The Good Liar, p.6Catherine McKenzie
Franny opens the box, then puts on a pair of surgeon’s gloves, snapping them into place with practiced ease.
“Is that necessary?” one of the men asks. Robert’s always been hostile to Franny and only slightly less so to me. He’s not used to being anything other than in charge is my take on the matter, so he has to lash out whenever he feels someone else’s authority. “It’s already been through testing.”
“It belonged to my mother,” Franny says. “I want to treat it with the appropriate respect.”
This logic is hard to argue with, and Robert keeps any further thoughts to himself. I watch Franny lift the mug from the box. She unwraps it and places it on the table in front of her, turning it so we can see the imprint of someone’s lips left like a kiss along its rim.
And then I couldn’t speak even if I wanted to, because I know that shade of lipstick. She wore it every day, a deep cranberry that would’ve looked awful on anyone else but fit her perfectly.
I’m not sure why it’s this thing rather than all the others that breaks me, but it does. As the rest of the room watches the cup like it might spit out the entrants to this year’s Triwizard Tournament, I lay my head down on the cold glass table and weep.
“What’s going on here?” Andrea asked as she walked into the kitchen. She was wearing her standard day uniform: lululemon yoga pants and a thin cotton hoodie that showed off her toned arms. Although her hair was on its third day after her weekly blowout, it was still as beach-wavy as when she’d left the salon.
Kate straightened up. She kept her back to Andrea as she wiped her tears away with the sleeve of the dark-blue sweatshirt she’d bought on sale for $12.99. It itched where it met her collarbone, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
“Willie was just being the sweet little boy he always is,” Kate said, ruffling his head. “That’s all.”
Andrea sighed, then tapped a finger against the touch screen in the wall to turn it on. Perhaps this was what Kate’s tears were about. An advance reaction to the fact that Andrea always had the television on when she was at home, usually the news. The morning news was how Andrea stayed “connected to the world,” she always said, “now that I’m not in the paid workforce.” Then she’d get this wistful look on her face. Remembering back, Kate supposed, to her job as the CFO of a magazine distribution company, which she’d given up a month after she found out she was having twins.
The television sprang to life with a loud chime. Kate didn’t have to look to know what the day’s banner would be: “A Year Later. Remembering Chicago,” or something similar. She tried to block out the low murmur of the announcer speaking in a somber tone about the upcoming memorial.
Kate walked to the sink. She should’ve told Andrea where she came from and why. Some version of it, anyway. Enough. Andrea wouldn’t foist the coverage on her if she knew the toll it was already taking. She wasn’t cruel. Perhaps she’d even have given her a day off. Allowed her to hide in the dark basement all day rather than face the cold sunshine. The darkened orange leaves as they fell from the trees. Her memories.
Kate filled up the sink with hot water and added the Andrea-approved amount of nontoxic dishwashing liquid, which she measured out with a shot glass. She made the water scalding hot. She’d forgotten to line the pan she made last night’s pork ribs in. There was a hard coat of sauce baked to the bottom of it. She’d let it soak overnight to tackle that morning. Perhaps the scrubbing would do her some good.
“This is so sad,” Andrea said in a tone that expected an answer.
“What’s sad, Mommy?” Steven asked as he entered the kitchen.
Kate turned to watch him. Steven was a more cautious copy of his brother. It was always interesting to see how he’d adapt to a situation. His eyes moved from where his brother was sitting, to Kate at the sink, to his mother, whose own eyes never left the screen. Satisfied that everyone was where they should be, he put his blanket down carefully and walked to Kate.
“Up,” he said, holding his arms above his head.
She took off her rubber gloves and did as he commanded. Lifting him up and then lowering him into his high chair. Then strapping him in tightly as he nodded in approval.
“What’s ‘sad’ mean, Mommy?” he asked again.
“It’s what you feel when bad things happen to people you love.”
“On the TV?” Steven asked, pointing.
Kate followed his finger. McCormick Place, Chicago’s convention center, was on-screen. It would be a convention of grief.
Kate felt feverish. She was going to fly into a million pieces. She was sure of it.
“Yes, Stevie. The TV’s showing the sad people.”
Steven cocked his head to the side, trying to puzzle it out. Kate refrained from suggesting that it would be better for the children if Andrea turned it off. Andrea wouldn’t comply. She didn’t believe in shielding her kids from harsh realities. Or, at least, not any more than the shield that came from living in the rich, mostly white enclave of Westmount.
“Why is TV showing sad people?” Willie asked. He picked a spoon up off the counter and started drumming it against the quartz. His spoon was in time with the quick cuts flashing by. A car. A picture. A wreath of bright flowers. Tap, tap, tap.
Andrea assumed the most serious expression she could on her newly Botoxed face. (She was “trying it out for fun,” she’d told Kate in confidence a week ago. Kate doubted that highly.)
“What city do we live in?” Andrea asked.
“Montreal!” the twins said together.
“Correct. And there are lots of other cities in the world, right?”
“New Work!” Willie said, looking to Andrea for approval.
