Monday, May 26, 2014

"Nancy" a Short Story by Daniela Ryan - Part I

By Daniela Ryan

It had been years since she’d looked deeply into this closet. But at the onset of winter, and the first real rainy day, something moved her to tackle the avalanche of clothes and boxes full of trinkets shoved into the crevice behind the tails of long ignored wool coats. They had moved to Southern California nearly 15 years earlier from Sonoma County. A position at a prominent trucking company pulled them down. Frank loved it here. There was no way he’d move back to the cold, windy, rainy weather up north. She knew that, because though he never said it to her face, he’d said it time and again within earshot of her; on the phone, handing the attendant at the car wash the ticket, talking to a bagger at the grocery store.  Anywhere practically he would get into a conversation about “what a lovely day” and “never live anywhere else myself”.
Keeping her own wool coat was a way of harboring her fantasy of returning to that home.
It’s not that she knew anyone there anymore. She wouldn’t have a job there, or some other particular reason that could explain her desire to go back, she just did. Years of Frank poo-pooing her longing had set a deep seam of resentment on her spine. He didn’t care what she thought. Sometimes, in moments of dark insecurity, she’d allow herself to complain out loud of missing home.  He’d come back way too fast and furious with “Well, we bought this house in the middle of bumb-fuck nowhere for you didn’t we?” Then she’d sob a little and he’d try to placate her with the idea that Britney lived near by anyway and didn’t she only want to be close to her daughter? It worked, mostly. So, she’d tuck away the longing and the coat of resentment, shoving them into a crevice inside herself and stop complaining.

The rain stopped abruptly sometime after lunch, which she’d missed sitting on the floor in front of the open closet, going through a box of her mom’s things. She’d shoved it in the back with other miscellaneous boxes of tchotchke she couldn’t part with. Letters between her mother and her aunt kept her spellbound for over an hour. When a beam of light came through the window – open so she could feel and hear the rain since it never stayed long enough for her – she looked up and wiped a tear from her cheek.  Aunt Judy had been estranged from her husband, Bruce, an uncle Nancy had been very fond of as a child, and her mother hadn’t approved. Stand by your man meant about the same thing to Nancy’s mother as stand by your church, your children, your country. It meant one had character, loyalty. She couldn’t fathom a lack of loyalty in anyone, and herself struggled mightily with the desire to abandon her sister to her own devices. Actual estrangement was, of course, not an option as it could have been mistaken as a lack of fealty. But Uncle Bruce had cheated on Aunt Judy, or so was said in one of the letters in so many words.  Nancy’s mother finally relented in one of the last exchanges between them and gave Aunt Judy her royal acceptance of the dissolution of their bond, some twenty years after the actual events took place. Had her mother been so stubborn? She couldn’t remember.  But then Nancy never crossed her. Nancy never crossed anyone really, too terrified of being tromped on, emotionally squashed, disapproved of, worse still, thought to be disloyal.
The hot beam of light hit Nancy’s back at the same time this revelation struck inside. She was her mother, through and through.  She never meant to be. She was just trying to stay out of trouble, but in the end she was a more mousy clone of her open-mouthed mother who’d been too prideful to quite be bitter, but was absolutely certain of everything she believed regardless of any evidence that might point to the contrary.
It had taken her mother twenty years to accept that her sister had a bad marriage and was better off without a man who hadn’t wanted her. Oh sure, Nancy didn’t go around spouting who was right and who was wrong openly, but she thought it quietly inside her head. Nancy had never felt close to her mother because she was always afraid of her disapproval. She’d adopted a strategy of staying quiet, and thus, largely unnoticed by her mother. It spilled over into her demeanor with other people too by accident and now she was what feminists call ‘a doormat’. She knew it. She didn’t want to be that. But she was.
The irony of how she could be so detrimentally judgmental, adopting the same attitudes as her mother, and yet so utterly different in style flummoxed her.  Suddenly, a moment in her daughter’s life popped into her head and it was as if a memory faucet had been turned on inside her and it wouldn’t let up. Great wracking sobs flattened her to the floor where she remained, to cry and then drift into sleep, for the next hour.

