Dina Greenberg's poetry, essays, short stories, and reviews have appeared in publications such as Bellevue Literary Review, Blood & Thunder, Chaffey Review, Schuylkill, Chronogram, Gemini Magazine, The Warwick Review, and Lalitamba. Ms. Greenberg was recently accepted to the MFA program at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Much of her published work may be accessed at dinagreenberg.com.
Jana spotted Kent and Barbara before they could pick her out among the other passengers in the little airport. They both looked tanned and healthy, outrageously so, Jana thought. Barbara's figure, athletic but never curvy, had settled into the solid, big-boned authority of middle age. She'd let her hair—still that same wild mass of shoulder-length curls—go completely gray, and a pair of artsy, beaded earrings hung boldly from each lobe. The effect of all of this, the gray hair, the bright turquoise and coral against her friend's tanned and weathered skin, seemed somewhat dramatic. Barbara had finally achieved that earth-mother look she'd been after since way back in college.
And Kent, perhaps a little heavier than the last time she'd visited, still managed to maintain his Nordic look of rugged handsomeness. The same blue eyes, intelligent and perpetually hinting at some private amusement, ranged over the group of travelers, and finally alighted on Jana's. A smile of unrestricted pleasure spread across his face before he threw his arm over his wife's shoulder and steered her in Jana's direction.
"Oh my God!" Barbara called, "The Yankee has arrived!" Jana felt fragile in her friend's crushing embrace. Then Barbara held Jana at arm's length, tipped her head back, and let loose the throaty laugh that had become her signature.
"Well, yes, I suppose I have," said Jana. "But, look who's talking. Remember, once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker."
"Aaah don't know 'bout that, pumpkin," Barbara fake-drawled.
"Hey, sweetheart, it's so great to see you," said Kent. As he lifted her from the ground, Jana's feet swung, child-like, the same way he'd hugged her for as a long as she could remember. Now it was Jana's turn to laugh.
"So where's the rest of the party?" she asked, once Kent had set her down and she'd gained her composure.
"Oh, some are out at our place and some are over at the Crooked Elm. We booked you their loveliest suite," Barbara said, grabbing Jana's wheeled suitcase.
She had packed as lightly as possible with a fierce determination to stuff everything into the regulation-sized carry-on. She'd then stood on tiptoe to stubbornly wrestle the thing into the overhead compartment while annoyed-looking passengers bunched up in the aisle behind her. The effort had both exhausted and embarrassed her.
"Let's get going. I can't wait to fill you in on the rest of the plans," Barbara said, already wheeling the bag toward the exit.
"Hey, Barb, think maybe you can give our sweet girl a chance to get her footing first?" But even as he said this, Kent grasped Jana's elbow and guided her dutifully into his wife's wake. As the two followed a few paces behind her friend's long-legged strides, she felt the same sense of misgiving she'd had when Barbara first called with the invitation. Barbara's generosity had always made her uncomfortable and now, as she thought it through again, she decided there was something a bit dishonest about their last exchange, though she wasn't sure which of them had been more culpable. True, she really wouldn't have been able to afford the airfare. And the inn, well that was just beside the point; she'd have happily slept in one of Barbara and Kent's guest rooms as she'd done twice since their move. Yet Barbara had run right over every objection she'd had. "It's my sixtieth birthday and I want you to be there. Period." The statement had been emphatic and heartfelt, Jana thought then.
But instead of allowing her to work things out on her own ("No, you most certainly are not driving twelve hours in that clunker of your brother's!"), she'd been left with no choice but to accept the invitation on Barbara's terms. Now, sitting in the backseat of Kent's Range Rover, she felt increasingly uneasy. She even suspected that she hadn't really wanted to come at all. This thought was disturbing on several levels, but she still found herself laughing along with Barbara as Kent commandeered the cushy 4X4 along the lightly trafficked highway and then, after twenty minutes or so, up a series of winding mountain roads that made her ears pop.
