If You Tell Us We’re All Right, I’ll Believe You

by Joanna Luloff

Claire had been out of the hospital for six weeks when she invited me up for a visit. She was eager for some company and needed a chauffeur, she joked. Charlie had explained to me that Claire needed to be seizure-free for three months before she’d be allowed to get behind a wheel again, and according to his updates, her seizures were still erupting every few days. The doctors were mystified by these little “break throughs” as they called them, and Charlie had begun taking Claire into work with him so she wouldn’t have to be alone, and so if she had one of her spells (Charlie’s word for it), there might be someone to ease her fall. I’m not sure if Claire knows about these late night calls I receive from Charlie, if she realizes the image of her that has taken shape in my mind – bruised and cloudy, blurry in her gaze and unsteady on her feet. If I were to believe Charlie, she has become a walking accident, clumsy and shaky and out of focus.

It was selfish of me, but at first I didn’t want to come. I had finally got myself back into some semblance of a routine. My plants had only just begun to forgive me for their yellowed leaves and drooping stems. I had been feeling underslept for days and my back was aching from too many late hours cramming edits onto a glowing computer screen. When I looked in the mirror, I saw that shadows had seeped under my eyes and my skin seemed dusty – the effects of that unplanned for Florida sun. All of these were, of course, easy excuses. Mostly, I was afraid – afraid of what I’d find in Claire, afraid that what Charlie had said was true. I was also afraid of the three of us navigating this new territory where Claire had suddenly become the vulnerable one. I’d grown used to protecting Charlie from Claire, but I was worried that Claire might be the one needing protection these days.  Charlie has been angry for a long time. I could imagine his need for revenge, or a sort of punishment at least, even if he weren’t conscious of it himself. I’ve felt it too, a need for revenge, which was another reason I was frightened to come.

But despite it all, there was a part of me that was hopeful, that whatever has gone on inside Claire’s brain has provided an opening, a clearing away of old clutter, a chance to answer some old and aching questions. After I hung up the phone with Claire, I thought about Charlie standing by the window at that Key West hospital with Claire beeping a few feet away and how he had leaned into my body and wrapped his long, skinny arms around me. It had been a long time since we’d been so close. There was a comfort in feeling his weight again, even in the midst of all that worry and uncertainty. Like I said, maybe I was being selfish.

*

When Charlie and Claire picked me up at the little, local airport, Claire would have run into my arms if Charlie hadn’t restrained her. She pushed and pulled out of his grasp until he let go in exasperation. “Careful, Claire,” he urged as she caught me up in one of her enormous hugs.

“You smell delicious!” Claire grabbed me by the hand and pulled us both away from Charlie. “Did you check bags? Tell Charlie what to look for and then he can meet us outside. I want to have you all to myself for the first few minutes at least.”

The force of Claire’s energy surprised me initially. If it hadn’t been for Charlie’s words of warning over the phone, this is just what I would have expected from Claire. The bear hug and the demand for undivided attention. But under the surface of things, I could see that Claire seemed unsure of herself. Despite the largeness of her gestures, she kept looking to Charlie for his okay.

“My suitcase is green and duffel-shaped. It’s got a little piece of yellow yarn attached to the handle.” I smiled at Charlie. “We’ll meet you outside.”

“All right, then. I’ll go fetch the bag, but at least give me a hug first, Rach.” Charlie pressed me into a careful hug and whispered into my hair. “Keep a close eye on her. When she gets too excited, she can totally lose it, and then the next thing you know, she’ll be on the ground.”

Before I could respond, Claire was tugging on my arm. “Leave her be, Charlie.” With Charlie searching out my eyes and Claire locking her elbow in mine, I began to wonder if this was what the whole week was going to be like. The push and pull of competing loyalties.

It was Charlie who released me first and made his way towards baggage claim. “We’ll see if he brings back the right bag,” Claire called out after him. “He gets his greens mixed up with his reds,” she added more quietly.

