Happy Friday, everyone, so time for another chapter of my upcoming novel. You’ll learn more about the characters of Claire, Ellen, and Mickey, the remaining characters of the book. Enjoy!
CHAPTER FOUR – JUNE 21
Claire wandered her loft, wine glass in hand, and stopped to gaze out the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the downtown area. She had splurged on the loft when her younger child Anne left for college. It reminded her of her success and sacrifices — putting herself through law school when the girls were still babies. Her home pulsed with sleek, leather furniture and stainless steel appliances, with all of the enviable names: Viking, Sub-Zero, Roche Bobois. In the kitchen, granite countertops gleamed like new; yet, for all the fancy equipment, Claire didn’t cook.
She kept one guest room. Having moved on with their own lives, the girls seldom came home at the same time. Claire still felt daily pangs of guilt about not having spent enough time with them, but what else could she have done? She took another sip of her wine. After her husband died, she could have remained an impoverished single mother, but instead she worked to give her girls the best. She sent them to the best schools and on travels abroad, denying them nothing. They weren’t bothered by wearing used clothing from Goodwill in those early days, though they reminded Claire often that she had frequently left them with a neighbor, a goodhearted woman who had mothered them generously when Claire could not.
“I can get away for the evening.” John’s voice on the phone still excited her, even after ten years. He had a deep, resonant voice that could have provided him a lucrative career in radio, but instead he had opted for life in the oil and gas business, which was where he and Claire had met.
As she waited for him, Claire sat on the sofa, looking around at the art on the walls. All modern, the art served only to go well with the room. She had no idea who the artists were or what the various paintings and prints symbolized. Her decorator had chosen the pieces, and Claire felt indifferent to them. Studying them now, she felt like a stranger in her own home. She hadn’t cared before, and she wondered why she cared now.
She had no real interest in studying Spanish. Honestly, why couldn’t the company just hire some good interpreters and leave it at that? They would still expect her to put in the same amount of hours — not that she complained about that, she loved the job — but she would still have to find time to study.
Already impatient about the class, Claire wondered if there were other alternatives. Should have hired a private tutor to come to the office, she thought as she poured a second glass of wine and decided to catch up on her e-mails. There were drafts to read that would keep her up well into the night. Meeting notices awaited her confirmation. Every now and then someone sent her one of those annoying chain-letter e-mails, always so lovely and glowing until the threat at the end that if she didn’t forward it, her toes would fall off. Most people, though, knew better and left her alone.
She noticed a new e-mail from someone named Julia. Julia, Julia. She tapped her forehead. “Oh, duh,” she said aloud, and opened the e-mail from her new classmate. Nice meeting you, looking forward to the class, blah blah blah, then an invitation to coffee on Saturday morning to get together and practice.
“Hmm,” Claire said. She poised a finger on the delete key, but just then, her doorbell rang.
“Hello, beautiful,” John said as she opened the door for him. “I can’t stay long, but I really wanted to see you.” He gave her a kiss on the cheek and handed her plastic bags filled with Chinese take-out. She took them into the kitchen and set them down while he took off his shoes. When he joined her in the kitchen, she was already pouring the wine.
“Red?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said.
At forty, John was far younger than Claire, but he had pursued her relentlessly, probably the only way any man could get her attention. Handsome, with broad shoulders, thick black hair, and green eyes with lashes that any woman would envy, John turned heads. Sadly, she couldn’t show him off in public, because he also had a wife and children. She had never intended to get involved with a married man, but the relationship suited her, because John came and went as he could, and didn’t bother her between visits.
They sat on the sofa looking out on the city and sipped their wine. They talked about their work, as much as they could without violating confidentiality. She told him, in droll detail, about her language class. “They tell me it’s good for business, but honestly, what a waste of time,” she said.
“They’re right, you know,” John said. He had, through the years, offered Claire invaluable insights. While she would rather just work, he helped her plan her future. “There’s not much left in the Gulf, and we’re going to have to keep going deeper or find new sources. We’ve had no luck getting in to some of the offshore areas in Central America, and we need to be able to talk to them.”
“I know, but I just have so much to do. I’ll be working for hours after you leave.”
“Speaking of,” he said, looking at his watch, “I should be out of here in about an hour. Shall we eat in bed?”
“Sounds good to me,” she said with a grin. Claire loved John’s no-nonsense style that extended to the bedroom. She didn’t understand all the fuss about snuggling and spooning. She had needs, he would fulfill them, and then he would leave, allowing her to luxuriate in the entire bed without having to share.
“What are you looking at?” she asked, noticing that he was studying her face.
