Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 6: TRENTON, NEW JERSEY (Part 1, 2, and 3)

1

I am alone in our Cranbury house, on my bed, crying uncontrollably. I’ve just devoted the past half-hour to emptying my closet. I was searching for myself, littering the bedroom with reminders of who I had been. Remnants of me ornament the floor, dresser, chair, and my bed; and I am sitting amid every bit of who I was, fingering articles idly, but mostly staring at the dresser mirror, framing me, hardly able to see my reflection through my filmy eyes, really not wishing to look at me, but drawn by the compelling necessity of liking me again.

Hatred consumes me. I hate Volkswagens. I don’t actually despise the car, but what it symbolizes—me as I am now. I am huge. My belly protrudes and I can’t avoid seeing it no matter what I am doing, whether standing, sitting, or lying. It always looms below me and depresses me. I’ve been pregnant for seven months and happy in my state until now, because today I know how Richard really feels about me.

2

This morning, I made his breakfast, as I always do. He appeared at six, as he always does. I sat across from him, as usual staring at the newspaper, which has become a fixture over the past month, as much a part of the kitchen as the clock on the wall, the tick-tock of which was, as usual, the sole sound.

Finally, finished, he rustled the paper, folded it precisely, and set it carefully on the table. He regarded me. He smiled, a cool, mechanical curving of his lips.

He said, “Babe, you know, you’re beginning to remind me of a Volkswagen.”

I replied, startled, “What?”

Rising, he clarified, “Your girth.”

He may as well have bashed my head with the toaster for he could not have knocked me into more of a daze. I sat stock still, aghast. I watched him walk with his plate to the counter, where he set it next to the sink. It was simply too much trouble, or maybe too considerate, or a breach of his definition of duties, to rinse the damn thing and put it in the dishwasher.

Wearing a robotic grin, he strolled to the hall, to the closet for his overcoat. “Come on,” he said, not bothering to look at me, to check my reaction, “I’m joking, Babe.” Then, “You’re not losing your sense of humor, too, I hope.”

Had he glanced my way, he would have seen me reddening, the outward sign my blood pressure was straining my poor tired veins and arteries, already roughed up badly by my pregnancy. He was gone, the door slammed behind him, as I gasped for air and tottered on my chair, fighting to regain control of myself, afraid I’d soon sprawl on the floor, baby injured, maybe fatally, and mother-to-be helpless for hours until the malefactor, my husband, returned to the scene of his insult.

3

Here I am, then, in my bedroom, in my bed, amid my debris.

I am the size and weight of a small car. I am not even flesh and blood, but a machine laboring at one task, presenting Richard with a child. Here, there, and everywhere is who I was. The sweet, adoring newlywed who capered around Hawaii in coral shorts. The jazzy little girl who danced summer parties in Creek Falls in a red sun dress, staying awake all night talking up gales with Angie and Rosemary. Why did I keep the dress? To remain in touch with myself, my girl self. Maybe I’ve always been this way, a person who lives in the past. With me on the bed is my charcoal suit, remembrance of the teacher I thought I might be, until Richard declared I shouldn’t work, that I had another job ahead of me, more important: wife, nurturer of his career, mother, diminishing myself for the good of the nascent family.

I’m crying over sacrificed ambition, but I am on the verge of laughing, too, at my plight, at Richard, who has inflicted it on me, at myself for allowing him to. I am there in full, the relics of a life hoped for, a story written in department store couture.

Reclining on pillows against the headboard, hiding from the mirror, I ponder Richard’s degradation of me: I am a Volkswagen. But Richard is not joking, for when I review the past several months, the truth is apparent. He has treated me like a car he sometimes tinkers with. He doesn’t make love to my anymore. He works on me. He sees I’m out of tune and he rectifies the problem with a quick fuck. He sees I’m a bit sluggish and he compliments profusely, falsely; it’s like an oil change at the quick lube: efficient and fast, the job done in record time, and cheaply too. I seem dull to him; he buffs with a little gift, dime store jewelry, supermarket flowers, little considerations that aren’t, not really, just items to make him feel good about himself; they have nothing to do with me. For what am I but a machine, a not very cute bug.

My little motor is chugging hard and sending current through the wires of my body, sparking my belts and pulleys, my muscles, and I shift in bed, and I glance unavoidably into the mirror, where I gratefully don’t glimpse myself but, frightfully, see, instead, a nemesis from the past. Julie gloats at me with obscenely red lips, with a lascivious wet tongue clucking against artificially white teeth, head bobbing, eyes wide and bright and moist, mirthful at my expense. I rub my own eyes hard and red and am sick again at myself now reflecting back, a sad, miserable case of blotched skin and snotty nose and bloodshot eyes and rampaging hair. My crimson eyes speak to me and confirm what I know: Richard is cheating on me. I’m not a woman, not the girl he has known since Creek Falls, not a wife, not the soon-to-be mother of his child; I am inanimate, a hunk of matter, blind, he believes, to the obvious.

What a pitiful situation. I’ve suspected him for months. You can’t live with a man like Richard and not know his foibles, especially in the department of sex. Richard is omnivorous and insatiable. Before my pregnancy, I could not keep out of bed, or off the floor, or the dining room table, or the backseat of the car, or any flat surface that presented itself. Indoors, outdoors, Richard craved me. He is—was—a generous lover, a lover of long, lingering kissing and licking and stroking and languorous undulation. He wanted me to be happy, to be filled; he seemed deliciously unselfish, champion of my satisfaction: He wasn’t sated unless I was. Sometimes, I admit, it was simply too much for me, too much of a good thing. I couldn’t keep up, but I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t deprive him of his pleasure, the duality of release and pleasing me. But sometimes I just had to fake satisfaction to keep him happy. There was much I could complain about, but never that Richard did not or would not please me sexually. Until I announced my pregnancy. And even then sex went on and did not diminish until I changed physically. When my belly blossomed, my breasts enlarged, the veins in my legs thrust to the surface; when I metamorphosed into the Volkswagen, sex drove away. And the question plaguing me, the question I work very hard at dodging, the question is: What is Richard doing for sex?

Once, we discussed masturbation. We were at Rider in the student union drinking coffee and talking about everything and nothing. A loud conversation broke out at the next table and vulgarities flew, among them jerk-off artist. It was purely friendly argument and Richard and I laughed along with the debaters. Later, as he walked me to my dorm, as I worried about him in Olsen A atop the coeds on the second floor, I asked, timidly, “Have you ever, you know?”

“Know what?” he asked, innocently, like a fresh-faced who stumbles in on his parents in the throes.

I heat with embarrassment. How could I have asked such an indelicate question, the answer to which I really did not wish to know?

Before I finished the thought, he was following on with, “You mean beat my meat, stroke my pole, whack off, jerk off, pull the putz, that sort of thing?” I had to stop walking and throw my hands over my face to hid from him and his words.

Gently, he tugged my hands from my face. He was smiles and cheer. “You wanted to know.” I couldn’t decide if he was purposely crude or wickedly funny. I chose to believe the latter. “I learned from the old man the minute I walked in the house with a hard-on, don’t waste the seed.” He observed me closely and my already hot face flamed. “Consequently, Babe, I’ve been a very frustrated young man.”

It hit me like an accusation.

