Love Is Not Enough
My sister’s boyfriend’s name was Robin, which struck me as a girlish name for a guy, but he wasn’t girlish, he was as big as a yeti and had a forest of dark hair on his arms. When she brought him home to Connecticut to meet our mother and me, he seemed to dwarf the house: he was a grown-up, fully a man, and Jeannie was obviously besotted. She was twenty-two, a year out of college; he was older, in his thirties. He sat on the loveseat in the living room holding Jeannie’s comparatively tiny hand and talked for a long time. Then they got up and went out to dinner somewhere in Darien, or maybe they drove back to the City. I stared at the depression in the sofa where he’d sat and tried to remember what he’d said, but mostly recalled the flashes of his too white teeth and the bluish tint of his five o’clock shadow. I’d felt shy of him for a reason I couldn’t have named.
“He’s handsome, I’ll give him that,” my mother said after they left. “But that’s all I’ll give him. Jeannie is too easy, always has been. She’d go out with the mailman if he asked her.” It was six o’clock on the dot, and she was pouring herself a glass of vodka, the only type of alcohol her latest diet allowed. I had to take Jeannie’s word for it that our mother had once been kind. When I was five, and Jeannie was fifteen, our father went into the woods in back of our house and shot himself in the head. According to Jeannie, our mother had been a different person before then. I took that literally for a long time, imagining a woman I’d never met, but when I finally understood, I felt sorry for her and blamed her a little bit less for the way she was now.
First thing the next morning, Jeannie called.
“So what do you think?” she said. “He’s amazing, isn’t he?”
“Amazing,” I said. For all I knew, Robin was amazing. I didn’t want to be disagreeable.
“He was impressed by you, Katie,” she said.
“By me? Why?”
“He thinks you’re very mature for your age.”
“I hardly talked to him,” I said. I hadn’t talked to him at all. I looked older than twelve because I was tall and seemed older because I was quiet. I knew that some people thought the reason for my maturity was the circumstances of my father’s death. I didn’t know anyone who hadn’t heard how he died, because my mother had told, and continued to tell, everyone connected to us. Jeannie also talked openly about it and had certainly told Robin by now.
“I’m in love,” she said. “This is it. He’s the one.”
“How can you tell?”
“I can tell because I think about him all the time. I can’t wait to see him, and when I’m with him, I feel so turned on I can hardly stand it.” She lowered her voice. “He’s great in bed.”
Jeannie had been telling me about her sex life since she began to have one at the age of seventeen. I was her confidante, her audience, even in the days when I didn’t understand a word of what she said. When she’d had an abortion a year ago, she’d told me about that too. “I know, I know, I know,” I’d kept saying as she described the procedure in detail, hoping she’d skip ahead to the end. Finally she’d said, “Stop saying you know! You don’t know anything about it!” I know all about it now, I’d thought, vowing never to have one myself.
“Does he think you’re the one, too?” I said. I was stretched out on my bed with my head propped on a stuffed elephant. I had about twenty plush animals arranged against the headboard of my bed. When I was younger, I imagined they came to life the minute I walked out of my room.
“He has to say he loves me before I say it to him,” Jeannie said.
“I don’t want to say it and have him not say it back, that would be humiliating.”
“He seemed to like you a lot,” I said. “He held your hand the whole time he was here.” I had only just begun to think about boys as anything but obnoxious, but I knew from watching the kids in the grade ahead of mine that holding hands was a sign of commitment.
“What does Mom think? I bet she said he’s too old for me.”
Our mother had called Robin “common” and “slick” after she’d had a few drinks. I’d stuck up for him because Jeannie liked him, saying I thought he seemed okay.
“Oh, and you’re such an expert on men,” she’d said, her face ruddy and her eyes belligerent. How much do you know about them? I’d wanted to say because as far as I knew she had never in my memory been on one date. She’d been sitting in the same upholstered chair she sat in every night. The nubbly cream fabric behind her head was stained yellow from the many times she’d passed out and slept there for hours.
“Mom said he’s handsome,” I said. I could hear Jeannie breathe a short huff of relief. But she was right to assume our mother thought Robin was too old.
“How has she been lately?” she said.
“The same,” I said.
