Blydyn Square Review
Spring 2023 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
Spring 2023 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
This issue marks our second full year of publication. As you may have noticed, our issues tend to be on the short side—because we’re more particular than the average literary magazine about what gets selected for our pages.
But, for one time at least, we’re changing things up.
For our next issue, instead of meticulously selecting only the very best pieces of writing from what we receive, we’ll be trying an experiment: We will open our submissions window for two hours (that date will be announced on our social media, so be sure to follow us there for the details). Anything we receive during that window—regardless of theme, genre, or, yes, quality—WILL appear in our Summer 2023 issue.
Please spread the word to your writer (and artist) friends. We’re eager to get a wide variety of submissions for this experiment in which we hope to find out the answer to the perennial question: What’s more important—quality or quantity?
See you next time!
Use the links below to jump to the different articles.
Erin Jamieson (she/her) holds an MFA in creative writing from Miami University. Her writing has been published in more than 80 literary magazines, and she has received a Pushcart Prize nomination. She is the author of a poetry collection (Clothesline, NiftyLit, February 2023). You can find her on Twitter: @erin_simmer
I find a starfish,
one leg missing
slack on pebbled beach
oblivious to the patter
of barefoot tourists
or the $2 hot dog stand
just lying there, waiting
But it’s low tide
& I imagine it breaking
into more pieces
just as I keep waiting
for an email or offer
to rescue my life
I pick the starfish up gingerly
and toss it back in the ocean
Gary Bloom grew up in Minneapolis and attended what is now Minnesota State University-Mankato. His articles and poetry have been published in newspapers, magazines, and websites, including Pif, Milwaukee Magazine, The Buffalo News, The Grand Rapids Press, and Black Diaspora. He lived in New Orleans for many years and now lives on the Mississippi gulf coast.
I saw a couple of kids kissing
behind the 7-Eleven the other day
their hands full of each other
and their tallboy cans of beer.
Between drags on one cigarette
they let their tongues do the talking
and I knew this was just a prelude
to an afternoon of fucking.
I watched them for a while
getting more and more pissed off
that those days are done for me
but for others
they are just beginning.
Tolu Ogunlesi’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Wasafiri, Transition, Sable, Magma, Orbis, Eclectica, VLQ, Times Arts Review, and others. He currently divides his time between Abuja, Nigeria, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. He blogs at toluogunlesi.medium.com
for what point is there in arguing
or mourning aloud, if we cannot
hear the sounds of our own voices
cursed is the noisy highway
that winds through our dreams
and waking moments
autobahn of memories and
we hear everything else
hinges of our mouths when we eat
waterfalls of our gullets when
we swallow tiny pillows of water
flat tyres of our hearts begging
to stop and rest, our pasts from
where we murdered them and tried
in vain to hide their corpses
and our futures from where they
inter and disinter themselves.
if we listen well enough we can hear
electricity, flowing and seeping
through plastic intestines, and the hic
cupping of heat upon our skins. but
our own voices — never. A silent movie
sneaking back into the projector, ashamed.
Dagny Randall is an editor and freelance writer, who splits her time between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This is her first novel.
God help us, she’s back. And I don’t think she’s going to leave this time. Never. I had really hoped I could find some way to get out of inviting Suzy to the wedding. When she was living at DeLamiter’s, I was planning to pretend I sent the invitation to the wrong address, but now that’s out of the question. She’s here—every minute of every day. And she’s driving us out of our minds.
We never talked about the money that Mr. DeLamiter left to me and Mom. I think we all just figured the safest thing was to pretend it hadn’t happened. Scott thought it was hilarious, and he was pretty psyched about having some extra cash to spend on our honeymoon. He would have been singing a different tune if he actually had to live with her.
The worst part of it all was that I was trying to plan a wedding and was already under a time crunch. Having Suzy around with her constant “suggestions” just made the whole process more stressful. I know Mom was trying to keep Suzy out of my way, but nothing could have held back that know-it-all nut job. She had an opinion on everything I did in regard to the wedding. My invitations were tacky, my dress was passé, and of course, we’ve already covered what she thought of my future husband: too ugly.
What really pushed me over the edge, though, was when she started to give me unsolicited advice about wedding etiquette. According to Suzy, it was against all the rules for Scott and I to choose to sit at a table with our bridal party instead of at one of those sweetheart tables. It didn’t matter that it cost less to have the bridal party sit with us, which meant we would need one less floral centerpiece—nor did it matter that the idea of eating up on a little stage in front of everyone I knew wasn’t all that appealing.
Next, Suzy informed me that my wedding favors—gorgeous crystal boxes filled with chocolates, graciously donated by Scott’s favorite aunt—were all wrong, because I chose dark chocolate instead of white to fill the boxes.
“Serving dark chocolate is like the bride wearing black,” she said matter-of-factly.
“But I hate white chocolate. It’s too sweet,” I protested.
“Who cares what you like?” she replied.
Imagine putting up with this sort of exchange over every single part of your wedding, from the church readings to the cake filling. It was a nightmare. And if it hadn’t seemed so important to Scott’s family, especially his aging grandfather, we would have just eloped—and only because of Suzy. Everyone else was absolutely wonderful, offering monetary contributions without a word about what their preferences were. It amazes me even now, so many years later, how one woman could singlehandedly make what was supposed to be the best day of my life turn into the worst one.
Mom and I had frequent hissing arguments in my bedroom or the hallway, trying to make compromises because of Suzy. I was at the point of telling her she was not only invited to my wedding but was also being evicted from our no-rent-needed family hotel. Mom pleaded with me to be more patient, saying things she didn’t even believe herself, like, “She means well.” I had my doubts that Suzy had ever meant well at any time in the whole twisted history of her life.
But I felt guilty about letting my mom pay for huge chunks of the wedding and then ignoring her wishes when it came to at least outwardly tolerating Suzy, so I did my best to be gracious, listened politely to Suzy’s many “helpful” hints, and then did whatever I wanted anyway. I went into the rehearsal dinner steeled by the knowledge that in under thirty-six hours, the whole shit show would be over (and, once we got back from our honeymoon and I moved in, officially, with Scott, Suzy would be out of my life).
But of course, the real nightmare was only beginning. Though the rehearsal dinner was a very small affair, with only our immediate families (somehow, Suzy made the cut) and the four people who were serving as our bridal party, Suzy complained so often and so loudly to anyone who would hear that it seemed like a much more complicated event. At the church, while we were doing the actual rehearsing—arguably the most important part of the whole exercise—Suzy kept jumping out of her pew and stopping me on my practice run down the aisle to criticize the width and sincerity of my smile and the angle at which I was holding the paper plate and satin ribbon bouquet my sister had made for me out of the discarded wrapping and bows from my shower gifts.
“You have to smile bigger, brighter,” Suzy said, pushing, physically, at the corners of my mouth with her fingers, which smelled of whiskey (something that came as no surprise to me by that point).
I brushed away her hand. “In case you haven’t noticed, Suzy, this is just for practice. This is not the actual wedding. I assure you that I will smile as big as I can tomorrow. Okay?”
With an ugly sneer on her face, she retreated to her seat beside my mother, who grasped her elbow and didn’t let go throughout the rest of the fake ceremony. After we were done rehearsing, Mom came up to me and just whispered, “I know, I know, I know. I swear it won’t happen again.”
Other than a few rambling, rather self-serving toasts at dinner, the rest of the rehearsal went fairly smoothly. At first, I was a bit worried when I saw how much booze Suzy was downing, but then it occurred to me that getting her extremely drunk that night might be the best way to ensure she would be on good behavior the next day. If she were too hung over to make it to the ceremony, there was no way she could ruin it. Alas, it can be quite difficult to get a known alcoholic to drink enough to guarantee a hangover. After kissing Scott good night for the last time as a single woman, I went home, got into bed, and prayed to God or Allah or whatever divine presence there might be to keep Suzy under control for me.
I guess, in retrospect, I got off easy. It could have been much, much worse. Although Suzy did hover around, staring and huffing in indignation the entire morning while the hired beautician did my hair and makeup, she kept her comments to herself. Mom did her part to help, too. She made sure that Suzy had a strong mimosa always present in her fist, in the hope that she would be mellow and maybe even incapable of speech by the time the ceremony rolled around.
I’m grateful to be able to say that the wedding went off without any problems. Thanks to the magic of video, we do have evidence that Suzy was muttering in her seat, apparently doing her own private homily, during the ceremony, but she kept quiet enough so as not to make a scene. It was the best outcome I could have hoped for.
The reception was a different story.
Fortunately, for the most part, Suzy’s bizarre behavior blended into the background. To the untrained eye, she appeared to be just one of many out-of-control drunks lining up to do the Macarena and Electric Slide, and hanging on the arm of the hapless best man, who was doing his best to keep smiling despite the aura of liquor that was emanating from her open mouth.
One of the worst parts of the night was the dreaded family group photo. I was standing in the corner of the ballroom, trying to catch my breath after a lot of dancing and sipping a champagne flute full of ice water, when the photographer came up to me and said he was ready to take the group photo if I wanted to gather everybody and meet on the winding marble stairs just outside the room.
I was able to round up my dad, Tracy, and most of Scott’s family, but I was having trouble finding two people—or, rather, three—my mother, Suzy, and Scott himself. Being the bride can be fun, but it can make it just a little rough when you’re trying to be inconspicuous. The huge white dress and the mountain of gauze hanging off your head make you hard not to notice.
I was able to navigate the sea of people wearing plastic leis and forming a ragged conga line and slip out of the ballroom and into the hallway where the smoking lounge and bathrooms were. Although the room was empty, I could hear voices—loud, desperate voices—trailing from the men’s room. I bit my lip. The bride was pretty much allowed to do whatever she wanted, but going into the men’s room? That might have been pushing it. And I probably would have just turned around and minded my own business if it hadn’t been so painfully obvious that one of the voices belonged to Suzy.
Squaring my shoulders, ready for a confrontation, I marched over to the men’s room and shoved open the door. As the door flew open, my mother—who had been pressing up against it to avoid letting in unwanted intruders—toppled forward and fell into the line of sinks. (I later told her it could have been worse—she could have tripped the other way and landed in the urinals.) The look in Mom’s eye was something I had never seen before. It appeared to be a cross between horror and what would have been amusement had it been any other day in history. But I barely had time to register Mom’s face before I turned and saw what she was seeing: Suzy, buck naked, hanging off the side of my brand-new husband, whose face was red with terror and discomfort.
