Please, please comment on what order I should introduce these characters to make the book enticing. I will use all my influence to name my coming grandchild after you. Any other comments will be appreciated. Please look past the editing. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
R O X I E
At first, it just seemed just like any other day. Roxie Castro stretched in bed, relishing the warmth of her duvet on this first morning of fall. Edged with scarlet, the maple leaves outside her bedroom window were preparing for their annual show of florescent orange-red, and the air was nippy. This was Arroz Habaniera weather. Roxie could taste her mother’s favorite fall dish, even as she felt the little bead of warmth in her breast that always accompanied waking up in Oakwood, Ohio—the furthest place spiritually from Little Havana that she could have found.
Then she remembered, and the bead of warmth turned into a knot below her breastbone. This was the day she had been dreading for a month. Group therapy, of all things. She was the happiest person she knew. Why did she need therapy?
Sighing heavily, she threw back the covers, pulled on her purple fleece bathrobe, and went through the archway between her bedroom and her office to check her e-mail. She loved her office. Formerly a sleeping porch, some previous owner had made it into a sunroom, replacing the screens with windows.
"Buenos Dias, Benito, caro, amor de mi vida!" she crooned to her cardinal, perched in the magnolia just outside her second story office. She and Benito had a relationship. As far as she knew, he was unacquainted with her doppleganger, Jennifer Lopez,
and accepted Roxie for herself. After greeting her every morning, chirping and fluffing his wings, he flitted off to tend his daily duties. A perfect example of the male of the species. , as far as she had encountered it in her thirty years .
Nothing had come in overnight on her e-mail, except a statement from her grandfather’s accountant, a shrunken little Jewish man whose grandfather Salvatore Castro had entrusted with his fortune after his flight from Cuba in the fifties
. She schooled herself to pay attention to it. Even though she was Salvatore’s youngest granddaughter, she had received a large inheritance. Because of the plunge on Wall Street, Aaron was moving all her money into Treasuries and Money Market accounts. Her balance was still healthy, though the plunge had cost her about fifty thousand dollars. She knew Aaron would work his wizardry and get the money back. Though in his seventies, he was sharp as a new razor blade. Besides, aside from her spur of the moment trips to faraway places, she didn’t touch her inheritance. Once she had paid cash for her dream home—a truly American white-framed house set in its forest of trees, she had had no trouble living within the limits of her salary from the university.
Time for breakfast.
Donning her purple fleece robe, Making her she made her way downstairs, . Roxie drew comfort from adored her kitchen. She had painted it the warm gold of Tuscany with white cabinets and tile floor. As she sipped her orange herb tea and tried to eat her morning dose of homemade granola, she attacked her dread by mentally mapping her day. Perhaps there would there be time to see William before she had to be at Dr Hilliard’s office?. hospital? Just a flying visit, to see how his weekend went? Her watch told her she needed to hurry, but she could make it.
After a quick shower, she put on her Halloween scrubs. She wore them a size larger than she needed and they pooled dangerously over her Nikes. William was always telling her she needed to get proper clothes in their proper size or her students would think she was one of them. And even though he was her boss
, at UD, as long as the Provost didn’t complain about her unconventional dress, she was sticking with her scrubs. It kept the grabbers away. Though, she had to confess, she hadn’t had a single grabber since she moved to Oakwood two years ago. Only the occasional leer.
William looked up from the New York Times when she came through his office door. His severe face, too lined and hard for his forty years, broke into the rare smile that changed his face from saturnine to wistful. "Roxie! I didn’t expect to see you this morning. I thought you had an appointment."
"I do. But I came for some of your courage. Isn’t it ridiculous? I’m terrified everyone’s going to think I’m a pole dancer."
Her journalism department head laughed, a thing she prided herself on being able to make him do. "Not in that getup! You look like a sixth grader with your braids."
She turned her back to him, so he wouldn’t catch her staring at his beautiful hands—long, tapered, and graceful, they gave a clue that his touch would be tender and caressing. She could almost feel it. Pretending to
and pretended to inspect the gilt frame of his degree, she read: . William Niederhauser, Ph.D., Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Did he really see her as a sixth grader? Possibly with a schoolgirl crush?
"Tell me, William," she said, spinning around to face him again. "I’ve always wondered. Why University of Dayton? You’re a nationally syndicated columnist. Why not Georgetown or Columbia?"
