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Good Harbor, Page 2

Anita Diamant

  “I didn’t add the dill,” Jack said. “Even though chicken soup is way better with dill, I know you don’t like it.”

  Kathleen ran a finger through his thick black hair, just like hers when she was young. “Nice beard,” she said, passing her knuckles across the soft growth. “It makes you look a little like my grand-dad, in that photo when he was just off the boat.”

  Jack was her youngest, twenty-three years old, sous-chef at a three-star restaurant in Manhattan. His framed diploma from Johnson & Wales hung over the kitchen table.

  “How’s Lois?” Kathleen asked, trying not to show how curious she was. She had never met his live-in girlfriend; only spoken to her on the phone.

  Jack stirred the onions. “She’s great. She sends her best. Her show opens next week, though I don’t suppose you’ll be coming down to see it — now.” The word hung in the air, and he looked stricken.

  Jack would need her reassurance as much as Buddy did. She was going to have to keep her guys propped up, all the way through her surgery and “follow-up treatment,” whatever that meant. Dr. Barlow said the surgeon would explain.

  The kitchen clock presided over the silence until the phone rang. “Mom? Did you get my messages?” asked Hal without preliminaries, as usual.

  “No, honey, I just got back to the house. Jack’s here.”

  “Tell him hi. I surfed the Net for a while last night,” Hal said. “I’ve got six Web sites for you to visit and I’ve E-mailed a list of books and magazine articles you should read. Whatever happens, you should get second opinions.” Hal had taken premed courses for three years, and even though he’d switched his major to English and worked as a technical writer for software companies, he still entertained thoughts of himself as a doctor. So did his mother.

  “I’m planning to,” said Kathleen. “I’d really like to get into Boston to see Jane Truman, the one who wrote that book, you know?”

  “Yeah?” he said, impressed. “That would be great! Her name’s all over the bulletin boards and chat rooms.”

  Kathleen promised to log on and read Hal’s messages later that night. “Dr. Barlow thinks it’s the ductal carcinoma in situ.”

  “Yeah, I read about it. Some people consider DCIS not really cancer at all, but a kind of precancer.”

  Kathleen frowned. Was that supposed to cheer her up?

  “Sorry I’m so far away,” he said.

  “This is still a guilt-free zone,” Kathleen said, reading from the cross-stitched sampler she had put above the kitchen sink twenty years ago. She noticed that the frame needed dusting.

  Buddy’s voice broke into her momentary trance. “Where’s my son, the dishwasher?” he called from the door.

  Kathleen said good-bye to Hal as Buddy Levine tramped into the kitchen and reached out to hug Jack. Buddy was six feet, a few inches taller than his son, and apart from a slight paunch, in very good trim. He still had a full head of hair, and the toothy smile that remained the working capital of Levine Electric: A Cape Ann Tradition Since 1930.

  “You knew he was coming, and you didn’t tell me?” Kathleen said, poking her husband gently. “You sneak.”

  “Why ruin his surprise?” Buddy said, and hugged her. She looked up into his face. Years of fishing had baked Buddy’s face to leather, but he was still a handsome man. They were both lucky in their looks, Kathleen knew. Her eyes were even bluer now that her hair — the chin-length bob unchanged through years of family photos — had gone white.

  They sat at the dinner table for a long time that evening. Kathleen and Buddy praised Jack’s meal of elegantly presented comfort food — chicken soup, meat loaf and mashed potatoes, apple pie. Bite by bite they oohed and aahed, and laughed, as they always did, about the way he’d overcome the unlucky marriage of Irish cooking and Jewish cooking.

  Kathleen was reminded of how easy it was with just the three of them. When both her sons were at the table, one could get sulky while the other took center stage. She stared into her wineglass, wondering if they’d ever outgrow that. She caught Buddy’s and Jack’s anxious eyes on her and stood up to clear the table. “I wasn’t even thinking about it,” she said, surprising herself with the sharpness in her voice.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, sinking back in her chair. “I guess I’m kind of tired.”

  Jack moved his chair closer to hers and took her hand. “It’s okay, Mom.” They all sighed in unison, then laughed at themselves for being such peas in a pod.

