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Gifts by Joanna Pearson

Joanna Pearson's short stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Copper Nickel, The Hopkins Review, Memorious, and New Madrid.

Lynn Drucker was the sort of woman who had made me reluctant to attend the group in the first place, and now she wanted to be my best friend. Again. I could tell in the way she lingered by the coffee urn while I stirred cream into my cup, in the way she followed me, slow and placid as a cow, her eyes flickering to catch mine. Whenever I entered that church basement, she would beckon me to the seat she’d saved beside her, her broad face heartbreakingly eager, like we were allies in a school cafeteria. It had been back in elementary school, after all, that I’d first met Lynn Drucker. I am regressing, I thought. I am moving backwards in time. I am sitting on a plastic chair in a church basement that smells like canned tomato sauce in the desperate hope of mending myself. With Lynn Drucker.

Parked at the far end of the church lot that first Tuesday evening, I’d hesitated with the engine still running. I could still change my mind and leave. But I hadn’t. I’d entered the building and found my way to the meeting room downstairs.

The other women gathered were, as I’d unfairly expected, dowdy and plain. The few who had taken some care with their appearance were expending their efforts the wrong way—their highlights a garish yellow, their tropical-sorbet-colored cigarette pants intended for someone much younger. These are my people now, I thought. This is what I have become.  

“Janey!  Hi! Welcome!” a woman was approaching me, clasping my arm. She was the dowdiest of all, wearing a shapeless black shirt and an ill-matching navy skirt. She was heavy-bodied and heavy-faced, the delicate skin around her eyes dry and red. When she sniffed, her whole upper lip retracted, revealing a set of unbeautiful teeth. She looked sturdy, built for hard labor—someone with chafed hands and thick, practical arms meant for milking. I stared at her, not because I didn’t recognize her, but because she looked exactly the same, only larger, more fully realized, more herself.

“It’s me, Lynn. Lynn Drucker! From Harvell Elementary? Remember?” She smiled at me with genuine warmth. “Janey Whitmore!  You’re back!”

“Lynn!” I said, masking my surprise as enthusiasm. It was hard to believe she was only in her thirties—my age. But Lynn Drucker had always looked middle-aged. Maybe Lynn Drucker was finally reaching the age she’d always been meant to be. And maybe thirty-something was older than I’d wanted to admit, anyway.

“Welcome to the group!” she said. “I’m sorry about your divorce!” She added this brightly, like we were discussing a bake sale.

“Oh, we’re not divorced yet,” I said, as if the distinction mattered. “Rob and I are separated. We’ve got a little boy, Tommy, so, you know…” I let my voice trail off because when I spoke of Tommy, only eight years old with big, liquid eyes,  I’d get an ache in my throat and my own eyes would start to water.

Lynn nodded, her itchy forehead crinkling.  

“I understand,” she said. “You’ve come to the right place.” 

“What about you?” I asked. “How long ago were you divorced?” We’d only recently moved back so I wasn’t up-to-date on these things. 

“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head. “I wasn’t. I never married. My father thought the group might be good for me.” She cocked her head to the side. “Come on, let’s get you a snack and a seat.”

Before I could protest, she led me to a table covered in a white paper tablecloth with a plate of tea cookies spread fan-like upon it. She filled a Styrofoam cup of coffee for me and placed a handful of cookies on a napkin, and like that—like it had been foreordained—I followed her.  

She introduced me with her arm still linked in mine, proprietary, to the other women. They nodded, friendly and encouraging. Lynn Drucker held a certain authority, I realized. I’d been taken under her wing.  

.  .  .

Back in elementary school, Lynn Drucker had been similarly stolid and slow-moving, a sea mammal surely graceful in water but plodding on land. She came to school wearing quaint, hand-sewn blouses and pinafores, heavy woolen skirts, and old-mannish black socks with thick-soled shoes. Even as early as first grade, we knew, little pack animals that we were, that her smell was off, that she was not one of us. Our parents dressed us in bright t-shirts emblazoned with cartoon characters or unicorns. We laughed along with sitcom laugh tracks and got punch lines easily. Lynn once raised her hand and inadvertently revealed her family did not believe in celebrating Halloween. Over time, we also learned that she did not know who Bart Simpson was, had never tasted Kool-Aid, didn’t know Michael Jordan from Michael Jackson, didn’t even have a television. This struck us as outrageous. 

