where the writers are
Cover
Walking With Her Daughter
Amazon.com Amazon.com
Powell's Books Powell's Books

Jessica gives an overview of the book:

Read an excerpt »

One

In the first moments of waking, Jenna could feel the soft arms of the mattress around her shoulders, cradling her hips, the fine cotton skin of sheet on her ankles, stomach, cheek. She hung in between her dream and the sunrise on the sounds of the waves just outside her cabaña, the soft touch of the air, the absence of memory.

And she slipped back to her inner eye, floating above the island, seeing the rice terraces of the interior, the mud built up in agricultural temples. Then she moved up and out, past dense thick foliage, to the tall, drooping green trees she couldn’t name with their large red flowers and long fuzzy stamens, the waving palms, the red canna flowers, the wetness everywhere. Past the Shiva statues and the stone Buddhas, through the soft air, to the white Bali beaches dotted with yellow and white umbrellas, thin wooden boats floating on calm seas. Away to the horizon, a sunrise flared gold, peach, fanning into blue. Up to the mountains that peaked over the water, green and brilliant against the aqua, and back down to her cabaña.

"No," she said, or thought, as the scene began to tear, what had happened a week ago ripping a ragged edge on this peace, this floating, this pure, white light. No, she thought again, sinking into soft cotton as if it were a lover. Weren’t they going to come here, before, earlier, Jenna walking into the house with brochures, ideas, plans?

"Look," she’d said, pointing to a photo of a cabaña nestled in fronds, the aqua sea lapping at its door, palm fronds frozen in perfect sway, people stuck forever unnatural, happy poses. "There’s a glass bottom in the bar. You can watch the fish swim under you. Those manta ray things, too."

Her husband Mark had adjusted his glasses and nodded. "Some day," he’d said. "Maybe later."

But some day had never come, and then later he’d left her and Sofie for another woman. An older, smarter woman, with whom he would never have children. Blinking against the filtered morning light, Jenna felt her dash two days ago through the airport to the pay phone, the terrible message she’d left with Mark’s service during her one hour layover in Los Angeles. And then hours and hours of flying, the sky too soft, too smooth, leaving her too soon on the island full of fire.

Turning on her side, pressing her eyes closed, she listened to her skin slip against the linen, the bed made daily by silent workers who were frightened to meet her eye. When would Mark be here? When would he find her? Would he know how to look for her in this place he would never take her to? Eventually, he would show up, but after it was all over, like usual. As he had for Sofie’s graduations from eighth grade and high school—for her dance recitals, for her moving in day at the dorms at Cal. Why did he leave them both? Why then did he never really leave, coming back to her bed after a day trip with Sofie or a back-to-school night or a visit to his sister’s house? He was neither here nor there, but both, like she was now, asleep—her mind filled with the past—and awake, the sun on her arm, the sounds pressing closer, words she could almost hear.

She turned under the sheet, holding her ears. No. No. Why? Why all this? What were the reasons? Why did he go in the first place? Was it space for thought? Peace and quiet? Why did he marry her at all? Why was she here without him? Oh, yes. No. No. Her body stilled as the daylight through the bamboo shutters shook her, filled her with memory

"No," she said again, but of course it was too late. She was awake. She was conscious in a world where her daughter no longer existed. Where Sofie was no longer a college girl on a vacation in Bali, flying here to meet the Australian boyfriend she’d met when he’d come to Cal for a two-week conference on international water rights. Covering her eyes against the light with both hands, Jenna felt her daughter’s absence on her face and chest like death’s night dog. Her daughter was dead. She was no longer all the Sofies she’d ever been—a kindergartner with a large orange chrysanthemum pinned behind her ear, insisting that it was beautiful. She was beautiful, even as it began to slide down her hair, which was the same color as the flower. She was no longer the seventh grade girl in her baggy jeans and striped t-shirts listening to rap music on her Sony walkman during dinner. She was no longer a high school girl crashing her car into the trash cans at the bottom of the driveway, laughing so hard that Jenna even smiled, laughed, hugged her daughter to her because she was all right. Safe. The only thing damaged was the can pressed up against the retaining wall, spewing forth white hefty bags and a broken mop handle.

All her daughters were gone, now, all the Sofies Jenna had ever had. She’d seen each of them when looking at her daughter, as if Sofie stood in front of a three-way dressing room mirror, each refracting a girl from the year before and before that and even before that. Jenna knew that there would have been more Sofies in the years to come, working Sofie, married Sofie, mother Sofie. Sofie at Christmas and birthdays; Sofie when Jenna was old; Sofie when Jenna wasn’t even around any more, becoming Sofies to other people, her children, her grandchildren. All those Sofies had been murdered, and Jenna knew that, again, as she lay wide-eyed on her bed in her Bali hotel, remembering why she was here in the first place. To find her daughter’s body. To take her home.

<!--[if !vml]-->Flower<!--[endif]-->

They all sat on a long wooden bench in a long white room facing a long counter. Behind the counter were several people who avoided looking at any of them, these parents and family of the dead bodies in the large auditorium, relatives of the dead bodies packed in ice that spilled out on the sidewalk, those waiting for other bodies, news, information. Anything. Jenna had been here for two days. Each day, she walked by the new bodies that had been dug out of the concrete, steel, and wood. Each day, she examined the jewelry that had been found in the rubble: Bulova watch, dangly silver earring, gold pendant, crystal hair comb, shell barrette, pinky ring, wedding band, nose ring. Jenna had stared at the nose ring, thinking about her students at Contra Loma College in California, so many of them pierced, some of them fiddling with their tongues, eyebrows, that space between lip and chin. What was that called? It had an official title, something Latin sounding. She didn’t know or remember, wondering always, staring instead at the light shining off the silver or gold stud as her students gave presentations on Raymond Carver or Gail Tsukiyama or Jane Austen.

