Excerpts - "Love and Death in a Perfect world"
From Chapter 1
Rosemary Sabin lay sleepless in bed on the night of her thirteenth birthday. There was so much to think about, so much to worry over. This mental debrief, more overwrought and breathless than usual, was after her party at the Luckie Park pool, after the pizza and cake, after her brother had been nice to her for a change, after her mother had fooled everyone into thinking she was normal, and after her dad had managed to hide his disappointment that her favorite gift was a pair of beaded flip flops and not the fish tank he’d surprised her with....
The tank was nice, but it was just there. Or rather, here. In this place. And she was tired of this place.
The world was elsewhere, she had recently discovered. The world was at school, at the handball courts, at the stores, at friends’ houses—the places where others confirmed that you existed. The world was the people who told you who to like and what to want. She used to feel safe at home, but now she felt safe out there. At home you could drift, dissipate. At home, if you weren’t careful, you could morph into something unrecognizable to the people in the world, the people you needed so badly, and then where would you be? The world had moved, and she had moved with it.
As she watched the shrimp step delicately over a ceramic deep-sea diver, she recalled with a vague shame her former self, her old inconsequential, forgettable self. Back then she would say whatever came into her head with no regard for what others would think. She would blithely tell her peers that she loved spinach, that she wanted to be a marine biologist, that her dad was her best friend. She wore sweat pants to school, paid no attention to her hair, and read books at lunch. She showed genuine interest in her schoolwork and teachers openly praised her. It was horrible.
From Chapter 2
Soon she learned how to be a girlfriend too, which really wasn’t that difficult if you knew how to watch and listen. She learned to be agreeable, to go with the flow. Being mellow was of utmost importance—never be a buzzkill, and when you have a complaint or an original thought, release it slowly, like a leak from an air mattress....
A car door slammed, a sound different from a van door sliding shut, which meant that her daughter was not getting out of her boyfriend’s vehicle. She would never know who Rosemary had spent the evening with, nor what she had done that night. The girl routinely lied, even when she didn’t need to. Honestly, these kids seemed to think they’d invented drinking and kissing and driving fast, as if everyone who came before had spent their Saturday nights playing Scrabble.
How could it be that every generation of human beings believed it was original? Maybe it was part of the life cycle, like learning to walk, or to scramble an egg. Everyone had to learn things anew. She remembered the day Rosemary proudly showed how she’d discovered a way to keep summer tops and sundresses from falling off hangers: “Look, I bent the ends of the hangers up, so now the clothes don’t slide off!” Millions of women had been doing that for years upon years, and Martina’s own closet was full of hangers with their ends bent upward, but to Rosemary, it was all new. In that moment, Martina realized it would continue this way for the rest of her life—she would watch her children discover marriage, careers, parenting—even aging—anew. But was someone watching her? Her mother had been dead for twenty years, and her grandmother had also died young. Soon she would outlive them both. She sighed a familiar sigh—she was supposed to be a link in a chain of women, but the upward links of that chain were gone, and the lower link fancied herself to be the first link ever.
From Chapter 6
She breathed deeply and turned her attention again to the landscape, fascinated anew by the way the rocks stacked up against each other. How permanent they seemed, but of course they were in transition. Some day they would slip, shinny, tumble to the ground, succumb to the siren call of gravity, lament their fate as they fell. But it was all as it should be. And the desert itself was as it should be. Thank God nobody was irrigating it here, trying to coax flowers and grass from its alkaline soil, pretending it was Atlanta or Charlottesville or Eugene. She had grown to despise places like L.A. and San Diego, desert cities that pretended they weren’t. Those places should have been tiny coastal towns with a few thousand people making their living as fishermen— that’s all the climate could truly support. But instead they were metropolises because the cities had stolen water from other parts of the state—and the Colorado River as well. And while she usually got riled up by what to her was a human rights violation perpetrated against the residents of Owens Valley and the like, today she saw it as a metaphor for the way people in America’s media-soaked, anxiety-ridden society perceived themselves. It wasn’t OK to have a wide nose or thin hair or full thighs or a gap in your teeth—these things were wrong and must be fixed. Just like it wasn’t OK for a landscape to have sparse vegetation or bare soil or trees that bloomed only once every ten or fifteen years—these things were wrong and must be fixed. And the only way to fix them was to destroy rivers and deltas and lakes and aquifers so that desert towns could recklessly become cities. That narrow idea of what was beautiful ran much deeper than she’d realized, deeper than women getting nose jobs or starving themselves; it had destroyed a whole chain of ecosystems.
From Chapter 7
Rosemary scanned the crowd and found Deet and Isabelle talking with two men in impossibly expensive suits. This would be her brother’s world now, a world she could hardly imagine. Just like that, he would be wealthy, secure, connected to powerful people. Of course, she didn’t want this life—it would entail boatloads of bullshit—but she sure wouldn’t mind the money. The inn they were staying at cost $350 a night, and the whole tab was being picked up by Isabelle’s family. What other goodies would come Deet’s way? And Isabelle already owned a gorgeous house that she’d inherited from her grandmother. She and Deet would just move into it without even a mortgage, while Rosemary and Liam struggled to save a down payment for some small, boxy, fake-adobe house in Santa Fe.
