Emma Cline is the author of The Girls. Her story collection Daddy will be published September 2020. Cline was the winner of the Plimpton Prize, and was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. The Girls was an international bestseller and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, the First Novel Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Close to five hours on the train. And then twenty minutes by taxi from the station to the school. He would have time to call the lawyer, work through the options. He had the number of a consultant, in case Rowan needed to apply somewhere else. Maybe the school legally had to contact the college he’d got into, but Richard wasn’t sure. And maybe it wouldn’t come to that. The school wouldn’t want to make anything public. The thought calmed him—good, good. They were on his side, even if they had not said so in so many words: they weren’t stupid.
The trains were housed underground, in cool alleys of concrete, and Richard headed for the first car. It was only half full, the interior air recirculated to an unnatural chill. Richard settled in, that brief moment when he could present himself anew in the context of this narrowed world. He could be kind, he could be neat and conscientious, and all it took was laying his folded jacket on the seat beside him, tucking his newspaper into the webbed nylon pocket.
Richard’s pills were in his bag, consolidated in one container. He could easily identify them by shape and color, the pills for depression and insomnia. Offering nudges in his mood like the touch of a dance partner, a subtle but real pressure. He felt for the pill tube through the bag’s front pocket— there it was—and he was reassured, lightened.
The car filled slowly. Newcomers maintaining a zone of polite privacy, choosing seats and shaking out their newspapers as if they were making a bed. Everyone excessively tidy, excessively generous. Passing their gum silently into a napkin held to their mouths. No matter that, an hour into the ride, all solicitousness would be forgotten, music leaking through headphones, bawling phone conversations, children racing down the aisle.
A sullen girl and her father were stopped in the aisle beside him, waiting for a man to hoist his luggage. The girl stared at Richard, a fresh zit between her brows like a third eye. She was maybe fourteen, a few years younger than Rowan, but how much more childish she seemed than his son. Her gaze was unsettling, too specific—Richard looked down at his phone.
There was bad service underground, no reassuring stairstep bars on his screen, but once the train started moving he could make calls. He reread the email from Pam. Then the lawyer’s email referring the consultant. “She’s very good,” he’d written. “A real pro.” Nothing from Ana. Poor Ana, her weekend ruined. She had tried her best to be a good sport. That was the phrase he was sure was circling down at the bottom of her thoughts, stern ticker tape: be a good sport be a good sport be a good sport.
He and Ana would have had a better time if they could’ve gone in the water. If it had been summer, they could’ve gone in the water, and that would’ve helped, but it wasn’t summer, so they didn’t. They sat with their backs against the base of a driftwood fence that marked someone’s beachfront rectangle. The sand was baked and pale, the sea dark. Ana held his hand loosely, her face shaded under a floppy white hat. Richard had the thought that she might have bought the hat specifically to wear this weekend, and the idea made him wince.
They had lunch in town, an endless lunch. Richard could not catch the waiter’s eye, and the plates lingered too long, the silverware dirtied and askew, and who wanted to stare at the soiled instruments of their feeding? The white wine tasted like granite. Ana stepped outside to call her husband. Richard could see her from the table, pacing in the courtyard. She touched her collar, turning away so her face was hidden.
She returned to the table, tore a roll in half, and soaked it in oil. She chewed energetically, her enthusiasm without veil. She piloted the conversation: work, work, a problem with a tenant who wouldn’t vacate a house. Bad health news from a cousin on the West Coast. Richard’s responses were clipped, but Ana didn’t seem to notice, taking time with her lunch: she ate normally, sensibly, free from darker hungers. “How’s Rowan?” she asked. Richard had not got the call, not yet, so he felt no anxiety at the mention of the name—Rowan was doing fine, he said, his grades were fine. Though he saw Rowan’s grades only if his ex-wife sent them to him, never mind that he paid the tuition.
The waiter came by to see if they wanted dessert.
“Should we?” Ana asked, breathlessly, the waiter grinning in practiced collusion. Richard couldn’t bear to enact his role, play at naughtiness.
“If you want,” he said, lightly, forcing himself to erase any impatience from his voice. But Ana picked up on it anyway.
“Nothing for me,” she said, handing the menu back to the waiter, making a face of cartoonish regret. You don’t have to apologize to him, he wanted to say. The waiter really doesn’t care. Then he felt bad for being unkind. He squeezed her hand across the table; she brightened.
