My good friend and blogging buddy, Priya, recently sent me the beginning of a story she wanted to write. She asked me to add a few paragraphs, then send it back to her. The idea was that we would continue taking turns extending the story until it was finished, like a single plant growing from two sets of roots. We discussed the plot only briefly along the way, and made a few minor revisions. Other than that, the story that follows seemed to write itself. Priya’s part is in black, mine in this other color. The story also appears as her post on Partial View, with her own layout and pictures.
While we collaborated on this in every sense, the original idea and the characters were Priya’s creation. For that reason, I think she deserves any comments you might want to leave. (She’ll hate me for saying that last part, but then, I wanted to delete the mention of cottage cheese from the story, and she refused.)
* * * * *
The list seemed determined to disappear beyond where Jade’s fingers could reach, or her eyes could see. Where had she put it now? The heat and fatigue had been taking their toll on her, and the weary fan above, dripping air like it was doing the room a favor, was no help. She needed that slip of paper because it identified the things that were finished. And those that were still pending.
Spent with frustration, Jade looked around the room, now filled with strips of late evening light. The week had gone in a flash. She hadn’t given herself a chance to see the house, to allow its being to enter her weary heart and pluck at its strings. She didn’t have time for all that. But this room called to her as she plopped on the beige sofa. She looked at the yellowed wallpaper with the white roses. Her lips curled at the memory of her six-year-old fingers trying to pick them out, but never quite managing to. The net door was keen to sway with the elusive breeze; the mosquitoes were raring to come hunting with the setting sun. Her eyes moved to the painting hung next to her father’s antique binoculars. It was older than she was, a rushed watercolor impression of a distant sea, with words calligraphed on the left side of the canvas:
Before the birds
Hasten to distant skies
Her mother had painted it long before she was born. She had never come to know whose words they were, but they had always reassured her. They seemed to be keen to make amends, to quickly heal wounds, to avoid losing some treasure.
The last month hadn’t been easy. Jade’s career as a graphic designer in a ruthlessly competitive city was promising to reach giddy heights, when it became clear that she couldn’t avoid going to her parents to help them move. They were both fifty by the time she, a child conceived as an afterthought, was born. Nancy and Blake were eighty-two now, and much as Jade liked to deny it, they needed her help in leaving this house, battered by time.
Jade spotted the list on top of the bookcase. She must have placed it there while trying to open the window, hoping to inject some spirit into the lifeless draft. She grabbed a chair and slid it across the room. It was a timid piece of furniture, made when people required less support. Not sure it would carry her weight, Jade put one foot into the center of the seat and pressed down with a gradual effort, rising into the warmer air near the ceiling. Careful to avoid the fan’s rotating blades, she reached for the list resting in a dusty nest on the top shelf of the bookcase. It was only then that she noticed the slim volume lying on its side, so nearly covered with forgotten years that its title was all but invisible. With the list in her left hand, she reached for the neglected book and turned it over, blowing the dust away.
“If Only A Second Chance.”
It was an odd moment, an unseen push from the side that almost knocked Jade off the chair. She had read the book’s title in her head, but the words had been spoken by her mother’s voice. Turning to the right, she saw Nancy standing in the doorway, her tiny figure looking even smaller from the height of the chair.
“How did you know the title? It looks as though it’s been up there for years.”
“More than thirty,” said Nancy. “Look at the author’s name.”
Jade turned the book around to read its spine, because much of the cover had surrendered to mildew. She inhaled deeply to make up for the skipped heartbeat. And then, she read it again. This time slowly and out loud, “Sandra Kitchener.”
She placed the book on the tall side table, her anger evident only when she swatted at the palm fronds caressing the table top.
“Will she never go away?”
Jade really did want this question answered. It was high time. Sandra Kitchener had taken a lot away from her parents, and from her.
Nancy turned from Jade and chose to look at the lint on the sofa, picking at it with her trembling fingers. It wasn’t an easy question to answer.
“Well, I tried, didn’t I? Put the book up there, where we couldn’t see her name,” said Nancy, still unable to look at her daughter. “If only a second chance, indeed.”
“I suppose you did your best,” said Jade. “And he remembers nothing?”
“He didn’t. We don’t talk about it anymore. Haven’t. It’s been years.”
