The first few days, Phoebe listened to music with her headphones on. She said she was unpacking, but she never did hang up her shirts or fill her dresser drawers.
When she had the energy, she pulled clean clothes from her suitcase. At night, she left her dirty laundry on the floor. After she had worn all the shirts and underwear she owned, she did the wash. Then she rigged up a clothesline in the back yard. Dan saw her from the kitchen window, tying one end of a nylon rope to the back porch and the other to the crab apple. She made a neat job of it; she’d even found a tub of clothespins. Methodically, she hung her clothes up on the line. After that burst of activity, she drifted back inside and slept.
“Obviously, she needs it,” Dan reasoned.
“I don’t know,” Melanie said.
They remembered how much she used to sleep when she returned from summer camp, but this was different. After a week at home, she still couldn’t stay awake.
Melanie worried about mono, ticks, and Lyme disease. She kept saying, “I think we should take you in.” But Phoebe said no.
“What did he do to you?” Dan was always blaming Phoebe’s ex.
“Oh, come on,” Phoebe said, because did he really think she would tell him anything about her boyfriend?
“Could you be pregnant?” Melanie asked, when she got Phoebe alone.
Melanie was always looking for a diagnosis; Dan had to find someone to blame.
Each day, Phoebe waited in her room until they left for work. Then she would come down and sort the pictures on her phone. Photos from college; photos from the farm and her year off. This took a long time, because she studied each one before she made it disappear. Once, she ventured into the back yard. She checked the empty coop. She rolled her bike out of the garage and pumped up the tires. Then she rolled it back inside.
She felt disembodied, ghostly. She lived like Emily Dickinson. Yeah, right. She wished! No poems came to her, although she had the recluse part down. Phoebe watched little children play across the street, and imagined lowering a basket of gingerbread as Dickinson had done. Of course, she’d get arrested. Food from strangers, nut allergies. She practiced flitting behind blinds instead.
At dusk, her parents returned like chattering birds. The house was small, with thin walls and one narrow upstairs hallway, so Phoebe heard all the arguments. How long would this go on? Could she reënroll past August? She should have been starting junior year. Should they pay for the fall semester? No! Obviously not, Dan declared. Not if she isn’t taking classes. Well, then, what should they do? What should they say? Phoebe had spent sophomore year living with Chris, and now they weren’t together. But what did it mean? And what would happen next? Phoebe was frighteningly calm. She said nothing, did nothing, wanted nothing. Melanie thought Phoebe should see somebody. Dan said, Great, rush her into therapy.
Listening in bed, Phoebe remembered how her parents had fought when she was little. Once, her father had told her mother, “If you’re that unhappy, leave,” and Melanie had driven off in the car. She’d returned an hour later. She’d only gone as far as Edison.
From an early age, Phoebe had kept the family together. Melanie was tired; Dan was out of patience. Therefore, Phoebe had worked as hard as possible. Math, poetry, physics, and violin had filled her days—especially violin. In high school, she had practiced at least three hours a day. Now, as her parents snapped at each other, she thought of ways to reassure them. She would apply for internships. Teacher training? Arts administration? She would draft a five-year plan. The trouble was getting out of bed. Most days, she managed, but she didn’t always make it down the stairs.
True to character, Dan lost it first. He turned to Phoebe at dinner and said, “All right, you’ve been here almost two weeks.”
Melanie interrupted, “This is her home, Dan.”
“You’ve been sleeping, what, twelve, fourteen hours a day?”
Melanie said, “You can see that she’s run-down.”
Dan continued speaking to Phoebe. “What you’re doing isn’t healthy, and it isn’t fair.”
“What do you mean, ‘fair’?” Melanie demanded.
“It’s not fair to the rest of us! From now on we’re having some house rules. First of all, no pajamas at the table.”
Melanie protested, “She’s not wearing—”
“She wore them yesterday. Second of all.” Dan paused to think of his second point. “No sleeping more than ten hours. You have got to pull yourself together!”
Melanie left the table.
Late that night, Phoebe heard a clattering of dishes in the kitchen as Melanie took Dan to task. “You don’t just tell someone to pull herself together.”
Dan said, “I’m not walking on eggshells while my twenty-year-old daughter regresses.”
“She’s not regressing. She’s recovering.”
“She’s growing down!”
Lying in bed, her feet rooting around underneath the covers, Phoebe imagined herself a misfit carrot, a fingerling potato.
“She doesn’t drive; she doesn’t even ride her bike. She was more capable at twelve. At ten! I’m calling her on it.”
“You know that doesn’t work.”
“Oh, now you’re speaking from experience?”
Melanie’s voice wobbled. “I know it doesn’t work.”
“So what would you suggest?”