After graduating from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, Susan Gerry moved to Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, where she worked for Servicio Linguistico Empresarial as an ESL teacher and translator. She now works for the Department of Human Services in Rockland, Maine, helping families transition from welfare into the work force. She has recently completed a literary mainstream novel, Carnival Mirrors, and is working on a second novel, Rogue Waves, and a collection of short stories. Her short fiction has appeared in Clapboard House and Amarillo Bay.
"My name is Evangeline, and I am an alcoholic."
For more years than she cared to remember, she had practiced these words before the gilt-framed mirror in her foyer. Contrite words, seasoned with a wistful touch of acceptance that her success in recovery was, indeed, contingent upon the intercession of a higher power. Or sometimes she would say "My name is Evangeline, and I am an addict." She spoke these words with more contrition (as it was also illegal), the tone of each phrase well-laced with the hope for recovery. Chin up, eyes lifted and inviting contact. Expression regretful, yet determined to confront the consequences of her past with courage. Who could have imagined the success of her performances? Who could have dreamed of the actress that lay sleeping inside her, ignored for so many years?
She'd once tried to become a member of Overeaters Anonymous, but that was too much of a stretch for a woman who at five feet eleven weighed in at barely 130 pounds. There they viewed her with suspicion and even a measure of hostility, despite her delicious low-cal artichoke risotto and warm asparagus and spinach salad. Her claim to struggle with her weight after losing more than one hundred pounds did not ring true. Their eyes crawled over her taut little body, seeking signs of past obesity and finding her wanting. Eventually she left OEA. It was a group whose envy (when they believed her story) and distrust and puzzlement (when they did not) left her feeling as rejected as her deceased husband's icy family ever had. It was as an alcoholic and addict that she finally found her niche.
Back in the days when Leonard's absence still pulsed like a blister on her heart with every slight remembrance, Evangeline was an inarticulate, pale-haired waif of a woman, barely able to speak before a group. But over the years she'd incorporated appropriate characteristics from other AA and NA attendees until she made them her own. Now her expressions and phrasing were as perfectly orchestrated as the culinary delights she provided for the radius of state-wide meetings she attended.
She kept a careful log of the problems her vices had occasioned in her life so that she could always be sure which meetings had heard which stories. Today she was headed for Edgar's Mills, five miles south of Caribou, and made a quick review of the corresponding log. Edgar's Mills was a six hour drive from her rented condo in the ocean-side town of Camden, but that was fine with her. Of all her meetings, at least one per day and often more, this meeting, in the northernmost county of Maine, was her favorite. All through the summer she had followed Route 1 to the point just above Bangor where she veered inland to connect to I-95. She loved to drive through the quaint coastal towns, their streets bordered with white clapboard houses, cedar-shingled cottages, and whimsical old Victorians, painted in colors that sounded like good things to eat—raspberry, chocolate, eggplant, lemon, and tomato. All the lawns so neatly mowed, the flowers and shrubbery so well tended.
"It's as though the very brevity of Maine summers makes its people revel more in the beauty of its flora than they do in warmer places," she remarked to her only son, Addison, who as far as she knew, was eating his lunch back in their house in Marblehead, Mass. Perhaps a crustless cucumber sandwich with hummus. Or maybe a wedge of grilled tuna on a bulky roll, garnished with a radish carved in the shape of a rose. She wasn't, of course, speaking to that Addison, but to the Addison he might have become if the details of his childhood needs had been left to her, as they should have been, rather than to a bevy of staff, who couldn't possibly care as much about him as his own mother. She spoke to the Addison she never stopped longing for, even after it became abundantly clear that he had chosen another path.
Once she left the coast, there wasn't much to see until she got to the scenic turnout for Mt. Katahdin. For that less interesting stretch of highway, she passed the time listening to Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer, her CD gurus. They could always be counted on to lull her into a state of serenity that would stay with her through her meeting and until she closed her eyes on another day. When she reached the wind farm at Mars Hill, she pulled over to eat her curried fennel and apple salad and watch the windmills turn, soaring and dipping their wings over the ridge like graceful, silver birds.
"How can anyone consider them eyesores?" she inquired of the Addison who might have taken an interest in her observation. "They're almost sculptural. It's hard to believe they've inspired so many hateful Letters to the Editor."
Evangeline looked over at the place where she imagined Addison to be. "I'll bet you're wondering what I most like about my meetings. Well, it's the variety of people who attend. Some distinguished professional sorts. Some your father would have dismissed with a wave of the hand as 'the great unwashed,' but they all have interesting stories to tell." She glanced around and sheltered her mouth with her hand so that no one driving by or stopping to view the windmills would catch her talking by herself. She was not losing her mind, nor had she deceived herself into believing her Addison was really sitting beside her, hearing her words. It was just that opinions seemed more valid when spoken aloud and to a particular listener.
"Some are silver-tongued," she continued. "Some shy and tongue-tied, but all of us are connected by the sacred ritual of confession."
Addison seemed to have nodded his assent. And it was true, the meetings offered a place to weep, to hide in plain sight, to be subtly joined to a vast family of non-relatives without the full burden of personal connection. How relaxing to move among people who didn't need to know where she came from or why. How confident she felt among those who, acutely aware of their own failings, were less inclined to judge others. A place where she was her own (not Leonard's) invention.
At all the meetings she called herself "Evangeline," after the Acadian heroine of Longfellow's famous poem and in honor of her French-Canadian ancestry that Leonard never quite approved of; but her outfits varied in accordance with the ambiance of each meeting. In none of these meetings would anyone have guessed that her official home was not even in the State of Maine but in an elegant mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where she lived with her son (like herself rarely present.)
Her cell phone buzzed unpleasantly and skittered towards her across the seat of her Honda Civic, the first car she'd chosen without input from husband or son. For an instant she wondered why, with so many lovely ring tones to choose from, she had selected this buzzing, like a swarm of angry bees. Perhaps because the sound was as burdensome as the constant connectedness people demanded in this day and age—more likely because she knew who was calling and that, too, was a burden. Only Addison, the real Addison, had her number, and he called just to make certain she was still among the living. Her opinion on any subject was of no interest to him. Or perhaps he thought she held no opinions. In any case, his telephone conversation rarely strayed from the requisite "How are you doing, Mother?" or her response from the anticipated, "Just fine, and you?"
Imagine such a question—as though she were an old, imbecilic fossil, barely able to get out of her own way, when in fact, unless you looked closely you would think of her as almost young. Nearer thirty-five than her true age of fifty-two. This was a point of pride with Evangeline, but she couldn't, for the life of her, imagine why. Where had youth and beauty ever gotten her? All it had led to was a life as a nonentity in Leonard's mansion and alienation from all her relatives.
"I'm fine, Addison," she spoke into the mouthpiece. "Thank you for asking. I am headed to a school board meeting at the moment. I'd love to talk, but I'm in traffic right now."
"Okay, Mother. I'm in a bit of a rush myself. Glad you're well. See you soon. Love you."
"Love you," she parroted into the already disconnected phone. Lies, lies, and more lies. She never talked on her phone while driving. She'd pulled over to the side of the road before taking the call. And as for loving Addison—that was mostly wishful thinking. She longed to love him, it was true. He was her son. But he was a devious man whose life revolved around the accumulation of wealth, and though he did nothing illegal, he skirted the edges and wouldn't hesitate to ruin a rival for personal gain. She and her son had nothing to say to each other. She stared for a moment at the phone in her hand, wondering why she bothered to answer at all. As she pulled back onto the highway, she tossed it out the window.
The call replaced Evangeline's pleasant anticipation of her meeting-to-come with thoughts of her deceased husband, Leonard (never Len or Lenny)—the charm of his early years that had withered into a blinding indifference once she became his wife. When they first met, he spoke to her as though she were the only person who mattered in a room filled with strangers. She'd loved him so back then. She couldn't remember precisely when her lover was replaced with the changeling whose death she was hard put to mourn.
Oh, but Leonard was handsome! And above all, he was decorous, even in death. He simply sat down at a board meeting one morning, impeccably dressed, slumped gently against the table, and was gone. Taken out by an enemy lurking within him since birth, they said—a congenital defect of the heart that took fifty-two years to fell him. A defect as subtle and ultimately as ruthless as Leonard, himself.
She'd worn dark glasses to the hospital in anticipation of the tears that never came. At his luxurious, well-attended funeral she wore them to conceal her lack of tears. But on the way home from the graveside interment ceremony, the tears finally came, flooding her eyes and spoiling her make-up.
