Ghosts of Christmas Past

My parents died on Christmas Eve. Both of them. Several years apart – my father in Miami, his Christmas banana bread in tin foil on the counter, and his gift to me, a framed photo of our tiny daughters on their last visit, already wrapped. I arrived home just in time to say goodbye. A senseless death, preventable and arguably suit-worthy, but he was an alcoholic with a ruined liver and it was Christmas and the truth of things was buried in the shock, the ashes and rosaries and incense, in the toasts of old friends, the cushioned seats of limousines.

God, my sister and I said on the rare occasions that our mother spoke of that day. Just promise you won’t die on Christmas Eve. But she did. Fourteen years later. Almost the same minute of my father’s death, in another state, amid fake Christmas trees and empty cardboard wrapped to look like presents, in the whispered joviality of piped carols, the strange brightness of the ICU, she flew away. On Christmas Day I forged her signature and charged her last trip to Miami on her credit card, sorted through her closet for her favorite clothes, her new SASS shoes, her clip-on earrings, but not her wedding ring.

My parents weren’t well-matched. Their best times were captured in old photos on Lake Michigan before our births. The rest was aftermath. They turn up now and then in things I write, appear unbeckoned in my books, in my head. They climb out from behind a word, a sentence – clinging to the anger that spread across our childhoods like a fire. Out of control. Relentless, building on itself, destroying everything in its path and leaving only blackened bits of things, only wrecked scorched hollowed earth.

I used to think it was such an awful eerie thing, the two of them conspiring somehow to ruin Christmas from the grave. But now I don’t. Now I wonder if it meant something, the way they both left on the same day, that one magical day of all the days of the year. I wonder if they shook their heads and walked backstage to take a sad and surreptitious bow.

Snippet of Afterthoughts for The Other Widow

It was important for me to understand Dana, to try to see the world through her ultra-sharp lens, her terror and confusion and to hand that lens to readers. We tend to compartmentalize – bipolar here, schizophrenic there. It’s safer that way. We feel normal, secure. I think it’s far more complicated, that there isn’t one thick line that separates us – that so much of what determines who we are, who we become, our sanity or lack of it, depends on circumstance, on voices from the past that whisper in our ears or lodge themselves in our heads. I hope my readers will relate to Dana on some level. They don’t have to love her. It wasn’t my intent to make her loved, but understood.

            Dorrie, in The Other Widow, falls for someone else’s husband and instantly becomes the proverbial detested other woman. We know her. She’s slept with our now exes, stolen our sister’s husband, come between our parents. She has no heart, this interloper, picking at the bones of someone else’s marriage. Again, different from us. We have morals, scruples – we draw boundaries. And so I made her flawed, conflicted, struggling with her alcoholic husband, stuffing glue in the cracks of a fractured life for the sake of the daughter they both love. He makes her feel alive, this man who isn’t hers. He gets her humor, notes her worth. He touches something in her she’d forgotten – he makes her feel alive, even if it’s only for stolen chunks of time, even if she is his Tuesday girl, his other woman, unable even to grieve openly when he is killed. She has friends and a cat. She makes veggie burgers and shares a bed with someone she no longer trusts and sometimes wonders if she loves. She’s vulnerable and tough, a woman in a dying marriage – much closer than we thought and more than a cliché. She could be our next-door neighbor, our best friend. She could be us. Again, the lines are blurred, the right and wrong, the black and white.

 

An Excerpt From Afterthoughts - The Other Widow

At readings, people often ask me how I came up with the story line. Someone posed this question to me once in a Starbucks. I kiddingly replied I’ve had a lot of affairs and killed a lot of people, but after the reaction I got from a passing coffee-purchaser, I no longer answer quite so flippantly. I believe we’re all a mix of good and bad, some of us more ethical than others; some embrace strict moral codes, some the Golden Rule. For me, there is always a struggle between thought and emotion, between sticking to the highway and wandering far afield. As in T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, “between the idea and the reality. . . between the emotion and the response falls the shadow.” It is this pause, this indecision, this moment of truth, this “shadow” that will eventually enfold us all, trip us up or propel us forward if we’re human. If we’re at all alive. The women in my book are conflicted. They are complex, humorous, fairly normal people whose realities are shattered in one unlucky moment and whose silver lining is the chance they have to rearrange their lives before the pieces fall back into place.

Visitor

Today I was driving past the building where I used to work before the state sold out and privatized the jobs we had for years, before that particular bullet was lodged in that particular educational foot. Maybe it was out of habit or nostalgia, the flower blossoms splattered in the parking lot, the café off the lobby with the giggly Chinese owners and the Tuesday Chicken Wraps. In any case I swerved in and sat there with my engine running for a minute, thinking about getting out and going inside, even though our whole department must be closed by now, the loose-end tiers having tied up the loose ends months ago.

I sat in a space beside an SUV with my hands on the steering wheel and remembered the time I thought I’d scratched a Lexus when I pulled in late and half awake, how I’d confessed this to the doorman. Mr. Wonderful, we called him. At least I did. He was retired from somewhere – I forget the story – and he ran a tight ship. Nothing escaped Mr. Wonderful – a hesitating car, a suspicious package – a dead engine; he was on it. I remembered him trekking out behind me in his boots the Morning of the Scratch, the coattails of his uniform flapping a little in the wind, how he stooped to eye the mark from every angle, flattening his hands in the air, calculating carefully before he found me innocent.

