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"A deceptively simple book that examines the complex strands of marriage, friendship, and motherhood."—Charlotte Vale Allen, author of Mood Indigo
It's a soft, lazy morning with the early June sunlight tumbling into our kitchen where the four of us move in a carbohydrate-high daze after indulging in Max's triple-fruit pancakes. I'm loading the dishwasher, Margaret's finishing the cold rice salad we're taking to the Cunninghams', Max holds Jeremy on his lap, reading the Boston Globe comic section aloud, simulating tough-guy growls or femme-fatal falsettos so extravagantly that Jeremy's in hysterics and even Margaret grins.
I'm going to organize the beach bag," I tell them, and hurry up the stairs. We'll spend most of the day outside, so I head for the children's bathroom to search through the cabinet for the new bottle of sunblock I know I bought, when all at once the bag drops from my hand. My heart hammers fast and hard. Hot blood churns up through my chest, floods my face.
I slam the bathroom door, lean against it. What the hell is going on? Am I dying? I'm thirty-seven, way too young for hot flashes. Anyway, these things can't be called flashes, they're more like explosions, as if my heart is full of time bombs.
I hate this, I hate this. My heart trips and gallops. My fingertips are numb. My lips are icy. I'm afraid.
I drop to the floor, curl up into the smallest possible mass, wedge myself into the corner, the cool ceramic tiles like walls, like barricades behind my back. I bring my knees to my chest, drop my forehead on my knees, cross my arms over my head, like someone in a crashing plane.
"Mom?" Jeremy wanders up and down the hall, calling for me. Oh, God, I hope I locked the bathroom door when I came in here. I don't want him to find me like this, but at the moment it's beyond my powers to crawl over there and check to see if the lock is snapped. "Mom? Dad says it's time to go."
I can't answer. I hear him shuffle off.
I can't sort through the commotion in my head. Is it anger? Is it that I feel pressured—trapped? It feels like fear.
But what do I have to fear? I mutter to myself: Be reasonable, Lucy. If it's the job offer from Jared Falconer, well for God's sake, you can deal with that. If Max feels really strongly about it, then don't take it. If you feel even more strongly that you want it, then do take it. You can work it out, you and Max. And the children will be just fine. Margaret's fourteen. Jeremy's going to be in first grade this year; he'll be in school most of the day. It's Max, isn't it? You're afraid of Max, afraid he'll disappear into one of his effing depressions.
"Mom? Are you in there?" Margaret taps on the door.
"Be out in a minute," I call.
Okay, my voice works. I drag myself up to the sink to splash cold water on my face. I stare at my reflection. My heart slows. I'm okay.
Occasionally I've had other bizarre spells, fits of dread that seize me in the middle of a clear bright day, and I never can figure out what's going on, and then two days later something happens: My aunt dies, a friend's child is hit by a car. That doesn't mean I'm psychic any more than it means I'm psychotic. Mostly it just makes me uncomfortable.
But these are, I think, panic attacks, and they've been happening a lot recently. I've got to do something about them. If it's the job offer, I'll talk it out with Max and make a decision. That should stop them.
Get a grip, I order my reflection. "All right, I'm ready!" I call, and fly out of the room, grab up the canvas carryall, and head down the stairs like any normal mother.
In the kitchen Max has Jeremy sitting on the counter while he ties his sneaker. Over his shoulder, he asks, "You okay?"
In one easy movement, Max lifts Jeremy up onto his shoulders. "Okay, crew, time for blastoff."
When the four of us crowd our way through the front hall, Midnight and Cinnamon fly into their usual Kamikaze Cat routine, streaking back and forth, ears back, tails bristling, tripping us. As we step out into the bright light of day, Margaret morphs from contented daughter of the house to blank-faced sophisticate, so that anyone passing by won't think she actually has a family.
We set our bags in the trunk, then pile into the Volvo station wagon, Max behind the driver's seat. I relax, roll up the sleeves and undo the buttons of my blue cotton shirt, letting the sun fall on my throat and chest. I lean my head back. The heat feels good.