Her husband was out of town for the entire weekend, and this was the first time they had spent the night together. Everything seemed significant to her—the groceries she put in the fridge, the movies she had downloaded to her laptop, that hat. Stress had caused a haze of pink to cloud her eyes, a mild case of conjunctivitis that she tried hard to downplay. Every four hours, she tipped back her head and squeezed a dropper of antibiotic into each eye.
Richard didn’t need to do it, but he did—sought out these married women, the ones who looked at him across a table of catered tournedos and cut peonies while their husbands talked to the people on their right. Women whose lingerie was haunted by the prick of the plastic tag they’d tried to snap off so that he wouldn’t realize it was new.
They were the type of women whose own sorrow moved them immeasurably. Who wanted to recount the details of their worst tragedies in the lull after sex. Ana hadn’t seemed like that kind of woman. She tended to all her own weaknesses, briskly removing her own underwear but never taking off her watch. Like the other married women, she always knew what time it was.
She was a real estate agent, one of her listings the house in which they were staying. It had been Richard’s mother’s house, until she died, and was now his. He had never liked visiting his mother here, on the occasions he did, and there was no thought of keeping the place.
The afternoon they’d first met, Ana had been optimistic about the property. “It’s nice acreage,” she said. “Big but not too overwhelming.” She walked ahead of Richard, opening doors, passing through rooms, turning on lights and faucets. Wearing tailored shorts, so that her nice legs showed.
The second time: Richard’s hands loose on Ana’s head as she gamely kneeled. They were outside, on the back porch, Richard’s ass pressing into the slick plastic slats of a lawn chair as he tried feverishly to imagine someone watching. He said thanks, when it was over, as Ana discreetly spat into the grass.
“Really,” Richard said. “That was great.” Ana’s smile was crooked. It was summer then, and behind them the massed green of the trees moved in silence. That was the thing about being with married women, how hidden pockets of the day were suddenly revealed. The slightest pressure and the grid buckled, exposing the glut of hours. It was only eleven and he still had the whole day ahead of him.
Back in the city, she came over at strange times, carrying a gym bag that stayed untouched by the door. Her husband, Jonathan, was an importer of olive oil and other things kept in dark, cool warehouses.
Ana said his name often when she was with Richard, but he didn’t mind. He was glad for the helpless invocation of her real life—he didn’t need a reminder of the limits, the end already visible from the moment she had first shaken his hand, but maybe she needed a reminder. The groceries she’d brought this weekend worried him, the purity of their domestic striving, and so did the questions about his son, the assumption that Richard was tracking the saga of her cousin’s health. How she had made up the bare mattress with the sheets they’d brought, eager as a new bride.
They would go back to the city the day after next, and Jonathan would return from wherever Jonathan had gone and the house would sell and all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well—the phrase surfaced in his brain, some hippie scrap that Pam used to incant to herself.
It was dark outside, the sky faltering to black. Ana squeezed a dropper of her antibiotic into one eye and then the other, then shut her eyes tight. “A minute,” she said, eyes still closed. “Tell me when a minute is up.”
Richard was putting the dishes away.
“A minute,” he said, after a while, though he’d forgotten to check, and she opened her eyes.
“They feel any better?” he said.
“Yeah,” she said. “Lots.” She was a smart woman. She had sensed some shift in his attention and was now willfully cheerful, cool, not giving away too much. Her bare feet kneaded the cushions. She’d plugged in her laptop, and a menu screen was queued up for a black-and-white movie that he didn’t want to watch. “Someone could take down this wall,” she said, nodding at the room, “and then have their dining table in here.”
“Someone could,” he agreed.
“That’s Rowan?” she said. There was a framed photo: Rowan, a few hours old, in Pam’s arms.
Ana got up to look more closely. “She’s pretty.”
He wanted to tell Ana that there was no need to catalog Pam’s attractiveness, or try to gauge Richard’s feelings for her—nothing residual remained. They’d been divorced sixteen years. She lived in Santa Barbara, had married again and divorced again, existed only as a voice on the telephone arranging logistics or relaying information.
“Is he sad you’re selling the house?” Ana said.
It took him a moment. “Is Rowan sad?”
“He must have had fun here. In summers and stuff.” Richard wiped his hands on his pants; there were no dishtowels.
“We only came here a few times. Rowan likes the city better, I think. I don’t think he cares.”
