Miriam Vener feels trapped in the comfortable white middle-class life she leads with her family in Houston during the 1980s. That life suddenly shatters with the appearance, after almost eighteen years, of Veronica (Ronnee), her biracial daughter born in Mississippi in the sixties when Miriam was a civil rights activist. Hot tempered, sensitive, manipulative and deeply hurt at her mother's disappearance from her life, Ronnee has been raised by her father, a formerly brilliant college professor who forbade her to see her white mother. Half a Heart charts the emotionally fraught terrain of the mother and daughter's reunion and Ronnee's divided sense of self and loyalty. With which family, and which race, does she identify? How does all this affect her relationships with her newly discovered half-sister, her white boyfriend, and the father she is rebelling against? Half a Heart is a searingly honest novel of public and private ideals betrayed and hopes reignited by one of our foremost novelists.
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THERE IS NO SUCH THING as beginning at the beginningjust when would that be, and who would tell the story? But some moments in a life suggest a kind of punctuation: quick-stop comma, full-stop period, or the in-between caesuras of colon and semicolon.
Summer was a parenthesis that opened for Miriam Vener. Soon her children would split off from her, one by one by one, for what they loved to call sleepaway camp. First Evie would go with her best friend, Kendra, packed into the back of the Pearlsteins' van, to make off in the general direction of the Grand Canyon and points west. She would end up delivered to camp in California, reunited with the bunkmates she wrote to avidly all year long in envelopes festooned with cartoon stickers. She and the Pearlsteins' dog, Charlotte (named for the spider), liked to hang out the back window, their heads nearly identical. She always waved hard, looking tremulous, but Miriam knew she was so solid she'd be over it by the time they turned the second corner.
Then the boys, Seth and Eli, would go off together on their noisy way toward their summer of swimming, snakes, computers, food fightswhatever the clichés of camp life, they embraced them with enthusiasm. Young boys are not interested in distinctiveness; that comes later. She'd hug them to her, one to each side, and they'd pull, as hard as they could, away.
She had no respite from her mother's presence, though, a fact that alternately irritated and frightened her. The final period, she knew, might be placed at any moment, even, unimaginably, in themiddle of a paragraph.
It was June and the Houston summer was still benign; it was sometimes cool in the morning and the sun that came splashing in at the door was not yet murderous. She had just hung up on a dispiriting conversation with her mother, who had called to say that Miriam's father hadn't come home all night and that she was afraid he had met with some disaster. "People are being shot out there all the time," she reminded her daughter in a dire, terrified voice, and that was certainly true. Miriam wasn't worried about her father: he had been dead now for almost five years. Her mother was the one who concerned her. She couldn't convince her she had been dreaming, and finally had to tell herby then she was sounding a bit more harsh than she meant tothat the reason she was so sure he wasn't coming home was that he was in his grave. Safe in his grave, she heard herself saying.
That was when her mother gasped, "Oh my God," as if she were hearing this for the first time, and began to cry. "I want to be with him," she said finally. "I've had enough of this. I want to go where he is. Are you preparing my grave yet? You ought to be if you're not." She urged this on Miriam gently, the way she might request that she buy something for herself, or for the children. And that was when (because this was not the first time her mother had abandoned reason, or rather, it had abandoned her) Miriam understood that her mother, frail and lethargic and eighty-two, was truly entering her final days, wishing, even when she was fully awake and more or less sane, to die.
