Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
 print preview


The first time Helen tells her lie she’s on a plane going to Milwaukee for her cousin Chloe’s wedding. She is dreading what the weekend will be like. Her sister Linda will be there with her husband Craig, their three-year-old daughter Leni and their four-month-old son Fred. Her brother Andrew will be there with his wife Ramona who is seven months pregnant. Her cousin Jeff and his husband Huy will be there with the twin infant boys they adopted from Vietnam last year. All the other relatives, especially the women, will crowd around congratulating the new and soon-to-be parents, plying them with questions and lining up to hold the babies, eyes full of delight. And then, at some point, somebody will notice Helen is there, too. Oh, Helen! they’ll exclaim with whatever enthusiasm they have left. What have you been up to since last time we saw you?

At that point she will face a choice: answer them honestly and watch as their eyes rapidly glaze over—I see, Chaucer, alchemy, is that right, fascinating—or say Oh, you know, not too much, been busy with work, and watch as their eyes glaze over even faster. Either way, they’ll soon spot someone on the far side of the room they absolutely have to say hello to, so sorry, please excuse them. Off they’ll go with a final apologetic but relieved smile, leaving her standing there like a coat rack. Helen’s husband Will couldn’t attend the wedding because of a deadline he has coming up at work, and Helen can’t decide if this will make things worse or better. By herself she’s just that tiny, solemn woman who at thirty-eight still has no children and who manages to look something like a teenage boy, long-limbed, boney, and crop-headed. The two of them together, on the other hand, are the target of endless inquiries about when they plan to start a family and admonitions not to wait too long.

This is what she’s bracing for when the woman in the seat next to her, who has striking green eyes, a mild German accent, and a cloud of russet hair that appears to be exempt from gravity, strikes up a conversation with her as they’re drinking their complimentary beverages soon after takeoff. Ina, it turns out, is a retired translator who worked for the State Department until last year. Unlike many people, she seems interested when Helen says she teaches literature. They talk a little about the last election, what it might mean for relations between Europe and the US going forward. They talk about some German authors they both like.

“And what’s taking you to Milwaukee?” Helen asks.

“I will visit my daughter and her awful husband,” Ina says. Helen laughs.

“What’s so awful about him?”

“Oh, I shouldn’t say that, should I? He works in insurance and votes Republican. Also, he is boring.”

“I guess it could be worse,” Helen says. “How long will you stay for?”

“Just a few days,” Ina says. “If I stay longer, we will have a fight. But I don’t like too much time to go by without seeing my granddaughter, Carolina. She’s four and at that age they change so fast. Would you like to see a picture?”

Before Helen has a chance to answer, Ina has leaned forward to retrieve her phone from the side pocket of her purse. Helen watches while she pulls up images of a sweet-faced, chubby little girl wearing a black ballet leotard and a pink tutu around where her waist might one day be. Despite the outfit, she’s exceedingly endearing.

“She’s adorable,” Helen says.

“She’s my little angel,” Ina says. She takes a long look at the picture herself, smiles, then puts the phone back in her purse. “So,” she says, turning back to Helen, “what about you? Any children of your own?”

When Helen looks back later on this moment, she won’t quite believe what she does next, much less understand it. It will feel like a story someone told her about something they did, not an action of her own. But the question produces in her an unexpected surge of feeling. Perhaps it is the prospect of the wedding, combined with the fact that she is enjoying this conversation and wants it to continue in the same easy way it started. For whatever reason, she doesn’t want to face what happens next if she says no: either the inappropriate further questions about why or the pause when she knows that her companion wants to ask those inappropriate questions but is too polite to do it, then the readjustment in the conversation to some other topic and the slightly sour feeling all of that will leave behind. She just wants, for once, to get to stay inside the warm circle that talk about beloved children always makes.

“Oh yes,” she says.“ I have a little girl.” She gets out her own phone and swipes through to the last picture Linda sent her of her niece. In it, Leni gazes at the camera, her dark eyes filled with an expression of such beatific wonder that it still makes Helen’s heart contract though she’s seen it a dozen times by now. She hands the phone over to Ina.

