Patrick Thomas Henry
They had gone to see Uncle Vanya at Altoona’s Mishler Theatre, but they couldn’t shoulder the heavy silence between the actors’ lines. Barry’s fingers explored the shadows for Caroline’s wrist, but she shrugged away his touch. She seemed intent on examining the balcony’s railing, on incubating the distance between them. Barry squinted down at the players and muttered that he couldn’t endure another minute of bitching adults. Caroline studied her wrist, as if Barry’s hands had tattooed doubt through her layers of skin and now she couldn’t eradicate the ink.
They had lost their daughter three dreadful weeks ago, and still they couldn’t tolerate a world—real or imagined—without a child. The fault was theirs, theirs the genes that had sown cancer in Marcie’s cells.
They shifted uncomfortably until the close of the second act, when they decided to leave. Barry carried their coats in the crook of his arm and set his hand on the small of Caroline’s back to usher her from their seats. He was using her as a prow, pushing aside knees and outstretched legs, but the air tingled hot, as if with static, against his cheeks. He loudly shushed the grumbling theatre patrons who contorted their bodies, allowing the couple to pass.
Caroline tensed; she felt brittle under the slight touch of her husband’s fingers.
Barry saw Caroline tucking her chin to her collarbone. His heart clenched; the circulation of blood and air seized his frame. He had guided her to the balcony’s door and now his joints were welded stiff. Mumbled lines came muffled from the stage below, like cinders whisked from a bonfire. Barry whispered to Caroline: was she sure that she wanted to leave?
She hugged her arms around her waist. She, her expression cool under the balcony’s dimness, spoke into Barry’s ear. “We won’t ever have a family. Not now. Not even one like that.”
“Strange there are no children in the play,” he said.
She wanted to punch him in the sternum for saying that, but she swerved into him instead. Play the disconsolate mother, grant Barry the illusion of control. He righted her, before she capsized into a crying fit for someone other than Chekhov’s sullen characters. Adults who didn’t deserve her tears.
He held open the gold-trimmed door beneath the red-lit exit sign, then guided her into the stairwell leading to the lobby. They proceeded single file down the steps, their hips brushing the left banister. Domed light fixtures paled the space a frosted white. The air tasted earthy, dank, used. Caroline hyperventilated. Barry thought breathing in this space was like inhaling someone else’s breath. There was hardly room for a third person. How would people escape this theatre, if a flashfire ravaged it? Barry trailed his fingers along the wallpaper, purple and dusky. He considered asking Caroline why he seemed to remember this shade; she would know. But the only color that Caroline, watching each of her footfalls, could observe was the simple brown of the carpeted stairs. Her heels scuffed, and hisses from the air vents accompanied the couple on their descent to the lobby, and into the theatre’s entryway.
Caroline leaned against Barry in the foyer and slipped off her high heels; the shoes’ straps left red marks banding around her ankles. “The girl playing Sonia,” Caroline mumbled, “she sounded too much like Marcie. Like Marcie, only grown-up.”
Barry looped his arm through hers. “Did you see how green that girl’s eyes were?” His voice sighed and trailed off, as if condensing in the evening.
Caroline lashed him with a glance. “I didn’t want to notice,” she said.
They exited the theatre, and Barry directed Caroline down the cement steps and onto the craggy, uneven sidewalk. The streetlamps washed Twelfth Avenue a sallow orange; the cars, flanking the one-way street, were parked as if in a processional. They watched their reflections shudder against the windshields as they walked the block toward their own car—he, in a weary trundle; she, jerked into a wobble by Barry’s momentum. They looked faded, frayed, in the paling streetlights, like an advert torn raggedly from an old magazine: the image of two characters ripped from their context, Barry in his grey suit and blue tie, Caroline in a red satin gown and barefoot, her heels dangling from her fingers.
Caroline ran her tongue over her teeth. To believe the damn play had been her idea. She took her cell phone from her handbag, which matched her dress, and called La Scalia’s. Could they move up their reservation? Under the name of “Wilson”—yes, they should arrive in about fifteen or twenty minutes. Caroline explained over the phone that they could not stomach the play.
Barry unlocked the Ford with the remote beeper, and he held Caroline’s door open.
