Excerpts

The Unforgiven


With his third wife’s announcement that she wanted a divorce, Peter Braddock turned uncharacteristically introspective. When his first wife left, he had been surprised; when his second wife left, he felt betrayed; now, with Megan’s announcement, he was puzzled, for he considered himself to be a good husband. A successful financial adviser, he was an excellent provider; he had never cheated on any of his wives; didn’t drink; he shared the housework; put down the toilet seat. What more could a woman want?

“Do you love me?” Megan asked him.

“Yes. Yes, of course I do,” he said.

“You never say it. I never feel it.”

He hadn’t thought it needed to be said. Love was one of those self-evident things, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever. Why does one need to say it?

“I’m sorry, but it’s who I am. It’s how I relate to people.”

“You don’t relate, Peter. You schmooze. And you’re good at it. You’re funny, charming, entertaining. You’ve turned schmoozing into an art form. But that’s all there is.”

“You’re saying I’m shallow.”

“I’m saying that’s all you offer to people. Even to me as your wife.”

She sounded angry—low-burn anger—but he knew she wasn’t angry with him so much as the situation, that she had to say these hurtful things. It would have been much easier for her if she no longer loved him.

Her complaint didn’t come as a surprise. All his wives had said the same: He was “private,” “emotionally distant,” wouldn’t let them “in.” They even used the same words. He wondered if they had been comparing notes. Maybe they had formed their own club: The Former Wives of Peter Braddock Society. What was he to do, he wondered. Just another career-driven man out of touch with his feelings. There must be a self-help group for men like him; not that he’d attend, but he was consoled by the fact that he wasn’t alone.

Thank God, there were no children. That would have made this even more difficult. He had always been attracted to bright, professional women who wanted careers of their own. Allison the doctor. Saundra the professor of Middle Eastern studies. Megan the corporate attorney. With each of them, they had decided to wait to start a family until she had established her own career. There would be time for children later. But now he was forty-three and time was running out.

“Please, Peter, get help,” said Megan. “I was in therapy for two years before I realized that it wasn’t me. It’s you.”

“We can work this out,” he said. “I’ll go see a therapist like you wanted. I’ll do whatever you want.” For he truly loved his wife. But then, he had truly loved all his wives.

“I think that would be a good idea, but don’t do it for me. Do it for yourself.”

“Yes, yes, of course. For me. Certainly.”

But he couldn’t convince Megan to stay. The best he was able to negotiate was a trial separation. She would clear out her things on the weekend while he was away helping his mother move into her new condominium.

#

“Do you love me?”

Of course he loved her! He was going to some feminist, man-hating dyke shrink to save his marriage. If that’s not love, what is? As a gesture of his good intentions, Peter had scheduled an appointment with the therapist that very day. He’d rather Megan had asked him to prove his love in some other way—say, walking over fiery coals, bungee-jumping off the Space Needle, or undergoing a colonoscopy.

The shrink’s office was on Capitol Hill in a stately old house, overlooking Seattle. Some houses, like some people, go through a series of career changes. Originally built in the early twentieth century for a large family, it now housed several offices in addition to Shrinko’s: a naturopath, an aromatherapist, a Reiki practioner, and a feng shui consultant. All much too woo-woo for Peter’s tastes. In its next incarnation, the house would probably become a charming bed and breakfast, he thought as he entered the foyer.

Dr.Lucia March was somewhere in her sixties, he guessed. She wasn’t really what he had expected: a slender, attractive woman with silver-gray hair cut in a stylish bob, and gray, luminous eyes as if accessorized to match her hair. High, elegant cheekbones gave her face a statuesque kind of beauty. In spite of his resentment at having to be here, Peter found her very sexy.

They sat facing each other in armchairs. He had spent the first twenty minutes completing the necessary insurance forms, filling out a confidential questionnaire whose questions seemed to him either invasive (“How often do you move your bowels?”) or irrelevant (“How many glasses of water do you drink each day?”), then reading and signing the statement of his so-called “Client’s Rights” (You have the right to remain silent no matter how much we torture you.)

He looked around the office as she read through his questionnaire responses. The lighting was natural; a trace of earth-sweet sage hung in the air, subtle like his second wife’s perfume—or was it his first’s? Wicca symbols decorated one wall and a display of African aboriginal masks decorated another; and plants, lots and lots of plants. It all looked like the den of the Earth Mother, or, considering her age, maybe Earth Grandmother.

She removed her glasses and put aside the questionnaire. “Before we begin, did you have any questions for me?” She spoke with a British accent, which made her slightly exotic, and even more sexy.

He cleared his throat. “How did you and Megan meet?” he asked, trying to postpone the barrage of embarrassing questions he knew were coming. Besides, he was paying for this fifty-minute hour.

“I was teaching a workshop on harnessing the energy of one’s aura.”

Auras. Of course. Woo-woo.

“Megan attended the workshop, we connected, and in time, she asked to do some work with me.”

Right. To work me over, thought Peter, but he smiled his most charming smile and kept his mouth shut.

“Megan has given me permission to share with you what she has said in our sessions when it’s appropriate, hoping it will help your own work.”

“I suppose it’s not very flattering.”

“She described you as handsome, intelligent, charming, and dead.”

“Dead?” He turned down the charm.

“That you have no feelings. No warmth. No human connection. Would you agree?”

“Well, it’s true that I’m not what one would call ‘emotionally demonstrative.’ I never have been.”

“Do you see that as a problem?”

“Uh, well, apparently. As far as my wife is concerned.”

“Wives. They seem to share the same perception of you.”

He knew they must have been talking together! “What else can you tell me?” he asked.

“I can tell you that Megan’s still in love with you.”

He nodded soberly. “I know. All of my ex-wives are.”

“Do you love her?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Do you love her?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Megan says that sex between the two of you is very rushed.”

Might as well just jump into it. He knew that sex would come up, but he’d hoped not until the third or maybe twenty-fourth session.

“She says that it’s more a physical need for you than lovemaking. Like you’re trying to get it over with.”

“Yes, but don’t all women say that about their male lovers?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

“Do you enjoy sex with your wife?”

He gave a nervous laugh. “Yes, of course. It’s better than the Super Bowl.”

“Are you gay?”

“What? No, of course not.”

“Why ‘of course not’?”

“Because I’m not. I’m not wired that way. Never have been.”

“Do you think there’s anything wrong with being gay?”

“Not in the least. I have a number of friends who are gay.”

“Friends?”

“Well, casual acquaintances. Colleagues really. It’s just that I like women. I’ve always liked women. And if I were gay—which I’m not—I would’ve had plenty of opportunities to act on it, but men just don’t turn me on.”

“Megan says that your other wives also said that sex was fast and quickly over for you.”

“Yes, but I do everything fast. I eat fast, talk fast, drive fast, read fast—”

“And fuck fast?” The unexpected vulgarism jolted him. He hadn’t expected this out of a grandmother, even a sexy, earthy grandmother. “It does sound more like fucking than lovemaking, don’t you think?”

“I told you, I’m not gay.”

“No, I don’t think you are. I’m just wondering why lovemaking for you is primarily about physical release rather than love and affection.”

He held up his hands. “I...don’t know.”

“What would you like to get out of these sessions?”

“Megan. I want Megan back.”

“Besides that. For yourself.”

He was stuck. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

“Megan says that you’re not happy.”

“Like, who is?”

“You don’t believe people can be happy or fulfilled?”

“Look, Dr. March, I enjoy my work. I’m good at it. I make lots of money. People respect me.”

“But you’re not happy.”

He was feeling increasingly irritated by this line of inquiry. “I have my moments. Like I said, I don’t want to lose Megan. In my own way, I do love her. Maybe...maybe I can learn to express it better.”

She looked at the clock. Their time was up. “Next week then?”

He gave her one of his best schmooze-smiles, thinking, I’ll count the days.

#

That evening, Peter traveled to his family home in Enumclaw, in the foothills of Mt. Rainier. His father had died the year before, and his mother had decided that the large, old farmhouse and its twenty acres were too much for her to manage. To her children’s surprise, she had sold it and was now moving into a condominium in Seattle. Following the session with Earth Grandmother, Peter drove down to help his siblings, Carl and Jenna, and their families with the move the next day. That evening, he had a quiet dinner with his mother, just the two of them, their last in the house he had grown up in.

“Won’t you miss this place?” he asked as they were clearing the table.

“Your father wanted to live in the country. I’ve always preferred the city.”

“But there’s a lot of memories here.”

“Memories are portable—at least the important ones. And besides,” she said, looking around the dining room, “this house has too many memories.”

“Too many?”

“Memories can keep one in the past. It’s a problem as one grows older. You’ll see.”

They carried the dishes into the kitchen.

“How’s Megan?” she asked as she began running hot water into the sink.

He knew the topic was coming up, was surprised that it had waited this long to surface.

“We’re working on it. I’m still hoping that she’ll come back.” He looked at his mother. “I do love her.” She remained silent as she began washing the dishes. “I do. She’s really everything I’ve ever wanted in a wife.”

“You’ve always had good taste in women.”

It was the tone.

“Are you saying it’s my fault?”

She turned to him. “It’s your third marriage, Peter.”

“So it is my fault.” He realized he was acting childish and was embarrassed by it. Still, with one’s parents, one’s forever a child.

“They’ve all left for the same reason,” she said as she rinsed and handed him a plate to dry. “They say you’re cold, aloof, and distant. That you don’t let them in.”

“You know, there just might be my side to the story.”

“Yes, I’ve told them. You don’t let anybody in.”

What was this: Beat Up on Peter Week?

“I happen to have a lot of friends,” he said as he took and dried the next plate.

“You have a lot of associates. People who like you, respect you, even admire you. You’ve always had associates, even in high school. But I doubt you’ve had any close friends since you were a child.”

He hadn’t been prepared for this degree of maternal candor. Why the sudden tough love? He fell silent, quickly progressing from petulant child to sullen teenager. It was great being back home.

His mother continued washing the dishes. “I’m sorry, Peter, but there are few greater pains for a mother than to see her child unhappy with the life she’s given him. It’s like watching your gift being discarded.”

“Well, I’m sorry, too. But it’s who I am.”

“It’s who you became. You weren’t always like this.”

“Well, as far back as I can remember. I don’t know when I changed.”

“I do.”

He stopped drying the plate and looked at her.

“It was the summer you were thirteen. I remember because it was so sudden. Like you grew up overnight.”

“Well, adolescence does have a way of changing things, I suppose.”

She returned to the dishes. “You went away to church camp and came back…different. I’ve often wondered, did something happen to you at that camp?”

“No—I mean, I don’t know. I don’t even remember it.”

“Until then, you had always been a happy child. Fun, affectionate, trusting. But you returned quieter. Much more serious. Dad and I both noticed it. It was as if your childhood had ended during those two weeks you were away.”

“I barely remember the camp,” he said as he dried a glass.

“I asked you if something had happened, and you brushed me off. Dad thought it was nothing and said to let it go, but it has always bothered me. Now I’m sorry I didn’t press you further at the time.”

He shrugged as he put the glass in the cupboard. “I really don’t recall what I was like before.”

She smiled, remembering. “You were a very happy boy, very sweet and kind and generous. And very open, wonderfully frank about everything. I remember you told us when you had your first wet dream.”

He grimaced. Whoa. Way too open.

“But after that summer, you became a very different person, guarded and private with your feelings. I felt suddenly shut out of your life and was sad to see you grow up so quickly. Your father said that I was making too much of it, that it came with puberty.”

“I don’t remember anything special about that summer, no different than the summers before. Just swimming and singing around the campfires and lots and lots of mosquitoes.”

“I spoke with Father Scott. He said that you had a good time, and he, too, suggested that you were just growing up. But something didn’t feel right. Call it a mother’s intuition. I felt that he wasn’t being fully honest with me. Then, the next summer you refused to go to camp. Said it was for children.” She handed him another glass. “You were fourteen and we decided that you could make up your own mind. But I’ve always wondered if something happened to you that summer.”

“Is that why you never allowed Carl to go to camp?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“He’s never forgotten that, you know.”

She sighed, which spoke volumes about her youngest, the forever-aggrieved, deeply deprived one for whom life was inherently unfair. “If that’s the worst of my failings as a mother, I can die in peace.”

He chuckled. “Even to this day he complains about the unfairness: that I got to go to camp three years and he never got to go even once.”

“Carl is thirty-eight. He needs to let it go and move on with his life.”

#

After they had finished washing the dishes, they went up to his old bedroom. Peter had not slept in it for over twenty years.

“I’ve gathered up most of your things,” said his mother. There were six boxes stacked against the wall. “I won’t have space for them in the condominium. You’re the only child who never took your things with you.”

He looked around his boyhood room. “I really don’t think there’s anything here I want to keep.”

“Then you’ll have to throw them away yourself, or give them to Goodwill. I can’t do it.”

“Okay. I’ll sort through the boxes tonight.”

“I’ll get you some large trash bags.” She left to go downstairs.

Once she’d gone, Peter took his cell phone from his briefcase and sat on his bed, putting a call through to Megan.

She was home. She, too, was boxing up her things. He dreaded what the house would look like when he returned tomorrow night, without her clothes, without her books and computer and photos. Without her.

They chatted easily, as if nothing had happened, other than their marriage was breaking up. She asked about his mother, how she was feeling about leaving the house she had lived in for over forty-five years. She was doing well, he said, looking forward to moving into the city. He hoped she’d have a dishwasher. Then he added, “I went to see your therapist today before driving down here.”

“She’s not my therapist any longer.”

“Right. She’s my therapist now.”

“Will you be going back?”

“Do you want me to?”

“It has to be your decision.”

“I will if you want me to. If it will bring you back.”

“Yes, I want you to. But there’s no guarantees I’m coming back.”

“I understand.” There was a pause, and then he said, “I do love you, you know.”

“No, Peter. I don’t know that.”

What else to say? If she wouldn’t believe him, what more could be said? He heard her voice, softer this time.

“I don’t blame you. It’s not your fault. But I don’t think you can love…anyone.”

He didn’t know what else to say. There was another pause, and he heard her voice again.

“Just so you know: I’ve not stopped loving you. But it’s not healthy for me or for you to continue like we have. For the first three years of our marriage, I wanted to change myself so you would love me. For the last two years, I wanted you to change, so I could love you. I was wrong on both counts, and I don’t want to end up hating you, Peter. I would rather have it end like this.”

He was sitting on his bed, feeling despondent, the cell phone still in his hand, when his mother returned. He looked up as she entered the room, carrying a box of trash bags and a cup of herbal tea.

“Megan says hi,” he said flatly. “Sends her love.” He tossed the cell phone onto the bed.

She set down the cup and saucer on his nightstand. “She’s sweet. I’ll miss her.”

“I’ve not given up on us,” he said. “I’m seeing a therapist, like she wanted.”

“Good. I hope it will help.” She handed him the box of trash bags. “You’re used to getting what you want.”

He looked up at his mother. “Really? It doesn’t feel that way.”

“It’s because you never find satisfaction in what you achieve. You’ve always driven yourself so hard and accomplished whatever you put your mind to. You just can’t seem to enjoy it.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. It’s such a maternal cliché, but I only want you to be happy.”

