Balancing in High Heels

( 8 )

Overview

Just the fax, ma'am.
Alissa Lindley didn't mean to take it out on the fax machine. But when your not-yet-ex-husband knocks up his girlfriend and your divorce is going worse than the next World War — well, something's got to give. Unfortunately, Alissa's employers at the L.A. Public Defender's office take a dim view of the destruction of office equipment. Funny how that anti-workplace violence policy used to seem like a good idea, before she got...

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Overview

Just the fax, ma'am.
Alissa Lindley didn't mean to take it out on the fax machine. But when your not-yet-ex-husband knocks up his girlfriend and your divorce is going worse than the next World War — well, something's got to give. Unfortunately, Alissa's employers at the L.A. Public Defender's office take a dim view of the destruction of office equipment. Funny how that anti-workplace violence policy used to seem like a good idea, before she got fired. And the networking thing just isn't happening at her Anger Management class.
He was arrestingly handsome.
San Jose is the place for a fresh start — it's home, and family and friends are eagerly waiting to welcome her. But her first job as a lawyer there has Alissa walking a high wire of complicated emotions. Her client is from the Butterfly Brigade, a group of justice-seeking (and interestingly tattooed) ladies who right wrongs as they see fit even if that means bending the law. The arresting officer, Detective Rodriguez, is so hot he should be illegal. But can Alissa trust her instincts again when it comes to love? Or will one wrong step send her new life crashing down?

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743471152
  • Publisher: Gallery Books
  • Publication date: 5/3/2005
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 0.72 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 5.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Eileen Rendahl is the author of the Downtown Press novels Balancing in High Heels and Do Me, Do My Roots, which was nominated for a RITA Award. Her short fiction appears in the New Year's story collection In One Year and Out the Other. She lives near her tight-knit family in California.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: From The Angry No More Manual and Workbook

by Dr. Gail Peterson

Recognizing Anger

Do you clench your fists? Frown? Grit your teeth or breathe rapidly in and out through your nose? The first step in learning to control your anger is to recognize the signs of your own emotions before they start your Anger Train on an out-of-your-control journey. You don't have to go down the tracks into the inferno.

Helpful Hint: If you've already thrown something or hit someone, it's too late.

Alissa's Anger Workbook:

Exercise #1

List three ways you can tell that you're angry:

1. Trail of broken office equipment and furniture.

2.

3.

I fed the pages of the brief, which had to be in the judge's office by four-thirty, into the fax machine. It was ten after four. I was cutting it close, but I was going to make it. My client was counting on me to get these papers in; they meant the difference between simply continuing her probation or possibly doing jail time.

The pages flowed through one after another, and the machine began the electronic beeps and boops that said it was dialing. Then it stopped.

The digital readout said "Call Failed." No explanation; just "Call Failed."

Okay. Remain calm. The clock was ticking, but there was still time. I tapped the pages into a neat pile, put them into the machine again, and redialed. This time, the pages stopped after only three of the six pages went through. The digital readout said nothing. It was as if I hadn't even dialed.

Quarter after four. Gerald Winters came sprinting by, coffee cup in hand. "Hey, Alissa, let me know when you're done with the fax. I've got some papers to get out today."

"You might want to go to the other machine, Ger. This one seems to be malfunctioning."

He stopped. "Bummer. The other one's completely dead."

Damn! I fed the pages again and started to dial, but no numbers appeared on the readout. It didn't even beep when I pushed the buttons. The machine was plugged in; maybe it had overheated? I turned it off to reset it and then heard the slightly muffled tones of the Lone Ranger theme emanating from my purse. My cell phone. If it had been my sister, it would have been "The Ride of the Valkyries." If it had been my mother, the phone would have buzzed like an angry bee. The Lone Ranger meant it was Thomas, my husband. Well, he was nominally still my husband; we were having a bad patch.

I rustled through my bag and grabbed the phone, tucking it between my shoulder and ear while I stacked the brief in the fax yet again and turned the machine back on. "Hey, Thomas."

"Hey, yourself, Alissa."

"What's up?" I jabbed the fax buttons. Still nothing! What the hell was wrong with this thing?

"I need a favor, babe."

That was a good sign. Asking for a favor implied that the askee would receive a return favor in the future. Which implied a certain amount of give-and-take. Give-and-take implied a relationship that still functioned, right? "Sure. What is it?"

"I've gotten myself into a little situation and I need to move our papers through."

I froze with my thumb on the fax machine's Send button. "What papers?"

"Our divorce papers, Alissa. Bethany's pregnant."

Bethany? He was talking to me about Bethany? Bethany, who was the source of the chlamydia that had given me PID? (That's pelvic inflammatory disease, for those unaccustomed to the acronyms of the sexually overactive and underprotected.) The PID that had landed me in the emergency room with a fever of one hundred and three degrees and nonstop vomiting, which had led me to discover my husband's infidelity, which had, in turn, led to the previously mentioned "bad patch" we were currently going through.

"Wh-what?" I croaked out. I smacked the fax machine three times hard on the side. This had worked for me in the past, and not just with fax machines. Still nothing, though.

"Bethany is pregnant, Alissa. The baby's mine. I need to do the right thing."

Now he was worried about doing the right thing? How come he didn't think about that before he started shtupping Bethany? "How is this the right thing, Thomas? We're trying to build a life here." I shook the fax machine. Just a little.

"Yes, but there's a new life coming into the world. An innocent one, Alissa."

And I was guilty? Of what? "Thomas, we need to discuss this. Let's not rush into anything."

"There's nothing to discuss, Alissa. I've made up my mind. I'm messengering over some papers, and I would appreciate it if you'd sign them and return them immediately."

"Thomas, wait!" The only response I got was a burst of static. I looked at my phone. "Call Ended."

My chest heaved. My heart beat fast and I couldn't seem to get enough air in my lungs. Thomas was leaving me. For good. For real. For Bethany.

With shaking hands, I tried to dial the judge's fax number again. I just wanted to get the stupid thing to go through so I could leave before Thomas's messenger arrived.

Nothing. Not a beep or a buzz or a blip.

A white buzz filled my mind, and suddenly the room was unbearably hot, my legs weak. I braced myself against the fax machine — the stupid, useless fax machine that couldn't send the stupid, useless papers to the stupid, useless judge so that my stupid, useless client could stay out of jail and take care of her stupid, useless children who would undoubtedly also become drug users, since the vicious cycle never ended!

I picked the damn fax machine up and flung it across the room.

• • •

"So, Alissa, tell us why you're here."

I looked around the room. Dr. Gail had a good question there. I certainly wasn't here because I wanted to be. Who would choose to spend their Tuesday evenings in a room with sour-smelling industrial-grade carpet, uncomfortable orange molded-plastic chairs arranged in a circle, and Starving Artist Sale artwork on the wall? I closed my eyes and prayed for some kind of out-of-body experience to whisk me away. Remember those Calgon commercials? I needed an industrial-sized box of the stuff.

