Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fitting in

After Kate pulled out of her driveway she unbuttoned her jeans so they wouldn’t keep digging into her belly as she made the drive across town. Standing up she could get away with these pants, unfortunately sitting down was another story. They were the only pair left that she could get into anymore, and they were getting tighter by the day. Everything felt tight, her clothes, her jewelry, even her skin. When she caught a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror she could see that her face looked swollen and almost puffy. She wanted to turn the car around and go home, to strip off what she was wearing and climb back into her baggy sweatpants and tee shirt. But there was no choice, they were out of even the minimal basics like milk and bread; she needed to go to the market. She pulled into the parking lot of the brightly lit A&P and discreetly re-buttoned her pants before getting out of the car and walking quickly into the supermarket, grabbing a cart by the door.

Every time she reached for something or bent down to get an item off the shelf, she felt her jeans dig in or her shirt lift up revealing more of her stomach than she wanted. She looked around to make sure she was alone and tried to readjust her clothes, pull up her jeans over the roll of fat across her middle, untwist her blouse, tugging the material trying to stretch it over her bulging body. With each aisle she felt bigger and bigger. The uncomfortable feeling of not fitting into her clothes, not fitting into her own body, not to mention her life, intensified with each step.

Because it was her life that was really the thing that didn’t fit anymore and she knew it, the truth was unavoidable when she was forced to face it. She didn’t belong here, didn’t belong in this body or this supermarket. She wasn’t supposed to end up like this.

As she unloaded her cart onto the conveyor belt she had to fight back the tears. God no, don’t let me lose it here in front of all these people. A panic welled up in her like a rising tidal wave and it was all she could do to swipe her debit card and bag her stuff, rushing to get out of there before the torrent overcame her. She kept her head down and tightly gripped the handle of the cart as she briskly pushed it across the parking lot. One by one she practically tossed the grocery bags into the backseat, not caring what was in them. She barely reached the safety of the driver’s seat before the tears would wait no longer and came pouring down her cheeks. As she drove out of the A&P parking lot crying her eyes out, she again unbuttoned her jeans and this time unzipped them too, feeling the need for total relief from the confines of pants that no longer fit her any better than her pathetic day to day existence.

When she was safely at home in her baggy clothes again with the food put away, she sat at the kitchen table and tried to calm down. She tried to sink back into that numbness that she could always manage to find once she was alone and away from the rest of the world. Kate ran her hands across the battered old pine table, as if trying to ground herself with each stroke, fingering each familiar scratch and furrow that was worn smooth with years of use. She’d once thought growing older would be like that. All the rough spots, all the scrapes and hollows of experience or loss would fill in, growing softer and smoother as the years went on. But that’s not what happened. For every deep groove that was worn flat some new mark was made, gouged fresh, jagged and rough. Life didn’t get easier, it was even harder than she’d ever imagined.

She ran her hands over her own body now, feeling the rolls of fat undulate like rippling waves. Her chin, once slightly pointed and a little bony, was now round and full, bulging above her sagging neck. Where did it go? Where did her body go, her life, her future?

Kate knew it wasn’t too late, but it was later than it should be. Yes, she could change things, almost everything in fact, for the better. But it would never be as good as it once was, and more importantly, it wouldn’t ever be as good as it should have been if she hadn’t let herself go in the first place. That was what got to her the most, if only she’d taken care of herself all along and never gotten fat to begin with, she might have aged gracefully. She definitely would have, she was sure of it.

Instead she gave up. She got scared and intimidated by the simple things in life that everyone else managed to handle – college, marriage, motherhood, career. She failed at all of it and now it was becomming obvious she was drowning her shame with food, smothering herself into nothingness. No, it was worse, she didn't fail, she didn’t even try to succeed to begin with. Either way, the end result was the same. She had no education, no career, no marriage anymore, one dead child and another that was as foreign to her as if she were a creature from another planet.