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 5: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY (Part4)

4

I’d set the oven timer and its ding rouses me from my reverie; and as I revive, the front door opens and I hear the familiar call, “Babe, I’m home.”

My call is rote, already perfunctory from hundreds of repetitions. “In here, Richard.”

I’m placing the plates and utensils on the table and it occurs to me that in many ways my life is like a play: It’s scripted morning to night. Everything we say is like precast dialogue. We have memorized our lines well and spiel them, unvaried, every hour of every day. Like actors, we’ve worked at nuance; each common phrase packs meaning for us—well, for me at least. “Babe, I’m home” is more than a simple, pleasant greeting; rather, it is Richard’s announcement for me to prepare myself for any number of things: He will relate the important events of his day and I should be prepared to listen with rapt attention; he will inquire about how I have spent my day and I should answer with the correct amount of detail, not so much that I bore him, but enough so I assure him I haven’t frittered away my time; he will ask for a progress report on Samantha, sort of like a status update from an employee on the growth of an account. Babe, I’m home alerts me to be on my ready, and tightens the cord of tension in me to the limit of its tensile strength.

I remain in the kitchen taking care of the finishing touches: the salt and pepper (I never seem to season his food to his liking), the napkins (I learned early cloth only when he declared paper low class, though paper is acceptable for breakfast), and our beverages (iced tea only, as he complains soda bloats him and water is tasteless).

In he strolls and I turn. Reacting to the surprise on my face, he quickly says, as if he means it, “I should have called, but it was last minute.”

Last Minute stands next to him, still and expressive as a statue. He is a tall man, thin and angular, his hands bony, his Adam’s apple prominent and protruding offensively. I want to ask Richard if the man is a circus act: He wears bright blue from head to toe. He is in a shirt and tie and they are blue. A hat, a fedora, covers his head, and it is blue. As if this is not sufficiently bizarre, every article of clothing is exactly the same shade. I am confounded as much by the consistency of the man’s blues and as I am at the man’s presence. I want to demand of Richard what he is thinking, why he would invite a stranger into our house unannounced, how he could expect me to accommodate his guest without notice.

Richard focuses on the man and snickers. “Oh-oh, I believe I have committed a grave error.”

The man in blue acknowledges nothing. He appears not to be present in any manner but physical, in my kitchen in form only.

I am unhappy and distressed, and I am waiting for Richard to introduce us. Time passes and Richard’s behavior strikes me as unlike him. For all his faults, he is at least superficially considerate and a keen observer of social form. Yet, the clock ticks away two minutes without introductions.

Finally, I introduce myself; but the man in blue doesn’t acknowledge me.

“He’s the quiet type,” Richard says. “He can talk okay, but he chooses to keep to himself. What’s for dinner?”

“Tuna casserole,” I answer, going to the oven and removing the baking dish. “I hope there’s enough.”

Richard and the man in blue seat themselves at the table. I ask what they would like to drink.

“The usual,” Richard answers.

I serve them ice tea, set the man’s place, and sit. Richard dishes up the tuna casserole. Richard and I eat. The man in blue eats or drinks nothing. Richard and I eat in silence for a few moments, until I can’t stand the quiet any longer.

“Are you from here?” I ask.

He ignores me. In frustration, but nicely, I ask Richard, “Who is your friend?”

Richard praises my tuna casserole profusely, as if I’d fished for a compliment instead of inquired about the mysterious man.

I ask again.

Richard, finally, tells me the man is a job candidate.

Ignoring the man, I ask, “But he doesn’t talk. He hasn’t said a single word since he’s been here.”

“No,” acknowledges Richard, “but he’s an authentic closer. Best closer I ever met.”

Closer scares me.

Richard detects the fright in my eyes. “I mean, Bleu ,here—that’s his name, Bleu, Belair Bleu—Bleu can sell up a storm. He’s a very persuasive fellow, when he wants to be. Isn’t that right, Bleu?”

Belair Bleu remains as he has been the entire time, impassive, the anomalous closer.

Richard clamps an arm around Bleu, who has stood in unison with him, and they start for the doorway. Bleu stops abruptly and Richard falters. Bleu leads Richard to the stove. He whispers in Richard’s ear. Richard nods, and I hear him breathe, “Yes, gas.” Bleu twists a knob. They whisper again. I can’t understand them, until Richard shakes his head and says, “I don’t know.” I can’t control myself. I’m shivering and I form horrid ideas about Bleu, and about Richard, who I find I distrust immensely. I suspect the two of hatching a plot, something evil. I flash on Samantha in her crib, helpless.

I envision her in a roasting pan, and I bolt from the kitchen, by way of the living room to avoid the pair, on my way to the stairs and up to her. But what I see parked in our driveway through the panoramic living room window stops me. It’s an old car, which I assume must belong to Bleu, and it’s familiar. I’ve seen Bleu’s car, but as hard as I try I can’t recall where. I should remember, because the car is distinctive. It is bright blue, like his clothing, the color of the sky on a clear summer’s day. The hood is badly dented in two places in the front and on its surface near the windshield. And the windshield, it’s cracked, fine spider threads spreading from the center where something has struck it. I’m reduced to cold tears partly from fear, and partly from my inability to recall where I have seen Bleu’s car. I know the car. I know remembering is important. But my memory is erased.

I gallop up the stairs and into Samantha’s bedroom and I fall into another world; I cannot comprehend the change. Samantha is there, but not in her crib. She is in her big girl bed, the very bed I sometimes imagine her in when she is older. There she is, now grown, in the bed. The cover, a ubiquitous saccharin princess counterpane, is pulled up to the middle of her stomach, and she is upright, reclining against the backboard. She appears to be eight. She sees me and smiles and hides her mouth with her hands and giggles manically. I watch her and I struggle to breathe. Unexpectedly, the cover near her feet writhes and I hear a squeaky roar.

Samantha reacts to my expression of deepening terror. She squeals, “Mommy, it’s not a real lion. Look.” She yanks the cover to reveal the lump.

A little girl with dark hair in princess pajamas pops up. She exclaims, “Surprise, Mommy, it’s me.”

I blurt, “Me who?”

“Me, Emily,” she shouts, jumping up and down on the bed, to the consternation of Samantha.

My confusion consumes me and instantly I’m afraid I will collapse. I can’t remain a second longer in Samantha’s bedroom, yet I am reluctant to leave for fear Bleu may harm her. But I can’t stay, and I bolt the room to the hilarious shrieks of the girls.

As I cross the threshold into the hallway, the chorus merges into one sustained wail. 

Samantha, infant Samantha.

Her cry compels me to return and scoop her up and flee, but I see Richard and Bleu climbing the stairs. I’m rooted and can only watch them step into the hallway. Richard smiles, but without an ounce of warmth or kindness, like burning ice; it is more grimace, engendered not by worry or concern, but anger. I know Richard’s moods. He is adept at disguising his anger, but I know; I read it in his eyes, in the way he narrows them to reptilian slits; the way the whites grow redolent and slowly blink at me like tired warning lights. He disguises their intent with patter, pretty and soothing.

“Babe, you’re tempting when you are like this. What’s wrong with you, anyway? Let me take you into the bedroom, lie you down. You look like you need to rest.”