"When I had my accident," he said, indicating his wheelchair, "I nearly died. Marjorie was gone. All I had left was little Bill." He, too, looked at his degree. "I used to be ambitious, but after I was well enough to go home to Bill and realize how traumatized he was, I decided that Oakwood had to be our home. It’s the only thing he has left of her. I can do my job quite well from here."
"Hmm," she replied, looking into his hooded blue eyes. Under his stare, she felt herself growing hot. He saw way too much. He probably knew that she wanted to kiss that quirky mouth with a tenderness that would make up for his losses. She could do tender with a paralyzed man. "I guess it’s time for me to get going."
"Courage, ma petite," he said, with a gentle smile.
She saluted him smartly, hoping to disguise her feelings. "Hasta luego, hombre."
Driving the short distance through Oakwood to the hospital in Kettering, she surveyed her safe little town with its storybook trees and mansions while keeping carefully to the speed limit. Her friend had been given a speeding ticket for bicycling over twenty-five miles per hour, and all speeding tickets were published in the Oakwood Register along with the speeder’s age. The latter fact clearly kept drivers in line. Did William read the Oakwood paper? Maybe it was worth a speeding ticket to make him realize she was thirty. Plenty old enough to know her own mind.
be involved with a forty-year old man.
She passed the town library, a sturdy faux-European whimsy set in its brilliant green lawn. Inside, it smelled like the best university libraries, and its librarians all had Ph.D.’s. Its book group was currently reading all of Anne Tyler and Roxie was behind in her assignments. It was not because she was a slow reader, but because she read the same passages over and over, trying to understand Tyler’s mind. Her margins were covered with notes. Maggie in Breathing Lessons was her favorite character, probably because she never counted the cost, but always rushed in to grab the reins in a futile attempt to steer the chaos of life.
Roxie knew she was a reins-grabber. All the Castros were. Witness Cousin Fidel.
When she had slid into love with William, she had, at first, visions of taking him to Lourdes and healing him in the magic waters, or better yet using her fortune to fund stem cell research that would enable his spinal cord to regenerate. But, then she wondered if perhaps she had only allowed the slide because he was paralyzed. Their relationship was set to exist only within the bounds of her imagination.
What was wrong with her?
G E O R G I A
It was the middle of the night when Georgia Todd rolled over
when the alarm rang and wrapped her head in her goosedown pillow. As usual, she had been awakened by a phantom Ben reaching over to caress her. Before she could plunge into mourning, she She tried to grab hold of her dream again. She had been paragliding in Utah, the updraft from the Wasatch mountains carrying her magically above the changing colors on the valley floor. Utah Lake was silver, the morning glinting off it like a sun on a mirror.
Squinching her eyes, she tried to grasp at that free Georgia Todd who had left all the trappings of her widowhood
ordinariness on the ground and was defying gravity. Like she used to, when her career had carried her into the stratosphere.
Time to get up, you lazy slug.
The last wisps of freedom fled, and Georgia wondered as she did every night when she awoke in the small hours what she could do until morning came. Needlework was, of course, out of the question. Going through her usual list of possibilities and rejecting each of them, she finally did what she knew she would do from the instant she woke.
Georgia turned on the light and got her scrapbook of newspaper clippings out from under her bed. She spent the next two hours until dawn visiting all the capitals of Europe. She recalled clearly every event that had occurred back in the days when she had had no inkling that her life could change so drastically. What was she doing, stuck here in Oakwood, Ohio? This was not her world.
what she was going to do with the next twelve hours before she could take her next sleeping pill. When dawn became morning, she heaved herself out of her king sized bed. She had something scheduled today. this morning. What was it? Remembering, she groaned. She’d have to put on her armor. No lounging around in her sweats today.
Getting out of bed, she grabbed her Christian Dior white satin robe. Ben had liked to see her in Christian Dior. But the robe hadn’t been washed in awhile. Perhaps she’d get one of those luxurious spa robes that swallowed you with yummy warmth after a full body massage.
She hadn’t been to the spa since Ben’s death. Her eyelash extensions were completely gone, the bottoms of her feet were like emery boards, and her cuticles were hopelessly ragged. Not to mention the fact that there was a silver line down the part in her champagne-colored dye job.
What was that word? Inertia. Such a heavy word.
What should she have for breakfast? She d She descended her winding staircase and came to the massive front hall of her home. Its dark brown walnut paneling added more weight to her spirits. But she could hear Tina rattling around in the kitchen, and immediately she had an overmastering her new appetite revealed a c craving for French toast with bacon and maple syrup.
