William leFt the apartme t just before eight at night. The dinner dishes were still on the table. Julia looked at the check he’d
handed her. She studied her father-in-law’s signature. She’d never seen the man’s handwriting before; his name looked scratched onto the paper, as if it had been dashed off as quickly as possible. Ten thousand dollars seemed like an impossible amount of money to be lodged behind this handwriting. Her father-in-law had apparently sent the check to her husband sixteen months earlier, and William had never told her.
Julia found it hard to wrap her mind around this fact. The previous fall, when she was pregnant and William had asked to be excused from his teaching position, her financial anxiety would have been lifted entirely if she’d known they had this extra money. Instead, the worry about how much she could afford to give Cecelia and spend on food plus her father’s death had braided themselves together inside her, and she’d had a constant headache.
Julia washed the dinner dishes and wiped the kitchen countertops. She cleaned her face and put on her nightgown. Alice was asleep in the bassinet, her face peaceful. Julia watched her perfect features for a few minutes—her tiny nose, her pink cheeks, her long eyelashes—and then sat down on the couch. She’d finished her normal evening routine, even if this wasn’t a normal evening. For the first time, Julia considered the sheet of folded paper William had
handed her. When he’d walked out, she’d put it down, still folded, on the coffee table. She was aware of a prickly sensation in her chest, aware that she was scared to unfold the sheet. Don’t be silly, she thought, and with feigned confidence smoothed the page flat on her lap. William’s handwriting was different from his father’s: His letters were round and easy to read. His handwriting was as familiar to Julia as her own.
I’m no good for you and Alice. If I stayed, I’d ruin your life. You deserve to be free, Julia. Our marriage is over. I’m sorry for everything.
She read the sentences on a loop, as if they were a book she restarted as soon as she reached the last page. After a while she stopped and lay down on the couch. She wished Sylvie was beside her on the cushions, to hold her. Julia wasn’t ready to talk, but she was alone in a way that felt dangerous. She got up and double-checked the lock on the front door. She dug out the old toolbox from under the kitchen sink and removed the rusty hammer they’d used to hang pictures when they moved. She placed the hammer next to the letter and check on the small coffee table, in case she needed protection, and lay back down. She told herself to sleep but found she couldn’t close her eyes. Any small noise and she pushed herself upright, wondering if it was William’s key in the lock. Had he ever been out past ten? No. It was now midnight. After midnight, the bars would be closed. The campus buildings were shut. Alice woke up, and Julia fed her back to sleep. She was still on the couch at three in the morning. She thought, Is this actually happening?
Julia hadn’t lost her clarity from Alice’s birth. When she paid attention, she could see everything. But she’d paid as little attention to William as possible since Alice was born. She’d kept her gaze averted, partly because Julia had come to know what, apparently, her husband had also figured out: They didn’t work together. Or
perhaps they had worked, while Julia was intent on fixing the world and people around her. She had pushed William into the career of teaching, pushed him into graduate school, even pushed him to marry her. But Julia had stopped pushing when Alice was born. And when she stopped pushing, something in their marriage sputtered to a stop. She’d continued to play her role as a wife, and he’d continued to play his role as a husband, but they’d done no more than go through the motions for a while now.
“I was going to stay with you, though,” she said to the empty room. “I’d made a commitment.”
It hurt her that William didn’t feel the same way. But still, she thought, it was brave of him to leave. He’d always struggled with decisions, and this had to be the boldest move of his life. Julia thought she’d masked her new sense of independence after Alice’s birth, but he saw through her. He saw that she didn’t need him. He noticed that she’d taken her hands off his back and that he was no longer being moved forward in a direction she’d chosen.
Julia called Sylvie when the sun rose, then showered and put some care into her appearance. She would set the stage for her new life by making sure the woman in the mirror looked presentable. She’d always believed in dressing for the part she wanted, and she didn’t want to appear like a disheveled victim. Julia remembered her childhood self twirling into a room, singing, Ta-da! She took her time in front of the mirror and put on some lipstick and a little eyeliner. She wove her hair into a neat updo. When Julia was fully dressed, she left a professional-sounding message on Professor Cooper’s machine, explaining that she was available to work and that she was sure she could bring a lot of value to his company. I can do this, she thought, when she hung up. I can do anything.
But this confidence twanged, like a rubber band, into doubt. Did she have a good sense of what she was capable of? Julia had known that she wouldn’t leave William, even when he’d disappointed and irritated her. She had married him for better and for worse. But
she’d also known that if their marriage were ever to end, it would be her decision, not his. William had needed her; she hadn’t needed him. How was it possible that she was the one being left behind?
