Early Monday morning, Suzanne handed her husband his phone, his keys, and an envelope of legal documents. She’d pulled the documents from his desk, and found the phone on the bathroom counter and the keys on the bedroom floor. On Sunday, Roger’s ex-wife had crashed her bike into someone’s retaining wall on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Roger had spent most of the day at the hospital. He hadn’t gotten home until after Suzanne was asleep, but she had a faint memory of hearing keys hit the carpet.
Suzanne was the one who’d answered the phone when the hospital called, and for a moment, she’d felt nothing but annoyance. She and Roger had been planning to take their seven-year-old son RJ to Travel Town and the zoo, and now they’d have to cancel, just because Cassie, Roger’s ex, was such a free spirit that she had to ride her bike to her yoga class in the morning drizzle.
Cassie would end up recuperating at Suzanne and Roger’s condo, Suzanne thought, and the next week would be like every birthday party, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas of the almost eight years of Suzanne and Roger’s marriage. That is, it would include Cassie.
“When can we come get her?” Suzanne had asked impatiently, but the answer made her understand how bad the accident had been. Then she felt awful; awful for Cassie and awful for the person she’d become.
When she finally got to the hospital – it wasn’t easy to find a sitter on short notice – and saw Cassie, her hazel eyes swollen and her long gray-blonde hair cut short, because it had been matted with blood, Suzanne felt the horror and shock anyone would feel when they saw someone they knew bandaged and motionless and attached to monitors and machines, but she felt something else, too. She was relieved that she’d had the reaction that a good person would have.
So Monday morning, she wanted to be helpful. She gathered Roger’s things, poured his coffee, and offered to cancel his meeting with a potential client, a lender with a backlog of small real estate cases. Roger needed the work, but it didn’t matter, because no one would hire a lawyer who looked as exhausted as Roger did this morning. It didn’t help that he was wearing the jeans and sweatshirt he’d chosen on Saturday and put on again, half-asleep, early Sunday morning. The jeans were old, and the sweatshirt had a comical drawing of a squirrel on the front, the comical squirrel being the mascot of the progressive private school where Cassie worked.
“Mom?” RJ called sleepily. “Dad?” He came into the living room wearing just the bottoms of his Superman pajamas, having discarded the top at some point during the night. “Is Ella here?”
Ella was Roger and Cassie’s daughter. She was on her way home from Connecticut, where she was a freshman at Yale.
“I’m headed to the airport right now, pumpkin,” Roger said.
That woke RJ up. “Can I come?”
“No, honey,” Suzanne told him. “Dad and Ella are going straight to the hospital. They don’t let kids in the hospital.” Which was not exactly true. RJ would probably be allowed to see Cassie if they asked.
Roger wanted to ask. Suzanne had been resisting, but knew she’d have to give in soon. The documents she’d given Roger were Cassie’s. Suzanne was a paralegal, and she’d helped Cassie fill them out, so she knew: one of them was a healthcare power of attorney, and Ella was the one it gave the power to. Roger had already told Ella what the doctors said, which was that Cassie wasn’t going to recover. Soon, maybe even later today, Ella would give the okay to turn off life support. That’s what Cassie wanted.
Suzanne put her hands on RJ’s skinny shoulders. “Wash up and get dressed, and I’ll make us breakfast. Something special, since we’re up so early.” She was pretty sure there was a box of pancake mix in the pantry.
“I don’t want special breakfast,” RJ said. “I want to go the hospital. I want to see Cassie.” He started to cry. He looked, as he often did, younger than his age.
“Babe,” Roger said, and Suzanne gave in. She knelt and kissed RJ’s smooth forehead. “Maybe they’ll let you.”
“We’ll make them let you,” Roger said. “Cassie’s your stepmother.”
Wrong, Suzanne thought. Ella was RJ’s half-sister, but even in the amazing world of civilized divorces and blended families, Cassie wasn’t RJ’s stepmother. She, Suzanne, was the only mother he had.
She stifled a sigh and looked up at Roger. There was the small constellation of freckles on his left earlobe, and there, a little scar, just on his jaw line. It was the result of a childhood skateboard incident – he’d told her the story. Suzanne reminded herself that every marriage had its problems, and every spouse had some characteristic you’d rather they didn’t have. Everyone knew that. If you wanted perfection, you couldn’t be married.
