Sunday was Emma’s birthday. It was also my birthday, and, unfortunately, Dan’s birthday, too. What were the chances of an entire family having a birthday on the same day? “We’re just crazy-lucky like that,” Emma used to tell people.
This year, Emma would turn thirteen, I was going to be forty-three, and Dan—my husband, Emma’s dad—had died last April, so he would be forty-five forever.
In the weeks leading up to the “big day,” Emma claimed desperately one moment that she had to have a party and claimed the next that all parties were “annoying” and “stupid” and that she wouldn’t sit through one unless I gave her a thousand dollars. I longed to spend the day distracted by a chaotic sleepover or shepherding a herd of girls through an afternoon of disco bowling, but the final word was absolutely not, no “pathetic” birthday party for her.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I think maybe we should do something.”
“No party,” she said. “No special dinner. No nothing. Just no.” She was hunkered down into the big leather couch, and I perched on the edge, watching the Caps’ hockey game. Emma wore the lucky “Rock the Red” T-shirt Dan gave her during last year’s playoff run. Dan had been a hockey fan, had played goalie in college, and while I could follow the action, I couldn’t care about the outcome the way he and Emma did. Win, lose, tie: there was another game soon enough, another season, a different team to root for if yours wasn’t any good this year. Not that I shared these scandalous thoughts.
“I want a party for myself then,” I said. Of course I didn’t: the torment of planning and shopping, the fake smile pinning my lips upward as I pretended to have a swell and jolly time. I squeezed a throw pillow in my arms.
“Have a party,” she said. “So what.”
“I will,” I said. “And you’re invited.”
“I might be busy that day.”
“You don’t know when my party is.”
“In general I’m quite busy,” she said.
I laughed, flung aside the pillow, and gave Emma a half-hug, which was all she allowed these days, and only when I was able to sneak it in—which is why I was watching the game with her, because whenever the Caps scored, she’d fling her arms around me in a brief, loose moment of happiness, and that moment was a lightning glimpse of how things used to feel—so good, so simple, my life filled with that kind of easy love.
In the end, she relented the tiniest bit and let me invite three of her friends, but otherwise the party guests were family, and what with Kennedy Center tickets and pottery classes and gymnastics meets and all the flotsam of suburban life, it turned out that brunch worked best for those who “had” to be there. I sprang this bad news on Emma, who glared up at me from the kitchen table like I had sprouted a Cyclops eye. Then she quickly shrugged and said, “So? Why should I care? I like pancakes fine.”
“Because we always celebrated Dad’s birthday at breakfast,” I said.
She twirled her fork in her spaghetti noodles, round and round, then let it drop onto the plate with a clatter. “Obviously.”
I waited for her to say more, hoped she might laugh with me about how Dan insisted that his birthday meant he got sausage, ham, and bacon, “a big ole plate of each.” Or that she might tear up. But her eyes remained flat and clear. She shrugged again, a dismissive flick. I smiled brightly. “We’re set then,” I said. “And I hired a clown.”
“Oh, God,” she groaned. “Super embarrassing. I’m way too old for a pathetic clown.”
“The clown is mine,” I said. “I want a clown.”
“Seriously? Since when do you care about clowns?”
“What’s a birthday party without a clown?” I asked.
She gave her plate quick, tiny, measured nudges, one after the other, until it was pushed right up against her water glass. One more and the water would spill. Then she shot me the Cyclops glare again. “My friends are not coming over if some stupid clown’s running around.”
“The clown is for me,” I repeated. “He’s my clown. So don’t worry. He’ll be happy to stay away from you and your friends.”
She stood up and headed toward the den but turned back to holler: “You know, there are people who have phobias about clowns! It’s like a real disease! Don’t always be so selfish.”
In another world, my daughter might have been burned at the stake, because how could she have known that, yes, I was being entirely selfish? I had hired Slappy the Clown, a.k.a. Jason Phillips, who had an earlier role as my high school boyfriend. Everyone snoops on Facebook, so I wasn’t doing anything bad, wondering one night what he looked like, and then clicking a few computer keys: full head of dark hair, hadn’t ballooned a gut, and looked basically like he did the last time I saw him, when I broke his heart by telling him about Dan.
