MARCH 6 2022
This blog is an attempt to finish a project or several projects while examining their success or failure.
I have three novels and five short stories all unfinished. I, also, have the beginnings of a book about my immigrant grandparents, each from a different country. I hope to fight my way out of this paper bag of beginnings and no endings.
But first, I offer up two completed short stories that look at the dilemma of motherhood. Recently, a number of films examined its constraints and the consequences of shaking off the “ties that bind.” In the following short stories, one mother takes off, the other endures. Each requires a form of courage.
The train to Doylestown was delayed. Maybe the Bicentennial celebration of American Independence interfered. Jane didn’t mind. She liked Philadelphia’s 3Oth Street Station. It had elegance and grandeur. She could pretend she was in a 1940’s movie waiting to board a train with a club car that served martinis. She began walking towards the benches hoping to while away the time reliving her visit to Maureen’s Upper West Side apartment, the museum visits, the drinks with friends. For a few days, Jane had been an earlier self, one that had rarely surfaced in the last ten years. Maureen hadn’t changed much. Unlike Jane, Maureen wasn’t married, didn’t have two kids, and didn’t live in small town Pennsylvania.
Suddenly a jarring noise filled her ears as she felt herself falling forward and, then, being pulled upright.
“Can I help you? Are you all right?” A young man asked, letting go of her arm.
I’ve done it again, she realized. Drifted off. In dismay, she saw the contents of her handbag strewed across the polished floor
“No, no. I’m fine. Just a bit disoriented,” Jane replied, bending over to gather her possessions.
“Do you need directions? You look a bit lost. Where do you want to go?’’ he asked.
“How about the sunny side of the street?”
“Huh? Sunny what?” he questioned.
She was really losing her grip. She wondered what she was up to. From the look on his face, he did too. I’ll save him, she thought.
“Sunny California,” she answered.
“Oh, I thought you were putting me on. Singing like that.”
Have I been singing too, she wondered?
He continued, “You want to go to Track 10. I guess you’re taking the Broadway
Limited to Chicago before changing trains to California.”
“Yes, yes. That’s right,” she assured him.
“Hey, how about if I carry your suitcase. You look worried.”
Just what I need, a therapist, Jane fretted to herself.
“No thanks. Just point me.”
“Are you staying long?”
Why wouldn’t he let her go? She could fess up and admit she was really going to Doylestown, but the charade seemed easier.
“Bet, you’re afraid of flying.”
“No. I just wanted to see the country.”
Jane was getting into the farce. She wished it were true.
“Just go past those ticket booths, the ones on the left. I used to work here, so I know my way around. I wouldn’t mind going to California myself. I once saw a photo of Union Station in Los Angeles. Great train station. I’d love to see it in person.”
“O.K. Well, thanks for everything,” Jane told him as she moved away. Every time she turned around, he was watching her with that pleasant open face, protective, making sure she didn’t get lost.
She decided to play out the lie. She had time. She could watch travelers board the train while preparing herself to reenter motherhood, wifehood. They seemed more like institutions than an existence.
The weekend had made her hopeful, filled with possibilities. Over the last decade, the entity called Jane had withered up and blown away. She hadn’t even noticed: perhaps, knowing was too dangerous, maybe the end of her nuclear family. Extremes lodged themselves inside her. Better than the middle, she thought.
She sat on a bench and watched the passengers enter the long row of cars to Chicago. Jane drifted back to the last forty-eight hours: without a husband and children she had emerged a different person, a stranger. Maureen seemed to know this stranger. She had even laughed at the some of the stranger‘s remarks. And Jane’s gait had changed; instead of dragging her feet, each foot was gracefully lifted and placed lightly on the street. The sound of her shoes meeting the sidewalk reminded her of French films, the soft clacking of women’s heels as they climbed the stairs of the metro.
She had held herself together. When she drank white wine with Maureen‘s friends, she had actually sipped instead of her usual frenzied gulping. To the group of people with whom she and John occasionally shared drinks, she often appeared to be desperately thirsty, grasping for wine with the same panic a drowning person searches for air. This weekend, she had been articulate, not brilliant, but articulate.
I was alive for a few days just like that group of porters standing together alongside the train, she thought. They had forgotten kids, wives, girlfriends, and wages, responsibilities that can sometimes kill the spirit. Instead, they bumped up against one another, joking, encouraging each other, feet moving and sliding, keeping time, a dance.
Her thoughts moved back to the suburbs rummaging through her chores: getting the boys ready for camp, gardening, teaching summer courses to students whose minds drifted away from film studies to the Jersey shore. The energy she had regained in Manhattan was slipping away.
Two women walking by caught her attention. They were rushing, stressed with the effort of making the train. Instead of snapping at each other, instead of turning angry faces on one another as Jane and John might have done, they laughed and chattered together.
Jane started to imagine herself as a passenger. She entertained thoughts of stowing away, then laughed out loud at the image of a thirty-two year old uncovered in the baggage department. Will this displaced homemaker discover that Hollywood is only made of tinsel? That the wizard is a fake? Will she learn to look for real happiness in her own backyard?
