2 The Box of Life

Becky took the train back from Atlantic City, which was about the stupidest way you could go. But the idea of taking the bus with the same people she’d been serving that day made her skin crawl and all those old people were too cheap to take the train. On the train there was always that moment, just past Newark, when it stopped for no reason, and the conductor said nothing and the AC stopped working and all the passengers looked out the window at Manhattan in the distance. You could make out the Empire State Building, green for some reason and she remembered someone told her that the guy who wrote The Wizard of Oz was thinking of Manhattan when he created the Emerald City. Turns out that was bullshit, too.

When the train finally arrived at Penn Station it was after eight and she decided to go above ground and catch a cab to her parents’ house. That was her second mistake. A light rain was falling and all the tourists were lined up for cabs – I’m melting, I’m melting! So she started walking towards Herald Square, figuring worst-case scenario she could catch the subway to Park Slope.

Walking up 33rd Street, pulling her little wheelie suitcase behind her like a reluctant dog, she passed a Korean woman who said something to her that Becky didn’t understand.

“I’m sorry?” Becky said, holding her hand up before her face to shield her eyes from the drizzle and the streetlights. “Were you talking to me?”

“Oh, excuse me.” She did not have much of an accent. “I thought you were Korean.”

“I’m from Brooklyn,” Becky said pointedly. “We speak English here.”

She hit that last one too hard and now the woman gave her an odd look, as is she were sorry for Becky. “My apologies,” she said and walked away.

Becky wanted to shout after her: The barbecue shops are this way! But she did not. She saw a cab with its dome light lit and flagged the driver instead.

Becky let herself in with the key without bothering to ring the bell. “Hello?” she shouted after closing the door behind her. She looked at the imposing wooden staircase, the Oriental rugs and brass chandeliers, as if they might answer. She could hear a TV so she followed the sound to the kitchen on the parlor floor.

She found her brother Pedro sitting at the counter, eating a bowl of cereal and watching The Simpsons in high definition. The flat screen TV in the kitchen was bigger than the one in her apartment.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey.” He was wearing a baseball uniform and cleats and did not take his eye off the screen. The cleats were still stuck with mud and damp grass, which he had tracked across the white tile floor.

“I thought baseball season was over.”

“Yeah, I just thought I’d keep wearing this ‘til Halloween.”

“Very funny. Where’s Mom?”

He sighed and paused the show. “She’s with a client.”

“On Sunday?”

“I guess it was a crisis.” He looked her in the eye now and smiled.

“Where’s Dad?”

“Upstairs. Writing.”

Their father wrote a blog about their family that none of his children read. He was hoping to turn his blog into a book.

“Don’t you hate that he writes about us?”

Pedro shrugged and started the cartoon again. She had asked him this question before and he was probably tired of answering. Pedro had been named Henry but changed his name last year. He muted the sound when a commercial began.

“You staying for dinner?”

Becky looked around the kitchen. Nothing was cooking.

“What are we having?”

He pushed the box of Life towards her and she left to go upstairs.

Becky stopped on the second floor to see her sister, Sarah. Her bedroom door was closed and she could hear music coming from under the door. She knocked.

“Go away.”

Becky opened the door, saying, “It’s me” as she did. The room was very dark, illuminated only by a spinning colored shade on the bedside table. She could make out Sarah sitting in front of her laptop on the bed, her dark hair and dark skin like a shadow on the pale purple wall.

“Hey,” said Becky.

“Hey,” said Sarah. “I thought you were working.”

“I got a few days off.”

“Cool.” The music was from the radio, a rap song that had half the lyrics blanked out or skipped over.

“What are you working on?”

“Some stupid paper for English. Did you have to read Catcher in the Rye?”

“Yeah,” said Becky. “Everyone has to read that.”

“I mean, who cares?”

“I know.”

As her eyes adjusted to the light Becky could make out Sarah’s hair. It was pulled back in two little puffs on the top of her head.

“I wish I could make my hair do that.”

“No you don’t.”