"Alissa," Gail prompted again.

I opened my eyes and tried to smile at her, but it was hard to make my face obey. I couldn't believe a woman with 1980s Mall Bangs held my life in her hands at this moment. How could I take her seriously when every time she spoke, I was distracted by the six-inch bangs standing straight up and waving in the breeze?

After our last meeting Gail had taken me aside and confided (in an exceedingly passive-aggressive tone, I might add) that if I didn't start "sharing" more in Group, she would be forced to tell the judge that I was not participating fully in my court-mandated Anger-Management Classes. I had promised to "share" at the next meeting, managing to keep myself from pulling out a pair of scissors and chopping her bangs off at the roots only because, well, I don't carry scissors around with me.

"I had a little incident at work," I said.

"A little incident?" Gail smiled — if you could actually call such a condescending facial expression a smile. "Could you explain more?"

Gail knew it wasn't a "little" incident. "Little" incidents don't wind up with you talking to a judge, writing apologies to your colleagues, or having your ex-husband take out a protective order against you.

I cleared my throat. "I destroyed a piece of office equipment."

"What kind?" Anthony piped up. Anthony is a car salesman at a Land Rover dealership. He'd whipped a stapler at the head of another salesman whom he believed had stolen one of his commissions. He'd missed, but the other salesman had pressed charges anyway. I guess Land Rovers aren't moving quite as fast as they used to during the dot-com boom, and being a lousy throw is no excuse under the law.

"A fax machine," I answered.

Anthony nodded with great feeling. "Man, I hate those things. Won't dial half the time. Won't go through the other half. Pieces of crap."

"Yes," I said. "That was exactly it. The first time it took all the pages but didn't send them. The second time it just stopped halfway through, and then it wouldn't even dial the number."

The group muttered imprecations against fax machines like a Greek chorus behind a tragic hero. Amazing. I felt better. People understood what I was talking about. I'd just had the bad fortune to tap-dance on a piece of crap in an office with a strict antiviolence policy (funny how that had always seemed to be a good thing to me before). Then I'd had the further bad fortune to stand before a judge who clearly had it in for me. Really, it wasn't my fault, and clearly all these people could see it.

Except Gail, of course.

"Now, Alissa," she said, leaning forward in her chair, clipboard balanced in her lap, bangs jutting forward like a flying buttress. "I want you to close your eyes and concentrate on what you were feeling right then. Did you feel hot? Was your heart beating faster? Think about what you were experiencing as the fax machine malfunctioned."

I obeyed and closed my eyes. I've seen my share of reform-school movies; I know that the best way to get out alive is to cooperate. I didn't want to end up being the girl that the burly nurse wearing surgical gloves took into solitary.

"I remember feeling too warm. I wished I'd left my jacket in my office. My neck hurt, too, and I had a little headache. We were swamped at the office that day."

"Good," Gail said, as if I'd accomplished some amazing task rather than just whining. "Excellent, Alissa. Now, everyone, what are some other choices Alissa could have made right then to derail her Anger Train and remain the Engineer of her own destiny?"

Maurice's hand shot up. "Deep breathing. She could have done deep breathing." Maurice was one of our three wife-beaters. His wife had called the cops after the second time in one week that he'd stripped off all her clothes and then locked her out of the house stark naked.

"That's good, Maurice. Yes, she could have used her breathing. Anybody else?" Gail asked.

Oh, come on. I could have huffed and puffed at the fax machine until I hyperventilated, and the damn thing still wouldn't have dialed.

"Muscle relaxation." Caleb was another wife-beater, but more of your classic smack-across-the-face kind of guy. Frighteningly charming when he wasn't in your face, but apparently he had extremely strong feelings on exactly how his wife should park the car in the garage. Scary all the way around.

"Another good one. Thank you, Caleb." Gail looked around the room. "Steve, how about you?"

Steve looked up from a minute exploration of his Doc Martens. The fluorescent lights glinted off the rings in his eyebrow. Steve had taken a crowbar to another boy's car in retaliation for the other boy's flirting with Steve's girlfriend at a basketball game. "Visualization," he mumbled.

"Yes, Steve. Excellent." Gail looked back at me.

Oh, please. Like visualizing the pages traveling the phone wires to the judge's office would have gotten them there? And imagining the fat cells on my thighs shrinking will make my cellulite go away, too.

"What about walking away, folks? Could Alissa have chosen to walk away from the fax machine and come back later?"

Several heads nodded.

"No," I broke in. "I couldn't. If the fax didn't get to the judge by four-thirty, we'd have missed the filing time and my client would have been in violation of her parole. It was already four-fifteen. I didn't have time to walk away."

The group stopped murmuring. None of us wanted our lawyers to miss a deadline and have us be in violation of our parole. We were all out living our regular lives with only the weekly privilege of attending Anger Management with Gail the Good Witch because we had lawyers who didn't miss deadlines.

These people knew how important that fax was. I had them on my side again. Of course, my haircut was also much better than Gail's, and this was L.A., where such things matter.

"Okay. That's reasonable. You couldn't walk away," Gail agreed. "But the other techniques might have helped. What happened next, Alissa?" she prompted.

I took a deep breath. "Well, I was trying to get the fax to dial again when my cell phone rang."

"Who was on the phone, Alissa? How did the call make you feel?" Gail asked.

"It was Thomas on the phone. My ex." I closed my eyes again and saw his handsome face. How had I felt? Betrayed? Humiliated? Undercut? I started breathing hard just thinking about that call, just thinking about Thomas. "He wasn't quite my ex yet. That's why he called." I swallowed hard.

"Go ahead, Alissa. What happened next?"

"The stupid fax still wouldn't dial. I kept punching the buttons, but it just sat there. It didn't even bleep at me — like I wasn't even worth the effort. Thomas said he was messengering some papers over that I needed to sign right away. He needed the final divorce papers in. He and Bethany needed to get married. She was pregnant." My eyeballs felt hot and I couldn't get enough air in. My throat seemed to have closed up. I breathed harder. My fingernails dug into the palms of my hand.

"And how did that make you feel?" Gail asked. "Remember to use 'I' statements."

How did it make me feel? I took a slow, deep breath in through my nose and then let it out slowly through my mouth. "I felt frustrated that the fax machine wouldn't work."

"Good, Alissa. Go on."

"I felt annoyed with Thomas for disturbing me at work."

"Is that all?" Gail leaned forward in her chair. "Really try to remember. What did you say to Thomas?"

Thomas had sounded so calm, so reasonable. He always did. It was just his behavior that was so damn unreasonable. It is simply not reasonable to screw around on your wife, give her a sexually transmitted disease that may or may not completely foul up her reproductive system, and then six months later expect her to expedite your paperwork so you can marry your pregnant girlfriend. I was thirty years old and living in a mildewy garden apartment, crying over him every night and unable to even get bleeped by a damn fax machine.

The very unreasonableness of it all swept over me like a giant tidal wave, lifting me up on its giant curl to new heights of indignation and incredulity.

