Lainie Smith Morris is perfectly content with her life in New York City: she has four children, a handsome surgeon husband, and good friends. This life she has built is shattered, however, when her husband Charles announces he has accepted a job in Elliot, New Jersey, and that the family must relocate. Lainie is forced to give up the things she knows and loves.
Though Charles easily adapts to the intricacies of suburban life, even thriving in it, Lainie finds herself increasingly troubled and bored by her new limited responsibilities, and she remains desperate for the inspiration, comfort, and safety of the city she called home. She is hopelessly lostuntil, serendipitously, she reconnects with an old friend/rival turned current Elliot resident, Jess. Pleased to demonstrate her social superiority to Lainie, Jess helps her find a footing, even encouraging Lainie to develop as an artist; but what looks like friendship is quickly supplanted by a betrayal with earth-shattering impact, and a move to the suburbs becomes a metaphor for a woman who must search to find a new home ground in the shifting winds of marriage, family, career, and friendship.
Between the Tides is an engrossing, commanding debut from tremendous new talent Susannah Marren.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.25(d)|
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Between the Tides
By Susannah Marren
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Susan Shapiro Barash
All rights reserved.
"The selkies are sea creatures, half woman, half seal. They wiggle out of their seal skins on the rocks to lie in the weak winter sun. One fisherman watched with his binoculars from his fishing boat and waited."
"He loved the prettiest one!" Claire interrupts.
"That's right, darling girl," I say.
Jack sticks out his tongue. "Who cares about some stupid sealy lady?" he shouts.
I stop the story. "Jack, please sit down."
Jack returns to the couch beside Tom, his big brother, who is on his iPad. Jack yawns and props his eyes open wide with his fingers. "Boring, Mom!"
"More! More!" Claire screams. She jumps off the chair and starts dancing around the den, waving her hands like flippers in her crazy water dance on land. "More!" she screeches.
Matilde, my solemn child, interrupts, "Mom, are you a selkie?"
I laugh and look out the den window that faces west. It is too dark to see anything. "No, darling girl, I'm not a selkie."
"But you love the water and you swim every day. When we go to Cape May you lie on the jetties just like the selkies. You never answer us when you're on the beach ... it's like you're not even there. ... Remember last February when —"
"Matilde, I am not a selkie."
"Mommy," Claire cries, "the sealy skin! The fisherman! Finish the story."
Perhaps Charles is right and I ought to quit this tale. It isn't Cinderella or Snow White; there is no prince with whom to live happily ever after.
"Mom?" Matilde is waiting.
"Okay ... well ... the beach is empty in December when the fisherman sees his chance. He sneaks up near the rocks and comes close to the prettiest selkie."
"He takes her skin, Mommy! The man takes her seal skin!" Claire begins to sob as she always does at this part in the story.
"That's true, Claire darling. The man takes her seal skin while she is in the icy sea. When she comes back to the shoreline, frantic to find her sealy coat, he is holding it in his hands. He tells her she has no choice but to go with him, without her coat she will drown. But he promises to love her forever, that they will marry and have a family. That's the deal." The "forever" part gets to me.
"And she marries him!" yelps Claire. She begins to dance again. "She marries him and they have babies!" Claire is the cheerful one; she bounces from one side of the room to the other. She passes Tom and Jack, who watch her as if she were an alien creature. I wonder if Jack and Claire will ever share a thought, an interest. Fraternal twins are not a matched pair.
"Until one day ..." I look up. "Jack, are you listening?"
Jack covers his ears. "I don't care about seals and babies. It's gross!"
"A dull story for the boys," says Charles. He is in the doorway, appearing out of nowhere, as usual. He is so stealthy, Charles, more burglar than surgeon.
The children race to him and grab at his arms and hands, his legs, anything that is their father. Except Matilde, who stays close to me.
"Lainie, how about another story? Something more realistic? You could read to them from Tom Sawyer."
Matilde leans in toward my ear. "I know why you like the story. I know you're a selkie. I saw your sealy skin."
Everyone is waiting.
"What sealy skin? What are you talking about, Matilde?"
