When Elizabeth Burns suddenly recalls an elementary school classmate she forgot about years ago, she is reminded of the girls’ unexplained disappearance three decades earlier. The truth having been hidden from her as a child, Elizabeth becomes obsessed with learning what happened to young April Cassidy. Searching old newspaper clippings, she finds an answer she struggles to grasp. An excerpt.
April Cassidy was my best friend from the first day of first grade in September of 1972, until a couple of months later, when she failed to show up for school. During the weeks following her disappearance, as leaf-littered lawns succumbed to snow, and eighteen and a half minutes of White House chatter were lost into the ether, I rubbed a pink eraser over the memory of my friend and wiped the loose leaf clean. So clean, it took thirty-five years and a production of Medea to unleash her. And when she emerged, thus began my descent.
“Where are we?” Mark whispered, too loudly, as he slipped into the seat next to mine twelve minutes after curtain.
“Corinth,” I said.
He took off his coat and stole a peek at his BlackBerry. “No, I meant who’s he and why’s she yelling?”
Mark had bought us the tickets to see Medea, to get us out of the apartment and away from the kids. Maybe, he’d joked, we’d even hold hands. But he’d been held up late at his office again, though we’d planned to meet for dinner before the show.
“That’s Jason,” I whispered. “And she’s yelling at him because she’s angry.”
“Sounds familiar,” said Mark. “What’d he do?”
“Broke which promises?” he said.
“Shh,” said the woman behind us.
I took a pen out of my purse and wrote on the back of my program, “He promised to meet her for dinner and didn’t.”
Mark’s smile was weary. “Very funny, Lizard.” My name is Elizabeth, but Mark only uses it when he’s upset. He calls me Liza in bed, Zab from another room (“Za-ab! Have you seen my glasses?”), and Lizzie-bean when he wants to make light of my grumblings. “Oh, is my little Lizzie-bean lonely at night?” he’d said recently, rubbing my cheek with the back of his finger. “Poor Lizzie-bean.” After which I told him to go fuck himself. After which he suggested we go see Medea together. Just the two of us. On a date. Lizard is kind of his catchall, covering the bases from appreciation to contrition. “Look, I’m sorry,” he whispered, “I tried to call, but?—?”
I put my finger to my lips, not wanting to hear another excuse. “He’s leaving her,” I scribbled, “for another woman.”
Mark let loose a tiny laugh-grunt and grabbed hold of my hand. Then he whispered, barely audibly, “Well at least you can’t complain about that from me.”
True. He didn’t have a mistress, in the corporeal sense, but he did have a mistress of a different sort. He wasn’t having sex with her. He was poring over data in her. Writing formulas in her. Typing emails in her. Until eleven, twelve o’clock every night.
Like many of his former colleagues, Mark had been lured away from the math department at CUNY when Lortex, a Texas-based insurance firm, called and asked him to consult on their latest project, using neural networks to fine-tune actuarial charts. The idea, he’d explained to me, his voice all aflutter, was to completely shatter the paradigm of risk management. Instead of assessing risk for various groups of people, he was going to try to figure out a way to predict the actual hour, within a plus or minus range of seventy-two hours, of a single individual’s demise. If it worked, we’d have the first financial cushion of our working lives. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be any worse off than we were now, which is to say, like anyone making a go of New York without funds modified by trust or hedge, struggling to keep up with the rent. “It’ll mean a few late nights,” he’d said, offhandedly, “nothing major.” He estimated six months before a working prototype could be built. Seven at the most. But three years and several hundred late nights later, his model, he’d recently admitted, still wasn’t correlating with reality. “Oh really?” I’d snapped. “Well neither is ours.”
I focused my attention back on the play. The actress playing Medea was beginning to cloy, playing the role like a put-upon housewife, her shoulders sloped inward, her delivery mousy. Medea should have been strong in her fury, full of bluster and brawn. Or at least worthy of her spotlight as a Greek hero. “I will kill,” she kept muttering. “I will kill.” But she didn’t seem capable of icing a cake, much less her offspring.
“Remember you started this war of words,” Jason was now shouting, from stage left. “As for your complaints about this
marriage, I’ll show you that in this I’m being wise, and moderate, and very friendly to you, and to my children.”
My mind wandered off the stage and back to our narrow floor-through on West Eighty-fifth Street: to the vestibule overflowing with mini-coats and solitary mittens; to Tess’s stuffed animals flung across the parquet like bodies at Antietem; to the forlorn ticktock of the kitchen clock once the girls had been tucked into bed. A few days earlier, Daisy had taped a new drawing to the refrigerator: three figures, a mother and two daughters, with the words my famly stenciled in block letters across the top. “You forgot the i,” I’d said, “between the m and the l.” It didn’t seem fair to point out the other omission. The missing i could be easily replaced; the missing we not so easily. I suggested, perhaps too nervously, that Daisy put the drawing in her special box, to keep it safe from the ravages of sticky fingers and spilled grape juice. “Don’t worry, Mom. We can keep it out,” she’d said. “Daddy won’t notice.”
