Her Other Life

Her Other Life
Christine Coward

My mother always said that daydreaming would get me in trouble.
That was nearly forty years ago. “Kara, get your head out of the clouds,” she’d admonish. I always fingered my necklace and said, “Yes, ma’am,” a little insincerely. After all, I wasn’t daydreaming. Mom just didn’t understand. When did it start? I can’t say. For as far back as I can remember, I Longed to be happy. Longed to love. Longed to be loved. I dreamed of these things, constantly. Through my life, my Longing held me. It held me through my days of dolls. It held me through my years on the honor roll. It held me as I began my career in Washington. It held me on that balmy, heady night when Josh proposed. It held me through the births of our daughters. Much has happened since then (at least I think so) and my Longing had held me. Now, as I sit in this gray room, fingering the doily on the armrest, waiting for the door to open, waiting for my name to be called, my Longing holds me, still.
Chapter 1 Kara pulled two dresses from the closet and tossed them on the bed. Which should she pack? The practical pink knit? Or the ooh-la-la yellow?Yellow. From the corner of her eye, she regarded her husband, who surveyed her progress. “You don’t have to go, you know,” he said from his perch on the spare dining room chair. He crossed his arms, and the chair creaked. “Of course I do. This show’s important.” “Important for whom?” Whom. “For thecompany.” Then she added, “And me.” He drummed his fingers on the chair’s arm. “Can’t you send an underling?” It was a sore point. Kara had been the one-woman marketing team for Complete Countertops for three years, reporting to the vice president for sales and marketing. It was nothing like the exciting job she had so long ago when she started her career as a Congressional research assistant in Washington—before she’d met Josh, before they moved to Florida. Before she went on the Mommy Track. But this job had offered some hope. When her company’s vice president left a month ago, Kara had been named acting VP. Turned out, acting was the operative word. Before replying, Kara steadied herself. “Josh, I am the underling.””You’ll get the promotion.” “Maybe.” She hoisted her suitcase onto the bed. Plucking a tennis shoe from the floor, she slipped it into an old sock. “You know how political these things are. Who knows how long it’ll take them to decide? Meanwhile, I’m the VP and the marketing staff. Me. By myself.” She turned away, her eyes sweeping the room. It was neat and calm, with white furniture, a wheat-colored bedspread, and pale blue walls. Josh gestured to the pile on the bed. “That’s everything you own.” Kara, too, surveyed the clothes. Who am I fooling? It doesn’t matter what I wear. I am plain. Sooner or later, Ed will see it. She gave herself a little shake and returned her mind to business, to the promotion. She wanted it, brutal workload and all. “So what do you think?” he asked. Shit. He’d been talking. She strained to hear the echoes of his words. She’d learned to do that, snatch moments-old phrases from the air. Schedule … electric bill … microwave….” “The microwave,” he prompted. The microwave. It had gone dead, right in the middle of steaming tonight’s broccoli. Something was always breaking in this house. Repair or replace? Every week she and Josh spent hours discussing whether to repair or replace this or that. Almost inevitably, they decided to replace. “… can’t get along without a microwave,” he was saying. She zipped her suitcase and dropped it next to her leather carry-on, which was bursting with papers. The other materials had been shipped to Arizona days ago. It would do no good to suggest that Josh buy a microwave while she was out of town. He’d insist they pick it out together, compare all the features, research the consumer ratings. “That’s what married people do,” he would say. “Make decisions together.” He’d use anything he could to claim chunks of her already overloaded schedule, and he would cling to his list of “rules,” one of which was that husbands and wives should never make decisions independently. She shook off her resentment. “As soon as I get back, we’ll go shopping.” She broke away, kissed her daughters goodnight, programmed the coffee maker, and climbed into bed. It was nearly one AM. She should have been exhausted, but as she plumped her pillows, Longing settled in. She fingered her silver necklace. It was a gift from her namesake great-aunt Kara. Aunt Kara, a jewelry maker, had fashioned the pendant for her great-niece’s sixth birthday. It was a triangle that rotated in a circle. From the first day she’d spun the triangle, Kara sensed something special, something symbolic, in its three sides. As years passed, she never removed the pendant, not even when Josh bought her pearls for their wedding, and she wore the two necklaces together. Tonight, she touched one side of the triangle. “To be happy,” she whispered. She turned it and touched an adjacent side. “To love.” She touched the last. “To be loved.” She tucked the necklace in her nightshirt and settled under the covers. “I miss you, Aunt Kara.” In the background she heard Josh on his nightly rounds, rattling doors and windows; fingering plugs and light switches; sniffing for whiffs of smoke; and peering behind doors, under beds, behind shower curtains, and into cabinets. Tonight she welcomed his ritual. It would give her an hour to herself. Time for a little ritual of my own.
