Life in Bits, the novel I co-wrote with T.B. Markinson will be out next week. Here’s a preview. Enjoy!
Life in Bits
© Harper Bliss & T.B. Markinson
Eileen attempted to raise her shoulder to secure the battered army-green bag, which was slipping down a little with each step. At the same time, she kept her left hand on the handle of the massive rolling luggage, which was jam-packed with the necessary pieces of her life. The rest of her belongings still resided in her London apartment, which Eileen hadn’t decided what to do with: keep or sublet.
This thought, along with the thousands of others racing through her mind, wrenched a deep sigh from Eileen. For forty-nine years she’d been a woman of action, but lately, she’d been immobilized by… what? Fear? Exhaustion? Betrayal? All three, perhaps.
Despite Eileen’s best efforts, the bag continued to slide precariously off her shoulder. Ever since the event and subsequent hospital stay, simple tasks had become arduous, much to her dismay and frustration.
“Eileen!” Julia, her younger sister by four years, smiled and waved as soon as Eileen cleared the final door of the soul-sucking customs area of Boston’s international airport. “Here, let me take your bag.” Julia reached for the shoulder bag, but Eileen pulled back.
“I got it, thanks.” Eileen ignored the bead of perspiration snaking its way down her face.
Julia’s gaze fell briefly to Eileen’s stiff right arm cradled right under her chest. A silent wave of anger surged through Eileen. Pity was one emotion she couldn’t stomach.
Wrapping one arm around her sister’s right shoulder, Julia took the opportunity to nudge the bag back into place on the good one. “How was your flight?”
“Delayed, cramped, and customs took over two hours due to the complete incompetence of allowing four international flights to land at once.” Despite Julia’s efforts, the bag slipped off Eileen’s shoulder completely. Eileen crooked her elbow to stop it from plummeting to the floor, but she couldn’t hoist it back into place without the use of both arms.
The rigid right arm remained in the same spot, where it’d rested the past three weeks.
Without saying a word, Julia eased the bag off Eileen’s arm and tossed it effortlessly over her right shoulder.
“I need a shower,” was all Eileen said. She was grateful to be relieved of the bag, but too strong-willed to say thank you out loud.
Julia nodded, seeming to understand. “The car’s this way.” She led her sister to the parking garage without talking, much to Eileen’s relief.
After stowing the bags in the back of the SUV, Julia settled behind the steering wheel. “Let’s head to my place since you don’t have keys to your apartment yet. I’ve arranged for the key exchange on Monday morning at nine. You can shower at my place and have time for a nap before heading to dinner with the parents.”
Eileen groaned, shoving her head into the padding of the seat.
“It’s not high on my list of things I wanted to do on a snowy Saturday night either, so don’t even start.” Julia cranked the heat on. “It’ll take a minute to warm up.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready… for mother.” Eileen looked out her side window at the BMW parked next to Julia’s vehicle. It was much like the type her mother drove. Her dad, a New Englander to the core, abhorred drawing attention to his wealth and more than likely still had his beat-up Ford with only three hubcaps.
“You’ve never known how to handle her.” She paused and took a deep breath. “I’ve learned—to the point where we have a semi-decent relationship.” Julia, with one hand on the back of Eileen’s headrest, checked to see if it was all clear before backing out of the spot and heading for the exit ramp.
“Semi-decent,” Eileen mocked. “Mom has always been hard on me, blaming me for everything that’s gone wrong in her life.” Her mom had never been shy about reminding Eileen at every possible chance that she’d given up her dreams when she fell pregnant with Eileen.
“Please.” Julia’s knuckles whitened on the steering wheel as she guided the smoke-gray Range Rover around the tight curve of the parking garage ramp, the tires squealing on the cement despite the low speed. “She’s just as hard on me. Even more so when you weren’t around.”
“You didn’t have to stay, you know,” Eileen said, her jaw tightening, becoming acutely aware of her sweaty back from carrying one bag that didn’t compare to the weight of her camera equipment when on assignment.
Julia, seemingly unperturbed by Eileen’s tone, pressed on. “It’s not that simple. Mom and Dad are getting older. I have to remind them to take their medication. Mom can’t drive at night. Now that Dad’s retired, he doesn’t know how to entertain himself without driving Mom bonkers. I feel like a referee half the time. I have my hands full. I’m glad you’re home and can help some.”