The curtain fell. The houselights came up. I extricated my now clammy hand from Mark’s. “You’re right,” I whispered, “at least I don’t have to worry about you and another woman.”
Because I’d waited for Mark outside the theater before the play, instead of going to the bathroom as I’d needed, I spent intermission waiting my turn to use one of the three stalls available, watching the men move in and out of their facilities with the efficiency of cars on an assembly line. I pictured the inside of their bathroom, the wall of urinals like stops on a conveyor belt, the swift zip-release-zip motion of fingers and genitals, the hands washed and dried or perhaps not, with nary a glance in the mirror, while on our side precious time was lost to spreading toilet paper over seats, pulling down hose, hiking up skirts, tugging on tampons, locating flushing mechanisms, pulling up hose, straightening out skirts, and fidgeting with locks which never seemed to want to close. “Can you hold this door for me?” we’d ask each other. Or “Does anyone have any paper? Mine’s out.” And wads of paper would pass from stall to stall, and this one would hold that one’s door shut, and more time would be lost, more minutes wasted.
And as I stood there in line and waited, mentally transforming each woman in front of me into a giant uterus, giving birth to other girls, other uteruses, telescoping out one by one from the original like the matrioshka dolls Tess used to love to split open and toss about the living room floor, heads rolling under couches, torsos under chairs, which every night I carefully gathered and reassembled, so she could scatter them once again, I thought about all those mothers and mothers-to-be, chugging along, finding detours around all those inconveniences and compromises that would have to be weighed and measured and fought over and swallowed while the men went about their business, zip-release-zip, unhampered and unfettered, along the conveyor belts of their lives.
“You were in the bathroom this whole time?” Mark said, with a slight tone of annoyance, as the houselights blinked and the bodies hustled back into their seats.
“No,” I said. “I was in Stockholm. Fetching my Nobel. Want to see it?”
“I thought we were supposed to talk.”
“Yes, that was the plan.” But now we’d have to rush home after the play to relieve the babysitter we could ill afford, and I’d check my email or maybe read, and Mark would plant himself in front of his computer to surf the porn sites he thought I didn’t know about, and I’d check on the girls and probably pass out on the couch watching the end of Jon Stewart, still in my clothes, and Mark would try to rouse me but fail, and I’d awake with a start, maybe two am, maybe three, and hit the power on the remote and stumble my way in the dark to our bedroom, liberating breasts and limbs from straps and buttons and saying to hell with the toothbrush, and I’d see Mark passed out on top of the duvet, a chalk outline of himself, and I’d slip in under the covers on my side of the bed, wishing I’d remembered to grab a glass of water, diving into dreams about sinking ships and quicksand sidewalks, and then the window would lighten, the alarm would go off, another day would begin. “Maybe we can talk next week,” I said.
On stage, Jason and the children departed to deliver the poisoned robe and crown to Creon’s daughter. Medea paced around the stage, finally gathering strength now, like a tropical storm. And then, just as Medea began to slaughter her children (tastefully, behind a scrim), just as the lamentations and wails began to echo throughout the house, and the blood began to splatter across the scrim, crimson Rorschach blots arousing the sleepy unconscious, April Cassidy, wearing a pair of red shorts, burst forth into my mind’s eye.
Come play! she was saying, or so it seemed, or so I thought, It’s been so long. And I saw her blue lips and heard the phantom words spoken as clearly as if they’d been uttered by Medea’s children themselves, who were shouting, pleading, begging to be saved: “Yea, by heaven I adjure you; your aid is needed! Even now the toils of the sword are closing round us . . .”
I rubbed my eyes, thinking the hallucination a trick of
exhaustion, of a flulike fever now palpably mounting and no longer possible to ignore. But the harder I rubbed, the clearer the vision became.
“Mark,” I said, tugging on his shirt, “I’m having a . . . I think I’m hallucina . . . help.” This last word was spoken feebly. My heart beat inside my chest like a sneaker in a dryer.
Mark looked at me, genuinely concerned. “What is it, Z?” He put his hand on my forehead. “Oh my god, Lizzie. You’re burning up.”
I felt the theater closing in on me, the stage lights pulsing and swirling as if the psychedelic pyrotechnics were about to kick in. I needed a blast of January air, space to breathe, light. “I’ve got to get out of here,” I whispered to my neighbor, “I’m so sorry,” and I stood up and held onto the seat in front of me for balance. Which is when, according to my husband, the woman behind us yelled, “Jesus! Sit down and shut up already!” and Mark’s BlackBerry went off, and the actress playing Medea flubbed her line about feeble lust and ruin, and I fainted, hitting my head on the armrest on the way down.
