The Edge of Suburbia
Charlotte’s face is a tornado, all tense energy, the tomatoes leaving stains on the cutting board like fresh bruises.
“Take it easy on that cucumber, Bobbitt,” her husband, Paul, jokes as she centers the long fruit, the diced tomatoes huddled at one end of the board, and now that their son is old enough to understand the father’s allusion, Ryan’s face stills into a blank page as if he is unsure whether to write down blush or smirk.
Charlotte’s daughter, Ava, offers an explanation for her mother’s alarming vigor. “She always gets this way when Uncle Kevin visits.”
Ryan and Ava exchange a knowing glance. This is something Charlotte has found difficult in recent years, this silent communication between her teenage children, the silence an impenetrable wall, her own weapons helpless against it, for what can she say to them? I saw you looking at each other, and I know what you’re thinking, and you have it all wrong. No. That will simply confirm their view—that she overreacts—and what, Charlotte wonders, can they really know about the world with their eyes soft as lilies in a walled garden? Charlotte made that softness possible because she swallowed all the wind, and now the air stirs in her chest, her heart a hard fence, but even hardness has a purpose, doesn’t it?
After Kevin’s last visit, Ava cornered her mother in the laundry room, watched while Charlotte folded towels, little corners jutting out like barbed wire. You hate him for no reason, Ava finally said. You got it into your head that you don’t like him, and you won’t let it go. The same way you don’t like any boy I want to date. That’s what I don’t understand about you, Mom. You’re always suspicious of them. I’d say you hate all men, but I know you love Dad. The truth is you’re irrational.
Ava stood taller than her mother at fifteen, her voice mature, her lashes blackened, her mind like a calendar marking every slight, something they shared in common although her daughter did not yet understand that.
Don’t ever be alone with him, was all Charlotte said, and Ava bristled and said, God, Mom, why do you have to make everything dirty? There’s nothing wrong with Uncle Kevin. He’s not like that.
Charlotte can still hear her daughter’s voice from a year ago—the righteousness a flag flying at full-staff—as she sets the table. When the doorbell rings, she places her palms flat against her thighs for a moment as if steadying herself, and then calmly walks to open the door. The children beat her to it, swinging the door wide, their cousins pouring in like a tide, Charlotte’s sister hugging Ava, Ryan, her husband, and already Charlotte feels her body stiffening, her jaw clamping. Charlotte hugs her sister’s children, but not Kevin—she could never bear it—and not her sister, because her sister told her privately before her wedding that whatever went for him went for her as well.
If her sister is thinking of that day standing on the wooden bridge as koi fish slipped like secrets beneath their feet, she hides it well. Jennifer smiles easily, as if all is as it should be, and it’s true that their habits are well formed, the boundaries seen so often over the years that they should blur like bokeh, and perhaps it is only for Charlotte that they remain in focus.
“How was the drive?” Charlotte asks, leading her sister deeper into the house.
“Not too bad. Kevin did most of the driving, and I watched a movie with the kids in the back.”
Settled in the family room, the children and the fathers are laughing, and Charlotte thinks each laugh is like a balloon, so colorful and conspicuous at first. As a child, she never gave much thought to how easy it is to pop a balloon with a fingernail or later find it deflating in the corner of the room with puckered rubber, only a few days old, but already an ancient withered thing.
There it is again, Kevin’s deep throaty laugh. He is turned away from her, crouching by the sofa as his youngest, just four years old, climbs onto his back and wraps small arms around his neck. The children, including her own, all appear to adore him, and a stranger witnessing the scene might assume he is a good father, a good husband.
“Are you okay?” Jennifer asks, and Charlotte realizes she is frowning, her hand clenched in her pocket.
“I’m fine,” Charlotte answers, and together she and her sister walk into the kitchen, sitting at the round table by the window like they usually do at the beginning of a visit. This is the only time Charlotte gets to see her sister away from Kevin, a consolation prize of thirty minutes while the chicken bakes.
Her sister’s long hair gleams in the light from the window like it did when they were children, but the color is wrong. Now it is auburn with highlights that frame her face. She wears more makeup than she did at her last visit, and she has lost weight. Charlotte is aware of her own graying roots growing in, the way her thighs rub together. When they were younger, Charlotte was the prettier sister, but time reinvents.
They start out easy, talking about their jobs. Jennifer says, “Kevin cut back his hours so he can be home more.”
