Every Little Thing
At first, I ignored the message, “News About Natalie.” Another office retirement or promotion, I assumed. But something was nagging at me, something was off. It had been sent at 1:28 in the morning. I went back to the email. Natalie’s brother had sent it. Ted didn’t have a lot of details about how his sister died. The American embassy in Brazil had told him she’d been treated for Hodgkin’s at a hospital in Rio. Ted and his wife, Lynn, were planning a memorial service a week from Saturday. I grabbed a bottle of water from my briefcase and stared at the screen.
I hadn’t heard from Natalie for more than twenty years. She wrote to me for several years after she had quit college and set out for the West Coast. Her letters bore postmarks of places such as Nome, Alaska; Forsyth, Montana; and Show Low, Arizona. She designed and crafted jewelry, worked as a nature guide, and taught at a tribal school. She hinted that she was living with someone for a while, but she never disclosed much about him.
As I reread Ted’s email, I weighed calling my wife. Lauren and I met in law school, two years after Natalie had left. The two had never met. Still, Lauren remained wary of her. “Another letter from your girlfriend?” she would remark, when one of Natalie’s sporadic notes arrived.
I wasn’t surprised that Natalie was living in Brazil when she died. Nor would I have been surprised if she’d been living in Ukraine, Morocco, or Vietnam. Though most people seek someone to be with, Natalie sought someplace to be. Natalie had fled her family and others who loved her. “People and places can both disappoint you,” she once said to me, “but only people can betray you.”
Ted and I were friends in high school, and the summer after my first year of college, we often got together after work for a game of tennis. I had a job with the county roads department, and Ted was working with his father, Árpád, at the Ford plant in Edison. I stopped by his house one afternoon, and Natalie answered the door. Clutching a spiral-bound sketch pad, she stood at an awkward angle to block her cat from slipping out. Her dark brown hair, which had fallen well below her shoulders in high school, now barely touched them.
“Ted had to work late. He won’t be back until after dinner.”
“OK. Can you let him know I came by?”
“Yeah, he won’t mind waiting to get beat.”
I laughed. “It’s more like the other way around. You can come and see for yourself.”
“You might be sorry you asked,” she said.
She could be right. Ted and I had watched Natalie run middle-distance track in high school. She moved with a dancer’s grace.
Natalie pointed to the cat, who was still trying to squeeze through the gap between the door and the frame. “I think he has the right idea. I need to escape too,” she said, and gestured for me to come inside. I followed her into the living room.
“Wait a minute while I get my things.” She placed her sketch book open to one of her drawings on the coffee table and went upstairs.
Curious to see what she had drawn, I picked up the pad. A woman in her late teens or early twenties modeled a cocktail dress. I skimmed other pages with drawings of women in business attire and casual outfits. One dress featured sharp-angled rhomboid shapes. Nested diamonds receded to an illusion of infinity on another outfit. She had sketched her cat in purple, like Warhol’s Sam, on a T-shirt. I pictured her on a runway, modeling one of her creations. She would dazzle.
Natalie returned in a few minutes with her racket. She had changed out of her jeans and blouse into white shorts and a light blue tee, with her sunglasses hooked over the collar. Feeling a bit embarrassed for glancing at her drawings, I closed the tablet and set it on the table.
“Sorry. I was looking at your sketches.”
“Ah, don’t; they’re not finished!” Natalie plucked the sketch pad off the table. She opened it and frowned at one of her drawings.
“I didn’t mean to pry,” I said.
“I’m applying to some design programs and need to submit a portfolio.” She shook her head. “I don’t know. I haven’t shown them to anyone outside of art class.”
“No, you’re good. You should have no problem getting in,” I said.
Natalie laughed and waved her racket at me. “Says the noted art critic. Let’s go before you get into more trouble.”
