Thursday, November 5, 2009

Too late

“Are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me? Her, you chose to cheat on me with her…the woman you swore up and down all these years you had no feelings for. I knew it! I just knew you were lying! Oh my god, I’m such a fool, I’m such a stupid fool. Look at you, standing there with your head hung like some guilty dog that shit on the rug. Jesus Christ, you come here to our home…what was once our home together and you tell me this now. How could you tell me this now?” Kate gripped the edge of the kitchen counter with both hands and spoke through gritted teeth, as if Graham didn’t deserve the intimacy of her open mouth forming the words.

He hadn’t realized it till she said it, but he did have his head hung…and he wasn’t trying to fight back or defend himself either. Graham didn’t even venture an attempt at making any of the points he had intended to make while he mentally rehearsed this conversation on the drive here. Points like, Kate left the marriage long before he cheated…that this never would have happened if she’d tried to be even half the wife he thought she would be back when they got married. Or other points like the fact that Kate always misunderstood him but Sara got it, she got him. Sara knew practically everything about him…understood the deeper meaning behind his cowboy fascinations, related to the way he was raised, and even saw the unspoken love he still carried deep in his heart for his dead son. Sara seemed to understand it all. Not that she accepted him as is, no, in fact she called him on every single thing that was ever his own damn fault…wouldn’t dream of backing down and sure wasn’t afraid of his anger.

Maybe that was it? Sara could take his anger, she was strong enough not to be consumed by it, not to let it destroy her. And somehow that defused it, somehow Sara’s indifference to his anger made it superfluous and it fizzled out before it could grow to destructive levels. Kate was always so easily crippled by his rage that it only fueled it. Why was that, why would her weakness add to his fury?

A sudden sting hit his face unexpectedly as his neck snapped back from the blunt force. Kate had slapped him, and hard. He’d been so lost in his thoughts that he had stopped listening, tuned out her self-righteous rant and was caught totally off guard.

“You son of a fucking bitch, you’re not even listening to me!” Kate’s voice grew shrill; she could break glass if it got any higher pitched.

“I’m sorry…I was just thinking…”

“What, about her? You bastard. You can’t even manage to keep your mind off that bitch long enough to confess to me that you screwed her!”

Graham drew in a measured breath, “No, I was thinking that I wish things were different, I wish I was different with you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, huh? I suppose you’re different with her, right? Of course, Sara brings out the best in you, she’s magic,” and with that Kate gulped, as if she’d used all the air in her lungs up before she could finish the sentence. But something else had been triggered. She sputtered and began to both laugh and sob at the same time in some knee-jerk reflex reaction that was clearly beyond her control. She sounded like some heaving lunatic.

“Get out,” she spat out between the staccato rhythms of her unnatural, gasping laughter, “Get the hell out of my house and don’t you ever come back here, I swear Graham, I’ll shoot you dead in your tracks with one of your own stupid cowboy pistols!”

Graham stood there frozen. He’d never seen Kate like this, never heard her speak this way or act like this. He started to say something, but thought better of it and only whispered, “I’m sorry Kate,” as he turned to go. He could still hear her unnatural sputtering and choking laughter as he walked down the front path towards his car in the street.

He sat there a moment before turning the key in the ignition. He thought about going back in. But it was late and he’d be hitting rush hour traffic as it was. Besides, what more could either of them say? It would only give Kate more opportunity to rip him to shreds, or worse yet, devolve into a screaming match neither of them needed. He turned the key and pulled away from the house heading out towards the highway for the long drive.

This was not how Graham had intended this whole thing to go, not even close. It was, however, pretty close to how Sara said it should go, damn her – why was she always right about everything? Sara had told him that he needed to take whatever Kate dished out, that they both deserved it. If Kate were stronger, if she were not battling the damn cancer then maybe things would be different. But she was dealing with cancer and the minute Graham took one look at her he knew that Sara had been right. This was the mother of his children, he couldn’t lay any blame, deserved or not, on her doorstep, not now. Cancer trumps a lousy marriage. Cancer pretty much trumps anything.

And despite her energetic rage Kate looked weakened, to see her like this was shocking. It killed him to think of all she had endured. She was so thin, so pale. There was something almost translucent about her face. Was this normal? Would she recover and regain her strength…her looks?

He couldn’t help but think back to the first time he saw her. Kate had been the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen…and best of all, she had no idea just how pretty she was. There wasn’t a stuck up bone in her body. He hated stuck up women, women who acted like they didn’t know the effect they were having on a guy but so obviously did. There wasn’t a single bit of artifice in Kate’s entire psyche. Yet Kate was almost always the best looking woman in any room she was in. How was it possible she wasn’t aware of that? Graham had never really wondered that before…he’d always just been pleased at her lack of conceit. But now that he thought about it, how could she not have known how beautiful she really was…still is, even now, even breast-less and bald. Though diminished, there was something still lovely there, still striking.

But he knew better than to go down that road. He’d spent enough time longing for a woman he now realized he’d never really known. To feel sorry for her was one thing, but to even think of opening that door would be catastrophic. Besides, he’d already burned that bridge way beyond any repair.

And then another thought struck him almost harder than Kate’s slap in the face. The realization made him squirm uncomfortably in his seat and grip the steering wheel tighter. Holy shit, was that why he’d done it? What if Sara and he weren’t two lost souls reuniting after all? All those years with Kate he never strayed…not after Ethan, not when she got fat, not ever. He’d wanted to leave but just couldn’t do it. That’s not what you did. You didn’t leave your wife after the death of your child. You didn’t leave your wife just because she was lazy or distant. But he’d wanted to…he didn’t realize just how much until that night with Sara. What if that was his way of finally shutting the door on Kate permanently, of escalating the punishment by severing all possible strings that bound them together? What if he cheated because he just didn't have the guts to walk out the door?

Shit, that’s too much psychobabble to wade thru, he thought, laughing to himself. There you go, Sara’s influence yet again, always making him think too much. Damn, either way, whatever this was, that woman got under his skin and into his head way too easy. Maybe that’s what love really was. What the hell did he know anyway?

Graham was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t see the other car swerving into his lane until it was too late.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Waking up

I want Nola.

Those words rang in Kate’s head over and over again, like a chant echoing as she struggled to come to awareness. But it took her a moment to really listen to her own thoughts.

Nola. She wanted Nola. She didn’t want Nola to do anything for her, to get her something or be somewhere. She didn’t want to see Nola to make sure she was all right in that automatic way a mother checks on her children without thinking. She wanted to be with Nola. She wanted nothing more at this very moment than simply to be with Nola.

And then it struck Kate hard that this was the first time she felt that way in longer than she could remember. The pain of that realization was nearly as deep as any pain she was feeling from having her body cut apart. Morphine could not dull the stab of realization that she had gone so long without just wanting to be with her own daughter. At this moment it seemed so simple, such a sweet, natural feeling. There was something eternally recognizable about it, but more than that. There was also something specifically familiar about feeling it in a hospital bed, like this; some sort of déjà vu. But she couldn’t quite place it, couldn’t hold fast to the familiarity before it slipped through her wavering consciousness.

Kate struggled to open her eyes. The surgery was over, they’d removed something, but was it both her breasts, one…just the lumps? She tried to move her head but her neck throbbed and her shoulders seemed immobile. Something was in her left hand, a button, yes, to call the nurse. Kate pushed it but heard nothing. She clicked it several times. Then she remembered something about self-administered pain medicine. But it was too late…her mind was drifting back into that other world.

Over the next 24 hours or so Kate drifted in and out of consciousness and her pain waxed and waned. But like one long continuous dream each time she came the closest to being awake before pumping the morphine back into her veins it was Nola that sprang to her mind. Nola as a baby, Nola the last time she saw her, the door glass breaking, her hiding spot in the butler’s pantry, bedtime stories, morning breakfasts. The visions were not linear, not in order; it was like a flowing spiral of sporadic imagery all of Nola swirling throughout the years of her life.

By the next day the images had become fully fleshed out memories and they’d fallen into order. They began with the morning when Nola was born, six weeks too soon, taken by cesarean when Kate’s blood pressure had risen dangerously high. Graham was out of town and trying to get a plane back from Montana…or was it Wyoming? They’d whisked Nola away before Kate could even see her and then something had gone wrong, too much blood lost. She remembered nothing until she woke up a day later. Deirdre, dear old Grandee, was beside her holding Nola, singing softly to them both.

Kate’s first thought at that moment wasn’t about if her baby was okay. It wasn’t even about whether she herself would be alright. It had been that she wished Deirdre would just take Nola, just take her right then and keep her forever…what a horrible thing for a mother to feel upon seeing her child for the first time! What kind of mother was I? How could I have felt that way? But she couldn’t help it, she tried to push the feelings away, tried to conjure up the way she thought she should be feeling, the way she felt with Ethan, but it seemed as if the control of her every thought was completely beyond her.

Deirdre had seemed to understand, told her that sometimes mothers don’t always take to their babies right away, especially when the birth had been traumatic. Just nurse her, hold her, just go do all the things she had done with Ethan and the love would come. Grandee had promised.

But had it? Had she ever let herself love Nola the same as Ethan? Or had she only gone through the motions? With Ethan it had been easy, her heart had swelled the minute he began to grow inside her. Once Ethan was born and they put him in her arms Kate felt that overflowing of emotions, almost a physical gush of heat in her heart that overtook her. She couldn’t get enough of him. All she wanted was to be with him.

That was what she felt now, that was the vaguely similar feeling!

Here she was in a hospital, that place where mother meets child for the first time, where that magical connection finally takes physical form after being merely subjective for nine long months. Now, here in this hospital bed over ten years later she felt that longing, that same warmth for Nola that a new mother might feel, or something strangely parallel to it at least. That was the familiar sensation she couldn’t quite place! She felt love for Nola open up in her that she’d closed off, walled in. She wanted to be with Nola…just to be with her would be enough. How long had she divided herself from these feelings? Worse, oh God, so much worse…how long had she robbed Nola of them, cut her off?

