Stella could sense her daughter peeking at her from her bedroom door, but continued her eleventh game of solitaire on the computer. Eventually Sabina would go away – either to a party somewhere in Brooklyn or chatting with her friends online. Ultimately Stella and Gabriel would be driving her back to college at the end of the month, which was less than an hour away. Regardless, she always felt her throat tighten with grief as she forced a smile and waved a last goodbye when all the boxes had been trudged across the lawn and settled into Sabina’s dorm room.
Margo and Effie, the respective eldest of the three, were both married with no children. Margo lived a mere ten-minute drive away, but Effie, caving from the pressure of her husband Paul, had moved to New Jersey, and both tirelessly stressed to Stella that Highland Park was “only fifty minutes away” – a transparent attempt at either coercing Stella to visit them or clinging to the illusion of a close proximity that did not exist.
As she doggedly began her next (and final) round, Stella could smell the freshly lit cigarette pervading from her husband’s study. Although armed with her usual Sunday agenda, she felt suddenly defeated by the monotony of cooking and freezing the weekly meals, despite it being only for her and Gabriel, and the idea of hanging the laundry on the rack situated in Effie’s old bedroom curdled her senses. Her priority should have been driving to Atlantic Avenue to compile all the ingredients she would need for cooking anyway, and since that had not been tended to in the early morning (the only appropriate time as far as she was concerned) the progression of her day was permanently doomed.
She could hear Sabina on the phone from where she was sitting, and then her voice fading as she slowly closed the door behind her. Minutes later she emerged wearing a beautiful Indian skirt hued of fall colors, and said she had to go.
“So you’re not staying for dinner?” Stella asked, her eyes fixed on the screen. Her hand clicked the mouse systematically from one card to the next, the ache in her hand familiar from too much playing.
“You said you weren’t making dinner,” Sabina replied, sounding confused. When Stella did not respond Sabina added, “right?”
“That doesn’t mean you couldn’t stay at home and spend some time with us,” Stella said finally, and interrupted her game by clicking the ‘x’ at the corner of her screen and getting up. She didn’t turn around fast enough to catch Sabina rolling her eyes at her.
“I don’t get you, Mom,” Sabina started. “Why can’t you just say you want to spend time with me instead of saying you’re not making dinner and making it sound like it’s okay if I make plans?”
Of the three sisters, Sabina was the only one who had the natural gumption to profess her frustrations and point out their mother’s inconsistencies. Margo was usually so enraged that she recoiled into a stuttering mess and Effie simply stormed off.
“Because if it doesn’t occur to you to spend time with us, then why am I going to tell you?” her mother retorted and left the room.
The hallway betrayed the sound of her footsteps: heavy heel-toe, heavy heel-toe, which eventually stopped when she stood in front of the refrigerator to assess what meal could be thrown together for the evening.
At this point Sabina would follow her into the kitchen and say something like, “Why are you always playing games? Why can’t you just say what you want?” but she didn’t. Her three years at college had equipped her with a sense of autonomy and level-headedness that she had quickly grown into.
She poked her head into her father’s study. He was busy editing a fresh manuscript that his publishing firm had agreed to take on.
“I’m out, Dad,” she said, her voice softened.
“You are, huh?” he said, looking up, smiling. “To what parts, may I ask?” He crushed out his cigarette in the nearby ashtray.
“Brooklyn,” she said lightly.
“Brooklyn,” he repeated. “That’s seems to be the spot, huh? Have a great time. Call us if you’re sleeping there.”
She found her mother in the kitchen reheating roast beef from two nights before. “Okay, Mom. Have a good night. I’ll call you if I’m sleeping over.” Stella frowned. She had always expressed her extreme aversion to spending the night at a friend’s house. She never understood how anyone could feel comfortable sleeping in an unfamiliar room, surrounded my unaccustomed sounds, and being able to fall asleep.
“Okay,” she said, without looking up.
She hesitated and wanted to say, “See you tomorrow” or “Have a good time.” But she didn’t; she wasn’t sure of the former, and was secretly resentful of the latter.
Lady Sings the Blues, her favorite movie, had just started when she turned on the television. She hummed along to “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” as she watched a young and wide-eyed Diana Ross saunter down a flight of stairs. As the scene progressed and the music faded into the background, Stella found herself singing fully out loud, “If I should take the notion to jump into the ocean, ain’t nobody’s business if do.” Self-consciously, she lowered her voice, until the ending when she couldn’t resist, “Nobody’s business, ain’t nobody’s business if I doooo.”
She could easily recall singing to that large crowd one evening years ago. She had just met her first husband, and he was in the audience watching her. It was their second date. Two years before, she had dropped out of college and started singing with a jazz band. That evening she had closed with “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You,” and was careful to only glance at Tom, who was sitting in the back drinking a martini. When she was done there were piercing whistles from the men, a clamor of hands thunderously applauding. The back of her dress was sticking to her from nerves and exhilaration and the bright stage lights.
