But then Kara unexpectedly encounters paintings by her now-famous college boyfriend just as she's beginning to suspect that her daughter Henny's difficulties may be the sign of something serious, and all of her past decisions are thrown into dramatic relief.
Kara's narration, at turns heartbreaking and hilarious, captures the imperfect thoughts we have about ourselves and those around us. Rebecca Land Soodak's debut novel asks the difficult questions about the choices we make while revealing the minute details that end up defining our lives.
|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Henny on the Couch
By Soodak, Rebecca Land
5 SpotCopyright © 2012 Soodak, Rebecca Land
All right reserved.
I knew the paintings immediately, even though I hadn’t seen him in years. If I’d been downtown, say Chelsea or Nolita, I would have been prepared. Even SoHo would have made sense. In those neighborhoods, I always braced myself for the possibility of seeing his work around any corner. And yet, in all these years, I never had.
My neighborhood, however, was a whole different story. The Upper East Side is not a hotbed for superstars of the contemporary art world. The dead masters, absolutely. But Oliver Bellows, I did not expect.
I felt it like an assault.
This doesn’t have to be a big deal, I reasoned, composing myself. It’ll be interesting to see his work. I tugged on Trudy’s leash and we crossed the avenue, but as I got closer to the street-level window I became cautious, as if the bold canvases could poison me. That had been my strategy all those years ago. I’d loved his work, but after everything happened, I pretended that he, and by extension his art, was like bleach, something to be handled very carefully, or not at all. Benign in the right circumstances, but too close, possibly lethal.
I stood in front of his abstractions while New York City navigated around us. It was as if Trudes could read my sense of anticipation, because her tail slapped my side and she gave me her where are you hiding that tennis ball? look, which I ignored. Ever accommodating, she switched gears and settled on the pavement while I stared straight ahead.
His work still moved me. My eye kept going to one painting in particular. It was saturated in burgundy and shades of blue and I marveled at its balance of form and color. For a split second, I considered buying it. Michael will like this, I thought. It belongs with us. Then I remembered. My desire for the burgundy canvas was completely absurd, but for that instant it had been pleasant to consider.
I glanced down the avenue toward my shop; the red-and-white-striped awning might as well have been a flag, reminding me of where I belonged. I felt a pang of guilt at having left Willa to deal with the Burke birthday party alone. Updos and face paint for a bunch of four-year-olds was more manageable with an ally… but it was my day to pick up the kids. Willa understood.
Suddenly it occurred to me that he could be in the gallery that very moment, observing me. This was to be avoided at all costs. I couldn’t give him the satisfaction. Being moved after all these years was one thing, but for Oliver to witness it seemed like a betrayal to Michael.
I looked in, afraid to see him, and was disappointed when I didn’t.
Instead, there was a stunning woman with very short hair focused on the computer. He’s probably slept with her, I decided. She glanced up. I must’ve tensed, because just as she smiled, my codependent cocoa Labrador leapt in excitement. Her paws pressed against the window, making loud clicking sounds on the Madison Avenue glass.
“Trudy!” I scolded, pulling her down. “You crazy girl.” With a flick of her leash, we darted away. It took a block and a half for me to calm down, but once I did, I realized now that the canvases were out of my vision, I missed them. This scared me. It’s just his work, I rationalized while stroking Trudy’s ears. Nothing more, nothing less.
Of course, every couple of years I’d searched for the latest news on Oliver. I knew of his success. He lived in London, was married. Last I checked, they didn’t have kids, but I’m sure there was still time. And I followed his work. From behind the barrier of my computer screen, I watched his evolution. He was predictable without being stagnant. I remember feeling pleased that he’d maintained that signature brushwork.
Seeing his paintings in person didn’t have to be as disturbing as that first search had been. That had been difficult. Adam was just two and a half and Henny a newborn. On top of already losing me to Little Scissors, my busy boy now had to share me with my brand-new baby girl. I was terrified that neither was getting what they needed. And worse, that it would haunt them for years.
That’s when I found out about the Browning Arts Fellowship. I couldn’t hide from Oliver’s newsprint face and familiar name. Oliver had the fellowship while I had engorged breasts the size of tissue boxes. I was devastated. All I wanted to do was sleep, and I would have, if the salon and my babies hadn’t needed me.
“Why are you crying, Mommy?” Adam had asked while we were snuggled in front of the TV.
“Because sometimes Clifford makes Mommy sad.” Though only two, he’d rubbed my hand empathically, as if he too occasionally found the big red dog disheartening. This only made me more miserable. He deserved better.
I couldn’t confide in Michael. My grief was too extreme. He’d have needed reassurance, which would’ve required dishonesty, or disloyalty. Since I was up for neither, I let him think I had some sort of postpartum depression, which in a way I guess I did.
But that was years ago. Max hadn’t even been born yet, and now he’s three! Yet another reminder of how fast time flies—not that I needed reminders.
Trudy and I walked up the avenue as I tried to convince myself that seeing Oliver’s work in person didn’t need to be jarring. I didn’t want to spend time healing from it. Our lives were full. Happy. There wasn’t room for an emotional setback. Then I remembered the shampoo purchase order—if the delivery didn’t come by tomorrow, I’d have to give them a call.
I shrugged. Oliver’s paintings. “No big deal,” I told Trudy, who wagged in agreement. As we passed each exquisite boutique, I reminded myself: He’s an artist, and back there was his art. A fact. Nothing more, nothing less.
Then I picked up my pace and we headed toward school.
I feel the drunken crowd walk into the diner before I see or hear them. Like a blast of air-conditioning, they alter the room. I taste my grilled cheese on rye. It’s Saturday night and all I’ve done so far is wash my clothes and order this sandwich, which although delicious, I’m ashamed of. They seem around my age, barely legal to drink. I wish I hadn’t gone to eat so close to campus. What was I thinking? I might as well wear a sign around my neck: loser.
One boy is captivating. This, I notice immediately. But the group is loud; it makes me uneasy. Still, I try to watch the beautiful boy, but each time I peek, he catches my eye and I look away. I’m certain if he hasn’t already dismissed me, he will. They are too happy for my taste anyway, doing ridiculous things with the salt and pepper.
I decide they are idiots.
“Garçon!” The beautiful one stands and claps his hands. One, two, a gesture for the waiter.
Entitled asshole. With a conspiratorial eye roll, I convey my disgust to the server, but he thinks I’m unhappy with the grilled cheese. “It’s fine,” I try to reassure him, but his English is not good. He doesn’t understand the source of my displeasure and points to my full glass of water.
“No, no, it’s fine.” I look at the group, worried they are watching me. “Forget it,” I mumble, unable to explain. The waiter shrugs and moves toward the boisterous table. I was mistaken—he is not my ally.
