The Sunshine When She's Gone

A Novel

Thea Goodman

Henry Holt and Co.

1
Thursday Night
John

Kidnap was not the right word. John had simply meant to take Clara to breakfast at the corner diner, where they had good poached eggs and were especially kind to babies. But in the end he couldn’t explain the inexorable pull, the electric thrum that made him rise from the bed, strangely untethered, and begin to shave with scalding water, or the innocence of his motive—he just wanted to be with her. He couldn’t describe the indefinite urgency that had propelled him. Yes, he took the baby with him, but she was his daughter.

Veronica had started it. She’d sat up in bed, waving a finger in protest. “She’s fine,” she’d hissed when John left to check on Clara, as he did every night. Clara slept down the hall, in a nursery with walls the color of pollen. They’d rejected bicycle yellow and lemon yellow in favor of pollen, the potent reproductive center of a flower. As he walked toward the nursery, a small vibration filled the air, the joyful tension that had tinged the atmosphere since Clara was born. The yolky color summoned, spilling warmth onto the stunned concrete floors and his cold bare feet: The baby was warm and breathing. He was sure of it. When he arrived in her room, it was pitch dark. He felt around the baseboards, searching in vain for the delinquent night-light, then stood staring down at the vague shape of the crib but saw only blackness, like the deep velvet center of a pansy. Had she been stolen?

He waited anxiously for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Slowly the shape of her bald head emerged, and he saw a fantastic, tuber-like arm draped over her eyes as she lay on her back. He watched, waiting to see her chest move up and down with breath. Abruptly, she flipped over. In her pink velour suit, her bottom was high in the air, her tiny knees tucked beneath her. In the crook of her arm she had crushed the lamb she loved. The velvety white toy had opaque black eyes and eyebrows embroidered in perpetual consternation, as if forever on the verge of bleating. But the baby was content tonight. Neither Clara nor the lamb made a sound.

Satisfied, he returned to their pale blue bedroom. What was the name of this paint color? They had once been fervent and focused decorators. He had once agreed to the color, but it was a drained blue, gray and institutional, the bored whistle in the stairwell of his old elementary school. Veronica was speaking, staring across the top of her book into the open distance, barely aware of his presence. “There’s an epidemic under way. People are getting fatter and fatter,” she said.

John’s waist had thickened for the first time in his life, and he supposed this was why she avoided contact. “Obesity is a scourge,” he said too emphatically. His provocation didn’t faze her. Veronica arranged her maple hair over the pillow—the same glossy banner she’d always had, so shiny it looked adolescent—and continued to read about the horror of fast food. She held a tissue coned into one nostril and worked on arranging it for optimal absorption. He’d never seen her so engaged.

She was in shape again, six months after Clara’s birth, but complained of the continual numbness of her incision and the lack of tone around her belly. He’d find her alone sometimes, her side to the mirror, lifting the small packet of flesh above the ridge of the scar until taut, then dropping it as it jiggled back into place and froze into a small, immovable pillow. She’d be embarrassed when he found her doing this and rush to cover herself. He liked seeing her in that moment when she didn’t know she was being seen. She’d never been vain before. Maybe it wasn’t vanity; she still had little sense of the power of her beauty, an innocence that had always been one of her charms.

“Hi,” he said, trying to take her book away and kiss her. Art, his closest friend, had always said hi was a good opener. No one could say no to hi.

“Don’t,” she said. She looked at his hand briefly, as if disoriented, her watery violet eyes narrowing. “What are you doing?”

“Kissing you.” He leaned in, waiting for her to remove the tissue.

She stared at the page before her. “The thing is”—she coughed vigorously, then recovered—“I’m really sick.” A plane of red chafed skin seared above her chapped lips, but he didn’t care.

“Where’s your puritan stoicism these days?” John grabbed the tissue box and stuffed his hand inside it. He lifted up his cubed fist as if admiring it. Before, Veronica was someone who ignored colds, too busy to slow down and nurse one.

Clara had divided all experience into before and after. Before, his wife was stalwart, even hearty; after, she was withholding and often sick. On occasion, she had been perhaps oversensitive; now she was brittle. Before, she had been pleasure-loving and absentminded, one time stowing her purse in the refrigerator—as if enthralled by the present, the current consuming thing, which had often been him! After, she continued to work at the Commission for School Lunches, and she talked about murals and community gardens and smoking bans yet spoke with a new, almost officious fervor. After, her work and her interests surrounded her like a fence. He couldn’t get in.

“Give me that,” she said, reaching for the box as he moved his hand away.

