More Chaos, Please!
~ DEDICATED TO MY PARENTS WHO INSPIRED ME TO BE ADVENTUROUS AND, MOST OF ALL, TO PERSEVERE ~
CHAPTER 1: Lola & Gabby
Lola and Gabby had settled in at their usual table in the far corner of Café Oh Là Là.
“I had another panic attack this morning,” Lola said, before taking a sip of coffee. She said it matter-of-factly, having gotten used to such episodes throughout her adult life.
“Oh, no!” Gabby said. “The water thing again?”
Lola nodded. The women—best friends—were meeting for their weekly cake conference at their favorite bakery-café. Their mini-retreat. A chance to take a short break from the normal chaos of their lives and compare notes. And, of course, to eat. But not just eat. Rather to indulge. Their husbands, Eddy and Brian, had no idea about their secret rendezvous. And Lola and Gabby wanted to keep it that way.
Their standing order was delivered to the table five minutes after they sat down. After depriving themselves of dessert all week, they were not to be denied their chocolate blast on the seventh day. This was the pact they continued to honor.
They gazed silently with fondness at the six-layered oozing chocolate fudge confection placed on two plates in front of them. Three layers of cake alternated with three layers of cheesecake. Crammed on top of each towering piece were 25 mini chocolate–peanut butter cups. Gabby always counted to make sure there were exactly 25. At almost 2,000 calories per slice, the dessert was aptly described on the menu: Decadent Death, more than one piece might be fatal!
“It averages out to less than 300 chocolate calories per day,” Gabby would sometimes remind Lola.
“Yeah. And that’s why I’m on the rowing machine every morning,” Lola would reply.
Having been same-floor neighbors and close friends for ten years, Lola and Gabby shared most of the important happenings in their lives. Which was not to say they always agreed or got along. But in 2013, daily family life in a New York City high-rise was often intense. Lola was able to exert a calming effect on Gabby, who was prone to having a short fuse. And Gabby could provide just the right nudge of encouragement whenever Lola felt discouraged.
As usual, they savored a few seconds of respectful silence by inhaling the intoxicating aroma of chocolate that radiated from the pieces of Death which beckoned. Then they got down to business.
“So anyway, another panic attack … what happened?” Gabby asked before taking her first bite.
Lola was terrified of open water. Lakes, rivers, ponds, oceans … and swimming pools. She had spoken many times about waking from a drowning nightmare with her heart racing and lungs tight from holding her breath.
“April’s teacher, Ellen Drowne, called me this morning,” Lola said. “She sounded desperate. She needs help with swimming class for the second-graders. She contacted all the other parents looking for a volunteer and said I was her absolute last hope.”
“What did you tell her?” Gabby asked.
“Like an idiot, I said I would!” Lola squinched her face. “A teacher’s helper. In the pool! What the hee-hoo-ha was I thinking?” She stared at the vinyl red-checked tablecloth. Her fork poised in mid-air held a large bite of Death.
Lola spoke often about being possessed by a fear demon, what her superstitious mother called a jumbee. “This phobia-jumbee starts whirling in my head like a cyclone whenever I get too close to water.”
“Anyway, so there’s no other parent available to help Ms. Drowne?” Gabby asked. She withheld the urge to make a wisecrack about Ellen Drowne’s unfortunate name.
“No,” Lola said. “If I can’t do it, she’ll have to cancel the swim class for this term.”
As an adult, Lola had sought professional help for her phobia. Unfortunately, multiple sessions of hypnotism and psychotherapy, while pricey, brought no relief.
Once when she felt particularly desperate, she decided to follow the advice of one of her aunts. Against her better judgment, she rode the number 1 subway to Canal Street in search of a remedy meant to purge a phobia. In Chinatown, she purchased small packets of burdock root, buckthorn bark, and rhubarb powder.
Returning home, she brewed the ingredients into a tart herbal tea, drank a large mugful, and went for a walk along the Hudson River as a test of courage. But the sight of frothing water on the riverbank gave her the shakes and sweats, and she speed-walked home with a feeling of pressure in her lower abdomen. It was dumb to think that a purgative could purge my mind, she later told Gabby.
Then there was the time Lola’s mother took her to visit a bodega in the Bronx that advertised Nuyorican Potions. The clerk told them about a potion that was supposed to boost self-confidence. Lola was skeptical, but her mother persuaded her to buy a tube of the lemon-scented salve. At home, Lola slathered the potion over her body and once again took a walk to the Hudson River. Aware that her heartbeat had quickened as she approached the riverbank, she gagged at the sight of a dead fish floating on its side near the shore and fled.
Lola looked up from her piece of Death.
“This phobia-jumbee has me paralyzed,” she told Gabby. “The thought of being a parent volunteer in a pool makes me almost stop breathing. I can actually feel the water wrapping around my neck like a chokehold.”
“Let’s get out our coloring books,” Gabby said trying to sound cheerful, “and we can throw around some ideas while we color.” Being a fast eater, she was already halfway finished with her piece of Death.
The two women always brought their coloring books to the cake conferences. Lola had nearly completed her second book of coloring. But Gabby’s habit of multitasking while coloring meant she had taken forever to complete her current project, a Johanna Basford drawing of a peacock.
“While I’m coloring, how about if I do some internet research on swimming lessons for you?” Gabby asked.
“Sure. Knock yourself out. I’m not ready for lessons though,” Lola said.
“Oh?” Gabby asked. “Why not?”
“For one thing, I’m clumsy. I could slip and drown just getting into the pool. And what if the lifeguard doesn’t feel like saving a 40-year-old woman from drowning? And the water will be way too cold for me. With my Caribbean blood, I need warmth!”
Gabby looked dubious, but Lola was on a roll.
“Plus, I doubt I can find a swim cap big enough for my Afro. And what if the lights go out? I could drown in the dark! I might lose control of my bladder! I hear the water turns color if you pee.”
“Stop it!” Gabby tried not to laugh with a large bite of Death in her mouth. “I’m sure you can find an extra-large cap for your big hair. Next you’re going to tell me there are no swimsuits to fit you.”
“Well, now that you mention it, it will probably take me a long time to find one that I like. I’ll tell you one thing.” Lola leveled her fork at Gabby. “I’m not buying any suit that requires painful waxing.”
“Well, that certainly narrows it down,” Gabby laughed. Taking advantage of her natural ambidexterity, she colored with her left hand while searching on her phone with her right. “You do know there’s a word for what you’re doing, right Lola? It’s called ‘procrastinating.'”
“I prefer to call it being realistic.” Lola swallowed a forkful of Death. “You know, I could eat this cake every day and not get tired of it. Wasn’t it Bette Midler who said that after 30, your body has a mind of its own? Now that we’re in our forties, we should be enjoying our Death with ice cream, don’t you think?”
“Yeah. Two scoops of double-fudge chocolate for each of us, next time,” Gabby said, and looked up from her phone. “So, here’s a teacher who gives private lessons for swimmers with jitters. That’s you, Lola. You’re a swimmer with jitters. And that’s an understatement. Here, call the teacher. Her name is Carol.”
“Thanks, but not right now,” Lola protested, refusing to take Gabby’s phone. “I don’t like to be rushed.”
With the determined expression she wore when she wasn’t going to take no for an answer, Gabby proceeded to dial the instructor’s number. Lola had seen this look before and she empathized with Gabby’s family because she knew they had seen it, too.
A woman answered and Gabby thrust the phone at Lola.
By the time Lola finished her cup of coffee and piece of Death, she had signed up for ten prepaid swimming lessons with Carol.
“Carol convinced me that she’ll have me enjoying the pool in no time,” Lola said, returning the phone to Gabby. “I hope she’s right.”
“That’s great! I’m a bit nerve-wracked about going back to grad school,” Gabby said. “Maybe Carol can help me, too, haha.”
Just then Lola’s phone buzzed with a text message from her daughter Mo. Lola showed Gabby the message:
OMG!!!! DO U HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT U R SAYIN??? U R SOOOO CLULSS MOM!!!!!
“I’d say your teenager is having a mini-meltdown about something,” Gabby said. “What’d you do this time?”
“I have no idea,” Lola said. She texted “???” back to Mo and scrolled through her previous messages to try to decipher the reason for Mo’s rant. There was a typo where Lola had added AMF to her text instead of AML for All My Love.
“What’s AMF, I wonder?” Lola asked.
“No idea.” Gabby grabbed her phone to look it up. “Oh, here it is. AMF is ‘adios mother-effer.'”
“Oh! Good to know!” Lola said with a hearty guffaw. “Gee, I guess my daughter was offended that I called her a mother-effer!”
Lola and Gabby both had errands to do before the afternoon was over, so they brought the cake conference to a close by thanking the owner of Café Oh Là Là—as they always did—for her delicious Decadent Death. Parting outside on Broadway, Gabby shouted over the noise of the traffic to Lola who was halfway down the block.
“Hey, Lola! AMF!”
“Right back at you, girlfriend!”
CHAPTER 2: Lola
Lola sat barefoot at her kitchen table and stared at Rebecca Soni’s picture on the box of cornflakes in front of her. In the image, Rebecca wearing her personalized Olympic swim cap conquered the water with her perfect gold-medal breaststroke. Lola’s stomach felt queasy and her chest was tight. That morning, she had awakened in a sweat after another of her drowning nightmares.
Eddy emerged from the bathroom dressed for work. Every day was a dress-casual day at Eddy’s office. He and his fellow accountants had long ago convinced management that their productivity increased ten-fold when they wore comfortable clothes. As a result, Eddy had now accumulated an impressive collection of t-shirts. This morning he wore a new one. Lola read the caption printed across his chest: Living in a State of Flux.
“Hmm,” Lola thought. “Me, too.” She did not feel at all well, rather shaky and light-headed like she might pass out.
“Eddy, do you think it’s possible to suffocate from holding your breath while having a bad dream?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “You had another water nightmare?”
“Yes. I dreamed that we won a free vacation to the Bahamas. When we got there, you convinced me to go sailing on a catamaran. But, I immediately fell overboard and plummeted to the bottom of the ocean while trying to hold my breath.”
“You seem to find that a pleasant thought,” Lola said.
“I’m smiling about the free trip—not about your drowning,” Eddy said.
It was 7:30 already and Lola had a big day ahead of her. Momentous, in fact. Today she was supposed to get into a swimming pool for the first time. Carol, the swim instructor, had already sent a text reminding Lola to be at the pool at 10:00 am sharp.
“I can’t wait,” Lola texted to Carol. It was a lie. Her stomach churned at the thought of stepping into deep, cold water. She poured her untouched bowl of dry cornflakes back into the box. Back to the cupboard, Rebecca.
“Girls, go brush your teeth and get ready to leave for school,” Lola said. As usual, Mo and April had shared a breakfast muffin, scarfing down the few bites while standing near the table.
“Mo, after school can we practice twerking again?” April asked her big sister.
Mo shot April the stink eye and whispered “shhh.”
Lola glared at her teenager. “What the hee-hoo-ha have you been teaching your little sister?”
Mo craned her head forward, her eyes locked on her phone screen, and pretended to hear nothing.
“Mom, I like to twerk,” April objected. “It’s fun!”
“No, April. That’s not something little girls do,” Lola said. She looked at Eddy who was gathering up his things to go to work. “Eddy, will you please tell your daughters to stop twerking?”
“What’s twerking?” Eddy asked.
“Look it up,” Lola said.
“I’ll show you, Daddy!” April said with enthusiasm.
“April, I said no!” Lola barked out the words fast and sharp. “Now listen everyone. Twerking is banned. You got that? If I hear any more about twerking, there will be consequences.”
As the girls walked down the hall, Lola waited for the sound of the bathroom door to close. Mo was known for slamming doors shut whenever she felt aggrieved. This morning’s slamming was particularly loud.
Lola sighed. Her thoughts returned to swimming. “You know what, Eddy? I’m going to submit to my phobia-jumbee and never go near water again.”
“Lola, we’ve talked about this so many times.” Eddy was ready to leave for work. “You gotta do something.”
Suddenly in the bathroom, Mo was heard yelling at her sister.
“April, stop that screeching! You sound retarded!”
April was making loud chimpanzee noises again.
“I’m telling Mom!” April cried.
“Tattletale!” Mo hissed.
At the front door, Eddy turned to Lola with his “What the hell is going on” look.
“April’s been practicing pant-hooting like chimpanzees do,” Lola told him. “Ever since she watched a video about Jane Goodall.”
“Twerking and now pant-hooting?” Eddy said. “I’ve learned two new things already today. Is April going through a phase? Should we be worried?” He waved good-bye and continued through the front door without waiting for Lola’s reply.
When the girls returned to the kitchen, Lola had already made up her mind. She would summon the courage to start swimming lessons. But she was not ready to be a volunteer pool parent. She would call Ellen Drowne that morning to renege on her commitment. She took a deep breath and looked at her youngest daughter.
“April, I have something to tell you. The other day your teacher asked me to help out with your swim class. I told her I would do it. But now I don’t think I can go through with it. Ms. Drowne may have to cancel your swimming for this term. I’m sorry, April. I’m really, really sorry.”
Lola’s eyes filled with tears. She bent over to give April a hug, but April pulled away without looking at her mom.
“No-oo!” April shrieked. “I want to go swimming! I WANT! TO! GO! SWIMMING!!!”
Just then, the front door flew open and Eddy rushed back inside, having forgotten his Metro Card for the subway. He stopped in his tracks at hearing the commotion and stared at his three hysterical females in the kitchen.
“What on earth is going on?” Eddy shouted. “April, why don’t you howl a little louder. I don’t think the neighbors across the hall can hear you.”
Mo entered the fray at a high volume, as well.
“Mom! Stop being a wimp! What’s the big deal about going in the pool? Just get over it and go in the water!”
“Maureen, do not yell at your mother!” Eddy yelled.
“Lola, come on.” Eddy lowered his voice; his tone conveyed impatience. “If you’re worried about wearing a swimsuit, I’m sure there are others in the same boat.”
Lola glared at Eddy. His misplaced concern hung in the air like a bad odor.
“Excuse me!” she said, her voice rising. “I am more fit than you are. That is not the issue here. As you surely know by now. Oh, but, I forgot!” She pointed at his t-shirt. “You’re living in a state of flux.”
“Mom! Do something to deal with this!” Mo grabbed her school bag and headed for the door. “Shannon is texting me. I have to go.”
“I have to go, too,” Eddy said. “I’m going to be late for work. Let’s get this figured out, Lola.”
CHAPTER 3: Gabby
The morning began like most other weekday mornings in Gabby’s apartment.
“Axel, hurry up! You’ll be late for school!”
Gabby hollered at her nine-year-old son while checking the weather on her phone. The forecast called for a morning thunderstorm and they should have left five minutes ago to catch the school bus. Gabby heard the buzzing sound of Axel’s electric toothbrush through the closed bathroom door.
“Oh, my good gravy,” she muttered to herself and then shouted to Axel. “Are you still brushing your teeth? You know my pet peeve about leaving things until the last minute!”
Gabby adjusted her scarf in the hall mirror, her reflection stern with bulging eyes. Axel’s dillydallying annoyed her. In their 30-story apartment building, the elevators stopped at almost every floor during morning rush hour. It took twice as long to descend to the lobby when practically every resident was trying to exit the building at the same time.
But, that was life in New York City. The rush and crush of humanity did not always bring out the best in people. Sometimes, Gabby had to place her hands over Axel’s ears during expletive-laden outbursts from fellow residents who were late for work and stuck in the elevator descending at a snail’s pace.
“What is taking that boy so long,” Gabby muttered.
Time to play the hysterical-mother card. She inhaled deeply and bellowed forcefully.
“AXXX-ELLLLLLL!! We need to leave right now!!”
Axel bolted from the bathroom looking sheepish. As he dashed past her toward the front door, Gabby noticed that he used the sleeve of his new denim jacket to wipe greenish spume from his cheeks. Little globs pasted on his forehead and hair were evidence of some mishap in the bathroom.
“What on earth did you do?” she asked, knowing full well that he had forgotten once again to put the loaded electric toothbrush in his mouth before turning it on. Axel was often preoccupied with thinking about his research projects, and it was not the first time he had spattered toothpaste on himself.
“I was trying to hurry,” Axel said. “I hate my toothbrush.”
“We’ll talk about it when you get home from school,” Gabby said. She helped wipe off his face and hair and hustled him out the door, grabbing her umbrella on the way.
“Mom, can we stop at the hardware store?” Axel tried to keep up with Gabby who made a beeline toward the elevators.
“No! You’re going to be late for the bus as it is. And what, may I ask, do you need at the hardware store?”
Although he was only in fourth grade, Axel’s imaginary self was Dr. Axel the Research Scientist. He loved to collect data and kept notebooks full of lists and numbers while continually inventing new research projects for himself.
“I’m doing a survey of hardware stores,” he stated. His plan was to go to ten different stores and talk to the person in charge of cutting keys. Pulling one of his notebooks from his backpack as they waited for the elevator, he read aloud his carefully written survey question:
“Do not lie. Have you ever made copies of keys stamped ‘Do Not Duplicate This Key’?”
Gabby listened as Axel explained that he planned to tally all the responses and record the findings for posterity in his notebook. She was certain that 100% of the responses would be “No,” but she said nothing. Axel had a keen sense of right and wrong and she didn’t want to dampen her son’s enthusiasm for uncovering wrongdoing, which he had done on occasion. As the elevator dinged and they pressed themselves into the crowd descending to the lobby, Gabby thought back to the time Axel and his dad came home after an outing in Central Park.
Father and son had been strolling through Strawberry Fields when a very large man walking nearby threw a plastic cup on the ground. Before Brian could restrain him, Axel ran over and started tugging on the pant leg of the litterbug. Although he was socially awkward with his peers, Axel never seemed shy around adults. Brian had worried that there might be punching and shoving between himself and the very large man getting his pants yanked by a nine-year-old boy with freckles, thick glasses, and brown curly hair.
“You do not do that!” Axel had said in his most authoritative voice while shaking his finger at the man. The giant litterer glared at Axel and then at Brian, who had quickly apologized.
“I grabbed Axel’s hand and we ran like hell,” Brian had told Gabby when they got home.
Gabby loved that Axel was developing an exemplary moral compass. But she wondered how to help him understand that in certain situations he should first think about his own safety. Especially when he felt the urge to be a pint-sized litter patrol.
* * *
Wind-driven rain assaulted them abruptly when Gabby and Axel emerged from the lobby of their building onto the street. They needed to hurry so as not to miss the school bus. Gabby braced herself against the west-side windiness which was frequently intense, and struggled to open her umbrella.
“Why did I buy this cheap thing?” she yelled to no one into the wind.
“I don’t know, Mommy.” Axel looked forlorn in his rain-soaked jacket, the light-blue denim stained now with wet patches expanding across his small shoulders.