Jade sat on the old chair and stared at this collapsed core of a woman, this person who had given her life, and whose own life had once been so expansive. Almost all of her mother’s connections were severed, shriveled, lost, or forgotten. Her world had shrunk, so that it barely extended beyond the boundary of her tired body. She was like a stove, once pulsing with heat. These days, you had to put your hand almost right up to her skin in order to feel any warmth. She had told Jade the story, once, and answered a few questions on several occasions after that. But always, she cut the conversation short.
“He used to say that he never would have done it. That wasn’t him. Especially for a poet. He hated poetry. Always had.”
“Then where was he going that day?” asked Jade. “Where does he say he was going?”
“It was all erased. When he regained consciousness in the hospital, he had no idea where he was or how he’d gotten there.”
“What about the car? How did he explain that?”
“He didn’t explain it. He thought I’d been driving, that I was the one who’d hit the tree.”
“But he was going to find her. That’s what you said.”
“He read that book. Every page. He’d put it back on the shelf each time, but I’d check, and the slip of paper was always in a different place.”
“This hater of poetry.”
Nancy looked hard out the window. Even now, thirty years later, she seemed bewildered by the entire incident. “Turning fifty did something to him. Scared him. He said he was afraid he was running out of time. That he’d wasted his life.”
“But that isn’t the father I know.”
“No. In a funny way, the accident changed him. Made him more aware of himself. More sensitive. By the time you came along, he was a different person.”
“But the damage had been done.”
“He was going to leave me, Jade. He was going to find this woman he’d never met. A woman he said touched his soul with her words.”
“After fifteen years of being together with you, he decided that a faceless woman had touched his soul with poetry? Poetry, Mom?”
“It does have a way of getting inside the hardest of hearts. With time. And your father had a soft heart to begin with. You know that.”
Jade hadn’t come here to rake up old earth. She wanted her mother to know that she understood, but without trying too hard. The dam had burst, let out the emotions it had stored, and was ready to get back to work.
“I’m eighty-one now,” Nancy said. “Nothing much stays inside when you’re that age.” She had put her frail fingers on Jade’s arm, hoping that her daughter didn’t feel like she was out in the cold.
“I know,” said Jade. “Yet, a lot does. And you’re eighty-two.”
Jade looked her mother in the eye, and smiled. Then she said, “Come on, we have an old man to feed.”
They made cottage cheese pâtés and cherry tomato salad. Blake would be shuffling in any time now. He’d gone to the general store just across the road to get batteries for his flashlight, and some orange juice.
As if on cue, Blake stepped into the kitchen. “Hey, love,” he said, surprised, when Jade gave him a spontaneous hug. Nancy looked at the two of them and pretended not to see. She was setting the table. The blue-and-white striped tablecloth smelled of a distant sun. Blake poured juice for everyone. It had always been his little girl’s favorite with dinner. The glasses clinked, the cutlery felt safe and familiar. Everything was all right.
Jade rose earlier than usual the next morning to make sure she had done most of the work before Nancy woke up. She decided to begin with the huge tool wall Blake had maintained for years.
On a shelf nearest to the stairway, she found an old carton held together with twine. Inside was an envelope bearing their home address, and a postmark dated September 21, 1980. The sender was a J. Gilbert from Summer Wings Publishers.
“Dear Ms. Kitchener,” the letter began.
Later, while Blake fiddled with something in another room, Jade confronted her mother.
“I don’t even know where to start,” she said, holding the letter at arm’s length. “What’s this about?”
“It’s about poetry,” said Nancy. “That’s all. Something I once did. Something I was proud of, but at the same time, had to hide behind.”
“How could you stand it? That nobody knew?”
“I knew,” said Nancy.
“But this woman. Sandra Kitchener. You allowed me to despise her. And it was you all along?”
“I’ve accomplished three worthy goals in my life, Jade. I published a book of poetry. I raised a magnificent daughter. And I salvaged something that seemed intent on destroying itself. As far as I’m concerned, everything else is just details.”
Jade moved to put her arms around her mother, when Blake appeared in the doorway. He was holding the watercolor painting of the sea.
“Would you like to keep this, Jade?” he said. “It has that poem scrawled on it, which I’ve never quite understood. But the picture is nice. We picked it up many years ago, at a flea market, I think.”
Blake set the painting on the floor. Then he looked around for a vase in which to place the white roses he had just picked for his wife.