I rummage in my bag. Please, please, let me have remembered a book. I cannot bear to stare into nothingness in such close vicinity to people who do not hide behind literature on Saturday nights. Nikki Giovanni saves me. This way I can position myself as an intellectual, deep in concentration.
Their laughter is distracting. I read at them and everyone else who’s ever made me feel inadequate.
I’m new to the city. Though I’m taking classes at Columbia, I’m part of the continuing education program, not a real student, which to me makes all the difference. Thankfully, a friend of my mother’s helped me get into the dorm; otherwise, I think there’s a very good chance I’d become one of those New York casualties you hear about who’s found by a disheveled landlord there to investigate the stench of cat piss and rotting flesh.
My loneliness, when it strikes, is brutal—though my fascination with New York is a helpful remedy. I study city women the way med students memorize anatomy. I take it all in. The bag (Chanel with a gold chain), the shoes, the hair. I am determined to understand the uniform of the different neighborhoods. Determined to belong.
I walk hour after hour, learning the streets. When I’m downtown, I take pride in deciphering the illogical West Village. West 10th turns into West 4th, Greenwich is both an avenue and a street. I discover that knee socks and a miniskirt are welcome in Alphabet City but suspect on the Upper East Side. Like a mantra, I recite, Central Park West, Columbus, Amsterdam, Broadway, Central Park West, Columbus, Amsterdam, Broadway, because real New Yorkers know the order of the Upper West Side avenues.
Yesterday, I followed a mother and teenager on Ludlow Street. I overheard the woman tell her daughter, “Because no one fits bras better…” The girl seemed so accustomed to her mother imparting practical information that she paid her no mind. She wasn’t disrespectful exactly, just dismissive, as if her mother’s wisdom was no more notable than waking up each morning with the ability to walk or talk. Or breathe.
I pierced my belly button and stalked knowing women in Balducci’s, so one day I’d be able to mimic the way they picked out melons, cheese, and coffee. I have waited a long time (as long as any twenty-one-year-old can wait for anything) to live in Manhattan, and now that I’m here, I’m anxious to start the rest of my life.
But as I witness the beautiful boy and his friends so clearly connected and happy, I’m filled with loss. Here I am, in this magnificent, bustling city, but around public joy I’m reminded of what is finally gone.
I push my sandwich aside, no longer hungry. At least I’ve gotten thin. Some nights I lie on my lumpy mattress, touching my jutting ribs and hip bones, and remember my first. He didn’t mean much to me, though in fairness, given the circumstances, no one could’ve punctured my icy shield. I’d lie under him and watch his face twisted and unfamiliar. It was pleasurable enough, but that wasn’t really the point; I needed something sex provided. Not love. Something even harder for girls to come by on their own; he’d made me feel worthy. But just when he was push, push, pushing me to some faraway place, I knew it was also a warning that he’d be pulling out soon, and I’d once again be left feeling nothing at all.
He’d been kind and dependable, a good choice for my first. But if it hadn’t been him, I would’ve settled on someone else, many someones if necessary. I didn’t tell him much, but neither of us noticed. Had the boy required more from me, I would’ve had to acknowledge what was happening around me. Thankfully, he left me for a narrow-hipped girl named Cindy, which was lucky, really. Because even though I didn’t love him, leaving would’ve been hard.
I glance at the group. The loud boy is sketching a girl wearing black. She has a dancer’s body, small breasts free beneath a Clash T-shirt. Of course he would sketch the striking girl. I feel clumsy; his attention on the graceful one makes me angry. What a poser he is, drawing her in a diner. A diner, how pretentious! Then I remember that I’m the one reading poetry. I wonder if they’re sleeping together. I’ve only had sex once since the funeral several months ago. It had been my way of saying goodbye. Seeing them reminds me of that loss as well.
What would it be like to be with the beautiful, loud boy, I wonder. His confidence is arresting. The ballerina tries to see his sketch but he crumples it. I wrongly perceive the gesture as one of perfectionism.
“Fuck you, Oliver,” she says.
Oliver. Behind my book, I practice saying it. Oliver. I like how many movements my mouth needs to make just to say his name. Like a waltz, quite possibly making it the most enticing name known.
After my plate has been cleared and my coffee refill refilled, I know it’s time to go. I dread walking near them, ashamed of my loneliness. But I gather my things and saunter toward the cashier, deceptively oblivious of Oliver and his friends. I dig in my bag for money and berate myself when I can’t find any. As I search my jeans, my mind pulses with: I’m such an asshole; I’m such an asshole. Finally, I find some singles in one of my back pockets.
And then, when I turn to leave, he is standing right next to me. I hadn’t heard him approach and am startled. I want to flee but maneuvering my body around his isn’t an option; my brain will not let me choreograph such a task.
He stands close. If I were to put my hands out ever so slightly (which I don’t, but if I did) I wouldn’t have to straighten my elbows to touch him.
“For the serious girl…” he says, offering me a folded placemat just like the ballerina’s.
I pause. Because I’ve been watching his every move, I know he is handing me a drawing. I should pretend I have no idea what it is, but I can’t figure out how to do this. So without meeting his eyes, I take it and leave quickly.
If I said thank you, neither of us heard.
Michael and I hustled among the throngs of Saturday night moviegoers. Like most married people, we had a system. I got the seats while he got the popcorn.
“Get a small,” I told him, worried about his cholesterol (and belly). He returned with a medium, which I pretended not to notice, and handed me M&M’s I hadn’t requested but appreciated nonetheless. I reminded him to turn off his phone and he read trivia questions aloud, even though I’d seen the answers while I was waiting.
During the first three minutes, one of us inevitably whispered, “Are you in?” which really wasn’t necessary. We always knew whether the other was hooked or not. Besides, for me, liking the movie mattered little. There was no place I’d rather be on a Saturday night than next to my husband in a darkened theater.
In the taxi home we sat close. Michael stroked my leg, knee to thigh.
“I’m thinking of painting again,” I said. Though the desire had been brewing for a while, seeing Oliver’s paintings the other day accelerated it. I still hadn’t told Michael about the gallery. Oliver was always a loaded topic, and now didn’t seem like the time.
“You should,” he said, moving his hand higher.
“You think?” I shouldn’t have mentioned it. I didn’t want him to notice if I didn’t follow through.
“I do.” He nudged my knees apart. I looked at the cab driver through the rearview mirror and wondered if he could see us.
“Then again, Little Scissors…”
“That’s why you have a partner,” said Michael.
“Yeah, but it’s not fair to Willa if I just check out.”
“Shhhhh,” he whispered, placing his hand on my crotch. I closed my eyes and ever so slightly rocked into him.