“You need to do something about it,” he said.

“About my cold? I’m trying to blow my nose,” she said, with her new, caustic bite.

“It’s not your nose I’m worried about,” he said, pausing to admire the almost aquiline line of it, the terse, receptive pink tip jammed with tissues. Veronica almost smiled, until something made him keep going and ruin it. “It’s your mood. You’re so moody.”

She snatched the box off his hand, revealing his red clenched fist. “Don’t tell me what I am. You don’t know!” she said. “You have no idea, none at all, how tired I am.”

“Of course I know.” He spoke quietly, a patient robot, tired to the point of malfunction.

Sleep—for both of them—had become a precious commodity, worthy of fetish. They discussed sleep. They were always counting the consecutive hours of sleep they’d had or calculating the few they could hope for. He, too, was wrecked. As she glared at him, the accumulated exhaustion of months seemed to calcify within him, then crack. He was buzzing; he was blanched. How could she suppose he didn’t know fatigue?

At six months, Clara had not once slept through the night. He told himself this circumstance was temporary—if Veronica would let Clara into their room, out of the inky dark of the nursery (draped in three-ply blackout shades), then the baby might sleep. For now he dwelled in a bright flip book of days and a tunnel of nights that kept returning like an endless boomerang to pull him in, thread him through to the next impossible morning. They’d entered into a syndrome of tiredness that seemed as if it would never end. “I do know,” he repeated in as measured and human a tone as he could muster.

Her eyes grew large with pity, like a school psychologist with a hopeless case.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, “that condescending smile.”

“I’m not even looking at you.” It was true. She was already back to her book and spoke in her new monotone. They were both robots. A pair of imposters. “Why don’t you take care of your mood and I’ll take care of mine?”

“My mood?” he said. “I can’t even say anything—I can’t even come near you—”

“So that’s what this is about. I’m at least trying to do something about it,” she said, gesturing to the prescription bottles on the bedside table—the cluster of antidepressants and the hormones for her waning sex drive. “I know you’d like to think it’s entirely chemical, but there’s more to it than that,” she added. “Show me one new mother who actually wants to have sex.”

“Last time you were just servicing me? Is that it?” Over and over he had recalled that last uncommon encounter, three weeks ago, when he’d managed to capture her as she stacked some clean towels in the linen closet.

“I wanted to.” She reached out and squeezed his biceps. The gesture softened him. His muscle twitched happily beneath her long fingers. “I just don’t want to all the time. Why are you yelling at me?” Her hand rose, left him.

“I’m not. I’m sorry.”

“You think it’s all me, but it’s you too,” she said, as if in a trance. She turned a page and stifled a sneeze. He looked up. Even the ceiling was blue—what had the idea been? The painted ceiling was meant to feel limitless, like the sky, but it was laughably hard and unyielding.

“Me? You’re blaming me?” he said, sure that her hormones were dividing them, turning her into a person she had not been before, someone alternately aloof, despondent, and cutting. He waited, stewing. Indignation prickled up through his scalp. It felt purifying, a bubbly thing, like peroxide poured onto a wound. She had changed since the birth; he had not.

* * *

That enormous night when before turned into after, a nurse had addressed John and said, “Say goodbye, Dad,” escorting him out of the operating room where Veronica had given birth by C-section. He’d pressed his lips to Veronica’s damp forehead. Despite her waxy pallor, she’d smiled at him bravely, as if nothing and no one would ever hurt or disappoint her; to that hopeful essence of his wife—whether real or imaginary—he said goodbye. The heavy door clicked behind him.

A baby, placid and trusting, had been placed in his arms. She felt too light at first, a hollow doll wrapped in flannel, but when he adjusted his wrist, her warm head fell back heavily. He gathered her together, her delicate, watery, animated weight. He couldn’t tell if she looked like Veronica. He searched the baby’s face for traces of his own, but there were none. Her face was a mobile rosebud, like any baby’s. “There’s a theory,” he told the nurse who was restocking the cabinet beside him, “that newborns look like their fathers so their fathers won’t eat them.”

“The cafeteria is on three. I can take baby to the nursery while you eat,” she said, continuing her work. He watched her uniformed back as she reached a high shelf on tiptoe. Take baby? If Veronica was going to be all right, she would have looked him in the eye.

