A short story about a not so simple life
|Preface of a Life
Hang Lee would remember because she could never forget. She picked up her bags, opened the door, and quietly closed it behind her. It was self-locking and she wasn’t carrying keys. She didn’t turn or look behind her as she slowly approached the cab. The cab driver volunteered to grab her bags and she offered all but the briefcase. The briefcase she held close to her chest as she climbed into the cab. When asked which airline, she simply pointed down the street and nodded as she realized she couldn’t speak. She just couldn’t trust her voice. She hadn’t trusted it in years, why now?
She didn’t say a word until they had gone more than a mile down the road and she could feel her throat loosening up, and then she simply stated, “SFO.”
“Which terminal do you want, lady?”
“Just drive. Please.”
The year was 1999, she’d just turned forty and had recently said good-bye to her son as he followed his sister to college. She smiled inside as she imagined him. Young, strong, handsome, and absolutely clueless; he’d be fine. It was the ones so sure of themselves and everything they knew that were so dangerous. “Beware of the man who truly believes he’s a saint for surely he is capable of such monstrous deeds as unjustified and unknown to God.” She’d let that sleeping dog lie as she walked out of his life. Today, she traded the airless darkness of seclusion for bright light and a little truth.
She had waited a long time to make her escape. When she’d first entered the dark, most women wore flowered dresses and some men wore the same. She was young and beautiful and had that wide-eyed gaze of the perpetual optimist bred in a comfortable and protected world.
Berkeley had green grass, optimism, People’s Park, and protests to sustain the spirit of possibilities, even if she had arrived a decade or so after the real shake-ups had ended. She could use her voice blended with those of her band to carry that message of optimism, or at the very least, entertain someone who carried the true vanguard. It had taken 20 years, a corrupted memory, and countless deceptions for that optimism to fade.
On the day of her departure, the sun felt warm against her neck and she loosened her scarf to feel more of it. She looked up as she felt the taxi drivers’ eyes staring at her in the mirror. She sincerely doubted being recognized off her husband’s arm.
Ordinarily she’d shrink and try to ignore a man’s admiring eyes, but today she boldly looked back imploring he keep his eyes on the road ahead, just as she would from then on. He looked away with some embarrassment and she felt the car lurch forward to enter the non-cash toll lanes on the Bay Bridge. She may not have known quite where she was going when she’d entered the cab, but she knew clearly where she wasn’t.
As she neared the airport, she told the cabbie, “international terminal, please.” She knew she was headed south. The perpetual warmth beckoned her just as the cold and perpetual blowing fog repelled her. She decided San Jose del Cabo would be just perfect; completely off season, lightly populated, and off the beaten path. San Jose was much more to her liking than Cabo San Lucas could ever be. Plus, there was property there her husband didn’t know about.
Her grandmother, “bless her heart”, had promised to hang on until the divorce was final, and longer, if necessary. The papers announcing the imminent demise of their marriage should be arriving as she boarded the plane. He wouldn’t want to sign them, but he wouldn’t contest the divorce. There would be no use. William had far too many skeletons, too many enemies, and too many battles on too many fronts to bother fighting with her. He could read the newspapers. She was probably the only person who could connect all the dots. He’d simply roll the way he needed to roll. Family had never been worth fighting for in his eyes and term limits guaranteed his current marriage wasn’t worth the fight. Their divorce guaranteed at least a lull in his political pursuits, at least, for as long as it took him to replace her with a newer, more improved, hopefully more stupid version.
She took in a deep breath as she boarded the plane and didn’t appear to let it out until the plane had cleared the runway. As it lifted off, she realized she’d half-expected a calamitous accident to rattle her nerves and turn her around. But as it was, she didn’t even need a drink, and she doubted they’d serve her one this early even if she’d asked.
Sitting in first class, she felt small as she tried to accept this luxury she had singularly allowed herself. Sitting in the plush seats was somewhat uncomfortable, even with all the attention, but she clenched her teeth and swore to endure being pampered by people without an immediate ulterior motive. After a few minutes her jaws relaxed and she realized she was smiling, and it wasn’t even forced or insincere. Life could be grand. She felt herself expand as she drifted off to sleep. She didn’t awaken until the plane touched ground two hour later in Mexico.