Gabby’s meeting scheduled for later that morning was on her mind. Her academic adviser was meant to help with her registration for summer school, but if she showed up drenched … well, that would not be good. That proverb about first impressions being the most lasting was probably true.
The rain turned from pelting drops to sheets. Seeing the bus stop ahead in the next block, Gabby gave a forceful shove and the umbrella finally opened. It was also when Axel made his announcement.
“Sometimes, rain makes me wanna pee.”
Gabby looked at him and stifled a shriek. She knew immediately what had happened.
“Oh, Axel.” Gabby tried to sound calm. “I know you couldn’t help it. But, really, what next?”
She hated the thought of Axel wearing wet underwear all day. There was another time it had happened not too long ago, just before he turned nine. She remembered how humiliated he had been.
The bus pulled up as they arrived at the stop. The usual group of kids and parents was already waiting in the shelter. Having arrived just in time, Gabby heaved a sigh of relief and tried to sound cheerful.
“Have a good day at school, dear. Go to your locker first thing and change into your gym pants, ok? We have a lot to talk about when you get home. And Shannon can help you with your hardware store research. It sounds interesting.”
“I don’t want her help,” Axel said defiantly. “She’s a dumb-ass and a big smelly shart.”
“What did you say?” Gabby raised her voice above the noise of the rain thumping the roof of the bus shelter. “What did you call your sister!?”
Axel said nothing and darted toward the steps of the bus without looking back.
“You and I and your father will be having a conversation tonight, little mister mouth! I don’t want you calling people names! People includes your sister!” Gabby shouted. The sound of her words, released from deep within her throat to convey authority, was swallowed nevertheless by the downpour. She noticed some of the parents in the shelter staring at her.
Normally, Gabby and Axel had a little good-bye ritual every morning at the bus stop. When Axel got on the school bus, he would look back over his shoulder at his mom. Gabby would make a heart shape in the air with her fingers and thumbs, framing his face. This morning Axel did not look back at his mom. There would be no heart framing today.
* * *
Gabby scurried toward home. She would need to quickly change out of her wet clothes before her meeting. Her skirmish with Axel that morning occupied her thoughts. On an impulse, she darted into a corner store and bought a box of elbow macaroni. Axel had been begging her to make mac and cheese for the past week. If she made his favorite dish for dinner it would be a nice mom-treat, considering the unpleasant chat they would be having when he got home from school. His mouthing off and toothpaste messes were happening much too frequently. Then there was the pants-wetting. She wouldn’t bring that up until she spoke with his pediatrician.
As she left the store, a gust of wind inverted her umbrella and she dropped the paper bag containing the box of elbows and loose change.
“Dammit!” She looked on helplessly as nickels and dimes from the torn bag scattered over the slick pavement and macaroni escaped through the broken cellophane window of its cardboard container. A young couple quickly looked away as they hurried past her.
“Thanks so much for offering to help!” Gabby shouted into the wind.
By the time she got home, Gabby was exhausted and crabby. Her auburn-blonde hair, naturally straight, was now dank and stringy. She tossed the soggy bag with its wet contents onto the kitchen table and saw there, as if lying in wait, a stack of vacation brochures. She spread out the stack with her hand and let her eyes linger on the titles: Naturist Club. Nude Camping. Clothing Optional Beaches. Plan Your Summer Vacation Now, Birthday Suiters! Naturism. Naturally Nude. Next to the brochures was a handwritten sticky note with a smiley face: “GABBY, LET’S DISCUSS.”
“Dammit, Brian!” Gabby shouted at the brochures. “You and your mid-life crisis!”
CHAPTER 4: Lola
Lola and April walked the two blocks to the elementary school. Lola had managed to calm her youngest daughter after admitting her fear about being a pool parent at breakfast that morning. At the school entrance, April gave her mom a quick hug and ran to her teacher, Ms. Drowne.
On the way home, Lola thought about empathy. Mo had none and Eddy hardly any. Her family’s fracas in the kitchen that morning was sobering.
Within the space of the two blocks going home, Lola’s emotions caromed like a bouncing baby swing. By the time she walked through the door, she had reached two decisions. Her mind was made up. Number one, she would call Ellen Drowne to renege on her offer for pool duty. Somehow she would have to think of a way to make it up to April. Secondly, she would summon every ounce of courage and go to her first swimming lesson. That, at least, would be something to cite as progress.
Lola slumped in her favorite chair in the living room. The chair was old and needed new upholstery, but the large flower print in orange, yellow, and white brightened her mood. She gazed at the small patch of sunlight that found its way through the skyscraper canyons outside her window to land on her floor. After a moment to collect her thoughts, she called Ellen Drowne.
“I am really sorry,” Lola told her, “but I can’t volunteer for pool duty this term. I should have been honest with you from the start. I am deathly afraid of getting near that much water. I’m working to overcome that, but I have a long way to go. I hope you can find someone to take my place. I know I promised and I know it’s short notice. I’m really sorry.”
Ms. Drowne exhaled a long, deep breath through the phone.
“I understand. I am disappointed. I wish you had told me this before. This puts me in a bad spot.”
“I know,” Lola said. “I really hope you can find another parent to help you.”
“I’m not optimistic, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” Ms. Drowne said, her words brittle and all business.
A minute later, Lola’s phone lit up with a push notification for an email that went out to all the parents:
SUBJECT: URGENT REQUEST FOR VOLUNTEER POOL PARENT! Due to an unforeseen cancellation, I regret to inform you that swimming classes will be canceled this term unless a reliable parent can volunteer. Please contact me asap, if you can be a pool parent! -Thanks!! Ellen Drowne
* * *
Lola took her time laying out her new swimsuit and accessories on the bed. With the assistance of a kindly sales clerk, she had bought a conservative one-piece suit in a bright cherry red color. “This way someone can find my drowned body when I sink to the bottom of the pool,” she had half-joked to the clerk.
She cut off the hang tag from the swimsuit. In addition to being chlorine-resistant, the fabric was touted to have full-body power-mesh control.
Hah. That’s what Eddy would like. Full control.
A t-shirt Eddy had purchased recently to add to his collection proclaimed in an authoritative font Keep repeating. I’ll keep refuting. Lola wondered what his boss would think of it.
She folded her new swim towel—the red printed lips matched the red of her swimsuit—and stowed it in her bag. Her neon pink swim cap matched her pink goggles. She bought the oversized goggles in order to have good peripheral vision underwater. She might have a panic attack if she couldn’t see her instructor at all times.
The night before, Lola had modeled her new swimsuit for Eddy.
“How do I look?” Lola had asked her husband.
“Nice. With that bright red color I hardly notice your cellulite.” This was Eddy trying to be helpful.
“I have a new swimsuit and you notice my cellulite? Ya know, Eddy, it’s hard to annoy me. But you’re doing a really good job right now,” Lola had told him.
Eddy had shrugged off her comment.
So I have some cellulite. Big deal. As if Eddy’s some great catch.
Lola stowed her new silicone ear plugs and nose clip in her bag, along with swim fins and a purple plastic water bottle that the store clerk recommended. She couldn’t imagine getting thirsty while swimming, but this was all so new. She also jammed two arm floats and a swim vest into the bag, now bulging with gear. She would have to carry the three pool noodles under her arm. Lugging them on the subway would be a pain, but there was no way she was leaving home without the pool noodles. If all else failed, she was sure the noodles would save her from drowning. She had it figured out. Like three upturned commas, one noodle would go under each arm and the third noodle between her legs. It was time to go meet Carol.
* * *
Seated on the subway, Lola tried to stay calm. The swim center was eleven stops away. Eleven stops to change her mind. Her stomach felt queasy. She thought about calling Carol to cancel at the last minute. But what lame excuse would she give? She reminded herself that millions of people go swimming and most of them probably don’t drown.
Lola always knew when the phobia-jumbee was about to strike. She got a feeling of impending doom and a sense of losing control. She closed her eyes now on the subway and silently recited her mantra. Get a grip. Don’t panic. Stay rational. Then she called Gabby.
“Hi. I’m on my way to my first swim lesson, fighting a powerful urge to go back home. I think I’m losing my mind,” Lola blurted.
“You’re not losing your mind,” Gabby said. “Don’t give up, Lola. Never give up. New York is where people come to conquer their fears. I know you can do this.”
To distract her friend, Gabby turned the conversation to her own problems. “Brian left some naturist brochures on the kitchen table and I am still pissed about it. As you know, I have zero interest in nudist camping.”
“I know,” Lola said.
“I just do not understand his fascination with it. He claims it’s popular in Germany.”
“Who knew?” Lola said.
“Anyway, I’ve been thinking. Maybe there’s a clothing-optional camp somewhere close where Brian can go spend his three weeks of vacation cavorting in his birthday suit. The kids and I could visit on the weekends. Fully clothed, of course. I am going to finish my degree this summer, come hell or high water.”
“Yes,” Lola said. “You have to do that.
“Gabby, I’m at my stop. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Bye, Lola. Break a leg in the pool!” Gabby regretted her choice of words after she hung up.
* * *
Lola checked in at the front desk of the swim center and proceeded to the women’s locker room to change. When she took off her underwear, she gasped. Aunt Flo! Two days early! She quickly put on her swimsuit and found a tampon dispenser next to the row of sinks. She dropped the coins in the slot. They clanked out at the bottom. The machine was empty.
Lola wrapped her new swim towel with the red lips around her waist and hurried to the front desk to explain her predicament to the attendant. He assured her he would send someone right away to refill the dispenser. As she returned to the locker room, she heard the attendant’s voice booming over the intercom throughout the building:
“Attention, Irv in maintenance. Restock ladies’ hygiene in the locker room. Repeat. Irv, bring ladies’ hygiene to women’s locker room ASAP.”
Lola put her head down and rushed back to wait for the delivery. Minutes passed. Obtaining a tampon was now mission critical. What was taking so long?
At last, there was a loud knock on the locker room door and a deep voice shouted “Maintenance!” Irv the unfortunate janitor, short and elderly in coveralls, handed Lola an industrial-sized package of sanitary napkins.
“No! I need a tampon! I’m going swimming!” Lola’s words ricocheted down the tiled corridor.
“I’m sorry, miss,” the janitor said meekly. “This is all we have.”
Lola changed quickly into her street clothes and went to find Carol, who was waiting at poolside. Lola explained what had happened and said she was sorry, but she had to go home.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Carol said. “I’ll have to charge you for a missed lesson. How about if I text you to reschedule?”
“Sure,” Lola snapped. Embarrassed, she was in a hurry to leave.
* * *
On the subway ride home from the swim center, Lola felt discouraged and desperate. She had tried to think of everything, and she didn’t even get in the water. She hoped none of her family would ask about her day. Worse was the thought of returning to the pool and running into Irv. That would be just too humiliating.
She closed her eyes and tried to conjure positive thoughts to crowd out the din inside her head.
* * *
Eddy removed the clear plastic bag from the box that had just been delivered to their apartment. The box was addressed to him. The label inside announced the contents in bold text: Joy, The Inflatable Love Doll. Lola stared at the unnatural face peering grotesquely from its see-through seclusion inside the plastic bag. With its oversized red mouth, the deflated Joy unmistakably advertised the promise of something naughty.
“What in the hee-hoo-ha is that, Eddy!”
Lola glared at her husband and grabbed the bag from his hands.
“Did you order this?”
“No. No, I did not,” Eddy stammered. He pulled out a note card from inside the box.
“April, sweetie, please go start on your homework,” Lola said, guiding April out of the kitchen toward her bedroom.
“Some of the guys at the office sent it to me as a prank.” Eddy’s face was bright crimson as he tried to explain. Trying to sound nonchalant, he sounded awkward instead. His half-hearted chuckle sounded like mewling.
“And why would they do that?” Lola wanted to know.
“I guess because I asked them about twerking. I told them I didn’t know what it was,” Eddy said.
“Uh huh,” Lola said. “And what does the note say?”
Eddy handed Lola the note card with its hand-printed message. She read it out loud: Hey Eddy, twerking is easy when you have a partner! Enjoy Joy!! The card was signed by three of Eddy’s accountant-friends.
“It’s not funny,” Lola said. She pulled open the kitchen junk drawer that contained a roll of wrapping tape and handed it to Eddy.
“Put Joy back in her box, slap on the return label and get her out of our house right now.”
“No problem,” Eddy said sheepishly.
“I am so stressed right now!” The words shot rough from Lola’s mouth. “I’m trying to deal with water phobia! And now I have to worry about your friends sending sex toys to our house!”
* * *
When Mo came home from school, she found her mom with her arms crossed waiting for her by the front door.
“Hello Maureen,” Lola said.
“Hey Mom,” Mo said quietly. Hearing her mom use her given name signaled that trouble was on the horizon. “What’s goin’ on?”
“What’s going on is if I ever catch you twerking or hear that you have been discussing twerking or teaching twerking, you and your beloved cell phone will be separated. For a long time. I mean it. And while I’m at it, see the kitchen floor. You’ll be washing and waxing it, too,” Lola said. “Have I made myself clear?”
Mo mumbled yes and retreated to her bedroom. This was a battle she was not going to win.
CHAPTER 5: Gabby
Gabby speed-dialed Brian’s number. He didn’t answer, so she called the main office. The receptionist said he was in a meeting and put Gabby through to his voicemail.
“Brian what the hell! You have a lot of nerve! I’m talking about the stack of nudie pamphlets you left on the kitchen table! Anyway, call me.” She slammed her phone down on the bed and went to dry her hair in the bathroom.
Gabby sometimes derived pleasure from being angry, working herself into a heightened state of indignation and finding additional reasons to prolong it. She wasn’t sure whether to be concerned about it and meant to bring it up with Lola at their next cake conference. At any rate, Brian would be getting an earful later. She mentally jotted down some talking points, rehearsing her side of the imagined conversation.
1. I’m already registered for classes.
2. My top priority is finishing my degree.
3. Our whole family has fair skin.
Gabby grabbed a towel to dry her rain-soaked hair and rasped absent-mindedly at her scalp. She thought of a fourth point to add.
4. You promised to start helping me with the laundry. I’m still waiting!
Brian had revealed his keen interest in the naturist movement a year ago when he started emailing articles to Gabby about its purported health benefits. She originally dismissed Brian’s fixation as a mid-life crisis, but she dutifully skimmed a few of the articles anyway. They described nudist resorts as wholesome places that celebrated nature, the family, and relaxing recreation.
One night recently when it was late and Gabby was sprawled on the sofa staring into space, Brian had plopped down next to her.
“Nature camping!” His voice oozed with enthusiasm. “It’s the perfect way to spend our three weeks of summer vacation this year! Shannon and Axel are interested, too!”
Gabby did not believe for a second Brian’s claim about Shannon and Axel. She had overheard Shannon telling her best friend Mo that she had no intention of going anywhere where she would have to look at her parents parading around naked.
That night on the sofa Gabby told Brian that she was too exhausted to discuss their vacation plans. “And as I’ve said before, I’m not warming up to the idea of hanging out with strangers wearing nothing but sandals.”
“Well, I’m sorry you’ve lost your sense of adventure, Gabby,” Brian said.
“So, tell me, what does one say when nature campers meet other nature campers?” Gabby mimicked a voice of false politeness. “Oh, it’s so nice to meet you. I see you found literally nothing to wear when you looked in your closet.”
Having dried her hair, Gabby needed to focus. It was time to go meet her academic adviser, Dr. Jamal Tucker. She changed into dry clothes, a crisp cotton shirt and black pants. She wanted to convey the image of a mature student who was serious about learning. The long hiatus from her engineering studies would soon be coming to an end. If all went according to plan, she would have her master’s degree by the time of her next teeth-cleaning.
As a young girl growing up in the city, Gabby was upset to see the garbage barges in the East River head out to sea to dump loads of trash at the edge of the continental shelf. Her passion from a young age was to study the pollution caused by plastic in the oceans. She had read everything she could find about the gigantic fields of garbage—much of it as tiny pieces of plastic—that swirled out at sea. Most recently, the work of the Dutch inventor Boyan Slat had inspired Gabby to return to school and finish her degree.
* * *
When Gabby arrived at Dr. Tucker’s office, her first thought was he looks too young to be an associate professor.
They discussed the courses she would be taking in synthetic biology and the writing of a thesis to complete the degree requirement. Jamal—he insisted that she call him by his first name—was friendly and helpful. Gabby admitted to him her anxiety about returning to campus after several years’ absence. Combining the study of biology with engineering would be a hard slog.
“I won’t lie to you, Gabby,” Jamal said. “As a mature student, you’re going to encounter some unique challenges. Let me assure you, I will be here to help you every step of the way.” Gabby thanked him and thought his gaze into her eyes lingered for a second too long.
Jamal stressed the urgency of getting a jumpstart on her research. He said he had just the project for her. A former student of his had left the biological engineering program before completing the degree. Jamal told Gabby she could take over the abandoned project and complete the aquatic research for her thesis.
The two of them would be taking the Callisto, a small power boat, out on Jamaica Bay to collect water samples. He would show her how to operate the plankton tow net and other equipment on the boat, but the bulk of her work would be analyzing the collected water samples in the lab to look for microscopic pieces of plastic.
After her meeting with Jamal, Gabby texted Lola as she went to pick up Axel after school.
GOING TO LEARN TO PROGRAM BACTERIA TO EAT PLASTIC. MY ADVISER LOOKS LIKE HE’S 20!!
* * *
With Axel in tow, Gabby wanted to stop at the neighborhood diner for coffee and search online for clothing-optional nature camps. Now that she was signed up for summer classes, she wanted to get this whole business about summer vacation settled with Brian. She could claim the moral high ground if she presented a compromise solution. One that didn’t require postponing her classes until fall.
Testing Gabby’s patience, Axel insisted on walking in slow motion most of the way to the diner. After getting settled in a booth and putting in their orders, Gabby quickly became engrossed by several websites that advertised clothing-optional camping. She had been ignoring Axel right up until the moment of impact.
“Five at once!” Axel exclaimed. He ripped open five packets of Sweet’N Low, tearing them down—instead of across—the contents exploding over the formica tabletop and onto Gabby’s keyboard. She shrieked.
“Axel! What the … !”
Axel slumped in the booth like a scolded puppy, keeping his head down and trying to be small. “You’re a pain in my butt crack,” he muttered. He was afraid to look up at his mom’s bulging bug eyes. He did not like seeing all the tiny red veins in the white parts.
“I heard what you said,” Gabby told him. After the server came with wet cloths to help clean up the mess, Gabby blew away the remaining sugar granules nestled between the keys of her keyboard. Before they left the diner, she was able to capture a screen shot of an interesting looking website for a clothing-optional camp upstate.
* * *
That evening after dinner, Gabby motioned for her family to remain seated at the kitchen table. She took a deep breath, pushed her plate forward, and placed her folded hands on the table.