I feel naked, exposed, vulnerable, trapped. I turn my head around, swiftly, beyond its normal arc until the strain hurts, hunting for an escape route from Richard and Bleu, who is standing directly behind Richard, inscrutable under his bizarre fedora, yet still managing to transmit rays of menace, like in the old comics, visible, pulsating vectors of threat that vibrate me, rattle me top to bottom with terror.

I have no alternative but to back into Samantha’s room. It’s infant Samantha’s room again and I’m relieved, but terrified too, because I know she is in danger. I must save her and me. She is sleeping. As panicked as I am—my arms and hands tremble, my legs wobble, clammy sweat drenches me, I reach down and tenderly lift her, and she comes to me without a hint of stirring. I can’t decide what to do, so I do what I can, and that is back into the corner farthest from the door and pray for the best.

And I begin to believe my prayers are answered, for the door remains closed, the room empty, except for us, and silent.

After a long while, I creep to the door and, with Samantha settled in the crook of an arm, I open it. I peer out, up and down the hallway. It is clear. I tiptoe into the hallway and over to the stairs. I look down and see nothing. It occurs to me Richard and Bleu could be in our bedroom or Richard’s home office, waiting for me. I decide my best course is down the stairs to the main floor, where I can escape to the outside.

I retreat into the family room, where Samantha has a playpen. If I have to act, I want my arms free—though I have no idea how I will use them, not an inkling of how I will repel their assault. I gently place Samantha in her playpen. She mutters, but remains asleep, for which I sigh with relief.

Now I hear footsteps. They are in the kitchen. I hear a voice buzz. Richard, I assume, is whispering to Bleu. I presume the worst. For reasons I can’t fathom, Richard wishes me harm, just me. What is my offense? Loving him beyond good sense? Bearing him a beautiful daughter? Relinquishing control of my life to him? What crime have I committed against him?

The whispering stops. What are they planning? I am tempted to peek in the kitchen, but I know I can’t, not safely. I find myself staring at Samantha. I know my little girl. She’ll sleep for at least another hour, maybe two. I decide my best option is to flee the house. I hate leaving her, but now, inexplicably, my heart changes and I’m convinced Richard will not hurt her, or allow Bleu to. I am the victim, only me.

I tiptoe to the slider. I pause and listen. I flip the lever to unlock the door. Slowly, I slide it open. Again I wait. The house is silent. I stand and gingerly step outside. I’m sweating into my eyes, and they sting. My muscles are taut. I expect one of them to materialize in front of me and grab me, and the other to seize me from behind.

But neither happens and I dart across the patio. I turn and race down along the side of the house toward the front. Just as I clear the house I see them. Richard and Bleu are loitering near the bright blue car. I stop abruptly and twist my ankle. I yelp in pain. Like somnolent retiles aroused, their heads pop up and they swivel and spot me. I should flee into our neighbor’s house. But what if they aren’t home? Instead, I hobble straight ahead, down our front lawn, across the sidewalk, and into the street. I’m limping as fast as I’m able, but the injury hampers me; the pain increases; I’m grunting and mewling like an animal.

I don’t know where I’m headed. I’m just moving, getting away, when I hear a strange whir behind me. At first it’s low and hardly penetrates the thumping in my ears, the rattle of my chest, the ragged whoosh of my breath. I turn back to see what it is, and I see the unnaturally bright blue car swing out of the driveway and plunge forward after me. I can see Bleu behind the wheel. Richard is on our front lawn. He’s holding Samantha and watching. I want cry out for him to protect our daughter. But I can’t. I have to turn and concentrate on the road and my escape. I must move fast, faster, or Bleu will catch me, and I will add to the dents on the hood of his car.

I hobble until I can’t take another step, until I think my heart will explode. But I don’t have to go any farther, because Bleu has overtaken me, and he is slipping the hood of the blue car under me, and he is scooping me up, and I am bouncing on the hood, into the dents, and skidding into the windshield, adding a new crack, sliding up and over the roof, and bounding off the trunk lid, and landing, crumpled and broken, on the payment. I’m nearly dead but still alive enough for a last vision of my house and Richard with Samantha cradled in his arms entering through the front door.

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 5: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY (Part3)

3

Richard wants to live on a grand scale, and the christening party is a manifestation of his desire for a showy life. He dictated what he wanted, painting his vision in broad strokes, and delegated me to execute it.

Samantha is down and I can get on with my tasks: Arrange for the tent and meet with the caterer.

I phone Rent-All that, as the name advertises, rents everything, from trucks and forklifts to furniture and tents. A man answers. I ask about tents, chairs, and tables, informing him we are holding a christening party in our backyard. I ask about the tent colors. He asks the size, and I am stumped. I want to say, “Big.” But I judge it too vague. I tell him for a party of one hundred or so adults. He advises I rent their extra big tent. I’m happy too, and what colors are available? White and more white is his answer. I know Richard will be unhappy. He wants color, brightness, big and bold; he wants to make a statement; he wants the entire neighborhood to know we are throwing a party and maybe if they are fortunate he will invite them next time; he wants the flyovers to realize they are missing something as they head to or away from New York City. My tone must convey my dissatisfaction, because the man says, “Sorry, white’s it. It’s the season.” I should say I’ll get back to him and check other places. But if it is the season, I might risk forfeiting the big tent.

I panic at the catastrophic prospect. I know Richard will find no tent unacceptable. A plain white tent will upset him, but no tent will infuriate him. He will stare at me, scrutinize me head to toe. He will not utter a word, but his criticism will as pointed as if he’d screamed in my face.

I order the white tent and ask about round tables. Richard specified round tables, as these are more conducive to conversation. However, the man informs me that he has no round tables. It’s the season, you know. Rectangular tables only. I have no choice but to order them. Fortunately, he has chairs. I wonder why, since it is the season for everything else. “Always got plenty of chairs, season or no season.” It’s a small blessing, I guess.

The caterer is easier. It’s the season, but he can accommodate me, if I’m throwing an evening party. I am relieved. Richard wants an evening party; he says it is more sophisticated.

Mercifully, Samantha has slept through the morning and is waking as I finish with the caterer. I go up to her and bring her down to the kitchen. I feed her. I spend the afternoon reading to her, watching her play under her gym. She bats the black and white objects suspended from the bar over her. Then it’s time for her to sleep again. I return her to her crib and return myself to the kitchen to prepare dinner for Richard. When Richard is not on the road, he likes dinner at six. He prefers Samantha sleeping during dinner and for an hour or so after. He explained his reason after Samantha and I had been home a week from the hospital. He felt an awake and sometimes wailing child would not allow us to talk and, later when I was able, to make love after or before dinner. It seemed sensible to me and I agreed. In the beginning, it proved the correct thing to do. The problem came when I discovered Samantha would not always cooperate with what Richard and I wanted, and when Richard startled me with his unreasonable inflexibility. He wanted it his way and nothing less would do. It was his job to earn the money and mine to ensure a peaceful, accommodating home life.

I am shaking my head in disbelief as I finish assembling my tuna-noodle casserole. This is especially for Richard. Casseroles are among his favorites. I have mastered many varieties of the species, employing tuna, chicken, beef, and vegetables; he doesn’t particularly care about the main ingredient, or even the taste I suspect, as long as it is moist, gooey, and salty.

