The Mistress of Prompts is at it again. Karen Craven over at Table for One shot off an email to me and Dale from A Dalectable Life last week in which she described a scene she had been privy to whilst on the train recently. As writers, we behave very much like detectives; culling and parsing and piecing together evidence from snippets of conversation and body language. Unlike detectives, our observational skills need not get it right. All we’re concerned with is creating a story out of the scraps.
So I took three simple lines that were uttered by a woman on a train and I constructed a world around it. Apologies for going long, but as writers, we don’t always have a choice. Sometimes we take the story, and sometimes, as in this example, the story takes us.
-“Yes, I really like my box of macaroni.”
-“Give me all my expired things.”
-“I need you to get a job.”
She sits alone on the F train, a flip phone nestled between her ear and her shoulder. She wears no jewelry, not even earrings. To the discerning eyes of a stranger, you can tell this is a self-prescribed departure from baubles and bright, shiny objects. Because the rest of her appearance is moneyed suburbia: Olive green double breasted wool coat with riveted pleats and envelope collar. Black straight leg trousers with rippled cleats frame her figure in an attractive pinch. Black leather pointy toe pumps that reveal a dime sized tattoo of a star on the top of her foot.
“Yes . . yes I know Caroline. I promise not to clash with House Rules. I’m really quite proficient at towing the company line. I was married to your father for thirty eight years, remember.”
“No. No don’t worry, I’ll make sure to speak in code. We can refer to him as Goebbels, how does that sound?”
“Okay . . not even that. Promise.”
“Honey, you know full well I am thankful that you and Bobby were able to maintain an amicable relationship with your father. After all, it’s not your fault he’s a cheating, lying, manipulative cock sucker,”
The chatter on the other end of the line increases in volume and intensity, as the recipient of mother’s bitter pill voices her disapproval in boldfaced adjectives. It seems the invite is being threatened with Olivia’s rant, and she quickly retreats.
“I’m sorry . . .”
In that instant, all the fight is stolen from her face; the scowling mien had been nothing more than a defense mechanism. Her porcelain complexion turns ashen with worry. Her majestic cheekbones become fallow as sunken treasures, and her piercing sapphire eyes become distant lights as she tries to steal back the chapters.
In her previous life, Olivia Trufant had lived a Good Housekeeping existence. She had been the poster Goddess homemaker whose perk was always feisty and whose neighborhood cache was the stuff of legend. These modern day Gucci mamas who get all dolled up to go to Target have nothing on that Mrs. Trufant; The mother whose kids were polished cherubs, whose husband was tall, dark and upwardly mobile and whose perfect ass was something all the other married men wanted to hit.
“I’m sorry for dropping out of your lives . . I just . . I needed some time. After your father left, I realized I had lived my entire adult life for him. I had nothing . . .”
“I don’t mean it that way, Caroline. But you and Bobby . . you have your families and your own lives. I had your father,”
For better or worse, Olivia received the latter when her husband Stephen came home one day and informed her he wanted a divorce after thirty eight years. She had protested initially, before realizing there was no going back. He fast tracked the process, agreeing to pay her a generous stipend as if she had been one of the employees in his company. She was too numb to fight, too lost to care.
Within six months, he was married again. It had been going on for a half decade and Olivia had known about it for most of that time. She kept silent out of fear and pride, and so once she learned of their engagement, she understood that silence was her only option. It started with Stephen, and quickly metastasized into everyone else.
“Yes, I do understand and accept it. What choice do I have? I hope Bobby changes his mind some day, but he knows I love him,”
“Okay, let’s change the subject. As for dinner ideas, I am happy with my boxed mac and cheese. You guys don’t need to make a big production for my sake . .”
“All I’m saying is, these mail order meals that are all the rage are really no different from a box of macaroni and cheese!”
“Yes, I really like my box of macaroni,”
Olivia turned thirty one in October of 1986 and Stephen had surprised her with tickets to Game 6 of the World Series between her beloved New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox at the old Shea Stadium. They stuck it out when the announced attendance of 55,078 dwindled after the Sox pulled ahead in extra innings. They booed when the scoreboard operator crowned the Boston Red Sox as champions before the final out had been recorded. And they cheered like a couple of kids on the last day of school when Mookie Wilson dribbled a ball down the line and stole back a baseball season. They chased all that magical energy by going to the Palladium on East 14th and dancing the top off of a brilliant fall night that felt to her like a tale penned by Dickens.
“I can’t wait to see them either. They are getting so big . .”
Olivia’s voice almost breaks with the idea that two years have passed since she last hugged her grandchildren. How cold a person can become when their heart loses its place, she thinks solemnly.
She trudges back into small talk with Caroline, because the familiarity warms her senses.
“I let it lapse since I’m not driving any longer.”
“Where do I go that mass transit can’t get me there, Caroline? I don’t need it, I don’t need a passport either. So as far as I’m concerned . . give me all my expired things and I’ll put them in a photo album for safe keeping . .”
Olivia laughs at the thought, but her face wrinkles with the recognition that she’s busy throwing chairs overboard to keep it from sinking.
“Yes, we are going to get along swimmingly. I am very hip when it comes to the times. So hip in fact, that I recognize it isn’t hip to say hip. But seriously, don’t you worry, me and the kids will be fine. No talk of Goebbels and no boxed mac and cheese. I just . . I need you to get a job . . this one. I need you to get it, for you.”
“I had the chance, yes. But I was worker bee mom getting everybody else’s shit straight . . and I know it’s not an excuse. It’s just that . . . well, Caroline . . you just never know. You think your life is going to play out a certain way, and then, well . . you just never know . . .”
In the spring of 1986, Olivia and Stephen had moved to Armonk- an apple pie hamlet of wraparound porches, community softball games and growing young families. It would be the first of several moves they would make as Stephen climbed the corporate ladder. It had been six months since they’d put their three bedroom apartment in Long Island City on the market, with nary a prospect. The romance of their first abode had quickly given way to frustration, and before long they were cursing its existence.
That is, until a night of baseball and dancing had lasted far longer then they expected. It was five in the morning when they arrived at the seventh floor apartment. They foraged for sustenance in a kitchen once so full of life and schedules and now mostly barren, and then they grabbed a forgotten Pyrex bowl and a couple loose plastic forks and made way for the roof. They watched the early morning sky grow ruddy as it got busy chasing the moon to the other side of the world. They watched the city of Manhattan wake up right in front of them as they feasted on a couple boxes of macaroni and cheese because it was all that was left in the cupboard. And in that moment, Olivia remembered thinking that she had the world by the tail.
She wondered if it would always be that way.