“There are some things we need to discuss. Axel, let’s start with your toothpaste messes in the bathroom. Every day that I have to clean toothpaste off the mirror and out of your hair is a day closer to you getting a sponge for your birthday. And I’m not even kidding.”
Axel said nothing and fixated on his mom’s knuckles turning white as she clenched her fists.
“Secondly, about your language. I heard you tell Shannon that she smelled like a scrotum. Where are you learning these things?”
“It’s a real word, mom. It’s in a health book at school.”
“Axel, I am well aware that scrotum is a real word,” Gabby said.
“And you, young lady, are not innocent either,” Gabby said. “I’ve heard some coarse language come out of your mouth.”
“I never use bad words,” Shannon protested. “Maybe once I swore at some moron at school. But that was forever ago.”
Gabby turned to Brian who had taken his phone out of his pocket and was staring at it.
“Our children are using vulgar language much too casually,” she said. “Anything you’d like to add?”
Brian avoided looking up. He pursed his lips and said nothing.
“OK, then,” Gabby said, “let’s talk about nature camping this summer.”
Axel giggled at hearing his mom say “nature camping.”
“Axel, it’s homework time,” Gabby said, then turned to her daughter. “Shannon, Robert needs to go out and please stop chewing on your hair.” Robert, their maltese, whimpered by the front door.
“Umm … how about later,” Shannon said, pushing her chair away from the table. “I don’t feel like it right now?”
Gabby recognized the teenspeak way of phrasing a statement as a question.
“Do you want to know how many things I don’t feel like doing every day?”
“No,” Shannon said. She rolled her eyes at the air quotes her mother used around the word feel.
“Shannon. Take Robert out.” Brian used his deep authoritative voice and continued to stare at his phone, oblivious to Shannon’s theatrical pout as she left with Robert.
With Axel and Shannon gone, Gabby pulled the offensive camping brochures from her bag and tossed them on the table in front of Brian.
“Did you listen to my voicemail today?”
“No, sorry. In all honesty, I didn’t have time,” Brian said. “I was too busy showing around the new intern that our office just hired.”
“Well, I don’t need to see these brochures ever again,” Gabby said as she started to clear the table. The silverware clanked against the plates as she stacked the dinner dishes by the sink.
“Never mind,” Brian said. “I’ll give them to Roxanne.”
“The new intern,” Brian said. “She told me she loves the outdoors.”
Gabby saw that Brian’s face was flushed.
“Oh, does Roxanne also love the outdoors in the nude? Is Roxanne the reason you were unavailable when I tried calling you a second and third time?”
“No,” Brian said. “In all honesty, Roxanne had nothing to do with that.”
“I am going to summer school, Brian!” Gabby spit out the words like hot tacks. “I am trying to be reasonable about your fascination with nude camping! Are you going to meet me halfway, or what!”
“Where does all your anger come from, Gabby? You get all indignant and go right to combat mode. Straight to eleven.”
“Anyway, at least I don’t drop f-bombs like you do in front of the kids. No wonder they use bad language. Why are you against my plan for summer school?”
“Why is summer school so frigging important right now?”
“For the same reason it was important to you when you got your degree in architecture.”
Brian stared at the brochures strewn on the kitchen table. He took off his glasses. Taking a deep breath, he rubbed his eyes.
“Gabby, I have a confession to make. I did something very stupid.”
Oh, here we go! A drum roll for Roxanne, please.
“It pains me to say this,” Brian said. “I’ve been living a lie.”
Gabby imagined a swarm of invisible particles colliding in the air around her head, making Brian’s voice suddenly sound far away.
“Go on,” she said.
“I never finished my master’s degree. Even though, for the past seven years, I’ve listed the M. Arch. on my resumé.” Brian stared at the kitchen table without blinking.
Gabby couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
Brian continued. “This afternoon, the head of the firm called me into his office. I thought I might be assigned to a big project. Instead, I’m probably going to get fired.” He waited for Gabby to say something, but she stared and said nothing. “A prospective client did a background check and discovered my made-up credential. I’m in big trouble.”
* * *
That night, Gabby stayed up late, staring at the syllabus outlines for her courses. She thought about Brian’s indifference about her going to summer school. It all made sense now. Brian couldn’t bear the thought that she would have a degree and he didn’t. His co-workers would soon find out about his lie—if they didn’t already know. It would be a scandal.
Stretched out on the sofa, she drifted into a twilight state of mind, her thoughts flitting like fireflies. How could life get so complicated without even trying. Listening to Brian reveal his long-hidden secret was a shock, but in some ways, progress. The fresh air of truth felt cleansing. On the other hand, if he got fired she would have to postpone school and look for a paying job. Could she even trust Brian anymore? After 15 years together, maybe she still didn’t know him.
When Gabby went into the bedroom, Brian was talking gibberish in his sleep. She heard him say “Roxanne.” Very clearly. Her first impulse was to wake him and demand an explanation. This was the last straw. So, he had lied about his degree. And now he lied about Roxanne.
She saw Brian’s cell phone in its usual place on the bedside table. Quietly picking up the phone, Gabby held it near his hand. He unlocked his phone by using his thumbprint—she had seen him do it many times—and his right arm was conveniently draped over the side of the bed. Brian was deep into REM sleep, his eyeballs darting beneath closed lids. Gabby gently pressed his thumb to the phone screen. Eureka. With his phone unlocked, his digital life was now ready for viewing.
She silently stepped away from the bed and into the hallway, closing the door behind her. She tapped into Brian’s contacts screen and typed Roxanne in the search bar. The intern’s contact details filled the screen, goading Gabby to check the log of calls Brian had made to her number. It was quite lengthy. She grabbed a scrap of paper from her desk and jotted down Roxanne’s information, leaving no evidence of her digital intrusion. She shut off the phone and carefully replaced it in the same spot next to her snoring husband.
Gabby closed her eyes to stop the room from spinning. Brian might lose his job. And now there was Roxanne to worry about. And what about her new adviser? Was Jamal going to be a problem? He had touched her arm. Twice. Did she imagine over-familiarity when there was none? She knew it would be prudent to tread thoughtfully and carefully—even though she wanted to overreact with every fiber of her being.
CHAPTER 6: Lola and Gabby
Yoni steaming was Gabby’s idea. She had read an article and wanted to try it. Lola agreed to go with her to a spa in the neighborhood that offered it.
“It’s meant to cleanse and energize our lady parts,” Gabby said.
“How often does one’s yoni need steaming, anyway?” Lola wondered.
“I have no idea,” Gabby said.
“Well, I’ll try it. But I’m not buying any accessories,” Lola said. “I read something about a jade egg.”
* * *
Freshly steamed from the spa, Lola and Gabby walked the four blocks to Café Oh Là Là for their weekly cake conference.
“I can’t decide whether I feel less stressed after our yoni detox,” Gabby said. “Maybe I should have signed up for the multi-steam package.”
“I think a big slice of Death and a cup of coffee will work wonders for both of us,” Lola said. She wore her favorite cap with Surly in the Morning embroidered on the front, and left it on after they sat down at their usual table in the back corner.
Lola and Gabby took the cake conferences seriously and had carefully chosen the venue from the start. The vibrant décor of Café Oh Là Là complemented the bold desserts on the café’s menu—all of them baked on site. The vinyl red-and-white checked tablecloths matched the linoleum floor tiles. Posters were tacked haphazardly on the walls. Mostly vintage French copies with a smattering of Maxfield Parrish. It was the perfect place for their weekly meet-ups.
“Lola, look at that older guy over there,” Gabby abruptly whispered. “He lives in our building.” She cocked her head toward the couple who had just entered the restaurant. The man was arm-in-arm with a much younger woman. He noticed Gabby from across the room and waved. She waved back.
“Oh, yes. I’ve seen him and his wife in our lobby,” Lola whispered. “Isn’t he still married? That young thing is definitely not his wife.”
“He’s not married,” Gabby said after the couple walked past. “He’s on the verge of divorce. I’ve heard it from reliable sources … the doormen!”
“Well, it looks like he found a pretty ornament to hang on his arm,” Lola said. The young woman teetering on stilettos was rail thin and carried a large expensive handbag. “Whoever she is, she’s obviously metabolically lucky.”
“One of the doormen told me that the guy made his wife sign an iron-clad pre-nup three years ago,” Gabby said. “Looks like Miss Arm Candy Handbag is next in line.”
The waitress brought their two orders of Decadent Death, and as usual before taking a bite, Gabby counted the chocolate-peanut butter cups perched on top of her piece.
“Twenty-five,” she said.
“Why do you bother counting them every time? There are always 25,” Lola said.
“No reason,” Gabby shrugged. She picked off one of the mini-chocolates and popped it in her mouth. “So, what shall we talk about today? Let’s see … Brian might lose his job due to lying on his resumé. He might be having an affair with a co-worker named Roxanne. Oh, yeah. My adviser Jamal. I think he’ll be ok, although he makes me uncomfortable. Besides that, I’ve got nothing to talk about.”
“Well! I guess we’ll just have to engage in small talk, then!” Lola set down her fork. “Please. Tell me everything while we color.”
Gabby plowed her way through her dessert and the messy details of the previous week, while Lola listened, colored, and enjoyed her Death.
“Too bad you felt the need to spy on Brian’s phone,” Lola said, “but your m.o. was a stroke of genius.”
“Well, as a budding scientist I’m not going to say anything until I have hard evidence,” Gabby said.
“I’m not sure what to make of Jamal,” Gabby said, switching the subject. “When we were out on the boat, he called me Gabs. I’ll have to put a stop to that. I’m not ok with being called a nickname of my nickname.”
“Speaking of nicknames, I called Eddy ‘Lalo’ the other day to get under his skin. He hates it.” Lola loaded her fork with another bite of Death.
“What’s wrong with Lalo? Why doesn’t he like it?” Gabby had heard many anecdotes about Eddy’s tendency for melodrama. “Lola and Lalo. It sounds sweet.”
“Don’t ask me. I have no idea,” Lola said. “He won’t tell me why he hates Lalo. I’m on his bad side at the moment. His tighty whities were in a twist this morning. He left for work wearing a t-shirt with Quietly Apoplectic splashed across his chest.”
“Eddy and his t-shirts,” Gabby said.
“I am the one who should be apoplectic,” Lola said. “So, get this. His buddies sent him an inflatable sex doll. Supposedly to practice twerking. I tell you, those accountants are a real hoot. I had to put my foot down. I told Eddy and my kids, ‘No twerking!’ I don’t want to see or hear about twerking. I’m fed up with twerking.”
“At least twerking doesn’t smell bad,” Gabby said. “I’ve had to deal with wet pants and cleaning up toothpaste. I made an appointment with Axel’s pediatrician to talk about his incontinence. I don’t know if I should be worried. Anyway … ” She paused to search in her box of colored pencils for the right blues and greens for peacock tail feathers. “Did you reschedule your swim lesson?”
“No,” Lola said. “After my misadventure at the swim center, I reneged on my commitment to April’s teacher. Then I got flamed on the internet by angry parents. I’ve decided I’m probably not meant to swim.”
Gabby looked at her friend with concern. “Lola, why are you so terrified of the water?”
“Well, … “ Lola took a sip of coffee and then a deep breath. “I’ve never told my family this story. Something happened when I was a new mom. Mo was a baby just learning to walk. A couple of family friends—I thought they were friends—invited me along on a picnic when Eddy was out of town. We were at a lake; I don’t even remember the name of it. It was a big lake. The woman asked me if she could take Mo by the hand to practice walking with her along the beach. And I said yes and let her go. Well, the husband turned out to be a jerk. But they were both in on the joke. As soon as I was separated from Mo, the guy scooped me up in his arms and ran to the edge of the water. He threw me as far as he could out into the lake. I couldn’t swim.”
“Oh, no!” Gabby pressed her hands against her cheeks with alarm.
Lola continued. “I remember sinking. I pushed my feet against the sandy bottom holding my breath. My only thought was ‘Is he going to throw my baby in the water, too?’ I came to the surface, my arms thrashing, frantically searching for Mo along the shore. I saw she was safe, her little legs trying to walk in the sand, her little hands clutching the hands of my double-crossing friend. When I started to sink again, I screamed. I can’t remember how I made it out of the water. But I did. Afterwards, the guy said he just wanted to see how I looked in wet clothes.”
“What a bastard,” Gabby said. “No wonder.”
“I’ve never told Eddy that story. Or my kids. My family thinks I just one day woke up with aquaphobia.” Lola wiped her eyes with her napkin and swallowed the last of her coffee.
“Lola, do you know what happened at Niagara Falls in 1901?” Gabby asked.
Before Lola could answer, Gabby said, “I’ll tell you because I just read an article about an incredibly brave woman named Annie Edson Taylor. She was the first person ever to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. And she did it in 1901 on her 63rd birthday. Just imagine! She was an ordinary woman. But so determined.
“Maybe when you’re afraid to take that first step into the swimming pool, think of Annie inside her creaky wooden barrel with an old mattress for protection, plunging over Niagara Falls. The tons of water crashing against the barrel must have been deafening. How helpless she must have felt. I bet she had to fight to stay conscious. I suppose everyone who watched expected her to die. That was mental toughness. She was so brave.”
CHAPTER 7: Lola
Lola called Carol the swim instructor and rescheduled her lesson. After Gabby’s pep talk, Lola made a promise to herself. This time she would not leave the swim center until she had gotten in the pool. Maybe not underwater, but at least up to her neck.
“I’ll probably have my pool noodles in a death grip,” she said when she called to tell Gabby. “But I will get in the water.”
“You are going to do just fine. What could possibly go wrong?” Gabby regretted the rhetorical question as the words left her mouth.
“I hope you’re right,” Lola said.
* * *
Lola limited herself to one ringtone on her phone, “Good Feeling” by Flo Rida. Right now Flo Rida was belting out the song from inside her bag as she rode on the number 1 train. April’s teacher, Ellen Drowne, was calling.
“Lola, I’m sorry but we had a situation on the playground this morning,” Ms. Drowne said. “Your daughter is a little upset. Understandably. She’s here with me and wants to speak with you.”
Ms. Drowne put April on the phone.
“Mommm … eeee.” April sobbed between the syllables.
“April, sweetie! Are you all right?”
April seemed fine when Lola dropped her at school that morning.
“Please. Tell me what happened,” Lola said.
“We had to read our rules in class,” April said. “Ms. Drowne said my rules were the best. I get to be Golden Star Pupil of the Week.”
Lola had read April’s homework assignment the night before. The students had to make a list of “Rules to Make Our School a Better Place.” April’s list was very thoughtful:
- Do not talk in the hallways.
- Always be nice to others.
- If someone gets hurt, help them.
- If someone forgot something and you can share, share.
- Keep your hands to yourself.
- If you need to say sorry to someone, look them in the eyes when you say sorry.
- Follow directions the first time they are given.
“Ms. Drowne taped my list on the wall.” April sobbed, continuing with her story. “I got to wear the gold crown and everybody clapped.”
“But April, that’s wonderful!” Lola was confused. “So, what happened sweetie?”
April told her mom between sobs how she went from wearing the gold crown to crying on the playground. As best Lola could make out, a classmate named Junia got jealous of all the attention April had gotten. When the class went outside for morning recess, Junia enlisted a couple of other girls to go on the attack.
“Junia said I was ugly,” April said, continuing to sob quietly. “She said nobody was my friend and nobody would play with me ever again.”
The subway lurched to a halt. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” Lola shouted above the screeching of the train.
“I was doing double dutch with my friends. We were taking turns doing German red-hot peppers.”
“What’s German red-hot peppers?” Lola asked.
“When you jump rope really fast and you say hotten-toten-poten-taten-mutter-morder-atten-tats-verrater.”
April tried to pounce on the words like the sound of jumping rope to German red-hot peppers, but she could barely choke them out between sobs.
“And Junia said I’m not invited to her party and she shoved me.”
Lola clenched her teeth at hearing the hurt in her daughter’s voice. She knew how excited April was about Junia’s birthday party. Junia’s mother was known for going all out when it came to party planning. Last year, Junia and her birthday guests were entertained by none other than Marsha the Mystic. By all accounts, the fortune-teller had been a huge hit. To be excluded from a Junia party was like having Santa forget your address. Being disinvited would be a badge of humiliation for April.
“April sweetie, we’ll talk about this tonight, ok?” Lola said. “And you know what? After school, we’ll go to the toy store and get you something special for being this week’s Golden Star Pupil.”
Lola couldn’t see April nodding in agreement before Ms. Drowne came back on the phone.
“Lola, I want you to know that we have a school policy regarding mean behavior and I will be taking action to address the incident on the playground this morning.”
“Thank you, Ms. Drowne,” Lola said. She took a deep breath. “And have you found a volunteer parent yet to help with the swim class?”
“No. I’m still looking. The class starts in three weeks.”
By now maligning gossip had criss-crossed the internet and most of the parents knew exactly who to blame for the “unforeseen cancellation” of Ellen Drowne’s swim class. Lola was taken aback by comments some of the parents posted on the school message board. “Breaking a commitment sets a bad example” and “Thanks for depriving my child of the opportunity to swim” were especially hurtful jabs that came from two mothers with whom Lola had often chatted while waiting for school to let out.
However, the private email that stung the most came from a mother who felt the need to drag April into the picture. The sender, a status-conscious woman whose daughter Lola had once babysat, wrote that April deserved to be disinvited from Junia’s party. Remarkably, commentary about the incident on the playground that morning already had made its way onto social media.
Lola felt awful. She had let down everyone, it seemed. Especially April. What the hee-hoo-ha am I doing, she wondered.
* * *
Waiting for her mom after school that afternoon, April did not look happy.
“Are you feeling better?” Lola asked when she came to pick her up.
“NO!” April made it clear she was not feeling better.
“Well, let’s walk to the toy store. I promised I would take you and on the way you can tell me about the rest of your day.”
April’s teacher had designated the entire week as Fun With Family and Friends Week. As the current Golden Star Pupil, April said she was the first one chosen to tell the class about her most favorite vacation with her family.
“And what did you tell the class about your favorite vacation?” Lola asked.
“I told about going to the beach in Florida and collecting seashells and going swimming. And that I found a big conch shell.”
“April, that never happened.” Lola stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to speak sternly with her daughter. “We never went to Florida. We never collected seashells. And we’ve never gone swimming at the beach. How could you say that?”
“I was doing make-believe. Like I play at home.” April sounded testy.
“I see,” Lola said.
She didn’t want to accuse April of lying until she could ask Ms. Drowne whether her instructions to the class had been clear. Was April supposed to talk about a real event that happened? Or was it ok that April told about a pretend vacation? Lola did not want to scold April for having a good imagination if she had simply misunderstood the teacher.
Then April said that Junia was mean to her again.
“What did Junia say to you?”