“I think Dorothy was full of it.”
“What do you mean lady? Dorothy?”
“I don’t know you,” Jane said to the incredulous teenager sitting next to her.
“Well, I sure don’t want to know you! Too much time in the hat factory.”
What was going on? Why was he bugging her? Jane asked herself as she stared into his face.
“You know glue lady. Sniffing glue,” he informed her and moved away.
She had been talking to herself again, and she had probably missed her train. Now she would have to call John.
“Lady, you gettin’ on the train? We’re leaving,” a porter called to her.
“How much is it?” she asked.
“This ain’t no information booth. This ain’t no ticket booth. This is a train.”
“We’re leaving, lady. You comin’?”
She couldn’t answer.
“Go out to the information booth. Tell them your problems. Get a ticket. Get a friend.”
Jane drifted back to the lobby. She should let John know that she would be late. But there was time, she reasoned. Meanwhile, for fun, she’d take the porter’s advice and inquire about a ticket to California. She approached the man behind the booth and, immediately, became tongue-tied. He eyed her coldly. Jane was certain he knew that she had no right to be there. He saw through her ridiculous fantasy.
“Speak up lady. I can’t hear you. This isn’t a microphone you talking into, no coast-to-coast broadcast. What do you want?”
She asked the price of a ticket to California.
“That depends, lady. Sleeper or straight passenger?” He gave her the price for both.
“It’s too much money. What would I live on?’ Jane protested.
“What am I? A social worker? Do you want to buy one or not?”
“It’s so much money,” Jane repeated.
“So take the bus. How about it? What’s it going to be? I got people waitin’ here.”
Without answering, Jane stepped aside leaving behind a line of confident purposeful travelers. But he had planted a seed. She remembered reading in a travel magazine that the Greyhound Bus Company was offering a hundred dollar cross-country ticket. The walk to the bus station was about twenty blocks but she figured she could manage it. She had an escape plan. But she could always turn back.
Not far from the Greyhound bus station, she passed a liquor store. In times of crisis, characters in English movies always encouraged the hysterical heroine to have a brandy. A flask and a small bottle of whiskey would do the trick.
A few blocks later, she paused in front of a Western Union office. So you could still send a wire. Ten years ago, in 1966, she had sent one to her brother on his thirteenth birthday. Tonight, she would send one to John: it eliminated the emotional interference a phone call might allow. She wasn’t strong enough to withstand any demands to return, to pull her away from being Jane. She filled the flask, took a slug, and entered the Western Union office.
DEAR JOHN. STOP. THIS IS NOT A DEAR JOHN. STOP. MUST NOT COME HOME NOW. STOP. NEED TIME. STOP. I AM TAKING A TRIP. STOP. GIVE MY LOVE TO THE BOYS. STOP. JANE.
Inside the bus terminal, she bought her ticket and stepped behind the last passenger waiting to board the 6:10 bus. She looked through the brochure she had picked up at the ticket booth. After Philadelphia, stops included Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles. The Greyhound would be her Conestoga across rivers, through grasslands, over mountains.
She had ten minutes or so to change her mind: she could still make a later train. She could explain the telegram as a joke, a bad joke. She would laugh and place her head against John’s chest. He would stroke her hair: within seconds, she would be cosseted, protected, safe as a treasured child.
Startled out of that possible scenario, Jane looked into a face pitted with old acne scars. She stumbled into an answer.
“California, um, California.”
“Ever done this before? Traversing the continent by bus?”
“I’ve never crossed this country by any means. This is my first time for both.”
“You’ll like it. I do this every year. I come to New York from Indiana.”
“Why?” she asked his gold-flexed green eyes.
Before he could answer, they were shoved forward as the doors of the bus opened. Jane quickly lost her place as she worked through the maze of checking her luggage. When she entered the bus, she realized she would have to sit with someone. She launched herself into the closest available seat next to the man with green eyes.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” she inquired.
“You wouldn’t be here if I did.”
As Jane turned around to see if other seats were empty, he continued.
“I make this crossing twice a year, so I’ve discovered ways of keeping people away. “
“Like what?” Jane asked.
“I just cover the adjoining seat with magazines, bags, clothing. Then, I stretch across both seats pretending to sleep. It usually works.”
Jane sat upright holding her awkwardly arranged possessions close to her as the bus pulled out of the terminal. Should she pick up the threads of the conversation or arrange herself more comfortably? What etiquette was expected of a fellow traveler? He turned towards the window without offering any further advice. Again, she was looking for guideposts to the best Jane. She had fallen into that familiar trap so quickly. Forget it! She would make herself comfortable, take a look around, and decide how to proceed.
Her seat was so close to the front of the bus that Jane felt she was piloting a ship, charting a course. She was mythmaking. She turned towards her companion.
“It’s like that Paul Simon lyric, ‘We’ve all come to look for America’,” she shared enthusiastically having lost any reservations she may have had. She almost burst into song.
