Introduction by Clare Beams
What raises the stakes more than a teenage girl? It’s an age, for many, of inward and outward storming. The world is new and enormous, boredom can seem more intolerable than risk, and destruction of various kinds can feel, for a brief window, romantic (sometimes at great cost). A teenage girl is writ large, and yet the people around her have a great capacity for misreading her; she demands interpretation, but so often others’ interpretations of her are wrong. All of this makes her dramatic gold, as stories have long understood (see Antigone, see Hamlet, see The Virgin Suicides and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and White is for Witching, etc.).
Our narrator in Amber Caron’s extraordinary story “Didi,” from the collection Call Up the Waters, thinks she understands the terms of adolescence well. When she agrees, at her desperate brother’s urging, to take on her trouble-stirring seventeen-year-old niece for a month, she believes she knows what she’s in for, and she prepares herself to withstand what’s coming. But Didi, when she arrives, is a surprise—because Caron is both participating in and subverting the teenage-girl-drama genre. The narrator has readied herself for one version of Didi and finds her niece, bewilderingly, nothing like the girl her brother described; it will transpire, over the course of the story, that no one sees Didi in quite the same way. The narrator’s husband tells her early on that he’s unnerved by Didi’s calculatedness: “It’s like she’s set up mirrors all around her. Like she’s constantly watching herself every time she moves.” This gorgeous image captures something of the essence of teenager-dom: that sense of constant self-inspection, from every possible point of view. That moving around in a constant, too-hot, self-imposed spotlight.
What I love most about this story, though, is that Caron is up to something still richer, still more unsettling: over the course of the story, the reader comes to understand that while Didi is certainly calculating, that’s not the whole of her nature. Everyone reads her differently because they’re each seeing elements of themselves, or their pasts, or their fears. Didi is herself a mirror—a mirror on top of a closed system. And inside, sealed away behind everyone’s self-shaped readings, Didi is making plans of her own.
In “Didi,” Amber Caron asks us to consider the nature of caretaking, the extent of what we owe one another, and who has the right to leave and why. You’re reading for the trouble, so you can find out what happens to Didi. But what will stay with you, once you’ve finished this story, is not so much what happens to Didi as what Didi herself makes happen.
– Clare Beams
Author of The Illness Lesson
A Teenage Girl Is a Funhouse Mirror
Didi by Amber Caron
When my brother calls it’s about his daughter, Didi. She is seventeen, out of control. Total nightmare to be around. Lacks respect for the rules. Out all night with friends he doesn’t know, with boys she’s just met.
“She came home at three thirty this morning in a pair of high heels,” he says. “Last week she returned without any shoes at all.”
It’s not just her footwear. Don’t even get him started about her shorts. Her shirts, too. Too short, too tight, big bold words printed across the front: Juicy and Unwrap Me and the one that stunned him into silence, drove him to pick up the phone and call me: Save Water, Shower with Someone’s Boyfriend.
I laugh. It’s not funny, he tells me. Nothing about this is funny.
He’s tried everything. He’s bought her new clothes. T-shirts—thick T-shirts, cotton T-shirts—and by the next day she’s taken liberties with the scissors. Gashes across the back. A deep V into the neck. The arms are gone, the front tied in a knot above her belly button. Which is pierced. Did he mention that? That his daughter lay flat on her back to let some guy drive a hole through her stomach with a needle he sterilized on his stove?
“Her mother,” he says. Her poor mother. She doesn’t even know what to do anymore. At wit’s end. Haunted by images of Didi facedown in a ditch, shirt up over her head, her body bloody and cold.
What my brother doesn’t say and what we both know: he doesn’t deserve a child like this, but I probably do. Maybe I feel bad for her. Maybe I sense in this phone call that he wants to send her away to a place far off in the wilderness, far away from everything, to dig ditches in the desert or climb mountains with other troubled teens. All in the name of tough love.
“Okay,” I say, “fine. Send her here. Just for a month. Just to reset.”
Immediately, I regret it, realizing my brother is probably taking advantage of me.
My husband tells me I’m being paranoid, a little selfish.
“It’s just a month,” he says. “We can do anything for a month.”
