It’s said that those who experience a life-threatening event see their whole life flash before their eyes.
What if a fetus, at the moment they feel their limbs about to be torn asunder in abortion, see their whole unlived life flash before their eyes?
Marla is haunted by nightmares of being in the womb, terrified by the prospect of having her whole life—everything she’ll ever have and everything she ever will be—taken from her.
The Girl Who Loved Cigars is my new work in progress. It’s been nearly two years since I finished my last novel and I’ve been itching to start a new one. After kicking around two ideas for several months I finally settled on this one and set pen to paper.
I love new projects, but it’s a love-hate relationship. I love them because… well, they’re new, fresh. The ideas for characters, story, plot twists flow freely. The downside is they’re new, fresh. Ideas abound, which results in a lot of starts and stops, and false starts. It takes me a while to settle in, to become intimately involved with the characters, and settle on a theme.
The Girl Who Loved Cigars promises to be my most challenging write to date. I’ve written several short stories from a woman’s perspective, but never a novel. It’s intimidating, and I fear I won’t be able to pull it off, to write convincingly from a woman’s point of view. I don’t know whether I’m good enough to succeed. But I do know I’m ready to try.
Below is a short excerpt.
“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away everything he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”
—Bill Munny, Unforgiven
“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
—Galadriel, from the movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings
“I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born.”
“I’m Marla. I’m almost four years old.”
“Good. And where do you live?”
“In Michigan.” I giggled. “It’s shaped like mitten. Daddy showed me a picture of it in a big book of maps that has all the states. There are fifty. That’s a lot. But not as many as a hundred billion. Which is how many stars Daddy told me are in the Milky Way. The galaxy, not the candy bar.”
“Our address, honey. What’s our street address?”
I felt my smile turn into a frown.
“Come on, sweetie. You know this. It’s just four numbers.”
“I live at 6-5-4-3 Arcola in Garden City, Michigan.”
“That’s right. And what’s our phone number?”
I closed my eyes and tried to picture it. Mommy had written it down on a piece of paper. “Our phone number is Grafield—”
I felt my eyes begin to tear. Mommy had been making me say my name, our address, and phone number for the last long time. I was bored. I wanted her to read to me. Tubby Turtle is my favorite. Tubby is sad because he’s slower than all his forest friends. But one day he saves Squirrel and Rabbit from drowning and becomes a hero.
“Say it again, honey, from the start.”
“Mommy, but why?”
“Because if you should get lost you need to be able to tell whoever finds you who you are and where you live.”
“Why?” I didn’t understand. Lost is what happens to pennies when you can’t find them, or a sock. And then you do, between the cushions of the sofa or in the dryer. Nothing is ever really lost. You just need to find it.
“I just told you.”
“Why would I get lost?”
Mommy breathed deep. She did that when she got mad.
“I’m sorry, Mommy, I’m sorry.”
“For what, Marla?”
“For making you mad.”
Mommy took my face between her hands, which always makes me feel happy and safe. “I’m not mad, honey. It’s just…”
“I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Why would anything happen to me?”
Mommy hugged me. After a moment she pulled back, holding me by my shoulders.
“Remember yesterday when we went to Hudson’s?”
“Oh, yes!” It was a grand adventure: a bus ride downtown, all the pretty clothes and shoes and perfume—and the toys! All the toys on the twelfth floor!
“Remember when we got separated?”
I nodded. “Is that what it means, getting lost?”
“But you found me.”
“Yes, I did. But what if I hadn’t? What would you have done?”
I looked at Mommy, unsure. Then I shrugged.
“That’s why you need to know your address and phone number. So you can tell someone if I can’t find you. So they can tell me where to find you. Understand?”
I wasn’t sure I did. But if Mommy thought it was important, then it must be, and I wanted to make Mommy happy.
“I guess so,” I said.
“Good. Now tell me again, your name, where we live, and our phone number.”
And so it went for the next long time, until I got it right enough times to make Mommy happy, and she knew I wouldn’t ever forget.
After she read Tubby Turtle to me it was time for my nap.
Floating, warm and safe and comforted by the rhythm of life, in a black hole of perpetual darkness. Not blinded by obscurity, uncaring of lack of sense of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Nothing exists in this crèche to delight or disenchant, save the bean.
Muffled sounds from nearby—voices, words mean nothing, not having mastered language—other times cadences of varying tempos, some canorous, soothing; others cacophonous, unsettling…
Accosted by upset, fear, anger: emotions not understood but eschewed, embracing, always seeking to commune with the constant rhythm of life. The voices intensify in volume—short, clipped words. Meaningless, they communicate more upset and anger and hurt…
The passage of time has no meaning, not hours, days or months to mark the growth of the bean—constant change, evolution, becoming, unquenchable thirst.
Stirred by sorrow followed by great distress. Sobbing, the darkness wracked by great waves of anguish, then dizziness and a feeling of sickness followed by euphoria. But the euphoria, too, sickens, alters. Turns perfection into something… less perfect.
More time passes and something changes. The rhythm of life distorts. Still floating, still warm, the previous tranquility gone, replaced at first by indifference, then a growing loathing, directed at the bean that has done nothing save only desire to grow, to become more, to seek meaning, find acceptance. To love and be loved…
In time, immeasurable, more words, filled with vitriol, spoken by a single voice, hurled at the bean. After the words comes acceptance, the anger gone, replaced by a singular purpose that frightens…
The seat of creation preemptively invaded. The fluid that sustains drains; air rushes past unformed ears, lungs sear, pressure exerts on limbs.
In that split second, as the pain grows to excruciating proportions but just before being torn asunder, an unlived life flashes before unseeing eyes…
“Shhh, honey, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
I was awake before I knew I was, wrapped by familiar arms. My scream died in my mouth, replaced by a whimpered, “Mommy?”
“Yes, sweetie, it’s me.”
I wriggled out of her hug. I needed to see the proof. Mommy wiped a tear from my cheek with her thumb. “The bad dream?” she asked me.
I nodded. “Uh-huh.”
I shook my head.
Mommy moved my hair away from my face. “Want to tell me about it?”
“What is it, honey? You can tell me.”
I shook my head again. “I can’t.” Because not yet four years old I was unable to explain what I did not understand.
“Well, you can tell me about it whenever you feel like it. Sometimes talking about something unpleasant can make it go away. Okay?”
“Now come on. You can help me fold the laundry and then help me get dinner ready.”
Daddy scooped me up into his arms. “Who’s this little girl?”
“Daddy’s little girl!”
“That’s right. Daddy’s little girl. But you’ve grown so big since I saw you this morning.”
I giggled as Daddy kissed my cheek. Then he rubbed his cheek against mine and I felt its roughness.
“You’re picky,” I said.
“Darn right I am. I picked you as my little girl, didn’t I?”
I giggled. “Silly, Daddy. Your face is picky.”
“Well, excuse me for not shaving before coming home.”
“You smoked a cigar, too, didn’t you? I can smell it.”
“No pulling one over on you, is there?”
“How come Mommy won’t let you smoke at home?”
“Outside doesn’t count. How come she doesn’t let you smoke in the house?”
“Not everyone cares for the smell of cigars, Marlie.”
“It’s not that,” Mommy called from the kitchen. “It leaves a film on everything—the cabinets, the furniture. Now come on. Dinner is on.”
After dinner Daddy put Glenn Miller on the record player and when “Kalamazoo” came on we danced. I stood on his feet as he twirled me around the living room. I sang the chorus: “K… A… L-A-M-A-Z-oh, oh, oh, I gotta gal in… Kala-ma-zoo…”
Then we went onto the patio. Daddy lit a cigar and I sat on a cushion between Mommy and Daddy and we watched two sparrows bathe in our bird bath next to the garage. After they flew off I asked, “Daddy, can we move to Kalamazoo?”
Daddy laughed. “Why would you want to move to Kalamazoo?”
“I want to be a girl in Kalamazoo.” I loved the melody of Glenn Miller’s song. It was playful. That’s what Daddy once said. But I also loved the word Kalamazoo, the way it made my mouth feel when I said it. The way it sounded in my ears. I saw it as a fun place. Otherworldly, like the land of Oz, which also had a “z” in it.
Mommy said, “Not satisfied to be a gal in Garden City?”
“There’s no song about Garden City.”
“Well then, why don’t you write one when you grow up?” Daddy said.
That surprised me. “You really think I could?”
“You can do anything you want, honey,” he said.
We went quiet then, as the sun set behind the house behind ours. Soon the crickets started chirping. I looked up at Daddy. The end of his cigar glowed cherry red as he drew on it. He saw me watching him.
“What am I doing?” he asked.
“Drawing,” I said. “Which isn’t the same thing as drawing a picture.”
“Good girl.” Then he added, “English is a funny language.”
I recalled our lesson from a few days ago. “‘There,’ ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ all sound the same.”
“But all are spelled differently and have different meanings.”
“There,” I said, pointing at an airplane passing over our house, “is an airplane. T-h-e-r-e.”
I heard our neighbor’s dog, Skippy, bark. “Skippy isn’t our dog. He’s their dog. T-h-e-i-r.”
“The Tigers lost fifteen of their first seventeen games this year, but they’re—‘they are’ with a, a…”
“A apostrophe.” I said the word slowly so I would remember it.
“‘An,”” Mommy said. “An apostrophe.”
I ignored her. Mommy was always correcting me. I didn’t like being corrected.“They’re playing better after firing their manager.”
“That they are,” Daddy said. “Although I don’t believe Norman’s replacement, Jimmy Dykes, is the answer.”
He was nearly finished smoking his cigar, which meant it would be time for me to go to bed. I shivered, although it wasn’t cold outside. I inhaled deeply. I loved the smell of cigars. It reminded me of Daddy. I couldn’t understand why Mommy didn’t like it. If she loved Daddy she should love cigar smoke.
But I had another reason for wanting to take the smell of Daddy’s cigar to bed with me: I hoped it would keep away the bad dreams.
The face, long and white and haggard, nearly hidden by long hair, greasy and unkempt, loomed above me. I reached for the face. Tiny arms with tiny fingers flexing fell woefully short. I wailed, wanting to be held.
The head shook once from side to side. A hand, large and heavily veined, pushed a smoking white stick between the lips on the face; its tip glowed red as the face breathed in deeply. A sigh accompanied by a thick cloud of smoke.
I wailed and reached.
Words mumbled, barely audible. They meant nothing to me, whose only means of communication was crying.
Hold me: cry.
The words registered no meaning; but the hostility with which they were spoken instilled great fear in me. But fear held as little meaning to me as did words. I only wanted, needed, to be held. To be coddled. To be loved.
The lips on the face parted to reveal yellowed teeth—nearly as yellowed as the hair that hung to either side of the face. The smile was not one of affection or meant to reassure. Cold, calculating eyes stared down at me, helpless and needy…
I wailed: Hold me.
The hand that held the smoking stick dropped. A moment later I felt a searing pain on the bottom of my foot. My wail turned to a scream…
I came awake, unsure whether the scream had passed my lips or was only in my dream. When neither Mommy or Daddy came into my room, I knew the scream had only been in my head.
I rolled over onto my tummy and turned my body to let my feet drop to the floor, then pushed myself away from my bed.
Barefoot, I walked past Mommy and Daddy’s room to the bathroom. The wood floor creaked and I hoped it wasn’t too loud. In the bathroom, after closing the door, I switched on the light. Then I hoisted myself onto the toilet seat to tinkle.
When I finished I got down and sat on the rug in front of the sink. Grabbing my right foot I leaned forward and turned my foot so I could see the bottom. There were several pink, puckered scars. But they didn’t hurt.
I got up and, standing on my toes, reached for the cold water tap. I let it run for a while to get good and cold, then half filled the cup that sat next to Daddy’s razor. I drank most of it, spilled the rest into the sink, turned off the light, and went back to my room.
As I passed Mommy and Daddy’s room Mommy said, “Are you okay, Marla?”
“Yes. I was thirsty.”
“Okay. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” I said.
A moment later I crawled back into my bed, confused.