Britney had been just sixteen and was wild about a boy, named Jeremy. She hadn’t brought him home yet but had talked him up so that Nancy was practically planning the wedding. She’d even had a congenial conversation on the phone with his mother about “our two lovebirds” to coordinate colors for their Homecoming Dance outfits. But the night before Jeremy was to come for dinner, Britney declared she didn’t like him anymore. Nancy was mortified that Britney had uninvited him to dinner at their house knowing full well that his mother would think it utterly rude, that she’d forced Frank to coerce Britney to relent. He was a very attractive young man, but dinner was awkward because Britney adopted an aloof attitude. Nancy tried desperately to make up for it by being extremely hospitable, even allowing them to go to Britney’s room alone after dinner. It lasted all of twenty open door minutes wherein Nancy and Frank uncomfortably watched TV in the living room but really listened to the screams and sobs of their daughter floating down the stairs.
It might have all blown over Nancy realized only now. Except that Britney… well, the truth was, Nancy had not let it. She was chagrined and upset by dinner, and by Britney’s rejection of Jeremy, her foregoing of the dance, and wasting $80 on a dress she now would never wear. Nancy felt that her daughter was wrong to reject such an attractive young man, with such potential, and such a nice mother. She pushed and pressed Britney – not for an answer as to why, certain that it was something frivolous and childish – but to take him back, until Britney had finally blurt out “He hit me Mom! There, are you happy?”
And Nancy had said without pause, “Oh honey, I’m sure he didn’t mean it”.
Because that is what her mother would have said. Britney never confided in her again. Not that they were bosom buddies or anything to begin with. But Nancy always felt that they would grow closer as Britney matured and understood more of the realities of the world just as she and her own moth… It was a lie. Nancy’s eyes popped open. She was even being judgmental of the memory. She’d been lying on the floor for how long? Was she dreaming and remembering, crying, all at the same time? She had never, ever, in her fifty plus years felt this horribly wrong, she’d always converted her mistakes to ‘right’. Yes, she’d always made herself right, which by default makes everyone else wrong. Just as her mother had done. How had this gone unnoticed?
She lay a little longer on the dusty floor, completely out of character for Nancy. She glanced over at the clock, 2:13 pm, and decided to call her.
Britney was usually available for office hours the last period of the day. A high school counselor, she had the maturity of someone twice her age. Nancy had never acknowledged this out-loud, though she was proud of her daughter for it, but she was reluctant to give up this piece of  what she thought of as necessary leverage. She winced as she sat up. Her back stiff, but mostly at the thought that she was as stingy with approval as her mother had been. She would have to tell her daughter this. But not now, not today. Later. First things first.

