As I’m working away on my second novel (tentatively titled Fly Girl), I thought I’d give a little love to Cheer: A Novel. If you haven’t read it yet, I’ve pasted the first three chapters below. Why three? It’s more than you get from the Amazon sample and the story is told from three perspectives so this gives readers a taste of the voices of Ella, Jenny and Ethan. Enjoy!
Does anyone else imagine shrieking in the middle of a symphony or a school play? Or plowing deliberately into a concrete wall, not even scrunching a nose in anticipation? Does a knife taunt the palm of a hand, begging to pierce? Does everyone have a recurring dream of throttling their mothers? For me, that wouldn’t be much of a stretch. After all, I already killed my brother.
Trapped in my room, I was daydreaming, contemplating these things, while my mother ate salad from a supermarket to-go box and chatted virtually with her online fertility community friends, and my dad watched TV while solving a crossword puzzle from the morning’s Chronicle.
Though my day should have been winding down, strangely, my heart pounded as if I’d just completed one of my morning laps with Hope. My legs jittered beneath me. It was after nine-thirty and I’d been awake for almost seventeen hours, but I felt jacked up.
I’d already showered so practicing more cheers wasn’t convenient, neither was my other preferred activity, power walking – walking anywhere, so long as it was away from my home, my past. I was stuck.
I tried to focus on school, my usual distraction. Yet even though we’d barely exited the weekend, I’d already completed the week’s homework for every single class. I also had a solid working draft of an English paper on Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro that wasn’t even due for ten more days.
I looked around my room for something to do. Without a diversion of cheer, walking with Hope, or school, my thoughts always turned to Riley and what happened that sickening day. Without a distraction, it beat down on me. It invaded me.
My eyes finally settled on a ball-point pen on my desk. Having been used for Spanish conjugation earlier in the afternoon, it was uncapped. The roundish tip called to me like a beacon. I grabbed it.
I pulled off my slippers and sat cross-legged on the floor. I drew black lines on the top of my foot – sharp, jagged, strictly linear lines. Back and forth, up and down. Within moments, the top of my foot grew grayish black.
Pleased, I dug in harder. Up and down. Harder. Back and forth. Deep, now painful cross hatches. It felt good. It was the distraction I needed.
Inhaling, I changed my grip on the pen, wrapping my fingers around its shaft, the way a gardener might do with a pick axe. Underneath the black lines, my skin pinked. Eventually, I got what I wanted: blood.
I stopped. The top of my foot throbbed. I concentrated on that feeling, holding it, savoring it, willing it to go on longer so I didn’t have to think about anything else. I wanted to dwell on that pain – instead of another.
I dabbed the blood with my right index finger and brought it to my tongue. Mixed with ink, it tasted like metal. I placed my left thumb onto the cut and pressed down. As my foot throbbed satisfyingly under my hand, I leaned my head against the side of the bed and closed my eyes.
Hope stared at me expectantly. It was the next afternoon and the shards of light that shot through my bedroom blinds were rusty and autumnal, blurring the numbers and shapes in the geometry book on my lap.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked with her distinctive enthusiasm.
We were lounging in the three-foot space between my twin beds with matching paisley comforters. We stretched out opposite each other, periodically tapping our toes against the other’s leg in a combination of playful boredom and the familiarity that comes from being best friends. A laptop rested on her thighs and her index finger displayed chipped blue nail polish as it swirled around the mouse pad.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Why are you being so wiggy, Miss Non-Committal?” Along with her unparalleled enthusiasm, Hope had an impatience with my fixed temperament. She’d been on my case for the last several weeks. Even though the school year had begun just seven weeks ago, she was already planning a summer getaway together. She was going big – abroad, but with enough of an educational element to “satisfy the ‘rents,” as she said. She was currently pitching a month-long nanny-study program somewhere in the UK.
“I assure you, my parents aren’t going to let me spend four weeks out of the country,” I explained. “Do you remember that we are fourteen?”
“You’ll be fifteen by then,” she reminded me, dramatically circling an item on the list she’d created in her science notebook, which rested on the floor next to her. “Besides, maybe if you start acting especially horrible, your parents will, like, want to get rid of you.”
I stopped tapping my toes and glared pointedly at Hope. My non-response made her glance up from her computer screen.
“Oh, right. Sorry,” she said, and circled something else in yet another notebook beside her, drawing sloppy five-pointed stars around it. “Can we get some tunes? Your house is always so freakin’ quiet – it practically hurts.”
“I dunno.” She nailed me at non-committal.
“I’m thinking Ireland,” Hope continued. “It’s less cliché than London but we can still speak the language. Yesterday, I found an art history program in County Kerry.”
“Sounds like fun. Be sure to write me while you’re there.” I felt badly spoiling Hope’s plan, but it was necessary before her expectations got out of hand.
She sighed in exaggerated exasperation; wisps of her nearly black hair flew upward in response. “Let’s find something to eat,” she suggested. Before I could agree, she was half way down the hall, walking past Riley’s old room with its perpetually closed door.
Hope was such a fixture in my life that my mother grocery shopped with her favorite foods in mind. We met more than four years ago when her family moved to our street. Though she was new to the neighborhood, Hope’s mom Penny baked plates of organic flax meal carob chip cookies and delivered them to neighbors up and down the street as a way to introduce her family. That’s the kind of family they were: bold, open, warm. Music of some kind or another was always playing at their house and someone was always home. When I answered our door that day, Hope and I were wearing the same exact shirt: a baby blue tank top with thin, pink stripes shooting diagonally across the front. We were ten.
“Cinnamon peanut butter!” she pronounced, helping herself to the jar in our refrigerator. “Any Ritz?”
I shook my head. “Graham crackers?” I offered.
Hope scooted aside my mom’s IVF syringes on the counter and helped herself to napkins and a butter knife and plopped down at the kitchen table, tucking one leg under the thigh of the other. She had a casual haphazardness to her that I admired. I’m such an approval whore that it simply didn’t occur to me to sit and eat in a way other than with two feet planted on the floor, napkin properly lining my lap – even for a snack. I grabbed a banana, the only semi-fresh looking item in the fruit bowl. I made a mental note to let my dad know that a trip to the grocery store was in order. Or maybe I wouldn’t bother anyone and instead would replenish the fruit myself by stopping at the farmers market near my school.