It was true, she didn’t. She thought Sarah’s hair made her look like a rodent in a cartoon and she could imagine her holding up a piece of cheese with holes in it.

“Are you staying for dinner?” Sarah asked her.

“I don’t know. What are you having?”

“Anything but Chinese food.”

“Aw, come on.” One of the reasons Becky liked to come home was she got to have the exact same conversations she’d had her entire life. “I was thinking of those big flat noodles.”

Sarah was looking at her screen again. “Whatever. Why don’t you see what Dad wants?”

As Becky trudged up the final flight of stairs she could hear the jazz from her father’s office, gradually overriding the radio from Sarah’s half-open door. She saw his great cloud of white hair from behind his computer before she saw his face. She entered his office, a little room at the back of the house and said hello.

“Becky!” he cried. His tone was enthusiastic but he did not take his eyes off the computer screen. “Guess how many hits I got today?”

“Everybody’s really hungry and wants Chinese food,” she said.

He stopped writing now and looked at her. He wore big clear glasses with invisible frames that made it look as if he was seeing the world through a bubble. “’I’m fine, Dad, how are you?’” he said.

“You didn’t ask me how I was.” She looked at the books and pictures on the wall. One was an old black-and-white photo of Bob Dylan, in a black jacket and white shirt, holding a pair of pliers and a framed picture of an old lady.

“And how are you, Becky? Or should I say, wait – what’s the name you use at the casino?”

“None of your business.”

“Kind of long, isn’t it?” He tapped his keyboard and looked at the screen. “‘Kim Sue.’ But you know that they don’t spell it like that?”

“God, why don’t you get your own life?”

“You are my life.” He smiled at her with only his mouth.

“Then get another life. I moved out, remember?”

“And yet here you are.”

“Mom asked me to come home. We’re seeing Joan tomorrow, remember?”

“So you’re staying for supper?”

“I would if there was anything to eat.”

“We could ask Bedelia to cook.”

“Oh, god!” Becky smacked her forehead with the heel of her hand. “Is she still here?”

“She lives with us now.”

“I thought that was, like, a short term thing.”

He smiled for real, enjoying her apparent discomfort. “She could be with us for the rest of her life.” He turned back to his computer screen and began to write. “Though that could be, like, a short term thing.”

“So can we order some Chinese food?”

“See what your brother and sister want. Just get some extra for your mother.” Then he added: “And Bedelia.”

“You know she won’t eat it.”

He was gone now, lost in the world of the family he wrote about for his invisible fans. She left his office and the sound of squawking horns.

She walked down a flight and peered through the open door at her sister. “Dad says we should order Chinese food.”

 

“Oh God, whose most dear Son did take little children into his arms and bless them; Give us grace, we beseech Thee, to entrust the soul of this child to thy never-failing care and love – “

There were times like this when Bedelia forgot who she was praying for.

Someone knocked at her door, a gentle tapping. She looked up from where she knelt at a wooden crucifix. “Come,” she said but she meant it for Him.

She got up off her knees as the door creaked open just a crack. “Dad wants to know if you want Chinese food.” The voice stayed in the hall, no face appeared. Bedelia touched her hair and realized she was not wearing her wig. She found it in the bathroom, two steps from where she had knelt, and pulled it on quickly. She went to her bedroom door and opened it wide.

“Dad wants to know if you want Chinese food,” the voice said again.

It took a moment for the words to compute. Becky stood away from the door as if it smelled in her room and Bedelia could not understand how she had become so tall.

“I no like Chinese food,” she said.

“I told him. Well, anyway that’s what we’re ordering.” She hesitated a moment, peering past Bedelia and then all around her, tracing her shape with her eyes. “Are you okay down here?”

Bedelia nodded, aware suddenly that she was in her nightgown. She was about to ask if they needed her to look after Sarah but remembered Sarah was a big girl now. Not as big as Becky. She almost asked Becky how school was and then remembered that she wasn’t in school anymore. She didn’t even live here.