Bethany is vapid and phony. She wears false eyelashes and her skirts are too tight and too short and...and...Thomas loved her better than he loved me.

Of course I was angry! Who wouldn't be angry? So angry, in fact, that you might just take the useless fax machine, rip it out of the wall, throw it on the floor, and stomp on it.

"How did you feel, Alissa?" Gail prodded.

"How do you think I felt, Gail? You're the therapist. I felt like it wasn't freaking fair! I FELT CHEATED AND ABUSED AND PISSED OFF! THAT'S HOW I FELT!"

"Alissa, put the chair down!"

I looked around.

I'm not sure how it happened, but somehow I'd ended up in the middle of the circle with my orange chair up over my head. Gail was on the floor behind her chair, bangs quivering with fright. Anthony and Maurice were both cowering. So was Chad, the third member of our wife-beating trio. Steve and Liang, the little Asian woman who had slammed a fellow office worker in the back of the head with a three-ring binder over a coffeemaker dispute (only one scoop per cup and use cold water), were the only ones sitting up straight. Steve gave me a little smile, the first I'd ever seen from him. Liang winked.

I remembered my prayer for an out-of-body experience.

Maybe I should have wished for a pony.

"So did you throw the chair?"

"No, Marsha. Of course I didn't throw the chair. What kind of person do you think I am?" I couldn't believe my sister had even asked. Didn't she know me at all?

"I'm not sure anymore, Alissa. A few months ago, I wouldn't have said you were the kind of person to rip a fax machine out of the wall and try to use it as a trampoline," Marsha observed. "Although you always were an overachiever. I suppose if you were going to start displacing your anger on inanimate objects, no one should have expected you to do it halfway."

She had a point, and not just about the overachiever thing. I hadn't thought I was the kind of person to rip a fax machine out of the wall and stomp the bejeezus out of it, either. Maybe I was the one who didn't know me at all. "Normal" people knew where the boundaries were, where the lines were that you weren't supposed to cross.

I remembered the horrified looks on my colleagues' faces when I finally came back to myself and looked around from atop the fax machine. People stood frozen, coffee mugs halfway to lips, pens poised in the air, mouths open in shock, dismay, and maybe, in a few cases, gleeful anticipation of imminent fall from glory. Clearly they didn't know me so well, either.

So I was wrong about what kind of person I was and I had been wrong about Thomas. I'd thought he was the man of my dreams, my life partner, my helpmeet. What else was I wrong about? What else didn't I know? Maybe I'd walk out the door tomorrow and the grass would be purple and the sky would be pink. Maybe two plus two would no longer equal four, which, while it would have the benefit of explaining why my checking account never balances, would still be very confusing. Maybe up was down and red was blue and horizontal stripes didn't make me look fat. Maybe everything I'd counted on was just a house of cards ready to collapse beneath me. Maybe it had already collapsed. I felt off-balance, unstable, as if the very ground beneath me had become treacherous. Like I'd been walking a tightrope all along and had only just now realized how precarious my situation was.

My breath started to come hard and fast as my mind raced over the possibilities, over the millions of missteps I could make every day. There were dozens of things that I could be wrong, wrong, wrong about. How to plead a case. How to write a brief. What shoes to wear with my new Prada knockoff skirt. I began to shake.

It was hard enough to balance on the line each day; not knowing where it was made it damn near impossible.

"Please, Marsha. Don't joke. I don't know what to do. I'm frightened. Tell me what to do."

"Come home," my sister said without a second's hesitation. "Come home where I can take care of you."

It was so quintessentially Marsha. The bossiness. The conviction. The love. Marsha's nearly ten years older than I am. In the years between our births, there were at least three miscarriages and one heartbreakingly stillborn baby boy that my mother still lights a Yahrzeit candle for every year. By the time I came along, Marsha was old enough to help take care of me. As far as she is concerned, I was her baby then and I still am now.

I've been fighting it since I could draw breath, so you can understand how surprised I was when I said, "Okay."

What with quitting my job at the public defender's office and setting things up back home, it took close to six months to actually get my stuff in a moving van and up I-5 from Los Angeles, but I did finally find my way back to San Jose. Thank you, Dionne Warwick.

I pulled into the driveway of my new condo and walked into the front courtyard entrance. When I first looked at it, family in tow, my mother had said it felt like a prison. My sister had clapped her hands together and said it would hold a beautiful container garden that she immediately began to sketch out for me. Sometimes I think she actually channels Martha Stewart.

I set Snowball's cat carrier down and opened the door. He did not emerge. I peeked inside. He looked back at me with a disdainful look in his slightly crossed blue eyes. Supposedly, he is a flame point Siamese. I asked the woman at the no-kill shelter where I got him what a classy cat like that would have been doing there. She only shrugged. Whatever he is, I like the way he remains haughty despite having landed on hard times.

I fished a brand-new feather-and-fur covered catnip mouse out of my bag and dragged it in front of the carrier in an enticing manner.

Nothing.

I peeked in.

Snowball yawned.

"Come on, little man. It's time to come out. This is home now."

I opened a tin of Fancy Feast Flaked Tuna, his favorite, and set it a few feet from the carrier. He gave me an owlish blink.

"Hiding won't help. You might as well come out and face it." I know that's true; I'd tried it briefly after Thomas dumped me. I moved into my bed with several Costco-sized boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes and a lot of ice cream. Hiding does not change your reality. It will, however, add ten stubborn pounds to your thighs and bring your secretary knocking on your door to see why you haven't been to work in close to a week.

I created a trail of Pounce Treats from the carrier door to the Fancy Feast tin and walked away. A watched cat is, in my experience, damned unlikely to do anything but stare at you with kitty disdain.

I dialed my cell phone. Kathleen answered on the first ring.

Kathleen has been my best friend since third grade, when we both ended up in the infirmary at Girl Scout camp. She'd marched through a veritable hedge of poison ivy that had left her skin a topographical map of ooze. I'd turned my ankle trying to catch crawdads in the creek. I was lucky not to be covered with leeches. She was lucky not to go into anaphylactic shock. I spent the afternoon putting calamine lotion on her bony little back, and she fetched ice for my ankle. Since then she's been Ethel to my Lucy (except she's prettier than me), Shirley to my Laverne (except she's the blond one to my brunette), and occasionally Tonto to my Lone Ranger (without the ugly racial overtones).

Moving away to L.A. and moving back, one of us having babies and one having an eighty-hour-a-week job, one of us having a good marriage and one having a not-so-good one — none of it had really changed us. I'd studied for the bar while she studied Dr. Spock. I whined to her about the political structure at the public defender's office while she complained about playgroup management (remarkably similar when you come right down to it). I'd flown back to San Jose to be her maid of honor. She'd flown down to L.A. and held my hand when Thomas dumped me. Through all of it, we'd both managed to think what the other one was doing was important.

"I'm baaacckk," I crooned into my phone.

