It’s a soft, lazy morning with the early June sunlight tumbling into our kitchen where the four of us move in a carbohydrate-high daze after indulging in Max’s triple-fruit pancakes. I’m loading the dishwasher, Margaret’s finishing the cold rice salad we’re taking to the Cunninghams’, Max holds Jeremy on his lap, reading the Boston Globe comic section aloud, simulating tough-guy growls or femme-fatal falsettos so extravagantly that Jeremy’s in hysterics and even Margaret grins.
“I’m going to organize the beach bag,” I tell them, and hurry up the stairs. We’ll spend most of the day outside, so I head for the children’s bathroom to search through the cabinet for the new bottle of sunblock I know I bought, when all at once the bag drops from my hand. My heart hammers fast and hard. Hot blood churns up through my chest, floods my face.
I slam the bathroom door, lean against it. What the hell is going on? Am I dying? I’m thirty-seven, way too young for hot flashes. Anyway, these things can’t be called flashes, they’re more like explosions, as if my heart is full of time bombs.
I hate this, I hate this. My heart trips and gallops. My fingertips are numb. My lips are icy. I’m afraid.
I drop to the floor, curl up into the smallest possible mass, wedge myself into the corner, the cool ceramic tiles like walls, like barricades behind my back. I bring my knees to my chest, drop my forehead on my knees, cross my arms over my head, like someone in a crashing plane.
“Mom?” Jeremy wanders up and down the hall, calling for me. Oh, God, I hope I locked the bathroom door when I came in here. I don’t want him to find me like this, but at the moment it’s beyond my powers to crawl over there and check to see if the lock is snapped. “Mom? Dad says it’s time to go.”
I can’t answer. I hear him shuffle off
I can’t sort through the commotion in my head. Is it anger? Is it that I feel pressured— trapped? It feels like fear.
But what do I have to fear? I mutter to myself: Be reasonable, Lucy. If it’s the job offer from Jared Falconer, well for God’s sake, you can deal with that. If Max feels really strongly about it, then don’t take it. If you feel even more strongly that you want it, then do take it. You can work it out, you and Max. And the children will be just fine. Margaret’s fourteen. Jeremy’s going to be in first grade this year; he’ll be in school most of the day. It’s Max, isn’t it? You’re afraid of Max, afraid he’ll disappear into one of his effing depressions.
“Mom? Are you in there?” Margaret taps on the door.
“Be out in a minute,” I call.
Okay, my voice works. I drag myself up to the sink to splash cold water on my face. I stare at my reflection. My heart slows. I’m okay.
Occasionally I’ve had other bizarre spells, fits of dread that seize me in the middle of a clear bright day, and I never can figure out what’s going on, and then two days later something happens: My aunt dies, a friend’s child is hit by a car. That doesn’t mean I’m psychic any more than it means I’m psychotic. Mostly it just makes me uncomfortable.
But these are, I think, panic attacks, and they’ve been happening a lot recently. I’ve got to do something about them. If it’s the job offer, I’ll talk it out with Max and make a decision. That should stop them.
Get a grip, I order my reflection. “All right, I’m ready!” I call, and fly out of the room, grab up the canvas carryall, and head down the stairs like any normal mother.
In the kitchen Max has Jeremy sitting on the counter while he ties his sneaker. Over his shoulder, he asks, “You okay?”
In one easy movement, Max lifts Jeremy up onto his shoulders. “Okay, crew, time for blastoff.”
When the four of us crowd our way through the front hall, Midnight and Cinnamon fly into their usual Kamikaze Cat routine, streaking back and forth, ears back, tails bristling, tripping us. As we step out into the bright light of day, Margaret morphs from contented daughter of the house to blank-faced sophisticate, so that anyone passing by won’t think she actually has a family.
We set our bags in the trunk, then pile into the Volvo station wagon, Max in the driver’s seat. I relax, roll up the sleeves and undo the buttons of my blue cotton shirt, letting the sun fall on my throat and chest. I lean my head back. The heat feels good.
