There is a hole the size of a golf ball in the right side of Katherine Givins’s black Bali bra.
This is the one article of clothing that has made her feel sexy for the past 3.6 years in a row, and even though the straps lie at half-mast on her fine shoulders, the elastic exploded last summer and the hooks have been pulled so many times she has actually used a needle-nose pliers on them, Katherine cannot bear to throw the bra away.
“Shit,” she says, turning into the mirror and then leaning so her nose practically touches the glass to make certain there really is a hole. It’s there, and getting wider every second, as she puts her finger in the middle and realizes that one wrong move could explode all of the seams and send her breasts into orbit.
Just as she grabs them and begins laughing hysterically at the long-held notion that the bra, like her lost marriage and her fabulous mother and the man she thought she loved two men ago or even the one she loves now, would last forever, the doorbell rings and makes her scream herself back into reality.
Her scream, the kind you might make when something normal—like a doorbell—flushes you from a very far-away place—reaches the UPS woman on the front step who is glad as hell that someone is home so she doesn’t have to leave a note and come back the next day. In the UPS world, screams, especially those coming from anywhere in front of the brown trucks and not under the rear wheels, are very good signs. So the UPS woman waits.
Katherine does not care who is at the door immediately because she is already in mourning about the loss of her bra. The bra that held her up and saw her through when her daughter announced that she had her first kiss (3.1 years ago) and then snapped the back of her mother’s Bali bra instead of performing the regulation high-five; when she found out her ex-husband Michael was about to be married (2.8 years ago) as she was sorting wash and the bra moved from her fingers and into the black depths of a dark load; when finally a man emboldened by vodka martinis put his hand down her strategically placed low-cut sweater and ran his fingers very slowly past the elastic top and curved his hand around her left breast; when her father came to her one night (2.1 years ago) and said that he could no longer care for his wife, her mother, and could Katherine “please, please, please” help him find the right place, and then leaned into her, clutched her shoulder, his sad and tired arm thumping against the metal hook; when she let Alex finally make love to her (1.8 years ago) and he turned her around, lifted her blouse and took his sweet, sexy and fabulous time unhooking the Bali and then replaced it with hands that spoke seventeen languages; when she leaned over her mother’s coffin (.8 years ago), the metal from the underwire tapping against the edge of the coffin as she ran her hands through her mother’s hair one last time and then wept so long and hard that the funeral started almost an hour late, and just now the hole emerging like an omen of age and change slapping her upside the head and making her wonder, “What next? What in the hell is going to happen next in this life of mine?”
Katherine, angry at the unseen intruder who had startled her, miffed about the meaning behind her disintegrating bra, and half-naked, lunges for the door as the terrified blonde woman drenched in brown is reaching for the doorbell for the third time.
“Jesus!” she shouts as Katherine falls into her arms the very moment the door opens.
Katherine, still angry about the intrusion, has managed to grab a kitchen towel on her run from the bedroom. It is a small towel but a towel it is and when she falls into the arms of the UPS woman the towel drops and they both watch it descend to the floor as if it may break and shatter the instant it touches earth.
Anyone lucky enough to be watching would be breathless. What next? Who will move first? Will the UPS woman find this incident funny or humiliating? Will Katherine begin screaming again? And the package . . . what in the hell is in the package?
The UPS woman, who just happens to be a kind and gentle soul who lives alone and keeps notes on all of her customers, has her arms wrapped around Katherine to steady herself. Katherine has a brief moment of clarity when she feels the warm fingers of the woman on her shoulders and this resurrects a historic moment in her mind.
She remembers that her friend Reva took her shopping the day she bought the bra. Reva stood in the center of an old-fashioned department store, hands on hips, moving from foot to foot, and said that her mother had sold bras door-to-door in rural Nevada and it was a simple gift that a woman could give to herself—the proper fitting of a bra. This was said to Katherine P. Givins, attorney at law, who had purchased every undergarment in her entire life on the fly, cups too small, elastic tight against her back, tiny dents under her rib cage from wires that should never have been put into women’s clothing in the first place.
And then, the moment the saleswoman fitted her—the measuring tape sliding to the floor, her aging fingers gently lifting her breasts into this bra—this very exceptional bra—and the look on the older woman’s face, a look of kind satisfaction, as she watched Katherine move and realize that “Yes, damn it, a good bra can change everything.”
