When the cold, white morning of her fiftieth birthday arrived, Beatrice couldn’t lift her head. The chimes of her good morning, programmed into the phone she kept beside her, just in case, circled through their simple melody three times and then stopped. From outside her bedroom door came the cries of the cat, hungry again, its staccato screeches demanding attention. Sunlight fell like shards of glass on the floor, too bright this April morning, reflecting the snow that should not have fallen, here, in Atlanta, where last week was springtime.
Beatrice didn’t know it had snowed. Last night, before the 2:00 a.m. last call, before fumbling in the back seat with a boy half her age (Lance? Lane?), before stumbling up the narrow stairs, past Pepto Bismol walls and smells of fried food, she had noticed the ink blue sky. Starless. Icy moon but a sliver, holding no promise, merely moving through its obligatory phase.
Beatrice knew she should go to the office, since the hours mattered even though the work didn’t. She had a hard time paying her bills even with the fifty hours she logged each week.
But she didn’t head straight to her office. After two ibuprofen and an icy shower, she dressed and drove to the high school, parking her sputtering Chevy Malibu across the street. When she saw the familiar mini-van pull up, Beatrice slid down in her seat. She couldn’t risk having him see her. Beatrice still hoped she could reconnect with Amanda one day and getting caught spying on her by her father would do nothing to bring that day closer.
Beatrice inched up and peered over at the school, just in time to see Amanda hoist the backpack thick with books onto her shoulder, pull her long hair around her neck and greet her friends with laughter. Lost in reflections of how happy her daughter looked and the mixed emotions those reflections brought, Beatrice forgot to duck again before the mini-van passed. Her ex-husband looked directly into his rearview mirror.
Had he caught her spying on their daughter? When the judge denied Beatrice’s motion for custody, her ex had been very clear. He did not want her to see Amanda at all. Her selfish inability to maintain control and the resulting destruction made her a danger to Amanda. To prove him wrong, Beatrice had tried to project a calm demeanor, first during the supervised visits the judge had granted her and then in the letters she wrote to her daughter once her ex -husband ended the in-person visits because they “interfered with Amanda’s activities.” If he had seen her just now, it could erase the picture of stability into which she had been trying so desperately to paint herself.
Before starting the car, Beatrice closed her eyes and started to count. She made it to six before the pounding in her head drowned out the numbers. “Someday I’ll make it to ten,” she mumbled, pulling into traffic and heading downtown.
Beatrice worked at one of Atlanta’s best law firms. The firm owned their entire building, a chrome and glass tower from which partners and associates at all levels could peer down on the bustling streets. When Beatrice arrived, she headed to the basement, where recent law graduates sat before computer screens at long, cramped tables. The windowless room felt cold and damp, and Beatrice wondered for the tenth time where she had lost her winter coat. She hadn’t seen it since February.
“Nice weekend?” Maggie, who sat next to her, asked. Maggie was reviewing documents for a few months while waiting for her bar exam results. Her perky efforts at friendship wore Beatrice down.
“Lovely,” Beatrice responded, wondering whether Maggie could detect sarcasm.
Beatrice opened the first document and started scrolling, highlighting anything she deemed privileged or irrelevant. She typed with one hand and pulled her phone out of her bag discreetly with the other, hoping Maggie wouldn’t notice her texting. She usually checked in with her probation officer before sitting at her spot, but this morning she’d been so preoccupied with what her ex might have seen that she forgot.
Before Beatrice slipped her phone back into her purse it buzzed. “Happy Fiftieth,” read the text from her mother. Since her release, Beatrice only heard from her mother on birthdays and holidays. Overall, Beatrice was glad for her mother’s absence. Today she was particularly grateful to be spared a lecture on how she’d wasted her opportunities.
“You’re lucky you weren’t born into my generation,” her mother reminded Beatrice when she graduated from law school. “In my day, women had only two choices – teacher or nurse. I became a teacher because I faint at the sight of blood. But you—”
Her mother paused and held her whiskey sour high to emphasize her point. “You could do anything. And you were wise to choose law, even if you didn’t find a civil rights job like your mother wanted.”
