Saturday, April 26, 2014


The Mellmans lived two streets over from the high school on Sycamore Lane. There were four kids: three strapping, studly boys and one rather plain looking, but awfully nice girl. The father worked for a big pharmaceutical firm, while the mother filled her days with PTA, garden club, Junior League, and tennis. They even had the requisite dog, a sleek, spirited Irish setter named Oz. The boys were heavily into sports, taking turns as captains of the soccer, basketball, and lacrosse teams. They were also irritatingly smart, always making the honor roll and winning awards. They were the sort who wore pink polo shirts with the collar turned up and trendy haircuts. The daughter made the honor roll, too, but she was more into theatre than sports. Ever since she’d found a home onstage as an extra in her Middle School production of The Boyfriend, she had always been involved in some student production or another. She wouldn’t have been caught dead in a pink polo shirt.

By all outward appearances, the Mellmans were a happy, wholesome, all-American family. Which should have been the first clue that they were not happy, for there is no such thing as a happy family, and the happier a family may look, the more screwed up they are likely to be. Why? Because they might actually buy into their little charade and honestly imagine that they are happy. But trust me, they’re not. And when one or the other of them finally realizes the awful truth, all hell breaks loose. And who do you think was the first in the Mellman family to realize her happy-go-lucky, patriotic, true-blue family had a major defect?

Guess I kind of gave it away with the “her.” Now you know it’s either got to be the mother, the daughter, or, O.K., Oz, as Oz was a female dog, albeit a spayed one, but I’m not into telling animal stories. You’re right, it was the daughter. Lauren came home from school one day, earlier than usual because play practice had been canceled, only to find her mother barfing her brains out in the downstairs bathroom. Not from flu or food poisoning or even morning sickness, which actually was no longer possible as Mom, too, had been spayed, but because she had eaten too much at her Junior League luncheon and had to go out for dinner in three hours with the Larsens and Maloveckis. Yes, Mom was bulimic.

Lauren realized all of this in the few seconds she watched her mom’s half-hidden silhouette retching in the downstairs hall bathroom before she bade a hasty retreat to the front porch. Lauren felt cheated, betrayed. She had almost started believing her mother that her own pubescent weight problem was just a phase and nothing to worry about, that she would slim down naturally as she matured and grew into her body without dieting or chemicals or extreme measures. Now she knew it was just a ruse, that her mother felt superior to her because she was the thinner, more beautiful, more popular woman of the family.

In a daze, Lauren walked back to the high school and numbly watched her brothers’ soccer practice. She wasn’t really paying much attention, but she felt some kind of comfort in knowing her brothers were on the field. The boys were a bit surprised at their sister’s presence, but took it in stride. Sissy was there to admire the young gods at play, to sigh at their fancy footwork and cheer at their skillful goal making, although admittedly it did take other teammates to point out to them that their sister was, in fact, standing on the sidelines.

Hartwick Chauncey Mellman III, or Trey as they called him, was, of course, the oldest and a senior. He was also captain of the varsity soccer team. Cooper and Dylan were twins, albeit fraternal, and sophomores. Lauren was the unexpected youngest of the family, the impetus for Mom’s neutering, and a freshman. They got along surprisingly well for siblings, but more so because they were distant and self-absorbed and didn’t have a lot of time for scuffles and bickering in their hectic college-preparatory schedules.

Lauren sat down on a leaf-strewn bench and began writing in her journal. She carried it to school in her backpack and kept it in a secret hiding place in her room when at home because she was afraid her mother or one of the boys might read it. Lauren wrote mostly about herself and things in her day that struck her as bizarre in her seemingly unbizarre world. Occasionally she would write a poem, or at least a few words of verse that really followed no pattern or meter and were derivative in a Hallmark card sort of way.