“No,” he said, unaccountably angry. “It’s a theory … of evolutionary biology.” He stared down at Clara as if she might get it. She opened her eyes briefly, then raised one eyebrow in exactly the way he did. With Clara’s raised brow, time raced forward and fell back in an instant, a vacuumed second in which he understood the Universe. He understood, in a threadbare yet distinct way, like a sighted person reading lips, that she was his daughter. A second later he saw no resemblance. The moment of recognition was not that clear: What he saw was not a small John but a resonance. He looked into Clara’s no-color eyes and she melted warmly into his arms. He smiled at her within their unified haze, amid a deep yet sure abstraction that he recognized, quite suddenly, was love.

* * *

In the bedroom six months later, Veronica turned her back to him and flicked off her lamp. He lay beside her, listening while her jagged breath deepened into sleep. He couldn’t rest. Light from unknown city sources shimmied on the walls. Exhaustion coated him, threatening to pull him under its sway several times, until a shimmering commenced, like pepper in his brain, shaking him awake. He stared at Veronica’s shoulder, so smooth it looked oiled, at her elegant long fingers and that girlish hair, wishing she’d wake up and return to him. The hours of sleep he’d anticipated diminished one by one as he listened for the baby’s cry; for once she was content.

When the sanitation trucks groaned over the cobblestone, he knew it was too late to sleep. Naked, he perched on the windowsill. The sun had not risen, but the sky was getting lighter. The apartment was silent. Clara had done it, had slept through the night. It was the end of an era. Chilly air outlined his body, sharpening his contours. Accidentally, his hand brushed a cactus.

He pricked his finger and squeezed it, waiting to see a drop of blood. Sucking the wound, he stared out the bedroom window. Lavender snow dusted the jumbled rooftops of Lafayette Street and in the distance, uptown, the gem-like facets of the Chrysler Building gleamed. New York was still impossibly beautiful. He wandered to the kitchen searching for some unknown object he’d misplaced, then without finding or even remembering it, moved to the living room’s western exposure. It was a true loft, without corner windows, and he faced the one-time factory across the street, where a dark shape, perhaps a cat, rested against a pane. Opening the window, he leaned out and looked south until he could see the blank space where the towers, almost four years later, were still gone.

It had turned into another futuristic year: 2005. An apocalyptic wind surrounded him. The cold and adrenaline made his chest a net of lit veins. The city was vigorously rebounding and he was part of it. At thirty-five, John could do as he pleased. A former journalist, he was now a well-paid researcher for a successful hedge fund. He was their anonymous know-it-all, gathering information about companies and CEOs and delivering it to the principals. He was a good student, writing research papers for jocks. At best he felt like a private detective. Yes, he had achieved a certain ease, more than he’d ever known as a writer, but almost missed—what was it? The ego, the meager reward of a byline? These days he had money and, by extension, unprecedented freedom. Pinballs zoomed and bounced within him. He was rich. The baby slept through the night. There was no such thing as fatigue. The world was starting anew. His muscles were wound tight as a spring, ready for release. In this glorious state, his body was persuasive; he was not falling asleep, he was waking up, he was soaring. Up, up, and away he’d fly.

He went to the bathroom—as tightly decked with veined gray marble as a small Italian bank—and turned on the faucet, letting the water steam in the basin. Although he hadn’t slept, he moved with slow precision. Each stroke of the razor scraped away a layer of skin cells until he was peeled and pristine, a shaved man in a cartoon dream. He was sure of one thing: He would not go in to Miller Equities today. He arrived there every day and did his research in situ, providing the information when the principals needed it—scenarios, they called them—reported from the virtual ether of the Web. Yes, Lloyd Miller routinely nodded at him at the morning meeting or in the hall, but John’s physical presence seemed irrelevant, and he’d often wondered why he couldn’t work at home. The idea took hold and bloomed; he would play hooky. He thought of coffee steaming in a thick china mug. First he’d take Clara for a walk to celebrate her success. Quickly, he got dressed.

It was still dark in the nursery. The air purifier stood sentinel in its corner, emitting small clouds of steam. He picked up Clara’s floppy lamb—in sleep she had released it—and tucked its legs into his pants pocket. He put on the baby carrier, making sure the X was in the center of his back for proper weight distribution, then scooped up the baby and slipped her warm body into the pouch on his chest, where she remained asleep. He was embarrassed by the novelty of her weight, how solid and round she now felt. He wondered how long it had been since he’d carried her this way, as he put on his down jacket and zipped it around them both so he was huge.

He filled a backpack with a few bottles of the special homemade goat-milk formula Veronica had learned to make from an expensive herbalist on lower Fifth Avenue. He took diapers and wipes and a few extra onesies. In the hallway he put a hat on Clara and took some cash from a drawer in the console; Veronica said it reminded her of The Godfather, keeping cash in a drawer. But he liked the drawer and took much more than he needed, a little stack of crisp twenties and even a few fifties. He grabbed a long-neglected pile of mail and put it in the bag to peruse at breakfast. Then he dashed off a note—a small good thing they still did for each other—leaving it on the kitchen island.

