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For many of us, the name Molly Ringwald brings to mind Saturday morning detention at the fictional Shermer High School, depicted in “The Breakfast Club.”
Ringwald is still probably best known for her role in that and other 80s blockbusters, including “Sixteen Candles.” But now she’s focusing on her writing with “When It Happens to You,” a debut novel of interconnected short stories. Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer sat down with Ringwald, a selection from the conversation follows. You can also read a book excerpt.
I think so. One thing that I’ve found over the years is a little bit of frustration at just being able to play one character. When you write, you get to play all of the characters, so there’s something really freeing about that. I’m not hemmed in by my age, my gender, my weight — I can play all of the characters and I really love that.
You’ve said that you’re adapting this novel into a screenplay?
I have plans to do that, yes.
You’ve also said that one of the characters you’d consider playing is named Marina. You’ve joked it’s because she’s a redhead like you. But we learn in one of the stories inside the novel that she comes rather unexpectedly into motherhood and has some mixed feelings. How does your own experience as a mother play into that?
I don’t think that you have to be a mother to write about motherhood credibly but I will say that it definitely has given me an edge. I spend a lot of time on the playground, I spend a lot of time around my children and also around other children. And I think that it’s something that’s very interesting to me.
There’s a character in your novel, an actor, and he seems really tired of his fame. He has been pigeonholed into this part he has played for a long time and he’s weary of that. That made me wonder if you were channeling yourself.
I have to reiterate that this is a work of fiction. I think as a fiction writer, I take from all different aspects of my life and other people’s [lives]. Yes, I’m an actor, so I’m sure that I took certain aspects, mostly the humorous aspects of that character.
Like when he’s on a plane and he’s mobbed by flight attendants who insist on his picture and he just wants to sit down.
Your book contains a lot of scenes of very normal, authentic, family life and I noticed in some of your press materials a quote by the New Yorker film critic who said that your acting has, what she called, a “charismatic normality.” And your writing to me seemed to have that same normality. How did you get so normal?
I remember when I was younger, I might have been 13-years-old when Pauline Kael wrote that about me, and I remember thinking that it was such an insult because why would you want to be so normal?
And it was just the very worst thing I could think of because I wanted to be extraordinary and out of the ordinary. And now I really think that it’s kind of wonderful. I don’t know if I consider myself normal, but I am somewhat down to earth. I’ve always been a lot more interested in what’s going on around me than what’s going on with me, if that makes sense.
Many have given your book positive reviews as a piece of writing. And some of those reviews seem to be saying, “It’s good, even though she’s an actor.” And I wondered if it was frustrating for you to feel judged as a celebrity author.
I really knew that that was going to happen and, in fact, the reception of my book has been overwhelmingly positive, and for me, absolutely astounding.
I really thought that people were going to have their knives out for me and was fully prepared for that. In fact, I don’t even read reviews at all. Just like I don’t think I’ve read a review of my acting since I was 19 years old. I do think that it’s somewhat condescending for people to judge me as an actor rather than as a writer, but on the other hand I think maybe people have incredibly low expectations so maybe… I might have it easier than a lot of other writers.
It’s said often in Hollywood that there really aren’t roles for older actresses unless you’re Meryl Streep. As you get older, do you see yourself moving more into writing and writing more of the roles that you play?
I think so. I think somewhere around 40 I realized that if I was going to play any interesting parts I was going to have to write it myself. And at 40, it was really a turning point for me where I thought not just about writing my own roles but, I’m also a jazz singer, I have a jazz band, I’ve recorded an album, that Concord Records is releasing in February. It was really this moment where I thought, “If I’m going to do it, I have to do it now. Enough of this waiting around for other people to do things.”
As far as Greta knew, there was nothing in the sky that night.
Lying on her back in the bathroom on the cool of the white marble tiles, she heard the summons again. Her husband tapped the horn of the car: one long, noisy beep followed by two shorter taps, as if in apology. She strained to close the zipper on a pair of jeans without pinching the soft flesh of her midsection. It was a task she found both onerous and humiliating, primarily since she had purchased the pair less than a month ago having gone through the same depressing experience with every other pair that lay folded in her dresser. Another short beep to remind her (in case she had forgotten) that her husband and daughter were waiting in the idling car, but this really had been sprung on her, and there might be photos. She wanted to at least make an attempt at presentability. There weren’t many photos of the two of them anymore, not like the early days, before Charlotte was born. Now any photo seemed to be taken from their six-year-old daughter’s height—hardly a flattering angle: the upward tilt of Greta’s crooked smile, and the heavy lower lids of Phillip’s distracted and vaguely startled eyes, as though he didn’t quite expect to find himself there.
