Breath & Shadow
March 2008 - Vol. 5, Issue 1
The deer eats winter vegetation at the periphery of my yard. Occasionally, she flicks her tail, stops, and then stares forward and I could swear she is watching me. I drop my breakfast dishes into the sink to soak and continue staring out the kitchen window in admiration while I finish my coffee.
Ten minutes later, I grab my cane and head outside, wishing for the hundredth time that I owned an attached garage. I'm quiet about backing my car down the drive — just in case she is still enjoying breakfast, though I suspect she has gone. Her visits are frequent but brief. On Thanksgiving I had the feed store leave her a bale of hay and for Christmas I've ordered a block of salt. I'm on my own, and so is she. That's quite a bond.
It's Saturday, but I intend to work. As an editor of an antiques and arts weekly paper, my weekends are busy. Today I'm visiting two antique dealers. First, the well–established Paul LeBlanc, who has a Civil War campaign desk I want to feature. Then there's a new store called Paradise I might review.
At LeBlancs, Paul himself comes forward to greet me, giving me a quick peck on each cheek. "Sally, I was sorry to hear your wedding plans fell through," he says. He gives my now ring–less left finger a deferential look. I'm not surprised he knows; this is a small town and the antique community is both gossipy and claustrophobic.
What makes my eyes tear is that he, a casual acquaintance, is acknowledging the breakup comfortably and my friends are not. Because of my disability, they fear I'm extraordinarily fragile, and one wrong word will permanently harm me. If I had family, they would just barge in, exclaiming, "You're well rid of that jerk."
But there's no one alive who can be that frank. My mother died two years ago and I hardly know my father.
"When was the wedding going to be?" Paul asks.
"Oh, you two left it late."
Actually, Peter left it late, by telling me right before Thanksgiving that he was falling in love with someone else. "You're very young. You'll bounce right back," Paul says cheerfully, escorting me back to view his masterpiece.
"I'm almost 29," I inform him, but he is too unimpressed to answer. It's slow going, getting to the back of his store. I dodge a blue and white porcelain footbath Paul has strategically placed to catch the winter sun. Then I carefully maneuver past a cherry drop–leaf table adorned with evergreen. Paul is a great marketer and positions his treasures so it is impossible to breeze through his shop. The campaign desk is resting in what I call his Rudyard Kipling room. I pull out my Nikon.
"No need," he says, handing me several glossys. "I've had photos taken and here is a press release."
I thank him, but still take my own photos. I'm not sure why; maybe because I fear getting sloppy. There aren't any competing publications in the North Country that would use his photos, but someday I may work in a bigger metropolis.
Around here the big city is Watertown, and I head there to tackle the next task on my to–do list — a rather unpleasant one.
Although the invitations were never sent, I still have to go to the Mall and get my name taken off the bridal registry. The little girl in me wishes mom could come with me. But, had she been living, I probably would never have gotten engaged to Peter in the first place.
I met Peter right after her funeral, when I was in a strange emotional state – grieving and directionless. My mom was an over–protective single parent and our relationship was intense, mostly because I was born without a fully developed right hip. Orthopedic surgeons craft me new ones at fifteen–year intervals now, but as a child, I had frequent surgeries. My parents divorced when I was three, and most of my teenage years were spent wondering if I was the reason. My mom became bitter, and demanded extreme loyalty. Sending my father a Christmas card would have been viewed as a betrayal.
Peter seemed to understand, and was refreshingly independent. He traveled the world for his consulting firm, his life unconstrained and free. When I asked him what he did in consulting, he answered, "I travel to companies that need transforming and teach them how to work harder and smarter."
The trouble was, after we got engaged, he started trying to transform me. "You're a beautiful woman, but you don't have a consistent style," he told me. "You've got to get rid of that mauve cane. Use a black one. And your clothing is all over the place. Find one designer you like, and stick with it."
My colorful cane is a much–loved fashion accessory, and my eclectic clothing taste is a by– product of thrift store shopping. As a flat–chested size eight, I can pick up new or nearly new clothing for next to nothing. But, of course, I didn't tell him that. He was so perfect with his styled hair, porcelain white teeth and Ralph Lauren wardrobe. His childhood seemed enviable, having an absent father and socialite mother. I've always been drawn to guys with experiences like that.
Peter was vastly different from me, though. Less sentimental with a lot of financial savvy. He tried to educate me about real estate by saying, "This house is too small to ever appreciate much in value. You've got to sell it. Someone might buy it as a ski lodge or country getaway." I knew nobody would buy it as a ski lodge. Shadow Hill doesn't attract out-of-town skiers. Besides, every mortgage payment on this 'country getaway' is a struggle, so I'm not quite ready to trade up. I ignored him, but he didn't give up. "Have a landscaper come and clear out the woody section. It will make your property look bigger."
"But that's where the deer lives. Plus the woodchuck, and the rabbits." As that was one of our last conversations, he must have decided I was hopeless.