Oh, and he was single, if Facebook was to be trusted—which it wasn’t, since my Facebook page proclaimed me to be married.
The morning of the party was crisp and sunny and blue. I was secretly hoping for a wintry mix or a massive snowstorm—anything to keep people away, to keep Slappy the Clown from being able to drive from Reston to Alexandria.
Since the weather was about as perfect as winter weather gets, I loofahed with the fancy shower gel and took extra time with my makeup. A skirt, the shoes that were too nice to wear, the French perfume I hadn’t used in forever. I mean, it was a party, right? Anyone would want to look good for someone from high school, right?
The Spoon Catering van pulled up exactly on time, which got me nervous, as if things going well now could only mean that soon everything would go wrong. Things going well cannot be sustained.
Women in black chef jackets sweetly commandeered the kitchen and dining room, setting up a waffle station, a bloody mary bar, and what I called the dead pig buffet (bacon, ham, and sausage, which the caterer had kindly noted was “quite a variety of protein choices”). Emma was in her bedroom, rejecting dozens of outfits that I would later find scattered on her floor like a flurry of used tissues. I was in the powder room, setting out the guest towels people would be afraid to touch, when the doorbell rang.
Probably my mother, who arrived everywhere half an hour early, which meant she sat in her car for twenty minutes, staring straight ahead. I told her many times she should just come in, that it was stalkerish to sit outside in a car like that. It certainly wasn’t Dan’s mother, for whom the phrase, “I’m running a little late, dear,” was invented. Dan’s mother, his sister, my uncle and his wife, my cousin and her kids, the rest . . . the reality of the party bushwhacked my gut as I stared at my made-up face in the bathroom mirror. Would it be funny to lock myself in the powder room and refuse to come out? No, I didn’t do things like that, so I ran to the front door. My mother could help with Emma; maybe she’d have the patience to sort out the clothing traumas.
It was Slappy the Clown, wearing a well-pressed but loose, vibrantly blue jacket edged with candy cane striping, punctuated with four bulging polka-dotted pockets. Matching pants. Slurpee blue, a color no one in the real world would wear. His face and neck were aggressively white, a wall of makeup, and his wig flamed scarlet, inflating his head three times the normal size. Eyes circled in black, eyebrows shaped like waves. The traditional clown nose seemed tame in comparison to the rest of the get-up. He smiled at me—rather, his wide painted-on lips smiled, and didn’t stop smiling. Mesmerizing. I had to look away. In one hand he held a pair of two-foot-long vinyl, red and blue saddle shoes, which he dropped onto the ground. Slung over his shoulder was a lumpy duffel bag. A red Lexus SUV sat in my driveway. I mean, I didn’t expect him to show up in a tiny clown car, but something about the Lexus embarrassed me, as if he were nothing but a DC lawyer dressed up like a clown. It bothered me, the surprise of that car.
“Slappy’s here,” he said, pulling a toy bicycle horn out of a pocket and honking it.
“Yes,” I said. “I thought we said eleven o’clock.”
He shot up his sleeve to show me his wrist and the old-fashioned alarm clock strapped there. Instead of numbers there were pictures of clown faces. “Exactly. Clown o’clock.” More honks. “Right on time,” and he slid through the door, nudging his clown shoes inside with one foot. He wore a pair of ragged flip-flops and his toes looked too naked.
“Jason, it’s me,” I said, feeling awkward. I reached behind him to lock the door—I don’t know why—and the click was loud in the small entryway. “Kathy Werner, from high school.”
He pulled a pair of oversized, striped eyeglass frames out of a pocket, slipped them on, and peered closely at me. “Bless your heart,” he said, non-committally. “So it is you.”
