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|Publisher:||Last Syllable Books|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
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13 months earlier
IT WAS BLACK Friday, but Luna was seeing red. The hell of a Wal-Mart stampede was preferable to discussing the purgatory of her farcical marriage — and yet here she was, in couples therapy.
Luna stood on a white vinyl mat that said "hers," staring at her husband Nick on "his" mat a few feet away. In the center of the floor, between them, "ours" awaited. This was Dr. Michelle Stepponi's version of relationship counseling. Bullshit, Luna thought. But she'd promised to try one session, after Nick pulled the kid card: "Do it for the sake of our sons!"
Sure, Ben and Dylan needed their dad around, but didn't she deserve happiness, too? Not to mention a faithful husband who didn't prefer men? This is what you get for listening to drive-by psychics, Jiminy scolded.
Jiminy was right. Though at the time, a lifetime ago when she was twenty-one and pumping gas to pay for NYU textbooks, it had seemed reasonable enough to listen to the blonde who'd rolled up in her pink Cadillac for a fill-up and claimed to know the future. "I see you with a Nick," she'd predicted as she paid. Then she drove away.
Luna took up with the first Nick she met, overlooking that he was a snarky, pot-smoking high school dropout. She'd put up with a lot over the years in exchange for his companionship and his willingness to do the laundry, but Luna drew the line at gay. That seemed pretty hopeless, given that she didn't possess a penis.
Dr. Stepponi was an eternally smiling psychologist with a sing-song voice and a saccharine view of life. In the pre-session phone call, she'd assured Luna that everything could be worked out — even the gay thing. Now she said, "You'll both have the opportunity to speak your minds, and then you'll come together in the center mat."
Luna didn't want to come together with Nick. She didn't want to be near the man who hadn't touched her in three years. He'd made her feel like there was something wrong with her: she was too busy writing, too consumed with the boys. She'd believed that their lack of sex was her fault. Until the day she went on their computer and "Gay.com–join now" popped up.
It was shopping season, but the gift she wanted couldn't be bought. Freedom was free, and yet it came with a cost — she'd have to put on her big girl panties and demand it. Yesterday's Thanksgiving fowl had been hard to choke down while mustering yet another performance of "we're happily married" in front of Nick's old-school Italian family. Nick would keep her as his beard until death did them part, if she let him.
"Luna, you'll go first," Dr. Stepponi sang. Her pink-walled office smelled as sickeningly sweet as her personality. Some kind of floral air freshener. So thick, it settled in the base of Luna's throat. The decor was too cutesy for such dire circumstance: baskets of silk flowers, a fuchsia couch with macramé throw pillows, a cheesy picture of a sunset — these seemed to deride the stakes at hand. But then, Dr. Stepponi's "therapeutic" mats were so absurd that they pretty much mocked themselves.
Are you really going along with this? It might be the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen, said Jiminy. And I've seen centuries of absurdities.
It might feel good to have someone hear what I have to say, Luna reasoned. It might be vindicating.
Why are you looking for vindication? Try peace of mind. It's awesome, Jiminy countered.
Luna wavered, teetering on "hers." Jiminy was right¸ of course. She stared at Nick, the man she'd thought she knew. As it turned out, you could only view so much of a person: whatever they let you see.
Here's what Luna knew about Nick:
STATS ON NICK
Name: Nicholas Paul Marone III
Ethnic background: Italian (unfortunately his ancestors were from Southern Italy, a line of lowlife scum according to Luna's mother, who had Venetian blood) and Czechoslovakian (his Slavicness had endeared him somewhat to Luna's Aunt Zelda, who was fiercely Russian.) Funny what made people like you.
Relationship status: Trying to stay married despite the exposure of his many hook-ups via the AOL chat room "Long Island Men for Men Now." All had been revealed once Luna installed computer spyware, which captured every word — and pictures, too.
Children: The two sons he'd given Luna were just about the only positive contribution he'd made toward humankind.
Body: He used to have a great physique, but lately Nick's belly had grown large and round. Luna thought of him as "Kung Fu Panda."
Hair: Dark and receding (as opposed to the Scott Baio locks he'd sported when they'd met.)
Occupation: Deli manager.
Other likes: Pot, cigarettes, mocha caramel lattes. And Lotto, which he poured money into like it was an investment plan.
Dislikes: Being challenged, tomato seeds.
Religion: Catholic. He was from one of those families that made sure their children had a proper religious education, even if all else failed. God forbid he hadn't been confirmed: he wouldn't be able to get married in a church (he hadn't anyway), or get into heaven (which remained to be seen.) Since confirmation, he hadn't been to mass. He still knew all his prayers, he just didn't say them anymore.
Favorite writers: Nick loved Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby — the only book Luna had seen him read beside a nonfiction bestseller about ebola.
Favorite dessert: Most Hostess products¸ particularly Ding-Dongs, Twinkies & Ho-Ho's. Nick also loved Mounds Bars, but not Almond Joys. He never felt like a nut.
