- Published: 3 November 2020
- ISBN: 9781760895365
- Imprint: Viking
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $32.99
Life After Truth
Dawn on Sunday morning of Reunion Weekend
(May 27, 2018)
Her daughter had just fallen back asleep in the crook of her elbow when Mariam noticed the man on the bench in the courtyard below.
It was very early morning. She’d been up for over an hour, rocking her toddler as if she were a baby, mumbling snippets of lullabies, her eyes slowly growing accustomed to the dark outside. Her arm had gone numb from the weight of Eva’s head.
From the attic room in Kirkland House, she had a view of the enclosed garden quadrangle, which all the windows of the elegant redbrick undergraduate residence faced.
Mariam smiled to herself when she saw the awkwardly angled silhouette of the man’s upper body. He was going to have a very sore back later today, when he awoke from his drunken stupor on that bench. They were almost too old for these antics. Behind her, in the narrow single bed they were sharing, just as they had through their years of dating in college, Rowan was passed out with the same oblivion, clutching a pillow to his chest as if it were a life raft, his hot rum-and-Coke breath making the air in the small room smell tropical.
In the other single bed, her older daughter slept the enviably deep sleep of a 5-year-old. Ah, to sleep like a child, or a drunk!
Mariam was dying of thirst – the post-alcohol kind, which no amount of water can satisfy. Normally Rowan would be the one settling Eva; with both girls he had taken on the diaper changes, the soothing, the settling. They’d made a commitment to divide the night load straight down the middle, but he had always tried to do more than his share, aware that during the day, as the stay-at-home parent, Mariam carried the full burden.
But for now she wanted to let him sleep, after what had happened at the reunion dinner-dance at Winthrop House the night before.
She’d been astonished to see him like that, breaking loose, letting his appetites surface. It had been a shock, at first. Then it had been thrilling to be reminded that he, too, had other selves he sometimes kept secret from her. That there were still mysteries for her to solve, after all their years together.
If they’d been at home she would have let Eva cry for a bit longer, but as soon as Mariam had heard her whimpering she’d leapt out of bed to pick her up from the crib. For Jomo’s sake, and Jules’s, too. Jomo was in the room just down the corridor, within the same senior suite, and Jules was in the room closest to the door out to the landing. If either of them needed the bathroom, they had to tiptoe across the room in which her whole family was sleeping (or not sleeping), but that night she hadn’t heard them come through once.
It had been a long time since Mariam had shared a bathroom with people who weren’t family. The evening they’d all arrived, Thursday, it had been a fun game to negotiate the use of the shower and toilet, just as she and Jules had done back at college as roommates. It was easy to romanticize communal living when it was no longer your daily reality. But the novelty had worn off fast. On Friday morning, she’d been busting for a pee and had to hold it in with her sub-par pelvic floor while Jomo shaved, shat, and took a long shower. How selfish the childless could be!
While she rocked Eva back to sleep after her night terror – which was so much worse than a nightmare, her eyes wide open, not awake but not asleep; why had nobody warned her about these before she was a parent? – Mariam was trying to figure out how she felt about the fact that Jomo was not sleeping in his room alone.
His door was closed, but Mariam knew someone was in there with him. She’d heard scuffling sounds a bit earlier, familiar from those long-ago years of close living, when it had been normal to listen to other people having sex and think it was no big deal. Once, in their junior year, Eloise had brought back a guy who had kept going at it for three hours. Mariam had sometimes wondered if that’s what had turned Eloise off dicks forever.
It wasn’t exactly surprising that there was a woman in Jomo’s room. This had been his standard behavior at college, a new woman every weekend after some party at the Spee. He was a good person, so this wasn’t as sleazy as it sounded. He was just so very attractive to women. It was almost like a public service he provided to the opposite sex, to be that hot, that charismatic, that talented at playing singalong tunes on the piano, that creative, and also so respectful, someone who genuinely enjoyed the company of women . . . it was too much for most girls to bear.
Plus there was the fact that he was best friends with Juliet Hartley, the most famous person in their class. They all wanted to get closer to Jules through him, perhaps, though they couldn’t have known that he was in fact the barrier denying them access to her. Mariam suspected that Jomo had charmed the room on all those social occasions in order to give Jules a break from the spotlight that shone on her relentlessly. Jomo had been the insulating force, absorbing every bit of negative energy he could before it affected Jules. Those other girls must have known how it would end, that they wouldn’t be the one. Yet they’d all greedily taken whatever he’d offered them of himself.
It wasn’t that Mariam felt bad for Jomo’s current girlfriend, Giselle, either. They’d only met her a few times, though Jomo and Giselle had been together for a year and a half. She got the impression Giselle didn’t exactly love hanging out with Jomo’s old college friends.
But she and Rowan had tried to make an effort to get to know Giselle better, and persuaded Jomo to bring her to their place in Bushwick for Thanksgiving dinner the year before, when they’d stayed in the city for the holidays.