As she sat here today, five years later, with her son’s small head resting in her lap, she realized the years had been kind. She’d been left alone to heal and regain her strength. The sun had tanned her ever so lightly, while allowing her voice to return to its former glory. Actually, the pregnancy had done that. It was true what they said about a woman’s voice when she was pregnant. Maybe it was also the happy grounding of a full belly.
She’d barely rediscovered the beach and true selfishness when it occurred to her that she had missed her monthly friend again. Her first thought was of menopause which she was amazed didn’t scare her, but it was later supplanted by reality; she was pregnant. Her diaphragm had never failed in the many years she’d been married. Even following her husband’s decision to get a vasectomy and limit the size of their family, she had continued to trust her diaphragm and diaphragm only. Why have children with a man who never wanted any?
She’d had no recent occasion to use her diaphragm, so what was she thinking, an immaculate conception? Dully, as though the memory of another person, she began to realize her ex-husband’s last attempt to salvage their marriage had been more duplicitous than she imagined. He’d called her from work and said he wanted to try something different when he got home.
She thought, why not? Maybe, just one more try. She remembered the roses, the unexpected wine and her acquiescence to a single glass. She also remembered their pre-emptive argument and storming off to her bedroom because of a headache, but she could put her finger on little else, except the odd sensation she had the next morning of yet another violation of trust. As she recalled, she had gone the next week to speak to any attorney. She thought it was just a culmination of things. Now her conscious mind argued otherwise.
Hang had just started to cry and prepared to wallow in self-pity for the entire pregnancy when her phone rang. Her grandmother had sensed a change in the winds and was waiting inside. Her grandmother suggested Hang occupy her mind with something she enjoyed and that the rest would handle itself. She got up from the sand, dusted herself off, unconsciously rubbed and soothed her abdomen while watching the surf ebb and flow. It was at that moment that she decided to focus on what was before her, not what was behind. She sought out a voice coach the next day and never looked back. She went into labor in a recording studio in Los Angeles, had an uneventful delivery, and returned to Mexico soon after her son was born. She truly felt blessed.
The next time she looked up, she’d just released her second album, was in the middle of a tour to promote it, and fending off requests from her publicist to write a tell-all book. She kept repeating she had nothing to say, and by God, she was going to stick to that story if it killed her, as she knew telling the story likely would.
In a week or so, she was looking forward to a few days off as she attended her first son’s college graduation. He was so different from his sister who had started a year before him, finished with honors, and completely skipped the graduation ceremony.
He was a little needier. She’d spoken to him often enough over the years, but hadn’t laid eyes upon him the entire time, not even when he’d had the accident his freshman year. He was in and out of the hospital before the seriousness of the accident had even sunk in. It had taken all of her strength and his very insistence to convince her not to come. She’d let herself think he was just embarrassed, though in her heart, she knew he was concerned that she would run into his father. Her daughter had kept her informed and she was never quite as proud of her as she was at that moment. But within a week, she was going to see for herself. Tonight though, she was falling asleep under the neon lights of Miami.
She’d barely gotten Jep to bed and closed her eyes when her cell phone woke her up. Her grandmother was on the line and spoke with concern in her voice. Afraid she was calling to give some bad news, she held her breath. Instead, she was issued a warning. Grammy was concerned that the festivities would lead her to forget where she was and that there were wild animals loose in the park.
It had been a family tradition that the woman did all the work and suffered all the indignities while the men basked in the glory; not that anyone complained, at least not vocally.
As far as she could tell, it had begun as soon as they’d stepped off the boat. Her grandmother was married off to an American to make her legitimate, as was her mother, as was she; much like chattel.
But, what happened to Hang was not supposed to happen. After she divorced her first husband within a year of their marriage, she looked forward to raising her daughter alone. Unfortunately, she found out she was pregnant with a small child, and single; she risked having her children taken away. So she’d felt compelled to accept the shelter of a man not afraid of her grandfather, hence her immediate return to indentured servitude.
She never questioned that her second husband likely dissuaded her first husband’s political pursuits, as well as any others pursuits he may have had. She figured he was still alive somewhere, but never saw him again. Her children knew they had another father, but never inquired as to who or where he was. She convinced herself they got all they needed from her second husband. Anyone with any real knowledge knew they got all they needed from her.
