June 22, 2015

Sneak Peek of The Ones You Left Behind

There's no pub date yet for book #2 but if you'd like a preview of The Ones You Left Behind, here's chapter one.
I'd love your comments. All are welcome and helpful.
(If you're one of my readers, it has probably changed substantially since you read it.)
I hope you enjoy.

by Samantha Hoffman

Chapter 1

     “Let’s cut through the alley. It’ll be faster.”
     “Eeeww, I hate that alley,” Mollie said, but I took her hand and hurried her along.
     I’d parked a couple blocks away from the school because I knew the lot would be full by the time we arrived. We’d waited and waited for Jake to get home but he hadn’t shown up, and now I had mere minutes to deliver Mollie to the auditorium on time.
     I was surprised when he wasn’t back from his run in time to go to Mollie’s piano recital, not because this going-missing thing was an unprecedented event – that had happened with some regularity in our marriage – but he never neglected his youngest daughter’s recitals. And this was a huge event – some of the students from this recital would be chosen to go to the music competition in New York, and Mollie badly wanted to go. She would be devastated if her dad wasn’t there to cheer her on.
      The heels of her new shoes clacked on the concrete and bounced off the buildings.
      “All the girls are wearing heels,” she’d told me.
      I hate when she tells me stuff like that. “If all the girls shave their heads bald…” I always want to say, but mostly I control that urge. And sometimes, if I really reach for it, I can even remember what it was like to be thirteen.
      Through the far end of the alley I could see other families heading into the auditorium and I thought, okay, good, we’ll make it.
     And then a man turned into the alley in front of us, and I couldn’t see him clearly because it was cavernous and dark in there, even though it was broad daylight, but I could see he wore a stocking cap pulled down over his forehead and his pants hung low on his hips and he walked in a slow, arrogant way, and a red flash went off in my brain and I gripped Mollie’s hand tighter.
      “Ow, Mom,” she said, and tried to pull her hand away but I held on and inventoried the contents of my purse in my head, wondering if I had something sharp. All I could think of was the keychain Jake had given me for an engagement present, a sterling silver pendant hung off of it – a strength pendant he’d called it – with the words: "What lies behind us, and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." A quote from Emerson.
      “You’re stronger than you think you are,” Jake always told me.
      I didn’t feel very strong at that moment but I knew that pendant had some sharp edges. And I knew if Jake had gotten home on time I wouldn’t be worrying about being in this scary alley. How would he live with himself if we were robbed or stabbed? Or killed.
     My head pounded as the man got closer. Would people would hear us if we screamed? And then the man was so close that I could see he was just a boy, really, and then he said, “Hey, Mollie.”
     “Hey, Jeff,” Mollie said. It took a moment to readjust my thinking but in my relief a sound escaped my throat – an ugly, embarrassing, honking sound – and I coughed to cover it up. I slowed my pace and dropped Mollie’s hand, feeling stupid, overreacting like that. I wouldn’t have done that if Jake had been here. I wouldn’t say it aloud, it was too embarrassing – I was a grown woman, after all – but I always felt safer with Jake around.
     “How do you know that boy?” I asked.
     “Courtney’s brother. You’ve seen him like a million times.”
     Before she left me to run backstage Mollie said, “Dad will be here before I play, right?” and I said, “Oh, I’m sure.” 
     I couldn’t have said what time Jake left today; I’d been busy baking chocolate-peanut butter cupcakes for the bake sale, talking to my friend Maggie on the phone, looking for a new duvet cover on Overstock.com. Had he been dressed in running clothes? Had I reminded him about Mollie’s recital?
     Jake would often go out on an errand, or a quick jog through the forest preserve and not come back for hours. He was easily distracted by people. And nature, examining each rock as if it were from Stonehenge, inspecting every twig and weed and wildflower. He was a botanist. He was all about nature.
     It happened early and often in our relationship, and in the beginning I cried and pouted and tried to guilt him into not doing it again. And then, on the night before our wedding, I waited at our rehearsal dinner with thirty people for nearly half an hour for Jake to show up. After twenty minutes I was a blubbering mess, 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 I heard a loud, piercing whistle outside, unmistakable in its particularity. It was Jake – that whistle was distinct; it was how he’d called to me from across campus or in a crowded mall. And sure enough, in he rushed, full of apologies and sweetness, kissing my face and lips and hair, thumbing away my tears, saying, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. Please don’t cry.” He’d gone for a run to blow off some steam, he told me, and lost track of time.
     “God, Hannah, I’m such an asshole. I don’t deserve you.” He held my face in his hands and looked into my eyes. “Can you ever forgive me?”
     Later, after the festivities were over we’d sat together on the porch of my parents’ house, holding hands, watching the clouds float across the moon, Jake fingering my engagement ring with its tiny, perfect, diamond, and he said, “We’re going to be together for the rest of our lives, Hannah. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Don’t ever doubt how much I love you. I promise I’ll make a big effort not to get distracted by things…” He waved his arm, encompassing the scene before us. “…the world. But if I do, know that it’s not intentional. It’s just how I am. I can’t help it.”