"You tried to comfort me," she said to the Addison she still loved. "You never knew that I was crying less for what I'd lost, than for what I'd never found."
To her family of French-Canadian wood cutters and stay-at-home wives, where there was never quite enough of anything to go around, and where finishing high school was still a major milestone, Leonard was a prayer answered, a dream come true. Older, wiser, well-educated and suave. Above all—wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Was it too much for them to hope that perhaps a tiny bit would trickle down? Yet nothing ever did.
So subtly did Leonard engineer her gradual separation from her family that they barely noticed until it was too late to heal the fatal wounds occasioned by his genteel scorn. And then he died, and she was truly alone. Fitting in nowhere until she discovered the twelve-step programs, rife with people like herself, who had lost their families through the errors of their ways.
Except for his beautiful, expressive eyes, Leonard's features were fading now, yet she remembered certain events from their marriage with chilling clarity. There was the day of the inauguration (no lesser word would suffice) of his new Olympic-sized swimming pool back in Marblehead. An event to which he invited several hundred of his closest friends, their children clogging the pool, displayed like so many countable assets. Swimming laps, mastering strokes, knifing from the regulation diving board, doing the dead man's float long enough to cause alarm. And there was five-year-old, Addie, hanging back from the other, bolder children. Trembling at the periphery. Afraid to attempt anything on his own.
Leonard's annoyance had intensified with every Johnnie Walker Red on the rocks until, when the underwater lights went on at sunset, he flung his small son into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim. Addie sank—like a stone. Somehow he'd then managed to frog-walk across the bottom, pull himself out, and hork up a combination of ingested water and a copious supper all over her.
"I stripped to my underwear before all your father's investment associates," she laughed. "I wanted so badly to save you, I forgot I couldn't swim. Good thing you made it out on your own and I wasn't put to the test. You know, I believe that might be the precise moment when your father stopped loving me. It was as though my challenge to his Johnnie Walker wisdom broke some unspoken pact of solidarity between us. I can tell you, he suffered the ultimate humiliation that day, an unmotivated son and a nearly naked wife. Even worse was the instant when he discovered that his guests were appalled by what he had done. Several of his partners even pealed off their Italian suits and shoes. All of us were poised to jump in and save you."
Addison, unlike most babies, was not an accident. He was the product of a thermometer-checking, calendar-conscious, don't-move-for-half-an-hour-afterward pregnancy. Born into a world filled with brightly colored mobiles, mountains of well-organized toys, and nursery rhymes inscribed on the walls as a learning tool.
And yet—here was her son, the grown Addison, ensconced in his mini-mansion, the spit and image of his father, and like that man, indifferent to her on any but the most superficial level. Addison (never Addie) with his own young wife standing in his shadow as she, Evangeline, had stood in Leonard's shadow. A wife picked, as she had been, for her good looks. Being groomed to "fit in." Taught the art of "good taste." Forced to read the right books, to hold the right opinions, to mingle appropriately with the group of friends carefully selected and cultivated by Addison. Oh, yes! History does repeat itself.
Evangeline, whose real name was Elizabeth, was tired and almost light-headed by the time she pulled into the parking lot of the Edgar's Mills Public Library. The ride in drear November had proved less charming without the distraction of flowers and summer sunlight. Still, fingers of light from the library windows reached out to her, promising warmth and companionship. She smiled and nodded her way up the well-worn wooden stairs through the cigarette haze from ex-alcoholics who now smoked twice as much to make up for the lack of alcohol in their newly found sobriety.
The room allotted to AA meetings smelled of wet wool and stale tobacco. At the back, a long table covered with a plastic cloth was set up for refreshments. She removed the petit fours she'd baked and iced so carefully the night before from their Tupperware container, lined them up on a platter, and covered them with a linen napkin. Each one was painstakingly decorated with a flower native to the region. She slid them in as unobtrusively as possible beside the coffee urn and the plainer fare, cookies and cupcakes and doughnuts, brought by the local attendees.
Within moments she would introduce herself (for the benefit of newcomers) with the ritual affirmation that would connect her to everyone in the room. "My name is Evangeline, and I am an alcoholic."
A gentleman about her age, dark-haired and with a body as fit as her own, also frequented this meeting. He often sat apart from the others, reading at the magazine racks until the meeting began. He never really chatted with anyone unless there were newcomers. The first time she came, he praised her mini-eclairs, and that night in her hotel room she'd found it impossible to chase him from her thoughts.
