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Authors: Melissa Falcon Field

What Burns Away

BOOK: What Burns Away
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Copyright © 2015 by Melissa Falcon Field

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For Noah, who teaches me everything.

“She is made out of yesterdays.”

—James Salter,
A
Sport
and
a
Pastime

PART 1
CHAPTER ONE
Memory

If I'm honest, I can admit that even before the flash point, all was not well. Even back during Miles's cardiology fellowship and my own research on the gouged ozone layer over Antarctica, back when I was considered an expert at something, back when Miles and I were still in the infancy of our marriage—even then the past had begun to instigate trouble.

Because weather patterns are the way my mind delineates time, I know it was two days into the Blizzard of January 2005, a Category 4 storm with Arctic conditions that lasted three days and dumped thirty-six inches of snow over New England. Maybe the storm itself brought on the memories, but I'll never be sure.

What I do know is that throughout the day, I'd grown lonesome at work the way I always do after a snowfall, the isolation made worse by impassable roads. Miles was stuck at work too, so I stayed at the lab to wait it out, where, hunched over satellite depictions of a warmed and brutalized troposphere, the recollections penetrated my concentration like meteoroids ripping through the atmosphere.

And there in the lab, seven years ago now—before our son, before the move—came sensations like flashes of light. The snapshots were from my girlhood when, had I been braver or more attentive, I could've helped stop things before they spun out of control. The first images were my mother setting Dad's beer can back on the table, the slam of the door, the memory of her slight frame running out into the early dark, the starless night, and fog so dense it left dew on my teenage skin. Then, out in front of her, the outline of the big, white house, 101 Quayside Lane, rising from the haze like a vessel.

I could feel the impression of my moon boots across snow-covered sand, could hear the panting of my breath. I sensed my arms pumping while I chased after my mother. Next, I saw the gravel footpath to the house, then my mother's profile before she disappeared beyond the enormous oak door. As I waited, the wind grew wild off the water; I could feel it in my hair. The snow squalled, and behind me Long Island Sound thrashed at my heels.

To stop more of the visions from coming, the horror of what I knew followed, I left my bench at the lab, abandoned the ozone reports I was working on, and ran outside into the blizzard, where I stood as an adult—not that frightened teenage girl, but the woman she had become. I let the cold fill my lungs and exhaled deep smoky breaths; flakes soaked through my lab coat and sopped my hair. I stood there who knows how long, while snow whipped up from the drifts until everything went numb.

And from that moment forward, I tucked away the magnetism and loneliness encased in those memories, hiding them from Miles, from myself even. But over time, the power of that indiscernible past escalated, and my longing to right it became comparable, I estimated, to the desperation of the little girl in an old Khoisan legend I've always loved. Under the dark seclusion of the Kalahari sky, the girl grew rash after years of isolation. One day she reached into a blazing fire, grabbed a fistful of red-hot embers, and tossed them to the heavens, delivering the Milky Way galaxy from her fist. Its twinkle of light became her rescue, making the desert around her passable for travelers in southern Africa and forever saving the girl from her solitude.

After talking through it with Miles and my counselor, Anna, these past twelve weeks, I see now that my loneliness gained quiet momentum in the same hushed way our marriage began falling apart. I had grown unrecognizable to myself, invisible in my own darkness—and yes, like the little Khoisan girl, I stuck my hand into a fire, wanting desperately to be found.

And found I was again, on the morning of my fortieth birthday, when Miles and I were barely unpacked from a move to Madison, Wisconsin. Then, too, the snow fell fast. But I was spared the worst of my memories by the rousing call of my sixteen-month-old son.

• • •

It was six thirty, maybe seven, and Jonah's voice woke me. Gravelly and amplified through the baby monitor, he shouted:
“Come!”

In my half sleep, I suppose it was the word that conjured up the image of my estranged mother who, in her own fortieth year, thumped a rose-colored roller bag, the same color as her lipstick, down the front stairs and out the door.

I was fourteen when she stepped from our stoop, a long, thick ponytail swinging behind her, while my father, my sister Kara, and I watched her hurry along the brick walk to the end of our charred driveway still tagged with yellow crime scene tape. Waiting for her, a car we had never seen before idled in front of our house. Mom paused once she reached it, turned to face us, and waggled her fingers good-bye.

