Marilyn Cantor’s knock, when it came, was barely audible. Two soft taps, a pause, then a third tap. I wouldn’t have heard it had I not been in the front reception area.
I opened the door and saw a woman of about fifty, dressed casually, comfortably and expensively in jeans and a maroon suede jacket. Five-four, slim, with auburn hair and blue eyes. Deep indigo smudges under her eyes, as dark as if she had recently broken her nose. But I knew from what my mother had told me that she’d endured far worse.
I introduced myself and Jenn and got Marilyn seated in one of our guest chairs. She declined coffee but when Jenn offered to make tea, she gratefully accepted. “Something decaffeinated or herbal, if you’ve got it,” she said. “I’m having trouble sleeping.”
As if the dark pouches under her eyes hadn’t told us that.
“I almost didn’t make it,” she said. “Here, I mean.” She was having trouble making eye contact. Looking around the office, out the window, at the mismatched file cabinets and desks we’d bought at a school board auction. “I spent all morning wondering why I made the appointment. What I hope to accomplish by it. Whether there’s anything to be gained.”
“Is that why you called to confirm?” I asked. “Most people don’t bother.”
“Yes,” she said. “I think you’re right. I needed to push myself out the door. I needed someone to be expecting me.”
The kettle came to a boil and Jenn placed a mug in front of her, a bag of decaf English breakfast bobbing on the surface.
“Tell us about your daughter,” I said. “And what you think we can do to help.”
It didn’t take any more than that to make her eyes well up. I pushed a box of tissues toward her from my side of the desk. The tears she could wipe away; the dark pouches seemed there to stay.
“Her name was Maya,” she began. “She was the youngest of two. Our baby. She would have been twenty-two next month. She was studying theatre arts at York-she’d wanted to be an actress since she was a little girl. And she was beautiful and sweet… our gift from God.” Her arms went around her body, hugging herself, trying to provide comfort where none was to be had.
“Do either of you have children?” she asked.
I said no. Jenn shook her head.
“I’m not sure you can understand how this hurts,” she said. “Not just that she’s gone. But how she died. Why she did what she did. Why I-oh, God-why I didn’t know. If she was hurting so badly, if she was so depressed, why didn’t I sense it? Why didn’t she tell me? Reach out to me? We were close. We’d always been close. More so than Andrew-that’s our oldest. He keeps everything inside. If it had been Andrew, God forbid, I think I might have understood. But Maya… I keep asking myself, was I so wrapped up in my own life? Was I not approachable in some way? Divorce affects the entire family, we all know that, and it certainly laid me pretty low the first year. Especially when Rob took up with his girlfriend. But Maya is-was outgoing. Upbeat. She seemed to enjoy her life, her friends, her courses. She was cast in two productions last year and even directed a one-act that was-I’m sorry, I’m rambling here.”
“You’re doing fine,” Jenn said.
“The hardest part was shiva,” she said.
Jenn glanced at me. “A week of mourning,” I explained.
“It’s supposed to be a time of consolation,” Marilyn said softly. “A time when friends and family hold you up until you can get back on your feet. To me, it felt more like an inquisition. I felt everybody’s eyes on me, as if they were asking themselves what I had done wrong. As if I had failed my daughter and everyone in the room knew it. Every day, until it was over, I thanked God that we cover mirrors during shiva because I couldn’t stand to look at myself,” she said. “I live alone now, and except for the one in my bathroom, they’re all still draped in black cloth.”
She used another tissue to wipe her eyes. The office was silent, except for the hum of computers and the buzzing of an overhead light.
“Actually,” she said. “I was wrong. Shiva wasn’t the hardest part.” She pinched the bridge of her nose as if she could cut off the supply of tears to her eyes.
“Take your time,” I said.
She swallowed hard a few times then willed herself to go on. “It was the day after she died,” she whispered. “When the arrangements had to be made.”
I knew where she was going with this, but Jenn wouldn’t, so I said nothing.
“We’re not really Orthodox Jews,” she said. “But Young Israel is an Orthodox shul. A synagogue,” she said to Jenn.
“That much I know,” Jenn smiled.
“Did you know that Orthodox Jews who commit suicide can’t be buried inside the walls of their cemetery?” Marilyn said bitterly.
Jenn’s smile vanished. “No.”
“I had to plead with the rabbi. Go around and around with him, asking for special dispensation. All this with my daughter in the morgue, and time running out. We’re supposed to bury our dead quickly, right? He agreed in the end, but you know why?”
Jenn couldn’t answer that one; I could, but didn’t want to.
“He said if she had taken her own life, then it could be said that she hadn’t been in her right mind, and therefore couldn’t be held responsible for what she did. Do you understand how that felt? Him saying my daughter was out of her mind? If she was, goddammit, then someone was responsible. For knowing it. Seeing it. And that person was me.”
“What is it you need from us?” I asked.
“I need to know why,” she said. “I need someone to tell me why Maya would take her own life. Maybe there are friends she talked to. Or classmates or teachers. People she trusted more than-more than me. I can’t bring myself to ask them. Maybe there are things she wrote down in a journal or underlined in a play, but I can’t go through her things. I need someone else to do it for me. I need you, if you’ll do it. Money is no problem,” she added. “My hus-my ex-husband paid me dearly for the right to sleep with a woman half his age.”
“Was Maya seeing anyone?” Jenn asked.
“I don’t think so,” Marilyn said. “Not that she told me. But now of course I wonder if she would have.”
“Can you provide a list of her friends?” Jenn asked.