“Drinking a lot?”
“Is she being nice to you?”
“Not really.” She had screamed at me a few days before for not arranging the dishes properly in the dishwasher. I never knew what would set her off; the dishes had looked fine to me. She’d been drunk at the time, but she didn’t have to be to fly into one of her rages.
“Listen, why don’t you take the train into the City next weekend? We can go shopping, get you some clothes before school starts. I’ll take Saturday off from the store.”
Visiting Jeannie was my favorite thing to do. She had a studio apartment in the East Village that was just large enough to accommodate a twin bed that she made into a sofa during the day by covering it with a red and white block-printed spread that she got from the housewares shop where she worked. Then she layered it with a lot of throw pillows the way I put stuffed animals on my bed, and it was transformed into a place to hang out. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor. Sometimes we got cheap tickets from TKTS and went to a Broadway musical, though usually we went to the movies or watched TV and shared an order of my favorite meal, sesame chicken and spring rolls. She had wonderful, offbeat taste in clothing and found all sorts of things at vintage stores, so shopping with her was a treat, as unlike trudging around Nordstrom with our mother as New York was unlike Darien.
When I got off the train at Grand Central early Friday evening, Jeannie wasn’t under the clock. People walked around me from every direction as I stood in confusion, a rock in a confluence of rivers. She was always under the clock. She would be there in a minute, I thought. Five minutes turned to fifteen, fifteen to twenty. When I took out my phone to call her, she appeared before me as if she’d been standing there all along.
“Were you scared?” she said. “I’m sorry. I got hung up.” She was wearing a silvery lace slip under a sheer black dress whose neckline plunged to her waist. Dangling from her ears was a pair of crescent-shaped gold earrings that had three red beads in the shape of tears suspended from their lower edges. Her blond hair was piled on top of her head, tendrils falling down around her neck. She looked beautiful and not like herself.
“Why are you dressed up?” I said. She looked down at her clothes as if she’d forgotten what she was wearing.
“Big surprise,” she said. “We’re going to the theater!”
“Oh, wow! What show?”
“It’s not a musical, it’s a play,” she said. “And we’re going out to an early dinner first.” She picked up my overnight bag and started walking the wrong way.
“Wait,” I said, pointing in the opposite direction. “Aren’t we taking the subway to your apartment?” We always took the 6 train to Astor Place and walked to Second Avenue.
She stopped. “No, we’re not staying there tonight, we’re staying at Robin’s. We’re meeting him at the restaurant, there’s a car waiting outside. Come on,” she said and grabbed my hand. We ran up the huge marble staircase to Vanderbilt Avenue, where a black sedan idled at the curb. Its back seat smelled like leather, and there was fake wood paneling inside the doors. The driver pulled away from the curb without being told where to go.
“The restaurant we’re going to is really nice,” Jeannie said.
“But I’m wearing shorts,” I said. They were cutoffs from a pair of last year’s jeans.
“That’s okay, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing.” She leaned forward and adjusted the air conditioning vent. I had on a tank top, and my arms were covered with goose bumps. I longed to join the hot, noisy city that paraded past the car windows.
“Why doesn’t it matter?” I said. “You’re all dressed up, shouldn’t I be?”
“You’re twelve, Katie. Nobody cares how you look.”
Her patronizing tone made me mad. “Nobody cares how you look, either.”
She laughed at me. “Robin does! He bought me these earrings, do you like them? Come on, Katie, this is going to be so fun.”
“Okay,” I said. I wanted to please her. I had forgotten about Robin. She had never included a boyfriend on any of my other visits, but the difference now was that she was in love.
“Were you ever in love before?” I said.
She looked out the window. “No. I could never take anyone seriously. The guys I used to go out with were children compared to Robin.”
“He’s rich, isn’t he?” I said. The car, the restaurant, the earrings. I had never ridden in even a regular taxicab with Jeannie, and take-out food was a treat. The careful way she touched the earrings made me think they were expensive.
“He makes a good living,” she said with a hint of pride in her voice.
“Why are we staying with him?” I said.
“It’s much more comfortable at his place. He’s got an extra room for one thing, you won’t have to sleep on the floor.”