She rewarded me with an immediate high-pitched squeal. She's always been a screamer. "We'll be there in fifteen minutes." She hung up without even saying good-bye.

I called my mother and then my sister. The movers were due with my stuff in about an hour. I sat down cross-legged on the concrete of the new courtyard and leaned back against the pink stucco wall. It was chilly and rough beneath my back, not yet warmed by the weak spring sunlight.

The courtyard smelled dusty and looked desolate with only a few dead, decaying leaves that must have come over from a neighbor's tree. A sharp crescent of waxing moon was just visible in the day-lit sky above the spot my sister insisted was perfect for bougainvillea. It was mine now. Mine to neglect or mine to make something of. I guess we'd just have to see.

Snowball emerged from the carrier, stopping to eat each Pounce Treat on his way to the tuna, which he then devoured. He leaped on the mouse, rolled around with it a few times, growled, and trotted off with it in his mouth. He likes to play hard to get, but I know how to get my man in the end.

Provided he's furry and neutered.

Kathleen got there first, with Hayley and Jason stumbling behind her, their thumbs frantically working the buttons on their Game Boys.

"Don't judge me" were the first words out of her mouth, almost before I could hug her. "The GameBoys will keep them busy for hours so I can actually help you, instead of yelling at them to stop doing whatever they're doing the whole time."

She set a cooler down next to me and started pulling out peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches (crusts cut off and then sandwiches cut into triangles) and grapes (washed). Then she opened a charming tangerine-colored net tote bag that matched her sandals and pulled out little bags of potato chips (fattening) and chocolate chip cookies (even more fattening and lucious with the chocolate chips gone slightly melty).

"Thank you," I said through the crumbs. I hadn't realized how hungry I was.

"You're welcome. It's nice to receive some appreciation." She glanced pointedly at Jason.

He rolled his eyes. I was impressed; Jason was only in first grade. I hadn't learned to roll my eyes like that until junior high, at least. Then again, I learned it from Kathleen. Maybe it was genetic.

"You didn't make her carry hers in a bandanna," he said, wrinkling his freckle-covered nose.

I arched a brow at Kathleen.

She blushed. "I read this article in some magazine about packing lunches your kids would love. They had apparently not met my kids. Not only would Jason not eat the Hippie Lunch, he wouldn't even carry it to school."

"Hippie Lunch?" I grabbed a handful of grapes, and they burst on my tongue as I bit into them. I am so lucky to live in a place where the fruit is this good and migrant labor is so cheap. I feel guilty about this often, but it doesn't stop me from eating fruit.

"An apple, some string cheese, homemade fig bars, and organic juice, all wrapped in a red bandanna. It was darling!" she cooed.

"It was lame," Jason said.

"It was packed in a bandanna," I said.

They both nodded.

"You have no idea of the scrutiny I'm under every day with this stuff," Kathleen said. "One time last fall I let Jason get hot lunch. Then the next day in the quad when I picked him up, Jenny Wilson's mother came up and in this really loud voice announced that Jenny had told her that Jason had only eaten the cookies and had thrown out the rest of the lunch."

"Oh," I said. What else was there to say?

"I was so embarrassed! She said she only told me because she 'thought I should know,' but I know she just wanted everyone to know that I wasn't giving Jason a proper lunch."

I grabbed another bunch of grapes. "Why would she want to do that?"

"I don't know. Maybe because I nixed her idea of having the Little League party at the pizza place and suggested a cookout at the park instead, and everybody said afterward how much better it was."

Clearly, Kathleen needed to get out more. Or maybe Jenny Wilson's mother did. All I knew was that somebody needed a big dose of perspective.

The sound of my mother's voice wafted over the courtyard door. "Marsha, put that in my walker. I can push it."

Judging from the sounds, they were quite close.

"I don't need you to push it for me, Mom. I've got it," Marsha's voice answered.

"But it will fit right here," Mom protested.

"It fits right in my arms."

"Why won't you let me help?"

"Why won't you walk to the door?" It pleased me to hear Marsha's composure snap a little.

Just listening to them made me want to bean Mom over the head with whatever Marsha was carrying. It must have been heavy, since last time I was home, Marsha gave me a little speech about letting Mom do everything she could do and not coddling her. Apparently carrying things for Mom was damaging to her self-esteem, and I needed to be more sensitive to that fact. I took pity on Marsha and went and opened the courtyard door.

Mom wheeled through with her pausing step, shoved the walker aside, and lurched into my arms. Marsha peeked at us from around the gigantic plant in her arms.

"What the hell is that?" I asked.

"A hollyhock for your courtyard," Marsha said, marching in. "And you're welcome."

Having my mother, my sister, Kathleen, and her two kids all in my house with movers trying to place what little I'd opted to bring with me wasn't the pure hell I'd expected. It was more like purgatory. I knew it would end eventually, I just didn't know exactly when.

By eleven o'clock that night my dishes and kitchenware were put away in places where I would probably never find them again, courtesy of my mother. My books had been organized on shelves by color and size. Hayley's only four and can't read yet, so I couldn't expect her and Jason to organize books by category. About one quarter of my clothing was precisely lined up in one of my closets, while the other closet was stuffed with the things Kathleen thought I shouldn't have bothered to move. She'd also tactfully mentioned a new show on the Learning Channel called "What Not to Wear" and jotted down when it aired.

I couldn't wait for them to stop helping me and go home.

You would think that the stupefying drive would have given me my solitude fix for the day, but apparently I was turning into a solitude junkie. Pretty soon I'd be ducking furtively into isolation booths and lying about where I was going.

I shooed them out the door with a promise to walk with Kathleen the next morning, showered, and then collapsed with wet hair on my freshly made bed with its precise, crisp hospital corners (thank you, Marsha). The ceiling fan whirred a lullaby above me. I fell asleep faster and more completely than I had in months. Until about two A.M.

In my dream I stood on the edge of a cliff. Mist swirled around me. The sounds of my pursuers drifted up out of the fog behind me. I didn't know who they were, how many they were, or even why they were after me. I just knew they were coming. The only escape was over the precipice, and I flung myself into the air. The ground rushed toward me. Right before I hit, my eyes flew open as if by electronic switch.

For a heart-stopping thirty seconds of emotional vertigo, I had no clue where I was. My bed was on the wrong wall, the shadows on the ceiling ran the wrong way, unfamiliar noises (the neighbor's dog growling softly and traffic from Lawrence Expressway) made me jump. My eyes felt like I'd spent a day at the beach — hot and gritty. I went downstairs to get a drink of water.

Once I made it to the kitchen, the French doors to the courtyard beckoned me outside. My hollyhock rustled its leaves at me, almost like a greeting. In the silver light of the moon, its showy pink flowers lost their color and blended in with the leaves. How like Marsha to buy me something with big pink flowers. I am so not about pink. It was just like when she used to tape bows to my bald head when I was six months old.