“Junia said my vacation was stupid. She said she has a hundred conch shells. Not just one.”
“That wasn’t very nice,” Lola said.
“Junia said she can go swimming whenever she wants to. Mom, when are we going swimming?” April raised her voice to emphasize her grievance. An elderly woman passing by gave Lola a look of disapproval.
“We will go swimming soon,” Lola said quietly. “I truly want us to go on your favorite vacation for real.”
Inside the toy store, April darted carelessly from one display to the next. When she accidentally toppled a carefully perched arrangement of stuffed animals, the watchful store manager cleared her throat loudly from behind the counter and looked disapprovingly at Lola.
“April, say you’re sorry, please.” Lola avoided looking at the pile of tangled furry bodies on the display table.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry … I’m sorry, I’m sorry … I’m sorry, I’m sorry … ”
April proceeded to skip around the store from one display to the next, her sing-songy “I’m sorrys” increasing in pitch, sounding less and less sincere and more and more sarcastic.
“April! Stop it! One ‘I’m sorry’ is enough! More than one is excessive. If there’s nothing here that interests you, let’s go home.”
Outside the store, April, continuing to skip, announced that she didn’t want a toy.
“What I really, really want,” April said, “is a microscope.”
“A microscope? Why do you want a microscope?”
“To look at sand. I want to get sand from the beach and bring it home in a jar and look at it up close,” April said. “When are we going to the beach, mom?”
“I don’t know, April. Someday. Someday, for sure …”
CHAPTER 8: Gabby
“Vrooom, vroom. Rattatat-tat-tat-tat-tat! Pyu-pyu-pyu-pyu!” Axel was flying his bar of soap, a make-believe World War II Mustang fighter plane, in the shower.
Gabby poked her head through the bathroom door. “Axel, are you finished in there? … What is that smell?”
“Vrooom, vrooom, vrooom.”
“Axel, I’m talking to you. Did you pee in the shower? It stinks in here.”
“It’s from asparagus,” Axel said proudly from behind the shower curtain.
At dinner the night before, he had surprised Gabby by devouring an entire bowl of cream of asparagus soup. A friend at school had let Axel in on the secret about the funky pee smell from eating asparagus. He had been excited to put it to the test.
“Finish your shower,” Gabby said. “Be sure to rinse off well. Especially below your waist.”
Gabby joined Brian and Shannon in the kitchen for breakfast. Brian, chastened after confessing his professional deceit, had risen early to surprise Gabby by washing, drying, and folding a load of laundry. It was his first experience with the washing machine. He said “good morning” and pointed proudly to the stack of clean clothes next to the dryer.
“Well, thank you, Brian. You did some laundry. That was … … ohhhh, noooo!!” Gabby shrieked when she saw her white jeans neatly folded on top of the pile. Her formerly white jeans that were now lavender. She yanked the offensive pants from the pile, letting the mauve legs unfold to drape over her outstretched arm. Now she was ready for a skirmish.
“What have you done to my new jeans! I can’t believe you never learned about sorting laundry, Brian!”
“Oh, yeah? And I still can’t believe you never learned that stripping a screw is not something obscene,” Brian said defensively. He liked reminding Gabby about her gaffe from years ago. “Anyway, don’t worry. I will never mess up the laundry again.” His meaning was unclear.
Axel, now dressed, suddenly appeared bunny-hopping his way into the kitchen.
“Dad,” he called out, “did you know rabbits eat their own poop?”
“Ewww!” Shannon grimaced and pretended to gag on her cereal.
“No, Axel, I didn’t know that,” Brian said, trying to calm down. “Go get a plate for your toast.”
Axel hopped over to the toaster. He was in charge of making his own toast for breakfast, as he was very particular about spreading the peanut butter on the bread. It had to cover completely to the edge.
Shannon stuck her empty cereal bowl in the dishwasher, then thumped her thumbs at the small screen in her hands and announced she was leaving for school.
“I have to go. Mo texted me. She’s already waiting downstairs in the lobby.”
“Shannon, when you get home from school today, please vacuum Robert with the new dog-grooming tool,” Gabby said. “I’ll leave it on the counter. He’s looking scruffy.”
“I’ll try to remember,” Shannon said.
Gabby told her daughter to be careful on the subway.
“And I would love it if you would stop chewing on the ends of your hair and stop speaking in that creaky voice. It’s hard on my ears,” Gabby said.
“Well then just listen to the words I’m saying and not how I’m saying them.” Shannon’s sarcasm trailed over her shoulder as she rushed out the front door.
“Brian, please encourage Shannon to stop speaking with vocal fry,” Gabby said when Shannon had left.
“I’ll try to remember,” Brian said.
“I’ll try to remember. I’ll try to remember. Apparently, that’s the phrase du jour.” Gabby said.
“Well, I have a dentist appointment this morning. Can you remind what time?”
“I have no idea, Brian. Did I mention that I fired myself as your appointments secretary?” Gabby stared at him.
Brian, reheating his coffee in the microwave and contemplating whether he would still have a job by the end of the day, decided to ignore Gabby’s snark. To provoke her further after ruining her jeans might start the next battle and he wasn’t in the mood.
Suddenly a loud thunderclap came from the microwave as the door blasted open, startling the three of them. Axel immediately hopped over to investigate.
“Cool! Dad’s mug blew up!”
Without thinking, Brian had placed his empty coffee mug in the microwave and pressed the start button. The ceramic detonation was impressive judging by the number of pieces.
“For crying out loud, Brian!” Gabby shouted.
“That was my favorite mug,” Brian said. The commemorative mug had been a free gift from one of his naturist magazine subscriptions. Gabby hated the mug but resisted celebrating its demise. Brian offered his excuse while cleaning up the shards.
“In all honesty, I have a lot on my mind,” Brian said softly.
With an audible sigh, Gabby turned to her son. “Anyway. Axel, we need to leave now for the school bus.” But Axel had left the scene of the blast and was sitting on the kitchen floor eating his last bite of toast and getting peanut butter licked from his cheeks by Robert.
* * *
Gabby texted Jamal that she was on her way to the boat. That morning, they would be taking the Callisto out on the water for the first time. Gabby was to begin her research project on Jamaica Bay with Jamal instructing her on the use of the sample collecting net and other equipment. Gabby had never used a flowmeter before, but she was excited to learn the technology.
“I have a surprise for you,” Jamal said when Gabby arrived at the dock. He opened his backpack and pulled out two matching t-shirts, handing one to Gabby.
“Put it on,” he said. “I hope it fits.”
Gabby held up the shirt. The slogan on the front read “Let’s Talk Trash!” And on the back side it read “Let’s Trash Talk!” Jamal told Gabby that he ordered the shirts as a fun way to commemorate the start of her research on marine pollution.
“It’s very clever,” Gabby said. “Thank you, Dr. Tucker. I love it.”
The breeze blew a strand of her hair across her face and Jamal stepped closer to flick it away.
“Please. Call me Jamal,” he reminded her.
Getting out on the water brought back memories of the many summer afternoons Gabby had spent on her parents’ boat as a young girl. She still had good boat-handling skills. By the end of the second hour on the Callisto, she had learned how to drag the net to collect water samples and attach the flowmeter to measure water velocity. Jamal seemed pleased that Gabby learned quickly and was competent to drive the boat. The collection of water samples for her research had begun without a hitch.
“Good work, Gabs!” he said.
“Thanks. And please call me Gabby,” she said.
“No problem,” Jamal said. “The sample collecting is fairly straightforward. But, I expect you’ll struggle with the statistical analysis of your data.”
Gabby wasn’t sure what to make of Jamal’s comments. One minute he seemed overly familiar and the next minute dismissive. She watched the waves rolling away from the boat toward shore. The backwash from the retreating water left behind bits of detritus on the rocks. Jamal’s comment lodged in her mind like a sliver of debris.
“It’s sad to imagine how many tiny particles of plastic are floating around in this bay,” Gabby said finally. “I hope I don’t get too depressed doing this research.”
“You won’t,” Jamal said. “I’ll make it fun for you.”
He made sure that Gabby saw him wink.
Gabby looked away, pretending to check the boat speed.
* * *
With Callisto tied up at the dock, Gabby and Jamal returned to the lab. He showed her where to store the collected water samples, after which she managed to slip out of the building without attracting his attention.
She wondered where things were headed with Jamal. She enjoyed being out on the water, but their interactions left her uneasy. She started to feel unsure of herself. Maybe she was just an imposter pretending to do serious research.
On her way home, Gabby sent a text message to Lola: I DON’T KNOW IF IT’S ME OR MY ADVISER BUT ONE OF US IS PECULIAR.
CHAPTER 9: Lola
Lola woke up gasping for air. Her nightmare body, light as a feather, had dream-floated upward, then descended gracefully in a slow-motion arc into deep, black water. The water cooled from fresh to frigid as her body plunged to the bottom. Her legs like two coiled springs catapulted her back to the surface, out of the water and skyward, shooting her toward the clouds. As an airborne projectile, she tried to scream but her lungs had frozen. She had just realized her body was trapped in a solid block of ice when she woke up.
Eddy stood at the side of the bed staring at her. “Your mouth was wide open just now, but no sound came out.” He was dressed for work, wearing a new t-shirt with the caption Adept at Veering Between Extremes.
“I had the worst nightmare,” Lola said, getting out of bed.
Eddy had retreated to the kitchen without asking for details.
This morning Lola was due back at the pool for a second attempt at a first swim lesson. The thought of her earlier embarrassing meltdown at the swim center made her stomach churn. She didn’t know what she would say if she ran into Irv the janitor again. She thought about Annie Edson Taylor going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Like Gabby said, that was real courage.
“It’s sink or swim today, girl!” The woman Lola saw reflected in the bathroom mirror did not look confident, though.
* * *
It was exactly 10:00 a.m. when Lola arrived at the swim center. The faint aroma of chlorine reached her nostrils as she walked through the door. She stowed her clothes in a locker, put on her suit and accessories and grabbed her towel, water bottle, and three pool noodles and clop-clopped her way to the pool deck. Carol was waiting for her. The water reflected the light blue color of the pool. Crisp morning light streamed in through the surrounding high windows making the surface of the water glisten. The air felt cold on her skin.
“Good morning, Lola!” Carol’s voice was upbeat. She smiled. “You can remove your flippers. You won’t be needing them.”
Lola stopped motionless a few feet from the edge of the pool. Her swim goggles and nose clip hung around her neck waiting for duty, but she could not move herself a step closer to the edge.
Carol approached. Seeing the fear in Lola’s unblinking eyes, she gently coaxed Lola to part with her towel, water bottle, and pool noodles and remove the green arm floats and orange swim vest. Carol placed the items on the bench nearby and helped remove Lola’s flippers. She motioned Lola to come and sit at the edge of the pool.
“Just sit here by me. That’s all you need to do right now,” Carol said.
Lola’s bare feet were stuck like glue to the deck, her body stiff, her arms like boards at her side. A long minute passed. She was aware of an acidic burning in her stomach. She felt that she might throw up.
“Is there a smaller pool I could start in?” Lola asked. “Maybe one that doesn’t have water?”
Carol stifled her laugh when she realized Lola was serious.
“Nope. This is the only pool.”
Lola squatted and tried to imagine dangling one of her feet in the water. “What am I doing here?” she thought. “I don’t belong here.” She stared at the water. The pool looked vast and icy, uninviting. Recently, she had read an article about hypothermia. Sometimes people became so disoriented by extreme cold that their bodies felt on fire and they shed their clothes in delirium. Lola wondered if she might get hypothermia in the pool and yank off her swimsuit.
“I’m a terrestrial being.” She announced this to Carol, wanting it to sound like a scientific plea for mercy.
“I’m going to help you become an amphibian,” Carol said with enthusiasm.
Carol spent the next six minutes persuading Lola to move closer to the edge of the pool. She jumped in the water and retrieved the pool thermometer to show Lola that the water temperature was a comfortable 82 degrees.
“I wish I could believe that,” Lola thought. The water looked much colder.
“You know, Lola, I have never felt unhappy when I’m swimming,” Carol said. “This is what you have to look forward to!”
“We’ll see about that.” Lola then regretted sounding peevish.
Carol’s pep talks were not having the desired effect of getting Lola into the water. Carol was generally a patient teacher who tried to adhere to rule number one for swim instructors: Stay calm and be gentle. Unfortunately on this day, Carol lost her patience with Lola and resorted to ridicule.
“Maybe I can find a 3-year-old from the Parent & Me class who can come and hold your hand,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“That won’t be necessary,” Lola said, taking a deep breath. “I’m going to get in the pool now.” She took another deep breath and backed carefully down the pool ladder, dipping first her right foot into the water—”I knew it would be cold!”—and then her left. Finding herself standing in chest-level water, she inhaled deeply and held her breath. What happened next was unexpected—and later unexplainable. Her hopeless legs buckled and she plummeted like a bucket of bricks to the bottom. She was down! Completely underwater!
Lola had imagined preparing herself gradually for the experience of submersion. What she felt now was instant terror.
Thrashing and twisting, in a panicked attempt to stand up, Lola was oblivious that Carol was standing behind her in the water and had placed one hand under each of Lola’s armpits to lift her to the surface.
“You’re ok, Lola. You’re ok,” Carol repeated.
When her face breached the surface, a piercing scream escaped from Lola’s lungs. It was a sharp, blood-curdling roar that bounced off the sides of the surrounding concrete walls. The lifeguard on duty—his ears trained for sounds of distress—bolted from his chair at the other end of the pool to investigate.
“She’s fine!” Carol called out to reassure him. The two of them stared at Lola’s contorted face which betrayed her state of shock.
“I was not ready to go underwater!” Lola shouted at no one in particular.
“Well, ready or not, you did it!” Carol said. “You should feel proud.” She gave Lola a wet hug.
Lola’s plunge to the bottom of the pool might as well have been a leap into the Grand Canyon. She never would have imagined surviving such a feat. The reality of it began to sink in on her way home. She was exhilarated by the fact that she hadn’t drowned. And her swimsuit stayed on. She had achieved greatness. At least that’s what it felt like.
For Lola’s first lesson, Carol had wanted to teach her to float on her back. But Lola pleaded to stop while she was ahead. She promised Carol she would return for a second lesson.
“Leave your paraphernalia at home,” Carol said, pointing to the pool noodles, arm floats, flippers, and swim vest piled on the bench.
* * *
That night, Eddy suggested that they all go out for their favorite pizza. Bursting with excitement, Lola had gathered everyone in the kitchen beforehand to share the details of her remarkable first swim.
“I went in the pool today! I almost can’t believe it. It sort of seems unreal.”
“That is great!” Eddy said. He gave Lola a fist-bump and a big bear hug. “I am so proud of you!”
“Well, it was sort of by accident that I got completely wet,” Lola admitted.
“Mom! Mom! Mom!” April squealed in staccato, waving her arms to get Lola’s attention. “Now we can go to the beach!” She rocked back and forth in her chair with the excitement of anticipation, her feet flutter-kicking the air.
“April, I need to take more lessons first,” Lola said. “But yes. I promise. We will go to the beach as soon as I learn to swim.”
When Lola called Gabby to share the news of her big day, Gabby said she could practically see Lola grinning over the phone.
“I am thrilled to bits, Lola! Congratulations! You did it! I knew you would.”
Lola promised to go over every detail with Gabby at their next cake conference.
* * *
At the pizza parlor the family’s usual booth was empty, which Eddy took as a good omen. Lola was in a superb mood. But even when she wasn’t, her mood brightened whenever they sat in that booth. The BaadAsssss movie poster that hung above the table probably helped. Lola let her eyes feast briefly on Mario van Peebles and smiled.
“OK, let’s order,” she said.
They ordered the largest sized pepperoni-mushroom pizza and three small salads—none for Eddy as he had refused to eat salad for as long as anyone could remember—and then Lola turned to April. “What did you learn in school today, sweetie?”
“We’re studying South America,” April said. “There’s a big map on the wall. Ms. Drowne said it’s a continent.”
“Yes,” Eddy chimed in. “It is.”
“It’s where the Amazon rainforest is,” April said. “Is the Amazon named after the store?”
“No, April.” Lola laughed. “The Amazon in South America has been around a lot longer than the store.” April had rebounded from the ugly incidents at school. Lola was heartened by her younger daughter’s resilience.
Mo, silent until now, gave her little sister a big-sister pat to the top of her head. Suddenly she sat up straight, craning her neck forward like a swan taking flight to inspect the customer sitting at a nearby table. He had in front of him the newest tablet device—the very tablet for which Mo had been needling her parents to buy for her.
Mo’s voice exploded with indignation. “Do you even know how embarrassing that is?”
“What are you talking about?” Eddy asked Mo.
“That he has one, and I don’t! Everyone has one. Except me! That guy is so old, he probably doesn’t even know how to use it.”
The new tablet in the man’s possession might as well have been a loudspeaker broadcasting Mo’s public humiliation.
“Mo, please keep your voice down,” Eddy said.
Lola looked discreetly at the man holding the coveted device.
“He looks to be in his forties,” Lola said to her daughter. “He’s probably about my age.”
“I rest my case,” Mo said, sulking. She slumped against the wall at the end of the booth in a silent snit. April, oblivious, was eating the cheesiest slice of pizza which she had first touched for dibs.
* * *
Outside the restaurant, the street was uncharacteristically quiet. The night air had an early-spring crispness that induced a feeling of family togetherness. Still infused with pride at her achievement, Lola reached for Eddy’s hand as the four of them walked home.
Suddenly, a voice rang out from across the street. “Eddy! Eddy! Is that you, Lalo?” The female voice was sultry and gliding.
Dangerously dodging an oncoming taxicab, the woman lurched across the street, flounced onto the sidewalk, and made her way toward the four of them. Eddy stood still with his mouth open. Lola stared at the impossibly-high leopard-print stilettos on the two feet marching closer. How the hee-hoo-ha does she know Eddy? Lola wondered.
“Lalo! Dios mío! I thought it was you!” The light from the streetlamp glanced off the woman’s arctic white teeth. “It’s me! Marlena!” She rushed at Eddy and planted a noisy smooch on his cheek.
“Oh, Marlena. I hardly recognized you,” Eddy said. This was untrue. After almost eighteen years, Marlena was still very much recognizable.
Lola studied the shimmering smudge of pink lipstick that now resided on Eddy’s right cheek.
“Marlena, this is Lola my wife and our two girls Mo and April,” Eddy stammered, after receiving a discreet jab in his side from Lola. “Are you visiting New York? The last I heard you were living in Miami.”
Marlena smiled and launched into a fast-clipped chatter animated by the occasional toss of her shimmery tresses that caused her large gold-hoop earrings to swirl.
“I recently moved here to live with my sister. We just opened a spa together! You should come for a massage, Lalo! We have some introductory offers. Our specialty is Swedish.”
