Moon Face

Photo by Bill Brandt
Photo by Bill Brandt

The elderly man to my right, clutching a book of Blake’s sonnets in gnarled hands, whispers words to me all day. I will miss him, which is a surprise. I never expected to miss anything but freedom to do as I choose. I guess we all want that. But here, in these secured and sparse rooms, many of us find how much everything matters, even things you never thought of before. When you are stowed away in a halfway house, rights become privileges you have to fight to regain with all your creative might. It’s the system, and you are the systematized.

“Lovely tiny dancing doll,” he says now, eyes never leaving the floor. He has once looked right at me though he’s about blind–then he squeezed his eyes shut.

I forgive him–I don’t like my size being referred to, I am nobody’s doll and I’m not pretty–because he has lived a long time and he’s no longer quite with us. I guess it’s better than what “Q the King”, the giantess who had to leave due to violent outbursts, named me: Moon Face. She used to black out with rage, throw things, then fall onto the floor, the whole place shaking from her height and bulk. Mr. Eisenberg was terrified of her. I always smile at him–Mr. E., I just call him–though I doubt he sees me. He must feel it. I believe he needs more good smiles, at the very least. he deserves it and more. Because he is not leaving at all. He lives here with his granddaughter, our overseer, Mistress Manley.

“Dancing doll,” he says. “My dancing doll.”

The windows are a sieve for vapid light. I get up and look out. Everything about this place is marred with benign neglect, even the lawn and fields stretching out like ruined carpet. Not a hospitable home. It is a miracle we all are on speaking terms, even if in whispers. But far beyond this glass I see rolling green fields and in the distance a promise of hills. Past those hills is where I’m going.

Lucky, my big brother, will soon come get me; he really is lucky because he was born with simple wants and right thinking. My bag is packed. All I have to do is sign forms and then I will be closing the doors on this break in my life. That’s how I see it; a time apart from everything else, especially those who had no faith left in me. Others might see it differently but if I have learned anything here it is that our human eyes give us very different views of the world outside as well as inside ourselves. We can only think we understand. And you would not want to know everything even if you could. Still, plenty is worth discovering. I’ve had long, ponderous hours to watch, to listen and imagine, to feel and wonder over the lives of people who have lost their minds one way or another and are trying to retrieve them. I guess that includes me, as I have tried to clear some things up and reorder my life plan after terrible things happened.

“Well, Amanda, ready to take off, I see. Two months and one half-day and set to go. You did the work so now you get to do more life.”

Mistress Manley stands over me with hands on hips. She acts tougher than she is. It’s her job to be in control as supervisor but I know she is not, not really, as neither are the two part-time residential therapists. The doctor is, though he comes only once a week, as well as the mental health agency with which the Darren Manley House is aligned. She is not as big as she seemed the day I came but still, she is three times the size of me. I am small, so small I was told as a teen that I would not make a dancer. Thin is one thing, tiny is another. But I ignored the warning. I had to push all limits.

“Yes.” We had a more thorough conversation two hours ago after I stripped my bed and swabbed my part of the room, the last manual labor portion of my “therapy.” I lean against the wall and she steps back as if conscious of how her wide shadow can engulf us. Her next-to-last word can about seal our fates.

“Let’s have a chat.”

I follow her to the back room, the one that has the sign on the door that says “Private” as if anything in this rambling, 2900 square foot, two-story house can be very private for long. There are not enough places to fit sixteen of us so we have bunk beds in four bedrooms, genders separated. Until we are ready to leave, when we get a closet-sized room for a couple weeks, perhaps the reward for surviving.

We know everything about each other due to habitual contact. We are perhaps as close as some of us can be without being family. Lucky has always assumed that’s miserable but for me, it’s felt more than okay. Our own family is piecemeal by now. Only Lucky and I hold onto each other.

