Sing to me, Muse, of the anger of Daniela, and how she raged in the dark at her alarm clock, which did not sit upon the sacred throne of her nightstand but was instead held captive in exile on the dresser all the way on the other side of the room, the first misstep in an ill-conceived plan to seize the day and get out of bed before the sun came up, instead of waiting until she desperately needed to use the bathroom, get a drink, or both.
Tell me, Goddess, how she cursed Zeus and Thor and Ra and the whole pantheon of gods and heroes as she sprinted barefoot across the cold floor because at that moment she would do anything, bear any pain, pay any price, to stop that obnoxious beeping. “Super loud alarm sound for heavy sleepers!” the box said. It didn’t say, “Worst noise in the world! Perfect for early morning!”
The worst part was that she hadn’t gotten even a moment to enjoy the toasty cocoon of her comforter before leaping out into the frosty way-too-early morning air wearing nothing but a way-too-thin pair of cotton jammies. Her whole life she had reveled in the luxury of being entombed in her own sarcophagus of maximum thread count and trapped body heat for the first few dozen or so minutes of the day, the chill on her nose happily accentuating the almost decadent comfort of a warm bed. Today, today of all days, a cold damn day, she was hurtled from her bed and into Boreas’s brutal grip without even a moment to gather herself.
The sun wasn’t even up yet. Whose dumb idea was this? She looked at her bed and could almost see the last bit of her heat destroyed by the cruelty of the cold. There was no sense in crawling back in, it was time to get up. Daniela let out a long yawn, so deep and powerful that it curled her toes and for a moment she worried she might never breathe again, and then got going.
It was five. She hadn’t seen five in the morning since Emma started sleeping through the night, and was quite proud of that. No more, though. Daniela brushed her teeth and reviewed in her mind the opening sentence that she would write once she was done, which was why she’d woken so early. But the air was still cold and the shower was inviting so she decided she’d take a shower first. Not a long one, though, she had things to do and time waited for no one. She brought the cursed alarm into the bathroom with her, giving herself five–no, ten–minutes. She left the clock on the floor by the door, as far from the shower as possible.
In the shower she let her mind drift into a fuzzy reverie of good things–a cruise ship on Santorini, a hot cup of coffee and a fresh croissant, being awoken by a kiss and a caress. The alarm rang and she cursed it again, and cursed having spent the time thinking of things past instead of her task for the day.
Comfortable clothes today, she didn’t plan on going anywhere. Jeans that still fit somehow, though soon–how soon?–she was sure they would fit even better, looser and more flattering. The first t-shirt in the drawer was fine, but the one underneath it was, she realized for the first time, her favorite one. Light blue with slightly darker blue flecks here and there, it had been worn and washed so much that it was softer than any fleece, golden or otherwise. Soft as the veiling of soft purple that Priam and his men wrapped the urn that held the bones of Hector, tamer of horses.
The cold floor was refreshing to her feet after the hot bath, and she moved down the hallway to her office. It had always been her “office,” but starting today the ironic quotes could be dropped. It would be her office now, maybe even her Office.
But first to peek in on Emma. Daniela cracked open the door and leaned her head in. Her lamp stayed on through the night, rotating slowly, casting blurry images of smiling stars and bunnies on her ceiling. Emma herself had flopped around so much in her sleep that although she had been tucked in sweetly the night before, she was now on top of the blankets, one leg curled up to her chest and the other dangling off the bed, her little pink foot a lure for the monsters under the bed. The little lotus eater slept a sleep delicious and profound, the very counterfeit of death. Her chest rose and fell like the swell of the sea. Beauty, terrible beauty, Daniela thought to herself as she closed the door on her daughter’s room.
To work. It took Odysseus ten years to sail from Troy to Ithaca; it had already taken Daniela longer to just get started.
This was good. She was awake and alert. It would be at least an hour before the kids were awake. They could get themselves ready for school–they already did, most of the time, even Emma, since Daniela didn’t usually get out of bed until just as they were about to leave–but maybe today she could surprise them by joining them at breakfast. She could write for the next forty minutes, go to the kitchen, make French toast or eggs and bacon, and then surprise them.