THEIRS WAS A PERFECT HOUSE for subtropical Houston, low and white and hovered over by old live oaks on the front lawn and generous greenery to cool and shade it. The house was fairly new, elegant, "contemporary"; it had been around just long enough so that the shade had grown lush. Miriam and her husband, Barry, had moved there only a few years before, when Barry's ophthalmology practice began to take off. They owned some nice thingsfrankly flat-out beautiful furniture whose price, like the price of their cars, she had to turn away from, the glare was so great. Pretty carpets created by dozens of small subcontinental children hunched double making knots, a lifetime of knots. (Needless to say, Barry went berserk when she described it that way.) The good toys in the playroom that she did not regret, only wished she could spread around to everybody's children: blond wood, unflakeable paint, the kind you can't lick off. Some judicious art, including the de rigueur pieces denoting Israeli themes; these were the badges of belonging. Miriam resisted having a decorator do all this, by threatening to leave her husband if he kept on insisting. I can do it, she said. There are harder challenges. One living room was there for you never to go into, like the old-fashioned "parlor" her grandmother used to keep for company. The family room got all the traffic; it was where you could take off your shoes. The big sort-of-modern print, framed in gleaming silver, picked up the color of the couch. The dried flowers and the huge lamps on the end tables echoed the carpetsit really isn't hard to do, Miriam insisted to her friends, but they were afraid to believe her.
Her mother loved this house. When she had shucked their old overstuffed foursquare in the Third Ward like an outgrown coat, Jews were not living out here; in fact, when Miriam was growing up, nobody was, there were no gatehouses, no curving sidewalkless lanes where every family wore their stock portfolio like a mask. Where she grew up was mostly slum now, the neighborhood of swarthy Jews given over to people of serious color. A few intrepid black householders kept their places beautifully there, against great odds, their flower borders blooming, the trash fenced out of the yards. Their dignity, Miriam knew, probably cost them some.
This section of Houston was called Memorial, a name whose irony occasionally overwhelmed her. Here in this house, for which she should have beenshe wasgrateful, what with this room of her own and her walk-in-closetful of terrific clothes, she was mortified that her old dear friends (no longer her friends) would have trouble getting past the gatehouse Gestapo out there unless they looked like they had arrived to do some heavy cleaning. Angry, no, disappointed, no, bewildered, she didn't know the adjective, that she had once lived contentedly with the barest belongings and a sackful of books, and was happy.
Barry admired that in her, but he had to remove it. She asked him continually (he would have said naggingly) if this was what he had worked for, and though he couldn't imagine what was wrong with this, he always said (and she believed him), No, no, Miriam, how can you ask that? I am the best doctor I can be and this is the concomitant. That was the word: the concomitant. This is the reward that simply follows, like what? He would think for a minute, very earnestly. His earnestness was one of the things she liked best about Barryhe did take her seriously, or at least took her distress seriously, either because it made her unhappy or would ultimately make him unhappy, or a little, maybe, of both. Like ballplayers with their million-dollar contracts, he said, though of course they were not talking millions here. A lot of them play for the money, they play to get out of the ghetto, Miriam said. Sure, he acknowledged every time, having grown up in Dallas with a pool and a maid and a garageful of disgracefully good cars. But you can't tell me that's why they give it what they do. Next time you see Hakeem or Michael in flight, flat out, or everybody steaming down the court in a fast break, try calling it the money. What would you like me to do, turn the money down?
But this was a discussion they might have had sitting at the side of their pool, sipping, snacking, cooling off. They might even have been with friends. This is what everybody wants, he would say. Especially those who don't have it. Don't be sentimental.
He wasn't trying to make her look foolish. As the eye is formed, Blake said, so shall we see. He tried to see her, sitting there in her perplexity. But instead of basketball players, Miriam thought of one of the machines his patients looked through at the office that wouldn't show them certain images their eyes were too myopic or astigmatic or color blind to seebutterflies that came and went, depending, and geometric shapes. They were in there, but no matter how hard the viewer squinted, they were so totally not there if the wrong eyes sought them out that it was spooky. So he looked at her as hard as he could but there were certain memories, certain loves and hates and qualifications on this good life that were beyond his powers of sight, and it wasn't his fault, and she always ended up apologizing.