I felt my face redden. I had booked him online, impulsively not using my married name, assuming he would make the connection. How vain I was, expecting him to remember me all these years later. He had sworn—with that deep and frightening ardor that certain high school boys affect—that we were destined to be together, inspired by an English teacher who had assigned Wuthering Heights. In fact, our early romance mirrored our English classes: he wrote sonnets and recited soliloquies during our Shakespeare unit; there was a series of rhyming couplets that coincided with Alexander Pope; the modernists set loose stream of consciousness love letters. He was inspired by absolutely anything, and I loved that about him, even as it wore me out. It was surprising that he ended up as a clown (with a Lexus), yet it wasn’t, since he got every lead in the school plays. Just before our junior year of college, his father committed suicide, and Jason dropped out to move back to Virginia. Unfortunately, that was right around the time I met Dan.
Emma’s voice from upstairs: “Mo-om! All my clothes are putrid!” I turned and went up a couple of stairs, then looked back at Slappy, who was using the cuff of his jacket to polish the nonexistent lenses of his eyeglasses.
He said, “I know who you are.” He stared up at me with that painted smile stretched across his face.
“It’s good to see you, Jason,” I said.
“Look at me,” he said. “I haven’t changed a bit.”
I chuckled nervously, and Emma shrieked, “Mo-om! Oh my God! Hurry up!”
“She’s turning thirteen today,” I said as an explanation and an excuse. “She’s kind of dramatic sometimes.”
“And you’re turning forty-three.”
Of course he would remember. Again, I blushed. He kept smiling.
His birthday was December 26; “all my presents were bought on sale that day,” he used to complain, “wrapped in half-price Christmas paper.” So my gift was given before Christmas, on the solstice. He liked that. A lifetime ago.
I smelled bacon; someone ran the garbage disposal in the kitchen. Upstairs, Emma slammed a door. I grabbed the painted railing, rubbed one thumb along the underside. “Who thought we’d end up so old?” I asked.
“Me,” he said. “Back when I was thirteen, I figured out the whole racket, one year coming after another. How they pile up. How they accumulate into this.” He motioned one arm in half a semi-circle.
This what? I looked at him uncertainly. My house? My rickety, middle-aged mom-body? My life with a dead husband and a cranky daughter who couldn’t clothe herself without a hissy fit? Then he laughed and said, “Don’t say Jason. You’ve got to call me Slappy.”
“Slappy,” I repeated.
“Slappy the Clown,” he said, “to be specific. When you Google me, you also get Slappy the Puppet and a ventriloquist’s dummy. But I’m first.” He paused, as if I was supposed to say something, then said, “Don’t ask me any questions about it, okay?”
“But you look great,” I said.
He lifted his horn and honked it in my face. “Darn tootin’,” he said.
Emma appeared at the top of the stairs wearing black leggings, studded boots I’d never seen that rose well above her knees but mercifully were flat, and an unfamiliar sleeveless sweater, oversized and so fluffy and white that it made me think of a standoffish, expensive cat. “Great. The clown’s here,” she said. “It looks stupid.”
“This is Slappy,” I said. “The Clown. ‘He’, not ‘it.’”
Jason bowed low and tugged a bouquet of daisies out of his sleeve.
“Oh my God.” Emma rolled her eyes and stalked off to the den.
“I’ve never seen that sweater,” I called after her.
“It’s Tilda’s,” she yelled back. “She’s letting me borrow it—” and the rest was cut off by the voices from the Sunday morning TV news shows that Dan had followed.
Jason presented the flowers to me. “Happy Birthday,” he said. “Better get these in water,” and I automatically stepped toward the kitchen before realizing they were plastic. When I turned back, a stream of water zinged out of a plastic daisy on his lapel; it couldn’t reach me and puddled on the wooden floor of the entryway.
“Where’s Dan?” he asked. “The husband.”
I stared at Jason’s never-ending smile. It trapped me somehow, forcing me to smile back even though I didn’t want to. “He’s around,” I said quickly. “I’ve got to check something. You can set up or whatever in there,” and I gestured toward the living room. Then I pointed the direction Emma had gone, toward the den, and mumbled, “I should see about the food,” then walked purposefully to the kitchen, when really I just had to catch my breath.