We bought the Times on the way home, and as we walked into our building I wondered if we had enough milk for the morning. Suddenly I was torn between reading the paper and being with my husband. Michael didn’t seem conflicted.
“How was everything?” I asked our sitter, Beth.
“Great. I made them turn off the computer and we actually baked cookies,” she told me.
“Fun,” I lied. Even with my best of intentions, baking with my kids was usually an ordeal. I looked at Beth and vowed to be more patient. Who cares about eggshells in the brownie mix?
“They wanted you guys to taste them.” Beth presented cookies slathered in thick frosting and carefully applied rainbow sprinkles. They looked like love.
“Of course.” I chose one with raisin eyes and a chocolate chip smile. I could just imagine Henny’s concentrated expression as she created this masterpiece.
“Oh. I almost forgot, Max had a nightmare,” said Beth. I braced myself.
“He was crying for you. Don’t worry, I handled it,” she added proudly, mistaking my expression of guilt for one of alarm.
Perhaps going out every Saturday night was unnecessary. I glanced at Michael as he scanned the front page.
“He couldn’t find Chocobunny,” Beth continued. “It was under his bed.”
I nodded, familiar with the routine, and opened the fridge to calculate our coffee-cereal-milk quantities. It would be close.
“He loves when you rub his back,” she said. “Works like magic. He fell right back to sleep.”
I looked at her. Was she implying I didn’t know how to soothe him? A flash of anger came over me. Thankfully, the cookies brought me down. Anyone who could supervise that endeavor deserved my admiration.
“I’m glad you were there,” I said, which was also true. I was glad Beth was there. That, and the exact opposite of glad, something Michael didn’t understand at all.
“Alrighty then,” Michael said. He wanted the girl out. Michael was adept at sensing when my scale was tipping more toward mother than woman, a situation that did not usually bode well for him.
I grabbed the Times from the kitchen counter and headed for our bedroom.
“Come on, girl,” Michael said to Trudy, who was already following him to the door.
“Get milk,” I urged, adding “please” a few seconds too late.
When Michael returned, he called from the den, “You up?”
“Barely.” I paused in the middle of an article from the magazine section.
“Guess a blow job’s out of the question…” he teased, which I pretended not to hear. Silence filled both rooms until Michael turned on the TV. Relieved, I listened to my husband listening to the laugh track of comedic situations that were not our own.
Mondays weren’t usually hectic at Little Scissors, but early September was the ceremonial trimming time for hair brittle from chlorine and Long Island rays. Customers who hadn’t seen each other all summer were busy exchanging updates on sleep-away camp and trips abroad. The shop echoed with whirling blow dryers and children’s pleas for their mothers to buy rainbow-colored back-to-school pencil cases and sparkly hair accessories. Willa had been right; upgrading the gift shop had been a great move.
One tyke sat in a race car, center stage, none too pleased by the experience of his first haircut. Tears left tracks on his splotchy cheeks while his mother and nanny stood off to the side cajoling him with silly faces and an impromptu jig.
“Check for lice,” Willa whispered to Ava, one of our newer stylists. Camps are a breeding ground for them. Each autumn we inevitably got the thankless job of informing an unsuspecting parent that their precious one’s scalp was teeming with parasites.
“Gross,” Ava whined at the thought. Willa shrugged. After a dozen years in business, very little fazed her. I never would’ve gone ahead with this place if Willa hadn’t agreed to join me. I got the idea a few months before Michael and I were married. I’d gone to a swanky salon far too expensive for my prior, single self. But there I was, soon to be a Mrs.; I looked around in amazement. For several hundred dollars a pop, confident women were being tended to. One stood out, though. She was pregnant—swollen and seemingly miserable. I remember wondering whether she’d bring little Susie or Billy to this place. Somewhere between my blowout and handing over Michael’s hard-earned cash (by then I’d quit my job at a high-end wallpaper showroom), I began envisioning a salon that catered only to kids.
Michael had loved the idea from the beginning. He found investors practically overnight, which made me feel fortunate, yet frightened. I knew I was lucky to be set up in business, but at the same time, I was completely dependent on him to make it happen. That’s when I approached Willa. I’d actually been closer to her girlfriend, but I’d always liked Willa, and more importantly, I’d trusted her. She’d been aching for something more dependable, having spent most of her twenties auditioning for plays and landing only the occasional commercial.
When I asked her, a slow smile started to form on her face. Unbeknownst to me, she had a small inheritance to invest and was a few hours shy of an abandoned cosmetology license. It was the perfect match; she coached me while I got my hairstylist’s license, and I enabled her to make a change. But what she really provided I wouldn’t have been able to articulate at the time. I needed someone from my pre-Michael life around while I was busy becoming a whole new me.
Willa moved across the shop to answer the phone, pausing briefly to blow bubbles toward the hysterical boy—stopping him mid-sob. It was a rare child who didn’t respond to her, even with her tattoos. Brightly colored peonies, lilies, and lotus flowers covered her right arm like ivy; a nonconformist’s celebration of life. Her left side however, was far less festive. Spanning from fingertips to shoulder was a weeping willow. Dark and light green leaves dripped down her arm. Beneath the hearty trunk was a maze of roots that despite being intricate capillaries connecting tree to earth always reminded me of the impermanence intrinsic to all living things… until I looked away.
Despite the ink, Willa had gentleness about her. She wasn’t meek or submissive; it was more that she carried herself with quiet purpose, which, depending on the day she was having, or the observer, came across as either serenity or sorrow. Occasionally I’d try to imitate her demeanor, but you can’t fake authenticity.
The bustling shop was making my head spin. Bills needed filing and I kept forgetting to ask someone to empty the overflowing trash can in the bathroom. Plus, a part-time worker who was supposed to be on tomorrow’s schedule had quit this morning and I still hadn’t found anyone to cover for her. I contemplated putting myself on, but didn’t want to reopen that can of worms. After I had Henny, I’d stopped cutting hair. I’d felt pulled in too many directions, so I’d surrendered the scissors to Willa and found my niche in payroll and purchase orders. These I could do at my own pace and in silence.
I scanned the schedule book. Even if I wanted to step in, tomorrow was parents’ day at Max’s preschool. Not to mention, my day to pick up the kids. Everything will get done, I reminded myself. It always does.
I checked my watch. Beth would’ve just gotten Max and they’d be en route to pick up Adam and Henny. I looked out the display window—at least it wasn’t raining. I returned my attention to a sale I was ringing up. The customer kept adding items that caught her eye: kiwi conditioner, pellets that turned the tub water purple, packets of smiley-face tissues. I was thrilled to be racking up her balance, but a line was starting to form, creeping into our already cramped shop. I was sweating and craved calm.
“Excuse me,” a woman said to Willa. “Any chance my daughter can get in today?”
