Authors: Ellyn Bache
“Bache’s language is fluid and funny, and one comes to care about every one of her characters. There are echoes of John Irving in her evocation of this all-American family…and the results are vivid and heartwarming.”
“…Bache’s ability to evoke a particular time and place is remarkable.”
Festival in Fire Season
“The novella is simply and beautifully presented. Bache, a Willa Cather Prize recipient, clearly knows how to tell a story.”
Holiday Miracles: A Christmas/Hannukah Story
“A large-hearted collection that ranges over space and time to tell the stories of women who withstand various social pressures and remain only themselves.”
The Value of Kindness: Stories
“Ellyn Bache has written a wonderful coming of age book. She beautifully delineates a young woman’s rebellious nature in conflict with itself.”
—Margaret Maron, author of the award-winning Deborah Knott mysteries, on
The Activist’s Daughter
Ellyn Bache began writing freelance newspaper articles when her four children were small. As they got older and gave her more time, she turned her hand to short stories. It took her six years to get her first one published. Then, for many years, her fiction appeared in a wide variety of women’s magazines and literary journals and was published in a collection that won the Willa Cather Fiction Prize. Ellyn began her first novel,
the year her youngest son went to school full-time. That book was later made into a film starring Susan Sarandon, and Ellyn went on to write other novels for women, a novel for teens, a children’s picture book and many more stories and articles. There’s more on her Web site, www.ellynbache.com.
TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON
AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG
STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILAN • MADRID
PRAGUE • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND
copyright © 2005 Ellyn Bache
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher, Harlequin Enterprises Limited, 225 Duncan Mill Road, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada M3B 3K9.
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.
This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
® and TM are trademarks of the publisher. Trademarks indicated with ® are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Canadian Trade Marks Office and in other countries.
It seems incredible to me now, but I once was horrified by the idea of someday becoming an “older woman.”
Why would people over fifty want to go on? They looked awful, and their lives seemed unbearably dull.
What on earth was I thinking?
Happily, I have been lucky enough to become an “older woman” myself, with all the joys and turbulence that implies. Only the “older” woman can know the irreplaceable preciousness of a fifty-year friendship…a long career…grown children…loves and losses she finally has the maturity to understand. Only the “older” woman can view the world through the lens of her own history and see how its difficulties, as much as its triumphs, have contributed to the fullness of her life. I wrote
to celebrate that “older-but-not-yet old” time, in all its richness. I hope you enjoy it.
For my favorite breast cancer survivors,
Brooks and Carol Ann.
And for Barbara,
whose brain tumor in no way diminished
her great and wonderful brain.
Wrightsville Beach, NC
ntil Marilyn called, I had no thought of being flung back into the warm and rushing stream of my own youth. I was having enough trouble with the present. Staring out at the sea without really seeing it, I had spent the last hour mentally snatching petals from a daisy—he loves me, he loves me not. Subtract fifty years, add an actual flower, and I might have been eight. I hardly heard the phone. Two rings. Three. The answering machine could take it. Then I got curious and picked up.
“Well, it’s back,” Marilyn announced. Pert and casual. Not even a hello. Her same peppy self.
“What’s back?” As if I didn’t know. “The decent fall weather’s back?” My heart always skipped a beat or two when I lied, but as much as it scared me, I fibbed on. “Washington’s always pretty in the fall.”
“No, no. Not the weather. The beast.”
Slay the Beast had been our motto.
“Oh, Marilyn, no. When did you find out?”
“They told me for sure this morning. I swear, I always get cancer on Thursday and then I have to wait the whole damn weekend for the test results.”
That was a week ago yesterday. Why didn’t you call me?”
“I wanted to. I just couldn’t.” The cheery tone drained to a whisper. “Don’t be angry, Barbara. It was such a seesaw. The doctor found the lump on Thursday, they did the mammogram Friday, all weekend I was catatonic, and on Monday they told me it looked suspicious. Tuesday they did the biopsy. I kept hoping they’d say it was a false alarm and I’d be able to call you and we’d have a good laugh about it.” She ran out of air, took a long breath. “Then I got the diagnosis this morning.”
I opened my mouth, but my voice had left me. I willed it back. “It must have been a nightmare,” I rasped. “I hope Bernie was with you. I hope he held your hand through all this.”
“You kidding? My paramour and protector? He wouldn’t have missed it. My sainted husband says—” Marilyn imitated his low growl “‘—You beat it before, so you’ll beat it again.’”
“Well, he’s right. You did and you will. I bet you already have a plan.”
“I do. For starters, I want you to come up here.”
“Sure. Done.” I spoke without thinking. A trip to Washington? Now? No possibility. “Are you going to have—”
What was left? Marilyn had had surgery; she had had chemo. The drugs had made her sick and thin and bald, but after three years we were convinced the poisons had done their job. When Marilyn’s hair had begun to grow back, I had driven up from North Carolina to help her celebrate, if you can call it celebrating when you accompany someone to her first Hadassah meeting in a year.
