“We get nudged back onto our life’s intended path, no matter which way we turn.” – CJ Zahner in a moment of inept optimism.
Chapter 1 The mistake
Two of the three women who have helped me hold my head above water for the past twenty years lounge on either side of me like two pin-pricked swimmies.
Neither of them realizes I’m sinking.
“Brittany is way too good for Jax,” one says.
My gaze fixes on the ground beneath six weeping arborvitaes that stretch their withering brown branches in every direction of one corner of my back yard. Inside my head, I stop hearing Jody’s and Ellie’s frivolous chatter about good girls who like bad boys and swear at myself for planting the can’t-see-you barrier between me and the neighbor who has turned my life upside-down.
I love her. I hate her. She’s ruined my life—and my yard.
Unlike the tailored suburban yards that line my street, mine busts at the seams with kinks. A swarm of sneaker imprints laughs at me from that large mucky patch of mud, which is sandwiched between the dying arborvitaes and my crystal-clear pool. There, a sludge so deep we’ve lost shoes in it usurps sun—to no drying avail.
My friends sit oblivious to my distraction.
They sip wine, Jody and Ellie, engrossed in a deeply-philosophical conversation about Vanderpump Rules and the Bachelorette. When once we discussed careers and politics, now we argue reality TV and detergents.
Our life goals have plummeted.
“I’ll give her that,” Jody says about our favorite Vanderpump star, Brittany. “She has a mind of her own.”
In post-college, pre-nuptial days, we vowed to change the world. But marriages, pregnancies, and seven kids removed us from the corporate world and catapulted us into play dates, health-club kiddie classes, and heavy drink on the last day of every school year.
This last vice is where we are now. All a little tipsy, but none of us slurring our words—yet. The afternoon is early. We have three hours before the kids leave academics behind and rambunctiously arrive home to spend every hour of the entire summer threatening our sanity.
“Reah said she was in the Miss America pageant,” Ellie says. They’ve moved on to the Bachelorette. “That goes against every grain of my being.”
“Used to,” I chirp. Mainly so they remember it’s my wine their drinking. Up until now, I’ve been removed from their conversation. Staying out of their pettiness for a bit somehow makes me feel better than them—saner.
“What do you mean used to?” Ellie straightens in her seat.
“You took your ten-year-old for a pedicure yesterday,” I remind her. “That almost makes you a stage mom.”
“Okay Mrs. Gotta-get-pom-poms-for-my-cheerleading daughter.”
“Gianna’s eleven. You can’t enroll an eleven-year-old in basketball when she wants to play with dolls and hammer out cheers.”
“You promised. You said if we had girls, they’d play basketball and run track and do anything but cheerlead.” Ellie states the truth. I had promised.
“Yeah, well, I said a lot of things before I was forced to tote three screaming kids into a store to pick up tampons and pain meds. An excursion like that thrusts life into proper perspective.”
“They’re in middle, high school, and college now. You should be over that.”
“I suffer PTSD from those trips.”
“Not to mention your kids’ damage,” Ellie quips.
Jody will chime in now. She is our voice of reason.
“Our lives aren’t so bad,” she says.
Predictability comes with aged friendship. And just like I know Jody, I know Ellie. She’ll counter.
“She made the conscious choice to quit and be a stay-at-home-and-drink Mommy.” Ellie gulps down wine and makes a thirst-quenching hissing sound as if that dig was her best yet. And it could be.
“I work,” I counter.
“Part-time doesn’t count. Plus, you’re done for the summer.”
True. I have summers off. I work two days a week during the school year in the accounting department at the Fairview School District administration building. The job is as boring as sorting a laundry basket of baby socks.
The week I quit my interesting, full-time, real-world job I took my oldest child, Delanie, to a Mommy and Me class at the YMCA. I’d spent three years wearied by working-mom guilt, wishing I could sign up for that class. Then when I left corporate America behind and enrolled, seven of us mothers and eight children lined up, held hands, broke into a middle-ear shattering ring-around-the-rosy, and I thought, “Oh my God, what have I done?”
I turn toward Ellie. “I deluded myself into thinking stay-at-home moms had it all.”
Our children grew like wisteria, fast and clingy, their idiosyncrasies as showy as a mud-caked communion dress—which, of course, Delanie wore down the center aisle of Our Lady of Peace Church one bright May afternoon. How four years later she signed up for cheerleading I blame on her father’s side of the family. They knit, sew, you know, do all that domestic stuff like cook.
Now her little sister sports pom-poms, too—bright pink and white ones—with sparkles.