Nola wasn’t a baby anymore. But it wasn’t too late. It couldn’t be too late. She was still here. Nola was still here. There was time. There had to be. Why would she be given these feelings, these thoughts if there was nothing to be done? Or was this what hell realized all the mistakes you made, all your failures, when it was already too late? No. No, this couldn't be too late. Not yet.

It wasn’t until a nurse came in with a tray and tried to get her to sit up and take some clear liquids between gulping sobs that Kate realized two more things. No one from her family was there, and she definitely didn’t have her breasts. Both realizations where beyond excruciating. But unfortunately neither was surprising.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Knocked flat

“Sarah will be coming to town next week, do you want to have her over or should we go out?”

Kate barely looked up at Graham from her book, “Isn’t there a third choice, like neither?”

“Fine, I’ll just take her out to dinner myself, you do what you want.” And with that Graham slammed the side door and headed out to the garage.

Sarah was Graham’s first wife, a poet and novelist in her own right. She was critically acclaimed, though truth be told, little read by any one other than the literary elite. Once, she and Graham had shared not only a life, but also a perspective on the art and craft of writing. Or at least Graham had tried to share her singular and high-minded perspective, for a while.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t match Sarah intellectually so much as it finally boiled down to the amount of energy he was willing to spend on writing his heart out only to have it go nowhere and be read by merely a select few. What was the point of that? To Graham, the audience was as much a part of the process as the solitary time spent writing. It was the end result, the storytelling that mattered. That’s really what it came down to; he was, in actuality, a storyteller, not a writer. Once he accepted, embraced that, his career began to click. His marriage to Sarah fizzled out soon after.

But they’d shared eight years together and the split was amicable, no children, no house, no book royalties, yet, for either of them to squabble over back then. Sarah’s success in the interim years was in a different vein from Grahams, but apparently she seemed to feel equally satisfied, sufficiently proud of what she had achieved, as far as Graham could tell anyway. There was no feeling of competition between them, no awkward pretense, at least about their work. Besides, Sarah was family as far as he was concerned. He just wished Kate could see it that way.

Whenever she came to New York Graham and Sarah would get together. Otherwise she lived in Ireland, where, she said, “the line between poetry and prose was as thin a veil as that what hung between life and death, love and hate.” Sarah was always saying mystical things like that. Or maybe they just sounded mystical with that faint, albeit off kilter, Irish brogue she spoke with. This was more than keenly amusing to Graham since in reality Sarah was a nice Jewish girl originally from Brighton Beach…complete with her own distinct accent as he fondly remembered. Yet he didn’t find her new lilt disingenuous. Sarah wasn’t so much an imposter as she was…adaptable, like a chameleon.

This visit Sarah was going to be speaking at some symposium at Rutgers University, their alma mater, so rather than meet in the city they agreed to dine in New Brunswick. There was a little tavern that both knew well, still in business these many decades later. It was small and cramped but the pub food was good and it tended to be quiet on a weeknight.

Kate and Sarah had a love/hate relationship throughout the years, right now it was on the flip side -- Kate thought Sara had become a pretentious snob. To some degree she was right, but there was a charming undercurrent of self-awareness beneath it all, hidden in all the outward affectation, if you just knew where to look for it. Sarah could laugh at herself, she knew when she wasn’t fooling anyone and could take a joke, especially from Graham, a fact that was probably not lost on Kate, he could tell. She was a bit confrontational, a bit in your face, but one always knew where they stood with Sarah.

And Sarah was genuinely serious about her work; that deserved some respect. She took pride in the critics’ opinions that she held in esteem and seemed to easily dismiss the rest as hacks. Graham would sometimes read her latest piece, if she sent it to him, and she clearly made no compromises, she still wrote from the heart as she had when they were young idealists. On some level Graham admired her willingness to still take risks. But he also dismissed that at this age as a frivolous choice with consequences beyond the written word. He was firmly entrenched in a different kind of reality, so flights of fancy really didn’t impress him all that much. To him, Sarah the author was different, strange, maybe a little flaky or even, conversely, militant. But Sarah his ex wife, his longtime friend, that was who mattered. It was loyalty not camaraderie that held them together.

When he walked in to the tavern he only briefly scanned the room, no doubt Sarah would be late. To his surprise she was waiting for him at the bar. No matter how much her appearance changed through the years there was something the same about her, distinctly Sarah-like. They greeted each other warmly, she offered first one than the other cheek for Graham to kiss. He laughed and said with a teasing tone, “Oh I forgot, we are European now, aren’t we?”

“Now, now, don’t start Graham cracker, don’t start,” but Sarah was smiling brightly, looking pleased but yet a little wary. “I’ve come out to this dive joint just to see you, so don’t start in on me.”

“How dare you call our old home away from home a dive joint, I’m crushed.”

“Yes, I see that. How are you Graham, you look well, are you well?”

“I’m fine, good, great, how are you Sarah, you look real good.”

“Good, just good?”

“Radiant, lovely, ravishing, bewitching, should I go on?”

“No, I’ll take ravishing and bewitching and leave the rest, best not to push my luck with you. How’s Kate, she’s not joining us?”

“She’s good, fine, no, she had some things to take care of and then there’s Nola…”

“Ah, my very next question, how is that lovely little pixie child of yours? Honestly Graham, in that photo with the Christmas card you sent she looked so delicate and positively fairy like. She really is an astonishing looking creature, Graham. You know that right? You tell her that all the time, right?”

“Nola is great, she’s doing well at school, they’ve skipped her two grades in fact.”

“Two? Wow, that’s a lot. Two grades? Well of course she must be a genius.”

“Yeah, she’s, uh, smart, you know. We’re happy with how she’s doing right now.”

“Right now? As opposed to…?”

“No, nothing, I just mean we’re happy with the grade skipping and how it’s working out.”

“I see.”


“Nothing. It’s just that…”

“What? Say it. You know you’re going to before the night is over, just say it now while we’re both still sober and being nice,” Graham forced a laugh and tried to make a joke, but he suspected what was coming next. There was one subject that had grown more and more divisive between them over the last two years, and that was the subject of his daughter. Sarah had developed a bit of an obsession when it came to Nola, in his opinion, ever since she was at the house a few Christmases ago and Graham had to discipline the child for her behavior. Sarah had sided with Kate that Graham was too harsh and it had turned into a huge fight, the day ruined. This was only the second time he saw Sarah since then, and now it looked like it was going down hill almost as fast as the last time.

“You know what I think, and I just can’t let it go. I always see such a huge difference between how you are about Nola compared to…”

Graham could feel his chest tighten. See, this was the thing about Sarah…once she saw where you were vulnerable, where she could push your buttons, she was like a dog with a bone. She worked at you and worked at you. He knew now what this visit was about, what was coming. It figures, he thought. I should have skipped the long drive and just let her do this over the phone.

“Ok, look, last time you were here you were all over this. It’s like a year later and you’re picking up this conversation right where you left off. What, was this some kind of ambush? Can’t we just be two friends having a drink and catching up, why do you have to go there? What is going on, why do you care so Goddamn much about all this?”

“Why do I…? Honestly Graham, you don’t think I have a right to care about you and your life, about your little family. I was there, I was there when he…I saw how ripped apart you were. I held your hand and was your shoulder while poor Kate was in a grief stricken haze. Geez, I mourned that kid as if he were…”

“Well he wasn’t,” Graham snapped, wounded that this is where the night was going but unable to stop it now. “He wasn’t and Nola isn’t either. This is my family. You didn’t want a family, you wanted poetry and Irish castles and I wanted cowboys and a nice cozy teaching position in the cheesy suburbs.”

“This isn’t about what you wanted, or what I wanted,” Sarah’s eyes grew narrow and harsh, “This isn’t even about you, you stupid son of a bitch. I see you and your whole family going down the tubes and I…”

“You see? You see? You don’t see nothin’. What do you see? You phone me once in a blue moon, write cards, maybe see my face a few times a year and then you’re gone. You don’t know me. You knew me.”

Sarah’s eyes flashed darkly, so dark there was no division between pupil and iris…so black they shined in the dim light of the tavern. “No Graham. I thought I knew you. But clearly I was mistaken.” She stood up suddenly, looking down on him, staring him in the eye as intensely as he’d ever been stared down before. “Fuck you,” she said quietly, like it was a realization rather than a curse. “Fuck you, Graham Collins, you stupid blind jerk.”

He met her gaze, trying not to be rattled by her confrontation, standing his ground with all the coldness he could muster, “Right back at you,” was all he could think to say. Not clever, but it was more his demeanor that sent the message he intended…that she couldn’t get to him. No one could.

With that, Sarah grabbed her purse and stormed out of the tavern. Graham thought for a moment about following her. But he didn’t seem to be able to move. He was numb. He realized at that moment that he didn’t care at all that his oldest friend, one of the people who had stood by him for half his life, had just stormed out of the bar and probably out of his life for the rest of his existence. Graham didn’t care because to go that deep, to that part of him where caring lived, was impossible. That part of him, that place in the center of his being that cared about friends and truth and facing things had died a long time ago, gone with Ethan.

Only he just realized it now, a decade later, sitting alone in a bar in New Brunswick. He realized it too late to change it, even if he wanted to. And he didn’t really want to any more anyway.

Graham left the tavern and slowly started down Eastern Ave the opposite way from where he’d parked until he realized what he was doing. Crap, it was like being on autopilot. Graham had mechanically headed towards where he and Sarah had lived all those years ago. He shook his head, laughing at himself. As he turned around to head the other way he walked smack into someone, knocking them to the ground. “Oh God, I’m so sorry, are you alright?” Graham exclaimed, quickly bending to offer a hand to help the woman up.

“Christ, if I’d known this is what I’d have to do to get an apology out of you I would have worn some protective padding.”

It was then Graham realized the woman he’d knocked flat was Sarah.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

the doll cemetary

On Sundays Grandee used to come, making the drive all the way out from the city. Each and every Sunday it was practically the same, she would arrive and have lunch with Nola and her parents and then right afterwards she would take Nola to the cemetery. Nola’s parents never went with them, not once. As soon as everyone had finished eating Kate would make herself busy clearing the table and doing the dishes while Graham muttered something about having a few things to take care of and headed off to his study. Grandee would sit at the table and announce loudly that she was heading off to the cemetery and taking Nola with her if anyone else was interested in coming. But no one ever was.