The last time I saw Jason was twentyish years ago. We both went to Columbia, and he didn’t return that September after his dad died. Instead, Jason’s former summer boss at the second-run movie theater in the has-been mall rehired him as assistant manager, and he was working every night, pretending he was one step away from enrolling in the community college. He had lost fifteen pounds, his sister had run away twice, and his mom was back to putting down a couple of bottles of white wine over dinner. At night, after reconciling the cash and locking the safe, Jason’s job basically was sitting in the lobby until the movies were over, hoping that no one knifed anyone on their way out. That’s when he’d call me. I wanted to hear from him, but this was back before cell phones, so I had to stick around my phone waiting for him to call, which meant I couldn’t be anywhere else, like a party or a bar or a study group or anywhere that wasn’t the studio apartment I shared with another girl and her musician boyfriend. Every night Jason had a new plan: stand-up, bartending, acting, security guard, deep-cover CIA operative, bread baker, long-haul truck driving, answering mail for the White House, opening a store that sold expensive surfer clothes to Georgetown students. “I could do that, couldn’t I?” he’d repeat, “don’t you think I’d be good at that?” until I agreed: “I know you could, Bear.” It was like a bedtime story he needed every night. I felt sorry for him, and it occurred to me that feeling sorry for a guy was not a good enough reason to date him.
I met Dan at a party; he was down from Boston visiting his brother, and I was in the kitchen, getting water, when my elbow knocked a beer bottle off the counter, and Dan’s hand shot out and caught it before it hit the floor. “My God,” I gasped. “How’d you do that?”
“Reflex,” he said. “Former hockey goalie never forgets.” Later, I appreciated that during our conversation he didn’t drop in any of his stats about his shutouts playing for Boston College or the infamous overtime game in the NCAA tournament or BC’s trip to the Frozen Four or how back in Boston, among a certain college hockey-obsessed set, he was a god. Mostly we talked about life in Northern Virginia, where his parents had moved from Connecticut: the random things we both liked—chili dogs at the Vienna Inn, and lying back in the dewy grass at Gravelly Point Park as planes roared down into National Airport, and watching the water churn at Great Falls after a big rain. He made me homesick in a good way, as if before I met him, I’d never noticed how amazing my life was. The next weekend I took Amtrak up to visit him at grad school, which meant I missed three nights in a row of Jason’s phone calls.
The week after that, I rode the train down to Washington and went to Jason’s movie theater to tell him that we were breaking up. Jason said he didn’t blame me, which made me feel awful.
“I see it,” he said. “I’m a mess. No one would marry me.”
sex, lies, and videotape was playing, and something by Woody Allen, and we were eating way too much cold popcorn because our hands needed something to do. We sat up on the ticket counter, staying long after the shows ended and the customers were gone, staying even after the cleaning people arrived with their blaring boom boxes.
Garish posters for movies I’d already seen hung in the lobby, and I stared at them as we hashed it all out—how happy we used to be, how he knew he’d never meet anyone so perfect, so beautiful and sexy. “Don’t you like being loved?” he kept asking me.
I was afraid Jason would bring up his father’s suicide, but he didn’t. Mr. Phillips had hung himself in the garage in August.
Jason promised that he’d be there for me if it didn’t work out with Dan—he had weaseled out the name and kept repeating it in a snaky voice like a car salesman, like there were perpetual quotation marks around the single syllable—“if for whatever reason ‘Dan’ gets the heave-ho, then you know, Kathy, that I’ll take you back, no questions asked, even if you and ‘Dan’ end up sleeping together.”
Too late, I thought.
Also, I thought: Get mad, you stupid fucking asshole, what the fuck is wrong with you? But I didn’t say that because I was breaking up with him, so why was I angry?
Finally, I said I had to leave for real. I was tired; I was staying with my friend who needed her car to get to work in the morning—the things I’d been saying all along, trying to escape—and he nodded as if he understood, giving my head and my shoulder uncoordinated, floppy pats that irritated me.