Jules had come too. She was about to go overseas for a shoot, she’d said, though there had been nothing in the celebrity magazines about upcoming films she was starring in (Mariam checked them regularly because she still didn’t like to ask Jules too many direct questions about her work life). Jules had brought gifts for the girls that were beyond their wildest imaginings: tiaras from the set of Sleeping Beauty, and a life-size toy Olaf, the snowman from Frozen, whom Jules had pretended was her date.
When she wasn’t entertaining the girls, Jules had seemed tired, maybe from the effort of preparing for the new film. Mariam had felt glad to be doing something to cheer Jules up, feeding her a home-cooked meal in an environment where she could let her guard down.
Like all of Jomo’s past girlfriends, Giselle was gorgeous, and she’d made every effort with her appearance that night, while Jules had made none. Sitting on opposite sides of the dinner table, they had looked like Rose Red and Snow White (and Olaf their idiot brother): Giselle with her red lips, and glossy dark hair matched to her shaped eyebrows; Jules with her alabaster skin, her white-blonde hair sticking up at the roots – she’d put no product on it – and her lips slightly dry from the late-fall weather.
Jomo had made a joke while he was carving the turkey, and Jules had guffawed in response (it had been the thing Mariam immediately liked about Jules when they’d first met on move-in day as freshmen: such an ungainly laugh from such an exquisite being!). Giselle had seemed puzzled – she was Italian, and, though her English was good, she’d missed the context of Jomo’s joke. Seeing him laugh with Jules, she’d looked threatened, which was another common trait of Jomo’s girlfriends. They could never get their heads around his being best friends with a woman like Juliet. Over the previous summer, Giselle had done everything in her power to prevent Jomo and Jules from making the trip to Tanzania that they’d planned to do together since college. She’d failed to stop them, but Mariam presumed Jomo had paid a price for it for months afterward.
No, she couldn’t care less about Jomo cheating on Giselle.
But she was jealous of Jomo’s return to a carefree, careless existence. His mother had lived. He got to sleep with sweet-smelling strangers without any guilt. All was right in his world.
She and Jomo, at first, had bonded over their parents’ cancer diagnoses. But when it became clear that Jomo’s mother would recover and Mariam’s father would not, she had felt betrayed by providence. She didn’t need any more lessons in humility or a deeper awareness of how precious time was. That was the daily stuff of her life as a mother, a wife, an educator, a daughter. All she did was care for others, count her blessings, check her privileges, give more of herself away.
Her father should have survived. What reward was there for her dutiful behavior if not that? What was the point of being good every moment of her life if things went wrong for her when it really mattered?
Outside, the light was changing. Mariam could just make out the Kirkland tower’s white wedding-cake tiers topped with a green dome and gold cross. The sky had turned a shade of lemon. She felt her spirits sink. It was already dawn, and she had slept for what – two hours?
It was going to be a long day. Soon she’d have to drag herself and Rowan and the girls to the final reunion event, the farewell brunch at Quincy House.
At least there would be waffles, the crispy ones with the Harvard crest imprinted on them. In spite of their bland flavor, these had been Mariam’s treat every Sunday morning at college. It had always felt as if she were ingesting the spirit of Harvard itself as she chewed on the crest, as if, with every bite, she became a teeny bit smarter.
And there would be bacon. Lots of bacon.
After last night’s shenanigans, though, perhaps it was better that she and Rowan go straight to South Station for the Acela back to New York.
She wasn’t sure who had seen what, and by then people had probably been boozed up enough to not notice anything, but still. Some part of her relished making a dramatic final impression on their classmates and then disappearing into thin air, not to be seen for another five years. For anybody who had noticed her and Rowan’s small but passionate marital drama, it would be a let-down to see them standing in line in the dining hall the next morning, wrangling their kids, looking haggard.
Yes, they should skip the brunch, she decided. No more chitchat with people she only half-remembered, no more asking and answering the same things over and over. She and Rowan would vanish, leaving a frisson, a question mark, hanging over their names.
She looked down at her daughter’s face, which had gone very pale – a sign she was in a deep sleep. Eva’s black curls, identical to Mariam’s own, were matted with something sticky, probably the lollipops she’d used to bribe the girls to go to bed before the babysitter arrived (the trick had not worked).
By force of habit, she began to compose a haiku about watching her daughter sleep:
A tiny blue vein
pulses at her right temple
She paused and looked out the window again, searching for the right words for the last line.
The man on the bench had not moved.
In the yellow dawn, she could see his face clearly for the first time. It was Frederick Reese. There was foamy vomit all down his tuxedo shirt. His eyes were wide open – just as Eva’s had been in the grip of her night terror.
Much later that morning, the proper emotions would swell in her, the shock that a person had died under her gaze, perhaps at the very same moment that her daughter had descended into a dreamless phase of sleep. But in that first moment of recognition Mariam felt only relief. The president’s son was dead. Somebody had finally taken a stand.