My mother, Naomi, always told me not to worry about trouble, that it came up behind you like a thief in the night. "Nothing you ever worry over actually happens," she'd say. "It's the trouble you aren't expecting that gets you. And it's all around you, Bronwyn, it's all around you like the air."
She was right.
I found out my brother Patrick was going to prison for murder while sipping my morning coffee. And if you'd asked me a second before the phone rang what I was most worried about in my life, I'd have had a list of a million things before I even thought about sweet Paddy with blood on his hands.
I was so estranged from my family in Alabama that no one saw fit to tell me he was in trouble, much less on trial. And it wasn't just any murder. He was sentenced to life for killing Charlotte, my closest friend growing up in Magnolia Creek. Worse, the state was gearing up to try him for the murder of her son, Jamie, too ... though his body still hadn't been found.
Such trouble. And no notice whatsoever. Not even a second of sibling sixth sense. Naomi was right, this whole mess came straight up from behind out of nowhere.
My daddy, Jackson Whalen, used to say, "Sugar, the things we hold closest to our hearts are the things we just can't seem to see."
That man must hold everything close to his heart because he's as blind as a bat when it comes to basic human understanding. The way he ignored my mother's condition, supporting her addiction. It was madness.
And part of why I left.
My mother was a strange woman, who I'd learned—early on—not to trust. But I loved her. Only ... love lies. It doesn't mean much when it stands alone. You need trust. Respect. And those are the things Naomi's addiction robbed her of—the ability for her children, Paddy and me, to trust and respect her. Family can be such a foul business.
But it wasn't all lies.
Like when she told us she'd die before we were ready to lose her. That Jackson would slip from heavy drinker to functional alcoholic. And that we couldn't stop him and didn't need to try. She sure was right about those truths.
Late at night, Paddy and I would climb into our Yankee mother's great big four-poster bed, pretending we were prince and princess in one of those fantastical Hindu epics Naomi loved to read, while the sheer canopy curtains flowed around us. And we'd snuggle up next to her feeling safe, if only for a moment.
She'd weave stories about the strange northeastern town where she grew up, and about her family, the Greens. A lonesomeness rang in her voice as she explained her magical ways, and why she tried to shut them off, like a faucet turning from hot to cold.
She told us about how some people just had magic built into them. That her family firmly believed somehow, somewhere, at the very moment when the stars first erupted with a bang, stardust settled on only a few specks of life already forming in the sea. And how those few specks evolved into people who hold all sorts of unexplainable talents. When I was little I thought it was terribly romantic, being half stardust, half Southern magnolia.
Somewhere along the way I forgot anything that reminded me of that particular romance. It was only after the phone call that I began to remember things I'd hidden deep inside the recesses of my heart.
Like, each night, after Naomi's tales of adventure and magic, when she thought surely we must be asleep, our mother would hold us close, kissing us on our foreheads and whispering softly.
She didn't whisper, "Don't leave me," like most. No. Naomi sang us a very different lullaby. She whispered, "Run."
Later, when we were too old for bedtime stories, I wondered about that same secret, because she never gave us the chance to run at all. She'd held us so tight, so severely, that it suffocated and sometimes scared us.
"Why does she do that, Wyn? Want us close and then push us away?" asked Paddy, who was maybe five at the time. I'm only a year older, but was determined to be a grown-up. He'd come into my room after having another one of his nightmares and I'd make a fort for the two of us by securing a blanket from a window hinge, and letting it drape down over the grand old window seat next to my bed. Then we'd hold a flashlight between us, so I could read to him.
"Paddy," I said, "it's time for you to be a big boy and realize our mama isn't right in the head. Okay?"
He'd cry as he snuggled up next to me, letting the flashlight fall dark, leaving silvery moonlight to trace the shadows of our fear.
"I don't want to 'reeleyth' that," he said, with that baby lisp he didn't lose until he was seven. "If I do that, then who'll be my mama?"
"I will," I'd promised. And I tried. I really did. But at the end of it all I'd run, just like she told me to. Leaving my whole life behind, even my beautiful little brother.
I ran fast and far as soon as we put Naomi in the ground. I was seventeen and never looked back. Jackson was drinking too much to keep me home, and Paddy was only sixteen. I asked him to come with me.
"Patrick Simon Whalen, you best come with me. I made a promise to you, and I can't keep up my end of the bargain if we aren't together," I demanded, arms crossed defiantly.
Sweet Paddy just kicked at the dirt, right there at Mother's grave. "Mama was a loon. You were right, Wyn. But I'm over it now. So you go across the universe. Go'n find what you're lookin' for and then come on back. I'll be right here. Where we both belong."
"I don't belong here anymore, Paddy. I don't know that I ever did."
"Seems to me, you're gonna get yourself lost, BitsyWyn. And then I'll probably be the one to have to haul your sorry ass back home," he said, with a classic Paddy glint in his eye. I still haven't figured out how he could be so irritating and so damn charming at the same time.
"First of all, I'm Bronwyn from now on, you call me BitsyWyn one more time and I'll scream. Second, my bags are already packed, Paddy. Last chance for a grand brother and sister adventure...." I tried to keep my voice steady, but the pleading came right through.
He hugged me tight and wished me well, both of us being the crazy, stubborn asses we knew we were.
I didn't mean to stay away. I figured I'd get homesick and then just come crawling back to the Big House. To my handsome, laughing father, to my best friend Lottie and her brother Grant, the first true love of my life. I figured, once I'd been in the great wild world, I'd see the error of my ways and embrace Magnolia Creek with all its oddness, giving me a chance to grieve for Naomi properly.
I figured I'd miss the great Southern magnolias that grew reckless all over town. Hundreds of feet high, forty feet at their base, and older than time. Magnificent.
Now, fourteen years later, I still hadn't returned to the red dirt of Alabama. Still hadn't laid eyes on the Big House with its Doric columns and wide porches. Still hadn't walked back up the long driveway lined with live oaks dripping with moss, and a majesty that spoke of the old money my family inherited from a long line of successful lumbering.
Lumber had been good to the Whalens. Yellow pine, in particular. By the time Paddy and I were born, our father didn't have to work. He just lived off all the earnings. He was mayor and the big man around town. I've often wondered what would have been different if we hadn't been privileged. Maybe my mother wouldn't have died. At least not overdosing on an old-fashioned drug that no one could even get anymore. Opium. It wasn't a problem for Jackson, though. He could find anything.
But we can't rewrite our past. Especially if we're running away from it. And running I was.
As it turned out, Paddy's been right all those years ago. He had been the one to "haul my sorry ass" home. Just not the way either of us had intended.
* * *
That morning, before the trouble came sneaking up behind me just like Naomi said it would, I was safely cocooned in my stable northeast life.
Ben looked calm and beautiful as he brewed yet another pot of gourmet coffee and with a large, generous smile set the mug down in front of me. His skin was smooth and dark, just like that coffee. I wanted to wrap my pale, freckled limbs around his, to let my blond curls fall down softly against his strong shoulders. Our contrasts always made my heart sing just like Coltrane's saxophone, the music we listened to every morning. The music that was playing the first time we made love. And if there's a word that truly means the opposite of awkward, something more than graceful, I'd use it to describe the day we met.
I'd been searching for a lot of things when I got to Manhattan, and I'd torn through my fair share of men on the way there, trying to find what I was looking for. The day I met Ben, I'd set my sights set on a different man altogether. A jazz musician who had a jagged scar running down his face, brow to chin. He showed up at my apartment that scorching July day, but hadn't come alone; he'd brought his bandmates. There were four or five of them, but the only one I remember is Ben. He stood out, not just because the color of his skin was different but because of that glimmer in his eyes. Some people just shine. And he seemed so at home in the heat. He reminded me of myself. Heat never wilts me. Instead, I flourish.
Don't get me wrong, even the Gulf Coast of Alabama sees snow once in a while. When we were growing up, an inch or so fell sometimes in December or January. When Paddy and I were little, we used to envy the children up north with their snow days and snow angels. We'd whine about it, but Jackson would say, "We Southern folks have sunshine in our bones. Cold weather makes a 'bama native cranky as a gator." But snow was an event, no matter how short-lived.
By the time May came around we'd be in an all-out summer assault of hot humid air. You just get used to the heat because you don't have any other options. That's why summers in New York City never bothered me.
Those men in my apartment that day stared at me with a look I knew well. One that stated, "She's too cool to sweat," but the only stare I cared about that day was Ben's. Even before I knew his name.
I've always been vain.
I've never wanted to look like anyone else, unless you count my mother ... and I wasn't counting her, I was forgetting her. When I looked in the mirror, especially back then, I saw someone I was proud of. Wide, blue eyes that told stories of where I'd been and what I'd seen. A self-confident chin that told people to "shut up" before I had to say it. I was aware that I was wanted, and it made men want me more. Fact is, when you could care less about someone or something, that's when everything you thought you wanted falls right at your feet. What I didn't know back then, is that I was cold. I'd turned off the longing, knowing that if I let one bit of weakness in, I'd tumble down that rabbit hole of sorrow.
When I think of that fearless young woman I used to be, I see a refugee. I see her sadness and desperation. Hindsight can slap you humble sometimes. I started to change the day I met Ben. He quieted my soul and showed me the solid person I could grow to be. He gave me a path, and I walked down it gladly.