Marlena thrust a business card at Eddy. “Call me. Anyway, gotta run. It was great to see you, Lalo! You too, Nola.”
She blew an air kiss in their direction and sashayed off. The four of them stared in silence at her receding backside.
“Who was that? And why does she call you Lalo?” Lola’s buoyant mood had darkened.
“It’s a long story. Some other time,” Eddy said.
They walked the rest of the way home without speaking. Mo finally broke the silence.
“Mom, she called you Nola.”
“Yes, I heard. Apparently, she has trouble with names.”
CHAPTER 10: Gabby
Gabby contemplated the stack of schoolwork in front of her on the kitchen table. Completing her degree would not be a walk in the park. All she wanted was to finish her courses and research without too many complications.
Brian had reluctantly agreed to Gabby’s compromise offer. He said he preferred a more pure naturist experience, but a clothing-optional camp would be fine. “For now,” he added.
When Brian’s boss informed him that he was being put on indefinite leave of absence, Brian had left for nature camp early the following morning. Soon he was wearing his new green toe shoes and riding around camp on his new hoverboard, apparently having a grand time and resigned to his uncertain employment status.
“I’m so glad you’re enjoying basking in your birthday suit,” Gabby said with snark. “Do not send me pictures!”
Brian had been at camp for two weeks and Gabby and the kids had gone once to visit him on the weekend. Shannon had protested loudly during the drive there—”I DON’T WANT TO SEE THAT MUCH NATURE!!!!!”—but Gabby insisted that it would help keep peace in the family.
“I’m not wild about it either,” Gabby told her. “We’ll make the best of it, ok? And don’t worry; you and Axel and I are keeping our clothes on.”
* * *
On the elevator ride down to the lobby, Gabby and Axel chatted with their neighbors Bick and Steve who were leaving for work that morning. Axel liked Bick and Steve, and they seemed to enjoy chatting with him.
“Steve,” Axel said, “guess what is my favorite four-letter word!”
Gabby shot a nervous glance at Steve and held her breath, wondering what four-letter word Axel had in mind.
“Hmmm. I can’t guess,” Steve said. “Tell me, Axel. What is your favorite four-letter word?”
“It’s Axel. That’s my name!” Axel cracked up at his own joke.
Gabby exhaled in quiet relief.
“Axel happens to be one of my favorite four-letter words, too,” Steve said smiling. “Right after Bick.”
Bick and Steve high-fived Axel as they exited the elevator. They said their good-byes and Gabby and Axel walked to the school bus stop.
“I need to find my bug mask when I get home from school,” Axel announced on the way. He loved wearing his green bug-head mask. Its black and white eyes appeared to bulge with a coiling, spiraling effect when the wearer’s head moved. It startled people and that’s why he liked it.
The first time he wore the mask away from home was to the grocery store with his mom. Axel aimed his bug-face at an elderly customer in produce and shouted “Am I bugging you?” The pinnacle of joke success for Axel was to elicit a loud groan from his victim.
“Axel, you’ve bugged enough people now,” Gabby said after he accosted an older boy hurrying to the check-out line who told Axel to ‘Get lost.’ She untied the shoelace at the back of Axel’s head and helped him take off the mask.
* * *
Gabby looked forward to getting out on the bay again to collect water samples for her research. She loved being on the water but had some feelings of doubt about her scientific abilities. Who am I kidding, she thought. I know nothing about microplastics. I bet Jamal has figured out that I don’t know what I’m doing.
When she arrived at the boat that afternoon, Jamal was already on board. Gabby saw that he was wearing his Trash Talk t-shirt. He said hello and commented that she was not wearing hers.
“It’s in the laundry,” she lied.
Behind the wheel of Callisto, Gabby motored eastward from Paerdegat Basin to the open water of Jamaica Bay. Steering the boat away from the salt marshes, she checked the depth finder for a good sampling site.
She inhaled the marshy air and proclaimed, “It’s great to be out here on the bay. I don’t even mind the rotten-egg smell from the mud flats.”
Jamal took over steering while Gabby set out the fine-mesh net to drag behind the boat. She made sure the net was flowing properly through the water, while also noting the coordinates of the collecting area. She tried not to be distracted by the air traffic from nearby John F Kennedy International airport. The jets arriving and departing were loud and enormous and occasionally appeared much too close for comfort.
Suddenly, an osprey appeared hovering briefly overhead before gliding away.
“Amazing!” Gabby said. The bird had snatched a striped bass from the water with its sharp talons. The fish looked stunned to be captured and flying, its gaping mouth silhouetted against the bright blue sky. “Looks like an osprey family will be having fish for dinner.”
Jamal checked his watch. “It’s time to pull out the net and move to another spot.”
Gabby pulled the net out of the water and onto the boat deck and carefully emptied the contents caught in the net into a glass jar.
“I see quite a few plastic bits here,” she said, grimacing. She could hear Brian’s ringtone—a siren—blaring from her backpack, but ignored it.
Gabby and Jamal completed their sample-collecting tour of the bay by visiting seven different sites. By late afternoon, they returned to the dock and secured the boat. Back in the lab, Gabby would need to analyze and categorize the contents of the seven glass jars. But first she retrieved her phone from her backpack and listened to Brian’s voicemail.
“Jamal, I have to leave urgently,” she said. “It seems my husband has been arrested.”
* * *
The police officer had donned blue rubber gloves and was removing a pair of handcuffs from his duty belt. “Sit your ass down on the curb, sir. Now. What’s your name?”
“And, Brian, what were you doing racing down the sidewalk on your hoverboard in the nude?”
Brian explained about the suspicious drone he had spotted flying directly above him while hoverboarding inside the nature camp. Finding an exit gate in one of the hedgerows, he told the officer how he had chased the drone. It had been quickly escaping from his airspace and he had to act fast. Unfortunately, someone had called the police to report a naked man recklessly operating a hoverboard in public.
* * *
Brian sat in a corner waiting for Gabby to arrive. After being brought into the stationhouse, he had been uncuffed and ordered to remove his green toe shoes so they could be searched.
The arresting officer had snickered, and then told the booking sergeant that the suspect should be charged with indecent exposure, adding that the suspect had not been self-gratifying. The sergeant had asked Brian for some identification.
“I’m sorry, sir. I have literally nothing on me,” Brian answered, emphasizing the word nothing. However, the stern visage behind the desk was unmoved by Brian’s attempt at humor.
Brian was handed a Tyvek onesie to put on and taken to be fingerprinted and photographed. The nostalgia tattoo that he wore on his left calf was also photographed. The tattoo of his old red Volkswagen Golf had seemed like a celebration in 1984, but now looked sad.
Brian was charged with a misdemeanor, given a court date, and released on his own recognizance. Allowed to make one phone call, Brian had left the urgent voicemail for Gabby to come and pick him up at the police station.
* * *
When Gabby saw Brian sitting in the corner in his paper suit, she stopped in her tracks.
“What the hell, Brian! I mean! What! The! Hell!” She threw a pair of pants and a shirt at him. He had asked her to bring him clothes, along with his passport. He would need identification in order to regain entry to the camp.
“Thanks,” he mumbled. He looked at her with eyes that beseeched her to take it easy on him.
“You look ridiculous and feral.” Gabby made no attempt to disguise her disgust at Brian’s attire and his week’s worth of facial hair.
“I’m exhausted and in no mood to listen to much of anything,” she told him when he tried to explain the details of his escapade. “When is your court date?”
“In a week,” Brian said meekly.
She dropped him off by the guardhouse at the camp entrance and wasted no time in getting back on the road to go home.
In the next hour, two notable text messages traveled simultaneously through cyberspace from two different senders to two different recipients. One text landed on Brian’s phone. Safely back in his lodging room at the camp, he noticed Roxanne’s name come up on the screen. Brian felt the color drain from his face when he read her message. WOO-HOO!! THAT’S SOME FANCY FOOTWORK ON YOUR HOVERBOARD, MISTER!! She included a link to a YouTube video with the hashtag #nudedudeonhoverboard that had hundreds of views already.
The other text landed on Gabby’s phone. She pulled over at a highway rest stop to read the message: ROBERT’S GONE!!! RAN AWAY IN THE PARK!!!!! WHEN R U COMING HOME?? She tried to call Shannon, but there was no answer.
What. The. Hell! If anyone heard her yelling as she peeled out of the parking lot to get back on the freeway, she didn’t care.
CHAPTER 11: Lola and Gabby
Gabby was exhausted. What a day! After responding to Brian’s urgent summons to come to the police station to bring him clothes and ID, she drove back to the city and arrived home late in the evening, physically and emotionally depleted. When she walked through the door, she knew what to expect. Shannon blurted the news.
“Mom! Robert’s gone!! He ran away in the park! I looked everywhere!!” Still holding Robert’s leash, she sat slumped on the kitchen floor with a wild-eyed look.
“I know, Shannon. I saw your text. I tried to call you. Calm down and tell me what happened.”
Without stopping, Shannon related the story of Robert’s getaway. “After you left to see Dad, I tried to vacuum Robert here in the kitchen like you wanted. He hated it. He wouldn’t stop squirming and barking. So, I took him to Central Park to brush him. He kept getting tangled in the leash, so I unclipped it—just for a second!—and he ran off!” Shannon’s face was splotchy red and contorted with worry. She handed Robert’s leash to Gabby and sobbed.
“It’s too late to do anything more tonight, dear,” Gabby said. “We’ll get to work first thing tomorrow to find Robert, ok?”
* * *
Up early the next morning, Gabby saw wisps of Robert’s hair scattered on the kitchen floor. She had been too tired to notice it the night before. The dog-grooming attachment lay on the countertop where Shannon had left it.
At breakfast, Shannon repeated the story of losing Robert, as if in the retelling she might devise a happier ending.
“I called for him and looked everywhere, Mom. I asked different people if they’d seen him. By now, someone probably stole him.”
“We’ll find him,” Gabby said. “Don’t worry. We’ll make signs to put up around the neighborhood and in the park.”
“I posted Robert’s picture online last night,” Shannon said, wiping her nose on her pajama sleeve. She had not slept well and neither had Gabby.
Axel came into the kitchen, bringing his “Help Us Find Robert” poster. Gabby grabbed a banana and joined her kids at the table. She told Axel his lost dog poster was perfect. “You drew one ear larger than the other. Exactly like Robert has.
“We’ll take it to the print shop on Tenth Avenue this morning and get some copies made, ok?”
Just then, a loud authoritative bang on the front door startled them.
“Who can that be?” Gabby asked. “Maybe someone found Robert already!”
Peering through the peephole in the front door, she couldn’t get a clear view of the figure standing in the shadows of the hallway. She cracked the door open, leaving the security chain attached, and was surprised to see a uniformed New York City police officer standing there.
“Oh! Good morning, officer. Is this about my husband?” Gabby supposed there could be further fallout from Brian’s misadventure the day before.
“Good morning, ma’am,” the officer said. “I’m here to pick up a Mr. Axel. Does he reside at this address?”
“Ahhh … yesss. My son Axel lives here.” Gabby’s mind was racing as she unhooked the chain and pulled the door open. “May I ask what this is about?”
The cop looked at the piece of paper in his hand.
“Mr. Axel submitted an application to participate in our citizen ride-along program with the New York City Transit Police. His ride-along is scheduled for this morning. I’m here to pick him up.”
“Oh. Ah … just a minute, please, officer.” Gabby craned her head toward the kitchen and yelled. “Axel! Come here right now!” Then turning back to the officer standing in front of her, she continued, “I’m sorry, officer. Mr. Axel is nine years old. He won’t be going on a citizen ride-along with you today.”
Axel, licking peanut butter from his lips, came to the door and was excited to see the policeman. Then he saw his mom’s face. She had the bulging bug-eyes again.
“Apologize for your prank, Mr. Axel. You’re not going on a ride-along with NYPD. And you’ve wasted this good policeman’s time.”
Axel told the officer he was sorry. If he thought the officer might convince his mom to change her mind and let him go on the ride-along, he was mistaken. The tall man in the uniform looked directly at Axel and said in a stern tone of voice, “Young man, I’m going to ignore your fraudulently submitted official ride-along application this time. But, just this once. Next time, there will be consequences. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Axel said in a barely audible voice as he stared at the floor.
Axel didn’t see the tall officer wink at Gabby. She thanked him and closed the door.
“Go get dressed, Axel. We’ll talk about your prank later.”
“Mom! It’s not a prank! It’s for my project! I need to find the best graffiti!” Axel protested loudly.
“What project are you talking about now?” Gabby demanded. “You want the NYPD to help you find graffiti?”
“Yes! Just watch on tv! The police drive around where there’s graffiti!” Axel was passionately certain about that. “I’m going to make a graffiti map of New York,” he continued. “Nobody has done it. It’s important!”
“I’m sorry, Axel, but you are not going out riding with the police to find graffiti,” Gabby said. “Go brush your teeth and get dressed, so you and your sister and I can go out to look for Robert. We’ll put up copies of your poster.”
Axel, sullen and feeling deprived, pretended to snap to attention as he marched down the hallway to the bathroom.
“Tosser, wanker. Tosser, wanker.” Axel barked out the words in place of left, right, left right as he marched.
“What did you say?” Gabby called after him.
“Tosser? Wanker? Where are you getting this language?”
Gabby grabbed her phone to look up the words in the dictionary app. She was pretty sure they were objectionable.
“Cyril says it,” Axel called over his shoulder from down the hall.
“Is Cyril your friend from school?”
“No,” Axel shouted from the bathroom. “He’s from England.”
* * *
Lola and Gabby had a lot to share that afternoon at Café Oh Là Là, so they immediately placed their orders for their usual two pieces of Decadent Death and got out their coloring books. Gabby had almost finished with the intricate dragonfly she had been working on, and Lola had just started coloring a woman wearing a dress made of seashells.
After their desserts were brought to the table, Gabby launched into the latest sorry saga of Brian’s blunders. She brought Lola up to date about his indefinite leave of absence from his job, then continued with the tale of his arrest for indecent exposure. She got to the finale of Robert’s disappearance, and took a breath. “We miss him.” She stopped coloring to eat a bite of Death.
Lola said she was sorry to hear about Robert. “I’m sure he’ll turn up.” She tried to be reassuring before delving into queries about Brian’s predicament.
“What possessed Brian to buy a hoverboard in the first place?” Lola asked.
“Oh, it was because I forgot his birthday this year and he bought the hoverboard as a present to himself,” Gabby said. “Anyway, he forgot my birthday last year, so …”
“I can’t imagine Eddy operating a hoverboard.” Lola chuckled at the thought. “And my Eddy wearing toe shoes? Definitely not! He wouldn’t be caught dead in those.” Lola threw back her head and shut her eyes to savor the hilarious mental image.
“Brian threatened to buy me a pair of toe shoes,” Gabby said seriously. “It pissed me off because he knows I have issues with my webbed toes.” She spit out the words webbed toes like hot vinegar.
Gabby’s physical condition called syndactyly caused a psychological wound that had never fully healed. Her mother, who had achieved some renown as a hand and foot model in her youth, had dreamed of having a daughter who would share her passion and appreciation for beauty. But Gabby had never shown any inclination to pursue modeling. And from the time of Gabby’s childhood, her mother had not let her forget her podiatric deformity, such that the bitterness was now intricately woven into Gabby’s DNA.
“My toes always disappointed my mother.” Gabby paused and took a sip of her americano. “Anyway, Lola. What’s been going on with you? You told me you went swimming and I want to hear all about it!”
Lola was excited to dive into the details of her first dip in the pool.
“Yes! It was so exhilarating! I’m still processing exactly how it all went down. As you can see, I didn’t drown.”
“I never doubted that you would one day get in the pool. I imagine it wasn’t as elegant as you might have hoped. But still, what an accomplishment!” Gabby gave her a high-five.
“No! It was definitely not elegant! When I got in the water, my legs buckled and my butt plunged like a bowling ball to the bottom of the pool,” Lola said. “The rest is a blur.” She skipped over the part when her blood-curdling scream brought the lifeguard running.
“Thank you for encouraging me all this time, Gabby, and never giving up on me,” Lola continued. “Now if I can just get used to getting in the water without hyperventilating. I guess I’m a work in progress.”
“We both are,” Gabby said.
Lola finished her last bite of Death. “I have to keep up with my regular workouts on the rowing machine,” she added. “Oh. Here’s a surprise for you. Eddy is all of a sudden keen on fitness. He’s a regular gym rat now.”
“Eddy? Really? What’s come over him?”
“I’ll tell you what’s come over him,” Lola said. “Her name is Marlena.” Lola described the encounter with Eddy’s vivacious ex-girlfriend from Miami. “When we got home that night, Eddy and I had an in-depth discussion—well, it was more like an inquisition. I got him to reveal why he hates the nickname Lalo. Marlena calls him Lalo. But he won’t let me call him Lalo.”
“And so, what’s the story about Lalo?” Gabby asked.
“Apparently at Eddy’s high school, the girls teased him endlessly with a song they made up about Lalo chavalo, tiny little falo. It means Lalo, the little kid with the tiny penis.”
“Oh, my,” Gabby chortled. “I can well imagine he got tired of hearing that.”
“Now he’s trying to get in shape to impress Miss Miami Killer Heels. She invited us to visit her new spa.”
“Oh-h-h.” Gabby’s inflection and raised eyebrows showed that she agreed with Lola. Eddy’s intentions were suspicious.
“Eddy left for work today wearing a t-shirt with Sizzle or Fizzle! on the front of it,” Lola added. “Whatever the hee-hoo-ha that means.”
Gabby heard her phone chime. It was a hair-on-fire text from Shannon that included a video link. Gabby clicked open the video.
“… What the hell! … What the hell, what the hell, what the hell!” With a look of terror, Gabby handed her phone to Lola. “Check this out!”
The YouTube video with the hashtag #nudedudeonhoverboard had been viewed over two thousand times. The nude dude wearing the lime green toe shoes with the black laces was unmistakably Brian.
Lola was speechless and handed the phone back to Gabby.
“I need to go home,” Gabby said, packing up her markers and coloring book. “Shannon is probably already dead from embarrassment, and I don’t want Axel to see this.”
CHAPTER 12: Lola
“HELP ME! SOMEBODY, PLEASE! I CAN’T SWIM!”
Lola cried out between gulps of air. Her arms thrashed frantically in a circle as if pedaling a runaway bicycle, her fingers clawing at the darkness. Eddy, now wide awake beside her, sat up in bed. He touched Lola’s shoulders to subdue the pedaling.
After three weeks, Lola had made real progress with her swim lessons—her instructor Carol said so. But her vivid nightmares had not subsided.
“Lola, wake up. You’re having another bad dream,” Eddy said.
He switched on the lamp at his bedside. Lola’s eyes opened wide.
“Huh? … Oh … I had the worst nightmare,” she said. “I was in the ocean trying to dog-paddle. Waves crashed over my head and I was gulping water.”