“Why don’t you take your hair down?” he asked. “You know, in all these years I’ve never seen it out of that twist.”
“Oh, Lord,” Claire said, draping her lean body languidly over his. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it out of the twist. Someone does this for me, you know, and I’m not sure I could get it back into place.”
“Take it down,” he whispered, insistent. “Let me see what it looks like.”
“Whatever.” She reached up and pulled each pin one by one. “I feel like I should have some striptease music going.”
John laughed. “Feeling a bit more naked this way, Beautiful? Who knew that Claire Malone had a shy side?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She pulled the last pin and uncoiled her hair, coarse and thick, letting it tumble past her shoulders.
John gazed at her and propped his body up on one elbow, a small smile playing around the corners of his mouth. “You look softer,” he said. “I like it.”
“All the reason for me never to appear this way in public.” Claire shrank away from him, suddenly annoyed.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Sex is one thing. This feels different. You’re getting too close.”
He flopped onto his back, then, looking at the ceiling. “Would that be so bad?”
“Don’t,” she said. “We have sex, then you go home. That’s the deal.”
“Okay, fine. You want to have sex?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “Now get that gooey look out of your eyes and ravish me.”
He chuckled then, and she knew the awkward moment had passed. He took her hand and led her to the bedroom. What Claire Malone wanted, Claire Malone got: emotionless sex, keeping him at an emotional, if not physical, arm’s length.
After he left, she spent more time than she wanted, trying to get her hair back into place. From now on, she decided, the hair would stay up.
She went back to her e-mails. Julia’s reappeared on the screen, and once more Claire planned to delete it. Then she paused, trying to remember the last time she’d had coffee with friends. “Hell,” she said aloud, wondering about who she could even call a friend. Her co-workers worked as many hours as she did, and she couldn’t even remember the names of their husbands and children. Back when the girls were young, she’d met other mothers, but they seldom talked beyond coordinating transportation and juggling school activities, most of which Claire missed, anyway.
Julia seemed a bit frivolous for Claire’s tastes, and obviously was not the most serious student in the class—Claire had always had that honor from first grade on—but practice would be good, if they could keep the group focused. Besides, Julia seemed nice enough and would probably ask little of Claire in terms of keeping the group organized. Why not? To her own surprise, she responded with a short, “Sounds good. See you there.”
Still embarrassed by having her classmates laugh at her, Ellen thought seriously about dropping the class, but she could not discount the fears that had driven her there, the possible ticking time bomb in her brain. Though only in her mid-thirties, Ellen knew that Alzheimer’s could hit at any time. Her father, not a young man when Ellen was born, developed the disease in his mid-seventies. Her mother, however, had sickened sooner. “Early onset,” they called it, and now, though only sixty, her mother had suffered for years and seldom recognized Ellen anymore. Ellen read everything she could about the disease, and the stories of those struck in the prime of their lives stayed with her. With two parents suffering the same fate, what chance did she have?
Just last month she had put her mother in the nursing home with her dad. She had tended to them at home for as long as she could, and her writing work gave her more freedom than most. She worked from home, so she could take care of them for quite a while, but as she became more and more distracted by the demands of caring for her parents’ needs, her work had dwindled. She had to make a living, so she reluctantly “put them away,” as she put it.
Her home rang with silence. There were no doctor appointments to take them to, freeing up hours of time. She hadn’t realized that she had become a full-time caregiver. It had snuck up on her bit by bit as she added an appointment here, sitting up with one of them in the night there, until their needs had consumed her. Only now, without them in the house, did she notice how her life had changed.
Each day she checked herself for new signs of forgetfulness. She knew the odds of avoiding Alzheimer’s were not in her favor, so she had embarked on a program that she hoped would be an all-out assault on the disease. First, great nutrition. Ellen had eliminated wheat, corn, soy, and dairy from her diet, and she limited her sweets to the occasional sliver of dark chocolate. Now that her parents had gone to the nursing home, she was able to do an hour of yoga every day. When breaking for lunch she did crossword puzzles, and she constantly looked for new ways to exercise and challenge her brain. A friend recommended foreign language study, which was what led Ellen to the Spanish class.
With her parents settled in at their new home, Ellen felt ready to take on another work project. She seldom had trouble finding work when she needed it, and over the years she’d had enough flexibility in her schedule to handle her parents’ needs and still make a reasonable income. She never enjoyed picking up the telephone for sales calls, though. She enjoyed her work, but she still struggled, even after all these years, with marketing herself. She eyed the phone, then looked away. She paced the floor. She finally took a deep breath and placed several calls, secretly relieved as one by one they went to voice mail. She made her last call to Jim, who worked for her favorite agency and always came through for her. “Hey, Jim, it’s Ellen, how are you?”
