The Wrong Person ~ Nina de Gramont

Thomas left his father’s funeral without a word to anyone, not even his wife.  Instead of driving to the reception at the family farm, he pointed his car a thousand miles south. It took nearly fifteen hours to get from Vermont to North Carolina. He arrived long after dark, the close September air infused with jasmine and brine. Checking into a beachside hotel, he felt self-conscious about the small hour and his lack of luggage. He had Katie’s home address but it seemed better to wait till she was at work, so he lay on top of the hotel bed in his coat and tie, staring at the windows until they stopped reflecting him and offered instead a placid and glassy ocean.

In the hotel gift shop he bought a T-shirt and shorts. Katie’s class was underway by the time he found it. The hallway was utilitarian and antiseptic, nothing like the private New England college where he and Katie had met. His legs looked ghostly white under the fluorescent lights, and his T-shirt proclaimed tobacco a vegetable. It was the only extra- large they’d had. But he couldn’t worry about his clothes. He was here. That’s what mattered.

The door to the classroom was slightly open, and Katie’s voice traveled easily, light and musical with the foreign syllables. It surprised him how familiar her voice still sounded. He used to love to hear Katie speak French. Had she ever spoken French to his father?

“Donc,” Katie said, from inside the classroom. She used to complain that her accent was too American but Thomas thought she sounded just fine. He had been an English major. “Ou voulez-vouz aller?”

If he wanted he could have leant in and caught a glimpse of her writing on the dry erase board, conjugating verbs. For years he had kept a picture hidden in his desk drawer, a black and white photo of Katie scowling over a cigar, a hint of humor in the curve of her mouth, swirling smoke the only sign of the turmoil he had come to associate with her over this last decade. His father used to say Katie was interested in Thomas for his money. But Thomas always thought if she were at all a strategic person, she would have behaved better.

He heard her laugh at something a student said.

By the time her class started filing out Thomas’s knees were stiff from standing and from last night’s long drive. The students barely glanced at him as they left the classroom, as if this were ordinary, a strange man in his thirties lurking outside. Thomas could picture them, a long line of men whom Katie had left behind, or who had left her behind and realized their mistake too late.

She finally emerged, stomach first: hugely pregnant, with a cumbersome stack of books beneath her arm. How like her not to have a satchel to carry them. She glanced at Thomas, her face rearranging from absorbing a stranger to absorbing him, and stopped short.

“Thomas?” she said. “My God. What are you doing here?”

It had been hot outside, but the hall was over-air conditioned. Katie wore a thick white cardigan over her summer dress. Thomas wanted to take a step back and look at her, really assess the ways she’d changed. Her hair, still long and dark, was pulled off her forehead with a barrette, too girlish. Her brown eyes were round, they seemed larger than they’d been, but maybe that was just the surprise of seeing him.

“My father died,” Thomas said.

A wonderful cavalcade of emotions crossed over her face. Sympathy and surprise. Confusion that he would deliver the news in person and at the same time a visceral understanding of why. Thomas also saw the grim absorption of a moment she knew would arrive one day, the vanquishing of an old enemy. And then her expression returned to sympathy.

“Oh,” Katie said. “Thomas. I’m so sorry.”

Always generous with touch, she placed her hand on his shoulder. They stood there like that for a moment, then had to move aside as a new professor arrived to claim the classroom. They walked together toward an alcove with fake leather couches. Thomas watched Katie, his face turned toward her as she focused on where they were going. She looked so respectable and calm, a pretty pregnant woman. If Dad saw her now, passing on the street, he would smile at her. Then Thomas remembered that Dad didn’t see anything anymore, he didn’t smile.

He stopped and grabbed the back of a couch. Lucky it was there or he might have fallen over. Katie placed her hand on the small of his back.

“Let’s sit,” she said. She guided him in front of her like he was an invalid, switching hands so that her touch stayed with him until he lowered himself onto the couch. Then she stepped over him, taking a few minutes to deposit her things on a low table. Katie would be thirty-two now, older than his wife but three years younger than Thomas. Did she look her age? She had never looked her age. Maybe it was the pregnancy. There were faint lines on her forehead. Thomas touched his fingers to his own forehead, the lines there deep enough that he could feel their grooves.

