She deals with it by swimming.
Lap after lap in the cool early autumn evening, alone in the motel pool in her black one-piece suit with the straps that criss-cross in the back. After the tenth lap she holds her breath and sinks to the bottom, where little yellow lights cast rings of gold that ripple through the water. Submerged in water, she feels weightless and peaceful. This must be what it feels like to drown. But she can only hold herself there for a minute, and when she runs out of breath, she shoots through the water and breaks the surface like a trained dolphin.
Kate climbs out and walks along the edge of the pool, sloughing off drops of chlorinated water, the cool air chilling her wet body. She climbs in the Jacuzzi, switches on the jets and thinks about her daughter, Sarabeth, the reason for the maudlin thoughts about drowning, which even Kate will admit are a bit overly dramatic.’I’m just going to college, it’s not like I’m dying,’ Sarabeth would say. ‘God, Mom. I’ll only be a couple hours away.’
But two hours away might as well be a continent apart. It is wrenching to have her daughter departing, and it is embarrassing to Kate to feel this way: listless, unmoored, adrift. They’ve done nothing but fight the last two years, she and her daughter, she should be glad for the respite from the demanding Sarabeth. She closes her eyes and sinks up to her neck in the warm bubbling water, the heat enveloping her like a blessing.
***They left earlier that day, what seems like weeks ago now. That morning, Sarabeth decided she needed more warm clothes and ran to pack another suitcase. Sam languidly strummed his guitar, happy to be freed from high school for a Friday to help move his sister, not so happy he’d be missing a weekend in Portland with his friends. Kate lingered over the newspaper. She had been avidly following the news about the father who killed his wife and three kids in the weeks since their bodies were discovered. In that morning’s lengthy article, she had learned the word for his crime.’Familicide,’ she tells James as he totes a box to the van. She follows with an armload of pillows.
‘What does she have in here?’ James asks. ‘Rocks?’
‘Those are my shoes,’ Sarabeth says, coming up behind him, lugging a plastic crate. Kate sees shampoo bottles, a hair dryer, curling iron, tubes of skin cream, make-up cases and other toiletries through the crate’s open sides. She hopes James doesn’t make another snide comment. His negative attitude is already clouding Sarabeth’s impending departure for freshman year. But this time he remains quiet.
‘Don’t you think it’s an interesting word?’ Kate says after Sarabeth retreats to the house for more boxes. ‘Familicide. It’s what they call this class of crime, when someone annihilates the family.’
‘Your obsession with this case is unsettling, Kate.’
‘But I always obsess. I have an obsessive personality.’ This is true, she knows, because it is a failing James has pointed out to her often.
James shrugs. ‘Not about murder, you don’t.’
She makes a face at his back and soothes herself with the thought that he’s just emotional over Sarabeth going to college. That’s why he’s being such an ass. He’s always an ass. So her friend Ed says. She flicks that thought away, turns to her daughter, who has reappeared, carrying one last carton, and smiles.
‘Ready, sweetie?’Sarabeth nods. For a minute she looks woebegone, her brown hair pulled back from her thin face emphasizing her large dark eyes. Behind her, Sam appears, lugging the amp to his electric guitar.
‘Sam” Kate begins.
‘It’s not even worth playing without it, Mom.’
Kate sighs and allows him to add it to the pile in the back of the car. She won’t be able to see out the rear window anyway.
‘I wish you were coming, too, Daddy.’ Sarabeth turns to her father, hugs him fiercely.
‘Me too, baby, but duty calls. You be good, now. Study hard and don’t forget to have fun, as long as it’s not with boys.’ He kisses his daughter on the head, above it meets Kate’s eyes, and in them Kate registers the gloating he can’t quite suppress. Sarabeth and James share a close relationship that has not dimmed through Sarabeth’s teen years. Conversely, Kate has become a pariah in her daughter’s eyes, for no reason she can discern other than she takes up precious oxygen on the planet. Yet James has refused to come along this weekend, claiming he must stay home in order to prepare for his own college classes, which start next week.