I’m panicked and angry. The panic is transitory, related directly to Samantha’s presence in the house that I’d had all to myself before she arrived, and to the pressure of planning the party to Richard’s specifications. The anger predates Samantha. It has been building and intensifying until it nearly engulfs my days, dampening the love, what had been my hot and irrational passion, for Richard.

How can I permit Richard to rule me as he does? Richard earns the money, and through his efforts is responsible for what we have. I understand and grant him that. But he is inflexibly dominating. It’s not only me he controls; his employees receive the same treatment. To remain Richard’s employee, a person has to perform exactly to his expectations. Deviate a little and he will transfer you, or worse, fire you. He is remorseless and vicious. He admits to it. Conversation with Richard consists of him talking and me listening. And what he talks about, almost exclusively, is work. His work possesses him. He might be home, but he is never away from work; it is in him, there like an extra organ. He expounds constantly on his business philosophy and his method of training and handling his employees. At first, after we had moved to New Jersey, I loved that he would confide in me. But after a short while, listening to him transformed into agony. It’s difficult to bear the repetition; Richard repeats himself terribly. Once I mentioned this tendency of his to him. He regarded me with his disdaining stare for a long, disquieting time. His expression conveyed I was naïve, I knew nothing about business, and it was good I didn’t work. Finally, he said, you have to state what you expect again and again; his experience taught him most people didn’t get it the first time, many not even the second, and those who couldn’t grasp his point the third, those people were gone. For a moment, I thought he was referring to me. But he smiled and I reassured myself it was just more of his business mentality spilling over.

I am angry because I am Richard’s prisoner. True, I can come and go as I please, physically. I can hire a sitter for Samantha, if I choose. I can ask either of our parents to visit us, leave her with them, and takeoff for a weekend, even without Richard. However, I cannot escape him, for he has entrapped my mind. He is in me every minute. What he likes and dislikes. His demands. His voice. He drones in the background, maddening and distracting, like a dull, incessant headache. I believe he is deconstructing me and reassembling the parts of me into a robot, accepting and acting on his command; an automaton striving to execute his orders to his ideal of perfection; but I fail because I am human and I commit errors. Yet, I don’t feel human. Organic is what I am. Living, sentient, capable of low-level thinking, a delta. But not full fledged human, not like Richard.

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 5: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY (Part 1 and 2)

1

I am frantic. I am a mad woman. I am a basket case. I need a therapist. But I have no time for one. I am planning a christening party in our backyard to which we have invited one hundred guests, many business associates of Richard.

It’s not the party that has me frenzied. I’ve been disturbed, agitated, wild, and a few states I can’t label, since Samantha’s birth. And Richard hasn’t been much help. He’s regional manager for his pharmaceutical company and he’s rarely home. He travels frequently for business, not far, always in the Mid-Atlantic area, usually within a day of our home. Worse are the late hours. Early on when I bemoaned his absences, he informed me his workday extended into evening, what with reviewing the day’s sales calls with his representatives, or treating key accounts—not people, but ledger entries—to dinner. I’d hoped he’d cut back when I became pregnant, and when he did not I confronted him. He was contrite. He admitted he might be putting too much into his work and maybe he should cut back and lend me a bit more support … but business was too competitive, the raw recruits weren’t as sharp he required. He wanted to be with me. After all, he married me to be with me all the time. But business was demanding.

And business was what made our lifestyle possible … what made Samantha possible. Richard would repeat whenever I pleaded for more of his time, more of his help. Babe, you love the house? It was always the same type of question. I always admitted I loved the house, the extra car. You love the baby? I did and I didn’t need to answer. Well, Babe, we can’t keep the house. We couldn’t support Samantha. Sure, I could get another job. But it wouldn’t pay like my drug lord job. Sometimes, when it suits his purpose, he likes to joke about what he does. These hearings concluded in the same way, with Richard throwing up his hands to signal, case closed. He knew I couldn’t give up the house, couldn’t resist providing Samantha every opportunity at a wonderful, fulfilling life.

Of course, when I desperately need him, Richard is away. He will not return until the eve of the party. I am charging around furious at him. He knew the date of the party, knew how big an event it would be—huge entirely to satisfy him. Yet, he continued scheduling trips. When I began planning the party, I asked him to save time for me. He ignored me. After his first trip, when I was writing invitations, I begged him not to schedule travel within two weeks of the party, and certainly not within a few days of it; I would need him most then to run errands, pick up food, help with the tables.

Here it is three days before the party and he is off somewhere in the state; he couldn’t even reform his neglectful practice of failing to supply me with his itinerary.

2

I am in our kitchen, in the large eat-in area. Though the weather is blistering, summer temperatures in May, I’m downing a cup of hot tea. I am staring though mullion windows at our back yard, pondering the size of the tent, whether yellow and white striping is too brassy, how I will arrange the tables, and where I will have the caterer set up the buffet.

Samantha elects to wake from her nap as I am in the throes of questioning my choices. I swear under my breath. I have never been a vulgar person. I scarcely even thought vulgar words, until Samantha arrived. But my new approach to problems and crises isn’t her fault. It is Richard’s.

I go to Samantha, who is in her bedroom upstairs. I lift her from her crib, cradle her, and coo at her. Her face is red from exertion. I rock her and walk her around the room. Neither helps for long, for she resumes her vigorous crying. She’s dry; I assume she is hungry. I carry her downstairs, warm a bottle, and settle in with her at the table.

Samantha is the product of my union with Richard. I want to say she is the result of our love, and I really hate myself for even thinking she is a product. Richard classifies everything as products. Products are meant to be sold. And he is a seller. His conversations—his because I can’t be sure he is talking to me or simply at me, as if I am just another member of his sales crew—always revolve around products and selling. He seems to have no interests—except, hurtfully, one—beyond his work. I’ve tried often to discuss items I’ve read in the newspaper or seen on television. I’ve attempted bantering about our neighborhood and our neighbors. Nothing interests him but his work. I’ve suggested he lighten up a bit or he might burnout. Ridiculous, he’s said. He demands one hundred and twenty percent from his people—a reference that horrifies me, and reduces his employees to automatons—and one hundred and fifty percent from himself. I don’t appreciate that these expectations seem to exempt him from behaving like a human being.

Richard’s excessive drive to succeed distresses me. He professes to love Samantha and me. He claims sadness at having to be away from home as much as he is; he laments he will miss the formative years of Samantha’s life. I don’t believe him, not entirely. I recall the Rider library and the Howard Johnson’s, the anguish of betrayal, and then the counsel of Margaret Johnson. Worse his real mistress that boards with us: Success, measured by money and status, is what obsesses him.

The bottle soothes Samantha. She giggles through her nursing. I am delighted, but I also wonder if she enjoys her bottle too much. Will she enjoy solid food as much, or more, and in the future, when she is a young woman, will her infant appetite turn rebel on her and torment her, or, more truthfully, cause others to torment her? Everything seems to worry me, even things that have not happened, but might, but probably never will. I don’t feel in touch with myself, not like when I was a girl, before I married Richard.

Samantha is content and drifts into sleep. I examine her intently. Her skin is flushed. She squishes down her eyelids; unnaturally I fret, as if she may be having a nightmare. Her nostrils flare with each breath; the wings vibrate powerfully. Her lips part; they glisten. No, she’s sleeping peacefully. There’s nothing to be concerned about as I return her to her crib.

