LENT SHOULD BE in the summer that she might make use of the hotel pool, bandaged up outside like an open wound. She never had a pool.
She had a cat but her cat is dead. Buried in leftover snow behind the garage until the ground softens. It would be nice to swim in a pool. But then she remembers: I am Jesus in the desert! No swimming allowed.
I am giving you up, she told her family. For Lent.
What was hers anymore that she could give up? That no one else could use without permission, take without asking, even wear, now that the oldest was a teen and her size? Answer: the cat. The found feral cat from college, from before all of them and during all of them, tucked into the right angle of her armpit every night. But after they started arriving every couple of years, the cat (may she rest in peace) was no longer her greatest joy. They were.
You are my greatest joy, she said. And so, she addressed the question marks around the dinner table, you see what a sacrifice this is.
Of course they didn’t believe her. They never really knew how to read her. She complained of being an old lady one day and ran around making snow angels the next. She occasionally referred to them jokingly as parasites, but cried every time she read The Giving Tree. This Lent thing was obviously a joke. So she proved it to them (and to herself) by renting a room. Here’s the receipt, she said. She’d printed it off of Travelocity and scratched out the hotel name and address but not the city, which was the same one they lived in. You’re going to stay right here in town, they said, mockingly. I’m not giving up my whole life, she said. Just you.
Her husband neither commented nor protested, for he knew his wife better than the children did but not, perhaps, as well as he thought. I’m giving up Starbursts, the youngest declared.
On Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, she could not get enough of them. She made a feast, played Xbox 360 with her son and dress-up with her youngest, and talked, like, omigod, for hours with her teen. Late that night she went down on her husband, who was pretty sure he was mad at her about something but what was it again?
On Ash Wednesday she could not get ashes because she wasn’t Catholic and didn’t have the nerve to lie, but she went to mass anyway and prayed upon her knees for forty days and nights (plus Sundays, which were in addition to the forty days and nights, a fact she found divinely sneaky) of strength, and afterward she checked into the Sleep Inn. A dive, but it was Lent, she told herself, not a vacation.
So here she is. The first day of Lent is a day of fasting, and she is going to do this right, so she doesn’t eat and she skips daytime TV, which had always struck her as a form of gluttony anyway. She opens her planner to look at all she will miss in her family’s lives. Orchestra concert, end of basketball season, several soccer practices and the first game, report cards and conferences, young authors’ night, party with her husband’s colleagues, wedding anniversary. Who will take the pictures, she wonders? Who will read the young author stories? Who—she cracks herself up on this one—will send her anniversary flowers? Alas, the children will eat processed school lunches every day, and what if one of them gets sick? Give it up, says a voice, though no one is there. Go home. Her stomach rumbles. She’ll just lie down for a bit.
At six pm she wakes. The day is (technically) over. Now she can eat, as long as it’s not meat. She goes to the bathroom, spritzes her hair, freshens her makeup (why not?), and walks next door to Hooters. The only other restaurant in walking distance is Wendy’s, but she doesn’t think they have fish. Not that she has to walk; she has her car and could go anywhere. Still, she is not someone you’d expect to see on the side of the road or cutting through a parking lot, so as she walks in the light rain on the graveled shoulder and over the curb, she is torn between absorbing the strange present moment being stared at by the occasional driver (she is forty; when is the last time that happened?), and pretending she is Christ forging her way through a sandstorm.
Outside Hooters, palm trees are the color of highlighter pens; inside is a seat at the bar. What can I get you, ask a pair of boobs dressed as an owl? (Is alcohol allowed during Lent?) Vodka tonic. Although the barflies stare (she is forty; when is the last time that happened?), the boobs don’t blanch. You want a menu, they ask? Fish sandwich, fries, another vodka tonic. A light-blue team plays a dark-blue team in basketball on the large television. The barflies cheer whenever the dark blue team scores. I gave up my family, she tells the boobs as they set the placemat and silverware before her, for Lent. There’s worse reasons, the boobs reply. I gave up mine for drugs.
The first Sunday of purple Lent. Hands clasp in purple prayer (must also give up nail-biting, evil vice). She can follow along, stand, sit, sing, mumble, pray (though it’s just as boring as she predicted), but she cannot, in good conscience, eat the bread or drink the wine. It becomes its own temptation: to stand in line, to open palms, to open mouth, to receive the body and the blood. She could have gone where anyone off the street could take communion, but she prefers a place with standards. Dear Lord, she prays (for they are told to offer silent intentions), help me to think on you instead of my family. But she hasn’t been thinking on her family at all, proof that the Lord knows your needs before you ask.
