My debut, Or Not to Be, will release on 11/11/14. Most of you already know that because ONTB updates spill from my lips when you see me (no matter how hard I try to hold them in until you politely ask how my publishing life is going).
But this is really it–the last month of waiting is upon my shoulders (and head and heart)–and I am as bouncy with excitement as a three-year-old in line to see Santa.
Here are some handy facts:
On Kindle and in paperback, you can find Or Not to Be listed here.
On Goodreads, you can find Or Not to Be (and read the very first review) here and sign up for the first Goodreads Giveaway!
Goodreads has the first few chapters available for preview, but because you have all been so sweet and calm and supportive and indulgent and all the best things this author needed, you may read the first three chapters right here on my blog.
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November 11, Morning
AT THE BEGINNING of the last day of my marriage, I didn’t notice anything different. There were no signs or warnings, no flashing lights. The day began as bad and sad as the five dozen before it. I’d learned to live under that crushing dread in the same way the receptors in my nose disregarded the persnickety molecules of a bad smell. Gradually the daily battles that colored my marriage wore me down and I became numb, almost oblivious.
When I walked into the kitchen on that morning, my final November eleventh, I went straight to my five-year-old, Joey, and smacked a kiss onto his fluffy head. The boy needed a bath. I took the cup of coffee that my husband and ex-best friend, Eddie, was offering. He looked guilty. Nothing new there. Avoiding eye contact was the man’s newest form of torturing me.
I’d just swallowed my first daily hit of caffeine when Joey looked up at me and revealed the chocolate crumbs around his mouth. Then he surprised me with this stunt. “Ooh, Mommy. I don’t feel too good today. I need to stay home. Bellyache. Ooh.” My boy who loved going to school leaned to me for a hug. I let him wrap his dirty hands around the silk sleeve of my blouse. I tried to catch Eddie’s eye, but his gaze crept between the cereal bowls and onto the floor.
A gush of tears and snot rose up and threatened to dissolve my crystalline wall of defense. Crying was ineffective in our current battles. It wouldn’t get me the hug I needed. He’d just shake his head and walk away, leaving me in my own entropic mess. If I could hold it all in, I’d earn ten good minutes of crying alone in the car after I dropped Joey at kindergarten.
I wrapped one arm around Joey’s bony shoulders and got a firm grip on his chin with my free hand. We were nose to nose when I said, “Show me those teeth.”
My sweet boy giggled, threw his head back, and revealed Oreo chunks between his baby teeth.
“Joey, come on, now. How’d you get chocolate for breakfast?”
My little boy’s green eyes grew huge when he realized he was in trouble. He looked to his father for support, but Eddie turned away from him. I resisted the urge to hurl my coffee at the back of my husband’s head for abandoning our son.
“Joe. We all know why you have a bellyache. You can’t stay home from school today.”
I jabbed my finger at Eddie, the true perpetrator of this breakfast fiasco, demanding he meet my eyes and acknowledge me. “You gave him cookies for breakfast?” I flung these words at him like knives, and when he finally looked up his guilty eyes gave him away. He didn’t even defend himself.
At 7:30 we all left the house to start our days. I helped Joey with his seat belt. It was hard with gloves on and tears in my eyes, but crying was so common for me that I lived in a blurry haze. I tossed my heavy school bag into the front seat and realized with the saddest heart that I was relieved to be leaving my own house.
Sunglasses on. Key in ignition. Escape.
This was Eddie. He was leaning his head in the passenger window of my car, closer to me than he’d been since August.
“Anna, how about a day off today? You and me and Joey. Let’s all play hooky.”
Was he kidding me? After so many weeks of treating me to the grim profile of his face, grunting answers to my questions, walking away—now he wanted to spend a day together. My mind and heart were firing on all cylinders, blocking whatever the hell he was saying. When he shut up, I said, “You’re calling me honey now? Where’d that come from?”
I pulled on my seat belt, put the car in gear, checked my mirrors, and turned back to him. “I’m going to work.” Glad the sunglasses blocked my wet eyes yet fully aware that this man knew my crying face by my crumpled chin, I blew out a giant sigh and said, “See you tonight, honey,” and I backed out of our garage.
Flashback: Asked Out by My Teacher
IF I’D STAYED home this morning, Eddie and I would still be together. Maybe. But every day of your life you can play that game, and it’s always futile—that hindsight crap. You do what you do. Make choices in the moment and live, or die, with them. One chance, one choice, and everything flows from that point. The other paths don’t even count. They are only imaginary.