As Natalie and I spent increasing time together that summer, Ted, who had tenaciously protected his sister in high school, showed little concern. He either trusted us, despite our two-year age difference, or assumed that the relationship would fade when I returned to school. I seldom saw Árpád, who busied himself making furniture in his basement workshop. However, her mother, the vigilant Márta, stood watch.
As Natalie and I were about to leave to see a movie one evening, Márta walked out of the kitchen. Her face was flushed and her mouth was pinched. Natalie assured her mother that she would be home before midnight. Márta spoke in an angry tone and said something to Natalie in Hungarian. “No, mama. That’s not me. You know that.”
Natalie turned away from her mother, grabbed her purse off the sofa, and strode to the front door. I followed her out of the house to my car. As I drove to the movie theater, Natalie tilted her head to rest it against the seatback and closed her eyes. “She thinks I’ll screw up and ruin my life,” she said softly, clasping her hands and resting them on her lap.
Natalie turned and leaned toward me. Her eyes were calm and clear. She described her parents’ perilous escape from Hungary after the failed uprising to a refugee camp in Austria and eventually to New Jersey. She shifted in her seat away from me. “Where my mother came from, the wrong choice could…” She flicked her hand forward as if she were tossing away her future. “She’s frightened. But I’m not.”
After the movie, a young couple stood near us in the parking lot, beside their car. They had a little girl with them, about four years old. The child shrieked as a glop of ice cream fell from her cone and slithered down her mint green top.
“How could you leave the keys in?” the woman said.
“Don’t yell at me. I put them on the dash when you handed me the shopping bag.”
“Now what, genius?” She glared at her child, now in the midst of a meltdown. “We need to find a bathroom.”
Natalie nodded in their direction. “That’ll be us some day,” she said. “That’s the part they try to hide.”
Natalie’s cynical comment surprised me. “It doesn’t have to be like that,” I said.
Natalie smiled, as if trying to imagine a sunnier fate. “Maybe it will be different for us,” she said. “For one thing, ours will be a boy.”
Perhaps she suspected that all marriages shatter, sometimes in plain sight. She grasped my hand and guided us away from the discord. “Take me somewhere. Just drive.” Each person chooses a way of dealing with their fears. It would not be the last time Natalie would want to flee hers.
We crossed the river to Lambertville and continued on pitch-dark roads, past sod farms and dairy barns that would be replaced in time by “executive estates” for Princeton professors and Manhattan financiers. We wound up in Princeton at a pool fronting one of the campus buildings. We sat on the pool’s edge near the fountain. It was after midnight, past Natalie’s curfew. We joked that there would be more hell to pay with Márta.
Natalie kicked off her flip-flops and waded into the water. She unbuttoned her blouse, leaned forward, and started splashing me. I jumped in, reached out for her, and pulled her close. Her body relaxed, and her troubled expression disappeared. She surveyed the quiet town, miles from the angry scene earlier in the evening, and kissed me. “You see,” she said, “we’re not like them at all.”
I arrived home from work before Lauren, as I usually did. As a partner at the leading tax law firm in the city, she often worked late. I looked forward to our therapeutic dinners at nine or ten. Lauren would recount the day’s annoyances in a way that both unburdened herself and entertained me. It was one of her gifts.
But this evening, she texted that she would be leaving the office early. As I was setting the table, she walked in the front door. The summer humidity had frizzled her dark brown hair, and the workday had curdled her mood. Tonight’s dinner would not entertain.
“Christ, I need a margarita,” she said, as she threw her handbag and briefcase onto a chair. She pulled a bottle of tequila from the cabinet. I threw a handful of fettuccini into a pot of boiling water.
“Hello to you too,” I replied.
“I’m sorry. I’ve had an awful day.” She took a bottle of margarita mix from the refrigerator, then dumped the ingredients and ice into a blender. “The office had a going away lunch for our interns. Jack was supposed to say a few words about how much we enjoyed working with them, blah, blah. He’s about to speak, but he gets a call ordering him to a meeting with one of our big clients. So he tosses the whole thing to me.” She pushed the button, and the blender whirred.
