Suspended by Nicole Jeffords. Spring Fiction Winner.


by Nicole Jeffords. Photo by Andrew Neel.

Suspended.

In his final year at Harvard, a month shy of graduation, Danny was suspended for plagiarism. This was a shock to everyone, including Danny, who was known as a scholar, a thinker, a deeply moral and honest person. His only excuse was sleep-deprivation—he’d been up night after night writing a paper, his honor’s thesis, and somehow, carelessly, had incorporated a sentence from one of his research books into the text, too blurry to check. This was what everyone was told. But secretly he couldn’t help feeling there was a level on which the error had been intentional, as if one part of his persona had ganged up on the other in a sly and gleeful act of self-destruction.


Horribly ashamed, he packed his things and drove down to New York City. The review board had informed him that his suspension was to last a year, following which, in order to graduate, he would have to submit a totally new and original thesis. The deadline for this new thesis was November fifteenth, eighteen months after he’d been suspended. Danny couldn’t bear thinking about it—any of it. He moved back into his old room in his parents’ apartment on Central Park West, withdrew from everyone he knew, took a part-time job as a waiter at a local restaurant and agonized over what his next topic should be. Nothing rose to the surface of his brain, at least nothing that excited or interested him. His mind was a dead swamp. To clear it, he began a yeast-free diet—no bread, no sugar, no vinegar, no dairy, no caffeine, no fruit. He was thin to start with, but now he was truly skinny, living like a monk on kefir and vegetables, a little fish, a little meat. He had broken up with his girlfriend the day he left Harvard, so he had no sex either, refused even to pleasure himself alone in bed at night. His routine, when he came home from work, was to have a small bowl of raw vegetables, then retire to his room where, without thinking, he would sink to the floor and sit cross-legged, hands on his knees, eyes rolled back beneath closed lids. In this way he would lose himself in space for hours.


Danny’s parents, Rich and Marcia, were too busy with their own problems to worry about him. Marcia was hardly ever in the city. She had inherited a house in an upstate town and that was where she preferred to be, a short, hefty, frizzy-haired woman who’d lost interest in clothes, beauty, glamour, in just about everything but her horse, an old gelding boarded at a nearby barn, and her yappy apricot-colored poodle. She doted on these two, cooking for the dog and bringing fancy treats to the horse. Her husband visited her on weekends. He was an optician who owned a shop on Columbus Avenue that had been doing well until the past few years when more and more people began to opt for Lasik. He whined about this incessantly, which made Marcia want to grab him by his skinny throat and strangle him. She’d listen to his theories on macular degeneration the way she’d listen to a repairman explaining the workings of her dishwasher—glassy-eyed, stolid, counting the seconds till his nasal voice stopped droning. And forget about sex—that was a thing of the past: Rich knew better than to stroke her between the thighs when they climbed into bed at night. Out of habit, he claimed he loved her and went around with a stiff, sullen, martyred air, suffering, he announced, from backaches, headaches, sciatica because of his wife’s inattention. How bitter he was that all of Marcia’s needs could be satisfied by a trail ride on a fat old gelding.

At a conference in San Diego, Rich met a woman. It was April, not quite a year since Danny’s suspension from Harvard. The woman’s name was Fiona Davis, but she preferred to be called Fee. She was in her mid-forties, tall, blond and slender, with blue eyes that seemed to burn right into him. Rich shared a table with her at breakfast the second morning of the weekend. He’d only been acquainted with her a few minutes, but found he wanted to talk to her, really unburden himself almost right away.

“My marriage isn’t too great,” he blurted for no reason he could think of. Then went red with embarrassment.


“That’s all right,” she said in a voice so kind it almost brought tears to his eyes. “People tell me all sorts of things. You don’t have to feel funny.”


She had been divorced for ten years and had no children. She was from Taos, New Mexico, though now she lived in Texas. Her blue eyes, peering out of a clean-swept, naturally pretty face, were clear and warm, and through the thin material of her shirt Rich could see the outline of small, firm breasts—she wasn’t wearing a bra.

“You don’t look like an ophthalmologist,” he said, noting the long silver pendants that hung from each ear, the loose white yoga pants and slender feet in Birkenstock sandals.