Suzanne loved being married. She loved Roger, and Roger hated conflict and discord unless it was inside the sterile walls of a courtroom. Poor Cassie was dying. There was no reason to start telling the truth now.
Cassie and Ella’s cat, Julius, came trotting out of RJ’s room meowing for breakfast.
When Roger and Suzanne told RJ about Cassie’s accident, he’d fixated on the cat. “You have to bring him here,” he’d demanded, slightly hysterical. “He’ll be too lonely!”
“But your allergies,” Suzanne had protested. RJ was at least mildly allergic to almost everything, and he often came home from Cassie’s red-eye and sneezing.
“Julius is not an allergic cat,” RJ’d answered shrilly. “He’s not.”
“Does it matter so much if he sneezes?” Roger had asked softly. Roger had never entirely believed in RJ’s allergies. “He loves that cat.”
So Suzanne had fetched Julius, and he’d been shedding all over the condo ever since, his brown-orange fur not quite blending into the taupe wall-to-wall.
Roger bent to pet him. “Poor kitty.” RJ petted him, too, then, contrary to what Suzanne had repeatedly told him, rubbed his sleepy eyes.
At the front door, Suzanne squeezed Roger’s shoulder. “Be careful driving. I don’t think you got much sleep.”
“Not much,” he admitted, drawing her into a hug. “I kept thinking, why Cassie, when so many people love her?”
Many people did love Cassie. She was quick to hug and touch and express emotion, and always ready to listen. Her friends could count on her for a shoulder to cry on, a companion if they needed one, even rides to and from the do-not-drive doctor’s appointments that are the scourge of the single adult. It was Cassie’s influence, not RJ’s grades or their budget, that had gotten RJ into the progressive private school. Cassie was only an assistant in the college-counseling department, but people did things for her.
Roger thought that all that meant that Cassie had a generous and loving soul. Suzanne thought something different. She thought that Cassie didn’t love anyone except Ella. What Cassie loved was being loved.
Roger couldn’t understand why Cassie hadn’t found another long-term relationship. Suzanne knew why. Cassie’s romantic partners were women – her discovery of that preference was the reason for the divorce – and women are more insightful than men. Sooner or later, they saw through her.
But Suzanne knew the steep, winding stretch of Laurel Canyon where Cassie had crashed. Cassie must have seen the retaining wall coming at her, Suzanne thought. She must have known what was happening. Suzanne burrowed deeper into Roger’s chest. Just thinking of it was terrifying.
“Oh, Suze,” Roger said, holding her tighter. “What are we going to do without Cassie in the world?”
Back at the beginning, Suzanne’s mother had asked if she could handle it. Being a new mother was hard, she’d said, and so was being a stepmother. She’d even bought Suzanne a book about blended families.
Suzanne had laughed. The conversation, the first of many on the subject, was at the bridal salon, where Suzanne, engaged, pregnant, and giddy with happiness, was having a fitting on her dress. “I can handle anything,” she said, and though she said it cheerfully, both she and her mother understood it as a reference to her childhood, in particular to her parents’ divorce, which had been the old-fashioned, unhappy, poverty-inducing kind.
The salon, a small one in the Valley, was wallpapered in a pattern of lush old-fashioned roses, and smelled faintly and pleasantly of potpourri. It was nowhere near as fancy as the ones in Beverly Hills, but Suzanne loved it. At the salon, the bride was everything. They fussed over Suzanne and brought her green tea to sip while the seamstress finished her dress. Not an eyebrow was raised over her pregnancy. A pregnant bride was a beautiful bride – that was the attitude at the salon. And her dress – silk and lace – really was wonderful.
No eyebrows were raised about Cassie and Ella, either, when Cassie brought Ella in for her fitting. The salon’s attitude was that the groom’s ten-year-old daughter from a previous marriage was the best possible bridesmaid, and that it was wonderful if a groom’s ex-wife was friendly.
“How are you feeling?” Cassie’d asked Suzanne, accepting a cup of green tea from the woman who ran the salon. “Great, right? The minute the first trimester’s over ….” She’d looked at Suzanne’s mother for confirmation, but Suzanne’s mother only shrugged. “Good Lord. I can hardly remember.”
Even back then, it made Suzanne uneasy to think of Cassie, pregnant with Ella, doing the things with Roger that she did with Roger now. For instance, he liked to rest his head on her belly and talk to the baby. He liked, God knew, her larger breasts. “I’ve felt great all along,” she said casually.