Enough. She was going too far, thinking too much. Kate stood up and walked over to the counter where there was one grocery bag left unpacked. She carried it upstairs and headed to her bedroom. As she passed by Nola’s room she could see the sliver of light from beneath her closed door. “I’m home – there’s bread and cold cuts downstairs if you want to make yourself a sandwich.” She heard a barely audible “okay” and with relief continued on down the dark hall. She was glad Nola didn't want to talk. Not tonight. She climbed into her unmade bed and reached for the remote. Mindless sitcoms and a package of cookies. One more night wouldn’t make a difference.

Tomorrow she would do better. Tomorrow she would wake up early and make breakfast for her and Nola. Something healthy, something they could sit and eat together at the old pine table, scratches and all.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Nola sat on the bottom step of her front porch and felt the cold granite begin to send its creeping chill throughout her little body. Dried, brown autumn leaves scraped the sidewalk in front of her as they skipped along in the rising breeze. Twigs and branches were scattered across the lawn from last night’s storm and Nola decided to pick some of them up while she waited for her father. She gathered as many as she could and carried them down to the small grove of white pines at the edge of the woods behind her house.

Beneath the sheltering branches of the tall straight pines Nola had created her own version of a bird’s nest in the crunchy carpet of dried pine needles that blanketed the ground. She’d carefully scooped and swept the mounds of needles into the outline of a circle large enough for her to sit in, adding twigs and pinecones to build the sides up over a foot high. She liked to imagine she was an exotic bird living high in the tree tops. Nola took the sticks she’d collected from the front yard and added them to the growing rim of her nest. Then she restacked some of the twigs that were knocked down during the previous night’s storm. When Nola was finished she stretched her arms out wide and slowly moved them up and down, flapping gracefully as she ran around to the front of the house, imagining that she was gliding through the cloudy sky as she zigzagged her way back to the steps. Nola sat once again on the granite slab. Her father still had not come out.

While she continued to wait, Nola noticed there was now something on the sidewalk that wasn’t there before. It looked like a ball of dried grass but when she got closer and gingerly picked it up she could see it was a small, perfectly formed bird’s nest -- a real one! Nola shivered with a combination of cold and excitement as she examined the delicate treasure, cupped carefully in her hands to secure it against the wind that was starting to kick up. Even though it looked fragile, as Nola scrutinized it she could tell that it was stronger than it seemed. This was smaller than she’d imagined a bird’s nest to be, it was hard to imagine any bird she’d ever seen actually using it, let alone sharing it with a brood of babies. Nola wished Grandee was here today, she would know what kind of bird built the nest. Grandee always knew everything. But her grandmother wouldn’t be here for several days yet. Nola needed to find a place to keep the nest safe until then. She wanted to take it to her room, but she couldn’t go back into the house now.

Instead Nola went around to the back porch and carefully reached her hand through the white painted lattice work running along the bottom and placed the nest gently underneath the weathered floorboards, tucked in a clump of leaves near one of the support posts. This was her special hiding spot, the place she kept things that didn't belong in the house, things her mother would say were dirty like pretty rocks or bits of broken pottery and twisted rusty nails that she found near where the old barn once stood.

“Nola Grace, where are you?” Nola jumped a little. She’d strayed from her waiting spot and now hearing the terseness of her father’s voice she knew he was not happy. “I’m sorry Daddy, I’m coming.” Nola called out as she ran towards where her father’s car was parked in the driveway. But he was already coming around the side of the house looking for her and she almost ran right into him. He grabbed her arm and walked a little too fast for her to keep up, partially dragging her along as he muttered under his breath, “How many times do I have to tell you, huh? If I say wait for me on the front steps then you sit your butt down there and don’t move till I come out. Jesus Christ, you’re gonna make me late, gotta look all over the place for you. If you’d just do what you were told once, just once…” and his voice trailed off as they reached the car and he waited impatiently for her to climb in. Nola was trying to get in quickly while not getting her dirty feet on the seats at the same time, but sure enough when she looked beside her she could see little pieces of leaves and pine needles all over the back seat. Thankfully her father didn’t notice and had already closed her door to go around the front of the car and get in. Once they were on their way Nola quietly reached over and picked up all the little bits and pieces she could, shoving a crispy fistful into her coat pocket before they reached the end of their street.

