25 December 1989. Leonard Bernstein gave a concert in Berlin celebrating the end of the Wall, including the 9th Symphony (Ode to Joy) with the word “Joy” (Freude) changed to “Freedom” (Freiheit) in the lyrics sung.
The rain hit the house as Cara stood snug by the front bay window, holding a china mug of English tea. During Christmas break from college, her freshman son Daniel had explained that snow was ten inches to every one of rain, so on this Wednesday night in late January, Cara imagined the deep drifts this storm could have been. Most of her knowledge came secondhand from her children, husband, or news media. Her older son, a senior, had left her a book from a sociology course. It was an indictment of her life. “Upper middle class and upper class women are parasites.” If this rain had been snow, the only sound would have been the whine of the wind as it curved around the north corner of the house. The rain was now a waterfall cascading down the gutters of the home on several acres in a Gatsby-country suburb. On either side of the house, beyond walkway lights, were trees and obscured neighbors’ homes. Cara sipped the hot tea. It smelled like history: 19th century England and India or anywhere the sun did not set on the British Empire. She stood in her dining room while her husband Roger was asleep in the den with the Times open to the Metro section on his lap. Roger had every reason to be exhausted. He was the chief American executive of a Japanese corporation, one of whose widescreens was producing a low hum of entertainment that had lulled him. He had only that day returned from Japan, and jet lag had caught up. They should have lived in Westchester, north of Manhattan, along with his colleagues. The Japanese were conservative about this, as about many things. When they came for dinner, Cara was not welcome at her own table. So she stayed in the kitchen with the gourmet food she had prepared and supervised the waiter she had to employ. But Cara had insisted on living on northern Long Island because her mother’s family still lived in Queens, one of New York’s four outer boroughs.
The tea comforted. She reached into the moment as into a cashmere sweater, one arm at a time. Then she felt a thud; tea shuddered in her mug. The electricity went out. Roger did not awaken; she did not call him.
Cara groped her way to the entryway closet and found a large flashlight. She pulled on a lined raincoat and secured the hood, foregoing an umbrella in the mauling storm. Outdoors, she panned the heavy flashlight around the front lawn. Bare oaks and maples swayed and creaked, but the rhododendrons were submissively flat-leaved; it was warm for January. Cara saw in the blown beams of light – a jumbo jet – its back third broken away – a mangled giant, marked with a colossal red stripe – ripped open – huge on the hillside.
She smelled metal, feared fire and explosion — then Roger was beside her. “Call 911!” she ordered,” and he disappeared. Time telescoped; helicopters roared above the storm. There were sirens everywhere, red and blue flashing lights, voices on bullhorns, electric wires hissing at the rain. Roger returned and they climbed the slope of land from their property to its edge where the hulk lay broken. Cara knelt. She opened her coat to hold a baby girl against her chest and looked for the mother. She lost sight of Roger. Later, she saw him on the TV news, one link in a human chain lifting bleeding passengers from the wreckage until rescue workers, arriving in battalions, called them off and replaced them. She saw the body of a baby girl taken from a Central Casting’s country club woman’s arms, not recognizing herself but hearing the police officer telling her to go home and avoid the hot wires on the road. Cara wondered that such gentility could happen in a world where the sky really did fall.
Reporters speculated that since there had been no sound of engines, no explosion, nor smell of fuel, the jet had glided into the crash because its tanks were empty. 73 died.
A week went by before Cara left Roger a brief note and fled.
She crossed the country the slowest way she could imagine, by Greyhound to Los Angeles. Cara didn’t want to get anywhere fast. She wanted to melt like the Witch of the West at the end of Oz. She listened for hundreds of miles to conversation among passengers and various drivers about improved profits in 1989 and union demands for increased wages.
“SOB Fred Currey’s out to bust the union,” a redfaced passenger barked.
“Bust this,” the driver said, lifting a hand off the wheel and making a fist.
She made no effort to hide her whereabouts from the family; she knew they could easily trace her credit card use. She even called, the second week in LA, and told Roger that she was visiting the only living relative of her father’s generation, his sister, her Aunt Maria.
Cara had never been to Los Angeles before. She had never liked business trips with Roger that left her alone in hotel rooms in cities and countries where she was most a stranger to herself. Raising the boys had freed her for two decades; she and Roger were relieved by periodic separations. Except for sex, had they ever been close? As she had travelled across the country in the bus, going south and then west, the weather had brightened and warmed. She had left the cold behind in New York; in Los Angeles, it was early summer.
