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.

Staying Alive: an Interview

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“So, alright, you have me sitting in a long-past-its-prime chair in a monochrome room and I am supposed to be cooperating so that you can do the work that is in my best interest I am told, but really is all this necessary again? I didn’t agree to come here to talk to you. I don’t even know who you are. I had no choice. I came because it was the last-ditch chance, his way or exit center stage! ‘Get out’ he said! I mean, I nearly…”

Mim’s inhales deeply, then fills the air with a few staccato breaths. She is hurting everywhere, toes to brain.

Lane leans forward. “It seems you didn’t really want to go, not like that. And you came of your own will today.”

“Yes, well, it isn’t that simple. It was a matter of giving in or getting out. I mean, leaving the family. Like, settling for a life on the street, likely, can you imagine? I can’t. He says he wouldn’t throw me out–how would it look to his firm, our neighbors?– but, hey, it has happened to better women than me. I mean, I’ve seen them out there and they are so sad, terrifying. But, then, look at me!”

The clock on the wall is simple, inconspicuous, but the ticking is like a stuttering shout. Mim, her new client, shifts side to side then pulls her shoulders back, finger to mouth so she can chew off a hangnail.

Lane sits still. In the corner of her eye she can see through the window, rain slashing across the parking lot two stories below. Her office is warm but the fortyish woman across from her shivers, folds her arms tight over her white shirt. Lane notes her shoes. They are expensive grey and black flats, slim and scuffed.

“I mean, it’s not like this is the first time. This is number three. Pretty soon I’ll be able to write reviews of all the treatment centers in northwest Michigan. I wrote a column you know. Used to. There can’t be that many more rehabs for me to check out. All the same in the end.” She exhales a guttural sigh that sounds like disgust. “So, yes, I have arrived once more, this year in New Times Center on Lake Michigan. I have to say it looks good out there.” Her good leg bounces. “It would possibly look gorgeous through the magic filter of gin.”

“You’ve had a lot of experience at this. You’re sober five days. It will look better in a week, two weeks. You know this already.”

Mim looks at Lane hard a few seconds but the woman doesn’t blink. Here eyes are moist, very blue, quiet. She is so still Mim wonders how she does it, listening to all the rantings.  Does she go home and have a tall glass of wine while she eats on her deck? Does she have to build a fortress around her before she goes to work? Or is she someone who gets it, this special sort of hell?

“I wonder what I must look like from the other side of the room, from your chair. It looks no better than mine but it must be a heck of a lot more comfortable. I know this isn’t a sabbatical trip I’m on, not a resort where I can kick back and have a good old time. But it isn’t the road to paradise, either. I don’t have to love it, find it new or fascinating. Because it is not.” She wets her lips, pushes her short hair off her forehead. “It is NOT.”

“It’s another try at sobriety,” Lane says, “a chance taken.” She pauses. “On something more. For you.”

200236712-001The clock, rain, the steamy warmth of the room: they have a dreamy effect and  contour Lane’s mind. Mim’s words, edged with gold–“It is NOT”–line up across her mental screen, perilous, brash. All those negatives over the years have become like so many glass words Lane collects, then breaks apart and rearranges with each new client. They create something else or do not succeed.

She picks up her mug of tea. The client doesn’t respond, only watches rain streaking the window, eyes narrowing as though trying to focus on one thought, a moment, the certain feeling that might tell a whole story, the truth, in one sentence. Lane knows it is hard. She sees it takes all Mim can summon to sit there and be seen like this when her nerves feel like they have shark teeth and her heart is a chattering fool. Lane knows it is not yet anything like the promise of well-being the tri-fold brochure intimates. The woman is to smart to see how she runs in circles. Yet. There can be change. There is a stirring in Lane’s chest like a small door opening, then: a steady pulse of compassion.

“I do want life to be different. I want my son and daughter to race up to me on visiting day, feel absolutely sure I am going to be strong. Kind. That is what I want to be: so much kinder than this.”