I leaned away, eyeing the glass door that led to the safety of the empty mall corridor, and he spoke with the first quiver of outrage: “We were supposed to be forever, us,” and I said, “I’m so sorry,” for like the nine hundredth time that night, and he said, “When this guy, ‘Dan’—when ‘Dan’ deserts you—tell me. I’ll never stop waiting for you. Never. As long as it takes.”
I murmured, “I know,” and it was funny: I did know. And it was funny, too, that knowing this was the exact thing that made it easy for me to leave Jason. It was awkward and embarrassing to be loved intensely. I was twenty-two. I wasn’t worth all this; no one was. Wuthering Heights was a made-up story. I expected Dan would desert me, maybe even soon, but, yeah. I loved Dan, I did.
I ignored Jason’s outstretched arms, begging one-last-hug-please. I jumped down off the ticket counter and so did Jason. I walked toward the glass double doors at the front of the lobby, yanked the handle and listened to the rattle of the bolt. I pushed and rattled while Jason—key ring looped around one finger—stood behind the ticket counter, unmoving. Finally, I had to say, “Let me out.”
“Maybe I won’t.”
But he walked over, moving slowly, as if not feeling his feet against the plaid carpet, the way a ghost might lazily float toward you. Then he abruptly lunged forward hard, his shoulder slamming the door and crushing through the glass, which shattered into a million tiny pieces. Strangely, he didn’t seem to be cut because it was tempered safety glass, which I didn’t know could be broken like that, and so there he was, angry, which was what I had thought I wanted. I carefully stepped through the doorframe, listening to my feet crunch those glittering shards, sparkling like sun speckles on water, keeping my eyes straight ahead so I wouldn’t see Jason sprawled on the mall floor amidst that pretty glass. So I wouldn’t catch his gaze, which I knew would be bold and fierce, certain he’d proven something important.
I called Dan that night and said everything went fine. He didn’t ask for details. Already the life with Jason felt half-erased, part of the past you don’t talk about because now you believe you’re a different person, and it’s awkward remembering who you used to be.
That was the last time I saw Jason Phillips. I didn’t think of him much until after Dan died, and those words knocked in my head during loose scraps of night: I’ll never stop waiting for you, he had said. We were supposed to be forever. Overwrought and melodramatic, the desperate and creepy yearning of a dopey kid.
But now there was a clown in my house.
A little experiment.
I was in the way in the kitchen, where the chef-jacketed whirlwinds were too well trained to demand I get the hell out, so I continued down the hall to the den to check on Emma. She was slouched so deeply into the leather couch that her body was virtually parallel to the floor, her booted legs extending onto the rug. The boots looked too big for her feet. Mascara and blue eyeliner smeared the rims of her eyes, and I decided to save that fight for another time. Men and women in navy suits cackled on the TV.
“Are you thinking about Dad?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“So I guess you’re interested in the pros and cons of a balanced budget amendment?” My laugh sounded fake and untrustworthy.
“It’s a judicial appointment,” and she started to parrot back one of the bombastic experts, but I interrupted:
“You should talk to me about how you’re feeling.”
Instead, she said, “Who’s that clown?”
“Slappy,” I said.
“I mean, who is he? Why’s there a clown in our house?” She lifted the remote and clicked the TV to mute. The experts looked misplaced now, so terribly worked up but silent. “Today?” She stared straight ahead at the noiseless argument. “Why is there a clown in our house today?”
“I thought it would be fun.” My false voice, my artificial cheer. “He won’t be here forever,” I added, noticing my curious word choice, forever.
“Are you thinking about Dad?” she asked, an accusation. At the same time, she clicked the remote again, so the sound jumped back into the room. She clicked again and again, the voices growing louder, louder, and they drowned out my answer:
“Always,” I said. “Of course.”
She swished one hand in a “get out” motion and closed her eyes. Smears of violet and gray eye shadow made her appear bruised and tired. I felt sad for my daughter. Also, apprehensive about being in this room—Dan’s den—with her right now, so I backed out of the doorway.