Eileen rubbed her right hand with her left. “And you think that’s possible? I struggle to open any bottles and I can’t drive. Not just because my driver’s license expired two years ago.” Eileen sensed Julia’s quickly glancing at her immobile arm before returning her gaze to the road.
“Those aren’t the only tasks I need help with. You’re not useless, Ellie. Besides, I’ve missed my older sister. You have a niece and nephew who look up to you, but they don’t actually know you. It took… this for you to come home for the first time in five years. And I’ve lost count how many years it was before this visit.”
“Are you going to lecture me the entire drive to Derby?” Eileen yawned, setting the side of her head against the seat, fatigue settling in.
“Close your eyes. You must be exhausted.” Vivaldi was playing and Julia fiddled with the stereo volume to turn it down. “It’s nice to have you home. Really, it is.”
Eileen opened one eye and appraised her sister whose hair had grown grayer than her natural mousy brown since their last meeting. It must rankle their fastidious mother. That was one quality Eileen actually shared with her mom. Although, she’d hadn’t highlighted her own hair to cover the gray since the hospital. “I never meant to stay away for so long this time. The days just slipped by. How are Isabelle and Michael?”
“Nearly grown. Michael’s graduating high school this spring. Belle the following. It’ll be weird when they’re gone, although, I hardly ever see them now. Teenagers have little time for their mothers, apparently.”
“I remember those days,” Eileen’s voice was soft, infused with sleep. “And James?”
“He hasn’t changed one bit. Still works too much, but he does his best to be a great father.”
“Your children are lucky to have him. And you.” Her exhaustion made the words sound much more perfunctory than Eileen intended.
Julia nudged the volume up a notch, indicating conversation could wait for when Eileen wasn’t half-dead to the world. Ironic, considering, just twenty-one days ago, Eileen had thought for sure she was a goner. And since surviving, a part of her wished she hadn’t. Not in this current state.
Eileen, with eyes closed and seconds from nodding off, feared she’d made a mistake coming home. Would she become yet another burden to her only sibling, who’d been left keeping the family together when Eileen absconded at the age of twenty-two, so many years ago?
Her parents’ house hadn’t changed much since Eileen’s childhood. Still massive, with a curved, carpeted staircase to the right upon entering the house. Mahogany antique furniture, oriental vases, bronze sculptures of Greek gods and goddesses occupied every nook and cranny, making the house more museum-like.
“We’re here,” Julia called, stepping into the house right on Eileen’s heels.
Eileen’s gaze traveled the expanse of the black and white tiled foyer. A crystal chandelier shone overhead. In the center of the space was a round table with a flower arrangement and statue of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. What stood out the most was the absence of dust. The spotless, but cold space made Eileen long for her cozy apartment in London, overlooking a private garden. The home suited Trudy Callahan’s personality, however: beautiful on the outside, cold and empty on the inside.
“There you are. I was expecting you two twenty minutes ago.” Her mom’s perfectly colored hair, in contrast with Julia’s, once again reminded Eileen to make an appointment at a salon sooner rather than later. Eileen took in her mother’s gray duster-length cardigan with a matching turtleneck underneath and black trousers. A necklace fashioned with tortoise disc beads dangled past her plentiful bosom, the opposite of Eileen’s. Her mom drifted across the tile, her arms out, pulling the much taller Eileen into an awkward embrace. “How lovely of you to visit.”
Julia met Eileen’s eyes as if persuading her not to point out the obvious. Not within minutes of her arrival at least. Her parents were fully aware of the reason for Eileen’s return.
Their father, Bruce, a dead ringer for James Garner, shuffled into the entryway in his dark brown leather deck shoes, Vineyard Vine plaid button-up, and chinos—his go-to outfit no matter the season.
Eileen smiled, tickled this aspect of her father hadn’t changed over the years, despite her mother’s harping he should dress in suits or whatnot, even for a family meal in his ancestral home. “Hello, Dad.”
His heartfelt hug comforted her for the first time since…
“It’s good to have you home,” his voice had a wisp of old man to it.