The one celebration Hang’s grandmother had was when her ailing husband finally died. It took a decade for him to do it. She swore she never loved him and it took all her will and considerable skills to play the adoring wife and ardent supporter.
Grandma Lee had little time to perfect the grieving widow as she amassed her husband’s considerable political clout, solidifying a political vacuum present since his unfortunate stroke. No one asked how she did it, at least, not in full voice. Grandma Lee now owned California, or at the very least, most of the politicians in it.
Hang’s depressed alcoholic mother had accidentally drove her car into a tree, unconsciously deciding to follow her much older husband into the ground after he’d suffered a heart attack while being manhandled by his girlfriend of the moment. When Hang’s marital problems began, her grandmother made her promise not to emulate her father too closely, nor follow in her mother’s footsteps.
Hard times were always lurking around the corner from a happy occasion and difficult choices had to be made and well considered. Hang knew it. She always had, and tonight, though she’d taken a room in her maiden name, at the last minute, she’d also taken one under an alias. A toss of the coin would have her arriving a day early and sleeping as an alias.
Two days later, following a brief unscheduled trip to Charlotte, she was in NY to see her agent and was in the process of describing how well she had slept at the Four Seasons in Miami. She was just about to take a breath and continue when her assistant walked in and whispered in her ear. Apparently, a woman had been attacked at the Four Seasons; in the very room she had slept; the room still reserved under her name. The press had contacted her assistant for comment, since they thought Hang was the celebrity broken, bruised, and in pain at Jackson-Memorial hospital.
Her assistant was a bit shaken, so much so, that she didn’t notice how quiet the room had become. Hang had gone out to the lobby where her son was sitting with the nanny, and much to his chagrin, hugged him to within an inch of his life. He squiggled and squirmed in utter delight. He was such a happy child. She rarely tried to figure out why and at this moment, she again chose not to pursue it.
In an effort to suppress her rising anxiety, Hang accepted an invitation to see a friend perform at the Blue Note. She knew in accepting the invitation, she might be dragged to the stage, but there was nothing like an impromptu performance to distract you. There were only so many butterflies to be sustained in one stomach. The evening was great fun and she forgot the earlier doom and gloom in her agent’s office.
She caught a limo ride back to her hotel, still walking on her post-performance high, and was crossing the lobby to the front desk, when she noticed a remotely familiar face watching her from the corner of the lobby. As she turned to face who she thought was an ardent fan, she saw that the young man was exiting the side entrance. Maybe he was just shy or maybe she was getting caught up in her own spotlight. She and her assistant laughed it off as they headed to the elevator.
Hang had been pursued by over-amorous fans before and normally forgot about it quite quickly, as she expected to do in this case, but the next morning, it was the first thought in her mind. She mentioned it to her assistant as they headed to the airport, but it got lost in general banter as they discussed her schedule for the next couple of days and explained to her son which buildings were landmarks and which were not, as he struggled to take it all in through the tinted glass. As they neared JFK and gathered their luggage, Hang’s assistant gasped and whispered that he was back.
“Isn’t that your fan? He just got off that motorcycle. I think he followed us.”
Hang turned to face the young man as he rapidly approached them while taking off his helmet. She was instantly on guard, hugging her son as he tried to bury himself in her leg. She reluctantly put on her most disarming smile and prepared to greet her fan and quickly brush him aside. She wasn’t one of those celebrities, but at the moment she regretted not having a bodyguard. Her grandmother suggested it on more than one occasion.
“I’m sorry, but aren’t you Hang Lee?”
“Yes. But you knew that. I spotted you last night at my hotel.”
Her smile faded. Now, it was his turn to smile. That was when it hit her. He smiled just like her son Mike; a younger version, but just like him. It occurred to her that maybe she did know this young man.
“Miss Lee, my name is Michael and Michael, my dad, was your first husband. I grew up listening to your music. I’ve seen your photographs for years and almost fell down when I saw you come into the hotel. I just got scared and ran off. I ran and called my Dad. I actually got docked for leaving work early.”
“You followed me there?”