  Jack left for New York early the next morning, and Buddy decided not to go into the store, even though Saturday was a busy day. He and Kathleen took their coffee cups out to the deck and read the papers, bundled up in wool sweaters. All day they reached for each other — a hand on the shoulder on the way to the bathroom, a kiss on the cheek over the kitchen sink.

  On Sunday, Buddy suggested a walk at Good Harbor. As they crossed the wooden footbridge at the southern edge of the beach, Kathleen reminded herself to look. This place was so familiar to her that she sometimes walked halfway across before lifting her eyes to see the day’s singular display of cloud and surf.

  Not even a mile from end to end at low tide, the graceful sweep of Good Harbor was her elixir, her secret potion. When she dreamed about Good Harbor, she woke up refreshed. Today the water was flat as a pond out to the horizon, but Kathleen had seen plenty of angry seas with six-foot swells here, too.

  She and Pat had walked the length of Good Harbor thousands of times, back and forth, sometimes six lengths at a go, talking nonstop. Buddy called it “chewing the fat.” “You two get all the flavor out?” he’d ask when they would finally sit down for a picnic with him and the boys.

  The sisters had remained close, even after Pat had entered the convent and Kathleen had started her marriage and family. A Jewish family at that. They called each other every week, and when Pat came to visit, they never stopped talking.

  Buddy took her hand as they started down toward the water’s edge. Kathleen hadn’t talked to anyone like that since Pat died. She’d gotten pretty close to Jeanette before she’d moved to Boca Raton — finally convinced by a bad winter, a broken hip, and an insistent daughter. But while she and Jeanette had had some good chats at Good Harbor, they were nothing like Kathleen’s talks with Pat.

  Kathleen missed Pat so much.

  Buddy gave her hand a squeeze. He’s good company, Kathleen thought, squeezing back. A wonderful listener, but somehow, her husband didn’t know how to keep a conversation flowing or how to direct it forward, or whatever it was that had worked with Pat. Whatever it was that seemed to work so effortlessly between all the women around them, walking and talking on the beach. As usual, pairs of women outnumbered the man-woman couples.

  It just isn’t the same with men. Why is that? she wondered.

  “You okay?” Buddy asked.


  A black Lab raced past them and leapt three feet into the air to catch a Frisbee. “Next dog, I want a German shepherd,” she said firmly.

  “And I bet you already have a name picked out.”


  “Really?” Buddy said. “After Kirchel, I figured it would be Wolfie. Or Amadeus.”

  “Maurice Sendak introduced me to Mozart in the first place. I think it’s only fitting.”

  “Couldn’t we call him Max?” Buddy asked. “I sure am going to feel silly hollering ‘Moe-ree-eece.’”

  “You’ll get used to it.”

  On Monday morning, Buddy didn’t go fishing, even though the weather was fine. He read the paper until Kathleen left for work. He walked her to the car, opened the door, and waved as she pulled away.

  Kathleen watched him in her rearview mirror.

  “Thank you,” she whispered, and then shook her head, realizing that she meant it as a prayer. “No atheists in foxholes,” she muttered, turning on Morning Edition, hoping that they might run one of Dr. Truman’s commentaries that day. As qualified as Dr. Cooperman might be, Jane Truman had the reputation as th
e best breast surgeon in Boston — maybe in the whole country. She was also a local celebrity, thanks to her occasional two-minute radio essays about her patients, her colleagues, and her little girl.

  When she got to school, Kathleen sat down in the little office beside the teachers’ lounge and called Dr. Truman’s office. She was told, very politely, even kindly, that Dr. Truman was booked solid until September. She locked the door to the teachers’ bathroom and wept, trying not to make any noise.

  The gym teacher, Fiona Kent, was waiting for her when she finally emerged, and within a few hours, the whole school knew the whole story, right down to the details of her phone call to Dr. Truman. After the third-period bell, Madge Feeney marched into the library, where Kathleen was staring out a window.

  “Don’t you worry, dee-ah,” said Madge, who had grown up in South Boston and still drove all the way down there for mass every Sunday. “My niece, Ellen, works in that Dr. Truman’s office.” Madge shook her head sadly, sighed, and said, “You know, my ma had it, too.”