Kate gets behind the wheel of the van, adjusts the mirrors so she can almost see over the mountain of boxes and luggage in the rear, waits for Sarabeth and Sam to buckle their seatbelts. She waves at her husband, who stands in the driveway with a half smile on his face. Only then does she remember what else the article had said, that familicide is a form of suicide, that killing one’s family is simply a variant of killing yourself.
***In the Jacuzzi, a subtle shift in the air around her signals a new arrival. When Kate opens her eyes, he’s already climbing into the hot tub, carefully placing his gnarled feet on the tiled steps. An older man, gray haired. Yet his bare chest is firm and ripe. Like an apple, Kate thinks, and then shakes her head at the absurd image. Little drops of water fly from her hair and land on the man’s chest. She starts to apologize, then realizes he hasn’t even noticed.It’s awkward, she decides, to sit barely clothed in a pool of water with a complete stranger. But rude to get up in obvious reaction to him. She’s not exactly sure of the etiquette, and she wishes Sam was here with her. But her son is back in the motel room playing his guitar. He didn’t want to swim, didn’t want to soak in the Jacuzzi. All he wants to do these days is play guitar.
‘You here to deliver a child?’ The man has settled himself across from her. It takes Kate a minute to decipher his odd phrasing. At first she thinks he’s referring to childbirth. Does she look pregnant? She glances down at her stomach, flat, held in tight by the spandex of the bathing suit. Then she realizes.
‘Yes.’ She nods, and then provides more information than is strictly necessary in this situation. ‘Yes. She’s a freshman.’
‘Ahhh.’ The stranger leans his head back and stares at the sky, which is clear but relatively star-less because of the light from the nearly full moon. His nose is what Sarabeth would call patrician, long and slightly hooked at the end. When he speaks again, Kate can barely hear him because his mouth is tilted upwards. ‘Girls are harder.’
‘Oh, no they’re not.’ Kate thinks of Sam, back in the motel room, his hair a greasy mop, his eyes glazed over with boredom.
‘I mean to leave,’ the man says. ‘They’re harder to leave. Seems unnatural, somehow. Like the old saying. A son is your son until he takes a wife. A daughter is your daughter for life. That’s not necessarily the way it is anymore.’
Kate suddenly doesn’t want to hear this. She closes her eyes again, leans back, and wonders how soon she can depart without being rude.
‘See the moon?’ the man says.
Kate opens her eyes grudgingly, glances up at the sky. ‘Uh-huh.’ Would it be impolite to close her eyes again? All she wants to do is relax.
‘See the moon’s reflection?’ The man points to the pool’s surface, where the full moon’s watery counterpart shimmers.
She tries not to sigh as she nods.
‘Moon in the water,’ the man says.
She stares at him, certain her face is as blank as the still parts of the water.
‘It’s Zen. A metaphor for human experience. Who can take hold of the moon in the water?’
All of a sudden, Kate’s desperate to see Sam, to get away from this man and his strange comments. She smiles what she hopes is a noncommittal smile and says, ‘A little hot in here! Time for me to get out.’
‘Think about it,’ the man calls as she climbs the blue tile stairs, hoping he’s not staring at her backside.
Kate grabs her towel from the rubberized chaise, dries herself quickly, slips into her flip-flops. As she’s walking away, the man calls out.
‘It goes by fast, doesn’t it?’
The iron gate bangs shut on his words. Kate turns, raises her hand to wave, drops it when she sees the man has closed his eyes.
A line of water drops trail her as she walks across the parking lot to her motel room. As she nears, she can hear Sam’s guitar. The music is discordant, a riff from Sam’s current favorite group, the cult darlings King Crimson, and it is horribly loud.
The door handle turns easily. Her son hasn’t bothered to lock it. Sam lies on his back sideways across the bed, the guitar draped across his stomach, his eyes closed, his hair a dirty blonde halo around his head. He doesn’t open his eyes or stop playing when she comes in.