Very often, I was partnered with Lynn. I think this was because of some teacherly instinct to pair a “good” child with a misfit. I say “good” meaning I was quiet and serious, too hesitant to say very much at all, especially not when Ashley-Claire Thompson and Rebecca Kerr started calling Lynn “Augustus Gloop” or when, a few years later, they told her that the letters “O.P.P.” shaved into the back of Derek Lovegood’s buzz cut stood for “Opportunity!” then howled with laughter. 

Back in third grade, when Lynn and I were desk partners, I started receiving strange little gifts. Once it was a small, speckled chicken’s egg, unlike the type I saw in cartons from the grocery store; another time, a long, sleek feather, oil-black and iridescent, tied with a red ribbon; another time, a chunk of homemade toffee wrapped in wax paper. It never occurred to me to question my good fortune until one day, after all the other kids had gone out for recess, I sought the new tiny treasure left for me: a halved geode the size of a baby’s fist this time. I looked up and saw Lynn waiting in the doorway, watching me, blushing.  

“You like it?” she asked, the tips her ears pink with pleasure.

“Yes,” I answered, embarrassed for some reason, unsure what social transaction had taken place. 

“You’re my best friend,” she said, looking away from me, a smile like an open wound across her face. “You’re the nicest girl at school.”

Even then, I’d known that this was untrue, and my cheeks had warmed. Lynn fled the room while I stood there, sick with guilt, the geode heavy in my sticky fist. I was embarrassed by Lynn, embarrassed by her openness, her oddness, her affections. And yet now, because of the gifts, I was bound to her. We would be inextricably linked. Never would I flit about, a big bow bouncing atop my sleek ponytail, with Ashley-Claire or Rebecca.  

The geode was beautiful, yet I stuffed it into the bottom of the wastebasket by the teacher’s desk. I wanted to be rid of it.

Then, the gifts stopped. I noticed one day that the geode was tucked in Lynn’s desk. She had found and rescued it. This shamed me even more than the fact of the gifts in the first place.

Some weeks later, Lynn arrived late to school wearing a lumpy sweater even though it was late spring and warm outside. She smiled at me in such a conspiratorial way that I knew I’d been forgiven. Finally, she gestured me to come close. Pulling forward the neck of her sweater, she revealed her surprise. There, nestled against her chest, was a tiny, perfect piglet. 
“He’s a runt, like Wilbur,” she said, angling the opening of her sweater towards me so I could admire him. She leaned down to kiss his snout. “We can share him. He can be ours.”  

Our whole class had cried at the end of Charlotte’s Web. Everyone wanted a real, live, baby piglet.

“Where did you get him?” I asked her.

“The farm,” she said. “Our farm. We have lots of pigs.”  

It was later in the day that Wilbur the piglet inevitably got loose in the classroom to the mixed horror and delight of the class. The vice-principal called Lynn’s parents, two stern-looking old people dressed all in black. Her mother wore a cloche hat in dark felt, the brim pulled over her face. She marched Lynn into our classroom to gather Lynn’s homework assignments. We all hushed, studying her. Mrs. Drucker had the rounded shoulders and quick, uncertain steps of someone willing herself to disappear. When she turned to look up for just a moment, I got a clear view of her face: Her jaw and cheek on one side were a taut, corrugated red. Burned. I looked quickly away. Mrs. Drucker hurried, head down, out of our classroom.

When Lynn returned to school the next day, she was limping. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. When I asked her what happened, she told me she broke her toe. She accidentally dropped something heavy on it. 

“My father says that’s what happens to stupid girls,” she told me, still not making eye contact. “Clumsy girls.” 

What happened to Wilbur, I wanted to know, still tantalized by his tiny perfection, that sweet, animal adorableness, by my love of Charlotte and her web.  

He was dead, Lynn explained flatly.  That’s what happens to runts. 

.  .  .

