Thursday, December 2, 2010

DeVante's Choice - Chapter 1

DeVante's Choice - publish date TBA 2012

Chapter 1

I study the lines of my face in the mirror and think, I am old. For a brief moment I wonder how it happened, but of course I know how it happened. I have lived a human life.

I smile at myself in the mirror. At least there are more laugh lines in my skin than frown lines. It was a good and happy life. I am lucky.

My husband's daughter will arrive from Japan tonight, and will leave again in two days' time.

My husband is 47 years old, and lies in the mortuary, waiting for our goodbyes, but not caring about them at all. I hold sadness, and I hold relief. Death becomes him.

I cringe, immediately sorry for that thought.

He was a good man, and he loved me well.

Two days. In two days I can leave behind all the trappings of this human life.

Will he come for me, the man who offered me a very different kind of life when I was still young? Will I be brave enough to accept?

As I turn away from the mirror, I see the reflection of a face other than mine. I turn back, hitching in my breath, but it's gone. My heart lifts and I can feel my mouth turning up to smile.

I whirl around to face the hallway, but I know searching is futile. I will not see him until he decides to show himself.

Instead, I hear his voice reverberate through the house, his smooth and beautiful voice. "Emily, Emily, Emily…"

And then a knock on my door.

Oh yes, he will come.

I open the door and gather Jenna, my now orphaned step-daughter, into my arms. "Oh my girl, my girl, I am so sorry, sweetheart."

She shakes her head and hugs me back. I pull back to look up into the face of my tall and beautiful girl. She inherited height and grace from her father. And brown hair, which is cut short and lies flat and glossy against her skull.

"You look beautiful," I tell her. "I like the haircut."

She smiles a tired smile. "A group of us went to the salon together. Our classmates call us the wanna-be girls, as if I could pretend to be Japanese with my head so far above my feet."

I laugh, a little. My girl. She's always hated being tall and I've always hated being so very short. Height-envy, she calls it. I am barely 5 feet. She is just under 6'1".

"Blame your father," I say, out of habit. I've said it a thousand times.

Her face crumples. "I can't believe he's gone."

"I know," I answer.

My husband died from a brain aneurism two days ago. I arrived at his bedside just in time to watch him die. Not in time to share last words, but it's okay. I'd hugged and kissed him that morning and said I love you, the same as I did every morning.

And I did love him. I loved him in a quiet, steady, grateful way. He was a fixer of things, a solver of problems, and a keeper of my heart.

But he wasn't the only keeper of my heart, and while I felt some guilt knowing I would move on, and quickly, I would not waste time wallowing in self-recrimination.

The keeper of his heart was, no doubt, Jenna. She was the light of his life and the joy of all his days. And I suspected my grief was small in comparison to hers.

"Are you hungry?" I asked. "I could go get something, give you time to get settled and take a shower, or a nap."

"I slept on the plane," she answered. "But grilled cheese and tomato soup would be good. Do you have it?"

"Of course I have it." I had never been one to cook much, but I always had comfort food in the house.

We went to the kitchen to break out the Campbell's.

"I left my ticket open-ended," she said.

My hand, reaching toward the can opener, stopped in mid-air. "What? Why?"

"If you need me, I can stay. I can always go back next semester. Or next year."

No, oh no, I thought. She can't hit the pause button on her life for this. For me.

There is so much we never get around to telling children. Things that now seem like secrets, but were never meant that way. You don't want your kids to ever worry, to ever ache for you, so for as long as they are children, some things don't get talked about. And then they're not children anymore, and it doesn't make sense to talk about things that never needed talking about before.

"You know, Jenna, there are things I should tell you. Things from long, long ago, that we never had any reason to talk about. You might not get the opportunity to study in Japan ever again. You can't put your life on hold to stay here and take care of me. I love you for your willingness, but I don't need it. I'll be okay. And so will you."

The relief on her face was so obvious it almost made me laugh.

"What things?"

I took a deep breath. "Big things. Love and marriage and children and life. Your father is not the first to leave me a widow."

The surprise on her face was expected. Not even my husband knew about my first life. I didn't tell him at first because I wasn't ready to talk about it. And I didn't tell him later because it didn't seem fair.

But I would tell Jenna now so she wouldn't worry about me.

"I lived a whole life before I met your dad. I got married when I was 19. His name was John, and I loved him as much as a young, impetuous girl can love. I gave birth to a daughter just before turning twenty-one. We named her Sasha, and we were very happy. A few months later, we were in a car accident. Both of them died."

Jenna's eyes were glued to my face.

"Seriously?" she asked.

I nodded. "It was terrible. I forgot how to live. I laid on the couch for months. I didn't cook or shower or clean. I had awful nightmares where Sasha cried and I couldn't find her."

I stopped talking, remembering the stranger who stepped into my nightmare and soothed the pain away.

"Oh my God, Mom, I can't believe you never told me this."

Jenna was seven when I met her father. She started calling me 'mom' a year or so after she came to live with us full-time, which came about after her own mother died. Plenty of tragedy for a young girl. She was wise even as a child, and I have always accepted the title as an honor, something earned and not bestowed upon me lightly or without thought. And the timing of that great gift was no accident, either, Jenna's sweet voice calling me 'mom' just days after I miscarried the last child I would ever conceive.

"Well. There was never a time that seemed appropriate for the telling. I'm only telling you now because I need you to live your own life. I want you to know that I can handle grief and pain, that losing a husband is really sad. But losing a child is… oh, I can't even explain it. It's like your heart is torn into pieces, and never quite gets put back together."

"You met dad when you were twenty-one."

I can see she's thinking, putting together a timeline.