“You’re having a baby,” he said.

She touched her stomach. Thomas wanted to place his hands there, too, but he didn’t. Pregnant women hated that, someone had told him.

“What about you?” she asked. “Any kids?”

“Not yet.”

“Still married to Cynthia?” She had always been blunt, with him at least. With other people, like his family, she rarely spoke at all.

Thomas didn’t know how to answer. He had turned his phone off before he began the drive. It sat dormant in his pocket, but he knew if he turned it on the screen would be filled with urgent texts and voicemails from his mother and brothers and sisters and, mostly, his wife. He didn’t want to think about Cynthia, dialing again and again. A long time ago Thomas and Katie went to Jamaica for Spring break. On a blazing afternoon in Negril Katie had run into the surf to collect a starfish, beads from her cornrowed hair bouncing on her shoulders. Her hair was too thin, and her head too small, to carry off the braids. She looked ridiculous.

A Rastafarian had watched Katie from the shore. “I like your style,” he said to her when she emerged from the surf, starfish held aloft. “You will live again.” Then he said to Thomas, “This would be a nice girl for you to marry.”

But Thomas had married Cynthia, whom his father had absorbed with a sense of relief. Now we can get on with life, his father’s expression said, the first time he shook Cynthia’s hand.

Katie said, “I got married a few years ago. He owns a surf camp.”

Thomas pictured a teenager, a dude. Long bleached hair, wet suit, zero body fat.

“Listen,” Katie said. “I have to pick up Ana at school. My daughter. I’ll be late if I don’t leave now.”

Daughter. School. How had her life become so regular? Katie used to be frenetic mess. She had stolen clothes from his sister Lucy. Once in the summer, furious with Thomas, she had called the family house at three am. When his father answered, she mistook his voice for Thomas’s and screamed at him. And there were other things she had done, other incidents, moments when Katie had burst through her exterior quiet – the stubborn refusal for small talk – and revealed chaos. She drank too much, or let another man kiss her under a willow tree.

Now Thomas was the crazy one, to have come here. Katie heaved herself to her feet and gathered up her belongings. For a moment he worried she would walk away and leave him there but once she had assembled herself she said, “You coming?”

 

At the preschool the sound of children was overwhelming, voices flying in every direction. The air felt close and humid. In Vermont a chill had already crept in, cooling even the afternoons. Here summer seemed to have settled in for the duration, a thick and unmoving kind of heat.

A little girl made of air and bone – with the same blond hair he’d imagined for the surfer husband – ran across the playground, arms outstretched. Katie knelt and embraced her. The playground was full of women picking up their children. They stared at him curiously.

“This is Thomas,” Katie said, to the group in general. “He’s a friend from college.”

“Oh,” one of them said. “I thought maybe he was your brother. You look alike.”

“People always say that,” Katie told her. “Don’t they, Tom?”

Thomas nodded, sweat gathering on his forehead. He had forgotten that people used to say they looked alike, it never seemed true to him. He had five siblings – three sisters and two brothers – and none of them looked anything like Katie.

On the drive home she chatted as if there were nothing unusual about him appearing. He had left his car back at the university and Katie seemed to accept that he was now her passenger. She asked if he’d kept in touch with anyone from college, and told him that her friend Andrew Finn had tried to commit suicide. “He jumped off a building but it was only three stories high.”

“Sounds high enough,” Thomas said.

“He was in a coma for weeks and when he woke up he’d forgotten the past twelve years. All the drug addiction and broken relationships, everything that made him jump off the building in the first place. It was all wiped clean.”

This sounded like something that would happen to one of Katie’s friends. She always surrounded herself with crazy, laughing people on the verge of breakdowns. Except for Thomas. He wondered again about the husband, which category he fell into. Was he one of the wild ones or a calming influence, as Thomas had always hoped to be?

She pulled into the driveway of a blue house, the front yard overgrown. They got out of the car and Thomas surveyed the prefab neighborhood, all the houses more or less the same. His wife always said people didn’t change. But Katie had changed, to live in a neighborhood like this. It was the kind of place she would have hated, would have made fun of.