While Hope snacked, I stood and stretched my hamstrings like my coach had assigned. Calf lifts. Quad pulls. I’d been instructed to hold each for twenty seconds. Most girls on the squad cut corners, but I silently counted to exactly twenty, taking bites of banana between each muscle group.
“Are we walking tomorrow?” I asked. For more than a year, Hope and I met at dawn for a power walk four mornings a week. Though most fourteen-year-olds clamor for every moment of extra sleep, Hope and I were both natural early risers, our body clocks being yet another personality trait that drew us together. Really, we walked more for the gossip than the exercise. Although she went to a private school and I went to the San Rafael public high school, the dynamics of friendships and cliques – the betrayals, the unions, the pacts – were pretty universal, we’d discovered. And between my cheerleading practices and her flute lessons and homework for both of us, sometimes early morning was the only time we could catch up.
“Can’t,” she said, covering her mouth to prevent flying cracker crumbs. She chewed and swallowed quickly to explain. “French test first period. My dad promised he’d go over vocabulary words with me before work.”
“No problem.” Even when Hope couldn’t make it, I often still walked at that time. I loved being outdoors when the moon and the sun were battling it out. I loved the fresh, damp smell of dewy grass, the shadowy daybreak light, the way my face was moist and flush when I returned. I loved the barely audible sound of my feet on the pavement and the occasional bacon or coffee aromas wafting to the sidewalk from kitchen windows.
Hope clapped her hands to remove cracker dust, scooped up the paper napkin and tossed it in the compost bin under the sink. I followed behind her, tidying up her errant crumbs with a damp paper towel and carefully returning my mom’s fertility paraphernalia to its original spot.
“Or how about Scotland?” she said, resuming the conversation I thought had ended minutes before in my bedroom. Hope had a one-track mind that could sometimes ride my nerves. I loved her, though. Unlike most people, Hope knew me as much more than “the poor girl who….” And in the days following Riley’s accident, she sat with me for hours while I sobbed or stared vacantly. She held my hands to stop me from digging my fingernails into my flesh. To distract me, she and her mother hauled me to the movies, to a rock-climbing gym, to Stow Lake in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. They took me to their cabin in Tahoe so I could get a breather from my parents’ horrific, all-encompassing grief. In lighter moments during those early days, Hope teased me that my family’s tragedy meant that finally I was no longer “the normal one” between the two of us.
In the kitchen, I assumed a standing figure-four hip stretch and shook my head, raising my eyebrows a half inch to wordlessly yet kindly indicate my exasperation with the continuing travel suggestions.
“God, Ella,” she said, with an annoyance that saw and raised my own, like a poker move. “I would think you’d, like, want to get away from here.”
After Hope left, I debated whether to practice my cheerleading outside. The air was thick but breezy, typical for Northern California in the fall. I checked the time: four-fifteen. My mother would return home soon and my practicing outside unnerved her after what had happened to us there. I chose the family room instead.
Sucking in my breath, I shoved the heavy wood trunk that served as a coffee table out of the way. My dad joked that I’d made a little runway in the plush carpet from moving it so much. To him, everything had an airplane analogy.
I practiced with my back to the screen door so I wasn’t forced to gaze at Riley’s picture on the nearby fireplace mantle, the only image of him my mother could bear to display in the house. He was on a tricycle wearing a plastic bucket on his head. There was something about that photo – I couldn’t name it – that my mother always loved. Sometimes I stared at the picture for hours, boring my eyes until the edges of his small, round face grew fuzzy. Other times, a simple glimpse out of the corner of my eye created a rough lump in my esophagus.
I consulted the DVR clock again and estimated that I could practice alone peacefully for precisely twenty-five minutes. This time of year, the sky darkened rapidly and the helpful, mirroring shadows of my body on the opposite wall would soon disappear.
Feet together, I began with a clap. The sound echoed off the room’s wood paneling, sending pale, silent dust particles swirling. I imagined I was at regionals so judges, not football fans, watched me.
When most people heard cheerleader, they conjured pom poms and lettermen sweaters, and thought of popularity more than talent. But my cheering was hard core. It was ESPN cheerleading. We did stunt sequences, lifts and gymnastics – not the kind of cheering where the miniskirts get packed in a closet at football season’s close. It was the kind of cheer where girls suffered more serious injuries than a wide receiver. In addition to cheering players at football games, my school’s squad entered year-round competitions. We had to master dozens of two-and-a-half-minute routines that included dancing, jumping and tumbling. We had to display teeth and any available dimples, but not reveal any sweat, all while wearing a body-hugging polyester uniform.
My squad mates and I were in better shape than the football players we supported, and historically the school’s cheerleading team record surpassed theirs. Last year, the football team went six and five. The cheerleaders won the Northern California sectionals and placed third in the Pacific region. Third doesn’t sound like much. But thirty-five teams competed last year.
I’d been cheering since sixth grade, not for my middle school but at a local independent gym where I’d been taking gymnastics since I was seven. While I wasn’t a natural athlete, I was coordinated and capable. Most importantly, according to my coach there, I was a hard worker. Thanks to self-imposed home practices, I quickly blew through the gymnastics offerings for my age group. By sixth grade, my coach encouraged me to swap gymnastics for cheerleading where my basic skills combined with my discipline would be rewarded.
Had it not been for cheerleading, my anal personality and good grades would probably have kept me squarely within the loser population at school. Now, if not emotionally attached to other cheerleaders, I spent enough time with them to at least be included in the popular crowd activities: sleepovers, birthday parties, day trips to Six Flags in Vallejo.
It turned out I was a good cheerleader – crisp and precise. I was limber with an endurance no one expected given my small-ish frame. Soon after switching from gymnastics, I mastered cheering’s rigorous eight-count system, synchronizing every move not only to the music but to my squad mates’ steps. I easily made the JV high school squad, which I started two months ago.