I must also admit to, mention rather, my son. The boy. He drove his friends around the neighborhood in his father’s Jeep when he was fourteen. Teed up—from the rooftop of our house—and knocked a golf ball into the bay window of the house across the street at thirteen. And tossed a stone through the front window of a bus in grade school.
Neighbors refer to him as go-home Hux.
Huxley is the mischievous nucleus of my future nursing-home selectors. He rounds out my loud, lively, bullying threesome. Together they represent the type of kids I don’t want my kids to hang around with. Kids—I never say this out loud—who inevitably are going to disappoint their parents. No doctor, no lawyer, no CEO.
How do I know? I see the signs. I read too much. I, myself, experienced the same fall from dream.
Raised in a small town and educated in both a high school and college that bragged of scant student numbers, for years I was led to believe I had a special purpose in life. When I realized I was as plain and dull as unbuttered white toast, I shifted my dreams to my children.
God, in His infinite wisdom, allowed my husband to earn a great living, so I could dedicate much of my time to raising my kids. I expected my due through parental praise. Isn’t that what every classical book like, I don’t know, the Grapes of Wrath, was really about? Contributing our small part to humanity to enhance history? Learn from our mistakes and make life better for the next generation?
Somewhere between the tampon run and the stained communion dress, I realized my kids’ places in the world were as infinitesimally small as mine.
I shifted my goals.
Instead of recording dreams in a diary hidden upstairs in the bed stand, I scribbled hopes in chalk on the sidewalk below a Freudian slip—Mother Hubbard has no cupboard. I stopped fantasizing that my kids wouldn’t bully others, miss curfew, or drink before they blew out twenty-one candles, and refocused on getting them through high school without getting pregnant and through college without being arrested. A report card with changed grades, a week suspension for a drinking binge on the beach, and two trips to the District Justice later, I abandoned those hopes and, after a mysterious leak in the pool which the kids knew nothing about, I secretly painted more realistic expectations on my basement wall with a brush and water-proof sealant that disappeared into the cement blocks, so I couldn’t be held accountable.
Several cliff-hangers later, even the unseen cellar goals seemed lofty.
“Remember how badly you wanted kids? More than Jody and me, and you insisted on raising them yourself though you earned enough to hire that slutty little slip of a girl Reah hired—what’s her name?”
“Ashley Schlabach and she’s not slutty. She’s a very nice girl,” Jody defends because she’s tired of women disparaging her twenty-something next-door neighbor who’s movie-star pretty.
“Right Shlutty Schlabach—she’s a great nanny. You just don’t want her lurking around your husband or son or another guy over the age of—twelve.”
I ignore the Ashley innuendos. I’m not pedaling as fast today. My mind lingers on the how-badly-I-wanted-kids accusation.
“Guilty. I wanted to quit and raise my kids myself.” I’m not saying this for Ellie’s benefit. I’m reminding myself—that I’m drinking my wine. “I didn’t think it would be so lonely.”
“Lonely? Are you kidding? You have a million friends, and you’re never home.”
“I like being busy.”
“You’ve signed up for every activity within a fifty-mile radius.”
“I have not.”
“Really? What have you said no to lately?”
“That’s because you stink at it. You throw a golf club father than you hit a ball.”
I screw up my lips and sigh. I’m the worst golfer I know. My husband loves it. He signed us up for private lessons. I feign headaches, cramps, or appendicitis on lesson days.
“Plus, you hate golf because of Mark,” she adds. “We all secretly hate our husbands’ first loves. Doesn’t count. Name something else.”
“Well.” I think about this. Try to garner a defense. I’m signed up to work at the neighborhood kids party with Reah, participate in a running clinic with my friend Carol, a beach-glass class with college-friend Karen, a walking club on Tuesday and Thursday with high-school girlfriends Mary and Carolyn. I can’t recall a single invitation I’ve turned down other than the golf lessons.
“I’m not in book club,” I say sarcastically.
This is a sore spot between Ellie and me because Ellie remains in the neighborhood book club that I no longer receive emails and invites for.
Her face goes blank. That was a shot to the chest. Ellie feels guilty for staying in the club without me, but it’s not her fault I was ousted. It’s my own.
Immediately, my Catholic guilt rides in. Regret greases my gears and I backpedal. “But you’re right. I’m in over my head. Too much to do. My life is out of control.”
“Mine too.” She bites. I’ve thrown her a shovel and she’s digging her way out of the mucky book-club dilemma.
“When did life become so complicated? My kids are going to drive me to drink,” she says. “Wait, they’ve already done that.”
She pours more wine into her glass, and we drown ourselves in the whose-kid-is-worse comradery we stoke every year on our annual last-day-of-school wine parley.
