. . .
Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.
~ George Bernard Shaw
. . .
Something sparkled among the corals.
Lauren lifted her head to see if anyone might be searching for something. But the others were paddling along placidly, their snorkels angled from their heads like tiny smokestacks. She pushed her dark hair out of her face, took a deep breath, and dove to get a closer look.
Her eyes widened when she saw what it was. She looked left and right, almost guiltily, before gently pulling it free from the protrusion of coral it was caught on.
Back at the surface she watched the others, waiting for one of the women to exclaim at the realization of her loss. But even after the group had climbed back onto the boat, no one said anything.
Finally Lauren cleared her throat: “Did any of you lose something while you were snorkeling?” The other tourists looked at Lauren, then at each other, and shrugged.
“Why, what did you find?” the boat operator asked.
Lauren opened her mouth to tell the truth, then caught herself. She imagined he’d ask for it in an official way and promise to get it to a lost and found. Likely as not he’d sell it the next day. “I thought I saw something while I was snorkeling,” she said. “But I guess it was nothing.”
“Hm.” The boat operator lost interest, and Lauren felt relieved. She knew she should take it to a lost and found herself, but which one? There were dozens of hotels along this Turks and Caicos beachfront spewing thousands of tourists into the coral gardens every day.
When Lauren reached her hotel lobby, she asked the manager, a dapper Cuban, if anyone had come looking for a piece of jewelry. “No, senorita,” he said. She tried several more hotels the next day, but the only hit she got was for an engagement ring that had been thrown into the surf after a man got so blind drunk, he accidentally proposed to a passing cocktail waitress instead of to his girlfriend.
She sat on the beach that evening and ordered two pina coladas, watching the stacked cumulus clouds turn mauve and lavender as she sucked down the tropical drinks too fast. She wished someone was with her, maybe Celeste or Conal. But they had careers, communities — everything she had give up by striking out on her own.
She stood up and staggered a few steps before gaining her footing and walking into the ocean. She swam out past the gentle breakers and into the swells, where she bobbed up and down with the rhythm of the sea trying to think of the present, not the past or the future. The sky languidly faded from luminous azure to starry cobalt. The moon was waning gibbous — a few days past full — and it wouldn’t be up for a few hours. She looked through the clouds to see if she could spot any planets — a comforting ritual that was much harder to do in New York City. She thought she saw Mars and Jupiter, and she looked from one to the other as if hoping they might offer some guidance. Then she reluctantly swam back to shore.
In her hotel room she took the the strange gift from the reef out of the handkerchief she had wrapped it in. It was delicately designed, its flawless silvery metal twisted into entwining vines. In the space between each twist, five small diamonds were set in a row, the center diamond the largest. As she slipped it around her slender wrist, the ends came together as if joined by strong magnets. It fit her perfectly. She marveled at the way it caught even the dull lights of the hotel room and refracted them into glittering brilliance.
In the morning she would call every nearby hotel one more time to see if anyone had reported a missing bracelet that fit this description. If not, she figured it was back to the old playground rules: Finders keepers.
* * *
New York’s Subways are a forlorn place, Lauren thought as she rode the A-Train from JFK Airport to her tiny apartment in Washington Heights, north of Harlem. It wasn’t just that the Subways were such a rat-hole compared to the palatial Metros of Moscow, the clean, efficient lines of Paris, or the charming trams of Istanbul. The people here also seemed depressed, with broken dreams and resignation written on their faces. Lauren scowled at the profiles of men in suits more expensive than the neighborhoods they were rumbling toward.
Fakers, she thought darkly.
Back in the coccoon of her tiny, spartan room, Lauren half-heartedly opened a few job search websites to see the new listings. She glanced up at her wall to a spot where she had taped several inspirational quotes. One read: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Theodore Roosevelt.
“Easy for you to say,” she grumbled. “You were President of the United States.”
Lauren had poured ten years and every ounce of her talent and heart into the two books she’d written. The first sold for a decent advance, but its sales were disappointing, and her publisher passed on her second book without even reading it. Her agent dumped her soon after. Lauren moved New York to try to find another agent or publisher or any glimmer of hope. By now a year had passed with no real headway.
So, after ten years of following her dreams, it seemed they had crashed and burned and skidded to a halt. It was summer now, and she would turn thirty-three in the fall. Her young, promising years were behind her, and they hadn’t amounted to anything. She had no money, no possessions to speak of, no useful connections, no career, a string of failed relationships, and no idea what to do next.
She sank back in her tattered second-hand office chair and closed her laptop in frustration. Her roommate Sara heard the slam from the kitchen and laughed.
“Maybe you should think about a job in construction.”
