Limbo was an odd place to reside. The past rendered negligible and the future full of infinite possibility or none at all. Nothing was decided yet and in that space of unrecorded time Lulu Cole felt a great sense of comfort.
Two days into her marriage, Lulu knew she had made a big mistake. Staring at the ceiling from their bridal bed in a modest cabin at the resort on a lake, alone, she mouthed the words that only she would hear, “What have I done”.
Just moments before, he was there beside her, petting her hair before first light, maybe checking to see how asleep she was as he mapped out his furtive departure. Or maybe he was saying sorry in advance. For his imminent transgression. She was a fungible item, easily replaced with a new distraction.
As light filtered in between the cracks of doorways and walls, a new day arrived. Or did it? Like many other days in the past, he left her to immerse himself in the smoke and clamor to play his hand at blackjack among sad sacks and desperados. There he would sit in that airless box with no windows or clocks, in a place where people were bound to lose their way. She was fairly certain there was a room in hell that closely resembled a casino. Today was not a new day but just the same day again like many before, repeating itself on a hamster wheel. Or like Groundhog Day. But only Lulu could see the shadow.
Hannah was her real name. The last of five children, she was conceived by her parents as a last-ditch effort to revive their passion on a Hawaiian package deal. She was a surprise and somewhere inside the disconsolate chapter of their marriage, a moment of levity emerged upon her arrival with the name Hannah-Lulu. Hannah-Lulu Cole. She dropped the Hannah part at age seven when it became evident to everyone around her that she was the extraordinary child. Smart, talented and scrappy, of uncommon beauty, truly a one-of-a-kind set apart from the rest. A lulu, indeed. The icing on the cake, her father would tell her, made up of an unidentifiable, exotic mixture of spice with just the right amount of sweetness.
Her parents were both teachers who told her she was predestined for the profession, too, a natural. Yet she aspired to become so much more, imagining spectacular scenarios in big cities all over the world with fascinating people. So how did she arrive in this space of knotty pine paneling and wood-smoked, well-worn furniture on this lake of Nowhere-ville suspended in time? Here, at a lithe twenty-eight, in a fate intertwined ineffably with a man who drained her of her former tenacity and intransigent nature, she would reside in limbo a little bit longer.
“Abandonment is a real thing, Miss Cole, and I’m hearing a real pattern here.”
For this I pay you, she thought. Today was Tuesday which means yoga in the morning followed by therapy with Sig. He wasn’t very helpful but more of a habit she couldn’t break, like going to the same coffee house and ordering the same thing; not damaging like heroin but just as hard to kick. As Sig carried on, she drifted away into her own memories.
“Let’s review this chronologically,” he continued.
“When you were four years old, you say your mother left you at a daycare so she could go back to work. But you didn’t understand what was happening and you refused to eat or talk to any of the other children. At seven, you were left at a friend’s house who had a daughter your age but you refused anything to do with it, would not eat the tomato soup and Goldfish crackers, just sat waiting for your mom to return. When you were eighteen, your mother…” his voice trailed off into the ether as she transported herself back to that day: a trip to Florida to drop her off at college, only she knew right away that it wasn’t a proper playing out of her fate as the Akashic Records would have revealed. Knew it in her gut undeniably that this was not her place or her people.
No, she knew this place of humidity and deep heat, disco cowboys and front yard pink flamingos was not her destiny. She sat in the diner across from her mother, the pastrami on rye just set down in front of her, refusing to eat.
“What is it, Lu, what’s wrong?”
Lulu just sat staring at her lonely sandwich on the plate, no pickle or slaw or anything there to keep it company. She was motionless. Speechless. Terrified. Her mother found words for her.
“You’re not happy here. Won’t be, can’t be happy here? Well, if that’s it – well, we will just turn around and go back home and figure out something else for you to do.”
Suddenly Lulu opened her eyes wide, brushing off the dust of memory and reentering the now, and interrupting Sig in his endless recapping of her life she blurted out, “My mom didn’t abandon me – she saved me. Took the wheel from me and righted the ship. It took me some time after that, but I found my way.”
“But, Miss Cole, you’re not looking at the gestalt of this, the full picture, the pattern, we’re about to make real progress here …”
“No, you’re not looking. Well, you’re looking but not seeing it,” Lulu told him.
“And I don’t think I need your help anymore, Sig. We’re finished here.”
As she stood and collected her things, she hit the reset button of her life. She gathered herself together and left him sitting there with his laptop and curious theories, closing the door softly behind her.
