Life holds out its little surprises. Our stories unfold sideways, backwards, upside down. In a single second truth can be shuffled like cards and scattered in all directions, never to be arranged the same way again. So it was with Cassandra Sales. At the moment she had her epiphany, she was kneeling in her garden surrounded by the exploding beauty of spring. Years of devoted attention to this garden had yielded absolute perfection, a feast of nature's botanical wonders.
Daffodils, egg yolk yellow, frolicked in a light wind off Long Island Sound less than a mile away. Hyacinths, blue, were heavy with moisture and fragrant beyond belief. Narcissi, hundreds of them in all manner of the palest pink, heavy cream, bisque, with touches of apple green and orange, also had an aroma to dream and rhapsodize about all year long. They nodded, too.
Now the tulips, the parrot kind, with ruffled feathers in pink and green. So thick, no earth could be seen below them. The beds were fully planted. There was no room for more. Above, a number of dogwood trees were in bloom. Two weeping cherry trees wept copiously by the front door. The whole garden enchilada on just over a half-acre plot. The place was a tiny gem.
Cassie's lifestyle was nowhere near as grand as her husband's business success as a top wine importer suggested it should be, and her house was nothing special either. It was just a step or two above the ordinary clapboard colonial, surrounded by thousands of similar two- and three-bedroom suburban dwellings of brick or shingle with two-car garages in old and pleasant neighborhoods on the North Shore of Long Island. It was her landscaping and gardens that put the property in an altogether different league from anything else around it. Everyone who went through the gate into the backyard felt the magic Cassie had brought to the place. An arbor was covered with roses all summer long. A small greenhouse contained an orchid collection that seemed continuously in bloom. A flagstone patio around the twenty-by-thirty in-ground pool had teak outdoor furniture and was artistically arranged with potted plants in decorative planters that changed with the seasons.
That day the fifty-year-old woman, who could have been anybody's relative, was kneeling all alone in a fine April drizzle wearing rubber boots, damp khakis, a sweatshirt, and a baseball hat. The garden, the unpleasant weather, her acute attention to detail despite it, her outfit, her mud-caked hands, and complete lack of vanity told her whole story. Almost.
The piece that didn't show was that turning fifty had driven her crazy as turning forty to forty-nine had not. Now she was looking at her life through a different prism and not liking what she saw. Her children were grown. Her husband, only five years older than herself, had an obsession with his business so intense, it seemed like an illness that robbed him of his old sense of fun and desire. He was limp morning and night. When she asked him what they could do about it, his finger would jump to his lips, "shhh," as if merely voicing the problem might blow them both away.
Although she'd never counted the days and months since last they'd tumbled around, giggling and panting in the sheets, on that rainy April day soon after she turned fifty, Cassie allowed herself to acknowledge it had been years. Years since a thrill! And her own real achievements didn't seem enough to pick up the slack. Here she was, secretly longing for passion and purpose, and what she was doing was cooking, growing orchids, and watching the Discovery Channel. She also read the newspapers and People magazine, caught the evening news programs and magazine format news shows. She followed the biographies on the Biography Channel and was a secret devotee of the nascent lives in The Real World on MTV. And the Survivors.
Cassie Sales saw all these lives and wished she could start over, have a job that paid her money instead of endlessly donating her gifts to causes like world hunger, whales, rain forests, refugees, battered women, child abuse, and cures for illnesses no one in her family had. She'd been very useful to others, donating her special gifts, but she was fifty and she'd had it.
Now she wanted to be beautiful again, like her daughter, Marsha, like her garden. She wanted to sparkle and dazzle, be flocked to by the birds and the butterflies and the bees that just didn't seem to come to her anymore. The longing to be seen by her husband and have fun was so intense, so fierce and relentless, it felt like unrequited love.
