Bitter

I would have torn you with my bare hands

Had I wandered upon you, embraced with her

I would have gritted my teeth until they broke

Biting into hatred, I would soon acquire a taste for bitter

+++

I would have screamed a thousand curses

Had I seen the gentle look you once gave me, given to her

I would have thrown rocks until you slowly bled

Now living my old life, and you moving on to things newer

+++

I would have set fire to your soul and watched you burn to ash

Had I witnessed your caress on her cheek, that once was mine

I would have raged a war on the universe and the gods

For you offered yourself to temptation, and left me behind

+++

I would have cried endless tears of sorrow and pain

Had I known the guilt behind your eyes and beating pulse

I would have pushed you off the roof and watched you crash below

So I could never again know that you love someone else.

 

Done.

You want to scream, but you can’t. You won’t. You know that if you start, if you dare let go, you will never find yourself again. And then, you will lose. You will, for certain, lose.

Time only moves forward. You can’t go back. You can’t make it right. You can’t make it anything. It’s not a silly life lesson, or a minor bump in the road. You naively think that you can shake it off, in proper time. But, it lives inside you, it festers, it breathes. You cannot deny its existence, for it has formed mold onto your soul, and it’s here to stay.

You should know better, but you don’t. You’ve lived. You’ve loved. You’ve been there, done that. Maybe twice. Maybe even three times over. You might think you have it all figured out. But, you don’t. You never did. And you never will.
The years will pass as time brings you more bounty of opportunity and pleasure. But, the bounties promise nothing. Keep guarded and ready, because you will need to run and hide. Sooner than you think, or ever reasoned.

The perpetual denial you project is almost laughable. I can see and hear that old, stubborn optimism of yours! You masterfully convince yourself to hold on… to just hold tighter and get through it, to have faith. You’re always hoping and wanting for better and believing that you deserve life’s bliss. That it’s finally due. That it’s coming for you.

So you wait, and you pay close attention. You observe. You then start to participate. You’re back in the game. Some things look good, appear promising, and packaged quite nicely, luring you in. But, you’re being led. Don’t be gullible… don’t be fooled… again.

It’s quite unfortunate that you will likely make more mistakes and forego all sensibility, in the name of love. You’re human, so you will falter. It’s sadly expected. You will accept what is presented to you in your trusting, loving way. Your heart will blossom again, and you will stand proud and confident, cloaked in your false sense of security, while the universe keeps you guessing… keeps you entangled, just waiting to show its hand. You will have a lot of patience. You’ll be so strong, so committed, so admired. You will endure. And then, you will die. Congratulations! You will finally win once you’re dead. You will have outlived the next heartache.

Now, imagine you’re dead. But, really, you’re not. The opposite is true!  You are just born. You draw in your very first breath, and you look around, taking in your surroundings. It’s beautiful… it’s unbelievable. It’s Heaven! Thank goodness for Heaven! You are home! You are saved!

But, wait! Don’t sign up for harp lessons just yet. Don’t, for one second, think you can’t be baited in Heaven. Those sweet, protective angels rush to you, encircle you, they sing for you, and they guide you along. But, should one of those cupid-looking, doe-eyed angels ask if you want to come back to Earth, be sure to smack their halo to the ground, and kick their winged ass straight off their cotton-puffed cloud.

You are done.

Rosie (1)

 

“Well, this is awkward,” I say aloud to no one, as I fuss over the black sheath dress I am determined to wear today.  The baby bump is too obvious, but I don’t have another dark dress that’s appropriate for the funeral.  Besides, Rosie loves this dress.  I think she even borrowed it once or twice, without my permission of course.  I stare at my reflection in the standing oval mirror in my dressing room.  I attempt several poses at different angles, but I still look pregnant, and today is not the day to make a public announcement.  Besides, Ted and I have decided to wait until after the first trimester before sharing our news.  I have just two weeks to go, but the baby is growing so fast, we may be outed sooner.  I grab an oversized ivory silk scarf and lay it across my shoulders so that it falls perfectly around my bump, concealing it nicely. “Well, there we are,” I admire my brilliance at buying more time. 

 

I call mother for the fifth time today. I wish we lived closer so I could be more helpful to her and daddy, but Ted and I have made the city our home while he’s contracted with the New York Philharmonic.   Besides, we both enjoy the culture and diversity of the upper west side, and feel it is more conducive to raising well-rounded children.  After three rings, mother finally answers with a strain in her voice that I’ve grown accustomed to since Rosie’s passing. “Hello, darling,” she says.  “Hello, mother. How are you doing?” I ask, fully knowing the response before she speaks.  “I’m okay, love.”  My heart breaks for mother, and I want so badly to lift her mood by telling her that she will be a grandma by April, but instead, I say, “We’re leaving the city shortly. We’ll come to the house first, then go together to Woodburn’s.  How’s daddy?”  She replies, “Okay, we’ll see you in about an hour then. We’re alright, love. Just drive safe.”  We say our goodbyes, disconnect the line, and I stand in silence concerned for her, for my brothers, for myself, and especially, for daddy.

 

I apply the finishing touches of makeup to give me a bit of color, when my eye catches a framed family photo taken over Christmas holiday when we were kids.  The photo hangs amongst several by my vanity.  I draw closer to the photo, reliving that day in my mind. Ollie and I were laughing our heads off playing in a snow pile in the backyard, while Richard was trying to get his sled down a small hill a few feet from us. And there was Rosie, wearing blond pigtails, watching us. She wasn’t engaged in the fun. Maybe she was too small. Too timid.  Perhaps, she simply enjoyed watching us have a good time. As I stare more closely at the photo, I am reminded that Rosie spent a lot of time on the sidelines of life. Withdrawn. Disconnected.  My face is suddenly wet. Tears are streaming… unstoppable tears.

 

In the car ride to Westchester, I enjoy the foliage that lines the Henry Hudson Parkway.  Ted and I don’t say much as we have his classical playlist filling up the 4-Runner.  I sit stoically, admiring the magnificent colors of Fall in deepest thoughts. For the past week, I’ve been haunted by the last image I’d had of Rosie, from almost a month ago.  She knew that Ted and I were “trying” for a baby for several months. When I learned I was finally carrying, I was so excited that I had to share the news with someone other than Ted, or I was going to explode.  I knew I could confide in my baby sister.  I was going to make her an auntie, and I wanted to give her something hopeful to look forward to.

 

Rosie was the youngest child, the cliched rebellious teenager, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer with so-called friends.  I remember her midnight confession about losing her virginity at fourteen.  I was truly disappointed in her, and my reaction was not one that was congratulatory, but I feigned enthusiasm, for her sake. It was already done, and she barely knew the kid. I was twenty-one at the time, and had just returned from NYU. Rosie thought my college life was so cosmopolitan and adventurous, and I think she resented me for not visiting home more. Indeed, I left her behind when I moved to the city for school, embracing my newfound adulthood and independence. I could not properly explain, to a ‘then’ eleven-year-old, this desire, this need I had to spread my wings, without sounding like an obnoxious and self-centered college snob.  I strongly believe that that was the turning point, when she started seeking out a fast crowd and isolating herself from the family.  The guilt I now feel, about abandoning her during those awkward pre-teen years, is something I must live with forever.

 

The day I last saw Rosie, I was bubbling with early pregnancy hormones and an elation I’d hadn’t known before. She was living in Westchester, about a twenty-minute drive from the family home, in a downtown section not considered safe.  Rosie never invited me, or other family, for visits. We’d all known she was very private, and kept secrets, but we also assumed she was embarrassed by her living situation. We only saw Rosie at the family home during holidays, special occasions and sometimes for Sunday dinners.  It was early September when I’d asked Rosie to meet me at Café Chloe on Brand Street, just a few blocks from where we grew up on Benchley Place. “Is everything alright?” Rosie had asked me in a groggy, concerned voice, when I’d asked her to meet me for a coffee. “Yes, of course.  Everything is great!”  I’d assured her. “I just want to talk. I have some news to share with you and I want to tell you in person.  Can you meet me at 3:30?”  There was a long pause. A very long pause before she finally said dully, “Yeah, that’s fine.”

