A week before Ruth’s daughter heads to college, she crawls into Ruth’s bed in the middle of the night. Shivering, Hannah describes her nightmare. She transformed into a tree. “My legs were fusing together. My hands were gloved in bark.”
When Hannah was little, and particularly after Phoebe got sick, this happened all the time: bad dreams chased Hannah into their bed. It drove Claude crazy. Claude was the French Canadian variety of father, affectionate but severe. In the same way he objected to anti-bacterial hand sanitizers—Claude insisted people needed exposure to bacteria to build up immune systems—he argued that Ruth’s indulgence made the girls soft. This stance was abstract, before Phoebe’s illness.
Ruth strokes Hannah’s long hair, her father’s hair: curly and thick. “That dream doesn’t sound so dreadful,” she says. “You’d make a beautiful tree. I bet you’d be a willow, with all this hair. Or maybe a sugar maple.”
Hannah shudders. “Then they’d tap me, for syrup.”
Ruth closes her eyes. The remark makes her think of Hannah’s college application, for McGill. She read it on Hannah’s laptop when Hannah was out shopping for her gap-year backpacking trip to Costa Rica. What a sob story! The essay was all about Phoebe dying, Hannah’s own heroic involvement, the bone marrow taps that left blue bruises on her hip. Hannah described her bruises as “plums” and “thumbprints.”
There’s no question in Ruth’s mind that Hannah, with her merely decent grades, got into college based on the strength of this application essay. If Ruth were an Admissions Officer, or if Hannah were one of her own patients, she would have been moved herself. As Hannah’s mother, however, it was hard to even look her in the eye when she came home, wanting Ruth to admire her new, lightweight sleeping bag. Ruth hated the depiction of herself: depressed and angry, fixated on the dying daughter, missing Hannah’s Christmas recital. She particularly hated Hannah’s description of the darker squares on their walls, after Ruth removed first the pictures of Phoebe (too painful to see Phoebe grinning at her, sunlit, toothy), then of Claude.
“Why are you so grumpy?” Hannah said at last, after several days of Ruth being cold and sullen. Of course Ruth couldn’t tell her, and when Hannah left a few days later for Costa Rica, Ruth felt relieved to have her gone.
Ruth sympathizes with police who gather crucial evidence during illegal searches: it’s maddening, to know things and not be able to act. To know that Hannah sees her as pitiful, and is willing to peddle stories of that pitifulness to get into college; to know, years earlier, that Claude didn’t love her anymore. That he was waiting until Phoebe died to leave. It wasn’t usable data, gathered from emails, then from Hannah’s computer, Ruth’s suspicions aroused because Hannah wouldn’t let her proofread her essay. “Mom, all these Word programs check grammar. And we’re not supposed to get help.”
Hannah’s portrait of Claude, if sketchier, was much more flattering.
Ruth had felt similar dismay years ago, when Claude and she first moved to San Francisco. A sidewalk artist outside Fisherman’s Wharf drew a caricature of them. Claude looked like Cary Grant, but Ruth resembled a hideous bird, all giant nose and furry eyebrows. “I look like Groucho Marx,” she said, horrified. Claude teased her, threatened to have the drawing framed for his office.
“The worst thing about the dream was feeling immobilized,” Hannah says now.
How odd, that Hannah would have paralysis anxiety, when she’s about to move 3,000 miles: to start college at McGill. The principle lure of McGill is that Claude lives in Montreal, having returned to Canada shortly after their divorce. Of course everyone wants to live in Canada these days, with its glamorous, feminist Prime Minister doing yoga handstands on his desk.
Hannah and Ruth had fight after fight during that rancorous election season, Hannah with her die-hard Bernie devotion and her write-in protest vote, refusing to see reason. Election night Hannah wept in Ruth’s bed. “The world is so fucked up.” Now Ruth wonders if Hannah’s decision to leave the U.S. altogether began that night.
It’s Ruth who should feel like a tree: rooted in San Francisco, alone. Her family one by one has left her. Phoebe, before she died, said “Heaven is a fantasy.” She was fifteen, full of grim truths. She insisted on cremation, on being scattered in the Bay, so now there is no place to visit her.
At a conference last spring in New Orleans, Ruth toured one of the famous cemeteries. She envied the grief-stricken woman she saw at one crypt, talking out loud, obviously not to herself.
“Visualize your home,” Ruth’s colleague and mentor Esther had told her last week, and Ruth had pictured a bird’s nest, elegant as a cloche. It contained a few shards of cracked eggshells, stacked like Sydney’s Opera House.
Ruth has never been one of those therapists who, trailing Freud, fixate on dreams: she is of a more pragmatic school. Life is difficult, woven with grief; one must develop survival strategies.
Holding Hannah, Ruth strokes her hair that is beautiful and unruly and was always so impossible to brush. But Claude was good at it, endlessly patient, spritzing her hair with the Detangler bottle. “Doctor Daddy,” he called himself, applying that blue, wide-toothed comb.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and is forthcoming in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She is fiction editor at Corium Magazine.