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The Instant When Everything is Perfect
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One

Mia

Mia Alden is running late because she worked out too long at her club, showering fast and almost bolting out of the locker room without combing her hair. As she passes the last bank of mirrors, she stops and looks at herself. Her mother Sally will be very disappointed with her if she shows up at the hospital looking wet and spiky haired, her face sticky with lotion. So even though Mia knows that her toilette will force her to speed on the freeway all the way from Monte Veda to Walnut Creek, she opens her bag and pulls out her comb, her blusher, her lipstick, smoothing and brushing herself into a decent picture, one her mother will approve of.

Sally Tillier, Mia’s mother, has never left her house without lipstick on, her hair brushed, her clothes neatly pressed. Sally takes walks around her retirement community neighborhood, wearing carefully ironed pastel blouses and khaki pants. Mia, who manages to care and not care about what people think about her, often shops at the Safeway in ripped sweatpants and paint spattered t-shirts. Sometimes (especially now because she’s on sabbatical from her university professorship) she goes to the post office and bank without combing her hair, her short hair a bright blonde whirl on her head.

She cringes when she runs into someone she knows, which is often, because she and her husband and two boys live in the town she grew up in. Most of Sally’s old friends still live in Monte Veda, as do Mia’s former Girl Scout leader, Sunday school teacher, and many of her friend’s parents. And there they all are, it seems, at the post office every time Mia runs in to mail a manuscript to her agent or editor, all of them wanting to know the story of her adult life and to tell them about their children, the children who are now adults, like Mia.

Mia is not a natural beauty. She is the kind of person who can become beautiful when she puts on the right clothes (the kind that shape and smooth her round flesh). She is fond of dark jersey knits and raw silk. She can draw her face into a kind of stunning glamour that washes off at night. When she talks to crowds, she moves fluidly, and every semester, one or another of her students falls in love with her. Mia imagines that when the semester is over, they must wonder what kind of sick enchantment came over them, something powerful enough to develop a crush on a slightly overweight, middle-aged woman.

Her husband Ford says she is a cutie, or, at least, he used to. She can’t quite remember the last time he said those words, holding her tight, whispering, “You’re my little cutie.”

Maybe this is what happens to all long marriages, she thinks. They simmer into friendship, no matter what you do. When she asked Ford a couple years back to go to counseling because things seemed flat, he said, “What do you think we’re supposed to act like at this age?”

Maybe he just couldn’t sustain the habit of endearments. After all, he met her twenty-two years ago when she was thin. At the post office, she’s not cute, not even close.

But today, Mia decides that her mother’s appointment is not the time to test Sally’s patience, so after a wild, fast drive, she sits in the exam room with her mother. Her hair is in order, her lips slightly red and shiny, her eyelashes darkened, her cheeks rosy. She wears black jersey knit pants and a red sweater that, she realizes, shows some cleavage. Now, in an exam room full of medical drawings of mastectomies, she wonders if cleavage is insensitive.

Sally is on the examination table, which is a table unlike any Mia has ever seen. Or, at least, it’s set up differently, the back raised high to support the patient’s back, the sitting area small. In another galaxy, Sally would seem ready for take off, the only thing missing from her sitting position a headset and space suit.

Sally rests her feet on a footstool, clutching closed her hospital gown that hangs huge on her small frame. Even though the cancer is not making Sally feel ill, she seems to have lost weight since last week, her face tight and drawn and gray, the bones just under her thin skin. But though tired, she’s still elegant, crossing her long thin legs on the table, hitting the back of the table with her left heel, as if the repetitive noise will keep away feeling.

Mia has tried to do her best to keep her fear in check ever since Sally called last week.

“I’ve got bad news,” Sally said. “It’s cancer.”

Without warning, Mia began to cry, saying, “Mom. Oh, Mom. This is—I don’t like this.”

“Now really,” Sally said, her voice crackling and tight, the voice she used throughout Mia’s childhood when there were fights and squabbles about clothes or the phone or the car. All three sisters knew that once Sally spoke like that, her words were a noose that could squeeze tight.

So Mia stopped crying, leaned against the wall of her kitchen, and listened to Sally’s plans, everything already divided up into time squares that would be dealt with in precise chronological order.

This is just one of the reasons that makes Mia believe she’s a changeling, a baby wrested from her natural mother and given to a woman of opposite temperament and body type. For months at a time, Mia doesn’t live in chronological time, living in her stories and novels and poems, thinking about them when she’s teaching at the university or at a movie or making dinner.

“Don’t bug Mom,” she heard her oldest son Lucien say once to his younger brother Harper. Mia was sitting on the couch in the living room, a pillow on her lap. She’d been walking somewhere—to her bedroom or the kitchen—and just stopped and sat down to imagine what her characters might do if . . .

“Why?” Harper said.

“I think she’s writing,” Lucien said.

If Mia still lived at home, Sally would have said, “Don’t just sit there. Go clean your room.”

