What Once Was

[Written October 27, 2010]

As Fabiana pulled in the driveway of her parents’ house, the chorus of “Bye Bye Bye” started up again on the car stereo: “I don’t want to be a fool for you, just another player in your game for two. You may hate me but–” Grumbling to herself, she aggressively killed the music and switched off the ignition. Thank God, she thought. I don’t want to hear that song again for a thousand years.

The four-year-old in the backseat had other ideas. Before her mother had even reached for her keys, little Simone had scampered out of the car and skipped halfway up the driveway, singing in a high-pitched voice the next lines: “I don’t really want to make it tough, I just wanna tell you that I’ve had enough–“

“Simone!” Fabiana snapped. Instantly the little girl dropped her head and stopped singing. She had been disciplined enough to recognize when her mother was on the verge of an outburst. It was too late, though: Fabiana’s mother had heard their arrival and emerged from her friendly Bay Ridge home to welcome her granddaughter with a smile and a big hug–plus a plateful of homemade chocolate chip cookies. Fabiana felt both annoyance and relief. Leave it to Grandma to save the day.

“Look at you!” Maggie hoisted the little girl up in her arms, being careful not to crinkle the purple lacy dress that Simone herself had so proudly picked out that morning. “All dressed up today! What’s the occasion?”

“I’m hungry,” Simone declared unabashedly. Maggie laughed. Fabiana, holding a large stack of papers under one arm and a bag of toys in the other, started to scold her daughter. “Simone, what did I tell you–“

“No, hon, it’s alright.” Maggie interrupted gently. She looked down at Simone, propped on her hip, and pretended to pout. “Did your mom send you to bed without supper again? Come in, I’ll make you a PB&J.” She set the child down on the ground and led her by the hand up the stone steps into the house, Fabiana reluctantly following.

Since Simone’s birth four years earlier, Maggie had become something of her weekend guardian, and without fail, every Saturday morning Fabiana would deposit her daughter at her parents’ doorsteps, stay long enough to chat over a cup of coffee, and then hit the road for some much needed relaxation. She could rest assured that her mother would pamper Simone like all good grandmothers should and keep her out of Fabiana’s way for the rest of the weekend. Today was no different. Fabiana said a hasty goodbye, grabbed her car keys and hurried out to the driveway.

The car was completely silent. It was rare for Fabiana to have a moment to herself these days, and she couldn’t help but to sit and enjoy the silence, even for just a moment. She leaned back and closed her eyes, letting her mind wander; and it wandered, as it always inevitably did, into that godforsaken day nearly five years ago.

– – –

It was an chilly April night shortly after her 32nd birthday. To her delight, her friends had thrown a surprise party for her, in honor of her birthday and being hired as a political science professor at New York University. Her boyfriend, another NYU professor and seven years her senior, had put the party together under the guise of a date, and when Fabiana arrived at his apartment in Flatbush she was surprised to see over a dozen of her closest friends and an impressive collection of frosted cupcakes. She was terribly embarrassed by all the attention but grateful that all of her friends could make it out to see her.
A few hours of chitchat, loud music and booze later, she was sitting on the balcony alone with her boyfriend, watching the clouds pass through the moonlit night. While Fabiana was bidding her friends and colleagues goodbye, he had sneaked outside to light some candles and pour some wine, which they now enjoyed against the backdrop of the Brooklyn skyline.
“To your future,” he said, smiling as he raised his wine glass. “And our future.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Fabiana said with a giggle. The two clinked their glasses together and shared a kiss, perfectly content to sit there under the stars until the sun rose.
– – –

Fabiana had been driving this whole time caught in a daze by the emotion of her memories. She barely looked up in time to see a traffic light turn red and slam on the brakes to avoid being t-boned in the middle of the intersection. She blinked hard a few times before grabbing a granola bar out of her purse to wake her up. Driving in Brooklyn was hard enough stress-free. It was a relief to finally see the entrance sign welcoming her to her favorite park, at which she spent most of her weekend sorting through countless academic documents of various importance. She was a bit miffed to find that her habitual picnic table was occupied by a classroom of elementary school students apparently on a field trip, and she was forced to move toward the edge of the park. Unfortunately, the kids were no quieter at that distance. Regardless, work called, and Fabiana settled in with her reading glasses and a stack of scholarly journals.

