Saturday, December 13, 2008

Absent, Part I, Chap 1

Part I – 2004

August

1.------Santa Fe, New Mexixo

A cool morning at the café, with the door open and a long line of customers waiting to give their orders for coffee, chai, muffins. Emilie’s taking the orders, manning the cash register.

“Soy latte, please, 12 ounce,” comes a familiar voice. Emilie looks up from her order pad into the face of her high school best friend. Lorrie is staring at her with a look of amazement. “Emilie? Is that you? I don’t believe it.”

Emilie doesn’t believe it, either, although recognition by someone was inevitable. Garcia Joe is a Santa Fe destination. Tourons—AKA tourists—love it. They feel authentic there, part of the real Santa Fe scene.

But, in a place like that where everybody’s studying the overhead menu and looking at the pastry case or each other, people don’t usually notice the server. Most of the people Emilie knows from Houston wouldn’t have seen past her surface appearance, anyway. She’d intended misdirection of this sort when she buzzed her head the previous spring. She has piercings, too, although she doesn’t remember how those happened. They’re residue from the void, the darkness, the time she was gone from herself.

“That’ll be two-seventy-five, please,” she says, trying for a neutral professional tone.

Lorrie is frowning at her, though, holding up the line instead of paying and moving down the counter to pick up her drink. “Emilie, what are you doing here?” she asks. She sounds almost offended for some reason.

“I can’t talk now,” Emilie says. Go away, she’s thinking. Just go away.

“I’ll wait for you,” Lorrie says. And for the next twenty minutes, Emilie can feel her old friend’s probing gaze as she goes about the motions of her job. Making stupid mistakes, too, as though her brain is so feeble it can’t handle two stresses at once, which is probably true.

What on earth can she say to Lorrie? How can she begin to explain that she doesn’t know how she got to Santa Fe, how she found her job, even how she acquired the name she uses—Elly. She doesn’t remember leaving Houston. It’s as though the person who did those things had simply ceased to exist—but not completely, because in a way that person has been present ever since, standing somewhere just behind Emilie, perceptible the way you sense something wrong in a room before you see it.

On break, at last, she leads Lorrie outside, to chairs at the far end of the garden where they will be separated from the other customers by shrubbery. Seated, Lorrie leans toward her eagerly, trying to engage. “So tell me, what’s going on with you? I thought you got married. Didn’t you have a kid, or something?”

It seems to Emilie that the ground makes a little shudder beneath her feet. “I really don’t know what to say,” she tells Lorrie, and then she smiles. She hopes it is a warm and friendly smile. Over the past few months, Emilie has learned that if she arranges her face pleasantly and says as little as possible, the person across from her will fill in the conversational silences. So she sits there and waits for Lorrie to talk.

In the next few minutes, she learns that Lorrie lives in Seattle, but loves Santa Fe so much she’s thinking of moving here. No husband anymore. No children. “Santa Fe is so beautiful,” Lorrie gushes, “the sunlight is fabulous. You’re so lucky.”

At the moment, though, Emilie doesn’t feel lucky. That’s because she can hear the question grinding away beneath the surface of Lorrie’s chatter, the question she knows Lorrie is dying to ask. How could you have gone off and left your baby? It’s the big question, the one Emilie asks herself all the time, and can’t answer.
Instead, however, Lorrie’s absorbed in relating the details of her own calamities. She’s been married twice since college, imagine that, she says. Both men were lawyers, and she realizes now that all she really wanted out of them was the approval she never got from her dad. She never obtained it from them, either, it appears. At least that’s one mistake she won’t be making again any time soon. As Lorrie says this, her face droops momentarily into the expression it will wear in her forties. Just as quickly, though, she pastes the upbeat look back on.

“Well,” she says, finally, and gets to her feet. “I’ve got an appointment to look at a condo over on Palace. Let’s have lunch one day soon, OK?”

And after Lorrie’s gone, Emilie sits there alone for a few minutes, staring at the dry ground beneath a butterfly bush where a spindly Echinacea is struggling to push its head out into the sun.

She has to go home. She has no choice any longer.


It’s been almost a year since Emilie began to regain a sense of herself in little bursts, the way that flares from a match in the dark reveal shapes of a tantalizing familiarity. And then, one afternoon she was on the Cerrillos Road bus, going to buy underwear at the mall, and suddenly the main things were all there—the fact she lived in Houston and had a husband; her name, too—Emilie—although, at first, his was still too slippery to grasp. She could feel the weight of his shoulders. She could see his eyes, the iris a light striated brown and gold. She remembers waiting for the warmth that should rise to greet the thought of him, but it didn’t come.