“My,” Ina says, “isn’t she a little love? I can tell right away she’s yours. She has your eyes.” She peers at the picture closer, holding the phone to her face to get a good look. “What’s her name?” she asks. Helen doesn’t hesitate.

“Madeline,” she says.

“What a nice name.” Ina hands the phone back.

“Thank you,” Helen says. “We thought so too.”

This is how it starts. Helen and Ina go on to discuss Helen’s pregnancy, Madeline’s birth and infancy. Madeline, it turns out, was a pretty easy and good-natured baby (nothing like Leni who got rashes and cried endlessly). The only really tricky thing about her was she absolutely wouldn’t take a bottle, which meant Helen couldn’t go anywhere without her for more than an hour until she started eating solid foods. Madeline’s first word, apart from mama and dada, was ball. She started talking when she was just ten months old. She is named after Helen’s great-grandmother who was French Canadian. Helen is astonished how fluidly all these blatant untruths come to her. She keeps expecting she will stumble and give herself away. But she does not. She and Ina chat for the remainder of the flight.

The thrill of having lied so extravagantly and gotten away with it stays with her all through that weekend. Perhaps this is why the wedding is not nearly as bad as she’d imagined it would be. It’s actually nice to see everyone. She has a great time playing with the twins, Lam and Minh, and having an extended conversation with her aunt Sarah, who seems genuinely curious about the process of turning her PhD dissertation into a book. She feels—there’s no other word for it, really—triumphant. People always say, oh, well, you don’t understand until you have children of your own, but hasn’t what she’s done proven that is the sanctimonious bullshit she always suspected it was?

On Sunday, however, when she flies back to Washington, the high is wearing off. By the time she gets home, it is gone completely, leaving a sad, embarrassed feeling in its place. Why did she do it? She finds she has no idea. She had imagined telling Will what she’d done: pictured them laughing about it together. But now that just seems bizarre and so, in the end, she says nothing to him about it. When she arrives home, he is just starting to make supper for them both, the aroma of garlic and olive oil filling their small kitchen.

“Hello, love,” he says when he sees her. He comes over and kisses her and lifts her off her feet into a hug. “I’m very happy to see you. It’s been a long, lonely weekend of analyzing data sets without you.”

“I’m happy to see you, too,” Helen says. “What are you making?”

“Spaghetti alla Carbonara.” He pronounces it in a ridiculous, fake Italian accent, which makes her smile. “Should be ready in twenty minutes-ish. How was the wedding?”

Helen pauses for a moment. Then she says: “You know, it wasn’t too bad, actually. I kind of enjoyed parts of it” and leaves it at that.

The sour feeling from the lie lingers for a few days, then it wears off, too. The whole incident begins to recede into memory, pushed aside by more immediate concerns. Helen is busy revising her manuscript based on the readers’ reviews, trying to get it ready to submit for copy editing by the end of the year. This is in addition to teaching her classes, advising graduate students, and serving on the various committees she hopes will help her to get tenure.

Will is busy, too. He’s part of a research team that just published a paper on the role of fungal prions in epigenetic heritability (Helen still can’t say the words “fungal prion” with a straight face), and he’s traveling to conferences to present their findings. He’s in and out of town a lot. A few years ago, when they weren’t getting on so well, she had resented how much time he was spending at the lab, the fact that he didn’t come home in time for supper many nights. But now she likes the atmosphere of lively productivity in their household. She is pleased to see his work getting attention, to see how excited he is by what he’s doing. The shadows that come over him sometimes are in abeyance for the moment. She misses him when he’s away. She’s happy when he’s back.

A month or so passes like this. Then, one day, out of the blue, Helen gets a message from a woman she hasn’t seen for—is it that long?—almost ten years. Annabel Meyer was Helen’s close friend during her first year of grad school. This was back when Helen still wrote fiction, and they’d bonded over the fact that they were both aspiring novelists. But then Annabel dropped out of their PhD program, saying she wanted to devote herself to writing. Helen had thought she was brave but foolish: what would she do to make a living if her literary dreams didn’t work out? They’d kept in touch for a while, then lost track of one another, then became “friends” again on social media a couple of years ago, though Helen doesn’t really spend much time on that. Now Annabel is in DC for a few months, and remembering Helen is there too, she’s gotten in touch. Would Helen like to meet for coffee sometime?

