Tuesday, March 22, 2011

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: "Your Escape Starts Here, Beneath the Mirror"

The face in the hallway mirror is one she scarcely knows. Eyelids swollen, cheeks shrunk to hollows, skin as pink as Easter ham.

Moving closer, she whispers at her reflection in the silver surface: No matter what, tonight you are not going to cry. You will remain calm, you will dry your eyes. You will laugh. Or at least, smile. She studies her eyes. Two half moons, dark and empty, gaping sockets that open directly into the hollow of her chest. The place where a month ago, her heart sank in a wickedly unpredictable storm called Jesús.

When she first got word the boys were coming home for Columbus Day weekend, she thought for sure she’d be better. She figured that buying food and cooking for her kids would be good therapy. But now the evening has arrived and they are due in a matter of minutes. Her head throbs, and her throat knots up whenever she swallows.

“Anyway, I’ve just got to, that’s all,” she says, inhaling, calling herself to action.

She goes to the kitchen, gets out the red teddy bear apron, the one Jack gave her for Christmas when he was ten. Feeling thus armored, she focuses on the pot of boiling potatoes.

As long as she doesn’t think, and nobody expects an intelligent response to a question, she’ll be fine. But what will she say when one of them wants to know why she cancelled her trip to Seville? She would simply tell the truth. “‘He…we…it just didn’t pan out with him I’m afraid…’”

A view of Jesús, his perpetually sleepy eyes, shudders through her. She closes her eyes to the image, bends over the oven door, slides out the roasting pan, bastes the golden breast of the bird. She cannot remember the last time she made turkey. She pauses, tries to concentrate. It had to be Thanksgiving of '96.

In those days, when Ben Sr. was still in command of her life, she still made all the fixings from scratch: cranberry orange sauce, creamed onions, sweet potatoes, stuffed mushrooms. And homemade French bread.

The Honda is honking outside. Closing the oven door, Ronda throws the mitt on the counter and goes to the front window.

Joy swells into her chest as she catches sight of her sons. Ben Jr. is carrying a bouquet of yellow flowers. And then, much to

Ronda’s surprise, there’s someone with Jack and Ben: a young woman with red, wavy hair bouncing around her shoulders. She has long shapely legs and a short tight skirt.

“Oh my,” Ronda whispers, clutching her throat. How could he? She moves to the front door and stands there. Eyes closed, she braces her forehead against the wood, waiting for the bell. When the familiar three-step of chimes finally comes, she counts to five, then opens the door and smiles.

“Hey, Ma, this is Marielle,” Ben Jr. says right away, letting the girl go up the steps first.

Ronda extends a damp hand. “Hello, Marielle.” Her heart is hammering. Never before has Ben brought home a girl. And now today he’s done it without telling her, with absolutely no warning that he even has a girl. How could he?

“It’s so nice to meet you,” Marielle says, shaking Ronda’s hand. The girl has gigantic eyes, clear and blue. And a handshake that is as powerful as a man’s.

“It’s very nice to meet you too,” Ronda replies. Later, she will say it was Marielle’s eyes. Later, she will say to Karen that there is something amazing about their wash of stunning color, a blue of sky and stream. “Please, Marielle, come in.”

Marielle steps forward, passing through the open door, and Ronda thinks, who knows, maybe this girl will be the very blessing I need. Maybe the presence of another woman at dinner, a stranger, might fill the conversation. With Marielle present, the boys are less likely to press certain issues, or raise others that might hurt too much to discuss.

“I hope it’s OK I came,” Marielle stammers, a frown crowding her sweet freckled face. “I told Ben that maybe we should call first, but he told me…”

“Ma doesn’t mind,” Ben says, placing a swift kiss on his mother’s forehead. “She’ll be thrilled to find out that Marielle is a dancer.” Ben throws a sly glance at his mother before hurrying past her into the house. Jack stays behind.

“Hey, Ma,” he says gently, squeezing his mother’s shoulders with one powerful arm. Is it Ronda’s imagination or is he holding onto her longer than he usually does? Is that because he knows? He knows she’s had the core knocked out of her?