She slipped in and dropped her shoes to the floor. The fabric of her dress squeaked against the car’s leather upholstery as she flipped down the windshield visor to inspect her reflection on its miniature mirror. She scrutinized her eyes, a slight thread of red on one of the whites. Not bloodshot, at least: she slapped the visor up.
Barry went to his side of the car, popped open the door, and tossed their balled-up coats onto the backseat. He gripped the car door. The indentation from Marcie’s car seat still grooved the leather, even after three weeks. In those weeks, he had managed to clean out the fast food wrappers, translucent from grease, testament to months of transit between Altoona and Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital. He’d eradicated the stale smell of flat sodas and old French fries, but still his daughter’s impression remained.
Barry’s eyes stung. He got into the car, clapped the door shut, and told Caroline it looked like rain.
Caroline leaned her forehead against the window. “I couldn’t stand it if it rained.”
“A bit of rain doesn’t hurt.” He knifed the Ford’s key into the ignition and cranked the engine, which thrummed into operation.
“Don’t talk like that tonight, okay?” Caroline glanced toward the backseat. She masked her eyes with her hand. Only their coats were there. He could at least have covered the grooves from their daughter’s car seat.
They drove from downtown Altoona, with its grey towers and the husks of abandoned department stores. They sat in traffic on the four-lane avenue by the railyards and watched a helicopter hovering above Altoona Hospital’s helipad. They toured through Juniata and saw, by driveways and flower gardens, parents glancing to the amassing clouds and ushering children indoors. Stress stooped, the adults remained to gather toys from the hillside yards sloping down to meet the road. Seeing those parents seared Barry’s eyes all over again; he tightened his grip on the steering wheel and followed the Ford’s headlights, splitting twilight. Thunder, still distant, gnashed over the mountains. Caroline tapped her nails against her armrest. The sudden tacking of rain against the car startled her. Barry switched on the wipers. The Ford careened from the city into the forest. The trees canopied over the road; darkness mawed open.
Barry had invented a game for Marcie when she was first crawling. He and Caroline turned her crib into a fortress and built tunnels, walls, and ramparts with pillows and stuffed animals. They placed Beamer, Marcie’s stuffed rabbit, in one of the crib’s corners. They watched her like scientists studying a mouse’s progress through a maze. Caroline had snapped so many photos of Marcie finding Beamer that Barry joked about the flash blinding the girl. When Marcie grasped Beamer’s paw, Barry twined his fingers with Caroline’s. A family collectively gripping its prize: unity.
Marcie was their miraculous child, born of a science that could not save her. Caroline couldn’t get pregnant, so her sister, who lived in Long Island with her husband and children, surrogated for them. The procedure had cost Barry and Caroline twenty thousand dollars, which annihilated the savings account they had built. Caroline spent two weekends a month, during the pregnancy, traveling between New York and Pennsylvania; Barry, an IT professional, had worked overtime to restart their nest egg. Caroline had negotiated a compromise with her editor at the Altoona Mirror to maintain the trips; her editor suggested an on-going series of articles about surrogacy, about the bonds between would-be mothers, the surrogates, and their children.
Caroline, when she was home, had sulked in her bathrobe and pretended to read her column in the newspaper. Had she done something wrong, she asked Barry. Was she an awful person? He told her that she wasn’t. It was genetics, that’s all. She couldn’t carry a child; these things happened. They sat together, drinking coffee that steamed before cooling tepid and dark, and they stared at each other from across the expanse of the dining room table. Barry sloshed his coffee about in his mug, his reflection tremoring on the coffee’s black ripples.
Of course he couldn’t understand. He could just stare into himself like that, blankly, while she only had words. Caroline pulled the newspaper toward her and saw Barry slouch back into his seat. She underlined phrases in her articles; she was selling her sister’s pregnant grief and their sibling arguments and their tearful reconciliations. Was the project making their child pay? She wanted to know.
Caroline had won local and state journalism awards for her series of articles, and doubt grew gravid in her core; an agent had approached her about assembling the pieces into a memoir, but she declined. She claimed that she wanted time to love her daughter; a memoir could wait. There was pain enough that Caroline could not yet understand, like the bleak absence Caroline saw in the dilated pupils of her sister’s bloodshot eyes, in that crimped and tear-streaked face, when they took the infant Marcie home, to Pennsylvania.
