Blydyn Square Review
Summer 2022 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
Summer 2022 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
If you’re a regular subscriber to our monthly Blydyn Square Books newsletter, you’ll already have read this letter (sorry about the “regifting,” but the topic just felt like the right one for this issue of Blydyn Square Review). And if you’re not a subscriber, feel free to join us by signing up here. We only email once a month, and you always get a chance to win a prize!
Welcome to summer (at least, if you’re here in the Northern Hemisphere like I am)! As someone who loathes the heat and the sticky “dirtiness” of summery places like the beach, I don’t automatically think “fun in the sun” or “shore vacation” when this time of year rolls around. For me, it’s all about summer reading.
Although, as adults (unless we’re teachers), most of us don’t actually get much, if any, extra time to read during the summer, but even I’ll admit that there’s a relaxed “vibe” that comes with the change of season, one that lends itself well to doing some light (maybe even trashy) reading.
So, I was curious. What is everybody reading this summer?
Me? I’ve got a bunch of books going (as always—seasons be damned). I’m determined to get through both of Alison Weir’s Queens of the Conquest and Queens of the Crusades before the summer ends. On top of those, I’m currently reading Peter Sagal’s The Incomplete Book of Running, Peter Sims’s Little Bets, and (besides all that nonfiction) I always like to have at least one guilty pleasure novel on my nightstand. As I write this, it’s Emma Straub’s latest, This Time Tomorrow.
So, what’s in your summer TBR pile? Share your answer with us and you’ll be entered in our monthly raffle drawing for an Amazon gift card.
I hope you’ll join me and seize the summer. The weather may be brutally hot and humid, but that’s never a reason not to get some good reading done!
Use the links below to jump to the different articles
Lisa’s essays have been published in the Washington Post, Woman’s World Magazine, and Delaware Beach Life Magazine. Her column, Our Senior Yearbook, appears bimonthly in the Cape Gazette. Her second novel, Up in the Sky So Blue, won second place in children’s literature in the Delaware Press Association’s 2020 contest. Visit her at Lisajgraff.com, on Facebook: Our Senior Yearbook, or on Twitter @lisajgraff1.
When he came back after walking the dog, I wanted to say, Go around again, Sam. I need more time with Andrea Bocelli. Married people of any age understand this. Thinking even newlyweds feel a tinge of regret when they see how seldom their new spouse cuts their toenails. Leaves them on the floor where you can step on them in bare feet.
Dearest husband, we were too busy with careers and family and conversations like are you worried that our daughter is never home and that our son is here always to look into each other’s eyes and see love staring back like a small heart hanging in the balance.
Now our children are married with children of their own. Finding sanctuary on the sofa with eyes turned toward their children’s bedrooms, wondering how to help a child develop self-confidence. Why wasn’t I more patient? Used a calmer voice, for God’s sake. Why didn’t you support me when it was time to say no? Been a more united front?
Once you said to me, crying into the pillow, “I’m afraid that you need more than I can give.” I think that was when I published an essay in “Outlooks” in the Washington Post about why I left teaching, and I got a call from a local reporter wanting to interview me.
I recall holding you and saying that would never happen. What I didn’t say was I need a man who is dependable even if he’s boring sometimes. One can always seek excitement in literature and friends, N’est-ce pa?
You planned for our retirement, still pay the bills on time. Peggy Lee would croon, “Is that all there is, my friend? Then let’s keep dancing.”
What a great dancer you turned out to be—discovered on our honeymoon at a local bar in Virginia Beach. Our wedding dance was not rehearsed, and we preferred Al Green or Jerry Butler.
The truth is that you love me even when I behave badly. Did I mention I require devotion and more attention than the babies I nursed? Than all the babies in the world crying to be held at the same time.
You used to be a great lover. Now you think mostly about what time to set the alarm for golf. You are lost in the crossword puzzle for hours, not in the hairs between my legs. We grow old. We grow old like Prufrock eating oranges leaning against the sink.
What should this writer expect in retirement? My neighbors are white rich women who complain about traffic, children on cell phones, the irrigation system not reaching their rose beds. Are you going to game night this Thursday?
Instead, I want to hear things never heard before from lips of people who live in distant parts of the world. Any foreign world, where people say something worthwhile before they go to bed at night.
I always wanted a nicer home, and now that I have it, I long to escape its décor and comfort. Easy to see why he might prefer the crossword or Wheel of Fortune, the height of vulgarity? Je suis fatigué. Anyway, I want two things in life: a man I can depend on. A man who asks me to run away to another dimension. Maybe vodka can do the latter.
Don’t even mention the word vodka. My mom’s daily brew. Now becoming my nightcap. Rather a man in the nightcap naked, yes? When I look at him, hand with the pen poised in one hand, folded newspaper in the other, I want to set fire to the chair.
No anger issues here. Truth, not like a cereal with lucky charms or marshmallows. So what woman isn’t bored occasionally? Bored weekly. Bored at least once daily. Okay, bored countless times.
Retirement life. Do you want to go to the grocery store and buy everything on my list, but never add anything but frozen burritos to your own? Did you get my text about the eggs? What eggs? I had my phone with me. Don’t know why I didn’t hear it ring.
Don’t why I didn’t hear it ring? That bell in my head so many years ago. That bell that said, “Marry a man you can depend on.” My mother’s words decades before his love of bourbon was more than could compete with her devotion.
She was spitfire during angioplasty and cursed the room. “I was there for him the son of a bitch and where the hell is he when I need him?”
Where indeed? Still looking for affirmation from a daddy. Hmmm. Still?
Tell me that I can do anything. I can, you know. I can do anything. Except I can’t leave him. I love him, too. Swore I would be faithful and have been. Will be until death do us part.
Just need to step away to some place in a universe where there is unlimited fun. I can’t find it in a puzzle with horizontal or vertical clues. A trigger. You see, whenever I came into the kitchen, my father was sitting at the head of the table working a crossword puzzle. For hours, I would avoid the kitchen as he might say nothing or, “Put some socks on those feet.” Or “You don’t need a snack now.”
It’s just a puzzle, or is it a way to escape from responsibility? Depends on your point of view. Tonight, I am a woman with a dream deferred. Whose dream? Was it yours? Mine?
The author would like to be known as Vast and has three loves in life: reading, staying active, and hearing good news.
If everything works out the way I planned, I should arrive at your house around 8:00 p.m. Friday night. I’m looking forward to seeing you again.
I don’t understand a lot of things about life. I don’t know if the bright red mushrooms sprouting up by the riverbed are poisonous. I don’t know why the bush in my garden only grows berries twice a year. And I don’t know how a man can send me letters from the grave. It’s been ten years since August walked alongside me, grabbing lilies and wild daisies for his famous bouquets. We spent long summer days playing in the cool, see-through river that parted between our houses. You can see the shine in the goldfish when the sun hit them just right. August loved that; he always pointed it out. Everything made him giggle: the buttery smell of pies cooling on windowsills in early spring; dragging, roasting nuts when the weather got cold; the layers of snow that suffocated us until the new year. I loved him and he loved me, too. And then he shot himself in the face.
I don’t know why. He never left a note. We don’t talk about it. No one does. Sometimes I walk by his family in the town square. They nod at me and I look away. His little sister is thirteen now and she has his face. Can’t stand to look at that brat. Though she is known for her sense of humor (and a lack of good taste), I don’t believe she was the one who forged this note in her brother’s handwriting, especially since she was three years old when he died.
Maybe it was an old letter, one I’ve never seen before. Stuck deep into my mailbox for many years despite being pristine, white, and even a little warm. I don’t believe in spirits. I only believe in the wind. The wind tells you all you need to know: whether it will rain, snow, bring good news or bad. I could hear it stirring outside the window, kicking crunchy leaves across the porch. It feels bad; it feels ominous. The fire crackles safely in my fireplace. Speaks to me, tells me to burn the paper of lies in my hand. The clock above says eight o’clock and I know it’s Friday.
I’ve been mulling over this note for about two days. I never thought he’d show up. Call me naïve, but a little bit of me was hoping a man could rise from the ground and take me back ten years of my life to live it over, happier and healthier. The flames are warm and orange just like his hair. If I had the strength, I would have burned the letter. Or moved from my chair. I don’t walk much at all these days. No reason to. Nowhere to go. No one to see.
A gentle rapping on my door roused me. I pulled myself to my feet and grabbed my walking stick. A long thick branch from an oak tree. No one ever comes to my house this time of night. Again, they knocked. I stepped over pillows I’ve crocheted. Hobbled around piles of wood I have to finish carving. Passed the pot of potatoes I was boiling. There goes the wind again, blowing and telling me no. Making the wood in the walls groan.
I opened the door and the lie was the man. August looked exactly how I remembered him those ten years ago. Same smile curving up on pink lips, face so white you could see the green veins under his eyes, hair long and fiery and impossibly curly.
“Hannah! Oh, you look so strange! Your hair has gone gray!”
He grabbed my long brown braid dusted with the silver that comes of losing a loved one and he tugged it like he used to do when he teased me.
“You’re going to trip over this one day!”
The same thing he always said. Laughing childishly. Same thing he always did. Doing it now. After all these years.
“What’s the matter, Hannah? Can’t speak?”
I pushed my weight onto my stick. I was having trouble standing. He leaned close and wrapped his arms around my waist.
“There. You should sit down. I don’t understand. You’ve never let your bad leg slow you down before.”
I let August take me into the house. I sat in my chair. The fire was telling me it told me so. His note was on the mantle and he was smiling at it.
“You knew I was coming! Why are you so surprised?”
I waited for him to walk in front of me. I looked into his blue eyes and remembered all the times we lazed about on the grass and stared into the clouds. All the promises and silly dreams.
“Hannah. I came to get you. Let’s run away!”
“No? But why not?”
I hit him over the head with my stick. He wobbled unsteady. I hit him in the ribs. I pushed him. Kicked him. He fell in the flames. Hairy red body twisting and slithering. His screams were unreal. They were not sounds, only pictures. I saw other women around the room. Pretty girls, laughing girls, young ones and old. I saw me holding hands with him. I saw a blond girl lying naked beside him in the grass. Different times, different places. Many promises, all broken. The bouquets. Beautiful flowers. Their souls trapped within the buds. Souls of all the girls he stole. I tossed the note in the fire. All the ashes smelled strangely of apple.
I don’t understand a lot of things about life. But I know the dead won’t walk anymore. I don’t believe in spirits, but I believe in the wind. And if the wind smells a lie, you best believe it’s the truth.
If Carrie Birde isn’t at one of her writing stations, with a good view of the outdoors, she is most likely on the side steps, plying chipmunks, squirrels, and blue jays with peanuts; trading raisins for song with her seasonal friends, the gray catbirds; or prowling the garden with watering can and camera. She translates these direct experiences and her dreams into poetry, flash fiction, and novels, as well as decoupaged Spirit Boxes. Carrie is from neither here nor there, and most likely from somewhere in between; she considers it a good day if she hasn’t left the Boonton Bubble. You can find her work at Nightjars & Damselflies on WordPress.
Blue Jay relays
of his poor
from oak tree’s
boughs . . .
empyreal cousin —
the morrow stirs
R. C. Goodwin’s most recent published book is a novel (psychological thriller) titled Model Child.
It was the kind of routine that long-married couples devise for themselves—every morning over coffee, Paul Springer glanced through the obituaries. Then he’d look at Marguerite and announce solemnly that they were still among the living. He’d feign relief, and breakfast continued.
Paul read the obits carefully. Like most podiatrists, he had a number of elderly patients. He also made a point of checking the ages of the deceased. Of comparing them to his own age, forty-six.
One of today’s obituaries caught his eye:
Regina Reardon, 39, of South Springfield, died yesterday at Memorial Hospital . . . wife of Brian Reardon, mother of Rachel and David . . . also leaves behind her parents, Eleanor and John Bianchi . . . a graduate of Eisenhower High School and St. Mary’s College . . . services at Blessed Sacrament Church Friday, at 11AM, calling hours Thursday. . . .
A small article on the page opposite the obituaries proper gave more details. Ms. Reardon had been hit by a car while jogging yesterday morning. Brought to the ER by helicopter, pronounced DOA. No charges filed against the driver, but police were still investigating.
“Well, aren’t you going to say it?” prompted Marguerite when he finished reading.
“I see we’re still among the living,” he said, on autopilot.
“What’s the matter? Did someone we know die?”
“A patient. A nice fellow, only retired a month ago.” Paul tried to invent details as he went along. “He and his wife had just made plans to go around the world.”
Marguerite gave a sympathetic tssk and let the subject drop. After pretending to read more of the paper, Paul went upstairs to brush his teeth and splash cold water on his face. Regarding himself in the bathroom mirror, he beheld someone older and more careworn than the man he usually saw.
He went downstairs again, kissed Marguerite good-bye, picked up his car keys, and left for work. Finally, safely out of her view, he pulled over to the curb as he wrestled with the reality of Gina’s death.
They’d met six months earlier, in April. She literally crashed into his life. One Saturday she ran a stop sign and plowed into his Lexus. Airbags exploded, tires screeched, metal crunched against metal. Unhurt, he trotted to the other car, a gray Toyota, its front end crumpled. The driver was a youngish woman, barely visible, swallowed by an airbag.
“Are you all right?” She nodded.
“Here, let me help you out.” She did as bidden, taking his hand, coming unsteadily to her feet. Only then, as he looked at his newly battered Lexus, did he give vent to anger. “That was the most horseshit driving I’ve ever seen!”
“Go fuck yourself, buster!” So went their first encounter.
A cop wrote up a report, and the drivers exchanged essential information. The Lexus could be driven without much problem, but the Toyota barely made it to the curb. The woman called for a tow truck, her hand unsteady as she held the cell phone.
He approached her cautiously. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine! I never felt better in my life!” She began to cry.
Among Paul’s quirks: He couldn’t stand to see a woman crying. He softened instantly. “Listen, no one’s hurt, that’s the main thing. You’re just shaken up.” He pointed to a nearby sandwich shop. “You could wait inside, have a coffee. How long will it take them to get a tow truck here?”
“Half an hour.”
“So there’s time.” He hesitated for a fraction of a second. “I’ll wait there with you.”
She looked at him, bewildered. “Why would you do that?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Sitting opposite each other in a window booth, they drank coffee in silence. “Where were you going in such a hurry?” he asked finally.
“Nowhere special, just errands. Picking up stuff from the cleaners, buying groceries. I usually work Saturdays. When I don’t, I cram a lot into them.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
She stirred the coffee absentmindedly. “I run a gift shop called Ephemera. How about you?”
“I’m a podiatrist.”
