Susan Strecker's Night Blindness is an emotionally thrilling debut set during a New England summer about the choices we make, the sanctity of friendship, and the power of love.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
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I hadn’t been able to drive at night since Will died. It came on suddenly after his funeral, a dull blurriness, as though swimming through water; the outlines of trees and houses appeared ethereal, dreamlike. Eventually, my parents took me to a pediatric ophthalmologist, who diagnosed me with nyctalopia, night blindness.
And here I was thirteen years later, driving into the sunset on my twenty-ninth birthday. Nic’s party for me had started an hour before, and I was too far from home to get back by myself.
I pulled over. Hadley was working late at Graffiti, and he answered the phone on the seventh ring.
“I’m on Hickox, near Nic’s studio,” I told him.
“Where in the world have you been?” I could hear him locking the door to his gallery. “Nico has a houseful of people waiting for you.”
“I had a modeling job.” The truth was, the session had ended hours ago, and I’d been driving through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Black Canyon, trying to go home and face the crowd of artists Nic had invited over.
Hadley sighed. “He’s going to be blazing mad you’re not there.” Hadley was from South Africa; he was always using words like blazing and bloody.
I looked out at the mountains, a deep rust in the twilight. I always felt small next to them. And all alone in the world. “I’m blind,” I said. “Please?”
“I’m coming. You’ll have the wind in your hair in mere moments, love.”
We left my car at Nic’s gallery, and I sat shotgun in Hadley’s vintage Aston Martin, holding the ocotillo frame he’d made for my birthday. It was empty, just waiting for me to finish my self-portrait. “He probably hasn’t even noticed I’m missing,” I said.
Hadley patted my knee and lit a clove cigarette. Then he pushed his foot on the gas pedal and we were driving ninety miles an hour down those high-desert roads toward my party.
The loft was lit up like a chandelier, and when we walked up the porch steps, I could see the crowd through the window: sculptors and painters, gallery owners from Sedona, studio assistants and a few models who could have been me ten years ago, when Nic was a stranger and I was just a naked girl in his sculpture studio. Except, I thought, looking in at their tanned, pierced bodies, these girls were prettier.
“The world’s come out for your birthday, love.” Hadley was on his tiptoes, peering in the window. The air smelled like sage and creosote, and I wished I could disappear, walk into that cobalt sky and become one of the stars.
“They’re really all Nic’s friends,” I said.
Hadley pushed his horn-rimmed glasses on top of his head. “Well”—he flashed me a smile—“they’re good for ouzo and pot.” He linked his arm through mine. “Come on, Jensen, let’s do this.” And we stepped into the party I’d been dreading for weeks.
“You’re here.” Nic threaded through his disciples, his shirttails untucked, and when he kissed me, his breath smelled like wine. “I was beginning to think you’d finally run away with Hadley.” If Hadley hadn’t been in love with the guy who sold me custom paints and handmade brushes, I probably would have. “I saved you a piece.” Nic held up a slice of almond cake. I wondered if he’d lit the candles and who had blown them out. “And good news.” He nodded to a skinny man across the room with black hair and a seventies collar. “Dante wants you next week.” He took a drag from the joint he was holding. “So eat up.” He pinched my belly. “He likes his girls chubby.” Dante lifted his glass to me. I’d modeled for him before. His studio was freezing. He sculpted only nudes, and I’d told Nic I didn’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t want to model at all. But, it was easier than standing at my easel, trying to finish my terrible self-portraits. “They look haunted,” Nic had told me. And he was right. It was as if my ghost were trying to emerge through a haze of earth.
“Happy birthday.” Whitney, Nic’s assistant, bumped hips with me as if we were friends. “Can I ask you a question?” Can I have sex with your husband? “Would you consider selling it?”
It took me a second to realize she was talking about the Steinway piano I was leaning against. “What? No.”
She fingered a few notes. “Nic”—she blinked her peacock eyelashes at him—“says you haven’t played since you bailed on Juilliard.”
I took a long drag off the joint Nic had handed me, hoping the slow-motion feeling would erase the awkwardness I always felt at these gatherings. “That’s not really true.…” The phone in the kitchen was ringing. I watched Whitney’s beautiful fingers move along the keyboard. Behind her, two girls at the bar were running a spoon through the buttercream icing on my cake. “Yoo hoo.” Hadley danced over in his green leather pants. “Your mama.” He handed me the cordless.
