Read Marisa de los Santos - Belong to Me Online
Authors: Marisa de los Santos
Belong to Me
Marisa de los Santos
For Charles and Annabel,
my sleek brown otters
My fall from suburban grace, or, more accurately, my failure…
As Piper sat on a hard, wooden, undersized chair in…
Dev Tremain wasn’t Sarah Chang or Gregory R. Smith or…
Chicken Soup for the Soul. You’ve heard of these books,…
Dev was figuring things out.
When Piper turned eight years old, Piper’s grandmother—the good grandmother,…
An e-mail from my sister, Ollie:
Piper was reading to the kids when Elizabeth called.
Generally speaking, Dev wasn’t all that interested in the notion…
It’s highly unlikely that my brother Toby will ever have…
In the last weeks of Elizabeth’s illness, when she had…
As the back end of the noxious-fume-spewing, banana-hauling eighteen-wheeler came…
When you unexpectedly find yourself a member of a group…
She could have forgiven the infidelity. She would not forgive…
It hadn’t been easy, separating the “Rafferty” from the “Pleat.”
Chapter Technically speaking, I was not the last person in my…
When you considered the whole of human history, which Dev…
Here is how I remember it.
What knocked the wind out of Piper was not the…
For two days and two nights, Dev’s brain went on…
Childbirth is old hat, the oldest around, a story told…
We are all here, in our backyard, noisy under the…
About the Author
Other Books by Marisa de los Santos
About the Publisher
y fall from suburban grace, or, more accurately, my failure to achieve the merest molehill of suburban grace from which to fall, began with a dinner party and a perfectly innocent, modestly clever, and only faintly quirky remark about Armand Assante.
Armand Assante, the actor. If you didn’t know that Armand Assante was an actor, don’t be alarmed. Had I not caught, years ago, the second part of the two-part small-screen adaptation of Homer’s
I might not have known, either, but whether or not you are familiar with the work of Armand Assante, you are right to wonder how he could have had a hand in anyone’s fall from grace, suburban or otherwise. I wondered myself, and, even now, I don’t have a clear or satisfying explanation for either of us.
What I know is that I was doing my best. I had lit out for the suburbs in the manner of pioneers and pilgrims, not so bravely and with fewer sweeping historical consequences, but with that same combination of discouragement and hope, that simultaneous running-away and running-toward. I was a woman ready for a new life. I was trying to make friends, to adapt to my new environment, and for reasons that felt entirely out of my control, I was failing.
People like to say that cities are impersonal, that there’s nothing like a big city to make a person feel small. And, sure, when viewed from the top of a twenty-story building, I’m an ant, you’re an ant, everyone’s an ant.
Trust me. I know what it means to be small. I’m five feet tall and weigh about as much as your average sack of groceries, but for years, every time I walked down a city street, I could have sworn I expanded. I lost track of where I ended and the city began, and after a few blocks, I’d have stretched to include the flower stand, the guy selling “designer” handbags on the corner, the skyscrapers’ shining geometry, the scent of roasting nuts, the café with its bowl of green apples in the window, and the two gorgeous shopgirls on break, flamingolike and sucking on cigarettes outside their fancy boutique, eyes closed, rapturous, as though to smoke were very heaven.
I loved the noise, opening my window to let a confetti of sound fly in. I loved how leaving my apartment, in pursuit of newspapers or bags of apricots or bagels so perfect they were not so much bagels as odes to gloss and chewiness, never just felt like going out, but like
out, adrenaline singing in my veins, the unexpected glancing off storefronts, simmering in grates and ledges, pooling in stairwells, awaiting me around every corner, down every alleyway.
Imagine an enormous strutting peacock with the whole jeweled city for a tail.
But my peacock days didn’t last. They went on for years and years, first in Philadelphia then in New York, before skidding to as abrupt a halt as anything ever skidded, so that by the time my husband, Teo, and I took a left turn onto Willow Street, those days had been over for months, and as we drove through as quiet a neighborhood as I had ever seen, I could not shake the feeling that we were home. I wanted and did not want to feel this way. My heart sank even as my spirits lightened and rose toward the canopy of sycamore leaves, the sleepy blue sky.
What you need to understand is that I had not planned to become this person. I had planned to remain an adventurous urbanite, to court energy and unpredictability, and to remain open to blasts of strangeness, ugliness, and edgy beauty for the rest of my life. Instead, as Teo drove ten miles an hour down street after street, it came from everywhere, from the red flags of the mailboxes and the swaths of green lawn, from the orderly flower beds and the oxidized copper of the drainpipes: the sound of this sedate, unsurprising place calling me home.