“You’re fine,” Eddy said. “See, you’re dry.”
“My stomach feels queasy,” Lola said, sitting up.
“That’s from gulping too much salt water,” Eddy said, smiling.
“You’re hilarious.” Now awake, Lola climbed out of bed and padded into the bathroom. It was a bit early to get up, but she and Eddy had agreed to go to the gym together before breakfast.
* * *
Eddy fancied himself a connoisseur of ice cream. He had a number of favorite flavors, although some had been discontinued—sent to the flavor graveyard, as he complained to Lola. Fossil Fuel was his all-time favorite flavor. But he also loved Cookie Two Step, Mayan Chocolate, and Key Lime Pie Gelato. He had given Lola strict instructions that if she ever saw those flavors in the grocery freezer section, she was to purchase several pints without hesitation.
Recently though, Eddy had suspended his ice cream consumption and vowed to become a regular visitor to the gym. So far, his vow had not translated into action. He had gone only a few times. Lola was not displeased with this new development, although she was suspicious about Eddy’s reason for his sudden claim of a passion for fitness. It had started immediately after their encounter with the statuesque Marlena who had invited Eddy—and of course Lola who was standing right there—to her spa for a massage.
Eddy wore a new t-shirt to the gym that morning. Never Show Your Hidden Power Level was written across the front.
“Where do you get these odd t-shirts and what does this one mean?” Lola asked.
“I don’t know. It’s just a saying,” Eddy said, looking down at his chest. “I guess it means if you’re a nerd, keep it to yourself.” He seemed distracted.
When she and Eddy got to the gym and headed toward the rowing machines, Lola heard someone call her name. She turned to see a woman—or was it a mirage—approaching. It was 6:00 am. The fellow gym-goer had applied thick foundation and black mascara that looked dangerously heavy. Her plump red lips glistened. Her improbably-colored claret hair was piled and pinned in a gravity-defying coiffure.
“Hi. How are you?” Lola said. She racked her brain but was unable to remember the woman’s name. “I haven’t seen you for a while.” Lola stood transfixed by the woman’s outfit. Shiny black disco pants and a hot-pink sports bra with sequins that jiggled.
“You’re looking very spiffy today,” Lola commented. She looked down at her own baggy purple t-shirt and faded shorts. She hadn’t bothered to run a comb through her hair which she knew looked unruly.
“Oh, yeah,” the woman said nonchalantly. “I have a Zumba class later and I like to look good for that. Anyway, I’m not as natural as you.”
“Well,” Lola said, “Nice chatting. I should join my husband on the machines. See you later.”
“Yes. I’m natural,” Lola muttered, as she walked away. She joined Eddy who was seated on one of the rowing machines with his feet strapped into the foot pads. Lola hopped on the machine next to him.
“Eddy, warn me the next time you see Miss Zumba walking toward me, ok?”
Eddy muttered something that she couldn’t hear.
Lola started rowing, keeping a steady rhythm. She liked to maintain a moderate stroke rate. Nothing too crazy. After a few minutes, she threw a furtive glance in Eddy’s direction. He wasn’t pushing his shoulder blades down when he rowed. After five minutes, their two machines were wildly out of sync. Eddy’s pace had slowed considerably. He struggled to stop hyperventilating.
Lola kept up her moderate pace while Eddy clearly was not having fun.
“Eddy, c’mon! Only ten minutes to go! You can do it! Show your hidden power level!”
Eddy, now listing at 45 degrees on his barely moving machine, was in no mood for Lola’s cheerleading. He brought the machine to a halt and announced he had had enough for one day. He extracted his feet from the foot pads and got up to leave.
“Don’t try to keep my morale up,” he called over his shoulder as he drooped toward the exit. “That just makes me mad.”
When Lola returned from the gym, Eddy had left for work. Mo and April were eating breakfast—their usual cinnamon bagels and yogurt—and having a spat.
April turned to Lola. “Mom, tell Mo I could never eat raw meat. If fire wasn’t invented, I would be a vegetarian.”
“Stop saying fire was invented,” Mo interrupted her. “Fire was discovered.”
“I don’t care. I’ll be a vegetarian,” April said with conviction. “I won’t eat raw meat.”
“Girls, finish your breakfast please,” Lola said. “April, we’re not going to eat raw meat. That I can say for sure.”
* * *
Riding the subway to her swimming lessons had become less of an ordeal after Carol told Lola to leave her swim vest, arm floats, flippers, and three pool noodles at home. Now Lola carried a small gear bag, much less cumbersome, that made her feel practically like a legitimate swimmer. She once read an article about Dr. Sylvia Earle whose life-long passion was underwater exploration. Lola longed to emulate Dr. Earle’s passion but worried that she would discover otherwise. She worried that her phobia-jumbee was so entrenched and so powerful that she would never overcome it and never be able to keep her promise to April.
After Lola’s unceremonious initial introduction to the pool, Carol started off the next few lessons by holding Lola’s hands and helping her into the shallow end. It took every ounce of concentration for Lola to control her breathing and stay calm in the water. Her default mode was rapid, shallow breathing. Carol patiently reminded Lola to relax her shoulders and let go of the tension in her body. When her feet touched the pool bottom, Lola could not imagine lifting them up, touching no hard surface, yet remaining buoyant. How was this liquid going to keep her from sinking … she couldn’t fathom it.
“Hold on to me!” The panic rose in Lola’s voice when Carol took a step away. Then, “Don’t let go of me!” Over and over. The first few weeks of lessons were long hours for both pupil and teacher.
During her most recent lesson, Lola was able to get comfortable with putting her face in the water and floating on her stomach. For a few seconds, at least. Learning to breathe correctly was counterintuitive. “I am not a fish!” she exclaimed to Carol.
It took many attempts and gulps of pool water, but she finally got the hang of inhaling through her mouth above water and pushing the air out through her nose underwater. Breathing this way was the opposite of the method of breathing she had learned over the course of numerous yoga classes. She explained to Carol this was the reason that swimming breathing was a challenge for her.
Eventually, Lola was able to float face-down in the water and let Carol pull her along gently, holding her hands. “I can do the dead-man’s float!” Lola proudly told her family. She had even stopped throwing up in the locker room because she had stopped gulping pool water. She had survived three weeks of swimming lessons.
* * *
Lola arrived at the pool once again on time, greeting Carol with a happy sounding “Here I am. Ready to splash again.” Lola had noticed for the first time that her swimsuit came with a transparent plastic crotch liner. It was about time she peeled it off. Things were looking up.
Getting into the water was no longer an ordeal. Not pleasant exactly, but not terrifying, either. She no longer wanted to automatically escape. “One of these days, I will surprise you,” Lola told Carol. “I will look forward to getting in the water, and I won’t want to get out.”
It was after pulling off her swim cap in the locker room that she caught her breath at the dark clump of hair inside her cap. “Oh! No!” she whispered. She removed the jumble of strands from the cap and held them in her palm, staring. The locker room mirror revealed a small bare spot toward the top of her head. She tore off a paper towel and carefully wrapped the black curls, as one might a sacred relic, and placed the packet in her swim bag. She texted Gabby on her way home.
OMG MY HAIR IS FALLING OUT!!
CHAPTER 13: Gabby
Two and a half days had passed and Robert was still missing. During that time, Shannon had worn only black clothing.
“Why are you dressing like a cat burglar?” Gabby wanted to know on the third day.
“What’s a cat burglar?” Shannon asked.
“Sometime go watch the movie To Catch a Thief. You’ll see. Alfred Hitchcock was a masterful storyteller.” Gabby told how Cary Grant played a thief who wore all black clothing to sneak into buildings in the dark.
“I’m not a thief, mom,” Shannon said. “I’m mourning for Robert.”
On the fourth day, Robert came home. Or, more accurately, was carried like an infant propped against the chest of a young woman who handed him squirming over to Gabby. Relieved and elated, Shannon, Axel, and Gabby took turns gushing and cuddling the runaway, while Robert squeaked in delight, clearly happy to be home.
The rescue-lady had been walking in The Ramble when she noticed a white tail protruding from underneath a black raspberry bush. The woman, a dog lover, had enticed Robert with a piece of shortbread. After two days of contemplating whether she was entitled to finders keepers, her conscience finally goaded her to call the phone number on Robert’s collar.
Gabby gave Robert a big hug and a little belly rub while he licked her face and wagged his tail. “You stink, Robert,” she lovingly told him. “After your romp in the park, you need a bath.”
Shannon quickly changed over to wearing all white. “To show solidarity with all lost Maltese dogs present or past,” she proclaimed.
* * *
Brian was now infamous. The #nudedudeonhoverboard video had been viewed thousands of times, with many commenters posting one-liners that were explicitly anatomical. After only one viewing, Gabby declared her disinterest. Shannon meticulously asserted to all who inquired that she had no connection whatsoever to the nude dude. But she demanded to know from her mom why her dad was away at the nature camp for such a long time. “Is Dad in some kind of trouble?”
“He’s probably in hot water for his hoverboard adventure,” Gabby said. She did not mention that Brian was on indefinite leave of absence from his job for lying. Gabby would need to remind Lola not to confide that information to Mo who would be sure to tell Shannon immediately.
Axel had so far been sheltered from the nude dude storm and Gabby wanted to keep it that way. She had quarantined the family computer in her bedroom closet until she had time to figure out how to manipulate the parental control settings.
Anyway, Axel was busy working out the details of his new research project called My List of 10 New Ways to Use Chopsticks!! Shannon had tried to enlighten her little brother with a reality check—”Chopstick-usage lists are all over the internet. It’s not a new idea”—but Axel would not be deterred.
“My list is going to be my own ideas that I’ve thought up myself,” he told her. “That’s why my project has two exclamation points at the end.”
Shannon rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
* * *
Jamal was already on board the Callisto, waiting for Gabby to arrive. She looked forward to another afternoon on the water collecting samples for her research. She also planned to bring up a topic that was gnawing at her. She hoped Jamal would be able to advise her.
“I sometimes feel like an imposter,” Gabby told Jamal, as she steered the boat out into the open water of Jamaica Bay. “Like I don’t belong in the department. I have anxiety about whether I’m smart enough.”
“That’s not unusual,” Jamal said. “You should just put those feelings aside for now, because there is something else I need to speak with you about. It’s quite urgent.”
What can this be? Gabby wondered.
“Oh,” she said. “What is it?”
“I don’t know how to say this gently, but you’ve been accused of fabricating research data for your project.”
Gabby gripped the helm tightly, reminding herself to focus on driving the boat. “What? It’s not true! Who is accusing me?” Gabby’s face reddened and her throat tightened at the thought of being blamed for such an outrageous thing. It wasn’t true. But would Jamal believe her? She scanned his face for clues that might reveal his thinking.
“I’ve spoken to the department head,” Jamal said. “The accusation against you will be investigated, and if there is merit to the charge it will be referred to the college’s disciplinary committee on fraud.”
“But who would say such a thing?” Gabby wanted to know. “It’s just not true.”
“I can’t give out any more information until the preliminary investigation is completed,” Jamal said in a bureaucratic monotone. He looked glum and was not wearing his Talk Trash t-shirt.
Gabby stayed mostly quiet for the remainder of their time on the water. She concentrated on collecting more water samples, labeling the jars and carefully noting the sample locations. When she allowed her thoughts to stray, they spiraled to a dark place, but with effort she reined them in. I will let myself wallow in self-pity when I get home, she told herself.
* * *
Gabby could not contain her fury. Shannon and Axel, listening to their mother vent on the phone, retreated to the tranquility of their bedrooms. Lola, listening on the other end, tried to console her.
“Who the hee-hoo-ha would accuse you of making up data? And why?”
“I have no idea who is accusing me! None!” Gabby ranted, scouring her mind to come up with any reason for the allegation. “Clearly, I’ve offended someone. Anyway, I have to produce all my research notes, lab notebooks, everything, for the department’s panel. I have nothing to hide. But, what a pain!”
“Hang tough,” Lola told her. “Your innocence will get you through this.”
Gabby thanked Lola for listening. She would wait to tell Brian later. Shannon emerged from her room after hearing her mother’s voice finally go quiet.
“Mom, are you in trouble, too?” Shannon looked worried.
“No, dear. I’m not. I have done nothing wrong. I’m learning about meanness and spite, that’s all.”
CHAPTER 14: Lola
“What are those black marks on your knuckles, April?” Lola took April’s hands and held them for a closer look. “Did you make these marks?”
April tried to pull her hands away from her mom’s grip. She started to cry.
“No. It was a boy in fourth grade. Junia tricked me.”
“What happened? How did Junia trick you?” Lola asked.
April didn’t want to tattle, but finally said “I don’t like Junia.”
“How did Junia trick you?” Lola insisted.
April, too embarrassed to look at her mom, pulled her hands away. “Junia said to come here and Kevin would draw something pretty on my hands. I held out my hands and he made these letters with a marker.”
Holding April’s small hands side-by-side, Lola stared at the black marks, one letter scrawled on the top of eight of April’s knuckles. On her left knuckles it spelled Y-O-U-R, and on the right ones U-G-L-Y.
Lola gave her daughter a hug. “Let’s go wash off these marks. I’ll be calling Ms. Drowne about this. Just remember, April. The boy who did this is a little dummy. He doesn’t even know the difference between your and you are.”
* * *
Lola, wearing her Surly in the Morning baseball cap, arrived at her appointment with the trichologist. Looking around she noticed that only a few of the patients in the waiting room covered their heads. Were the uncovered heads examples of the clinic’s successful hair-loss treatments? she wondered. She wanted to feel hopeful.
Lola told the physician that recently increasing amounts of her hair had fallen out. She was finding dark curls, like tiny abandoned birds’ nests, left behind on her bed pillow, in the shower drain, and inside her swim cap. She wore her baseball cap everywhere in public now, her noticeably thinning hair hidden underneath. She had realized it was time to seek professional treatment.
After reviewing Lola’s medical history and laboratory test results, the specialist told her there was nothing physically wrong with her. “I believe your hair loss is related to stress. Is your life stressful right now?”
“Yes,” Lola said. “Isn’t everyone’s?”
She was told that neither hair transplants nor medications were suitable treatment options for her. Therefore, she should take steps to reduce any obvious sources of stress in her life.
“Well, I’m probably not going to divorce my family,” Lola said, laughing.
“What about swimming?” Gabby asked, when she and Lola spoke later. “Do you think it’s too stressful?”
“I’ve given it a lot of thought,” Lola said. “I’ve made good progress in the water. And I don’t know how I would face my family if I abandoned everything now. I have to keep going. I can’t have this phobia-jumbee controlling my life anymore. Even if it means losing my hair.” She swallowed hard.
“I’m glad you’re sticking with it,” Gabby said. “You’ve come too far to give up now. Anyway, your hair will grow back. Isn’t that what the doctor said?”
“Yes. Wouldn’t it be funny if it grew back a different color?”
“Oh, that would be interesting!” Gabby said. Her phone pinged with a text from Shannon. “I have to go, Lola. My daughter is pestering me to get another dog, a companion for Robert. Which is most definitely not happening.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Lola sounded skeptical.
* * *
Mo was looking forward to the weekend. Her parents had agreed to let her have a DIY beauty party and invite some friends. After Lola had reprimanded Mo for teaching April to twerk, and after they both rejected buying her an expensive new tablet, Lola and Eddy felt slightly guilty. Letting Mo hold her DIY beauty party in the family kitchen over the weekend seemed like a reasonable truce offering.
Mo and Shannon spent the morning shopping for oils, extracts, and beeswax in the East Village. It was a fun outing and they found most of the ingredients they needed. Returning home on the subway, however, they had an unfortunate encounter with a fellow rider.
The subway car was crowded when they got on. A long-legged teenager was man-spreading and there was no room for Mo and Shannon to both sit down. Some coarse language was loudly exchanged about why he was taking up two seats, until he finally got off at the next stop. The girls made a pact to avoid any mention of the shouting match at home.
“My mom will freak out if I tell her,” Mo said. “I’m not supposed to yell at people on the subway in case they’re unhinged.”
“My mom will just blame the victim—that is, us,” Shannon said. “So, yeah. Mum’s the word.” They laughed at the thought of their secret.
Mo and Shannon frequently spent hours online devouring DIY beauty blogs but hadn’t attempted to make any actual cosmetic products. They were excited to give it a try. Lola had donated her old blender to the cause.
“Go ahead and concoct all the lotions and potions you want,” Lola said. “I’ve gotten a good twenty years out of that old blender. I’ve already ordered a new one.”
The girls—Mo, Shannon, and two other invited friends, but not their classmate Claudia whom Shannon had vetoed possibly because of the rude drawing taped in the girl’s bathroom, although Mo wasn’t sure—laid out the raw ingredients on the kitchen counter. Mo took out a selection of cups, spoons, whisks, and bowls from the cupboard. For this first party, they decided to start modestly and make just two products, a lip balm and a moisturizing shampoo.
“I check the mirror every day to make sure I don’t have crow’s feet like my mom has,” Shannon said. She got the three others to promise they would make the recipe for Age Defying Cinnamon Scented Face Cream at their next party.
While the beeswax and coconut oil for the lip balm melted on the stove, Mo started dumping the shampoo ingredients into the blender.
“Don’t eat the ingredients!” Shannon said, as she watched Mo scoop errant drips of coconut milk and honey off the side of the blender jar. Mo added the remaining ingredients in the recipe, substituting an entire one-ounce bottle of peppermint extract for the teaspoon of castor oil which they had not been able to find on their shopping trip. She put the blender on the highest speed for a minute and poured the finished shampoo mixture into four empty jars. The strong aroma of peppermint wafted through the kitchen.
Meanwhile, the melted lip-balm mixture on the stove was ready for some color. The recipe called for adding beet powder. The girls unanimously agreed that they wanted a dark red color. Shannon carefully added the whole packet of powdered beets into the burbling mixture with a vigorous stir.
“That’s a very red lip balm,” Lola observed when she came to the kitchen to check on their progress.
The party was over and each girl had a jar of peppermint shampoo and a discarded prescription bottle containing lip balm to take home. Despite realizing too late that they had forgotten to add one tablespoon of vinegar to the shampoo recipe—”It’s such a small amount, it can’t be that important”—the girls declared the DIY beauty party a success.
* * *
Mo gasped when she saw her mom’s hair.
“Mom! Oh, my god!” Lola’s bald spot, which had been the size of a doughnut hole on the previous day, was now the size of a doughnut.
Willing to try almost anything for her thinning hair, Lola had shampooed the day after the beauty party with her daughter’s home-made peppermint concoction. She now held in the palm of her hand a wet clump of detached hair.
Mo looked frightened. “The beauty blog said the shampoo would make hair thicker and fuller!” Her lips—stained an injured red—accentuated her look of alarm.