Snowball sauntered out and crawled into my lap, settling into a steady purr. I buried my nose in his white fur. The moonlight softened the courtyard's hard edges turning everything a soft gray with shadows hiding within shadows. I felt like hiding in the shadows a little more myself, where the moonlight made everything seem mysterious and full of possibilities.

Because let's face it — these days I needed all the possibilities I could get.

Copyright © 2005 by Eileen Rendahl

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First Chapter

Chapter One: From The Angry No More Manual and Workbook

by Dr. Gail Peterson

Recognizing Anger

Do you clench your fists? Frown? Grit your teeth or breathe rapidly in and out through your nose? The first step in learning to control your anger is to recognize the signs of your own emotions before they start your Anger Train on an out-of-your-control journey. You don't have to go down the tracks into the inferno.

Helpful Hint: If you've already thrown something or hit someone, it's too late.

Alissa's Anger Workbook:

Exercise #1

List three ways you can tell that you're angry:

1. Trail of broken office equipment and furniture.

2.

3.

I fed the pages of the brief, which had to be in the judge's office by four-thirty, into the fax machine. It was ten after four. I was cutting it close, but I was going to make it. My client was counting on me to get these papers in; they meant the difference between simply continuing her probation or possibly doing jail time.

The pages flowed through one after another, and the machine began the electronic beeps and boops that said it was dialing. Then it stopped.

The digital readout said "Call Failed." No explanation; just "Call Failed."

Okay. Remain calm. The clock was ticking, but there was still time. I tapped the pages into a neat pile, put them into the machine again, and redialed. This time, the pages stopped after only three of the six pages went through. The digital readout said nothing. It was as if I hadn't even dialed.

Quarter after four. Gerald Winters came sprinting by, coffee cup in hand. "Hey, Alissa, let me knowwhen you're done with the fax. I've got some papers to get out today."

"You might want to go to the other machine, Ger. This one seems to be malfunctioning."

He stopped. "Bummer. The other one's completely dead."

Damn! I fed the pages again and started to dial, but no numbers appeared on the readout. It didn't even beep when I pushed the buttons. The machine was plugged in; maybe it had overheated? I turned it off to reset it and then heard the slightly muffled tones of the Lone Ranger theme emanating from my purse. My cell phone. If it had been my sister, it would have been "The Ride of the Valkyries." If it had been my mother, the phone would have buzzed like an angry bee. The Lone Ranger meant it was Thomas, my husband. Well, he was nominally still my husband; we were having a bad patch.

I rustled through my bag and grabbed the phone, tucking it between my shoulder and ear while I stacked the brief in the fax yet again and turned the machine back on. "Hey, Thomas."

"Hey, yourself, Alissa."

"What's up?" I jabbed the fax buttons. Still nothing! What the hell was wrong with this thing?

"I need a favor, babe."

That was a good sign. Asking for a favor implied that the askee would receive a return favor in the future. Which implied a certain amount of give-and-take. Give-and-take implied a relationship that still functioned, right? "Sure. What is it?"

"I've gotten myself into a little situation and I need to move our papers through."

I froze with my thumb on the fax machine's Send button. "What papers?"

"Our divorce papers, Alissa. Bethany's pregnant."

Bethany? He was talking to me about Bethany? Bethany, who was the source of the chlamydia that had given me PID? (That's pelvic inflammatory disease, for those unaccustomed to the acronyms of the sexually overactive and underprotected.) The PID that had landed me in the emergency room with a fever of one hundred and three degrees and nonstop vomiting, which had led me to discover my husband's infidelity, which had, in turn, led to the previously mentioned "bad patch" we were currently going through.

"Wh-what?" I croaked out. I smacked the fax machine three times hard on the side. This had worked for me in the past, and not just with fax machines. Still nothing, though.

"Bethany is pregnant, Alissa. The baby's mine. I need to do the right thing."

Now he was worried about doing the right thing? How come he didn't think about that before he started shtupping Bethany? "How is this the right thing, Thomas? We're trying to build a life here." I shook the fax machine. Just a little.

"Yes, but there's a new life coming into the world. An innocent one, Alissa."

And I was guilty? Of what? "Thomas, we need to discuss this. Let's not rush into anything."

"There's nothing to discuss, Alissa. I've made up my mind. I'm messengering over some papers, and I would appreciate it if you'd sign them and return them immediately."

"Thomas, wait!" The only response I got was a burst of static. I looked at my phone. "Call Ended."

My chest heaved. My heart beat fast and I couldn't seem to get enough air in my lungs. Thomas was leaving me. For good. For real. For Bethany.

With shaking hands, I tried to dial the judge's fax number again. I just wanted to get the stupid thing to go through so I could leave before Thomas's messenger arrived.

Nothing. Not a beep or a buzz or a blip.

A white buzz filled my mind, and suddenly the room was unbearably hot, my legs weak. I braced myself against the fax machine -- the stupid, useless fax machine that couldn't send the stupid, useless papers to the stupid, useless judge so that my stupid, useless client could stay out of jail and take care of her stupid, useless children who would undoubtedly also become drug users, since the vicious cycle never ended!

I picked the damn fax machine up and flung it across the room.

• • •

"So, Alissa, tell us why you're here."

I looked around the room. Dr. Gail had a good question there. I certainly wasn't here because I wanted to be. Who would choose to spend their Tuesday evenings in a room with sour-smelling industrial-grade carpet, uncomfortable orange molded-plastic chairs arranged in a circle, and Starving Artist Sale artwork on the wall? I closed my eyes and prayed for some kind of out-of-body experience to whisk me away. Remember those Calgon commercials? I needed an industrial-sized box of the stuff.

"Alissa," Gail prompted again.

I opened my eyes and tried to smile at her, but it was hard to make my face obey. I couldn't believe a woman with 1980s Mall Bangs held my life in her hands at this moment. How could I take her seriously when every time she spoke, I was distracted by the six-inch bangs standing straight up and waving in the breeze?

After our last meeting Gail had taken me aside and confided (in an exceedingly passive-aggressive tone, I might add) that if I didn't start "sharing" more in Group, she would be forced to tell the judge that I was not participating fully in my court-mandated Anger-Management Classes. I had promised to "share" at the next meeting, managing to keep myself from pulling out a pair of scissors and chopping her bangs off at the roots only because, well, I don't carry scissors around with me.

"I had a little incident at work," I said.

"A little incident?" Gail smiled -- if you could actually call such a condescending facial expression a smile. "Could you explain more?"

Gail knew it wasn't a "little" incident. "Little" incidents don't wind up with you talking to a judge, writing apologies to your colleagues, or having your ex-husband take out a protective order against you.

I cleared my throat. "I destroyed a piece of office equipment."

"What kind?" Anthony piped up. Anthony is a car salesman at a Land Rover dealership. He'd whipped a stapler at the head of another salesman whom he believed had stolen one of his commissions. He'd missed, but the other salesman had pressed charges anyway. I guess Land Rovers aren't moving quite as fast as they used to during the dot-com boom, and being a lousy throw is no excuse under the law.