But it was her mother who had talked sense into her. “Marry him. Have a family. Be sensible.” It was a mantra that became more and more appealing when the crowds at her performances seemed to die off, and eventually the club decided not to book the band at all. To her, it was a sign of her mother’s predictions inexplicably materializing. That, coupled with Tom’s overt disapproval of her performing was enough to get her pregnant and have Margo, followed by Effie five years later. And then it was twelve years later, and Tom was away on business meetings, but in town long enough to ask Stella to orchestrate lavish dinner parties.
Stella muted the television and sat on the couch looking at the screen and not watching. The feeling of humiliation and regret gripped her stomach, the familiar paralysis overwhelming her. She had seen movies on the Lifetime channel that mimicked her past life: the overworked husband who was an attorney, the stay-at-home wife and mother who put her life’s aspirations aside to raise children, take care of the over-sized house. She sat through these movies grimly as if punishing herself, yet somehow taking comfort in knowing she wasn’t the only one; many women had made the same choices.
Gabriel had encouraged her years ago to finish her degree. But a degree in what and what for, she wanted to know? Voice lessons were out of the question because she had her voice, but now it was too late, pointless. All three of her daughters came up with a list of hobbies they thought their mother would enjoy: pottery, joining a book club, signing up for a gym membership, traveling abroad and taking culinary classes. Stella waved off each possibility as an intrusion. Okay, once you got the hang of making a decent clay pot (which most people never did), then what? What could a person do with all those pots? She could never concentrate long enough on any book, let alone a paragraph, and she didn’t like being around strangers – even if they all had a common purpose. And how did any of them expect her to go to the gym with that pain in her hip? And also – she already knew how to cook, and had been for many years now, thank you. The list of reasons was endless.
That evening she laid in bed listening to Gabriel snoring, his back to her. She heard Sabina at the front door, the soft click of her locking up and then her footsteps down the hallway. The muted television flickered a blue haze on the ceiling, and she lay staring and staring watching the shadows of the cars driving passed the bedroom window. When she woke up the next morning the stillness of the house quieted her confusion; she didn’t know what time it was and Gabriel was not next to her. Sabina’s bedroom door was open and she was not there, also having left for work. She didn’t believe what time it was when she looked at the bedroom alarm clock, and instantly got up and went to the kitchen. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. But even after drinking her second cup of coffee and watching the end of Oprah (“Are you considered the fat one in your family”?) she felt sluggish.
Gabriel and Sabina both returned home at the same time that evening. She could hear their voices from her bedroom, where she had been in bed for the remainder of the day.
“Here she is!” Sabina called out after she opened her mother’s door and saw her. “What’s up? How was your day?” she asked, and collapsed next Stella, who was lying under the covers.
“Nothing. Not much,” she said. When she spoke she felt as if she was ungluing her tongue from the roof of her mouth.
Gabriel walked in. He hung his suit jacket in the closet, and then went over to give her a kiss.
“You’re not feeling well?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said,
They both wanted to know what she’d made for dinner.
“I didn’t make anything. Get the folder with the take-out menus,” she said.
After Sabina left the room Gabriel sat next to her. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Huh?” she asked, captivated by the television screen. She averted her gaze for a moment. “No, nothing. I’m fine.”
But she wasn’t fine. Not then or the months that followed. It was as if something inside of her had unexpectedly turned off, and she was either unaware of it or didn’t seem to bother caring. She had to be coerced into taking a shower and eating. On the weekends Gabriel would usher her into the passenger seat of the car and take them on long drives through Long Island. They would pass farm stands and wineries, which months earlier would have grabbed her attention and she would have tugged on his sleeve and said, “Pull over.” She would have milled through the stands and filled up baskets of fruits and vegetables and fresh herbs and animatedly talked about what she could make for dinner. But now she just stared ahead expressionless, yet with a weariness in her eyes as if she had been trying to solve a riddle that had been turning over in her mind, over and over – with no true answer.
The analyst who examined her did not confirm Gabriel’s and the girls’ worst fear – they thought she had Alzheimer’s – and said that she was suffering from a severe depression. “She wasn’t very responsive to most of my questions, but when I asked her if she’s had suicidal thoughts she admitted to having them.”
Stella watched the months unravel from a distance. She rarely spoke and sometimes when she lay awake at night she cried. Gabriel woke up once to the sound of choking and found her sobbing with such might that he was at first relieved: something had broken her catatonic state. “What’s wrong, Stella? Just tell me,” he pleaded over and over, kneeling next to her in his underwear, disheveled with a grief of his own that he had not considered. Finally she went back to sleep and was still sleeping when he left for work in the morning.
Margo, Effie and Sabina would take turns visiting once a week and making dinner. They spoon-fed her dinner (she did not resist) and bathed her, knowing that this could not go on much longer and she would have to be hospitalized. All three of the therapists Gabriel had taken her to reported that Stella sat through her fifty-minute sessions without speaking.
In her mind it was as if she had somehow gained access to the film footage of her life, and she spent her days reliving the moments that pained her the most. They looped through her memory in a rhythmic sequence: what really happened, what she would have changed, what the outcome of that change could have been. And there were so many moments to sift through! In one scene she replays a conversation with her mother, who is lecturing her (for the hundredth time) about her future. She remembers her mother’s eyes; they are brown and the pupil of her right eye has a darker little dash of brown than the left.
