First let me try and explain: it’s like falling into deep, deep water. A sudden plunge that knocks your breath away, and once you go under, you forget which way is up. One minute I’m in line at the bank, or crossing the street, or pushing my cart through the Sav-Mart. Then something trips me and my memory opens up and I tumble in. Maybe I see a barrette in someone’s hair and suddenly I’m six years old, at the Gimbels perfume counter. Eight greasy fingerprints on the plate glass front. Eleven atomizers on a tray, piano music tinkling through the store stereo. A poppy seed stuck in the saleslady’s front teeth. She turns her head towards Leather Goods and two wisps fly loose from her tortoise-shell clip and my mother slips a bottle of Chanel No 5 into her pocket and a snail of sweat creeps down my back and she pulls me away by the hand. I live it again, every little thing, and when I come back to the present the teller is shouting Miss? Miss? through the hole in the plexiglass, cars are honking, a quart of ice cream is melting to soup in my hands. On my back the same wet snail-trail. In my nostrils, Chanel No 5.
You’d think this memory would’ve made me a straight-A student, a Jeopardy Champion. You might call it a gift. I wouldn’t. In school, when I opened my locker or sharpened my pencil or sat down with a quiz, I’d suddenly fall into some other day, some other moment. Ten minutes later I’d still be standing there, lock in hand as the late bell rang, or my pencil would be ground down to a nub, or the teacher, gently and sadly, would say, “Brianna, time’s up.” Even now, behind the wheel, I get lost in a memory and find myself parked at the Dairy Queen by the train station, or the hospital where Caitlin was born, or on Route 6 halfway to Chatham, and Caitlin, if she’s in the car, says, “Mom, you have the worst sense of direction.” But I can’t help it. Once I heard a story on the radio about a woman like me. She had scientists baffled. “Hyperthymesia,” they called it: highly superior autobiographical memory. They thought there might be 40 or 50 people in the world like us, people whose pasts keep opening up and swallowing us down. I went to a doctor once, myself. I thought he would look at me and just know. But he took my blood pressure and told me to take a vitamin and said I was just fine, and I never told him. I never told anyone.
That’s how I ended up cleaning rooms at the Meadowlark. It’s just one of those little motels that dot every roadway up and down the Cape, nothing fancy, and the pay isn’t much. My mother sighs every time my job comes up. She’s spent all her life cleaning too: 35 years across town at Channel 17, dusting the archive rooms, vacuuming the studio and wiping down the desk after the 11 o’clock news. All those years she kept picking the wrong men: they didn’t hit her or try to touch me, but they drank or ran around or slipped bills from her purse or sat in their underwear watching Maury all day. Uncle Tommy, Uncle Jimmy, Uncle Tony, Uncle Robbie: all of them big men with names like little boys, who stayed for a while and made my mother cry and then drifted out of our lives, some on cue, some on their own. She’d wanted more for me, a husband and a house and a job where I had to wear pantyhose. Instead it’s just me and Caitlin, just enough money for rent and food and a movie once a month. But I work at the Meadowlark because there, my memory doesn’t matter. If the sheets are changed 10 minutes later, no one cares at all.
So this is what happened last week.
Last week I had double shifts Monday and Tuesday. I don’t usually do evenings – I like to be home to make Caitlin dinner and help with her homework, even though she doesn’t really need it. She’s already doing algebra, and she’s only in the eighth grade. But Vance, my manager, begged me as a special favour. “Please, Bri,” he said. “The new girl can’t start till Wednesday. And you know I couldn’t keep Becca one more day.” I did know, because Becca had been stealing things from the guests – starting with twenties and jewellery and moving on to stranger and stranger things like travel alarm clocks and sticks of deodorant, and I was the one who finally caught her in the act in Room 218, tucking a man’s left shoe into her purse. It’s hard to say no to Vance: he’s the one who first hired me all those years ago, barely 18, with a newborn at home and spit-up stains on my jeans, who looked at my application – where it said Year of High School Graduation: N/A – and then at me and said, “Come on down on Monday. We’ll find you something to do.”
