There were three of them in the car that night: Lauren, Samantha, and that boy he’d never liked, the one he’d pegged as a bad influence. The first time the kid showed up at the house, his eyes were bloodshot, his hair wet — clearly he was fresh from the shower, deodorant and shaving cream wafting from him, and it only made Mike wonder what smells he’d had to clean off. He was good-looking enough, square-jawed and blond, and Lauren sprinted out to him like a stone from a slingshot. Mike sauntered over, leaning heavily over the driver-side window, partly to get a look at the kid and partly to remind him that the pretty girl in his car had a father — not just any father, but a former college football player, a man who could cast a shadow, someone who’d come looking if anything went wrong.
“I’ll have her home by eleven, sir,” the kid said. He was too polite. Mike wanted to reach in and shake him, hard. Do you think I’m an idiot? Do you think I was never seventeen? But Lauren had her seatbelt on, green eyes glowing with please-don’t-embarrass-me fury. So he patted the roof of the car and let them go. And he did have her back by eleven, Lauren smiling at him where he was watching TV, yawning as she headed safely up to bed.
These were scenes he replayed in his mind now, at night. The dentist had given him a mouthguard because he was grinding his teeth. He lay on his back with a mouth full of plastic, sweating into the sheets. The dentist said the guard would help with his headaches, and he supposed it did. But the plastic made a clacking noise. Diana couldn’t stand it; she was sleeping in the spare room now.
* * *
Sunday morning he woke and showered, the house quiet, Diana at church. He’d never gone with her except at Christmas, and once Lauren turned thirteen they didn’t make her go, either. On his way to the hospital, he drove to Samantha’s house, as had become his habit these past months, and she came out. She and Lauren had been friends since the second grade. They’d played on the same soccer team, slept at each other’s houses, spent hours on the phone talking each other through teenage melodramas. He’d taught them together in his middle-school science class, relieved that they were both good students. Now Sam was eighteen and heading to Drexel in the fall. She was a stocky blonde girl with bright blue eyes obscured by too-long bangs. She slid in beside him, wearing a tank top and jean shorts, and buckled her seatbelt without saying anything. Her nose and shoulders were sunburned.
On the way over, as usual, they didn’t talk. Lauren’s room was down a dim hallway that smelled musty no matter what the weather. The nurses nodded at them. Lauren’s skin was pale, her dark hair in a ponytail, her green eyes cloudy. Taking a seat, he read her a chapter of Harry Potter. Sam sat outside. After a while she came in, and he went to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. When he came back, he saw that she’d fitted her iPod headphones over Lauren’s ears, and was staring at her intently.
Lauren liked music. Her favorite song was “Here Comes the Sun” and every time he heard it his eyes filled up with tears.
If she liked what Sam played for her, she didn’t show it. The nurses nodded at them on the way out.
On the way home, they chatted a little. Curiously, when he parked in front of Sam’s house, they sometimes talked for at least five minutes, the girl getting bubbly with her hand on the door handle, as if imminent liberation from the car — or maybe the fact that their errand was over — relaxed her.
“So a couple summers ago Mr. Harad was giving out free passes to soccer teams?” she said now. “Like for ice cream cones or whatever? And these kids have been bringing them in, these old passes, saying they’d just forgotten about them. And we had to give them all this free ice cream, tons and tons of it. But then he figured out that the passes were fake.”
“He must have been mad,” Mike said.
“Steam was literally coming out of his ears,” Sam said. “He was screaming at these 10-year-old kids, ‘You use computers to cheat! Computers are to learn!’”
“I wish,” Mike said drily.
“No kidding,” Sam said, opening the door, then waved at him, exuberantly, even though they were only a few feet apart.