Lauren sighed and shook her head. Sara was a waitress and aspiring actress, a Lebanese-American with black ringlets, gorgeous pale olive skin, and enormous blue eyes. Lauren thought it would be a waste if Sara’s face was never on a movie poster. But for now she was almost as broke and exhausted as Lauren.
Lauren was starving but not in the mood for any more pasta or beans and rice or any of the other cheap staples they lived on (except when Sara, lucky girl that she was, got to eat the fancy leftovers at her Asian fusion restaurant).
Lauren combed her fingers through he hair and said out loud, without thinking, “I wish we had a tiramisu in the fridge. Like the one I had at that little café in northwestern Italy. It was so humble, a mess of ingredients in a thick glass bowl. It looked terrible, actually. But then I bit into the first spoonful, and it was like… I can’t even describe it. Like eating love. The mascarpone cheese was probably made in the hills behind the village. I’m sure the waiter’s grandmother sifted the cocoa by hand.” Lauren sighed deeply. “There’s just nothing like that around here.”
Sara gasped. “Lauren! Where did you get this?”
“Did you make it?”
“What are you talking about?”
Sara marched into Lauren’s room. “Don’t play dumb. It looks amazing! You’re going to share, right?”
“What looks amazing?”
Sara rolled her eyes. “The giant dessert in our refrigerator. The one you were just describing.”
Lauren blinked. Why was Sara being weird? It was an oddly childish ruse. But Sara looked so sincere and convincing, Lauren felt compelled to follow her into the kitchen. She must be a better actress than I thought.
Sara opened the refrigerator door and there, on the middle shelf, sat a jumbo-sized version of the tiramisu she had enjoyed so thoroughly in the Cinque Terre.
The hairs on the back of Lauren’s neck stood up. She looked at Sara, her mouth agape. Sara rolled her eyes again and shifted on her feet impatiently. “Come on, give it up,” she said, pulling it out of the fridge. “Get some spoons, I’m starving!” Lauren numbly did as she was told. “Seriously, when did you make this?” Before Lauren could answer, Sara took a bite directly from the bowl. “Oh my God!” Her eyes fluttered in rapture. “This is, like, the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth.”
Lauren, still deeply confused, dipped her spoon into the cool, creamy layers. It tasted exactly as she remembered. For a moment she was transported back to the carefree time at the beginning her travels when her only concerns were new friends, good food, beautiful views, and finding an internet café to write about it all. She had read in the Tao Te Ching about an enlightened life being like a stone sinking to the bottom of a pool — effortless, in perfect harmony with the forces of nature. That’s how she’d felt, natural and easy, right where she was supposed to be doing what she was meant to do.
Her eyes stung with renewed sadness and shame. Somehow she’d let it all slip away.
As if sensing Lauren’s mood, Sara stopped asking questions and quietly helped herself to a generous plateful of the tiramisu. Lauren filled a plate of her own and went back to her room to try to work out what the hell had just happened.
By the time she finished the dessert and was scraping up the last moistened ladyfinger crumbs, its existence still made no sense to her. Even if Sara did for some reason want to play a weird trick on her, and had become a deeply talented and committed actress overnight (and a truly outstanding pasty chef)… had she also become a mind reader?
Exhaustion eventually overcame her curiosity. She took the bracelet off, stashed it in the jewelry box on her desk, dropped off to sleep, and dreamed of crazy, creamy puzzles with no sane solutions.
* * *
When she woke up the next morning, her thoughts flew immediately to the mysterious dessert from the night before. She walked to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.
“OK,” she said aloud. “Now I’d really like some eggs Benedict.” She waited. Looked around. “Come on, Sara,” she muttered. “Just one dessert and that’s it? Lame.”
She closed the fridge, made some instant apple cinnamon oatmeal and Earl Grey tea, and shuffled back to her room. When she finished her meager breakfast and scraped every last gooey oat out of the bowl, she picked up her cell phone to call her mom in Kansas.
“Hi, hon, how was your trip?”
“It was great.” Lauren sighed. “Really nice.”
“You don’t sound like you just got back from the Caribbean.”
Lauren ran her fingers through her hair. “Well, it was stupid. I shouldn’t have gone. I don’t even want to think about my next credit card bill, and I have no idea when I’m going to see another paycheck.”
“It’s just money. You’ll figure it out. If I could raise two girls on my own…”
“I know, I know. That’s not really it. I also thought somehow it would help ease the transition from working temp jobs to pursue a dream to just plain unemployed. Because I’ve decided to give up on publishing my book. And on being a writer. I’m done.”