“You’re kids? If Hux knocks one more ball through Mr. Gorney’s window, I’ll jump off a cliff.” Replacing one of Mr. Gorney’s windows due to Hux’s wild swing of a club is not a will-it-happen question. It’s a when question. He’s inherited my golf skills. “I’m not sure if it will be the girls or Hux who kill me.”
I gulp down wine.
“Our kids are fine and our lives aren’t bad,” the grounded, not-stepping-on-that-ledge Jody says.
Jody works part-time for a consulting firm. She teaches teachers how to teach. She’s a brilliant, tiny soul who never raises her voice. Everyone loves her. How I am lucky enough to call her my friend is beyond me.
I’ve been blessed throughout my life with many friendships. But friends are like diamonds, you’re not sure how precious they are until you look deep inside them.
Jody is a gem. One-of-a-kind.
Suddenly, I realize I’m staring at those damn dying arborvitaes again. I force myself to sever my locked leer and refocus on the moment. Oddly, what hits me first are the little lines surrounding Jody’s eyes. The same lines I saw in this morning’s mirror. I glance at Ellie. They’re on her, too.
“Our lives aren’t bad compared to a root canal without Novocain,” I respond half-consciously.
“Well, think of it this way,” positive Jody says. “You could be Brittany marrying Jax, or you could be Lisa Vanderpump.”
And there is my ray of hope. I snap out of my stupor and take a breath, marvel at how low even Jody has fallen. Ellie has somehow sucked her into our entangled reality-TV web.
If ten years ago, someone told me Jody Cancilla would watch reality-TV, I would have said Hilary Clinton was more likely to be Monica Lewinski’s matron of honor. My God, Jody had so much common sense she made Dr. Phil look like a bald Charles Manson.
“Lisa Vanderpump,” Ellie yells. “Are you kidding? She has it all.”
“She’s suffering post-traumatic stress,” Jody says. Her life evaluating skills have resurfaced.
“From what?” Ellie’s appalled. “Todd’s hair implants?”
“Todd did not have implants.” I can’t believe Jody is debating this.
“He did so.” I expect this arguing from Ellie, however. “They transplanted hair from Giggy.”
Now Jody leans and laughs hysterically. Tears streak her face. I laugh because I love when grounded Jody loses it over one of our hideously stupid remarks. It’s like she’s human.
“Careful. Lisa’s a dog lover,” she finally manages.
“Well, something has her spanks in a knot,” Ellie counters.
“Nikki,” Jody says, drawing me back into the conversation. She may have noticed my arborvitae stare. “Are your kids around when you watch Vanderpump Rules? I’m starting to feel guilty about watching that show.”
Jody always brings me back. Ever since my epilepsy diagnosis, she watches me like a guard on a jewel. She’s my keeper.
“Yes, they’re around,” I say.
If I were at a table sipping wine with anyone other than Jody and Ellie, I would have lied. “Oh my God, no,” I’d say. “Expose my children to such lewdness? Never.”
It’s nice having flawed friends you don’t have to lie to.
“Me, too.” She inches forward in her chair, spreads both forearms onto the table, and folds her fingers together. I’m pretty sure she’s drunk. She is the lightweight drinker of the crew. “I feel like it’s bad parenting.”
“Reah says they hear worse in high school,” I say. “Where is she, by the way?”
“Probably pouting over your new car.” Ellie has a way of pointing out our gang’s most inner secrets. “You know how she is.”
“Really? My car?”
“Don’t let it bother you. She’ll get over it. She always does.” Jody pats my arm to grab my attention. “And I’m serious. Do you feel guilty that our kids hear the f-word all the time on reality TV? How do you think that will affect them?”
“Who the fuck cares?” We hear and in walks Val. The dynamics of our little afternoon brood is about to change.
Val is a new friend—as in we have only known her seven years. She lives two streets over. She’s not in the book club. Val hasn’t read a book since she discovered crib notes.
She enters through the side gate carrying a bag—which is never good.
“Whatcha got there?” My curiosity springs first.
She dashes toward us like she’s evacuating a crime scene, but this is normal moves-like-an-ostrich Val. Even when she sits, her arms flail and her knees rock. ADHD at its finest.
“You’ll be happy to know I confiscated this little gem from a stray bookbag in Deidra’s room.”
We all stand. We know it can’t be good. Deidra is Val’s clone. Karma is a nasty evil. Val pulls out a pipe and a bag of marihuana. “Want to have some fun?”
“What’s this?” The screen door to my house squeaks open, and out struts Everett. He’s carrying a sheet of white notebook paper.
“I swear you two lease a car together.” Ellie is referring to Val and Everett, of course, who enter within minutes of each other for every social event they grace their presence with. I call them the suburban twins. They were even born on the same gloomy day in the turbulent 1970s.
