Read Dear Edward: A Novel Online
Authors: Ann Napolitano
“I’m from Baltimore. I live in New York, though. I couldn’t live anywhere else. How long have you been in the flight industry?”
“Oh, five years, I guess.”
He’s nervous. Jane sees his knee bouncing beneath the tray he’s lowered over his lap. She tries to block the scene out. She has to write. She has to finish polishing this script, which means rewriting most of it, before they land. She can do it; she’s good at focusing when there’s a gun to her head. The problem is that she doesn’t want to. If she was sitting next to Bruce, and he wasn’t annoyed at her, he would ask:
What do you want to do?
He always goes back to the origin, to the essential question. His brain never gets tied up with tangents and obligations and feelings, like hers does. Sometimes his head tips to the side while he’s looking at her, and she knows he’s thinking:
Do I still love her?
And then, every time so far, thankfully:
She’s in first class because she spent weeks obsessively packing their apartment instead of writing. She knows which box Eddie’s elephant is in and the exact location of each of Jordan’s prized books. She numbered the boxes in the order they should be unpacked in L.A. She’d wished, while packing, that there was a competition she could enter for moving a family cross-country with the greatest efficiency, because she would win first prize. When Lacey offered to drive to New York last week to help pull things together, Jane had laughed.
“Forgive me for trying to be helpful,” Lacey said, offended.
“Oh, I know. I’m sorry, I was laughing because of me, not you.”
The exchange fogged up with bruised feelings and their long history of poking and prodding each other, and though they both tried, neither was able to clear the fog before they hung up. Lacey and Jane have different operating systems, which often lands them in trouble. What they care about overlaps, but there are key divergences. Lacey has always, always wanted to fit in, which she believed required a husband, two kids, and a nice house in the suburbs. She wanted her life to look “right.” This has simply never interested Jane much, as a concept. When she wanted something—a relationship, a baby, a job—she tried to get it. She rarely looked to her right or left to check on the progress of other women. She had been amazed once, at Lacey’s house, to find that her sister subscribed to thirteen different women’s magazines. There were subsets, her sister explained. Cooking, housekeeping, fertility, home decor, beauty. “What?” Lacey had said, in response to the look on her sister’s face. “I’m not the weird one here. You are.”
Lacey keeps score in her relationships in a way that is anathema to Jane but that she can use, in a moment like this, to help smooth away any wrinkles between them.
I’ll phone her as soon as we get to the house,
Lacey will be touched that she was the first person I called from the landline. That’s the kind of thing that matters to her.
She notices that Veronica is gone and Mark looks forlorn, the Bloody Mary cupped in his hand. His mood settles like a fine mist over her skin, and she starts to type.
The test instructions say that it takes three minutes for the results to show. The white stick stares blankly at Linda. She would like to pace, or even leave the room during this period, but that’s not possible. She has to stand still. Perhaps because her body is stuck, her brain goes scattershot.
She remembers when she drank alcohol for the first time—Jägermeister—the night before the SAT. She arrived at the gymnasium to take the test on two hours’ sleep, with what felt like a brain full of discarded engine parts. Six weeks later, her homeroom teacher, who’d always told her that her father was wrong, that she was smart and had a bright future if she’d only fight for it, went dead in the eyes when Linda told her how badly she’d scored. Linda saw her decide, in that moment, to move her hope and attention to a different, younger kid.
The bathroom lighting is terrible. Her skin looks yellow in the small mirror. And what was she thinking, wearing all white for a day of travel? She sticks her tongue out at the reflection and sees the scar from when she got it pierced at the age of thirteen. Another terrible decision. Linda had done it simply because a girl she admired had gone goth. Within two days, her tongue had swelled so badly that she was having trouble breathing, and her stepmother had to drive her to the ER. The incident delighted her stepmother, who henceforth liked to insert the memory into unrelated conversations. “You almost lost your tongue, you know. Then where would you have been? You’d have had even less chance of landing a man.”
“I landed Gary,” she says, to the mirror and her stepmother.
But she secretly shares her stepmother’s skepticism, and always has. She worries that the only reason she and Gary have lasted an entire eleven months is because they’ve been long distance, and now that distance is about to disappear. They’d visited each other, sure, the most recent visit being six weeks earlier, but visits were short and therefore sweet. There wasn’t time over a long weekend for crankiness or bad moods or long-held insecurities to arise. Day-to-day life in the same location would reveal all of Linda’s flaws.
