Because a few people showed interest in reading parts of this yet-unpublished novel, I thought perhaps this would be a good way to put it out there and generate feedback. Keep in mind that this is just the first chapter, for now, and as such it should leave a lot of questions as well as a desire to know more.
At least, I hope it does.
Rebecca (April 1992)
“Godmother.” The woman sitting in the armchair inhaled softly. “Do you know what the definition of godmother is? No? Well, you’re in good company. Most people haven’t got the first clue what it really means to be a godmother. When Stella asked me if I’d do it for her daughter, Sharon, of course my first response was yes. I thought it was an honor—I thought it was an honorary title, not that I’d actually have to do anything. I’d show up at the church, carry the baby through the ceremony, attend the party afterwards, then send presents from time to time. That’s it, right? Oh, it should be so simple!”
Rebecca waved her hand in front of her face, as if fanning invisible flies away. Or perhaps it was the dust motes she could see wafting towards her in the shaft of light that cut the sparsely-furnished office in two. The long, dark drapes prevented most of the light from delving too deeply into the room, something Rebecca found soothing. They were not drawn completely, and in the inch or so that remained open, a vivid shaft of sunlight from the afternoon threw a sharp line of brightness down the room’s divisional line. Maybe it wasn’t the dust motes she was waving away from her face. Maybe it was the memories she was trying to put in order here, a few times per month, at ninety dollars per session.
“Seriously, Dr. Darbandi,” Rebecca continued, her face turned towards the bookshelves lining the wall, “are you a god-parent? Are you aware of the responsibilities? There are days when I wish I hadn’t said yes to Stella. But we’d been friends for so long. Since I first moved north. Things were much more simple then, it seems. But then they grow increasingly more complex. Or perhaps it is we who make them so. How does that happen? How do we wake up one morning and realize we haven’t got a clue what we’ve been doing for the past thirty or forty years?”
She stopped for a moment, turned away from the bookcases, closed her eyes and folded her hands in front of her. The silence in the room was broken by the ticking of a clock, perched high up on one of the bookcases, enclosed in a crystal glass dome, the three little ball-shaped pendulums turning first one quarter turn to the left, then one quarter turn to the right. Each time they turned, a low, clicking sound resonated softly throughout the room. But only when it was absolutely quiet. Rebecca remained silent for a few minutes, thinking.
“I really wanted this to be coherent today. I so want to make sense of everything, try to understand it all. Mostly, I think I want to forgive myself, if that’s possible. Do you think it is possible? If every person we’ve ever wronged offered us unconditional forgiveness, would that be enough for us to forgive ourselves?”
Rebecca reached into her handbag and took out a handkerchief. She wiped the corners of her mouth, then the corners of her eyes, although no tears appeared there. It was as if they were there, hidden inside, not yet ready for release, yet she felt them. After she replaced the handkerchief, she crossed one leg over the other, looking straight at Dr. Darbandi, who was quiet and observant behind her large oak desk. “Can forgiveness ever come?”
Dr. Darbandi leaned forward slightly. “I’m not exactly sure what it is you think you need to be forgiven for,” she said in her usual soft voice. It was a soothing voice, made that way by years of training.
Rebecca frowned, leaning back and continuing to stare at her psychiatrist. Darbandi’s brown hair fell in waves to a precise point on her shoulders, a few strands out of place that she fixed both before and after meetings with clients. She held no notebook or pen, yet Rebecca knew there was a tape recorder on the desk which faithfully recorded every minute of their sessions. In the silence, the clock ticked its seconds away.
“Whatever have we been talking about today and last week?” Rebecca almost whined, her usually controlled voice raising slightly in both volume and pitch. “I’ve been talking so much and feel as if I’m getting nowhere.”
“Oftentimes it takes a while to get to the real starting point,” Dr. Darbandi calmly responded. “I told you that the first day you came back to me. This is different this time, your dreams and anxiety, whatever it is you are feeling, has nothing to do with the panic attacks you had years ago. You say you are willing to do some exploring to find out what is bothering you. You say you are willing to do whatever it takes to settle your dreams. It seems now we may just be getting to that starting point.”
Rebecca recrossed her legs. Her palms were sweaty, and she reached into her bag again for the handkerchief. She breathed deeply and looked up.
“A starting point. Good. What, exactly, is this starting point you believe we are at?”