Beatrice started to protest. She had taken a position at the most prestigious law firm in Atlanta because she thought the six-figure starting salary would make her mother proud.
“But the job at the firm is fine too, dear, especially since you’ve always seemed to enjoy research and writing.”
The job at the firm seemed more than merely “fine” when Beatrice came home from the holiday party the following year and announced that she’d heard whispers of her making partner. Beatrice’s mother insisted on an early celebration, opening a bottle of the “good champagne” usually offered to others only at her own birthday parties.
For three years, Beatrice’s husband, Jim, and her mother waited for her to announce she had made partner. Finally, Beatrice decided to enlighten them.
“I’ve been passed over for junior partner three years in a row,” she began, “and it’s fairly common knowledge that once you’ve been passed over three consecutive years, you are no longer on the partner track.” It was in fact NOT common knowledge, but Beatrice couldn’t stand the expectant looks on the faces of her mother and Jim anymore. Her mother smiled slyly at Jim, blew Beatrice a kiss and left. Puzzled and distracted by her mother’s strange reaction and feeling some degree of affection toward Jim thanks to the drinks, Beatrice didn’t object when he started to remove her blouse.
Far more excited about a child than she had ever been about marriage, Beatrice stopped drinking as soon as she saw the two pink lines on the stick. For eight months, she resumed her twelve-hour workdays, fighting exhaustion with water instead of caffeine, and spent nights reading pregnancy and baby books. Once Amanda arrived, she spent almost every minute of her day with her, including the frightening minutes when Amanda nearly stopped breathing, minutes that stretched into two terrifying days of sitting beside Amanda in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, holding her tiny hand through a hole in the plastic box filled with oxygen. Beatrice barely breathed herself until the doctor proclaimed Amanda out of danger, having survived a nasty virus that Beatrice was certain came from the cold Jim had brought home from work.
When Beatrice returned to work, her mother started coming over for Sunday dinners, insisting she needed time with Amanda but focusing on Beatrice’s career. “Don’t you think it’s time you found a job with some real PROSPECTS?” her mother asked nearly every Sunday. “Or, if you’ve given up on advancement, one that doesn’t require so much work?”
Then one Sunday, as she tried to tune out her mother, Jim made an announcement she couldn’t ignore.
“I feel invisible to you. And I want to feel important to the people in my family, so I just don’t think we can be a family anymore.”
Beatrice was shocked. She hadn’t thought about Jim much at all since Amanda was born.
After they signed the divorce papers, Beatrice found a job with a small firm that provided legal advice to people who paid in advance before even knowing what their legal problems would be. Beatrice saw it as risk management. Her mother saw it as degrading.
But Beatrice took the job and moved out of the big, rambling house she’d shared with Jim into a tiny cottage, grateful Amanda would be with her three or four days each week. Their first weekend alone together they had danced in the sunshine just outside their back door, joining hands and twirling together until gravity and the lightness in their heads gently pushed them into the grass, into each other, laughing…
Beatrice’s phone buzzed. When she saw the name of her probation officer on the screen, Beatrice grabbed the phone and darted into the hallway.
“You were thirty minutes late checking in this morning,” her P.O said curtly.
Beatrice breathed deeply. “I needed to pick up a prescription on the way in and the pharmacy was crowded.” It was partly true. She did need to pick up her Zoloft, and the pharmacy may well have been crowded.
“You’re supposed to call at 8:00 no matter where you are.” The phone started to shake against Beatrice’s ear. She gripped the wrist of the hand that held it.
“I won’t write you up – at least not this time. But be on time from now on!” Beatrice’s P.O. barked and hung up. Beatrice walked back to her space at the table slowly.
“One, two, three, four, five, six…” By the time she reached the table she had counted to eight, and her breathing had slowed. But as she started to scroll through the documents, Maggie noticed her hands shaking.