When they saw me, Scott made a silent appeal, apparently fearing that I would somehow think he had initiated this insane activity. As if. For her part, Suzy hardly glanced over at me before returning her attention—and her tongue—to the nape of Scott’s neck.
“Well,” I said, leaning back against the doorjamb and folding my arms over my chest. “What do we have here?”
Mom leaned over and, for some inexplicable reason, tried to be discreet as she whispered, “I came in when I heard Scott yelping, and I found her like this, hanging off him like a burr.”
Scott was twisting his neck, trying to pull it far enough away so that Suzy could no longer reach it with her mouth. “More like a leech,” he said.
I had to suppress the smile that jumped up from my throat to my lips. “Okay, then,” I said, trying to put on an air of authority. “Now, Suzy, where are your clothes?”
Suzy stared at me, her eyes wild, like a rabid raccoon that happened to be wearing way too much eye makeup. She didn’t answer; she only thrust out her tongue and ran it down the length of Scott’s neck from his ear to the place where his little black bowtie peeked out from under his collar.
“Okay, then,” I said.
Scott looked at me and, for the first time, I could tell he finally understood why I couldn’t stand Suzy. “She was already naked when she came in,” he said.
“All right,” I said. “Now we’re getting somewhere. And how long ago was that?”
Scott actually tried to look at his watch before realizing it’s impossible to lift your wrist when you are holding up a naked woman. “I don’t know. Fifteen minutes, maybe?”
“Suzy?” I felt like I was a lion tamer trying to talk down a vicious performing animal that had forgotten its practiced routine. “Suzy, why are you climbing on Scott?”
She sneered. “I’m not climbing on him. We’re making love.”
I had to press my lips together so I wouldn’t crack up. “Oh, I see. Strange. I thought you said he was ugly.”
Scott did a double-take. “She said I’m ugly?”
“Not now, Scott,” I scolded. “Suzy?”
Her voice sounded like something out of The Exorcist. “Even if he’s ugly, he’s too good for you, you bitch.”
At that point, my mother made a move toward the heaving, shaking double-creature made up of Scott and Suzy. I grabbed the edge of her sleeve and held her back.
“Mom, I need you to go outside and get the maître’ d, and any strong-looking men who might be able to help with this . . . situation.”
Mom just nodded and turned toward the door. Before she left, she whispered, “You’re handling this really well.”
We exchanged a smile and a mutual roll of the eyes before she fled the bathroom, leaving me to deal with Suzy on my own. Poor Scott was of no use by this point.
“Okay,” I said. “Alone at last. Now, Suzy, why exactly do you dislike me so much?”
She bared her teeth like a grizzly bear and, through a rush of heavy panting, said, “You are nothing but a spoiled little brat. You get everything. Everything you want. Everything I want.”
“I’m not going to apologize for that. I work very hard for the things I have. And right now, you’re trying to steal something that is rightfully mine.”
“You’re wrong, you stupid bitch. He’s mine now.”
I puffed out my lower lip and nodded, pretending to be impressed. “Well, you’ve got me there. I didn’t realize Scott had chosen you over me. Is that right, Scott?” I flashed him a warning look and hoped he would see the need to go along with her, at least until we had some people to help get her out of here.
He coughed. “Uh—yeah, that’s right. I’d much rather be with Suzy than you.”
Suzy beamed at me, triumphant, before burying her face in Scott’s hair.
“Well,” I said. “I guess that’s that. Good-bye, then. And I wish you all the happiness in the world.”
Scott shot me a look of desperation and hissed, “You’re not going, are you?”
I held up my hands. “I see no reason to stay. You’ve broken my heart.”
I turned toward the door just as Mom burst in with her two brothers, Scott’s uncle, and the best man. Seeing them, Suzy let out a scream loud enough to break glass and began to claw at Scott’s tuxedo. The men looked at each other, then back and forth between my mother and me, as if unsure of how to proceed. Finally, Mom said, “For God’s sake, guys, just pull her off.”
As they rushed forward en masse and began to pry at Suzy’s claw-like fingers, Tracy came in, carrying a puddle of wet, stained fabric: Suzy’s dress.
“Where did you find that?” I asked.
Tracy was clearly trying (and failing) not to stare at the moving mass of humanity across the room. “Um, uh, it was downstairs behind the fountain.”
“Holy shit. You mean she went downstairs into the restaurant and took off her clothes?”
Tracy shrugged. “Apparently.”
By now, Uncle Howard was holding Suzy up by her armpits and Uncle Billy was struggling to evade her kicks long enough to grasp her ankles. Finally freed from her weight, even if it was negligible, Scott shuddered and started to brush off his jacket.
By the time Bobby and Harold had Suzy subdued, the maître’ d came in, followed by two bulky security guards and a thick, army-green wool blanket. They wrapped up Suzy like an enchilada and carried her out, ignoring the mews and yelps she let out as they went.
Scott came to my side and planted a light kiss on my cheek. “I will never say you are exaggerating again.”
Slowly, everyone began to file out of the men’s room. When only Mom, Scott, and I remained, I looked at myself in the mirror and patted my hair, adjusting my veil.
“What will they do with her?” I asked.
Mom shrugged. “I guess they’ll just hold her in a private room until the wedding’s over, and then they’ll send her home with me to sleep it off.”
A giggle escaped my lips. “You’ll be having a rocking good time tonight.”
Mom shook her head. “Are you sure there’s no extra room in that honeymoon suite?”
I gave her a fake glare. “Well, I’ve got to say this. It’s never dull when Suzy’s around.”
Mom sighed. “I just wish she weren’t around so much.”
I wrapped my arm around her shoulders as we passed through the bathroom door. “I wish you the best of luck. And all I can say is, thank God I’m moving out.”
Twenty-three years ago
I love to walk the hall of the mall
It shines bright with possibility
It makes me realize that there is always tomorrow
Tomorrow I will have the money
to buy that leather coat
Tomorrow I will make enough
to get that gravy boat
Tomorrow morning I will go
inside the fitting room
and watch my body as it goes
from boring to full bloom
The mall has always been the place
where I can feel most free
there’s a counter with makeup for my face
and a food court with tacos for me
Now I’m working at the mall
and life will soon look up
I’ll sell perfume and have a ball
and at the food court I will sup.
Suzy was right. The mall did have a job for her. To someone else, it might not have seemed like much, but for Suzy it was a fresh start, a way to cast off the shackles of Roman, of Garrett, of her terror at the prospect of death, and become part of the real world again.
They hired her to work in the cosmetics section. Her official job title was “beautician,” and she didn’t hesitate to tell everyone she met that she had been entrusted with a key sales position at one of the most famous department stores in the country. She worked hard not to let anyone know what she was really doing for a living: squirting hapless passersby with perfume.
It was a thankless job, but Suzy had grown used to being invisible, so she proved to be quite skilled at her work. She became the most notorious perfume sampler on the floor, because she had one simple philosophy to which she adhered whenever she was on duty: Do not take no for an answer. It was the people who waved you away, who seemed most disinterested in your product, who actually needed it most. As a result, you had to be persistent. It was imperative to stop them—somehow, anyhow—even if it meant leaping in front of them or hurling your body into their path like a linebacker. There was only one rule handed down by the powers that be: Never miss a potential sale. It didn’t matter how you got the shoppers to try the perfume, whether you tricked them or cajoled them or squirted them when they least expected it. The perfume was good stuff, Suzy was told. It would sell itself if only she would get the people to smell it.
Over the first few days at her new job, Suzy came to believe that the perfume she was pushing (the scent changed daily—sometimes even hourly, depending on the store’s sales schedule or the overstock situation) had mystic qualities. By merely disbursing a few droplets into the air, she was able to create whatever the perfume was advertised to supply, whether it was sex appeal or the feeling of a fresh spring day. Suzy was a wizard, a witch, an alchemist—and the atomizer was her magic wand. She had never felt so powerful.
And then he came back.
It was a Friday evening. She had been working at the mall for five days, and as she climbed out of her car at home, she was loaded down with shopping bags that contained boxes and vials of sample cosmetics. She could hardly wait to get her loot inside, spread it out on the floor, and try everything out. She was determined to become the best salesperson the store had ever seen. Plus, she was certain that with just the right amount of the right kind of makeup, she would glow with health and beauty just like she had once, long ago, before everything around her fell apart.
She was so caught up imagining herself wearing a sleek black suit, her hair just right, and of course, smelling divine, that she didn’t see him waiting in the shadows at the bottom of the wooden stairs that led up to the garage apartment.
The sound of his voice struck a visceral chord within her. She had dropped her bags even before she turned around to see him.
“Roman?” It was little more than a whisper, but then, she realized, if he was only a ghost, she didn’t need to speak loudly for him to hear her.
He moved toward her, stepping from the darkness and into the bright glare of the driveway floodlights. He was more attractive than she had remembered. And time had been kind to him. If anything, his thick mop of raven hair looked thicker than it had been all those years earlier, and his eyes sparkled like those of a child.
He reached out and wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her close and nuzzling her neck with his hot, dry lips.
“I’ve missed you,” he murmured.
She gulped. “What are you doing here?”
He leaned back and smiled, still keeping his grip—firm, maybe too firm—on her hips. “What do you mean? I’m your husband.”
“Ex-husband.” There was a war raging inside her; her body wanted to go limp and melt into his arms, but what tiny shreds were left of her rational mind knew there was no good reason for Roman to be here.
“Semantics,” he said, brushing her lips with his. A chill ran through her as she realized that he still smelled, still tasted, exactly the same—like orange peels mingled with the sweet scent of tobacco.
She clamped her eyes shut and pressed her palms against his chest, telling herself that she was doing the right thing, pushing him away, when in fact she knew she was just taking the opportunity to stroke the supple curve of his muscles.
“You have to go,” she said, keeping her eyes squeezed shut.
“Why?” he whispered, his breath hot on her throat. “We belong together, don’t we?”
She realized that she hadn’t taken a breath in a while and had to suck in a gulp of air. “I—I don’t know. You can’t just—you can’t come here and pretend like nothing ever happened.”
He leaned over to peer into her eyes, pulling her chin up toward his face so she would have no choice but to open her eyes and meet his gaze. “What did happen? You just left, with no note, no explanation. You broke my heart.”