“It looks like home,” Teo said, and after a mild double take (very mild, since the man reads my mind with unnerving regularity), I realized that he didn’t mean “home” the way I’d been thinking it, or not quite. He meant the place where we’d been kids together and where all four of our parents still lived.
My husband and I had grown up, not in a suburb exactly, but in a cozy little Virginia college town, in the same kind of neighborhood we drove through now, beautiful, with houses dating from the early twentieth century, trees dating from before that, not a McMansion in sight. A place where late spring meant hardwoods in full, emerald green leaf, fat bumblebees tumbling into flowers, and a Memorial Day lawn party replete with croquet, badminton, barbecue, and at least five kinds of pie. And although we were years and miles away from that place, that childhood, although it was late morning and Memorial Day had come and gone two weeks ago, I could almost see the children we had been darting through the dusk, could almost smell the rich perfume of grilling meat.
I know how syrupy this sounds, how dull, provincial, and possibly whitewashed, but what can I do? Happy childhoods happen. Ours happened. What came back to me, with lightning-crack vividness, as I looked out the car window, were the clusters of women, at birthday parties, cookouts, standing in yards and kitchens, the air warm with their talking, and how oddly interchangeable we all were, women and children both. The woman who picked us up when we fell down or wiped our faces or fed us lunch or yelled us down from treetops or out of mud (all of it so casually, with barely a break in the conversation or an extra breath) may have been our mother but could just as easily have been someone else’s. We hardly noticed. The women merged into a kind of laughing, chatting, benevolent blur, a network of distracted love and safekeeping.
“You’re right,” I told Teo. A stinging pang of longing shot through me and I found myself on the verge of tears. I wondered if that’s what I was up to (because leaving the city had been my idea), if I were doing what so many others have done, upstarts who head off to adventure in the big city only to choose the life their parents had chosen, moving onward and backward at the same time.
As soon as we pulled into the driveway, before the sunny-faced real estate agent had so much as unlocked the door of the house, I knew we would take it.
The truth is that cities are not for the faint of heart, and I had become the faint of heart. I spent my last days in New York as I had spent the preceding nine months, feeling shaky and so small I was afraid I might disappear altogether. I had lived in cities for over ten years. I had wanted to stay forever. And the day came when I couldn’t pack boxes fast enough.
Teo and I had lived in our new house for two weeks, and the dinner party was in our honor. Teo is an oncologist, had just started his new job at a hospital in Philadelphia, and another doctor had thrown the party, although his wife had given me her stage-whispered assurance that it wouldn’t be an all-doctor party.
“I’ve invited a nice mix of people,” Megan had said when we’d arrived at her house, “so the evening won’t turn into everyone raging against managed care. You know how that is!”
I didn’t, actually. Teo and I had been married less than two and a half years, and while we hadn’t spent all of that time lovebirding our way around New York City—he’d been working; I’d been taking art history courses at NYU; we’d hit a few bumps in the road (at least one of which was as bone rattling as bumps come)—we had lovebirded as much as we could, which I suppose kept discussions of managed care to a minimum.
“Thanks!” I stage-whispered back, giving Megan a conspiratorial smile.
Megan smiled, too, then stepped back and eyed me appraisingly. “Such a cute dress,” she said, which was a perfectly fine thing to say despite the fact that, perhaps because it’s applied to me and other small women so liberally, I’m decidedly un-wild about the adjective “cute.” But there was something about the way Megan paid me this compliment—a certain glint in her eye or note in her voice—that caused a tiny red flag in my head to start inching its way up its tiny flagpole.
A word or two in defense of the dress. I called it a slip dress, but before you start picturing Elizabeth Taylor in
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,
I should tell you that its only truly sliplike quality was spaghetti straps. It was fluid and loose, a cross between a late-1950s sack and a shift, and, yes, it was above the knee, but only just, and, no, I wasn’t wearing a bra with it, but, as everyone knows, one of the few privileges of an almost complete lack of curves is forgoing the welt-leaving architecture of the strapless bra. In other words, the dress was entirely appropriate. Worn with high-heeled, barely-there sandals as I was wearing it, it was the perfect dress for a late-summer dinner party. Everything in my life up to that moment had taught me that.
But as soon as Megan led me into the living room where four other couples stood talking, I understood that the dress was all wrong. In fact, as far as I could tell, any dress would’ve been all wrong because Megan and every single other woman in the room was wearing pants. Linen pants. Linen pants with sleeveless silk blouses or cotton sweaters. It was a pastel-colored prairie of linen pants and sleeveless tops, stretching in every direction as far as the eye could see. I stood on its edge and felt myself in my dress turning—subtly, like an early-autumn leaf or a days-old open bottle of red wine—from easy and elegant to overreaching and tarty.
But I realize I’m making this sound very important, like a major humiliation, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t even a minor humiliation, but it did set me a bit off balance. Still, clothes are only clothes, and even in the suburbs, modern America isn’t an Edith Wharton novel, right? You don’t appear in public with a skirt an inch above regulation length or with the wrong color fan and get thrown out of the social galaxy, for Pete’s sake.
So after a pause and a fortifying wink from Teo, I strode into the living room, smile bright, hand extended. The off-balance sensation never quite went away, but I was fine. For a full ten minutes I chatted with a lovely young woman who turned out to be one of the evening’s two hired servers, but other than that, I negotiated the cocktail portion of the evening quite nimbly, if I do say so myself.
And then, at dinner, the one-two punch: first, Piper; then, Armand.
Piper was my neighbor. She lived directly across the street, and prior to the dinner party, I had endured two separate encounters with her, two and a half if you count the time I waved at her as her car pulled out of her driveway and she failed, ostentatiously (our eyes meeting for at least three seconds before she slid her sunglasses from the top of her head to the bridge of her nose), to wave back.
I met her two days after we’d moved into our house. I was sitting on my front steps in my junior high gym shorts, grimy and glazed with sweat, gulping bottled water as fast as I could gulp, and feeling sorry for myself the way anyone who’s ever unpacked boxes in the middle of August feels sorry for herself, when Piper appeared before me.
In trying my very hardest to describe Piper without exaggerating or editorializing, what I come up with is this: trim, tan, and long waisted, a white polo shirt with matching teeth and nail tips, blue gingham Capri pants with matching blue eyes and espadrilles, and the kind of bobbed, butter-blond flawlessness that proliferates among newscasters and sorority women of the Atlantic Coast Conference. In fact, after one glance, I’d have bet money she’d attended college somewhere in the top half of the state of North Carolina.
Piper’s smile started out as dazzling, but quickly developed a pasted-on quality as she surveyed me, her gaze coming to rest and lingering for a few beats too long on my cropped head of hair. Later, I would identify the look on her face as one I hadn’t seen in a very long time, since high school or maybe before, that of a person disliking me on sight. But at the time I didn’t recognize the look. In fact, it almost didn’t register with me. Instead, I thought,
my heart giving a hopeful hop,
the community of women, the safety net.
“Hello there!” she’d said, crisply. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
I stood up, eagerly, rubbing my hopelessly filthy hand on my hopelessly filthy shorts, but she made no move to shake it, for which I couldn’t really blame her.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m Cornelia Brown, and I’m usually much cleaner than this.”
I smiled. She didn’t. She cocked her head to one side, reflecting.
“Cornelia. Now, that’s a different name!”
Different from what? Hephzibah?
is what popped into my head, but I didn’t say it. I sighed a self-deprecating sigh and said, “Believe me, I know.”
“We’re the Truitts,” she said, although there was no one else with her, “from across the street. I’m Piper.”
Piper. Not the undifferentest name in the world. Not quite the pot calling the kettle black, but close.
“I’ve come on a reconnaissance mission.” Her eyes gleamed with artificial mischief.
“How exciting. Reconnoiter away.”
“The Paxtons, who lived here before you, were a professional couple, no kids.” Piper pronounced the word “professional” as though it were another word altogether, something more like “pornographer.”
“I met them when we closed on the house,” I said. “They seemed lovely.”
Piper smiled a tight smile. “I wouldn’t know. But all of us have been hoping that whoever bought this house would be a real family.”
Wondering whom she meant by “us,” and even though I didn’t really see at all, I said, “I see.”
“So, do you?” Piper raised her eyebrows, waiting.
“Do I what?”
“Do you and your husband—at least I assume the man I saw move in with you is your husband”—Piper gave a teasing laugh—“have any kids?”
The question sent a lightning flash of pain zigzagging through my stomach. After asking it, Piper glanced around the yard, as though she suspected I’d hidden my children behind a bush or inside a planter.
“No,” I said, “it’s just me and my husband, Teo.” I thought about adding a breezy “For now!” but decided to leave it, fearing that breeziness might be more than I could manage.