Alice went to college not far from where she grew up. The summer before she started her third year, her father announced that he had a heart problem and would have an operation at the hospital near the university.
“That means you have to come visit!” he said, suddenly reaching down to scratch his right ankle. They sat at the kitchen table, and the remnants of their dinner were before them. Alice’s father had been uncharacteristically still during the telling. Alice knew seriousness made him uncomfortable, and he had seemed nearly paralyzed by the weight of his words. Now the fidgeting told her he was through, and she, too, was relieved.
“And bring THE SINGER!” he thundered.
Alice’s mother chimed in, singing, “Oh, Mr. Rockwell, I hope you feel better sooooooon.”
Alice’s father gestured dismissively in her direction, correcting her, “Mahhssstoorr — Ruckwell — I — hope — yauuu — airr — feeeelink — sooo — mooch — “
“Oh, stop,” Alice’s mother said quietly, but warmly, as she stood up and reached for a bowl half-filled with green beans. “Didn’t you like the green beans?”
Alice’s father raised his eyebrows at his daughter. “What did we think of the green beans?” Alice’s mother was already at the sink, and she let the bowl come down hard on the counter top.
The Singer was a boy with whom Alice had shared a bathroom freshman year. Her father, helping to move her in, had been shocked by the idea of a co-ed bathroom. He had turned from the shelf he was installing, set his hammer down deliberately and said beseechingly, hands raised, arms nearly spanning the width of her shoebox single, “What is this place?” Later, opening the door to the bathroom, he had been driven back by a sound he had described since as “bleating” or “like a foghorn.” One of the boys in the next room, a double, had an audition that afternoon and, in desperation, had gone into the bathroom to warm up. The boy was Korean, and he spoke with a thick accent, which was unfortunately amplified, as if it were being stretched on a rack and tortured, when he sang. Alice’s father had returned to the room and ushered his daughter and wife into the hallway, where they stood with their ears to the door. The singer really was extraordinarily bad and seemed completely unaware of how bad he was; either that, or he suspected that there was something wrong with the way he sang and hoped to straighten out his voice by pushing it harder and harder. The second possibility occurred to Alice as she stood uneasily at the bathroom door, and it cut through her father’s giddy joy of discovery, their horrified but colluding ridicule. She thought of the boy, a stranger in this country, a stranger, even, in his own room, driven into the bathroom where Alice’s pink razor leered at him and the tile walls sent the sound spinning back to his ears. Like a cathedral, except the room wailed at him insanely — a false sanctuary.
Afterward, her father used the memory of the boy to ply his way into discussion of his daughter’s college experience, which he found mystifying and unapproachable. The Singer was an authentic representation of college, according to Mr. Rockwell, and yet he was a safe distance from what Alice suspected was the great, looming menace for her father, sex, and from the deeper fear that his daughter would grow up. So Mr. Rockwell dropped the Singer into conversations like an anchor, kept it under his palm like a compass. It established necessary boundaries in his relationship with his daughter, but, other times, it could help them get to places in their conversations that they wouldn’t have reached otherwise. He even borrowed the Singer’s voice to make up with his wife after they fought. The Singer sang things that Mr. Rockwell couldn’t say.
Alice always played along with her father, but the truth was the thought of the Singer made her sad. Her father’s latest invocation of the boy, sealing off the subject of his failing health, sent her heart burrowing into her stomach. She had barely glimpsed the Korean boy that first year, despite his proximity, and at some point in the past year she had stopped seeing him altogether. She thought perhaps he had transferred.
Alice’s mother turned on the small television next to the sink and started scraping the beans into the trash. Mr. Rockwell called, “Joy, why don’t you save those?” She set the bowl on the counter and started to reach into the sink, but then she turned and walked back to the table. She sat down at her place and picked up her wineglass, where it rose from a mess of paper napkins. The sun, still high at 7:30, caught the bit of wine at the bottom of the glass, warming it to a deep ruby before Mrs. Rockwell pursed her lips against the glass and tipped it so that the wine was dark again, black as blood.
Mr. Rockwell stretched his legs. He reached his right hand across to his left shoulder where it stayed. He pushed up the sleeve of his T-shirt and rubbed the skin of his upper arm, which was dotted with freckles and moles. Then he was still.
The television was still on. Alice heard the end of a commercial for a yoga instruction video. “If you are not moving toward the manifestation of your life dream, that is no one’s fault but your own!” Her father’s wrist was pressed against the left side of his chest. She wondered if he realized he was doing it.
On the night before Mr. Rockwell’s surgery, Alice’s mother called. “Would you like to speak with your father?” she said almost immediately. “Richard! Your daughter’s on the phone.”
Alice was unexpectedly, doggedly, jovial, like a gym teacher. “All right!” she nearly barked. “How are we doing?” Her mother stayed on the line while her father picked up another extension.
Her father responded in kind, though she heard fear covering his voice, sending it back down into his throat. At one point, Alice thought she heard her father’s voice quaver, and after that, her mother barely said a word. Alice didn’t know whether to end the conversation as quickly as possible or push forward, to seek out the point of potential collapse. Then she surprised herself by saying, “Hey,” like she was greeting a friend, “Hey, this will be fine.” She looked intently at the spokes of a bicycle wheel outside her window to steady herself. “You’ll go to sleep soon, right?” Her tone had changed; it was almost as if she were talking to a child. She thought suddenly that she had gone too far.
