The day of, I find my husband in her room, kneeling in front of her bed. It is a moment suspended like a dream in the middle of the day. I wonder that we snatched this quiet time from the day, he to pray, me to wander into her room and find him like that. I am flooded with contempt. He will weep and pray and do every stupid thing people like us are supposed to do. He has already started.
When she first came home, we spent hours in bed together, wrapped up in each other’s bodies, skin on skin, like creatures gone to ground for the winter. When I left home I always smelled like milk, yeasty and warm. I would enjoy my freedom for a while, but then I would begin to think about her, the way you think about a new lover. I would picture her mouth and her smile and remember the feel of her skin and grin foolishly, lovesick. When I got home she would start crying for me as soon as she heard my voice. I would stumble over myself as I stripped down to T-shirt and underwear, grabbing her as I settled us down, trying to get my breast into her mouth before she ratcheted up to screams. She would latch on with a final affronted huff, panting and sweating from the intensity of her need, quiet finally, and forehead furrowed with concentration. As she began to nurse, release spread through my body like an opiate and I relaxed into her, eyes half closed, so deep in our trance that if her father spoke to me my answers came out slurred and confused.
The boy’s face on TV is the blank face you always see on the newscast. A mug shot or a driver’s license photo. I imagine his mother, watching TV expressionlessly some day before this week, standing behind the counter in her dry cleaning business, watching the news on a small, fuzzy set. I imagine her watching big blank faces on the news, men who have done things like this. She probably felt sorry for their mothers. She has probably seen a thousand bland American faces like my husband’s, putting themselves through practiced paces as they mourn their dead children on TV so that the viewers at home can hold their own a little closer for a moment before going on with their days. She probably knew he was wrong all along, her son. She didn’t love him. I can feel that all the way from wherever she is. She never loved him because she knew all along. Later they print stills from his video in the papers. They reveal the face she knew. They show my daughter’s face on the news. It’s a yearbook picture they’ve managed to pillage.
When I was pregnant, I collected dead baby jokes. I told them to my husband in bed.
“What’s worse than a barrel full of dead babies?”
“A live baby at the bottom, eating its way out.”
We’d snicker guiltily, pretending to be semi-horrified by the joke, secretly horrified really by the little dead bodies in our minds.
“How do you know when a baby is a dead baby?”
“The dog plays with it more.”
Plump, juicy thighs and arms gone cold and hard, swaddled tight, eyes closed. I’d left that fear behind, the shiver of dread that always accompanied the relief that she was finally sleeping. And so, having weathered the fragile years, having worked so hard to build her a strong body, I am unprepared for her now. I can only walk around it thinking that it is not right at all. He cries over it, holding the hand. I can’t even go near it. I took her to Victoria s Secret over spring break, to restock. She radiated health and appetite. I pretended to cluck and disapprove of the skimpy things she chose, but added to her pile when her back was turned, happy to be dressing her that day as I ever was, unbelieving as I ever was that I made this body, that it broke off and went places without me. She knew me well enough that she juiced me for twice the budget and a dress or two from Arden B.
The newspeople are on the lawn. My husband goes out to talk to them. He’s wearing a light blue polo shirt and khakis. He will always be a dutiful man.
“Her mother is resting,” he says.
“She was our angel,” he says, “the light of our lives.”
I should be down there. I should go take my place in the parade. I should go down there and rent my clothes and wail and grab the shellacked hair of the reporters and rip it from their skulls in great bleeding clumps. I should open up the window and throw things at the herd, chase them off our lawn. Instead I go to her bathroom and kneel in front of the toilet. I stick my fingers down my throat and feel the slippery skin of its inside. I heave and gag, but it’s just bile. I sit in the tub and count the bottles of hair stuff in the caddy. Eight, and she has not even lived here full time for two years.
The first floor of the house is full of people. They came bearing massive trays of food, because this is what they have read is appropriate. They bring their bovine, living children with them. My husband’s nephew sits watching the news, mouth agape. I can tell that he plucks his eyebrows. His mother gave him soda in his bottles and he threw epic, sugar-fueled tantrums for years, until the Ritalin evened him out. Everywhere I look there are the children of my relatives and my husband’s relatives. Not one of them as beautiful as her, not one as smart or witty or graceful. I’ve felt superior to them all these years, because my daughter was putting together Gearbotics kits by the time she was five, and when she threw tantrums, she’d put herself into time-outs until she calmed down. And yet here they are, the spankers and fast food feeders, with their children, pitying me.
I take three or four pain pills left over from my hysterectomy four years ago. I stand in the doorway to her room. It’s the room I have seen hundreds of times in the movies. The room of the girl raped and murdered, the room of the boy mowed down by the drunk driver, the room of the boy who disappeared in the megastore parking lot who still isn’t home, the room of the imbecile who killed himself imitating MTV stunt shows.
I know as I stand there that it will remain like this forever, that I am now to take my place in the pantheon of women like me, women who dust the untouched rooms that look like rooms they’ve seen on Dateline and 48 Hours, women who still turn sharply when someone else’s child calls for them, women who drink too much but never get drunk, dead women still alive. The pills make me warm. I go over to her closet and pull on some pants, then two pairs of sweatpants, then a skirt. I put on one of her bras, then a t-shirt, then a sweater. I wrap my neck in a scarf she wore once on a night I suspected she was high on something, and then never again. I put on a wool hat, some socks, sneakers. The sneakers are huge on me, she is tall like her father. I used to nag her about her feet, as if she could do anything about their size. She was always indulgent of me. I lie on her bed, get under the covers, breathing in hot air that smells not enough like her at all, I open my mouth wide and bite into the bedclothes, I wish for death, I want to eat the sheets and the blanket. I can’t sleep and I can’t cry. I pull the scarf very tight, and I leave it that way for a while.