THE BAY AREA was in the midst of an autumn heat wave, hot, dry, and unnatural. The air electric against my skin, I had the sense that a single match could ignite us all.
On the front porch, last night’s Halloween pumpkin was collapsing in on itself—as much, I imagined, from the sound of jackhammers as from the heat. Yet another house on our street was being rebuilt into a mansion. It made me fear for the soul of our family neighborhood at the base of Berkeley Hills.
Downstairs, Eric was shouting at Julia, hysterical in a school-morning drama of her own making. Behind my bedroom door, in front of the bureau that had been my grandmother’s, I fastened on a necklace of bright beads and tiny skulls.
It was the first of November, the Day of the Dead.
As if I had nowhere else to be, I reached for a small silver-framed photo from the clutter on my dresser top—the little boxes that held a piece or two of jewelry, the handmade knickknacks from the kids, the old photos I barely looked at anymore. I had other snapshots of the three of us, but this one was my favorite. My brother, sister, and I were lined up against the door of our old garage, squinting into the sun. Bobby was in the middle in a zippered jacket, his jeans rolled up at the ankle, an American boy of the fifties. On his right, Sara, in a starched dress, looked as if she was ready for anything the third grade could dish out. I was the littlest in the family, no more than three, perched in my mother’s high heels next to my big brother. I brushed the glass where
Bobby’s hand rested on my shoulder. There was no special day of remembrance, I thought,
no sad, sweet, shared mourning for those who were not dead, but simply gone.
On the stairs, Lilly called for mommy. I put the photo down. I had two kids to drive to school, twenty-two more to teach, and no more time for my private sorrows.
Julia rode shotgun, not speaking to her little sister or me, her head bent over a stack of smudged three-by-five cards. She was debating in a tournament at Stanford and had dressed in her most college-worthy outfit—a little gray skirt, a striped preppy blouse, a long cardigan with just the right amount of sag, and a pair of new flats that looked like they pinched her feet. I’d known better than to suggest a more comfortable pair.
Outside her school, Julia bolted from the car without saying good-bye. I watched her run from us, my small, slender fifteen-year-old with bouncing red-gold hair and an IQ so high it scared me. I could barely admit how relieved I was to see her go, to be alone with Lilly, who at seven still believed I could do no wrong. We love you both the same, we told the kids: a half lie—the love yes, the sameness impossible.
I drove south through the hills, away from Julia’s expensive school for intellectual superstars, down toward Mountaintop. Despite the lofty name, the little elementary school where I taught and Lilly was a second grader was wedged into a commercial street in the Berkeley flats. My husband and I had helped found the school. We’d raised money, painted walls, and planted trees, transforming a warehouse on San Pablo into a dream we’d had for our children. When Julia started first grade here, I was suddenly free. I had bigger aspirations than returning to my old teaching job. I was going to be a professor with an office and students who could sit still. But Lilly popped up unexpectedly, Mountaintop needed me, and here I was—for now.
My third-grade classroom was one of the larger rooms, with a wall of windows catching the morning light. As customary, we started the day on the floor, my students and I in a circle on the rug, the kids with their legs crossed, mine folded under my denim skirt. I read to them about El Día de Los Muertos, the holiday of the dead. This morning we
were going to make our own small altars, I explained, paint them bright Aztec hues, decorate them with marigolds and clay skeletons we’d make ourselves. In the afternoon, we’d take a field trip to a cemetery.
As usual, Ben’s hand popped up.
“What if you don’t know any dead people?”
I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. My students were so young, their parents and grandparents still so young themselves, this seemed entirely possible. Then you can make an altar for a pet, I suggested. Our class goldfish, Kramer—after the character on the Thursday night show—had died the week before.
A hand rose slowly. I called on Annie.
“Did you know it’s so hot out because the globe is warming?”
A couple of the boys tittered. I shot them a look, but Annie had already dropped her head. I was surprised the kids knew anything about global warming.
“Annie has brought up something really important,” I said, improvising. “So important, I think our class should study climate change.”
I didn’t want to think why I was plunging into a subject that had no curriculum. All that work to make Annie feel better? Or was it in some way for Bobby?
Annie’s head came back up. I dismissed the kids to their seats. It was nine ten, and we were on a roll.
* * *
LILLY AND I stopped for an ice cream after school. Julia off debating at Stanford, it was just the two of us on gummy Shattuck Avenue in the unseasonable warmth, feeling carefree. At home, Lilly played in the backyard while I sliced carrots and potatoes to the news on NPR. When I finished, I turned down the volume to sit with my feet up, reading the newspaper I’d had no time for in the morning. I was deep into a story about the terrible war in Bosnia, civilians killed in the market, hardly listening to the radio at all. Yet I heard the newscaster say there’d been an explosion on the Stanford campus.
By the time I reached the radio dial, the report was over. I turned on the television in the family room and started flipping through channels.