“We’re completely booked,” Willa answered without looking up.
“What about Ava?” I asked.
“Ava”—Willa scanned the schedule—“might be able to squeeze you in.”
“Which one’s Ava?” the woman asked. Willa pointed to her.
The customer shook her head no. “I don’t think so,” she said. “She looks like a scared little mouse. I prefer… confident women.” The nerve.
“Do you now?” Willa asked. Usually she responded to difficult customers with a penetrating stare, but she was smiling.
I studied the customer. Tall and svelte, she looked like she’d stepped off a movie set. She wore gabardine trousers and a silk shirt, all in the mauve/beige family. And she had perfect cheekbones. Perfect cheekbones and the ability to wear mauve—probably the quintessential characteristics of elegance.
I grabbed the appointment book. “Ava’s an excellent stylist,” I said encouragingly,
“I don’t even want a haircut,” said the svelte one’s surly daughter.
“A trim, Leah. Just a trim.” The woman scanned email on her phone. “Come to think about it, tomorrow might be better. I’ve got to get back to the office.”
“Well, I’m available tomorrow,” said Willa. “And no one’s ever accused me of lacking confidence,” she added, smiling.
The woman extended her hand over charm bracelets and troll pencils. “Victoria Layton,” she said, shaking Willa’s hand.
“You’re off tomorrow,” I reminded her. “The commemoration.” I shouldn’t have said anything. It had been six years since 9/11. If Willa wanted to skip the ceremony, it was none of my business. It’s just that I’d adored her girlfriend. But if hitting on Mama Mauve was preferable to listening to thousands of names being called at Ground Zero, who was I to judge?
“It’s supposed to rain,” said Willa, writing Leah’s name in the book. Right, I thought to myself. This is about rain.
On the bright side, my scheduling problem was now solved.
“Ahh, Kara,” a customer called. “Toilet’s backed up.”
I am only seven years old, but this much I know: I should not be looking up. Real New Yorkers don’t care about majestic buildings that scrape the sky, but they make my tummy giggle, so every few seconds I peek. How do people not look up, I wonder, as I watch grown-ups busily move about their lives. Someday I hope I get to be up real high, able to look down on the street. My mother grabs my hand and pulls me along.
I can’t believe I’m actually here. If I could swallow New York City whole and bring it back to Cleveland, I would. I love everything about it, even the diner by the bus station where I ate scrambled eggs while my mother clanked her coffee and kept checking her watch. If I lived here, I’d eat at that diner every morning.
It feels like we walk the streets for hours. I want to ride in a yellow taxi like I’ve seen in the movies, but I can tell my mother is in the mood to say no. She’s been grumpy since the bus. I know better than to bother her with childish requests. Besides, I like to watch the ladies in beautiful clothes, so I barely notice my aching feet. These New York City Mary Janes seemed more comfortable at the May Company. I look down and wonder when they stopped being shiny, before or after breakfast, because on the bus I sat carefully, wiping any accidental fingerprints.
The neighborhoods change as we make our way from 42nd Street through midtown and into the park. My heart quickens when I see the horse-drawn carriages.
“Maybe later,” my mother says, adding the maybe again lest I misunderstand.
Her pace slows when we approach a white building. “No matter what she says,” my mother warns gravely, “she doesn’t define you. Pay her no mind, do you understand?”
“Who?” I ask, suddenly afraid. But she’s already disappeared into herself, so we enter the building.
My mother tells a man in uniform that Mrs. Adler is expecting her. I want to ask who Mrs. Adler is, but my mother is being still and serious so I practice being still and serious too.
Once inside the elevator, I study our reflection on the shiny doors. I stick out my tongue and tilt my head from one side to the other. When she doesn’t scold me, I settle down as we chug our way to Mrs. Adler on the twenty-eighth floor.
The first thing I notice is the woman’s bug pin. It’s an ant maybe, but I’m not sure because all bugs look the same to me. This one has green jewels for eyes and tiny little pearls at the ends of its antennae. I can’t decide if it’s ugly or beautiful, so I settle on both. It is both.
“You shouldn’t have brought the child, Juliet, you know that,” the fancy lady says. My mother grips my hand. It is the first time I’ve ever seen her this way. I think maybe she’s scared. I want to tell her not to worry because I definitely won’t break anything, but it doesn’t matter… the lady isn’t inviting us in.
From the doorway, I see a rug made out of fur in a sunken living room. The couches are whiter than snowstorm snow. I am tired and want to rest on the rug. It looks soft and I think it would feel good to bury my hands in the fur. There’s a wall of windows, and I know this is my chance to see the people on the street from way up high. Maybe there’s a girl just like me looking up at this very moment. But I stay where I am.
“I thought it was time you two met. This is Kara Caine,” my mother says, undeterred.
“Pleased to meet you,” the woman says, not looking at me.
“Thank you,” I answer, glancing at my mother to see if I did it right, but she stares straight at Mrs. Adler, so I look to the floor. The lady doesn’t even notice my shoes.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Sophia,” my mother says, but I don’t think she sounds sorry at all.
“Yes, well…” Mrs. Adler starts, not bothering to finish her thought.
“It seems there’s been a mistake, though, and I think you are just the person to fix it.” My mother’s polite words don’t fool me. She is not being nice to the lady.
“Oh, well, the obituary, which was lovely by the way, said that Arthur is survived by a wife, but there is no mention of any children. I think we both know that that’s not the whole picture, now is it?”
I am mesmerized by gold curtains blowing in the pristine room. There is a painting of a girl with long brown hair wearing a blue leotard. I took ballet once. My mother watched the class through a hall window. Afterwards, she was silent. If I’d been any good, she would have told me.
I see a stone figure on a shelf, and will forever associate Greek artifacts with this moment, when my future is being decided by my mother’s quiet words to Mrs. Adler.
For a moment, neither speaks. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” the lady finally says.
My mother meets her stare. “This isn’t about you.”
“It was made clear that the initial sum relinquished all of the child’s rights to any future negotiations.”
“Kara!” my mother yells. “My daughter’s name is Kara.” Hearing my name makes my heart pound; I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. Then I realize she’s yelling at Mrs. Adler, but knowing this doesn’t quiet the thumping.
“With a K,” my mother adds through gritted teeth. “It’s a lovely name, don’t you think?”
Mrs. Adler bristles.
“I’m sure the New York Times fact checker would note the K,” my mother continues. “I suspect they’re careful about that sort of thing.”
We are told to wait in the foyer. I hear Mrs. Adler on the phone somewhere in the apartment.
“Mama, the windows,” I whisper, wanting her to see the breezy dance in the faraway room.
“Not now, Kara, please!” Her eyes are fierce. I go silent.
