The Washington Post
The Worst Thing I've Done : A Novelby Ursula Hegi
The new novel from the author of Stones from the River, a New York Times bestseller!
Friends since earliest childhood, Annie, Jake, and Mason have a special bond. When Annie's parents die on the same night that she and Mason get married, the three friends decide to raise Annie's infant sister, Opal, together. Not surprisingly, their bonds of intimacy, already/i>… See more details below
The new novel from the author of Stones from the River, a New York Times bestseller!
Friends since earliest childhood, Annie, Jake, and Mason have a special bond. When Annie's parents die on the same night that she and Mason get married, the three friends decide to raise Annie's infant sister, Opal, together. Not surprisingly, their bonds of intimacy, already deeply entangled, become strained. As Annie struggles, events take on a momentum of their own. And then, one fateful night, the three friends goad each other into stepping over a line, with shocking consequences for each of them.
The Washington Post
The troubles specific to triangular relationships are explored with depth and substance in Hegi's complex and affecting latest. Annie, Jake and Mason-friends practically from the womb-have developed a fraught dynamic sharply affected by competitiveness, attraction and jealousy. The book's opening trauma-Mason's suicide-serves as a springboard for Hegi to delve into the friends' tangled past: Mason and Annie get married the same night Annie's father and very pregnant mother die in a car wreck. The baby, Opal, survives, and the three friends raise her. But festering attractions-Mason to Jake; Jake to Annie-lead Mason to cross a line, Annie to want out of the marriage and Jake to fail to act at a pivotal moment. Woven into the mix is the post-WWII story of Annie's immigrant mother, Lotte, and her friend Mechthild, who came to America from Germany to work as au pairs and pretended to be Dutch to avoid persecution. Though a bumper crop of tragedy weighs heavily on this controlled and articulate novel, Hegi (Sacred Time) is an accomplished storyteller; she inhabits different characters and blends the past with the present to tell a rich story of love, death, loyalty and survival. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
"[Heg] is as skilled at piecing together an intricate storytelling design as Annie is at creating beautiful, complex collages.... Hegi, who has written often of large families and difficult relationships, convincingly plumbs the psychological processes of grief."
In Hegi's latest, the life of the protagonist, Annie, is framed by two catastrophes. One is the death of her parents on her wedding day. Her mother had been pregnant, and Annie and husband Mason end up raising her orphaned infant sister, who survived the wreck. The other-connected to a romantic triangle involving their childhood friend Jake-is Mason's suicide eight years later. The novel unfolds during the year after Mason's death as Annie and her sister/daughter, Opal, try to heal. As in her best-selling Stones from the River, Hegi addresses familiar themes such self-destruction and parental abandonment. She also offers rich characterizations, especially that of Aunt Stormy, a middle-aged German who wishes coveted possessions away from others, attends peace rallies, hosts an annual emotional cleansing ritual, explores the natural world with relish, and loves with abandon. One of Hegi's most enchanting skills is her ability to re-create setting, here a Long Island coastal community. While this book lacks the rich canvas of Stones from the River, it is a moving exploration of grief. Recommended for all libraries.
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Read an Excerpt
The Worst Thing I've DoneA Novel
By Ursula Hegi
TouchstoneCopyright © 2007 Ursula Hegi
All right reserved.
Tonight, Annie is driving from North Sea to Montauk and back to North Sea as she has every night since Mason killed himself. She turns on the radio. Finds Dr. Francine. Listening to people so desperate that they confess their misery to radio psychologists distracts Annie from the rope cutting into Mason's graceful neck, his flat ears lovely even in death. Distracts her for a few minutes -- but only late at night, alone in her car, when she can be as anonymous as those callers.
Annie switches between Dr. Francine and Dr. Virginia during long commercials for anti-itch powder and ointments guaranteed to cure various sores. Dr. Virginia is snappy, cuts people off, tells them the solutions to their problems before they finish describing their problems. But Dr. Francine's voice is soothing. Whenever she sighs, you can feel her compassion, even for those callers who go on and on...like this shaky voice now, Linda from Walla Walla, Washington -- talking about shrimp.
"Everyone in Walla Walla knows. Fifty-two years ago I stole a bag of shrimp from the grocery store. I don't know why, Dr. Francine. I was looking at them on display,so...curved and so pink." There's something oddly sexual in Linda's description of the curved pink flesh. A pink, curved longing...
Dr. Francine sighs. Annie can tell she's a good listener. Imagines a gentle face, lined and intelligent.
"It's the only time I ever...stole anything, Doctor. The store manager, she told me to unzip my coat..."
Annie turns from Towd Point onto Noyack Road. Clear. The sky too. Clear, with just a fist of clouds around the moon.
"...because that's were I was hiding the shrimp, inside my fur coat, not real mink, Dr. Francine, fun fur. The manager said she'd see me in court, but no one came for me though I kept waiting, and all along my husband's mother saying she warned him before he married me. Lately..."