NOT THAT, A DAUGHTER OF ENORMOUS PRIVILEGE, Miriam was exempt. But (however unrealistically) she always thought she was immune to a sense of entitlement because her parents didn't move to their dream house until she was about thirteen, when her father began to mint money, as her mother not too subtly put it. The only thing she remembered liking about the move was that her sister, Joy, and she were finally severed, each to go her own way in separate rooms, Joy to her makeup and Toni permanents and nonstop phone calls from boys and she to her books and her dreaming. How predictable, she thought, safely on the other side. The Baby Intellectual. She wished she'd been more original. Her closet looked like a boy's compared to her sister's: jeans and boots and sneakers, and a Colts hat that she rarely took off. They got along better with a little space between them. Their brother, Alan, was never a part of their combat; he stayed as far away as he could.
Everything Miriam's parents loved about that house embarrassed her. They had a fraudulent little pond in the back yard with lily pads and live fish in it, gold-streaked flat-sided swimmers who seemed captive, who darted around hysterically nosing for an exit into larger waters (though a trip to the aquarium would have shown her that, at times, all fish corner abruptly and look frantic).
They furnished the huge sunken living room with chinoiserie, so that it didn't feel anything at all like her friends' comfortable scruffy houses, and then began to "entertain' lavishly. (What a peculiar word for the coming together of friends, the breaking of bread.) Her mother's parties were very popular; people coveted a place at her generously set table. As for the "Chinese element": sophisticated, everyone called it. Ahead of its time. But it was forbidding, everything lacquered and hard to the touch. Even her mother began to affect a vaguely Oriental look; she put her lovely shiny black hair into a severe bun held together with something like ivory chopsticks. Miriam certainly couldn't appreciate what all this elegance might mean to a pair of immigrantsher father was actually the one immigrant between them, having come to Galveston when he was six, direct by boat because so many powerful East Coast German Jews had made it plain that they'd like their Eastern European compatriots to camp elsewhere, with their unsavory poverty, their inferior language. Texas was far enough away.
How happy her mother was to help him to attain a black enameled breakfront with recessed lighting that poured a cold fluorescent light down on tiny mincing figures in kimonoswho cared if the country was slightly wrong, they were all Oriental, weren't they, quaint yellow people? Was it any wonder Miriam couldn't appreciate this for what it was, a kind of certificate of ultimate arrival? Except that they could have ice cream any time they wanted it now, not only on birthdays, she couldn't name a single thing she liked that money had bought them. There was no arguing against the evident facts: that they lived in one of those privileged neighborhoods where the help bore, for a small price, the white man's burden. White, she used to think, twitchy with rage. Man. Burdened. It was a wonder she didn't set fire to the whole thing, she sometimes thought, the scrolls with misty mountain scenes on them, the shiny cabinets and hobnailed trunks presumably containing tea or silks or something equally preposterous. If her parents hadn't been better-than-decent people who gave away so much money in philanthropy they were always being cited and given plaques and dinners and awardsUnited Jewish Appeal, Hadassah, the brand-new Israel, that famous old Jewish hospital for respiratory diseases in Denverthey'd have been ripe to be hated. She was a mighty good self-righteous hater, a teenage zealot with passion aplenty but no politics. She hadn't found her cause yet, and optional poverty would have been inconvenient, if not hypocritical. She was willing to wait.
AND THIS, she sometimes forced herself to think, if she subtracted the best and worst days of her life, was what she had waited for:
Deb and Ernie Pinsky, Mona and Sam Cherkoff and their daughter, Shari, carried their coffee and cake out through the open glass doors to sit beside the pool. "Close those doors!" Deb called over her shoulder to Shari. "You let any of this heat into the house, you'll never be invited back."
"This is just at the edge of tolerable," Barry said. "I give it two weeks before we're done with fresh air for the duration." He was stooping over a band of Spanish tile to inspect one of the lights that was supposed to be shining on the bright blue water but was not. He tapped it experimentally and it flickered.