Mrs. Adler returns with a manila envelope, looking weary. “My husband was buried last week, and you’re descending on me like a vulture,” she says quietly.
“Yes, I imagine losing Arthur is painful.” My mother removes the envelope from Mrs. Adler’s chalky blue hands. I check my own little-girl hands, relieved they are not wrinkly like the lady’s.
“This is it, Juliet,” the tired woman says. “No more.”
“It’s not my fault your husband was so”—my mother pauses and looks at me—“friendly with sopranos a third of his age.” She laughs nervously.
“Yes,” Mrs. Adler says, “he was always after the understudies. The real talent was far too threatening.”
We get a white horse, and I like white horses best. The trees are black against a violet sky and I pretend it is the olden days before cars were invented, but I quickly grow bored of the game. This ride is longer than I expected and I’m getting cold. My mother sits quietly with her eyes closed. I know she isn’t asleep, but she looks like she’s dreaming nonetheless.
It is coming-home time for the city kids. From the carriage, I watch Jamaican nannies speak with thick accents to girls dressed in plaid skirts. I wish I hadn’t gotten the patent leather. They’re not even shiny anymore. I hate my mother for not knowing red or navy nubuck would have been better. The horse man gives us a wool blanket but it’s scratchy and I don’t like the smell.
It all seemed so much better in the movies.
Maybe because I know we are leaving anyway, I want to go home.
“One more stop,” my mother tells me.
By the time we get to Lincoln Center, there are crowds of people. Chatter canopies the night air. My mother walks with purpose, clearing a path through the perfumed masses who wear stylish coats and sparkly jewels. I wonder if she’s taking me to a party. Then I see we’re at a theater. I anticipate going into the already open doors, but she leads me past them, and we turn a corner. I have to run to keep up.
“Come on, there isn’t time to dawdle,” she says, but she’s not angry. I like it when my mother isn’t angry. We enter through the musicians’ entrance. She picks up something from the floor that looks like a small magazine. Many years from now I will read this playbill and find out that my deceased father, Arthur Adler, composed this opera. But for now all I care about is keeping up with my mother. I don’t want to lose her down this long corridor.
Instruments are playing all at once, like a mumbled greeting just for us. When we turn another corner, the resonance grows. It isn’t music exactly, but I like it all the same. If excitement had a sound, this would be its song.
“We’ll sit here,” she says, sliding her body to the floor. I’m worried what’ll happen if someone finds us, but my mother doesn’t seem concerned, so I sit next to her and rest my head in her lap. I must’ve dozed, because when I come out of a haze, there is silence, and then applause. I don’t move. Like thunder, the orchestra begins.
In time, I hear singing. And though I’ve never been taught, and certainly never heard it before, I know this is opera. I want to see the lady who is singing. My mother’s body tenses, like a statue or the dead. And then out of nowhere, like in a dream, but I’m awake, she sings.
Just like the lady, my mother sings.
Shocked and baffled, I listen. It is like finding out she can fly, or talk to tigers, or speak Chinese. I listen and listen and listen some more. My mother sounds like loud magic as her tears settle on the cold floor.
Parents’ day at Max’s preschool was almost over. I calculated if I got out of there in the next twelve minutes, fifteen tops, it would still be possible to do a quick grocery run and be on time to pick up Adam and Henny. I could have the groceries delivered. Then if homework went smoothly, I’d take the kids on their scooters while Max and I walked Trudy. This way I’d be able to pass by the gallery.
Since first seeing Oliver’s paintings, I’d managed to pass by his show regularly. It would only be up a few more weeks. I knew I was a tad obsessed, but I wasn’t hurting anyone. It’s not like I was sneaking out to meet him. Plus, soon it would be too cold for the kids to scooter.
Max’s smiling teacher read A Dinosaur Comes Over for Dinner while my little ventriloquist sat among his classmates and mouthed each word. I was getting a kick out of him when a woman whispered to me, “I think he’s heard this one before.” If I’d ever met her, I didn’t remember her name.
“It’s his favorite,” I said.
“He’s obviously a literary genius,” she whispered. The woman next to her glared at us.
Once the story was over, I resisted the urge to grab my bag and macaroni necklace, but there was still the curriculum presentation, which the teacher assured us would be brief. I guess after attending so many preschool orientations, I’d become a bit jaded, because I was thinking the preschool curriculum could pretty much be summarized by, share and don’t bite your neighbor.
“What’s your philosophy on enriching kids who are numerically gifted?” the glaring one asked. I settled in as if watching a nature show that had nothing to do with me. I, too, had once been similarly conscientious, but now as the perky teacher addressed the question, I looked around to see if I was the only one who found enrichment for wealthy three-year-olds irritating.
“An animal unit is coming up and we’ll incorporate numbers in a fun way.” While the teacher spoke, I studied the children’s beaming self-portraits, enjoying the display of big, smiling lips and wide eyes in greens, blues, and browns; their art was optimism personified. Perfection. My eye went to Max’s. I imagined him pounding a crayon to create those freckles. I guess I wasn’t so jaded after all.
“Your kids are naturally curious; they thrive when investigating their worlds.”
It was true. Just today Max seemed to be thriving when he investigated his testicles. “Them my grapes, Mama?” he’d asked.
“Encourage them,” the helpful teacher… encouraged.
I do that, I thought, remembering how after explaining his anatomy, I’d encouraged him to wash his hands.
“Each child will research his or her favorite animal. Use magazines, newspapers, and of course the Internet,” said the teacher.
I looked earnest and engaged, but really I was remembering how the last time Max used the computer, he kept licking the little ball on the mouse.
“See how fast you can jump in the stroller,” I said.
“I wanna walk. I’m not a baby.”
“I know you’re not a baby, silly. Do babies know every word from A Dinosaur Comes Over for Dinner?” The grocery store was twenty blocks away. This was the only way we could possibly make it on time.
“I know every word.”
“I know you do, and babies definitely don’t know how to jump in their strollers, so come on, kiddo, jump in. We’ve got places to go.”
“No! Big boys walk and run and jump and hop. I can hop, Mommy, wanna see?”
If I skipped the latte, he could walk for a few blocks. “Two blocks,” I offered. “You can walk or hop or jump for two blocks and then in you go, deal?”
I maneuvered the stroller around his classmates and the grown-ups responsible for them, while Max counted his hops. I considered rethinking the whole gifted with numbers thing, but then he skipped seven and eight, and hesitated after eleven.
“Are you heading east?” asked the woman who’d noticed Max reciting the story. “We’ll walk with you. Zoe loves Max,” she said.
“Same.” I had no idea which one Zoe was.
“Kara Caine Lawson,” I replied. I’d long ago learned that cultured Manhattan women provided their full name clearly, with a slight hint of pride. After all these years it still felt awkward. Nonetheless, I’d honed the skill.