"Good morning, Mrs. Todd?" Tina always made everything into a question. It was endearing.
"French toast and bacon with maple syrup, Tina," she answered. "Aren’t you freezing? I’m going to turn on the furnace."
"I hate to see summer go, you know?" Tina said. "I’m in denial, don’t you think?" The young woman indicated her t-shirt and capris. Both, of course, were black. She wore her dyed black hair parted down the middle and fixed into two knots on top of her head like antennae. Without waiting for an answer, she said, "We need to plan the menu for the luncheon, okay? I’m thinking butternut squash soup for starters? This weather always reminds me of squash soup, don’t you think?"
"I’ll leave the menu up to you, Tina," Georgia said, feeling the new dread that descended on her at the thought of entertaining. Why not drop all her charity work? Without Ben, it seemed pointless.
"Budget?" Tina asked as she whisked eggs together for French toast batter. Georgia salivated at the bacon that was already frying.
"We’re charging a hundred per plate, so try not to go over fifty."
"Which group is this again?"
"The Dayton Phil."
Tina stuck out her bottom lip and blew her bangs up off her forehead. "You know I’m glad you do these things, because otherwise I wouldn’t have a job, you know?"
There was that. Georgia would hate to put Tina out of work. Caring for a middle-aged widow’s solitary culinary needs couldn’t be much of a challenge. But, she liked having someone else in the house. Someone young. She existed in her pseudo-Tudor mansion like a hard little ball bearing in one of those wooden box puzzles, trying to avoid all the holes to keep from dropping through to the bottom. She looked at her almost useless hands and felt the acute loss that never left her.
At last, her French toast was ready, and skirting away from conscious thought, she savored the syrupy concoction and the crisp salty bacon. Ummm.
But she had to face facts. Her clothes were growing a little tight, and she didn’t think Talbot’s carried size sixteen, so she had purchased an all-body girdle. She ought not to be eating so much. Talbots was a must in her American upper-class social circle. And she had zero motivation to go shopping. Georgia had always known that the simplicity of classical lines was not for her. At heart, she was and always would be a drama queen. And that was the woman Ben had fallen in love with.
Classic was so boring! Like her life. She climbed the stairs listlessly.
When she was finally dressed in her full body girdle and cobalt and black knit suit, she tried to do something with her hair. But there was simply no way to disguise the silver. If she went to Coco, her hairdresser, that would mean another trip out of the house.
Then she realized her hair didn’t matter. No one cared what she looked like. No one cared who she was. The world was not going to cave in. It already had.
S A R A
Sara was keenly aware that she no longer knew who she was. Her bare toes were like little digits of ice by the time she finished her Tai Chi Chih on her back lawn. Soon she would have to move indoors to do this morning routine. She always dreaded winter. Perhaps it was the voices in her blood. They didn’t have winter in Vietnam. But maybe it would be different this year since she had her anti-depressants. The narrow tunnel she had traveled for so many years had opened up into a world she had never experienced.
Entering her neat, completely remodeled bungalow, she went to the telephone in her spotless white kitchen to place her morning call to her mother. They spoke in their native tongue. Sara’s mother was still trying to master English after thirty years. A chemist in Vietnam, she now worked at an upscale spa doing massage therapy in another Dayton suburb.
"So, daughter, how many patients do you have today?"
Sara lied. She wasn’t even going into the office today. "Enough to keep you and Father comfortable."
Her mother made a sound, pushing away Sara’s words. "We do not need your money."
"I want to get you out of that bad neighborhood, Mother. Someone was arrested down your street for making meth in his house last night. It was on the news. I want you to come to live in the house next door where it is safe. I have told you I will buy it for you." Guilt scraped her raw at a place in her chest, exacerbated daily by similar conversations.
"This is enough for us, daughter. Everyone in our building remembers what we left behind. Everyone remembers who your father was. In Oakwood, we would be strangers."
Sara sighed. The Vietnamese community was very close knit. She thanked Buddha daily that she no longer had to live within the confines of its culture. But the guilt remained. Looking at her watch, she realized her morning was getting off track. It was already seven o’clock.
Telling her mother, for the thousandth time that she couldn’t discuss her patients, she hung up. Her mother was always hungry to hear about all the mothers and their babies, even to the extent of coming down to the hospital at night to see the ones Sara had delivered that day. And she nagged. That was such a good English word. There was nothing precisely like it in Vietnamese. Her mother was a nag. She wanted grandchildren.