I look over at my husband, who’s dressed for a day off in shorts and a cotton T-shirt, an old present from his staff that reads on the front: “How many editors does it take to change a lightbulb?” And on the back: “One, but first he has to rewire the entire building.” Six days a week his newspaper has him, pretty much heart and soul, but on Sundays he belongs to us, and when he’s really with us as he is today, he lights up our lives.
We drive through a town flooded with morning light, past houses and lawns shining as if freshly washed, out toward the country.
“Daddy,” Jeremy calls, “can we do the ant song?”
“Sure. Let’s see. How does it start?” Max tosses me one of his lightning-white smiles, then begins to sing: “The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hooray, the ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hooray!” He throws his head back, letting his rich baritone roll out into the air. His teeth are a beautiful milk white against his tan, and his black hair glistens and curls like the pelt of a vigorously healthy animal. This is my Max at his best.
“The ants go marching one by one, the little stopped to suck his thumb!” Jeremy croons.
I add my vague soprano to the mix. “And they all go marching down, into the ground, to get out of the rain!”
Jeremy pokes his sister. “The ant song!” he yells at her
Margaret rolls her eyes at him and presses the earphones tightly against her head, but by the time we’re on three—“the little one stops to take a pee”—she’s yanked the earphones down around her neck and joined in. She loves this stupid song as much as we do, and we’ve been coming to the Cunninghams’ for summer Sundays forever, and she really doesn’t want to miss a thing, not even her brother’s maniacal laughter because we all said “pee.”
By the time we finish the song, we’re turning off the main highway onto a winding, potholed, empty stretch of secondary road through farmland.
“Dad!” Jeremy calls. “Can I drive?”
“All right,” Max says, and slows the car. Jeremy undoes his seat belt and climbs over into the front seat, his wiry little body seemingly composed entirely of elbows and knees. Max pushes back his car seat to make room for Jeremy on his lap, reminds Jeremy where to put his hands, and off we creep at fifteen miles an hour, with Jeremy concentrating so hard he’s got his tongue stuck between his teeth. Occasionally the car wavers over too far to the left, but Jeremy’s doing a pretty good job as we bump along.
Just before we reach the Cunninghams’, an old red truck approaches from the other direction, clanking and shuddering.
“Dad?” Jeremy queries.
“You can do it,” Max tells him. “Keep your eyes on the road. Don’t look at the truck. Look toward the right side of the road.”
We all hold our breath while Jeremy steers the Volvo. We’re even with the truck, and then it’s behind us, and Margaret cheers, “Well done, Germ!” and Max tousles his son’s hair. “Yes, Jeremy. Good job.”
The road bends. Thickets of trees and shrubs loom above, forming a green-black tunnel, and then we go around a curve into the sunshine. The Cunningham farm spreads out beneath the blue sky.
“We’re here!” Jeremy yells.
“Can you make the turn into the drive?” Max asks.
The road runs parallel with a long fenced pasture where Chip’s beautiful gelding Gringo grazes beneath a tree. The horse raises his head, watches us go by, swishes his tail disdainfully, and returns to his grass. Seven-year-old Abby’s there, too, in jodhpurs and a sleeveless plaid shirt, waving enthusiastically. She’s on her pony Brownie, and Princess, the other Shetland, stands in readiness at Brownie’s side.
The Cunninghams’ historic brick Georgian mansion rises up like a set for Masterpiece Theatre. Max helps Jeremy make the turn past the neat circle drive at the front of the house to park on the white gravel at the side. We spill out of the car. The golden lab, Sugar, waddles out to greet us, her tail wagging.
Chip lopes toward us, a tall blond man wearing only swimming trunks and sneakers. His shoulders are burned, his skin glimmers with sweat. No doubt he’s been working in his vegetable garden, or cutting brush away from his various trails through the woods.
Copyright © 2014 by Nancy Thayer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.