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It was another beautiful day in a perfect life:
June again, and all the brilliance that came with it. All the soft edges of spring were gone, and a kind of rarity had taken their place. There was a sharpness to the trees and leaves, which were the green of bottle glass, while the sky beyond them had hardened into a pure and cloudless blue.
Diana McFee opened her eyes, and she might as well have been seeing the sky for the first time. Such a mundane surprise to be alive! A forty-year-old woman in the middle of June, looking straight into a very blue sky, a sky that looked like the center of something entirely fresh that had been neatly sliced in half with a sharp knife. A mind full of ether. A breathtaking emptiness, like a clean kitchen, a clear conscience.
She realized that she'd drifted into sleep while idling in the minivan, waiting for her daughter outside the elementary school, and had been startled awake by the hysteria of bells within the school's walls, up there on the hill, where the school day had just ended.
Inside, Diana knew, the girls were grabbing their jackets, pulling up their kneesocks, lining up outside the orange double doors that would burst open like a can of confetti in a moment. The green hillside would become a chaos of windbreakers and pigtails and the terrible bird shrieks of little girls.
But she was still in the process of waking, of rematerializing after her brilliant dream ... a soccer mom stepping out of sleep as if it were a mirror, her body and mind coming together againatom by atom in the brightness where she waited.
She rubbed her eyes and inhaled.
She loved summer. The way it dried and tidied everything up. All through March, April, May, Diana had been waiting for the struggle to be overthe smell of rotting and newness, the grass and the roots like damp hair. So much moisture involved in resurrection! The dirty puddles full of worms. The moist privacy of turtles scrambling out of the muck. All that birthing and blood, and the blatant sexuality of it. The teenage girls, too flushed, looking as if they'd just been dragged out of the mud by their hair.
In May, Diana could hardly stand to look at those teenage girls wearing their first short skirts and tank tops of the season after so much winter whiteness ... those teenage girls waiting for the bus, crossing the street. The skin on their limbs looked barer than bare skin, as if the top layer of it had been peeled away, exposing to the air something more tender than flesh. Winter lasted a long time in the Midwest. For five months those girls had been buried in snow.
But by mid-June they were wearing human skin again.
Diana loved June.
She realized again how much she loved it, as she unrolled the driver's side window of the minivan and breathed in the glassy air of it, knowing how much she loved it ... all of it:
Summer, and her life ... loved it with a heart that might as well have been made of tissue paper, it fluttered so lightly in her chest. There was the taste of pure sugar in her mouth. What had she last eaten? A peppermint? A sugar cube? Whatever it had been, it had been white and sweet, and she craved another.
She loved the sun on the side of her face, the smell of warm vinyl filling the minivan. She loved being herself in her forty-year-old body ... being a wife, a mother ... the bake sales and the field trips; the Band-Aids and the small sweaters coming out of the washer soggy and smelling of rain; the flour blended into butter and brown sugar, and the chocolate chips folded into that.
Now as she thought of it she realized that she loved all the material details of her days. The rolling heft of her silver minivan, the way the air parted to let it pass like a bullet on its way to the grocery store, the library, her child's elementary school, her part-time job.
She loved the sparkling clapboard house in which she lived on one of the nicest, shadiest streetsMaiden Lane!in one of the most picturesque little college towns in the country.
Her daughter was pretty and happy.
Her husband was sexy, attentive, successful.
The world was very round. Round like a fishbowl. Thought swam around in circles in it.
How could they have ever believed it was flat? So much slipping and bending and arcing into space. Even at that moment, still stepping from her dream, Diana McFee could feel the roundness and hear the wind whispering as the earth turned in its grasp.
We are afloat in the sky, she thought, cradled, buoyed ...
Mr. McCleoda sad, short man with yellow teethlooks up from the lesson he's thing to teach ...
He almost never looks up. He is a painfully shy man, who makes teaching look like torture. His classroom is full of props that he can hide behind. Magnifying glasses. A television monitor. Computers. Microscopes. A transparency projector. And a map of the world beside a map of the human bodyall its muscle groups and major organs labeled. Even the face on that human map looks like meat. And a skeleton, a real skeleton, which hangs from the wall at the front of the room ... a skeleton with whom Mr. McCleod is rumored, jokingly, to be in love.
"She's a teenager," he told them on the first day of class in September.
He pointed out the narrowness of the pelvic bones and showed them how some of the bones that an older female skeleton would have were missing on this one. He explained there were bones in the female body that didn't ossifyossify: "to convert into bone," he wrote on the board in his lurching scrawluntil the human female was out of her teens.
Femoral bones, spinal vertebrae.
Those bones stayed soft inside the body for a long time, and if the girl died young, they simply melted away with her flesh.
Teeth and bones, Mr. McCleod told the class, would identify themwho they'd been, what they'd donelong after they were dead....
Her husband? Had she been thinking of him? Counting her many blessings?
Sexy, attentive, successful.
