Ancient Greek temples dotted the hillside of Agrigento. “Aren’t they magnificent, Camilla?” I tried engaging my wife of seventeen years in conversation.
Camilla always wanted to visit Sicily; now we were finally here but our vacation had been marred by the news of the death of Eunice, her closest friend since college. Actually, Camilla had been depressed ever since Eunice’s cancer was diagnosed two years earlier. She became morbidly preoccupied with illness and death and every little pain sent her running to the doctor. She had become lethargic and morose. The whole situation was tedious; I thought a holiday abroad would lighten both our moods.
“I don’t like this place, Nigel” Camilla remarked. “It reeks of death and decay. You can practically see blood stains on the ground.”
“Good God, Camilla! Why are you allowing your mind to give in to these macabre thoughts?” I questioned impatiently. “Feel the sun on your face. Look at the glorious Mediterranean surrounding us. Let yourself be transported to another era.”
“I’ve got a ghastly headache, Nigel. Take me back to the hotel!” Camilla demanded.
“But we just got here! Look at these fabulous gnarled olive trees. Why, they must be as old as the ruins themselves. Impressive, aren’t they? Let’s sit and enjoy the view. You’ve always dreamed of coming here, Camilla. Enjoy it!“
“How can I enjoy myself knowing Eunice is gone? How can I enjoy anything ever again? She was my dearest friend.” Camilla buried her head in her hands, sobbing.
“I know it’s difficult, my dear, but try not to dwell on it. Here, listen to this.” Retrieving a brochure from my pocket, I began to read. “‘In mythology, Agrigento was founded by Daedalus and Icarus.’ Just think of it – these temples have been here since the 5th Century B.C.! The contemporary glass and steel buildings back home can’t compare to these majestic structures!”
“Nigel, please! You think I give a damn about any of this? It’s meaningless without Eunice. Meaningless, I tell you! She was the light of my life.”
Camilla stared at me with frenetic eyes. I was beginning to believe she was losing her mind.
“Your life is meaningless? What about me, Camilla? I’m your husband, for crying out loud! We’ve been together for seventeen years. Does that count for nothing?”
“Oh, come on, Nigel! Isn’t it about time we admitted the truth. Our marriageis a sham! And now Eunice is gone! There’s nothing left for me!” Camilla turned and started walking away.
“Eunice! All you ever talk about is your beloved Eunice!” I yelled after her. “You’ve been obsessed with her for years! I always wondered but now I know why you were never interested in sex, laying in our bed with about as much enthusiasm as a cold fish. You and Eunice were lovers, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I loved her and she loved me passionately, deeply. I never loved you, Nigel. Never!” Camilla looked at me with intense loathing and I became enraged, jealous of her dead lover.
“I’m glad Eunice is dead, Camilla. I hope the cancer slowly gnawed away at her and her life was one of incessant pain. Oh, I’m so glad she’s dead and now you’re in agony without her!” I spat out dreadful words of rage.
Camilla picked up a rock and threw at me but it fell short. She started running and I caught up with her, reaching for her arm. She screamed “Don’t touch me, Nigel! Just go away and leave me alone!”
Pulling away, Camilla ran toward the craggy cliffs. In a horrifying instant she was gone, plunging headlong against the rocks, her body shattering like an empty vessel, and disappearing into the sea.
Aghast, I stood staring into the abyss. “Goddamn, you, Camilla!” I shouted. “Goddamn you! Go be with your precious Eunice!”
After a long while alone on the cliffs, I walked back to my rental and drove to the hotel. I saw no reason to rush back home. Perhaps I’d extend my holiday indefinitely, head to the Amalfi Coast. I realized it had been ages since I’d had any time alone. I inhaled the heady fragrance of the plumeria and eucalyptus. I exhaled slowly, relishing the stillness of the night.
A glass or two of limoncello on the rocks would be the perfect way to end the night.
When I was eight years old, my parents bought a small house on a tiny crescent-shaped street called Magnolia Terrace, one of the many cul-de-sacs in the area. At the end of the street was a turnabout and beyond the turnabout was a footpath that led into a wooded area dense with poplar trees.
Magnolia Terrace was the tiniest street around with only 8 houses; they were all very similar, modest and affordable. Each house was painted a subtle shade and the street was lined with magnolia trees; from March through April, the graceful trees bloomed in an array of pastel colors, from luscious whites to pale yellows to deep pink and purple hues.
The residents of Magnolia Terrace were hard-working people with a great love of family, God and country. We were far from rich but we were content.