“That’s a foot doctor, right?” He nodded and braced for the standard reaction: polite indifference or distaste. Gina opted for the latter. “I can’t imagine what that’s like, fooling around with people’s feet all day. How do you stand it?”
Paul, who’d been through this too often to feel more than passing annoyance, had composed an answer he could have recited in his sleep. “It’s satisfying to help people who can’t walk without pain. It’s also very interesting. All kinds of diseases, from AIDS to diabetes, can cause foot problems. And it’s technically challenging to do procedures like bone grafts and tendon repairs. Besides, the money’s pretty good.”
“Whatever you make, it’s not enough.”
He bristled. “Compared to all the people with mindless, repetitious jobs paying next to nothing, who work their whole lives without helping anyone, I think I’m kind of lucky, believe it or not.”
Her tone stayed flat. “It’s nice you feel that way.”
Paul scrutinized her as they fell silent. Hard to tell her age. His guess was thirty-six or thirty-seven, but it could have been thirty-two or forty-two. An oval face framed by shoulder-length hair that just missed being blond, matted and disheveled now. Well-shaped lips, no lipstick. Light brown eyes, almost amber, her best feature. Straight classic nose. She wore a gray sweatshirt and faded jeans. A woman who might have been a good deal more attractive than she chose to be.
“It figures,” she said suddenly.
“It figures this would happen. The way the year’s been going.”
He wondered if she’d start to cry again. “What’s wrong?”
No tears, but words poured out like water through a fractured dam. “Nothing, apart from a ten-year-old son with the worst case of attention deficit disorder the pediatrician says he ever saw—sixty milligrams of Ritalin and it barely touches him—and a teenage daughter with an IQ of one-twenty who’s failing half her subjects, who’s in love with some creep who’s got psychopath written all over him, and both of them having hysterics whenever I look cross-eyed at them, and a mother with macular degeneration, and a father who comes over five times a week, who wants to be my new best friend since he retired after ignoring me for the first thirty-eight years of my life, and a husband who’s fifty pounds overweight and drinks too much! I never thought it would be easy, but I thought it would be easier than this!”
He didn’t know what to say. He considered patting her hand and trying to comfort her. He also considered running away as fast as he could.
“I’m sorry things have been so difficult for you,” he said at last.
“Listen, mister, I mean doctor. I didn’t mean to unload on you like that. And I apologize for those things I said about your work.”
“It’s all right.”
“No, it’s not.” She paused and looked at him thoughtfully, chin cupped in her hands. She had nice hands, smooth, with long fingers and nails done in a honey-colored polish. “What work would you want to do if you weren’t a foot doctor?”
Straightforward words, but he looked as if he didn’t quite understand them. “I’ve done podiatry for a long time now,” he said finally. “I just do it. I don’t think about alternatives.”
“Come now. You must have wondered what it would be like to do something else.”
In fact, he hadn’t. He’d made the important decisions of his life—where to go to school, whom he’d marry, what his work would be—without angst or rehashing. Once he made them, he saw no point in second-guessing himself.
He took a while before replying. “I don’t know. Maybe I’d be a marine biologist. I like to read about the oceans, to watch PBS specials on sharks and such. When I travel, I never miss a chance to go to an aquarium.” Uneasy, he turned the focus back to her. “How about you?”
“I’d be a sculptor,” she answered instantly, her eyes brightening. “I’ve wanted to be one since I was seven, when my parents took me to New York, to the Museum of Modern Art. They had to drag me away from the sculpture garden. I’m the way you are with aquariums. When I travel, I always go to the art museums, mainly to check out their sculptures.”
“Why didn’t you become one?”
“Lack of talent, pure and simple. I took art courses in college, but eventually I had no illusions that I’d ever be more than mediocre.”
“If you like it so much, you should do it anyway, as a hobby.”
“I suppose.” She shrugged and finished her coffee. “Do you have children?”
“A daughter in college, and a son who’s a high school senior.”
“Are you close?”
He blinked and felt himself begin to blush. “Do you always ask questions like that when you’ve just met someone?”
“Sometimes, sometimes not. I guess you’re one of the lucky ones.”
Paul wondered if she were teasing him, although she didn’t strike him as a tease. He thought about his children. He was generous to them, more so with his money than his time. Several times a month he sent his daughter an email, friendly but mostly factual. The weather had been so and so, they’d dined at this or that restaurant. He liked to watch sports on TV with his son, and they’d made some trips to check out prospective colleges. He loved his children and was fairly sure that they loved him. He’d give his life for either of them in a flash. None of which meant that they were close.
“We get along,” he answered. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘close.’ We don’t have many intimate conversations, but I’d like to think they’d call me if they needed me. Our times together are pretty comfortable.”
Another silence. She glanced outside. “There’s the tow truck.”
“I’ll walk you out.” He pulled out some bills from his wallet and left them on the table.
“Thanks for the coffee,” she said as they faced each other on the street.
They headed off in separate directions for their cars.
Paul arrives at his office the morning he learns of Gina’s death, and patients are already waiting for him. His schedule is full today; there’ll be no breathing room at all. Lunch: most likely a yogurt and a Balance Bar. And he’ll have to stop at a nursing home for several consults on the way home. The day looms before him like a prison term.
Greeting his office staff, glancing at his appointment sheet, he steps into his private office. He’d like to stay there for hours, seeing no one, talking to no one, parked in his desk chair. Instead, he trudges to the closet, hangs up his navy blazer, and puts on a clean white coat. Breathing deeply, he steels himself for the clientele. His day will be filled with people, none of whom will know that he’s in mourning.
Megan Wright had been Paul’s secretary for seven years. Her birthday was April 30, a week after he and Gina met. This year, on an impulse, he decided to get her something from Ephemera. He went there one day around 12:30, hoping Gina hadn’t gone for lunch.
Spotting him as soon as he entered, she ambled toward him. She wore a light-green cotton blouse displaying a full bosom and trim waist, neither one apparent when he’d first seen her. Her skirt was a dark-green plaid. Her hair, disheveled then, was brushed and silky now.
She seemed surprised but not displeased to see him. She didn’t smile.
“Hello?” More a question than a greeting.
“How are you?”
“Better than when you saw me last.”
“We weren’t at our best. Funny way to meet someone.”
“How’s your car?”
“A lost cause. The body work alone would have cost more than book. We got a great deal on a new Camry, though. Did I mention that my husband is the service manager at Riverview Toyota?”
Paul shook his head.
“So. What brings you to our establishment?”
“My secretary . . . her birthday.” He’d almost forgotten his ostensible purpose.
“Anything particular you have in mind?” He shook his head again.
“Well, why don’t you look around?” She started to head off. “Let me know if you need help.”
Paul sauntered up and down Ephemera’s aisles, glancing at the wares. Candlesticks and hurricane lamps, cranberry glass and milk glass. Window hangings and sets of wind chimes, scented soaps and candles. Native American pottery from New Mexico, terra-cotta cats and dogs from Italy. Some of it he thought kitschy, but most of it he liked. It was a place where one might spend five dollars or five hundred.
He settled on a turquoise, egg-shaped glass paperweight. Placed near a window, it shimmered in a dozen shades of blue. He picked it up and turned it in his hand. From every angle it looked different.
Gina came up beside him, looking on approvingly. “It’s one of my favorite pieces.”
“It’s beautiful. I think she’ll like it very much.”
“If she doesn’t, bring it back. I wouldn’t mind keeping that one for myself.”
“Have you had lunch?” he asked suddenly.
The question seemed to surprise her, but only for an instant. “Just before you got here,” she nodded. “My assistant manager’s away, so the rest of the week will be busier than usual. But I’ll be free next Tuesday.”
Just before seven, Paul begins to drive home. His day consisted of twenty-nine patients, returning twelve phone calls, and dictating half a dozen letters. He has been too busy to think of Gina in more than momentary flashes. But now he has no patients or phone calls to run interference for him. Pulling into the garage, he remains in the car, preparing for Marguerite.
She’s in the kitchen, humming as she makes a salad. Her face, still smooth and freckled like a schoolgirl’s, still apple-red around the cheeks, belies her age of forty-three.
He goes over to her, hugs her, and they ask about each other’s workday. Marguerite is a librarian at a local college. He tries to convey interest as she recounts their latest computer crisis. They take their meal at the kitchen table as they usually do, now that there are just the two of them. It’s a meal he would usually relish: pork roast, glazed carrots, rice pilaf. But tonight he has no appetite; he has to force himself to eat.
They talk about visiting their son, a college freshman, on the upcoming Parents’ Weekend, and the World Series now in progress, and an anniversary party they’ve been invited to. Conversation is punctuated by a few inevitable silences. He feels an urgent need to fill them.
After dinner, they watch the third game of the Series. As he catches fragments of the game, he finds it hard to remember which teams are playing.
Paul and Gina agreed to meet at an Italian place, Café Tuscany, halfway between his office and her store. Paul, arriving first, picked a booth toward the back. He thought it unlikely that friends would encounter them, and so what if they did, but he had no wish to explain anything to anyone.
He rose to greet her. The day was warm for early May, but she looked crisp and cool in a pink shirt and white pants. They exchanged comments on the weather, she asked how his secretary liked the paperweight, he asked about her son and if she’d gotten a second opinion for his attention deficit disorder, and she asked where his children went to college. The conversation advanced in fits and starts. He felt as though he were back in high school, a nerdy boy on a first date with one of the cheerleaders.
The waitress took their order. Chef’s salad for him, lasagna for her, two iced teas. Their food came quickly. Her serving was enormous. He glanced at it, bemused. “How do you eat like that and stay so trim?”
“For one thing, I’m a jogger. Two miles every morning, rain or shine. For another, lunch is my only big meal. Breakfast is a bowl of cereal, maybe a piece of toast, and this”—she pointed to the plate—“is three times as much as I have for dinner.” She sprinkled crushed red peppers on it. “Do you run?”
He shook his head. “I swim and play tennis. Running bored me to death the few times I tried it.”
“With me it’s the opposite. It takes me away from the day-to-day nonsense. The only part of my life that’s completely my own.”
He took a forkful of the salad. “I feel like that when I’m driving. I listen to CDs, my mind wanders.”
“Where does your mind wander off to?”
He sipped iced tea. “Almost anywhere. I’ll think about a book I’m reading or a movie I’ve just seen. Or about my wife or children, or my parents.”
“How long have you been married?”
She took a bite of lasagna. “Good marriage?”
He nodded. “We’re compatible, we’re friends. We’ve been married so long, it’s hard to remember when we weren’t.”
“Ever cheat on her?”
Inhaling iced tea, he coughed noisily. She waited for his coughing to subside. “Well, did you or not?”
“Why . . . ? I mean, suppose, for the sake of discussion, that I had. Why would I tell someone I barely know?”
“For precisely that reason. Besides, you strike me as a man who wouldn’t tell anyone, and keeping secrets can be burdensome.”
He looked at her as if seeking a reprieve. “Do you really want to know this?”
“Of course. Why would I ask you if I didn’t?”
He stared at his plate. “Chicago, three years ago. I went there for a seminar. One night . . . as a rule I don’t mind being alone. In fact, I enjoy it; it’s kind of a luxury for me. But that night was different. Being alone was merely lonely. Oppressive. Four or five million people in the city and I didn’t know one of them, apart from a few foot doctors I’d just met. I hated the idea of going back to an empty hotel room, so I went to the bar for a drink. I ordered a martini. Don’t know why, I don’t really like them. Besides, gin hits me like a sledgehammer.”
“It’s no mystery. You obviously wanted to get loaded, the sooner the better.”
“Not so obvious at the time.” He wiped his forehead with his napkin.
“So that’s where you met her? In the bar?”
He nodded. “She was drinking alone, like me.”
“What was she like?”
Paul shut his eyes as if recalling someone from another lifetime. “Slender,” he replied eventually, “with short, reddish hair. She looked like that redhead who used to be in Sex and the City, I forget her name, but taller and a few years younger. Divorced.”
He drank more iced tea. “I was in Chicago three more days and two more nights. We spent both nights together. I wonder, does that constitute an affair? Strictly speaking it was more than a one-night stand; it was two nights.”
Gina poured more crushed red peppers on her entrée. “Does your wife know?”
“I’m sure I was distracted when I got back from Chicago, but I don’t think so.”
“Did you get together afterwards?”
He shook his head. “We talked about it, but we never did. Wrote a few emails to each other, made a few phone calls. And then it just died out, no formal ending.”
She studied him. A quizzical glance, not unduly sympathetic but not unkind. Not judgmental, or if it was, she concealed it. “So, what was the whole thing like for you?”
“Nerve-wracking. I’m in good shape, my blood pressure’s fine, but I worried that I’d have a heart attack. Both nights I kept waiting for my wife to call. If she had, she’d have known right away.” He paused. “Nerve-wracking, but exhilarating, too. I have to admit, I liked the novelty. I, uhm, don’t have much experience with women. There were only two others before I met Marguerite. The sexual revolution was going strong when I was in college, but I was kind of a bystander.” He took a small bite from a breadstick. “How about you?”
Gina put down her utensils. “No. There’ve been a few close calls, though. Mainly when I was more disenchanted than usual with my husband.”
“I would have guessed that men showed an interest in you all the time.”
“Yeah, right. They come by the house like dogs, peeing on the front door, marking off their territory.”
He couldn’t tell if she were making fun of him. “What I meant was, you’re attractive. I doubt that I’ve been the only man who feels that way.”
“I think I give off signals that I’m not particularly interested. That I’m too tired, too caught up in my life to pay attention to them. The thing is, I’m not attracted to the slick ones. The ones I like are quieter, less polished. The ones who listen, or pretend to.”
Paul nodded. He also made a note to himself: Listen to her, or pretend to. But he didn’t think he’d need to pretend.
“You don’t say much about your own marriage,” he mentioned.
“Brian’s a good provider. A good father, better father than a husband. Decent enough when he’s sober. I was pregnant with Rachel when we were married.”
She sipped her iced tea and continued. “Sometimes I’ll look at him and wonder, who is he, this fat bald man who laughs about twice a year, who’d trade us all for a gallon of Smirnoff’s? Who is he, and what the hell am I doing with him?”
“What about AA? I have a cousin who drank himself into a stupor every day, and now he goes to meetings. His whole outlook on life has changed.”
“Oh, sure, AA’s great if you stay with it.” She avoided Paul’s eyes. “Brian goes to meetings for a few weeks, a few months, to placate me. It’s always when I’m ready to walk out. And things do look better for a while. So he goes to fewer meetings, and then he stops altogether. Then he’ll have a beer or two, just to prove he can take it or leave it, and the merry-go-round starts all over again.”
“Why do you stay?”