Now this was unlike Claire. Sure, she could push and poke and tease. We all expect that of her, but it was rarer for her to be so clumsy with her teasing. After her outburst, people had begun looking our way. If Charlie had heard, his swift gait didn’t show it. I must have looked confused because Claire felt the need to explain. “Charlie is color-blind. That’s what I was giving him a hard time about.”

“Claire,” I said. “I know Charlie’s color blind. I’ve known him even longer than you have, remember?” And before the words were out of my mouth, I realized that I had come here to test her in some way, to search out her willingness to return to the past, to find out what we might be allowed to say to one another now.

But all Claire said was “of course you did” and there was nothing in her expression that registered more than this fact.

“Yes,” I wanted to say. “Of course I did. And I met his parents before you did. And I knew that he got motion sickness before you did. And I slept with him before you did too.” Instead, we sat down on a bench next to the taxi stand, feeling the cold breath of late autumn as we waited for Charlie.

“I’m so glad to see you, Rach.” Claire rested her head onto my shoulder and I watched her breath puff out in little bursts of mist.  She smelled different to me, piney with traces of wood smoke. Over the years, Claire had developed a taste for exotic scents; you could smell her approach as soon as she entered a room, sandalwood or bergamot or jasmine drifting in ahead of her. Now, she smelled a whole lot like Charlie.

Charlie has always smelled clean to me. He packs satchels of lavender in his suitcases – he is the first and only man I have ever known who does this – and his closets are lined with cedar blocks. There were times in the past when I tried to smell his skin, to get a little closer to the human presence in him, the vulnerable, sweaty earthiness that we all must carry around with us, but Charlie never seemed to have that.  I had been doing a lot of this kind of thinking lately, imagining and remembering a Charlie apart from Claire, my first impressions of him, how much I trusted the solid consistency of him before I had learned to doubt him.

Claire kissed the bottom of my jaw quickly as she raised her head and smiled.  It was an awkward gesture.

“It’s really good to see you too,” I whispered back, not certain if I was quite telling her the truth.  What did Claire look like to me? I searched for traces of my best friend framed between her oversized woolen hat and the scarf wound round her neck. Her eyes looked tired and they couldn’t seem to settle on anything for more than a few seconds. She had hardly kept eye contact with me since our initial hug. She didn’t seem to want to be looked at.

Claire talked to the wall behind me. “I’ve been really lonely. And I think I might be going a little crazy. It’s like I’ve become Charlie’s clumsy shadow, following him wherever he goes, being still when he chooses to be still, walking when he feels like some fresh air. Sometimes I catch myself asking him permission to go to the bathroom. We’ve really become quite ridiculous.” Claire lifted her head and smiled out in the direction of the taxis. “I don’t blame either of us for this stupidity. We really have no idea what to do with me.”

I could feel Claire pulling me back to her. I wanted to help her; I wanted to help Charlie too, just like they had helped me all those years ago. And I was starting to understand that I enjoyed how much they both seemed to need me. I was being made important again, just like I was when I opened up my home to them and arranged family dinners and built bookshelves for all of us and gave us a place to celebrate the holidays. Our self-made orphanage.  Of course I wanted Claire to get strong again and I wanted Charlie to have his life back, but selfishly I also wanted to go back to whatever moment it was when we all still loved each other and hadn’t started lying yet. “What should we do with you, Claire? What do you want to do this week? I’m all yours.”

Claire turned her focus back to me and smiled. “Well, first, I want to go shopping. I’ve been wearing Charlie’s clothes for weeks now. I haven’t unpacked all of the boxes from New York yet, and I got too thin in the hospital. Charlie’s clothes fit me better than my old ones, but I’m still swimming in his sweaters and I’ve really had enough of plaid and flannel and gray, gray, gray!”

“All right then,” I took Claire’s hand. “We’ll go shopping. And what else?”

“I want to walk beside Lake Champlain. I’ve been working on my endurance. I think we can do it.” Claire took out a notebook and started making a list. “If I don’t write all of this down, I’ll forget it by the time we get home.”

“Charlie told me about the notebooks. They seem like a good idea.”