‘Sam!’ Kate shouts louder.
The phone rings. Kate barely hears it. She shakes Sam’s shoulder until he stops playing, then answers the phone, its last ring abnormally loud in the silence left behind the guitar. It’s the motel manager, complaining about the noise. Kate apologizes, and promises Sam will be quiet. She hangs up, crosses the room, and unplugs his amplifier.
‘Hey,’ Sam says. ‘Why’d you do that?’
‘The manager called.’
‘Yeah. He called earlier.’
‘And you didn’t bother to turn it down?’
Sam shrugs. ‘I didn’t answer. I just figured that’s who it was.’
‘Jesus, Sam. It could have been Sarabeth.’
‘Mom, pay attention. It wasn’t Sarabeth, okay? She’s got a new life now.’ He sits up on the bed, and smiles his adorable Sam smile. ‘Besides, you still have me.’
‘And thank god for that.’ She sits beside her son, hugs him, grateful for his as yet undimmed adolescent adoration. She kisses him on the head, grabs her robe and heads for the bathroom. Standing beneath the spray of shower, she hears Sam’s guitar start up again, albeit a bit more quietly. And then she wonders: why is the moon’s reflection in a swimming pool a metaphor for human experience?
***’The Greek system is another arm of the capitalist machine.’ Syrup dots Sam’s lip as he pauses to shovel a bite of pancake into his mouth, then speaks around it. ‘Another way to prepare you to be a cog in the wheel.’Sarabeth rolls her eyes and cuts a dainty bite of omelet. Dinner at the pancake house is her idea, to commemorate eating here on her first visit to the campus.
‘Rush is awesome,’ Morgan says. Morgan is Sarabeth’s new roommate. ‘I’ve met so many nice girls.’
‘You want to hear a blonde joke?’ Sam asks. He’s rewarded with one of Morgan’s blank looks. Kate’s known her for only an hour, and already she sees the girl’s empty stares as a habitual response.
‘Don’t they have blonde jokes in Pennsylvania?’ Sam asks. He’d rolled his eyes and coughed and choked throughout Morgan’s explanation of coming out west to college ‘for adventure.’ Fortunately, Morgan’s hair is brown.
‘Can’t you shut him up, Mom?’ Sarabeth asks.
‘Only forty-eight more hours for you to deal with me,’ Sam says cheerfully.
‘And I won’t have to listen to that god-awful guitar anymore, either,’ Sarabeth says, and then turns to Morgan. ‘So, you’re leaning towards Kappa Gamma, right? I still think I like Chi Omega best.’
Kate listens to the girls chatter on about sorority houses and bites her tongue. She watches Sarabeth, the girl’s dark curly hair and freckled skin a mirror image of her own, and tries to understand her daughter’s decision to go through rush. When Kate left for college all she wanted was freedom, not more structure. She wanted freedom to be an artist, freedom to think with clarity, freedom to have sex with whoever struck her fancy. Then, of course, she’d had sex with James, and gotten pregnant with Sarabeth, and there went any notions of freedom.
The waitress interrupts to pour coffee and leave the check. Her lacquered red hair smells of cigarette smoke and food stains spot her apron. But she smiles, calls Sam ‘hon’ and wishes Sarabeth and Morgan luck at college. Kate watches her walk away. A section of the hem of her skirt has come undone. Kate stares at the sagging hemline and thinks about freedom. What is freedom, if not the chance to make your own choices? She’d made her own choices’having Sarabeth at a ridiculously young age, staying with James all these years for the sake of the children.
Still, the thought doesn’t stop her from a last ditch effort to sway Sarabeth. ‘In my day,’ she says, ‘sororities were considered d’class’.’
‘Back in the dark ages?’ Sam says.
Sarabeth rolls her eyes and looks to Morgan for support. ‘Mom’s into the starving artist routine.’
‘But we’re hardly starving,’ Kate points out. ‘I make a good enough living to send you here.’