She closed the door. She had an image of Becky as a baby suddenly, sitting behind the wheel of Roger’s car, holding the wheel, pretending to drive. Roger took a photo of her like that and when he gave it to her he sang a little song about a baby driver that Bedelia didn’t understand. Becky loved the photo, it went right into her book, behind all the adoption photos and if Roger was around she would demand he sing that song, point at him and command, “Sing!” And he would laugh, why Jamaicans always laughing? That was before they fired him.

One day when Bedelia was looking at the picture with Becky the child turned to her and said, “Are you my mother?” And maybe Bedelia shouldn’t have been surprised – the whole point of the adoption book, as Becky’s mother said, was that they be “completely transparent about the process,” and Bedelia would nod and pretend she knew what that meant. Each of the children had their own book, with pictures of Korea for Becky and Guatemala for Henry and Malawi for Sarah, and when Bedelia sat with them, one after the other, she would point at pictures in the book and quiz them, “Who’s that?” The strangers all had names that Bedelia, and later Becky and Henry and Sarah had learned, and on the last pages were their parents, Michael and Ruth, their hair growing grayer in each successive book.

And as transparent as these books were supposed to make the stories of their adoption they did not seem to satisfy each child completely, and Becky least of all, which was why she asked Bedelia if she was her mother.

“No, child,” Bedelia had said sternly but then she had hugged Becky, hugged her so tight the little one finally pushed away. Remembering that now, and thinking of the children on the floor above her, too big for a nanny, and her own boy, Bedelia teared up again. She looked at the image of Christ on the cross and fell to her knees and began again: “Oh God, whose most dear Son did take little children into his arms…”

 

By the time the Chinese food arrived, Becky’s mother was done with her client. She had an office attached to their rambling Victorian house, for her private practice, though she still visited the psych ward at Lutheran Hospital once a week. Becky, Sarah, Pedro and their father were already opening the hot white boxes when she joined them, prying the wire traps atop each one apart, breathing in the steam that rose off of the dumplings, noodles and snow peas.

“Are you sure you ordered enough food?” their mother said, eyeing all the containers on the counter. Pedro was already moving them to the Lazy Susan on the middle of the kitchen table.

“When you say that,” he said, “you’re being sarcastic, which is a very indirect form of communication.”

The other kids laughed. Only their father seemed unaware of the joke, looming above them like a large deaf giraffe, Becky thought. Rather than responding her mother looked at the white tile of the kitchen floor.

“Henry, you’re tracking mud all over the floor!”

No comprendo.”

Pedro,” their mother said, stressing her son’s chosen name, “por favor. Take your cleats off. And don’t just throw them in the hallway.”

Pedro pulled his cleats off, walked halfway to the kitchen door and threw them into the hallway. Their father had stopped in the midst of moving food to the kitchen table to pull a notebook from his pocket. In the light beneath the cabinets that illuminated the small appliances on the kitchen counter – the coffee grinder, the blender – as brilliantly as if they were pre Columbian artifacts he was scribbling intently.

“God, are you recording our dialogue again, Dad?”

“Grist for the mill,” he said, capping his pen.

Becky turned to look at the others. “Don’t you hate when he does that?”

Sarah and Pedro were already seated and spinning the Lazy Susan back and forth, like two deejays scratching one turntable, and ignored her. Their parents had bought the Lazy Susan when Becky was still in middle school because they all loved playing with them in Chinese restaurants. “Think of the money we’ll save going out to eat,” their father had said and she wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not. Both of her parents talked about saving money and then bought wildly extravagant things all the time; her father had driven home in a new BMW once because, he said, “The old one was making me tired.” Becky had been in high school then and everything her parents did set her teeth on edge, and even after her mother explained that he was kidding – “One of your father’s little jokes” – it had seemed to Becky that money was just one more abstraction in a house built on them.

“Where’s Shepherd?” their mother said suddenly, and everyone froze as if in a game of statue. They could hear the dog scratching at a door in the rear of the house. Instantly they began to move again, putting food on their plates.

“I think I accidentally locked him in the den,” said Pedro.

“Then go let him out.” She had taken a plate now herself and was picking through the boxes carefully, taking small pieces from a few.