Was fifty that old? Was it? She knew perfectly well that fifty wasn't old. It was her problem that dazzle was gone. Other people way older than they were had sex every day. You saw it all the time on TV. Mitch wasn't old, he'd just fizzled out. The sudden longing for the birds and bees, after a dry spell of--Cassie didn't want to count the years--was everywhere in her dreams. She loved Mitch she was sure, but she was dreaming plane crashes, car crashes, a spectacularly fiery end to him absolutely every night. And she was dreaming love from other sources every single day. It had to be around somewhere. Other people were getting it. She fantasized burgeoning cocks in every man she saw. Young men, old men, nasty-looking men. Bald men, fat men, small men.
Everywhere burgeoning cocks. In the supermarket, in the bank. At doctors' offices. On the playing fields when she drove past the high school. When she was with her daughter, Marsha, in the city. No male was immune to her imagination. She thought about everybody. Everywhere. Something upsetting and unnatural happened to her when she turned fifty. Something snapped. She had no idea what it was. Suddenly she was tired of being sensible, of saving money, of being endlessly understanding and good about Mitch's languished desire. On the outside she was middle-aged, as predictable and conventional as a boiled potato, but on the inside she was beautiful, reckless, independent, a hard-drinking playgirl of twenty-three. Younger than those Sex and the City girls. She dreamed of death and youth in tandem.
In the misty moment of her epiphany, Cassie believed that she and her husband loved and were loyal to each other in the way that husbands and wives were supposed to love and be loyal. But quite frankly, she also wished he were dead so she could be a widow with all the pleasures that accrued to the state. A silly thought, she knew. Death wouldn't help her.
Years ago, before she and Mitch were married and before her mother got cancer and died, she and her mother had foraged one day for treasure in an antiques store for the perfect Valentine's Day gift for her father. And they found it in a dusty frame with bars standing out in bas-relief across the sepia photo of a female lion lying in a cage with a male lion standing protectively by her side. Under the ancient photo was the title: life sentence. The idea of no way out but death had amused them then. Seventeen years after her mother died, Cassandra's father still had it on his bedside table. He never remarried. After he died, Cassandra kept it on her own desk for seven more years. And all the time, her own face slowly squared off to look like the face of her dead mother, frozen just at the beginning of middle age, only a year older than Cassie was now. Cassie's own life sentence had no end in sight, nor did she really want it to. For her, simple divorce was out of the question and widowhood wasn't at all likely; her husband came from the old school and resisted everything. No, death or divorce wouldn't do. A real change in herself was required.
That fateful day in April, soon after crossing the chasm of fifty, Cassie saw beauty waving at her from the other side. In a split second she decided on the surgical overhaul, and there was no turning back. In a few short days she'd read every magazine and book on the subject and obtained a consultation with an upcoming plastic surgeon who had delusions of grandeur.
The artist in flesh was certain he could make her over as she had been as a blushing bride. On the enormous TV screen in his office he projected her as she had been with round cheeks, smiling lips, and wide, hopeful eyes. She'd been a beauty. The surgeon was as totally inspired by the youthful Cassie as Cassie was depressed to have lost her. He liked her spirit and her little plot. She wanted to have the procedures done while her husband was away on a business trip, to heal while he was gone, and to surprise the passion right back into him upon his return. Would that it were so simple. The confident surgeon, however, saw no flaws in the plan and agreed to fit her in quickly. She charged the surgery to American Express for the True Rewards. It all happened in the blink of an eye. Cassie never considered the possibility of unanticipated consequences.
A month later, at the end of May, seven days after her surgery, however, Cassie knew she'd made a truly appalling mistake. Her dos and don'ts folder said she would feel "mild discomfort" in her first two postop days. And "minor" swelling. Excruciating pain was what she felt and major swelling. The Time Line of Recovery in her Instructions for Aftercare predicted that she would feel entirely better after the first week and looking forward to total recovery and miraculous results.
Cassie was feeling worse and worse as the days went on. It was almost as if the great upcoming surgeon she'd chosen to turn her lights back On had made a little mistake and switched her power button to Off. She looked really terrible. Her eyes were so black-and-blue and swollen, she could hardly see a thing. Everything hurt. She couldn't eat because she wasn't allowed to open her mouth wide enough to chew. Worst of all, she didn't care about any of the things she used to care about: the skirmishes between the Democrats and Republicans, the latest in the abortion wars. The Middle East. Beauty. She was way, way down, depressed, angry.