Lynn was a presence in the support group, albeit a largely silent one. Even though she didn’t say much, she was a vigorous nodder, and she was the first to rush to whichever woman was crying, the first to comfort her, to stroke her head. She’d often arrive with delicious baked goods to share during the meeting.   

“I just made this, and there’s no way we could finish it all,” she’d say, blushing and beaming over a loaf of apple bread or a chocolate pear cake. “It’s my father’s favorite, but it’s too much for the two of us.”  

Her mother had died years ago, so it was just Lynn and her father left on the farm. They hired in-season help sometimes, she explained, but only ever temporary. Lynn never mentioned her mother or her mother’s death. She referred to her father only in passing, the way one would a benign but forgettable roommate. Her life outside the farm, it seemed, was the group.  

No one ever commented on the fact that Lynn herself had never gone through a bitter divorce; she was too stalwart, so this fact was elided. She was single; we were single. Same, same.

I never saw Lynn be anything other than supportive except once when Liz Harrington tearfully announced that she and her husband were trying to reconcile.

“We’re giving it a shot,” Liz said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue but smiling.  

The response was mixed. Some women cheered for her. Daphne Parsons lifted her cup of water and proposed an impromptu toast. Clementine Brown gave a little whoop. There was also a spattering of grumbles, murmuring—it had been a bad situation between Liz and Mike Harrington, after all, and we’d heard all the details.  

I noticed Lynn, pallid, her mouth twisted in disbelief. She cleared her throat, letting the paper napkin she’d been working into fine shreds fall to the floor.

“You can’t go back,” she said, her voice quavering, quiet at first. She rose on her heavy haunches, moving toward the center of our circle, and her voice grew more firm. “He cheated on you. It’s not right. You can’t.”  

I wasn’t sure what to say. The room had grown hushed. Lynn’s forehead was beaded with sweat, and she was swaying slightly.  

Liz flinched, visibly embarrassed.

“Well, I…” Liz began, her hands shooting up uselessly to her face as if she might reflexively cover it. She rubbed hard at her left jaw as though massaging a bad tooth. “I thought it was worth a try. He says he’s changed.” 

The mood in the room had shifted from overall celebration to dismay. Almost as suddenly, Lynn seemed to retreat. “I’m sorry,” she said, backing up and lowering the heft of herself gently back into her chair. “I shouldn’t have said that.” Liz shook her head furiously.

“Oh, no,” she said. “No. Please, Lynn. I understand—I hope you do.” 

“Of course,” Lynn said, quiet but decisive. “Of course. I understand…”

Her voice trailed off, and someone eagerly changed the subject. 

.  .  .

When Lynn invited me to spend the night at her house in sixth grade, I didn’t want to go.  

“But it’d be nice of you,” my mother said. “She’s a good girl. You should.”

“Hoity-toity Janey,” my stepdad said. “Hoity-toity.”

My stepdad had a way of accusing me of being “hoity-toity” whenever I objected to him doing something like dipping Skoal and spitting at the kitchen table or cutting his dirt-grimed nails in the living room. He was a good man, though, my mom always reminded me. Never laid a hand on her, and a provider too—unlike other deadbeats I could mention, she would add. He also tolerated with good humor my mother’s occasional nights out with coworkers for Strawberry Sparkletinis at Applebee’s. Bonding with the girls, he’d say. I get it. You need your nights out, your time with the women-friends.

My stepdad was the one who ended up driving me out to the Druckers' farm, miles out on rural highway eighteen, in the middle of nowhere. 

The road was narrow and dual-lane, and large fields opened like two broad hands on either side. We finally came to a dirt drive, which we drove up, and there sat a plain, clapboard farmhouse. It was larger than I thought it would be.

Lynn ran outside, wiping her hands on the sides of her shirt. 

“You’re here!” she sang.  

I climbed down from the cab of my stepdad’s truck with my sleeping bag and backpack.  

Lynn hugged me. She smelled like hay and woodchips. I saw the lean silhouette of her father hunching to fix a bit of machinery around the side of the house. He didn’t stop what he was doing to greet us.  

“Y’all have fun,” my stepdad said, climbing back into his truck without waiting to speak to Lynn’s parents.  

I stood there uncertainly as he backed his truck out of their drive until Lynn grabbed my hand. I followed her.