Outside, the January air was bracing; ice and salt cracked beneath his boots. A distance away he heard the click of a woman’s heels but when he turned saw no one. He would get the poached eggs, and Clara would play with the toast points. They’d sit in the red leather booth. He jiggled her up the block, racing to get out of the cold. When he got to the corner, he cupped his hands to peer through the dark glass of the restaurant. The diner was closed. A wind of desolation whipped at his neck. All around him, old garbage and dirty snow banked the sidewalks like small mountain ranges that would never melt. He turned south toward the hole in the skyline, past the stores. There were so few galleries in Soho now; they’d been replaced by fancy shops. Veronica, with her master’s in modern art, said she minded this, but she didn’t. Who was he to talk? He stacked cash in a drawer just in case. They lived a material life, yet an edge of possibility breathed within it: His reflection in a store window showed the impossible silhouette of a pregnant man. He laughed, his breath steaming in staccato clouds in front of him, then hurried toward Broome Street, looking for someplace that was open.

By the time he reached Canal, the cold was inescapable. Clara burrowed into his chest and he wrapped his arms around her, both daunted and emboldened by her helplessness. The wet wind and intermittent hail bit at his face. An empty cab ambled by. He flagged it down and jumped in. The car was perfectly warm, nicely sealed, and smelled of mint. Sitar music began as a thin sheet of freezing rain glazed the windows. “Where are you headed?” a voice asked.

“Uptown.”

But uptown, Arthur would be asleep, and Ines would be angry if John showed up before breakfast. The Museum of Natural History was closed, the butterflies still. He kissed the baby’s fat, chilly hand, trying to remember the last time he’d been alone with her. He steamed her cold ear with his breath to warm her up, craving an inversion, the opposite of winter. “Actually, go west here,” he said near Carmine Street, thinking of a diner he and Veronica used to go to after late nights in the Meatpacking District. “Little West Twelfth Street.”

As the cab driver wound his way through the tangle of the West Village, John sorted the mail. He found a thick envelope from the passport agency; he’d commandeered the whole family to the downtown office one morning for passports and then dim sum, arguing that they’d go away eventually. He looked for his renewal first. His eyes were clear amber, deadpan, almost criminally expressionless. Veronica looked suspiciously happy in hers, her smile too white above the blue scarf at her throat. In Clara’s photo he admired the single pale tuft of sparse hair (it had since fallen out), the peachy globe of her cheek, her bright dark-blue eyes vaguely crossed as she lay on a white sheet; the same photo she would use for five years.

The driver turned down the music to concentrate, crept around Jane Street, and funneled onto Eighth Avenue. Large flakes of snow began to cluster in the sky and swirl around the car as it moved cautiously. The car grew chilly. John fiddled with the air vent, trying to get more heat. As he leaned forward to tell the driver how to get to the restaurant, he saw that the windshield had whitened completely. The wipers squeaked into motion.

Somewhere in the world the sky was blue, the air was warm. Far away, the sun poured down like gold, melting knots in shoulders, warming hair, making things grow.

“If you could go back,” he said, “to Crosby Street—” The car inched through the gray, clotted streets then sped down Varick. But as they drove east on Canal, past the first fleet of commuters emerging from the Holland Tunnel, the early trucks with Chinese letters creaking under their own weight, as they rolled quietly over the cushion of snow, he marveled at the speed of transportation, the remarkable will of all these travelers: To deliver star fruit to Canal Street, to deliver bread to Mott, to leave a quiet New Jersey lawn and jump into the fray, and at the end of the day to jump out of the fray. To jump out of the fray. This frozen season could vanish, revealing the brightness of the next. He was not ready to go home, and the driver, as if in accord, was lost. They slipped onto Bowery and then to the faded grandeur of Delancey. Up ahead there was the Williamsburg Bridge, a magical leap over the water, and before John had told himself what he was doing, he told the driver the way he liked to get to Kennedy.

“Foreign or domestic?” The driver’s eyes waited like two dark gems in the rearview mirror. To the right of the mirror, he’d taped a photo of a child in pink footie pajamas. There were certain universal joys. For a beat the street beneath them was seamless, an inimical gray dream, dotted as far as John could see with green lights.

“Foreign.”


Copyright © 2013 by Thea Goodman