But as she stared at this nose ring, she wondered how it could be disengaged from the wearer now. Was the bomb powerful enough to separate piercings from the flesh that held them? Where was the nose that wore this? Or the eyebrow? Or belly button? How could the rescuers have found this tiny piece of metal and not the person who picked it out, slipped it in, went dancing, drinking, heard the explosion, felt the whoosh of air and heat, and then died?

Jenna looked at the other people next to her, some of whom she’d held against her shirt, some of whom had held her. Their numbers grew and shrank as bodies were found, as new people flew in for remains. But it didn’t matter who they were separately. Together, they were the ones who’d lost what was most important. They were the ones—not a political group, or social ideal, or regime—who were attacked. They sat with their bodies touching, hip to hip, not caring about personal space, wanting to be merged together, needing the conduit of grief to run between them. When finally a person behind the desk would look up, lips pressed between teeth, face still, they would all glance up together, waiting.

"There are new victims," the person would say, maybe an Indonesian man or woman, or a British Red Cross supervisor, or an American from the Australian embassy, flown over to assist. Slowly, they would all stand up, close their eyes, lean against the person in front of them. Breathe. Then they would follow the person down the hall to the auditorium or to the sidewalk, file by the dead. No, no, no. Never Sofie.

At first, Jenna thought that not finding her daughter was a good thing. The fact that she was not one of the terribly burned, almost melted people meant—what? That she was alive somewhere? That she and her boyfriend Robert had left Kuta and taken a side trip to another island, another beach, another country all together? But as the days passed, no message came from anywhere, no email saying, "Hey, Mom! I hope you aren’t worried. Robert and I drove to Nusa Dua. They are restricting traffic, so we can’t get back to our hotel. But we’re fine. I’m sure you are totally freaked out. Mom, I love you. It is so totally beautiful here."

And then, all she wanted was to see her daughter’s foot under a sheet. A foot would be all right, and she’d recognize it. Sofie’s long, slender, white toes, the little silver toe ring she wore on her—what did they call it—index toe? Was there such a thing as an index toe? Jenna was an English teacher, so she should have all this body vocabulary. The thing before the chin, the names of toes. Piggies. This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home. The home toe. That was where the ring was. On the home toe.

Jenna would also recognize Sofie’s ankles, the pointed tents of bone under thin flesh, the ankles she rubbed after tying tiny shoes. And calves. Calves would be safe. Sofie was slim, but strong from running, and Jenna had always appreciated the muscles—that word she knew, gastrocnemius. Jenna carried that term with her since junior year of high school, when Otis Ojakangas taught them the body. Jenna would recognize Sofie’s gastrocnemiuses. Gastrocnemi?

But no face. No hands. That would kill her, do her in. She didn’t need to see her daughter’s face to recognize her body at all.

During her first day of waiting, Jenna stood up each time a worn, tired couple came into the office, thinking that these folks with their creases of sorrow set under dark, bagging eyes had to be Robert’s parents. Jenna knew very little about Robert except that he was 6’2" and blonde, loved the environment just like Sofie, and had hands the size of giant starfish.

"You should see them, Mom," Sofie had said, after he’d already flown back to Sydney. "He can almost like pick me up with just one."

"Honey, why didn’t you bring him home?"

There was a silence, and Jenna could hear the other story in Sofie’s breathing, the one about days and nights and days in bed, the sad countdown until the plane took him away. The promises Sofie and Robert made to each other: "It won’t be long. Only a couple of months. Then we’ll be together again," and "I’ll never meet anyone like you again."

And that promise, they’d kept.

But none of the couples turned out to be Robert’s parents. Jenna listened as each couple whispered and then cried to the stoic people behind the long desk and never heard, "Robert. Robbie, Bobby, Bob." And when Jenna walked the long death walk the first time, past all the bodies in their white sheet shrouds, there were too many blonde beautiful boys, too many name tags that read: Bob, Robert, Rob.

"Ma’am," the person said sharply from behind the counter, and then swallowed down his irritation, as if remembering, again, that all the people before him were waiting for death news. Jenna looked up, realizing she must have missed his first call.

"Yes?" She stood, the group sliding together to close the void of her body, all of their eyes to the floor, not wanting to see anything until they had to.

"A girl was brought in matching the description you gave us." He blinked, a vein pulsing under his jaw. He was the age of some of her students, so many of them from Indonesia, a couple from Bali. Most were Chinese Indonesian, often schooled in Singapore before they came to the United States. Many had last names that were poems in themselves, Tanuwidjaja, Wirawan, Tandra, Suliawan, Wijaya, Trairatana, Pranajaya, Widjaja, names where Jenna paused, holding her breath before releasing them off the roll sheet—often incorrectly—into the air. And then, even though she could barely pronounce their names, she would expect perfect English, correct articles before nouns, past perfect, simple past, future verb tenses exactly where they should be in each and every sentence. Where did he learn his English, she wanted to ask. In her class? Yes! This man, could have been in one of her classes, coming home to find himself behind this desk, waiting for a middle-aged woman to follow him to the body of her dead child.

"Ma’am?" His lips were pulling down at the corners, his eyes slick.

"Yes. Of course." Jenna tucked her purse under her arm and waited for him to come around the counter before moving, following him, his thin legs in white pants, the whoosh, whoosh of fabric, the tap tap of shoe.