“Look how much the treatments have aged me,” Marilyn had complained then. “Look at these jowls!” But though Marilyn’s jaw seemed a bit fleshier than before, I thought she looked marvelous. On the day of the Hadassah luncheon, Marilyn’s fine new cap of hair (mostly chestnut, not much gray) had been slicked flat, a fashionable inch and a half long all over her head, accented by long silver earrings and a formfitting navy suit that glided over her slimmer figure. Neither of us had ever been a great beauty, despite the plastic surgery we’d believed would transform us. But Marilyn had sometimes felt like one, after her charms had captured Bernie Waxman’s heart when we were only fifteen. Marilyn still swore she didn’t return Bernie’s affection for another five years, but his love, from the beginning, gave her the confident, radiant loveliness only a sea of caring can confer. If some of that early luster dimmed as we aged, we told ourselves looks didn’t really matter anymore—a maxim neither one of us believed.
Lord, no! Women of our generation knew from toddler-hood that beauty was the coin of the realm; women of our generation never recanted even after the world declared us “liberated.” So when Marilyn and I stood in the ladies’ room outside the Hadassah meeting, two ordinary women in our midfifties telling ourselves once again that psychological well-being rather than comeliness was the issue, we were nevertheless applying lipstick and combing our hair in preparation for the kosher lunch.
A white-haired matron in an expensive suit emerged from a toilet stall and planted herself beside us at the sink. “So, Marilyn. You really like your hair that short?” Flaring her nostrils, wrinkling her nose, the woman signaled unspeakable distaste.
Unfazed, Marilyn flashed a brilliant smile. “Mrs. Katz, this is my friend Barbara Cohen.”
Mrs. Katz nodded without diverting her attention from Marilyn.
Marilyn regarded herself in the mirror, ran her hands all over her head to smooth her new coif, preened in an exaggerated way. “It’s the style. You don’t like it?”
Mrs. Katz shrugged.
“Well, it’ll grow,” Marilyn said.
Bursting with merriment, Marilyn and I contained ourselves until the woman ambled out, then let loose with uncontrollable laughter—absurd laughter, uncalled-for laughter, very nearly hysterical. Marilyn had faced the fire, survived her ordeal, and the old buzzard was none the wiser. Tummy-tucked (to provide tissue for the breast), breast-reconstructed (no nipple yet; that would come later), she was back among the living, working part-time, eating without throwing up, going to Hadassah. Victorious!
But cured? We didn’t know, and pretended not to care.
Now, three years later, I clutched the phone with sweaty hands while Marilyn posed my unspoken question. “Am I going to have more chemo? Right now I’m still looking at options.” I cringed. Marilyn adopted her spunkiest tone. “The last couple of years we’ve been at the age of dying and hardly knew it, did we?”
“Don’t talk like that. What about a macrobiotic diet? What about acupuncture?”
“No. I think you have to believe those things before they work. Listen, when can you come? You can’t refuse a dying friend.”
“Stop that, I said!”
“And I have things to tell you. Things I don’t want to take to my grave.”
“One more morbid comment and I’m hanging up.”
“I’m serious, Barbara. I don’t want to discuss this on the phone.”
“You think my line is tapped? You think you can’t trust me unless you whisper it personally into my ear? This is Barbara Cohen you’re talking to. We’ve known each other over fifty years.”
“Good grief, we have, haven’t we?”
The fact hung in the air between us, rendering us momentarily speechless. In the spring of 1946, at the age of four and a half, I’d moved to the corner of Washington called Riggs Park, two doors away from Marilyn’s house, and we’d been inseparable ever since. More than half a century ago! On that first day, my mother, Ida, had scoured the neighborhood for playmates for me and my older sister so she could unpack knickknacks in peace. I vividly remembered the gray weather outside and satisfying bright colors within: the smell of new pink paint on the walls of the first bedroom I’d had all to myself, and the satisfying presence of this cheerful, ginger-haired girl who didn’t mind what game we played or what we ate—peanut butter sandwiches, Oreos, warmish milk—and who from that day on would be my undisputed best friend.
“We might have known each other forever,” Marilyn said now, “but that doesn’t mean I’ve told you everything.” Her voice dropped a notch. “It’s about Penny.”
So, of course, I had to go.
The door slammed just as I hung up the phone, and a moment later Jon appeared—the source of my current troubles—tanned and fit from the too-long summer, his hair a white tangle from the humidity. He put down two cups of coffee from the convenience store and pulled his damp shirt out from his chest, clowning. “I hope you appreciate this. Only a prince would go out in this sauna for the love of his woman.”
were the one who wanted coffee. Me, I use the coffeemaker in the kitchen.”
My words were light, but my manner must not have been, because Jon noted my hand still touching the phone and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
I shook my head.
“Barbara? Lose a job? What?”
“Too early in the year to lose a job.” I did academic research for professors and students at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which meant that I never got busy until well into the semester. “Just midafternoon slump.”
“And that accounts for the pale face? The oyster-shell countenance?”
I forced a smile. “Probably those fried-egg sandwiches you made for lunch.”