Julia rubbed her forehead and forced her thoughts elsewhere. As if answering an essay question for school, she tried to figure out who William would be without her pushing him. He’d probably like to be a high school basketball coach, she thought, and felt pleased with herself for being so mature and generous about the man who had lied to her and walked out on his family. Equally true was the fact that she never would have married a high school basketball coach. Men like that lived in small houses in Pilsen like the one she’d grown up in. They wore sweatshirts on workdays and barely made enough money to pay the rent.
Julia had wanted to be married to a college professor. She’d had secret aspirations for William: that he would be a college president in his later career or perhaps even run for public office. These aspirations had disappeared after she’d read his book, though. She realized then that there was something wrong deep inside him—after all, what kind of man would type the words I’m terrible on a page?— which meant he would never be successful. A college professor still seemed possible, though, and even inevitable. Julia had sat in on one of William’s classes during the spring, and at the end he’d said, nicely, that the sight of her grinning like a Cheshire cat at the back of the room had made it hard for him to concentrate. But William had been remarkable, breaking up the material with small jokes, fostering an interesting discussion on the ethics of war even though it was a lecture course. For the first time, he’d seemed to utilize his size off the basketball court. His height gave his presence significance. He was meant to stand out, so it made sense for him to be alone in the front of the room. Look at me, his body said, and the students complied.
Julia would have stayed married to the man at the front of the classroom. But the man who had just walked out, the one who had
hidden ten thousand dollars and who knew what else, was a stranger. She hadn’t known, hadn’t wanted to know, who William was for a long time. When her husband came home after being out for the day, she never asked him where—or who—he’d been.
Julia needed to see Sylvie, because nothing in her life seemed real unless her sister shared it. But Sylvie showed up pale and panicked, as if the building were on fire. Julia was unsettled by her sister’s intensity from the moment she opened the door. It felt like her sister had arrived with a problem, instead of showing up to help Julia with hers.
Sylvie studied the evidence on the coffee table: the five sentences, the check. She said, “Before he left, did William explain why he’d missed his classes? What else did he say to you?”
“He didn’t say anything.” “Nothing at all?”
“It’s in the note, Sylvie. We haven’t gotten along since the baby was born. Since I got pregnant, really.” The reasons she and William didn’t work were like a series of dead-end streets; Julia walked quickly down one and then doubled back to try another. “We’re like a clock that doesn’t keep time anymore,” she said. “He’s not ambitious. He never knew what to do, so he wanted me to give him instructions for everything, big and small. I’m a fast walker, and he’s slow. I thought I needed a husband, because that’s what we were told as little girls, right? Or maybe not told but shown. It didn’t occur to me that I might be better on my own. I was carrying him, Sylvie.”
Sylvie listened, bent slightly at the waist as if leaning forward helped her understand.
With her sister in front of her, Julia felt less clear than she had when she was alone. She could feel the effects of staying up all night; her eyes felt gravelly, and her hands shook slightly. She put her hands in her lap so Sylvie wouldn’t see. She said, “Alice and I will be fine. I don’t need a husband. William”—she hesitated for a split second—“was right to leave.”
“Do you think he’s okay?”
Julia blinked at her, confused. “Do I think William’s okay?”
“Yes.” Sylvie looked at the pieces of paper and the hammer on the coffee table. “I think for him to do this—to miss classes, write that note—something must be really wrong.”
Julia rested her eyes on the note too so she and Sylvie were looking at the same thing. “I don’t think the end of a marriage is supposed to feel good for anyone,” she said. “Why are you worried about William?” She heard the tremor in her voice. “You should be worried about me.”
“I am, of course!” Sylvie said. “I feel terribly for you. But, Julia”— she hesitated—“it’s just that if there’s an emergency, we should do something.”
“My husband left me,” Julia said. “I don’t think that qualifies as an emergency.” She felt far away from Sylvie, even though the sisters shared the same couch. A strange thought occurred to Julia. Could it be that Sylvie somehow knew the man who had lied to Julia, handed her a check, and then left? Had her sister seen a version of William that was a stranger to his own wife? She shook her head; that didn’t make sense. Julia was tired and not thinking clearly.
“We’re the only ones who know what happened, though,” Sylvie said. “I think maybe we should call Kent, just so he knows too.”
Julia considered this. “William’s probably with Kent. If you want to, fine. His number is in the book by the phone.”
Sylvie nodded, her lips pressed together. “Do you want to make the call?”
“No,” Julia said. “This is your idea.”
Sylvie stood up and moved to the armchair. The small table beside the chair held the phone and address book. She stared at the phone while she pressed the numbers.
