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Facing the prospect of fatherhood, disillusioned by his fledgling teaching career, and mourning the loss of a former relationship, Francis Mason is a prisoner of his past mistakes. When his second-grade class discovers a dead body during a field trip to a San Francisco beach, Francis spirals into unbearable grief and all-consuming paranoia. As his behavior grows increasingly erratic, and tensions arise with the school principal and the parents of his students, he faces the familiar urge to flee—a choice that forces him to confront the character weaknesses that have shattered his life again and again, and to accept the wrenching truth about the past he's never been able to move beyond. A haunting debut novel, Bright Before Us explores the fraught journey toward adulthood, the nature of memory, and the startling limits to which we are driven by grief.
“Arnold-Ratliff has a knack for juxtaposing familiar imagery with startling description . . . Francis proves to be a formidable narrator, tough to crack and a morbid pleasure to observe.”
"[Katie Arnold-Ratliff's] undeniably gorgeous prose and ability to launch troubled characters into impossible, tumultuous situations mark her as a writer to watch."
"Bright Before Us (Tin House)—an ambitious debut novel from O assistant editor Katie Arnold-Ratliff—is a nihilistic road trip of a book, full of lyrical, dreamlike prose. It's also a story that reminds us that love, however deeply felt, is not necessarily pretty or kind."
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“Standout debut novel.”
“With lilting description and deft handling of often-strange scenes, Arnold-Ratliff guides the reader over new, sometimes bloodied, ground on the ancient battlefield of love and marriage.”
“An assured piece of work . . . There’s plenty to admire about Bright Before Us. The story shows us how the past has the power to erode the present, especially when love is concerned. The author patiently leads Francis—and us—through the heartbreaking, very human work of becoming an adult and letting someone go.”
"A knockout writer, every page littered with sensation-rich imagery."
—The Austin Chronicle
“You’ll no doubt marvel at [Francis’] character and the author’s ability to capture his ambivalence and ennui.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Arnold-Ratliff's turned out one hell of a debut."
"In Bright Before Us, Katie Arnold-Ratliff writes sentences that have the luminous candor of X-rays, laser-traceries of the human heart. Young Francis is a fascinating and exquisitely drawn character, and the urgency of his story left me breathless."
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!
"An unmoored man who yearns for a woman he failed, while failing another (his wife), is still able to claim he just wants 'the lazy momentum of a married evening.' This duality is central to the author's creation of the disequilibrium she sustains throughout Bright Before Us. The chilly and unforgiving beauty of the San Francisco Bay Area is a perfect fit for this eerie, impeccably told story."
—Amy Hempel, author of The Dog of the Marriage
"In Katie Arnold-Ratliff's relentless debut, the ragged ends of a relationship are set on fire with intense and inventive language, and thrown against a darkened sky."
—Ed Park, author of Personal Days
"What a rare book! Bright Before Us is an unrequited love story, but it's also a meditation about the flash decisions we make, or fail to make, and the devastating way they undo us. A remarkable and compassionate debut."
—Robin Romm, author of The Mercy Papers
As I drove to school on Tuesday morning, I devised a plan for survival: Be elsewhere, quietly retreat into your own head. I thought about feigning a sore throat, pretending my voice was gone—no one asks questions of those who can’t answer. I thought about tasks that would take the kids all day and accomplish nothing. Here, sort these lima, pinto, and kidney beans; here, write down all the animals you can think of. I would create a baseline of normalcy and wouldn’t attempt to better it. I downed more pills, which now seemed a given, in traffic; not enough to put me out, but plenty to achieve the spaced-out order of the day.
I parked outside Hawthorne, walked carefully up the hall, and found the door open. I stepped into the classroom, expecting to see the janitor.
Mr. Mason, the principal said gently. She was one of several adults in the room: six or seven parents stood along the walls or crouched beside their children. Mr. Noel was sitting at my desk, holding Caleb’s backpack.
Mr. Mason, the principal said again.
You shouldn’t lean against the whiteboard, I told Mariana’s mother, swallowing. It’ll rub off on your clothes.
She stepped forward an inch, frowning. The clock’s second hand was deafening. The children were silent, curious about why the grown-ups were present. Some of the parents stared in my direction. I followed their gaze to my hands, which were thrust downward, clenched into fists.
Our task that morning was to learn to sing in a round, and I said a prayer of thanks that I had scheduled something easy. The parents were concerned. This I understood. I knew their children must have been saying alarming things. It made sense to me that the parents had come; they were offering their support, making my job easier—there were so many children and just one teacher. We would need to work together.
The principal pulled me aside and confirmed this. Frank, she said gently, nothing to worry about, just—the kids had a rough weekend, as I’m sure the parents told you last night . . . I know I got several calls—
No, I said, suspicious. No one called me.
She nodded. Well, they just want to ease the kids back into the classroom, so they’re all going to stay as long as they can today, and maybe tomorrow . . .
I must have been frowning, because she started speaking faster. But I really doubt they’ll be here past then—she put her hands up defensively—and they’ll stay out of the way, obviously.
There was a pause, and I imagined her retracing her steps. She was realizing this was a breach of etiquette; it was dawning on her that she should have discussed it with me. She tried another approach, her face softening. And how are you doing, in all of this? She placed her hand on my shoulder. I looked down at it.
Okay, I think we should probably get started now, I said, turning away. I heard myself speak in a higher pitch than normal, like something was pressing on my throat, choking off my air. Mr. Noel, maybe you can give me a hand moving these tables? The class needed to divide into two groups—one to begin the song, another to come in seconds later. Mr. Noel stood slowly, his eyes bugged, and lumbered toward me. I saw the principal walk over to the parents, nodding and shaking hands and being gentle with them like they were children who had fallen down. I was aware of the eyes watching me as, with a pealing squeak against the floor tiles, Mr. Noel and I dragged the tables to the perimeter of the room. I could hear fragments of the principal’s quiet speech to the nodding parents. The important thing to remember . . . difficult time, certainly.
Frank, Mr. Noel said, I just want to mention that I’ve done some work in schools.
