So Much To Say
“You should have stopped me.”
Samantha’s husband laughed.
“You could have stopped me.” She was still holding the phone in her hand.
“As if I would or even could stop you from writing whatever it is you want. Do you know how many times I’ve had to tell my coworkers that the husband in your latest book is not me?”
“Yeah, but you knew you wouldn’t have to suffer the consequences this time didn’t you?”
“So which one was it? Valerie?”
“Do you even have to ask?” Samantha finally put the phone down on the counter. “She’s driving Connie into the city and we are all going to have lunch to discuss things.”
She knew she didn’t have to explain to David what “things” needed to be discussed. When she had written her latest novel she knew she was revealing too much of herself. The truth was, the novel was not much more than a veiled memoir. Anyone who knew her or her family would immediately recognize the truth upon reading even a few pages. That her sisters would demand an explanation of the memoir was inevitable. That it would be only the day after the book had hit the shelves was faster than Samantha could have anticipated.
She had dreaded this moment so much that she had stopped writing altogether since the manuscript’s acceptance and the final revisions had been submitted to her enthusiastic agent. “This one is such a dramatic departure. It is more dense. Darker. I love it! So will your readers.”
Her readers, maybe. But her sisters? Not in a million years.
“How about I meet you in the city? We can spend the afternoon going to a gallery or two, then have dinner?”
“You’re just trying to give me something to look forward to.” Samantha had chosen a simple turtleneck and palazzo pants, all black. No need to dress up but she still felt exposed, wanting to put on something more. Before her on the dresser top was a row of rejected pieces of jewelry, including a pair of her mother’s earrings and a pearl necklace David had given her on their last anniversary.
David came up behind her, lifting her hair from her neck to kiss her cheek. “I just don’t want this entire day to be miserable for you.” He reached for the gold hoops she’d worn on their first date five years ago. “Wear these. They’ve always brought you luck.”
Sighing, Samantha grabbed the earrings and escaped into the bedroom. “I’ll call you when we’re through with lunch.”
“Okay. That works for me.”
“Maybe if I get there early enough I can have a drink before they dig into me.”
Valerie had chosen one of those horribly trendy places where the portions were small but pretty. When Samantha arrived she was relieved to be seated at an empty table and immediately ordered a glass of wine. “And a shot of tequila,” she added at the last moment. When the drinks were placed before her she signaled for the hostess to wait a moment, tossed down the shot, and handed the girl the shot glass with an exhaled thank you.
She’d barely glanced through the menu one time before Connie came up to the table, followed by Valerie. Connie was dressed in her usual suburban housewife simplicity, no makeup or jewelry. Just a long skirt and tunic sweater in rich shades of blue. Bending over to give Samantha a quick hug and kiss, a cloud of fruity aroma evoked memories for Samantha of sneaking into her older sister’s room and playing with the makeup she kept hidden in her desk drawer. “Sammy, it’s been ages!”
“I know, I’ve been so busy with the release of the book and all.” It was a reasonable excuse but Samantha knew it was not a valid reason. She’d been avoiding her sisters, not wanting them to ask for an early copy or even request a chapter to read before the book’s release. Until now she hadn’t realized that a part of her hoped that by some slim chance or miracle she would discover that her siblings never actually read her writing.
The look on Valerie’s face as she leaned over for the perfunctory embrace was enough to assure Samantha that any hope her writing had gone unread was pointless. “You look good,” she said as she slid into her chair to Samantha’s left. She put the book, Samantha’s latest novel Unspoken Words, on the table between them. “Sammy, you know why I wanted to have lunch with you right?”
“Can’t we order food first, Val?” Connie opened her menu in a obvious attempt to diffuse the situation.
“We could start the discussion now and just pick up where we left off after we order.”
Samantha looked down at her empty glass, trying to figure out how it was possible she had managed to drain the glass of wine so quickly. She caught the attention of their waitress and used the welcome distraction of ordering drinks to hide behind her menu. She took small comfort in sharing a smirking roll of the eyes with Connie as they both forced their older sister to wait until after they had ordered.
There was only so much forestalling she could do. Once the three of them had placed their orders Connie took the opportunity to interject. “I think it’s a great book Sammy. Your best really.”
“Thanks.” Samantha took another swallow of wine before looking at Valerie, whose mouth was pressed tight, lips narrow and hard. “Okay. Fire away, Val. I’m not going to apologize.”
Valerie grunted and lifted her glass, then drained it. “I didn’t come here expecting an apology. It’s too late now anyway, isn’t it?” She indicated the book lying on the table, a fragile wall dividing them.
“You don’t have anything to apologize for, Sammy. Val, stop being a bitch. The book is good. Nobody’ll know it has any bearing on the truth unless you want them to know.”
“After reading it I understood why you were so careful about not letting us read the manuscript. Usually you want our feedback on every damn line.”