“Oh, God, for all kinds of reasons! Because of the children. Because I wind up feeling sorry for him. I think he’d be dead in a year if I left him. Because a marriage, even a mediocre one, provides structure, and I need a lot of that. I know, they’re lousy reasons, but they’re real enough.”
He considered giving her advice. Go to Al-Anon, get help for yourself. Leave him, he’ll never quit unless you do. Don’t stay for the children’s sake. No child should grow up with a parent who’s a drunk. Besides, you can’t base your life on feeling sorry for him. That’s not a life; it’s a penance.
He considered giving her advice, but he knew she had no interest in it.
Paul glanced at his watch. The lunch had stretched nearly half an hour longer than he’d anticipated. He’d be behind all afternoon. He hated being late but still, he found himself reluctant to end their time together.
“I have to go,” he said finally.
The waitress brought their check. He glanced at it and left the money on the table.
“We should do this again,” he said as they walked out.
She said nothing but he saw her nod, almost without moving her head.
After the endless baseball game, a game that seems to last twelve innings instead of nine, Paul and Marguerite are in bed. They shift into their customary positions, on their sides, his chest and midriff against her back, a hand draped across her breasts. They have slept in this fashion for over twenty years. It comes as naturally for him as breathing, most nights.
He sleeps soundly, as a rule. But tonight he’s wide awake, mind racing, as though he’d drunk a few cups of strong black coffee. He can’t align himself to Marguerite’s body, can’t get comfortable. Mummy-like, he feels encased in his pajamas. The ordinary nighttime sounds—the wind, a passing car, a plane descending toward an airport—are magnified and disconcerting.
He waits for the rise and fall of Marguerite’s breathing, but she’s not sleeping either. “What’s the matter?” she asks.
“Nothing.” He tries to make a joke of it. “The baseball game was too exciting.”
“It has nothing to do with the baseball game. You haven’t been yourself at all tonight.”
“Of course I have!” He recognizes the folly of trying to deceive this woman who has known him so well for so long, this woman who knows his every quirk and gesture, who picks up on his every verbal nuance.
Marguerite ignores the patent falsehood. “Well, whatever it is, I hope you’ll let go of it and get some sleep.” She pats his face and shifts into her usual position, her back against his chest. He wonders if she feels the pounding of his heart.
They met for lunch once a week, on average, throughout May and June. He’d never been one for culinary adventures, but Gina introduced him to ethnic restaurants he’d hitherto ignored. At her urging, he tried tandoori lamb at the Madras Inn, spanakopita at Olympus, and borscht and chopped liver at Goldblum’s Deli. To his surprise, he found himself enjoying these excursions. But he drew the line at sushi. Cold raw fish just didn’t strike him as much fun.
Eventually, they went to places beside restaurants. Stealing an hour here and there, they took walks in one of the city’s parks, drinking in the spring landscape in all its bright green glory. A few times they met at Barnes & Noble, since both of them loved to browse. She even cajoled him into taking an afternoon off so they could visit the local art museum that featured an exhibit of contemporary sculpture. Not a subject he’d thought much about. But Gina opened his eyes to the tension of form and space, the interplay of curve and angle, the richness of textures. He found himself swept up in her enthusiasm.
And they talked. They talked about their spouses, children, and parents. About Brian’s drinking and his on-again, off-again connection with AA; about Marguerite’s panic attacks. About their disparate backgrounds. He’d grown up in a small Ohio town, the son of an accountant and a music teacher. She’d grown up in Delaware, the daughter of a telephone lineman and a legal secretary. About their relationships before marriage.
They talked about religion—she, a Roman Catholic, disillusioned but unable to make a full break from the church; he, a lukewarm Methodist. About travel, and their dream destinations (hers was Florence, his Antarctica). About politics, when discussions turned to vigorous debates. She was a fervent Bernie Sanders Democrat; he, a moderate Republican who deemed Ford the most underrated president since World War II.
He’d never talked about so many things, at such length and so openly, with anyone.
But they scarcely talked about their own relationship until one morning in early July when they met for breakfast. Their schedules were too tight for lunch that day. Quieter than usual, she studied him as he munched on a pecan bun. “Are you coming on to me?” she asked abruptly.
By now used to her spurts of candor, he hardly blushed. “I don’t know. I’ve thought about it.”
“Why haven’t you?”
He found it hard to look at her directly. “Because I’m a coward, if you must know. I wouldn’t have slept with that woman in Chicago if I’d been sober. I’m also afraid my wife would leave me if she thought I was seeing another woman, and I don’t want her to. I also hate rejection.”
“What makes you so sure I’d reject you?” A serious question, altogether lacking in coquetry.
“I don’t make an assumption either way.” He finished the bun and looked at her squarely. “Do you want me to?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes, yes. You’re a good-looking man, you have an appealing way about you. Besides,” she admitted with an uncommon hint of embarrassment, “Brian and I don’t exactly make the earth move.”
She drank her orange juice. “But I have qualms about it. A drastic step for the little Catholic girl who lurks inside me.”
Conversation moved to lighter topics as they finished breakfast. Their plans for the Fourth of July, and a predicted heat wave, and when and where they’d meet next. The morning was already warm and humid when they left the restaurant. They said good-bye and began walking in different directions when he suddenly called out to her. “Gina, wait.”
He trotted toward her, put an arm uneasily around her waist. “It’s not a case of coming on to you. That’s seduction, isn’t it? I’ve never seduced anyone. The truth is, I wouldn’t know how to go about it.” He felt tongue-tied. “But you’ve become . . . well, I’ve developed feelings . . .”
She lifted her face toward his and kissed him on the lips. A serious kiss, more affectionate than passionate, slightly tentative. As she kissed him, she ran a finger across his cheek. “I’ve developed a few feelings for you, too.”
They took a step back from each other. She reached for his hand, squeezed it, and once again they headed for their cars.
He’s dreaming of Gina. She’s jogging, late at night. An unpleasant night, portending nothing good, but she seems oblivious to danger; she might as well be traipsing down a garden path. At first she runs along a country road, but the road turns into a highway. Tractor-trailers barrel by, although she gives no sign that she’s aware of them. At times she runs onto the highway. The truckers swerve to avoid her, their horns blare, but she doesn’t hear them.
Paul drives slowly behind her, in the breakdown lane. He’s terrified for her, tries futilely to alert her. He sounds his own horn but it’s muffled, barely audible. A truck bears down on her, gunning for her, as directly and inexorably as a bullet, and there’s nothing he can do, nothing, while she jogs along, not a care in the world. The truck is about to crash into her. It won’t just kill her; it will pulverize her. He screams.
“Paul! Wake up, you’re having a nightmare!” He feels Marguerite’s hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake. “Shh, it’s okay now.” Her voice is reassuring. The fear ebbs, his heart rate slows to almost normal, he breathes more easily.
“Good heavens, what was that about?”
“I don’t recall the details.” He is vague on purpose. “Something about someone chasing me.”
“I’ve no idea,” he answers, too quickly.
When she speaks again, her voice lacks its earlier empathy. “I don’t know what’s going on with you, but it better not be what I think it is.”
“And what might that be?” He strives for banter, failing utterly.
“If it has to do with your seeing another woman, you can move out of here. Tonight.”
He musters indignation. “For God’s sake, Marguerite, having a nightmare doesn’t mean I’m seeing another woman.”
“No, but I’d like to hear you say you’re not.”
“Well, I’m not!”
They lie in silence, side by side, without touching. He imagines her eyes boring into him through the darkness.
He’d give anything to fall asleep again, but knows that he’s awake for good now. The best he can hope for is to doze off periodically while he waits for dawn, while he waits for another day colored with the reality of Gina’s death. He wonders how often, now, he’ll dream of her.
Veterans Park, the city’s largest, was a rolling expanse of grassy plateaus surrounding an ample pond shaped like a crescent. Convenient to both her store and his office, they used it as a favorite meeting place.
One afternoon in late August, they met near their customary rendezvous, a gazebo near the pond’s concavity. Paul saw a brace on her right wrist. “What happened?”
“Oh, nothing,” she replied offhandedly. “One of the kids spilled juice on the kitchen floor. I slipped and landed on my wrist.” Despite her sunglasses, he could see her look away from him.
He took her left hand and they sauntered towards the gazebo. “What really happened?”
“Leave it alone.”
They walked in silence the rest of the way. The octagonal gazebo had an angled bench along its perimeter. “He hurt you, didn’t he?” Paul asked when they sat down.
“Christ, Paul, can’t you leave it alone?”
“No, as a matter of fact, I can’t.”
She took off her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes, waiting as if steeling herself to talk. “A beer, that’s all he wanted,” she said finally, her voice unsteady. “Just a beer, because it was so hot last night. ‘Come on, Gina, don’t give me that look, a man likes a beer when it’s eighty-five.’ And the beer turned into three or four, and then he finished off the six-pack and started another one. I forgot what I said that made him mad. Doesn’t matter, he’ll find something when he drinks. He grabbed my wrist and twisted it.”
She massaged her injured wrist with her good hand. “I’m so ashamed,” she said, her tone flat. “That’s the thing about women who let men hurt them, Paul. No matter how angry and afraid we are, underneath we’re ashamed. We’re ashamed because we wonder if it’s our fault, even though we know it isn’t. Ashamed because we let them do those things to us.” She hid her face against his shoulder so he wouldn’t see her crying.
“There’s nothing for you to be ashamed of.” He ran a finger through her hair. “Not your fault, don’t blame yourself, not your fault . . .”
They fell silent, their eyes following a squadron of ducks that swam across the pond. “I could help you,” he said finally. “If you left, I mean. If you needed money.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I don’t. Money’s not the problem.”
“I can’t stand the idea of him hurting you. It makes me want to kill him.”
“I love you,” she said, out of nowhere. He felt her shudder. “I can’t tell you how much that terrifies me. I loved him once, and look where it got me.”
“I love you, too.” He’d never told another woman that, only Marguerite.
“What’s your schedule for the rest of the day?”
“Well, I’ve finished seeing patients in the office.” He checked his watch; it was now just after three. “I was going back to do some paperwork, and then a hospital consult.”
“Spend it with me instead,” she broke in. “We could go to a . . .” For a moment the word stymied her. “A motel.”
He took her face in both his hands. “I don’t think so.”
She jerked away from him. “What?”
“You heard me. I don’t think so.”
For a moment she looked as if she’d slap him. “For weeks now, no, months is more like it, you’ve led me to believe I was attractive to you. ‘Developed feelings for you,’ I think that’s how you put it,” she said, biting the words off. “So now I want you, need you, and all you have to say is, I don’t think so?”
“I find you more attractive than I care to acknowledge, and those feelings for you are altogether real, but I don’t want to be part of your revenge.”
She skewered him with her near-amber eyes. “How pure of heart!”
“I’m not pure of heart, not at all. I just don’t want it happening that way, for that reason.”
“Goddamn you, I’m not asking you to . . .” Her anger ebbed and she began to cry again. “It hurts so much, Paul. I don’t mean just my wrist.”
He took her right hand and undid the splint. The circumference of her injured wrist was an inch greater than the other one. He kissed it so lightly that he barely felt her skin against his lips.
Calling hours are on Thursday, from four to six and seven to nine. Paul decides to go late that day, around 5:45. The modest funeral home is almost lost among a scattering of strip malls and nondescript apartment buildings. There are only two viewing rooms.
A blanket of flowers rests on Gina’s open casket. Some of the wreaths have banners. “To Our Mother.” “My Darling Wife.” “Dearest Daughter.”
The room holds few mourners. Two of them, a couple in their sixties, obviously Gina’s parents, sit by themselves, their faces frozen. Standing by the casket looms a man of about six feet and two hundred fifty pounds with a florid complexion and a slightly bulbous nose. What’s left of his reddish hair is already graying. On his left stands a teenage girl with braces and mild acne. She has her father’s reddish hair, her mother’s brown eyes. On his right stands a boy of ten, shifting his weight from one foot to another, his hands in constant motion. He also has his mother’s eyes, but his hair is darker than either parent’s.
Paul approaches the casket as though walking to the gallows.
The mortician has done splendid work. Gina’s face shows no trauma, her hair is brushed perfectly. A crucifix hangs around her neck, a spray of white roses rests on her chest. Paul bows his head and shuts his eyes. Then he moves toward her husband and children, wondering what he’ll say to them.
The children are easy enough. Paul shakes hands with them, introducing himself only as a friend of their mother’s. “I’m so sorry about your loss,” he offers. They nod, their eyes scarcely seeing him.
He finds himself facing Gina’s husband. For a second he wants to yell at him. “I know all about you, you lowlife bullying piece of shit! I know how you treated her, I know what really happened to her wrist. I hope you die a miserable death, alone with your wrecked liver and your wet brain, groveling in your own filth in a gutter somewhere!” He wants to knee him in the crotch.
He does none of this, of course. The husband offers his hand, and he takes it. “Mr. Reardon, I’m Paul Springer. Please accept my condolences.”
“Uh-huh.” Brian studies him, his tiny eyes suspicious slits now, his beery breath apparent. Paul’s bewilderment deepens. Pregnant or not, how could she have married this oaf?
“Whaja say your name was?” Brian asks.
“Aren’t you the one she was in that accident with?”
Brian’s suspicions ratchet up a notch. “Funny, your bein’ here. Most guys have an accident with some stranger, they don’t come to her wake.”
“I’m a foot doctor,” Paul adlibs. “She came to see me because of problems from her jogging.”
He mulls this over. “How come I never got a bill from you?”
“She paid cash.”
The answer seems to satisfy him. “I was gonna have a cigarette. Wanna go out back with me?”
“Sure,” replies Paul uneasily.
A few seconds later and they’re standing on a concrete patio. A parking lot stretches behind them. Brian pulls Camels from a pocket. “Stinkin’ cancer sticks. Tried to quit a dozen times. Never made it past three months.”
“I’m glad I never started.”
“You oughta be.” He lights a Camel, blows a smoke ring, and turns to Paul. “Here’s the deal, mister. I knew she was seein’ someone, number one because she wasn’t puttin’ out at all, and number two because she’d get this dreamy stupid look sometimes. She’d kinda start to smile but then she’d catch herself.”
“Mr. Reardon, there was nothing—”
Brian cuts him off. “I knew she was seein’ someone, but I had no idea who. Lotta times I almost asked her, but of course I knew she’d lie. Besides, I didn’t wanna know for sure.” His tone softens. “The thing is, mister, I still loved her. I thought she’d get over him, whoever he was, if only I could wait it out. I know I’m not the best husband who ever lived, but I loved her.”
Paul starts to speak, but Brian keeps on talking. “And then she died. I kinda hoped the guy would show up. I figured I’d know him when I saw him. And guess what, I was right.”
“No, you weren’t. She wasn’t having sex with me or any other man.”
