Fourteen years old, Thisbe Casper has begun riding her bicycle around Hyde Park looking for God. Before each school day and after, she pedals up and down the street in a gray skirt and blue sweater, ignoring her wheezy asthma, searching for signs of providence in the miraculously-trimmed hedges and perfectly-kept trees. When she does not find His Holiness in person, she will often seek one of her neighbors’ pets for an impromptu baptism instead. This morning, holding Mrs. Lilly’s small white cat, Snowball, to her chest, Thisbe whispers a prayer of her own invention:
Please let there be a heaven for everything that is too pitiful to believe
and then the animal hisses, scratching Thisbe’s wrist. Thisbe turns the poor cat loose, watching it hurry back to its spot beneath Mrs. Lilly’s shadowy porch. Thisbe grabs her wrist and sees three red marks, already dappled with blood. She retrieves her Math notebook from her book bag and makes a small tally mark, next to a dozen others, noting Snowball’s unsuccessful redemption.
Thisbe prays for a number of things each day, usually in this order: for her neighbors’ pets, for her hair to look okay, for her asthma not to get any worse, for her sister not to make fun of her, for her sister to act like she knows her in school, and for all the homosexuals she sees on television—who she truly believes can be saved with the right kind of prayer. She also prays for her singing voice to become an instrument of God, something miraculous, something to fill the world with wonder. Finally, she prays for all the black people in her neighborhood. Black people terrify her. She does not ever ride her bicycle west of Cottage Grove Avenue or south of Fifty-Ninth Street into the tired confines of the adjacent black neighborhood. She does not like the way the black people dress, she does not like their music, she does not care for the way they look at her, like she is an intruder in her own neighborhood. She does not like their worn-out-looking storefront churches. She thinks these churches are an insult to God. She does not like the boys, her age or younger, standing shirtless on the corner, wearing silver chains, drinking from bottles hidden in brown paper bags, calling out to passing cars. She hates that some of them wear crucifixes. She does not believe they want to be saved. She thinks they are where they are in their lives, in this world, because they are all lazy. She does not like to ride past their sad little houses. She does all she can to avoid the few black girls at her high school, all of whom, without trying, can sing better than her. Thisbe pedals past them all, hoping no one makes fun of her skirt, which has just begun to come undone at the hem. There are a few loose threads there that anybody could see.
After school, Thisbe has chorus practice which she loves, though she spends most of the day dreading it. Thisbe is an awful singer, worse than awful, very, very bad. Her classmates are forced to stand beside her, listening to her wail without tone or melody. Mr. Grisham, the very weird chorus teacher, a man strangely fond of Cary Grant—a signed photograph of the famous star rests on his desk—a man with a passion for songs by Bette Midler and by Bette Midler only, does not believe in turning students away from the performing arts. His chorus, for the past eight years, has received no major awards and has failed to place in even the lowliest of regional competitions. In his soft tan suit, his bushy brown mustache covering his moist, thin lips, Mr. Grisham always manages to make Thisbe feel unwanted, moving her from first to second to third to fourth soprano. Mr. Grisham was relieved when he discovered Thisbe could play piano. Susannah Gore, a hulking senior with oily dark hair, had been the accompanist, and though her scratchy tenor was nearly unbearable, it was an obvious improvement over Thisbe’s caterwauling. Mr. Grisham made the switch, vainly hoping the heavy, melodious tones of the piano would drown out Thisbe’s harsh though earnest wailing. They have not.
Today the chorus is preparing for its first recital of the year. Thisbe folds her skirt under her thighs and takes a seat in front of the out-of-tune, upright piano. The rest of the girls take their places, gossiping quietly. Mr. Grisham is paging through his songbook when the door to the recital room bangs open. A girl with short blonde hair and a funny-looking smile enters. Thisbe looks up from the piano and watches as the girl, a girl whom Thisbe has never seen in school before, unbuttons her gray sweater, and wanders into place beside Alice Anders, a soprano. The new girl looks a little mean, with green eyes outlined in arrogant-looking mascara.
