Secrets, my mother told me once, are just stories turned inside out.
We were sitting in the backyard on a clear dark night, and because I could see Cassiopeia’s lazy zigzag in the sky above me, I pictured a star folding in on itself until it collapsed. It would leave a blinking black space above the atmosphere, I knew, yawning and hungry and full of words. It would be insatiable.
But I didn’t tell my mother this. Instead, I told her that she sounded suspiciously like a lyric from one of my father’s songs. I knew she’d know the one: Inside this secret are all the stories you used to tell, years and months and days ago, when I knew you so well.
My mother smiled and shrugged.
“Yeah, because I wrote that line.” She turned her face up toward the jet-black, star-dusted sky and, true to form, wouldn’t say anything else about it. This story stayed front to back and right side in, always.
So I looked for proof on my own that night, like I had so many times before, sneaking back down the stairs after my mother went to bed. I went to her CD cabinet and stood in the circle of amber streetlight shining in through the window. I ran my finger over the ridged plastic of their spines until I saw his name, Kieran Ferris, and the title of his first solo record, Haven, which came out when I was three. I slipped the glossy liner notes from the case and I found the space for the song called “Secret Story.” Their names—K. Ferris, M. Ferris—huddled close in parentheses after the title, a year after they broke up. In a few dozen songs, in a sprinkling of small places like this, they’d be together forever.
In three hours I’ll be on a plane to New York to see my sister, Luna, but right now I’m in the kitchen, trying to get my suitcase to close. It’s August and the room feels like a fever. I lie down flat on top of the case and pull the zipper as hard as I can, but its edges still won’t meet. I rest my cheek on the nylon and take a deep breath. It’s so hot I could almost believe all the water in my body is slowly evaporat- ing into the air. My hair slides damply across my forehead and pools on the hardwood floor.
Lying there, I take out my phone and type a text, a lyric that just floated into my head. Sunbeam headed in the wrong direction, mixed-up gleam in the sky. I look at the words on the screen for a second, and then I press send.
Just then, my mother’s face pops up in the window closest to me and I jump.
“Almost ready?” she asks. Through the screen her face is blurry, a pale oval with a mass of dark hair piled on top. She’s been a little jittery since I bought my plane ticket, though I know she won’t admit it. Instead, she’s cleaned every inch of our house and just this morning declared war on the weeds. She’s been in the backyard for hours, yanking out crabgrass and decapitating dandelions. Over her shoulder I can see the enemy combatants wilting in a sad pile at the edge of the driveway. Of course, with my mother, it’s never enough for her just to do it, either. She also has to narrate it through the window while I’m eating my breakfast. The gist of it is I am woman, hear me weed, et cetera, et cetera, through my whole bowl of oatmeal.
“Um, yeah, I’m almost there.” I sit up and bounce lightly on top of the suitcase, finally managing to yank the zipper shut. It’s Luna’s old one: small and dark green, a little dirty at the corners. It’s stuffed to bursting. I had a hard time making decisions about what to bring because I can’t be certain which Luna I’ll find when I arrive. Will it be Sweet Syrupy Luna, exhaling love and kindness with every breath, or Dormant Volcano Luna, all her energy and leftover anger channeled somewhere beneath the surface? She’s always changing, shifting, and I want to be prepared.
My sister last came home in April for her spring break, and that’s when she told my mother she wasn’t going back to Columbia for her sophomore year. Not now, she said, but she’d go back eventually. This fall, she’d tour the West Coast with her band beginning in September.
“They’re letting me take a leave,” she said. “I went to the reg- istrar and everything.” She was looking out the window instead of at my mother. The magnolia tree bloomed furiously just past the pane, pressing its long creamy petals against the glass. “I’m keeping the scholarship,” Luna said.
My mother didn’t say anything. Her brow was furrowed and her lips were pulled thin.
Luna took a deep breath. “I thought you’ d understand,” she said to our mother. “You left school before you finished too. And you went back. Eventually.”
From my spot on the couch across from her, I didn’t see how Luna could expect her to understand. Our mother wouldn’t even talk about her time in Shelter. How could anyone think she’d be fine if Luna left school to follow more or less the same path?
“I have to do this now,” my sister said. “I won’t get another chance.”
I waited for my mother to tell her no, but she just took a breath and let it out.
“Okay,” she said. Then she went out to the garage and started working on a ten-foot-tall, spiky sculpture she sold a month or so later to one of the Buffalo Sabres. He had it installed in front of his McMansion way out in Spaulding Lake, where it glittered hazard- ously in all that wealthy-neighborhood sunlight. I joked to Ben later that the sculpture was basically forged out of anger. He nodded.