At home Diana was making Sunday brunch, which they ate while reading separate sections of the newspaper. At one time she used to tell him about the sermons, until she realized that he wasn’t listening. He couldn’t help it; he just tuned out. She’d grown up in the Moravian church; it was part of her, whereas Mike’s childhood Sundays in Ohio were devoted to football games. So now they had a truce on the subject. Afterwards he cleared the plates and loaded the dishwasher. When he was done he found Diana sitting on the couch in the living room, not doing anything — just sitting. She was thin and dark-haired, as was Lauren. She sewed quilts and gardened and coached Lauren’s softball team; all that on top of working in the school board office twenty hours a week. Now she glanced up and saw him in the doorway.
“Come here,” she said.
They sat together on the couch, Diana’s legs flung over his, her head against his shoulder. After a while he turned on the TV and they watched the second part of a John Wayne movie. Diana fell asleep holding his hand.
Summers he generally spent fixing up the house. This year he was redoing the bathroom on the first floor, lucky to have learned these skills from his dad, a contractor. He and Diana were at Home Depot picking out fixtures when suddenly she grabbed him and pulled him around to the next aisle, flattening him against a rack of lamps. She pressed against him, and he could smell her shampoo, feel her hummingbird heartbeat against his chest. A chandelier dug into his back.
“What are you doing?” he said, laughing.
She shushed him, turning his face towards the windows with the palm of her hand. He put his arms around her, wondering at her upset, if it was something about the bathroom. But they’d planned the renovation even knowing Lauren was off to college soon; they needed it for when family came to visit. When Diana finally released him, her eyes were dry. She flushed. “Sorry,” she said. “It’s the Kents.”
Lifting his gaze over her shoulder, he saw Sam’s parents browsing the lawnmowers. They were kind, smart people, both doctors. After the accident they’d come by regularly, bringing food, eyes soft with pity. Diana had stopped returning their phone calls. “It just makes me feel worse,” she’d said. This was why he didn’t tell her that he took their daughter with him to the hospital on Sundays. It was the only secret he kept from her.
They hid in the lighting aisle until the Kents were gone.
* * *
The following Sunday, he picked Sam up again, read to Lauren, drove her home. In front of her house, she said, “Can I ask you something?”
“When I go away to college…” Her voice drifted off. She had a scab on her right knee, like a younger child, and she’d been picking at it. It looked angry and infected, blood oozing out. If she were Lauren, he’d be on her case about it. He waited for her to go on. She was looking out the window, at her own house, but vacantly.
“Should I, like, write to Lauren?”
Gripping the steering wheel, he turned away from the girl. He hadn’t expected the question — they never talked about Lauren or the accident or how they felt about it. It was what had made their Sundays so comfortable. When he spoke, he was surprised to hear how unsteady his voice was.
“It’s up to you,” he said. Carefully, then, he brought his voice under control, made it calm, his teacher’s tone. “If it would make you feel good, then I don’t see why not. I could read the letters to her.”
She blew out a puff of air, spraying her bangs out to the side. “It’s just weird, like we said we’d keep in touch, so I feel like I should, but I don’t really think she can hear me and even if she could, wouldn’t she be pissed? That I’m going to college and she’s not?”
“I don’t think she’d be pissed,” Mike said. The truth was in the car between them: that Lauren did not have the faculty for anger, that college meant nothing to her now. The thought sank him. It was like going down in an elevator, to a dark, cool basement, so deep beneath the earth that you might forget you could ever come back up. Forget that you had ever seen the sun. When he was in that place, Diana said he was unreachable. Lost. So far away was he that he didn’t notice at first that Samantha was crying, sniffling bubbles of snot that she wiped away with the back of her hand. He wished Diana were here; she’d have a tissue, know how to give a hug. He patted the girl’s shoulder, awkwardly. “It’s okay,” he said.
“I feel like it’s all my fault,” the girl said.
“It’s not,” he said. Then, after a pause: “Right?”
The events leading up to the accident had always been mysterious. Sam was the only one who’d come out of it intact; she’d been sitting in the back. The boy, who was driving, died at the scene. At first, the doctors had said that Lauren would be all right, that they could relieve the pressure on her brain. Later, they’d changed their minds.
