Fugitives from a man as alluring as he is violent, Andrea Jarrell and her mother develop a powerful, unusual bond. Once grown, Jarrell thinks she’s put that chapter of her life behind heruntil a woman she knows is murdered, and she suddenly sees that it’s her mother’s choices she’s been trying to escape all along. Without preaching or prescribing, I’m the One Who Got Away is a life-affirming story of having the courage to become both safe enough and vulnerable enough to love and be loved.
|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)|
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I'm the One Who Got Away
By Andrea Jarrell
She Writes PressCopyright © 2017 Andrea Jarrell
All rights reserved.
Just We Two
Susannah was murdered just before Christmas but I didn't find out until after New Year's. When my cell phone rang, we were making the long trek between Michigan and Maine after spending the holidays with my in-laws. My husband, Brad, was at the wheel, kids strapped into their car seats munching a snack, my feet propped on the dash. As barren treetops flitted by, messy tangles of birds' nests catching my eye, the voice on the other end of the line told me she was killed in the house across the street from ours — a large cedar-shingled two-story with a barn in back.
The houses in our neighborhood stood far apart. From the front step of our blue Cape at the top of a mile-long driveway, I could just make out the cedar roof beyond a small pond on our property and a thick line of fir trees across the road. Even if we'd been home, I couldn't have prevented her murder. I know that. Brad and I probably wouldn't even have heard the gunshots. We might have been sitting in our living room watching television or upstairs reading bedtime stories to our son and daughter.
When it happened, the co-op preschool that Susannah's son and my children attended was already on holiday break. The day the break began, Brad and I had loaded up our SUV, bundled the kids into the car, and headed to Michigan. In those days, before Facebook and Twitter, we'd remained blissfully cocooned from the rest of the world.
I didn't understand at first why I sobbed at the news of Susannah's death. There was the violence of it, the throat-choking sadness for her little boy, and the wrongness of anyone robbed of life, much less someone so young. But there was more to it than that. Especially when I admitted to myself that I'd always been uneasy around Susannah, never wanting to get too close to her.
Eventually, all the cues from my memories about why her murder hit me so hard began to glimmer like flagstones on a moonlit path. A path that paved the way, inevitably, back to my mother. As I connected those dots, my sorrow over Susannah's death revealed what I was only beginning to realize — how desperate I was to escape my mother's choices and the life I feared I was destined to live.
* * *
Brad and I had been living in Maine for a few years when Susannah was killed. We were in our early thirties, just starting out in our marriage and our lives as parents. Before Maine, we'd always been city people. Our move from Los Angeles to the idyllic, seaport town of Camden was the first of what we expected would be many adventures in our life together.
Camden is the childhood home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the town where the movie Peyton Place was filmed, and, rumor has it, a haven for retired CIA spies. Locals looking to move know to put their houses on the market during the summer, when tourists fall in love with the quaintness of it all: the harbor, the lupine-covered hills, the centuries-old stone walls, the Oreo black-and-white cows. But Maine winters are for a hardy few, and the smart looky-loos come to their senses before any money changes hands.
We moved to Camden knowing what we were getting into. Brad had been offered a two-year gig at the Institute for Global Ethics to work on a project about running positive political campaigns. I saw the move as a way to leave my workaday life as the public relations director of a small college — to trade in my pantyhose and suits for jeans and sweaters and to get back to writing. Fully expecting to return to L.A. in a couple of years, we found tenants for our small house there. But two years turned into two more, and five years after moving we finally unloaded our Spanish-style fixer-upper in L.A., unsure if we would ever head west again.
Moving to Camden felt a little like we'd entered the witness protection program — so far from everyone we'd known, plunked down into a new life. I took to that life more easily than one might expect, embracing it with "pinch me" elation: pancakes on Sundays, a fully stocked pantry with an extra freezer for meat, trips to the pumpkin patch, red wagons in the driveway, rain boots and slickers, mittens and parkas. This was the stuff of ordinary families, which I'd carefully observed during childhood sleep-overs. Having grown up in a series of small apartments with my single mother, who was much more interested in books and travel than picket fences and seasonal door wreaths, I kept waiting for the residents of Camden to discover that I didn't belong.
Oh, I knew how to look the part at Mommy and Me music classes, or when it was my turn to handle a baking project at the preschool, or while hanging out under a wide-brimmed straw hat at the local beach, my kids appropriately slathered with sunscreen and playing with sand pails and shovels. But I still felt inferior, the way I had as a kid when I would tell friends and their parents that my mother was a lawyer rather than a legal secretary. I told that lie right up through college, even though the thought of being found out made me queasy.