Taken in by her exuberance, the slim man with the scarred face, green eyes, and sensuous mouth presented a portrait of himself. He was an assistant professor in theater at a small college, he was married, and he was from the Midwest. He shared his struggles with teaching and his take on the state of drama in the United States. To Jane, he seemed disconnected from his narrative, almost bored, as if he had offered it up too many times.
“Are you censored at the college? Can you teach the plays you choose? Do you feel restricted living and teaching in the Midwest? How long have you taught there?” She threw question after question at him unable to stop the barrage.
He answered but after an hour or so, turned back towards the window. When the bus made a dinner stop in Pittsburgh, he hurried away. She figured she had wanted too much.
His retreat didn’t discourage her. There was too much to see. She hadn’t known Pennsylvania could be so beautiful, so lush. Even Pittsburgh delighted her. She feasted on the intersection of the three rivers: the Monongahela, the Allegheny, and the Ohio. The magic of Native American names, the light reflected off the water enchanted her. She could barely keep hold of her thoughts. Even her body seemed out of control. After long stretches of craning her neck to look through the front window, she would settle back in her seat only to jump up and gaze into the night.
Jane was getting higher and higher spinning out of reach even to herself. This was a good time to pull out the whiskey. Morning wasn’t far away. She hesitated before offering a swig to her seatmate but decided to break through the layer of ice that had formed around the relationship.
She tapped his shoulder and held the flask out to him. He hesitated perhaps remembering the bus driver’s warning against imbibing liquor or smoking what he had called that “other funny stuff.” She guessed that meant marijuana. His ambivalence lasted only a few seconds before putting the flask to his lips. Soon they were co-conspirators on a voyage of their own which would last until it was time for him to disembark.
“Is it just the theater that draws you to Manhattan?” Jane asked as the flask changed hands.
“Mostly, but I, also, need time to drift back to myself. New York gives me permission to explore parts of me that seem extreme and unreasonable in Indiana. Manhattan allows me to live there without losing or relinquishing any part of myself.”
“Doesn’t say much for regional theater or regional America,” she countered. “Is there only a waste land out there to greet me?”
“Depends on what you’re looking for,” he answered.
“Me. I’m looking for me. What do you find in New York?”
“In the theater?”
“O.K., “ she acquiesced.
“New York is bombarded by hypes, where the pressure to be a commercial success seems to dominate, yet there’s still originality, experimentation.”
“Off-Broadway and Off –Off-Broadway attract an inquisitive audience. The playwrights, the actors have people who’ll listen, who’ll engage.”
“But don’t your students want to search, to experiment?”
“To an extent but with little commitment. Most of them are just putting in time for what they think will be an easy course.”
“Seems hopeless. As if there aren’t many places in the country where the soul can be fed. What about the rest of us, those that hanker after a good play, a good movie? You’re saying we don’t exist? What about you?”
“I go to Manhattan twice a year,” he offered
“To get recharged? You hoard all that energy between trips?” Jane retorted. She didn’t like the insidious portrait of a country that she had yet to experience.
“I saw a foreign film about a traveling theater company that put on Lysistrata in the hinterlands of Sweden,” she told him.
“The actors met with the same sort of mediocrity or complacency you’re describing. At one point, an actress was appalled at the audience’s apathy. She stopped the play and addressed them. Actually she was crying, screaming at them in despair, telling them to listen, to take part. The play was about their lives, about negotiating power, gender, politics.”
“Did she get through?” he asked.
“No. The other actors pulled her off stage. They were angry. She had broken the fourth wall. She had forced everyone in the theater to drop their pretensions. She embarrassed them.”
“Well, what should I do? Try to make my audiences of farmers, blue-collar workers, and Middle American suburbanites ashamed that they don’t ‘get art’? Embarrass the dinner theater crowd into going to see Aristophanes?”
“You’re doing the same thing as my Swedes, trying to separate the two. Aren’t all those types of drama- theater? If someone enjoys Hello Dolly, it doesn’t mean they’re exiled from appreciating…”
“O.K. O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Most people have problems with a parent or know someone who’s an addict. Both plays represent a part of America.”
He shrugged his shoulders and began to make movements of settling into sleep: turning out the overhead light, bending his knees toward his middle, and facing the dark of Ohio soon to become Indiana.
The bus was quiet. Jane wondered if the driver felt relieved at being alone, if he still saw something new out his window. She formed the other half of their two peopled Rorschach: turning on her side away from him, pulling her knees toward her stomach, and, finally, slipping into sleep. Throughout the night, they drifted towards one another until their backs touched. Yet, neither moved away. She enjoyed the sexual hit and miss.
He was gone by noon, home to Terre Haute. Without an exchange of names, the mystery preserved for Jane the guiltless pleasure that had slipped under her skin and had become her own as she moved towards Missouri.