When Didi arrives, I take a week off from work, leave my lab in the hands of my graduate students, give them a single instruction: don’t let anything die. The first thing I notice is that Didi is small, makes herself even smaller by curling up on a single couch cushion. She crosses her arms even when standing in large rooms. Tucks her legs under her body when she sits at the kitchen table, pushes her silverware under the lip of her dinner plate to take up even less space. Everything about her is scrunched, compact. And there is no sign of those clothes. What Didi wears is boring at best, nothing worth commenting on or worrying about. Ill-fitting blue jeans. Baggy tank tops. Sometimes she wears a baseball hat that comes down over her ears and makes her look even younger than she is.
Still, no matter what she wears, Didi’s days are no longer her own. I take her with me to run errands. I tour her around Westport. We see movies in the middle of the day. I drive her out to the beach so she can see the Pacific coast. Just once, because I can’t help it, I take her to the lab with me so I can check on the shipment of mantis shrimp that has just arrived. I show her one of the buckets, a single shrimp inside it. People are normally surprised by how big they are, but Didi doesn’t move away, doesn’t wince, so I pick one up.
“This thing has the fastest animal movement on the planet,” I tell her. “They use this appendage like a crossbow. Wind it up real tight and then let it go, killing prey in a single whack.”
“You do tests on them?” she asks. “Like experiments and things?”
I nod. “We’ve clocked that movement at eighty-three miles an hour.”
“Does it hurt them? When you test?”
I return the shrimp to the bucket. I don’t tell her about our next study, the one our lab is already behind on, where we will remove their eyes from their bodies to better understand how they see color.
“Well,” I say. “We’re getting better at controlling for that.”
At home, Didi reads. Occasionally she’ll get up to get a glass of water, to fetch something to eat, to find a sunnier spot in the house. She tears through the books she’s brought. Biographies of musicians. Short histories of Western philosophy. When she finally puts the books down to come to the table and eat, she asks lofty questions. How can we all be more like Simone Weil? Like Mother Teresa? I bite my lip. When she finishes philosophizing, Didi offers impulsive confessions. She’s never swum in a lake before. She’s never been on a roller coaster that goes backward. She taught herself to ride a bike.
At the end of the first week, I tell Evan I think it is going to be okay. “She’s a little weird,” I say, “but it might actually be fun to have her around.” I climb into bed beside him. I run my hand across his chest and hold on to his shoulder. Even though he’s showered, he still smells like the nursery—the trees he repots, the garden herbs he sells to customers.
“I don’t know,” Evan says. “Something about her makes me nervous.”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you noticed—” he says. He stops. We listen as a door down the hall opens and closes. Didi is in the bathroom. He lowers his voice to a whisper. “It’s like she’s set up mirrors all around her. Like she’s constantly watching herself every time she moves.”
The next morning I call my brother. I ask him if he is sure he sent the right child.
“Don’t let your guard down,” he says. “This is what she does.”
In Didi’s second week, I return to the lab because two of our specimens have already died and my graduate students can’t figure out why. Before I leave, I write my office number on a piece of paper. Under it, my cell phone number and the number to the department just in case she can’t reach me and needs to leave a message with the lab assistant. I magnet it to the refrigerator and tell her it is there. She says she’ll call if she needs anything.
“Or just let Evan know,” I tell her. “He took the day off, so he’ll be around.”
When I return that afternoon, I find her in the living room, curled up on a single cushion of the couch. She barely looks up from the book in her lap when I walk in. Finally, when I interrupt her, she turns to face me, blinks her eyes.
“Fine,” she says, as though this word speaks to an entire day.
When I pry, she sighs, puts her finger between the pages to save her place, and shows me the cover. Another biography. A ballet dancer I’ve never heard of.
“Do you still dance?” I ask her, remembering all the recitals I missed.
“No,” she says. “I quit when I was ten.” “You used to love it,” I say.
She shrugs. “I was bored. And everyone else got better.”
She puts the book on the couch and gets up to go to the fridge.
“Should we go to the pool?” I ask. I’m doubting even her belly button ring now. I think maybe my brother has made that up as well. “Free swim starts at seven.”
Didi returns from the kitchen. She has an apple in her hand.
“I didn’t bring a bathing suit,” she says.
“I have lots. You can borrow one.”
Didi scans me from head to toe, takes a bite of her apple.
“Or we could run down to the mall,” I say, “and get you a new one if you want.”