Five years and nothing had changed. Dropping her daughter off at her mother’s, driving to a secluded place, pouring over tomes of judicial literature and history–and all the reading, reading, reading. That was her escape: political journals. She wanted to close off the world and commit herself to planning a lecture on the Federalist Papers. But as she sat there at the picnic table now, she remained constantly distracted whenever a child ran past her or threw a Frisbee in front of her table. She thought about asking the kids’ chaperones–wherever they were–if they would please be so kind as to move their gala a bit north, there are adults working here, thank you.

Grumpily, Fabiana turned back to her work, but it was too late. There was no way she could focus when there were not only field trip goers to distract her but also a gaggle of toddlers running around on her other side. She packed up her papers and sat there staring at the playground. She was tired of doing this every week; she wanted some real time to be herself. She had finally reached that dreaded place: contentment. It wasn’t that Fabiana didn’t enjoy her job–she wanted nothing more than to work through the Founding Fathers’ ideas. But she had set her sights higher than that all those years ago. She should have been at Columbia now instead; she would have been, but for the misfortune of one day.

– – –

Kissing her boyfriend goodbye early the next morning was the the last positive memory Fabiana had. The moment the door she walked down the steps out into the cool morning air, everything turned to hell. The temperature had plummeted overnight, and tears filled Fabiana’s eyes as she braved the harsh wind the three blocks to where she had parked her car.

She neared the deserted parking lot to see a man at the neighboring apartment complex struggling to push a couch into the bed of a pickup truck. She had just reached into her pocket for her keys when the man, seeing her, called out, “Excuse me, ma’am? Would you mind helping me for a second?” He looked to be about 40 years old, a little overweight, with a receding hairline, and as he strained against the weight of the sofa, Fabiana noticed his roughly calloused hands. She started towards him cautiously. “Thank you so much. I just –” (he grunted under the weight of the couch) “moved into a new apartment, but I forgot–about this one in my old place–and now–I don’t have anyone to help me with it.”

Fabiana relaxed and started over to help the man lift the couch. Suddenly she felt the weight of the entire couch fall onto her shoulders when she stepped under it to push it up. She felt like the man wasn’t even holding onto it anymore, but she couldn’t turn her head around the side of the couch to look. In any case, the couch moved nowhere, and after a brief minute of struggling, Fabiana had to step back and let the couch fall to the ground. Both she and the strange man stood back for a moment, looking at the couch.

“Hm, you know, I’m thinking,” he said, “if you get into the truck and pull it into the bed, I should be able to push it up toward you. That might make it easier.” Oh, sure, Fabiana thought carelessly, quickly checking her watch. She needed to be at NYU in an hour. The man put his hand out to help her into the truck bed, but she climbed into it with little difficulty. “Ready?” the man asked. Fabiana nodded, and the man started pushing it toward her. But only after a few inches of movement, the couch suddenly hit a snag, and both Fabiana and the man immediately stopped to survey the damage. The bottom cloth covering had been torn in a long slit after getting caught on the hatch’s lock. “So much for that plan,” Fabiana said, laughing.

The man raised one eyebrow and rolled his eyes at her. “Well, at least it’s halfway in.” He climbed into the truck bed with Fabiana and bent down to examine the couch. Fabiana just stood there. With one quick motion, the man lifted the couch off its snag and pulled it all the way into the truck with what Fabiana thought was surprising ease. While he was adjusting the couch to fit in the truck bed, she turned away to brush some dirt off her coat sleeve.

Looking up quickly, the man was suddenly right in her face, and the next thing Fabiana knew, he had his hand on her shoulder and was pushing her down aggressively against the newly positioned couch. Her first instinct was to start yelling, but the man was quicker than her; he covered her mouth with his hand and clamped down hard to muffle her cries. But Fabiana had been brought up a fighter–she first jabbed him in the stomach, doubling him over, and while he was looking down she thrust her fist upward, meeting his face. There was a sickening crunch and a scream, and the man’s nose started flowing blood onto Fabiana’s shirt.

Somehow, through the pain, the man held steadfast onto Fabiana’s shoulder and, after realizing his victim would not go down easily, he pressed his thumb hard into her collarbone. A spasm of pain like an electric volt ran through her entire body and she crumbled onto the couch under the intense stinging pressure in her neck. The man loomed over her now-limp body, bleeding and panting. That’s when her eyes widened, filled with the first real fear she had ever felt. Instinctively she held her legs together as tightly as she could.