Grandee said over and over again that it was important someone from the family look after things at Ethan’s grave. She would often say to Nola, “Promise me that when I’m gone, when I’m there with your grandfather and our sweet Ethan, promise me Nola that you will come here and take care of us, will you do that for your old Grandee?” Nola always vowed she would, and Grandee would pronounce her a good girl.

The cemetery was barely half a mile from the house, on Ramsey Road, the same main road their little street was off of. It was a small graveyard, not much more than four acres. Once there had been a church next to it, and if you went into the woods at the back of the property beyond the last row of headstones you could see the old stone foundation, the granite slab steps leading to nothing more now than a patch of scrub oaks and young birch saplings surrounded by the stacked stones that once supported the church floor. “It must have been a small congregation,” Nola’s grandmother would often muse. “Not like the great cathedrals of Manhattan.”

During nice weather Nola and her grandmother would walk to the graveyard pulling an old Radio Flyer wagon full of gardening supplies and the flowers that Grandee always brought with her, week after week. On a few especially nice days when the weather was just right they’d even skip lunch with Kate and Graham and pack sandwiches instead, eating them picnic style on the grass beside Ethan’s grave while Grandee would talk to him like he could hear her. She’d tell him all about some cookies she’d baked that were his favorite, or about some boys she’d seen playing games in the park that were about his age and how she knows they would have been, “great friends.” Often Grandee would tell Ethan about Nola, about her accomplishments at school or how pretty she looked. She would try and get Nola to talk to him too, but Nola would find herself strangely tongue-tied there in front of her grandmother. Grandee would always say, “no matter, your sister’s just shy, but she loves you dearly, know that sweet Ethan.”

On holidays Grandee would bring special things to leave there, like a heart balloon for Valentine’s Day, flags for Fourth of July, a bunny statue for Easter, or a colorful paper turkey for Thanksgiving. On Christmas Grandee paid the cemetery staff to put a blanket of evergreens over Ethan’s grave. Even in the dead of winter she and Nola would make the trip to the cemetery, only they’d just go by car instead. If it was especially bitter or snowing out Grandee would make Nola stay in the car with the heat on. Nola would watch her grandmother through the foggy windshield as she dusted the snow off the headstone, bowing her head and quickly making the sign of the cross, that’s what she called it. Then Grandee would stand there a few moments, perfectly still, head bowed, eyes closed, lips moving. Nola asked her once what she was talking about to Ethan when she did that and Grandee answered snippily, “I’m not talking to your brother, child, I’m praying, which you’d know how to do if that mother of yours ever sent you to Sunday School.”

Nola’s parents didn’t believe in God. Her father said he went to confession and mass every week until he was seventeen. Then his father, Granda, Grandee’s husband, said it was up to him. He never set foot in a church again. When Ethan was born Grandee told Nola that she begged her parents to have him baptized but “sadly they’d have none of it.”

But when Ethan died, when he was in the hospital before they turned off the machines, Grandee said she brought in a priest to give the last rites; that’s what they do if you are going to die so you can get into heaven, she’d told Nola. Grandee said, “So now sweet Ethan is our angel, he’s with his heavenly father and the Holy Mother will take care of him until it’s our time to join him, God willing.” Nola had asked her once what would make God unwilling, but for some reason Grandee got mad and told her, “that’s a question you should ask your heathen father, that is.”

Even when Grandee was mad, though, Nola liked the way she talked. In fact sometimes she even sounded better when she was flustered or angry. Grandee had what her mother called an Irish brogue, an musical accent from when she was raised in Ireland. The lilt of her phrasing made everything sound magical and believable, you would accept anything she said as inscrutable truth. When Nola was with Grandee she almost could believe there was a God and that Ethan was with Him, looking down on them all.

At Christmas time once a year Grandee was allowed to take Nola to the local Catholic church for a special service. They had a life-size creche set up in front of the chapel and everyone would stop and look at the figures before going inside. Nola could imagine that the baby Jesus was Ethan, being watched over by Mary and Joseph. She told her grandmother that once and it made her cry. Nola never knew when something she said about Ethan was going to make someone cry or smile, it was very hard to predict.

When she was very little and still played with dolls Nola would pretend that different ones were Ethan and that she was his mommy. Then he would get very sick or fall off of something really high up, and he'd die. Nola would pretend to cry and be very sad, sometimes she did it so well that she shed real tears and everything. After that she would carefully put the dead doll in a box and place little toys and trinkets all around it and slide it reverently under her bed. She would never take it out after that because once you were dead that was it, you couldn’t play anymore, you were stuck in the ground and couldn’t come out ever again, forever and ever.

Once when her mother found several of the dolls all boxed up in their pretend coffins, Nola had to tell her why they were all there under the bed and not in her doll basket. She thought Kate might get mad or cry...or perhaps even smile, it was one of those times she couldn't tell what reaction she was going to get. But Kate didn't do any of that. Instead she just closed her eyes real tight, scrunched up tight like she didn't want to see anything around her, not the dolls, Nola, not anything. Then she left the room with out a word. Nola’s mother never looked under the bed again after that, and she never gave her any more dolls, either. But that was okay, there wasn't that much more room under the bed anyway.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

a phone call

“Graham, I…we need to talk.”

Kate held the phone in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. She paced her kitchen floor back and forth, feeling the smooth, warm wood against her bare feet. She was nervous about this conversation and how it would go. She’d barely spoken to Graham in the year since the separation, and now she needed him more than she ever had in her entire life. It figured.

When she found out he cheated on her everything happened quickly. In a white-hot haze she was made bold by the injustice and lashed out, struck back. She told him to leave, no fight, no dramatic scene, just get out. She even threatened to call the police if he weren’t gone by that evening. Her bravery was fueled by his acquiescence; he complied with her demands entirely. But she knew he would, knew he’d rather die than have anyone find out what went on behind closed doors. Valuing privacy was his Achilles heel.

After the shock wore off she realized his infidelity was the greatest gift of her life. She was not only glad he’d done it, she was relieved. It finally gave her permission to do what she should have done years ago, end the marriage. She'd repeatedly planned their demise year in and year out but never managed to gather up the guts to follow it through. Now he not only provided her with the motivation, but with impeccable justification…she couldn’t second-guess herself this time and no one would ever fault her. For once in his perfect life Graham Collins had been unequivocally wrong, and Kate could play that card to the hilt for all it was worth. It felt good to be in the right. Liberating. Satisfying.

During the first few monthgs he begged to come home, begged forgiveness, but she would hear none of it. He’d call and she would hang up, he’d leave notes and she’d rip them to shreds. He tried to speak to her through Nola but she silenced the girl. All those times she refused to talk to him other than to exchange the most basic information through Nola, “Tell your father this bill needs to be paid,” or “Tell Daddy there’s mail to be picked up,” nothing beyond that, nothing beyond the incidentals.

She’d even declined to let him in the house on more than one occasion. The place had been deteriorating as fast as their marriage towards the end, but now that he was gone the rapid decline was startling, even to her. She didn't want him to see, didn't want him to think she couldn't handle things without him. So Kate changed the locks and would simply refuse to answer the door when she saw his car. Who cared about a stupid mess anyway? She was done. She was free.

But now she had cancer and her bravery seemed to be as savagely stripped away as her body would soon be maimed.

Immediately after her diagnosis all Kate could think to do was numb the terror, not think beyond the minute in front of her. But anxious thoughts wouldn't leave her for long. She was alone. She was scared. Slowly she would pace her house like a caged animal, trapped, unable to find her escape. As she walked from room to room and looked at the filth her panic grew. The conditions were nothing short of disgusting. This was the home Graham had loved and bought for her, the home they’d shared together with Nola and where Ethan had lived his short, precious life with them. How could she have let it go this far? It only proved she needed help, this was too big a mess to clean up by herself. She knew what she had to do. It was time to dig out.

This house, her entire life was practically trashed, let go way beyond her ability to put it back into any semblance of order, especially now with all that was coming at her. She was going to be sick, ill beyond her imagination; she might even die. Graham was now her only hope, her best plan. Putting the marriage back together was the only thing that was, perhaps, within her control. So, she would allow him to come back. Allow, what a joke! Kate needed him to come back, to the house, to her, and most importantly to Nola. She needed to create order out of the swirling turmoil and if nothing else Graham could do that; he was very good at order.

But Graham’s voice on the other end of the phone was terse, “What do you want, I don’t have much time.”

Kate knew that was a lie, she still knew his rigid schedule by heart. “Graham, there’s no easy way to do this, so I’m just going to start, okay? But I want, I need, you’ve got to hear me out and just listen and not say anything. If you say the wrong thing I think I’ll break right now and I can’t…”

“Kate, would you just tell me what the hell this is about?”

“Okay, see, that’s what I mean, you aren’t being very…supportive.”

Graham let out a slow, annoyed breath, “I’m listening, just tell me.”

“I have breast cancer.”

Kate waited, wondering what his face looked like, wondering if it sunk in immediately or if this was going to take a while. She remembered the accident with Ethan, the episode with Nola and that awful boy, when his mother died, all the terrifying events that changed their lives together. Each of those times she’d been with him, right there with him, yet now she couldn’t remember his first reaction in any of those moments, she could only recall her own.

“How do you know? Did you have…?”

“All the tests, yes, it’s for certain, no doubt.”

“When did you find this out, how long…”

“Six weeks ago.”

“Six weeks, Christ Kate, why didn’t you tell me sooner!”

“Graham, remember I asked you to be supportive. This is about me, not you.”

“Still, that’s a long time…does Nola know?”

Kate knew now that she’d done this wrong, once again she hadn’t handled something the right way. Damn, he was her father, she should have told him before Nola! They should have told her together. She tapped her fingers nervously on the side of her wine glass, “Yes, she does, she lives here, it was hard to hide it from her,” she offered.

“I would live there too if you hadn’t asked me to leave.”

Clearly, this was not going to go smoothly, Kate thought. “Graham, you know damn well why you don’t live here anymore. And besides, that’s not the point. Look, I don’t have time to worry about your feelings, okay? Geez, Graham, seriously. I’m probably dying here, don’t you get that?”