When they arrived at her school the long circular drive was empty. Usually cars were lined up along the entire length and even into the street beyond while parents waited to take their turn, one by one dropping off children under the watchful eyes of the waiting teachers. But no one was here now, not a single car. That meant that she was late, very late. Her father got out and opened her door, then got right back into the car.

“Daddy, I think your supposed to walk me in tell them why I’m late,” Nola said as she stood by the open car door, leaning into the back seat a little so he could hear her.

“Can’t I just write you a note or something?”

“Um, I don’t know, I guess so.”

Nola’s father rolled down his window. “Shut your door and give me a minute.” He took his black notebook out from the flap pocket of his coat and began to scribble quickly. Then he tore the page out and handed it to Nola, “Here, they can call me if they don’t like it. Hey, don’t go around the front of the car,” he snapped as she started to walk away, “always go around the back of a car, Nola, never around the front. Someone’s liable to run you over if they aren’t looking.” His words seemed to hang in the air for a minute before the realization of what he’d said caught up to him. Like Ethan, Nola thought, the person that ran over Ethan hadn’t seen see him. And then for the first time that day their eyes met. Nola thought her father looked sad and she wanted to give him a kiss goodbye. But he quickly looked away and before Nola could move he rolled up the window and drove off.

Nola stood there alone in the parking lot. The wind wrapped tangled strands of hair across her face as she looked at the low brick building and wondered if anyone from inside could see her. But the single row of windows revealed nothing, only a dimmed reflection of surrounding trees and clouds, as if the building were really floating in the sky.

She closed her eyes tight and thought, maybe the school was empty? Maybe today was actually Saturday? That had happened once, her mother had gotten her up and fed her breakfast, drove her here only to find an empty parking lot, just like today. But she’d been on time that day, even a little early, and her mother quickly realized her error. They’d laughed and gone out for pancakes. But Nola knew there was no mistake today. Her father would never make that kind of blunder.

As she walked up the sidewalk to the red steel doors that led down the long hall to her kindergarten classroom, Nola slowly picked out all the pine needles from her pocket and rubbed them between her fingers before letting them fall, pulverizing each little piece as she walked along. She thought about her nests, both the real one and the pretend one, and hoped that they would withstand the whipping winds that now blew the faint crumbled powder from her hands before it could leave a trail on the dark macadam, easily whisking away any trace of her late arrival.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Loose threads

Sometimes when you find a loose thread you can pull it and it snaps off clean. Other times you tug at it, hoping the thread will break, but instead it just keeps unraveling the stitches and the more you pull the more the edge of the fabric comes undone.

From the moment she overheard her father claim that Ethan’s death was due to her mother’s negligence and not just some random, unthinkable accident, everything started to change for Nola. She began to revisit each memory one by one, retell each family story in her head and tug at all the loose threads trying to catch any unraveled fragments of truth she might have missed before.

It started with something as mundane, as seemingly innocent as a ragged old teddy bear tucked away on a shelf. “Bear-Bear”, as he had been known since Nola could remember being alive, was a teddy bear she had since birth, originally a gift from Grandee. Only he barely resembled a child’s stuffed animal anymore, let alone something specifically bear-like. He was little more than a stitched together rag with the remnants of two eyes and a nose. Nearly all his fur was gone, as were his ears, he had a stub where one of his arms had been and like Frankenstein’s monster he was held together by a random pattern of zigzag stitches. Her mother, Kate, used to tell everyone he’d been loved to death like some Velveteen Rabbit. Embarrassed by his shoddy appearance she would repeatedly tell anyone who noticed him that Nola took him everywhere, that he was her favorite toy, that he’d been peed on, vomited on, left in parks on swings and in the yard during snow storms. “Poor Bear-Bear,” her mother would say with inflated sympathy.