Pausing on the steps in front of Sig’s office, she noted the fog that had been resting so heavily upon her arrival had since lifted to unveil a sunny blue. Invisible birds were chirping as if on a soundtrack and a gentle, tickling breeze cleansed her of the residue of errors. She paused a moment longer, fully conscious and took it all in.
Lulu understood much about all the abandonment theories but what had really happened was that she had become bold and fiercely independent. Needing no one to give her direction or guidance, she had cracked through the shell as a fledgling, but in her own time, flown free and strong. Hadn’t she re-calibrated things after Florida? Yes, at age twenty, upon arrival in a new state, a big city, out of that series of paralyzing events that were a therapist’s gold dust, she had metamorphosed into a resilient and earnest, independent and driven, hard-boiled individual who never looked back. Realizing her place in the world on the West Coast, she began again, making new friends and coming of age, blossoming in the warm and forgiving climate.
But just five years later, he would enter and alter the motion of everything. Like the ancients who believe throwing a rock in a river in one place changes the current of life somewhere else entirely, he thrust himself into her waters. He taught her things, brought her up to speed on the movement of the world. He challenged her every thought and notion, action, emotion and deed. But she realized at that moment outside Sig’s office, there was more to her life than that and that life is not so simple.
In limbo still on the bridal bed, lost in infinite possibility and none at all, she was Jonesin’ for him now, her man athletic and dark with Sicilian blood in his veins and Irish wit on his tongue. Jackson Burke - now he was truly like heroin, but harder to kick. He was attached to her like an IV, drip-dripping just enough into her blood to keep her wanting, slightly sedated and wholly agreeable. She was held captive with his ability to make decisions without deliberation and live with the consequences. She was fascinated with his family mythology unlike anyone she had ever met that shaped his unique visage.
She heard tales of his Uncle Ugo with ties to the mafia in Chicago and a grandfather Séamus who came to Ellis Island to start a new life in New York. Some volatile stock, for sure. Add to that his “ancillary spleen”, discovered in a hospital scan at an emergency room visit once, a literal accessory for storing anger with extra salt and vinegar of which he regularly dispensed with choleric finesse and unmeasured pugnacity.
“Lulu, it’s time to gather yourself up and meet the day”, she said aloud. She was in a habit of talking to herself like that, in reassuring or encouraging tones. She threw her legs over the side of the bed, stepping down onto the cool hardwood and grabbed the towel that had dried overnight on the back of a chair. Glimpsing the empty beer bottles and a crumpled receipt from the Taco Shack, she remembered him again.
Wandering down the roadway in search of Jackson – or something that would give her direction, a faint odor of something burnt filled her awareness. She was always detecting smells that other people didn’t notice or passed off as typical urban sensory background. She turned and headed south of it, ever vigilant to steer clear of anything remotely unnatural or potentially harmful. She felt deeply the fragility of life in a complex world. A sister lost to cancer so young, a cousin in the Paris terrorist attacks. One was always vulnerable to anything at any time and yet oddly guarded from danger most of the time.
Focus on the exhale, she instructed herself, beginning her ritual mantra recitation, “I am strong, I am protected, I am myself.” Not aloud but in her mind. It was her particular paternoster that pushed her through her fears and got her to the other side. She turned left onto the main road to look for coffee and some semblance of breakfast somewhere on the strip, formulating all the while a plan to head to the shoreline in search of comfort and epiphany.
On the corner near a crossing, pausing to wait for the light to change, she caught sight of something on the ground, a single egg that had been dropped, its shell broken, yellow and white goo oozing out. Once broken, there was no putting it back to its original state, she thought, it simply becomes something else entirely. She pondered the possibility of metaphor for a moment before being reminded of her hunger.
Ambling onward onto the main drag of town, a door suddenly opened just as she approached it so she entered it, as though not at all a random occurrence but an intended one. Two eager counter workers stood looking at her as though they had been expecting her and she was right on time.
“Uh, ok, I’ll have a latte and one of those blueberry muffins there.”
Not exactly profound soliloquy but it would be a start. A start to a day she had no idea of. No plan, no directive. Without Jackson to orchestrate, she was just a single violin playing an endless meandering solo.