The hardest part for me was the smiling. Even before Riley died, I had trouble happily grinning through an entire routine. Maybe it was from intense concentration or perhaps a fundamental misunderstanding that cheerleaders are – not to be lamely obvious – cheer leaders. Despite my technical abilities, Coach Rick almost kicked me off the eighth grade squad for “continued failure to smile.” Eventually, I practiced just smiling – first for one minute, then two, et cetera – until I finally mastered smiling, almost authentically, for fifteen minutes straight. I didn’t even need to monitor myself in the mirror anymore. In fact, after what I’d done, I couldn’t bear to.
When I arrived home from work, I could tell by the rose in Ella’s cheeks and the thin gleam of perspiration on her upper lip that she’d been practicing her cheerleading. She was on the couch, pretending to be engaged in Judge Judy because she didn’t want me to know what she’d been doing. I sometimes wondered how many times my heart will break in this lifetime.
A better parent would clear the air. Instead of just noticing the missed opportunities to enhance the already precarious mother-adolescent bond, a better mom would affirmatively correct mistakes and foster her only daughter’s self-worth. I, on the other hand, could only passively observe my parenting omissions and failures. While I might have instinctively known the better choice, I couldn’t muster the courage or the energy to follow it. Sometimes my inertia made me almost physically ill. But then I’d remembered that nothing I’d failed to do for my daughter could ever be as bad as what I did to my son.
“Hi, El,” I said.
She turned to me, feigning surprise that I had arrived home. “Oh, hi Mom.”
Ella was born after a short, intense labor that did not allow time for pain medication. My water broke at eight-thirty and by eight fifty-five my legs were spread wide open in triage at Marin General. We didn’t even make it into a labor and delivery room. The obstetrician on call had barely donned his gown and snapped on gloves before Ella’s head emerged from between my legs. “This baby knows what it wants,” he said, not even needing to instruct me to push. She’d always been like that.
“Fuuuuucccccckkkkkkk,” I’d grunted as my insides twisted in a fiery, biblical way. Everything smelled like metal. When I hovered on the brink of passing out from pain – and maybe also from fear – she came out.
When Ethan saw her, he let out the sweetest little moan. I knew right then that he was meant to be a father. “What are we going to name her?” he asked a few hours later, after I’d recovered a bit from laboring. He was cradling her like a pro, and her wide-open eyes – the same shade as mine – locked hard onto his. It was like they already knew each other.
“How about Ella?” It was the first name that popped into my head; it hadn’t even been on our short list.
Ethan nuzzled his nose to her tiny forehead. “Nice to meet you, Ella Dahl.”
At that point, I tried to lean over the recovery bed to get a better glimpse of her but my body answered the movement with screams of its own. It was then that I noticed the blood on my socks. This, I thought at that moment, is surely what it feels like to be run over by a truck.
“Enjoy her,” I’d told Ethan slowly, breathlessly, to convey the gravity of my message. “Because I’m never doing that again.”
In the family room, Ella’s voice and Judge Judy returning from a commercial startled me back to the present, something I’d become accustomed to. Remembering where I was and everything that had happened no longer brought me to my knees in grief. Now, after nearly two years, a dull haze simply surrounded me all the time, making reality slightly more bearable. But not much.
“Mmm…what’d you say?” I asked, tugging gently on her thick pony tail, the color of coffee with a splash of milk.
Barely audible, Ella sighed, annoyed at my distraction. “Dr. McQuitty called.”
I entered my bedroom and shut the door. I took out a notepad in preparation for my call back to the doctor, my heart swollen and thick in my chest. I picked up the phone but there was no dial tone. Someone must have called and I’d picked up the phone before it even rang.
“Hello?” I said, confused.
Rick. I’d often wondered how many heart attacks were not really cardiac arrests, but instead hearts literally breaking.
“I told you never to call,” I hissed. I’d rehearsed this very scenario in my head dozens of times.
“I need to talk to Ella. Squad business.” Constricted and flat, his voice was unlike how I usually remembered it: breathless, demonstrative. But, in an odd way, my own physical response to it was the same: my heart expanded with a dangerous heat.
Without replying, I placed the phone down and called out to Ella, trying to keep my tone neutral. “Coach Rick is on the phone.” I peered down the hall and caught the tail end of her hopping over the family room sofa and picking up the extension in the kitchen.
Two years since Rick, two years since Riley died, two years since my world was right side up.
“I’m afraid it didn’t take,” Mel McQuitty said. I’d phoned him from the kitchen once I’d regained my balance after Rick’s call, after I’d shaken off the physical discomfort of my failings by splashing tepid water on my face and neck and scrubbing myself with a wash cloth. “Feeling discouraged is okay; acting defeated is not.” Dr. McQuitty had the most authoritative yet gentle demeanor of any man I’d ever met. I wondered how many women secretly wished that a tad of his sperm would sneak into a Petri dish to meet their eggs.
I told him that I understood and consulted my calendar to schedule another transfer during my next cycle. Ella scurried around me, grabbing a yogurt from the fridge and licking the plastic top, then rapidly thumbing through a catalog. I could tell by the way her eyes darted from yogurt to catalog and back again that she was listening intently.
“Sorry, Mom,” she said as I hung up. The two-word sentence was loaded.
I inhaled and blew out a long breath. My eyes welled as I replied, “Me too.” For her sake, I forced the tears to stay put and not travel down my cheeks.
“Somehow,” she said, “we’ll get another baby in this family.”
I’d never suspected that I’d be trying to get pregnant again at forty-one. Stranger still, I never thought I’d have any problems. Ella had been conceived easily; Ethan and I joked that he simply looked at me long and hard one day and the next thing I knew I was staring down two pink lines on a First Response stick. And with Riley, it had taken us one month of not-even-aggressive trying because, after all, I wasn’t even sure I could handle the agonies of labor again. Though biologically I should be able to conceive at forty-one, I felt a lifetime older than I was the last time I wanted a baby.
After Riley died, I learned that it wasn’t uncommon for parents who had lost a child to suddenly want another baby even if their family plans had never included one before. When my physician prescribed sedatives after the accident, she told me not to feel ashamed if I found myself inexplicably horny. It was the brain and the body’s synergetic attempt to replace what had been lost. In my case, it was also part apology.
