The breakdown lane, p.1
For Patty and Patti,
One mom, one mainstay,
And for Jeanine, forever pal and body double
Though this story is entirely a product of my imagination, and any errors of fact my own, multiple sclerosis is a real and vicious disease, a thief that each year randomly robs strength from 50 percent more women than men in the prime of their lives. For helping me understand its ravages, I thank Rebecca Johnson, Bob Engel, Sara Derosa, and Sarah Meltzer. Linda Lerman gave me advice on advice. Dan Jackson helped me understand dance. I thank the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois, without which no book of mine ever would have been written, and where portions of this one were written in spring of 2004. Grazie to Roberta, Ed, Steve, and John for their candor on the subject of breaking up and to the three kind women who told me of the hopeful and sometimes vexing world of alternative communities. Good buddy Kathleen graciously looked at Julieanne’s poems. My friend and editor, Marjorie Braman, with her piano tuner’s ear for words and phrases, the divine Miss Kelly, who has made every book a cause for celebration, the finest publisher I know, HarperCollins, and my cherished agent, Jane Gelfman, for twenty-two years my reliable tether to reality, deserve Purple Hearts all around for putting up with me. I owe much to Pamela English, my assistant, my heart, and part of my own intentional community, and send love also to Franny, Jill, Karen, Kitt, Joyce, Stacy, Gillian, Karen T., Laurie, Bri and Jan, Clarice, Emily, Cathy G., Mary Clarke, and Esa. My magnificent sons and daughters and my gentle husband, Chris, you are all the center of the center of my heart.
But for D.C.B.A., my own “Gabe,” this one is especially for you.
But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy;
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.
FOUR Gabe’s Journal
SEVEN Gabe’s Journal
NINE Gabe’s Journal
TEN Gabe’s Journal
TWELVE Gabe’s Journal
THIRTEEN Psalm 55
FIFTEEN Gabe’s Journal
SIXTEEN Gabe’s Journal
SEVENTEEN Gabe’s Journal
EIGHTEEN Proverbs 24
NINETEEN Gabe’s Journal
TWENTY Gabe’s Journal
TWENTY-ONE Second Samuel
TWENTY-TWO Gabe’s Journal
TWENTY-FOUR Gabe’s Journal
TWENTY-FIVE Gabe’s Journal
TWENTY-SIX Gabe’s Journal
TWENTY-SEVEN Psalm 78
TWENTY-EIGHT Gabe’s Journal
THIRTY-ONE Gabe’s Journal
THIRTY-TWO Psalm 37
THIRTY-THREE Song of Solomon
THIRTY-FOUR Gabe’s Journal
THIRTY-FIVE Gabe’s Journal
THIRTY-SIX Psalm 65
About the Author
Other Books by Jacquelyn Mitchard
About the Publisher
by J. A. Gillis
The Sheboygan News-Clarion
I’m getting married next summer, to a man of another nationality. Both families are very happy, but there is a problem. His many female relatives—aunts, grandmothers, and sisters—must sit in the front row, as is their right. As descendants of the Masai in Africa, they are very tall. My family is Japanese-American. We are small—in number and in size. My father is only five feet four, my sisters less than five feet. The wedding will take place in a hotel ballroom with chairs set up in rows. We did not want to have a “bride’s” side and a “groom’s” side, because we want this to be a true blending of families. However, I know that the women in my fiancé’s family are going to wear large, decorative hats (I don’t mean ceremonial headdresses, as these are African AMERICANS of many generations, but what my fiancé refers to as “church-lady” hats, which are the size of our wedding cake). This will make them even taller, and so no one except my mother and father will be able to see me during the ceremony. I don’t want to suggest that they “move to the back of the bus” for my family. So how can we avoid slighting anyone on our special day? Given the disparity of heights, the wedding dance will also be very awkward.
Nervous in Knudson
This is a matter of some sensitivity, since tensions on a wedding day can leave a bitter taste that can linger for years. But nerves? You’ve already probably got the once-in-a-lifetime jitters every bride endures. Don’t add this small opportunity for creativity to your checklist of stress. With the same joy of life you’ve already demonstrated by your beautifully bold choice to mingle cultures, craft a circle of joy. Ask the staff at the hotel to place the wedding chairs in a wide circle with the first row reserved for the principal members of both families and the rest of the chairs in staggered rows behind, so that each person, regardless of heights, will enjoy a wonderful view. Guests will be escorted through a small opening, the same place your groom will enter with his parents, a few moments before you enter with yours. Make the altar or other ceremonial platform in the center “a round,” also—perhaps exchanging your vows facing in one direction, conducting the ceremonies of rings or candles facing the other, with the transitions gracefully made to instrumental music or song. As for the dance! No one feels awkward at such a happy affair! Think of all the aunts and grandmas you’ve seen dancing the polka in groups of five!
Let’s begin at the end of the beginning. The first moment of the second act of our lives.