Barry had decided that they ought to record home videos; Caroline had decided to send the tapes to her sister. Caroline reasoned that her sister, as Marcie’s surrogate mother, deserved to be in the loop. Weren’t home videos a good way for her sister to see, hear, and know this little girl? Barry buried his concern that Caroline staged these family outings as some twisted penance; his wife could hardly stop shivering during the filming of each holiday, day trip, or baby achievement.
In the recording of an episode shortly after Marcie turned one, Barry bounced the girl on his knee as Caroline fumbled with mounting a camcorder on a tripod; the angle framed them in front of a windowless wall, papered in a pattern of vertical green and white stripes, on a brown corduroy couch. Marcie clutched a sketchpad and a crayon, which she slapped against her father’s chest; he laughed, feebly batted down her arms to restrain her. Caroline, with a battered copy of The Velveteen Rabbit under her arm, trotted over to the couch and sat next to them. The camcorder’s red RECORD light blinked at the family. As if cued, the three of them stared into the shot; Caroline produced the book and began reading: “There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. . . .” Marcie chirped, a noise that was either a hiccup or a chuckle, and stabbed at her notepad with the crayon. She glanced at Caroline, while Barry, smiling, stroked the girl’s hair.
Caroline sent the tape of their family reading of The Velveteen Rabbit to her sister several days later and included one of Marcie’s scribbles: a childish reproduction, in scraggling purple ovals and dashes, of what appeared to be the velveteen rabbit peeking from a stocking—a mimic of the book’s opening illustration.
Rain lashed the car when they arrived at La Scalia’s and pulled into a space at the restaurant’s door. The restaurant was in Pinecroft, a village ten minutes outside of Altoona. It would only take them another fifteen minutes to drive back to their house in Altoona’s Fairview district after dinner. Water fell from the windshield in sheets; the restaurant beckoned them with its warmth, like a lighthouse beacon visible through the undulating, curtain-thick rain. Caroline crossed her knees, uncrossed them. She said she didn’t feel like eating, really.
Barry took off his blazer and draped it around her shoulders. He thought she looked girlish with his coat hanging slackly from her. He told her he understood—really, he did. His own stomach felt small and hard as a pebble when she was this resistant to him. But he still informed her that they must try to eat. He got out of the car and dashed around to her side. He guided her to the restaurant’s awning and inside; Caroline’s bare feet squelched on the pavement and the sidewalk. He nibbled at his lip, wondered why she wasn’t returning his glances.
Barry guided Caroline through the glass door; she slung the saturated blazer from her shoulders. The fronds of two tall, potted plants scratched at their elbows. They stood, dripping, on a black welcome mat in the restaurant’s entry. They leaned into each other and glanced toward a vacant podium, angled toward the space between the two plants. A hostess soon approached, and Barry said they’d made a reservation. Under the name of Wilson? He struggled with putting his arms into the sleeves of the waterlogged blazer. The hostess searched a ledger on her podium and commented on the stormy night. Barry and Caroline agreed: It certainly wasn’t a good night for driving around. The hostess found their name and offered to lead them to their table.
Caroline touched Barry’s elbow. Her mascara had run; black circled around her eyes like a raccoon mask. “You go,” she told him. “I’ll find you. Just need to use the bathroom.” Barry nodded. Let her go, then; if he could give her some solitude, some peace—well, she deserved that. He smiled slightly and let the hostess lead him away.
Marcie was born healthy, had remained healthy for nearly three years. Barry hadn’t noticed anything the matter until a family picnic at Prince Gallitzin State Park: sunlight had bothered Marcie, and she shielded her hand over her eyes. Caroline was recording the outing for her sister and dropped the camcorder when Marcie began walking with a slight wobble; Barry scooped up the device and shut it off. Marcie clambered onto Caroline’s lap and said, “Mama, dizzy,” in a shell-shocked voice that didn’t belong to a child. Caroline laid her hand against Marcie’s forehead. The girl was hot to the touch—from the heat or a fever, Caroline couldn’t tell. Marcie slept on the ride home; Barry, driving, said, “We’re calling a doctor.”