Ethan and I didn’t have much sex at all for months after Riley’s death. And then it was mechanical and friendly, but dispassionate, not unlike our lovemaking before we’d lost Riley. Once we decided to try to have another baby, the sex increased in frequency and urgency, if not passion. I often wondered how thrilling the sex would be if my sexual desire for Ethan matched my profound and utter love for him.
Dr. McQuitty had scientifically orchestrated the births of several of my clients’ children. I went right to him as soon as three months went by without conceiving naturally. Having learned of Riley’s death through the flawless Marin County grapevine, he took a particular interest in our case, always promoting the most aggressive options. After tests showed that both my eggs and Ethan’s sperm were declining in viability, we’d quickly launched into artificial insemination and as of today, two rounds of IVF. Although the Northern California real estate market was in a slump, the finances of fertility treatments were simply immaterial to me. Absolutely nothing was more valuable to me than another baby.
In the kitchen, Fred marched in figure eights at my feet, purring loudly, as he waited for me to pour the kibble. I was grateful for the opportunity to kneel down, to fight my tears without Ella looking directly at me. Fred’s mewing stirred my insides to life and I moved slower, more deliberately. His paws were like orange stars that padded on our hardwood floors – a gentle, soothing drum.
Fred is perhaps the only thing I still loved completely, without agenda or regret. A big orange tomcat, Fred had been with me for thirteen years, nearly as long as I’d been a mother. I got Fred in precisely the wrong way you’re supposed to adopt a pet: spontaneously. I’d never had a cat before. Ethan and I had never discussed adopting a pet. For all I knew, he was allergic. But one Sunday morning, I dashed over to Safeway. I’d had an hour to myself before Ethan had to hand Ella back to me and get to the airport. For whatever reason, I decided to spend that time grocery shopping. We weren’t in particular need of food but I couldn’t think of what else to do. An hour wasn’t enough time for a soul-soothing hike on Mount Tam. And sipping a latte in a coffee shop sounded plain lonely. I’d really just wanted to take a nap but Ella would have howled knowing I was behind a closed door and not with her. I needed a simple change of scenery and some space.
In front of the Safeway, a little redheaded girl sat with a box of four kittens, all with orange fur that exactly matched her hair. “Free! Kittins!” was scrawled on the outside of the box. The girl had two hands inside, stroking all four baby cats at once.
There was something about the way the girl gazed at those kittens that I couldn’t get out of my mind as I meandered up and down the market aisles, haphazardly tossing hot dogs, apples and cereal into my cart. When I left the store forty-five minutes later, the redheaded girl was still there, minus one kitten.
“May I look?” I asked.
I pushed my grocery cart with four brown bags out of the way of the entrance and knelt over the box. The kittens were sleeping, curled up like miniature donuts. I petted them all, but one purred so hard in response that my hand vibrated.
“That’s Fred,” the girl explained with authority. “He’s the lover.”
After dashing back into the store for kitten food and cat litter, I drove home with Fred on my lap. I realize now how crazy that was, had Fred decided to dart under the brake pedal. But he didn’t. He seemed to know that I was taking him to – as they say in the pet world – his forever home.
Ethan stared at me like I’d gone mad when I arrived home and held the kitten up for him to see, my groceries baking in the back seat. He wore his flying attire: khaki pants, chambray shirt and navy suede bomber jacket with “Buchanan Field” embroidered in yellow block letters. I handed him Fred, who proceeded to crawl up onto Ethan’s shoulders, leaving a trail of orange fur on his clothes.
“Ca! Ca! Ca! Ca!” Ella screamed and pointed.
“That’s right,” I said, lifting her up so she could pet him. The kitten tolerated her tiny jabs, but didn’t purr like he had before. From the beginning, Fred always preferred me.
“Well,” Ethan said, “I suppose it’ll be good for Ella to have a brother of sorts.”
Fred had a short kittenhood, only occasionally darting around the house like a feline on speed, only a few times scratching a roll of toilet paper into shreds. For the most part, he’d been an old tomcat soul, preferring to sleep on our bed most of the day snuggled around the pajamas I slept in the night before, something I always left out for him to enjoy.
Whenever I was actually in bed, Fred had a position to match every one of mine. If I slept on my back, he nestled into the triangle between my cheek and my arm. If I rolled onto my stomach, he planted himself in the V my legs made. It was a slumber ballet.
After losing Riley, I spent weeks in bed, pure grief, guilt and weakness preventing me from getting up. Fred, of course, loved it, purring for nearly two weeks straight. But one day, he seemed to decide that it was time for me to at least try to resume living. He jumped down off my bed with a thud and settled into Ella’s room on her extra twin bed. Concerned that I hadn’t felt him next to me for hours, I ventured out of bed in my long-unwashed sweats. When I found Fred in Ella’s room, he jumped down and led me into the kitchen. I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the first thing other than chicken broth and saltines I’d eaten since Riley had died.
There’s a talk-show interviewer on television who, in a series of static but probing questions, asked celebrities what profession other than theirs they’d like to attempt. I often mulled this over on the twelve-minute commute to my office at the real estate agency. Not one celebrity on that show had ever replied, “You know, I’ve always wanted to sell houses.”
Traveling along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, passing a lagoon on one side, I pondered this not in aggravation but in surprise. Although agents have to deal with clients’ indecision – and in some cases, maneuver the nuances of marital and other complex relationships – overall, being a real estate agent is a great job. You get to truly help people. I have seen family bonds solidify by settling into a home that, once and for all, finally worked for everyone. And you’re never stuck in an office all day. Plus, you get to tour a lot of homes. Name one person who doesn’t love to do that – to be a fly on the wall of someone else’s life, to imagine the dinners they’d cook in a world class chef’s kitchen with the Sub Zero fridge or the leisurely breakfasts they’d enjoy on a redwood deck with a three-million-dollar view of San Francisco’s waterfront.
When I’m eighty years old, scanning back on my life, my sadness and regrets, there’s one thing I will never doubt: that I was meant to be a real estate agent. When I was young, I didn’t dream about or even actively pursue a career in real estate. Like many people, I fell into the industry while trying to earn some spending money at a brokerage firm the summer after college. But once I got there, it stuck.
