by Nicole Conn
Lindsay Brennan is a Portland architect whose devotion to her work takes the place of other things in her life. Sondra Pinchot, an interior designer, has always depended on the comfort of alcohol. And Samantha, Sondra’s dutiful daughter, is trapped in an affair that’s become nothing but a habit. Now fate brings the three women together and their private addictions give way to deeper passions. But sometimes love can be an addiction too.
Originally published by Simon & Schuster 1995.
|Publication Date||January 1, 1995|
|Cover Designer||Sandy Knowles|
It was true what they said. In that instant before death. Like the memory bits of a computer linked to a single circuit, flickering images of an old home movie on fast forward; rapid-fire images streaked with age one moment, crystal-clear exposures in the next. Her senses became achingly alive as if they knew they were being snuffed out in that brilliant glittering moment. Touch. Because every sensation she had ever felt. The sting from a slap on her hand, ears splitting from the wind in her hair. Cold. She’d felt plenty of that. Gritty earth swirling about her swollen three-year-old toes. Sound. Her mother’s voice, its silence, shrill admonition. Sight. The glaring light of her life in front of her. Then as purely felt, but less tangible…thoughts, memory and feelings; a simultaneous road show that was happening in and outside of her and all around her, flight to obliteration, its own plane of existence. First date. First kiss. Breathy anticipation, disappointing maneuverings on the leather seats of an old Impala. Baby blue, like her cousin’s wedding dress. A dress she dreamed of for her own. Angry crow’s feet clawing at her mother’s eyes. An argument. Tears. Tinkling laughter. A party. That perfect moment when everything was right, that day love trapped her heart then gave it wings. Apparitions of sudden unanticipated beauty, chiaroscuro slant of sun as it hid the darkness down the hall to her bedroom. All those dark nights. Now her mother’s room…her shadowed figure, as distant and foggy as she when alive…and then, of course, the swam song and the broken ballerina twisted, deformed, whirling grotesquely about the floor as the music box continued to play. Broken. Shattered illusion. Love into hate. Bitterness born of destruction and loathing. She had to erase it. Blot it from her memory. Forever.
And now she would, for she was a powerful bird flying through the silken gray of a cleansing rain. This weightlessness, this nonchalance of flight was what she had been waiting for. This utter sense of calm. It had eluded her all her life…this clarity. Clarity that emitted from inside and shot through her like a drug. If she had had this all along…but maybe that was the price. The Devil’s bargain. I will gift you knowledge for your soul.
She had to laugh, even if what slid through tightened lips was a sound she had never heard before. She had to laugh because this end was such a perfect metaphor for her life; the river below her and the bridge now behind her. She never had been able to get to the other side. Then she caught the fear in her eyes, flung back at her from the rearview mirror. And saw clearly for the first time the stranger who had occupied her body, mouth pinched, primly bitter. Prepared resignation.
Her skull split neatly into thirds when it hit the steering wheel.
When the wrecking crew pulled the car from the river, eager eyes peered into the darkened windows, until the twisted marionette carried from the remains was lifted to the stretcher. Then heads turned, eyes averted. It wasn’t that the mangled body was too horrific to take in. It was that it was alive. That this creature had any vital signs seemed impossible. But it did. An air pocket in the twisted wreckage had kept enough oxygen coursing through its veins to maintain life.
But the eyes. Void. Black. Dale Mezzaroni had worked with his father and brother four years now since high school, dragging old cars from riverbanks, off the sides of cliffs, and he bragged to his buddies about the grisly scenes of twisted, gnarled bodies entwined like lovers meshed to steel frames. But Dale had never seen an expression like the one on what had probably been quite a looker before she ditched her car off the Morrison Bridge. Suicide attempt. No question about it. The bridge was definitely on its way up. The tender heard more than saw the car as it sped up the slow-moving slab of concrete, broke through the guard post, taillights peeping over the side making a “helluva splash.”
He gulped his beer, shut his eyes trying to forget, and thought instead about his girlfriend and her dream-catcher. She had one hanging over the bed, made of spindly wood with a leather spiderweb net attached, goofy feathers and strings of beads and bangles surrounded by candles and a lot of other nonsense. She said it caught the nightmares. Gave you peaceful sleep. Hell, he couldn’t remember his dreams one day to the next. But he couldn’t shake it as he downed his fourth beer. Dead deer eyes he had seen. Got himself a four-point with his uncle just last November. These weren’t dead. It’s like the soul hadn’t gone out yet. Soul-catcher. Yeah…something caught this woman’s soul and he reckoned she was going to be stuck in the middle of it for a good long time. He ordered another beer. Maybe that dream-catcher would come in handy tonight, after all.
