Gwen could not have been more explicit at our first session: I was to cease reading books by or about women who killed themselves.
An unhealthy obsession, that’s what my therapist called it, and I was inclined to agree with Gwen’s diagnosis. There was, after all, no other logical explanation for the string of events that brought me to her office. Ghosts do not exist. I hadn’t done mushrooms. No brain tumor. I resigned myself to the fact that what I’d seen and done was a consequence of a compromised mental state.
Like other women writers before me, I had simply gone mad.
I left Gwen’s office that late December afternoon with a newfound interest in my bedroom bookcase. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf went first, then The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, followed by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper andKate Chopin’s The Awakening. Hemingway took a beating too. In fact, any title remotely relating to mental imbalance found its way into the donation box, even those seemingly innocuous stories like Jane Eyre.
Could I afford to leave the mad woman in the attic lurking on my bookshelf?
But it was all in vain—the books, the antidepressants, the therapy sessions with Gwen. Even time’s wound-healing properties proved ineffective. Ten months later, my past was never more than one thought, one breath, one heartbeat away.
And then, on that particular October evening, it literally arrived at my doorstep.
Mom found me on the front porch swing that night, swaying with the initiative of a pendulum. Assessing my state of mind in a single glance from the driveway, she soon approached me, teacup in hand.
“How many today, Ruby?” she asked, handing me the mug.
I let the steam, the fruity tang of Earl Grey, tingle my nose. Bergamot, of course. A natural antidepressant.
“Twelve, but nothing tragic,” I said. “Well, except for that sweetheart of a librarian Mrs. Talbot, the one who special ordered my books last summer?”
“She died? The one you said smelled like marshmallows?” Mom sat beside me. She was still wearing her nurse’s scrubs, navy blue with periwinkle trim. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“She was eighty-nine years old.” I shrugged. “I think it really was her time.”
We sat silent for a beat, less the squeaking of the swing’s chain link, while Mom churned her hands like a paddle through butter. I hoped she was just cold—still adjusting to Illinois’ chilly autumn evenings—and not worried.
“I called in an order to Wu’s,” she finally said.
“You didn’t have to.”
“I wanted to.”
Not cold, I thought. Worried. “But I’m fine. Really.”
She shrugged. “Maybe I’m too tired to cook.”
I wasn’t convinced. Annette Rousseau, my New Orleans born mother, had absorbed the Creole recipes for gumbo and shrimp etouffee in utero; they had crossed the placenta line along with the oxygen. She was proof that you can take the girl out of New Orleans, but you can’t take the New Orleans out of the girl. Moving to the Midwest hadn’t changed the fact that she could make a roux the color of caramel, even at 3 a.m., even after a double shift at the hospital. And yet, she’d ordered Mongolian beef and crab rangoon from Wu’s on Seventh Street—my comfort food.
“You know, the hospital gift shop is hiring,” she went on. “A floral assistant. You like flowers.”
“But I love my job.” It came out too emphatic, too defensive.
Mom raised an eyebrow, an arc so perfectly curved, so accusatory. We locked eyes, each of us trying to read the other’s thoughts. Looking at my mother was like looking at a computer-generated police sketch, an age-progressed version of myself. Our hair was not red, but auburn—a color reminiscent of autumn, football games and hayrides. Where my curls held tight, though, hers hung loosely. Over time, her eyes had turned more of a hunter green than emerald.
“I’m worried about you, Ruby,” she said. “When do you see Gwen again?”
I smiled at her rhyme, then let the grin fade. There was no joking when it came to my weekly therapy sessions with Gwen.
“This week,” I told her, trying to look serious but not sad. “On Thursday.”
“Well, she’s the professional. See what she says.”
“About whether this obituary job is right for you.” She patted my knee. “All things considered.”
I nodded, as if to say I would do just that. Truth was, I’d let the opportunity to tell Gwen about my new job pass two times already. Writing for a local newspaper had been Gwen’s brainchild. I needed to put my “skill set” back to use, she’d stressed. So I applied for the obit gig, the port of entry for budding journalists and the only position open at the Cook County Chronicle. My official title, Obituary Coordinator, meant that while journalists composed witty leads before deadline, I typed information into a template, modified errors in Associated Press style, and occasionally changed the euphemism passed away to died.
