Authors: Maribeth Fischer
The Language of Goodbye
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2007 by Maribeth Fischer
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
DESIGNED BY LAUREN SIMONETTI
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The life you longed for / Maribeth Fischer.
1. Munchausen syndrome by proxyâFiction. I. Title.
813'.6âdc22Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2006051125
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In Memory of “My Goose”
She had always thought there would be time enoughâthat you could lead a certain life and then, when it faded, exchange it for the one you'd always longed forâ¦
âAndrew Sean Greer,
The Path of Minor Planets
There are two tragedies in life.
One is to lose your heart's desire.
The other is to gain it.
âGeorge Bernard Shaw
hristmas Eve, 2000.
The gray-hued landscape of the Pine Barrens blurred by as Grace drove, dark spindly trunks of pine trees dissolving into thin gray branches, sienna-tinged against the colorless sky. She was supposed to be last-minute Christmas shopping but had realized the night before that she was finished. And the house was clean, the presents were wrapped, her mother had already agreed to babysit. Which meant that Grace was free. For the entire day, if she wanted. And she did.
The two-lane road was nearly empty, nothing on either side of it but straggly scrubland, interrupted now and then by a sagging farmhouse. Wind buffeted the car, wrenching the steering wheel that Grace held in one hand. The other held her Starbucks coffeeâand not just coffee, but a venti cappuccino, because with the whole day, she'd had time for this too. She exhaled a long breath and smiled, regarding her reflection in the rearview mirror: gray eyes, thick shoulder-length auburn hair, and today, for Noah, lipstick. “Coral spice” or “spicy coral” orâ¦she glanced again at her reflection, felt her heart cartwheel in her chest. People told her that she didn't look thirty-seven. And today, with all this timeâno doctor appointments for Jack or driving Max to hockey practice or Erin to the Y for swim lessonsâGrace didn't feel anywhere close to thirty-seven. More like seventeen, she thought, the age she had been the summer she met Noah.
“Do you ever wonder why this happened?” she asked him a few weeks ago.
their meeting again after twenty years, falling in love.
“That's it?” Already something in her was retreating, burrowing away from him.
He squeezed her tighter against his chest. “Hey you, get back here.”
. She tilted her head up to look at him. His face was backlit by gold winter light. Through the windows behind them, the sun was setting over the bay.
“So, you think it was fate?” he teased. “The will of the gods?”
She leaned up on one elbow to look at him. “Why is fate any more farfetched than coincidence?”
“It's not.” He moved his finger around the outline of her lips and pretended to draw a smile. “But does it really matter? Call it anything you want, Grace Martin, as long as you don't disappear this time.”
Grace Martin. She hadn't been Grace Martin in fourteen years.
Ahead of her loomed the sign for the Atlantic City Expressway. She flicked on her turn signal, then slowed for the tollbooth. She had phoned Noah earlier to make sure he'd be in his office today. It was Christmas Eve, and though the Cape May Bird Observatory stayed open through the holidays, Noah was flying home to Ann Arbor tonight. He had sounded rushed, his voice excited, and she thought it was because of his trip, until he explained: There had been two sightings of a brown pelican at the Observatory that morning. Uncon-firmed, but
. “Brown pelicans are rare anytime, but God, Grace,
? And at this time of the season!” He was headed to Higbie's Beach, he told her. “Can I call you around ten-thirty? I should be back in the office by then.”
“Ten-thirty's perfect.” She was smiling. With luck she'd be
his office by 10:30. She'd almost added, “I'll see you then,” but he hung upâthank Godâbefore she could. Even as a child, she was always the one to inadvertently slip and ruin a surprise or blurt out a secret and then, too late, clap her hand to her mouth. She shook her head, wondering, as she had so often these past eleven months, how she had held the secret of Noah within her all this time. But you hold onto what you have to, she knew, thinking of how certain desert cacti can hoard a single drop of rainwater for decades, of how a virus lies dormant until conditions are exactly right for it to replicate, of how birds carry in their genes maps to places they've never been. And people with their secrets? They were no different, she believed, preserving them at enormous costs because sometimes, like water or instinct, their secrets were all that allowed them to survive.
Grace's affair with Noah felt like this sometimes: a matter of survival. It sounded so melodramatic, so Emma Bovary, so Anna Karen-ina, and if she had dared to voice such a thought to her best friend, Jenn, Jenn would have scoffed and asked Grace how she could even think something like thisâ
when she had a child who was literally struggling to survive every day of his life. You want to talk about survival, Jenn would have said, then spend a day in the Pediatric ER. And Jenn would have been right, which is why Grace hadn't confided in her best friend, hadn't confided in anyone.
Snow flurries flew against the windshield and dissolved like tiny comets into silvery streaks. It still amazed herâthe pulse of electricity that rushed straight through her whenever she thought of Noah. How was it even possible that someone's nameâthe
of his nameâcould cause such a physical reaction? And after twenty years.
Grace first met Noah at a church picnic along Lake Erie while visiting her grandparents. His long braid of red-gold hair was falling down his back as a loud swarm of kids pushed and pulled him toward the water, intent on throwing him in. She could tell he was letting them, though he pretended otherwise. “Hey, ya little protozoan,” he yelled, or “Man, you are
an amoeba.” Then he glanced up, caught her eye. “Hey you, how about a little help, here?”
She had ended up in the lake with a bunch of kids chanting, “
He likes you; he likes you,
” and Noah blushing and saying, “Cut it out, ya protons.”