Favorite expression: "Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow."
Dr. Stepponi cleared her throat. "Luna, we're waiting for you to begin." Her voice delivered a jarring, remonstrative note. And once Dr. Stepponi stepped out of her nice-nice character, just for that moment, it was clear what a sham she and her whole exercise was.
Luna may not have had a penis, but she grew some balls. Looking Nick in the eye she said, "You're gay. You've been hooking up with strange men from chat rooms for years. I don't want AIDS, and I don't want you."
There was silence. Nick and Dr. Stepponi's mouths hung open.
Dr. Stepponi recovered. "Luna, this won't work if you're not open-minded."
"It's impossible to be open-minded enough for this charade to succeed," Luna said. Was she talking about the session or the marriage? Both, she decided.
"Luna, I told you ... I'm not gay. I'm bisexual," Nick implored in his gravelly voice. The words didn't sound right in that baritone. It was as though Tony Soprano were confessing he went both ways. "I was in a period of transition. I'm finished now."
Yeah, funny how you finished just when you got caught, Luna thought.
What's funny about it? Jiminy asked.
Point taken, responded Luna.
"I love you, Luna," Nick said. "I'll make our marriage work."
Funny what passes for love these days, Jiminy said.
What's funny about it? Luna asked.
Jiminy said, Point taken.
Nor was it funny that Luna and Nick were paying $275 an hour for these shenanigans.
"Good, good, good!" Dr. Stepponi told Nick.
Everything's good, as long as her check clears, Luna thought. She wanted to settle up now, and go pick up the kids from Sunny's. She could've taken Ben and Dylan to the zoo today. Instead, she was stuck at this circus. She could still bring them somewhere when she got out of here. Maybe Nathan's. The food there was borderline fast food, but once in a while couldn't hurt and the boys liked the Nathan's game room.
Later, when they went to bed, she would write.
These were the things that made Luna happy — though it would be nice to have some sex too. God, she'd forgotten what it was like to kiss.
"Now you two meet on your mat in the middle, and hold hands!" Dr. Stepponi instructed.
Luna didn't want to hold Nick's hand. She felt like puking, really — between the air freshener and the falsely optimistic room.
Just say no, Jiminy said.
Nick was already on "ours," hand extended and face earnest. What a crock. It reminded her of that day so long ago, when she'd walked down the aisle all dressed in white. There he'd been, at the altar — waiting for her in his tux. It was supposed to be her happy ending, but the fairy tale was fractured. It was time to close the grim book and get on with life. "No," she said.
"Whhaaattt?" Dt. Stepponi and Nick exclaimed together.
"No," Luna repeated. "I'm done." She stepped off "hers" and headed for the pink door. Really, this place was more suited for selling Mary Kay, or fighting breast cancer.
"You're not acting fairly, Luna," Dr. Stepponi scolded. Like anything Nick had done could be called 'fair.' Luna kept walking. She grasped the handle and turned.
"Luna!" Nick's voice was pleading. "If you leave, how will I get home?"
Luna opened the door. Without turning around she said, "Frankly Nick, I don't give a damn."
Outside, Luna paused a moment to breathe in the fresh, chilled air. What a relief to be rid of that chemical smell. Luna's coat was in the car, but for once she didn't mind her exposure. The prickly bumps and raised hairs on her arms were proof that what had just happened was not a dream. She'd stood up for herself! Yes! She chirped open the Windstar and got in the driver's seat. She hated her minivan, but it was an unwritten law of suburbia that moms drove them.
Luna slammed her door shut. Her breath fogged the windshield, and her euphoria clouded. There she was, encased in a large metal box. Could there be any true escape from confinement?
Jeez, would you stop being so Dostoyevskyesque? Jiminy piped in.
Was the minivan even metal? She'd read somewhere that vehicles were made of plastic these days. Synthetics abounded ...
Never mind manufacturing materials, Jiminy said. You might want to get out of here before Nick comes out.
"Right." Luna started the engine and backed away from the Mercedes in front of her. It was a pale pink, and the license plate read: "CpleRX." The back seat was piled with shopping bags, probably bargains Dr. Stepponi had procured that morning. I guess the good doctor gives herself retail therapy, Jiminy said. Let's hope she wasn't counting on your money for her credit card bill.
"I'll mail her a check," Luna said. She couldn't bear not paying as promised.
You're too nice, Luna. Jiminy said. That's why the world eats you alive.
"That's not very spiritual, Jiminy."
Depends how you define it, Jiminy countered. Spirituality is in the eyes of the beholder.
At the corner light, she reached for the coffee she'd left in the holder. Half of the large Dunkin' Donuts cup remained. She took a swig. Cold, but marvelous nonetheless. Nothing beat caffeine therapy.