This day, as her older brothers obliviously believed she was glued to their soccer antics, she wrote about what she had seen her mother doing and how this adversely affected her own life in a very dramatic and profound way. She never considered telling her brothers, much less her father, and certainly not her mother, what she had so innocently walked in on. No, this was fodder for her journal, and Lauren had written several hastily scribbled pages before she realized soccer practice had come to an end.

* * * *

Mason Jones was at the door. He was there to study history with Lauren, he said. Madelyn Mellman found this nascent study liaison somewhat fishy but graciously let the boy in, telling him that Lauren was in the family room. Unbeknownst to Madelyn, the tutoring agreement had arisen from Lauren’s puritanical aversion to cheating. During a recent pop quiz in U.S. History, Mason, who sat next to Lauren, had whispered for her to move her arm so he could see her paper better. Lauren had ignored him, but after the test offered to study with Mason if he needed help in history. Her ingenuousness had caught Mason off guard, and he readily accepted.

While Lauren tried to methodically answer their study questions, Mason became engrossed in drawing a floor plan of the house he said they would live in when they were married. Lauren rolled her eyes and looked through her class notes for an elusive date. Mason was always distracted by some new venture or another, but she thought he was cute. Mason Jones didn’t realize it yet, but he was gay. Lauren, of course, didn’t realize it, either, but she knew they would never be married.

Madelyn poked her head in the room and asked them if they wanted a snack. Lauren grimaced as she knew her mother was checking up on them, but Mason perked up. A snack? Yes, that would be grand! Madelyn’s right eyebrow arched up at the use of the word “grand,” but she laughed and shrugged her shoulders. It never occurred to her that Mason might be gay, but only because she knew no gay people and there were no gay people who lived in their small hometown. It did cross her mind as odd that such a gorgeous boy was spending so much time with such a plain-looking girl. Madelyn hesitated a moment in the doorway. Surely, Lauren wasn’t the promiscuous sort? She eyed her daughter sucking on the eraser end of a pencil as she flipped through her history text. Maybe she ought to speak to Lauren, confidentially, about birth control and being sexually active. Afterall, Madelyn wasn’t anywhere near ready to become a grandmother!

* * * *

The twins were playing Doom 3 on the family computer. They were supposed to be doing homework but found the gore and action of their father’s favorite computer game much more alluring. The Mellman pater familias, known as Hart to his friends, conducted a secret fantasy life with his computer games. After a hard day peddling pharmaceuticals, he could retreat to his study with a scotch and become a jet fighter pilot, Indy 500 driver, or monster bounty hunter for an hour or so before dinner. It was the favorite part of his day. Madelyn rarely ventured into the computer room. She disliked computers intensely, refused to even learn how to turn one on. This was Hart’s safe haven.

Father Mellman kicked Cooper and Dylan off the computer and assumed his role as Our Hero. He’d have to make this a quick fix tonight, though, as he had to shower and change for dinner with the Whosits and the Whatsits at that new Whatchamacallit restaurant downtown. Madelyn scheduled some of the goddamnedest midweek activities! All he wanted to do was relax in the realm of virtual reality with a nice, strong drink, have a nice hearty, non-health conscious dinner, and watch some sports or one of those law and order shows on TV. But with Madelyn at the helm, such fantasy evenings were rare. There was always some dinner or boring cocktail party, a school board meeting, reception, Junior League fundraiser, symphony concert, or play. My God, it never ended! What a man these days had to put up with, Hart toasted the framed print of the Duke that hung above his computer and turned to meet his enemies with a full arsenal of virtual weaponry.

* * * *

Madelyn ordered pizza for the children. She had to order three large pizzas as the boys could practically devour a whole one each. That left poor Lauren with only a piece or two. Madelyn thought about making Lauren a nice little salad to go with her pizza pickings but then remembered she still had to do her nails.