“Val!” Connie looked across the table at her older sister and snatched up the book. “Sammy, it’s good. I mean, it was hard sometimes to read some of the things you wrote about but still you wrote so beautifully. And I laughed too, you know? Like when you described my wedding and your dress.”
She knew Connie was desperately trying to elevate the mood that had settled on the table, the tension that made Valerie’s disapproving glare seem warm and gentle.
“Listen, I know I probably should have warned you. Given you the manuscript so you would be prepared. I was just scared that you would freak out and when it went to the publisher it was too late either way.”
The waitress came up with their appetizers and Samantha ordered yet another glass of wine, wishing she dared to order another shot, knowing that Connie would be even more upset if she were to drink herself into a stupor and not wanting to let Valerie think she was unable to stand up to their mutual scrutiny without a little liquid courage.
The three of them were silent as they began to eat their food. Connie broke the silence by talking about her children, rambling about some school event or sporting event. Samantha had a hard time focusing on anything, her eyes falling from her plate to the cover of her book. In spite of the discomfort and lack of response from either Samantha or Valerie, Connie maintained a monologue that carried through to the arrival of their entrées. Samantha wondered if the subject of the book was dropped once and for all but then Connie lapsed into silence.
Val picked up the opportunity as she put down the fork on her plate. “I am not going to let anyone leave this table until we talk about what I came here to discuss. You two can eat in silence if you like or talk about nothing but we are not leaving until I’m ready.”
Samantha put her fork down, pushed her plate away, and folded her arms across her chest. “Okay. Go ahead, Val. Fire away. What did you hate most?”
“You mean besides the fact that I am a total bitch in the book?”
“No more so than in life.”
Connie stood. “I need to go to the bathroom.”
Samantha thought that perhaps the absence of Connie would offer a respite but Valerie was ready and nothing was going to stop her now. “It’s about mother.”
“Mother?” Of all the scenes Samantha had chosen to expose to the light of the page, she had not expected Valerie to single out anything she’d written about their mother. “What about her?”
“It’s your guilt.”
Samantha inhaled defensively. “Yes it is. My guilt.”
And it was her guilt. Growing up knowing that their mother had stayed in a miserable marriage because she’d become pregnant yet again, this time with Samantha. How her mother had been ready to leave, had found a job and a place to which she could escape only to come home one day from the doctor’s with the loathsome news that she was pregnant. She’d told Samantha about the job and apartment so many times that Samantha couldn’t remember if she’d actually ever seen the apartment or not. Had her mother just described it so often that it had become a living, breathing memory for her? She couldn’t say. No more than she could say how many times she had cried in harmony with her mother after yet another particularly ugly fight between her parents. When had she learned not to run with tears in her eyes to her mother after these fights? Somewhere along the line she had known her mother needed time alone to cry away the hateful things Samantha’s father had said leaving Samantha to cry in her own room, shared with Connie who was never home to hear her mother crying.
Samantha had been the reason her mother had stayed and her mother staying is how she had gotten sick with a virus that had forced her father into bed for a week but had found a permanent and fatal home in her mother’s body. The last time she had seen her mother, Samantha was the last of the children called to her bedside.
“Yes Momma.” She reached out for her mother’s hand. It was impossible for living flesh to be so bony, so dry, so cold. “I’m here.” She was fighting the need to cry, wanting to be strong one time for her mother.
“Here.” Samantha didn’t know what her mother meant but she held on tighter, her mother’s hand limp and unresponsive in her own. Can she even feel that I’m here? she wondered, the tears fighting to explode, fighting for escape. “Momma,” she repeated, her voice barely able to whisper around the knot in her throat.
“You are the reason I am dying,” her mother said before pulling away her hand and turning her face further towards the wall, not even looking to see what response Samantha’s expression would make.
Samantha froze, unmoving. She never knew how she had come to leave the room, if she had stood and walked out on her own or if someone had eventually come to fetch her.
Three days later, three days of emotional hell, her mother had died. Samantha had never come back from that moment and had written her memoir not as a means to purge herself from this memory so much as a way of putting into words the most horrible moment of her life.
Connie came back to the table. “I don’t think I can eat another bite. Not if I want to have dessert too.”
Valerie picked up the book. “I didn’t wait for you to come back.”
“You didn’t?” Connie looked from Samantha to Valerie and back again, her eyes bouncing until they stopped abruptly on the book now once again where it had been, between the oldest and youngest of the sisters. “Do you feel better, Sammy?”
“Feel better? I didn’t write about mother to feel better. I wrote about it because it was true.”
“No. I mean now that you know everything.”
“Everything about what? About how it’s my fault Momma was miserable until she died because of me?”
“Your guilt,” Valerie said and laughed, a soft, even gentle sound that betrayed the moment. “You really need to get over yourself, Sammy.”
“What’re you talking about?” Samantha could feel the wine swimming under the surface, the warmth pulsing beneath her skin.