"A fax machine," I answered.

Anthony nodded with great feeling. "Man, I hate those things. Won't dial half the time. Won't go through the other half. Pieces of crap."

"Yes," I said. "That was exactly it. The first time it took all the pages but didn't send them. The second time it just stopped halfway through, and then it wouldn't even dial the number."

The group muttered imprecations against fax machines like a Greek chorus behind a tragic hero. Amazing. I felt better. People understood what I was talking about. I'd just had the bad fortune to tap-dance on a piece of crap in an office with a strict antiviolence policy (funny how that had always seemed to be a good thing to me before). Then I'd had the further bad fortune to stand before a judge who clearly had it in for me. Really, it wasn't my fault, and clearly all these people could see it.

Except Gail, of course.

"Now, Alissa," she said, leaning forward in her chair, clipboard balanced in her lap, bangs jutting forward like a flying buttress. "I want you to close your eyes and concentrate on what you were feeling right then. Did you feel hot? Was your heart beating faster? Think about what you were experiencing as the fax machine malfunctioned."

I obeyed and closed my eyes. I've seen my share of reform-school movies; I know that the best way to get out alive is to cooperate. I didn't want to end up being the girl that the burly nurse wearing surgical gloves took into solitary.

"I remember feeling too warm. I wished I'd left my jacket in my office. My neck hurt, too, and I had a little headache. We were swamped at the office that day."

"Good," Gail said, as if I'd accomplished some amazing task rather than just whining. "Excellent, Alissa. Now, everyone, what are some other choices Alissa could have made right then to derail her Anger Train and remain the Engineer of her own destiny?"

Maurice's hand shot up. "Deep breathing. She could have done deep breathing." Maurice was one of our three wife-beaters. His wife had called the cops after the second time in one week that he'd stripped off all her clothes and then locked her out of the house stark naked.

"That's good, Maurice. Yes, she could have used her breathing. Anybody else?" Gail asked.

Oh, come on. I could have huffed and puffed at the fax machine until I hyperventilated, and the damn thing still wouldn't have dialed.

"Muscle relaxation." Caleb was another wife-beater, but more of your classic smack-across-the-face kind of guy. Frighteningly charming when he wasn't in your face, but apparently he had extremely strong feelings on exactly how his wife should park the car in the garage. Scary all the way around.

"Another good one. Thank you, Caleb." Gail looked around the room. "Steve, how about you?"

Steve looked up from a minute exploration of his Doc Martens. The fluorescent lights glinted off the rings in his eyebrow. Steve had taken a crowbar to another boy's car in retaliation for the other boy's flirting with Steve's girlfriend at a basketball game. "Visualization," he mumbled.

"Yes, Steve. Excellent." Gail looked back at me.

Oh, please. Like visualizing the pages traveling the phone wires to the judge's office would have gotten them there? And imagining the fat cells on my thighs shrinking will make my cellulite go away, too.

"What about walking away, folks? Could Alissa have chosen to walk away from the fax machine and come back later?"

Several heads nodded.

"No," I broke in. "I couldn't. If the fax didn't get to the judge by four-thirty, we'd have missed the filing time and my client would have been in violation of her parole. It was already four-fifteen. I didn't have time to walk away."

The group stopped murmuring. None of us wanted our lawyers to miss a deadline and have us be in violation of our parole. We were all out living our regular lives with only the weekly privilege of attending Anger Management with Gail the Good Witch because we had lawyers who didn't miss deadlines.

These people knew how important that fax was. I had them on my side again. Of course, my haircut was also much better than Gail's, and this was L.A., where such things matter.

"Okay. That's reasonable. You couldn't walk away," Gail agreed. "But the other techniques might have helped. What happened next, Alissa?" she prompted.

I took a deep breath. "Well, I was trying to get the fax to dial again when my cell phone rang."

"Who was on the phone, Alissa? How did the call make you feel?" Gail asked.

"It was Thomas on the phone. My ex." I closed my eyes again and saw his handsome face. How had I felt? Betrayed? Humiliated? Undercut? I started breathing hard just thinking about that call, just thinking about Thomas. "He wasn't quite my ex yet. That's why he called." I swallowed hard.

"Go ahead, Alissa. What happened next?"

"The stupid fax still wouldn't dial. I kept punching the buttons, but it just sat there. It didn't even bleep at me -- like I wasn't even worth the effort. Thomas said he was messengering some papers over that I needed to sign right away. He needed the final divorce papers in. He and Bethany needed to get married. She was pregnant." My eyeballs felt hot and I couldn't get enough air in. My throat seemed to have closed up. I breathed harder. My fingernails dug into the palms of my hand.

"And how did that make you feel?" Gail asked. "Remember to use 'I' statements."

How did it make me feel? I took a slow, deep breath in through my nose and then let it out slowly through my mouth. "I felt frustrated that the fax machine wouldn't work."

"Good, Alissa. Go on."

"I felt annoyed with Thomas for disturbing me at work."

"Is that all?" Gail leaned forward in her chair. "Really try to remember. What did you say to Thomas?"

Thomas had sounded so calm, so reasonable. He always did. It was just his behavior that was so damn unreasonable. It is simply not reasonable to screw around on your wife, give her a sexually transmitted disease that may or may not completely foul up her reproductive system, and then six months later expect her to expedite your paperwork so you can marry your pregnant girlfriend. I was thirty years old and living in a mildewy garden apartment, crying over him every night and unable to even get bleeped by a damn fax machine.

The very unreasonableness of it all swept over me like a giant tidal wave, lifting me up on its giant curl to new heights of indignation and incredulity.

Bethany is vapid and phony. She wears false eyelashes and her skirts are too tight and too short and...and...Thomas loved her better than he loved me.

Of course I was angry! Who wouldn't be angry? So angry, in fact, that you might just take the useless fax machine, rip it out of the wall, throw it on the floor, and stomp on it.

"How did you feel, Alissa?" Gail prodded.

"How do you think I felt, Gail? You're the therapist. I felt like it wasn't freaking fair! I FELT CHEATED AND ABUSED AND PISSED OFF! THAT'S HOW I FELT!"

"Alissa, put the chair down!"

I looked around.

I'm not sure how it happened, but somehow I'd ended up in the middle of the circle with my orange chair up over my head. Gail was on the floor behind her chair, bangs quivering with fright. Anthony and Maurice were both cowering. So was Chad, the third member of our wife-beating trio. Steve and Liang, the little Asian woman who had slammed a fellow office worker in the back of the head with a three-ring binder over a coffeemaker dispute (only one scoop per cup and use cold water), were the only ones sitting up straight. Steve gave me a little smile, the first I'd ever seen from him. Liang winked.

I remembered my prayer for an out-of-body experience.

Maybe I should have wished for a pony.

"So did you throw the chair?"

"No, Marsha. Of course I didn't throw the chair. What kind of person do you think I am?" I couldn't believe my sister had even asked. Didn't she know me at all?