Selecting postcards to send home was the most difficult part of Jane‘s voyage. Unable to capture the beauty of the landscape or the complexity of her trip, the four by six encapsulations read flat, off-key. She worried John and the boys wouldn’t get it. If they tried to leap across the chasm of Middle America to meet her, in spirit at least, would they jump in the wrong direction?
FROM PITTSBURGH: DEAR JOHN AND BOYS. THESE ARE MY NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND. THE THREE RIVERS SURROUNDING PITTSBURGH SWIRL INSIDE MY HEAD. THE WATER SO DARK. SOMETIMES LIGHT COMES THROUGH. JANE/MOM
FROM COLUMBUS, OHIO: DEAR BOYS AND JOHN. FROM THE TOWN NAMED AFTER THE DISCOVERER OF AMERICA OR WAS HE? A DECAYED, INDUSTRIAL LANDSCAPE. SMOKE OBLITERATES THE SKY. I’VE HEARD THE VIEW IS BETTER FURTHER WEST. MOM/JANE
Twenty-one hours after leaving Philadelphia, the bus pulled into the Saint Louis terminal. Jane felt grimy and made her way to the rest rooms filled with other women trying to spruce up. Some had plenty of equipment: make up, brushes, towels. She thought they might be homeless. But, no. Given the amount of makeup they applied and the tight dresses hiked up to their thighs, she reckoned they might be ladies of the night.
She was forced to eat a greasy hamburger and down a coke for dinner. They were no other options. Within the terminal, the small convenience store’s selection of postcards was limited to views of Gateway Arch, a monument to westward expansion. After she purchased one, she sat down in the cordoned off area marked for “Women and Children.” It seems she was dangerous territory.
FROM ST.LOUIS: EVERYONE. I’M MOVING OUT NOW. ON MY WAY. THE MISSISSIPPI IS NOT VERY WIDE HERE. IT’S A MEAGER DIVIDING LINE. THE RIVER IS VULNERABLE. LOVE, ME.“
Across Missouri, clouds cast shadows over fields of pale gold grain. Mile after mile of farmland lulled Jane. Her mind bumped up and down with the rocking of the bus. Radios from the back seats, noises of children from the middle section, chatter of the elderly in the front rows faded. She moved outside to the undulating hills. California was forgotten. Philadelphia was discarded. Jane settled in.
In Columbia, Missouri the spell was broken. Jane had forgotten to place her barricade of books and luggage on the adjoining seat. Sarah Bennett sat down and offered up the story of her life.
She was on her way to Salina, Kansas: her oldest nephew was graduating from medical school. For Sarah‘s family, this graduation marked a significant achievement. Her face expressed a childlike pride. Her unfurrowed brow and shy smile caused Jane to conclude that she had been protected from the outside world. Jane gave polite noncommittal replies, which Sarah took as encouragement, inviting Jane into the rural prairie life of a retired unmarried schoolteacher. She had been the housekeeper for her father and three brothers and, later, for a widow who owned the town’s tavern.
“It’s not a big house. Anna Mae, that was her name, and I each had a bedroom. There was a living room, dining room, and kitchen. I did all the cooking. She liked my cooking, wouldn’t eat at the Texan. That was the name of the tavern, the Texan. Her husband had been from Texas. We had an acre and a half all fenced in. The half-acre was my garden. I even got books in the mail on gardening. I grew all my own vegetables.“
“What kind of vegetables? How do you keep the birds away?” Jane moved into Sarah‘s garden, easily seduced from the landscape outside her window to Sarah‘s view.
“We had a good life together. She left me everything when she passed. I sold the tavern: I had no notion how to run it. Used the money to help my nephew get through school. I miss her. She liked the flowers I put on the table every day. Some nights we would sit on the porch and watch the corn sway in the evening air. It could move us to song. We would both start singing around sunset. Sometimes the songs were from the tavern, but mostly, we sang hymns. ‘Amazing Grace’ was our favorite.”
Jane smiled encouragingly.
“Oh, but you wanted to know about the birds. Well, what I do is put those aluminum pie plates you buy in the supermarket and string them up between the rows. When the wind comes across the land, they rattle and bang against each other frightening the birds. They jingle like tiny bells. You don’t mind denying the birds their meal when you hear such music. I’m bringing some relishes I canned for the big graduation party. Feeding my kin is better than giving money. Ever have a garden, honey?” Sarah‘s eyes were blue and wide like the sky above them.
“I’ve tried but didn’t have much luck. I just played around,” Jane answered.
Sarah turned to Jane in surprise. “I never heard of playing with a garden before.”
“Well it’s the idea of a garden, a pretty place to walk around,” Jane explained.
“I don’t know about all of that. I mean you have a garden so you can eat. Isn’t that right? To feed yourself and those you love. I mean, don’t you get anything to eat from your garden?”
“Sometimes,” Jane murmured.
“Sounds pretty frustrating to me. Guess that notion hasn’t reached us out here.”