Loose connection. "Honey, we've got to call the electrician," he told Miriam, who was stooping to set a tray laden with ice cream on the glass table. He meant, she knew, You have to call the electrician. It was their trade: Miriam, who had a good bit of disposable time, commanded on her husband's behalf a small army of retainers to counter his helplessness in the face of the material world (though it baffled him only at home; in the office his fine motor coordination was remarkable).
She made sure everyone had coffee, if they wanted it, iced Texas style (hot, over ice cubes that crackled with the shock as she poured), and passed around the sugar and cream in their pretty flowered pitchers. Shari, health-conscious, drank herbal tea, for which her mother gently taunted her. "I tell her she wouldn't need to sleep so late if she had a little caffeine in her veins to get her going in the morning."
Though she said this cheerfully, her daughter glared at her. Shari had been living at home for a while, trying to decide whether to go to law school or, in the style of her grandmother's generation, to simply wait, more and more anxious by the day, for her wedding. The wedding was to take place on Labor Day weekend, after which she would launch her career of leisure, childbearing, and volunteer work. That she would consent to come out with her parents on a summer evening like this seemed like practice for a life identical to theirs, or perilously similar.
Shari, Miriam decided, was trying out a slightly petulant expression, familiar among her friends' older children, that said, I am accustomed to certain pleasures and I will continue to be a pleasant friend/relative/co-worker if I have them, and only if. It was a languid look. She was a good-looking girl, large eyed, pale skinned, her dark red hair cut in little points all around a heart-shaped face. She was a bit too tall to be the gamine she seemed to want to be, but really, more than her bone structure, what separated her from Audrey Hepburn was her singular lack of energy. She was going to widen quickly after those children, that lovely skin the one thing she would bring from her youth; she would lounge in her Victoria's Secret pajamas, Miriam thought, into middle age, and let the help deal with the children. Her mother was probably right, she lacked the drive to propel her out of bed in the morning into a world that she believed needed her. Her brother, Ari, was learning investment banking; he already knew how to fly a plane, taught Sunday school at the temple, was considered one of Houston's eligible young bachelorshe had enough drive to pull an eighteen-wheeler.
Deb and Ernie had a boy, Jordan, who was going to Princeton in the fall; tomorrow, in fact, was his graduation, when he would be draped with honors for debate, for Latin, for student governmentfor what his father called "the big-mouth awards of a lawyer in utero." Another, Joel, was about to depart for camp with Miriam's Seth. And there was between the boys a daughter, Lisa, so solemn and political she was a throwback to another generation. It was Lisa's peculiar distinction that she liked to claim she had never been to a mall, had never watched a sitcom or a soap opera. Her parents seemed to be afraid of her. They were more comfortable with the boys, especially with the one Lisa called Joel-the-jock. All winter long he and Seth had worked on their free throws in the middle-school gym. They were dogged, inseparable, borne forward on their ambition to go to the NBA together. "Two Jew-boys from Houston on the Knicks, right," Barry would say, but never to them, because ambition was not a thing to kick around. When it transformed itself into something useful and less improbable, not to mention remunerative, as it would in time, all those shots to the rim would prove to have been good training in discipline, focus, and need. Need was the irreplaceable spark. Anyone who accomplished anything burned with it, Barry knew, as he had, however unspecific his burning had been.
Miriam, swirling the ice in her tall glass of cooling coffee, looked at her friends across a great divide. Their unruffled placidity unnerved her.
How could one generation have delivered them allshe had to include herself, though she gave herself a few points for her discomfortto such a sense of entitlement? Seated deep in that lounge chair, legs out in front of her, slowly turning a sweating glass in her hand like Shari, as if for confirmation she made herself attend to the conversation, which was cheerfully indicting the Houston school system. That was always fair game. Debbie contended that the growth of religious schoolsJewish day schools were the ones she cared aboutwas a sign of a deepening spiritual search, of what she called, like the title of a sermon, a quest for values. Miriam had trained herself to wait for someone else to represent her own view. If she did it herself, intemperate, she would end up red faced, breathing hard. A lot of people who don't give a damn about religion are abandoning the public schools, she wanted to say, to escape from the influx of black kids and Hispanics. Thank God for this community that there's a face-saving alternative they can even sell themselves.