Ellie plops back down into her chair. “If Everett wasn’t gay, I’d swear you two were having an affair.”
Everett doesn’t hear her. He’s on a mission. He makes a beeline for me and shoves the paper in my face.
“Darling, what could this possibly be?”
“My happy list,” I say with the enthusiasm of a toad.
“Your what?” Everett swoops a hand on the side of his face like he doesn’t know I’ve been depressed for years.
“My happy list. Ellie said I should keep one when I’m feeling blue. You know. Write down the good things I have in my life.”
His glance goes to Ellie. Then back to me. He rips the paper in half.
“Never let that shrewd talk you into feeling better about yourself. You’re as low and sad as the rest of us. Don’t go digging yourself out of a hole on the last day of school. We need you and that great big your-pee-will-turn-blue cesspool you own.” He picks up the bottle of wine in the middle of the patio table, turns it so he can read the label. “Or at least we need your wine. This is a forty-dollar bottle, girl.”
He grabs a stemmed glass, pours, swirls, and drinks.
I wait designedly, then I say, “Janice Everglade dropped it off last weekend.”
Janice Everglade’s house sports a marriage-is-between-a-man-and-a-woman banner.
He spits the entire contents of his mouth over the table. Red wine spritzes all three of our shirts. I stand and shake my arms. Ellie squeals. Jody laughs.
“I was kidding, you nitwit,” I holler.
“Oh, well then.” He pours again, drinks, and takes a seat under the sunny edge of our table’s umbrella.
“You ruined my shirt,” Ellie says.
“Oh, darling, the dime store has a ton of them. Maybe you should consider one size up when you replace it.”
Ellie’s squeal is ignored because the rest of us realize Val has stuffed the pipe and is lighting up.
“When is Marky coming home?” Val lifts the pipe to her lips.
Our afternoon picnic has turned to a free-for-all.
“He works late tonight, and you know he hates when you call him Marky.”
“Shouldn’t you be asking when Delanie gets home?” Jody brings a good point to light.
“She’s right. The kids will be home soon.” Everett scoots forward in his chair. “Let’s hurry.”
And just like that, Val infects us.
An hour later we are stoned. This is a first for the last day of school. Up until this year, we’d stuck to wine. But today our parenting skills have fallen so below sea-level we can’t see land. We giggle like Val just pulled the fire alarm at the wastewater treatment plant—a Huxley inspired thought—and we’re secretly reaping the benefits of a canceled tour.
When the marihuana is gone, we resort back to our wine. My stomach is turning. My head’s aching. But everything is so hysterically funny that I laugh until I can barely breathe.
I don’t realize I’m not feeling well. I toss one arm around Ellie and the other around Jody and tug them close.
“I love you guys. But where is Reah? I wish she were here.”
Life is never good when I become sentimental or contemplative. I squeeze my mouth into a pout and release the stronghold I have on the two of them. My bracelet gets tangled in the lace of Ellie’s shirt. We try to dislodge it fragilely but can’t. Val leans over and rips us apart. My bangle breaks. Ellie’s shirt rips.
“That was uncalled for,” Ellie says, but she’s laughing. Black streaks cascade down her cheeks, enlightening me of the corner tingle in my eye.
I dab at the sting, squint, examine my finger. Black.
“Do I look like her?” I turn to Jody, blinking away the pain. “Raccoon faced?”
“Darling, you do. You truly do,” Everette interrupts, then I feel Jody’s hand on my shoulder.
“Are you feeling okay?” Jody’s expression is so peculiar, I laugh so hard I snort.
“She’s pouting because Reah has dissed her.” Ellie, of course.
“She’s dissed me? Reah’s dissed me?”
“Girl,” Everette whines. “When are you going to stand on your own? You rely too much on friends. You don’t need us. Not me, Ellie, and for sure you don’t need two-faced Reah. You’re lignum vitae.”
Instantaneously, everyone roars. Val bursts into a spitting laugh. Wine spritzes across the table, out her mouth and nose.
“That had to sting,” Evy says.
“Where did you come up with lignum vitae?” Val’s eyebrows arch. Her mouth rounds. She looks like a cartoon character.
All I can do is laugh.
“It’s wood, you ninny.” Evy pours more wine in his glass. “The hardest wood in the world.”
“Crossword puzzle?” Jody asks.
“You know it, girl.” Evy can do a crossword puzzle faster than Ellie can spill a secret. That’s lightning-fast.
“Name a softwood,” I say. “If I were wood, I’d be soft.”
Evy strokes his chin, pondering.
