Common Ground
by Allen Long


As we approached the bend with the invisible black ice that killed our seventeen-year-old daughter almost a year earlier, my wife, Susan, stirred herself awake. We were returning to our small farm in Troutville after spending Sunday evening with Susan's parents in Roanoke. The road was dark and empty, and early February snow swirled in our headlights and across the windshield.

Susan stared at the road ahead. I thought she might stiffen, but she remained still. Her thoughts lay inward, where she felt a mother's despair over losing a child--emotions I shared, although I seemed to be recovering more quickly. To complicate matters, Susan was three months pregnant. Lost in grief, she'd forgotten to take a birth control pill. I was thrilled we'd been granted a miracle in the midst of our tragedy, but Susan showed no signs of wanting the baby, as if we'd betrayed our daughter Julie's memory and embarrassed ourselves in the community. A few months after Julie's death, we'd discussed the possibility of having another child, but we'd quickly rejected the idea. No one could replace Julie, and Susan and I were forty-five. We'd be nearly sixty-five by the time our new child was eighteen, a prospect that had struck us with a sense of being too old.

When I glanced back at the road, we'd passed the place I usually braked. I slammed my foot on the pedal, terrified we'd fly straight off the road, which curved sharply to the right, and land on top of several twisted, rusting cars in the deep gully below. We came perilously close to the edge, then swung right with the road. As soon as the pavement widened, I pulled off to the side and rested my sweat-soaked face on the steering wheel. Susan looked shaken and concerned.

"You okay?" she said. "What just happened?"

"Sorry--too much thinking and not enough driving."

She gave me a look of understanding and caressed the back of my neck, which was a comfort, but when I'd nearly lost control of the car, she hadn't reached to protect our unborn baby as she'd done while pregnant with Julie. Susan must've caught the look in my eye when I glanced at her stomach because her face hardened and she turned away.

When we arrived home, I drew a hot bath for Susan in the white claw-footed tub in the upstairs bathroom I'd remodeled shortly after Julie's death--this was the first of many home improvement projects I'd thrown myself into to occupy my mind and help fill up the one-year leave of absence I'd taken from my editing position at the Roanoke Times. Susan had been so despondent, I'd been afraid to leave her alone.

Besides the scare I'd given Susan at the bend, she'd had a rough moment at her parent's house, and I hoped the bath would provide some comfort. Susan's mother, Cynthia, had suggested they look at several baby clothing catalogs, but among her parents' photographs, Susan discovered a picture we'd never seen of Julie sitting on her horse, Star, at her grandparents' stables. Seated next to Julie on her own horse was Kelly Greenfield, Julie's best friend and long-time riding companion. Both young women were smiling in high spirits. Susan stared down at Julie, refusing to acknowledge the catalogs. When Cynthia touched Susan's shoulder, she jerked away. Then her face crumpled, and she hugged her mom. We left shortly afterwards, and Susan fell into an exhausted sleep in the car, still clutching the photograph.

While the tub filled with steaming water, Susan removed her gold earrings and laid them on the black tile counter. Then she kicked off her brown flats and removed her beige dress as well as her slip, stockings, and underwear, which fell in a pile at her feet.

We were trim from miles of country hiking and horseback riding. Since Julie's accident, Susan had stopped hiking with me, spending most of her days shut away in her sewing room working on two quilts covered with images of Julie. Sometimes she'd go out for a ride, and sometimes she allowed me to accompany her, but her riding stopped when her pregnancy began--Dr. Phillips, Susan's OB/GYN, and I insisted on it--otherwise, Susan would have kept riding, too hard. An abortion was out of the question--life was too precious--but accidents happen; that's what we were afraid she was thinking.

Susan hardly ate, so she kept her figure. Beneath her breasts, her stomach bulged gently with our developing child. Now she looked at me, and her expression was sorrowful. I helped her into the tub, kissed the back of her neck, and softly closed the bathroom door as I left.

Downstairs in my study, I poured myself a Scotch and sat on the worn leather couch. In our grief-strained marriage, timing was everything, but it was so hard to get it right. Sometimes both of us were in pain and craved comfort, but neither of us could give it. Sometimes one of us wanted to console the other, but the other person needed to be alone. I sipped my drink and waited for the right time to go back upstairs.