“Great, great, Ellen,” he said in his calm, reassuring voice. Unlike other placement specialists, as he was called, he never seemed frantic or worried. He also offered the best-paying jobs. “It’s nice to hear from you. Are you ready to jump back in?” He didn’t ask her about her parents, though he knew the story, and she silently thanked him for that.
“Yes, please, I’m ready to get going. Sounds like you have something for me?”
“Well, maybe. Are you willing to go into the client’s offices from time to time? I told them you preferred working from home. It would just be every few weeks or so to attend meetings and check in. You know, to give them the warm fuzzy.”
“Yes, yes, in fact, that sounds great,” Ellen said. Although she liked working from home, often she had felt trapped and isolated with her parents there. Once again she noticed the lightness and freedom in her body, followed closely behind by guilt for enjoying the freedom.
“Awesome,” Jim said. “It’s a yearlong project, more or less. Technical manual and online documentation, the kind of stuff you can do in your sleep. They liked your resume and want to chat with you on Monday. The usual pay range, but I think I can get the upper end for you. Is that okay?”
“Sure, Jim, thanks.” She jotted down the time and location for the interview. As she hung up the phone, she felt more excited than she had in a very long time. I get to have a life. She had said those words silently and aloud ever since Mom and Daddy went to The Venice, but now it felt like life was really happening.
With a job on the horizon, Ellen felt emboldened and ready to take on the scariest task: to sign up on an online dating website. Others cautioned against it, saying that the best way to meet men was through mutual friends, but she had not found that to be true. Her married friends hung around with other married friends, never including her in couples’ dinners. She was the odd woman out, the half of a nonexistent couple, the childless trying to have conversations with soccer moms. On rare occasions when she was included, some of the wives seemed to feel threatened by her. Most were more attractive than Ellen, but still insecure and possessive.
When her parents’ condition worsened, she’d had an excuse to avoid worrying about her light social calendar. Now, though, she felt alone, with empty days ahead, one after another. She wanted, needed, to have some fun.
Ellen’s work required detail, logic, and the ability to research, and she applied all those skills to her dating search. First, she browsed the profiles of other women to get a feel for what they wrote. As a writer, she was stunned by the lack of imagination. Was it actually standard fare to write “I like long walks on the beach in the moonlight…”?
Then she looked at the men, uncomfortable with looking at their income ranges. Too personal, she thought. It seemed as though every man looked for a woman at least ten years younger than himself. At thirty-five, Ellen was already too old for some of the men, despite the fact that they were over forty, and some even over fifty. More than once, she ran across profiles where men required their prospective women to maintain regular manicures and pedicures. When did men start expecting things like that? She looked at her own nails, some broken, some long, and all scraggly, and decided she would at least dig up her emery boards, which had to be somewhere in the house.
She spent hours scouring old photo albums, looking for the right photo to put in her profile. Ellen had never enjoyed getting her picture taken, and in fact was often the one taking the photos. She managed to find one of her with her parents, and she was able to cut her parents out of the photograph. It looked far better than the profile photos where a former spouse or lover had been cut out. She had chuckled at those, at least until she discovered the dearth of her own photo collection.
After adding, deleting, and revising text, she finally erased everything she had written and stared at the blank screen, not knowing what to do next. Do you like long walks on the beach at sunset? she wrote, then giggled and deleted her words.
Poising her fingers over the keyboard, she tried to remember what she enjoyed doing. “Well, okay, I can put down that I’m studying Spanish,” she said out loud. “It’s okay that I’m just getting started, isn’t it? Oh, God, I’m talking out loud in an empty house.”
After staring at the screen for a long time, she decided to tell the truth. She didn’t want to play a lot of games with guys, not at this stage of her life.
I’m a freelance technical writer who has worked all over the city, she began. I haven’t dated in a while because… No, that would never do. No point looking like a loser from the get-go. Even though she wrote manuals for a living, she remembered her creative writing courses. Grab their attention at the beginning, they all said. Come up with something to make the readers want to keep reading. She had to laugh. Writing the most complex manual seemed easy compared to a dating profile. Writing about herself, her words came out stilted and bland.
Let’s be real, she began again. I don’t play games, and I don’t want you to play games, either. I’m reasonably attractive and manage my finances well. For the past several months I’ve taken care of my elderly parents… Once again, she paused. She didn’t want it to sounds like a sob story, and she didn’t want to be so straightforward that she put men off.
The phone rang. “Ellen, this is Nurse Anne from The Venice.”
“Is everything all right?” Ellen asked.