They were good souls, liberal, she supposed, by most standards, "social-justice junkies," Ernie called them, when clean-hands causes and political campaigns begged their support. But they could not imagine lives very different from their own. True, all of it true, but she had no right to take out after them: her old activist's credentials were brown with age, and she hadn't renewed them. Two years in Mississippi close to twenty years ago in the long hot season of civil rights had prepared her for nothing, now, but hypocrisy. There was no worse disappointment, Miriam knew, than being stuck in the middle, neither this nor that. I am not one of you, my friends, but neither am I so unlike you that I can renounce a single thing we have in common.
Evie and Eli were sleeping in a tent tonight on the far side of the yard. They ran in periodicallyfor ice cream, for good-night kisses, and finally for their parents' adjudication of a territorial dispute concerning the placement of their sleeping bags. Barry got up reluctantly, his face grim to frighten them into peaceful negotiations, and followed them out to their little homestead, the white top of the tent that still glowed faintly in the falling light. Only her children made Miriam feel at home with her apparent friendswhen it came to the perplexities of parenthood they were all equal.
It wasn't fair, and she knew it, to be so angry so much of the time just because she kept from them the details of her disaffection: Imagine "Power to the People!" here on her acre-wide lot with its elegant, gardener-shorn plantings, its expensively buried sprinkler hoses, its outbuilding full of shining tools, a more solid little house than many she'd come close to in her Mississippi days that held families of five. Deeper still, closer to the bone: out of the fervor of those days, she had a lost child to account for, and would not, could not, do so. Possibly the irony that tainted her vision was a consequence of her knowledge of herself, which was guilty; of the world, which was cruel; and of her secrecy, which was cowardly. Her friends were given no way to suspect that her children were replacement children, her life a replacement life, her love a replacement love. Sometimes she felt as though she lived beside a graveyard that she circled the long way around, holding her breath, to avoid walking through it.
Suppression of her outrage, her endless outrage, was costly; her depressions testified to the price. They floated across the horizon like thunderclouds and made it hard, weeks at a time, to speak, though she would not traumatize her children by not speaking. Each time she emerged from that semi-darkness, Barry suggested she get some help, but she didn't want air and light, some stranger to finger her secrets and tell her she needed to change her life. She wanted her life to be whole and it had been rent and scarred, healing.
Tonight, when no one ventured her opinion for her, she delivered it quietly; she forced herself to sound offhand. "Miriam! How can you think such a thing?" Debbie began. Debbie's definition of spiritual, Miriam thought ungenerously, probably included séances or the vow to refrain from shopping for a week. "Although it's true there have been plenty of problems lately, especially in the middle schools." And out rolled a stream of incidents and incitements in which the white kids were, with an amazing consistency, blameless, and ending in the inevitable: "Wait a minute, weren't you talking about putting Seth in someplace private, which one is it? Kinkaid? next year?"
Miriam took as deep a breath as she could manage. "Barry was thinking it. I was not and am not thinking it." She licked at him with a glance as rapid as a snake's tongue. She knew how thin lipped and smug she must seem. It was the best she could do with her anger. Could she be shortening her life by spending so much time in toxic waters?
"Well, dear," Mona chimed in, looking gravely back at her. Mona was very large and serene, with an untroubled forehead, and she never perspired; Miriam sometimes wondered if Mona was missing an organ or two, the ones that made her so vulnerable. While she struggled for calm, if anything disturbed Mona's composure Miriam had not yet discovered it. "Don't forget, you're lucky enough to live in a ... safe ... part of town. Your schools out here can concentrate on quality instruction, not subjecting your children to metal detectors to get through the front door." She sighed dramatically. "You have a charmed life, in case you don't recognize it."