She shook her head, slowly, uncertainly. “No,” she said. “You broke mine. I had no choice. I had to go.”
“Why couldn’t we just talk about it? We could have worked it out, I know it. Please, tell me it isn’t too late. Can’t we talk now?”
A low moan escaped her lips. Embarrassed, she covered her mouth with her hand and pulled away from Roman’s embrace.
“I can’t do this, not now.”
He gripped her hands in his. “Then when?”
She was panting, terrified of the feelings that were swirling between her heart and her womb. “I don’t know . . .”
He kissed her fingertips. “Tomorrow?”
She felt herself nod. “Okay. Tomorrow.”
He smiled and held her hands up against the rough stubble of his cheek. Then he released her and leaned over to kiss her lightly on the lips. “Until tomorrow, then. I love you. Always have.”
She climbed the stairs to her apartment like a zombie, realizing only after she had pulled off her clothes and stepped into a grubby pair of sweatpants and an old baseball jersey that she had forgotten her shopping bags back in the driveway. She stumbled back out to retrieve them and found herself staring out into the black emptiness of the street, wondering which way Roman had gone after his car peeled away.
Back upstairs, she sat on the floor of her living room, surrounded by her makeup samples, but it wasn’t anything like the fantasy she had envisioned on her drive home from work. Now, instead of putting on five different shades of lipstick and admiring herself in the mirror, she was looking blankly at the wall and thinking of Roman.
What had made him come back? How had he known that he would find her here, still living above her parents’ garage? Had he asked around about her? Who could he ask? She no longer had any friends, much less friends who would still keep in touch with Roman. Had he followed her? Tracked her to the mall and back? Did it matter how he came back? Did it even matter why?
Feeling like Gulliver surrounded by tiny makeup-shaped creatures, she reached for her notebook and pen and began to write, wildly, without stopping to think or even to breathe:
Once, long ago,
on a bed of tar and feathers
I fucked the devil
in a pool of blue moonlight.
His blackened tongue
ran o’er my limbs
its forked tip, it made me cringe,
but pleasure made me give up on the fight.
I writhed and screamed
and called his name
and he just chuckled
as I came
But then I took the devil by surprise.
I held his wrists
above his head
where horns did grow
so sharp and red
and in his ear I whispered lovely lies.
I spoke of love,
I spoke of sex,
I spoke of pain,
which he liked best,
but then I learned what makes the devil cry.
I kissed his lips
withdrew my hips
and left him all alone.
He made to beg
and grabbed my leg
and I just walked away
with no good-bye.
She groaned and threw the pen across the room. Roman had been back in her life for less than an hour, and already writing had lost its hold on her. At times like this, when she knew she had no talent, she could hardly bear to see the empty page. The thought of trying again—of pulling out the rhyming dictionary or perusing a book of Byron—was too painful to stand. For a second, she almost forgot the near glee she had been feeling just ninety minutes earlier, all the hope and giddy excitement that had possessed her while she was driving home. She turned and looked around, hoping to find a blade—a razor; a knife; Christ, a cleaver would be ideal—anything she could drag across her throat, if only to get rid of the lingering, burning sensation of Roman’s kiss on her flushed skin. It was like Roman had come along, sucked out whatever traces of ability and optimism she had had, and then disappeared back into the mysterious nowhere from which he had come.
She threw herself over onto her side, ignoring the crackling and popping of the shopping bags and their contents beneath her and sobbed.
She was still lying there the next morning—was it still morning?—when the phone rang. Despite being disoriented, dehydrated, depressed, and deflated, her powers of intuition were good enough so that she did not have to say hello when she lifted the receiver and held it to her ear. She knew only too well whose voice she would hear at the other end of the line.
He practically purred when he said, “Good morning, sweetheart. I hope you slept well.”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she pulled herself up by the seat of a chair and stood, legs shaking, waiting for Roman to determine her fate.
“Why don’t I come by and take you out for some coffee? Maybe a bite of breakfast? You still like chocolate chip pancakes, don’t you”
Tears prickled at her eyes and she had to wipe them away with the back of her hand, which, she noticed, was smudged with purplish ink—like a bruise—that had rubbed off the page on which she had penned the awful poem the night before.
“Suzy? Are you there?”
Her voice was more of a croak. “Yeah. I’m here.”
She sighed. “Give me an hour.”
Moving stiffly, as if on automatic pilot, she rinsed the sleep off her body under the shower and then twisted her wet hair into a bun. She squeezed into the same black tailored pantsuit she had worn for her first day of work on Monday, which now seemed a lifetime ago. It still reeked of the combined forces of dozens of different fragrances, but that didn’t seem to matter now. She had no idea what she was doing, or whether she should even be trying to look good for Roman. What good could possibly come of this crazy reunion?
She had just finished applying a coat of candy-flavored lip gloss—one of the few samples that had not been crushed into plastic splinters by her weight during the night—when Roman knocked at the door.
She took a deep breath and blew it out through pursed lips, hoping he couldn’t hear the off-key whistle that leaked through her pursed lips from the other side of the door.
He burst inside, that too-charming grin on his face. Now, in the harsh light of day, she realized with a start that her first impression last night had not been even the slightest bit exaggerated. If anything, Roman was even better looking than he had been all those years before, when they first fell in love. A shudder ran up her spine, and she had to hug herself against the chill.
“Good morning,” he said, moving smoothly to kiss her cheek.
She stood, her body stiff as a statue, and let his lips graze over her cheek and whisper past her mouth, then she reached for her purse with jerky, mechanical motions. “Let’s just go.”
She let him help her into his car. Pulling out of the driveway, Suzy caught a glimpse of her mother’s stern face as it disappeared behind the curtain in the front window of the house. There was going to be a hellish conversation waiting for Suzy when she got back from this date—or whatever it was.
“So,” Roman said. “You’re working now?”
Staring out the window at the fuzzy green line that she was slow to identify as passing trees, she mumbled, “Hmm. Yeah.”
“That’s great. Are you enjoying it?”
“I guess.” She let out a huff of breath. “Roman, what do you want with me?”
He kept looking straight ahead at the road, but his grin was wide enough to dazzle her, even in profile. “Right to the point,” he said, laughing. “That’s a new trait for you.”
“Roman . . .”
“Shhh,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
He was quiet for a moment, and she watched his smile fade into an expression of solemnity. “Actually,” he said, “that’s why I came by: to tell you I was sorry.”
She shook her head. “It’s a little late for that . . .”
He put his hand up to stop her. “No, no, I meant—I heard about your father. I heard he had—you know—passed on, and I wanted to tell you I was sorry.”
The cold shock of understanding slapped her. Suddenly, it was obvious why Roman had really come back. She let out a bitter laugh.
“I see,” she said. “You heard that my dad died and you figured there’d be some sort of inheritance, right? That’s why you came to see me. You were hoping to get your mitts on some of my father’s money.”
The look of indignation on his face was almost realistic enough to appear genuine, but Suzy knew him too well, even now, after so much time had passed. Truly, people never changed.
“Take me home, Roman.”
“Suzy . . .”
“Just take me home,” she said. “You’re too late. I blew all the money—months ago.” She laughed. “Do you really think I’d be working in a mall if I had a huge inheritance? Come on, Roman. Don’t be stupid.”
“So there’s nothing . . .”
“Not a cent.” She put her palm to her forehead and sighed. “Just pull over here. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
“Suzy, please . . .”
She slammed the car door shut and stood there, trying not to cry, as he waved and drove away. Then she tore off her high heels and walked home on bare feet, not caring that the gravel and the bits of broken glass in the gutter were cutting deep gullies in her skin. Physical pain was nothing compared to the ache of losing Roman all over again.
We tried not to think about Suzy during the two weeks we spent cruising the Caribbean, getting drunk, and making love after the wedding. But even when we went out of our way not to talk about it, the scene she made in the men’s room was always there, lying in the dark between us. It wasn’t like I was angry, or Scott was; it was just an ever-present awkwardness, the tickle before you start to laugh, and it made it hard to take ourselves seriously.
Coming home felt like that moment when they tied on your blindfold before the firing squad lined up in front of you. We knew it would be horrible, but no amount of intellectual preparation could really help get us through it. We just had to walk across the coals.
The lease on our new apartment didn’t kick in for another two weeks after we got back from the honeymoon, but Scott had had to move out of his place the week before the wedding, which had made for some harrowing days there on his end. We had agreed that the best thing would be to stay at my mom’s house for those two weeks we had to wait, so we wouldn’t have to worry about packing my stuff and moving everything twice, or cramming all my things into storage along with Scott’s.
Standing on the front porch, we stood together staring at the house, which looked deceptively peaceful from the outside. The silent brick belied the turmoil that was inevitably swirling around inside, where we knew Suzy was still living. We looked at each other, forced ourselves to smile, if only to pretend to be reassuring one another, then we went in.
Mom was passing through the living room as we stepped inside, and she ran over to hug us both. “You’re home! How was the trip?”
I couldn’t answer; I was too busy peering this way and that, wondering where Suzy was hiding. Scott came to the rescue, saying, “It was great. How have things been going around here?”
Mom pulled us into the kitchen and started pouring us coffee. She paused for a moment and asked, “Is coffee all right, or would you like something a little stronger, if you know what I mean?”
“I guess it depends on who’s home,” I said.
Mom smiled and set the coffee cups in front of us. “You’ll be pleased to know that we have at least an hour before Suzy gets back.”
I took a sip. “That’s a relief. Where’d she go?”
Mom slid into her chair and leaned forward, whispering as if she were afraid the absent Suzy might still overhear. “I set up an appointment for her. With a shrink.”
I almost spit out my coffee. “She actually agreed to that?”
Mom shrugged. “Not exactly. I told her it was an interview for placement with a temp agency.”
“And you really think she’ll stay and do the therapy session when she figures out what’s really happening?”
Mom raised her hands, fingers crossed, toward me. “Let’s hope so.”
We settled in to chat, talking about the honeymoon, gossiping about things we had missed during the—uh—excitement of the wedding. I kept casting anxious glances at the clock, knowing that when the little hand hit one, all hell would likely break loose. I should have expected what happened, but being away from Suzy for even a little while had weakened my appreciation for her craziness, so I was actually taken by surprise when she barged in through the back door half an hour before she was supposed to be back.