Richard is ambitious. In college, he promised he would be a great success and now he works mightily at fulfilling his pledge. We moved here to New Jersey because Richard took a job selling pharmaceuticals. It wasn’t long before he was top salesman. Richard is a star; he earned his promotions to district and regional manager within two years of joining his company.

Richard is not capable of modulating his life; extremes rule him. Shortly after becoming district manager, he decided I deserved a larger house. I told him I was happy with our small house in Trenton. We could easily have a child and still be comfortable in it. It was located in town and I could walk to a small market, the cleaners, and other shops. He would hear nothing of it. He insisted I was sacrificing for him and should be rewarded just as he was. Time passed. We did not contact a real estate agent and never searched for a new home. I assumed Richard forgot about the new house. But he hadn’t. He’d been busy looking with an agent. Suddenly, he surprised me by driving me to the new house—to our new home, as he called it. He said nothing during the drive, until we stood on the front walk of a lovely and large white colonial in Cranbury.

I was furious with him, astounded he went ahead without a word to me, against my wishes, and found a house. He immediately defended himself, exclaiming anybody else would be delighted with a new, beautiful, big home. His implication was clear: I lacked a domestic component that seemed to elevate others to perfection, or at least superior to me. His complaint raised guilt in me. The house was magnificent, larger and lovelier than I could have imagined. The town of Cranbury was charming. It boasted a delightful colonial inn, as picturesque as anything New England offered. I knew I couldn’t win with Richard. Besides, he hadn’t done something horrible. In fact, it was thoughtful and not a little touching. I apologized and acted grateful. I asked with a mix of awe and concern if we could afford the house. He laughed, restored to his old self. He said it should not be my worry. I should enjoy it, should turn it into our love nest and a home for our child. He toured me around the house. We finished in the master bedroom, where he embraced me and urged me to make love, and afterwards, dressing, proclaimed the house christened. Leaving the bedroom, I admit, I felt more like a dog who had marked its territory.

Two things resulted from his episode in the house I now roam, where my daughter sleeps: We conceived Samantha; I am sure of it. And I began to feel I might not love Richard, that I might despise him.

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Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 15)

15

It is morning. I don’t remember getting into bed next to Richard, but obviously I did. He stirs when I do. I slip from the covers carefully to avoid waking him. It’s not consideration; I don’t want to confront him.

I dress and attend to my morning chores. As I’m preparing Samantha’s lunch, Richard saunters into the kitchen. He’s cheery and wishes me good morning. He looks around.” Got an early meeting. No time for breakfast,” he says, leaving. Just as well, I think, as I’ve made nothing for him

I walk Samantha to the bus stop with minutes to spare. Later, I drive Emily to her preschool and we set a record for earliness. I’m more efficient than ever this morning, and I know why.

At home, I prepare my tea and carry it into the living room, along with my cell phone. On the coffee table next to my Limoges I place the note. I stare at the phone number. I really don’t need the paper. I can see the number etched on the backs of my eyelids. Even with my eyes averted from the note, directed out the window to admire the morning, the phone number is visible, dominate, obscuring my view.

I would never call the number. Never. I would imagine, yes, but never.

I call the number. It rings twice, and on the third a woman answers.

“Yes?”

The lithe of her voice arrests me, its freshness, its pleasing equanimity, as if I could converse with the voice about the most distasteful events, and it would remain calm, clear, bright, almost musical. What must be connected to this magnificent voice?

“Can I help you?” she prompts.

Now the voice registers impatience, but mildly. I’m displeased with myself for trying the woman’s patience. How can I be so inconsiderate? By the tone, she impresses me as nice, maybe someone who could easily become a friend. But, she isn’t the least bit nice, or considerate, or respectful. Yet, she might not be aware of Richard’s situation, another victim.

“I’m Richard’s wife,” I say.

The woman is silent.

My chest tightens. I’m afraid she’ll hang up and I don’t want her to.

Finally, she says, “He told me about you.” The lithe has vanished, replaced by sharpness tinged with anger, and a dash of wariness.

“Oh,” I say. I don’t know how else to answer. I’m howling inside. You’re Richard’s girlfriend, mistress, a little something on the side. Richard is cheating on me. Not a surprise, not the least bit shocking; he’s done it before; you’re not the first. But, still, I am flabbergasted. More, I am hurt, wounded mortally. Richard has talked about me with another woman he may prefer, a substitute for me, perhaps a replacement. What has he said? That’s what I want to ask: What has he said about me?

“Oh,” she repeats.”yes. He calls you the ‘silent bitch.'” She laughs. Why? My misery amuses her? She finds the idea funny? She thinks Richard is a wit; silent bitch is sharp phrasing?

“I don’t understand,” I falter.

“Look, you’ve got to be pissed right now. Hell, I’m pissed at him now, all the time. I don’t like sharing him with anybody, especially not his mousy wife, some little frou-frou thing who couldn’t tell somebody to go fuck herself if her life depended on it.”

“What are you talking about?” I am insensible, dizzy, nauseated by her assault, knowing Richard finds her, finds this alluring. This cannot be real. People don’t behave this way.

“You. I’m talking about you. Mrs. Goody Two-Shoes.”

“He called me—“

“No, he called you a frump. Mrs. Goody Two-Shoes, that’s mine.”

“You are—“

“Cruel, I know. I’m the regular run of the mill bitch.”

“He’s talked to you about me?” I shouldn’t announce I’m an enfeebled mess. But I can’t stop myself.

“What else would we talk about? You’re the most interesting subject between us. He loves telling me the dumb shit you do. I love to listen to him tell me.” She pauses. “And I give him his little rewards for the stories. He loves them, like a dog loves his treats.”

If I wasn’t sitting, I would collapse. I know Richard cheats. He’s circumspect. He rarely criticizes me directly about my appearance, my conversation, my cooking, or child rearing . . . nothing. However, I have no illusions he is not entirely pleased with any of these. What strikes me with the force of a highballing truck is this woman. More, that Richard would discuss me with her. Still more, that he would reveal his true feelings about me to her, to her and not me.

And she herself shocks me. Is she what Richard wants, wishes me to be? Intentionally abrasive, brash, crude, filthy, and completely open to a total stranger. Though, on reflection, maybe she figures she knows me well enough, confidentially, like a girlfriend, companion, concubine in Richard’s harem.

I must have drifted for a long time, because she says, “Cat got your tongue? Hello? You still there?”

“We should meet,” I say. I don’t know why. I don’t want to see her, where she lives, where Richard goes. I don’t.

“Why?”

I am searching, grasping, examining, and discarding reasons. I settle on, “I want to know what he likes.”

“What? You’re crazy!”

“Yes, I am,” I say, “crazy with jealousy.”

“Jealous? What? Of me?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” she hesitates. “Well, I guess it’s okay.”

“Good,” I say.” Thank you. What’s your address?”

I am not violent but I must admit I have murder in my heart. The conundrum, however, is who should be the object of my vengeance? Richard? The woman? Maybe both.

The address is nearby, on the route to Emily’s preschool, right under my nose, in my back yard practically. Checking the clock, it’s all I can do to contain my rage. I have nearly two hours before release time.

She lives near Hightstown, in a row house in Twin Rivers. I find her place easily and am ringing her doorbell within a half-hour of our phone conversation.

She greets me in a housecoat, blue chenille, a little ratty, an embarrassment really, nothing I would wear; certainly nothing I would meet anyone in, anyone. She’s slapping around in flip-flops. She has a mop of bright red hair, the real thing that looks fabricated.

“The wife,” she says. “Welcome.”

She steps aside and I enter into her living room. It is blue: carpeting, walls, furniture, monochromatic in its single-mindedness.

I wait for her to invite me to sit, and then I take a chair near the window. She sits on the sofa facing me.

“You want something? Coffee, maybe?”

I shake my head. “I’m fine, thank you.”

“You’re a little different,” she says.

“Different?”

“Richard calls you a mouse. Mousy all over. Hair, face, plain Jane. So?”

“I wanted to meet you.”

She scrutinizes me. Her gaze is like an x-ray, penetrating and exposing. “What do you think?”

I glance around the room. I notice photos on the parsons table behind the sofa. She’s in one with a man and two children.

“You’re married,” I say, my surprise undisguised.

She swivels, acknowledges the photos, and turns back. “What did you think?”

“I don’t know. The way you acted . . . I don’t know.”

She harrumphs, as if her behavior should have been obvious. “His name’s Mike. He’s okay. One of those good guys everybody talks about. One of those good guys woman claim they want. You like the good ones?”

I nod. “I thought Richard was one.”

She regards me skeptically. “Sure.”

“No, in the beginning—“

“Please, Richard’s bad. They don’t get as bad as he is overnight.” Her eyes flit over me head to toe. “And don’t credit herself. You might be exactly what Richard says you are. Doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with him being bad. It’s who he is.”

I’m ranging over Richard’s friendship with Bobby and his mentor episode with Julie in the Rider University library basement, my incessant fretting about the women under him on the second floor of Olsen A, the episode in the Howard Johnson’s.

“You with me?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say, distant, as if comatose. “I guess you’re right.”

“No guessing about it. Takes bad to know bad and I’ve been a bad girl all my life. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Doesn’t bother me a bit. I was the school slut. Not the only one, but the most popular. Richard was probably banging somebody like me at that high school of yours.”

“Creek Falls.”

“Yeah, good old C. F. He has fond memories of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“He had a good time is what I mean. The same kind of good time he has with me. That’s the way these guys are. Not like true blue Mike. Mike has plenty of good times with me. And it’s enough for him.” She pauses to rub her hands on her robe. “I’m dying here for a cigarette. Gave them up in January for the family. They want me to live to ninety. But, Christ, my lungs are sweating for a smoke.”

“I don’t smoke,” I say.

“I didn’t think you did. Oh well, the suffering mom,” she says. “Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy with Mike. In fact, I couldn’t be happy with any other kind of husband, not with what I know.” She smiles and it appears sincere. “I think you’re probably the kind of wife Mike deserves. Luck of the draw, I guess.”

“I guess,” I say.

“What else do you want to know? Some of the gory details maybe. How we met, what we do, where, that sort of stuff?” She softens. “But you’re not the type.”

It’s enough, I think, as I stand. “Thank you.”

She’s up and at the door ahead of me.” Anything for Richard’s wife,” she says.

I’m outside when she touches my arm.

“I’m not really a horrible person.”

“No,” I say, “not everybody is.”

I pull out of the row house parking area and drive around the corner. I stop and idle while I cry. Richard has deceived me for years, since high school. I wonder who it was, who he was seeing besides me in Creek Falls. I wish I had Angie and Rosemary in the car with me. Three speculating heads are better than one. I laugh hard at my idiocy and the tears roll into my mouth, hot and bitter. I know some of the others. Julie in college, and maybe another. The woman at the Howard Johnson’s. A sales associate who had long been a suspect, who he transferred to California, to San Francisco. I wonder how far it is from San Diego and make a mental note to check a map. And this woman in Twin Rivers. What’s her name? I didn’t ask and she didn’t volunteer. The wife of Mike, the nice guy. Wife and mother like me. I don’t know what to make of my situation, whether to confront Richard, have it out, tell him I know everything, demand he shape up, reform, or I’m walking with the girls. We’ll move back to Creek Falls. I’ll find something to do. I’m capable. Really, I am.

The dash clock tells me I have fifteen minutes before Emily’s release time. I turn onto Twin Rivers Drive and take it to Route 33, where I stop behind a yellow Volkswagen waiting for the traffic light. I cringe at the sight of the car, shudder, replaying how Richard tormented me with it, comparing me, claiming it was a joke, that I couldn’t take a joke after he had hurt me, after he was sure I was suffering. It was his way on those occasions when he wanted to be cruel, to strike at me with words, looks, inferences. Never anything physical, but always as painful, perhaps more.

To avoid the Volkswagen, I raise my eyes and look beyond it, across 33 to where Twin Rivers Drive picks up again. Sitting there at the light is a blue car, sky blue, a shade to bright, absolutely wrong for a car; appropriate for the sky, but not for transportation, ugly; and I raise my eyes to the traffic light.

I tend to anticipate the changing of a traffic light. I watch the light signaling in the opposite direction. If I can’t see the light, I can usually see the color reflected in its shade. I never jump the light; nor do I charge ahead the instant the light changes. I just like to know when the light will change, to be ready, to not hold up those behind me.

So I am prepared for the light when it changes, as is the driver of the Volkswagen, who immediately darts into the intersection.

Unfortunately, yellow now means step on the gas, which is what the tractor-trailer driver racing through the light is doing, sounding his air horn frantically.

I clench the steering wheel and shout senselessly at the windshield for the Volkswagen to watch out, watch out, the truck is running the light. In an instant, the Volkswagen vanishes. Billows of black smoke flare behind the truck as the driver applies the brakes. The trailer reacts by jackknifing. But the driver is able to regain control and bring the truck to a stop two, maybe three hundred yards down 33.

Already weepy from my encounter with Richard’s latest girlfriend, I am crying uncontrollably. I’m sure I’ve just witnessed someone’s death.

But have I? Through the film of tears, warped and hazy, I see the Volkswagen. Miraculously, it is intact, for the most part, at least distinguishable as a Volkswagen. The rear end is sheared off. It’s nowhere in sight, probably crushed under the carriage of the truck cab. A man climbs out of the front portion of the Volkswagen, the door opening and he exiting almost as if nothing has happened, as if he’d just pulled into a parking slot at Target. Out, standing, though wobbly, he surveys the damage to his car. Then, as if overwhelmed by the sight, he slumps to the pavement.

Automatically, I’m climbing out of my car clutching my cell phone. I charge into the intersection, heedless of danger, intent on helping him. As I trot, I punch 911. The dispatcher comes on as I arrive at the side of the prostrate diver. And it is then I see that the blue car is moving rapidly, straight at us.

In a panic, I yell into my phone, “Help! He’s heading right for us!  Help!”

Of course, the dispatcher can’t help. She can send somebody to pick up the pieces, but miles away, there is nothing she can do to aid us. She calmly asks for my location.

I wish I could be as calm, but I’m facing two thousand pounds of savage blue metal seconds from launching me into the hereafter.

I drop the phone on the collapsed man and lurch left, away from the man and his Volkswagen. As I jog, I regret it and think I should have lunged behind the Volkswagen. Maybe it would protect—I’m thinking as the blue car strikes me. My legs snap, loud, like the crack of a timbering tree. But it doesn’t out decibel my scream, which strikes me as magnitudes higher than had been the screeching brakes of the truck. I slide up the hood and smash against the windshield, breaking it, decorating the glass with spider web cracks. Through them I see the driver. It is a man dressed in blue, including a blue fedora. The blue matches the car and as I slide up the windshield and onto the roof and along it, and bounce on the trunk lid, and land on the blacktop, I laugh, inside, at the oddity, the coincidence, the bizarreness of the blues; he is wearing exactly the blue his car is painted.

I lay still. I cannot move. I should be in agony, but here I lie immobile and pain free, comfortable if pressed to describe the sensation, as if lounging in my bed or reclining on my beloved sofa affording me my wonderful view of our front yard, the trees, our street, the delightfully almost colonial neighborhood in Cranbury. But, no, I am not entirely without discomfort. My throat is raw, dry like I’ve been in a desert for weeks. My arms are sore, heavy and punctured, like maybe I’ve been stung by wasps. But all in all, considering what has just befallen me, I feel remarkably well.

I’m lying and waiting for someone to help. I think someone, perhaps a team of people, is approaching. I hear shuffling, muted, softened as if they are treading on carpet. I hear voices, low, mumbling, with an occasional piercing bark, but subdued, as if what they are saying is secret, only for their ears.

I close my eyes. I should be at peace. But I am not. Dread overwhelms me, until there is nothing.

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Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 13 and 14)

13

It’s midnight when I again see myself in the window. I must sleep, not just for the rest, but also to escape, no matter how temporarily, this spell of distrust and hate Richard has cast upon me. I know where he is and how he is occupying himself and he is slowly wearing me down to where the only thing I will be good for is the grave, like Angie. I tell myself I’m tragic, melodramatic; I am exaggerating. But I don’t believe me; it feels like Richard is shredding my heart and soul and no amount of reasonableness, no fumbling at sober rationality, nothing will salve the agony.

I am rising off the sofa when the front door lock clicks. I slouch back and watch Richard enter. He reacts to the light in the kitchen and doesn’t notice me in the living room. He reaches into his suit jacket and removes his BlackBerry. He thumbs it, irritating me but amusing me, too; to think this is how we choose to use the thumbs that supposedly set us above other animals. The device’s backlight illuminates his face, shining up, shadowing his features, all still very attractive, though ghoulish in the icy footlight of the BlackBerry, highlighting, I muse, his true soulless, hollow nature, at least as it relates to me. Isn’t his behavior absolutely typical of him? His wife awaits him; his oldest daughter lies upstairs injured from a school bus accident that probably got a couple of minutes on the evening news; and he lolls scrolling through messages, each more important than anything in his own home.

He finishes and returns the BlackBerry to his jacket pocket. Next he digs into his pants. His hand emerges gripping two notes. One he glances at and crumbles. The other he studies, devoting nearly as much time to it as he did to his BlackBerry. Something important. Something I don’t think involves me. He taps it with a finger. Very important. He pockets it and starts for the kitchen.

“I’m in here,” I say, a loud whisper.

“What—” he blurts, low and strained but disturbingly amplified in the dead quiet house.

“Shush,” I go. The last thing I want is Richard waking the girls, especially Samantha. Especially her, so he can play the forlorn father, steeped in regret over not being with her from the moment of her injury; so he can prove to her and me he is the loving father, selfless to the degree he will sacrifice time with his wounded daughter in order to provide for her.

“Quiet. I don’t want you waking the girls.” I pull my legs onto the sofa and stretch to occupy every square inch, in case he’s planning to assuage me with a little strategic affection, administering a slathering of business emolument he is so expert at.

He turns up the lamp near me, changes course, and flops on the opposite sofa.

“Rough day,” he says.

I don’t know if he’s referring to his or mine or Samantha’s.

“Where were you?”

“What do you mean ‘where’? You know I was hung up in training. You know how it can run on and on.”

“Sure, but where were you after?”

He blinks, either at the question or to see better in the dusky light, I can’t tell. He’s accomplished at maintaining a neutral countenance; that of the consummate negotiator whose face is burnished blank steel.

“I told you. I had a dinner.”

“Richard, you’re lying.”

He says nothing and reveals nothing. I wonder what it must be like, what emotions he must repress, how he is able to dam up in his feelings. What is it like to wear a disguise, a mask of indifference, like an ancient Greek tragedian, every minute of your life? Hiding your true desires from everybody, especially your wife, must be enervating.

He stands. He stretches. He consults his watch. He says, “Okay, Babe. I don’t have time for this. It’s been a long day.”

He leaves the room. He pauses in the hall.”You coming?”

I shake my head and watch him climb the stairs.

I know my face is ugly and I’m grateful no one is around to see it, for unlike Richard, mine fully shows my emotions of pain, hate, and betrayal, my sense I count for little, perhaps for nothing, in Richard’s world; that something we shared is lost; that someone else is replacing me; or worse, I fear, the absolute worse, that something, inanimate, now substitutes for me. My only thought for a long time is, “You are a bastard.”

There’s no hope; I can’t sleep. I sit up. I stare at the window. And I wonder what is on the note he put in his pocket.

14

I’m in the kitchen checking the clock. How much time has passed since he went upstairs? Is Richard sleeping? Probably. Richard falls asleep instantly. I’ve never known him to toss and turn, never to suffer a night of insomnia over anything. What does it mean? Nothing weighs on his conscience? Or is it that he has no conscience?

After I spitefully dispose of the pizza, I shamble up the stairs and quietly enter our bedroom. It’s dark, but my night vision is acute. I step quietly to the closet, open the door slowly, and find his suit in the dry cleaning basket. I reach into the right pants pocket, finger around, and there it is. I extract the note and tiptoe into the hallway and down the stairs into the kitchen, where I can safely turn on a light.

The blue of the room distracts me; blue everywhere. Are my eyes deceiving me? Is the kitchen bluer than it had been earlier in the day? Or maybe it is the night; everything assumes deeper, darker tones at night. My eyes roll over the clock, pause, reverse, and I stare at the face, at the time, almost one a. m. I should be sleeping. Emily and Samantha will be up in a few hours, and I’ll be useless.

For a scrap of paper, it is heavy, a pound, for sure, as it is weighing my arm down and resisting my attempt to raise it. It’s thick in my hand. My fingers touch swirled reliefs, Richard’s scribble. I try reading them with my fingertips, as if they are brail. Nothing. I’m like the blind without training. But it’s all avoidance, isn’t it? I really don’t want to read what Richard jotted.

And this thought is enough to release me from my paralysis. I lift the feathery scrap, open it and read. It is a telephone number. I don’t recognize it, but I know it is local. I glance at the telephone. I am tempted. I am sorely tempted. I’m resisting from fear. But, oh, the temptation is palpable in the core of me, like a wriggling worm in my gut. Though I’ve memorized the number, I am also a careful person; I write the number on the pad by the telephone and remove the sheet. Upstairs, I return the note to Richard’s pocket. I’ll sleep on the number.

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Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 12)

12

I was the same after my mother called, overtaken by sorrow and regret, by the idea that if I had confronted Angie in New York, if I’d had the courage, if only . . . my mother wouldn’t have phoned with the news.