There were scans and tests that revealed an ocular tumor burgeoning between the back of Marcie’s right eye and her brain. There was surgery and still dizziness; the cancer, like pollen, had flitted to the other eye and started there, too. Altoona Hospital sent Marcie to Children’s in Pittsburgh. “Only three- to four-percent of childhood cancers are ocular cancers,” their pediatric oncologist had told them, during a consultation. “That’s a one in fifteen thousand chance,” he clarified. They had attempted to tell him then about Marcie, about the surrogacy, but he dismissed them with a wave. The oncologist discussed options: more surgery and chemotherapy.
Barry and Caroline stayed with relatives in Pittsburgh when they weren’t sleeping on a stiff cot by Marcie. Sleeping, as Caroline had told Barry, was a misnomer for what she actually did: watching sunrise and twilight transforming, through the incredible crescendo and denouement of daylight, the turquoise curtain separating Marcie from her roommate. Together, they endured the final hours holding their daughter’s hand; they watched the curtain waving from the air vent’s blast and listened to hopeful whispers from the family behind that fabric partition. Marcie’s skin turned to paraffin, then a dour grey. They didn’t recognize their daughter at the end, this creature curled in on itself like a rabbit nested in a snaking tangle of cords and IVs.
The pediatric oncologist had shaken their hands and given them some leaflets. “It’s hard,” he said, “but you can both pull through. You still have time. You need to keep living for Marcie’s sake. Remember what a great child she was.”
Hadn’t the doctors paid attention to their story? They—Barry and Caroline and her sister—couldn’t afford the cost or the grief of having another child. They’d only wanted Marcie.
They returned to the room their daughter had occupied. The staff had cleared the machines from the space and replaced the bed linens with fresh, crisp white sheets. Barry looped his arm around his wife’s waist. Caroline stared through the windows, out to Pittsburgh’s steely skyline. The sun glinted malevolently off the iron grey of buildings, and she angled her gaze southward, to the Monongahela River, where a white cloud ballooned, billowed over the skyline. Invisible to Caroline, the smoke was pluming from the smokestacks of a Gateway Clipper Fleet steamboat, its exhaust belching into the sky as a rising, metastasizing fog.
Caroline’s gaze dropped to the sidewalk below the hospital. She asked Barry, “How far do you think the drop is?”
He wrapped his arms around her waist and cried into her shoulder. He imagined Caroline and himself hurtling through the windows, tinseled glass raining alongside them. The pavement reaching up to grip them in its solid clutch. Racing skull-first into whatever had snatched their daughter from them.
But it wouldn’t have brought Marcie back.
Caroline didn’t see her watery footprints until she was standing at the restroom sink. She’d forgotten her shoes in the car. She swore and ran some water from the tap. She cupped her hands under the faucet, filled her palms, splashed the water against her face. Her mascara swirled in the water, dissolving like food coloring or clotted blood. The make-up separating and whistling down the drain summoned the miniature, Rorschach-splotches on the bandages the surgeons had wrapped over Marcie’s head, over her green eyes. Eyes Caroline would never see, not anymore—except in photos.
She didn’t know whose face was on the glass when she looked back up and saw her reflection in the mirror. She didn’t understand, either, how Barry could keep on sighing, a moan like the tide coming in. He had that dumb slackjawed stare, washing her back to the currents from which she had just swum. If expressions were waves, his would sink everyone.
She wondered if Barry had ever taken their daughter seriously. She toweled her face dry and considered Marcie’s five years. Only five! It was nothing. It was everything. What would Barry have given for more time? Caroline would have given her life, all fifty or sixty remaining years, just so Marcie could’ve gotten to fifteen or sixteen. Caroline would’ve taken twelve. Five was too few, especially since Marcie did little more than sleep for the last six months. Just think, she had told Barry, that Marcie never got to preschool. She never got farther than Doctor Seuss or Margery Williams’s Velveteen Rabbit; she was hardly past blocks and cherub-cheeked plastic dolls and certainly not beyond My Little Ponies.
Caroline crumpled the used paper towels into a brown wad and pitched them into a wastebasket. The lights flickered. The ceramic floor tiles cooled her feet. She felt like she walked on ice. She felt like Marcie at the end was this glacier she trekked across. Like Caroline had frozen slowly from her soles upward.