Mim brought the tender finger to her lips again, but she took it into her other shaky hand. She laced all fingers together so they formed a basket she peered into as they rested in the hollow of her lap. “But I don’t know what I’ll find if I stay sober. I don’t have any idea what I will discover inside, what sort of real woman is there…”

Ticktickticktick. Time slinks away as rain’s counterpoint beats an ancient drum on earth and brick walls. Mim’s fingers unthreading, shoulders sagging forward. Her face is like an underside of the moon, not fortuitously revealed but marked by a terrain confused by misinformation and the inroads of experience. Alcoholic eyes, burning wells. An etching of persimmon scars marches up her jaw line to her temple, slides across her covered, crooked nose. Her left eye is still circled by the palest velvety purple. Her lips move but nothing is let go. Hands fly to mouth, to eyes, to face.

Lane sits forward. “Life will find you, has found you even now. All you need do is be present with it. You have time here, a safety net. I’ll be here while you puzzle out the clues.”

Outside, Lane catches sight of a bony, bespectacled young man looking in the narrow window of the office door. He cranes his neck to see Mim. Crutches in the corner. Cast on her leg. She sees him staring and turns away. He feels sorry for her, her face damaged like that but he is much more angry. He might have been her, he might have ended up like her, but no. Did. Not. Happen. With a forceful push of the wheels, he propels his wheelchair down the hallway.

Mim stares at the empty rectangle of glass. “Lane, look, I can’t promise anyone anything. I don’t even know if I will stay.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“You came today.”

“Yes. I did.”

Lane nods and almost smiles. Mim feels done. She stands up with difficulty. Lane watches her hop to the crutches, steady herself. When her client stands a bit taller she crosses her office and opens the door. The hum of life flows down the corridor, a stream of possibilities. Mim looks over her shoulder, eyes like two dark stones turning and shining in light, and steps forward. She wants to smell the wet earth without alcohol numbing her senses. She wants to smell the rain.

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This Blue Dress, Worn by Citrine

Another overnight rainstorm had pummeled the earth until leaves and flowers bent in surrender.  The air smelled faintly of mud and lilacs as Nora opened her balcony doors to survey a brightening sky above roof lines and treetops. Two stories below her, the neighbors’ long driveway was filling up with tables and a couple of old chairs. Marty and his wife, Hanna, were setting up for a yard sale despite the iffy forecast.

“Hey, Nora!” Marty called. “Anything you want to add to our mess?”

“No, thanks,” Nora answered, waving back. “I just donated a pile of things to the shelter.”

She thought about the boxes of shoes and purses she hadn’t unloaded yet. They gaped at her daily whenever she entered her bedroom; it was hard to let go of old, still-good leather products. She chided herself. They ought to be relieved of their uselessness and passed on. Nora set her teacup down on the tiny glass-topped table, dragged out two boxes, and started eliminating, haphazard pile growing. Then she consolidated the “toss” items and took them down to Hanna, who encouraged her to be generous with low pricing. She found the whole thing tedious and tiring, so retreated back to her balcony.

People started to show up at eight-forty-five and for good reason. Marty and Hanna had a wide array of cheap offerings and customers rooted through books and old LPs, DVDs, jewelry and clothing. They admired a buffet and brocaded wing-back chairs. Nora noted that two pair of her shoes were bought. The garage held enticing cast-offs, from exercise equipment to older bikes to a 50-piece rose-covered china set the couple had avoided using for twenty years. Nora watched as she finished her muffin, licked her fingers. What did people want with so many used things? It struck her that the more one got rid of, the more one felt compelled to replace.  She bet most of the shoppers had things falling out of closets at home. She picked up her cup and plate; she had work to do.

Nora was turning to step inside when a flash of azure blue caught her eye. She looked closely at the clothesline strung across the drive. A long, sleeveless cotton dress hung at the end of the line, swinging in a the fresh breeze.  An ivory lace scarf trailed from its scoop neck. A wave of shock raced through her. She ran downstairs, around the corner and up the driveway and when she reached for the dress, it was gone. Frantic, she searched the arms of several women in the cash-and-carry line. When it wasn’t to be found Nora walked to the garage and scanned the dim interior. And there it was: slung carelessly over the arm of a teen-aged girl in tight, raggedy blue jeans, flip flops and a loose, likely vintage black T-shirt with the band Guns and Roses on the back. She stood by a man who studied tools spread out on a piece of plywood settled betweentwo saw horses. Nora wanted to stop the young woman before she lost her chance but hesitated. It was only a used dress. She willed the girl to look at her but she continued to browse. When Hannah called out to Nora and asked if she might spell her at the check-out table, Nora reluctantly left the garage and took up her post.