It was a Wednesday. My mother normally restricts her calls to weekends. I’m the daughter of my mother, and call her on weekends. I don’t know why but weekends seem the best time, and habit and training, of course. When the phone rang and it was my mother, I knew the news was bad.

“You well, Alyce?” she began.

“I am.” Though, no, I wasn’t entirely well. But the burden was mine, not hers. “The girls and Richard are, too,” I added.

“It’s just horrible,” she said, her voice unsteady and ominous, “I couldn’t believe it when I heard. I couldn’t. Who would have imagined?”

“Imagined what?”

“Things like that don’t happen in Creek Falls. If she’d stayed here, she’d be here today.”

She alarmed me, because I caught her drift. Somebody had suffered terrible harm, and perhaps even the unimaginable.

“Mom,” I said, “what happened? Who are you talking about?”

“Angie.”

My heart beat an audible keen. I was in the kitchen and I sank unto a chair.

“She’s dead.”

“Dead?” I whispered with the force of a shout, hard and sharp and painful, like she had reached into me and extracted something vital.

“An accident, a terrible accident.”

“What? How?” Tears welled and spilled down my cheeks.

“A taxi hit her.”

“A taxi in New York?”

“Sure New York. Where do you think? They’re crazy down there. You take your life in your hands crossing a stre–” She stopped abruptly, the way you do when you realize you’re going on, trampling the emotions of another.

I was speechless, enveloped in a disbelieving silence that sounded like a cry to my mother.

“It makes no sense,” she said, offering the slight conciliation of disbelief, of the arbitrariness of death. “None. A lawyer. Married. Pregnant. A beautiful life ahead of her. It makes no sense.”

“Is Bobby in jail?” I cried, possessed by the scene at the memorial, by his duplicity, by a mad brainstorm he had a hand in her death.

“Jail? Alyce, what are you talking about? Bobby is heartbroken. Alyce, are you all right?”

I squirmed. She couldn’t see me physically, but I guessed she saw me nonetheless.” Upset, I guess,” I said.

“Sure you’re upset, a beautiful, talented girl like Angie . . . the whole town’s beside itself. But to say that about Bobby, with all he’s been through, Alyce.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, but without a shred of penitence in any part of me.

“I know,” she said. “Bobby’s here making all the arrangements. The funeral’s at St. Mary’s on Saturday.”

“I’ll tell Richard,” I said.

But, like the marriage, the pregnancy, the place in New York, Richard knew already, before me. He rearranged his schedule on Wednesday and we drove up Friday. The wake, the funeral, the burial, the lunch, every event of that weekend was lost to me, as if I had been a brainless zombie the entire time.

Over the next three months, we visited Creek Falls twice, and it wasn’t until the second time that I was able to muster the courage and visit Angie’s grave, see Rita, relinquish my grief, and attempt laying my suspicion to rest.

They buried Angie in St. Mary’s cemetery, where all the town’s Catholics rested, graves as old as the town, stretching back to the 1830s. I entered the cemetery from behind the church. I’d stopped in to pray. Since college and Richard, I hadn’t been much for church, other than Samantha and Emily’s baptisms and my infrequent attendance with them when home. A few years ago, I’d considered starting up again for their sakes, to give them a religious grounding; whether they continued would be their choice, but I felt we should give them a foundation for the decision. Richard was indifferent, and I went no further than considering.

In the church, I lit votive candles on her behalf, those in red holders, to St. Joseph. I suppose I chose St. Joseph because I wished Richard were like him, a man who honored his family, and his wife. For Angie, Mary might have been more appropriate. Staring into the red glow of the votives, I recalled her as secretary of the Sodality in eighth grade, our last year at St. Mary’s. She’d been quite proud of her position and, from time to time, even in high school, spoke of the pleasure it provided her.

Angie wasn’t buried near the two plots purchased by her parents for themselves, nor with her aunts and uncles. These were in the old section, which had been filled from the time Richard and I moved to Cranbury. Angie’s grave was in the new section, behind the school on the far side of the cemetery road. As I approached, my legs rebelled; my pace slowed; then I stopped, when I saw the blue marble stone, a glazed mirror discordantly radiant among gray slabs. I could not advance farther, could not bear the pain of seeing her chiseled dates, and most painful, her McFarlane name. Rundown by a taxi, a meaningless exit, married to a despicable man who, mysteriously, had resurrected himself as successful and respectable; that’s all I knew, and it didn’t seem enough, not hardly.

I left the cemetery and called on Angie’s mother. Maybe there was more. Maybe my mother hadn’t conveyed the entire story. Really, though, I prayed there was reason to Angie’s choice and her death, and Rita would reveal it.

Rita was home. She was always home, like all the mothers I knew when growing up. Their jobs were to manage the house, raise the children, and wait on the men. For some of us, the way we lived had changed. It had changed for Angie, a lawyer in New York City. But not for me. Looking at Rita, at my mother too, I saw myself years from now, alone in a house.

Rita hugged me. She held onto me, squeezed me, as if by touching me she was again touching Angie. I had to restrain my welling tears.

“I’m sorry about Angie.” I had more than sorry in me, but I couldn’t articulate anything better. Maybe there wasn’t anything better, maybe it was enough, for she tightened her embrace and muttered, “I know. We all are.”

She led me into the kitchen. I sat at the table as she busied herself with coffee, moved a cake platter onto the table, and a cup, plate, and utensils. I wanted to tell her it wasn’t necessary; I wasn’t hungry; I just wanted to talk. But I couldn’t. Catering to me was necessary, therapeutic, for her.

When the coffee finished, she poured us each a cup. She sat and sliced a piece of cake for me. It was a dense pound cake, more like five pounds of brick confection, buttery, guiltily delicious.

“Did she love him?” I asked.

“Eat,” she said, clutching her coffee with both hands.

“I am,” I said. “Was she happy with Bobby?”

“Yes, very happy.”

I must have frowned, for she said, “The cake’s not good, Alyce?”

I shook my head. I poked the cake with my fork. My throat was collapsing, my tongue thickening. I said, “Why didn’t she tell me?”

“She wanted to, Alyce. She always talked of you as her maid of honor, you know.”

“No, no, I didn’t know.”

“Sure she did. But Richard—“

“Richard,” I choked.

She fixed her eyes on mine, reached for my hand with hers, and stoked it.

“Richard told her how you felt about Bobby, reminded her how you wouldn’t let him at your wedding. He didn’t think it would be a good idea. Everybody would be unhappy, he said. It might ruin a beautiful day, he said.”

“Richard said that?”

“Alyce, Richard was thinking of you, of you and Angie and Bobby. He didn’t want to see you unhappy. That’s all. He wanted what was best for everybody. Don’t cry, Alyce.”

But how could I not? I wasn’t Caesar or Christ or stone.

She released my hand and gave me a napkin for my eyes.

“Richard said he’d tell you in time, when you were ready, and everything would be fine, and you and Angie would be friends again, you’d see how happy she and Bobby were together, and you’d be a happy for them. Are you all right?”

I wadded the soggy napkin and nodded.

“Time ran out,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a napkin.” That was all. Time ran out.”

We sat there in the kitchen for a while, two silent, hurt women twisting wet napkins.

Finally, I said, “Thank you for the cake. And I am sorry, more than I can express . . . about Angie.”