Ronda closes the door, pleased by the satisfying mixture of kitchen smells. “I just hope you’re all hungry,” she says.

“I’m starved,” Ben says. “We left the city at twelve and have been driving ever since.” He tosses his denim jacket on the couch, in exactly the same spot he always threw it in high school. He pulls Marielle close and automatically she tips her head back and receives his open-mouthed kiss.

Ronda stares in dumb amazement at her son as he walks out of the room. Marielle slips out of her leather jacket. She’s wearing a tight cotton sweater with a low neckline, a sweater that lets her navel show. She’s striking. Gorgeous. Leave it to Ben. Back in high school, he had the walls of his bedroom covered with posters of beautiful models in skimpy skirts and even skimpier bikinis.

“Can I help you with something?” Marielle asks, hooking a strand of pale red hair behind her ear. “I just have to wash my hands.”

Ronda pauses. Marielle’s face. She can’t place it, but there is something vaguely familiar about it. Or maybe it’s just the kindness, or the guilelessness of her freckles. It’s a face that puts Ronda immediately at ease. “Well, sure, if you don’t mind, Marielle. Maybe Ben can show you where the placemats and dishes and silverware are and the two of you can set the table in the dining room. I’ve just got to make the gravy and peas.”


She is in misery and can’t eat her dinner, but it isn’t anybody’s fault. Or maybe it’s her fault. She had to ask Marielle about her dance career. Marielle was glad to talk about it: she is part of a small dance troupe performing in Cincinnati, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and then at Lincoln Center next spring. She intends to get her master’s in dance education after she graduates from NYU in June.

“That’s amazing,” Ronda says, nibbling on a couple of peas.

“Ben tells me that you dance flamenco?” Marielle asks, returning the same strand of red hair behind her ear once again.

Ronda looks down at the place mat, incapable of a smile.

“Yes, I’ve been dancing for quite a while now,” she says, her voice soft. “I just love it.” She is about to leave it at that but then glances at Marielle’s face and once again sees a trace of something inviting.

“I’ll be honest with you Marielle,” Ronda goes on. “When I was in your position, many years ago, dancing, I blew it. I did. I went and got married and pregnant and dropped the dance thing altogether. Just like that.”

“Oh come on Ma,” Ben Jr. says, serving himself another scoop of potatoes. “You’re gonna start making me feel unwanted.”

Ronda studies her son, wondering suddenly whether he brought Marielle here for some underhanded purpose.

“Ben, I think you know what I mean,” she says, forcing her voice to remain even. “I would have been much better off if I had combined things. If I could have established a career before getting married. If I had only waited to get pregnant at least.”

“Don’t worry,” Marielle says, getting the message. She pokes Ben under the table.

Ben avoids everybody’s eyes, Marielle’s included.

“What’s the deal with Seville?” Jack asks, quietly, from the opposite side of the table. “Are you going or not?”
Ronda clears her throat. Somebody had to ask.

She sits up straighter, tries to imagine a plank at her back, to support her, to hold her up. “I’ve decided not to go after all,” she says brightly. “You know I was supposed to meet my friend Jesús there right after Labor Day, but…”

She cuts a quick look at Jack, a look that says, ‘please Jack can we just leave it at that?’ But there is a sentence hanging, and nobody to finish it but her.

“I haven’t heard from him since the beginning of August. He was supposed to write again, to finalize things, and he didn’t, so…”

Jack, stabbing turkey into potatoes, speaks. “So…what happened?”

Ronda trembles. She can’t let them see. If she can just end this conversation, there will still be hope. “I don’t exactly know what happened. All I know is that he hasn’t written or called.”

Jack mutters something that Ronda cannot hear. She doesn’t ask him to repeat it.

She shrugs. Rises from her chair. “Time for dessert,” she announces, her voice rippling. “There’s chocolate cream pie and I’m going to whip up the cream.”

And before anybody has a chance to refuse, Ronda leaves the dining room and takes refuge in the kitchen.