“I’m good,” she says. She picks up the book and keeps reading.
“Where’d that come from?” I ask. “I don’t remember buying apples.”
“Grocery store,” she says. “I walked down there today.” “Alone?” I ask.
“The whole way?”
“It’s not that far.”
“I must have been on the phone with my parents,” Evan says that night as he clears the table. “I didn’t even know she was gone.”
“You can’t do that,” I whisper. “When you’re here, you have to watch her.” My hands are deep in soapy water, and I am scrubbing the forks with a sponge.
“Val, she’s seventeen,” he says, slipping our dirty plates into the sink.
“You said you were okay with this. You said you were fine using your sick days, keeping an eye on her.”
“And I did. We had lunch together. I checked on her twice. I made some calls. She read.”
He dips a washcloth in the water, wipes the counter, and moves to the table.
“But we agreed you’d call me if she needed something. And you even said that you were a little worried. That whole mirror thing. You were concerned.”
“We didn’t need anything. I talked to my parents. Called my sister. Anyway, it was the middle of the day. How much trouble can she actually get in?”
I turn to him, hands soapy.
“That’s not the point,” I say.
“Then what is the point?”
“That something could have happened to her. That she could have gotten into trouble.”
“Like what?” he says. “It’s Westport. It’s not like we live in the most thrilling place.”
He hangs the wet washcloth on the hook above the sink. I grab his hand, but he doesn’t look at me.
“What does that have to do with it?” I say.
“It’s nothing. I’m just saying there isn’t much trouble for her to get into here. It’s quiet.”
“You mean boring. You mean it’s not Chicago.”
Finally, he turns to me.
“Listen, can we just drop this? Please? She’s fine. We’re fine. Maybe tomorrow we can set up a camera and you can observe us both from work, turn us into one of your little experiments, make sure we’re doing everything exactly the way you want us to.”
“Don’t mock me,” I say.
The mirror thing. I want Evan to explain it further. I want him to point it out to me so I can see what he sees because all I see is a girl pulling her knees to her chin, her arms around her shins. Like she’s trying to tuck in her heart. She takes up less and less space at the table each morning. Sits on her hands as we watch movies in the living room. When she takes popcorn from the bowl she chooses one kernel at a time. She lets it dissolve in her mouth before she chews. When I go into her bedroom each morning, it looks like she hasn’t shifted in bed, like she didn’t move from the first place her body touched. This morning, when I look in on her, I see she is sleeping on top of the quilt with no covers at all.
When she comes out, I am at the table eating breakfast and I ask her if the bed is okay, if she is comfortable in the guest room. She says yes, it’s great. She hasn’t slept so well in a long time.
“Do you not sleep well at home?” I ask.
“Not really,” she says. “Mom refuses to run the AC.”
“Are you too warm here?” I ask. “We can put the AC on at night.”
“That’s okay. I’m mostly comfortable,” she says. “Although I might open my window a little tonight, if you don’t mind.”
When I get home from the lab they are both on the couch watching the TV on mute. I am late; at the end of the day, I successfully removed a specimen’s hard, bead-like eye, but when I tried to transfer it to a test tube, rushing, it popped out and I lost it. On the TV, I see footage of an attack somewhere in Iran, and Didi is telling Evan about the Iranian poet she has been reading. He looks genuinely interested. I don’t interrupt. Instead, I put my bag down quietly, taking a seat on the chair beside Evan, and listen as she talks about the way the poet broke a traditional form to make a political statement about the injustice of the current regime. When Didi finishes, she goes to her bedroom to get her coat, and Evan raises his eyebrows and mouths wow. He leans over to kiss me on my forehead, my nose, my lips, and when Didi returns we all walk into town for pizza.
The waiter is excited to see us. He scolds Evan and me for not coming more often, and he welcomes Didi to town, to the restaurant. He tells her everything on the menu is good, that she can’t go wrong, which is exactly the same thing he tells us every time we come here. Whatever we order, it is always, in his words, a very fine choice.
Didi defers to us. She will eat anything, she says, and so we order two pizzas and a salad to share. As we wait, I try not to watch the TV behind Didi and Evan where they are showing the aftermath of the bombing. It’s bad. More than four hundred dead. They keep showing the same image of a young boy with a bloody face. I’m certain it’s not his blood. His face isn’t at all scratched, but the boy is clearly stunned. I try to refocus on Evan and Didi’s conversation. He is wondering about future plans. Has she thought about college?