“Oh no, was that bad news?”
Beatrice took a short, deep breath. “My mother isn’t doing well,” she lied. In fact, her mother was vacationing in Bermuda. She took a trip every year around this time to commemorate having given birth to Beatrice.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Maggie gushed. Beatrice nodded. At least now she had an excuse to be silent the remainder of the day…
“Why are you crying, mommy?” Amanda asked the first time Beatrice dropped her off at Jim’s house.
“These are happy tears.” Beatrice forced a smile. “Happy tears because I have the best girl in the world!” Amanda hugged Beatrice.
“Don’t worry mommy, I’ll come back to you.”
Beatrice managed to hold down the sobs until after Jim took Amanda inside. But as Beatrice drove home, her smiles were replaced with dark thoughts, strong, insistent, warning of decades of empty days and nights, starless skies, white walls, black coffee. To chase them away, she pulled the flask of vodka from the glove compartment as soon as she pulled into her driveway. The first few sips soothed her, and her thoughts shifted from Amanda to the former intern who visited her bed whenever he came to town. The more she drank, the more Beatrice wanted the fleeting comfort the boy brought her. Hoping he could satisfy her with his voice alone, she dialed his number – once, twice, three times – until finally, feeling frustrated and fuzzy, she grabbed her car keys and headed to the boy’s city, ninety miles west.
Beatrice made it a mere three miles before she crashed. When she got out of the car, she saw the dented pole, and the officer, and that was all. She hadn’t understood why the officer made her wait in the back of the squad car. When would he give her the tests? She could say the alphabet backwards; she could hop a straight line with her eyes closed, one bottle into the night. She practiced, so she knew.
She heard sirens in the distance and thought they must be headed to a grisly homicide south of the river. But the sound of sirens grew rather than diminished, until it was so close it threatened to deafen her. What she saw when she looked out the back window of the squad car still came to Beatrice now, sometimes causing her tremors so strong they woke her in the middle of the night.
Beside the car with its face smashed in, its protective windshield collapsed, a woman was bent over herself, clutching at her stomach. Constant screams came from the woman, one long wail of despair. Beatrice hadn’t had to wait long to see what caused her to scream. The body they carried from car to stretcher had slumped like an enormous doll, a giant GI Joe who had lost the battle, bloodied and lifeless.
Beatrice could still taste her vomit from that night, vodka mixed with the spaghetti she and Amanda had for dinner, exploding from her mouth onto the floor of the squad car. The officer had made her get out of the car, cuffed her, lectured her as she stood in the August heat, trembling and sweating. She remembered hyperventilating in the back of the paddy wagon. She recalled her confusion as she tried to answer the questions of the magistrate, a man in a box on a screen. She was focused on calling Jim, asking the question, “Are you going to take custody from me?” It was all she cared about.
Once Beatrice was sentenced – five years, five times the minimum penalty because she had deprived the widow of a father for her unborn child – the answer was inescapable. He didn’t bring her daughter to visit once. Six years old when Beatrice entered the Virginia Women’s Correctional Center in Goochland, her daughter was nearly twelve on her release date.
After her release, Beatrice had visits supervised by a paternal uncle. Amanda was quiet, answering Beatrice’s barrage of questions but asking none of her own. She barely looked at Beatrice, swapping gazes between her shoes and her uncle, a mound of tensed-up flesh frowning in the corner.
Jim started finding reasons to cancel after the first few months. A baseball game running so late Amanda missed the call. Too many tests to study for to take time away from schoolwork for a visit. A weekend at the river house running over. A friend’s birthday party she just couldn’t miss.
By the time Amanda’s fourteenth birthday came, Beatrice had lost all contact with her. Once a week, she composed letters to her daughter, writing about nursing her in the middle of the night, about how they danced around their yard in the shade of the oak. She recounted the first time they baked brownies together, and the times they biked to the ice cream shop for their favorite two scoop banana cone. She ended every letter telling her she loved her.