I’m free most afternoons, Annabel writes. It would be great to see you. Let me know if you have time to get together!

Helen clicks reply and types: So nice to hear from you. How about next Thursday around 3?

After she sends the message, Helen is suddenly curious what Annabel has been doing all this time. She opens a search page, enters the name and waits while the results display. The first links that come up are to Annabel’s own website, which, when Helen clicks through, displays the covers of Annabel’s two books, a novel called Pictures of a Summer and a collection of short stories. There are also quotes from various blurbs and reviews: “Annabel Meyer’s luminous, precise prose is matched only by her gift for narrative,” says a writer Helen has never heard of. On another page, Annabel’s biography says she lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter. There is a picture of her next to it, smiling in a way that makes her look simultaneously witty and wise. Clearly, it was taken by a professional photographer.

Did Helen know that Annabel had succeeded in publishing two books? She must have, but somehow it had not really sunk in when Annabel was just a name on a list of people she would only ever see on screen. She clicks through to a website that sells the books and buys copies of both. Then she closes the browser and goes back to work.

Helen and Annabel arrange to meet at a coffee place in town where they roast their own beans and serve complicated, miniscule snacks. When Annabel arrives she is instantly recognizable. She has shoulder-length dark curls and a soft prettiness, like a film star from the 1940s. She waves at Helen from across the room.

“Wow,” Annabel says when she reaches Helen’s table. “You look great.”

“Less hair than last time you saw me,” Helen says, stroking her cropped head. In grad school she had worn her hair almost to her waist. Remembering her manners, she says, “You, too.”

They order drinks from a waiter with a painter’s brush mustache. When he steps away, Helen says: “So, what are you doing in DC? I have to admit I did a little snooping around online. Congratulations on your books. I ordered both of them.”

“Thanks,” Annabel says. “That’s kind of you.” She smiles. “My husband’s working here for a few months this spring. We thought we’d come back east, you know, together, rather than spending time apart. And I can do my copy editing from anywhere, so here we are . . . ”

“Umm. Sure. And what does your husband do?”

“He works for a thing called Green Star Advocacy—he gives legal help to environmental groups that don’t have their own lawyers.”

“That must be interesting.”

“It is, although it can get pretty depressing. All the power and money they are up against. Matt is very dedicated and much tougher about that stuff than me. When one of the groups he’s working for loses a case, I take to my bed for a week. He just shrugs it off and goes right back to it. But what about you? Didn’t I see on Facebook you have a book of your own coming out soon?”

“I’m just in the last round of revisions. Right now, it feels like I’ll never finish. You must know how that is, to be in the middle of a project . . . ”

“Actually,” Annabel sighs, “it’s been a while. My last book came out before my daughter was born, so, wow, five years ago now. She’ll be starting kindergarten next year, so I should finally have some more time for my own work. It’s great having a kid, I mean, it changed my whole perspective on basically everything, but it’s pretty all-absorbing. You know,” she says, “I realize I don’t know if you have children or not.”

Helen looks down at the surface of her cup of coffee, and although it’s already cool enough to drink, she blows on it before taking a sip. Then she looks up.

“I have a daughter,” she says.

“Mmmmm . . . ”Annabel says. “That’s wonderful. How old?”

“She’s three,” Helen says. “Her name is Madeline.”

“You never posted any pictures of her!”

“Yeah,” Helen says. “We decided to keep her off the internet until she’s older. For privacy. Those images, once they’re out there, they never go away.”

“That makes a lot of sense. We don’t use Claire’s name online for the same reason. Anyway, I’d love to see a picture of her now.”

They show each other photos on their phones and then for another hour or so they sit and talk. They discuss the challenges of raising girls in a sexist culture.

“It’s worse than when we were kids,” Annabel says. “We all had the same bowl haircut. Now everything is pink and purple and sparkles and fucking princesses. It drives me crazy.”