“I like your place. I don’t mind sleeping on the floor.”
“You’ll like this better,” she said.
The restaurant was called La Grande Idée. The Big Idea. I knew that because I took French at school. We were led by a tuxedoed maître d’ through a roomful of tables covered with spotless white cloths. On each was an arrangement of fresh summer flowers; I lingered behind Jeannie to admire them and thought of the patchy perennial border at home that our mother sometimes dug around in but mostly left alone. There were only two other diners, an elderly couple. It was as cold here as it had been in the car and bright with long rays of evening sun. I tugged at the back of my shorts, conscious of my skimpy clothes. The maître d’ seated us next to a window with a view of a profusely green Central Park. He shook out our napkins and placed them on our laps and handed a folded piece of notepaper to Jeannie.
“Robin says he’ll be late, to start without him,” she said as she read the note. I wondered why he hadn’t simply texted or phoned, but Jeannie’s smile as she unfolded the paper made me think that receiving a note from your boyfriend was romantic.
“How did you meet him?” I said after we’d ordered. I thought I should have already known how they met; it would have been explained when Jeannie brought him home. I didn’t remember either my mother or myself asking a single question, though my mother must have asked a few at least, for her not to wouldn’t have made sense.
“We met at the store,” Jeannie said. “He came in and bought a set of towels, and we ended up talking for an hour. My manager went ballistic after he left.”
“Who went ballistic?” Robin sat down between us. He took Jeannie’s hand and kissed it. I recognized the romance in that. He wore a dark blue suit and a red and blue striped tie; strangely, the starched collar of his shirt was pale blue while the rest of it was white. He turned to me and said, “Katie, how are you?” as if he honestly wanted to know. I wasn’t used to people being interested in me.
“Fine, thank you,” I said.
“Hot out, isn’t it? Hotter than it was in Connecticut, I bet. What’s your favorite season?”
“Summer,” I said.
“Summer! Of course! No school. Summer is my favorite, too.” Even though he seemed completely focused on me, his hand was on Jeannie’s arm. I looked at her. Her cheeks were pink. I thought she looked a little hectic, but her dress was interesting. Had Robin bought that, too?
“Doesn’t your sister look lovely?” he said.
“She looks different than usual. But she’s always pretty.”
“She is.” He gazed at her. Romantic moment number three. I sat in the pooling silence, intent on extracting an orange nasturtium from my miniscule green salad.
“Did Jeannie tell you we’re going to a play?” he said. “It’s a very famous one. It’s called Waiting for Godot.”
The name of the play meant nothing to me, but I smiled and nodded as if it did. I wanted to make a good impression because of Jeannie being in love with him, and because I was conscious of the fact that he thought I was mature. He ordered a drink called a gimlet, drank it quickly, and ordered another one right away. He seemed like anyone now, a pleasant guy; I couldn’t imagine why he’d struck me speechless before.
“Aren’t you going to eat anything?” I said.
He looked at his watch. “Too early, I think. You go ahead. I’ll get something after the play. You two look alike, you know that? Same eyes? No, not the eyes. Same . . . something. I can’t put my finger on it.”
No one had ever said Jeannie and I looked alike. I was a brunette, and she was very fair, and we were ten years apart in age.
“You think so?” Jeannie said. She winked at me. I had no idea what she was thinking, what the wink meant. She had never winked at me in my life. I wanted to go back to Grand Central and find my real sister under the clock.
The play was boring in every possible way. There was no set, only a bare stage with a flimsy, leafless tree; the two actors’ costumes were identically dust colored and ratty, as if they’d been wearing them for years. I was used to the lavish costumes and set designs of popular musicals, to simple plots and catchy songs that were easily followed and remembered. But I couldn’t find even the skeleton of a plot in the yammering back-and-forth dialogue. I must have sighed or made an impatient movement, because Jeannie leaned into me.
“They’re waiting for a guy named Godot to show up,” she whispered. I had gathered that much already, but the rest was lost on me.
“When is he coming?” I said.
She turned to Robin and conferred with him, then came back to me with a dismayed look on her face. “Robin says never.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. I couldn’t believe it.
