Read After You Online

Authors: Julie Buxbaum

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Crime, #Literary, #death, #England, #Notting Hill (London, #Family & Relationships, #Americans - England, #Bereavement, #Grief, #England), #Popular American Fiction, #Americans, #Psychological, #Fiction - General, #Psychological Fiction, #Best Friends, #Murder Victims' Families, #Murder victims' families - England, #Life change events

After You

Also by Julie Buxbaum
The Opposite of Love

For Indy, my home spot

“You are going to be sent home,” Basil said to her, “at the end of the week. And we’re glad of it.” “I’m glad of it, too,” answered Mary. “Where is home?”
—THE SECRET GARDEN

1

L
et’s pretend that things are different. That in the last couple of days, I haven’t become the kind of person who resorts to wishing on eyelashes, first stars of the night, and the ridiculous 11:11, both a.m. and p.m., in earnest and with my eyes closed. That Lucy and her family haven’t transformed into tabloid stars with a full picture on the cover of the
Daily Mail
with the headline
Notting Hill Murdergate!
, and the lead story on the BBC evening news. Let’s pretend that I am home, on the right side of the Atlantic, the one where I understand the
English
language, and that tomorrow will be just like early last week, or the week before that one, when the days were indistinguishable. That it’s not necessary to resort to memories—to a time
before
—when I think of Lucy.

How about this: Let’s just pretend that Lucy is not dead.

That she will not continue to be dead now, even though that’s what that means—dead.

“Want some more?” I ask Sophie, Lucy’s eight-year-old daughter, but she seems uninterested in the elaborate bowl of ice cream I’ve doused with concentric circles of whipped cream. She sits with her knees drawn to her chest and her arms wrapped around them. An upright fetal position, a pose that has been as reflexive for her as irrational wishing and pretending has been for me. Striped pastel pajamas ring her legs—pink, blue, yellow stripes—and on top, she wears a long-sleeved T-shirt with a decal of a purple horse with a silver mane. Her socks have abrasive soles that scratch and swish along the kitchen tiles, a sound I haven’t heard since my own childhood and that I associate with my younger brother, Mikey, asking for a glass of water before bedtime.

She shakes her head no.

“Is it good?”

She stays noncommittal. Her tiny glasses slip down her nose and are caught by her finger, pushed back up with an efficient tap. They are tortoiseshell frames, brown on the outside, pink along the inner edges, like an eyelid, and they magnify her already large brown eyes, so that she always looks just a tiny bit moony.

Sophie has not been speaking much since the accident. That’s what we’ve been calling it—Greg, Lucy’s husband, and I—“the accident,” a comforting euphemism despite the fact that there is nothing accidental about what happened. The word
homicide
is one that no eight-year-old should ever have to hear. Using
accident
makes us feel better too. As adults, we can handle an accident; that’s in our repertoire.

I am not sure when Sophie last spoke out loud. She was interviewed by the police on Thursday, right afterward, and somehow Lucy’s little girl found the strength to use her words and describe the unspeakable. When I arrived less than twenty-four hours later, blurry from grief and the red-eye, she said, “Hi, Auntie Ellie,” before putting her arms around my waist and burying her face in my shirt. But since then, since that first greeting, spoken in her crisp British accent, I can’t remember the last time I heard her voice. Did she say good night to Greg before he went upstairs and knocked himself out with Xanax?

“Soph?”

A shrug.

“Where did you get that shirt? It’s pretty. And that horse has really cool hair.”

Another shrug.

“Soph, sweetheart, are you not talking?”

Sophie just looks at me, her eyes burning in a silent protest.

Shrug number three. She looks impossibly small and thin, the stringiness of her arms and legs exaggerated by the unforgiving cotton of her pajamas. I wish she’d eat more. I want to feed her cookies and sugar cereal too. Tomorrow, first thing, I’ll replace their two percent milk with full fat.

My mother, a therapist, warned me this might happen to Sophie. That kids often go quiet for a while in the wake of a traumatic loss. Their only way of exerting control in a world in which they clearly have none.

It’s been only twenty-nine hours since Lucy’s funeral, an event so improbable that pretending still works. Surreal, too, like the news vans that are idling out front of her house, waiting for a sound bite. I want to scoop Sophie up into my arms and let her cry into my shoulder, but she is not the sort of kid you just scoop up. She would know that I was doing it more for my comfort than for hers.

“Okay,” I say, as if she’d actually answered me. “It’s all right if you don’t want to talk for now. But not forever, right? I love that voice of yours.
Cheerio. Let’s take the lift and go to the loo
,” I say in my best British impression, which used to be a surefire way to make her laugh.