“Yes,” her father answered evenly, as if they said these things to each other every night.
“Well,” she said, “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
“Yes, we’ll see you then.” Mr. Rockwell cleared his throat. “And don’t think I’ll be so drugged that I won’t be able to tell whether or not you’ve gotten any sleep the night before.” He leaned on the word, “Sleep.” “Or if you are going out and partying tonight, at least bring along a beer for me!” Alice’s mother laughed, and Alice could tell she was relieved. “I’ll need it.”
“All right Dad, good night. Good night Mom.” Her voice, higher now, sounded younger than it had a minute earlier. “I love you. See you tomorrow.”
The next day was beautiful, the type of day that made you a little sad because you weren’t expecting it. You were resigned to the arrival of September; you had made your peace with summer’s end, and then you woke up one day and smelled the street baking and heard the heavy sounds of heat: the buzz of insects, the slow nod of leaves outside your window. People were struck by a day like this, pinned to benches and stopped in the streets. The sun blinded you, struck your forehead and stayed there all day.
Alice didn’t remember the last time she’d been in a hospital. They took the elevator up to the sixth floor and sat in a waiting room until they were told that her father was ready to be seen. Alice pictured nurses circling her father’s bed, tucking, propping, dabbing; deliberate, meticulous, impassive, like nuns.
Alice and her mother were shown to his room. Alice was relieved to find her father’s face unchanged. His color was good; he looked as if he had just awoken from a nap. “It’s good to see you.” While she tried to sound upbeat, she offered each statement gingerly, watching his eyes open and close, not entirely sure that he heard her. After a moment, her mother said, “How do you feel?”
Mr. Rockwell’s opened his eyes and said, “Oh, I’m hanging in there.” He spoke slowly. Then he closed his eyes and opened his mouth, and Alice thought he was going to say something else, but he clenched it shut again and grimaced. “Are you in pain?” Alice’s mother said, speaking low.
He nodded. “Yes.” It was drawn out, and while the “s” lingered in the room, Alice’s glance drifted to the top of her father’s head. The front of his skull was warm pink-brown, shining and bare, like a secret. She took note of it without changing her expression, but she was horrified. She had noticed his receding hairline, but this was something else altogether. His hair only covered half of his head, so that his forehead swept on far too long, like something old and overgrown. Balding. An awful word. She supposed he covered it well, and for the first time, she felt that she might cry.
Alice and her mother talked to him for a bit. As they took turns speaking, Alice was keenly attuned to how like her mother’s her voice had become. Especially now, without the interjections of father’s baritone, she heard how her mother’s voice was practically the same as her own and understood why people confused them on the phone. Their inflections often mirrored each other, especially when Alice was least conscious of what she was saying, when she gave unthinking responses. Then, what she’d just said would come to her slowly, as if through water, and she would be surprised to hear a voice like her mother’s echoing in her head. Mrs. Rockwell’s voice was shaded slightly differently, that was all.
“Oh look, you can see the ocean!” Alice’s mother had pulled aside a few slats of the plastic blinds. “See?” She pointed it out to me, a thin blue line almost the color of the sky. “Wouldn’t you like the blinds opened?”
Alice’s father didn’t seem to know how to respond. He lifted his head but lay back again quickly.
“The light might be nice,” said Alice.
“Yes, open them,” said her father, summoning resolve. Mrs. Rockwell, heartened, drew back the blinds. The view surprised Alice. At eye level, it was a city of brick and brown, with dark green things growing between cracks. From here, it looked almost Mediterranean, white buildings pressed flat against the blue of sea and sky.
A few minutes later, a nurse came to give Mr. Rockwell his dinner. On the tray were things people ate when they were sick: broth, ginger ale, Jello. Alice’s mother said she hadn’t eaten lunch. “I’ll pick up something in the cafeteria while you’re eating. Then I’ll be back, probably right when you’re finishing up.” She said the last part hopefully, but Mr. Rockwell set down his mini-can of ginger ale.
“Boy, this is pretty bad,” he said.
“What about the Jello?”
“I don’t eat Jello.” He said it with a boldness that seemed to cheer his wife.
“Well, I’ll be back soon, anyway.”
Alice left with her mother, and when they were out in the corridor, Alice said, “I think I’ll take a walk.” She didn’t want her mother to think she was upset, and she wasn’t, really. “I just ate lunch. This is a big hospital. It might be interesting to look around.” She heard her own voice; she sounded unconvincing. “Just to see some of the other floors, the different wings. I thought I’d explore.”