Both of their husbands are doctors. Charlotte’s husband works as a family doctor for a small practice on the edge of suburbia. On the lot next to Charlotte’s home, horses drift like clouds over the pasture, and in the early evenings, a family of deer sometimes emerge on her back lawn, one of the fawns pausing to stare at her, ears pointed like temples, legs delicate as wonder. Whenever Charlotte sees the deer, she feels a softening in her core, as if she has read a familiar page in a favorite book, one that she needed to remember still existed.
Their husbands’ careers are not the only parallels. Charlotte and Jennifer also both teach English. New acquaintances often remark on these similarities, but anyone who knew them as children would not be surprised. They formed their own book club in their back yard fort, lying on their stomachs and reading out passages by flashlight. When Charlotte kissed a boy in eighth grade, it was Jennifer she told first, sitting on the edge of her younger sister’s bed, describing the awkward fumbling, the weird wetness of crashing tongues like boats in a storm.
Charlotte is thinking about the past, what is lost, as her sister complains about committee work and her trouble getting authors to cooperate with deadlines for the book she is editing. It is only when Jennifer plays with her hair, rubbing a piece between her thumb and middle finger, that Charlotte realizes her sister is building toward some revelation.
Charlotte must be patient. It is hard being patient, waiting for the crack in the ice, for the final thaw, for the chance to discover her younger self and her sister’s younger self, somehow preserved beneath it all like bodies found on a mountain, ready to reawaken, to emerge on delicate legs on the lawn of their lives.
Her sister pauses, bracing herself. “Kevin had an affair.” She states this matter-of-factly, as if her tone could neutralize the statement.
Is it wrong that a part of Charlotte rejoices in this news? In a split second, she imagines her sister’s divorce, long talks with her sister on the phone, longer talks with her own husband about moving closer to Jennifer, traveling with their two families to plant a tree on Easter Island, Kevin gone, his face cut from the album of her sister’s heart with the sharpest of scissors.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Charlotte says carefully.
“It’s over now, and we’ve decided to work things out.” Jennifer nods her head slightly, as if trying to remember what comes next, and Charlotte understands that her sister has rehearsed this conversation, maybe even standing in her bedroom and practicing it out loud the way she used to prepare for a class presentation.
There will be no divorce. Not now, maybe never. Charlotte seeks to accept this the way she did her dog’s death as she stood next to the small grave Paul had dug in the ground, a spring breeze carrying the songs of birds, their nests out of sight, Ryan kneeling next to the hole, Ava holding her hand, a time when Ava still leaned on her.
Her sister is still talking. She is talking about Kevin’s sacrifices, his shorter work hours, the couples therapy, the trust that has been rebuilt. What does Jennifer want from her? The logical part of Charlotte’s brain has worked this out. If Jennifer is not divorcing her husband, if this is a prepared speech, what does her sister want?
“My therapist says I should work to heal myself,” Jennifer says, “that if I want to move on, I must learn how to forgive. And I want that. I want to forgive, to clear the air, to not feel this weight here anymore.” She presses her hand dramatically against her chest. Jennifer was always the dramatic one. “And with my therapist’s help, I’ve come to understand that I need to forgive you too. And I want—no, I need—to tell you that I have. I’ve forgiven you.”
“Forgiven me for what?” Charlotte can hear the hardness in her own voice.
There is a moment of silence as the two sisters study each other, and Charlotte thinks that this silence is not an absence, it is a shadow, Kevin’s shadow slicing the space between them.
“I forgive you for what you did.” Jennifer sits up straighter. “And for what you—” She is filtering her words, probably thinking back to her therapist’s advice, trying to use language that is not emotionally charged. “For what you said about Kevin.”
I don’t believe you, Jennifer had declared sixteen years ago, standing on the quaint wooden bridge, flowers blooming all around, an almost aggressive display of color. The koi fish made their rounds in the stream, tails swishing, circuitous paths that always intersected, always brought them back to the start. Why would I believe anything you say?
If she were a religious woman, Charlotte would think she was being punished. She slept with one of Jennifer’s college boyfriends, and when Jennifer found out, Charlotte’s first instinct had been to lie, to say no, nothing happened. Maybe Charlotte deserved what happened later with Kevin—maybe her sister did believe in the deepest part of her subconscious and thought Charlotte got what she deserved.