While I waited, I thought about the hard-won plan Susan and I had negotiated over weeks of shouting, crying, and intense conversation. Our agreement was like a lump of coal slowly molded into a diamond under the pressure of time: the anniversary of Julie's death was on Friday, I had to return to work the following week, and the baby would arrive in six months. The plan's purpose was to help us finish the worst of our grieving, shore up our fragile marriage, and prepare for the baby.

According to our plan, Susan would keep her regular appointment the next day with Dr. Phillips. Next, we'd walk across the street to the hospital where Julie had volunteered on Saturday mornings to hold drug- and alcohol-addicted babies.

Then, if Susan kept her nerve, we'd visit the Jennings, where Susan would try to patch things up with Richard, Julie's boyfriend. Julie died driving in a rush from Susan's parents' house to meet Richard for last year's high school Valentine's Day dance. Susan unfairly blamed Richard for Julie's death. Before the accident, Susan and Richard had been close, and I wanted them to reconcile.

Our final stop would be Troutville Tack, owned by Rachel Spalding, Susan's best friend. The two of them stopped speaking to each other about five months before Julie's death, after Rachel fired Julie from her part-time job for stealing an expensive bridle. We'd refused to believe Julie could do such a thing, but we'd found the bridle recently, buried deep in her closet. She'd stolen it the day after Susan had forbidden Julie to dye her black hair blonde so that, as Julie believed, she'd attract Richard's attention and secure a first date.

For my part, I agreed to resume my ballroom dancing lessons with Susan on Tuesday night. We'd taken lessons at the Hotel Roanoke with Julie and Richard. Several times each evening, we'd switched partners, and I'd held Julie. Sometimes she'd been sweet and silent, sometimes she'd teased me by leading, and sometimes she'd cracked jokes to further confuse my less-than-perfect steps. I thought about these moments every day, and I didn't want to dance again.

I glanced at my watch. Susan had been in the tub for half an hour. Hopefully, she was ready for company.

"Mind if I join you in the tub?"

"Yes, I mind," she said.

"Are you angry with me?"

"No, I want to be alone."

Susan's face was pretty, slightly wrinkled, and oddly closed, but I glimpsed a reflection of the old Susan, struggling beneath this sad woman's face. "Just give me half an hour," she said.

As I left the room, I heard a stir of water and turned to see Susan put her hands on her stomach and tilt her head as if listening.

While she soaked, I put on my father's black World War II bomber's jacket--the one Julie begged me to give her countless times--and went outside to watch the snow. The cold reminded me of the many winter nights Julie and I sat on these back steps. We'd held humorously intense competitions to see who could identify the most constellations while Susan sat inside by the fire, working on one of her locally famous quilts.

The wind had stopped, and snow fell in large, silent flakes. The quiet was comforting, but I couldn't stop myself from replaying my life like a video, trying to discover the moment I'd made some terrible mistake that had caused me to lose my daughter and maybe my marriage. All I could think of was that we let Julie date and drive too soon. But she was growing up, we lived in a rural area where distances were greater and kids became independent earlier, and we hadn't wanted to stand in her way. Besides, I'd done everything I could to protect her. Two winters earlier, after Julie turned sixteen, we'd driven out to the bend in her red Saturn on a bright and very cold Saturday after she'd returned home from her hospital volunteer work. Sunlight glinted off newly fallen snow, and bare trees swayed in the icy wind howling past our windows.

"This is the most dangerous piece of road around here," I told her. "When the temperature's low, black ice forms on the bend. You can't see it, but it'll throw your car right into the gully. I want to show you how to drive on it."

"Wow," she said, when her tires touched the ice. "This is creepy."

Julie drove slowly around the bend a half dozen times from each direction before I was satisfied. By the end, she was enjoying herself, and she hummed a quiet tune that hinted at her beautiful singing voice.

"Great job," I said. "Now that you've got the hang of it, how about driving us over it one more time and I'll buy you a cheeseburger?"

She beamed and pulled into a steep driveway to turn around. While we were stopped, she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. "You're the best dad," she said. I felt a surge of happiness, awed by this eager, black-haired and brown-eyed beauty who reminded me so much of Susan and contained something of me, yet was so wonderfully and mysteriously her own.