Pam and Richard had divorced when Rowan was two. Pam had moved to the West Coast—really, since then Richard saw Rowan only in summers, and then for only the few weeks the boy wasn’t at camp. But they had been good times. Good enough—Rowan a small stranger who’d arrive for the summer, dark-eyed and bearing a Ziploc of vitamins from Pam with detailed instructions for their distribution. With his private ways and ritualized habits, one summer obsessed with a leather wallet some boyfriend of his mother’s must have given him.
Richard fell asleep during the movie, snorting awake with his head on his chest. Ana laughed, a little unkindly. “You snore,” she said. “I didn’t know you snore.”
“It’s still going?” he said. The actors on the screen had soft-looking faces; he had no idea what was happening.
“We aren’t even halfway through,” she said. “You want me to go back?”
He shook his head, forcing himself to stay awake. The movie finished to violent trumpets, the end scrolling in gilded, overblown script. She shut her laptop in the middle of a horn blast.
“Bed?” he said.
She shrugged. “I might stay up.”
She wanted to talk, he could tell, itching for him to push back, probe for the source of her discontent.
“I have to sleep,” he said.
Ana rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said, stretching out her pretty legs without looking at him, her youth the ultimate trump card.
Alone in the upstairs bedroom, Richard took off his pants and raked his fingers through the hair above his belly. He left his boxers on, swimmy white cotton that Ana hated, and pulled just the top sheet over himself. Where had Ana even found that movie, and what logic had made her think he would like a black-and-white movie? He was only fifty. Or fifty-one. He fell asleep.
Ana was shaking him, pushing his shoulder. “Richard.”
He recognized her voice, dimly, a ripple on the water, but didn’t open his eyes.
“Your phone,” she said, louder. “Come on.”
It had vibrated, she told him, an incoming call, and she had ignored it, except it happened two more times. Richard sat up and took the phone, dumbly: Pam. Three missed calls. He oriented the time: it was only ten in Santa Barbara. But one a.m. here—Rowan. Something to do with Rowan. He was still half asleep, a bad feeling only beginning to make itself known.
“Is everything okay?” Ana said, and he started; he had forgotten her, the stranger on the bed, staring at him with her pinkish eyes.
He went down to the kitchen to call Pam back. “Richard, Jesus,”
she said, picking up on the first ring. “He’s fine, fine, totally safe,” and Richard told himself that he had never thought otherwise, though immediately his mind had zoomed through a pornographic strip of every evil thing that could have befallen his son. “The school called— I don’t really understand, they aren’t telling me anything. He’s fine, but they need one of us there. Some trouble, a fight or something.”
There was a pause. “I was sleeping,” he said. “I’m sorry.” Pam sighed. “I can’t get there until Monday,” she said. “Why do they have these schools out in the middle of nowhere?”
“But he’s fine.”
“He’s fine. I guess someone got hurt. He was involved, or so they said.”
As a child, Rowan had not liked violence. He found the tightest corner of every room and folded himself there.
“Have you talked to him?”
“He didn’t say very much. It’s hard to tell.”
Richard pushed a finger between his brows.
“Those people at that goddamn school,” Pam said, off on a tear. As she talked, he spotted Ana in the doorway, listening while trying to appear as if she weren’t, her eyes cast carefully down.
“I’ll go up,” he said, interrupting Pam. “First thing.”
Ana snapped to attention—here was information that affected her, and she tried and failed to hide her disappointment.
The train moved at a forgotten pace, quaint. He had taken the train often when he worked for the Treasury Department, ten years before. The express, with regulars heading straight to their usual seats. The train rattled along with all the carnival heave and huff. Passing houses, boxy and plain, with aprons of lawn, the hedges sheared neatly like military haircuts. Rowan’s school used to require such haircuts. Uniforms, too. Dark gray, worsted wool, jackets with rows of brass. But that was fifty years ago. Now it was scrubbed of any implication of violence, less like a school and more like a coed holding pen, funneling students into Ivy League and liberal arts colleges—there was no focus on anything beyond college itself, the first fact of acceptance. The invitation to a party when the party was incidental. Rowan had got into a better-than-expected college—Pam was surprised and pleased—its website a well-designed labyrinth of photographs and italicized quotes in a vaguely corporate color scheme.
The boy wanted to study international relations, but that seemed to mean he wanted to study abroad and drink in new countries. He didn’t exhibit any interest in Richard’s work, apart from a desultory question or two, offered out of nowhere.
