A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein
Photo: Ben Goldstein/Studio D
These days, when people ask how I'm doing—some of them still ask, you'd be surprised—I shrug and say, as manfully as I can, "Much better than you'd think." And this is true. I am fed, I am clothed, I still have a few patients, the Nets are winning, and my mother, thank God, has finally agreed to the assisted-living place in Rockland. And I have a home, of sorts—the room we built for Alec above the garage so that he could pursue his oil painting with the firm scaffold of our love and money under his feet. God forbid that Alec should ever have felt unsupported—that we should show dismay at his dropping out of Hampshire after three semesters and almost sixty thousand dollars of tuition, books, board, and other proofs of parental esteem. Sixty thousand dollars vanished—puff—like smoke; our son fails out of a college that doesn't even give grades, and in response we build him an art studio above our garage. And here's the kicker: we were happy to do it. This was one of many lessons we took from the plight of our friends Joe and Iris Stern, whose daughter Laura was lost to them once, and is again, now.

My new home, the studio, is floored in gray, paint-speckled linoleum. Alec's old drawing table sits in the corner, next to a double-sized futon buried under a pile of airplane blankets. On the opposite wall rests a slightly corny oak dresser covered in scrollwork and brass, which Elaine's parents gave us for our wedding and we dutifully kept in our bedroom for twenty-plus years. An armchair from the same era. By the armchair there's a stack of books, some Alec's, some mine: Bukowski and Burroughs, a small selection of graphic novels, and thrillers I no longer have the taste for.

I read in this studio. I sleep. Sometimes, on weekends or late into the evening, I listen to the Kriegers fighting next door. Our garage is situated along the property line; the Kriegers recently finished an addition, and now, without even trying, I can peer right into their granite-and-stainless kitchen and watch them go at it. Jill Krieger is a harridan, it turns out, and Mark likes to throw things. I wonder when this started. Elaine and I always liked them, always thought they had a very nice marriage, nice young kids; sure, their addition took forever, but at least they had the courtesy to keep the exterior tasteful. I wonder if Elaine can hear them. She and I never fought, you know, never like that.

If people keep asking me, look deep into my eyes to see if there are any secrets left in my stubbly soul, I tell them, "Listen, life goes on." And I'm not just feeding them formula, pap. Life really does go on. That's what I've learned. It goes. You'd be surprised.

But there have been moments. Today, for example: A Saturday, too warm for April, I eat lunch with my mother in Yonkers and stay in her asbestos-ceilinged apartment for as long as she'll let me. We have egg salad, watch Law and Order, four in a row, until finally it's time for her nap—Peter, she says to me, her breath heavy with mayo, I love you, but if you don't leave soon I'll have a fit. So I leave, although it takes another two slices of coffee cake; I kiss her on her soft cheek, get into the rusty white Escort I'm driving these days, cross the Tappan Zee, and drive slowly south along the Hudson toward the Palisades. Last month I discovered this small park down there, a little paved area jutting into the river, where a few fishermen and lost sailors were gathered to catch toxic bluefish and use the dented Portosans.

It's three o'clock when I park, and muggy. I take a spot on a peeling bench, roll up my sleeves. The new-money types eat sandwiches on their decks, and the immigrant fishermen fill up buckets with poisoned blues. I watch them, and the minutes turn into an hour and a half. I've become so good, these days, at just sitting. The city hums across the water, Harlem, Washington Heights. Light filters underneath the George Washington Bridge. I study the pools of oil on the surface of the Hudson and smell the dying fish.

I've always liked being near water, although I've never been especially handy around it; I don't boat, I don't fish, and when I used to frequent the JCC, I'd find myself on the basketball courts twelve times as often as in the pool. But still: a decade and a half ago, we took regular vacations to the beach, we and the Sterns, down to Delaware because the area seemed a little more wholesome than the Jersey shore, or maybe just farther away. Every morning the kids would pick the perfect sandy spot twenty feet from the Atlantic, and we'd spend two weeks freckling ourselves under the August glare, then eating dinner at crab barns out on Route 1, platters of steamed Maryland blues. The Stern children (first two, then three, then four of them, redheads like Iris, her fecundity a marvel) sucking on crab legs with joy, my own persnickety son daintily peeling a shrimp because he didn't like food with claws. Neal Stern, seven months younger than Alec, shoving a crab carapace in his face. Iris Stern wiping Old Bay seasoning off each long finger.

