First section and a bit (mid-draft) of a literary novel about secrets, family, and love.
|SECTION ONE: JOHN
She had a perm. John didn’t know anything about those kinds of things, but he was surprised later to find out—when she came home one afternoon smelling of bitter plastic and fish—that what he had been running his fingers through and adoring splayed on his white, eyelet bed linen, was a ruse. And that smell. He could hardly stomach his pork chops and fried potatoes from the stink of it. Then a week later, at the academic ball, he drew her close to fit her curves to his body while everyone watched and commented on her fiery youth, and when he buried his face in her chestnut curls his nostrils were assailed and he coughed, hesitated in his waltz step.
The song ended and her warmth escaped him as she stepped back and opened up to the room, clapped. She was trying so hard to be perfect but there were things about her that eluded her careful manicuring; the things he loved most. He had seen them from the first moment she filed into his classroom, carefully lined a notebook and pencil up on the desk top at right angles. The careful color of her nail polish was a little too fluorescent to avoid notice, her pale hands never stayed completely still so she sat on them sometimes.
Like tonight, he was so proud that she had on red, even though it seemed to defy all her literary training what the red in red dress signified. Gemma, in red? He must have loosed something inside her that the young bride would choose sports car red, fitted to her form and smoothing over her tight waist with an obvious bulge, her round bottom, her ample bosom that might be the foreshadow of children, or affairs, or weight gain, but none of them with restraint.
Gemma’s lips were lacquered red to match her dress. (Subtlety and Cindy Crawford had not yet happened to makeup, in the 1960s.) She turned to him with her face flashing a brilliant smile (her smile was expansive and full of perfect, blue-white teeth) which deflected quickly off of his constant watchfulness. Sparkling eyes? (Why was that? Did humans produce excess ocular moisture when happy? And why? Mating reasons? He would have to ask George.) That would signify she was enjoying herself, despite his secret misgivings. Maybe she had them, too. He took her girlish hand in his—slight, warm, ornamented with the aquamarine wedding ring that he chose to accent her eyes—and would remember that moment for all the rest of his ninety-two years, the gold of a thin chain nearly disappearing next to her whiteness, a ruby pendant (Had she planned her outfit because of this wedding present?) cradled in her clavicle.
* * *
The dogwood was in bloom then. He could tell by the piece pressed into the pages of her journal and taped there, dying the page in brown blotches these four decades. In his mind’s eye, he could see the dark wash of East Coast evergreens with wintry bark, desecrated by the crystallized fireworks of all those dogwoods. He could smell them, feel the way they dressed up a campus, a town, a freeway, an alley.
He lay a veiny hand on the page, on the mummified dogwood sprig. He wasn’t sure where else to go, just here in the bedroom. How much time did they spend together in this room, anymore? Anymore. Not anymore. He found Gemma here, yesterday, and now he was trapped in the domestic silence (ticking grandfather clock, heater hum) and cream voile and doilies and Hummels.
Who were you supposed to call when you found someone dead? Why didn’t people talk about those sorts of details? It was mostly unexpected, but he was certain there was no foul play. You had to call the police, anyhow? Report death to the government like you had to births? Yes sir, my wife is dead. I’ve filled out all the required paperwork. And now the bulk of her was at the funeral home and he was in the bedroom.
The kids would be coming. Like him, they wouldn’t know what to do. Unlike him, they would do what occurred to them. Until then, he sat in limbo, stuck between the voile and the dogwoods.
* * *
“When you see something more than once, it’s a sign.” That’s what he had said to her. He couldn’t have known it then, but saying that to her was like holding a newborn to your chest or inviting Homeless Pat over for Christmas dinner. Of course, it was meant ostensibly as a comment on literature, but there under the raging blooms under a crystal sky, the heat between their bodies and the shadows in their eyes were indicative of his subversive meaning. He would tell her clearly soon enough. He believed that when he saw something repeated, it was a sign. And that was the second time he had seen Gemma floating between classes that very day, the day of meeting her in class.
And it was spring, a season for blossoming love. The flowers were exploding, pollen erupting into the air and shifting with the winds. Flowers were making love. The earth was softening, the grass the greenest and softest it would be all year. How long had he watched these portents for other men, other women? How many times had he highlighted them in stories for dimwitted students? It is spring. The world is in bloom. The girl with the pink nail polish is seen walking under the cherry blossoms. The girl with the pink nail polish is seen sitting neatly on the lawn, her books and papers scattered about her. Then a paper breaks free of its makeshift weight and moves spastic as a butterfly until it lands at the young professor’s feet. That, he explains, is foreshadowing. That is a sign.