There were children in every house and our street rang with the sounds of fun and laughter. When the streetlights came on, we knew it was time to run home for dinner; there would always be tomorrow for more childhood games. For me and my friends, Magnolia Terrace was the happiest place on earth.
Our fathers all worked for the same factory about fifteen miles from home and they would take turns driving every day – two cars, four men per car. They’d leave for work at 7:00 AM and be home by 5:00 PM in time for dinner. Two or three nights each week our dads would go bowling, get together at one of the houses to play cards and attend a meeting at the “lodge”. We kids thought our dads were really spies for the FBI and the factory was just a cover because they all used a secret handshake and wore the same ring like Dick Tracy.
Sometimes when our fathers went out, our mothers would get together for sewing bees or book clubs. About once each month all our parents would get dressed up and go to the lodge for a fancy dinner and an important meeting. As usual, they never told us anything about their time at the lodge. It was grown ups only.
There was one very important rule our parents made sure we clearly understood: under no circumstances were we allowed to go beyond the turnabout and into the poplar woods. When we asked why, our parents told us the woods were private property and we would be trespassing; there would be a hefty fine to pay. This sounded very official to us and we were raised to obey the law so we never entered the woods.
Time passed very quickly for us; I was now 18 years old and a senior in high school. I had a boyfriend named Ryan; his house was diagonally across from mine and was the closest to the woods. Our parents knew we liked each other but we were never allowed to be alone. The only time we were even allowed to hold hands was at the weekend barbecues where there were lots of people around.
When our fathers went out at night and all was quiet, Ryan and I would sneak down to the footpath near the woods. We never did anything bad – just talked and made out – but it was our special time together. One night we were making out when Ryan suddenly stopped and motioned for me to be quiet. He tapped his ear and pointed into the woods; we sat very close together as silent as could be and that’s when we heard it – distant sounds we could only describe as guttural chanting.
Ryan took my hand and as quietly as possible we left the area and ran back to our houses. My mother was engrossed in her sewing, the TV on in the background, and she never heard me come in and head up to my room. Whatever Ryan and I heard in the woods frightened us both but I knew we had to find out more.
As I was drifting off to sleep, I had a weird thought: my mother was always busy at her sewing machine but I never saw any of her creations. What was she making? The next day she had a large box delivered; it had obviously been damaged during shipment and was taped up but some of the contents were visible. All I saw was what looked like white cloth and I didn’t think it was a big deal but my mother became irate and screamed at me to go back into the house. She could be very strange at times and I never knew when she would fly off the handle.
Ryan and I decided the best night to go back to the woods would be bowling night; that was Monday, four days away. We were determined to go deeper into the woods; we wanted to see and hear more but knew we had to stay out of sight. Neither one of us had any idea what to expect; it could have been a group of hippies camping in the woods. Whatever is was we hoped our questions would be answered on Monday.
The weekend dragged on. If my mother was still upset about her delivery, she didn’t say anything. On Sunday we had our usual barbecue and just as everyone was beginning to head home, my father started handing out brown packages tied with red string to all the men. My mother always used red string to secure her packages so whatever was wrapped in that brown paper had been made by my mother. I wondered how many times the same packages were handed out over the years and I never noticed. None of the men opened the packages but they seemed very happy to have gotten them.
Finally Monday evening arrived and at 8:00 PM all the men of Magnolia Terrace headed out to go bowling. When it was safe, I snuck out of my house and met Ryan at the turnabout. The crescent moon did little to light our way. We held tightly onto each other’s hands as we hesitantly entered the woods. Every few feet we would stop and listen but all was silent. About 15 feet in, we were startled by a distant glow that lit up the night sky like a rocket; the low chanting we heard the other night began and intensified to an angry rumble. Believing the revelers were blinded by the glow of what must have been a bonfire and deaf to all sounds but their own, Ryan and I felt emboldened and crept further into the woods. We now had an unobscured view and what we saw shook us to our core.
Was this a spacecraft surrounded by aliens? The luminosity of the fire was so intense, it was impossible to clearly make out shapes and sizes. Then gradually the flames diminished just enough for us to clearly see this was no spaceship but something far more horrifying in its significance: it was a blazing cross! And the creatures were no extraterrestrials: they were men, maybe as many as 25, dressed in white robes with attached capes, rope belts and pointed hoods with eye holes covering their faces.
We were transfixed. Ryan spoke to me in a barely audible voice “Nanette, I can’t believe what we’re seeing! It’s a Ku Klux Klan gathering.”