I look over at my husband, who's dressed for a day off in shorts and a cotton T-shirt, an old present from his staff that reads on the front: "How many editors does it take to change a light bulb?" And on the back: "One, but first he has to rewire the entire building." Six days a week his newspaper has him, pretty much heart and soul, but on Sundays he belongs to us, and when he's really with us as he is today, he lights up our lives.
We drive through a town flooded with morning light, past houses and lawns shining as if freshly washed, out toward the country.
"Daddy," Jeremy calls, "can we do the ant song?"
"Sure. Let's see. How does it start?" Max tosses me one of his lightningwhite smiles, then begins to sing: "The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hooray, the ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hooray!" He throws his head back, letting his rich baritone roll out into the air. His teeth are a beautiful milk white against his tan, and his black hair glistens and curls like the pelt of a vigorously healthy animal. This is my Max at his best.
"The ants go marching one by one, the little stopped to suck his thumb!" Jeremy croons.
I add my vague soprano to the mix. "And they all go marching down, into the ground, to get out of the rain!"
Jeremy pokes his sister. "The ant song!" he yells at her.
Margaret rolls her eyes at him and presses the earphones tightly against her head, but by the time we're on three—"the little one stops to take a pee"—she's yanked the earphones down around her neck and joined in. She loves this stupid song as much as we do, and we've been coming to the Cunninghams' for summer Sundays forever, and she really doesn't want to miss a thing, not even her brother's maniacal laughter because we all said "pee."
By the time we finish the song, we're turning off the main highway onto a winding, pot-holed, empty stretch of secondary road through farmland.
"Dad!" Jeremy calls. "Can I drive?"
"All right," Max says, and slows the car. Jeremy undoes his seat belt and climbs over into the front seat, his wiry little body seemingly composed entirely of elbows and knees. Max pushes back his car seat to make room for Jeremy on his lap, reminds Jeremy where to put his hands, and off we creep at fifteen miles an hour, with Jeremy concentrating so hard he's got his tongue stuck between his teeth. Occasionally the car wavers over too far to the left, but Jeremy's doing a pretty good job as we bump along.
Just before we reach the Cunninghams', an old red truck approaches from the other direction, clanking and shuddering.
"Dad?" Jeremy queries.
"You can do it," Max tells him. "Keep your eyes on the road. Don't look at the truck. Look toward the right side of the road."
We all hold our breath while Jeremy steers the Volvo. We're even with the truck, and then it's behind us, and Margaret cheers, "Well, done, Germ!" and Max tousles his son's hair. "Yes, Jeremy. Good job."
The road bends. Thickets of trees and shrubs loom above, forming a green-black tunnel, and then we go around a curve into the sunshine. The Cunningham farm spreads out beneath the blue sky.
"We're here!" Jeremy yells.
"Can you make the turn into the drive?" Max asks.
The road runs parallel with a long fenced pasture where Chip's beautiful gelding Gringo grazes beneath a tree. The horse raises his head, watches us go by, swishes his tail disdainfully, and returns to his grass. Seven-year-old Abby's there, too, in jodhpurs and a sleeveless plaid shirt, waving enthusiastically. She's on her pony Brownie, and Princess, the other Shetland, stands in readiness at Brownie's side.
The Cunninghams' historic brick Georgian mansion rises up like a set for Masterpiece Theater. Max helps Jeremy make the turn past the neat circle drive at the front of the house to park on the white gravel at the side. We spill out of the car. The golden lab, Sugar, waddles out to greet us, her tail wagging.
Chip lopes toward us, a tall blond man wearing only swimming trunks and sneakers. His shoulders are burned, his skin glimmers with sweat. No doubt he's been working in his vegetable garden, or cutting brush away from his various trails through the woods.
"I just drove!" Jeremy crows.
"I saw you. You did great."
"Can I ride Princess?"
"Absolutely. Abby's got her all ready for you." He takes Jeremy's hand, turning to tell us, "Kate and Matthew are in the house."
Max opens the trunk, and we fill our arms with the bowl of rice salad, beach bag, and a carryall holding two bottles of white wine and one of apple juice which we carry through the back door into the cool kitchen. Kate's there, barefoot, wearing a black bikini. She's bending over the long pine table, lost in thought, her face somber, even sorrowful.