"I'm not sure anymore, Alissa. A few months ago, I wouldn't have said you were the kind of person to rip a fax machine out of the wall and try to use it as a trampoline," Marsha observed. "Although you always were an overachiever. I suppose if you were going to start displacing your anger on inanimate objects, no one should have expected you to do it halfway."

She had a point, and not just about the overachiever thing. I hadn't thought I was the kind of person to rip a fax machine out of the wall and stomp the bejeezus out of it, either. Maybe I was the one who didn't know me at all. "Normal" people knew where the boundaries were, where the lines were that you weren't supposed to cross.

I remembered the horrified looks on my colleagues' faces when I finally came back to myself and looked around from atop the fax machine. People stood frozen, coffee mugs halfway to lips, pens poised in the air, mouths open in shock, dismay, and maybe, in a few cases, gleeful anticipation of imminent fall from glory. Clearly they didn't know me so well, either.

So I was wrong about what kind of person I was and I had been wrong about Thomas. I'd thought he was the man of my dreams, my life partner, my helpmeet. What else was I wrong about? What else didn't I know? Maybe I'd walk out the door tomorrow and the grass would be purple and the sky would be pink. Maybe two plus two would no longer equal four, which, while it would have the benefit of explaining why my checking account never balances, would still be very confusing. Maybe up was down and red was blue and horizontal stripes didn't make me look fat. Maybe everything I'd counted on was just a house of cards ready to collapse beneath me. Maybe it had already collapsed. I felt off-balance, unstable, as if the very ground beneath me had become treacherous. Like I'd been walking a tightrope all along and had only just now realized how precarious my situation was.

My breath started to come hard and fast as my mind raced over the possibilities, over the millions of missteps I could make every day. There were dozens of things that I could be wrong, wrong, wrong about. How to plead a case. How to write a brief. What shoes to wear with my new Prada knockoff skirt. I began to shake.

It was hard enough to balance on the line each day; not knowing where it was made it damn near impossible.

"Please, Marsha. Don't joke. I don't know what to do. I'm frightened. Tell me what to do."

"Come home," my sister said without a second's hesitation. "Come home where I can take care of you."

It was so quintessentially Marsha. The bossiness. The conviction. The love. Marsha's nearly ten years older than I am. In the years between our births, there were at least three miscarriages and one heartbreakingly stillborn baby boy that my mother still lights a Yahrzeit candle for every year. By the time I came along, Marsha was old enough to help take care of me. As far as she is concerned, I was her baby then and I still am now.

I've been fighting it since I could draw breath, so you can understand how surprised I was when I said, "Okay."

What with quitting my job at the public defender's office and setting things up back home, it took close to six months to actually get my stuff in a moving van and up I-5 from Los Angeles, but I did finally find my way back to San Jose. Thank you, Dionne Warwick.

I pulled into the driveway of my new condo and walked into the front courtyard entrance. When I first looked at it, family in tow, my mother had said it felt like a prison. My sister had clapped her hands together and said it would hold a beautiful container garden that she immediately began to sketch out for me. Sometimes I think she actually channels Martha Stewart.

I set Snowball's cat carrier down and opened the door. He did not emerge. I peeked inside. He looked back at me with a disdainful look in his slightly crossed blue eyes. Supposedly, he is a flame point Siamese. I asked the woman at the no-kill shelter where I got him what a classy cat like that would have been doing there. She only shrugged. Whatever he is, I like the way he remains haughty despite having landed on hard times.

I fished a brand-new feather-and-fur covered catnip mouse out of my bag and dragged it in front of the carrier in an enticing manner.

Nothing.

I peeked in.

Snowball yawned.

"Come on, little man. It's time to come out. This is home now."

I opened a tin of Fancy Feast Flaked Tuna, his favorite, and set it a few feet from the carrier. He gave me an owlish blink.

"Hiding won't help. You might as well come out and face it." I know that's true; I'd tried it briefly after Thomas dumped me. I moved into my bed with several Costco-sized boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes and a lot of ice cream. Hiding does not change your reality. It will, however, add ten stubborn pounds to your thighs and bring your secretary knocking on your door to see why you haven't been to work in close to a week.

I created a trail of Pounce Treats from the carrier door to the Fancy Feast tin and walked away. A watched cat is, in my experience, damned unlikely to do anything but stare at you with kitty disdain.

I dialed my cell phone. Kathleen answered on the first ring.

Kathleen has been my best friend since third grade, when we both ended up in the infirmary at Girl Scout camp. She'd marched through a veritable hedge of poison ivy that had left her skin a topographical map of ooze. I'd turned my ankle trying to catch crawdads in the creek. I was lucky not to be covered with leeches. She was lucky not to go into anaphylactic shock. I spent the afternoon putting calamine lotion on her bony little back, and she fetched ice for my ankle. Since then she's been Ethel to my Lucy (except she's prettier than me), Shirley to my Laverne (except she's the blond one to my brunette), and occasionally Tonto to my Lone Ranger (without the ugly racial overtones).

Moving away to L.A. and moving back, one of us having babies and one having an eighty-hour-a-week job, one of us having a good marriage and one having a not-so-good one -- none of it had really changed us. I'd studied for the bar while she studied Dr. Spock. I whined to her about the political structure at the public defender's office while she complained about playgroup management (remarkably similar when you come right down to it). I'd flown back to San Jose to be her maid of honor. She'd flown down to L.A. and held my hand when Thomas dumped me. Through all of it, we'd both managed to think what the other one was doing was important.

"I'm baaacckk," I crooned into my phone.

She rewarded me with an immediate high-pitched squeal. She's always been a screamer. "We'll be there in fifteen minutes." She hung up without even saying good-bye.

I called my mother and then my sister. The movers were due with my stuff in about an hour. I sat down cross-legged on the concrete of the new courtyard and leaned back against the pink stucco wall. It was chilly and rough beneath my back, not yet warmed by the weak spring sunlight.

The courtyard smelled dusty and looked desolate with only a few dead, decaying leaves that must have come over from a neighbor's tree. A sharp crescent of waxing moon was just visible in the day-lit sky above the spot my sister insisted was perfect for bougainvillea. It was mine now. Mine to neglect or mine to make something of. I guess we'd just have to see.

Snowball emerged from the carrier, stopping to eat each Pounce Treat on his way to the tuna, which he then devoured. He leaped on the mouse, rolled around with it a few times, growled, and trotted off with it in his mouth. He likes to play hard to get, but I know how to get my man in the end.

Provided he's furry and neutered.

Kathleen got there first, with Hayley and Jason stumbling behind her, their thumbs frantically working the buttons on their Game Boys.

"Don't judge me" were the first words out of her mouth, almost before I could hug her. "The GameBoys will keep them busy for hours so I can actually help you, instead of yelling at them to stop doing whatever they're doing the whole time."