So where was his sign, now? What did he miss that unveiled the secret of Gemma’s death before it unfolded? He could not comprehend that perhaps the author of this story was cruel or inept enough not to give the proper clues to soften the blow, to create that perfect moment of “Aha!” when it became clear the ending was—although secret—always inevitable.
This in no way felt inevitable. But he had missed the signs, surely. What were they? Where were they? What weapon was hidden in the paragraphs of her life, what antagonist creeping along the pages and waiting to spring from the shadows, unbidden but practically absolute? Maybe he had just forgotten. Old age. How long ago was it that he first noticed his words tripping over each other, his thoughts hitting against the front of his skull and then falling back into his brain before he could form the word on his tongue? “It happens to everyone,” Gemma said to him. They were driving in the car, sometime, somewhere. All he could remember was that feeling of plastic and glass all around, the slide of pavement beneath them and scenery around them lost in the sounds of the car, and her beside him looking forward over the dashboard. She was trying to soothe him. She knew he was thinking, Not me. He told her he must have lesions on his brain from a life of headaches. She sighed. He knew she was thinking, Sometimes we are just ordinary, just like everyone else.
* * *
When her fire surprised him, her ferocity erupting into his cautious life, he became full of romantic ideas. There was a plane trip to New York City to eat at a restaurant she had mentioned. There were the Poconos and all that skin and sexiness which was something he had never thought of before and was all he could think of afterwards, distracting his work something dreadful and being a bit of a scandal besides. They went rowing on the lake, and then they did it again, and again. He would pack a generous picnic basket, never dreaming of the way she would handle each food as though it were sensual. Later, he lay in bed and the food would come back to him in flashes; a red grape surrounded by her pretty lips and held in her fingertips, her nails painted lilac, her fingers ivory, so slender; an ice cube on a wave of iced tea, clinking against her pearly teeth as she struggled not to smile, pushing her tongue against them; even a chocolate cake, one bite at a time, and how her eyes would first widen with the bite and then shudder closed as she chewed, a private ecstasy.
Dusk was smearing the sky pink and a purpled gray on the far side of the lake and he had taken Gemma on another rowing picnic. He packed while she was in her perfect dorm room, or so he imagined; he had never been stupid enough to actually visit her there but he had painted in his mind’s eye her small bed with ruffled comforter, her school-issue desk with drawers lined with floral contact paper and sharp pencils with unused erasers, a divider between paperclips and rubber bands, shelves with lines of Ken Kesey, King Lear, Of Mice and Men, Simone de Beauvior. And would she be bold enough to have a framed photo of them together reclining idly on the bureau next to the vase of flowers that he kept full with wildflowers and occasionally a bouquet from Anna’s downtown? Maybe he was buried in with her panties, but he imagined he was on the dresser, watching her furrow her brow and bend her head over her novels and course texts until her eyes were slits and the only light left on was her desk lamp and somewhere her roommate was snoring and Gemma was slumped almost onto herself.
But that was a rabbit trail. One that he loved to take. Those old memories. On that particular day—the other one he had been thinking about—it was purpled dusk out in the row boat and he could still recall the bounty of the picnic basket. Pasta Alfredo from Vinnie’s, still warm from the way he had wrapped it in layer on layer of towels. Red wine. Chilled. Fresh bread that steamed when he ripped it open. Olives, the kinds with pits still in them. And Gemma had oohed and ahhed as he wanted her to, as he needed her to. She was good at that. A skill he later learned was not a gifting of all women, but of the crafty ones. It would keep him producing, keep him fawning for their whole marriage, this rewarding him with innocent praise.
She tipped a wine glass back so that the rim fell across her wide eyes, brushing her eye lashes, the wine ebbing in between her lips. There were a few stray pieces of bread on the bench in between them, who knows how they happened to be there? And a crow came suddenly swooping from the land and the shoreline of darkling trees and right across the barely rippling water (darkling too with barely a reflection of the lazy, cloud-smudged sunset). With a raucous flapping the crow landed on the side of the boat. He snatched a piece of bread into his bill before John could wiggle his hands at him and yell “shoo!” Gemma had been cool as a cucumber, giggled into her wine. John leaned back and stared at the bench with bread crumbs, dubious. A crow? What did it mean?