 

Rosie shuffled into the café and I barely recognized her. Her skin looked rough, and her small expression lines appeared deeper.  I could tell that she’d attempted to apply concealer to the dark circles under her eyes, but it didn’t seem to help. Her hair was thin, dry, and the black coloring was completely wrong on her. She was a lot thinner than the last time I’d seen her, which was late Spring when we’d all celebrated Richard’s 30th birthday.  At the café, Rosie and I greeted each other with a hug, and I could feel her bony structure through the oversized sweater that hung off her frame.  I pulled back and stared at her.  “Rosie, you’ve lost weight. You okay?” I asked, in my overly concerned, big sister tone.  Rosie quickly dismissed my question and flagged down the server to request a double espresso.  “So, what’s going on? You’ve got big news, huh?” she deflected.  “Um, yeah, but I… I’m just concerned about you. How’s work?” I pressed her for more information. Rosie, uncomfortable then, shifted in her chair as she craned her neck, looking out for her espresso, but nowhere to be found. “It’s good. It’s all fine.  Tell me your news. Should I be excited?  Are you having twins or something?” she cavalierly blurted out, baiting me to switch the focus off her.  She fidgets while still wondering about the server.  The moment I couldn’t wait to finally share had completely flatlined, and I felt uncharacteristically solemn.  The presentation I’d rehearsed on the drive up has been mentally shelved. “Ted has renewed his contract with the Philharmonic and we plan to have a celebration next month at the house, with everyone there.”  The server places the espresso on the table then, but Rosie didn’t even notice. She was fixed on me… curiously.  She knew I was lying.

The traffic was backed up on I-95 as I made my way back to the city that day.  I replayed the conversation with Rosie in my head over and over.  Have I lost my sister forever?  Is this our new normal?  What will become of her?  Of us??   I felt I’d let Rosie down in some way, that I had not been a good sister to her over the years, and was now living with the consequences.  We don’t go deep anymore, we don’t share like we used to. She keeps everything in her life so close to the vest, all her secrets and plans.  She’s completely unreadable.  I can’t even follow her on Facebook anymore because she never posts anything. Her life is a mystery and I have no place in it. All the surface conversation at the café felt forced and after about an hour, I pretended that Ted had texted me for something urgent, which required me to get back to the city.  Rosie seemed relieved for the interruption.  My disillusionment was pushed aside as I tried to think of how to get us onto a different course.  I would need to think more strategically. Traffic was now starting to pick up, and I was on the Bruckner Expressway when I decided to call mother.

“Darling, don’t worry. Rosie gets moody sometimes. She’s not as strong as you and your brothers,” mother rationalizes.  Her attempt to soothe me doesn’t wash away my feelings of guilt and worry.  “I feel that we’re losing her, though,” I say, my voice cracking.  I think my hormones are making me feel more emotional and I’m about ready to cry.  Mother, considerably attuned, tells me that she will check on Rosie later and make a plan to go shopping with her next weekend, so they can have some ‘girl’ time.  I’m hopeful that mother will be able to get Rosie to open up, to allow her family to be more of a presence in her life, including me.  Especially me.

The phone call I received on the morning of October 8, 2017, changed my life forever.  The fragments of the call are still not properly pieced together, but the words “Rosie is gone” spoken from my daddy’s deep, gutted voice still plays in my ear.  Everything else that was said during that call flew past me.  I stayed stuck on “Rosie is gone” and within seconds, I’d dropped the phone and fell to the ground after my legs completely betrayed me. I was in the bedroom, so I’d fallen, uninjured, onto the plush carpeting. Ted was in the master bathroom without any knowledge of the call, or any idea that I’d fainted.  He was shaving, preparing for a show later in the afternoon. It was a normal day… just a regular, ordinary day… until it wasn’t.  I came ‘to’ on my own, still hearing Ted in the bathroom, the sound of running water, and his phone plugged into the speaker he uses, listening to Mozart’s Serenade No. 101.  Momentary confusion dissipated when I saw my phone laying near me.  “Rosie is gone.”  Daddy’s voice was reverberating in my head, and as I tried reaching for my phone, my eyes started to well up.  Just at that moment, Ted’s phone rings, silencing Mozart.  I hear him answer and within seconds, he’s saying, “No, no… NO!  Oh God, no.”

 

“Grace, I’m so sorry about Rosie,” says our neighbor, Liz Lockhart.  Mother, looking poised and even, gives her a hug and soft smile, clearly appreciating the gesture.  I stand beside mother, holding her hand, while my brothers stand on the opposite side of her, forming a bond of family, of unity.  Daddy has not been holding up well and I fear that he’s back in the men’s room, isolating himself so he can cry.  Rosie, his baby, is laying in a casket, dead.  Ironically, she looks beautiful today, the healthiest I’d seen her in months.  But, she is lifeless, gone. It’s so utterly tragic.  I turn to find Ted and ask him to check on daddy again.

 

Richard and Ollie are so different from each other.  Richard is shut down in his grief, while Ollie is very present, engaged.  As for myself, I don’t know yet. I think I’m just going through the motions. It’s all surreal.  There are still unanswered questions about Rosie’s passing. What we know is that she died in her apartment.  The reports show that she may have fallen and hit her head on the corner of the kitchen bar countertop. The impact alone would not have killed her, but her neck twisted when she hit the ground.  Other factors included evidence of alcohol and marijuana in her system at time of death. I imagine she was stoned and lost her balance when she fell and hit her head, rendering her unconscious. The neck twist would have killed her instantly and she would not have felt any pain. I think of Grandma Lena greeting Rosie as she passed, and that gives me great comfort.

 

Mourners approach us to give their condolences and we all try our best to spend proper time with each, receiving their blessings, and listening to their memories of Rosie.  I spot Ted as he returns from the men’s room and he looks ‘off.’  I break away momentarily to have a chat with him, to ask about daddy.  “Babe, how is he?  Is daddy alright?  Is he coming out now?”  I implore my husband, who appears to be shaken.  “Ted, are you ok? What’s wrong?  What’s wrong with daddy?!”  I ask him urgently.  Ted takes my hand and leads me outside of Woodburn’s to the parking lot, for privacy.  He tells me that daddy is not doing well, that he implied something about Rosie’s death being NO accident.  Ted continues, “He kept saying, over and over, that ‘she’ did this to his baby girl. ‘She’ killed Rosie.”  I’m blindsided by this revelation.  “She!?”  I urge him to disclose more.  “Who… who is ‘she’!?” I press him hard to tell me.  Ted, looking defeated, says “I don’t know. He wouldn’t say. I couldn’t get him to say. I tried, Mags, I did. I tried. He’s so broken. He was crying the entire time.”  I tell Ted that it’s okay as I see him getting upset, getting nervous.  I suggest we get back inside the funeral home, as we fix ourselves.  I tell him that daddy is having a breakdown, he hasn’t been sleeping, he’s lost about 15 pounds.  He might be delusional.  We just have to get through the next couple days. We have to be strong for him, for everyone.  Back inside, Ted takes his seat in the first row, next to his parents, who flew up from Fort Lauderdale.  I go back to mother, where she is standing with Richard and Ollie, receiving mourners by the casket… the casket that holds Rosie… the only one who has all the answers.

 

“I’m sorry, Maggie.”  Daddy has taken my right hand into his firm, steady hand.  “It’s okay, daddy.  It’s a difficult day.  We’ll be fine. Let’s just stay together,” I whisper back.  Let’s just stay together.  These words mean so much to me right now as I contemplate the future of our fractured family. Does daddy know something about the night of Rosie’s passing?  Is he just rambling on about conspiracy theories because he’s in shock, or denial?  Why did he say ‘she’ instead of ‘he?’  Who is he protecting?  I look over at my brothers, wondering if they know anything.  I look at mother, and she turns to look back at me with swollen eyes and deepening frown lines.  It’s then that she smiles, and I suddenly feel like someone has punched me in the stomach.