Finally she managed to maneuver the zipper most of the way, but left the top button unbuttoned. She pulled her oversized T-shirt over it and grabbed a sweater on her way out the door, stuffed it into her bag, and ran to the car. Phillip had backed it out of the driveway and waited at the curb.
“Sorry,” she said through the open window.
“We’re going to miss it, Mama.” Charlotte pouted.
Greta glanced at her daughter strapped into the backseat, still dressed in her pink gymnastic unitard and flip-flops. The air had begun to cool and Greta could see the gooseflesh on Charlotte’s skinny arms.
“Did you pack her a sweater?” Greta asked Phillip.
“I thought you did. Isn’t that what was taking so long?”
Greta didn’t answer, ashamed that she had packed a sweater for herself but not for Charlotte.
“I can go back,” she said, but Phillip was already driving down the street, away from children’s sweaters and dinner half-prepared. She tried to remember if she had locked the door behind her, but figured that they would be gone for such a short amount of time, the chances of a break-in were unlikely.
“I’m not cold,” Charlotte insisted. She had her legs stretched out onto Phillip’s seat in front of her.
“I know, honey, but we aren’t outside. Put your feet down.”
Charlotte dropped her legs in a dramatic fashion. “Daddy lets me.”
Greta studied the side of her husband’s face. Squinting into the sun, he almost looked as though he were smiling. But his jaw was rigid. Greta could tell that he was grinding his teeth, and thought about reminding him of the warning their dentist had given Phillip at his annual checkup, but she decided against it. He careened down the hill, running through yellow lights on their way to the ocean. Charlotte made excited noises that increased in volume with each turn.
“Whoaaaaa . . . whoaaaa!” She exaggerated with the movement of her body as though they were thundering along a roller-coaster track.
“What do you think, the ocean or the mountains?” Phillip asked.
“Well, I hope the ocean, because that’s where we’re headed,” Greta said.
Phillip glanced over at her, did a quick inventory of her face, and then looked back at the road.
“I mean, this is your thing,” she said. “I didn’t even know anything about it.”
“They only happen every twenty years,” he said quietly. “It seems like a shame not to at least make the effort.”
“That means that the next time there’s a harvest moon, I’ll be a grown-up!” Charlotte told her mother. “Right, Daddy?”
“That’s right, sweetheart.” Phillip smiled at her in the rearview mirror. Greta watched the lines appear around his eyes and along the sides of his mouth as he smiled. It made his face look like it was melting, softening, but then just as quickly his jaw set and the determination reappeared.
“What makes this one so special is the fact that it’s so close to the equinox,” Phillip explained in a louder voice so that his daughter could hear him from the backseat. “Usually it’s days, or maybe even weeks apart, but this time it’s only six hours!”
“‘Equinox,’” Charlotte repeated gravely.
Greta was sure her daughter didn’t know the word. She turned around and said, “Equinox means when day and night are about the same length.”
“I KNOW!” her daughter screamed. Phillip startled and the car swerved slightly into the other lane and then back again.
Greta grabbed onto the dashboard, hitting an imaginary brake with her foot. “Jesus Christ!” She ran her hands through her hair, grabbing little fistfuls of it.
“Charlotte!” Phillip said, raising his voice.
“You told me already, Daddy! She’s always telling me things I already know.” Charlotte pointed at her mother accusingly, and when both parents were silent, at a loss for words, she started to whimper for effect.
“It’s true, I did tell her,” Phillip said to Greta in a low voice intended only for her. “While we were in the driveway.”
Greta waited for Phillip to discipline Charlotte. Paternal authority always carried more weight—though perhaps it only seemed this way to Greta, since it had been the case in her own childhood home—but when Phillip failed to say anything, Greta turned around to lecture her daughter herself.
Charlotte was no longer trying to cry, her tiny shoulders folded inward with an approximation of sadness, but staring at a bug scuttling across the windowpane beside her. She watched it in silence, patiently and oddly still. Just as the bug reached the edge of the glass, Charlotte reached out her little hand and squashed it with her thumb. Greta half expected her to lick it off like their big overweight tabby would have done. Bile rose up from her stomach to the top of her throat, shocking her. She clamped her hand over her mouth.
“Stop the car!” she tried to yell, but with the bile flooding into her mouth and her hand pressed tight to her lips, the words were indecipherable.