The look on her face bore a chilling resemblance to the rabid-animal expression we’d all seen at the wedding. She slammed the door behind her and stood over the table, glowering at us all.
“You liar!” The insult was hurled at my mother, but Suzy nonetheless kept her eyes trained on me.
Mom started to get up, but Suzy shoved her aside and pulled a chair up beside mine. “So, you’re back?” she said. “I hope you had the most wonderful time.”
I have to admit I was almost pleasantly surprised at the thick syrup of sarcasm in her voice. I had never before considered that she might be smart enough to make proper use of irony. I decided to ignore it.
“We had a terrific time. Like my tan?”
She growled and turned to my mother. “You. How dare you.”
“I don’t care, I’m not listening to you. You knew what you were doing.”
Mom reached out to touch her arm, but Suzy jerked away. “I don’t need a shrink, and I’m not going to see one, especially not just to please you.”
“I think it could be helpful,” Mom said. “For all of us.”
“Why should I care what you think?”
I piped up. “Maybe because you are living rent-free in her house, you ingrate. I think it’s only fair that you do what Mom asks you to do—no matter what it might be. If you aren’t willing to do that, then you ought to get the hell out and try taking care of yourself for a change.”
Suzy’s head bounced back and forth between my face and Mom’s, as if she were watching a nonexistent tennis match. Finally she settled on Mom’s face and waited.
Mom cleared her throat. “Madison might be a little out of line,” she said softly. “But the basic principle is correct. I think you need to see someone, and it is my home. If you want to stay here, you should be willing to do at least some of the things I ask.”
There was a long silence. Scott shot me a look, asking with his eyes whether someone should say something. I gave him a head shake that would have been imperceptible to anyone else, and he sat back in his chair to wait for whatever was about to happen.
Suzy managed to keep her voice strong and even as she said, “All right. I’ll keep the next appointment. But you have to go with me. Both of you.”
Scott pushed back his chair, as if trying to emphasize that he was not a part of this discussion. I almost laughed, but then the weight of Suzy’s words began to sink in, and I realized he was off the hook, but I was going to have to be part of this psychiatric freak show—and that wasn’t funny at all.
Mom looked at me, shy and inquiring. I sighed, closed my eyes, and nodded in solemn resignation.
“Okay,” Mom said. “We’ll go. When is your next appointment?”
I rolled my eyes and reached for Scott’s hand. He gave it a comforting squeeze. “All right, all right. I’ll be there.”
I had never been to a therapy session before, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. Truth be told, I kind of imagined Suzy lying down on a couch like in the movies, with Mom and me huddled in chairs, watching as the psychiatrist used a pocket watch to hypnotize Suzy and get her to tell her darkest secrets. Frankly, I didn’t really want to know what those secrets were.
I was pleasantly surprised when we got to the office, where the only couch was a floral-print overstuffed loveseat, and the walls were covered with black and white photographs of huge flowers—sort of like true-to-life Georgia O’Keefe images. There wasn’t a picture of Freud anywhere to be seen, and the therapist, Dr. Angela Boyan, was wearing a flowing pink pleated skirt and a fuzzy white sweater rather than the pinched brown suit I had been expecting.
Mom and Suzy sat on the loveseat and I took a squashy red armchair nearby. Picking at the piping around the edge of the chair’s left arm, I tried to fade into the background so Dr. Boyan wouldn’t notice me and try to make me talk.
She got right to the point. Settling into a rolling executive’s chair in front of her desk, she said, “I want to thank you both for coming in—I think having her loved ones in on her session will be very helpful for Suzy’s recovery.”
Mom leaned forward and clasped her hands over her knees. “May I ask: recovery from what exactly?”
Dr. Boyan smiled. “Well, that’s still to be determined. I have made a tentative diagnosis, but I’d rather keep that private for now, until I have enough information to be certain about your condition, Suzy. Now, would you like to start by telling Wendy and Madison what you told me the last time we met?”
Suzy pressed herself up against the side of the loveseat farthest from Mom, as if she didn’t want to risk the two of them accidentally touching each other. “They’re killing me.”
A loud guffaw leaped out of my throat before I had a chance to muffle it with my fist. “Sorry,” I murmured.
“That is just what I mean!” Suzy yelled. “They’re always making fun of me, making me feel useless.”
“Hey,” I whispered. “If the shoe fits . . .”
“You see! You see!” Suzy jumped up from the couch and pointed at me.
Dr. Boyan nodded and gestured for Suzy to sit back down. “Madison, I understand your frustration, but we’re here for Suzy, so if you’ll try to keep your thoughts to yourself until it’s time for you to share, that would be very helpful.”
I mimed the classic zipping my lips, then let myself sink back into the chair to watch the show.
“Now, Suzy,” Dr. Boyan said. “What exactly do you mean when you say they make fun of you?”
“What do you mean, what do I mean? They make fun of me. They laugh at me, and they sit together whispering when they think I can’t hear them. They never try to help me.”
“What kind of help do you want them to give you?”
Suzy sighed. “I want them to treat me like a person. I want them to lend me money when I ask for it. I want them to buy me food and cigarettes and alcohol. Mostly, I want them to just let me be, and stop forcing me to do things I don’t want to do.”
“Like when they made me go and live with the old man.”
“Mr. DeLamiter? The gentleman you worked for?”
Suzy nodded. “He didn’t want me there. They made me go, and all I got was humiliated.”
Mom raised her hand to break in. “How did you get humiliated, Suzy?”
“Are you kidding? He left my inheritance to you!”
Dr. Boyan put up her hands. “Okay, let’s calm down. Suzy, what inheritance?”
“The old man—when he died, he gave Wendy and Madison twenty-five thousand dollars and didn’t leave me a cent.”
Dr. Boyan frowned and looked back and forth from Mom to me. “Is this true?”
Mom nodded. “Well, yes. But we had no idea that was going to happen. We were as shocked as Suzy was. We only met the man once, so it’s not like we expected anything.”
“Okay, that’s fair,” Dr. Boyan said. “Now, Suzy, why do you think your employer left money to your relatives and not to you?”
I chuckled. “He said right in the will that we deserved the money for putting up with Suzy for as long as we did. It was hilarious.”
“Madison, please don’t interrupt,” Dr. Boyan said. “Suzy, how did that make you feel?”
“Just like I said. Humiliated.”
“But why were you humiliated? Why did you care what a man you hardly knew, he and his relatives, all virtual strangers to you—why do you care what they think of you?”
Suzy pulled her arms in close to her body and let her head hang down. “I care what everybody thinks of me.”
Dr. Boyan nodded. “Okay, we’re getting somewhere now. Why are you so concerned about the opinions of other people?”
Suzy shrugged. “I guess my mother made me think other people were important. Maybe even more important than me.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’d never know it,” I muttered.
Dr. Boyan shot me a scolding look before she turned back to Suzy with a studied expression of empathy. “But what do you think? Are other people more important?”
“Yeah,” Suzy whispered. “I’m the least important person in the world.”
“But why?” Dr. Boylan persisted. “Why aren’t you just as important as anyone else?”
“Because. . . . Because I have nothing to contribute.”
Dr. Boylan nodded. “I see. But I don’t believe it. Everyone has something they’re good at. What’s your something, Suzy? What can you do that nobody else can do?”
Suzy just shook her head, keeping her eyes trained on the pretzel she was making out of her entwined fingers.
“Everybody has talents,” Dr. Boylan said. She turned to my mother. “Wendy, what’s yours?”
Mom shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I’m a pretty good cook.”
“Hear, hear,” I said.
“Okay,” Dr. Boylan said, turning to me. “What about you, Madison? What can you do?”
“Well, I’m an editor. I have a good grasp of grammar, I guess.”
I tilted my head to the side, searching my memory. “Yeah, actually. I used to draw pretty well. I don’t do it much anymore, but I think I have some rudimentary talent.”
“Great!” Dr. Boylan said. “You see, Suzy? Everybody has some talent. Now think. What’s yours?”
Suzy’s lips twisted into a sad smile. “I used to be able to write.”
“But not now?”
Suzy shook her head. “Not even then. I just thought I could.”
Dr. Boylan scribbled something on her pad. “If you thought you could, then you could. We’re rarely mistaken about our own abilities. Now tell me, why didn’t you keep up with your writing?”
“Everybody thought it was stupid.”
“Who is everybody?”
“My mom. My dad. My ex-husband. Everybody.”
“What did they say to indicate to you that your writing was stupid?”
I saw a tear slide quickly down Suzy’s cheek and splash on the back of her hand. She said, “My mother came right out and said I should stop wasting time reading and writing and try to find myself a husband instead. And look how well that worked out for me.”
“Are you referring to your divorce?”
Suzy nodded. “Yeah. My marriage never had a chance.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t want to talk about Roman.”
“Okay, that’s all right. We can talk about your writing instead.”
Mom raised her hand again. “May I?” she said. Dr. Boylan nodded, and Mom turned to face Suzy, reaching out hesitantly to touch her hand. “Suze, I remember when we were kids. You used to write all the time. I even snuck a peek at some of your poems. They were so good. I always thought you’d become a famous author or something.”
Suzy screwed up her face. “Don’t lie. I know you’re just trying to make me feel better.”
“Really, I’m not. You were really good.”
Dr. Boylan jumped in. “See? Other people do think you have talent, Suzy. Now, how can you use that knowledge, the knowledge that you have something you can do well, to make yourself happy?”
“I don’t know.”
“All right, let’s think about it. Is there maybe something you can do—some kind of job, even if it’s at an entry level—that will expose you to books and writing, and help you try your hand at literature again?”
With mechanical precision, both Mom and Suzy turned to stare at me. I felt my eyes widen in horror. “No way,” I said.
Dr. Boylan looked at me, too. “Madison, what’s going on?”
I laughed an angry chuckle. “They know I work for a publishing company, so they think I can find Suzy a job that will let her work with books.”
“Can’t you do that?” Dr. Boylan asked.
“Hey, I don’t think it’s fair to ask me to risk my professional reputation just to help Suzy play around with words. I’ve worked very hard to get where I am, and I’m not about to lose it all if she screws up, like she always does.”