Back inside, when I held out her towel, Susan remained in the tub.

"I'd like you to dry me," she said. "But you're overdressed for the occasion."

I felt an unexpected but welcome stir of desire. Since Julie's death, our lovemaking had taken on a slow and mysterious cycle that neither of us seemed to understand or control. After I removed my clothes, Susan stepped out of the tub, and I toweled her off in my own teasing way. With a mischievous smile, she took my right hand, put her other hand at my waist, and waltzed us through the bathroom door toward our bed.

I pulled away.

"Come on, Jack," she said encouragingly. "Can you think of a more pleasant way to start dancing again?"

In truth, I couldn't, and I didn't want to spoil our romantic mood, but I froze just the same. "Tuesday," I said.

"Your loss," she said, pulling me into a warm hug.

When the backs of my legs touched the bed, Susan gently pushed me down. She pinned my wrists to the bed and caressed my face with her breasts. When she pulled back, she looked startled by a thought. She let go and sat leaning forward on the edge of the bed.

"What is it?" I said.

"Remember, as she got older, how Julie always seemed to know when we'd made love?" she said.

I laughed. "I remember. She'd raise her eyebrow at us in that funny way until one of us blushed."

Susan laughed, too, but there was a wet sound in her throat, and she covered her face with her hands. As we approached the anniversary of Julie's death, Susan had resumed crying frequently. I wrapped her robe around her and held her until she was calm enough to sleep.


On Monday morning, we kept our appointment with Dr. Phillips.

"I've got the results of the chorlionic villi test," he said. "The baby doesn't have Down's Syndrome or the other conditions we tested for."

Susan nodded impatiently. "I've got this white discharge all the time. Is this some kind of dangerous infection?"

Dr. Phillips smiled and shook his handsome gray head. "Oh no. It's quite common and harmless. No need to worry about it unless it turns yellow, green, or thick."

"I wasn't worried about it," she said.

Dr. Phillips shot me a concerned glance behind Susan's back, and I nodded slightly.

On the ultrasound, we watched the baby's heart beating, its body swimming peacefully in amniotic fluid.

"Would you like to know if it's a boy or girl?" Dr. Phillips said.

Without looking at me, Susan shook her head. "The baby could have an open spine or other birth defects--we won't know until after the amniocentesis, right?" she said.

Dr. Phillips put his hand on Susan's shoulder. "Susan," he said in a personal way--he wasn't just Susan's doctor; he was a friend of her father's, nearly retired, and he'd watched her grow up. "I know this baby isn't coming at the greatest time, but you've got to do your best to help it. All indications are that you'll have a healthy baby and a normal birth. My only concern is that your blood pressure's a little high. This could be a natural reaction of your body, or it could be tension from not wanting the baby. You might think about--"

Susan cut him off. "I'm not going to meditate or see a counselor or do whatever else you're going to suggest. I'll take care of my mind, you take care of my body. And I'm tired of being on display--get out so I can get dressed." I raised my eyebrows apologetically at Dr. Phillips, until I caught Susan's eye and realized I'd be leaving the room with him.

"Try to shake her out of this," he said in the hallway. "Her attitude will have the most influence over her and the baby's health." He gave me an appraising look. "And remember to take care of yourself."

"I'm okay," I said.

He frowned, but his eyes were kind. "Don't be so sure."

When Susan joined me on the sidewalk, she kissed me, then slid her arm through mine. "Sorry about what happened in there. I felt like the two of you were ganging up on me."

I squeezed her arm. "We were, but for the good of you and the baby." I was afraid she'd give me that hard look, but she steered us resolutely toward the hospital across the street where Julie had tended to the addicted babies.

In the changing room, Susan put on a pink smock, buttoned it, and pulled open the door to the ward. "Let's get this over with," she said.

Unlike Susan, I felt a deep longing to hold a baby. Clumsy with excitement, I was still working on the first button.

When I entered the ward, Mrs. King, Julie's supervisor, spotted me and waved me back to where she stood talking with Susan, who sat in one of a dozen rocking chairs in a circle. Several white-haired women in pink sat side by side, rocking babies. Susan cradled one only a few days old. She wouldn't look at me, and she didn't smile down at the baby, but she held it tightly and rocked.