Jacob’s room came next. Her big boy, sweet and strong, the little man who held the family together when things went pear-shaped. She opened the door just a bit and peeked her head in.
He didn’t see her until she shrieked. It was quick and involuntary, the shriek, and fortunately for both happened almost instantaneously.
She couldn’t think fast enough to coordinate her hasty retreat and ended up bouncing the door off of her big toe, causing the door to fly wide open. The boy turned away as he leaped from bed, covering himself. She reached back in and wanted to keep her eyes closed but she couldn’t find the doorknob.
Daniela clawed at the knob until she finally had it–in the process taking a look at him again despite herself–and then whirled around and slammed the door behind her.
This was not the way to start this next chapter of her life. How much had she seen? Too much, for either of them. What was he even doing awake at five-fifteen in the morning?
She looked down at the door at the end of the hallway, the one that led to her office. “Office.” This was not the time to sit down and fire up her imagination. By Zeus, that had been an unexpected amount of nudity. “Dude-ity,” she might have called it when she was younger. Heart racing, face flushed, Daniela walked down the hall. Timothy’s room here–she wasn’t going in. He was only eleven, but she knew now that only the gods should know what happens in a boy’s room. Even a fool learns something once it hits him.
Past the “office” then, into the living room. The shelf of pictures that had been installed in happier times, specifically for the one family portrait that they took, the portrait that was then later removed because nobody wanted to look at it anymore but all the same nobody was willing to replace it, so a large gap remained amid the various annually-updated four-by-six photos of the three children. It’d been three years now since he left and/or was kicked out, but they were still a family and the kids saw him every other weekend more-or-less. Leaving the picture up felt wrong, but so did taking a new picture without him, and so did retaking a new picture with him, and so did filling in the spot where the picture had been. So there it stood, three children with no parents. Father was gone, discarded and not replaced. And Mother… Daniela didn’t want to think about that yet so she didn’t.
She walked past bookshelves and toy bins, and then past the couches that she couldn’t sit on because they were covered in books and toys. She’d vowed never to put them away, and this decision only affected her, since Emma and Tim didn’t mind sitting on books and toys, and Jacob preferred being in his room anyway. Battling his Polyphemus, no doubt.
She let herself laugh a bit. She had to figure out a way to work that line into the story.
Through the dining room, which was the kids’ unofficial study. They didn’t eat here anymore anyway. When Gary was here, sure, but now they either ate standing up in the kitchen or sprawled on the living room floor. The kitchen was only for displaying the wedding china and doing homework.
In the kitchen Daniela made herself a cup of coffee and looked up at the clock. The first day of the rest of her life, and all she had to show for it so far was a shower and a cup of coffee, and a small scar on her son’s psyche.
She should have been in bed. What did she expect to accomplish anyway, and what would it matter if she succeeded? No man or woman born, coward or brave, can shun his destiny. Daniela thought her destiny had been to write a great novel. She had it, too, at one point in time, ready to go, when she was younger and more pretentious and owned an old travel typewriter that she hauled everywhere alongside an equally old and somehow even more gorgeous leather satchel. She took it to coffeeshops and city parks, sitting the thing on chess tables or coffee tables or just her knees if that’s all there was, tapping away at the little buttons that were the perfect size for her fingers, taking the filled-up sheets and putting them in the satchel to be sorted at home. She showed her pages to Gary, back when he would have read them, and even he was floored by the breadth of her ambition, and giddy at the very real possibility that she could pull it off.
“Isn’t this what Joyce did, though?”
“No,” she smirked, “it isn’t what Joyce did.”
It was, kind of, but Joyce hadn’t been a woman, American, post-punk, ironic and self-aware and ironically self-aware, living in an age without heroes and a time beyond history. Joyce had brought Homer to the twentieth century; Daniela would push him over into the abyss that followed.
Things got in the way. “The heat of Love, the pulsing rush of Longing, the lover’s whisper, irresistible–magic to make the sanest go mad.” Something like that.