Jenna wanted to hollow herself out each time she stepped into the auditorium or onto the sidewalk, not wanting to feel her heart, stomach, throat. She didn’t need any organ or body part at all, nothing except her eyes. She needed to see her daughter; and of course, she needed her hands to fill out the papers that would allow her to take Sofie home. There were her feet. Jenna needed them to walk in and then walk out. But all the other flesh was annoying, like now, as her heart beat into her ears, her throat closed down on the sobs that hung in her chest like a storm. Her stomach churned and roiled, and she wouldn’t remember where the bathroom was. She needed to use it, now. She had to stop the man in front of her, tell him that it had to wait. "I have to go," she’d say, in clear English. He’d understand, see how she doubled over. That move would translate in any language.

"Here," he said. Jenna saw he was putting on white, latex gloves, the kind doctors and garbage collectors used.

"What?"

"This is the new body—this is the one who matches your daughter’s description." The man filled through papers on his clipboard. "Yes, everything matches."

"The toe ring? On her home toe?" Jenna asked, and the man stared at her.

"Maybe we should just look," he said, gentle now, his irritation gone, as if he’d finally recognized Jenna as his long lost teacher, the one who had given him an A even when he deserved an B. She’d given him the grade not because he was a good writer but because he was a good student, turning in all his homework, coming to every class, even the ones that promised to be dull, hours of lecture instead of a movie or group work. He should be nice to her now, take her out of this room, change his mind about this terrible body under the sheet.

"Ma’am?"

Jenna wondered what his grades had been like. She could ask. She could call him by his name, which was Wayan or Made or Nyoman or Ketut, the four primary Balinese names. She could tell him about her classes. Maybe mythology. He’d like that, living on this island, where spirits lurked everywhere, hiding in the dark green bushes, the overhanging palm fronds, the rocks next to the blue water. If he were of Chinese descent, she could tell him the story of Panku and the egg he cracked open to create the world, people made up of the lice on his body. And then Qu’an Yin and her serpent's tail.

He stared at her, and then lifted the sheet. Jenna felt her eyes betray her, moving away from the man’s face to the body, starting with the hair, burned and singed to the scalp, but still red, Sofie like a sunrise every day, Scottish to the core despite Mark’s Jewish darkness. Jenna felt the rest of her body betray her—her stomach dropping into her bowels, her intestines on fire--so she closed her eyes, found a bit of air under the storm of tears. It was Sofie. She didn’t need to see more. The freckles like constellations on her forehead were enough. "Orion," Jenna used to tease her daughter. "Or maybe we should make up another name. ‘Sofie’s famous freckle helix.’ There’s a story there. That’s what all the old cultures did to explain the stars."

"Oh, Mom," Sofie would say. "When I’m old enough, I’m getting them all lasered off."

She’d never be old enough, and she’d died with her constellation still hanging above her eyes.

"Is this your daughter, ma’am? If so, I need you to make a positive identification."

Jenna opened her eyes, forcing herself to look down, but then her knees buckled and she fell next to Sofie, her hand gripping onto Sofie’s arm, cold and hard. Surprised, Jenna breathed in and there in front of her, burned and hurt, was Sofie. Oh, Sofie. Oh, my girl, she thought, remembering the first time Jenna saw her daughter in a sheet, in the in delivery room as the midwife wiped off the blood and vernix, Sofie dark headed with fetal hair. But her eyes. Wide open blue, looking right up at Jenna, Mark’s arms around them both.

Sofie’s eyes were closed now, but here she was. All of her, her nose and throat and her breasts that bloomed when she was twelve, her nipples reddish, like her hair. The tent of ankle, the long home toe, with its tiny silver band.

The man knelt down and reached out to Jenna’s shoulder, his eyes searching her, just like they might have in the classroom, waiting for the right answer. And the answer was yes.

"Yes," she said, breathing in between the stabbing pain under her heart, her ribs squeezing around the organs she didn’t need any more. "You were right. This is my daughter."

Back at the hotel, Jenna sat at a table in the bar, looking out over the water that was the exact color of Sofie’s eyes. Should Jenna have opened her daughter’s eyes? But before she could think to reach over and touch Sofie’s cold face, the man had called his colleagues on a walkie-talkie, and people had streamed in, carrying a body bag and forms for Jenna. They led her out into another room, away from the expectant parents and family, where Jenna answered questions and signed forms, some stamped with the United States insignia, something about flying the body home on a government plane.

But she hadn’t said goodbye to her daughter, and Sofie was probably already gone, her body in a bag, in a coffin, in the cargo hold of a plane, arriving home even before Jenna could, her plane not leaving until tomorrow afternoon. Would it be too late then to hold her daughter’s head, lift the lids, look into the eyes Jenna loved best? Or did the body begin to deteriorate, eyes sinking back into nothingness. Only Otis Ojakangas would know the answer to that, and where was her former teacher now? On a beach in Florida? In a retirement community, where he sat on a rocker and waited for death, for what Sofie had already blown into?

"Ma’am?" a young girl asked, holding a drink tray tightly, a gold name tag on her native garb spelling out her name, Nyoman. "There is someone who wants to talk with you."

Jenna didn’t look up but shook her head. "I’m not talking to reporters."

"This man is not reporter. A friend. He says he is a friend of your daughter’s."

Jenna looked up at the girl’s honest face and then past her, toward the bar, where a tall, blonde man leaned against the smooth wood, blinking. Robert. Not a scratch on him.

Jenna wanted to stand up, rush to Robert, push him down, hold his shoulders in her palms and cry out, "Why did you leave her? Why did you drag her here? Why aren’t you dead, too?" Her heart beat against the pain of her ribs. Tears she’d held in all day began to pour from her eyes without even a muscle moving them downward. As if she was only made of water, as if that was all that was left.

"I can tell him no. He will go away. I will make him go away." Nyoman pressed the tray closer to her flesh, and moved closer to Jenna. "I tell him this is not good time. All right, Ma’am? I am so sorry for disturbing you."