She yelled to whoever was still in the family room to listen for the doorbell. It would be the pizza man, the money was on the hall table. She went back into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of chardonnay to take upstairs while she got ready for the evening. She was a bit frazzled because Hart had come home from work in such a foul mood. She didn’t know what he had to be so uptight about; it’s not like he was stuck at home all day, every day, cleaning up everyone’s messes and doing endless loads of laundry. He got to go to work every morning. He got to get away. She found it annoying when she tried to vent her frustrations of the day to Hart when he got home, and he wanted none of it. Why was she so bitchy all the time? he wanted to know. And what did she want him to do about it? That wasn’t the point. She didn’t want him to do anything. She just wanted him to listen to her for a few minutes. That’s all. She wasn’t asking him to solve a problem or kick somebody’s butt. She just wanted a few minutes to get the day’s vexations off her chest. And then she would feel oh, so much better. Why couldn’t he understand that? She wasn’t mad at him, she wasn’t implying it was his fault. She was just releasing all that pent-up frustration. Why couldn’t he see that? Why couldn’t he just listen?

Because now she was in a foul mood. Not only did she still have her frustrations, she was angry with Hart for storming off to the stupid computer room with his drink. Fine, go to work all day and run off to your silly computer games as soon as you get home. Don’t pay any attention to me. And, God forbid you ask me how my day was! Madelyn was slamming the drawers to her dresser with each new thought. Just ignore your wife and her problems, that’s O.K. Yeah, yeah. Just because she doesn’t commute to some downtown office and listen to bigwigs in suits all day, I guess her problems are just miniscule. She’s just a typical woman, emotional and overreacting, being a BITCH. Madelyn slammed her closet door. Fine! See if I get your clothes laid out for tonight. See if I care when you put on a striped tie with a plaid shirt and you can’t find your favorite belt. Madelyn slammed the bathroom door and turned on the shower as hot as it would get so she could fill up the bathroom with steam and escape from the real world on Sycamore Lane for a few minutes. So she could merge her hot tears and jagged, barely checked fear with the hissing hot water of the Shower Massage.

* * * *

Because Lauren had had a very traumatic afternoon discovering her mother’s secret to slender living, she was now assuaging this gnawing feeling of disgust with ample pepperoni, sausage, and double cheese. Little did nutrition-conscious Madelyn know that she had set up her vulnerable daughter for disaster. After soccer practice, the Mellman boys had been so ravenous they had gone to Burger King and indulged in some manly, super-sized combos. By the time Pizza Guy arrived, they were only up for a few slices apiece. This left Lauren with a plethora of greasy, doughy, cheesy comfort food and a Post-It note from mom that salad fixings were in the crisper.

Needless-to-say, the Post-It note made it into the trash and most of the pizza into Lauren. Oh, O.K., the stud muffins had scarfed down probably an entire pizza between them and there were a few pieces left over for Hart’s midnight snack. But still, that meant Baby Sister had made quite a dent. No wonder she now felt bloated, dull, and unmotivated for algebra homework. She sprawled across her bed listening to Green Day and clutching “Baby,” her stuffed animal puppy, to her chest. Her eyes misted over much as Madelyn’s did when she was touched by an engrossing episode of Oprah. If Lauren were to follow her mother’s sterling example, she could bid a hasty retreat to the bathroom, but Lauren’s aversion to vomiting was even stronger than her aversion to cheating. Throwing up was about the most unpleasant physical activity Lauren could imagine, even worse than gym. Merely recalling her annual bouts with stomach flu made her break out in a sweat. Maybe a diet Coke would settle her stomach. And she could write some more in her journal about the upcoming fall dance and not having a date and wanting to ask Mason but being too afraid he would say no.

* * * *

Madelyn stared at her make-upless face in the mirror. She could hear Hart’s dull snoring from the bedroom, and this somehow comforted her. At least he wouldn’t want to have sex tonight. She hated it when he drank a lot and then felt amorous. Alcohol seemed to affect the turgidity of his erections but not the furor of his lust. Sex on a night after hard drinking could be interminable, Madelyn shuddered. Just the stale smell of beer or hard liquor emanating from his pores was enough to make her nauseous. She slapped on an extra thick layer of moisturizer, the rejuvenating kind, and rubbed it in furiously. She was starting to show some wrinkles, no matter how careful she was about staying out of the sun or applying sunscreen. Madelyn had a feeling these new wrinkles had more to do with her age, though, than bombardment by UV rays, either A or B. She sighed.