So when Vance asks for special favours, I do them. Besides, I wanted the money – I’m already setting aside all I can for Caitlin’s college fund. Last month she brought home a short story she wrote for English. It takes place in the future, and this girl gets killed in a car accident and her parents have her cloned, but the clone feels too much pressure to be just like the first daughter and she runs out into the street and gets hit by a car and dies, too. It just floored me. In English class I never got anything above a C, but down at the bottom her teacher wrote: A+. Extraordinary. Caitlin is going places, and I want to help her get there.
With the double shifts, I’d be at work till 2am, so Sunday night I dropped Caitlin at my mother’s. It was her last week of school before summer break. “Don’t worry,” my mother said, “Ray and I’ll take good care of her.” Ray was my mother’s first boyfriend with a grown-up name and a grown-up job, something in sales, and they’d been together almost two years. He picked up Caitlin’s little rollaway suitcase to carry it inside, and when I saw his well-shined shoes I got lost, just for a second. The heavy door of 218 creaking open beneath my hand. A smudge on the bib of Becca’s apron. Her hand shaking as she reached for that big black loafer.
“Bri?” my mother said, and I blinked, and waved goodbye, and popped the car into reverse.
Monday morning I worked the breakfast room first, pouring cup after cup of coffee, making sure the eggs and sausage and pancakes in the buffet stayed hot. Then, at 11, I wheeled my cart room to room, making beds, vacuuming floors, fluffing pillows. With Becca gone, I had all the rooms to do, and as I unlocked each door I tried to stay efficient, to stay focused, to stay, for once, in the present.
After all these years, I can tell at a glance who’s staying in each room: which rooms are women and which are men; who’s traveling with a wife, and who’s just there for the special. The married women make messes: wine bottles on the floor, lipstick on the glasses, mascara stains on the pillowcases. They don’t have to clean it up, so they take the chance to be as messy as they can, like they wish they could be in their own homes. The unmarried ones, the ones just there to meet their men, are the neatest, as if they don’t want to leave any clue about who they are. They leave nothing but their hairs in the sink.
Usually the girlfriends check in mid-afternoon and lounge by the pool until their boyfriends get off work. But at noon that Monday, 107 already had a Do Not Disturb sign, and when I made up 109, I could hear them through the wall: the faint thump thump thump of the headboard. At 4 o’clock, when I took over the front desk from Vance, the sign was still on. Officially I’m just housekeeping, but I’ve been here so long that I help Vance out wherever he needs. After I registered the new guests, I called my mother’s to check on Caitlin.
“Is Mim back from work yet?” I asked.
“Not yet,” Caitlin said. “She has to pick up Uncle Ray at 5.30.”
“How was school?”
“Fine.” She giggled. “John DiAndretti grabbed my butt in history.”
“Mom. It was funny.” Her voice got that little twist that it gets, nowadays, like it’s been bent in a funhouse mirror. “Fine. I won’t tell you this stuff if you don’t get it.”
“Did you do your homework?” I asked.
“Not yet. I will.”
Outside, a fat woman and her fat husband and a beach-ball of a child climbed out of their Subaru, suitcases in hand. “You sound tired,” I told Caitlin. “Take a vitamin.” I started to say, “And tell John DiAndretti to keep his hands to himself,” but she’d already hung up.
At eight, when I came back from my dinner break, Vance told me 107 had called for housekeeping at last.
“I’ll watch the desk,” he said. It was quiet then, most of the evening check-ins done. “You go on up.”
Outside 107, I knocked and waited. That’s first thing I learned when I took this job: the worst sin is walking in on a guest. I counted to 60 and was just reaching for my key card when the door opened.
What struck me first was how young she was. She wore one of the white terry robes we left in the closet for the guests, and I could see how thin and knobby her ankles were, the delicate little bones of her feet and her toenails painted Cadillac pink. But more than anything it was her hair, long and blonde and pulled into a low ponytail, that made her look so young.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m just looking for my shoes.”
