Lily of the Valley


Emma Wunsch, Fiction

 

 

Lily wants sneakers. She comes into the den while Henry's watching the Mariners get slaughtered for the third night in a row. When Lily walks in, Boston gets another run, making the score 9—1.  

"Dad?" 

"Yeah?" Henry turns off the game and the porous blue wall between them turns gray.

"I think I want sneakers. You know, for my birthday."

"Sneakers," Henry repeats robotically. "You want sneakers." 

 

He asked her three nights ago at dinner. They were eating—or rather Henry was eating, and watching as Lily wound and unwound the spaghetti. She wasn't going to eat. He recently realized that this winding-unwinding had been going on, right in front of him, for weeks. 

"Lily," he said sternly.

"What?" Her fork, empty, froze above her plate. 

He wanted to say, "Eat it." Eat the spaghetti, the bread, the salad. Long ago, when she didn't like something, Henry remembered, her mother would sing a silly rhyme—three more bites is so nice come now Lily eat your rice—and Lily would eat. What rhymed with spaghetti, he wondered before he caught himself. She was too old for that. Practically fifteen. "I wanted to know what you'd like for your birthday," he said, surprising them both.

She shrugged.

"Fifteen. That's something."

But Lily just shrugged again. Watching her shoulders move up and down, Henry wondered, again, how long this had been happening. How had he not noticed?

"Nottabigdeal," Lily said. She didn't seem to care or need presents.

"Think about it," Henry said, watching her dump her dinner in the trash. "You should—"

"What?"

"Put that in the compost. That can be composted."

"Next time," she said, walking out.

 

But now she has come to tell him what she would like for her birthday, which is tomorrow.

"Sneakers would be cool. Mine are stretched out."

"I need to work in the morning," Henry says. "We could get them after lunch."

"I can't. I'll be with Alex-Yang."

Alex-Yang is a seven-year-old boy who Mrs. Woolf, a woman down the block, arranged to bring to Seattle from China in order for him to have several operations to fix the hole in his cheek. The orphanage said the boy's name was Alex, but the Chinese doctors who have come to learn from the surgeons at the university hospital call him Yang. Mrs. Woolf pays Lily to help her take care of Alex-Yang a few days a week.  Even though Alex-Yang is only four houses away, Henry has never seen him.

Lily says that the hole in Alex-Yang's cheek is shaped like a diamond.

"When you come back then," Henry tells her. "We'll get them before dinner."

He turns the game on when she leaves, just in time to see the Red Sox score on a two-run double making the final score 12—1. He watches the replay on the local news so he doesn't have to think about Lily's sunken stomach, how little she ate at dinner, or children from China with holes in their cheeks. Henry doesn't want to think about the implications of what he has done, what he has agreed to: sneakers. Mostly, he doesn't want to think about how Beth has been dead for six years and that he now must be both mother and father to Lily.

 

In the morning, Lily's birthday, they both get up early. Henry pauses by his bathroom window and watches his daughter stretch on the porch. Right leg up, left leg up, bend forward, hold. In 55, 65, 75 minutes, when she returns to the house, her shirt will cling to her back and sweat will pour from her temples. When Lily comes in, Henry will be drinking coffee in the kitchen.

"Lily," he will say as a combination of sweet teenage sweat and perfumed deodorant cloud him. "Lily," Henry will repeat firmly, "don't you want..." He will trail off here, watching his reflection on the wrong side of a spoon. His face will look inverted, out of alignment. "A piece of toast," he'll say, as Lily runs upstairs. 

His daughter has become a runner this summer.  

She has been running this strangely hot and humid summer up and down Seattle's hills. Down along the canal, past the espresso stands, under the bridge, and beyond the boats and into the park where she'll run laps around the track, four or fifteen or twenty-eight times before she runs out of the park, past the tennis courts, up all the hills, and into the house where Henry will be waiting, twisting his spoon in his coffee, chewing burnt toast until he remembers to swallow.

