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On the first morning in my new home, I awoke to the sharp, hopeful smell of fresh paint, the radiator ticking companionably against the cold March day.
Today held all the unsullied promise of a new school year. Residency finished. Home remodeled. Career soon to begin. And Joe
Joe was out there this cold morning, soon to find that I was the love of his life. Swinging out of bed, I looked around the room, noting with pride the bright, clean blue walls and antique quilt. I padded barefoot to the kitchen, admiring my gleaming counters and shining porcelain sink. Turning on the coffeemaker, I breathed a deep sigh of happiness and gratitude.
As the coffee brewed, I rummaged through a box that was yet unpacked. Finding what I was looking for, I returned to the kitchen as the coffeemaker emitted its last gurgles, poured myself a cup, sat down and turned my full attention to the object before me.
An eight-by-ten photograph showed Joe Carpenter standing silhouetted against the sky, shirtless, as he nailed a shingle on a roof. The crispness of the black-and-white photo showcased his perfectly muscled arms as he performed this seemingly mundane task, which, with Joe's easy grace, became poetry. He was slightly turned away from the camera, but enough of his face showed that you could see just how beautiful he was. The caption had read Aptly named Joe Carpenter of Eastham works on the restoration of Penniman House.
How did I get this picture? I'd called the paper and asked for it, thank you very much. It had been in the Boston Globe, and they'd never suspected that I wasn't Joe's mother, as I'd claimed to be. Sometimes having an old lady's name comes in handy. After all, they wouldn't have believed me if my name had been Heather or Tiffany
. Of course, I couldn't keep this picture out in the open, so I secreted it away for special times. Now was such a time, and I gazed at it with the reverence it deserved.
"It all starts today, Joe," I said, feeling pretty idiotic. Still, as I traced the outline of the man I'd loved for so long, the foolish feeling dissipated like early morning fog. "You're about to fall in love with me. Everything from here on is for you."
Resisting the urge to kiss the photo, I got up and strolled around my little house, cup in hand, basking in the thrill of simply being here. Home ownership on Cape Cod is a monumental achievement
one that I'd accomplished through no effort of my own. My grandmother had died just after Christmas. When the will had been read, I'd learned, with great shock and unsquelchable joy, that she had left her house to meand only me.
The modest little ranch wore the requisite cedar shingles of the Cape, bleached a soft gray by the salt air and sun. There was no yard to speak of, just a scattering of pine needles, sand and moss. But the house was priceless because it was on protected land of the Cape Cod National Seashore. This meant that it would forever be free from development, I would never have a new neighbor, and I was pretty close to the water (three-tenths of a mile to be precise, though there was no view whatsoever). But I could hear the roaring surf of the mighty Atlantic, and at night the beam of Nauset Light swept across the darkness.
For months, I'd been driving up from Boston to work on the house, sanding floors, painting walls, sorting through my grandmother's things, and the end result was a nice amalgamation of old and new. Gran's needlepointed footstool sat next to my glass coffee table, bright new fabric covering her old beige love seat, a nice watercolor in the spot where a photo of John Kennedy at prayer had once hung. I considered the warm yellow I'd chosen for one wall of the living room, decided it was indeed fantastic, and walked into the bathroom to check on the pink flamingos my mother and I had stenciled on the pale green walls. Wait till Joe sees it here, I fantasized
he'll never want to leave. I stuck my head in the bathroom vanity to assess how much space I had. The small area still smelled pleasantly of lemon Pine-Sol, the fumes making for a rather pleasant buzz.
The phone rang and I jumped, whacking my head on the cabinet. I ran to the kitchen to answer my first phone call in the new house.
"Hi, Millie, hon," my mom said. "How was the first night? Everything okay?"
"Hi, Mom," I answered happily, rubbing my scalp. "Everything's great. How are you?"
fine," she answered unconvincingly.
it's Trish," Mom murmured.
"Ah." Of course it was Trish, the usual topic of family conversation. "So what's going on?" I opened the fridge and eyed the few occupants: oranges, half-and-half and, purchased in a moment of self-delusion regarding my baking ambitions, yeast. Clearly, I would have to hit the market later on. "Is Trish visiting?"
"No, no, she's still in.New Jersey. But the divorce is final today. Sam just called us."
"I'm sorry," I said. And I was. My parents adored Sam Nickerson, my brother-in-law. As did I. As did the rest of this town. Sam was the son my parents never had. He and my father often watched football games together and did manly things like dump runs and driveway patching. My mother loved nothing more than feeding him and my much-beloved seventeen-year-old nephew. "Well, it's not like we'll never see Sam or Danny again," I assured my mom. "They're staying put, at any rate."