It didn’t matter. He went ahead with the proposal anyhow because there was nothing he could do about it. His fate was with Gemma, no matter if she was his femme fatale or what. He had the sense, that night, that he was walking into disaster, what with the crow and all. But he would never tell her that, would never really have the need to. She slid the ring onto her slender finger and held it out in front of them as they snuggled in the same end of the boat, his arms around her waist (with an obvious bulge, again), supporting her thin arms and draped with her chestnut curls, his nose at the crown of her head. She watched the dusk wane in the luster of the aquamarine, then the starlight twinkle there. John was looking up at the sky, watching the gods and warriors march their way toward morning, shivering as silent black bats flew between him and the infinite universe, wondering if a single crow were more ominous than bats against a waxing moon.
SECTION TWO: JADE
Jade dropped her cigarette half-smoked to the ground, smeared it into the pavement with the ball of her boot. She looked down the long line of passenger cars before moving casually toward the train, hefting her black duffle over her shoulder. She looked too slight to carry the duffle and it made her tilt under its weight. The bird-bone quality of her arms was accentuated by the sharp lines of her black muscle tee and the tops of her black fingerless gloves, cutting off at the elbow. It didn’t help that she looked pasty in black, her hands bluish like the cold kind of alabaster against the purple hue of her black nails. Her slender fingers looked fragile, like alabaster, too.
Already she wanted another cigarette and when the train stayed put for another few minutes with her tapping her knuckle against the glass, she cursed having sacrificed that half one. She would be tapping like this every time she was on the train, waiting for the next one and for the smell of warmth and home to hit her with the nicotine, for the cloud to envelop her. It still made her feel cooler, and she knew it. Who couldn’t know things like that after all the psychobabble they had thrown at her in various mediated open-share groups?
She fell asleep without meaning to, hugging the duffle between her leather boot contoured-calves. Her dyed black hair, wavy and thick, was smooshed against the window pane, a flat, black smudge blurring by the arid towns and leafy forests. Drool worked out the corner of her lacquered red lips, full, pretty, but usually marred by a sneer, an expression of irony. Now they were parted around dainty, pearly teeth and a sliver of black through which she breathed faint and uneven. She probably never breathed any different, her sleep restless and disturbed by the empty blackness of her room, her tiny rental house, a click on a window pane or the bleed of the bathroom light down the hallway and into her still pupils, her charcoal-rimmed eyes smeared with sleep and bed linens.
She only dreamt in fragments, anymore, and thinly at that. Not like the lush landscapes and nightmare adventures of her youth. Maybe she didn’t sleep enough anymore, and maybe it was because she hardly ate pickles or microwave hash browns before sleeping, like she used to as a kid. What had been so bad about rich snacks before bed that made her resort to running away? Six years of counseling had come up with only conciliatory answers. She was stifled in a house full of sisters. Her mother had left home for college at only sixteen. What? She wanted to make her way to prove she was as great as her mom? Jade liked to think that it was there, running just under her skin and in her veins, her need to color things with darkness and with drama and to reject love, even of the most natural and innocent kind.
Her dream on the train was Dr. Suess-like. It began like all dreams, in a layered collage of sensations, like blue, and the smell of rain on pavement, and the sound of her grandpa sucking back on his pipe; woosh-pup. But it didn’t have any place in reality, it was topsy turvy. Like maybe the blue was really fuchsia and the smell of rain was really the color blue and the woosh-pup was filling her head in the chirrups of cicadas. Jade remembered from this slush; feeling sad and peaceful. Then the dream slowly left the realm of surrealism and started to make as much sense as a dream does, as in it mostly moved forward and obeyed gravity and physics and whatnot. She was with her dad, at the city zoo. It was just the two of them. She was sitting on his slim shoulders and he was holding her ankles firmly. She was wearing pigtails (brown and curly, at the time) and had a huge grin around the half-toothless smile of a six-year-old. She was holding balloons and they were every color of the artists’ rainbow: turquoise and peach and chartreuse and goldenrod and baby blue and pumpkin. There must have been a thousand balloons and none of them the same color, but they were all there right above her head somehow.