“It’s not fair to say always, is it?” the doctor asked. “That’s an overgeneralization. Isn’t there a possibility that this time could be different?” Dr. Boylan sat back in her chair and stared at me, as if looking at me long enough would make me break down and agree to what they all wanted. Sadly, she was right. Somewhere along the line, dealing with Suzy had apparently worn away whatever backbone I used to possess.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The smile on Suzy’s face made me want to smack her. But now I had no choice. Suzy had already invaded my private life; now she was about to invade my career as well.
Twenty-three years ago
I did it. I stood up to Roman. I wanted him, and he was right there, ready to come back to me, but I told him no. I actually told him no. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.
“I can’t believe you got into a car with him, that . . . that . . .”
“Mom, just leave me alone.”
“No, Suzy,” Ivy sat, rushing around the living room with her hands waving wildly in the air. “I’ve left you alone long enough. Now it’s time for me to get involved.”
“Mom, it was nothing. I’m not getting back together with Roman. You can trust me on that.”
“I don’t care. The mere fact that you would even condescend to speak to that monster . . . I can’t understand it. That’s irrational, insane, yes, insane behavior. You need help, and you need more help than I can give you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means I’m sending you to see a shrink.”
“Mother . . .”
“No arguments. If you’re going to live under my roof, you’re going to do as I say. I won’t have you throwing away your life anymore, throwing everything away on bad men and bad poetry. I’m taking charge now.”
There was nothing Suzy could say to change her mind. Within a week, Suzy found herself seated next to Ivy in the waiting room of a local psychiatrist, a specialist in both Freudian theory and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Suzy thought they seemed like competing specialties, but then, she wasn’t paying for the sessions. She wasn’t even being given a choice as to whether she would attend. This was all Ivy.
Somehow, Ivy even talked the psychiatrist, a Dr. Leonard Frohman, into allowing her to be present for Suzy’s first session. In fact, there would essentially have been no session had Ivy not been there. Although Suzy condescended to lie on the couch as Frohman requested, she refused to speak a word. And Frohman didn’t seem off put by the notion of permitting Ivy to speak on her daughter’s behalf.
“She’s lazy, doctor,” Ivy insisted. “She’s always been weak and lazy. She’s never aspired to do anything more than bury her nose in a book. I’ve spent her whole life trying to get her to stand up and do something, but she just lies around, scribbling in a notebook. She’s a waste of life force, if you ask me.”
Suzy sighed and rolled over to face the back of the couch, trying her best to tune out the voices that were talking about her.
“And her relationships with men?” Dr. Frohman asked, squinting over the rims of his glasses as he jotted a note on his legal pad.
Ivy laughed. “Don’t get me started. She’s a complete romantic disaster. She married this—this loser, Roman. She was only twenty and neither one of them had a job. That lasted . .. what was it, Suzy? Six months? Maybe less.”
“He divorced her?”
Her voice muffled by the fabric of the couch, Suzy said, “He didn’t divorce me.”
Ivy snapped, “It doesn’t matter who divorced who.”
“Whom,” Suzy muttered.
“Suzanne? Do you have something to say?” Dr. Frohman asked.
Suzy heard Ivy snap her fingers to draw the doctor’s attention back to herself. “Anyway, that marriage ended almost before it began, and after that, she did nothing. Not for years. She just lazed around the apartment—which is not even an apartment—it’s a room over my garage—and that’s all. No man, no job, no college degree, no nothing.”
“Would you describe your daughter as depressed?” Frohman asked.
“She’s not depressed. You have to have feelings to be depressed. Suzy’s never had a real feeling in her whole sorry life.”
Pressed against the back of the couch, Suzy heard herself whimper, but they ignored her and kept talking.
“I just need you to help her, doctor. She needs motivation. She needs someone—someone besides me—to tell her how important it is to get out of bed and make a contribution to society.”
“Ma’am, you’re absolutely right. It’s vital to get your daughter to a point at which she can become a productive citizen, but there is a great deal of work to be done before we reach that place. Tell me, what was Suzanne’s relationship with her father like?”
Suzy lifted her head to glance around. Ivy was tapping her forefinger against her chin, as if she really needed to think about the question. Suzy shook her head and rolled back over.
“Suzy and Al had a very close relationship. He doted on her.”
Dr. Frohman asked, “Would you say they were too close?”
Suzy leapt up from the couch. “Mother! I think the doctor is asking about inappropriate interaction. Aren’t you?”
“Well . . .” he said, leaning back in his chair and ringing his hands in front of him. “There is a fine line between close and too close. According to Freud—”
Suzy put up her hand to stop him. “I don’t give a crap about Freud. Freud didn’t know me, he didn’t know my father, and he couldn’t possibly say anything authoritative on a relationship that took place ages after he died. So just can it with that shit.”
“Suzy!” Ivy cried. “What has come over you?”
“Me? Me, Mom? That’s easy. You. You have come over me. You’ve smothered me every minute of my life. You told me I was worthless, and stupid, and untalented. You never encouraged me to do any of the things I wanted to do. All you ever cared about was making me pretty so I could find a rich husband, and when I finally did meet a man, all you did was criticize him.”
Ivy smiled smugly. “Oh, so you’re saying that Roman was the ideal husband for you?”
“I’m not saying that,” Suzy said, sinking back down onto the couch. “But he was what I wanted at the time, and you could have tried to be a little more supportive. Maybe if you hadn’t spent every day of my entire life making me feel like nothing, I would have turned into something.”
Dr. Frohman sat there and stared at Suzy as she broke down into sobs. Ivy crossed her arms and turned to face the wall.
“Well,” said Frohman, “I think we’ve made some excellent progress here today. Now, let’s schedule our next appointment. I think, if we want to achieve the most rapid recovery possible, we’d be best off meeting at least twice a week. Will that be acceptable?”
Ivy nodded but Suzy shouted, “Absolutely not! I am not coming back here again.”
“You will do what I tell you to do, young lady,” Ivy said.
Dr. Frohman put a patient smile on his face and leaned in Suzy’s direction. “Suzanne, your mother only wants what’s best for you. Why not try it and see if you find it worthwhile before deciding to stop treatment?”
Suzy felt the air seep out of her, as if her body were a balloon with a slow leak. “Whatever. It’s not up to me. Nothing ever is.”
Ivy smiled brightly and stood up. “Well, then, that’s settled. Dr. Frohman, how shall I make out the check?”
From that moment, Dr. Frohman and his half-baked attempts at psychoanalysis became the centerpiece of Suzy’s world. Just as Ivy had hoped, Suzy established a rigid routine: working at the mall eight hours a day, then spending two, sometimes three, evenings a week in consultation with Frohman. There was little time left over for the things Suzy would likely have been doing without Ivy’s rigid regimen, such as writing or dwelling on the failures of her romantic relationships. After a few months, Suzy was beginning to forget that there had ever been life before Dr. Frohman and his lumpy sofa. It seemed even less possible that there might be life afterward.
I didn’t want to have to find Suzy a job, but Mom wouldn’t let it go. “It’s our best chance to get rid of her,” she insisted. “Look at it like you’d be taking one for the team.” It was hard to argue with the woman who had let me live rent-free in her house for much too long and had never been anything but supportive of everything I did. So, a few weeks later, after Scott and I were finally settled in our new place and my office listed an opening for a part-time receptionist, I convinced my boss to give my demented cousin a shot. I knew it was a mistake. Scott knew it was a mistake. Even Mom, deep down, I’m sure, had to know it was a mistake. But it was one of those mistakes you just have to let yourself make if you’re ever going to get past the obstacle that’s keeping your life from moving forward—in this case, Suzy herself.
The thing that got me, more than the fact that Suzy let me grovel to get her a job for which she wasn’t remotely qualified, that she knew I was putting my reputation on the line for her, was that she never even said thank you. When I told her she could start work the next Monday, she just nodded and left the room with a glass of scotch in her hand.
I looked at my mother. “Well, the gratitude just drips off her like honey, doesn’t it?”
“Give her a chance. She’s really going to try this time. I have a good feeling.”
“I have a feeling, but I definitely wouldn’t classify it as good,” I said. “Anyway, I’ve got to go. Tell her she has to be at the office at eight-thirty on Monday.” I started to move toward the door, then stopped and looked back at Mom. “By the way, can you please make sure she understands that she has to dress in a professional manner? Please? Please, don’t let her show up in those sweatpants or even in jeans. Okay?”
“I’m going to take her shopping myself tonight and get her a few suits, dresses, whatever looks good for the work environment. I promise.”
I kissed her on the cheek and said, “You better.”
Of course, nothing is ever as easy as it should be. Sure enough, Mom and Suzy went shopping for clothes. That should have been the last of the problems before the start of the work week on Monday, but naturally, Suzy couldn’t let me enjoy my last weekend before I firmly believed I would lose my job. She called my apartment on Sunday afternoon, her voice brimming with tears—God, how I hated that fake crying she did just to try to make you feel guilty—and said she didn’t feel comfortable driving herself to the new job, so wouldn’t I please, please, please let her drive in with me, at least for the first few days? Mom picked up the extension and gave me the pep talk: It’ll only be a couple of days, I’d see, it wouldn’t be so bad.
“Whatever,” I said. “Just be ready to go at seven-thirty. I’ll pick you up.”
And thus, we became carpool buddies, except only one of us actually did any driving and Suzy didn’t even appear to even consider the possibility of offering money for gas. But I knew I could suffer through the car rides. I just prayed I could avoid her at the office. The fewer people who knew that I knew her, the better. I had promised Mom I would get her a job, but I hoped I had made it clear to both Mom and Suzy that she would sink or swim on her own.
I dumped Suzy fairly unceremoniously in the lobby of the office building, entrusting her to the care of a young editorial assistant. If anybody had to know Suzy was a relative of mine, this green kid would be the ideal person. As far as I was concerned, the information didn’t have to go any further than that.
I went to my office and got to work. I had been back from my honeymoon for less than a month, and my desk was still groaning under the weight of manuscripts I had not yet had a chance to glance at, much less read. It felt like every spare moment (and more than a few I couldn’t spare) had been sucked away by the ongoing Suzy drama. It was exhausting. I sank into my chair and let my head fall back over the edge of the cushioned back. Suzy was going to kill me, if she didn’t destroy my career first.
It wasn’t even lunchtime before the first complaint came in. One of the senior editors came into my office with a scowl on her face.
“Lay it on me, Paula,” I said.