“Nice to meet you, Kara Caine Lawson.” Her smiling hazel eyes had soft wrinkles around them that made her look as if she was always on the verge of laughing, a physical reminder that life shouldn’t be taken so seriously. She wore little makeup and had rock-star hair—straight, streaky, and cut in long, choppy layers.
“So, how about that animal unit? Good times ahead,” Morgan said, rolling her eyes. “As if we have nothing better to do.”
“Seriously,” I agreed, wondering if she worked.
The kids ran ahead. That Zoe was adorable. I liked her red cowboy boots.
“Freeze,” Morgan yelled, stopping her daughter well before the curb. “You guys want to get some pizza or something?” she asked.
“Can’t. I have to go to the grocery store before getting my other kids.”
“How many kids do you have?”
“Three. And a dog.” I readied myself for the impressed look that usually came. Manhattan families rarely had more than two children, and while Max’s arrival had created chaos, I enjoyed the awe that frequently came my way, but this Morgan had no response. In fact, part of me wondered if she’d even heard.
“I should go grocery shopping,” she said. “But I’m not in the mood.”
“Not in the mood. What a novel idea,” I said.
“Yeah, well, we still have milk, so how bad can it be?”
“My husband gets grumpy if we run out of Diet Coke,” I said, pretending to complain. I assumed we were having one of those moments when women put down their men in order to bond.
“My husband can get his own damn Coke.” Before I could contemplate whether I was being judged for keeping house and home stocked with sugar-free soft drinks, she yelled, “Zoe, watch the poop!”
I prayed Max wouldn’t step in dog crap—then we’d be late for sure. “I hate when people don’t clean up after their dogs,” I said. “I mean, no one’s making them have a pet.”
“Oh please, Zoe’s a shit-stepping moron. If there’s shit around, she’s stepping in it.”
And just like that, I made a new friend.
I’ve seen Oliver plenty of times on campus, but I always busy myself with something very urgent to do straight ahead. I’m not sure, but I think his eyes followed me. Or maybe I just imagined it. This time he’s sitting on the floor in the student lounge. I consider saying nothing yet again. I’m afraid if I speak to him I’ll find out that he frequently sketches lonely girls in diners, and in fact, it meant nothing. None of his friends are around, but still, approaching him feels difficult. I haven’t showered and my hair is crazier than usual. To make matters worse, earlier a pierogi escaped my mouth midway between applesauce dunking and chewing, and now my clumsiness is displayed prominently on my chest.
But mostly, I am just plain afraid.
“Thank you for the drawing,” I say, finally mustering the courage. When I first looked at it a few weeks ago, I was astounded. My face had been shielded by curls and a book, but somehow he captured my melancholy mood. I looked insecure and vulnerable, yet somehow striking and strong. Even though it embarrassed me, I loved the drawing.
“Do you like it, serious girl?” He looks up from the crossword, as if expecting my interruption. It’s Thursday, one of the harder puzzles, and he has very few squares left. This makes me nervous. I’m not good at puzzles.
“I did. I mean, I do. I mean, yes, thank you.” I resist the urge to touch the grease stain.
“You are very welcome…” He waits for me to tell him my name.
“Kara,” I say. “With a K,” which makes me sound like an idiot, but at least he remembers me. He tells me his name is Oliver while I fidget with my shirt. I nod awkwardly, which seems to amuse him.
“Do you always sketch girls in diners?” I ask.
“Only the inspirational ones,” he volleys. I am flattered that he’s just called me inspirational; that I’m not alone in the grouping remains undetected.
“Are you always so… slick?” I am pretending to be irritated by his confidence. I have seen enough movies to know that serious girls do this around cads. My mother always appreciated a cad.
“Are you always so… intense?” he teases.
“Says the guy doing Thursday’s puzzle.” I stand, not knowing what more to say. I want him. We are in agreement, he is worth wanting.
“You’re flirting with me,” he says, looking me over from head to toe. He has a way of zeroing in on me, as if no one else existed.
“I’m not a virgin,” I answer, startling us both.
“Hello.” He pretends to cough. I’m nervous, but I don’t look away; there is no doubt about it. I momentarily have the upper hand and I enjoy the power my invitation has provoked.
His loft is an industrial space near Columbia. On the ground floor is Disker Vacuum, a retail and repair shop that seems to have been around since before electricity. After Disker, the next two stories are filled with art students and squatters, including, as I later find out, the ballerina—exotically named Eden. Conveniently, he has no roommates.
Oliver unlocks a massive door and I follow him down a narrow hallway. The old floors reverberate with his swift step. Now that we’re here, he seems remote. I feel like an intruder. He throws his keys on the counter and disappears behind a large canvas to open a window.
“Shit,” he says, mostly to himself. Apparently he left some brushes soaking in a canister, which is bad, but he doesn’t explain why.
I size up the large room. Every surface seems to explode with his art, which makes it hard to know where to focus. Canvases are propped against the walls. Most are paintings of women; faceless figures in dreamy, graceful poses. I carefully step over thoroughly used brushes and dented tubes of paint to get closer to his work. I am mesmerized by the background in one of his larger pieces.
“That’s from last year,” he says. I nod and study it while he wipes a brush with a filthy rag. I sense he’s watching me, and even though my desire to explore his work is sincere, I can’t help but wonder if I am succeeding at the endeavor. I notice that the back of his couch is splattered with paint—surprised by his carelessness, even if it is in the name of art. I look at each canvas. Even the dry palettes in shades of blues, reds, and browns seem worthy of my attention.
“I love them. They’re… amazing,” I say, which sounds stupid and flat even though it’s how I feel.
“Thanks.” He stares at me. I wonder what he sees. Surrounded by his world, I feel bland.
“Fuck it, these can wait.” He throws the brush aside. “Do you like Dylan?” He signals for me to follow him to the back of the apartment.
I stop in front of one easel. “Is this that girl from the diner?” It’s hazy and imprecise, but something about the figure reminds me of the ballerina.
“Eden,” he tells me.
“Is she your—”
“Model?” he interrupts.
“Okay…” I giggle. “Is she your model?”
“She is.” He flashes a smile.
“Is she your… anything else?”
“Oh.” I look down.
He laughs. “Relax, serious girl. She’s my friend. But tell me you’re not one of those crazy possessive types?”
“I am not one of those crazy possessive types.”
“Good. Because even though you’re cute as hell, I’m not ready to go steady.”
I agree with him wholeheartedly. Meaning, I lie.
“Although if you want, I can get your name tattooed on my ass…”
“Shut up!” I slap his arm.
“Suit yourself.” He gently pushes me in the direction of his room “Just in case though, it’s Kara with a K, right?”