Jenna closed her eyes and reached out for the girl. Her arm was warm and soft. Alive. "No. No. Tell him to come over. Please."

The girl hung in the indecision. All the Indonesian people Jenna had met this week were so kind, so thoughtful, so ashamed of the violence, of the bad care they’d provided to the island and the people on it. They all knew that this current batch of tourists staying for free at the hotel was grieving, not looking for warm, blue water or big, bright fish. Jenna wanted to pat Nyoman on the shoulder, like she patted her students sometimes when they failed essays or midterms, telling them, "It’s just a grade. It’s not who you are."

But that wasn’t true. Who they were was what they did. Jenna was what she did, was Sofie, her reward, her daughter, and that part of her was dead, so she had failed, like they had.

"Okay. I will tell him." Nyoman swallowed and turned away, looking back once, and then talking quickly to Robert. He looked up at Jenna, adjusting the duffel bag on his shoulder. Why was he carrying a duffel bag? she wondered, and then she knew, her head tilting back as if it weighed a thousand pounds. The duffel bag, the fluorescent pink tag, the name and address in black Sharpie pen. Sofie Thomas in solid caps. Her Monte Veda address, not her college one. Inside: bras, underwear, swim suits. Postcards she’d bought at the airport. A string of shells she’d purchased on the beach from a vendor. A visor. Bottles of sunscreen, 45—no 50. Cover ups. A pareo. Probably something lacy. A camisole from Victoria’s Secret.

Robert was bringing back what remained.

Jenna couldn’t move her head, couldn’t find her breath, her eyes feeling swollen, something ringing in her ears, a buzz, an echo, like the sound of an explosion 5000 miles away.

"Mrs. Thomas?" He was whimpering, a small animal sound caught inside his body.

Jenna motioned to the chair opposite her, her face red from lack of air. He dropped the bag, the chair creaking under him. She was going to faint; she knew it, even though she had never fainted before. Not once. But the world was spinning in gray and white flecks, so she tried breathing through her nose, one long inhale, another, another, breathing as she had when she was in labor with Sofie. "That’s it. A deep cleansing breath," Mark had said, holding one leg as a nurse held the other, both helping her push. "Another. Oh, Jenna. I can see the baby’s head."

One more breath, Jenna thought now, and I can look up into the live eyes of Sofie’s lover.

"I’ve been trying to find you," he began, all the words coming out at once. "I called your house in the States. And then I tried Sofie’s father, you know? His wife said he’s on his way. He got your message. Should be here now, I think." Robert paused, Jenna hearing his breathing, too quick, almost panting. "I brought her things."

"I found her," Jenna said. "I found her body today."

Robert leaned back in his chair. Jenna looked up, pushing air from her lungs. Pain crackled across his face, and then he hunched and leaned over the table, pressing himself down, his hands on his neck, his elbows triangled out like wings. Jenna felt his sobs through the wood, but she didn’t comfort him. He left her daughter in a bar, her body melting, her hair on fire. Jenna had seen her daughter’s blackened hands, the red, raw skin of her forearms, shoulders, neck. Robert should have protected her, should have been a better man. Sofie had deserved a better man after having had Mark as a father.

"I said ‘Run,’" Robert sobbed.

"What?" A wave pushed against the underside of the bar, a dozen twirling fish spinning under the glass bottom to her right.

"I told her," he said, his voice muffled. "I said run. I smelled it first, and I knew. But then it was bright and hot, and people were on fire. Their hair!"

Stop, she thought. She wanted to say, "Please leave me alone." Jenna wished she had a newspaper or a bad novel to open, erasing away the image entirely. But the scene flickered like an old movie at the edges of her imagination: Sofie, the smell of an inciting agent, some kind of acrid chemical, smoke, flame, heat, burning. Jenna’s breath was in her head, her lungs empty.

"Please," she whispered, but Robert didn’t hear her or he didn’t care, needing to tell this final story.

"I grabbed her hand, and she was on fire."

Jenna lifted her hand, still whole, palm flat toward him, and then noticed for the first time that Robert had bandages on both his arms, white gauze on his palms, his fingers wrapped in some kind of netting.

"How did you get out then?" Jenna felt anchors on her lips, barely able to say the words.

Robert sat up and wiped his eyes, tears on the gauze, his nose running. "There was another explosion, and then she was under some metal. I couldn’t see her. I couldn’t find her, and everyone was burning."

Jenna looked for Nyoman. It was time for Robert to leave. He needed to be escorted out of the building by the beefy bartender. What was he trying to tell her? These stories were like the melodrama her students wrote about when the prompt was, "Write about your most vivid experience." Everything they turned in was full of exaggeration. Surely Robert couldn’t expect her to believe he couldn’t just grab Sofie and push out of the building together? Where was the proof? The specific examples? Where was the quotation from the texts to back him up? Words like metal and tried weren’t enough. She wanted verbs like lifted and pushed and screamed and thrust. Jenna wanted words like saved and survived. The story should have ended happily. It must have ended happily. It had to have.

Jenna breathed out into the second where the possible new ending hung in the air, Sofie grabbing Robert’s hand, slipping between the metal sheets. Hurt a little. Maybe a smidge burned. Only singed. But alive, held in Robert’s long, strong arms, whisked out of the burning building and put in the arms of a paramedic. There would have been a different phone call, one Jenna would have taken as she sank into the living room couch, asking her daughter, "Are you sure you’re all right? Robert? Oh, wonderful. Should I come? No? Are you positive? Okay, call me when you know your flight number. Darling, I love you. I am so relieved."