“I buy a lot of Madeline’s clothes from the boys’ section of the store. And I told my mom, no pink.”

“Did that work?”

“No,” Helen says, and they both laugh.

They talk about the process of getting used to your own body after pregnancy, its unexpected changes and realignments. They talk about the challenges of concentrating on anything much when you have an infant to care for.

“I’m so impressed you managed to do this while you were finishing your PhD. That must have been so hard.”

“It wasn’t easy, it’s true. But I got some paid leave and we both have flexible schedules, so that helped. Will can do more caregiving than if he had a regular 9-5 job . . . ”

“Still, it’s an accomplishment to get through that. And you’re even still married and speaking to each other. You are still speaking to each other, right?”

“Yes, we are still speaking to each other.”

At a certain point, Annabel has to leave to go and pick up Claire from day care. Madeline is (supposedly) at the nanny share for a couple more hours, so Helen isn’t in such a hurry.

“This has been so fun,” Annabel says as she stands up to leave. “It would be great to get together again soon. Maybe we could have you all over to the house sometime. I’d love to meet Will—and Madeline.”

“That sounds great,” Helen says. “The next few weeks are going to be a little nuts, but maybe after that?”

“Sure. Just drop me a line when you think you might have some time free.”

“I definitely will,” Helen says. “Definitely.”

If only the real situation were more simple to explain. She’s tried any number of times to come up with something straightforward to say, a sentence or two to make it clear. But she has not been able, yet, to do it.

She knew when she fell in love with Will that he did not want children. That was nine years ago now and back then it had not seemed terribly important. She wasn’t sure she wanted them either. What she was sure about was wanting to be with him. They had time to figure it out, she thought, one way or another.

But actually they did not have time. Neither of them had gone straight to graduate school from college, so by the time they finished their doctoral degrees, they were already well into their thirties. Then they looked for jobs but could not find two in the same place. They took jobs in different states. They saw each other once a month and in the summers. Finally, after two years of this they found jobs in the same city. And then there was tenure to worry about.

People always say, well, there’s never a perfect time to have kids. You just go for it and somehow things work themselves out. But do they? Work themselves out, that is? Helen’s mother gave up a staff position at a local newspaper when she had children. Her parents are still together, still fond of each other, but all her life Helen has witnessed her mom’s ambient unhappiness about her lack of a career. And then there is Will’s family: his parents who divorced soon after he was born, the stepmother who made no secret that she grudged the money his dad spent on Will, the stepfather who kicked him when he was angry and Will’s mom wasn’t around. None of it was much of an advertisement for family life.

Still there had been a time when in spite of all this she wanted to do it anyway. She had pushed Will to change his mind and he’d pushed back. They argued about it on and off for a couple of years until finally Will said that, okay, he loved her, and if this was what she wanted, he was ready to try. He started reading up about how to increase the chances of conception. He looked into the parental leave policies of his department.

Helen expected to feel a rush of relief and excitement. Instead, to her surprise, she felt a jolt of vertigo that tapered to a low-level rumble of anxiety that followed her around everywhere. She kept thinking of her mother, how she never seemed quite comfortable with who she was or what she did. And Helen was so busy already. How could she fit one more difficult thing into her life? She thought, okay, just let me get through this semester then I’ll stop taking birth control and we can try. Just let me finish writing this next chapter. Just let me finish the chapter after that, the introduction, the conclusion. Eventually she had to acknowledge, to Will and to herself, that she was delaying indefinitely and that as much as she wanted to be a parent, she also did not want it. She had spent so long arguing in favor that she’d never really faced her own ambivalence. She loves her work, but she does not find it easy. It has taken a lot of effort to get the life she has now where she can spend long days in the library reading and writing, where she has time to turn an idea around in her mind until she finds exactly the right way to articulate it. Now she was supposed to throw all that into jeopardy for years, and she found she couldn’t quite bring herself to do it.