She watched three of her purses and another pair of shoes leave the premises. She was glad they were gone. The metal money-box was filling up nicely as she waited for Hanna’s return.  The more Nora thought about the dress–its soft, graceful lines with the exquisite lace scarf–the more she needed it.

When she looked up again the teen-aged girl stood before her. She put her finds on the table: three leather purses, a crock pot, gold-trimmed glass coffee carafe, four woven place mats, a pearl-embellished sweater. And one long blue dress with scarf.

“Looks like you’ve done well today,” Nora said, breathing shallowly.

“Well, it’s the start of my shopping. I better find a lot more out there.”

Nora raised her left eyebrow involuntarily and gave a half-smile. “You’re a diehard yard-saler, then?”

The girl tucked her brown and bleach-streaked hair behind her ears.   “It’s how I make money. You know, I buy and sell. I take stuff to vintage shops, second-hand shops, that sort of thing. Have to get by somehow. I’m on my own out there.” She got out her cash and counted it slowly. “So–how much?”

Nora bit the side of her lip. “I’m not sure. The dress and scarf might not be for sale.”

“What? Sure it is. I got it over there.” She nodded at the clothesline. “It’s a great warm weather dress. It costs ten bucks but I can get twice that. The scarf goes with it, too, right?”

Nora placed her hands flat on the card table and leaned forward. “I mean, I might not agree to let you buy it. I’d like it for myself.”

The girl snorted. “Well, you know, first come, first serve! I get that you like it but my dibs. Now, what do I owe, lady?”

Nora looked at the rumpled wad of bills in the girl’s hand and then at the dress. Only ten dollars on the sticker. How could something like that be had for so little? She stood up.

“Look, here’s the thing. I really need this dress, too. It matters to me. I don’t know how it got there. It must have been left behind in the house and no one knew it was there or cared. But it belonged to someone, someone who used to live right here. An important person.”

“Come on, everything at a yard sale belonged to somebody…what are you saying?”

“It belonged to Citrine. Citrine Devlin. My best friend. ” Nora felt the tears hot at her eyelids and looked up at her balcony. “I live up there. And Citrine lived in the lower level of this house until last year.”

The teen-ager examined the scarf and whistled. “Wow. Citrine. A very sweet name. Different.” She smoothed the rich blue cotton of the dress.

“Yes. Unique, really. Like her.”  Nora saw Hanna come up to the table and hover. “She was the sort of friend you always look for but hardly ever find. You know what I mean? Just a really good woman.”

Hanna touched Nora on the back. “I’ll take my spot back. Thanks. Isn’t it great the sun came out! I guess you’re all set to buy?” she asked the girl.

“Not yet.” The teen moved aside and let the next person ahead. “So what happened? To this Citrine person?”

But Nora was walking down the driveway, trying to stand tall and not run, stifling the urge to scream at the ignorant girl, the careless neighbors who put out that dress, the wretched wet flowers. She had been blind-sided, that was all. She wasn’t expecting the dress to show up, to remind her.

“Wait!” The teen-ager caught up with her. “I don’t want to wreck your day.  It’s just a dress, but–”

Nora stopped but didn’t turn. “Drunk driver. An pretty night in June. On her way back the little art gallery she owned; there had been a show opening. It was eleven when she left; I left right before her by about ten minutes. The moon looked amazing as I left downtown, drove up into these hills. We were going to have coffee the next morning, talk about the opening, her own work. But she was gone before I even got home that night, you understand? Some kid, a guy who had been to a graduation party. Too many beers or mixed drinks or whatever his poison was.” Tears fell like shiney stars from her eyes, and plummeted down her cheeks. “Isn’t it a random, crazy world? We don’t know what’s coming most of the time.”

The girl suddenly spun her around; she held tight to Nora’s arm. Then she closed her dark eyes, and when she opened them they were wide and still, but smoky with her own thoughts. “I know how it is; I lost somebody. Heroin overdose. So: the blue dress and scarf should be yours. Have to be. There are things that need to be with a special person. And you’re the keeper of that treasure from then on. ”

She held Citrine’s dress out to Nora, then put down her bag of items and wrapped Nora in her thin arms. They stood that way as the lilac bushes whispered nothing of import and raindrops shook free from above and wet their hair,  with one blue dress and delicate scarf safe between them.