The views from the inn were every bit as resplendent as Barbara had promised. Each large window in the octagonal, wooden structure revealed a sweeping vista of blue-grey mountains, the peaks shrouded in mist. The leaves had just begun to turn spectacular shades of gold, orange, and red. A cool and persistent breeze carried the scent of pine needles and rich, dark earth through the open doors and windows. Jana had the sensation of gazing out from a tree house. At home, the city had been stifling in a last burst of Indian Summer, and she commended herself for bringing the extra layers of fleece she would surely make use of over the next three days.
The suite—rustic and comfortable with a high, four-poster bed—soothed her considerably. The space was the polar opposite of the bedroom in her East Village apartment; there, gray filing cabinets lined the walls of the cramped and cluttered room where the bed seemed more an afterthought than a necessity. She shrugged out of her jeans and T-shirt and, catching her slight figure in the long pedestal mirror, instinctively sought out the paling scars below her armpits. She reached for the thick terry robe that hung inside the closet. When she felt the soft cotton against her skin, tears suddenly welled in her eyes. In the months since the surgery and chemo, she hadn't cried once, and now here she was in "God's country," as Barbara persisted in describing it, feeling sorry for herself. "You have exactly one hour to get yourself together," she told the not-quite-pretty, heart-shaped face in the mirror. "That's it."
Out on the inn's wide, circular porch, Jana stood chatting with two stridently upbeat couples, friends of Barbara and Kent's who'd just driven in from Charlottesville. Like Kent, the husbands were both doctors, and the wives, so far as Jana could tell, had long since given up any careers they may have once had. She garnered from their conversation that the six had done quite a bit of traveling together in recent years.
"We've all just been thick as thieves since Barry and Kent met at the orthopedics conference in Copenhagen," said Patrice, a tall blonde whose skin looked to Jana as though it had been stretched and lacquered.
"You ride with us now, honey," she said, turning to Jana and placing a protective hand on her wrist. "Barbie'll just be beside herself if we don't keep to her schedule, you know."
Jana sat comfortably ensconced in the leathered backseat of Patrice and Barry's Mercedes. The heavy car hugged the narrow mountain roads with textbook precision. Jana thought the Germans would be mightily impressed with Barry's driving skills. With some effort, she answered the couple's friendly but monotonous questions: Yes, she'd known Barbara and Kent since college. No, of course, their classmates at Harvard weren't all "terrible, brilliant snobs." Yes, she still taught European History at NYU and had done so for many years. And yes, of course she agreed with Patrice, Barbara's paintings were "quite wonderful."
In truth, Jana thought her friend's paintings—huge abstracts of pinecones and other types of seedpods—seemed rather pointless and not particularly well articulated. She found it difficult to believe that people spent good money on these gargantuan monstrosities and hung them in their living rooms. And she suspected that the New York galleries' wholesale rejection of Barbara's work had made their southern exodus all that much easier to tolerate.
At the house, Kent and Barbara ushered the five of them into the great room, all roughhewn beams and two-story stone fireplace, a breathtaking expanse of glass framing the ubiquitous mountains, just as Jana remembered it. The other couple had followed Barry's car closely, so there was a bustle of introductions as Evelyn, Barbara and Kent's daughter, and Nicole, their granddaughter, walked in through the French doors from the adjoining deck. Evelyn kissed the air near Jana's right cheek. "It's so good to see you. Mom's so happy you're here. She hasn't stopped talking about you all week."
"Well, I'm happy to be here," said Jana, summoning a smile. She turned toward the granddaughter, who stood woodenly as Jana attempted an awkward hug. "My gosh, I haven't seen you since—"
"She's fifteen now," Barbara interjected loudly. "Hasn't she just become a gorgeous young lady?"
Jana shook her head in agreement. She thought the girl looked like some sort of avatar, her shoulders wide and insanely muscled, pale blonde hair gleaming, and skin that appeared as pliable as an infant's. The girl unnerved Jana and, for the second time that day, she suddenly felt like weeping.