Chapter 2 Kara settled further into the covers, lying on her side, her head nestled into one pillow, her arms and legs wrapped around another. This was the best part of the day: the journey into the subconscious. Her pillow would carry her over the threshold. She flipped to her other side, now facing the door to the living room, hauling the pillow around with her, thinking, thinking … oh, that jumpy-monkey mind … fretting over things that could go wrong at the conference … fretting over daughter Coral’s mood swings. She peered through the door. Josh was in the living room, taking a few mincing steps, stopping, taking a few more steps. Good God, he was feeling the light bulbs! Strangely, this new obsession relaxed her. And so the journey began. She clasped her hands, her fingers intertwined, and squeezed the pillow. Oh, to be twenty and still in school. Oh, to have her old job on Capital Hill. Oh, to have that special man to love and be loved by…. She bolted upright. Guilt! That was the problem with fantasies. They made you feel guilty. She snatched up the pillow, which had tumbled to the floor. Thinking of a guilt-free fantasy was hard work. She tugged at the covers, nestled down, and started again. She let her mind drift. Another chance, another love, another life…. Her breathing slowed. The pillow was an amorphous Being, not human, just nurturing. Kara felt heavy, sinking into the bedding, her eyebrows, mouth, and ears feeling soft. Deeper, deeper. The journey had not reached the realm of dreams, but it had gone beyond the realm of thought, and images flitted by—unreined, uncensored, unguilty. Now the pillow seemed human, like when she was young and it became the husband she wished for someday. Back then, the pillow-man was faceless, but she always knew “he” was good. “He” would make her happy. She squeezed the pillow to her damp cheek, sighed deeply, and allowed herself to drift farther. The faceless pillow-man was transforming, focusing in her mind’s eye. Now he had a face. A face she’d see this weekend. She wanted to ask that dear face the question that had consumed her for months: if you do something “wrong” and no one is hurt, is it still wrong? She knew his answer. She knew hers. They were different. Deeper, deeper, she drifted. Microwave… Josh … repair or replace?… it was only a business trip….
Chapter 3 Each of us lives in a separate universe. —M.R. Franks
Kara awoke, alert, seconds before the alarm buzzed. She turned it off and lay still, thinking. Sunlight from the French doors bathed the room, the overhead fan riffled the air, and from the kitchen the coffeemaker burped lustily, signaling the end of its cycle. All was normal. She propped herself on her elbow. Josh lay next to her, mouth open, the white sheet chest-high over his beige pajamas. In repose he looked sweet, almost like the man she married. He opened an eye. “Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you to the airport? I can, you know. But I need to know now so I can rearrange my schedule.” “No thanks, honey. They’re sending a limo.” “Well, sometimes they’re not—” She cupped her hand, almost touching his forehead, a half-caress, half keep-your-distance gesture. “No, dear,” she said, more sharply than she’d intended. “But thanks. Josh sat up, pulling the sheet with him. “We’ve got to talk to the yard people. Did you see the job they did on the hedge? It’s like they didn’t even try to cut it straight. What’s wrong with people? And Senator Granaldi, lying about his mistresses. And Coral. She’s been sulky. We’ve got to.… Snip, are you listening?” Kara nodded. Her day always began with his rat-tat of complaints, criticisms, and we’ve-got-to’s that seemed to burble up before he even opened his eyes. She threw off the covers and yes-deared until he grabbed the remote and turned on CNN. “Toto,” she called, “Outside!” Toto lay still, and Kara looked with affection at the sixteen-year-old Shih Tsu. When the family first took in the five-year-old rescue dog, Jade had wanted to name her after the little terrier in The Wizard of Oz. Coral had hated the name—wanted to keep the dog’s original name, “Penguin”—but Josh liked Toto, so Jade prevailed. Kara caressed the deaf dog’s ears until she awoke and then guided her to the living area, and out the front door. Business dispatched, they returned and Kara set down the kibble. Coral and Jade emerged from their