It’s not just the temperament issues. There’s the parade of physical differences. While Mia’s younger sisters Katherine and Dahlia are tall, wide-hipped, small breasted, long-legged, fine-limbed, delicate like Sally, Mia is like the Polish relative everyone forgot about. She is shorter than her mother by two inches, full-breasted, short-legged. Her wrists and ankles are strong and thick, her fingers round, her body smooth with flesh.

Mia has studied her mother’s and sisters’ bodies since she was nine, noting all the differences. Their collarbones are prominent, straight from throat to shoulder. Hers are arched. Their necks are long and elegant, hers short and full. Their faces are round, hers oval. Their feet narrow, hers wide. Their eyes are so brown they are almost black, hers are gold. Her hair is curly and blond, theirs is straight and, at one time, jet black. Sally went gray at 39, Katherine and Dahlia following suit. Mia’s blond hair is still blond, not a wiry gray hair on her head. Her mother and sisters are nearsighted, all wearing glasses since childhood. Mia has 20/15 vision, is able to make out an exit sign from a half mile off.

Sally was a chemist before marrying David, Katherine is a pathologist, Dahlia an accountant. From as far back as anyone can remember, Sally’s relatives have been doctors or physicists or scientists or business people. Mia writes novels, short stories, and poems, and teaches literature and writing. She’s “the creative one,” a phrase that is always spoken in hushed tones around holiday tables.

And because her father David died when Mia was nine—just when she began to see how different she was—his family is lost to her, all of them dead before David died, nothing but old letters and death certificates and tombstones, no one left to spearhead a search for long lost cousins across the country. A few old photographs show large women tucked into corsets filled to capacity, their noses—like Mia’s—slightly large. But there are no pictures of collarbones or ankles or wrists, these ancestors wrapped in dark silks and muslins from neck to foot. The mystery of who Mia is died with them all.

“I wish he’d hurry up,” Sally says, her dark eyes turning to the nasty slits that in former times would send all three girls running to their rooms. “This hospital. Killed your father. Killed him dead. And this doctor? Groszmann. I hate that name. He spells it funny, though. Anyway, I know too much German to like it. Your grandfather was one hundred percent German. He never had an accent. Not that I remember.”

“Mom,” Mia starts.

“The least he could do is be on time.” She clutches are her robe.

Sally doesn’t look at Mia as she speaks, and for the millionth time, Mia wonders how Sally could have possibly given Mia her name. Mine. It has always seemed to Mia that Sally should have waited for Katherine to use her favorite name. Katherine is the favorite, and she’s not even the baby. Already, Sally’s been boasting about how Katherine read the slide of her biopsy, finding flaws in this hospital’s report. Certainly around the time of the operations, Katherine will fly in from Philadelphia and move next to her mother’s bedside as if she had been in Mia’s position all along—through the first appointments with the Breast Surgery Nursing Coordinator, the surgeon who had initially told Sally that the mass looked “Just fine,” and now this appointment with the plastic surgeon.

Katherine will read the chart, say, “Why did they do that? I’m going to ask right now.”

She will order the nurses around, and then resort to flirting with the doctors—male or female—to get the information she needs. For the moment, that instant, she will be the strong daughter, the able daughter because in a crisis, Sally won’t look too closely at her. Katherine keeps herself for enough away from Sally to avoid being the favorite, to avoid being seen. Katherine is bisexual, though Sally does not know this or pretends to not know it, despite the long years of Katherine coming home alone for vacations and holidays or having excuses of why she can’t visit at all.

Dahlia will be at Sally’s condo with her two children Matt and Mike, her husband Steve staying at home in Phoenix to mind their accounting business. Dahlia, the youngest, will clean and cook and buy new sheets for Sally’s king-sized bed. She will stay just long enough to get Sally comfortable, and then leave, soon followed by Katherine, who will bark out orders in her modulated doctor voice, a voice she must have developed during med school because she certainly doesn’t have to worry about how her patients will react now, all of them dead. Mia will bathe her mother and take her to the toilet and clean her wounds.

“Mom,” Mia says, “it’s just a name. Groszmann is very common.”

Sally rolls her eyes. “I don’t want this. I want them cut off and be done with it. Over. Finished.”

“You haven’t even watched the movie. You don’t know what the doctor will say either,” Mia says.

“I don’t need to know what he says. I know how hospitals work. Don’t forget how I had to be on top of everything with your father. Doctors don’t read slides the way they should. They don’t pay attention. They don’t care.”

“That was a long time ago--” Mia begins.

“Some things never change,” Sally finishes, looking at Mia hard.

There is a quick knock on the door, and then it opens slowly. Dr. Groszmann comes in, almost apologetically, as if he’s interrupting something very private—or he isn’t sure he belongs. Mia understands this stance immediately and finds herself blushing. A blush that starts on her chest and pushes its way up to her forehead. She smiles, hoping that the doctor will imagine she is always this color. Or maybe he will think she’s just run in late, flushed from trying to find parking and running up three flights of stairs.

But he is blushing, too, and even though she can’t see her own face, Mia thinks that they both must be the same, rosy red.

