Her car was not in the driveway. That was the first thing Jeff noticed, like a tiny tapping at his subconscious, the way an eerie breeze feels like a storm coming. It continued as he steered the car down the long and twisted driveway. Still, it was a quiet anxiety, almost too far away to notice.
Jeff pulled the car into the garage. He climbed the stairs, pushed open the cellar door and slid his briefcase onto a kitchen chair. It was still light out, one of the first real days of spring, when the air was almost warmer outside than it was indoors. The fading light reached through the foyer, past some framed photos of their daughter Sarah and into the kitchen, where Jeff found the mail on the table. He loosened his tie and flipped through the envelopes. It was only after he pulled his eyes away from the electric bill that he noticed that the table was not set.
And then the tapping became knocking.
"Margaret?" he called, walking to the staircase of their large 3-bedroom home. "Margaret, are you home?" This was illogical, more a reaction to his panic than anything else. She was not home. But he quickened his step and ran up the thickly-carpeted stairs, the back of his neck starting to sweat.
To most, coming home to an empty house is not cause for alarm. People go out. They shop later than anticipated, they get stuck in traffic, they take the scenic route home. But for Jeff, Margaret's absence that evening justified an alarm, like walking into a nursery to find an empty crib. In the 26 years they'd been married, there were only a handful of times she was not home for dinner when she was expected. They had managed to go several years without one of her episodes. Now, it appeared, she was having another.
He dialed his wife's cell phone from the upstairs hallway, but her voicemail kicked in right away. Her voice was quiet and small, not untrue to real life.
"Hey there honey, I was just worried about you. I got home a few minutes ago and you're not at home. Just wanted to make sure nothing serious had happened. Okay then, talk to you soon." He hung up.
He made his way into their room. The bed was made. The clothes he'd left on the floor by the hamper were gone; she had made it to the cleaners at some point that day. The master bathroom was also devoid of clues. Two toothbrushes, a package of floss and the night guard for his teeth were there, all perfectly aligned on the counter.
Jeff went back downstairs and into the kitchen. The microwave, where Sarah sometimes left notes for her parents when she was home, was noteless. He checked the calendar on the wall, where Margaret's neat cursive handwriting spelled out doctors' appointments and church functions and Sarah's vacations. He found that day's box. There was nothing written. She was not supposed to be anywhere else.
He sat down in a chair at the kitchen table to think. Calling Sarah, who had remained blissfully unaware of her mother's episodes, seemed a bit extreme. He was contemplating calling her sister when his eye caught a small yellow envelope propped up against the salt and pepper shakers on the counter across the room. He rose slowly, drawn to it. The knocking became banging and it seemed as if his heartbeat was in his eardrum; it pounded as he moved towards that small yellow rectangle, the intensity reaching a peak when he was close enough to make out the pen markings on its front.
Written in small, cursive letters and underlined once for emphasis, was his name.
Margaret opened her eyes. White bedsheets. The air in the room was stiff, cold, cleaner than normal. She was in a hotel. For one sleepy moment, these observations revealed nothing further than themselves. It could have been a vacation or a business trip with Jeff. It could have been an overnight visit to Sarah's college town. The familiar possibilities stirred deep within her. In the expansive moment between sleep and wakefulness, Margaret's life was still unassigned. And then she remembered that it was not.
It was the morning after she had packed her car and left her home of 26 years. She was in a hotel room somewhere along the Pennsylvania border. When she'd checked in the night before, face still flushed with gall and guilt, the man at the counter knew nothing of this.
“How many nights?”
How many nights, indeed. Margaret did not have a specific plan, though she didn't feel far away enough yet. She ached to put a little more distance between them, to drive south and then west for a bit. She had never explored areas like New Mexico or Arizona and didn't even have a person on her Christmas card list that far away. Perhaps she would not make it the whole way, but she might as well try.
“One night, please.” There. That was settled.
Yesterday she had been mother, sister, housewife, neighbor, caretaker to others. She had a home, a mailbox, a closet packed with clothes. She had a phone filled with the numbers of people whom she never called. She had a pile of mail that, regardless of how far she whittled it down, never completely disappeared. Now everything that had previously belonged to her was suddenly released. Her debts were cleared.
Her entire life spread out before her, like a long, unfurling blanket of untouched snow. What possibility! Real possibility, not just the fraction of freedom that they always said was yours to own. The world is your oyster, except that you have a child and a husband and a home to care for. How did people move an inch once the cement dried? The truth was, they didn't.
Margaret got out of bed and showered quickly. She knew her behavior was a betrayal and wished she could have found a way to tie up the loose ends before she left. But the moment she thought about explaining to Jeff and Sarah why she needed to leave, it all got tangled up in her head. She hoped that a few days of driving and a real chance at something new might give her the space to find some clarity. Then when she could elegantly describe how she felt, she would write to Sarah. In her daydreams, she imagined stumbling into a small town that needed a pre-school teacher or an administrative assistant. Someone would know a friend with a small apartment to rent, something furnished. A new life would be built with fewer commitments. She would contact Sarah once she was settled, once she had a weekly dinner party organized and a spare bedroom where her daughter could stay.
Margaret threw her things into her bag and toweled off her wet hair one last time. Then she left the room and headed to the car. The lightness of being alone caught up with her in the chilly morning air and she shivered. A night away on her own terms; it was farther than she'd ever managed before. It was finally time to free-fall or fly or forget. Yes, if there was anything that required her attention at the moment, it was reminding herself to look forward. Looking back, there was not much left to say.