No, she reminds herself later, she is not giving up her whole life, just her family. But she finds upon consulting her planner that the only thing on tap for her in forty days and nights (plus Sundays) is book club. Several hours later it occurs to her that this gives her something else to do: read the book. She’d long ago dropped literary pretenses (Who’s got that kind of time?) and focused instead on making distractingly delicious appetizers. Now in year three, in the wilderness, she would read. If she could just find where she’d written down the title.
March comes in like a cold wet sheep.
The boobs are named Jaclyn. I wish I could do it over again, Jaclyn says. I’d get rid of the men, not the kids. It all got tangled up—men, drugs, sex, money—and the kids got, I don’t know. I’d go back to them in a second but now they’re older and holding a grudge. You’re crazy, you know, Jaclyn tells her. You’ve got everything and you don’t even know it. Believe me, I know it, she says. Why are you here then, asks Jaclyn? Why did Jesus go to the wilderness, she answers? Why did the Israelites? Moses? Elijah? I don’t know, says Jaclyn, why? She doesn’t exactly know either but is pretty sure it has something to do with the will of God.
But later that night: You’ve got everything and you don’t even know it. Believe me, I know it. You’ve got everything and you don’t. Believe me, I know. You’ve got everything and. Believe me I. Should go home. What is she doing? I’d go back to my kids in a second. You’re crazy. You’ve got. Your family, if it means so much, why are you call yourself a mother?
A close-up car crackles on crumbled concrete outside the room. Two doors open and shut. They know she’s here alone and completely irresponsible. Putting herself at risk when her self is so valuable to the health and wellbeing of her family. Probably a couple barflies who’ve watched her and are now going to…. One in particular always stares so (she is forty; when is the last time that happened?). At first she thought he was staring at Jaclyn, but even when the boobs moved to a different part of the bar he was still looking her way. Not creepy though, just looking. Footsteps and low voices are approaching. The lamp she could grab and swing like a bat, the cord could strangle. She should be safe at home dreaming of the bus stop, of orders for the flower sale. You call yourself a mother, a voice says. You call yourself a wife. Then why don’t you go home? I call myself Jennifer! she shouts, startling herself. The footsteps pass her room, fumble with another door, and grow silent. Jennifer, she says again, though quietly this time.
Jennifer finds that she rather likes reading the book club book. The main character is different from her in interesting ways (she lived during World War I, for instance, and is a nurse) but also similar (she struggles to express herself, causing confusion and misunderstandings). Jennifer tells Jaclyn about the book. Jaclyn says she doesn’t read much but that she might like to borrow it when Jennifer is finished. Something new, I suppose, why not, Jaclyn says in that way she has of talking half to Jennifer, half to herself, as she swabs the damp rag across the sticky varnished bar like a painter smearing paint over a huge canvas, and Jennifer thinks Jaclyn seems fairly pleased with the whole idea.
Friday night, as Jimmy Buffett’s voice falls down from the speakers singing about Saturday night, the barfly who looked Jennifer’s way even when Jaclyn’s boobs went elsewhere walks right over and asks if he can have a seat beside her. Better view of the game, he explains when she opens her mouth but can’t quite formulate a reply. And just like that they are sitting next to each other. Jennifer faces the bar, feels a strange prickle in the air along the right side of her body. He looks, she recalls from when he sat where she could see him, different from men in her neighborhood, from men at her children’s schools. Those men wear shorter hair, ties, crisp Dockers. Not that this man isn’t well-groomed. His shirts (like her husband’s three-button golf shirts, but with Budweiser and Nascar logos) are always tucked into belted jeans, and he smells (she could tell just then when his body came toward hers and sat down) fresh. The dark blue basketball team is on again, and even though she has seen him cheer for them every time they are on, she asks who he is rooting for. Just like that she says who instead of whom and ends a sentence with a preposition. He tells Jennifer about the dark blue team, and Jaclyn raises her eyebrows in what does not look like approval. The barfly’s name is Matt.
Matt is from the class of two years before Jennifer at the rival high school. They vaguely know a few people in common. He has two daughters between the ages of Jennifer’s teen and tween, who stay with him half the time. He pulls out his wallet to show pictures. Jennifer doesn’t have pictures with her (on purpose) and isn’t even sure if she can talk about something she’s given up. But one can talk about chocolate as long as one doesn’t consume chocolate during Lent. So she describes them in great detail and begins to miss them sharply. The next thing she knows she is crying and Matt is touching her shoulder. Jaclyn comes by with a drink napkin for her tears and takes the half-finished vodka tonic and pours it straight down the drain. Look what you’ve done, Jaclyn says to Matt. Go away! It’s okay, Jennifer says, I’m okay, don’t go. Go, Jaclyn says. Matt squeezes Jennifer’s neck and says, I got to get going anyway, I’ll see you around.