bedrooms. Kara poured herself a cup of coffee while the girls mumbled their greetings and clattered bowls, milk, sugar, napkins, and spoons, which they assembled on the table by the bay window. Quite a picture they were: slender Coral, all in black, blue highlights shimmering in her cascading hair; and round, full-of-the-juices-of-life Jade, whose tomato-red top turned her bronze curls gold. They squared off at the table, backlit by the still-pinkish morning sun. “Mo-o-om,” Coral sang, “Jade’s eating Fruit Loops.” “It’s okay,” Jade snapped. “Dad got them.” “Liar. Dad won’t let us have Fruit Loops.” Kara closed her eyes. Eating sweetened cereal for breakfast was against house rules, and of course she should step in. Problem was, interceding now would be tantamount to taking sides. Not now, she told herself, not right before I leave. Ignoring the skirmish, Kara unwrapped a power bar. How could two girls amassed from the same brew of genes be so different? Yin and yang, they were, sitting at the breakfast table, arguing over Fruit Loops, acting as if they were six and three, not seventeen and fourteen. Some things were so predictable. It was no accident that the Fruit Loops squabble happened precisely now, just as Josh had turned on the shower, one of the few times when he couldn’t hear them. The house had been built some thirty years ago, in the era of “great rooms,” meaning that the kitchen, living room, family room, and dining room were one huge space. The four bedrooms opened off this central area. This open space comprised the Cuesta universe, whose very openness, ironically, constrained their freedom. Kara popped the last bit of her bar into her mouth. Squabbling while Josh was in the shower was as much a part of the girls’ routines as brushing their teeth, a chance to thrash things out without Josh’s rushing in to “fix” them. Her daughters were cunning, Kara had to hand them that, and she glanced involuntarily at the family portrait, just visible in the foyer. There was no mistaking the timeframe. Coral had just turned four, and only days before she had thrown her first tantrum. The shrieking and pounding of fists and feet had lasted a full hour. This was the Arsenic Hour, that time between nap and dinner. Whole books had been written on the Arsenic Hour, one pediatrician attributing it to hunger, another to fatigue, another to poor parenting, and so on. But Kara knew what all mothers know. The Arsenic Hour is a test from the devil (and the child involved). No matter when Josh came home, Coral’s Arsenic Hour began precisely ninety seconds earlier. And there was another thing. Throughout the tantrum, Coral would pause occasionally, her little-girl eyes asking, Are you watching? How well Kara remembered the first tantrum, when Josh, hearing the racket from outside, had burst through the door. “You let her do that?” he had raged, and Kara had stammered, aghast and ashamed. But over the ensuing months, she learned how to ignore the tantrums for the ploy they were. “Now she’ll throw herself on the floor every time she wants something,” Josh accused. “She’ll go through life a demanding, spoiled….” Coral smirked while he ranted, as toddlers will when they’ve pitted one parent against the other, and Kara had wondered if Josh weren’t right—if allowing the tantrums set a dangerous precedent. And then one day, the tantrums stopped. Whether Coral had outgrown them or had simply gotten bored, Kara didn’t know. All she knew was that her little girl was back. Three years later, it was Jade’s turn. The Arsenic tantrums were among the few things her daughters had in common. Now, years later, leaning against the counter, Kara eyed the picture. The young photographer had captured them all: Josh, his face creased with annoyance; Coral, even then looking older than her years, folding her little arms in a sulk; Jade, though just a baby, pursing her lips manipulatively; and Kara, looking soft and dreamy and determined, all at once. For a moment, Kara thought baby Jade winked, and then the picture seemed to transform to a blast of white light. Kara looked away, towards the girls at the table. When the flash was over, she returned her gaze to the picture, and for a split second, the colors reversed—black becoming white, red becoming green—but before she could be sure, the pictured returned to normal, except now everything within the frame seemed infused with