In hot soapy water, Jack’s dark hairy forearms look even stronger than normal. He is scouring turkey goo from the sides of the roasting pan.

Some woman, Ronda thinks, drying the stem of a wine glass, will be so lucky to get him.

“So,” Jack says, “you like Marielle?”

Ronda dries the fragile wineglass and polishes it to perfection. “I do like her, very much. She seems smart. And full of energy.”

Ronda stops drying. Suddenly, the impulse is there again. She feels like crying. But she won’t. Not in front of Jack at least.

“I guess I think she’s too nice for him,” Jack says. “I bet Dad agrees with me.”

“How long are they staying at your father’s place?” She takes another glass and dries it.

“Just tonight. Marielle has to dance someplace tomorrow night in the city.”

Jack sponges the roasting pan clean and rinses it. The two of them work silently together for several minutes.

“I guess I shouldn’t have asked about your trip before. I’m sorry.”

Ronda takes the turkey pan from his hand. “That’s OK.”

Jack turns to face her. “So, what happened? You think…Jesús ditched you?”

The question feels like a punch to her gut. She sets the turkey pan on the granite counter. “I don’t know for sure what happened. He hasn’t called or written. I haven’t heard one word. That’s all I know.”

“But what if something happened to him? I mean, what if he got killed by a bus crossing the street?”

“Oh come on Jack. That’s ridiculous. Someone would have called me.”


Ronda closes her eyes. Slowly she draws air into her nose. “Look, Jack, it’s over. Please, honey, you’re sweet, but I’ve got to get used to the idea that I’ve lost him.”

“Ma, look. You know how I felt about the guy. Not my favorite person. But…” he stares into his mother’s face. “I can honestly say I never saw you so happy as those months you were with Jesús. I can’t believe you wouldn’t want to know for sure what happened.”

She turns away in silence and unties her apron. Her eyes are flooded and a crush of pressure has closed her throat.

“Ma, look, I hated him at first, you know that. I mean he ruined our family.” He turns his back on the sink, and stands there, his hands dripping soapsuds. “But then I finally accepted the fact that you and dad were over, were never ever going to work it out. And then I saw how happy you were.”

She starts to cry into the dishtowel. Jack pulls her forward, hugs her. The smell of his shirt is sweet and clean. She feels his heart beating and cries even harder.


“So you’ll come? If I can free up next weekend, you’ll meet me there?”

Jack is staring at her, and she is trying not to return his look.

But now his bus is pulling up, and he’s slinging the nylon strap of his duffel over his shoulder, and she is going to have to give him that final squeeze and hug and kiss. She is going to miss him so much, more than ever before, because now, at this moment in her curious history, he is the most important thing she has. He is the thing she can point to when she begins to wonder what her life adds up to. He is the one she can point to and say, I lived all those days as a wife and mother to produce him. This gem.

“Yes, Jack, I’ll come. I promise. I’ll have to find someplace to get my coffee, though. You know they don’t let you have any caffeine at all in those places.”

He laughs. “So you sneak out and go to this great little espresso place I know in Lenox. People do it all the time there. Anyway, I’ll call you later and we can figure out the rest of it.”

He hugs her, and she grabs onto him fiercely and thankfully, he doesn’t pull away until she lets go.

“So what’s the name of the place again? Shitaloo? Is that it?”

He cracks up. “Sihtalu, Ma. SIT-A-LOO. But call it what you want. All you have to do is show up. Show up and do yoga.”

“OK, honey.” She nods and reaches up to touch his face. “God you’re tall.” She turns to leave. Then turns back. “And handsome. Did I tell you how handsome you are?” The castanets dangling from her key chain clatter in her hand.

“Yes, Mom. You tell me all the time. Ma, remember,” he says, mounting the first step on the Greyhound bus, “remember to wear something white to do the yoga.”

She nods and waves and steps back. He disappears into the bus.

“White,” she whispers. “Yeah, well, Jack. Let the rest of them wear white. I think maybe I’ll be wearing purple.”

She watches him take a seat, and seconds later, the bus carrying the dearest thing in her life disappears.

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