Dr. Karen Rivers sat on the Eames chair in front of me, a yellow notepad resting on her knee. “So,” she said. “Why are you here?”
If I knew that, I thought, then I wouldn’t be here. “It was my internist’s idea,” I said, relieved to have the excuse. “I’ve been fainting, a lot, and nobody can find any physiological reason why that should be happening.” I’d blacked out seven times altogether, if you counted the afternoon I was standing in the yard of my daughters’ school, waiting for them to emerge, and was able to catch myself on the chain-link fence, my fingers clinging to the metal diamonds like claws, before everything went dark. Six times if you counted only the episodes in which I awoke to find small crowds gathered around me, staring down or trying to rouse me with newspaper fans.
I’d gone for a CT scan at Mount Sinai. Normal. I was tested for Ménière’s at New York Presbyterian. Inconclusive. My blood pressure was in the normal range, so it wasn’t, explained my internist, run-of-the-mill vasovagal syncope. “Vase-o-bagel what?” I’d said, and he’d chuckled and said, “No, it has nothing to do with bagels, but it can have to do with stress. How’s your mental state of late?”
“And how did you answer his question?” Dr. Rivers now asked.
“I said I was fine.”
“Are you fine?” Her expression was inscrutable. I wondered if she practiced it in the mirror.
“What do you think?”
She cocked her head. “What do you think?”
“Is that how things work in here?”
“More or less.”
“Okay. I guess I’m not sure, then. If I’m fine.”
“You’re not sure.” She jotted down a note on her pad. “Would you like to elaborate?”
“I guess part of me feels a little ... lost.” This wasn’t the right word exactly, but it wasn’t the wrong one either. How else to describe the sense that my life had gone off track?
“What do you mean ‘lost’?”
I shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure.” She waited, in vain, for me to continue. After a long pause, in which I could sense her disappointment in my inability to plumb the depths of my subconscious, she flipped over to a fresh page in her notebook. “Let’s back up. Start with some easier questions. How old are you?”
“And have you ever been treated by a psychiatrist before?”
Thus we spent the next half hour, delving into the world of verifiable fact, but even to some of Dr. Rivers’s simple queries I found myself responding with addendums, caveats, and apologies. When asked, for example, how to spell my last name, I said it was Burns, but if she was asking for purposes of insurance, she should write down Elizabeth Burns Steiger, my legal name ever since that rainy afternoon in 1999 when a particularly unpleasant U.S. postal worker told me I couldn’t retrieve the baby present that had arrived for Daisy because the last name on my ID did not match the last name on my daughter’s package.
“How about your work?” said Dr. Rivers. “Dr. Leland told me you’re a journalist, right? A TV producer?”
“So to speak.”
“So to speak?”
I chastised myself for not answering at least that one succinctly and in the affirmative. I was a journalist, after all: 18 years and counting, the last six of which I’d focused, out of financial necessity, on television production. It’s the word I always scribbled in the blank following “mother’s occupation” on the emergency forms for the girls’ school. I should have just said yes and been done with it. But I knew, even when filling out those forms, that to call what I did “journalism” of late was generous. My most recent assignment, from Entertainment Now, had been to stake out the entrance of the W Hotel waiting for an actress whose ménage à trois with a Brazilian hooker was making the rounds of the blogosphere. The one before that, for a failed pilot called Real Women, Real Beauty, had me interviewing random women on Madison Avenue on the subject of their nails.
“Meaning, I guess sometimes I feel like I’m just treading water these days,” I said to Dr. Rivers. “The work feels empty.”
My career, prechildren, I explained, had been going along a fairly normal trajectory, with various internships and wire-service gigs which lead to postings in Newsworld magazine’s Rome bureau and then New York. But by the time Kosovo was imploding, so was I. It wasn’t burnout per se, although I was definitely burned out. “It was ...” I paused. Dr. Rivers remained silent, waiting for me to continue, but I let it drop. I could never even explain any of it to Mark. I was pregnant with Daisy at the time, and it was just easier to blame the months of crushing fatigue and confusion that followed on that.
I returned to work faithfully after each brief maternity leave, taking a more deskbound position as an editor after Tess arrived, but it didn’t take long for me to grasp the economic realities of American parenthood. An old colleague of mine, who lived in Paris, would gasp when we’d swap stories. Clem was given a year-long paid maternity leave and placed Sophie in a state-subsidized crèche the day she went back to her job which, by law, she could only perform thirty-five hours a week. A doctor checked Sophie’s ears, nose, and throat every Friday afternoon, doling out free antibiotics to her and her classmates whenever necessary. “But I don’t understand,” Clem would say when I’d complain about our crushing childcare expenses, the five-figure preschool bills, the uncovered well visits to the pediatrician which I had to sneak out of my office to attend. “How can you afford to live like this?”
