Skip navigation

Calls to Action

An Excerpt from


My husband saw me at a party and decided he wanted to marry me. That is what he says. I was doing an impression of myself on the back of a motorcycle with my university sweetheart, a young man who loved T. S. Eliot and Harley-Davidsons, and who told me to hang on to him as we swept down Storrow Drive in Boston, the winter wind cutting through our clothes like glass. If I allow myself, I can still remember exactly the warm smell of his leather jacket, how I clung to him, and how in my fear and discomfort I cursed all the way to the ballet.

We sat on the plush red seat cushions and kissed before Baryshnikov came on stage, the whole of his powerful frame a knot of kinetic energy that leapt as though the stage were a springboard. I always insisted on sitting up front so I could appreciate the strength of the dancers, the tautness of their muscles, the sweat on their skin. My lover of motorcycles and poetry once licked my eyeball so quick I hadn't time to blink, and told me he dreamt of crossing a desert with me, of living on nothing but bee pupas and dates. In warm weather he trod across the university campus in bare feet and a four-week beard, singing loudly in German, which was his area of study, to find me in the chaste, narrow bed allocated to undergraduates. There, while the church bells chimed outside my window, he took his time crossing my body with his tongue.

"I'm Stephen," said my husband, a stranger to me then. Dark jeans, expensive jacket, an upper lip that is full like a girl's, against a startlingly handsome face. "Are you plugged in to something?"

My legs were straddling empty air, my back vibrating with an imagined Harley engine, my arms wrapped around the nothingness in front of me. I was laughing. I wasn't sure at first that Stephen was even speaking to me. I was surrounded by young women--he could have been addressing one of them. But the crowd I was entertaining with this impression seemed to shrink back with Stephen's approach. Apparently, they all knew him, knew the type of man he was and to back off with his arrival. I didn't know anything. My lover, now dead, was killed in a highway collision on his way to work one morning. I couldn't even drive a motorcycle, knowing only to hang on to the boy in front of me, whose head was shielded by a shining black helmet. His precious head.

"Pretending to be on a motorcycle," I said. Suddenly, the whole idea seemed stupid.

"Do you like motorcycles?" asked Stephen.

"I used to."

"Would you like a drink?" he asked, nodding toward the bar. "A glass of wine, perhaps?"

I said no, I don't drink. This wasn't actually true, but I had no idea I was speaking to my future husband. He was just some guy. None of my answers were supposed to matter.

He smiled, shook his head. He wasn't easily dissuaded. "Let me guess, you used to drink," he said.

He was the first man that night who looked right at me instead of slightly over my shoulder, who didn't make me feel he was comparing me to a whole list of others. And the first man who had offered me a drink, I might add. "I'll have a glass of white wine," I told him.

He nodded. And then, without a shimmer of uncertainty, he reached out and touched my hair with his fingertips as I searched the floor with my eyes.

"Canadian?" he asked.

"American."

"What brings you to England?"

A combination of circumstances, that was the truth. But it was far too much to explain. "I don't really know," I said.

He laughed. "Yes you do." He was so confident, his eyes steady on me as though he'd known me all his life. "You didn't just get lost," he said.

"Yes, that's exactly it. I got lost."

He put his hands in his pockets, pushed his face a few inches closer to my own, then away again, smiling. He behaved as though we'd just concluded some tacit agreement and I found myself unwilling to challenge him. "I'll get your wine," he said, and disappeared into the crowd.

"Give me a time frame for this," says the shrink. He has a clipboard and a mechanical pencil, a reading lamp that shows his skin, dark and smooth, like an oiled saddle.

"Six years ago. Spring. On windy days the flowering trees sent petals through the air like confetti."

Now we are to talk about my mother.

"She died," I tell the shrink. He waits, unmoving. This is not enough.

So I explain that it was cancer and that I wasn't there. When later I saw the time indicated on the death certificate, I realized that I had been at an ice rink, looping circles in rented skates in a small town near Boston. What does that say about me? About my character? The truth is I couldn't have watched it happen. I mean, the actual moment of death--no. She'd lost both breasts, had a tube stuck into the hollow which would have been her cleavage, shed her hair and her eyebrows. Even her skin peeled in strips. I'd been through all that with her, but this final part was different. There was no helping her.

The worst part, she once told me--this was before things got too bad, before she was entirely bedridden--the worst part, other than the fact that she was dying, was the humiliation of having to go around in maternity clothes. Her belly, its organs swollen with cancer, gave the impression that she'd reached the third trimester of pregnancy. Shopping with her amid the fertile exuberance of expectant mothers had been for her a macabre, debasing affair. We did it. Somehow.

"I should be buying these things for you," she said, holding her credit card in the checkout line. I was twenty-two and looked more or less like all the other women in the shop trying to figure out how big a bra to buy now that they'd outgrown all their others. Except I wasn't pregnant, though secretly I would have liked to be.

"I could only give birth to an alien," I said. "We'd have to buy onesies with room for three legs."
"You will have the most beautiful babies," said my mother. "You are the most beautiful girl."

I remember there was a jingle that kept playing in the shop, a nursery rhyme tapped out on a toy piano. I smiled at my mother. "Yeah, but cut me and I bleed green," I said.

Just before I left for the airport she said, "Let me see you again one last time. Who else can make me laugh?"

I promised her that. I promised her in the same manner with which I made her meals she could not eat, took her to the bathroom in the middle of the night, called the ambulance, sat with her as she lay in bed, exhausted, the telephone on one side of her and photographs of her children (now grown) on the other. I promised I'd be back in no time at all, but the afternoon she died I was gliding along a frozen rink in my woolly socks, my mittens.