She laughed. “Maybe because I’m not.”


Rich smiled at her, confused. Most of the people at the conference were opticians or ophthalmologists.


“I’m here to learn about eye repositioning and its effect on the brain,” Fee said.


“Oh. So you’re a neurologist?”


“Not really. Well, sort of.” She scooped her hair up off her neck as if she were hot. “I have this ability to help people dissolve physical and mental blockages by moving their energy around.”


Uh-oh, a weirdo, Rich thought, disappointed.

Uh-oh, a weirdo, Rich thought, disappointed.


She released her hair and slowly searched his face. “I’m a healer. I’m here to expand my gift, learn new techniques.”


He wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this. “You see auras?” he said finally.


“Sure I do. Yours is somewhat thin.”


A smile hovered at the corner of his lips, but he decided to take her seriously. “I guess that’s not good, is it?”
She continued to look at him. “Well,” she said after a minute, “the composition of the aura—its density and coloration—can change very quickly, kind of like the weather. Yours is grayer than I like and could use a little work.”


“What kind of work?” Rich asked. This new age woo woo stuff had always seemed foolish to him.


“Meditation, walks in nature, silent retreats.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t believe me, huh? Well, I’ll tell you this—I can pick up on the energy of the people around you. You have a son, right?”


Rich nodded.


“He’s in a lot of pain right now, a lot of anguish and sorrow.”


She worked on Rich’s sciatica—in her room, which had the exact same layout as his, but seemed sunnier, brighter. He lay on her bed and breathed in the amber scent of her perfume and the rich, aromatic scent of the candles on the dresser. Her hands inched slowly over his body, never actually touching though he could feel heat surging into his skin from her palms. He wanted desperately for her to stroke him. Saliva pooled in his mouth. He was fully dressed but felt as if he were naked. She worked on him twice. After the first session his sciatica had noticeably decreased; after the second it was gone. Both times his flesh ached for the feel of her fingertips, but the only time she actually touched him was when they hugged goodbye on the last day.

“We’ll stay in touch, right?” he asked.


“Of course. We’ll email. Maybe I’ll even visit you in New York.”


She lived in Austin, in a house near the river, a house he could vividly imagine, filled with plants, pottery, windchimes, candles. She was always traveling, she said, always going to workshops and conferences, expanding her knowledge, visiting friends. He liked that about her. She’d fly across the country with hardly more than a backpack, something his wife, Marcia, who was too neurotic to travel without earplugs and her special pillow, would never be able to do. He daydreamed about seeing Fee again, fantasized about making trips together, sharing a room and having meals in exotic places. In late July she emailed that she was coming to the city for a conference.

“Stay with me,” Rich emailed back. “The apartment’s large, there’s plenty of room.”


“I’d be there five days,” Fee warned.


“Not an issue. I look forward to seeing you,” Rich replied.


The conference was scheduled for the third week of August, the hottest point of the summer, a time when nothing could drag Marcia from her house upstate. Rich suggested to Danny—who was still floundering over a topic for his thesis—that a change of scenery might do him good.

“Go chill in the country with your mom,” he said. “You’re not accomplishing anything here.”


“I have a job,” Danny pointed out.


“They’d probably give you a few days off.”


“I’ll think about it,” Danny said.


“Well, don’t think too hard.”


Rich didn’t have the nerve to mention Fee’s visit or even her existence or the notion that he might want the apartment to himself, so he left the whole thing in the lap of the gods, his stomach filling with sourness when Danny came and went as usual from his waiter job and it became apparent that he had no intention of going anywhere.

Marcia always took her poodle, Pierre, to the barn with her. There’d been complaints. Pierre was shrill and manic and scared some of the horses, darting suddenly into the arena, but Marcia ignored the problem. If things got really bad, she locked Pierre into her horse’s stall, not caring that his yapping became intolerable. The other riders detested her, but Marcia didn’t care about that either.

“If I want to bring my dog, I’ll bring my dog,” she told one of them. “You bring your husband who’s got that horrible Brooklyn accent, and I never say anything.”


Today she arrived an hour ahead of time for her bi-weekly lesson, legs thick and sturdy in denim cut-offs. When she was ready to ride, she’d squeeze herself into a pair of tight-fitting black leather chaps. A woman in tall boots was murmuring to a big glossy chestnut cross-tied in the aisle. The chestnut snorted and laid back its ears when it saw Pierre.

“Shhh, shhh, it’s okay,” the woman crooned, stroking the chestnut’s arched neck. Her name was Alice Walters. She was Marcia’s age, fifty-five, but looked ten years younger with her muscled arms and ballet dancer’s body. “Better put your dog away,” she snapped.


“He’s not bothering anyone,” Marcia replied coolly.


“Jester doesn’t like him.”


“Too bad for Jester,” Marcia said, irked because Alice never troubled to lock up her own dog, an Airedale that picked fights with Pierre and peed all over the hay.


The chestnut pawed the ground. Alice quieted him and lifted a jumping saddle to his back. Marcia led her own horse, a placid gelding named Herbie, out of his stall and attached him to a cross-tie. She began to pick out his feet. After the first hoof, she was dripping sweat. Alice slipped a helmet over her blond hair, which was knotted prettily at the nape of her neck.

“You take an awful lot of lessons, but all you ever do is trot,” she said.


“Yeah, so?”


“I’ve never seen you canter.”


Marcia dropped Herbie’s hoof with a thud. She wiped her hands off on her cut-offs. “I like trotting,” she said.


Alice’s horse started to prance in place. With a practiced movement, she grabbed his head, drew it to her chest and slipped the bit in his mouth.

“Seems like a colossal waste of money to me.”

When Danny came home from his shift at the restaurant, a strange woman was sitting in the kitchen. She had her back to Danny, but he could see the supple indent of her spine beneath her T-shirt. She was bent over the table, writing something. Behind her on the stove, the kettle shrieked. She stood to get it, giving a start when she saw Danny in the doorway. She was older than she looked from the back, perhaps forty, with clear blue eyes in an unlined, attractive face.

“You’re Danny,” she said softly. When he didn’t answer, she held out her hand. “I’m Fee Davis. Your dad was nice enough to say I could stay here for a few days.”


She held his hand a moment longer than she had to, staring deeply into his eyes and smiling. He smiled back like an idiot and mumbled something about how nice it was to meet her. Was this woman, Fee Davis, the reason his father had suggested he take a few days off and go to the country?


“Want some tea?” she asked, releasing his hand.


“Oh, no thanks.” He wanted to eat, but not with Fee in the kitchen. He went to his room, closed the door, lay down on the bed. Who the hell was this person? His father hadn’t said anything about her. He kicked off his shoes and wriggled out of his pants. He was ferociously hungry, but decided to force all thoughts of food out of his mind and sit for a while in meditation. In the Dao tradition, there were monks who starved themselves for weeks on end in order to achieve states of enlightenment. But try as he might, he couldn’t relax. Somehow Fee seemed to be there in the room with him, watching him take deep slow breaths, impeding his entry to the mindless, floaty space he craved. After twenty minutes he gave up, angry that he couldn’t feel at home in his own room. He pulled a pair of jeans over his boxers and marched into the kitchen. The woman was still there, hunched over the table, sipping tea. She smiled as he walked in. “Hungry?”


He didn’t answer, annoyed that he couldn’t have the kitchen to himself. Was Fee having an affair with his father? His face turned red as he tried to imagine this. Fee in Marcia’s place in his parents’ bed, her smooth blond hair spread over the sheets. His mother, by comparison, was ungroomed and overweight and didn’t seem very sexy. Did she even know this woman was here in the apartment? He could feel Fee’s eyes on his back as he took carrots, broccoli and cauliflower from the fridge and placed them on a chopping board. She seemed to suck at him, drink him in. Why hadn’t his father said anything about her?


“I guess you’re wondering who I am,” she said, and it struck him, creepily, that she could read his thoughts.


“Well, my dad didn’t—”


“Tell you I’d be staying here?” she said, completing his sentence but making it into a question. “Wow, that’s amazing. I’m so sorry about that. It must have been shocking to come home and find a strange woman in your apartment.” She poured tea into a cup from a small ceramic pot Danny couldn’t remember ever having seen before. “I’m a healer. I met your dad at a conference on eye repositioning last spring. I’ve traveled here from Texas to attend a workshop.”