“You’re not dying, Kate, I know it’s bad but it’s not necessarily a death sentence, Joe Donovan’s wife had…”

“I am not Karen Donovan. I am me and this is bad. Considering the way my life has gone thus far I’m not thinking the odds are in my favor. Okay, can we move on now?”

“What are you doing about this, I mean, what kind of treatment, who is your doctor?”

“Graham, I can tell you all of that, and I will. But right now I want to talk about Nola. She’s, she’s not handling this well at all, today she—“

“Can you blame her? Kate, I, I know you want to talk about Nola, and we will. I promise. But Kate, I need some time, some time to digest this, some time to get this straight in my head and figure things out.”

“Time? Graham, I don’t exactly have oodles of time on my hands right now. What do you mean you need time?” She could feel the shrillness of desperation creeping back into her voice, that voice that she just realized went away when Graham left.

“Kate, I just…let me call you back, okay?”

“Call me back, are you kidding me?”

“Kate, please, just, I’m hanging up now, I’ll call you back later, I promise.”

“Graham, don’t…” but she heard the click before she could finish. This wasn’t the response she expected. She stood looking at the phone receiver with disbelief, as if somehow the telephone itself was to blame. Kate wasn’t exactly sure how to feel. She understood not being able to process this all at once, but to essentially hang up on her after she told him she was probably dying of cancer was not even in the sphere of possibilities that she had considered!

Dying. Oh that word, it did still sound melodramatic even to her. Yet whenever she said she might be dying the ring of truth that phrase held resonated more and more with her as the days flew past.

When they’d told her it was Stage II she didn’t know exactly what that meant. She vaguely understood it had something to do with the size of the cancer itself, the tumor or lump or whatever it was you called that thing found growing in her like a ticking time bomb.

During those first days of doctor visits and a battery of endless tests she mentally agonized over what she thought were going to be her decisions, the treatment choices and options she expected to have. What a fool she was, a hopeful naïve little fool. Because once she fully understood her diagnosis the decisions were actually few and simple -- there were really none to make beyond hospital location and which doctor she thought was the nicest. Every single one of them, one by one, every doctor wanted to do the same thing. There was no difference in opinion, no glimmer of a reprieve. Bilateral mastectomy, both breasts are to go, simple as that.

As the truth sunk in she felt brutalized, under attack like the victim of an evil assailant about to hack her to pieces in some second rate horror movie. She couldn't face it. Maybe if she saw another doctor, went to another hospital? She wanted to find someone, anyone to give her another choice, something else beyond the violence of amputation.

But sooner than she could have ever imagined she gave up. It was surprising to her how easy it was after only six weeks to think of letting them go, her beautiful breasts, her lovely body, to be mutilated beyond recognition. But they weren’t hers anymore; these breasts belonged to cancer, to a villain that was trying to murder her with them like weapons of torture. Let cancer have them, they were toxic now anyway, damaged goods. Maybe her whole life was damaged goods, seeping poison that created the cancer in the first place. But she couldn’t go there. She needed to get things in order.

The doctor insisted the operation would be nothing; no more painful than a cesarean section is what she was told; tho not nearly as rewarding of course. It was the treatment after that scared her most. Being sick and alone was terrifying, unthinkable. Who would ever want a mutilated invalid? She would be alone for the rest of her life, however long that was to be. Alone except for Nola, of course.

Nola had been a trouper, at first. Taking care of so many things, not telling Graham a word about it. It wasn’t hard to keep it from him, eventually after the flurry of reconciliation attempts he’d stopped coming around or calling as much. It seemed he’d given up on both of them after only a few months. Strange how he’d suddenly just let go so easily, Kate had thought, surprised. Sure, he’d tried for a while to convince her to let him make it up to her, to take him back. Promised her everything and more. He even tried taking Nola out on Saturdays for the first few months like a typical weekend-Dad…but Kate threw it in his face, told him she knew it was just for show, just to prove something to her, to try and make himself look like the dutiful father she’d always hoped he’d be. After that he stopped calling, stopped everything.

Now she prayed with all her heart that those accusations were unfounded. She hoped with all her heart she’d been wrong, and that he really was capable of change, of loving Nola enough for the both of them, enough to make up for the years they were too wrapped up in themselves to put her first. Enough to make up for the fact that her mother now had cancer.

She always told Nola that her father loved her. She’d make excuses for his tyrannical behavior and say he just didn’t know how to show it, didn’t know how to express him self. Imagine that, a writer that can’t express him self, wasn’t that ironic. Who was she kidding? This was a man who wrote books with beautiful passages about quiet cowboys awkwardly professing true love, yet couldn’t manage to do so to his own wife or daughter. Jesus Christ, now he couldn’t even manage a telephone conversation with his dying wife.

Kate’s attention was snapped back to her surroundings; there was a knock at the back door.

It was Graham.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

growing up

(not a full 1000 words, but Nola needed to be here)

When Nola stepped out of the bathroom and walked thru the hallway towards her room she noticed Ethan’s bedroom door was open. Kate was sitting on the floor against his little bed, her shoulders bouncing up and down with silent heaving sobs. She was holding something in her hands…what was it? Was it Ethan’s stuffed dog, that little one he loved so much? Nola had often seen her mother asleep in Ethan’s bed clutching the tattered dog like a child, her tearstained face evidence of another long night of endless mourning.

But this time Kate wasn’t holding one of Ethan’s toys. Instead she was staring at Nola’s blood stained underpants. Nola approached slowly, not wanting to startle her…half not wanting to disturb her mother but needing to understand.

“Mom?” Nola said, barely audibly.

Kate didn’t turn her head towards Nola in the doorway but her shoulders stopped rising and falling momentarily. “Yes honey,” she said in a voice that sounded softer than usual.

“Mom, are you…what are you doing?”

“I’m just, thinking.”

“About what?”

“About growing up.”

“Oh,” and then she couldn’t resist, “Me or you?”

Kate laughed a little and said, “Both of us I guess.”

Nola laughed back. Then they were silent again and she wasn’t sure what to do next. Her mother seemed different to her and she didn’t know how to deal with it. She didn’t know if she liked it or if she didn’t. It just seemed strange. A part of her wanted things to go back to how they were, her mom in the distance and not so…so…present. But another part of her sensed, or at least hoped, that maybe somehow this would be better. Maybe things would actually get better.

Nola walked into the room and sat down next to Kate, leaning her back against the bed the same way. The two of them just sat there for a while, quiet and comfortable.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

crinkled paper

(Finally, a new excerpt!)

Kate sat on the edge the exam table, trying not to crinkle the paper as she adjusted her position. That sound of body on paper always bothered her, grated on her nerves, but even more so now. It reminded her of the sound of meat being slapped on brown paper at the butcher shop her father ran. That sound was etched in her memory as much as the raw smells, the vision of skinned carcasses hanging from the ceiling and the piles of fat tossed aside while her father sawed the fragmented body parts of animals into palatable sections for someone’s dinner table.

Now, here she sat, waiting to find out if she too would be butchered, if she too were to have the now unpalatable parts of her own body tossed aside, useless, “fit only for the grinder” as her father would say. She shuddered at her own analogy.

The room was cold and cramped, dimly lit. Dominating practically the entire space was an ultrasound machine on a metal stand. Between the exam table where she perched and the machine there was little room left. Everything was functional, cold and sterile, yet in surreal contrast to the rigid technology of the softly humming machine and the hard metal edges of the table there was a large, vibrant print nearly covering what little available wall space there was. Trying to forget the butcher’s knife, she decided to lose herself in the picture.

The depiction was of an Irish cottage and garden, or what she imagined an Irish cottage and garden would look like, all rambling vines and masses of flowers surrounding a whitewashed cottage with a thatched roof. She tried to let her mind drift, to think of what the original artist might have looked like, was this their home, was it a man or a woman? But inevitably all she could think about was Deirdre, dear old Grandee, and how much she wished she were here. Her mounting saddness grew quickly.

How she hated waiting alone like this; it only gave you more of a chance for the mind to wander. No matter how much you tried to keep your self occupied by the inane or the ordinary, deeper thoughts would always manage to prevail, intruding, forcing their way in and leaving you feeling as emotionally exposed as your body was in the ubiquitous ill-fitting hospital gown, like meat on a hook.

The more she tried to maintain her composure, the harder it got until finally the tears came. A feeling of panic and dread rose up in her and tightened every muscle in her chest, closed off her throat so that her sobs came out as choking gulps. She dug her fingernails into her palms, trying to hold back the flood of tears. Nothing had happened yet, no one had told her anything new, no further bad news. If she didn’t regain control of her self the doctor would walk in any minute and find her crying. That thought set her off further and now the tears flowed unrelenting.

She tried to tell herself it didn’t matter, certainly doctors had seen women with breast cancer cry, she wouldn’t be the first. But it did nothing calm her. She feared doctors thinking she was incapable and not telling her what she needed to know, dismissing her as some fragile-minded ninny. She reached into her purse and got out the vial of Valium, then thought better of it. She needed to get a hold of herself without it this time and be completely alert, to have her wits about her. She must understand what was going to be said. This was too important to deaden her senses for.

Mastectomy or lumpectomy. That was what would be decided here in this room. She’d had her exam, her scans, her X-rays. Now this radiologist would do the follow-up ultrasound and finally she would know if she were a candidate for saving her breast.

She’d met a woman named Karen, a teaching assistant at the college, who had a lumpectomy. Now five years later she was healthy and happy, hardly a trace of the scar left. She had willingly, even happily showed it off to Kate in the ladies room. Compared to how Kate’s mother had looked after her own mastectomy, it was as if nothing had happened to this woman, it was a mere footnote in her life story, just a bad memory left in the dust of her past. Kate so wanted to know that this would be a memory for her someday too, not like it was now, some dark phantom stalking her every waking moment. She wanted her cancer to fade out softly like that woman’s scar, a slight shadow the only point of recollection.

Just then the doctor walked in. Kate had managed to compose herself a little after all and being suddenly startled by the doctor’s abrupt entrance further helped shift her focus. “My name is Dr. Ester, Mrs. Collins, how are you today?”