Her lungs empty, Jenna had to inhale, and saw that Robert was doubled over again. Couples near her left their tables, the bar staff lined up, watching them. Nyoman was crying. The bartender was preparing strong drinks, motioning towards Jenna and Robert. Next to their table, two smiling ceramic dragons glittered in the sunlight.

"I’ve been looking. I stayed on the street all night, the next day. I searched for her."

She wanted to reach out for him, pat him still and silent, and she also wanted to ask him, "Why weren’t you at the morgue? Why weren’t you there, waiting, watching, sitting on the bench with all the other family? With me? Why did you hide in the open air, digging for people that weren’t her?" But she didn’t. She began to see. He was a boy, outside, pushing past melted steel and burning wood, a mask over his mouth, his face and body streaked with dust and soot, his eyes watering and red. He was working with people who didn’t speak his language, but that didn’t matter, not when they were searching for bodies, the outcome clear to everyone.

"I shouldn’t have seen that. I shouldn’t have seen that," he moaned, leaning back, his eyes closed again. "No one should ever have to see that."

And finally Jenna knew this was real. This was the story. This was what happened, specific example or not.

Robert had taken a cab back to his hotel. His father was there, waiting for him, allowing his son to come to Jenna by himself, to say what was his alone to tell. And maybe this parent had let Robert come because he was scared to remember the time between the news of the bomb making the airwaves to the moment the phone rang, Robert’s voice in his ear. Alive. All he wanted—all Jenna wanted—was to take his child in his arms and fly him home. Damaged, but alive. Jenna knew she would never see Robert again, except when she went back to the Cal dorm to clean out Sofie’s things. There would be pictures and letters, words she would never have shown Jenna. She’d said, "Oh, he is such a cutie. He sounds like Heath Ledger. You know, that guy in the Mel Gibson movie?" Sofie began buying stuffed kangaroos, whenever she saw them. Wallabies, koala bears. She talked about how eucalyptus trees came from Australia, why they were terrible for the Berkeley hills, but wonderful where they belonged. Home to animals. Native animals. The last time Jenna had visited her at her dorm, Sofie had put up a map of the Australian continent, upside down, the way it was supposed to be.

"The other way is so Northern hemisphere-centric," she’d said. "It’s like, that’s the only part of the world."

Jenna wished it was the only part of the world. Then there would be no Bali. No explosion. There would be a Sofie.

After he left, Jenna went back to her room and now she sat still in a chair on her private patio, the water in the small pool flat and slightly green. Behind the trees, the sea was a constant crashing whirl, a water bird cawing and flickering white against the reddening sky.

She kept blinking, trying to see what was in front of her, but she couldn’t focus, the world full of gauze, the kind on Robert’s arms and fingers. When her eyes were closed, all she saw was white, the white of the sheet on Sofie. Either way, open or closed, there was nothing in front of her, not the sky, not the sea, and she reached for the drink Nyoman had brought to the room.

"Here, Ma’am. This is from us. Call me if you need something," she had said before leaving the room. "Anything."

Jenna sipped whatever liquid it was, bourbon, whiskey, something local. Everything was still white.

<!--[if !vml]-->Flower<!--[endif]-->

"Jenna!"

She turned, looking toward where the door was, something beating against the wood of the door.

"Jenna!"

Where were her legs? She breathed in, pushed up, found a foot, knee, thigh, moved them, walked, the air thick like cotton, white all around her, the thrum of alcohol in her blood already. She hadn’t eaten in days.

"Jenna!"

Her hand on the doorknob, she turned it, feeling her skin, whole skin, whole white skin, pulling the door open. She wanted to get in her own way, let the door knock her down, hit her hard. She wanted to pass out from pain, another kind of pain. She wanted to throw down the glass, pick up a jagged, broken fragment, and rip into the soft flesh of her wrist. She wanted to jump on the glass bottomed floor panel until it cracked and sent her into the salty ocean, jagged cuts on her feet, legs, waist. She wanted to bleed into the water until a shark came and bit and bit and bit her until . . . until she could see Sofie again.

Mark pushed into the room, his hair a mass of wild curls, his eyes red. He grabbed her, as if he’d never left her alone with a child, forgetting them both for months at a time. He took her in his arms and squeezed and cried and then something terrible happened.

"Why?" he mumbled, running his hands on her back as if looking for an opening, the place Jenna concealed the answer he needed.

"Mark."

"Why." His voice sounded like a foot yanked out of a bog, deep wet, full of regret. "Why was she here?"

"Because," she began, and then stopped, her answer full of blame and anger and guilt and fear, all the truths of Sofie’s life, her and Mark’s life together. This was their ancient conversation, the why’s and the because’s and the it’s all your fault’s. Pressing her mouth against his shoulder, she looked out into the room and began to see everything, the silver wiry twists in his hair, the dark, shiny wood of the cabaña, the amber fluid in her glass, the aqua blue water fading to white at the beach. The red red skin on Sofie’s stomach, the purple bruise that had bloomed across half her face. Her hair. Her wonderful sunrise hair.

They were on the wooden platform bed, holding each other, her head exactly where it had always rested when they slept together, nestled between arm, armpit and ribs. Mark smelled the same, tangy, remnants of Old Spice deodorant and salt. His stubble scratched the top of her head, and she felt her hair stuck between whiskers, pulled when he shifted, loosened when he hugged her tight. She let her hand move up and down his chest, almost forgetting about Renata, his wife, the smarter one, the one with a Ph.D. in English instead of the M.A Jenna had. A smart, tiny woman who moved easily into rooms of doctors and their perky wives, asked the women proper questions, not the ones Jenna had asked, not, "Don’t you want something for you? A life? Why should your husband have all the perks?"