I sit in the wooden chair that had a seat cushion added recently, a small luxury. Mistress Manley leans her elbows on the massive scarred desk and stretches her lips into a smile that still looks suspect. Her blue and white striped blouse strains across her chest and shoulders, collar flopping open so her silver Celtic knot necklace  gleams. I cross my legs. In groups we had to sit with both feet on the floor and backs straight so we could oxygenate our brains. Pay attention to the wise one, Dr. Hannert. I have thought of him as moderately witless more often than not, I confess. His idea of health is not mine, though I half-faked it for him. But today I swing my foot back and forth, almost striking the desk. I’m wound up, ready to leave but have another hour to go.

Mistress Manley clears her throat in a rumble like a motor starting up. She can talk a lot if she has the chance. I have heard much of her life story, ending with how her parents left her this farm house. So after she got a Masters in clinical psychology and practiced at a city hospital and hated it, she decided to open the halfway house for aftercare of psychiatric patients. I can’t say she’s happy here but I think she might not be no matter where she is. Her life is burdened with sad, lost souls and her own dreary childhood. I respect her effort to make a difference even if she has little talent for it. I think she would prefer to run an old folks home, for her grandfather, at least. But he’s going senile now. She has to do what’s necessary; I hope she finds a way to do something else, though.

“Do you feel ready to strike out and take on the world yet?”

“No. But I can manage ordinary life better, I think, and I might make something of mine again. Eventually. I accept what I cannot do now. Or what I don’t want to do, more accurately.”

“Meaning what exactly?” Her hand goes to her Celtic knot. She often touches it like a talisman or a guide. I wonder what she thinks it does besides soothe. It was a gift from her one, long-gone boyfriend.

This meeting is a last test. If I am overly confident, she might second thoughts and get my departure cancelled with a swift phone call to Dr. Hannert. If I have too little confidence the same judgement could be made. I must have moderately aligned expectations. Be calm.

“I know better than to try to off myself. It’ll take a while longer for my sliced wrists to heal up. I still feel like a sort of puppet–my hands don’t want to perfectly cooperate even since surgery. The foot injury still aches at times. Time and physical therapy, the doc says. But my head is on straighter. I think about the future and it looks like a country I’d like to explore again…”

I stop my restless foot. I wonder where Lucky is, and strain my ear to hear the sound of his ’78 Mustang. I haven’t seen him in so long, almost five months now. I’m hoping I still recall all pertinent details, the baritone voice, the way he used to walk like a loping dog, his worn out cowboy boots caked with things Id rather not note. We both have probably changed but me more, I’m guessing.

Mistress Manley sits back, satisfied. “And that will include eastern Oregon now. The ranch life with Lucky and your friends. And Tammy. You’ll make a good helper now, Amanda.”

I swallow, find my throat dry. “Helper” is not what I was hoping for but she’s right. Tammy, aged four, is the daughter of Doug and Cassie, the ranch owners and our mutual friends, the ones who are willing to take me on as a kind housekeeper even though I tried to die a few months ago. They knew me long before my dancing passion became a profession. And then was deleted. Before Lucky left the city to work the ranch with them three years ago.

“And your plan for dancing?”

“That’s not fair.”

I want to leave. I have had more than enough. She  knows nothing of that life, despite my having to share the best and worst of it. I already got my release from the doctor, “acute severe depressive episode” no longer like a tattoo on my forehead. Coping skills duly noted, medications tried then slowly titrated off as I proved I was back to normal. I call it “my brief psychotic grief episode”, not a flat-out depression. I don’t remember feeling depressed before I got fired from the ballet company. After I broke my left ankle and then couldn’t get it all back, the overriding power and agility that kept me secure among other dancers, ones with longer legs or more grace, charisma. More beauty.

That Amanda, the one who succeeded against all odds and then lost it all, is fading to a fainter memory, an erased self-portrait on a weathered page. Folded up, put away. I don’t want to take it out again for a long while, if ever.

“Not fair at all,” I repeat, the flame of anger heating my face.

“Maybe not. But it’s never going away, your desire to dance.”

“No, but it can convert to something else, say, horseback riding– I’m good at that, too. I don’t know yet. Maybe still dance, just not ballet. Maybe country line dancing–wouldn’t that be something?–or tango!”