‘Dad helps, too,’ Sarabeth says.
Kate smiles and nods at the naivet’ of her daughter’s last comment. James teaches English Comp at the local community college. What money he makes goes somewhere, she isn’t sure where, but little of it ends up in the family coffers.
‘I love art, Mrs. Walsh,’ Morgan says. ‘I’m thinking of going into it myself.’
‘It’s been my experience that art is not something you go into,’ Kate says. ‘It’s something that’s already in you, waiting to come out.’
Morgan gives her a blank look, then smiles. ‘Is all your art like the collage you made for Sarabeth?’
‘Ah, yes. The famous collage,’ Kate says. They’d argued bitterly over it just an hour ago. The collage depicted the life Sarabeth was leaving behind. It was composed of photos and bits of memorabilia saved for years, all applied within the outline of a drawing of Sarabeth’s face. Kate had been quite pleased with it. But Sarabeth had tucked it away in the narrow slot between her bed and her desk.
‘Mom usually does sculpture,’ Sam says. ‘You should see our backyard. There’s metal and clay and a kiln and all kinds of crap back there. It looks like a junkyard. It’s awesome.’
‘His friends love it,’ Sarabeth says to Morgan. The rest of the sentence hangs in the air.
‘But Sarabeth hates it.’ There. Kate finishes for her.
Sarabeth looks her mother squarely in the eye, and then turns to Morgan. ‘At least we can be glad she didn’t make me a sculpture. There wouldn’t be room for anything else in our dorm room.’
Kate snatches the bill and strides to the counter.
‘Way to go, Sarabeth. Good job of pissing her off,’ she hears Sam say as she stomps off.
As she’s waiting outside, Kate buys the local newspaper, its headline similar to the one at home that morning: Father Faces Death Penalty in Family Murders. She deposits coins in the slot, pulls the paper out. Maybe, she thinks, men who commit familicide just want freedom.
***That night she swims twelve laps, the last one underwater, chasing the reflection of the moon. Kate climbs out of the pool and lets the water cascade off, a torrent that trails behind her as she walks to the Jacuzzi. She allows the hot water to soothe her and thinks about the newspaper article she just read. Familicide, she has learned, is nearly always committed by males, failed heads of households who feel overly responsible for their families. Too bad James never had that problem’he’d never seemed to worry in the least if he earned enough to support them, or even contribute a reasonable amount to the accounts.She’s there but five minutes when the stranger arrives. The Man in the Moon, Kate’s named him.
‘Better tonight?’ he asks her. He looks a bit like a hobbit, only taller. And he brings with him the faint, fine scent of apple with a hint of spice.
‘Except for the pancakes that have turned to stone in my stomach,’ she says.
‘Ahh. The IHOP ritual.’
Kate nods. ‘I don’t get it.’
‘The moon,’ she says. ‘The moon in the water.’
‘But it’s a Zen thing. You’re not supposed to get it. You’re supposed to figure it out for yourself.’
Kate shakes her head. ‘That could take me years. Then it will be too late. I need help now.’
The Man in the Moon smiles, maddeningly enigmatic. ‘It will count for nothing if you don’t parse it on your own.’
His vagueness only fuels her cranky mood. ‘What about you?’ she asks suddenly. ‘Why are you here?’
‘That’s of very little importance at the moment, my dear.’ And he leans his head against the rim of the spa to gaze, presumably, at the moon. Kate departs the Jacuzzi, quietly, so as not to disturb him, and plunges into the cool water of the swimming pool. In order to not obsess about Sarabeth, she ponders the family murderer instead. But somehow the two have become linked in her mind. For isn’t a child leaving home for college a societally-approved form of familicide? Sarabeth’s departure destroys the family unit of four. What worries Kate most is that what her daughter leaves behind will not be strong enough to survive.