"Kate," I say.
She jumps, startled, and in an instant transforms herself. "You're here! Hi, guys! Margaret, look what I just made!" She waves her hands like a game show hostess, displaying a rectangular cake turned into an American flag by raspberries, blueberries, and white icing. She's got icing on her cheek and elbow, but her eyes are pouchy and red-rimmed.
"That's cool, Aunt Kate," Margaret says.
"Thought I'd practice for the Fourth of July."
"What a girl." I hug her.
"Where's Matthew?" Margaret asks, looking around. Matthew outgrew the ponies long ago and never took to riding as Abby has.
"Where do you think?"
Already Margaret has gone off into the den, drawn by the sirens' song of MTV. The Cunninghams and Max and I decided long ago that when our two families get together the kids are permitted to watch all the television they want, but they have to join us at the table for dinner, when dinner's ready, no matter what's on television then.
"Chip's been mowing," Kate tells Max. "I think he wants to take a dip in the pond."
"I'll join him," Max says, and heads out the door.
Through the high windows I see Chip tightening the cinch on Princess, then making a brace of his hands onto which Jeremy eagerly steps. Jeremy climbs onto the pony's back and grabs the reins. In the sunlight Jeremy's brown curls take on a paler glint; by the end of the summer his hair will be bleached almost blond.
Abby kicks her pony, and they set off at a trot, Princess at her flank, Jeremy trying to post. Jeremy often has coughing spells after riding. He's probably allergic to horses, and guiltily I hope he is. I'm always nervous when Jeremy rides. Even a pony is huge, compared to my little boy.
"I put beach towels out on the patio," Kate calls.
Max joins Chip. The two men walk along the path between grasses and wild daisies to the pond, one tall, blond and lean, one short, dark and stocky. A giraffe and a bull. Good friends.
I say, "I think I'll have a swim, too," but Kate puts her hand on my arm.
"Wait. I want to talk."
"Kate, not now."
"Lucy, please." Her face flushes and tears well. "Lucy, he's dying."
Her grief is so painful. I take Kate in my arms and hold her as if she were my child. "Oh, honey."
"Chip won't let me talk about it. He's so inflexible! And intolerant, and just plain ignorant, too!"
"Chip's just worried," I assure Kate. "It's understandable." I pull out a chair. We sit facing one another. "Tell me."
"He's so thin," Kate cries. "And his skin—"
For several years Kate has been doing hospice work, visiting a young man named Garrison who has AIDS. Chip fears that Kate will somehow become infected, or will carry the disease home to her children. They've had many royal battles over this. Kate insists on sticking with her work with Garrison. Chip retaliates by refusing to listen to one word about the dying man. It doesn't help that Kate has, if not fallen in love with Garrison, at least come to love him deeply, and not only platonically. To Kate, Garrison is as handsome as a wounded god, brilliantly funny, creative, sympathetic, intuitive. She tells me there is a deeply complicated sensuality in caring for him. She brings him expensive treats: iced mango sorbet, Dom Perignon and Stilton, chocolates from Switzerland. Each bite he takes is a thrill, an event. She cuts his nails. She combs what hair he has left. She touches him as much and in as many ways as she can, sometimes she even gives him facials. She rubs his back. Often they sit listening to music—Garrison likes opera—holding hands.
"I want to bring Oscar here," Kate says, weeping. Oscar Wilde is Garrison's Yorkshire terrier. "I promised Garrison I'd give him a good home. And Oscar knows me, trusts me. He won't be so bereft. Or we can be bereft together."
"What does Chip say?"
Kate snorts. "What do you think? He doesn't want Oscar here. Says one dog is enough. Right, as if we don't live on a fucking farm!" Kate rises, grabs tissues, blows her nose, sits down again. "Chip says Oscar would upset Sugar. Make Sugar jealous. God, Sugar's so fat and lazy, she needs a younger dog around to get her moving!"
"Sugar's not the point, Kate. It's that Oscar is Garrison's dog, and Chip is jealous of your relationship with Garrison."
"Yeah, well, he damned well should be!" Kate sobs. "Garrison loves me in a way Chip can't even understand! Garrison loves me with his soul. Oh, God, how will I live without him?" Grief overwhelms her. Kate bends double, her entire body shaking with sobs. She sinks to her knees on the cool tile floor.