I was definitely lurking out there in the parking lot, definitely sliding around in time, remembering the Publix cakes in cardboard boxes, the prison papers inked with dreams, and all those secrets sealed inside a room with crappy lights. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel and watched a woman I didn’t recognize go back inside and reappear with Mr. Wonderful in tow. She gestured toward my car, loitering and puffing in the space with all the rotted petals.

I thought about getting out, about waving my hands. I thought about saying “Hey! It’s me! Remember?” I didn’t though. I just backed out and left. It was like looking at a scene in a snow globe with all the people lined up and singing and the church and the shops and the snow falling down and everything’s the same but really nothing is.

THE OTHER WIDOW - Dorrie

The train roars down the track, jerking as it turns a corner, jerking back again. The lights flicker. Brakes squeal. A woman gazes at a dirty heart carved in the wall, at the initials knifed inside. She leans her head against the window, lets herself drift back inside the small hotel room she’s just left, clinging to the carved heart of the afternoon. The train squeals to a stop, snow slides through the freezing night. The moon hangs low between two buildings as she walks into the penance of her life:

 

"She looks behind him at the door popped back open by the wind. It stands ajar. She stops. Panic sends a chill along her spine beneath her heavy sweater, beneath the quilt that used to lie across the bed she shares with Samuel. She feels as if she’s sliding, plummeting, that there is no one anywhere to catch her. And then she remembers staring through the snow at Joe’s wrecked Audi, the clumps of people pointing, shouting, as she took small steps back toward the car. There was something different then from the way she’d left it only a moment or two before, but at the time she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. And now she can."  –The Other Widow

 

THE OTHER WIDOW - Karen

I grew up near the ocean. I loved the sea. I even thought I was a mermaid that got lost somehow and ended up on land. There was peace in the sound of the waves, the circling gulls, the hum of the South Beach bus. They drowned out all the harsher sounds of home and made me want to go, to fly. Everywhere. Anywhere.

I think they are there still, pieces of the past, preserved, the dead alive, the silenced voices singing me away. The parts of me that overlap with Karen Dempsey are in her memories of a cardboard house with hard blue rugs.

  She closes her eyes, and sees his face, and then, for just a fraction of a second, she sees her father’s face, the round white moon of it, shining through a murky window, her father, ripping through the early fabric of her life. Preparing her. Setting her up. For this. For the lie that was her husband. – The Other Widow

It's Beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . .

I was wandering around Barnes & Noble in my usual Christmas daze – Who ARE these people I’ve known half my life? What do they like to read? Do they even LIKE to read? What does any of this have to do with Bethlehem and peace and love and pecan pie ANYway? – and I saw the most amazing thing! My blurb on the back of Chris Carter’s new book. I mean, I knew I wrote one. I knew I read the book and e-mailed my response back to the publisher. Still, to see my NAME there, my own personal gut reaction, my fear, spelled out in black and white (orange, actually) was really exciting.

In fact, I was SO excited, I had to tell someone. There were throngs of people there, crowding the aisles, but no dawdlers in that section. There wasn’t anyone I could just casually tell, “Oh. Huh. You might try this one. I read it. Actually, I read it and then I blurbed it. See? Right over here . . .” It wasn’t that kind of crowd. Everyone seemed a little desperate, glazed eyed, rushed.

Finally, I walked up to the guy managing the lines to the cashiers. “I wrote this!” I announced, pointing to my blurb. He looked at me like I’d gone a little mad, but this was clearly not his first rodeo. He’d seen what Christmas shopping can do to people, make them think they wrote books written by Chris Carter, who isn’t even the same gender, actually. “Ohhhhh,” he said, and then he looked again and saw my name, and since I’ve been in that store to visit THE POCKET WIFE on the shelf many times, he caught on. I told him I just had to tell someone and he laughed and turned around to point the next person in line to the next available cashier and I danced out into the parking lot with my jumble of gifts.

First Love and the Poet

She hadn’t married the Poet. She’d married Peter instead, his fresh good looks, his blue-eyed blondness seeping underneath her skin, erasing nights spent with the dark, sad Poet in his room with the broken wall. Where is he now? She wonders sometimes, nights when the sky is streaked with pink and she is nothing but a pocket wife.

In THE POCKET WIFE, Dana thinks of her first love when she’s feeling lost or when her mental illness is beginning to kick in. Although the Poet wasn’t a beacon of stability himself, he was exactly that for Dana. Or maybe it was because he wasn’t particularly rooted in a world that was becoming increasingly confusing that he made sense to her when no one else did.  

First love is different from the others. There’s an innocence and, in Dana’s case, trust that makes the impossible nearly possible, the unreachable at our fingertips. With the Poet beside her, Dana was able to stare down her demons. Almost.

Her thoughts of the Poet involve more than missing him, this person who was once in her life. It’s a yearning for a time as well, a place, perhaps – nostalgia for the way she felt when she loved him, for the girl she was.

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