There isn’t a day she can point to when she made a decision one way or another. But here she is. It’s been more than a year, and she’s still taking her pill every night. Sometimes she feels certain that she’s made the right choice. When her work has gone well that day, she tends to think so. Other times she isn’t sure at all. Like when she sees the way that Linda looks at Leni, her face full of a delight so intense she appears almost insane with joy. Then Helen feels just as sure she’s making a mistake. No, she thinks, she isn’t. She is. She isn’t. Is she?

Annabel Meyer writes to Helen a couple of times over the next few weeks, friendly messages: Hey, We’re having some people over for a barbecue this weekend. Just wondering if you might have time . . . Helen delays answering: So sorry for the slow reply. Things have been extremely hectic around here! Time goes by. Annabel departs again for the west coast. They promise to keep in touch by email, and they do for a little while, exchanging messages and news. Then this communication tapers, then stops altogether. Helen feels relieved.

Now, though, it’s as if a door inside her has swung open and she cannot stop herself from telling people about Madeline. She has a conversation with a woman in the dentist’s waiting room about the ages their children first slept through the night. She talks with a man who is fixing her car about their children’s imaginary friends. Madeline’s is called Zweeble, and he has green hair and purple eyes and wears a bowler hat and lives inside the moon. Where on earth does she come up with these things? Kids’ imaginations are incredible, aren’t they? She tells a man whom she meets at a party how, when Madeline was two, her favorite word was no, but now she’s three it’s changed to why.

“Oh, I hope that happens to Kevin soon,” the man says, referring to his son.

“Don’t worry,” Helen says. “I know it seems like two will never end, but it does.”

As Helen talks more about her, Madeline becomes clearer and more particular. By necessity she still looks physically exactly like Leni. But she has her own personality and habits and, when Helen imagines her, she looks different from her cousin, another spirit inhabiting the same form. She’s a good-natured, outgoing child, intrepid in a way that Helen herself never was, which has its positives and negatives. She plays easily with other kids, but she also causes trouble with her curiosity, wandering away in crowded places to look at something that grabbed her attention, or climbing up things and then jumping off them, or getting into places where she shouldn’t be. “Basically, I’m glad she’s not like me,” Helen tells a woman she gets talking with at a conference.

“Were you nervous that having a child would affect your career?” the woman asks.

“Well, yes,” Helen says, “of course, but if you really want a family, you can’t let fear dictate the way you live.”

She isn’t completely reckless. She doesn’t do it all the time, and she’s careful with whom she tells. No one she thinks she’ll ever see again or who knows her close friends, her colleagues, or her family. Only strangers, or people connected to her by a single thread. Each time she does it she feels the same excitement, then the come down afterwards, when she tells herself, alright, enough, that really has to be the last time. But somehow, she can’t stop. She can’t go back to standing there nodding and murmuring how interesting when other people talk about their kids. And so she finds herself once again joining in, saying, When my daughter was that age . . .

The spring semester trundles on. Helen manages to finish her revisions and send the manuscript back to the editor at her press who, thank god, says it’s ready to go on to copy editing. She gives a couple of talks based on her research, and they are pretty well received. Towards the end of term, there’s a scandal in her department when one of the senior creative writing instructors is credibly accused of harassment by several of the graduate students and resigns. But Helen’s not involved in that directly and otherwise the year in general has been good. Her teaching has gone well, and she’s been given good evaluations from her students, so it seems like she will be allowed to go up for tenure early if she wants to. She’s even starting to think about another topic she might want to work on, some archival research that will take her over to the UK for a while. She spends the summer working on grant applications to fund the travel and accommodations for her new research. She goes to New York to look at some sources in the public library there. She and Will go on vacation together to Peru.

And then, before she knows what’s happening, it’s August, almost time for the semester to begin again. The week before school’s due to start, Helen is in the copy room at work scanning reading materials for her classes when she runs into her department chair, Margot Klein. The chair is someone she likes a lot, a woman who manages to be both shrewd and kind, a combination Helen thinks is worth aspiring to.

“Oh, hi, Helen,” Margot says. “How was your summer?”

“Not long enough!” Helen says cheerfully.

“No,” Margot says, “it never is. Hey, so, by an odd coincidence, we’re looking at hiring somebody you know to teach Greg Mulder’s creative writing workshops this fall.”