My dad waited almost 24 hours to tell me my mother had disappeared. He called one Saturday afternoon as I was coming in the door from doing laundry, a basket balanced on my hip and the phone jammed between my ear and my shoulder.
"Mom's missing," he said. "She wasn't there when I got home from work yesterday and she's not back yet and I'm starting to worry."
My parents don't know that I'm aware of her track record. I can count at least five times that I witnessed her homecoming, her unexplained absence at dinner and then a few hours later, their silent work of bringing her things back into the house. I was eight the first time. It was summer and my long hair was wet from a bath before bed. I heard her car and crept to the window, where I watched my father walk out towards her. She met him at the trunk and hung her head, then he pulled her in for an embrace. I've never heard them say anything during these exchanges. He just starts unloading the car, hauling the large black garbage bags of clothes and shoes back upstairs, quietly so as not to wake me.
There are some things you talk about with your best girlfriends late at night in the college dorm. One of them is your parents, who they are and how you're connected to them. I never had any siblings to dissect our relationship with, so it took moving away to start me thinking about it. We've thrown her episodes on the pile of evidence that she has not been in control of her own life. That scares me. When we read Mrs. Dalloway in a freshman English class, I recognized my mother on the page and I resented her for it. It had been written 80 years earlier; surely my mother, who had married during the '70s, could demonstrate a backbone. We all learned what happened in that decade: women earned their liberation. Somehow my mother must have missed that lesson.
Early on, I brought up calling the police. Was my mother unstable? Weren't we, as her family, responsible for finding her and bringing her home? Dad insisted that we not follow her.
"She'll come home when she's ready," he said. He really believed this was a short-lived hiatus and almost refused my offer to take the train up to stay with him for the weekend, but I prevailed. I doubted that she was gone for good, but I worried about him. What would he eat? Wouldn't he be lonely? It was still debatable that she had even left town; she could have rented a room at the Holiday Inn or spent the night in the car. Any scenario was shocking in its possibility. My mother, the woman who raised me and sent me care packages and could whip up a batch of cookies with a moment's notice, had packed her things and successfully spent the night away.
In an odd way, I was almost proud.
The note was something new. She had never left him a message, just taken off and returned later with her tail between her legs. He read it again while he waited for Sarah's train to arrive, his thick fingers comical against the delicate paper. She had signed it, "Yours, Margaret."
"Yours." The truth was, she had never been his, not since the day they met at his cousin Sheila's graduation party when she fainted into his arms. Jeff had just put his beer down on the table when he felt something heavy at his left shoulder; he turned into a falling Margaret, caught her on the way down and propped up her head while someone got water. She was only out for a few seconds, but Jeff had enough time to admire her freckles. She was confused when she woke up so he walked her outside for fresh air. He wasn't very good with women, but he tried. Who would have thought he'd be waiting to catch her again, nearly 30 years later?
The train snaked into the station. Jeff put the note back into his pocket and watched a bunch of city-looking people get off the train with bouquets of flowers and weekend bags. After a few minutes, he found his daughter. She was walking down the steps, a duffle bag slung over her shoulder. God, she looked like Margaret. Not in the way she carried herself (Sarah had benefited from ballet classes at a young age and always held her shoulders back), but in petiteness and her expression as she searched the parking lot for his beige BMW. He got out of the car so she could see him.
"Hey Dad," she said when she was close enough. "How are you?"
She hugged him and suddenly Jeff felt very weak, an old man who had lost his balance. How had he arrived at such a point? He had done everything that he knew of to create a good life for himself, for them all. It was baffling to him how they'd ended up in that parking lot, a white-haired father whose daughter consoled him on the loss of his wife.
"I'm fine," he said. "How are you, sweetie?"
Sarah shifted her bag. "I'm ok. Let's get in the car. I guess she's not back yet, huh?"
"No, she's not."
"Ok, so what do we know? She left yesterday. You said she took her stuff. What do you mean? Clothes? Pots and pans?"
An odd suggestion, as if the family's kitchen furnishings belonged to one member.
"Yes, she took her clothes and some books... and some of her things from the bathroom. Nothing from the kitchen. I'm just surprised she's not back yet. I can't understand it." He turned onto the short stretch of highway that would lead them home.
"Well, what happened? I mean, did it seem like she's been upset lately?"
"No, she really has been fine, normal. We went out to dinner the other night and I guess she was a bit quiet, but you know your mother. She doesn't always have a lot to say."
He glanced over at Sarah. She was looking thoughtfully at the houses on their street.
"You know the Porters sold their house."
"Where are they going?"
"Upstate, I think. They have a summer house up there and they're going to live in it year-round."
"Wow... everyone's moving away. This block has a whole new set of families on it." She was quiet for a moment. "Are you guys going to move?"
"I don't know. I think Mom likes it here, but maybe we'd leave in a few years once I retire. I guess it also depends on where you end up." He pulled into the driveway. Margaret's car was still absent.
"Ok, looks like she's not back yet," he said. He reached into the back seat to get Sarah's things and it struck him how much he wished he was bringing Margaret's bags back into the house. These plans for retirement, the possibility of moving somewhere else... they were only valid if Margaret was with him.
"Please," he whispered quietly as he got out of the car. "Come home soon."