Noah tutored inner-city Detroit kids in science and by the end of the day he had talked Grace into volunteering as well. The job would look good on college applications, she told her parents; it was great experience. She convinced them to let her stay for the summer. And so, she spent two months teaching kids to make baking sodaâpowered rockets; to eliminate the foam from root beer; to write invisible messages on acid-free paper with lemon juice, then decode them with Windex. Years later, doing similar experiments at the kitchen table with her son, Max, memories of that summer would return to her in sharp-edged fragments: the cement walls and uneven floor-boards of the church classroom where they taught; one of the kids sneaking up on her and putting an ice cube down her shirt; a paper airplane sailing across the room, an invisible lemon-scented “I love you” on one of the wings.
Grace pressed her foot to the accelerator, casting up a silent prayer that the police were tied up with holiday traffic near the malls. Clouds of white spray from the damp road swirled around the car like steam. Only when the speedometer pushed toward eighty did she ease her foot from the gas pedal. “Not in a hurry today, are we?” she teased herself, glancing up and once again catching her reflection in the rearview mirror: the same wide gray eyes and bright lipsticked smile, but in this light she now saw the beginnings of crow's-feet when she smiled, and something gaunt in the way her cheek bones protruded in her face. Strands of gray in her hair. Twenty years. Something sharp pushed against the walls of her chest. Twenty years. How does it happen, she wondered, the person you thought you were just disappearing beneath your life the way the road was disappearing beneath the wheels of her SUV?
Twice that summer Noah arrived at her grandparents' door with his face painted blue and white, the home colors of the Detroit Tigers, to take her to a game. He
the Tigers, he explained as the team went extra innings against the Toronto Blue Jays. Baseball united people across class, race, and religion as even religion couldn't. A few weeks later, they watched a no-name pitcher miraculously beat the Boston Red Sox, 3â0. A Sunday afternoon. David defeating Goliath. Who needed church? Noah asked, his voice hoarse from cheering.
He was strange and smartâas a junior in college he'd already been accepted to Princeton's PhD program in biologyâand he didn't care what anyone thought of him, and he made Grace laugh, and when she was with him, she didn't care about what people thought of her either. But home in New Jersey that fall, she felt ashamed when she tried to describe him to her popular field hockeyâplaying girlfriends. He sounded weird, they said, which wasn't the reaction Grace had imagined. Noah was older, after all; he was in college. And he wanted
She had thought her friends would see her differently, respect her maybe, but instead they only rolled their eyes when she showed them photos. “Well, of course, he's in love with you, Grace. You're probably the most normal person he's ever dated.” Shallow, high-school-girl comments, but Grace had listened to them so that, sometimes, on the nights when Noah phoned, she found herself seeing him through their eyes. And so, although she would watch the Tigers win the World Series four years later, she stopped returning Noah's phone calls that first autumn. Eventually, he stopped phoning. She graduated from high school and went to college, then grad schoolâa master's in epidemiology from Penn. She fell in love with Stephen, married him in a huge traditional church wedding, had Max a year later, Erin seven years after that, and then, finally, Jack.
Grace found Noah's salt-crusted, bumper stickerâladen Volvo in the deserted parking lot at the Hawk Watch Platform. Even the die-hard bird watchers were absent today. Home with their families, no doubt, getting ready for the holiday. Her stomach sank with guilt. “Damn it,” she whispered. For a moment she sat, unmoving, the engine running, holding her cell phone in her lap. She should be home, she thought. With her kids. It was Christmas Eve. She was a mother. What was she doing?
She stared at the white totals board at the base of the Hawk Watch Platform listing the number of sightings to date for each type of raptor: Cooper's hawk, red-tailed hawk, Swainson's. The counts were down, Noah had told her, the numbers for peregrine falcons half of what they'd been three years ago. Something like grief on his face when he talked about it. It made no sense to her. Not when there were wars and genocide and people dying of AIDS and cancer. Not when her own child was dying of a genetic disease few scientists understood. Noah had told her how over a thousand biologists and volunteers from ten nations had convened at the International Piping Plover census of 1991, created to increase the breeding population of the endangered species. She had been sickened. For a
, she kept thinking. A bird.
She sat for what seemed a long time, staring up at the soft gray clouds pulsing overhead. The sky a sonogram of winter. And then resolutely, she punched in her home phone number on the cell. “You're
everything's okay?” she asked her mother.
she meant. “I can come home.” She held her breath, not aware that she was doing so until her mother reassured her: everything was fine, Max was out with his friends, she and Erin were baking cookies; Jack was taking a nap.
“Did you remember to checkâ”
“His blood pressure was fine, honey.”
Grace slipped the phone into the pocket of her field coat and leaned her forehead against the steering wheel and slowly exhaled. It sounded like a sobâof gratitude and guilt and relief, but mostly, she thought, of gratitude.
The minute she crossed over the dunes, it was like entering another world, the wind shrieking, the waves crashing onto the beachâone every five seconds, Noah had told her, fourteen thousand a day. The air smelled of salt and rotting wood and distance and longing, and yet for the first time in weeks, she felt as if she could breathe, actually take in a full breath without a tight band of sadness constricting her lungs.
This was why she had come here. This was her Christmas present to herself. And yes, of course, she felt guilty, but she also knew that if she didn't get away from the kids and Stephen and even her mother for a few hours, she would simply shatter inside. And if one more person asked if she was happy that Jack was home for the holiday or suggested that she be grateful to have this Christmas with him; if one more person told her that she “was such an inspiration,” or she was “a saint,” or the worst, that Jack reminded them of the
meaning of Christmasâ¦
? she felt like asking. Because he's
what you need to remind you what the holiday is about?
Noah was down the beach a couple hundred yards. She shouted to him, but the wind lifted her sounds like a flimsy hat and flung them in the opposite direction.
She started walking into the wind, chin tucked to her chest, squinting against the blowing sand and snow. It was like treading through a current of fast-moving water. Spume lifted and blew in the gusts of wind. And then she heard a wild yell, and when she glanced up, he was running, sprinting, leapingâwhat exactly