“Fine, well, you know,” Kate managed a weak laugh.

“Yes, well, let’s see what we have here, okay? Can you lie down on the table for me and reach your right arm up over your head. Good, now, I’m going to open your gown…this gel might be a little cold…”

The radiologist took a long time, slowly and methodically running the wand over Kate’s entire breast, centimeter by centimeter, stopping and clicking the computer mouse with his other hand over and over. Sometimes he pushed down hard and Kate winced. This escaped the doctor’s notice completely. Kate’s arm also went numb but she was afraid to move for fear of somehow causing a mistake in the reading. She said nothing, just let the tingling sensation further divert her from feeling anything else.

Finally the doctor said, “I’ll be right back, Mrs. Collins, just a moment please,” and with that he casually draped a towel over Kate’s exposed breasts and quickly left the room.

Now what? Was she allowed to move? She decided she must and carefully moved her arm down from its overhead position, trying not to shift her body any more than necessary.

“Mrs. Collins?”

“Oh, uh, yes,” Kate hadn’t heard the door this time and nearly jumped off the table, the doctor returned more quickly than she thought he would. Standing next to him was an attractive young woman in a white coat. Perhaps a nurse, maybe a woman was supposed to be there during the exam like at the gynecologist? She wasn’t sure there was going to be enough room for all these people.

“Mrs. Collins this is Doctor Neville, I wanted to consult with her on your ultrasound, okay?”

“Okay, sure.” Kate remained laying on her side, her hips oddly twisted, her breast barely covered under the towel and still coated with the gel.

“Did Dr. Placido speak to you, Mrs. Collins?”

“I’m not sure, I mean, I’ve seen him but not since the MRI, why?”

“Well, I spoke to him after sending him the written MRI report and my recommendation was for him to discuss that report with you, are you saying he didn’t do that yet?”

“No, no one has discussed the MRI with me, why?”

“Mrs. Collins, I’m going to call Dr. Placido right now and leave you with Dr. Neville for a bit, okay, I really want to touch base with Dr. Placido before I speak further with you about this, okay?” The radiologist turned and started to whisper instructions to the other doctor as Kate’s mind raced and she felt herself lose the tenuous grip she had on her emotions.

“I want to know what is going on and I want to know right now!”

She heard an unrecognizable voice, strong and deep, nearly shouting. The sound echoed loudly, reverberating in the cramped little space, sucking all the air out of the room. It took her a moment to realize she had spoken the words herself. She was sitting up, breasts fully exposed, crinkled paper torn and sticking to her back. She didn’t care one bit. Not one bit.

Monday, May 11, 2009

meet Graham

(Not long ago I was exploring the character of Graham, writing some notes, jotting down descriptions & ideas, when towards the end of my writing he surprisingly began to speak in the first person. I got a glimpse of his internal dialog and a better view of his personality. I’m not sure about him being a first person character in the finished product, but I’m leaving it in this extremely rough draft for now because I think it gives insight into what makes him tick and I can use it for reference at the very least. Since it’s been a while that I’ve put something up, I thought I’d share it.)

People either loved or hated Graham Collins’ work. The fans he had were passionate about his books, collected them, read them again and again. There were book groups and fan clubs devoted to his novels. His classes at the college were always full. Freshmen got on a waiting list and hoped they would be able to squeeze in before they graduated.

There were still a few people, even critics, who didn’t realize the “Wicked Creek” series of Western novels were written by a college professor from New Jersey, a man who’d never been west of the Delaware Water Gap until after the first novel was published. Sometimes when they found out they would be angry, feel cheated or stupid. Like sour grapes, critics would often lambaste him and say they could tell his writing was inauthentic, that he was a phony hack. But others, even actual working cowboys, loved him all the more for it. They could tell he was an admirer who painted them in a glorious light and saw his work as a tribute to an ideal that was fading fast in contemporary times. He’d be invited to speak at touristy dude ranches and working cattle ranches alike. His fans crossed a wide demographic and even his harshest critics had to give him credit for his scrupulous research and attention to proper detail. This from a man who didn’t mount a horse until he was 35 years old.

There were women who liked his work too, something else the critics both praised and scoffed at. They often said he was actually a glorified romance novelist wrapped up in a saddle blanket. Most critics with any sort of feminist leanings trashed his female characters as being barely more than a revamped version of the old damsel in distress dressed up in cowboy boots and too much lipstick. But when they made a TV movie out of his second novel in the series, Trouble in Wicked Creek, it did so well in the ratings it was up for an Emmy Award. The movie didn’t win, but he was forever linked with the words, “Emmy nominated”.

None of this ever seemed to faze him outwardly. He took it in stride, never felt pressure to perform, to out do his previous work. That’s probably what kept him successful. That and he’d found his niche. The college asked him to teach additional classes, this time not on writing or fiction, but on Western Expansion, Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush. Graham easily rose to that challenge.

Fans and colleagues alike all held the same opinion of Graham Collins. He was one of the nicest most genuine guys you’d ever want to meet. A gentleman in the real sense of that word, a gentle man, not larger than life, not self aggrandizing, but mild, friendly and sincere.

That was perhaps the most cutting wound of all to his wife and daughter. They suffered his wrath relentlessly; his exacting standards unmet could produce an anger so hot it seemed ready to erupt into violence at any second. That it never actually did was little consolation. The power his words, his unremitting anger had to wound them was worse than any blow could ever be. He either terrorized or ignored his daughter, belittled his wife and generally created a silent, seething storm of rage that swirled around his family practically at all times.

How could that angry being be reconciled with the persona the world saw? He was not a smooth man, not suave or adept at acting a part, pretending to be something he was not. So how was it that both these characters lived in one person? To Graham these were not incongruent personalities, not a dichotomy at all. His family was worthy of one type of interaction and the general public was deemed worthy of another. It was not devious, not contrived. This was just how he saw things. He saw nothing hypocritical about being kind to the outside world and brutal to his family. The outside world held no sway in his life, no power to disappoint him or hurt him. And he need not share how he felt about his wife and daughter with didn’t air your dirty laundry. The fact that his wife and daughter were a constant irritation at best and a colossal disappointment at least, was the cross he bore silently beyond the walls of his home.

If they would just tow the line, if they would just do what they were supposed to do and not screw up everything they touched then he wouldn’t have to get mad. It was their fault; they were the ones playing games. They’d act like they were being victimized when it was really him; he was the victim of their constant fuck ups. How hard was it to keep a house clean? How hard was it to pick up after yourself, to be polite and not intrusive? The outside world appreciated him; they admired him even. They didn’t think his simple requirements were so monumental or unreasonable. But his own wife, she couldn’t seem to meet even the most basic needs a husband might have. And she’d turned his daughter against him too. He saw how she looked at him when he disciplined Nola; she undermined him at every opportunity. And that just made Nola even more of a baby than she already was. Kate just babied that kid; let her get away with murder because she couldn’t be bothered. Kate can’t be bothered to do the simple stuff like keep the kid clean and teach her to behave. She couldn’t keep dogs from destroying the house or knives from ending up in toy boxes and she couldn’t keep track of a two and a half year old for one half hour…that’s all he was late, just 30 goddamn minutes. If she’d just watched him for 30 goddamn minutes…

Kate would never change. No matter how hard he tried to get thru to her she was unwilling to keep up her end of the bargain. Wasn’t that what marriage was? A bargain. A deal. You do this and I’ll do that. Graham had kept his end of the bargain. He’d provided for her and the kids and came home every Goddamn day. He wasn’t out gallivanting, wasn’t out with the boys. He was working at school or working at home. Even when he traveled, even then he never strayed. He was honorable and faithful and he’d made his bed so he lay in it without looking back.

Kate once had looked at him like he knew everything. She’d thought he was smart and funny, distinguished and rugged at the same time. She smiled, God, how she smiled at him all the time. Everything he said to her was witty and charming, she made him feel like the most virile guy in any room.

Now, now she could barely look him in the eye, barely even spoke to him let alone smile. She just looked away with that fake resigned expression, like she was some beleaguered wife that had to bare the brunt of his harsh treatment. Fuck that. Fuck that and fuck her. She was the one that changed, not him. She was the one that didn’t keep her end of the bargain.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Kate kept going from room to room; trying to find a place to settle down and rest, to just stop thinking, escape from the terrible new knowledge. Cancer…the new word could not be formed by her own lips, it would hurt to speak it aloud. But even in staying silent there was no escape, one couldn’t leave cancer someplace and shut the door. There would never be escape or peace or numbness again; those days were over. She was trapped, inextricably tangled in this mutation that had taken over her breast, a stranglehold that was going to last forever.

It made her think how much of her life had been about escaping. She’d almost even managed to escape the anguish of her child's death…sometimes she could forget Ethan was really dead by dwelling only on the memories of him, mentally flipping through them like folders in a secret file cabinet, pulling out certain ones when needed.

But that was different now, too. Now she couldn’t even find Ethan, couldn’t find that sweet spot that she went to in her mind’s eye, that place of happy days and precious visions. Cancer seemed to change whatever she was trying to focus on. Somehow it magnified everything, brought more and more to the surface. It was as if every single bad thing that ever happened was suddenly feeding off the cancerous tumors and growing too, growing beyond the boundaries of her ability to stifle it. Nothing worked to keep the dark feelings at bay. There seemed no speck of happiness left to cling to, nothing, not one thing she could conjure up to look forward to or place her hopes upon. “What was the point?” was a phrase that kept coming back into her head over and over.

Of course Nola was the point. Nola needed to be the point here. For crying out loud, what kind of mother was she that her first, second and third thoughts weren’t for her daughter? She knew that’s how she was supposed to feel, what she was supposed to do. But it wasn’t how she felt and she couldn’t do it. There was something broken; a disconnect. Had it always been damaged, or did the cancer eat that away too?

Nola barely acknowledged her existence these days, and who could blame her? She’d hadn’t been there for this child, really. Memories haunted her…were they ever close? It was stunning the thoughts that kept rolling in her mind without stopping. No, wait, yes, they were, maybe, when she was little, younger. Or at least Kate had been going through the motions, was it good enough, did she love her enough?