The words choked her in the back of her throat and for a moment, she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to say it. Britney, as always, was distracted and busy on the phone, and accused her mother of setting herself up for neglect by insisting on calling during school hours. Nancy dismissed the accusation. But in the back of her mind she knew it was true. She was afraid of a Britney at peace, which she seemed to be at home in her tiny condo overlooking the ocean. A peek-a-boo terrace was what the realtor had called it and Britney was a different person on it, or on the beach, just as she had been as a child. Frank always thought she would have become a marine biologist just to be near the ocean, but she was lousy at math. Nevertheless, Frank would tell her with a big hug and a smile she’d be the best marine biologist on the planet.
Nancy rarely disrupted Britney in her home. It felt like too much responsibility to be the one to break her calm there.
“I’m sorry,” finally slipped from her lips but Britney missed it.
“Wha? I’m sorry, Mom. What did you say? What were we talking about?”
“The boy, Jeremy. The one who…” Nancy couldn’t say the other bit. That would be too much, maybe for another day. “Your junior year, I think. You didn’t go to the dance. And I… I’m… I didn’t understand, and I was awful about it. So. I’m sorry.”
The kinetic energy that was always palpable on the other end of Britney’s work phone  suddenly silenced. It remained for so long that Nancy parted her lips to speak but finally Britney interjected.
“Oh, yeah. That’s right.” Then another moment of silence. “Well, OK. Is there anything else. The bell is just about to ring.”
“No, I… well, I just wanted to say that. I suddenly remembered it today. I was going through some things, some of my mother’s things, and it seemed like it just struck me that I’d been wrong.”
“Wow.” Now Britney’s energy was back but she paused for another long moment. “I don’t think I have ever heard you say that.”
Nancy bristled and could feel defensiveness well up inside her. Her brain kicked into high gear and spun rapidly over all the reasons why she hadn’t been wrong, after all it is a mother’s duty to try and identify a suitable mate, and if they’d met him earlier her father could have… but she bit her tongue, not letting any of it come out.
“Thanks, Mom. No, really, it is amazing to hear you say that. That really hurt my feelings for a long time. I guess I kinda squashed that one.”
And just as rapidly as her brain had spun up, Britney’s calm voice seemed to placate it back to slow speed. A fine feeling wash over her, just as it had the day her daughter moved in to her condo and they had shared a bottle of wine in plastic chairs on her peek-a-boo terrace and watched the sun set, and she had driven home tipsy and alive and seduced her husband for the first time in years. It felt like a new beginning.
Of course, Nancy had not sustained that new beginning because her headache in the morning told her immediately that it was Britney’s fault for pouring the second glass, and why did Frank have to keep her up so late, didn’t they have any concern for her well-being? But this time was different. This time Nancy saw it. No, they weren’t perfect, but for the first time she was willing to entertain the idea that she wasn’t either.
After she hung up the phone the closet called her back and she was just about ready to shove boxes back inside. But her long wool jacket caught her eye, and Frank’s seldom worn – even in Sonoma – trench coat. Yes, she would throw them away, not even give them away – too easy to fish them out again and change her mind –  yes, she’d toss them into the trash and dump the breakfast refuse on top. That would teach her. No more longing. A new commitment to where she was, right now, geologically and emotionally, was in order. She grabbed the coats, hangers and all, and marched herself and them straight outdoors. But even as she did a strange bulk in the pockets of Frank’s trench coat bothered her, pushed at her gut. A wallet? No, she’d let it go, all of it. Uncertainty, reluctance, all of it. She yanked the plastic lid off the trash bin and tossed both in. And just according to plan she forcibly marched herself to the kitchen, to under the sink and ripped the bag, not nearly full of coffee grounds, cantaloupe peels, a small scrunched up carton of used up creamer, paper towels, all of it, going right on top of those coats that had held her back for so long.

Back in the kitchen activity kept her mind off the itch of that pocket bulk. She’d spilled a small amount of coffee grounds on the floor that had to be picked up, a new trash bag had to be secured back into the can, it was almost 4:00 so why not a cup of coffee and a swipe of the counter with a sponge as it brewed, open the freezer and defrost some chicken for dinner.
But still, that bulk. What was it? It couldn’t be an old wallet. She searched her memory to see if Frank had lost one at some point, maybe when they’d moved? Nothing. She sat, warming her hands on the coffee cup, until it ate at her enough that she sprung from her chair.
It was disgusting. She had purposefully not tied off the plastic kitchen bag knowing her tendency to change her mind in such stressful situations. Disposing of a good jacket, even if no longer appropriate, was not easy for her, let alone disposing of two. But she dug anyway and pulled it halfway out. She was almost ready to give it up for a mistake, maybe it was the belt buckle? Feeling silly after trying both side pockets she remembering this coat had a good sized breast pocket. Reaching in, she felt a wad. He wasn’t hiding money from her was he? Her mind began to swim with fury even as her fingers sensed it was wrong. Not money. Paper. But then she realized it was receipts, just receipts, she could kicked herself. So stupid she’d been. But as she lifted her hand to fling the wad angrily back into the can a heat stamped single word caught her eye: Nude.
It seemed minutes that her hand hovered in mid-air before she willed it down. Suddenly aware that she was outside within eyesight of many neighbors and clearly acting crazy, stomping around, going through the trash, she faked an intentionally audible “Ahh!” as cheerfully as she could muster, replaced the lid and went back in, wad of receipts clutched in hand at her side. At the kitchen table she had to tell herself to set them down, not put them back in the trash. Her miraculous powers of denial were rearing their hind legs, readying for action, but the conversation with her daughter earlier had changed the tenor of the day somehow. A new beginning. She dropped the wad and went over to the sink to wash her hands. As she toweled them off she told herself, whatever is in there I will accept, I will not judge.

