Graceby Elizabeth Nunez
Justin Peters is a Harvard-educated professor of British and classic literature who reads Shakespeare to his four-year-old daughter, Giselle. A native of Trinidad and the product of a strict, English-style education, Justin and his focus on the works of “Dead White Men” receive little professional respect at the public Brooklyn college where he teaches.… See more details below
Justin Peters is a Harvard-educated professor of British and classic literature who reads Shakespeare to his four-year-old daughter, Giselle. A native of Trinidad and the product of a strict, English-style education, Justin and his focus on the works of “Dead White Men” receive little professional respect at the public Brooklyn college where he teaches. But whatever troubles he might have at work are eclipsed when he realizes his wife, Sally, has begun to pull away from him, both physically and emotionally.
Harlem-born Sally Peters, a mother on the verge of turning forty, is a primary school teacher who believes that joy is a learned skill, and that it takes strength to be happy. After a life of tragic losses, Sally thought she had finally found that strength when she met Justin.
But now, Sally wants something more. And Justin is angered by her uncertainty about their life and frightened by the thought that perhaps Sally never stopped loving the ex-boyfriend for whom she wrote fierce poems. Is he, Justin wonders, responsible for helping Sally find meaning in her life—a life that seems to him most fortunate? If Sally and Justin’s union is to survive, both must face the crippling echoes of their own pasts before those memories forever cloud and alter their future.
Set in a snow-covered Brooklyn, Grace is a thoughtful and lovely meditation on trust, redemption, and family. Elizabeth Nunez’s delicate prose brings the struggles, aches, and tender moments of this contemporary urban love story into vivid focus.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt
He wakes up one morning tracing letters in his head: the serpentine curl of the S in Sally, the rigid lines of the N in no, shimmering in capital, straight up, straight down, then up again. Capital S, capital N. Words appear before him as in a mirage and then become concrete, the letters sharp and defined. Sally does Not love me. Sight reaches sound and sound his tongue. He says the words aloud: Sally does Not love me.
It is a posture of indifference he affects. He does not want to lose her. He is afraid, and this fear feeds his delusion that can devalue her, make her unimportant to him. Sally does not love me, he repeats in his head, and then he adds, Justin does not care.
It is a dismal morning in March, the beginning of the month, the beginning of the first year of a new millennium, 2001, and she has come in that proverbial way, like a lion, blowing chilly winds the day before across the city that by night were leaden with snow. In the bleary light of this early dawn, Justin fixes his eyes on the oak tree outside his window, standing stoic, rigid against the wind that has long stripped it bare of leaves and threatens its branches. In the cups they form with the trunk, the snow is thick. Dense.
This tree is too big for this too-small city garden in Brooklyn, he thinks, both he and it in the wrong place: it there, he here. In the right climate for an oak tree, but not in this garden. In the right house for him, but not in this marriage.
Outside it is quiet, still like the dead. Inside, the scuttle of feet on the hardwood floor beneath him. She is up. Already in the dining room. Five steps, and in the kitchen. He closes his eyes and makes a bet with himself: He will hear the latch on the canister next, the place where she keeps her teas. Today, perhaps, Celestial Awakenings. He cannot be sure. Bounteous Sunlight, Early Sunrise, Heavenly Mornings: her panacea, her simple-minded answer to life’s disturbing questions.
But the name of the tea is not part of his bet. His bet is that she will open the green canister, take out a bag of herbal tea, reach in the cupboard for a blue mug with little white flowers, fill the red kettle with water, turn on the fire, and sit with her face to the sun, planning her day while the water boils.
Primary colors: the green on the canister, the deep blues and whites on the mug, the red on the kettle, the yellow of her bathrobe. These are the colors that make Sally feel safe. A primary school teacher, she teaches these colors to the children in her class. Perhaps it is the color red she thinks of now, her lesson for the day. Perhaps the red kettle, whistling now, its shrill call piercing the silence, the signal he has been waiting for. His bet.
The herbal tea is to keep her calm, to chase away yesterday’s worries: the bad news on TV last night, bills to be paid, the rash on Giselle’s ankle. Giselle is their four-year-old daughter.
“Do you think she got it at the baby-sitter’s?” she asked him last night.
“I don’t think there’s anything to be worried about.”
“All the same.” She rubbed calamine lotion on their daughter’s tiny ankle. “You don’t have to teach at the college tomorrow. Maybe she should stay home with you. If it gets any worse, you can take her to the doctor.”
“It’s a little rash, Sally. All children get a little rash.”
“It’s a rash. It does not matter if it is little or not.”
“These things are normal for a child her age.”
But little things like that worried Sally. Not the big things. Not that she did not love him when she married him. Not that she does not love him now. Not that he does not care.
“A rash is no reason to take her to the doctor,” he said.
“Nothing bothers you, right?” Her face was tight with anger. “I wish I could be so casual.”
He did not want a fight with her, not in front of their daughter. “Giselle can stay home with me,” he said.
At night, in their bed, she asked, her voice soothing then: “Are you sure?”
The irritation he felt hours ago had not dissipated. “What is it you want, Sally? I said she can stay home with me tomorrow.”
“Won’t that be a problem for you? I mean, with your papers to grade?”
“Giselle is never a problem for me.”