“Oh,” Helen says. “Who’s that?”

“Annabel Meyer. Does that ring a bell?”

Helen’s stomach drops. For an extended moment, she can’t seem to make the words come out.

“Sure,” she manages at last. “We were in graduate school together for a while.”

“Yes, that’s what she said. She seems nice, and she’s certainly well qualified. Very energetic and full of ideas. Apparently, she’s relocating for her husband’s job, and we’ve managed to convince the dean to create a one-year salaried appointment for her. She just has to get through one last interview with him before it’s finally official . . . ”

“Wow, that’s great,” Helen says, but it comes out sounding weirdly strangled. Margot, who has been sorting through the contents of her mailbox, now looks up at Helen, curiously.

“She spoke of you quite warmly,” Margot says. “Were you good friends back then?”

“We were, but, well, you know how it goes, it’s hard to keep up with people who are far away and before you know it years have gone by! Anyway, it will be really nice to have her around here and get a chance to finally catch up after all this time . . . ”

“Will it?” Margot says. She’s still looking at Helen with a puzzled expression on her face.

“Oh, yes, of course, why wouldn’t it be?” Helen says. Her own voice sounds nervous, high-pitched and defensive.

“I don’t know.” Margot puts her mail into a neat stack and heads toward the door. “Anyway, I hope you have a good last week of summer. See you soon, Helen,” she says over her shoulder as she leaves.

Helen tells herself to stay calm, everything is going to be fine, this isn’t a disaster, or at least it doesn’t have to be. What’s the worst, after all, that can actually happen? It will be a little awkward when she first sees Annabel again, but she can handle that. She’ll just apologize again for having been so busy last fall and ask a few polite questions and excuse herself. Just because they’re teaching in the same department doesn’t mean they have to be best friends, no one would expect that, least of all Annabel who has surely got the message that Helen wants to keep her distance. And if Annabel thinks Helen is a bit unfriendly, so what? Helen and Annabel work in completely different disciplines, so they won’t even necessarily have that much to do with one another professionally. It’s not like she’ll have power over Helen’s prospects for promotion, the all-important question of whether or not she will get tenure and be allowed to keep the job she’s striven so hard to acquire.

But then again . . . what if Annabel asks her about Madeline when they meet? What if she does this in front of other people? Say at the welcome-back faculty brunch next week? How will she answer if Annabel asks, as would be the normal, polite thing to do, how Madeline is doing? Can Helen pretend that it was all a misunderstanding, that she never claimed to have a daughter? Can she somehow convince Annabel she is remembering their entire conversation of last year wrong? Because even if it doesn’t happen then, there will be other opportunities throughout the year for such a revelation to take place, for Annabel, without meaning any harm, to mention in passing Helen’s daughter to someone else they work with who knows that there is no such person. Perhaps she already said something about it in the interview she had with Margot Klein, a reference just slipping out somehow in the course of their discussion. It seems off-topic for a job interview, but then Helen herself came up so why not? Perhaps this is why Margot looked at Helen so strangely right before they parted ways that afternoon. Maybe right now, Margot is trying to make sense of what she heard, wondering if Helen has a child she has somehow never mentioned and wondering why. Maybe she is wondering what else Helen might have hidden over the years they’ve worked together and wondering whether she indeed wants to have Helen as a colleague over the long term . . .

Lying in bed that night, Helen tries quieting her mind by counting her own breaths, but she can’t focus. Her imagination spins out along all the possible paths to embarrassment or worse. Next to her in bed, Will is sound asleep, snoring lightly, and she stares wide-eyed up at the hatch of light cast on the ceiling from the street outside. Eventually, she gives up trying to sleep and gets up. She goes downstairs to the kitchen and pours herself a glass of orange juice, considers putting vodka in it, decides against that, leans against the counter sipping the cool, sharp-sweet drink. She can tell already how burnt out she’ll be tomorrow, the scoured feeling of too little sleep. She notices she’s left her phone on the kitchen table and, absently, she goes over, picks it up and opens her email. At the top of her inbox is a message from the chair asking Helen to stop by her office at her earliest convenience, tomorrow afternoon if possible, because there is something important that they need to talk about.