“And you were your usual witty self,” I said over the din.
Lauren turned off the blender and poured the drink into her glass. “I wish. I’d hardly worked with any of them, except Ben. I thought I did pretty well, but then I ran into that cow, Helen, in the ladies’ room. She said her intern, Clarice, was upset because I had referred to her as Claire. She says to me in that patronizing tone of hers, ‘Well, I know how overwhelmed you’ve been the last couple of months. You can’t be expected to keep track of all of the details.’”
I shook my head. “That’s terrible. Try to relax, forget it; I’ll have dinner ready soon.” I considered waiting to tell her about Natalie, who had chosen her footloose life in part to avoid dispiriting days like Lauren’s. But there wouldn’t be a good time to bring it up. I took a bottle of wine from the rack on the kitchen counter and turned to her.
“I’m sorry your day was crappy. Mine wasn’t great either. I got an email from Ted. Do you remember him? Natalie’s brother.” I paused, not sure how to continue, or what to say, before blurting out, “Natalie died.”
Lauren leaned against the edge of the counter; her shoulders slumped. She lifted the glass and swirled her drink. She searched for a response, maybe as a wife, but maybe as a lawyer. “Oh, I’m sorry. What happened?”
“Cancer. Ted didn’t have a lot of details. She was living in Brazil. He and Lynn are having a memorial service next Saturday. Maybe I’ll find out more.”
Lauren shifted her eyes from the drink to me. “Sure. Do you want me to come with you?”
“Of course I would, but...not if it will upset you. Her letters—”
“Yeah, those letters. They were like daggers aimed at our marriage.”
I eased closer to her. “That’s not why she sent them,” I said.
“To let me know that she was all right, to convince herself that she was.”
Lauren’s upper lip quivered, and she rubbed a finger against the glass. “You didn’t have to answer them.”
“Yeah, I did.”
“I expected her to show up, ‘Hi, I’m back.’ and blow it all up. Blow us all up."
“She would never do that. She wasn’t a threat.”
“She was to me.” Lauren set her glass hard onto the counter. “You’re right; it is upsetting. Maybe you should go by yourself. I’m exhausted. I need to lie down for a while.” She walked past me and headed upstairs.
Attending the memorial service and listening to the narrative of Natalie’s life would not be easy for Lauren. How could it be? Nevertheless, her sad reaction had soured the evening. The dead can still provoke.
I sat at the table, but I no longer wanted to eat anything. Neighborhood children ran past our house, laughing and calling to one another in high-pitched voices. My phone rang, but I didn’t answer it. I didn’t do a thing, even when it rang a few more times.
I woke at six on the morning of the memorial service. Trying not to wake Lauren, I got dressed quietly, but she turned over and asked when I would be back.
“Tonight. I’ll try not to leave too late,” I said. Lauren’s college roommate, Jen, and her husband, Ryan, had invited us to their place on the lake in New Hampshire the following day. Spending time with her friend would ease the weekend’s sting.
Lauren’s frostiness had melted as she came to appreciate the finality that Natalie’s memorial represented. “I can call Jen and cancel if you want to stay over. It’s a long drive for one day,” she said.
I didn’t mind the long drive back from New Jersey. I’ve always enjoyed driving at night, when imagination fills the darkness. “No, I’ll be OK. I like it by the lake. Is Ryan going to make us catch our dinner again?”
Lauren mumbled something into her pillow and pulled the covers over her head.
The drive from Boston to New Jersey took about five hours. I’d taken the trip many times to visit Natalie when I was in school here and she was in her first year at Seton Hall. Near the end of my junior year, I wanted to surprise her and spend the weekend in New York. I arrived at her dorm close to three in the afternoon. I knocked on her door, but no one answered.