It was ballet class. It was the second class of the week, made up of dance combinations and mat Pilates. Steady on the studio floor, I was ready to begin my final stretches. I remember that, a wonderful feeling. I was spent, but pleasurably, my hips not so much aching as aware they’d been asked for something strenuous. This class, and my weight training were the times during my week I felt freed from strain, just shy of pure.
I extended my right leg along the floor in its customary turnout—posturally correct, erect on my sitz bones, a little bit smug, but trying not to glance around me to observe that other women, even younger women, noticed the way my flexibility still came easily—and leaned forward for the hamstring stretch.
What I saw when I looked down horrified me so much that my mind scrabbled away from me, across the birchy floor.
What was it?
Numb shard of bone? Foot clawed birdlike, in spasm?
Worse. It was…nothing.
Nothing was different than what I’d seen when I sat down five seconds earlier. It was only my leg, my ordinary leg in the unsoiled glove of my unitard (the silver one my youngest daughter used to call my “mermaid clothes”) still bent in a forty-five-degree angle at the knee, my pointed toe nestled against my thigh.
Doesn’t sound like much, does it?
You have a right to expect more of terrors. Sharp, single shriek on a silent street. Pea-sized lump your finger grazes as you soap your breast. Tang of smoke in the still air, footsteps’ rhythm matching your own, i
But think! A thing so huge it will dismember your world can be invisible. It can be a germ. A scent. It can be an absence.
You see, I had felt my leg open smoothly, like a knife with a well-balanced mechanism. But it had not.
A cascade of thoughts, like the fountain from a child’s sparkler, showered over me: the phantom limb phenomenon, the precursor to a stroke, a paralysis caused by some virus. My first instinct was to scream. Instead, like any sane person, I tried again.
My leg refused.
Metallic, icy sweat burst from my pores, bathing my face and neck, painting gleaming half-moons under my breasts. I dampened like a true mermaid in my “mermaid’s clothes.” From the corner of my eye, I glanced at my friend, Cathy, who took the class with me, as her arms branched and she arched down over her own leg. Her eyes, closed in concentration, suddenly flipped up, like one of those old venetian blinds, as if she’d heard a crack, a clap, as if I truly had screamed. She looked at me, quizzically, one eyebrow a beckoning finger. I grinned. I had just thought of it! My leg had gone to sleep. That was the matter! It happened to people. I grinned at her again. She smiled back.
I concentrated harder, and then watched my leg extend, slowly, creeping along the floor. But no longer like a part of my body. It felt like a robotic arm that I was operating for the first time. The outer edge of my thigh tingled, feeling like what I remembered of an acupuncture treatment I’d once had, to allay cramps. Somehow, I finished the stretches, no one but me noticing anything odd.
I kissed the air in Cath’s general direction, skipped coffee, and went home.
My husband, Leo, was lying on the floor, his back propped over his spine-alignment device, his laptop balanced on his belly—at that point, a trifle convex, since he’d gained a little weight. At such times, Leo never seemed overjoyed to see me come in, flushed and refreshed from class. It must have felt like a reproach.
“Lee,” I said, “my leg feels funny. It did something in class.”
He lowered his John Lennon readers. “It did something?”
“I can’t explain it, but yeah.”
“You’re too old for that class, Julie. Why you have to contort yourself, what you’re trying to prove…I’ve said this a hundred times….”
“No, it’s not that!” I protested, “Margot Fonteyn danced professionally into her fifties. Leslie Caron—”
“You’re not Margot Fonteyn,” Leo said, “and you’re not Leslie Caron.” But then, before I exploded and told him to go to hell, he went and Leotized me, just as he’d done for almost twenty years. “I always saw you more as the Cyd Charisse type, da legs and de attitude, too, a midwestern gun moll with a checkered past. You know?”
“Shut up,” I told him, already charmed.
I looked over his head, outside to our neat and rustic yard with its boulders and perennials, to where my son Gabe, then—what?—thirteen? Anyhow, too old to be doing what he was doing, hanging upside down from a branch, swinging dreamily like some daylight bat, the smile on his face so rapturous it stopped short of goofy. He was wearing thirty-dollar Dockers, special-occasion pants, the kind of clothes a kid would wear to church if we were the kind of family who went to church regularly. There was no reason for him to be wearing them; he had only one pair, and it was late spring. They simply must have been the first thing Gabe saw. He was ruining them. Back and forth, he swung, lithe and odd as a lemur. Something about Gabe, out there, alone in his solitary but never lonesome-seeming world, suddenly felt so precious but fragile.
“Leo,” I all but whimpered, “Leo, if I get the arnica, will you help me rub this? I can’t quite reach where it hurts. It doesn’t exactly hurt, really, so much as…”
He said no.
He said, “No, Jules. Come on. You keep on pretending you’re twenty, you’re going to pull a hamstring. You can rub your own leg. I’m busy.”
“Leo!” I said. “Get over it! I need your help here.”