The Druckers' house was cold and dark inside. There were no photos on the walls, I noticed, everything bleak and anonymous. A pile of old quilts sat on a hairy brown sofa. Lynn’s mother was nowhere to be seen.

“Come on,” Lynn said, gesturing for me to follow her up the bare wooden stairs.  

Lynn’s room was small and would have been similarly bare were it not for dozens of torn-out magazine photos of laughing girls taped to the walls. There were girls in jaunty yellow raincoats, heads tilted back, laughing into the rain, studious girls in plaid skirts with pencils pressed against their cheeks, lost in thought, and pretty girls with shiny brown ponytails grooming horses. Catalogue photos, I thought. Catalogue friends. A whole wall of eager, smiling girls. A ratty-looking afghan was spread across Lynn’s twin bed. Her room seemed lonely to me.  

“Look,” she said, handing me a framed photo of a stern, slender woman.  

“Oh,” I said, uncertain what to say. The woman was not beautiful, but I sensed in Lynn’s voice her need for me to admire the photo. “Wow,” I added.

“Yeah,” she said, her fingers brushing over the woman’s face in the glass. “That’s my mom. She was so pretty. That was before her accident.” Lynn gestured to her face. I felt she’d given me the opening to ask, and so I took it.

“What happened to her?” 

“Cooking grease,” Lynn said ruefully, looking away from me. Her voice was doleful, almost angry, and I understood I shouldn’t press the issue further.  

“Afterwards she took down all the photos. It made her too sad. But I kept this one. Come on,” she added, her voice brightening again. “You want to see the horses?”

I spent the rest of the afternoon trailing Lynn around the farm while she showed me the animals. She cradled the chicks, holding their soft fluff up to my face so I could feel. She had names for all the pigs, even the meanest ones. I followed her over ruts in the fields, and she showed me how far out the cows went to graze, showed me all the way back to the tree line where she had a special hiding spot in the hollow of one tree. She went out there when she grew tired of chores and wanted to escape into her own head.  

We’d gravitated back to the horses again and were feeding mushy crabapples to them when Lynn’s father finally called us in for dinner. Lynn jerked to attention, and I sensed her cheerful enthusiasm fade into something more wary.  We sat across from one another at a long table with Mr. and Mrs. Drucker on either end. I tried not to stare at Mrs. Drucker’s face.  

Mr. Drucker said a blessing, and then Mrs. Drucker went to the kitchen to bring out the food. I was prepared for a country feast—a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes, cornbread, green beans, ham. Instead, Mrs. Drucker brought out a pot of baked beans and hot dogs. Beanie Weenies. There were slices of white bread to help soak up the meal, and Mr. Drucker took his with extra Heinz Ketchup.  

Everyone ate in silence, our chewing sounds amplified. I could hear the very twitching of Mr. Drucker’s mustache, the ends of which appeared bloodied with sauce. He drank an entire glass of milk in one gulp, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Mrs. Drucker was silent, neat, and did not look up from her food.

Across from me, Lynn ate quickly and ferociously. She was finished several minutes before anyone else, and she wiped the sauce from her face and sat there, eyes down. I could feel her swinging her feet underneath the table.

After Mr. Drucker finished, Mrs. Drucker cleared away our bowls. He then went to the living room and came back with two boxes, which he set upon the table with some ceremony. I recognized the boxes: Welton’s Candy, a local delicacy, something people gave to one another for hostess gifts or housewarmings. 

Mr. Drucker opened the first box and plucked out two candies, handing them to his wife. He then opened the second box and plucked out two candies which he placed at his end of the table. He turned to me.

“Janey,” he said. “Can I offer you a Welton’s for dessert?”

I nodded, then remembered my manners. “Yes, please,” I added. “Thank you.”

He took a candy from each box and handed them to me. I waited for him to hand some candy to Lynn, but he didn’t. He took his seat and began unwrapping his own candy. Mrs. Drucker did the same. I looked at Lynn but she said nothing.

“Um,” I said. “Lynn didn’t get any candy?”

I let my sentence curl into a question, as if this were a simple omission. Mr. Drucker raised an eyebrow, sucking the piece of candy over to one side of his mouth.