It was a summer ritual for years until Laura Stern, their oldest, started high school and had no more patience for family vacations and five-hour late-summer drives. The same house every time: a ramshackle clapboard on Brooklyn Avenue, a washing machine but no dryer, a dishwasher that was constantly humming, three blocks from the main drag, a block from the beach. Nautical gewgaws in the bathrooms, sand and salt everywhere. The kids ran around half-naked all day while Elaine stayed demure in her black terry cloth cover-up and Iris gallivanted in a white bikini that Joe teased her about when he thought nobody was listening. "Would that thing turn see-through if I got you wet?" I did my best not to listen.

I liked to spend time by myself at the water's edge even then, watch the old-timers scoop up clams an hour before evening's low tide. Kids would skate around their grandfathers' knees, duck down with their plastic sieves to shovel up empty handfuls of sand, while the old men would carefully tread over the same patches of clamming ground. I'd daydream about getting a clam and crab license, giving up my practice, moving the family down to a rickety house by the Delaware shore, where it was always warm and sunset and Iris Stern was always making coffee in the kitchen in her white bikini and my son would laugh and run around for days at a time. Then the tide would sink and I'd go back to the house, take a shower, remember who I was and where I came from. An internist in New Jersey, educated on scholar-ships, raised in Yonkers, married more than a decade. Husband, father, basketball enthusiast.

I was never as grateful as I should have been for everything I had.

Here on my bench beneath the Palisades, the mosquitoes start to come in, and the fishermen start to pack up. I watch a red and white cigarette boat circle the park slowly, wag itself back and forth, causing waves to ripple up against the log pilings that defend the park from the grime of the Hudson. There's a young man behind the wheel all by himself, and it strikes me as unusual to see just one guy in a sport boat on a Saturday. He steers with a single hand and drinks a beer. He needs a crew of semiclad blonds around him, I decide. He needs a blasting stereo.

Across the river, the sun angles down behind Riverside Church, making the building glow.

"You know that kid in the boat?" the last remaining fisherman says to me after the cigarette boat makes another slow turn around the pilings.

"Should I?"

The fisherman shrugs. "He looks like he knows you."

I give him a quizzical look.

"The way he's circling," the man says, rubbing his chin with a fishy old hand.

"Nobody knows me," I say, grand and melodramatic. This, by the way, isn't exactly true, but it is how I would prefer things.

The cigarette boat circles again, slowly, and then once more.

Nineteen ninety-one, August, the summer of the Russian coup and the end of the Soviet Union, Joe Stern left the beach house early and came back with a bag of boardwalk cinnamon rolls and six newspapers: the Times, the Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, both the Rehoboth and Wilmington dailies. Wake up the kids, he said to me. It was maybe eight in the morning; back then, all five of the kids and also my wife used to sleep till at least half past nine. Iris tended to get up at six to jog.

"It's their vacation," I said. "They'll wake up on their own."

"History, Pete," my old chum, college lab partner, best friend, said, spreading the different front pages across the picnic table on the deck. "The coup failed. It's the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cold war is over."

Above me, I remember, seagulls circled and cawed, putting me in mind of vultures, although really they were just after dropped bits of cinnamon roll. "If the cold war is over," I said, "which I happen to doubt, then it will still be over when the kids wake up."

"You doubt it?"

"You don't?"

"All the news that's fit to print, my friend," Joe said, smacking the front page of the Times.

I picked up the Sun and read a few sentences under the screeching headline, but nothing to convince me that it was time to salute a new world order. "It'll take more than this to end the cold war. We're in Delaware. History doesn't happen while we're vacationing in Delaware."

"Who cares where we are?" Joe said. He laughed, rubbed his hand over his bald spot, his gesture when he was nervous, happy, or amused. "What does that have to do with the news?"

A change in the way things have always been, and I'm reading the Baltimore paper? "I just think, I think it'll be louder when the cold war is over. We'll all hear it."

"You can't hear it?"

"Not really."

I grew up crouching under desks at PS 145 and knew that if the Soviet Union was really going to collapse, it would be a slow-motion, lumbering thing, the felling of a grand oak, bringing down everything in its path. It wouldn't be a failed coup launched by a bunch of grumpy, bald dodderers while I sat on a deck in Delaware. I put down the Sun, picked up the Philadelphia Inquirer—the same information, the same tone. "They just want to sell papers," I said. "There was a coup. It didn't work. This isn't the end of the cold war."

"Not everything is propaganda, Pete."

"Look," I said, "you can dismiss me if you'd like, but you've got to admit that something as enormous and…and indestructible…and evil—"

"Evil?" Joe chuckled. "You sound like Reagan. The Baltic States already split months ago. The Soviet Union is done." Joe rubbed again at his bald spot, said laconically, "We're number one."

"I don't believe it."

"Pete," Joe said, "get with the program."

I couldn't have told even Joe, and wouldn't have tried, but I remember feeling a chill at that moment, looking over the papers, the pictures of the different Soviet conspirators lined up like mug shots on the various front pages. I wiped my hands on my knees, stepped off the back deck, gazed up at the seagulls, still circling. There had never not been the Soviet Union in my life. There had never not been this particular enemy. I remember feeling bizarrely afraid. I walked out to the back fence of the weed-pocked yard in Delaware and looked out at the backs of all the other houses, still sleeping. I thought about everything I couldn't keep safe, or even keep the same.

"So what do you think of this, Pete?" my wife asked me when she had finally absorbed the papers. I poured us some coffee from the thermos on the table. She was looking at me with a flatteringly grave expression, as though I were holding the world's only crystal ball.

"If it's true," I said, "if it's happening the way they say, then I think it's very dangerous."


"The cold war was stasis, Elaine. Us versus them, good versus bad. Instability, especially in that part of the world, is dangerous. This makes me concerned. Not panicked, but concerned."

She nodded, turned back to the paper. "I see your point."

"Again, not panicked."

"No," she said. "Of course not."

Usually I liked responsibility: my wife generally trusted my judgment on matters of international consequence the same way she trusted me with the paying of bills, the hiring of plumbers. I think it's because I always spoke with authority and because I always had a clear sense of what was right and what was wrong. Elaine used to appreciate that about me. Until my recent troubles, I'd always had a pretty good idea of what good would come of things, and what bad, and I knew how to prepare.

"Well," Elaine said. "Well, I guess I won't worry too much either, then." And then she squeezed my hand.

A few minutes later, Iris emerged from the kitchen, her two younger children filing behind her like ducklings, the baby, Pauline, in her arms. "It looks crappy out today," she said. "Maybe we should rent some movies?"

"Movies!" seconded Adam, her younger son. There was a rental place right near the boardwalk, stocked with lots of fare for children and a surprisingly comprehensive adult section behind a black curtain, which Elaine and I had checked out the previous summer, feeling giddy and brave.

"Pete says instability in Russia is dangerous." Elaine folded her newspaper. "I guess we could go get a movie."

"Well, of course that's what Pete says." Iris grinned as Neal, her older boy, gave me a shrewd look. "Pete likes things the way they've always been."

"Not really," I said. "I'm just not sure that a haphazard breakup of the Soviet Union is necessarily in our strategic interests."

Iris laughed her heavy, infuriating laugh, and her kids started pulling through the mess of papers on the picnic table to find the comics. She let Pauline out of her arms, and the little girl skittered back into the house. "Strategic interests, Pete?"

"What's the matter with that?"

"This is good news," she said.

"We don't know what kind of news it is," I said.

"It's a relaxing day, we're on vacation, our kids are happy, the world turns out to be an interesting place." She was in her bikini, one of Joe's flannel shirts on top as a nod to the darkening weather. Her red hair was pulled up in a clip on top of her head, and she'd suspended sunglasses in the cleft of her bikini.

"Pete usually knows which way the wind blows," my wife said, and I loved her for it.

"Remember our sophomore year?" Iris asked. "He didn't want to go down to DC to protest because he was afraid it would reflect badly on his medical school apps?"

"What does that have to do with anything?" I said. "Anyway, I had to study."

"I know you did, sweetheart," Iris said. She tousled my hair—unlike her husband, I still had a thick head of it—then plopped herself at the picnic table next to me. "I'm just teasing."

"Well, stop."

She laughed again. I wondered if Iris teased me because she knew I'd never really hold it against her. She folded a paper hat out of newspaper for Neal. Elaine gave me a smile over her paper, and Adam stole Neal's hat, and the seagulls, which had subsided, began to caw again. I knew my face was red—I was never very good at being teased—so I dug up the sports page, checked on the Yankees, since my Nets had yet to start their season. Eventually, Elaine got up to pour more coffee, and Joe brought out a fresh plate of cinnamon rolls, and Alec woke up and shuffled onto the porch to see if I wanted to go to the driving range, which I did. The rest of that day's schedule is lost to me. I'm certain that by dinner we were talking about other things besides the Soviet Union.

And that was 1991. A long time ago.

But I ask you today, have events not borne me out? Rogue nuclear weapons, a breakdown in command of the Russian army, a frightening centralization in the world oil market? An autocratic KGB man at the country's head? Rising AIDS rates, a widening wealth gap, the largest land mass on the planet—I ask you, Iris, have events not borne me out? Is it so hard to imagine that I might have been right?

At night, in that beach house, Iris and Joe slept in the bedroom on the second floor, and Elaine and I slept one floor down from them, and we could hear them together, always past midnight, although we tried not to. We heard them almost every night, and rolled our eyes at each other, and usually woke up in unrumpled sheets ourselves.

I have not seen the Sterns in almost a year now; I no longer sleep next to my wife. The four of us stayed together for all those years, from the University of Pittsburgh to beyond, moved to the same New Jersey town, rented shore houses, ate countless dinners, signed on to care for one another's children should the unimaginable happen to us. I happen to have a brother, a biological brother, whom I don't like very much. I have a best friend whom I miss like a brother, but whom I may never speak to again.

The Soviet Union collapsed and misery ensued, but that was not the worst thing that could have happened.

Now, at my little paved park by the Hudson, the last old fisherman starts packing up his gear slowly, arthritically. As he turns to bring his cooler from the car, I notice the tiniest shuffle in his gait, probably something not even his wife has yet paid much attention to. Parkinson's, in all likelihood, although a neurologist would be better equipped to make that evaluation. Still, I've sent a handful of suspected Parkinson's cases to specialists in the past several months, including a heartbreaker, a thirty-seven-year-old single dad; I've started seeing the disease everywhere.

"Hey, asshole!"

The fisherman and I both turn. The red and white cigarette boat is stalling in the water about fifteen feet from where I sit, and its young captain has perched himself up on the deck, a pair of binoculars around his neck.

"You know who I am?" the kid shouts.

I stand to get a better look. It takes me a minute, but I do in fact know who he is: Roseanne Craig's brother. A nasty piece of work; he used to torture his sister, my patient, Roseanne. They worked together on the floor of Craig Motors. He's been bumping into me every so often these past few months, on line at the Grand Union, buying beer at Hopwood Liquors. He even slashed two of my Audi's tires last September, before I traded in the Audi for the Escort, which I don't think he recognizes as mine. An elderly patient saw him do it and called the cops, but I didn't press charges.

"We're gonna fucking have your ass, Dizinoff!"

Slowly I put my hands on my knees; slowly I stand up. "Are you stalking me, Craig?"

"We're gonna fucking have your ass! I'm just telling you now! Get ready!" His voice is strained across the water.

"Have you really been stalking me?"

"I'm not stalking you, Dizinoff. I'm warning you."

"Very kind of you," I say. How did he know I would be at this park? Why does he have a cigarette boat? I look up and down the river, not sure who or what I expect to find, but I expect to find something: a camera crew, the long arm of the law.

"I'll get you!" the kid on the boat screams.

"You should get out of here," the fisherman mumbles in my direction. He's slitting open the side of a bluefish, the blade of his knife sliding neatly through the pearl gray skin. With a bare hand he slides out the fish's entrails and throws them back into the river, where they roil for a moment before disappearing. I don't want to get out of here. This is my park. This is a place that's still mine.

"Kids like that…," the fisherman warns.

"He doesn't know me," I say, absurdly.

"You never know what they're gonna do." He puts the bluefish fillets in his cooler, picks up the next wriggling fish, knocks its brain loose against the piling, and lets it rest on the bench to be gutted.

"Dizinoff, you listening to me? We're going to have your ass! Decision comes fucking Monday. You listening, motherfucker?" The kid bends down into the cockpit of his boat, and despite myself, I shiver. From the interior, the kid removes something small, silver, shiny. Aims it at me. I take a deep breath. Squint, try to figure out what he's holding.

A can of beer. For Christ's sake.

Today is Saturday. On Monday, the judge will let us know whether she'll take the Craig family's case. On Tuesday, my wife will finally go see the lawyer about the divorce. And then I will know what's what, and I can plan for the rest of my life.

"We're gonna destroy you," the kid says. Then he pitches the can of beer at me, unopened, surprisingly hard and fast. It hits my shin before I can move, stings like a bitch, falls to the pavement, and explodes, sending up a geyser of beer against my legs.

"You should get out of here, man," the fisherman mutters, almost as if he's talking to his fish.

A few feet away, the beer-can bomb rolls to a stop, foams, and hisses. I cross my arms against my chest. My pants are drenched, my heart is thrumming, the kid in the boat sneers but does not laugh.

"Are you crazy?" I shout.