Pedro sighed deeply and then got up to find the dog. In an instant Shepherd, a Wire Fox Terrier, was running around the kitchen, his nails tapping on the tile floor while the family began to eat.

“Did anyone ask Bedelia if she wanted to join us?” said Ruth.

“I did,” said Becky. “She doesn’t like Chinese food.” She looked around the table at the others who were inhaling their food as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks. “So what is she doing here?”

“Well, she helps around the house,” said her father.

“Doing what? I mean, Sarah is too old for a babysitter.”

“Well, she cleans a little and does some shopping,” her father continued, chewing slowly. “And she walks Shepherd.”

“Wait – so we have a live-in dog walker now?”

“What do you care,” said Pedro. “You don’t live here.”

“Yeah,” Sarah echoed. “What do you care?”

“She needed a place to stay,” their mother said patiently, setting down her chopsticks for a second, “until she gets this business with her family sorted out.”

“What do you mean?” asked Becky. “Has her sister offered to help? And what happened to her son?” But her question was met with only chewing.

Bedelia had been with each of them since they were babies and she’d been old when she started. When their mother found her she had been working for some old dowager in Manhattan who was finally sent off to an old folks home. They knew that Bedelia had a son who lived in Barbados and they had assumed when she got too old to look after the children that she would go back to live with him. But there was some complication that Bedelia had never quite explained.

“How’s work?” Becky’s mother asked as the kids spun the food around.

“It’s okay,” said Becky, concentrating on the passing boxes. She knew from years of experience that Pedro would eat the very last of the dumplings without warning anyone and she was determined not to let that happen. “There were some police there today asking about this old lady – hey, save me one of those!”

“There’s more on the counter.”

“No there aren’t!”

“What old lady?” her father asked.

“I don’t know, some old lady who I served last week who wandered off and got mugged.”

“Oh, Becky!” said her mother. “How awful.”

“Was she all fucked up?” said Pedro, his mouth full.

“And what did you tell them?” Her father was interested, trying to keep the story on track.

“I didn’t remember anything,” said Becky. “She was like one of a hundred people I served that day. She seemed nice, you know. Told me she was from Brooklyn.”

“Who beat her up?” asked Sarah.

“I don’t know. I don’t think they caught the guy. But the old lady was still in the hospital.”

“Jesus!” said her dad. “Well I guess you don’t get that kind of drama in your job all the time.”

“Well it’s not like you’ve ever been there.” She looked at her father who didn’t respond. “I can tell you’re being judgmental about the whole thing.”

“Your father didn’t say anything,” said her mother.

He held up his hands in mock surrender. “One, you never asked me to come to your work. And two, I hate casinos, that whole scene.”

“So if I did invite you, you wouldn’t come?”

Pedro got up and put his plate in the dishwasher. As he walked out the kitchen door their mother yelled after him. “You didn’t ask to be excused!”

From the hallway came Pedro’s voice: “May I be excused?”

“I have a lot of homework,” said Sarah, who rose and began cleaning her own plate, scraping rice and broccoli into the garbage disposal. Dinner seemed over as soon as it had begun and for a moment Becky wanted to yell, “Freeze!” and have everyone stay in place.

Her parents were both looking at her now. “It’s nice to see you, Becky,” her mother said.

Her father nodded at the boxes on the table. “Do you want to take the rest of that home?”

Becky shared an apartment with a couple of young people in Bushwick. She turned the Lazy Susan slowly and watched the parade of passing remains. “I thought I was staying here tonight,” she said. “Why are you guys always throwing me out?”

Her father stood up with his plate while her mother began closing the lids on the food that remained. “No one’s throwing you anywhere, Becky,” she said. “Your father just forgot.”

“I notice you filled my old room up with your files,” Becky said to her mother

Her father touched her head as he walked out of the room. “You could always sleep downstairs with Bedelia.”

“Oh god!” said Becky. When her dad was gone she looked at her mother and said, “I can’t believe you put her in the basement.”

“It’s warm down there,” her mother said simply, meeting her daughter’s gaze. “She doesn’t want to be in the way.”