“I’m sorry,” Margot says, “to ask to meet on such short notice.” They’re sitting in her office on either side of Margot’s broad, impeccably clean desk.

“Oh,” Helen says. “That’s no problem at all. I was going to come in anyway this afternoon so . . . ” She shrugs lightly. She is trying to sound calm, obliging, but in fact, to herself at least, she sounds a little manic, her voice overbright and fraying at the edges.

“I’m also sorry,” Margot goes on, “to have been mysterious about the topic of our conversation. But this is, as you’ll see, a little delicate.” She takes a deep breath in and then exhales it. “Yesterday, when I ran into you and mentioned Annabel Meyer, you seemed, well, how can I put this, less than enthusiastic about the idea of working with her . . . ”

“Oh, well, that’s not, I mean I didn’t . . . ” Helen says, but Margot holds up one hand, palm open towards Helen: stop.

“It’s okay,” she says. “We’ve worked together now for several years, and I know that you aren’t someone who speaks ill of anybody easily. But, Helen, if you know something negative about this candidate, something that you think might be relevant to our decision about whether or not to hire her, please share it with me now. After what happened with Greg last year, we really can’t afford to replace him with somebody who is going to cause problems for us. I know that Annabel Meyer was your friend. But I’m asking you this as a trusted colleague. And I promise you: anything you tell me now I’ll hold in total confidence.”

Helen stares at Margot, her mind whirling. This meeting is not about her at all. “I . . . ” she starts but her voice trails away.

“And if you aren’t sure whether whatever it is you know is relevant to the situation, just tell me and let me decide . . . ”

For a moment, they sit in silence facing one another. Helen is examining, without intending to, the grain of the wood on Margot’s desk. What can she say? By hesitating to respond, she’s made it so that if she now says, no, everything is fine, there is no problem, she won’t sound believable. She needs some explanation for her own weird anxiousness, which has been so obvious that even her chair, with all the other things she must have on her mind right now, has noticed it. She needs an explanation that is not, you know, the truth.

Suddenly, the answer comes to her. It is another of these moments, like the one on the plane almost six months before, when something crystallizes inside her that she herself seems to have almost no part in creating.

“Well . . . ” she says slowly. She looks up at Margot. “Okay. You’re right. There is something about Annabel. I feel pretty awkward telling you this because it’s not even that bad, it’s just extremely, I don’t know, strange. But when we were in graduate school . . . ” She pauses and lowers her gaze back to the surface of the desk between them. “When we were in grad school, she told people she had a child. But she didn’t.”

“What?” Margot sounds incredulous, confused.

“I know. She claimed to have a daughter. She showed everyone pictures of what turned out to be her niece. She told us the girl lived with her father part-time, which is why she wasn’t around when any of us went over to her place. It took a while to figure out it simply wasn’t true. She tried to play it off as something creative, said she was doing research for a story where the main character was a single mother, and she was testing out people’s reactions. No one believed that though. It was part of why she left the program so abruptly, in the middle of the year. But, I mean, this was years ago. It might not have anything to do with who she is now . . . ”

“No,” Margot says, shaking her head. “No. What you’re describing is the act of a compulsive liar. Something so elaborate, that can’t have been just one isolated incident.”

“Maybe not . . . ”

They sit in silence again for a moment. Margot has a pained expression on her face, as if she is trying to come to terms with what she’s heard but can’t quite manage it. It’s the first time that Helen has seen her visibly upset. “Why would she do that?” Margot says. “I knew women when I was starting out in the profession who hid or at least kept quiet about the fact that they had children. But this is a new one for me.”

“I have no idea . . . ” Helen says. She grimaces. “So, can I ask? What happens now?”

“Well, in a way we’re lucky. Because we haven’t actually offered her the job yet, it’s pretty simple. We just stop the process. We don’t really have to explain ourselves, and in her case there’s not much chance of an accusation of bias . . . thank god. Then we run around and try to find someone else who’s qualified to cover those classes and who is adequately sane and normal. Oh, what is it about writers? If they aren’t making unwanted advances on their students, they’re impossible in some other way. I mean, I’ve met plenty of scholars who I wouldn’t want to work with. But at least we tend to stay in touch with consensus reality. Maybe it’s because we spend ten years learning how to prove something is true, marshaling evidence, verifying sources, all that stuff . . . ”

“Maybe so,” says Helen.