“Glad you could make it, Roxie,” Mr. Grisham says, nodding, adjusting his small-framed eyeglasses. “We’re happy you’ve decided to return to our little family again this year.”
The girl, Roxie, nods and when Mr. Grisham turns his attention back to his awful songbook, she immediately flips him off. Thisbe, at the piano, is shocked. The other girls all laugh nervously. Mr. Grisham announces the first number, “The Rose.” Thisbe flips her music book to the correct page, studies the fingerings for the opening chords, and places her digits above the keys, waiting. Mr. Grisham gives a nod in her direction, and Thisbe begins, much too slow, then much too quick, Mr. Grisham tapping his foot to set the pace. When the girls finally begin to sing, Thisbe is struck by how beautiful the new girl’s voice is; and although she is standing there in the back line, rolling her eyes, the sound appears effortlessly in the air around her dirty-looking mouth. Each note is like spun gold, each phrase echoing like a single prayer, the girl’s perfect tone confirming the startling order of the world. Thisbe feels a sad sting of envy as she glances out of the corner of her eye, the girl Roxie is not even trying, the melodious voice becoming stronger and stronger, filling the recital room with a magnificent glow. Thisbe decides she hates this girl with the beautiful voice, hates her for having something she does not even seem to appreciate, standing there in the back line, chomping on a mouthful of gum, rolling her eyes. She hates her and at the same time, she feels clumsy, awkward, hammering her fingers along the keys without the smallest bit of talent, that voice, that one particular voice like a song she has always wanted to sing, a dream of a sound that she has so often wished would arise from her throat. Thisbe, no longer looking at the musical notes, closes her eyes and immediately pretends it is her voice singing brightly. When she makes a terrible mistake, missing the last chorus of “The Rose,” and Mr. Grisham begins shouting, she is reminded it is not.
On Friday evening, minutes before the recital is to begin, Thisbe sits down at the piano onstage, looking over the polished black monstrosity at the nearly empty auditorium, searching for her family. The audience is noisy and wet from the rain. Part of her hopes that her family is not there, while the other part of her aches to see her mother’s face. And her father’s, and Amelia’s too, unless she’s pouting. She quickly scans the audience, and sees row after row of tired-looking parents, bored in business suits, their hair glistening from the downpour outside. There, in the third row, she spots her mother, who gives her a quick, secret wave. Thisbe smiles, nodding, placing her fingers just above the keys. She sees Amelia is there, her arms folded across her chest, chewing a wad of gum. Every so often, Amelia stretches the wad with her finger, disgusted at having to endure this tedium on her sister’s behalf. Beside Amelia is an empty blue seat, where Thisbe’s mother has stacked their coats. Her father is late again: but what’s new? Thisbe frowns. Mr. Grisham, nervously pulling at his mustache, appears beside her and says, “Let’s not miss the grace notes tonight, Thisbe,” then touches her back with his creepy hand and hurries off.
As soon as the curtain is drawn, and the chorus, in their awful taffeta gowns, steps forward, Thisbe begins playing, “Wind Beneath My Wings,” her fingers cramped, her hands shaking. Mr. Grisham, at the head of the chorus, is giving her an terrible look, but she refuses to glance up at him. She follows the black notes across the lined pages with her eyes, listening for Roxie’s voice to swiftly fill the room with burnished light. Susannah Gore has a cold and is like an anchor, the huskiness of her tenor chaining the rest of the chorus to the boards of the dimly-lit stage. Thisbe misses two notes, still waiting for Roxie to really begin singing. She is standing there, in the back line, head down, her nose buried in her lyric book. She does not at all seem interested in being there. By the third song, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” Thisbe realizes that Roxie is only mouthing the words. The rest of the chorus trudges on, their voices like dull, metal weapons falling down a stone staircase, until the final number, “From A Distance,” lands gracelessly at the audience’s feet. The curtain falls, Mr. Grisham has begun shouting, Susannah Gore is coughing, some of the other tenors are crying, and Roxie stands in the back row, looking down at her nails, totally unconcerned.
In the parking lot, Thisbe chases after the girl, calling to her, then grabbing at the back of her ugly blue dress. “What’s wrong with you?” she blurts out, flushed with anger and what she believes to be an appropriate degree of indignation.