Sally shuffles on the table, her gown crackling, and she flashes her dark mean eyes at him.

“My appointment was supposed to be at 3.30.”

Dr. Groszmann stops looking at Mia, and his face becomes even redder. “I’m sorry. We’re a little backed up today.”

Mia thinks to say, “A rush on reconstruction?” But she doesn’t because she can’t find her voice. She looks at her red Giraudon shoes.

“Mrs. Tillier.” He looks at the chart and holds out his hand. Sally’s eyes widen and she looks up at him and shakes his hand. In that second, Mia can see how scared she is. Mia is scared, too.

Since her mother called, Mia hasn’t wanted to think of what cancer means, what it has always meant to Mia, ever since she was nine and her father died.

How can her mother really be sitting here with cancer? Can it be possible that her mother might die from it? Even though her mother is prickly and very different than Mia, Sally is constant, the voice Mia hears in her head despite herself. She’s the first person Mia calls when something good or bad happens.

“Well, yes,” Sally says, pulling her hand back, adjusting her gown. “Who else would I be?”

Dr. Groszmann turns to Mia, his face paler now, his mouth in a slight smile. His skin is smooth except for a trio of wrinkles at the corner of each eye. She wonders why he doesn’t slip into a colleague’s office and get shot full of Botox during his break. Wouldn’t anyone working in a plastic surgery office be tormented by the tyranny of perfection?

She can feel her stretch marks under her sweater. Her thighs spread onto the chair, both prime candidates for liposuction.

“I’m Mia Alden. Her daughter.”

“The pathologist? It’s here on the chart that the slides went to a daughter.” He seems excited, just like all the left-brained people are when they hear the call of their own. Like Mia’s whole family at Thanksgiving or Christmas talking about beta-blockers or nanotechnology.

Mia shakes her head. “No, not the pathologist. I’m just a writer. I’m not on the chart.”

Dr. Groszmann—it only says R. Groszmann on his white lab coat—blushes again and holds out his hand to her. His hands are red and slightly dry looking, almost painfully so—probably from washing before and after surgery—but strong and soft. Mia lets go quickly.

“Nice to meet you.”

“Thanks.” Mia sits back in her chair, and R. Groszmann sits on his stool, opening the chart again and then looking at Sally.

“So you are going to have a bi-lateral mastectomy?” He asks the question. It isn’t a question at all but fact. Sally stares at him.

“There’s only cancer in one breast.”

Sally shakes her head. “I’m not coming back here in five years and going through this again.

Doctor Jacobs said she herself might do the same thing in my position.”

The doctor crosses his legs. “I understand. So have you given any thought about what you’d like to do in terms of reconstruction?”

Mia can’t help it. She touches one of her breasts. She likes her breasts. At this point in her life, Sally’s breasts have turned into little more than two nipples with a pad of flesh underneath them, barely an A cup. Maybe a double A. For many years, Mia wanted her mother’s breasts—or her sisters’, really. Both Dahlia and Katherine have perky little breasts, the nipples just at the rise before the downward turn. Teenaged breasts. Katherine, of course, hasn’t been pregnant or nursed a child, so some of her uplift is from lack of use. But Dahlia returned to her pre-pregnancy shape within weeks of weaning both the boys. And neither she nor Sally has the crosshatch of silvery stretch marks that Mia does.

But Mia would miss her breasts, the way material hugs them, the way they are always there when she looks down. She can still see her boys on her left nipple, the one she weaned them both from. It wasn’t on purpose. She just must have started their last suck on the right, and then put them on the left, their toddler mouths latching on for that final time.

She looks down now and can see first Lucien and then Harper, eyes closed, tongues tasting the last milk.

Ford likes them too, sucking and kissing them when they make love. One amazing night he began sucking them when she was asleep, and she woke to an orgasm from his pulling, tugging lips alone. When she’s awake, though, she is sometimes annoyed at his suckling, wondering why it’s men who have this solace all their lives, women weaned from comfort before they can even remember it.

“I’m not going to be talked out of having them both come off.”

“I—“ he starts.

“Both off. And then I want some nice breasts. I want to look okay in a t-shirt.”

Sally has always laughed about her breasts, saying they were barely there. Now and then, she turned to Mia at a picnic or dinner party and whispered, “I’m not even wearing a bra. Imagine that.”

Now, Mia thinks, she’ll have to take her mother to the lingerie department at Nordstrom to buy some bras. Maybe some with a little under wire and lace.

Dr. Groszmann smiles, writes something in the chart, reads a little more. “Have you seen the reconstruction movie?”

Sally waves her arms. “Of course they were out of everything down at Health Services. They said they’d call, but they never did.”

Dr. Groszmann nods, his eyes flicking to Mia and then back to Sally.

“Let me go over your options,” he says. Mia leans in, wanting to know the options, too. Dr. Groszmann sits back and looks at Sally. He is very good-looking but a bit thin. A runner. A workaholic. Too thin for her, of course. It’s possible she weighs more than he does. What does she weigh now? 150? She doesn’t get on the scale these days. In fact, the last time she got on the scale was in the week before Harper was born—more than sixteen years ago--and she tipped the scales at 197. He weighed 10 pounds, twelve ounces, but still. 197.