I shrug slowly, as if this is not the one bruised nerve that still cries out when pressed like this. One more hour to go.

She looks at me with skepticism, then slides paper and pen across the desk. She sets a white plastic bag with all extraneous belongings near my feet. I note the listed items, scan the doctor’s advice and so on, then sign and date with a flourish, my hand steadier than I feel.

“Good,” she says. “I want you to know once more how much I enjoyed having you in our little community. You’ve been a surprise, resourceful, hard-working, and helpful to others. You’re well on your way to recovery. But don’t get too bold at first. Take it slow. Don’t forget we’re here if you need us.”

Her pleasant choice of words about my behavior almost sound like skills I could list for a job now I am discharged. I sigh.

“Thanks. It’s been interesting. I appreciate your assistance.” Which is half-true. I appreciate her constancy, the rules she enforced even as I balked; her firm, even response when we all took turns freaking out. I appreciate her clinical insight into mad grief and worse maladies. But I haven’t enjoyed her overbearing ways or her own poor boundaries or slips of provincial attitude.

I hated the dirtiest menial chores. Found it hard to help care for physically ill patients when extra hands were needed, despite it being against the law. I hated the glaring, humming overhead lights in the group room twice a day, how it felt we were being interrogated. The demands to spill it all in front of people I didn’t really know, who could not truly understand what ballet is to me. The insistence that I was sick instead of devastated, betrayed by my body. The way the wind moaned and rattled the shutters when I couldn’t sleep but wasn’t allowed to get up and roam or sit outside on the porch and take in the night’s fertile air. The long days when no one laughed or commented on that glowing line of royal blue at the horizon before the sun set. How most acted deaf when I talked of the beauty of farm land, the mysterious alchemy going on at vineyards right down the road. Except for Gina, my unusual ally, who would exclaim that she thought things like that, too.

How they questioned why I wanted to die. How many times did I have to say: Because I am a dancer who now cannot dance! Until it made me want to quit it all. Until I decided: Enough. I have to–want to–stay alive even if I have to crawl a little longer. And then I stopped explaining. I just did the work they asked and talked to God in skies spilling over with moonlight and shape shifting clouds.

We exit the office and heads to the medication room; I go downstairs where a few of the women are sitting around. Three are new the last two weeks and don’t trust me and besides, I’m leaving. A couple others stir, put down knitting and books.

“Do we get to meet Lucky?”

“You’re finally being sprung, Moon Face!”

“Moon Face?” a new woman asks.

I laugh. “Yeah, and you’ll get one, too, like it or not.”

Gina aka “Catgirl”–used heroin for fifteen years until finally kicking it in a tent in some woods, then getting assaulted on her way back home–got up and put her arm around my shoulders, pulls me up to her boniness. “Moon Face. Look at her. All round, white as a moonstone. And she likes to sit on a windowsill, the moonlight on her–moon bathing! And she does have a kinda sweet light, see?” She turns me to her, hands holding me at arm’s length so we were face-to-face. “I’ll miss you, girl. Our fearless talks in the night.” Her dark almond eyes fill, then clear. She gives me a friendly smack on the top of the head and sits down.

Jana “Java Queen”, resident bi-polar thief, bursts into the room, riffing off-key. “My, my, soon on down the highway, brother at your side in a fantastic classy ride, you got it right this time, yes, Moon Face, my my!”

She has her usual thermos full of coffee and holds it up in a cheers!  gesture, then plops onto the couch by Gina, resuming the song.

“Gonna just get up and go, leave us alone with ole Manley-o, just like that, am I right or no? Not one of us will miss you, though. You got too many wants and needs, you gonna need more crazy therapy, gotta get the right pill they say, stop another spill, but your soul is–”

“Oh, please, Java Queen, spare us terrible rhymes!” Gina moves to the end of the couch.

Jana rises again, hands held out to me as she danced.”–your soul is riding high now and you’ll be flyin’ soon now, Moon Face, your little Moon Face will be moving past the clouds!”