“Mo, I can’t say for sure that your shampoo did this,” Lola said, trying to console her daughter. “My thinning hair is caused by stress according to my doctor. And it’s probably going to get worse before it grows back. So, I wouldn’t worry about the shampoo. Anyway, my whole head smells like peppermint tea. I love that!”
CHAPTER 15: Gabby
Gabby discovered the typed note on plain paper in her department mailbox which she always checked before going to class. The note comprised two sentences.
I know what you’re doing. And you’re going to suffer.
After an epic argument between her and Shannon while shopping earlier that morning, Gabby was in no mood to receive a mysterious threat. She was under investigation now for research fraud. Was this note somehow related?
Earlier, Gabby had taken her daughter to buy underwear at Macy’s in Herald Square. Gabby had vetoed all of Shannon’s selections, including the thong underpants and sexy red lace push-up bra. “I told you,” Gabby said, “lined is fine; padded is not fine.” Shannon’s high-decibel meltdown in the changing room embarrassed them both. “My teenaged daughter wearing bombshell lingerie?” Gabby shouted rhetorically. “I don’t think so!” Mother and daughter had left the store sulking, without making a purchase.
And now the enigmatic note in Gabby’s mailbox caused her further consternation. What was going on? She had made no enemies at school, as far as she was aware. She didn’t spend much time on campus, basically going to her classes and then home. Twice a week she went out on the boat with Jamal to collect water samples for her research. What thing was she doing that the note referred to? She wasn’t sure if she should show the note to anyone. She decided to stow it in her bag for the time being.
Jamal had given her the list of materials that the investigators requested. They wanted to examine copies of all her class notes, original lab notebooks, and auxiliary study aids. The investigators had already searched her student email account without notifying her, which Jamal said was permitted. He did not offer to help her navigate through the investigation, however. Jamal seemed aloof to Gabby now, but maybe she only imagined it.
* * *
Gabby promised the kids a pancake supper that night. She wasn’t in a good frame of mind for cooking but was determined to make good on her promise. Axel liked to hang around in the kitchen when his mom made pancakes in order to eat the first one hot off the griddle. He liked to watch the butter on top melt first before pouring on a heavy dose of maple syrup.
“Mom, what does free range mean?” Axel stood near the counter, reading the egg carton label.
“It means the chickens are free to walk around wherever they want. They’re not restricted.”
“I want to be free range.”
“That’s not going to happen for a while, Axel.” Gabby, subdued, poured the batter onto the griddle. Axel came to the stove because he liked to watch the blisters form on the hot batter and then burst to release their steam. He was startled to notice tears on his mother’s cheeks.
“Mom, why are you crying?”
“Don’t worry, Axel. I’m ok,” Gabby said. “It’s alright to cry.” She flipped over the first pancake.
Axel thought of an idea to make his mom smile. “Mom, bend down.” When Gabby crouched to Axel’s level, he clapped his hands loudly over her head, then trickled his fingers down her face.
“I cracked an egg on your head,” he giggled.
“Oh, no! I needed that egg to make more pancakes,” Gabby said winking back her tears. She gave Axel a hug, a longer one than usual.
* * *
The email to Gabby from the dean’s committee of inquiry stated that the allegation against her would be handled expeditiously. The first step would be fact-finding, including a thorough review of all materials that might support or refute the allegation of fraud. In addition, the committee would be interviewing the complainant—who had requested anonymity—and, of course, Gabby. From now on Gabby would be referred to as the respondent. Her interview would take place the following week.
Gabby got busy collecting every shred of evidence to support her innocence. The high-voltage cascade of anger that consumed her for the next few days meant that she skimped on sleep. She needed to study for her exam in Advanced Genome Engineering and wasn’t sure when she would find the time.
When Gabby looked in the mirror one morning, she saw a 42-year-old woman with pallid skin wearing deeply dark circles under her eyes. Besides sleep deprivation, do I have a vitamin deficiency? she wondered. She would try to remember to take a daily vitamin and get more sleep. Too bad she was not able to quell her fears about the impending investigation.
* * *
Gabby heard Robert squeaking and jumping as soon as the front door opened, very excited about something. Gabby went to the kitchen to see what all the commotion was about.
“Hi Mom,” Shannon said. She was holding a small white dog in her arms. “This is Chicky. She’s a maltipoo.”
Gabby stood speechless for a minute. She looked at Shannon and then she looked at Chicky. And then she looked back at Shannon. “Why did you bring home a dog, Shannon?”
“I’m dogsitting Chicky. It’s temporary.” When Shannon set the little dog on the floor, Chicky made quiet clucking sounds. Robert was instantly smitten.
“As you recall, Shannon, I explicitly said no! As in, no more dogs in our house!” Gabby struggled to rein in her temper.
“Mom, don’t have a cow. I’m just dogsitting. It’s temporary. Not a big deal.” Shannon had pulled out her phone to video Robert and Chicky playing.
“And how long is Chicky going to be with us?” Gabby asked.
“Ohh … I guess for the summer,” Shannon said.
Chicky was already making herself at home. Who could say whether she and Robert sensed a shared ancestry through their maltese bloodline. With their sniffing and nudging, they clearly adored each other already.
Gabby was not thrilled about having another pet in the house, although she later conceded to Lola that little Chicky was very sweet.
* * *
Gabby called Brian to let him know that she and the kids would be coming to visit him that weekend. She told him about the impending investigation and said she was desperate for a change of scenery. “I hope you have some clean clothes to wear so the four of us can go out to dinner someplace nice,” she added.
Having visited Brian at the camp twice before, Gabby resisted spending much time inside the grounds. “I know it’s clothing optional, but the three of us would rather stay in town and meet up with you there,” she told Brian. “This weekend, we’ll be coming with two dogs. Thanks to Shannon, Robert has a companion now. When we get there, you can meet Chicky.”
Brian did not argue or question. He and Gabby had been married long enough that he could sense over the telephone when her mood darkened. What he didn’t sense at that moment, however, was the stew of anger, regret, resilience, perseverance, and fear simmering in the mind of his wife just then. The stew hadn’t reached a full rolling boil yet, though. That would happen later.
The mail delivery that day brought a surprise. An elegant vellum envelope addressed to Brian. Gabby examined the lettering written in fancy calligraphy. She detected a faint scent of verbena. There was no return address. She tucked the mysterious letter into her bag to bring to Brian on the weekend. What new torment awaited? she wondered.
CHAPTER 16: Lola
The minute Lola saw her mother-in-law walking toward them through the park, she faulted Eddy for inviting his mother to their family picnic. Eddy’s mom was no treat to be around under the best of circumstances. She was a difficult and demanding woman. And Lola had a strong sense that today was going to be more difficult than usual with her mother-in-law, the woman Eddy still called Mami.
Lola’s first glance in the mirror that morning alarmed her. Seemingly overnight, the patchy bald spots on her head had increased in number and size, like pools of melted candle wax spreading over her scalp. In a panic she asked Eddy to get out his beard trimmer and shave her head, which he did. She would let others assume that her hairlessness was a fashion statement.
Mami was talking a mile a minute as she unpacked the picnic basket of food she brought. “Lola, what’s that silly cap you’re wearing, Surly in the Morning? Here, eat some tostones. I stayed up all night making them.”
The blizzard of words that blew around the picnic table during the next three hours left Lola angry and exhausted. They had barely finished eating Mami’s flan—Lola had to admit it was muy rico—when Mami brought up Marlena.
“I saw your gorgeous ex-girlfriend on Facebook, Eddy!” Mami proceeded to subject Lola to a series of Eddy-and-Marlena stories from their high school days. Eddy chimed in with his own recollections.
“Marlena is still the cat’s meow, isn’t she!” Mami exclaimed. “Oh, to have some of that gorgeous hair!”
Biting her tongue, and aware of her baldness under her cap, Lola finally changed the subject to relate her progress regarding swimming lessons. Mami didn’t skip a beat. “Oh, that’s nice. I wouldn’t dream of going in the water.”
When April started whining to go home, Lola silently thanked her daughter, relieved to have an excuse to finally pack up the picnic detritus and escape from her mother-in-law. Mami pressed them to take home some plastic containers stuffed with leftovers. In all fairness Mami was a good cook, although Mo complained on the ride home about the mystery meat that grandma put in the lasagna.
“Excuse me, young lady,” Eddy said. “Mami makes the best pastelon anywhere!”
The fact that Eddy had not made any overt attempt to fend off Mami’s pokes and put-downs of Lola, left Lola seething all the way home.
“I’ve always been a disappointment to your mother, Eddy! I know that. She sure does idolize Marlena! I could have lived without hearing all those stories about you and her. Especially about her gorgeous hair!” Lola emphasized the words with a sarcastic grimace. “And her liposuction? Why the hee-hoo-ha would Marlena post that on her Facebook page? Maybe she gets paid to advertise it …”
“You’re not a disappointment,” Eddy cut in. “I don’t know why Mami goes on and on about Marlena. Why don’t you get liposuction then, if you want to. There’s nothing stopping you. After your hair grows back, maybe.”
“Why not get liposuction, Eddy? Why not get liposuction? I’ll tell you why not get liposuction! Because I am perfectly 100 percent happy with the way I look! That’s why!” Lola was too overwrought to notice that passengers seated nearby stared at her, then looked away, then stared again.
For the rest of their subway ride home from the Bronx, not a word was spoken except by April, who was oblivious to the pall of gloom that had descended over her unhappy family. She reminded her mom that Junia’s party was the very next day. After being disinvited by her classmate Junia, April had been unceremoniously reinvited. She was looking forward to the big party. While Lola and Mo rode in silence staring at their feet, Eddy absentmindedly rubbed at a food stain on his t-shirt that bore the slogan Tread Lightly—advice he unfortunately had forgotten to follow. Eddy had trod recklessly into roiling marital quicksand and would spend the next several days trying to placate his way out.
* * *
The swim instructor Carol didn’t say too much about Lola’s shaved head. “I like your new look,” was all she said, and smiled when Lola arrived for her penultimate week of swim lessons. Lola was uncharacteristically quiet that day. She and Eddy still had not spoken in any meaningful way following the ire-inducing picnic with Mami. Lola expected an apology from Eddy after he took Mami’s side “on everything,” and made it worse, much worse, with his liposuction comment. Eddy expected an apology from Lola because of her aloof disrespect toward his mother. Neither Lola nor Eddy wanted to reconcile just yet.
While Lola had made a lot of progress in the water—extraordinary progress, according to Carol—she was not confidently ready for her Beginner’s final exam in one week. She had managed to dog-paddle across the shallow end of the pool one time only. Her sidestroke was coming along, but it needed much work. Thankfully, Carol said her water treading was passable.
Carol made Lola practice floating on her back and then standing up, and then floating on her stomach and then standing up. Carol said it was vital that Lola be able to regain a vertical position from both the back-floating and front-floating positions. For some reason, these maneuvers in the shallow end of the pool had turned out to be a challenge for Lola. She practiced them over and over until vertigo set in. Still, she was proud when she thought about how far she had come in the weeks since her first dramatic plunge to the bottom of the pool.
Lola was motivated by a sense of combativeness. More than ever, she was determined to conquer the phobia that had controlled so much of her life with such force. She drew a bright yellow sun on her calendar to mark the day in one week’s time when she planned to celebrate a momentous achievement. To be able to say “I can swim.” And although Eddy was clueless now and again, she wasn’t ready to give up on him.
* * *
April had jabbered about Junia’s party from the moment she got up. And when Lola dropped her daughter off at Junia’s house, it made her happy to imagine all the fun that April and her school friends would be having that afternoon. It was common knowledge that Junia’s mother was a professional event planner who went all out, sparing no expense, when putting on a party for her daughter Junia.
What Lola did not imagine, however, was getting a phone call to come and pick up her daughter at Junia’s house an hour before the party was supposed to end. What the hee-hoo-ha had happened now? Lola wondered. I hope those girls weren’t mean to April again.
She went to collect April and asked her immediately what had happened. April was unfazed. In fact, she seemed excited.
“We did crafts with Play-Doh,” April said. “We made fruits with it, like strawberries and watermelon. Junia said hers looked so real they were good enough to eat and she ate a bunch of them.”
“Oh, oh,” Lola said.
April continued. “When Junia started throwing up her mom took her to the hospital and we all had to go home.”
“Oh, dear. That’s too bad.”
“And Mommy, look what I got!” Beaming, April held up a large bag with her take-home party favor, a Play-Doh Party Pack.
“It has ten different colors! … I hope Junia doesn’t die.”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” Lola said, squelching a tiny smile.
CHAPTER 17: Gabby
What started as a reasonably good day ended with two troubling developments. First, Gabby learned quite by accident that Shannon had been routinely disposing of her daily-wear contact lenses down the bathroom drain. Gabby blew a fuse.
“How could you think that adding more plastic to the earth’s water supply was ok? Here I am, your own mother, taking classes and doing research to find solutions to the plastic problem! I mean, what the hell, Shannon!”
Shannon allowed as how she didn’t think it was a big deal—”It’s just a couple of tiny pieces!”—and went to her room to sulk.
The second surprise was even more alarming. It came in the form of a video clip from Brian. A group of adult campers held a late-night talent show and a fellow camper had filmed Brian’s karaoke performance of “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga. He had received a standing ovation. Gabby viewed the video several times in stunned silence. She had no idea that Brian knew the song or any of the dance moves, let alone that he could channel Tony Manero while wearing toe shoes. She noticed that he had removed his glasses before doing his number. Who was this gyrating nude man in the video? Was her husband turning into a feral satyr?
* * *
Gabby told Brian that she and the kids would be coming to visit him at the camp on Saturday and arriving around lunchtime. Axel wanted to go back to the restaurant in town called The Last Straw. He had collapsed in giggles when he first saw the hand-lettered sign posted on the window by the front entrance: “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Pants, No Service.” It was a friendly reminder to patrons coming from the nature camp nearby.
Although the co-proprietors of The Last Straw had divorced recently, they continued to operate the popular eatery together. The wife worked the breakfast and lunch runs, and the husband the dinner hour. Thankfully, the arrangement seemed to be working so far. The food was as tasty as always.
Brian, clothed, was waiting in front of the camp’s main lodge when Gabby and the kids drove up. Pets were not allowed in The Last Straw and it was too warm to leave Robert and Chicky in the car. The dogs would stay in Brian’s air-conditioned room while their humans went to lunch.
“Chicky’s cute,” Brian said, seeing her for the first time. “Robert seems very attached to her.”
“Well, Chicky is with us temporarily, so none of us should get too attached,” Gabby said.
They all agreed that the food at The Last Straw was worth the wait. Axel loved his pancakes with a bowl of fresh mixed berries on the side. He was the last to finish eating as he insisted on eating his berries in alphabetical order: first the blackberries, then blueberries, the raspberries, and lastly the strawberries.
Gabby had avoided discussing the video of Brian’s risqué karaoke performance in front of the kids. After first viewing it, she blasted him with a series of irate text messages and then let it rest. As far as she knew, the video had not been shared with anyone else. She ultimately convinced herself that if Brian wanted to be a middle-aged exhibitionist, why should she care.
With lunch finished, Axel and Shannon left the table to go outside. Axel wanted to climb on the jungle jim that the proprietors had erected for the younger customers to enjoy. While the server brought refills of coffee, Gabby retrieved the fancy envelope from her bag.
“Here.” She handed it to Brian. “This came in the mail for you.”
“Oh.” Brian examined the gold lettering on the soft cream-yellow paper. “I wonder what this could be.” He tore at the flap and removed a matching invitation made out to himself and “Guest.”
“Who is it from?” Gabby asked. “What does it say?”
Brian read the text silently. “It’s a wedding invitation,” he said, and handed the card to Gabby.
Gabby carefully read the details beautifully written in calligraphy.
“Oh! We are invited to attend the nuptials … of Roxanne … and Tessa. Well, then!”
* * *
Brian looked deflated and somewhat dazed when Gabby and the kids left to return home to Manhattan. Gabby took the fancy-lettered invitation—the “bombshell” as she later described it to Lola—with her. Apparently, Brian’s perception of the nature of his relationship with Roxanne, if you could call it that, had been way off base. He had completely misread Roxanne’s level of interest in him, let alone her intentions. Her outgoing nature and uninhibited youthfulness had fooled the middle-aged Brian into believing there was something special developing between them. And, of course, Roxanne had neglected to mention Tessa.
Gabby hadn’t sung in months. The drive home felt like the right time to exercise her vocal cords. I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time … were the lyrics that popped into her head and she belted them out with gusto.
* * *
Gabby had circled Tuesday, August 13th, on the calendar. Today she would learn the findings of the graduate program’s committee of inquiry regarding the accusations of fraud and misconduct that an anonymous person had made against her. If the fact-finding committee found credible evidence for the charges, the dean would launch a formal investigation. Gabby had provided all the requested data records, test results, and other research information to the committee to support her case. It was out of her hands now.
A lovely surprise that morning was a bouquet of daisies from Lola with a note that read, “These flowers symbolizing innocence are a reminder that you have truth on your side. Stay strong.”
Axel came to the breakfast table and said he had an announcement to make.
“Today is International Left-Hander’s Day, Mom. How can we celebrate?”
“Well,” Gabby said, “since you are left-handed Axel, I will make you a special dinner: leftovers!” She quickly added with a wink that the special leftovers would be macaroni and cheese, Axel’s favorite.
“When is it right-hander’s day, then?” Shannon asked, pretending to pout.
“Every day except for today, dear,” Gabby said. Her phone, chiming, announced two new text messages. The first was from Brian. After Gabby’s bruising reaction to his karaoke number, and his own tenuous employment situation regarding misconduct, Brian kept his text message short and to the point: “Good luck today.”
The second was a text from Lola: “Call me if u have time.”
Shannon and Axel saw that trouble was brewing the minute their mom finished her phone call with Lola. She had that look, the bulging bug eyes. Shannon and Axel both looked away. Axel held his breath.
“So. Shannon.” Gabby glared at her daughter. “Look at me when I’m speaking to you. It’s time you told me the truth about Chicky. Let’s have it.”
Shannon’s attempt to wiggle and squirm and protest her way out of a frank confession, failed because Gabby now knew everything. Shannon’s best friend Mo had blabbed to her mom who then spilled the beans to Gabby. Little Chicky the maltipoo was not a “temporary” dog, as Shannon had claimed. Chicky was for keeps.
Lola revealed to Gabby the true story of Chicky as told to her by Mo. Lilith, a classmate, was moving away and her family had to leave Chicky behind. Shannon had told Lilith on the spur of the moment that she and her family desperately wanted another dog and would love to have Chicky. Shannon knew it was dishonest, yet she convinced herself that the opportunity that landed in her lap was a good deed.