Julia could tell her sister felt uncomfortable, and she thought, Good. You should feel uncomfortable. You should be sitting here hugging me. Why are you worrying about William?
“Hi, Kent? This is Sylvie, William’s sister-in-law? We have a situation here, and I wanted to let you know.” She was quiet for a moment, then said, “William has been gone since last night. He wrote a note to Julia.” Sylvie cleared her throat. “Saying he was leaving their marriage. He missed work too…. No, no one has heard from him. He didn’t say where he was going. You haven’t heard from him?” There was a pause. “Yes, of course, thanks.” And then Sylvie put the phone down.
“He’s going to drive down here,” she said to Julia. “He’s concerned.”
A hot anger flashed through Julia. “He’s not coming inside this apartment,” she said. “If you want to meet Kent outside and talk to him, fine. Forgive me if I’m not concerned about the man who just walked out on me, Sylvie. And you shouldn’t be, either. God!” She stood up. “I’m going to take a nap. I was up all night.”
Sylvie looked like she was going to speak and then changed her mind. She nodded.
Julia went into her room. She lay on her bed and watched Alice in her bassinet. Julia hated that Kent now knew that William had left her. He would think Julia was a victim, even though she wasn’t. He wouldn’t know she was wearing a nice dress. He wouldn’t know she’d done her hair and put on lipstick and called Professor Cooper. He might think she hadn’t been a good-enough wife. She was in the middle of these thoughts when she fell asleep.
When Julia woke, thick yellow light was pushing through the blinds, which meant it was late afternoon. She realized she must have slept for hours. Alice was awake in her bassinet, playing with her feet. Julia scooped her up and kissed her soft cheek. “You are literally the best baby in the world,” she said.
The apartment was quiet when she opened the bedroom door. “Sylvie?”
There was no response, so Julia carried the baby into the living room. She noticed a piece of paper on the coffee table and picked
J—Kent has organized a search party. I have your extra key from the spaghetti pot, so I can let myself back in. I’ll be back soon, I promise.
A search party? The phrase felt needlessly dramatic. Julia shook her head, annoyed and still groggy from sleep. Why had Sylvie gone with Kent? Julia didn’t understand what her sister was thinking, and this had never been the case before. Even when Sylvie had skipped high school classes or kissed boys in the library, Julia understood her reasoning, even if she disagreed with it. But this morning Julia had told Sylvie that her husband left her, and her sister had left her too.
“Why would you do that?” she said into the silence.
Julia fed Alice and then laid her on a blanket in the middle of the living room floor. She walked into the kitchen, aware that she was hungry. She made a sandwich from what was in the refrigerator— tuna salad, lettuce, tomato—and put it on a plate. Julia hadn’t eaten since the day before, and she devoured every bite of the sandwich, licking her fingers at the end. When the sandwich was finished, Julia was still hungry, so she ate an apple all the way down to the core. She drank one of William’s beers that was in the refrigerator. Finally sated, she changed Alice’s diaper and then read her Goodnight Moon. “You’re such a good girl,” she cooed at the baby. Alice stared up at Julia. Her expression was mild, optimistic. She was four months old and had begun to shine love at her mother like a sun. When Julia walked into a room, Alice’s entire body would shake with excitement. Now she reached up to pat her mother’s chin, which was something she did for comfort while she nursed.
There were knocks on the door at six o’clock. Julia looked through the keyhole and then opened the door for Cecelia and Emeline, with Izzy in a stroller. Both women hesitated just inside the
apartment, sizing her up. “You poor thing,” Emeline said. “You must be so upset.”
“It’s been a strange day,” Julia said.
“Sylvie didn’t say much on the phone,” Cecelia said. “She was in a hurry. From what I could understand, she seems very worried, far more worried than makes sense to me. I’m sure William is fine. Emmie and I are more concerned about you.”
Tears came to Julia’s eyes. “I appreciate that,” she said.
“I didn’t know things were so bad between you two. Was it because of how he was with the baby?” It was as if this news had turned back Emeline’s biological clock—with her eyes wide in her face, she looked like a child. “How could William leave you?”
Cecelia was studying William’s note, which Julia had handed to her. “I don’t understand any of this: him leaving you; Sylvie and Kent searching for him as if he’s lost. None of this makes sense.”
“I know,” Julia said. “This is unexpected, all of it, but it’s not…” She shook her head. “I can make it work. I’m still young, right? I have a college degree, thanks to Mom, and it’s the eighties, not the fifties. Alice and I will make a fresh start.”
“Bah,” the ten-month-old in the stroller said, and waved at her aunt. Julia crouched down and pressed her nose to Izzy’s, which made the baby chortle with pleasure. Across the room, Alice kicked her feet on her blanket, excited to see her cousin.
