could see that chief among the reasons none of the oily, pecan-coloured mothers at the beach talked to her anymore was the fact that Mrs. Naimer made them look down at their full-coverage bathing suits and smooth them over their hips, snapping the bum elastics in place, and they hated that, and it was easier to hate her, to create a barbed net around the truth, so that nobody could reach it, and eventually it would dry out and die of dehydration.
By the late autumn, Mrs. Naimer was gone, the big lakeside house sold to a French Canadian family who put a burnt-edge wood plaque in the shape of a bear at the mouth of their driveway: TREMBLAY. The older inhabitants of the neighbourhood never had plaques like that. People made jokes: you’d need a full tree for Chernichovsky. Possibly in a kind of we-were-here-first one-upmanship, Mrs. Winnikoff planted a sign at her driveway that read, “PLEASE BRAKE FOR DACHSHUNDS,” its wood cut into the shape of both an arrow and a dachshund. As soon as winter came, it got run over by the snow-clearance guys. I asked Don where Mrs. Naimer had disappeared to.
“Oh, she’s moved to California,” he said, whistlingly, as if this was something he’d just that minute figured out.
I had never been to California, but in my mind, I loved California, land of teens. I imagined everyone there was a cheerleader named Candi or a lifeguard named Seth, and they had their noses frosted with hot-pink zinc oxide and drove around in convertibles, pop music blasting through their whipping blonde hair.
“She’s living in San Luis Obispo,” said Don. “A lot of artists live there. It will be good for her.”
I thought of all the things Mrs. Naimer would have, being an adult: a house full of huge furniture like beds and fridges and armoires. How did you move things like that to California?
“Did she fly there?”
“Believe it or not, she drove,” said Don. “I think she just got in her car and drove and drove. You know, Mrs. Naimer is a pretty brave lady to do that.”
I never saw Mrs. Naimer again, but she remained an active category in my mind, one that never stopped attracting information. A few years back, a gallery in Toronto began selling her paintings, and there was an article in the newspaper. And, not long ago, a book club I’d joined was reading a memoir by a woman who’d gone to Afghanistan. There had been a business opportunity involving food supply and the US Army. She had left her six-month-old daughter back home in California. It was only supposed to be temporary, but the woman ended up staying abroad, letting her mother raise her only child.
“I know it’s hard to take, the whole story,” she wrote. “I mean, you don’t DO something like that, right? No, you don’t leave your baby for an adventure in a Middle Eastern war zone. The child is supposed to be enough. But what if the child just isn’t?”
I didn’t make the connection between the writer, Alexa Naimer-Massoud, and her mother until I reached her book’s third chapter, where she described “the cliquey Canadian-Jewish cottage country” to which her self-made, emotionally abusive father subjected his free-spirited non-Jewish wife. “My mother called the beach ‘the snake pit,’” she wrote. “She was not wrong when she said she was too pure a person for that narrow, undermining place.”
I asked Thom to go to the village to buy some paper towel because I would require a lot of it. Abigail said she wanted to go with him, which was useful, because I needed to concentrate fully on stain removal. It was snowing fat, wet flakes, but Thom said he’d be careful.
As soon as they got their coats and boots on and left, I wrestled the tight white cover off the giant sofa cushion and then doused the cover with the contents of a green bottle of Perrier. I then began blotting, trying to lift the stain. I may have gone overboard with the Perrier. The original stain was no bigger than a fist, but soon the whole cover was wet, a faint coffee colour spreading. There was only one roll of paper towel, and when I finished it, I decided to switch to cloth, rather than wait around for Thom to bring more rolls. I pulled open a kitchen drawer and found a stack of red-checkered tea towels. I took two—they were, insanely, ironed—and pressed them into the soaked cover, adding the laundering and ironing of dishtowels to the number of chores necessary to keep my family traceless in Don’s Slotskied house. I’d have to start a written list. I then peeled the towels off to find that they were only ironed because they were brand new, unwashed. A surplus of red dye was now imprinted across half of the cushion cover.
I felt my right side begin to go floppy. This happens when I am overtired or stressed, the feeling in my arm blue grey, like a cold fish flaccid on a hook. I remain co-piloted by these types of symptoms. Sometimes, my right foot parks itself at an ugly neurological angle; sometimes, pins and needles cover my face. I also have to think about thinking all the time. This sounds like a philosophical stance, but it’s merely brain injury. There can be brambles to push through to know whether addresses on a street are going up or down or to remember what I am ordering from a menu by the time the waiter comes. I’ve burned so many kettles, Thom won’t let me have a stovetop model anymore.