  As the day wore on, Kathleen heard that refrain again and again. Like a parade of cats with dead mice in their teeth, five teachers, two aides, and a lunch lady came to the library and laid the tale of their mother’s, sister’s, cousin’s, best friend’s breast cancer at her feet. As though she didn’t have Pat’s story, her own sister. Good thing I don’t have a daughter, she thought.

  At noon, Madge’s niece left a message: Kathleen should bring her mammogram and test results to Dr. Truman’s office the following Monday morning.

  “Oh, Kath, that’s so great,” Buddy said when she called to relay the news. He cleared his throat, and the noise on the other end of the phone was muffled. Kathleen never knew what to say when Buddy got choked up.

  After school, Kathleen stopped at the town library. But when she got to the 600s, half the titles on breast cancer were already gone. I guess someone else got bad news this week, she thought, and wondered about all the other women who had stood in the same spot, hearts racing, hands shaking.

  Even so, there were plenty of books left to choose from. She took three, worrying, as she checked them out, about where to hide them. She didn’t want Buddy stumbling across What to Do If the Doctor Says It’s Cancer, The Breast Cancer Guidebook, and Survivors: Ten First-Person Accounts by Women Who Beat Breast Cancer. But Kathleen found she couldn’t look at the books without starting to sweat and returned them a few days later, unopened.

  She and Buddy decided to keep the appointment with Dr. Cooperman, who seemed as competent and reassuring as a thirty-year-old surgeon could be. But every night that week, Kathleen dreamed she could feel the cancer pushing from the inside of her breast, threatening to break out of her skin. She took to adding a jigger of brandy to her bedtime herbal tea. In the morning when Buddy asked how she had slept, Kathleen would say, “Like a baby.” What she thought but didn’t say was “Like the dead.”

  JOYCE’S ROUTINE HAD turned into a secret rut. She dropped Nina off at school, cruised through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through for coffee, and mentally scanned her to-do list: the kitchen cabinets needed washing and fresh liners, she had to measure the windows for blinds, and all the walls needed paint. Every morning she vowed that as soon as she reached Gloucester, she would get to work.

  But most days, once she’d made the hour-long drive to the house, she collapsed in an orange beanbag chair she had rescued from a neighbor’s trash heap and read magazines until it was time to pick Nina up from school. One Monday she stripped the paper off the shelves, imagining Mary Loquasto picking the green teacup pattern to match the appliances. Another day, she vacuumed the crawl space in the attic. But those were exceptions.

  She promised herself, over and over, to get off her butt. She should be finishing the articles that were still due. She ought to make more of an effort to talk to Frank, who was preoccupied and consumed by the goings-on at Meekon, the most recent start-up software company on his long, high-tech résumé. Rumors of a Japanese takeover were flying again, and it was all he could talk about. Which made it hard for her to pay attention.

  Every day, she got out of bed resolved to make serious headway on the house, spend a little time at her desk, fix a good dinner, keep her cool with her increasingly surly twelve-year-old daughter, and have a real heart-to-heart with Frank. But every day turned out pretty much the same as the day before. By the time Joyce crossed the bridge and saw the fisherman sign welcoming her to Gloucester, her good intentions had evaporated. She ended up in the beanbag, staring at the wallpaper until it was time to drive home in a guilty funk that lasted until bedtime.

  Joyce finally got herself to Ferguson’s Decorating Center to buy scrapers, brushes, and paint. On the way to the cash register, two gallons of Linen White cutting narrow grooves into her palms, she caught sight of the color charts. “No more white,” she muttered.

  This was, she knew, an extremely unoriginal urge. Everyone in Belmont already had a red dining room or a green den. She walked over to the Benjamin Moore display, which looked like an altar to the Greek goddess of the rainbow; Joyce tried to remember her name. Maybe she could tell me which one of these ten thousand shades of green would make my avocado refrigerator look retro and chic. Joyce grabbed a handful of color strips and walked out, leaving the cans of white paint like offerings to Iris (that was her name!), messenger of Olympus.

