“Thank you for inviting me. You look beautiful.” Susannah is predictably stiff, as awkward as she was the last time Melissa saw her, which had to have been more than a year ago at Emma’s third birthday party. She had invited Melissa, Hope, and Michael to her New York apartment twice since she had moved away. The first time all of them had gone; the second, Melissa had taken the train to New York alone when Michael and Hope couldn’t make it up from Washington. No matter how difficult the visits might be, Emma is a piece of Gary, and Melissa can’t give up any more of Gary than she already has. Still, she is a little surprised at herself for inviting Susannah to her wedding, and she is even more surprised that Susannah had accepted.
“Oh, please—I look ridiculous in this dress.” For some reason, Lee, who has never done anything traditional in his entire life, had suddenly decided that he loved the idea of a really traditional wedding. Melissa, who had always assumed that they’d elope and have a party later, was bemused enough to let him indulge his inner wedding planner.
“No,” Susannah shakes her head in that serious, decisive way of hers. “You don’t.”
Melissa smiles, because she’s actually glad to hear that. “How is Emma?”
Now Susannah’s smile is much less guarded. “She’s great. She already has the most incredible imagination—I can’t keep up with her. She has so many imaginary friends I can’t keep track of them all.”
Melissa shakes her head at that. “I was like that, too. I still am!”
The two women laugh, feeling a little kinship with each other for the first time since Gary’s death.
“Melissa?” It’s Susannah at the other end of Melissa’s phone. As always, Melissa is surprised to hear from her. Since she and Lee moved to LA two years ago, she and Susannah mostly exchange emails, and even those are erratic.
“Hey. How’s it going with you?”
“Fine, thanks. Listen—I just got a job offer, a really good one.”
“That’s great! I didn’t know you were looking for something else. Is it in New York?”
“No, and actually that’s why I’m calling. It’s in Los Angeles.”
Melissa tries and fails to picture intense, uptight Susannah out here. “What’s the job?”
“I’d be the director of fundraising for a new startup aimed at helping disadvantaged kids improve their writing skills. The whole thing is going to be supported by local writers, poets, and artists—it really sounds great. I want to be a part of it.”
Melissa thinks it does sound great. “That’s a switch for you—you’ve mostly stuck pretty close to affordable housing before. How you’d get interested in this?”
Susannah sounds more animated than Melissa has ever heard her. “It is different, but . . . I don’t know. I’ve been thinking a lot about Gary lately.” Her voice drops a little, and Melissa winces. She knows that Susannah hasn’t been serious about anyone since Gary was killed, and sometimes Melissa feels guilty about her own life. She has Lee, a great job as a Hollywood costume designer, and a baby on the way. Sometimes she worries that things are going so well for her that something bad is bound to happen any minute; it always has before.
“What about Gary?”
“Writing and reading were so important to him, and Emma really takes after him—she loves to write and to draw. Doing something like this . . . it just seems right somehow.”
“Yeah.” Melissa suddenly feels the prickle of tears. Gary would have loved to hear Susannah saying this, feeling this way.
“Anyway,” Susannah is brisk again. “I was wondering if you had any inside tips on some good apartments. We’ll want to be out there in the next six months or so.”
“I’ve actually got a friend in the real estate business—I can probably help hook you up.”
“Excellent. Melissa, thank you. Really.”
“We’ll have to get together as soon as you’re out here.” Melissa finds that she means it—she would like to get to know this somewhat altered version of Susannah a little better.
“She loves it.” Susannah sounds genuinely happy about Melissa’s gift to Emma. “She’s been asking me for a camera for at least a year, but I kept putting off getting her one.”
Melissa feels a little awkward. “I hope getting it for her was ok—I probably should have checked with you first. She just seemed so interested in the photos I showed her when I saw you guys last month.” Melissa is still serious about her photography, and she loves how fascinated Emma had seemed by the whole thing.
“No, it’s great. Thank you.” Susannah sounds sincere. “She hasn’t stopped snapping pictures since you gave it to her.”
Melissa smiles, remembering her own first camera when she was just about Emma’s age. She hopes that her own daughter Rory (named after her grandmother Rose) might also turn out to like photography too.
“She can’t be dating!” Melissa can’t believe what Susannah is telling her. “She’s . . . what? . . . eight?” She downs her tequila shot in one gulp.
Susannah laughs. “Well, she acts eight sometimes, when she’s not acting forty, but I believe the official calendar decision on the matter is fourteen.”
“That can’t be right. I mean, if she’s fourteen, that would make Rory . . . what? . . . seven? Rory is never going to be seven!”
Susannah grins at her, a wider and more relaxed sight than anyone in her old Philadelphia life could have imagined. “I think you’re drunk.”
“I think . . . you just might be correct there. But it’s my fault, not yours. I was the one taking you out tonight, to celebrate that thing.”
“Yeah.” Susannah smiles again. The “thing” was the opening of another chapter of Words for Kids, this one in Austin. It was the fifth chapter of the foundation, but a big one and well worth the celebration. “Thank you.”
“Anytime. Tomorrow works for me.”
Susannah rolls her eyes.
“A show in a real gallery. I didn’t have one of those until I was 33. This kid of yours is going places.” Melissa looks at Susannah, who can’t quite help smiling. They’re both so proud of Emma that it almost embarrasses both of them.
“She can’t seem to decide if she’d rather be an art history professor or a photographer, so she’s settling on going to graduate school and doing her photography on the side.”
“Well, that’s good, because those two careers together might just about equal one normal salary.” Melissa doesn’t mean it, and Susannah knows it.
“She’s decided to write her dissertation on Jacob Riis.”
“Really? That’s sort of . . . it’s a little bit of Gary and a little bit of you, really. That seems fitting.”
Susannah looks at her. “It’s a little bit of you, too.” Melissa can’t deny it. “Thank you for everything.” Susannah feels oddly sentimental today.
Melissa shakes her head a little, brushing it off. Then she sees one of Emma’s photos hanging on the wall in front of her. It’s a picture of Susannah and Melissa, looking at something in the distance and laughing together. When exactly was it that we became friends? Melissa wonders. She finds she can’t remember, and she realizes that she’s glad that she can’t. Whenever it happened, it was a long, long time ago.