     “You can try,” I’d said, in my innocence and youth, believing back then that people could change.
Of course he did it again. And again. And each time he was full of apologies. And each time he reminded me that he wasn’t perfect, and I knew that, of course, but to my mind he was awfully close. So I learned to live with it - not that I ever stopped being exasperated – but I accepted that this was Jake. And then, so did the kids. What choice did we have?
     I saved a seat for Jake at Mollie’s performance and kept looking around to watch for him. He’d know where I was, we always sat in the same approximate area; left side, toward the front, on the aisle to accommodate his long legs. But there was no sign of him.
     When I saw that Mollie’s part was fifth in the program I realized it would give me just enough time to run to the Jewel and get some roses, something Jake always did when she performed. I left my red and black plaid jacket on the seat so Jake would recognize it, and asked the woman next to me if she would watch for him.
      “He’s six foot four, thin, salt and pepper hair, a nice smile,” I said. “He may be in running clothes with sweat dripping off him,” and off I went, just in case he didn’t make it. He’d given Mollie a bouquet for every single performance so far, and she had dried petals from each one pasted into a scrapbook she’d made with a piano d├ęcoupaged on the cover. I couldn’t let this performance go unrecorded.
     The flowers were picked over by this time but I found a presentable-enough bouquet, bought some pink tissue paper and ribbon, and wrapped it at the stoplights on my way back to the school, and got back to my seat (no Jake) in plenty of time for Mollie’s introduction.
      Mollie looked ethereal. She never ceased to amaze me, this lovely child, our not-so-little surprise when I was forty-two years old. What a shock that had been, to find myself pregnant at that age. Of course there had been alcohol involved.
      Clara was sixteen and Spencer about to go into junior high and there I was, having a baby. They were both very grossed-out at this turn of events (at that age I’m sure it conjured up unwelcome pictures of Jake and me…well, you know). I had been shocked and appalled at first. By then Jake and I had been ready to have some freedom again, to take more vacations, see more movies, maybe go dancing once in a while. I’d even been studying the course catalog from DePaul University – Jake had brought it home one day – thinking maybe I’d get a teaching credential for the next chapter of my life. 
      But I warmed quickly to the idea of this shiny, new, dependent person who would love me unconditionally. Jake hadn’t warmed as quickly. He didn’t have the benefit of those hormones. They do amazing things to your brain.
     “We don’t have to do this,” he had said when I told him.
     “What does that 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. If it was the fifties we wouldn’t, but today we do. We didn’t plan this 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. I couldn’t believe it. “We’re almost at a point where we’ll have our lives back,” he’d said, “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 Humanity and build houses in Egypt.” 
Bolivia? Did he want to live in Bolivia?
     I’d looked at him; his pleading eyes, the fine lines that were appearing around his mouth, the strands of gray at his temples, and somewhere deep in my heart I felt compassion for him, but when you weighed it against the microscopic, vulnerable being growing in my womb there was no contest.
     “You want to kill our baby?” I said.
     He flinched. “Jesus, Hannah.” He dragged his hand over his face, looked at me with wounded eyes and walked away. We never discussed it again.
     When our Mollie was born I was forty-two and Jake was forty-four. Never in a million years did I think we’d have a newborn at that time in our lives.
     The minute he saw Mollie Jake was over the moon, but it was tough on him all those years – I knew that – having to postpone his dreams again; he wouldn’t be taking that road trip across the country any time soon. There would be no sabbatical for him, no motorcycle in the near future. And there would be no college classes for me – not with another mouth to feed. Not for a long, long while.
      When she was introduced, Mollie walked on stage and smiled, bowed her head once in thanks for the applause, and sat at the piano looking poised and confident. On stage she was no longer my baby; she was a performer; unselfconscious and serene. She had a big presence, a natural appeal. I had no idea where that came from, certainly not from me, but it puffed me up with pride.
     She played elegantly, just one tiny mistake on one of her runs, and when she took her bow the audience clapped loudly. I shouted, “Woo hoo!” and there were a few Bravo!s, and then a whistle that made my ears perk up. It sounded a little like Jake’s, but it seemed cut short, somehow. Had he made it after all? I waited to hear it again – Jake always did it twice after Mollie’s performances, two distinctive whistles to be sure she heard – but it didn’t come and so I dismissed it.
     I met her backstage and gave her the roses and she looked at them, then leaned sideways to peer around me. “Where’s Daddy?”
     “I don’t think he made it, honey. I didn’t see him.” Disappointment clouded her eyes. “And he’s going to be sorry. It was a fantastic performance. You were wonderful.”
     “I was not. He didn’t miss anything. I messed up like three times.”