From Chapter 9
Then there was parenting a kid, something nearly everybody did but so many people did poorly. Shit, if you included that on a résumé it would actually work against you. She often wished she could tell people everything she did well in a day. “And then, even though Dylan was upset from the bug bite, I was still able to give him a bath without crying.” But no one wanted to hear that. And no one but another mom knew what it was like.
She had met some other moms in the neighborhood—the Park Posse, as she called them—though none were close friends. It was easy to feel lonely in Cielo Vista, a spread-out subdivision twelve miles outside of Santa Fe where she and Liam had bought a small, boxy, fake-adobe house. She could map Cielo Vista in a minute, with its grocery, park, coffee shop, pizza joint, real estate offices, pool, and bank. It was quiet, safe, dark at night, and not the suburban trap it might have been—at least there were no lawns—but it could be isolating.
It seemed the Park Posse women spent most of their time sizing each other up. Nursing your baby ranked high in social status, as did being relatively thin. Fat women in elastic pants who carted around bags of bottles were pariahs. Women whose kids were always sick were also to be avoided. Who wants that oozing kid in a play group? And why is he sick so often, anyway? They probably eat too much sugar. And then there were diapers: cloth, with expensive, breathable covers, were best, especially if you used the diaper service. Buckets of stinky diapers soaking in vinegar were not a status symbol but were more acceptable than disposable—think of what that woman is doing to the earth! Babies should sleep with or alongside their parents, or at least in their room on an all-cotton sleeping pallet. And working mothers? Forget them. They had no idea what they were missing; their priorities were totally screwed up. By the time you paid the day care center to ignore or abuse your kid, how much money did you really earn anyway? And how could you cook a decent dinner? The part-timers could be OK, especially if they worked from home and had a loving family friend to care for the kids. Then you could be friends with them.
It turned out she qualified on all counts. Not too fat to be gross, or too thin to be dangerous. Cloth diapers? Breastfeeding? Working in the family business? Check, check, check. She and Liam did not have a grand house, or go to the hottest restaurants, or take the vacations some of these women talked about, but that somehow worked in her favor—it meant she was making sacrifices for the good of their son. She was in if she wanted to be, but the Park Posse looked to Rosemary like a sorry excuse for friends....
But the individual days were nothing compared to the question that caused her the real grief: Who should she be? Should she be the thrifty mom, selling outgrown baby stuff to the consignment store and researching energy-saving light bulbs? Should she be the hot mom, working out to exercise videos, cutting carbs, and wearing form-fitting spandex to the farmers’ market? Or how about the moody and mysterious artist mom, the highly-involved-with-the-extended-family mom, the fixing-and-painting-the-Sheetrock-myself mom, the scrapbooking mom, the volunteering mom, the perfect-house mom, the activist mom, the look-how-many-pets-we-have mom, the going-back-to-school mom, the starting-a-business mom, the shopping mom, the home-schooling mom, the book-club mom? So far she just seemed to be the cleaning-cooking-doting mom who needed to justify her existence every day with busyness and devotion to Dylan. At least she wasn’t the drunk mom, or the abuser mom, or the affair-having mom. She was better than some, but who was she really?
From Chapter 10
Renee had found Nate dead just six days earlier, floating in their backyard pool. The coroner said he’d had a stroke and drowned.
“I have such anger,” she said, forming an impotent fist. “Why should he go that way? He was a great man.”
A great man. Oh yeah, Liam thought. Let’s have some of that magic vodka and think about that.
At the bar—yes, a wet bar, in the corner of the den—he mixed himself a vodka and tonic and studied the icemaker. “Always Fresh” it said on the front. Liam read the print on the side of the machine and realized the thing didn’t just make ice; it also steadily melted the old ice so that the ice was always fresh. For Christ’s sake, was there anything more decadent than an icemaker that could also apply heat and melt its own ice? We wouldn’t want the lord and lady to suffer the hardship of stale ice, now would we? That would be unthinkable. Holy fuck, whoever even heard of stale ice? Nate was such a dick.
A tall dude in a suit appeared, thrusting his hand toward Liam.
Who the fuck was this?
“Yes,” Liam replied, mechanically shaking the smooth, slender hand.
Right. So who the fuck was this?
“I’m Renee’s son, her oldest.”
Oh, one of the steps. “Of course,” Liam said. “How are you?”
“Well, I’ve been better. I’m sorry for your loss, or should I say, our loss.”
“Oh, yes,” Liam said.
“You know, I just have to tell you how important your dad was to me.“ He stopped to weather a sudden outbreak of tears. “My own dad was pretty much absent,” he continued after a few deep breaths. “Once my parents split, he moved to London. I guess he sent child support, but we only saw him once or twice a year. But your dad—” again, the tear wiping—“I was twelve when he married my mom, and he was a whole lot more of a father to me—to all of us—than our own dad ever was. He was always there. Once I got mixed up with the wrong crowd and got into a lot of trouble—a lot of trouble!—and he really turned me around.” Holden paused again to collect himself. “He would not let me go down that path, he would not let me fail. I mean, he walked Candace down the aisle, he bailed out Michael when his business hit hard times, he came to our games and piano recitals when we were kids—I mean, he was there. I don’t know where I’d be today if it hadn’t been for him.”