At the Mall, I trudge past garish Christmas displays, ignore the overloud holiday music and plop down defeated in one of the Louis XIV style chairs at the bridal registry in Metzer's. When the frazzled–looking woman at the Victorian desk looks up, I blurt out, "I need to cancel my registration. Here's my application and proof of identity."
Beaten down from dealing with both holiday shoppers and the off–season entitled brides to be, she anxiously asks, "You weren't happy with our service?"
"The wedding is off," I tell her as she runs me a list of the items that have been purchased. Fortunately, most people are procrastinators, and only a few gifts have been chosen. Still, I'll always wonder who bought the white Krups toaster and the sweetheart Lenox vase, and what they'll do with them now. Frosty the Snowman plays in the background, a perfect accompaniment to my misery.
Drained, I decide to put off visiting Paradise Antiques. I go home and call my father instead. Out of shyness and embarrassment, I have postponed telling him. His job moved to Texas right after he and my mom divorced, so I've only seen him infrequently. But he did graciously offer to escort me down the aisle and pay for the wedding.
Barbara, my dad's wife of four years, answers. "Oh hi, Sally," then she calls, "Bill, Bill," with enough excitement in her voice to make my father think either the pope or president is on the line.
When he picks up, I just blurt it out. "Dad, the engagement is off."
"Honey, I'm so sorry. Are you all right?"
"I'm not heartbroken. I'm just embarrassed that I wasn't the one to call it off first. He was becoming so pompous."
"Don't beat up on yourself. I didn't learn to trust my instincts until I passed 50."
Of course, my father has had a few romantic setbacks too. Since one of them was my mother, I can't exactly pursue his survival strategies. As we chat, I start to wonder if maybe my parents' divorce had nothing to do with me, and they just weren't well suited to facing life's twists and turns together.
I wrap the phone cord around my wrist and ask, "You didn't buy plane tickets for the wedding yet, did you?" I can tell by his hesitancy that he has.
He changes the subject quickly. "Why don't I get you a ticket to come here and recuperate? We'd love to have you."
After my mom's death, both he and Barbara offered to come and stay with me for a while. Out of deference to my mom, I turned them down. That may have been a misguided decision, considering how I glommed onto Peter during that timeframe. "Thanks Dad, but I doubt I could get off work."
He sounds disappointed, but says, "Remember we're only a phone call away."
On Sunday, I visit Paradise Antiques. The shop is small and the inventory lean but well priced. "I got pretty cleaned out yesterday by Christmas shoppers," the owner tells me apologetically. He is my age or younger, casually dressed in a sweater emblazoned with a bulb-nosed reindeer. "Maybe your prices are too low," I tell him, handing over my card. Instantly I regret that remark. There's a mirror that would lighten and lengthen my hallway, and it's a steal at $80. "I'm going to wait till you restock to feature your shop in the paper. But I'd like to buy that mirror."
As I finger the mirror, admiring the craftsmanship, I ask, "Who refinished this?"
"I did. I love bringing attic rejects back to life."
Ah, another transformer. Only, his are gentle restorations, as opposed to the radical surgeries Peter proposed. Peter, who was always trying to prove himself to an unresponsive and emotionally distant father. My own dad has never been emotionally distant, I realize, only geographically distant. Over the years he dutifully remembered every birthday and milestone. I picture him in a Texas toy store, desperately trying to find the right gift for a daughter he never sees. Sometimes he did send toys I already owned and loved, so he did have some sense of me. Right then and there I decide to invite Dad and his wife for Christmas — they already have the tickets.
The antique store owner breaks into my reverie by asking, "Have you got someone at home to hang that for you?" He gives the cane a quick glance and says, "It's very heavy." I shake my head and with a shy smile he says, "I deliver."
He is so upbeat, I bet his parents are not only alive but also live together. But, it's childish of me to continue discriminating against men who had normal upbringings. Mine wasn't Charles Dickens material either. And this man's brown-eyed sweetness is attractive. Maybe we'll get to know each other. Time will tell. I hand him my business card and a check. "I'd like to get that delivery soon, because my dad and stepmother are coming for Christmas."
I spend the rest of the afternoon at my home computer. It is twilight when I finish and head for the kitchen. Glancing out the window as I pour canned tomato soup into a bowl, I see the doe. She has left the clearing and is right in my yard. Then I freeze, holding my breath. Behind her is a majestic, six–point buck, and to her left is another doe, smaller but otherwise identical, with the same dark eyes, long tail and tender white underbelly. As they move past the window, I can hear them breathing — huff, huff, huff.
For a second the familiar doe glances my way. "You sly one," I tell her. "You had family all along."
Kathleen O'Connor is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop where she was awarded a Michener fellowship. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Her short stories and articles have appeared in Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Seventeen Magazine, Woman's World, St Anthony's Messenger, Liguorian, and the Great Mystery and Suspense Magazine. She is the author of three novels: No Accident, described by Harriet Klausner of Best Reviews as "an exciting police procedural;" The Way it Happens in Novels, called a "romance leavened with wisdom" by Publisher's Weekly and her new book, No Doubt, called a "well-told tale" by the New Mystery Reader.