The Soviet Union. Good and evil. Once upon a time I knew what was right and what was wrong.

"Fuck you, Dizinoff," the kid calls, pulling out another can of beer, aiming it at me.

And I buck like the coward I am. Heart racing, I turn, run, trip, fall, rip my pants, stand up again. I make it to the car, reach into my pocket for my keys, try to ignore the blood matting the hair on my shins and my heart pulsing in my ears. I hear the cigarette boat turn and start slapping away along the river. He's done with me, but my heart won't quit—I am shaking when I sit down behind the wheel of the Escort. I lock every door. I feel parking-lot gravel buried in the cut in my leg.

By the water, the fisherman is still cutting up his catch. Waves from the wake of the cigarette boat splash up against the piling, but the fisherman doesn't seem to notice them, or else he doesn't mind. I see the boat slip down the Hudson like a pleasure cruiser, and I feel the blood trickle toward my shoe.

When I first met Roseanne Craig, the girl was twenty-two, a Cal graduate, the daughter of an acquaintance from the JCC whose hypertension I had diagnosed maybe three years before. I didn't know her dad particularly well, only enough to nod at him in the locker room, but he had a network of auto dealerships in Teaneck and Paramus where Joe, among others, bought and serviced his Lincolns, Jeeps, and Cadillacs. Roseanne, just back from Berkeley, had been suffering from weight loss and mild depression, and her father, not knowing where else to go, had sent her to my office in Round Hill. I had a reputation, after all, for figuring things out.

Eyes clear, chest good, heart thwop-thwop-thwopping. No fluid in the lungs, no swelling in the hands or feet, no distended veins in the neck, no nodules on the thyroid or masses in the abdomen. No patient complaints besides the aforementioned weight loss—although she still cleared a solid 150—and perhaps a generalized malaise.

"You're sure you don't want to see a psychiatrist?"

"Oh, I have a therapist," she said. "She does reflexology, too." Months later, when I told that to my lawyer, he snickered and made frantic notes.

Roseanne Craig was a pretty girl, tough-looking, with dark brown eyes and black hair. She had skeleton tattoos on her upper arms and another large one, I noticed, on her left breast. A frog. "It's this whole story," she told me, though I didn't ask. The frog was surprisingly well done, one of those black-spotted jungle frogs, and it kept its lifelike eyes on me as I palpated.

"We used to call my ex-boyfriend Frogger." She closed her eyes as I pressed my fingers on her breast, standard procedure in my office for several years now.

"Frogger, huh?"

"Hence the tattoo." She didn't seem the least bit depressed to me, but her skin was maybe a little yellow, and with the tattoos—I decided to order a hep test and kept her talking. "He dumped me three months ago"—aha! the malaise—"for a dude. He said it was accidental, like he hadn't planned it or anything, but…" She sighed heavily as she buttoned up her shirt. "It was some grad student from Stanford. He told me like a month after I got this fucking tattoo. We were going to move to SF together. Open up a Marxist bookstore. And I was going to bake brownies—like a Marxist bookstore-café. And now I'm living with my fucking parents. Sorry," she said, wagging an eyebrow at me like a dare. "I shouldn't curse around doctors."

"Curse away." We returned to my office, her combat boots clomping on the floor; Mina, my rather conservative Lithuanian office manager, took note of the boots and rolled her eyes.

"And so," I asked, once we were back in my office, "with all this stress in your life, you haven't been able to eat?"

"I don't know." She shrugged. "I guess. I've definitely lost weight. My clothes are loose."

"How much weight, would you estimate?"

"Maybe eight, ten pounds? I don't know," she said. "This is all really my dad's idea. Seeing you, I mean."

"Okay," I said. "Well, I think you're probably fine, but I'm going to order some blood work just to make sure, and if you're feeling depressed and you don't like your therapist, come back to me and I can refer you to a"—I couldn't help myself—"a real doctor."

"Oh." She sighed dramatically. "You're part of that medical establishment, then."

"I'm not sure which particular medical establishment you mean."

"The one that disrespects alternative therapies. The one that would rather feed me antibiotics than send me to acupuncture."

"Actually," I said, leaning back in my chair, "I think antibiotics are overprescribed. I have no problem with acupuncture. And if your reflexologist is doing the job for you, that's terrific. But I'd still like you to see a shrink."

"I just never really liked shrinks much."

"Some of them are nice."

"Some of them are full of crap."

"I'm recommending one to you who isn't."

"Promise?" she asked, smiling. She really wasn't as tough as she first made out.

"Promise," I said.