Her dad walked up to the exhibit in front of them, and she could feel each footstep reverberate through her, weighty in dreamland. Then she focused on the exhibit: a cage maybe ten feet square and twenty feet tall, wrought iron and filigreed like a bird cage. There was a feeding trough full of barbequed chicken drumsticks and a giant, hanging, water bottle like they have for hamsters. And there, on a disheveled pile of straw in the far corner lay a body in repose, a human woman with her trunk-like legs splayed at odd angles onto the plastic ground, as if she had exhausted herself and lay exactly where and how she had fallen. Her pantyhose where ripped, and white-blue flesh popped out where the tears no longer held the skin in, the woman’s skirt was laying over her thighs, barely keeping her from exposure. And then the face came into focus and Jade understood that the woman was—or had become, who knew? It was a dream—her mother.
Jade flung her hands forward, lurching for her mom, and the balloons escaped, floating purposefully up into the sky, bumping into each other and then spreading out until the whole sky was full of every color one could imagine.
When Jade awoke, there was a kink in her neck and all her possessions seemed to be still jammed up close to her. She ran a gloved arm against her mouth and cheeks to remove drool before she remembered that she was also smearing her lipstick, and cussed in a whisper. She ignored the look of the woman who was now sitting next to her. She must not have had a choice of seats.
She routed through her duffle bag and pulled out a journal, flipping past hundreds of pages of blotches and scribbles and sketches in heavy, black, ink, until she came to her bookmark: a photo of the tattoo that she had done on Jeremiah’s back. It was breathtaking, that tattoo. It propelled her into tattoo stardom and even landed her a sudden spot on the Tattoo Battle reality TV show. Jeremiah, on the other hand, had disappeared, and her fame was all she had to show for him. That and the mantra that played when she thought of him: never trust a man who comes with designer drugs.
She looked at the photo until she could feel the blonde woman next to her looking at it too, and then slid it into the back of the journal. She pulled out a fountain pen from the spine of the journal, started to write the dream as best as she could remember. Then the date, the time, her raison d’etre-du jour: “On a Train Headed for the Old Lady’s Funeral.” Not something she really thought she would be doing at twenty-two years old, even though mom was fifty-eight and not exactly in mint condition. Hell, Di was only fifteen. This must suck for her. Wonder if she’ll run away from home. Never. Only Jade would do that, which is maybe why she did.
Then her pen hovered there over the words, a little drip of black ink shivering at the tip until it splashed down on the word “run.” She snapped the journal closed with an obnoxious pop that made the lady next to her jump. Jade dropped it into the open duffle and leaned over again, fishing around for her laptop. She opened it, got her giant, retro headphones out (for soundproofing; the better to hear Marilyn with without the sidelong glances of her blonde neighbor to the west), and started tapping away and surfing the boundless world of email and social networking and everything else. She checked her parlor email for customer requests and the parlor website to see if Brandi had posted the photos she left in her rush out the door. She hadn’t yet. Another whispered curse. Another sidelong glance that warranted a little head-banging.
Then she found her way to Google with her fingers paused on the keyboard. Jade looked out the window and watched the trees stream by, felt the pull of the train, saw the reflection of her laptop screen hoover between the seat back in front of her and the flow of gray and evergreen outside. It was getting dark. She would be spending layover in DC at night.
She typed in “Gemma Gray Watertown PA”. She moved in a downward motion, page to page, sifting through the random fee-based reports and internet appearances, checking most of them before clicking back to the search. She clicked on a link labeled “Frisco Dispatch – Gemma Gray – Meeting Again for the First Time”. There was an article on the site for the Frisco (this was a town?) Dispatch (as in a newspaper). The article was from a couple years prior and was titled “Meeting Again for the First Time.” Jade got caught up reading it, hurrying after awhile as she could feel the train slackening its uneven pace and knew she had to get out to have a smoke and chastise Brandi from the nearest payphone since for some stupid reason she was getting tons of wifi but absolutely no cell service on the train ride north. She grabbed at her wallet and felt for change with one hand, moving the laptop to her hip with the other as she kept reading. She was riveted.
The article was about Pennsylvanian house mom Gemma Gray, fifty-five, who had shown up out of the blue to nurse an intimate internet friend to health after a debilitating accident. Really?