     “I’m sure no one noticed,” I said, “I know I didn’t.”
     “I’m sure the judges noticed,” she said, her eyes welling up. “I probably won’t get picked for the team.”
     “You will, I’m sure of it,” I said, and she searched my face, eager to believe.
     She brought the flowers to her nose. “So where’d these come from?”
     I smiled, feeling a little proud. “I got them,” I said. “I ran out after I dropped you off, just in case Daddy didn’t make it. I wanted you to have them.”
     “Oh.” She laid them on the floor next to her bag, pulled the ribbon out of her hair and shook it, then jammed her sheet music into her bag along with the flowers. “Well, thanks,” she said.
     Other parents were picking up their children, exclaiming over how well they’d played, what a great concert it was. I greeted the ones I knew, while the students traded hugs and high-fives, and Mollie kept watching the door for Jake.
     “I’m sure Daddy’ll be home when we get there,” I told her.
     “Whatever,” she said. “Let’s just go.”
     The house was dark when we got home and I thought Jake must have fallen asleep after his run.     
     “Jake?” I called as I turned lights on and walked into the kitchen. “Jake!” I called again, louder this time, hoping to wake him.
     “I’ll find him,” Mollie said, kicking off her shoes and shrugging out of her coat, throwing it on a stool at the breakfast bar.
     “Why don’t you go change and I’ll find him,” I said, but she was already on her way upstairs.
     I was cutting up a chicken for paprikash when Mollie came back into the kitchen, transformed into her teenage self in torn jeans and t-shirt, her hair twisted into a knot on top of her head.
     “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, like, I looked in your bedroom, in the den, in his workout room and the bathrooms, and he’s, like, not here.”
     “Did you look in the garage?”
     “Well, duh…we drove into the garage.”
     Here was a glimpse into my future of Mollie as a hostile teenager. I prayed she wasn’t going to go through that my-mother’s-a-useless-pain-in-the-ass stage like Clara had. That was so unpleasant. Why don’t they hate their fathers too? Where’s the fairness in that?
     I put the knife down and got my phone and called Jake’s cell. It went right to voice mail.
     “Jake,” I said, “where are you? Call me as soon as you get this.”
     I was puzzled but still not worried. Like I said, Jake got distracted easily.
     I went up to our bedroom and looked in his closet. The floor was a jumble of loafers and slippers and boots, but his running shoes weren’t among them.
     His wedding ring was on the dresser, but that didn’t alarm me; he never wore it when he ran. His dad’s old Omega was there, too, the one he’d asked me to take to the jeweler.
     Oops, I thought, and put it in my purse. Jake wanted to get it fixed for Spencer, who was named for his grandfather.
     There were 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 Jake’s messy scrawl but nothing meant anything to me.
     Downstairs I 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 I’d forgotten about?
     Obviously he hadn’t remembered Mollie’s recital. I thought he and his buddy Ted must have gone out for a beer after their run. “We’re replenishing our carbs,” Jake always said when I pointed out the incompatibility of running and beer drinking. But 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, how he gets involved in things and forgets about the world and everything in it.”
    “How could he forget about my solo? And the competition? It’s like the biggest thing in my life.”
    “I know,” I said. “He’ll feel terrible when he realizes he missed it.”
    “Yeah, well it sucks,” Mollie said. Tears stood in her eyes. “He doesn’t even care.”
    “He does, sweetie. He’ll be really upset when he realizes he missed it.”
     She rolled her eyes.
     I finished making the paprikash and Mollie made a salad, and then we ate and pretended not to notice that Jake wasn’t there to eat with us. His absence left a gap we couldn’t ignore, but Mollie didn’t say anything about that, just talked about the recital and the bake sale, which was going to fund the music competition in New York.
     “Do you think I’ll get in?” she asked, looking as if her life depended on my answer.
     “I do, sweetie. Your performance was amazing.”
     “But I messed up.”
     “It didn’t overshadow the beauty of your performance. Really, Mol. Did you hear that crowd?”
     “Yeah. It was great, wasn’t it? “ The memory of the crowd’s appreciation brought a shine to her eyes that warmed my heart. 
     She forked some more chicken into her mouth. “This is the best paprikash you’ve ever made,” she said.
     I smiled. Jake said that same thing at every meal, no matter what we were eating.
    A sweet girl, our Mollie.
     Later, when Mollie was texting her BFFs, thumbs flying all over the Lilliputian keyboard, I called Jake’s cell again but again it went to voice mail. Now a bubble of anxiety was simmering in my stomach. Or it might have been heartburn from the paprikash.
     Why didn’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 saying, “Oh Hannah, what are you so worked up about? You knew Ted and I were going out tonight. It’s his birthday.” 
     After Mollie went to bed I paged through an In Style magazine and watched Rachel Ray cook up what she called stoup (“Not quite a stew,” she said, “but thicker than a soup.”), and I fell asleep on the couch. And when I was awakened at 3:10 in the morning by my own unladylike snoring and there was still no sign of Jake, that’s when my neck started to throb as I imagined him lying bloody somewhere, or in a hospital on a breathing tube.

June 19, 2015

Movie Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ***

Another kid-dying-of-cancer movie. If you liked The Fault in Our Stars you'll probably like this.
I liked Fault but this was just more of the same, only different kids.
Olivia Cooke, who plays the dying girl, is adorable but she doesn't have much to do, even though it's all about her. Thomas Mann does a great job as Greg, the "Me" in the story (right, in the picture below), as does RJ Cyler as Earl (left). But the rest of the cast are distracting caricatures whose quirks serve no other purpose than to
annoy me; there's the dad who never wears anything but a bathrobe (guess where he is) and who eats slimy, oddly colored foods. He's married to the mom who's over-protective and over-meddling and over-annoying. And there's Molly Shannon who plays the dying girl's mother, who always has a glass of wine in her hand and who comes on to all the young boys.
And then there's Greg's narration, and all along he keeps telling you she's not going to die, but she does. So what's the point in that?
The last act was sweet and almost made it worth staying, but it wasn't easy slogging through the rest of it.
Three stars out of five for Me and Earl and The Dying Girl. 

June 9, 2015

Movie Review: Love and Mercy *****

John Cusack as Brian Wilson? Really? Who ever thought of that?
Whoever did is a genius. It not only works...it works perfectly.
Full disclosure: I worked for John Cusack for five years and he's a really nice guy, but that's not why I think he's a great actor. He's made a number of good films but more that were not so good. Regardless of the film, his performances are reliably wonderful, but so many of his films have fallen off the radar pretty quickly so he doesn't get the credit he deserves.
I think this is his turning-point role, and will earn him an Oscar nomination.
He melts into the part of Brian Wilson but his performance is not caricatured. It's understated (and if you read my reviews you know that's a big plus in my book), and his chemistry with Elizabeth Banks is palpable. I couldn't help but wonder if they had a little thing going in real life.
Paul Dano is wonderful as the young Brian Wilson. He's physically closer to the part than Cusack but it was great casting all around.
The story goes back and forth between the Beach Boys' beginning to the 80s when Wilson was an emotional wreck, and being controlled by his doctor. It's not your typical bio-pic. There have been some great ones, and Love and Mercy is right up there with the best.
The one nit I have to pick is the ridiculous wig Paul Giamatti wears as Dr. Eugene Landy, whose hair never looked close to that, as far as I can tell. It's a small nit, but that kind of thing is so distracting. Did they run out of budget? It's a credit to Giamatti's performance that after a bit you can ignore it, but it's all in the details, isn't it?
I predict that not only will Cusack get an Academy Award nomination, but so will Elizabeth Banks, and so will the film for Best Picture.
Five out of five stars for Love and Mercy.