“How much money do you make?” he’d asked Richard once.
Richard didn’t know whether to lie, whether other parents had some complicated moral arithmetic about these things. He told Rowan the truth, embellishing slightly—the year would pick up, he was sure—and Rowan seemed appropriately impressed, his eyes going cold and adult as he processed the information.
Richard had not thought of Rowan so much in a long time, not this condensed concern. He called him every once in a while, or pinged off a series of texts, Rowan’s responses shorter and shorter until the exchange trailed into virtual silence—How are your classes? Fine. They were useless missives, but he felt he had to make these offerings. If there was a reckoning, a moment when they demanded to see the record, he could present these messages. Proof that he had tried. Ana would be driving back to the city now. He’d sent off a quick text to her as the train pulled out, apologies that the weekend had ended so abruptly, but there was still no word from her. Maybe she hadn’t seen it. Or maybe she was sulking. She was a childish woman, he thought, and let himself feel free of her, glad for the escape Pam’s call had offered. He drank water from a plastic bottle. He checked his phone again. He would meet with the headmaster in the afternoon.
Richard was going to wait until the train was halfway there to take a pill. This was the kind of rule he was only foggily aware of, the patter under the surface of his waking brain. But the rules were easily bent by obscure rationalizations. A cold look from a stranger, a rumble of hunger or impatience, discomfort: any of these could tip Richard into a sudden certainty that he deserved to have the pill now. So he uncapped the tube and didn’t acknowledge what he was doing until he was already staring into the abundance. Oval, he decided, after a moment. He washed the pill off his tongue with a slug of water, swallowing hard. When it dropped, there was no more doggy-paddling against the riptide of the day—he could relax, let it pass over him. Clicking in like rails.
He waited ten minutes for a taxi: none appeared. All around him, people streamed off to the parking garage or hustled to the cars of loved ones, cars that arrived like magic and painlessly collected their cargo. Passengers sorted themselves into their proper places, trunks slamming. Richard checked his phone—still nothing from Ana, Christ. It was almost noon, clouds beginning to condense overhead.
Richard went to ask the attendant at the parking garage about taxis. “One’ll show up,” the man said, and Richard stalked back to the curb, his bag thudding into his side.
Finally a burgundy minivan pulled up. Richard exhaled loudly, though no one was there to hear him. The driver had long hair and rimless glasses, and hustled to open the trunk.
“I’ll just keep my bag with me,” Richard said.
“Sure,” the man said, bobbing from foot to foot. “Sure. You want to sit up in front?”
“No,” Richard said, after a moment of confusion. Did people ever want to sit in front? Though, now that he was getting in the back, he understood that some people did sit in the front, or the man wouldn’t have asked. What kind of people? People who wanted to advertise their own goodness. He didn’t care if the driver thought he was a shitty person because he didn’t want to ride alongside him.
When he gave the name of the school, the driver turned to the backseat.
“Do you have the address?”
Irritation prickled up Richard’s scalp. “It’s the only school around,” he said. “You don’t know it?”
“Sure I do,” the driver said, churlish now. “I just wanna plug it into the machine, see, it’ll tell me the best way to go.”
This was why you lived in cities—abundance buffered you from the vagaries of human contact. If this had happened at home, Richard would have got out and grabbed the next cab. But here he was forced to sit as the man fumbled with his GPS, forced to encounter the full, dull reality of this person. He sat back and closed his eyes.
“All set,” the driver announced. Richard picked up a punitive lilt in the man’s tone, but when he opened his eyes the car was moving and the man was silent, staring ahead.
The school was at the top of a hill, overlooking the town, the swift-moving river spanned by a stone bridge. The campus buildings were gray limestone, tidy and stark. It had snowed a few days earlier, it seemed, but not enough to be picturesque, and in the muddy aftermath everything looked cheerless.
Rowan was supposed to meet him in front of the chapel, but he wasn’t there. Richard should have stopped first to stow his bag at the one inn in town, with its basket of Saran-wrapped corn muffins at the front desk. He had been to the school twice before: dropping Rowan off the September of his freshman year, and picking him up for a single, awkward Thanksgiving.
He moved his bag to the other shoulder, checked his phone. An hour until his meeting with the headmaster. Rowan wasn’t answering texts or calls. Richard glanced at his phone’s blank screen—the galactic space of it, the empty hum. How often was he checking? Ana hadn’t texted even once. He typed another note to her. All okay here. He watched the cursor blink—he erased the message.