And her beautiful, smart daughter, Marsha, now twenty-five, was no help in the reassurance department. Marsha was on vacation from social work school that week and had returned home to take care of Cassie, to drive her back and forth from her postop visits to the doctor, and so forth. Marsha turned out to be less supportive of the event than Cassie might have predicted, so the visit had taken on a surreal quality.
In her youth, Marsha had been something of a chore to her mother. As a teenager, she'd had every color hair possible. She'd worn slut dresses up to her butt from the age of twelve on. She'd stuck pieces of metal in her tongue and nose and eyebrow and navel, then protested angrily when anyone said something. She'd smoked pot in the backyard, crashed the Volvo station wagon into Cassie's favorite dogwood while trying to prove she could turn the car around in the driveway without benefit of driving lessons (when she was not yet thirteen) on the very first day Cassie had brought it home. She'd been caught in a neighbor's hot tub naked with three boys. For a number of years she'd weighed 170. She'd taunted her mother, worn army boots and grunge. She'd failed Italian. Twice. The girl got 1400 on her SATs, but school counselors thought she'd never make it to college. When she got to college, she constantly threatened to not make it through.
That completely loved and accepted girl (no matter what she did) had metamorphosed into the Marsha of today. Somehow she'd lost about 150 pounds. She was down to nothing at all. Her hair was no longer pink. Or green or purple. It was tawny. She was cooking. She was bathing wounds. She was cleaning the house. Sort of. She was fielding the phone calls from her mother's benefit-giving buddies, lying to cover for her so no one would know what an asshole her mother had been.
Marsha didn't want anyone to know how bad things were. She was screaming at the doctor because her mother's face looked as if it were rejecting itself. She was demanding attention and care, and she was getting it. She was scolding and nursing her own mother. She was a fierce and ferocious disapproving protector. It was downright weird. Their roles were completely reversed.
On the Friday, seven days after Cassie's surgery, at twelve noon, Cassie had the final stitches removed from her eyes. On the trip home she felt utterly defeated because the doctor had refused to remove the stitches located around and in her ears, as well as a myriad of staples hidden in her scalp. He'd told her they weren't done yet. What was she, a roasting chicken? She was further upset because she didn't look like anybody she'd ever seen in her whole life (least of all herself), and her face felt like somebody else's, too. The numbness in her cheeks and chin that no one had told her would occur in the first place persisted, and she was beginning to suspect that feeling in those areas might never return.
As soon as she got home, she climbed the stairs to her room and sat on the closed toilet seat in her bathroom completely demoralized. Mitch, who traveled a lot more than he was at home, was in Italy at the moment, blissfully unaware of her distress. As he was blissfully unaware of most everything. He was no doubt checking out the Nebbiolo grapes in Piedmont or the Sangiovese grapes in Tuscany, the short- or long-vatting of producers, haggling for prices or position in the distribution chain, and making money they never spent. She longed for and resented him in equal proportions. Marsha, who'd been uncharacteristically nice for a whole week, was now taking her new and stunning self back to social work school. In her defeated situation, Cassie couldn't help thinking that sometimes her daughter was just as annoying as a do-gooder as she'd been as a teenage nightmare. Cassie loved and resented her in equal proportions, too.
After all she'd been through, it turned out that she was going to be all alone with herself once again. And she'd become someone she detested with no reservations whatsoever.
"Here, Mom. This should cheer you up." Suddenly, Marsha appeared in the doorway with a soft pink tissue-wrapped package. "Come on, life isn't so bad. We all love you no matter how rotten you look. So what if you look like a fright for a while? Think of poor people. Think of what it would be like to be in prison, or maimed . . ." Marsha's voice trailed off as she lifted her shoulders in a delicate shrug.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Over His Dead Body by Leslie Glass. Copyright © 2003 by Leslie Glass. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.