Danny didn’t say anything, mesmerized by her voice, which was soft and gentle with a slight rustic twang to it. And by her face, prettier than he’d thought, with dimples at the cheeks and a wide smiling mouth. She wore her blond hair in a braid. He wondered how it would look loose around her shoulders.


“Ever met a healer before?”


He shook his head. He had no idea what the woman was talking about.


“Well, Danny, a healer is someone who knows how to move energy around the body in order to clear it of certain physical and mental imbalances. What’d you major in at college?”


“Philosophy. I have one more paper to write before I graduate.”


She poured another cup of tea and held it out to him. Her hands were clean and sturdy, the almond-colored nails clipped short. “A healing session with someone like me could put you in the right frame of mind to write that final paper,” she said as he put down his paring knife and took the cup she offered. “We’ll have to talk about that.”

Marcia’s riding teacher, Phoebe, was a boisterous woman who loved to gossip and tell jokes. She did very little to instruct Marcia. Mostly they rode out on the trails, walking or trotting single file up and down the narrow pathways, shouting stories back and forth. This was fine with Marcia, who didn’t respond well to being told what to do and who was secretly terrified of Herbie running off with her. Despite the constant buzz of flies, it was beautiful in the woods, green and mossy. Marcia trotted Herbie over a little log and felt very brave.

“Hey, guess what?” Phoebe yelled cheerfully. “Alice Walters’ husband is cheating on her!”


They were almost, but not quite, out of the woods, still in green-tinged darkness, a wide-open field ahead.


“How do you know that?” Marcia yelled back.


Phoebe pulled up beside her. “My daughter works in a restaurant in Soho. She says he goes in there at least once a week with this young chicky poo.”


Marcia thought of Alice’s smug manner and felt a tingle of satisfaction. “Serves her right,” she said.


“Rrrrr,” screeched Phoebe, imitating a cat.


In her excitement over Alice’s husband, Marcia had stopped patrolling for insects and Herbie shot in the air as a horsefly the size of a walnut zoomed down and bit him in the rump. “Noooo!” screamed Marcia as the horse landed on all four hooves and took off. Branches flew past and then they were in the open field, galloping so fast the wind sucked at her cheeks. She lost her stirrups, her reins, was pitched forward onto the horse’s neck, clinging there for a moment until Herbie gave a joyful buck and she was popped off like a cork from a champagne bottle. She saw the ground come toward her at a dizzying speed and closed her eyes.

Rich had a late-afternoon meeting with a client. When he returned to the apartment he found Danny in the kitchen talking to Fee, who’d shown up that morning with a backpack and a small, soft-sided suitcase. She’d flown in from Denver, where she’d spent a few days in a cranial sacral workshop, continuing on to New York and a five-day intensive in vibrational healing. Hearing her voice, Rich remembered guiltily that he’d neglected to tell Danny about her visit. He’d meant to text that a friend would be staying on the futon in the study, but somehow hours had passed without him ever getting near the phone.

“Okay, good, so the two of you have met. It’s been a crazy day! I’m sorry I wasn’t here to introduce you,” he said, pulling off his suit jacket and rolling up his tie. It was hot out! All he really wanted to do was jump in the shower and put on clean clothes.


“That’s all right,” said Fee who was standing at the sink rinsing out a small teapot. “Danny and I have been talking about what it means to be a healer. There’s a movie I’m off to see right now, but tomorrow, if there’s time, I’ll work on him a little.”


Rich glanced at Danny, who was slouched over a plate of vegetables at the kitchen table. The boy smiled at him tentatively as he speared a piece of broccoli and lifted it into his mouth with a pair of chopsticks. Well, maybe it would be a good thing for Fee to do some of her magic on him. “What movie?” he asked her.


“Au Hasard Balthazar, a film by Robert Bresson that’s playing at a cinema right near here. I’ve wanted to see it for a long time. Care to join?”