Nurse Anne’s voice was soothing and gentle. “Your father has had a fall,” she said. “He may have broken a hip.”
“For crying out loud,” Ellen said, then caught herself. “I’m sorry. But wasn’t he in restraints?”
“Yes, but he managed to get out of them,” Nurse Anne said. “Your father is quite the Houdini, you know.”
“Where is he now?”
“We’ve taken him to the hospital. We thought you might want to get over there as soon as possible.”
Ellen gathered the details and thanked Nurse Anne. As she hung up the phone, weariness smothered her. She glanced around her modest home and the clutter she had looked forward to clearing. She noted the old paint on the walls that needed freshening and sighed. It would all have to wait, at least a while longer. She prepared to shut the computer down before leaving the house but saw Julia’s e-mail and decided to take a moment to read it. She remembered Julia’s kind face, one of the few students who hadn’t laughed at her, and who had invited Ellen to sit next to her. A study group? Her heart picked up a little speed. Maybe continuing the class would be a good idea after all. She could use some friends.
She logged off the dating site and turned off her computer, ignoring the message that all of the information she had input so far would be discarded. Maybe it would take just a little longer to get her life back. She gathered her purse and her keys and walked out the door.
Mickey pulled her hair back into a ponytail. Doug wouldn’t be home for another two hours or so, so she decided to spend some time on her Spanish homework. She had finished her day at the medical clinic, where she worked in the billing department. Having taken the job to pay the bills until graduate school, Mickey found that she liked her work more than she had expected. At twenty-three, her regular paycheck, though meager, gave her a feeling of being grown up for the first time in her life. She would be the main breadwinner while Doug completed his religious studies degree. Although she had expressed disappointment at having to wait her turn, secretly she breathed a sigh of relief. Social work had been Mother’s idea, arranged as a compromise when she turned down her father’s offer to put her through divinity school. Mickey preferred divinity in the form of the white fluffy candies that her mother made at Christmastime, and her “day job” had grown on her.
She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, not really. She had traveled on missionary trips with her parents since childhood. She had gone along with their plans for her to continue, even though she was tired of it. It was fine when the family had gone together, but the good Reverend and Mary Watson, her parents, had decided they were done. Mary’s parents had left them a nice inheritance, some of which they poured into their church, a small parish where Reverend Watson could sell his unique brand of Christianity. Mary Watson apparently wanted to use the rest of the money as leverage to dictate their daughter’s life path. Mickey knew they just wanted the best for her, but sometimes she just wanted to be left alone. They had been a happier family, she thought, when her parents had been poor missionaries.
She had signed up for the language class in part because her parents thought it would be good for her. After taking a “volunteer vacation” in Costa Rica, she felt frustrated with her inability to communicate.
Mickey had worked at a center for adults with disabilities, and she couldn’t understand a word anyone said. No one admitted to speaking any English, though she noticed during breaks that if she spoke to another American volunteer, the staff seemed to understand her. The volunteer organization offered little consolation, hiring local managers for whom English was also a second language. “You are visiting someone else’s culture,” they told her. “It’s important that you try to fit in.” Yet with each day, she felt more and more uncomfortable, and toward the end stopped trying to communicate. She ended up painting recycling containers and doing other odd jobs that allowed her to stay away from people.
The weekends were a saving grace. She traveled with another volunteer to Monteverde, where she ran along the paths in the cloud forest. There, the air was cooler. She didn’t mind the heat at the lower elevations, because it felt much like Houston, but she found pleasure in the cloud forest, listening to the growls of howler monkeys and stopping from time to time to watch the birds. From the tiniest hummingbirds to flamboyant toucans, colorful birds filled the cloud forest with song. On one of her runs, as she was passing by a group of tourists, their guide motioned her to come over, where he had set up a scope. “What is it?” she asked.
“It’s a quetzal, a male,” he said, his voice heavily accented, but his English skills, to her relief, refined. “It’s good luck to see such a bird.” Its back feathers were an iridescent green, and at one point the bird turned to reveal a vivid red breast.
“Oh my,” she said. “It’s so beautiful.”
“The quetzal is the god of the air,” he said.
God of the air. She studied the quetzal, wishing she could spread her wings and fly away, far from here, and far from the life she felt forced into.
Other than jogging in the cloud forest, Mickey had enjoyed one other aspect of her trip: helping students practice their English. She had to use English with them, which made her life easier, and they were grateful. So why learn Spanish when she could do just as well with her own language? Because Mommy said so. Mickey groaned at the thought, wondering if her parents would ever see her as a grown-up.