“How the hell do you know?”
“Because we were friends. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“And I’m supposed to believe that crock?”
“Believe what you want.”
Brian’s face, already florid, turns beet red. Crushing the cigarette beneath his heel, he glares at Paul. His right hand forms a fist. It occurs to Paul that he’s about to fight a man for the first time in his adult life. The other man has two inches and fifty pounds on him, which doesn’t worry him. Paul keeps fit; he has a tennis player’s speed and reflexes. He prepares to block the immanent right fist with his own left hand and counter with a judo chop across the throat. He wants to hurt Brian, badly.
Then, to Paul’s amazement, Brian stops in his tracks and begins to sob. He throws himself against Paul, a grieving hulk unsteady on his feet, looking as if he might fall at any moment. The man can’t talk, can only burble. “. . . loved her from the day we met . . . I’m sorry, Gina, forgive me . . .”
To his amazement, Paul begins to comfort Brian, to pat him across his massive shoulders. He even lies. “It’ll be okay. She knew how much you cared for her. She never would have cheated on you, not in a million years. It’ll be okay.”
Slowly, the devastated widower pulls himself together. Paul leads him back inside the funeral home, as one might lead an injured child.
The last time Paul saw her was the Friday before she died. A busy day for both of them, and they barely had time for late-morning coffee at Starbucks. They talked about the World Series, and the splendid October weather, and their children. Her daughter had broken up with the psychopathic boyfriend, to Gina’s huge relief. His son was trying out for freshman hockey.
And they talked about Auguste Rodin. A friend of hers, visiting in Paris, had sent her a postcard from the Rodin Museum. Rodin was her all-time favorite sculptor. Gina would have given anything to go to the museum that bore his name.
“Maybe I’ll take you there someday,” he said.
“A lovely notion, but I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.” They drifted on to other things, and they agreed to have lunch the following Thursday at a new Thai place she’d heard good things about. The following Thursday, the day of her wake.
By the middle of December, thoughts of Gina no longer ambush Paul at every turn. He dreams of her but hasn’t had any more nightmares. He’s less tense and distracted with Marguerite, who no longer accuses him of seeing other women.
One Saturday, as he does his Christmas shopping, he makes his way to the Barnes & Noble where he and Gina used to meet. Without intending to, not consciously, he ends up among the art books. He spots one called Sculpture Through the Ages, plucks it from the shelf, leafs through it, and decides to buy it on the spot. Aborting his shopping, he brings it to his office and flips through more of it. Then he puts it carefully in his bookcase, tucking it between The Illustrated Guide to the Diabetic Foot and Pharmacology for Podiatrists.
He picks up the book whenever he has the chance. Early in the day, before the office slips into its usual bustle, or when a patient’s cancellation leaves him with an unexpected jot of time, or when he lingers over a midmorning cup of tea.
He likes to open it at random. Occasionally he’ll read a bit of text, but mainly he looks at the illustrations. There’s Venus of Milo, wrought from marble more than two millennia ago, with a beauty as contemporary as any living model’s . . . a Buddha’s bust from India . . . a pitted, forbidding head of a Mayan death god. Donatello’s Saint George, Michelangelo’s Moses. Brâncuşi’s birds and seals, stripped down to their barest lines and forms. Giacometti’s tortured, elongated figures, conveying a barely manageable despair.
There are works of marble, granite, wire, glass, and junk. Works from every era and scores of cultures. Some of them move him, some fill him with awe, and a few of the modern abstractions strike him as worthless frauds. But all of them interest him, and all of them remind him of her. He wonders what she’d have said about them, imagining how her eyes would have brightened as she’d warmed to the subject.
He grows to love Rodin, as she did. Even with his untrained eye, Paul can only marvel at his versatility, at the way he could sculpt Christ or a Minotaur or a pair of lovers with the same sure hand and psychological exactitude. His favorite of Rodin’s works is The Kiss, the capturing of lovers enveloped in each other’s arms. Before he puts the book down, it’s invariably the last plate Paul turns to. He always discovers something new in it. The bend of the woman’s leg, or the way the man’s hand rests on her thigh, or the way her breasts brush against his chest. Paul wonders if a more sensual work has ever been created by a human hand.
One day (it’s January now, and a snowstorm has brought about some cancellations) Paul opens the book. Instead of randomly perusing it, he turns right away to The Kiss. Taking himself back to the summer—the summer that he’ll always think of as Gina’s summer—he remembers the first time they kissed. A kiss more promising than passionate, on a sunny humid morning in July. He remembers it with a clarity that takes his breath away.
Closing the volume as carefully as if it were a Gutenberg Bible, he picks it up and returns it to the bookcase.
“God and Life never shout. Truth always comes in a whisper. But few people hear it. I hope I am always one of those who listens. Then the words that are born from within, will need no introduction to the human ear.”
The general consensus is that a child’s mind is mush. Wet cement to be poured into a mold. And everybody has a mold to offer. Hindsight has proven that to have power tomorrow, one must control the school curricula of today. It’s a mad race, a multibillion-dollar enterprise involving governments and religions, propaganda ministries and educational departments, your neighbor and your mother. Everyone on the planet, it seems, is vying to reach your kids before anyone else does. You the parent can stand by and enjoy the show, you can join in the race, or you can do something truly noble: Rather than teach your children what to think, show them how.
How does one learn to think? The same way one learns to walk. By doing it. That is why the vast majority of these competing entities want to reach your child while he or she is still impressionable. They have no desire to confront an adult upon the plains of logic and reason. They are not interested in persuading free moral agents to their cause—they want blind converts absorbed into their system of thought, there to stay without question.
From Nazi Germany to North Korea to the USSR, dictatorships and totalitarian systems are careful to suffuse a child’s education with rhetoric, recitations, and political activism, with the latter especially being the standard by which students’ character is measured and their prospects determined. A politically trustworthy child will bask in the blessings and favor of the state, whereas a politically unreliable deviant will find the doors of opportunity closed fast in his or her face.
Ultimately, it all boils down to conformity. Everyone does it; it’s simply a matter of what we choose to conform to. We all carry an ideal within our souls. We all subscribe to a code of morality, ethics, or principles. We hold religious beliefs, economic ideas, political affinities, culinary tastes, musical preferences, college-team affiliations—the list is endless. We conform elements of our lives to these ideas, and we hope to see our children enjoy them as we do.
Your child’s first impressions of the world, of adults, of behavior and culture, are absorbed through his or her observation of and interaction with you, the parent. Yours is the first fingerprint to touch your child’s soul. Your voice will be the first voice of conscience. But there will be other hands reaching for your child and other voices whispering in his or her ear.
As the child grows, the number of exterior influences will gradually increase, and your authority will proportionately decrease. On the one hand, this is good, and encourages the child to expand beyond the experiences of home life. But it can also strike a chord of wistfulness in the heart of any loving mother or father, because within a very short time, the child will no longer be a child. Nor will the child be yours.
A person belongs to no one but him- or herself. People must make their own decisions, reason through their own problems, find their own solutions. And they must take responsibility for those solutions and their consequences. But to be capable of handling ourselves and forming our own decisions, we must first know how to think.
Every human being alive is a son or daughter, but not everyone will be a parent. And not every parent wants to be a teacher. But the truth is, if you are a parent, then you already are a teacher! It’s simply a matter of how far you want to take that ride. If it is a race to reach your child’s mind, then you certainly have a head start over everyone else.
Many parents balk at the idea of treading too heavily upon a child’s mind, believing that education is or should be the prerogative of professionals. Pilots fly. Nurses nurse. Judges judge. Teachers teach. It is thought inappropriate for people, regardless of how eminent they are in their own field of expertise, to cross over to another and assume a position of authority without the proper training and qualifications. But parenthood is not so much a job description as a relational state of being, like being an American or a girlfriend. Both of these carry connotations of responsibility, affection, and loyalty.
Parenthood implies all three. But unlike other relational states, the more successful it is, the more quickly it fades away. The aim of parenthood is to render itself obsolete in the life of the child who crawls under its shade. Eventually, the toddler will grow into an adult, and if at that point, he or she still requires the umbrella of parents, then those parents have failed. The loftiest goal of a parent is to one day say “good-bye” to the child.
And “hello” to an adult.
DeWitt Henry’s recent prose collection, ENDINGS & BEGINNINGS: FAMILY ESSAYS (MadHat Press, 2021), was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, 2022. His first chapbook, FOUNDLINGS, is available from Life Before Man/Gazebo Books in September 2022, and his first poetry collection, RESTLESS FOR WORDS: POEMS, in December 2022 from Finishing Line Press. He was the founding editor of Ploughshares and is Professor Emeritus at Emerson College. For more details, visit www.dewitthenry.com.
Scar-lipped, still I get hooked.
As I sign off Amazon, I’m asked to fill out
a customer survey in exchange for
a dress wristwatch, free!—as long as
I give my credit card for $8 bucks S&H.
Too good to be true, but offer looks legit.
If no watch arrives, I’ll report the merchant,
but one does! Two days later, a knockoff
of a Rolex, made in China. ice strap, nice
sliding box. I show my wife. Since my
Casio is fine, maybe I’ll offer this to
my son-in-law or friend.
Four weeks after this,
I receive a second watch. Their error?
First order filled twice? I find
the original $7.71 on my statement,
followed by another charge for $98.54
two weeks later, and still another
$98.54 just now.
I alert my bank, which blocks any
future charges from “Shop Amazing, FL.”
but for refunds, tells me try the merchant first.
Okay. I found a flyer with the second watch,
listing a website, “funtimehomegoods.com,”
where, along with the free watch offer,
I discover their small-print disclaimer,
that by paying S&H with credit card,
the subscriber agrees to a monthly $98.54 charge
for goods, unless s/he cancels within two weeks
of receiving the first watch. News to me.
I call their number; wait on hold,
then email them and get the response: “Once a dispute
has been filed, we must work with your card-issuing
bank to settle the dispute.” My bank,
in turn, needs an online dispute form
by snail mail, along with any evidence,
which proves superfluous, since overnight
I also complain to the Better Business Bureau,
which contacts Fun Time, which then
emails me, yes, they’d found my order,
canceled my subscription, and refunded charges.
I can “keep the watches complimentary.”
I was jubilant, though concerned for other suckers.
And who were these Fun Timers? An enterprising
Mom and Pop, or sketchy venture on a larger scale?
It made no sense unless they found “subscribers” who
one, never stopped the charges or monthly deliveries;
two, sold the marked-up watches at a further markup.
(I imagine sidewalk grifters with
watches lining their overcoats).
send YOU either watch for just $25. Let me know.
Or both for $45! That should cover time and trouble.
Dagny Randall is an editor and freelance writer, who splits her time between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This is her first novel.
Years later, after it was all over, we blamed each other. I usually ended up taking the bulk of the blame because I was the one who answered the phone. If I had just let it go to voicemail, maybe we could avoided the whole saga. But what’s past is past, and there’s no use wondering what could have been. It is what it is, as they say (though I have to say, I sort of hate the kind of people who say such stupid things).
I’d been spending most nights at my boyfriend’s place. That’s why I didn’t know Suzy had been trying to get in touch with our family, that she had been obsessively calling, sending emails from random internet cafés because she didn’t have a computer or a decent cell phone, even stopping by to peer in the windows while my mother and younger sister curled up in corners, praying she wouldn’t spot them. Nobody had told me about any of it, so I didn’t understand the frantic cries when I picked up the old-school landline phone we still had hanging on the wall on the first ring.
“Madison? Is that you?”
I didn’t recognize Suzy’s voice at first. It had been years since I’d seen her, and I’m not sure I’d ever actually had a telephone conversation with her before that day.
“Yeah, it’s me,” I said. “Who’s this?”
“It’s your cousin. Suzy,” she said. I could hear her ecstatic smile right through the phone line. “I can’t believe I finally got through!”
As soon as I said, “Hi, Suzy,” Mom and Tracy started slapping my arms. I put my hand over the receiver and glared at them. “What the hell?”
Mom pursed her lips and shook her fists in futile fury before turning away.
I turned my attention back to the phone. “Suzy, did you want to talk to my mom?”
I could barely hear her response over Mom’s agonized warbling, but I knew Suzy hadn’t called to talk to me. She wasn’t even my cousin, exactly; she was my mother’s cousin. They had grown up together, and Suzy always seemed to consider herself Mom’s sister, even if the sentiment was by no means mutual.
“Actually,” Suzy said, “I’m in the neighborhood and was hoping to stop by and say hello.”
“Sure,” I said. “Great. See you in a bit.”
I hung up the phone and turned to look at Mom, who was just shaking her head slowly, looking like a death-row inmate on the march to the lethal-injection chamber. Tracy let out a terrific wince and flopped down in one of the chairs at the kitchen table looking like she had just finished a marathon. Through the Sahara.
“What the hell is the matter with you two idiots?” I said.
Mom just waved me off and collapsed into her own chair at the head of the table. I sat down across from my sister and waited for one of them to start talking. After a long moment of silence, I realized they weren’t going to say anything if I didn’t first. So I asked, “What’s the problem here exactly?”
Tracy sighed and leaned across the table, cupping her cheeks in her hands. “Suzy’s been trying to get invited over here for weeks now. She calls, like, ten times a day, but we don’t answer the phone. And a couple of times she’s stopped by, but we hide when we see her car.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “What’s the big deal about seeing her?”
Mom shrugged. “Just a hunch. Something’s up and it’s not good. And I’d rather not be a part of it.”
“I don’t know. One time, she needed money to pay off a loan shark. Can you believe there are actually such people as loan sharks in Point Pleasant, New Jersey? Another time, she wanted me to invest in a business she wanted to start—selling cosmetics door to door. ‘Doing it better than Avon,’ she said. Whatever it is this time, it’s got to be even worse. She’s never been this persistent. And now that her mother’s gone, it’s either us or her brother, and Kenny has always been a lot better at avoiding her than I have.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know. Maybe if you guys would tell me stuff every now and then—”
The sound of the doorbell being pressed over and over cut me off. Why do people think one ring is not enough? The three of us shot looks at each other across the table, then Mom and Tracy held out their fists and Mom said, “One, two, three . . . shoot!” Watching my mother’s “paper” cover my sister’s “rock” was disturbing, to say the least. With a dejected frown on her lips, Tracy pulled herself up from the table and went to answer the door.
As Mom and I got up to follow, I leaned over and whispered, “You guys have been spending way too much time together.”
She ignored me, clearly too busy steeling herself for the confrontation. Out of the side of her mouth, she muttered, “Let’s do this.”
We walked into the living room shoulder to shoulder, creating a miniature phalanx, ready to face off in battle against the unwelcome visitor.