His futon smells like pepper and turpentine and even that I love. At first, I’m giddy. I find everything exciting—his rough face on mine, how he grips my hair when we kiss. But I tense up when he goes for my jeans. I want him, but I suddenly feel modest. He turns on his side and starts to touch me. I am wondering what we look like from above. I’m glad I wore my burgundy knee socks; I like the way they contrast against my pale thighs.
“Here?” he asks. I hesitate, consider lying. He moves his fingers and asks again. “Here?”
I can’t answer. I want to but I can’t.
“Show me,” he persists.
I reluctantly move his hand so he can touch me just so. I watch him watching me and hope I don’t smell. It feels good, but I’m too nervous. I want him to stop. I’m aware of music coming from another apartment as his fingers circle me. I sort of squirm so he’ll climb on top of me.
“What do you want?” he whispers in my ear, which I think sounds cheesy, except it sends chills through me. Even so, I don’t answer.
Finally, he pushes into me. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Immediate and thorough—how filled up I am. Until now, as compelling as this whole Oliver experience has been—the sketch in the diner, the flirtatious banter, being among his phenomenal art in this Hollywood-hip apartment—none of it has prepared me for this. And even though he’s the reason, the root, the cause—my altered state seems deeply personal. Mine alone to experience, this sudden awareness of what my body is capable of feeling.
“Where are you?” he asks, stopping.
“Here.” I force myself to keep looking in his eyes.
After, I want two things at once: to curl into a ball, and to flee. But I do neither. He pulls his comforter over me and hops out of bed, cuing “Tangled Up in Blue.” It’s so loud I fear for his speakers. When he goes into the other room, I exhale. I want to check how I feel to foreign fingers, but it’s no use. I cannot isolate the awareness of touching from being touched. At least I smell like him.
I can’t believe I’m here. I relive how it felt to have him watch me, but it’s too embarrassing so I push the image away and take in the details of his room. There are large industrial windows, but I’m unwilling to leave his bed, so I don’t check the view. A mug of cold coffee rests on an overturned milk crate and tucked in the mirror over his dresser is a postcard of Einstein sticking out his tongue.
As I gawk, there’s a part of me focused on only this: I am transformed, no longer homely. I want to look in the mirror to check. I don’t know if this will ever happen again, a terrifying thought that has me strain through Dylan’s tempo for the sound of him in the next room. Is this a beginning? I really hope it is. Maybe Eden truly is just his model. He did sketch me when she was there. That has to count for something.
He’s everything I’m not. Brilliant, creative, witty. Being around him alters me. It doesn’t matter if this monumental change is microscopic, invisible to the human eye. I know it’s real. It’s like he’s granted me a VIP pass to his planet, and although I am still me, I’m no longer the same. I always wanted to be… no longer the same.
I lie in his bed. I haven’t been here an hour, but something important has happened, and I am well aware, this is no small thing.
It was two o’clock, also known as the calm before the storm. The Mommy-and-me mob had come and gone, and we still had a half hour or so before the elementary school–aged throngs arrived. I switched off various DVDs and returned trains and stuffed animals to their bins. Willa had just come back with lattes for our much-needed afternoon jolt. With Trudy at my feet I took a sip. Perfect. I kicked off a clog and petted her with my bare foot. I swear that dog purrs.
“Victoria is some sort of marketing genius,” said Willa. It seemed lately she’d been bringing up the woman-in-mauve every chance she got.
“According to Victoria,” I grumbled. Willa stared at me as if trying to decide what to say.
“I’m sorry.” I looked down at Trudy. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
I stroked Trudes and tried to come up with a remedy for the silence. “I mean, if you like her,” I started, not finishing the sentence. Even if I did find Victoria pushy, she was the first woman Willa had even given a second look to in six years.
My mind flashed to the morning the planes hit. I’d been trying to get Adam to a sing-along class, but an inconsolable Henny was slowing us down. She hated the stroller.
“Put her in your pocket,” Adam suggested, his term for the baby carrier. He was right, though; she settled into me. I was sleep-deprived and behind schedule, but the crisp September morning was invigorating. We were letting go of summer; that cool breeze a promise of autumn approaching.
“A car, Mama. A car.”
“Yes, Adam. A car.”
“Clouds, Mama. Clouds.”
“Yes, Adam. Clouds.”
We walked across 86th Street while I tried to block Adam from noticing the bagel shop. Maybe later was a concept we were still working on. Then I saw the crowd gathered in front of an electronics store. At first glance I assumed there’d been a robbery, but as we got closer, I saw their somber faces. Something big was happening.
“People, Mama. People.”
“Yes, Adam. People,” I whispered, placing a hand on my now-sleeping Henny. From behind the display glass, people were watching TV. For a split second, I recalled clips I’d seen of crowds watching Kennedy’s motorcade, images that had always seemed quaint to me. I nudged my way in, feeling more curious than frightened. Never again would I be so cavalier.
A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Fire. This was impossible. People kept looking across the street, toward downtown, but it was no use, we couldn’t see anything. Not yet. Hours later, smoke and the stench of burnt plastic would waft uptown and linger for days. But those first hours, the picture-perfect fall day remained unscathed; the cruel blessing of survival.
The crowd grew around me; strangers all watching. We stood in silence as the mammoth building only four miles away spit flames and smoke. (And later, dear God, people.)
“A fire, Mama. A fire,” said Adam.
“Yes. Yes,” I whispered. My heart was pounding. The World Trade Center was on fire. Nothing made sense.
My eyes were glued to the television when the second plane hit.
“What the…” someone said. I clutched the stroller. For a moment I didn’t know what to do.
“Damn!” said a teenager, breaking my trance. I turned the stroller so Adam couldn’t see.
Michael. I needed Michael. I’d just left him brushing his teeth. He was going in late today. His office was midtown, nowhere near this… but none of that mattered. I needed him.
Just as I grabbed my phone, it rang.
“Kara,” said Michael.
“I know. I know. We’re in front of P.C. Richards.” Later he’d tell me he had no idea what that had meant, but at the time, he didn’t ask.
“Honey.” He paused. “Go to Willa.”
Dear God! Oh no. “Oh my God,” I said.
“Go,” he said softly.
My city seemed silent. All I could hear was my breath and pounding heart. People were out, but there was no bustle. No honking cars. No random conversations. Street cleaners were still, Rollerbladers stone-faced. I glanced at strangers but quickly averted my eyes. In those first hours, you didn’t know if the person coming toward you had a husband, or daughter, or friend down there.
“Where we going, Mama?” asked Adam.
“Let’s go see Willa.” I hoped he didn’t sense the panic in my voice.
Once outside their apartment, I hesitated. This was the beginning of nothing I wanted.