Their eyes meet then. The UPS woman asking with her soft green eyes what she should do next, and Katherine, not moving away, holding her there, for one, two, three seconds while she lets go—just lets go.
“It’s the bra,” she tells Ms. UPS. “Have you ever had a bra that has taken you through so much and held you in place like nothing else?”
The UPS woman, who was a woman way before she was UPS, does not flinch. More than once in her twenty-six-year career, a man has answered the door naked. She has walked in on clowns dancing on tables, a wife throwing meatballs at her husband’s favorite television show, and so many drunk people she cannot even begin to remember them all. Katherine in her favorite bra, holding her in her bra on the porch, is nothing.
“I love jogging bras,” the UPS woman begins. “In my business there is quite a lot of bouncing and jumping and although I am far from voluptuous, I need a good, solid foundation for the kind of work I do.”
Katherine falls right into the conversation, wearing her favorite undergarment, a pair of faded green cotton shorts that have another story to tell, and absolutely nothing else. The UPS woman, with more than a hint of subtle and gracious poise, motions for Katherine to step back inside of the house, but the women do not stop talking. They dance backwards and Katherine, hands flailing idly as they always do when she is excited, continues to talk about the demise of her Bali.
“Well, how about just getting a new one?” Ms. UPS asks.
“I’ve written and called and stopped at every department store in the United States and in three foreign countries. They do not make this bra anymore.”
“How sad is that.”
Katherine, who is usually gracious and poised herself, has this ridiculous urge to invite the UPS woman into the kitchen for a glass of wine or a cup of coffee so they can talk about undergarments all day, but she’s also a practical and usually wise woman. She knows there’s a good chance Ms. UPS has to finish working but she can’t quite stop herself. Undergarments, she thinks to herself, surely do strange things to one’s inhibitions.
Later, when days and weeks have passed and she has time to backtrack to this very moment, she will remember it as one that she should have paid more attention to when she was asking herself about why the hole in the bra was spreading now and why she was standing in her underwear in front of a stranger and why none of it seemed out of the ordinary.
“That thing,” she will eventually say to herself, “that inner voice that was tapping against my heart and asking me to pause—Damn, I should have listened. I should have paid attention because that’s when everything changed.”
But first a wave of laughter rising from the two women who visually embrace each other as women do who can talk at the ring of a doorbell about underwear, and breasts and menstrual cycles and the way women connect and can fall into each other’s lives and arms so quickly.
“This must seem ridiculous,” Katherine says as the two women tip their heads and the sound of their laughter mixes and rises to the edge of high windows in Katherine’s very old but lovely home.
“Well, as you can imagine, I’ve seen everything. I’d much rather be greeted by a woman in a black bra who has a great story than a man in black underwear who has no story at all.”
Then Ms. UPS reaches inside of her brown pants pocket and she pulls out a small, soft stone that has been worn smooth and shiny by one ride after another inside the cotton pants pocket.
“You have a lucky bra, something that I imagine has carried you through some challenging and tough nights and days, and I have this rock.”
She lets Katherine take the rock into her hand and feel how just holding it, like wearing a fabulous bra, can be a comfort. They don’t talk about it because they are women and they know. They know about comfort and the loss of it and they know about sacrifice and change and that the ring of a doorbell, a wild call at midnight, the scent of something new, the touch of a baby or a lover’s fresh face, can change everything.
“I see,” Katherine says and then she gently hands back the stone, understanding its importance, but also not able to stop herself from saying, “You’ll understand if I don’t hand over the bra.”
They laugh, which is the perfect thing to do, and then Ms. UPS says, “The package!” and goes back to the front door where she set down her clipboard and the box, wrapped in the requisite brown paper with one single and simple label.
“This is for you if you are indeed Katherine P. Givins.”
“I have no clue.”
“Well, this is your surprise and you were mine then,” Ms. UPS says, smiling as she dips to pick up her sign-off sheet.
Katherine signs the metal-backed ledger and then Ms. UPS bends to pick up the box. The transfer is swift and easy and the package passes from woman to woman in a ceremony that is completed only when Katherine, who has always been way to the other side of spontaneous, bends to hug Ms. UPS one last time.
“You are a sweetheart,” she tells her new blonde friend.