I know it sounds like a cliché, but my breath really did catch in my throat when I first saw Suzy. At least five years had passed since I’d seen her last, at the memorial service for her mother, my great aunt Ivy, who had died of ovarian cancer after a long and painful series of treatments at the hands of overly optimistic doctors who thought their experiments might bring about a cure. When Ivy died, Suzy had inherited everything. Her brother, Kenny, who’d left home for somewhere in the South (I could never remember where exactly) as soon as he was old enough and had rarely returned to New Jersey, was cut out of the will. He didn’t complain. In fact, he didn’t even come up to attend the memorial. At the time, I wondered whether Suzy had bothered to call him and let him know his mother was dead. She’d always been a tad self-centered, not to mention batshit crazy. Keeping the rest of the family abreast of illnesses and deaths would hardly be the top item on Suzy’s to-do list. My mother always said that Suzy probably would have forgotten to tell us her mother was dying if she hadn’t needed help paying the medical bills.
If you’re wondering why my mother would bother to help support a flaky cousin, you’re not out of line. I always wondered that myself, until I came upon a crusty yellowed photo album in the back of my mother’s closet. It was full of those white-rimmed, scallop-edged, black-and-white photographs of unsmiling people and children—both boys and girls—in lacy white dresses. Sitting on the floor, thumbing through the musty sleeves of pictures, I found countless images of a young Ivy, brunette and beaming with confidence, holding the hand of my tiny mother, a chubby-cheeked Shirley Temple look-alike no older than maybe seven or eight.
When I showed the pictures to Mom, a wistful smile came over her face and she touched some of the cellophane-covered images with gentle fingers. “Ivy was really pretty back then, wasn’t she?”
I nodded as I studied Mom’s face, watching her eyes brim with tears. “What’s the matter?” I asked.
She smiled. “Just nostalgia.” She flipped the page and laughed at a picture of herself, along with her two brothers and an infant Suzy, all sitting in a row on a clunky-looking metal slide.
“There are a lot of pictures of Ivy and Suzy,” I said, looking at Mom through lowered lashes, waiting to see what she’d say.
She closed her eyes and nodded. “Yeah. Ivy . . . well, she practically raised me, after my mother had her stroke and had to be in a wheelchair. My brothers and I lived with her for . . . huh. Must have been at least five years.”
I grinned. “I don’t know how you lived with Suzy all that time without killing her.”
Mom shook her head. “Suzy wasn’t always so annoying. She was almost tolerable in those wonderful months before she learned how to talk.”
She flashed me an ironic smile before turning back to the photo album. “But seriously, it’s not entirely Suzy’s fault that she turned out so kooky. Ivy spoiled her something awful, treated her like a little talking doll. The rest of us did the chores and worked part-time jobs and shared bedrooms. Not Suzy. Your aunt Ivy and uncle Ken turned her into a fragile, clinging mess.”
I sneered. “Why did you all stand for it? I sure as hell would’ve said something if you were favoring Tracy like that.”
She shrugged. “My brothers and I . . . well, it wasn’t our house, and they weren’t our parents, so we didn’t feel like we had a say. And Kenny Junior, he was hell-bent on getting out of there even before Suzy was born, so he barely noticed. He was always in his own little world, scheming and planning for the day he’d get out of Point Pleasant, out of New Jersey, and on with his own life.”
After that, I never asked my mom any more questions about Suzy. We all just accepted the fact that the woman was completely dependent on the people around her, and had no aspirations beyond being coddled and told she was pretty. It irked me. I always feel like you’re here on this Earth to do something, not just sit around and be decorative. Suzy was leading a sick and twisted life, if you asked me. And now she was standing in our living room.
Five years before, when she had her mother’s body cremated (against the wishes of the poor dead woman, whose will had requested that she be buried in the plot she’d bought with her late husband, Ken) and hosted a bizarre post-memorial party for which she hired a bartender to mix flavored martinis, Suzy had been glowing with the kind of good health only the truly self-absorbed seem to possess. She’d been wearing a sleek, slim-fitting designer suit and had clearly gotten her hair professionally done for the occasion. That’s when I knew for sure she was nuts. I mean, you get your hair done for a prom, not a funeral. But even I had to admit she had looked good, especially for a woman well into her forties (and denying every year past twenty-five—in Suzy’s world, she and I were currently the same age). Now, though, standing backlit in the doorway, she looked like a scarecrow: her complexion coarse and ruddy and her hair hanging in disorderly tufts, as if she hadn’t run a brush through it in weeks, if not months. Her clothes—a tattered version of the classic little black dress—hung from her body as if she were a paper hanger, and to accompany the dress, she was wearing a pair of mud-caked Keds. For someone who had worked (if only for a very brief time) as a cosmetician, this was a disturbing metamorphosis.
Mom flashed me a strange look, then plastered a smile on her face and reached over to hug Suzy.
“What brings you to town?”
Suzy dropped her head. “Wendy, I’ve got such a problem.”
Mom shot me a look. Then she smiled a closed-lipped smile at Suzy and led her into the kitchen.
Tracy rolled her eyes and headed upstairs to her room. I frowned and craned my neck to see what was going on in the kitchen. Mom was pouring Suzy a mug of coffee, and Suzy was sitting in my seat, or rather, sprawling across the table, her greasy head lying across her arms. I tiptoed to the couch and sat down, prepared to eavesdrop on the conversation.
Okay, so I admit, maybe that was juvenile. After all, I was twenty-five years old. It was pathetic enough that I had moved back in with my mom at that age; spying on her interactions with other people definitely meant crossing a line. But it just felt like something that had to be done. Ever since I’d moved back home, hoping to save money so I could go to law school, in a weird sort of way, my mother and I had stopped being relatives and turned into roommates. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable talking to her, and not just about daily trivia. Each morning, bleary-eyed, we sat together over coffee, getting a little more talkative with each sip of blessed, caffeinated goodness, and we shared our stories, our goals, everything. We even talked about sex, although Mom was kind enough not to discuss sex with my father. Even though they’d been divorced since I was a kid, picturing the two of them in flagrante was not something I was keen to do. Now, as I huddled on the couch, taking soft, shallow, even breaths to avoid being heard, I naturally assumed that Mom wanted me there, wanted me to know what was going on so we could discuss it later (or at least make fun of Suzy together).
But then I heard a loud sputtering and I could tell Suzy had burst into tears. I heard Mom push away from the table and get up to grab a handful of napkins to serve as tissues. I glanced at the door and was surprised to see Mom there, her eyes wide with irritation. She shook her head at me, then pulled closed the pocket door between the kitchen and living room.
I was left alone in silence, able to hear only muffled whimpers and ground-shaking snarfles. I leaned back against the couch, folded my arms, and tried to imagine what the hell Suzy wanted this time.
Forty-five Years Ago
I sit in the window
watching the bluebirds
They sit in the tree branches
watching me back.
They seem so busy
so happy, they can’t help but sing.
I wish I could be like them.
Mommy says the cousins are coming to live with us for a while. Their mom had something called a stroke and now she’s in the hospital. I don’t want to share my room. I don’t like to share things. It isn’t fair. Mommy always says I’m special and shouldn’t have to share with other people. And now she’s going to make me share my room with my stupid cousin Wendy. I hate it. Mommy must love them more than me. I knew it. I knew her niceness was all just an act.
“Suzy! They’re here! Come out of there and say hello to your cousins.”
The little girl sighed and snapped her notebook closed, tucking it between two schoolbooks on her desk where it wouldn’t be noticed. She couldn’t let anybody know she was writing poems again. Daddy thought she should be playing dress-up and spending her time with dolls. And Mommy didn’t want her to ruin her eyes with all her reading and scribbling and maybe have to get glasses one day. Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses, Mommy always said, especially when she was wiping her own glasses clean with a handkerchief. But Suzy didn’t care about her eyes. All she knew was that she loved books, loved the taste of words as they rolled over her tongue, more than any candy she’d ever tried. If it had to be a secret, then that was fine. She would do anything she had to do to be allowed to write.
She got up and brushed off the red gingham fabric of her dress, then leaned over to yank up her left sock, which had rolled down and bunched up around the edges of her patent-leather Mary Janes. She hated the clothes her mother was always bringing home for her. It would be so much more comfortable to wear rolled-up jeans and oversized T-shirts like her brother Kenny was allowed to do. Maybe then her parents would let her follow Kenny down to the duck pond to look for tadpoles, or better yet, to the library to sit among the tall stacks of books and lounge and read for hours. But no. Mommy said it was essential that Suzy learn to be a lady. Didn’t she want to grow up to be pretty and get married to a handsome, rich man someday? Suzy always thought it was stupid to be planning a wedding for a girl who hadn’t yet turned seven. Anything could happen by the time she was old enough to get married. She could get sick and die, or get hit by a train, or drown in the duck pond on one of the brisk fall afternoons when she sneaked down there to watch the crimson and orange leaves swimming on the surface of the still water.
She sighed again. There was no use thinking about it now. And it would be a long time before she would have the chance to think about it again. She wrinkled her nose as she looked over at the rickety cot that her father had installed in the corner, right across from her own bed. Her cousin Wendy was going to be sleeping here, taking up valuable space and the little bit of privacy Suzy had. Having never been required to share much of anything before, Suzy cringed at the thought of another person invading this silent sanctuary that was her only refuge from the demands and constant chatter of her family. It didn’t matter to Suzy that Wendy and the boys, Bobby and Harold, had no place else to go, now that their mother had had a stroke and was in the hospital. Aunt Catherine had never been nice to Suzy. No one from that branch of the family ever treated Suzy the way her parents and even her rebellious brother had taught her to expect. It wasn’t fair that her whole world was about to be overturned, for who knew how long, just because Uncle Bob had run off and left the cousins with sickly Aunt Catherine. Suzy’s mother said Aunt Catherine would probably be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life—however long that might be—if she lived at all. From what Mommy had said, there was still a chance she could die. As much as Suzy disliked the boisterous, bitter-tongued Catherine, she hoped the woman would live, if only so the cousins could leave soon. Suzy hated to think about what would happen if Aunt Catherine died. Would Suzy suddenly get three new siblings? She could barely tolerate the brother she already had. Adding two more dirty boys would only increase the amount of bullying she already endured with Kenny. It was her brother’s nastiness and teasing that had forced Suzy to find ways to amuse herself in solitude. Now that blessed seclusion was being destroyed by the unwelcome cousins.
“Suzy! Damn it! Get in here now!”
Her mother’s shrill voice startled her back to reality. Suzy plodded out of her room and down the short, dark hallway that led to the living room. She hated that room and its cold, formal furniture with the shiny wooden arms and legs and sticky plastic covers wrapped tight around any exposed piece of fabric. Although the family almost never used the front room, Suzy always thought it was the room most like her mother in personality: too stiff, too demanding, and too easily damaged.
Suzy allowed her mother to pull her close. With Mommy’s arm draped across her body in what looked like affection but was really more like a cage preventing her from fleeing the room, Suzy stared in quiet contempt at her cousins.
At twelve, Wendy was the youngest of the three and, everybody understood, the most ignored. Unlike the situation in Suzy’s house, where the daughter was coddled, if tormented, in Aunt Catherine’s family, girls were to be seen and not heard, and were expected to do the bulk of the chores. As Aunt Catherine always said, Boys need to play and get some exercise if they’re going to grow up to be strong, healthy men who work to support their families. Between Uncle Bob’s disappearance and her own ill health, Aunt Catherine hardly seemed like the authority on men or what was good for their bodies, at least as far as Suzy was concerned. Sometimes Suzy felt sorry for Wendy—especially at Christmas, when Suzy would be swimming in an ocean of torn wrapping paper from all the gifts Santa and her parents had given her, while Wendy sat stiffly in a chair, disinterestedly holding the boring doll or plastic pocketbook that had been her only present. It seemed unfair. But then, it wasn’t Suzy’s fault that Santa loved her better than Wendy, or that Suzy’s own parents were better gift-givers than Aunt Catherine and Uncle Bob. Still, Suzy couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt when she caught the despondent look on Wendy’s face as Wendy took inventory of Suzy’s Christmas stash with hungry eyes.
The boy cousins were another story entirely. They might as well have been Kenny’s clones. They followed him slavishly and talked about their slightly older cousin as if he could do no wrong. Kenny was the one who taught them to fire BB guns, to pull Suzy’s pigtails, and to break the smooth faces of Suzy’s porcelain dolls without ever getting caught. It would not have fazed Suzy had all of the boys—Kenny included—been swallowed up by the very earth they loved to roll around in and never seen again. Sometimes, when she sat alone in her room, whimpering softly and trying in vain to paste together yet another one of her dolls with Elmer’s glue, she almost wished it would happen.
“Say hello, Suzy.” Her mother nudged her, and Suzy cast a pleading glance up into her mother’s stern face.
The little girl shook her head and turned to face her cousins. “Hello.”
“Is that all you have to say? Don’t you want to tell them you hope their mommy gets better very soon?”
Suzy hated when her mother treated her like a child. She recognized, of course, that at six and a half, she was a child. But that fact didn’t make it pleasant to be treated like one.
“I’m sorry your mother is sick,” she said, glancing down at her sock, which had already slid back down into a sloppy bunch at her ankle.
“Aunt Ivy? Where are we gonna sleep?” Harold asked. As the oldest of the cousins, he was also the boldest, and years of being treated like a prince had endowed him with a sense of entitlement, even in someone else’s home.
Ivy gave Suzy a little push aside and wrapped her arms around Bobby and Harold. “Uncle Ken has set up some really neat bunk beds in the guest room, so you boys will stay there. And Wendy?” Ivy glanced around, looking for her diminutive niece, who rarely spoke unless directly addressed. “Wendy, you’ll stay in Suzy’s room. We’ve got a nice cot set up. I’m sure you girls will have plenty of fun. Just like being away at summer camp.”
Except that Suzy had hated summer camp last year when her parents had forced her to go. The people there didn’t seem to understand that she was special. They made her go swimming, ride horses, sing awful choruses in the round, even when she had begged to be allowed to lie on her bunk and read by the light of her little red flashlight. Maybe Suzy’s parents could be strict, but they always gave in when she put up a fuss or wanted an extra piece of cake for dessert. She hardly had to exert any effort at all to get whatever she wanted—except the freedom to be a poet, of course. And sometimes that was a worse sacrifice than anything else she had to give up.
“Come on,” Suzy said. “I’ll show you my room.”
