“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 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 hate her. I love 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 say this,” Jody asserts. “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 of us are a little tipsy, but none of us is 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 blathered on to The Bachelorette. “That goes against every grain of my being.”
“Used to,” I chirp. Mainly so they remember it’s my wine they’re drinking. Up until now, I’ve been removed from their conversation.
“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. Better-than-me, didn’t you just buy pom-poms for Gianna?”
“She’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 personnel department at the Fairview School District administration building. The job bores me as much as sorting a laundry basket of baby socks.
The week I quit my challenging, 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, mention rather, I have a son—a high-spirited boy. He drove his friends around the neighborhood in his father’s Jeep when he was fifteen. 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, 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 my time to raising our 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 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’s 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 waterproof 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?” Ellie interrupts my thoughts. “More than Jody and me. 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 any other 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. 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 the 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. I’d written my own ending.
Immediately, my Catholic guilt rides in. 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.
“Your kids? The next time Hux knocks a ball through Mr. Gorney’s window, I’m jumping 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-out-on-a-ledge Jody contends.
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. She stands a hair above five feet, has short brown hair, never wears makeup, and tips the scale at one hundred pounds. She’s perfect in every way. People love 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 if they’re precious until you look deep inside them.
Jody is a gem. One-of-a-kind.
Suddenly, I realize I’m staring at those 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.
“Not 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 with that, a ray of hope surfaces. 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 Hillary Clinton was more likely to be Monica Lewinski’s matron of honor. 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 asserts. 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 as if she’s human.
“Careful. Lisa’s a dog lover,” she finally manages.
“Well, something has her Spanx 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 shepherds me back. Ever since my epilepsy diagnosis, she watches me like a guard on a jewel. She’s my keeper.
“Yes, they’re around.”
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’s 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 her 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 footsteps, and in walks Val. The dynamics of our little afternoon brood-fest 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 as if 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. Attention deficit 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 extracts a pipe and a bag of marijuana from the knapsack. “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, who enter within minutes of each other at every social event they grace their presence with.
Though they aren’t related by blood, I call Evy and Val the suburban twins. They were born on the same gloomy day in the turbulent 1970s. Both stand at five feet nine inches with dirty-blond hair; Evy’s is cut close to his head, Val’s, straight to her shoulders. Evy serves as our group’s conscience. Val inspires our fun.
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 as if he doesn’t know I’ve been depressed for years.
“My happy list. Ellie said I should keep one when I’m feeling blue. 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 shrew 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 to 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 tosses her poker-straight, black hair over her shoulders and inspects herself. “My favorite one.”
“Oh, darling, the dime store has a ton of them. Maybe you should consider one size up when you replace it.” Evy says this to ruffle Ellie’s weight-consciousness. She’s tiny. Sometimes Val and I feel like giants next to Jody and Ellie.
Ellie shrieks but no one pays attention to her because our eyes are glued to Val. She stuffs the pipe and lights up.
“When is Marky coming home?” Val inhales deeply.
Our afternoon picnic has turned into 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 adds a pinch of logic into our last-day-of-school ballyhoo.
“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 far below sea-level we can’t see land. We giggle as if Val had 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 we finish the marijuana, we resort back to our wine. My stomach turns. My head aches. 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 carefully but can’t. Val leans over and rips us apart. My bangle breaks. Ellie’s shirt rips.
“That was uncalled for,” Ellie scolds, but she’s laughing. Black streaks cascade down her cheeks.
I dab the corner of one eye and examine my finger: black.
“Do I look like her?” I ask Jody. “Raccoon faced?”
“Darling, you do. You truly do,” Everett interrupts, then I feel Jody’s hand on my shoulder.
“Are you feeling okay?” Jody’s peculiar expression makes me laugh so hard I snort.
“She’s pouting because Reah has dissed her,” Ellie says.
“Why has Reah dissed me?”
“Your new car,” she reminds me.
“It’s not your new car.” Evy wiggles annoyedly, facing his backside to Ellie. “Reah’s been jealous of you for years.”
“Why?” I ask.
“You’ve got that whole Reese Witherspoon thing going on.”
“I have what?”
“Look in the mirror. Blonde hair, blue eyes, wide mouth, charmingly senseless. You’re a skinny Reese Witherspoon. Reah hates it. She’d give thirty years of her life to change places with you.”
“I have a wide mouth?” I place my hands on both sides of my face.
“That’s all you got from that?” Evy shakes his head.
“No.” I drop my hands in my lap. “I’m trying not to feel bad because Reah dissed me.”
“Girl,” Everett whines. “You rely on friends like ticks on deer. When are you going to stand on your own? You don’t need anyone. 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 grimaces.
“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 responds. “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 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 years—since the new medication.”
The din quiets.
“That you weaned yourself off a year ago,” she rebukes.
“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 replies. “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 before the kids arrive. “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 about my smoking trash or the smell of marijuana 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 face is black, Nikki’s is as white as an egg, and your pupils are grossly dilated,” Jody tells him.
She’s right on all counts. Ellie’s raccoon face has 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 adds.
“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? Grab 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 Everett 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 craving.”
Our throng becomes so loud that our voices are echoing like an old auditorium microphone that’s seen better days. The echo intensifies, as does my sense of smell.
What’s that odd aroma? Not the garbage fire we are all ignoring, something else. Popcorn? I thrust a hand toward the bag, but Val grabs it first. I moan. I’m having trouble finding my voice, my fingers. 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 marijuana is the worst parental slip-up I have made to date.
But for some reason, I don’t give a damn.