Bear-Bear had a special place in Nola’s room to this day, on that high shelf, tucked enough behind her books that prying eyes wouldn’t notice and spare him ridicule, yet a bit of his face peeked out so that she could see him, she knew he was there, like a familiar guardian.

But now as Nola looked at the disheveled remains of her Teddy bear she saw him through different eyes. This was her very favorite toy, her most beloved. Despite what her mother said Nola knew she never left him behind anywhere, couldn’t remember a single time that Bear-Bear wasn’t accounted for. For some reason Nola had just let her mother continue to say those things and in silent compliance she went along with the stories.

Nola’s heart had been broken when Bear-Bear nearly met his demise, and even now she could still feel the pain, the agony as she remembered that horrible day. She had been brought home from nursery school by her grandmother and gone straight to the playroom after changing her clothes. When she opened the door Nola was nearly trampled as her dog Sheba came running out, clearly glad to be let lose from her confinement. Her mother, Kate, had put “that damn dog” in there and left her there all day long; a bored dog was a destructive one, especially a chewer like Sheba. There was shit and piss all over her doll blankets. Fluff and padding from various stuffed creatures, now ravaged, lay all over the floor with body parts of vinyl dolls and scraps of fur strewn from one end of the room to the other. The carnage was shocking, not a single toy was left intact, every object that Nola held dear was utterly destroyed. Nola tried to scream but no sound came out at first. And then she saw Bear-Bear, or what was left of him. He was decapitated and missing limbs, ripped apart like some horror movie victim. Finally her scream found its sound.

Her mother came running and yelled at the dog while trying to clean up the mess, telling Nola to stop crying, it would be alright, they would get her new toys. Only Nola didn’t want new toys, she wanted her own, she wanted her babies and her animal friends and most of all, more than anything else she wanted her Bear-Bear. She needed to rub his fur between her fingers and suck her thumb, she needed to feel him in the crook of her arm as she slept. He was her best friend and now he lay in rags and ruin.

Grandee came and tried to sew him back together, “good as new”, but of course he wasn’t. Still, Nola had been comforted some by her grandmother’s soothing voice as she sewed what bits and pieces she could find back together, creating a new version of Nola’s beloved. He still had the bit of fur on his arm where she liked to rub it, still lay in the crook of her elbow as she slept. Nola was devoted to him for several more years after that, but something had been lost, something had been taken from her forever, as damaged beyond repair as the bear had been. And now today it was as if the pain was fresh, as if the last bit of her innocence had been trashed along with her toys, ripped to shreds by the hungry mouth of her father’s accusation.

Nola always knew it was her mother that was responsible for locking a chewing dog in the playroom, in the room where Nola’s precious friends were, the room she played and sang and chatted happily to objects that listened to her in a way no one else did. Kate hadn’t given a second thought to what might happen. Instead she made up stories of favorite bears being loved to death rather than tell the truth…that nothing can be loved to death, only carelessly ignored with predictable results.

(rework in progress from this previous post)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An excerpt

Nola enjoyed studying the local history of her town, but it always made her sad, too. Looking at the old sepia toned photographs at the library she could easily recognize some places, like the downtown storefronts or the municipal hall; even with the horses and buggies parked along Main Street instead of cars these buildings were little changed and still quite familiar. But other images were completely unidentifiable; they looked foreign as if they weren’t taken in this part of the country let alone her own hometown. Even when the town historian painstakingly tried to describe the locations using present day landmarks these sites had obviously changed so drastically that there was no longer any evidence of their existence beyond the delicate, worn photos. Nola didn’t like to think of things disappearing, of places or people being forgotten. She felt it her duty to listen intently and memorize all the images and stories she could.

After looking at the pictures the town historian explained to Nola and her class that Darlington was one of many suburbs around New York City that grew out of a once predominantly agricultural community. Beyond the downtown area it was hard to imagine the rest of town as it was, rolling fields of fertile farmland spread as far as the eye could see. There were still vague remnants of a few original farms, but thanks to the proximity of Darlington to the city and the advent of modern car travel the town was a popular upscale commuting suburb now. The many farms had dwindled down to only a handful of measly acres still under cultivation with a roadside stand here and there at best, the remaining land belonged to expensive homes built closer together and no longer capable of supplying any significant amount of food for its population. Most food came in trucks from far away, not from neighboring fields.