“Willa, it’s me…” I called. The buzzer was still blaring when we reached the first landing, and for a moment I was annoyed it might wake Henny; a thought I was quickly ashamed of. I held Adam’s soft hand and climbed the stairwell.
“Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen,” Adam counted while I bargained with God. Maybe she was upstairs and not in that blazing tower. She could have called out sick, or taken the morning off. But Willa’s girlfriend was a sous-chef at Windows on the World. Loved her job and worked hard. It was Tuesday. She was there. She was there and I loved her and I loved Willa…
“Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three…”
Adam’s voice got softer when we reached their floor. The door was open. We were still holding hands when we entered. Hanging on the refrigerator was a photo of them, taken in Provincetown a few summers back—they were looking at each other, laughing.
“Willa,” I whispered.
She was sitting on the couch with the phone in her hand. The TV was on. Peter Jennings was reporting that a few minutes before nine o’clock, the South Tower of the World Trade Center had been hit by a commercial airliner.
“We were on the phone,” said Willa.
“A second commercial plane appears to have hit the North Tower minutes ago,” continued a calm Jennings.
“We were on the phone,” Willa repeated.
I didn’t know what to say. I stood like a fool.
“It sounded like a sonic boom,” a caller was telling the anchorman. “Or an earthquake,” she continued.
“There are unconfirmed reports that there has been a possible hijacking of a commercial airliner,” continued Jennings.
Willa punched numbers into her phone, listened briefly, hung up, and tried again.
“Willa,” I started. Adam looked at me with big eyes and giggled.
“We were on the phone and then nothing…”
“Anyway, Victoria is a marketing genius.” Willa’s voice brought me back to the present. “And she thinks we can be getting much more publicity.”
I stared at my friend and smiled.
Just then, Trudy’s ears perked up. Susan, a longtime customer, was tapping on the window, trying to get our attention. With her was six-year-old Carly, sitting in a wheelchair that resembled a stroller.
“Perfect timing,” I said at the door. “No one’s here.”
While they waited on the street, Willa and I scurried around gathering the balloons from the cutting stations and sticking them (and Trudy) in the back office.
“Get Nemo,” I said to Willa.
“And lower the ringer,” she reminded, handing me the phone. Last time we’d had to stop Carly’s haircut because she became so agitated by the incessant ringing. With the little girl’s known triggers tucked away, I motioned for Susan. She pushed her daughter up the ramp and parked her near the back wall. The girl stroked her hands over and over again.
“Hi, Carly,” I said. She was one of the few clients I still handled myself. Her mother pressed play and slid into the chair next to her daughter.
I unclenched Carly’s fingers and sprayed water into her palm. She kept her eyes glued to the show, but for a moment it seemed she relaxed her hand into mine. It was smaller than Henny’s. And bluish, as if she had poor circulation. I didn’t know what was wrong with Carly and I’d never asked. I just followed what Susan suggested a few years back and used steady movements when trimming her hair. Tender enough to be sensitive, but casual so as not to condescend.
Every few minutes Carly released quick, guttural yelps that startled me despite their regularity. I glanced at Susan; her eyes were closed.
I sectioned and combed carefully. Occasionally I stroked her long straight hair the way I did Henny’s.
When I was done, I asked Susan if she wanted a blowout.
“Do I look that bad?”
Willa and I looked at each other. “No… I just thought you might want a pick-me-up…” The unspoken reason, because my babies can talk and walk and play, hung in the air between us.
Carly had her first seizure at Little Scissors. She’d been just under a year old. The beginning of her slow decline. I used to wonder how Susan had the strength to return to what must have felt like the scene of the crime, but after the first few times, it occurred to me—coming here was the least of Susan’s worries. She had bigger fish to fry.
The bell on the door jangled, announcing Willa’s three o’clock. The younger of the Lamb boys heaved his backpack onto the bench and began to rummage through it.
“I don’t have a pencil,” he said to his mother.
“Thanks, but some other time,” Susan said. For a moment, I’d forgotten my offer.
“Where’s your pencil case?” the mother asked. Carly yelped, this one louder than the others. The mother and older boy glanced at Carly, and then Susan.
“Bet he lost it,” said the older brother.
“Ha!” The younger boy produced his pencil case while Carly made her noise again, even louder than the last. All eyes were on her.
“She’s trying to talk to them, isn’t she?” I asked.
“She is,” said Susan.
“That’s incredible,” I whispered.
“Yes, aren’t they nice boys?” I said to Carly. “They’re exciting, aren’t they?” I could feel their nervousness, but I didn’t care.
Susan chimed in. “Yes, they do seem like nice boys, don’t they?” She touched her daughter’s cheek. Carly didn’t respond or even look in our direction. She continued to rub her hands in the robotic motion, but there was no doubt about it—in her own way, she was reaching out to them.
I held the door as Susan maneuvered the chair onto the sidewalk. Sunlight and squeals of the recently dismissed children seemed out of place, even though they weren’t. It was three o’clock on the Upper East Side.
“What’s wrong with her?” the younger of the two boys asked his mother.
I walked quickly to the back office so I wouldn’t have to hear the answer.
I sat at the kitchen table and tried to block out the noise around me. Michael was down the hall on the phone. Every few minutes his authoritative voice released an encouraging laugh. It was one of the reasons he was so successful; he conveyed the perfect combination of confidence and good humor.
Miley Cyrus was crooning in the living room, something about the tragedy of love gone wrong. Henny kept restarting the song and Miley’s lament would again build to a crescendo. The boys were in the playroom, their cartoons competing for the airwaves. I took a deep breath and returned to the toy catalog. I was trying to predict the next fad so I could order wholesale in plenty of time for the holidays.
“Mom!” Adam yelled. “Make her turn it off.” Henny wailed in opposition.
“We can’t hear our show,” Adam urged.
“We can’t!” Max agreed.
“Less noise, please,” Michael said good-naturedly. But their arguing escalated. “Honey…” My cue to intervene. As I passed his office he mouthed thank you and shut the door. I heard his muffled voice, “Yes, three kids. They’re amazing. As I was saying…”
I grabbed headphones from the shelf above the speakers and plugged them in, instantaneously eliminating Miley’s pain. Henny protested, but I silently placed them on her ears and she too went silent. Adam and Max retreated to Japanese animation and relative peace was restored, thus enabling me to return to my orders.
A few minutes later, Michael’s door opened. “Unbelievable!” he said, sounding excited. “Un. Fucking. Believable.”
I looked up. “What’s going on?”
“I just hung up with a firm in Seoul! There might be a project…”
“A project? In Seoul?”
“This guy was interested. I could hear it.”
Excerpted from Henny on the Couch by Soodak, Rebecca Land Copyright © 2012 by Soodak, Rebecca Land. Excerpted by permission.
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