Slappy had moved to the living room, now wearing his clown shoes and sporting a purple hat that looked like an upside-down flowerpot. He stood in front of a line of photos on a credenza: Emma as a baby, Emma graduating from kindergarten, Emma sitting on Santa’s lap, Emma dressed as a black cat for Halloween. I hadn’t thought about how we’d stopped updating the framed photos. We were too lazy to print them off, so anything half-current remained trapped somewhere in the computer. Though, really, Dan had been the one who enjoyed messing around with the camera. Me now taking the pictures seemed depressing.
I cleared my throat so Jason would know I was watching him, but he didn’t turn away from the pictures, and he didn’t speak.
“My husband is dead,” I said. “Dan is dead.”
I didn’t know what I expected Jason to say or do; I guess I expected him to be like most people and stumble through some cliché of consolation, or at least tell me he was sorry, but he said, “You’re wearing a ring.”
“It was my grandmother’s,” I said. “I suppose I like it. Not wearing it would be weird.”
“I never got married,” he said. He lifted his bicycle horn and squeezed it—toot toot—as he turned to face me.
There was a pause, and I self-consciously twisted my ring, sliding the emerald around to my palm. She had been married to another man before marrying my grandfather. I always wondered what that man’s family thought about her; I didn’t remember his name, if I had even known it. He worked in the mines in Pennsylvania, but my grandmother divorced him because he drank too much, and then she moved to Philadelphia and met my grandfather on a streetcar. “Handsome and rich,” she used to tell me. “Easy to love.”
Jason said, “That’s got to be shitty for your daughter.”
“And me,” I said.
“You could’ve just called,” he said. “Emailed. That’s cheaper than hiring me.”
“Especially with that two-hour minimum,” I joked.
“Plus travel time,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “I didn’t even try negotiating down. I hope you appreciate that.” We chuckled awkwardly. The minutes felt complicated and long.
Then he said, “Everything you think you remember was a long time ago.” His white face was placid, smiling. For a confusing moment, I found myself thinking about Dan’s motionless face in the casket. Eyes closed. Stiff lips. Fake, ruddy cheeks. Too many pores on his nose. I thought I’d be afraid to touch his body, but I wasn’t; I liked letting my hand rest on top of his chest as I greeted people. Even so, I told Emma not to look, but I think she did when I was in the bathroom. I remembered kissing Dan’s stony face when I was alone with him for the last time. Everyone was heading to the parking lot, and the funeral home people hovered outside the room, ready to lock up the box. I thought it would be like a fairy tale, my final kiss bringing him back to life, but no, it wasn’t. It wasn’t.
“Aren’t you a clown?” I asked. “Aren’t you supposed to make me laugh?”
He raised one hand to the side of his head and twisted his fingers, curving them into a fist, which he then opened to a flat palm, revealing a brown egg. I noticed an expiration date stamped on the end in red ink: the same brand of organic, cage-free eggs I bought.
I shook my head. “That’s not funny,” I said desperately.
“It is if I drop it,” and he tilted his palm so the egg rolled and fell to the hardwood floor.
“Damn it, no,” I said, but the egg bounced neatly upward, and he caught it in the same hand.
“Maybe a tiny bit funny?” he asked.
“Didn’t you hear me?” I asked. “He’s dead. He died.” I’d spoken the words a trillion sad times.
“I have my own life,” he said. “This isn’t twenty years ago.”
I shook my head impatiently, my hair whipping against my cheeks. “I know, I know.” I watched him. He had to think I was still beautiful. He had to say so. When he didn’t, I felt tears bulge in my eyes, so I looked aside and spoke in a stiff voice: “You should just leave. This is a mistake. You have my credit card number, so just charge me, travel time and all. Give yourself a big fat tip.”
He stepped closer, his big clown shoes slapping the floor, and tugged me into a floppy hug; his jacket was soft and fragrant, like the fabric of an old quilt. I accidentally stepped on the toe of one of his shoes, and it squished down, flat and empty.
Men hugged differently. Better. Stronger.
The derisive cough of a miserable teenager. “Grandma just pulled up,” Emma said from the entryway. “So maybe stop hugging your pathetic clown for a minute.”