“Speak like me, Mummy, Auntie Ellie!” Sophie used to demand of Lucy and me when I would come to visit, and the two of us would go back and forth, spitting out all of the British expressions we knew. Even after nearly a decade in London, and despite a husband and child whose inflections were as posh as the Queen’s, Lucy’s Boston accent had barely softened. She always
paa’ked her caa’ in Haa’va’d Yaa’d
.

Today, Sophie ignores me and looks around like she’s not sure whose kitchen this is. We are in the breakfast nook, with its Americana diner style, the sort you would see in a cornflakes commercial: two kids, two bowls of cereal, and two glasses of orange juice, with two parents—always two cheerful parents—rushing everyone out of their red pleather seats and off to school after their nutritionally balanced breakfast. I can picture Lucy deciding to put a booth in the corner, knowing that making your house look like a home is the first step.

“We’re going to be okay, you know,” I say, and run my fingers through Sophie’s curly dirty-blond hair; they get caught on a knot. I remember the first time I held her, when she was less than a week old, bald and tiny, and how she would sleep with her mouth opening and closing against my arm, her dreams, no doubt, filled with glorious imaginary milk. She had seemed so fragile then, so far from a real person, that looking at her now, a fully formed little girl, beautiful and tough and exerting her power in the only way she can, makes me glow with a vicarious pride for Lucy. My best friend did a lot with her thirty-five years on this planet; her exposé on the corruption in the Chilean government should have won her a Pulitzer. But of one thing I am sure. Making this creature, this fierce mini-Lucy, is my favorite of all.

* * *

When did I start speaking a language I don’t recognize as my own? I dismiss the stalking reporters with copied phrases I’ve learned from watching TV,
please respect our privacy during this very difficult time;
reassure Sophie with silly platitudes,
we are going to be okay;
lie to all the well-wishers at the funeral Greg and I hastily planned,
Lucy spoke so highly of you
. I guess when your world blows up, when you lose the person you were closest to for thirty-one years—almost my entire life—language skills are the first to go.

Here is what happened: Lucy woke up a few days ago, happy and healthy, trapped in a tent of all the clichés of a perfect modern adult life, with the international glamour of an American expat thrown in to boot, and one hour and forty-five minutes later, while walking Sophie to school, she died. Just like that. No, she didn’t die, just like that. She was murdered. Apparently, there was a knife and a meth-head overly interested in her two-carat diamond ring, some idiotic resistance on Lucy’s part, and then it was over.

And, yes, there is a worst part of all: Sophie saw the whole thing.

I am not surprised Lucy fought back—she’s always had an inhuman amount of courage—but I am surprised she fought back for that ring. She hated that ring.

“Who buys a diamond-shaped diamond?” Lucy would say. It was one of her favorite bits when Greg wasn’t around. “I mean, seriously, a diamond-shaped diamond? It’s so redundant. I swear, all men think about is size.”

And now I am here, in her kitchen, sitting next to her daughter—my goddaughter—trying to adjust to this new world we have entered. After Lucy. I am sipping tea because, from my experience over the last few days, that seems to be what the British do in situations like these. As if consuming mass quantities of flavored hot water with a spot of milk and sugar will make everything better. But it’s too late for stopgap measures. The grief has started to burrow into my skin like a parasite, slow and steady, in inverse proportion to my disbelief.

“Soph, what do you want to do? You want me to be quiet, too, for a bit? We can just sit here.” I get a nod, slow, as if she wants to say,
Yes, please
. I can tell simply by looking at her that we both want exactly the same thing. For it all to stop for a little while.

And so the two of us do the closest thing I can think of. We sit in the booth and stare straight ahead at nothing in particular. I pull her in closer, and her head rests against my shoulder.

We pass the next hour this way. Silent and watchful. Like we are waiting for a bus that may never come.

2

A
re you all right?” my husband, Phillip, asks over the telephone, after I have spent the last fifteen minutes rambling on about the London rain. Part of the pretend game: Let’s talk about anything but why I’m here.

“I don’t know. I forgot my umbrella. That’s going to be a problem.”

“I mean about Lucy and stuff.”

“I don’t know. No. Yes. No.”

“Come home.”

“Not yet,” I say. “I am Sophie’s godmother, remember?” Strange how the job description used to be limited to making the occasional phone call, putting her school photo on my refrigerator, and sending lots of gifts—at first, unbearably cute and tiny clothing, and, more recently, Ramona Quimby books and creepy American Girl dolls. Now the assignment is serious. A position above my pay grade.