“Not a lot,” she says. “I’m thinking about taking a gap year.”
“Be careful,” Evan says. “Those don’t always work out.”
He is speaking from experience. She asks him what he means.
“I had plans,” he says. “I was going to backpack around Europe with my girlfriend. Take the train from Spain to Italy to Germany. Up through Scandinavia. Had it all planned out. Had the plane ticket in my pocket. Two weeks out and she dumps me. Turns out she had applied to college and was going to Boston without me. She was waiting to tell me until all her financial aid came through. That trip abroad? That was her backup plan. I was her backup plan.”
“So you didn’t go?” Didi asks. “Why didn’t you just go alone?”
“Wasn’t like that. Wasn’t about the trip. It was about her. Us.”
“And the girlfriend?”
Evan looks at me with a grin.
“She came running back, eventually.”
“No!” Didi says. “It was you! You did that to him, Aunt Val?! That’s so cruel!”
Evan smiles even wider and turns back to Didi.
“I was okay,” he says. “She did the smart thing.”
The waiter delivers both pizzas and the salad to the table. He serves us each our first piece. We toast with our water glasses.
“To gap years,” I say, and they both laugh.
“Well,” Evan says, “you’ve heard my warning. But what do you have planned? Hopefully nothing with a cruel-hearted high school sweetheart.”
Didi shakes her head.
“No,” she says. “Nothing like that. I don’t even know really. I just thought it might be nice to have a break from school for a little bit.”
She picks the mushrooms off her pizza. Puts them in a tidy pile on the side of her plate.
“It’s kind of nice here,” she says, not looking up at us. She moves on to the sausage, puts it in a separate pile. “It’s quiet, at least. Not as hot as Texas.”
She cuts her crust into bird-sized bites and chews one slowly.
Calculated, I think. Maybe that’s what Evan means with the whole mirror thing. Every move. Every word. Every gesture. It is all very calculated.
“Yeah, Westport is nice,” Evan says.
The waiter returns. He asks Didi if everything is okay. If there was something wrong with the pizza. If he can get her anything else.
“It was so good,” she says, handing him the plate, her pizza picked over but not eaten. “So delicious.”
At the end of the meal, I suggest we walk home and have dessert on the porch. It is a beautiful night. A coastal breeze has come inland. We pay up. As we leave, the waiter runs after us with the box of pizza we left on the table. He apologizes to Didi again, is concerned she hasn’t had enough to eat.
“I’m worried you will float away,” he says.
She promises him she had plenty to eat. She pats her stomach to convince him.
As we walk home, Didi and Evan are back on the Iranian poet. More lofty questions: What do you think is the role of the poet during such violence? What is the role of any artist, for that matter?
At home, Evan brings a bottle of wine onto the porch.
Didi says she needs to call her parents.
“It’s only eight,” I say. “Come eat pie with us.”
“I promised I’d check in.”
“One piece. Look,” I say, holding up the plate. “From the bakery. Look how beautiful it is.”
She agrees, reluctantly. On the porch, she sits on the edge of her seat, picking at the cherries while Evan and I each take a second piece, a second glass of wine. She finishes it though, the entire slice of pie. And then she clears our dishes for us. I hear her at the sink washing them. She comes back out to say she’s turning in. She’s going to go to her room, call her dad. She will probably read after that.
I smile at her. “Tell him we say hi.”
Evan and I talk about our days—the shipment of hostas that arrived at the garden center, how he had to unload them alone; how I lost the shrimp eye and am behind on our data collection—and I hear Didi’s voice coming through the night. It’s soft, but I can tell it’s the voice of someone who is happy. It’s also a young voice. So young. Almost babyish, as though she is talking to a dog, coaxing it to her with a treat. Her window is open. I stop talking. I am straining to hear her words.
“Hello?” Evan says, waving in my direction. “Where are you, Val?”
“Have you ever heard a girl talk to her parents like that? In a voice like that?”
“You would be a terrible mother,” he says.
“Wouldn’t I? Overbearing. Overprotective.”
“A total spy,” he says.
This has been a joke between us. I don’t believe it is untrue.
