I remember that the last completely normal day we ever had in our lives, my brothers and I, was an ordinary day much like this one, a muggy August-into-September weekday, the sky low and gray over Langhorne, clouds as flat as an old comforter hanging between the two slight ridges that edged the town. We’d gone to the Tastee Freeze for soft ice cream that day, driving in Jeff’s battered open jeep with our arms out the windows. My brothers were handsome boys who have turned into handsome men. Brian has our father’s black hair and blue eyes, Jeffrey our mother’s coloring, auburn hair and eyes like amber and a long face with freckles.
Both of them were tanned that day, at the end of their summer jobs as camp counselor and landscapes I was pale from a summer spent in a New York office on weekdays and house-guesting at Fire Island weekends, spending more time at cocktail parties than on the beach, where melanoma and Retin-A were frequent talking points among my acquaintances.
Afterward I wondered why I hadn’t loved that day more, why I hadn’t savored every bit of it like soft ice cream on my tongue, why I hadn’t known how good it was to live so normally, so everyday. But you only know that, I suppose, after it’s not normal and everyday any longer. And nothing ever was, after that day. It was a Thursday, and I was still my old self, smug, self-involved, successful, and what in my circles passed for happy.
“Ellen’s got the life,” said Jeff, who’d been asking about the magazine where I worked. “She gets paid to be a wiseass for a living. You go to parties, you talk to people, you make fun of them in print. It’s like getting paid to breathe. Or play tennis.”
“You could get paid to play tennis,” I said. “It’s called being a tennis pro.”
“Oh, right,” said Jeff, “with our father?” He sucked the ice cream from the bottom of his cone. “Excuse me, Pop? Mr. Life of the Mind? I’ve decided to move to Hilton Head and become a tennis pro. But I’ll be reading Flaubert in my spare time.”
“Is it possible for one of you to make a life decision without wondering what Papa will find wrong with it?” I said.
My brothers hooted and jeered. “Oh, great,” said Jeff. “Ellen Gulden renounces paternal approval! And only twenty-four years too late.”
“Mom is happy with anything I do,” said Brian.
“Oh, well, Mom,” said Jeff.
“Jeffrey man,” someone called across the parking lot. “Brian!” My brothers lifted their hands in desultory salutes. “What’s up?” Jeff called back.
“I’m history here,” I said.
“You were history here when you were here,” said Jeff. “No offense, El. You’re a hungry puppy, always were a hungry puppy, and the world don’t like you hungry puppies. People are afraid you’re going to bite them.”
“Why are you talking like a cracker radio commentator?” I said.
“See, Bri, Ellen never relaxes. New York is her kind of place. An entire city of people who never relax, who were antsy in their own hometowns. So long, hungry puppy. Go where the dogs eat the dogs.”
The light was dull yellow because of the low clouds, like a solitary bulb in a dark room. The asphalt was soft in the driveway under our feet, the smell of charcoal drifting over Langhorne the way perfume hung over a cocktail party in the city. Our father came in late in the evening, but we were used to that: he stood in the den for a time, leaning against the doorjamb, and then he trudged upstairs, oddly silent.
Not odd for the boys, with whom he had the strained, slightly mechanical transactions that many fathers have with their sons. But odd for me. I had always felt I knew my father’s mind, if not his heart. Whenever I came home, from college and then later, on visits from the city, he would call me into his study, with its dark furniture and dim sepia light, would lean forward in his desk chair and say, simply, “Tell.”
And I would spin my stories for him, of the famous writer I had heard read in a lecture hall, of the arguments about syntax I had had with editors, of the downstairs neighbor who played Scarlatti exquisitely but monotonously on the small antique harpsichord I had once glimpsed through the door of his apartment.
I often felt like someone being debriefed by a government apparatchik, or like Scheherazade entertaining the sultan. And often I made stories up, wonderful stories, so that my father would lean back in his chair and his face would relax into the utter concentration he had when he lectured to his students. Sometimes at the end he would say “Interesting.” And I would be happy.
Our mother was in the hospital that day, and as it always did, the house seemed like a stage set without her. It was her house, really. Whenever anyone is called a homemaker now—and they rarely are—I think of my mother. She made a home painstakingly and well. She made balanced meals, took cooking classes, cleaned the rooms of our home with a scarf tying back her bright hair, just like in the movies. When she wallpapered a room, she would always cover the picture frames in the same paper, and place them on the bureau or the bedside table, with family photographs inside.
The two largest pictures in the living room were of my mother and father. In one they are standing together on our front porch. My mother is holding my father’s arm with both her own, an incandescent smile lighting her face, as though life knows no greater happiness than this—this place, this day, this man. Her body is turned slightly sideways, toward him, but he is facing foursquare to the camera, his arms crossed over his chest, his face serious, his eyes mocking.
Back when we were still lovers, Jonathan had picked up that picture from the piano and said that; in it my father looked like the kind of man who would rip out your heart, grill it, and eat it for dinner, then have your wife for dessert. Allowing for the difficult relationship between Jonathan and my father, the relationship of two men engaged in a struggle for the soul of the same woman, it was a pretty fair description.
I wonder if my father still has that picture there, on the piano, or whether it’s put away now, my mother smiling dustily, happily, into the dark of a drawer.
Next to it was another picture of my mother hanging on to my father’s arm. Wearing a cap and gown, I am hanging on to his other one. In that picture, my father is squinting slightly in the sunlight, and smiling. Jonathan took that picture. I have it on my dresser today, the most tangible remaining evidence of the Gulden family triangle.
My mother would be saddened by my apartment now, by the grimy white cotton couch and the inexpertly placed standing lamps. My apartment is the home of someone who is not a homemaker, someone who listens to the messages on the answering machine and then runs out again.
But she would not criticize me, as other mothers might. Instead she would buy me things, a cheap but pretty print she would mat herself, a throw of some kind. And as she arranged the throw or hung the picture she would say, smiling, “We’re so different, aren’t we, Ellie?” But she would never realize, as she said it, as she’d said it so many times before, that if you are different from a person everyone agrees is wonderful, it means you are somehow wrong.
My mother loved the hardware store, Phelps’s Hardware, and the salesmen there loved her. My father would always tease her: “Once again, she has paid the Phelps’s mortgage for the month and alone of all her sex has cornered the market on tung oil and steel wool!” My father always teased her. I was the one he talked to.
It was a charmed day in the charmed life we lived, my brothers and I, that day we went to the Tastee Freeze. I see that so clearly now. We lolled on the grass in the backyard afterward, cooked and ate some hamburgers, watched television. And then the next morning our father came downstairs, his khakis wrinkled, his blue shirt rolled back from his wrists, and told us all to sit down. He leaned back against the kitchen counter as I sat opposite him, sipping a glass of orange juice. My two brothers sat in the ladderback chairs at either end of the kitchen table. My mother had caned the seats. I don’t include those details by way of description, but in tribute. Things like this were my mother’s whole life. Of this I was vaguely contemptuous at the time.
When I was a little girl, she would sometimes sing me to sleep, although I always preferred my father, because he made up nonsense songs: “Lullaby, and good night, fettuccine Alfredo. Lullaby and good night, rigatoni Bolognese.” But my mother sang a boring little tune that was nothing but the words “safe and sound” over and over again. It put me right to sleep. My father always jazzed me up; my mother always calmed me down. They did the same to one another. Sometimes I think they just practiced on me.
Copyright © 2010 by Anna Quindlen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.