"Susan's got the same magic touch Julie had," Mrs. King said. "A lot of these babies have colic and the jitters, but they calm right down when someone special touches them--sometimes all Julie had to do was walk into the room with them. She was the babies' favorite. We called her Angel." Mrs. King's smile vanished suddenly. "I'm so sorry. I didn't think--I shouldn't have said that."

I patted her shoulder. "That's a wonderful story--Julie never told us. Thank you."

She gave me a relieved smile and went to bring me a baby.

I sat in the rocking chair next to Susan's and matched her rhythm, which seemed both to amuse and irritate her.

"You can goof around all you want, but I'm never going to forgive you for making me agree to this," she said.

"If this is so terrible, hand over that baby."

After a pause so lengthy that I no longer expected a reply, Susan said, "Get your own goddamn baby," but I glimpsed a small, crooked smile at the corner of her mouth just before she shook her hair to hide it.


When we pulled up in front of the Jennings' house about an hour later, Sean Jennings, Richard's dad, who works as a postman, was waiting for us on the gray porch, smoking a cigarette. We'd called them several days earlier to arrange this visit and again after we left the hospital. When he saw us, he flicked the butt onto the gravel driveway and rapped on the storm door. Richard and his mother, June, stepped out onto the porch.

"Sean," I said, shaking his hand. He nodded and returned my grip, looking at me with rigid politeness and a hint of anger.

June hugged me, as did Richard, who smiled shyly--a flash of white teeth beneath green plastic braces. A consummate gardener, he had a small smudge of black potting soil on his chin. Susan was about halfway up the steps behind me.

"Please come in," June said.

"Wait," Sean said, placing his large hand over the door handle.

"Dad, let them in," Richard said.

"Remember your manners, boy," Sean said, nodding at Susan who stood a couple of steps below Richard.

"Hi, Susan," Richard said.

Susan's face was red, worrying me about her blood pressure. She closed her eyes and composed herself. "Hello, Richard," she said. Her voice was cold and quiet.

Despite her accusing stare, Richard looked at her with a mixture of grief and sympathy. An unfamiliar sprig of gray in his dark brown hair stirred in the raw breeze.

"Susan, I'm so sorry for what's happened to you," June said. Her tone was warm and sincere.

I hoped her words would soothe, but Susan glared at June and shook her head violently several times. "I can't bear this," she said to me.

"I'll meet you in the car," I told her.

Susan shuffled down the snow-slicked steps, clutching the black banister.

"This meeting was my idea," I said to June. "I'm sorry. She wasn't ready for it."

She patted my shoulder. "I know, it's unfortunate. We were hoping Richard and Susan would come to terms today. In two weeks, he's leaving to study in France, then he starts Harvard in the fall."

I shook Richard's hand. "Congratulations." He was growing into a fine man. And Julie was still alive in his heart. I could feel her there.

"Listen, Jack," Sean said. "Sorry about the way this worked out. I just couldn't let Susan into the house when she's wishing Richard's the one who died instead."

Richard looked startled. For a moment, I hated Sean for his insensitivity but I recognized the truth of his statement. "It's okay," I said, meaning it.

Sean coughed, spat, and went into the house.

"Listen Richard," I said, wondering if this was how Judas had felt. "Susan and I are renewing old friendships and trying to get our lives back on track. I'd like you to join us for breakfast on Wednesday, say nine o'clock? I can't promise it'll be a bed of roses, but things might work out better than today suggests. What do you think?"

Richard looked at me in dismay. "No offense, Jack, but Susan hates me."

"She doesn't hate you--she's angry that Julie's dead, and her anger comes out in the wrong places. But we're all suffering from the same hurt. Julie's our common ground."

"I know," he said, "but there's no way--" June put her arm around him. "He'll think about it," she said.

As we drove from the Jennings' house to Rachel's store, I said, "I'm sorry. Meeting with the Jennings wasn't one of my better ideas." I expected Susan to be angry, but she was pensive. After several blocks, she spoke, looking remorseful.