He stood there for another few minutes before a boy and a girl ambled toward him, the boy not immediately recognizable as his son. It was Rowan, obvious now as the boy got closer, and Richard pretended he’d known all along. Wasn’t that what parents were supposed to do? Be able to spot their children in a crowd, in an instant, the most primal of recognitions?
“Father,” Rowan said, half smiling. His son had never called him Father, even when he was a little boy. He wore a shiny jacket that seemed borrowed from someone else; his wrists strained in the too-small sleeves. Richard looked from the girl to his son. He went to hug Rowan, but stuttered, a moment of hesitation, and his bag dropped down his arm and he had to reshoulder it, an awkward lurch, and in that time the girl thrust out her hand.
“Hi, Mr. Hagood,” she said.
Before Richard could understand who she was, she was shaking his hand. She had washed green eyes, thickish animal hair that fell to her waist.
“Livia,” Rowan said. “My girlfriend.”
Richard had never heard anything about a girlfriend. He stared at Rowan. “Why don’t you and I talk alone for a minute?”
“We can talk in front of Livia. Right, babe?”
A dormant headache pulsed back to life. “I think we need to talk,” Richard said. “Alone.”
“Come on,” Rowan said. “She’s great.”
Richard could feel Livia watching them.
“I’m sure she’s great,” Richard said, trying to keep his voice even. “And I’m sure she can excuse us for a moment. Right, Livia?” He forced a smile, and, after a moment, the girl shrugged at Rowan and ambled a few feet away. She breathed into her cupped hands, studiously looking away when Richard glanced over.
“I’m meeting with your headmaster in less than an hour,” he said.
Rowan’s face didn’t change. “Yeah.”
“Is there anything you want to say?”
Rowan was staring past Richard, his arms folded and straining against the jacket sleeves. “It wasn’t a big deal,” he said, and smiled. Out of discomfort, Richard told himself, and he felt it, too; a grimace tightened his own face. Rowan seemed to take this as some kind of collusion, and his posture relaxed. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one with a teenager’s elaborate casualness.
“Don’t smoke,” Richard said. “It can’t be allowed?”
Rowan let the cigarette hover a moment in the air, the smell rising between them. “Frisch doesn’t care. And there’s worse things than smoking,” he said, taking a drag. “It’s not even that bad for you.”
Richard’s hands flexed, then relaxed. What could he do, snatch the cigarette away? His headache was worse. The pill was wearing off, the granularity of each minute becoming more apparent. He wanted to check his phone. His son kept smoking, his exhale threading thinly through the air before breaking apart. The girl was stamping her feet now, her puffy boots making her legs above them seem tiny and breakable, and Richard imagined, for a second, snapping them clean. He cleared his throat. “Where’s the headmaster’s office?”
Paul Frisch had attended the school as a teenager, back when it was still single-sex. His time there had been slurred over by distance until it seemed blessed, four years steadily knit with hearty friendships and kindly teachers and good-natured pranks. No matter that he had been somewhat unpopular, occasionally the recipient of pointed abuse, once punched so hard that he vomited in a tidy unreal circle in the snow. They pushed his face into his own warm sick. It was easy to forget, though. And enough had happened on the other side of the fulcrum—a scholarship to college, a sensible girl who became his wife, her long hair worn in a single braid. He’d returned to teach at the school for many years before taking over as headmaster. This office with its oak furniture and mullioned windows. A life tipping toward good, and it was only this kind of thing, the occasional meeting of this sort, that called up a sour whiff from the back of his throat, a familiar feeling elbowing its way to the light.
The student: chubby with the helpless bulk that came from psychiatric drugs, not from excess of enjoyment. Thatchy hair, like the nests that deer make in grass. He wasn’t unattractive, just raw, all there on the surface. Frisch had met with his parents that morning. The boy’s mother looked older than she was. A high flush on her neck, a darty, wild look. Her husband kept one arm around her in a weary huddle.
They were decent people, unable to imagine or prepare for anything like this.
And now here was Rowan Hagood’s father, wearing a wool overcoat that smelled like the cold air, a man who kept tilting his phone in his lap to check the screen, as if Frisch couldn’t plainly see what he was doing. Frisch shifted in his chair, the leather seat giving off a flatulent squeak that triggered an old self-consciousness. Rowan’s father was hearty, at first, ready to find a solution, to cooperate. He had a full head of hair and the aggressively pleasant affect of someone used to getting what he wanted. Smiling a contained, respectful smile, a smile that assumed a shared interest here.