I nodded and whispered softly “I know. I saw them on the news. I’m frightened, Ryan! Why are they here so close to where we live?”
But before Ryan could answer, the chanting stopped and one man began to address the group. I gasped and buried my face in Ryan’s chest, my body quivering, and he held me tightly. When I looked up, I was crying and barely able to utter the words “That’s my father!”
“I recognize his voice, too” Ryan replied. In hushed tones he continued. “Nanette, we can’t stay here. Let’s go back to my house, slowly and as quietly as possible. Here, take my hand.” Terrified, I held Ryan’s hand tightly as we cautiously made our way back to the clearing, never letting go of each other. Once free of the woods, we ran back to Ryan’s house and collapsed under a tree in his backyard.
For a long time we sat huddled together, saying nothing. Finally, Ryan spoke softly: “Nanette, we have to talk about this, but not now. Let’s get our thoughts together and we’ll talk during the week. I think you need to go home now and try to get some sleep.” I started to get up but Ryan held onto my arm. “Nanette, be careful. I love you.”
That was the first time Ryan said those words and I told him I loved him, too. We hugged, then I quickly walked back to my house across the street. As usual, I snuck in through the kitchen; my mother and a few other women were playing bridge and no one saw me scramble up the stairs to my room. I threw myself onto my bed and cried into my pillow. This felt like a nightmare.
From the next day on, nothing was the same but I had to act normally. I could barely look at my father let alone talk to him without feelings of anger and disgust. I was also deeply saddened. It was difficult to believe that all the fathers living on our perfect little street were members of the KKK and all the mothers supported them. The many nights they were supposedly bowling or playing cards they were really in the woods plotting and scheming and doing God knows what. And all the time my mother spent hunched over her sewing machine she was making the men’s robes and hoods! The fact that our parents were living duplicitous lives all these years made me sick to my stomach.
There was nothing Ryan and I could do and no one we could trust; the Klan hid in plain sight. Confronting our parents with what we knew about them would do no good. Ryan told me to hang on a little longer until he figured out what to do. A couple of weeks later he told me he came up with a plan. He said during Sunday’s barbecue we would tell our parents that we were in love and wanted to get married after graduation. Ryan said he would ask my father for his blessing and tell him that he wanted to work in the factory with the other men to provide a good life for me. We were sure our parents would see we were mature enough to make such a big decision and would give their blessing. Ryan told me once we were married we could leave town and never return to Magnolia Terrace.
As happy as I was with Ryan’s plan, I was filled with mixed emotions. It wouldn’t be easy leaving my parents and the only home I ever knew but I couldn’t go on turning a blind eye to the evil lives they were living. I cried for the younger kids who would be left behind but I saw no other answer; this was our only way out.
On Sunday the barbecue was in full swing when Ryan said he had an announcement to make. Everyone quieted down as he told my father about our wishes to get married and asked for his blessing. To my surprise my parents were very happy for us and my father enthusiastically patted Ryan on the back. My mother began to cry and embraced me. I was revolted by her hug but told myself I’d only have to play this charade for a little while longer.
Everyone was very happy for us and my father droned on and on about how we could build a house of our own on the plot of land right next to their house. Ryan laughed and nodded at my father’s enthusiasm and we smiled at each other across the yard knowing our plan was successful. Relief washed over me as I watched my father and Ryan walk over to the area where our future house was to be built and laughed thinking how flawlessly Ryan had pulled off his plan.
Just then my mother came out of the house carrying a bag and placed it on the ground next to my father. I looked on in disbelief as my father reached into the bag and drew out a familiar-looking brown paper package wrapped in red string and proudly handed it to Ryan. They both looked over at me with serpentine eyes as they smiled and shared a secret handshake. At that moment I knew I’d been betrayed.
Who the hell do you think you are, Sitting out there in your fancy car? Everyone knows that you’re just a tool Strutting around town like a Goddamn fool!
You spend more time on your pretty boy look Thinking you can snag me with your Devil hooks. Well, let me tell you something that you might not know: Your looks count for nothing when it’s all for show.
You’re not a man, just an empty shell Of someone I thought I knew so well. It’s obvious to everyone who called you friend You care for no one and deep wounds never mend.
What happened to your soul, your spirit, your heart? Did you ever once wonder why we had to part? Of course you didn’t; your conscience is clean Of every misdeed you claim to have never seen.
You used and confused me, deluded and abused me And made me forget the strong woman I used to be. I don’t look any different; it’s inside I’m not the same. It’s gotten so I don’t even recognize my name.