“They were Charlie’s idea. I’m not sure if they’re really working, but they help cut away some of the boredom at least. I want to go to the grocery store too and fill the cart with my choices, my cereal, my fruit, my brand of coffee… whatever those might be. I have the hardest time these days deciding what I like.”

As Claire continued her list, Charlie rounded the corner, rolling my suitcase behind him. He waved once and I waved back.

“Charlie got the right bag after all,” I whispered to Claire, but she was busy with her writing and didn’t seem to hear me or notice Charlie’s return, so the two of us watched her in silence, exchanging amused smiles over her head as we waited for her to finish. Perhaps I was already choosing sides.

*

The next morning, Charlie and I had breakfast at the kitchen counter as he got ready for work and I waited for Claire to wake up. Charlie spread some butter on a slice of toast and handed it to me. “She gets tired easily these days,” Charlie explained between sips of tea.

As he drooped his long frame against the counter, he pressed his shoulder against mine. He was doing it again, placing his body next to me in ways he hadn’t done for years now. Once he had chosen Claire and the two of them moved into the same room, he was careful around me. He made sure that he and I were never in the same place alone together.  He became even more polite. He asked me permission to use things in the house, though up until then, it was clear that everything we had was shared. All of these evasions, all of this propriety, were the only acknowledgements that anything had ever passed between us.  I used to try to touch him, just to be certain that he would pull away and it wasn’t just my imagination. I liked his discomfort; it was the only source of power I still had over him.

“I think we might have kept her up too late last night. And she didn’t take her nap yesterday because she was so excited to see you. She’s usually up by now.”

“You know, Charlie, you speak about her like she’s a toddler. She must hate it when you do that.” I hadn’t meant to scold him, but I could imagine Claire’s outrage if she had heard herself discussed like this.

“You’re right. It’s a horrible habit of mine that I’ve settled into lately. It’s just that I’ve been put in charge of everything – organizing her medications, making her doctor’s appointments, urging her towards naps, reminding her to take the clothes out of the dryer. And she relies on me to do all of this. It’s not like I want to parent her for God’s sakes.”

“I didn’t mean to say that you’re enjoying any of this, Charlie. I’m sorry I said anything. I know how hard these weeks have been.”

“Oh, Rachel, please. You can say whatever you like. And you’re absolutely right, of course. I nag her and she resents me. Perhaps we’re being punished for never having any children.” Charlie attempted a smile, but it traveled over his face more like a grimace.

I’m sure I must have frowned too because Charlie kissed me quickly on the forehead. “You’re good to come, Rachel. Don’t let any of my whining bother you. I’m just exhausted and grumpy and I don’t like to have to think about the way I’ve been behaving lately. What is that you have planned for today?”

Charlie has always been so proper and polite; he’s the most graceful person I know at changing the subject. But here he was nervous and fluttering and offering dry kisses. He was a mess. “I’m taking Claire shopping. I thought we might go down to Church Street and wander around the stores for a bit.”

“That sounds perfect.” Charlie took one last sip of his tea. “Just be careful on the cobblestones down there. Claire loses her footing rather easily these days and you might like to try to have her home by three so she can rest up before dinner.”

I raised my eyebrows at him and shook my head. “You’re unbelievable.”

“You’re right! I am! It’s shameful, isn’t it? All right then, I’m off. Ignore me and have a fantastic day. I’ll see you both for supper.”

I was sad to see Charlie go. I could still feel his kiss on my forehead as I listened to his car pull away and the house grow quiet. I imagine that these would be the new rhythms we would keep. When Claire was tucked away for her naps or her long sleep into the morning, Charlie and I would have our moments in the kitchen, on the couch, where he would reveal things to me. I suppose it would be up to me to reveal things too, lingering questions, and not quite forgotten anger. There were the questions I could never ask him, like how easy had it been for him to leave me behind. Did he ever think about the hurt caused me when he chose my best friend? These questions are unfair, especially now. I kept far too many things from him too. To Charlie, we had always only been friends, good friends of course who dated once, but nothing more. And I never contradicted him. So how could he have known?

*

Claire took her time getting ready, but we managed to get into the neighbor’s borrowed car by eleven. It was a cold day, but bright. The leafless trees looked apologetic in the late morning light. Claire was wearing one of my sweaters, a speckled orange bundle of wool, shapeless over her leggings. And on her feet, she wore some clunky wellies. I laughed at her as she approached the car.

“What’s so funny? She looked suddenly uncertain and I felt bad about making her question herself at all.

“It’s just that you look like such a Vermonter! And it’s not even cold outside – to me, it still feels like summer.”

She laughed and I knew right away that everything was all right again. “I know! It’s awful, isn’t it? I never feel warm here.” She climbed into the car and I followed, taking my place at the wheel. She turned to me as I started the engine and punched me in the shoulder. “That’s what you’re here for. You’re going to help me remember me. We’ll start with a clothing overhaul. I want some skirts and some pretty blouses, and some new shoes. That’ll be a good start.”

*

When we eventually entered the first boutique, Claire had lost some of her enthusiasm. She looked overwhelmed by the racks of clothes as she clinked through the hangers and layers of sweaters and shirts and trousers. She’d grab a shirt, hold it up to her chest, and squish up her face. I had no idea what this expression meant – it was not one I was used to seeing on her face. “What do you think of this?” she asked me with each new item. This was something else I wasn’t used to. I don’t think Claire has ever asked me for fashion advice in all the time we’ve known each other. “Do I even like purple?”

“You like green more,” I answered, handing her a blouse with scalloped cuffs and some black embroidery. “And this seems like you.” I offered her a flouncy little 50s style skirt, littered with pansies. I wrapped my hands around Claire’s waist, surprised by how little of her I felt there. “My God, Claire. What are you, a size four these days?”

“I have absolutely no idea. Grab a couple of each one and we’ll figure it out in the dressing room.”

The sales clerk took our expanding piles into the dressing room as Claire rifled through the sales rack. I was already exhausted and the day had barely gotten started. I’ve grown so used to making decisions only for myself – I was out of practice at having these kinds of discussions.

Claire asked me to come into the dressing room with her as she sorted through the mountains of clothes we had amassed for her to try on.  I watched her as she slowly and carefully stepped out of her leggings, all the while balancing against the wall. Every one of her actions was studied and deliberate and I couldn’t match this slowness with the Claire I knew – always in a hurry, always impatient, always waiting for others to catch up.

As she took off my sweater and stood in the severe light of the changing room, she suddenly appeared so worn out, so gray and mottled, I almost couldn’t look at her. Her skin was still bruised blue and purple, even black, from IV’s and the ghosts of blood draws and other injections. At the hospital, the nurses had complained again and again that Claire had terrible veins, blaming her for their missed pricks and “traumatic” blood draws. And here she was, all of these weeks later, still splotched with the aftermath of all of those invasions.

But the worst thing for me was the pink-white scar puckered into her neck. A slit where the intubation tube had connected her to the respirator. I remembered too clearly the gurgles and sucking noises that had emanated from her neck, the thick sounds of near suffocation. This tiny scar, no more than an inch wrinkled into her neck, brought all of these sounds and struggles back and I felt something shudder in me. I came close to gagging, and to disguise my reaction to Claire’s body, I hid my face in my hands.

“Am I that bad to look at these days, Rach?” Claire laughed at her reflection.

“It’s not you.” I tried to meet her gaze. “Just some bad memories came out of nowhere.”

Claire was standing in front of me, the green blouse buttoned high up her chest and the billowy skirt swishing against her legs. Covered, she looked lovely. She still looked tired around her eyes and that scar still peeked out between her clavicles, but she was smiling and the green lit up her face and she started to sense that she looked good, that she looked better than she had in weeks, and suddenly a part of her was returning.

“I love it,” I said. “You look really beautiful.”

“The green is nice, isn’t it? You were right about the color. And the skirt makes me feel flirty.”

“You look flirty,” I teased. “I recognize that look on your face.”

“Hmm…if only there was someone to flirt with.”

“What about Charlie?” I was prodding and I knew it.