Throughout the still quaint present day neighborhoods there were scattered bits of woodland left as buffers between the larger homes, replete with mature trees and wild vines. What most residents failed to realize is that these patches of woods were actually once neatly cleared agricultural fields, what seemed like substantial oaks, hemlocks and sycamores were just overgrown within the course of less than a century, the forest gently reclaiming what the plow had abandoned only a couple generations ago. Sometimes distant echoes of the past were revealed when winter stripped the woods bare, perhaps the hidden outline of a fieldstone foundation or even some weathered old barn timbers collapsed and lying about, crumbling and rotting into the forest floor. It amazed Nola how quickly nature could change things, how fast it broke things down if given half the chance.

Nola’s own home was a quaint old farmhouse preserved from that bygone era, originally part of one of the oldest farms in Darlington, owned by members of the Darlington family themselves. There were several pictures of her house at the library but only one photograph showed the family who lived there, all lined up against the front porch standing stiffly and not smiling. The littlest boy in the picture, Ramsey Darlington, eventually became the town founder and pictures of him as an adult at various other spots around town were plentiful. He and his numerous siblings grew up to build many of the finer homes in the area and it was his ancestors that first settled in the region when it was practically wilderness.

As part of a working dairy farm the house Nola lived in was simple and sturdy, gracefully added on to and updated as the farm prospered. It once had acres and acres of land around it, of course, all cleared and nearly flat, good for planting and grazing. Today the land surrounding her house was barely half an acre. Much of the original parcel was sold off lot by lot during the housing boom of the fifties and the rest was eventually donated by the Darlington family to nearby Mahwah Mountain College for its expansion in the sixties.

But safely landlocked behind Nola’s home was a 10-acre tract of forest, once one of those flat, cleared fields where maybe cows had grazed or corn stalks grew, now densely wooded. Along the perimeter of the former field were the remarkably intact vestiges of a low, random stone wall, no doubt built by that long gone Darlington family. Today the wall still acted as a divider of sorts; along one length of it the woods were separated from the houses of the bordering street and on the other side it outlined the edge of the tree line before it fell away into the vast rolling lawns of the college. Across the third side, the farthest stretch of wall from Nola's yard, it created a property line for another old Darlington farmhouse, smaller than Nola's, but of the same period.

Nola liked to think about the farmer that once lived in her house, and especially of his wife and children. For some reason she pictured it being the children’s task to pick up the rocks turned up by the plough and place them upon the ever-growing wall, artfully fitting each one in at random, stone by stone. Nola could envision that maybe even after the wall was done they could still identify which individual stones they’d each placed there, perhaps proudly boasting about which one of them had laid the largest one, heavier than his or her brothers and sisters were able to lift. Nola always imagined there were lots of kids to do this wall building chore; all those old time farmers had big families. Grandee had told her it was necessary to have numerous children in those days because there was a lot of hard physical work to do, and sadly sometimes the children didn’t all survive so families needed to have as many as they could to ensure there’d be enough kids to work the farm and carry on. Grandee said times were different back then, harder for children and adult alike. It didn’t seem that different to Nola. Not really.

Still, it must have been a daunting task to lay a rock wall like that if you thought about it, but Nola guessed they didn’t give it much thought, that Darlington farmer and his family with all those many kids. They probably just took it in stride and did what needed to be done. That’s what it seemed like all people from the past did. Whenever her grandmother told her stories from her own childhood it sounded like people from the forgone generations just quietly accepted their lot in life better than people did today. At least that’s what Grandee always implied, anyway.

