At thirty-three, I have moved home to live with my parents. They have converted the small space above the garage into an apartment. Oddly, instead of negotiating with my soon to be mother-in-law over the food we’ll serve at the Wedding Reception, I am living in a mother-in-law apartment.
The queen bed seems too big. I am not used to sleeping alone. I am not used to going this long without talking to Miriam. We dated for eight years. Eight years and six months, give or take. No. That is wrong. We dated for six years and six months, give or take. We were engaged for two years. But, ultimately, I wonder if there is that much of a difference.
Around six in the evening, I make my way down the stairs and across the small patch of lawn. I am not sure whether or not I should knock on the back door or walk in. I opt for the middle ground. I give several light knocks on the back door and then slowly open the door while calling out hello.
My mother is standing at the kitchen sink, washing her hands.
My father emerges from the front room where he has been watching one of his “shows,” no doubt, whatever that means. I never understood why people feel the need to take ownership of something that does not belong to them. It makes even less sense than calling a sports team, “my team.”
“How was traffic?” My dad asks, smirking. This is his attempt at humor.
“Well, there was a rough patch by the rhododendron, and I had to stop for a family of ants crossing the pavers, but other than that, not bad.”
My father and I set the table, just as we did when I was a kid. The house that they live in is not the one that I grew up in. They have moved several times since then. This low-slung ranch house with a detached garage is their retirement home. I try not to think about the fact that they will probably die in this house.
I do my best to make light conversation during dinner. I ask about my mom’s book club and my dad’s latest attempt at tying fishing lures. By unspoken agreement, we do not mention the following: the grown sons and daughters of family friends, which old neighbors are expecting grandkids, my sister or her kids, and Miriam.
Not only am I living at my parents’ house, but I am also on sabbatical. The sabbatical had been planned since shortly after our engagement. Considering the recent events, I should probably see this as a silver lining or mixed blessing or double-edged sword, or whatever other euphemism seems most appropriate.
The sabbatical is one of the reasons I have so few possessions with me. I left most of my things in storage back in Ohio. The boxes were packed hastily. I did not want to spend unnecessary extra time in the two-bedroom apartment that I had been sharing with Miriam.
The key to the storage unit is on the keychain on the dresser. The other keys on the keychain include the key to my office, the key to my car (also in Ohio), the key to this small apartment above my parents’ garage.
There is something nice about not having many possessions with me. I brought only what I need. Besides clothes, I have my computer and some books and assorted notebooks that I will use to work on my current research into the sociocultural implications of empathy in the lives of midwestern adolescents.
I do not know any adolescents.
Then again, it seems like I don’t know much about a lot of things.
I am procrastinating. I should be doing research.
The desk is at the end of the room, and I have a small octagonal window that I can look out of and down into the backyard. My father has pushed the lawnmower out into the garden and has begun puttering with the old machine. I can not make out much detail from here. Here is what I can see: his white Gilligan hat and his tanned calves. He is slender of frame these days, but at 70 that is to be expected. It’s always difficult (if not impossible) to imagine your parents when they were your age (whatever age that is).
I look down at my notebooks and flip through the pages. Here is my familiar handwriting. In red, I have made notes in the margin asking myself what it is that teens these days, especially in the Midwest, experience. There is plenty of statistical data to explain the psychological state of young people these days.
It’s just after three in the afternoon when my father knocks on the door. I’m not sure that I can explain precisely how I know that it is my father. But there are only a few options as to who would be knocking on my door in the middle of the afternoon in a place where I don’t know anyone other than my parents. I answer the door, which also seems odd since the place belongs to my parents. There is a point at which your parents feel inclined to knock on your door before entering. I assume that this starts somewhere around puberty when parents are wary about what might be happening on the other side of a closed door.
“Hey, kiddo,” he says. “What’s doing?”
I shrug, and then realize how ridiculous the gesture is and invite him in.
“Settled in okay? Research going well?”
“It’s nice to have the time to focus on work without distractions.”
He weighs this. I can see that he is thinking about Miriam.
“Got these new lures that I’m working on. You’re going to love ’em. Real pain in the butt to tie.”
“Spinners?” I ask. But this is just a stab in the dark, as I pull a phrase that I’ve heard him say recently.
“Yep,” and then he is off into details that I find hard to catch. He has a habit of talking as though I know as much about the lures as he does. I suppose that this is part of the fascination that comes with any single hobby. I could probably go on about the symbolic interactionist theory in the same way he talks about spinners and spoons.
“I’m fine, Dad,” I say. “Really.”
“Who said you weren’t?”
We sit for a minute, and he kneads the knuckles of his right hand.
“You know,” he says, “people who feel the need to say they’re not something probably are.”
I am standing in the driveway of my parents’ house, looking at the high tangerine and salmon hues seeping up from the horizon. For a moment, I am tempted to do the math. How many sunsets have there been since I was born? But, it seems inconsequential. It didn’t matter how many there have been. What matters is that I have rarely stopped to look at them. Or, if I had, it was momentary, like taking a photograph. Beauty, real beauty, I think, is like that. We look at it and are struck by it. But then, we become accustomed to it. It becomes commonplace. I think of that now as I think about Miriam. How many times did I look at her until her face had become so commonplace that it seemed as though I was rarely actually looking at it?
Above the clouds are like thin ribs.
It was an administrator for the division that let me know what was happening.
Miriam had definitely tried to keep things secret from me. To add insult to injury, she hadn’t only cheated on me. She had cheated on me with one of my own students. Well, I would say that the student had taken classes from both of us, but the student was actually in my class when I found out.
Many times I had thought about the student’s thought process. Why take a class from the fiancé of the person you are sleeping with? Perhaps it was part of the cover. The student was a good student.
We could have worked through this setback. For me, it was not grounds to immediately abandon our relationship. After all, we had been together for a rather long time. It was the suicide that changed things. Rumors had begun to circulate at that time that a student was having an affair with one of the professors on campus, and that was enough to instigate all sorts of speculation. As things ramped up, the student stopped coming to class. I thought little of this, assuming only that the student had become uncomfortable taking my class.
I had been sitting in my office on campus when I first heard the sirens. There was a lot of sound out on the quad, and it became too much for me to ignore. I was meeting with another student at the time. The student looked panicked. There had been plenty of threats over the past year or so on campuses around the country. Seeing more aid cars and fire trucks than police cars, we made our way down to the ground floor and out into the quad.
Students were passing by in a hurry. I recognized one from my survey class, an upperclassman who I knew to be level-headed and thoughtful.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“Someone fell from the top story of the Mercer Dorms.”
Naturally, I knew where the dorm was. I had been there once or twice before. I didn’t make a regular habit of knowing where students lived. However, it seemed incumbent upon me to see what I could do to offer support to the emergency responders, faculty, or students. I began to head in that direction. By the time I made it within a few hundred yards, I could see a large crowd gathering. The firetrucks and several police cars were already cordoning off the area.
The identity of the student was not immediately released. The rumor mill began in full swing as things can on a campus the size of ours. We are a small liberal arts school with a rather small student population. The President of the college released a statement later in the day that only said a student had fallen from one of the dorms. It was clear to anyone on campus that the dorm was one of the taller buildings on campus, at approximately six stories. The President offered condolences and reminded all of us that there were counselors and other resources available on campus.
Wh I made it home from campus, I found Miriam sitting on the couch. She looked to be in shock. Of course, there were plenty of tense and otherwise awkward silences between us lately. When I had first presented her with the evidence of her affair, she had looked much the same. However, I did not know what she knew about the events on campus and whether she knew the student in question. I sat down in the armchair not far from where she sat on the couch with her feet drawn up so that she was nearly fetal.
“It’s over,” she said.
“What is over?”
She laughed briefly, wiped at tears, and looked at me. “There’s no more affair.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You know that they’re going to ask you where you were today.”
It took me a minute to process this. At first, I thought that I had misheard her.
“What do you mean?”
“You didn’t do this, did you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Sure enough, I was questioned by the police, but it was rather clear from the other witnesses and the student who had been in my office that I had not been party to the death of the student. The student had left a note behind, which seemed to explain things in more detail than I think anyone involved would have liked. Thankfully, the contents of the letter were not released to the public for several reasons.
In all honesty, I doubt that I’ll be allowed back to the school after the rest of what unfolded. The police came to question me again after Miriam’s death. This was mostly a formality, and I was cleared as a potential suspect. I heard and read plenty about myself and the things that people think that I’m capable of. Perhaps moving back home to live with my parents wasn’t the best move for allaying suspicion, but it was something that I couldn’t help.
I couldn’t exactly stay in the same apartment that I had shared with her, knowing that some of the last hours she spent alive were spent in the kitchen or the bedroom or the bathroom. I couldn’t imagine looking into the mirror that she had looked into countless times to fix her makeup. I couldn’t imagine turning on the tap to wash dishes in the sink.
Still, they’ll say that I was part of the whole thing. That somehow I was responsible for the pills that she took and the wine that she drank. They’ll say that I should have been home to stop her from getting behind the wheel. They’ll say that it’s odd that she received a phone call from an unknown number shortly before her death. They’ll say it’s strange that she was driving to a remote area where the roads were unfamiliar. That she took an odd turn down a road that led to a blind drop-off.
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