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THE POWER OF ‘I AM SORRY.’

‘I am sorry’ a short but mighty sentence! If you wish to live long, don't joke with this short sentence, *I am sorry. * Do you k...

Another Terrible Thing



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.
Elyria Marcus.
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.
Another Terrible Thing
Of course, he said, and he foll
owed 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 meant?
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.
Mom, stop.
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 you again.
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 smoke.
If that didn’t work she added fuck off, I’m grieving, which usually solved it.
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 all afternoon.
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.
Oh.
I’m sorry.
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