“Take your time,” I told her, resting one hand on the edge of the cart. Behind her the bed was rumpled, the spread kicked all the way loose on the floor, wrinkles in the sheets outlining where their bodies had been. She fished a yellow flip-flop out from under the dresser and pulled it on.
“Could you let me know when you’re finished?” she said. “I’ll be down by the pool.” On the way out the door she leaned in and squinted at my nametag. “Thank you – Brianna.” She said my name as if it was a gift.
She had left her suitcase open on the luggage rack, with her clothes folded up neatly inside. Someone taught her to be tidy. On the top was a little lace nightie, so sheer I could see through both layers of cloth to the stack of panties beneath. Purple polka dots. Green and blue stripes. Little-girl patterns. And tucked under that, something orange: a retainer case, not quite shut, the edge of the wire protruding from the pink plastic mold of her mouth. I snapped it closed and pushed it farther under the clothes. No luggage tag; no name.
I stripped the bed and put on clean, crisp, sweet-smelling sheets. I emptied the garbage can – two tissues, three condoms, a Diet Coke can – and put in a new liner; I scrubbed out the bathtub and wiped down the sink and reset the TV to Channel 2, the hotel’s welcome station, which always shows a photo of the sparkling blue pool and the current weather. Tomorrow, it said, would be 76 degrees, mostly sunny. Breeze from the south at five miles. Once I locked the door behind me, the room was just like any other, blank and clean and new, cleared of all memories. This is the other thing I like about my job.
The girl was lying in one of the lounge chairs by the pool, where she looked even younger. She’d let down her hair and it hung moon-coloured and perfectly straight.
“Your room’s finished, miss,” I told her.
“Thanks,” she said, and by the Diet Coke in her hand I knew she wasn’t even 21: Jorge at the bar would have given her a daiquiri. He never asks guests for ID. But only someone really young would be too scared to even try asking for one.
She pushed herself up, gingerly, and for a second she pressed her hand to the spot between her legs, as if it were tender. Then she pretended to fix her robe and stood up. She didn’t look much older than Caitlin – 16 or 17, maybe – and I wondered what she had told her mother: a weeknight sleepover with her girlfriends? A vacation with her best friend’s family?
“Good night,” she said, and set the empty can down. I nodded and pretended to clear off the poolside tables, where guests always left their trash. In the dim light her legs gleamed as she walked away, pale and impossibly slender, and then the memory started. Rough wood of the Dairy Queen picnic table beneath my fingers. My cutoffs so short the pockets hang out, blue denim fading to white fringe, sunlight glinting off my long teenage legs. Katie Conroy’s shoulder bare and cool against mine, her hair blowing into my face. Vanilla melts across my tongue, a bead of sweat trickles down my thigh. Across the street at the station, perfect cotton balls of smoke rise from a waiting train. A prickle at the back of my skull, right beneath my ponytail, and I turn to look at the man watching me, his eyes sliding from the glistening chocolate-dip cone in my hand to my halter top to my legs, and a shiver tingles all the way down into the waistband of my shorts.
Behind the bar, Jorge dropped a tray, and I was back beside the pool again. I crushed the Coke can in my hand, digging the metal into my palm. I didn’t need a special memory to remember what happened next. Before he got on the train back to Boston he wrote down my number on a red-and-white napkin and said he’d drive up the next weekend and call me. And he did. That was how it started. He seemed so old at the time, 33, but now that doesn’t seem so old. I told my mother I was staying over at Katie’s house. That I was at a slumber party. That I was on an overnight trip with my history class. Every single time, my mother believed me. She didn’t have a clue.
Tuesday morning at nine, the girl from 107 was already in one of the lounge chairs by the pool, wearing a bikini – pink – and holding a glass of pineapple juice instead of a Coke. Her chest was almost completely flat and she’d pulled the strings of the suit tight to make it fit. Hasn’t developed yet, I thought. Maybe she never will.
“Good morning,” she said. “Brianna, right?”
I nodded. “How are you enjoying your stay?”
“It’s nice.” She sipped her juice.