They’d met at a wedding—Gary had gone to college with the bride; she had once dated the groom—and ended up servicing each other’s acute loneliness later that night. Linda had assumed it to be a one-night stand, but Gary texted her the following day on his way back to California. They’d chatted by phone and text over the next few weeks. When he told her that he studied whales, she’d felt a surge of annoyance and almost hung up. She thought he was making fun of her lack of education; he had a PhD, and she’d never even gone to college. He obviously thought she was so dumb he could claim to have a fantastical job and she wouldn’t know better. More than that, the lie felt barbed, specifically tailored to take
down. She’d been obsessed with whales as a child. Posters of the giant mammals had covered her bedroom walls, and most of her treasured books had concerned sea life. It felt like Gary was mocking both the twenty-five-year-old and twelve-year-old versions of herself.
“You mean you’re unemployed,” she’d said, in her meanest voice.
“I’m emailing you information on my program.”
They were still on the phone when she opened the link and saw video clips of bearded men in windbreakers on a boat in the middle of the ocean. She saw that one of the men was a sunburned Gary. The next clip showed a whale’s hump passing the ship. Then classrooms and cubbies stacked with scuba gear, which is when she closed her laptop and started to cough.
When the coughing ended, Gary said, “Linda?”
“I had something in my throat,” she said.
Linda assumed she and Gary were just friends, because she felt none of the obsessive worry she normally experienced when she was interested in a man. Her day improved after she spoke to him, and he provoked the hiccuppy giggle she’d tried to suppress her entire life.
her stepmother had once muttered, when Linda laughed in front of her. They’ve never talked about children; Linda has no idea how Gary feels about having one. He had a crummy childhood; he’d said that he would rather kill himself than go through that again. Her secret hope is that they can make a life, together, that will heal the broken paths behind them.
When I’m with you, I feel fixed,
he told her once, and though she wasn’t able to utter the words at the time, she felt the same way with him.
There’s a loud buzz, and the speaker in the ceiling announces the commencement of the beverage-cart service. Linda is aware, suddenly, of being thirsty.
“Hello?” The bathroom knob rattles, and a man’s voice says, “You okay in there?”
“Yes!” Linda says, and grips the test in her hand like a spear. A pink plus sign wavers in the middle of the white. “Yes!” She slides the bolt open and lurches into the aisle.
When Edward arrives at the house, he’s shown to the nursery. John had moved the crib to the attic and replaced it with a single bed with a dark-blue bedspread. The bookshelf, filled with cardboard books that babies can safely chew on, remains. The walls and curtains are light pink, because Lacey had been convinced, each time she got pregnant, that it would be a girl. A rocking chair sits beside the window.
The boy and his uncle stand in the doorway for a moment. John looks confused, like he’s forgotten why they’re there. Edward wonders if he can turn and shuffle away without the man noticing.
This isn’t my room,
It can’t be
John says, “Would you like to see the lake?”
He walks toward the window, so Edward follows on his crutches.
West Milford was built on the edge of a seven-mile lake. During the town’s heyday in the late 1800s, three enormous steamboats operated on the water, carrying visitors from trains to one of the many resorts. With the advent of airplanes, tourism changed. People still came to Greenwood Lake, but it was only families from New Jersey and New York, many of whom bought summer homes there. John’s parents had met as eight-year-olds playing beside the lake, and both had summered there throughout their childhood. It was a safe town, though most suburban towns were safer then. Kids ran free, skidding into the house only for meals and bedtime, lake-wet and suntanned.
In the 1970s, the lake lost its widespread appeal. If families could afford a summer house, they bought at the New Jersey shore or on Long Island. The hotels didn’t do enough business to stay open. John and Lacey bought a house there shortly after getting married in 2002, because they could afford a nicer place in West Milford than closer to the city, because there were enough businesses to support John’s IT work, and because the lake reminded Lacey of Canada. They have a nice view from the second floor of the house. The nursery looks out over the vast, flat water, as does John and Lacey’s bedroom.
“When you’re feeling better, maybe we can go swimming there,” John says.
The new place inside Edward, the one that revealed itself after the crash, starts clicking. He remembers overhearing his mother tell his dad that Lacey had had another miscarriage. He hadn’t known what the word meant and had looked it up in the dictionary.
“We can fix the room up more,” John says. “We will, definitely. You decide what color you want the walls, and I’ll paint them. Do you have a favorite color?”
“No, thank you,” Edward says.
He turns and maneuvers slowly out of the room, then down the stairs. That night he sleeps—or, more truthfully, doesn’t sleep—on the couch in the living room. He hates being out of the hospital. He hadn’t anticipated this feeling, but then, he finds it impossible to anticipate any feeling now. It turns out that the hospital, with its beeping machines and routine and constant parade of medical staff, had been holding him together. His body now hurts in a new way; the dullness has been extinguished. He can sense the metal rod that replaced part of his shinbone, and his skin feels weird and rough to the touch. The hair on his head—which doesn’t even have nerve endings—somehow aches. At 2:00
., on his second night in West Milford, he sits upright on the couch with his hands on his thighs. The pain shimmers beyond the boundaries of his body. It seems impossible that he can survive this.
