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The day she died was not beautiful. There have been a few world disasters in my lifetime, generation-defining events, and the ones I remember most clearly were marked with the hideous irony of a perfect blue sky. But the day Gretchen McLean died was miserable and drizzly, with periods of that nasty, keening wind that blows your raincoat hood straight back from your head and whips the garbage on Lexington Avenue into your face. It was appropriate, almost righteous. Towers fall, and the sun should not warm your skin; buses explode, and the breeze should not trace gentle ripples across the reservoir. But on the day that Gretchen died, even the weather seemed to understand its role. Because on the day that the mother of two little boys dies without warning, the wind should absolutely howl.
February, the day before
“I left the juice box on the counter. You might want to take a paper towel too. He squeezes them when he puts the straw in,” Gretchen tells me. “Right, George?” She pokes little George in the belly.
“All over me when I put the traw in,” he confirms. I’m pretty good at deciphering George-speak now, but it took me six or seven months to catch on. Gretchen understood it from the moment it started, which I’d prefer to chalk up to her intuitive mommy-skills, rather than to my slow-babysitter syndrome.
I walked in the door exactly seven minutes late today, which is an unusual occurrence. Of course, today is the day that Gretchen is in a hurry to leave, and now her meticulousness, which I normally laugh at, is giving me a complex. I’d love to give her an acceptable excuse for my lateness, but the wrong comment could lead to revelations I’m not willing to share. I don’t want to risk it, even though we’ve known each other for two years and, in some ways, are as close as family. The less you know about someone, the easier it is to make up the details, which is exactly what you want to do when it comes to the person who will help raise your children.
Gretchen hands George his shoes and then tears off a paper towel, folds it up, and puts it under the juice box on the counter. “Or would you rather I put it in the stroller, Charlotte?”
“The counter is fine.”
“Hey, I meant to text you,” she says, “and then I think I forgot—do you have plans tonight?”
“Do you need me to stay late?”
“We thought we might go out,” says Gretchen. “But no big deal if you can’t stay. We’ll do it another night.” I wonder if she means that, or if she made the reservation a while ago and took it for granted that I would be able to stay. I rarely say no to her, and I know I’m not the only one.
“I think it will be fine.” I calculate the extra hours in my head and console myself with the thought. “You should go out. I’ll stay.”
“Thank you! That’s great. Oh, before I forget, one of the stroller wheels keeps turning sideways. Makes it drag a little, just fyi . . .” She is back to business, and I pull out my phone to text Everett, who is probably still in my bed.
“Have to work late. Go back to New Haven if you want to. Will feel bad if you stay an extra day. Don’t be mad.” I send the text and then regret that last insecure sentence.
Everett, my good friend from grad school, had shown up unannounced at my door at 9:30 last night with two things on his mind, both of which kept me tossing and turning longer than preferable. I’m not used to having another person in my space all night, so at 6:37 a.m. I was wide awake and spinning, despite having slept for only a couple of hours. Mornings with Gretchen and the boys are more difficult if I make less-than-stellar choices the night before, but on the whole, I like my employment situation and would like it to stay as it is. I have no family in New York, and barely any of my friends from school have relocated here. Gretchen’s family has become somewhat of a refuge for me in this city, where everyone is in such a hurry not to look each other in the eye. Babysitting in Manhattan is a decent living, and since keeping a roof over my head is a priority for me, working for Gretchen has been ideal. But that isn’t a thing you can say to someone like Everett—someone who proclaims he would rather eat chickpeas out of a tin can in a basement in Bay Ridge than sacrifice one minute where he could be Making Art. Luckily, his trust fund and his acceptance to Yale’s doctoral program have kept him from such a fate thus far.
“Me riding in the troller, Tahr-lette?” George asks, bringing me back to the present.
“Yes, bug, you’re riding in the stroller.”
“And we go get Matt?”
“Yes, we’re picking up Matt,” I say. Impatience won’t do; the day is just starting, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. George is at that toddler stage of communication where I have to repeat everything he says back to him, so he can be sure his objectives are understood and will be met. “Can you fasten those shoes, pal? Do you need a little help?”
“Me do it,” he says, with great authority.
“Good job, Georgie,” Gretchen says, leaning down to kiss him. “Mommy has to go and run a few errands, and I’ll see you in a little bit.
“Grocery tore, Mommy?”
“Yes, and the drug store, and the library. And maybe Banana Republic,” she says to me with mock apology. “I’m a sucker for the forty-percent-off signs.”
“Me too,” I say.
“You and Matt are going to play on the playground with Charlotte,” Gretchen says to George.