I quickly found that I had a special talent: I could set foot in any house and tell you about the owners – and not just the relatively obvious things like whether they were uptight or messy, homebodies or travelers. I could see deeper, astonishing things. Cracks and grooves in the walls. The shade and hue of rugs. The seemingly innocuous layout of furniture. Nearly imperceptible smells. These things told me whether the family was happy. I could tell which couples were in love, which families attended church together, which adopted their children.
Once, a young couple was charmed by a San Anselmo Tudor owned by a successful dentist and his wife. It featured impeccably groomed front landscaping and a flawless precision in details that carried on inside the house. For example, cabinet interiors revealed silver and china stored in barely wrinkled plastic, placed, it seemed, in exact three-quarter-inch intervals. Sinks were dry as bone. Every carpet fiber seemed to stand at attention. My clients, especially the young woman, loved the home’s clean-lined feel. But something about it – the operating-room cleanliness, the museum-style presentation – gave me the willies. I didn’t need to talk the couple out of purchasing the house because they were outbid anyway. But it turned out my willies were warranted: two weeks before escrow closed, the dentist shot his wife in the master bedroom.
My clients have told me that it’s uncanny. On a quiet and cosmic level, I sensed instantly which bidders would be happiest in a home. And when I represented buyers, I pointed out small, nearly unnoticeable quirks in a house that charmed them. A few years ago, one couple was searching for an ultramodern home – two dishwashers, state-of-the-art media room, wireless everything. We toured dozens of homes in the wealthy enclaves up and down the Marin County stretch of Highway 101. But in one, I pointed out a single old-fashioned feature that had been preserved through all the modernization: a 1960’s black wall phone tucked into the kitchen corner with a pull-out slab of wood that served as a seat, a relic from the days of phones with cords. On the wood, all around the phone, previous owners had penned in phone numbers, including those outdated phone numbers that included letters. That quirky little corner, adding an element of history to an otherwise decidedly twenty-first-century home, captivated the wife and they bought the house the next morning for well over the asking price.
In the world of San Rafael real estate, Tuesday was brokers tour day. So I spent the morning after Dr. McQuitty’s news driving around cul-de-sacs and boulevards with names like Autumn Drive and Chestnut Road. I listened to National Public Radio, stopping only once between house tours to dash into Starbuck’s for a soy latte.
Sometimes, if I saw a familiar car in the parking lot, I held my cell phone to my ear and, as I ordered and waited for my latte, pretended to be on a call so I didn’t have to chit-chat with whoever it was I knew in the shop. I used to be mediocre at chit-chat, but since my son died, I was plain rotten.
As I approached the counter, I grinned and lifted my chin in a lukewarm greeting to a colleague who was waiting for her own coffee. In my fake cell phone conversation, I played the listener, peppering the conversation with nondescript “uh huhs” and “is that so” questions. My colleague smiled back, not revealing her teeth.
Not two seconds after I returned to the car, my cell phone rang. I let out a small, incredulous laugh, grateful that the call’s timing hadn’t revealed my anti-social charade. Caller ID read “Nina Cell.”
“What’s up?” she asked. Like me, Nina was forty-one. But everything about her – from her fire-engine red dyed hair to her flowery tattoos to her heart of gold – made me feel younger whenever I was with her. A preschool teacher and my best friend, Nina regaled me almost daily with stories of her sixteen three-year-olds. We met fifteen years ago when my client sold a condo to Nina’s mother. Nina accompanied her ultra picky mom to every showing and while her mom inspected drawers and peeked under the corners of rugs, the two of us chatted. We had virtually nothing in common – I was married, she was not; I was a driven industry professional, she contentedly worked with puppets on her hands. But we just…liked each other. Nina was one of the few people I preferred to talk to on the phone – with almost everyone else, e-mail or texting sufficed.
In fact, Nina herself was enough for me now. A different person might have embraced the outpouring of support from friends and acquaintances that inevitably comes after a child dies. In fact, a different person might have clung to it. But I couldn’t. I pushed it away. I resisted. The friends I’d had, the parents at our school, our neighborhood acquaintances must have felt rejected. But engaging in their efforts, no matter how kind or well-meaning, would have made what happened to Riley – and my own part in it – real. And I didn’t want it to be real. So Nina was – and had been – enough.
I especially loved Nina after Riley. She wasn’t afraid to mention his name or tell me stories about her preschoolers, knowing that he would have been one of them this year. She didn’t tiptoe around what happened, didn’t pretend it wasn’t there, cloaking me all the time. She knew about what had happened between me and Rick. She thought she knew the whole story – she knew enough, though.
“Nothing,” I said, taking the first, matchless sip of my latte. “On a quick coffee break between houses.”
“I won’t keep you. I just had to tell you my latest DSW. It’s too good not to share before you see it for yourself.”
DSW was our code for “Dirty Scrabble Word.” We played online Scrabble, mostly via our cell phones, every day. As with most things, we were exquisitely well matched. I’d won seventy-four games. She’d won eighty-two. We’d even managed to have four draws. But the real fun was in our side game: seeing who could lay down the most dirty words that were actually accepted by the official Scrabble dictionary.
“Bring it,” I said.
“Boner – I can’t believe that one’s never come up before,” Nina said and belted a hearty laugh. “Ah, ‘come up!’ I didn’t even plan that.”
“Most excellent,” I agreed, dabbing errant latte foam from my mouth with a brown paper napkin. “On another note, Nina,” I began, adopting an over-exaggerated serious tone, “I think I’m in love.”
A beat. An intake of breath. “Not Rick again,” she said, part question, part instruction.
“Anderson Cooper.” I told Nina about an enjoyable dream I’d had after falling asleep while Ethan watched CNN the night before.
“What?” I asked, annoyed that she didn’t share my celebrity crush.
“You know he bats for the other team, right?”
“You’re wrong,” I insisted, putting my latte in my car’s cup holder and starting my engine.
“Swear. Google it. I’m sorry.”
“Dammit,” I said.
“I feel like I just killed Santa Claus.”