“Oh, Lynn had her candy already,” he said. “Each of us got a box, but Lynn ate hers. She didn’t save any.” He paused to maneuver the gooey candy in his mouth, tipping his head meaningfully toward her. 

I looked at Lynn, whose lips were pressed together hard. I felt queasy, too aware of the bits of hot dogs in my stomach, stewing in acid.  

“She can have one of my pieces,” I said quickly, handing a piece over to Lynn. Her fists were clenched into tight little balls. “I don’t mind. Really.”  

Mr. Drucker jerked his chair back across the wooden floor. His hand swept down like a flash, batting the candy out of Lynn’s. It spun off the table and landed on the floor.

“No,” Mr. Drucker said too loudly. “No.” He turned to me, his mouth tight. “She’s had hers already. You get what you get, and that’s it.”  

I could feel the heat off Lynn’s face from across the table. She would not look up at me or her father. 

This was the first and only time Lynn invited me to her house.

.  .  .

Rob and I were meeting for coffee while Tommy spent the weekend with his grandparents. This would be our first true conversation since Rob had moved out at my request over three months ago; we had barely spoken other than to arrange logistics. Rob still kept a key to the house and often came over to watch Tommy if I had a late meeting. He’d been nonetheless reticent with me, careful to avoid protracted talk, scrupulous about giving me the space I’d requested.

So I wasn’t sure why my hands shook when I put mascara on, why my mouth tasted of sand and grit. I’d taken extra care blow-drying my hair, even putting a dab of perfume on my wrists. I puckered my lips, inspecting myself in the mirror. Maybe I still wasn’t half-bad. We were meeting like strangers on a date, like there was still the possibility of something thrilling happening. The day was bright, early autumn, and gave me the hopeful feeling of a new school year, things starting over again. 

I wondered about Liz Harrington and her husband. Were she and her husband happy again now that they’d reconciled? Did they laugh over private jokes, touch each other gently when they passed one another in the kitchen? Was it like it had been before the rupture, before Mike Harrington had been caught in flagrante with Brit Turnbull at the Cavalier Inn?

Neither Rob nor I had cheated. We’d experienced—I’d experienced—instead merely the long, slow unraveling of affection, the slow build-up of irritation, like so many motes of dust. I didn’t know if this made things easier or harder. In a way, I wished for some great blow, some huge fight or infidelity from which we could be wounded and then recover. Something cathartic, a conflagration. 

But Rob was trying to make amends, to win me back. I knew this already. Throughout our separation, he had communicated to me through a series of small, benevolent gestures. I’d come home to find the toilet that wouldn’t stop running finally fixed, or a bag of bagels from the new bakery sitting on the counter, or a small vase of fresh flowers arranged on the kitchen table. I liked the thought of him sneaking into the house while I was away to do these small kindnesses. This gave me hope. He knew me. He knew me better than anyone. Maybe that was really worth something.

And there was Tommy to think about, after all. Didn’t we at least owe him the effort?

But I thought of Lynn at the meeting the evening before, biting viciously at a hangnail on her index finger. “Some people are weak,” she said, shaking her head, the flesh of her fingertips too chewed-pink to look at. “And others are strong. It’s just as true for us as it is for the natural world.” I knew she was talking about Liz, who had just sheepishly returned Lynn’s springform pan. You could tell by the way Lynn’s eyes burned like bright embers in the dull slab of her face.

Rob had arrived at the coffee shop first and claimed a table. I saw him run one hand through his dark hair, a gesture that was so utterly familiar that I wanted to weep. He glanced up and caught my gaze. I waved tentatively, gesturing that I would order then join him, turning back toward the line. As I turned, the bell on the door jingled, and I found myself almost face to face with her. Lynn.  

“Lynn!” I said, my voice rising with helium giddiness. Guilty-sounding, I realized. Like I too had been caught at something.

“Janey, what a pleasant surprise!”  

I watched her scan the room, saw her see Rob. Was I imagining the chastising look on her face? Surely I was.

“We should have a coffee together,” she said warmly, overly warmly, as if it were a performance. “Unless you’re already meeting someone?”