Phillip pulled over to the side of the road, and Greta lurched out of the car before he came to a complete stop. She took her hand away from her mouth and spit onto the ground. The ocean air slapped her skin and whipped her hair around her face. Hunched over, she waited to see if there was anything more to come, but all she had was the sour taste in her mouth.
She could hear Charlotte’s muffled voice coming from the backseat, asking Phillip if Mama was okay. The blood rushed to Greta’s head and she straightened up slowly, feeling dizzy. When she looked across the beach parking lot and up at the darkening sky, she couldn’t see the moon. If it was there, it was covered in the heavy low-slung ocean mist.
Phillip got out of the car and told Charlotte to stay where she was. Greta watched the overgrown palm trees swaying in the breeze. She had always felt a sort of kinship with the palm trees, transported here from somewhere else. Having grown up outside of Seattle, Greta was accustomed to her oceans surrounded by the great majestic cedar trees of the Pacific Northwest.
“What happened?” Phillip said, skirting along the gravel. He reached Greta and placed his hand on her shoulder.
She shrugged. “Could be the hormone shots. It’s a possible side effect,” she said.
He took his hand off of her shoulder and brushed the hair away from her face. It nearly made her cry from the tenderness. A tenderness long absent, but somehow unnoticeable until it’s back—even the smallest taste of it.
“I hate to break it to you,” she said, trying to smile. “But I don’t think there’s any moon tonight. Harvest or otherwise.”
He scanned the sky, searching for a sign of the moon. The setting sun cast a reddish glow over everything, briefly turning his blond hair rosy-colored, like the frosted pink mane of one of their daughter’s stuffed ponies. Greta giggled at the image. Phillip glanced at her with annoyance. “We’re missing it,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She tried to assume the right expression, the patient, wifely expression that would say even though this isn’t my fault, I’ll accept the blame.
“I guess we should have gone to the mountains.” He sighed.
Greta took his hand and laced her fingers through his. “We still can. It’s not all the way dark yet. Why don’t we do that?”
Opening the door for Greta, he kissed her quickly on the forehead and headed around to the driver’s side.
“Charlotte has her violin lesson,” he said. “Theresa’s probably already at the house waiting.”
“Theresa!” Charlotte shrieked with excitement.
“I didn’t even know that you scheduled a violin lesson. Didn’t she already have one this week?”
“It’s on the calendar,” Phillip said. “All you have to do is check it.”
He shifted the car into drive and signaled to the oncoming cars that he wanted in. Greta craned her head to help him look. It was a habit that Phillip had first teased her about, citing it as a lack of confidence in his driving. Then he had cajoled, criticized, and finally flat-out asked her not to do it. Despite his insistence, even now she could not stop herself. Though why she thought she was any more capable than her husband at spotting danger, or opportunity, Greta couldn’t say.
Greta had found Theresa on Craigslist two years earlier. A student from the Berklee School of Music, Theresa had originally intended to take a semester off, but that had stretched into a year, and now almost two. Greta had always assumed it was because of a guy, but Theresa had never mentioned anyone. Then again, Theresa had barely spoken to Greta since that first lesson when Greta had asked if a check was okay or if she preferred cash. Not that Theresa seemed even remotely concerned about money. She took the thirty-five dollars from Greta with barely a nod and stuffed it into her back pocket. Greta wondered how often she forgot the money there—how many times she found the bills and peeled them dark and wet out of her jeans before they went through the dryer.
All that Greta knew about Theresa was that she lived with an older sister and her older sister’s boyfriend, Grady Rizcoff, in Venice. Grady Rizcoff was a musician who’d had marginal success as a drummer in an early ’90s grunge band. The band’s success stalled after the lead singer overdosed, found Jesus, and then subsequently refused to write the kind of music that had put them on the charts. Greta wasn’t sure what Theresa’s sister did. She was either a waitress or the manager of her boyfriend’s career, possibly both.
Theresa taught violin to a handful of children, including Charlotte. According to her résumé, she was among one of the youngest people to have attended Berklee, matriculating at age seventeen, but now she didn’t seem to have much motivation to return.
She was standing on the front step with her violin case in hand and a single iPod headphone in her ear when Phillip pulled the car into the driveway. Charlotte burst out of the car and threw her arms around Theresa’s slender frame.
“Sorry we’re late,” Phillip called out of the window as he switched off the ignition. “We got stuck on an errand.”
“We were looking for the harvest moon!” Charlotte told her. “There’s one every twenty years!” Theresa took off her purple Wayfarers and propped them up on top of her head. She knelt down and ruffled Charlotte’s hair.