If I’d stayed home, if I’d made myself talk to Eddie and hash out our problems, actually meet them head on, we might still have split up. It was coming, I’m sure of that, but I’m not sure it would have been any more pleasant than death. So many ifs. If I hadn’t taken that crippling elective Particle Physics course twenty years ago when Eddie was the teaching assistant for my class, if I hadn’t been such a math geek, if I’d tried out for cheerleading, if I had a normal mother, I’d never have met Eddie in the first place. See what I mean? Live with your choices.
Here are my facts, the products of these choices: I love my small family fiercely—my husband, sister, and two kids. I’m an accomplished and proud geek. My marriage disintegrated, unraveled so quickly that I couldn’t distinguish the loose thread from the knotted weave, because my husband mysteriously became unreachable, untouchable, and alien to me. He left me helpless, weak.
I remember also feeling helpless when Eddie and I met half a lifetime ago, but that flavor of helplessness was delicious. He crashed, uninvited, into my orbit and showed me that my life wasn’t only mine to live but was under the influence of forces beyond my control. I was twenty-two and finishing my master’s degree in engineering at my half-life. I remember that self-assured, arrogant girl and still marvel that she, a fresher version of me, managed to win over a guy on the order of Eddie Wixim.
He asked me out at the end of a killer week. I was a wee bit delirious. I’d taken three exams and written two long lab reports that, on top of typing through two long nights, required a dozen extra hours in the lab. My strategy for survival had worked. I’d traded sleep time for study time and abandoned all personal hygiene time in favor of an extra twenty minutes of sleep in the stupid mornings.
In the hug of the long-anticipated Saturday, I hadn’t intended to leave my bed, but I got hungry so I was making myself a batch of blueberry muffins. Mentally and physically exhausted, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d touched soap or even toothpaste. I got my toothbrush from the bathroom and, to be efficient, brushed my teeth while I stirred the muffin batter. That’s when the doorbell rang. Great. I threw down the wooden spoon, spat in the kitchen sink, and yanked open the door.
And there he stood. Mr. Wixim, in the flesh. The only good-looking instructor on campus. The guy that all the idiot girls talked about. At my door. I tossed my toothbrush onto the couch, out of his sight.
All the undergrad girls were after Mr. Wixim. I didn’t quite understand all of the hoopla. Sure, he had good hair, thick and dark. Sure, he had some massive shoulders, but he always hid them under ragged flannel shirts. He was so serious all the time, but I had seen him smile once, laughing silently, shoulders shaking, at his own dark joke during recitation, and I did think he was cute. I did. But I’d never admit that. Especially to the girly girls with their eyeliner and nail polish and hair that they brushed every single day whether it needed brushing or not.
The guy stood on my porch with his lower lip hanging down, his bottom teeth exposed. Not too impressive. He looked a little stupid today. The prince turned back into a toad. In my presence. Figures.
I asked if he’d maybe misplaced my assignment, and he said no.
He told me to call him Ed instead of Mr. Wixim. Really?
What the hell was going on?
The alarm dinged on my oven to announce that the ancient thing was hot enough to bake my muffins. My stomach growled and reminded me of my urgent need for sugar molecules. I was fairly sure I’d eaten since my last shower but couldn’t remember exactly what—maybe a box of Pop-Tarts—or when. Extraneous details were a blur that week. I had to get rid of this guy so I could address my many issues.
His mouth opened and a stream of words blew past me. He made no sense. “Anna, listen. I’ve been watching you in class…”
“…and I like the way you help explain things, even to the guys who hate girls telling them anything. You are a very take-charge person.”
Was he going to offer me a job? Did they need more teaching assistants? I didn’t have a spare minute to consider something like that.
I realized I was way off base when he said, “I wondered if you had time on Friday to celebrate the end of the week with me. That is, if I actually survive.”
Survive what? Holy shit. Did my teacher, the hot guy, just ask me out?
“You’re asking me out? Can you do that? I mean, you’re my teacher.”
He was talking again. I really had to pay attention and focus on his words. But he was talking so damn fast and saying such ridiculous things; I could not keep up so I focused on his mouth. His teeth were nice. White and straight.
“I’m not really your teacher. I’m just the teaching assistant. Professor Hornsby is the teacher of record. He establishes grades and writes the tests. Do you see the difference?” He tossed his hair out of his eyes and stared at me. He looked a bit pathetic.
From the depths of my murky mind I suddenly realized how funny this was. I barked a laugh, the one that usually scared guys away, and said, “That’s not the only difference! He’s old and bald and fat, and I would never go out with him.”
And, somehow, in the next three minutes, through no fault of my own, we made a date. Eddie was grinning like an idiot. I was shocked. He left. I went back to my muffins and ate half the raw dough with a spoon while I baked the other half.
So, yeah, though we had a rocky start, Eddie pursued me, and I, so confused by the entire charade, let him catch me, ignorant of the future we’d have, the pain that would ooze from our entwined thread of choices. Our beginning was sweet. Our ending was not. This man, who changed my life twenty-two years ago, left me as he found me—helpless.