She slumped into the chair in front of my desk. “I know she’s your cousin . . .” she began.
“My mother’s cousin,” I corrected. “Trust me. I know she’s a pain in the ass.”
“Well, I got an email from one of my authors saying he tried to call six times but the receptionist told him he was a hack and should learn how to write before he tried to get published.”
“Oh, shit,” I said.
“My sentiments exactly. And it wasn’t just any author, Madison. It was Donald Henry.”
“Jesus! Next thing you know she’ll be telling off Stephen King.”
Paula gave me an ironic smile. “So you understand what I’m saying?”
“Of course. I’ll talk to her.”
“Thanks.” Paula got up but stopped at the door. “Hey, Madison? Are you adopted?”
I laughed. “No, but I appreciate the compliment.”
The second complaint came in as I was walking back to my office after lunch. This time, it wasn’t just one of the editors; it was the editor-in-chief, my supervisor.
“Madison. A word?”
He followed me to my office and shut the door behind us. Instead of sitting in the chair, he leaned against its steel arm, fidgeting with his tie.
As I sat down behind my desk, I said, “I think I know what you’re going to say.”
He shook his head. “I’m not even sure I know what I’m going to say.”
“It’s Suzy, right?”
“I don’t even know where to begin.”
I leaned back in my seat and rubbed my fingers over my temples. “Paula’s already been in here to complain about her. Jim, please don’t feel like you have to keep her on my account. To tell you the God’s honest truth, it would be a relief to get rid of her.”
Jim slid down the arm of the chair until he was sitting properly and crossed his left foot over his right knee. “No, no,” he said. “Even I’m not willing to fire somebody after less than one day. I’m happy to give her a shot, but I need to make sure she understands that she works for the people who call here, not the other way around.”
I closed my eyes and nodded. When I looked back up at Jim, he was heading for the door.
He raised his eyebrows.
“Are you sure you don’t want to just fire her?”
He smiled as he walked away. I guess he thought I was kidding.
I glanced at my watch. It was almost two. Just three hours left before the merciful strike of five o’clock, when I could savor the release of rush-hour traffic, which was sure to be more pleasant than fielding Suzy complaints. But for now, I had a responsibility.
I picked up the phone and dialed Suzy’s extension, asking her to come in to see me. It took her almost twenty minutes to make the fifty-foot walk.
I waved at the chair and got up to close the door behind her. I moved around and sat on the edge of the desk right in front of her. I crossed my arms.
“I’ve had a few people ask me to speak to you.”
“Who? That obnoxious Pauline?”
“I think you mean Paula, but anyway, it doesn’t matter who. The point is, we need to have a talk.”
She sneered. “About what?”
“About the way you’re behaving. I know you don’t have any experience working in an office, but I would think that you would have some inkling of office etiquette just from watching TV.”
“Spit it out, Madison. I have work to do.”
“That’s debatable,” I said. “From what I here, the only ‘work’ you’ve done so far is alienating authors and pissing off your—and my—superiors.”
Suzy let out an indignant huff and rolled around in the chair as if she had tacks in her back pocket.
“I’m not kidding,” I said. “You have to start getting it in gear or they’re going to fire you.”
“They can’t fire me. It’s illegal.”
“It would be discrimination.”
“On what basis?”
Suzy rolled her eyes. “I’m a woman, I’m over forty, and I have a disability.”
“I wasn’t aware that being a bitch was a disability.”
She flew up and started for the door. I stepped in front of her and said softly, “If you walk out that door, consider yourself fired.”
We glared at each other, neither of us wanting to be the one to back down, but I knew I had the upper hand, at least for this one, tiny moment in time. She looked away, dropped her eyes to the floor, and shuffled back over to sit down in front of my desk.
I went and sat down in my own chair. “Very good. Now, let’s get a few things straight here. Your job is to: (a) answer the phones in a cheerful and professional manner, (b) not to get involved in discussions of any kind with the callers—you will ask who is calling and press the appropriate buttons on the phone to transfer the call. Okay, then, on to (c): You will do whatever it is that the regular staff in this office asks you to do. If they ask you to make copies, you’ll make copies. If they ask you to mail out letters, you’ll mail out letters. If they ask you to wipe their asses, you will do so without so much as a breath of complaint. Are we understood?”
She just narrowed her eyes and stared at me. I clapped my hands together. “Excellent. Have a lovely afternoon.”
That night, I dropped Suzy off at my mother’s house and informed her that she would be driving herself to work the next day. Then I sped home and called my mother’s cell phone, so I could be sure Suzy wouldn’t be the one to pick up.
Mom tried to talk me down. “Give her the benefit of the doubt, honey. I’m sure she was just nervous because it was her first day. It’ll go better tomorrow.”
I let her assuage my feelings, hung up the phone, and ate my way out of a carton of mint chocolate-chip ice cream. Yeah, I thought. It’ll be better tomorrow. After all, it couldn’t be worse, right?
Wrong. When ten o’clock the next morning rolled around and Suzy had not yet shown up to work, I realized I had made a dire mistake in refusing to drive her myself. Every time I walked past the reception desk, there was at least one editor—usually more than one, and almost always including my boss—standing there, looking lost and glancing from the clock to Suzy’s empty chair and back.
She finally breezed in around ten-thirty and sat down without so much as a word to the collected mass of professionals loitering around her desk, wondering when they could expect their messages. I waited until the herd had thinned somewhat and knelt down beside her chair so I could hiss in her ear: “Where the hell have you been?”
In a voice reeking of phony pleasantness, she said, “I got lost on my way in. It’s a very confusing ride.”
I grabbed her arm, digging my fingernails into the leathery skin. She winced and tried to pull away, but I only held on tighter. “We had an agreement. If you aren’t going to uphold your end of it, then you can get out of here right now.”
She waited for me to release her and, as she rubbed her assaulted forearm, she said, “All right, all right. I’ll be a model employee. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a job to do.”
Now, you would have thought she would actually try to fulfill the admittedly simple requirements of the job. It wasn’t neurosurgery; hell, it wasn’t even editing. It was answering the damn phone. But no. That was too much to ask.
Around one that afternoon, Jim came into my office with the same tired look on his face he’d been wearing the day before.
“Don’t even say it,” I said. “Just fire her, please.”
He sat down. He was having trouble trying not to laugh. “She’s out there right now, painting her nails. No joke. And I’ve had to tell her three times already that she can’t smoke inside the building.”
I ran my palms over my face and back through my hair. “It would be funny if it wasn’t my life.”
“Okay, so, will you let her go for me, please?”
“Me?” I said. “She won’t believe it if I’m the one to tell her. Trust me on that one.”
“Crap,” Jim said. “I hate firing people. Usually, I’ve got a simple reason to give them—we’re downsizing the department, they’re late too often, whatever. I don’t even know where to begin in this case.”
“Just close your eyes and point. You’re bound to hit a fireable offense.”
He smiled and got up. “Sorry about this, Madison.”
I shook my head. “Don’t be. I’m not.”
At the door he paused and looked back at me. “You know, usually you want to fire someone on a Friday, so they’ll have to wait a whole weekend and maybe simmer down before they can go postal. I’ve never had to fire somebody on a Tuesday because I was more afraid of the damage she’d do as an employee than as a psychopath.”
“Well,” I said, “you haven’t met Suzy before.”
Twenty-three years ago
I turn the lights off
and you switch them back on
I won’t be sorry
when you’re gone.
Suzy quit her job at the mall three weeks after her first appointment with Dr. Frohman. She told her mother it was either therapy or work, not both. Ivy said why should anything change now, and turned away, refusing to look at Suzy, who hopped up the steps to her apartment and didn’t come back out again, except for the two days each week when Ivy honked in the driveway until she got in the car to go to therapy.
Twice a week, every week, for ten years. Suzy knew anyone else would have been the most well-adjusted person on the face of the Earth. But to get something from therapy, you have to be willing to give a little, and Ivy was the only one doing any giving. And all she ever gave was a long litany of insults, demeaning comments, and painful memories of childish behavior that left Suzy feeling ashamed. Dr. Frohman seemed to eat it all up: Here, Suzy could see him thinking, was a textbook case of a daughter with an Electra complex, one who wanted to kill her mother to be with her father. When he actually said it straight out in a session one day, Suzy just sneered and shook her head.
“My father’s been dead for years. It wouldn’t be much of a relationship.”
Frohman tented his fingers and peered at Suzy over his bifocals. “It’s a figurative relationship, Suzanne, not a literal one.”
Suzy laughed. “Duh . . .”
The psychoanalysis, in Suzy’s mind, was nothing more than bullshit using fancy words. Even as it fell out of favor in the scientific community, however, Ivy continued to insist that it was the best way to get to the heart of someone’s personal problems. Suzy just shrugged. “Whatever. It’s your money.”
But she knew, deep in the dark place that she tried not to visit too often, that it was only a matter of time before Ivy’s money would be Suzy’s money. And then . . . she would be free—free from the twice-weekly shame sessions on Frohman’s couch, free from the room over the garage, free from her mother’s disapproval and expectations and condescension. Maybe, she hesitated to let herself think, even free to start writing again. She watched her mother with the discriminating eye of an eagle, searching for the slightest indication of ill health.
Finally, she found it. One day, her mother woke up coughing, and when Suzy passed the bathroom, she noticed a splotch of bright red blood on the tissue in Ivy’s hand. At last, it looked like God was stepping in to save Suzy from her family.
It took less than a week before Ivy had to be admitted to the hospital. It was lung cancer, the doctors said. Just like Ken had died of.
Ivy took the news well; even Suzy had to admit that. But then again, when you refuse to believe the diagnosis, it’s easy to be upbeat. Sitting in her hospital bed, wearing the pink satin dressing gown she always wore at home, Ivy carefully made up her face every morning, using a thick layer of crimson rouge to hide the sallowness of her complexion. Outwardly, it was a good disguise, but even the heaviest makeup couldn’t conceal the IV line taped to the vein in her arm or the oxygen tube the nurses eventually slipped beneath her nose.
Suddenly, mysteriously, when faced with the imminent prospect of losing her mother—something she had dreamed about for years—Suzy was overcome by a sense of panic. From the pay phone in the hallway, she dialed her cousin Wendy’s phone number, desperate to have a conversation with someone who wasn’t dying or monitoring the progress of death.