I let my right arm rest and returned to work on the cover with a bunch of Thom’s white T-shirts in my left hand. After an hour, the red was blush pink and by two hours, gone. I stood on the toilet and managed to shoulder the waterlogged cover onto the shower rail to dry. The sun was already touching the top of the mountain at 3 p.m. I made a fire and made some toast and went to the bathroom to check on the cover and burned the toast and made some more toast and went downstairs to change my damp T-shirt and burnt the toast again. Thom and Abigail would be back any minute. I put on my boots and went down to the frozen lake.
There wasn’t a thing to do at the lake, bound as it was in ice and snow, but walking back up to the house, I felt better and grander toward Thom, happy, even, to see the car back in the driveway. I decided to forget the planned box of mac and cheese for dinner that night. I’d try to cook us all a good dinner.
Thom was waiting for me in the kitchen. A silver pole leaned against the fridge—the shower curtain rail. “I think the cover was too heavy,” he said.
“Where’s Abigail?” I asked, hearing cartoons from the basement as Thom brought me to the bathroom.
“She’s fine now,” he said.
In the bathroom, the drywall was ripped off either side of the tub. Thom then showed me how he’d draped the cover over two chairs in front of the living-room fireplace and how he’d opened the glass doors of the hearth to get as much heat as possible onto the fabric. “It would’ve taken a week otherwise,” he said. The fabric was already pockmarked by a burn hole, brown with yellow halo, some renegade fire log too green, the wood with still too much explosive youth inside.
A couple of summers after Mrs. Naimer went away, I grew strong and old enough to swim across the lake, the way she had. I remember the breathless sensation of arriving at the middle of the lake, of not knowing how much longer it would take to reach the opposite shore. I’d paddle in sections, ten strokes at a time, never allowing myself to think beyond the section I was in, because anyone can do ten strokes, no matter how tired they are.
Putting my boots back on, I told Thom I was going to the hardware store in the village to see if I could locate a handyman to fix the bathroom walls. “If I am not back by dinner, make Abigail mac and cheese,” I said, the words exiting my mouth in a way that made me hear them as if uttered by someone else. My heart was pumping in my ears, my right arm swinging like a severed limb.
In the car, a nearly blinding static sizzled behind my eyes. Without meaning to, I zoomed past the exit for the village, the mechanics of the turnoff somehow more than my system could handle. Rather than circle back, I told myself I could cool down and drive to the hardware store the next village up. But then I blew that exit, too, and the one after that. A phrase looped under my breath, one I now recognize from the Naimer-Massoud book: You don’t DO something like that; you don’t DO something like that.
The car was moving further and further away from Thom and Abigail, my family at Don’s house, stranded with no car. As the highway lights blazed and dissipated, I got flashes, images: Abigail’s palms, the creases still faint in the puffy flesh; Abigail’s pinky toenails, which grew in perfect circles; her little heart-shaped calves. This year, she’d developed a sparse covering of tough blond hairs on her legs, hairs that hinted at eras to come, years that would arrive no matter where I was.
It was dark when I pulled into a log cabin–style hotel in the hamlet of Val-David, an old place called Auberge des sapins. I knew it from the few years Don and Judy were together and I was their child. Auberge des sapins was once where everyone from the lake did New Year’s Eve, all the moms and dads and their kids, the smell of maple smoke and red wine and red candles, and all the children waiting for the midnight mille feuilles with sparklers in them.
My phone rang. I turned it off. The lobby was dark and dank with old oil and mould. Was I just embarking on a lost weekend? A two-day mistake that would turn me, in Thom’s mind, into the type of crazy woman I was actually nothing like: one who could think of leaving a child whose breath was still sweet behind her small white teeth? The lady at the desk said she could give me a regular room or one of the pine cabins that had a whirlpool and a kitchenette. She’d give me any room I wanted. The hotel was not very full. I said a cabin, and I knew nothing other than how my room would be: there would be a bed with cold sheets and knotty wood walls with so many black eyes. I would wake up in the morning, and the eyes in the walls would connect with mine, and it would not mean that I was in a good place, but rather that I was somewhere.