Then Sarah rested, hands embracing her rounded stomach, eyes closed. Jane turned toward the window comforted by Sarah’s life and fell into a deep sleep, waking eight hours later as the bus pulled into Denver.
The Denver bus depot was everything all the others were not. It was clean, full of light, more like an airport than a bus terminal. It had that sense of luxury. As soon as they stepped off the bus, the Eastern immigrants could realize their dream of a better life.
Jane watched the cop from Staten Island, the drop out from Newark lose the grey cast of the northeast as they walked into the Colorado sun streaming through the large plate glass windows. Instantaneously, they were equipped with the healthy glow of a cleaner, fitter life. She supposed dropping the memories of transit strikes, garbage strikes, fires in the South Bronx helped. They could head for the mountains: they could ski and jog themselves into forgetfulness. The tanned and well-toned bodies would greet one another, their most urgent worry the choice of the correct ski or the proper sneaker.
Jane turned away from the departing passengers and went to a kiosk for her next postcard.
FROM DENVER: DEAR PEOPLE. THE ROCKIES SURROUND ME. CHEYENNE IS JUST FOUR HOURS AWAY. JOHN WAYNE BECKONS. YOU’D LIKE THIS COUNTRY, BOYS. LOVE, JANE
Soon after, she boarded the bus.
“Can I join you?”
Jane turned towards a man not much taller than herself, slightly built, with a face lined by fine wrinkles. She remembered seeing him in the bus station. His look was curious not sexual. He assumed he had the right to an overture. The mind and spirit called. He was compelled to answer. Later when Jane thought back to Sam, she realized that this information had been passed telepathically, between his request to share a seat and her consent.
As he sat down, he offered her an out. “If you decide sitting together is too uncomfortable, I’ll leave. But I think we have some things to say to one another.”
That line was straight out of a grade B movie, which this trip sometimes resembled. As the bus drove south towards Utah, Jane didn’t make it easy for Sam. She had nothing to say. But he didn’t think she was empty, superficial, a human pinball machine, flashy and short-lived as she had started to believe. He proceeded, expecting the best. He gave his backstory or maybe just a story, Jane surmised.
Originally an owner of a furniture factory in Philadelphia, he was now a traveler, an amateur anthropologist. He had been to South America investigating the Incas, then to Tahiti meeting American gurus and ex-hippies, and recently, to Micronesia living as a quasi native. She could hardly believe such tall tales. He was a regular Paul Bunyan. Yet, as the hours passed, she began to trust his accounts. Sam didn’t seem to care if she believed him or not. He just wanted to be present, in the moment as he told her. And until Salt Lake City, he would be with Jane.
Perhaps, it was his reasons for abandoning his business and taking to the road that convinced Jane he was for real. Like Jane, he had had to escape. In one instance, in a single breath, one inhale, one exhale, he had lost his family, his son and wife, in a car accident. Sam began to follow a new dream.
“How did you get there?” Jane asked.
He recounted various run-throughs and confrontations. Sam tried encounters with the happy, be-now, touchy-feely psychotherapy, with various gurus, reading Baba Ram Dass, considering R. D. Laing.
Jane raised her eyebrows skeptically. He ignored it. Through all the experimentation, he had found a way out of his grief, out of his paralysis. Sam’s peacefulness hypnotized Jane as had the rhythms of the bus. No matter how hard she fought to be outside, he drew her in. Finally, she gave up.
It was to Sam that she confessed she was a runaway. The bus a monastery, a convent, a retreat. Like Audrey Hepburn in A Nun’s Story, she harbored secret desires. As her story unfolded, Sam’s placid expression never changed, no judgment. He was a good priest with his mantle of Eastern thought and practices. But the confession cost Jane. Her penance- doubt and confusion.
“Leaving your family was the only way you could have made this trip,” he assured her.
Jane wondered if that was a question or a statement of fact. The question had been an intermittent refrain over the last two days. She had traveled very far, over 2000 miles. Now this stranger with one sentence had thrown her all the way back, across the continent, to that other Jane.
“I’m not sure it was a conscious choice. For the first time since I’ve been married I couldn’t deflect or side step this compulsion to escape. Getting on the bus seemed inevitable, out of my control.”
“Perhaps being out of control, as you put it, was the only way you could gain control,” Sam offered.
“Easier to couch my desertion as a force of nature than as an abandonment of my family,” Jane retorted.
“Did you desert? Who did you desert or who did you save?” Sam proposed.
“My plan is to emerge from this wheeled cocoon, a butterfly which will dip into all of California’s poppies.”
Sam ignored Jane’s sarcasm. “Who are you leaving, then? Yourself?”
“I’ll be alive for a season. Maybe Los Angeles, Hollywood, Malibu will provide the answers.”
“Do you know the questions?” he asked.
They went their separate ways in Salt Lake City, Jane to California, Sam to Oregon. The Buddhist interrogation had ended.
FROM SALT LAKE CITY: HELLO AGAIN. THE AIR IS NOT VERY CLEAN BUT THE ATMOSPHERE IS ANTISEPETIC IN A MORMON SORT OF WAY. STILL, JANE.