Henry swallows now. "Happy Birthday," he says when she comes in. "Don't you want breakfast?" After Lily runs, the vein on the right side of her temple pulses in and out. Henry directs his question to the vein. "Have breakfast." He tries to make this sound like an order. "You should eat," he yells at the stairs Lily has jogged up. "You have to eat," he says softly. "You're not eating. You're doing that terrible thing that teenage girls do, Lily." He swallows the remaining coffee, which is burnt and hollow. "Not eating," he says, as if she were right in front of him. "All this running," he says, even although he knows Lily hasn't heard him, that she's forcing her body under the powerful blasts of hot steamy water, as she pokes the non-existent mounds of flesh on her belly, calves, and thighs. 

 

After breakfast he goes into his study. He's supposed to be writing study guide questions for a physics textbook that will be used at Seattle Central Community College where he teaches. The questions are the last part of the book and should be the easiest to write. Henry sits at his desk and looks at the picture of Beth at a table covered with wine glasses and ashtrays. The picture was taken on their honeymoon. Henry likes it not so much because it's of his now-dead young wife, but because he likes knowing that he knew her at that moment, that he'd been there too, tipsy, in love, taking pictures. How is it that he was once on a honeymoon and is now wondering about the sounds from Lily's bedroom?

He turns on the radio. "Nice day if you like the heat," the DJ says. "Another scorcher in Seattle."

Vibrations echo from the ceiling. What's she doing? Don't think about it. Lily is in her room. Nothing wrong with that. What's wrong is that for the past few days he hasn't been able to come up with a single question for the book. It has to be at the printers by October. October, he thinks, seems crazy. From here, at the end of July, October is blurry and impossible. But supposedly he and Lily will both be back in school. If the surgeries are successful, Alex-Yang will be back in China. Considering the last three nights' games, the Mariners will probably not make it to the playoffs. But heat, he has to think about heat, which is the chapter he should be working on now. The chapter begins with a quote from Francis Bacon:

 

Heat is a motion of expansion, not uniformly of the whole body together, but in smaller parts of it, and at the same checked, repelled, and beaten back, so that the body acquires a motion alternative, perpetually quivering, striving and irritated by repercussion, whence spring the fury of fire and heat.

 

Think of questions the students should answer about heat, Henry tells himself. But Francis Bacon makes him think of bacon, which makes him remember breakfast and Lily and how Lily did not eat breakfast this morning or yesterday morning. He doubts that she will eat anything for lunch. He doesn't want to think about dinner and sitting across from Lily while she stares at her plate, a scowl folding across her face. 

Last year, for her fourteenth birthday, they had steak, potatoes, and homemade strawberry shortcake with ice cream. But last year was before Lily started keeping her door closed and jogging every morning. Shit, he's not getting anything done. Worrying about Lily has made him lose concentration. This is not who he is. Henry is organized and controlled.

When his wife got sick, he organized to make her well by creating computerized charts about medicine, weights, and temperatures. He researched until it was clear that despite his organization, Beth would still die.

And after she died, he made sure that Lily was okay, and dutifully took her to meet other kids who'd also lost a parent to cancer. He did this until seven months after the funeral when Lily asked one night that, if Henry didn't mind, if he thought it might be okay, could she go to Girl Scouts instead? 

Yes, he said. That would be fine.  

Good, Lily said, swallowing her dinner. And things were good. They were sad of course, they missed Beth, but they still talked and did things together. Whatever it was Lily had been eating the night she asked if she could join Girl Scouts, that had been good too, because after Beth died Henry learned to cook. It was important that they have good meals, so after the funeral Henry went from someone who had spent his life making soup and sandwiches to a widower who was an even better cook than his dead wife. Even though he was middle-aged when his wife died, Henry started to read cookbooks and watch cooking shows so he could learn to make roast loin of pork with squash and walnut butter, and sautéed mushrooms with fresh peas on sorrel fettuccine. Lily had tried it all, even the curries and fish dishes, and she said even though they weren't her favorite that they were okay. They were okay, Henry and Lily. Weren't they?

"Okay, Dad?" Lily says impatiently. 

"Huh?" How did she just appear?

