Have you read the first chapter of my new novel yet? Well, here's a slightly revised version of chapter one from The Ones You Left Behind.
When Jack wasn’t back from his run in time to go to Mollie’s piano recital I wasn’t surprised. Just pissed, for Mollie’s sake and she, of course, was beside herself.
“No,” she said, “we can’t leave without Daddy.”
“We have to, honey, or we’ll be late,” I said, and packed her and her black velvet dress into the car, her tears smudging the light coat of mascara she’d talked me into. “I’m sure he’ll be there before you begin.” Ever hopeful, she nodded solemnly, stopped crying, pulled down the visor and worked at the blackness under her eyes, spitting on a finger and wiping.
Schmuck, I thought, but of course I kept that to myself. You don’t say that to your thirteen year-old daughter about her beloved father.
You wait until she’s at least fifteen.
I was used to Jack going out for a quick jog through the forest preserve and not coming back for hours. Sometimes many hours. Jack often got caught up in nature, examining every rock as if it were from Stonehenge, looking at every twig and flower. He was a botanist, after all. When we were young we’d go to the Indiana Dunes and he could see the changes from one year to the next while I’d walk impatiently behind him tapping my fingers against my leg while he pointed out a newly formed dune or some new thistle. I think he really thought I was interested and I didn’t let on that I wasn’t. Well, not intentionally. But one time he caught me rolling my eyes and he took my hands in his and looked at me earnestly and said, “I know this isn’t as fascinating to you as it is to me but if you pretend to be interested I’ll pretend to be interested in your knitting and then we’ll both be happy.” I was knitting that year as if my life depended on it; not just sweaters and scarves and socks but afghans and coats and toaster covers. Jack joked that I was going to knit us a house one of these days.
“And sometimes if you pretend long enough it’ll happen,” he’d said. “Maybe nature will grow on you – pun intended – and maybe I’ll take up knitting.” That made us both laugh. And that’s when I knew what our marriage was going to be about; give and take, yin and yang, compromise, respect and laughter, and since we shared so many other things it seemed that feigning the occasional interest was a simple price to pay.
Jack’s never veered from his love of nature but I bounced from knitting to beading to children to throwing pottery to computers to water color…and he feigned interest in them all. And he did it well. Probably better than I, but I tried. And I know he appreciated my effort.
* * *
I didn’t save a seat for Jack at Mollie’s performance. I guess I wanted to punish him a little. I didn’t want him to think it was okay, that I’d always save his ass. But my punishment was for naught since he didn’t show up.
Mollie looked beautiful on stage. She never ceased to amaze me, this lovely, self-possessed child, our not-so-little “surprise” when I was forty-two years old. Whew, that had been a shocker. Of course there had been alcohol involved.
Clara was sixteen and Spencer about to go into junior high and there I was, pregnant. They were both very grossed out by this turn of events. And I had been horrified at first. Jack and I had been so ready to have some freedom again, to do more traveling, see more movies, maybe go dancing once in a while (we loved to Tango). But I warmed quickly to the idea of this tiny, new, dependent person who would love me unconditionally. Jack not so much. He didn’t have the benefit of those hormones. They do incredible things to your brain.
“We don’t have to do this,” he had said.
“What do you mean, we don’t have to do this?” I wasn’t stupid, I just couldn’t believe he’d suggest it.
“We have choices, Hannah. We didn’t make this decision but we can alter the outcome.” This from nature-man, the man who loved all things ecological and biological and environmental; the man who planted dune grasses in our Midwestern yard and cultivated wild flowers. “We’re almost at a point where we’ll have our lives back, when we can do all the things we didn’t get to do when we were young. We can go live in Bolivia if we want to, join Habitat for Humanities and build houses in Egypt,” he said.
I’d looked at him, his pleading eyes, the fine lines that were appearing around his mouth, the gray at his temples.
“You want to kill our child?” I said.
He’d flinched. “Jesus, Hannah,” he said, and dragged his hand over his face, pinched the bridge of his nose. I walked away from him and we never discussed it again, ever, and when our Mollie was born I was forty-two and Jack was forty-four, prime ages to have grandchildren.
Jack fell in love with Mollie the minute he saw her of course, and they have an even stronger connection than he has with the other kids, but it’s been tough on him all these years, having to postpone his dreams again. I know that.
Mollie sat down at the piano looking poised and confident, her mind only on her music now. For such a small girl she had a big presence, a natural appeal. I don’t know where that came from, certainly not me, but it puffed me up with pride. She played with energy and passion but her performance was unexceptional. It didn’t matter to the audience though, they clapped and cheered as if she were Billy Joel, taken with her bright, appreciative smile, her mass of red curls.
When I met her backstage the first thing she said was, “Did Daddy come?”
“No, honey, he didn’t. And he’s going to be sorry. It was a great performance. You were amazing.”
“I was not,” she said. “He didn’t miss anything. I messed up three times.”
“I’m sure no one noticed,” I said, “I know I didn’t.”
“Well you wouldn’t, you don’t know the music.” I held my tongue but it took everything I had. Of course I knew the music. I’d heard the mistakes. I’d only listened to her practice it about 6800 times in the last month.
She said, “Daddy would have noticed. I was awful.”
“Sweetheart, you were not.”
“Whatever,” Mollie said. “Let’s just go.”