Which led them, as it was intended to, to property values in southwest Houston, where anyone could buy a homethe inconveniences of democracy!in spite of every discouragement the realtors could report or invent. Miriam didn't argue. She was used to putting forth her ideas once and then, for the sake of peacekeeping, falling back without following through. She thought of it as her punishment. She had nothing to be snobbish about; unbeknownst to most of the world, there were people around town far more radical and outspoken than she on every measure, passionate old-style Texas progressives, though you could probably fit most of them in one big room. But she couldn't dare align herself with them for fear of letting a dangerous come-hither chink of light into her cell. She remembered reading an interview with the jailed Argentinian journalist Jacobo Timerman in which he said he refused to receive visits from his family because they made his captivity too hard to bear. She had learned the conciliatory smile, the display of her omega belly to the alpha dogs. It was safer that way, all of it.
What would happen to their innocently noxious opinions, their complacency, their friendly assumption that they understood their livesthat they understood herif they had a hint of the phantom child who'd haunted her through every season, almost as invisible to her, after all this time, as she was to them?
CLEANING UP, collecting the glasses and the plates studded with crumbs and painted-looking swirls of melted ice cream, she did not feel large enough to contain so many conflicting emotions. She had been large enough once, an age agohad been a chance-taker, passionately alive in mind and body, but that woman, so foolish, so defeated, was long dead. She allowed herself to remember that self as rarely as possible, and when she did she realized that she had become a myth to herself, amazing to contemplate, implausible and complacent. Frightening, crouched hidden and silent behind her shield of superiority. Frightening and useless.
Barry called her, sometimes, on her inconsistency. Tonight he wasn't talking but she knew he hated it when she zoomed like a missile out of nowhere, aimed at her friends. "You're so damned superior," he could have said, he did say often enough, "but you don't do anything with your advantage." He was defending himself, indirectly, against her arrogance, but he happened to be right, she couldn't deny it or do anything about it. He called it negativity; she called it neutrality.
She considered her life, the one she had allowed to be wrecked as insidiously as if she'd invited a snake into her bedroom, a creation she had botched. She had gone forth with so much, with intelligence and education, with goodwill and the financial resources to support it, and look what she had donehad brought forth life and then forfeited it. Shamed at what passion and impulse had done to her, she would make no unconsidered moves ever again. Would be, she had decided ... what could she call it? Actively passive. Was there such a thing? No? There was now. It was what you got when you married anger to depression, natural hopefulness to deadened possibility.
She couldn't step up and take part in anything that demanded she participate in person. She had failed at Mississippi, about which she had cared too much; had had the caring knocked out of her. Miriam made sure that the volunteer work that came with her marriage she could perform more or less anonymously, that she signed on, a cog, to do only those things others could do just as well: addressing envelopes, setting tables at the homeless shelter, visiting children on the cancer ward who didn't care what her name was. She kept herself to herself.
And she wrote checks. The checks, she made sure, came from a tiny account of her own, her small, private, informal foundation. She wanted the giving to pass through her like electric current, numbing her, a painless jolt of energy: Take this, she said to whichever cause she was rewarding, the Children's Reading Association, the building fund for a preschool, a student about to drop out of college for lack of funds. It is all I can give, it is mine and it is not mine. And she thought it interesting that when you gave money, it stood for you without apology or explanation and no one much cared about your history, unless you cared to contribute your story. Her fingerprints were gone, she thought. Effaced. Left on her baby's skin.
Miriam trotted across the grass to the children's tent to make sure they hadn't done away with each other. They lay on top of their sleeping bags in the heat, their faces frosted with sweat. Kissing their foreheads turned her lips salty.