Julia felt better with the twins there. Sylvie had made her feel like there was a problem in addition to her husband walking out, and that had been disorienting. But Julia had her feet under her now; she knew that William had ended their marriage at the start of the night, and almost twenty-four hours later, Julia had caught up. They were both done. She believed she would be okay on her own, but to convince herself, she tried to imagine a possible day in a possible future. The future Julia was wearing a gorgeous business suit and sitting behind a modern black desk. Her hair was contained in a
masterful bun. Her competence was on full display. I’ll be better than okay, she thought, and felt her face light up. I’ll be amazing.
She saw that Cecelia and Emeline looked concerned. They didn’t trust her optimism in this moment and thought it might be a warning sign of an impending collapse. Julia turned her attention to the baby blanket in the middle of the room. Cecelia had placed her daughter beside Alice, and Izzy was handing the younger baby a toy. Julia remembered the earlier version of herself that had gotten pregnant in order to place her baby beside this one on a sun-soaked blanket. The two babies were meant to be the magnet that drew all the grown-ups together, but in reality they had done the opposite. The babies had arrived, and the adults had scattered. Izzy had started something, the same way Julia had started something with her own birth, but what trajectory had Izzy hurled everyone on? Charlie died, Rose left, and now so had William. Julia didn’t blame the baby, of course; she felt a shot of love while gazing at the dark-haired, dark-eyed child.
“Have you called Mama?” Cecelia asked.
Julia looked at her sister, who had a streak of bright-yellow paint on her right hand, and knew that because Rose had abandoned Cecelia, she would always think of their mother first. “Not yet,” Julia said. “There’s nothing she could do but worry. I wish Sylvie was here, though. She’s acting so oddly.”
“What can we do to help?” Emeline was standing by the window. She was looking for Sylvie, or perhaps William, the same way, as a tiny child, she’d stared out the front window after school was dismissed, watching for her older sisters. “We could make you dinner? Do you want us to sleep here?”
Julia shook her head. She appreciated that Emeline and Cecelia had shown up for her, the same way she’d shown up for Rose in her garden when their mother’s heart was broken. But Julia’s sisters couldn’t take the next steps with her, even though pulling herself together had always meant pulling her sisters to her side. Now being
strong meant standing on her own, with her child in her arms. This was a lonely position, even though it felt like the correct one. She was a grown-up, and a mother.
“If Mama was here,” Cecelia said, “she’d drag us all to St.
Procopius to pray.”
This statement rang true. The four girls had gone to church and said rosaries for Rose, not God. There had been no way to know this while they all lived on 18th Place, because the church and their mother were so intertwined. Catholicism succeeded because it kept its parishioners feeling guilty and therefore in the pews every Sunday, but none of the Padavano girls had stepped inside St. Procopius since their mother moved away. The girls’ only genuine beliefs, growing up, had been in fictional characters and their games and one another.
When Julia was in middle school, a girl had accused her and her sisters of being a coven of witches. Julia hadn’t known what a coven was and had to look the word up. The definition had delighted her, and she’d hoped the girl was correct. The four Padavano sisters dressed up as witches for Halloween that year, and Charlie gleefully quoted Macbeth at them. Julia, in the height of her girlhood, with a pointed black hat on her head, knew that they were a coven of witches, at least to some extent. She, Sylvie, Cecelia, and Emeline had a shared power, a fierceness.
“You should go,” Julia said. “I’m fine, and the little girls need to go to bed.”
The twins kissed Julia’s cheek in turn when they left. They pressed their bodies to hers, briefly, before walking through the door. Julia returned to the couch. It had been a strange day, and she felt strange. William’s departure had been sudden, but it had struck like lightning in the middle of a storm. Unexpected yet natural. In the bright flash of electricity, Julia had been able to see clearly, for the first time, the similarities between her husband and her father. She’d wanted to marry someone the opposite of Charlie. She’d chosen
William because she thought he was that: serious, mature, sober, attentive. Charlie was a dreamer—Rose used to say that he walked among the clouds. He was also regularly demoted at work and spent money that Rose needed to pay bills at the bars in their neighborhood.
William did not walk among the clouds, but, like her father, he lacked ambition and reliability. Charlie had been a loving father but a deadweight as a husband. He’d given Rose nothing she could use. Perhaps Charlie had recognized that facet of himself in William. Julia remembered the disappointment on her father’s face when she’d told him about this marriage. Her father had known so much, she thought. She’d never given Charlie enough credit when he was alive, but she knew enough to understand that if her father were here now, he would wink at her and say, Let’s see what my rocket can do.