But Renata was far away, and she hadn’t lost a daughter. Oh. Oh. Jenna closed her eyes.

"How did it happen?"

Jenna pushed away and lay on her back, staring into the creamy swirl of the gauzy canopy. "The bomb."

Mark didn’t say anything, didn’t sigh, exasperated with the way she couldn’t jump ahead, needing to cover everything, a step at a time. Back when they were married, he would have sighed, put a hand to his forehead, muttered, "I already know that, Jenna."

The wind blew the fabric back and forth, fabric so free, so light, white. Like a sheet in the wind. Like a sheet on a body.

"Robert and she were in the bar. The bomb went off, and she caught on fire. Then there was another explosion, and she was trapped. Robert couldn’t get her out."

At first she thought someone was knocking on the door, but it was the sound of Mark’s weeping caught in his throat like a stone he was trying to cough out. Jenna moved in to him, wishing he had stopped her from being so complete, from summing up how their daughter died. How their daughter died? God, why had she done that! She told her students that summary was the ugly twin sister to imagery. Images would have worked, the bang of metal, the panic in the heat, smoke pouring everywhere softer than the facts of the failed escape.

But even as she comforted him, whooshing, "Shh, shh," between her lips, even as she stroked his arms and chest, she knew he should cry. She should cry. And she did, again, for their daughter, for their marriage, for the fact that his body and breath and smells still felt right to her. She’d not moved an inch since Mark had left her and Sofie, not until someone blew up part of an island and their daughter and made them come here, together.

Nyoman brought two dinners, crisp fish nestled in rice and sautéed greens, and now Jenna and Mark sat on the patio, the food untouched. Mark had a glass of the local Bintang beer, and he sat with it on his knee, his fingers tight around it. Jenna’s head pounded from the drink she’d had before, so she sipped at a glass of Seven-up.

"You take care," Nyoman had said as she placed the plates carefully on the outdoor table. "I go home now. I think of you always."

The horizon glimmered in a thin white streak, the sea and sky folding down upon each other, the early light of stars and moon on the dusky water. It hurt to look out with eyes that would see what Sofie wouldn’t, so Jenna stared at her hand, noticed the slight brown spots, the beginning bulge of veins, the scars from ancient activity—the time she tried to fix Mark’s and her Volkswagen’s carburetor, ripping flesh off instead of bolts. Lately, at night before bed, Jenna rubbed lotion onto the tops of her hands, lotion that promised to restore in eight days what time had done in 45 years. Nothing had changed, of course, and her hands were like her mother’s, save for the arthritic joints. But in time, that would happen, too, her bones curving into one another, crone joints and limbs replacing her own.

"What are we going to do?" Mark took a sip of his beer.

"Huh?" Jenna looked up, almost dizzy. "I don’t know."

He shook his head and then sighed, leaning back against the chair.

She looked at the foot of the bed, Sofie’s duffel bag slumped on the floor like a shrunken Labrador. What was in it? A young man had carried it for her from the bar, and she stared at the white athletic company logo on the side. Was there a clue? Something Sofie had left for her? A message?

Jenna wanted to ask Mark to unzip it and carefully place every item on the bed so Jenna could see, each article of clothing lined up . . . like the dead bodies in the auditorium. She put down her glass and leaned her elbows onto her knees, liking the sharp point of bone on each kneecap. "Do about what? The funeral?"

Mark nodded, his eyes closed.

"We never talked about that," Jenna said, though she was lying. Once, while on a whale watching boat near the Farallon Islands, Sofie had tugged on her sleeve and said, "I want this! Just like this. Tossed out to sea. Sprinkled like fish food."

Jenna had laughed, but later in the San Francisco Chronicle, she’d read an ad by the Neptune Society, a service that facilitated just that, a scattering over the waves.

Would Sofie really like that? She’d only been twelve at the time. Why had she told Jenna that? Had she known? Had some voice said, "Make arrangements now. You have eight years left." Is that why Sofie had always wanted everything—backpacking trips to Alaska, summer classes at Cal when she was still in high school, every book on Emily Dickinson she could find, foreign movies that played only once a week at the Roxie, a special Portuguese cheese she read about in The San Francisco Focus? Maybe Jenna had always known because she gave Sofie everything, and then, didn’t say a word when Sofie began to get what she wanted for herself. Robert. A trip to Bali.

"Have you talked to your mother?" Mark asked.

"Yes," Jenna said, lying again. She’d called Stan, her mother’s husband, because she knew that her mother’s voice would hurt her, awaken the little girl under Jenna’s skin that still needed to be held and patted and comforted. Not now. She didn’t have time for that now. She had to get home. She had to make it home.

"Oh, Jenna, what are we going to do?"

"I want you to unpack her duffel bag."

He sucked on his bottom lip and then sighed. "What’s inside?"

"Clothes. Plane tickets. Souvenirs. Her things. She touched them."

"I don’t want to do it. I can’t do it."

"That’s what you’ve always said," Jenna said, standing up. "You’ve always done what you’ve wanted to do. You will keep doing that."

"That’s not fair," he said. "You can’t say that."

"Well, are you going to unpack it? Why do I have to do everything? Why do I have to be the one to look? It’s your turn. It’s your turn to see."

"I’ve been looking. You just didn’t notice." He took a huge swallow of his beer, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed.

"How could I notice when you haven’t even been there?"

Setting the drink down, he rubbed his eyes and then bent over, his arms folded against his chest. "I’ve been there."

"What difference will this make to your day-to-day, Mark?" Jenna said, keeping her back to him, her voice filled with air and sudden power. "Where have you been for years? You’ve gone actual months without talking to her. She didn’t expect you to show up for anything, and when you did, it was a surprise. All you have to do is go home a pretend that this didn’t happen, and your days will be like normal. But not for me. She was everywhere. In everything. All over the house and in my life in every part."

