Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter 37

“Kelly, we’ll be out in the car,” John calls from the kitchen. It’s over. This morning, I leave.

“Be right there.” I tuck my toothbrush into my backpack and peek around Pop’s door, worried he might not be awake this early.

“Righto!” He looks up from his recliner.

“So, we’re heading out,” I say, stepping close to him. He takes my hand and nods, smiling. “Thanks a lot for, I don’t know, for everything—doing my laundry and eating my bad curry and helping me dye my clothes—”

“Okay, Kelly dear,” he says, his eyes shining. “You be safe. Take good care to always be safe.”

“I will, I promise. And I’ll send you postcards.”

“That’s nice. That’ll be very nice.”

“Okay, well—”

“I’ll pray for you,” he promises.

I lean in and kiss him on the cheek, knowing that I’ll never see him again and knowing that, if anything, I should be praying for him.

During the car ride, when I’d planned to ensure that Martin understood I was not going to a hospital, all I can do is look out the window and take long quiet breaths to keep myself from crying. Thankfully, the kids can’t see me from the back, and anyway they’re busy campaigning for an ice cream stop on the way home, which John thinks they might be able to squeeze in if they get through their errands without any complaining. We drive through St. Leonards to the Pacific Highway. Passing the harbor, I take a last look at the opera house and Circular Quay. By the time we hit the expressway, the morning sun has taken over the sky. I keep wanting to say something, something meaningful that suits the occasion, like how I’ve realized that things do happen in a house. But I never shared my theory with the Tanners, so there’s no sense telling them I was wrong, things definitely happen in a house—big, hard, beautiful things. And besides, they already knew that.

John hits the blinker. We’re here, the international terminal. Everyone unbuckles. John sets my backpack on the curb. He looks nice, almost rested. “Well, Kelly, thank you.”

“Oh, I’m so grateful—thank you for having me.”

“Of course. And we can’t forget this,” he says, handing me my last eighty dollars.

“Right, thanks. I’ll put it to good use.” We hug for the first and last time.

“You’ll be right,” he says, like a professor who reveals at the end of a tense semester that he always knew I’d pass.

I lean over and pick up Martin. “I put the T. Rex you loaned me on the kitchen table this morning.”

“You could take him.”

“He’s happy with you. So, you’re all set to write me, right, mister?”

“Write, right, right!”

“Good. I’ll be watching the mail.” I hug him and hug him again. “You are the best boy, the very best boy.”

“You are a silly,” he says as I smother him.

I pick up Milly. “You’re a big girl, lady.” I hold out my sequined elephant hat that she said she liked. “So, I thought you could take care of my fancy cap?”

“It’s not my size.”

“Maybe you could grow into it?”

“But I have my own hat that Daddy got me from Singapore.” She doesn’t need my wampum. She has the real thing.

“Right.” I hug her as long as she’ll let me, for my sake, not hers. In the scope of their story, which has so many characters and chapters already, I’m a bit part: Unnamed girl, American. I didn’t change them or fix them or nudge them gently from one stage of grief to another. That work is theirs to do, and they are doing it.

“Can we take a photo?” I ask, handing John my camera.

“Good idea,” he says. Martin crawls back up my side so I have a kid in each arm. “Smile …” After the picture, I put them down, feeling like I might buckle with emotion.

“Tell Tracy Tuttle to be a good girl,” Martin says.

“I will.”

John holds up my pack so I can step in. “All right,” he says, untwisting one of my straps, “You have everything? Passport? Ticket?”

“Yup. Thanks.”

“Do you have the ceramic cookie I made you in art?” Milly asks, suddenly.

“Of course I do.” I pat my backpack. “Wrapped up in a T-shirt so it won’t break.”

“Good. Mr. Graham said it was the best sculpture I’ve ever done.”

“And I get to keep it,” I marvel.

“Of course you do! I made it special for you,” she says.

“I love it.” I swallow hard.

“Keely, are you going to cry?” Martin says in a consoling, grown-up tone.

“No, now you’re the silly.”

“Don’t be sad,” he says, ignoring my deflection. “You have Tracy Tuttle to be with you.”

“You’re right, I do.” I squeeze him one last time and pat Milly’s shoulder. “Make your dad stop for ice cream.”

“We will!”

John smiles at me. I head toward the giant sliding doors, looking back across the median strip through watery eyes. The kids are happy, waving and leaning into their father. They have a great day ahead. Dropping me off was no big deal. Their perception of painful goodbyes has been recalibrated.

But even if by Christmas Evan has to help them remember the name of their first nanny (It starts with a K …), I’ll always be able to see their faces coming up through the pool’s surface, or wrapped in a bath towel, or asleep on the arm of the gold velvet chair in front of the television, and hear the sound of Martin saying Crustinsashus, or Milly saying revolting, or both of them saying Keely, and remember where I was when I opened my first Mother’s Day card and learned the one thing I do not have in common with an emu and absorbed the complete lyrics of Beauty and the Beast. I’ll know it was the Tanner kids who pointed me back toward my own mother, hungry to understand her in a way that I clearly didn’t yet. They put her voice in my head. They changed her from a prosaic given to something not everyone has, but of course none of this matters to them. They’ve got errands to run, and then, maybe, sundaes.

Inside the terminal, Tracy is waiting for me.

“Aw, Kel,” she says when she sees my wet cheeks.

“Oh God, those kids,” I say as we hug. “Breaks my heart.”

“They’ll be okay.”

“I know. I know.” I wipe my face and press my fingertips into my tear ducts to stop myself from bawling. “That was so much more intense than I expected.”

“The goodbye?”

“The whole thing.”

During the flight, a stewardess named Bronwyn comes to our seats and asks if we are “the Americans, Kelly and Tracy?” We tell her we are, and she says, “Well, then, why don’t you follow me?”

As she takes us to the cockpit, she explains that she’s a friend of John’s and he asked that we be brought up to see the Great Barrier Reef from the air. It’s huge, so much bigger than I imagined, giant swooshes of electric blue and green, like an abstract painting or that sand art that people sell in desert towns. Tracy mentions sharks—a Kiwi was recently bitten in shallow waters—but I ignore her worry to ask Bronwyn if John has ever brought Martin and Milly up here.

“For sure.”

“Boy, I’d have paid a lot of money to see their reactions.”

“You sound like a mother,” Tracy teases, and the three of us smile at the absurdity.

Bronwyn says only one of us can stay up here for the landing, which is fine by Tracy, who is ready to go back to the cabin. Safety first.

After I strap into the jump seat, the captain asks who I like in our presidential election, and once we get a conversation going, he slams our policy in Iraq and asks what the riots in L.A. were all about. I’m tempted to roll over. I don’t understand much about either topic and I know not everyone loves us. We’re too unionized and make bad soap operas and love a liability waiver and generate our fair share of pollution, intellectual and otherwise. But it’s my home, and not just because I grew up pledging my allegiance and taking tests on the Electoral College and Pearl Harbor. It’s in me, running through me like my mother’s blood.

“The thing about the U.S.,” I say, “is that it’s messy, and complicated, and flawed as hell—but it’s also amazing.”

“I suppose that’s right,” the pilot concedes, rewarding my defense of the motherland in a way he’ll never appreciate.

As Tracy and I leave, the stewardess hands us a cold bottle of champagne wrapped in a white cotton hand towel and says to have the time of our lives diving. “This is what you came so far for, right?” She winks.

Of course it is.

I suppose.

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