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Authors: Kristina Riggle

Real Life & Liars

BOOK: Real Life & Liars
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Real Life & Liars
Kristina Riggle

To my husband, Bruce
You made me believe, then you made it possible

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

F
ROM
Anna Karenina
BY
L
EO
T
OLSTOY

Contents

Part 1

Homecoming

Chapter 1

Mirabelle

Part 2

Celebration

Part 3

Departure

PART 1
HOMECOMING
CHAPTER 1
Mirabelle

MY TEA TASTES SO FRESH, AND THIS JOINT IS SO FINE, I MIGHT MELT
right into the red-velvet cushion and run down the walls into a silvery pool on the floor.

Sure, I’m a little old to be toking up. Five years north of sixty. So sue me. It’s been a rough couple weeks around here.

The kids—actually, just my oldest, the other two are dragged along under the wheels of her train—are throwing us an anniversary party. By tomorrow night they will all be here, with spouse, children, suitcases, plus the usual petty arguments and festering resentments.

And I thought my being a hippie would free them of all that crap. The joke’s on me.

“Mira!” calls my husband from the kitchen. “Mira?” he says a second time, maybe realizing how frantic he sounded.

“In here!” I know he will follow my voice and check on me, and ask me some ludicrous question like where the spatula is when he
knows darn well. Lately, he can’t let me out of his sight for very long. It’s like living with a toddler again. I’m surprised he doesn’t come into the bathroom while I’m taking a dump.

But then, didn’t I long for this, his fervent attention? As they say, be careful what you wish for. It’s like some sort of medieval fable, where a wish has been granted with a horrible catch in the bargain.

In the echo of all this deference rings that horrible fight, when he turned into someone else, something alien possessing him such that I’ve never seen in forty years. I take a deep drag from the joint and shake my head a little, shaking away the memory.

Max pokes his head into the study, and I place my joint carefully in the ashtray on the seat next to me. He’s got Einstein hair this morning. His sandy-colored curly mop sticks up on each side, but he’s bald in the middle. His spectacles are on top of his head, and his ratty red bathrobe hangs open over his boxers and T-shirt. He doesn’t mention the marijuana smell or the joint smoldering next to me.

“Honey, are you all right? Where’s the egg beater?” he asks.

I turn my head to the side and blow out a stream of smoke, slowly. “We don’t have one. Use the whisk.”

Max comes over and plants an urgent kiss on my cheek, and another on my lips, before heading back out to the kitchen.

The phone rings, and I unfold myself to answer it. Max is likely so involved in beating eggs or on a whisk reconnaissance that he doesn’t even hear it. Ah, the absentminded
artiste.

“Hello?”

“Mom! Good, I caught you. It’s not too early, is it? Great, listen I wanted to ask you about the flower arrangements, he said he doesn’t have enough lilies if you can believe that nonsense so I wondered…”

And so on. I couldn’t give a goddamn. I pick up the joint and
breathe in again, smooth and deep. I preferred daisies for the party, but Katya said they were too common, practically weeds.

Heaven forbid I love a weed. I should make myself a bouquet of dandelions. No, a crown of dandelions, better yet.

“Mom? Are you listening? I asked you about the freesia.”

Exhale. “Sure, sweetie. That sounds nice. So, are you sure you want to stay in a hotel? We can put sleeping bags on the floor, and the kids would be just fine.”

“No, I don’t want to trouble you,” she says, which I translate to mean, No, my kids hate staying at your house because you don’t have cable.

“If you insist. Love you, see you tonight.”

How did my eldest daughter get so wrapped up in material things? Freesia, lilies, twinkle lights wrapped around fake trees, and crystal goblets. Why does she give a damn?

Myself, I shopped at thrift stores, wore clothes my best friend Patty sewed for me. The same for the kids, though Katya never let me forget the great torment she suffered as a result of wearing something that wasn’t—oh, the humanity—brand-new.

Katya never saw me obsess about looks. She didn’t see glossy fashion magazines with starved models languishing on sun-bleached beaches. I never competed with the neighbors for bigger, newer, best.

We all have the best-laid plans for our children, and they go and ruin it all by growing up any way they want to. What the hell was it all for, then?

At least she’s healthy. They all are, thank goodness for that. My sweet, misunderstood Ivan, and Irina, my butterfly, flitting through life.

The morning sun slips over the houses across the street and pours into my study, setting my maple rolltop desk in a halo, glinting off the brass nameplate that Max bought me when I landed
my teaching job at the college. I had it in my office at first, but it looked so grand and pretentious in my tiny cubbyhole that I brought it home to my rolltop, where it’s been ever since.

MIRABELLE ZIELINSKI
, it says. I would have preferred to use my full, legal, hyphenated name, but I’m sure
Mirabelle Delouvois-Zielinski
would never have fit.

When I started that job, full of vigor and bright-eyed with promise, I could not have reckoned that more than thirty years later they’d be trying to hustle me out the door like a drunken party guest who stayed too late.

The soft morning light illuminates my filing system of piles all over the place. Each pile has a specific purpose, mind you. Maybe I should start real files. Someone else, someday, maybe soon, will have to sort through all this. I should do it myself. Throw everything away that’s unnecessary, which is to say, everything.

The sun brightens the wine-colored walls to a sassy red, like stripper lipstick. I sip some more of my tea and enjoy soaking in the memories locked in the framed photos. I hate studio portraits. I put those up in the hallway for strangers to admire: my grandson Taylor standing next to a big plastic number two in a miniature suit with a clip-on tie. Granddaughter Katherine with an Easter basket, wearing a dress that is so fussy I itch just looking at it. Visitors say, “Oh, what a beautiful family you have,” and I do, but their beauty is not in these created moments.