He nodded. “Me, too.”

“It’s going to be a big day tomorrow. I think I’ll retire early. Sleep well, dear.” And she leaned over and kissed him on his forehead.

#

It was eight thirty, and he was sitting on the floor, drinking the cup of tea as he went through the cardboard boxes, sorting those clothes and items that would go to Goodwill. The rest he tossed into garbage bags. Over the next two hours, as the clock edged toward midnight, he went through all that remained of his childhood and youth: school notebooks, athletic ribbons, photos of him and his family on vacation trips—he and his dad holding up the salmon they’d caught on the Snake River when he was ten, class photos from elementary and junior high school, more vacation pictures, trinkets and souvenirs from trips to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and SeaWorld, all went into the garbage bags. He had no use for these. Likewise, he tossed in his graduation announcement, varsity letters, and certificates of achievement. Photos of old girlfriends, his three high school yearbooks, his Future Business Leaders trophy, all went into the trash. His baseball mitt would go to Goodwill. No one had ever accused him of being sentimental.

No, he thought, they accused him of having no feelings at all.

When Peter thought back over his life, it seemed to him that he’d never been happy, that he’d never had any close friends, that it had always been difficult for him to sustain a deep personal relationship. But now, sorting through the boxes, he was surprised to find that he had had a happy childhood, and seeing the photos once again, he remembered that he had many friends when he was young. And he, too, wondered: When did I change? And why?

“Did something happen to you at that camp?”

It was in the last box that he found a folder containing a collection of larger pictures. Among them was a photo of the camp he attended when he was thirteen. He studied the group picture—about forty boys and counselors on bleachers. And there he was, sitting on the end of the first row, two horns protruding from his head of thick hair—the forefinger and pinky of a slender, small boned boy in the row behind him.

Billy Clubfoot.

He smiled. His best buddy that summer. He looked once again on this long ago friend with his mischievous eyes and that impish grin, like he had just thought up another bit of mischief to get them into. He never seemed bothered by his clubfoot, Peter recalled (What was Billy’s last name?) He had a mop of thick black hair that was longish and always unkempt, giving him a slightly feral look; like Mowgli, Peter had thought when he had first seen Billy at camp.

He gazed back at his younger self. Aside from the horns sticking out of his head, he was a handsome youth. Different from most of the other boys, with their big noses and big ears and general adolescent gawkiness, he was already well proportioned and athletic in build. In most of the photos in this box, he appeared as a kid, a child, and in the photos after—his high school years—he looked like a younger version of the man he was now. But here, in this picture, he could see the boy becoming the man. And his mother was right: he did look happy, a big grin arcing across his face. They all looked happy, enjoying good times together, all happy campers.

“It seemed like you grew up overnight.”

Standing next to him was Father Scott, the camp’s director and assistant priest in his parish. The priest’s hand was resting on his shoulder. Peter felt a sudden surge of unease and quickly tossed the photo into the garbage bag.

In the same folder was a letter he had written from camp, the obligatory missive home to the folks—he remembered they were required if one wanted dessert—telling them what a wonderful time their son was having. He started reading the letter, noting that his penmanship hadn’t improved that much. He sounded happy and enthusiastic, seemed to be enjoying himself. They had gone rock climbing one day, canoeing the next. Food was okay. The evening campfires, with

the singing and the stories, were the “funnest.” Peter was again surprised. He couldn’t recall ever being so perky and bubbly. It was as if he were reading a letter from someone else, or from another life.


My best friend is Billy Dawson (Right. Dawson. That was his name. Billy Dawson.) He has a club foot and walks funny but hes really nice.

