The Confession Club, page 8
“What?” Dodie says, leaning forward.
Maddy says nothing, and Karen, seated next to Dodie, tells her, “She said she doesn’t like herself.”
“Well, for heaven’s sake, why would she say that?”
Karen jerks her head in Maddy’s direction, and Dodie addresses her directly. “Why would you say that, honey?”
Maddy sighs. “It goes a long way back, I guess. My mother died when I was just a few weeks old. She went to the doctor and my father stayed home with me because I had a cold. She got in a car accident, and I don’t think my father could ever let go of blaming me.”
“But you were an infant!” says Rosemary. “You weren’t responsible for anything!”
“I know it doesn’t make sense,” Maddy says. “But I think it’s true that he blamed me. We never got along, my father and I. He never shared very much about my mother unless I asked him directly, and for the most part, I didn’t know what to ask. ‘Did she like the color red?’ I mean, what could I ask? I would find something….‘Was this hers?’ ‘Yes,’ he’d say, and take it from me. And that was all. He never…Well, let’s just say it was a very lonely time, growing up. I tried not to let things in. I tried not to care. I tried to become hard, but…Anyway, I guess I could go on for a long time about what happened to me growing up, but what matters is what I am now. And what I am now…”
Maddy leans forward, her hands clasped upon the table. “I guess I feel I can’t love properly. Except for my daughter. Anyone else, things get in the way. I guess I get in the way. If someone tells me something nice, I might thank them, but inside it’s as though I’m holding my hand up like a traffic cop: Stop.
“If someone hugs me, I don’t hug back so much as wait for it to be over. For me, love hurts. Even when it’s good, it hurts. Even when I recognize the fact that I want love, and, like everyone else, need it, I fear it. And I don’t have any idea how to tell my husband that what’s keeping me from him is not my lack of love for him but for myself.”
“Why don’t you just say it like that?” Toots asks.
“I can’t. I don’t want him to know that I…I don’t want him to know.”
“You know what I think?” Gretchen says. “I think love is all about risk. And reinvention. And honesty and revelation. And if you don’t have that in a relationship, you don’t grow, and you don’t stay true to what you started together.”
“I think it’s more than that,” Karen says. “Maddy, I know what it’s like to despise yourself. I had a lot of years of therapy to try to overcome feelings like that.”
“You?” asks Joanie.
“Yes, me. I did everything from intensive talk therapy every week for five years to looking at myself in the mirror every day and saying, ‘I love you.’ It took the longest time for me to feel as though I meant it. It seemed a ridiculous exercise to me, saying those words to myself. I would say ‘I love you,’ but I would be thinking the opposite. I remember having a dream in those days that I was sitting in a circle of people who were nominally my friends. And one by one they were saying things they hated about me. And when it came to me, I said, ‘You forgot about…’ and I listed other faults that I had.”
Joanie’s face is full of concern. “You never told any of this to us!”
Karen shrugs. “It was a long time ago. I’m past it. I don’t want to invite any of it back into my life. Except when it comes to trying to help someone else who’s suffering from the same kind of thing I dealt with for so long.”
“Why don’t you try the mirror thing, Maddy?” Joanie asks.
“I don’t know that it would help me very much,” Maddy says. “I feel like you need to be able to hear that someone else loves you.”
Karen holds up a finger. “Except. What I learned is that you’ve got to start with you. It’s wonderful to hear someone say they love you. But unless you love yourself, the words won’t stick. Do you know what I mean?”
“Something else that helped me,” Karen says, “is a photo my best friend sent me when I was really going through it. It was something she photoshopped. She put together a picture of me as a two-year-old, sitting on Santa’s lap, and myself as an adult. On my child self’s face is a look of such longing. Such longing and such fear. I won’t touch Santa, I’m afraid to, but you can see how much I want to. I’ve got my hands raised, but I’m keeping my arms by my side; I can’t move forward. In the place of Santa, my friend put in a photo of myself as an adult, and I’ve got my hands on my child self’s shoulders, and on my adult face is a little humor, a lot of love, and it’s as though I’m saying, ‘You’re going to be all right.’ And I am all right now. I believe you will be too, Maddy.”
“I can’t do therapy,” Maddy says. “I can’t go more into that darkness.”
“The only way to get out of that darkness is to go into it,” Karen says. “That’s how you can come out the other side. You’re going to have to hurt more before you finally feel better.”
“I guess,” Maddy says.
Beneath the table, Iris briefly touches Maddy’s knee.
“I just want to say one more thing,” Karen says. “And that is, don’t rely on your child to save you. That’s too much of a burden to put on her.”
“I’m not relying on Nola to save me!” Maddy says, but even as she says it, she realizes she may be doing that very thing.
The room goes quiet, and finally Toots says, “Maddy, this might not be the place for your problem to be solved. But it is the place where you can talk about it. I think I speak for all of us when I say that although we may not know you well, we care for you a lot. And we respect your courage in saying what you just did.”
“Thank you,” Maddy says. “And…well, I guess I’ve said enough for one night, if that’s okay.”
“That’s just fine,” Toots says. “Will you come back next week, when someone else is in the hot seat?”
Maddy picks up the nearly empty pie tin and scrapes her fork across the very last remains. “Yes.” And then, smiling, “Of course.”
Toots looks at her watch. “We have some time, if anyone has anything else….”
“Well,” Dodie says, “I don’t know how much of a confession this is, but I’ve never told anyone this. Sometimes I hold on to my belly and rock it like it’s a baby.”
“Why?” Joanie asks.
“It’s comforting,” Dodie says. “You should try it.”
“Holding your belly?”
“No! Your own!”
Joanie puts her hands around her middle and moves them slightly side to side. “You’re right,” she says. “They should teach this in yoga classes.”
On a Sunday morning, Nola is in her pajamas, just out of bed, and is looking out the kitchen window while Iris pores over recipes for her adult class coming up in a few days: Just Peachy. She wants a crisp or a crumble that uses peaches and ginger, although she’s also attracted to a peach pie that uses dulce de leche. Maddy has gone out to breakfast with her father in one last attempt to connect with him.
“This is the funniest rain,” Nola says. “It’s not like regular rain, it’s coming down in clumps.”
Iris looks up, and the child is right: the rain is like one of the options on her showerhead, a kind of pulsing, gloppy rain.
“It looks like it’s trying to learn how to rain,” Nola says. And then, “Can we go out in it?”
“Out in the rain?”
Iris thinks about this. Why not? It’s warm again today; there are inviting puddles to splash in.
“Would your mom be okay with that?”
Nola says nothing at first. But then, “You are the mom now,” she says.
Iris crosses her arms and stares. Nola stares back.
“Oh, all right,” Iris says. “
“Granola and strawberries?”
“Strawberries and yogurt?” Nola asks. “Granola takes too long to chew.”
Iris prepares it for them both. She envies Nola for the way she is always in a rush to do everything, the way she rises so quickly to the possibility of joy. Most of all, she envies Nola her default setting of goodwill toward man, beast, or weather.
Iris gathers up towels and puts them on the porch for when they come in. Then, hand in hand, they go out in the street and begin splashing in the puddles. After a few minutes, Link comes out of his house in his swimming trunks, and Iris thinks she should go in and leave the children to play—though Link would object to being called a child, rather than the preteen that he is. Iris has grown awfully fond of Link, and he’s wonderful with Nola. He’s taught her about surface tension, about air pressure, about the number of muscles and bones in the human body. He’s shown her blood cells and salt crystals under his microscope, explained to her why people breathe, what a balance beam does for tightrope walkers. They watch YouTube animal videos together. Maddy is strict about the amount of time Nola is allowed to spend looking at screens, but she cuts her daughter some slack when it comes to watching things like puppies learning to walk down the stairs.
Iris walks up to the porch screen door and is just about to open it when she hears a voice calling her name. She turns around and sees John standing there, drenched. Over his jeans he’s wearing a white shirt, a worn sport coat that’s a bit short in the sleeves for him, and a wide, striped tie that looks about as natural on him as earrings on a crow.
She says nothing, and he walks over to her, smiles. “Are we destined to meet only in rain, then, do you think?”
She doesn’t smile.
“I came to apologize, Iris. I’m ashamed to tell you this, but I forgot it was Saturday. I didn’t know it was Saturday. I’ve since made myself a calendar, though, and I am happy to tell you that I know that today is Tuesday. And I found a day job clearing out a basement today, and I made a fair amount of money for my trouble, so now I can ask you to have dinner with me. On me.”
Nola hollers from the street, where she has been splashing in the gutters, “Who is that?”
He turns to her. “I’m John. That’s my name, John Loney.”
Nola brushes wet hair from her eyes. “You were supposed to come here and eat, but you didn’t come. We had eggplant lasagna, and I made cupcakes for you.”
“Ah, me. I’m sorry. Mea culpa.”
“I said, ‘Mea culpa.’ Means my fault. But here’s what I’m wondering. Don’t you think you need a boat to float in all that water? Maybe a raft?”
“I have a bunch of Popsicle sticks,” Link says. “And some twine.”
“That will do,” John says, and starts walking toward the children.
“Hello?” Iris says.
He turns around.
“Did you mean dinner tonight?”
“Yes. If you’re willing.”
“All right,” Iris says. The words fall out of her mouth before she has quite made her decision. This is the way things seem to go with this man. To Nola, she says, “Only a few more minutes out there, all right?”
Back in the house, Iris stands at the window and dries herself and her hair off. She mutters, “Idiot!” meaning herself. But she doesn’t feel like an idiot. She feels like Nola, face-to-face with an opportunity for joy. Why not take it? Why not?
She sees John kneel in the grass to help the children finish constructing the raft. Then the three of them stand together watching as it sails off, spinning and spinning in the current. Nola and Link laugh and splash and look up at the sky with their heads back and their mouths open and their arms held out. As for John, he seems impervious to both the rain and the successful launch. He stands unmoving, with his hands in his pockets. It unnerves her, in a way, but it also widens a stubborn V in her heart. She shivers, then grows warm. In a little while, she’ll invite him in.
* * *
Maddy leaves The Chicken or the Egg, the restaurant where she just had breakfast with her father. She feels that trying to talk to him was awful, nearly useless. And yet they made plans for breakfast next month, should she still be here then. She told him she was thinking about moving her family back to Mason, and her father nodded. And that was all. Didn’t say, “That would be nice.” Didn’t say, “I hope you do,” or, “Maybe that’s not such a good idea.” Didn’t say anything. He smiled and then looked at his watch. And then Maddy said, “Well, I’ll let you know.” And her father said, “Good.” He cleared his throat and said it again: “Good.” When they parted, he patted her back in a way that had her suddenly tear up, though she was careful not to let him see.
She isn’t ready to get in the car and go home. She decides to walk a little. She’s gone a few blocks when she sees a familiar figure coming toward her. Is it…? It is. Nola’s father, the man who abandoned her years ago. She hasn’t seen him since before Nola was born. He’s older, of course, but otherwise unchanged, still well built, still awfully good-looking. She stands still for a second, then keeps walking. He nods when he gets to her, starts to go past, then stops. “Maddy?”
“Wow. Haven’t seen you for a while!”
“About eight years.”
He rubs the top of his head. “That right?” He’s wearing a wedding ring.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I heard you were living in New York City.”
“Huh. I’m moving, too, but not there. Wouldn’t live there for a million bucks.”
“Yes, well, it’s not for everyone.”
“I’m going to Florida. Me and the wife. She got some fancy job there, so…we got two more days here and that’s it.”
“I hope you’ll be happy there.”
“Leastwise it will be warm in the winter. You know?”
“So…you kept the kid, right?”
She laughs. “Yeah. I kept the kid.”
He nods. “Okay, well…”
She smiles. “Goodbye, Anderson.”
“Maddy. Listen, I’m sorry I…Well, I’m sorry.”
“It worked out all right. Good luck to you.” Funny. She means it.
She walks on and begins to feel a lifting inside, a hope that maybe all she needs to do is ask Matthew, and he will agree to move back. They will move back, she will begin a kind of work on herself in earnest, and everything will get better and better. She turns around to go and get her car. She’ll call Matthew, then drive home.
He answers the phone with a curt “Yeah.”
“Well, hi! How are you?”
“All right. You?”
“I just had breakfast with my dad. That went about as well as you might think.”
“What about you? What have you been doing?”
“Nothing much. Went to Roberto’s for pizza last night with Nick and Betsy. Then I went to Brooklyn Bowl for a concert. It was great. I met some people there, and afterward we went to a bar that just opened and got a drink called Erupting Volcano. Very cool drink. How’s Nola?”
“She’s great. She misses you.”
“I miss her, too.”
“Listen, Maddy, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go down to the laundry room and get my clothes out of the dryer. You know how everybody gets all pissed off if you hog the dryer.”
“Oh, yeah, of course! We can talk later.”
“I’ll call you tomorro
He hangs up.
I met some people there….Who did he meet?
Maddy rests her head on the steering wheel, then starts the car.
* * *
When Maddy opens the front door, she sees her daughter from the hallway. She’s in the kitchen, standing on a chair stationed before Lucille’s venerable old KitchenAid mixer, adding chocolate chips to whatever she’s making. Nola sees her, and, over the noise of the mixer, shouts, “These are cookies you don’t even have to bake! And they are chocolate-chip and peanut butter and oatmeal all together!”
“Wow,” Maddy says. She comes into the kitchen and stops in her tracks. Link is sitting at the kitchen table, poring over a book of experiments, and opposite him is a stranger, a man dressed in Iris’s beautiful lavender silk robe, drinking coffee.
“Oh. Hey,” Maddy says.
“Hi, Maddy,” says Link, not looking up from his book.
The man rises. Then, looking down at the robe, “Oh. I got drenched in the rain. My clothes are in the dryer.”
“I see,” Maddy says, though she does not. “I’ll be right back,” she says, but she has no intention of coming right back. She wants to go to her bedroom and be alone.
But as soon as she’s closed the bedroom door and moved to sit at the edge of the bed, she hears a light knock at the door, the uneven rapping that Nola does.
“Come in!” Maddy says, trying to make her voice happy and bright.
But there’s no fooling Nola. The child is wise beyond her years; she always has been.
“What’s wrong?” she asks her mother.
“Are you sad?” she asks.
“I guess I am, a little.”
Oh, what to say. That she’s worried she’s lost her marriage? That being with her father for barely an hour seems to have dismantled the frail scaffolding of self-confidence she worked so hard to build? That she doesn’t know where she belongs, both in the specific and in the general senses of the word?