She grabbed her guitar and curled up in a chair, strumming it softly. She didn’t feel like singing just then, and contented herself by just enjoying the chords. She didn’t hear Doug come in.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She stopped abruptly. “Just playing a little,” she said with a sigh.
“Is dinner ready? I don’t smell anything.”
“Sorry.” She put the guitar away. Doug didn’t like it, and she kept that part of her life private from him, justifying her secret-keeping by telling herself that everyone did that to some degree. In Costa Rica, she was surprised when people asked her to play, and even more surprised when they liked her music and asked her not to stop. “How was your day?”
“I have a lot of studying tonight,” he said. “I really need to be able to come home to dinner on the table, Mickey. We’ve talked about that.”
“Sorry,” she repeated, thinking that it must have been one of the first words she’d learned as a child. “I’ll take care of it right now. It will only take a few minutes, you’ll see.” She ran into the kitchen, running into the side of the dining room table along the way, but refusing to cry out. There would be a nice bruise on her hip in no time at all, but she was used to it. She opened the refrigerator door and surveyed the contents. “Hamburgers it is,” she said aloud to herself. She pulled out the meat and pressed it into patties while the skillet heated. As she threw the burgers into the pan, they made a loud sizzle.
“I hope it’s not hamburgers again,” Doug called out from the other room.
“What’s wrong with hamburgers?” She rummaged in the refrigerator for a salad, but the lettuce was wilted and the tomatoes too soft. She decided she might have enough to put lettuce and tomatoes on the burgers, but that was all.
He stood at the doorway of the kitchen. “It would be nice to have something else now and then,” he said. “I am studying hard, and I need to eat some decent food.”
She slammed the refrigerator door and glared at him. “I work, you know, and I get tired, too. It would be nice if you helped me every now and then.”
“It’s not my job,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, tears stinging her eyes. “I’ll try to do better. It’s just that…”
“It’s just that what?”
“Nothing. Go watch TV while I get this on the table. I’ll work on the variety, I promise, but this is the best I can do tonight.”
“Whatever,” he said, and left the room.
In Costa Rica, she had sometimes found herself raising her voice, as though the natives would understand her English if she spoke it loudly enough. They made her the butt of good-natured teasing, which she felt uncomfortable with because she had no idea what they were saying. Yet their faces seemed open, lacking any guile or meanness, so she tried just to go along. Here at home, though, she still felt as though she were speaking a foreign language, and raising her voice to be heard was just as ineffective. So far, the easiest way to deal with Doug was to keep her mouth shut and just give him what he wanted. She had seen her mother do it over and over with her father, and they would tell her that this was her role as a wife.
She started to pull paper plates from the pantry, but thought better of it and used the CorningWare® instead. She had forgotten to run the dishwasher earlier, so she had to scrub the silverware that still sat in the sink. She wished she had made more of an effort to make a proper dinner, but when did she have time? She wiped out some glasses and poured milk into them. She discovered half of a cantaloupe in the back of the refrigerator. It wasn’t exactly fresh, but it would still be edible. Studying her efforts, she felt better. It would probably pass muster with Doug. “Dinner,” she called in her most cheerful voice.
“How was your day?” she asked when they sat down.
“Fine,” he said, his mouth already full of food. “Mmm. It may be hamburger, but it’s good.”
“Cool. Thanks!” She waited, but he said nothing more, keeping his head down as he ate. When he finished, she asked if he wanted another, and he just nodded. She put a fresh burger on the plate, trying to make the simple meal look as attractive as possible. I need to do a better job.
She had met Doug at church, and he fit into all she had been taught about what a mate should be: stable, reliable, and with a similar background. At least he was good looking. She never questioned whether she loved him or not. He fit the bill of “good catch,” and they liked each other well enough. As for Doug, she suspected that he saw a preacher’s daughter as someone who would stand by his side and understand the role of a preacher’s wife. Love, as her parents had taught her, would grow in time, and she had trusted that. She didn’t love him now, not yet, and she hoped that the love would kick in soon.
Now she had Spanish class and studies to tend to, and she would spend time after dinner working on her vocabulary. Mother had arranged it, of course, as Mother arranged everything, including Mickey’s future career plans. “We need you and Doug to help us expand the church in the Spanish-speaking areas,” she said.
Mickey went along, as she always did. She would go to each class, and then Mother couldn’t complain. She didn’t have to like it, though. So when she read Julia’s e-mail later in the evening, inviting her to a study group, she had no real interest. What was the point? And she wondered where she would fit in, anyway. Everyone else in the group was pretty old, maybe even as old as her parents. She decided at first not to reply. Only later, when she realized that her mother probably considered the other class members to be heathens, did she change her mind.