“Exciting plans for today?” I picked up an abandoned newspaper and a half-drunk mimosa from one of the side tables.
“I don’t know yet. Maybe.”
“You know,” I told her, “the beach is just a five-minute walk. White sand, the only white sand beach in New England. Great day for it, too.”
“Oh no,” she said. “I’m just going to hang out here. Soak up the sun.” She waved vaguely at the empty lounge chairs beside her and I understood: she didn’t know if he was coming back that day. She didn’t want to miss him.
“What does he do in the city?” I asked, watching her out of the corner of my eye. “Your – husband.”
“My – husband,” she said, mimicking my pause. “Associate market analyst at Wiley Martin.” She took another sip, leaving a faint golden sheen on her upper lip. “Short version, finance.”
“And how long have you been married?”
Another pause, then a wry smile. “Okay, Brianna,” she said. “I get it. You’re not stupid. But this is really none of your business.”
“What’s your name?”
“Lolita.” She smirked. “I’ll be 18 at the beginning of July. Look, I’m not stupid, either.”
I crumpled the newspaper, leaving smears of ink on my fingertips. “What did you tell your mother?”
With a slurp she gulped down the rest of the juice and set the glass down. “Why do you care?”
“She’s probably worried about you.”
“If you must know,” she said, rummaging in her tote bag, “I told my mom I’m on a band trip to DC. We’ve been asked to play on the steps of the Lincoln Monument. It’s a very big honour.” At last she found what she was looking for – a tattered paperback – and settled back into the lounge chair. “She doesn’t even care. This way she can have her fiancé stay over. She won’t let him stay the night when I’m home.” She rolled her eyes at her mother’s innocence. Then she put on a huge pair of sunglasses and I couldn’t see her eyes anymore.
I looked down into the mimosa glass in my hand, at the orange pulp floating in the flat champagne, the smudged lipstick print on the straw. “And what did he tell his wife?”
Her jaw tightened, and a wrinkle snaked across her forehead and somehow she looked older and younger at the same time. Then she rolled onto her side, away from me, and propped herself up on one elbow.
As I turned to go, I said, “Just tell me one more thing. Are you really in the band?”
“Sure I am. Oboe.” She flicked open the paperback and I saw the cover: Eat, Pray, Love.
All Tuesday morning I thought about the girl’s mother. I pictured her at work, in some office somewhere, reading a memo, typing a letter. On the corner of her desk a little framed picture of her daughter, maybe in a band uniform. She’d be thinking about where her daughter was now. Picturing the Lincoln Monument. Humming “Stars and Stripes Forever.” You don’t know her mother, I reminded myself, you don’t even know this girl’s name. That afternoon, when I went on my rounds, her room was neat. I could hardly tell anyone had slept in the bed; only one little corner was rumpled, as if she’d spent all night curled in a ball.
Back the front desk, I looked up room 107: registered to a Jason Mitchell, a Visa card, an address in Boston. A phone number. Through the picture windows of the lobby I could see the girl still out by the pool, a pale streak against a blue towel. I looked at the phone number on the screen and stood there with my hand on the phone for a long time, my finger resting on the 1. I tried to imagine myself hard-boiled and tough, like a detective in one of my mother’s Ellery Queen magazines. Mr Mitchell, I know who’s staying in your hotel room. It almost made me laugh out loud, but it wasn’t funny at all. He’d pretend he didn’t know what I was talking about, the girl would disappear, and next time they’d go to some other hotel where no one would notice, or care. Nothing would change. And who was I to tell this girl what to do, anyway? I called Caitlin at my mother’s instead.
“How’s life at Mim’s?” I asked, and even though I couldn’t see her, I knew by the way she let out her breath, like a little sigh, that she’d shrugged.
“I think Mim and Ray had a fight last night.”
I had never seen my mother and Ray fight. “What do you mean?”
“He missed dinner. He didn’t come home until like 11, when I was getting ready for bed. Mim said, where have you been, and he was like, why do you have to keep track of me every single goddamn minute? And then Mim told me to go brush my teeth and she’d come kiss me goodnight. But she didn’t.” Caitlin paused. “I heard them talking, really late.”