Andrea smiled back. She and Rick had taken the twins there for a long weekend a few months ago. Andrea had been upset when Kate told her she wouldn’t be able to travel with them when she’d realized too late that her passport was expired. She’d offered to reimburse her plane ticket, but Andrea swept that suggestion away as if she were shooing a fly. “It’s not about the money . . .” The unfinished part of that sentence being that it was about the fact that she and Rick would be without childcare for a weekend. But she couldn’t admit that out loud.
“Correct!” Andrea said. “And there’s another city called Chicago.”
“What happened there?”
Kate felt light-headed. She forced herself to breathe. She picked up a glass, meaning to fill it with water.
“There was a terrible accident. A building blew up.”
Willie looked puzzled, but Steven looked upset.
“Yes, honey. Many people. A year ago. And today we’re remembering them.”
“Mommies and daddies?”
“Yes,” Andrea said. “Mommies and daddies. And also . . . some little kids—”
Kate dropped the glass she was holding. It shattered against the floor like a bomb.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, I . . . Nobody move.”
She rushed to the cupboard where the wall vacuum was kept. She turned it on and scooted back to where the glass shards were thickest. Sucking up as many as she could along the way as the vacuum’s engine whirred, blocking out the television.
“Don’t move, boys,” Kate said. She caught Andrea’s eye. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s only a glass.”
Kate bent her head again, searching carefully for each tiny shard. She’d have to make sure the boys wore shoes for the next couple of days. From experience, glass would continue to show up for a while despite her efforts.
“Hey!” Willie said. “It’s Aunt Kwait.”
“I’m right here.” Kate smiled at him, waving from the floor.
“Not here . . . there!”
His little finger rose and pointed at the screen.
TJ: Getting back to your biological mother. You obtained your birth records when, exactly?
FM: Two years ago. I stepped up the search after my parents died. It took a few years, but as I said, as a result of some help I got, I was able to get a copy of the hospital record of my birth. After all those years of trying and wondering and . . . I had this piece of paper in my hand that was filled out the day I was born. That said who I was. It had my footprints on it, too.
TJ: What was that like for you? To see that?
FM: It was surreal. I mean, I cried. I had a name. She didn’t call me Franny. She called me Marigold. And that’s another thing, because Franny never felt like my name to me, and Marigold did the moment I read it, but it also felt like it would be too weird to change my name back to that, you know? Like I didn’t own either name.
TJ: What happened next?
FM: It took me another six months to find her. It wasn’t easy. She’d gotten married, changed her last name. She had a whole family, you know? I had another whole family.
[Sounds of crying]
TJ: Do you need a minute?
FM: I’m all right. Let’s continue.
TJ: Did you learn anything about your father?
FM: My biological father? She left his name blank on the birth record. She wouldn’t tell me who he was.
TJ: Did she say why?
FM: She didn’t want to talk about it. The whole thing was quite a shock to her, me contacting her.
TJ: I can imagine it must’ve been.
FM: But she was happy I did it. Happy I found her.
TJ: I’m sure she was. She must’ve wondered what had happened to you. Where you were.
FM: She told me she did. That she thought about me often. That she’d thought about finding me but . . . I wish we’d had more time together. It seems cruel, doesn’t it? That she died so soon after we finally found each other again?
TJ: It does. Have you tried to locate your biological father?
FM: No . . . Mr. Ring has been . . . I guess you could call him my stepfather, right?
TJ: Is that what you call him?
FM: Well, no . . . I mean, he’s been amazing and so welcoming, but I don’t look at him as a father figure.
TJ: Has he discouraged you from looking for your father?
FM: Not at all. He doesn’t know anything that can help me, though, and my mother’s parents died a long time ago, and she was an only child, so it’s kind of hard to find something to go on to track him down. I have some ideas, though, from talking to a few of her friends who knew her in high school.
TJ: She had you in high school?
FM: No, after. She took a year off between high school and college, like a gap year, you know, how they do in England? That’s when she got pregnant.
TJ: Did Mr. Ring know she’d had another child?
FM: No, can you believe it? [Pause] That hurt, you know? Like, I wasn’t even worth mentioning to the man she decided to spend her life with. And her girls, my half sisters, they didn’t know, either. I feel kind of bad about that . . . Like she abandoned all of us, in a way.
TJ: How do you mean?
FM: If I found out something like that about my mother, I mean the one who raised me, after she’d died, I’d feel like I didn’t know her at all. Like I had to revisit every moment I had with her. Was she missing this other kid the whole time she was with me? Was I only a replacement for the one she gave up? Shit like that. Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t swear.
TJ: It’s fine. We can edit it out if we need to.
FM: Right. That’s what you do. Splice and dice people’s stories together. Making them into good people and bad people. Turning people into villains. Like on The Bachelor.
TJ: That’s not my intention.
FM: We’ll see, I guess. But I’m not the villain, you know.
TJ: Who said you were?
FM: Lots of people. But it’s not my fault. I didn’t mean for everyone to find out like that. I didn’t.
I have this theory about cheating.
