One Story Leads to Another . . .


You Are Not Alone

The reason Donna goes out of her way to do her grocery shopping at this high-end Kroger’s in the south suburbs is not because it’s newer, bigger, brighter, the better to serve the lawyers, doctors, assorted venture capitalists, in other words, the rich people, moving into the half-timbered monstrosities appearing like enormous, stuccoed mushrooms in the bosky dells where not so long ago mooing ruminants chewed their cud. No, she goes for the music. The first time she stopped here on the way home from the new mall, Donna picked up her package of ground chuck and wound up wandering the aisles as, one after another, the Indigo Girls, Moby, the two Franks, Sinatra and Ocean, Steve Earle, the Cranberries, Gene Pitney and India.Arie poured out of the overhead speakers. When Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” followed her out to the parking lot, she knew she was hooked.

Donna, not for nothing a musicologist whose field of study is contemporary music, found, after some not very extensive research (she asked the nice clerk piling Ruby River grapefruits into a pyramid in produce) that the head of the meat department, player of acoustic guitar in his own alt-country band, had convinced the store manager to skip the Muzak and let him take care of the programming, coming up each week with a new three hour mix to be repeated over and over for the next seven days. The customers, a preponderance of whom were young professionals, aging baby boomers, and the myriad condo dwellers, many newly divorced and finding themselves once again trying to figure out what “with it” means, buying their radicchio and Alaskan salmon and Chilean wine, loved it.

When Donna tried to explain to Kenny why she was using gas and time, going twenty-five miles out of her way to shop for groceries, when a perfectly good IGA sat not three blocks away (an IGA that plays Mantovani-like instrumentals not only of Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond but of the Stones and Led Zeppelin, a store where no song is sacred, where it would not surprise her at all to one day hear a violin rendition of some Sex Pistols’ thrasher), his only comment was, “I don’t get it.” (Now she thinks of it, this could have been Kenny’s mantra.)

She felt silly saying that coming across this trove of unpredictable music quite by chance in a place where she least expected it, was somehow addictively satisfying. Each week as she entered the store she found herself holding her breath, fearing the sound of sobbing strings, exhaling only after she realized what she was hearing was the intro to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” or Errol Garner’s piano or Emmy Lou Harris and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Of course, all this was before Kenny went back to his wife.

Though she hadn’t meant to get tangled up with a married man, this was exactly what she’d managed, the affair a kind of dysfunctional fiftieth birthday present after she realized it was no longer her mother looking back at her from the mirror but her grandmother (her lovely grandmother on a very good day but her grandmother nonetheless.) It was a “still a fool for love, still able to make myself miserable, how young at heart is that?” kind of gift, one an evil fairy, if such beings existed, and she thought they well might, could have given, a gift that ultimately caused her life to come apart like someone sweeping a puzzle off a table, the grove of trees, the river, the cumulous clouds towering over some perfect, small village, all separating into a thousand pieces and dropping into an empty box with the lonely sound of rain falling on a tin roof.

Since Kenny left a month ago, four weeks that have, in her mind, stretched like some piece of worn out elastic far beyond their thirty-day limit, even her shopping expeditions have begun to have a down side. Two weeks ago, ambushed by Miles’ “Kind of Blue,” she’d burst into tears. Luckily, she was in the far corner of the pharmacy, a disconsolate Ruth, she’d thought bitterly at the time, wandering amid Dr. Scholl’s bunion remedies and the alien corn pads. But she’d been able to compose herself before anyone noticed.

Today is worse. Much worse. In the crowded bakery, she is reaching for a loaf of the artichoke and sun-dried tomato focaccia when Carly Simon starts singing. When she gets to, Remember the white nights, the moon in your window, Donna loses it. She stands rocking back and forth, tears leaking from her closed eyes.

“Can I be of help?” a voice asks and a hand touches Donna’s arm.

Donna opens her eyes and sees a large, older woman in a tailored, buttoned-up gray suit, wearing the kind of lace-up black shoes with chunky heels she hasn’t seen since nuns started wearing civilian clothes.

“I’m fine,” she lies.

“You don’t look fine.”

“I have allergies. Tree pollen, grass, weeds, mold, pet dander, you name it.”

Then Donna sneezes. Nobody will ever say she can’t think on her feet.

The woman looks at her and says, “It’s March. The trees are bare; the grass is dead; it’s winter. I see no weeds and no pets in the vicinity.”

She hands Donna a card.

“Call me,” she says. “I can help you.”

Then she pats Donna’s hand and walks away, wheeling her cart with its single stuffed pork chop from the deli and clear plastic container of coleslaw down the paper products aisle. Donna looks at the card. It reads, Antoinette Weiss, Grief Counselor.