I much prefer that photo, there, of Taylor with his finger up his nose and his eyes crossed. It gives me a warm buzz to recall that moment when he did it, and I almost peed myself with laughter. And it suits him even now, because he can’t quite get serious. I hope he never does. And there’s my little Kit, up to her knees in mud in my backyard, mud on her hands, arms splayed out, missing a front tooth. Katya sits in a lawn chair nearby, knees pressed together primly.

Maybe I should get a portrait taken, before I die.

Max won’t say the word “die.” As if he’s terrified that speaking the word aloud would be some kind of totem and cause that fate to fall on me like an ax. But I know those ravenous cancer cells don’t care what we say; they will do as they please.

How oddly like grown children.

I stub out the roach, then climb out of my window seat and stretch. I step over Bartleby on my way to the bathroom for my morning shower. She meows at me, her gray tabby tail straight up, indignant. “Oh, hush. Max already filled your bowl.” Another meow. “For heaven’s sake, it’s no different when I do it, you fussy old brat.”

She storms off, inasmuch as a thirteen-year-old tabby can storm.

Max wanted to name her Savoir Faire after the villainess in the book he was writing at the time. I said the cat would just get called Savvy, and he wrinkled his squishy nose and let me name her. So she became Bartleby, after Melville’s famous scrivener, who simply “prefers not to” do anything at all. So feline, that attitude.

I pass through the kitchen, the screened-in porch, and out the back door to test the feeling of the air. It’s the only kind of weather forecast I bother with. I’m not one of those people who have to know the humidity or discuss the barometric pressure, like Katya. She can’t leave the house without listening to all three local weather forecasts, watching the Weather Channel “Local on the 8s,” and now that she has the Internet on her phone, she checks it all day long, too. She even knows what dew point is, and can tell you all about it, if you ask her, which I don’t.

It’s early, but the sun is strong, the air already feeling like summer. The tulips haven’t even turned brown yet. Seems like just last week the forsythia bloomed.

I walk to the front of the house, glancing at my flower beds as I go, on my way to say hello to the Big Tree.

It’s a maple, and just as tall as the house. Maybe taller, but who can tell from my vantage point? It’s been known as the Big Tree
since Katya was old enough to form the words. We’ve had picnics under it, taken family portraits in front of it—Max running to get back in the frame, the camera on a tripod with a timer—and it was our family meeting place if we ever had to flee a fire. It was “safe” in tag, where the kids closed their eyes and counted for hide-and-seek. Max did hang a tire swing from it once, but the rope was so long, and the tree so close to the sidewalk, the kids kept whapping pedestrians.

No kids play around it now. This old tree stands stately and alone these days. So I make it a habit to come out every morning, just so she doesn’t feel lonely. I brush my hand across her cracked and peeling bark and walk around her trunk until I find it: the one time any of the kids ever carved in the tree. It was Ivan. “IZ and PT” inside a heart. I don’t remember now who “PT” was. I do remember scolding him for defacing the tree, then regretting it immediately, as his face crumpled up in shame. Love makes a person do stupid things.

Well, it’s time to get dressed. We’re having company today.

In the shower, when I scrub my breasts, I remember Dr. Graham telling me I have to get one lopped off. The left one. The sinister one. She didn’t say “lopped off,” of course. She said they would probably need to “take the whole breast,” and I puzzled over the meaning of that for a moment until I felt the word “mastectomy” like a battering ram to my gut. The tumor is too large for my little boob, and right behind the nipple, too, so the whole wicked thing has to come off. I gathered that much before I backed out of the office, hand over my heart as if she were ready to leap across her desk with a scalpel right then. I think that was only ten days ago, but it might have been ten years, or maybe ten minutes. Time goes slippery on me when I’m high.

Yep, there it is. The lump I found over at Patty’s house. Patty’s newest grandson was there, little baby Sam. I gathered him up to my bosom in the instinctual way all mothers do, and when he squirmed
against me, I thought,
ouch,
and then,
that’s odd.
It stayed merely “odd” until I dared probe that spot, alone in our bedroom, my eyes following a crack in the ceiling. Still I left it alone, until I noticed the other one like a marble under the skin in my armpit.

That’ll teach me to neglect those mammograms. Not only is cancer eating up one breast, it’s the “invasive” kind, with “poorly differentiated” edges, which, I think, is bad. That lump in my armpit is a bad sign, too. Cancer cells could be racing through my body even now.

I step out of the shower, towel off, and grab my fluffy, purple robe off the hook. I towel-dry my long hair and finger-comb it. That’s all the attention I’ll give it today. Anyway, Max likes it long and loose like this.

I go to our bedroom and pull open the enormous wooden wardrobe, like right out of that C. S. Lewis book. I choose my favorite summer dress, an olive green thing with shiny metal beads sewn all around the neckline. It hangs like a sack and feels so good, it’s like being naked.

I should ask to be buried in this. Katya would be horrified, because it’s not at all appropriate. Ivan wouldn’t want any part of that decision, nor would Max. Death and fashion together—not a male specialty. Irina would argue with Katya just out of habit.

No, it would be selfish for me to dictate what happens after I’m dead, when it couldn’t possibly matter to me. I’m being greedy enough by daring to set the agenda of my own demise.

If I have to go down, fine. But I’m going down with both tits swinging.

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