She comes up and holds out a hot, dry hand and I take it in both of mine. Her brown eyes, lightening with a long-dormant spark beneath the haze of confusion, smile into mine.

“Thanks for the song.”

I can hear the Mustang coming down the road. My knees tremble until I stand with legs apart, feet splayed as if readying for plies.

Marilyn “Matchgirl”, the hoarder who collects old matchbooks and so many other useless items and dyed her short hair green, says, “Don’t forget us…? I’ll remember. Your kindness.”

“Of course she’ll forget us!” Gina the Catgirl snorts. “Who’d want to remember being here?” She shoos me to the door to urge me on: Go now!

I want to say, Wait, I see it’s all of you who have saved me. But Catgirl knows this, and more that I will never get to hear.

When I hear him cut the motor, I pick up my bags and step onto the porch. Some of the men are there, in a rocking chair, on a bench swing, sitting at a card table playing canasta. They wave and a couple say things both regrettable and sweet. I have known them less well; we women stuck together except at one group and mealtimes. But they have been there, too, have witnessed me as I have witnessed them. Their faces are so familiar that I wonder if any of them, women and men, will stop keeping me company in restless predawn hours or when Lucky and I butt heads as we do, or I wonder if I can get on with it all.

“Dance, my little doll!”

As I hurry down the stairs Mr. Eisenberg’s voice pipes up, quiet but clear. I look up and around to see his wizened, white-haired head stick out an open window. I put down my bag just as Lucky opens the door, starts to get out; he looks almost happy to see me. But I run the other direction, run faster with one good and one ruined foot, the steps a joyous ache and I leap high into the air, legs parallel to earth, arms lifted like wings, chin high, body leaving gravity to other creatures. As I reach the pinnacle of the jump I see Mr. E. stretching out his neck to see me, waving. Lucky looks as if ready to catch me, but I’m not in need of being caught. As I descend, a cheer goes up, then Mr. E.’s words, bright as bells, ring out.

“Dance, dance your way to the moon for me, little one!”

I land gently, soundly on my feet.

 

Views from Ona’s Clearing

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Of the many chores she had to finish each day, laundry was something Ona looked forward to doing. It was work that would come to something, tattered shorts or jeans made presentable, the shirts Arliss wore rinsed of grime and a rich tang of sweat, her own blouses brightened. Things were made right again. Ona hummed to herself as she filled the washer tub with suds. She wondered if Arliss suspected she occasionally washed a few clean things just to feel the satisfaction that came from washing, drying, folding, stacking. It was one more thing that replenished a well of peace for days when she needed more.

They had replaced the machines during winter, money that could have gone to other things, Arliss liked to remind her. She often hung the damp items on a line behind the house, less to appease him than to give her more reason to be outdoors. Spring had brought breezes that grazed her skin, butterflies that teased. The bees were like noisy royalty though she closed her eyes if they circled her too long.

“I’m going down to the alpacas,” he said. He slapped his leather gloves on a calloused palm and frowned. “You’re not done?”

She closed the washer lid on the last load. “I still have the garden. And clothes to hang.”

He left her with the familiar refrain. “I told you that dryer was a waste. But that garden will help pay for it.”

But it was spring going on summer, not winter, Ona wanted to retort. It wouldn’t matter. He was in one of his moods again. If she was lucky it’d pass sooner this time. He’d smiled at her in the morning. She’d been close to sitting down and chatting with him. Then he’d gotten up and taken the strong coffee, along with a plate of eggs made with dill and onion, to the porch. Hank trotted after him. The loyal mutt had been named after his brother, serving in the Army. Ona knew he loved that dog more than her, though he might deny it on a good day. It was his brother he missed.