“Julie,” Leo-my-husband murmured softly, “what you need to work on more is salvaging the inside of yourself rather than the outside. People are so damned shallow. I think that every time I read another one of these”—he gestured at his screen—“complaints about a professor grabbing a graduate student’s butt.”
“We’re talking about my butt, Leo! Also my cardiovascular health. And stress relief. How the hell does my exercising get in your way? Ballet and Pilates are very inexpensive forms of therapy for my insides.” I added, “What, do you think the outside’s a lost cause? If you loved me, you’d carry me into the bedroom!”
“If I carried you into the bedroom, you’d have to carry me to the chiropractor,” he said, slipping his glasses back up into their proper position. Later on I would realize that not one but two cherce pieces of evidence had been offered to me on the same day, on a silver platter (and yes, here, the question, did a house have to fall on you, does apply). Something was amiss in my nervous system and in the ecosystem of my marriage. And I ignored them.
Now, English major that I am, I could suggest that if Nathaniel Hawthorne were writing this, he might have done a switcheroo: Gentle reader, we may now slip unobserved behind the back of our suddenly and unpredictably taciturn, nay may we say even hostile Goodman Steiner, and cast our own eyes upon that which absorbed his attention so fully, so attenuated his concentration away from the predicament faced by his woeful spouse…you get the drift: We could have seen whether Leo was really reading a sexual harassment complaint or, with secret and concealed passions, writing to AN INTIMATE.
Mine would be another word.
Slut springs to mind. Somebody who made Hester Prynne look like a Benedictine nun.
Perhaps Young Goodman Steiner was writing: “Julie’s just home; she’s finally hurt her leg badly in her ridiculous ballet class, and I’m sorry I can’t be more sympathetic. But $75 a week on exercise?” The reply would have come some minutes later (because true e-simul-chat was not ubiquitous back then). It might have read this way: “Oh Leo, and doesn’t she know that for that kind of money, she could save lives? Doesn’t she know babies are dying in Rhodesia?” (She, the intimate, wouldn’t have known it isn’t called Rhodesia anymore, because she’s so fucking dumb. Ignore that last statement, jury. It’s not only way too soon in the story for me to have known this, it was unkind. She’s not that dumb. She’s smart enough to…well…follow package directions.)
But, who can say what Leo was really doing?
Perhaps Leo was reading a sexual-harassment complaint.
Still, whatever the reason, he was acting weird. He was not the kind of petty bastard who would refuse to help a limping wife. Looking back, I can see that the way he behaved toward me that afternoon was the domestic equivalent of my thigh tingling in class. It was the trumpet call outside the gates from the enemy, signaling they would take no prisoners. And yet, how could I have known that?
What I did know was that my Leo would have shaken his head, and bitched a little bit more about my obsession with keeping up some vestige of my ancient girlish dancer’s fitness, and then gone into the kitchen and gotten the arnica. He’d have rubbed my leg, trying but unable to sustain his grouchiness, begun to enjoy the clefts, the topography of the muscles in my girl places, gradually giving in to a rueful, half-hitched Leo smile. He’d maybe even have flirted a little, though it would have been the middle of the afternoon, rubbed my butt until I pushed him away—but not too far away.
And so, I didn’t say, Leo, what’s wrong?
I didn’t plop down my things and snipe, You little shit. What are you, jealous that I can still do the splits and you sit around so much you can’t even bend at the waist?
Instead, I went into my room and, wobbling, removed my clothing, showered, rubbed the arnica on myself, and lay on my bed with my own laptop, opening my latest batch of letters, asking for advice, because giving advice
Isn’t that rich?
I gave people advice on their personal lives.
Me. The poster princess for willful self-delusion.
But I was Julieanne Ambrose Gillis. And as a Gillis, denial was my birthright.
My parents could drink themselves cross-eyed on a Saturday night and serenely check the waffles for just the right golden skin not six hours later, while a maid quietly and without expression emptied into a plastic sack bloated cigarette butts from highball glasses and splashed club soda onto the wine stains on the carpet. The maid would ignore the waffles and the stains, and we, my little sister Jane and I, would ignore the maid—although, most days of the week, she was our after-school friend and confidante. A post-Cheever Sunday morning was observed, however, with cathedral silence. My father, after all, had bearing. He was A. Bartlett Gillis, popular, bestselling, and yet grudgingly respected novelist, once chair of the fiction jury for the National Book Awards, an aside he managed to slip into three-quarters of his conversations, possibly because his books were historical and featured a serial character, and he wasn’t entirely comfortable with that. My mother was, like him, a nightly tippler and a weekend binger. But hadn’t they raised two lovely and accomplished daughters? Didn’t they regularly receive invitations on paper with a deck-led edge? Hadn’t they met the queen of England, who confessed a delicious appetite for my dad’s books? Almost single-handedly, by dint of publicity and connections, had my mom not saved the Malpole Library with its collection of Hopper drawings? What were a few carpet burns and a ginny stench that could be banished by throwing open the windows, along with the occasional bout of audible predawn retching, set against these achievements? Better just to proceed with breakfast.