I strained to hear the principal. . . . Just up the hall if it seems like . . . my eyes and ears, here.
Pardon? I said to Mr. Noel.
Some of us guys from the fire department go to schools and talk about what it’s like. You know, to the kids.
...Don’t hesitate to alert me to...benefit of the doubt... Oh, I said to Mr. Noel. That’s great.
So, Mr. Noel said, if you need me to take over at any point, just holler.
I frowned at him, struggling to stand up straight.
Caleb had wet the bed, Mr. Noel told me later. Rebekah had awoken crying and asked for her dead mother in the night, her father said. Their parents were afraid and help- less. And yet I couldn’t help it when my compassion and trust—they were here to observe their children! They were doing the right thing!—gave way to resentment. What were they really doing here? What did they want from me? Every internal impulse lurched toward defensiveness and paranoia: I was in deep fucking shit.
Simon is having a recurring nightmare, his mother told me that afternoon. He loses his arms and legs and can’t move.
I see, I replied.
I shook my head.
Is that significant? she hissed, looking at me with the expectant eyes of someone lodging a complaint.
When the recess bell rang at midmorning, I was half out of my seat to start lining them up when I looked out the window: it was raining. Oh, I said aloud. Sorry guys, it looks like we’re staying in for recess. They’re probably just about to—
The announcement interrupted me: we were rained in. The kids made their collective noises of disapproval.
Hey, listen, it’s way too wet, I said.
But Mr. Mason! they chimed. I had heard these kinds of complaints so many times—anything said in this tone barely registered anymore. Mr. Mason, that’s not fair! We have umbrellas!
Listen, Mrs. Stone said, standing authoritatively. It’s too wet out there. If the rain is gone in the afternoon, you can have recess outside then.
The kids were silent. She sat down, triumphant.
When we were rained in, we played games. Barnyard, in which they were blindfolded and let loose in the classroom to moo and cluck and figure out who else was mooing and clucking and then gather by animal. I had to stop assigning anyone Horse, because none of them could neigh convincingly. Or we played Who Is Hiding; the kids all closed their eyes and sat in a circle on the grimy floor, while I led one kid to the back supply closet. It took them forever, figuring out who wasn’t among them.
We had played Heads Up 7-Up once before, and they had a giddy kind of attachment to it. Seven kids stand. Everyone else puts their heads down and one thumb up. The seven wander the class, each touching one of the ex- tended thumbs. If your thumb is touched you put it down; I would watch thumbs get sucked into fists like sea anemones disturbed by a passing fish. The kids whose thumbs are touched have to guess who picked them. If they guess right, they get to be one of the next group of seven.
I can still remember from my own childhood how it felt when my thumb was touched—the aching joy of being chosen. Some kids pressed their thumb against yours in a kind of mirror image; others tenderly swiped their palm against it. I can remember entire alliances formed and fumbled because of who did and did not choose whom in Heads Up 7-Up. We played it in fifth grade, and so were old enough to know we should try to throw people off: we chose the people we hated, so they would never guess it was us who had touched them. But second graders don’t know yet about strategy. They just pick their friends. So in my class, the presiding outcome of Heads Up 7-Up was that everyone always guessed right.
The rain was coming hard and fast, and it didn’t take long for one of them to abandon his disappointment over the lost recess and shout out the suggestion. And then I was picking the seven kids, a sense of anticipation in the air, and the seven were excitedly making their way to the front chalkboard. Eyes closed, I said from my desk. I did a quick peek-check and called out the most egregious cheat- ers; they closed their eyes and the game commenced.
I watched them perform their exaggerated tiptoe around the classroom. Marisol picked her best friend, Monica, Henry picked the kid he sat right next to. I had a pair of first cousins in the class, a boy and a girl; Cody picked Brianna inside of ten seconds. They opened their eyes, immediately knew who had picked them, and it was time for round two.
The game was futile, but they loved it anyway.
Greta was scheduled for a sonogram that night. She had made the appointment for the evening, having taken the night off, and it was disconcerting to drive to a hospital in the dark. It was something I had only ever done in an emergency: slicing off part of my thumb chopping garlic, breaking my collarbone falling from a bike.
Is this a checkup ultrasound, or a particular kind of ultrasound, or what? I asked.
She shrugged. What do you mean?
Are they checking for something? A defect?
She rolled down the window, spitting out her gum.
The baby is doing great, she said. I can feel it.
Good, I said, looking for parking. That’s good.
Inside, the doctor confirmed her intuition. Everything is looking a-okay, he said. Greta’s expression bore a whiff of petulance, as if she had won a bet.
I bought her an ice cream sandwich at the gas station, and when we got home, we lay down on the bed to listen to an old CD on the stereo. She rested her head on my shoulder, and I combed her hair with my fingers.
Are you doing okay? she asked me.
Of course, I said, my eyes clenched.
I know this is new to you.
It’s new to you, too.
No, Frank—I mean that you’ve never lost anyone before.
She tensed, waiting for my response.
I’m fine, Gret.
We can talk about it if you want.
I know she meant a lot to you.
Stop, I said. Please.
She lifted her head from my chest and turned away. When I heard her breathing go ragged for long, difficult moments, and then slow finally into the rhythm of slumber, I knew that she had cried herself to sleep.
Both times Greta miscarried, the calls came directly to the classroom. The first time was shortly before Christmas, near the end of a student teaching assignment at a school in Oakland. I’d taught alongside an irritable woman named Miss Martinez. I don’t remember her first name, since I was instructed not to use it. I had nearly completed the seventy- plus classroom hours necessary to graduate, and though I disliked teaching in others’ classrooms, I told myself I would enjoy it once I had my own—the way prospective parents recoil from a tantrumming brat and tell themselves, Ours will be different. That morning, Miss Martinez answered the phone and scuttled over to chide me.
You can’t receive calls here. It sounds like a woman, she said, scandalized.
I took the phone and heard a flurry of activity—intercom pages, shuffled papers, people shouting. Mr. Mason? the nurse asked. She coughed, apologized for having to be the one to tell me this.
I hung up the phone and retrieved my backpack from the closet.