It won’t be long before you’re all alone. No one’s gonna call you on the telephone. You’re the biggest loser so face the facts: People will judge you by your deeds and acts.
You think you’re perfect like Christ walking on water But what kind of man abandons his wife and daughter? My father always said you were a piece of shit But I turned a deaf ear; I just didn’t want to hear it.
I trusted you once; I was blind, deaf and dumb To the fact that you were nothing but a piece of scum. How could I have been such an idiot not to see What a snake in the grass you’d turn out to be?
You wooed and chased me, swept me off my feet With pretty little gifts and whispered lies so sweet. I felt so very special when we were out together. Never listening when told I could do much better.
It didn’t take long for your true colors to show. I caught you making time with some floozy named Flo. That was just the start of a whirlwind of deceit. You broke my heart to bits and I kicked you to the street.
So now you’re sitting there just like you own the place With a look so smug I want to slap it off your stupid face. You thought you could control me, break me down, but in the end I turned into a willow tree and I learned how to bend.
Do us all a favor and get on outta of here. Don’t come close to me or those I hold so dear. Drive as far away as you can and don’t ever return. You’re going straight to hell and I’ll be laughing while you burn.
Legion after legion they watched him with wary eyes, like vultures in search of prey. This seemingly simple man healed the sick and preached of love for one another. What a rabble-rouser, a threat to those in power! He made them all very nervous, suspicious, just by his mere existence.
Multitudes thronged after him chanting “Hosanna! Heysanna!” but he chose only twelve by uttering just two words: “Follow me”. In a darkened room they broke bread together. They clung to his every word, pledging their undying loyalty, but they couldn’t stay awake for even one hour as he prayed that night in the garden.
There was one who denied him – not once but three times – before the cock crowed the next morn. Coward! Yet another betrayed him for a paltry sum. Viper! Like a hunter slinking through the woods he led the soldiers who dragged this innocent man away to face judgement. He stood before one official, then another; no one could find fault with him. They washed their blood-stained hands. He was tried by a kangaroo court. The verdict: guilty of blasphemy.
Stripped bare, whipped and scourged, he was nailed to a cross enduring an agonizing symphony of pain. His desolate mother wept silently at his feet. After torturous hours, whispering words of forgiveness, he slipped into the arms of death. He was buried in a plain tomb.
Three days later his crypt was empty. No force could defeat him. No power could contain him.
The scream of the alarm clock jolted Tia from a deep sleep. With eyes closed, she reached over and smacked the off button. Slowly rolling her head, she glanced at her dozing boyfriend Andrew.
Feeling her eyes on him, Andrew peeked at Tia and whispered a groggy “morning already?”
“Uh-hum. 6:15” Tia murmured as she snuggled closer. “Plenty of time to…….”
“Fuck!!” yelled Andrew as he bolted from their bed. “I’ve got a 7:00 Caesarian and patients all day!”
Disappointed, Tia went into the kitchen to brew some coffee. When she returned to the bedroom, Andrew was dressed and ready to go. He rushed by her, not even stopping to take the coffee and muffin she prepared for him.
“Gotta run, T” Andrew called over his shoulder. “Catch ya later!” And he was gone. Tia picked at a muffin thinking how mornings like this were becoming more and more frequent.
They met in college and fell in love, sharing their dreams – she becoming a fashion designer and he a doctor. Tia had been accepted to the Fashion Institute of Paris but Andrew begged her not to go until he was in med school. She agreed with the idea and found work dressing bridal shop windows. The job was ok but it was unfulfilling and every time she mentioned studying in Paris, Andrew reminded her of their plans. Now he was a busy doctor and she was still at the bridal salon.
On the way to work she heard that George Harrison song with the line “And if you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there”. She couldn’t get that line out of her head and the road not taken – the road to Paris. She truly loved Andrew and made many sacrifices for his career. Now it was her turn.
That evening when Andrew got home from work Tia told him they needed to talk. “Let me grab a shower first and I’m all yours” he replied.
When Andrew returned he went to the fridge and poured them both a glass of wine. “Listen T, I known you want to talk but I have something to say. Can I go first?” Tia nodded.
“After all our plans and promises, our dreams have finally come true but there’s still something missing in my life. I love you, Tia. Marry me.
Tia was floored. “Drew, I love you, too, and want to marry you but there’s something missing in my life. What about my dream to be a designer? What about Paris?”
“Paris!? Not that foolishness again! T, forget that road, stay here and marry me.”
“Foolishness, Drew? Foolishness!? You begged me to wait for you while you pursued your dream. If you truly love me you’ll wait while I follow my dream.”