“When was the last time they even called you to sing? ” her mother had asked.
“It doesn’t matter. I love to do it. You know that. You remember when I was little and used to sing in front of the – ”
Always cutting her off. “And that was for fun. But here is Tom – a good, solid man who wants to marry you.” She didn’t say much more than that. She had stood there by the piano that Stella had learned to play, with her white linen shirt carefully tucked into her knee-length navy-blue skirt. The sunlight from the window highlighted her dyed brunette hair. She looked away. “I never wanted to say anything to break your heart, Stella. You need so much more than the voice you have to get anywhere. And it has been hard to watch you these years, singing. You’re going to waste your life chasing something.”
That conversation was the first step to her failed life. Had she not stood there and listened and just marched off….
Then she married Tom.
On the night of their wedding she sat on the edge of the bed in their honeymoon suite, nervously smoothing over her pale coral nightgown waiting for Tom, who was in the bathroom. When she heard the door open she jumped slightly and then composed herself, hoping for the evening to unfold as it had in her mind for all the months they had been engaged and she had held him off. But there was nothing soft in the way he approached her, but rather he grabbed both her hands and raised her to her feet, took off her nightgown in one swift motion and made her lay down on the bed. As she lay there with him on top of her, she felt the perfunctory motion of his body rocking in and out of her. Had she stood up and pushed him off and said, “This is not what I have been waiting for all these years!” perhaps it would have set the tone of their marriage differently, perhaps he would have respected her more.
And she had tried so hard with Margo and Effie. The hopes she had abandoned for her marriage she had used to give her daughters wonderful moments. But despite their visits and the holiday gatherings Stella could feel the distance between her and them, like a dark swamp widening steadily. She didn’t know if they could even remember because they had been so young, but if they begrudged her the times she had hidden away in her room and buried herself under the covers, then it was their shortcoming, not hers. It was her way of protecting them from herself, instead of lashing out with the frustrations that erupted within her day in and day out. Sabina was hers and Gabriel’s, born during a time in her life when she had just re-married, and was happy. Yet again, she also felt her youngest daughter was just as out of reach, for reasons she could not account for.
It was this way for Stella. The winter came, and the girls still visited her in the bedroom, and then closed the door behind them to speak with Gabriel about her condition and what was to be done. There was no true consensus. Until one afternoon when all four of them were sitting in front of the fireplace quietly drinking wine. It had been snowing for only a few hours and the cars on the street were dusted with snow, the dull grey of the sky quietly unchanging. They heard the bedroom door open and all of them exchanged glances and sat up, straining to hear what she was doing.
Stella came out wearing her black overcoat. Her hair was disheveled and her face was pale from sleep. She had on her snow boots and her gloves. Without a word, she took the car keys that were kept on the hook in the foyer and walked to the front door.
“Ma?” Sabina called out. Gabriel, Effie and Margo sat in silence staring at Stella.
“I have to go out,” she said absently, without looking at them.
“Maybe we should go with you,” Sabina said, rising.
“No. I’d rather you didn’t,” she said. As she turned the doorknob and opened the door Gabriel rushed over to her.
“Where are you going?” he asked. “Let me come with you.”
“No,” she said. “There’s no need.”
She left. No one said anything. A few minutes passed until Effie piped up, “What the fuck were we thinking letting her go off like that? What if she doesn’t come back?”
Margo stood up and started pacing. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!” she said almost yelling. “Where the hell did she go?”
By the time they thought to try to find her Stella was already halfway there. The roads were empty, and she left the radio off. She leaned her head back and kept her eyes on the road, her face blank and her eyes fixed.
The parking lot seemed so expansive without the usual sea of cars. It was still snowing. She got out and started walking, teetering at first on the patches where the snow had covered the sand. The ocean seemed a reflection of the sky, gray and distant. The waves swallowed the sand and swept back, the white foam dissolving. Stella closed her eyes and heard the rhythmic crashing of the ocean and she walked towards it. She promised herself she would walk and walk and walk and not open her eyes when she felt the brutal shock of the cold; already her teeth were chattering in her skull. She was close now. Before her feet touched the water she felt the water spraying at her face. It was all so familiar, her moistened brow, the loud raucous, but here it never stopped. For a moment she stood still and took a deep bow, so deep that her head almost touched the water.
Stella walked in, here eyes still closed, gripped with expectation, until she felt the cold water above her knees, soaking her pants. And she began to hum the tune softly at first, the words, familiar, began to form on her lips, until she could no longer contain herself. “There ain’t nothing I can’t do, or nothin’ I can’t say, that folks don’t criticize me…” she began in a whisper. The waves applauded with such immediacy that she smiled. It felt new. “But I’m goin’ to do as I want to anyway, and don’t care what they say about me.” She opened her eyes and saw the full force of the ocean, unstoppable and furious. She opened her arms as if she could wrap them around the body of this cold and penetrating thing and kept walking. The water was now waist-deep. She sang at the top of her lungs, wanting desperately to match the ocean’s roaring strength, “If I should take a notion to jump into the ocean, ain’t nobody’s business, ain’t nobody’s business if I do!”
Visions Literary Journal – Fall 2008