Perhaps Gwen would have applauded the fact that I got hired, but I feared she would psychoanalyze my choice. Was I punishing myself? Was writing about dead people some sort of self-imposed penance for my past sins, like one of the rings of Hell in Dante’s Inferno?
I didn’t want to answer that question.
Fortunately, Mom dropped the subject. And while I finished my tea, we chatted about less pressing matters—like the new Toulouse Lautrec exhibit opening at Chicago’s Art Institute– until a white van rounded the street corner not fifteen minutes later.
“That’s got to be a new record,” Mom said, rushing inside to get cash.
I approached the van, expecting to see Mr. Wu’s son—a 17-year-old with a toothy grin and the work ethic of someone who’d survived the Depression. I expected an olfactory delight, the unmistakable smell of grease and soy sauce when he opened the door. Instead, a woman in uniform stepped out; her ponytail, the color of a cardboard box, slipped through the back hole of an equally brown cap that shadowed her eyes. In lieu of slacks, she had feminized her look with culottes.
“You Ruby Rousseau?” Her accent—Boston or Brooklyn—made my name sound foreign to my own ears.
Before I could answer, she slid open the van door and lifted a suitcase from inside. “Betcha glad to see me. Or rather, this,” she said, before setting the luggage before me with a thump, like a cat bringing its owner a dead mouse.
I rested my eyes on paisley print, swirls of red and gold and blue. I choked on the crisp fall air, my own saliva. “That’s not mine.”
“Your name’s awnit.”
I crouched beside the suitcase then and stroked the fabric, rigid like a heavily starched shirt. As if reading Braille, I ran a fingertip over the American Tourister emblem. And then I reached for the luggage tag and stared at my name and address in curvy script.
I soon felt my mother’s breath on my cheek. She was crouched beside me, thirty bucks in hand. Our eyes locked once more.
“But it’s your handwriting,” she whispered.
I let the tag fall and stood, even stepped back, as if to disown the suitcase through mere distance. “This is a mistake. I borrowed this suitcase from a friend in college last year. She must have forgotten to take my tag off.”
“What’s ya friend’s name?”
“Beth. Elizabeth, rather. Elizabeth Richards.”
“She lives round here? In the Chicago suburbs?”
“Wisconsin,” I corrected. “At least, she did.”
The woman told us to wait while she made a call from her van.
My mother made a tsk sound then, as if she’d been trying to solve a puzzle only to discover the answer blatantly simple. “This is the suitcase you were supposed to take on our trip to Paris,” she said. “The one I returned to that girl in your dorm.”
I nodded but kept my eyes on the van.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” the delivery woman finally said. “Ya friend—this Elizabeth
Richards—it seems she hasn’t filed a lost luggage claim yet. Now, I can take the bag back, but it’s gonna sit in storage til’ she claims it.” She lowered her voice. “Look, between you and me, it’s gonna get back to her a heck of a lot faster and without a whole lotta red tape if you’d just, you know, contact her directly.”
“Me? But isn’t she tied to the bag somehow?” I tried to remember how it all worked. Mom and I never flew to Paris after all, but I was certain the sticky tag, the one the attendant puts through the bag handle, displayed the owner’s name and flight information.
“If all goes right, yeah. But that tag’s destroyed.” The woman lifted the mangled piece of black and white paper hanging from the suitcase. “The barcode’s unreadable. Probably got caught in one of the machines and missed the flight. Seen it happen a dozen times. Airline figured it was their fault, so they sent it to the person on the personal tag. And that’s you.” She cleared her throat. “Didn’t the airline call?”
I looked to my mother. She said no.
“Your dad probably took the message and forgot to tell you,” the woman prompted. “My hubby does it all the time.”
I shook my head no. My father died almost two years prior.
“Look, it’s not my bag,” I argued, avoiding my mother’s gaze, evading any pain that might have flashed through them at the mention of Dad. “So it’s not my problem.”