Maybe tomorrow she’d try making Turkish coffee. She had the little pot somewhere in the kitchen; she could probably find the grounds in one of the fancier grocery stores.
“Mommy!” Emma was always happy to see her. Emma was always happy to see everyone. Emma was always happy. Even though she didn’t have any front teeth she couldn’t stop smiling.
“I was going to make French toast. Do you want some?”
“No thank you, I want cereal.” A big hug, and then, “I love you, Mommy.”
“I love you, too, sweet pea.”
Emma set herself up like the little big girl that she was. Tim came in next. If he was at all surprised that his mother was in the kitchen he didn’t let on. Like his little sister, he declined the offer of French toast.
He looked the most like his father. The same solid eyebrows and handsomely round head. Looking at him she remembered Gary at his best, tender and warm. Tim told his sister jokes while they ate together. He answered her questions, even when they were ludicrous. He understood her made up words, or at least pretended to. And when there was silence, he brooded quietly, darkly mysterious and even a bit romantic.
He was going to father’s today after school. They were so alike. She wondered at one point they would diverge. They had to. Tim couldn’t be all like Gary, because then eventually she would have to hate him, too. Hateful to her as the gates of Hades was that man who hid one thing in his heart and spoke another.
The little ones finished eating and went to get dressed for school. Jacob came into the kitchen, already changed. He’d probably been hiding as long as he could. He jumped a little when he saw her, and she pretended that she needed more coffee, if only to look away. It was a bit hard to look at him having seen so much of him so recently. At least, purely objectively, she could say that he was a handsome young man. And she was his mother, it wasn’t like she hadn’t seen him before, or was going to hold it against him anyway.
“Do you want to talk about what happened?” she asked, and he turned on her with fury in his eyes.
And stormed out without getting the breakfast he had come for. Muse, tell me how all the rage that was in her, all that anger she knew and all that she didn’t know, came rushing forth without warning and poured forth into the now-empty room.
“Next time lock your door, dammit!” She’d been masturbating for more than thirty years and nobody–no parent, sibling, roommate, boyfriend, spouse, or offspring–had ever walked in on her. This kid, fifteen years old, doesn’t have the sense to lock his damn door and that’s somehow her fault.
She didn’t even want the French toast. Or at least she didn’t want to make it. She made another cup of coffee and waited until they were gone–Tim called out “Bye,” Emma gave her a kiss, Jacob just went–and then gave up entirely on breakfast. She needed to write.
She also needed to call Gary, that goddamned sorcerer captor who had kept her from Ithaca for so long. Once upon a time she had looked at the two pills left in the blister pack and realized that she had made no arrangements to refill the prescription, that she was really going through with it. She could recall that moment almost at will, of her throat closing and her heart racing–curiously, the same physical reactions to eating something spicy–and telling herself that it wasn’t too late, she could call the pharmacist and have the prescription ready in time to keep it going as long as she did so today, before she went to bed…and then saying to herself, out loud, that she wasn’t going to. It was the purest moment of love she ever felt, that conscious decision, so much clearer and focused than any other, curiously even more than the inevitable and hoped-for result of that decision.
She had entertained visions of sitting at her typewriter, pausing every few pages to pass a hand along her swelling belly. Homer never felt that, creating a world and creating a life at the same time. Neither had Joyce. Their stories couldn’t have that dimension, and without it their stories suffered. Daniela would fix that. And for a while, she did, cranking out page after page until other thoughts slowly took over, and then life got in the way.
It wasn’t just the baby. Hyperactive little Dani had been slowing down long before the baby came. Because her writing was becoming more ambitious, more difficult, more labored, that made a mask. She was producing fewer pages because they were better pages, she told herself and Gary. But then she was just producing fewer pages, and then none.
And then there were two babies, and three. And then Gary left and/or was thrown out, and she didn’t even know when or where the pages had been lost.