The next morning he popped back into her mind as she showered. At periodic intervals on the long drive back to Camden, she had found herself retracing the contours of his pleasant, handsome face, focusing on the endearing little imperfections, a gap between his two front teeth, one ear that stood out slightly more than the other. Even back in Camden during her regular weekly activities she would visualize him there, hovering at the perimeters of her garden club or school board meetings. It was four months ago that she first noticed this man, and she had to admit he was still part of her attraction to this particular meeting, so distant from her center of operations. She would need to be careful now. How many meetings had she abandoned over the years when she felt herself getting too close to the members to continue in anonymity?
The woman beside her sat down, and Evangeline was suddenly on her feet confessing the courage that first white chip of surrender had given her to persevere in sobriety. The gentleman who'd invaded her consciousness for the four months of her attendance at the Edgar's Mills meeting slipped quietly into the seat on her left. Her eyes grazed his left hand resting gently against the table. He wore no wedding ring.
"You're quite a baker," he whispered, as she took her seat. He'd peeked at the petit fours.
She flashed him a smile. "Thanks. I was a baker before I began teaching."
"You teach? Where?"
"Camden. First grade."
"Wow, that's quite a trek."
"Oh, I'm actually here to attend a course at UMaine, Presque Isle. I come up once a week." How easily the lies streamed from her tongue. She'd never worked a day in her life. She'd gone straight from high school beauty queen to trophy wife. Sometimes she felt the very core of her would implode until she was nothing but a black hole from which no ray of hard truth could ever escape again.
"Wonderful." Even his voice, in the upper range of baritone, appealed to her. He extended his hand. "I'm Rick Peet, and I teach there at UMaine, Presque Isle. Psychology. Maybe we could get together sometime for lunch. Do you suppose you could fit me into your schedule next week? You say you come up every Friday?"
"Ah, no, I'm sorry. Is that what I said? Actually today was my last day. It was just a short seminar."
"That's funny. I hadn't heard of any seminars finishing before the end of the semester." Rick appeared disappointed rather than suspicious. "Bite to eat then tonight after the meeting? Unless, of course, you've already eaten. It's a long drive back to Camden. I assume you'll stay local for the night."
She nodded. "Yes, I stay at the Elmhurst. The food isn't that great."
"It's fine by me. I eat there a lot. Of course, if what you've brought to our meetings is any example, I can see why you don't care for the food at the Elmhurst."
She was ready to weep. How she would love to cook for him in her own kitchen. It would be so enjoyable to share nutritious, unforgettable meals with this man.
After the meeting (and Evangeline/Elizabeth barely heard a word), she and Rick drove their separate vehicles to the hotel restaurant. While they waited for the waiter to take their orders, they chatted and laughed and poked fun at the faux-Italian decor. At the jungle of plastic plants and the fake fountain in the middle of the room that sadly diminished the more authentic-looking red and white checked table cloths and the candles in wine bottles at each table.
"What would you like, Evangeline?" asked Rick. "I'm going to give the shrimp scampi a try."
"I'll have the eggplant parmigiana."
"Shall I bring your usual half-carafe of chianti, Ma'am?" the waiter asked.
"I'm sorry?" she addressed the waiter. "No wine, please. You must have confused me with someone else."
Rick's puzzlement lasted only a moment. "What's the name of this course you've been taking?"
"'The Exceptional Child.' Just a boring education seminar. Mostly busy work, if you ask me. But let's talk about you. You're usually so quiet. What courses do you teach? I've always taken an interest in psychology."
"Oh, the usual. 'The History of Psychology,' 'Developmental Psych,' and 'Abnormal Psych'—several sessions of each," said Rick. "Sometimes I do the Psychology of Aging. But I think this may be my last year of teaching."
"You don't enjoy teaching anymore?"
"I do, but I'm tired of the rat race. More to the point, I'm sick to death of campus politics—of considering who you must woo to achieve your next career move—what journals you must publish in and how often. I used to think the day I reached tenure it would end. Now I'm tenured, and I know it never ends. If it's not you trying to get ahead, it's you being courted by someone to help them get ahead. Oh, don't get me wrong. I like the students, and I like the staff enough so it pains me to watch them try so hard—and for what? In hindsight it all seems so insignificant. Life's too short. You know what I mean? I'm ready for a change."