“Sure,” said Rich, although the last thing he wanted to do was struggle through a talky French movie with hard-to-read subtitles. “Just give me a chance to change out of these clothes.” It was Wednesday night. On Friday he’d have to drive up to the country to see Marcia, so he hoped for at least one evening—maybe more—in Fee’s company.


It had been years since Rich had gone to the movies with anyone outside his family. In the darkened theatre, he was hyper-aware of Fee beside him, the heat coming off her thigh. They’d bought a bucket of popcorn and their hands kept colliding as they reached in. He wanted to lick the butter off her fingers. He thought she was beautiful. He loved the dark honey smell of her, the hoop of silver in each of her ears, the spareness of her unmade-up face, the super leanness of her arms and legs, the fact that she didn’t wear a bra and he could see her nipples through her shirt. His feelings frightened him. He couldn’t concentrate on the movie, the damn subtitles, because he was so worried about what would happen afterward. What might happen. The room in which Fee was staying adjoined his. They would share a bathroom. Would she expect him to kiss her? To slip into her bed after the lights were out and the TV was off and the apartment was still? He had been married for twenty-five years and never once had he strayed or even been tempted to stray, but this woman, this thin, taut, natural beauty made him feel as tongue-tied and foolish as an adolescent.
After the movie, he suggested they go for a drink, but Fee wanted to visit his shop. They strolled over to Columbus. He took her to the back of his store, to his workroom and showed her the new line of frames he was designing.


“Glasses should be something people want to wear, like jewelry, bracelets for the eyes.”


“What a beautiful thought,” breathed Fee.


He could have kissed her then, but he didn’t even though every nerve in his body told him to step forward and take hold of her. He didn’t kiss her later, either, in the awkward moment before going to bed. He heard her brush her teeth, heard the toilet flush, and when he went into the bathroom there was a candle burning and the air was sweet.

“Have everything you need?” he asked a few moments later, peering into her room. She’d left the door open. She was sitting on her bed in a white cotton gown, rubbing some kind of oil into her skin and the air in there smelled sweet, too.

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” she said, gazing at him with that look of being able to see right through to his bones. He gazed back at her, the blood roaring in his ears.

“Fee,” he said, husky-voiced, but just then, just at that crucial moment that required every single nerve in his body to connect smoothly with every other nerve, the phone rang.


He knew the caller was probably Marcia and that he’d better pick up quickly before Danny got on and started blabbing about Fee. He still hadn’t had a chance to talk to Danny about what Fee was doing in the apartment. The boy had scooted out of the kitchen and disappeared into his room as soon as he’d finished his meal earlier, when they’d left for the movies. Now Rich heard his voice yelling: “Daaad! Mom’s on the phone!”


“Excuse me,” Rich said to Fee.


He took the call in his bedroom, shutting the door. “It’s me,” Marcia said.


“I know.”


“1 have a concussion.”


“What?”


“I fell off Herbie and hit my head.”


“Jesus. What did the doctor say? Are you alright?”


“I’m fine. I have to take it easy for the next few days, that’s all.”


“Do you need me to come up? I could send Danny.”


There was a moment’s silence. When Marcia spoke again her voice was cool, almost glacial. “That won’t be necessary. I know how to look after myself.”


Well, good, Rich thought. Good! He hung up a few minutes later and padded back out into the hall. Disappointment flooded his heart when he saw that Fee’s door was closed. A strip of light shone from beneath it, so he knew she was still awake, but he didn’t have the nerve to tap on the door and disturb her.


All night long Danny’s mind burned with questions. What, exactly, was a healer? How did one know one had that gift? Was it possible he had it? Sometimes he picked up strange sensations from people, aches, pains, fears, flights of despair that he knew had nothing to do with him. In the morning he woke earlier than usual, drew on some pants and hurried into the kitchen. His father was there, reading the paper. Danny poured himself water from the cooler.

“Where’s Fee?” he asked casually.


“She went to her workshop.”


Rich looked different than on other mornings, sharper, as if his clothes—the same blue shirt and khakis he always wore—fit him better. It occurred to Danny that something really might be going on between Rich and Fee. The idea seemed preposterous. Rich was lonely, yes, but Danny couldn’t imagine him with anyone besides Marcia. He was too solid, too decent, too set in his ways.

“When’s she coming back?” he asked.

“Late this afternoon, I guess.”


“You like her?”


Rich glanced up from his paper. The muscles of his face were tight, but for the briefest second Danny saw an expression of hopefulness and yearning in his eyes. “She’s a nice person,” Rich said carefully. He folded his paper and stood. “Gotta go. Early appointment.”


That day Danny called in sick to his job at the restaurant and went to the library. He wanted to learn about healers. There was so much material, he didn’t know where to begin. Pretty soon he had a stack of books in front of him. He went through them cafeteria style, reading all afternoon. By the time he left, he’d only scratched the surface, and not a single one of his questions had been answered. He hurried home to the apartment. Fee was in the living room. Her hair was wet. She must have just washed it. She’d pulled a chair up to one of the tall living room windows and was staring out, watching the light shift and change in the park below.


“How do you know you’re a healer?” he asked. “Is it like a calling?”


She turned and looked at him. “I guess you could say that.”


“Like becoming a priest?”


She laughed. “No, it’s something you feel in your body,”


“Explain.”


She took his hand, gently pulled him down on the chair beside her and began to rub his back. “My stomach goes cold or my scalp tightens up. My hands tingle. I get a gloomy feeling in my heart. That sort of stuff. It comes to me when I’m around certain people. I translate it into what they’re feeling.”


Danny coughed self-consciously. “What do you get from me?”


“That you’re so blocked up you can barely function.”

Later Marcia would say her concussion gave her prescience. Certainly she had no idea what possessed her to drive down to the city. A feeling. A sudden need to be with her family. The fall from Herbie had rattled her. She had lain in the dirt, nerveless as a piece of wood, unable to move, sure she was paralyzed. Phoebe had helped her up and forced her back on the horse, but she had no memory of the ride back to the barn, only that she was shaking and disoriented and that her head hurt fiercely. Alone that night she had wept and sobbed, though for what reason she wasn’t sure. In the morning she’d felt better, but as the day passed she developed a growing urge to be in the city. She hadn’t been there in months. She threw some things into an overnight bag, put a leash on her dog, Pierre, and got in the car. She didn’t let Rich or Danny know she was coming.


Unlocking the door to the apartment, Marcia felt uneasy. The hall was dark, but from somewhere in the apartment she heard voices, or a single voice, a softish female voice. She put Pierre down and he scampered ahead of her to the living room. She followed, moving quietly, carrying her overnight bag. Dusky light shone through the tall living room windows and candles flickered on the coffee table. Danny lay reclined on the couch, a girl hovering over him. What the hell was she doing? Pierre leaped onto Danny’s stomach and began licking his face. The girl startled as if she’d been burned. Had she been kissing Danny? In the glow of the candles it was hard to make out her features, but she looked as if she were pretty.


“Hello,” Marcia said in a voice that was harsher than she intended.


“Hey, Mom,” Danny said.


“We’ll be finished here in a minute,” the girl said.


“I beg your pardon?” Marcia said.


“She’s a healer, Mom,” Danny said from the couch. “She’s staying with us for a few days.”


“Well, I think you should stand up and say hello to your mother,” Marcia said. “It’s not like you’ve seen me recently.”


“He needs to lie still while I work on him,” the girl said. “I promise you we’ll be done in a few minutes and then you can take all the time you need for hellos.”


Marcia left the room without further comment. A healer? Well, that was a new name for it. But she was glad Danny had someone. He’d been so odd recently, sad and lonely. She threw her overnight bag on the bed. Why hadn’t Rich told her about the girl? In the bathroom a votive candle flickered on the counter beside a toilet kit and make-up bag. Marcia took a lipstick from the bag—it was a pale, sweet, virginal pink. She opened the toilet kit—creams, cleansers, a round disc of birth control pills. Hanging on the back of the bathroom door was a lilac-colored silk kimono. The girl had certainly made herself at home. Marcia glanced into the study where the futon couch had been made up into a bed. On the sheets lay a thin white nightgown and a silky summer dress. Also a journal, one of those handsome leatherbound ones from Barnes & Noble. Marcia opened the journal and read: he has the nicest hands. He who? Danny? Before she had time to read further, she heard a noise behind her. She dropped the journal and whirled around. The girl stood in the doorway. But she wasn’t a girl, Marcia saw now. She was in her mid-forties, lean and graceful in the same way as Alice Walters at the barn. Marcia instantly despised her, though she forced a smile to her lips.

“I see you’ve made yourself comfortable,” she said. “I’m Marcia. Rich’s wife.”

Because Fee wanted to, they went to a Japanese restaurant that evening. Marcia would have preferred Chinese or Italian, but Fee was the guest and also a pescatarian and very particular about the foods she put in her body. This suited Danny on his yeast-free diet. Fee wore a summer dress that showed off the pretty bones of her throat and shoulders. Danny sat on one side of her, Rich on the other. Marcia, in a long skirt and frilly peasant blouse, was very quiet as she tried to assess the situation. Rich had greeted her with a hug, but the hug—stiff-armed and wary—hadn’t hidden how surprised he was to see her in the apartment.

“Why didn’t you call?” he asked.

“Why should I?” she answered. “This is my home.”


Rich hadn’t known what to say to that. When she yelled, “How dare you bring strange women to the apartment without my permission!” he’d stared at her blankly. A full-blown, blood curdling argument would have ensued if Danny hadn’t knocked on the door just then and shouted, “Come on you guys. Dinner.”


In the street, on the way to the restaurant, Marcia walked with Danny, who seemed livelier and happier than he’d been in months. Ahead of them, Fee and Rich strode in perfect sync, their bodies not touching, but somehow connected.

Rich had sworn there was nothing between them. “She just needed a place to stay, that’s all.” But Marcia knew they were attracted. In the restaurant, Fee’s shapely arm had no trouble resting on the back of Rich’s chair. Her fingers brushed his wrist, his shoulder, even once his thigh. And the way she looked at him! With a sweetness, a compassion, a solicitude she made no attempt to conceal. And the way he looked back! With shyness, respect, almost—yes, almost—adoration that he tried to hide, but couldn’t. His nasal voice took on a deeper resonance when he addressed her: “Would you like sake? Tea? Some of this Edamame?”


Marcia tried to be calm and pleasant, but she wanted to ram her chopsticks into Fee’s lovey-dovey blue eyes. Eyes that didn’t fool her one bit. All that new age crap about chakras and energy. The woman was a cold, calculating bitch.

“Rich told me you had a concussion,” she said when they were seated. “I’ll help you when we get back to the apartment. I can see you’re disoriented.”


“I don’t think so,” Marcia said, smiling with her teeth. Rich threw her a be-nice look. So sanctimonious. She smiled at him, too. What else had he told Fee? That they never had sex anymore? That she’d abandoned him for her horse in the country? He was boring—could Fee fix that? Could she fix his habit of sulking or never rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher or leaving pubic hairs on the cake of soap in the shower? But as Marcia studied him, the way he wrinkled his nose up and squinted when he read the menu, the mournfulness of his face with its worry lines and graying beard, the strength and manliness of his arms beneath the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt, she saw what she imagined Fee saw: a kind and tenderhearted man who had money and good looks and good intentions and was as lonely and neglected as a cat put out the door. Ripe for the pickin,’ as her mother’s Jamaican maid used to say. Marcia lowered her chopsticks to her plate. Her heart was pounding with bitter energy, churning the sea of her blood, whipping up a dark, violent fury. She wanted to smash her glass against the edge of the table and slash Fee’s cheeks with one of the shards. She wanted to ram the toe of her clog into Rich’s balls. Instead, large-bodied and regal as the prow of a ship, she rose and sailed from the restaurant.


What power, what excitement, to sweep down Broadway in the sticky summer heat, the crowd parting for her, her long skirt billowing out like a sail, knowing that back in the restaurant Rich was scurrying to pay the bill, worried about her, about what she’d do. He’d tell the others to take their time while he came running after her. She slowed her pace, expecting his hand on her shoulder at any moment. But when she turned, there were only strangers behind her. Her heart shriveled. She wanted to weep.

What power, what excitement, to sweep down Broadway in the sticky summer heat, the crowd parting for her, her long skirt billowing out like a sail.


In the apartment she considered collecting Fee’s things, her lilac wrap and candles and toiletries and nightgown, and throwing them one by one down the incinerator. Instead, she grabbed the journal and locked herself up with it in her bedroom. At first it was hard to focus. Fee’s handwriting was small. Marcia pulled off her long skirt and lay down on the bed, trying to make sense of what was written on the pages. A lot of blah blah blah. Minute observations about Fee and her emotions. Who she liked, who she didn’t. And then the sentence about Rich: We were about to kiss when his son, whom I like very much, yelled at him to pick up the phone. He has the nicest hands.


About to kiss! Outside she heard voices. They were home. She slid the book under her pillow.

“Marcia?” Rich called out. He tried the door, knocked, then began to pound. “Come on, let me in!”


No way.


“Marcia!”


The pounding grew fiercer. She let it continue. When she thought she couldn’t stand it any longer, she climbed off the bed. “What do you want?” she said through the door.


“To talk.”


“I don’t want to talk.”


“Marcia, please! You’re acting crazy.”


“I’m acting crazy?”


“We need to talk. Face to face.”


She opened the door a crack. She was in Kmart underpants and her blousy peasant top. She only meant to open the door a chink, but he pushed her aside and the violence of his touch made her hands fist up with fury. She started to punch him. He kneed her in the stomach, locked the door. She pulled at his hair. “You son-of-a-bitch! You wanted to kiss her!” His glasses went flying. She tried to claw his face, but he threw her on the bed and she screamed, “I hate you! I hate you!” as he landed on top of her. For an instant they lay without moving. Then he put his face over hers and she could feel he was crying as he kissed her hard on the mouth.

In the early hours of the morning Fee tiptoed into Danny’s room. She was ghostly in loose white yoga clothes. Her pale hair flowed around her shoulders. She bent over him.

“You’re going to be fine,” she whispered. Her sweet smell woke him along with her voice.


“Huh?”


She pressed a palm against his forehead, where his third eye was supposed to be, let it rest there for a moment. Heat trickled into him. He felt it like honey, like the finest mist of rain, like melting butter, like fog clearing out of his brain.

He didn’t know how much time passed before she removed her hand and floated from the room, cloud-like in her white clothes. It was a scene he thought he dreamed. In the morning he barely remembered it. But when he got up and went to the bathroom to brush his teeth, he saw that the futon had been transformed back into a couch.

Fee’s sheets were in the laundry basket. Her candles were gone, along with everything else that spoke of her: teapot, hairbrush, sandals, scent of roses, amber, jade. In the kitchen his parents talked in low voices and drank coffee. When he walked in they looked up at him with silly expressions on their faces. He felt a silly expression erupt on his own face. A blush that seeped across his neck as if he’d discovered something he wasn’t quite supposed to know. On the stove the kettle hummed. He made himself a cup of tea and sat down with them. It all seemed so obvious now, the state of sleeplessness and despair, the dislocation, the terror of being crushed beneath his childish worries that led him to copy a phrase from a book that led him right here to this moment of healing and happiness.


Nicole Jeffords has had two careers, one as a portrait painter and one as a fiction writer. In 1978 she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University where she worked with Stanley Elkin and Rosellen Brown.

Her first novel, Hearts of Glass, touted as the steamiest book of the summer by The New York Times, was released by Crown in 1992. Over the following years Nicole focused on short stories, novellas and screenplays, and co-authored High Frequency, a spoof on new age Austin. In 2016 she published her memoir, The World of Franyo, about her parents’ escape from Nazi Germany, her teenage years as the daughter of wealthy art collectors in 1960s New York, her high drama first marriage to well-known Czech photographer Werner Forman, and the miracle of getting sober in AA. Nicole’s serialized thriller, A Secret Grave, an art-related mystery about a disappeared healer illustrated with her paintings and riveting photos, was published in the widely read online arts and culture magazine ArtProfiler in 2017 and 2018.

Currently, Nicole is writing nonfiction stories on her website and has recently completed the last of six interconnected novellas.

Website. Instagram. Facebook.

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