She never received a letter in return. Finally, Beatrice stopped mailing the letters, placing them instead in the leather satchel she kept at the foot of her bed.
The clock reached 6:00. Beatrice had had enough of the redundant work and intermittent chatter from Maggie. Her headache had returned, and she longed for the comfort of her bed. When she reached her apartment, she stripped off her suit and shoes and curled into a ball on her mattress. Sleep didn’t come any easier tonight, and she watched the red lines of her clock announce every hour. Once her upstairs neighbor started playing his electric guitar in the room directly above her, she abandoned her efforts to sleep. She pulled sweats from the pile of laundry on the floor – was it dirty or clean? – and heaved the satchel onto her shoulder.
By the time Beatrice reached the corner café, her cheeks and hands were red from exposure to the cold. The café, where one could get anything from a cappuccino to a gin and Campari anytime of the day or night, was almost empty. Two men sat at the bar, one with the same close-cropped brown hair and five o’clock shadow as the construction worker Beatrice had gone home with the weekend before. Her pulse quickened until she realized with relief that this guy was two decades older than her construction worker.
She settled into the back booth, ordered a beer, and pulled the three stacks of letters from the satchel. Did she want to read the oldest letters, laced with hope, written when the thought of mailing still crossed her mind? Or the more recent letters, written as a means of recording imaginary conversations she wished were real?
“What are you doing with all of those silly papers? Do you not know it’s after working hours?”
Michel poured his lanky frame onto the bench across from her without waiting for an invitation. Three years had passed since she’d last seen him, yet his arrival seemed more natural than anything that had happened in months.
“It is strange that I find you here,” Michel said.
“Really? It’s so strange to find me hiding in a booth a few blocks from my apartment?” Michel had been the only person who helped her move into the dumpy place. Michel grinned and shook his head, beckoning to the waitress at the same time.
“You need to put your work away and talk to me,” Michel demanded after ordering a beer, his strong accent making him sound certain of everything. Beatrice had always loved that about him, the way he never seemed to doubt himself. She had loved other things, too, back when their offices sat side by side, and no afternoon seemed complete without sneaking away with him for his “smokes,” fifteen-minute sessions beneath the awning of their building when they told each other everything. She’d loved watching him run his fingers though his auburn hair when he paused to consider a thought and listening to the rise and fall of his voice when he described how he’d argued his point to the judge. She’d loved how well he knew her, inside if not outside, searching for her most vulnerable spots, urging her to reveal them by proudly claiming to reveal his own.
“It is good to see you, Beatrice.” He smiled, mischief lighting up his eyes. They held what remained of his youthfulness in a face etched with wrinkles.
“But what are you working on so hard?” Michel put his hand on a stack of letters as if to move them toward him. Beatrice snatched the three stacks off the table and shoved them in her satchel.
“It’s very…private,” she told him.
Michel tried to scowl at her, but laughter broke his frown.
“Come on, Beatrice.” He leaned across the table, locking eyes with her. “You can never keep secrets from me. What are you doing with those papers?”
Beatrice hesitated. The letters were her secret longings for her daughter. Nobody but Beatrice knew they existed.
Yet she wanted to tell Michel about them. He had been there when everything shattered. The morning of her arraignment, when she woke up frightened with no car and no license and a fractured soul, she had called Michel and he’d driven her to court. He had listened to her fears in the months leading up to the trial. He had been the only person to visit her in prison.
“They’re letters to Amanda.” Simply stated, it seemed less crazy.
Michel furrowed his brow and shook his head. “Why do you not mail them to her?”
“She would never read them. She doesn’t want to remember me. She hates me.”
Even though Beatrice had thought these words, saying them aloud struck her like a fist to her gut, and she let out a little moan.
Michel leaned toward her and the tenderness Beatrice knew he kept deeply hidden most of the time filled his eyes. He reached across the table, and Beatrice placed her hand in the one he extended. Their interlaced fingers brought her more comfort than any sex she’d had since leaving prison.
