Alice waited For her mother at the Greek restaurant that Julia liked. She didn’t mind her mother being late. During work hours,
Alice lived in her head and in whatever manuscript she was editing— questioning the details of each line—so after hours she initially found conversation, with its awkward pauses, questions, and changes of topic, challenging. She liked her work for the quiet and for the details. She was able to take a book and check, change, and verify that every single fact and timeline was airtight. When she was finished with a manuscript, she knew—and her employer appreciated—that it was as correct as was humanly possible.
The waiter kept refilling Alice’s water, and she kept drinking because it felt like the polite thing to do after he’d gone to the effort.
“I don’t want to be rude,” the waiter said, when he came by with the water pitcher again. “But do you play for the Liberty?”
“No, I work in publishing,” Alice said.
The waiter blushed. “I’m sorry. I just thought…”
“It’s okay.” If she was in the right mood, Alice was amused by how her tallness bothered people. Her height immediately exposed men (it was usually men) who had any insecurity. If a guy was a jerk about Alice’s size, he was a jerk. She didn’t think this waiter was a jerk necessarily, but it didn’t reflect well on him that he couldn’t come up with more than one career option for a tall woman. Or that he couldn’t just keep his mouth shut.
Alice felt her mother’s energy enter the room and smelled her perfume. She looked toward the door. “Hi, Mom,” she said. A wave of cool air hit the back of Alice’s neck; it was the beginning of November, and New York City was toying with the idea of winter. Alice hadn’t seen her mother for a few weeks, which was unusual. Julia had been busy with work. “You’re wearing too much perfume.” Alice wrinkled her nose.
“Am I?” Julia sat across from her and immediately looked down at the menu, even though she always ordered the same thing: a Greek salad with a glass of white wine. “I must have forgotten and reapplied it before I left the office.”
Alice studied her mother and noticed she was wearing fresh lipstick too. Julia usually stripped away her office look before she saw her daughter; today she seemed to have doubled down. Julia’s hair was in a bun, as usual, but a curl had escaped on one side. Alice was looking at the rogue curl when her mother said, “I have a series of things to tell you.”
“A series?” Alice smiled. She assumed this was going to be about a new work client, hiring more employees, and perhaps a piece of art that Julia had bought. Her mother sometimes presented her transactions to Alice because she found them exciting, not noticing that her daughter had never had any interest in her mother’s accumulation of wealth or professional prestige. When Alice had taken her first copyediting assignment, Rose said, “I know you chose that kind of job to drive your mother crazy. And it’ll work.” Rose meant the kind of job with low wages, no ladder to climb, and no way to win. Alice had laughed at this. “You’re a little right, Grandma,” she’d said. But she also liked her work and the lack of politics involved. The stock market had crashed earlier that fall, and Alice thought the ladders her mother valued so highly were made of rotten wood. Her friends were all struggling financially, despite their college degrees. Carrie was a bartender who had published six poems in literary journals and was working on a collection. Rhoan lived in a
one-bedroom apartment with his three brothers and was making minimum wage at an internship for an arts library, even though he’d earned a master’s degree.
“My sister Sylvie is dying,” Julia said.
Alice’s attention snapped back to the present. “Dying?” She remembered the photographs she’d found in her mother’s bedside table years earlier. The four sisters with curly hair. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Sylvie is the one closest to you in age, right?”
“When I was pregnant with you, I sometimes slept with Sylvie, on a couch. We shared a bedroom when we were children. We used to be very close.”
Alice tried to imagine her mother as a little girl, sharing a bedroom with another little girl. Julia had just spoken more about her childhood in ninety seconds than she had in the entirety of Alice’s life. Alice felt an uncertainty inside herself, as if furniture were being shoved into an empty room. She said, “Will you go back to Chicago to see her?”
Julia made a strange face, as if she were fighting tears, or maybe a smile. “No,” she said. She pushed at her hair lightly and said, “Sylvie is married to your father.”
Sylvie is married to your father. Alice ran this sentence through her head, but there were too many errors for a copy editor to fix. The structure buckled under its own weight. She tried a tense change: “Sylvie was married to my father?”
Julia shook her head.
The inside of Alice echoed, cavelike. “You’re not making sense, Mom.”
“Your father was the one who called to tell me Sylvie is sick.” “But my father is dead.”
“I told you that because he gave up his parental rights to you while you were still a baby. He had mental-health issues, and I think he didn’t feel capable of being a father. But I didn’t want you to feel rejected or feel like it had anything to do with you, because it didn’t.”
Alice wanted clarity; she wanted to make sure she understood the mechanics of what was being said. “You’re saying that my father gave me up, and because of that, you told me that he was dead?”
There was a visible vein in Julia’s temple. “It seemed simplest to tell you that. It felt like a kind of truth. His name is William Waters, and he lives in Chicago.”
Alice shook her head. She could hear her heart beating in her ears, as if her organs were moving around her body. She wasn’t sure what her mother said after that or even if she said anything. Alice smiled reflexively at the waiter, who was passing by, and felt a spear sink through her body. Alice missed something. She missed—wildly
—everything she had wanted when she was young. She needed a backup to her mother, who was saying crazy things while wearing too much perfume and too much makeup. She needed a sibling to roll her eyes at. She needed someone else to say, Don’t listen to her. She’s lost her mind. You’re fine. None of this is true.
