Joan’s sitting in front of her vanity mirror, wearing her bright blue kimono, and applying makeup onto her face with a sponge.
“Her palms are raw. It looks like she burned them.”
Just across the room, Lane stops trying to fix his necktie, and lowers his arms, letting the fabric flap loosely around his neck as he glances up.
“She thought the other children were going to mock her. She was terrified.”
“Why would they make fun of her over monkey bars?”
“Joan,” he sighs. “She cried. And I am not about to let my daughter be teased on the very first day of school.”
His wife still looks unconvinced.
“I’ll help her bandage them up before we go,” he offers, and then tries to soften his voice, walking closer to Joan’s chair. “Is that what you’re worried about, hm? That they’ll notice her hands?”
“No,” she sighs, putting one hand to the bridge of her nose. She’s either got a headache or she’s overwhelmed; he can’t quite see the expression on her face.
A quick knock sounds at the door—barely enough time for small knuckles to rap the wood once—before a little tow-headed blur is flying into the room.
“Madeline,” Joan says, lowering her hand. Her expression is stern, and her voice is brisk again. “You need to wait until we say come in first.”
“But I knocked this time,” the little girl says, turning to Lane with a frown.
On her face, the expression is adorable. He reaches out and pretends to grab for a piece of her curled red-blonde hair, which makes her shriek, and quickly try to shield her locks with one hand.
He can’t help smiling. She’s so dear. “Ready for your big day?”
She’d demanded to dress herself this morning. Thank god they’ve got uniforms—white blouse under a dark dress, with some stockings—so there’s not much to worry about there. Lane just can’t believe she’s old enough to start school, to be honest. The time’s just flown.
“Are we going now?” she chirps, clearly excited.
He shakes his head no, and can’t help noticing how quiet Joan’s got at the subject of school. She’s been taking it rather hard. They’ve had a couple of petty fights over the past few days, and last night he honestly thought she was going to burst out crying, when he began to talk about the week’s schedule and mentioned Maddy being picked up from kindergarten.
“Got to eat, first,” he answers, with a careful glance at his wife. “And your mummy’s got to finish getting ready.”
Joan puts a hand on his arm, paired with a look that says will you please take her, and he nods his head once, guiding his daughter forward by placing a palm against her small shoulders.
“Why don’t you help me put the kettle on, hm?”
She gasps so loudly she nearly starts coughing. “You never let me do that!”
“Well,” he says, clearing his throat, “you can today.”
Madeline lets out a wordless shriek of joy, dashing off toward the kitchen in her excitement, and before she can get into any trouble, he follows.
Lane’s not particularly hungry, so he doesn’t do much except make porridge and bacon and steal a few bits from his daughter’s plate, which elicits squeals of aggravation from her every time.
Meanwhile, Madeline wolfs down her food as if she’s starving, talking in between bites about her teacher and what her classmates might be like and something about a unicorn or a pretty horse at school that he doesn’t understand. Must have been from when Joan took her over to the classroom on Friday. Perhaps it’s some kind of picture.
“Have you got your rucksack together?” he asks, as he’s putting their dishes into the sink. It’s quarter to seven. They’ll need to leave soon. And he has no idea why Joan isn’t ready yet, but knows better than to pose this question aloud.
“Yes!” Maddy says, and grabs for his hand, dragging him down the hall and toward her bedroom.
When they arrive, he’s momentarily speechless at the state of the room.
“Oh, good lord,” he blurts first, scratching at the back of his neck.
It’s—well, a complete disaster. There’s playclothes all over the floor, and soft-cover books pulled down from a low shelf in a messy heap, and toys all over the bed, as if she were packing for a year’s holiday, and not for a single day of school. How did one little girl ever manage to make this much of a mess in the span of a morning? Didn’t Joan notice the state of this room, earlier?
“We can’t let your mother see this,” Lane says first, and automatically moves to shut the door. He spies the brown school satchel hanging from her desk chair, and goes to grab it. Her primers and pencils are still inside, thankfully, only they’re now surrounded by a collection of very odd things, including a large pinecone she’d found on the sidewalk earlier this month, a blonde Barbie doll wearing half a dress—this one’s called Eleanor, he thinks?—plus several colorful hair barrettes, a box of crayons, and one of Joan’s lipsticks.
He takes the lipstick out, fixing his daughter with a stern look. She ought to know better. “We’ll have to give this back, as it’s not ours to take.”
“But it’s for Eleanor!” Madeline protests with a frown. “She’s got to look nice!”
“Well, I’m sure she’ll look very pretty without it,” Lane responds gruffly. Before he can say another word, Joan’s voice is outside the door.
“Madeline? Come here. We need to put your shoes on.”
“Ooh!” squeals the girl, snatching her bag from her father’s hands, flinging the bedroom door open, and running quickly toward the foyer, as if Joan’s going to leave her behind otherwise. “Can I tie the bows, Mommy? Please let me tie them! I promise I can!”
She can’t. He’s tried to show her, but she’s not quite there yet. Lane glances around this room, letting out a wistful sigh. The yellow paint is still cheerful, although her twin bed has long since replaced the rocking chair in the corner by the window, where he remembers spending quite a bit of time.
He’s sitting in the rocker with his swaddled daughter nestled in one arm, talking to her in the dark about everything and nothing, although she’s been asleep for the last ten minutes. It’s probably four o’clock by now.
“God,” comes a sudden whisper from the doorway. When he glances up he sees Joan standing there in her pajamas, wearing her glasses and pushing some of her hair out of her face. She looks panicked, and he doesn’t understand why until she lets out a deep breath, leans against the doorway and puts her hands over her eyes, as if attempting to relax.
“Sorry. I just—thought I heard her screaming.”
One of the strangest symptoms of motherhood has been this new sixth sense. Even when they’re not in the flat, or around any child at all, she’ll swear she can hear Maddy crying. It’s very strange. Lane’s never heard of anything like it, although Dr. Emerson tells them this type of thing is more or less normal for first-time mothers.
“No, we’re all right,” he says, motioning Joan closer. “She was a bit fussy, earlier. Got up for a glass of water, and I heard it.”
Joan kisses his temple in an absentminded way, coming to stand next to his chair. “Does she need changing?”
He shakes his head no. “Not unless we’ve had an incident in the last half hour.”
As if realizing they’re speaking about her, the baby sighs, and snuffles closer to his chest in her sleep.
“You’re so good with her,” Joan says, petting his hair of all things. She’s been very affectionate with him recently; they haven’t been able to do much else, but it’s nice to spend a bit of time together. He can’t help smiling.
“Well. Poor substitute for your mummy, aren’t I, dearest?”
“Hush,” says Joan, tapping her fingertips once against his shoulder as if to scold him, but the silence in the room is easy and companionable. It’s one of the quietest evenings they’ve had since bringing the baby home, nearly six months ago.
"Do you want to sit down?” Lane asks after a moment.
“What, on your lap?” returns Joan, in a voice he hasn’t heard in weeks.
“Well.” He clears his throat. “You could if you wanted.”
They ended up lying on the floor beside Madeline’s crib instead, curled together under several tiny baby quilts, and with Lane’s housecoat shoved under their heads as a makeshift pillow. Above them, the baby slept peacefully on her own in the bed, while he and Joan whispered to each other about work, and how Maddy was starting to make the dearest faces, and plans for tomorrow, and how far they’d come in the span of a year.
Gail found them in the same place, come morning—she’d agreed to watch the baby while they went to the justice of the peace—and simply laughed.
“Get up, lazybones,” was all she’d said as she’d flipped on the overhead light. Above them, Madeline was already awake and cooing to herself.
“Mom, don’t,” Joan had mumbled, half-asleep, and tried to draw the blanket over both of their faces.
There’s a crowd of people on the pavement outside the brown-brick school: parents with older boys and girls, dropping kisses on their children’s foreheads and waving cheerful goodbyes from the curb, along with a crop of what are clearly the new parents. These are young-looking couples clutching handkerchiefs, each other, or, in some cases, their weeping children. Standing near a large tree in front of the high windows is a little boy about Maddy’s age, who’s crying so pitifully he’s red-faced, sobbing into the lapels of his mother’s black coat as she tries to calm him.
Before the taxi’s even stopped, Madeline is trying to climb over Lane’s legs in order to rush out. He has to hold her back with one arm.
“Madeline,” Joan says, her voice sharp. “Let your father get out first.”
He tries to soften the reprimand. “Dearest, you’ve got to wait your turn.”
“Okay,” she says in a breathless way. “I’m waiting!”
Once he’s out of the car, and has paid the driver, Lane holds out his hand for his daughter to grasp, and her little body wriggles excitedly as she clambers out of the seat and onto the pavement. She adjusts the weight of her little satchel on her shoulders, swings their clasped hands back and forth between them in a long arc, and then looks up at him with a sunny smile.
“Daddy, you don’t have to come in with me. I can do it by myself.”
He feels a lump form in his throat at the self-assured words. She doesn’t think anything of walking into a strange building with tons of new people, and being left alone by her family. Lane’s certain he cried for days after being dropped off at school for the first time. He’s fairly certain Nigel did, too, although his son has never said so. Granted, both situations were very different, but it’s still incredible. How on earth did she become so sure of herself, in such a short amount of time?
He risks a glance to his left, where Joan’s looking away from them, toward the playground, which is full of squealing, active children running around on swings and equipment. She may well be crying now. She didn’t speak much at all in the car, and gripped Lane’s hand like it was the only thing keeping her calm.
“Well, dearest,” he says, bending down in order to lower his voice. “Mummy and I know you’re a very big girl, but—”
Lane spies the same little boy from before, still clinging to his mother, and swiping tears from his face with a snot-covered fist.
Inspiration strikes him in a rush.
“We don’t want to make the others feel silly,” he continues, leaning in a conspiratorial way, indicating the crying boy and the sea of children who are more composed but look similarly anxious about being separated from their families. “Not everyone can be as brave as you, hm?”
He tries to smile. “Come on. We’ll go in together.”
“Okay,” Maddy says after a moment, with a little shrug that says she doesn’t think much of his words. Oh, maybe he said the wrong thing. He doesn’t know what to do, now; he’s starting to feel the significance of today catching up to him.
They pick their way through the other families and into the building, and as they get closer to the kindergarten doorway, and pass other classrooms full of children sitting in small desks and teachers writing on blackboards, he hears Joan sniff aloud.
Lane puts a hand on his wife’s elbow as they walk down the long corridor, and by the time they’ve reached their daughter’s new classroom, Madeline seems eager to leave them both behind.
“Look, Mommy, it’s the cloakroom!” she exclaims, dropping his hand in favor of her mother’s, and waving toward a set of open wooden shelves and hooks in the back left corner. Joan allows herself to be pulled along, joining plenty of other children and parents milling about on that side of the room. Lane watches from a distance as Joan helps Madeline hang her coat and place her knapsack into the shelf. He gives a nod to a couple of the other fathers standing next to him, who are also watching children and wives. After everything’s put away, Joan walks with the little girl past the rows of desks and to a few small standing easels.
Outside in the hallway, a long bell rings once.
“Okay, moms and dads,” says one of the teachers, with a sympathetic look. “That’s your cue. I promise everyone will still be here at two thirty.”
Lane waves a hand, trying to get his daughter’s attention.
His daughter’s not even looking over, given all the noise and excitement. He wants to go over to her and say a proper goodbye, but he can’t seem to get his feet to cooperate.
Joan has better luck; she smooths a few pieces of their daughter’s hair behind one ear and kisses the girl’s cheek before departing.
Two minutes later, the two of them are still standing in the hallway, peering into the classroom through a narrow rectangular glass window in the closed door. Inside, children are playing in different corners of the room, with books and toys and blocks. From their position in the doorway, they can’t quite see Madeline’s face, just a small pair of round-toed shoes sticking out from beside a row of easels, the toes tapping against the floor to some unheard rhythm.
On his immediate left, Joan lets out an audible sob, quickly covering her mouth with a black-gloved hand.
He reaches out, and winds an arm around her waist. She leans into him, and puts her arms around his neck. It’s very rare for her to show affection like this in public; she must be feeling very melancholy.
Lane places a gloved hand on the small of his wife’s back, feeling very emotional, himself. “You’ve done so well with her.”
Joan lets out a watery breath.
“I just keep hoping it’s enough. She’s already five—and I—”
“I know.” His fingers splay across the middle of her back. “God, it’s horrible.”
He’s pleased when the comment makes Joan laugh a little.
“I don’t want to go in yet,” she murmurs against his collar, and she pulls back to see his face after she says this. “Do you?”
He’s misty-eyed, too, he knows, but at least he’s able to dig out a handkerchief from his pocket without causing too much of a fuss.
They can’t very well show up to work looking like this.
“No, “ he agrees. “Not yet.”
Joan mops at her eyes with a little sigh, pocketing his handkerchief.
“Okay,” she says, with another sniff. “I need to fix my face.”
“Take your time,” he says. “I’ll be here.”
While Lane waits for his wife to return, another woman comes to stand next to him. The children are now being gathered at their desks for some kind of formal lesson, although he can’t see what they’re going to be learning from this angle.
When he glances over at the stranger next to him, it turns out to be the mother from outside, wearing the black coat. He notices she doesn’t have the crying child with her anymore. Perhaps the boy finally calmed down enough to go into his classroom.
“Which one’s yours?” she asks after a moment, and he peers back into the room to see what Madeline’s up to.
“Long red hair, there.” He indicates the second row of desks nearest the front. Maddy’s sitting in the middle of her row with pencil and paper in hand, staring at the blackboard with clear interest. Her little proud nose scrunches up. God, she looks just like Joan from this angle. “Pink bow in the back.”
“Oh, she’s pretty,” replies the mother, and he smiles.
“It’s so sweet of you two to take her to school.”
Lane suddenly has a feeling that he’s missed a key portion of this conversation. Of course they’d take their daughter to school on the first day. Isn’t that the done thing?
“Didn’t want to miss it,” is all he says.
“Well, I mean, it’s nice that you’re local,” she continues. “I’m sure that’s a big help.”
Now he’s very confused. “Sorry?”
The woman smiles at him in a way that suggests she finds his confusion charming. “Brian’s grandparents would love to come to things like this, but they live so far away.”
“Oh,” is all Lane manages to sputter, horrified and embarrassed all at once. Dear God, do they really seem so old compared to all the others?
He’s not able to say this aloud before Joan returns from the restroom, and motions that she’d like to be going.
In a booth at a nearby diner, Joan lights a cigarette, wincing as his eyes follow the movement of the round cylinder as she puts it to her lips.
“Don’t say it,” she says, as she sighs out a breath of smoke, and puts her lighter back into her purse. “You know I’m doing better.”
“You won’t hear a peep out of me.” Lane raises his hands as if in surrender. She’s been trying to cut back on her cigarettes for months, especially now that Madeline has begun to notice and try to imitate the habit, but it wouldn’t do to make a scene about it this morning. He’s got a dram of brandy in his tea, anyway. They were both very maudlin in the taxi.
He hopes to dispel some of their wistfulness by telling her the story of the young mother in the corridor at Maddy’s school, emphasizing the way the woman had beamed at him when she’d said the dreaded word. Grandparents.
“No,” gasps Joan, once he finishes the story.
“Unfortunately,” he shakes his head again. “It was mortifying.”
His wife sighs, and takes a long sip of her drink.
“I don’t—think I look that old,” he continues in a wounded voice, and she reaches out across the vinyl table to press one hand over his.
“That woman needs to get her eyes checked.”
“Yes,” Lane says, feeling vindicated at last. “I should say so.”
“Speaking of things that do not make us feel old,” Joan’s voice is very determined as she pushes ice around her drink with the straw. “I think Mr. Cooper might retire before the New Year.”
“Didn’t he already try to do it once before?”
She rolls her eyes, but he can see the humor in her expression. “Well. You know how he likes to be involved.”
Roger had taken over quite a bit of the business in ’69, after Bert’s initial health scare—a stroke. Generally, the few months in which Cooper had been out of the office had gone well, except that once he’d come back to health, the old man had refused to stay away. He’d gone on walking around hallways in his sock feet and spent his days doing crosswords with Caroline or Dawn, sitting in on partners’ meetings, or shouting at the young freelancers when they got too out of hand.
“Do you think Maddy will want to…make a career out of it?” he asks, now thinking of Stan Rizzo and the art department, how much of the advertising business has gone the way of photographs and film. “Her drawing?”
“She’s five.” Joan raises a skeptical eyebrow. “She’s not painting Rothkos.”
“All right,” he grumbles. “I suppose I’m just curious. She’s always had a knack for it, anyway.”
“Well,” Joan says, pulling a face, “look at Nigel. You never know.”
As soon as Nigel had reached his majority, he’d left school, got a cheap flat in Gerrard Street—to Rebecca’s horror—and promptly enrolled in culinary college. Lane wasn’t aware his son even knew how to light a burner, let alone cook a full meal. At the time, they were sure it was all another one of his impulsive decisions, but after nearly a year, Nigel’s stuck with it. He’s made friends, knuckled down among the other chefs in his curriculum, and for the first time in years they haven’t had to argue about bad marks and failed tests and university prospects. It’s not what he would have chosen, but at least the lad’s learning a skill and making a living.
(Joan may have had to remind him of that fact several times over.)
Lane lets out a little sigh. “I suppose you’re right.”
He glances around the restaurant in search of the nearest waitress. The only uniformed girls he sees are already very busy, taking orders and carrying trays. Finally, he spies a blonde woman who might be their waitress, clearing off a booth opposite them, which features a garish painting hung between the two vinyl seats. God. It’s too modern, it looks like some kind of gallery nonsense: splashes of color everywhere, no real form that he can spy save for a blob in the corner that looks like an enormous blue pineapple. Perhaps it’s supposed to be a palm tree.