That was how they ended the night, his words thickening the air between them, she turning on the bed without saying good night, he closing his book, switching off the light on his night stand, and brooding: Sally does Not love me hovering in the dark recesses of his brain, not yet a shimmering mirage.
But he knows this morning she wants to be happy. When the little children file into her classroom, she wants the smile on her face to be bright. She wants no furrows on her forehead, no darkness around her eyes. It is to be a Heavenly Morning, a Celestial Awakening.
“Good morning, children.”
She will sing out the words, her eyes trained to exude sunshine.
“Good morning, Mrs. Peters.”
Mrs. Peters is happy. The children are happy. The children are happy because Mrs. Peters is happy.
This has become the essence of Sally’s philosophy. Happiness is learned, she says. It is a skill like any other skill. Bad things come when they come. They cannot be stopped. I teach my children how to be happy. I show them how to forget the bad things.
She made this discovery, she told him, by accident, during a very bad time in her life. The man she loved had been murdered. She was driving home one day, tears almost blinding her, when graffiti on a wall caught her eyes. Someone had scrawled: It takes strength to be happy. “Those words changed my life,” she said.
Which is why, lying on his bed this morning, Justin Peters knows that something is very wrong with his wife. It is not working, this skill she has taught herself. For some time now he has heard the heaviness in her voice, seen the darkness under her eyes. She is hiding something. He is certain of it.
A week ago she left the house before dawn. To prepare for her class trip, she said. She would be taking the kindergarten class to the Bronx Zoo. Ten boys, nine girls. Four parents would accompany them. She wanted to be in the school early, to get everything in order. Justin agreed to take Giselle to the baby-sitter’s and to pick her up after his classes.
Not to worry, he said. He had everything under control. He would get pizza for dinner.
When she came to say good-bye that morning, it was obvious: neither Celestial Awakenings nor Heavenly Mornings had worked its magic. The circles under her eyes were dark, the lines around her mouth stiff.
Now, as he tries to reconstruct that morning, he cannot remember if he asked about the circles, but he remembers that she offered an explanation.
“I always get so worried before a trip. It’s such a responsibility. The children are so young.”
“But parents will be there.”
“Four children for each adult,” she said. “Though not quite.”
“That seems more than enough.”
“I’d be worried if Giselle were on a class trip,” she said.
“Giselle is not in school.”
“I mean when she goes to kindergarten. I can’t imagine what I would do without Giselle. She is my life.”
He believes now that at that moment she was thinking of the consequences of the discovery of her secret. She is my life. She said it as if there were a real possibility that something could happen and Giselle could be out of her life, that she could lose her. Then, that morning, he wanted to reassure her. He kissed her and held her to his chest. “Giselle will always be with you, Sally,” he said.
Now he lies in his bed and recalls that she came home late that evening. When she slid next to him on the couch, she was trembling.
“It was terrible,” she said. “One of the children got sick at lunch. She was vomiting and vomiting. Something she ate. I thought she would never stop.”
He put his arm around her and she curled into him.
“I took her to the hospital.”
“Didn’t you call her parents?”
“Her mother came.”
“She couldn’t get off from work, huh?” Even when he said it, he knew he was covering for her. He had already made a mental calculation. If the child got sick at lunchtime and the mother came immediately, as any mother would, Sally would not have been needed and there would have been no reason for her to be home so late.
Why had he helped her? Was it fear? Was it because he was not yet ready to face the truth of his suspicions? For more than month she had turned away from him in bed, and when she consented, their lovemaking was passionless. She went through the motions, but she wanted to be done. “Come,” she said, she urged him on. She wanted it to end.
Then there were the phone calls. Five when the caller hung up. Three times in the last month when she abruptly ended her conversation on the phone as he entered the room. All the signs were there that something, someone, was pulling her away from him. And yet that day he supplied her with an excuse.
“They’re so helpless when they get sick,” she said. “The little girl was so weak, she couldn’t stand up. I had to lift her. They need their mothers when they are so young.”
He connects that statement and the one she made earlier that morning and finds himself thinking the impossible: If you do not love me, Sally, Giselle will not always be with you.
She comes in the bedroom and hands him his coffee. “Are you sure you’ll be okay with Giselle?”
“Haven’t I always been okay with Giselle?”
“You know what I mean. You have work to do.”
“I will take her to the park,” he says. “When we come back, she’ll be sleepy and when she sleeps, I’ll correct my papers.”
“I’ll get her ready,” she says.
“You don’t have to. Let her sleep late. I’ll dress her.”
She hesitates. “I may come home late this evening,” she says, and walks into the bathroom.
She cannot be this cunning, he thinks. It is she who suggested that Giselle remain with him today. It is he who said Giselle’s rash wasn’t all that bad. But in the end, it is he, not she, who is insisting that Giselle stay at home.
She wants to be free, he thinks. She does not want to be encumbered. Not by a child, not by their daughter. Not by an obligation that would have her interrupt whatever she is doing, with whomever she is doing it, in the late afternoon.
Before she leaves, she kisses the sleeping Giselle. She does not kiss him.
“Is there something you want to tell me, Sally?” He has come downstairs. She has her hands on the doorknob, but he is unable to let her leave without asking the question.
She turns. “We’ll talk,” she says. “When I get home.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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