***The next morning Kate helps Sarabeth finish unpacking. Her job consists mainly of carrying flattened cardboard boxes down three flights of a concrete stairwell to the recycling bin in the dorm courtyard. Finally they break for lunch, which Sarabeth insists on having at a new diner out on Franklin, where ‘everyone has eaten except for me.’ After lunch, Morgan inquires sweetly if they could please visit Saturday market, a weekly crafts fair downtown. ‘My Mom and I discovered it last year when we visited campus, Mrs. Walsh, it’s awesome,’ she says.Kate’s familiar with the market, since her career began at the one in Portland. She’s exhausted from the unending trips up and down the staircase, and there’s an uncomfortable bulge in her stomach from the burger and fries. But saying no to Morgan would be to risk Sarabeth’s wrath, and Kate can’t handle any more anger from her daughter at the moment, so the four of them head toward the fair.
Booths line the perimeter of a city parking lot, and stagger through its center in a pattern that reminds Kate of the quilt on Sarabeth’s bed. Food and drink is dispensed in one corner, where smoke rises from bento carts and the sweet smell of sugar wafts from the elephant ear stall. Arts and crafts dominate the rest of the market. A woman passes, waist swaddled in a batik sari, breasts barely contained by a swath of yellow cotton, her hair a tangled mass of snarls. Kate watches her, imagining how to depict such a wild riot of hair in clay. Thin rectangular slabs haphazardly layered upon each other?
‘Where do they find these people?’ Morgan whispers in a loud hiss.
‘In the sewers,’ Sam pronounces loudly.
Morgan socks him on the shoulder.
‘Don’t be so rude, Sam,’ Kate says, but she smiles at him to indicate that it really was funny. In the sudden silence that follows, a sound rises above the nearby traffic and the wafting smell of patchouli. A low thick throbbing wobble.
‘Wow! A didgeridoo.’ Sam dashes off to a booth where a dread-locked boy plays a long tubular instrument beneath a tree.
Kate trails behind Sarabeth and Morgan as they ogle crystal necklaces, try on silver toe rings, and paw through a rack of tropical print halter-tops. The heavy feeling in her stomach intensifies, as if someone is cinching a knot tighter and tighter. She leaves the girls to explore the rest of the craft booths, and buys lemonade from a vendor.
Ice and lemon slices jingle in the plastic cup as she settles at a table in the shade. On a swath of damp grass beside her, a couple of men pound hypnotic rhythms on homemade wood drums. Kate looks around for Sam; he’d love hearing this, too. Then something else catches her eye, a chubby toddler swaying to the music. She wears a yellow striped sundress and lavender Saltwater sandals, soft, thick blonde hair just long enough to stick out at odd angles from her head. The child teeters, falls on her bottom, laughs, crawls over to the wall and pulls herself up again.
And suddenly Kate flies back seventeen years.
She is working her booth at the Saturday market in Portland, where she sells clay teapots and plates and vessels, and a few, only a very few of the steel sculptures that are her heart’s vocation. Kate is taking her first welding class, just starting to learn how to work with steel. If nothing else, she figures, she can get a job in industry. Sarabeth, just a tad over one year old, sits in a corner behind Kate, well away from the shelves of breakable pottery.
Kate’s learned to make a nest of pillows and coats and scarves for Sarabeth, and provides her with plenty of toys. Then her daughter is able to behave for hours. Customers chat with her, and other artisans take turns sitting with her. It’s really no problem to bring her along, a good thing since Kate has no choice in the matter. James works long hours on his dissertation and can’t help with the childcare. At least Sarabeth is not yet walking.
But on this day, everything changes.
‘Mama,’ Kate hears as she’s helping a customer.
‘In a minute, sweetie,’ Kate calls.
Kate turns, sees Sarabeth standing alone, no supporting walls or chairs around her. As Kate watches, her chubby blonde daughter takes a lurching step toward her, then another, then another.
‘Oh my God you’re walking, Sarabeth.’ Kate turns to the customer and another artist who’s appeared. ‘She’s walking!’
Sarabeth veers toward Kate but as Kate reaches down to scoop her up, Sarabeth shrugs her off. She walks past her mother, past the counter of the booth, out into the lane of strolling shoppers. Kate watches her, amazed. The customer and the artist cheer.