“How’s my girl?” she murmured. Everything Theresa said sounded like a murmur to Greta.
Charlotte lunged for Theresa, clamping her body around her like a marsupial and knocking her off balance.
“Charlotte!” Greta said.
Charlotte released Theresa and sprinted up the steps to the house.
“Come on, Theresa!” she yelled over her shoulder.
Theresa stood up and smoothed out the back of her jeans.
“You could have just gone right in,” Greta said. “I don’t think we even locked it.” She didn’t know why she said this. The thought of having anyone in her house while she wasn’t there wasn’t especially desirable. “We were on one of Phillip’s ‘commando missions,’” she added, smiling.
Theresa smiled back at her. It always took Greta by surprise how this timid and mild and slightly uncomfortable-looking girl would suddenly come alive with that smile. It illuminated her face, lifting it out of the mundane and into something radiant.
“It’s really okay, really,” Theresa said. “I was enjoying the sunset.”
Greta nodded and then absently looked at her watch. They weren’t late at all, she noticed. They were early.
Charlotte practiced chromatic scales and arpeggios with clear and confident agility. Occasionally, Theresa’s bowing could be heard instructing and harmonizing and the sound of the two playing together echoed throughout the lofty house, bouncing off the tall walls and into the kitchen where Greta was finishing preparing dinner. Once it was in the oven and two places had been set, Greta laid out the myriad hormone drugs on the kitchen table, the Follistim, Lupron, and Clomid, and the two different syringes and the red plastic container with the alarming illustration of a skull and crossbones and black lettering on the side warning, hazardous waste. handle with care.
She took out the black-and-white composition book where she had scribbled extensive notes while the nurse at her fertility specialist’s practice had told her which shot to administer, when, and in which order. Considering that this was to be their third and—after a lengthy and alternately logical and emotional debate—the mutually agreed-upon last try, it was frustrating that the drugs were as bewildering and the self-administered shots as harrowing as the first time. At least once a week she relied on a homemade YouTube video of a woman with rosacea-flushed skin expertly mixing the drugs and giving them to herself with the exhibitionist zeal commonly found in IVF veterans. Phillip walked into the kitchen just as Greta gave herself the last shot in her thigh.
“Ow,” he said. He shielded the side of his face with his hand. From the beginning, Phillip had been explicit in his refusal to have anything to do with the shots.
“I’ll masturbate in the plastic cups, I’ll let them count my sperm as many times as they want, but no needles,” he had announced.
Greta had laughed. “Such a sacrifice. Really? You’ll masturbate in a plastic cup for me?”
“For her,” he had said, drawing a ring around her belly with his index finger.
“Another girl?” she had teased. “What’s wrong with a boy? Haven’t you had enough estrogen for one lifetime?”
“You would think, wouldn’t you,” he had said, stretching himself across her while they breathed each other in.
Twenty-two months and three tries later, they didn’t talk about the possible genders anymore. Nor did they discuss VBACS, epidurals, hospital versus birthing centers, or whether doulas really were worth the cost or not. Now Greta tried to shield him from everything about the process in an attempt to make it all appear as effortless as possible.
He walked over to the oven and peered inside. “Hello, lasagna,” he said. “Aren’t you cute.”
Greta recorded the amount of hormones she had injected, broke off the tips of the syringes, and stuffed them into the red disposal box. Then she put everything in the wicker pie basket her mother gave her years ago, still unused for its intended purpose but surprisingly handy for this one.
“Did you finish packing?” she asked. “I laid the shirts I picked up at the cleaners on your dresser.”
“I packed them, thanks.”
Charlotte’s scales increased in speed. Phillip walked to the doorway and cocked his head, listening.
“She’s getting pretty good, isn’t she?” he said.
Greta walked to the cupboard and replaced the basket. “I don’t know. I can’t tell. They’re just scales.”
“I mean, I think there’s been some noticeable improvement since we’ve added the extra lessons,” Phillip said. He listened for another moment with his eyes closed until the scales stopped and there was quiet. “Theresa said Charlie’s one of the most naturally gifted students she’s had,” he added.
“Coming from a nineteen-year-old music-school dropout, that’s high praise.”
It came out before the thought had fully formed in her mind. But it was out, and Greta scrambled to come up with something that would soften the edges.
“It’s nice that she likes it so much,” Greta said finally. She sat back at the table and looked at her husband.