There was a pregnant silence on the line. “I’m sorry. You know I’d help if I could…”
“I know. I’ll be OK. Just gotta get a job like everyone else, right? It’s not like I’m sick or starving, just…”
“I know. It’s hard. I wanted to be an actress until I met your father.”
Lauren winced. Her mom’s acting dreams had withered after she’d accidentally gotten pregnant at age twenty — with Lauren. She knew her mom was trying to empathize, but it only made her feel worse.
They changed the subject and chatted for a while until Lauren said, “Anyway, I’ve gotta go. There’s a party tonight, some ritzy college reunion type thing. Who knows, I might meet my future boss there.”
Lauren could almost hear her mother’s smirk. “Good luck with that.”
* * *
The party was basically Lauren’s idea of hell. But it was a good opportunity to get out of her bathrobe and see how the other half lived. Most of her college classmates in New York were working in conventional fields making good money, and this was a chance to get a feel for what it might be like to join them.
She let her hair dry in large curlers, which made her slightly wavy hair more orderly than usual. She put on a little black dress she’d bought at Goodwill ten years earlier, dabbed her face with powder, brushed on some eyeliner, and finished with shiny lipgloss. She wore lightly scuffed black ballet flats, turquoise drop earrings, and her diamond bracelet — the only item she owned that seemed like a real fit for the occasion.
The party was at a private residence on Central Park West. The doorman pointed her to a gilded elevator, which carried her up fourteen floors and opened into a spacious apartment with a wall of windows overlooking the green trees of Central Park. The couches were cream-colored, the rugs lush with patterns of cream and beige, and expensive-looking abstract paintings hung on the walls.
Bracing herself, she walked toward what looked like a promising group and tried to join the conversation. Most of them had that expensively-groomed and polished New York look, with name-brand clothes that had to be dry-cleaned. The smiles on their faces were carefully arranged, and she recognized with a queasy feeling in her gut that everyone was here for the same reason: not to enjoy themselves or make friends but to “network,” to try to expand their reach into the upper crust of New York, to feel they belonged to something exclusive. She hated herself for being one of them. As the others chatted, her mind drifted to another kind of gathering, a house party on a rooftop somewhere in the Mediterranean smoking hookahs with people who couldn’t care less about anyone’s status or job title.
“Lauren!” she heard from the direction of the elevator. She turned around and saw Anna, her freshman year roommate, sauntering into the room. Vivacious and blonde, she was totally at ease at these types of gatherings. But underneath it all she was thoughtful and kind. Lauren wondered how many other people in the room were similarly thoughtful and kind if you got to know them.
“Hi Anna,” Lauren said, relieved to see a familiar face.
“Where’s the wine?”
Lauren laughed. “Good question.” They walked together to the dining room, where bottles of Chardonnay were lined up next to bottles of Zinfandel. Behind them lay an impressive spread of appetizers.
“Great,” Lauren said, grabbing a bottle of Zin. “The only two kinds of wine I don’t like. I wish they had just one bottle of Cabernet.”
“That’s a Cab, isn’t it?” Anna asked.
Lauren looked at the bottle in her hands. It was a Cabernet. Chilean. Her favorite. Lauren’s scalp prickled unnervingly. It had been a Zinfandel like the others when she picked it up, she was sure.
“Lucky you,” Anna continued. “I wish they had a Riesling, but oh well.”
“I… also wish they had a Riesling,” Lauren said hesitantly.
Anna raised an eyebrow. “Double-fisting tonight?”
“No, I wish they had it for you.”
“Well, I… Oh.”
Anna was looking in confusion at the line-up of Chardonnay. One stood out. Its profile was taller and slimmer, and its label was different. Looking more closely, both could see it was a Riesling.
“What the hell?” Anna asked. “I thought this was all Chardonnay.”
“I did, too,” Lauren said, frozen in place.
“Very weird,” Lauren agreed.
They were silent for a moment. Finally Anna said, “Oh well. Can’t argue with wine, I guess.” She shrugged and picked up a corkscrew.
“Guess not,” said Lauren lightly, but her stomach and mind were churning.
She soon made an excuse and went home, changed into pajama pants and a t-shirt, and sat on her bed as thoughts slowly percolated through her mind. That’s three times now that I’ve wanted something — the tiramisu and the two bottles of wine — and what I wanted seemed to appear from thin air. She shook her head. Either someone was playing a bizarre prank on her, or she was having severe mental lapses… or something embarrassingly irrational was going on.
“Well, let’s try it again,” she said aloud, feeling very silly. “I wish for a cappuccino, right here on my desk.”
A foamy mug appeared on a coaster next to her laptop.