The gesture suggested something playful, and although her expression was veiled by the haze, I remained hopeful, expecting her to retrace her steps back to us, imagining the warmth of her lips blotting my cheek and the collapse of her thin frame into the meaty arms my father held out to her. His voice had already gone hoarse from hollering, over and over again: “Kat, come back!”

But she went. Ducking into the passenger's seat, she clutched the rose-colored bag to her chest, while the driver of the car stole her away. From the steps, Kara and I watched as the taillights disappeared into the haze, while Dad called our mother home long after she was gone. Once he went silent, Dad slid down the doorjamb and quietly wept into his hands.

• • •

Jonah beckoned me back into real time and out from that reminiscence of my father with his plea: “Come! Mama, please?”

I kicked off the down comforter and studied the snowy Midwestern dawn, noting the cumulonimbus clouds that rolled past my window.

Jonah hollered again, his breathing gone fierce:
“Mama! Come!”

I tied my hair back, wondering where my own mother was that morning, briefly considering what I would say if I ever saw her again. Then I eyed my husband through the open bathroom door, watching as he tapped his razor against the edge of the sink.

Miles kept his back to me. A new breadbasket of weight pooled at his waist, and I studied his face in the mirror. His steady surgeon's hand took a straight edge to the beveled cleft of his chin.

All desperation and hysterics, Jonah screamed.
“Please, Mama!”

Miles turned to face me as I stood, a dollop of shaving cream above his lip. “Claire, go get the baby.”

And as I shrugged into my robe, I wondered if my fortieth year would be the one during which I would leave Miles, finally surrendering to a dissatisfaction I could never quite explain, assuming it was better to go while Jonah was still so small he'd never remember.

But I pushed that impulse away, not allowing myself to imagine the ways that scenario could play out, still haunted by my own mother's departure, her act of selfishness the first domino in what became a chain reaction with inescapable fallout.

In my slippers I shuffled across the master bedroom, running my fingertips along the dark wood paneling lining every wall of our cold, dim rental house. Passing the angular built-in dressers that boxed us in, I felt the loss of the sunny, newly renovated home Miles and I had sold back East only months before, a place we surrendered for a mere quarter of its worth, when our faith in each other seemed to collapse right along with the housing market.

My husband, the steadfast Dr. Miles Bancroft, stood shirtless and toweled his face dry. Leaning through the bathroom door frame upon my approach, he stopped me for a kiss. “Claire Elizabeth Spruce,” he said. “Forty! Have a perfect birthday.”

Apathetic in response, I continued past him toward the nursery. There, Jonah shook the rails of his crib like an angry convict, settling once I hoisted him into my embrace.

“I'm here, baby,” I whispered.

We nuzzled against each other, and I remembered how hard he was to bring into the world, how my overwhelming love for him had unhinged me for a time. I wondered, as I still often do, how I had managed to live an entire life without my little boy.

Jonah clasped his arms around my neck, pressing his feet against my ribs.

I kissed each one of his ears, our morning ritual.

“Look,” I said. We swayed a minute, and I pointed out the nursery window to the mounting snowfall. With the cold front moving off Lake Mendota, I estimated that there would be even more accumulation for Madison and south-central Wisconsin than the weather stations had predicted.

Lacking my interest in the elements, Jonah furrowed his brow and patted my face, demanding breakfast like he still does nearly every morning: “Mama, yummies!”

We headed downstairs to the kitchen, and with Jonah tight in my grip, I recounted all my non-fortieth birthdays—the years of Carvel ice-cream cakes, their pink and white frosting, and that one redundant wish for the things that could never be brought back.

Moving into the monotony of our morning routine, the breakfasts and lunches yet unmade, I recollected the bent light of tiny wicks over four decades, noting that it was twenty-six years since my mother left, her actions changing everything, and how it was Dean who lit my candles once she was gone, before he went south, his warm breath in my ear, singing, “Happy, happy birthday, Claire!”