When we got home the house was dark and I thought Jack had probably fallen asleep after his run. I’ll kill him, I thought. “Jack?” I called as I turned lights on and walked into the kitchen. “Jack!” I called again, louder this time, hoping to wake him. Not bad enough he doesn’t show up for his daughter’s recital but does he have to make it so apparent that it was so unimportant he could sleep through it?
“I’ll find him,” Mollie said, kicking off her shoes and shrugging out of her coat, leaving it on a stool at the breakfast bar. I started to suggest she hang it in the closet, but resisted the urge.
“Why don’t you go change and I’ll find him,” I said but she was already on her way upstairs. I was cloaked in sadness and frustration as I stared after her narrow, straight back. I had always been very protective of Mollie. Which she hated, of course. Well, she didn’t hate it so much when she was four or five or six, but at thirteen she found it invasive and insulting. She thought of herself as very grown-up and truth was, she was. But she was still my baby.
* * * *
I was cutting up a chicken for paprikash when Mollie came back into the kitchen, transformed into teenage self in torn jeans and T-shirt, her hair in a ponytail.
“He’s not here,” she said.
I stopped trimming and looked at her, knife in the air. “What do you mean he’s not here?”
“I mean I looked in your bedroom, in the den, in his workout room and all the bathrooms, and he’s not here.”
“Did you look in the garage?”
“Well, duh…we drove into the garage.” This gave me a glimpse of a future Mollie as an antagonistic teenager. I prayed she wasn’t going to go through that my-mother’s-useless stage like Clara had. That was so unpleasant. Why don’t they hate their fathers too? It’s so unfair.
I put the knife down and got my phone and called Jack’s cell. I didn’t hear it ringing anywhere in the house so I knew he had it with him but it went into voice mail.
“Jack,” I said, “where are you? Call me as soon as you get this.” Now my mind was going a mile a minute. What time did he leave? Was he dressed in running clothes? Had he told me he was going somewhere this evening? Had I reminded him about Mollie’s recital?
But I still wasn’t worried. Jack got distracted easily, he always had, and it took me probably the first ten years of our marriage to get used to it, but after thirty years you go with the flow.
I went up to our bedroom and looked in his closet. The floor was a jumble of shoes but his running shoes weren’t among them. Clothes hung haphazardly; pants in with the shirts, short sleeves and long all mixed together, sweaters hanging out of drawers. I shut the door in disgust. The thing that probably saved our marriage was the double closets in our bedroom. That and the fact that Jack did his own laundry.
His wallet was on the dresser along with his wedding ring and a pinky ring he wears, some slips of paper from his pockets; Post-It notes and small, ragged, lined sheets torn from a spiral notebook. I read the phone numbers, names and to-do kinds of things in Jack’s messy scrawl but nothing meant anything to me.
I went back downstairs and checked the pockets of his jacket and found his gloves and car keys. So it looked like he was still out running. But how long had he been out there? Three hours? Four? Was he training for a marathon that I forgot about?
Okay, so he obviously forgot about Mollie’s recital and was probably with his running buddy, Ted, and they went out for a beer afterwards. “We’re replenishing our carbs,” Jack always said when I pointed out the incompatibility of running and beer drinking. Beer or not, there was an explanation, I was sure. Nothing I would be happy with, nothing that would make Mollie feel better, but something rational and benign. And that’s what I told Mollie when she asked, “So where is he?”
“I don’t know. But you know your dad. You know how he gets involved in things and forgets about the world and everything in it. He’ll feel terrible when he realizes he missed your recital.”
“Whatever,” Mollie said.
So I finished making the paprikash and Mollie made a salad with arugula and pears and dried cranberries (delicious!), and then we ate and pretended we didn’t notice that Jack wasn’t there to eat with us. It was kind of a lonely meal but the paprikash was delicious, if I do say so myself.
Later, when Mollie was texting her BFFs, thumbs flying all over the minuscule keyboard, I called Jack’s cell again but still it went to voice mail. By now there was a little bubble of something like anxiety (but could have been heartburn) simmering in my stomach.
Why doesn’t he call me?
Still, I wasn’t going to get into the trap of working myself into a frenzy only to have him stroll in at midnight saying, “Oh Hannah, what are you so upset about? You knew Ted and I were going out tonight. It’s his birthday,” making him look like the injured party.
In times like these I let my mind go back to the night before our wedding, our rehearsal dinner where thrity people and I waited for an hour and a half for Jack to show up. After forty minutes I was a blubbering mass, sure he’d run off with Carley Vaughn, his lab partner in college, Carley Vaughn of the long, perfect legs. My mother was talking me down from sawing at my wrists with a butter knife when Jack came rushing in full of apologies and sweetness, kissing my face and lips and hair, wiping my tears with the sleeve of his shirt, swearing he’d never to do it again. He’d just lost track of time, he said, but said I meant more to him than his own life and that of his Golden Lab and that of his grandmother. I meant more to him than his Corvette. He pushed my hair behind my ears and looked into my eyes and said, “Can you ever forgive me for being such an asshole?” Of course I could, and did. And he showed up for the wedding on time and so in my innocence I believed the night before was an anomaly.
Hah! Little did I know.
So after Mollie went to bed I paged through an In Style magazine and watched TV for a while and fell asleep on the couch. And then I was awakened at 3:10 in the morning by my own snoring and there was still no sign of Jack and that’s when the back of my neck started to throb.