“Still,” I say. “Admit it. It’s a little weird. The whole thing at dinner. Picking at her food like that.”
He admits it. Yes, it was strange. We stay up late, long after Didi’s voice goes quiet and her light shuts off.
“You had to tell her that story,” I say. I am smiling.
“We could still do it,” he says. “Take a gap year. Travel around by train. Find ourselves and all that.”
This isn’t the first time he has proposed the idea. He brought it with him when he eventually followed me to Boston. And to Minneapolis for grad school. And to Chicago for my postdoc. And now here to Westport for my job. For him to bring it up now, I know it means he is bored, restless, generally unsatisfied with the fact that we have landed in a town he doesn’t like but is, once again, making work.
“Maybe for my sabbatical,” I say.
“In five years?” he asks, exasperated.
I know it is the wrong thing to say. His has been the harder path, I know this. The constant moving. The random jobs he’s accepted not because they will lead anywhere but because they pay rent. The year working construction in Boston. The year as a substitute teacher. Three years waiting tables. And now the garden center, where he works alongside high school students, unloading trees and plants, hauling them into place at the nursery and then hauling them into the cars and trucks of customers.
“What if I had gone?” Evan asks. It is his attempt at a lofty question. “What if I had boarded that plane and spent the year traveling alone? What if I hadn’t been there when you came home that first Christmas?”
I have no answer. I sip my wine.
I look in on Didi after midnight, just before I go to bed, and she is there, her back to the wall, curled up in a ball, the window open, the breeze cool, covers pushed to the bottom of the bed.
I remember a neighbor in Chicago. A woman with triplets, all boys, eighteen months old. We had just moved in, and I was unpacking boxes one day when she came running to our door. She was locked out. She had slipped out to have a cigarette—Not even a full one, she said. Just two drags—and the door clicked behind her. Her boys were inside. She had already called the landlord. He was on the way with a key. We stood at her living room window and watched her triplets slink around on their stomachs, rise to their hands and knees, and begin to crawl. There was no gate to the kitchen. The bathroom door was wide-open. A set of wooden stairs led to the second floor. She was crying, cursing herself for being so stupid, for being so careless, tapping on the window, trying to get the boys to look at her. I grabbed a rock from the yard. If they get too close to the kitchen or the stairs, I told her, I’ll put it through the window. She nodded. She sang to the boys through the glass. They crawled toward us. They smiled at their mother. They extended their arms, wanting to be picked up. They cried. Finally, the landlord arrived with the key, and I walked back to my house with a racing heart, the heavy rock still in my hand, thinking this must be what parenthood is like all the time.
In the morning, before I leave for work, I knock gently. It’s supposed to reach ninety degrees today, and my plan is to go to the lab for a few hours, come home at lunch, and bring Didi to the store so she can get a bathing suit and we can spend the afternoon at the lake. That’s what my calendar says will happen.
I knock again, but Didi doesn’t respond, and so I knock a little louder, and then I let myself in. She isn’t there. I’m thinking that she must have slipped into the bathroom after me. She woke early because she went to sleep early. I move down the hall to the bathroom, but she isn’t there either. I check the back porch, which is as we left it last night. Two wineglasses. An empty bottle of red.
Even when I say it to Evan it doesn’t really seem possible.
Her clothes. Her makeup. Gone. Her shampoo is gone from the shower. Her retainer from the bathroom sink. Hair ties. Everything, gone.
There’s nothing in the closet, no shoes by the door, and all I can say—all I can think to say—is, “She was just here, she was just here. She can’t just disappear.”
Evan already has the phone in his hand. He is calling Didi, and I can hear the phone ring. It goes to voice mail, a mechanical female voice rattling off the digits of Didi’s number. Evan hangs up.
“Try again,” I tell him.
“Val,” he says.
“Do it,” I tell him.
He is scrolling through names in his contact list. He presses my brother’s name.
“No,” I say, taking the phone from him. “Not yet.”
“Maybe he’s heard from her. Maybe she said something last night when she talked to him.”
“She didn’t call him last night,” I say. “No girl talks to her father with a voice like that. You heard her. You heard that voice.”
He nods. He knows I’m right.
We sit on the couch and think of all the possibilities, and then Evan leaves the house to check the bus stop, every business in town.