But Kate is stricken. From now on Sarabeth will spend her life walking away from her mother. Just when Kate is about to run after her, at the moment Sarabeth has reached the end of the mental tether that unites them, Sarabeth turns back toward Kate. But it is James to whom Sarabeth stumbles, James who has at that moment magically appeared, though James at the market is a rarity indeed, James who scoops her up, laughing. And it is James to whom Sarabeth has always returned, through all the years since, and this one true, blinding fact is why Kate has always remained.
‘Hey, Mom, what’s up? Cool drums, huh?’ Sam plops down in the seat beside her, and she puts an arm around his shoulders and holds him close for a second. She and Sam share an ease that is lacking in her relationship with Sarabeth. A woman with blonde braids carries the dancing toddler away. Kate stares after them, wishing for one small sign that Sarabeth feels even a glimmer of the sense of loss she herself is enduring. Moon in the water. Nobody can hold onto the moon in the water. And that, she realizes, is exactly what the Man in the Moon has been trying to tell her.
***Saying goodbye to Sarabeth the next day won’t take long, Kate thinks. Sam is tired and eager to head for home, his girlfriend, his half stack of amplifiers and his band. Sarabeth has another round of Rush. So Kate assumes their last visit to Sarabeth’s dorm room will be brief.But when they arrive, Sarabeth sits on the bed, sobbing. Morgan is nowhere to be seen. Kate hangs back at first, uncertain whether this strange creature her daughter has become wants her mother’s comfort.
So it’s Sam who asks his sister what’s wrong. She points to the foot of the bed and another sob escapes in a shudder. Kate’s not sure whether to laugh or cry when she sees what Sarabeth’s pointing at. The collage, its glass shattered.
Sarabeth sobs out an explanation. ‘It broke when Morgan was helping me hang it. I yelled at her for being so stupid and careless and she said I was the stupid one, that I didn’t appreciate anything I had, and” the rest of her sentence is swallowed by the return of her sobs.
Kate’s not sure if the crying is for the collage or Morgan, but it doesn’t matter. ‘Oh, honey,’ she says, and gathers her daughter in her arms, inhaling the fresh green smell of her hair. In a perfect world, Kate would take this moment as a sign that the bonds of the family might be stretched taut by geographical distance, but never snap. Kate feels her daughter’s strength, steely as the sculptures in her backyard, senses the emotions Sarabeth has long held in, and ponders the nuances of living in an imperfect world.
‘Hush, baby, hush, now,’ Kate croons. They sit like that for a long, long time.
***Sarabeth’s unexpected outburst delays their trip home. It’s getting dark by the time Kate and Sam check out of the motel. Kate carries the last suitcase to the car, past the swimming pool, and looks at the Jacuzzi, halfway expecting to see the Man in the Moon. But he’s not in the hot tub.Instead she runs into him as she leaves the office after settling her bill. He’s wearing neatly pressed khakis and a sweater tied around his neck. He looks ready to sail away on a yacht.
‘I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.’ Kate laughs nervously when she realizes how inane she must sound. It’s cool enough in the autumn night air for him to wear the sweater, but the temperature doesn’t seem to bother him.
The Man in the Moon laughs, too. ‘I could say the same to you, but for the fact it would be rather ungentlemanly.’ He falls into step beside her. She reaches the car, where Sam is already ensconced in the front seat, Ipod on his head, lost in his music. Kate turns to the Man in the Moon and holds out her hand to shake it.
‘It was very interesting talking to you.’
‘Yes,’ the man nods. ‘Don’t forget. Moon in the water.’
‘You can’t hold onto it,’ Kate says.
‘You can’t hold onto anything,’ the man says.
And when Kate glances at the still waters of the swimming pool, there’s no moon. She looks up at the sky and sees that clouds have come in. Kate climbs in the car, turns on the engine, and heads north, toward home.