“I am,” I said. “I mean, I’d love to, but I’m meeting Rob.” I gestured to him, knowing she’d already seen.

She raised an eyebrow. 

“Oh, of course!” she said. “But listen, I’m not sure if you heard—”

She leaned in closer to me, gesturing for me to come closer to her. I did, and I could feel her breath, warm and milky, against my face.

“About Mike Harrington?” she whispered. I shook my head, and she continued. “He and Brit Turnbull were in a car accident last night. They’re both in critical condition. Poor Liz…”  

She let her voice trail off, her eyes searching my face for a reaction, eager for something I could not name. I looked away, breathing fast.  

“Oh, Janey,” she said. “You’re so sensitive. I forget.” She embraced me so hard I could barely breathe. “Things balance out. Fate has its own ways of eking out justice. It just takes time,” she whispered against the nape of my neck, as if she were comforting me.

.  .  .

Lynn Drucker was smart. She had been a good student, so it was something of a surprise when she began showing up to fewer and fewer days of middle school. Days would elapse without her presence, and then she would show up to school again, often with some odd injury—a jammed finger, another broken toe, a fractured clavicle—all byproducts of growing up on a farm. One day someone put a dead squirrel in Lynn’s locker. Everyone knew about it. When Lynn found it there, she was silent but unfazed. She simply went to the bathroom, wrapped the squirrel up in paper towels, and disposed of it. Farm life was brutal, Lynn explained to me afterward. She’d learned to wring a chicken’s neck, to drown a sack of mewling, taffy-colored kittens. That was life. You had to exert some kind of order, learn to dispose of things.  

Lynn and I were still friendly at school, but I was disaffiliating myself from her. Kate Turner was my new friend, who, with her black fingernail polish and thrift store clothes, was the cool girl alternative to Rebecca and Ashley-Claire. Lynn felt like an anachronism.

It was hardly a surprise, therefore, when we learned that she would be homeschooled for high school. 

During junior year, we learned that Mrs. Drucker had died when the tractor she was driving overturned. Number one cause of farm injuries, my stepdad said. Poor Mrs. Drucker, my mom said. I thought of Mrs. Drucker: quiet, with her red-raw face. I thought of Lynn, alone now on the farm with her father.

.  .  .

Rob moved back in about six months after our initial separation: a relief. It was better to be with him than to be apart from him. True, there was no new magic, but things with us were warm and steady, and there’s solace to that. 

I dreaded telling the group. As if sensing my betrayal, Lynn had already distanced herself. A new woman, Caroline, had joined the group, and Lynn coddled her with the same possessive kindness she’d once deployed with me.  

At the coffee break one evening, Lynn smiled at me archly.  

“How’s Rob?” she asked.

“He’s good,” I said quickly, warily. “I think it’s going to work out.”  

“Oh?” Lynn said.  

“Yes,” I said. Defensive, I added the bit about the flowers Rob had brought me, the toilet he’d fixed. He was a good man, my husband. I didn’t know why I felt it necessary to prove this to Lynn Drucker of all people.

“The toilet, huh?” Lynn repeated. “He fixed the toilet?” Laughing softly, she walked away.  

Later that night, I thanked the group and told them I’d stop attending now that Rob had moved back in. The other women in the group were warm and seemed sincerely happy for me. Lynn sat quietly in the corner, her face inscrutable.

Escaping into the parking lot after my last meeting, I felt strangely triumphant. My marriage was intact. I was free. The night air was mild still but autumnal, the first of the yellow leaves already underfoot.  

When I got to my car, I saw that my back tire was completely flat. A nail. I had to call Rob to pick me up.

That was just the beginning of a sequence of little bits of bad luck—our poltergeists, we said. The toilet that had only so recently been fixed started running again, even overflowing in the middle of the night at one point. The sink got clogged. We poured just-bought milk onto our morning cereal only to gag when we took a bite—it had gone rotten. We found a dozen eggs we’d just purchased all cracked, as if someone had systematically pressed a thumbinto each shell. Jars of raspberry jam and mayonnaise conspired to crack and spill inside our refrigerator. Our thermostat would magically reset itself to 98 degrees overnight. And there seemed to be an abundance of nails in the road—Rob got a flat tire next, and then I got another. Then our old retriever mix, Brutus, ran away, which was strange since our backyard is fenced and he’d never before gotten out.  