* * *
Warren “Snag” Peterson paced the somber two-tone hospital corridors as he waited for information. Lindsay’s car was in the river, but they couldn’t identify the victim. He had been told by no less than four of the administrative staff there was no information to be had “unless you can prove you’re a family member.”
No one answered at Lindsay’s home. Megan couldn’t be found. He had spent his last quarter trying for Jared. Got his service. No one in bloody hell was by a phone.
He couldn’t keep his hands off the pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket, a habit born of longing. He glanced about. He would sneak one if it weren’t for the elderly woman sitting twenty feet from him smugly pinching her lips, tsk tsk, naughty boy.
He smiled graciously back at her, handsome; an English schoolboy demeanor and a turn-of-the-century dandy, soft brown hair scooped back in a single wave that splayed wildly to either side of his smooth-skinned face. He was excessively anal at the exterior, which prompted his nickname, governed by a sole preoccupation that one of the many garments that filled his closets might develop an unseemly snag. His interior possessed a highly creative mind, gentle and spontaneous heart, and tendency toward droll conversation. He smoked like a character out of a bad B movie.
“Goddamn.” Under his breath. He wasn’t a man of enduring patience, and knowing someone was in there, dead or alive, faceless yet certain to be one of three, was driving him crazy. He needed a cigarette. If he could smoke, it would fend off the clinging antiseptic smells; shove the relentless moments of waiting behind him.
And these people. Where in the hell did they find these people? Nurses, identically clad in chalky tones—even in a crisis he could despair of fashion—their pastel platitudes doled out like pills. He had found salvation in the guise of an old-timer, her polyester calm belying the harsh reality as she tromped through the unmistakable red EMERGENCY doors. She indicated by gesture, more than anything else, that the person behind those swinging doors was still alive. She was trying to help him, as much as she could under the circumstances. Snag knew she was a thousand-year-old dyke. Her stooped shoulders, raised from years of horrifying stress, almost touched her ears. He knew her hands, raw as scrubbed leather and just as gentle, were tied, and that she was doing her best.
Now he watched her march directly to the information desk.
“Find Dr. Santo yet?”
“Huh?” A lone candy striper, pale and inept, tore herself from her cheese puffs, orange speckles powdered about her Sierra Mauve lipstick.
“I said, find Dr. Santo yet?”
“Unh-uh.” The candy striper rapidly shook her head.
“Well, get off your candy ass and find him. Stat. We got a Code 99 on the bridge victim.”
“But I intercommed.”
“So now you get your finger outta your goddamn nose and pick up the phone and call every extension till you find him directly. This decade!” she barked. She nonchalantly cracked her neck, glanced at Snag, her eyes unwavering, and trudged back into emergency. She had seen it all a million times.
The elevator doors opened. Jared. Snag’s Jared. Tall, blond, amazingly handsome by anyone’s standards, he breezed through the waiting room with his graceful gait. Even in despair, people turned to stare at the distinguished, GQ demigod as he made his way to Snag, who willingly crumbled in Jared’s strong arms. The onlookers, momentarily taken from their own personal grief, watched as Jared unabashedly held his young lover, smoothed the hair from his forehead.
“Well?” Jared asked.
“I’m so friggin’ glad you got my message.” Snag finally loosened his grip. “I’m so glad you’re here. Jesus, Jared…”
“What’s goin’ on?”
“That’s just it. This is out of the friggin’ Twilight Zone. They can’t tell me.”
“I know. It’s definitely her car. But I overheard one of the guys through the door. It doesn’t sound like her. But what the fuck do I know? They can’t tell me anything. Hospital policy and all that bullshit.” Snag stroked his crumpled cigarette pack again. “There’s an old biddy lesbo though, bless her heart, trying to get something to me. Anything…” Snag’s hands trembled as he swept them through unmanageable hair.
The old-timer came from the swinging doors. Her eyes searched for Snag.
He questioned back with his hands, “Well?”
The nurse’s stooped shoulders shrugged softly. She crooked her crooked neck. She knew she wasn’t supposed to, but closed her eyes in the affirmative. Hospital rules to hell.
Lindsay was tired.
But lately it seemed she was always tired. She sat motionless, except for the churning of a worn eraser into the plans before her. The motion calmed her. It was close to nine, she guessed. She had been sitting precisely so for the past hour, creating little mountains of rubber. She could go home. She certainly wasn’t getting anything done here.
Home. She smirked in self-deprecation. It was the old shoemaker’s joke: an architect, passionately in love with designing home and hearth for others, lived in a three-bedroom Victorian, cozy, but badly in need of repair. From the intricate and complex designs that painted themselves in her head, a unique essence magically sprang from the mechanics of framed walls, plaster and paint called Home. Homes for her clients. Homes shoe could, to this date, remember with fondness, every line, every angle, every cut-in. Like children, spoiled, pampered and catered to.