There is a phone number. Donna slips it into her pocket and dries her eyes with the wadded up Kleenex she finds there. Then she blows her nose.

Donna hauls the groceries home. Home is a pretty bungalow built in the 1920’s, one that had been extensively rehabbed before she bought it. She’s owned a house since she turned thirty and resolved not to be one of those singles who pays rent, eschewing equity, waiting for Mr. Right to come along and her real life to finally begin. It’s a good thing too. In the ensuing years there have been three Mr. Wrongs, only one of whom she found it necessary to marry, and hasn’t yet gotten around to divorcing, even though it’s been over two years since she and Robert have lived together. And Kenny? Kenny has turned out to be number four.

Donna glances at the clock. It’s after 5:30. She has a scant half hour before she’s due at her brother’s for dinner. She puts away the perishables, leaving the canned goods, Froot Loops, everything else, on the kitchen table. It is now 5:50 and Ed lives twenty-five minutes away.

Since the break-up, her baby brother, Ed, who is gay and almost twelve years her junior, has taken to inviting her over at least once a week. She knows he’s trying to be supportive, sympathetic, empathetic and non-judgmental. Donna finds it extremely irritating—not the gay part, everything else—but she goes anyway.

*    *    *    *    

It’s 6:10 when she pulls into the driveway. One more speeding ticket and her license will be gone. Donna no longer cares. Interestingly, as soon as this happened, she stopped getting pulled over. There’s a lesson here she’s still trying to figure out. Ed lives with his . . . his what? Partner? Lover? Boyfriend? Mate? She uses none of these, instead just calls him by his name as he opens the back door,

“Doug. Help! My arms are full.”

She’s brought a pot of yellow mums, a sampler of Godiva chocolates (last remaining souvenir—the romantic equivalent of old Halloween candy—of her ill-conceived passion), and a Ry Cooder CD. The classical music station is playing, as usual, Bach this time, the Brandenburg Concertos. Ed stands in the kitchen next to Maisie, their huge, matronly Newfoundland. He’s pouring red wine.

“Donna, Donna, Donna,” Doug says.

He takes the gifts and places them on the counter, then wraps his arms around her.

If the Christian right is to be believed, her brother’s sexual preference ensures that he is promiscuous, commitment-phobic, at risk for serious illness, and a candidate for eternal hellfire. Ed is, in fact, disgustingly happy. He and Doug have been together for almost ten years, have a house, the large dog now poking her with its nasty, wet nose, and in just a few days they will be traveling to the former USSR to bring three-year-old Anya, soon to be their daughter, home. Donna will take them to the airport, then dog-sit here with the annoying Maisie.

Donna finds the foremost emotion she experiences when she is with these two to be a furious envy that she knows is unworthy of her, especially since she is the one who is promiscuous, commitment-phobic, at risk for serious illness (does clinical depression count?) and most surely headed for hell with a scarlet A plastered on her forehead.

She gives Doug a peck on the cheek while surreptitiously giving Maisie a slap on her importunate nose. He offers Donna a glass of wine. Maisie retreats to her dog bed, one practically the size of a queen-size mattress, to nurse her hurt feelings.

Donna turns to Ed, “So, what are we whipping up to tempt the despondent one tonight?”

“Sarcasm is so unattractive in a beautiful woman, don’t you think?” her brother asks the air.

“But so satisfying,” Donna replies.

“You kids cut it out,” Doug breaks in. “We’re grilling baby lamb chops in your honor tonight, milady.”

“So not only am I a home wrecker but one who requires a symbol of child-like innocence for her dinner?”

“There was a wreck, I grant you,” Ed replies. “But you were not the only one responsible.”

She can’t argue with that. Kenny, professor of physics, explainer of the workings of the material world, expert on (and this should have provided some warning) chaos theory, had spent months wooing her with jokes, terrible puns and worse limericks, with chocolates that had her breaking out like a teenager, candy, Snickers, Milky Ways, Hershey bars with almonds, one in her mailbox every day, until finally a lunchtime tryst found them necking (such an old fashioned word, she thinks, but so apt) on a stone bench in the overheated, deserted arboretum, gift to the biology department from a wealthy alumna. A perfect setting for a very bad romance novel, its glass walls dripped with condensing moisture as sleet from an early winter storm tick-ticked on the windows outside. Huge tropical butterflies like rainbow-hued, unmoored kites wafted over the artificial rainforest around them until, finally, she couldn’t stand it one more minute and took Kenny home, missing her 2:30 class, a departmental meeting, and her six-month dental check-up. It’s been downhill from there.