“Of course I remember. I didn’t mean … By the way, did you give Sophie that fake thumb I got her? Tell her there are a bunch of tricks for it in that
Magic for Beginners
book I sent a few months ago.” Phillip, too, has relished his role as de facto godfather, especially because Sophie shares his childhood love of magic. He loves to send her surprise gifts for obscure holidays—Groundhog Day, Bastille Day, Canadian Thanksgiving, the Sox winning the World Series. Often, he’ll send something for no reason at all, and I’ll find out only later, when Lucy and Sophie call to say thank you.

“Yeah, I did. She liked it, I think. Phillip?”

“Yeah?”

“They need me here.”

“I need you here,” he says, but we both know he is pretending.

While I talk to Phillip on the Staffords’ portable phone, I am lying on top of Lucy’s guest duvet, the flowered Laura Ashley one that I used to tease her about. My evidence that Lucy is playing—was playing, was, was, was—posh London wife, in betrayal of our shared hippie roots in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it was a point of pride to rescue and refurbish furniture from the sidewalk. The room is decorated with the delicate antiques she’s picked up from Portobello Market through the years, giving the place a shabby-chic feel; everything looks both expensive and tattered, though more the former than the latter.

Phillip is sitting on our couch in our living room, in Sharon, a town that clings just to the edges of Boston, the perfect distance for suburban commuter glory and only thirty minutes from where Lucy and I grew up. Our couch is comfortable if not stylish, long enough that he can stretch his six feet of body out and not have to dangle over the arms, and wide enough that he can rest a drink on the cushion next to him. There is probably a stack of documents resting on his belly, a glass of red wine to his left, and the TV on mute.

I doubt he’s mourning Lucy, because he never particularly liked her. Phillip thinks her murder is sad in a disturbing
20/20
special sort of way. Lucy was a bit too well packaged for his taste. He once told me she reminded him of a morning news anchor or even a late-night talk-show host—funny and charming and attractive, yes, a master manipulator of small talk, too, and yet still somehow not the real thing. The person you want at your cocktail parties, not in your foxhole. I am sure he is sad for me because he knows I loved her, but I imagine he thinks I will soon get over it. I don’t think he understands that if Lucy had been a man, I might have married her first.

“We need to get an electric kettle,” I tell Phillip now. “That’s the one thing the Brits definitely do better. They boil water a full two minutes faster. Can you imagine if that caught on at home? We’d all have two more minutes in our days. It would change everything. I’ll bring one back. We can use it for pasta.”

“They sell them in Williams-Sonoma.” My husband is the sort of man who knows what is available in Williams-Sonoma. He also knows a great restaurant you must try in Napa, how the dollar is doing against the yuan, and which fish are on the PETA do-not-eat list.

“That’s good. Now all we need is a royal family.”

“Ellie, are you okay?”

“You already asked me that.”

“You’re doing that thing you do.”

“What thing?”

“You know, that thing. Where you make not-so-funny jokes because you don’t know what else to do. I am worried about you. You’re making me nervous.”

“I’m making you nervous? Try being here. Try being in this house. Try looking Sophie in the eyes.” I raise my voice for a moment and then bring it under control; my emotions are too close to the surface, jumbled and raw. I am angry at Phillip; that much is clear. But this is not really about Phillip, and that’s one more thing that we both know.

“How is she?”

“Holding up. Not talking. She’s a tough kid.”

“Like her mom.”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe I should have come with you,” Phillip says now, guilt creeping into his voice. I can tell he feels far away and helpless.

“Yeah, maybe you should have.” I know I should throw him a bone, but I am too tired, too shattered, to be fair right about now. Phillip is not here because I told him he didn’t
have
to come. Yes, it was a test, an accidental one, maybe, but a test nonetheless. (Phillip didn’t pass.)

“You told me not to come,” he says now. “You said that your brother would be there and that you’d be okay.”

“I said you didn’t
have
to come.”

“It’s the same thing, Ellie. Just semantics.”

“No, it’s not the same thing,” I say, but my petty tone disgusts me, and I try to backpedal from silly marital warfare. I called Phillip for comfort tonight, to hear his voice and remember that I have a life across the Atlantic. Guilt creeps into my voice now, too, a result of this unnecessary volley that I don’t know why I started. “I’m sorry. Never mind. It doesn’t matter. I’m fine.”

“If I realized … I mean, you know I would have come. You know that, right? Tell me that you at least know that,” Phillip says, his voice almost as sad and tired as mine.

“I know that. Of course you would have.” And the truth is, I do know that. If there is anything you can say about Phillip—beyond the fact that he has an unnatural affinity for kitchen gear—it is that he is a good person who always makes sure to do the right thing. Which is why I’ve trusted my life to him, why, on that crisp fall day when we got married five years ago, I wasn’t nervous about saying
I do
.

I know if I had said come, if I had said it clearly, like,
I want you to come to London
, without letting him fall through the trapdoor of language, he would have come.

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