“Should we recap?” Dr. Darbandi asked.
Rebecca shook her head, struggling against a bit of anger she felt rising in side. “No,” she said. “No recap. Please just once point out something even though I’m sure you want me to see for myself.”
She glanced at Dr. Darbandi and shook her head.
“No, you won’t do that. Alright, let me try. Again.” She shifted position in her chair. “Maybe I have just been wasting time for three weeks, trying to find some center, trying to just get to what it is that is really bothering me, is that it?” Dr. Darbandi nodded for Rebecca to continue.
“Alright, so the last thing I said was about forgiveness and you think that’s the starting point.” Rebecca scratched her palm, suddenly smiling. “Because you want to know what it is I think I need forgiveness for.”
Darbandi smiled back. “Yes. I think that is the real starting point, don’t you?”
Rebecca suddenly stood up and walked around the two leather chairs and headed over to the window. She grabbed the two sides of the curtain at the split where they didn’t quite meet and balled the material up in her fists.
“Would you mind terribly if I opened these curtains?” she asked without turning. “I really can’t bear to stay in the dark when it’s so beautiful with the coming sunset outside.”
“Do what you want with the curtains,” Dr. Darbandi told her.
Rebecca spread the curtains wide and stood, looking out at the city below her. Boston. From the eleventh floor of Massachusetts General Hospital, in the waning light of day with the sun an angry yet dying orange ball in the west, from that vantage point, Boston was a beautiful city. The sound of horns from cars stalled in a traffic jam on Storrow Drive didn’t make it up to the eleventh floor. It was peaceful there, serene and beautiful, watching the last throes of a setting sun. Rebecca looked outward, but not down; her fear of heights would not allow that. Out there, she could see beyond the Charles River as it meandered towards the harbor from beyond Newton and the west where it began as no more than a stream. The light from the dissolving sun gleamed off the Charles, creating diamond clusters that sparkled and hurt Rebecca’s eyes when she stared right at it. She could see Memorial Drive across the river from Storrow Drive, Memorial where it twisted and curved past MIT and the Harvard Boat House, some Harvard residence halls, a few blocks from Harvard Square and the city of Cambridge.
Rebecca looked specifically in that direction, following Mem Drive away from the Science Museum, and she frowned. She shook her head and turned back to the leather chair.
“When I was a child,” she said, “the nuns told us if we confessed our sins to the priest at confession and truly were sorry for what we had done and then did our penance with contrition in our hearts, why, then God would forgive us through his agent, the priest. They told us God loves us no matter what, no sin is too great to be forgiven, and we should forgive our brother seventy times seven times. It’s a euphemism, I think, in the way that wandering in the desert for forty days and forty nights was a euphemism. That just mean no one knew how long those prophets were away. We’re supposed to forgive our brothers an infinite number of times. Because God would. And we’re supposed to strive to be like God.”
Rebecca fumbled with her handkerchief again, twisting it into little knots, looking above Dr. Darbandi’s head at the shelves of books behind her, at the last little stream of light from the setting sun sweeping slowly off the bindings. She picked up the glass of water on the table next to her and took a short sip, coughing briefly as the water soothed her throat.
“But how can we possibly do that?” she continued. “Was that some kind of a sick, pathetic joke, meant to totally frustrate people, make us crazy? Because we’re just humans, we can’t be perfect, and even striving to be perfect when we know full well we can never achieve that state, isn’t that enough to send anyone into deep depression, self-loathing, and madness?”
Rebecca paused, but Dr. Darbandi remained silent.
“I don’t think we need to try to reflect God, not to the extent that we’re spending all our waking time striving to be perfect, knowing that’s unattainable. I think if we just try to be decent human beings and treat each other as we want to be treated in return, that’s half the battle right there, don’t you think?”
“And where does forgiveness come in?” Dr. Darbandi prodded gently.
“God forgives everything,” Rebecca said. “He accepts us back like the prodigals we are, washes away the stain of sin with our penance and gives one of those go and sin no more speeches, knowing full well the humans will sin again, but also knowing He’ll take us back again. God can work that way; He can afford to. But people—now, that’s a different story. I’m not sure forgiveness is one of those things we even aspire to. If we’ve done the wrong then yes, we want to be forgiven, but as a whole, people don’t much like to forgive. Or perhaps it’s just because they feel it makes them lesser people, doormats, if they keep forgiving and getting on with things. Harboring resentment and jealousy and bitterness—well, that’s more human, isn’t it? Don’t we seem to thrive on that?”