“Well, that’s nice but it’s all part of the job. I never know what is going to happen or what I might see when I ring someone’s doorbell.”
“I imagine you’ve seen more action than a pile of undergarments,” Katherine says and then pauses for a second. “There’s something new and exciting behind every unopened door.”
“Sounds like a book title,” Ms. UPS responds just before she turns back toward her waiting van. “Time to go see what’s behind the next door.”
There is a quick wave and then Katherine finds herself alone in the foyer of the home she has spent twelve years restoring. The home she bought with the proceeds from her first fairly huge lawsuit, which netted her $69,283 and allowed her to move from a two-bedroom apartment with her daughter Sonya following her divorce from a man whom she had once loved a great deal but had come to realize she should have never married for a variety of reasons including the not-so-obvious fact that he had never gotten over the love of his life—a woman he still saw three times a week at places like hotels, nice restaurants, and the back seat of her husband’s car.
Ms. UPS is stepping into the brown van when Katherine looks for just a second at the package that is wedged against her own chest, just where the Bali touches the top of her last rib, and wonders if the shape of the box does not hint that there may be a pair of shoes inside. Her mind stops there as Ms. UPS turns, shouts, “Bye now,” smiles as if she knows a wild secret and then disappears behind a sliding door that sounds like a smooth and even gunshot.
The door closes as Katherine turns to tap it with her heel, because ever since she has owned the home that is what she does to make certain that it really is closed, and when she turns she can see her reflection in the oak mirror by the door. She sees the bra hole—which is now wider than a golf ball, maybe even a tennis ball—widen to the shape of an almost ripe grapefruit.
“Damn it,” she says, even though she is not prone to swearing and loathes the societal turn of events that makes a word like “fuck” commonplace. “Just damn it.”
The package is wedged under her bra and Katherine does not realize that it is the package that is now holding the bra in place. She does not see that there is a dwindling span of threads the size of three toothpicks that is holding together the left side of her bra and that the minute she sits or moves too fast the bra will fly open and be lost to her forever. She doesn’t see this but she is thinking about it. She is thinking about the miles of highway that the bra has seen her over and the heartaches and the laughs and then, because she harbors a secret, a very old and almost forgotten desire to write children’s books, she wonders if anyone has ever written a story about a girl’s first bra. She is also thinking about the mysterious box and the who, what, when, where and why of its existence.
Katherine settles into the rocking chair just beyond the edge of the front hall, the box pushed tight against her chest, and rocks for one, two, three minutes wondering if Ms. UPS will race home and call someone to tell the story of the wild woman with the ancient bra who answered the door just past noon.
“No,” she answers herself the same way we all speak when we are alone or working and need to just hear a word so we can validate our own precious thought. “This probably happens all of the time.”
She imagines then just for a few moments what it would be like if she had the UPS woman’s life or anyone else’s life but her own. She wonders about delivering packages with unknown contents instead of drafting law briefs; she wonders about changing an entire career just like that, like the snap of a bra, for something new and maybe not so ferocious and seemingly arbitrary like distributing little pieces of the law. She wonders about skipping a beat, about missing an appointment, about maybe running down the road naked or doing something impractical like not even wear- ing a bra anymore. Something. Anything. She wonders and as she wonders she is astonished to realize she is tired. Physically tired and mentally tired. Tired of routines and all the expectations of her own life that she has so carefully designed and now scrambles daily to keep in place like one of those ridiculous plate-balancing acts at the circus.
Then it is time for the package.
Wrapped in a brown paper bag that has been cut with scissors and then taped so the edges touch perfectly. A package that comes to Katherine’s house on a Wednesday when she is rarely, if ever, home, but because of a scheduling mix-up and a sick clerk and the desire to breathe in some rare quiet for just a few hours, Katherine, who considers herself beyond predictable and north of reliable, slips from her assistant district attorney’s job and into her favorite nasty clothes, in which she expects to read a pile of old magazines until her daughter comes home for dinner from her third year of high school, track practice and a Spanish IV study session.
Her hands on the brown paper feel nothing but the smooth skin of old trees. The heart of a seedling turned into a cover sheet, she thinks, that is now wrapped around a mysterious package in the arms of a semi-naked woman in Northern California who is about to push aside its opening embrace and see what has certainly become part of a very interesting stolen afternoon.
