Another terrible thing was how I met my husband.
He was wearing a suit that day and his tie was a deep red that made
his eyes seem even greener and it brought out the pale pink in his
face. He was thirty-three, but still looked boyish. I was twenty-one
but everyone had always guessed older. We were sitting in a small and
brutally lit waiting area in the University Police office. We sat next
to each other for maybe twenty minutes without saying anything at
all and we didn’t even bend a glance at the other because it’s hard to
do that when you’re thinking about what a woman can do to herself
and how a brick courtyard on a nice autumn afternoon can so quickly
become a place you’ll never want to see again. Police officers were
speaking into phones and walkie-talkies and one of them walked over
to ask me my name.
Ruby was your sister?
Adopted, yeah, I said, in case they knew that she was Korean and
could see from looking at me that I wasn’t.
The officer nodded and made a note on her clipboard. She looked
at my husband, who was just a stranger sitting next to me at that
point and it hadn’t yet crossed my mind to wonder why he was there
or who he might be.
Professor, we need to ask you a few questions if you don’t mind, she said.
Of course, he said, and he followed her to the back of the office.
While he was gone my mother showed up, limp and sleepy on
whatever Dad was slipping her these days. Dad wasn’t there of course;
he was still in Puerto Rico doing cheap boob jobs or something.
Mom fell into the seat beside me.
Oh, it’s waaarm, she slurred. What a nice surprise.
She snaked her arm around mine and put her head on my shoulder.
Baby, baby, my little baby. It’s just you and me now. No more Ruby
ring, Ruby slippers, Ruby Tuesday. Oh, our Ruby, Ruby.
It’s normal, I’ve heard, for people to talk a little nonsense at times
like these, but she wasn’t even crying and that just made me feel
worse because I wasn’t either. I tried to seem like I was in shock, but
I wasn’t, not really. Of course Mother didn’t even try to pretend she
was in shock because that’s the kind of beast she is. An officer came
over to offer condolences or have her sign something. Mom offered
him her hand like she expected him to kiss it. He shook it awkwardly
and with a bent wrist, then slipped away.
My Ruby, my Ruby. Precious little Ruby. What was it she always said,
Elyria? Am I your favorite Asian daughter? Elly, you know she was my
only Asian daughter. What on earth do you think she meant by that? I
never understood it. Was that just a joke? Did she ever tell you what she
I wiped a smudge of lipstick off my mother’s nose. It looked like
she had put it on while talking and driving, which was probably true.
It was a joke, Mom.
Elyria, she was so beautiful. People must have wondered how she could
stand our ugly family.
People must have wondered, even I wondered. I stayed up late at
night just staring at her, wondering how she’d ever be able to stand it. I
guess she just couldn’t take it anymore, our ugliness.
It’s not our fault. We were born like this. Well, not really you, dear, but—
If you don’t stop this I’m going to leave right now and never talk to
I said this kind of thing to Mother a lot back then and she knew it
just meant I’d had enough.
She sat up, pushed her hair out of her face, and took a lot of air
into her body. She let it out slow, grabbed my hand, looked me in the
eye, and squeezed. It was the first human moment we’d had in years,
but it ended quickly.
I need so many cigarettes, she said, while staggering away. Through
the glass wall in the front of the police office I saw her light what
would become the first of nearly a dozen she smoked in a row. Every
few minutes someone would approach her, almost bowing, it seemed.
Excuse me, I could see their mouths say, pointing to the No Smoking
Within 50 Ft of This Door sign, and she would cut them off with a
shout I could hear through the glass. Have you heard of my daughter,
Ruby? Ruby Marcus? She died today and it wasn’t from secondhand
If that didn’t work she added fuck off, I’m grieving, which usually
The professor who wasn’t yet my husband came back and stopped
in front of me, standing a few inches too close and looking down.
His paleness was glowing. I noticed his suit was too big around the
middle and the sleeves were a little short.
Do you want to know anything? About her? I was the last one who,
you know, spoke with her.
That’s what they think.
I didn’t particularly care what some professor had said to Ruby.
I’d seen her that morning myself, and she was no mystery. We had
stood together outside Nussbaum and drank paper cups of coffee.
She looked terrible, like she hadn’t slept in days, and she said she
felt even worse and I asked, How much worse? and she said she didn’t
want to talk about it and I wasn’t going to talk about it if she wasn’t
so we didn’t talk about anything. We finished our coffees and walked
in opposite directions. The blame (or at least some of it) was on me,
I knew; I never thought she’d go through with it.
So I really didn’t want to talk to anyone that day, and especially
not about Ruby, but the professor’s voice was so very level and calm.
He sounded like some kind of radio reporter and I wanted to listen
to this personal radio; I wanted his voice to play and play. My mother
was lighting another cigarette outside, leaning her back against the
glass, a dark bra visible through her wrinkled oxford.Okay, I told the professor. I’ll listen.
He sat down slowly, his knees angled toward me a little.
I’d only known Ruby since the semester started when she became my
T.A. She seemed determined and focused and very bright. She was talented,
you know, and had been working on some incredible proofs, things
you wouldn’t expect from a person her age.
His sentences were hard and plain, like he had been polishing them
I never understood what she did here, I said. We never talked about it.
Well … I don’t know how to describe it, what Ruby seemed like today.
I suppose I have a hard time reading faces, emotions, you know, the
descriptive stuff. I’m more of a numbers person. But she seemed, just—
maybe just a little distracted. She stopped by my office to give me some
papers she had been working on that she wanted me to check over and
then she just left.
What was it?
What do you mean?
The papers. Was it something important?
Ah, um, no. Not really. Just simple things. Some proofs most grad
students could do. She was capable of so much more than that. She’d been
working on some very interesting stuff lately.
No, it’s fine. I mean, it doesn’t matter that it was just regular math.
No, I mean, the whole thing. That she . . .
Right . . .
And then I wished right then that I could gently cry; just cry so
very little, politely, humanly.
Outside my mother was screaming at someone, her breath making
tiny smoke and steam clouds.
Thank you, I said to the professor.
He nodded his head, put his hands on his knees then leaned back
a little, then leaned forward again. He looked at my mother, who was
still screaming; then he looked at his feet.
Listen, I . . . When I was twenty my mother did it the same way as
Ruby and, I just, well . . . today I’ve been thinking about it a lot, you
know. Probably the most since it happened.
I didn’t say anything. Mother was lighting another cigarette. A
section of her hair was pushed over her head the wrong way. She
turned around and waved at me with one limp little hand, a royal dismissal.
She had applied even more lipstick and it rimmed her mouth
like ice cream on a toddler. She sucked on a white cigarette.
I’m sorry for that, he said, for saying that. I know it’s what people
always do, try to tell you they’ve already dealt with what you’re dealing
with, trying to tell you how they grieved—I know it doesn’t help. I’m
sorry. It was just on my mind.
You don’t need to be sorry, I said.
We didn’t talk for a little while. He put his hand on my shoulder
as if he were taking someone else’s advice to do so. Then he let it stay
there for a moment and then water did come out of my eyes and I felt
more appropriate and more human to myself.
When we were children our favorite game was runaway, I said, my
voice all phlegm-filled and real. We’d put our hands under our seat
belts and pretend our mother was taking us away.
The professor put his arms around me and I collapsed into him,
making a wet spot on his navy jacket.
By Catherine Lacey'Forty stories)
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