An excerpt from Lavina
There’s no such thing as a direct flight from New York to Murpheysfield, Louisiana. I’d gotten one of those cheap seats that stopped in Pittsburg and Atlanta. By the last leg, the plane was all but empty; my seat mate, like almost everyone else, had gotten off. I was alone and completely paranoid. I didn’t know someone had actually been watching me since New York. I thought I was jumping out of my skin because of where I was going and who I was going to see. I remember hoisting myself up to take a look around the plane. Way in back two old ladies sat alone, bent over their knitting; empty seats all around them. In front, on the other side of the aisle, I didn’t see a person, just a fold-down tray with some balled up napkins, a swizzle stick, and three empty bottles of airline booze knocked down like baby bowling pins. A lush, I decided.
I gave him a name right away, even before I actually saw him.
The call had come the week before. I walked into the kitchen, pressed the button on the answering machine and heard her strident voice—distant but familiar—an enemy I’d known all my life.
“Mary Jacob, this is your sister! We’re at the Shumpert Hospital. I’m puttin’ Daddy on the line.”
Then, an earsplitting clunk of the phone being dropped. I cringed even before the real shocker, his deep voice full of sadness.
“Child, I want you to come home. I’m longin’ to see you.”
Since then I’d spoken to Kathryn twice in one week; we normally spoke maybe twice in five years. I still had not spoken to my father again. My sister’s insistent drawl was in my head, like a catchy tune I didn’t want to be there. “You ever heard of a kidney machine, sister? Poor Daddy has to go on one. We’re takin’ him home tomorrow. Did I tell you I’m engaged again? My fiancé is up in New York City right now. If you take that morning flight next Tuesday, why, he’ll probably be on it too. He’s comin’ to see me and to help me out with poor Daddy. Why, I don’t believe I’ve ever met your husband or your son.” S-u-uhn like it has three syllables instead of one.
In back of a barf bag, I found the laminated safety card with the little stick figures free-falling into space. I studied what to do if we landed at sea.
Not that there’s a sea anywhere near Murpheysfield. Down below were pine trees, farm fields, and red dirt, the color of blood when it dries.
I looked up from the disaster card and saw a big blond man, hands grasping the top of the seats, barreling down the aisle, bringing with him a whiff from the bathroom, the nasty soap, the smell of shit, the lush of the three empty booze bottles. He stopped in the aisle, stared at me pointedly and started doing a kiss-y thing with his lips.
“Mind your own business, dick head.” I didn’t say that. Nor did I explain myself to the stranger. Why should I?
“Look, I’m not the kind of person who makes out with her seatmate on an airplane. I was acting out, or more to the point, he was kind and handsome, and he listened.” Instead, I stared down at my watch and waited for this stranger to take his seat and quit harassing me. I didn’t really care that the red-faced man thought I was wild.
The plane felt like it was sinking. My gut did too. I had a catch in my throat, I wasn’t breathing very well. I was halfway hoping Big Daddy would be dead by the time I got there. Yet, I was curious. The old man had never asked for me before; this last wish was his first.
And being down there, I could skip marital therapy . . .
“Tell me a little about your parents, Mary Jacob. What was their relationship like?”
“I don’t remember. My mother died when I was twelve. I was sent away to boarding school after that. I never saw much married life.”
“You don’t remember anything; that’s unusual. And is your father alive now?”
“Did he remarry?”
“And what’s your relationship like with him?”
“We don’t have a relationship.”
“That sounds sad.”
“We’re not one of those close families.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“I don’t feel much at all; it’s the way it’s always been.”
“Well, it sounds sort of sad to me.”
Then the kindly gaze that’s seen it all turns on my husband. “And Peter, are you from a close family?”
“We’re not close, we’re claustrophobic. My father died a couple of years ago. My mother lives in Brooklyn. Sometimes I think Mary Jacob’s lucky.”
“So your relationship’s tough then?”
“She’s my mother, she drives me crazy. She drives everyone crazy!”
And so on. As it turns out, according to our therapist, I have no role models. Though even Peter admits I’m a good mother and wife, and described me to Michael as loving and devoted, two words he normally wouldn’t get caught dead using. Michael translated “loving and devoted” as Peter feeling left out of the picture. Maybe he’s not in the picture because he doesn’t want to be. Did I say that? I must have said that.
My best friend and collaborator Vincent, who is from New Orleans, doesn’t see his family either. Maybe this is a southern thing. Still and all, he can paint a pretty clear picture of the afternoon his mother walked in his room and caught him with another boy: the sound of his mother gasping; pulling his pants up hastily, then covering the other boy; the way the light was coming in the window, the smell of new mown grass, the color of the sheets, and the texture of the blanket.
I wasn’t so much sent away as dismissed, forgotten. Kathryn, who is five years older, married when she was eighteen and left home. Our mother died that same year. She was hardly cold before my father married my sister’s best friend Van—also eighteen—and I was sent away. I was, I’ve always supposed, nothing more than a classic case of the unwanted child, too close in age to Van. And to his third wife too. When his fourth wife Margaret was alive, though we never visited, she sent my children hundred dollar checks at Christmas time. In turn, I sent them a pot of tulips with a neutral non-denominational greeting and signed everyone’s names. After Margaret died, Big Daddy Jack hit the road, until now.