Before he closes the door, almost as an afterthought, he instructs me to do what I already know I must: “Call your brother.”
Of course he hasn’t heard from her.
While he yells at me, I walk out onto the driveway and stand there as though she’ll show up while I’m on the phone, so I can tell him it’s all been a big mistake, a huge misunderstanding. I consider all the things my brother has told me about her, all the things he’s telling me again.
Teenagers do this stuff every day, I hear myself telling him. Teenagers disappear and come back when they’re hungry.
She’s not a dog, he is saying. She’s not a goddamn dog.
“I just mean—”
“I thought things were going well. I thought everyone was having a great time.”
“They were,” I say. “We are.”
It goes on like this until Evan returns, without Didi, and he gets out of the car and tells me there’s no sign of her anywhere, that it might be time to call the police.
Two officers arrive within minutes. I have seen one of them—the woman—in uniform, walking up and down streets, putting tickets on people’s windshields. How I hated her in those moments when she just stood watching the meter, counting down, waiting for the time to run out, so she could print a ticket and slide it under the wiper. Now, it’s not hate I feel but an intense need to speak directly to her rather than the other officer—a man I’ve never seen before.
“My niece is gone,” I say as she leads me back inside, taking out her notepad and her pen, asking me to tell them when we last saw her, who in the area she knows, how long she has been here, what she was last wearing.
“What does that matter?” I reply. “What she was wearing?”
The woman looks at me. She doesn’t skip a beat.
“For identification purposes,” she says. Before I can apologize, Evan is trying to describe her clothes. Baggy jeans. Loose T-shirts. Sometimes a ball cap. As he speaks, all I can think is, Please let her be okay. Please, please. Let this nice woman, Officer Peterson, find her.
The police ask to look around. They are in and out of our bedroom. In and out of Didi’s room. The bathroom. The porch. They ask about the bottle of wine. The glasses. They check windows and doors. I follow them around the house. I follow this woman, especially. She inquires about locks and alarm systems.
“Do you always keep it open?” she says of Didi’s window.
It takes me a second to make sense of her question. “You think someone came in and took her?” I ask.
“We have to consider everything,” she says. “But between you and me, I doubt it.”
I want this woman to tell me again and again in her matter-of-fact voice, just as she’s telling me now: “Listen, this happens a lot. Teenagers leave. Disappear for a day or two. They usually show up.”
And that’s what I was trying to say to my brother. Not that they return when they’re hungry but that they usually show up.
“Her father thinks she’s a bad kid, but he’s wrong,” I say. “She tries to make herself small. She moves from one sunny spot to another all day, reading biographies of ballerinas and books about Iranian poets. And when she moves, it’s like she’s set up mirrors all around her. Like she’s always watching herself.”
Officer Peterson looks up from her pad. “What do you mean?” she says.
I don’t tell her that I think Didi’s actions seem calculated, borderline manipulative. I don’t want her to think badly of my niece. I don’t want to think badly of her.
“I only mean that she’s careful,” I say. “Incredibly alert.”
I catch her looking behind me, beyond me, and I turn and see Evan showing the other officer where we store the bikes. The shed is full, both bikes parked in their separate corners.
I pick up the phone because it is ringing, and I am certain it will be Didi. But it’s my brother, and he is listing off times, and I am confused until I realize he is on a computer, looking at flights, booking something to Portland.
My brother has never been on a plane. He rarely leaves east Texas. He works on the oil rig where our father worked, where our grandfather worked. He has taken care of our sick parents. Has given everything he has to his daughter. Has worked long hours to give her private dance lessons.
“Listen, you might be overreacting,” I tell him, trying to project calm, trying to remain confident. “She’ll probably show up.”
He hangs up on me.
The police leave. I go into Didi’s room. I pull back the covers on the bed. I look for anything she might have left behind, any kind of clue. Suddenly I am furious at my brother. He knew. He knew she would do this, and he sent her here anyway. Surely he is also a little responsible for this. I pick up the pillow. I pull the sheets taut. I make the bed. She was here just last night. Sleeping in this bed. Evan is beside me now.
“We’ll find her,” he says.
It’s a trope, I tell him. It’s a cliché. Girls always disappear. They make themselves small, and then they disappear.