"Yes," I said.

"And I was seven, and you had a miscarriage when I was nine."

I nodded. "I wanted desperately to be a mother again. So mothering you was my heart's desire. I missed a few years, but not that many."

She reached past me for the can opener. I could see she was still mulling it over. "How did you get off the couch? So that you met dad, I mean."

This I had to think about. I wasn't sure how much to tell her. I mean, I knew exactly what I couldn't tell her, the secrets that weren't mine to reveal… but the rest was variable. How could I explain it without tarnishing my relationship with her father?

"Well." I said. "Well, this part isn't pretty. First, I met someone else." I opened a cabinet and handed her a sauce pan for the soup. Then I started buttering bread. If I didn't look at her maybe I could think before my words came out, do damage control as I went along.

"Geez, move a little fast much?"

"It wasn't like that, not really. It was an accident. He was an artist, a photographer, and his work was amazing. I had some of his pictures on my walls even while John was alive, but I didn't meet him until after… after the accident." Just speaking of it brought back pain. All the hopes and dreams I'd had, killed in an instant. The depression that held me in its suffocating grip, sucking the spirit out of me and leaving the empty shell of my living body behind.

"He brought me back to life," I said. "And he loved me with a white hot intensity that I feared might burn me to ash. So I left. I moved to Duluth, and he moved far away. So much had happened in that short while that I was a new person. Sometimes it felt like all the bad things happened to someone else entirely. Sometimes it still feels that way. And that was a relief. When you lose everything important in your life, you'll never be the same person that you were, no matter how much you want to be or how hard you try. That kind of pain changes you forever."

The soup was warming on the stove, and the grilled cheese sandwiches were almost ready before I looked at Jenna again.

"White hot intensity," she said. "Wow, that's like, I don't know, something you've thought about a lot, to describe it like that."

I think I blushed. "Well. I haven't thought about it for a long time. I loved your daddy, truly you know that. You grew up with us, after all. I am heartbroken to lose him, and I think new grief drags up the old. At least it makes me melancholy enough to revisit old hurts, if only as a way to avoid dealing with new ones. What I want you to take from this is the knowledge that I'll be okay."

"Ouch," she said. "You sound like your bags are packed and you're all set to move on."

"There's no alternative, Jenna. I can sit here and cry, and I can spend months on the couch feeling sorry for myself, but it'll kill me before it gets me anywhere. I'm not doing it again. I loved my life with your father. I've been lucky in love and I know it. How many kids do you know with parents who have stayed together until death parts them?"

"Almost none. Everybody's divorced once or twice these days. Even Dad."

"Exactly. I'm going to pursue happiness, and some people will call me disrespectful because of it. The only reason I'm telling you about John and Sasha, or De –" I caught myself about to say his name – "the artist, is because I want you to know where I've been. It's the only way you can understand where I'm going."

We fixed our bowls and plates and sat, facing each other, at the kitchen table. I crushed a handful of butter crackers into my soup.

"Do you think you'll find him?"

I looked into her face, trying to discern if she was hurt or angry, but all I saw was curiosity. "I think he'll find me."

"Have you kept in touch all these years?"

I sighed. This was heading toward things I really didn't want to get into. The last time I'd seen or spoken to DeVante was just before the miscarriage, and he'd offered me his blood, and I declined, as I had always declined. He had said the blood might make the baby stronger, so later, later, how I kicked myself for my stubbornness. But these weren't things to tell Jenna.

"Not really, no. The last time I saw him was after you moved in permanently. And every year I fell more and more in love with your dad, and more and more in love with you, and so how could I keep in contact with a man who would, every time we met, ask me to leave my life behind? I made my choice."

"You still love him."

I just looked at her. And then I shrugged. "Love means different things when you're sixteen or twenty, or forty. There's a person or two in your life already that you know will be in your heart forever."

She grinned sheepishly. "A thousand poems." It was the barest whisper, but I heard. I knew who she was thinking of. I'd sent her to a therapist when she was in high school because she had obsessive love for a boy who didn't love her back. I know she never got over him, and she probably never will. But she's gone on with her life. And she's learned how to make room in her heart for other people.

"Yes," I said. "That one, for sure. And there will be some that will be a surprise to you, that you'll find yourself thinking about off and on as the years go by, and you'll wish you'd realized at the time how much impact they were having on you."

"So how come you didn't marry him?"

"That's easy. Because I wanted you. More than anything the world had to offer, I wanted you. He wasn't the kind of man you raise children with. His love was all-consuming and left no room for a child."

"He might have surprised you." My dear Jenna, the devil's advocate.

"I don't think so. I think he would have been aggravated, jealous even, if he had to share me with anyone. In order for me to have this life, the life I wanted, I needed complete separation from him." And to keep my heart from breaking over and over again. But there was no point in telling her that. I gathered our dirty dishes and stacked them in the sink. "You and I need to go to bed, because tomorrow is going to be rough."

She looked stricken then, as if she'd forgotten what she'd come home for, and her eyes got wet. "Damn. I'm officially an orphan. But you'll keep being my mom, right? Forever?"

"Oh, Jenna. Of course forever. Love doesn't end. I will always consider you my daughter."

She nodded, because of course she knew. She sniffled a couple of times, then said, "I wonder if he'll come to the funeral."

"Jenna, this isn't a mystery that needs to be solved. He won't come to the funeral. It would be selfish and crass and ugly. Dishonorable. He abhors dishonor. And besides that, it would piss me off."

She gave me her tired smile again, and I wondered how many hours she'd spent crying since I called her from the hospital. I often referred to her as my girl. But she had always been her daddy's girl more than she was ever mine.

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