No return address.
Printing neat and slanted, the hand of a woman, Katherine thinks, because there is something familiar and feminine in the way the letters turn and slant. She has seen this writing before. Someone she knows sent the package—but who?
When she moves to open the package, spreading apart the sealed edges, this is when the bra finally and forever snaps open and when everything changes.
Katherine does not feel the bra give way because from the moment she sees the note, from the moment she smells the rushing scent of sage that has been sprinkled across the top of the box and sees the two red tennis shoes inside, nothing else, not even the glorious bra, matters.
The note, folded in half once and written, Katherine thinks, by the same woman who addressed the outside of the box, tells half of the story before she even begins to read, and she gasps in astonishment because what she is holding is something spectacular, unforeseen and frightening.
It had to be you because you see the rough edges of life and death every day and because you were always in charge and because you touched my heart all those years ago when I needed it so badly with your fine friendship and a love that saw me through days no woman should have to know.
Packed in these red shoes, the ones I loved to wear without socks and through every season, are my ashes. You know that I am dead. You know how I suffered to get to that spot and you know my heart just as well as the women whose names rest under these fine red shoes.
So here, baby, are my bones and the pieces of my life that remain here while the rest of me has sailed on to a place I longed so to touch when I was so very, very ill. The whole idea of being dead pisses me off but as we always said, “It is what it is”—and I just happen to be dead.
Katherine, I never asked much of you after those first months when you held me up so that I would not fall away into a dark space unlike even this death, but this, this last wish, is not just for me, but also for you and for every woman on this list.
Do it. Just fucking (I know you hate that word!) do it. And in the doing, you will find that in my death, that in letting go of the others who have died and who are dying, and seeing this period of your lives for the rich, deep time that it is, you will feel the remains of my love for you all.
The instructions are under the shoes.
Be ready. I am asking a lot but then again, I always gave you, and them, the same.
I love you now as I always did and will. You are the sister I never had and you know that I loved you in a way I never loved anyone else.
Do this for me and in the end it will be the greatest gift you ever gave yourself.
Annie G. Freeman
Katherine does not cry or move. She sits for five, ten, and another five minutes after that. Then she moves both hands across the tips of the red shoes and bends over to kiss them and that simple, lovely, beautiful movement snaps the bra in half.
It takes 6.2 hours and one fairly expensive bottle of Shiraz for Katherine to open the shoebox again and read the instructions that have been whispering in her ear since the moment the box arrived and her bra exploded. She has been unable to eat, told her office to hold her calls, has not returned even one personal phone call and has stared at the shoes so long she can now describe in detail every scuff mark, the way the laces fold the wrong way, how three eyes are loose and the edges of the top frayed with miles of wear and tear.
There is absolutely no reason for Katherine not to open the instructions that were placed under the red shoes after Annie’s death, by whom? A son? Her last lover? Another best friend? Or, as impossible as it might seem, by Annie herself. No reason except the idea that she may be asked to do something hard. Hard but remarkable, Katherine assumes, because she knows Annie, she knew Annie, she’ll always know Annie.
“Damn it,” she finally says to herself, tapping the shoes as if she were slapping someone she loved. “Just damn it.”
It is now beyond late on a Wednesday night and Katherine has begged off a dinner date with Alex, agreed to allow her daughter to sleep overnight at her friend’s house on a school night, and handled every other possible distraction, including a messy kitchen, wash, wild thoughts, a pending case that could end up in the state supreme court and a tiny whisper that extends beyond sorrow and leads into a field so wide it is almost more than Katherine can bear to lift her eyes to see what is around the next turn.
Before she opens the sealed instructions, Katherine flips through the files in her mind that she has lined up in a row that points to her heart, files from the week Annie died. She remembers the electrifying feeling of knowing that Annie would die before she ever saw her again. She remembers the flash of that moment in the high school bathroom all those years ago when their friendship was cemented forever, the way Annie held on to her hand when they came to get her and that second when her fingers slipped from her hand and then the months and months before she saw her friend again. The last days of high school, the summer they decided they would one day live in California, the night they climbed onto the roof and drank beer when their parents were at dinner and then all those years until now—kids, and lovers and weekends in the city and paths that crossed at intersections rimmed in sameness even though they had different roadmaps. And there was also Katherine’s schedule. The trials, the workloads and always this nudge, that she continually ignored, in the back of her mind that told her maybe she was spending way too much time on justice and not enough time inside of her own life.