Dr. Groszmann weighs what? Maybe 160. Probably less. He would get lost in her bones and flesh, pulled down into her vortex. He’d be sucked into her and made invisible. They’d have to send the search and rescue hounds, she thinks, almost laughing. She puts a finger to her lip and avoids the doctor’s gaze.

“There’s immediate reconstruction, which would commence the moment the mastectomy was over.”

Sally nods, the immediacy attractive to her. Mia watches her mother’s lips, sees them twitch in an almost smile at the word. Immediate. Like everything should be. Tears should be over immediately. Grief? Gone. Worry? Vanquished in a second. Move, move, move. You don’t know if you want the dress, the boyfriend, the college, the job? Well, forget it.

“Delayed reconstruction can take place weeks, months, if not years after the mastectomy,” Dr. Groszmann continues, detailing the potential drawbacks to both the immediate and the delayed. And as she listens, Mia realizes she’s lived in the drawbacks. Too soon, too late. Too fast, not quick enough. She’s been like Sally and then too much like herself, stuck in the fear of moving at all.

“You’re telling me the skin could die?” Sally asks. “The skin could die?”

“It’s a rare complication, but yes.” Dr. Groszmann looks at Mia. “The skin gets its nourishment from the chest wall. If there is an expander between them, sometimes the skin can react. And if this reaction necessitates treatment, that could put off the chemotherapy. And if you are going to need radiation—which I think is unlikely—I won’t be able to do an immediate reconstruction at all.”

“So what do you recommend?” Mia asks, knowing she is supposed to be asking questions. That’s her official role here, the witness, the advocate.

Dr. Groszmann looks at her, his eyes tired but very blue. He pushes his long brown hair (nicely tied in a ponytail) away from his forehead. In that second, Mia blushes again. He sees her, and his skin pulses rose.

She looks at her red shoes.

“Your mother,” he begins, and then turns to Sally. “You seem to be a very practical person. What I’m hearing from you is that your lifestyle is more important to you than time spent in recovery. You like to walk in your neighborhood. You want to travel. To be with your grandchildren. Reconstruction on top of a mastectomy will necessitate a longer recovery. And we haven’t even talked about the stages or types of reconstruction. My recommendation based on hearing what you’ve said to me and to your surgeon is a delayed reconstruction. After your treatment for breast cancer. When you have time.”

Sally leans forward, listening closely. Mia tries to pay attention, too, focusing on the doctor’s face, listening to his words. She’s here to pay attention, to ask smart questions, to help her mother make the right choices, but what she really wants to do is ask the doctor questions such as, “Are you married? Would it bother you that I am?”

She wonders what is wrong with her. She wonders if she’s insane. Here she is fighting the urge to flirt with her mother’s plastic surgeon. Her poor mother is sitting on this funky table, her left breast filled with moderately differentiated infiltrating and in situ ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer that has spread and breast cancer that is waiting to spread.

“Fine,” Sally says, her voice flat. “I’ll have a delayed reconstruction. But I want to know everything. Everything about it. And don’t tell me to watch the damn movie. The woman down in Health Services seems to be functioning on half a brain cell.”

Dr. R. Groszmann smiles again and almost winks at Mia. Mia feels the heat in her body and shifts on her chair. He leans back against the cabinet filled with gowns and boxes of tissue and cotton balls and latex gloves, and begins talking.

After he is done telling Sally everything, Dr. Groszmann asks her to take off her robe. He pulls a measuring tape from a drawer in the cabinet and scoots closer to the examination table. All of this, the position he takes in front of her mother’s bent knees, the way his face is directly in front of Sally’s breasts, seems too intimate. Sally’s long lovely back is arched, her head turned toward the window, her breasts as perky as they’ve ever been, nipples erect.

Mia is uncomfortable suddenly, sad, though she knows that she shouldn’t be. Her mother would be the last to want someone else’s hands on her body. Sally doesn’t need a man to tell her she is beautiful, but just seeing the evidence of a life untouched this way makes Mia want to jump out of her chair and run out of the room. Her left leg starts to twitch, the plastic back of the chair digs in her back. She doesn’t understand how her mother can live in this beautiful body and not long to be touched, to show it off, to enjoy the connection with someone else. Maybe Sally pretends to not care that for thirty-three years she’s been alone, but it makes Mia want to throw herself down and weep.

In another universe, Dr. Groszmann brings his lips to Sally’s nipple and sucks, pressing his face and forehead into her chest. In that same universe, Sally smiles, pulls him close, and somehow, they manage to fold this table into a place they could lie on. In this universe, Mia is not in the room, just as she was never in the room when Sally pulled her father close. In the thirty-three years since David died, Sally has—as far as Mia knows and, of course, she might be wrong—never sat in front of a man like this, her breasts pushed out, her nipples tingling, her head bent away in supplication. Even though this is an exam, an important one, Sally’s willing body makes Mia want to cry, to call out for the doctor to notice how beautiful her mother is, Sally’s skin pale and unmarked and lovely. She wants to tell Dr. Groszmann to worship her, to lower the table, to make love to Sally right now, but, of course, Mia doesn’t. She looks at the floor, not wanting to see her mother’s swan beauty, her untouched flesh, her imperious smile.

