A generational story of a mother and her four daughters who come face to face with their own deception, after the devastation of 9/11. Asking themselves If They Should Die Tonight would they have honored their lives and their talents. This sets them on a path to find and live authentic lives.
New York, Monday, September 10, 2001, 5:55 a.m.
“Hey up lady, is it too early to call?”
“When is it ever too early for you to call?” Randy placed the phone in the crook of her neck and headed to the kitchen. “What’s up Amelie?” she asked pausing before her armoire.
“You’ll never guess who I just got off the phone with.”
Randy shifted the phone to her other ear. "Let me see now…mmmm…at this time of the morning, the ghost of Schumann past!"
"Close, but no.”
“Okay. That’s all I’ve got. No twenty guesses today. Not in the mood.”
"Sod off. You're bloody kidding, right?"
"What did she want?"
“She’s passing through New York in two weeks.”
“Good for her. She calls to tell you this at," Randy looked at her watch, "five minutes to six? Does that woman ever sleep?”
“Isn’t she’s the reason why we’re early risers?” Amelie reminded her sister.
“Yep, another reason to keep our distance but still isn’t it way too early for this conversation,” Randy reached inside the linen chest. The towels felt like she imagined cumulus clouds did, warm, soft and fluffy. Throwing the towel over her shoulder, she went to the small kitchen off her bedroom, pulled open the refrigerator and dropped three cubes of ice into a glass. Pressing against a paneled wall she pulled out a bottle of Ketel One. “Uh-uh,” Randy said, in response to Amelie’s continuous prattle. More than anything right now, she wanted to get off the phone and get on with her morning routine. For this conversation, she needed more than vodka.
“Can you at least try to make time to have dinner?”
Randy inhaled and dropping her shoulders as an audible sigh left her lips. “Why would I do that?”
“Just give it a try,” Amelie encouraged.
“It’ll only end up as usual.”
“Please,” Amelie begged.
“You really can’t be serious. Mother and I haven’t spoken in years! Why all of a sudden, she wants to mend fences and start all over again? Amelie, as you well know I’m in no state to fight with mother. Plus, there is absolutely nothing I want to say to that woman now or in the future.” Randy poured
vodka over ice and added a splash of tonic water. Passing the full-length mirror on the way to the bathroom, she gave herself a once over. She needed to stop drinking. Been telling herself the same thing since she took her first drink at the age of thirteen. From that first sip of the Black Label scotch she’d found hidden at the back of her mother’s closet, she knew they’d become good friends.
“Amelie,” Randy interrupted her sister, “You and Ashley have dinner with Mom. Tell her I’ll be out of town. She couldn't possibly miss me after all this time and let's face it, two out of three ain’t bad.” She grinned at her clever Meatloaf reference from his song of the same name. He was one of her favorite singers.
“It’s you who she wants to see. Give her a chance.”
“To do what? To tell me how self-indulgent I am? What a bad mother I am? For Christ, sakes talk about the pot calling the bloody kettle black! Or maybe I should give her another chance to remind me how good a life I have in spite of everything? I’ll pass.”
“Just think about it,” Amelie pleaded.
“Yep. I will. I sure will. Bye.” Randy dropped the phone onto the counter. Just the thought of her mother made her want to get drunk. Randy had vowed never to set eyes on her mother ever again after their last big blow up five years before. And nothing, nothing in this bloody life would make her change her mind.
• • •
Throughout the years, Randy’s choice of drink changed to fit her upper-crust lifestyle. (The fancier her lifestyle got the fancier her drinks got. She’d graduated from Black Label scotch to the Vodka and cocktails that now ruled her life.) But, she was no common drunk. She was an Eastside drunk; Chic, edgy, controlled women whose lives centered around lunches and cocktails, dinners and cocktails, charity events and cocktails, and then the necessary bedtime cocktail that helped them moan convincingly under husbands who offered nothing but money.
Sweeping her gaze downward she ignored the years of alcohol abuse etched on her face; the dark circles under her eyes, the cheeks that were a little too sunken, and the paunch sticking out from her otherwise svelte five-feet-eight frame. Her betrayers were easily camouflaged by make-up and custom clothes. What wasn’t so easy to ignore this morning, however, was the slight tremor of her hands. How did her life get this twisted and unhappy? Randy hadn’t known when Lawrence brought her as his new bride to the high-rise building with rubbish piled out front and more chains on the door than a linked-fence, that theirs was a life to be coveted. She’d felt imprisoned. It hadn’t taken long to find out that living at 70th and Park raised eyebrows and opened doors and checkbooks. It was considered the gold coast of New York. Still, the vapid group she hung around was tiring at best. Today she was every bit of an East Side woman living the life her mother thought was beyond compare. Randy sucked air through her teeth as she placed her glass on the ledge of the inlaid tub. Plugging the tub, she spun the taps on. Emptying a sachet of bath salts, she watched as crystals seeped orange pigment into the clear water and when the water began rising, she squeezed in a generous amount of bubble bath. Orange foam popped and wiggled.
