They have a special way of talking about it, key phrases that they repeat with admiration, as if there is anything admirable about divorce. “They did their best not to allow it to effect the kids,” they say, usually after some bitter story about custody battles and renegotiated child support payments. Of anyone, he has the most right to be divorced. It would have been understandable in his case. “It’s hard for a marriage to survive the loss of a child.” That’s a key phrase, too, a piece of conventional wisdom that he and Mary have decided to block. But they are like divorced parents, anyway. They’ve both hidden their grief away, out of love for their other children. It often seems to him that every interaction is just a pretense. Now I will smile and make small talk, now I will compliment the science fair project, now I will cheer at the track meet. He stands among jostling, shouting, smiling bodies in the bleachers, and the memory of Bea, and those terrible years after they lost her, comes shuddering back into him, and he looks around at his indifferent neighbors, hiding his disgust, but it isn’t hidden from Mary, because he meets her eye and sees that she feels it, too.
If Bea had died, there might have been some possibility of peace. But she is simply gone. She went out jogging one day during her freshman year of high school, and she never came back. He still pauses whenever the phone rings, and his heart flickers with the tiniest hope. At the grocery store, at the airport, on the sidewalk outside of his office building, he still expects to catch a glimpse of her, and she is always the way she was when she disappeared, still running, her jogging shirt and shorts slack against her frail young body. But he is a master dissembler. He smiles and nods, jokes about politics, comments on internet memes, talks about his golf game. He still says nice things about the world to his remaining children, protecting them from his hatred of it.
Now it is his youngest daughter’s high school graduation. The gym is small and the parents sit on the bleachers. The stage and podium are set-up under the basketball hoop. He remembers his own graduation, and how the gym seemed large because the world seemed large, and he didn’t yet think in terms of arrangements and practicalities, didn’t look for the cord coming from the microphone to follow its length across the gym floor, seeing where it had been slipped under a thin plastic mat so that no one would trip on it. He had graduated in a different gym, in a different city, but they are all the same. This is a constant thought, that everything in the world is the same. It seems to hold out some hope for Bea. Maybe it wasn’t some exceptional evil that took her. Maybe she found her way to a different family, in a different place, one that is entirely comfortable in its sameness.
This is supposed to be Callie’s day. She sits in the second row of plastic chairs, her blue graduation gown draped across her slim shoulders. She is a popular child, and she seems so confident sitting there. Her hair is an autumnal red. “How would I recognize her,” he wonders, “if she were to disappear?” It’s a ridiculous question on the surface. But he often wonders it, even about himself. “If I were to disappear, how would they know it was me, if I came back to them?” He has a scar on his left hand, where a wart was removed when he was a child. And one on his upper lip, a thin line that appeared after he popped a zit when he was fourteen. He points these out to his wife sometimes, so that she’ll know to look for them if he disappears and comes back. “Do you think you’ll be replaced by an impostor?” she asks. Maybe, he thinks. He no longer knows for sure what can happen in the world. Didn’t Elizabeth Smart wander around Salt Lake City in disguise? And wasn’t there a moment, or maybe he’s just imagined it, when her parents passed her on the street without noticing her?
He has invested Bea with all of his love. His wife and his children don’t know this, because his love for his vanished daughter has been a kind of training. He loves her and loves her, and it is unrequited, because there is no Bea left to know about it. Only the vision of Bea, his idealized daughter, who seems to smile at him from somewhere within the gym. He studies the children’s heads, there on the gym floor below him, and expects to see one turn and look at him with Bea’s smile and Bea’s eyes. And if that happened, if she was suddenly and miraculously there, wearing her tasseled cap and blue gown, he would climb over the other parents to take her hand when she offered it to him. He is sure that Mary and Callie and his two other children would understand, that they would know, as she led him towards the gym doors, that whatever love he’s shown them in the past seven years has been the refined essence of what he gives to Beatrice, that loving his vanished girl has taught him how to really love, selflessly and hopelessly and with abandon.