Klein / CLEAN BREAK
You can’t ask your nine-year-old for advice on how to conjure up an imaginary friend, but it might be nice to have such a companion. A confidant for sharing private feelings. A soul mate for lonely nights. Spencer didn’t seem worse for it, most of the time. In fact, since he’d taken Kathy as his friend, he had become a better listener and made eye contact when speaking with Celeste. He never complained of being bored. He performed better in school.
Celeste researched the subject and believed Spencer adopted an imaginary friend to help work through his father’s absence. The therapist she’d taken him to agreed with this assessment, although other self-proclaimed experts on the Internet stated that age nine was too old for such make-believe, potentially indicating an inability to separate fantasy from reality.
How about age thirty-four? What would the experts say if Celeste adopted a pretend pal? She wouldn’t mind a break from reality. She could use some comforting.
“Spencer,” she called from the bottom of the stairs. “What are you doing up there?”
No response, although she could hear him talking.
She climbed the stairs and found him in the hallway sprawled across one of the stuffed plastic garbage bags, rocking back and forth as if on a raft in the water, his face buried in his book, reading aloud.
“Chet Baker’s real name was Chesney,” Spencer said, not looking up from the page. “He started playing trombone, but it was too big so he switched to trumpet, just like me.”
“He was a talented trumpeter, just like you,” Celeste said, kneeling next to her son. He turned to her with his round blue eyes that were so much like Adam’s. Along with his straight, dark hair and angular jaw and sloped nose, Spencer was practically a clone of his father, other than the lush smile and full lips he’d gotten from Celeste.
“Now I need your talents to help carry those bags,” Celeste said. “They have our sheets and towels.”
“Okay, Mom.” Spencer obediently closed his book and stood and lifted one of the bags, holding it from underneath with both arms. He negotiated the stairs and waddled out the front door, straining under the bag’s bulk. Celeste lifted the other one and followed him down.
Stephen returned from loading the truck. “We’ve got room for a few more things,” he said. “A small piece of furniture, if you want.”
Her friends from around the corner—Emery and Stephen Weber—were helping, Emery having volunteered her husband, along with his pickup truck. Celeste’s move didn’t fit the usual protocol for Brookfield’s Cider Mill neighborhood, where residents hired big moving companies that arrived with long, padded vans and muscular men who wrapped and carried every item. By contrast, Celeste, along with Emery and Stephen, managed to jam a bed and dresser each for her and Spencer, a love seat and chair, three lamps, plus their clothes, Celeste’s computer and desk, basic kitchen equipment, and Spencer’s games and books into two loads in the back of Stephen’s truck on an autumn Saturday morning while neighborhood kids played in the street, fathers paused in their leaf-raking to watch, and mothers pushing strollers stared as they walked past.
Celeste was a few anxious moments away from abandoning her home of ten years. A two-and-a-half-story Craftsman built in 1910, with a wraparound front porch, plush lawn, and private backyard fenced by an evergreen hedge. Just forty-five minutes by train to Grand Central Station on the Hudson line, an easy commute for Adam when he still worked in Manhattan; and for Celeste, a safe, idyllic community with her closest friends on the same block and one of the top elementary schools in the state for her son to attend. The house had been too big for the three of them, but at one time she and Adam planned to have more children. They would raise a large family and grow old in this house, they would pay off the mortgage, their grandchildren would visit. If needed, they’d install a wheelchair ramp someday and one of them would lovingly care for the other.
She took a quick survey—what else to take? She hadn’t made a dent in removing their possessions, not surprising considering she was moving out of a 3,000-square-foot home outfitted with the accoutrements of a decade of married life. Almost all of it she was leaving behind, even the cherished bedroom set, a wedding gift from Adam’s parents. It was called the Antoinette Collection, crafted from black walnut and inlaid with cherry accents: the wide dresser and mirror for her, the tall dresser for Adam, the armoire to share, the two night tables, and the spectacular sleigh bed. She’d made love with her husband hundreds of times in that bed; now she didn’t want to look at it.
“What do you think—anything else?” Stephen asked.