After we hung up, I continued to drive from house to house in San Rafael for the Tuesday brokers tours. Ella would tell you how much she hates our town. She’d never told me this, but somehow I knew. She’d tell you it was unimaginative, identical to every other big-city suburb. But what was unimaginative is where I grew up. About thirty miles south of Marin, Daly City was loaded with run-down donut shops, muscle gyms and bowling alleys, the proud home of virtually nothing. Even though they couldn’t afford much, my working class parents were savvy enough to put their limited funds toward tuition at a private school about fifteen miles north in a nineteenth-century mansion on Broadway in San Francisco. My classmates were doctors’ kids and descendants of prominent, legacy City families. I quickly learned why my friends politely declined my sleepover invitations: none of their parents wanted to schlep out of the City to one of the Bay Area’s most non-descript, borderline unsafe cities.
San Rafael, on the other hand, offered a pleasing mix of shopping malls with upscale, brand-name stores and plenty of parking spaces. It had ranch-style, colonial, Tudor and cabin-like homes with backyards that were large but still close enough to neighbors to build relationships and community. Marin’s highway might have been peppered with fast-food chains, but highbrow restaurants serving the finest and most innovative organic and sustainable local cuisine were a stone’s throw off the main roads. Huge corporations were headquartered in San Rafael, doing business not from high rises, but from comfortable low-level offices on hilltops, some with wide electric roofs that actually opened like a window. San Rafael was most certainly not the fanciest of Marin County’s cities – and that’s one of the reasons Ethan and I liked it – but it had solid public schools, safe streets and a decidedly less fussy vibe than, say, Kentfield or Belvedere.
As I headed east on Fourth Street, I spotted the vivid royal blue top of Marin’s civic center building. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the building was featured in the movie Gattaca, reminding me of the implications of my fertility quest every time I drove past it. The canvas tops of stands set up for the lunchtime farmers market held in the civic center parking lot made my stomach rumble despite my latte. Off to the right crept San Francisco’s fog line.
On the brokers tours, I did what I’d tended to do since I went back to work after Riley died: I pretended that each home I toured was actually mine. I approached slowly, giving myself time to envision all the little details, like how early in the morning I’d stroll to the driveway’s end to retrieve the morning paper and what I’d be wearing. Would I be carrying a thermos of coffee? Would a spaniel dance at my feet? After getting the paper and heading back through the front door, who would be inside? A different husband? Another child? Riley? A perfect and lovely silence or a broken-hearted one like where I lived now?
Despite my experience and training, I fell for the seller’s staging every time. I got sucked into the Bon Appétit magazines placed affectedly on the counter next to a perfectly folded dishtowel and coffee mug. The marble floors and Jacuzzi tubs had me fantasizing about relaxing, candlelit evenings in the bathroom. Devouring the novels on the nightstands – always the classics I’d meant to read – and leisurely baking were how I’d spend my time in the house. Flat-screen TVs, comfortable patio furniture, shabby chic decor. On the Tuesday brokers tours, I test-drove someone else’s life.
On that day, I visited a new house on the market – a double-wide lot on Meriwether Lane. Spotting the “Little Bears Dad” sweatshirt air-drying in the laundry room off the kitchen, I could tell that the sellers had a kid at Nina’s preschool. I wandered outside to see the carriage house across the lawn. Blades of grass peaked through my slides and tickled the edges of my feet. A squirrel scampered up a tree. What I expected to be staged as an in-law unit or home office turned out to be a playroom. The salty aroma of play-doh accosted me as I opened the door. But the bookshelf was what made me woozy. On prominent display, in that staged, open-house way that I normally loved, was One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.
For Riley, I could not have read that book too many times. Whether it was the toddler brain’s need for repetition or a particular enchantment with Dr. Seuss’s nonsensical story, One Fish, Two Fish had neared non-stop play in our house. He preferred my readings, but would take Ethan’s or even Ella’s if I was unavailable. To him, no one could say “So, if you like to go bump bump, just jump on the hump of the wump of Gump” quite like I could. It was akin to me being his only source of sustenance while breastfeeding. While I relished his squeals and claps, I also hated that book sometimes, like when he’d meet me at the door the nanosecond I arrived home from work, my throat already scratchy from long meetings with escrow officers and clients. As a greeting, he’d simply hold up the book and instruct, “Read!” After he died, Ethan wisely tucked away our dog-eared copy and I hadn’t seen it since.
I approached the bookshelf feeling as if I were the protagonist in a film or documentary. I watched myself as I was about to rip open a wound, one still so raw that the surrounding pus was barely dry. The book cocked in my direction as I pulled at a corner of the neighboring Green Eggs and Ham. Before the whole title and fish drawings were fully visible, I pushed it back.
No fish, no Gumps. No child.
I ditched the rest of the house tours and went home to tackle the boring but distracting task of culling through my lone box of old maternity clothes. I’d been noticing pregnant women and new moms on the streets of Marin and realized that so much had changed in even the few years since I’d had Riley. Sleek and streamlined strollers looked like they came right out of a Jetsons episode. The fashionable and elegant diaper bags would have fit in on a New York runway. Belly bumps were now hugged tight by t-shirts rather than draped by flowing jersey tops. Although some women going through fertility treatments might not have wanted to jinx the process, culling through my existing stock of clothes was a decidedly hopeful choice for me.
I pulled a large blue plastic bin from a high shelf in our garage storage room, a place I normally didn’t enter for fear of winter slugs and the occasional tiny mouse that had been spotted there. I balanced the bin precariously on the top of my skull as I maneuvered around Costco-sized bags of toilet paper and paper towels on the floor. Immediately outside the storage room door, I dropped the bin with a thunk onto the concrete floor of the garage. I decided to view the contents right there. Not only did I not want to schlep the heavy bin into the house, but the garage was where I stored donations for Goodwill and I could quickly shuffle the bin back into the storage room if Ethan or Ella returned home sooner than expected. Considering I wasn’t even pregnant yet, let alone big enough to think about maternity clothes, I wasn’t sure what either of them would have thought of my spending time on the task. I imagined that Ethan would point out that fact, but still offer to help. Ella, on the other hand, would probably slink silently into her bedroom and close the door – her usual MO.