Dr. Groszmann makes comments to Sally, but Mia adjusts her gaze, noticing the pigeons outside the window, the building opposite, the grey sky hovering over the dry hills.

Flower

Out in the hall, Sally stands next to Dr. Groszmann’s medical assistant, arranging for future appointments. She is supposed to watch the movie and then come back to tell the doctor her firm decision. Sally needs to decide soon because her cancer surgery is in two weeks, and if she changes her mind and wants an immediate reconstruction, there will be further measurements.

Mia leans against the wall, moving out of the way when a clerk pushes a basket full of charts past her. She looks down at the charts, the folders held together with colored tape, the names written with dark black pen. So many sick people, all reduced to words. Soon, her mother will turn into a chart like this.

“She’s a great candidate for reconstruction.”

Mia gasps, looks up. Dr. Groszmann stands next to her, a chart in his hand, another patient, another cancerous breast.

“Oh, that’s good news. Good news is nice.” Mia breathes deeply, trying to hold the wall of blood urging itself up her chest again.

“Yes,” he says, pushing his hair back, a habit, Mia can see, because there’s not a strand out of place. He looks at her, and then cocks his head toward the hallway. “Well, see you next week.”

He holds out his hand again, and Mia takes it, his skin already familiar. She blinks and considers how even if she weren’t married, she would never ever sleep with a plastic surgeon. Her stretch marks chide her. Her thighs laugh. Her wrinkles crow.

“Right. Next week.” She lets go of his hand, and he walks down the hall. He turns back to her, and she sort of smiles, sort of moves her hand in a wave. Then he knocks on a door and begins all over again what he did in the room with Sally. Another blush. Another mother/daughter wanting answers.

“Christ,” Sally whispers, taking Mia’s arm as they walk toward the exit into the waiting room.

“What?”

“Crap HMO. They hire the most illiterate to run the show. Doctors don’t do anything to keep the boat afloat. Did you see that girl’s teeth? Crooked and brown. Obviously no dental plan here.”

“Mom,” Mia says, pulling her mother to a standstill. “Did you get your appointment?”

“Yes, of course. Do you think I’d leave here without it?” Sally starts walking again. “It’s Monday, if you can believe that. And I have the blasted movie to watch before then. You need to come watch it with me. I’ll make popcorn. We can pretend we’re having fun.”

Mia looks at her watch. Harper will be home from school. Of course, that doesn’t mean much now that he is 16, can drive himself to his tutor and drama practice, but she still needs that cut-off time of 3.30, a way of telling everyone she has to leave, running from curriculum meetings or lunch dates or shopping trips. And when she gets home, Harper is usually not there anyway, so she pours herself a glass of wine and reads the mail.

And though Mia knows this is wrong, she needs to get away from Sally. From this hospital and all its problems. From the cancer.

“Harper is home, Mom. I’ll come get the movie tomorrow. We have till Monday.”

Sally opens the door and they walk past the seated women.

“Eleven percent,” Sally mutters as they stand in front of the elevators.

“Eleven percent what?” Mia asks.

“Women who will get breast cancer. You need to make sure you check yourself. Every month. Don’t forget the mammograms. And ask for a sonogram. After the doctor thought he felt a lump, that was the way they found mine, you know.”

The elevator doors open, and they walk in. Five years of mammograms didn’t catch Sally’s cancer, though, her breasts small and dense, the flesh the same color on the film as the cancer hiding in her milk ducts.

“I feel fine,” Sally announces. A man next to her raises his eyebrows.

“Of course you do, Mom.”

“I don’t feel like I have this glop growing in me. You know, that’s what the surgeon said. She said, ‘Look at this gloppy stuff.’”

The doors open on the second floor and the man rushes out. Mia slaps the ‘close door’ button.

“Katherine would know why it’s gloppy, Mom.”

“I wish she were here now,” Sally says, her voice a sigh. Mia swallows, knowing well the sound of that longing.

“She’ll be here for the surgery. So will Dahlia.”

“Yes, I know.”

The doors open into the lobby, and they leave the elevator.

“I hate this place,” Sally says, looking at the scuffed carpet.

Mia takes her mother’s arm, knowing that they will hate it even more before this is over.

Flower

When Mia gets home, Harper has already left for his math tutor. She stands in the kitchen, staring at the counter, smiling as she imagines his afternoon routine. He’s left a frozen burrito wrapper there, and the TV remote is on the dining room table. She can see the ghost of his after-school self sitting there, watching the history channel, biting the burrito without looking at it.