"Lately, I've had the feeling everyone is talking about me and those shrimp."
"Even after half a century?" Dr. Francine asks softly.
"I've stopped leaving my house because people are teasing me about it."
"What do they say to you, Linda?"
"Oh, nothing directly to me, really..."
"Space cookie heaven." Mason's voice. From inside the radio?
"No." That's why Annie is in the car -- to get away from him. The steering wheel vibrates under her palms as the speedometer zooms to fifty on the winding road.
"Space cookie heaven." Mason, humming Twilight Zone inside Annie's head --
"Fuck off, Mason."
"In my heart I'll always be married to you."
Her headlights skim across a diamond-shaped road sign with the silhouette of a deer leaping left to right. Always left to right. She's on the stretch of road with water on both sides. For an instant she wonders -- would it stop her rage if she were to twist the steering wheel to the right and slide into North Sea Harbor? Not for me. She taps the brakes. Having a child didn't stop Mason. With him, there always was that wildness, that fiery energy Annie used to love because it electrified their marriage. But for her all wildness ceased eight years ago, when Opal was born. That's why she drives fast, but not dangerously so. Because of Opal. Who is finally asleep at Aunt Stormy's house in North Sea, where they've stayed in the seventeen days since Mason's death.
Some nights it takes hours to get Opal settled because she keeps calling Annie to her bed. Knee aches. Head aches. Ache aches. All kinds of little complaints to bring Annie back to her. Tonight, a thumb ache. And when Annie held her, she felt Opal shiver, felt her own fierce love for Opal like a shiver, a blink, throughout her body, always part of her.
"Burn in hell, you bastard, for doing this."
Mason's parents arranged his funeral. Even though, as his wife, it was Annie's choice what to do. They asked her. A burial in earth? Cremation? She was grateful when they decided, and she returned to New Hampshire to stand with them, and Jake, at her husband's grave site.
It used to be safe, hugging Jake.
"And that uneasiness just started lately, Linda?" Dr. Francine asks.
"Well...I was ashamed for a few years after it happened, but then I didn't think about shrimp much...until lately."
Another sigh. "I can tell how this one incident has poisoned your entire life, but it doesn't have to be that way, dear."
Now if Dr. Virginia were taking this call, she would have interrupted Linda long ago, telling her, "You're probably getting ready to steal again." Annie can tell right away which station she has, because if the caller is talking, it must be Dr. Francine's show, and if the doctor is talking, it must be Dr. Virginia's.
Annie can see Linda, smuggling a bag of embryonic shrimp inside her fun - fur coat. She'd bet ten dollars Linda never had children.
"Twelve dollars," Mason says. "I bet you twelve that she has at least one kid."
"I bet you fifteen. And no children. Maybe shrimp-size miscarriages. No full-term children."
"Twenty. That she has one full-term child. Maybe more."
They used to bet on anything, she and Mason. What color the desk clerk's hair would be as they checked into a hotel. What hour of the day their phone would ring first. And all those bets about Opal. Would her eyes stay blue? Her hair red like Annie's? How many weeks before she'd sleep through the night? At what age she'd take her first step. What her favorite food would be. And they both paid up, shifting the winnings between them.
"I bet you eight dollars she'll turn over on her tummy before Friday." Mason was holding Opal in the cradle of his arm, nudging the bottle between her gums just so.
"Ten dollars she'll turn over Saturday or Sunday," Annie said.
His lips were puckering.
Annie laughed. "Are you doing the swallowing for her?"
"I am. Do you think she's unusual?"
"More aware than other babies. The way she observes us." He rubbed Opal's tummy.
"You sound like a proud parent."
"Proud like entitlement-parent-proud?"
"Valid-proud, Mason." Annie traced the side of Opal's face, from her temple down to her pointed chin, as if she were sketching her. The same pointed chin that Annie and her mother had too.
"How about me?" Mason asked.
She stroked his temple, his ear and chin and neck.
"Hey..." He smiled at her.
Milk trickled from Opal's mouth. She was sturdy like Annie, graceful like Mason.
"Keep that suction going now. Have I ever told you that I'm crazy about start-up humans?" His thumb kept making circles on Opal's tummy. "Right, Startup?"
And that became his first endearment for her: Startup.
Startup became Stardust.
Became Dustmop when she played in the sandbox.
Mophead when she was tousled by wind.
If Annie were to call one of the radio doctors -- not that she would -- it would definitely not be Dr. Virginia, but Dr. Francine, who'd understand why Annie wanted away from Mason. But then, of course, he beat her to it -- he'd always been competitive -- got away from her in the rough and sudden way that left her with the blame and the rage and the loss of everything golden between them.
Because that was how it started, knowing each other in that golden way before they were old enough to talk -- she born in August; he in December of the same year to the piano teacher and the banker next door. A history of knowing each other.
Her first memory one of touch: her fingers on Mason's toes, stroking...pinching...
Her second memory: toddling alongside Mason's father, who was pushing Mason in his stroller and saying, "Hold on tight, Annabelle."
Hold on tight.
His last name was Piano, and Annie's dad liked to say he didn't know if Mr. Piano had changed his name to Piano because he was a piano teacher, or if he had become a piano teacher because of that name. Mr. and Mrs. Piano were tall and elegant, their blue-black hair touching their shoulders.
"Expensive haircuts," Annie's dad would say, "but cheap furniture."
Mr. Piano had his hair in a ponytail. The only stay-at-home dad in the neighborhood, he wore a suit and vest around the house. It made him look like a banker, which was weird, because Mrs. Piano was a banker but looked like a piano teacher, with her long fingers and long scarves.
A black scarf at the cemetery. A black scarf over a black coat. And her fingers twisted into the end of that scarf. "Come home with us, Annie."
"Opal, I need to get...home to Opal."
"I understand. It's a long drive."
"But I'll come back another time."
"Bring Opal," Mrs. Piano said.
"And Jake," Mr. Piano said. "There's something we need to ask you."
When Annie was three, she and Mason pulled each other around in Jake's red wagon. His house was one house from Mason's, two from Annie's, and his mother was the babysitter for several kids in the neighborhood. A science teacher, she'd started day care because she wanted to be home with Jake. She laughed easily, was forever patient, and made any lunch the children wanted: waffles or ham omelets or egg salad or peanut butter with Fluff.
Jake's father worked for Sears. "An almost handsome man," Annie once heard her mother say to Mason's mother, and they laughed. "With a face that's just a little off because his features are tipped sideways -- "
"You know, toward the left side of his jaw?"
"Still, he is the best-looking man on our block," Mason's mother said. "Sort of...rakish."
If Mason asked for a lunch no one else asked for, Jake would say, "Whatever the other kids are having, Mama." After lunch he'd help her clean up, while Mason ran around her kitchen, yelling, "I want I want I want -- " yelling it fast as if he couldn't figure out what he wanted -- only that he wanted.
Jake would watch him, eyes sullen. But one day he stepped into Mason's way. "You're not the boss of her."
"Remember now -- " His mother pulled Jake close, kissed the top of his white-blond hair. "Mason is a paying guest."
Paying guest. Annie's neck felt sweaty. Salty. Sometimes her parents paid late. "Not because they don't have enough money," she'd heard Jake's mother say, "but because they're careless. They can't imagine people needing the money they earned that day."
"Linda? I want you to try and remember," Dr. Francine says, "if anything has changed in your life recently to bring up that shame. And I promise we'll talk about that right after this message from our sponsor."
"I still don't eat shrimp." In her voice, again, that pink, curved longing.
"Please -- " Mason says, "Don't even think about pink, curved longing."
And then it's the woman who sells tooth whitener, money - back guarantee, favored by celebrities around the globe. Flutes and harps rise above her recital of grisly side effects, making them sound beneficial.
Since the commercials are longer than the advice sessions, Annie switches to Dr. Virginia.
" -- and you must examine your own role in this, Frank," Dr. Virginia says.
"All I know is my wife got home ten minutes ago smelling of -- "
"Frank, I do not need to hear any more."
"But she was smelling of another man and she did it to get even because I got together that one time only with my first ex-wife and -- "
"What you are telling me, Frank, is definitely a case of -- "
" -- that's when I informed her I'll call you Dr. Virginia -- see she listens to you all day long at the office and keeps quoting you to me -- "
"You are not listening to me, Frank. Your wife is obviously an intelligent woman who thinks independently. Tell her thank you from me."
" -- so I figured you could tell me where I can take my wife to get a test done to see if she was with another man and -- "
"How long have you been married, Frank?"
"Five months and if I tell her you said to get the test she'll do it because of you and -- "
"At one A.M.?" Dr. Virginia sounds impatient to get to the buy-me-now commercials. "First of all, a test is not going to resolve what is truly going on between the two of you. It is an issue of trust, of you not -- "
"But she just got back from having sex Dr. Virginia and there should be a trace if we do the test right away like an X - ray or peeing into a cup or -- "
"You are interrupting me again, Frank."
"Sorry. I keep telling my wife one more time and that's it and -- "
"Frank -- "
" -- it only makes her go to bars even though she knows -- "
"Frank. Frank. Are you listening to a word I am saying?"
"Sure but -- "
"Do you ever listen to your wife? Your problem is communication, and this jealousy of yours is sabotaging your marriage -- "
"Let me tell you about jealousy," Annie interrupts Dr. Virginia. "About finding a penny on Mason's side of the bed...just a couple of months ago, while he and Aunt Stormy were in Washington, D.C., to protest any preemptive attack on Iraq. When he came home, I asked him about the penny, and he told me he didn't know anything about it...but then he admitted he'd put it there...three feet from the foot end...because I sleep on the futon in the living room whenever he's gone. He said if the penny had been moved or the sheets changed, it meant I had another man there and -- "
"I want both of you to go to sleep now," Dr. Virginia prescribes.
"I was stunned," Annie says. "Then furious. Told him he was twisted inside. That my loving him was never enough for him."
"And in the morning I expect you to look for a marriage therapist."
"Too late for that," Mason says.
"Unless of course you don't care to save that marriage of yours, Frank."
"If I knew from a test that my wife didn't sleep with someone else I'd feel more trusting."
As Annie drives into darkness, taking back roads wherever she can, her headlights cast pale gray circles on the black pavement. She's been driving this same loop every night: west from North Sea to Riverhead, then east on Route 27 as far as it goes to Montauk Point, from there west to North Sea, where Aunt Stormy lives at the end of a long, bumpy driveway, a strip of weeds down the middle. Big old trees. A hammock. From the driveway you can see her cottage and Little Peconic Bay all at once...see the bay through the windows of her cottage and on both sides of the cottage, silver-gray barn siding, bleached. Inside, a dried rose woven into a piece of driftwood hangs from the candle chandelier, along with delicate glass balls.
Annie doesn't want Opal to know she's out driving. But Aunt Stormy knows. Aunt Stormy said, "It's what you need for the time being."
"And what will it be next, Frank?" Dr. Virginia asks. "A test once a week to see if your wife has stayed faithful?"
"Do they have those?"
"There are no tests for trust."
"Right." Annie slaps the rim of the steering wheel and thinks of a day, early in her marriage, when she bought herself a golden neck chain to celebrate the sale of two collages from her Pond Series.
Mason raised one hand to her throat, fingered the gold. "Who bought this for you?"
"I just don't think a woman would buy that kind of necklace for herself."
"You're kidding. Right?"
"It's the kind of gift a lover would buy for a woman."
As she stared at his angular face with the wide mouth and pale skin, at his blue-black eyes and his blue-black curls, it amazed her how all the familiar added up to this stranger.
And she came right back at him. "A lover? Don't you know that every woman is her own lover?" And she was, she was inventive, giving herself pleasure, not just in bed but also at the table, in the ocean...
"If there were tests for trust," Dr. Virginia says, "I would suggest that your wife take you to be tested. Because you have a habit of fabricating flaws for others in order to avoid a confrontation with your own and very real flaws."
"Can you at least give me the name of the test so that I have it for the next time in case my wife -- "
But already Dr. Virginia is saying hello to Gloria from Albany, who is forty-four and lives with her widowed father.
"My dad treats me like a child. He tells me I have to be home by eleven, and -- "
"Do you pay rent, Gloria?"
"He won't even let me close the door to my room when my boyfriend comes visiting. Just because my dad gets lonely and -- "
"You want to hear a real story?" Annie asks Dr. Virginia. "Take this. From a woman who is driving fast after her husband hanged himself."
"Once again: Do you pay rent, Gloria?"
"I can't afford to. And my dad knew that when I moved in. I got this minimum-wage job bagging groceries at -- "
"Gloria, listen -- "
"Hey, you listen, Chickie," Annie tells Dr. Virginia. And laughs out loud because she's never called anyone Chickie. But in a magazine at her dentist's was a picture of Dr. Virginia, resembling a chicken with her round body, beak nose, and maroon bubble hairdo.
"Listen closely now, Gloria. As long as you let your father be a parent to you -- and that means provide you with food, transportation, toiletries -- "
"Not toiletries. He gets the cheapest store brand. No, thank you!"
" -- shelter, heat -- "
"I pay for my own toiletries!" Gloria sounds agitated.
" -- you give him permission to treat you as his child. Now if one of my daughters came home to live with me -- Those of you who listen to me or subscribe to my newsletter at deardoctorvirginia.com know that my four girls are still too young to be out there on their own, the oldest seventeen, the next one twelve, then seven, and the youngest two years old, spaced a perfect five years from each other -- "
"Know what I think, Dr. Virginia?"
" -- and giving me such insight into every age of child rearing, while -- "
"Dr. Virginia? Know what I think, Dr. Virginia?"
" -- on the other hand, they're benefiting from my professional insights into parenting, which can be yours too at an introductory rate, fifteen months for the price of -- "
"I think it's all about my dad being lonely and wanting me home for company."
"Listen to me now, Gloria. I'm not merely talking about the independence of paying your own -- "
"You listen now, Chickie."
"You have every reason, Annie, to despise yourself," Dr. Virginia says.
"I can turn you off," Annie threatens.
"Not only because of how Mason manipulated you and Jake in the sauna but because you pulled this off together."
"You tell her, Dr. Virginia," Mason says.
"Because of what you can become when you're with him," Dr. Virginia says.
"So true," Mason says.
"For Christ's sakes, Annie," Dr. Virginia says, "you're a mother. You have to admit to yourself that, on some level, you got off on it too -- "
"Christ's sakes...? Getting off on it...? You don't sound like yourself, Chickie."
" -- and that you saw it as a way to strike out at your husband."
"Thank you, Dr. Virginia." Mason sounds grateful and considerate and so mature.
"You have such good manners," Dr. Virginia tells him. "So considerate and mature."
"Bullshit artists," Annie says. "Both of you."
"We don't need to subject ourselves to Annie's crude language," Mason tells Dr. Virginia.
"You're brownnosing, Mason," Dr. Virginia says. "Cut it out. And as for you, Annie, you outbet each other. Except he lost."
"We both lost," Annie whispers.
That seems to satisfy Dr. Virginia, because she starts preaching to Gloria about responsibility.
"Enough of you, Chickie." Annie switches to Dr. Francine, whose caller, Mel, is afraid of his new roommate.
"He is a bully. He shoves me, punches me. And he won't move out though we fight all the time."
Now if Mel were calling Dr. Virginia, she'd interrupt him. "It's a problem
you got yourself into, Mel, because you are spineless and excessively needy."
But Dr. Francine is not like that. Forever patient and compassionate, she sighs as she listens to Mel and coaches him in healthy assertiveness. "Make a list of acceptable behavior with the bully roommate."
"What if he doesn't want to?"
"Find some way to get him to participate, and then agree on a date for the roommate to move out if he falls off the list."
"He'll get mad at me, Dr. Francine, and -- "
"Hold on, dear."
An emotional voice is selling foot powder: testimonies of agony and of relief, of before and after. Annie drives around the traffic circle in Riverhead, heads toward Hampton Bays. The flicker of their headlights: three cars coming toward her. A sign: FIRE AND AMBULANCE VOLUNTEERS NEEDED. Darkness again. If she kept driving south, she'd drive into the ocean.
"Did you both sign the lease, Mel?" Dr. Francine asks.
"No no, it's mine. I signed it."
"Good. Very good. That'll give you a way out. Now take a blank page, draw a line down the middle, and write down the reasons why you and Humphrey -- "
"Hubert, not Humphrey."
" -- reasons why you and Hump -- "
"Hump." Annie shakes her head.
"I'm sorry," Dr. Francine says. "Very sorry, Mel. I mean Hubert...why you and Hump -- ubert..." A cover-up cough. "...Hubert should or should not cancel the cruise."
"What cruise?" Annie passes the sign: HAMPTON BAYS 8 MONTAUK 42. End of the island. End of the world.
"How do I know" -- Mel starts sobbing -- "that Hubert won't get...cross?"
Another one of Dr. Francine's deep sighs.
"I bet you she has a sigh button on her microphone," Mason whispers.
Annie has to laugh. "Right. And she pushes it at appropriate intervals."
When she crosses the Shinnecock Canal, she opens her window. Cold night air whips her face, makes her eyes tear. She stays on 27. Passes Premier Pest Control. Outside the Elvis store, life-size animals in garish colors -- giraffes and cows and elephants -- are arranged as if about to trot into the road. Annie doesn't know the store's real name. Mason had called it the Elvis store ever since he saw a plastic bust of Elvis for sale. He loved to go there with Aunt Stormy, searching through the staggering accumulation of chain - saw art and rococo furniture, old jukeboxes and watercolor landscapes, cowboy figurines and Adirondack chairs, stained-glass windows and plastic napkin rings.
"Mason made sure I'd be the one to find him." Annie tells Dr. Francine about the rope too thin for hanging. A heavier man might have snapped the rope, saved himself, spared her from seeing the rope slicing into his neck. Seeing before trying not to look -- Mason -- his face a face that's not-Mason.
Annie feels dizzy with hunger.
"When he did it, I was out, imagining myself leaving him, taking Opal with me, and letting him have the pond house and that goddamn sauna, where I figured out that I had to leave him."
But he did the leaving for her. Impulsive. Vindictive. In her studio, spoiling it forever. Not giving her a chance to reconsider. But looping a rope across the rafter and stepping off her worktable, tipping it over, spilling tools and supplies for her collages -- scissors and twine and wire and glue and box cutters, baskets with eucalyptus pods and wisteria pods, her brushes and jars -- as if he wanted all that as the backdrop to his body, his death her final work. Jealous here too of the time she spent on her collages.
Annie tells Dr. Francine how she climbed on the table, whimpering, hacking through the rope. What if he's still alive? Hacking till he fell, the man who wore Mason's green Earth Day T-shirt but whose face was not-Mason.
"The police said I shouldn't have touched anything," Annie says.
"I was looking forward to...the cruise." Mel is sobbing. "We both were."
"Mel, listen to me -- " Dr. Francine starts.
But Mel is sobbing.
On Annie's right, the Southampton campus. And now one lane only. A liquor store. Two marinas. Sunoco.
"When I found Mason," Annie tells Mel and Dr. Francine, "all my collages were pulled out...propped against the walls...against the legs of my worktable. And all I could think was that the air smelled of smoke. The smoke had nothing to do with Mason's death but with fires in Canada."
They'd been burning ever since lightning struck the parched ground two weeks earlier. And the smoke kept drifting south -- more than five hundred miles south -- crossing the border, spreading through New England.
Mel. Still sobbing.
Annie pulls into the 7-Eleven, where a wild-haired man is limping across the parking lot in some bizarre pattern of three hops to the side, three forward. When he bumps into Annie's car, he stares at her through the passenger window, the kind of stare small children will give you before they've learned it's not polite.
She waves him away. Tells Dr. Francine and Mel how, the day after Mason's death, Opal wanted to take the garden hoses to go north and fight the fires in Canada. "As if fighting the fire could still save Mason's life."
She turns off the engine. Waits till the man has limped into the 7-Eleven. When she enters, he's trying on sunglasses by the tiny mirror on top of the display case, raising his chin, making badger teeth. Two teenagers are studying the candy rack. By the hot food section, four young Latinos are buying burritos. Good idea. Annie buys a burrito, fries, chocolate milk, two doughnuts.
Driving while eating is better than driving without eating.
And driving while eating and listening to talk radio is even better because there's space for little else.
Annie's mother used to sing in the car, Hildegard Knef songs that she'd translate for Annie and Annie's father, smoky - voiced songs about stealing hours of happiness by talking them away, songs about lies we tell ourselves and take for truth. She sang her Knef songs in the car the morning she drove with Annie and Mason to Boston to protest against the Gulf War. Their first protest, and they were fifteen, exhilarated to march with her because she didn't behave like someone's mother -- more like a friend with a driver's license, waving her protest sign, red hair flying -- and they were awed when she told them she'd been arrested. She and Aunt Stormy had been to so many protests, starting with Vietnam when they'd arrived in America, that they had seven arrests between them.
Chewing her fries, Annie continues east on 27, waiting for Dr. Francine. But it's the man who sells hair thickener. Then the perky people from foreign language by mail.
Dr. Virginia, then. "If you only think skin, Kevin, you are missing the cause. Don't you see what you are doing to yourself?"
Silence while Kevin deliberates. The moment he says, "No...?" Dr. Virginia is on him.
"Self-esteem. Because you hold yourself in such low esteem -- "
"Not really. I have a graduate degree in communications. I work out four days a week. I have my own business, and I recently got married."
" -- and you're so defensive about your low self-esteem" -- Dr. Virginia's voice rises -- "that it's only natural how ugliness rises to the surface, erupts."
"That is such crap," Annie tells her.
"So what am I supposed to do?" Kevin asks.
"I just told you," Dr. Virginia snaps.
"No, you didn't," Annie snaps.
"No, you didn't," Kevin snaps.
"Some people never learn to listen."
"I thought you could tell me what to put on the pimples so that -- "
"It has nothing to do with what kind of ointment you put on your face -- "
"Wait -- " Annie cuts in. "What about all the ointments and stuff you peddle during your commercials? Don't you want Kevin to buy them?"
" -- although there are a few exceptional products I endorse on my show -- "
"You bet, Chickie -- "
" -- but what you need to do, Kevin, in addition to applying those products according to directions, is think of the self-esteem as a layer beneath your skin, a layer you have control over -- Hello? I'm talking with Brittany from Newark."
"Thank you so much, Dr. Virginia, for taking my call."
"That's what she gets paid for," Annie tells Brittany. "That's how she hawks her pimple cream."
The moment Brittany starts talking about her daughter's drug use, Dr. Virginia berates her. "It's because of your selfish parenting."
Annie tries to get mad at Dr. Virginia, to side with Brittany. But she can't get inside their conversation. Though she punches up the volume, she can't get it loud enough to blot out the rope -- Quickly, she substitutes another picture -- one she's carried within her since she was thirteen and came upon Mason and Jake on the raft at their summer camp -- a picture she can evoke any time, because that afternoon the golden inside her grew warm and heavy toward both of them. Above the glitter of the water, shoving each other off the raft, hooting -- laughing? -- and climbing on again, their movements one continuous dance...Mason, the spider, the monkey dancer, all limbs and motion...Jake, the centaur, calves thick and feet broad, the rest of him slim, all the stability of his body below his knees.
Raft/1 was inspired by what Annie saw that summer afternoon, the boys merging in the center of the raft, a huddle of arms and legs arching toward the edge with immeasurable grace, a grace that embarrassed them when she showed them the collage.
So far, she has eleven raft collages. Train Series she completed in two years. Pond Series in four. Most of her collages are not part of a series; but the Raft Series has tugged at her for more than half her life now, and each collage has revealed more than she believed she knew. Like how that dance above water defines her connection to Mason and to Jake -- one of us always looking on. If she already understood the image, she wouldn't need to search for it. It's like that when she works...the unknown sucking her in. She rather lets her materials influence what she'll do, a conversation of sorts: she'll lay out an array of papers the way a painter will lay out her palette; tear and bunch and crinkle them; layer them to change colors and textures and depth; and strive for that flicker of a moment when the real becomes unreal and the unreal real, when -- in the instant of shifting and becoming -- they're equally real.
* * *
"I believe in being open," Dr. Francine says.
"Right. Opal can discuss anything with me."
Slurping cool chocolate through her straw, Annie drives past East End Tick Control, Burger King, Fast Lube, Mobil, Gulf. Past the animal hospital and plumbing supplies. Past empty side streets that are jammed during the day.
"Whenever I see parents who have trouble with their children, I figure they have to be tight - assed." She expects Dr. Francine to tell her tight-assed is not acceptable for talk radio.
But the doctor says, "Excessive tact often masks an unwillingness to communicate."
"If those parents weren't tight-assed," Annie says, "those kids would talk to them, talk it out. I've answered all of Opal's questions. She has torn photos of Mason from albums, taped them to the refrigerator. It makes me sick, but how can I not let her? She adored Mason...still adores him, though she knows what he did...and how. I keep watching her for signs of...trouble. Encourage her to talk."
With Mason it used to be talk and talk, wonderful talk, excessive talk, draining talk. "We had periods of silence, of course. Every marriage has those, right?" Annie asks Dr. Francine.
But even after Mason's jealousy binges that made her feel exhausted and judged, they always talked -- except after that night in the sauna when he pushed her and Jake beyond the line that had shifted since they were children, separating himself from them forever.
"He watched us as if counting on us to stop him as we had so many times before...like pulling him away from some cliff."
Dr. Francine sighs.
Annie stuffs the last three fries into her mouth. Aren't widows supposed to waste away from sorrow? In the movies they do. But not Annie. She's never been the type to waste away, and she's been absorbing weight since the suicide, courtesy of Mason. Fourteen pounds already. Going for twenty - four.
"Thank you for that too, Mason." She bears left, past the diner and Pier 1. Signs for the vineyards: Wolffer, Duck Walk. Channing Daughters.
"I bet you eighteen pounds max."
"You can't bet. You're dead."
"You're gorgeous whatever weight you are."
"If you figure fourteen pounds in seventeen days, that comes to over three quarters of a pound a day. Right? In one year, that would add two hundred seventy pounds."
"You're gorgeous -- " Mason pressed himself high inside Annie, so slow and sweet and again.
A thud against glass. Beyond Mason's shoulders, outside the window, a streak of gray, a squirrel, falling as if shot from a tree.
"What is it?" Mason asked. "What -- "
Annie touched one finger to his lips.
Scratching. Then the squirrel's head and white belly as it scaled the windowsill and hurled itself against the glass. Another thud. And the squirrel plummeting.
"We have a voyeur," Mason announced. "Must be the incarnation of some ex-lover of yours."
"In that case...get ready for at least two dozen squirrels."
Startled, he laughed.
She was glad she'd stopped him with that. Because if she'd told him what she really felt -- I wish you wouldn't say stuff like that...you know there wasn't anyone else -- he'd be asking his jealous questions. So jealous of any moment she was away from him. Except when it came to Opal. With her he was generous and playful and --
The squirrel was readying itself for another leap that would bounce it off the glass and back on the ground.
"I know what it wants." Mason. Slow and sweet and again.
She pulled in -- her breath...him...and managed to say, "Must be cold out there."
"Not in here."
"No compassion for the furry."
"I bet you it'll jump again."
"Three jumps. I bet you three."
The squirrel repeated its ritual outside the window. Through it all, Opal did not wake up in the next room; and Annie was glad for the peace.
"Three jumps," Mason said. "I win."
"You'll win next time." Skin so transparent.
Annie traced the fine, strong lines of his bones beneath. The bridge and length of his nose. The angles of jaw and forehead. Sexy Trouble.
"Sexy trouble," she'd heard Aunt Stormy tell her mother when Annie was still in elementary school. "That neighbor boy will be sexy trouble someday. Such wildness and beauty."
Ointment for cold sores.
Dr. Virginia. "Yes, David?"
The rope, too thin, forever cutting into Mason's long neck --
All at once, Annie knows she'll use his death as insurance against other catastrophes. Nothing horrible will happen to Opal and her again. It's a fact Annie understands deep inside her bones, and it makes her invincible. In an odd way -- beyond the grieving, beyond the regrets -- there is solace in that.
"I am increasingly worried about my wife -- " The caller's voice is anxious, so anxious. "She has been twitching and -- "
"Have you taken her to a neurologist?" Dr. Virginia interrupts.
"No, but I have -- "
"To a cardiologist?"
"No, but -- "
"How long has this been going on, David?"
"Let me think..."
"I do not have all night."
"...thirty - five years."
"Are you telling me your wife has been twitching for thirty-five years?"
"That is correct, Dr. Virginia."
"Of course it is correct. I listen -- "
"What an egomaniac," Mason says.
Annie agrees. "Ego - Chickie."
"David," Dr. Virginia asks, "why have you waited until now to call me?"
"That is how long we've been married, Doctor. But I'm getting more concerned."
"Have you taken your wife to be tested for seizures?"
"Not yet. I have my own appliance business -- "
"What does that have to do with taking her to the doctor?"
"Long hours. Very -- "
"How long do your wife's twitches last?"
"Oh...used to be twenty or thirty seconds. But the older she gets, the longer the twitching....It keeps going on and on...long afterwards. Sometimes I think the twitching is over, but then it starts again and -- "
"Are we talking hours here, David?"
"Not hours. No."
"I timed her last night because I knew you want your callers to be specific, Dr. Virginia."
"Commendable. I appreciate specific."
"Twelve minutes and forty-three seconds."
"When does this happen, David?"
"Yes! The twitching!" Dr. Virginia sounds testy.
"After we are done...doing it."
"After you are done doing what, David?"
"After they're done fucking," Annie explains.
But David is not nearly as blunt. "You know...," he mumbles.
"David -- if you want me to find a solution to your problem, you have to provide me with all the specifics of your problem. Is that clear? I refuse to engage in guessing games."
Dr. Virginia is silent. A first.
Mason is giggling. "Multiple orgasms," he tells the caller.
Dr. Virginia is still silent. It's a whiteout, soundproof silence. More silent than a quiet person's silence. The kind of silence you'd better enjoy, fast, because it won't last. "Multiple orgasms," Dr. Virginia clarifies. "The twitching that your wife experiences is an orgasm. And extended twitching -- "
"Extended twitching -- " Mason imitates Dr. Virginia's voice.
" -- the way you describe it, David, means that your wife is experiencing multiple orgasms. The older a woman gets, the longer her orgasms continue. Perfectly normal."
Outside it is dark except for the headlights of one other car. A siren far away. A few miles to the right, parallel to 27, lies the ocean.
Inside Annie's car Dr. Virginia: "And who is watching your child tonight, Annie?"
-- ask me, Annie. Ask me what's the worst thing I've done. Ask, goddammit. Because then you'll know I'll never go beyond last night. You'll know and let me stay with you and Opal.
You've left to drive Opal to school, and I'm searching through your collages. I want the one you'll miss most. From your Raft Series, Annie? Your Train Series?
You think you know the worst thing I've done? It's not that simple, believe me. Because it turned on itself last night in the sauna when you and Jake lay on the bench below mine, glistening in the soggy heat. I took some crushed ice from the cooler, dribbled it on Jake's chest, and as he swatted it away without glancing at me, I suddenly wondered what it would be like if your bodies came together, Annie.
Out of that came wondering what it would be like for me, watching you make love to Jake. And then I was sure both of you were imagining that too. Of course, then, I had to ask.
I asked, "Have you ever imagined making love to each other?"
You both laughed, the kind of nervous laugh that's meant to hide something.
"Of course not," Jake said.
"Drop it, Mason." You were sweating, Annie, sweating-beyond-sauna sweating.
"Listen," Jake said, "we've been friends forever, you and I -- "
"And Annie," I reminded him.
"Who is married to you."
"As if I didn't know that."
"Just drop it," you growled at me, Annie. She-bear. Female. Haunches muscled, strong. Everything about you abundant, generous: your curls, your nose, your appetite for exertion and food.
"The Canadians are waiting for rain," Jake said.
"Nearly fifty fires," you said, "burning the forests and -- "
"You are not going to distract me with Canadians," I said.
"They need rain," you said. "The ground is so dry that -- "
"Rain..." I picked up the wooden ladle, poured water on the coals, chanted, "Rain rain rain..." into the sudden mist.
Did you hear Opal's breath on the monitor, Annie? Because you looked at it, there on the shelf by the door. So did Jake. And as we listened to her sleeping breath -- deeper and slower than it used to be -- I thought of her in the house, in her bed.
"Rain rain rain...Isn't it strange how skinny - dipping in the pond or being in the sauna as often as we are, it has not occurred to you to wonder? I bet you -- "
"It's not something I wonder about," you interrupted. But your eyes lied, Annie.
I knew because I watched your lips: they were restless, while your eyes stayed calm. And I bet against you. Because your mother taught us both to read people by separating their mouths from their eyes, to study their lips without letting their eyes distract us. And your eyes, Annie, did not match your lips.
"I bet you a hundred dollars," I said, "that you've both wondered about making love."
"Quit it," Jake said, uneasy as hell.
"It's what you really want," I said. "Why not admit it?"
I didn't want it to happen, Annie --
Copyright (c) 2007 Ursula Hegi
Excerpted from The Worst Thing I've Done by Ursula Hegi Copyright © 2007 by Ursula Hegi. Excerpted by permission.
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