They dated back years… and years. Not so many in a month or a year but even still she felt  betrayed, embarrassed, abandoned (what was the feeling?), shocked perhaps. Smacked in the face with a reality she’d known all along, she’d just, what? Put it aside. She’d tucked it away secretly just as Frank had secretly tucked away the evidence in his unused trenchcoat pocket. She knew it was there, that he’d gone out and hadn’t said where he was going or where he had been when he got back. But he seemed cheerful enough and she would always be in bed by the time he got home so she’d pretend to asleep. Then he’d go off into the bathroom for a long time. Every once in a while she’d let him touch and rouse her from her pretend sleep. They might even make love then.
But here it was. Proof. On her kitchen table.
Part of her wanted to stomp and yell and cry just as Britney had at sixteen. To scream “It is unconscionable!” But that new part of her that had begun to spring up inside her this afternoon told her, no, be calm. Find out. She felt… guilt.
When Frank finally walked through the kitchen door at 6-something she saw his face shift from its normally congenial greeting to one that was confused, then scared, then pained as soon as he saw the table covered with the evidence of his transgretions.
“I finally threw out that old trench coat.”
She tried to smile at him but the reality of being “caught” was washing over him so he didn’t hear her. “You never even wore it up north.”
He was suddenly in a chair, face in hands sobbing, waiting for her flail of judgments to scorch him. He seemed to be hiding from her. She reached out a hand and placed it on his back. The touch made his sobbing intensify and she knew why without admitting it to herself. Because this was unlike her, to comfort.
“I was so lonely,” was all he said as he raised his head. He did not look at her but stood, grabbed a kitchen towel and pressed it to his face as he walked out of the room.
She got dinner on the table like she was supposed to and they each picked and shoved at chicken pieces and boxed rice mix for the appropriate amount of time until it was acceptable to excuse oneself from the table.  She thought she’d keep feeling that awful pick axe of guilt inside her gut forever. But once he’d left the table for the TV room it disappeared. As she cleaned the rice pot in the sink she allowed herself to ponder whether this was the end of her marriage. A relief washed over her and she almost smiled. Oh, it wasn’t that she didn’t love her husband. They had, after all, raised a child together and she had loved seeing him gush over their daughter. Frank was what kept Britney sane she suddenly realized, and without thinking pressed a sudsy hand against her forehead with a startled “Oh”. It wasn’t exactly the realization that she hadn’t been a very good parent… she wiped her forehead with a towel. It was that she felt suddenly free of judgment. Not his, her own. She had messed up with Britney, now he had this. The field was finally level.

He came to bed past midnight. She tried to be asleep by then but was unsuccessful. She wanted to spare him a scene so she quickly shut her eyes as she had done many times before, on those nights. But his hot pulse throbbed next to her and she suddenly wanted him, a feeling that was distantly familiar.
“I was lonely too,” she whispered, almost not loud enough for him to hear. He leaned over and looked her straight in the eye. Intensely, like he used to do many years ago when they dated. Then he pressed his mouth to hers. And it almost hurt.

No comments: