How I Came to Sparkle Again

Kaya McLaren

St. Martin's Press

chapter one
 
 
SNOW REPORT FOR NOVEMBER 17
Current temperature: 29F, high of 33F at 3 P.M., low of 22F at 4 A.M.
Clear skies, winds out of the southwest at 10 mph.
25" mid-mountain, 33" at the summit. 1" new in the last 24 hours. 6" of new in the last 48.
Cassie and her babysitter, Nancy, sat silently at the table eating Lean Cuisine cheese cannelloni frozen dinners. Nancy’s breathing bothered Cassie, even though she knew Nancy couldn’t help having sinus problems. Cassie just didn’t want to listen to it. It reminded her of her mother’s last two weeks, when her breathing had become so difficult. To make it worse, Nancy was sitting at her mother’s place at the table.
Cassie looked up at Nancy, wishing she weren’t there—not in her mother’s place at the table or in her mother’s place as her caregiver.
“Do you need something, Cassie?” Nancy asked.
“Don’t sit there anymore,” Cassie said.
Nancy looked startled and slowly stood. “Where would you like me to sit?” she asked gently.
Cassie looked at her father’s place at the table. “There,” she said. “He’s the one you’re replacing.”
She looked back down at her cheese cannelloni while Nancy moved. The mere smell of it made her stomach turn. Of all the frozen dinners, it was the least offensive, but it was offensive nonetheless. She’d never eaten out of cardboard during the ten years of her life that her mother was alive, and she feared that if she kept eating Lean Cuisine, she would become as weak and fat as Nancy. She stared at her food and wondered if any of it really mattered.
All of her Olympic dreams were going down the tubes anyway. She hadn’t even joined ski team this year. When she skied, she felt sad now, so deeply sad that she just wanted lie down in the snow and fall asleep.
She looked down at her dinner again and wanted to throw it, but she couldn’t rally enough will even for that. She simply said, “I hate this crap,” got up, walked up the stairs to her room, and locked herself inside.
From her room, Cassie could hear the sound of Nancy’s regular evening routine—the lid of the stainless-steel garbage can opening and closing as she threw away the cardboard trays, the spring in the dishwasher door creaking as she opened it to put in the forks, the sound of running water and the microwave beeping two and a half minutes later. Finally, Cassie heard the questions and buzzers on Jeopardy! and occasionally Nancy’s voice when she shouted out the few answers that she knew. As usual, the TV stayed on for the duration of the night, and the noise, combined with Nancy’s snoring, drowned out the sound of Cassie’s sobs during or after her nightmares.
*   *   *
Mike Jones wanted to believe that Kate’s soul was eternal, but he wasn’t sure if a person could believe in that without believing in God. Believing in God wasn’t so easy. Five hours ago, he was on a call for a woman who drove off a steep embankment and miraculously was okay. She gave full credit to God. And now he was here, at this accident, a head-on collision between a semitruck and a family in a minivan. Both parents and one child were dead. The other child appeared to have a punctured lung and probably internal bleeding. She was barely hanging on. With a dying little girl in the back of his aid car who would wake up without her family if she made it at all, he couldn’t help wondering where God was this time.
It made no sense to him, this idea that some people got God and some people didn’t. There were those who had told him that we could not know the intention behind God’s plan for us—that we had to trust that we were in good hands and that maybe as our lives unfolded, we would see how something was for the best. And then there were the others who believed everything was a test, that God tried to protect us from the bad things, but sometimes Satan won and that Satan tried to do things to diminish our faith in God. Mike glanced back as he drove on and listened to John and Ben continuing to work to stabilize the girl. He did not see how the outcome of this accident would ever be for the best. And he did not see Satan, either. He saw only misfortune—human error and misfortune. It brought him the most peace to simply believe that people were imperfect, and life was imperfect, and sometimes bad things just happened. And if you were lucky, emergency services would show up in time to give you a second chance at life.
He thought about all the times he’d saved someone’s life and the person had attributed this miracle to God. Part of him was always tempted to make a joke of it, something like No, that was my hand stopping the bleeding or No, God didn’t send me; the trucker with the cell phone did. Why, he wondered, was it so hard to see humankind as capable of creating miracles? Miracles were just second chances if you really thought about it—second chances when all hope was lost.
But maybe he had it all wrong. Maybe there was more to it than that.
Eight months ago, the day before he’d found out about Kate’s cancer, he went on a call that he thought about from time to time. A man had lost control of his car on the ice going down a long hill and plowed right into the back of another car. The front of his car was crushed, and his foot was caught on the gas pedal somehow. He said he saw flames creep out of the hood of the car and thought he was a goner. Then he noticed two identical tall, Nordic-looking men, one on the side of the road to his right and the other walking over to his door. Flames were now licking into the car around the edges of the fire wall. The twin on the side of the road disappeared, while the other opened his door, freed his foot, lifted him out of the car, and set him down on the side of the road. When a state patrol officer arrived shortly after, the man told him about the twins, wanting to thank the one who saved his life. The officer told him there was no one else at the scene besides the people in the car in front of him, and no one in the car in front had seen anybody. As Mike had driven him to the hospital to be checked, the man tried to understand how no one else could have seen them. He wondered out loud if they were angels.
The next day when Kate’s doctor told Mike and her about the cancer, he wondered whether the man in the car accident and his angel story were sent to him to give him faith, faith that something would protect and strengthen his wife throughout her battle, that something would lovingly take her home when she died. He wanted to believe it. He did. But as time had gone on and he and his daughter, Cassie, witnessed unbearable and seemingly unending suffering, he couldn’t help wondering about the God that would not grant a miracle then. He saw no divinity in all that suffering. He saw no divinity in God taking his daughter’s mother. He saw no divinity in any of it. But he did see divinity in the outpouring of support for his family from the community.
So at the end of the day, here was what Mike was able to believe in: people. It was people and their kindness that made him feel blessed. It was people who were the heroes, and people who were generous, and people who comforted one another.
And he believed in nature, in survival instincts, in the way living things will cling to every last shred of life and fight for it. He believed in a cell’s ability to multiply and repair even the most heinous injuries. He believed in life.
And just as he thought that, the girl in the back of the aid car flatlined despite all their efforts. And while he was glad she wouldn’t be waking up in severe pain in the hospital without her parents and her brother, he was not glad she was dead. He wondered again where God was now, but truly he did not want to hear anyone make up a story to try to explain. He did not want to hear any more explanations, anyone else grasping to make sense of things that didn’t make sense. He wished more people would just admit they didn’t know.
He was glad that it wouldn’t be up to him to notify the family’s relatives. It had been only four months since Kate died, and he found it extremely difficult to deal with other people’s grief while he dealt with his own. And even though he did not believe in God, he hoped the mourners did. He hoped they had some story they told themselves that would comfort them and would get them through such a huge loss, a story that would help them get out of bed in the morning when the weight of their loss would pin them down.
John and Ben were quiet in the back. What they all knew well was this: Life was fragile. And sometimes it was unspeakably sad.
*   *   *
Two blocks down the street from Mike and Cassie’s house, Lisa Carlucci pretended to be asleep as Cody quietly dressed next to the bed. She didn’t take it personally that he was sneaking out. She understood. She’d done it herself. And truthfully, she was relieved. She didn’t want to have to look at him in the light of day and see how much this hadn’t meant to him. It was bad enough to have seen it in the dark. She wasn’t mad at him, though. She had chosen this situation knowing full well what it was and what it wasn’t.
She felt discomfort in her core, a feeling that was hard to name, but something like anger and something like emptiness. She waited to hear Cody descend the stairs, no doubt bristling with fear that he would wake her every time a stair squeaked. She actually smiled just thinking of his inner terror. She listened to the front door open and then close. Only then did she open her eyes. She was thankful that he shut the door quietly because she didn’t want any of the guys next door to look out and see him leave. For that same reason, she was also thankful he had arrived on foot and left the same way.
A shaft of light fell through a crack in the curtains and landed on a bronze crucifix near her door. It had been her great-grandfather’s.
She hadn’t gone to confession in years, but suddenly she believed it might feel good. She thought about what she would say and realized it wasn’t the actual sex she felt was the great sin. It was the fact that she had lost faith. She had lost faith that God had a better plan for her when it came to love, and as a result, she had settled. She needed to repent for treating her body as if it were a cheap motel instead of a temple.
She crawled out of bed, paused near the door, made the sign of the cross, kissed her hand and gently touched the crucifix, and said a prayer pledging a faith forgotten, pledging change. She walked to the bathroom and paused to look at herself in the full-length mirror. She wrapped her arms around herself and said aloud, “What am I doing? This isn’t a Holiday Inn.” Although she was sleepy and wanted to return to her warm bed, she didn’t like smelling like Cody and sex. So instead of going back to bed, she took a hot shower.