Back in the house, the detritus of the evening went into the dishwasher, the inside lights on their dimmer were turned off, and Miriam moved down the long tiled hall toward the bedroom. She had arranged her life like an invalid's, so that it contained as few surprises as possible. Having swallowed the evidence of her biggest surprise, she would not be shocked again. One drama in a lifetime was very possibly one drama too many.
THE CONVENTION CENTER, red, white, and blue, looked like a giant bathtub toy, a pretend ship with portholes and smokestacks.
From a distance, the bright blue robes of the graduates streamed toward it, a skyful of birds en route to a single tree, their dun-colored parents rushing along beside them. There was a wind, blast-furnace hot, unusual for early June. Most students' elbows were cocked to keep those weightless mortarboards on. (The wary carried theirs.) One boy, hurrying just in front of Miriam and Barry, watched his sail off like a Frisbee into the parking lot, where it rolled, point over point, under a car.
Inside, out of the searing light, they had their choice of auditoriums. Debbie and Ernie Pinsky's son Jordan was graduating with his very good high school, before the most soberly dressed audience of friends and family in the building. Some of the other halls held ceremonies for less affluent students, whose celebrants were far more festive: little sisters in communion white, mothers and grandmothers in joyous silky flags of color. Gaiety prevailed most where the students were saying goodbye to school forever.
Miriam and Barry met a good number of people they knew, so many of their friends' children were in the same class of '86, having started together in nursery school, continued up through their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs (though sometimes in different synagogues and temples), then driving lessons, succeeded by shared terror over SATs and ACTs and other diabolical rankings, and finally into the angst and chatter and doom and reward of the year of college application-and-acceptance-or-rejection. One girl, who had not been invited to her dream Ivy, was a post-failed-suicide-attempt. Another had been on the cover of a national magazine in honor of her savvy combination of looks (euphemistically called "style") and academic power, which was, with undeserved optimism, pronounced prototypical of "today's have-it-all seniors." A boy with a mellifluous Indian name had already figured out how to finesse The Market and was near the achievement of his first million. All this was, of course, rumor. Barry and Miriam had no high-school-age child to gather up the gossip firsthand. It had come to them in the elaborate game of telephone that ties communities together: the buzz, the dirt, casually dispersed, overheard, unverified, believed.
And now the graduates were here in the first ten rows of the audience, backs to their loved ones, too many to be assembled on the stage. En masse they made a huge bank of blue with golden tassels, like the famous Texas bluebonnets Lady Bird Johnson had ordered planted on the margins of the highways connecting Houston and Austin, where so many of these sons and daughters were soon to be headed.
Miriam sat more stiffly than she tended to. She felt a small brooding shadow descend on her mood, like the intrusion of shade on a day that had promised to be fair, clouds thickening out of nowhere. The award-granting was interminable, the awkwardly self-confident valedictorian making all the right moves, those choreographed gestures of respect. She was somebody's perfect golden girl, and she spoke the syllables of her finely worked speech so slowly and clearly they could have been kindergartners in her charge.
Why, Miriam asked herself angrily, had it not occurred to her that she couldn't come to a high-school graduation and survive it? How far down did she dare think she'd pushed her single, unapproachable, unquenchable grief? It wasn't true that she had no teenage child like this one: her child would be exactly the age of these children on this day of June, 1986. Her daughter, whom she could hardly imagine beyond her eighth month, whom she so rarely allowed into her imagination, could have been a classmate of Jordan Pinsky's, and of that glowing peach of a girl bestowing, with such preternatural poise, the valediction. "As you go into your assorted lives, some to college, some to work or travel, know that you can be master of your destinies. You are not helpless if you have discipline, energy, self-confidence, and a plan. They say that luck favors the prepared mind: Then be ready! Think out your moves. Believe in yourself. You and only you are the captain at the helm of your life."
Oh, little girl, Miriam thought, squeezing her eyes shut on the banality of the girl's earnest, uncynical face. Little dreamer, who didn't have the first clue about what might be waiting for her and her trusting friends. Someone ought to stop her from making false claims to the gullible. Someone ought to show her what fins, what teeth, and, under her little boat, what a neck-breaking tail might just come swimming. Cruel, this exhibition of unprotected innocence.
Though she often teetered on the edge of tears when memory stole up on her, today she was purely angry at her deprivation, angry at no one but herself that she had walked into this morning so innocently, thinking she was beyond grief.
What would be the look of her girl walking across the stage, reaching for the principal's handshake? Short or tall, vivid or nondescript? Even from back here, some of these children radiated charisma. A fewwould she be one of them?had poured their energy into outlandish hairdos or had decorated their gownsflowers and secret symbols barely legible from a hundred feetwhich was against the rules but all the better, these being teenagers. One boya boy!accomplished a wild balletic kick just as he reached center stage, which set off a rolling wave of applause for his audaciousness, and a grumble behind Miriam that he ought to have attended the arts high school if he thought he was so talented. But most of them moved sedately forward at the calling of their names, as they would move through their lives, without challenge to convention. Though the principal had asked that there not be, there was applause after each name, some of it showering down proof of popularity, some barely dribbling the shame of having no raucous friends, only a bit of family, an embarrassingly uncelebrated existence. And then they threw their mortarboards up toward the roof, which seemed to loom miles above them.
In the lobby she saw a small just-graduated girl, golden skinned as if she were from Bombay, though she clearly was not, with the whitest smile an amateur beauty could have. The girl had a slightly apologetic look, abashed by shyness. She seemed to be answering questions quietly, with a shrug that said she couldn't bear to be taken too seriously. Her neck was frail where it poked stemlike out of the collarless blue gown, younger than the rest of her, sign, somehow, of a gentle spirit. Her legs were skinny, too, her ankles wobbly in heels that must not feel familiar. Bony ankles, bony wrists: a modest, diminutive girl who smiled a bit for approval as she spoke.
Her people came to meet her then, her mother much darker, hair in a neat roll (schoolteacher, Miriam thought; had to be), and an earthy-brown younger sistermaybe a sister, but firmer, stouter, in an authoritative fuchsia jumper. She threw her arms around the graduate and squeezed, and the one who lookedoh God, how she looked!the way Miriam dared imagine her daughter could look, were she here today, stared straight at Miriam as she endured the embrace. And then, with a quick turn, tucked under her mother's arm, no father in sighthe'd have been white, unless they were creole; they might be, so near Louisianashe went on her way, bouncing on her heels with only half-suppressed excitement, headed for the doors.
Watching the girl's ankles, flint sharp, vulnerable, disappear in those grownup shoes as the door closed behind her, that was the instant a vial of loneliness and unresolved longing broke inside Miriam's chest, something hot, moving through her unstoppably. She had never, since the first months after her daughter was gone, been felled by a wish so sudden, so wrenchingly complete. Was this what religious longing felt like, the blow that struck people off their feet in the aisles of tents and churches? And did it have anger in it? She wanted to cry out that she had a girl like that. Had had. Pluperfect. Historical past. She stood staring at the heavy door through which the girl who was not hers had vanished with her little family, and the dull, quenched light that infiltrated through its porthole window.
Debbie and Ernie shouldered through the crowd, Jordan in tow, smiling as though they'd just won him in a lottery. He let his mother hold his hand. Barry stepped forward to take care of the congratulatory embraces, the manful back-thumping, the gush. She had no right, she knew, to begrudge them their pleasure. It was just like Jordan not to look abashed by their pride. He still had a bit of boy in him; with effort she could find his child's soft face behind those solidifying bones. But he was standing square-shouldered in his shiny blue robes, making a man's sharp profile, scanning the lobby like a politician awake to his public obligations. Miriam hugged him and hugged his mother, and was grateful that the brimming of her eyes simply looked like the emotion that would, on such a special day, capsize the face of any loving friend.