"That’s because you never gave yourself a life, Jenna. You never wanted anything but her. And you don’t know everything about Sofie and me. She and I had out separate life away from you."

Jenna blinked, seeing nothing, her heart a cave in her chest. Of course, he was right. Sofie had been her best-loved, her sweetheart, her love, her consintida, the Spanish word for special sweetheart her students had taught her. Nothing, no one, had ever matched the rush of hot, red feeling that swept out of her womb and into her heart when she held Sofie for the first time. No one had ever come close.

"You’re right. And that’s why you left."

She turned to Mark, and he stared at her, silent. She could still see the pre-med student he’d been, skinny and pale in the night, his eyes almost blind without his glasses, his lips on her cheeks, throat, body. "I’ve always wanted this," he’d said, touching her all night. "You are so warm."

Then there’d been the wedding downtown at the courthouse and their small apartments, growing slightly bigger—oh my god!, a closet! A dining room! A gas stove!-- through his residencies, her first job at Chabot College teaching ESL students pronunciation at night. During the day, she read novels and filled out applications for full time jobs. She baked. She painted. She waited for Mark to open the front door and drop his coat and backpack on the floor.

And then Sofie was born.

Mark sighed, his face wet again. "You loved her so—too much."

"She was the only thing I ever wrote," Jenna said, hearing the verb slip out before noticing it was wrong.

"Wrote?"

"I—I mean did. Only thing I ever did."

"No," Mark said, leaning back in his chair, the whicker creaking under his weight. "You did me. You had me, Jenna. And you let me go. Like erasing a page. You unwrote everything."

"How can you blame me?" She walked closer to him, looking over him, seeing the tiny bald circle on the top of his head. "You’re the one who left. You’re the one who came home saying, ‘There’s someone else.’ I didn’t unwrite anything."

"Jenna, let’s stop this. We’ve done this before, and now, it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. It’s all over. I’m sick of it. I’m not going to look in her bag. I’m going to put it on the plane and wait until I can. You don’t have to do anything with it."

Jenna turned back to the night, wishing again for her organs to disappear. Her heart hurt, her lungs ached. He was right. Nothing mattered. All their history together was unimportant because the only thing they’d ever made was gone, wiped out by their bad marriage. Sofie would never have come to Bali if Mark had stayed. Mark would never have left if Jenna could have loved Sofie less. Right now, Mark would be at Alta Bates with a patient, Jenna in her office reading essays, and Sofie walking under Sather Gate, headed for Peet’s and a double decaf latte.

Laughter hurtled over the flat pools and cool tile paths from the bar. Jenna could hear the crack crack shake of ice for a martini echoing toward the cabañas. In a few weeks, maybe months, people would forget the explosion, the bodies, the blood, the grief. This place would bloom back into the tourist island it wanted to be, unwriting its own terrorist history as fast as possible, needing the foreign dollars. Maybe somewhere else, politicians would use it as an excuse to bomb some place else, but no one would invoke Sofie. No one would say, "Her daughter had sunrise hair." No one would plant a sign by the destroyed bar, memorializing those who died while trying to have fun. Robert would go home, return to school, and in a short time, find another woman to love. She and Mark would grow old and die, and any idea of Sofie would fade and float away.

You could unwrite anything you wanted to.

Mark didn’t go back to his hotel. After picking at his cold dinner, he stood up and went into the bathroom, showered, and then climbed into Jenna’s bed. After listening to the noises echoing from the bar for a while longer, Jenna did the same, and now she was pressed up against his back, listening to his body, his heart, his blood under her hands, his breath, deeper than it used to be, more nasal. An older man’s breath. He had white hair on his thinner chest. An older man’s body.

He turned and lay on his back. Jenna left her hand on his ribs. "I can’t stop seeing it over and over. I want to go in and save her. When I imagine it, I can save her. I can go in and pull her out."

"Robert couldn’t save her. He tried. And I met Robert. He’s a big man. It was too late."

"You mean I should have saved her before." Mark wiped his eyes. "I’m a doctor. If I had been here, it could have been different."

"Maybe we should have saved each other first."

A breeze blew the gauzy curtain around the bed, and Jenna felt as if they were being lifted off the floor and carried away. But to where? Was there a place where she wouldn’t feel Sofie’s absence? Where could they go? Maybe this was why people took heroin, the desperate need to forget everything. Mark was a doctor. He could prescribe them something. Valium. Demerol, maybe. She’d had a shot of that when she was in the worst of labor with Sofie. Morphine. What about that pain pill all the movie stars were addicted to? The one that actress took as she shoplifted from Saks. Jenna could get enough to last a year, the time that grief was the worst. That’s what she’d read, at least, articles saying that after a death, you shouldn’t make any important decisions for a full year. But without Sofie around, what decisions did she have to make?

"Are you seeing anyone?" he asked, turning to her, his hand on her waist. Her thicker waist. An older woman’s waist.

"No," she lied, rubbing her face and inching away from him.

"Jenna."

She breathed out. What did it matter if she was almost lying? She wouldn’t want to think about Tim when she returned home. She wouldn’t have to think about his advances, questions, dark, brown eyes. His big front teeth, long lean chest, his laugh. He always laughed. She wouldn’t have to consider he was eleven years younger. And really, since Mark, there had been a few dates, a couple of boyfriends, a few weekends of sex, but no one or nothing of importance.

"Really. No one."

"I’ll worry about you now."

"And you didn’t before? You didn’t worry about me when you left?"

"Did I need to?" He pulled her back to him.