She needed to call Gary but instead went into her “office.” There was the computer that replaced the computer that replaced the typewriter which was too loud to use in the house where babies slept. “Why have you come to me here, dear heart, with all these instructions? I promise you I will do everything just as you ask. But come closer. Let us give in to grief, however briefly, in each other’s arms.”
She was as little as Emma when the girl at recess told about it, and she couldn’t remember if she just thought or said “He’s gonna put what? Where?” She still kind of felt that way.
Oh Emma, how her body would betray her, too. Awkward years of uneven growth that would batter her self-respect. She would get through it, but it would hurt. And then later it would become someone else’s, and then begin to break down, leaving her stranded before she was finished with it.
And then there was the thing about the ticking time bomb.
“I’m sorry, Daniela,” Dr. Guyome said to her. Yesterday morning, was it really just then? “Is there somebody we should call to drive you home?”
“No,” she sniffed. “I came in a cab. I’ll be fine.”
“You can stay here as long as you need to.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You really shouldn’t be alone today.”
She could have ripped his head off. She should have. When did she become so angry? When Gary left? No, before. Long before. Maybe she had always been.
“I know it’s a lot to take in right now,” Dr. Guyome said. “This is usually genetic. We should test your children. Your daughter, of course. And your sons, too, in case they’re carriers. They may have daughters someday, too.”
“If they’re negative then it’s nothing, the gene stops there. If they’re positive, well, with the girls we’ll check them regularly, and if it makes sense, when they’re older they can make the decision that makes the most sense.”
“They.” The seven-year-old girl, and some various theoretical unborn daughters, their theoretical mothers still schoolgirls, theoretical fathers still little boys living in her house, their doom an exotic ovoraptor dormant in their genes.
“This type of cancer moves quickly, Daniela. We didn’t catch it last year because it didn’t exist last year. But now it’s very late.”
“And if she’s positive, what’s the answer? Test her every month for the rest of her life?”
“Maybe. Or remove her ovaries. But she can’t decide that until much farther down the road.”
“And what about me?”
He sighed. There was literature he could share, and if she wanted to she could rage against it. Surgery, chemo, radiation, cocktails.
“What does that buy me? Tops?”
“There is no ‘tops.’ Medical advances occur every day. Nobody has ever lived in this moment before, or in tomorrow. But at your stage, on average, six months. Some patients maybe a year.”
“But there’s no chance of success.”
“Treatment has never succeeded before. That doesn’t mean it can’t succeed.”
“But it will mess me up.”
He paused. “At the very least we would recommend you make arrangements for the children’s care while you’re in treatment.”
“And if I skip it?”
“At this point that is definitely a choice, but one that I cannot make for you, or even provide you with counsel for. I can tell you that whatever you choose, I will support you through it all.”
She didn’t take the taxi home. Instead she walked, even though it was a miserable walk along roads that weren’t really meant for walking on, and she thought, about Homer and Joyce and the book she had nursed for far longer than any of her children but had never been able to care for. My doom has come upon me, she said to herself. Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter.
The kids were gone from seven to three every day. That gave her eight hours, minus one or two for housekeeping and eating. She could add that time back by waking early. Six months to a year. None but Fate could stop her, and neither brave man nor coward can escape fate.
Forget calling Gary. She would tell him when she found the time. And the kids…she’d tell them when she was ready. Even the bravest cannot fight beyond his power. Because whenever she let herself think about it, she would feel wave after wine-dark wave of grief and despair and regret and anger. Mostly anger. Inescapable, all-consuming, eye-blinding, god-defying, wall-breaking, skull-dashing anger.
Instead she would write and let all this be a thing of the past, and beat down by constraint the anger that rose inside of her. She would make an end to her anger. “It does not become me, unrelentingly to rage on,” she sighed, and sat down. The first sentence she had been crafting for almost twenty years. It gleamed like Athena’s helmet. She typed it and smiled. The next sentence was new. She smiled again, drew a deep breath, and pressed on, creating her world while the Fates ate her up from the inside out. Treatment be damned, she would beat this in her own way and become immortal because her story would outlive any cancer and all the mortals and the gods themselves.