1994. Jade was six years old, or about that. Not sure of the time of year because the memory is inside a kitchen that is warm and glowing, but that could be the holidays and the warmth of an oven, it could be summertime with a breeze coming in the windows, it could be a seasonably hot, brilliant fall day. It doesn’t matter. Mom was standing at the counter over a giant bowl, flour and stray bits of soft dough on her manicured hands. Her hair was up in a loose bun full of auburn curls and one curl loosened itself to snake over her shoulder and down her back. She was wearing a dress and Jade sees it as something from the 1950s, high-waisted and full, for the times. From the back there was also a large, disheveled bow tied at her curvy waist, the backside of the apron she was wearing, the one with the towel sewn into the waist band.
Jade stood inside the doorway. She was moving from somewhere to somewhere but the map of the afternoon has been long since lost to her. Pearl and Junior—the Irish twins—played on a plastic mat off to the side of the linoleum, cars or blocks littered with Cheerios and sticky, sippy cups. Gemma spoke without turning around; “Hey sweetie. What are you doing?”
Golden white light beamed into the room, sprayed around the Formica and wood veneer and brass handles and eyelet-lined flounces and laid gently on Gemma’s form. “Sweetie?” Gemma turned around and was holding a baking sheet, her hands lost in bulky oven mitts. She bent at the knees and held the tray out to Jade. Sun broke around from behind her, and her face was lost in gray haze while her profile hazed into brilliance. “Want a cookie?” In the gray, those beautiful lips and those perfect teeth smiling.
Jade at sixteen. The house didn’t look as old as it was in the dark. The English Ivy stopped the light at the edge of the porch and the upper windows were black in and out. Crickets and frogs sang. A screech sounded as from something unused. There was a sliding and a movement in one of the windows. More sliding. A snap. Jade stepped out on the porch roof and lurched the window back into place. She looked out over the ground, which she could not really see, and then edged her way carefully backwards over the side, easing down the trellis, trying not to mar enough ivy for suspicion.
She dropped to the ground and a noise right behind her: “Boo!” She jumped, turned, punched Thomas in the stomach as he “oof”ed and doubled forward. “You jerk!” the yell was still yet a whisper and she was so close to his face now that she could feel his breath and he could feel hers. The interaction lingered a while before he grabbed hungrily at her waist, pulled her in close to him and kissed her with suffocating ferocity. His skin in the divot beside his nose smelled like grape gum.
She pushed back against his chest. Shoved off him. “What are you doing?!” in a hiss.
He just grinned foolishly at her.
“Ug. I can’t stand you!” She marched across the lawn, cold dew working its way through her canvas, chequered boat shoes and spattering her bare ankles.
He caught up with her at the road, where they walked off under the old trees joining limbs in front of the following moon. The further down the street they got, the more noise they made. First just playful shoves back and forth and snorting. Then passing a cigarette back and forth with laughter. In between the burnished splay of porch lights through lilac or XXXbush they were just a red ember bobbing over the lost road and an occasional sniff, a giggle. There were no cars here, this late.
“ Chelsea ran away.” She breathed it out with the smoke.
“Yeah? So?” He was holding his breath.
“So” was all she said back, just a syllable lost in the night. Words were lost on Thomas worse than they were lost in the sound of waves crashing on Juniper Beach. Not that she said much then, either. What was it she had read in some book for English class? She kept council with herself. She figured this was rare for a girl, since all the other girls she knew spilled their guts all over the locker room and at their lockers and in notes dropped surreptitiously and in cruel anonymous emails. It seemed like high school was buzzing all the time with so much centripetal opinion that it was just white noise.
But ran away. The sound of it on her tongue. The taste of it in her mouth. It was such an exotic flavor. For all her black plastic glasses and Tim Burton wardrobe and calf-high Converse she was still just an East coast suburb kid, shopping at Hot Topics and getting along with yelling matches over bathroom time and then later hugs with her siblings, with her mom and dad. She had managed by a series of accidents to be the black sheep in the family, whether physically (with her fish net tights, her infamous black hoodies drowning her still-boyish form) or in reputation. It wasn’t as if Opal or Ruby had never tried drugs—Ruby was a Phish Head!—but Jade’s luckless way of giving into bad suggestions that were at the same time simple and stupid made the plummy black nail polish that much more alarming to her teachers, to the principal, to her mom.