Ana, the little girl, had fallen asleep in her car seat. Katie leaned in and unbuckled her. Then she said to Thomas, “Can you carry her in? As long as you’re here.”

Thomas traded places with Katie and put one hand under Ana’s head and the other under her knees. Dampness pooled in his palms. She felt just like she looked, weightless. Pulling her into his chest he thought it hadn’t been right to say she was made of air, with the air here so thick and heavy. The child was made of something lighter, a mist or film, something fleeting and insubstantial. Her legs flopped over his forearms. Her little head felt hot under his chin, the hair slick and fine.

“She always falls asleep on the way home,” Katie said, gathering her books and bags from the backseat. “It’s getting harder and harder to haul her inside. It’s nice to have help.”

“Your husband doesn’t help?”

“He’s at work this time of day, usually.”

“Is that where he is now? Work?”

“No. He’s surfing in Nicaragua. The Corn Islands. Let’s go inside. It’s hot.”

The porch was crowded with plastic toys and discarded shoes. The house had vinyl siding and it needed power washing, pollen from the previous spring etched into the fake wood swirls, giving it a green cast. Thomas could take Katie away from this oppressive heat and move her into a house with wood siding, along with Ana, and the child on the way. A blast of cool air hit him as he crossed the threshold. The house had an open floorplan, he could take in the whole place almost as soon as he entered. Katie deposited her things on a small table in the foyer and gestured to the living room. “You can lay her down on the couch.”

While Katie went into the kitchen, which was divided from the living room by a marble counter, Thomas placed Ana on the smaller of two battered couches. She sighed and squirmed as if she might wake up, then rolled over so her face was buried in the cushions. Thomas looked at the framed photos on the mantel. Katie in a wedding dress, smiling next to a man who looked just like Thomas had imagined, with unruly blond hair and a sunburnt nose. There was also a picture of Katie on the beach with her crazy dog.

“You don’t have Mack anymore?”

“No. He died the year after Ana was born.”

“That’s sad.”

Katie laughed a little meanly. “You hated Mack.”

“I didn’t hate him.” What Thomas used to hate was this, the way Katie stated her opinions, her perceptions, as fact.

She walked around the counter and handed him a glass of water, then tipped her own glass toward her daughter. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Yes,” he said, and cleared his throat a little. “Yes, she really is.”

“I’m sorry about your father, Thomas. I really am. I know how much you loved him.”

There were things she could have added to this statement. She could have said, I know you stayed in Vermont because he wanted you to. I know you manage that gentleman’s farm of his because out of all your brothers and sisters you were the one he could control. I know you married someone he liked instead of working things out with me, the girl you really loved.

All of this she did not say but Thomas could hear it clearly as if she had. More clearly than if she had, Katie could not always be trusted to say what she meant.

“Listen,” she said. “I can’t think straight. These days I nap when Ana does. If you don’t mind I’m going upstairs for a bit. Then I’ll be able to figure out what to do with you.”

“OK,” Thomas said. He imagined the windshield of his car, filling with parking tickets as the hours ticked by, the visitors’ meter long expired.

“Could you watch Ana? Make sure she doesn’t fall off the couch?”

He sat himself in an easy chair across from Ana, a surfing magazine in his lap, his eyes focused on the rise and fall of the child’s breathing. From upstairs, he could hear Katie’s heavy-footed movements. Drawers opening and closing. A toilet flushing. He thought, but wasn’t sure, he could hear the springs of her bed as she crawled under the covers. Was it creepy to wonder if she were naked or clothed? They’d always had such an easy closeness, they had slept together in various states of undress so many hundreds of times, maybe a thousand, maybe more. And from the second he saw her today it was just the way he knew it would be, like Katie’s friend Andrew waking from a coma, his mind erasing all the years that had gone wrong.

 

Thomas wasn’t sure how much time passed. There were no clocks downstairs and he still hadn’t turned on his phone. He wondered if Katie would want to have more children. Coming from such a large family, it surprised Thomas not to have any children yet. Cynthia wanted to wait but for what?