Eileen, stunned by how much he’d aged since their last meeting, leaned into him briefly and then pulled back, cognizant that her mother stood two feet away. “It’s good to see you.” She hastily added, “Both of you.”
“Would you like a drink before we sit down for dinner?” Her mom picked some lint off Eileen’s right shoulder.
Eileen turned her body slightly, protecting her right flank.
Her mother continued, “It’s so nice just to have the two of you over for dinner. The four of us, back together again.”
Julia, biting her bottom lip as if trying to curtail a brusque remark, said, “I’d like sparkling water. Sound good to you, Ellie?”
“Sure. Thanks.” A headache formed behind her eyes, and Eileen chalked it up to not drinking enough water.
Their father cheerfully dittoed, rolling back onto his heels, digging his hands into his pockets.
Her mother, with a wounded look, said, “But I decanted a 2001 bottle of Vietti Barolo Villero Riserva for this special occasion.”
“I’m driving tonight,” Julia countered in a tone that closed the matter. “And, we should have dinner sooner rather than later. I need to get to bed early.” Her stare fell on Eileen.
Eileen worried the fatigue from her travels would make it impossible to mask her mounting frustration dealing with her mom and a simple reminder, such as not drinking, only highlighted how much her life had drastically changed, piling on to her irritation. The doctors had been clear alcohol should be avoided, especially during the first few weeks of her recovery. Julia, who’d flown to London the moment she’d heard, knew all the do’s and don’ts for Eileen firsthand. Granted, a few weeks had already passed, but knowing the ever-cautious Julia, having a glass of wine to ease the tension wouldn’t be permissible. Clearly, their mother, not surprisingly, opted to ignore medical opinion and Julia’s disapproving glare. Or had her mom blocked out the knowledge of Eileen’s medical issue, since that would acknowledge weakness?
Their father feigned a yawn. “This old man prefers early bird specials for a reason.”
“Besides their being early, you mean? They’re cheap.” Julia said, laughing, patting his cheek. “How much is Maggie charging for tonight’s feast?”
He guffawed over the joke. It wasn’t the first time Julia had cracked it.
“Fine. I didn’t know I was surrounded by old fogies.” Their mom gestured they might as well retire to the dining room. “I’ll let Maggie know we’re ready for dinner, tout de suite. It’s not even six.” She tutted. “Such an uncivilized time for dinner. In Europe—”
“Hey, girls.” Their father cut off his wife. “If you’re American in the living room what are you in the bathroom?”
Both Eileen and Julia playfully groaned, responding in unison, “European.”
“Or Russian.” Her father laughed. Standing on Eileen’s left, he crooked his arm for his eldest daughter to thread her good arm through, and then proffered his other elbow to Julia. “It’s not often I’m flanked by two beauties.”
The French oak table with its parquet top had all the leaves removed, so it sat four comfortably. Usually, when the whole family gathered there were double the attendees or more if the far-flung members came.
This piece had always been one of Eileen’s favorite items in the home and secretly she hoped she’d inherit it simply for the parquet top. Although now, her mother’s crocheted tablecloth covered the surface. The lacy masterpiece had taken her half a decade to make and it only saw the light of day for special occasions. Eileen suspected Maggie had set the table, not her mom.
Each took their seat, Julia sitting to Eileen’s right and her father on her left.
Maggie, significantly grayer since Eileen had last seen her, and slightly stooped, served everyone a grapefruit, walnut, and feta cheese salad. She placed Eileen’s plate last, saying, “I made this just for you.”
Eileen smiled. “Thanks, Maggie. I haven’t had one since the last time you made it for me.”
Maggie departed and the Callahans tucked into their salads, no one talking. She returned briefly to pour wine, but her mom was the only one who assented with a curt nod. Maggie left once again.
Eileen grasped a salad fork with her left hand, awkwardly piercing a grapefruit slice and piece of butter lettuce.
“That’s new,” her mom’s gaze zeroed in on Eileen’s use of her left hand. “Living in Europe all these years has added sophistication to your etiquette. Maybe you can teach your sister. It’s never too late to better ourselves.”
Julia glugged her water.