The whole day would pass that way in anonymity: uneventful, ruminant, sheltered. She did not gamble on anything as big as a decision, no wagers on herself or her future beyond making it down to the shore with some provisions bought at a mini-mart and a local paper announcing all the things to do around the lake. She would be doing none of it with Jackson, or anyone else for that matter. No, she would collect her things and wander slowly back to their nest and hear all about his winning or losing. He had lost most all of his currency with her presently, she already knew, and what to do with that information was on her mind as the lake winds ushered her back to the cabin. Landing there in the empty space at nearly six o’clock, he was nowhere in sight. But evidence of him was on the air, molecules of him, the smell of his sweat, a smoky shirt flung carelessly across the back of a chair, a humidity in the shower from a recent cleansing of sins. She could see a note beckoning to her on the table but she wasn’t ready to go near it.
Instead, she found herself on the bed again as though she had never left its safe harbor. Lulu was a pro at procrastination. She didn’t deny it, she had a certain knack for the leaving of things undone. Incomplete. Unworthy of conclusion. At home, purchases delivered weeks ago sat unopened just inside the foyer. Shoes, never worn, gathered dust in a corner.
“Why haven’t you worn your new boots”, he would ask.
“I will. They will last me years so it really doesn’t matter when I start,” was her steady reply each time.
They would play that tape over and over to no one’s satisfaction. And she really didn’t know what the answer to the question was, could not provide a different, more reasonable one than that. She supposed it was a way of delaying the passage of time. Some might call it a disorder but to her, putting a freeze-frame on an object or action held its promise – or disappointment – in limbo, its potential life left intact. Still a surprise, an unanswered question. Not yet final or defined.
A fly floated in on a current of warm air through her open door just then amidst her meandering thoughts. Suspended, it seemed unable to find its way back out into the natural world, lost in incessantly searching circles, seemingly losing its bearings. Irresolute.
An hour passed before the note from him scrawled across a flattened paper bag that once held a cold bottle of beer looked up at her asking simply, “Where are you?”
Apparently, she missed him while he had the sense to come back to her world for a regrouping of sorts, no telling where he might be now. She scrambled over to her overnight bag, rifling through until she found her art pens she had brought to draw the lake, the trees, a portrait of Jackson in her honeymoon journal, specifically pulling out crimson red. In bold letters right over the top of his question she wrote, ”Where Am I? Where Am I? Where are we?”
In a surprising moment of certainty, she threw together her satchel of things, changed into her green Keds and threw her room key down on the bed, letting the door lock behind her, a decision somehow made. She knew there was a bus station just four or five blocks off the main road and that would be her next destination. Just two days into her marriage.
“Yes, please,” Lulu answered, sliding her credit card through the slot of the clerk’s window. Lulu couldn’t face going back to the place she shared with Jackson in town so she had bought a ticket to Blakely instead, after calling her sister Maren from the station.
“Maren. It’s me.”
“Oh, hi love…wait. Where are you? Aren’t you and Jack on your…? What’s happening, Lulu.”
“Can I come stay with you…”
“Sure. Sure. Yes, you come right now.”
No questions asked. Maren knew the score, could hum the tune in her sleep. She would learn soon enough the details of it this time around.
Her sister, coming to her rescue again, met her at the Greyhound Station when she arrived in the evening, driving them back to her sprawling four-bedroom designer home with backyard bocce ball courts and a swimming pool. It was always like spa day when she visited her sister, she thought, and she knew this might soothe her ravaged spirit.
Maren had only said to her when she tossed her things in the back seat and climbed into the SUV, “You ok?”
Maren’s husband Frank was away on business, she announced. Perfect. Over three days of sitting by the pool, quaffing cocktails, watching old movies and ruminating on all things Jackson, Lulu knew she would slowly unpack the events of the recent days to her sister.
The two sisters lived worlds apart, not geographically but in most other ways. Lulu had been an unruly child and a defiant teen before becoming irreparably marked with the scars of life, had become more cautious as an adult with Jackson, giving room for his own brand of recklessness to take the front burner. Maren was a practical woman who married a pragmatic man. Together their marriage was one of logic, long-term planning, linear formula and completely devoid of nonsense. A son. A daughter. A beautiful home in a tony suburb. Maren stood by watching her younger sister ,who had a tendency to climb deep into the melodramas of life one episode at a time, but she was always there to catch her when she fell.
“You ready?” Maren asked, giving a light shake to the ice in her empty tumbler towards Lulu.
“A white wine this time, I think.”