Sara went to her white marble bathroom and downed a fistful of Xanax almost without thinking. Then she took a short, hot shower, scrubbing away her guilt. Being a Vietnamese mother was not what she dreamed of. She certainly wouldn’t marry Anh with his fetish for fast cars and faster American women. For the first time in years, she wondered if she should have ditched her rigid life’s plan and stayed in England with Iain, living the life of a gypsy.
But at least she had these two hours in the morning when she could indulge herself. After drying her body, she slid the black velvet floor length evening gown over her naked body and fastened it. Then she went downstairs to the basement and the soundproofed studio she had created.
She opened the violin case and carefully lifted the expensive instrument from its velvet bed. What piece should it be today?
Her dread intruded. That appointmentHer appointment was at ten. Why did Americans think they had to expose themselves? She felt as though she were going to be pushed into ice water naked. But her attendance was necessary if Dr. Brooks was going to continue prescribing the anti-depressants and tranquilizers she needed. He had even hinted that doctors with addictions had no business in the hospital.
But even the Xanax wasn’t doing its job today. Sara needed to jolt her mind. Give it a challenge to dissipate all this anxiety. So, of course, it had to be Paganini. Putting bow to strings, she tuned her instrument, and then launched herself body and spirit into the concerto. She had heard Sarah Chang play it with the Dayton Phil. But Sara Nugyen knew, even if no one else did, that she could play it better.
This concerto was the chronicle of her life. The first movement played out the simple melody of her Vietnamese childhood—a time she could barely recall, filled with food and relatives and their grand home at the edge of Saigon. This was followed by mounting tension and hints of cataclysm, then the drama and triumph of their escape.
The next movement was frightening to her still—the long days on the China sea, the sun, the heat, the diminishing food. Then as her mother gave her the last sip of canned milk, she saw the awful knowledge in her parents’ eyes that something bad was going to happen. Suddenly, more triumph! A U.S. destroyer had sighted them!
In the third movement, was the day to day uncertainty of life in the refugee camp in California, followed by their scary existence in the ghetto. But even then she had triumphed, graduating Downey High School valedictorian with a full scholarship to Bryn Mawr.
Instead of spending her physically, the concerto reacquainted her with her strength. She was no robotic Asian Wunderkind, performing technical marvels. Sara played this accompaniment to the tragedies and victories of her life with a skill no one would ever hear.
The beauty of the music she alone witnessed caused her to weep. She wept far too easily these days. Where was her customary stoicism?
Where was her Asian stoicism? Two and a half hours later, when she put her instrument down, the concerto still hung in the air, accompanying her upstairs to her room, where she changed into jeans and a Bryn Mawr sweatshirt, blew her nose, wiped her eyes, and ran out the door so she would not be late. Good Vietnamese girls were never late. And they never shirked their duty. She had forgotten breakfast again. But the violin had fed her. Her hunger was a penance.
M C K EN Z I E
News radio woke McKenzie at six o’clock with the disturbing account of wildfires in California. Another day in this scary, unpredictable world. Heart racing, she looked over to the empty side of her bed. Her panic accelerated until she was hyperventilating. Ted. Escaped to Florida, his boat, and possibly women without number.
With determination, she took a deep breath. Inhale. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Exhale. Un. Deux. Trois. Quatre. Cinque. After fifteen minutes of this activity, augmented by a mental picture of her friend, Nancy, the perfect, Nancy, the serene, Nancy, the mother of four perfect daughters, her heart slowed. Life is possible. Life is manageable.
She realized she was shivering in her satin nightshirt. There was definitely a nip in the air this morning. Throwing back the quilt her mother had made for her wedding,
her mother’s quilt, she padded over to her closet and took her sweats from the hook on the inside.
Running up the brick-paved street through her tree-filled neighborhood, she wondered, as she always did, what dramas were playing out in the mansions she passed. Was there really any happiness in marriage? Yes, Nancy was exquisitely happy. Were there really kids who didn’t hate their parents? Yes, Nancy’s kids adored her. They even went to church.
She was going to therapy today. It was a pro-active choice. She was going to find out what was wrong with her, where she had failed. Then she would fix it and everything would be fine again. Ted would come back, supplicating her for reinstatement into their lives. Josh would stop drinking and start doing his homework and preparing for track season. Jessica would eschew cigarettes, chains, body piercings, and might even have her tattoo removed. She would stop banging out angry Stravinksy on the piano and go back to Mozart. She might even rejoin the tennis team.