Ellie’s hand shoots up and she blurts out the answer proudly, like a student to a teacher. “She’s pine.”
“Basswood is softer,” he says. “It’s like you, Ellie, soft and pliable. Easily bent.”
She lowers her hand. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’re a Chamaeleo Calyptratus, darling, a Furcifer Pardalis, a Rieppeleon Brevicaudatus—oh wait, that’s your husband.”
Now we all snort wine out our noses.
“Is he calling me a chameleon?” Ellie asks Val, and all of us use our outdoor laughs, try to hoot the loudest to prove we understand Evy, who is so much smarter than us.
“Nikki,” Jody shouts above our peals. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”
“I’m good,” I say, even though I’m fairly certain I’m not. “You worry too much. I haven’t had a stare-away in over ten years—since the new medication.”
The din quiets.
“That you weaned yourself off a year ago,” she responds.
“Has it been that long?” I pretend not to remember.
Jody keeps my medical records. She’s like a medical alert necklace that goes off on its own.
“What time is it?” I change the subject. “You guys told your kids to come here after school, right? To swim?”
“No,” Val says. “To eat pizza and smoke weed. That’s the only reason my kids will show up.”
This reminds me we must rid ourselves of every last particle of the pot. So none of the kids find it. “We have to smoke everything. Destroy the evidence.”
“Calm yourself down, darling. It’s long gone. We smoked the last of it a half-hour ago.” Everette uncorks another bottle of wine. “Tossed everything in the trash.”
An unusual quiet hits us. Evy wrinkles his nose and sniffs. We all glance at the corner of the yard at the same time as if we’ve had an epiphany when really, we just smelled dope. The trash bin sits below a faint grey cloud of smoke. My golden retriever, Furgy, slices our quiet in half with a shrieking bark.
Jody, the culprit, sinks into her shoulders.
“You weasel,” Everett says. He hasn’t a care in the world that my trash is smoking, and the smell of marihuana is permeating the neighborhood. He thinks only of the waste. “I said I’d finish that for you.”
“You’d had enough. We all did. Ellie’s stoned, Nikki’s white as paper, and your pupils are dilated,” Jody tells him.
She’s right on all counts. Ellie’s raccoon face is cemented on her skin, I don’t feel well, and Evy’s green eyes look like two plump olives with gigantic pits.
I break into another unbecoming, belly-jiggling laugh. Furgy barks more aggressively. But not at the trash. She’s woofing at me. I try to pat her head, but she’s jumping around uncontrollably.
“Nikki, you look awful,” Jody says.
“Of course she does.” Val tips her glass in the air. “Her kids are spending the next twelve weeks with her. Marky’s never home. She’s a washed-up CFO who can’t balance her checking account.”
“Stop calling him Marky, and I can balance my checkbook,” I say, fanning myself. “I just don’t have the time.”
I laugh, fan faster. The sun is so blazing hot I start sweating. The insane dog keeps barking. She’s an inch from my ankle. If she wasn’t the best dog in the world, I’d think she was about to bite me.
No one else pays her any mind.
“Maybe you should hydrate.” Jody waves a hand to Everett. “Did you say you were getting chips? Bring water for Nikki.”
“You’re right. I’m famished,” he realizes and scurries toward the house.
Ellie, Val, and I holler requests. “Chips.” “Popcorn.” “Pickles.”
Jody, Val, and I glance at Ellie.
“Pickles?” Jody asks.
We bust into minutes of senseless, irrepressible laughter. When the slam of the screen door collects our attention, and we spot Everette holding water in one hand, pickles in the other, and struggling to balance a mound of chips in an armlock in between, we snort and cry and gasp for air.
He drops the bags on the table and hands Ellie the pickle jar.
“I know you’re not pregnant because you’re a horrible bitch today,” he says. “Must be stomach acid from unkindness spurring your crave.”
Our throng becomes so loud that our voices are echoing like an old auditorium microphone that’s seen better days. The echo intensifies. So does my sense of smell.
What’s that odd aroma? Not the garbage fire we are all ignoring, something else. Popcorn? I reach for the bag but Val grabs it first. I moan. I’m having trouble finding my voice, my hands. Laughing is all I can manage.
Suddenly, Jody stands. Ellie points to my forehead. Val grabs the glass from Evy and pitches water in my face.
I’m laughing when I go down. My right arm stiffens first. I slide from the chair onto the ground knowing full well that the seizure has begun, that my kids will smell the smoldering marijuana, that Marky will never leave work to meet me at the hospital, Reah will be sorry she missed my seizure, and that smoking that marihuana is the worst parental slip-up I have made to date.
But for some reason, I don’t give a damn.