 

 

The End

 

 

 

Rosie (2)

She is flawless. Her skin, porcelain and wax-like, properly decorated with neutral contouring and eyeshadow.  Her lashes light with a brown mascara, not at all thick and heavy by the weight of falsies… like the ones she used to wear out to nightclubs. Her lips are painted with a coat of muted, matte red lipstick, not too bright as to offend or to give an improper impression, but just the right shade to balance her facial tone.  The dusting of rose blush helps to accentuate her bit of cheekbone, which she inherited from her late Austrian grandmother, Lena.

I recall a time when my Rosie was almost five years old, running straight into Lena’s outspread, inviting arms when she’d come to the states for a visit one year.  They had an immediate connection that I never quite understood, since Rosie was always so shy around strangers, even family members she didn’t know well.  Lena had come for her first visit in almost six years and the two had not even spoken by phone. So, I was amazed at how Rosie so easily gravitated to her, and I confess I was a bit jealous while observing their chemistry.  Twenty years later, and I still feel that pang of jealousy.  Rosie and I lost our chemistry sometime during her pre-teen years, when she developed a sharp, dismissive attitude toward me.  Slowly, or quickly perhaps, she distanced herself from me.  If I’m honest, Rosie and I never had that special mother-daughter bond. She was daddy’s little girl from the moment she was pulled out of me and handed to Rob, with me laying there in a pool of sweat and weary from eight hours of intense labor.

My relationships with my other children are very different.  Maggie is our first-born. Sweet and industrious, she and I share similar styles and interests, and our weekly conversations are always fruitful. She is an elegant beauty, married to a violinist. Maggie recently confessed that they’ve been “trying.”  I instantly imagined Rob and myself as grandparents, and got all flushed and soggy with emotion.  Our second born, Richard, is a travel blogger and an adrenaline junkie, though generally low-keyed.  He is quite handsome, though he barely recognizes this quality. Richard is a dutiful son, calling home every other day to “check in.”  Oliver, or Ollie as we call him, is our third-born, and was a child prodigy.  He is the most successful of all our children.  After graduating from Harvard Medical School with a PhD, Ollie took up residence at a local hospital close to home and soon started his own practice. He currently lives a block away from us with his ‘nurse’ girlfriend, and our visits are routine.

Maggie, Richard and Ollie stand on either side of me, each gripping the other’s hand firmly, interlocked like a chain necklace. Maggie stands to my right, and Richard and Ollie to my left.  Rob has disappeared, again.  He is probably in the men’s room, trying to gather himself.  He is so emotional today, and I can barely muster the strength to console him. My poor husband.  I remain standing with my children, supported by them.  I wear a respectable black dress, shapeless with capped sleeves and high neckline.  A string of pearls, gifted to me by Ollie a few years ago, are tastefully draped around my neck. My smart-looking pumps, however, are mercilessly cutting into my bunions, but I don’t care.  Perhaps, it’s my penance. I did try to schedule my monthly root touch-up, but my colorist was on vacation. Thankfully, Maggie was able to style my hair nicely and complement the look with some make-up tricks to hide the grays. I feel presentable, almost proud.

Rob finally emerges from the men’s room, looking pale and gaunt. He’s dropped fourteen pounds this past week.  I kind of admire him for that, but keep all admiration boxed, noting the inappropriateness. He makes his way to the four of us. Maggie is weeping in her graceful, polite way. Richard is broken, quiet and slouched. Ollie is strong, staying focused and engaged.  As for myself, I am a sack of nerves under a veil of contemplative sadness.  Rosie is gone. At twenty-five, she is gone from us. The darkness is undeniable, but there is a light I can see, a small tiny light, barely visible.  I know I must stay focused on that light, and will it with all I have in me, for it to get bigger, though it will take time.

When I’d gone to meet Rosie at her studio apartment last weekend, I’d brought the four hundred dollars she’d reluctantly asked of me. She said it was for rent, but I knew she was lying. We didn’t hug during our initial greeting. Why would we?  “Does daddy know you’re here?” she asked pointedly. “No, of course not!  You asked me not to tell him!”  I retorted, defensively.  Honestly, I always felt awful lying to Rob about my visits to Rosie’s, so my defensiveness was actually more about my own guilt.  “Don’t shout at me!” Rosie snarled. And there we were, at odds with each other again.  This vortex of misguided animosity, defiance and resentment, on both parts, was truly tiring.  Rob could never see Rosie in this state of addiction, with her unwashed hair and body odor, tattooed arms and chest, and her yellowed teeth.  Rob’s image of Rosie was unblemished, through a doting father’s filtered lens. He would be devastated by this reality. He couldn’t handle it.  He wouldn’t.

“Here’s the money!” I tossed the bills of twenties onto her unmade cot, which laid waywardly on the cold floor of the studio. “I’ll tell your father that we shared a nice evening, enjoying your signature-style spaghetti and meatballs, with extra garlic,” I said, sarcastically. Rosie ignored my comment, but I knew it burned her, nonetheless.  She busily gathered up the money and started counting it, without even as much as a gesture of gratitude.  No snarky comeback to the dinner comment, either. Nothing.  I felt sad for Rosie, but even sadder for myself.  And far sadder for Rob, who was at home, blissfully clueless.  Protected, rather.

I collected myself and started for the door to let myself out.  Through the corner of my eye, I discovered a giant cockroach climbing the wall adjacent to the door and I jumped at the sight, gasping out loud. “Oh please, mom. Stop being so dramatic,” Rosie scolded.  “God, I hate you.” Those last four words were casually whispered, almost not wanting to be heard. But, loud enough to catch me.  “What!?” I asked Rosie, bewildered and half-daring her to repeat it directly to my face.  I was now staring at her eye to eye, woman to woman, mother to daughter, enabler to addict. “What?” Rosie replied uneasily.  “I didn’t say anything.  You must be hearing things.”  She then brushed me off after her nonchalant response, expecting me to just ignore her and leave.  But, I didn’t.

As I stand here this evening in solidarity with my family, I project strength. It’s a façade, of course. How can I be strong when our baby is lying in a casket, a mere ten feet away?  There are more than a hundred people here tonight at Woodburn Funeral Parlor paying their respects:  Former school teachers and classmates, friends, ex-lovers, former co-workers and neighbors. About thirty of Rob’s colleagues and closest friends are here, along with members from my Bridge club, and the ladies from my weekly Krav Maga class. Everyone is here to support us, to support me.  I’m the mother, the most fragile of the family. Condolences are well-meaning, but no one could know the gravity of my pain and the years of turmoil I’d endured:  How I helped hide Rosie’s drug addiction and poor choices in boyfriends; how I helped bathe her on days when she couldn’t help herself; how I cleaned up her apartment of garbage of paraphernalia almost weekly; and how I tried getting her help more times than I can count.  I’m physically exhausted and emotionally tapped. My eyes are glazed, absent.  I hadn’t had a proper night’s rest in almost ten years.

Maggie leans in and confirms to me that the navy dress I chose for Rosie is perfect on her. It covers all her tattoos and only reveals the exquisite ivory skin around her clavicle. Rosie is picture-perfect. She is innocent all over again, just like she was on the day she was born.  I embrace this image, accepting that the baby of our family is now gone forever.  Admittedly, she was gone a long time ago.

Rob takes Maggie’s free hand, and the five of us stand united, interlocked.  Giddily, I’m fairly certain I detect a slight bump under Maggie’s dress, but I refrain from any probing questions. For now, anyway.  And, I’m curious about Richard’s next adventure, even though his answer will undoubtedly cause me anxiety, I muse inwardly. Ollie’s girlfriend is here, and I fantasize about a possible impending wedding. I glance over at Rob, my loving, hardworking, loyal husband of thirty-four years, and I want to hold him close.  I want to tell him that we will be fine. We will all be fine.

I truly want, and expect, all to be fine, but I stare at my youngest child, still and peaceful, and I question everything.  My fiery, rebellious and incorrigible daughter, Rosanna Lee. I brought that little spitfire into this world, and then removed her with my own bare hands.  I quietly pray and ask for her forgiveness and to allow us to move on as a family without her… to allow me to move on… without her.