“I have never told you about Tess,” he said.
This puzzled her. She was certain that his wife, the beautiful surgeon murdered in their home when she was only thirty-four, had been named Sarah.
“My younger sister,” Michel answered before she finished her question. He’d often spoken to Beatrice about his family in France, the two older sisters and older brother he had left behind with his aging parents when he moved from Paris to the states to marry his American bride. She had always believed he was the youngest child in the family.
“Tess and I were close, much closer than either of us were to my older sisters and brother. She was only sixteen months younger than I. Growing up, we did everything together.”
Michel’s gaze moved to the edge of the table, and she wondered whether he saw something in her face that made the telling more difficult.
“The summer she turned seventeen she became quite ill. The doctor thought it was pneumonia, but later we found she had TB. They sent her to one of those places, a warehouse for dying people.
“A few weeks after they sent Tess away, I went to University. Everything I did there I did to forget Tess. My mathematics classes, the parties, my weekend travel and weeknight football games, all of it designed to wear me out so I would not think of her, coughing blood in a dark room hundreds of miles from anyone she knew.
“The call from my mother came during my first examination period. I did not even go back for her funeral because it conflicted with my mathematics examination.
“By the time I let myself miss her, she had been gone more than a year. I visited her grave once. I talked to the headstone as if Tess were in a room beneath the ground and could hear me through some special tube. But she could not. She had left and I never said goodbye.”
“It’s different,” Beatrice insisted. “My daughter isn’t dead and Tess didn’t hate you.”
“I do not know that,” Michel said. “I think maybe by the end of her life she did hate me. I do not know. And I cannot do anything about that. But you can do something about your daughter. Do you want her to think you abandoned her?”
“She abandoned me,” Beatrice said bitterly.
“She is still a child, Beatrice,” Michel reminded her.
“She’s fifteen.” But Beatrice knew Michel was right. Fifteen-year-olds weren’t adults, and even most of the adults in her life had shunned her after her release from prison.
Michel put money on the table for his beer, then reached across the table and took her hand again.
“Mail her a letter, Beatrice,” he urged. “Take the last letter you wrote to her and mail it.”
He squeezed her hand and walked out of the bar, leaving Beatrice alone with the letters again. She called the waitress over and ordered another beer.
While she sipped it, she pulled out one of the stacks and took off the top letter. She had written it just three days earlier.
It’s my birthday in three days. Do you remember your fifth birthday party? I still have the photo of you on the pony Daddy got for the day. How lucky you were that your cousin had horses AND a trailer to get one to you! I hope you’re still taking riding lessons. You were getting very good at riding from what Daddy told me the last time I spoke to him.
I can’t believe your first year of high school is almost over! I know you must be excited for the summer to begin. I bet you have a lot of fun things planned.
I still think about you every day, and I would love to hear from you. Here’s my phone number in case you want to call me – 782-9430.
I will always love you,
She finished her beer and left the bar, the clanging in her head a bit quieter. Her feet sunk into mud-tainted white mounds as she walked. She stopped at the CVS for a tube of toothpaste and a bag of chocolate covered pistachios, and at the last minute added four items to her purchases. Back on the slushy sidewalk she moved quickly, passing her apartment building. When she reached the blue box, she stopped. Heart racing, she tried not to think of anything but Michel’s directive as she moved the letter from the satchel to the newly purchased envelope. She knew the address by heart, of course, even though Amanda and her ex had moved since her last visit. Beatrice’s hand shook as she wrote on the envelope, affixed the stamp and dropped the letter into the box.
Beatrice walked back to her building and took the satchel around to the alley behind it. She scanned the random pieces of plastic and metal clustered beneath her building’s fire escape, finally spotting something suitable. After dumping its contents into a broken plastic bin, Beatrice dragged the metal garbage can into the alley and dumped the letters in. She took her other two purchases from their bag, poured in the fluid, struck the match, and stood back to watch the smoke rise from the flames until it melted into the sky.