“Me go down that widdle side, Mommy?”
“Which little slide?”
“That widdle twisty side?”
“Sure, you can show Charlotte that little twisty slide.”
“That sounds like fun, Georgie,” I say.
Gretchen slings her bag over her shoulder, not Marc Jacobs, not Chanel, even though I know she can afford it. “Okay, you guys,” she says. “Have fun. See you later.”
I start to gather up our things for an outing, but the stroller-packing process is sluggish for many reasons, none of which I can attribute to Georgie.
“We’re gonna need to stop for something caffeinated,” I say. “I’m as slow as a baby in a lead diaper today.” George laughs so hard he falls over sideways. He loves to be in on jokes about babies.
“The Philharmonic is playing my first solo piece in the next concert series,” Everett had said last night when I, already in my pajamas, had opened my door to him. “At Carnegie Hall.” He said it casually, like it was no big deal, even though we both knew it was. At the same time, he was holding up a bottle of really nice bourbon as if we were celebrating, and the juxtaposition confused me. How did he want me to react?
After we’d finished our master’s program, Everett had taken a year off to see what kind of work he might be interested in pursuing, and then applied to Yale the following year to become a doctor of musical arts. He’d had minor projects come and go, but nothing on this scale, which is how I’d justified not being in attendance for any of them in the past few years. This was a big one. I should have been going crazy, and he should have been going crazy. Instead, we acted like we were sitting around the poker table, waiting for the other one to give up a tell.
“You should come with me to hear it,” he said, while I was busy not saying anything, like an asshole. “I’ll take you to the after-party. And we can sit in the audience together and be elitist. Or mock other people for being elitist. Your choice.”
“Only if you promise not to crush all the tiny bones in my hand if the first violin goes sharp,” I said.
“So, you’ll come?”
“Ah . . . when is it?”
“Are you frantically rewriting?”
“More constantly than frantically.”
I squeezed my fingers together to relieve the tension in them as I stared at Everett, still just outside the door to my apartment, and I tried to think of something to say. Indecision overwhelmed me, but it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling, particularly in my recent history. Three years ago, my life had been as linear as a road map, the progression so natural that sometimes it took me a while to notice the milestones. I could draw a straight line from Yamaha preschool to the beloved record player my parents kept in our upstairs hallway, where I would sit and fixate for hours as a kid; from the evolution of my high school passions, Joni Mitchell to Vivaldi to Sondheim to the Clash; from conservatory in the Midwest, to graduate school in New York, to scholarships and recitals and being chosen over and over and over.
It’s surprising and, at times, miraculous that original music can still be made when you think about how little we have to work with, melodically. There are only twelve notes on our Western musical scale. The difference between the me standing there last night, not offering any kind of enthusiastic welcome to Everett, and the me that existed three years ago has everything to do with that scale. Until three years ago, I had spent an absurd portion of my time putting those notes together, stacking them against each other, stretching them out, and manipulating them into the shape of things I heard in my head. In an oblivion born of constant, lifelong validation, I had thought that those things would be mine forever, the melodies I constructed, and that it would always be my choice when and how and with whom to share them.
But that was not the case, and in hindsight, maybe it was naive of me to think that I would have all the time in the world to make those choices. You never know how important the things in your own mind are, that specific pattern of neuron firing that only your brain does, until someone takes them away from you.
The realization came upon me so quickly that there was barely time for acceptance; there was nothing to do but stay put. It hadn’t made sense to move to a different city, because everything would still be the same. There would still be a part of me that had been borne away without my consent, and there would still be the risk that it would happen again. I might as well be in New York City, where there were plenty of meanwhile jobs, places that I could enjoy predictability and a bit of financial security until I figured out what to do next.
Meanwhile had lasted until now. And there was Everett, on my doorstep. I stepped back to let him in, feeling the unbalance of being thrown back three years in time. He was with me, but we weren’t in the same place. The Philharmonic. Carnegie Hall. Two miles and a whole solar system away from my apartment by the East River.
“It sounds great,” I said. “It’s hard for me to take time off from work though, unless it’s an emergency.”
“What, you can’t afford it?” He retrieved a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his jeans and stuck one behind his ear. Add that to the sweater he wore draped over his shoulders, and you had a portrait of old-money Delaware. Everett, as drawn by a caricature artist.
“That’s part of it. It’s also hard on the family that I work for when I’m not around.”
“I thought the mother only worked part-time.”