She could have written more. Before noon, the air was clean and the Wasatch mountains, cloaked in the purple of Easter vestments, were visible, the city an unopened gift. She stayed all day, long enough to see the smog hide the mountains, long enough to tour the Mormon Tabernacle which included proselytizing, long enough to visit a bookstore overrun with biographies of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. This was no place for female self-realization.
In the evening, she boarded the bus for the final leg of the trip. The beauty of Utah kept her awake. A full moon cast incandescent light over roads, mountains, and inky evergreens. Quickly running streams bathed in silver coursed over the rocky landscape. The terrain filled her with excitement, sexual tension.
She spoke to no one but was her own Greek chorus, telling herself western Jane stories until she stepped out of the L.A. terminal on to 7th and Decatur and into the California sunshine.
FROM LOS ANGELES: MY DEAR FRIENDS. I AM SETTLING INTO THE FAULT LINES. WILL YOU COME TO SEE ME IN A WHILE? JANE
Surrounded by her children, she scanned the boats docked in the Oak Bluffs Marina on this perfect August morning, ignoring the rage that oozed from every pore of her oldest daughter, Moira. She reminded herself she wasn’t to blame. It was her daughter who had decided to return home, turning down her best friend’s offer to spend another week on the Vineyard. The two girls had fought, and Moira had refused to accept her friend’s apology.
“Don’t blame me, Moira, because you made a bad decision,” she reminded her daughter in what seemed a reasonable tone of voice. Nevertheless, others in line for the Fast Ferry inched away from them.
Moira’s eyes sank in, hatred flaring from her gnome-like nose. Moira reminded her mother of a witch in training, and she knew that if Moira had possessed any evil powers, she would use them to destroy her, the bad mother.
Griff tugged at the edge of her sweater. “When is it coming, Mommy? When will the ferry be here? It’s too hot,” he whined.
“Jesus Christ, Griff. How do I know? I guess it’s running late. Stop pulling at me. You’re destroying my sweater. Stop!” she growled, pushing his hand away.
At seven, he was too old to call her “Mommy.” She thought only he had heard, but as she looked around, her fellow passengers, some sitting on their bags, some standing, some controlling their dogs, stared at her, locked in battle with her children. Bad mother, she thought again. Someone was missing.
“Moira, where the hell is Regina?”
Moira continued to give her the evil eye, arms crossed tightly against her budding chest. Though shorter than Regina, who was two years younger, it was Moira, aged twelve who would soon burst into womanhood.
Looking at her ungainly daughter, she wondered, “What do I have in store for me? Could it get any worse?” After two weeks with the three of them on Martha’s Vineyard, now being touted as the Island of Presidents, she couldn’t imagine worse, but maybe with teenage hormones exaggerating her persona, Moira, with her sensitive nature and ongoing rage, could make life even more unbearable.
“Moira, I asked you a question. Answer me.” She heard her voice rising in volume, its tone harsh and shrill.
Moira shrugged her small, slim shoulders.
She grabbed her daughter by the arm, pinching her flesh. “You listen to me, young lady. When I ask you a question, I want an answer! Where is your sister?”
They stared at each other, green eyes to green eyes. An irresistible urge to shake Moira took hold of her, but Griff saved her from potential child abuse.
“Mom, there she is- up on the dock.”
She released Moira and caught sight of Regina gazing at the Nantucket Sound. Regina often kept her own counsel, staying out of the frequent battles between her mother and her older sister and the attention seeking antics of her younger brother. They seemed to wear her out, much as they wore out her mother.
“What am I, my sister’s keeper? You should take better care of your children,” Moira threw at her mother.
She raised her hand to slap her daughter’s face, intending to rid Moira of her self-satisfied grin. Griff’s ear-piercing scream saved her again.
“The Ferry. It’s coming. Look, Regina’s up front.”
She pulled the back of his shirt as he rushed forward to join his sister.
“Regina, get over here this instant,” she yelled to her daughter.
Regina ignored her. She called her daughter again, louder. Passengers turned, watching her in dismay as she raised her voice one last time.
The ferry docked, and Regina moved forward, disappearing into its hull.
“Why does she get to go by herself? It’s not fair. You treat me like a baby,” Griff complained, walking beside his mother, careful not to get ahead.
“You act like a baby,” observed Moira, patting his back condescendingly.
Griff turned to swipe her, but Moira nimbly moved back, evading his slap.
“Watch where you’re going, kid,” the young man behind her warned.
“I swear Moira, you’re the baby,” her mother flung at her, missing the pain spreading across her daughter’s face, missing the tears flooding her eyes.
Griff smiled cheerfully at his sister, hoping to avert further escalation.