“No, no. I work there several nights a week. I’m a freshman at Columbia, pre-law.” He was quiet. “But, I did follow you here. I couldn’t help it. I’m a huge fan.” He was just light-skinned enough to blush. “Is this Jep?” he asked, pointing at her son.
Due to a flight delay, Hang spent the next few hours talking to him and successfully gathered more information than she gave. It was a necessary skill. She found out her ex-husband was alive, divorced again and living in Brooklyn. She found out her children had two siblings and neither knew of the others existence. True to form, her ex had decided to omit simple non-threatening truths.
Michael had only told them once about Hang when confronted with their knowledge of his secret stash of her photos. The kids had been teasing him about his secret fandom and were stunned into speechlessness when told of their prior relationship.
Over the last few years, he had been collecting press clippings on Hang’s resurgent singing career, though he never spoke of her again. She was happy to know Mike; the same name as his older brother; who would do that; was also a fan of her older stuff. She signed a photo for him as she scurried off for her flight, promising to invite him out to meet his siblings. She just had to tell them first. That was going to be an interesting discussion, she surmised, as she picked up the sleeping Jep, who the world assumed was adopted. She smiled as she headed for her flight.
The six-hour flight to California was just what Hang needed to focus her attention on what was important. She decided her family had been screwed up for long enough. It was her job to try and help repair it. As she saw it, truth was just the salve they needed.
She explained her plan to her grandmother over dinner. The next day, after the graduation, she wanted to collect the family around and air the dirty laundry. Her grandmother suggested that sometimes a scarred memory was as good as it got and she should consider leaving it alone. As she readied for bed, she felt more relaxed than she had in years. Tomorrow would be a different day, indeed.
Her son had requested she sing one of her earliest, least known and favorite songs of his, at his commencement ceremony. It was one she had written herself and often sang to herself when she needed a bit of courage. Today, she would sing it unaccompanied for him as well as for herself.
As her son crossed the stage to accept his diploma, she was all smiles and tears. She looked from one familiar face to the next, all looking at him with the same pride. It was a momentous day; like coming home.
After the ceremony, she climbed into the limo with her grandmother. All the kids were going to meet over at the house. Jep was excited to be riding with his siblings and she excited by his ready acceptance by his siblings. She beamed. They were old enough to be his parents and were busy indoctrinating him in to their weird family ways. As she settled into the seat, her grandmother closed the window connector to the driver and turned to face Hang.
“Before we get to the house, I have some news to share.” She used her serious voice.
“What’s going on, Grandma.” Hang turned to face her.
“I know you think you know the truth, but I feel it’s time you really knew. It’s so much more than it seems. Since you want to have this airing out ceremony, you need to take in all the air and most of it stinks.
I know you think William is Jep’s father. He’s not. He really is sterile. The vasectomy was a success. Unfortunately, the surgery didn’t change who he was. At least, he knew not to have children. The reason you can’t remember that night is because he drugged you. If that weren’t bad enough, he left you there alone, unconscious. He was seen across town visiting one of his ladies. My men didn’t get to your house in time to protect you, but they did see who left through the side entrance. I can only imagine what he did while he was there. They collected the tainted wine, as well as your diaphragm. It had multiple pinholes in it. William must have done it hoping you would be caught with your pants down. He couldn’t imagine you’d be faithful. Jep’s father is…” She stopped speaking. She was crying.
“It was someone I know, wasn’t it? Grandma, who was it?” She reached out and took her grandmother’s hand.
“Hang, if it wouldn’t have made my grandchildren fatherless, I would have had him killed and in the most awful of ways. I considered it, until you told me you were pregnant. Now I leave the decision to you.”
Hang was speechless. She felt that same sensation of her throat closing and not being able to catch her breath or having a voice; not even one to scream. She wasn’t sure she was breathing. She was tempted to start trembling, but then something happened. She made the decision not to. She looked at her grandmother’s tearful face.
“Grandma, I’m sorry you had to carry this all alone all these years. I can carry it now. At some point, we’ll figure out how to let the kids know. I don’t think they need to know how weak their fathers are. They don’t even need to know how strong we are. Only we have to know.”
They sat quietly for a while.
“We’ll let them live…for now.” Hang said.