“It’s like a country song,” Rob said afterwards. “Except I got my wife back.”

Everything was funny at that point, everything tolerable, even our bad luck limned with gold.

One Saturday, I asked Rob if he would go get bagels again from that new bakery. Sure, he told me, he’d been wanting to try that place and hadn’t been yet.

“But didn’t you go that one time—when we were apart?” I asked.  

He frowned slightly, then shook his head.  

“Let’s not talk about the time we were apart,” he said, pulling me close, kissing my mouth to hush me.  

.  .  .

I saw Lynn Drucker once more. Years later. After Tommy, so bright and well-adjusted I could hardly believe he was my own child, had gone away to school out of state. After Rob and I had separated a second time and then, finally, divorced. Some people, I’d learned, are meant to be alone, solitude so intrinsic to their being that there’s a pull to it, a magnetism that draws the self inward while repelling others. Maybe Lynn and I were not so dissimilar after all, I thought when I saw her there in the fluorescent-bright aisle of the Super Wal-Mart. The miraculous thing was that Lynn again looked exactly the same—she possessed a certain agelessness. Like those portraits by the Dutch masters, her face existed outside of time. I looked older than Lynn now that whatever ephemeral prettiness I’d once had had passed. I could be her older sister, her mother, her crotchety other self.  

Lynn was studying packages of paper towels. She too was here shopping at midnight on a Wednesday, the lonely person’s shopping hour. In a true feat of maneuvering,  she was pushing a shopping cart with one hand and an old man in a wheelchair with the other. Her father. Of course. He was tiny now, shrunken, thin-limbed and shriveled, hair white and wispy as dandelion fluff. By contrast, she radiated ruddy good health, broad-shouldered and powerful. She seemed taller. Maybe it was just in the way she moved, almost regal, down the aisles. 

I thought of how terrifying Mr. Drucker had once seemed. I thought of Lynn, rubbing at her bruised shins, the implicit terror behind her raisin eyes. And now? She was his caregiver, duty-bound to the old tyrant, helping him on and off of the toilet, pushing him through a big box store for paper towels and store-brand peanut butter.  

“You want cookies, Papa?” Lynn asked. She’d pulled down a bright package of rainbow chip cookies, the sort of junk food a child would clamor for. Lynn turned slightly, and I feared she’d see me. I ducked back behind the end of the aisle.  

Mr. Drucker grunted noncommittally. Lynn put the cookies back on the shelf. Her hand moved to her father with surprising gentleness.  

“Oh, Papa,” Lynn said, stepping back slightly, studying the floor. “Oh, Papa, look what you’ve done.”  

I saw now what Lynn saw: a puddle on the floor beneath the cloth seat of the wheelchair. I waited now to hear Lynn lash out. I waited to hear her use this opportunity to berate him. I waited to see him turn towards her, humiliated, her supplicant. 

Instead, she murmured to him so softly I couldn’t hear the words. Then she leaned down and kissed him gently, quickly, consolingly on his whiskery cheek. She scanned the aisle for passersby, daring anyone to question them, daring anyone to comment, and then, seeing no one, she simply pushed her father and the cart away, leaving the guilty puddle on the floor.  

I watched Lynn check out, efficient, shoulders squared. I watched her push her father out the yawning automatic doors, moving like a single organism.  

There are some currents that run harder and deeper than love, I thought then, something that calcifies in such a way that it can’t ever be severed. Sometimes the universe, tectonically slow but indefatigable as it is, maintains its own destined frictions. Let love try to compete with that.

Lynn never saw me. Of that, I was almost certain.  

When I finished up my own shopping, I walked out with my purchases into that empty parking lot, vast as a football field and smelling of asphalt in the August rain. I saw that, for the first time in years, I had a flat tire. I knew there would be an embedded nail, its head glinting silver. It would be there if I looked for it—a semaphore, a coin tossed into the darkness like a wish. I knelt on the wet ground clutching my bags. Hello, I wanted to whisper, Hello again, to that old familiar listening silence.