Did you inform her of my policy? Miss Martinez said.
I walked to my car without a word. When she complained to my professor—a bike-riding
hippie with a T-shirt that read KILL YOUR TELEVISION— he nodded sympathetically and promised that next semester, my coteacher and I would share the same vibe. A few days later, Greta packed away the contents of the nursery.
Everything had been yellow, her one nod to the un- known. A yellow wall hanging with a quilted sun; a yellow set of curtains. Yellow clothes, yellow blankets. A yellow liner for the bassinet. By then all of the pregnancy books had been read, the suitcase packed though it wasn’t yet necessary. Greta had collected an array of pants with elastic waistbands, had made lists, charts, budgets. We hadn’t decided on names. She had been eleven weeks along.
I made the mistake of looking in one of the books to see what a fetus looked like at that stage. Your baby may soon be able to open and close his fists, the caption said.
The second call came to Hawthorne, about two months after school started, on a morning in November when I had given my students a photocopy of ten clocks and asked them to write the time below each. I came around to measure their progress.
Simon, how’s it going? He had filled in only twelve o’clock, the simplest one.
What I don’t like, he began, his voice edged with irritation, is when the little hand is between the numbers.
Okay, I said, you have to see which number the small hand is—
Am I just supposed to guess? he asked, exasperated.
The phone rang, and I patted Simon’s shoulder, setting my pen down on his desk before walking away.
Mr. Mason, a woman said. I understood immediately— from the familiar sounds behind her, the discomfort in her voice, the fact that the classroom phone almost never rang.
You’re from the hospital, I said.
Yes, she began.
I cut her off. Has something happened to my wife?
I watched Simon squirrel my pen away, slipping it into the plastic tub under his desk.
Your wife will be fine, the nurse said.
Give IT! one of the kids said, somewhere behind me. I said give it!
The baby’s dead, I said.
The children closest to me looked up.
Your wife has miscarried, sir, yes. She’d like you to come pick her up. She paused only a moment before she asked, Sir, did you hear me?
Yes, I said flatly. I heard you.
The principal covered my class. I drove down the street beneath the elm trees that lined each side, their branches meeting above in a canopy. The world looked different—when I left school in the afternoon, the streets were always crowded with children walking home. But with class still in session the school looked abandoned, the swings moving in the breeze. I had the uneasy feeling of playing hooky, like when I stayed home sick as a kid and got carted around on my mom’s errands, suddenly privy to the workaday world. I turned on the radio absentmindedly, whistling to an upbeat tempo, tapping the rhythm on the steering wheel. I caught myself and shut the radio off, sitting at a red light, disgusted by my still-pursed lips.
At the hospital I signed my name on a form and followed the blue line painted on the floor. The first time, Greta had already heard the doctor’s briefing when I arrived. But now we sat in the exam room together as he explained what her body had just undergone. He de- scribed the idiopathic event that had killed our eight- week-old baby, shaking his head with practiced regret. Then he told us, This isn’t your fault. It seemed, to me at least, an odd thing to say. But Greta nodded, holding my hand. I was alarmed by her inexhaustible flow of tears. The doctor told us we would need to wait six weeks before another attempt.
In the car, Greta said, Six weeks isn’t so long.
Greta, I said, I can’t do this again. I surprised myself, but immediately I went from fear of her reaction to pure elation: the words had finally been spoken aloud.
I felt her peering at me. You can’t do what again?
She deflated in her seat. This is the only thing I’ve ever asked you for.
I stated what I viewed as simple fact.
You never asked me anything, I said.
Why are you with me? she said, her voice calm. Her question wasn’t rhetorical; she wanted to know. I don’t understand anything you do. She shook her head, puzzled. I don’t understand how a man who is terrified of people becomes a bully. How a man who hates children makes a career of teaching them.
I leaned back in the driver’s seat. You don’t have to understand me, I said. Because I could be anybody, as long as I gave you what you wanted.
Fuck you, she said, wincing. It hurt her, matching my unkindness this way.
Tell me one thing, I said, off the top of your head, that makes me different from anyone else. I laughed; it was suddenly funny.
The stoplight held at red, threatening to change. I glanced at her. The wounded look on her face disappeared, replaced by a quickness in her eyes I didn’t recognize. You know, she said, I just figured it out. She grinned through her tears. There’s no fucking mystery here. You’re transparent.
Enlighten me, I snapped.
She leaned in as though spilling a secret. You choose the path of least resistance and then you find it boring. You choose the high road and you fall off it. You’ll keep on doing things you hate so you can keep on feeling robbed, walking around bewildered, wondering how you got cheated out of everything you wanted. So you want to know the thing I like about you, Frank?
She narrowed her eyes.
You’re predictable, she said.
For the six weeks that followed, we were silent. I recall it now and half shudder. It was an endurance contest; it was the nadir of our time together. When I think about those weeks, I remember the house being unbearably stuffy. I remember feeling like there wasn’t enough air. I remember that time being like a brief, reversible death.
Each night, we retired to our separate spaces—me in the living room, her in what she persisted in calling “the baby’s room”—before, in an act of mutual masochism, sleeping in the same bed. We were careful not to touch. We ate separate meals, watched separate television, pre- tended we were fine in the supermarket’s checkout line: the cashier would make jovial chatter and we would laugh in unison, chirping to each other and to him, turning the performance on and off at will.
And all the while, I watched the calendar, knowing what was to come.
A few days after the six weeks ended, I arrived home from school and found Greta standing in our bedroom, changing the sheets. We had only tentatively begun talking aloud again—post-fight, her inaugural words had been Do you need any socks washed?—and the way she said hello felt like a formality, as though she were meeting me for the first time.
Hey, I said, setting down my backpack. I took off my shirt, my pants, leaned down to peel off my wet socks. It was January, and raining so hard that driveways became lakes. I started the shower, feeling my full-body chill begin to ebb away.
A moment passed before she came naked into the bathroom. Can I get in?
I nodded, startled. As she bent to get a fresh towel I looked at her brown hair, wondering why she had begun dyeing it—her blondeness had been the one thing about her looks that people complimented.
