Chapter 36 – William

Hello Beautiful

ovember 2008

William looped the yard. he was feverish with sorrow, and pacing the grass felt like the best way to expel it, like sweat, from his

pores. The onset of grief bore no resemblance to his experience with depression. Depression meant disconnection, shutting down, a dangerous quiet. Now William’s feelings whipped around inside him like a flailing water hose. He needed to control this hose as quickly as possible, though, because Alice was here. She had been brave enough to seek him out, and he had to gather himself enough to make her feel like she hadn’t made a mistake. Any mistakes, all the mistakes, were his.

His heart beat with words: Alice is here.

On the tailwind of Sylvie’s departure, Alice had arrived in Chicago. Of course she had. Sylvie had talked about one-two punches, about how Charlie had died on the day Izzy was born, and Sylvie had clearly used her magic to somehow bring William his daughter on the day his heart broke. His wife was trying to save him, yet again.

The sun had just left the sky when William felt calm enough, ready enough. He headed toward the house and then stopped abruptly, because Alice had appeared in the open doorway.

“I was coming to find you,” he said.

“Oh,” she said. Her face was questioning, pale, anxious. “You were?”

William nodded. He could feel the cool air against the palms of his hands and the nape of his neck. When he’d first met the Padavano sisters, he’d noticed their similarities: their hair, their brown eyes, their shared gestures. The four sisters looked like different versions of the same person: They were parts of a whole. The young woman standing before William didn’t look like them at all; she looked like him. A slightly different version of his own eyes looked back at him. William had never recognized himself in someone else’s face before. It felt like finding an answer to a question he hadn’t known he had.

“What were you going to say?” Alice asked.

William almost smiled, because the answer was so simple. “Hello?” he said. “I was going to say hello.”

Her face relaxed; the air between them relaxed too. Neither of them sensed an attack—not right now, anyway. Alice’s appearance was more reserved than Julia’s; she was contained, behind her face and eyes. William remembered her as an infant, how she had looked friendly, even optimistic, as she took in the world around her. William could see how much time he’d missed, the gap between then and now. Was life constructed of arrivals and departures? He’d married into the Padavano family and then left his first marriage and fatherhood behind; Sylvie had walked into William’s hospital room and his heart, and now she was gone. On the same day, the adult version of Alice had arrived in his life.

She said, “I thought you were dead, until a few weeks ago.”

“Your mom told you that?” William nodded, though, because this sounded right. He had been dead, or deadened, as far as this young woman was concerned. He was alive now, and it hurt. “I need to say a lot of things,” he said. “I should explain the choice I made a long time ago.”

“You don’t have to. Not right now,” Alice said. “I’m sorry about your wife. We don’t have to talk about everything today.”

They looked at each other, and William said, “We have time.” He wanted her to know that he wasn’t going to run away. He’d accepted his daughter while sitting on the playground bench, though really this meant that he’d finally accepted himself. Alice was the person he’d most wanted to save from himself. She had been a child, and he was hurt as a child, and that anguish seemed to have tentacles that were out of his control. William would have done anything to protect his daughter: When she was a newborn he’d spent his nights leaning over her bassinet, listening to make sure she was breathing; he’d signed away his parental rights; he’d walked into a lake. It was because Alice was so precious that he’d believed he needed to stay away. Now, as they stood facing each other, all that remained was that she was precious.

He may have said, “Let’s go sit on the bench,” or he might not have said it out loud. He was feeling unsteady on his feet. He led the way, and they lowered themselves to the stone seat, with their long backs to the house. William’s whole life drummed inside him, and he knew Sylvie would say it was all related to love—it had been withheld, he’d believed he didn’t deserve it, then he had allowed it in. He realized, startled, that he loved the young woman sitting next to him. He’d loved her since the day she was born. William felt a warmth travel through him.

“Don’t look now,” he said, “but how many people do you think are spying on us?”

Alice laughed, and the sound rang out into the night air. She didn’t laugh like him, or Julia, or anyone else. She had a lovely laugh. “Definitely my mother,” she said. “She probably has her face pushed up against a window.”

“Emeline and Cecelia are looking at us. And Izzy. Kent, for sure.” William pictured them, portraits of the people who loved them, framed by windows across the back of the house. He could feel their care and concern. He could feel their hope too. Life had surprised them all—as if the sea had risen dramatically, lifting their boats

precipitously high—in the midst of a moment of sadness. If this could happen, if William and Alice could sit side by side and talk under the evening sky, then truly anything could happen. Julia could share her life with her sisters again; Rose could lay down her grudges and walk forward with lightness; Kent could find a new love.

“When I got to college,” Alice said, “it took me a long time to feel like I wasn’t living with strangers.”

She paused, and William waited. He found that he was just fine waiting, sitting on the cold stone bench, with the stars beginning to shine above, with what Whitman called the beautiful uncut hair of graves curling beneath their feet. He could feel his wife’s pleasure, from whatever window Sylvie was peering through, and Charlie’s too. I’ll make you proud, he thought. I promise.

Alice shook her head, and her fair hair waved around her face. “When I arrived yesterday, everyone acted like they knew me.” She looked at him. “I know I don’t know you, but I feel like I do. It’s weird, though…because I also feel like I don’t really know who am.”

Sounds of laughter swept out of Emeline’s house. People inside were getting drunk now, making toasts, telling one another how wonderful Sylvie had been. One Padavano sister after another would peel herself away from the windows to share a story from their childhood; they wouldn’t be able to help themselves. They would tell everyone that Sylvie had nearly flunked several high school subjects because she’d read in the park instead of attending classes that were boring to her. Guests would laugh when they heard that the head librarian at the Lozano Library used to make out with random boys in the stacks when she was a teenager. One of the sisters would describe how, as a child, Sylvie walked around their house muttering to herself—casting spells, her sisters had claimed—while she memorized pages of poetry in order to delight their father.

William looked forward to hearing these stories repeated in the days ahead. He knew his wife would not be forgotten or set aside. The Padavanos talked about Charlie as if he were still part of their

lives, still part of themselves, and because of that: He was. There was a mural of Sylvie on the side of a building not far from the library and framed paintings of her all over the twins’ houses. From a distance, because of her height and posture, Cecelia looked like Sylvie; Emeline shared her older sister’s thoughtful eyes; and Julia somehow contained Sylvie—like vines of roses, the two eldest Padavano girls had woven around and into each other when they were young.

William said, “For a long time, Sylvie knew me better than I knew myself. I think sometimes”—now it was his turn to pause—“we need another pair of eyes. We need the people around us.”

Alice turned her face upward, as if to study the night sky, as if she required a different vantage point to sort through what was inside her. William had written a series of questions in the footnotes of his manuscript, a long time ago. What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Who am I? He could sense those questions deep inside his daughter now. She was not broken, like he had been. Julia had seen to that. But Alice was taking tentative steps onto a new terrain, wondering if the ice could bear her weight.

“I know you can do this on your own,” he said. “But, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to help.”

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