A woman behind us made a shushing noise, so Jeannie settled back into her seat. I felt the solid weight of boredom descend on me. The actors talked on and on, sitting against the tree; when one of them suggested they hang themselves, I fervently hoped they would do it. Because of my father, suicide wasn’t shocking to me. He’d been in the woods when he shot himself: he might have sat against a tree. It had been February, so the trees would have been bare, but if there had been snow on the ground, he wouldn’t have wanted to sit down. Maybe he’d leaned against a tree, or stood unsupported, or squatted on his heels. It would have been bleak in the bare, cold woods. Jeannie once told me he had been in a state of despair, though she didn’t know why. I thought that he might have chosen the woods because it looked the way he felt. All of a sudden I wanted to know what he’d been thinking about when he pulled the trigger.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I whispered to Jeannie and left my seat before she could reply. I crabbed my way across the long row, brushing people’s knees with my shins and ran up the aisle past a uniformed usher toward a lighted sign for the ladies’ room. Inside, the walls were unremittingly pink, and there was a long marble counter of sinks. Between each sink were glass jars of cotton balls and Q-tips, and fancy pump-top bottles of soap and lotion, as if people could be trusted not to walk off with these things, which I supposed people could be because there the things were. I patted my face with a handful of tepid water and dried it with an unusually thick paper towel. I went into a stall, took my phone out of my pocket, and Googled my father’s name. Too many people had the same name, so I added my mother’s name and the name of our town. There was a brief obituary in the Stamford Advocate.
Stanley Parsons died suddenly on February 18th at the age of 42. Born and raised in Stamford, Connecticut, he resided in Darien. He leaves behind his beloved wife, Sharon, and cherished daughters Jean and Katherine. Services are private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Nature Conservancy of Connecticut.
I sat down on the toilet. That he’d been a nature lover made me change my mind about why he’d gone into the woods. Maybe he’d looked up at the tops of the trees, at a flock of birds in a cloudless sky; maybe he’d listened to the wind rustle the dry leaves on the ground or turned his face toward the weak winter sun. I imagined him taking a last look around at the world before putting the gun to his head. I sat there for a while, crying noiselessly into my hands. I’d never cried about him before and felt like a phony crying now. I remembered he’d smoked cigarettes and had a big, raucous laugh. I didn’t see how it was possible to have a laugh like that and be in a state of despair. I blew my nose on a clutch of toilet paper just as a group of people came in. Stall doors banged shut. “I thought I’d pee in my pants!” I heard a woman say. “Me too,” another woman replied.
“Katie?” Jeannie called. “Are you in here, Katie?”
“Here,” I said. I unlocked the stall door. She opened it and came in.
“I’m sorry about the play,” she said. “I didn’t know how dull it would be. Robin thinks it’s deep, but I don’t get it at all.” She looked at my phone. “Are you on Snapchat or something?” I turned the phone around so she could see the screen. She frowned. “Oh, Katie, no. Why are you looking at that?”
“Is it true that he cherished us?”
She leaned against the pink metal door. “Of course.”
“I think that’s just what people say in obituaries. Beloved; cherished. Who knows how he felt?”
Jeannie only sighed. I had expected her to stick up for him; she had known him, after all. “What’s this about?” she said. “Why are you thinking about him now?”
“Did he leave a note?” I said. I surprised myself with the question. I’d never wondered if he’d left a note before, but now that I’d asked, I felt certain he had.
She crossed her arms and looked at the floor. “Yes. A short one.”
“What did it say?” I said.
She paused. “It said, ‘Love is not enough.’ I didn’t see it, but that’s what I was told.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means that even the love of his family wasn’t enough to keep him from wanting to die.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“I wish I hadn’t told you. You weren’t supposed to know. Now you’ll be emotionally scarred, and it’ll be my fault.”
“I won’t be scarred,” I said. I didn’t say what I was thinking, that over the years I’d learned enough disturbing things from her that I was beyond being emotionally scarred.
“Don’t tell Mom I told you,” she said. She gave me her hand and pulled me up. “Come on, it’s intermission, let’s get a Coke.”
We went to another restaurant after the play because Robin wanted something to eat. It was a different kind of restaurant than La Grande Idée, very busy and much more casual, with high ceilings and paper tablecloths and brisk waiters who wore white aprons. Robin drank a gimlet, then ordered another as well as a steak and a bottle of wine. Even though we’d eaten before, I ordered a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and Jeannie had a Caesar salad. When the food came, Robin poured me a glass of wine. I thought he was being funny.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Try it.”
“Robin,” Jeannie said. “She’s twelve.” She took the glass and put it by her plate. Robin put it back beside mine.
“Let her have a sip,” he said.
“What if she doesn’t want one?”
“I don’t,” I said. “But thank you.”
“But thank you,” he mimicked in a high, mincing voice.
I froze as if his eyes were searchlights: he’d had too much to drink. When my mother was drunk, I avoided trouble by doing exactly what she told me to do. The wine was so dark it was almost black; it looked like an evil potion. I reached for the glass and took a sip. It tasted bitter and felt dry on my tongue.
“What did you think of the play?” he said. “Boring? It’s about boredom, actually. Boredom as existential confinement.”
“Right,” I said, as if I understood. It was important to agree with everything a drunk person said.
“Katie gets it,” he said to Jeannie. “I guess little sister got the brains in the family.” He knocked his head with his fist. “Pretty, but not so bright, your big sister.” I looked at Jeannie. She was eating her salad. The restaurant was noisy; I told myself she hadn’t heard him.
“Jeannie is the smartest person I know,” I said. I couldn’t help myself.
“Oh yeah?” He took a bite of his steak and spoke with a full mouth. “How many people over the age of twelve do you know?”
“Lots,” I said. “And she’s the nicest person, too.”
Jeannie stood up. “I’ll be right back.” She was gone before I could ask to come with her. I got up anyway to follow her, but Robin grabbed my hand.
“Sit,” he said. He pointed at the wineglass with his fork. “I dare you to drink it all.”
“Why?” I said.
He leaned in so close I could see the pores on his nose. “Double dare you,” he said. “Don’t be such a sissy.”
I held my breath and drank half the wine in the glass. “You’re like my mother,” I said, then held my breath again and finished the rest. So there, you jerk, I thought. “She gets drunk and mean, too.”
“Is that so?” Robin said. “Your father committed suicide, and your mother is a drunk. Nice family. No wonder Jeannie’s such a mess.”
“She’s not a mess!” I said. “You’re lucky she lets you date her.”
“Oh, am I?” His laugh was harsh, a cough. “You think you’re cute, don’t you. I’ll bet you do. In your short shorts with your ass hanging out, those itty-bitty tits under that tight little top.” As he waved his hand dismissively, he almost touched my breasts. I wondered if he would be embarrassed when he remembered this moment tomorrow. He leaned toward me and said, “You’re ordinary, nothing special about you. You’ll never have an iota of Jeannie’s sex appeal. Jeannie is a hell of a lay.” He sat back again and stared past me, his jaw working as if he were chewing a small hard thing.
Again, I wanted to ask why. Why are you telling me this? I was more puzzled than offended. Hearing a man speak of my “ass” and “tits” gave me the creepiest feeling I’d ever had. I looked around, searching for Jeannie. My eyes felt too large for their sockets. I saw her walking toward me from the far end of the room as if through a periscope.
“We missed you,” Robin said as she reached the table and sat down.
“Katie, I hope you didn’t drink that whole glass of wine,” she said.
“She did,” Robin said. “Downed it like a Bowery bum.”
“He made me,” I said.
“I made you?” he said in false astonishment. “What, did I force it down your gullet?”
Jeannie looked from Robin to me. “Eat your ice cream,” she said. My ice cream was a brown puddle by this time. I obediently spooned it into my mouth.
“Your sister was just telling me that your mother has a problem with alcohol,” he said. Jeannie stared at me with a horrified expression, her glazed pink lips slack with surprise. We never talked about our mother to anyone but each other; it was an unspoken pact we’d kept for as long as I could remember. Jeannie would yell at me later on for being a traitor to our mother and embarrassing us. But I thought our father’s death was equally embarrassing. I knew that Jeannie and our mother talked about it to set themselves apart from regular people. Sometimes they even seemed proud. I wanted the opposite, to be like everyone else. I had no memory of being a kid whose family was unremarkable.
“I feel sick,” I said. I stood up too quickly and almost fell. Jeannie caught me by the elbow. Wordlessly, she led me across the restaurant and down a narrow flight of stairs. I banged through the door to the ladies’ room and rushed into a stall. It felt like everything I’d eaten in my whole life came roaring out of my mouth. Jeannie stood over me, holding my hair. When I was done, she took me to the sink and made me wash out my mouth with water from the tap. The walls of the bathroom were covered with old-fashioned newspapers, and a bare bulb over the mirror cast a harsh light. The paper towel dispenser was empty, so I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.
“He’s drunk,” I said when I could talk.
“Who, Robin?” she said. She took a pin out of her piled-up hair and tucked it back in more securely, looking at herself in the mirror. “No, he’s not drunk. You’re the one who’s drunk, Katie. Whatever possessed you to drink all that wine?”
“He said you’re stupid, he said you’re a mess!”
“He was kidding, Katie! You don’t understand his sense of humor.”
“Why are you with him? Is it because he’s rich?”
She slapped me across the face. I was shocked. She had never slapped me before. “Shut up,” she said in a voice I didn’t know, low and full of menace. “What I do, who I date, is none of your damn business.”
I held my hand against my cheek. Then don’t tell me about it, I thought. “You remind me of Mom right now,” I said. “He reminds me of Mom.” She raised her hand to slap me again, but I turned away in time.
Jeannie didn’t speak to me for the rest of the night. When we got to Robin’s apartment, she went into a room that looked like an office and with unnecessary force pulled a double bed out from inside a small couch. She left me there without saying good night. I closed the door and changed into my nightgown, then laid the clothes I planned to wear tomorrow on the back of Robin’s desk chair. When I got into the bed and turned out the light, I saw that the screensaver on the computer was on. It was a picture of Robin and Jeannie at the beach, Jeannie’s face turned toward Robin’s and her mouth pooched into a kiss. Robin was smiling broadly with his too-white teeth. On the sand were two striped towels and a cooler full of ice and bottles; behind their heads a dark blue strip of ocean cut across a robin’s-egg sky. I ached at the sight of Jeannie so happy. I felt as if I hadn’t seen her in years. Maybe I was wrong about Robin; maybe he hadn’t been drunk. But because of my mother, I knew drunk when I saw it and knew the difference between joking and nasty.
Something thumped against the other side of the wall. There was a pause, then I heard it twice more. When it happened again, I put my ear against the wall but heard only my own breathing. Then it began to hit the wall every couple of seconds; my bed trembled with its repetitive force. I went to a corner on the other side of the room and sat on the rough carpet with my knees against my chest. They knew my bed was on the other side of the wall. Jeannie knew. I wondered if she’d thought about me hearing them having sex, or maybe she’d wanted me to hear.
I pressed the computer’s off button until the screen went black and got back into bed. I could hear muffled voices through the wall, Jeannie’s high and insistent, Robin’s low, but not their words, and I was glad for that. Tomorrow, Jeannie would put me on the train back to Darien, and we wouldn’t be allies anymore. Only Jeannie and I had endured our mother’s rages and felt the bite of her insults. Our mother was unhappy, and I had come to believe that she wanted us to be unhappy with her. When she picked me up at the station tomorrow, she would ask why my visit was cut short. I decided to say that Jeannie had come down with a cold. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of my sorrow.
I fell into a fitful doze, disturbed by the images of Robin’s hand near my breasts and the angry mask of Jeannie’s face. When the room grew gray with predawn light, I finally slept and had a dream in which my father appeared to me looking younger than I remembered. In a voice that seemed to enter my mind without sound, he politely asked me for permission to kill himself—“Would you allow me to die?” were his words. I was flattered he had asked me. I said he could do it. Instantly, I felt terrified. I ran into the woods shouting his name, thinking I had the power to stop him, but the woods were deeper than the woods behind our house, tangled with brambles that bloodied my legs and caught my clothes, causing me to stop and pull myself free. I saw him sitting against a tree. Who am I? I said plaintively as I approached. I wanted to hear him say my name. But he didn’t say it; I was too late. My father was already dead.