“Well, anyway,” Cassie’d said. “You look sensational. Ella, don’t tell Daddy about the dress. It’s a surprise for him.”
“Ok, Mom.” Ella was square and dark – Roger’s body type and coloring – but she seemed to think she was pale and willowy like Cassie. Cassie was always in layers of clothes, shawls and scarves and ruffle-front cardigans, so that even jeans and a t-shirt looked light and romantic. Suzanne had let Ella choose her own dress, and Ella had picked a ruched mint-green chiffon dotted with flowers. It was, as Suzanne’s mother observed, the most Cassie-like junior bridesmaid dress in the store, but if it looked a little silly, Suzanne didn’t care. She was happy, and she wanted everyone else to be happy.
After Cassie and Ella left, Suzanne’s mother put on her concerned voice. “Sounds like Roger sees a lot of her.” There’d been references to Roger’s help with Cassie’s broken garage door, Cassie’s work on Roger’s firm logo – she’d been to art school – and the restaurant where Cassie was taking Roger for a bachelor dinner. “Sounds like there aren’t any real boundaries.”
Suzanne, who was getting back into her clothes, made a face into the changing room’s full-length, gilt-framed mirror. Then she sighed loudly enough for her mother to hear through the pink velvet curtain the changing room had instead of a door. Boundaries had been a big theme in her mother’s life, she thought, and they’d gotten her nowhere.
Suzanne’s mother knew what the sigh meant. “Fine. You two can be sister wives.” She’d seemed to find that funny. “Non-denominational sister wives, except that Cassie’s gay, but I guess that makes it easier.”
In fact, Cassie being gay made it harder. Cassie and Roger were the same age. They’d lived together, travelled together – grown up together. They had a lot in common even aside from Ella, who they adored together. All that might not have counted as much if Cassie’d left Roger because she was tired of him, or because they fought, or for any of the million reasons why wives want divorces, but Cassie being gay meant that Roger didn’t think the divorce was about him. Cassie wasn’t rejecting him, she was finding herself; that was his view, and it was ok, even though she kept saying she wished she’d figured it out sooner and spared him the pain.
“We’re all part of one extended family,” Cassie’d said, the first time she and Suzanne met. It had sounded good, relaxed and friendly, but soon enough, Suzanne realized that the family being extended was Roger and Cassie and Ella’s, and that the small, un-extended, Suzanne-Roger-RJ family didn’t really have a chance.
Establish some traditions of your own, Suzanne’s mother said, when Suzanne complained that she felt like an outsider at every one of the summer Sunday picnics that were a Roger-Cassie-Ella tradition, but RJ wasn’t an easy baby, and in the beginning, just being a wife and a mother left Suzanne exhausted. By the time she had the energy to look online for fun picnic food – chicken skewers, cooked right at the park! – Ella had turned vegetarian. Everyone agreed that Cassie could make vegetarian food taste good, and Suzanne didn’t have a clue.
The penalty for bigamy is two wives – that was the sexist old joke – but Roger hadn’t been penalized. He had almost everything he’d had with Cassie, and he had Suzanne and RJ, too. And Cassie had her girlfriends and her new community, and she had Roger. Suzanne didn’t know whether the legal definition of bigamy meant that a second wife could be guilty of it, and she hadn’t bothered to look it up. She knew what the penalty was.
After Roger left, Suzanne poured the last, sour cup of coffee and took it to the small butcher block kitchen island, where RJ sat with his Cheerios. “We’ll go to the hospital right after school,” she told him.
RJ poked at a soft bit of the wood, where an African violet in a too-small pot with a too-small saucer had sat for much too long. Butcher block, which had looked warm and homey at the store, had proved to be a poor choice. “So I can see Cassie?”
“Mom, I’m so sad.” RJ knew how to talk about his feelings – it was practically part of the curriculum at his school. “I mean, I’m mad. It’s not fair that Cassie got hurt.” He started to sing Michael Row Your Boat Ashore, which Cassie had sung with him. “Hal-ee-luu-ya!” he sang sadly, then stopped. “Will Ella be at the hospital? I love Ella.”
“Of course,” Suzanne said. “We all love Ella.”
The truth was much more complicated.
“That girl adores her mother,” Suzanne’s mother said, when she first met Ella and Cassie. It was a warning, not a compliment, but Suzanne was confident that she and Ella would be friends.