He was a respected professor of philosophy at the university. She'd beenthe old storyhis student.
And Diana herself was successful, though in a more modest sense than her husband. She was an artista sketch artistand taught a few afternoons a week at the local community college. She spent her mornings in the studio her husband had finished for her above their garage, and drew. Pen and ink, graphite pencil, charcoal. Her work was sometimes used on the covers of poetry collections, literary magazines, church programs, calendars. She worked strictly in black and white ... shadow and light.
And she was attractive. Still blond, though now she used a rinse to resuscitate the blond of her younger years. She was fit and slender, long-legged and blue-eyed as ever. She'd been told rather often that she resembled Michelle Pfeiffer, the Michelle Pfeiffer of the late 1990s, the one Diana used to watch on the movie channel, wishing (in vain, she'd assumed then) that she would look that good when she was almost forty.
And now she did.
Not that appearances were all that important to her now. She had wasted so much time in her teens primping, piercing, dieting ... and that terrible tattoo, the rose they'd promised her wouldn't hurt but that nearly killed her as they sewed it into her skin, a permanent purple heart earned for naïveté in the face of a fad. She'd be buried, an old lady in a housedress, with that sexy teenage rose still blushing on her hip. Sometimes the thought of that made her sad; sometimes it made her laugh.
She didn't worry much about her appearance anymore ... just enough to stay fit and wash her hair with Forever Blond once a week.
She wore simple clothing. She liked silks and Asian prints, dangling earrings and bangles. Today she was wearing a pair of shiny black slacks and a turquoise blouse. The blouse was sheer, but she wore a black tank top under it. A thin silver chain around her neck. An armful of silver bangles that made music as she walked, steered, brushed her hair.
Flat black shoes.
She dressed her age and income level, but did it creatively ... a little exotic, like the artist underneath the soccer mom she was. She was, it always surprised her to be reminded, still sexy enough to be whistled at on occasion while crossing the street at a busy intersection. She hadn't expected that at forty. It was one of the many pleasant surprises of middle age.
She glanced at herself in the rearview mirror.
Her teeth were crooked, but her lips were pretty. She looked like the woman she'd wanted to be. Someday this will be your life, she used to think when she was a dreamy adolescent staring out the kitchen window of the apartment she shared with her divorced mother, fantasizing. Someday this will be your life, she thought to herself even now, as if it weren't, hearing her voice clearly in her own mind ... the voice of the woman she had become, the pretty mother licking lipstick off her front teeth, smiling politely at her own reflection.
And all the longing and damp hope of spring had finally amounted to something. At home the peonies had ruffled up in the front yard like the sleeves of a fancy blousebut sticky, sweet, crawling with little red ants.
The grass was green as eye shadow, green as satin.
The sky was a piece of hard candy.
And the bees hovered around the honeysuckle like tiny golden angels playing trumpets.
The lilies had just begun to open, and a breeze made out of perfume was passing from the pure centers of them into the world.
Mr. McCleod is reading aloud from the textbook....
He is fiddling with his glasses as he reads, and his hands tremble.
Perhaps he's thinking of nicotine as he reads to the class about one-celled organisms becoming two.
He hears the laughter of girls and looks up.
From the opposite sides of the classroom, they've caught each other's eyes.
They weren't trying to look at each otherthey know better than that, know it will lead to uncontrollable laughter if their eyes meet across the room. But laughter is a vibrating wire strung between them. All they can do is avoid looking at one another, to keep from laughing. But as Mr. McCleod is reading, their eyes wander intuitively in the direction of Nate Witt
The boy with the unfortunate name.
The boy with the flat-green eyes.
There are miles and miles of AstroTurf reflected in those eyes.
He has a mean laugh and a habit of wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as if he's been boxing, as if he's just taken a punch to the jaw. He wears T-shirts with the names of bands and of baseball teams, faded jeans, and a pair of hiking boots every day. He's lean, with light brown hair, and neither girl has ever seen him laugh out loud, though they've seen him smile and smirk.
Nate Witt sits slumped and oblivious in the center of the room ... stoned and openmouthed between them, and while they are trying to catch a glimpse of him from opposite ends of the biology classroom, they catch a glimpse of one another glimpsing at him and begin to laugh.
"Is there a problem, girls?" Mr. McCleod asks.
Both girls try to go expressionless, and shrug.
"No," one of them says, though her eyes are wide and wet and she has to bite her lips.
"No problem," the other says, raising her shoulders and letting them drop.
There's laughter sliding all around her like an electric dress.
Mr. MeCleod puts his face back in his book and continues to read.
Back home ... the honeysuckle. She had a lovely little garden waiting for her behind the house. A set of silver wind chimes dangling from a drainpipe under the eaves of the garage. In the breeze the wind chimes sounded like music made out of little girls' dreams ... charm bracelets, porcelain dolls, the kind of teacups so delicate and thin that if you held them to the light you could see through them.
Excerpted from The Life before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke. Copyright © 2002 by Laura Kasischke. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.