It hadn’t always been this way. Arliss Jameson had been a different person in high school, all tousled hair and smiling eyes, quick to make a friend, slow to stir things up. She’d come from the city and knew how to play basketball hard and well. That impressed him, as did her unfettered laugh. But by the third year of their marriage he’d turned surly. The house was filled with silence and anger for days, sometimes weeks. She’d patiently waited for it to pass. Ona understood he’d hoped to leave like his brother, but to do bigger things, though she was never sure what. She had a few other dreams, too, but was pragmatic about it. After some research she’d suggested they get alpacas–she’d heard they were smart, good-natured and would make them money. His haunted look was replaced by a benign acceptance; dark introspection was curtailed. But it hadn’t ended. It could come back like a bad wind from nowhere over the years. He didn’t mean to be hard on her but being caught in his long shadow of misery made her feel caged. Uneasy. He forgot she was there or threw words at her that landed like small stones. She increasingly wondered why she’d fallen in love.

Ona settled the clothes basket on her hip and pushed open the back door. A rush of warm wind unfurled her long auburn hair. Treetops swished, rustled. The sunshine smelled like a small slice of lemon. Arliss would’ve told her that was foolish but nothing was impossible, she thought. If caterpillars became butterflies, why not lemon-scented sunlight? She pegged white socks and t-shirts, her flowered panties, his slacks and her long mint green skirt. Watched them flutter. They were already drying in an unusual May heat wave. And waiting for bodies. For a minute Ona imagined Arliss and herself slipping inside pants and skirt, swinging away. Two fools dangling, toes grazing the earth.

She smiled and shaded her eyes with her flattened palm. She could barely make out Arliss as he passed their oak grove. He’d be with gone an hour or more. If she just made a big salad with leftover chicken she’d have time to slip away. She grabbed her sandals and headed to the other side of the house.

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The Clearing is what she called it even though there was more open land elsewhere. But that is what it did for her–cleared her mind and soul. This was where she put aside work and financial worries and a thorny fear that snagged her when she wasn’t on guard. There was her little pond, really a muddy puddle until rain filled and sweetened it and frogs proliferated. There were the oaks and elms growing in such a way that they sheltered without isolating. She had seen deer graze here before moving down into the meadow. Ona suspected God paused here, grasses and wildflowers welcomed her, frogs sang out for her ears. She kept all this close. It delivered her.

On the other side of the white fence was the Evans’ ranch. She sometimes saw the owner, Charles’, riding or his Appaloosas and Andalusians grazing. He rode every day, usually earlier, but sometimes later. He sat on his horse as if custom-made to fit. He was perhaps fifteen years older than Ona, his wife long gone to New Mexico, his son in the family horse business. Ona was attentive to Charles Evans’ maneuvers when he was in the field; he was said to have an uncanny way with horses. Her observations were unschooled. Ona wouldn’t have known what skills he had except that she felt his calmness and confidence as she watched from her perch by the pond.

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This time she went to the fence, saw nothing but green pasture dotted with trees, topped by rich blueness, white clouds. It felt as though summer was taking over already. Heat found her and held fast. She knew she had only a few minutes so absorbed everything. She turned to face the clearing and leaned back against the fence. The verdant landscape cast its spell. Her eyelids lowered. The creek on the Evans’ side rushed and tumbled through its banks. Blue jays, robins, crows and those still unnamed called to each other in earnest.

Her chin hit her chest and she fell forward. Something had pushed her. She swung around, then stepped back so fast she fell to the ground. A mammoth gray horse was staring at her, thick mane half-covering intense eyes, heavy tail switching back and forth. Ona fought the urge to run. She had never been so close to such a large animal in its own element. Its muscular presence profoundly unsettled her. The horse exuded condensed power, a deeply quiet elegance. Its intelligent face was rugged but noble of design. She took one step forward and gazed back more calmly. The gray horse nodded at her, loped away, then began to trot, strong legs carrying him farther afield until hidden beyond tress.

But Evans was walking toward her. Where had he come from?