“Have you been following the Pats?” her father asked.
“Not this season. Is Brady still their quarterback?” Eileen managed to get a walnut onto the tines of the fork, but fumbled it at the last second, only ending up with lettuce in her mouth.
He nodded, chewing.
“You know what you should take up while on vacation? Knitting or crocheting.” Her mother tapped the tablecloth. “I made this when I sat around waiting for your dance lessons or soccer practices to end. It helped pass the time and look at the final outcome—something I can hand down to one of you.”
Eileen blinked, and Julia blanched.
Her father cleared his throat. “I have an extra ticket to next Sunday’s Pats game if you want to go, Eileen. Julia still has zero interest in football and James said he has to work.” He placed his fork in the five o’clock position indicating he was done, although he’d only eaten a third of the salad. Unusual for the rotund man. Or had his eating habits changed over the years?
“Maybe. I’ll check my schedule.” Eileen, like her sister, loathed football, but appreciated her father’s diversionary attempt.
“It’s so hard supporting the sport now with all the documentation about brain damage.” Her mom sipped her red wine. “So many of them end up as vegetables. I always thought, Eileen, you would have made an excellent brain surgeon. Steady hands and wicked smart. Instead you chose to gallivant around the globe from one war zone to another. Running has always been your thing, which is ironic since I was the one who dropped out of college and gave up my dreams of medical school to have you.”
Peeved, Eileen had to marvel at how her mom had seamlessly worked this into the evening in record time.
“Where’s Maggie? I’m ready for the next course.” Her father patted his belly, eyeing the door.
Never too far away, Maggie appeared. She quietly cleared the salad plates and returned with the main course.
“Another favorite of yours, Eileen,” her mother said. “Garlic parmesan chicken with brussels sprouts.”
Julia’s thinning lips indicated to Eileen her sister had requested the meal.
Unlike the other plates, Maggie had cut Eileen’s chicken breast into bite-size pieces, much to Eileen’s relief. Julia nodded her appreciation, leading Eileen again to believe her sister had made a great effort to arrange everything this evening for Eileen’s homecoming. The wine kerfuffle probably ruffled Julia’s mother-hen ways.
“And in case anyone wants more brussels sprouts, here’s a dish.” Maggie placed it at Julia’s side.
After Maggie had left via the service door, her mom asked, “What are your plans while you’re home, Eileen?”
“Can you pass the brussels sprouts?” Her father asked.
Julia handed the dish toward Eileen, her face paling when she realized her mistake at the last second.
Eileen had reached across her chest to grasp the dish with her left hand, but bobbled it when Julia released her hand, spilling three sprouts, one rolling to the center of the table, leaving a grease stained path.
“Look at what you’ve done to my tablecloth. You’ve ruined it!” Her mom’s lips drew back into a snarl.
“I’m sure Maggie can get the grease out.” Her father dabbed the mark with his blood-red linen napkin.
“Stop that, Bruce! You’ll make it worse.” Turning her attention to Eileen, she said, “You did that on purpose.”
“W—what?” Eileen spluttered.
“It was my fault, mother. I let go of the dish too soon.” Julia plucked the sprouts from the tablecloth, putting them onto her own plate. “I’ll have it professionally cleaned.”
“Stop covering for Eileen. She’s had it out for me since the day she was born.”
“Jesus, Mother! You know Eileen isn’t home for vacation. She had a stroke and can’t use her right arm and you want her to crochet and berate her for fumbling a dish!” Julia’s chest heaved up and down.
Eileen, tight-lipped, looked to her father, then to Julia, and finally rested her gaze on her mother. Fighting back tears, she rose from the table, her napkin slipping onto the floor, and walked out of the dining room toward the exit.
Naomi held the hospital door open for Kelly, then closed it behind them. The cold November air whipped her in the face. Naomi reveled in its iciness. She was used to it. Whereas most people loathed the heavy gray clouds hanging in the air this time of year, she loved them, because it meant that the holidays were soon approaching.
She grabbed her friend’s arm. “Let’s do something special for the kids this Thanksgiving. For just one day, let’s try to make them forget where they are and why they’re in hospital.”
“There’s time,” Kelly said.
“Not that much,” Naomi insisted.