I stepped away from Jason, from Slappy, from this man, and swiped at my teary eyes with my forefingers, the tips of which darkened from smudged mascara. My cheeks felt hot, embarrassed, as if I’d been caught doing something naughty, and I pressed my icy palms to my face. Jason looked precisely the same: white and smiling. He blinked a few times, but then everyone blinks. I couldn’t see what he might be thinking. He pitied me. He loved me.
“Emma,” I said. I thought some sort of explanation might appear, but all I could say was her name. She looked so much like her father. Everyone said so. That was supposed to be something to love about her. Maybe she saw it too, that close resemblance, and secretly hated it the way I did. Maybe that was why all the makeup lately. Or maybe she was just being a thirteen-year-old.
The doorbell rang, and Emma spun around, off to open the door. The click of the lock, the creak of the hinges, “Grandma!” I used to rate that level of enthusiasm from Emma, but not lately. The murmur of birthday greetings, comments about the party, the rustle of a gift bag exchanging hands.
“Your mom never liked me much, did she?” Jason asked.
“She warned me you were overwrought,” I said.
“I’ll hide,” and he stepped behind a floor lamp, crouching to align his head with the shade.
I finally laughed.
“Aren’t you too old for clowns?” I heard my mother ask Emma.
“Why do people always say that?” Jason stage-whispered as he crooked his head sideways. “So hurtful.” He pushed his lips into a frowny face, but with that smile in the way, he only succeeded in looking misshapen. “Let’s run away together,” he said casually.
I laughed again, imagining the two of us crammed into a tiny clown car, trailing plastic daisies, tossing rubber eggs at pedestrians, driving into a sunset as bright and pure as a clown’s red nose.
“No one ever knows when I’m serious,” he said. That pasted smile.
Emma’s squeal: “I love it! I have to show Mom!”
“Shh . . . my mom’s coming!” I was giddy, back in high school, the two of us pressed too close on the couch downstairs, the TV turned high to camouflage muffled zippers and panting. That groaning floorboard overhead and the race to get situated, staring at the cop show so the snooping parent suspected nothing.
Emma and my mother appeared in the doorway, Emma extending her wrist, now encircled by a loose sparkly diamond bracelet that looked significantly too grown-up for a thirteen-year-old girl who lost things or lent them to friends who lost them. (My red cashmere scarf.)
“Look!” she exclaimed, tilting her wrist to make the stones catch the light. “It’s so fabulous!” It was a bracelet a lover would buy, inappropriate for a little girl—a lover or a cheating husband. Someone wanting—needing—to splurge.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty fancy.” Petal-shaped marquise diamonds arranged like flowers, a shimmering chain of daisies. Surely they weren’t real. I caught my mother’s eye and gave the world’s tiniest frown. She still wore her fur coat and that irritated me—Jason seeing it, that Emma hadn’t offered to hang it up.
“It’s from Tiffany,” Emma said.
“Maybe Grandma should have talked to me first,” I said. “Maybe Grandma should have waited until you were older before giving you such an expensive gift.”
My mother said, “Why wait?” She said it like I would be afraid to answer back after hearing that. She said it like any fool would know to give an extravagant gift to a girl whose father had died. She said it like Emma would require extravagant gifts for the rest of her life. She spoke as if all of this was obvious to anyone.
I glanced at Jason, who gave an exaggerated clown shrug, shoulders rising to his ears, hands popping palm-up. Apparently, my mother hadn’t recognized him, and why would she? He wasn’t supposed to be here. It was supposed to be Dan. If Dan were here, there would be no diamonds and no clowns. There would be bacon and sausage and ham.
I forced a smile, reached out to touch Emma’s wrist so I could look more closely at the bracelet. Emma’s skin felt warm, and she twisted free of my grasp. “It’s beautiful,” I said, because I had to say something and there was nothing to say. She knew I wouldn’t take it away from her or forbid her to wear it.
“There’s a surprise for you,” Emma said.