Dr. Darbandi grinned slightly. “But you started today by talking about godmothers when I thought you wanted to talk about your dreams. Tell me, Rebecca, how do you go from godmothers to forgiveness? We can get back to your dreams, but right now, think for a minute. There must be something that connects godmothers and forgiveness, to follow your line of reasoning.”
Rebecca laughed. “Well, thank you at least for thinking there is a line of reasoning. I think there is, somewhere, but I know I’m jumping from one thing to another. I think this all—dreams, godmothers, forgiveness—I think this all has to do with Elaine.”
Dr. Darbandi sat up straighter, but did not let on she was surprised by this last statement. “I am sorry about Elaine,” she said.
Rebecca waved her sympathy away and frowned. “Yes, everyone is.” She paused and tears formed in the corners of her eyes. This time she did not reach for the handkerchief to wipe them away. The tears collected and fell, in a little river of woe, down each side of her face. She let them go, and did not move to wipe them off.
“Elaine was also my godchild, as you already know,” Rebecca said. “Though I don’t understand why Stella asked me a second time to stand for one of her children. After Sharon, I thought when Elaine was born, that Stella and Peter would ask someone else. But they didn’t. And against my better judgment, I took her on. I never told you this before, did I?” She looked at Dr. Darbandi, who shook her head.
“I don’t know,” Rebecca sighed and continued. “I feel as if I let both those girls down, somehow. I watched them grow up, watched Elaine take over everything with her grandstanding and theatrics, her demands for attention. I watched Sharon acquiesce to everything, silently letting Elaine and her wants take first place. I watched them through Jack and Ricky Fontaine, and Frances and the Fields Foundation—through everything that happened there, and I just continued along on the sidelines, through the wedding and the baby and all the changes everyone seemed to be constantly going through. And I always held onto the thought that there had to be something for me to do. I don’t usually stand in the wings well, but for this godmother thing, it seemed as if that was all I could do. Stand by the side. Watch their lives.” She suddenly shivered. “It was as if I have a policy of non-interference; the prime directive.”
Rebecca smiled at her feeble attempt at a joke. The tears had dried on her face. Her eye make-up had smudged slightly, but her face still looked fresh, even though it was so close to evening. The sun had not completely slipped beyond the Charles River and the horizon.
She stopped smiling and sighed. “Levity. That was Elaine’s way of getting through everything, although she probably didn’t consciously realize it. Then again, maybe she did. Make a joke and the problems go away.” She looked up at the woman across the desk. “But I’m digressing again, aren’t I?”
At a nod from Darbandi, Rebecca continued. “Doesn’t Salinger say something about digression in Catcher in the Rye?” she asked.
“I don’t know, you’re the English major, not I.”
“Good point.” And Rebecca grinned again. “Well, I’m sure he does. About someone on the debate team who told lovely stories, stories Holden really liked, only the other members of the team were supposed to shout digression! at people when they digressed. Maybe you should do that,” she suggested.
“Actually, I think your digressions are necessary to your understanding,” Darbandi said.
“Again, you’re probably right. Godmother. Forgiveness. Sharon and Elaine. Okay,” and Rebecca sighed again.
The clock on the bookshelf chimed twice, two soft and soothing tones, and Rebecca glanced at it.
“Time goes by quickly, doesn’t it?” she mused. “I remember sitting in Sister Baptista’s sixth grade class, watching the clock at a quarter to three, thinking it would never be three o’clock so I could go home. Those fifteen minutes seemed to drag for hours, and I always felt trapped by it. I still feel trapped by time, because you wake up in the morning and without even realizing it, it’s the next day, or the next week, or the semester’s over, until years have gone by and I don’t know where they went or what I was going in them. Why people have changed, why some have died, why I don’t seem to feel older. Why is all of that?”
Dr. Darbandi watched Rebecca silently as Rebecca struggled to maintain control. Rebecca continued.