"I'm going to Alex-Yang. Mrs. Woolf wants me early."

"Fine. I'll walk you over."  

She makes a face. "It's practically next door, Dad."

"I just thought, well I'm going out. For coffee."

She shrugs.

"You want something?" Henry asks as they walk down the porch and onto the sidewalk. He knows he sounds too eager, but he can't stop. "I could bring you a croissant or muffin. Get one for Alex-Yang too."

"Alex-Yang can't eat muffins, Dad." Lily sounds annoyed. "He's got, like, a hole in his cheek."

"Right." Henry walks faster to keep up with her. But you don't have a hole in your cheek. You could have a muffin. And a scone. "Suicide Dream?" He points to her shirt. He intends to be light about it, but isn't. 

"A band. Suicide Dream is a band," she says, turning up the stone path to Alex-Yang's.

      But Henry's got to get out of this dream, this humid reverie of unproductiveness, and come up with the study guide questions. First he'll get coffee. He told Lily that's what he was doing and even though it's over ninety degrees, he'll walk. It's less than two miles. People much older than Henry run marathons, hike Mount Rainier, bike hundreds of miles to fight breast cancer, which is what killed Beth. Every year Henry sponsors two secretaries in his department who run to prevent breast cancer. Would Henry sponsor Lily? How could he not? He's going to buy her sneakers. Maybe the sneakers that she will wear when she runs in the race to stop breast cancer. Shit. He's going to have to do something. Otherwise the problem will just get bigger and bigger. Worse and worse. Like Alex-Yang's hole. Except that, according to Lily, the hole is smaller. It's still there, she told him, you can still see it. But you try not to. I try not to look, she told him. But Henry can see what Lily's doing. It's clear now. But before? Was he trying not to see, not to look? 

Henry runs his tongue over his cheek. The coffee shop is ahead of him, but he doesn't want it. Caffeine is making him edgy. He needs to get home and work. Work, he thinks. Force acting upon an object to cause displacement. And he feels out of place all of a sudden, walking on the same streets he has walked for nearly twenty years. He knows it's because it's so hot, but he feels so old and achy suddenly that he wonders if he has the flu. If he's sick, he'll cancel with Lily. Sorry, he'd say, no shoes today. And the summer would end and they'd return to school and everything would be back to normal. But he's not sick. Just hot. All of Seattle is sweltering under an unforgiving sun. 

Everything is wrong this summer. Seattle doesn't get this hot. How can Lily run in such heat? That's the real question. She is no longer her whole body. But he's not going to think about that right now. He's going to keep moving. He's going to walk past the coffee shop as he makes his way down the second hill that his daughter has jogged up and down this morning. But unlike Lily, Henry is going to climb this second hill to the store. To buy steak. He's not thinking of Bacon; he's thinking about Newton and steaks because Newton's third law is Opposite and Equal Reaction. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Before he buys Lily sneakers, he will buy steak. After sneakers, they'll eat steak. Both of them. Together.

The blasting air-conditioning in the grocery store makes Henry feel more confident in his decision. He picks up a steak that doesn't contain hormones. Should he get a cheaper one? Would Lily rather have chicken? Screw it. He puts the expensive steak into his basket. He deserves it. He's a middle-aged widower who has to write questions about physics problems and decide what do with his anorexic fifteen-year-old.  

Anorexic. 

The word has been so loud in his mind, so symphonic and neon, that he thinks he must have said it aloud, but no one in the aisle stops or stares.

What's he supposed to tell her? He walks quickly out of the store, swinging his plastic bag of meat. Should he say: Why aren't you eating? Why don't you eat? What's eating you? He walks faster and faster, thinking of question after question, until he's completely out of breath. He pauses in front of a house where a young woman is lying out on the lawn. It's dangerous to lie under the sun, Henry thinks. She's burning. Sun is powerful. It causes cancer. And cancer is hard to battle. As hard as you try, you can't always win. But everyone is battling their bodies this summer. Alex-Yang and the woman here who is trying to make her white skin brown. And Lily. Beneath her Suicide Dream shirt, her body has become smaller and smaller; even her ear lobes, which sport silver earrings, seem small. Lily is trying to beat back her body. That's why she runs. She is perpetually striving. His daughter is inverting, disappearing into old T-shirts and complicated layers of tank tops and sports bras.