“You didn’t tell her?” Connie leaned back in her seat. “Val, you bitch.” Connie chuckled. Samantha wasn’t sure what was more confusing—hearing Connie use the wordbitch knowing Connie never swore or hearing the tenderness with which she said the word.
“What the hell is going on?”
“Sammy, brace yourself.” Valerie opened the book to a page she had obviously bookmarked for this purpose. A quick glance made it apparent to Samantha that the page was opened to the chapter where she had written about the last time she had spoken to their mother. “What Momma said to you, about your being the reason she died,” Valerie paused, smirking as she did so as if pleased with how she was controlling the situation. “She said that to all of us, even Tommy.”
Samantha stared, unable to process what Valerie was saying.
“It’s true, Sammy. Momma said the same thing to me when I saw her.”
“So I guess you’re just going to have to share some of that guilt you’ve been holding onto for the past twenty years, Sammy. Because she told me that I was the reason she was dying.”
“She told all of us the same thing?” Samantha wanted to blame her confusion on the wine but she knew she couldn’t. “When did you know?”
“Know what?” Valerie asked but the waitress had returned to their table. Connie eagerly asked to take home the rest of her meal before ordering dessert. Samantha wanted another glass of wine but ordered a coffee. “Aren’t you going to have dessert, Sammy?” Connie asked, placing a warm hand over Samantha’s which was inert on the table. Samantha could only shake her head “no.”
Valerie ordered a cup of coffee as well. As soon as the waitress had left them, Samantha looked up, not sure which sister to address first. “When did you know that Momma had said that to all of us?”
“Not until Valerie called me,” Connie said, draining the last of the one glass of wine she’d had.
“And I didn’t know until I read the book. I called Tommy first. He still doesn’t even have a copy of the book but I knew Connie would.”
“But I haven’t finished it,” she confessed.
“I told her where to look. She didn’t want to skip ahead but I made her do it while I was on the phone with her.”
“Because you’re a bitch,” Samantha interjected.
“Yes. Because I’m a bitch. Sammy, I read what you wrote about Momma dying and I was furious. I didn’t give a rat’s ass if you wrote about your secrets. I didn’t even care if you wrote about my secrets if they related to you but when I read that part of the book I wanted to kill you.”
“Why? You weren’t even in the room with us, not even a part of that scene.”
“I didn’t appreciate your telling my secret to the world.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s why I called Connie. I thought maybe she would be able to tell me how you knew. I mean, after I saw Momma she saw Connie and then you.”
“Right. In birth order. She saw Tommy, then you then Connie. She saw me last. I remember that, sitting there waiting as each of you disappeared and then came out crying.”
The waitress returned with the dessert and coffees. Connie insisted each of them have a bite before she dig into the large slice of cake on her plate. “Sammy, when Val called me, I didn’t know why she was so angry but when I read the book, I was pretty upset too.”
“Upset. She was upset. I was furious.”
“Do you know what Val asked me, Sammy?” Connie had a curious light in her eyes. Samantha shook her head. “She asked me how you knew what Momma said to her.”
“To her,” Connie said, pointing to Valerie with her fork. “But you know what I was trying to figure out after I read those pages? I was trying to figure out how you knew about what mother said to me before she died. I mean it was there on the page.”
“Word for word, what Momma said to me when she died.”
Together, Connie and Valerie said, “You’re the reason I’m dying,” an uncanny and precise imitation of their mother’s voice. Then both of them laughed.
Samantha just sat there trying to comprehend. “So Momma said the same thing to all of us?”
“Yep. After I talked to Connie, I called Tommy and read the section to him. He didn’t understand how you knew what Momma had said to him.”
“All of us?”
Connie nodded as she lifted the last piece of cake to her mouth.
“But why?” Samantha looked down at the still open book and closed it.
“You think I’m a bitch?” Valerie said. “I learned everything I know from Momma.”
Connie sighed. “She wasn’t a very nice person, was she?”
“No,” Valerie said.
“But she was pretty,” Samantha said.
“Beautiful,” agreed Valerie. “But a real bitch.”
“I barely remember her.”
Valerie signaled for the waitress and had the young woman lean over so that she could whisper something to her not wanting Connie or Samantha to hear.
“You remembered enough,” Connie assured her. “She was charismatic and our father was cruel to her but equally charismatic.”
“Yeah he was,” Samantha said.
“So how’s that guilt now? I mean now that you have to share it with all of us.” Valerie asked.
“I dunno. I think I need a little time.”
“We all have to share it now. I think we all need some time.”
The waitress returned with the bill and three small glasses.
“What’s this?” Connie asked.
“Amaretto,” Valerie said.
Connie frowned. “But you hate amaretto.”
“Momma’s favorite,” Samantha’s voice was soft but still audible. The other two women nodded. In unison, the three reached out for their glasses and raised them.
“To Momma,” said Valerie.
“To Momma,” Samantha and Connie chorused.
“The biggest bitch of us all,” Valerie appended as they each drank down the cloying amber drink. Then the three of them exploded into laughter.