Wendy, although six years older than Suzy, followed in obedient silence. Like Suzy, she was considered bookish by the rest of the family. The difference was, once Wendy was finished with the myriad chores she was expected to do around her house—from the cooking to the ironing to sewing up holes in her brothers’ clothing—she was left alone to do whatever she pleased. And what she was pleased to do was read. Whenever Suzy had been in the tiny room (almost a closet) where Wendy slept at home, she’d been overwhelmed with jealousy at the mountains of yellowed and dogeared paperbacks crammed into every corner. Suzy always wondered how Wendy could afford to buy all those books. Everyone knew her family had no money, not since Uncle Bob took off. Even if Wendy had made some kind of deal with the devil, though, Suzy believed it was worth it.
Suzy pointed at the sagging cot. “You sleep there.”
Wendy inclined her head and set her bags lightly on the cot. She turned and glanced at Suzy, like she was waiting for instructions on what to do next.
Suzy shrugged, feeling awkward with her cousin staring at her in silence. She sat down on the edge of her own bed. “Do you want to play or something?”
Wendy sat down on the cot, which squeaked and shuddered under her weight. “I don’t know.”
“What do you like to play at home?”
Wendy shrugged. “I don’t really have a lot of time to play. I’m usually busy cooking or cleaning or something.”
Suzy made a grimace. “Yuck. I would hate to do those things. Why don’t you just play instead?”
Wendy looked away and started to pick at a wrinkled piece of duct tape that was holding the corner of one of her suitcases together. “I can’t. Somebody’s got to take care of the house, and my brothers don’t know how to do it.”
Suzy sneered. “Why can’t your mom . . . ?” She realized her mistake before the rest of the sentence had left her mouth, but it was too late to take it back. “I’m sorry. I forgot your mom was sick.”
Wendy just nodded. She slid her hand into a bag and pulled out a battered paperback. “Mostly, I just like to read.”
Suzy clapped her hands together. “Yes! Let’s read!”
Wendy smiled shyly and started to open her book. She was about to start reading when she glanced back up at Suzy. “I thought you were going to read.”
Suzy shook her head. “Mommy keeps taking away my books. I’ve got nothing left here right now except my school books. Blech.”
Wendy stood up and came over to Suzy’s bed, carrying a bulging bag in front of her. “Here. Take whatever you want.”
Suzy smiled her gratitude and started to pull books out of the bag one by one. She didn’t notice when Wendy went back to the cot and lay down, book in hand. She was too wrapped up in the bounty of literature that had made its way into her room as if by magic. The titles were as familiar to Suzy as her own name, even though she had never actually read most of them: Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield, War and Peace, a huge volume of Shakespeare.
Breathless, Suzy asked, “Where did you get all these?”
Wendy didn’t look up as she replied, “Mostly from the library. The lady who works there gives me old books when they get too beat up to loan out to people.”
Suzy shook her head in disbelief. Maybe Wendy’s family was poor, but in some ways, the cousins seemed better off than Suzy was.
“I’d like to read this one, okay?” She held up David Copperfield. Wendy barely glanced up.
“Sure, that’s a good one.”
Suzy didn’t know how much time had passed before she felt the burning sensation of someone staring at her. She lifted her reluctant eyes to see what Wendy might want, but her cousin was still engrossed in a book. Then Suzy felt a chill and realized the stare was coming from the other direction. Her mother was standing in the doorway, arms crossed and a squinty, angry look on her face.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to spend all your time reading? You’re going to ruin your eyes!”
Suzy let out a long breath and closed her book. Someday, she thought. Someday I’ll have all the books I want. I’ll be surrounded by words on all sides. And I’ll still have a husband. I’ll show her.
After Mom shut the door—a sure sign that something really messed up was going on in that kitchen, since most of the time we practically forgot there even was a door between the kitchen and living room—I wandered upstairs, figuring I’d try to get a little work done (I’m an editor, so I’ve always got mountains of manuscripts waiting to be read) while I waited for Mom to come out and give us the scoop. I paused at Tracy’s door, but decided not to knock. She didn’t know any more than I did, and I didn’t want to end up in one of our usual sibling-rivalry-inspired tiffs.
I shut my door behind me and slumped down at the desk. The latest manuscript I was reading—a dry overview of the genetics involved in cancer development—wasn’t particularly inviting. Instead of grabbing my red pencil, I pulled out my favorite fountain pen (an anniversary gift from my boyfriend, Scott, thank you very much) and started to scribble in the notebook that served as a journal–slash–idea holder for the novel I hoped to write someday. Mostly, it was a motley collection of observations of the people I saw in malls and restaurants and in the hallways of my office, along with a brief rundown of the things I did with my boyfriend, including some not-too-subtle descriptions of our sex life. I knew it was risky to leave something so sensitive out in plain sight, but logic seemed to dictate that anything sitting out so obviously would not seem very tempting to passersby. After all, people expect the really juicy stuff to be hidden away. When I was a teenager, in fact, I used to keep a deliberately non-juicy diary between my mattress and box spring, so my mother would have something to assuage her fears during those spying expeditions she liked to mask as “cleaning.”
Suzy just showed up, I wrote. Mom and Tracy seem pretty pissed that I let her come when she called and said she was in the area. I wonder what the hell she wants. She’s always been weird, at least from what I remember. We see her so little, my only real memories of her come from a few random incidents at Aunt Ivy’s house, mostly at Christmas. Suzy always seemed super-glamorous to me when I was a kid. She had that long, flowing black hair, like an old-fashioned movie star, and she wore so much makeup, she could have gone onstage to play Lady MacBeth or something at the slightest notice. I remember she gave me and Tracy little makeup kits—the real thing, not something from a toy store—when I was about seven and Tracy about five. I felt so grownup, I carried it everywhere, even though Mom wouldn’t let me wear any of the blue and silver eyeshadows or bright shades of red lipstick in public. I think Tracy just ate hers and that was that.
There was a knock on my door. “Come in.”
Mom looked exhausted when she stepped inside and pushed the door shut behind her. I swung around on my desk chair.
“So, what’s up?”
Mom just shook her head and sat down on my unmade bed. She let out a long sigh. “It looks like she’s gonna be staying with us for a while.”
Mom sighed again. “God only knows. She’s homeless.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Mom said, rubbing her eyes with her fingers. “She got evicted from her apartment and she’s got no money, so yeah.”
“And no job, I assume?”
Mom snorted. “When have you ever known Suzy to have a job?”
I smiled. “There was that month when she worked as a perfume sniper in the mall when I was a kid.”
“And that’s pretty much the extent of her resumé.”
“Hey, don’t forget about playing Nun Number Three in the community theater presentation of The Sound of Music . . .”
“Ah, yes. A very profitable enterprise.”
We rolled our eyes at each other. “So,” I said. “She actually asked if she could stay here?”
“Not in so many words,” Mom said. “But then, it was hard to catch any complete words through the heaving sobs.”
“She’s always been a good actress.”
Mom frowned. “I just wonder if it really is an act this time.”
“How can it not be?” I said. “Didn’t she get, like, over a million dollars from Aunt Ivy’s life insurance? And what about the house? She had to get close to half a mill when she sold that, and that was only what? Last year?”
Mom nodded, but her face showed that she wasn’t really paying attention. She was obviously searching her memory and trying to figure out what the hell Suzy had done to waste almost two million bucks in less than three years.
I leaned as far forward as I could and whispered, “Is she, like, on drugs or something?”
Mom shrugged. “Just cigarettes and booze, as far as I can tell. And, although those can be expensive, it’s not quite like having a crack habit.”
“Wine sure takes a bite out of my paycheck,” I said. “Thank god I quit smoking.”
“Anyway, I just wanted to warn you to expect her to be around. She says she has an interview on Monday with some social worker who’s supposed to help her find a job and a place to live. Of course, I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Is she going to stay on the couch? Or do you want me to stay with Scott for a while, until she’s gone?”
Mom put up her hands and waved that suggestion away. “No, no, please,” she said. “I need you here. Your sister is going back to school next week, and I can’t be alone with that nut. Please, please stay here and help me hang on to my sanity.”
“Sure, of course,” I said. “So she’ll stay in Tracy’s room?”
“I guess. I’m sure Tracy will be thrilled. I guess I should go break the news now.” Mom stood up, but didn’t move toward the door.
“It’s not gonna be any more pleasant if you put it off,” I teased.
Mom shot me a dirty look. “We’re going out to dinner, all of us. So be ready around five, okay?”
“And it’s just the beginning . . .”
Dinner out with Suzy proved to be a bizarre experience. The walking, smoking skeleton held forth through the entire meal, doling out nutrition advice and sucking a martini through a straw. When the sundae Tracy ordered for dessert came with a plump maraschino cherry on top, Suzy flipped.
“Don’t eat that! Cherries cause cancer!”
I watched Tracy knit her brows in disbelief, then lay the cherry on her bread plate, clearly hoping to avoid a lengthy lecture on the carcinogenic properties of a piece of candied fruit. It had barely been six hours since Suzy arrived and already she had worn out her welcome.
After dinner we stumbled into the house. Mom dropped her keys on the coffee table and said over her shoulder as she walked blindly toward the kitchen, “Coffee?”
“And Grand Marnier,” I said. Even the two bottles of wine we had downed with dinner hadn’t dulled Suzy’s edges. It was time to pull out the hard stuff.
Mom dug around in the liquor cabinet above the refrigerator and handed me the bottle without glancing back. I cradled it by the neck and reached for some brandy snifters. “Who’s drinking?” I called.
“Me!” Tracy’s voice was almost a screech.
Suzy had already settled in, taking over my usual chair at the table. “I could be persuaded to partake,” she said with a smile twisting at the corners of her lips.
As I poured, I wished I had some sort of mickey—whatever the hell that actually means—to slip into Suzy’s glass so she would pass out quickly and the rest of us could salvage the evening.
I set the glasses down and squeezed into the chair at the back of the table, pressed so tightly between the edge of the table and the wall, I could hardly breathe.
“So what are we drinking to?” Suzy asked, despite the fact that she’d already guzzled down half her drink.
I ignored her and stared into the glossy, sticky orange liquid swirling in my glass. I cupped the glass with both hands, letting the warmth of my palms seep into the glass and from there into the liquid itself. Grand Marnier was always best a little warm.
Clearly oblivious to the fact that the rest of us were staring silently at our own drinks, trying to let the fumes of the liquor carry us away from the hell of the present and into some better place and time, Suzy finally cried, “To family!”
With weary resignation, we held out our glasses and let Suzy slam hers against them. Then she sat back and slugged down the rest of her drink. “Anybody else ready for seconds?”
Suzy returned with the bottle, refilled her glass, and laid her purse in her lap. It was an emaciated-looking thing that appeared to have once been made of leather but was now patched with bare spots that looked more like canvas. She slid open the zipper and fumbled around, muttering something about needing a cigarette. I knew she didn’t have any. It was a ruse intended to get Mom to give her a pack. I said another silent prayer of thanks that I had quit smoking last year.
Suzy let out a long, pitiful sigh and began shaking her purse, as if that would somehow make some cigarettes magically appear. “I guess I’m out,” she said. Then she waited.
I’ve got to say, the woman was a pro. She was willing to sit there and wait, no matter how long it took. And she had a gaze that burned through you, making you feel guilty. Or, at least, making you want the torture to end.
I was almost on the verge of breaking down and offering to go to the gas station to buy her some cigarettes when Mom suddenly stood up and went to the junk drawer. “I think there’s an extra pack in here.”
I felt sorry for Mom, since I knew she had had no choice but to give in to Suzy’s pathetic begging for most of her life. Even Suzy’s own brother had run, far and fast, as soon as he was old enough, and had never come back. Sometimes, especially over the course of the next few weeks, I would start to suspect that Suzy’s parents might have up and died just to get away from their spoiled daughter. A few times, I almost wished I would come down with some kind of illness that would at least land me in the hospital for the duration of Suzy’s visit. Maybe a nice, ruptured appendix? Compared to the house when Suzy was inside, a hospital—with its shrieking sirens, droning beeps of machines, and shouts of “Code blue!”—seemed like the perfect place to relax.
Suzy breathed in the first drag of smoke as deeply as someone who had just been revived after almost drowning. Then she pursed her lips and let out a long string of tiny smoke circles. I had always loved looking at smoke rings, but when I saw them coming out through her wrinkled, withered lips, a wave of nausea washed over me. I shook the last drops of Grand Marnier into my throat and squeezed out from my spot behind the table. I set the glass in the sink and forced a smile at everyone.
“That’s it for me,” I said. “I’ve got to get to bed. Early day tomorrow.”
My mother narrowed her eyes at me. “But tomorrow is Sunday.”
“I know,” I said, knowing it was obvious to everyone that I was making up my story as I went along. “But I have to go to Scott’s early. He’s got—um—an appointment. So, good night, then.”
I practically skipped up the stairs to my room. For the first time in a long while, I really wished I had splurged for my own apartment, grad school savings be damned. But eleven-thirty on a Saturday night wasn’t quite the time to be looking for a new place to live, so I threw on my pajamas and climbed into bed.
When I woke up the next morning, all of it seemed like it had just been a dream, and I almost laughed at how realistic it had been. But then I heard whistling—yes, whistling—from downstairs and realized it was no dream, but a living nightmare. I looked at the alarm clock. Six-thirty. Way too early to be up and whistling on a Sunday, unless maybe you were a lumberjack or one of the Seven Dwarves. As I climbed out of bed and slipped into the first sweater and pair of jeans I pulled out of my drawers, I wondered whether Suzy had actually gotten up this early, or if she had just never gone to bed in the first place.
I stopped for a quick glimpse of my reflection in the bathroom, ran a toothbrush over my teeth, and went downstairs to face whatever was waiting there.
Suzy was standing at the stove, stirring a large pot of something that was letting off an awful lot of smelly steam.
“Good morning,” I said. I grabbed a mug and poured myself a cup of coffee, thanking the gods that I had remembered to set it on auto-brew last night before rushing off to bed. I had to slide past Suzy to get the sugar bowl from the cabinet and the creamer from the fridge. Before I could take my coffee to the table, Suzy jumped in front of me, holding a massive wooden spoon full of bright pink liquid.
“Smell,” she commanded, shoving the steaming spoon under my nose. The overwhelming sweetness of roses and lilac assaulted my senses.
“Lovely,” I said, backing away. “What are you cooking exactly?”
Suzy let the liquid fall back into the pot on the stove with a loud splash that sprayed little fuchsia droplets all over the white surface of the stove and the (formerly) pristine subway tile on the wall. “It’s potpourri,” Suzy said.
I sat down at the table and took a long swig of coffee. “So it’s not breakfast, then?”
Suzy laughed. “No, no.” She swung around to look at me. “Did you want breakfast?”
Panicked, I shook my head. “No, thanks, I’ll have something to eat when I get to Scott’s.”