Ana wriggled on the couch, her little hip bones rising. Thomas stood, his arms braced as if to catch her when she fell. But she didn’t fall, just shuddered with a jerky movement like something was roiling inside her, which apparently it was because she vomited. There was a great rush of liquid, along with a retching sound louder than Thomas would have thought her tiny body capable of. He ran to her side and pressed one flat hand between her shoulder blades, lifting her upper body so she wouldn’t choke, careful to protect himself from the flow.

When it stopped Ana looked down at herself, holding out fingers webbed by vomit, and then at Thomas, a stranger. She burst out in heartbroken sobs. There was a thump from upstairs, and footsteps pounding toward them. Katie appeared, her hair wild from sleep, a flowery robe belted across her pregnant middle.

“Oh, honey,” she said, reaching across Thomas for Ana, who stood up on the couch and propelled herself into her mother’s arms, covering the lovely robe with vomit just from the transfer, and then again as she opened her mouth to let out another torrent.

“Oh, honey,” Katie said again, now with the vomit in her hair and down the front of her chest. She balanced the child on her all but disappeared hip and carried her away without a word to Thomas, as if he’d become invisible.

Upstairs, water turned on. He imagined mother and child shedding their clothes and getting into the tub together. A horrible mess lay before him on the couch, a rotten stench rising from it. The surfer husband wouldn’t clean this up, Thomas decided, so he unzipped the cushion covers and carried them upstairs to search for a laundry room. At the top of the stairs the door to Katie’s bedroom was open. She sat on the bed wrapped in a towel, another towel turbaned around her wet hair. Ana was tucked into the bed, her face flushed, her eyelids fluttering as if she were about to fall back to sleep. Katie’s brow was contorted with concern as she stroked Ana’s head. She glanced through the open doorway at Thomas and pointed toward the hallway where a washer and dryer sat behind two open accordion doors. He shoved the cushion covers into the washing machine and poured in detergent.

Katie said, “Don’t run it. I think she’s going back to sleep.”

Thomas came into the room and sat on the bed. There were clothes piled on the bureau. He thought he smelled cat litter. The towel barely covered Katie’s bulk and she tried to adjust it, then, perhaps remembering their old intimacy, gave up.

“She’s feverish,” Katie said. “I don’t know how I missed it.”

He searched her voice for accusation, an indication that she’d missed it because he’d distracted her. Ana’s eyelids fluttered. When her breath had definitely slowed Katie went into the bathroom and shut the door behind her. Thomas closed his hand around Ana’s tiny foot. He searched her face for Katie’s features, but she looked so fair and elfin. If he had seen her somewhere out in the world, away from Katie, he never would have guessed she was hers.

Katie came out of the bathroom wearing a long, loose skirt and tank top, her hair wet over her shoulders, the thick straps of a complicated bra visible.

“Should we go downstairs?” Thomas whispered.

“No,” Katie said, perching on the bed next to him. “I can’t. I need to be near Ana.”

Thomas said, “I love you, Katie. I came here to tell you that. I want to be with you. I want you to come away with me.”

Her face looked expressionless and at the same time accepting, which made him feel his wife was right. People didn’t change. Katie hadn’t changed, not in any way that mattered. Just what he’d always loved about her: she did not react to other people’s oddities and outbursts with incredulity but accepted them as a matter of course. It was OK if you jumped off a three story building and forgot twelve years of your life. It was OK if you walked out of your father’s funeral and drove a thousand miles to appear on her doorstep.

“Tom,” she said, but with fondness, as if speaking to an impossible child. “Come away where?”

“Anywhere,” he said. “Anywhere you want to go.”

“What if I want to stay here? With my family?”

“You can bring them. The children.”

“What about Cynthia? You’re still married, right?”

“I don’t have to be.”

“Thomas.”

“Well. I don’t.”

She placed one hand on her sleeping child and said, “Do you think so little of me? Do you think I’m the kind of person who would leave my husband to run away with somebody else’s husband?”

“Yes,” Thomas said. “That’s the kind of person you used to be.”