Phillip leaned against the kitchen counter and idly began to organize the various objects—prized flea-market finds, old medicine bottles, ashtrays from long-shuttered hotels—in horizontal lines. He nodded steadily as though listening to a song in his head. She watched him go far, far away from her, and then snap back.
“Hey, I wanted to let you know that I’ll do the long-term parking. I don’t want you driving me to the airport so early.”
“I don’t mind. If we put her in the back, she’ll fall right back asleep.”
“No, you can use the sleep. And the company will cover it.” He walked over to where Greta was sitting and kissed the top of her head.
“Christ, your hair smells good,” he said.
“What does it smell like?” she asked, eager for the compliment.
“Apples,” he said after taking another long inhalation. “Green apples.” He turned to go but she grabbed his hand.
“Don’t leave,” she said.
“It’s just for three days.”
She pulled him close, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her cheek to his stomach. It didn’t seem fair that his stomach remained firm and hard while hers softened as the hormones accelerated her body into thinking it had to conceive.
“No, I mean don’t leave right now. This second. We never have any time without Charlotte . . .”
“And yet, you want to do it all again.”
She drew back from him and looked up at his face.
“‘You’? Don’t you mean us? Or is this the immaculate conception we’re talking about?”
“Us,” he corrected.
Charlotte’s hasty steps ricocheted down the hallway and into the kitchen as she bounded into the room, stopping at the sight of her parents embracing.
“I saw that,” she said, with a knowing look. It was a habit she had picked up the same month she had turned five. Greta wondered where. At a playdate? Did she hear someone else say it? What did the kids talk about all day at that strange neighborhood Montessori school?
Following at a short distance behind, Theresa approached the kitchen. She paused at the doorway, shifting her weight from foot to foot as if awaiting permission to enter. It was exasperating to Greta and, straining to hide her annoyance, she motioned Theresa to come in. It seemed to Greta that Theresa was one of those girls who spent all of her time being an imposition while obviously trying not to be an imposition. Almost everything Theresa said or did broadcasted the message “I won’t take it for myself. You’ll have to give it to me.” So Greta felt perpetually obliged to invite her to sit down, offer her food, and question her about her life, only to receive the same elusive and monosyllabic answers. Their conversations inevitably dwindled into silence within minutes.
“Those scales sounded great!” Greta said.
“Her fingering is getting much more confident, can you hear it?” Theresa murmured.
“I can definitely hear it,” Phillip said. He grabbed Charlotte and hugged her close as she flailed for show. “You are my brilliant girl.” He extravagantly kissed the top of her head and then opened his arms to let her free. She lurched forward and then flung herself back into his embrace as he closed his arms around her in a familiar display of their father-daughter choreography.
Greta was anxious to finish their dinner. She had deliberately fed Charlotte early to give her and Phillip the chance to have dinner by themselves. Their daughter’s long and arduous march to bedtime was looming ahead and with Phillip leaving in the morning, she desperately wanted at least fifteen minutes alone with him before the hormone drugs put her to sleep. These days, the mere touch of her cheek on the cotton pillowcase made her eyes heavy. She knew that she should invite Theresa to dinner—it’s what she had learned in the house she grew up in, where anyone who dropped by unexpectedly was given their own place at the table before they were even asked. And knowing that Theresa would decline, there was even more reason to offer. But she might say yes. There was a chance, however minuscule, and Greta didn’t want to take it.
“I’ll walk you out to your car,” Phillip said to Theresa.
As Theresa quietly followed Phillip down the hall to the front door, Charlotte scrambled to her feet and ran after them. It was at this late hour, when she was punchy and tired, that Charlotte became wildly unaware of where her personal space ended. Her arms became elastic and floundering, and she ran too fast, inevitably failing to see the edge of the table, the corner angle of the hallway, or the slick bathroom tiles. Recently Greta had rifled through Charlotte’s bedroom to find her sticker collection so she could apply them to all of the plate glass windows, out of fear that, if left unmarked, her daughter would fly right through them one night.
“Theresa,” Charlotte called out as she ran, “I want to hug you good-bye!”
Greta got up and followed them, arriving at the front door just as Charlotte threw herself at Theresa. She collided against her with so much force that Greta heard Theresa take a little involuntary breath. She staggered back a step, accidentally dropping her violin. Somehow Phillip caught it before it hit the floor.
“Easy, Charlotte, easy now,” he said, holding the violin and motioning for his daughter to disengage herself.
“See you next week, Lottie,” Theresa murmured. It was a nickname that Greta had never used, but what surprised her the most was the lack of reaction from Charlotte. It must not have been the first time her daughter had heard it.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Phillip said, touching Charlotte on the shoulder. “You’ll see her very soon. Say good-bye now.”