Kelly stopped in her tracks. “You do know you say the exact same thing every year.” She grinned at Naomi.
“Because I want it to be special for them every year,” Naomi replied.
“Are you sure that this year in particular you’re not overcompensating?” Kelly turned toward her.
“Oh, please.” Naomi rolled her eyes.
“I just want you to know that I’m here for you if you want to talk. Whenever you need to. Okay?” Kelly put a hand on Naomi’s upper arm.
“How many times do I need to repeat myself?” Naomi said. “I’m fine.”
“Jane cheated on you.” Kelly squeezed Naomi’s arm now. “You don’t have to pretend you’re fine when you’re with me.”
Naomi shook her head. “How did we go from Thanksgiving plans to this?” She pretended to shiver and dug her hands deep into her coat pockets.
“I’m just trying to be a good friend.” Kelly’s gaze found Naomi’s.
“I appreciate that, but you bringing it up all the time isn’t really helping. I’m just getting on with my life. Spending time with the kids in there.” She nodded her head in the direction of the hospital. “Trying to replace all the negative vibes of a break-up with some positive ones.”
“Maybe I’m the one who’s still angry at Jane,” Kelly said. “For the way she treated you.” She shook her head. “And I must admit I’m a little baffled at your lack of utter rage.”
“Whereas I wish you’d have started this conversation while we were still inside,” Naomi said, even though it wasn’t the cold bothering her. “Obviously things weren’t meant to be between Jane and me. She wasn’t the one for me. That’s how I’m choosing to look at it.” She took a deep breath. “No one, not even my ex who cheated on me, is going to mess with my holiday cheer.” She shot Kelly a wide grin, hoping to lay this conversation to rest. Not that Naomi had anywhere pressing to be, or anyone waiting for her at home. She just didn’t want to talk about Jane any longer.
“Don’t I know it.” Kelly injected some lightness into her voice. “Naomi Weaver will have an outstanding Thanksgiving and the merriest of Christmases no matter what.”
“Thank you. Now am I allowed to get into my car?”
“Yes. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Kelly didn’t move. “And call me if you need anything.”
“Will do.” Naomi gave her friend a quick wave and hurried to her car, a hand-me-down from her brother. Every time she got in and it started from the first go, she considered it a small miracle.
On the way home, Naomi wondered if she hadn’t been too hard on Kelly who was, after all, only trying to help—even though she could be a bit subtler about it.
It was only a ten-minute drive from the hospital to her apartment and, instead of ruminating more about what Kelly had said, Naomi turned to Spotify, found the song she was looking for and put it on repeat. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she sang along loudly, tapping the steering wheel with her gloved fingers, all the way home.
Naomi was still humming the Kelly Clarkson tune when she turned the key in the lock of her front door. It snapped open after one turn. Had she forgotten to double lock the door again? It surely wouldn’t be the first time. In fact, most days, Naomi simply let the door fall shut behind her, much to Jane’s chagrin when they were still living together.
“You don’t have to make it easy for burglars to get in,” Jane would repeat endlessly. These days, Naomi could leave her front door unlocked guilt-free, without having to deal with some harsh words from her partner. Because she didn’t have a partner anymore.
When she swung the door open, Naomi noticed she must have left the lights on as well—oh, the things Jane would have to say about that. She quickly closed the door only to find, when she turned around, that Jane was standing right in front of her.
“What the—” Naomi tried to regroup quickly. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to see you,” Jane said. “I miss you.” She painted a soft smile on her lips.
“You can’t just be here when I come home.” Naomi held out her hand. “I’d like your key, please.”
“Will you sit with me for a minute?” Jane pleaded. “So we can talk?”
“There’s nothing to talk about. It’s over.” Naomi took a step back. She had no intention of sitting as long as her ex was in her apartment.
“Come on, babe,” Jane pleaded. “This doesn’t have to be the end of us.”
“It very much does.” Naomi brought her hands to her hips. “Now, I’d like you to leave and give me your key.”
“I’m so incredibly sorry for what happened,” Jane said. “You must know that. I’ve told you about a million times by now.”