I sat on the hallway floor outside Natalie’s room. Under the fluorescent lights, my arms turned the same gray-green color as the cinder block walls. A Grateful Dead song was playing in a room down the hall. From inside Natalie’s room, her cat scratched at the door and meowed. She had found Mirabelle curled up in a window well in January. Students weren’t supposed to keep pets in the dorm, but the RA loved cats and looked the other way.
After several minutes, the outside door opened, and Natalie was walking toward me. She held a pet carrier in one hand and gripped a grocery bag in the other hand. Her eyes brightened, and she set the carrier and bag on the floor. I got up from the floor. We ran toward each other and kissed.
“Steve, I wasn’t expecting—”
“Yeah, I thought we’d go into the city. Take our minds off exams.”
I picked up the carrier and bag, which contained cans of cat food. Natalie opened the door to her room. Mirabelle scurried under the bed. A bulging backpack, with a teal pullover protruding from the top, rested on the floor next to her bed. She had emptied the top two bureau drawers, which jutted out. A few winter clothes hung in the closet, and a textbook lay on the unmade bed.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Natalie walked slowly to the bed and sat down. She gripped the edge for support and inhaled a fortifying breath. “I have to leave,” she said.
Árpád had suffered a minor stroke the previous year; a family emergency was a possibility. “Did something happen at home?”
She shook her head. “No. I have to get away. I woke up a few days ago and started getting ready for class. I went to the closet for something to wear. I stood there. ‘What the hell am I doing?’ Mirabelle came running over and wanted to play. Everything seemed to be touching me.”
“So you decided to leave. Just like that?”
She waved her hand around the room. “I can’t do this. If I stay, I’ll start resenting you, resenting my family, and I don’t want to do that.”
Natalie planned to join her former roommate, Nina, who was driving to Los Angeles to visit her sister. Nina’s parents would take Mirabelle.
The room sweltered in the late afternoon sun. I opened the window and grabbed the desk chair. I straddled the seat with the chair back between me and Natalie. “And you were going to leave without me, without even telling me?” I asked.
“I was going to call…or write.” Natalie exhaled with a resigning murmur.
“So, you’re giving up on us?”
“No, but I can’t give up on myself. I’m not ready. I’m not ready for us,” she said.
I felt light-headed in the sticky air. My stomach clenched. Sleepy-eyed Mirabelle peeked out from under the bed. I got up from the chair, and Natalie rocked forward from the bed and stood up. I didn’t know what to do. Natalie reached out and we hugged. “Maybe someday I’ll be ready…but not now. Try to understand.”
How quickly a day can turn. I walked out of the dorm to my car and set out on the long drive back to Boston.
I arrived half an hour before the memorial service was to begin. It was the same church where Ted and Lynn had been married. Ted stood in the nave opposite the first row of pews and fidgeted with his tie as he spoke with the minister. I walked up to them, and Ted surrounded me with a welcoming hug. He introduced me to the minister, a ruddy man nearing sixty who spoke in a soothing cadence common to the calling.
Ted glanced around the church. “I wasn’t sure who would be here after all of these years,” he said.
It was a fair comment. I assumed most of the people there were friends of Ted and Lynn. It was unlikely that Natalie had kept in touch with any of her friends from school. After all, she was a stranger to her family. And me.
“It’s surreal. Your email was a jolt,” I said.
“How is Lauren?”
“She’s fine,” I said, although she was far from it. “We thought it best that I do this solo.” Ted nodded. There was no need for us to rehash, or rewrite, history.
Near one of the windows, Lynn stood facing another woman. Except for her chestnut brown designer frames and a few streaks of gray in her hair, Lynn had changed little since her wedding.
The other woman had long black hair and delicate features. Her fingertips rested on Lynn’s shoulder, while her other hand beat with a gentle motion as she spoke, as if she were conducting a quiet passage of an orchestra piece.
“Who is the woman talking with Lynn?” I asked.