“Oh, poor Charlie. If I tried to flirt with him, he’d probably tell me not to excite myself.”

“You never know; he might appreciate it.” I felt the need to defend Charlie all of a sudden. I kept thinking of the way he scolded himself earlier that morning. He needs to feel like a husband again, I thought. I wondered how they were approaching each other now that Claire was out of the hospital. In the months leading up to her illness, Claire had confided in me that she and Charlie hadn’t slept together in months. He was angry with her and wouldn’t say anything about it, she explained, and Claire had been too busy to care.  And of course there were other reasons too.

But what about now? It was easy to see that Charlie seemed fully conscious of Claire’s health, her medications, her sleep, her seizures, but at the same time so unaware of the body that was suddenly in such close proximity to him again. He hadn’t touched her once since I arrived, except for one of his quick kisses on the forehead before we all retreated to bed. He sat across the living room from her, watching her from a distance after we had returned from the airport. I wonder if Claire has been keeping her distance too.

What I saw, I suppose, were the remains of a growing distance that had been building for years. And what did I feel about all of this? The careful but cool interactions? All of these tentative gestures and controlling politeness? I wondered if it were possible to feel sadness and satisfaction at the same time. Was there a word for this kind of feeling? Was it a kind of revenge, I wondered.

“I doubt it. Charlie spends most of his time on the sofa, reading, and scribbling notes. He pretends that he’s going to come to bed ‘in just a bit,’ but the next morning he’ll explain that he slept in the guestroom because he didn’t want to disturb my sleep.” Claire let the skirt drop to her feet and grabbed a pair of cropped jeans from the pile. I looked away from her. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have this conversation with Claire–it felt disloyal to Charlie somehow. “He doesn’t look at me, except when his is frustrated or yelling, and even then he tends to look above one of my shoulders rather than at me directly.” Claire’s hair brushed against my arm as she reached for a sweater. “Kind of like you were doing just a minute ago.”

I met her gaze in the mirror. The red turtleneck sweater she had put on covered her scar and rested just above the belt loops of her jeans.

“Don’t look so guilty, Rach. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I don’t always like looking at myself these days either.”

“ I swear, Claire. It’s not you. You look good; you look beautiful, really. It’s just that I can’t get the image out of my head–you attached to all of those machines and the doctors looking helpless and without any answers, and all of the blood taken out of your arms as they tried to figure out how to make you better again. I can’t stop remembering it. It was easier to let it go when we just talked on the phone, but somehow seeing you–your bruises, Claire–I wasn’t expecting this.”

Claire smiled at me in the mirror. “You look at me and can’t get away from those memories of Florida. You wish you could forget. But for me, I look for the clues on my body to tell me what happened down there, to fill in the missing spaces of my memory. Isn’t that strange?”

I tried to smile back at her. “It is strange, Claire. I can’t even imagine what that unknowing must feel like for you.  But if you have any questions, if there’s anything I can tell you, you just have to ask me.”

Claire looked at herself in the mirror. She wiggled her butt and then she grinned at me. She was trying to make us both feel better, but I just couldn’t match her efforts.  I was angry with her and I wasn’t even sure why. “Ah, Rach. I know I can ask you anything. It’s one of the reasons I wanted you to come. Sometimes, I think Charlie is too frightened to tell me the truth.”

I wanted to be generous, I really did. And I meant what I said to Claire. I was willing to answer her questions, but I wanted her to answer mine too. It couldn’t be only me providing the answers – I’m not that selfless. Before I knew what I was doing, I asked her, “Have you spoken with Michael?”

Claire turned away from our reflections and looked at me directly. “Michael who? What Michael?”

I examined her face, the way I imagined Charlie had been doing for weeks now, looking for a glimmer of recognitions, some small sign of memory entering that dark space that had taken up her recent memories. Charlie had explained to me Claire’s black hole, the joking name they had given to her memory loss, but I needed to be sure. There was nothing in her face that betrayed any kind of recognition though, only a lopsided look of confusion, and I immediately felt sorry.