I opened the lid and smiled involuntarily as I spotted the first item. It was a gift from Ethan when I was pregnant with Riley: a green maternity t-shirt that said, “Look what Daddy did!” in big brown letters right over the belly. I made two piles – keep and donate. Classically cut wool dresses stayed. Maternity jeans with too-light washes and manufactured distressing: out. At the bottom, I discovered a collection of beige and white nursing bras folded neatly in a sealed plastic bag.
I wondered whether, if I was lucky enough to have another child, I would enjoy breastfeeding the way other moms I knew apparently did. The days my children were officially weaned were two of the most liberating, joyful days of my life. My body had finally been returned to me after nine-plus months of pregnancy and six months of nursing.
My intense feelings about the process went beyond sore nipples, engorged breasts, sour milk stains on pillow cases. I felt…invaded. I resented that another human being could only be soothed by me, only by my bodily fluids. I felt self-conscious, not so much that my boob was exposed here and there, but that in lifting my shirt to latch the baby on, anyone could see my pale, rubbery belly. I almost never felt that lovely, hormonally blissful feeling that many mothers talked about. I mostly felt dehydrated and irritable.
But every once in awhile, maybe twice with each child, I’d be nursing while lying on my side, my head resting on an arm extended over my head, my hand petting the baby’s petite skull, cupping it with my palm and fingers, the baby releasing a satisfied breath through teeny tiny nostrils… Every once in awhile, when I laid like that, I inhaled and felt as though I might sail straight to the ceiling like a helium balloon, lighter than air.
That the Concord Airport was located on Christa McAuliffe Drive was a sad irony not lost on Ethan. Before Riley’s death, the doomed teacher-astronaut’s name was a helpful, if sobering, warning to be careful, to be safe when he was flying. But after losing Riley, Christa McAuliffe’s name simply reminded Ethan of the sickening fact that tragedy was unavoidable. Christa McAuliffe’s family survived, so will mine, he insisted to himself whenever the horror of losing his son overwhelmed him. But Ethan still felt sorry for himself and sorrier for Riley than he did for Christa McAuliffe. At least she had gotten the chance to live – a lot. A grown woman when she perished, she’d experienced the thrills of love, education, even international fame. At twenty months, little Riley… Oh, God, Ethan couldn’t bring himself to imagine the life that wasn’t lived.
In an effort to drown those inevitable melancholy thoughts during his commute, he turned up the volume on the CD player in his Camry and awaited the distinctive, Southern twang of Dr. Phil. Damp morning air swooshed through the window, which he always cracked a half inch no matter what the weather. To Ethan, the Bay Area always smelled faintly and pleasingly of fireplaces and fruit.
Jenny sometimes reproached Ethan about his penchant for self-help audio books. “Whatever keeps me going,” he’d reply, trying to mask his defensiveness with an unperturbed tone, silently promising himself a secret cigarette if he didn’t explode at her.
Together, they’d intended to get the full course of grief counseling. They actually rallied three weeks after Riley died to drag their bodies out of the house to attend a group session. Held at a community center in the next town over, they’d sat among elderly widows and adult children who’d lost parents. No one there had experienced the kind of tragic, unspeakable loss they had. The others actually recoiled as Ethan relayed to the group who they were mourning and why. Ethan had to physically prop up Jenny, who had slumped forward nearly onto the floor. They never went back.
Now, Jenny spent every bit of her little energy keeping herself together, so Ethan believed that leaning on her in his own grief was selfish and impractical. Plus, how could he lean on her when she was, at least in part, what he needed help coping with? The prospect of voicing his…suspicions…about her had felt uncomfortable before. But once Riley died, those doubts drastically diminished in importance, along with nearly everything else that had previously worried him. Keeping his family together had become primary – proving his hunches about Jenny true by confronting her was absolutely contrary to that goal. So audio self-help books would have to do. Nearly two years later, he still listened at least a few minutes every day.
As Ethan approached Buchanan Field, Dr. Phil – or the hard-ass, as Ethan nicknamed him – melodiously made happiness seem simple, achievable, not too far out of reach. “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment,” Dr. Phil insisted. A chuckle escaped Ethan involuntarily. The wisdom of that statement struck him as fierce. He wished he’d said that to Jenny the other night when she’d told him they needed to try IVF again. “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” – or something to that effect. Instead, all he’d offered was a powerful embrace and a weary but heartfelt, “We’ll try again. We’ll try as much as it takes.”
Though he’d never tell Jenny, Ethan wasn’t convinced a new baby was the best cure for mending their family. Just imagining it troubled him. A new son would undoubtedly be compared to sweet Riley. If he resembled Riley, Ethan would barely be able to look at him. Yet if he didn’t look like Riley, it would break his heart. The comparisons would be unfair to both Riley and the baby. And if they had a girl? They’d continue to feel cheated that they’d forever lost their one little boy.
Ethan had already become urgently protective over Ella since Riley’s death. He fantasized about hovering closely behind her with a shotgun, not unlike a Secret Service agent protecting a First Daughter. Ella was, of course, his first daughter, now his only child. He couldn’t bear to lose another. He stopped taking her flying. He wanted to bolt the house doors shut, with Ella inside. An utterly helpless newborn might be more than he could bear. On the other hand, Ethan had also acquired a cynicism after Riley died. He told himself that another child would give him a backup, a spare, should his family ever face the unspeakable prospect of another lost child.
But for now, Ethan’s bigger concern about a new baby was Ella. Jenny’s obsessing about getting pregnant was tearing her up – Ethan could see it even if Jenny was too preoccupied with fertility to notice. He’d observed that not once in two years had Ella looked her mother in the eye. Instead, she’d glance in the mirror while reporting on her latest good grade (since her brother died, Ella had received nothing lower than an A-). Or she’d inspect a non-existent bug bite on her elbow while asking whether she could have dinner at Hope’s. If she had to look at Jenny’s face, Ella focused on the square of her mother’s chin. Yet, Ella was still able to look at her dad, to rest her sad, brown eyes on his. For whatever reason, Ella seemed less concerned about his forgiveness than Jenny’s.