It started then, the phone still clutched to my ear. Early morning, the first day of first grade, crumbs of sleep still sharp in the corners of my eyes. A haze of cigarette smoke around the coffee table, Uncle Tommy snorting over the comics, the Want ads fallen to the carpet. Two quarters sticky in my fist: half a day’s lunch money. My mother bent double over the couch, searching behind each cushion for the rest. And again: I’m eight, the kitchen chair wobbling as I swing my feet, the toes of my Keds just scraping the linoleum. The phone jangles in the other room, my mother’s footsteps heavy and slow on the bare floor, then her voice, brittle as glass: No, Jimmy’s not here – who is this? and Spaghetti-Os turn to cement in my throat. And again: I’m 12. August. Lamps off, curtains drawn, the broken A/C belching warm air into the stuffy living room. Everything moon-blue in the light of the TV. All over me a sheen of sweat, like I’ve been dipped in pearls. Blaring from the speakers: I feel like chicken tonight, like chicken tonight. Then, in the moment of silence after the fadeout, Uncle Tony’s voice from the bedroom: You’re getting goddamn fat, Pam. It’s like fucking a fucking whale.
“Mom?” said Caitlin’s voice in my ear. “Mom. You still there?”
“Sorry,” I mumbled. The receiver was glued to my face and I was damp all over. I clawed my way back to the surface, breathing the smoke out of my nose, swallowing the taste of stale tomato, letting the sweat turn to mist in the cool air of the lobby. “I’m here, baby. I’m listening.”
“You’re never listening.”
I wanted to say that wasn’t true. But I couldn’t. “You done with your homework?” I said.
“Not yet. I’ll do it after dinner.” Fat seconds of silence ticked by. “I guess I’ll go study. I’ve got a quiz tomorrow. Quadratic equations.”
Caitlin let out her breath again, this time through her nose. “Quadratic equations. Algebra. Jesus, Mom, don’t you know anything?”
Caitlin thinks I’m stupid because I didn’t quite finish high school, though sometimes I think since she’s so good at math, she could count backwards nine months and figure out why. I tried to think of something else to talk about.
“That John DiAndretti bother you any more today?” I asked.
Her voice tightened. “No,” she said, and hung up.
That afternoon the Meadowlark was quiet. Becca’s replacement would start the next day. Through the window the girl from 107 lay on that same chair by the pool, her book beside her. I wondered if she’d fallen asleep. I sat at the front desk, flipping through a copy of TIME Magazine that someone had left behind in one of the rooms. It was a special historical issue on Thomas Edison. Inside His Idea Factory. Why He’s Relevant Today. On the cover, Edison held up a glowing bulb, as if he could power it with just his hand.
A few years ago, I’d gone with Caitlin’s class to the science museum, and we’d toured a replica of Edison’s workshop. She was 11 that year and pretended she didn’t know me in public, so I stood off to the side, watching her from behind. The guide touched a bulky machine on the table and told us that Edison’s most famous invention was the light bulb, but this was the one he was proudest of. The phonograph. Then he’d said to Caitlin, “I bet your mom could tell us how it works, right?” I understood: show up the parents, let the kids see they didn’t know everything. He winked, and Caitlin grinned. Even her teacher smirked.
“The phonograph,” I said. “Let’s see.” And I explained. I told them that sound was made of vibrations, tiny vibrations we could barely could feel. That those vibrations passed through a steel needle that rested on a cylinder of foil. That as the needle shook, it circled around around and around, engraving a path. I pointed out the needle. I traced the path on the foil with my thumb. I told them how later, another needle would sit in the groove and vibrate in the same patterns and replay the sound, just like it sounded the first time. Everyone stared, even Caitlin. A full minute passed, and I’d felt a flush of bashfulness and pride.
“Well,” the tour guide had said at last. “That’s amazing. You must be a scientist.”
“I just read a lot,” I said. Years before, when I was 11, I’d had to do a report on Edison, and in the library I had pulled down the World Book Encyclopedia and read about the phonograph. Not much stuck with me in school, but that always had.
That evening, the girl from 107 was still down by the pool. But now she looked like a bottle of soda all shaken up: jumping inside, just waiting for someone to come by and let her explode. It was almost dusk, and she’d draped a towel over her lap, but she still had her sunglasses on. Every few minutes she looked over at the lobby, past me at the front desk to the door, and I knew what that meant. He’d called her. He was coming back tonight. When Vance told me to take my dinner break, I went outside.
“Did you stay here all day?” I asked, though I knew she had.
She hesitated for a moment, and I could see her deciding whether to be friendly.
“The pool’s better than the beach,” she said. “You don’t get all sandy.”
“There’s a great movie theatre in town,” I told her. “Less than a mile, or you can take the shuttle, comes every 20 minutes. The theatre’s second-run but tickets are only three bucks, and it’s never crowded.” If I’d thought she’d go, I would have given her a 20 from my pocket right then and there. See anything, I’d have told her. See everything. Stay there all night.
“Thanks,” she said. “But I’m meeting someone in a few minutes.” She raised an eyebrow. “My husband.”
It’s not real, I wanted to tell her, but I wasn’t sure I believed that myself. Instead, I said, “I have a daughter about your age.”
That got her attention. “No way.” She pushed her sunglasses onto her head, like a headband, and leaned in close to look at me carefully. I could smell Diet Coke, sour-sweet, on her breath. “You can’t. You’re too young.” Satisfied, she sat back up.
The strap of her swimsuit had slid down, and she fished it back up with one finger. “Listen,” she said. “I know what you’re thinking. You think I’m naive, that he’s taking advantage of me. It’s not like that.” In her little face her eyes were big and wide and brown. “When I met Jason –”
She stopped suddenly, her gaze snapping up and over my shoulder. In that instant her whole bearing changed. “There he is,” she whispered, like she’d seen a movie star. I turned and saw him standing in the doorway to the lobby: a tall solid man, sandy hair, pink polo shirt. Younger than I’d expected, 25, maybe. But old enough to know better. He had the look of a man who thought he had his cake and was about to eat it, too, the look of a man who was stupid enough to still think the world was nothing but cake. He smiled and gave her a little wink, and I saw a glint of gold on his left hand. Then he turned back into the lobby.
“He’s early,” the girl said. “I’ll give him a minute to get upstairs first.” She took the towel off her lap and folded it, then shook it out and folded it again.
“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t do this.” Though I knew I shouldn’t, I reached out and took her hand in both of mine. It was so light, as if the bones were hollow. Like holding a bird. And then she snatched it back, as if I’d insulted her.
“You just don’t remember,” she said. “You just don’t remember what it’s like to be young and in love. If you ever knew at all.”
I wanted to tell her, of course I knew. I wanted to tell this girl I remembered everything, all of it, every little thing. But as I thought about it, my memory opened up and I fell in and it was all happening again. My throat pulsing at the sight of him, heat rising off his body as he comes close, a jolt running right out to my fingertips as he touches me, as if I’ve been plugged in.
The down that flecks his earlobes like peach fuzz under my tongue, the knobs of his shoulders growing slick under my palms. His mouth gulping me in, hotly, wetly, a moan purring its way up from my belly, everything blurred like a soft-focus picture except for our bodies slamming together again and again and again.
By the time I was back in the present, stunned and worn-out and trembling, she was gone.
I sat there by the pool for a long while after the girl had left, thinking about that man upstairs. He was young and stupid and brash and he would hurt her because he was young and stupid and brash. But mine had been older and wiser and cautious and he had hurt me anyway. When I’d called him with the pregnancy test shaking in my hand, I had gotten his voicemail. The next day, when I called again, that number had been disconnected. How much we wanted, I thought, how much we thought we would get. How bad we were at it all, all of us. How easily we got fooled.
Outside 107 I took my keycard from my pocket. It would be so easy: slide in the card, push the door open. Catch them in the act. And once I’d seen, who could blame me for telling Vance, for calling the police? There would be proof. She could be saved. I would keep her from making the same mistakes. I would keep her from ruining her life. I slipped the keycard into the slot and set my hand on the knob. She was so young, hardly older than Caitlin, and at the thought of Caitlin my stomach flipped-flopped, and then it happened.
Bright lights. A hospital bed, the smell of disinfectant. A giant hand reaching down, wringing me like a wet dishrag, again and again and again. The sound in the room bends, as if I am underwater. My breath in ragged shards. Pushing. As if I am turning myself inside out. A fiery pain as the inside part of me tears free, a sudden hot wet slick between my legs, my throat on fire and a sharp loud wail, like a kitten’s cry, and Caitlin in my arms, beet-coloured, eyes shut and mouth wide, impossibly light and impossibly small and her skin impossibly tender, her tiny self pulsing there against my chest and I begin to cry because I know that my heart is outside my body now, and always will be.
Down the hall the elevator dinged twice and I was back outside 107, raw from panting. My arms were empty again, and aching. From inside the room came that thump, thump, thump. There was what I had wanted, and what I had gotten. Was it an even trade? Would I do it again? I would always have regrets, I would always have the colossal mistakes of my young, stupid self. But I would always have Caitlin, too. Who was I, I wondered again, to tell this girl right from wrong? I slid the keycard back out of the lock and wiped my face in the crook of my arm and backed silently away.
At 1am, when my shift was almost done, the girl – barefoot, with a towel around her waist like a sarong – came down to the pool again and found me. I was sitting alone, on the edge of one of the deck chairs, and without looking at me she sat down and looked out over the deep end towards the lit windows of the lobby.
“He’s leaving his wife, you know,” she said.
I didn’t see any point in lying to her. “He won’t.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “He loves me. He’s leaving his wife. He will. He’s just waiting for the right time to tell her.” She wrapped the towel around herself a little more snugly and I wanted to tell her, this is why I don’t watch sad movies. Because every time, you hope deep down that things will come out different, and the same damn thing happens every time you play the tape.
Instead I stood up and went inside without saying goodbye. She didn’t call out to me. Maybe she thought we’d see each other again the next day, that we’d go back to being buddy-buddy, like before. But I knew better.
After my shift, instead of going home, I pulled up in front of my mother’s house and parked on the street. The front door light was on, as if she was expecting me. My mother was still awake, sitting in the living room with a mug of coffee in her hands. I could tell by the way she held it, both hands cupping the rim, that she wished it was still hot, but it wasn’t.
“I just wanted to see her. It’s late. You’d better go to bed too.”
My mother cleared her throat. “Ray’s not home yet,” she said. “I’m just going to wait up a little longer.”
“Want me to wait with you?”
“No, no.” Her lips were dry and greyish. “You go on home. I’ll drop Caitlin off after school tomorrow.”
“I’m just going to go in and see her for a minute.”
“Don’t wake her,” she said. “She’s tired out. All evening she was moping around. All upset over something.”
A car came down the street and my mother looked towards the window. She didn’t answer until it had passed. “Some boy.”
In the guest room, I knelt by the side of the bed. Caitlin’s hair was tangled in her face, one fistful of it clenched in her hand, and her eyes were puffed and red. Asleep, she still looked like a child. In the living room I could hear my mother pacing up and down the worn carpet, walking from rosette to rosette across deserts of faded beige.
You want to know what it feels like, recording a memory like this? I feel as stiff as foil. In my chest I feel something sharp and cold and trembling, like a steel needle circling my heart.
Celeste Ng is the author of the novel Everything I Never Told You (Blackfriars/Little, Brown UK), which was a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, Amazon’s number 1 Best Book of 2014, and was named a best book of the year by over a dozen U.S. publications. Everything I Never Told You was also the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and has been translated into over twenty languages. Celeste has also been awarded the Pushcart Prize, the Hopwood Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, will be published in September 2017 by Little, Brown UK. Celeste grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. She has taught writing at the University of Michigan and Grub Street in Boston and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and son.