Ona thought she should go back to the house. She had the garden yet and dinner to make. Arliss would be looking for her. They knew of each other but they didn’t socialize. The Jamesons were just getting by, the Evanses thrived. And really, what did you say to a man who could speak the language of horses as if it was his own tongue? She had trouble enough with Arliss, the alpacas and a shaggy named for her brother-in-law. In fact, she didn’t talk much, anymore, and found it caem easy. Her aloneness had become a habit, and silence was an aura that surrounded them both too often.

Evans gave her a small smile, but his eyes were a friendly brown. He was tall but not as tall as Arliss, bulkier with muscle.

“That was an Andalusian, but you probably knew that, living out here.”

His voice was softer than she expected. She shook her head.

“I’m not a homegrown country girl. That horse scared me, to be honest.”

“That’s a shame, but if you aren’t familiar…I know you and Arliss live there. Alpacas are good animals. Nice place.” He gestured toward their red house and the barn, then adjusted his hat lower on his forehead. “I’ve seen you here sometimes.”

She felt embarrassed. Did he think she was spying on him? She didn’t mean to intrude; maybe she should stay far from his fence.

“My quiet place. I love this spot.”

Evans turned back to his land and she thought he was done so she looked back at the pond, finished as well.

“How about you and Arliss come by this week-end for barbecue? My son, Jack, knows your husband. We should’ve asked before.”

Ona took a breath and it stuck there a second. She looked right at him. Dinner at his ranch? She could make her coconut cake. She might peek at more terrifying, beautiful horses. Arliss and Jack and Mr. Evans could talk country business. She’d listen well.

He held out his hand. “Charlie Evans. Ask your husband and we’ll set a time.” He smiled widely. “And maybe you’ll make friends with my horses.”

“Ona here, sure, yes I will, Charlie. Ask Arliss, I mean. And check out your horses.”

Charlie Evans tipped his hat and strode off, whistling. The gray horse stepped from shadow and galloped toward him.

Ona returned to the pond–a swampy spot, really, but she liked it–and sat on a nurse log. Honeyed light streamed through the canopy. Spring peepers were in full chorus. The view of their house was nice from here. In truth, she hadn’t noticed for a while just how good it was. It could all get better. The alpaca business was turning a profit thanks to Arliss’ hard work and her research. She had to keep planting, hanging out laundry in fragrant air, visiting her Clearing but also reaching out to Arliss. Remind him she did still care even if he could be a hard case. Get to know those lovely alpacas better. And maybe Evans saw something in her, a hidden potential that suggested she might one day scale a horse and learn how to ride with it. Ona was so ready to round up more excitement, gather her courage. She still had what it took. Life was just waiting for her to say the word.

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Invitation

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Cam steadied herself on the bottom step. She could hear their bright voices beyond the wall, laughter punctuating conversations like a foreign accent. There was fragrance of food unlike any she recognized, rich and well spiced. Her stomach lurched and she leaned on the wall. She felt ready to leave. A phone call with apologies and an excuse of sudden headache would not be thought contrary or so surprising. She was the woman they barely thought to count as one of their own, after all, and certainly not since the events that unfolded over summer. Her watch indicated it was not quite past the brunch hour, yet she felt as though it was both too late to enter and too late to leave.

What could they be saying? She strained to hear and caught snatches of sentences. Something about Harry’s shoes, how they were a “tad long” but grandchildren grew fast; she wanted to shop for “first year of private school and all.” And then other words about editing, “failed efforts at improving miserable copy” and Cam thought of Marie at her mahogany desk, hair pulled back from her face into a long grey ponytail, eyebrows arched, lips tinted raspberry. Then laughter and another–was it Giselle?–woman noted that her husband was travelling south of the equator “of all places.”

Argentina!” she squealed.

Cam felt a ripple of anxiety and turned her back to the brick steps. It was too hot for September, or more likely she was in a feverish state brought on by the nearness of these people. She imagined them in a tight circle around the glass table in the garden, manicured fingers gripping drinks, faces peachy–and caramel, including Fran–in the sunshine. Cam irrelevantly mused on how women used make up named for food or sweets. Sensory delights. She was likely persimmon, red-cheeked and tart, even sour. This somehow cheered her.