According to the blended families book, a stepmother had to meet a child on the child’s own terms, so Suzanne cheered at soccer games and spent hours playing Monopoly and checkers. When she and Roger bought the condo, she took Ella shopping for curtains and a bedspread, and let her pick the colors for the spare room – her room.
“You’re so great with her,” Roger said when they came home with the paint, a dark, intense, purple. Suzanne felt encouraged, and tried to come up with fun excursions. They went ice-skating once, and once – the last Suzanne-and-Ella excursion – to the ballet.
All the other little girls at the matinee wore party dresses and pretty shoes. They ran up and down the grand staircase in the lobby of the Dorothy Chandler, pointed at the huge chandeliers, and gasped when the curtain went up on the sparkling set. Ella wore her everyday jeans and sneakers and seemed entirely indifferent to the architecture, and everything else. That was her attitude toward Suzanne in general: indifference. The blended families book, which had sections on temper tantrums and bad behavior, had no advice about that.
“She loves you,” Roger would say, and remind her that Ella complimented her cooking and thanked her for going to the soccer games and gave her a hug with every hello and goodbye. Never had Suzanne been hugged with so little interest; it was the dictionary definition of “perfunctory.”
But right now, Ella was having a last moment with her dying mother. She was preparing for that awful conversation with the doctors. Suzanne knew what that was like. Ella was much too young, Suzanne thought, and felt tears fill her eyes.
“It’s ok to cry,” RJ said.
Cassie’s death would be the biggest crisis of RJ’s life, Suzanne thought, driving him to school. Probably of Roger’s life, too, and it would be up to her to help them – and Ella, if Ella would let her. Her heart beat a little faster, with fear and with anticipation. I can do it, she thought, as she watched RJ trudge into the pink stucco school building, and while she was in the supermarket buying pancake mix and maple syrup for RJ and soy milk for to Ella, and in the pet store, where she bought a seventy-five-dollar scratching post for Julius, who’d already clawed deep marks into Ella’s trundle bed and kneaded her chenille bedspread into a fluffy disaster.
I can do it, she thought, and it’s my turn, even if it’s taking a tragedy to give me the chance.
Back home, Suzanne put the scratching post in Ella’s purple room. Julius sniffed it, then clawed the carpet. She shut the door with him inside, gave the living room a quick vacuum, and settled at the dining room table with her laptop. She had a half-finished assignment, a document review in a regulatory case so large and complicated that one of the biggest law firms in Los Angeles had farmed out part of the paralegal work – which was great for Suzanne, because big firms paid better than Roger had when she’d worked for him.
Right then, though, as Suzanne watched the minutes tick away, it was hard to focus on the information the AQMD wanted. She had to plan for her family’s practical future, too. Roger could buy Cassie’s car, she thought. It was a fairly new Prius, and Roger’s Lexus was ancient. Some of Cassie’s furniture had been handed down through her family, huge, heavy Mission pieces. Ella would want to keep those, but where? Maybe one of Cassie’s friends could store them. Once Roger realized that RJ’s allergies were real, they’d have to find someone to take Julius.
And then there was Cassie’s house, which she’d inherited from her parents while she and Roger were still married. According to the real estate websites, which Suzanne couldn’t resist, that shabby house would sell for enough to pay for the rest of Ella’s college. It didn’t matter that the roof leaked and the plumbing left a lot to be desired, because the buyer would tear it down and build new. There’d even be enough to pay off the loan Roger’d already taken out. God only knew how they’d pay for RJ to go to college, otherwise. God only knew how poorly they’d planned.
Roger had been a fun boss, the kind who made corny puns at staff meetings and brought doughnuts on Fridays. He was a good lawyer, too, conscientious and thorough, but after Suzanne worked for him for about a year, he slowed down. He misplaced his briefcase and his coffee mug, looked distracted, and had to be reminded about deadlines.
Finally, late one winter afternoon, she’d gotten bold. She’d gone into the conference room with an armload of plat maps, and although Roger had asked for just those maps, he’d looked at her blankly.
The conference room curtains were made of some beige-and-white loose-woven synthetic that did nothing to block the light from Ventura Boulevard, but Suzanne pulled them closed and turned on the small lamp on the side table. The lamp was mostly for decoration, but even a 15- watt bulb warmed the room. “Is everything ok?” she’d asked, sitting across from him. “I mean, you seem tired.” Then she worried, because that was personal and she needed her job.