How did she arrive at the dinner table? Time feels unstable to Charlotte. She was talking with her sister, her sister was forgiving her, and Charlotte had said nothing, just nodded to signal that she had heard, that the conversation was over, and then somehow she is here as if nothing happened, sitting at the table as Kevin cuts his chicken and tells stories about the hospital. His hair is more gray than red now. The lines around his eyes are deeper, but he has aged well. He exercises in his home gym and juices vegetables each morning. Somehow Charlotte’s children are listening to his stories, rapt, their fawn faces following the footsteps of his words. And isn’t that the problem with Kevin, Charlotte thinks? He is so believable. He is the kind of person whom people trust.
Charlotte feels pain now, and the pain is soft—amorphous—not like the pain when Kevin pressed inside her, his beer breath a fog over her face, his hand hiding her voice. He had apologized the next day, cried as he explained that he’d lost control. His face reddened to match his hair.
She didn’t forgive him, but she believed him. She believed he was sorry.
Years passed. Clocks stopped, and she put in new batteries. She stretched in yoga classes, drank cappuccinos, and bought rabbit slippers with floppy ears, because life moved on, because she was still young. She can tick it all off now in her head, the list of events: she got date raped, got a job, got married. She told her secret to Paul, but only after he proposed, and she locked herself in the bedroom, and then drank too much tequila, and ugly cried, her eyes all puffy, her face as red as Kevin’s was when he apologized, and then threw up on Paul’s bathroom floor. She never told anyone else, not until that day on the bridge. She was two months pregnant when Kevin returned to her life, when he showed up unexpectedly one night at the Japanese restaurant as Jennifer’s fiancé, the two of them just returned from a year abroad.
In the dim light of the restaurant, Charlotte saw the specter of Kevin’s face. That’s when she split into two people. One version of herself sat on the floor with crossed legs, sipped green tea, and ate chicken. The other version of herself watched, detached, unwilling to jeopardize the return of normalcy with her sister, Jennifer finally warm again, bumping shoulders with her and reminiscing about pranks they pulled as children, how they stole their parents’ car late at night and drove around the neighborhood.
Charlotte looks at the chicken on her fork. One tine is bare, and she imagines pressing her finger against it until a drop of blood forms.
There are still two versions of her. One is in the past sitting at the restaurant table. One is here sitting at her own table.
“You need to leave,” Charlotte says quietly, still looking at her fork. Her words don’t seem to register, and the conversation around the table continues.
“Kevin,” Charlotte speaks again, and this time she meets his eyes, “you need to leave. Now.”
And then her sister is gone.
That night, her husband holds her in bed. She’s not crying anymore. She can feel a headache forming, but doesn’t reach for the glass of water on the nightstand.
“You did the right thing,” Paul says.
“My sister,” Charlotte starts, but can’t finish.
“You did the right thing.”
Paul has never understood why she let Kevin into their lives. After dinner at the Japanese restaurant all those years ago, she revealed Kevin’s identity to her husband. Paul didn’t understand how she could pretend like nothing happened, and then as time passed, Paul seemed to forget, as if the truth of Kevin was something slippery that was at odds with normalcy. Either he was a monster to be cast from view, or if he stayed in view, then he was Jennifer’s husband and father of two children, a man who told witty stories, threw his children high into the air until they laughed in delight. Charlotte had watched as Kevin and Paul formed a casual friendship, exchanging stories about children and coworkers.
As Charlotte rests her head on her husband’s chest, he rubs her back. Back and forth like a hammock swinging. He says, “You need to tell Ava and Ryan what happened with Kevin.”
“I don’t want to burden them.”
“Is that the real reason?”
“They won’t believe me.”
“Of course they will.” One of the things Charlotte loves about Paul is that he lives in a good world. His optimism is a buoy, and the hazardous reefs of reality are hidden deeper in the water.
“And if they don’t?”
“You mean Ava. If she doesn’t believe you now, she will eventually. She’ll grow up.”
Her husband’s heartbeat is steady. Like her, he has gained a few pounds in middle age. His hair has thinned in the back, and she knows he’s self-conscious about it, but when she looks at him, she always sees one Paul. He is not the kind of man to be untrue to himself.
When he’s in a deep sleep, she slips outside onto the back lawn. The moon is mostly full. It is a windless night, a night for crickets to command. The silhouettes of branches against the sky are like tangled tongues. Charlotte waits until the deer appear, a doe and a fawn. She has seen this family before and knows there is another child, the one that often stops and turns its head to look at her. The fawn walks on, following its mother across the grass, its fur silvery in the dimness. Charlotte waits for the other fawn to appear from the woods, to join the other, but it never does. When the deer are gone, she lies back and watches the stars instead, the predictable sky, the constellations changing so slowly that she’s never left behind.