“What?” Roxie mutters, thoroughly bored.
“Why? Why didn’t you sing in there?”
“Why don’t you fuck off?” Roxie asks and Thisbe discovers she does not have an appropriate answer to that particular question. Roxie turns and cuts quickly through the parking lot, disappearing behind a crowd of disappointed-looking parents.
When Thisbe finally finds her own sad relations near the Volvo, they are fighting, once again. Her father has appeared, looking like a mess, his tie untied, his jacket wrinkled. He is saying, “I’m sorry. I had to take a cab. I thought you said eight,” while her mother shakes her said and says, “Seven. Seven. That’s what I said. Seven. You never listen to me. You never listen.”
“I do listen. You said eight.”
“So now I have to be responsible for picking you up, too?” she asks.
Thisbe climbs into the backseat beside her sister, Amelia. “Nice screw-up in there,” Amelia mutters, to which Thisbe does not reply.
Thisbe prays for an asthma attack on the way home. Her parents continue fighting in the front seat. The Volvo idles at a stoplight while her father—from the passenger seat, his blonde beard uneven with wet gray hairs—whispers angry, though incredibly quiet words at her mother. When her parents fight, they do it in near silence. Thisbe has seen her mother wordlessly cry during her parents’ spats, her father looking away blank-faced and ashamed—but these disagreements are almost always impossible to hear from the backseat. Thisbe tries to stop herself from breathing so that she can make out a word or two but all she hears is her mother mutter, “I told you I will not do this anymore,” before she smashes down the gas pedal, the Volvo lurching back into traffic.
Thisbe begins praying to herself, roughly the same prayer she has been repeating for months now. Her parents, Jonathan and Madeline, too busy in the front seat, do not notice. Without their disapproval, Thisbe begins:
Attention, God the Judge, God the Father, who Art in Heaven, give me one miracle, please. If you exist as I know you do, even if no one else in the world believes in you, please give me a brain tumor. Please tear my limbs from their sockets and let the backseat and my older sister be totally covered with blood. Please make me dumb and blind and deaf, please make me a martyr, please, dear heavenly Father. Tear my heart right from my chest. Drive spikes into my eyes and let hot lava shoot out of my mouth. Make me silent and thoroughly dead, but please hurry. Before we get home, before we reach the next stoplight, let the only sound be no sound, the silence of my death burning in the empty sky. If you are a mighty and true God, if you are not just a dream I have made up, please, before another hour, another minute passes, let the wire in my bra poke through my heart. Dear Lord, please, please, give me this one miracle. I have begged you every day, every evening, so please, let your will be done, let your will be done. Give me a gruesome death as fast as you possibly can. Thank you, God. Amen.
Beside her, Thisbe looks over at her older sister, Amelia, who is reading a book on Lenin. Amelia is wearing her headphones and seems not to notice her parents arguing or maybe she is pretending not to notice. Thisbe taps her older sister on her shoulder, but Amelia ignores her, turning the volume up on her CD player. Thisbe cannot tell what she is listening to, only that it is incredibly loud and someone is singing something in French.
As the Volvo accelerates along Fifty-Ninth Street, with the evening sky of the east reflected in the dark, choppy water of Lake Michigan, Thisbe hears her father say to her mother, “I don’t know how you could ask me that.” The station wagon turns and speeds off, their street getting closer each moment, the rest of Hyde Park rises high and sleek and wondrous, like a specter before them.
“I won’t do this anymore,” her mother says again, no longer whispering. It must be an admission, it must be something her mother has suddenly realized and so she can no longer speak it quietly.
“I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean,” her father replies, no longer whispering either. “I don’t know what you want me to say to that.”
