he day her father left for good, Audra slipped out of her bedroom into the hall at the sound of her mother shrieking. Audra’s bedroom, the empty nursery, and the bathroom were in the round while her parents’ bedroom door and the door to the flat were across from each other. These quick few steps to the door had provided her father a quick getaway before. The door to her parent’s bedroom was open, she watched him silently pack his stuff into the biggest of the Red American Tourister suitcases.
The luggage set had been a wedding present eleven years ago which was nine months before Audra was born. The set included 3 sizes of suitcases, a tote, even a hat box. Over the years of getaways, the red leather tote was well worn. When one year he left with one of the small suitcases, she remembered her mother saying, “He can do whatever he wants, whenever the hell he wants, for as long as he wants because he’s the man, while I’m stuck here.” Her mother never said, “with you.” Audra knew that’s what she meant. Audra anchored her mother. As heavy and burdensome as she was to her mother, for her father she was a wisp with seemingly no gravitational pull at all. The big suitcase had heft. This was the first time it had ever made an appearance in a getaway. Until today, it was used to store the smaller companion pieces and stayed in the back of the closet. Once she had emptied it and folded herself into it. She thought to interrupt his packing by telling him about it as if it were some benign fact.
She didn’t bother. She knew he wouldn’t hear her. When he was in the middle of something, he shut everything else out. She noticed that her throat felt tight as if it were hard to even swallow, let alone speak.
He yanked one of the drawers from the dresser, swung it around to the open suitcase on the edge of the bed. He dumped the folded clothes into the heaping pile in the center of the case and then dropped the drawer. From the closet, he flung the dry cleaning. Some of it slipped off the edge of the bed as the plastic bags billowed, settled, and then slid to the floor. Her mother yelled out something but Audra couldn’t make it out. Her mother’s voice had gotten raggedy from the shrieking. While her mother’s shrieks disturbed Audra, nothing upset her as much as that suitcase. Would he take all his stuff?
Her father liked to collect little WONDERS whenever he went out—a smoothed piece of marble found on the beach, an African head sculpted out of ebony, a doll made from the flower of a hollyhock. Her mother said that the stuff was sentimental clutter, a way to distract from whatever he had done wrong, and then forgotten soon after the charm wore off.
Her mother and Nana had decorated the flat in Spanish Colonial décor with gold flecked frames surrounding brooding portraits of behatted girls which were hung above burnt orange high-backed chairs with wrought iron lamps and a chandelier. Above Audra’s head between her room and the empty nursery was a round reprint of “The Little Madonna.” Contrasted against this intentional design, the randomness of his WONDERS— railroad spike, an ancient book of Hoyle, or driftwood didn’t fit.
Once Audra requested that her father only bring home toys or treats like the eclairs they sometimes shared. Things that wouldn’t upset her mother. He said, “I don’t choose what speaks to me.”
“How do the WONDERS speak to you?” Audra inquired.
“Like you speak to me only through the mind rather than the ears, like telepathy.”
Oh, how many afternoons had she waited for things to speak to her telepathically—a daisy, a tadpole, a pair of ice skates like those that Olympian Peggy Fleming wore. Once she thought a small TV harkened to her but her mother wasn’t buying it.
Were all the WONDERSs in the house calling to him now? Wouldn’t they tell him to stay? Or, were they smarter than her and readying themselves to leave with him. Did they know her mother didn’t want them? Should Audra collect them and add them to the suitcase? There would be nothing left of him.
He strode into the hall and for a moment, she thought he might finally see her there. Maybe, she was the next thing to be packed. Her heart pounded against her chest in anticipation, but then he stepped into the bathroom. Her mother charged into the hall with her arms outstretched as if she might hug Audra, but then she too went to the bathroom doorway.
In the bathroom, he pooled his toiletries into the bottom of his t-shirt. He did not reach into the shower for the “soap on the rope.” That WONDER had made her laugh and it smelled woody and spicy like his aftershave. Her mother tried to block his exit from the bathroom. Her father squeezed through it to get back into the bedroom. He emptied the pouch of his man stuff into the suitcase. With the back of his hand, he knocked down the pile, spread it into the corners, slammed down the top, and latched the lock. He looped the heads of the clothes-hangers from his long index finger and swung the pillowing bags behind him to carry them off his shoulder. As he did this, her mother reentered the bedroom and the bags swiped her face.
He said, “Sorry ‘bout that.”
Her mother raged, “Sorry about THAT? THAT’s what you are sorry about?” Her mother’s voice broke into sobs. He gripped the handle of the suitcase and pulled it off the bed. He stepped out of the room, squared his body to the door, and inhaled deeply just as her mother slammed the bedroom door behind him.
This was it. This was Audra’s moment to do something, anything. She had to fight the tightness in her throat. She saw the door to the flat was already open. Why was this house making it so easy for him to leave?
Suddenly, Audra could feel her back against the wall, as if she were pinned there. She had been so worried about her throat tightening, she didn’t realize how dumb struck her whole body had become.
As paralyzed as her body seemed to be, her thoughts were on the move, almost freed. She was as stationary as any rock on the beach, sculpture, or the Madonna above her, yet her thoughts were traveling. Might this be the telepathy? She tried to make her mind grab one thought and send it like a paper airplane with a note attached, “See ME.”
He stepped off the first stair, then the next and the next, until she heard the drag and suck of the front door open. Once the door slammed shut, her body collapsed and shuttered. She gulped in what felt like the last bit of air he had let in with his departure. Through the bedroom door, she could hear her mother’s gulps as well.
Audra raced to the picture window in the living room. Her palms hit the glass to stop her from crashing into it. She looked down through plate glass into the windshield of their Impala Coupe. Her father’s arm rested along the crest of the bench seat. He had turned to look out the back window to reverse out of the driveway.
As the car backed out of the drive, Audra spotted toes curled along the lip of the dash. Scrunched down, on the passenger side, was Mrs. Reed. She was so petite. Easy to miss. What had her mother called her, “Plain Jane.”
Audra had so many questions. Why was she trying to hide? Why was she barefoot? Her father often drove Mrs. Reed to her evening college classes since they were both getting degrees at UB. Mrs. Reed was just about to get her teaching certificate. Maybe they would leave and return like any other Wednesday. Was it Wednesday? Her head felt rummy. Her thoughts didn’t seem to connect to her brain.
Audra pulled one of the orange chairs to the window to see what would happen next. She wanted to call Dani but Audra worried that maybe she was making too big of a deal out of the big suitcase. If she just tried to act like it was any other Wednesday, then maybe it would be.
Her mother stayed in her bedroom until the next day. Late into the night, after Audra had fallen asleep on the couch, she woke to the reflection of headlights pulling into the driveway. The car door slammed.
Audra jumped off the couch and ran to the window to see the Impala back in the driveway. Mrs. Reed got out of the driver’s side. Audra tried to see into the dark interior of the car—maybe her father was hiding in the front seat as Mrs. Reed had earlier. Audra heard Mrs. Reed open the front door, throw the keys onto the small table by the door, and pull the door shut behind her to return to her house next door.
Audra wouldn’t see her father again for a year.