Lauren’s breath stopped. She glanced toward the door, then back at the innocently steaming coffee drink. She blinked several times and squinted her eyes, hoping it would disappear again. But she could smell it, too. Cautiously, she reached out and touched it. Hot and solid. She drew her hand back and stared at it warily, as if it were a wild animal that might attack if she made the wrong move. What the hell is going on? she thought, fighting rising panic. Have I lost my mind? Is it a hallucination? Schizophrenia? A brain tumor?
There was a sudden knock on the door followed by Sara striding into the room.
“I thought I smelled coffee,” she said, walking to the desk and taking a rapturous whiff of the cappuccino. “Mmm, it’s the good stuff. You didn’t bring me one did you— Hey, what’s wrong?”
She must have noticed the terrified, confused, deer-in-headlights look on Lauren’s face. Lauren slowly looked at her with haunted eyes.
“What is it, honey?” Sara asked fearfully. “Did someone…”
Lauren shook her head. “No… no…” she said with difficulty. “But you can…” She stopped herself. She was going to point to the cappuccino and say, “You can see this?” But that would have sounded insane, whether she could see it or not. In any case, Sara had made it clear that she had seen it.
Lauren suddenly felt exhausted. She just wished Sara would leave. “It’s fine, I’m just… depressed. Still getting used to giving up the dream, I guess.”
“Mmm,” Sara said, seeming relieved and reaching over to rub her shoulder sympathetically. “Anything I can do?”
“Just let me drown my sorrows in coffee for a while.”
“I can do that. Let me know if you want to talk later, OK?”
Alone again, Lauren stared into space, her heart pounding in her chest. As her mind raced, a feeling was surging behind her lingering fear, softly at first, far in the background. But slowly it seeped forward until it dominated her emotional field of vision: a warm thrill of excitement, of deliverance.
Feeling dangerously unhinged, she said aloud, “Now I wish for a wool carpet.”
A circular cornflower blue rug appeared on her cracked hardwood floor with a design of concentric aquamarine curlicues, big enough to cover most of the bare floor space. She flinched away from it and tried to get her ragged breathing under control. Holy shit.
“And a silk robe,” she went on unsteadily. A lavender robe with pale blue piping materialized on the bed next to her. She slipped it on cautiously. The fabric was cool and supple. A pang in her stomach reminded her how hungry she was. “And some French toast?” The food appeared as requested, along with silverware and a cloth napkin. She sat at her desk, folded the napkin across in her lap, and took a bite. It was piping hot, not too sweet, and soft on the inside, just the way she liked it. Jesus Christ, she thought shakily. Either I’ve completely lost touch with reality, or—
“Anyway,” Sara said, bursting into the room again, “you can always write, you know, even if you—” She stopped, looked at the rug, then the robe, then the food. “What the…”
Lauren froze with her fork halfway to her mouth. Shit.
“Where did you get this stuff? I was just here, it was…” Sara looked as confused as Lauren had been a few minutes ago, trying to do a calculation that didn’t add up.
“I just got these out, they were in the closet,” Lauren said quickly, indicating the robe and the rug, “and I got the French toast from the diner across the street. It was in a to-go box. Sorry, I didn’t want to share. But I can go and get you some after I finish this.” She tried to look contrite.
Sara didn’t seem convinced. After a pause she said, “Looks like a pricey rug. Do we have a sugar daddy I need to know about?”
Lauren laughed. “No, it was a gift from… my uncle. He sent it to me for… an early birthday present?” She resisted the urge to cringe. She’d never been good at lying. Then she had an idea. She closed her eyes. I wish Sara would go away and forget about the things she saw here. She opened her eyes. Sara was still standing in the doorway staring at her in increasing incredulity. “Your birthday’s not for three months, hon.”
“Look,” Lauren said, “can I ask you a big favor? As a friend?”
Sara sighed. “What?”
“Don’t ask any more questions today. I’ll tell you everything tomorrow. OK?”
Sara narrowed her eyes. “All right, fine. Tomorrow. Promise?”
But Lauren knew it was a promise she probably wouldn’t be able to keep.
# # #
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter. As you can see, The Bracelet is a lightly paranormal adventure, and it will soon take Lauren all over the world and, eventually, into federal prison. (More on that in Chapter 8.)
The book is, at heart, a meditation on the freedom we have as humans and the boxes we tend to put around ourselves to keep us from realizing that freedom. It’s a spirited journey, and I look forward to sharing it when it’s done.
Meanwhile, I’m raising money to help a friend in Palestine survive and continue important work for children, the disabled, and the traumatized in her community. “Perks” are offered for various levels of contributions (starting at $5), and anyone who contributes from now on will receive instant access to Chapter Two of the novel on request.
Thanks so much for anything you can chip in! FYI, these are the kids you’ll be helping. :)