Unlike Lucien, Harper is a child of habit, though no one would know this from looking into the hump of clothes, papers, books, and magazines on the floor of his room. But he’s methodical in terms of what he does when he comes home, the minutes he spends eating, watching TV, sitting on the toilet with a book, doing homework, playing computer games. Mia can tell time by the sound of him in the bathroom in the morning, by his hard-heeled walk on the hardwood floor coming into her bedroom to say goodbye.

Maybe he became this way because for his whole life, his brain has misfired on him, turning words backward, numbers upside down, making whole sentences his teachers speak undecipherable. She used to think that Harper in a classroom was like herself in the Paris metro, speaking a French so horrible that she ended up buying a week pass when all she wanted was a ticket to get her to the Gare du Nord.

He’s been in the resource class since second grade, and now even though he gets good grades and reads for pleasure, he knows that failure can come up suddenly and pull you down without warning.

While sometimes Mia wants to weep when she thinks of what Harper has gone through just to learn how to read and add and multiply and type, most of the time she thinks of him like a lion, running through life without fear, despite the thorn in his paw.

Lucien is not like his predictable brother, instead a wild boy, lazy and brilliant, reading all of James Joyce as a freshman and flunking algebra twice. He majored in LSD and marijuana until his sophomore year when Mia and Ford admitted him to an outpatient rehab program that the entire family went to for a year. Now he’s at a very liberal college in Washington state, majoring in literature and writing a novel. He calls her to talk about Ayn Rand, Richard Brautigan, and Niestze; he calls to ask her for money. He smokes only cigarettes now, though, and his written grade reports from his teachers are admiring. After reading phrases in the reports like “he might consider writing book reviews for a little side income,” and “extremely productive, “ and “strong poetic voice,” Mia imagines that Lucien is finally happy, able to stop seeking for the thrill that the drugs gave him.

Both her boys are beautiful, dark and tall and slim like their father, even if their brains seem to be like Mia’s.

Mia breathes in and then the phone rings. She looks at the clock, knowing it must be Ford, calling her from his car, stuck somewhere on the Bay Bridge or in the Caldecott Tunnel. Traffic, lately, has become his way of life, forcing him to pull over in Oakland or Emeryville for a drink while the rest of the suburban folk idle and swear in lines of hot cars. But it’s not Ford.

“How is the old girl?” Kenzie asks.

“Fired up. Bitchy. Complaining.” Mia takes the phone to the dining room table and sits in Harper’ seat. Kenzie’s phone is scratchy, as if Mia’s best friend is calling her from a cave. Kenzie calls her from everywhere she can get a signal, though, tops of ski resort runs, the Eiffel Tower, a river in Colorado. Mia met Kenzie during Mia’s first class at Cal, Kenzie working at the time in the public relations office at the university. She came into Mia’s fiction workshop for photos of students hard at work.

“Oh, come on!” Kenzie said to Mia’s students. “Character development can’t be that serious. Your teacher looks harmless enough. Smile for god’s sake! The camera won’t bite you.”

Now as a freelance photographer, Kenzie travels all over the world and always wants to share everything with Mia, regardless of where she is. Mia sometimes thinks that since Kenzie took Mia’s photograph that ended up on Mia’s first novel, they are bound for life, connected through eyes and image.

“Well, that’s good. That’s great, really. What did the doctor say?”

“Where are you?” Mia asks.

“In the basement. Something’s gone wrong with the plumbing again.”

“Oh.” Mia sighs.

“Well?”

“He was nice. Gave her the options. She has to decide by next week when she goes in for her second appointment.”

“Was she scared?”

Mia closes her eyes, trying to forget Sally’s horrified face when Dr. Groszmann told her about the side effects of immediate reconstruction.

“Yeah. It’s not really as easy as they’ve made it sound. You know, go in, come out with perfect breasts. There are a lot of steps.”

“I’m sure it’s horrible, but I’d go Dolly Parton.”

“What?”

“I think she should get giant ones. Make up for all those years of flatness. I would.”

Mia shakes her head and spins the TV remote on the smooth oak table. “No, you wouldn’t. You like running around without the iron hands of a jog bra. You like your sexy boyish look in a white t-shirt.”

“You’re right. But I’d think about it.”

Kenzie shrieks, says, “Hold on,” and Mia can hear running water. As she waits, she wonders how to bring up what happened in the doctor’s office besides the reconstruction talk. All these years, Kenzie has told her date stories, but Mia has never started off the conversation, never had anything to say. Never embarrassed herself like she did this afternoon, her face turning the color of sunburn whenever Dr. Groszmann spoke to her.

“God,” Kenzie says, back and panting slightly. “Plumbers. So what else happened? Then I’ve got to go.”

“Well, the doctor was nice.”

There is a hitch in the conversation, and Mia can almost hear Kenzie smile. “My god! You slut.”

“I know. It was sickening.”

“What does he look like?” There is a bang, the sound of metal on metal. A door slams.

“Too thin, too long-haired, too soft-spoken.”

“You want him. Shit! There’s a foot of water in here. God damn it. I’ve got to go. Listen,” Kenzie says, and Mia listens. “Are you there?”

“You told me to listen.”

“Smart ass. Sally girl is going to be fine.”