The fact is I had no intention of being there when she died. I could not face it. I am a woman of great energy, compulsively active, given to fits of laughter, to sudden anger, to passionate and impossible love affairs. But the truth is I am a coward. Or was a coward.

I call my shrink, Shrink. Not to his face, of course. I also call him Jacob. He seems as fascinated by my being American as I am by his being black, a Londoner, and having almost no visible hair on his body at all except this one thing, his graying mustache, which he is often seen poking at with a slim forefinger. He has the delicate hands of a surgeon, but everything else about him is stocky, compact. His leather chair is faded where his head rests, and there are cracks around the edge of the cushion where his legs bend.

"So that's it, that's all you want to say about your mother?" he says. He sighs, crosses his legs. His laconic air is in direct contrast to my own pulsating, nervous energy. He says, "She died and you weren't there. Okay, how about before that? What about when you were growing up?"

My shrink is a man who wants to reveal me, and yet I know nothing about him. I am sure this is the right and proper way for a patient and therapist to operate, but it feels cold to me. I cannot think of anyone in my life now who wants to see inside me for what is good and right, only those who want to find what is wrong. And that's so easy--everything is wrong. I tell Jacob, "My mother was at work. I don't remember. It doesn't matter."

"Run that by me again?" he says.

"What about how I feel right now?"

It is as though I've eaten a vat of speed; my mind races along trailing incoherencies and half-finished thoughts. There's a continual restlessness in all four of my limbs; I am hungry almost all the time, except when I eat. Two bites and I feel sick. All this has come upon me gradually over the past months. That confident, breezy woman who Stephen saw at a party all those years ago is not me anymore. I am her shadow.

"Jacob," I sigh. "Be a pal and medicate me."

He says, "Melanie, you're going to need to relax about all that or else we won't get anywhere at all."

But I can't relax, which is why I am here. I used to read books by the score but now I find I am unable to concentrate. I go to the library, trying to find a book that might help me, but even the self-help books seem indecipherable. I'm lucky if I can remember a phone number. So instead I wander. I visit all-night cafés on the Edgware Road where teenagers suck sweet tobacco from hookahs; I go traipsing round the New Covent Garden Market, picking lonely flower stems from the shiny cement floor. I'll be at a train station at midnight with no ticket. I might be writing a list on a notepad held in my palm. Or staring at the blank walls of the station or wherever I am, which is anywhere you can linger instead of sleep. During the day, my hands sometimes tremble with fatigue. I squint at sunlight, splash cold water on my face, review the notes I have written to myself reminding me what to do. I set the alarm on my ugly electronic watch, a watch I found in a public toilet at Paddington, in case I fall asleep by accident. I have children to look after, to sing to, play with. I regard them as one might the queen's largest jewels. They receive my best--my only--real efforts.

"I'm just after some help," I tell Jacob. "I am worried all the time."

"I'm trying to help you," he says. He smiles and his teeth are like piano keys, his lips like a sweet fruit, tender and large. His children are grown now. That is all I know about him. "Tell me what troubles you," Jacob says. I am meant to pour myself into him as though he is an empty jug. This I cannot do.

At home I frantically organize clothes and toys, collect the sticks from Popsicles, the interesting wrappers from packets. Egg cartons turn into caterpillars; jam jars become pencil holders, decorated in collage or made garish in glass paint. Setting out the paints and crayons and shallow dishes of craft glue, I prepare for when Emily wakes, my little girl who loves animals and art. Daniel will not draw, will only break the crayons in half, rip the paper. I tell myself he is young yet. A voice inside me says, "Wait and you'll see!" But the voice isn't real and the boy won't even scribble on paper. This is part of the trouble.

"My son," I tell Jacob. He nods. I am meant to continue.

Every morning I take the children to the park, hanging on to them as though someone might snatch them from me, drug them and spirit them away from me forever. This is a great fear of mine. One of my fears. The only reason I haven't been to the doctor for Prozac is that I am convinced that the doctor would alert social services who might then come and take the children away. This is a completely ridiculous idea and I know it--but that's why I'm at the shrink's. Although I have to admit I'm not getting anywhere here.

I say now to my shrink, to Jacob, "Medicate me or I will fire you."

"What's that mean?" Jacob says. "Fire?"

I shake my head. I feel like a seed husk spent beside a loamy soil, like an emptied wineskin drying in the sun. "It means I stop paying you," I sigh.

He smiles, nods. But he does not, at this point anyway, prescribe.

Emily has a mop of blond curls billowing around her face, smiling eyes, aquamarine. Her baby teeth, spread wide in her mouth, remind me of a jack-o'-lantern, and when she laughs it is as though there are bubbles inside her, a sea of contentment. She carries Mickey Mouse by his neck, and wears a length of cord pinned to her trousers so that she, too, has a tail. Kneeling on a chair beside the dining table, she instructs me on the various ways one can paint Dumbo's relatives, who wear decorated blankets which require much precision. Unlike most children, who only paint on paper, Emily enjoys painting three-dimensional objects and so, for this reason, we own nine gray rubber elephants, some with trunks up and some with trunks down, that she has decorated many times. She has yet to find an elephant she thinks is a suitable Dumbo, and so we just have the nine so far.

Daniel has one toy he likes and hundreds he ignores. The one toy he likes is a wooden Brio model of Thomas the Tank Engine. It has a face like a clock, framed in black, with a chimney that serves almost as a kind of hat. The train must go with him everywhere and must either be in his hand or in his mouth. Never in Emily's hand and never washed in the sink, as I am now doing. No amount of reassurance from me, no promise that this will take only one minute, less than a minute, does anything to soothe Daniel, who pounds at my thighs with his small hands, screams like a monkey, opening his mouth so wide I can see down his throat.

Excerpted from Daniel Isn't Talking by Marti Leimbach Copyright © 2006 by Marti Leimbach. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.