Children We Never Had
My wife and I try to get out to the shore every summer. We’re East Coasters originally. We still have old friends there. It’s a good respite from all the nonsense that goes on here at the University, the small town politics. People there don’t know much about our life here, and we like it that way. But this summer, this past August, we were sitting on the porch one night after a party, with the sounds of the ocean and the old fog horn, the smell of salt and beer and the cigar someone happened to have. And out of the clear black sky my friend Siblitz says, “Hey, you two live in Wilting, right?” Laurie rolls her eyes yes and I nod and his eyes glaze over for a moment, just a moment. “Sara Foster’s my niece,” he says. “My sister’s kid.”
Sara Foster——in case we’re unclear——Sara Foster the sorority girl who disappeared one Friday night in June, twenty years old, at the bars one night. Much has been made of the fact that she was underage. Ostensibly her friends lost track of her. Two days later she was a missing person. Then she was on every telephone pole in town: “Seen Sara?” There were search parties. Police everywhere. Her parents, wealthy people, flew in for press conferences, appeared on the national news, on a daytime talk show. You couldn’t listen to the radio an hour but her name would come up. Sara Foster: still gone. No one would admit she was most likely dead.
“It happens all the time,” Laurie said one morning. We were in the car, listening to yet another Sara Foster news brief——or no-news brief, more like. “Every other year another little blond co-ed ‘goes missing.’ It’s good for the community.” As if on cue, the announcer explained there would soon be a half-marathon: Run for Sara. “A half-marathon!” Laurie laughed. “To what? Raise awareness? I wish we knew less. I wish I didn’t know anything about that poor girl at all.”
“We’ll be escaping soon,” I told her. “We’ll sit and smoke by the ocean. We’ll be a thousand miles away.”
But even the coast was tainted. Siblitz, her uncle. That changed things. At a faculty party in September, Laurie cracked some off-color joke about Sara——something about Foster kids——and I guess I embarrassed her by making a face. I wasn’t offended, just unamused. We fought about that. She said I’d made her look bad. I said Sara Foster was a tragedy. She said when did I get to be such a bleeding heart. Said she couldn’t be expected to keep up with my capricious morality.
In October, when the police finally stopped searching, I called Siblitz to see how he was doing. Ask after his sister’s family, though I’ve never met them. “Heya, Bill,” he said. He sounded a little drunk. It was four o’clock.
“Hey, Sib,” I said. “How you holding up?”
“Living the dream,” he said. He sounded distracted.
“Sib,” I said, “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry about your niece. If there’s anything I can do, I’d. Laurie and I would like to. You know.”
He was quiet.
“I know it’s been a while, and, well. You there?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m here,” he said. “I’m here, she’s not. Yeah, yeah.”
“If there’s anything I can do.”
“Listen, Bill,” he said, “I’m going to tell it to you straight. My sister won’t accept it and her dipshit husband won’t either, but Sara Foster’s dead. She’s dead. My niece is dead.”
“Yeah,” I agreed quietly. “Probably.”
“Probably, definitely. And the honest truth is, just between us——wait, hell. Not just between us. You can quote me on this, okay? The honest truth is that kid was a spoiled, vapid, entitled little girl.”
Just let him go on, I thought.
“You wanna know why she’s gone? Because she probably got so drunk and fucking high on coke, or something, that she ODed in a bathroom stall and her foul little friends were too cowardly to go to the police. So they all disposed of her body and took a vow of silence.”
I cleared my throat. “Yeah.” I wasn’t sure how far to go. “The rumor around here is that her friends might know something, but they’re not talking.”
“Yeah, they’re not talking. Obviously they’re not talking. Obviously they know something. My sister wants to be an idiot about it, wants to think her little girl was a victim. A virginal little casualty of the big bad world. Fine. But you can quote me on this: I’m not gonna say it was her own damn fault, but. I mean, she was my niece. I’ve known her since she was born. She was always reckless. She was dumb. Smart girl, but dumb. I’m not going to say it was her fault, but. It was her own damn fault.”
“I’m sorry, Sib,” I said.
“Yeah.” He was quiet a bit. “Thanks. I’ll tell you what, though.”
“I’m glad I don’t have kids.” He paused, as if to give me time to chime in. “Right? Am I right?”
“None of that for me, man. Utter fucking heartbreak. Cheers.”