Becky looked down at Shepherd, who had assumed a position between her and the garbage disposal and was looking at her with his soft warm eyes. He had a bushy moustache – “Like Nietzsche!” her father had said when they brought him home – and the combination of the soft look and the facial hair reminded her of a kindly German waiter, a person she had never seen. Staring at the dog, who cocked his head as he stared at her, she felt suddenly like an amnesia victim and the strangeness she was experiencing as she looked at the black and brown dog seemed to radiate outwards and taint the whole kitchen.

“Why did we even name him Shepherd?” she finally said, but when she looked up her mother had gone.

 

The first thing Bedelia did each morning was pray, the way she was taught. When she had been bad her mother would make her kneel on beans: She would pour some dried beans on the floor and tell Bedelia to kneel on them until they cut into her knees like gravel.

She was looking at His feet when she heard the dog bark. She closed her eyes and began again, and again the bark. She sighed and stood slowly, each bone creaking. She put her wig on and walked slowly up one flight and to the back of the house.

Outside a light rain was beginning to fall and Shepherd was standing in the backyard, wagging his stub of a tail and looking at the back door. Bedelia opened it and looked at him; he did not try and jump or rush her, the way he would with the children. He was respectful and kept his distance.

“Come,” she said, and opened the door and he ran past her, into the house, and then stopped to shake his dewy fur once inside the door.

Bedelia scolded him as she scrubbed his fur with the towel she kept by the back door. “Why you standing out in the rain?” she asked, as if it was his fault, as if the dog had let himself out. It was late; the kids were off to school and the house was quiet. Michael had probably let the dog out and forgotten about him as the light rain began to fall. He was always forgetting.

Once the dog was dry she walked slowly down the stairs, Shepherd leading the way back to her room. Once inside she closed the door and sat on her bed while the dog waited, patiently, until she gave the sign, opening both her arms wide and he leapt onto her bony lap, as light as a baby.

“Why you so bad?” she whispered to him and he looked at her and licked her face. Shepherd’s hair was tight and curly, black in some places and lighter brown in others. His eyes were a deep dark brown and as she looked into them she thought of Roger.

Roger had worked for the family as a driver – Michael and Ruth hated the word “chauffeur” and “he does so much else for us,” Ruth had said, though Bedelia could not remember what else he did. The parents were always working then and Bedelia couldn’t drive, so Roger would take the kids to soccer and chorus and play dates and parties, and wait while Bedelia went in and watched them, or not, depending on her instructions. If she couldn’t wait inside she would sit in the car with Roger sometimes while he told her terrible jokes.

“Why you always laughing?” she would say to him as he threw back his head, showing his white teeth. “What so funny?”

“And why you always look like somebody die?” he would counter. “Your face like this,” and he would suck in this cheeks and squint his eyes until his head looked like an old apple doll.

Now the dog winked at her and for a moment she felt that Roger was there. He licked her again, right on the lips.

She had told Roger about Hugh, her boy. Maybe it was because they spent so much time together, sitting in the car, waiting for the children. Maybe it was because he was from the islands, and she thought maybe he had someone back home. Maybe because he was about the same age her son was the last time she saw him.

Bedelia had left Hugh with her sister when she came to work in America. Her sister had two kids of her own, and didn’t mind the third, especially when Bedelia started sending home money. Her sister, in turn, sent her pictures the boy had drawn, including one of Bedelia in her wig and maid’s uniform, holding a feather duster, which she taped to the wall at home.

And then the pictures and letters stopped and when she called her sister said he didn’t want to come to the phone. “I think he’s mad at you,” her sister had said, which in turn made Bedelia angry.

“What he got to be mad about?” she had said. “He just a little boy,” she said, as if anger were something like sex just for big people. She got him on the phone then but it got harder over the years, and when he was a teenager he told her he never wanted to see her again. By the time she got back to Barbados he had left the house, and wouldn’t show his face until she was gone.