“Hockey players need that energy,” he said. “They’re always bashing heads.”
“So what you’re telling me,” I said, “is that I should be happy my mother makes art from her rage, rather than the alternative— whatever it might be.”
“Just checking,” I said.
My mother is still at the window, staring at me. Her forearms rest on the windowsill, and I can see that she is displaying her “concerned mom” face.
“Nothing to see here,” I say. “Just having some technical difficulties. It’s under control.”
She ducks down again, no doubt looking for rogue ragweed tucked under the hydrangeas. She could go all day. For one thing, the woman doesn’t feel the heat. She’s an artist who sculpts with metal, and she’s happiest with a blowtorch in her hand, its arc of blue flame as focused as a shooting star. Her art department pal Jake calls her Goddess of the Forge, and it has as much to do with her temper—like Luna’s, a slow burn that leads to an eruption some- where further down the line—as the metalwork itself. She works in a studio she built in our garage, and I try to stay out of the whole thing lest I be smited (smote?) by her.
My dog, Dusty (Springfield, obviously), slurps water out of her silver bowl and I walk over to refill it. When I put the bowl back on the floor, I look out the window, stuck open just more than halfway in the humidity. The inside tracks are lined with a hundred years of paint and it never goes any farther in the summer, which is one of the many charms of a Victorian house. Luna and I were born in New York, where my parents lived in a loft in the West Village, cluttered with records and amps and guitars. I was almost two when they broke up and my mother took us back to Buffalo, where my grandparents lived—where she herself had grown up. She bought our house, which was crumbling. She fixed it up. My grandparents helped as much as she’d let them, but she did practically all the work herself. Which explains this window.
Looking at her in the yard right now—weeding her garden in a purple sundress, her hair in a messy bun, her feet bare and a little dirty—you’d never know her secret, the person she used to be. You’d never know that twenty years ago, my mother was the first girl on the moon.
It sounds crazy, I know. But it’s not what you think. There was no puffy white space suit, no sky filling with stars until it looked like a geode split open in the dark. She didn’t get to stand at the edge of an empty lunar sea, ankle-deep in dust, and look back at the jewel of our planet, spinning. It was simpler than that, more earthbound and symbolic. In any case, as I’ve said before, she won’t talk about it: the moon, the music, and all the other things that hap- pened before my sister was born.
Now, I lug my suitcase over the threshold, trying to hold the door open with my foot at the same time. Dusty rushes to leave too, and we have a minor traffic jam until she frees herself by hopping over my shin. Outside I consider pitching my suitcase off the edge of the porch so I won’t have to bump it down the stairs, but I think better of it. My mother is eyeing me.
“Looks pretty heavy,” she says. She’s leaning back against the car, her hot pink gardening gloves tossed aside into the grass.
“Um, not so much.” I continue tugging, trying not to grunt audibly. I keep my eyes on her as I bump the suitcase down each stair, a small (fake) smile frozen on my face. At the bottom, I take a deep breath and pull out the handle to use the wheels.
“On the plus side,” I say, heaving the bag up into her open trunk, “I’m totally working on my muscles.” I flex one bicep as a demonstration.
“I can really tell,” she says dryly. Dusty dances around her feet making quiet snuffling sounds, trying to convince my mother to take her somewhere in the car.
“Soon, Dusty,” she says, and at her words Dusty lies down in the grass, her chin on her paws.
I can smell the knockout roses, sweet and heavy as vintage perfume, releasing their scent under the window as if they’re ani- mals frightened by my mother’s onslaught. I bend my head toward them.
“Don’t worry,” I say in a stage whisper, “she’s not coming for you.” My mother smiles.
“Hey,” she says. “I’m an efficient weeder. It looks great out here.”
“Queen of the Garden,” I say. She nods.
“Well, I have one more thing to add to your suitcase,” she says, raising her pointer finger. “It’s in the studio. Why don’t you take Dusty out front and I’ll be ready when you come back?”
This is a strategy my mother has employed since I was a toddler: distract and occupy. I open my mouth, ready to protest, but she’s already disappearing into the garage. So I follow Dusty out toward the street and hum a song I tried to forget a long time ago.
The sun is a gleaming white hoop in the sky and the sidewalk is hot under my bare feet. Down the street, a lawn mower whirs like a sleepy bee. I’ll be gone from this spot in a few minutes, from this city in a few hours. My summer ends for real in a week. So of course this is the moment—when I’m so close to leaving, to finally being gone—that Tessa finally shows up.