This was something her mother had taught her. When Alice was young, her mother took her places — they biked around the neighborhood or walked through the woods — and she called them “adventures.” Sometimes they were drives that stretched on until they came to a place that seemed to surprise her mother as much as it surprised her; other times they arrived, after five minutes, at the grocery store. “We’re going to make a special dinner tonight!” her mother would say, and Alice bought it. Up to a certain age, pulling into a parking space at the grocery store felt exactly the same as arriving at the beach because when Alice’s mother said that word, the experience meant something from the start. “It will be an adventure; we’ll go exploring,” she’d say, and Alice felt at once shepherded and complicit. She could see that she and her mother had become friends for a time, and she wondered if it would happen again. Alice remembered a more lighthearted, resilient mother from her youth; gradually, it wasn’t as easy to make her laugh, and a seemingly arbitrary misstep from Mr. Rockwell or Alice would make her mother close off. Alice had grown restrained with her mother as a result, and, sometimes, as now, her mother seemed frustrated by her daughter’s reserve.
“Oh, OK.” Mrs. Rockwell kept looking at Alice, though she had taken a step backwards and seemed ready to walk away. “So, I’ll go eat lunch.” She still didn’t move.
“I’m fine, Mom.” In her effort to sound unperturbed, the words came out flat. Her mother nodded, smiled anxiously and walked away. “I’ll meet you back here,” she called without turning around.
The hospital looked like an office or a school: beige walls, a thin strip of color along their tops, heavy, slow-closing doors. Alice had trouble believing that anyone here was unwell. There was a waiting room on her left, people perched or drooping on blue-green, visible through the long windows which separated it from the corridor. At once, Alice’s eyes settled on one face, and, as if on cue, the girl rose and headed for the door. The girl was Elise, a girl she had lived with freshman year but barely knew. The little camaraderie they’d had had long since faded.
Elise didn’t seem to see Alice, and Alice watched Elise’s face approach the window. When Elise was about to open the waiting-room door, she looked at Alice through the small square window in the door. Alice saw that her cheeks were pale under swollen red eyes, and at the same moment, she saw the sign above the window, so close to the face framed there that it was almost part of it: “Obstetrics and Gynecology.”
Elise didn’t look at Alice as she walked through the door and turned in the direction Alice had come from. Alice was certain that Elise had seen her. As she stood watching Elise disappear down the hallway, she recalled the slight repulsion she’d felt at seeing her face opened up by pain or panic, red like an open wound. She felt relieved that Elise hadn’t stopped and then ashamed of her relief. She thought of following her down the hallway but continued the other way instead, slowly, for a few minutes, and then turned around and went back to the post-operation ward.
Alice could tell her mother had been waiting for a while. She said, “Where were you all that time?” and, irritated by her accusatory tone, Alice said that she’d run into a friend, even though she hadn’t wanted to mention Elise. Mrs. Rockwell remembered her from freshman year.
“Elise. She always seemed like a nice girl. But you didn’t get along with her very well, did you?”
“We got along fine, Mom.” Alice opened the door to her father’s room. “We just didn’t have much in common.”
“Hello!” Mrs. Rockwell called.
Alice’s father looked more tired than before. His eyes followed his wife and daughter as they walked to his bedside. “You were gone a long time.”
Alice’s mother said, “No, we weren’t. I just got something to eat. The cafeteria’s a long way away.” She added, brightly, “Alice saw a friend from school. One of her roommates from freshman year.”
“Ah.” Mr. Rockwell nodded. Alice was glad that he didn’t ask about Elise.
“We aren’t really friends,” Alice said. “Acquaintances.”
They sat with him as they had before, although he spoke even less now, and a few times he asked them to find a nurse, saying he needed more pain medication.
After a half-hour, Mr. Rockwell said he would try to sleep. When Alice and her mother were almost out the door, he said, “How’s your friend?”
His eyes were closed. Slowly, he said, “The acquaintance.”
“Oh.” Alice exhaled slowly. “She’s fine, I think.”
“Why was she here?” When Alice didn’t answer he opened his eyes.
“I’m not sure, Dad.” Her father pressed his lips together in a frown. Alice didn’t know whether he was biting back pain or thinking of Elise, until she saw in his eyes what he was wondering. She knew, though, that he wouldn’t ask.
“We’ll see you later tonight,” Alice’s mother said.
“That’s fine,” her father said, “but you know who I’d really like to see? Mi mi mi mi miiiiii.” His imitation of the Singer was especially pained, and the effect was both endearing and unsettling.
Alice walked with her mother to her hotel. “I think he looks good,” Alice said, trying to forget the way he’d frowned.
Her mother put on her sunglasses. The sun was low now, blinding if you were in the right place. “I think he looks awful.” She said it bravely, almost brightly. “I’ll go back there tonight; you don’t have to come.”
“No, I’ll go. I want to go.”
Mrs. Rockwell nodded. Alice left her mother off at the hotel and walked back to her dorm. Her room was dark after the brassy early-evening light. She waited for her eyes to adjust, and while the room was dull and blank, the image of Elise’s face came to her, the way she had struggled to compose it as she brushed past Alice. Then, as the shapes of the room — her closet door, half-open, her bed draped with old silk scarves she’d brought from home — emerged from the dimness, she remembered the way her father’s frown had not been disapproving, but sad. She had wanted to reassure him, to tell him that it meant nothing that they were both growing older, but at the last minute, she had thought of Elise alone in the center of the hospital, and she hadn’t been sure that it was true.