But Roger looked pleased. “You’re pretty insightful, you know that? The thing is, my wife and I separated.”
“I’m so sorry,” Suzanne said, and tried, with her expression and posture, to show that she was ready to hear more.
It worked. “She’s gay,” Roger said, as if it still surprised him. “She didn’t know, but now she does.” He paused. “Is it ok to be telling you all this?”
Suzanne nodded. “Sure.”
“She’s such a great person, and I want her to be happy, but it’s hard.” Suzanne was thirty-three years old and she hadn’t been in love in a long time. She looked at Roger, so earnest and caring, and thought, this is a man I respect. This is a man I could love.
When Roger fell in love with her, too, and wanted a baby, Suzanne could see happiness laid out in front of her like a path she’d never expected to find. She wasn’t sure that it was good to feel grateful for love, but grateful was what she felt.
In the hospital lobby, Suzanne reminded RJ that Cassie was very sick and wouldn’t be able to talk to him. “I already know that,” he said, looking around the plant-and-art filled space. “You already explained.” But when the elevator stopped for a patient on a gurney, then for a man in a wheelchair, an oxygen tank at his side and an orderly in attendance, RJ was visibly upset. He even let Suzanne hold his hand.
She waited until they got to the nurses’ station on Cassie’s floor to ask permission for RJ’s visit. “I want to,” RJ said loudly. As Suzanne had anticipated, his request and the nurse’s glance at Cassie’s chart got them a yes.
Roger was standing outside Cassie’s room. “I’m going to say goodbye to Cassie,” RJ told his father, and Roger said, “that’s right, son.” Over RJ’s head he added, to Suzanne, “Ella’s down the hall. We talked to the doctor.”
Suzanne knew what that meant. Roger and Ella had told the doctors to let Cassie die, and now poor Ella was crying in the ladies’ room. She was about to draw Roger and RJ into a hug when RJ spotted Ella and dropped Suzanne’s hand to run to her.
Ella was pale, and red-eyed with crying. The hospital air conditioning was set for the needs of hospital machines, not hospital visitors, and in her flip-flops and t-shirt and yoga pants Ella looked cold, like a girl who’d raced right to the airport from her dorm room.
Suzanne’s heart went out to her. She reached what she hoped was a comforting hand toward Ella’s shoulder – but Ella drew back, and Suzanne’s hand connected with nothing. Ella more than drew back. She flinched, as though Suzanne’s touch would cause her physical pain.
Suzanne couldn’t believe what she was seeing, even though she knew exactly what she was seeing: Ella’s face was full of emotion, and that emotion was hate.
Suzanne looked at Roger, but he didn’t seem to have noticed anything. Instead, he and Ella were talking about the legal form.
“It’s supposed to say something about organ donation,” Ella was saying impatiently. “Why doesn’t it say anything about organ donation?”
Roger looked at Suzanne. “Babe? Did Cassie want to be an organ donor?”
Suzanne couldn’t remember whether Cassie had said anything about organ donation. She couldn’t remember anything except the look she’d just seen on Ella’s face.
“Of course she did,” Ella said. “It should have been written down.”
“What’s organ donation?” RJ asked.
“It means that Dad and I have to make sure that Mom can keep helping people, like she did her whole life,” Ella said. She put a proprietary hand on RJ’s head. “Come on, little bro.” Now her voice dripped sweetness and sisterly concern. “We’re going to see Mom.” She glanced at Roger. “Come on, Dad.”
The three of them went into Cassie’s room, leaving Suzanne behind. Her feet were on the floor – she down looked to check, black loafers on the blue-gray tile – but she felt as though she was floating in the air, dizzy and unmoored. She felt as though she might, any minute, crash down onto that blue-gray tile and shatter into pieces. She was afraid to move. She didn’t know if she could move, but her husband and her son – hers – were in that room, and that was where she had to be.
Cassie had been disconnected from the monitors and machines, and without all the beeping and humming, it was uncannily quiet. The only sound was coming from RJ, who was sandwiched between Ella and Roger, all three of them pressed together, pressed up against the rails of Cassie’s bed. “Goodbye, Cassie,” RJ was saying between sobs. The creepy fluorescent hospital-room lights made everyone look pale and strange, Cassie, most of all.
The nurse, or maybe Ella, had centered Cassie’s head on her pillow and positioned her arms, almost bare in the short-sleeved hospital gown, straight at her sides, above the blanket. The useless blanket, Suzanne thought, because Cassie would soon be so cold that there was no reason to keep her warm now.