“Damn you,” Katherine says, holding whatever is in the envelope to her breast in the same way she might hold Annie if she was sharing a sorrowful moment, maybe the loss of a love, the struggle through any avenue of life’s often messy streets. And even though she has already mourned the loss of her friend for weeks, she is wise enough to know that grief and remembering and loss cannot be predicted or held at bay. She knows and she lets her anger at the missing, at what must be in the envelope, at all the time she let slip away, spill from inside of her.
“Damn you for leaving me. Just damn you,” she says, wishing for just that second not to be as strong and as wise and as wonderful as Annie believed she was. Wishing that she could erase all her valleys of loss, fill them in with butter and cream and wine and walk across them like a bridge to an ocean as blue as the California sky.
Katherine thinks then for just a moment about her mother and she has the same pangs of regret, of missing, of loss, of suffocating sorrow. She allows herself to slip an inch down the wall, humbled even now, all the months, eight of them, following her mother’s death. The grieving, she knows, never ends, and all that will remain is the miracle of love. And she holds on to that miracle as if to save her life for the time it takes her to steady herself, to smell, without the reality of it, her mother’s scent—a fine mix of Dial soap, some ancient Avon product, garlic and Tide—her mother always used Tide.
“What you remember,” Katherine reminds herself, “is not what they think you will remember. It is often not.”
Before she opens the envelope, Katherine fingers a well-worn piece of newspaper she has retrieved from the kitchen counter that she has read so many times she could recite it from memory. She reads it one more time leaning against the edge of the fieldstone fireplace so she can look out into her backyard, the place she always imagined would be where she’d sit to write the same ashes-inside-tennis-shoe note to Annie as Annie wrote to her.
Her place. Her happiest space. The view into the garden, across a small hill and into the yard of her neighbor. No rooflines. Pure green dotted with flowers and a stretch of lawn that she has let go wild. Just this one spot no one else in the entire world dares to touch. Katherine looks and then she reads to prepare herself for the reading of whatever is under the damn red shoes.
San Francisco Chronicle
Annie G. Freeman—Local historian, English professor at San Francisco State University, founder of the Brighton Adolescent Suicide Prevention Network, Survivor’s Poetry Coalition, and Words on Wings Youth Summer Program; lively friend, mother, and the first woman in Northern California to successfully challenge the discriminatory hiring practices of all of California’s school systems, including the university system, has died of ovarian cancer.
Ms. Freeman, known by her friends as someone with a fiery spirit, endless compassion, and a laugh that “could be heard a mile away” died April 21 at the age of 56.
She moved to the San Francisco area from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1968 with her family. She lived in the San Francisco Bay area most of her life but graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a PhD in English and immediately returned to her much beloved Northern California.
Her work, first at San Francisco State University and later at Sonoma State, gained her international prominence as an advocate for teachers’ equality, a proponent of the use of writing as a therapeutic tool, and a developer of numerous young adult programs throughout California and the United States.
An adolescent survivor of a suicide attempt, Ms. Freeman was an outspoken advocate for treatment programs for young people battling depression and loneliness. Her unique and sometimes controversial programs, which have been used at clinics throughout the world, involved the use of teen mentors, wilderness settings, and writing to help heal what she called “the empty hearts” of young boys and girls.
Ms. Freeman was also a social and feminist activist who worked with a coalition of young academics to restructure the university pay system and institute gender awareness training at every California university system campus and at public schools throughout the state.
Although the majority of her writings were used to help others and in therapeutic settings, she also authored numerous articles and books on the history of Northern California, especially the small communities near Sonoma.
While her professional life undoubtedly helped thousands, Ms. Freeman said the single most profound act of her life was raising her two sons and making certain that they were exposed to as many thoughts, places and people as possible. Married briefly to an Italian painter in 1971, she never disclosed the identity of the father of her sons.
“She was a remarkable example of a woman who embraced life, fought stereotypes and helped so many people,” said Jill Matchney, retired president of the California State Teacher’s Union and a longtime friend of Ms. Freeman. “No one, not one single person, knew the breadth and scope of who Annie was, what she did, and how many lives she touched.”