Rowan could not stay at the school, though his father seemed to expect otherwise. Not even the most rabid of parents with the most rabid of lawyers could have kept Rowan there. Frisch repeated the facts. As he went on, the man’s heartiness started to fray, and he began passing his phone from palm to palm with increasing agitation. Frisch laid out the time line they had pieced together, what the hospital’s report had concluded.
Rowan’s life was not ruined. In lieu of expulsion, he and the others would be asked to leave. Rowan would be given the chance to transfer somewhere else to finish the semester. Colleges wouldn’t be notified, the incident never part of any formal, accessible record. This was the best possible outcome for Rowan, Frisch explained, and Mr. Hagood should be grateful that his son’s future was intact. All this would recede in Rowan’s life, Frisch knew, a blip easily calcified. People like Rowan and his father were always protected from themselves.
Earlier that morning, before the other boy’s mother and father had left his office, the mother had stopped and looked at Frisch. “He’ll be all right, won’t he?” she asked, her voice unraveling.
Frisch had assured the parents that their son would be fine. They needed to hear him say it. Everything would be okay. And how could he say otherwise—confess that he had spoken with the boy a few hours after everything, had looked into the boy’s black, roving eyes, and that he couldn’t say what would happen later, what any of this would mean?
Richard descended the dark, narrow stairs that led to the dining room of the one fancy restaurant in town. White tablecloths and stiff lace curtains—this was a part of the country where somber stood in for formal. Rowan and Livia followed behind at the respectful but vaguely menacing distance typical of bodyguards and teenagers. Their whispers were punctuated only by the girl’s grating laugh. The kids had been twenty minutes late meeting him at his hotel, but the restaurant was mostly empty, Richard’s reservation an unnecessary urban habit.
Pam had cried on the phone when he called her after the meeting, though Richard was careful to repeat what the headmaster had said: Rowan would still go to college; this could all be dealt with soon enough. There were logistics to get through, but it was fixable. Richard didn’t fill in the blanks in the story. Didn’t flesh out the incident in full, obscene detail—details the headmaster seemed to linger over, studying Richard’s face as he recounted the whole thing. Like he wanted Richard to feel bad, like Richard should be the one to offer an apology. And he did feel bad—the story was awful, perverse, made his gut tighten. But what could he do now, what could anyone do? He apologized, pitching the wording carefully—enough to acknowledge that the incident was bad but not enough to encourage any kind of future lawsuit.
The waitress handed out menus while Rowan and Livia scooted their chairs closer together. Rowan had obviously told her that he would have to leave the school—when the kids had finally shown up at Richard’s hotel the girl’s eyes were swollen from crying. Livia seemed fine now, no lingering sadness that Richard could discern. If anything, she was fizzy with secret hilarity, she and Rowan exchanging significant glances. They started to giggle, bizarrely, keeping up some coded conversation that he didn’t try to follow. Crescents of sweat were darkening the underarms of the girl’s shirt. Richard tipped his phone onto the table, casually, so he could tell himself he wasn’t really checking. Still nothing from Ana. His stomach hollowed and he picked at his napkin. He made an effort to smile at Livia, who looked back blankly with a shake of her uncombed hair.
Rowan had taken the news stoically, with a maddening tilt of his head as he stared past Richard out the window of his dorm room. He twisted a lacrosse stick in his hands while Richard talked, an in-and-out roll that kept a white ball trapped in the net. The movement was unusual, hypnotic, a kind of witchy glide. In the corner, his roommate’s humidifier motored away, loosing puffs of dampness.
Rowan’s nonchalance doubled Richard’s headache. “You understand this could have been much worse,” Richard said.
Rowan shrugged, keeping the ball in the net. “I guess.” This was his son, Richard kept reminding himself, and that fact had to be bigger than anything else.
“We will always help you,” Richard said, conscious of trying to gather some formality, a sense of fatherly occasion. “Your mother and I. I want you to know that.”
Rowan made a noise in the back of his throat, the barest of responses, but Richard saw the mask drop for a second, saw a quick flash of pure hatred in the boy’s face.
Richard knew he shouldn’t drink with the pills, but he ordered a beer anyway.
“Actually,” he said, “gin and tonic.”