Classes start a week later. Helen walks around feeling chastened and ashamed. She hears nothing more about the question of the hire as it disappears into the ducts of university bureaucracy and becomes no longer practically her concern. Nor does she hear from Annabel herself. For a while Helen tries to think whether there is some way she can make up for what she’s done. This isn’t what she’s really like. She’s not the kind of person who would ruin someone else’s chances just to save herself embarrassment. She contemplates contacting Annabel, confessing. Or at least confiding in Will. But in the end, she doesn’t do either of these things. Sometimes on a street downtown she’ll see a woman with shoulder-length dark curls and think it might be Annabel. But she never gets close enough to discover if she’s right. She doesn’t try.

The one good thing that comes from all this is that she resolves absolutely once and for all that she’ll stop telling what she’s come to think of as her lie, as if it were a pet or, well, okay, a child. She makes this promise to herself and she abides by it. She stops talking about Madeline to anyone, ever. She forces herself to go back to telling the truth whenever the question comes up: no, she doesn’t have children. There are times when she feels left out, certainly. But now this discomfort has the effect of lessening her sense of guilt, as if she can atone by suffering through conversations about the joys of breastfeeding and the pictures of all those childhood firsts—first lost tooth, first day of school, etc.—that stack up on her Facebook feed.

Mostly she feels good that she has stopped, relieved that whatever that weird phase was is finally over. But, then, sometimes, she has a different feeling. It comes mainly at night or when she is alone, when Will is out of town for one reason or another. She feels the little girl she has imagined is still out there, existing in some form. Madeline. She looks at Helen with a heartbreaking expression, as if Helen has abandoned her. Sometimes, when Helen is reading or grading papers, she will almost have the sense of a small presence in the room with her, lingering in the doorway or standing by her chair wanting to climb into her lap. Perhaps this is why none of what has happened makes Helen reconsider her decision not to try to have an actual child of her own. What she misses is not a child but this child, the one that she’s dreamed into being and now, it seems, cannot undream so easily.

Probably, Helen thinks, this feeling will diminish over time. It will lessen and fade away if she leaves the subject alone and doesn’t allow herself to speak of it. But then one morning over breakfast Will turns to her and out of nowhere says:

“Who’s Madeline?”

“What?” Helen says.

“You were saying that name in your sleep.”

“How weird. I have no idea. It must have been something I was dreaming, but I can’t remember it at all.”

“Really?” Will says. “You sounded pretty upset . . . ”

“Really,” Helen says with such sudden, unexpected emphasis that Will puts his hands up as if to show that he’s unarmed.

“Okay,” he says. “As long as you’re alright . . . ”

It’s about a week after this that Helen is waiting for the train to go to work, when she runs into a woman she knows vaguely, Marcy something-or-other, a friend of a friend who she had seen once or twice at social gatherings. They wave at one another, smile. Marcy is standing with another woman, and Helen can hear that they’re discussing the challenge of finding a good preschool to send their kids to.

“I don’t know,” says one. “There’s one that we like that’s quite affordable, but they have an interview and this long questionnaire you have to answer when you apply and even if your kid’s accepted that just means you’re on their waiting list . . . ”

“When did it get so complicated?” says the other. “When we were kids you just went to whatever place was nearest to home and where your mom was pretty sure you wouldn’t die, right?”

Helen feels herself lean forward. “Have you thought about a Montessori preschool? They offer tuition assistance for students after their first year,” she says. Both women turn to look at her. “Sorry,” she says. “I couldn’t help overhearing.”

“Oh, that’s fine,” says the woman. “Is there a school that you like in particular?”

“Yes, it’s not too far from here. That’s where we’re thinking we’ll send our little girl when she’s ready to start preschool next year. Her name,” she adds, as if they’ve asked, “is Madeline.”  

return to top