"Oh, I know," she answered. "I just wish.I wish your sister had taken more time. I think she's making a mistake."
A sweet, guilty pleasure rushed through me at my mom's disapproval. Trish had always been Mom's favorite, and for years Mom had turned a blind eye toward my sister's behavior, always putting a positive spin on her selfishness. Even when Trish had gotten pregnant just after high school, my mother had defended her, taking comfort in the fact that Sam had immediately married Trish and taken her out to Notre Dame, where he'd been on an athletic scholarship.
I reminded myself that I should be over this sort of thing. Still, I couldn't help saying, "Well, of course she's making a mistake." Closing the refrigerator, I asked, "How are Sam and Danny?"
"They're all right. Sam seemed very sad, though."
"I'll go visit them later," I offered.
"That would be nice, honey. Oh, Daddy wants to talk to you. Howard, it's Millie."
"I know who it is," my father said. "I'm going to the plumbing supply store, punkin. Anything you need?"
"No, thanks, Daddy. I'm all set for now."
"Well, I need some pipe. The Franklins' septic system overflowed last night and their yard's a mess. I told them Scott tissue only, but who listens, right?"
"Serves them right, then. I don't think I need anything, but thanks, Dad."
"Okay, baby. Bye-bye."
"Bye. Have fun with the cesspool!" I answered, knowing he would. My father owned Sea Breeze: The Freshest Name in the Business, a robust septic service company, and he loved his job with the kind of zeal usually displayed only by missionaries or NFL cheerleaders.
Pleased with the sense of familial closeness, I hung up the phone. Then, with great moral fortitude, I readied myself for the next step of my plan to win Joe Carpenter.
As a medical doctor, I obviously knew that there is only one way to lose weight, and that is to burn more calories than are consumed. I'd put myself on prison rations, hence the dearth of anything good to eat in my house. My self-control lacked gusto. If I bought Ben & Jerry's Heath Bar Crunch, arguably the finest ice cream on earth, I would eat the entire pint in one sitting. With this fresh start of mine, I had resolved to improve my eating habits, and therefore I hadn't bought anything fattening or sugary or butteryin other words, anything good. To facilitate the weight-loss process, to enter the golden realm of the physically buff, I had also decided to start running.
Running, I surmised, was easy. Just put on sneakers and go, right? Very little skill required in running. I had all I needed. Running bra, check. Nikes, check. Black running shorts, check. Not the spandex kind. Dear God, no! These were a nice, loose, breathable fabric. Cute T-shirt, check. This one said Tony Blair Is a Hottie. Gaze upon Joe's picture, check. Sigh dreamily, check. And out the door I went.
I'd never really exercised before. At all. Oh, I played a little softball as a kid, as it was something of a religion around here, but I never did aerobics or Jazzercise or Pilates, as did, say, sister Trish. And the difference showed. Trish, who was thirty-five, looked about twenty-three, with toned, tanned arms, tiny waist, firm bottom. As an adult, I had been too engrossed in college, med school, etc., to spend any time on my physical well-being. Residents are notoriously unhealthy. We eat Twinkies and call it a meal. Sleep for four hours and call it a night. Exercise? That's something we advise for our cardiac patients. It's not for us, silly.
After a minute or two of vague stretches, I walked down my long dirt driveway and onto the road. Since the Cape was pretty deserted in March, I was fairly sure I'd be safe from unwanted spectators. It was overcast and cool, a good day for running, I thought. Off I went. Trot, trot, trot. Not bad. Easy, in fact. Mercifully, no coordination was required. Trot, trot, trot. It was pretty cold, and my bare legs and arms stung in the damp, raw air. I passed my neighbor's driveway and continued down the road, finding that I had to breathe through my mouth now. My stomach jiggled. I wondered how far I'd gone and glanced at my watch. Four minutes.
I tried to distract myself, get into the zone, by looking around at the pretty sights. Twisted locust branches clacked together in the salty breeze. I came up to the lighthouse, its bright red-and-white tower starkly beautiful against the gray sky. Ouch! A sharp pain lanced through my left side. Run through the pain, Millie, I coached myself. Pain is weakness leaving the body. My feet slapped the pavement. Nine minutes now. The cold air scraped my throat, and I was not encouraged to hear my lungs convulsively sucking air. Agonist breathing, we call it on the hospice ward. Had I run a mile yet? Was I doing something wrong? Was my oxygen saturation dangerously low?