Once, Ethan mentioned Riley’s name when he and Ella were tidying up the kitchen after breakfast.
“Remember the crumbs Riley used to leave everywhere?” he asked her.
Hearing her brother’s name spoken aloud, Ella paused wiping the countertop and glanced over her shoulder to ensure that Jenny wasn’t in earshot. Then she smiled, an expression that had become so rare Ethan wished he could capture and preserve it so he could savor it later, whenever her silence and withdrawal saddened him. “I do,” she said. “You eventually stopped putting the vacuum away in the closet and just left it out. It was getting so much use.”
Father and daughter regarded each other for a moment. A warm, unspoken charge hovered between them, a moment that he hadn’t similarly witnessed between his wife and daughter in years. Ella turned back toward the counter and resumed cleaning.
At the airport, Ethan signed paperwork for his flight, a quick jaunt to Reno, shuffling a wealthy Orinda chiropractor to his monthly guys’ weekend in a comp’ed Harrah’s suite. He knew the man the way a supermarket check-out girl knew the stay-at-home moms – who chose organic, who settled for preservatives. Ethan was relieved that he wouldn’t have to chit-chat on the forty-five minute flight – like clockwork, the chiropractor would spend fifteen minutes reading The New York Times, then snooze until they landed in Nevada.
Twenty-five thousand feet high, auto-pilot activated, Ethan peered downward out the cockpit’s left-hand window, mulling, as always, over the ways he could glue his little – heartbreakingly little – family back together. Below, the 680 freeway ribboned its way toward the 80 heading east into the Sierras. Cars traveled at remarkably metered paces, dutifully stopping at red lights as they exited the highway. It struck Ethan as game-like, stopping and starting, waiting one’s turn. Bright-colored Hot Wheels maneuvered by pudgy, dimpled hands.
Is this, he wondered, what Riley sees from heaven?
Back on the ground after returning from Reno and then shuttling a state senator from the East Bay to Santa Cruz, Ethan walked alongside the tarmac from the airport’s administrative building to the coffee shop for a late lunch. A 1970’s relic, it was a classic American diner, complete with metal chairs supporting mustard-yellow vinyl cushions, heavy porcelain coffee mugs, waitresses in full uniform and the best, most buttery grilled cheese sandwich in the Bay Area. As he approached the coffee shop, his phone rang.
“Hi, Jen,” he answered.
“Eth, I’m glad I caught you,” she said hurriedly. “I’ve got Dr. McQuitty on the other line. Do you have a minute?”
Ethan stopped walking and turned his back to the diner so the smell of crispy grilled potatoes wouldn’t make his stomach grumble more than it already was. He’d been fantasizing about grilled cheese and potatoes since Santa Cruz. Though annoyed, he’d wait a few more minutes if Dr. McQuitty was involved. A reproductive endocrinologist, a fancy term for “fertility doctor,” Dr. McQuitty was one of the few people who had been able to make Jenny feel better since Riley’s death and, for that, Ethan revered him almost as much as Jenny did.
“Sure,” he said, leaning against the coffee shop’s outside wall.
Jenny conferenced Dr. McQuitty on the line.
“Hello, you two,” he said in his avuncular manner. “As we approach a new round of IVF, I like to talk with my patients about what might be going on. ‘Going on’ not just biologically, but emotionally too.”
Emotionally, Ethan wanted to snap, we’re wrecks. We lost our son. Our daughter wears sadness and guilt like a poorly concealed talisman. We’re aging rapidly. Our family is on the brink. Bring us some good news, Doc, Ethan wanted to say, because that’s what’ll help us emotionally. He also wanted a cigarette. Badly.
“You two are what we call ‘subfertile,’” Dr. McQuitty continued. “That means you’re having difficulty conceiving after already having had normal pregnancies. As you know, we’re stimulating Jenny’s ovaries to increase egg production, surgically extracting eggs. In your case, I’m nabbing as many as possible, more than the norm, from the ovary, fertilizing them and reinserting them.”
“Yup,” Ethan said, accidentally talking over Jenny’s eager, “Go on.” The smells of grilled potatoes wafting outside gave way to the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. He tapped his right foot impatiently.
“What we find is that partners who are anxious to conceive sometimes experience – ultimate irony, here – sexual dysfunction and marital discord.”
We are not your average subfertile couple, Ethan wanted to remind everyone. I’d like to see the rates of sexual dysfunction and marital discord among couples who’ve lost a child, he thought. Through the roof, he predicted.
It was true for them. Aside from a brief, inexplicable stretch a few months after Riley died, Jenny’s interest in sex was purely serviceable. While he longed to be intimately close to Jenny again, Ethan didn’t have much sex drive either. And marital discord? It was more like a slow, lumbering detachment. So far, Dr. Phil and his colleagues were of little help in that department, other than keeping up Ethan’s determination to preserve his family.
“Now these are not hard and fast rules here,” the doctor continued, “and I have a list of resources to help you. But typically what we’ve found is that women tend to feel responsible for everything bad that happens on the fertility roller coaster and sometimes they withdraw if they feel they’re disappointing their spouse. Men, meanwhile, can feel overwhelmed by the intensity of their partners’ emotions.”
“Uh huh,” Jenny said in what sounded to Ethan as less of a confirmation and more a simple urging for the doctor to continue.
“In your case, you mustn’t think that having a new baby will eradicate grief or magically align the grief processes between you two,” Dr. McQuitty added in a softened voice. “Fortunately, the fertility community has reported distinct benefits of alternative therapies: acupuncture, massage, yoga, anything couples can do to relieve tension. Many of these things you can do together…to foster closeness, to battle these divisions and stresses that arise between couples doing IVF. And couples therapy is certainly encouraged. I imagine…I hope…this is something you’re already doing given your family history.”
“Uh huh,” Jenny lied, before Ethan could respond.
“Again,” Dr. McQuitty said, “I’m not suggesting this kind of emotional clash is how it always goes with IVF….”
No, Ethan longed to say out loud, no, that’s exactly how it’s going.
If you’d like to find out what happens to Ella, Jenny and Ethan, Cheer: A Novel is available on Amazon.