In some vague and ambiguous future she had promised to build one for herself. “As soon as the next project is complete” was her standard defense, but the reality was that she was perfectly content commuting between her creakingly comfortable relic and the minimalist alcove she had installed in her office. The double bed, small bathroom and bookshelves were cramped but space-efficient, an earmark of all her designs. There was a certain harmony to it; warm and cozy for her female side; linear and practical for the side that sparred with the world. Mostly it suited her minimalist lifestyle.
The lobe of her ear itched. She tugged at it vacantly then suddenly remembered the party. Joanne’s party. She had promised. She looked at her watch again, not that it mattered. Whatever time it was, she was late. If she didn’t go, there would be hell to pay.
* * *
“Oh no, really, do you think so?”
“Darling, do get me another martini.”
“I’m sure Shelli has had a face-lift—”
“—Oh, no. I heard they’re merging. Johnson’s got him by the balls. Lots of money to be made—”
Snippets of conversation fired by as she hunted for Joanne. Blanks. All this heavy artillery was pointless drivel. Lindsay loathed these parties, but as Joanne always reminded her, it was a necessary evil. “Just think of schmoozing as a sort of tithing. The basket goes round and round, collecting all those graphically enhanced little cards to make the world a better place. And these parties are like the Holy Church of Networking.”
And there Joanne was now, clad in a skimpy black lace bodysuit, revealing her state-of-the-art physique on which she spared neither expense nor effort. Lindsay watched her for a moment as Joanne rummaged through her “little people”, her martini-lade laughter floating behind her. Her professional life depended on her ability to put people together, but her parties were another matter. She found it the height of amusement to mismatch ever so slightly, then to breeze through and impress everyone as she cajoled and “made it all better.” She was the queen bee, matchmaker and homebreaker, and, without fail, the head turner in any room.
Lindsay always thought the most entertaining thing about Joanne’s parties was her performances. She had made a condescending pit stop, addressed a group of star-struck nouveau yuppies entering the world of “players,” bequeathing them a moment of her time, then caught Lindsay watching her.
“Ahhh, there you are, darling.” Joanne glided forward, kissed the air at the side of Lindsay’s face.
“What do you think?” She referred to her knee-length scarf. “I threw it on at the last minute…but I think it works. A bit Isadora Duncany, but then…” She let the words dangle, much as the scarf would the rest of the evening, over someone’s shoulder, getting caught through their arms; a well-planned prop.
“Scintillating, as usual.” Lindsay was already terminally bored. “Look, Joanne, I’ve got a mountain—”
“Built from a molehill I presume—”
“Really. I can only stay for a drink.”
“Don’t leave. I want you to meet someone.”
And she was off. Lindsay gazed stoically over the bobbing heads. Maybe she could slip out before Joanne got back. She hated wasting time and reminded herself, as penance, that some of her best clients had come from Joanne’s parties. It was all part of the game. As if business couldn’t be brokered by the simple equation of supply and demand. As if competence, value and trust had no room in this three-ring circus.
And then she saw a nervous blonde, in her late forties, Lindsay guessed, shrinking awkwardly into the pattern of the wallpaper in the corner of the room. Lindsay’s heart went out to her. A kindred spirit. With very little armor. Lindsay was about to make her way to her when Joanne snagged the poor woman from a tipsy, badly dressed, anecdote-spewing predator.
“It’s OK,” Joanne pampered. “I’ve rescued you.” And clamped her hand upon the woman’s elbow. “George is a bit much, even for us!”
“I know. A nuisance. But I have someone you simply have to meet—more your genre.” Joanne stopped abruptly, the blonde almost bumping into her, raised already arched brows and asked of no one in particular. “Now, where the hell is that genre? Oh!” and then sped up again, dragging the woman bodily behind her as she continued her speech mid-air. “Here she is. The most fascinating creature out of our very own P-town: Lindsay Brennan.”
Joanne thrust her victim before Lindsay. “Lindsay, I have someone you simply have to meet. She’s a bit ‘whelmed,’” Joanne explained with equal parts sweetness and exasperation.
“I can’t imagine why,” Lindsay remarked flatly.
“Sondra Pinchot.” Joanne held out her hand, presenting Sondra as if she were there for inspection. “Sondra is an interior designer…and if I’m not mistaken, looking for a brilliant architect with bold new ideas to remodel her quaint little beach home. And Lindsay”—Joanne shot Lindsay a direct wink—“I can personally attest, is not only brilliant, but very strong in the bold ideas department.”
Lindsay dismissed the innuendo as she extended her hand. “I think we can take it from here.”