The next morning, there’s a knock at the front door. John has already left for work, and Lacey hasn’t yet come downstairs. Edward blinks his eyes—two hot, dry stones—and hauls himself up on his crutches to answer. A woman and a girl about his age are on the front steps. The woman is dark-haired, with light-brown skin. She’s holding a red thermos. The girl is half hidden, peering out from behind her mother. Edward can only see one eye behind a pair of glasses, staring at him. His brain clicks, rattles almost, then stops. For a second, Edward feels okay. Clear, normal, unbroken. The sensation, gone almost immediately, is jarring.
“Hello,” he says, to the girl.
“I’m Besa,” the woman says. “And this is Shay. We live next door, so you’ll see a lot of us. I brought this coffee for your aunt, but it looks like you need it more.”
She holds the thermos out, and Edward hugs the warm cylinder to his chest. The smell reminds him of a café near his family’s apartment that pumped coffee-scented air onto the sidewalk in order to lure people inside.
“I’m—” He hesitates. This is the first time he’s had to introduce himself. Eddie is gone. He’s glad his aunt made the decision she did in the hospital. “I’m Edward.”
Besa gives a warm smile, which triggers a memory of Edward’s mother smiling, and then triggers a wave of fear. He has the sudden desire to lie down at this woman’s feet. Is every mom he encounters going to remind him of his own? If this is the case, he’s doomed.
Besa says, “We know who you are,
Shay steps out from behind her mother, a small frown on her lips. “I’m two months older than him, and you said I had to wait until I was eighteen to have coffee.”
Besa puts up her hand.
“Cállate, mi amor.”
Lacey appears then and leads them into the kitchen. Edward lowers himself into a seat at the table and pours an inch of coffee into the thermos lid.
“Do you like it?” Shay asks.
The coffee tastes like he imagines fresh pavement does, burning and sticky, but he nods and tries to pull himself straighter in his chair. Shay is an inch taller than him, with shoulder-length brown hair and a dimple in her left cheek.
“Have you gone outside yet?” Besa asks. “Into town?”
“He needs rest,” Lacey says. “He’s not ready.”
“Good,” Besa says. “Because this place has gone
. West Milford is small, Edward, and everyone knows everyone, and nothing as exciting as you showing up has happened in decades, if ever. Did your aunt tell you the town painted this house while you were in the hospital?”
Edward tries to make sense of this. “How does a town paint a house?”
Lacey says, “The town council did. They wanted to be helpful.” She pushes her chair back and walks to the counter. “They felt bad and wanted to help but didn’t know what to do. It’s so silly, because John painted the house last summer. It didn’t need it at all.”
“Everyone at camp is talking about how you’re here,” Shay says. “I’m practically a celebrity because I live next door to you.”
Edward thinks. The word sounds familiar, but it takes his brain a moment to figure it out. Summertime. Children. Arts and crafts. He and Jordan did a science camp every summer, at the Museum of Natural History.
“Do we all want pancakes?” Lacey says, in a bright, let’s-change-the-subject voice.
He’s staring into the coffee when he hears the girl say, “I met your brother once.”
He thinks he’s misheard her. When the sentence replays inside his head, he sags slightly in his chair.
But Besa seems to have heard the same thing. She says, “What are you talking about? You never met his brother.”
“I met him here,” the girl says. “Well, on the lawn. I think I was six. I knew your family was visiting that day, and I was pretending to cut my lawn with my toy lawnmower. Jordan came outside by himself.”
“I didn’t know this.” Besa sounds offended.
“Mom, I was six. I probably told you and you forgot. Also, it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t even remember until”—she pauses—“recently.”
“Jane loved to bring the boys here.” Lacey’s shoulders straighten. “She needed to give them a break from the hubbub of the city.”
Edward says to Shay, “Did you talk to him?”
“A little. When he came outside, he jumped down the steps, from the top to the grass. For some reason I was really shocked by this. Maybe I gasped, because he noticed me.”
Edward tries to picture this: bright sunshine, green grass, the five cement stairs in front of his aunt and uncle’s house.
“Jordan said something like,
You’ve never seen anyone jump before?
And I said that I hadn’t seen anyone jump like
. He laughed and ran to the driveway. Then he climbed on top of your parents’ minivan.”
“Wait a second.” Lacey frowns. “Don’t tell tales, Shay. We don’t need that around here.”
“Jordan did things like that,” Edward says. “That’s something he would do.”
Shay gives a small nod. “He waved at me, and then he jumped off the car roof.”
“Oh,” Lacey says, then pauses. In a different tone, she says, “I remember. He hurt his knee….He wouldn’t tell me how, but I gave him a bag of frozen peas to put on it.”
Edward doesn’t remember any of this. He doesn’t remember Jordan going outside without him. He doesn’t remember the frozen peas, or this girl, or his brother with a limp. There is a cracking sensation in his chest, as if small bones are breaking. Why can’t he remember?
“He didn’t seem hurt to me,” Shay says. “A grown-up called him right after he jumped, and he went back inside.”
She pushes back her chair and swipes her mother’s cheek with a kiss. “I have to go, Mamí. The bus will be here any second.”
“Que tengas un buen día.”
Shay says, and then she’s gone.
Edward takes another gulp of coffee to try to block the lump in his throat. He coughs into his napkin. He can feel Lacey’s desire for him to eat, but there’s a force field around food that he can’t seem to penetrate—the smell, the solidity of it is impossible. He returns to the couch. Lacey switches the television on, but he can’t focus on the images. He listens to the hum of Lacey and Besa’s voices in the kitchen. When he passes the door once, on the way to the bathroom, he hears his aunt say, “Instead of a baby, a twelve-year-old boy.” Edward keeps his eyes on his feet, to make sure he doesn’t fall.
When the sky dims, and John comes home, Edward returns to the kitchen table. His uncle ruffles his hair; Lacey puts a dollop of buttery mashed potatoes on his plate and says, “Please, Edward?”
John says something about a lawyer, and Lacey says that it seems to be a bad season for tomatoes. His uncle and aunt pass bowls of food back and forth to each other, more often than is necessary, Edward thinks.
“I wish I liked salad,” Lacey says.
John makes a face. “Nobody
Edward can tell, without knowing how, that this exchange about salad is a standard in their marital repertoire. It’s a back-and-forth they repeat in order to recognize themselves, within their marriage and their lives. The same way John says,
Lace, you okay?
when he enters a room, without seeming to expect or need an answer. The way Lacey reaches up to check her hair a few times an hour. The way his aunt places the condiments in the door of the fridge, and John moves them to the top shelf.
“Did you have to take me in?” he asks.
Their faces turn to him. Lacey’s freckles darken. A line crosses John’s forehead.
“I mean, is it the law, because you’re my only relatives?”
“I don’t know if it’s the law,” Lacey says, and looks at her husband.
“There was no question,” John says. “There was no other possible outcome. We’re your family.”
“Yes,” Lacey says, but as her freckles lighten, Edward realizes she’s on the verge of tears. He sees John notice this too and press his hand over hers.
“My leg hurts,” he says. “May I be excused?”
“Of course,” John says.
Eventually, the square of window over the couch grows dark, and then darker. John stands in the doorway of the living room and says, “It’s bedtime, kiddo. Can I help you upstairs?”
Edward says the same thing he’s said the last two nights: “My leg…The stairs make me nervous. Would it be okay if I just stayed down here again?”
“Sure.” Moments later, Lacey appears with blankets and a pillow and murmurs
into his ear. Edward listens to their footsteps on the stairs, and then their bedroom door clicks shut. He stands up, walks to the front door, opens it, and hobbles outside.
He crosses the lawn and his aunt and uncle’s driveway. He’s slow in his movements. It’s ten o’clock. The nighttime air feels soft against his cheek and makes the hairs stand up on his arms. Edward registers that the suburbs’ night sounds are very different from the city’s. Here, there is a wall of quiet set in front of warbling creatures, rustling leaves, and distant car engines. He drags across another lawn and climbs the front steps of a house that looks, in the shadows, almost identical to the one he came from.
He knocks on the door.
After a pause, a woman opens it. Besa squints into the darkness.
“Edward? Are you okay?”
He says, “Can I come in and see Shay?”
Another pause, and a memory cracks through Edward’s mind. This is how memories appear now, like a burglar bursting through a locked door without warning. It’s a few weeks before the flight, and he and Jordan are in the elevator of their building. They’d snuck out of the apartment without their dad noticing, and they’re grinning at each other. They know that when they hit the lobby, the doorman will be shaking his head. He’ll say,
Boys, your father called. Back upstairs now.
But as the elevator swooped down, he and his brother played air guitar.
Jordan should have been the one to live, not me.
Besa looks over her shoulder and calls out, “Shay,
are you decent?”
Shay’s voice travels from upstairs. “Why?”
Besa doesn’t answer. She leads him past the living room and up a set of stairs. Through an open doorway, he sees Shay leaning against pillows on a bed. She’s wearing pajamas with pink clouds on them and holding a book.
“Hi,” he says.
She straightens with a bustle of motion. She gives the same squint her mother used at the door, this time from behind glasses.
“Shay,” Besa says, “maybe you can tell Edward about your day at camp.” She has her hand on Edward’s shoulder, and the sensation is both wonderful and terrible.
“Why would I do that?” Shay says.