Ana had told him once that clear alcohol was the healthiest—she drank vodka. Ana, with her nice legs and practical shoes and her skin, soapy and pale as a statue’s.
“I’ll have one, too,” Rowan said, sending Livia into a fit of giggling. The waitress looked at Richard for permission.
“No,” he said. “Christ.”
The rage in Richard grew and fizzled, easy as taking a breath, easy as not responding. He stuffed his mouth with a slice of bread, dry and lacking salt, and chewed intently.
After they ordered—the girl got the most expensive thing on the menu, Richard noted—he stepped out to the parking lot. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he announced to the kids. They ignored him. The river was close enough that he could hear it.
He called Ana. Pushing the button quieted some immediate anxiety, dropped it down a notch. He was taking action, he still had some control. But the phone kept ringing into space. Now the anxiety had doubled. It rang too many times. He felt the silence between each ring. He hung up. Maybe she had just been surprised by his call—they didn’t speak on the phone, as a rule. Or maybe she had her phone on silent, or maybe Jonathan was home early. Maybe. Or maybe she was just ignoring him. Back at her apartment, doing nothing, wearing her unflattering sweatpants, her dingy bra. Revulsion caught in his throat.
Richard knew he shouldn’t call again, but it was so easy to endure the same series of rings. He pressed the phone to his ear, wondering how long the rings could possibly go on. There was a moment, a click, when he thought she had answered—his stomach dropped—but it was only her voicemail. The recording made her voice sound eerie and far away. In the silence that followed the beep, he tried to think of something to say. He could see his breath.
“Cunt,” he said, suddenly, before hanging up.
He returned to the table, bending to retrieve his napkin from where it had fallen on the floor. An oblique thrill was animating his movements, a buoyant flush. The food arrived quickly, the waitress smiling as she set down the plates. Richard ordered a second drink. When the waitress left, Rowan stabbed a finger at her retreating back.
“Lizard person,” he announced. “Two points.” Livia started laughing again.
Richard just blinked, the drink a wave he was riding, another on its way. This was his son sitting beside him at the table? All is well, he thought, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
He sawed at his pork loin, salting the mashed potatoes, loading up his fork. Rowan had ordered the pasta—claiming to be a vegetarian, which seemed like another joke of some kind—and he ate steadily, his lips coated with oil. Livia sipped at her water and poked at her steak. She cut up some of the meat but only moved the pieces from one side of the plate to the other. Rowan was in the middle of a sentence when Livia quickly shifted one of the slices onto his plate. He looked down, but kept talking.
“Listen,” Richard said to Livia. He hadn’t meant to speak at all. “You can’t just drink water for dinner.”
Livia stared at him.
“You have to eat something,” Richard said.
“God,” Rowan said. “You aren’t eating that much, either.”
“I’m just fine,” Richard said. His son looked tense. Richard could tell that his hand was on Livia’s knee under the table. “I’m fine,” he repeated, “but I won’t allow Livia to starve.”
“What the fuck?” Rowan said.
Richard had never hit his son, not once. His mouth filled with saliva, and there was a pounding behind his eyes. Across the table, Livia still stared at him.
“Eat your food,” Richard said. “We aren’t going anywhere until you eat.”
Her eyes got wet. She picked up her fork, clutching it hard. She stabbed at a thick slice of steak and brought it to her mouth, chewing with tight lips, her neck surging when she swallowed. She took another bite, her eyes widening.
“God, stop it,” Rowan said. “It’s fine.”
Livia kept eating. “Stop, babe,” Rowan said, grabbing her wrist, her mouth still cartoonishly full. She dropped her fork, letting it clatter onto the floor.
“You’re a prick,” Rowan said, glaring at his father. “You were always such a fucking prick.”
The waitress hurried over with another fork, her face frozen in a frenzy of politeness that meant she’d seen the whole thing.
“Sorry,” the girl said, tears dripping into her lap.
“No problem,” the waitress sang, “no problem at all,” replacing the girl’s fork, bending to snatch the soiled one off the floor. Smiling hard but not making eye contact with anyone. When she retreated, leaving Richard alone with his son and the crying girl, it occurred to him, with the delayed logic of a dream, that the waitress must have thought he was the bad guy in all this.
From the book Daddy by Emma Cline. Copyright © 2020 by Emma Cline. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. This story originally appeared in The New Yorker. All rights reserved.