"I was so sure June insulted me because of the trouble I'm having with Richard," she said. "Now I realize she was sincere. How could I have been so wrong? Ever since Julie died, I see evil everywhere; sometimes I think the only real evil is me."

"You're not evil," I said. "You're heartbroken." I reached for her hand, but she slipped it into her coat pocket and stared out at the snow.


When we parked in front of Troutville Tack, Susan held up the $300 burnished leather bridle we were returning to Rachel. "Why do you think Julie stole this--just because she was so angry with me about her hair?"

"It was a love charm," I said. "Somehow it was supposed to attract Richard. Have you thought about how bridle is similar to bridal, as in bride?"

She looked at me with surprise. "You're a clever fellow--that never occurred to me."

When we got out of the car, Susan threw her arms around me, the bridle banging my back. "Please don't make me do this."

"Rachel's ready to make up. I've already told her we found the bridle. Meet her halfway."

Over Susan's shoulder, I saw Marjorie Alexander, a cheerful woman I've always liked who sings in the adult choir, approaching, her attention focused on Angus, her black Scottish terrier. When she glanced up and saw us, she blushed and abruptly crossed the street. Troutville was a small town--still is--and everyone knew our story. Many people were wonderfully supportive, but some people avoided us because they were frightened by the magnitude of our tragedy.

Through the store window, Rachel looked at us with compassion and concern and waved for me to bring Susan in. When we crossed the threshold, Rachel, a tall, attractive woman with short red hair, came from behind the cash register. Susan sighed and pushed me gently away so that she faced Rachel. Solemnly, she handed her the bridle, which Rachel accepted with an embarrassed expression. Rachel opened her mouth to say something apologetic, but Susan raised a trembling hand to stop her.

"You were right, and I'm sorry I doubted you," Susan said. "We just couldn't believe Julie'd do such a thing, and she refused to talk about it--she was still angry over the fight we'd had about her hair."

Rachel shook her head. "I'm the one who should apologize. I should have talked things out with her--I was like her second mother--but you know my red-haired temper and how protective I am of my store. I blew up. Also, she wouldn't talk to me--it was like she wanted to be fired."

"So she could join the biology club and go after Richard," Susan and I said at the same time. We looked at each other, feeling a flash of joy at being in-phase, if only for a moment. I hoped the afterglow lasted until we got home.

"I want you to keep the bridle," Rachel said to Susan. "It meant something special to Julie."

Susan shook her head. "That's very generous, but she stole this bridle because of that fight, and I don't want to be reminded." Through the doorway behind Rachel, Susan spotted Kelly, Julie's best friend, working in the stockroom. Kelly had replaced Julie when she was fired, no hard feelings. Raising her voice, Susan said, "However, I'd like to give it to Kelly."

Rachel nodded and smiled. Kelly looked up when she heard her name. She rushed out of the stockroom and gave Susan a hug. She slipped her fingers between the black buttons of Susan's red wool coat and placed her hand on Susan's stomach. Susan went very still, and I was afraid she was going to push Kelly away, but after a moment, she pulled her into an even tighter hug, her eyes closed as if in prayer.

This was fortunate, because Bonnie Blanchard, who worked in the bakery across the street, came in and glared at Susan's stomach with disapproval. While I clenched my teeth, Bonnie pulled two spray bottles of Cowboy Magic off a shelf and put them on the counter in front of Rachel, who looked her right in the eye.

"We're closed," she said.

While Susan, Rachel, and Kelly chatted, I excused myself and walked down to the hardware store to buy nails, screws, and sandpaper so I could finish repairing our sagging porch.

My cashier was Marie Gladstone, a plump woman with beautiful brown eyes. We'd been friends since high school.

"Hey," we said at the same time, which made us laugh.

She rang me up. "That'll be $23.07," she said.

I handed her a twenty, expecting about three dollars back.

"$23.07 out of $20.00," she said with a slight question in her voice.

I nodded, still oblivious.

Marie put my twenty in the till. When I reached for my imaginary change, she took my hand and squeezed it. "You hang in there, Jack," she said.

Suddenly, I felt the broken pieces of myself as if they'd never knit back together.


As we drove home, Susan said, "You seem different."