She stole glances at me, reaching for the shampoo. I rolled my neck until it cracked, the harsh sound echoing.
How was your day?
The same, I said. I washed my face beneath the spout.
Do you want to go out to dinner?
I borrowed some money from my dad, she said. I’ll drive so you can drink.
I smiled bitterly. So I can drink. She was trying to liquor me up.
I haven’t changed my mind, Gret.
There was a pause. She hadn’t expected candor.
I know, she said.
I don’t want to try anymore.
I know, she said again. She put her hands on my hips and her wet head on my chest, resting her ear against my sternum. I knew it like I knew anything—she was plotting the course by which she would get me to acquiesce.
And then I blurted out the words on my tongue: You look pretty, I said, awash in something like—I don’t know, what? Empathy, maybe. It occurred to me that as awful as the previous weeks had been for me, they had likely been worse for her. I had only been insulted, taken to task. But she had been bereaved and let down and told, in so many words, that she was selfish. She had been manipulated into thinking she was manipulative. A spasm of guilt weakened my knees.
I’m sorry about how it’s been, I said. I’m sorry we fought.
Her fingers were warm, like a dangerous, engulfing fever. I turned down the hot water and when I looked up again she was so close to my face, glancing at each of my eyes in turn, searching them. Her palm molded itself to the plane above my nipple. She was hunched, sighing. I squinted. It wasn’t dye. Her hair had darkened over time. She had aged. Her hand moved down and grabbed me, too hard, and I winced. She didn’t notice. She placed my hand on her breast. I held it there, unmoving.
She checked my expression, and when I didn’t object—when I stared at her vacantly, breathing through my mouth—she turned and faced the tile wall. We hit our familiar marks, took our places like seasoned actors: I set one hand on her back as she bent forward, the movement automatic. I met no resistance. We made no noise. The water reddened my eyes and flattened our hair.
Weeks later, she would give me the news. The yellow accoutrements were pulled from their boxes, and she began to tally the days. I told myself the course had been laid years before, that I had made my bed. I tried to repackage my apathy as selflessness: hadn’t I given her what she wanted? I would let her live this pain ad infinitum. I would sit with her in the doctor’s exam room as she asked how long we would have to wait before failing another time, and again.
I braced myself with one hand on her hip, then I put both hands in her hair—her hair that had grown darker with age, with time, with everything that had come to her. I pulled, hard. Greta’s head jerked back as I groaned and sputtered, calling out in bitter rapture, feeling something inside me wither and pass away.
That Tuesday night, the favorable sonogram behind us, Greta went into an upswing, cleaning the house with a fervor she pretended had been there all along. This is how you’re supposed to do it, she said. Her actions took on a frantic, repentant quality, as though any show of capability would stave off what had come to feel inevitable.
As she cleaned I slipped into the garage through the hallway door, telling her I would tidy the boxes of Christmas decorations, old school papers, other unnecessary shit we kept out of obligation. But then I snuck out through the retractable garage door and walked down the driveway to retrieve a bottle of whiskey from my trunk. I drank, among the Christmas lights and mildewed boxes, until my belches were accompanied by wet trails. I spun my wrist, cracking it: click, click, click, the tendons vibrating like harp strings. I continued drinking until I couldn’t stand.
I woke up on the cement a few hours later, walked back into the house, brushed my teeth, and was happy to find Greta silent, perhaps even sleeping, when I came to bed. I slept deep and heavy, like something was pressing on top of me. But at the sound of some nocturnal animal rustling outside I stirred, my hand going to my head. I turned toward Greta. Her eyes were open. It’s okay, she said. You had a nightmare.
It’s okay, she said again, brushing her hand across my temple. What are you so scared of?
I ran my dry tongue over the ridged ceiling of my mouth. I’m not scared, I said.
You’re terrified, Greta said. In the dark it was hard to see. Her expression shifted with the shadows.
I didn’t have a nightmare, I said. Why did you say that?
I can tell, she said.
There was a knock at the bedroom door.
Come in, Greta said.
A massive stroller, its seats lined up in a row, rolled for- ward and into the room, and around us swelled an awful, searing light; the paint on the walls began to blister. I looked down into the stroller. Four faces stared placidly back.
Oh good, Greta said.
When I woke a moment later, Greta was standing in front of the mirror.
It’s okay, she said flatly. You were having a nightmare.
Wednesday morning, I skipped the shower and instead rose from bed, walked to the bathroom, ran the tap, and dunked my head in the sink like I was blanching a vegetable. I was so hungover my lips trembled; my tongue was still numb from the alcohol. My neck was destroyed—that familiar in- jury from the car accident, reawakened now and again by a hasty turn or an incorrect angle to my pillow, had this morning limited my mobility to a sickening degree: I wasn’t sure I’d be able to look over my shoulder when changing lanes. I stepped back into the hall, dripping, and Greta was waiting.
I guess you got a lot of cleaning done, she said, holding up the empty whiskey bottle.
I opened my mouth, and closed it. She tapped the glass with a fingernail.
I need you to not crumble right now, Frank. I need you to do whatever it is you do when you’re in need of solace—Jesus, she said, interrupting herself, do something, anything, to keep it together. Do you want to talk to someone? Do you need medication?
I pointed at the bottle, smirking. I thought I was.
She blinked. I understand that you’re in pain, she said. And you have a right to be in pain.
I closed my eyes, my head against the wall. The water in my hair ran into my ears. I thought about the pills in the glove box. Thanks for your permission, I said quietly.
She shifted her weight, narrowing her eyes. I think you ought to be glad, Frank, that I’m being as kind to you as I am.
On the last word, she dropped the bottle to the floor. I think she had hoped it would smash, but it broke tidily into two pieces—clunk—and then the bottle’s squat neck rolled toward the heater vent. She stormed into the kitchen, and I bent to retrieve the broken glass, then dressed in the first clothes I found, walked briskly outside, and popped the last of the Vicodin as I made my way to work.
I waited for her arrival, but the principal never showed. As the moments ticked past and she remained absent, I felt ever lighter, slowly filling with relief, bathed in chilly sweat.
Oh my God, I thought: it’s going to get better.
Had I figured all of this wrong? Of course, I had. I had been so eager, like always, to jump to the worst conclusion. There were a few parents still present, and once again I felt I understood their presence for what it was: not about me. They were here for their kids. They weren’t spies. They were just attentive, engaged parents—Christ, was it any wonder I had trouble recognizing that?
Good morning, Mr. Mason, Mrs. Stone said.
Good morning, I said back.
They were there because they wanted to give their children one extra boost of support; they wanted to ease them back into life’s inevitable trajectory, the parent-ectomy— you go here during the day, and I go there—before quietly backing out of the room, confident that their kids had readjusted. I just need to keep repeating this, I remember thinking. Just keep on believing this.
When Jacob’s mom approached me midmorning, despite her nervous expression I greeted her with a reassured smile.
I want to tell you that Jake has loved being in your class, she said.
Through the thick muffle of the pills and the tremulous hangover, I felt my face brighten even further. Oh, I said. I love having him. He’s a great kid.
Well, I said, when she didn’t move, thanks for telling me.
She twisted the rings on her fingers. You’re welcome, she said.
I guessed that the parents had made their peace with me, my methods, my state of mind—none of them approached me with further questions. Whatever doubts they had about my ability had evidently been quelled by their time in the classroom, by the news of my loss.
And then the cold sweat changed into something dis- orienting—something viral, pestilent; a plague overtaking every inch of my body.
My loss, I thought. All of it came back—they still doubted me, hated me. They are here to watch you, you naive, fucking pathetic piece of shit: none of them told you they’re sorry for your loss. My bereavement had gone un- acknowledged. Think this through, I whispered to myself. Look at the possibilities. Don’t refuse to see what you don’t want to see.
Either they didn’t believe it was the truth, or they didn’t care.
At lunch, some of the kids came to sit near me at the back table, Simon and Marcus among them. The parents went else- where; they took their kids off campus to a drive-through or else left to grab coffee at one of the chains nearby. When they returned, they always seemed reinvigorated, as though returning from intermission to see the next act.
I heated a tuna sandwich in the toaster oven, and the classroom took on a fetid, familiar smell. I stared at the bread, the encrusted cheese. I was starving, but the process of eating felt imposed, laborious: why did I have to eat, even if I didn’t want to?
Mr. Mason, your lunch looks nasty, Marcus said.
It stinks, too, Simon said, food falling from his mouth.
You eat the same thing every day, Marisol said. You always bring tuna.
It’s my wife’s favorite, I said.
What does your wife look like? Marcus said.
I thought for a moment. She looks kind of like me, I said. We look a bit like brother and sister.
Lunch is almost over, Simon said. You better eat that, Mr. Mason.
I shook my head, like a toddler. I don’t even want it.
My vision was blurred, and faint white trails followed every moving thing. It was as though I had removed my glasses—the world was underwater again, everything distorted. The bell rang, and the kids moved to dispose of their trash. I looked at Marcus, who remained behind, until he stared down at his food, smiling in discomfort. What? he said, in an unconvincing attempt at defiance: in his voice was anxiety, clear as a bell. My gaze was unwavering.
I don’t want to be here any more than you do, I whispered to him.
He lifted his chin, the remnant of his smile disintegrating.
Take your seats, take your seats, I sang out, corralling every ounce of my strength to say the words, to do this small thing, to exist. The food smells started to lift and exit through the open windows. I’m counting to five and any- one still standing is last to go to afternoon recess . . .
I mounted my stool before the wall of windows, legs bowed like a cowboy. Time to play Description, gang, I said. Who’s ready with an object?
Amber’s hand shot up. Apple, she said: a perennial, predictable favorite.
Okay, apple. Who’s ready with a description word?
Amber’s hand went skyward.
Let’s let someone else have a turn, I said. Who’s ready?
Me! Jeff said. Apple is round!
No it ain’t! yelled Mariana.
Jeff looked at me helplessly. It’s almost round?
I had my mouth open to speak when someone else did: Hands raised, I think is the rule, Mr. Noel said. The kids all turned to stare at him, dumbfounded. Before I could staunch it, I felt my face smear with snide shock. The words spilled from my mouth before my drowning brain could catch up:
Do you mind? I said.
The three or four seconds that followed had a high- pitched whine about them, barely audible, like a teakettle seconds from a full-on wail. I could feel each instant teetering on some kind of awkward fulcrum, deciding which way to go: all-out confrontation, as is always imagined in those sorts of moments in the corner of the brain that governs fight or flight—or what actually happened, which was absolutely nothing. Mr. Noel pretended I hadn’t spoken; I turned back to the kids and smiled insincerely, and a few somebodies called out—without raising hands—Red! Green! and Shiny!
The kids went out to recess after we had gotten through six nouns—I was so exhausted that the final one, pillow, drove me to distraction—and I said I had to visit the copier and then carry out another small errand: I’m just going to run up the hall to the photocopier to make a few . . . I paused, delaying the stupid, inevitable final word: copies, I finally said. I had to get out of there. I’d gotten away with one sharp remark; if I stayed, I knew I’d make another.
I didn’t even bother to walk in the direction of the restroom once I left class. Instead, I headed, sure and purposeful, to the door that led to the roof, and once up there I grabbed my folded lawn chair where it leaned against the edge. But I lost my balance and fell to the tar; I stayed there, sitting cross-legged. I clapped a hand over each ear, my palms sliding to my mouth, and then my closed eyes, like I was hiding from a horror film. Fuck me, I said, and the words felt so good: pure, and deliciously wrong. Out on the soccer field two kids were playing catch with a kick- ball. I opened my eyes and looked at my watch. Another two hours. A plane droned overhead, and I watched the game of catch. Jesus, I said, engrossed. Sometimes, I didn’t understand the way children played—like it was hate that drove them, not fun; as though they were exorcising demons. I watched them pass the ball in zipping line drives, these joyless, horizontal throws—I watched, suspended, as they chucked the ball at each other like it was something they abhorred; like it was a burden they wanted to be rid of, like they wanted their compatriot to have to take it up in their stead.