When she was first diagnosed with cancer, following a routine exam, Ms. Freeman immediately became a regional spokeswoman for a variety of women’s cancer organizations, authored a book of poetry for those fighting “unlikely happenings,” and personally answered every letter or phone call from anyone who needed help or wanted to help her.
“My mother, once she decided that she wanted to live all those years ago after she tried to kill herself, loved life in a way that was beyond contagious,” said Nick Freeman, her son, who is a social worker at the Walons Family Clinic in Milwaukee. “Mom’s gone, but believe me, she is not done—not done at all.”
Ms. Freeman died with her two sons, Donan and Nick, her hospice caregivers, and her sister-in-law at her side, in her yard facing the edge of the mountains and her beloved ocean.
As part of her last wishes, Ms. Freeman asked that no formal funeral services be held but that well-wishers spend their time and money helping others and that any woman or man who has ever been touched by her life, writings, or one of her organizations reach out to help someone else.
When at last she opens the envelope, Katherine knows there is no way to really prepare herself for what request might be hiding inside. She knows that she owes the world nothing and that her dearest friend would ask her only for something that she deemed possible, and she knows, too, that in Annie Freeman’s world anything and everything was possible. The request, like Annie, could be astounding. It most likely is.
The letter is handwritten and when Katherine sees the first word, when she sees her name—Katherine—sitting there at the top of the page in the slim writing style from one of the fine black pens that Annie loved to use, she knows that this must have been done toward the end, toward the time when Annie knew she had only a few weeks, when this idea, whatever it was, had come to rest in a place that was ready to be put onto paper. The letters are shaky and for a moment Katherine closes her eyes and sees the trembling fingers of her friend, moving deliberately across this very sheet, focusing with every ounce of her remaining strength to just keep the tip of the pen against the top of the paper.
As wild and free as Annie was, and remained, she was also exact. Annie seldom hesitated. She would have hesitated in writing this only because it took her breath away to simply move her fingers.
While she reads, Katherine imagines her friend sitting in the wicker chair that faced the long backyard at her home. Annie would look up occasionally just to check the sky, just to see if it was still there curving above her, just to make certain that she could do just that—look. She would be thinking of Katherine and would maybe laugh out loud as she imagined Katherine, at this very moment, drinking her wine and filled with intense waves of wondering. Yes, Annie would definitely laugh.
“Shit,” Katherine said out loud. “You so knew who I was.”
The instructions, however, were filled with nothing laughable except the seemingly sheer impossibility of the desires placed after her name—“Katherine . . .” The instructions to the untrained eye might seem as hilarious as anything so difficult to accomplish that the only, the real, the natural response—must be to laugh.
Katherine, Laura, Rebecca, Jill and Marie——
I sure as hell would never have wanted a traditional funeral. You can all figure out how to get along without me. You can figure out that this makes sense and that at this time in your lives—Katherine, your mother; Laura, your daughter; Rebecca—everyone, so much loss and now me too; Jill, whatever loss you hold against your breastbone: all those students you no longer have to love and to help sustain your energy and direction; and Marie, all those lingering souls—all that loss needs to be colored in and then held to the light and you need to get rid of me, celebrate me, allow me this one last wish and here it is:
I want a traveling funeral.
That’s my wish.
I’ve spent weeks and weeks thinking about this, planning it, making the arrangements, and it has given me the great and extraordinary opportunity to take a remarkable journey back during the planning so that I can now move forward and so that you—and the women I have loved most—can honor me, grieve me and also prepare yourselves for what is coming down the road in your own lives. You are also allowed to have some fun. You all work too damn hard.
Do not—even one of you—say that you cannot attend my traveling funeral, because you are the procession. Do not one of you make an excuse why you cannot share this time with the women whose names are with yours on this list and do not think that this will be entirely painful. It will be fun. You will share stories and remember me and in that remembering you will also remember a part of you that may have become buried under all the damn layers of life that accumulate day after day until they have lined up like a brick wall to prevent us from seeing—really seeing.
You may not always get along, especially if Katherine is always in charge (Katherine—I’m kidding—remember what they said about you in high school?) and it may not be easy for you to arrange your schedules and families and the timetable in your own heads, which were not prepared for something like the traveling funeral of your friend Annie. But I am asking each of you to try. Please try and do this.
From the Trade Paperback edition.