I don’t think it’s inbred, necessarily, that some people are programmed that way and some aren’t. I think, often, it’s born out of circumstance.
Take Tom. When I met Tom in college, he was an average guy. A “nice guy,” my friends called him, as opposed to the assholes I’d dated before, but not too nice. Not some geeky guy who was grateful I was going out with him, which would make him a boring guy and not enough protection against the bad guys I was trying to stay away from. Tom was his own man. He had plans. He’d had a serious girlfriend before me, and they’d drifted apart. They were still friendly without being friends, which seemed like the right balance. He even had a few women friends, which I liked, too. Women were people to him. He’d played the field a bit, but he was always someone who was happier with a home base. He wanted to get married, to be settled, to start his business and build something with me. He didn’t want a wife who stayed at home with the kids—he liked that I worked, that I had passions outside of us. He didn’t want to be the sun and the moon and the stars: just the stars would do.
That’s what he used to say to me: just the stars would do. It was kind of our thing, our motto, our secret exchange that would make us smile and my heart flutter. Back then, it felt like a nice sentiment. It’s what I wanted, also. I’d had that stomach-churning, crying-in-the-shower-when-a-guy-canceled-plans-for-the-third-day-in-a-row love. That sucked. I wanted a partner, a man, someone who understood I might need to disappear inside my work for a while and we’d see each other on the other side. We’d be each other’s touchstones, our lodestars.
And we were. Through the end of college, Tom starting his business, me my career, and buying our first house, we kept true to what we’d promised—we were together but apart when we needed to be. Secure. When we felt ready for kids, we started trying, and it happened right away. Tom was ecstatic, calling his friends and family and telling everyone he met even as I shushed him because it was too soon.
Having kids changes a lot of couples, and we weren’t an exception, but we weren’t changed in any fundamental way. We were still Lily and Tom, a team. He changed diapers. He did pediatrician runs when the kids needed shots or had a fever. He knew the bedtime routine as well as I did. We both cooked and cleaned. I don’t think it’s possible to be exactly fifty-fifty at anything, but we did our best. We came close.
I’ll admit—we were complacent. We looked down, sometimes, at our friends who didn’t have the same kind of balance. We were self-satisfied with our life, which had turned out mostly as we’d planned when snuggled up in my single college bed. We had this thing figured out, we thought, dialed in. We were doing it. It wasn’t perfect, it got messy sometimes, but we had each other. We’d make it through.
Here’s what I didn’t factor in: because we were just the stars, one of us might start to miss the moon or long for the sun. We’d packed those things away as unattainable, unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, but they weren’t. I’d forgotten to account for the fact that even the brightest of stars may dim as the years tick by because of compromise, because of time, because of life.
And if you’re used to the stars, however clear they may be in a country sky, how can you even see them if the moon is full? What chance do they have in the face of the sun? If you looked at the sun for the first time, really looked, after all that stargazing, you’d be blinded. And then sunlight begins to feel essential in a way it never did before; starlight pales by comparison.
That’s what I think happened with Tom. Now, with all this distance between the receipt of those horrible texts and the last memorial I’ll attend for him, I feel like I might get why he did it. Maybe a little, maybe enough. Or then again, maybe not.
Because you can turn away from the sun. You can shield your eyes.
You can be more fucking careful wit
I’ve tried to forgive him, and to hate him, too, but the Tom I met on campus at a stupid mixer my dorm was throwing who pushed his glasses up his nose and then up on top of his head, that Tom who never let me treat him like I was his mother and who was perfectly capable of doing his own laundry, who stayed up all night with the kids when they had croup, who held first Cassie then Henry in his arms as if they were the best present I could ever give him . . . I still love that guy. Most of the time, I still think I made the right choice. Many days I’d probably make that choice again. But in this new life, post–texts and death and anger and grief, if ever faced with the possibility again?
This time I might go for the moon.
This time I might bask in the sun.
• • •
The committee waits for me to compose myself. Jenny hands me a Kleenex and someone else offers me water, but I’m fine, I say, fine.
“Go ahead, Franny.”
“So we know this is her mug,” Franny says, fighting back her own tears. “We know my mother worked there and that she logged in to the building that morning.”
While the building’s paper entry records were lost, there was a computerized system for those who worked in the building—they had to swipe their pass in order to get through security or exit the building. Unfortunately, the program that tracked departures had a glitch in it that was discovered only after the explosion. So we knew who’d gone into the building—Tom had entered at 8:22 that day, a bit early for him—but not who’d left before ten o’clock.
“And she sent an e-mail from her work computer at nine fifty,” Franny continued. “To Cecily, actually.”
I still had that e-mail. It said simply: Good luck. Call me after. I’d seen it only days later, when I finally had the energy to look through the hundreds of e-mails that had gathered in my in-box. I’d felt so tired, so crushed, after I read it—one of her last thoughts had been about me. Not that she knew what was coming, but my wish for my friend was that she was at peace in those final minutes, not worried, and certainly not worried about my stupid problems.
The Good Liar by Catherine McKenzie / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes