We Don’t Know, We Think Different Things

Claudia Putnam

Fay has a beautiful daughter who ran away.

            By beautiful, we mean in danger.

            By ran away, we mean five weeks gone.

            Gwen was or is striking, artistic, musical, possibly a few pounds overweight, depending. She’d dyed her blonde hair pitch black. I don’t know how she got her lashes so long and so thick. She is fifteen.

            There’s Fay, across the coffee shop by the folksinger’s stage, with her friend Liza, who is also my boss. I’m Liza’s paralegal. I don’t go over to them because I wouldn’t know what to say. I don’t know, we don’t know, how Fay even leaves the house, though of course, with cell phones, she’s never unreachable, and she probably never sleeps, but right now she is wearing ski clothes. How do you do that, when do you do that—take up a regular activity? After a death is one thing, but with her girl out there and not knowing, when do you? We don’t know, we think different things, we listen to each other, but no one changes their ideas. Just thank, just let all the bad luck stay with her, thank you, God.

            But that’s the question, is it bad luck or is it something else?

            “Gwen’s been smoking cigarettes for years already,” Kathleen says. Kathleen is an acupuncturist and a naturopathic physician. She knows Fay better than I do. Her son, Chance, has been in Waldorf school with Fay’s daughter since preschool. Kathleen and I are in a book club together, and also, I go to her for acupuncture. Some of my closest friends in this town are my bodyworkers. After a decade of lying on their tables, there’s a relationship. Kathleen and I talked about books a lot, so she asked me into her club. I was surprised to discover that although she often suggested books like Middlemarch or A Suitable Boy, she hated any darkness. She watched  Little Miss Sunshine and was actually upset about how dysfunctional the family was as if this were an unusual thing.

            I don’t have kids. I’m either the worst judge or the best. I don’t get these moms, the ones who think it’s a matter of reading the right books, feeding them the right foods, sending them to the right schools, and then squirt—great adult.

            “Chance smokes,” Suzanne, a midwife, says. You almost can’t hear her over the singer. Suzanne has blank-brown hair, cut in a pixie she can’t be bothered with. She’s thin without having to exercise, just from being nervous all the time, and has a thrift-shop style, but not in a funky way.

            “Not cigarettes!” says Kathleen. She’s next to me, radiating heat. Her tank top shows her well-defined Ashtanga yoga muscles. She was one of the first to take up Ashtanga, and by first, I mean in the country because the founder lives in Boulder. She never eats sugar, not even a gram.

            “Please,” says Suzanne. She’s across from us, next to her husband. He’s even paler than she is.

            “Well, if your kid was smoking cigarettes at age thirteen, wouldn’t you get right on it?” Kathleen says.

            Liza had told me that during a Waldorf parent meeting, all the parents played a get-to-know-each-other game. A fusion of musical chairs and “have you ever.” You had to stand in the center and ask the group if any of them had ever done something that you had once done. Everyone who had done “the thing” had to get up and try to beat the others to an empty seat—as with musical chairs, there was always one missing. Anyway, Kathleen’s question had been, Who’s ever sold pot? Five people scrambled, including Kathleen’s husband, but Liza said no one was surprised about that. It was Kathleen people talked about for weeks afterward. Kathleen Rai, selling drugs? I remember Liza had said it was always that way, the pure ones.

            Across the room, Liza slouches in her chair. Liza, tall and lanky with long hair she doesn’t color, always looks worn out, like some nineteenth-century heiress with consumption. It’s hard to believe she skis shit-scary backcountry terrain or that she’s the divorce lawyer the men in this town hate more than Hillary Clinton. Liza has said that the moms who went the farthest with drugs and survived become the most paranoid parents. She was speaking only of the mothers; the fathers, however, all seemed to repeat with religious certainty that the kids would be fine. I guess the dads figure because they survived, so will the children, and the moms remember the friends who didn’t make it.

            “Do you really think she didn’t try to get Gwen to quit cigarettes?” Suzanne says. She’s got four children, one of whom is also in school with Gwen. Her oldest has ADD and might not graduate, though she hasn’t acknowledged this. She won’t give him meds; she’s afraid they’ll “numb” him.  It’s speed, dumb-ass, I want to tell her, not an antipsychotic. Different meds do different things. I ran into Suzanne at Whole Foods a week ago. She’d just caught a baby. She went on a rant about parents of newborns, saying they’re all so hopeful, you just want to kick them. Suzanne thinks they should pick one book and stick to it no matter what. It probably won’t work, but just, whatever, stick to it as a means of keeping the friends and family at bay. She says it’ll work out, or it won’t.

            It’ll work out, or it won’t. In this age of helicopter parents, surely those are fighting words. Or words of abject surrender.

            “Cigarettes are like the definition of addictive, aren’t they?” I say to the group. “Some people are totally hooked after just a few.”

            “Hello?” says Suzanne’s husband, Carter. He hardly ever comes out socially. You only have to look at him to know this. Hollow chest, colorless face. Gruff. He owns a used bookstore and earns practically nothing. That’s his excuse to always be at work. Really, they get by on a small trust fund from Suzanne’s family. I’ve heard. I never understand what people do for money in Boulder, which is as expensive as San Francisco, but also what they do anywhere. It can’t all be debt—how would they service it all? Everyone seems to live pretty high, and I’m sure most earn about as much as I do. Look at Facebook posts—weeks in Europe, Mexico for Thanksgiving, new SUVs, renovated kitchens. I’d like to see a long, investigative piece in The New Yorker on how everyone is lying about how poor they are.