The End

Sobering

Loretta stares out into the midnight fog, taking in the passing fields, vacant and eerily quiet. With her right hand cradling her round belly, she thinks about the names she and Mick had settled on just earlier in the week: Lillian and Michael Jr.  Nearly seven months along and neither she nor Mick have yet to learn the gender of their soon-to-be firstborn. They had made a pact to keep any future pregnancies a surprise until the time of delivery, after suffering a cruel six-month miscarriage a couple years ago.

The brutal late January chill is sobering, which explains why Mick insists on keeping the windows cracked open. Loretta feels goosebumps rising and wishes she had brought along her wool poncho. Mick reaches across to her, clasping his hand over her left thigh, a loving check-in he routinely does during car trips. She delights in his touch, closing her tired eyes, and starts to dream about everything Spring: Tulips, warm weather, and her due date.

“What the Hell?!!” screams out Mick, as he swerves the Camry from right to left, across the double yellow lines, then back to right, before finally regaining control of the vehicle. He stops the car on the grassy shoulder. His right arm firmly locked against his wife’s belly, all of Mick’s protective instincts had properly activated. “Holy Shit!” Mick lets out, fixing his eyes into the rearview mirror. “What the hell was that?!” Mick questions aloud. Loretta, cradling her belly with both hands now, glares at Mick and yells teary-eyed, “You HIT something! OR SOMEONE!”  Mick, frozen in his seat, feels offended by the blame in her tone, although he knows she’s right. Shaking, he puts the car in reverse and carefully lifts his foot off the brake, allowing the car to drift backward.

They live just four miles from Bruce and Ann’s, so the ride home would have been just mere minutes. They’d driven this road countless times, during daylight, late evenings, through thunderstorms, heavy snow, thick fog, and the occasional beer buzz. Both Mick and Loretta know this backroad intimately, with its twists and turns, its minimal traffic signs and sparse street lighting. His ingrained knowledge of this road, however, didn’t make Loretta feel any better after Mick had downed six Heinekens earlier. She’d asked him to pace himself after the third, but he was having too much fun celebrating Bruce’s 50th.

“I knew you were too drunk to drive!” Loretta scolds. Mick is defenseless, and scared out of his mind. The thunderous blast is still radiating through them both. They are terrified and know that they must retrace the Camry’s path. As they continue drifting back, they observe the area looking through all the windows in the vehicle. Loretta, crying in disbelief, rubs her belly anxiously.

The fog appears to thicken, and within seconds, neither can see anything at all. Mick reaches for his phone to dial 9-1-1. Loretta, quick-thinking and completely sober, warns against calling the police. “You’ve been drinking, remember?!” Loretta reprimands sharply.  Mick concedes, shamefully, and steps out of the car briefly for a better look around. Cautiously, he walks past the front hood, bending down to note any damage to the vehicle. He is fully cognizant of a potentially gruesome discovery as he carefully assesses the entire front of the car. After a couple minutes, he straightens his torso, and exhales. No blood.

Mick checks on Loretta through the passenger windshield. He nods, giving her a thumbs-up sign. Loretta appears nervous. He wants to get back to her right away and just drive home.  But, he can’t.  Mick looks around the perimeter of where he stands, unable to see beyond the scope of his immediate location. The fog is denser now, whiter. He doesn’t give up, though. He doesn’t care that the Camry has not one scratch or dent or trace of blood. He hit something in the road and won’t abandon his efforts now, though he starts to reason that whatever was hit, must have been catapulted a far distance from the point of impact.

Several minutes pass as Mick continues to look for any evidence along the barren road. He is only about fifty feet from the car, but Loretta no longer sees him.  She grows concerned. Looking through the windshield, desperately trying to find Mick or anything else for that matter, Loretta sees an unusual image forming in the fog. She goes stone cold.  She stares, entranced, as the image shapes itself into a silhouette, a giant dark figure moving toward her, with a wingspan that stretches out just beyond the width of the Camry. Loretta is motionless, her mouth agape. “Mick! Mick!” she fails in her attempts to scream out Mick’s name. Instead, only a soft whisper is pushed out. Loretta rationalizes that she is dreaming. “This is not happening. None of this real,” she mutters under her breath.

Loretta shuts her eyes tightly, disregarding the image. Perhaps, she will awaken to find Mick snoring beside her in bed, his body warm and inviting, draped in cotton flannel.  But, her racing pulse jolts her back to the inside of the Camry. Her eyes open, reluctantly, and widen. The formidable figure quickly envelops the car. Mick, finally defeated by the oppressive elements of darkness, chill and fog, returns to find Loretta convulsing in fear. In that moment, the fog lifts, and the giant image suddenly dissipates.

Loretta folds and lets out a guttural cry, prompting Mick to rush in panic to her side. She clutches onto him, meeting his worried eyes with her own bloodshot eyes.  Her hoarse voice whispers to him that she has lost the baby.  Reactively, Mick asks, “What baby?”

Do Away For Today

My wish for you, is a true wish indeed

To do away with the thorns that make your heart bleed

Those thorns of pain, dressed in red roses

Hidden beneath the beauty and served in small doses

For what seems kind and presented in peace,

Unravels slowly and complicated to show its disease

Its method lures you with a simple, pure image of love,

Easily fools the cynic who knows the dragon before the dove

So be careful with your eyes to see beyond their view

And do away for today the damage done to you.

 

 

 

 

 

The Window

“Jeez!  He’s taking me to see a foreign film with subtitles!?” Adele frets in her mind, while feigning enthusiasm through her signature toothy smile. She quite honestly finds foreign films to be too heavy, too serious, and waaay too much work. “All that reading!” she fusses inwardly. “This movie won awards several years ago, and the director is genius and really quirky… a bit out of his mind, actually,” Jesse tantalizes.  Adele keeps smiling, with her blue-colored contacts gazing up at him, through spidery black mascara, and wispy platinum blond bangs that tickle her eyelids. She holds her gaze trying to be adult-like and cultured, and seemingly interested, but she’s secretly hoping the movie isn’t one of those 3-hour-in-dire-need-of-an-intermission type movies.

Jesse hands off the large basket of popcorn to Adele to carry into the theatre, while he totes their drinks and giant Twix bar, after having charged $28.50 on his platinum Amex.  Adele makes a mental note and is immediately impressed, sensing that he must be making a good enough salary to be a platinum cardholder. She quickly catches herself being shallow, and averts her attention toward a little baby in a stroller, looking directly at her all big-eyed with a gummy smile. She reacts with her own big-eyed, smiley expression, hoping that Jesse will register her natural inclination toward children and her ‘wifey’ potential.

They seat themselves in the second to last row, near the entrance.  The trailers are about to begin, when Jesse realizes he’s forgotten napkins.  He darts out, and Adele quickly assesses if he’s worth remaining in her seat. She fantasizes about running out and never seeing him again. It’s only a first date, and she’s got the jitters for sure. Before she can decide, he’s back in his seat with the napkins. She unconsciously coos when he returns, flashing that toothy smile at him once more, and realizes that he’s a nice guy who seems normal… mature.  From what she’s learned of him so far, he’s well-traveled, was raised by both parents who are STILL married, and is a bit of a geek. He’s a far cry from other guys she’s dated, AND he does Crossfit!  She quietly commends herself for remaining in her seat.

The film begins. “Life Is Beautiful” is an Italian film. Adele does not speak any Italian, but tries her best to follow the story, reading along while watching the characters do their bit.  She’s initially suffering through it, fidgeting during the first thirty minutes, then she gets pulled in and is totally invested.  She surmises that it’s political, a charming tale inspired by historical events, it’s romantic and suspenseful, a story of survival and death, it’s happy, intense and heartbreaking. At the movie’s end, Jesse and Adele are both teary and gripping each other’s hands.

Adele makes a stop in the ladies’ room before leaving the theatre while Jesse waits for her in the lobby. She wonders to herself if she’s made a good impression tonight, with the jitters and all. She fixes her eye makeup, and confronts the fact that Jesse got teary-eyed over a movie.  “How sweet” she thinks, and reminisces about past boyfriends who never felt comfortable expressing such vulnerability. Adele finds this sexy about Jesse. She emerges from the restroom and finds him waiting for her with a tender expression. She hooks her hand into his and they stroll together out of the theatre.