The story might have been breaking news, but I had to wait until five o’clock to hear it.
Less than an hour before, an explosion of unknown origin had ripped through an academic building in the heart of the campus. The building had been evacuated. There were casualties.
I told myself that Julia was safe, that all the kids were, that casualties didn’t mean them, but I was frantic as I phoned my husband. As soon as Eric picked up I blurted out the news. “Just a second,” he said calmly. I heard a click and understood I’d been on speakerphone. “You’re in a meeting.” I pictured his office, lawyers in grays and blues. “I’ll call you back when I know more.” My tone was even, but I wanted to punish him. I wasn’t even sure what he’d done wrong.
The phone rang almost immediately. It was one of the other debate mothers, who hadn’t heard from her daughter either. She was so agitated that she made me sound calm. “The students aren’t together,” she said. “They’re spread all over the campus, moving separately from building to building to debate all these kids from other schools.” Before we ended the call, I tried once more to reassure her, but I couldn’t even reassure myself.
Lilly emerged from the backyard hungry. I could barely think. I gave her a graham cracker, and told her she could watch TV in my bedroom. Julia would have been suspicious of my breaking of the no-eating-upstairs rule, but Lilly took the cracker and ran off before I might change my mind. On the news, they still didn’t know what caused the explosion, but they had an unconfirmed report on the casualties: a professor and a graduate student in critical condition. Two other employees wounded less seriously.
I shuddered but I couldn’t help my relief. Not a high school debater among the injured. I was about to let Eric know when the phone rang again. Julia was on the line making little sense.
“I can’t understand you,” I said, the fear in my daughter’s voice making me desperate.
“I don’t know where I am,” she said. “It’s dark out. I can’t find anyone.”
I got her to calm down, tell me the story: She’d been away from the center of campus and hadn’t heard anything. When she’d moved to her next round, the building was locked. She’d waited for what seemed like forever, then gotten lost trying to find her way back. Finally she’d found a public phone, but now she didn’t even see any people around.
My panic was so palpable, she recoiled from it.
“I shouldn’t have called,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do.”
It was clear she didn’t know about the explosion. My only thought was to keep her where she was.
“Give me the number on the telephone. I’ll get the campus police to pick you up.”
“I see somebody,” she said. “I’m going.”
She left me holding the phone.
Lilly came downstairs asking for more graham crackers. I gave her the box and sent her back upstairs. I’d forgotten dinner, the vegetables and chicken still in the refrigerator. I was shoving the pan into a cold oven when Eric walked in. He’d been listening to the updates on the radio on the way home.
“There must be someone we can call,” he said.
I threw up my hands. “Who?”
“The campus police for a start.”
“For a start?” I heard the shrillness in my voice, but I couldn’t contain myself. “What are you implying? That I didn’t think of that? She said she saw someone.”
Eric looked exhausted. “Don’t give me a hard time, Natalie.”
“A hard time?” I shouted. We traded accusations, making little sense. Suddenly there was Lilly in the shorts she’d worn to school, her still-baby-chubby knees bare.
“Why are you guys fighting?” She had her feet planted on the linoleum as if she were going to take no more childishness from us, but her eyes were wary.
What could I tell her? That for a moment the heavens had parted to show us a future in which we’d lost one of our babies? “Daddy and
I are being stupid,” I said, a hand at my eyes. “No, I’m the one who’s being stupid.”
Eric pulled me next to him. Lilly squeezed between us.
“Dinner is going to be really late,” I said, clinging to them both.
* * *
WE TRIED not to make a big deal out of picking up Julia when the bus arrived at her school. It could have been any night, parents waiting for their kids in the dark parking lot, just another thing that had to be done. Except that no one spoke or even looked at anyone else, each family grabbing their child and spiriting him or her away.
Two hours past the usual time, Eric put Lilly to bed. I sat with Julia while she picked at her dinner and told me about her day. After all that had happened, what she wanted to talk about was how upset she was that she hadn’t done better in the final round.
At eleven, with Julia safely in bed, Eric and I collapsed on the couch. Eric clutched a glass of red wine and wrapped his free arm around me. I rested my head against his shoulder. We’d panicked earlier, but now we’d returned to ourselves, loving and loved, safe in our togetherness. I turned on the late news with the remote, and finally got the full story.
That day, a little after four o’clock, the head of the computer science department at Stanford University had opened a package addressed to him. The blast from the incendiary device inside had blown off his arm and half his face. The graduate student chatting with him had died on the floor from the massive wound to his chest.
There had been no malfunctioning generator at Stanford, no chemistry experiment gone awry. It had been a bomb that had caused that afternoon’s devastation on the campus where my daughter had been walking in her new shoes. Someone, some person had done that.
“I can’t listen anymore,” I said. I clicked off the set and turned to Eric. “Bed,” I said, longing for the sleep that would return us to the safety of our ordinary lives.