After the final bell rang, most of the parents escorted their children outside to begin the car or bus or cab rides home. I planned on staying late to correct the children’s reading responses from the week before. Rebekah needed to stay, too—we had just begun double-digit addition, carrying numbers, and she was one of the many who was struggling. Her father often let her linger after school, until she could finish her reading or confidently spell CALIFORNIA.
I’d be happy to walk her through the math again today, I told her father that afternoon.
I should get her home, he said.
It’s no trouble, I said. I’m always glad to help her.
He grimaced. I’ll come back at four thirty.
Great, I said, trying to ignore his reluctance. We’ll have her caught up in no time.
We went over it and over it, and then Rebekah returned to her chair; though I knew she still didn’t understand, I let her. And then, sure enough, at quarter to four she finally caved in and walked back over, frowning. Mr. Mason, I don’t get it, she said. Her paper was translucent, worn thin by erasure.
Here’s how it works, I said, beginning again, repeating verbatim what I had already said. The number is two digits long. There’s only one spot for a number, so the other number gets carried.
Okay, she said, not comprehending.
Rebekah, I started to say, I think we should—
The classroom phone rang, startling me. I set her paper down, watching the receiver tremble in its cradle.
Shit, I said aloud. I told her, my mouth dry, Just a sec, okay? before hesitantly answering the phone. I can finish helping you in just a second.
I spoke into the receiver. Is this about my wife?
A male voice cleared its throat. This is Officer Buckingham.
We took turns exhaling.
Mr. Mason, have you got a minute? I tried you at home, but—
I’m with a student.
This won’t take long.
Rebekah watched me. I mouthed again, Just a sec. She ignored me, holding her paper up.
I’m wondering if you’ve been able to remember more about the time line that day, Buckingham said.
Is that my dad? Rebekah said.
Sorry, I said to Buckingham, shaking my head at Rebekah. The time line? What does that mean exactly?
I was just going over what happened, he said. I heard him sip something, heard the mug being set back down on his desk. I heard the faint air of irritation in his voice. Just filling in the blanks in my report, really. I was wondering how long you’d been at the beach beforehand.
Mr. Mason, Rebekah said, is my dad coming soon?
Bek, can you sit at your table for just a minute? I said, holding my hand over the receiver. I’ll be right there. Into the phone, I said, I think we were probably there twenty minutes before she jumped, maybe thirty, but I—
Buckingham was silent. I felt my spine snap taut as a tripwire.
All I could manage was a whisper. I—I didn’t—
He scoffed. You saw someone jump off the bridge?
No, I said, scrambling. I didn’t.
You didn’t bother to tell me this?
No, I didn’t mean to say—
He cut me off again. Christ, he said. Start over. Tell me whatever it is you’re not—
I think I interrupted you, I said, interrupting him. What did you—you needed to know something. What did you need again? I hastened to cover my tracks, erase what I had said with new words; I talked so fast I doubted he could understand me.
He said nothing for several moments. I knew he was sorting through our interactions, evaluating my motives. Gauging my veracity.
Start over, he said again.
I took a deep breath. Rebekah fidgeted in her seat. Outside, a motorcycle bellowed down the narrow street.
I know I should have said this sooner, I said carefully. But the woman on the beach . . .
Rebekah looked up. I turned my back on her.
. . . The body on the beach . . .
Yes? He sounded spring-loaded. I pictured him leaning forward in his chair. This time, I didn’t feel the quickening, the lightness of a lie being borne out of my body— as I spoke what came next, it seemed pure, definitive, clear as water. Real and whole and impregnable.
. . . The woman on the beach was my wife.
Your wife, he said.
My first wife. I got confused when I said I saw her jump. I was just confused.
And why’s that?
Because I had nightmares about it all weekend, I said. I kept dreaming that I saw her jump. My ex-wife.
There was a harsh little beat of silence. Why didn’t you tell me this at the scene?
I wasn’t certain then, I said.
And what’s made you certain now?
I sorted through things. Evaluated my motives. Gauged my veracity.
I was in shock, I said slowly. You saw me at the beach. I didn’t understand why I was so upset, and then over the last few days I’ve . . .
I turned around. Rebekah was standing at the window, watching the cars pass.
. . . I’ve had a chance to process.
Have you tried to call this woman—what’s her name?
Nora Lucas, I said. No, I haven’t called her.
Well, look, I can’t just—
I stopped by her house, I said. She wasn’t there. She hadn’t been there in a while. Look, isn’t there any evidence you can, that you can divulge?
I don’t know what’s going on here, Mr. Mason, he said. But I think it goes without saying that I can’t share anything with you about this case. Not until identity of the deceased can be established.
I tensed. But you know the identity, I’m telling you who . . .
As my voice rose, Rebekah turned to watch me.
This is my wife, I said, weighting the final syllable.
So you said.
My chest tightened.
I need you to come down to the station, Mr. Mason.
You said you’re with a student—can someone else take over for you?
I sputtered. You’re just going to ignore what I told you?
There was a long pause, and when he spoke again his tone had shifted. In place of his anger was something new; he held it back enough that it took a finely tuned ear to discern its presence, but it was there: pity.
Frank, listen, I’ll be honest with you . . .
I don’t understand, I said. I felt a helpless, hiccupping laugh rise in my throat. It’s the truth. She jumped from the bridge. I stared out the window, trying to collect my thoughts. I didn’t see her jump, I didn’t mean to say . . . you could probably tell from the autopsy that—
When he spoke again it was deliberate, slow. Why do you think this woman is—here he paused, I assumed to look at his notes—Nora Lucas? The deceased wasn’t in a state in which—
I grabbed a piece of chalk from the chalkboard’s rim. Not with any accuracy.
He sounded perturbed. Right.
She was unhappy. I waded through my reasoning. She told me, ‘This is where people come to die.’ I saw the body, and it was her. Her house was abandoned. The strands of red hair. My fingers ground the chalk into an ashy dust.
His voice was quiet, compressed. Mr. Mason, I think you’ve—
I haven’t, I said.
Outside, a car rolled past, blasting its radio.