Shannon knew she would have to admit the lie eventually. Certainly by the end of summer. She didn’t think it would be this soon. She got weepy as she explained to Gabby the reason for her fib.
“Robert needed a companion, but you wouldn’t even consider it and I knew you would be mad, so I had to say it was temporary, otherwise Chicky would have been homeless.”
“Well,” Gabby said, “I suspect the fact that so many of your high-school friends have their own designer dogs had a lot more to do with why we now have a maltipoo. Anyway, I have to be at a meeting on campus in 30 minutes, so please keep an eye on your brother … and the dogs … and we’ll talk about this some more when I get home.”
* * *
The truth was, indeed, on Gabby’s side. The committee of inquiry found no evidence that Gabby had engaged in scientific fraud or misconduct. The committee chair told Gabby the case was closed. Gabby was handed a respondent’s copy of the final written report that explained how the committee arrived at their decision. A copy of the report also was sent to the complainant, who remained anonymous.
The investigators had added a footnote to the report. It mentioned that they found some evidence that the allegation against Gabby had been maliciously motivated, although they could not prove it. They noted that the respondent’s academic adviser had been questioned and that he claimed a conflict of interest and was not helpful to the investigation. Gabby’s simmering stew of frustration started bubbling to a boiling anger.
Jamal was sitting at his desk when a furious Gabby walked into his office, her demeanor betraying a dark mood, her tone all business. “Hello professor,” Gabby said. “Do you have a few minutes?”
Jamal was startled to see that it was Gabby who addressed him so formally. “Yes, of course, Gabby. Come in.”
Although her name was cleared, Gabby had to find out why Jamal—her own adviser—had not defended her. She got right to the point. “I just came from meeting with the committee of inquiry. Their final report says you didn’t speak up for me, that you had a conflict of interest. What’s that all about?”
Jamal cleared his throat. “First of all, Gabby, I am thankful that the committee arrived at the correct decision based on the evidence. There was never any doubt in my mind as to your innocence.” Jamal spoke stiffly, with hesitation, his words without emotion. “And when you showed me the threatening note you found in your mailbox, although I didn’t say so at the time, I had a strong suspicion who the author was. In fact, more recently this person has inadvertently admitted that she wanted to make trouble for you.”
“Who wanted to make trouble for me? And why?” Gabby was incredulous.
“I won’t name her explicitly because she’s another graduate student.”
Gabby shook her head in disbelief. “So, it’s a woman. What the hell.”
While Jamal continued speaking, he looked past Gabby at the window behind her. Gabby stayed laser-focused on Jamal, her face frozen and eyes unblinking to take in every word of his explanation.
“After you and I went out several times on Callisto, this particular student started to behave in a peculiar way. She made several pejorative comments, including a snarky comment about our t-shirts. I shouldn’t be telling you this … I started getting a possessive, jealous vibe from this person. I’m fairly certain she wrote the note and lodged the complaint just to cause you some trouble.”
“Well, she succeeded,” Gabby said. “And you couldn’t go to bat for me.”
“I’m sorry.” Jamal stared at some papers on his desk. “This is new territory for me. Dealing with a graduate student who thinks she’s infatuated with me is not what I planned this semester.”
“Hm-mm,” Gabby murmured. “Well, … thanks. I guess … see you around.” She turned and left.
* * *
Chicky scampered to the door to greet Gabby when she returned. Gabby scooped up the pup to snuggle the white fur and catch a tear. “I have to admit, Chicky. You really are cute.”
By now, Gabby had mentally composed the email she planned to send to the head of the department. She typed it out, reread it twice, double-checked the address and hit send. She asked to be assigned immediately to a different adviser. She imagined how her path to graduation might now be littered with landmines planted by some lovesick Ms. Loony Tunes. It was worrisome. Getting her degree was mission critical. Having to deal with random acts of malice with no support from her adviser was out of the question. Her association with Jamal must end.
CHAPTER 18: Lola
“Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, sometimes I get a good feeling … ” Lola’s phone alarm came alive with Flo Rida’s Good Feeling. Waking to the song, she usually got out of bed and danced a little merengue into the bathroom. This morning, however, as she leaned over to press the off button she was aware of a jolt of pain in the side of her face. Damn. She must have been grinding her teeth and clenching her jaw again in her sleep. It was stress related.
In the kitchen, Lola’s eyes rested on the dirty dishes she left in the sink and pots on the stove from dinner the night before. With Eddy and the kids away, she had slacked off on cleaning. She tried to remember which drawer had the microwavable heating pad. Heat was the only thing she could think of right now. Heat on the side of her face would help relieve the excruciating pain.
She knew from experience it would take about 30 minutes until she felt functional. That would still leave enough time to get ready. Carol had already sent a text reminding her it was a “BIG DAY!” As if Lola could forget that today was her swim test. She already knew how she would announce her momentous news—assuming she passed the test. She would proclaim to everybody, “I am a swimmer now! Can you believe it?!”
So far this morning, events were conspiring against her. TMJ jaw pain, hair loss, and aquaphobia. How did I get so lucky. Lola indulged in self-pity for a moment. At least Eddy had offered to take the kids to Mami’s house for a sleepover. The apartment was quiet so she could prepare for the impending challenge that would be life-changing if she passed: her Final Exam for Beginning Swimmers.
Lola’s scalp looked particularly angry that morning, a splotchy patchwork of red irritated skin with random zones of black stubble. How could her full head of hair ever grow back if she couldn’t de-stress … Well, she couldn’t worry about that just now.
Her phone pinged with a message from Gabby. There was no text; just a long sequence of emojis: a swimmer, a beach, a wave, praying hands, clapping hands, fist bump, lucky shamrock, face with heart eyes, cat with heart eyes, hearts in many colors, flowers, and bottle of champagne. Lola looked forward to celebrating her achievement with her best friend. It was a long time coming and Gabby had been her chief cheerleader and cajoler.
With the heating pad and some pain medicine, Lola’s jaw started to feel better. She would have to multi-task to clean up the kitchen and get herself dressed and ready to leave. She envied those who seemed to have the luxury of doing only one thing at a time. Like the young woman she observed once who stopped in the middle of the crosswalk while pedestrians hustled and jostled past her and calmly applied lip balm that she took from her purse. That was single-mindedness.
Lola identified more with the woman she recently saw riding the subway. The woman, wearing headphones and clenching her Metrocard between her teeth, balanced an open book on her lap, gripped a large coffee flask between her knees, and meticulously applied mascara while holding a mirror and bobbing her head to a tune only she could hear. That was impressive multi-tasking.
Lola put on her swimsuit under her street clothes. She saw in the mirror that the color of her irritated scalp and her red swimsuit almost matched. She had worn the cherry red suit throughout the ten weeks of lessons with Carol. The fabric now had a residual chlorine odor that tingled her nostrils when she put it on. It was an oddly reassuring scent. Like the baker whose clothes always smell of flour and yeast, the chlorine was an olfactory reminder that she might soon be a member of a special group—swimmers. Nevertheless, she already had decided to treat herself to a fresh, new swimsuit if she passed her test.
* * *
Carol waited with her clipboard by the edge of the pool. When Lola emerged from the locker room, the sight of the shimmery water took her breath away for a second. This was going to be her time to prove to herself that her spirit would not be defeated by fear.
“Good morning!” Carol brightened when she saw Lola. Lola smiled back, then gasped. She caught sight of her family standing off to the side. What the hee-hoo-ha were Eddy, Mo, and April doing there. April waved “Hi Mommy!” Mo was already filming with her cellphone. Eddy smiled awkwardly; he had shaved his head! Across his chest, the slogan on his t-shirt proclaimed “Feminist.”
Lola had absolutely no idea why she did what she did next. It was not premeditated. Her autonomic nervous system had sent a fight-or-flight proposal. Lola’s brain chose flight. She leaped to the edge of the pool and propelled herself upward, suspended above the water in her red suit for a microsecond, before crashing with a thunderous splash. Carol said it was the most magnificent belly flop she had ever seen!
The remainder of Lola’s hour was a blur. Although her family was there cheering her on, Lola resolutely refused to succumb to nerves. After her big-splash entry into the pool—the entire sequence filmed in exquisite close-up by Mo—she quickly recovered her composure. Carol’s relentless practice sessions had paid off. Lola was able to gracefully achieve verticalness from a prone position. Carol made a note of Lola’s quick recovery.
Lola completed and passed the test, swimming unassisted to the opposite end of the pool, treading water for 30 seconds, and floating on her back until Carol gave her a thumbs up. Lola was officially a swimmer. It felt surreal.
Mo continued to film as Lola triumphantly ascended the pool steps.
“I’m a swimmer! Can you believe it?!” Her family gathered to give hugs and high fives.
“Mommy, mommy! When can we go to the beach?” April was ecstatic at the thought of finally going to Florida to swim and collect seashells.
Lola learned that Eddy’s plan all along had been to show up unannounced with Mo and April to provide moral support during her big test. Despite Mami’s strenuous objections, Eddy had shaved his head the night before to show solidarity with his bald wife.
“Thank you, Eddy,” Lola said, still dripping. “Both of us growing back our hair can be our special bonding experience.” Neither she nor Eddy mentioned the tears they noticed in each other’s eyes.
CHAPTER 19: Gabby
“Why are you staring at your belly button?” Gabby stood in the doorway of Axel’s room.
“I’m navel gazing,” Axel said. “My teacher said it’s what you do when you think hard about one thing.”
“Well, think hard about coming to the kitchen, please. I have some news to share.”
Axel, Shannon, and Brian joined Gabby at the kitchen table. She set Chicky down on the floor—she and the little maltipoo had become quite fond of each other—and picked up the magazine that she’d placed in front of her.
“You might be surprised to know that I am featured in an article in this month’s campus magazine.” Gabby opened to the page to show them. “If you were to read the article, you would learn that I am the oldest woman graduate in the engineering school this year. But more importantly, you would learn that I’ve been awarded a coveted paid internship—which I have already accepted.”
“Congratulations! That’s wonderful, dear,” Brian said beaming. “How exciting! All your hard work has paid off.”
“There’s more,” Gabby said. “The internship means I will be spending the next six months on a research ship in the Pacific Ocean. I get to join a team of dedicated scientists who are studying plastic pollution in the marine environment.”
The congratulatory gleam in Brian’s eyes quickly receded as he digested this new information. Shannon looked dumbfounded and said nothing. Axel was the next to speak.
“Woo-hoo!” Axel pumped his fist in the air. “I’ve always wanted to live on a boat! Can I come home on the weekends?”
Shannon turned to Axel with a look of disdain.
“Dummy. Mom is going alone on the boat. We are not going with her.”
“Oh,” Axel said, momentarily crestfallen. “Anyway, I’m busy with my project.” Axel had started compiling a list of the names of all the people he knew or had ever met. He planned to add to his list the name of every new person he met for the rest of his life. His goal was to have the record for the world’s longest list. “Being stuck on a boat is not good for meeting new people,” he announced.
Shannon turned to her mom. “What about us?” Her tone expressed both petulance and concern.
“Yes. Six months is a long time, Gabby. Is there no program for you that’s close to home?” Brian asked, clearly wondering how the three of them would survive for half a year on their own.
Gabby explained to her family that the internship was a unique and important opportunity that she could not pass up.
“I’ve asked my mother to check in on the three of you a couple times a week to make sure you’re ok,” Gabby continued. “She’ll be happy to help out whenever you need her. Besides, it’s not like I’m going to outer space. I can stay in touch with family and friends while I’m on the ship.”
Brian had never been close to his mother-in-law, and the news that she would be regularly spying on him and the kids was not greeted with enthusiasm. Gabby’s mother was gleefully bossy at the best of times and often pried into family matters, which Brian resented. Although there had never been open warfare between them, Brian assumed that his feelings of dislike for her were reciprocated. His mind reeled at the thought of possible calamities that might engulf their lives in the next six months and cause him acute embarrassment if his bossy mother-in-law had to come to his rescue. He would never hear the end of that!
On the other hand, Gabby would definitely not approve if Brian’s own mother—Gabby called her the Melodrama Queen—assumed control while Gabby was away. “Your mother writes, directs, produces, and stars in her own daily soap opera!” Gabby often reminded him. “And she swears like a drunken sailor.” That, Brian could not dispute. Shannon and Axel had picked up a number of unfortunate words and phrases from his mother over the years.
Although he was not happy about Gabby’s six-month plan, Brian did not attempt to put a roadblock in his wife’s path. Eventually, he agreed to try his best to make the plan work. He was on probation at his job for a year and had been allowed to return to the company with the stipulation that he complete his degree as soon as possible.
The company’s human resources manager had helped Brian get accepted to an online degree program described as experiential. He would be able to earn some degree credits for his years of work experience. Suddenly, the existence of Gabby’s new hard-earned degree was motivating for Brian.
Shannon, however, had trouble accepting her mother’s plan to be away for an extended period. She and Gabby had several high-decibel arguments during which Shannon accused her mother of abandoning the family.
“You’re just being selfish!” she shouted. “You’re always mad, and you take it out on us for no reason!”
Gabby, once again, couldn’t resist unleashing her temper, thus corroborating Shannon’s point. “You’re a teenager!” Gabby countered, following Shannon as she stomped to her bedroom. “You’re in a sub-adult stage, so just keep that in mind when you think you know everything about everything!”
“Stay out of my room!” Shannon slammed the door to remain in private seclusion for several hours.
* * *
It was the smell of pancakes that brought Shannon to the kitchen. Axel had finished eating his first plate–sized pancake and was waiting for his second. He had asked Gabby to add peanut butter and chocolate chips to the dough.
“Axel, what happened to your little friend who you liked to sit with on the school bus?” Gabby asked, spatula in hand as she waited for sufficient bubbles to form on the surface of the dough.
“What friend, mom?”
“You know. The girl who smelled like pancakes and syrup when she got on the bus every morning. You said that’s why you liked to sit next to her.”
“Oh, yeah,” Axel smiled. Gabby placed the second pancake in front of him.
“Did she know you were busy smelling her?”
“No,” Axel said with his mouth full. A tiny glob of escaped melted chocolate rested under his nose.
Shannon joined him at the table where Gabby had put out another place setting. “Why have you been smelling little girls, Axel?”
Axel gave his sister a playful shove with his right hand while delivering a left-handed forkful of pancake to his mouth. “Shut up,” he said quietly after swallowing.
“I see you’re wearing your favorite puke-green shirt again,” Shannon taunted.
“It’s not my favorite shirt,” Axel said. “Anyway, puke is not really green. It’s yellow.”
“Well, I’m sure glad things are back to normal,” Gabby interjected from in front of the stove. “Would you like a pancake, Shannon?”
CHAPTER 20: Lola and Gabby
“Gabby, you look tired,” Lola said.
“I am depleted.”
The two of them rode side by side on the Segways they had rented for the afternoon. They were headed to Café Oh Là Là for their regular cake conference. It would be their last one for a while, and the Segways were a fun way to commemorate the occasion. As they breezed by a delivery guy, huffing and puffing his heavy cart uphill, Gabby called out to him. “You need a motor!”
“No,” he said, looking dejected. “I need my degree.”
“Then, go for it!” Gabby shouted over her shoulder. “You won’t regret it!”
* * *
Settled in at their favorite table in the café, the two friends were uncharacteristically quiet. It wasn’t just from the exhaustion they both felt. Or because they had agreed to focus on completing their coloring projects and exchange their artwork—Lola would present Gabby with the woman wearing a seashell dress, and Gabby would give Lola her dragonfly. No; their quietude came from the realization that this time felt like the end of something, as well as the beginning of something. It felt momentous in a way that neither of them wanted to dwell on.
Gabby’s coloring project, in particular, had languished mightily in the previous months. While her new adviser had been openly supportive in ways that Jamal had not been, her final months before graduation had been rough. The puffy dark skin that lingered under her eyes was evidence of how hard she had worked and how little she had slept.
Jamal had been right about one thing, at least; finishing her degree had not been a walk in the park. Somehow, she had completed and passed her courses, finished her research, and written and defended her master’s thesis. Seated now at the table, a large piece of Decadent Death and two scoops of double-fudge chocolate ice cream in front of her on the red-checked tablecloth, she wasn’t sure how she had managed to pull it off. Her only certainty now was going on the research boat.
Lola, having put the finishing touches on her seashell-dress lady, showed it to Gabby before rolling it up to give her.
“Thank you. She’s beautiful,” Gabby said. “By the way, I love your shirt.” Lola wore the new t-shirt Eddy gave her on the day she passed her swim test. In big blue letters across the front of the shirt was a single word: AQUAPHILE.
“I’m so very proud of you, Lola,” Gabby said. “Now you are a swimmer.”
Lola savored the last few bites of her piece of Death and regaled Gabby with details of her and her family’s upcoming trip to Florida to go beachcombing and snorkeling.
“Eddy is afraid to fly, so we’re taking the train,” Lola said. “He’s already purchased a new t-shirt for the occasion with the saying Don’t Stand in the Vestibule.
“Ha! That sounds like one of Eddy’s quirky t-shirts,” Gabby said. “Anyway, whatever happened to that vixen Marlena?”
“Oh, she moved back to Miami. Apparently, the spa business with her sister didn’t work out.”
“Too bad.” Gabby pursed her lips in a barely detectable smile.
Gabby carefully checked over her exquisitely colored dragonfly and presented it to her friend. “May your wings be as delicate and strong as the wings of a dragonfly.”
“Well, I doubt they’ll be delicate,” Lola chuckled. “But I hope they are strong. Thank you, Gabby. It’s lovely.
“Are you excited to get out on the research boat? Out on the ocean?”
“Yes,” Gabby said. “I really, really am. I’m not sure in what condition my family will be in six months’ time. Brian is on probation at his job. Plus, he has to perform 350 hours of community service for his indecent exposure arrest. So, we’ll see. We’ve lived our lives as adversaries for too long. That needs to change.”
As they stood up from the table of their cake conference—maybe their last one forever … who could know—they hugged and tried with determination to stay composed.
“What a coincidence that we are both about to leave the big city for a water adventure,” Lola sniffled. “You’ll be gone longer.”
“Life sure is exciting.”
“It sure is, my friend.”
“Good-bye, Lola! You take care.”
“Bye for now, Gabby! AMF! … And by that I mean ‘Adios my friend!’”
*** THE END ***
~ THANK YOU TO RUSSELL CARLONE FOR HIS HELPFUL TUTORIAL ON POLICE PROCEDURES.
~ THANK YOU TO MISS EMMA D. FOR PERMISSION TO REPRINT HER LIST OF RULES TO MAKE OUR SCHOOL A BETTER PLACE.
~ THANK YOU TO DR. MARIA McCLINTOCK FOR HER FRIENDSHIP, VALUABLE INSIGHT AND CONSIDERABLE PATIENCE IN SHARING HER EXPERTISE ABOUT FEMALE ENGINEERING STUDENTS.
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