I didn’t know how I felt after I talked to old Siblitz. I went outside. It was a cold day, dark and overcast. A fine mist suffused the air. I left my sweater unzipped, though under my shirt I was clammy. I closed the door behind me. I started walking.
Laurie and I got married late in life, around the time our friends’ kids were already hitting their teens. Having children has never really been an option, and most of the time we like it that way. We can eat at eight, go to a ten o’clock movie during the week. We can drink wine until we’re sloppy if we like, smoke cigarettes without guilt. Our house is clean and neat, everything in its right place.
Back when we were dating, now and then she’d bring it up, in a casual way, often under her breath, critiquing another person’s parenting. “If I ever dress our kids in matching outfits, shoot me.” That kind of thing. Laurie’s not a person who believes in regret. She’s unsentimental. Strong. Still, once in a while, she’ll look at a kid——in a booster seat at a restaurant, throwing sand at the beach——and in her expression I’ll find something like hunger, or envy. There are so many children we never had. There’s the son I imagine would take after her, with her rough yellow hair and Roman nose. There’s the son who’d take after me, spindly and dark. I could go on. There’s the daughter.
I walked downtown as the mist became rain, sweater open, mind sad and blank. At the corner of College and Main, one of those ubiquitous “Seen Sara?” flyers had been taped up under the Walk/Don’t Walk signal. The tape was slippery, but with my thumb and forefinger I managed to peel it off. I crumpled it up and stuffed it in my pocket. In the middle of the next block, another “Seen Sara?” was stuck on a fence. I tore that one from its staples, crumpled it and shoved it in my pocket, too. At the murky little coffee shop on the next corner, I went in and removed one from the window. I took two from the sides of mailboxes, one from an electrical box. Three or four more from telephone poles, one from the window of the Dunkin’ Donuts on Fourth. It was a morbid scavenger hunt. I took down all the flyers I could find.
By the time I got home, I was soaking wet. My shoes squeaked on the floor. I stuck my hands into the wet, pulpy paper and remnants of tape smashed in my pockets and let it all fall in a clump in the middle of the kitchen table. Sara Foster’s face looked up at me in pieces. I pushed the fragments apart from each other. Many of the flyers had fallen apart. Removing the excess, the white space and words, I rearranged her into a frail, wet mosaic. Twenty-odd Saras smiled over their shoulders at me.
I don’t know how long I had been standing there when Laurie came in, pulling off her rain boots, scowling. “I’ve been all over this goddamn town,” she called, “and still have not a single sprig of saffron. How am I supposed to make risotto without saffron?” She padded into the kitchen in sock feet, flushed and damp. She put a hand on my lower back and kissed me on the cheek. Beside me, she looked down at my Saras. “Oh Bill,” she said. Her posture went slack. We stood there together for a minute or two, looking down at the pattern of missing children on the table.
“It just seems wrong we only know her now she’s gone,” I said.
Laurie turned me to face her. “She’s just a symbol, Bill.”
“She’s not just a symbol. She’s Siblitz’s niece.”
She rubbed my arm. “That doesn’t make her any more valuable or tragic than any other girl who’s disappeared.” She turned and brought the trash can over for me, as if I were a child. “Honey,” she said, “I need the table for counter space.”
I nodded and pulled the wet paper over the surface. The faces fell and clotted together on top of the trash, and I closed the lid. I put the trash can back under the sink with the cleaning materials and neatly folded rags. Everything in its right place.
Laurie turned on the radio and began cutting onions. When the news came on, she turned the dial to the oldies station. The sound of Lennon’s voice singing and breathing resonated against the kitchen walls. On, girl, he sang, and inhaled. Girl, girl. She cut a thick pat of butter and let it drop into a saucepan and lit the flame. “I’m just afraid it won’t be the right consistency,” she said.
I poured us each a glass of wine. “What won’t?”
“The risotto. Last time I made this, it never really came together. Remember?”
I stepped out onto our back porch. Outside, the rain fell in earnest. I listened to it slap our flagstone walk, watched it drip from the maroon leaves of our maple tree. I took a deep breath and filled my mouth with wine. It tingled on my tongue, light and dry. I swallowed it and took another. The day’s light was fading. I could smell the onions and butter through our open window, hear the vague sounds of another song I didn’t recognize. I looked out at our wet, empty yard, and drank until my glass was empty.