“I know,” Mia says. “She always has been before.”

“I’ll call you later. First I need to swim out of here. Bye.”

Mia clicks off the phone and stares out the window at the bird feeder. An angry flock of purple finches screams at each other, and Mia wonders if she should take the feeder down. Last year, she got rid of the hummingbird feeder because of the aerial wars two males engaged in the entire summer, buzzing right by people on the deck, swooping past with their high pitched needle-beaked whines. Despite everything she knew, she couldn’t help but imagine a guest lanced through the cheek by a bird drunk on sugar water. So she took down the feeder, pretending not to notice the two males sitting on opposite branches for weeks, waiting.

She stands up and walks over to hang up the phone, the plastic suddenly heavy in her hand. Of course, Kenzie is right. Sally will be fine. She has to be. Both doctors think there is little chance the cancer has spread to her lymph nodes, and the cancer has taken years to grow, a slow, plodding cancer. Even Katherine agreed. When Mia complained to her sister that the surgeon was going to wait three weeks to operate, Katherine sighed.

“Oh, don’t get dramatic. That cancer is going no where.”

“How can you tell? Can’t something escape right now and sail up into her lymph nodes and get spread around just like that? How can anyone say one little cell isn’t going to make giant headway in three weeks?”

“Look, I read the initial path report. Carefully. This cancer isn’t going to be more than stage one, stage two at the most.”

“How can you tell that from a piece of paper?” Mia asked.

Katherine sighed again and started talking in that condescending, slightly exasperated doctor voice Mia hated. She talked about aggregate dimensions of the sites and surgical margins and mitotic activity. After a few minutes of this, Mia gave up and decided to believe her sister. Why not? Sally was Katherine’s mother, too, and if Katherine thought it was okay to walk around with cancer in her milk ducts, who was Mia to argue?

Mia walks into her room and stares at her bed. Since she’s been on sabbatical, she hasn’t taken one single afternoon nap. Not one. Usually during a semester, she would find herself sneaking in here at 3, falling down on the bed and sinking into a deathlike slumber until Harper came home. Since she isn’t reading student papers or going to meetings or driving to campus, she isn’t tired in the afternoons any more. But today her body feels like someone has scrubbed it clean with steel wool, her insides jittery and quaking and trembling. As she stands at the foot of the bed, she has sharp, quick worries about Sally, then Ford. There seems to be more wrong than what’s on the surface, than what’s obvious. Her heart races. Her eyelids ache. Her stomach pulses. With her coat still on, she sits down and then lies down, closing her eyes against the afternoon light. In a minute, she is asleep.

Her dream makes no sense because she does not play baseball or like baseball or think about baseball, not ever. The game is as far from her mind as the NASDAQ or quantum physics. But in this dream, she is on a team that has recently hired a player with a disability. Someone tells this to Mia, and she nods, knowing about disabilities. She thinks with a sudden, quick pain about Harper and his reading difficulties, and turns to look at this person in left field. She can feel her gasp in her head and body. This person is covered tight in some kind of white plastic wrap. Underneath the covering, Mia can see this person move, arms and legs shifting. In a way, the movements of this person’s body under the wrap remind her of what her stomach looked like in late pregnancy when the babies turned, a wall of arm pulsing across her abdomen.

Suddenly, a ball cracks off a bat and flies high. It’s headed right toward the wrapped person, and somehow, the person catches it. She watches the person, her gaze coming closer and closer to him, his very body making her feel like she’s trapped and suffocating. But she can’t stop watching. All his body parts seem to scrabble around inside the wrap as he tries to find the ball. And then there is stillness. The person has found it, a round lump under the wrap. Mia finds herself moving closer to the person, staring at the ball right there on the person’s chest, when suddenly, she is the one in the wrap, she is the one that can’t see, can’t hear, can’t move freely, and then she wakes, gasping, her heart pounding against the cage of her ribs.

Ford and Harper are at the table, finishing the last of the chicken pelaponese. As Mia picks up the empty dish from the table, Ford smiles but his eyes focus on the kitchen wall as he talks.

“That was really good,” he says, twirling a fork on the table, his face vacant.

“Thanks,” she says, taking a plate to the sink and turning on the water. But what she really wants to say is, Where are you? What Mia wants to know is what he won’t tell her. But because this weeknight family dinner is rare—he’s often traveling for business during the week—she doesn’t want to start something they can’t finish, pulling Harper into the mix.

“Mom?” Harper says.

“Yeah?”

“I need twenty dollars. My English class has adopted a family in Oakland.”

Ford sits back in his chair and looks at Harper. “Don’t you usually do that at Christmas?”

“Mr. K forgot. So we decided to do it for Easter.” Harper puts down his fork. “Oh, not Easter. We have to call it a spring break gift. In case they’re like Muslim or something.”

Ford puts his hand into his back pocket and pulls out his wallet. He arrived home late as he often does these days, and he’s still in his suit pants and white button-down shirt. His tie curls like a snake on the kitchen counter next to the colander. His dark bangs stand up straight from his forehead.