“That’s Gabriela. She runs an animal sanctuary near Rio. Natalie worked with her the last few years. Gabriela helped care for her when she got sick. She didn’t think it was right for Natalie to return home alone.” Ted gestured in their direction. “I’ll introduce you.”
As Ted and I approached the two women, Lynn stepped forward and we hugged. “Steve, it’s good to see you again. This is Natalie’s friend, Gabriela. Gabriela, Steve was Natalie’s boyfriend…many years ago.”
I extended my hand to Gabriela, whose amber eyes fixed onto me. “I’m glad she had someone with her…at the end,” I said.
“Ah, Natalie told me about you. She wondered how your life had turned out.”
On Sunday I would drive with Lauren to visit Jen and Ryan at their lake house. Lauren and Jen would laugh about some embarrassing incident from college. Ryan would grill the rainbow trout he caught and pour the wine throughout the night. Natalie called it “the satisfied life,” a life that she rejected, because it was ordinary, yes, but also because it was a life we were expected to lead.
Gabriela wore a pendant with a light blue stone, aquamarine perhaps, set within a silver ellipse. She reached behind her neck to remove the chain. “Natalie made this a few months ago. Working with her crafts brought her comfort.”
She manipulated the pendant with care, protecting it, and held the ornament out to me. I grasped it and traced the edge of the ellipse. It was smooth and shimmering. I traced it again and again. Gabriela took her hand, the rhythmic hand, and touched my cheek. “It was easy to be with her.”
I placed the pendant in her hand. “Yes, it was.” Perhaps she and Natalie had been lovers. A part of me hoped that they were. After all, we were gathered to celebrate a life.
The minister signaled the beginning of the service. I had no idea if Natalie had ever found religion. We’d never talked about it, and I doubted that Ted and Lynn knew either. Ted, a nominal Catholic, had adopted Lynn’s Episcopalian religion when they married. We sang the Anglican hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” In his eulogy Ted hoped that the cost of Natalie’s unbound life, the sacrifice of family and friendships, was not too great.
Maybe the journey itself was the point. For Natalie, even happy marriages, especially the happy ones, could ensnare. She accepted uncertainty as the price for discovery. It was a price that I wasn’t prepared to pay. She had been right about this all along.
When the service ended, Lynn invited everyone to a reception at the home of their daughter, who was now living in the house where Ted and Natalie had grown up, the house where I last saw Natalie. The night after Ted and Lynn’s wedding, Natalie and I sat and talked in living room. She gathered herself in the corner of the brown damask sofa, drawing her legs close to her. A picture of a peasant scene, a daily reminder to Márta and Árpád of their precarious life before coming to America, hung above the sofa.
“Are you going back to L. A.?” I asked.
“Yeah, I found work in the costume shop of one of the studios. It’s gofer work, not something I’ll want to do forever, but it’s where I belong now.”
“How will you know…where you belong?”
Natalie edged forward and surveyed the room. “Maybe it’s here. Maybe it’s somewhere I haven’t thought of yet.”
We talked past midnight. Later that day, Natalie would fly to Los Angeles, and I would return to school in Boston. But a quantum-like entanglement— what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance"—continued to link us.
I opened the door to leave, and Natalie followed me into the early spring chill and drizzle. As we reached the bottom of the porch stairs, Natalie took off down the street. I ran and caught up with her at the end of the block, under a street light.
“I used to race Ted from the house to here,” she said. “He’d always win, and I’d get mad. I’d tell him one day he’d be chasing me.” She gestured toward the house and smiled. “I’m happy for him and Lynn.”
“That night we wound up in Princeton, you said that we would have a boy,” I said.
“Yeah, look at us,” she said. Natalie’s smile faded, replaced by a resigned expression that I hadn’t seen before. “I tried to convince myself to want that—a family, a house, a career—every little thing. Sometimes, I still feel that way...but what if it’s not enough?”
Rain beaded on Natalie’s hair. She crossed her arms tight to her chest against the cold and said she’d better go inside. It was late, and we both had places we had to be.