Then McKenzie could relax, could become what she had always thought she was—a successful Oakwood mother with a husband who was a doctor and played golf on Saturdays, a son who was first in his class on the fast track to Yale, and a beautiful petite daughter who ran with the speech and debate crowd, winning trips to Nationals every year for her dramatic interp. Everyone would stop punishing her for being a failure. She just had to fix herself.
An hour later, she was home. Jessica had fallen asleep on the family room couch in her clothes, a full ashtray by the arm that was dangling. Her black hair was unwashed. But her face was tranquil in sleep, and it was possible to remember her daughter the way she used to be. McKenzie had seen this same daughter every morning for the past seventeen years. They had gone through thumb-sucking, braces, acne, and baby fat together. Leaning over, she kissed her daughter’s cheek. "Time to get up, sweetie. It’s after seven."
Jessica sat up, moving the hair out of her eyes. "The only way out is through," she mumbled.
"What?" McKenzie was startled. "Were you dreaming about Alice in Wonderland or something?"
"It came to me at two in the morning." Jess indicated a slim black volume. McKenzie saw that it was T.S. Eliot’s poetry. "That’s what I’m learning, Mom. And you’d better learn it, too. Stop trying to turn the clock back."
Then she was gone, leaving her mother to contemplate her message. T.S. Eliot?
Sitting on the couch, she opened to the dog-eared page. It was the middle of a poem. A stanza was underlined. At first it was entirely incomprehensible. But it was important to Jessica, so she sat down and puzzled through it.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
Jessica had found just the words to explain the soul-wrenching upside-downness that was their lives since Ted left. She had adored Ted. He had been teaching her to golf. He went to all her speech contests. Jessica had even learned to make Sushi because it was his favorite food.
McKenzie felt guilt shaft her through. Why had she failed? How could she have been a better wife?
She looked around her at the perfect Ethan Allen family room with its plaid overstuffed couches, its maple bookcases, the coffee table with its Martha Stewart magazines. And Jessica’s ashtray.
Josh was harder to awaken. Sprawled over his double bed, he lay on his stomach, limbs outflung. There was a box by his bed that hadn’t been there yesterday. Lifting the lid that was addressed to his dad, she peered inside. McKenzie saw all his athletic trophies and medals. She felt the impact of a fast moving truck slam her heart. Legs trembling, she sat on the floor and wept.
Poor wounded boy. Poor wounded little boy. Until this morning, she hadn’t realized that her kids must be wondering where they had gone wrong. They didn’t realize she was to blame.
She wiped her eyes. She was going to fix this. Starting today in therapy, she was going to learn how to make it all better. Her children had been dream children. Ted couldn’t have asked for better kids. It wasn’t their fault, and she didn’t want them carrying that burden.
This was probably a very pedestrian drama. There was probably nothing unique about it. After all, hadn’t Ted told her she had no imagination? She couldn’t even have interesting problems. But they were her problems. And she knew as deep as could be that there were lives at stake here. One of these days, in their rebellion and confusion, one of her children was going to make a mistake that couldn’t be fixed. Like shooting up the high school. Or killing someone while they were drunk driving. Or getting HIV.
The possibilities paralyzed her. Could she change in time? How could she make herself interesting to her husband?
Resume of McKenzie Davenport
B.A. Stanford University, Art History. Two quarters abroad in Italy. Grades: 4.0
M.A. Columbia University, Art History. Thesis: Michelangelo: Humanist or Christian? Employment:
Docent: Metropolitan Museum of Art
What a totally boring human being she was! What had Ted seen in her in the first place?
They had met in front of Van Gogh’s Olive Grove. He was possibly the handsomest man she had seen in her life—blond, broad-chested, tanned, a cleft in his square chin. But his forehead was marred by a frown. "Do you think the twelve olive trees are significant?" he had asked her.
"I do. See that little bit of red in the corner? I think it’s meant to represent Christ’s atoning blood. I think the trees are his apostles."
He looked at her then. She had been wearing her docent’s uniform—a gray a-line skirt and vest over a white blouse with a ribbon tie of navy blue. Her hair had been wild that day—curling into a great mass she hadn’t been able to tame. Had Ted mistaken her for a Leonardo, just like Cecil had mistaken Lucy in Room With a View?
But, like Lucy, she wasn’t a Leonardo. Just an overachiever from San Marino, California. Her thoughts on the Van Gogh hadn’t even been original. She’d read them in a book in grad school.
He had left her because she was just too boring for words. Looking at the still-sleeping son, she demanded of the heavens, why should the children suffer?