“We can’t,” I’d say.
“What about daycare? Surely there is an affordable crèche nearby, non?”
Video: Balancing act (on this page) I laughed. There was a daycare center on the outskirts of my neighborhood which, while not affordable, was at least more reasonable, at least for one child, than a full-time sitter, but to get in I would have to have applied Daisy while she was still in utero.
“Incroyable,” said Clem. “No wonder all those American girls are dropping their babies in dumpsters.”
Since uprooting the kids to France was not in the cards, Mark and I decided that I would switch from my full-time magazine job to freelance television producing for a few years, figuring we’d reassess the situation and our finances once the girls were in school. Then, just as Tess was getting ready for kindergarten, just as I was getting ready to “ramp back on,” as the social scientists were now calling it, the news divisions of all the major networks announced massive layoffs. A month later, my old editor at Newsworld took me out to lunch to inform me that not only was my former position there no longer available, it no longer even existed on the masthead. “We’re down to one foreign editor,” he said, mumbling something about falling ad revenues, the rise of online media, the lack of general interest in international news. The only magazines with any real budgets to burn, he said, were either lifestyle/consumer or celebrity ones, but if I wanted, he could definitely set me up an interview with the editor of a new venture called Scoop, which sounded promising, until I got to the interview and blew the job within the first five minutes of sitting down. “What do you mean you’ve never heard of Pratesi?” squawked the editor.
But I’d never heard of Pratesi. Or Frette or Crème de la Mer. And I couldn’t bring myself to care, either about the products or the celebrities who used them.
And so I fell deeper and deeper into journalistic purgatory, writing press releases about antifungal medications and a new brand of sneakers for a viral marketing firm, comparing the suction strength of various breast pumps for an online parenting site.
Dr. Rivers jotted down another note on her pad, crossed her left leg over her right. “What about your marriage? Everything okay on the home front?”
“It could be better,” I said.
“Well, my husband and I hardly ever see each other these days, for one.”
“And for another?”
“I don’t know. I just said, ‘for one’ as an expression. I don’t really have a ‘for two.’?”
“I see.” She glanced at her clock. “Look, Elizabeth, I think we should focus, before our time is up today, on the blackouts themselves.” She wondered aloud whether there might be anything to unite them: a thought process; a feeling; a circumstance; a trigger. “The first time you fainted, for example, where were you? What was going through your mind?”
“I was at the theater,” I said. “Watching the last act of Medea. Then I suddenly remembered this girl April. From elementary school.”
“She was a classmate?”
“A friend. My best friend, actually. In first grade.”
“And what happened to her after first grade?”
“She ... I don’t know. She left. Never came back to school.”
“No, I think she .... actually, I really don’t know. I never found out. And I haven’t really thought about her since. Until that night, I mean.”
“I see.” She was now scribbling furiously on her pad. “And what about the other blackouts? Same questions: where were you, what were you thinking about?”
I lined all the other episodes up in my head, a row of dominos: the time at the grocery store, when the girls were playing ring around the rosie in the aisle; the one at the school yard, when I was able to catch myself on the fence; the Saturday when we rented a car to visit friends who’d moved out to the suburbs, and we’d stopped off at an Exxon station to fill up on the way back; the time I was riding on that crowded crosstown bus with Daisy, the two of us sandwiched in the aisle between two other women, one who was nuzzling her nose against the fragrant head of her infant, the other who was ignoring her crying toddler. “They were all totally random,” I said, listing each one, fall by fall. Picturing the dominos tumbling down. “And there’s no pattern to what I was thinking about beforehand. I mean ring around the rosie? A bus ride? A gas station? One has nothing to do with the other.”
Dr. Rivers glanced at her clock and sighed. “We’re out of time today,” she said. “But I’d like you to do something for me this week. A little writing assignment, if you will. I’d like you to jot down everything you can remember about that friend of yours. The one who disappeared. I’m not saying she has anything to do with your blackouts, but I have a hunch, if she preceded the first episode, that this disappearance may somehow be significant. At the very least, it’ll be a useful exercise. To focus on your memories. From the past. To try to figure out the significance of their sudden emergence into your present. Especially when it involves a close relationship that was severed.”
“I never said my relationship with April was painful.”
Dr. Rivers’s eyes widened. “Neither did I.” She scribbled another note. “Was it a painful relationship?”
“No,” I said, looking down at my hands, noting the prominence of the veins, the cracked crevices of their surface, like a dinosaur’s. Whose hands were these? “We were children. Good friends. Nothing painful in that.”
Dr. Rivers stole another glance at her clock and gathered her papers, her demeanor calm but expedient. “I’ll see you next week,” she said, standing up. Then she showed me, cordially, to the door.
Excerpted from "Between Here and April", Copyright (c) 2008 by Deborah Copaken Kogan. Reprinted with permission from Algonquin Books.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive