I began teaching again one week after Helen died. The principal at my school, Abbie Sullivan, was willing to let me stay out longer. I still had to be in shock, she insisted. No point in forcing things. Of course, her real worry was that I’d melt down before the end of my first class and irradiate the kids with unresolved grief. She was picturing herself scrambling to contain the fallout, the calls from parents. I could tell. But I was resolute. My first class proceeded without incident. Then the next. And the next. After a while, Abbie stopped “accidentally” bumping into me in the corridors and assessing my responses to her forced casual remarks. Not that she seemed relieved. Actually, I sensed her wariness hardening into disappointment—or was it disapproval?—as if she somehow believed that by getting on with my life, I was declaring Helen easy to forget.
If she only knew.
Few people at school had known Helen other than by reputation. To them, she was my miscast wife: six feet tall to my five-foot-eight; smouldering red hair to my receding charcoal; faded freckles to my indelible crow’s feet. More rumoured than seen. She was the woman who had once charmed a reluctant Farley Mowat into delivering a soliloquy on Canada’s North to my grade ten history class. The woman who had parked her car in the foyer of the big-box outlet that had put the bookshop she’d inherited from her father out of business. This was the Helen I tried to remember, the indomitable, larger-than-life version. Helen before her cherished red locks fell out in clumps, before she shrunk in on herself, her world collapsing into a small sphere of pain and nausea.
Teaching’s a relief for me. It forces me to live in the present. There’s no way I can teach anything of consequence to a room full of fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds without being fully alert to their shifting hormonal moods and adapting my lesson plans on the fly. No time for reliving those last days in the hospital, when Helen’s body was so ravaged by cancer that she was barely recognizable. The classroom is my refuge. Home is where the past swallows me, where reminders of her absence—the closet full of clothes I can’t bring myself to give away; the half-used tube of toothpaste in the medicine cabinet; the renegade strands of hair that keep appearing in the dustpan—lie in wait.
And then there’s Severn, the most undeniable reminder of them all. Even last night, when she sullenly avoided my gaze at the dinner table, I saw afterimages of Helen in her. It wasn’t so much the facial resemblance any more—the upturned nose, the lips so quick to pout. “Why are you staring at me like that?” she complained, as if a man wasn’t supposed to look at his own daughter. But of course, it wasn’t only her I was staring at. She’d just picked the heart out of a slice of bread and left the crust, exactly as Helen used to do.
With other people’s children, I’ve learned how to see past their affected indifference and catch glimpses of their inner clockwork. From there, it’s just a matter of gently jiggling the right springs and letting their potential unwind. With each year that passes, I quietly appreciate my handiwork when one or two dark-horse students of mine go on to surprise their critics in the teachers’ lounge. It’s easy when your stake in a child is professional and not personal, when you see your protégés for only an hour each day. With Severn, I have no such luxury. Like any father and daughter, we know how to push each other’s buttons, and frequently do—more so now that it’s just the two of us. My powers of gentle persuasion are useless with her.
Last night we were eating late because she hadn’t got home until nearly eight—no call to let me know where she was, no apology once she walked in the door. It had become a regular occurrence, so much so that I’d given up chewing her out and generally started eating without her. Yesterday I’d waited for her, though.
“Where were you this afternoon?” I asked her as she poked at the egg noodles on her plate.
The response was predictable. She rolled her eyes, not even bothering to answer. Clearly my question was an invasion of her privacy. Why did I have to know where she was every second of the day? A week earlier, I might have backed off, chided myself for not trusting her more.
“Were you with Avery?” I asked.
Now I’d done it. I’d crossed the line. She shoved her chair back from the table. Its feet scraped across the hardwood floor, an effect designed to irritate me, I knew.
“I’m not hungry any more,” she declared to the kitchen table and tromped off, leaving the overcooked fish I’d prepared for her.
I forced myself to finish what was on my plate, even though the knots in my stomach had cinched my appetite. The green beans squeaked between my teeth. The empty chair where Helen used to sit stared back at me. Severn resented the pretense of the family meal. She thought that I was trying to teach her a hackneyed lesson about how life goes on by cooking her pale imitations of Helen’s meals. To her, I was the two-headed impostor, the father who wears an apron and pretends to be her mother.
I shovelled Severn’s leftovers into a Tupperware container. Then I heard the front door thump shut. She’d gone again, probably to see Avery.
I have my grade ten students write me a short essay near the beginning of the year. I know that most of them look on history as a collection of boring things that happened to dead strangers in the dull and uninteresting reaches of time, before TV was invented. To help them understand their connection to the past, I get them to describe one of their own relatives, and to list some of the things that were going on in the world when these predecessors were growing up. I tell them they can choose a parent, a grandparent, an uncle, an aunt, whomever. Alive or dead, it doesn’t matter. Of course, I get the usual wide range of efforts— from the students who try to pass off a thumbnail sketch of their twenty-year-old uncle to those who cite published biographies of a famous distant relation. No matter how well or how poorly written, each essay tells me a little something about the kid who wrote it that I can salt away for future reference.
This year when the essay was due, one girl didn’t hand it in. Her name was Holly. She was Korean, but her parents, whom I’d met at parent–teacher night, were white. She seemed a lot like many of the second-generation Asian students I’d taught: utterly North American in her manners and attitudes; eager to fit in with all the other girls at school. Maybe too eager, at times. She wasn’t the first adopted kid I’d ever had in my class. I’m always careful to stipulate to my students that the person they choose to write about doesn’t have to be biologically related.
When I noticed she didn’t have a paper to give me, I asked that she stay after the bell. At first she pretended that she’d forgotten when the assignment was due. But when I asked her whom she’d planned to write about, she looked away uncomfortably. It took me a while to get her to open up. I knew that the whole exercise was reminding her of how inescapably different she was from her classmates, despite her attempts to blend in. Eventually, she admitted that she wanted to write about her birth mother but knew nothing about her. I said that if that’s what she wanted to do, I’d be willing to change the requirements of the essay for her. She could concentrate entirely on telling me about life in South Korea after the war, and thus—indirectly, at least—get a sense of the world in which her birth mother grew up. I gave her a couple of references that I thought she’d find useful and told her she had a month’s extension.
What she eventually handed in was practically a dissertation. The essay included accounts of children orphaned by the war and families fractured by the country’s partition, along with a description of how the country had changed in the years since then, having emerged from martial law and bloody student demonstrations to become a modern nation with an enduring sense of tradition. I gave her an A plus.
She kept doing research on her own after that. Last week, I spotted her in the library after school, browsing adoption web- sites, scrolling through messages from kids who were trying to locate their biological parents overseas. When she noticed me reading the screen from across the room, she quickly clicked to Amazon.com.
“Any luck?” I asked.
She was evasive to begin with. Finally, she admitted that her mom had caught her on the computer at home, then had tried to act as if it didn’t bother her. “I felt like I was cheating on her or something,” she told me.
When Holly was growing up, her parents had gone out of their way to make sure that she learned about her heritage. They’d sent her to Korean classes on the weekends, even packed her off to a special Korean culture camp one summer. But now that she was showing signs of wanting to know who her birth mother was, her parents had grown vaguely uneasy and started treating her with kid gloves.
“Stands to reason,” I said. “They’ve raised you from a baby. They don’t want to lose you.”
Holly frowned at me for not being firmly on her side. After all, I was the one who’d started her down this path. “It’s not like I’m planning to hop the next flight to Seoul, you know,” she said.
I was about to make her reflect a little more on her parents’ point of view when Abbie walked into the library. She fixed me with one of those serious looks that principals are known for. I tried to wave her off with my eyes, telegraph that now was not a good time.
“Excuse us,” she said to Holly, moving in to snatch me away.
I apologized to Holly and suggested that we pick up our discussion later. I might as well have jilted her. I could see it in her eyes. All she knew was that she’d shared her secret troubles with me, but I couldn’t be bothered to stick around and talk them through.
I followed Abbie to her office, asking her what was so import- ant that it couldn’t wait. She wouldn’t tell me anything until she’d closed the door behind us.
“It’s Severn,” she said ominously. “The police called a few minutes ago.”
Various catastrophes flashed through my brain, all involving Severn maimed or dead.
“She’s all right, Irving,” she added quickly, reading my mind. Then: “They want to talk to you.”
There was something in Abbie’s tone that didn’t fit with the doomsday scenarios I’d painted for myself. Something almost apologetic, embarrassed on my behalf.
“What’s happened?” I asked her. I felt naked.
“She’s been caught shoplifting.”
I stood there inert.
“They didn’t want to tell me at first,” she explained, still waiting for me to react.
And then I wondered why I was so surprised. In retrospect, the pattern had been obvious, if I’d wanted to recognize it. Two days after Helen was diagnosed, Severn had got shit-faced and thrown up over one of her friends at a school dance. One month into chemo, when Helen’s bravery act began to crumble, Severn had “inadvertently” shattered the mirror in her bedroom. I’d dismissed these outbursts as temporary short-circuits, excusable at the time.
Abbie offered to step out of the office so I could use her phone in private. Just before she closed the door behind her, I thought to ask her, “Did they say where she was?”
“Imprint Books,” Abbie said.
The police cruiser was parked in front of the store when I pulled into the parking lot. Severn was sitting in the back seat, eyes downcast. A chunky boy in a baggy jacket was there with her. Avery Costello. The cop behind the wheel was filling out some paperwork, his window rolled up against the raw February wind. I stood by his door, my ears freezing, waiting for him to notice me. Shoppers passing by eyed me curiously, exchanging little smirks with one another. I tapped on the window. Finally, the cop looked up and got out of the cruiser.
“Mr. Cruickshank?” he asked. He was in his late twenties, brush cut, neck like a tree trunk. He looked vaguely familiar. I wondered if he’d been one of my students.
“Is this really necessary?” I said, shooting my eyes to Severn caged in the back seat.
“Shoplifting’s a crime, Mr. Cruickshank. It has consequences.”
The pedantic ass. “My daughter’s going through a rough time,” I said. “Her mother passed away last year.”
He slid his lower jaw forward as he considered my story. “You know the boy with her?”
Before Helen got sick, Severn spent all her time with other girls from school, mostly at the mall or on the phone, talking about the things that teenage girls talk about and middle-aged fathers find bone-achingly trivial: clothes, boys, makeup, hair. Back then, I had wished she’d find new friends with interests that wouldn’t turn her brain to mush. Now all her old friends had mysteriously vanished. If she wasn’t at home or in class, she was with Avery. What his appeal was I still hadn’t figured out. I glanced at his splotchy face, beefy hands. His body had grown so fast in all directions, it had surprised even him, forcing him into a stoop that, in the back seat of the police cruiser, made him look like a question mark with a gland problem. Severn had never brought him home, never introduced him to me. I’d had to gather intelligence from my confederates at their high school. He was a loner with good grades in math and sciences and a collection of Lord of the Rings artwork in his locker, they told me. Someone who grows up and walks into his dead-end, white-collar job one day with a rifle, I thought. Not anyone you’d want your daughter hanging around with.
“They go to school together,” was all I told the cop.
“The manager caught them outside the store with a book they hadn’t paid for,” he said.
“Look, if it’s just one book, I’ll pay for it.”
He looked at me as if I’d just said something incredibly stupid and he was waiting for me to reconsider.
“Okay,” I said. “I know what she did is serious. But do you have to charge her?”
I must have grovelled just enough, because then he eased off his by-the-book routine. “Here’s what I’ll do,” he said, as if he was doing me a big favour. “There’s this program we’ve got for first- time offenders now.” He handed me a card with a social worker’s name on it. “Just make sure she shows up.”
Great. Some social worker was going to poke into Severn’s childhood and blame everything on her parents. “Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate it.”
He reached for the back door of the cruiser, but before he opened it, he turned to me and said, with a coy smile, “Grade ten history. You gave some pretty tough tests, Mr. Cruickshank.”
The bugger. He’d had to put the screws on me before he let on.
On the ride home, I asked Severn what the hell she was thinking. I asked her to explain to me why a girl who’d grown up in a house filled with books would want to steal one from a store. Of course I realized that shoplifting wasn’t about taking something you needed, or even valued. It was an act of rebellion. As a young girl, Severn had read voraciously. But recently it seemed that the notion that one could find useful knowledge in or inspiration from a book had become unbearably hokey to her.
“I don’t want you hanging out with Avery any more,” I told her.
Up to that point, her strategy had been to stare stone-faced out the window and weather my barrage. Now she sat ramrod straight and trained her withering sights on me. Like her mother, she tops me by a few inches. She likes to remind me of the fact when I really piss her off.
“You’d love it if I had no friends at all,” she said, her voice trembling between rage and tears. “No life. Just sitting at home every night like you.”
Her melodramatic tone was more than a little irritating. I thought of all the soccer practices, birthday parties, and sleepovers I’d driven her to as a girl. “I have papers to mark, lessons to prepare,” I said.
“You’re such a control freak.”
“I’m not the one who got picked up by the cops,” I reminded her.
She glared at me as if I wasn’t fighting fair, as if I was dumping on her. What was I supposed to do? Pat her hand and tell her that I understood? Because I didn’t.
“And why that particular store?” I said.
She gave a little snort. Obviously I should know, and I was just being dense.
“Was this stunt supposed to be some kind of whacked-out tribute to your mother?” I asked.
I remembered the last time I’d visited the store, years before. Seeing the back end of our Toyota sticking out through what was left of the front doors, the lights of emergency vehicles flashing all around me. I’d found Helen sitting in the back of an ambulance and wearing a mischievous, self-satisfied grin as a paramedic tended to a gash on her forehead. Since then I’d carefully avoided that parking lot, worried that I would come face to face with the store manager again. I was surprised she hadn’t cottoned on that Severn was Helen’s daughter, come to wreak further vengeance in the family name.
“So what are you saying?” Severn said. “That Mom embarrassed you?”
“I loved your mother.” She gave another little snort. “This isn’t some competition about who misses her the most,” I said.
She turned away, shutting me out, her arms crossed tight. We didn’t talk for the rest of the drive.
I’d only ever spoken to Avery’s mother over the phone, usually to confirm Severn’s whereabouts and the presence of an adult in the house. I got the impression from our brief exchanges that she was raising Avery on her own, Mr. Costello having flown the coop. We never strayed into chit-chat—partly because we were both embarrassed that our children had become such outcasts that they could claim only each other as friends, and partly, I suspect, because Mrs. Costello didn’t want to say any- thing to set me off, given that I was presumably still grieving the loss of my wife.
Our phone conversation after we’d both collected our children from the police was awkward, to say the least.
“It must be tough for you, raising Severn on your own,” she said to me. Perhaps she meant it as commiseration from one single parent to another, but I didn’t hear it that way. I detected a subtle rebuke, a suggestion that I’d let Severn get out of hand, that as a man I couldn’t possibly understand what made a sixteen- year-old girl tick.
“I think it would be better if Severn stopped hanging out with Avery,” I said.
“Fine,” she said, as if I was hopelessly naive to think we could control what they did.