Thisbe turns to stare out the window, her brown eyes starting to burn with tears. Her heart feels invisible and soft and fluttery and she is having a hard time breathing. But she does not go for the white plastic asthma inhaler in her purse. She can hear herself wheezing and at first, hopes her parents will turn around in the front seat and ask if she is okay, and when they donâ€™t, she decides she is going to let herself suffocate if it means shutting them up. She will be Joan of Arc. She will be a blood-smeared figure in a Renaissance painting. Her prayer will be her own silent death. Her lungs feel as if they will explode, the blood in her ears pounding. Her hands are grasping at her knees, the fingers momentarily awkward and empty, now tugging at the hem of her skirt for something to hold. She places her hands in between her legs and, when she notices she is still fidgeting, she then places them beneath her thighs. She is barely breathing at all now, her heart pounding fast and faster. Out of the backseat window, Thisbe sees the lake, immense and blue, unending, the sky above it stretching forever in all directions, the gray clouds reflected in the white crests of the waves below. She opens her eyes wide to stop herself from crying, her heart beating louder now, louder than her parentsâ€™ voices. Beside her, her sister is reading her stupid book, uninterested, the music from her headphones vibrating. The air around Thisbeâ€™s head becomes anxious with electricity. She sucks in a breath to prevent herself from sobbing, the air filling her thin chest. Suddenly she is lighter than the air itself, like one of the clouds drifting above the lake. It is as if she has begun to float, imperceptibly at first, her legs feeling almost weightless, the vinyl stickiness of the car seat tugging at the back of her bare thighs, her head rising toward the roof of the station wagon, like a bubble or balloon. She feels as if she is rising for a second in the air, floating, hovering, flying, and then, letting go of the breath, she falls, dropping back into her seat, her heart beating more quietly now, her hands folded beneath the back of her thighs, her eardrums throbbing with panic, her knees tingling, then she is gone, then she is nothing. A few seconds later, she realizes she has almost caused herself to suffocate. When the blood stops thrumming in her ears, she hears her mother and father still growling angry, silent words at each other, she sees her older sister still shielding herself with her book, and none of her family has noticed anything.
Thisbe is lying in bed that evening, saying her prayers, when her father knocks on her bedroom door. At once she realizes he has come to tell her that he and her mother are getting a divorce. Thisbe stops at her forty-fifth Hail Mary of the night, speeding through the final lines, Now and at the hour of our deaths, amen. Thisbe says one hundred and ten Hail Marys every evening, an activity she began last year, when her grandmother, a devout Catholic, died; Thisbe had been helping her wash the dishes when a white serving plate slipped from Grandmother Violet’s soapy, wrinkled hands. A few moments later, her grandmother was dead. Thisbe now says a prayer for each year of her father, mother, and older sister’s lives, thus secretly, and without their knowledge, keeping them alive. Her arithmetic looks like this:
Thisbe says the number forty-five aloud to remind herself where she left off as her father knocks again. She is sure it is him. His knock is so soft, so unobtrusive. She feels her father standing outside the door there, holding his breath, listening for her response.
“Yeah, dad?” she says.
“Thisbe? Hey, kiddo, are you sleeping?”
He opens the door and peeks his head in. “I think we might need to talk for a few minutes,” her father says. He looks so nervous now, sitting on the corner of the bed, careful with his weight, as if she is made of glass. His face is hard to see, just the shape of his poorly-kept beard, his left ear, his blue eye. She remembers when she thought he was the most handsome man in the world, when he used to wear the red T-shirt she made with the iron-on that said “Best Dad Ever.” She remembers helping her mother attach it, the sound of the steam escaping from the iron, the shape of her mother’s smile. She knows why he is standing there in the dark now, what he is going to say, duh. They are both so obvious. Why can’t they just say it? Suddenly, Thisbe is thrilled by the terrible drama of it, the sense that something is over and something else is beginning, that her world, as lame and awkward as it has been, is about to change. But then she is trembling with sadness and the tears are beginning to fill her eyes once again.
“I wanted to apologize to you for what happened tonight,” her father said. “I misheard your mother and Iâ€¦I wanted to apologize for missing your recital.”
“It was really stupid anyway. I messed up pretty bad.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Well, you can come see me next time.”
Her father smiles, nodding, rubbing his hands on the knees of his pants.
“Okay. I’ll be there, I promise.”