Maren trotted off in her flip-flops towards the sliding doors, her dog Bella herding at her feet, as Lulu turned her gaze back to the shadows and moonlight in this heat and humidity, all reflecting on the water of the swimming pool. On her first night with Maren, she told all. On her second day they dissected it together. Day three was quiet and contemplative. Tonight, Lulu would slip slowly into the deep end to cool down, staying under as long as she could before coming up for air.
Lulu found herself defending their love over those next days.
“I don’t know, Maren, we’re so different, but look at mom and papa, how different they were and together fifty-two years.”
“Yeah, well, that generation – they just stayed together.”
“Maybe. Is it as simple as that? I like to believe there was real, timeless love there, too,” Lulu countered.
She continued her disquisition.
“Jackson lives life in stereo. It’s really loud because he thinks that is the only way to really hear it. Then I walk in and turn down the volume to a reasonable level and show him how to experience the subtle nuance behind the noise. To hear the undertones of violin, the oboe, the structure and backbone of it all. Despite how different we are, Maren, it’s like we’re two ends of the same thread that wind around each other to tie into a single knot. No matter what…everything that happens, I know. I know I cannot untie that knot, hard as I try. I can’t imagine my world without him in it,” she explained.
“But what about the gambling, Lu? You OK with that – the rest of your life, OK with that?”
“It’s not like he loses everything,” Lulu began.
“There is a measure of control in his chaos. He does this thing – I call it Gambler’s Math. He tells me, ‘I won five hundred bucks!’ and I say, ‘But how much did you lose first to get it’ and it’s always, like, more than he won or he broke even or he really only ended up a few bucks ahead. But in his mind? What he walks away with in his pocket – that five hundred – that’s his winnings. There’s an optimism to it. A funny rationale for the foraging of forbidden fruit.”
“Sounds more like twisted logic to me, Lulu, two steps forward, one step back,” Maren offered.
“Most of life is like that, though, Maren, isn’t it? What I’m saying is… you focus on the Up side, the good parts, walk the sunny side of the street. Jackson is like no one I’ve ever known. The sun rises and sets with him, Maren. It’s just that some days I have the winning hand with him, other days I fold. Some days are a brutal loss. But mostly, ultimately, I feel like I’ve won more than I’ve lost. That’s my own Gambler’s Math, I suppose.”
Maren sat looking out at the soft sway of willow trees, as if carefully searching for the response that would be wisely illuminating to her sister.
“Remember what mom used to say, Lu? ‘Some folks are in your life for a season, some for a reason’. So. Which is Jackson?”
“Yeah, mom and her decoupaged plaque way of explaining the world to us.”
Lulu looked away and caught her reflection in the sliding glass doors.
“I don’t know. In some way, it’s like I have no control of it. It, no, he. He. Is. Just. My destiny. It’s written in time, Maren,” Lulu said.
“Ok. Well. I don’t really take to that stuff, you know that. But if we’re talking about it like that, then maybe it’s just written on the wind. And it’s all up to you to decide to walk with or against that wind. To decide what YOU want. But, I mean, you married him, right?”
“So, there’s something there,” she concluded.
Maren genuinely loved Jackson as a person, a friend, despite the mild calamity of her sister’s relationship with him.
“Decide what you want your life to be. Stay, go, whichever, Lu, decide something.”
Maren always saw things in black and white. She got up from her luxuriously cushioned chaise longue, Bella in her arms now, turning towards the house again.
“Shall I open another Chard?”
On morning number five, with Frank due in later that afternoon, Lulu had Maren drop her a couple blocks away from the station. It was mid-morning and the air was cool and fresh after the fog had dissolved to reveal the sun’s reassuring light once again. She had lain in bed the night before under the perfected grace of Maren’s organic Egyptian cotton sheets, turning it all over in her mind, then dissolving into the dreams of the night – a roaring lion, a desert windstorm scouring all the sins clean of a midnight landscape, a bell ringing loud in the distance. She awoke with her answer. Not one of addition or subtraction but a whole number. Standing still in its own adulated glory.
Sitting on the bus heading towards her home, Lulu’s eyes landed on the feet of the old man sitting across the aisle, big slabs of feet, thick with crusty toes squished into Mexican sandals. She wondered about the places those feet had taken him in his life.
“Coming or going?”
She looked up, startled at his leaning in just slightly towards her. She discovered the face that belonged to those feet. She must have appeared bewildered as he answered his own question before she could form her own.
“It’s all the same.” He smiled, revealing a double row of flawless white teeth.