It was Wendy’s older daughter Madison who answered. Suzy breathed a sigh of relief. She had made contact. Soon, she wouldn’t be facing all this alone. “Hi, Madison, it’s your cousin Suzy.”
She could hear a television droning in the background, but instead of turning down the volume, Madison just spoke loudly. “Yeah. How’s it going?”
“Well,” Suzy said, talking too loudly herself to make sure Madison would be forced to pay at least some degree of attention. “Your aunt Ivy is in the hospital.”
“Yeah, Mom told me. How’s she doing?”
“Not that well, actually. They’ve got her on the drips and she has to have an oxygen tube.”
“The drips? What the hell are you talking about? Do you mean an IV?”
Suzy tapped her fingernails against the phone. “Yes, of course.”
“Well, then why don’t you just say that? Do you think I’m too stupid to know what an IV is?”
“Is your mother there?”
It turned out that Wendy was away for the weekend, on a trip to Las Vegas with a couple of friends. Madison said she’d have Wendy call when she returned in a few days, then hung up without waiting for Suzy to reply. As the line went dead, Suzy felt panic bubble up through her body and had to tamp down an urge to scream. The phone call had hardly been the beacon of support she’d been expecting, which made it all the more horrifying when she returned to Ivy’s room to find a nurse shutting down the life-support monitors.
“What’s going on?” Suzy asked.
The nurse bit her lip. “Um. I’m afraid she’s . . . passed on.”
Suzy felt the blood drain out of her face and rush toward her feet. She found herself wondering, stupidly, why her feet would need so much extra blood, then she shook her head violently to bring herself back to reality.
“You mean, she’s dead?”
The nurse touched her arm gently. “I’m so sorry, miss.”
Suzy stared at Ivy’s blank, lifeless face. Her mother didn’t look any different from the way she had looked ten minutes ago, when Suzy left to make her phone call. How was that possible?
The nurse leaned toward Suzy and whispered, “There’ll be some paperwork for you to fill out. But we take care of everything. Do you need help making arrangements?”
Suzy felt like she was made of ice, like the muscles in her face had been paralyzed, rendering her incapable of speech. “I don’t know,” she finally said, surprised to hear the words come out clearly enough to be understood. “What do I have to do to just have her cremated?”
“What about a funeral, a viewing, that sort of thing?”
Suzy frowned. She imagined those things would cost money. A lot of it. And she was going to have to watch every penny from now on. “No,” she said. “Mom wouldn’t have wanted that. Just a cremation. That’s all.”
“All right,” the nurse said. “Is there anyone you need to contact?”
Suzy shook her head, but then a shock of memory hit her. “Oh, wait. I’ll need to call my brother, Kenny.”
The nurse looked stunned. “You have a brother? We didn’t realize. Does he know your mother’s been ill?”
Suzy shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe Mom called him. He and I have never been very close.”
The nurse frowned, and Suzy tried not to notice her obvious disapproval. “Well, let us know if there’s anything we can do.”
Suzy waited until the nurse had left the room and the door had clicked shut behind her. Then she stood beside Ivy’s bed, looking down at her mother’s face, and burst out laughing.
She knew the nurses would think she was insane. She knew the rest of her family would say she was horrible for cremating Ivy without giving anyone a chance to say good-bye. Even she thought it was awful that she was so concerned about money. But she didn’t know what else to do. For the first time in her life, she had no one and nothing to fall back on. And that was a lonely, terrifying feeling.
Hoping to win over at least a few people she still had left, Suzy decided to host a small memorial service, where she put out a sumptuous buffet. The idea backfired. The neighbors and extended family members who showed up seemed to think she was wasting good money on ritzy food that no one really wanted to eat. Suzy knew they were right. She was over forty and she had never learned how to handle money. It was a problem. Then again, she now had plenty of it: Ivy’s will revealed that she’d had savings of almost two millions dollars, all of which had been left to Suzy. Kenny (who’d laughed when Suzy called to tell her about Ivy’s death) had been left out entirely. Suzy figured she’d learn how to handle her money with time. Just because she was twenty years late in becoming an adult didn’t mean it would be impossible to do.
But that’s not what happened.
Even Suzy couldn’t explain quite what did happen. Maybe it was the loneliness—being by herself in that big house all the time, with not even a pet for company. Maybe it was the confusion—the bills coming in with deadlines right there in black and white. Maybe she really was just a stupid, lazy weakling like her mother had always said. Did it really matter? She was getting by. Until she wasn’t.
One day, she looked up and the money was gone. She looked around but couldn’t find any material possessions—new cars or fancy clothes—that might indicate what some of the money had been used to buy. Then she saw the heap of empty bottles and crushed cartons of cigarettes, lying loose all over the floor, and realized what she had done. This time she was really lost, and with her brother out of the picture and her parents both dead, she had nowhere left to turn.
That’s when she thought of her cousin Wendy.
Suzy blamed me, of course, when she lost the receptionist job. I know Mom wanted to blame me, but she was reasonable enough to understand how crazy Suzy could drive people.
I felt bad for Mom. At least I had the chance to get away from Suzy at night—I had my own home and my own brand-new husband to go to. Mom was stuck. She couldn’t exactly leave her own house, and there seemed to be no way to get Suzy to leave.
Not that we didn’t try. In the weeks after Suzy was fired, Mom and I spent a lot of time together, mostly in restaurants where we could get out from under Suzy’s evil eye and where we could sip wine and, essentially, plot against her. We came up with all sorts of plans: We could take up a collection from anyone who ever knew Suzy and pay her to leave. We could lie to her and pretend we were being relocated to Tasmania or someplace where she would never try to follow. Nothing ever seemed like a viable plan. Who knew Suzy would come up with her own?
After one of our sessions of plotting over dinner, I pulled up to the house and was just going to drop Mom off, but she convinced me to come inside and have a tipple of Grand Marnier for the road.
“A great philosophy—drinks for the road,” I said.
“You can have a cup of coffee instead,” she said. “Just come in and keep me company for a while. I don’t think I have it in me to deal with Suzy on my own tonight.”
We got out of the car and went inside. It was deliciously quiet, considering the racket we expected to hear when we got into the house. According to Mom, Suzy’s latest obsession was playing all the old thirty-three records she found in boxes in the basement, cranking the volume until every pop and scratch on the vinyl sounded like an explosion. The silence that enveloped us when we stepped inside was a soothing change of pace.
I followed Mom into the kitchen and whispered, “Where do you think she is?”
When Mom stopped dead in her tracks, I bumped into her. That’s when I saw: Suzy was lying on the floor, unconscious.
“Oh, crap,” I said.
I crouched down to check for a pulse, trying not to think about the last time something like this happened—when Mr. DeLamiter died and Suzy did nothing to help him. I couldn’t keep the thought from passing through my mind that justice would be served if we just went about our business and pretended we hadn’t seen her lying here.
“She’s alive,” I said. “Call nine-one-one.”
The paramedics loaded Suzy into the ambulance and whisked her to the hospital. Mom and I followed in my car, pointedly not talking about how guilty we felt after all our weeks and months of wishing we could get rid of her. Suddenly, it looked like God was taking care of the problem for us.
Mom and I sat in the hospital waiting room, staring at the tiny screen of the TV tuned to some obscure sports network that was featuring caber tossing. Not that it mattered what was on the screen. Nobody was actually watching. When you’re sitting in a hospital waiting room, you’re either very, very sick or worried about someone who is very, very sick. The television lineup is the least of your concerns.
A doctor came out through the breezy double swinging doors that led into the labyrinth of patient rooms and ORs and came toward us. I always wondered how they knew which members of the impatient horde in the waiting room belonged to which patient. That must be something they teach in medical school.
We stood up. I can picture us in my mind: nervously chewing our lower lips like a loyal family is supposed to do. But I doubt that’s what we looked like. We probably had more of a “Duh” expression than a worried one.
The doctor gestured for us to sit back down and he squeezed onto the edge of the orange Naugahyde couch beside me.
“I’m afraid Suzanne has lung cancer,” he said.
Mom nodded. “That’s not too surprising. Her parents both died of lung cancer. Is it treatable?”
The doctor didn’t have to say anything. His expression answered the question.
“Wow,” I whispered. “How long?”
The doctor shook his head. “Hard to say for sure, but not long. Maybe a few weeks? It could be anytime.”
He stood up and gave us a sad smile. “I’m very sorry.” He turned to go but glanced back. “You’ll be able to see her in just a little while.”
“Thank you,” Mom said.
We watched the doctor disappear back through the swinging doors. I caught myself wondering if there really was a hospital beyond those doors, or if there was just a blank abyss, like the white light people see when they had a near-death experience. Then I wondered if Suzy had seen that white light.
My mother and I couldn’t make eye contact. At least, I know I couldn’t look her in the eye. The guilt was too overwhelming. It’s amazing how you can feel bad about something you’ve done even if it’s something you did to someone you hate.
“I don’t think I want to go in and see her,” I said, gnawing on a hangnail on my thumb.
“We’re going have to go in,” Mom said. “They’ll think we’re horrible if we don’t.”
“I know. But I feel awful, don’t you?”
Mom didn’t answer. Instead, she said, “I should have known.”
“Well, it’s hardly a surprise. She smokes constantly.” I sat in silence for a moment, then asked, “Do you think she knew?”
Mom looked at me. “That she was sick? Probably.”
“Do you think she knew it was this bad?”
My mother shook her head. “Does anybody ever believe that?”
We sat without saying anything more until a nurse came and said we could see Suzy. We trudged to her room, dreading the moment we’d see her and she’d see us and we’d all know that we all knew she was dying. Luckily, God is merciful, at least in some ways. Suzy was asleep when we got there, and the nurse suggested that we come back for visiting hours the next day. We were a little too grateful to oblige.
Back at the house, we sat at the kitchen table and drank until we were too sleepy to think. After refilling our glasses at one point, I caught myself trying to hide the bottle, the way I would always do when Suzy was around, always sniffing for a freebie. The bottle, the empty ashtray . . . everything was suddenly a reminder of her. She had never been more present, even during the worst days of her “visit” when we could hardly stand to move around the house for fear of running into her. Being away made her closer than ever. And when she was close, we began to see her for who she really was.
Five years ago
Suzy sat at the kitchen table and stared at her bank’s website on her computer. The numbers couldn’t be accurate. There had to be more money somewhere, in another account, maybe? Was there one she had forgotten about? Where had everything gone?
