There was no pain Jay could inflict that could even begin to compete with the pain brought on when I had the thought, “I didn’t even say goodbye.” The power that thought had to devastate me was insurmountable.
I hated that I had locked myself in my room that night. I had gotten caught up in a book of scientific theories about how the pyramids in Egypt were built. Having just started the chapter theorizing that the ancient Egyptians may have been actual giants, I had been completely absorbed in it. So, when my mom had unsuccessfully turned the knob to my room, trying to come in, I felt relief that I had remembered to lock it. Ughhh… I felt relief! I had taken for granted that she would always be there, and instead of rushing to the door and letting her in, I hollered from my bed, “What?”
When she said “Were going to dinner honey, love you.” I just responded with “Bye.”
If only I had known I wouldn’t see her and my dad again. I would have opened the door and hugged her and let her kiss my cheek.
I think that was when it happened—I became numb. It was like nothing could shock me. How can you rock a boat that has already been capsized? Being numb was like falling off a cliff and not even caring if the parachute worked or not.
I had grown up an unlikely candidate for suicide, if you believe it takes a certain type of person or string of essential attributes to take the plunge. I was just the average all-American kid, with a mom and a dad, in suburbia. I was twelve when I first heard the word, and at that time it was the farthest thing from my mind. I was happy—or at least I thought I was. After the word suicide was introduced to me I would lay awake night after night, trying to figure out why someone would decide to take their own life.
As a kid, I had never quite understood people. I hadn’t ever felt like I blended in with the crowd; I was a bit of an outcast. Society didn’t seem to have a place for me. I knew I was odd before puberty set in, and once it did, I swear I literally morphed into a full-blown leper. While lust consumed the boys, the girls were ravaged with jealousy as I turned from an awkward ugly duckling into a swan overnight. The unwanted attention combined with an insatiable curiosity for the world landed me most days in my room with my nose in a book. I worried about things that other kids didn’t, like global warming and running out of water. I couldn’t know or understand enough. So you could always find me reaching for more, either buried in a book or daydreaming about my perfect place, a place I had created in my imagination when I was just seven—a place I called The Meadow.
Not only did my peers not understand me, but I didn’t fit in with the rest of the women in Cutler, California, either. Their lives seemed to rotate around what was for dinner and who has the juiciest gossip. Yes, these women loved their gossip. In fact, I can honestly say there wasn’t anything that they enjoyed more. It was by far their most tantalizing pastime, filling the emptiness of what I would say were otherwise deeply unfulfilling lives. My mom played her role well, but I felt like she saw it too—she saw what I saw.
I knew I was different because in my heart I detested the shallow, mundane lives they led. But of course I played along and never voiced that out loud. I had watched how gossiping was a tradition passed down through the generations and knew that I was being groomed to one day wear their shoes. The men played poker and watched sports while the women gossiped—it was just a part of life.
Watching the reactions and listening to the commentary as they discussed the current hot topic was supposed to teach me morals and values, but instead I learned what judgment looks like. Many of my firsts happened at the end of the gossip trail; I learned about deception, sex, murder, hate crimes, violence and even suicide.
With a population less than 3000, it was most definitely the kind of small town where everyone knew everyone, so the only way you could be assured you weren’t being talked about was if you were doing the talking. They rarely gossiped about good news but instead seemed to derive joy from discussing the failures of their neighbor. From where I stood it looked like the machine of Cutler was fueled by gossip.
These sessions came in many different disguises, like bowling night, dinner parties, auctions, or my personal favorite due to the sheer irony: Bible study. Having witnessed firsthand what went on at the supposed bible study, I can testify that it was anything but spiritual. “Loving thy neighbor as you love thyself” was the farthest thing from their minds—unless that neighbor had some dirt on someone else.
To this day the smell of herbal tea and cigarette smoke takes me back to that kitchen and the endless nights filled with “he said, she said,” gathered around a plate of cream-filled pastries.
It always started the same, like a charade. Those who participated would undoubtedly go through the ritual of pretending that they had an agenda outside of gossip. Talking business at first while, secretly waiting for someone to make the move, inevitably, one would lean in with a slightly hushed, melodramatic tone while the anticipation gathered, then the words: did you hear about, or Guess what I saw, heard or found out. That usually got the ball rolling. Ughh… it was mindboggling to me that they could spend their whole night talking about who was looking as if they had put on a couple of pounds at last Sundays church service.
An important part of the ritual was the tea. Although I loved the smell, I abhorred the taste of the tea—something about the spicy herbs. Mrs. Jacobs was responsible for starting that tradition. One night she had brought some tea’s over, telling everyone in a presumptuous tone “My cousin sent these to me from Paris, over there the ladies always drink tea with their pastries; they’re so very cultured.” I guess they all became convinced that tea created an heir of high society or sophistication. They didn’t do either for me. They just made me sick. Not wanting to rock the boat, I pretended to sip the tea while disappearing to the ever-present sanctuary of my mind where my imagination was in charge. Even as I daydreamed I would always make sure to give the occasional nod and smile to show my interest.
Something about that night was different. Maybe it was the smell of an approaching storm in the air, or the intuition stirring in my belly that told me that night was going to be forever seared into my mind—and I was right.
It was the night when Mrs. Jacobs who lived just a few houses down from us, had come barreling in like a tornado, destroying everything in its wake. Tossing her purse on the counter and throwing her rain-soaked coat on the rack by the door, she could barely contain herself with the excitement of her news.
“Wait’ll ya hear what I have to say! Cutler sure does have a full blown scandal. I never would’ve believed it if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears,” she squealed, patting her freshly colored, burgundy hair to make sure it wasn’t affected by the wind and rain on her walk to my house.
With all eyes on her and clearly loving the attention, she took her time dragging it out. Sitting down and taking a moment to remind everyone she was a lady as she dramatically used her hands to iron out the wrinkles in her bright yellow, Sunday dress and adjusted herself in her seat. Crossing her legs, she placed a cigarette between her Fuchsia lips. I swear I was allergic to that woman, a mixture of the devastatingly potent aroma of her perfume and the smell of her aqua net hairspray always had me fighting the urge to sneeze. She never went anywhere without her giant aerosol can of hairspray. There it was, peeking out of her purse on the counter, taunting me. Every time she used the bathroom you could hear the ozone layer being diminished. I knew she didn’t care about stuff like that, but I did. Apparently a three inch high, teased mess she called a hairstyle took a lot of maintenance and if it contributed to global warming she had decided that was just the price we had to pay.
Taking a deep draw on her cigarette with her lips wrapped tightly around the filter, causing the fuchsia color to bleed into the deep crevices surrounding her lips. Burning half of her cigarette in one puff, she blew it out with a loud sigh. Turning to shake the ash off in my mother’s ivy plant, she saidPost, “Listen Linda, do you think you could get me a little of that tea?”
My mom was hosting this week’s gossip session, giving her the responsibility of providing tea and cookies.
“Sure! What is going on? Is it the Tayler’s? I knew they were headed for divorce. I’ve seen the way he looks at that hussy Teresa, during Choir practice on Sundays.” My mom responded.
“Nope. It’s not that. But, Mrs Tayler sure does need to open up her eyes and see that woman looks at her man just a little too deep and a little too long for my comfort,”
Mrs Jacobs responded while my mother got the tea as everyone gathered around awaiting this download of what was sure to be front page newsworthy gossip—she always delivered when she said she had big news. Considering her husband was the sheriff of Clark County she had all the top shelf gossip.
Another long draw off the cigarette and a sip of tea later, she begins “Well…you all know Jay Martin?”
“Yes.” Everyone responds in unison some making faces to show their obvious dislike of the man. Then my mom, who is a checker at the local market, says “I see Mr. Martin at the market every Wednesday like clockwork he always shows up around lunchtime with that same scowl across his face. Right as he rolls in every other checker either has an emergency they need to tend to or decides to take their lunch break. I hate to say it… but, something about that man makes my skin crawl…he’s not right… not right at all.”
Everyone gave a knowing nod and Stacia, the second biggest gossiper in all of Cutler, added “I know exactly what you are saying Linda. I put together my weekly women’s self-defense class with that guy in mind! I’ve never heard him say more than a grumble. One time I invited him to be a part of the church and he just looked at me and said “Listen lady, don’t try and sell me your god shit and I won’t…never mind.” I don’t know what he was going to say but it wasn’t anything nice. He is a vicious man!”
“Did you all know that he was married?” Mrs. Jacobs says.
“I had heard something like that from one of the ladies at church who works in st. meredith’s hospital. She had said that Jay Martin had brought in a woman and referred to her as Mrs. Martin and she looked like she had been thrown out of a moving vehicle and then ran over. Jay didn’t leave her side the whole time I wondered if it was a concerned husband but, something in me said he was worried that she may tell us what really happened because his story was that she was just clumsy and had fallen down the stairs—nearly broke her neck. She swore that there was no way that kind of trauma could have been caused by stairs—looked more like a baseball bat had bashed in her skull, amazing that she survived.” Stacia responded.
“Well, I heard his wife had a mental condition, so she rarely came out of the house. That is right I said had, because I just heard from Lou the local cremator that Mrs. Martin had been found lying on the bushes at the Martin’s creepy old house and the emergency response team marked her DOA, dead on arrival. I guess it looked like she fell out of a second story window, they think it was suicide but called it accidental death to save her family the disgrace.”
Everyone gasped. There were a few comments like “I would commit suicide too if I had to live with that man” made under their breath. Then my mom reading everyone’s mind said, “Do you think he had something to do with her death?”
I guess that was when I realized how sheltered I had been. Up until that point, I hadn’t really considered that someone might take their own life. I wondered what type of person would end up that low. How awful would your life have to be for you to go to that extreme, while supposing that they must be very brave, or sad, or both. I wanted to know why. My life changed on that day. I saw our mortality, something I had never really considered before—we all die and if we are all going to die anyways…well… why not sooner rather than later?
I wondered if the only thing that kept us alive was fear of death. Was it our fear that kept us ending it whenever we had any heartbreak or bad news? So, even though most of the world saw him as a coward, I had to imagine that Mr. Martins wife was very brave—braver than the rest of us. I was still curious, I wanted to know why. Sometimes she would cross my mind and I would wonder if anyone else still thought about her, other than being the juicy topic of the week does her legacy live on? Had she just become the woman married to the crazy guy who committed suicide? Even though we had never officially met, I felt a sort of kinship to her. I imagined she was just like me—a bit of an outcast.