But Charlotte only grabbed on tighter. Theresa laughed nervously. She looked to Phillip with a helpless widening of the eyes.
Greta noticed Phillip’s expression hardening, Greta’s signal to intervene.
“Charlotte,” Greta said, her voice raised. “I’m going to count to three, and then there will be a consequence. One . . . two . . .”
Just before Greta reached three, Charlotte released Theresa. Then she tipped forward on her toes and very quickly and deliberately kissed Theresa’s breasts—first the left, then the right. Theresa gasped, and instinctively crossed her arms to cover her chest. Her face flushed as she looked apologetically at Greta and Phillip and then down, clearly disoriented by their daughter.
Both parents were stunned. Charlotte looked at them, challenging with a smile.
“Charlotte!” Phillip yelled. But before he could say anything else, she had raced off to her room. They heard the door slam behind her. “What the fuck?” he said to Greta.
“I’ll deal with it,” she told Phillip. “Sorry, Theresa. I don’t know what is going on with her.”
Theresa smiled and waved her hand dismissively “Kids love me,” she said.
“Come on, I’ll walk you out,” Phillip said as he glanced back at Greta. “I’ll be just a minute.”
Greta set off down the hallway, preparing to initiate the long slumbering process, calculating in her mind just how many books she was required to read before she could turn off of the light and lay with her husband in their own bed.
Phillip returned minutes later and interrupted Charlotte’s supervised teeth brushing with the news that Theresa had accidentally locked her keys in her car.
“I don’t understand. How did she—”
“They were in her purse,” he said. “She forgot.”
“Does she have Triple-A or . . .” Greta trailed off, noticing that Phillip already had the keys to the Volvo in his hand. “You aren’t driving her home, are you?”
Charlotte jumped up and down with her mouth full of toothpaste. “Can I come? Can I come?”
Greta put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder and directed her back to the bathroom sink. Charlotte cupped her little hands together, rinsed her mouth, and spat.
“Her sister has a spare key, but she’s stuck at the house and can’t come over.”
“I wanna come!” Charlotte pleaded. She ran over to her father and stood on his feet with her own.
“Sorry, sweetheart. It’s past your bedtime. Next time, I promise.”
“Mean Daddy!” Charlotte shrieked. She ran out of the bedroom and down the hall to her own room, slamming the door once again.
He sighed and turned off the faucet that Charlotte had left running.
“Phillip! You’re leaving in the morning! Couldn’t she take a cab?” Greta tried to sound reasonable, but failed to disguise the neediness in her own voice.
“It’s not far. I’ll be back before you even have a chance to wash your face,” he said, and quickly kissed her. “Don’t you dare fall asleep without me!”
Mother and daughter curled up limb over limb next to each other in the narrow twin bed. Hair had been brushed, books read, closets checked for monsters, and nightlights strategically placed around the room. Greta ran her fingers through Charlotte’s hair and tried to keep up her end of the conversation while her eyes ached with fatigue. She wondered if Phillip had left Theresa’s sister’s house yet and if he would try to multitask on the way home—use every moment wisely, as his consultant brain told him (and often told her). Pick up bread, Saran Wrap, and two-percent milk from the local twenty-four-hour supermarket. He might try to buy an early edition of the Wall Street Journal or the Times, even though he could get either of these online, but for years now he still insisted on buying the print edition. “I like the dirtiness of the ink on my fingers.” She remembered him saying this to her in grad school, when he was getting his MBA, and how it would never fail to make her hot and embarrassed.
Charlotte reached up under Greta’s arm and scratched the back of her neck.
“And what if I grew extra arms and legs, and they were furry like a spider, would you still love me then?” Charlotte asked.
“Yes, I would,” Greta answered, though there was really no need to. This wasn’t a game about answers, but about questions. How outrageous, unpleasant, and fearsome could we become and still be loved?
Charlotte snuggled into Greta deeper. “Okay,” Greta said, “Two more, then I’m going to my bed.”
“Where’s Daddy? I want a Daddy snuggle too.”
“Not tonight, honey. He’ll come give you a kiss when he gets home.”
Charlotte’s body went rigid for a moment, preparing for a fight, but then she yawned as exhaustion overpowered the desire to protest.
“And what if . . . I had a nose like this?” Charlotte took her little finger and smushed her nose down and a bit to the side.” “Like this all the time . . . or, no. Just on Tuesdays.” She lifted her head up for Greta’s inspection and frowned when she saw that her eyes were closed. “Mama, you have to look!” Greta opened her eyes halfway and glanced at her daughter.