Being around certain people prompted such lies in me — in Camden, people like Kim Tate and her husband, Jack. Kim was a tall, athletic blonde who'd gone to Yale. She'd met Jack — also tall, but dark and handsome enough — on the train between New Haven and New York City one afternoon when they were both in college. With their good looks and money, the Tates were small-town famous. Other mothers at our preschool had a crush on Jack; one of them went so far as to tell Kim that she looked forward to receiving their photo Christmas card so she could moon over him. I had more of a crush on Kim, whose three perfect little children were spaced a year and a half apart, lined up like cherub-faced Russian nesting dolls in hand-knitted sweaters she'd designed and made.
Our oldest kids — Kim's and mine — were in the fours and fives class at the co-op preschool along with Susannah's son. If Kim was on the elite end of the social spectrum, Susannah was on the other. Or at least that's where, I admit now, I put her. Almost from the moment I met her, something about Susannah made me steer clear. If I saw her faded, rust-colored Toyota in the school's parking lot, I stayed in my own car, behind darkened windows. I waited to go inside until after she and her son emerged from the school, their fingers laced, the day's artwork flapping in Susannah's other hand.
She was one of those pretty girl-women — twenty-one, twenty-three, twenty-five? If she hadn't been a mother, she might have seemed even younger, like a teenager with her whole life ahead of her. I'd seen fathers at the preschool watching her, trying to be nonchalant as they homed in on her. You could tell that she'd grown up attracting such attention and was no longer surprised or moved by it. At first, I wondered if my impulse to avoid her was simple jealousy because she was younger and sexier than I was. Her short skirts and angled beret over long corn-silk hair displayed a confidence that I'd never had.
Later, I noticed that she avoided me and the other parents as well, never lingering to chat on the playground. She always smiled but hurried purposefully — my mother had projected a similar defensive smile when she attended my school events or collected me from a sleepover. Just we two, my mother always used to say. As I watched Susannah, I could feel how tightly her hand grasped her son's as they exited the preschool, holding on to each other and their place in the world. Only after her death did it dawn on me that Susannah's confidence, like my mother's, was designed to let other parents know she was doing fine, even though we outnumbered her two to one.
The only time I remember talking to Susannah was when she and her son came to my daughter's birthday party. I hadn't really wanted to invite them, but my mother taught me to be kind even when it is insincere. It was July; all the preschool parents stood around on our wide green lawn as kids took turns barreling down a giant yellow Slip 'N Slide.
I happened to be standing next to Susannah when my daughter began opening gifts. The present Susannah's son brought was a wooden fairy wand that his mother had painted dark blue and topped with a glitter-encrusted star. Susannah had written my daughter's name in silver along the handle. We watched as the birthday girl opened the gift and ran her small hand along the letters of her name. Susannah leaned sideways to me, our shoulders touching, and said, "I knew she would like it. She's such an artist."
I imagined them together in the co-op preschool on one of Susannah's volunteer days. I could see her asking my daughter about the painting she was working on. Susannah would've bent down to eye level, pushing her long blonde hair behind one shoulder as she did.
Some time after that, as I pulled into the preschool lot, I noticed a man sitting in the passenger seat of Susannah's car. I was surprised to recognize him. He was the fit, tanned man who lived in the house across the road from ours, where he operated a moving, refuse, and antiques business out of his adjacent barn. His name was Craig. When we first arrived from California, Brad had hired him to help move us in. Admiring Craig's Yankee entrepreneurism, my husband marveled, "He's got it covered. He'll move it, dump it, or sell it."
I remember being inexplicably happy to see my neighbor in Susannah's car, happier still when I passed her familiar Toyota parked in front of his house. It intrigued me to think of how they might have met. Perhaps he had hired her to answer the phones for his business. Or they'd struck up a conversation in Cappy's bar on Main Street. There was no question of why Susannah would appeal to him. But I could also see why he would appeal to her. In his late forties, he was attractive in a town where single men were few and far between. She might have said to herself, Try older, try wiser. He would be a good provider, a role model for her little boy. I pictured them together — sheets rumpled, his tanned workman's hands on her milky skin. I imagined him thanking his lucky stars each day to have such a lovely girl on his arm.
I'd once imagined such meetings for my mother: a new client or lawyer in her firm who would appear one day and change our lives. I wondered what Susannah's secret was. How had she managed to find a partner and step into a new, safer life when my mother had not?
* * *
Like a bedtime story, my mother used to tell me of our escape from my father. She'd light a cigarette, press it to her elegant lips, exhale, and begin. Benign stories at first. But even in those early, seemingly innocent stories, there was a streak of violence. Singeing her eyelashes and eyebrows trying to light the stove in their first apartment. My father's compound fracture from an arm-wrestling match with a buddy on his birthday — the humerus splitting right through the camel hair jacket my mother had given him. "His muscles were stronger than bone," she'd said with a trace of awe. As I got older, I would hear how his jealousy made him suspicious and mean. Drinking made his rages worse. She told people she was clumsy to explain her bruised skin and black eyes.