She knew that Regina was perfectly capable of finding a seat on the boat but worried anyway. Regina seemed to slip through her fingers as she maneuvered, sometimes literally, between Moira’s anger and Griff’s neediness. Just last week when they had gone to South Beach for a swim, she had looked away for a second, eyeing the rhythms of the surf, and Regina was gone. With Griff in tow, she’d spent an hour traipsing up and down the beach searching for her, terrified Regina had tried to walk home or had drowned in the Nantucket Sound. Instead, she found her sleeping on her favorite towel across from the lemonade stand. She had really lost it that afternoon, first hugging her daughter in relief and, then, slapping the side of her leg in anger. Over the last two weeks, she had lost Regina three times.
Yet, she identified with her younger daughter: she wouldn’t mind getting lost herself. Certainly, she was losing herself to her children’s voracious need for love, to their ability to steal any time she might have for herself. They were relentless, so she grabbed time alone amongst them. Years ago, when Griff was a baby, she had been able to drift away to thoughts of taking up photography, getting a job, going out for a drink, considering articles she had read in the Times. Nowadays, she didn’t think at all: she became numb, willing herself to separate, if only momentarily, from their crushing love.
As they boarded the ferry, workers were ordering passengers to place all their luggage in the middle of the cabin. There stood Regina, staring at the piles of suitcases and backpacks, seemingly fascinated as one passenger after another put his or her belongings inside the cordoned area.
“Come on Regina, we’re going upstairs to sit on the outside deck,” she told her daughter as they deposited their totes and duffle bags.
“I want to stay downstairs,” Regina said, her back to her mother.
“No, you’re coming upstairs with us. I don’t want to lose you, again.”
“I’m not going to jump overboard, and I’m feeling sick to my stomach,” Regina insisted.
“You’re coming with us.” She felt the impatience of other passengers attempting to navigate around her brood.
Regina stared ahead, not moving. In frustration, she grabbed her daughter by the collar and pulled her back. Regina fell against her as she whispered angrily in her daughter’s ear.
“Get your butt upstairs. Do you understand?”
No answer. With her other hand, she cupped Regina’s chin, turning her daughter’s face towards her own.
Upstairs they trudged.
“Okay, let’s get a picture of the happy family,” she instructed her children grabbing her camera from her handbag. “Stand against the railing. I’ll get a shot of the three of you with the island as background.”
They started to protest, but the look on their mother’s face stopped them.
“Smile like you mean it,” she said and snapped the picture. She captured them just as they leaned their heads towards one another, their red hair like sea anemones floating in the air- innocence, youth, and forced joy within the frame. Taking pictures of her children resurrected her maternal pleasure, an argument against Susan Sontag’s notion that taking a photograph diminished the lived experience. For her, the opposite was true.
Griff tapped her back insistently. “There’s no seats left. Can we go inside?”
“No,” she said emphatically. “Fresh air is better for you than sitting inside a crowded cabin for ninety minutes.”
She leaned against the side of the boat, breathing in the salt air. Suddenly, she was exhausted. She had to lie down.
“The best way to pass the time is to sleep,” she informed her children.
She stretched out on the deck facing the side of the boat, her back to the passengers. She hugged her sweater to her chest and closed her eyes. Sweet, quiet, peace. Griff joined her, facing into the backs of her knees. She refused to open her eyes. She had to hold on to this small private darkness. She drifted off, the chatter of others lulling her to sleep. Heaven.
“She told me to rot in hell, Mom,” Moira screamed in her ear.
“Leave me alone and leave Regina alone, for God’s sake,” she hissed without opening her eyes. She could feel that Griff was using her hip as a pillow. Was there no escape? She refused to get further involved, keeping her eyelids shut.
Moira lay down, her eyes level with the top of her mother’s head.
“All I did was hug her,” Moira continued.
“Let her be,” she advised her daughter. Her eyes stayed closed. A small sigh escaped her throat.
Moira lifted strands of her mother’s hair escaping from a clip at the back of her head. She carefully separated a few blond hairs, looking through them as if they were lace. She let them go and raised a few more. These had a deeper color, almost brown. She let this collection slip through her fingers, and lifted others, stroking them.
Moira relishes this contact, her mother thought. It had been one of her favorite pastimes since infancy. She sighed again. It was no use: her children weren’t going to leave her alone. She shifted Griff off her hip and stood up. She glanced over at Regina sitting on the deck away from the others, arms folded over her lap, eyes closed, and head bent forward. She guessed she was seasick again.
“Look to the horizon, please, Regina,” she ordered.
Regina opened her eyes, glared at her mother, and closed them again.
Turning away from her daughter, she shrugged her shoulders in resignation, leaned her elbows along the rail, and placed her chin on her hands. Breathe, she told herself, breathe.
Griff stood up, and again rested his head on his mother’s right hip. Moira, flanking her left side, began reading aloud a text message she had just received from her best friend. She guessed the fights were over between Moira and her friend, between Moira and herself. This was Moira’s way. She couldn’t stand her ground for very long, needing the affection of others more than her principles.