"What sort of change?"
"Not sure yet. Set up my own practice? Go into practice with a couple of colleagues? Who knows?"
"The truth is I wouldn't know a Freudian from a Jungian," Elizabeth admitted. "I only know the names. I'm afraid I've exaggerated my knowledge about psychological theory."
"Oh, my practice wouldn't be that dedicated to theory," said Rick. "I was thinking more along the lines of 'reality therapy'—which is why I'm also considering giving up AA."
"Giving up AA? Aren't you afraid you'll relapse?"
He shook his head. "I haven't had a drink in twenty years, Evangeline. I really wonder if it was only the pressure of grad school combined with a bad early marriage, rather than some genetic propensity, that made me flee into the bottle. Life is so much better now, it's not likely I'd choose staggering around in a drunken stupor, even over the rat race I just complained about—which, in all honesty, hasn't been that bad. I'm just ready for something new. A one-on-one sort of job. A job that might really make a difference in someone's life and still give me some wiggle-room for serendipity. I've stayed with AA mostly to help the newbies, but I think there comes a time to wean oneself off these twelve-step programs." He shrugged. "If you break your leg you don't walk on crutches for the rest of your life."
"What's reality therapy?"
"Well, in a nut-shell, it concentrates on practice rather than theory. Instead of focusing on how you got to be the way you are, it focuses on your goals and choosing the actions most likely to get you there. It's strictly future-oriented. In a way, twelve-step programs almost hold you hostage to your past. I see it as somehow related to our culture's victim mentality. It gives you very specific roles to play. It casts you as the main character in a story of addiction, but little else. For example, it seems a bit silly for me to claim I'm an alcoholic, as though that is my most salient feature, when I haven't had a drink in twenty years. Right now I'm the main character in my story of being a college professor. It would be different if I were really struggling to stay sober. You know what I mean?"
Elizabeth's eyes traced the well-toned musculature beneath Rick's shirt. She imagined what it would be like to feel the texture of his hair and the skin of his cheeks, where a shadow of dark stubble was beginning to appear. When he smiled, his teeth didn't gleam with artificial whiteness the way Leonard's had. How she would miss him when she moved on.
By the time they finished their meal, all the other tables were long since cleared. Their waiter stood alone, at a discrete distance, shifting his weight restlessly from one foot to the other, trying not to glance at the clock. Rick paid the tab, left a substantial tip in recognition of the unusual length of their supper, and walked Elizabeth to her room. In a few moments she would be alone again. But then, of course, as Deepak and Wayne always assured her, the answer to her loneliness could only be found within herself, a place she hadn't dared venture for years. She prayed there would be no good night kiss. It would only make things that much harder. But, of course, there was a kiss.
Rick stepped back from it, squeezing her hand lightly. "Call me in the morning, Evangeline? I'll come over and we'll have breakfast together. About eight?"
She nodded as she slipped through the door and into her room. His kiss had been brief, yet she felt the gentle pressure of his lips against hers long after she closed the door behind him. And there he rose on the orange canvas of her closed eyelids, talking once more about change as she removed her clothes and got into bed. All night long, as she stared at the cheap print of Mt. Katahdin on the wall at the foot of her bed, she heard Rick repeating the reasons why he wanted to leave teaching. She watched the minutes of her life slip by on the digital clock on the night stand.
By five a.m. she was up. As she stepped into the shower and rubbed her body with bath-gel, her mind revisited Rick's amusing, self-effacing stories about himself and his colleagues. As she shaved her legs and laid out her clothes, she heard him laugh about professorial pretensions. Breakfast would be more than she could bear. She packed her nightgown and toiletries for the trip back to Camden.
When she reached the wind farm, she didn't turn on the CD player to re-engage with Deepak or Wayne. She'd packed no lunch and didn't bother to stop, just cracked the window to listen to the sound of the tires whirring along the road and feel the sting of the sharp November breeze against her cheeks. Through the leafless branches of the deciduous trees, she savored glimpses of the ocean. Of pebble beaches strewn by the last ice-age with stone blocks the size of refrigerators. And deep in the pocket of her blue fleece jacket, her fingers brushed the rounded edges of Rick Peet's business card. She rubbed her index finger across the card's matte finish and traced the embossed letters of his name, her fingertips already memorizing the numbers that would call him back.