“I already did.” Marilyn produced a folded sheet from her purse. Half a dozen names were typed on it, along with phone numbers, cell numbers and email addresses. “These are the girls she’s known the longest,” she said. “The ones who grew up on our street, went to the same high school, the same summer camp. I’m not sure about her friends from theatre school but I’ve brought some programs from plays she was in, which will have most of the names. And her teacher is Theo Harris. Maybe he knows what was going on with her. She spoke well of him. She spoke well of everybody… that’s the kind of person she was. Not an enemy in the world.”
“Marilyn,” I said gently. “If it’s not too painful, can you tell us anything about the night she died?”
She took a deep breath, as if trying to expel a toxic cloud that had formed inside her lungs. “It was two weeks ago. She had dinner at her father’s house that night. Her and Andrew. I know something happened there between Maya and Rob. Neither of them told me what it was about, but I know from Andrew there was a bit of a row and Maya left early. Probably something to do with Nina. The new wife.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because she’s a bitch to everyone. Anyway, a few hours later-around midnight, the police said-she jumped off… oh God… I’m sorry… she jumped off her balcony. From twelve storeys up.”
“They’re sure she jumped?” I asked. “Could she have somehow slipped?”
“There’s a waist-high concrete wall around the balcony,” Marilyn said. “If she had simply fallen over, they said, she would have landed differently. Closer to the building or something. They were pretty sure she climbed up onto the wall and then jumped.”
“Marilyn,” I said, “do you know if Maya was into drugs at all? Maybe if she was upset after this dinner, she-“
“No! She wasn’t a drug user, or even much of a drinker. She didn’t even like being around people who were. She liked herself. Liked being herself. That’s what makes it so damn hard to understand.” Her slim body started to heave and huge racking sobs followed. Jenn went and sat next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. A few minutes passed before she could speak again. “Please, Mr. Geller-“
“Please, Jonah. Jenn. Find out what happened to my baby. Find out what went wrong. Where I went wrong. I can handle that. I can handle anything but this wondering. This not knowing.”
“Why take it all on yourself?” Jenn asked. “You weren’t the only parent she had.”
“Please,” she said, giving us the closest thing she had to a smile. “Rob is the most self-absorbed little pri-the most self-absorbed man on this planet. If Maya literally had been crying out for help, he wouldn’t have heard it. Or he would have told her to wait till he got off the phone. He was that way when we were together and he’s been even worse since we split. Between his new bimbo and his big new project-he’s quite the mover and shaker now. No, I’m the one who was supposed to be there for her. And for Andrew too, even if he never seems to need anything from anyone. It was up to me to help the kids get over the divorce and get on with their lives and I failed. Or at least I failed Maya. Completely.”
I looked at Jenn and she nodded at me.
“We’ll do what we can,” I said.
I asked if Maya had left a note of any kind.
Marilyn shook her head.
“Do you have a recent photo?”
Marilyn reached into her purse and withdrew what had been a five-by-seven once. It was now five-by-four with a ragged edge on the left. The photo showed a beaming young woman with sea-green eyes and chestnut hair that fell to her shoulders. She had her arm around her mother, who stood on her right.
“I’m sorry,” Marilyn said with a half-smile. “When Rob told me he was leaving me for the trophy girl, I cut him out of most of the photos.”
“What about her apartment?” Jenn asked. “Have her things been moved?”
“Not yet,” Marilyn said. “I haven’t been able to deal with it. I paid the rent until the end of next month. Maybe by then I’ll be able to sort through it and see what I want to keep.”
“With your permission,” Jenn said, “we should have a look. Her phone records and credit card bills might tell us something.”
“Did she keep a journal?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. She told me once that she had to keep a journal of a character she was playing-it was Helena, one of the lovers in Midsummer Night’s Dream-God, she was so funny in that, so goofy-but whether she kept one of her own? I don’t know.”
“If she did,” I said, “maybe we’ll find it at her place.”
“I’ll get you a set of keys,” she said. “Or maybe I should go with you. I might be able to tell you what’s important and what’s not.”
“That’s a courageous offer,” Jenn said. “Do you think you could manage it?”
“Now that I’m here-now that I’ve met you-yes, I think I could.” She put her hand over Jenn’s and squeezed it.
“Why don’t you guys go ahead,” I said. “I’d like to talk to her dad.”
Marilyn recited Rob’s office, cell and home numbers. “But good luck getting hold of him. Ever since he got involved with Simon Birk, he thinks he’s more important than God.”
“The Simon Birk?” I asked.
“The man himself,” she said.
Everyone knew Simon Birk. Even me, who paid little or no attention to matters of big business and real estate. Birk was one of the highest-profile developers in the world, Chicago’s answer to Donald Trump, only with hair that could be explained by science. He and Trump were known to be bitter rivals. When ground was broken on Trump’s International Hotel and Tower at Bay and Adelaide, the Donald arrived in a stretch limo and used a golden shovel. Several months later, at his own groundbreaking ceremony, Simon Birk made his entrance by helicopter, the rotors scattering hats and ruffling the hair of dignitaries and journalists. He scoffed at the shovel he’d been offered and commandeered a backhoe to crack the dry earth and scoop out the first bucketful of soil.
“So the big project of Rob’s that you mentioned,” I asked, “is the Birkshire Harbourview?” It was a massive new complex on a long-neglected part of Toronto’s port lands.
“How did he manage that?”
“Birk wanted to build in Toronto and Rob had the one thing they don’t make any more.”
“Acres of it, all south of the Keating Channel.”
“How did he swing that?” Jenn asked.
“Depends who you ask,” Marilyn said.