Lily has become a physics problem.

Henry understands this, but he has no idea how he's supposed to solve it.

When he gets home, he drinks a bottle of water before wandering into the living room, where he sees Lily's CD cases on the table. "Ungod," it says on the cover. God, his child listens to a group called "Ungod."  He has become a parent of that kind of child. How did this happen? Way back when he and Beth were on their honeymoon, was it destined that their child would listen to "Ungod" and "Suicide Dream" and jog in the merciless sun? He sinks into the couch. 

And then he dreams. He dreams Beth is back, Lily is a baby, and the three of them are dancing in the kitchen. Everyone is smiling and laughing and Henry's body feels so airy that he puts Lily in her highchair and leans to embrace them both. But his wife starts screaming and a strange studio audience boos.

What's wrong? Henry asks. What's the matter?

He stands frozen and helpless until Beth points to Lily who has green, red, yellow, brown substances flowing out of a diamond-shaped hole in her head. 

You did this, Beth says. You did this. 

He wakes, jolted and guilty for napping in the day, sleeping when he should be working. He turns off the stereo and walks into the kitchen where Lily is peeling an apple.

When did she come in? He watches her deft, slow turns of the apple peel. It is a large apple and the peel drapes down alongside it in spiraling swirls. 

"I'm only back for a minute. Alex-Yang is napping."

What does Alex-Yang dream about, Henry wonders, watching her cut the skinless apple into little cubes.  Smaller and smaller cubes until the pieces are so small that she uses a butter knife. What's she doing?

"You probably wonder what I'm doing." Lily looks at him.

He nods, trying not to seem eager.

She slides the million cubes of apple into a baggie. "Alex-Yang doesn't eat like normal foods."

Neither do you, he thinks.

"If anything is like the littlest bit too hot or cold it will fuck up his cheek. All the operations."

"Poor guy."

"Yeah, well. It sucks 'cuz he really can't eat anything. Apples have to be really small pieces and he has to suck them so they disintegrate. He can't chew them. Anything too big will knock out the stitches."

"That's for Alex-Yang?" Henry's heart sinks. The apple is not for Lily. It's for a small Chinese boy with a diamond-shaped hole in his cheek. 

"No," Lily tells him, "it's for me." 

He smiles. 

She shrugs. "They only had one apple at the Woolf's, and Alex-Yang only eats if other people are eating exactly what he's eating. It's strange." 

More than ever Henry wants to meet this little boy.  

"Mrs. Woolf says that Alex-Yang likes to eat only when I'm with him. She says he must feel more comfortable around me than other people."

"That's great."

"I mean he likes other people okay, but he eats on his own when I'm with him, though. When I'm not, Mrs. Woolf has to force him. She says it's a lot more work when I'm not there."

"Oh."

"She says she didn't realize how hard it would be to, you know, have him. You could..." Lily walks to the door. "You could say that I'm kind of keeping him alive, in a way. You know, because he only eats when I'm there."

"Wow," Henry says. "That's great, Lil. That's really great."

But three hours later, it's far from great. It seems like they might never get to the mall to buy Lily's new sneakers. 

"There's so much traffic," she whines. "Can't we go tomorrow?"

"Today's your birthday," he says, seriously. "Look—Mount Rainier," he continues, as if the mountain, which is starting to come into view, is an unusual landmark for someone who has lived all of her life in Seattle. 

Lily pulls the bottom part of her sneaker. The rubber is loose and minute particles fall to the floor. Henry almost tells her to stop ruining her sneakers, that pulling them is making them worse, but there's no point.  They're ruined anyway. That's why he will buy her new ones. Which is crazy. Taking I-5 at 5:30 is crazy too.  He knows better. They're barely five miles from their house, but haven't moved in twenty minutes. There are too many cars on this stretch of freeway; it is weighted down and soon the road will buckle and the earth will swallow them up, everything in the car, sneakers and all. 