“Good lord,” he says suddenly, staring at this hideous piece of artwork. A grin has come to his face. “Joan—look at this painting, here.”
His face lights up as he begins to see the room with new eyes. There’s the glass pastry display case with the mark at the bottom of the white base, where the long cooling vent’s broken off in one corner. And over there, the cash register that squeals loudly every time the drawer opens. He’d know that sound in a second.
“I knew it,” he said, turning to face Joan with a triumphant expression. “We’ve been here before.”
She’s staring at him as if he’s gone insane. “I don’t think so.”
“We have,” Lane insists, indicating the view from the window. “Because you came from—oh, it must have been that street, there, the one with the row of brownstones. And I was in—well, perhaps not this booth, but one along this wall, anyway.”
She still looks puzzled. He continues.
“You went to the very rude doctor, after you told me you were expecting. And then we came over—”
“Oh, my god.” Recognition finally comes to Joan’s face as she glances around the restaurant.
Lane remembers that night vividly, anyway. He spent nearly two hours alone in a booth, practically tearing his hair out, drinking whatever was on hand, and waiting for the woman he loved to come back from the doctor and confirm that she was pregnant. Tends to stick in the mind.
“Did I throw something at you?” she asks slowly. “I remember we argued.”
“You asked me if I wanted an…illegitimate child,” he says, his mouth twitching up into a smile.
Joan starts to laugh.
“Course, you were very angry, so it wasn’t funny at the time.”
She covers her mouth with one hand, looking embarrassed. “God. Don’t remind me.”
“Well,” Lane says, with a shrug. “We’ve managed to sort it all out, at any rate.”
At that point, the waitress returns to take their breakfast order, and after she’s gone, they fall silent, watching the activity on the street outside their window. It’s rare for them to have moments to themselves during the week, at least when they’re not at the office.
He looks over at Joan, who’s stirring sugar into her fresh cup of tea. She must feel his eyes on her, because she glances up and smiles. It’s the kind of smile that still makes his heart skip a beat, some days, even after five years together. This time of year is always pleasant for him; the temperatures are cooler, and the leaves begin to turn, and it reminds him of the first few weeks he and Joan began talking—the first time he allowed himself to admit he was in love with her.
They’ve been driving for several hours. Joan's been sound asleep ever since they passed Collinswood, pressed against his side with her heavy coat draped across her body like a blanket, and her fingers loosely clutching at his right arm. She’s so close that he can hear her chest rise and fall with every breath, and he even keeps catching a faint note of her floral shampoo every time he inhales.
Poor darling. He hopes she’s feeling better. It was awful to see her so ill.
The radio switches from a series of ads back into a slow tune which he more or less recognizes. He knows what Elvis sounds like, anyway. Joan had changed the station before falling asleep, and although it’s not the type of music he’d pick for himself, he’s too content to fuss with the dial now.
A car passes by them on the left hand side of the road; it’s the first one traveling the other way for miles. As its headlights roll by and illuminate the inside of the car, Joan stirs again, changing position and moving even closer to him. After another moment, her lips press against his neck—so briefly it's as if she’s barely touched him.
He's so stunned he very nearly slams on the brakes, but manages by some kind of incredible feat to keep the car in motion. Is she awake? Did she mean to do that?
God, don't move an inch.
Joan sleeps on, and doesn't seem to notice that she's done anything strange, her cheek now pressed into the top of his right lapel. Her left hand is tucked up under her face, while her right hand splays gently against the buttons of his collared shirt. Under her palm, his heart is positively racing.
Carefully, he moves his right arm out from between them, putting it around her back so she won’t wrench her neck while she sleeps. If his palm slides into the gentle curve of her waist as he pulls her closer to his side—if his lips press against the crown of her head for a fraction of a second—surely that's all right. It doesn’t mean anything.
Judging by the tone of the music, Elvis seems to disagree.
“You’ve got that look on your face,” she says now, breaking him out of the memory. Her smile has grown wide and teasing, as if he’s been here wool-gathering for hours, and has only just noticed she’s trying to talk to him.
Lane can’t help smiling back, scratching a hand along the back of his neck.
“Oh,” he says. “No, it’s just—remembering something funny, that’s all.” At her skeptical expression, he lets out a chuckle. “Something involving the radio, thank you very much.”
Joan pretends not to believe him, setting her teacup aside with an amused huff of breath. Light catches the diamond on her wedding band as she pulls her hand back, making the jewel wink a little in the bright sun.
“Okay. Surprise me.”