Nola loved her house and its history, and she loved her street and the surrounding neighborhood, but perhaps her favorite place lay in those verdant little woods behind her home. Safely contained within the confines of that old stone wall at the center of the woodland was a place called the Sycamore Cave by all the local children, as they’d called it since before Nola was born, though it wasn’t a cave by any means. It was actually a half downed tree, once an impressive sycamore, its trunk 20 feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall. But lightening had struck the giant, probably back when it stood alone in that cleared farm field, and the top half had been severed almost all the way through, but not quite. It snapped and fell in such a way that the upper portion stayed attached to the trunk, and, as if bending down from the waist, the top landed astride of it. The once lush, long limbed canopy was now upside down and created a fifty-foot cone of sorts, like a teepee of tangled limbs.

Through the years vines and brambles quickly grew over the outer branches so that the interior, starved of sunlight, was completely hidden from view and only a carpet of moist fallen leaves blanketed the ground within. Bare, dead limbs on the shaded interior of the “cave” seemed almost like a rickety framework, an unfinished cathedral created by some crazy architect and now abandoned. You could climb to the top, the once middle of the tree, if you were brave enough. Nola hadn’t attempted it since she was little, but then she never made it to the top. She was glad now she hadn’t. She decided not to try anymore, to leave it unclimbed.

Nola often wondered if Ethan had ever seen the tree, but her mother said she couldn’t remember. It was hard to believe that he hadn’t, Grandee said he loved to go for walks in the neighborhood with Granda. They’d be gone for hours and Granda would come back carrying Ethan, half asleep, they’d gone so far in their travels that it had worn him out. Nola always wished she could have known her grandfather even though everyone, even Grandee, said he was a mean man; a hard man is what she’d say. Nola’s own dad would shake his head and say his father was a tough old coot, “hard as nails and twice as sharp.” But all agreed he had a soft spot, a special place in his heart for his grandson Ethan. Nola knew her grandmother felt that way about her, that she held that kind of special place in Grandee’s heart. But it would have been nice to have a grandfather carry her home after an adventure.

Everywhere Nola went in her neighborhood, her little world, she wondered if Ethan had been there before her. As she got much older than he was when he died, she began to realize that his world had been rather small, he hadn’t had the chance to expand it the way she did. She was the lucky one, as her mother would often say, who got to do all the things he didn’t get a chance to. Sometimes when she’d whine about something she couldn’t have or wasn’t allowed to do her mother would give her a sad look and say, “You should feel lucky for all the things you do have, all the things you do get to do, your poor brother didn’t get his chance.” It always made Nola feel bad. Whenever she got to do something that she knew Ethan didn’t get the opportunity to experience she felt like she should try extra hard to enjoy it. That way maybe she could make up for what he missed. It was difficult, though, and she never felt like it was enough, never felt like she could enjoy things enough for the two of them.

When grown-ups mentioned Ethan to her mother or father, which they rarely did, but if they did, they would always say what a blessing Nola must be to them. Her parents smiled automatically and said the same thing every time, yes, thank God for Nola, they didn’t know what they would do without her. But Nola didn’t feel like a blessing. She wished she did, she wished she could be a comfort, a gentle reminder that Ethan had been here on earth.

Nola had already lived longer than her brother, she’d surpassed him, she was in a new territory beyond his knowing, his touch. Darlington had been Ethan’s home just like it was the home of the farmer’s children who lived in her house, yet those children would hardly recognize their home now, the woods in what was once their level, cleared field would seem as foreign to them as another planet. Would it be that way for Ethan, too, if he could come back to life? Someday the Sycamore Cave might finally fall down completely and rot into the earth, leaving no trace of the children who once climbed its lofty heights. The rock wall could crumble and the stones laid with care would disappear beneath the leafy mulch of the forest floor. That felt unforgivable to Nola. Time was something unsafe and not to be trusted.

The above is an expanded version of a post previously appearing on this blog as "The Sycamore Cave" . I wanted to create an excerpt to show people who ask about my work, to have something on hand that exemplifies the general tone of the novel without it being a dramatically crucial or pivotal scene -- just a basic sample, if you will.

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.