They had hoped to watch their daughter grow in her small bedroom with its ivy-printed wallpaper topped with a banner trim of puffy clouds. They had imagined scenes of Marcie pretending that she, like Jack with his beanstalk, could climb the wallpaper’s vines into a cloudy world inhabited by giants. They had installed a built-in bookcase, the contents of which would shift from children’s books to Nancy Drew to some novels and then to DVDs. They had even anticipated the room turning black with twilight-dark curtains if Marcie trudged into a goth phase. They prepared themselves for a version of Marcie who’d douse the walls in an ocean of blue paint because she fell in love with dolphins and whales. Anything, so long as it was Marcie.
But Marcie’s room became a vacant catacomb, the wallpaper’s ivy a kudzu choking the dreams this bedroom had contained. Barry and Caroline had held a silent vigil by Marcie’s empty twin bed when they returned from Children’s Hospital. Emptiness haunted the house. They hunkered onto their daughter’s bed. Barry squirreled about whenever a floorboard creaked or the wind blew over the siding. Caroline gripped his knee and asked if it was her fault. Was this what she got? They couldn’t have had Marcie on their own. Caroline claimed that the cancer was a vengeful seed germinating in her egg, even before it was fertilized and implanted in her sister’s uterus.
Her body had preemptively avenged itself; if Caroline could not have her child, nobody should—except the earth, which would have her in only a few days’ time.
Barry shushed her. “You know that doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It’s genetics and random chance. Your body isn’t plotting against you, twenty-four seven. It could’ve been me. Me! Don’t you think about that?”
“You’d like it to be you,” Caroline said. She hadn’t meant it and felt the regret surging inside her. Still, she repeated it: “You’d like it to be you.”
Barry took her hand. “What the hell are we arguing for?”
Caroline dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, and Barry kissed her cheeks. She grabbed his hair and kissed him back. They left Marcie’s room and went down the hallway toward theirs. They made love, slowly, knowing that it changed nothing.
Barry was turning the wine list over in his hands when a waitress, a timid girl too small for her outfit of dark slacks and white shirt, escorted Caroline to the table. They were seated in a corner at a small, square table clothed in white; light flared around them, from the frosted sconces mounted to the wall. Potted fronds stood watch beneath each of the restaurant’s windows; the other tables remained vacant, with place settings already laid out, like a banquet set for ghosts. Barry asked Caroline if she was okay.
Caroline nodded. “I left my shoes in the car. Should I get them?”
The waitress said legally Caroline had to. The hostess shouldn’t have seated them, or she should’ve sent Barry back to the car to get Caroline’s shoes.
“Why didn’t you go and get my shoes?”
“I didn’t notice.”
“You never notice,” Caroline said.
Her words dammed his throat, with regret. “Just wanted to keep you dry.” He sighed and pointed to a wine on the list—a 2004 merlot. “Do you have this?” The waitress nodded. Barry said, “We’ll take that, then.”
“Chilled,” Caroline added.
They studied their menus. Caroline leaned her forearms against the table. She chewed on the inside of her lip. Barry glanced at her. Something brimmed in his eyes. His lips flexed around silenced consonants, vowels, but he couldn’t speak. They watched the windows. The rain was still hammering down when the waitress returned with the merlot and asked if they had made up their minds. They both selected side salads, balsamic vinaigrette on the side, and the manicotti stuffed with ricotta, peppers, and mushrooms. The waitress took their menus.
“The play didn’t seem bad,” Barry said. His voice sounded crisp in the empty dining room.
“I really couldn’t follow it.”
“It’s easy. Voitski loves his niece’s stepmother—actually, all the men are lusting after her—and the relationships are splintering. After they’ve all repressed so much. See—”
Barry loosened his tie. They faced each other until the waitress returned with the wine and salads. Caroline nodded her approval at the wine. The bottle was left in an ice bucket at their table. They dribbled vinaigrette on their salads and pushed greens across their plates until the dressing trickled into greasy pools.
