Narrative Magazine: People are talking about Carol Edgarian's big-hearted second novel, Three Stages of Amazement--a love story that begins with a marriage rather than ending with one. O magazine, the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and many others have given the novel high praise, and the New York Times calls Three Stages of Amazement "a turbulent, furiously compelling book." The novel's irresistible mix of desire, ambition, betrayal, and love are well on display in the excerpt here.
A NOVEL EXCERPT
by Carol Edgarian
THEIR FIRST CHILD was Theo, a sweet-faced kid who asked too many questions, but that just made him more like his mother, and more loved. They were living in Boston, in a small condo in Back Bay. Charlie was on the surgical faculty at Mass General, leading a push in robotics, and Lena was a senior producer for special projects at Boston's PBS station, WGBH. They were happy, as singularly happy, as they would ever be.
It was the autumn of '06, the Dow and the NASDAQ rising like twin kites on endless string. We'll talk of this time, people in Silicon Valley said, and what they meant was technology, but what they really meant was money. In the newspapers and magazines there was no mention of poorer times. Such hope and promise had not existed in years.
All you needed was an idea.
One night, after Lena and Charlie made love, Lena heard the ripple in the river. Straddling Charlie, she locked him with her legs, and putting a cool fingertip to his heart, asked. "What is it?"
"What is what?"
Lena nodded encouragingly. She gave him plenty of time. She had looked inside him, to the lamplight there. Seeing the lamp, Lena spied the secret box he kept beside it--as everyone did, as she had one herself. His heart beat up through her finger.
"You know," she said.
He didn't quite. Not in so many words. But the truth was Charlie wanted to be known for something singular, pivotal, wanted it in a way that surprised his deepest self. Having marched through med school into a surgical career, he'd entered his forties wanting more. There was no getting around it, money and acclaim were his dream-girls, waking him in the middle of the night and calling his name. But he had yet to put it into words.
He thought he'd been talking on the side with his friend Swanson, was all.
Lena climbed out of bed and walked her high ass out of the room. She was never casual with her intuitions and she never liked to waste time and, besides, the lamp and the box were hallowed things not to be fooled with.
What the hell just happened? Charlie wondered, as he sat up, pulling the covers discreetly to his waist. He felt stunned, enlivened and, yes, some afraid. Lena was in the kitchen now, banging cabinets, opening the fridge door--his small-boned girl with a bit of a heavy hand.
Loving always made her starving, he knew that well.
She returned with a plate of chicken, grapes, crackers, pickles, and cheese and a six-pack of Guinness. Climbing into bed, she daintily arranged the picnic around her. She tore off a hunk of bread, laid it across her palm, and stacked it with a slice of chicken and a log of cheese. Biting down, Lena groaned with pleasure. Then she fixed him with those grass-green eyes.
Once Charlie started talking, it was hard to stop. His thoughts tumbled out, fully formed, like neat bricks set in rows. Of course, he drank a bit too. "We'll talk of this time," he said, "as the revolution."
Charlie had convinced Mass General to be one of the first to invest in a million-dollar robot called the Midas. He had made himself the go-to guy, training doctors up and down the East Coast. This much Lena knew. But the Midas proved to be an Edsel, overly technical, fussy. And through his volunteer work in Mbarara, Uganda, Charlie had imagined a more simplified robot that could be used in remote locations, a battlefield, say--a smaller robot that could be wheeled in on a cart and cost a tenth of the price of the Midas. Any surgeon anywhere would want to use it.
In a long life together, who says what the key moments are? When love knocks you on the head and shouts, Hey. Listen up. This is our chance.
Lena understood desire; she understood it in her bones. She ate all the food and drank a beer, then put her plate aside. She'd been listening carefully. And when her mind wandered, she counted the crows' feet around Charlie's eyes until she was certain they were the same number as yesterday, and then she listened a little more. They would have to move West to join Swanson, Charlie's partner, who had deep roots in the medical device world. San Francisco would be a leap backward, to a place she'd run from years ago. She saw the sharp, unhappy faces of her mother and her sisters, and putting them aside, she hugged her ribs and focused on the pleasant cadences of Charlie's voice. Lena considered the sweet fragrance of San Francisco in March, when the hills of Marin and Oakland were greenest and the sea air mixed with the pungent flowering privets; she recalled those tawny afternoons of her childhood, when the sun cast a golden veil over the city. But was she ready to go back? From here Lena's thoughts turned to the shadows. She fretted over housing prices. She hated the thought of leaving the job she loved. She knew it would be hell to get Theo into one of those snotty private schools, but the public schools, which she preferred, were broken. So instead Lena imagined calling her best friend Vi, whom she missed terribly, to say she was coming home. The picture brightened again. By the time Charlie finished, she had decided they'd keep the piano but sell the car.
"You okay?" he asked, for there were tears in her eyes.
Then again, she had a piece of arugula stuck in her tooth. With the tip of his finger, Charlie removed it. He kissed her deeply, holding her face in his capable doctor hands, and pledging in so many endearing, silly phrases his undying love. Then he sat back to listen. He knew she would have lots of questions.
At first she said nothing. She got out of the bed, and throwing on his old sweater, sat in the one good chair across from him.
Her eyes tick-tocked. Finally she said, "We could lose each other." It wasn't a question. She had hefted the largest boulder from the river and flung it on the floor between them. She expected him to examine it with her. "We're different," she said. "That's fine when it's just us together, but the distance, Charlie." She shook her head.
Charlie opened his mouth and shut it like a fish. "Weekends," he said. "I'll be home on the weekends, and as many nights, whatever it takes. Honestly, babe." His heart was racing.
"Three years. Let's agree we'll give it three years. I'll build it, then sell it. We can do this, Lean. We can be big."
"How do you know we can be big?"
"My God, I just know."
Feeling it too, she nodded. Her hand went to her heart. She'd been thinking lately it was time they had another child. "Charlie Pepper."
"Come over here and say that."
She smiled but stayed put.
"I said come over here."
"Mmm. I heard you."
Maybe now, Charlie thought, I should offer her something equally bounteous. "Hey," he said. "Let's make a girl this time."
When scared or surprised, her ears moved back, like a horse's. "What, Pep? Then I'd have two to raise on my own?" But she was beaming, and Charlie knew he had hit on the very thing.
They had no limits. Together they had no limits at all.
She was smiling as she climbed back on top. "So," she laughed. "Doctor, when do we go?"
THEY WERE AS ordinary as any two people wanting more. When Lena's boss heard that her radical, save-the-world and nail-the-bastards producer was pregnant with twins and moving to San Francisco, Kay Higgins let go a world-weary sigh. "Why is it," she asked, "in a boom economy, it's always the women heading back to the kitchen?" Higgins was fifty-five and a spinster. What besides a lifetime of work did she know? She fixed Lena with a self-justifying smile that was the purview of politicians and maiden aunts. "My door's always open, sweetheart. I'm just so disappointed that I won't see your star walk through it." Again Kay sighed, a sigh that had everything to do with her old loneliness, but that part Lena missed. Instead she heard a warning.
"I'll get there," Lena protested. "It might take a little more time."
"It'll be harder. Kids feed off the primary vein."
"Fine by me."
"Oh, it'll be fine. It'll be wonderful. Just different."
But Lena wasn't sure she wanted different, if different meant being less. What had she been doing all these years, if not striving to become someone? She wanted to have her children and still be the mighty star. "What's this, Kay? Didn't we agree that there should be a special place in hell for women who didn't help other women rise?" Lena was already on her feet, heading for the door. "You know, for women who don't let other women choose."
"Oh, honey, by all means choose. By all means rise," Kay agreed, but there was something new in her voice that sounded to Lena a lot like a door closing.
Lena was halfway down the hall when she remembered where she was going and, feeling better, she shouted behind her. "Life, Kay. Life!"
THEY ARRIVED IN San Francisco ready for luck, having already agreed that for the next few years Charlie would give everything to Nimbus and Lena would handle the rest. Their children would be well, their love would advance, and nothing would impede them. So, they bought a house they couldn't afford and maxed the credit cards, gambling that sooner or later there'd be an IPO, and money would be no problem.
Lena pushed through the first trimester feeling awful, to the sweet spot of the middle months. She settled the house and launched Theo into preschool. Each morning she dropped him at school and then set off on a walk toward the Bay. The early-morning breeze was bracing, but Lena had the twins inside, her own private furnace. Filled with wonder, she felt as close to life as she had ever been.
Of course, Lena didn't see Charlie much and they were tight on money, with Charlie's salary half what it had been in Boston, while their mortgage had doubled. Lena joined a PR firm part-time, where she wrote commercial documentaries. It was soul-less work, but temporary. On weekends, she showed Theo the town; together they painted the new nursery green.
But one night early in March, twenty-four weeks into the pregnancy, Lena found she couldn't sleep. She curled around Charlie and planned their lives. She went shopping in the store inside her mind to buy the next few years. When Charlie climbed out of bed to get dressed for an early surgery at Stanford, Lena had an excuse to get up as well. Feeling wifely, she made coffee and buttered his toast, and after breakfast she stood on the front steps in Charlie's running shoes to say good-bye.
"You okay?" He was looking at her seriously, the way he did. He ran his hands along her back, knowing the bones and nerves.
"I am not missing you," she said, covering his face with kisses. "I'm not. I'm not."
An hour later, while getting Theo dressed, Lena felt the first contraction. Theo was doing somersaults on the bed, and the thump and bounce sank her to her knees.
"Theo, please. Hold still."
She waited, listening, her hands linked under her belly. "Theo, honey, I've got to . . . lie down." Aware of Theo's eyes on her, she made for the door, carrying the ball of the babies in her hands. Every instinct told her she was in trouble.
"Theo, sweetheart. Get me the phone."
Sober, clear-eyed and, like his father, believing that if he were vigilant, no wrong could happen, Theo ran to the master bedroom and back.
An hour down the road, at Stanford, Charlie was using a robot to excise cancer from a fifty-six-year-old schoolteacher's bladder. As he cauterized vessels deep in the pelvis, he explained to the residents and surgeons watching in the theater above, that while man's hands were limited tools, his mind could fashion a device that turned his fingers into a needle, scissors, fire, and a wand.
Lena had him paged. When he called back she sounded more mystified than frightened. A day earlier at the doctor's everything had been fine. "It's only twenty-four weeks," she cried, pausing for another contraction. "Shit! Charlie, my water just broke."
He told her to stay on the line, while on his cell he called their OB and an ambulance.
"Charlie, Theo's here. He's standing next to me. What do I do? Oh, God, what do I do?" Panic rose in Lena's voice.
"Send him over to the Brandts' until I get there."
"Who?" Her knees were buckling. She closed her eyes.
"Next door. The guy with the leaf blower. His wife's name, what was her name?"
"Charlie, we don't know them."
"Of course we know them. They're our neighbors. We're talking a couple of hours, Lean."
"Don't you remember, Charlie? That time with Theo's ball? They kept calling him, to his face, 'the child.' "
But Charlie wasn't listening. He was issuing orders. And when he was done issuing orders, he washed his hands, grabbed his keys, and tore up the highway.
The firstborn twin, Sylvie, was just too tiny--all the wonders of technology and medicine couldn't save her. Willa, only slightly larger at one pound six ounces, had trouble breathing. She needed immediate surgery on her lungs. Lena, drugged and exhausted, had a tear in the wall of her uterus and had to be hurried to the OR and stitched. Like a seal she slipped under the surface, to where it was cool and safe, and there she stayed for the next several hours.
Charlie named Sylvie. He stood at the foot of Lena's hospital bed holding his baby. At last he opened the blanket. With skilled, tender hands he smoothed the bottom of Sylvie's feet and counted her fingers and turned her over to see that she was covered in down. Twice the nurses came for her; the first time he sent them away and the second time he had them bring a basin. He bathed her, wrapped her in another clean blanket, then he walked her around the room, the heartbreak coming in waves. It affected his knees. Charlie, the able doctor, folded to the floor and begged the gods. The gods were silent. At last, when he couldn't put it off any longer, he woke Lena so she could hold her dead baby.
Lena opened her eyes. The morphine made her thoughts loopy and the lights too bright. The thick hedge of Charlie's hair appeared winked with silver. She smiled--there at the holy gates, high as a kite. With trembling hands, she reached for her prize.
GRIEF WAS A stalker. It lurked in the china cabinet and in the waiting room at the dentist's and behind the switch on the hall light. It twined itself inside the tongue of sneakers and the click of pens and the heels of socks. Tea bags were infused with it, as were cereal boxes, board games, and the mail as it passed through the slot. Contrary to reputation, it never looked drab; it didn't care a whit about time. The hummingbird had it, flapping furiously, as did the weary-faced gorilla eating its banana at the zoo. Ferries crossed the Bay with it trapped inside their cabins; container ships carried it in their hulls. It wasn't elegant. It wasn't easy or smooth. It rose with the sun and hid in the corners of fog. Surprisingly, it preferred hello to good-bye. It showed up on the beach and acted churlish in the park. It frayed the nerves in the manner of a gunshot or a siren whizzing by. It was big, hairy, inarticulate, possessing just one word, why. It was brain freeze and sour lemons and a knife to the belly and a thrum-thrumming of the heart--combined. Grief made Lena clumsy. She was forever falling, and attempting to rise.
On the nights they were together, she and Charlie lay side by side like swimmers capsized by a rogue wave, hurled onshore. They lay on their backs, breathless, speaking in clipped half-sentences of other things. Other things consumed them. There were Willa's ongoing health crises, and the accompanying medical bills, and the applications and interviews required to get Theo into a decent kindergarten. There was work, unyielding. The presidential election and the economic crisis were distractions. And all the while Lena and Charlie were living another secret life, a life of amazement. And that life was changing all the time.
THEO'S SHOE WAS untied. On the crowded sidewalk, Lena bent to fix it, but she moved too quickly and her purse swung from behind, hitting her in the face. She growled and swung it back.
They were late for Theo's kindergarten interview. All the pressure was expressed in Theo's shoes.
"How's that," she asked, giving the lace a last tug.
Theo tapped the sidewalk. "Now the other one's wiggly."
Citywide, there was one spot for every twenty applicants, and the odds were less if you asked for financial aid. So far the "playdates," as they were called, had gone badly for Theo. In the first two interviews, as all the children played brightly, Theo decided it would be better not to talk. He could shake his head, he could hop on one foot, but Theo couldn't talk. In one playdate, he was asked to draw a star; Theo drew a portrait of Bruce Springsteen. The admissions director at that school grudgingly admitted that this was a creative choice. The next interview went even worse.
Lena's thoughts turned global. Think of the mothers of Sierra Leona, or Bosnia or Chernobyl or Appalachia, she reminded herself. Was it only luck or unluck? Or was it fate? From fate she moved quickly to the gods, her image being not one god but a collective of ancients, relics from the university, old Greeks, perhaps--these men and women, all somber, flawed, but mighty, the lot of them in their robes and beards (not the women, who had seventies-style cuts) with hairy legs in crude sandals--nodding at her from the higher plane. Lena's gods were lusty, capricious, and highly improvisational. They were not above one-upmanship and unfair management practices. They were parsimonious and unjust.
"I think we should cancel."
Squatting at Theo's feet, Lena glanced up at her son, then down again. She had her listening face on, her head bowed, eyes focused on the ground. "Theo, we're not canceling. Just be yourself."
"But you want me to get in someplace and you're scared I won't."
She couldn't acknowledge this bit of solid reasoning, at least not while squatting near the ground. Lena stood up. "Give me your hand," she said. His fingers tucked into hers felt very strong. She looked him squarely in the eye. "We're trying these schools out, not the other way. We're just seeing what we see, that's all. In the end, we'll decide."
"You really think so?"
Theo was at that fleeting age when his mother seemed almost perfect. Nothing could alter his good opinion of that person on whom his every comfort depended. If she no longer looked exactly like the mother he remembered, if her hair was sometimes oily and unbrushed, if her skin was dry and her lips so pale they almost disappeared, if she forgot to put on earrings or any adornment, and if under her breath she vividly cursed, these details did not so much detract as amplify Theo's impression that once not long ago they had lived a grand life.
And what a life it had been when her arms were the cathedral of one Theodore Finnegan Pepper. Instead of his sister Willa--floppy, feverish and always sick.
Inside the school lobby, the other mothers worked to make friends. They seemed to believe that their ability to get along with strangers would have a positive effect on their child's application. Lena went off to a corner and stewed.
She needed more money this week to pay their basic bills. The mortgage was at 8 percent. The toilet running upstairs needed a jiggle. And what of Willa's seizures? Had they caused irreparable damage? Had they? Lena had two slices of turkey in the fridge that she needed to stretch for Theo's lunch. She had a roll on her hips and bags under her eyes. Meanwhile, the heart with its wants--its ridiculous wants--demanded a kiss and a poem. Did these other women suffer such things? Did they sometimes feel tired of being sad, or sad to be so tired?
The moment she caught sight of Theo, Lena knew they were in trouble.
The instructors had asked the boys to make a coffee cup to take home. There were five steps in the directions: Cut a piece of paper, following the lines; draw your best picture on the paper; then fit the drawing into the plastic sleeve on the outer rim of the mug, like so; then fit the top on. When finished, raise your hand. Start now.
The other boys rushed forward to show their cups to their waiting parents. Lena could make out detailed renderings of underwater worlds and houses and families.
But when Theo found Lena he said, his voice shaking, "I'm never coming back here. Ever."
"What happened, Theo?"
"What did they do?"
Theo handed over his mug. He had kept his paper blank, except for a row of five green dots. "It's just like ones we have at home," he explained.
He would never get in now, unless they understood his mind, and why should they do that? Lena smiled at the woman who was the kindergarten teacher. She did not meet Lena's gaze.
On the way to the car, Theo looked soberly at Lena and decided exactly how much truth his mother could handle. "That lady, she smiles with her mouth but not her eyes."
"Oh, Christ." Lena pulled him to her, feeling his small, solid back, the man already there in his bones. Theo was a character, and the world would make him pay for that, but she'd hoped to keep him safe just a little longer.
"You are great, Theo. Do you know that?"
"Yeah," he said, his face mashed against her. "But I'm a little weird too."
"Honey, your dad and I are a little weird."
With his face pressed against her belly, he nodded. He already knew.
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