  Driving back to Belmont, Joyce spread the samples on the passenger seat and nearly swerved off the road while reaching for Calvin Klein’s Forested. Maybe that would help. Or not. Joyce frowned at herself in the rearview mirror.

  “I’ll call Francesca!” she crowed a moment later, smacking the steering wheel triumphantly. Francesca Albano was a soccer mom who had hosted a parents’ team meeting the previous fall. Touring Francesca’s enormous house, Joyce felt as if she’d been trapped inside the interior decorator’s infomercial. But her jaw had dropped in pure admiration of the kitchen. Who would have thought that bright blue and gold were a good combination for anything but cheerleader uniforms?

  At the dinner table, her announcement of the decision to call Francesca was met with stares.

  “Mom, are you okay?” said Nina.

  “Yeah, Joyce,” Frank chimed in. “Maybe you ought to lie down or something.”

  “Why?” asked Joyce. “I think it’s a great idea.”

  “You wouldn’t even let me paint my room light yellow, remember?” Nina said, twirling a strand from her long, dark ponytail.

  “Isn’t there a clause about Linen White in our prenup?” Frank teased.

  Joyce was getting annoyed. “I’m simply admitting my inadequacy here.”

  “I still think we ought to take your temperature,” Frank said lightly.

  “Don’t tease Mom,” said Nina, suddenly rushing to her mother’s defense.

  “It’s okay, honey,” said Joyce.

  “No, it’s not,” Nina said, a hysterical catch in her voice and tears in her eyes. “He’s so mean to you.”

  “Nina,” Frank warned, “knock it off.”

  “Really, Nina, he’s just kidding around,” said Joyce.

  “Now you’re ganging up on me.”

  “That is not true,” Frank said, emphasizing each word. “And your behavior is not acceptable, young lady.”

  “You hate me,” Nina screamed. She ran for her room.

  “Let it go,” said Joyce. “There is no point in arguing when she gets like this. She can’t help it.”

  “She has to learn to control herself, and you shouldn’t undermine me like that in front of her.” Frank got up and headed for the computer. Joyce cleared the table and brooded. Life with Nina was a minute-by-minute drama, and Frank’s anger only made it worse. There was no predicting her daughter’s behavior, and no consoling her confused, abandoned husband.

  Nina had been such a daddy’s girl as a toddler, and all the way through grade school they had spent part of every weekend in the park, just the two of them. First swings and slides, then ball
s and bats, then soccer. They had private jokes. They quoted lines from The Simpsons at each other. Or they used to.

  Not anymore. As hard as Nina was on Joyce, she was ten times pricklier around Frank. Everything he said or did seemed to drive her crazy.

  Frank is grieving, Joyce thought, and he doesn’t even know it. She started the dishes, remembering when this had been a sweet spot in her day. Nina would perch on the countertop and squeeze dishwashing liquid on the sponge while Frank read a chapter from one of the Narnia books. Could that really have been last fall?

  There was no more reading aloud. No more spontaneous hugs, not even any TV couch time. Nina’s life revolved around her friends and soccer, a game that made Joyce go limp with boredom.

  I guess I’m grieving, too.

  As she rinsed the last pot, she heard Frank yell to Nina through her closed door, “Are you doing your homework in there?”

  Frank still thought there was a strategy for avoiding the thunderstorms of Hurricane Nina, but Joyce was beginning to suspect that there was no way through the next few years without getting drenched every few hours. Maybe that’s why I’m up in Gloucester so much, she thought, as she looked up Francesca’s phone number and muttered, “Duh, as my daughter would say.”

  Francesca was all that Joyce remembered, breezing into the Gloucester house later that week. Joyce followed her hot-pink linen pantsuit from one room to the next and felt her modest vacation home morph into a tacky double-wide trailer.

  In the kitchen, Francesca stopped and in a near whisper said, “Well, at least they didn’t leave you with orange linoleum and yellow countertops. I’ve seen much worse.”

  Joyce felt both murderously defensive about Mrs. Loquasto’s taste and mortified at her association with it. “Coffee?” she offered.

  “No thanks,” Francesca said, and opened an enormous book of color samples on the counter. She flipped straight past the greens to a page of dark purples and explained that in “situations like this” it was better to go for contrast.