Katie laughed. Here they sat on the bed where she slept every night, where she and the husband made love. Thomas and Katie were still so close, a kind of closeness that would never go away. Once, a million years ago, toward the very end – it may have been the last time he saw her. She was visiting him on his farm and they lay in each other’s arms outside, on the same hill where the reception for Dad’s funeral was held yesterday, the reception he hadn’t attended. They had looked up at the stars and Katie asked, “Will we ever feel this way again? About anyone?”

And Thomas had said, “No. We will never feel this way again.”

Katie took her hand off Ana. “I was young when you knew me,” she said. “My frontal lobe wasn’t fully formed. I’m not that kind of person anymore.”

Before Thomas could answer Ana sat up and let out another fountain of vomit. When she finished she burst into tears as she had earlier, this time the word

“Mommy” erupting along with the sobs.

“Oh, baby,” Katie said, standing up and moving to her daughter’s side. “Oh honey, I’m so sorry.”

Ana threw herself into her mother’s arms, still crying, while Katie rocked her back and forth.

 

All night Thomas lay downstairs on the big couch while his hotel room sat empty. There was a pool at the hotel, as well as the ocean. When Ana recovered, he and Katie could take her to swim and build sandcastles. He pictured this, lying awake through the first tinges of morning light, until Katie came downstairs. He sat up at the sound of her footsteps.

“I’m taking Ana to the emergency room,” she said. “She’s still puking and her fever won’t go down. Can you drive my car?”

At the hospital Thomas was mistaken for Ana’s father so he went everywhere she and Katie did. Ana needed an IV to rehydrate, he winced and looked away as the nurse searched for a vein in her tiny arm. Once they were settled in a room he sat by the window while Katie and Ana lay velcroed together on the hospital bed, except for every thirty minutes or so when Katie had to disentangle herself to pad into the bathroom. Sometimes Ana would sleep through it. When she woke she would cry, and Thomas went to the beside to stroke the damp head, medication forcing her temperature down, her fine blond hair cool and soft like the feathers on a puddle duck. Katie would return, maneuver around him, and arrange herself back beneath Ana. And then before long she’d have to get up again.

“The baby’s resting on my bladder,” she kept saying.

“What is it?” Thomas asked. “A boy or a girl? Do you know?”

“A girl.”

Thomas pictured the little girl resting on Katie’s bladder. Maybe this time she would look like Katie, which would mean – according to some people – that she would also look like Thomas. He hadn’t asked when the baby was due but if this were a movie Katie would have it tonight. She would go into labor with Thomas by her side. Still mistaken for the husband, he would be in the delivery room and maybe even cut the umbilical cord. They would be forever bonded, he and Katie and this new baby, and Ana. too. His three girls.

He dug his phone out of his pocket and turned it on to check the time. Texts and voicemails lit up across the screen. Katie watched from her spot on the bed. Even in the dim glow Thomas could see her cheeks were flushed as Ana’s, and he worried she would get sick, too, in her fragile state.

“Thomas,” Katie said. “Call Cynthia. Call your wife.”

No. He wouldn’t dial her number. With the sole interest of appeasing Katie he brought the phone to his ear to listen to one of Cynthia’s voicemails. “Thomas,” his wife said. “Where are you? Where did you go? Please at least text. I’m so worried, everyone is.”

He struggled to remain mercenary toward the quiver in her voice. He hadn’t expected her to sound so familiar. She sounded like the real world, continuing on without his father in it.

“I love you,” Cynthia said, calling back these last ten years without Katie. Thomas didn’t want those years called back. He wanted to stay with Katie and Ana and this baby on the way. He and Katie would have more children, a big family like his own. He would never go back to the farm, never see his brothers or sisters or even his mother again, if only the world would let him have this.

 

It was dark again when they returned to Katie’s house. Thomas carried Ana inside. The doctor had said she would be fine, they just had to keep up with the fluids. Soon the whole incident would fade into a blip of childhood memory, along with Thomas, unless he could help it.

“Can you take her upstairs to my bed?” Katie asked.

He expected carnage from Ana’s illness, but the bed was made, the piles of laundry in the hallway gone. Katie must have called someone to clean for her while they were at the hospital.

He placed Ana in the very middle of the bed, then pulled the quilt up to her chin. Her little face look pale and pointed. Thomas kissed her forehead.