Her shoes hurt. They were new with medium heels, bronze-toned leather–to go with a long sage green dress she’d found at the back of the closet. There hadn’t been time to change her clothes over from summer to fall. She didn’t care. Maybe when the rains hit she’d find her sweaters and pull them close, feel their heavy cotton a comfort. But now she dreaded the clear weather fading fast, the thick clouds that would knit themselves together and refuse to split open so light could break through. In summer, after the horror, she could lose herself in forests and meadows, hike for hours with snacks and water and no one to impede her. Being alone meant peace.

All too soon she’d have to sit in the house and remember. Think of the day she was taken away. The categorizing of her grief determined by the so-called authority of the DSM-IV Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders: Major Depressive Disorder  officially speaking. In essence, depression gone terribly awry. Ending in a sort of mini-breakdown with a day in jail and five days in a psych unit. She thought it just the exhaustion of sorrow cloaked in a brazen attempt at revenge. The psychiatrist had to be paid; insurance needed codes.

What would they have done? The women here, with whom she hadn’t officially become that friendly–they waved in passing, nodded on the street when they walked–and Marie, almost her friend before the crash. Would they have just shopped more, disregarded others’ poor choices? First the move here which Cam did not want; then Puck, their dog, getting lost or stolen; then their son’s, Alan’s, drunk driving accident, lost job and return to the new family home. The accident did more damage than they suspected and he suffered, as did they. It took until late August for Alan to rouse and return to Nevada and a faltering design career. And then her husband, Nate, and Rebecca Moore, “the VP of Marketing” he said off-handedly, seen at the golf club. Not once. Four times. Not during company events.

She shuddered. Even thinking that woman’s name stirred up residual but excessive anger. But how noble would her neighbors have been? She had tried. But eventually, after three months of it all she “took the roof off”, as her husband noted more than once to the police. What he meant was, Cam had had two very stiff drinks, tossed the pots and pans all over the kitchen, overturned his dining room chair and when she had thrown the fuchsia and apple green pillows off the couch three lit candles were knocked over, igniting newspapers and magazines. Alan sat on the porch in shock. Well, it was a nightmare, she agreed. She had behaved poorly and was embarrassed. Then came the shame. Never had she lost her temper like that, never had she screamed such things at Nate. She needed time out, room to breathe and think. Now she had a decent therapist and her husband had come to his senses. Maybe. She agreed to no more alcohol and he agreed…well, he said he’d be home more from now on. In autumn’s chill they’d sit before the fireplace, just talk. By winter, maybe there could be love again.

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The brunch carried on. The talk was muted; they must have been eating. Cam wiped her damp face with a tissue. They didn’t understand her and why should they? They didn’t know her, didn’t know how life could turn upside down in a flash. She looked up the steps to the gate and the sun blinded her. Then she saw the outline of Marie’s head, sleek ponytail swinging.

“Hey Cam, are you going to come in?”

“I don’t know yet. I was but…”

“You should come and eat with us. The gals are all waiting to see you.” She opened the gate and stepped down. Her face was a relief to see, open and warm as always despite those fine, hinting-at-haughty eyebrows.

Cam took a deep breath. “Yes, well, I don’t know. I don’t think I’m right for this group. Maybe next year.”

Marie laughed in a chesty way that was restrained but full of timbre. “Oh, heavens, never mind any pretensions. They all have their own sad stories! I’ll share the mantle of shame with you over coffee one day. But I want you here. I want you to come over any time, but especially when I cook. Who else eats my marvelous dishes? Dan is gone a lot and my daughter only eats smoothies and salads.” She linked her arm in Cam’s and looked her straight in the eyes. “You’re human. It’s quite alright.”

Cam felt something lurch inside, as though the heavy stone in her heart had been pushed aside. She felt tension drain a little. Maybe she wasn’t that unique. Life could be flush with craziness. She put her arm around Marie’s waist and they climbed the steps to the gate, flung it open, and stepped into the party. Their neighbors raised their glasses and cheered.