Whatever. It was all starting to get repetitive and boring. Same old track. You’d think being an exchange student last year would have met her teenage need for adventure, but the smell of baking bread and cherry stands on the gay streets of Paris had taught Jade that her thirst for adventure was, in a word, unquenchable. And these stupid high schoolers. No one slyly called her “clever girl” with a charmingly demure smile here.
There was a tingling in her fingertips, an aching at the palms of her hands. Thomas and she edged onto the grass at an opening in the trees, came out into Moracy Park, just surreal outlines of park equipment against a sky burnished with the orange glow of a nearby city, and the moving forms of people lounging on the merry go round, turning lazily. As Jade and Thomas approached, someone yelled out, “You two back together?” and Thomas pulled her in again, hard and then tight, pressing his lips to hers and pushing his tongue against her teeth.
They were all at the dinner table. John and Gemma at the ends. It was Thanksgiving, and Homeless Pat was sitting next to John, Pat’s hair slicked back wet after his holiday shower. Junior next to that, then Pearl, and then Opal before Gemma. Jade was next to dad on his right, and squeezed on her side of the table was Ruby and Di, always the straggler.
The dining room—not to mention the rest of the house—was rich with the aromas of an American turkey dinner with pumpkin pie and squash casserole and cracked wheat rolls and mountains of corn and perfectly whipped potatoes, a boat of gravy, homemade cranberry sauce. All the food looked heavy on the table amidst the sparkling silver and crystal, the bobbing candle flames, the sheen of browned turkey skin in the glow of electric light obstinate inside from the drifting snow and freeze.
It was congenial, if not awesomely homey with a table of teenagers. Jade was sulking from the night before, when she should have been at the football game (well, under the bleachers, really) and then the dance (well, out sprawling on the picnic table, really), but instead was curled up in a ball of sobs and smeared mascara on the family room floor. Gemma was going to give her a ride, since all the “kid cars” were taken already by older drivers than Jade at 16, but at the last minute Jade bounced into the room in hefty combat boots and a mini skirt to find Gemma up to her armpits in wallpaper glue and strips of shimmering wet floral patterns.
“What, hon?” Not changing her posture, looking down at the strip of paper she held dripping over a bucket of paste.
Jade stood with her arms down heavy at her side, a hip cocked to the right and her head tilted at the supposed obvious angle. To Jade—the teenage center of her own universe—it was SO obvious that her standing in the family room entry arch wearing Doc Martens and purple lipstick at 7:35 on a third (fourth?) Wednesday of the month meant that they were late leaving the house for the dance and that she, Jade, was being unfairly inconvenienced.
Gemma looked up, “What?”
“The dance, Mom!”
“You mean—? What time is it?”
“Seven thirty-five, Mom! Puh-leez.”
“Oh honey.” Gemma looked helplessly around the room and then back at her own arms, at the glistening paper draped there. “I just can’t. I mean, look at me. I—“
And Jade still wasn’t over it, the ends of her mouth down-turned in a frown, her body sunk several inches in a slouch as she pushed turkey bone around on her plate of abstract, conglomerated sauces and gravies.
“Jade. Please.” Gemma’s eyebrows knit toward her middle girl, the one with the darkness always around her. For what? What about Jade’s life was so dark? She didn’t seem to be depressed. A little forced lethargy, sometimes, and the sudden flashing out of inexplicit emotion that accompanied adolescence for all her girls, for all girls she could remember knowing.
Jade was thinking color: the richness of the magenta cranberry seeping into the drab russet of turkey gravy, making a color in between that was no color you could describe. She loved things like that, so much that it seemed to hurt her chest in a way too much air might hurt. But how to admit dangerous things like that? Privately, she enjoyed life much more than anyone would guess. Outwardly, she sighed—heaving her shoulders forward—when her mother addressed her and Jade turned her half-lidded eyes around the table. They fell on Homeless Pat.
“You know, we call you Homeless Pat when you’re not around? Not just Pat, or even Pat Whatever-your-last-name-might-be. Homeless Pat, like that’s all you are to us. Just homeless and a great holiday panacea.” At first Jade had been staring pointedly at Pat as she said it, but as Pat’s face slowly lit up with recognition and then slackened with defeat, she had to look away. What propelled her to keep talking, anyhow? What was wrong with her?