I’d like it if you would come to the station right away, he said.
I replaced the receiver without another word. Walking over to her, I sat in the miniature chair beside Rebekah. We looked at each other for what seemed like a long time. Here’s how it works, I said again. There’s only a place for one number. Only one number can go there. So the other one gets carried.
She looked at the paper, and then back at me. Why? she said.
The narrator of Bright Before Us is a twenty-four-year-old male named Francis. How did you approach telling a story from a man’s perspective? What were some of the difficulties and obstacles you faced in taking on a male voice?
It wasn’t a conscious choice to make him male. When I had the initial idea for the story—a class of small children finds a dead body on a beach—the teacher I envisioned was, for whatever reason, a man, and he simply stayed one. (Though I will say that I write about men often, perhaps because I find them sort of inscrutable and therefore fascinating.) I definitely encountered difficulties while writing in Francis’s voice. I workshopped a version of the novel in grad school, and a male classmate asked me, “When Francis pees outside in chapter fourteen, why is he squatting?” I’d momentarily forgotten that men pee standing up—I had to remind myself of those kinds of basic aspects of maleness as I wrote and edited. But it helped that Francis is an amalgam of men I’ve known, because I had years of dialogue and action to draw from and recontextualize.
Could you talk a little about the unusual structure of Bright Before Us, which must have presented some challenges above and beyond the challenge of writing a first novel?
It took me five years to realize that alternating chapter by chapter between a first-person front story and a back story told in direct address was the best approach. Before that, I’d been trying to contrive triggers in the action that would call to mind Francis’s past, and the connections were really inorganic and literal. Each time I deployed one in the text, you could almost see those wiggly flashback lines used in bad TV shows. So this solution was actually less challenging than trying to make that disaster work. This structure gave me the freedom to delve deeply into the history between Francis and Nora, the girl he can’t get over, and to give that history real heft; I also got to give the book two climaxes for the price of one. It was difficult, though, having to craft a dozen semi-cliff-hangers, one per chapter, to keep readers caring about story A while they spent time in story B, and vice versa. But once I got comfortable with that rhythm—to get the pacing right, I wrote the book from beginning to end rather than composing the parallel stories separately—I saw how much the form echoed the content. It makes sense that Francis’s past and present are intertwined, because he can’t let go of what happened.
What were some of the books and movies that influenced Bright Before Us?
To get into Francis’s ruminative state of mind, I read a lot of poetry—much of it by Louise Glück (who provides the novel’s epigraph), Gregory Orr, Charles Simic, and Mark Doty. I read a ton of James Baldwin, whose characters can tell you in exposition what they’re thinking and feeling, and you never feel you’re being denied the chance to learn that on your own (“show, don’t tell” is a good guideline, sure—but it can be artfully defied). I watched L’Avventura, the 1960 Antonioni film that begins with a woman’s disappearance and then moves on to other concerns entirely; the book does something similar. Half Nelson, a film about a good and decent young teacher with a penchant for self-destruction, was obviously a huge help. The novel contains several dreams, and I rewatched The Sopranos to see what they can accomplish at their best (the one in “Everybody Hurts,” in the fourth season, is genius). And it would not be an exaggeration to say that the book is an extended homage to Six Feet Under, in the way it grapples with loss, and what comprises our humanity, and the lifelong battle between our desires and those of the people to whom we’re obligated. Francis and Nate, the show’s main character, are both idealists who lack the emotional equipment to live up to their ideals. There’s something about that kind of inept striving that I find endearing.
Do you feel more of an affinity with Francis or with Nora?
I feel very tender toward Francis, even though he’s intensely flawed. I cut him some slack (emphasis on the some) because real growing up—i.e., realizing that happiness requires hard work that no one is going to do for you—is destabilizing, and very few of us come out of that transition without hurting someone. Plus, I think his good qualities help to redeem him. He’s introspective, observant, sensitive, and at least aware of his failings; it counts for something that he’s living an examined life. Honestly, I don’t feel much at all for Nora. It was my goal to make her unremarkable. She’s just a plain-Jane girl who seems perfectly nice (though she couldn’t possibly be as perfect and nice as Francis makes her out to be). I made that choice to underscore the essential truth about Francis’s fixation with their affair: the obsession is more about him than her. I think you get to the last page knowing a lot less about Nora than you might expect, considering she is in some ways the driving force of the novel.
While there is a shift in his perspective, Francis’s fate at the end of the novel is uncertain. What do you want your readers to take away from the book?
Though his fate is uncertain, I don’t think of the ending as being at all mysterious—we know that Francis has a direction in mind, and the final lines make it clear that while he will continue to wish for one, he doesn’t expect some major reversal to come down the pike. I wanted the ending to evoke peaceful resignation. I don’t think Francis is settling or giving up; he’s just seen what he’s come to see, and learned what he can learn, and now he knows it’s time to put away the thoughts that have consumed him. I want a reader to be moved by life’s shades of gray: there’s the thing you want and the thing you get, and though they’re often not the same thing, that doesn’t make what you get inherently awful. That there is a disparity between the two isn’t inherently awful, either—a little longing is good for us. I think it’s the purview of the adolescent to see everything in black and white: this is good, that is bad; this is just, that is unjust. Another part of becoming an adult is learning that in matters of the heart, what’s just is often irrelevant. Your wishes are often irrelevant. There’s great relief, even joy, in accepting that. And I think Francis begins to feel that at the end of the novel.
You earned an MFA at Sarah Lawrence. What were some of the advantages of studying creative writing? What were the disadvantages?
I was lucky to make friends at Sarah Lawrence who are now among my most trusted editors. It’s the connections you make that are most valuable. Writing is lonely, and it’s good to have other writers around to keep you company. I can say categorically that I’m a stronger writer and editor for having gone there, because I got to experiment and practice. That’s what it’s all about—trying stuff out, failing, trying something new. And yet when people ask me if they should get an MFA, I never know what to say. A workshop is only as good as who’s teaching it, and how engaged the students are, and those are awfully nebulous things on which to base two years and a lot of money. But if you’re going to take on an MFA, I strongly advise doing two things: Read (don’t be one of the many MFA candidates who has simply ignored the great works of literature) and don’t worry so much about publishing. You write because you must. Publishing is just the cherry on top.