“Hey,” Nic called out to the room, “turn down the fucking music.”
I edged over to the wall and dropped onto the cracked leather sofa. “Jamie?” My parents had already wished me a happy birthday, and my mother never called me twice in one day. “What’s wrong?” I glanced at my watch. It was past midnight on the East Coast.
I patted the space next to me and Hadley plopped down. We were so low on the couch, all we could see were legs and skirts.
“Darling.” Jamie’s voice sounded far away. I saw her in her bedroom in Connecticut, playing with the phone cord, legs crossed, coconut moisturizer on her face. It was just like her to call in the middle of the night to tell me about a trip abroad with her models. “Can you talk?”
“Nic’s having some people over for my birthday. What’s up?”
Nic sat down on the other side of me and ground out his joint in a stoneware bowl I’d made in college, before I’d dropped out to be with him.
“Jensen, sweetheart, something’s happened. I need you to come home.” Jamie was forever telling me to get on the next plane.
“What’s the matter?” Hadley was picking at his fingernail polish.
“We were at Luke’s sixtieth birthday party and—” Someone put on the Beatles’ “Birthday.”
“Uncle Luke is sixty? Didn’t he just turn fifty?” My father’s best friend and I used to joke that we were psychic twins because we shared a birthday.
“Oh, honey, it’s been a long time since you’ve been home.” Hadley rolled his eyes at the phone and took a sip of wine someone had left at the table. But Jamie was right. It’d been almost two years since I’d been back to Colston, and I was suddenly homesick for the popcorn she used to cook on the stove and those old Hepburn movies we watched together. “Anyway, as we were leaving”—she hesitated just long enough for me to wonder if we’d gotten cut off—“Daddy thought he saw Will.”
“Shit.” My skin went cold. “Is he okay?”
“He’d had too much to drink. You know how he and Luke are when they get together. Between the two of them, they emptied a bottle of Chivas. And the valet who brought the car around was built like your brother and had those same soft eyes.” She said that in the wistful way she had of talking about Will.
I tucked my knees to my chin and touched the tarnished heart on my toe ring. “Getting drunk wouldn’t make him see things,” I said, wishing I’d taken the call upstairs, but it was too late now.
“Oh, honey.” She took one of her shivering breaths. “It wasn’t just that. He wasn’t himself tonight. He kept forgetting what he was saying. At first, we thought he was tipsy, but when he wouldn’t stop calling out Will’s name to that boy, we took him to the ER.”
“The ER? What the hell?” I sat up straighter, trying to clear the fuzz from my brain. Hadley quit drinking his wine, and Nic leaned in to listen.
“Jensen.” Jamie plowed over me, like she had a habit of doing. “Your father has a brain tumor.”
A strange spinning sensation hit me, and I felt sick to my stomach.
“Jensen?” she asked. “Are you still there?” I could see my dad, his flyaway wheat-colored hair, how he rubbed his nose against mine and said, “Eskimo kisses, Whobaby, so you’ll always be warm.”
“Is he going to die?”
“We don’t even know if it’s malignant.” Her voice was far away, almost dreamy. I wanted to strangle her for sounding so calm. She was probably giving herself a pedicure while we were talking. “We have the best surgeon, of course. You’ll never believe—”
“How big is it?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Ballpark it for me. Is it the size of an orange? A grape?” Why are tumors always equated to fruit?
“Just come home, honey. We’re meeting Ryder Monday morning. You can ask him about—”
My heart stopped. “Ryder?”
“Ryder Anderson,” she said. “Your brother’s best friend? That’s what I was trying to tell you. He’s a neurosurgeon at Yale now. He’s very good, a prodigy actually, and—”
“That’s crazy.” Hadley was pushing up against me, trying to hear Jamie’s voice, and Nic had his arm around me, patting my back distractedly. I wanted everyone gone, out of my house. I needed quiet. I needed to think. “None of this makes any sense.”
“I’m supposed to leave for a shoot in Brazil next week. I really need you to come home, darling.”