The child still existed, an apparition on the celluloid of home videotapes: Marcie had angeled on the surface of her inflatable kiddie pool while Caroline knelt in the flowerbeds and Barry wheeled topsoil in a rusted barrow. Barry grunted and wiped his grimy glove across his forehead; he stopped to watch the sunlight playing iridescent on the water, on Marcie’s body. His daughter had worn a pink one-piece with a frilly skirt. The swimsuit’s scalloped fringe had tailed against the water. Beamer, the toy rabbit, was swaddled in a beach towel along with a bronze bottle of Coppertone, a few feet from the pool. Eyes shut, Marcie asked Barry to tell her a story. He recited “Jack and the Beanstalk,” fumbled over his words when Jack traded the cow for beans. Caroline chuckled. Ungloving his hand, Barry stroked Marcie’s hair, smoothed a few wet strands away from her mouth.
Still, there had been dirt clotted under Barry’s nails. Caroline sighed and stabbed her trowel into the earth to scoop a hole for an impatiens. This was how life was supposed to grow. She seemed to feel her heart resonating. Barry orated, and Marcie breathed shallowly. Grass tickled at Caroline’s ankles as she continued planting flowers.
Was that—dirt from her husband’s glove—how the particles of disease infiltrated her daughter’s eyes? Whatever started it was small as that fleck of grime. At her daughter’s funeral, Caroline had thought of that memory, a family portrait, as the cemetery grass speared through her open-toed shoes. The sun was hot and heavy, beating through her black sheathe dress under a light cardigan. She leaned against Barry. Her sister—Marcie’s surrogate—and brother-in-law followed them, the couple’s two sons in tow. Those boys couldn’t even get black suits for the funeral—just a sooty charcoal for the funeral of a girl who was, by surrogacy, almost their sister. A priest committed Marcie to earth. Caroline opened her mouth to tell Barry, she could remember Marcie as they planted the flowers, but she emitted a sob and clicked her tongue. Words had become meaningless chirps, before she could even report them.
Weeks later, digging her nails into Barry’s arm at the Mishler, she had concurred with the actor portraying Dr. Astroff in Uncle Vanya: “And then, existence is tedious, anyway; it is a senseless, dirty business, this life, and goes heavily.” She thought of the dirt chocked under Barry’s nails and pressed him to leave the theatre before the next act.
They finished a bottle of the merlot and asked the waitress to bring another with the manicotti. Caroline’s cheeks matched the red of her dress.
Barry said they should slow down. Her flushed complexion conjured the flaring lights of the Mishler’s stage. He leaned back in his seat, away from his wife’s alcohol-flared vigor. He didn’t want to cinder away, like those actors and their voices. Rain ticked against the windows; Barry turned to look outside, the water wending down glass cooling him, somehow.
Caroline said she finally felt warm. “Just a little,” she elaborated.
“You know it doesn’t actually make you warmer.”
“I feel warmer,” she said.
“It seemed to make Uncle Vanya more confident.”
Caroline surveyed her glass. “If only.”
The waitress brought them another cold bottle of merlot and their manicotti.
They drank and sliced through the pasta with the sides of their forks. They waited, manicotti weighting their forks, but couldn’t compel themselves to begin eating. They gazed into their glasses and at their plates. Caroline mumbled that restaurant should have placed candles at each table, anything to warm them into a tired intimacy.
The waitress returned to check on them. “You’ve hardly touched anything. Everything okay?”
“We’ve had a hard time of things recently,” Barry said.
“Not a pretty night,” the waitress said.
“Enough of the damn rain,” Caroline said. She finished her wine and looked at the waitress.
The waitress said they didn’t need to talk about the rain; she hadn’t meant to upset them. She was a teenaged girl with mousy hair and glasses; her uniform of black slacks, white blouse, and necktie was loose on her. Light glinted from the lenses of her glasses, and when she shifted her weight from one foot to the next, the glare lifted like a set of blinds, revealing her green eyes. She held her arms tight against her sides, bit her lip and raised an eyebrow. Caroline noticed: it was like that unconscious, painful titter on Marcie’s face, when she was needled with IVs and leads. Maybe, Caroline wondered, the waitress blamed herself for their unhappiness. Caroline smoothed the napkin on her lap. “Actually,” she asked the girl, “would you sit with us a while?”
“I shouldn’t, really.”
Barry reaffirmed Caroline’s offer and gestured toward a chair at one of the vacant tables. “Room for one more,” he said.
“Fine, why not?” The waitress dragged over a chair and joined them. “Is the food okay?”
They told her the food was fine. Everything was fine. Caroline said everything would be fine if it stopped raining. The rain made it too cold. Barry loosened his tie.