She leafed through the pile of bills: water (wasn’t water supposed to be free?), gas (didn’t she already pay enough for that at the pump?), electricity (wasn’t electricity just lightning? Couldn’t she just make her own with a metal pole or a kite and a key?). She looked back and forth from the number on the screen to the bills. There was no way to reconcile the two.
She blew out a stream of hot breath and pick up the mortgage payment coupon. Over fifteen hundred dollars. Every single month. And for what? The privilege of living in this big, quiet house that collected more dust than she could wipe away and always had something going wrong, whether it was a sagging gutter, a broken window, a leaky water heater. If she could get rid of the house, she would be able to survive. It was the only way she could survive.
She called a realtor that afternoon and put the house on the market. She strolled through the rooms where she had grown up—her childhood bedroom, the kitchen where she’d eaten more meals than she could count (and argued with her mother just as many times), the living room where she and Kenny had played Scrabble or opened their presents beneath the huge fir tree on Christmas morning. She frowned. What was the date?
She ran to the kitchen and checked the calendar on the refrigerator. December 15. Almost Christmas, and she hadn’t bought a single gift. But then again, she had no money and no friends. Except . . . she pulled out her address book and thumbed through it until she came to the page with her cousin Wendy’s name on it. How long had it been since she had seen, or even spoken to, Wendy and her daughters? Wendy had always been the one person, throughout Suzy’s childhood, who had encouraged Suzy to read and write, to do the things that made her happy, and not just what her mother wanted her to do. Though they had lost touch in most ways over the years, sometimes Suzy still wished Wendy were her sister instead of just her cousin.
She dragged out the yellow pages and found the number for the local florist. She called and placed an order for a Christmas basket, complete with a box of fancy chocolate truffles, to be delivered to Wendy’s address. It was a charge she didn’t need to add to her already overflowing credit card, but this was family, and that made it worth the expense.
* * *
She spent the New Year alone. Sure, Wendy had called to thank her for the flowers—“So thoughtful!”—but Wendy and the girls had lives of their own to lead. Suzy couldn’t expect people to pick up everything just because she was feeling lonely.
The realtor sold the house in the early spring. Suzy was relieved when the buyer offered half a million dollars—and this, the realtor said, was a buyer’s market. Imagine how much they could have gotten in better times. The exact amount didn’t matter to Suzy. All she knew was that she’d be able to afford a small studio apartment across town, and to be able to eat. It was incredible how quickly your priorities could change.
Of course, not having to worry about money made it easy to fall back into bad habits—especially when you had never really developed good ones in the first place. Relieved of the burdens of daily survival, Suzy cultivated a taste for the finer things. Every day, just to get out of the house so she could pretend she was not a hermit, she paid a visit to the liquor store and picked out a new wine to try. At least, it started out as wine. After a few months, she found herself aching for something stronger, and she began to consume a small bottle of brandy, or sometimes a pricey vodka, daily. At the suggestion of the ever-helpful manager of the wine and spirits shop, she also became an accidental aficionado of cigars. By the time the summer sun began to burn away the night, making the days brighter and longer, she was puffing a fat cigar, along with her usual two packs of cigarettes, every day. She hated the way the nicotine and the constant veil of yellow smoke made the pages on which she scribbled what now passed for poetry smell, but she couldn’t stop. Even a slight delay in getting her fix was an agony, so she began to stockpile drinks and smokes in her apartment—making room for their bulk by neglecting to buy food.
Although it often seemed like everyone she knew had forgotten about her, she hadn’t forgotten about them. She made elaborate birthday cards, cutting out construction paper and lace and penning personalized greetings for the few people with whom she still kept in touch—mainly Wendy, Madison, and Tracy.
When Madison was rushed to the hospital with acute appendicitis, Suzy was one of the first on the scene, and her arms were loaded with flowers, balloons, and magazines—something for the recovering patient to read during the long hours of solitude between visiting hours. The family appreciated the gesture. They had to. Suzy knew they were grateful, even if they didn’t make a big production out of saying so. People were busy; she knew that. And, because she knew she should have been busy doing something, anything, more constructive than smoking, drinking, and making paper Valentines, she felt like she didn’t deserve even the prefabricated cards with their generic Christmas greetings that she received each year. She wasn’t worthy of anything more.
So it was an inevitable torture when she realized that she had squandered away all her money—again—and was being (understandably, she understood) kicked out of her little apartment. She knew she was going to have to impose on people who didn’t need or want her around. She had no choice but to intrude into their lives, forcing her worthless self upon their good graces. She hated to do it, but there was no other way.
Once her car was packed with the few remaining possessions she had been able to keep—almost exclusively notebooks full of drivel—she stepped in and held the steering wheel with shaking, sweaty palms. What little bit of independence she had known was gone now. For the rest of her life, she fully understood, she would live at the mercy of others.
She wiped away a single stray tear and pulled out of the parking lot, headed toward her last hope for refuge: her cousin Wendy’s house.
Suzy never woke up.
In a way, it was a blessing—at least for us. I imagine she would have felt differently had she had the chance. Even though we spent that whole first night she was in the hospital conspiring to figure out what we would say when we saw her the next day, we came up with nothing. It wasn’t just because it was Suzy we were dealing with. The fact was, we couldn’t think of anything that would be even remotely comforting to someone in Suzy’s position—even if that person were someone, you know, nice. What is there that can make someone who’s about to die feel better? As hard as I tried to put myself in Suzy’s shoes, I couldn’t dream of what it would be like to be told, out of the blue, that death was no longer a vague, far-off notion but something so close that it precluded making any sort of long-term plans. I tried to imagine “long-term” suddenly being no more than a few days, or even hours. The whole thought of dying scared me—more than scared me; it chilled me to the core. So when I tried to imagine being in Suzy’s place, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t even want to do it. When you added the despicable side of Suzy’s personality (and, let’s be honest, it was a big piece of the whole), it was entirely impossible for me to see myself in her situation.
As terrible as it is to say, part of me—most of me—was deeply grateful not to be forced to face Suzy on her deathbed. Seeing her lying there, gray and emaciated, made me feel even worse than usual about the way I’d been treating her. Actually, I’m lying. Up until I saw her in that bed, hooked up to the blinking, beeping machines, I hadn’t felt guilty at all. I had more or less felt that my behavior was completely, indisputably justified. And maybe it was. But does that matter?
The more I thought about everything, during those three painful days of waiting for Suzy to either wake up or die, I started to think about the past, wondering how Suzy had turned into the person she was. To hear Mom tell it, Suzy had once been a sweet, precocious little girl. She’d been a bookworm, just like I was as a kid, and she had dreamed of becoming a writer. If you ignored the twenty-plus-year age difference, it was almost like Suzy and I could have been the same person. I found myself thinking that maybe, if life had thrown me just a few unexpected curves, I could have turned out to be just like her. And that thought scared me almost as much as—or maybe even a little more than—the unavoidable fact of death, both Suzy’s and, one day, my own.
For those three days, Mom and I spent the five-hour block of visiting time in Suzy’s hospital room, flipping the channels on the TV, pretending to read, and secretly praying that Suzy wouldn’t wake up and make us deal with our own ambivalence. It was torture. But at least we could say we were there; we could make it seem like we were good people, like we weren’t monsters who had turned the last few precious months of Suzy’s life into a living hell for her. We took some degree of comfort in our presence—we may have been horrible people, but at least we were there.
That was more than Kenny, Suzy’s brother, could say. We called him, let him know that Suzy was dying of terminal lung cancer. And he laughed. He actually laughed. That was when I knew that, as bad as I thought I’d behaved, deep down, I wasn’t really a terrible person. Whatever I’d done, I had meant well.
And maybe . . . so had Suzy.
When she died, painlessly, mercifully, we made private arrangements for her to be cremated and her ashes interred in the same vault where she had placed her parents. There was no one who would have come to a funeral, so it seemed silly to have one. Why subject Suzy to yet another humiliation? At least in death, she was entitled to a little bit of dignity.
That was the public excuse we gave. There was also a private one, the shameful one: We had just paid for a fairly elaborate wedding and we were not exactly swimming in extra cash. Okay, so I admit it: We cheaped out on Suzy’s last hurrah. But you didn’t hear it from me. . . .
When we sat back and analyzed our behavior, we decided we had done the best we could, given the circumstances. We were actually starting to feel pretty good about ourselves, and over the weeks after Suzy’s death, we slowly got back to normal, back to the way things had been before Suzy leaped, unannounced, into our lives.
That’s why it was such a shock when we got a call from a lawyer about a month after Suzy died. He said that Suzy had had a life insurance policy and that Mom, Tracy, and I were the beneficiaries. We agreed to meet the lawyer at his office to sign the necessary papers, but we thought little of the whole thing. After all, Suzy had never exactly been one for taking long-term responsibility, nor had she ever had a whole lot of extra money to spend on something like life insurance. So imagine our surprise when we learned the truth: Suzy had taken out a three-million-dollar policy years ago, right after her mother had died. According to the lawyer, each of the three of us—me, Mom, and Tracy—would receive a million dollars (before taxes, of course, but one doesn’t complain about an unexpected windfall).
We sat around the massive oak conference table in the lawyer’s office in stunned, stupefied silence. I don’t think any of us had even the slightest idea of how to respond to the news. There was the obvious impulse—to jump up and down screaming, “We’re rich! We’re rich!” Then there was the sense of guilt, the feeling that we didn’t deserve to profit because someone had died, and especially someone we didn’t really even like. But finally, there was the truth: Even at the worst moments, Suzy had loved us. And maybe, on some level, whether we realized it or not, we had loved her, too. I had to wipe away a tear before anybody else noticed it. I knew they were feeling it all just like I was—the guilt, the sorrow, the pathos of humanity—but they seemed to be better at hiding it.
I got up from the table and stared out the window, which looked out over a small military cemetery packed with neat rows of identical tombstones whose pattern was broken only by the silhouette of a black bird preening itself atop one of the headstones. I watched as the crow looked up, as if suddenly aware it was being watched, then spread its iridescent feathers and flew off into the bright mid-morning sun. It was then that I realized that we hadn’t been surviving Suzy. All of us—Suzy included—had just been surviving. That’s what life is, after all, isn’t it?
End of Part IIII—The final installment.