I glance around. Matthew and Margaret are still in the den. Outside the children sit enthroned as their ponies try to much grass. I can't see the pond, but the men must be there.
"Kate." I kneel next to my friend and wrap my arms around her. "Honey. I'm so sorry."
"If he goes into the hospital, I want to spend as much time with him as possible."
"Okay. I'll look after Abby and Matthew."
Kate shakes her head. "I know. And I want to tell Chip I'm with you."
"No. Kate, I'm already lying to him."
Chip hates it when Kate is with Garrison, so for the past six months Kate's told Chip that she sees Garrison twice a week, during the day, while the children are in school. In fact she's been visiting him four or five times a week and telling Chip she's with me. Kate asked me to help her by perpetuating the lie and I have agreed; it is a good lie, I believe. It does no one harm, and it helps Garrison and Kate.
I haven't told Max about this. He hates lies. It's surprising, how easy it is to pretend to be doing something with large chunks of my day, and my own husband doesn't know. In a guilty way, I kind of like this. It gives me an illusion of freedom. Still, I don't like the thought of extending the magnitude of the lie. That would increase the chances of getting caught.
"Every day but Sunday. Lucy, don't shake your head, listen to me. Garrison is dying. He'll be gone by the end of the summer. He has no one else who can care for him like I do."
It's true. Garrison's lover died of AIDS two years ago. His parents disowned him when he came out to them. He has many friends, but some of them just can't handle this particular illness, and others are just so busy making a living.
"I thought we could pretend to be taking a course together. At the community center. A summer course, just six weeks. Exercise or basketweaving, it doesn't matter, Chip won't want to hear about it. As long as he thinks you and I are together, he'll be fine."
"I don't know, Kate. That's more complicated." I'm thinking aloud, trying to find a solution. "I haven't had to say anything to Max about all this yet, and Chip thinks you've been coming to our house. But if we're supposed to be going out, in public, taking a course ... why, think about it, Kate. Other people would have to be in the course, people we all know, who Chip might run into. It just wouldn't work."
Kate rises and rinses her face with cold water. "I have to see Garrison every day."
"You need to tell Chip that. You need to tell him the truth."
"It will initiate World War Three around here."
"I know. It will be hard. But it's the only way. And maybe it will make things better between you and Chip."
Kate flashes me an angry look. I've overstepped an invisible line, insinuating that things between the Cunninghams are less than perfect. Oddly, the more I stand up for Chip, the more it seems to free Kate to complain about him, and the reverse is true; if I criticize Chip in the slightest, Kate jumps to his defense. I can understand this; it's the way I feel about Max and my children. But it's easy for me to champion Chip. Very easy.
Matthew and Margaret stand in the doorway.
Every time I see the boy his bones seem to have grown. His collarbone almost pokes out of the tanned skin of his shoulders. Only a month older than Margaret, Matthew looks much older: Tall already, five feet ten at age fourteen, he will surely be as tall as his father soon. Matthew doesn't seem comfortable with his early height and the attendant stretch of his long arms and legs; he trips on the untied laces of his sneakers (but still won't tie them). His blond hair is clean, but too long and badly cut. It hangs over his eyes and around the sharp planes of his face; clearly he's using it to hide behind. His chin is spotted with acne and the beginnings of a paltry beard. I know his parents have advised him that the oil from his hair will only exacerbate the acne; I'm also sure that he chooses to ignore their advice.
Matthew wears a tattered T-shirt and baggy madras shorts; Margaret wears a faded button-down shirt of her father's and a pair of her enormous jeans. It's a good guess that she's trying to hide her body. Over the past year her breasts have sprouted like tubers, like squash, large and firm, organically incontrovertible evidence that she's growing up. I know Margaret is now absorbed with the vision of herself as someone quite distinct and separate from her family. She wants to travel, she wants to have boyfriends (she wants to have lovers!), she wants all the adventures awaiting her in the wide world.
Although if Margaret has her way, she might find sufficient adventure right here. She must notice that in spite of his shield of hair, Matthew is as drop-dead handsome as his father. Perhaps that's why she holds her face so poker-straight, as if she's numb.