Funny how certain memories suddenly pop up after all the years. He could remember the clomp-a-clomp-a-clomp-a of Billy’s bum foot on the floorboards in their cabin. Although his own family was not wealthy, Peter knew they were well off; his father had been an engineer for Boeing. Somehow, he remembered that Billy’s family was not well off. His father was a logger, he recalled, but had been disabled due to an accident. Billy came to camp through a scholarship provided by the local parish in his small town on the coast. As with his clubfoot, he didn’t seem ashamed about this.


It rained the first two days, but its been good the rest of the week. We go swimming every day. The lake is cold but the bolders are warm from the sun and nice to lay on.

He remembered those times swimming and lying out on the flat, sun-warmed boulders that protruded into the lake, and wondered what he had against apostrophes as a kid.

There are lots of trails in the forest and we go hiking wherever we want. But dont worry. You cant get lost because the trails have signs everywhere pointing back to camp. The only place we cant go is the old cabin because its suposed to be haunted.


The cabin. He had forgotten about the cabin.

It sat on the edge of the forest, far away from the rest of the buildings, dilapidated and in disrepair, and was used only for storage. It was said to be haunted by the ghost of a boy who had

died in it years ago. Peter could still feel the chills when he had walked past it. Over the years, lights had been seen inside at night. And on some nights, if the wind was blowing in a certain direction, you could actually hear screams coming from within it. Something had happened to the boy, something terrible. Too terrible to talk about—so of course everyone did, summer after summer for generations. Although no one knew for sure how he died, every camper felt free to elaborate on it. On one thing they were all agreed: it had been a horrible, horrible death. It seemed a requirement of camp folklore that the boy had died horribly.

Peter remembered accompanying Father Scott in the cabin to get the volleyball equipment. It smelled musty, dusty, and dank, of mildew and mold. He had been excited to look inside this forbidden chamber, quickly shooting glances around as if in hopes of seeing the ghost of the boy who had been murdered there. But it had all been very disappointing. Against one of the walls stood a row of old mattresses with pee-stained blotches, like yellow-orange Rorschach tests; boxes of baseball bats and balls and badminton sets; a box of horseshoes, ropes and floats for the swimming boom; canoe paddles. What had he expected? Blood on the floor? A rotting corpse?

He folded up the letter and dropped it into the garbage bag as well, then checked the clock. It was late and he needed to get to bed. He quickly pawed through the rest of the box’s contents, withdrawing the silver crucifix he had worn as a boy. He held it up to the light of the desk lamp (The crucifix dangled from his chest, glinting in the flashlight’s harsh beam) and suddenly shivered, quickly tossing it into the garbage bag. He dumped the remaining contents of the box into the bag as well and tied it closed. His stroll down memory lane complete, he brushed his teeth and went to bed.

#

The next morning Peter and his mother were sitting at the kitchen table, eating breakfast and awaiting the arrival of his siblings and their broods. He felt exhausted as he read the newspaper and drank his coffee. He hadn’t slept well.

“I didn’t know you still had nightmares,” said his mother.

He looked up. “I don’t.”

“I heard you crying out during the night. Just like when you were a boy.”

“Really?”

“You don’t recall what you were dreaming?”

“No.”

“I almost came in to wake you, but each time it was brief and quickly over.”

“Each time?”

“Two or three times, I think.”

He shrugged, folded the paper, and left to shower and shave. Now that his mother mentioned it, he remembered that he did have a nightmare, or nightmares, but what they were about, he couldn’t say. In the shower, he tried to dredge up some memories of the dreams. It was all very vague, no sense impressions or clear images—though he thought it involved the old cabin. And blood. It seemed there was blood in the dream. But that was all he could recall. He turned off the shower and began drying himself. Why did his mother have to mention the camp? It must have acted as a suggestion to his subconscious.

It was an intuition, a hunch, which he couldn’t have explained, but as Peter dressed, he dug back into the last garbage bag and retrieved the camp photo. He wasn’t sure why, but he decided to keep it. He looked at it once again. This time his eyes went directly to the priest, and he felt the same unease he’d felt the night before. Something about the cabin and the priest.