"Did you know that Washington, D.C., has the worst traffic?" he says.

Lily shrugs.

"Seattle is third." He counts eight red cars, seven blue cars, three white ones, seven black, and a foreign one somewhere between yellow and green. Henry should have known better than to drive to the mall. He shouldn't have asked what she wanted for her birthday. He stares at a family in a large blue minivan, wonders what they will make for dinner, then looks at the shoulder blades jabbing through his daughter's shirt.

What if he doesn't buy them? Lily would have to glue the rubber back to her shoe. The glue would bubble when it dried and Lily's shoes would be uneven and she wouldn't be able to run. Except she'd probably buy sneakers herself. She has enough money to buy the sneakers herself. She has gotten rich this summer from chewing apple bits with a Chinese boy who has a hole in his cheek.  

"You know what's weird?" she asks, five minutes later.  

"No. What?"

"Alex-Yang isn't supposed to chew on his left side, right? That's where the hole is, was. He's supposed to chew on the right side, but he doesn't. It hurts when he chews on the left and the food drips out of the hole. You'd think it'd be easier to chew on the right side."

"Sounds complex."

"His Chinese doctors yell at him for it. I mean I think that's what they're saying. I don't know for sure."

Henry keeps driving. All he wants to do is get to the mall. Once they get there, he'll know what to do, know what to say. For now, he'll keep driving. 

But when they finally arrive there, he has no idea what to do. The mall feels complicated and he has no choice but to follow Lily as she weaves through the web of large people with large shopping bags to the store where she will pick out sneakers she wants her father to buy her.

Blue ones. 

Blue ones with orange stripes. Henry hands the woman at the register his credit card. His hands feel heavy as he scrawls his name across the receipt. He doesn't want to do this, any of it, but he has to. 

"Let's eat," he says after he hands her the bag. The steaks can stay in the freezer. That's the good thing about being frozen. Things don't go bad in the cold. It's heat that spoils things, causes problems like cancer.

He chooses Uncle Chang's Express because it's the first restaurant he sees and it seems impossibly easy to point at the dried yellow rice and gelatinous chicken and say "two please, two Cokes," and pay for them and slide a tray over to Lily. It's easier to do this here and now rather than later, when they are home and she's cutting her steak into cubes and dropping them into her lap while Henry pretends not to look.

He looks at her, inches forward in his chair. 

"I'm not hungry."

"Lily," he says sternly, not moving his eyes from her, "it's after six. You didn't eat breakfast. You had maybe one one-hundredth of an apple for lunch. You must be absolutely starving. Unless," he lifts his chopstick and points it at her, "unless, there's something wrong."

She looks away.

"Lily," Henry says, "what's wrong?"

She closes, and then opens one eye. Left, right, left. Open, close, open.

Perception. He showed her this when she was Alex-Yang's age. The way your little finger can move from side to side without really moving.

"Lily. I'll help you. We'll find people to help you through this," he says.

"You. Can't. Make. Me. Eat. This."

"No. I can't." Why is he doing this now? Why didn't he say this last night? Last week? Why now?

"It's disgusting, this food."

Henry takes a bite. She's right. The chicken is thickly sweet, sticky. But still, in an odd way, in a way that doesn't fit into any laws of physics or rules of science, it makes sense to be here, to eat this.

"I'll eat at home."

"I don't believe you," he says. He has a bad taste in his mouth and even if he wanted to, he doesn't think he could stand up now.

"I hate you," she says.

"Fine. But it doesn't solve this problem."

"I don't have a problem." Lily bolts up. "Nothing is wrong. Everything is fine."

"Really? You're fine?"  

"I'm just not hungry. Let's go."

"After you eat."

"Fuck you!" Lily picks up a handful of chicken and rice and throws it at him before running off.