“There are quite a few dreams I seem to be having lately,” she admitted, not looking at Darbandi. “I have never understood dreams, and for the most part have never recalled mine on a regular basis. The ones which are vivid and recollected are those that occur just prior to waking—you know, the ones you have in which you incorporate things that are really happening with the things you are dreaming about, like you’re dreaming about a fire engine coming screaming down your street and its sirens never seem to stop but go on and on and then you realize it’s not a sired but the alarm clock next to your bed and that brings you up to consciousness so you can shut it off. You know what I mean?”
She didn’t wait for Darbandi to speak or even to nod. She barely stopped her monologue.
“They seem to be right there, at the edge of my mind, first thing in the morning,” Rebecca almost whispered. “Elaine’s usually in them, or at least one I remember vividly. If I think about dreams at all, it’s the Elaine dreams I’d prefer, not the chasing dreams, or the searching dreams.”
“Are you having those, too?”
Rebecca nodded, and sniffed quietly, sitting still, deep in thought.
“Elaine dreams,” Darbandi suggested.
“Yes. Elaine.” Rebecca collected her thoughts. “She’s standing there on the Common, and it’s snowing all around her and we call and call for her to come but she shakes her head and waves and then falls backwards into the snow, spreading her legs and arms back and forth and up and down, rapidly, as she makes a beautiful snow angel.”
Rebecca coughed and took a sip of water from the glass next to her. “Yes, I know. It makes perfect sense. But on the other hand, it doesn’t.” She continued to cough and fidgeted, straightening her skirt and glancing up at the clock, something she rarely did when at Darbandi’s office.
“Do you want to stop talking about the dreams for now, Rebecca?”
Rebecca’s relief was palpable. She nodded. “If you don’t mind, I would rather talk about the girls,” she said. Darbandi nodded, gesturing for Rebecca to continue.
“Three years after Sharon, Elaine was born. I lived close to them then, only a mile down the road, and spent a lot of time with Stella, helping when she needed. It was fascinating in a way to me, watching those two girls, different as night and day. Elaine new the fine art of manipulation from the day she first came home. Sharon was never in need of the spotlight; she never called attention to herself. But Elaine—well, Elaine couldn’t seem to get enough attention, she acted like she was starved for it and went out of her way, doing whatever she thought would get her the attention she craved, at first following Sharon all over and then going at it on her own. At such a young age, too. Even when she was still living at home, it was as if she wasn’t living there. Elaine was her own person. When she was young, Stella liked to say that she was five-going-on-thirty. She just always seemed years ahead of her time, the things she was getting into.”
Rebecca slipped off her brown Rockport walking shoes. Comfortable shoes, but she had a sudden desire to fold her legs up under her on the leather chair. Her handkerchief fluttered to the floor.
“I never understood those two girls, and it seemed as if I understood even less as time passed. I moved across town when they were about ten and seven and didn’t see them as much but still kept up daily with Stella at least. That never changed. We still talk all the time, you know. But then, well, of course mothers don’t always know what’s going on with their kids, especially teenaged girls who think their mothers are from a different planet. Well, maybe we are. I always swore that if I had children I would never start a sentence with the words when I was your age, but I found myself doing that with Sharon and Elaine.
“Were they close? I can’t tell. They never killed each other. But there was a nurturing instinct in Sharon and Elaine always had an intense desire to be nurtured. You’d think they were perfect for each other. But it didn’t work that way. I always wanted to help them, sit them down, talk to them, make them see what harm they were causing each other.”
Rebecca looked at Dr. Darbandi, who was sitting in the near darkness surrounding her desk, her face shadow-lit by the low wattage of the one small desk lamp. Her face seemed haloed in light.
“What is it you think you could have done?” Darbandi asked.
Rebecca fidgeted, slid one leg off the chair and rested her foot on the floor. She shrugged. “I don’t know. Something. Anything. I just feel so bad about everything.”
“What do you mean by everything?”
Rebecca’s tears started to creep down her face again.
“Do you think you could have prevented what happened?” Darbandi asked.
Rebecca sniffed, tears dripping silently onto her blue shirt. She stared at the doctor, saw only a blurred figure sitting next to a wavering, pool-like desk.
“Rebecca,” Darbandi said quietly, “ you are feeling responsible for things out of your control.”
Rebecca shook her head, slowly. “You don’t understand,” she said. “You don’t understand just how Sharon and Elaine are. Or were.”
“Then tell me,” Darbandi gently said.