She remembered telling Roger, sitting in front seat of the Mercedes beside him, tears running down her hard cheeks. He had listened closely, unbelieving, making gasping and groaning sounds as she tale took its turns, and offering her tissues to daub her eyes.

“Why you believe him?” he said when she was done. “I heard Ruth say the other day, ‘A parent give up on a child but a child never give up on his parent.’”

Bedelia had blown her nose and said, “And where her children from?” But Roger had only tisked and tutted some more as the kids came running away from some birthday party, paper crowns upon their heads. “I bet you see him in time,” Roger had said as he got out to open the door, but Bedelia never had a chance to ask what time that would be.

A snorting sound sawed through her memory. Bedelia looked down to see Shepherd asleep in her lap, snoring a little. “Why you so lazy?” she said to the dog, and then laid a bony hand upon his downy head.

 

Becky had come home in part to have a family therapy session with her parents. Things had been strained between them lately. Becky had taken her first year off after high school, which was cool with her parents. “It’s a gap year,” her father told people, “like they do in Europe.” But when she decided to take the next year off as well, and got a job working in a casino in Atlantic City using a phony Korean name, her parents became concerned.

“We’re just trying to wrap our heads around it,” her mother had said.

“I want to see what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been adopted,” Becky told them and they had done their best to look understanding.

“But of all the alternate destinies,” her father had started to say but her mother had cut him off. They had been sitting in the Japanese rock garden her father had built in the back yard, close enough for her mother to put a hand on her dad’s knee.

“What if we all explored this together in family therapy?” her mother had said. She tried to make it sound fun, like she was suggesting a skiing vacation. “Would you like me to call Joan?”

Joan had been Becky’s therapist in high school; she specialized in adolescents and liked to encourage Becky to get in touch with her anger. She was older than Becky’s mother and the walls of her office were covered with primitive masks and she had what looked to Becky like little toys: sandboxes and little people.

“I don’t play with dolls anymore,” she’s said pointedly, the first time they met. “I’m 15.”

“Did you play with dolls when you were little? Did you have a favorite?”

Soon Becky was engrossed in telling her about a blonde, blue-eyed doll; Becky had tried to color its hair and pull its eyes out.

“Did you want her to look like you?” Joan had asked

“No!” Becky had cried. “I wanted to look like her!”

Joan had done family sessions with Becky and her parents before, and now, nearly five years later, the experience didn’t feel that different to Becky. The room still seemed very crowded with them all in it, and the masks that had looked so friendly once – the smiling, bug-eyed demon from Bali; the sharp-toothed monkey from South America – now looked like wildlife trophies.

Joan began by asking Becky’s parents what they were worried about. Becky watched her as she listened; she had changed her eyeglasses since she saw her last and Becky felt an odd twinge of anger, as if Joan should have asked her first. She didn’t listen to what her parents said, a skill she had mastered over time, and had gotten over her anger about the glasses by the time Joan turned her attention to her.

“And what do you think your parents need to know about what you are doing?” Joan asked her.

“That it’s my life?” She hadn’t meant that to sound like a question. “That I’m not going to die if I don’t go to college right away.”

“You graduated from high school – “ her father began.

“Shut up! I know when I graduated from high school.”

“Becky,” said her mother. “You needn’t speak to your father like that.”

“Sorry. But I didn’t interrupt you guys when you were talking.”

“Why don’t you finish your thought,” said Joan.

Becky looked at her father who wore the same expression he always did. “It’s okay to get mad,” she said and then to Joan: “It’s like no one ever gets mad about anything. Like this whole international adoption thing is supposed to make everyone be nice to each other all the time.”

“I get mad all the time,” her father said before anyone could stop him.

“Really?” Becky was staring at him now, eyes shining. “How come when you fired Roger you gave him money – even though you knew he was stealing from you?”

“Who’s Roger?” said Joan.

“He used to help drive the kids around,” Becky’s mother explained. “But we suspected him of stealing – “

“You saw him taking money from Dad’s desk!” Becky was practically standing now. “And still you paid him extra when you let him go! What is that about?”

“Well, we didn’t give him any notice,” her father said to Joan. “And after selling my company I suddenly had more time to drive them myself.” Then as if he had to add it: “And it was kind of my fault for leaving money just lying around.”

“And then they fired Bedelia for falling asleep in the park when she was watching Sarah, and what did they do?” Becky was staring at Joan. “They gave her a room in the house!”

“Bedelia was your nanny,” Joan said, as if recalling characters from a soap opera she hadn’t watched in years.

“And now she lives in the basement, like a troll!”

“I think what you’re saying is we’re too easy on people,” said her father. He was looking at Joan still but now he turned his gaze on his daughter. “It just seems to me like life is hard enough.”

“No, you know what hard is?” Becky was looking at her father defiantly. “Hard is working for tips in a casino in Atlantic City. Hard is working as a busboy in a restaurant in Brooklyn, like Pedro wants to do.”

“Pedro can’t be a busboy,” her father said. “His Spanish isn’t good enough.”

“How is this making you feel, Ruth?” Joan was looking at Becky’s mother who had become quiet.

She paused before speaking. “I’m looking at this beautiful young woman that I had the privilege to raise,” she said at last, “so confident, so determined. But I keep thinking about her as a baby.” She turned her gaze to her daughter. “Those months before we went to Korea,” she said, telling Becky a story she’d heard a thousand times, “all we had were those pictures of you – pudgy-faced little angel. And I would prop them on the dining room table and place candles in front of them, like a little shrine.”

She looked back at Joan. “I remember being in the country and looking at the stars in the night sky and imagining one of them was my little girl. I even said her name – we’d already named her Rebecca, after my mother who died when I was young.” She looked at her daughter again. “I liked to pretend you could hear me.”

 

Joan’s office was down in Chelsea and after their session Becky’s mother said they were going to pick up Pedro, who was playing a baseball game on a field near the Chelsea Piers. “Then I thought we could all go see this show I heard about at a gallery just across the Henry Hudson.” Becky felt strangely numb after the session, which ended with a promise, though no date, to get together again.

“Whatever,” she said. She still couldn’t believe her dad wanted to drive into Manhattan on a Monday afternoon. It was as if ever since firing Roger he needed to demonstrate that he would drive anywhere, anytime.

Pedro was waiting for them by the field, wearing the same uniform he’d worn last night. It was streaked with mud now and when he got into the backseat of the BMW SUV beside Becky she thought he smelled of both kinds of grass. He did not protest too much as his mother explained what they were going to see.

“She’s a Japanese artist who does these big cartoony things I thought you’d enjoy,” she said. “She spent some time in a mental institution.”

“Sounds better and better,” said Pedro as he pulled two Cliff bars from his athletic bag and ate them both without offering to share.

“Where’s Sarah?” Becky asked the front seat.

“Basketball practice after school,” her mother said.

“Besides Bedelia will be there,” her father said and let the thought trail off.

They parked the car at a lot on 21st Street, right below the High Line. As they walked toward the gallery Pedro nudged her and made a sort of okay sign in front of his lips: Do you want to smoke a joint?

“I’m gonna have a cigarette before I go in,” Becky said.

“I thought you quit,” said her mother.

“It’s a process.”

“I’m just gonna hang with Becky for a minute,” said Pedro. Their parents looked at them suspiciously but then turned to enter the door of the gallery.

“Don’t be long,” their mother said.

They walked to the end of the street, hitting on a piece of a blunt that Pedro produced from the pocket of his jersey. They hardly said a word while the sweet smell of the weed whipped down the street, turning the heads of a few tourists.

“How come Sarah gets to stay home and you don’t?” said Becky.

“Home field advantage,” Pedro said, smiling at his sister. His eyes were already wet and red.

The traffic from the West Side Highway was loud and the stared at it in silence for a moment. Then they turned back toward the gallery. Becky felt very high. There was an installation outside, in a doorway near the front entrance, giant yellow pumpkins with black polka dots. They stared at them for a minute and Becky tried to walk in and touch them but an Indian guard waved her away.

“Don’t touch!” he said, which made them both laugh.

The canvases inside were huge, some just of one color, others of millions of dots. They had names like “Cosmic Space” and “Fear of Death” and even as she stood transfixed by them, Becky thought she probably wouldn’t like them if she hadn’t been stoned.

“You got to check this out.” Pedro was beside her and she realized that he must have been gone before. “Come here.”

He led her to the next room in the gallery. In the middle of it was a big white box, about the size of a tollbooth, with a guard in front of it. There was a door to the box and the guard seemed to be a sentry.

“They only let one person in at a time,” Pedro whispered to her. His breath smelled of gum. “This will blow your mind.”

The door opened and a man came out. Becky turned to look around the room. “Where are Mom and Dad?”

“Somewhere. Go on, check it out.” She turned back and he pushed her toward the white box; she paused to read the name on the wall text: “Aftermath of the Obliteration of Eternity.” The guard was looking at his cell phone and did not acknowledged her as she stepped inside.

The door closed immediately and she was in space. Hundreds of tiny hanging lights were reflected in the mirrored walls of the room, multiplying them by thousands. There was a tinkling sound, or was that in her mind, and for a second Becky thought she might fall.

A wave of emotion, like cold, came over her and she felt that the lights represented the souls of people everywhere. She was filled with awe and fancied she could hear the voices of those souls, sort of silent voices, speaking to her. In the distance – to her right, maybe: she had disappeared so the concept of right-left was meaningless – one light kept surging, growing and winking at her as if trying to speak. Could it be her birth mother, across the universe? Becky tried to reach out her hand but she had no hand to reach.

“Mom?” she said aloud.

Then she heard a snicker. She was not alone. She turned, she could feel her body again, and make out two dark shapes in her universe, blocking out whole galaxies. Suddenly the door opened and a European looking couple, fit and tan, walked out in front of her and scurried away, whispering to each other.

Becky stepped out into the white glare of the gallery room. The guard was looking at his cell phone again and none of her family was near.

“Excuse me?” she said to the guard. “I thought I was supposed to be alone in there.”

The guard shrugged and glanced at her. He was a black man about Becky’s age and her anger did not faze him. “That exhibit is meant to handle up to four people. They was in there when you walked in.”

“I didn’t see them.”

He looked back at his phone and said nothing. “What’s wrong with you?” she said. “What planet are you from? And why do you keep looking at your phone when I’m talking to you?”

The man gave her his full attention now. His eyes went hard and he said, “What planet am I from?” She thought he was going to say something else but he didn’t. Perhaps he was weighing his job prospects or maybe he just knew she was stoned. He looked around the gallery and then said, in a quieter voice, “I look at my phone ‘cause it’s got a timer on it. You only get five minutes in there.”

A couple walked into the box and he closed the door behind them. Then he held up the phone in front of Becky. “I got to keep the time.”

She walked away, confused and still angry. She walked right out of the gallery and into the street but then she decided she wanted to say something. She walked back in through a glass door and saw a beautiful white woman sitting behind the desk at the front door. She did not look up when Becky stopped before her.

“Hello?” said Becky. “I want to make a complaint.”

The woman looked at Becky now, her expression filled with indifference. “A complaint?”

“Yes, that guard over there was very rude to me.”

The woman looked around. “What guard? Where?”

“That one in front of that infinity box or whatever it’s called. I was supposed to be in there alone.”

The woman looked at Becky and smiled. “That’s the Kusama show. At the Gagosian gallery, next door. This is a different gallery.”

Becky looked around. She did not recognize any of the paintings. She looked back at the woman, ashamed. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“You have pretty eyes,” Becky said.

“Thank you!” Her smile brightened.

“And your hair is beautiful. Are you a model?”

She shook her blonde hair and laughed. Becky apologized again and walked outside. A cold wind was coming off the Hudson now and she thought of their session with Joan. Did they expect to see her cry? What did they want from her?

Becky looked back at the gallery where her family was. She felt her anger for the guard leaving her body: His job was more absurd than hers: keeping his eye on the minutes outside of a room where time and space no longer existed.

 

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