The Good Goodbye

By: Carla Buckley

Natalie




I KEEP A LIST of Arden’s first words. Banky, mimi, ’ghetti, Dada. I treasure this list, keep it folded in my wallet. Banky, mimi, ’ghetti, Dada, Mama, ’nana, rainbow, juice. All the important things in Arden’s life—her threadbare pink blanket, her favorite foods, Theo and me. I miss her. I miss hearing her voice. That first night after she left for college, I lay on top of her tousled sheets, breathing in the blended scents of her coconut shampoo and pear soap.

“So how do you want to celebrate?” my husband asks.

I thought Theo had forgotten. Maybe, if I’m to be completely honest with myself, I’d hoped he had. He squares off in front of the bathroom mirror to give himself his usual morning pep-talk look, his eyes half closed and his chin raised. Maybe, shocker, he’d remembered on his own.

“I don’t know.” I turn off the water and drop my toothbrush in the cup. There’s nothing I feel less like doing than dressing up and spending money on our anniversary. Just thinking about it makes me want to crawl under the covers and yank them over my head.

“Anything you want,” he promises. “Sky’s the limit.”

Ha. We both know the sky is very much not the limit.

“I have that big party coming in tonight,” I remind him. Eleven homecoming couples, a giggling pack of kids, uncertain in their finery. The tips would be meager, half the food would go uneaten or end up on the tablecloth, and the restrooms would be a disaster. But any port in a storm. And these past six months had been so stormy they’d ripped the shingles right off the roof.

“They’ll be gone by nine, right? We can do something then.”

“You know I can’t close early.”

There’s always the chance an after-theater crowd could wander by and decide to come in—though that’s been happening less and less frequently. Why? Too many seafood options, not enough vegetarian? A food trend I haven’t picked up on? We used to have a line snaking down the sidewalk. Now whenever I glimpse people pausing outside to read the menu posted by the window, I find myself catching my breath.

“Let Vince cover for you. You’ve done it often enough for him.”

“Right. You want to ask him, or shall I?” I shut the medicine cabinet a little too hard, rattling the bottles inside.

“Look. We should do something, Nat. I don’t know what. But I do know nineteenth wedding anniversaries only come around once.”

I tug my hair back into its usual ponytail. “If it’s so important, why didn’t we plan something ahead?” Theo has no answer for that one.

Downstairs, the boys are waiting in the front hall. They’d rejected the bright, small backpacks in the back-to-school section, and like a team of matched ponies marched straight to where the adult-sized backpacks hung, the very same display from which we’d chosen Arden’s. Are you sure you don’t want a Batman one? I’d coaxed. Or the Hulk? Oliver had glanced tentatively at his brother, but Henry crossed his arms and pushed out his lower lip, and Oliver instantly followed suit. So here they stand, six-year-old boys huddled beneath enormous black carapaces each containing a slim folder of math homework and a single sharpened pencil. Vince would applaud the twins’ show of solidarity, but I can’t tell Theo this. There are so many things I can’t tell Theo.

“Did you brush your teeth?” Theo asks the boys, and both solemnly nod.

I’d heard them counting in their bathroom, mumbled shouts filled with toothpaste and spit…eight, nine, ten! Henry’s the one who keeps the count, who makes sure Oliver brushes his tongue, too. It tickles! he protests. The differences between my sons are much vaster than the four minutes that separate their births. Henry had howled as the doctor held him up so I could see him over the draped fabric; Oliver had been terrifyingly silent. I hadn’t even been allowed to see or hold him until the next day, Theo pushing my wheelchair up to the incubator where Oliver lay, surreally tiny inside, his arms and legs extended and taped down, his chest motionless. Fear clamped down hard. Then Oliver had turned his head and, slowly, blinked at me.

This morning, Oliver grips his ant farm between two hands, a plastic frame holding a half-inch of sandy dirt sandwiched between two rectangles of glass and crisscrossed by tunnels. Our dachshund sits by Oliver’s feet with his long nose lifted, sniffing. Friday’s Sharing Day, Oliver had told Arden on Skype. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to take. I’d stopped cramming things into my bag to listen. What did Caleb bring? I heard Arden ask. A baseball, he’d answered, dolefully. You can do way better than that, she scoffed. How about one of your science projects?

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