Mom curled her fingers over my shoulder then. “Call the girl, Ruby,” she said. “You’d want someone to do the same for you.”
It was a valid point, but I knew Mom was picking up where Gwen had left off. If I called Beth Richards, I’d be forced to reconnect with someone from Tarble, a private women’s college in Kenosha just over the Illinois-Wisconsin state border. I’d dropped out of Tarble my senior year, one semester short of graduation.
“But I don’t have her phone number,” I spat back. “We didn’t stay in touch.”
“You could call the college,” Mom suggested. “The alumni office, perhaps.”
“I didn’t graduate.”
“Who cares?” She waved her hand through the air as if batting a fly. “If you ever went to a school, you’re an alumnus.”
The delivery woman impatiently tapped her clipboard with a pen as if keeping time.
“People sometimes keep important information inside their suitcase,” she said. “Maybe there’s anotha tag somewhere. You can look. Ican’t. I just deliver. And speakin’ of deliveries, I gotta get goin.’ What do ya want me to do?”
Mom seized the suitcase handle. “We’ll take care of it,” she announced, and I forced a scribble on the clipboard.
When the delivery woman began to drive away, though, I stopped her. The van lurched when she hit the brakes.
“What if I can’t find her?” I shouted through the window glass.
The window came down, and she handed me a business card. “Just call,” she said.
And then I watched the van disappear into the setting sun.
Mom pulled the suitcase into the house then. “You’re sure you don’t have Beth’s phone number?” she asked, as if she’d done nothing wrong, as if we’d been in on the whole thing together.
“We weren’t exactly friends,” I explained. “More like acquaintances.”
My relationship with Beth Richards had been one of supply and demand. I’d needed a larger suitcase for a trip to Paris with my mom. And Beth, who lived three doors down from me in North Hall, had offered her bag. I recalled Beth Richards then, her golden hair and almost six-foot stature.
“The alumni office would be happy to help you,” Mom offered.
“You know I can’t call there.”
“You have no reason to hide.”
“It’s Sunday night,” I noted. “The alumni office won’t open until tomorrow morning.”
“Couldn’t you call Heidi?”
Heidi Callahan was my former roommate at Tarble and subsequently, former best friend. We’d met at freshman orientation. Over weak coffee and Maurice Lenell cookies, we discovered a mutual passion for hazelnut creamer. One morning of talking turned into a friendship, and by the next semester, we were roommates. Boyfriends came and boyfriends went, but most weekends, it was always the two of us watching romantic comedies, eating pepperoni and green pepper pizza, sipping cheap boxed wine out of plastic tumblers. But all of that changed senior year. She moved out at semester, and I hadn’t talked to her since.
“Can’t we just look inside?” I begged.
We handled Beth’s things gingerly, spreading them on the foyer floor like jigsaw puzzle pieces, so we’d be able put everything back the way we’d found it. It all added up to the inside of a woman’s suitcase. A pair of Gap jeans. A gray hooded zip-up sweatshirt. Socks and underwear. A cosmetic case full of Redken, MAC, and Colgate. A travel sewing kit. None of it told me how to find Beth Richards.
And then Mom discovered a thin book in the folds of a t-shirt and held it out at arm’s length, like she does when she isn’t wearing her reading glasses. I read the title then, small black letters on a white binding. Trying to control a visceral reaction, I barely made out the words.
“Virginia Woolf,” I said. “A Room of One’s Own.”
“Isn’t that the book? The one you wrote your senior thesis on?”
I nodded and paused to recall Woolf’s lengthy essay, based on lectures she’d given at two women’s colleges. In the book, the modernist writer asserts “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Mom handed me the book without sensing consequence, like handing a bottle of Nyquil to a recovering alcoholic. Per Gwen’s instructions, I’d donated my own copy back in December. And yet, somehow, temptation had found its way back to me.
Like failing at a game of hot potato, I dropped the book, let it fall to the ceramic floor with a plop. A postcard stuck out from the pages then and I pulled it, instantly recognizing the blue expanse of water, ornate streetlights, mounds of yellow and orange mums, and the name Tarble etched in stone. It was a postcard announcing Tarble’s Reunion—the women’s college equivalent of Homecoming—set to take place the following weekend.