“Just a sec.” She started up the stairs and lifted the photos hanging on the wall across from the banister. The one of the three of them hugging a snowman they’d made in the backyard, the snowman four balls high, as tall as Adam, Spencer standing in front, Celeste and Adam to either side, the self-timer capturing three happy faces—four if you count the arrangement of acorns forming the snowman’s mouth. Next was the photo of her and Spencer on the beach in Florida three years ago when they’d visited Celeste’s mom. She looked at herself in the picture and realized she’d changed since then: gained a few pounds, although not so many her clothes didn’t fit, and she wore her hair longer now, all one length to her shoulders rather than the layered style and wispy bangs. And she’d started coloring her hair, adding red highlights to complement her natural auburn shade. At least her eyes were the same green, her teeth still white. The third photo she took from the wall was the one of Adam holding eight-month-old Spencer overhead in the palm of his hand, as if he were a quarterback about to throw a pass, their son squealing with delight. She’d been terrified seeing Spencer perched so high and had rushed the photo, causing a slight blur, but Adam had maintained firm and perfect balance, completely in control, with Spencer safe and secure—her husband could handle things back then.
She returned to the foyer, cradling the frames like books in her arms. “Just these, I guess,” she said. “We’d better get going.”
Emery reached out and held Celeste’s arm. “It’s hard right now, but you’ll feel better. You’ll see.”
“I know I’m doing the right thing, but I still feel guilty with Adam not here and I can’t tell him.”
“You’ve given him a lot of chances. And if things change when he comes back, well, nothing’s permanent. You can always get back together.”
Emery was right, although she didn’t know the full extent of Adam’s offenses. Celeste hadn’t shared all the sordid details, even with her best friend, and Celeste couldn’t contemplate the idea of getting back with Adam—she hadn’t even left yet.
“I’d say this is the best wake-up call Adam could get,” Stephen said. “What more motivation does he need if he finally realizes he’s losing you?”
Yes, but would that be motivation enough for Adam to change? She honestly didn’t know.
“I’m really going to miss you guys,” Celeste said. Emery was a mother to three fine children, fulfilled in her own part-time career writing grants for the Trollope Women’s Foundation, and married to a successful architect who adored her. Celeste and Emery raised their kids together, ran in the park, went for drinks on girls’ night out. They shared recipes. They used the same pediatrician. But they weren’t both moving out on their husbands, and Celeste understood that this difference could change their relationship.
As if reading her thoughts, Emery said, “We’ll still see you all the time, even if we’re not right around the corner anymore.”
She found comfort in her friend’s words, and hoped they were true. “I’ll lock up here and then drive over and meet you,” she said.
“We’ll pick up our kids and get some bagels on the way,” Emery said. “We can eat after we unload.”
“Here, I’m paying.” Celeste reached for her purse hanging on the newel post. “I should at least feed you for the work you’re doing. I couldn’t have done this without you.”
“Oh, stop. After all you did for us after Maya was born?”
Before Celeste could get out her wallet, Stephen and Emery were in the truck, backing out of the driveway. Celeste started to wave, then put her hand down: This wasn’t good-bye. She went back inside and called for Spencer. Again she got no answer. This time she found him in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet but not using it, his pants still on, reading in a voice at the high end of a whisper. He saw her and quieted.
“Are you ready? We’re all packed—it’s time to get going.”
“Chet Baker went to prison. He had to go to prison because he was a drug addict.”
“Let me see that.” Celeste studied the page. This was supposed to be a children’s book about American musicians; she’d found it in the middle readers section of the library and thought Spencer would enjoy the short biographies now that he was taking trumpet lessons. She scanned the Chet Baker profile. There was one paragraph about how his life as a musician and vocalist derailed when he started using drugs. He was arrested on a number of occasions and spent a year in prison in Italy prior to getting his life back together and reinvigorating his career.
“Did Dad go to prison because he was a gambling addict? Is that why he has to be gone for so long?”
“No, Dad isn’t in prison,” Celeste said. “He went to a rehabilitation center. Remember, I told you it was like a hospital where doctors will help him sort things out.”
“His behavior . . . his mistakes,” Celeste said. “It’s kind of like when he used to see the counselor but this time he’s staying at a special health center until he gets better.” She’d answered the same questions repeatedly, which Celeste didn’t mind and Spencer’s therapist said was normal. The most important thing was to be patient and caring and respectful of his feelings.
“He’s there so the doctors can help him understand what he did wrong and how to change.”
Spencer pursed his lips into trumpet position while he digested this information. “Will he know where our new house is?”
“Sure he will,” she said, then added, “Everything’s going to be okay. I promise. You know that, right? You know you can completely trust me.”
Spencer mumbled, to himself or his pal Kathy; Celeste couldn’t make out the words.
“You ready?” She reached out to him. He closed his book and held her hand on the stairs and Celeste locked the door behind them, resisting a glance back once she’d turned away.
Excerpted from Clean Break by David Klein. Copyright © 2012 by David Klein. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.