“She does, but the boys have opposite schedules. A lot of their stuff overlaps,” I said. “Anyway, I’ll do my best. I really will.” I walked into the bathroom and shut the door, turning on the water and letting it run while I stood in front of the sink, alone, in the only place inside my small apartment that he couldn’t invade. He doesn’t know anything about life with kids, I reminded myself. No one does, unless they actually have kids to deal with.
“Think these are getting too widdle,” says George, in the present. I’m not sure what he means. I’ve packed the juice box and paper towel in the bottom of the stroller, along with my wallet, keys, and phone. I add two extra pairs of mittens and then do a check. Hand sanitizer: check. “Too widdle on my feet.” Tissues: check. Bag of superheroes: check. “Too sah-mall, too sah-mall,” says George, and at the last minute I decide that Matt will probably want a snack, so I put in a granola bar and some veggie straws. I finish loading just as I hear a quiet thump-thump from the other room, and when I come back to the living room to check on George’s progress, I find him rolling a tiny Corvette along the floor and over two mountains fashioned from his shoes, which are no longer on his feet.
“Well, okay,” I say, reaching for his hand. “Let’s go find some different ones.” He follows me, happy not to have to repeat himself until the end of time.
Everett’s reply to my text comes in as I’m heading out the door with Georgie, but it’s a little too explicit for me to answer while I’m wheeling a stroller down the sidewalk.
February, two years before
“Come on in,” Gretchen says, smiling, as she holds the door open. She is blonde, and she looks like a catalogue model. “Matthew isn’t feeling very well today, so he’s been on the couch for a while. George doesn’t walk yet, but he’s a really fast crawler, so watch your step!”
Gretchen and her husband, Scotty, found me on an Internet babysitting service. I’m not sure what it was I wrote that caught their attention, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was probably the lines about my musical background. I’d decided to leave out the part about my master’s in composition in order to make myself sound less educated and therefore within a reasonable price range, or so I told myself. I suppose it’s also possible that I wanted to make babysitting sound less like a job that I was hoping to fill in the gap with while I figured out how to use that master’s in composition to take the next steps in my career. Whatever the reason, the sentence had boiled down to something like “Coming from a family with strong creative values, I frequently use music and singing to engage the children.” I’m glad that Gretchen and Scotty decided to overlook the questionable grammatical structure—creative values? Like maybe my family takes liberties with traditional values? Or perhaps my family made up their own values, creatively?—and instead chose to pay attention to how I might teach their children the “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
“It’s awesome to meet you guys,” I say. “Do you mind if I wash my hands really quick? I’ve been on the bus.”
As I wash my hands with the orange-creamsicle-scented foaming soap, I repeat their names to myself. George, Matthew. I’m relieved not to have to summon an earnest inquiry as to which of her family members she named little Fieldston after.
“Your apartment is lovely,” I say, once I’ve found my way back to the foyer, and it’s the understatement of the millennium. Her apartment is unbelievable. I can’t see to the end of it on any one side.
“Thank you,” she says, leading me to the kitchen table. The kids are visible through the archway to the living room. “It’s an old building, so it has its quirks, but we really love it here.”
When she’s ascertained the requisite information (I live about a mile away; my schedule is somewhat flexible; there’s no evidence that I’m a serial killer), the conversation turns to music, confirming my suspicions that she likes the idea of that influence around her kids.
“You’ll have to forgive my ignorance. I know nothing about it, obviously, but you said you’re a composer, right? Or that you went to school for composition?”
“Yes,” I say, without elaborating. I don’t want anything we discuss to give her an idea of how temporary this job might be for me.
“And what’s the difference between a composer and a songwriter? Or is there a difference?”
“Not really,” I say. “You might call yourself a songwriter if what you really wanted to do is write pop music or songs that people would hear on the radio. But a songwriter is just a specific kind of composer, that’s all.”
“But that isn’t what you want to do?” she asks. “Be on the radio? Write songs for Justin Bieber?”
“Alas, I’m pretty sure the Biebs writes his own stuff,” I say.
“Bummer,” she says, and we both laugh.
“I used to love writing with other people, or for them. Back when I was in school, I mean,” I add, hoping she won’t notice or question the “used to.”
“All I remember from my music classes as a kid are mnemonic devices for the notes, and trying to figure out what key something is in using tiny number signs,” says Gretchen.
“Right, and lowercase b’s,” I say. “There was a fair amount of theory, for sure. I took a bunch of seminars, and my favorite was on collaborative composition. I really loved writing with a group on a specific project because there was something about it that let me communicate in a different way than when I was just hanging out, being regular Charlotte. I’m not cut out for performing, but I did my internship with an orchestrator for musical theater, and I had a great time with that.”