“And if they don’t disappear, they go insane. That’s it. Those are the only two options we get.”
“I thought the cliché was that girls were always in pursuit of boys,” Evan says.
“So we have three options!” I yell.
That I am mad at him is inexplicable, incomprehensible. This isn’t his fault. No more than it is my fault. And yet, I think, if only he had been less cavalier about the whole thing, had been more concerned about the walk to the grocery store, her coy voice on the phone.
His hands are on my shoulders. His fingers are pushing at the muscles, only he’s missing the muscle and hitting the bone, and I shrug off his hands and walk away, down the hall, into the kitchen, where the dishes have been washed and are sitting neatly in the drying rack. He is behind me.
“She knew,” I say. “Last night when we went for pizza, and she ate pie with us, and she cleared our plates, and she washed them. She had already planned to leave. I know it.”
“She knew the second she arrived, Val.”
I don’t want this to be true. I don’t want to believe it.
Evan is going to retrace our steps.
“From the last three weeks?” I ask. “All of them?”
“You stay,” he says, kissing me on the forehead. “In case she comes back.”
My brother calls again. He asks for our address. He wants to know how he is supposed to get from the airport to our house, which is an hour and a half away.
“Rent a car,” I say.
And because I know what he is thinking, I tell him we’ll pay for it.
Evan and I sit on the porch. We wait. This is what you do on the first day while you wait for a teenager to return, which they usually do, almost always do.
You check the local newspaper headlines.
You drive around the neighborhood.
You turn on the TV in the middle of the day, expecting to see her face, her body.
You try to distract yourself with small tasks.
You create false deadlines. She will be back by noon. And when she doesn’t arrive, it’s by three. Then dinner becomes your arbitrary marker, and you push dinner later and later until your husband puts a burger and fries in front of you.
You feel you shouldn’t eat it.
You feel you don’t deserve it.
But you eat it because you haven’t eaten all day and you are hungry.
I watch my brother, a short, balding man with a beard, get out of the car. He looks different. Older and tired and more like our father than I have ever noticed.
I expect the trunk to pop open, for him to pull out his suitcase, but instead I see my brother swing a backpack over one shoulder as he walks to where I am standing at the front door. And now I am crying. Because all he’s brought is a backpack. Because it’s been three years since I’ve seen him. Because his daughter is missing. Because it’s his first time on an airplane, for this. Because he warned me, and I didn’t believe him.
He wraps his arms around me, and I feel like I don’t deserve this either. His comfort. But I take it. It has always been this way with us. Fierce on the phone. Quick with blame. All of that gone when we see each other.
That night, we all pretend to sleep, and in the morning, while I’m still in bed, covers pulled up around my face, eyes closed because I am tired, I hear Evan in the bathroom. He is showering. Shaving. I hear the toothbrush against the sink. And then he is standing at the closet. He is dressing. I sit up in bed.
“You can’t,” I say, but I know as soon as I say it that he will. He has to. If he calls in sick again he will lose his job.
The police station is empty. Just a small waiting room with three seats. An officer sits behind a desk. I hope my brother is comforted by how quiet it is in here. I hope he feels, as I do, that this nice man behind the counter is going to help us. I tell him that my brother has just arrived, that my niece hasn’t been seen in over thirty-six hours, and that we need to talk with Officer Peterson.
“She’s not on duty,” he says. “You’ll have to talk with me.” My brother stands with his hands in his pockets. As he talks with this new officer, I listen.
Yes, she has done this before, many times, about a year ago it started. Every few months. Out all night. Gone for days at a time. Once much longer—more than a week. That was during winter break.
I look at him. What he is saying—none of it makes sense. It’s not the same girl, I want to say.
After we leave the police station, we stop for coffee, and when we get back in the car, I make the absurd offer to give him a tour of town. Maybe a drive out to the beach. He has never seen the Pacific Ocean.
“I told you. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. I told you. You can’t leave her alone.”
“We were sleeping,” I say.
“Before that? All those other days?”
I lie: “We never left her side.”
We go home and sit on the stoop outside the house, waiting. I ask him about his job, and he says what he always says: it’s a paycheck. He asks me about mine, and I go on for too long and in too much detail about how we think mantis shrimp have a different kind of color vision, how we’re trying to get a reading from photoreceptor cells but can’t even fit a recording device onto them because they’re so small. When I look at him, I can see I’ve lost him.