"In the hall closet, hanging in a zippered bag. A black, thick coat," she answers. "Hairy."
"Oh, that. That's from my grandmother. You're right, it is made of seal, a long-dead seal. I wouldn't wear it. I don't have the guts to ditch it. I guess I'm sentimental."
No one else speaks. Claire is frozen in mid-dance. Matilde says, "The sealy needs her coat to go back to the sea. She has a land family now but she misses the sea."
"That's right. That's how it works," I whisper. "The days become flat for her, days without any sun."
"Until she finds the coat!" says Claire, twirling around in circles.
Charles enters the room now, fully present, taking up the oxygen. His loafers make a clicking sound on the wood floor.
"Forget the sealy coat," he says.
He is tall and strong, buff. He lifts weights, runs through Morningside Park in rain or shine. Sometimes he wakes me predawn and invites me to run with him. "C'mon, Lainie," he'll say, "shake up your schedule and run this morning. Forget the pool every day."
"Okay, Charles, soon." Although I don't mean it.
I walk the reservoir, around the track slowly, only to be by a body of water. I want water, any kind, like a vampire wants blood. Matilde is the one in the family who understands. She is only twelve but she realizes that if I didn't paint pictures of water, I wouldn't exist. If we didn't live by the Hudson River or go to the ocean every summer, to my hometown, I'd wither and die.
Charles sits down in "his" green leather chair next to the fireplace and faces my largest and best-known work of art, Trespassing: Driftwood. The six-by-eight-foot painting has overwhelmed the living room these years, making me proud, sad, regretful, and attached to Charles. His eyes are on the piece as he speaks. "I have big news. Might as well talk now, while we're together."
I tilt my head and Matilde sits next to me on the couch. "Claire," I say, "come here." Claire pushes between us and I put my lips to her damp and clammy forehead.
"Tom?" says Charles. "Can you settle down with Jack?" Jack slides out of Tom's reach and runs to Charles's lap, clapping and yowling. Charles gives me one of his "Can't you control these children?" looks while he tousles Jack's hair and hugs him. Who can blame Charles for choosing order; he is a famous surgeon, skilled, popular, a perennial Best of the Best in New York magazine. When he dons his scrubs, patients and nurses swoon. He is booked years in advance. Dr. Morris, Dr. Morris, Dr. Charles Morris. At home with his children, he softens — the only place and only time that he is soft.
"I've got a surprise for you," says Charles. "A big surprise."
"You know how I hate surprises, Charles," I say.
"Finish the sealy coat story," Claire says. "Mommy, please?"
Charles glances at Claire and then turns to me. "Lainie, you must stop with these stories before —"
"What is the surprise, Dad?" Tom asks.
"Before what?" Am I missing something here?
"Surprise! Surprise!" Jack jumps up from Charles's lap. They have the exact same eyes, neither the color of water nor the color of the sky. Instead, they are dark blue, the color of dusk.
"Hush," says Charles, and I become very still to set an example. I put my fingers to my lips and stare at each of my four children. The only sound is of Candy out in the kitchen, opening cupboards to start the children's dinner.
"What is the surprise, Dad?" Tom asks again.
"Well, I wonder if you see anything different about me?" His voice becomes light and self-satisfied at the same moment that my heart starts to race.
"You have on blue!" Jack shouts. "A blue jacket, Daddy!"
Charles is wearing a navy blazer, and he usually wears a suit to work. A darkish one or grayish or striped, the same as the other surgeons.
"Yes, Jack, I'm in a blue sport coat."
"You're home early, a half hour earlier," Tom says.
I nudge Matilde and then Claire but neither attempts to guess what is different.
Charles keeps it going. "What else? What is different about me today?"
I close my eyes and wrap my arms around myself as if a wind is coming through.
"I don't understand," I say. "What are you telling us?"
"Lainie, you and the children are looking at the new head of orthopedic surgery at the Elliot Memorial Hospital. The chief of the goddamn department!"
I don't think I've ever seen Charles so euphoric, his bottom teeth show when he smiles. The children and I stare at him.
"Elliot Memorial in Elliot, New Jersey? How will you commute with your schedule?" I ask. "You get to the hospital now by six in the morning most days and it's twenty blocks from our apartment."
"Well" — Charles clears his throat — "that's the other part of the surprise. Remember a while back when we were in Rye to look at houses and then went to Playland? How Jack loved the Ferris wheel? Then we went to New Jersey and went to a McDonalds drive- through?"
I stare at my work and admire how it is illuminated by the changing hours of the day and the slant of light through the windows, especially at twilight.
"That was more than a year ago, Charles, and we nixed it. We nixed the entire idea of moving out of the city," I say.
It was a troubling time when Charles had a yen to look at houses. Those car trips were revolting and slow. Claire was always carsick. Matilde was sullen because she was missing entire Saturdays with her friends, with whom she was no doubt sneaking cigarettes and having makeout parties at a terrifyingly early age. Charles and I would speak in the front seat, assuming that the children couldn't hear, evaluating each town and community, the pros and cons of life beyond the city. Charles's many laments about New York cluttered my head.
"Let's not move," I told Charles after Jack fell in love with a tree house in some unknown suburb. "I have a feeling it isn't right for our family."
"Tree house! Tree house!" Jack screamed on the ride home. "Climb the tree house."
Charles let go, one of the only skirmishes he's ever lost in his lifetime of wins. "No tree house, Jack. I'll build you a tree house someday, don't worry."
That was the last discussion about it until today when Charles was offered this plum job. What better ticket out of Manhattan than that? Who would dispute such an imprimatur for my husband?
"Actually, we should be moving to Elliot. To Somerset County, New Jersey, Lainie. How else can I manage?" Charles asks.
Tom, taking his cue from his father, grabs Jack's arms and they swing around the room. Is Tom serious, is he okay with leaving everyone behind in New York for his father's new position? Doesn't he view his father as famous enough already? Then again, Tom has wanted what his father wants since the day he was born. I'm sure that Charles wishes that the rest of us would be as pleased as he and Tom are. Yet we're not. Suddenly my toehold in the downtown art scene, albeit a tenuous one, is in jeopardy. My chances of reclaiming the spot everyone thought I was destined to occupy could be obliterated by a move to a suburban nirvana.
"Lainie, you'll love it. A place with woods, sprawling grounds, acres ... You say that you want to spend more time in nature."
"Woods? Grounds? Is there any water in Elliot? Anything like Coney Island or the Rockaways, where I go to paint?"
I walk to the window and stare fourteen floors below to the Hudson River. Has he ever understood that I require water twenty-four hours a day? It matters little since my husband has decided for us anyway.
The boys are celebrating because they believe that Charles is able to do anything. Claire comes to where I stand and reaches for my hand. Hers is sticky and I wonder if someone gave her ice cream. Not Candy, who is under strict orders not to give the children treats before dinner. Matilde? Probably. She has a tendency to please Claire.
"How did this happen, Charles? How could you get a job without my knowing that you were looking for one?" I ask.
"Serendipitous, I suppose. I was at that faculty dinner, the one at the UN dining room that you decided not to attend. Gerard mentioned the opening to me and one thing led to another. ..."
"And you interviewed without saying a word to me?"
"I didn't expect it to go anywhere." Charles clears his throat. "You know that I could never be head of surgery here, Lainie."
Charles, who has a new job and gets to displace his entire family in the process.
I'm silent, a statue. The children watch their father.
"I'll be fine." My voice is crushed and strange. Matilde's gaze is far-off — as if she's pretending that we've all met tonight for the first time.
"Of course you will be fine," Charles says. "What a move for our family! This is what people aspire to, Lainie. More space, a more gentle life. The Elliot hospital is challenging ... fresh ... exciting. The city has become ... tougher and we need a bigger place. The children will have a finished basement to run around, to play Ping-Pong. Lainie, you'll have a real studio. No more painting in the alcove or the laundry room ..." One man's poison, another man's cure.
Then the reality of the situation hits Tom. "What about school? Where will we go?"
"New schools for everyone," says Charles. "Claire and Jack will begin kindergarten in a public school. A very fine public school. The school system in Elliot is stellar. The college entrance rate out of high school runs at ninety-seven percent."
Matilde shudders at what's next. She and Tom will be going to a public school too — Tom for ninth grade and Matilde for seventh. Still her brothers are cheering and their father is the winner. On our side it's misery and fear. Matilde's rising panic is palpable. She goes everywhere in the city with her posse of friends — I'm sure that I don't know the half of it. She's never been the "new girl," but she knows what happens to them.
Meanwhile, Charles and Tom seem to be trading thoughts in airwaves. What are they imagining, that I'll become a suburban mother cloaked in khakis from J. Crew, carpooling like my cousin Agnes does in Fairfield County? For Tom, the fantasy of the right mother is fast approaching.
"Your mother is on board, aren't you, Lainie?" Charles asks. "You're on board, aren't you, Matilde?"
Claire walks over to Tom and tugs on his shirt. "Piggyback?"
"Not now, Claire." Tom moves beside Charles.
"Would anyone like to know something about the town or how far it is from the city?" Charles asks.
No one answers. He stares in my direction. "Any curiosity about where we're going?"
Tom says, "Sure, Dad, tell us."
Would anyone want to know that it's all hills and valleys? Would anyone want to know it's landlocked — another world completely?
"Well, it's about an hour outside the city, in Somerset County. Right next to Bedminster, New Jersey. Horse country. Very horsey."
Horsey? Charles couldn't possibly be thinking of getting one, could he? None of us seems to understand what he's saying. He is talking about over an hour of travel to get to the places I love: the Seventy-ninth Street Boat Basin along the Hudson, the promenade at Carl Schurz Park that flanks the East River. Places where I sit and paint or meditate on the composition of a new work, a place where one might hallucinate waves out of small ripples. "It's not the sea or the bay," I say to the girls every time we visit a New York waterway, "but at least it's better than no water. On a boat you can buck the current and that's an adventure." Now there will be horses instead of boats, woods instead of rivers. I shake my head.
"Did you hear what I said, Lainie?"
"I heard. Why horse country?"
"There's nothing more lovely," Charles says, as if we're discussing the Impressionist wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"The rolling hills, the privacy. Maybe you'll want to take riding lessons, Lainie, with the girls."
I twist off my wedding band and twirl it on the end table. The inscription reads Love Is Eternal, not that Charles thought it up. It's what Abe Lincoln had written in Mary Todd's ring. I've often thought that the jeweler must have suggested it to Charles along with a few other ideas.
"The commute to New York is fairly painless," Charles continues. "As long as you get yourself to the Summit train station, the trains run often enough. Plenty of express trains."
"How far is Elliot from Summit?" I start pacing.
Charles waves his hand and doesn't answer. Claire starts more water dancing. Matilde puts her hands on her shoulders. "Claire, stop, please, Mom and Dad are talking."
Matilde smiles at Charles. I imagine that she doesn't want to take sides. Charles is a cool dad, a fine father. He picks her up later at her friends' apartments than I would like. He stays and chats with the parents on a casual Sunday afternoon while I'm always rushing home to get back to work. Charles permits Matilde and Tom to skip Sunday school, claiming they have too much homework to be pressured. He is the handsomest father and he's never too tired to take the children wherever they need to go on a weekend. He takes them to musicals, to the Hayden Planetarium, to ride bikes in Central Park. Matilde loves to walk on Upper Broadway with him, stopping at Starbucks.
"When do we move, Dad?" Matilde asks.
"That's a very good question, Matilde. A logical question."
Matilde shoots Tom a triumphant glance.
"We'll move sometime during the summer," says Charles. "So you'll have a little time there before school starts to get to know the place and meet some kids."
"Charles," I say as calmly as I can, "what about the Shore?"
"We'll have to skip it this year, Lainie. Everything is changing. For the better."
"Charles, we always go to the Shore for the summer, that's the deal. That's always been the deal." My voice is hard, crisp. I'm counting on the jetties, the strong sun of summer, the smell of seaweed, the clam beds, surf fishing. Swimming.
Excerpted from Between the Tides by Susannah Marren. Copyright © 2015 Susan Shapiro Barash. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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