“Here.” He slides a twenty across to Harper.

Harper nods, his eyes on his plate. “Thanks.”

“I wish someone had adopted us when we were in college. Or even later. We could have used a benefactor,” Mia says, thinking about the apartments they lived in, the worst one just after Harper was born. The plumbing drained right into the ground below the house. Mold grew like wild green hair in Mia’s shoes in the closet.

Ford shakes his head and wipes his mouth. “You are such an exaggerator. It wasn’t that bad. Don’t make this into a scene for one of your novels.”

She knows he doesn’t like to think of those days, so long ago and so different from how they live now. In fact, when she brings up the stories of the horrible apartments and the horror of months with thirty-one long days between paydays, he quickly changes the subject. But back then, surrounded by moldy shoes and parades of ants coming up through the floorboards, how could either have imagined this house in Monte Veda, Ford’s wonderful job with Baden Randolph Myers? When Lucien was a toddler and Harper a baby, how could they have envisioned Mia at the university and then an author? Maybe they had dreams, but the reality was night school and buckets of dirty cloth diapers, disposable too expensive to buy.

And strangely, they are living the dream they both conjured up so long ago—two healthy children, a nice home, plenty of money, great careers. But somehow, they forgot to think up later dreams, other goals, future plans. What is the story for their old age? What are their plans for five, ten, twenty-five years from now? It’s as if the plot of their lives stopped, leaving them where the sequel should begin.

Mia opens her mouth as if to ask, but then thinks of Sally and David. Maybe it’s best to let the future stay a blur. In case it doesn’t even show up.

Harper finishes eating and stands up. He unfolds forever, his body long and lanky, the tallest Alden boy, taller than Ford. He is on his nighttime path, homework, IMing his friends, shower, sleep. He doesn’t seem to notice his parents, but he touches Mia’s shoulder as he passes her at the sink. Her baby. Her last baby, a man now.

“So how was it?” Ford asks, his elbows on the table. “What’s your mom going to do?”

Mia sighs. “She has to decide by Monday. But it looks like she’ll wait to heal from the first surgery before she goes ahead with the reconstruction.”

“Does the doctor seem good?” Ford takes his last sip of wine, stares at the empty glass, and then pours another to the top of the thin, crystal glass.

“He’s nice.” She shrugs. She looks at her husband. His shirt sleeves are rolled up, the neck of his shirt open. If she were to squint, he would be the young man she met her sophomore year of college, the one who rode his bike in winter wearing shorts. He would be knocking on her apartment door, asking if he could borrow the phone, he and his roommate upstairs too poor to get one for themselves.

He was the first man to want her so aggressively, asking her out over and over until she said yes. And if she’d been disappointed with how it felt to be with him in bed, everything else about him made up for that lack of feeling. His kindness, his warmth, his desire for her, his commitment to their “unwanted” pregnancy, of Lucien. What a wonderful father he was, is, always has been, to both Lucien and Harper.

Sometimes before bed, Ford undressing slowly in their room, sighing about something from his day, Mia wants to ask him where he is. Where have you gone? she wants to say. Who are you now? She wants him to ask her, too. Maybe she would tell him then how she feels, but his sighs pass without her saying a word, and then they are in bed and then they are asleep.

But she knows she really doesn’t have to change anything about their marriage. It could go on for years just like this. He is a good man, a lovely man, even if most of the time, she feels as if she is sleeping with her brother.

Once Kenzie said, “It’s a myth that one person can give you everything you need. Is one person supposed to keep you mentally and physically challenged at all times?”

“That’s the way we’ve decided it should be.”

“There’s always self love, sweetie,” Kenzie said, laughing. “There’s always a quickie at the Harlot Hotel.”

Mia snorted. “There’s not a lot of support out there for going elsewhere for sexual pleasure. We call that adultery.”

“So? And anyway, here’s the other thing. Honesty is overrated. Don’t forget that. Say it over and over to yourself over and over before you leave the house in the morning.”

Now, as Mia looks at Ford, she knows that if she ever tells him the truth, if she ever says, “You know, Ford, I love you so much. But I want something. I’m not sure what it is really. A feeling. A pulse. I think I want to go outside our marriage for sex. You mean well, but you just don’t do it for me,” she thinks it would kill him.

Ford takes her hand. “It will be okay. Your mom will be fine.”

She looks at her husband and hopes he’s right. She hopes it all will be okay.

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Note from the author coming soon...

About Jessica

Jessica Barksdale Inclán's debut novel Her Daughter's Eyes, published in 2001, was the premier novel published under New American Library's new imprint Accent. Her Daughter's Eyes was a...

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Published Reviews

Feb.15.2008

CATCHY SNIPPET: What if you could change the flow of time? Mila Adams can do just that. An exhilarating adventure ensues when she meets a man with a very similar talent. Will they discover the source of...

Jul.28.2008

Being with Him
Jessica Inclán Zebra, $13 paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-4201-0112-6

In Inclán’s sweet but sometimes silly trilogy opener, finding a soul mate is child’s play compared to discovering...