Something about the way she looked at my mother and the way Slappy grabbed his toy horn and beeped it twice blasted a pit deep into my stomach. The incessant smell of bacon. The thought of a dozen family members roaming the house, my lifeless smile what they wanted to see because as long as there was a smile frozen onto my face, we could all agree that everything was fine.
“That’s why I’m here early,” my mother said. “To give this to you in private.” She opened her purse and pulled out not a box from Tiffany but a crumpled, white, business-size envelope. She held it out to me. Her hands were steady.
I knew I didn’t want this.
There was a moment where I stood there, doing nothing, forgetting to breathe.
“Take it,” my mother finally said, and she reached for my limp hand, lifting it up to set the sealed envelope into my palm. My fingers automatically folded, holding the envelope, which was exceedingly light, as if what was contained inside barely existed.
“Mom, you’re being weird,” Emma said.
My mother seemed suddenly to notice Slappy. “My God,” she said. “There’s actually a clown.”
He bowed to her, then spun and dropped his pants to moon her with a pair of orange and purple polka dot underwear. Then back around, extending his hand for a handshake, which my mother reluctantly gave, Slappy pumping her arm, holding tight as she struggled to release her hand from his grip.
“This isn’t funny,” my mother said.
“I don’t want this,” I said.
“I think you’ll want it when you see what it is,” my mother said.
I shook my head, hard, repeatedly. My eyes rattled in their sockets, though that couldn’t technically be true; I just wanted them to. If I kept shaking, none of this would be happening. Everything blurred, and I had to stop.
“Mom.” Emma put her hands on her hips, disgusted, but—I suspected—enjoying the sensation of the bracelet sliding along her wrist.
“I don’t want this,” I repeated.
“The lady says no,” Slappy said, sounding not like a clown but like an overwrought high school boy. He snatched the envelope from me and tucked it into a polka dot pocket. He smiled, first at my mother, then at me. He seemed proud of himself, as if pleased at how quickly everything had been solved.
I couldn’t smile back. I had understood immediately what was in the envelope.
“Good Lord,” my mother sputtered. “That’s Dan’s wedding ring. What’s the matter with you?”
“I told you I didn’t want it,” I said. “I wanted him buried with it on.” I hated that decision the most of all of the decisions I had hated making. I didn’t know until the morning of the funeral. That last kiss. That was when I decided. He would be gone, but maybe I would feel he was still married to me because he was wearing his ring.
“I knew you’d change your mind,” she said. “So I told them at the funeral home to remove it before . . . before. Because I knew you’d change your mind.”
“Oh my God, Mom,” Emma said. “Of course you want Dad’s wedding ring. What do you mean, you didn’t keep it?”
“He died?” Jason asked. “For real? I thought you were messing with me.”
“Last April,” I said.
“April tenth,” Emma said. Her voice was cold and prim.
Jason slid his hand in the pocket and I half-hoped for another bouquet, but it was the envelope he withdrew. I silently took it from him. I didn’t have to rip it open to see the ring—a simple gold band, about a quarter-inch wide, engraved with the date of our wedding, 3-1-92. Anniversary, birthday, the day we met, the day he died . . . these numbers were locked in my head, burial or not.
Emma stretched out her arm, the one wearing the bracelet, and I placed the envelope in her hand. She clutched it to her chest. We were heading down a rocky path, the two of us, and I had no idea how we would find the end, or whether we were even traveling the same direction or to a shared destination. My mother, tears turning her eyes shiny, folded Emma into a hug, stroking her back, rubbing the fuzzy sweater.
I envied the easy comfort of the gesture, both the giving and the receiving. That’s what it seemed I would never have again.
I glanced at Slappy the Clown. “You were supposed to make me laugh,” I said. “It’s my birthday.”
“They teach you in clowning school that nothing is really all that funny,” Slappy said. “Not in real life anyway.” That painted-on smile, that fake smile. I imagined Jason staring at himself in the bathroom mirror this morning, watching as he disappeared: sponging layers of white across the planes of his face and neck; the silky caress of the powder puff, its pale cloud gently dissipating; and, always saved for last, the slow brushstrokes of deep and startling red, the immense care needed—every time—to get that smile exactly right.