But she doesn’t see him around for two full weeks. Every morning she goes to mass and repents of the previous night’s thoughts, which are not of cello performances and basketball games, but of the familiarly unfamiliar Matt, who looks at her even though she is forty, and who happened upon her like a movie scene set to high school’s classic rock soundtrack. The priest speaks of temptation as if it were a person. Resist temptation, he says. The Israelites gave in. Be like Jesus. Let the spirit help. Blah, blah, blah.
I did it, Jaclyn says. I finished the book. Jaclyn noticed different things than Jennifer had. Jaclyn thought the main character was too weak even at the end. I really thought she was going to have this big triumph, Jaclyn says, but she just ended up where she started. But, Jennifer counters, she understood everything better and could be more, I don’t know, intentional? It was realistic. Jaclyn says if she wanted realistic she would ask the people at the bar all their piss-sad tales. It seems like someone in a book should do better, she says. Otherwise the character might as well come right in here and drink it off.
The Doors are playing when Matt comes in, “Light My Fire.” Jaclyn is busy with the other side of the full bar, and Ryan the extra bartender refills Jennifer’s vodka tonic three times. She tells Matt it is the Ides of March. Then she whispers in his ear, Beware! Her thoughts that week were of the shadow of him like the allegory of the cave. Now here he is in person, like Temptation the person, the one the priest spoke of; he is turned toward her, knees straddling her bar stool, saying, So, look, I don’t really know your situation, and it’s none of my business, but I like you. Do you, well, do you want to come over to my house? It’s not far.
I like you too, she says.
Outside, between the doors and the cars, the palm trees blaze. Matt steps in front of Jennifer and kisses her. Flames of orange and yellow flash behind his head. One of his arms presses her lower back, the other her upper. The flames, the heat. Jennifer, Jennifer, a voice other than the classic rock voice on the outside speakers, other than Matt, says, Here I am, I know your sorrows. Jennifer pulls away from Matt and says, The palm trees, they’re on fire. Matt looks at her, then the trees. See, she says, they’re burning. Can’t you see it? He kisses her again, this time softly, barely, and the flames are practically blue now with intensity. Oh God, can’t you feel it, she says? Come on, he says, but when he walks to his car she does not follow him. He waits for a moment, turns on the car. He backs out slowly, changes gears. Wait! Jennifer calls out after he finally drives off. For it is clear now that the highlighter palm trees are not charred and consumed, and so must not have been on fire after all.
The hours. They tug and pull. Her mind darts about like a pent-up rodeo bull, but the clock catches her like a lasso, trips her feet, turns her over, ties her up, makes her wait. She prays for the time to pass more quickly. Dear Lord, she says, please. She opens her planner and there it is like a bible verse, March 19: Daylight Savings. Spring forward! And the Lord threw down a bolt from heaven and smote the hour.
It is the fifth Monday of Lent, and Jennifer awakens with a heavy heart. She is tired of Hooters; she is lonely at the Sleep Inn. And her family has a full week of activities that she can not attend. Grace, the youngest, is starting ballet classes, and who knows if anyone will remember to take her? Tony’s basketball season is ending and soccer starts Thursday after school. Elaine’s softball practices start today, and her orchestra concert is Thursday night. She plays first-chair cello and will perform Jennifer’s favorite, Vivaldi’s Spring. Jennifer is lucky, blessed beyond belief, really, to have three healthy, smart, talented kids, and after months, years, of winding and winding and winding them up, she can, at these games and concerts, stop and simply let them play. She can watch them from an outsider’s perspective in bleachers, fold-up chairs, and auditorium seats, and see a glimpse of the adults they will become—are becoming!—are (if she thinks about it) already: for isn’t Elaine even now married and raising two girls of her own? Isn’t Tony leaving a corporate job behind so he can travel Europe with his recently divorced high school sweetheart? And isn’t Grace splitting cells in a university laboratory? The only future Jennifer can’t seem to see is her own. Well, at least this Thursday she won’t have to decide between Elaine’s concert and book club (not that there was a choice: of course the concert). And she has even read the book.
Where the hell have you been? Jennifer’s entire book club is standing on the porch of Anne’s house when she arrives. It is 6:37; she is only seven minutes late. At Kroger, she says, picking up a dish. The book club vultures in and clutches her arms. One takes the tray of meats and cheeses. Okay, they say, looking panicked, Don’t panic. What? What is it? Jennifer panics. Listen, they say, he’s doing fine now, do you hear us, he’s conscious, but— Oh God, but what? Jennifer feels their arms clutching harder, holding her up as her legs grow molten. It’s Tony, they say. He hit his head on the goal post at soccer this afternoon and is in the hospital, and no one knew where you were. He’s been asking for you. It’s the side of his head at his ear, close to the temple, and it gave him a concussion but they kept him conscious the whole time so that’s good, but now they’re doing tests on his hearing. Oh God. Oh my God. Come on, they say. We’re taking you to the hospital.
Don’t cry, the book club says. Tim is with him. We’re almost there. Hurry! Jennifer screams.
At last the line of trees breaks and the hospital appears on the hill to the right. Mercy, the sign says. The car slows and turns up the drive to the drop-off zone. Jennifer rushes out of the car, through the huge sliding doors, past the gift shop, and toward the elevators with the book club at her side. They are in the green atrium of rocks and waterfall when Jennifer hears a voice. Do not be afraid, it says, for I am with you. Above the waterfall is a two-story-high mosaic cross, its dazzling colors alight with the late-day sun.
Come on, her book club says, tugging her arm. He’s this way.
Jennifer’s eyes are fixed on the enormous cross, the glittering reds, golds, purples, the sound of the voice. She feels small in comparison, but also strong. Stronger, in fact, than perhaps she has ever felt. She turns to face her book club. No, she says quietly. I’m not going to see him; take me back. The book club is incredulous. What do you mean? I mean take me back to my car, Jennifer says. Are you crazy? What kind of mother? How could you? Their words hurt and she wavers. The voice returns and is calm: Do not be afraid, for I am with you. He is being cared for, Jennifer says, by excellent doctors at an excellent hospital. His father is with him. I’ll see him on Easter.
Good for you, Jaclyn says later, squeezing Jennifer’s hand. Jennifer smiles. It’s supposed to be a gorgeous weekend, she says to Jaclyn. Do you want to rent a couple bikes and go for a long ride? Jaclyn steps back toward the cash register, holds out her arms and surveys her various body parts, as if she isn’t quite sure they are up to the task. Finally she says, Yes?
Easter. Jennifer goes alone to the high mass, the one that starts in darkness on Saturday night. The heat of her candle warms her face when she holds it close. They’re going crazy with the incense, the parading through the aisles and hoisting oversized candles and Bibles, like actors in a junior-high play. But she’s come to like them, these men in robes. They put on their costumes and play their parts reliably, which ought to count for something. They are earnest, sometimes too earnest, about their roles as Fathers, but they occasionally, perhaps inadvertently, reveal a weariness about life and fatherhood—a strange sense of relief about it being Lent, a church-sanctioned low-point—that Jennifer understands all too well. Father What’s-His-Name (James, she remembers!) spoke recently about daily sacrifices, about keeping up the good work. Or something. The point was that Jennifer saw herself parading through neighborhood streets in her minivan, preparing daily communion for her flock, ministering to her sick, like a priest. When the congregation had walked around the building waving palms on Palm Sunday (Jennifer had felt positively ridiculous), one of the priests-in-training followed the crowd around with a video camera like a proud parent. Yes, she relates to these priestly parents. But watching the robed men is, she would be the first to admit if someone asked (thought fat chance of that), Jennifer’s deliberate strategy for avoiding the constant gaze of Mary, who, with her head bent at an angle that must be the mathematical calculation of motherhood, hovers and solemnly stares from the adjacent nave. Even now in the dark, Jennifer can feel Mary’s eyes, like two candle flames, staring directly at her—just as they have through every mass. And Jennifer knows also that hers, Mary’s, was the voice that soothed, that was with her this Lent. But she still finds it hard to meet that gaze.
Tomorrow the hotel housekeeper will find Jennifer’s room an empty tomb. (Someone is reading the biblical story, and Jennifer thinks of her own resurrection.) The girls will think she is a ghost. Doubting Tony will touch her hands for proof. How’s your head, Jennifer will ask. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there, she’ll tell him, but my spirit was with you. Yeah, he’ll say, squeezing her hand. She will turn to her husband, speak his name. I buried the cat, he’ll say. But he will be crying, right there on the lawn in front of kids and tulips. He will be crying because he knows as well as she that sometimes it is too much and other times it is too little, but in the end it is—they are—all and everything. She will place her palm on his moist cheek, and look from him to the children. I am with you always—Jennifer, like Jesus, will promise (here, now, she looks up at Mary and does not look away, she can almost feel herself ascending)—until the end of this world.