“That sounds wonderful. Scotty and I love to see theater, if we’re ever in town at the same time,” says Gretchen. “He gets really excited about it and does all this research. He’d deny it, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended up at some downtown hole with thirty seats, watching something experimental that Scotty read about in the Times magazine. Especially before we had kids. So do you think that’s the way you’ll go, writing music collaboratively?”
“I think I will go down whatever road presents itself,” I say, and a feeling rolls through me that I tell myself is anticipation but might be fear. Vague answers are not the way to connect with her, but I can’t seem to stop myself from giving them.
“Well, if you ever feel like you’re getting rusty, I know a couple of little kids who’d love to collaborate with you. They have a whole bucket of instruments waiting to be used for their intended purpose,” she says.
“Sounds great,” I say.
“Speaking of the monkeys, are you ready to meet them?” She leads the way to the living room, where we ignore all the super nice furniture and sit down on the floor.
She introduces me to the boys, who don’t have much to say. After Gretchen and I have chatted for a while longer about allergies, likes and dislikes, schedules, and the satanic roots of gluten, she gives me the list of specific family obstacles.
“Scotty is away for work a lot of the time—sometimes for a while, sometimes just overnight. I work part-time as a nutritionist, but most of my clients are in the neighborhood.”
“Okay.” Little George is sidestepping his way around the coffee table. His hand grazes a little wooden nesting doll, causing it to wobble. I reach out automatically to steady it.
“Matthew can be stubborn.”
I consider telling her that I once babysat for a family who only wore underwear at home—Mom, both kids, and Dad—what’s a little stubbornness compared to the house where pants go to die? I decide to reserve this anecdote for the future, as pants-less households aren’t always considered an agreeable topic for polite conversation. “Okay. What’s your normal policy for handling that?”
“I try to talk him out of it. And if that doesn’t work, a little bribery goes a long way.”
I’m surprised at this—not surprised that she employs this age-old and incredibly effective tactic—but surprised that she’ll admit it with no apparent shame. “Okay, ha, that’s awesome. I’ll follow your lead,” I say.
“And we’re a little bit afraid that George will never speak.” She is perfectly pleasant, but I decide that she is not joking. Indeed, George has continued to crawl around us on the floor, picking things up, getting into other things, playing with toys, and pulling himself up to sidle along the furniture, but I haven’t heard even a squawk out of him.
“He cries, so we know he can use his voice, but other than that, he doesn’t make noise, vocally. No chatting or laughing or anything. Matt was chatting up a storm when he was George’s age.”
“How old is he?” I ask.
“He’s thirteen months, and Matt is almost four.”
“When do you turn four, pal?” I address the question to Matthew, who is lying on the chaise lounge with both feet up on the wall behind it. He frowns at me and doesn’t answer. How dare you interrupt my Spiderman cartoon, stranger.
“Matty, can you please answer Charlotte’s question?”
He sort of harrumphs and stares even harder at the flickering screen. Peter Parker is getting romantic with a girl from another galaxy. Racy.
“Sweetheart, if you’re going to be impolite, we’ll have to turn off the TV.”
“June sixth,” he grumbles.
“Hey,” I say to him. “That looks like a bed pillow you’re holding, not a couch pillow.” He narrows his eyes at me, trying to assess what I’m all about. “When I was a kid, I always tried to trick my mom into letting me have a bed pillow on the couch. Did you trick your mom too? Or did she make an exception because you’re not feeling too well?” He gives me a small smile, then turns his attention back to galaxy-girl’s invisible aircraft.
“So we’re going ahead with Georgie as if everything is fine,” says Gretchen. “The pediatrician thinks a year and a month is too young to have him evaluated, and Scotty and I agree.” She catches George as he passes by on one of his laps, adjusting one of the tabs on the side of his diaper and then releasing him again, all in one fluid motion. “Scotty, Matty, Georgie. Everyone has an ‘ee.’ Except for me. I’ll have to be called Mommy to fit in. I told Scotty he could start a thing with ‘Gretchy’ over my dead body. You’ll have to watch out. Charlie, Lottie, I’m sure they could think of one.”
“The options are grim,” I say.
George turns from the glass end table he is holding on to and faces where we sit on the floor. He takes four tottering steps in our direction, becomes unstable and squats, then stands back up and staggers all the way to Gretchen’s outstretched arms.
“Scratch what I said earlier. I guess he walks now,” she says, and I look at her expression and George’s expression, and I am hooked.
Copyright © 2016 by Caroline Angell