*    *    *    *    

Dinner is wonderful. Her broken heart has not affected her appetite. Despite her stated misgivings, Donna has a second lamb chop as well as an extra helping of tiramisu. She drives home, wipers whacking away the cold March rain that has started to fall, making the road ahead both beautiful and dangerous, a dizzying black river filled with reflections of headlights, taillights, street lights and random flashes of brake lights as well as the smeared colors of signal lights and neon signs. She remembers her mother complaining of driving at night after she turned fifty. She understands now what she was talking about. It feels more like piloting a boat in the dark in unknown waters than driving a car.

Donna hits the opener and the door on the detached garage rises. Once inside the house, she goes from room to room turning on lights. It doesn’t help. There is a half bottle of vodka in the cupboard but alcohol has never worked well for Donna; go over her limit of two drinks, upchuck, is the way her body works, making it almost impossible to get drunk. She could run out to the mini-mart and pick up a carton of Virginia Slims but it’s pouring outside. She’s not willing to get soaked just to start smoking again. There aren’t even any drugs she can satisfactorily abuse; the Zoloft her doctor prescribed is gone and she’s been too depressed to get it refilled; her only other choices are Tylenol, Nyquil and a very, very old bottle of Midol.

Donna sighs. She is putting away the rest of the groceries when she remembers the card in her jacket pocket. She goes into the hall and opens the coat closet. She takes the card back into the kitchen and picks up her phone. Then she sits down at the table.

It rings three times. Donna hears the sound of new-age flute music, the kind you and your oxygen-deprived llama might hear in the thin, godforsaken air, high up in the Andes.

Then, “You have reached the office of Antoinette Weiss. If you have suffered a loss, you are not alone. We have all had losses. Take comfort in the fact that you are not the first and will not be the last. Leave your name and number and I will return your call. I can help.”

Donna does not leave her name or her number but she does leave a message.

“It doesn’t help to know I’m not alone. It does not help one tiny bit.”

Then out of nowhere, to her dismay, comes a sneeze, a rattle-your-brainer, unlike the phony little ah-choo she essayed at the grocery store. She presses the “End” button on the phone with her thumb but it’s too late. The sneeze has been recorded.

*    *    *    *    

Two days later she drops Ed and Doug at the airport. She has come down with a miserable cold so she skips the kiss and a long hug she would ordinarily bestow on each of them. It occurs to her that she is leaving two single men here; yet in only ten days she will return to find, not three human beings, although, of course, that is also what they are, but a small child and her parents; thus are three, no, four, lives so quickly changed forever.

Later, Donna finds herself sipping a glass of pinot grigio, her fourth, a box of Kleenex for her runny nose in her lap, sitting on the floor in the doorway of little Anya’s soon-to-be bedroom, her arm around Maisie who lies next to her. Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” plays on the radio, heartbreakingly familiar music she considers too gorgeous to ever be cliché. It’s getting dark and the myriad of luminescent stars Ed has meticulously glued to the ceiling has begun to glow in the dimming light. They form the constellations of the mid-summer sky, that celestial menagerie of bears, swan, dragon and the winged horse, Pegasus. Doug has painted the walls of the room a deep and velvety blue.

She can imagine only sweet dreams in such a place. She begins to talk to the dog.

“I’m not a grateful person, Maisie. I count my losses. I value only what I no longer have. I’m angry and jealous and don’t see myself ever changing.”

In answer, Maisie lays her head on her paws and closes her eyes. Soon she begins to snore softly. Donna, suddenly feeling very queasy, gets up, walks down the hall to the bathroom and throws up.

*    *    *    *

Weeks later, Donna pushes Anya, seated securely in the cart, through the produce department at Kroger’s. Before adding anything, Donna hands Anya one of each item and says its name. Anya repeats it after her.

“Carrot.” “Banana.” “Peach.” “Tomato.” “Pepper.” “Celery.” “Lettuce.” “Onion.”

In the midst of this pleasant activity, Donna feels a hand on her shoulder and hears someone say, “Gesundheit.”

She turns in time to see an older woman in a dark, pinstriped suit wheeling her cart into health foods. Music begins to pulse from speakers in the dropped ceiling above. Tina Turner asks, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” It is a song filled with questions Donna prefers to avoid, questions for which she lacks any answers at all. Anya reaches for the piece of fruit Donna has offered her.

“Peach,” Anya says, and smiles dazzlingly at this new aunt she has so recently acquired.

She takes the apple from the little girl’s hand.

“Peach,” Donna echoes.

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