“Good God, what have I done?” Her own voice echoed through the empty house.

The sudden clarity with which she saw things now was blinding, it was almost as painful as the knowledge that her life was probably over, that she might die soon. It was as if every thing became crystalline, pure thoughts just flew through her brain without cessation or censor, without bidding either. Nothing was within her control anymore. Not one thing. This was all beyond comprehension.

Wandering around and around the house she kept talking to herself just to hear a human sound, to know she was real, this was all happening. The awareness, realizations just kept coming in waves, mistakes she made, ways she could have been better, memories of times she should have been happy. “Why wasn’t I happy more, why didn’t I notice all the things that were there to be happy about?”

Now, now when she saw those very same things that should have made her happy before instead they made her mourn all the more, grieve for the life she had thrown away so far. She had wasted so much time…if only she’d known there was to be so little of it. If only she had known.

“Would I have had Nola?”

If she’d known that she might die would she have had another child after Ethan? She knew the answer. No. But yet she couldn’t bring herself to begrudge the life of her daughter, as disconnected as she felt she couldn’t let herself stay in that thought.

Instead she kept moving, kept doing, kept trying to find a place to land, a place to let go. Eventually she found herself in the bathroom opening the medicine cabinet. Plenty of painkillers. Just to sleep. Just two, maybe three.

The next morning as the sun shown brutally thru the lace curtains Kate wished she had remembered to draw the blinds, wished she could continue to sleep, go back into the depths where she had drifted…far past dreams and awareness of any kind. Sleep was now probably only going to be available to her artificially, she knew that, had suffered from insomnia enough to know that there was no way she could ever just lie down and sleep with the awful knowledge of cancer now looming over her, as if a monster from a childhood nightmare had come to life, no longer just lurking in the forgotten dust under the bed. But sleep was also her only refuge. The night before was a complete blank, she barely remembered falling into bed. There were no thoughts, no more flurry of memories and realizations. Just the empty relief of complete nothingness. She should call the doctor and get a regular prescription for sleeping pills. Surely they give that to people like her? Who has cancer and can sleep on their own?

But no doctors today. She knew there were phone calls, arrangements she needed to make, appointments to schedule, facts to learn, decisions to be made. The thought of it all was completely overwhelming. It was impossible.

“Where do I start?”

The sound of her voice alone in the house was no longer comforting. It was unfamiliar, as if it were someone else’s. It was. It belonged to someone with cancer. She didn’t know that person. She didn’t want to.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow she would face things. For today she wanted nothing more than to sleep again, just a little longer. Thankfully she had plenty painkillers left to last till she got something of her own. Graham was always getting prescriptions for his back and not taking them, he was too tough, said they clouded his mind. That’s exactly what she wanted, to cloud her mind. There were plenty to choose from. For today, she could just use what she had and sleep. She would bury her mind in a thousand clouds until there was nothing but softness to smother all thoughts of cancer.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

a friend for Nola

Nola waited by the old lockers after school, an excited little flutter in her stomach. She had a friend, a real friend. There was someone who thought she was funny, interesting, who liked to hang out with her. Melanie Woodman was her friend. Nola and Melanie…Melanie and Nola. Have you seen Nola? Oh, she’s with her friend Melanie. Nola practically hugged herself as she stood waiting for Melanie to meet her as planned.

That night at the slumber party had been very enlightening. Nola had missed so much of the big picture before that evening that she couldn’t help wonder what else she overlooked, what other social constructs she missed? She would have to be more observant, this was new territory.

Melanie Woodman had seemed to be just like all the other girls, part of the blur, the out of reach social unit that was the eighth grade class. But Nola failed to see that Melanie was almost as much an outsider as she herself was. The only difference between them was that Melanie was rich, and therefore she was useful to the other girls so they acted nicer to her. She had concert tickets, cool clothes, a limo that picked her up from school and would take her anywhere she wanted to go, parents that traveled and didn’t care if she had parties. It seemed maybe the other kids didn’t even like Melanie anymore than they did Nola; they just liked what she provided.

At the beginning of Melanie's party Nola hung back, she stayed around the edges of the room, moving just enough so that no one noticed she didn’t have anyone to talk to. She wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, just trying to make it through the evening without looking like a reject. But eavesdrop she did.

She kept a constant eye on Melanie, thinking at first that since she was the host, the one that invited her, if there was going to be trouble or if a trick was going to be played that she would be the one orchestrating it. Nola wanted to keep track of Melanie to make sure she wasn’t ambushed. She also kept a keen eye on Gwen Van Matre.

Gwen Van Matre had invited Nola to her own birthday party at the beginning of the school year, when Nola was still hopeful that skipping ahead put her in a class with kids that wouldn’t pick on her, where she’d be able to fit in better. The party was to consist of a horseback ride and picnic by a lake in a nearby state park. There were fifteen girls, so since the Van Matres only owned six horses themselves, some were rented from a nearby stable.

Nola had been crazy for horses since she could walk, she’d taken riding lessons at Lynchwood Stables when she was younger and Grandee could still bring her. She was a decent rider for her age. But when all the girls were mounting up at the start of the trail it turned out it had been specially arranged for Nola to ride a saggy old pony, the only pony, in fact, that was there that day, brought just for her since she was “so young”. A toddler could have ridden the animal, and in fact Nola was tall and lanky for her age, she matched most of the eighth grade girls inch for inch in height.

But perhaps what was worst of all is that the creature had been decorated as if for a little girl’s birthday party, bedecked with streaming ribbons and barrettes in it’s mane and tail, a colorful rainbow blanket peeked out from beneath a sparkling pink and white saddle. It was a sight to behold and the minute all the other kids saw it the laughter had been nearly deafening.

Nola had two choices, ride that pony or not go. She was sort of frozen, not sure what to do. But in the moment, unsure, she chose to ride the pony, to try and suck it up. As if the humiliation weren’t already enough, though, someone had also given strict instructions to the stable owners that a guide needed to be provided with the pony as well. Even though Nola assured the young woman that it wasn’t necessary, she was unmoved, only following orders. So to add insult to injury this young woman, a teenager barely taller than Nola herself, insisted on holding the reigns and walking the pony the whole way. It was going to be humiliating.

She looked ridiculous on the little pony, like a giant on a toy horse. The other girls towered over her as one by one they headed down the woodland trail on their graceful mounts. The poor old Shetland was so slow, so tired, that halfway there she just stopped and would go no further. Try as the guide might, the poor beast would not be budged. Again Nola had a choice, either walk the rest of the way to catch up with the others, already miles ahead, or go home. This time Nola chose to go home. She walked rather than call her mother for a ride, trying not to cry the whole way.

The next day at school some of the girls made fun of her. They teased her for how ridiculous she looked riding the pretty little pony and they busted her chops for being such a baby that she couldn’t be a sport about the whole thing, that she went crying home to her mommy. It wasn’t true; she knew it was no innocent error. It was a purposeful joke meant to put her in her place, to let her know that she would never fit in. And she certainly didn’t cry to her mother. Her mother would not have understood. She would have thought it was an honest mistake; that the Van Matres had only tried to get a horse appropriate for her age. Kate would have thought they were being accommodating. Nola’s mom never seemed to get these things. The social nuances of middle school were lost on her. Nola couldn’t prove it wasn’t a miscommunication, of course, but she sure doubted it.

Apparently societal scorn at this advanced age could be subtle. It was different than the overt treatment Nola had gotten from her peers before. Their acts had been obvious, quick. This new echelon needed careful navigation; schemes were potentially more elaborate. After Gwen’s party Nola had waited for another incident, another situation. But there had been none, none until Melanie Woodman’s party.

Understandably Nola was worried the slumber party at Melanie Woodman’s house was another set-up. She was right, it was, but not by Melanie. Poor Melanie had been an unwitting pawn in another of Gwen Van Matre’s attempts to humiliate Nola. This time though, it backfired.

Monday, April 27, 2009

the accident

(I wrote this earlier on the day I received my own phone call)

“Today is the day.”

She’d tried not to think about it, to stay busy. She had a pile of magazines to flip through, painted her toe nails, but strangely it was cleaning that she was drawn to. She sorted out the pantry, sorted out the laundry, for some reason sorting things engrossed her now, it was mind numbing, just what she needed. The thought of that was actually kind of funny. Of all the things to bring her relief from the waves of anxiety, that cleaning would do it was practically hilarious, so not typical of her. Graham might even think it was funny if he were there, might even crack a smile or make a joke. Maybe she should have told him after all. But of course, that would open doors she preferred to keep closed. At least for now.

Still, whenever Kate had a lull in those mundane household activities, that sentence popped right back in her head again. “Today is the day.” Today she would find out what the lumps in her breast were, the results from the biopsy would be available some time today. There’d be a call. A stranger, someone she didn’t know would be on the phone and would give her some sort of news.

She already knew what they weren’t. They weren’t simple cysts, they weren’t simple anything. They were definitely something. The mammogram and ultrasound had disproved they’re being nothing. But the type of something they could be was so variable as to make one’s head spin. The biopsy results would answer some, perhaps even all her questions. Or it could end up merely creating more questions. But in some way today would either be a beginning or an ending, it would change her entire life or it would go on as before, all would be decided for her in practically an instant. That huge difference would be determined for her by a voice at the other end of the phone.

The waiting was the hardest part. It was agony. Time for the mind to go to every dark corner; to explore every black hole. But perhaps the worst part was no one stopped her from going there. No one said she was over reacting, that it was nothing, she was being silly, letting her imagination run wild. That’s what she usually heard when she worried. In fact, people often seemed annoyed at her when she was anxious, like her worry was a source of irritation, a bother. She was, after all, a ninny as her mother tagged her, someone who over reacted. That label she new well, she wore so often that it almost felt comfortable. She half wished someone would call her that now.

But this time no one got annoyed with her for crying, no one told her to get a hold of herself. No one said she was over reacting. And that was what scared her the most. Because there’d only been one other time in her entire life when that had happened, when no one told her she was being a ninny, and the results then had been worse than unthinkable.