“Excuse me,” Alice said, not to her mother but to the tablecloth and the waiter, if he was listening. She pushed back her chair and walked with wobbly legs across the restaurant and out the door. She stood in the dim nighttime air. Broadway was in front of her, a steady grumble of taxis and buses. Building windows were lit yellow against the night sky. Alice’s heartbeats were still registering in her ears.
Alice pulled her phone out of her backpack, quickly scrolled through her contacts, and pressed the call button.
The phone rang three times, and then Rose said, “Hello?” “Grandma.”
“Alice!” Rose sounded pleased. Alice usually tried to call her grandmother a few times a month, because she knew Rose was lonely.
“My mother just told me that my father is alive.”
There was a shocked silence through the phone. “Gracious,” Rose said finally.
“Is it true?” Alice said.
“Well,” Rose said, “I mean, I haven’t spoken to him lately, but yes, I suppose it’s true. I would have heard otherwise.” She paused. “Why in the world would she tell you that now?”
“Sylvie’s sick,” Alice said, as if handing a piece of mail to another person. She wished she were at home in the apartment she shared with Carrie, where one wall was papered with Cecelia’s murals. She wished she were standing in front of those images, looking at one strong woman after another, instead of standing on the street while her grandmother made small noises into the phone and her mother was somewhere behind her, a human wrecking ball that had swung into Alice.
Alice had stopped asking about Chicago and her mother’s past when she was a child, for her mother’s sake. She’d accepted that the place and people her mother had decided to withhold were never going to be part of her life. When the Internet had become easily searchable, in Alice’s late teens, she’d considered looking up her mother’s sisters, but—apart from tracking down Cecelia’s artwork— she’d given the idea up almost immediately. Alice knew her mother wouldn’t want her to, and since Alice no longer needed more family to feel safe, she didn’t seek out the information.
But Alice had been an idiot. She’d always known her mother was hiding something; that was why she’d gone through Julia’s drawers while she was in middle school. She’d thought the secret was Julia’s, though, and had nothing to do with her. Alice checked facts for a living. She knew how to look for evidence and confirm sources. Julia had offered the young Alice very few facts, however, and there had been no sources to reach out to for verification. What Julia said went unverified, and Alice could see that now. She could see the weakness of what she’d been handed, and she could see her own weakness in accepting it as truth.
Perhaps other people might have helped her figure this out— Rose, Carrie, Rhoan—but the young Alice had grown so tall that no one ever thought to help her, and she prided herself on never asking for help. Everyone—men and women—rushed to Carrie’s aid, even when she was perfectly fine, because she was cute and five feet tall. But the assumption was that Alice never needed help. She could, after all, reach every high shelf and carry her own luggage with no problem. When someone did try to assist her, she suspected them of ulterior motives.
“Are you still there?” Rose asked.
“Yes.” Sound intensified on the street out of nowhere—a tornado of noise. Countless decibels hit at once. Two ambulances passed Alice, driving in opposite directions. Taxi drivers laid on their horns. The air vibrated with sound, and Alice and Rose had to wait to have any chance of speaking or hearing. The city is talking to us, Carrie would have said if she were there.
Rose said, “Your mother and aunts have made a real mess of things over the years. There’s no point in denying that.”
“Why didn’t you tell me the truth, Grandma?”
Rose harrumphed, “Do you think I didn’t tell your mother she was crazy to lie to you? She didn’t speak to me for a couple years because of that. She started sending me those damn postcards.”
“No,” Alice said. She had taken a home economics class in high school, which mostly involved learning to needlepoint. Alice had been terrible at it, and the teacher would lean over her desk, smelling of cinnamon, and cut away her stitches with tiny scissors. Alice felt like someone—her mother, she supposed—were cutting away tiny stitches inside her now. “That’s not what I asked you. If you didn’t want to tell me while I was living with Mom, I can understand that, I guess. But I’m twenty-five. You could have told me the real story when I visited you last fall. You could have told me anytime.”
Alice could hear her grandmother rustling in her kitchen chair, gathering herself into a storm cloud. “I don’t think I’m the one you should be mad at,” Rose said. “William could have told you himself, couldn’t he? He’s your father, and if he’d showed up, it wouldn’t have mattered what your mother said to you.”
Alice considered this. “That’s true,” she said. “I need to know the timeline.”
“The timeline? What’s that?”
Alice shook her head. She heard the restaurant door open and close behind her and sensed her mother’s energy nearby again. Alice felt her shoulders hunch up, as if to protect herself. She wasn’t going to explain timelines to her grandmother, how if the chronology of a story wasn’t clear, nothing made sense. Alice almost cried out, because her mother was standing right beside her now. The tiny scissors were cutting, cutting, inside her.
“What is wrong with this family?” Alice said. “That’s a fair question,” Rose said.
Julia was clutching her purse as if it were a life preserver. There was an unsteadiness to her face. Alice looked at her and thought, I could be mad at you. I could scream at you. But I won’t. You raised me to take care of myself, and I will.