As they approach her bus stop, a bus is seen just about a block away. Jesse asks Adele if she’s got her metrocard ready, and if she has her keys and phone, etc.  Adele holds up her purse and says she’s fine, she’s got everything. As she retrieves her metrocard, Jesse sweeps in for a kiss.  Not a ‘lip’ kiss though. Not a messy, tongue-in-her-throat kind of kiss, no.  Just a simple ‘brush her hair to the side, press a soft peck against her cheek in a respectful, gentlemanly way’ kind of kiss. It was sudden… and it was nice.

Jesse flags down the bus to be sure it stops, looking back at Adele with a warm smile.  He tells her “I’ve had a great time with you. I hope to see you again. I’m free this weekend. Can I call you?”  The bus stops and Adele steps on, giddiness reaching every cell in her body. She dips her metrocard to pay the fare, then turns around swiftly, realizing she has not yet replied to Jesse’s offer of a second date. She hasn’t even gestured a proper goodbye, when she observes the bus doors closing, completely separating her from Jesse.  The bus starts pulling away from the curb as she rushes to the window of a nearby seat, eagerly trying to find Jesse in the darkened evening, amidst a swarm of other pedestrians.

The bus is now turning at the corner and Adele literally has her forehead pinned against the window. She doesn’t see Jesse anywhere. All she sees is her own reflection staring back at her. But, it’s not her. It’s not ‘her.’  Adele was born Adeline, and went by Addie until she turned eighteen, the same year the singer Adele became a household name.  Addie took the liberty to align herself with the superstar by simply altering her name when she started freshman year at UCLA, and has gone by Adele ever since.  She continues staring at her reflection, bypassing the platinum streaks in her hair and remembering a plain, ordinary girl with raven hair, frizzy with curls. Addie used to view the world through deep and soulful, dark brown eyes. She was a nerdy kid in her elementary school before bullies toughened her, and before the cool girls gave her a lesson in getting boys to like her. Addie used to read books and newspapers, she used to draw and write poetry, and History was her favorite subject.  She dreamed of one day having a big family and becoming a meteorologist.

Adele is embarrassed by the facade looking back at her, and at twenty-four years old, vows to make changes. She is aroused by an emotion deep within her, and doesn’t understand why this is happening right now. Perhaps the movie has stirred something within her, as she suddenly finds the need to be more authentic.  “Maybe it’s Jesse’s effect on me,” she wonders.  “What must he be thinking right now?” She remembers their last encounter just before she climbed up the steps of the bus. “I hope he doesn’t think that I don’t want to see him again,” she anguishes. “What if he likes only ‘this’ me?  This dolled-up Barbie persona? What if he won’t want to see me again if I am plain and ordinary-looking? A dark-eyed brunette??” she cringes at the thought.

The bus window fogs from her warm breath, and when the bus stops at a red light, she hears her name faintly called.  She focuses her eyes on a tall man out in the darkness, waving his arms frantically in the air, yelling out “Adele! Adele! Listen to phone message!”  Adele is shocked by the sight. It’s Jesse! “He must have run all this way!” Adele feels elated.  She waves back at him excitedly, and blows him a kiss through the window.  Just then, the light turns green and the bus proceeds.  She pulls her phone out of her purse, which is still on vibrate since the movie. There is a voicemail message from Jesse.

“Hi it’s me, Jesse. Sorry I’m losing my breath; I’m chasing your bus. I see you looking out the window for me.  There’s something so angelic and light about your face now; beguiling, sort of. Please tell me you’ll see me again. I feel like there is more to learn about you.”

Ten years later…

Announcement appearing in Il Gazzettino dated 14th June 2017:

Jesse and Adeline Belladonna are the proud new parents of Adela.
Born on the sixth of June, weighing 8 pounds, 6 ounces.
She has lots of dark wavy hair and big brown eyes, just like her mamma!
Baby Adela joins big brother, Guido 6, and older sister Dora 3.
The family is doing wonderfully and is grateful to everyone for their well wishes!
La Vita E Bella!

 

Email

I am not writing this note as your enemy
Nor do I write to you as a friend
Hidden truths unveiled for you
Not seen with eyes of your own unless, until… I dare press ‘send’

I love a man who loves you, calls you his own
Yet he brings to me his passion and burning desire
I should say no and turn him away
But I’m defeated by weakness, and here is where the stakes go higher

I’m not writing this to cause you sorrow
For I myself have been there too, oblivious and naive
The other woman does not matter without face or name
But truths find their way, regardless of what you choose to believe

I need him in a way that you do not
My own heartbreak, loneliness and utter despair
All lead me to his smile and charming ways
For him, I leave my groom, the man I married, for someone I must share

There is no logic, no excuse, no simple reason
Just two marriages teetering, living a lie
And our children on the cusp of marital doom
Betrayal exposed by my fingertips, and I cannot justly explain why

Maybe he appeared at the right moment, as I did for him
We selfishly harbor a secret love meant just for us
What good could come from revealing all, I wonder
There really is nothing to gain, so nothing to discuss

I write to you as your enemy and as your friend
I am your worst pain, unknown dormant in your gut
And I note that blissful, content lives could suddenly halt,
If my conscience should win, because no longer can I stay shut

But his arms hold me close, keeping me strong
His love nourishing my mind, my heart, my soul
My legs firm and tight around his torso
Together we are unleashed, we are brazen, we are whole

Intimate fantasies compelled into our reality
Without harm to anyone if kept discreet
So… I shall keep this secret… and keep it forever
And you shall never read these words, for it is with shame that I now press ‘delete.’

 

YES

The seasons of love.
They come and they go.
They bid farewell to a torn heart.
Then usher in one that is new and robust.
One that is primed for a million tomorrows.

A life together. United.
The romance. The journey.
Brand new. Sweet and plentiful.
Magical nights under the stars.
Breathless. Weightless.
I fall in love. Again.

Eager. Awakened.
My unnerving anticipation.
Wondering. Can it be?
Is he the one?
Yes. I imagine he is.
Each and every time.

The new season quietly goes. As it does.
Brought me new joy.
New promise.
Fulfilled desires.
Re-opened a closed heart.
Healed the hurt. Broke down the wall.

Daily, I spoke of him.
I yearned for him.
I reached for him.
His power I denied. I discounted.
Clearly, he won.
He led me. Drew me in.
Helplessly, I stayed.
I stayed for him.
I stayed for me.
Thought it was to be.
I cried when he had proven me wrong.

Another season long gone.
The wind bellows.
I’m alone. But not done.
Just like the tree without its leaves. Bare.
Awaiting the new season.
Awaiting new leaves.
I look up. I command the heavens.
Through gray skies above.
Screaming aloud. In desperate wails.
What of the next time?
When is my season?
When is it promised?

You, whom I don’t yet know.
I ask of you.
May I stand beside you?
Will you want me there?
To love you. To love me?
To have and to hold?
To call me your wife. Make me family.
Will you cherish me? Honor me?
Tell me. So I will know.
Finally. That your love is true.

Please ask me.
So I won’t be lost still.
Beg me. Dare me to say it.
Take my hand, my heart.
Take all my tomorrows.
With your loyalty. Imbued in the ring.
The ring you choose for me.
I promise. I swear.
I will not waste a breath.
When I look at you. Longingly.
Through happy tears of mine.
With a song in my soul.
Intent in my eyes.
To you I shall whisper.
“YES.”