Cassie’s left arm was bruised and bandaged from her fall, and her right hand was bloody where someone had been careless, or hurried, in putting an IV in, or taking it out.
“You can kiss her,” Ella told RJ, urging him forward. RJ leaned over and landed a kiss on Cassie’s pale cheek.
It was ghoulish, Suzanne thought. It was wrong. He was practically kissing a corpse. She pushed into the room and yanked R.J. away from the bed.
“Babe?” Roger asked.
“For God’s sake,” Suzanne said. “He’s seven years old.” She looked at them – Cassie, dead in all but name, Roger in his ridiculous squirrel sweatshirt, and Ella, crying for her mother, but calculating, Suzanne thought, whether she could grab RJ back. “I’m taking him home.”
“Are you coming back?” Roger asked hopefully.
She didn’t answer. Let him be disappointed. At that moment, she didn’t care.
The moment didn’t last. She didn’t take RJ home. She kissed him and dried his tears and told him that the hospital was no place for a kid. She expected him to argue, but the cold stillness of Cassie’s room seemed to have scared him, too. “Ella won’t be mad at me?” he asked carefully.
Just at me, Suzanne thought, but she couldn’t say that to RJ. “You’re just a little boy,” she said instead. “A good little boy.”
Then she called RJ’s best friend’s mother, who, under the circumstances, couldn’t say no. RJ would be ok there for the night, and he could go to school with Bryan in the morning. Still, Suzanne hugged RJ tight before she let him go into Bryan’s house, which looked bright and warm and smelled of burgers cooking on a backyard grill. “Everything’s going to be ok,” she told him.
“It’s not ok, Mom,” RJ told her solemnly, but he hugged her back.
The only thing Suzanne wanted less than leaving her frightened child with someone else’s mom was leaving her grieving husband with someone who hated her.
Roger’s face lit up when Suzanne got back. She’d stopped at the hospital cafeteria, and Roger took his coffee and sandwich gratefully. “Thanks, babe. You’re the best!”
“That’s right!” Ella echoed, taking her own coffee and sandwich. “Thanks! You’re the best!” There was so much contempt in her voice that even Roger heard it. Suzanne watched while a puzzled look crossed his face, and while that look disappeared, as he erased the thoughts that had caused it.
Ella smiled. She’d watched his face change, too.
All that night, while Ella cried and held her mother’s hand and while Roger and Ella cried and held each other, Suzanne drank her coffee and ate her sandwich and took stock. Her efforts to have a relationship with Ella had been not just futile, but ridiculous. Ella had never been indifferent. Ella had always hated her. Suzanne knew that now.
Ella would have hated anyone who interfered in her parents’ marriage – and that was the way Ella saw it, Suzanne was sure of it. She didn’t care that it was Cassie who’d caused the divorce. She didn’t care whether her father had a real wife, one who put him first. She didn’t love her father enough to care about that. She probably didn’t love anyone, except Cassie.
The only good news was that Ella was almost grown. In a week or so, she’d be back in New Haven and in a few years, she’d be out of school and working. She was interested in archeology, which was good, since there probably wasn’t too much archeology in L.A.
Ella would always be Roger’s daughter and RJ’s half-sister, but with any luck, she’d be those things at a distance. As the night wore on, that became Suzanne’s dearest hope.
Toward dawn, when Roger was in the bathroom, Ella looked directly at her. “It should have been you,” she said calmly. “She’s so much better than you.”
Roger was back before Suzanne could say anything, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d taken longer. She’d never have been able to find a response.
Cassie died early in the morning. Roger and Ella went to arrange for the cremation. Cremation was what Cassie wanted.
When Suzanne got home, she discovered that she’d left the door to Ella’s room open. She knew that, because Julius had peed on the living room carpet.
She spent the rest of the morning on her hands and knees, blotting with paper towels and scrubbing with vinegar and enzyme cleaner and everything else Google recommended. The smell was horrific, like nothing she’d ever smelled, and there was no guarantee that it would ever come out.
Roger got home in the early afternoon, after he dropped Ella in Laurel Canyon. “She was really strong,” Roger told Suzanne, while she made him lunch. “Even the funeral home people were impressed. I could tell.” Then he told her that the cremation had not just been arranged, but had actually happened. “It was so fast, but like Ella said, it was best to do it right away. More respectful of who Cassie was. Because she was about life.” Then he started crying.