Did you have any teachers at Sarah Lawrence who made an impact on you? Have there been other teachers or mentors in your life?
I worked with Amy Hempel at Sarah Lawrence, and later privately. She taught me countless things, including how to think about cadence, how to write sex scenes, how to be wry. She taught me to write bravely—to go toward the awful or scary thing in the text, not away from it. But long before Amy, there was my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Kleine. He employed this really innovative class-wide system called Trust, Risk, and Cooperation, in which we were rewarded for pushing ourselves emotionally and for encouraging others to push themselves, too. I’ve kept in touch with him—in fact, I talked to him to prepare for the book, and I made Francis’s classroom look exactly like his.
Your current job is with O, the Oprah Magazine. Can you talk a bit about the differences you find in writing fiction and nonfiction? Do you have a preference?
I don’t have a preference—they’re equally hard. The nice thing about writing for a magazine is that I’m usually given a very specific mandate: Here’s what this article should accomplish, here’s the tone it should have, here’s how long it should be. That’s also the hard thing, because reverse-engineering a piece that way isn’t a skill you learn from writing fiction, poetry, term papers, or publisher’s catalog copy, which is all I’d written before I came to O. Fiction works the opposite way for me: I start with a broad idea, write a sentence, let that sentence inform the one that follows, and so on. But skills like concision, the ability to cut ruthlessly, and knowing how to structure something for maximum effect all apply to novels just as much as articles. And learning how to edit is a brilliant way to improve your own work. Speaking of mentors, my boss at O, Deborah Way, who is a notoriously exacting and extraordinarily talented editor, taught me that there’s no great mystery to clear and beautiful writing. Words are tools, and must be used with great precision. She once made this list called “23 Rules of Editing” (“Start and end in the right place”; “No one enjoys stories about someone sittin’ and thinkin’”); and the one I love best is “We write with nouns and verbs.” There is one perfect word for any situation, and a bunch of inexact words are no substitute. In the work I’ve done since the novel—which I was finishing up just as I came to O—I can see the difference she’s made. It’s a very lucky thing, getting to work in a profession that strengthens my writing (to say nothing of the luckiness of having a boss you enjoy and admire).
You’ve worked for a bookstore, for a book distributor, and now you work for a major magazine. What are some of the pressures you’ve noticed that the publishing industry presents to young writers who are trying to break into the field? How have you dealt with these pressures?
It depends on what segment of the industry you’re talking about. With the larger publishers, there’s often intense pressure to write something that can be categorized easily and sold effectively. The question is whether you’re willing to respond to that pressure—and any first-time writer should know that if she chooses not to, she can still have a rewarding publishing career, because the big publishing houses aren’t the only option. It became clear to me early on that this book wasn’t meant to be on a big publisher’s list, and that was fine. The distributor I worked for after college put out small press books, and getting to observe what was happening in the more remote corners of the publishing world was marvelous—there are so many brilliant people writing brilliant things. It’s like a parallel universe of imaginative and unusual books, and since my books are only going to get weirder (see below), I imagine that I’ll continue to be part of it.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a book-length work of fictionalized nonfiction with two narrators: a pregnant woman who investigates the history of Mare Island (a former naval shipyard in California) after finding a suicide note in an abandoned car there and the dead man who wrote the note. Mare Island is a quietly significant place—it produced battleships that were present at the Guadalcanal campaign and the attack on Pearl Harbor, along with the USS Sargo, the first nuclear submarine to be built on a Pacific base; the USS Indianapolis was serviced there on its way to pick up Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. But since Mare Island closed in 1996, it’s become an extraordinarily creepy place. It’s littered with signs that warn of residual toxins, but home to a subdivision of identical million-dollar homes on its back end. You can look inside the windows of the abandoned buildings and see papers still on desks, plants that died fifteen years ago. I grew up about a mile from the base, and I’m obsessed with it—especially after finding the abandoned car and the note in 2004. (The female narrator isn’t exactly me—but she isn’t exactly not me, either.) The more I dig into Mare Island’s history, the more rich and compelling it becomes: there was a widow who tended its lighthouse for thirty-five years; there were reports of rampant lobotomies taking place in the naval hospital, which housed all the mentally ill naval officers from the Pacific front; and there was an accident on the USS Sargo in 1960 that killed a seaman named James Smallwood, who was very young when he died. In 2008, I located his family in Illinois and asked each member what they remembered about James. Those talks were among the more remarkable experiences of my life—they spoke about who he was, who he didn’t get a chance to be. I’ve titled the book Little Boy.
1. What is your impression of Francis? Are there times when you feel more sympathy for him than others? How does your opinion of him change throughout the book?
2. What is it that keeps Francis unable to move past his feelings for Nora?
3. Children appear prominently throughout the book—in Francis’s class, in his marriage, and in glimpses of his early life. What does childhood represent in the novel?
4. Nora calls him Francis, Greta calls him Frank, his mother calls him Frankie, his students call him Mr. Mason—and at one point, Francis confesses that he’s never been sure of his true self (“I’d long worried that I was no one in particular.”) How does the theme of identity evolve over the course of the book?
5. What is your impression of Greta? Is she a likable or sympathetic character? Why do you think she persists in having a relationship with Francis?
6. In what ways does San Francisco, the primary setting of the novel, influence the story?
7. Francis often feels he must do the wrong thing in order to do the right thing: he dumps Greta to be with Nora, for whom his feelings are genuine; he later forces himself to return to a largely empty relationship with Greta for the sake of their unborn baby. In what ways is Francis right and in what ways is he wrong in making these choices?
8. In several scenes, Francis and Nora drive aimlessly together, and a significant portion of the novel involves a cross-country drive. How do the notions of travel, motion, and stasis figure into the story?
9. What purpose does Francis’s time in Nebraska serve for him? What does he learn there?
10. Late in the novel, Francis and Nora ask each other if they were ever really in love. Is Bright Before Us a love story?