As they stared at each other, Andrew’s pager beeped. He glanced at it. “My patient’s in labor. I gotta go. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”
Today she would find out if her entire life was a lie.
“Where to, Mrs. Carmichael? Shall I call for your car?” asked her ever-attentive doorman, Harold.
“Not today, thank you. Just walking up to Brooks Brothers to buy an anniversary present for my husband. It’s our 15th.”[Note to self: stop at your psychologist’s office first].
“Congratulations! You have yourself a nice day.”
Claire Carmichael smiled at Harold and walked the short distance to her therapist’s office on Earl Street. Ringing Dr. Brink’s doorbell, she waited for his ubiquitous snobbish greeting of “Enter!”
“Welcome, Claire. Last time you were here we discussed your suspicions that Jeremy was having an affair. Why don’t we pick up from there” he suggested.
Clearing her throat and adjusting her skirt she began. “I’m no longer convinced Jeremy’s cheating on me. I’m not saying that he’s never had affairs but something is different. Things have changed between us. They’re better. Jeremy’s calmer, more attentive, grounded. He’s home every night by 6:00 and we enjoy our weekends together. No more overnight out-of-town business trips and I’m actually happy for the first time in years.”
“Interesting” Dr. Brink acknowledged. “And to what do you attribute this change in Jeremy’s character?”
“We had a heart-to-heart the other night and he confided in me that he’s been having panic attacks for quite some time. He finally started seeing a psychiatrist who’s helping him tremendously. He’s on medication and skips lunch twice a week to see his doctor.”
“And you believe him?”
“I do” Claire replied, uncomfortable with his skepticism.
“Did Jeremy happen to mention his psychiatrist’s name?”
Feeling rather nonplussed she replied “No, he didn’t and I didn’t ask. That would be prying and information I didn’t need to know. Now I really must get going. It’s our wedding anniversary and I have plans to make.”
“Good luck, Claire. Ever vigilant!” he called after her.
When Claire stepped outside there was a chill in the air and leaves were swirling about. That session unnerved her and she lingered for a while smoking a cigarette wondering what Dr. Brink meant when he said “Ever vigilant.” Muttering “shrinks!”, she wrapped her coat tightly around herself and quickly walked to Brooks Brothers. She chose a pair of monogrammed cuff links; they were elegant and ridiculously expensive but Claire wanted Jeremy to know how proud she was of him.
Leaving the store Claire decided to go across the street to their favorite French restaurant and arrange for a special anniversary dinner to be delivered to their apartment. Looking up Claire’s heart skipped a beat and she felt dizzy.
Exiting the restaurant was Jeremy, his arm around a captivating young woman. They were laughing, embracing and kissing as they walked.
Disheartened and furious, Claire threw the cuff links into a trash can and hailed a taxi.
“Where to, your highness?” The driver was uncouth with a big mouth, both physically and metaphorically. He chomped noisily on cigar and Claire could smell his disgusting breath from the back seat. But he probably never cheated on his wife, she thought.
“Just drive” was all she said and he smiled greedily as he flipped the meter.
Hard to imagine life without her. When the hell did everything start to unravel?
Now he sat alone in the shell of their apartment, baseball game on the tv playing for no one, nursing his second Dewars. Once upon a time this place was alive with people enjoying one of their famous dinner parties. When he closed his eyes he could hear their friends discussing politics, movies, the crazy tenants on the 2nd floor … and the sound of her spirited laugh when someone told a dirty joke.
They were the perfect couple, the envy of all their friends. Theirs was an easy, comfortable marriage – viewing a gallery in SoHo, cycling through Central Park, steamy showers after Saturday morning love-making. They were in sync in their choices of restaurants, paint colors and the biggest decision of all … neither one wanted kids.
He sat there, head in hands while a thousand thoughts went through his mind. When did he begin having second thoughts? Was it the weekend in Maine spent visiting his sister after the birth of her first baby? Was it watching the kids in the playground across the street? All he could remember was the night he whispered in her ear that he wanted to have a baby.
She was blindsided. What? No! He was just named partner at Goldman Sachs. She was food editor for Connoisseur magazine. Life is perfect. They had an agreement, dammit! Would she just consider thinking about it? No! How could he spring this on her now?
Weeks, months went by. She remained adamant, distant. Then one day he came home after work and she was gone.
Here he sat, alone with his Dewars, ballgame long over, fingering his wedding band, staring at divorce papers.
It couldn’t have happened to a more perfect couple.