Across the aisle and one seat forward, a woman was comforting a crying infant, patting his diapered bottom in a slow steady rhythm as they bounced along. Over the woman’s shoulder, Emilie watched the baby’s face, an especially round one, with perfectly round, dark eyes. A corona of sparse hair floated, lightly tethered to his smooth, perfect skull. He—or she—will be a redhead, Emilie thought. A sick feeling spread upward from her stomach, then, as she realized she, too, had a child.

Her heart had seized painfully at the remembered weight of her baby slumping in trust against her breasts, the milky sweetness of breath, his silken skin…She had to think of something else. Across from her, the baby’s soft mouth made little sucking sounds, his tongue working behind plump roseate lips, slightly parted, glistening with saliva. That’s when Emilie’s stomach flipped and she vomited onto the floor of the bus the Coke she didn’t remember drinking. There had been nothing else inside her to lose.

She should have gone back to Houston, right then. She should have done something active to find out what had happened, instead of just continuing to drift. Why didn’t she? She was afraid, mainly. She knew she couldn’t have left her son easily. There had to be serious reasons why she was there in New Mexico while her baby remained in Texas. Something really bad must have happened. Could she have hurt him?
The horror of this thought trapped her. She needed to know, and she was terrified of knowing. The result was paralysis. Be patient, she told herself. Eventually everything will clear, like one of those low early clouds that dissolve into the Sangres with the climbing of the sun.

Except it hadn’t. Her lost weeks stayed lost, and she was left with the way she is now—when portions of what she thinks of as herself feel mostly normal; and others feel as though they’ve been erased, leaving only the sense of something missing. The absence of her son is a constant ache, a longing there is no way to satisfy.

Just a few days before Lorrie turned up at the café, she hadn’t been able to stand it any longer. She’d borrowed a co-worker’s cell phone and called her own house. She’d drunk a second latte, triple shot, to get up the nerve. She picked late-morning when she was sure Paul would be at work. Standing on the café’s patio as far away from customers as possible, she’d dialed the familiar number.

She could see the phone ringing in what had been her kitchen. She could see Sylverta hurrying toward it. She would just ask if Doak was okay. That’s assuming she was able to speak around the large lump in her throat. Her heart thundered in her ears as the phone rang the fifth time, and then voicemail picked up—Paul’s voice, and in the background the sound of a small boy talking to their dog in a surprisingly audible tone. She dialed the number six times, just to hear him say: Shhh, Max. Daddy wants quiet.

Doak, her son, is alive.

She remembers that her legs gave way, then, dropping her onto one of the low tables recently cleared of coffee cups and empty plates. Her relief had been so profound, she felt disoriented, even less substantial than usual. But still she hadn’t gone home. It was as though Doak had been put on pause, captured there in the repeating voicemail, waiting safely for her, while she…what?

Dithered, that’s what.

She knows it’s no excuse, but she’s made a life here—one without antecedents, without telling people where she went to college, where she came from originally, without looking for shared prior experiences to build communication around. She has a boyfriend, too—Tom—who seems perfectly happy to live in the present tense.
She hasn’t been straight with him, though. She’s never told him she has another name and home. She hasn’t said she was married, that she has a son. Being with him is so easy, she hasn’t wanted anything to disturb it—not at all the way she should feel—a married mother so far removed from her real life, her child.

Lorrie’s arrival, however, changes everything. Now that Lorrie knows where she is, everyone in Houston will find out. Everyone that matters, anyway. Emilie’s mother and Lorrie’s are good friends. She might as well announce it on Oprah.

4 comments:

PJ's talkin'.... said...

I'm enjoying this book... especially the woman...

Bdogs said...

That's great. Her mother and grandmother are coming. Wonder what you'll think of them...

Cher said...

It's hard to put yourself out there for all to see, especially without the work first going through the colon of an editor. I wonder how many more blogbook authors are out there on the limb with us.

But I like blogbooking. The response is almost instantaneous, whether by comments or by how many readers are stopping by. Cool AND scarey at the same time!

I like your style of writing. It's not rushed. It's full of feeling. It makes a woman identify with the gal and brings up questions that the reader wants answered. It did for me, anyway. I want to read more. I'll take another chapter please.

VINTAGE GIRL AT HEART said...

This is wonderful, I must go back and read the beginning!!!