Gemma was looking at Jade, her eyes in wide Os, her jaw slackened to reveal an O of a mouth, and at the conclusion of Jade’s speech, when complete silence had fallen, Gemma dropped her fork and it rattled against the side of her Blue Italian Spode dinner plate. She startled at that, glanced down at her plate to see if she had chipped it, and then—pulling her cheeks in around her teeth, she whispered low and fierce and measured, “Jade. You go right to your room, now! You will not have dessert with us and I am ashamed—.”
“What!? Just because I told him the truth!” Pat’s face was as red as his hair now.
John bent forward into a half-stand before Gemma motioned him back down into his seat. “You know better than that. In fact, you are so ashamed of yourself that you are using excuses to circumvent your real emotions.” Nothing happened. “Would you like to apologize?”
“No,” as Jade got up and dropped her balled-up napkin onto her plate of colors. She ran off around John’s end of the table, where he reached out to grab her arm but too late. She was all wind and retreating, ripped blue jeans held together with safety pins.
No one followed her up to her room, but as she reached the upstairs banister she could hear her mother beginning to apologize frantically to Pat in her stead. There was a rock growing steadily heavy in her chest, but it’s presence only made her madder, and she slammed her bedroom door, stomped across her room (which she shared with Ruby), and threw open her closet. It took her several minutes of digging in the mess of belongings in the bottom of it before she located her suitcase (still adorned with AirFrance tags). She threw the suitcase at the bed so that it landed upright, but then rolled on its side, which was even more angering. “Shit!” she yelled, and thought about yelling it again so that someone might hear it downstairs.
She gathered whatever occurred to her out of the fog of her angered mind. Pants and shirts and sweatshirts. Socks and panties and bras. Toothbrush and toothpaste and deodorant. Her Discman and a folder of CDs. Shoes. Her camera. Some oil pastels and ink pens and a sketch book. That’s all she could think of. She was too flustered to pack. What had she forgotten? And she went through it all again in her mind. PJs. But where was she going to sleep, anyhow? She shoved a threadbare sleeping bag and a flashlight in next to everything else.
She threw on a jacket, a hat and mittens, shouldered her school bookbag, and lifted the window sash. She hoisted her suitcase out on to the porch roof into six inches of crunchy snow and then herself after it. The effort had cooled her down, so she sat there in the sticky, iced snow and let the cold creep up into her through her buttocks. She didn’t bother to shut the window behind her, but reached into her coat pocket, pulled out a pack of Camels and a lighter and fumbled around with them with one wool mitten still on until she had it lit and in between her glittery lips.
She looked up and down the neighborhood street as the street lights blinked on at odd intervals. The sun must have gone down, but it was hard to tell behind the steel of the hard, wintry sky. What the hell am I thinking? But her stomach fluttered underneath her rib cage, like something underdeveloped was feebly trying to come out and was dumbly headed in the direction of her lungs. She liked the analogy, had the instinct to scribble it down, but she was perched out on the roof in the snow, planning her escape. Imperfect timing.
What will it hurt to feed the beast? To see if it can grow and into what?
Jade watched the impassive clouds darken at the horizon, the glare swirl into a smudgy coal as a storm rose up to meet her, slowly. A wind picked up and flicked her second cigarette from her hand. She grabbed the bag and threw it down on the lawn. Then she followed, scraping against the trellis with the front of her heavy coat. No one inside could distinguish the scraping from the sudden whipping of the wind.
“Wow, look at that.” Pearl slid out of her dining room chair and pressed her face to the window. She tapped a pink fingernail against the glass as she stared at a sky growing black with loads of snow and the branches lashing at the siding and the shutters.
“Pearl, while you’re up, go check on Jade.” Gemma had her poker face on and was dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a linen napkin in leafy rusts and browns.
“Just do as I say, please.” Gemma inclined her head to Homeless Pat and gave a demure smile. Pearl’s gaze followed to Pat, and she wheeled around to only slightly stomp up the stairs and down the hall.
When Pearl burst through the door, a freezing wind hit her in the face with several large snowflakes, and she instinctively pulled her hands up to block it. There was a mess of papers whipping up on the gust and a couple posters ripping right off the wall. Jade was not there; it was easy to tell from the lack of humanity in the room and the wide open window.
“Mo-om!” Da-ad!” Pearl was not one to crash down the stairs or make entrances. At fourteen, in a tweed skirt and lacy bobby socks with her heels, this was her debut.