She tucked a piece of black hair behind her ear, smiled demurely, took the sheet I'd ripped from the prescription pad with the name and number of Round Hill Psychiatric.

When Roseanne Craig left my office, I never thought I'd see her again.

The drive from the park back to Round Hill takes about fifteen minutes, although today I take the long way up to Route 9W, through the back roads of Rockleigh and Alpine. Up here, in winter, the trees are bare and you can see straight across the Hudson; in spring and fall, wild turkeys and deer congregate on the shoulder. Today somehow I miss my exit and have to double back to Maycrest Avenue, Round Hill's main drag. Down a long, steep hill to the heart of town, punctuated with speed traps, stoplights, and DRUG FREE SCHOOL ZONE signs. This is a town that likes to play it safe. My fingers are tight on the steering wheel.

Our prosperous little hill is divided into three parts, east to west: the School District, the Manor, and Downtown. The School District is geographic, not administrative, and named for the three square miles surrounding Round Hill Country Day—lush two-acre plots bearing Tudor palaces, Spanish-style haciendas, Georgian piles with helicopter pads and infinity pools. We've got celebrities up there, two or three well-known rap stars, the CEO of the hospital, and a handful of dermatologists, plastic surgeons, and orthopedists.

In the Manor, where Elaine and I live, the plots are more manageable, three-quarters of an acre at most. The houses are mostly Victorians and colonials, sometimes a shingle-sided renovation, and a few 1980 "contemporaries" with birch siding set on a slant and trapezoidal windows. Downtown is literal, at the base of Maycrest Avenue; it's where we keep our hospital, our businesses, our blacks, and the public school where nobody we know sends their children.

Still stinking of beer, with blood crusted on my jeans, I pull into the driveway of the pale green Victorian house on Pearl Street where Elaine and I have lived since 1982. We bought it for $125,000, fingers crossed and breaths held; Bert Birch had offered me a partnership with privileges at Round Hill Medical Center, and even though Elaine and I both thought, privately, No, not here, we don't know anyone, how will we afford this? we kept our doubts entirely to ourselves and moved in. As soon as Joe was finished with his ob-gyn fellowship in Baltimore, we persuaded him and Iris to move to town, and they did, and we let out our breaths a little. But we'd been isolated and nervous that whole first year, and for some reason trying to get pregnant, too.

I put the Escort in park and look up at our house. Elaine's Jeep is in the driveway, and so is Alec's Civic. I wonder if they're spending the afternoon together, maybe sharing last weekend's crossword, a simple pleasure for them both. I know how happy Elaine is to have our son back. To be honest, he's a better housemate than I've ever been, neater, more considerate, and, unlike me, he enjoys most of the things his mother does. At night, from the studio, I can hear them play their favorite music: that Cuban band from the movie, some African chanting Alec picked up from a friend who went in for the Peace Corps. It all sounds like high-end restaurant music to me, but who cares what I think? Not these two. No reason to.

Does Roseanne's brother come here? I wonder. Does he know where my wife and child sleep? Does he care about them, or is his rage only directed toward me? I reach down and wipe my bloody leg, pull out a tiny piece of gravel. I was a coward, but so was the kid. Throwing beer cans. Screaming obscenities.

I roll down the window but the house is quiet, although I see lamplight burning from behind the living room shades. Reproduction Tiffany lamps that we bought in Bedford during our marital renaissance, six years ago now. She's done the crossword by them ever since. If Craig has come to the house, if he's stood outside, maybe he's watched her complete the Sunday. If he touches her, even thinks of touching her, I swear to God I'll kill him without a blink.

Elaine and I have known each other for more than half our lives. She's watched over me. She still watches over me, despite the doubts about me that she regrettably holds. As I watch, the Tiffany lamps go dark, and a minute later, after she's fetched her jacket, her purse, and her keys, my wife stands at our front door, looking out at me in my little white Escort. I wave at her. She blinks, smiles sadly, and waves back. She's kept her hair short in recent years, and she's put on forty pounds, but I can remember her clinging to my side back in college, eating cinnamon rolls in Rehoboth, and if I could only scroll back time and do it again, every day would be a renaissance.

"You coming in?" she calls from the top step of our porch.

"You going out?" I ask.

She pulls her jacket around her shoulders and nods.

"I think I'll sit here for a while," I say.

Elaine has grown used to what could kindly be called my eccentricities. She shrugs, descends from the porch, and steps lightly to her car. She swings her purse at her side. It breaks my heart to see her go.

A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein Read O 's review


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