Soon there were cocktails and bowls filled with crushed ice and oysters and shrimp, a duck liver pate, and flatbreads. Jana sipped her second Cosmo and ate more of the pate than she thought prudent. She felt mildly, pleasantly drunk, and found herself engaged in a conversation with Barry on the merits of socialized medicine. "Who knew?" she said, smiling, "An American doctor with a socialist bent!"
"Now, wait," said Barry. "Let's clarify. It might be just fine over there in one of those banana republics, but I didn't say it would ever work here in the good old U.S. of A."
Barbara's voice suddenly sliced through the congenial thrum of conversation. "Hey, everyone, I've got something special to show you. We'll be back in time for dinner, I promise! Everybody grab your jackets!"
Jana recognized the familiar tone of authority. The years had done little to soften the edge. "I'll take the bed by the window," Barbara had announced more than forty years ago in their freshman dorm, and Jana still remembered it. Not a moment of hesitation. No feigned attempt to democratize the decision.
Now Barbara clapped her hands briskly. "Come on, come on! It's something wonderful and right here on our property—"
"Barb, let's wait till tomorrow. Everyone's just getting settled—"
Fixing Kent with a look that Jana also recognized, Barbara cut him off blithely.
"Honey, it's all settled. This is a girls-only adventure. You men stay here. Puff on some cigars. Do whatever. We'll be back before you know it."
The sky had begun to pinken, the mountains soft and blue in the dwindling daylight. Jana reluctantly located her jacket in the large hall closet. Patrice—who'd arrived in a pair of high heels—laughed as she pulled on the pair of Wellies Barbara had produced from the mudroom. "Just my style," she said, stuffing her crepe dress pants into the tops of the rubber boots. At least, Jana thought, she'd come well equipped in her all-purpose Merrill's, the same shoes she wore to class and to tramp around the city.
Evelyn and Nicole, in what appeared to be brand new running shoes, as well as Phyllis, the female half of the other Charlottesville couple, who wore the sturdy little flats she'd arrived in, had also passed muster with Barbara.
"There aren't too many rocky places," she called, swinging a long arc of light ahead of them with the flashlight, "and it's really just a little ways down the trail. Just wait till you see my surprise," she gushed. "It's really quite magical." As the women walked out beyond the groomed banks of rhododendron, Barbara explained that their property—35 acres with its own entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park—was laced with walking trails; the one they'd be taking now led directly to Barbara's "surprise."
"And just how far is 'not far,' Miss mountain woman?" Patrice asked?
"Just about half a mile," Barbara said. "You ladies aren't afraid of a little wilderness, now, are you?"
"Well, I suppose that it depends on what kind of wildlife you all have out here," Patrice quipped.
"You mean like our cuddly Carolina black bears?" Barbara shot back.
Patrice and Phyllis exchanged a look of mock horror.
"But that's not something we need to worry about, is it, Mom?" Evelyn asked, poker-faced.
"Well, we did have that one friend of Daddy's who went out for a hike last fall and never came back . . . you remember him Evvy, the one . . . " Barbara began, but couldn't finish. A wave of ridiculous laughter over-ran its banks. It cascaded over the rest of them, pulled them all into the current of half-drunken giddiness. Jana felt warm and safe, from the cocktails and the laughter and her fleece jacket.
Following Barbara's beam of light, Jana fell into a comfortable rhythm behind the other women, the trail now only wide enough for each to continue in single file. Finding herself last in line, Jana carefully picked her way through the thick undergrowth of trillium and ferns. She let the snippets of conversation from the others drift in and out of hearing, not particularly interested in keeping pace with them. Gradually, though, the trail grew rocky and noticeably steeper. The warmth that Jana had enjoyed just moments before had now become uncomfortable. Maybe it was just what she'd learned to jokingly call a 'Tamoxifen flush,' though she'd really thought these symptoms were all behind her.
The others now seemed to be racing ahead on the trail with impossible ease and agility. A wave of nausea washed over her and her heart seemed to be pounding at an inordinately hastened rate. She silently scolded herself; the trail was not so difficult that it should cause such exertion. What in God's name was wrong with her? Jana felt rivulets of sweat snaking down between her shoulder blades, soaking the cotton shirt against her skin. She stumbled on a clump of leaf-covered roots and cursed audibly, though no one seemed to be within hearing range of her outburst.