The waitress crossed her arms on the table. “What were you doing tonight? An anniversary?”
Caroline said, “Just a night out together. We had tickets to the Mishler.”
“What did you see?”
Barry refilled the wine glasses. “Half of Uncle Vanya. By Anton Chekhov? Couldn’t get through it. We weren’t in the mood for a play,” he said. He took a sip. “This merlot isn’t bad.” He noticed her gaze shyly casting off, like a nervous plea for a favor, or a story.
“It’s a popular wine,” the waitress said. “What was the play about?”
“I couldn’t follow it tonight,” Caroline said, “although I read it once, long ago.”
Barry sluiced the wine in his glass and studied the red drawing down the glass’s inside. “Ivan Voitski—that’s Uncle Vanya, from the title—has been tending a family estate for years and finds out the property might be sold. No inheritance for him or his niece. Everyone loses.”
“‘Day and night,’” Caroline quoted, “‘the thought haunts me like a fiend, that my life is lost forever.’ Something Uncle Vanya said, to his niece’s stepmother.”
“I don’t get it,” the waitress said.
Barry frowned and stared into his wine.
The waitress shifted, her slacks scuffing against the seat’s upholstery. “We just read a story by this Chekhov guy. There’s this man who meets a woman with a dog. Gordon or Goron or—”
“Gurov,” Barry and Caroline said together. Each caught the other’s glance, like parents conferring silently over a reprimand. Their fingertips briefly flicked together underneath the table.
“Right, Gurov.” The waitress flicked her wrists as she talked. “But he’s a player, right? And he doesn’t realize until he sees his reflection at the end that he’s actually loved this woman the whole time, and his life was really beginning right then.”
“But things can change, right? That Gurov guy, from the story—he did.” The waitress pulled her hands down to her lap.
“That piece is ‘Lady with the Pet Dog.’ Did you like the story?” Caroline asked.
“That is such a mom kind of question.”
Barry held his wineglass by its stem and ticked his tongue against his teeth. “Well, did you like it?”
“I guess so. Everything seemed so . . .” She extended her index finger and rotated her wrist, drawing a circle in the air. “Like, I’d just wanted them to get on with things, you know?”
“What do you mean?” Barry asked.
“Well, didn’t they love each other?”
“Yes,” Caroline said, “they do, I think. But Gurov had to think about his family.”
“Well,” the waitress said, “it’s not like it really stopped him in the end, right?”
Caroline touched the girl’s wrist. The skin was soft and warm, delicate and unravaged. “Do you think the story ended after Gurov and Anna . . . ?”
The waitress mussed her hair with her free hand. “Isn’t that where this Chekhov guy stopped writing?”
Barry laughed, but Caroline cut at him with a look. “No,” she said, “what I mean is, do you think those people go on from there?”
The waitress chawed on her lip, a theatrical show of thinking over the question. “Why not? Maybe, Chekhov is saying that Goron (or whatever his name is) finally got started then.”
Caroline and Barry sipped their wine. Barry reached for Caroline’s hand underneath the table; he found her hand on her knee, but now her fingers were receptive and coupled with his, fingernails grappling into the undersides of joints.
A silence had paled over them; the rain had slowed.
The waitress drummed her hands on her knees. “I should be getting back to work. Thanks for letting me sit for a while.”
They wished the girl well, asked for their check, paid, and left. They retreated through the restaurant and to the foyer, where they mentioned that the girl seemed smart. Barry slipped out of his blazer and sheathed Caroline in it. They stepped into the rain, the restaurant door hinging shut behind them. Barry held his blazer around Caroline and led her to the Ford; he helped her into her seat. She laughed when she saw her heels on the floor. Barry hurried around the car to his door, opened it, and lowered himself. He turned over the engine; the headlights glared against La Scalia’s, and the wipers squeegeed the windshield.
Caroline rested her hand on Barry’s knee as he drove. The headlights shimmered over the slick pavement; tree branches bowed and rattled over the roadway. Caroline searched the darkness outside her window. Barry adjusted the rearview mirror; he caught, for a moment, theimprint of Marcie’s car seat. The car drifted into the empty intersection, and Barry pressed down on the accelerator. Together they listened to the wheels hiss across the wet macadam.