Should he have worried? Should he have worried when she loved having the king-sized bed to herself, the days when she and Sofie didn’t have a real dinner, eating salad and cooked green beans with olive oil and brownies for dessert? When she didn’t put on makeup unless she was going to work? When Sofie and she wore "fancy" dresses (things Jenna would buy at Remy’s consignment store—bridesmaids dresses, old tea gowns) around the house on Saturday afternoons. Were those things to worry about?

Maybe they were. Maybe he should have worried when Sofie grew up and stayed out all night with girlfriends, Jenna falling asleep on the living room couch, not waking until Sofie slipped in at six in the morning. The fights would have worried him. And then the way Sofie began to leave even before college, kissing Jenna on the cheek, saying, "Rachel and I are going to Tahoe for the weekend. Back on Sunday night, kay?"

But no amount of worry would have changed that life, and nothing could change the one that was to come. Not Mark’s good intentioned phone calls, the ones that would be frequent and then fewer and then not at all. Not Tim. Not even Demerol or heroin or morphine.

"No." Jenna moved her hand, pushing her word away and turned toward the open window, the moon a stripe of white on the flat sea.

Finally, they slept, and then, like before, like always, he was inside her, his hips fitting between her thighs exactly, his breath against her neck, the same rough love sounds in her ear, the ones he’d always made. She wasn’t surprised, really, Mark turning to her after he drove Sofie home, staying for a glass of wine, leaning in, touching her shoulder, pushing her hair away from her face. And as in those few times, Jenna was as she had been before Sofie, before she was worried that their noises would wake her, before she was too tired to even bring her hand up and touch his face.

She had no sense of pleasure—no tingling, no burning, no heart beat, beat, beating—but simply the dense feeling of her body, her insides filling with the blood she’d felt drained of for days. There was her arm, pulling him close, feeling his neck against her chin. How had they made Sofie all those years ago in the king-sized bed they’d bought with Jenna’s first teaching paycheck? Had Jenna pushed her fingers through his hair like this? Did he kiss her the same way now? Slow, then harder, his tongue tasting of alcohol and sadness? Did her legs move in the same way, fanning out beneath him, letting him in, pulling him in, and then triangling over him and pressing him tight?

Holding him deep inside her, she tried to take back what she had lost, imagining the path that Sofie had ridden before conception, sperm shooting through his body and into her egg, the empty ritual Mark and Jenna could still enact with their older bodies. Hers too old, eggs desiccated, disappeared, dead. Too much crone, but she felt him slide in and out of her, and she held his back, shoulders, neck, and let them both move and pulse in the gauzy breeze of the bedroom, let herself forget that anything else had ever happened but this flesh.

<!--[if !vml]-->Flower<!--[endif]-->

After dropping Jenna off at the airport, Mark was going to go to the US consulate for final information.

"What else do you need to know?" she asked, as she packed her bag. "What else matters?"

"I want to know why this happened. I want to know what they’re doing about it." Mark put on his glasses and picked up her bag, and Sofie’s.

"They’re still looking for bodies, Mark. What can they do but search?" Jenna thought of her fellow travelers on the bench at the morgue, like passengers crossing the Styx, gold coins on every tongue. Who was still there, waiting, looking up for answers anytime the phone rang or a person spoke? Who had been surprised, perhaps, by a miracle phone call, the kind she’d dreamed about? A child stuck in Sanur, unable to phone out until now. How would such a call feel? Why couldn’t she have felt that? Why did it have to be Sofie? For a second, she stopped moving down the thatched covered wooden pathway and watched Mark walk away, one bag over each shoulder. She was leaving Sofie—no Sofie was already home by now.

"What?" Mark turned to her, Sofie’s duffel bag bumping against his right hip.

"I can’t leave her."

He dropped the bags and came back to her. "She’s home, Jenna. She’s already there."

"But alive Sofie. I’m leaving the alive Sofie. She was in love here, Mark. She was a woman here. This was the last place she touched earth." Jenna closed her eyes and felt the wood under her feet, the shifting aqua water, the air of the island that Sofie felt. The hot air turned to flame that was her last sensation.

"This isn’t where she is," Mark said, pressing Jenna against his chest, his hands on either side of her head. "She’s in us now. Back where she came from. We can take her anywhere."

Why was he so wise now that he wasn’t with her anymore? She wanted to push back, shake her head, stamp her foot, but he was right. Maybe he always had been—she hadn’t known how to hear him. Against his shoulder, his shirt rubbing cotton against her forehead, she saw Sofie, racing across Monte Veda Elementary’s front lawn in her white spring dress. There she was with dark black eyeliner under her eyes, a tight maroon t-shirt stretched across her new breasts. There. There. Everywhere in Jenna’s mind, her body. And with him, her father. Mark. He had memories, too.

Jenna breathed out, nodding, wiping her face on his shirt, gently, wondering if she’d have the strength to remember anything. Without this soft air, the same air that had held Sofie in the hours of her best happiness, Jenna thought she wouldn’t be able to think of anything but fire.

 

jessica-barksdale-inclan's picture

Note from the author coming soon...

About Jessica

Jessica Barksdale Inclán's debut novel Her Daughter's Eyes, published in 2001, was the premier novel published under New American Library's new imprint Accent. Her Daughter's Eyes was a...

Read full bio »

Published Reviews

Feb.15.2008

CATCHY SNIPPET: What if you could change the flow of time? Mila Adams can do just that. An exhilarating adventure ensues when she meets a man with a very similar talent. Will they discover the source of...

Jul.28.2008

Being with Him
Jessica Inclán Zebra, $13 paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-4201-0112-6

In Inclán’s sweet but sometimes silly trilogy opener, finding a soul mate is child’s play compared to discovering...