Now in the car next to him Samantha was wild-eyed, red-eyed, her chin trembling spastically. After the accident, she’d been so upset that no one had been able to get anything out of her. Later, she said she didn’t remember any of it. Sometimes Mike wanted to shake the memory out of her. He’d imagined doing the Heimlich maneuver on her, punching her hard in the abdomen, as if the truth would fly from her throat like a piece of food lodged there. But he’d tried to let it go; knowing what had happened would not undo it.
“Hey,” he said. “It’s all right.”
She took a deep breath, then hiccuped. Not knowing what else to do, he took out a card from his wallet — it was from a plumber he and Diana had used last year — and wrote his cell phone number on its back. “You can call me any time,” he said.
She took it gratefully, less for the card itself, he thought, than with relief at having something to hold. She put it in the pocket of her jean shorts and smiled at him through her sloppy bangs. She looked a wreck. “Thanks,” she said.
That week while Diana was at work or visiting Lauren he worked on the bathroom, happy for the project that filled the hours. He stripped the tile and took out the old toilet and sink, ferrying them to the landfill. The summer was densely humid, and his clothes stuck to him. At night, his muscles ached. He was deep asleep on the following Friday when his phone rang. It took him a while to understand what was happening, then remove the mouth guard so he could speak. When he finally flipped the phone open, he heard only music, some pulsing dance beat.
“Who is this?” There was a scuffling sound, followed by jagged breathing. “Samantha?” he said. “Is that you?”
“Can you come get me, please?” she said.
He looked at the clock; it was past two. “Tell me where you are.”
She gave him an address in South Bethlehem, not far from Lehigh. Maybe she was at some party with college kids. On the way out, he paused by the closed spare room door, wondering if he should tell Diana; but she wasn’t sleeping well lately, and he didn’t want to mess up her whole night.
The address turned out to be a ramshackle duplex on a side street he’d never heard of before. Though when she’d called, it had sounded like a party, the place was quiet. He’d thought she’d be outside waiting for him, but now he saw he’d have to go in. He sighed. Lauren had never done anything like this. Grudgingly he made his way up the splintered wooden stairs and peered in the window. There were a couple of guys lying on couches, watching TV. No sign of Samantha. He knocked; there was no reaction. Now he assumed they were stoned or something worse, and he was worried. He opened the door to the house and went in.
“Don’t you knock?” said one of the guys. The other stayed riveted to the TV. They looked to be in their twenties, one white, one Hispanic, both skinny. Slouched on their threadbare couches their jeans rode down past their butts, exposing their underwear. Their arms were sleeved in tattoos.
“I did,” said Mike. “I’m looking for Samantha.”
The guy who’d spoken shrugged. The other guy still had not moved. Giving up, Mike headed to the empty kitchen. From there he moved upstairs. If the first floor was unadorned, the second floor was battered. Cans of beer were scattered here and there, some overflowing with cigarette butts. In one empty room was nothing but a stripped mattress on the floor. His pulse was quick and angry now. He opened the next door and there he saw a fat man in a white tank top ministering to a sick person in a bed. Then his eyes readjusted and he understood that the man wasn’t ministering—he was pulling up Sam’s dress. Her eyes were closed, her arms flopped out to the side. A strand of her long blond hair was caught in her mouth, some foam flicked on her chin.
“Get off,” Mike said. “Now.”
The fat man ignored him. His face flushed, he was concentrating hard on pulling down the girl’s underwear. Mike stood a step forward and pushed him away and down, the fat man saying nothing, his jeans unbuckled, landing hard on the floor. He sprawled there moving his arms and legs in a languid, confused way, like a turtle on his back. Turning back to Samantha, Mike pulled her dress down — it barely reached her thighs — and picked her up, draping his arm across his shoulder.
“Can you walk?” he said. She didn’t answer. He dragged her down the street, his arm around her waist. She smelled of puke and beer.
Downstairs, in the living room, there was now only one guy left, the one who’d spoken earlier. He was crouched over a bong, filling his lungs, and when he saw them he let out a stream of smoke and smiled.
“Girl had a little too much fun, huh?”
At the sound of his voice, Sam came around, gurgling a little. “Thank you for the party,” she said weakly.
“You are so welcome,” said the guy. “Dude, need help getting her to your car?”
“Shut the fuck up,” Mike said. He propped Samantha against his leg as he opened the screen door.
The guy smiled again. “Have it your way,” he said.
After he got her in the car and buckled her up, Mike slid in to the driver side. Just as he did the fat man came running out of the house, shaking his fist. Mike reached over the girl and locked the door. Sam woke up and smiled vaguely. “Bye,” she said.
As he pulled up to the Kents’ house he saw the driveway was empty. Sam was awake, staring listlessly at the window.
“Where are your parents?”
“They took my brother to visit colleges.”
He turned off the ignition and rolled down the windows. A breeze carried the smell of skunk into the car. Sam sat with her seatbelt on, dazed or sick or simply pliant. He knew he should scold her or express concern or both. Be parental. But it was three in the morning and he was wiped out. A headache pressed its angry iron grip upon him. He leaned back in his own seat and said the first thing that came to his mind.
“Did Lauren know those guys?”
She nodded. “Sure,” she said. “We partied with them sometimes.”
His skin prickled with revulsion. “The night of the accident, were you partying with them?”
She squinted at him. “We never got there,” she said simply.
Nights when Lauren was out, he and Diana told themselves not to wait up, that they knew her friends and where she was. Every time they called her cell she’d answer promptly. She was allergic to hazelnuts and they’d trained her to ask about the food in every restaurant or home, even if it was something that didn’t seem like it would have nuts in it. Once when she was eleven she ate some chocolate cake at a party and went into anaphylactic shock, her throat swelling, and he’d plunged the EpiPen into her skinny thigh as she stared mutely at him, terrified…these memories skittered like marbles across the flat planes of his brain.
“Thank you for picking me up,” his daughter’s friend said.
The fake politeness of teenagers drove him crazy. He looked at her, not knowing if she remembered what had happened to her in the bedroom, or if he should remind her. “Are you okay?”
“Absolutely,” she said. She got out of the car and walked slowly, with evident care, up the walkway. It was only when she got to the front door, framed beneath the yellow porchlight, that he noticed she wasn’t wearing any shoes.
Back home he slid into bed next to Diana, needing her body beside him. He put his palm on her hip, and she nestled backwards. Lying still, he tried to match his breath to hers. When they were first married, Diana’s hair was long, past her shoulders, and it would get into his eyes and mouth while they were wrapped together in bed. When she was pregnant with Lauren, her hair grew thick and silky, with a heft and shine to it that they both loved — he used to run his hand through it, feeling it slip around his fingers like ribbon. After Lauren was born, she cut it off, because the baby kept pulling on it, and ever since then she’d kept it short. Now the black was spiked with grey, harsh bristles against his chin. He reached his arm over her stomach and in her sleep she took his hand and put it between her legs, warming it there.
He thought back to those times when her hair was long. When he was twenty-five, he met Diana by accident—he was on his way into a bar, about to meet friends after work, when he noticed this pretty girl sitting alone in a corner. Her friend had flaked out on her; he never met his. They’d been dating three weeks when she invited him over for Sunday supper. She went to church with her parents every week and spent the rest of the day with them. At the time he thought she went to church because she was a good daughter and close to her family, not realizing how tenaciously she held to her beliefs. It had taken him a while to come to grips with that, but he had. On that first night, he rang the doorbell of her parents’ house and her father came to the door; he was a portly, jowly man, all his skin sagging toward the ground as if gravity were pulling it with strings.
He looked at Mike and said, “You must be the young man I’ve heard so much about.”
“I hope so,” Mike said. He reached his hand out, but the other man didn’t take it. He stood there staring at Mike, his eyes half-hidden in his flesh. Behind him, Mike could hear the two women talking, the mysterious clatter of kitchen work. With seeming reluctance Diana’s father turned his body to the side and Mike passed by him, uncomfortably close to his belly. He motioned to the living room. It was one of those living rooms that clearly no one lived in: the uncomfortable straight-backed couch, the side tables riotous with doilies and knick-knacks.
“What is it you say you do for a living?”
“I’m in sales,” Mike said. He had a job at a medical supply company; he hated it, the way he had to inflict himself on people, the associations with illness and death. Diana’s father grunted. His expression was impossible to interpret.
“You like it?”
“Not very much.”
Diana’s father lit a cigarette. He didn’t offer one to Mike, who didn’t smoke, still maintained his college habit of running ten miles a week, but nonetheless thought it rude.
“Diana says you’re from Ohio.”
“What church your family go to?”
Mike took a breath. His hands were sweating. Diana and her mother were still talking in the kitchen, their voices too low for him to make out what they were saying. The food they were cooking smelled good, pot roast maybe, and the kitchen seemed to him an oasis…why was she leaving him alone out here?
“We don’t go to church,” he said. “My parents were raised Lutheran but they didn’t much care for it.”
“Ha!” Diana’s father barked. “Didn’t care for it! Ha!” Mirthlessly he shook his belly, exhaling smoke at the same time.
At the barking, Diana came out of the kitchen, her eyes dancing as she took in Mike’s discomfort. “Are you tormenting him, Daddy?” she said.
“Not too,” her father said. “I got to make sure he’s all right for you, sugar.”
“He’s just fine,” Diana said, and Mike flushed as if she’d said much more.
As they sat down to dinner, Diana’s mother bringing out plate after plate of food, Diana’s father said grace. They all held hands. As they unclasped, her father turned to her and said, “Mike says he’s thinking of being a teacher.”
Diana and Mike exchanged puzzled glances; her father went on imperturably. “Knowledge is the thing. It will last a lifetime. Better than material goods.” He was a deacon at the church and his voice rolled from him in waves, inexorable as his thick sagging flesh, a deep, rich river of words. “To mold young minds,” he said to Mike, “is to better the world. It is itself a kind of religion.”
That evening, he and Diana slept together for the first time back at his little apartment, and afterwards he said, “What do you think your dad meant, about me being a teacher? I didn’t say anything like that.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. He gets ideas like that sometimes. He calls them inspirations.”
Mike ran a strand of her hair through his fingers. “I think I might do it,” he said.
Seeming unsurprised, she smiled at him. As they held hands, he saw the path his life was going to take — he knew he was going to marry this girl, and they’d live close to her parents, and he was going to be a teacher, and there was a certainty to it all that he would have said, if he were a religious man, felt like a state of grace.
The following weekend, he went to see Lauren alone, then came back and changed into his work clothes. He was deep into the remodel when the doorbell rang. Sam was standing on the front porch, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and flip-flops. “Hey, come in,” he said, stepping back. He gestured to the living room. The girl stood in front of the couch, uncertain, until he said, “Sit down. Do you want some lemonade or something?”
He brought her a glass and she sipped it tentatively before carefully setting it down on one of Diana’s coasters. He sat down next to her on the couch, watching her. She was slouching, her head nodding as if in agreement to something he’d said.
“So anyway,” she said, and laughed awkwardly. Her hair hung loose around her shoulders. She was sweating a little. “I came to, you know, about the other night.”
“Listen, I’m glad you called,” Mike said. “I’m glad we got you out of there.”
She glanced up. “No, I—” She reached out her hand, as if to touch him, then stopped. Mike was confused. Why was she here? For a recounting of the night? She shook her head and didn’t speak. He waited her out but nothing came. Finally, she said, “So what are you up to today?”
He gestured at his sweaty clothes, the plaster dust coating his shorts. “I’m re-doing the bathroom.”
Her eyes lit up. “Can I see?”