That night, that awful night when she and Graham had realized as the sirens screamed that Ethan wasn’t in the house, that he’d slipped out into the darkness, her first instinct was to run towards the sound. As she flung open the door she immediately thought any second Graham would tell her to stop being such an idiot, not to go running out into the night aimlessly. But he didn’t. He was right beside her. In fact he quickly passed her, outrunning her easily, his long legs covered more ground faster than she could. Did he look back to see if she was keeping up? She couldn’t remember now.

As she watched him race ahead and reach the main road at end of their peaceful little street the flashing lights of police cars and ambulances cast weird light patterns, a dancing red and orange glow against his rapid moving form. A police officer tried to stop him but Graham threw him aside like he was a rag doll and disappeared amongst the closely crowded emergency vehicles. As Kate herself finally got closer, another officer grabbed her but she wasn’t so strong as Graham. The man held her with all his might and after struggling for a moment she collapsed in his arms, unable to catch her breath, her chest pounding in a surreal rhythm with the flashing lights.

She barely remembered getting to the hospital, that same police officer drove her, or was it another one? Graham had been driven too but they weren’t taken in the same car together. Why was that? In all these years that small nuance hadn’t occurred to her until just now.

It wasn’t because he rode in the ambulance with Ethan; she knew that. Kate had thought that at first and was heartbroken, angry even. A child as young as Ethan should have his mother near him if he’s hurt…it’s the mother that comforts, that soothes, why would they let Graham go instead of her? But later she found out a police officer had brought Graham too, he’d not been allowed in the ambulance. That was even worse. Ethan had been alone, with strangers. Just like he’d been alone in the dark on the street, just like he’d been alone by the front door waiting for his father to come home.

Only later did Kate grow to understand that Ethan was already gone when they’d reached the accident scene, that it was merely a formality, a valiant production to make sure every last possible effort was made before pronouncing him dead. The wait for news then seemed insufferable but now Kate wondered how long it had really been…an hour perhaps, surely not much more.

Graham had looked so pale, so grim, so vulnerable as they sat waiting. She’d never seen him like that and never would again. Kate had been afraid to look at him too long, let alone to speak to him; afraid just the sound of her voice or the feel of her gaze would push him over the edge. She kept thinking of his mother’s story about how the loss of her siblings, that final loss of the baby Nolan, had been what did Deirdre’s father in, it had caused his death in her opinion. Had he been a strong man before that, Kate wondered, or was he weak like her?

Eventually the burning question in Kate’s throat could be contained no more and she had to break the silence, had to chance shattering Graham’s fragile, contained grip. But the question came out of her mouth wrong; it wasn’t what she really wanted to know.

“Did you see him, did you get to see him?”

His answer was terse, choked, short, “Yes.” And with that he stood up and walked away a few feet, waving his hand as if to say, “no more”.

What Kate really wanted to know was, “Did Ethan see you, did he know you were there?” For some reason her brain wouldn’t let her ask that, her lips couldn’t form those specific words. Later she found out the definitive answer, the impossibility of her hope that her son had known at least one of his parents was there with him.

The phone rang and Kate snapped back to the present. She stared at it a moment and let it ring one more time, then slowly reached for the receiver.

Today is the day.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

if only

It had always been hard to think about that day in any detail, even years and years later. Not because she forgot, that could never happen. It was because the details made it excruciating, made it just that much more unbearable. They revealed how preventable, how avoidable it all was. That was the part that could stay hidden in silence, in the vagaries faded by time. To even think about the details lead to the inevitable “if only” and that sick feeling of wanting to reverse time, to take it all back and erase it.

Kate could clearly remember what Ethan was like right before it happened, those last hours of what would end up being his final day on earth. He was excited to go trick or treating, jazzed up about his Batman costume, impatient to go. He didn’t know something bad was going to happen, of course, but that wasn’t the part that really got to Kate. What haunted her most was the thought that at some point he did get scared, did feel he was in danger. She hoped that wasn’t the case, that he got to stay happy and bright, his innocence protected right up until the very last second. He might have just been going happily along when that car hit him, completely unaware. But he also might have been scared, realized he was lost, crying for her, wondering why she hadn’t come for him, wondering where his Mommy was.

She could talk for hours on end about Ethan. It filled her with happiness, kept him alive, kept him from fading away into nothingness. But she rarely retold the last bit of the story of that day, not about how it all had transpired, what lead up to it.

Graham never talked about it either, of course, but then he never talked about Ethan in any way so it was less noticeable. In all these years Kate had always blamed herself completely and only barely let herself form the thought that it was his fault too. On some level she’d known, believed it in some internal way. But she didn’t let the idea take full shape; she kept it in the shadows, away from the light. Even when they spent all that time waiting at the hospital, she never once went there. He had looked so grim. Was it because she didn’t have the heart; did she feel sorry for him?

Eventually the idea took hold, came out of the shadows into the glaring light of consciousness. But she still wouldn’t say it out loud. Kate would never give him the chance to defend himself or try to twist it around to being solely her fault. Because everything that ever happened was her fault. So of course he would never say he was sorry, he never would say that he had made a mistake. Graham had never apologized for anything in all the years she knew him. He felt justified, right in every single thing he did. He was so sure about everything, so absolutely sure of himself at all times that it would never occur to him to say he was sorry. He didn’t think he’d ever made a single error.

Kate couldn’t imagine what that felt like. Her whole life she second-guessed nearly everything she did, everything she thought. But not this, not anymore. This was the one time she was sure she was right. She knew in every fiber of her being Graham was to blame as much as she was. And she knew he knew it too, because he would have had at her, at some point during all these years he would have ripped her to shreds if he could have, if he thought even remotely that it was her responsibility alone. But he never had, and that’s how she knew. That was as close as you would get to seeing a guilty conscious in him.

When Nola began asking questions about that day it made Kate feel nervous and uncomfortable. She told Nola it was too painful for her to think about, and it was. She’d been so open and free with Ethan’s life story; Nola had always been such a willing listener to every tale. Eventually she relented, told about the accident, the hospital, the funeral, wine made her brave. But this part of the story was different. Now Kate wished she had told her, destroyed her father forever in her eyes. Nola already thought he was mean, cruel. This would finish the job, annihilate him and show him up for the uncaring monster he really was. Maybe then Nola would stop blaming her alone for so much of her childhood sorrow.

She could tell Nola how Graham hadn’t called out that day, hadn’t simply said, “I’m home.” If he had, Kate would have told him Ethan was waiting by the front door for him, had been waiting not so patiently because Graham was late, as usual. Ethan was whining and fidgeting and Kate had needed a break, she’d left him there in the foyer to wait and watch for Daddy to get home through the glass door while she went upstairs and started cleaning up. If Graham had only called out she would have told him where Ethan was and then when he didn’t find the boy there waiting where Kate had left him they would have realized he must have slipped out of the house, somehow opened the door and gone out into the evening in a dark colored costume, barely three years old, never crossing a street by himself yet. They would have searched for him sooner, found him before…

But Graham didn’t call out to her when he got home because he was angry. That was nothing new, he was always angry, always in a rage about something she had done or hadn’t done. He wouldn’t speak to her; she was beneath him because of her stupidity, her endless fuck-ups and mistakes. She never lived up to his expectations and he seethed at her for it. It was his hate, his anger and her willingness to silently endure it that had killed their son.

Graham thought she was already out with Ethan, that she’d given up waiting and took him out trick or treating herself. She saw his car in the driveway from the upstairs window and then when she peeked over the railing and looked by the front door Ethan was gone, she’d thought Graham came home and took him without saying a word, typical of him. They didn’t realize that neither one of them had him, didn’t realize that Ethan had gotten out on his own, until it was too late. Until they heard the fiercely close sirens screaming and each came to the front window too look, finally seeing each other and realizing, immediately, silently, their mistake. Fearing the worst, running down the short little street, following that roaring sound, as it grew louder, bringing them closer to the unthinkable.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Melanie's house

Melanie Woodman’s house was probably the largest one in Darlington. Her family was thought by most to be the richest in town, but it was very new money; obscene compared to the well established Darlingtons, Ramseys, and Coopers, the upper middleclass decedents of the original founding families. Their old money had come from the town, from business they built and farms they once ran, and then been put right back into Darlington Township when they donated endowments to schools or parks, offering land for the college. Their families had been in the northern New Jersey area since before the 1700’s. Unlike the Woodmans, who by those standards were relative newcomers.

Melanie’s family bought what was locally known as “The Manor” from the Avanti family, also late arrivals to the area, less than a decade ago. But originally the house had belonged, like so many of the grander ones, to members of the Darlington family. In fact it had been the final jewel in the family crown, when their wealth was at its peak. All that farming money and the prosperity from local businesses, had been sunk into the costly house, built before the great crash, in the early 20’s. Architecturally it was a hodgepodge, part late Craftsman, with Japanese elements, and part English Tudor. The house was singular, both for it’s style, surrounding property, and immense size.

Melanie Woodman’s father worked on Wall Street, though Nola didn’t know what he did there and suspected Melanie didn’t either. When she walked up the long bricked drive lined with various species of dwarf Japanese maples and eerily shaped lava rocks tucked amongst a carpet of woodchips and pachysandra, she felt small, like she didn’t belong in this landscape, this world. But when Nola rang the doorbell it was Mrs. Woodman herself that answered, and the greeting she received was welcoming, in fact, almost too much so.

“Oh!” Mrs. Woodman squealed with delight, “You must be Nola Collins, oh Honey, you look just like the picture of your Daddy on his book jackets, come in, come in.” Nola was ushered into a large foyer with a slate floor and coffered ceiling, dark wood beams stained to look like ebony framed the space like a cathedral and looked harsh against the soft ochre walls. There was a fountain with water bubbling up out of polished river stones and Oriental vases in niches on the walls. In the center of the foyer was a red and black lacquered table topped by a potted orchid paired with a jade-toned Buddha statue, serenely gazing at all who entered. The space had the feel of a Japanese restaurant, Nola half expected Mrs. Woodman to be wearing a brightly colored Kimono. Instead there was one hanging on the wall going up the massive, angular staircase.