She slammed the wooden spoon down right on the stove, ignoring the huge puddle it made, and came over to sit across from me. She picked up a stray lighter that was sitting on the table and pulled the ashtray she and Mom had been using last night in front of her. She started sifting through the butts, raising a cloud of choking gray ash that settled in drifts around the table.
“Looking for something?” I asked.
“I was hoping there might be a blinker or two in here,” she said.
I took a long breath, debating whether it was worth the inevitable conversation that would follow if I asked what a blinker was. I sighed and did it, despite my best instincts.
“Aha!” Suzy pulled a limp, wrinkled, half-smoked cigarette from the ashtray and reached for the lighter. “This,” she said, “is a blinker. A cigarette that still has some life in it yet.”
She lit the old butt, which flared for a moment like a blowtorch, then she sucked in a drag of what could only have been some truly foul smoke.
“That can’t be healthy,” I said slowly. I mean, not that smoking is healthy to begin with, but really.
“Oh, it’s fine. Your grandma—your mom’s mom—used to smoke blinkers all the time.”
Ah, yes, I thought. You mean the woman who died at fifty after suffering three massive strokes.
“Why don’t you just smoke a fresh one?”
Suzy shrugged, blowing out a long stream of very blue, very stale smoke. “I’m out. I guess I’ll have to hit the 7-Eleven this morning.”
I wanted to slap her. Hadn’t my mother given her a full pack of cigarettes only seven hours before? How could she conceivably have smoked twenty cigarettes in seven hours, especially considering she was most likely sleeping for at least some portion of that time?
“You don’t have any cigarettes I could bum, do you?”
I shook my head. “I quit. A year ago.”
“That’s too bad. If you had some cigarettes, I’d think you were an excellent niece.”
I looked down, staring into the creamy surface of my coffee. “I’m not your niece. I’m your first cousin once removed.”
“No, no,” she said, taking a last drag off the “blinker” and crushing it out in the overflowing ashtray. “We’re second cousins.”
I started to argue with her. “You’re my mother’s first cousin, which makes you my first cousin once removed.”
“You’re wrong. We’re second cousins.”
“Removed means a change of generation. That means we’re first cousins, once removed, because you’re of my mom’s generation, and not mine.”
“You’re wrong. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I opened my mouth to argue some more, then decided it wasn’t worth the effort. I closed my mouth and gripped my coffee cup in silence.
“So, you’re going to your boyfriend’s?” Her voice was too chipper. Clearly, Suzy was unaware that we had just had an argument. I had to imagine most conversations she had with people did end up as arguments. She must have been used to it.
“Yeah,” I said. “In fact, I’d better get a move on.”
I started to get up, but Suzy grabbed my wrist. “Tell me about your boyfriend.”
I sat back down, defeated. “What do you want to know?”
“What’s he look like?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. He has dark hair and blue eyes.”
“Don’t you have a picture?”
I turned away, rolling my eyes inwardly as I reached for my purse again. This was before everybody had thousands of photos on their phones, so I pulled out my wallet and flipped to the photo sleeve, where I had a tiny picture of Scott and me that had been taken at a mutual friend’s wedding. I held it out to her.
“Huh,” she said, peering at the photo. “He’s not very good-looking. You could do much better.”
“Thanks so much,” I snapped, taking back the wallet and shoving it into my purse. I pushed away from the table, making the chair screech along the linoleum. “Well, I’m out of here. I’ll see you later.”
How does someone with no home, no money, no job, no friends, and, obviously, no significant other in her life, get the nerve to criticize that way? It was shocking. I could feel my knees shaking with rage.
As I slipped my coat over my shoulders, my mom came down the stairs. “You’re really leaving?” she said, a twinge of desperation in her voice.
“I’ve got to get out for a while before I kill her.”
Mom shook her head, looking like a mopey dog. “I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. It’s going to be rough on all of us.”
“Not on me. I’m out. I’m gonna stay at Scott’s until she’s gone.”
Mom clasped her fingers around my arm and hissed, “I’m begging you, don’t abandon me. Tracy already told me she’s leaving tomorrow, a whole week early, for school. I can’t do this alone.”
I let out a long sigh. “All right, all right. I’ll come back in a few hours. I just need to get some air.”
“You’re a good kid, Madison.”
“Remember that when my birthday rolls around, will ya?”
I bolted out the door and drove away, directionless. There was no way I could show up at Scott’s apartment this early. He’d think somebody died. I stopped at the convenience store, bought a huge coffee, then drove over to the local park. Despite the chill of the early January morning, I got out of the car and sat on a stiff, frozen wood bench, staring out at the ice on the lake. Never, I thought. I will never understand Suzy.
Thirty-five Years Ago
We were like two planets
circling the Sun, circling each other
until we crashed
and the universe wept in joy.
From the first moment our flesh merged
we knew we would never part
We knew we were the rare combination
of love, passion, courage, and wisdom
The eyes of God will be looking down
as we vow to feel this way, to be this way,
When I told Mommy and Daddy that I was going to marry Roman, they swore they wouldn’t pay for it. They said I was too young—too young! I’m twenty, which is two years older than they were when they got married. Of course, even they know that was back in the Stone Age. Why can’t they see that I’m as mature as they were? I’m more mature than they are now. They never want me to have anything I want. Community college and a secretarial certificate instead of college and a master’s in literature. The sensible (and ugly) Chevy sedan instead of the Alfa Romeo I’ve been wanting practically since I was born. And now they actually expect me to give up the love of my life, and for what? To live here with them forever? To be under their thumb forever? I thought parents were supposed to want what’s best for you, to help you get whatever it is that will make you happy. Not mine. It’s like all they ever want is to make me miserable. But I’ll show them. I’m going to marry Roman, even if we have to elope. And we’ll be perfectly, astonishingly happy for the rest of our lives.
Suzy had met Roman Monroe (the name was so mellifluous!) in an art class at the community college. He was a doctoral student in art history, but he said he had signed up for the intermediate drawing seminar “to stay close to my art.” Rather than staring at the sculpted nude male model like all the other girls in class, Suzy stared at Roman. It didn’t matter if he was facing toward her or away from her. He was equally beautiful at all angles. The first time he spoke to her—complimenting the curve of the thigh muscle in her drawing—she knew she wanted to marry him someday. It was that instantaneous, and that just made her think it was even more perfect, that fate had thrown them together in this seemingly random place and time. Suzy didn’t even like art. She had only taken the class because it had seemed like an easy A: no tests, no homework. Surely, God knew what he was doing here.
Her parents had hated Roman on sight. With his longish hair and stubbly goatee, he looked too much like those hippies they used to see on TV a while back. And art history? What was that? How could a man hope to make a decent living by staring at someone else’s paintings? To Suzy, it was all so perfectly romantic. She envisioned herself and Roman living in some charming loft in Greenwich Village. He would be a curator at the Met or maybe the Guggenheim. She would write and write and write, huddled over a clanging metal typewriter (a manual model was the only way to write, if you wanted to be a real writer) and staring dreamily out the window at the bustling city below. Maybe they wouldn’t make a lot of money—at least not at first—but they would live on love. It escaped Suzy’s notice that the entire concept was a cliché.
Roman never actually asked her to marry him. In a way, she proposed to him. Lounging in his bed one humid afternoon, watching the shadows on the walls lengthen in the fading sunlight, she had intertwined her fingers with his and said, “If we were married, we could lie in bed all day and I’d never have to go home.”
He had kissed her fingertips. “That would be nice.”
A shock of excitement had stabbed her in the chest. “Do you mean you want to get married?” She had almost been afraid to let the words come out; there were so many responses that could have broken her heart. But he just hummed as he let out his breath and said, “Sure, why not?”
That was all it took. On her way back to her parents’ house later that evening, she had stopped at the all-night convenience and carried out an armload of fat bridal magazines. Alone in her room while her parents slept, she pored through the glossy pages, dogearing the pictures of the gowns she liked best and gazing at the sparkling engagement rings with a stupid half-smile on her face. What a gorgeous bride she would make! She and Roman could serve as models in one of these very magazines. With their raven black hair and flawless alabaster skin, they would look like a prince and princess out of a fairy tale once they were bedecked in wedding finery. She could hardly contain her excitement. She had to force herself not to burst into her parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night to tell them the good news.
It came as a bitter surprise the next morning when, after a couple of token hours of sleep, she informed them of her engagement and they unleashed a fury of negativity.
“You are absolutely not getting married.”
It was less of a statement than a command, and her mother made it sound even more final as she stood looming above Suzy with her hands folded across her chest.
“But, Mommy . . .”
“Suzanne, you need to think this through a little more,” her father offered. He always tried to make it seem like you were the one choosing to do whatever it was he wanted you to do.
“I’ve thought it through completely,” she said, leaning back against the couch and laying her palms over her knees. “I’m not an idiot.”
“That’s debatable,” Ivy said. She threw herself into the big green armchair by the front door and stared at the television screen even though the television wasn’t on.
“Thanks, Mom, that makes me feel good.”
“I’m not here to make you feel good. I’m here to make sure you don’t screw up your whole goddamned life.”
Suzy shook her head in disbelief. “Haven’t you always told me the most important thing in life is to get married? To find someone who would support me? You’ve never let me do a fucking thing that would make me happy.”
“Watch your language, young lady.” Her father’s voice held no conviction. It was just an automatic response to his daughter’s use of an unladylike word.
“Yes,” Ivy said. “You’re right. I do want you to find a good man and get married and give me some grandchildren. But this Roman character, he’s not exactly what I saw in your future.”
“You didn’t want me to be with someone beautiful and brilliant and talented?”
“Brilliant and talented and unemployed. A wonderful combination.”
Suzy let out a frustrated sigh. “He’s not unemployed! He’s still finishing school. In a couple of months, when he’s got his doctorate, the job offers will come flying in. You’ll see.”
“Fine,” Ivy said. “Then you can wait and marry him after he’s got a steady job.”
“What? If he’s as brilliant as you say, he’ll have a job in no time and you’ll hardly have to wait at all.”
“But I want to get married right away . . .”
“I’m sure you do, but it’s not going to happen.”
Suzy turned to her father, who appeared to be trying his best to fade into the fabric of the loveseat. “Daddy? Tell Mom to be reasonable.”
He looked back and forth from one woman to the other, clearly trying to determine which one could make his life more miserable. Eventually, he said softly, “Your mother is right.”
Suzy let out a bitter laugh. “Of course she is. You can never stand up to her.” She stood up and reached for her keys. “I’m going to Roman’s. We’ve got a lot of planning to do.”
Ivy smirked. “Plan on finding him a job. That should be priority number one.”
Suzy stormed out of the house without looking back. But she didn’t go to Roman’s like she said. Instead, she drove downtown and spent the morning staring at wedding gowns and tuxedos in the windows of shops. Her parents would come around. They always did, eventually. It wasn’t like it was with Kenny. Her brother could never get their parents to see things his way. That’s why he had left home pretty much minutes after high school graduation, and had only been back a few times for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Suzy had never had the same problems with their parents. Usually, even at their worst, she could get them to come around and see things her way if she just pouted a little. Sometimes she might have to cry if it was something big.
She sighed. As much as she wanted to believe she had her parents wrapped around her finger, she knew it wasn’t really true anymore. Over the past few years, it had gotten harder and harder to manage her parents. Look at all the evidence: the car, school. There were too many times she had lost and they had won. Even on the big things when she had cried. A chill ran down her spine. Somehow she knew she was going to lose the fight when it came to her marriage, too.
Eventually, she went home. She sat through dinner with her parents and didn’t say a word. Nobody spoke. They just sat and chewed and stared at their plates, knowing the slightest sound could destroy the fragile détente they had established through the mere presence of the entire family at a meal. After they finished eating, Ivy cleared the plates and spent the next hour in the kitchen, washing dishes in silence while Al sat in front of the evening news, packing his pipe but never lighting it. Suzy sat down next to her father on the couch, glancing occasionally at his profile, trying to gauge whether he was really as upset about her engagement as her mother was. Maybe she could say something, win him over to her side, and then they could re-approach Ivy as a united front.
He never lifted his eyes from the evening news on the TV screen. “So how’s school?”
Suzy sighed. So that was how he was going to play it: Pretend like nothing had happened, make insignificant small talk, try to ignore the elephant in the corner of the room.
She shook her head and got up. She went to her room and shut the door behind her. She wanted to call Roman, to tell him about the awful way her parents had reacted to the news of their planned marriage, but she feared he would have forgotten about the engagement already, that maybe he hadn’t really meant it when he agreed to marry her. So she pulled out her notebook and scribbled some purple prose, hating that she had never developed her writing talent beyond what it had been back when she was in elementary school. Suddenly she hated herself, her parents, this house, this life. Nothing was right, except Roman, and even he seemed fleeting, unreal. Tears filled her eyes as she slammed the notebook closed and hurled it across the room. Sometimes, on nights like these, when despair hit her like a meteor, she couldn’t believe any of this was real. It was as if she were living in someone else’s dream. Everything seemed hazy, floating, and she wished desperately that the dreamer would wake up and end her pain. But then she would feel the warm crush of sadness break over her and knew this was real. And then she would cry—the kind of genuine tears that did nothing but make you feel broken down and exhausted, not the fake ones that could get you a new pair of designer jeans.
She flopped on the bed without taking off her clothes or even her shoes and pressed her face into the pillow so her father wouldn’t hear her sobs and come checking on her. There was nothing either her father or her mother could say that would make her feel better now. They had ruined her one shot at happiness.
When the pillow was soaked through, she sat up and sniffled up the snot that was running out of her nostril. She had to get out of here. It was the only way.
She wiped her face with the back of her hand, then got up and started to throw things into the duffel bag she had brought with her to camp those few summers her parents had forced her to try it. She hardly noticed what she stuffed into the bag, but when it was full, her closet was almost empty, some of the hangers askew and others littering the floor in a mangled heap of plastic and metal.
She twisted the bag closed and slung it over her shoulder. As she passed through the living room, her parents paused their mindless staring at the television screen to stare at her instead.
“Where do you think you’re going?” her mother asked.
“I’m moving in with Roman.”
Ivy stood up and rushed at Suzy. “No, you’re not. No daughter of mine is going to live in sin with some unemployed artist.”
Suzy sneered. “We wouldn’t have to live in sin if you would let us get married.”
“That’s cute, really. I can’t stop laughing.”
“Whatever. I’m leaving.”
“If you walk out that door . . .”
Suzy smiled. For the first time in a long time, she was enjoying the battle. “What? ‘Don’t even think of coming back’? You’re not going to use that old line, are you?”
Ivy grimaced. “What, and you’re more original? Running away with some loser and expecting to live on love?”