Fairy Gothmother

 

She sits there… cool and aloof.  I know this type.  A goth model wanna-be posing for attention, with teased over-dyed jet-black hair… which is looking in desperate need of a trim if you ask me.  Her over-penciled eyebrows are matched in black, in stark contrast to her ivory skin, and she wears her carefully-precisioned black winged eyeliner like she’s auditioning to play the late Amy Winehouse.  I look down and shake my head in judgment, then look up once more only to wince at the sight of her.  I fleetingly recognize this shameful act of superiority, but I can’t seem to hold it back.  The goth girl portrays this dark angst-ridden, coquettish persona that I left behind me a million lifetimes ago.  Yes, there was a time when I was dark… a rebellious teenager going through a vampire-goth phase, vainly trying to be interesting and original, when in fact I was terribly insecure.  Fast forward, though, and here I am today:  An independent investment advisor to ultra ‘high net worth’ clients, married to my college sweetheart, and mother to a beautiful and gifted 12-year-old.  I also have, to my credit, a long list of VIP friends and acquaintances who keep my social calendar full, any given week.  I realize the many blessings in my life and always do my part in helping those less fortunate by donating to the homeless and to inner-city organizations.  I also attend, and contribute to, several fundraising events in the city, and do my part in paying it forward by hiring interns each summer from my alma mater.  I am deeply grateful for the life I live today and relish in the accolades of being a successful and accomplished entrepreneur who is well-traveled, well-read, and whom others respect and admire.  A far, far cry from that desperately insecure teen I once was.

At this very moment, however, as I stare at the goth girl, I am brought back in time, and in my sudden introspection, I am gazing into the mirror of my youth.  This mirror… a portal to a life lived more than thirty years ago!  Through middle-aged eyeballs, I now watch my unsophisticated hormonal self at the tender age of seventeen.  Fixating on the goth girl is like watching a film projection of me on the cusp of womanhood, back when I foolishly thought I was so mature, so clever.  I watch myself there in that place in time, with all my character flaws and quirks that made me somewhat interesting to others. My mannerisms, along with my sense of style and humor, my inherent Brooklyn-born street smarts and my ambitiously optimistic view of my future self… all laid out in front of me in the image of this goth stranger, the image which I find clearly mocking me now.  Back then, I naively imagined that I had some idea of what was in store for me, for the lifepath I would be following. It was a time when I felt I had every right to become anyone I wanted (an astronaut, actor, or doctor, for example).  I always expected wonderful and exciting things to happen for me, as though I had my destiny and entitlements all figured out.  Now, at 47 years old, looking back to that time, I never ever had the world at my fingertips.  I wasn’t handed anything, or promised anything.  But, I always dreamed big!  Even with several stumbling blocks in my way, I knew I just had to succeed.  I had to.  I always had something to prove.

I knew I had to be someone that I, myself, could look up to, and someone that my family could count on.  I had my reasons, since my attorney dad left us when I was just nine, and my sister was then just a newborn baby.  Dad cheated on mom while she was pregnant with my baby sister, Abigaile, leaving us just weeks after her birth.  My mom, my baby sister and me… suddenly alone.  Dad chose a new life with his legal secretary and started a new family way out on Long Island, close to Montauk.  Bunny, as his new wife is called, disliked and shunned the three of us, although my dad dismisses that notion outright. Mom was always diligent in protecting us from the pain of their divorce, giving my sister and me more love than we could have ever wished. She clearly overcompensated for my dad not being around, although he did make limited appearances during certain holidays and a few birthdays.  He couldn’t have understood the emotions we felt back then, nor did he try.  The pain of losing our father, by way of abandonment, lasted for years and it changed us all as women, and in how we associated with the men who would find their way into our lives in the years since he left us.  We were broken.  And sad.  In my mind, I had to be strong for the three of us.  I was the eldest daughter and I’m an Aries!  I worked my ass off to build the empire, the life, and the many relationships, that I have today.  “I, Joanna Johnston, high-ranking professional career-woman, refined and glamorous, always the most interesting, smartest, and most beautiful woman in any social gathering, the envy of every woman and the object of every man’s affection.”  This was my daily mantra at 9 years old.

Growing up in my household in Brooklyn Heights, I did go through a rebellious stage.  I maintained an A- average, but I got a bit weird during senior year when I gravitated toward the goth scene.  Vampireville… my sister’s secret nickname for the ostracized high school goth gang, where I so desperately wanted to fit in.  I knew I would grow out of this stage at some point, so I didn’t dwell with worry on this time of my life the way my parents did.  Dad feared I would start doing drugs and throw my life away.  He had me all wrong, but then again, he wasn’t around much to really know me.  My interests were actually quite simple and harmless… listening to underground alternative rock bands, hanging out at The Limelight, and dressing like a zombie!  I wasn’t eating the flesh out of anyone though… honestly!  I was just having fun and living through a phase.  Besides, I had truly believed that before my move to Boston to begin my freshman year, without yet having real world life experience, I could get away with a few things…  just minor teenage stuff.  I thought I could behave a bit recklessly, and not worry much about consequences. I was whimsical. I was young!  In that time, so long ago, I could be dark and aloof.   I could be brooding.  I could be precocious and mysterious.  I could be intriguing and depthful, to the point where I could compel any stranger to want to know me, if even for just a short train ride’s conversation.  Just like the aloof goth girl sitting across from me this very evening on the 6 train.

It’s just passed 5:00 on this summer evening and the rush hour crowd is not following any rules of orderly conduct as they squeeze themselves onto the train at 42nd Street-Grand Central Station. The passengers press into one another and moans are released into the atmosphere of our subway car. Eyes roll up into eyelids as passengers reluctantly accept their fate of rush hour discomfort. During this particular ride uptown, I am one of the lucky ones because I have a seat.  I boarded the train one stop downtown at Union Square where the subway cars were less crowded.  I entered the train there with a relatively small-sized after-work crowd, and found my seating place in the corner of a 2-seater section of the car.  I felt quite relieved that I would not have to stand and be subjected to someone’s elbow in my ribs, or someone’s backpack pushing against my spine, or the hot breath of a nearby yawning passenger who refrains from covering their mouth.  When I take my seat on the train, I immediately situate myself by removing my black Kate Spade purse from my shoulder and placing it upright upon my lap.  I hurriedly pull my pale-blue cardigan, sitting atop my shoulders, so that it sits more snugly around my neck and chest, a cotton-knit barrier protecting me from the excessive air conditioning in the car. I reach for my cell phone to connect to the transit wifi to catch up on emails when I innocently glance up from my phone to discover that goth girl sitting opposite me.

Pulling my attention from her obvious relationship with Sephora, I focus my attention on the white Beats headphones atop her head, wondering what type of music she could be listening to.  “Simon and Garfunkel, perhaps?” I sarcastically wonder to myself.  Her clothing consists of the very unoriginal ripped black fishnets, black motorcycle boots, faded denim cuffed shorts and loose-fitting black t-shirt. The collar of her shirt is armored with silver symbolic pendants on way too many silver chains that dangle from her neck. Her makeup clearly complementing this costume with its dark drama, and accented by blood-red lips.  Oh, the cliché of it all!   Eyes closed, she is bobbing her head in rhythm to the music streaming through her headset, which actually now sounds to me like Depeche Mode in its faint tones. She is a caricature of the village scene just south of Union Square, seemingly desperate to be unique and noticed.  I see her though, as I see myself thirty years ago. Transparent.  Flawed.  Insecure.  Eager to belong and to be understood.  Probably envisioning her own life in twenty years or so as someone completely opposite of who she is today.  She knows she can carry this persona for right now, because the ‘real’ world is so far away.  A lifetime away.  Perhaps, many lifetimes away.

My imagination continues to entertain me as I shudder from the train car’s air conditioning.  I believe, without a doubt, that the goth girl must have boarded at Spring Street after getting off from work at her part-time job at some boutique shop which sells vintage clothing. I carefully study her so she does not notice my interest in her, but she catches me when she glances up toward my direction.  I guiltily take in a deep breath, pulling my gaze away, pretending to be interested in a random subway advertisement above the train’s sliding doors.  I take a risk only a few moments later and attempt to resume my careful observation of her, when I come to the realization that she is my opportunity to visit a somewhat forgotten past, a time when the world still felt so new to me… when the stirrings of adulthood seemed fascinating and terrifying as I was finding myself, finding my voice, finding my place in the world. The nostalgia of it all suddenly makes me completely still. I’m in a mental time-machine and I barely recognize who I was back then. Ironically, I sometimes barely recognize who I am now.