"Except for the ballroom dancing, I thought I was over most of Julie's death," I said. "But I'm not."

She scooted as close to me as her seat belt would allow and rested her head on my shoulder. "Welcome to the club," she whispered. We drove home in contented silence. That silence extended into a lingering kiss in our kitchen, but we were interrupted by the phone. Susan picked it up and listened, her face darkening.

When she hung up, she glared at me. "That was Richard, accepting our Wednesday breakfast invitation."

"I'm sorry, Susan, but we need to settle with him. He's only around for another couple of weeks."

"That's two weeks too long as far as I'm concerned. You keep interfering with my life, Jack, and you'll be unpleasantly surprised about who's not around anymore." Susan seldom made threats. Her eyes were filled with anger and pleading.

"You treat Richard right and welcome the baby, and I'll stop interfering."

Susan became even angrier, and she started to say something I feared we'd regret for the rest of our lives, but she stopped herself. Instead, she gave me a dangerous smile. "I'm going to dance your ass off tomorrow."


Resuming our ballroom dancing lessons was not as painful as I'd feared. The couples we'd known from before seemed happy to see us and showed sympathy for our tragedy and support for Susan's pregnancy. As Susan and I danced, I thought of Julie, and I stumbled a lot and almost pulled away, but I forced myself to continue. After an agonizing fifteen minutes, I felt an odd flicker, as if Julie were with us. When the moment passed, I was calm, my feet moving smoothly. Susan felt the change in me; she sighed and relaxed into my arms. Her body was soft and warm, and she smelled mildly of vanilla--a perfume Julie'd given her a few years earlier. Her face was peaceful, content, almost ready to be happy.


The next morning, I was making breakfast when Richard knocked on our kitchen door. Before I could react, Susan wiped her hands on her apron and opened the door to Richard, a bouquet of pink and white tulips clutched in his left hand.

"I'm not responsible for Julie's death," he said, his words streaming in the cold. "If we're going to argue about that, I'm out of here."

"We're not going to argue," she said. "We're going to talk and tell the truth."

"You think I've been lying? I knew this was a bad idea." He turned and took a step down the short flight of stairs.

"Richard, please don't go," she called. "I'm the one who's been having trouble with the truth."

Richard turned and looked at her. He was like me--slow to anger, but slow to cool down afterwards.

"Richard, I don't blame you for having a chip on your shoulder," she said. "God knows, I've had one. But if you're so angry with me, why did you even come?"

"Because Jack said Julie's our common ground."

Susan blinked, then slumped forward, her face deep red, her arm holding the door trembling. She draped her other arm across her stomach. I caught her and guided her into a chair. Richard followed us in.

Susan held her head in her hands and cried. "I'm so ashamed," she said.

Richard opened his mouth to say something comforting, but I shook my head. I didn't want there to be any more emotion until Susan's blood pressure went down. Her face was dangerously red. We each put a hand on her shoulder and waited.

Susan wiped her eyes on a napkin and smiled at us. Richard handed her the tulips.

"Richard, thank you. These are gorgeous. Are they from your greenhouse?" When he was twelve, Richard convinced his father to help him build a small greenhouse in their backyard, and he'd made faithful use of it ever since.

He nodded. "These were Julie's favorites."

Susan took Richard's hand. "I owe you an apology," she said. "I've known you weren't responsible for Julie's death, but I blamed you anyway--I blamed you for helping her grow up, for becoming a woman, where a part of her I'd never known blossomed and went to you. I blamed you for worse. Can you forgive me?"

He blushed and nodded. Then he looked at both of us, his eyes wet and shiny. "I want to ask your blessing for something."

"Of course," Susan said. "What can we do?"

"I'm going to Harvard," he said. "Julie didn't think she could get in, so we promised each other we'd go to UVA. After Julie died, I thought about going to UVA anyway, in her honor, but I can't face it. I need to start clean, but I don't want to betray her memory."

Susan stood, putting a hand on Richard's shoulder so he'd remain seated, and gestured for me to join her. We placed our hands on Richard's head. Susan drew a deep breath and said, "Hold Julie in your heart, and go to Harvard with our blessing." Richard began to cry. We kept our hands on his head for a long time.


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