November 11, Evening
THE LIGHTS ARE DIMMED at the elementary school where I dropped off my son this morning. I would’ve picked him up hours ago; his dad is late.
Buried under his puffy coat and backpack, Joey’s left knee jiggles—bent, straight, bent—as he blows frost clouds on the glass door. He draws a sad face on the cold pane, writes his name under it, and then glances at his teacher, Miss Abby, who ignores him and stares over his head. She’s annoyed that she drew the short straw and had to stay late, and too self-absorbed to notice that her student can sense her anger. The dent of Joey’s eyebrows and the straight line of his mouth, lips closed tight, are familiar components of his worried face. My son shouldn’t know how to worry. I hope he didn’t hear his teachers gossiping about me, those busybodies. He shouldn’t find out like that.
I whisper in his ear, “Don’t worry, Joey. Daddy’s on the way.” But he doesn’t hear me. When the bright headlights pull in the parking lot with his dad’s car behind them, Joey is sweating a little. As soon as the blinding lights blink off, Miss Abby yanks his hat down over his ears, and she pushes him out the door.
Eddie leans his forehead on the steering wheel. “Anna, how am I going to do this?”
“Come on, Eddie, he’s been waiting for hours,” I insist in the nagging voice that annoys my husband. This is the tone I save especially for him whenever there’s no other choice and I’m required to speak to him. He’s got that annoyed look right now as he raises his eyes to the door, focuses on Joey, and doesn’t answer me. My husband rushes past me without a glance and scoops our boy up in a big hug. He tells Miss Abby he’s sorry, and she says she’s sorry, and he says it again. He ducks his head and won’t meet her eyes. Interesting. The man looks guilty even when he’s not alone with me.
Eddie carries Joey to the car. He tosses Joey’s backpack into the passenger seat and helps him get his seat belt buckled. It’s hard with gloves on. Harder with tears blurring his eyes. He turns his head so Joey won’t see him cry.
Joey’s mittened hands pat his dad’s thinning hair, and he asks the question, “Dad, where’s Mommy?”
“I’m right here, Joe,” I say. He ignores me.
Eddie meets our son’s eyes. Great. He’s going to tell Joey in the damn car.
“Don’t you mess this up, Eddie.” I can hear the blame in my own voice.
Stalling, Eddie wipes his nose with the back of his glove. “Joey,” he begins and stops. He takes a ragged breath. Come on, Eddie, get on with it if you’re going to do it in the school parking lot. He squats down beside the open car door in a slushy puddle and rests his hands on Joey’s knees. His eyes leak. Joey’s eyes are wide and dry, unblinking, locked on his dad.
I watch my husband raise his hand to our son’s shoulder and say, “Mommy died.”
I’m not surprised because death isn’t something that sneaks up on you. When you’re dead, the universe makes sure you feel it.
Joey considers this news. He studies his father’s wet eyes and then asks, “Where is she?”
Eddie leans in to kiss the top of Joey’s capped head and says, “At the hospital.”
I’m not at the hospital, you fool. I’m right here.
He gives his head a hard shake and angrily wipes his eyes. I’m certain Joey has never seen his dad cry before. In two decades, I’ve never seen it. “Let’s go home and call your sister, okay?” Joey nods, but he doesn’t look convinced.
Joey’s sister, Bethany, is a freshman in college, one hundred long miles away. I hope her bumbling father improves his death announcement skills on his second try. I don’t approve of his parking lot approach.
When Eddie starts the car, Joey asks, “Can we go see Mommy? Will she come home tonight?”
“No, Joey. Mom isn’t coming home.” Eddie repeats the impossible words. “Mommy died.” His eyes plead with Joey. Understand this, kid. Don’t make me keep saying it.
“Did she die like Grammy?”
Anna! Where the hell are you?
Even Eddie doesn’t know I’m here.
“Yes, Joe. She’s with Grammy now.”
Eddie continues to leak tears while he drives toward the house where we live. Well, where they live. I no longer live. Anywhere.
“Don’t cry, Daddy. We can go to the hospital and get Mommy on the way home.”
Damn it, Eddie, quit your blubbering and explain this to him. He’s a smart kid. He can understand if you spell it out.
Eddie stops the car at a red light and gives his face a rough rub before he turns all the way around in his seat and meets Joey’s eyes. “She’s gone, honey. Mom can’t come home.”
He considers how much truth to tell our little boy and weighs the value of a compassionate lie. “When somebody dies, they don’t come home anymore.”
There’s a loud beep. Eddie is sobbing again. Joey says, “Light’s green, Dad.”
At home, Eddie gives Joey a peanut butter sandwich for dinner while he calls my two women: our daughter, Bethany, and my sister, Michelle. Every time he says I’m dead, it smacks me all over again. After he tucks Joey in bed, he sits in the blue chair and stares at the black night out the window. Joey watches him from the stairs for a long time.
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THE SUN PEEKS UNDER THE CURTAINS the next morning and warms a patch of rug beside Joey’s bed. The room smells like Oreos. The only sound is snoring, and it comes from under the bed. Of course, he’s under there. Whenever he was sad or scared, I told Joey to go there, and I promised to always find him and protect him. I can’t even hug him from my fresh post on the dead side.
I never had time during my life—between work and cooking and laundry—to do this, so I snuggle down beside him and watch my boy snooze until he stirs and rubs his sleepy eyes. After a gigantic yawn he shoves his fingers up his nose and commences what must be his daily ritual of digging. I remember the day, after years of harassing him about this disgusting male habit, when my son took a stand. Rather than issuing his blatant daily fib of promising to never pick his nose again, he said, “But Mommy, if I’m not supposed to pick out the boogies, why does my finger fit so good?” At five years of age, the kid had used evolution and his father’s tone, spot on, to shut down his mother’s nagging.
Now, with those boogie-covered fingers, Joey reaches into the cookie wrapper and pops one into his mouth. He’s as stubborn as I ever was. He won’t cry. He’ll wait for me under that bed indefinitely.
Or until the cookies run out.
He doesn’t know I’m here. I don’t know how I got here. I’m just dead and wandering, and, somehow, I can hear my little boy’s thoughts.
Yesterday morning Mommy got mad at Daddy. She never came home last night. She must be really mad about the Oreos.
But I’m not mad at you, Joey.
Me and Daddy almost tricked Mom. But she always figures stuff out, and we got caught.
Joey sneaks his hand out from under the bed and rubs the soft spot of rug warmed by the morning sun. After spending the whole night under the bed, he has no plans to emerge today. His stash of Oreos and Ritz crackers makes him thirsty, and he has to pee. But he waits. He hears a car on the gravel driveway.
Maybe it’s Mommy.
Bethany fumbles at the back door. Our daughter, as always, is carrying too much—her giant purse, some groceries, and our cat, Stink.
I watched her drive home from college last night. Once Joey was settled in his nest of blankets, I sought Bethany and immediately, by some inexplicable scramble of space and time, I was riding with her, right beside her in her car, for two hours on the deserted highway. One hundred and twenty minutes of watching my daughter hold her breath, clench the wheel. Seventy-two hundred seconds during which I could not hug her and make her feel better. Just like so many times during my life, I couldn’t ease my daughter’s pain. Eddie shouldn’t have let her drive home. He should’ve gone to get her. He shouldn’t have told Joey about me in the car. So many should’ves. None of them matter. Toss the should’ves in with the ifs and let them rot.
Bethany tiptoed into our house after midnight. She covered her dad with an old quilt, slid a flashlight and a half pack of Oreos under the bed with Joey, and sat awake almost all night. I stayed beside her the best I could, given my lack of a body. Like everyone else, she didn’t know I was there. When the sun woke her up this morning, she snuck out of the house and went to the grocery store. The living need to eat.
Bethany drops the cat in his favorite chair by the window, and, as she dumps the grocery bag on the table, I can suddenly hear her.
How many times will this happen? I can distract myself and push down the ache, but then it hits me all over again. Fresh. Like a train I forgot I was trying to outrun. The engine carries the news: your mother is dead. I forget to leap off the tracks. Slam. Pierces me like flying glass.
My mother is dead.
Oh, honey. I’m right here.
A groan from the lump in the blue chair pulls Bethany back out of her head. She kisses her dad’s cheek and crawls into his lap like she did when she was small. He wraps his arms around her, and he sobs. Bethany lets him cry into her hair. Her eyes are dry. Her mind is closed. It provides no further glimpse of her thoughts, no more inkling of her pain.
The ring of the phone pierces our silent home. Joey charges out of his room and yells, “Is it Mommy?” Bethany climbs off Eddie’s lap to answer it. She shakes her head at Joey. When she hangs up, she crumples to the cold tile floor in the foyer and pulls my lost boy into a hug. Joey remains rigid, but his sister isn’t lacking in the stubborn gene. She won’t let him go.
Finally, Joey puts his head on her shoulder. Her hair smells like mine. He turns his face into her neck and cries.
My children are calling for me, and I am helpless, stuck. Though I know I’m the dead one, I feel as though my entire family has died. Maybe it doesn’t matter who dies—the separation and pain are the same. I’m separated from my family by a force beyond my control. I’m right here beside them, but without my body I’m light years away.
I am not fond of death so far.
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Copyright © 2014 Laura Lanni