Mom retrieved the book from the floor and opened it. “You’re in luck,” she said, attempting to hand it to me once more. “She wrote something inside.”
I looked down then to see Beth’s name neatly printed in blue ink at the top of the inside flap, and below that, a phone number with a recognizable area code for Southern Wisconsin.
“With all the sickos out there, that’s a dangerous thing to do,” Mom said. “It must mean an awful lot to her.”
It means a lot to me, I thought.
Mom suggested I wait until after dinner to make the call, but I knew the sooner I called, the sooner the suitcase—and the book and the temptation to read it—would leave my hands. So I took the cordless phone to the porch swing. I’d left my empty tea mug there, and I held it as I listened to the rings, running my finger along the inside groove of the handle. Finally, a woman answered; a paper-thin voice prickled my skin.
“This is Ruby Rousseau,” I said. “I’m trying to reach Beth Richards.”
I endured an awkward silence. All I heard was breathing. “Hello?” I tried again.
“I’m Beth’s mother,” the woman said.
“Oh. Good. Look, I went to Tarble College with Beth, and I actually have her suitcase. They just delivered it to me by mistake. Is she back from her trip?”
A gasp. “This is a miracle.”
“Yes, very strange. For some reason, she left my name on the tag.”
I heard the woman begin to cry, what sounded like a weeping elation, tears of sadness mixed with joy. “I’ve been praying for this. For something. Anything. A sign. She’s going to come back to me.”
“Back? Back from where?”
“Beth has been…” The woman started but stopped. She got the rest out in fragments:
“Missing. Since. Friday.”
The mug slipped from my hand then and shattered on the floorboards at my feet, the remaining drops of tea seeping into the porch cracks. “Mrs. Richards, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. I mean, Beth and I weren’t close. I mean, we just kind of knew each other,” I rambled. I wanted to pick up the mess, wanted to say something more appropriate but couldn’t formulate words.
“The police say they have no leads,” Mrs. Richards continued, as if she hadn’t heard me. “They said ‘Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.’”
Prepare for the worst. Beth Richards was missing but hopefully not dead, hopefully not like the hundreds of people I’d written about at the Chronicle. I told Mrs. Richards I was sorry once more.
“No, Ruby, don’t you see? They were wrong. Because this is a lead. This could be how we end up finding her.”
I recalled the mundane items Mom and I sorted in Beth’s suitcase. There was nothing there to suggest Beth’s whereabouts or foul play. But I wasn’t about to trounce on a distraught mother’s hopes.
“Tell me where you live,” Mrs. Richards asserted. “I’ll come right now to get it.”
I asked Mrs. Richards exactly where she lived, then told her it was a two-hour drive to Oak Park from Milwaukee, but she said she didn’t care. She’d drive to Canada if she had to. I fumbled in my pocket then for the business card the delivery woman had given me.
“It’s better, don’t you think, if you just stayed home?” My words came out like hers had, in bits and pieces, interrupted by thoughts and breaths. I felt guilty for not offering to bring the suitcase myself, for allowing Beth’s mother to drive at night in her condition. “Let the delivery service bring it to you. That’s their job.”
“But I have to do something, Ruby. I can’t just sit around waiting for a phone call, waiting for the police. Waiting for Beth to walk through the door. I have to get my daughter back.”
“I know. I know,” I said, though I didn’t know at all. I could only imagine, and the guilt tripled. “But what if the police call while you’re gone? What if Beth does come walking through the door? You need to be there.”
“But the suitcase…”
“—I’ll bring it to you.” The promise slipped from my mouth. I couldn’t take it back. “Tomorrow. After work.”
This appeased Mrs. Richards enough to give me her address, and I went inside for scratch paper on which to jot it down before we said our goodbyes.
When I returned to the porch, I noticed A Room of One’s Own still lay open on the swing, and despite the promise I’d made Gwen back in December, I started reading it. I read only a sentence before I felt the stitches in my heart—the ones I’d sewn up daily since I left Tarble—unravel.
I came undone at a handful of words.