"Hi, Biggies," Kate greets Matthew and Margaret. She's gotten her face and voice under control. Want to go up to the pond?"
Matthew says, "Sure."
"I made a gallon thermos full of iced tea and one of lemonade. Could you carry them, Matthew?" Kate is all business now, assigning tasks, handing me the basket of fruit, Margaret the bag of chips. "Dad already set the lawn chairs out."
We head out the door, our arms full.
WE WALK ALONG a freshly cut path toward the pond, through a stand of evergreens long ago planted as a wind block. Abby and Jeremy sit on their horses in the shade of a huge maple at the far end of the pasture. The sun beams steadily down without a single cloud to block its strength.
When they bought the farm, Chip had several loads of sand delivered and dumped at one end of the pond to form a beach, and it's here that he's set up the beach chairs. He and Max are on the other side of the pond, working on the dock that extends into the water. One of the rubber inner tubes that supports it has come loose and they are refastening it.
Kate sinks onto a towel and begins applying suntan lotion. I peel off my jeans and shirt, sink down next to her, and do the same. Matthew walks over to the men and talks a moment, then drags his T-shirt over his head, tosses it aside, runs out onto the dock, and belly flops into the water.
Margaret spreads her towel out and sits next to me. I bite my lips to keep from asking, "Aren't you hot?" After a while, with a little moue of resignation, as if she's being forced against her will, she unbuttons her shirt and steps out of her jeans. She's wearing a one-piece bathing suit, and her figure is so slim and nubile that tears come to my eyes. She is lovely. She is what men have been writing poems about for centuries. Her hips are narrow, her thighs long and sleek. My beauty. She is a jewel. When I tell her this, she retorts, "Yeah, Mom, just what I want, compliments from a middle-aged woman."
She wades into the water, dipping her palms to catch water up and splash it on her shoulders.
Kate leans close to me. "Look at her," she whispers. "She's beautiful. Man, Lucy, she's really blossomed over the winter!"
Margaret takes a deep breath and strikes out in a long easy crawl for the middle of the pond. Matthew sees her, grabs a silly alligator-shaped float that the Littlies love, and heads her way. They collide in the middle of the pond and surface and splash and shriek, suddenly transformed back into the childhood buddies they've been for eleven years.
Kate lies back and closes her eyes. I join her. The sun soothes me, makes me drowsy, hypnotizes me. This could be any summer day here or on a Nantucket beach, when our families are together. Good fortune, normal life.
A commotion of hoofbeats and laughter makes me lift my head. Jeremy and Abby are galloping full speed across the pasture and screaming with glee as they go. Jeremy sits the horse well. I remind myself that he's a year younger than Abby; that's why he looks so small beside her. Abby is a tidy child, with her brown hair neatly braided and tied with ribbons that matched the tartan of her shirt. She has a pug nose sprinkled with freckles and her father's bright blue eyes; she looks brave and bold and good, like a miniature model for a book titled something like Abby Cunningham, Air Force Nurse.
"Mom!" Jeremy yells from the other side of the fence. "Did you see that?"
"You were great, Jeremy!" I yell back. "You were flying!"
"I love this horse!" Jeremy tells me, and begins to cough.
It's a moist, webby, mucousy cough that shakes Jeremy's body. It's the cough I was dreading. Rising, I walk to the fence on the pretense of petting Princess.
"Good girl," I tell her, stroking her velvet nose. I try to keep my voice, my face, serene.
Jeremy's cough continues. It seems so out of place here on the farm, in the green grass, beneath the blue sky and the bright sun. Jeremy is almost folded double in the saddle.
I want to lift my little boy down into my arms. I want to pat his back and carry him to the house and hold him while he coughs. But I can feel my husband's attitude from clear across the pond. Don't baby him! Let the boy grow up!
"Want a sip of water or lemonade?" I ask.
Jeremy shakes his head. He can't even speak. His face has taken on the frowning, deeply concentrated look that comes with his worst coughing spells. He is six years old. He can't get his breath. I'm going to call the pediatrician first thing Monday morning.