            “Lots of kids smoke cigarettes and don’t run away,” says Carter. “Anyway, I bet Gwen will be fine,” he says, echoing Liza’s take on the typical male response. “Think of all the things we did when we were young. We turned out okay.”

            Ha, I think, staring across the table at him, look at you.

            “Maybe it was just how harsh the divorce was,” Carter goes on. He lays a fist, silently, on the table. Total beta, maybe gamma, male.

            We all look back at Fay and Liza. I think how lucky Fay was to have Liza advising her on the divorce. There wasn’t a courtroom scene, but Fay got what she wanted from mediation. Her ex-husband was bitter about it. I think it’s fair he’d be bitter about the divorce because Fay was bitter during the marriage. Probably wasn’t great for Gwen either way. Financially, Carter would believe the settlement was harsh. In Liza’s opinion, shared occasionally when we sit for coffee in her office, it wasn’t the divorce, but Ken’s remarriage, the family his new wife cranked out, and Gwen’s sidelining that damaged their daughter.

            “So, did she beat Gwen?” Kelly asks. Kelly is new to the group, squeezed in next to Suzanne, a doula in the midwife practice. She’s so beautiful I can hardly look at her. She seems aware of this on some level and hides behind her long, shiny black hair. She’s like beyond model gorgeous because those photographs are touched up to make the models look the way they do. Kelly doesn’t even wear makeup.

            Everyone laughs. Obviously, Kelly is tongue-in-cheek. No one thinks Fay was beating Gwen, and no one suggests Gwen’s father beat her, either.

            No one suggests anything about Gwen’s father, though Liza told me Gwen was at his house when she ran away.

            “Fay does have a temper,” Suzanne allows.

            “So do you,” says her husband.

            Everyone shuts up for at least thirty seconds, which is awkward. Sex, and they’d change the subject, but a comment about an angry woman makes everyone freeze.

            “I bet everyone yells at their kids,” I say. “My mom did. Or she went in her room and beat the bed with a belt.”

            Silence again. Another thirty seconds, I estimate.

            “My mom used to slam the bathroom door,” says Kelly. “Go in the bathroom, slam the door, open it, slam it, open it, slam it, open it, slam it.”

            “My mother flat-out screamed,” says Suzanne. “Spit, froth, scrunched-up face. In Louisiana, if you can imagine. She wore a dress every day. She’d be mid-scream, and then the phone would ring. Rrrrrrring! ‘Oh hi Charlayne!’ Smooth face, purring voice. ‘Oh my, it sure is a hot one today, just fixin some sweet tea. I’d be delighted to see y’all; come right over.’”

            We all laugh.

            “I’m like that with my cat,” I say. “I’d kill a kid.”

            I don’t mean the part about killing a kid, but maybe I would since the cat aggravates me so much, and a kid would just be worse. What I mean is I go from wanting to kill the cat to smiling at the next person. The anger is specific to the situation, flies through and past, and aren’t we that way? Aren’t most of us like that? And why should it be held against anyone if anger is universal?

            “I’m not like that,” says Carter, frowning.

            I didn’t mean you, I think.

            “I’m not like that,” Kathleen says, cramming her plucked brows together. “I hold onto things. I’ve been in therapy for ages.”

            “Maybe you should stop therapy,” Suzanne says. She looks like she could use a cigarette, honestly, like her right hand is itching to light a match.

            So: Fay. We fall silent, looking over at her again. Fay seems exhausted, which is not elegant on her the way it is on Liza. Stage lights spill over onto her table, hollowing her eyes; before Gwen ran away, I used to stare at Fay whenever I could. My brother, when he was around, used to smack me when we were out together in bars. He’d tell me to stop staring; I was embarrassing him. I tend to find myself drawn in by one person or another. Their appearance, their way of moving. Women, men, little kids: certain people catch me up. Fay wove a net.

            It appears that none of the sunlight she’d experienced while skiing today has stuck to her skin. Her typically muscular body just looks—well, not fat, just slightly excessive, rather than as vigorous as it used to.

            Fay’s phone rings; she snatches it up. Liza watches her as if there is nothing else going on in the room. Fay ends the call and says something to Liza, who covers her face for a moment and nods. But they don’t get up and leave or anything. It must not be about Gwen. They sit watching the music. It doesn’t look to me as if Fay is listening. She’s bouncing her knee up and down, up and down, faster than the beat. The stage lights go on bleaching her. Who can imagine?

            But of course she fucked up. She must have. Kids don’t just run away. It’s not having a temper, and it’s not being lax about the cigarettes. But it must be something. Something the rest of us would never do.

            That’s where we leave it.

Claudia Putnam has fiction in Confrontation, Cimarron Review, phoebe, The Write Launch, and elsewhere. A novella, SECONDS, is forthcoming later this year from Dan Falatko’s Neutral Zones Press. A short memoir, Double Negative, won the Split/Lip CNF chapbook prize. Her debut collection, The Land of Stone and River, won the Moon City Press poetry prize. Her residency awards include the George Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy. Find her on Twitter at @ClaudiaPutnam. Website: claudiaputnam.com

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