• • •

Dean D'Alessio, my first love, lived one block from my family on the other side of Willard Street, in a blue raised ranch identical to my parents' except for the aluminum awnings his mom had added as a bonus. From our cookie-cutter back porches, we grew up listening to Long Island Sound erode the Connecticut coastline while gulls barked above the power lines that stitched his side of the street to mine.

I noticed Dean for the first time on a November snow day in 1985, following Thanksgiving break. Having grown tired of the surplus turkey stew and stuffing that lined our refrigerator in Tupperware, I left my eleven-year-old sister, Kara, behind to watch Bugs Bunny and headed out to Micucci's corner store with a pocket full of change.

I sank deep into the snow along our footpath and, as I trudged by, I watched Dean. He glanced up at me while busting apart the last of the ice in a bank blocking a neighbor's driveway. He launched a shovel into the bed of his pickup truck, then pulled his winter cap low over his brow, just above his eyes. His frame was taller, bulky even, in comparison to the sinewy boys in my freshman class, and he stood with an air of resilience.

Shivering at the curb, I waited for the light at the crosswalk.

“Hey!” he shouted in my direction, moving closer to where I stood.

I peered over my shoulder, and his chiseled features vaguely hidden under the start of a beard came into view.

“What's your name?” he asked, locking me into the intensity of his stare.

Unnerved and excited, I answered in a near whisper, “Claire.”

“Pretty name.” He nodded. “For a pretty girl.”

And just then, as the walk signal beeped, he turned back toward his truck, jumped in, and drove off.

I glided across the street, and the twinge of something triumphant welled up inside me. Unable to stop myself, I glanced back, just once, to catch only the red taillights of his truck.

But as I finished my slice of pizza a few minutes later under the corner store's awning, listening to Mr. Micucci belt out a baritone version of “Come Back to Sorrento” while he tossed pies into the air, Dean looped the block, rolled down his window, and hollered my name.

I gave him a tiny, awkward wave, holding in a giggle, and from that moment forward, Dean D'Alessio became my secret crush, until nearly two months later, the morning of January 28, 1986.

On that January day, as I carried my papier-mâché model of Halley's comet through the slushy brown snow, headed to science class to watch the space shuttle
Challenger
launch from Kennedy Space Center, I was thinking about letters. There was the letter I stole off my father's dresser and the letter I'd received from Christa McAuliffe, the thirty-seven-year-old high school teacher from New Hampshire selected from 11,000 applicants to be the nation's Teacher in Space. I had one of the letters in each of my coat pockets and had just dropped my sister off at middle school when Dean D'Alessio pulled up to the curb and offered me a ride.

“Claire,” he called. “Give you a lift? You don't want to ruin your project in the snow.”

His acknowledgment of my science model made me feel childish. “I guess,” I said. “Sure.”

Dean got out of his truck, took the sequined comet from my hands, and held open the passenger door.

I had just turned fourteen that January, and my parents had begun lecturing me at the dinner table about never getting into a car with an older boy. Knowing full well that they would disapprove, I climbed inside with my face flushed, glitter falling everywhere.

As he set the model back in my lap, Dean rested his hand on my knee, and the heat of his touch unlocked something inside me.

I chewed my cuticles and asked him, “Are you in school?”

“Quit when I was sixteen. Been out a year, just got my GED. I don't miss any of that bullshit.” Dean lit two cigarettes off a match. “Smoke?” He held one in my direction.

I rolled the filter between my fingers but never brought it to my lips. I had smoked before, behind the public library with my neighbor Staci DiMaggio and her big brother Tony, and I knew I didn't like the way it made my mind go tippy. I cared more about the teardrop shape of the match's flame and the smell of the rolled paper's first burn. But instead of saying no to Dean, I toyed with the ember he'd handed to me, flicking it against the ashtray like Dad did when he gambled at cards.

Ahead of us the light was faint, a muted winter sun. I arrived at school two hours late that January day because Dean took me to the creek, the place we would go to park until the end of winter, when warmer days changed the places we could be alone together.

The creek varied in width and revised its course over the months we spent beside it—cutting wider with the spring thaw and rains, then leaving an actual bank come summer across which the blue crabs would scurry as we sunbathed.

BOOK: What Burns Away
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