She emerged from the shower wondering what God’s better plan might look like, because truthfully, she didn’t want to get married. Women who got married got screwed. She saw it all the time. It wasn’t just that she wanted the freedom to pull the cord when it got bad without having to go through an expensive divorce and possibly losing her house. She never wanted to be that dependent in the first place. And if she had to wait for marriage to have sex with integrity, she would never have sex again. That wasn’t going to work, either. There had to be a way to have a healthy sex life, integrity, and maybe even love, and remain a sovereign person.
Lisa returned to her bed and contemplated her musky sheets but decided it was too big a task to change them in the middle of the night. Instead, she put on flannel pajamas to protect her clean body. But before she crawled back in, she sat for a moment on the edge of her bed and peeked out the window at the trailer next door, hoping to verify that all of her buddies had been asleep and hadn’t seen Cody leave.
The Kennel was their name for this trailer and all its crazy additions built on. It got its name from its one-to-one human-to-dog ratio. Hans had a candle lit in his window. So did Tom, which was how they let one another and any other potential visitors know that they were “entertaining.”
When she was in seventh grade and Tom was in eighth, his friend had approached her between classes and said, “Tom wants to know if you want to go with him.”
“Go with him where?” she’d asked.
“You know, just go with him. Be his girlfriend,” his friend had explained.
Lisa had shrugged. “I guess that would be all right,” she’d said, somewhat indifferent.
But later that night, she imagined him holding her hand, imagined slow dancing with him at the next school dance, and even kissed her pillow, imagining it was him. By the next morning, she was downright mad for him. She took extra time doing her hair. She picked out her clothes carefully. And, pleased with the fruits of her efforts, she went to school feeling excited. She had attracted an older boyfriend—a really cool older boyfriend.
She casually walked to her locker, keeping her eye out for him, a little disappointed that he hadn’t waited for her somewhere nearby. She thought he would hold her hand as he walked her to homeroom. That, near as she could figure, was what going together involved. Finally she gave up, took her books for her first two classes and her folder out of her locker, and started walking. When she had almost reached her class, she saw Tom holding Deanna Smith’s hand. He even gave her a little peck on the lips before they parted. Deanna went into the classroom next to Lisa’s. Tom looked up and for a split second noticed Lisa. She saw fear and shame wash over him as he quickly walked in the other direction, avoiding her.
He avoided her for the next three years, until he was a junior and she was a sophomore. He asked her to watch him in the basketball game and then go to the dance with him afterward. And she told him to suck it. Of course that, not what happened in junior high, was what Tom told people when asked how long he and Lisa had been friends. When Tom told the story, it was funny, and he always ended it by saying, “And that was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship, my only real friendship with a woman, because it was the only one I was powerless to screw up.” Lisa, however, didn’t tell either story. She pretended she didn’t remember.
On Lisa’s nightstand sat two photographs in frames, facedown. One was of her parents, and the other was of her grandparents. She always turned them over when she had a guy over. Now she reached over and carefully set them back up. As she looked into her mother’s eyes, she wondered whether being a wife had been worth it overall. She wondered what her mother might have given up to take that path, what other dreams she might have had, wondered how she reconciled staying with a man who had been unfaithful, wondered whether he still was. And then she wondered how her mother might have fared from a life like hers, from a lifetime of being unloved in that particular way, a lifetime of agreeing to be disrespected by men with intimacy issues who would never ask her to sacrifice her freedom, a lifetime of bad choices and freedom. Was it really freedom? On one hand, yes. If she felt like going somewhere, she went somewhere. If she felt like eating ice cream for dinner, she ate ice cream for dinner. If she felt like buying new ski boots, she bought new ski boots. She didn’t have to run anything by anyone. She loved that. But there was another way in which it didn’t feel so free.
She looked at her grandmother’s face and wondered how sad it would make her to know that not only was she no one’s wife, she dated men who wouldn’t even call her their girlfriend, men she didn’t want to call her boyfriend. Maybe friends with benefits. But did they even qualify as friends? Not really. Fuck buddies. She nodded slightly. Yep, that’s what she was. That was her title. Fuck buddy. Free—overall, yes. But respectable? No, not really. She felt shame looking at her grandparents’ faces knowing they had wanted more than this for her. They had wanted her to be valued and to think enough of herself to demand that.
“It was the price of freedom,” she whispered to the photograph. “Don’t judge me,” knowing full well it wasn’t her grandparents who were judging her. The scent of Cody haunted her and inflamed her shame. She got out of bed, stripped off the sheets, and walked down the hall to the linen closet for new ones.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Kaya McLaren