Authors: Sue Miller
It isn’t until several days after the accident that Lottie lets herself – makes herself – think about it. Think about how it was for all of them, for
Cameron and Elizabeth, and for Jessica.
What she imagines is that Cameron must have been certain, right up until the moment he turned the car into the driveway, that he could get control again, that he could win Elizabeth back. She
imagines him – her brother – shut up alone in the dark car, driving much too fast across the city, his whole intention bent toward Elizabeth, that terrible, lost, pumping sensation of
pure will feeding on itself. Lottie has felt it too, she knows all those feelings: someone has told you it’s over, but you can’t begin to believe that, you simply want it too much.
You’re like a child in this: what you believe in, all you can believe in, is what you want.
Probably Cameron has barely noticed anything on the way over. Probably he doesn’t even realize, really, that it’s raining. No, he’s living only in the moment he knows is
coming, the moment when he’ll claim Elizabeth, the moment when she’ll turn to him and say yes. Because she has to say yes, he’s sure she will. He can see her face, lifting, her
mouth making the word.
Now Lottie pictures Elizabeth, the woman he’s in love with. Lottie knows this about her: that she’s just called Cameron. She’s told him she’s not coming over this
evening, as they have planned. That she’s not ever coming over again. Her husband has arrived from the Midwest, and he wants her back. She says something like
forever this wonderful summer’ with Cameron –
oh yes! Elizabeth is quite capable of this kind of melodrama too – but now it’s done. It has to be done.
They argue on the telephone. Cameron is unbelieving, unyielding, and this makes Elizabeth angry. Who does he think he is, after all? Her voice rises as she speaks, it’s suddenly sharp
and has an ugly edge. But maybe she hears this herself, maybe she lowers it, makes it sympathetic again. She must have gone to the back hallway or to the room that had been her father’s study
to make this call, and maybe now she’s worried that her mother or her husband might have heard her raise her voice, might come down the hall or up the stairs to see what’s wrong, why
she sounds so angry. For just these few moments, then, maybe she’s not focusing on Cameron, she’s not being careful enough, not managing him well enough, not really listening to him;
and so she’s surprised, surprised and appalled, when he finishes talking and then says, ‘I’m coming over there now, Elizabeth.’ And hangs up.
She would have been frozen, Lottie thinks. For perhaps thirty seconds she might have stood there – Lottie sees her at her father’s neat desk – looking out at the rain. The
humming phone is still in her hand. The window must be shut, and the wind-driven rain hits the glass in long, particulate slaps. What is she going to do?
She sets the telephone down in its cradle, and what Lottie imagines for her, knowing Elizabeth as she does, is that the thrill of panic she feels is mixed with a peculiar joy. After all, she
is at the center of this drama. Her husband has arrived unexpectedly this afternoon to claim her, and now her lover is coming over to make his claim too. Lottie suspects she might allow herself to
feel it too, for a few seconds anyway – why wouldn’t she? – the excitement of the most important role, the pleasure in being loved too much, by too many people.
Of course for Elizabeth there’s no doubt or hesitation about which claim to honor. With her husband she has three children, a big house that looks out over a wooded pond, a life of
mundane and compelling complications. With Cameron she has had an affair, a reenactment of her youth. For half of this airless, hot Cambridge summer, a summer of record rainfalls on the East Coast,
they’ve pretended to be seventeen or twenty-two again, while Lottie has looked on, has been their witness – sometimes their excuse. She knows many of the details. Elizabeth has told
her. They’ve sat in Cameron’s car with rain drumming on the metal roof, the windows fogged, and talked and touched each other yearningly. They’ve sneaked out of Elizabeth’s
house at dawn after making love all night. They’ve taken long walks in the dark, stopping often on the brick-humped sidewalks to kiss. They’ve waked each other in the middle of the
night with phone calls, with pebbles thrown against a screen just to tell each other again, I love you, I love you. They’re both middle-aged now, but they haven’t been able to invent
other words, or more adult behavior.
And just as he did when he was younger, Cameron has believed in it, believed in it with the same conviction that’s driving him now, gray-haired, slender and intense and worried-looking
in his beat-up car, past the littered empty sidewalks near his apartment in the South End, across the rain-scoured streets in the Back Bay, along the blackened river, through Harvard Square, and
back to the street in Cambridge they all grew up on, Lottie and Cameron on one side, Elizabeth on the other: the street Elizabeth has returned to this summer in flight from what seemed, until that
afternoon, a ruined marriage.
Now Elizabeth goes out of the study, flicking the light off behind her. Lottie imagines her standing for a moment in the carpeted part of the upstairs hall. Perhaps her children are playing
below. Yes, Elizabeth can hear that her daughter, the youngest, is too wound up, excited by her father’s sudden appearance, confused and delighted that they seem to be a family again, that
he’s going to take them all back to Minnesota. Elizabeth stands very still and listens to the girl’s shrill voice calling to her father to
come see, come see.
husband is talking, in the kitchen, it seems, with Elizabeth’s mother. He calls out to his daughter that he’ll come in a minute. Maybe he sounds a little irritated at being interrupted,
and maybe in the slight constriction that this would give to his voice, Elizabeth hears the reality of her marriage announcing itself, she hears the possibility of dailiness, of a life with only
smaller joys, smaller heartbreaks. The life we all want more, finally, Lottie thinks, than the life we dream of at seventeen or twenty-two.
And here it is, this is the way Lottie imagines Elizabeth setting it in motion, the unwinding of the event that will change so many things. She turns right, away from the wide hallway among
the family’s bedrooms, to the narrower back hall, where the floor is exposed, worn wood. She goes to the end of this hall, past the maid’s tiny bathroom and a utility room, and knocks
on the door to the room where the baby-sitter lives. Jessica.
And Jessica, who has been writing a letter to a college friend and drinking vodka bought with a fake ID, quickly caps the bottle and shoves it under the bed, then gets up and comes to the
As soon as she opens it, Elizabeth steps in past her, already talking, fast. Lottie has often seen Elizabeth like this: nervous, charming, confidential. She knows how to make people feel
good, feel eager to be included, to be part of whatever the plan is.
The plan is that Jessica will intercept Cameron. She will wait for him outside, under the porte cochere; she will convince him that Elizabeth is not home, that she has left the house with her
husband in order to avoid him. And that he must not come in and disturb the children, who are already very confused and upset.
‘Oh, anything like that, Jessica,’ Elizabeth says. ‘I know you’ll handle it brilliantly.’ Perhaps she’s sitting on Jessica’s bed now, and perhaps
while she’s been speaking, telling her story, her fingers have been alternately pulling at the loose threads in the faded blue bedspread and tearing at each other. Lottie sees a tiny bright
dot of blood blooming next to one of her polished nails.
‘The important part is, don’t let him in. Take him out for coffee. Give him a shoulder to cry on. God, flirt with him if you want to. You have my permission. Whatever it
takes.’ Elizabeth leans forward and lowers her voice. She’s frowning now, and serious. ‘Cameron is a dear, dear person. You know that. But this is real life, and he must not be
Fuck. This. Up.
’ She sits back and smiles again, her quick, electrically warm smile.
And pretty Jessica smiles back, the wide smile Lottie can remember only vaguely. ‘Got it,’ she says. She’s been enunciating with a drunk person’s exaggerated precision
throughout this converation, but Elizabeth hasn’t noticed.
‘Fantastic. Fantastic. But quickly now, dear heart, or I’m lost.’ They rise almost simultaneously. Elizabeth opens the door, and Jessica goes out past her.
‘I’ll stay up here a few minutes,’ Elizabeth says. She steps out into the hallway after Jessica. ‘Just tell them you’re going to meet a friend, if they
ask,’ she calls softly to Jessica’s back from the doorway.
Jessica turns, her long dark hair swings, her smile at Elizabeth is conspiratorial and radiant, she’s so pleased to be included, to help. And then she disappears around the corner,
Elizabeth hears her muffled, quick feet move down the carpeted stairs. She hears, after a minute, the dulled thump of the heavy door to the porte cochere closing softly. She stands in the back
hallway for a moment listening to the life that she can’t, quite yet, relax into – the children, the alternating adult voices, the peaceful, ordinary clatter of dishes being rinsed down
in the kitchen – and then she goes to her bedroom, at the front of the house.
Under the porte cochere, the light is off. Jessica has turned it off just before she stepped outside, wanting to take no chance that one of the family will look out and wonder what
she’s doing, standing here in her slicker, huddled against the wall, her long tanned legs bare below the black vinyl. She stands for some minutes under the porte cochere, and what Lottie
imagines for her is that she takes it all in, the lush racket of rain on the leaves, the benevolent thickness of the heavy wet air, the complicated, rich mixed odor of water and earth. Imagines she
stands and breathes deeply, that she slides the hood to her parka back to feel the air on her face and neck. Imagines that these moments are full of sensation, of life, for Jessica – the
consciousness of all there is to feel and smell and see.
But now it seems that Jessica starts to worry that if Cameron drives up as far as the porte cochere, someone inside will hear the car, or see it. Or maybe she doesn’t really know what
she’s doing, or why, she’s drunk a lot of the vodka, after all. Or perhaps, filled with the very pleasure it seems she might be feeling, she wants to be out in the rain, to let it fall
on her face. At any rate, she steps out now from under the sheltering roof and begins to walk down the long driveway toward the dark, deserted street.
But about a third of the way down, she stops. She stops, she takes her shoes off – they are little flats, almost ballet slippers, hardly shoes at all – and she steps up on to the
wet lawn. And she’s there, Lottie pictures her twirling slowly around there, in her bare feet on the grass, when Cameron turns the car into the driveway.
What he sees – all he would have seen at first – are his headlights raking the hedge on the other side of the driveway, and then the glowing windows on the second floor in
Elizabeth’s room, their light amplified and diffused in the rain. Lottie imagines him hunched forward over the steering wheel, keeping those windows in view, watching for the shadow he loves
to move across them.
His own car windows are closed. There’s the noise of the engine and of the rain, and he doesn’t hear Jessica call him. He doesn’t see her either, until she steps in front of
the car. Until he feels, and then hears – it seems a heartbeat later – the dull, heavy sound of her body hitting metal. How quickly then she’s in and out of his headlights!
Floating up somehow, up and back, with a startled, almost pleased expression on her face.
As he brakes, he’s honking the horn. And he sits there in the car after he’s come to a stop, honking the horn for perhaps thirty seconds, as though this could change something. He
knew she was dead. It’s just that somehow he almost imagined he could go back to the moment before he knew that. If he’d seen her in time, this is what he would have done, honked. She
would have stepped neatly back on to the wet grass. Everything would have been the way it was.