He imagines running after her, but she's too fast. He brushes the rice from his chest and shoulders onto the floor. Calmly, he removes the cubes of chicken from his hair and lap. He sets them in a neat row on his tray. Then he eats one. A piece for Lil, he thinks. A piece for Alex-Yang. He chews on the left side of his mouth. Maybe later, he'll go meet Alex-Yang. He should do it sooner rather than later because soon the skin over the hole in his cheek will grow thick and strong, and Alex-Yang will return to China. 

Alex-Yang, Henry will say as they chew on the wrong sides of their mouths, what do you think I should do about Lily?

Alex-Yang, Henry will say, I miss my wife and I miss my daughter and sometimes it feels like the walls of my life are closing in on me.

Henry keeps eating. He chews and swallows in a unified syncopated rhythm until fifteen minutes have gone by and Lily returns, sitting across from him in the food court, scowling. "You ruined my birthday."

"Sorry," he tells her, even though he's not. He closes his eyes and thinks about all the problems he's going to have to deal with, all the answers he'll have to write. "Lily? What do you think you're going to do?"

"I'm only starting tenth grade, Dad." When she rolls her eyes, her hunger rolls between them like waves. "I don't have to worry about my career now."

"I mean, where do you think this will get you? Do you see that it's not any place good? You have so much going for you. I don't know why you want to do this...this terrible thing." He catches her eye. "Because it is terrible, Lily. It hurts me to watch you hurt yourself." 

"I'm not hurting myself." She stabs one piece, then another piece of chicken onto her chopstick. Henry watches it bob up and down. Will she eat it? They both stare at it. 

"What I'm going to do is..." She puts down the chopstick. "When I graduate," she spits out, "when I'm eighteen and don't live in your house, I'm going to move to L.A. With my friends. And start a band." She scowls, dares him to argue.

"Really? I didn't know you played an instrument."

She gives him an incredulous stare. "Well, not yet. But I could sing or learn how to play the bass or something. It's not hard. I could do it."

"I'm sure you could. If that's what you want."

"It is," she says stubbornly. "My friend's brother lives in L.A. and knows all these musicians. He says L.A. is like becoming the number one city for industrial and Goth."

L.A. is the second worst for traffic, Henry almost says. He didn't mention that in the car but now he wants to tell her not to go to L.A. or D.C. The traffic is so much worse there. He needs her to stay here. But of course, she won't. She's going to grow up and go away. He tries to imagine her—at 19, 21, and 32. Living in L.A. At 32 she will be eight years older than Beth in the picture on his desk. At 40 she will be the age Beth was when she died. In 38 years Lily will be Henry's age, the age he is at this very moment sitting with his teenage daughter on her birthday, two plates of greasy Chinese food between them. He can't imagine her so far, so old. He eats a piece of her chicken. Then another. And another. She watches him chew and swallow.

"Well," he says after several long minutes. "If you make it to L.A. you really will be Lily of the Valley."

"What are you talking about?" She sounds angry. "What valley?"

And in an instant Henry realizes that she's still so young. Fifteen is nothing. His daughter is so young that she doesn't even know that Los Angeles is called the Valley. And it's this—the idea that he still knows infinitely more than she does that makes the problem, her not eating, all of a sudden, manageable. Henry is Lily's father, no matter what she says to him or what she wears or what music she listens to. And as her father, Henry understands with an almost startling clarity that he can help her. He will help her, he thinks. When they get home, he'll call doctors, other parents, and everyone else he can think of who might be able to tell him what he can do with a fifteen-year-old who doesn't want to eat. He can call people, and research, and work day and night to help. There is nothing between them except the here and now, and Henry understands that soon they will dump their plates in the trash, stack their trays on top of one another, and go home.

"Nothing," he says gently. He stands up. "You want to get going? You want to go home?"

Lily scowls, but a moment later stands up and follows him through the food court, back through the mall, and into the parking lot. Henry links her arm through his, and for that moment she doesn't protest. He imagines he and Lily will go to see Alex-Yang together, where she will eat the food the boy eats. Lily will eat everything then, and Henry will lightly touch the fresh skin on Alex-Yang's cheek, reassured that the boy is healthy and strong. That everyone is.