She remembered the day she'd learned about the cancer. Dr. Singh, a woman of indeterminate age with lovely caramel-colored skin and deep brown eyes, assessed her patient with a calm that Jana had found maddening. She'd known before entering the sparsely appointed and over-air-conditioned office that something was terribly wrong. Why else would the doctor have wanted Jana to come in to speak with her rather than conduct the conversation on the phone? Dr. Singh had delivered the bad news in a quiet voice, polished, she surmised, by an expensive British education. Jana heard the words, clipped to a razor-sharp edge by both the woman's accent and the coldness of clinical terms, without comprehension; that had come later and, with it, the overwhelming sense of diminishment.
Now, as Jana struggled to keep her footing, her mind settled on Barbara. It was just like her, Jana mused, to order a houseful of guests out into the wilderness in the encroaching darkness. She noticed, with further annoyance, the rapid advance of a throbbing headache. Every so often, a stab of pain pierced her skull, entering at its base, and then detonating into short pulses of energy that seemed to block her vision. She felt this, at first, in a rather detached way, the sensation so intense it seemed to transport her outside of her own body, where she observed the raw force of this pain as an interested, though not particularly sympathetic, bystander.
She lowered herself to the ground rather indelicately and sat with her legs spread-eagled in front of her. Her thoughts rushed feverishly in and out of focus; a hodgepodge of emotions she'd worked diligently to keep under control since her diagnosis now ran wild. She felt alone and frightened and microscopically small.
Now another college memory—this one unduly unpleasant—wormed its way into this compact place of fear. Kent had come to her, drunk and heartbroken. And she'd known—that very night—that it was wrong, and she'd slept with him anyway. But she hadn't believed then (and wasn't certain she believed now) that her transgression was wholly unwarranted. Barbara had dumped him and she'd merely picked up the pieces; she'd known all along that he'd go back to Barbara. This was understood. This was, of course, the worst part. The story was humiliating and trite, and over the years they'd all learned to politely forget it.
With difficulty, Jana tried to wade through the morass of shame that enveloped her. The weight of this memory was crushing; it had somehow become chemically melded to the pain that shot through her skull. She called out, mostly in fear, but also because she needed to hear her own voice, needed to be certain she was still capable of speaking.
It had happened quickly but also in that oddly slow-motion way that frightening things seem to occur. Nicole was the one who'd run back and found her sitting in the dirt. (It wasn't far at all, Jana had realized later.) But because the women hadn't arrived yet at their destination, Barbara had decided that Nicole would walk with Jana, and the girl had used the glow of her cell phone to guide them the rest of the way, really only another 100 feet, though in her humiliation, it had seemed much further. She'd clung to the girl like a blind person, all the while insisting she was fine, but terrified to let go. The pulses of pain had subsided a bit, but beyond the cone of light from the cell phone, the twilight felted her vision, and the darkness beyond this narrow path seemed then to Jana suddenly fraught with danger.
At their surprise destination, a beaver pond that Barbara and Kent had discovered (Jana now vaguely understood), Barbara's voice swung out and over the dark water in the same arc as the light from the flashlight.
"So the beavers build the dam and this creates a little pond. A safe harbor. It's really all about protection, a way of fending off their natural predators, like coyotes and wolves and bears," Barbara said. "Isn't it just amazing how perfectly ordered the natural world is? I mean, something embedded in one animal's genetic code—some primordial instinct—tells them who their enemies are and how to keep them at bay!" Jana listened impassively, the words floating, void of meaning, but infuriating, nonetheless. The other voices seemed to have tired some from earlier, and when Barbara finally commanded, the women gladly turned back toward the trail and the promise of dinner.