She set a cooler down next to me and started pulling out peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches (crusts cut off and then sandwiches cut into triangles) and grapes (washed). Then she opened a charming tangerine-colored net tote bag that matched her sandals and pulled out little bags of potato chips (fattening) and chocolate chip cookies (even more fattening and lucious with the chocolate chips gone slightly melty).

"Thank you," I said through the crumbs. I hadn't realized how hungry I was.

"You're welcome. It's nice to receive some appreciation." She glanced pointedly at Jason.

He rolled his eyes. I was impressed; Jason was only in first grade. I hadn't learned to roll my eyes like that until junior high, at least. Then again, I learned it from Kathleen. Maybe it was genetic.

"You didn't make her carry hers in a bandanna," he said, wrinkling his freckle-covered nose.

I arched a brow at Kathleen.

She blushed. "I read this article in some magazine about packing lunches your kids would love. They had apparently not met my kids. Not only would Jason not eat the Hippie Lunch, he wouldn't even carry it to school."

"Hippie Lunch?" I grabbed a handful of grapes, and they burst on my tongue as I bit into them. I am so lucky to live in a place where the fruit is this good and migrant labor is so cheap. I feel guilty about this often, but it doesn't stop me from eating fruit.

"An apple, some string cheese, homemade fig bars, and organic juice, all wrapped in a red bandanna. It was darling!" she cooed.

"It was lame," Jason said.

"It was packed in a bandanna," I said.

They both nodded.

"You have no idea of the scrutiny I'm under every day with this stuff," Kathleen said. "One time last fall I let Jason get hot lunch. Then the next day in the quad when I picked him up, Jenny Wilson's mother came up and in this really loud voice announced that Jenny had told her that Jason had only eaten the cookies and had thrown out the rest of the lunch."

"Oh," I said. What else was there to say?

"I was so embarrassed! She said she only told me because she 'thought I should know,' but I know she just wanted everyone to know that I wasn't giving Jason a proper lunch."

I grabbed another bunch of grapes. "Why would she want to do that?"

"I don't know. Maybe because I nixed her idea of having the Little League party at the pizza place and suggested a cookout at the park instead, and everybody said afterward how much better it was."

Clearly, Kathleen needed to get out more. Or maybe Jenny Wilson's mother did. All I knew was that somebody needed a big dose of perspective.

The sound of my mother's voice wafted over the courtyard door. "Marsha, put that in my walker. I can push it."

Judging from the sounds, they were quite close.

"I don't need you to push it for me, Mom. I've got it," Marsha's voice answered.

"But it will fit right here," Mom protested.

"It fits right in my arms."

"Why won't you let me help?"

"Why won't you walk to the door?" It pleased me to hear Marsha's composure snap a little.

Just listening to them made me want to bean Mom over the head with whatever Marsha was carrying. It must have been heavy, since last time I was home, Marsha gave me a little speech about letting Mom do everything she could do and not coddling her. Apparently carrying things for Mom was damaging to her self-esteem, and I needed to be more sensitive to that fact. I took pity on Marsha and went and opened the courtyard door.

Mom wheeled through with her pausing step, shoved the walker aside, and lurched into my arms. Marsha peeked at us from around the gigantic plant in her arms.

"What the hell is that?" I asked.

"A hollyhock for your courtyard," Marsha said, marching in. "And you're welcome."

Having my mother, my sister, Kathleen, and her two kids all in my house with movers trying to place what little I'd opted to bring with me wasn't the pure hell I'd expected. It was more like purgatory. I knew it would end eventually, I just didn't know exactly when.

By eleven o'clock that night my dishes and kitchenware were put away in places where I would probably never find them again, courtesy of my mother. My books had been organized on shelves by color and size. Hayley's only four and can't read yet, so I couldn't expect her and Jason to organize books by category. About one quarter of my clothing was precisely lined up in one of my closets, while the other closet was stuffed with the things Kathleen thought I shouldn't have bothered to move. She'd also tactfully mentioned a new show on the Learning Channel called "What Not to Wear" and jotted down when it aired.

I couldn't wait for them to stop helping me and go home.

You would think that the stupefying drive would have given me my solitude fix for the day, but apparently I was turning into a solitude junkie. Pretty soon I'd be ducking furtively into isolation booths and lying about where I was going.

I shooed them out the door with a promise to walk with Kathleen the next morning, showered, and then collapsed with wet hair on my freshly made bed with its precise, crisp hospital corners (thank you, Marsha). The ceiling fan whirred a lullaby above me. I fell asleep faster and more completely than I had in months. Until about two A.M.

In my dream I stood on the edge of a cliff. Mist swirled around me. The sounds of my pursuers drifted up out of the fog behind me. I didn't know who they were, how many they were, or even why they were after me. I just knew they were coming. The only escape was over the precipice, and I flung myself into the air. The ground rushed toward me. Right before I hit, my eyes flew open as if by electronic switch.

For a heart-stopping thirty seconds of emotional vertigo, I had no clue where I was. My bed was on the wrong wall, the shadows on the ceiling ran the wrong way, unfamiliar noises (the neighbor's dog growling softly and traffic from Lawrence Expressway) made me jump. My eyes felt like I'd spent a day at the beach -- hot and gritty. I went downstairs to get a drink of water.

Once I made it to the kitchen, the French doors to the courtyard beckoned me outside. My hollyhock rustled its leaves at me, almost like a greeting. In the silver light of the moon, its showy pink flowers lost their color and blended in with the leaves. How like Marsha to buy me something with big pink flowers. I am so not about pink. It was just like when she used to tape bows to my bald head when I was six months old.

Snowball sauntered out and crawled into my lap, settling into a steady purr. I buried my nose in his white fur. The moonlight softened the courtyard's hard edges turning everything a soft gray with shadows hiding within shadows. I felt like hiding in the shadows a little more myself, where the moonlight made everything seem mysterious and full of possibilities.

Because let's face it -- these days I needed all the possibilities I could get.

Copyright © 2005 by Eileen Rendahl

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    strong relationship drama

    Though they were going through a tough period attorney Alissa Lindley is stunned when her husband Thomas informs her he needs her to sign the divorce papers because he must do the right thing by Bethany who is caaying his child. Already frustrated by a non-cooperating fax machine, an irate Alissa tosses the gadget. She is fired and forced to attend an anger management seminar. --- Needing to pick up the pieces, Alissa opens her own practice and volunteers to serve as a pro bono public defender in the San Jose area. The clerk of the court assigns her to defend Sheila the stripper head of a vigilante exotic dance troupe avenging the wrongs done to the downtrodden. As Detective E.J. Rodriguez who arrested Sheila investigates other reports of vandalism probably instigated by the avenging dancers, he and Alissa are attracted to one another, but both understand the maxim about sleeping with the enemy.--- Alissa and to a lesser degree the support cast seem lost in today¿s society and struggle to find where they fit; thus the audience receives a focused look at being oneself whatever that might be. The relationship between E.J. and Alissa is well drawn, but also adds to the overall feel of a lost soul seeking satisfaction in a disposable society.--- Harriet Klausner

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