The quick 8-minute ride from Union Square to 42nd street, for me, is a stroll down memory lane, as this young woman reminds me of one of my incarnations, back when all I honestly cared about were boys, concerts, my cat, and having perfect, unclumped mascara!  I cared more about what others thought of me back then even though I pretended not to. I remember having bad skin and low finances, but walked and talked like a confident rock star, with loads of makeup over layers of acne cream. I managed a tight budget that afforded me bargain clothes that were actually quite stylish and mostly all black. I obsessed over alternative music and the goth scene of the east village during the late 80s.  I quickly reflect on the person I am today, sitting on this train now.  A wife.  A mother.  A professional woman. Bor-ing!  I glance down at myself sitting properly on the train, hands clasped together over my handbag, dressed in a navy knee-length size-14 dress, fitted with a gold thin belt buckled at the waist, with a string of pearls sitting at my collar, and my J. Crew cardigan tied across my chest. I pause for a few moments.  A sentiment reaches me.  “Too adult.” I’m clearly not edgy anymore. No edge equals no fun, no cool factor.  No sense of adventure or mystique!  “Where did ‘I‘ go,” I wonder. I close my eyes so I can go back in time again.  I allow myself to be, for just a little while, transported from 2017 to 1986. There are no cell phones, there is no Facebook.  I am dressed in black from head to toe in a size 6, harnessing my teenaged hormones in a flirty display of lace and fishnets.  I’ve got a walkman with a cassette tape playing music through my bargain ‘no frills’ headset.  And, I’m jamming to Strangelove!  I’m free, edgy, and interesting.  And, I am loving my vibe.

After 42nd street, where we received the disdained crowd of rush hour passengers, the train annoyingly creeps along to its next stop, 51st street.  In the cramped train, I lose sight of the goth girl with all the people now in between us blocking my view.  I cannot see her well without conspicuously straining my neck, so I allow my eyes to roam the crowd of diverse passengers who are eager to reach their destinations for this evening.  It is mid-July and it’s Wednesday, hump day. With two more days until the weekend, there is a palpable anticipation for the weekend’s reprieve, when the majority of elite New Yorkers leave the city for the Jersey Shore or the Hamptons.  I am not one of those people. I live on 67th street, near 2nd avenue, with Eliot, my husband of thirteen years, and our twelve-year-old daughter, Kelly.  We enjoy spending the summer weekends here in the city while everyone else goes away. It just feels calmer, less chaotic then. We do, however, escape for the last few weeks in August, just before Labor Day, to the south of France, to stay with Abigaile and her husband, Joél, at their cottage in the countryside. It’s always a peaceful and tranquil time spent, and we all look forward to it every year. While my thoughts have led me to my upcoming French vacation, I realize that I should have scheduled Kelly’s french instructor by now, to help her brush up on her conversational french.  My mental trek down goth memory lane is shelved as I continue to run down my mental “to do” list, and I start to feel a bit stressed by how much needs to be done in preparation for our trip, which is only just a month away now.  Suddenly, the train pulls into 68th street, my stop.  I arrange myself, waiting for the train to still before standing, and I quickly put away my phone after responding to a friend’s brunch email confirmation. I swing my purse over my left shoulder and stand while steadying myself. The train’s sliding doors open, and I make my way through the wall of straphangers to exit. I walk with purpose (as us New Yorkers do), keeping orderly pace with others exiting the subway and then continue through the turnstile, toward my normal route, up the northeast stairwell, leading out onto Lexington Avenue, right across Hunter College.

I usually pick up my pace up the stairs as this qualifies as a sort of cardio exercise for me lately.  I reach the top step, but I somehow miss, hitting my knee to the ground on Lexington’s dirty pavement. A kind and reactive gentleman walking just a couple steps behind me, clutches me near my left tricep as my purse slides down my arm. He hoists me up, asking if I’m okay. I embarrassingly look up at him with a grateful smile and a slight giggle at my clumsiness, and I assure him that I’m fine.  He releases me, smiles back, and quickly disappears, bolting uptown toward 69th street. I then look down at my bare knee with its slight ashen scrape and I’m relieved that there’s no blood, when I hear a young woman’s voice to my left ask me in a pleasant tone, “Are you sure you’re okay?”  I’m standing straight up now and as I start to respond to her with assurance that I’m all fine, I sense her hand upon my left shoulder blade, a caring gesture I note.  I slowly turn to her and I am immediately taken a-back.  This gentle-voiced, kind samaritan is the aloof, clichéd goth girl from my train!  She’s here… smiling at me with sincerity and concern in her eyes. I motion to move myself away from the rush of the exiting crowd coming up the stairs, so as not to not block anyone at the top of the stairwell.  The goth girl moves as well, then proceeds to walk alongside me, apparently still awaiting my response.

She is tall, much prettier in the daylight now, with delicate features peering from under her dramatic and dark makeup. She has a small mole between her right nostril and upper lip, a Madonna-type mole from when she first burst onto the music scene in the mid-80s.  I always thought that Madonna’s mole was so cool and I desperately wished I had one.  I even thought about getting a tattoo to copy it.  Funny that Madonna’s mole was gone after a couple years, and I don’t recall any interviewer inquiring about its disappearance.  Ha, all these years later, and I still want to know what happened to it!

As the goth girl walks alongside me, I tell her in a convincing manner, “Oh, I’m fine, really, I’m just fine.” I proceed to thank her for her concern and assistance, when she asks me for my name.  I’m surprised by this in a way, and I wonder if she thinks she knows me from somewhere.  I half-smile curiously and reply, “Joanna.”  She then introduces herself to me as Hayden and shyly asks me for directions to a salon located on Second Avenue. I can’t help but notice that she has an accent. It’s Australian, very lilty and refined-sounding, and when she speaks, I notice her teeth are exceptionally white and very straight. We end up walking together, since we are both heading in the same general direction, across the avenues going east. I encourage her to continue walking with me so I can direct her properly, since I am quite familiar with the salon she’s referring to, although I myself have never been.  She accepts my proposal and continues to walk with me. Interestingly, I find Hayden to be nice company for this brief walk, as she is engaging and sweet with a childlike charm and likability.  She confesses that she is on her way to see her American father and his new family after fourteen years following her parents’ split. Her appointment at the salon is to get a quick haircut and blowout she says, something nice to make a good impression I assume.  She was admittedly nervous, though I could tell she was excited as well.  She shared that she would be meeting his second wife for the first time, along with their two children, 3-year-old twin boys, who are half-brothers to Hayden. She had toys for them in an expensive-looking shopping bag clutched in her right hand.  This is an important meeting for her, I can tell. Hayden needs this visit to go well.

To pass the time as we strolled across 68th street together, she shared that she is twenty-four, lives with her boyfriend back home and is mother to a Pomeranian named Daisy Dukes.  She then spoke of her music band in Australia, of which she is the lead vocalist. She shared that she and her father are connected through their music, since he himself is a singer/songwriter and guitarist.  I chose to not pry, although I secretly wondered if he was someone famous.  We were halted at the traffic light waiting for the ‘walk’ sign, when she turned to me and apologized for being a Chatty Cathy, and explained about her nerves getting the best of her. She was just minutes away from the salon and about an hour away from a life-changing experience in meeting her father’s new family.  In all my middle-aged wisdom, I could not fathom the advice I would give someone in her situation, other than to wish them the best of luck.

The light changed, so we proceeded to cross Third Avenue on our way to Second. Since we would be walking together for another few minutes, I thought I would help Hayden in some small, but meaningful, way.  In that spirit, I acknowledged my own personal experience with extended family members resulting from my own parents’ divorce, which was, during its time, very complicated.  Actually, it was a devastating time for my family, with continuous aftershocks, with which we still sometimes struggle some thirty-eight years later. With just a couple minutes remaining before parting ways with Hayden, the pretty goth Australian singer, I decided to share the abbreviated version regarding some of my family history.  I wanted to convey the crazy dysfunction and dynamics that spawned our current unconventional family culture.  To this day, I sometimes wonder how my mom, sister and I were able to maintain our sanity and remain so close and so strong.  I’m sure the eighteen years of therapy helped with my perspective, and the passing of time has allowed me to accept most things as they are, without the associated complex feelings of guilt, anger or shame. Family is family. You don’t always get to choose. And yet, even with that understanding, you can still find yourself in the wee hours curled up in the fetal position on a cold bathroom floor, crying for answers and cursing at the people who’ve let you down.