It didn’t matter. The man found his way between them, immobilizing Fabiana with his every gruff touch. With his free hand, he wiped blood from his face for the umpteenth time, reached down to unfasten his belt, and then–

– – –

A cry of pain jolted her. Fabiana awoke from her memory with a snap to see a child sprawled on the woodchips near the playground, wailing at the top of her lungs over a scraped knee. A boy, who had been presumably chasing the girl in an innocent game of tag, stood behind her with a concerned expression on his face. The kids’ mother immediately ran over to the little girl, kissed her rosy face and scurried her off to the bathroom to get cleaned up. Meanwhile, a man who appeared to be their father carried the boy off to a nearby table and gave him a forgiving but stern lecture. Fabiana only watched with a dull sense of interest. Five years ago, she might have wanted to be that mother someday; she might have wanted to see her own husband swoop down and be her children’s hero. But now that she was here, watching someone else’s perfect family, she felt nothing but rage. Her perfect life–ruined. She could feel hot tears welling behind her eyes, and she quickly gathered her things and headed back to her car.

Maggie was playing with dolls with her granddaughter when she heard a loud car door slamming in the driveway. Uh oh, she thought. Another bad day. Excusing herself from Simone, she went to greet her daughter on the porch. Fabiana’s eyes were red and swollen, and her makeup was smeared by teardrops that had fallen down her cheeks. Maggie took her daughter by the hand and led her into the parlor. Both women sat down gently on the couch,

“What’s happened to me, Mom?” Fabiana whimpered on her mother’s shoulder and watched her daughter through the arched doorway. Simone was giggling away, lost in a fantasy world where everyone was her best friend and stuffed animals talked.

“Oh, darling.” Maggie reached over and ran her fingers through Fabiana’s hair. “Don’t say that. You’re a strong woman, so courageous. You wouldn’t be where you are if the Lord didn’t intend it that way. And,” she continued, smiling down at her daughter, “beautiful Simone wouldn’t be here either.”

“I know, I know!” Fabiana’s outburst refilled her eyes with tears. “That’s what I want, don’t you see?”

Fabiana sniffed, and Maggie propped her up to look her in the eye. “Listen to me. You’re 37, Fabiana. You’re a grown woman, and you can make your own decisions. I know what’s happened to you, I know how much it’s damaged you. I know you’d rather be anywhere but here, with these circumstances. But I want you to look at that little girl over there, just watch her for a minute.” A reverent pause filled the parlor as the women watched Simone interacting playfully with a myriad of plush creatures. “She doesn’t know anything about her past, about your past. She doesn’t even care about any of that; she just wants a mother. She wants you, Fabiana.”

Maggie grew silent and looked down at her daughter, who had grown listless against her mother’s warm body. The two women just sat on the parlor couch for a moment. The evening’s waning sunlight was just beginning to stream through the window onto the floor where Simone sat–she looked up and immediately squinted through its brightness. When she opened her eyes again, she saw her mother and grandmother both sitting on a couch in the other room, and she gave them a huge smile. Leaving her toys on the floor she toddled over to her grandmother, who picked her up and plopped her on the couch next to her mother. Fabiana lifted her hand and somewhat awkwardly placed it around Simone’s small shape. Maggied smiled.

Later that evening, Fabiana was packing up her schoolwork to get ready to leave while Simone was tearing around the room with her grandmother’s elderly dog. Maggie watched as Fabiana appeared ready to scold her daughter as she so often did. She approached her daughter and said with a knowing look, “Remember what I said. You’ll be fine.”

Catching herself, Fabiana called out to her little girl that it was time to go. When Simone ran to her side, Maggie was surprised and pleased to see that Fabiana put her hand gently on her little girl’s head to lead her out the door.

As the two piled into Fabiana’s car to head home, Maggie gave her granddaughter a cookie for the car ride. “Shh, it’s a secret. Don’t let your mom know,” she said with a wink. Even Fabiana had to give her a smile through her reddened eyes. Fabiana gave her mother a last embrace before she turned the key in the ignition and shifted to reverse. As she drove away, Maggie stood waving at Simone from the end of the driveway.

As soon as they had left the driveway and Maggie was out of sight, Simone said, “Mommy, can you turn on the radio again?”

Without a word Fabiana pushed the button and squeaky kids’ music filled the car. Simone, in the backseat, squealed with delight and started moving her arms and legs in time with the music. Fabiana, gripping the steering wheel tightly, pursed her lips and silently accepted her fate.

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