Thisbe can hear the music from her sister’s room next door. It is “Marie-douceur, Marie-colÃ¨re” by Marie Laforet, the same stupid French song she’s been playing for days now. Duh. She is probably in there getting stoned. Thisbe hates for sister for not being as thoughtful as she is. She hates that she will have to remember this moment for the rest of her life with her stupid sister’s French music playing in the background.
“Thisbe?” Her father hesitates now, wondering if he should put his hand on his daughter’s arm or shoulder before he says it. No. She watches him struggle, unsure what words to use, what tone of voice, his hand finally resting on her foot, which is curled up under her leg. When his hand touches her, she knows, and her heart goes totally blank.
“You guys are getting divorced,” Thisbe blurts out. “I knew it.”
“What?” he asks, startled. “No, no, of course not. Did Mom tell you that?”
“No. No, we are just having a hard time right now is all.”
“But you’re not getting a divorce?”
“No, we’re just going to spend some time apart.”
“A separation, so we can figure things out.”
â€œDad, thatâ€™s so stupid. Didnâ€™t you guys do that already?â€
“It’s not stupid. We want to try and work this out.”
“Why? What do you mean why?”
“I mean why not just get it over with.”
“Because we still love each other. It’s just difficult right now.”
Thisbe lowers her head, staring down at her father’s slippers. They are dark blue and sad-looking. In fact, everything about him is sad-looking, his ruffled, blonde beard, his haircut, his blue eyes.
“Do you want to talk about this?”
“I thought that’s what we were doing.”
“Well, do you want to say anything to me?”
“I’d like to think about it awhile,” she says.
“It’s okay to be angry, hun. It’s okay to be sad.”
“I’m not angry, I just want to think about it.”
“Okay,” he says.
She scratches her nose and then asks, “Are you both going to live here still?”
“We don’t know how that’s going to work yet. For now, we will. Any other questions like that?” her father asks.
Thisbe shrugs her shoulders, then asks, “Dad?”
“What do you think God thinks about this?”
“Do you think he’s going to punish you and mom for doing this?”
“I don’t think it’s any of his business.”
“I don’t think God believes in divorce,” Thisbe whispers. “I think it goes against the Bible.”
“I think God has other things to worry about. Like war and endangered species and things like that.”
“God worries about all of us.”
“We aren’t Christians, Thisbe. You’ve only been to church twice in your life. And both times that was for funerals.”
“Well, maybe we could start going now.”
“I don’t think that’s going to help, honey.”
“Maybe it would.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t,” her father says, pinching the space between his eyes.
“When does the separation start?” Thisbe asks.
“What do you mean, hun?”
“When does it start?”
“It starts tonight. Right now, I guess.”
“I’m afraid so, honey.”
“We didn’t even get a last meal together.”
“We’ll still eat together, if you want.”
“It won’t be the same.”
“I guess not. I know you probably don’t want to hear this right now, but I’m sorry. Your mother and I, we, we always promised we would never put you guys through this again.”
“No it’s not,” her father says. “But it’ll be okay, I promise.”
“Where are you going to sleep tonight?”
“I don’t know. In the den.”
“It gets cold in there with the air-conditioning.”
“I’ll be all right.”
He touches her foot again, counting each of her toes.
“Did you tell Amelia yet?”
“Your mother is talking to her right now. We decided we’d tell you guys at the same time. Your mom’ll be coming in here to talk to you in a minute or two.”
Thisbe smiles unexpectedly, surprisingly happy, the thought of them, her parents, coming up with this fair solution. Her father leans over and kisses her forehead, then quietly departs, gently closing the door behind him. Thisbe lies in bed, wondering what’s going to happen to all of them. She decides she will accept whatever God wants, even if it is something she does not like, like her mother and father getting divorced and her having to share a room with Amelia. Even then, she will not complain, if that is His will. Thisbe stares up into the dark, continuing her bedtime prayers, the silence of her room interrupted by the soft muttering and movement of her own lips until a familiar howl echoes from the dark, moonlit backyard below. It is her neighbor’s cat, Snowball, crying to be let in. Thisbe decides she will get up early tomorrow morning to capture the animal. Tomorrow she will finally make it understand God’s love once and for all.