We drank a lot of wine that day. The windows were open, and smooth jazz drifted over us in a haze of hours that felt more like days. Then, half drunk on the presence of that beautiful man, I spread out my tarot cards, the ones my mother gave me when I was little.
"I can't use them anymore," she'd said, her voice soft and far away ... Naomi under glass. "Maybe they'll work for you now. Maybe you'll have better luck with all that crap."
I was born with a touch of my mother's "shine." Just enough to make me believe the impossible and run away from the inevitable. I don't think any women born into the Green family can avoid it really. I only had a little and never used it much, except to make some money here and there. Truth be told, I've always thought it was instinct more than magic. Like how you can look into a person's eyes and tell what they want to hear. It's taken me too long to realize that instinct and magic walk hand and hand.
For the first seven years of my self-imposed exile, I'd set up card tables on the streets of whatever city held my interest enough to make me want to stay a while and read the fortunes of strangers walking by.
That day, when I read Ben's cards, he helped me turn the spread, his hands brushing against mine—sending a shiver down to my toes. Our eyes met, and his soul locked in on a certain kind of truth, making every chaotic thought in my head straight and steady.
Later, I would understand why.
That afternoon was one of those lucky surprises, where the unexpected becomes far better than anything you could have planned. As the day slipped slowly into dusk, I left the musicians in the living room to lie across my bed as a comfortable fog fell over me. I drifted away on the sounds of the music and the city. My mother and father were both addicted to that feeling. Naomi called it "living inside the walls." I thought it felt more like floating in a calm, private ocean.
At some point a hand touched one of my ankles, and Ben whispered, "Goddamn you are beautiful, don't open your eyes. Stay just like you are. I want to admire you."
He slowly kissed the length of my body, from my legs to my lower back to that sweet spot on the side of my neck. I could have stayed in that moment forever. Then his kisses moved across my shoulder and I turned to face him. He eased my second-hand 1960s sundress over my head gently. Soon, his body pressed against mine. The passion building inside of me was unlike anything I'd ever known. Calm and riotous all at the same time.
Then he kissed my lips.
It began with our faces brushing, hesitantly. Our mouths catching hold, as my arms looped around his neck. We opened slowly to each other, taming my unquiet inner ocean.
When it was over, he said, "I've been waiting for you, you little lost thing," and I cried, because he'd acknowledged what my gypsy legs knew all along.
"Have you ever been in love?" he'd asked me a few days later in an Italian pastry shop called Rocco's in the West Village.
"Only once," I said, taking a bite out of a creamy, rich cannoli. I'd always had a soft spot for Italian food. Grant and Lottie's mother, Susan Masters, was the cook at the Big House. Their last name, Masters, was just the Anglicized version of La Maestra. Susan loved to tell us stories about how their people were around since the colonies. And Grant used to joke that it was probably the convict ships that sent them there. I didn't care what it was, because when I was growing up, and though they were Southern through and through, everything Susan made was Italian. From Sunday sauce to fresh cannoli cream. I knew it wasn't a coincidence that he asked me about love in that shop right when I was pushing Grant out of my head and heart.
Hindsight is something everyone falls prey to, even those of us with a little magic. Sitting in that pastry shop, I wondered if Ben had read my mind, had somehow seen Grant there. But in all my travels I hadn't yet met another person who shared the "ways" of my mother's people, so I ignored it.
He pressed me. "Who was it? How long? Do you still know him?"
"I don't talk about it," I said. "I don't talk about where I've been, only where I'm going. How about we pretend there's no past at all. We can be the present."
"And future," he'd finished, smiling. We kept that promise. It's easier than you think to put blinders on and move forward.
Humans have short, selective memories. If we tuck away something important, put it in a safe place ... we always end up spending hours trying to find it. Let it stay out in plain sight, and you never have to look for it.
Add that to the things I wish I'd known back then.
And now, seven years later, we still lived together in the confines of the blissful domesticity we'd created that first July day in Manhattan. Ben was my safe haven. My protector. But most of all, my escape.
* * *
He stood in our kitchen that morning, comfortable and worry-free, with a dish towel carelessly thrown over his shoulder and his bare feet solidly on the wood floor. For a moment I thought I might say yes to his seven-year open-ended question: "Marry me?"
But then the damn phone rang, bringing me back to the life I'd left behind.
It was my father. I hadn't heard his voice since we said goodbye face-to-face. But every month, like clockwork since the week I'd left home, I'd gotten a letter and a check. No matter where my vagabond legs carried me, no matter how many years passed, those letters found me. They never asked me back, and though I'd long since stopped needing the money, he sent it anyway. But he never called, so I knew I had to talk to him.
Damn Southern manners.
And there it was, the trouble I'd never expected, all wrapped up in a little girl who shared my name but saw fit to call herself Byrd.
Copyright © 2014 by Suzanne Palmieri