I lurched to a stop, bending over and wheezing pitifully. Just taking a breather, I consoled myself as my heart thundered sickeningly in my head. After a couple of minutes, I regained my composure. Off I went again. Immediately, the wheezing was back. I tried to concentrate on breathing
how hard could it be? In, out, in, out, in, out, oh Jesus, I was hyperventilating! And now I could hear a car! I feigned athleticism and forced myself to lengthen my stride in case it was someone I knew. Smiling through the incredible pain, I waved, which caused my shoulder to spasm and cramp. The car passed. Crisis over.
No, not over. A hill loomed ahead. Keep the feet slapping, Millie. Don't stop now. This hill didn't look like a hill to the naked eye; it was more of a grade, really, but as far as I was concerned it was Heartbreak Hill. I imagined myself in the Boston Marathon, that pinnacle of all athletic events, often imitated, never duplicated
and here comes Millie Barnes, that's Dr. Millie Barnes, ladies and gentlemen, from beautiful Cape Cod
Was I about to lose control of my bladder? And/or throw up? My watch said thirteen minutes. Clearly, it was broken. At the top of Heartbreak Hill, I turned around and started back. Ah, this was easier, except that I was hyperventilating again. Calm yourself! I commanded. The hill, so horrifically long on the way up, was far too short on the way down. My legs were as supple as oak beams, and my shins practically mewled in agony. The pain in my side had yet to go away, and my shoulder cramp had now spread to my neck, forcing me to tip my head at an awkward angle.
The lactic acid in my body was building up to toxic levels. I imagined them diagnosing me at the ER in Hyannis. "Christ, what happened to her?"
"She was running, Doctor."
"Almost a mile, Doctor."
Damn it! If I stopped now, I knew I would never again attempt this stunning torture. Think of Joe, I ordered my brain, think of being naked with Joe and having a fabulous body. "Oh, Millie, you're in such great shape," Joe will sigh reverently as he gazes upon my
my neighbor's mailbox! I was almost home! And yes, there it was, home sweet home, my own beloved washed-out driveway! I staggered into it and careened to a stop. Knees buckling, legs shaking uncontrollably, T-shirt soaked, throat dry and rasping, fighting off the dry heaves, I wobbled drunkenly into my house and collapsed into a kitchen chair.
Here she is, ladies and gentlemen! Dr. Millie Barnes, winner of the Boston Marathon! I looked at my watch again. Twenty-eight minutes, 1.7 miles. That was awesome! I had done it. My convulsive gasping took a while to stop, but after all, what a workout! After twenty minutes or so, I heaved myself out of the chair and downed a glass of water.
Then I made the large mistake of looking in the full-length mirror. My face was a shocking shade of red. Not pink, not flushed with the glow of a good workout, not even just red. A shocking shade of beet-red. The whole face, just one solid color. My eyes were puffy from sweat irritation, my lips chapped and flaky white, providing the only break from the Crayola crimson. My sweaty T-shirt clung to the doughy skin of my upper extremities and neck. My legs were red and wind-burned, better, I supposed, than the chalk that was my normal skin tone. Oh, well. I was a work in progress, after all.
I took a hot shower, forced out far too soon by the tiny water heater's shortcomings. As I made myself a pot of greenish herbal tea, I decided to call my sister. After all, her marriage officially ended today, and I thought I should be, well, sisterly. Still
Trish scared me a little. I remembered her hissing fury when Gran's will had been read. Trish had received several thousand dollars, a pittance compared to what this house was worth. That was the last time I'd seen her.
After a few minutes of sifting through papers on my desk, I found her number. The strange area code gave me a pang. She was pretty far from home, our Trish.
When I'd been in college, I'd called her fairly often for Danny updates, as I adored my nephew, but after he was six or seven, Trish would just put Danny himself on, knowing the true purpose of my call. Or I would talk to Sam, who would give me blow-by-blows of Danny's Little League games, parent-teacher conferences, clarinet lessons, etc.
"Hello?" As always, she sounded impatient.
"Hi, Trish, it's Millie," I said, immediately uncomfortable.
"Oh, Millie. Hi," she answered. "What's the matter?" I could picture her fidgeting next to the phone, no doubt with many better things to do than talk to her younger sister.
"Nothing's the matter," I answered, pouring my bilious tea. The aroma of herbal sludge filled the room. "I, um, I heard your divorce was final today and I wanted to see how you were doing."