God, how could this be happening? Wasn’t it bad enough that she was getting old? Why did this have to happen? It wasn’t fair! Tears started to well up in her eyes and she closed the bathroom door lest Hart be awakened by the sobbing that was sure to follow. She remembered with vivid horror the phone call she had received just moments after returning from her Junior League luncheon. She had assumed it would be Hart calling to find out what their plans were, if any, for the evening, even though she had told him in explicit detail the night before at dinner. The female voice on the other end had caught her off guard, and it took her a few seconds to place it with a face. And when she had, a feeling of raw fear had swept over her making her woozy and unsteady on her feet. It was Dr. Wilkerson, calling to talk with Madelyn about the results of her mammogram. They had detected a mass in her left breast and they would need to do a biopsy test for malignancy. Malignancy? No, that couldn’t be right. Madelyn didn’t have cancer. Cancer didn’t run in her family. Why, her mother was in her seventies and going strong! Wasn’t breast cancer genetic? Dr. Wilkerson told her not to overreact, that maybe she should drop by the office and they could discuss the matter before the biopsy. Although they needed to schedule the procedure immediately, they wouldn’t want to take any chances waiting. Breast cancer had a high rate of recovery if caught right away. But she didn’t necessarily have cancer, did she? No, but they needed to make sure. And if she did? Well, they could discuss Madelyn’s options after that. Options? What did that mean? Was it just a polite way of saying chop off her boobs? Disfigure her body? Madelyn hung up the phone in a state of ice cold shock. No, this couldn’t be happening to her! She had her yearly pelvic exams done religiously. And they always did breast exams then. She’d never had a problem. She’d only agreed to the mammogram this year because Dr. Wilkerson said it was a good idea for women over forty. Plus, she had seen that special on breast cancer awareness on Oprah, and it had seemed somehow like an omen. If she went ahead and did the mammogram, all would be fine. But it wasn’t, was it? Madelyn had felt bile and the taste of balsamic vinaigrette rising in her throat. She had rushed to the hall bathroom and vomited in the toilet. Thank God, one of the boys had left the seat up! She hardly ever threw up, and the violence of her heaving diaphragm amazed her. She ran some cold water in the sink and splashed it on her face, knowing full well it would mess up her make-up. She felt shaky, her hands trembled. She absent-mindedly flushed the toilet, put the lid down, and sat down to catch her breath. She felt detached from her body, unable to think, to concentrate. How would she ever tell Hart or the children? Maybe she wouldn’t have to tell them. Maybe the biopsy would prove the lump was just a cyst or some benign mass of cells.

Madelyn blinked and looked at her face in the master bathroom mirror more closely. But, of course, she would have to tell at least Hart. He would be upset that she hadn’t told him already. She’d have to tell him the next day, pretend Dr. Wilkerson had just called with the results of the mammogram. But the children? Maybe she could hold off telling them. And if nothing serious was wrong, maybe they would never need to know. Especially Lauren. She was so sensitive. News like this might totally shatter her. Lord only knew what she wrote in that journal of hers!

Madelyn put away all of her sundries and beauty aids and dried off the sink with her monogrammed hand towel. She turned off the bathroom light before opening the door, and silently sneaked out of the bedroom and down the back stairs to pour herself a brandy. She needed something to calm her nerves. She might need to take something to make her sleep, too. Although she didn’t want to feel groggy in the morning; she’d have to plan her strategy then and figure out how to break the news to Hart. Maybe he would agree with her not telling the children. Maybe this could be a short-lived scare shared just between Hart and herself. Maybe it would all just go away. And they could go back to their happy, everyday lives as a happy family of six, seven, counting Oz.


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