Liam stared at the man, at his reddish ears and his sincere, squirrel-like face, and wanted to clock him. How satisfying it would be to knock the fucker’s teeth down his throat.
From Chapter 14
And to think they’d hoped to send Dylan to private school by seventh grade. Right, like that was going to happen.
But it would have been a colossal waste of money anyway because Dylan hated school, and had been nurturing that hatred since. . .was it fifth grade? Yes, fifth grade. Suddenly Rosemary thought she could pinpoint the time. It was around Thanksgiving when the class was a few weeks into a money management project. The kids were supposed to decide on an imaginary career, research the salary for a particular job, and gather information on the expenses of daily life. Then they were to devise a budget. Dylan had researched being an architect— he’d recently begun noticing how he felt good or bad in particular buildings—and was happy with his project. But he came home from school one day scowling.
“This girl Jennifer,” he said, “do you know what career she chose? She decided to be a waitress. A waitress, Mom. She could pretend to be anything, and that’s all she could come up with. So in her budget she could only afford a tiny apartment. What is wrong with her? Why would anybody do that?”
“What did other people choose?” Rosemary asked.
“One girl was a ballet dancer, one was a doctor. Blake was also a doctor too, and this other kid was a rodeo rider. One kid was a lawyer. Oh, and a bunch of them—like half the class—said they wanted to be photographers, but that’s only because this girl Mariah said it first. But then Jennifer says, ‘waitress.’ I wanted to puke. And then you know what? We had to write this stupid thing: ‘If you could have one wish that would change your life for the better, what would it be?’ First of all, who can come up with a good answer to that in like five minutes? Anyway, so it’s time to share,” he said with a pronounced sneer. “And all the girls say ‘world peace’ or ‘everyone would be nice to each other’ or something and someone says there would be no pollution, but do you know what this one kid said? He said he would make the price of gas lower so it wouldn’t be so hard to visit your family when they’re in prison far away. His uncle is in prison in Texas, and visiting him costs too much. I mean, why wouldn’t he just wish that his uncle wasn’t in prison? Or that there would be no prisons? Or that gas is free? No, all he can think of is to make gas cheaper. How can people think that way?”
An uncle in prison. Ugh. Wasn’t his school supposed to be all cozy and middle class? She took a deep breath then, gathering courage to ask the next question.
“And what did you wish for?” she asked.
“That I would never have to go to school again and pretend to be friends with so many idiots and listen to so many dumb teachers.”
Suddenly Liam had a vision of himself as a coach, trying to send Dylan out onto the field but unable to think of anything to say. It’s halftime and the team is down, and somehow he has to motivate his boy to get back out there, but he’s at an utter loss.
But the world was full of dads in locker rooms coaching their sons. Millions of locker rooms with millions of dads giving their sons millions of sermons, tips, and warnings on how to get through the game. Be careful of the blacks, son; never trust the Jews, boy. Watch out for the fascists, the Pakis, the skinheads, the gangsters, the socialists, the Baptists, the townies, the gays, the Brits, the bureaucrats, the Republicans, the junkies, the mothers-in-law, the neighbors, the Democrats, the auditors, the Muslims, the hippies, the surgeons, the jocks, the critics, the Marines, the priests, the drunkards, the artists. Watch out, watch out, watch out. And knock ’em dead too.
At times like this he needed someone to tell him the things he always told Rosemary: “Everything will be fine.”
People often praised her for her firm convictions, but what was a moral compass, and what was a snap judgment? What was believing you knew right from wrong, and what was simply close-mindedness? She thought of her mom, her tender-hearted mom, and knew instantly that she had done the same thing with her parents: Dad good, Mom bad. Well, not really bad, more like Dad a fount of wisdom, Mom a dud. Dad a person to seek out, Mom someone to tolerate. How terrible! And she also knew just as clearly that she had been choosing sides between Dylan and Liam from the start, and between herself and Liam, as if there were no way for everyone to be happy. She was as simple-minded as anyone she had ever known, as hidebound as some paste-eating redneck. She’d been choosing sides her whole life, like a lab rat conditioned to receive food or an electric shock when it pulled a lever. Only she had set up the levers herself. Did everyone set up their own levers? Did people really create their own reality? Her wheatgrass-drinking-organic-cotton-wearing-affirming-the-positive Santa Fe friends would say yes, but how about that amputee living on the streets of Mumbai—what would he say? Who knew, ultimately, who set up the levers?
From Chapter 15
Crickets throbbed. Rosemary took a few more deep breaths, opened the car door, shifted her body to the side, and swung her feet to the ground. Her heart raced as she began to hyperventilate, breathing with short, shrieky yelps. Suddenly terrified, she clutched the car door, wishing like a child that Liam were there.
As they sat stiffly over coffee in their unnaturally quiet house, Liam ventured, “You know what your main man Greg Brown would say about this, don’t you?”
“No, what would Greg say?”
“ ‘Life is a thump-ripe melon, so sweet and such a mess.’ ”