It wasn’t what he was expecting, but he nodded and led her back there. He showed her where he was installing the new toilet and sink, the plumbing, the tiling and paint can colors. Nothing a teenage girl should have the slightest interest in but she was acting like it was the most exciting thing she’d ever heard in her life.
“Can I help you?” she said.
“Oh come on,” he said. “You must have plenty other things to do with your time.”
“I don’t.” Through her bangs tears were visible in her eyes. She blinked and sniffled. Without thinking he took her in his arms, and they hugged. She came just up to his shoulders, and she nestled her head almost into his armpit, like some animal burrowing there. She put her arms around him. He could feel the heat coming off her body, her breasts squished against him. He didn’t move. She reached her hands up and palmed his neck, then reached her head back and stared at him intently. He felt logey, sedated, only interested as if from a distance in what she was going to do. Still with her seriousness of purpose she stepped up on her toes and kissed him, slipping her tongue inside his mouth. She was none too adept and her tongue flailed around as if it were looking for something it had lost. Nonetheless his body responded and he let his hands drop down to the small of her back.
As if this signalled something to her she broke the kiss and stepped backwards, smiling at him triumphantly. “I always wanted to do that,” she said.
“Look, don’t worry about it, okay? I just always wanted to.”
Always? He almost said it out loud. How long can always be to an eighteen-year-old? Since you were fourteen, sixteen? Since last week?
“I’m going to go,” she said. “Thanks for getting me. I owe you.”
“No you don’t,” he said.
She let herself out. After she’d gone, he sat on the new, uninstalled toilet, wondering if he ought to feel guilty. Was he as bad as that fat man in the house, preying on his daughter’s friend? She’d seemed so happy, as if she’d accomplished something. As if she’d proved something to herself, passed a test only she knew the contents of. That she was grown up, he guessed. That she was allowed to make mistakes.
* * *
On the next Sunday he didn’t pick her up. Instead he offered to go to church with Diana, who was taken aback. “How come?”
“I want to be with you,” he said, which was the truth. They attended service together at the church, and then together they went to see Lauren. They fed her some soup and Diana washed her hair, Mike supporting his daughter’s neck while his wife carefully shampooed and rinsed it. When clean, it gleamed darkly with health. Lauren seemed to enjoy it, in so far as you could tell; she made soft, snuffling noises, her neck relaxed. He noticed that someone had taken out her earrings, and he wondered who had done it and when. They’d fought over her getting her ears pierced for months, Lauren wanting to do at eleven, he and Diana insisting she wait until thirteen, an arbitrary number in all honesty, and finally they’d given in, Diana driving Lauren and Sam together to the mall, the girls returning so proud, constantly fingering their ears…
The night of the accident it was the Kents who called them, the police for some reason having dialed the wrong number, and they all met at the hospital, them and the parents of the dead boy, whose name, he now remembered, was Evan. He had no memory of what those parents said or where they went. The Kents rushed in to see Sam, who was crying audibly in one of the rooms. He and Diana were taken in to see Lauren, who lay in bed with her eyes closed, breathing quietly. There were lacerations on her face and arms but she looked otherwise herself. Diana touched her with her fingertips, all the while speaking to her softly, letting her know that they were there, that it would be okay.
Now she folded Lauren’s hands in her lap, squeezed them, kissed her forehead. She was worn and tired but her strength was remarkable; it nourished him, kept him from darkness. Standing, Mike kissed his daughter’s cheek. She made a small bleating sound; the doctors cautioned them not to read too much into her noises, but it was hard not to think that she was saying something, that she knew they were there. She was still so pretty. He thought of her on the night of the accident, running out to the car to meet her friends. Sam in the back, bangs over her eyes, her oldest friend. The good-looking boy in the driver’s seat, looking at her with hunger in his eyes. It was a crisp fall evening in November of their senior year, a clear night when you could see how many millions of stars speckled the sky. He hoped his daughter had seen that. He prayed she’d felt, as she stepped into the car, some happiness too pure and rare to dwell on, some fleeting, immeasurable sense of the rightness of the world.