“And listen to this. She sent me a poem. I’ll read it to you,” she told her mother enthusiastically. After reading several lines without reproach, she grew brave, moved closer and tried to put her head under her mother’s arm for a stolen hug. Her mother closed her elbow to her side, leaving no room. When the poem came to an end, Moira moved away, sitting down at her mother’s feet. Griff did the same.
While her children ignored each other, there was peace. She watched the Elizabeth Islands pass by and imagined living alone, isolated from civilization, cut off from the demands of her everyday life. Just as the ferry passed the Sakonnet Lighthouse, she felt a tap on her right shoulder.
“You shouldn’t have done that to me,” Regina complained.
“Done what?” asked her mother, her back to her daughter, her eyes straight ahead
“Yanked me when we were downstairs,” Regina explained.
“Don’t be so dramatic, Regina,” her mother cautioned.
Regina grabbed the back of her mother’s sweater. “Oh, yeah. How would you like it?”
“Stop it, Regina,” she said, trying to pull away.
Then, Regina moved to her mother’s left side, putting her free hand around the front of her mother’s neck.
“Regina, you’re choking me. Back off,” she hissed.
Regina dropped her hands. “See, you don’t like it.”
“You’re exaggerating,” she said, turning to face her children. “You’re just trying to bother me, all of you. Stop it. Give me some peace, for God’s sake. Whine, whine, whine! Complain, complain, complain!” she rebuked, voice raised, then quickly turned back to the water as the lighthouse moved out of view.
Seconds later, Regina tentatively placed her hand on her mother’s back. When her mother didn’t shrug it away, she moved her arm around her mother’s waist and rested her head on the side of her shoulder. Her mother kept still, staring ahead.
“I’m sorry,” Regina whispered. She heard her mother let out another of her frequent sighs.
“I don’t feel well,” Regina reported, lifting her arm off her mother’s waist.
“Go stand by the stairway and look at the horizon,” she advised her.
As they approached Beavertail Lighthouse on the last leg of the trip, Griff announced he was hungry.
“My tummy is rumbling,” he told his mother with a grin.
“Stomach. Only babies have tummies,” she warned him. “You can wait. We’re almost there.”
“But I’m hungry now. I want food,” he insisted.
“You’ll survive. We’ll be docking in twenty minutes or so.”
Griff jumped from one foot to another in a cockeyed Irish jig. “My tummy hurts. It needs food.”
His voice trembled, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. Griff didn’t usually make demands until he was on the verge of losing control. He jumped up and down, his hands balled into fists.
“Why won’t you feed me? Why won’t you give me food?” he wailed. “You hate me. You want me to starve. You don’t love me!”
She couldn’t fight them anymore. She gave Moira a five dollar bill, told her to take Griff downstairs and buy him corn chips to tide him over, then rested her head on her arms, beaten.
When they returned, Griff ran ahead, full of excitement which Moira tried to quell.
“You’re wrong. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said to his back.
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. You’re the one that’s wrong.”
“We’re going to play miniature golf tomorrow,” Griff said turning to his mother. “Daddy says we’ll go golfing every day.”
“We’ll see.” She wanted to protect him from disappointment. Daddy didn’t always do what Daddy said he would do; yet, the children never protested, never battered him with complaints or criticisms. He had an invisible shield protecting him. He could do no wrong.
“He told me we were going sailing most days,” insisted Moira.
“You’re wrong. Mommy, tell her she’s wrong,” Griff begged his mother.
Regina joined them, taller than her two siblings, which seemed to endow her with a certain amount of authority, making her word gospel. “You’re both wrong. He told me that we’re going to the movies every day until we’ve seen them all.”
“Who’s right, Mommy?” Griff asked
“You’re such a baby, Griff. Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” Moira mocked him.
Griff ignored her. He enjoyed his status as the “baby” of the family. “Who’s right? What is Daddy going to do?” he demanded.
She shook her head. She had no answer for them.
“Well, you’re his wife. Doesn’t he keep you informed?” Moira asked with all the disgust she could muster.
“Shut up,” her mother scolded her.
Moira turned, her eyes filling with tears for the second time that day.
“Well, at least Daddy will be nice to us,” Regina retorted, settling the matter for herself, her sister, and her brother.
Twenty minutes later, the ferry had docked, and the passengers began disembarking. The children pushed through the crowd, leaving their mother behind.
He was there, right where he said he would be, waiting with the car.
They ran to him, Moira and Regina each grabbing an arm while Griff wrapped himself around his father’s middle.
“Look at my beauties. You three could get away with anything. No one could ever be angry at you,” he laughed, looking over their heads at his wife, eyes condemning her.
“Right?” he asked them.
They glanced up at him, smiled conspiratorially, and turned six green eyes on their mother.
“Has she been up to her usual tricks? Has she been mean to my kiddos? Shall we report her to the authorities?” he inquired, as he opened the car door, watching them tumble onto the back seat.
“MacDonald’s. He got us MacDonald’s. You’re perfect, Dad!” Moira called to him.
He leaned in and put his finger to his lips, smiling with delight. “Shush. Don’t let her hear that.”