She'd managed, with what felt to her like Nicole's grudging assistance, to stumble back to the house behind the others. In the bathroom, where she'd promptly vomited, Jana was surprised at her appearance; aside from the flush in her cheeks and a rather unusual brightness in her gray eyes, she thought she looked quite normal. The headache, however, still hadn't abated, and far exceeded the dull throb that descended on her whenever she'd spent too many hours grading papers or working on her manuscript. Hearing the snippets of laughter and conversation floating up from the dining room, Jana alternated between embarrassment and anger.
Barbara had incorporated Jana's "little episode" into the larger narrative of the hike to the beaver pond, deeming the outing "great fun." Jana was sure she'd seen the old telltale pulse of annoyance at Kent's right temple as Barbara relayed this story to the men. "It sounds like a migraine, Barb," he'd said. "Jana should lie down for a while." He'd then insisted on walking with her up to the master suite where he helped her to plump up the pillows on the couple's wide bed. He promised to return in a few minutes with an icepack and some painkillers, and Jana thought how nice it was to be cared for in this way.
Now, though, she felt childish and, at the same time, completely justified in her rage. But she was most furious to admit that she was uncharacteristically hurt by Barbara's callous indifference. This was ridiculous, of course. After all, she'd received from Barbara exactly one generic get-well card and a couple of terse phone calls during those grueling weeks of chemo, while three of her NYU colleagues had taken turns sitting by her side at the infusion center week after week. And even long before that, during the years that Jana had been married and then throughout the dismal period following the divorce, she'd learned to expect little in the way of compassion from her friend. Barbara was funny and acerbic and smart, but if Jana needed a girlfriend to shore up her emotional state or stroke her ego, she'd have to look elsewhere. And ever so slowly—after Kent had become chief of orthopedics at his hospital, and after Jana had lost what little money there'd been between her and Ethan in the divorce settlement—the balance of power began to shift even further, until (as Jana thought now) the relationship had devolved into its current state. She hated feeling vulnerable or—to be more precise—she hated for others to see her in this light.
By the time Kent returned, she'd vomited again and felt worse, not better. She opened the door gingerly when he knocked.
"I need to go back to the inn." Jana said weakly.
"Of course," said Kent. "I'll tell Barb." He handed her a glass of water and the painkillers and waited while she swallowed them.
Jana drifted in and out of sleep as Kent maneuvered the 4X4 along the curving mountain roads. She cried silently for what seemed a long time. Then she felt the altitude dip and she swallowed deeply. They hadn't spoken a word, though in her moments of lucidity, Jana thought she could feel Kent's annoyance with his wife's behavior; in this, she believed they were now complicit. When they arrived at the inn, Kent got out of the car, walked around to the passenger side, and unfastened her seatbelt, a kindness that nearly broke Jana's heart.
"No, I can walk on my own," she insisted when Kent offered to carry her. A motion sensor from the inn triggered a spotlight and Jana felt as though she and Kent were onstage in some absurd, melodramatic play. Beneath the harsh lights, his blue eyes seemed brilliant, otherworldly, his lashes pale as corn silk.
Once inside, they took the stairs slowly, Kent guiding her, the firmness of his grip on her elbow reassuring. The scent of cigar smoke and burning leaves that clung to him was not unpleasant.
In Jana's suite, she allowed Kent to steer her to the plump sofa, where he helped her to pull off her jacket and shoes. He covered her with a soft chenille throw the color of butter and gently wrapped her in his arms, holding her as one might a small and frightened child. She felt his warm breath on her cheek. Then suddenly, the feeling that she'd had on the way to the pond—of being tiny, of losing herself almost entirely—returned.
But as Kent shrugged out of his own fleece jacket, she thought only briefly of Barbara, and then in the same detached way she'd observed during the earlier onslaught of pain near the pond. She tried to imagine what she had ever hoped to gain from this visit.
She trembled now, responding to Kent's tentative kisses, and she stroked the twenty-one-year-old body she remembered from college, not the slightly paunchy middle-aged man beside her. The painkillers had softened both the pain and her earlier misgivings. Jana felt Kent's heartbeat against her breasts, the rhythm as familiar and soothing as her own breath. Finally then, she began to feel safe. Protected.