My own personal history seems to connect me to Hayden right now and I feel a charitable sense of responsibility to her as we approach the northwest corner of Second Avenue.  She really is a sweet girl. So open and friendly.  I feel obligated to impart some other-worldly oracle of knowledge as Hayden looks intently at the potholed ground beneath where her boots step.  She then sets her eyes to meet mine.  I notice their color for the first time. Deep blue, like sapphire, similar to the color of the dress I’m wearing. Deep and dark.  Goth-like, I chuckle in my head.  I sense by her curious expression, and the way she suddenly leans in, that I must, at this very moment, say something.  Something powerful, meaningful, something with lasting significance and utility.  I realize that I have a tremendous opportunity right now to be of use to someone. A total stranger. A goth chick. Someone with whom I truly identify. Someone I once was, and a part of me still is!  I fantasize that Hayden may be compelled to repeat our conversation later to her friends, to her mom, to her boyfriend perhaps, or her dad, maybe even to another stranger one day. My profound words could potentially live on after this day as she refers back to our conversation for many years to come. My words, this moment in time, this trust between two strangers will be remembered, will be valued, and will connect us in this life. Maybe she’ll one day write a song about me, I muse.  Moments later, all this self-flattery melts away when I catch myself, and I feel ridiculous.  I see the image of myself in my mind’s eye, as I am today.  I am Joanna Johnston… successful, accomplished, fulfilled.  And, I also see that young, inexperienced, insecure teen who is still a part of me.  I exhale fully and take a moment to savor this epiphany.  I want to hold onto that teenaged insecurity. I want to own it. The same insecurity that I once loathed and carefully disguised.  I want to carry it with me today as a badge of honor, for it has shaped me.  It has equipped me along the way here. I always thought insecurity was bad, shameful, negative.  But no, it is not.  My insecurity is my catalyst, my humility, and therefore, my strength.

Hayden and I stop at the corner on Second Avenue, and I reach out my arm with a pointed finger toward the salon building as I direct Hayden to her destination.  We both know that we will soon bid our farewells, but we are not ordinary strangers just saying our courtesy goodbyes. We completely turn our bodies to face one another. Hayden stands about three inches taller than me, in a straight-postured, statuesque pose. Regal and confident with no insecurity there, I muse.  Funny, but I no longer see those ripped fishnets, cuffed shorts, the superfluous silver chains, or jet-black hair and overdone makeup.  I see before me a beautiful young woman with a certain poise that I did not capture previously on the train. I begin to carefully think about the words I will say to her before speaking them aloud.  It’s interesting, because, when I do finally speak, I feel I am suddenly outside of my own body.  A controlled, mature voice which doesn’t quite fit my own, takes over.

“Wow!” I exclaim.  “How fortunate you are!  You, right now, have a unique and special opportunity to catch yourself a curve ball hurled at you, going 100 miles an hour, perhaps one of many during your lifetime.  But don’t duck, don’t run away, don’t look away.  That is life coming at you.  And, life is a privilege, it’s a gift, and it’s a blessing.  It’s also an olympic obstacle course.  It is precious and unpredictable, and riddled with ironies and challenges at every corner.  Embrace the unexpected, and for whatever lies beyond your control, allow it to unfold as it will.  Sometimes, a free-fall can land you in the most wonderful circumstances, though they can take a while to be realized as such. Just be present, be in the moment, be alive, and be patient with the timeline of your life.  Be tolerant and forgiving of others as well as yourself.  And never mind your fears for they might obstruct your happiness, your will, or your soul’s purpose.  Trust that you will reach your senior years not knowing all the answers or understanding every pain and disappointment you’ve endured.  But, aim to look back on your life without any regrets or missed opportunities.  Always keep open your heart and your mind, and continue to receive and recognize all of life’s blessings for some will be obvious to you, while others will be hidden beneath those times of pain and disappointment.  Just know that one day all will be revealed, everyone will be reunited, you will come full circle from where you started with deeper understanding, and the only thing that truly exists and matters is ‘Love‘.”

With a closed smile, Hayden nods in a gesture of understanding.  She then reaches for my hand.  She holds it in hers in a gracious manner, and proceeds to lean in with a light air kiss.  I note a glassy look in her eyes. Without articulating a word, or murmuring a sound, she chooses to continue smiling, still close-mouthed.  She appears to take in my message as she postures herself straighter, possibly adding another inch to her height I imagine.  Her model-like frame appears lighter and her facial structure more relaxed. She gently releases my hand and stares at me for another moment with gratitude in her expression.  No other words are spoken. She looks down, and turns away slightly. She starts walking, slowly, toward the direction of the salon.  I watch her, all the while hating the fact that she is now leaving me there.  I now know that something has awakened in me and I fear losing that when she leaves.  As she reaches the door to the salon, she pauses and looks back.  I am still standing there, watching her.  She waves at me, and this time her smile is open. It’s a broad, happy smile.  I could see those straight, white teeth in the distance, perfectly framed by her red lips.  I also distinctly notice an aura about her, a golden-colored aura.  I normally don’t see such things, I acknowledge.  Suddenly, Hayden is out of view.  She is gone.  And in a sense, I am gone too.  I so vividly see myself in Hayden, that I could not resist the chance to live a part of that life again.  And now, she is gone.  I do not move. I wait. Maybe she will step out of the salon and come back.  I stand there in quiet awkward moments, hoping.  Then, realizing I’ve waited long enough, I turn my back to the salon, reflecting on the pearls of wisdom I had shared with Hayden, which were still hanging in the hot, stale summer air.  The wisdom, it seemed, of a mature, experienced adult.  One who has lived and learned some things.  I think about the words that I had spoken, their impact.  Did I really say them?  And to whom was I really speaking?

I soon gather that my 47-year-old self was in fact talking to me, 17-year-old me, through this interaction with Hayden.  I spoke the words I needed to hear then.  The assurance I needed to feel. Maybe I knew this wisdom all along, even at seventeen, but I had to be in that moment where I was then, at that stage of my own timeline, before I could properly understand and process the me I am today.

As I stand on the avenue, I feel shame cascade over me.  I am ashamed at my initial prejudgments of Hayden, and how I projected repressed feelings of insecurity onto a stranger.  I get it now.  I do. I whisper an apology into the universe.  I do have my shortcomings.  I’m still learning. I’m still growing.  I am today feeling blessed and humbled by my crazy childhood and the sacrifices of my mother. I love where I am in my timeline of life, and when I think back to my goth years, I now understand that girl more today than ever. And I love her more than ever, too.

I stand motionless on Second Avenue, where I am lost in thought and revelation.  I then whisk myself from that hold, and stride down one block toward 67th street, to head home to Eliot and Kelly who are waiting on me, and probably wondering if we’ll be having the baked macaroni casserole left over from last night. I have an involuntary pep in my step, and feel feather light as I turn the corner of 67th.  I’m just a few steps from the hunter green awning of our doorman building when something inside me feels wonderfully unleashed. I am eager to get home.  I am eager to hold Eliot close and longingly, and smell the musk off his neck.  I then want to squeeze my Kelly so tight and only let her go when she admonishes me with that predictable pre-teen angst that she’s developed. The thought of the two of them intensifies inside me.

I enter through the revolving door and stride across the lobby of my apartment building where Nelson, our charming hispanic doorman, thoughtfully asks me about my day, as he usually does.  On any other day, I would have half-heartedly replied, “Good, thanks. How are you?”  Then, half-listened to his reply.  But today, I look at him intently, and say happily, “My day was very interesting and unexpected, but I would really like to know about your day, Nelson!  Tell me.”