Over the last thirteen years that I’d stayed away, Jamie had said those words a hundred times. But she’d only gotten me there every other year or so. Now I could smell the salt air in the house where I grew up, could see those ancient goalposts my father had built in the backyard, the pictures of Will and me in the foyer, and most of all, I could see my dad standing at the head of the stairs and saying “Whobaby, come up here and give your old man a hug before I keel over from the lack of you.”
“I’ll be there tomorrow,” I told her.
After I hung up, I realized Nic was talking, asking me questions, and Hadley was saying, “Love, I think she needs a drink.”
Finally, I let Nic pull me off the couch and lead me upstairs. He sat me down on our bed and closed the door. The noise dimmed, and I stared at the ceiling, holding my tattered stuffed rabbit, Bear. I touched the space where he was missing a marble eye.
“Hey.” Nic ran his thumb down my spine. “What’d Jamie do now?”
I could smell the party on his breath. “My dad’s sick,” I said. “He has…” A brain tumor. I stared at our wedding photo on the bedside table, me barefoot on the beach in a flimsy, almost see-through dress with some Greek waiter as Nico’s best man.
“Sick sick?” he asked.
“He has…” I bit the inside of my lip. The little shot of pain was an elixir. “A tumor in his brain.” I didn’t look at him. I felt his strong hand on my back, pulling me to him. “They’re meeting the surgeon next week.” Drifting up from the party a Beau Williams song, “Walk Around Heaven,” was playing. One of these mornings won’t be very long. You’ll look for me and I’ll be gone. “I have to go.”
He smoothed my hair, and I fingered the tattooed rope around his bicep. “You don’t want to wait until you find out more? I mean, it could be—”
“It’s a brain tumor, Nico, not the flu.” I pulled away. The sound of laughter floated up the stairs. “You should go back,” I said. “Your friends are down there.” I didn’t want to cry in front of him. “I just need a minute.”
“J.,” he said. “Look at me.”
I didn’t want to. If I did, I might not go home. I might stay in Santa Fe in the strange, artsy world I’d disappeared into ten years before. He tipped my chin up, and there was nowhere else to look. His green eyes turned from the color of sea glass to a shade darker. “You want me to send Hadley up? He can always make you laugh.”
Nic stood. I watched him walk toward the door, that casual stride that said everything would be all right. Before he turned the knob, he said, “Your old man’s a tough cookie. He’ll be okay.”
While I waited for his footsteps to fade, I traced the birthmark on my forearm. I couldn’t decide if it looked like a heart or a football. In my family, they were one and the same. When I was sure Nic was downstairs, I got up and pulled my pewter jewelry box from my top dresser drawer. Sitting on the bed, I tossed aside broken necklaces, earrings with no backs, a baby tooth, woven friendship bracelets, and my acceptance letter to Juilliard. My father’s first Super Bowl ring was tucked in a corner, and I slipped it on my thumb. When I’d asked why he’d given it to me and not Will, he’d said he knew someday Will would have one of his own. At the very bottom was the worn photograph, facedown.
Lying back on the patchwork comforter, I studied the picture. Will, Ryder, and I stood three across on the overhang at Breakneck Lake the summer before Will died. Will and Ryder looked like brothers, their blond hair almost white with sun, their tanned chests newly muscled. Will was pretending to punch Ryder in the arm. I was smiling hard at the camera, the kid sister, the tagalong, my black hair wet and curly, my face so tanned that the freckles were barely noticeable. They were seventeen. They were the world. Ryder was leaning back, looking behind Will’s shoulders at me. We were perfect, the three of us, so happy. Too happy. I should have known what was coming. Turning it over, I read the date. Summer, 1996. I stared at the numbers for a long time. Eight weeks later, Will was dead.
Finally, I put the photograph back in the box next to a foil package of birth-control pills I told Nic I took but rarely did, then stuffed pants, skirts, and shirts into my old leather duffel. I grabbed a bunch of clothes from hangers, avoiding the garment bag pushed to the far wall. Inside, pressed and hidden, was the dress I loved the most: a black vintage sheath I’d worn to Ryder Anderson’s junior prom.
Copyright © 2014 by Susan Strecker