“We learn our truth through trial and error, our actions perceived as such mistakes become our greatest teachers, our triumphs merely a glimmer of light in a mostly darkened tunnel. The good stuff is all the grit and grime we push away at while we are climbing out. We come. We go. Whichever, something or someone is always waiting for us somewhere. And love is there.”
“Okay?” she managed to utter softly through a veil of bewildered mist.
Who is this guy? she wondered as she watched him slowly release a larger, knowing smile meant just for her. Where exactly is his placement in the encoded compendium of my life’s journey? Do we receive what seem like chance encounters with spirit guides at the precise moment we need them?
Just then, the bus slowed and veered into its next stop to break the spell. The wise stranger stood.
“This is me,” he announced.
He nodded to Lulu and made his way to the rear exit of the bus. Random encounter or meaningful messenger? She pondered it further in the momentary stillness before the bus lurched forward, leaving the stranger in its dust and exhaust on the street outside her window. He was nowhere to be seen.
Lulu thanked the driver and stepped down onto the pavement, pausing to watch the bus carrying a tiny microcosm of her town towards their future moments and meanings. She got off a stop ahead of her usual to allow for things to percolate. Ambling slowly, passing the houses she knew so well, she turned the corner onto McGee, catching her first glimpse of her home from here, pausing, studying it from afar like an anthropologist observing life in the wild. Is this where her life was meant to unfold?
She thought about the stranger on the bus and his unsolicited message meant expressly for her.
“And love is there.”
There? She shifted the weight of her shoulder pack, taking her first baby steps towards that particular “there”. A neighbor’s black lab lay sunning herself on the sidewalk and rolled over to knowingly greet her as she approached. She knelt down to touch her.
“Heeeey, Samba,” Lulu said softly, offering up a full belly rub then a petting behind downy soft ears.
“Love is here,” she said.
Looking up, she took in this view of her home from a lower perspective, this view of her future. She bid farewell to Samba for now.
“Ok, gotta go, sweet girl. Life awaits.”
Standing up preparing for the last leg of her walk home, the front door was open, she could see, exposing the thin veneer of the screen door – all that separated them from each other presently. Along those paces to get here, she realized she had become exactly who she was meant to be. The Akashic Record of her life was playing out just as it should.
Lulu approached the steps to the bungalow and paused, drew in a deep breath full of eons of molecular resiliency and potent valence. She taught him things, too, she now knew. Things like the value of the currency of love, patience, loyalty. No longer stymied by a farrago of emotions she took the steps with poise and determination, gently opening the screen door. Its inquiring squeal announced her arrival, its springs releasing tension in its own grace and familiarity. Then slowly falling to a close behind her.
Jackson was standing in the room, shirtless with a beer, caught in a moment of stasis, his big brown eyes open wide and expectant.
“Be still my fragile heart,” he quoted Shakespeare.
“What were you doing?”
“Waiting. Just waiting for you. Lulu, I’m so sorry, I…”
She held up her hand to halt the usual recitation from coming at her.
“No. Don’t talk. Listen. I realized some things and threw out some others the past few days and I have something to say.”
Lulu paused a second to make sure she had his full attention. Jackson stood still as the day is long in deep anticipation.
“I always thought I had become someone else with you, not the me I imagined myself to be, to become. We are two different sorts, you and me. You’re like a cactus and I’m a delicate flower. But the thing is, in our special garden – we balance each other out in some particular and important way and I realize that I AM the person I was always meant to be. Right now. And I’m still becoming.”
She paused for air and courage.
“Lu, I’m never gonna gamble again, I could have lost YOU this time…” Jackson offered.
“No, listen Jackson. Just keep listening a minute more. Keep standing there and listening to me, now. You are who you are, and me – you need to let me – I need to let me be the best me I can. I’m not here to change you but we can learn from each other. Quit gambling or don’t but do it for you not for me, otherwise it’s just another new game of chance. Make yourself the best person you can, then everyone around you can be, too. But understand the consequences of your decisions, Jackson. Jack. Understand them well. Take inventory. Throw out the useless cards that stand in the way of playing your best hand.”
And she was done speaking. Lulu was done speaking her mind.
Luminescent, steadfast, self-assured, she smiled at him, finally pulling the needle from her arm.
“C’mon, Jack. Bet it all on us, I promise you’ll win.”
© 2018, Mary Corbin
Gambler’s Math is from the “Life Lines” collection. Featured painting by Mary Corbin: “Cards on the Table #2.” No reprints without permission.