“She wants to come live here next year,” I say. “After she graduates, if she decides to take a gap year.”
“Is that what she told you?” he says.
I nod. I’m trying to gauge whether he is hurt or angry or relieved, but he just shakes his head. He laughs a little.
“She doesn’t have enough credits to graduate next year,” he says. “She’s still considered a sophomore.”
We sit for a long time, watching cars drive by the house. Across the street two dogs bark at the fence. The owner comes out. Tells them to get inside, to cut it out. A kid rides by on a bike. Another one follows on a skateboard. They are singing a song that is popular this summer, one that is played over and over on the radio.
Evan comes home at 5:15. He doesn’t say it, but I can tell he has had a bad day. He kisses me and pats my brother on the shoulder.
“Anything?” Evan asks.
“Nothing,” he says.
That evening, the police call. They ask us to come down to the station. They have a few more questions. They have something we should see.
We are in the car and down the road before anyone speaks.
“Did he say what it is?” Evan asks. “What they want to show us?”
“A picture of some kind,” my brother says. “They wouldn’t tell me more than that.”
A picture, I think. Of Didi alone? At the airport, boarding a plane? Getting into a strange car? Her body, my god. Would they ask us to come down to identify a picture of her body? Would they be so casual about it on the phone?
I hope, when we walk through the police station doors, that Officer Peterson will be there to greet us. She’s not. It’s a different officer. Someone we’ve never talked to before, and it’s my brother he needs to speak to. They disappear down the hall, and Evan and I sit on chairs in the waiting room. I reach for his hand.
“Was your day okay?” I ask.
He turns to me. I think he will tell me about the apple trees he pruned incorrectly or how he overfertilized an entire shipment of succulents. I’m expecting news of broken terra-cotta pots or bamboo sticks that never arrived.
“When you left,” he says, “this is what it felt like. Exactly like this.”
The officer behind the bulletproof window stretches, arms overhead, and yawns. It takes me longer than it should to realize we aren’t talking about Evan’s day, or the plants he tended to, or the nursery at all.
I shake my head. “You knew where I was going,” I say. “You could have called me. You could have come to visit whenever you wanted.”
“I’m not talking about college, Val. I’m talking about all those other times you disappeared, before you left for college—those nights you didn’t call, the weekends you just vanished. And later, all those research trips, how you extended them again and again, sometimes without even telling me, sometimes for weeks at a time.”
We have had this conversation before. More than once. Dozens of times. But I see something new in his face now, not a bitterness but a sadness, and I am convinced this is the first step to him leaving me—maybe for a year, maybe longer. Before I can say anything to talk him out of it, my brother is coming back down the hall, the officer behind him.
My brother shakes his head. “Wasn’t her,” he says, and I can see he is near tears, shocked by what he has been forced to look at.
We drive home in silence.
It all ends just as Officer Peterson promised.
We drive back to the house from the police station, and she is there. My brother is out of the car before I even come to a full stop. I sit in the driver’s seat while he goes to her. Evan doesn’t move. He sits beside me. We watch.
I wonder how many times this scene has played out. How many times has a girl returned to find no one is waiting for her?
And what is it you want to know? Whether my brother hits her? (He doesn’t.) Whether she is crying? (She isn’t.) Or do you want to know where she was, what she was doing? (She will refuse to say.) Is she harmed? (Not in any way that I can tell. No scrapes or bruises. No broken bones. No blood.)
Because you are wondering. Because people always wonder. Because under these circumstances, it matters what she is wearing, by which I mean it matters to me:
My clothes. A pair of jeans—black and tight and cropped. A white T-shirt, baggy and see-through, a baby-blue tank top underneath. Black summer sandals. Beige stitching at the seams. Thin leather straps that loop around her heels, hug her toes, and, I am certain, have left her blistered. I leave Evan in the car, and I go to her. I pull her to me. I feel her body against mine, rigid and small and hard. Her heart pounds against my palm. I fold her in. I tuck her in as close as I can and hold her for as long as she lets me. When she begins to pull away, I let go, certain there is nothing I can say, nothing I can do, to make her stay. So I do the only thing I can. I pull her hands out of her pockets. I push her shoulders back. I am not gentle.