“Oh, Michael was the photographer you were on assignment with when you got sick.” Before Claire got sick, many of our conversations had been about Michael. I had never met him; I only knew him through her stories of their assignments and in the photographs that would occasionally accompany Claire’s articles in the paper. At first, Claire had kept the details of him to a minimum. He worked as a freelancer, but kept an apartment in Mumbai. He had shot images of the conflicts in Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. He could speak some Hindi, Urdu, and was helping Claire with her Tamil. But in more recent months, Claire had explained that she was trying to get him some more permanent work with The Times. They were planning a trip to the Maldives, she told me in an email. And I remembered thinking, how can you bring this man to the place where you and Charlie spent your honeymoon? I had no idea how much Charlie knew about Michael, but I imagined this trespass on their shared history would be devastating to him, even if they had come to some sort of agreement. I never talked to Charlie about these things. I had intended on telling Claire that I thought she was being cruel, but then she had gotten sick, and so that conversation got tucked away along with so many others that I was never brave enough to start.

Claire rubbed at her eyes. “ I don’t remember any Michael.” She spoke at the floor.

“Please don’t worry about it, Claire. It’s nothing important.” I took her hands away from her eyes. “Let’s look at you.” I turned her to face the mirror again. “The jeans look great, but I think you need a smaller size in the sweater. How about I run and get it for you? I’ll be right back.”

As I left the room, my throat felt thick. It would be so easy to lie to her, I thought. In a sense, I just had. I promised myself I would make it up to her as I sifted through the sweater sizes. I would help her sort through the boxes piled high in the garage, just like she had asked me to, the boxes Claire was sure Charlie didn’t want her to open. I wondered what the boxes held – perhaps her work files or her old correspondences. I wondered if they held any photos she had kept in her studio or on her desk or if Charlie had thrown most of these memories away. It was hard for me to imagine him doing that; he was far too ethical and too kind. But I could imagine the temptation he must have felt, the desire to discard all the evidence that suggested all the many ways that Claire had traveled far away from him. I’m not sure I would have been strong enough to let the clues remain, clues that maybe, one day, would lure her away again. Like me, Charlie wants his second chance. I wonder how much of ourselves we’ll be willing to sacrifice to bring it about.

*

When I got back to the dressing room, Claire was on the floor. Shirtless, she was thrashing and spitting and her lip was turned up in a snarl. I straddled her legs – Charlie told me to keep her as still as possible if this were to happen, and to talk to her so she could hear my voice as she came to, so she would be less disoriented, less scared. Her breast had fallen out of her bra and I was crying. “Come back, Claire. Come back.” I was pleading with her. “ I am so sorry, Claire. I didn’t mean to upset you. Please, Claire. Stop it. Stop. Come back.”

And then it was over, so suddenly. Claire’s eyes regained their focus, but she couldn’t talk yet. There was a line of drool running from her chin to her cheek. She had bitten her lip and her mouth was bloody. I took my sweater and pressed it to her lip. “You’re okay now, Claire. You’re okay. We’re in Burlington, and you’ve been trying on some lovely clothes.”

Claire smiled and brushed the hair out of my eyes. “Hi Rachel,” she said. “It’s all right. I’m all right.” She had found her voice again. “Please don’t cry. It makes me feel too guilty.”

We sat on the floor together, holding hands. We sat with our legs entangled and our backs resting up against the wall. The sales clerk approached and knocked on the door. “Is everything okay in there?” she asked.

“We’re fine.” Claire answered for the both of us. She was suddenly ready to take charge again while I was willing to sit, waiting on the floor, waiting for Claire to tell me what to do next.

 

Joanna Luloff received her MFA from Emerson College and PhD from The University of Missouri. Her collection of stories, The Beach at Galle Road was published by Algonquin Books in 2012. Her novel Remind Me Again What Happened is forthcoming from Algonquin. She is an Assistant Professor at SUNY Potsdam.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction

2 responses to “If You Tell Us We’re All Right, I’ll Believe You

  1. Such a beautiful, haunting, tragic story. Wonderful details.

  2. samanthastier

    Beautiful, haunting story. Love the details.

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