Downstairs Katie sat on the big couch, her eyes closed and her phone to her ear. The cat had emerged, it paced back and forth on the coffee table, switching its tail in agitation. At the sight of Thomas it darted out of the room as if he didn’t belong here.

Thomas could tell Katie was talking to the surfer. He wondered if she’d told him he was here and fought down a spike of jealousy. The surfer was Ana’s father. Thomas would have to bear these conversations gracefully, there would be many of them over the years to come.

“OK,” Katie said into the phone, louder than her usual voice. The connection from Nicaragua must not be very good. “Yes, I’ll email in the morning. Don’t worry, OK? They said she’ll be fine.” A pause and then, “I love you too.”

She turned the phone off and placed it face down on the coffee table. “God,” she said. “I could die I’m so tired.”

“I’ll bet.” Thomas sat on the smaller couch, still without its cushion covers.

Katie said, “Thank you, Thomas. It really would have been a disaster if you hadn’t been here to help. I don’t know what I would have done.”

He nodded, shorn up, hopeful, and waved his hand toward her phone. “When does he come home?”

“A few more days.”

“We can give Ana time to sleep. She can rest until tomorrow, maybe the next day if she needs it. And then we can leave together, the three of us.”

“Oh, Thomas.”

It was the same tone she’d used with Ana earlier, Oh, honey, a sharing in the catastrophe. Thomas remembered that long ago Rastafarian, This would be a nice girl for you to marry. A stranger had been able to see the future with only a glimpse of her. But instead Thomas had listened to his father.

“Please,” he said.

Katie titled her swollen body sideways, dropping her head onto a throw pillow. She pulled her legs up on the couch. She said, “I need to go lie down next to Ana but I don’t think I can move.”

“Katie, please,” Thomas said. “Come away with me. Let’s go back to the way things were.”

“How would that be possible?”

“It would,” Thomas insisted. “It is.”

She stared off, her eyes glazed. For a second Thomas thought she had fallen asleep with them open. Then she said, “OK.”

The coffee table separated them, as well as three feet or more of distance. Thomas moved forward from the waist, the first motion of rising to embrace her. At the same time Katie swung her feet to the ground and stood, fast like removing a Band Aid, do it quickly or you’ll never do it at all.

But she didn’t come toward Thomas. Instead she headed toward the stairs, which was only right, her child needed her. Katie and Ana could sleep for hours, a restorative sleep, and afterward Thomas and Katie would start planning their new life.

“We’ll talk when I wake up.” Katie said. “OK?”

“OK,” Thomas said, suddenly worried that her previous OK had not been an acquiescing to his plan, but simply an exhalation, the OK you say before, with difficulty, hauling yourself to your feet.

Thomas moved to the bigger couch. He could feel the warmth where Katie had lain. The throw pillow smelled like her hair. When she returned they would talk, a leaping off, an entire decade melting away as if it had never happened at all.

Weeks and even months later, occasionally years, Cynthia would not be able to stop asking: “Where did you go? What did you do?”

He couldn’t apologize or explain. He could only tell her he’d had to get away, he’d had to think, he’d had to grieve in his own way. And because there was so great a death to reckon with, Cynthia would let it be as long as she could, not quite believing him, and having to ask again and again, a question he would never answer.

But for now, downstairs at Katie’s house, Thomas imagined he lay exactly beneath her bed. It seemed like days since he’d last slept. When he closed his eyes he saw starfish, and cigar smoke, and the youngest, wildest, most laughing people. Once when everything was new he and Katie went camping. They slept under Indian blankets in the bed of his pickup truck, ten thousand stars above them, and he had told her, “I’m heels over head about you.” The words coming out backwards because of everything he felt while saying them.

When Thomas woke, Katie stood over him. Ana leaned against her, staring at him with solemn blue eyes. At first he wasn’t sure exactly where he was. He didn’t know how long he’d been sleeping, years or hours or days. Katie looked worried.

“Katie,” he said. A stream of words followed, words from dreams, they didn’t make sense even to him. He knew what would happen today, the long drive home, the impossible explanations. “I don’t want to wake up,” he told her.

Katie frowned and pressed her palm against his forehead, as if checking for a fever.