In deft movements, Randy twisted her hair atop her head, shed her robe and skivvies, tilted the television to the perfect angle, and climbed into the deep whirlpool tub where turbo jets bubbled the perfumed water. Sinking inch by inch, she could feel the heat evaporating leftover alcohol from her pores. Settling in she picked up the remote and began scanning channels on the overhead T.V. Her edges were raw, to begin with, and the discussion about her mother's visit had made it worse.
Randy flicked the remote control to find a mindless, (which wasn’t hard to do) television show to watch as she contemplated yet another day in her hell of a life. Commercials! Randy poured vodka. Oh hell, she groaned as the Cialis commercial started right after the Cymbalta one ended. This damn nation was becoming a bunch of hypochondriacs! ‘Yumm,’ she closed her
eyes. Nothing tasted better than the first sip of a morning ‘cocktail.’ It was, as usual, the beginning of her escape to her fantasyland where double rainbows promised a new beginning. She had written those words in 1969 and they were still very much her rock even today. They had seen her through some pretty challenging times…her escape to wonderland was the promise for the crummy cards she’d drawn in this life. Randy suppressed a smile, lifted her glass in a cheer and said, “To me.”
She was about to hit the TV’s off button when the Big O, who was handing out copious amounts of tissues to the man in front of her, loomed on the screen. It had to be some kind of special because the time slot for the Oprah Show was all wrong.
“I didn’t know…I still don’t know…we were just playing house and…”
“How can a grown man play house with a child?”
Randy bolted upright and turned up the volume. Emotionally taxing subjects were usually off limits for her fragile mind but she was riveted…and without warning, down…down…down she went falling head first into a memory she’d buried under years of denial.
• • •
Leicester, East Midlands, England 1969
“There’s a brown girl in the ring, Tra La,” they all sang, everyone reluctantly, except Randy whose robust voice was loud and committed.
“I’m done playing this stupid game,” Randy interrupted mid-song annoyed at the lackluster efforts her sisters, Ashley and Amelie, were making to participate in her Heritage Program. As a part of the only black family in Leicester, though it had a rapidly growingly South Asian population, Randy had taken it upon herself to indoctrinate her sisters in Jamaican culture in the form of childhood rhymes she held onto for dear life. Of all the childhood ditties; “I’ve Come to see Janie, Carry Mi Ackee Go a Linstead Market, Clap Hands till Mama Comes Home, Brown Girl in The Ring” was her favorite and she believed it would build cultural confidence in her sisters as it had in her. Now even the songs were of no more interest to her sisters. She supposed, just as Jamaica had grown distant to her with each passing year in England, so had the little songs Sadie, her nanny back in Jamaica had taught her…all was fading.
“C’mon. Let’s at least get to the ‘show me your motion’ part,” Ashley said.
“Nope. Not me. Not another second.”
“You’ve something better to do?” Ashley asked.
“Maybe, maybe not. But, from this day forward I’m through with childish games. No more trying to remind you where we come from. You are both very ungrateful and I don’t need this anymore. As far as I’m concerned you can become as British as the Queen. You can, in fact, become Ladies of the East Midlands!” Randy folded her arms across her budding breasts. At thirteen, on the cusp of being neither woman nor child, the daily routine of playing with her sisters bored her more than it did them. But, it was better than hanging out at the Leicester Neighborhood Park or at the pool where kids were forever trying to touch their curly hair, something, which was at best, tedious.
“That’s not fair,” Ashley yelled looking to her sister Amelie for support. Amelie shrugged her shoulders wishing she was home playing the piano. Unfortunately, Grandpa had accompanied Aunt Clarissa to some function or the other and since they could not be home without adult supervision they had to remain at the park or the pool where there were always adults to watch over them until someone picked them up.
“Let’s push on over to the pool then,” Ashley said, stirring Randy from revere.
“I’m not doing that either. I can’t be around noisy kids today. Don’t you get it?” Randy snapped. “Tell Mummy I went to my room to read.”
“I’ll come home with you and play the piano,” Amelie said, perking up. She too disliked these nonsense games. All the culture she needed was listening to her grandpa’s piano.
For sisters, none of them were alike in spirit or looks. Each as unique as a snowflake unto itself they were the best of friends, and each other’s safe haven.
“How am I to read with you banging on that noise box?” Randy was losing her patience. “I want to be alone,” she said dramatically.
“It’s an instrument,” Amelie corrected. “A beautiful instrument.”
“You have no choice but to come to the pool,” Ashley insisted. “We can stop for ice-cream. Plus, Grandpa isn’t home so who wants to be alone with crazy old Uncle Joe?”
“Uncle Joe isn’t crazy. He’s just not right upstairs,” Randy said tapping her hand to her forehead. “I’ll be fine.” Apart from Grandpa, Randy was the only one who bothered to notice Uncle Joe. He was slow…not right in the head as her mother often said. Randy would sit with him and with the utmost patience explain simple things to him. She’d even let him brush her hair, a task he never seems to tire of.
“You know how Mother feels. She doesn’t want us alone with Uncle Joe. He can’t look after us.”
“If Mother cared that much about us she would have taken us along with her or stayed home,” Randy snapped. “Anyway, go on now. Ashley,” Randy warned her sister, “Make sure you keep close to Amelie. If anything happens to her, Mummy will kill you,” Randy added.
“But we’re all grown up,” Amelie, all of seven said proudly. “We can take care of ourselves.”
“Oh, stop jabbering and run along to the pool, will you,” Randy said shooing her sisters. None of them wanted to admit that Amelie was their mother’s and Grandpa’s favorite. She was a gentle spirit who felt no need to fight except for her Grandpa’s lap and the old piano he introduced her to before she could say a single word.
• • •
It was summer and the sense of freedom, solitude, and adolescence was intoxicating. Like any other teenager, Randy simply wanted to sit in her room and read a good book or listen to the music of her new obsession, Rod Stewart. She wasn’t into boys yet like some of her friends…she preferred books.
“I’ll tell Mummy you had a headache,” Amelie offered.
“Brilliant! Good girl,” Randy patted her sister’s head. “Hurry on now to the pool and don’t forget your lifejacket.”
Randy walked the short distance home. Their house was a typical Victorian terrace on Morton Street which was always teeming with activity. Randy greeted neighbors and friends all the way to her front door. As usual, the door was open so she dropped her books on the sofa, darted to the bathroom to wash her hands and then to the kitchen to quell her hunger. Randy opened the refrigerator door and pulled out a plate of cold chicken. She sliced the hard dough bread (the one thing Jamaican her mother could never give up) and peeled a ripe avocado which she sliced into half-moons onto the bread. Carving into the leg of chicken she layered her sandwich and chewed on the chicken bone (though she had no talent for pulverizing it into calcium the way her mother did). She, who had learned from Aunt Clarissa to be the perfect hostess, was in her element acting like a grown up. She set the table with a floral mat and napkin and settled herself with her sandwich and a cup of tea.
For some unknown reason, her first home in Jamaica came floating into her thoughts. How different it was from their little house in the middle of England. The massive estate was dotted with Austin Rose hedges. Mangoes, tamarind, star-apple, cashew trees and a rambling old almond tree, all majestic and fruitful, laid claim to acres of land. She didn’t remember as much about Jamaica as she used to, often having to close her eyes to hear the sounds and remember the smells she’d cherished as a child…the whistle
of the peanut cart, the tinkle of the milkman’s bell or the shaving sound of ice from the snow cone man, the distinctive smell of ripe June plums and naseberries. The one thing she did remember only too well was her fear of the tropical lizards that crawled along her bedroom wall, always glad that she was under a mosquito net. But, most of all though, she missed her father’s lunchtime visits and the Bustamante toffees he’d bring her and Ashley as treats. She hadn’t realized then that her father was English. She thought his accent was simply his until she came to England and everyone sounded like him.
Time had faded some of the pain she’d felt about the loss of her father and today, at thirteen, she felt all grown up and ready to put childish things behind her…including any more questions about her Dad.
Heading to her room after her afternoon snack, Randy stripped off her clothes and readied herself for a long, luxurious bath. It was probably foolish to eat and then bathe but she wasn’t worried about indigestion like old folks. Before getting into the tub, she scanned the bookshelf for a good read, deciding on ‘The Good Earth.’ She’d read it countless times but she simply loved the book. As she leaned over to pull it out, she was aware that her young body had entered a new phase of development. Her breasts were the first to reach the bookcase. The once little nubs on her chest seemed to have sprung up overnight and still, too shy to look at them she plunged into the tub
feeling particularly liberated about her decision to stay home. “There’s a brown girl in the ring, tra la let me show you mi motion, tra la, Randy began singing in a beautiful falsetto voice, her Jamaican accent no longer as distinguishable as Sadie's.
Cigarette smoke! Randy jumped from the tub and was about to wrap a towel around her, when in the mirror; her eyes met a pair staring at her through a veil of cigarette smoke.
“Uncle Joseph! What are you doing?” Randy screamed at him. Can’t you see I’m naked? Get out of here now! Remember what Mummy says, you have to knock on a closed door.”
“I just wanted to see you,” her uncle said coming into the bathroom and closing the door. Randy backed away, covering her nakedness with the towel. “Mother will be quite mad when I tell her about this. Get out right now!” Randy tried to sound stern. “When I’m out we’ll go to the park and sing our songs.”
Uncle Joseph, though dimwitted, was her favorite uncle. He would never hurt her. Yet looking into his eyes, she could see that he was wrestling with something deep and dark and talk as she did, he seemed given over to another matter entirely.
“You’re such a big girl now,” he said, backing her into a corner. “I want to brush your hair…big girls need things right Randy.” His smile disappeared and his expression hardened.
• • •
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