Hearing someone else say the words that had been running through her mind made Suzy realize, with a cold shock, how silly her vision of marriage to Roman was. But she wasn’t going to back down now. Besides, clichés had to come from somewhere, didn’t they? They had to be true most of the time or they wouldn’t get to become clichés.
“Good-bye, Mother. And thanks for being so understanding.”
As Suzy breezed through the front door and out into the night, she felt free for the first time in her life. Finally, she was going to live the life she was meant to lead.
For the first week Suzy was staying with us, I spent as much time as I felt I could get away with at Scott’s, without pissing off my mom. After my sister went back to school, Mom guilted me into spending more time at home, helping to keep her sane. I still ate most of my dinners out with Scott, though, trying to get back as close to bedtime as I could. I knew I was feeding my mother to the wolves, but I figured it was better for only one of us to suffer, and if it was her and not me, then so be it.
Scott kept begging to meet Suzy. He’s a writer—he writes stories for comic books—and he would laugh at all the stories I told about Suzy and say she sounded like the perfect character. In a way, she was almost like a caricature, but of herself, if that makes any sense.
One night over dinner at our favorite little restaurant, Scott said, “I think I know a way I can wrangle an invite over to your house to meet this Suzy.”
I smiled and took a sip of my wine. “Oh, yeah? How’s that?”
Locking his eyes with mine, Scott slid off his chair and knelt on the floor, magically producing a velvet ring box from his pocket. “I’ll just ask you to marry me.”
I felt like a caricature myself as my jaw dropped. Scott and I had been together for almost two years, but we’d never discussed marriage—at least not with any degree of seriousness. And now, here it was, my future being thrust into the present. As I stared at the sparkling diamond in Scott’s hand, I felt a vague sense of regret that my engagement was somehow tied up with the horror of Suzy’s visit.
Scott cleared his throat, forcing me back to the moment. “Don’t keep me waiting. Will you marry me or not?”
That’s when all thoughts of Suzy flew out of my head. All I could do was nod and lean forward to hug him, which toppled us both onto the floor. We were still there, entwined and laughing, when the waiter brought over a bottle of champagne and poured us each a glass.
We sat (on our chairs, not the floor) for a long time in the cozy candlelight, sipping champagne and admiring the way my ring reflected tiny rainbows in the twinkling semi-darkness. Finally, Scott sucked the last drops of champagne out of his glass and said, “Ready? I think it’s time to tell the family.”
I sighed, twisting my hand back and forth to let the diamond catch the different sources of light in the room. “Do we have to?”
“I think it’s best to tell people, so they’ll remember to come to the wedding.”
I smiled at him. “Can’t we tell your parents first?”
“My parents are dead.”
“I’d rather go tell them at the cemetery than have to go home and break this news to my mom in front of Suzy.”
Scott stood up and tugged me to my feet. “That’s too bad. Because we’re going.”
When we got to my house, the place was lit up like there was a party going on. From what I’d gathered from my mom, Suzy seemed to have issues with darkness. Most of the time, she stayed up, smoking and drinking and watching TV, until the first light of dawn broke. The rest of the time after sunset, she wandered around the first floor of the house, turning on every lamp we had, leaving a trail of smoke behind her as she moved from room to room.
“Great,” I said. “It looks like Suzy’s up.”
“Then let’s do this.”
We walked up the front steps and into the house. Suzy was standing in the living room, holding a cigarette with a dangerously long ash between her fingers.
She let out a screech when she saw us. “Is this the famous Scott?”
She hurried over, the ash barely balancing, and leaned in to kiss Scott. He took the assault like a champ, managing to embrace her warmly while fending off the encroaching ash.
“And you must be the famous Cousin Suzy. It’s great to meet you.”
I looked around but didn’t see my mother in either the living room or kitchen. “Where’s Mom?”
“Hiding in her bedroom, I think,” Suzy said, winking conspiratorially at me. “Wendy! Get out here. Madison’s brought home the famous Scott.”
I heard the creak of my mother’s bed upstairs before she emerged at the top of the landing. As she came down, she said, “Believe it or not, Suze, I’ve met Scott before.” Mom smiled at Scott. “How’s everything?”
Scott shrugged then nudged me gently with his elbow.
“Oh,” I said, remembering suddenly why Scott was there with me. “We’ve got some news.” I held out my hand, letting the ring blaze forth under the light of every lamp in the room. “We’re getting married.”
I had never before seen the bright look that came over my mother’s face, and I wondered if that’s what I had looked like when Scott proposed. I hoped so. Pure happiness is such a rare thing to witness in real life. Mom rushed over to pull Scott and me both into a hug.
Then we felt a kind of poking, and I realized that Suzy was trying to squeeze her bony body into the group hug. Mom backed away, seemingly hoping that if she stepped back, Suzy would do the same. No such luck. Suzy landed sloppy kisses on my cheek and then Scott’s, then grabbed hold of my left hand, holding the ring up to the light.
“Pretty,” she said, squinting down at the diamond. “Is it real?”
Scott shot me a look of disbelief, but then he grinned at her. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Nothing but the best for Madison.”
Suzy continued to examine the ring. Then she actually tried to pry it off my finger. I tore my hand away. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“We should run it along some glass to make sure the jeweler didn’t screw poor Scott over.”
Scott patted my hand. “Don’t worry. I had the ring independently appraised. It’s real.”
My mother shook her head. “Come on into the kitchen. This deserves a toast.”
Suzy kept her eyes narrowed as she followed us into the kitchen, as if she were still trying to evaluate the diamond. It was more than annoying; it was scary. I was almost afraid to sleep in the same house with her, for fear she might spirit the ring away while I slept and put it through whatever tests she could devise to determine its value—or hock it for cigarette money.
We sat down around the kitchen table as my mom poured us each a snifter of our favorite Grand Marnier. She leaned over and whispered in my ear, “We have the hundred-year-old stuff, but I gave Suzy the regular.”
I had to suppress a smile as I lifted my glass to my lips.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Suzy cried. “The toast!” She stood up, glass in hand, and cleared her throat as if preparing to give a lengthy speech.
“To Madison and Scott. May their marriage be a long and happy one.”
“Thanks, Suzy,” I said. I clinked my glass against Scott’s and took a sip.
Suzy sat back down and a blank look fell over her face. I wrinkled my nose, wondering what had suddenly happened to change her mood but doubting it was worth the potential disaster of asking her.
“So,” Mom said. “Have you set a date?”
I laughed and glanced at my watch. “Um, we’ve been engaged exactly forty-five minutes. We haven’t quite gotten to the arrangements yet.”
Suzy let out a long sigh, forcing us all to look over at her. She gave us a wistful smile. “Make sure you make the most of your wedding day, Madison. It’s the most important thing you can do. I really believe the fate of the marriage lies in whether the wedding goes well or not.” She lifted her glass and swirled the liquid around. “Maybe if I had had a real wedding, I’d still be married.”
Mom ignored the comment and turned to me. “So, tell me this at least. Are you thinking spring, summer, fall, winter? What?”
Scott and I glanced at one another. “I don’t know yet,” I said. “Can we maybe let the idea of getting married sink in a little before we rent the hall and order the flowers?”
Suzy puffed out her lower lip in stereotypical pouty sadness. “Flowers. Music. It’s all so wonderful. I envy you both.”
I rolled my eyes. “Thanks.”
We sat there in silence for a while, sipping our drinks and trying to avoid eye contact. Finally, I drained the last of my drink and set the glass down.
“Well, I guess we should be getting back to Scott’s,” I said.
A look of panic crossed my mom’s face. “You’re not going to stay here tonight?”
I shot her a look. “I guess I can stay here, okay,” I said, letting her know with my narrowed eyes that she was going to owe me one for this sacrifice. On the night of my engagement, I should be rolling in the sheets with my future husband, not babysitting my mother’s deranged cousin.
Scott took the hint and got up to leave. “Well, ladies, I guess I should be going.” He kissed me softly on the lips. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Love you,” I said.
“I love you, too.” He turned and kissed my mom on the cheek, then extended his hand across the table toward Suzy. “It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope we’ll see each other again soon.”
“You can count on it,” she said.
I walked him to the door. He was trying his best not to laugh out loud. “She’s just like you said,” he told me. “For once, you weren’t exaggerating.”
He smiled. “Love you,” he said again.
“Love you, too. See you tomorrow.” I looked down at the engagement ring once more, then back into his eyes. “And—well, thank you.”
He leaned over and kissed me. “Any time.”
I watched him drive away, then pushed the door closed and took a deep breath before heading back into the kitchen.
“I think I’m gonna go up to bed,” I said. “It’s been quite a day.”
Suzy reached out and touched my sleeve. “Seriously, can I see that ring?”
It was my mom who scolded her. “For the love of God, Suzy, let it be.”
“I’m just saying,” Suzy said. “You can find out a lot about a guy by the engagement ring he buys.”
I had to count to ten, that lame old trick for controlling your anger that never actually makes you feel less like killing someone, before I opened my mouth. “Believe me, Suzy, I know everything I need to know about Scott.”
I started to lunge at her, but Mom stepped between us and kissed me on the cheek. “Congratulations, sweetie. I’m so happy for you.”
She caught my eye and silently told me to let her handle Suzy in her own way. I sighed, then inclined my head so she’d know I was letting it go.
“Thanks, Mom. Love you. Good night.”
I turned to leave. Suzy called, “Good night, Madison!” I pretended not to hear her.
The next morning when I came downstairs, Suzy was, predictably, already in the kitchen, standing at the stove with a wooden spoon in her hand, but with nothing cooking on the range.
“Looking for something?” I asked, pouring myself a cup of coffee.
“I thought I would make us all omelets,” Suzy said.
“Mom doesn’t eat eggs, and I’ve got to head out to work soon. But thanks anyway.”
Suzy dropped the spoon on the stove with a clang and came over to the table to sit across from me and stare at my ring some more.
I narrowed my eyes at her in reproof. “It’s real.”
Suzy nodded. “Of course. I’m sure it is.”
“So,” I said. “How are things with the social worker? Does she have any leads on a place for you?”
Suzy literally started wringing her hands. I’d never seen anybody do that in reality. “Oh, I can’t get in touch with her. Every time I call, it just rings and rings.”
“What are you talking about? Doesn’t this person work in an office?”
Suzy shrugged. “I would assume so.”
“Well, what kind of office doesn’t have either a receptionist or a voicemail system?”
She leapt up and went to the counter, bringing back with her a small stenographer’s notebook. She laid it open in front of me. “See? I’m keeping a log of the dates and times when I try to make contact with the social worker.”
I pulled the notebook to me, squinting at the illegible loops of blue ink scrawled all over the pages with no apparent rhyme or reason. I shook my head and pushed the notebook back toward her.
“Are you even sure you have the right phone number? Isn’t there someplace you can call to check on that? Frankly, I don’t see how writing down your unsuccessful attempts to call someone helps the situation.”
Suzy slammed the notebook closed and pressed it against her chest like it was some kind of security blanket. “You don’t understand,” she said. “They need to see that I’ve been making an effort.”
“Who do you mean? Who needs to see it? And making an effort to do what?”
“They need to see that I’m trying to find work.”
“I guess,” she said, laying the notebook flat on the table in front of her and touching it gently with her palm.
Something was building up inside me as I watched her sit there acting like the world had run over her and left her a victim of fate. It wasn’t sympathy. It was rage. I wanted to slap her.
“What do you mean, you guess? Are you on unemployment or not?”
She just shook her head, tracing the coiled metal rings on the edge of the notebook with her index finger.
“Is that a no?” I asked.
She looked up at me, her eyes brimming with tears. “No!”
I sighed. “Then who is this social worker you’re supposed to be trying to contact?”
“I—I don’t know exactly.”
Something snapped inside me. I reached over and tore the notebook out of her hands and hurled it across the room. “What the fuck is going on here?”
She looked at me, horrified. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what are you doing? Have you been making this all up, this crap about the social worker who’s going to find you a great new job and a place to live?”
She lowered her eyes and I saw a stray teardrop splash on the table. “Not exactly. I—I thought I would be able to find someone to help me. Like, in the phonebook.”
I let out an airy, sarcastic laugh. “There haven’t even been phonebooks in like ten years. But forget about that. You’ve been lying to my mother this whole time?”
“Lying is an ugly word.”
“It’s an even uglier deed.”
“Madison, I . . . you don’t understand.”
I leaned over on my elbows, laying my chin in my hands. “Well, enlighten me.”
She shook her head. “You’ll never understand. I had nowhere else to go. And I didn’t think Wendy would let me stay if I wasn’t making an effort to find a place of my own.”
I smiled and leaned back in my chair, crossing my arms over my chest. “I think my mother is well aware that you’ve never had a place of your own.”
“How dare you!”
“What? Too close to home?”
“Look who’s talking,” she said. “I don’t see you with your own apartment.”
“Yeah, you’re right about that,” I said. “But the difference is, I’m twenty-five. You’re, what? Mid-fifties?”
“Yeah, sure you are. Whatever you say.”
We sat there, breathing hard and glaring at each other, for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, I picked up my coffee cup and took a long sip. I let out a satisfied “Ah!” and set the cup back down on the table.
“So,” I said brightly, as if starting the conversation—and the entire morning—all over. “What are your plans for the day?”
Suzy shook her head dubiously. “I’ll tell Wendy what you said to me . . .”
I grinned. “And I’ll tell her what you said to me.”
She sneered at me as she stood up and went over to the counter, burrowing in the drawer where my mother usually kept her cigarettes. She found a wrinkled soft pack and shook out a limp-looking butt, then fumbled back in the drawer for a lighter. I got up, went over to her, and yanked the cigarette out of her mouth.
“What the hell are you doing?” she cried.
“That’s another thing. You will either buy your own cigarettes from now on, or you will simply not smoke. If you can’t pay for your own vices, you have to live without them. That’s the way it works in the real world.”
She stared at me for a long moment, then sank down into her seat at the table. She looked down at her hands and said, “What do you want me to do?”
“That’s better,” I said. “After my mother goes to work, you will get online and find contact information for local and state government services. You will find the appropriate office to call in regard to unemployment, social work, whatever it is that applies to your situation, and you will call that number. You will absolutely not pretend you couldn’t get through. You will take down the name and telephone extension of the person with whom you speak, so that I can check to make sure you actually did as I told you to do. And you will not let my mother know you’ve been playing her for the past two weeks. Is that clear?”
I recognized the look in Suzy’s eyes as pure panic. I wanted to smile in triumph, but I suppressed the urge.
She just nodded, refusing to make eye contact. I slapped my hands down on the table, to indicate that the discussion was over, and got up.
“Wonderful. You have a nice day, now.”
I felt drunk with power as I picked up my car keys and left the house for work. Now we were getting somewhere.
END OF PART I: Part II will follow in the next issue.