sparkles. “Earth to Mom.” It was Jade. Kara swiveled her head to Jade and back to the picture, and the scenario repeated: blinding white light, color reverse, and then normal. Really normal: no sparkles. Kara stood there, mesmerized, wondering if the girls had played a trick. But no, it was clear they hadn’t seen anything unusual, other than their mother’s confusion. Was this a dream? Kara pondered the question until her theory took shape: For just an instant, she’d fallen asleep on her feet, and in her fatigue, she’d succumbed to the part-asleep, part-awake netherworld where the mind plays tricks. “Mom? You okay?” Kara, still standing at the counter, leaned down heavily. “Yes. I’m sorry. What?” “I asked where you’re going.” “Oh. Phoenix.” “Phoenix. Cool.” And then the girls’ attention shifted. Coral trudged to the sink, dumped her half-eaten Puffed Wheat, and jammed her bowl in the dishwasher as damp-haired Josh burst into the room. He’d missed the exchange but took in the scene. The girls were on one side of the sink, his wife, clearly dazed, on the other. Jade started to edge away as he approached.. “Stop,” he ordered. “Have you both done your homework?” “Yes, Daddy,” they answered in unison. “Are you ready for your Friday quizzes?” “Yes, Daddy.” “Done your constitutionals?” “Aw, Dad!” “Have you?” “Yes, Daddy,” Coral sighed. “Yes, Daddy,” Jade echoed. “Good.” Josh’s eyes drifted to Jade’s bowl. There was no denying the stray orange and pink O’s swimming in the dregs of milk. “Is that Fruit Loops?” he demanded. “Did you have Fruit Loops for breakfast?” She flashed her most innocent look. “Yes, Daddy.” Coral smirked while Josh scolded, “You know better. The Fruit Loops are for snacks. You might as well have candy for breakfast. I’m disappointed in you, Jade. It’s not just that you had an unhealthy breakfast. Breaking a house rule is a form of lying. I suppose you think it’s okay to lie….” Kara studied them, unsure how to weigh in. Josh and the girls reminded her of dancers who continue their pirouettes, even though the music has stopped, even though the show is over and the theater dark. Her gaze was drawn to the window, and she wondered if somewhere “out there” a world existed where someone like her wasn’t ignored, scorned, or belittled by her job, children, and husband. Where a man with no agenda other than devotion enfolded that woman his arms, and she in turn held him. Where honest, forthright intercourse melted the skirmishes of everyday life. Where one was free to love. What a world that would be! Kara pulled her gaze back to Josh and the girls, still in the throes of their dance. Her gut pinched, and she wondered if what she felt were … contempt? She suppressed it, angry with herself. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” Jade said, wiping her dry cheek. “I thought these were okay, like Sun Flakes. You eat Sun Flakes. They’re even sweeter than Fruit Loops.” It was a masterful performance, and Jade’s eyes glittered mischievously under her lashes as her father relented. Then things happened quickly. The limo arrived, and even Toto grew alert. Josh rolled Kara’s suitcase and carry-on to the front stoop, where the three of them gathered. Jade scooped Toto into her arms. “Bye, Snip,” Josh said. “I love you.” Kara hated Josh’s nickname for her, a shortening of “snippy.” “Bye,” she answered. “I’ll call you tonight.” Kara hugged them, slung her purse on her shoulder, and slid into the car. “Wait,” she said, and popped back out. She rushed back to the stoop and kissed four cheeks, including Toto’s. They’ll miss me, she thought as she eased back into the limo. The driver shut the door, backed onto the street, and took off. They picked up speed, and Kara lowered her window. She’d be away for three days. That was all. What could happen in three days? Ahead lay hard work, seeing Ed, and the client dinner. At that dinner, her company’s drama-loving president, Lester O’Malley, might announce her promotion. Change was afoot. She felt it in her very blood and bones, saw it in the infinite sapphire sky, and heard it in the whoosh of the wind. Change. Kara waved through the window. Josh and Coral waved back, and Jade pumped Toto’s paw. The car rounded the corner, and long after the house was out of sight, Kara held her hand aloft, her throat and gut tight. I’m losing them, she thought, fingering her necklace. No. I’m getting away.