Finally the coughing subsides. Jeremy gasps for breath. The skin beneath his eyes is blue.
"Let's go the to barn," Abby says. "It's too hot to ride."
I know for Abby it's never too hot, cold, windy, or rainy to ride, and I'm grateful to her for her thoughtfulness of Jeremy.
"I'll come help you unsaddle the horses," I tell the children.
By the time we're in the barn, Jeremy is coughing again. It's impossible to ignore it. "Jeremy, I'm afraid you're allergic to horses," I tell him as I lift him down.
He doesn't want to be allergic to horses; he pushes away from me, indignant, as if my words are the cause of his coughing. I kneel next to him, trying just to be there, not to pressure him, as his cough subsides.
The barn is cool and shadowy and clean, but the air dances with dust motes. Abby swings down from her horse with the effortless fluid movement of an old pro.
"Why don't you go outside and sit under the tree in the shade," I suggest. "I'll help Abby."
Jeremy's too exhausted to argue. Just outside, beneath a dusty lilac bush, he sits down, draws his knees up, folds himself into a ball of a boy, like a turtle drawing its head into its shell. I listen. His coughing has stopped.
The ponies mutter and step sideways and swish their tails, eager to be out of their gear and back into the pasture. I unbuckle the cinch of Princess's saddle. She turns her head sideways and eyes me balefully. She knows she can intimidate me. She shakes her beautiful spoiled head, shivering her white mane, making her bridle clank.
"I'll do that, Lucy." Chip comes into the barn. He must have swum across the pond; his wet hair lies plastered against his skull, and beads of water slide down his long torso. He smells of dark, leafy damp, like tea, and of something sweet, like rum.
"Thanks." I step back.
Chip has already spent so much time in the sun that his shoulders and back are spotted, pink patches of burned and peeling skin dotting a layer of deep bronze tan. Under his ministrations Princess subsides, standing with her head low and her eyes closed, as if concentrating on the touch of Chip's hands.
I have a sense of being enclosed, for a moment, in this cool and shaded place where sight is a secondary sense and touch and smell are paramount. Putting my hand on her haunches, I move around Princess to help Abby. I lift Brownie's saddle off and carry it into the tack room. Chip comes in and settles Princess's saddle onto the rack. This small room smells healthy, masculine, of leather and saddle soap. Chip lifts the saddle from me, and as our hands touch I think how soft skin is, how inviting, more supple and enticing than hide or hay or the smoothest leather. Chip and I are almost naked in this confining room; he wears swimming trunks; I, my two strips of red bikini.
Chip and I look at each other.
"Here's Brownie's bridle!" Abby enters the room, leather and metal in her hand.
"Thanks, Pudding," her father says, turning away from me to take his daughter's gear.
I fetch Princess's bridle and put it away. Chip and Abby lead the ponies out to the pasture. Jeremy has regained his equilibrium and races off toward the pond with Abby. Chip and I follow them up the path, more slowly.
We pause by the low privet hedge. I look at Chip. My pulse throbs in my neck.
"I know it's none of my business," Chip says, "but I think Jeremy's cough is worrisome."
"I agree. It's been getting worse and worse this year. I'm going to call Dr. Calder Monday."
Max is in the pond, racing with Margaret and Matthew while Kate, Jeremy, and Abby stand cheering from the shore.
"I'd be surprised if it were just a matter of allergies," Chip says. "When I took the kids to the Disney movie two weeks ago, Jeremy had a coughing attack."
"I didn't know that."
"I told Max."
"Max didn't tell me." I snatch at a long strand of grass bobbing my way and shred its fuzzy head between my fingers. "He thinks I baby Jeremy. Thinks I'm turning him into a mama's boy."
"Want me to say something to Max?"
"I'd be grateful. On certain subjects he won't even listen to me."
"Max won!" Abby calls. "Daddy, come on. It's your turn to race."
Chip leaves my side in a flash, running across the sand and diving into the pond. The Littlies scream with delight. I lie down on my stomach on my beach towel next to Kate. The sun massages my shoulders. Together we watch our husbands and children race and splash in the cool fresh water of the pond, and we have no idea how much our lives will change before the storms of autumn.