Mrs. Woodman noticed Nola taking in the décor. “Do you like Japanese art, Nola?” Before Nola could think of an answer Melanie’s mother continued, “I know you are really smart, Melanie tells me you are some kind of whiz kid. You probably know more about all this than even my husband does. Mr. Woodman’s hobby is collecting, you see. He was presented with a real Samurai sword once when he was on business in Japan and he was just so taken with it he got interested and started this collection. We bought the house because it just seemed to be screaming Japan, don’t you think?”

Nola thought the house might be screaming something else, but she chose not to answer. Instead she just nodded. Grown-ups like Mrs. Woodman rarely expected an actual answer, they just liked to ramble.

“Nola, could I get you something to drink, would you like a Pepsi?”

“No thank you.”

“Well, before I send you off to where the rest of the kids are, just tell me,” and her voice dropped to a whisper, “what is your father working on right now? Mr. Woodman might be a fan of Oriental object d’art, but my love has always been cowboys and Indians. I adored all those old westerns when I was a kid, couldn’t get enough of them…you know, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, oh, and John Wayne movies…oh my.” Her voice again rose to it’s former bubbly heights, “Girls my age loved the Beatles or Elvis but give me The Duke from those old movies and I would just swoon,” Melanie’s mother giggled in a way Nola thought impossible past the age of sixteen. Just then Melanie herself came into the foyer.

“Hi Nola, come on, we’re in the game room. Mom, can you tell Sandy to bring down more sodas?” And with that Nola was taken by the arm and led down a hall, then further down a large flight of stairs and into an expansive basement room. There were no windows, but the room was light and bright, canned spotlights dotted the vast low ceiling and sconces lined the pale yellow walls. The room looked like a cross between an old fashioned arcade and a casino. There were pinball machines, a jukebox, slot machines and even a roulette wheel. At one end of the long room was a billiard table and at the other, a ping-pong table. Nola was dumb struck; she’d never seen anything quite like this. She felt immediately out of place, and more than a little apprehensive. She had no idea how to play most of these games. She didn’t want to look like a fool. As she glanced around she also noticed something else that made her nervous. There were boys here! She held her sleeping bag a little tighter and wondered if she’d misunderstood, had it not been an invite for a slumber party? Was it to be coed? Melanie’s mother didn’t strike Nola as the type to sanction that.

As if reading her mind, Melanie said, “The boys are here until 9:00, after that they have to go home. You can put your sleeping bag over there, with everyone else’s,” and she pointed to a pile of more than a dozen sleeping bags dumped into a heap in a small alcove at one end of the room. When Nola dropped her bag in the appointed spot, she noticed there was a door to the outside; it had glass panels that were painted black and was ornately carved, with an old iron doorknob and gargoyle knocker. Melanie said, “That used to go to the outside, but the bulkhead doors were bricked over when they built the solarium. Now we just call it ‘the stairs to nowhere’ -- see?” and she opened the wooden door to reveal concrete steps that went right up to a brick ceiling. Suddenly there was a burst of laughter from the other side of the room and Melanie excused herself, leaving Nola alone to survey the other guests. She wished she could just stay in this corner, tucked away, and watch for the rest of the night.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

nothing done

It was morning, light streamed around the edge of the window shades in pale streaks across the dark room. Kate looked at the clock, 9:30. Good, they’d both be gone now. Just in case she lay there, listening for any sounds indicating otherwise, but all seemed quiet. She climbed out of bed and grabbed the big, thick blue robe that lay on top of the pile of dirty clothes closest to the nightstand, wrapping herself up against the morning chill. She tiptoed out of the room and listened at the top of the stairs again. Still silent.

Downstairs in the kitchen while she waited for the water to boil she scooped coffee into the press and added sugar to the bottom of her large mug, three heaping spoonfuls. It was a lot, but she would be good for the rest of the morning; that was the plan, she would not eat until noon, this will be breakfast. No need to deprive myself of caffeine in the process, she thought. A good cup of coffee will do wonders for me. It will make things easier. Maybe the energy will get me going today.

While she waited for the coffee to steep she looked out the window over the sink. It’s a shame this was the window that had the best view of the woods, at least on the first floor. The upstairs windows were like being in the treetops, either thick and green, too dense for sunlight, or bare and stark revealing the harsh brilliant sky, depending on the season. But down here you could see the narrow straight trunks and the woodland floor dotted with patches of ferns. You could also see some of the old rock wall the farmers had laid long ago, lichen covered stones marked out some sort of boundary that no longer mattered to anyone.

Graham had joked once when they first moved in that maybe the pretty view would entice her to do the dishes more often. She hated it when he joked like that, because it wasn’t a joke, it was a subtle reminder of some way she failed to meet his expectations. He didn’t ever tease her about something sweet, something pleasant, only her bad housekeeping or forgetfulness, her carelessness. He’d laugh at her when he wasn’t angry. Sometimes she almost preferred his anger; at least it was honest.

When she looked down from the window into the sink she noticed for the first time in ages it was empty. Either he had loaded the dishwasher or he’d made Nola do it. Kate never did it anymore; she didn’t even make a pretense towards acting like she would.

Kate had always hated doing housework; she hated it with a passion. She felt demeaned by it and overwhelmed at the mere thought of being responsible for even the most basic amount of upkeep. Cleaning the bathroom every week felt daunting, vacuuming was monumental, dusting seemed pointless and doing the dishes was a new low in drudgery. Of course, one couldn’t say that, one couldn’t admit to having no intention of keeping their house clean. Everyone else in the world just accepted that this was part of life, this was just one of those things you had to do like brushing your teeth or paying taxes. But secretly Kate had never quite accepted the inevitability of having to clean a house. She considered it a large defect in her character.

When she worked they had paid for a cleaning woman to come in. Kate had paid, out of her salary. That was heaven, a relief beyond description. No one expected her to clean, to scrub, to wash anything beyond her own dishes. She managed that, it seemed small in comparison when isolated like that, the only cleaning required of her. A few pots, pans and plates seemed minor in the scheme of life.

But once she quit her job she was expected to start cleaning again the way she was supposed to when Nola was little. Only back then Graham’s mother had helped out a lot, especially when Nola was a baby. Kate’s postpartum depression had lingered longer than usual; to be expected after all she went through. She was still ill from the eclampsia and had lost weight, being that sickly Kate was obviously overwhelmed by motherhood alone and little was expected of her. Adding to it all, Nola was colicky and Graham was busy with one of his books. It didn’t seem so odd to have her mother in law “help”. Deirdre had been so happy to do it, she gladly did all the housework, most of the cooking, while Kate just slept and nursed the baby. When it was time for her to take over she could never live up to Deirdre’s ability, she realized her best bet was to try and get a job, she wasn’t cut out to be a stay at home mother. By the time Nola was old enough Kate was well and went back to work part time. Problem solved.

Now since she’d been out of work the house was a total disaster. Graham was refusing to do all but the bare essentials and they were both making Nola do more than her fair share. Kate knew this, she could see it, but she felt powerless to change.

Every day she woke up and thought that this day would somehow be different. This would be the day she made herself get up off her ass and clean or cook or do something productive. Every day she sat down with her morning coffee in the armchair by the window with the vague intent to plan her day, what she would do, when she would do it. But she never actually left the chair. Before she knew it the whole day had been spent eating and watching TV, daydreaming, planning and procrastinating and then suddenly she’d see Nola come down the street carrying her books. Kate would dash upstairs before she made it to the front door. She couldn’t face Nola, still in her bathrobe, nothing done, nothing changed since the girl left seven hours ago. If she could have crawled under the floorboards and disappeared she would have. Shame at that moment was sharp and sudden, choking; it felt like a noose around her neck.

Yet the next day she would begin again, and again it would end the same. The truth was deep down she didn’t care anymore if days went by, weeks, years even. On her own Kate really didn’t care if all she did for the rest of her life was read, watch TV and eat her way to even further enormity. It was only when she saw herself through someone else’s eyes that it made her feel badly. Then she was forced to see what she really was, a pathetic, lazy person, incapable of mastering even basic life skills. In the presence of others she saw how insignificant her life had become. Even enveloped in her increasing size she felt small, miniscule. No matter how big she got she would always be nothing.

There was something wrong with her that she couldn’t even muster up enough desire to run a vacuum. What kind of person was this overwhelmed by ordinary housework, by ordinary life? Someone extraordinarily screwed up. Damaged. The thought occurred to her, in moments of clarity, that she needed help. But the thought of asking for help, of admitting she was this far gone, only filled her with more shame.

So the answer seemed to be just staying inside, avoiding people. If you didn’t go out and no one came in you could hide and just live in peace, alone, in quiet, simple, undemanding peace. There would be no one to make assessments, no one to judge. You couldn’t fail if you didn’t do anything. It was easy. At least until Nola or Graham came home.

Then the cocoon was broken and pretending didn’t work anymore. It was difficult to maintain a normal demeanor around Graham and Nola; it seemed phony under the circumstances, and exhausting besides. So when they were home Kate stayed in her room if at all possible. She would get in bed and if they came up to see her she would say she was sick, a migraine, some other malady. Graham never came up. Nola did, but she never stayed long.

Otherwise, if she were downstairs with them and one of them cleaned in her presence, if one of them started doing dishes or if she came into a room while they were dusting or about to vacuum, it was like a smack in the face, it was like being yelled at or degraded. They knew she should be doing that, and she knew that’s what they were thinking. She could feel the resentment emanating off of them like heat. Graham’s silence was brutal; Nola’s pitiful.

She was better off alone, better off in bed, like an invalid, someone for whom simple tasks were completely beyond. Simple things like cleaning a house and…taking care of a child. She hadn’t even managed the simple task of keeping her child alive. Not unscathed, not perfect, just alive. Everyone else seemed to do it, or if they didn’t it was due to plagues or horrific circumstances beyond their control. But Ethan’s death wasn’t beyond her control. It was preventable. Yet she didn’t prevent it, did she? It would have been preventable for a different mother, a normal mother. A normal mother would have a live child and clean floors.

And then she’d remember that she did now have a live child who still needed clean floors and a normal, functioning mother. And if it were possible, Kate would then feel even worse.