“It’s not about how sorry you are.” While it was distressing to find Jane in her home unannounced, Naomi had no trouble at all playing this cool. “In fact, you cheating on me was the best thing that could have happened. For both of us. If anything, it showed us that we’re not right for each other.”
Jane scoffed. “You’re such an annoying glass half-full person.” She inched closer toward Naomi. “I know I hurt you and you have every right to be upset. But we were together for almost three years. Don’t you think because of that alone we deserve another chance?”
“I clearly don’t,” Naomi said coldly.
“I came clean to you. I explained why I did what I did. You know I never meant to hurt you. The whole thing didn’t even have that much to do with you.”
“You didn’t hurt me as much as you made me see that you’re not the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. Something I’m really glad to know.”
“Christ, Naomi. Can you be any harsher?”
“Can you be any more delusional?” Naomi took a step closer to her ex. “I made it very clear what I wanted from this relationship. I distinctly remember using the words monogamy and marriage. Quite often, actually. And what was your response? Falling into bed with the first woman you came across, and for what? To simply prove that you could?”
“I’m not the marrying kind, Naomi. I never, ever made a secret of that.” Jane shrugged. “What’s marriage, other than a silly piece of paper, anyway?”
“Which is exactly why you and I shouldn’t be together anymore.” Naomi stepped to the side. She spotted Jane’s coat hanging over a chair. She reached for it and handed it to her. “Please, give me the key and find someone else to string along. I’m sure there are plenty of women out there who don’t want to be married. Maybe… what’s her name? Petra, was it? Maybe she’ll be up for that sort of thing.”
“What I don’t understand,” Jane pulled her coat from Naomi’s hands, “is how, when we were together, you could even bring up marrying me when us breaking up doesn’t seem to bother you all that much?”
“That’s easy.” Naomi finally shrugged off her own jacket. She was beginning to sweat in the heat of the apartment. “I’m glad for what it has taught me. I know exactly what I want and, for a minute, I was fooled into thinking I wanted it with you. But now I know you’re not the one for me. You made that very clear.”
“You know Petra meant nothing to me. It was one night. We can’t throw away three years because of one night. We’d be so foolish to do so.”
“I see things very differently.” Naomi tossed her coat onto an antique armchair. “From my point of view, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. We weren’t happy anymore. Not like we used to be.” Naomi scanned Jane’s deflated face. She was starting to feel sorry for her. “We were just going through the motions. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have cheated. People in happy, fulfilled relationships don’t do things like that behind each other’s back, Jane. I think we both know that.”
“I disagree.” Jane’s bottom lip started trembling.
“We’ve been over this so many times now. You can’t keep rehashing what happened. As I said, and as we both know very well, it’s over.” It was hard to get the next words past the growing lump in her throat. “You need to understand that. We’re not getting back together. Not only because of what you did, but because we don’t belong together. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can move on.” Naomi scooted closer to Jane again. They’d only broken up a few weeks ago. Jane admitting to sleeping with someone else hadn’t instantly dissolved all the feelings Naomi had for her. She fought the urge to take her ex into her arms and tell her everything would be all right—because, for them, it never would be.
“We can still be friends, though?” Jane mumbled.
“Of course we can.” Naomi tried to find Jane’s gaze, but it kept skittering away.
“And you’ll come to my photo exhibition?”
Naomi did put a hand on Jane’s arm now. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
Jane dug her hand into her jeans pocket. “Here’s the key. You won’t find me in your place unannounced anymore.”
“Thank you.” Naomi took the key from Jane and held her hand for a few seconds, just one last time.
“I am sorry,” Jane said.
“I know.” Naomi watched as Jane fumbled with her coat.
“I’m going now.” Jane finally looked her in the eye. It felt like a kind of very last resort. One last glance to see if all possibilities were truly exhausted.
“Bye,” Naomi said. She let Jane walk out on her own, then stood watching the door for a while after Jane had left. Break-ups were always painful because of the shared history and all the memories of better days resurfacing at the most inconvenient times. Yet a wave of relief washed over Naomi after Jane had closed the door of the apartment they used to share behind her, hopefully for the very last time.
In her heart of hearts, Naomi knew it was the best thing for them both.
<<End of preview>>
Life in Bits will be available on Thursday 13 December 2018