Greenwood is a writer of subtle strength. . .finding light in the darkest of stories. Publishers Weekly on Two Rivers
In 1960, Billie Valentine is a young housewife living in a sleepy Massachusetts suburb, treading water in a dull marriage and caring for two adopted daughters. Summers spent with the girls at their lakeside camp in Vermont are her one escapefrom her husband's demands, from days consumed by household drudgery, and from the nagging suspicion that life was supposed to hold something different.
Then a new family moves in across the street. Ted and Eva Wilson have three children and a fourth on the way, and their arrival reignites long-buried feelings in Billie. The affair that follows offers a solace Billie has never known, until her secret is revealed and both families are wrenched apart in the tragic aftermath.
Fifty years later, Ted and Eva's son, Johnny, contacts an elderly but still spry Billie, entreating her to return east to meet with him. Once there, Billie finally learns the surprising truth about what was lost, and what still remains, of those joyful, momentous summers.
In this deeply tender novel, T. Greenwood weaves deftly between the past and present to create a poignant and wonderfully moving story of friendship, the resonance of memories, and the love that keeps us afloat.
"Complex and compelling." Eleanor Brown, New York Times bestselling author of The Weird Sisters
|Product dimensions:||8.20(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.20(d)|
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Bodies of Water
By T. Greenwood
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 T. Greenwood
All rights reserved.
This is what I know: memory is the same as water. It permeates and saturates. Quenches and satiates. It can hold you up or pull you under; render you weightless or drown you. It is tangible, but elusive. My memories of Eva are like this: the watery dreams of a past I can no more easily grasp than a fistful of the ocean. Some days, they buoy me. Other days, they threaten me with their dangerous draw. Memory. Water. Our bodies are made of it; it is what we are. I can no longer separate myself from my recollections. On the best days, on the worst days, I believe I have dissolved into them.
It was the ocean's tidal pull that brought me here to this little beach town forty years ago, and later to this battered cottage perched at the edge of the cliffs, overlooking the sea. It is what keeps me here as well. And while I may not be able to escape my memories, I have escaped the seasons here; this is what I think as summer turns seamlessly into fall, the only sign of this shift being the disappearance of the tourists. During the summer, the other rental cottages are full of families and couples, the porches littered with surfboards and beach toys, the railings draped with wet swimsuits and brightly colored beach towels. Sometimes a child will line up shells along the balustrade, a parade of treasures. At summer's end, the kindest mothers will pack these up as they pack up the rest of their things, slipping them into a little plastic bag to be stowed inside a suitcase. The other mothers toss them back toward the sand when the child is busy, hoping they will forget the care with which they were chosen. I understand both inclinations: to hold on and to let go.
But now, in September, the flip-flops and buckets and shells are gone and the children have returned home, the inevitability of fall, the certainty of autumn just another textbook fact as they sit wearily in their September classrooms. But I imagine they must keep this magical place somewhere in their memory, pulling out the recollections and examining them, marveling at them, like the shimmery inside of a shell: a place without seasons, as far away as the moon. Their mothers have returned to their kitchens or offices, their fathers to their lonely commutes. Only I remain, in my little cottage by the shore, as summer slips away soundlessly, and, without fanfare, autumn steps in.
At night, in the fall when the tourists are gone, there are no distractions. No blue glow of a television set in a window, no muffled sound of an argument or a child's cry. There are no slamming doors or moody teenagers sneaking out to a bonfire on the sand below. There is no laughter, no scratchy radio music, no soft cadence of couples making love. There is only the sound of the lapping waves, the lullaby of water. It is quiet here without them.
I don't have a landline. When someone wants to reach me, they call the manager's office and I return the call on my cell phone, its number known only to my daughters and sister. My eldest, Francesca, calls once a week on Sundays, dutifully reporting on her life in Boston, detailing the comings and goings of my grandchildren. Mouse is less predictable, more like me, calling only when the spirit moves her. She sends beautiful letters and postcards and photographs, though, that offer me glimpses into her gypsy life. The wall behind my bed tracks her travels in a cluttered collage. Only my sister, Gussy, calls every day. She relies on me more than she used to. We are both widows now, and growing old is lonely. We need each other.
I expect her call each night like I expect the sunset. "Hi, Gus," I say. "What's the news?" Though there is never any news, not real news anyway: a broken pipe, a sale on prime rib, a silly conversation in line at the bank. More often than not she calls to read me one of the increasingly frequent obituaries of someone we used to know.
Tonight, I slip into bed for our conversation, watching the sun melt into the horizon from my window. When summer is over, I no longer bother to close the shades, modesty disappearing with the tourists.
"I got a letter today," she says. "The strangest thing."
She is quiet on the other end of the line. I picture her, nestled in her husband Frank's old recliner, cradling the phone between her chin and her shoulder as she knits something for Zu-Zu or Plum.
"The letter was from John Wilson. Johnny Wilson."
I feel a hollowing out in my chest, and worry for just a fraction of a second that this is it. I am waiting now, for that failure of my body that will, finally, remove me from this world. But then my heart, this old reliable heart, thumps again, a gong, and my whole body reverberates. "Why?" I ask.
"He's looking for you."
I take a deep breath and study the sky outside my window, looking for an answer in the confusion of colors, in the spill of orange and blue.
"He just got out of rehab or some such thing. Doesn't surprise me at all, frankly. Probably part of his twelve steps, making amends and all that."
It does not surprise me to hear that he's had these sorts of problems, though why he would want to talk to me is a mystery. Johnny Wilson would have nothing to apologize to me for; if anything, it should be the other way around.
"He says he wants to talk to you about his mother. But he wants to see you in person. He wants to know if I can help him find you."
My eyes sting. Suddenly the sunset is too bright. I stand and pull the curtains across the windows and sit down on the bed again. Breathless.
"Can I help him?" she asks. "Find you?"
"Where is he?"
"He's still in Boston. But he said he could come up to Vermont if you might be up for a visit. He must not know you're in California."
Of course he wouldn't know this. I haven't spoken to Johnny Wilson in decades.
"You could come for a visit, you know," she says. "Make a trip of it. Francesca could come up too, meet us at the lake?"
Lake Gormlaith. I haven't been back to the lake since 1964. Johnny was still a little boy then. A child. My heart (that swollen, weakening thing in my chest) aches for him: both the little boy he was and whatever damaged man he has now become.
"I don't know," I say. "I haven't flown in so long. Doesn't security make you take your clothes off or some such nonsense now?"
"Shoes." Gussy laughs. "You only have to take off your shoes. Come home, come see me. Let Johnny say what he needs to say. And you can see Effie and the girls."
Effie, my grandniece, and her family live year round now in the cabin at the lake. I haven't met the children, and the last time I saw Effie she was still a teenager. I haven't even seen Gussy for nearly two years now, and she was the last one to visit. I know it's my turn. Still, I am happy here at the edge of the world where none of the rules, even those regarding the changing of seasons, apply. Why would I leave?
"Please?" Gussy says.
"What did the letter say exactly?" I ask, wanting to hear her name, hoping she will say it.
"It just says he needs to talk to you about Eva." And there they are, the two syllables as familiar, and faint, as my own heartbeat." He says there are some things you should know."
"What do you suppose that means?" I ask.
"I don't know, Billie. Just come home and find out."
I look around my tiny cottage, peer once again at that predictable sky. In Vermont, the leaves would be igniting in their autumnal fire, the whole landscape a pyre. There is no such thing as escaping the seasons in New England.
"Let me think about it," I say. "I'm not too wild about getting naked for just anybody who flashes a badge."
Gussy laughs again. "Think on it. I'll call you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," I say, committing to nothing.
In the morning, I wake to the blinding reminder of daylight through the pale curtains in my bedroom. Outside, the waves quietly pat the shore as though they are only reassuring the sand. Each day begins like this; only the keening of the foghorn tells me that today it is autumn, that the sky is impenetrable.
My whole body aches, though it has for so long now that the pain no longer registers as unusual or worrisome. I rise anyway—what else can one do?—slip out of bed and into my bathing suit, which I keep hanging on a hook on the back of my door. I sleep in the nude, which makes this transition easier: no cumbersome nightgown to fuss with, no pajamas to unbutton or from which to undress. I realized long ago that I'd only ever worn nightclothes as a barrier anyway: a fortress of flannel or silk.
The bathing suit I wear these days is bright green. It complements my eyes, or it would if the cataracts hadn't rendered them this icy blue. My hair isn't the same color anymore either. Still, I wake up every single morning expecting to see the red-haired woman I used to be in the mirror, but instead I see an old lady with milky eyes and an untamed white mane. I have, on the darkest days, demanded to know who she is.
Sometimes I try to imagine what Eva would look like now, but she remains fixed in my memory the way she looked back in the summer of 1960 when I first met her. Only I have aged. Only I have watched my body slowly abandon me. I am alone in this slow decay. Nevertheless, I do imagine her here, though she appears as a ghost, and I wonder what her morning would be like. Would she also slip into her bathing suit at the break of dawn? Would she walk with me from the bungalow down the stone steps to the beach? Would she peer through the thick marine layer that hangs like a white stole on the sea's shoulders and then wink at me before tossing her hair back and running headlong into the water, disappearing into the ocean leaving me to wonder if she would resurface again? Would she leave me at the edge, fearful—an old woman with cataracts and high blood pressure—looking for her through the gauzy morning? Would she emerge from the water, riding a wave in to shore, coming home again, or would she simply vanish?
I'm never truly alone on the beach, even in autumn, even this early in the morning. The surfers come in their wet suits, carrying their boards under their arms. They paddle out to wait for the waves, bobbing and dipping like shiny black seals. The bums who sleep under the pier emerge, scavenging for food, for half-smoked cigarette butts left in the sand. Middle-aged women rise early and walk up and down the beach, purposeful in their velour tracksuits, still believing that the inevitable might be delayed, if not halted entirely. They rarely acknowledge me; I am evidence of the one thing they cannot change, the reminder of a future they aren't ready to imagine. But if they were to look, to really look, this is what they would see: an elderly woman in a green bathing suit walking slowly toward the water's edge. She is old and she is thin, but there are shadows of an athlete in her strong shoulders and legs underneath that ancient skin. She is a swimmer, peering out at the water as though she might be looking for someone. But after only a moment, she disappears into the cold, her arms remembering. Her whole body remembering, her whole body memory, as she swims toward whatever it is, whomever it is she sees in the distance. If they were to listen, to really listen, they would hear the waves crashing on the shore behind her, beating like a pulse: Eva. Eva.
There were secrets before Eva. There were things I kept hidden, buried, long before Eva and Ted Wilson moved in across the street. There were a hundred things I didn't say, and a thousand more I could barely even admit to myself. But the summer of 1960, when our neighbor, old Mrs. Macadam, died and the Wilsons moved in, marks for me the moment at which all of those secrets began to rise to the surface. I think of them now, shimmering like objects underwater, coming in and out of focus, obfuscated and then revealed. Exposed and then concealed.
"Somebody's moving in!" Mouse squealed, throwing open the kitchen door.
"Don't slam the door, Mouse!" Francesca said as she followed behind her little sister, shaking her head in the disapproving way that made her father call her Miss Ninny. At eight years old, Francesca was everything I was not as a child: tidy and polite, a good student, obedient and kind. Mouse, who was six, was my secret favorite, my kindred spirit. Unruly, untidy. Feral even.
It was the first week of July, and so hot. My hair frizzed and curled at my neck, my hairline beaded with sweat. I was in the kitchen struggling to unclog the drain with a plunger, the smell of potato peels (or whatever other sludge had clogged the delicate innards of our house) making me reel with nausea.
"Mama! Mama! There's a family moving into Mrs. Macadam's house. They've got a rocking horse and bunk beds, and a bright red car!" Mouse clung to me, tugging at my apron, stepping on my feet. "Do you think they have little girls?" she asked.
"Let's go look," I said, walking with her to the bay window in our living room, where I could see a moving truck parked in front of the Macadams' house with a bright red Cadillac sedan parked behind it.
There was, indeed, a giant painted rocking horse, the kind on a metal frame with springs, as well as a crib, a set of bunk beds, and a whole stack of Hula-Hoops. "I think they might have some children," I said, nodding.
And then, as if on cue, three children came bolting out of Mrs. Macadam's house followed by a young woman, a very pregnant young woman, who stood on the front steps with both hands on her hips. Behind her loomed a tall man in a suit and a fedora.
I watched, riveted, as the smallest child, a boy of maybe four or five, wearing a cowboy hat and rubber chaps, chased down the two other children, both girls, shooting his cap gun dangerously close to their faces. I watched through the window as the mother silently voiced her objections, shaking her head but smiling. I also watched as the man circled the woman's very large waist with his arms and nuzzled her neck. I felt myself blushing as she stretched her neck to the side, as if to expose more flesh for his hungry mouth. Then she collapsed into silent giggles, hitting him with the oven mitt in her hand and shooing him out the door. He obeyed, blowing kisses and tipping his hat as he made his way to the shiny red car, into which he disappeared and drove off down the road.
When he was gone, the woman put her hand on her back in the way that enormously pregnant women do, as though she were trying to stretch a kink out. A worker emerged from the moving truck, carrying a large cardboard box. She smiled and spoke to him briefly, gesturing toward the house with her free hand.
"Whatcha looking at?" Frankie asked, coming from the bathroom smelling of Aqua Velva, still wearing his undershirt. Undressed, Frankie always looked like a boy rather than a man. At 140 pounds, he weighed just a little more than I did. His belts never fit; he used a leather hole punch to add extra holes. He was a small man with a big personality, he liked to say, though this was always accompanied by a slight grimace, the consequence of growing up small with a mean daddy, his bravado crafted in response to years of torment. It was one of many things that endeared me to Frankie early on. He was, in many ways, like a child himself; his joy was enormous, but so too were his disappointments and rage.
"There's a family moving in across the street," Francesca said. "And they've got a boy. He looks naughty."
"Looks like we lost our chance at old lady Macadam's house," Frankie said, peering out the window as he wiped a bit of shaving cream from his cheek. "Though it seems they might need the space more than we do," he said, as the brood of children emerged again, this time from the crawl space under the front porch. Each of them was grass stained and dirt smudged.
Mouse was elated. "Can I go play?" she asked, rushing toward the door. She was still wearing her pajamas.
"Go put some clothes on first," I said. "And let their mama know I'll bring over a coffee cake in an hour."
The house that Frankie and I owned in 1960 was in Hollyville, Massachusetts, only a half-hour train ride from Boston, but, in those days, still quite rural. We lived on a dead end drive with only four other houses: the Bakers, the Bouchers, and the Castillos. And across the street was the house that Mrs. Macadam lived in for fifty years before she fell asleep and didn't wake up.
Excerpted from Bodies of Water by T. Greenwood. Copyright © 2013 T. Greenwood. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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