“Well, since it’s only on Tuesdays . . .”
“No, all the time,” Charlotte amended the question.
“Yes, I would still love you.” Greta sighed and closed her eyes again. “One more honey, so make it a good one.”
Charlotte was silent for a moment. Greta could feel the sleep beginning to overtake her. She tried to breathe in the same rhythm as her daughter, to make as little noise as possible so as to gently lull her to sleep. The trick was to get her to sleep without falling asleep herself. She hoped to be able to take a bath and change into something pretty. Maybe the sheer cotton lace nightgown that Phillip bought her in Spain during that long-ago year they took off from school together. He had seen her fingering the lace trim and asking the old woman the cost in her halting Spanish before putting it back on the rack. It was more money than she allowed herself to spend on clothes in those days. Not with more than a hundred grand in student loans and for the wedding they were hoping to save up for. While she was at the pensione taking a nap, Phillip had found his way back through the maze of the Andalusian streets to the tiny store and bought the nightgown. He presented it to her with such boyish pride when she woke up that her heart swelled with her love of him. She put the garment on just for him to take off.
Oh God, how she missed him. How she missed the closeness in the years before Charlotte, when they would excite each other with only a look, a word, or a promise of what they would do to each other later—after class or after a party. Those days when they would come at each other breathless from the sheer force of their desire and make love until their bodies rebelled against them, leaving the two trembling and happy and raw.
Charlotte’s sleepy voice jarred her back to the present.
“And what if . . . I didn’t love you? Would you still love me?”
The question puzzled Greta. She looked at her daughter in profile. How much she looked like him! The fair skin and the freckles and even the exact same blue vein across her forehead. The slender nose and the green-and-blue sea-glass eyes and the eyelashes curled to blond tips. There seemed to be virtually nothing of her in her daughter’s face that she recognized as her own. Not that it should matter, of course. She had read somewhere that offspring resemble the father at birth so that he has visible proof of paternity and won’t abandon the child or, worse, attack it. Charlotte was living proof of Phillip’s virility. She was a carbon copy of him. Could this be an obscure motivation for wanting to do it again, to create a child that looked like her instead of her husband? Could she possibly be that narcissistic?
Greta and Phillip had tried unsuccessfully to have a second child since Charlotte was two. Their failure was surprising to both of them since they had conceived their daughter within weeks of Greta’s stopping birth-control pills. It didn’t seem possible after all that time trying not to get pregnant to suddenly try and then fail. But as months and then years passed, they finally had to accept that they were going to be one of those statistics. They briefly considered adoption, but Greta worried about the possibility of favoring their biological child. Greta’s mother had been raised by a stepfather who treated her half siblings with far more indulgence and care, and Greta could never quite silence her mother’s voice intoning, “Better to have all adopted children—don’t mix the two.”
The transition to assisted conception was gradual. They bought books that Phillip diligently highlighted with questions for the doctors. Greta learned about checking her cervical fluid and about making fertility charts. They took her basal body temperature and made love according to its fluctuations. The doctors started Greta on low doses of Clomid, and several attempts of the “turkey baster” were all met with no success. By the time they prepared to try in-vitro fertilization, they were already so stressed-out and exhausted that they silently dreaded it. They would wait in the doctor’s waiting room like weary warriors on the sidelines of a battle that already seemed to be lost.
“Important to keep positive outlook!” their first doctor’s Chinese nurse practitioner would tell Greta while she searched for a vein to take blood. Chin Lau Wong was fond of quoting inspirational aphorisms to keep her patients’ spirits up. “If you are in hurry, you never get there,” or “A journey of a thousand miles begin with single step.” When Greta repeated one of these platitudes to Phillip, flawlessly imitating the accent for laughs, Phillip told her that Chin Lau Wong should shut the fuck up and write for a greeting-card company. The rancor and dismissal of her husband’s reply stunned her. They had always made each other laugh in the worst of times. It was one of the things that she felt they relied upon when everything else faltered—when his parents died or when her nephew went missing and they found out he had been doing heroin since dropping out of school at fifteen. The only thing dependable in times such as these was the comfort of their love, the thing that she believed in above all else.
She realized at that moment that she had never answered Charlotte’s question.
“Yes. I would love you,” she whispered into her daughter’s hair. “Even if you didn’t love me. I would always love you.”
What is it that keeps us in fear of revelation? By whose design it is that we are held, suspended, hovering over our own lives? Bearing witness to it, yes, but not remembering. Choosing not to remember. The shy glances, the nervous tenor, the new gym membership, the unnecessary errands. What keeps us from noticing? Or if noticing, then not telling ourselves that these details matter. We need to pay attention. Because if we don’t . . . then what?
What is it that keeps us safe from what we know, should know to be true? Is it really ignorance, or is it a sort of kindness that we give to ourselves? A part of us takes over. Just put it off until we’re stronger, it would say if it had a voice that we could hear. You’re not ready yet. You’re not ready. Let everyone else see it, but not me. Spare me this. Please, not this.
It was past three in the morning when Greta awoke to the sound of the shower running. She was alone in bed. Twice already during the night, she had reached her arm across to Phillip’s side and found it empty. She had thought about getting up and going into his office where he was probably working on the case, as he often did before he left on business, but the bed was so warm and Charlotte would certainly be up at six and demanding of her attention. At least, that’s what she had told herself.
She got out of bed and walked to the bathroom. Phillip was standing in the shower with his eyes closed, hot water streaming over his head. The moon shone down on him directly from the skylight above, and his pale skin looked even paler in the light. She stared at him thinking that he looked like something holy.
He opened his eyes and gasped at the sight of her.
“Jesus!” he said, and put his palm over the left side of his chest, over his heart. “You’re awake.”
“So are you.” Greta stood just outside the open tiled shower in her cotton nightgown. If he noticed that it was the nightgown, he gave no indication. He took the bar of soap, lathered it up between his hands, and then ran it over his body, turning away from her as he washed between his legs.
“You were sound asleep when I got home,” he said to her over his shoulder. “I hope I didn’t wake you up.”
He put the soap back, but it slid out of the holder and hit the floor and found its place on the drain. He left it there.
“What time did you get home?” she said. “I tried to stay up reading for a while after I put Charlotte to bed, but—”
“How is she?”
“Good, good,” he said.
Greta pulled the nightgown up over her head and let it fall to the floor. She stood for a moment and waited for him to take in the sight of her naked body. He looked at her, smiled dimly, then looked away.
“Can I join you?” she asked as she entered the shower without invitation.
“I’m almost done,” he said, stepping aside.
She bent down and picked up the bar of soap.
“Let me do your back,” she said. She rubbed the soap over his broad shoulders and along his back, then put the soap aside and ran her bare hands over his warm, slick skin. Her hands traveled around his sides and down his stomach and found his penis. It was soft and wet. She cupped it in her hands as she would a small and delicate animal.
“I’m really tired,” he said by way of apology.
She took her hands away and turned him around to face her.
“It’s okay, honey. We’re not supposed to anyway.”
“And remember while you’re away, no—”
“I know,” he said. She noticed the edge in his voice.
“Hey.” She put her hands up to his face. “Don’t do that,” she said.
“I’m sorry.” He took a deep breath. “I’m just really, really tired.”
“I know,” she said. “Did you prepare the presentation?”
“Mostly,” he said.
“Mostly?” She stepped back and looked at him. “It’s after three in the—”
“I mean yes,” he said. “It’s a hard one, and some of the data is just . . . The details are unclear and . . .”
He trailed off, shaking his head. Suddenly, he pulled her to him and embraced her.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m sure that once you get in there and sit down with them, all of the—”
It was then that she noticed that his body was shaking.
“Phillip?” she said, but he only held her tighter. She saw the tears now, and it scared her. It was such a rare occurrence for Phillip to cry; the last time was when Charlotte fell off the monkey bars at school and briefly lost consciousness. When Greta had finally managed to get through to Phillip’s international cell phone and tell him that the tests had come back as only a “slight concussion” and that he didn’t need to fly home, he started crying so violently that he had to pull to the side of the road.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
“For what?” Greta asked.
He didn’t answer.
“For what?” she repeated.
The water started to run cold. She reached her arm out from under his and turned the handle to the left. Phillip’s eyes were bloodshot, the sea-glass irises sharp and bright in contrast to the red.
“Everything is going to be okay,” she told him.
He grasped on to her tighter.
“Do you hear me?” she said.
“Yes.” His voice sounded very small. “Oh God,” he said, and started to speak, but the words caught in his throat. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I . . .”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s all going to be all right. Do you understand?” Greta was surprised by the authority she heard in her own voice. “It’s all going to be all right.”
She repeated it again.
And again and again and again.
Excerpted from “When it Happens to You.” Copyright © 2012 by Molly Ringwald. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
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