One hand on the cold wheel, Luna sipped and headed towards Sunny's. She tried to relax and think of fun things to do tonight with Ben and Dylan, but her troubles were storming in. Walking out of couples' therapy had been liberating, but now she had to stick to her guns and make Nick vamoose. He would not go quietly — Nick was no gentleman.
Oh God, how am I going to do any marketing with this going on? Luna thought. She had a book coming out in a few days.
Your book will be fine, Jiminy said. You've concentrated on your career for long enough, Luna. It's time to focus on you.
"But Jiminy, it's not just a job for me. It's my path."
Sometimes you have to clear your path before you can continue down it, Jiminy countered.
Before Luna could mull Jiminy's words, her cell phone rang. She looked down and saw the name: "Mom." Not exactly the person she felt like speaking with at the moment. She let it go to voicemail.
Now she felt really cold. Luna turned the heat on and drove a couple of miles. She wished her coffee was warm – she needed fortification before facing her mother's almost always caustic tone. But she had to make do with what she had.
Once the cup was drained, Luna pulled over and called her voicemail. "You have one new message," the robotic female voice said in its flat-lining way. Luna hit the pound key to listen.
"Luna." Loreena's seething voice made her daughter's name sound like an accusation. "Your father's at Southside Hospital. He's had a stroke."
LUNA CALLED SUNNY and told her the situation.
"Christ on a cracker!" Sunny exclaimed. "I hope your dad's okay."
"Can you keep the kids with you a while longer? I doubt Nick will be picking them up, 'cause I left him stranded three towns from home. It'll take him forever to walk home to get his car, and he'll never spring for a cab."
"Sure, no problem. Sounds like therapy was every bit as successful as I thought it would be," said Sunny.
"Oh yeah, mission accomplished."
"Well, you did him a favor. Fatsy can use the exercise."
The hospital had that sick smell Lysol couldn't camouflage. The halls were yellow, probably meant to brighten spirits, but it was a bit on the dark side and made Luna think of bile. Cardboard turkeys and cornucopias hung from the ceiling for the first stretch of the hall, but when Luna turned a corner the theme switched to Christmas and Hannukah: with green and red decorations outnumbering blue ones three to one. A grey-uniformed, dark-complexioned, thirty-ish maintenance man was on a ladder, swapping symbols of abundance and thanks for tributes to the most wonderful time of the year, with an obligatory nod to the festival of lights. "Hi, Mami," the man cooed as Luna walked past. Both pleased at being noticed and grossed out for the same reason, she continued to the elevator without responding or looking his way. God knew what he would say if encouraged.
Loreena was perched on the front part of a chair in an orange waiting room next to the elevator banks on the third floor. She might've been on the cushion's edge so her feet touched the ground — she was under five feet tall — but it probably also had something to do with the fact that she never relaxed. At home she ate standing at the kitchen counter. "They're doing some tests on your father," she told Luna. This in lieu of 'hello' or, god forbid, a hug. On the rare occasions when Luna received her mom's embrace, it was cold (Loreena literally felt reptilian in that there was no warmth to her skin) and smelly (she took so many vitamins that she secreted them.)
"How is he?"
Loreena sighed dramatically. A paper turkey in a pilgrim hat dangled a few feet above her head. The mami maintenance guy hadn't made it that far, and hopefully he wouldn't while Luna was there. She craved masculine attention, but with a tad more finesse. "It was bad. But they won't know how bad until his brain stops swelling."
Ugh. An image of her dad's engorged cerebrum popped into Luna's mind. She envisioned all his inflamed matter, largely unused and now wasted. How could someone with his genius IQ spend life so stupidly?
"When did he get home?" Luna asked, even though using the term "home" was questionable in relation to her dad, who was absent from the premises about 90 percent of the time.
"I pulled into the driveway last night and he was there, on the stoop. I said, 'You're too late for turkey, Lenny.' He was kind of slumped on the stoop. I asked him to get up so I could open the door and he said, "I don't feel so well, Babe."
Babe. What a ridiculous word for her father to use, Luna though. First of all, it was child-like. And second, it implied an intimacy that Lenny and Loreena did not share. How could two people who rarely saw each other be called intimate?
"What happened then?" Luna asked.
"He keeled over and started twitching, so I called 911."
That was a lot to absorb. Luna sank into the padded chair across from her mother, who took out her compact and blotted her skin. Loreena never went anywhere without her makeup.
Here are more facts about Luna's mom:
STATS ON LOREENA
Name: Loreena Risotto Lampanelli. Loreena's maiden name was a Northern Italian rice dish. Loreena had made overtures through the years that her ancestors created risotto. Loreena snubbed pasta, which she said was popular only "south of Rome, where no one has any sense of palate."
Ethnic background: Northern Italian, far above where people get mugged "at the bottom of the boot."
Excerpted from "Luna Rising"
Copyright © 2017 Selene Castrovilla.
Excerpted by permission of Last Syllable Books.
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