“Don’t let the cholesterol lobby fool you. Eggs are healthy.” He handed me one of the coffee cups, let his fingers linger on mine just long enough to call up a stab of desire low in my belly, something that still embarrassed me after more than two years. “This will fix you right up.”
I took a sip. “Perfect. Thanks, Jon.”
“You’re really all right?” A furrow of concern appeared between his ebony brows.
“Who was on the phone?”
I inched my free hand away from the receiver. “Jealous?”
“It was just Marilyn.”
A flicker of a question passed across his face, then vanished. Six weeks ago, a month ago, he would have quizzed me about Marilyn’s welfare, would have kept at it until I told him what was wrong. Now he let an opaque curtain of distance settle over his features, as it did so often lately, and picked up his coffee. “Back to the taskmaster,” he said.
Suddenly wanting to hold his attention, I asked quickly, “Trouble with the new chapter? It must be a humdinger, judging by the shocking number of trips you make to the store to escape it.”
His eyes cleared, brought him back. He grinned. “
try writing a book.” It was a collection of his articles, plus interviews with athletes who’d been caught in the riptides of politics and power—athletes, he’d said in happier times, who’d been
“Isn’t this the chapter with Zeke Jones?” A false, annoying brightness invaded my voice. “Cheated out of the World Freestyle Wrestling Championship in ninety-five?”
“I never believed I’d know the names of sports figures,” I said. “Much less wrestlers.”
“Shows what broadening your background can do.” The grin died on his lips. “If you don’t feel well—If something’s bothering you—”
“I’m fine.” My practiced smile sent him down the hall to the bedroom he used as his office, a man of such physical and psychological impossibilities that I wondered why I’d ever thought I knew him: the shoulders far too broad for his long, slender legs, bushy brows far too black for the thick white mop of hair on his head, moods as unpredictable as the coastal weather, a man of such paradoxes and secrets that I had no right to go to Marilyn until I unmasked them. And no right not to.
Oddly, I hadn’t once mentioned to Marilyn how strange my relationship with Jon had been this past month, and I was glad of that now. Marilyn wouldn’t have asked me to come to Washington if she’d known we were having difficulties, wouldn’t have wanted me even if I’d offered. “After twenty years alone, now you finally have someone you care about and you’re going on a trip instead of sorting out your troubles? What’s wrong with you?” Ever the pragmatist, she’d insist that if I was embroiled in a stormy romance (at our age, did the term
apply?), my first obligation was to see it through.
And considering my storybook beginning with Jon, maybe it was. Jon and I had not been in touch since we were in our twenties. Then, after more than thirty years, he caught sight of me during my one and only appearance on national TV, cleaning up my yard in Wilmington after Hurricane Bonnie in 1998. A sports journalist who spent most of his time on the road, he’d dropped everything and come to North Carolina to find me. Imagine! Seeking out a woman in her fifties! On the pretext of seeing how she’d fared in a storm!
“You needn’t have worried, Bonnie only grazed us, it was nothing compared to Hurricane Fran back in ninety-six,” I’d babbled when he first arrived, loose-tongued and stupid from the heady brew of surprise and flattery and disbelief. “My phone didn’t go out at all, and my lights were back on in twenty-four hours. That’s the worst. No power, and hot as hell, and…”
With the most extraordinary tenderness, Jon lifted a tanned, elegant finger toward my moving lips, and touched them into silence.
We’d been together ever since.
And even with the recent gloom that had settled over him, ours was still no tame “companionship”—though I often hoped my daughter, Robin, thought it was. Grown children should not be subjected, I believed, to the embarrassing fact of their parents’ continuing sex lives.
Not that I’d expected to have a sex life! Certainly not! By my midfifties, I’d felt myself finally cooling and calming after an all-too-fevered youth. I was genuinely relieved. Too much of my early life had been spent in thrall to sex. Sex had permeated my every thought, made me sleepy, spoiled my moods, played havoc with my disposition. When I was in labor with Robin, I’d heard myself grunt as I pushed—and found it such a bestial, involuntary sound that in the midst of my pain and concentration I couldn’t help thinking how much the insistent, animal nature of birthing resembled the incessant demand of mating. When middle age finally freed me of it, I felt as if I’d come out of a fog into open air, or outgrown a pesky allergy.
Then Jon appeared, looking better than he had a right to, and in an instant I was caught up once more in all that animal yearning. If it was foolish at that point in life—of course it was!—I no longer cared. After a year of passion far too heated for couples our age, we pooled our resources while real-estate prices were depressed from Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and bought our house across the drawbridge from Wilmington on trendy Wrightsville Beach. A risk, on that storm-tossed barrier island, but a commitment, too. After we cleaned up the flood damage, the place was everything both of us wanted: love nest, workplace, home. Jon stopped traveling and signed the contract for his book. Each of us set up an office in a spare bedroom. We awakened to the ocean sunrise and had coffee together before parting to our separate work areas. At noon we met for lunch on the oceanfront deck, where we watched dolphins arc in and out of the water. We lingered over sandwiches and told each other about our mornings. Tide-besotted and grinning with middle-aged infatuation, we were both—I believed this, truly—as happy as we’d been in our lives.