The day my mother first felt me move inside her, she began plotting to leave my father. Like Susannah, my mother had been a girl-woman — just nineteen years old. She'd grown scared of what this man who slept beside her with a gun under his pillow might do to us one day when my crying got too much for him, or when yet another man admired her beauty. Somehow I'd given her the courage to escape.
Our getaway car had been a teal blue Corvair. I was just a year old. From then on, she'd literally and figuratively strapped me in beside her — her precious cargo.
* * *
My neighbor Craig was a mild man, nothing like my father. And yet he'd acted on the same jealousy and possessiveness that my mother had run away from. When Susannah told Craig it was over, was it her little boy she was thinking of?
It was Kim Tate who telephoned me as we were driving home from Michigan. After she told me what had happened to Susannah, she kept saying "I'm so sorry," when she heard me crying. "I didn't know you two were close."
Of course, we hadn't been close at all, but I immediately thought of the last time I'd seen her car in Craig's driveway. The sense of relief I'd had, thinking she'd found her happy ending. Thinking she could loosen the grip on her small son's hand just a little because they were safe at last.
He'd shot her twice, using an antique pistol from his shop. According to the papers, after he killed her, he called his grown son and left the voicemail message: "I've done something stupid." Then he hung up and killed himself.
It wasn't hard to imagine Craig's desperate pleading as he'd tried to make Susannah stay. I could picture him grabbing her arm. She would have tried to shake him off, her blonde hair flying as she tossed the few things she'd brought to his house into an overnight bag. When he left the room, she would not have known that he'd gone to the barn to look for a gun.
Passing our pond — frozen and covered in snow — I heard the engine labor as our car climbed the long driveway, our blue house coming into view. As we pulled into the garage, firewood neatly stacked and dry by the mudroom door, how I wished I could run to Susannah now, wrap my arms around her and tell her to get in that rust-colored Toyota and drive as far away as possible. Save her the way my mother had saved us.
Yet how could I have rescued her when I hadn't even allowed myself to know her?
In my mind's eye, I saw her sitting in my kitchen, drinking coffee with me. I imagined her son playing with my kids on the floor of our living room. But that had never happened. As cute as her little boy was, I can admit now that I'd written him off as damaged goods. Damaged the way I'd been at his age. Jealous of what my friends had, prone to elaborate lies and petty thefts, hitting and hair pulling when no one was looking.
Eventually, I would understand that it had never been Susannah's youth or prettiness that kept me away from her. It was her aloneness. That old, familiar, just-we-two aloneness I couldn't bear to see up close again. As if somehow it might turn its eye on me and suck me back in — snatch away this life I'd ached for — my husband, my children, and the pancakes on Sundays. Despite having Brad and the kids, a part of me feared that the only place I would ever really belong was with my mother. Just we two against the world.CHAPTER 2
Five Flashes of Teeth
Like a Catholic priest with a direct line to God, for many years my mother was my only conduit to my father — the interpreter of his handsomeness, his viciousness, his cockiness. We'll call him Nick, though that is not his real name.
When they met, Nick never told my mother he wanted to be famous. Perhaps back then he didn't even know it himself. But his need to be loved — as clichéd as that sounds — all but preordained it. And nature was on his side. Indeed, I once read in a movie magazine that for a male star to be truly handsome he needed four things: a large head, good teeth, a deep philtrum (those two lines between your nose and lips), and a cleft chin. My father had them all.
The first time I saw him on television, I was seven. My mother and I were living in a little apartment near UCLA. During a commercial on Marcus Welby, M.D., she whispered, "It's Nick."
She said his name with a Did you see that? incredulity, as if a coyote had just crept out of one of the nearby canyons and flitted by our window. A coyote — or maybe a wolf.
I had less than thirty seconds to study the man catching a blonde's Ultra Brite kiss. But for years after that toothpaste commercial, I kept an eye out for my father's cleft chin and brown eyes. I would say to my mother, "Is that him?" pointing at the television. I could never be sure. I had to rely on her to lean in close, her head next to mine to direct my line of sight as if to say, There, look, there he is. And sure enough, then I could see him. He was the corrupt businessman on Charlie's Angels, the detective who got shot on a two-part Police Woman, the city politician on The Rockford Files.
Once, when my mother read an essay I'd written, she asked, "How did you know our Impala was burgundy?" I didn't know how to answer. Did she tell me, or did I just guess because of course burgundy would have been the color they chose? I'd heard some of the details of their life together, turning them over in my child's mind when my mother and her friends smoked and sipped from pink cans of Tab and talked about men and failed marriages and self-improvement. On those occasions, I would stay very still so the women would forget I was there, playing beside the couch, listening. For years, my parents' movie played on the screen of my mind: the car pulling up, my father — her co-star — behind the wheel.
Excerpted from I'm the One Who Got Away by Andrea Jarrell. Copyright © 2017 Andrea Jarrell. Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
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