“Of course,” Suzanne said. Of course, doing it right away meant that it was just Roger and Ella when it happened, with Suzanne out of the picture.
There’d be a memorial service later on, Roger said, but no funeral, because that’s how Cassie wanted it. “Ella wants flowers, and music,” Roger said.
Suzanne interrupted before he could tell her more about what Ella and Cassie wanted. “Honey, you look tired. I can get Ella when I pick RJ up.”
“You don’t have to,” Roger said, biting into his ham-and-cheese. “She has the Prius.” He paused. “I guess she’d better let the insurance company know that it’s her car now.”
Which meant that he wanted Suzanne to do it. “There’s no hurry. I mean, she’s going back to school pretty soon.”
“No,” Roger said. “It’s only a couple of weeks till spring break. There’s no point in her going back now. Plus, there’s the summer.”
“So we’re not selling the Prius?”
“Not yet, I guess.”
“Or the house?”
“Babe! That’s Ella’s home.”
When Suzanne and RJ got home after school, Ella was curled up on the living room couch with Julius in her lap. After a second of confusion, Suzanne realized that she was wearing the perfume Cassie always wore, a light, lilac scent. As usual, RJ ran to Ella, and as usual Roger, who was sprawled his comfortable armchair, beamed at the sight of the two of them, brother and sister.
Ella smiled brightly at Suzanne, then gestured at the room. “Hope it’s ok that I brought a few things over.”
Suzanne looked around. A carved soapstone seal that had been in Cassie’s Mission-style hutch was on the side table near Roger’s chair. A dusty wreath of dried flowers that Cassie had had in her kitchen was propped on the mantel of Suzanne and Roger’s gas fireplace, where Suzanne’s mother’s silver vase had been.
Suzanne knew as surely as if she’d searched the apartment that Cassie’s things were everywhere. I bet those grubby hand-thrown pottery canisters of herb tea are in my kitchen cabinets, she thought. I bet that Cassie’s grandmother’s damask tablecloths are in my linen closet, and that that’s her useless eco-friendly detergent rumbling in my washing machine right now.
Ella rubbed RJ’s head. “You know that yellow afghan Mom made? It’s on your bed.”
“Thank you, Ella,” RJ said, hugging her. “I’m glad you’re my sister.”
“Always,” Ella assured him. “Always.”
Roger had tears in his eyes. He ran his index finger over the soapstone seal’s smooth back, a gentle caress, then looked up at the fireplace mantle. “I remember when we got that wreath,” he said brokenly. It was a story Suzanne had never heard.
Roger was looking the wreath the way he’d looked at Cassie; sadly and tenderly, full of love and longing. Suzanne saw that, and she understood. Cassie being dead made it worse. Now she’d never do or say anything that would show Roger who she really was. He’d always believe that Cassie was good and loving – that she was better than anyone else. RJ would believe that, too.
And Ella would be part of Suzanne’s family for as long as she wanted, which would probably be a good long time. The blended families book talked about children who tried to disrupt a parent’s second marriage, but it was because they wanted their parents back together, not because they wanted their father to become a shrine to their dead mother. That’s what Ella wanted, and she’d get it. Roger was most of the way there already.
That’s how it would be, Suzanne thought, and she’d put up with it. She’d raise her son with his father. She would not make his childhood like her own.
She remembered the first time she and Roger kissed; his shy, hopeful expression, the feel of his soft lips, how intensely happy she’d been. She remembered his face above hers the first time they made love, a sunny afternoon in her tiny sunny apartment. That little constellation of freckles on his ear, that little scar, just on his jaw line.
She could never let him know how she felt about Ella or Cassie. She could never let RJ know, either. If she did, she’d lose some measure of their love, and that was something she would not be able to bear. Their love was all the love that had been allotted to her.
“It’s fine,” she tried say. “Sure, Ella, it’s fine to bring things over.” But her voice didn’t work. What came out was a dry croak, more of an animal noise than speech. RJ looked at her with as much surprise as his seven-year-old face could produce. Even Ella looked alarmed. “Babe?” Roger asked.
Suzanne tried again. She wanted to say the things she needed to say, but her body wouldn’t produce the words, and after a minute, she knew that it never would. When she tried, all that came out was an ugly sound. She took another breath, and this time she did speak, not what she wanted to say but the only word she could say. It was “No.”