Her Aunt Maria had never been more than an address Cara knew and a television image now a generation outdated. But she welcomed her niece as if she’d been expecting her. She lived in a suburb where the streets were lined with palm trees. Cara thought they looked like prehistoric, giant spiders. Aunt Maria, though, looked excellent for her upcoming ninetieth birthday. She lived in a white stucco house with a Mexican housekeeper in her seventies. They clearly had been together for decades.
Aunt Maria looked like Cara’s father and was just as brusque. “Why are you here?”
Before Cara could answer, she continued, “You look like your mother. All her girls did. Tall. Very pretty. Good hair. I heard you all did well.”
Cara said, “I was told you didn’t want to hear about any of us.”
“Oh, that was your mother talking. Jealous and possessive, she was,” Aunt Maria leaned on Lupe’s arm as they ushered Cara into a sunken living room. White baskets of garish china flowers and giant lamps of the same unglazed Italian porcelain crowded table tops.
“Capodimonte,” Aunt Maria accented proudly, “aren’t they beautiful? I’m a member of the TV Home Buying Show, and when they have them on, I buy them all. I’ve talked to most of the hosts by now. Do you get the Home Buying Show on Long Island?”
“I really don’t know,” Cara said.
They sat on brocade furniture. Lupe brought iced tea and joined them.
“Not your cuppa? Want something stronger?” Aunt Maria said.
Neither waiting for a reply or order, Lupe took the sweating glass out of Cara’s hand and soon replaced it with several fingers of scotch.
Aunt Maria was blunt again. “I saw on TV an entire airplane fell in your front yard. They said that Columbians smuggled in drug-filled condoms in their intestines.”
“Colombians,” Lupe indicted in her low, unaccented voice.
“Right in your front yard,” Aunt Maria repeated.
Cara downed half the glass of Scotch. “The baby girl was decapitated.”
“You’ll stay right here,” Aunt Maria said.
Despite having avoided the skies, Cara slept as if jet-lagged for days. She had never suffered from depression before but had heard the definition. She did not feel sad. Aunt Maria did not trouble her with doctors, or, at all. When Cara managed to come to the dinner table, she was fed. Aunt Maria and Lupe went on with their lives not as if Cara had never appeared, but as if she were a new particularly fragile piece of capodimonte. Cara found out things about her father’s family she had never realized she wanted to know.
“The Melitos are all still in Brooklyn, above or below ground,” Aunt Maria said. “I am the black sheep of the family – the one who got away.”
“The one who got away,” Cara echoed.
Aunt Maria asked Cara about her sons.
“Roger is the older one, named for his father. Roger Allen Revere IV,” Cara said. “Daniel is named for my father.”
“How do you get Daniel from Dominick? How could they knock down the Berlin Wall? Now we’ll never be rid of those goddam Republicans.”
Cara, who had begun dressing for the day again, paused at the buttons on her blouse. She had become familiar with Aunt Maria’s abrupt shifts of thought but couldn’t help worrying about mini-strokes. Lupe, however, looked as unperturbed as Cara was about having the two older women in her room as she put on clothes. In the same spirit as her aunt’s segue-less conversation, Cara said, “I’ve never been unhappy, Aunt Maria. The 60’s and 70’s passed me by, and I had married Roger who my mother said was such a feather in my cap, and the boys were born.”
“What happened in the 80’s?” Aunt Maria asked. “What do you do?”
Cara displayed her outfit for approval.
“What d’you care what anyone thinks? You’ve lost too much weight,” Aunt Maria said.
Cara laughed and followed her outside into the small garden where oranges, lemons, and limes grew on trees. The sun was bright and hot. Lupe did not join them.
“I run,” Cara said. She lifted the gold chain around her neck and showed her aunt its thick golden ‘50’ charm. “I won this for running fifty miles.”
“In the marathon?” Aunt Maria said. “I thought that was twenty-five miles.”
“No, it’s twenty-six, but I run at a track at the public high school. Daniel goes to a private day school. Every day, I run at least ten miles. Even in rain or snow. I do a lot of fund-raising for his school.”
“At a track. You run in a circle ten miles every day?”
“And once a year, fifty miles. Oh, I can see how it sounds to you. You left Brooklyn and the family in the 1920’s and went to Chicago.”
Aunt Maria was not about to let Cara retell her life story. “Yes, I sang and danced in prohibition saloons. By the time the 30’s arrived, I headed west for the Busby Berkeley movies.” She would have repeated the story Cara now knew by heart if Lupe had not come outdoors with breakfast and taken over.
“You were part of a petal in an overhead shot.”
Aunt Maria took her story back. “My best times were the 40’s, dancing with all the GI’s in the USO canteens. The sitcom in the early 60’s bought this house, thank God, because before that, I lived like a gypsy. I never saved money. I can tell you about–,”
“–all the LA real estate you could have bought when it was sand lots, but–,” Lupe interrupted.
“–Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were buying it up when we all thought they were On the Road,” Aunt Maria triumphantly completed her sentence.
Cara had been in California for three months. Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Roger called weekly and sent dozens of yellow roses for the same Valentine’s Day that the space probe Voyager 1 took photos of the entire solar system and the Iranians issued their fatwa against a novelist. The day after, baseball owners locked out players. Both sons had written. On March 18th in Boston, thieves stole thirteen paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Cara touched the unread copy of Satanic Verses Aunt Maria displayed with the capodimonte on the coffee table.
“I don’t feel guilty,” Cara said.
“Neither should Rushdie,” Aunt Maria said. “Oh, you mean about your freedom? That’s because it’s not about you. You came here to bury me.” Her wrinkled face stretched into a grin. “You’re in my will now.”
Cara stood up from the brocade couch. “It’s always someone else’s will. I was crazy to come here.”
“You were dying, too.”
“You’re too mean to die,” Cara said. When Aunt Maria smiled, Cara saw the Cheshire Cat in a spidery palm tree. Her heart thudded.
“Cara mia,” Aunt Maria pressed, “When you appeared at our front door, I told Lupe that in LA, the Angel of Death comes dressed like a New Yorker.”
Cara picked up an empty porcelain vase and walked to the entry where she smashed it on the Mexican tiles. Then she knelt and picked up the broken pieces carelessly, cutting herself several times before Lupe rushed in at Aunt Maria’s yell. Even diluted by the flood of tears, Cara saw that her blood was redder than the shattered capodimonte roses.
7 May 2013. Matter in the solid state maintains a fixed volume and shape, with component particles close together and fixed into place. Matter in the liquid state maintains a fixed volume, but has a variable shape that adapts to fit its container. Its particles are still close together but move freely. Matter in the gaseous state has both variable volume and shape, adapting both to fit its container. Matter in the plasma state has variable volume and shape, but as well as neutral atoms, it contains a significant number of ions and electrons, both of which can move around freely. Plasma is the most common form of visible matter in the universe.
Aunt Maria died in her sleep before Easter. Lupe was distraught so Cara managed the funeral, burying her golden ‘50’ necklace in her aunt’s coffin. In a month’s time, Cara stood in the May morning back in the Long Island dining room, sipping another cup of tea. Through the Japanese corporation’s power wielded by Roger, the process had begun to expedite Cara’s adoption of a little girl from the horrible, newly-opened orphanages of Romania. She would name the child Maria Romano, and Lupe would become her abuela. She remembered a son’s math text: no more circles. Tangents. But Cara was not surprised that her pleasure in that cup of tea was short-lived.
August of the same year, Roger traveled to Kuwait and was trapped with other foreigners to be used by Saddam Hussein as human shields to protect strategic Iraqi installations in the incipient first Gulf War. When international outcry and pressure secured the hostages’ release in December, 1990, Roger returned to Long Island’s hilly north shore, where instead of the wintry gusts off the Sound all he could smell was the stink of the oil fields he couldn’t escape in his nightmares that awakened Cara, who comforted him. He asked her to accompany him on long walks. He talked about freedom and phase changes in matter. She talked about Aunt Maria and Busby Berkeley. Roger told Cara that under their feet rose and fell the terminal moraine of the last receding glacier. Roger returned to work, but it was not business as usual. It was the last decade of the 20th century, the end of the Cold War.
L. Shapley Bassen’s “Portrait of a Giant Squid” was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin ChronicleShort Story Contest. Her “What Can the Matter Be?” was the title/featured story in the special KRO Poetics of Science issue, http://www.kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/2016-fall/selections/l-shapley-bassen-342846/. For six years [until recent cessation of publication], she was Fiction Editor forhttp://www. prickof thespindle.com/, indie-published author of the 2014 novel Summer of the Long Knives (Typhoon Media), collection Lives of Crime & Other Stories (Texture Press), and 2017 publication of Showfolk & Stories [Inkception Books]. She was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award, was a 1st reader for Electric Literature, won the 2009 APP Drama Prize and a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and is poetry/fiction reviewer for The Rumpus, among several others. A native New Yorker, she’s grateful now to be living in Roger Williams’s Rhode Island. Visit her online athttp://www.lsbassen.com/