A heart-rendering tale of friendship, struggle, and devotion that speaks to the intimacy and power of even the subsidiary relationships in one’s life…
by: Carolynn Kingyens
Nancy began seeing Dr. Alan Welner, a cognitive behavioral therapist, three years ago, shortly after her husband asked for a divorce to marry his pregnant mistress, a woman twenty years her junior.
The pregnancy felt like the biggest betrayal of all since her husband, of twenty years, always claimed he didn’t want children. She married him knowing a no children policy was part of the packaged deal. She’d theorized to Dr. Welner that financial stability was more important to her than having children. But by the age of thirty-nine, her whole body had longed for a baby, and ached in places she’d felt only a child could quell. By forty-two, she’d adopted a Yorkshire terrier and named her Sonora, a name she’d chosen for her would-be daughter.
Her ex-husband agreed, through their lawyers, to give Nancy first pick of their four homes — the English Tudor in Greenwich, the beach house in Montauk, the chalet in Aspen, or the Upper East Side apartment in New York. For Nancy, it could only be New York. Her friends thought she was crazy.
“Pick Montauk,” said Liz.
“No, go with Greenwich, then you’ll still be my neighbor,” interrupted Sylvia.
The city that never sleeps had always appealed to Nancy, who’d often struggled with insomnia. She could slip into her favorite diner at 3 AM, read for a while before catching the sunrise in Central Park. She was free to be who she was.
Nancy also liked the feeling of anonymity, of disappearing in a sea of strangers. She didn’t have to worry about those awkward run-ins anymore with old acquaintances, who’d always given her a look of pity. Her ex’s generous alimony afforded her all the financial stability she’d ever wanted, or needed. But Nancy, at thirty, was not the same Nancy at fifty-three. She couldn’t stop ruminating the what if’s.
She was lonely, too. As much as she hated her ex-husband, he was good company. He made her laugh, and was great in bed. Her life had become a tumbleweed of regrets. Nancy began to experience what Dr. Welner called “suicide ideation.”
While waiting for the A train at West 4th Street one day, Nancy debated jumping in front of the train at the precise moment it approached the station. She’d likened herself to a huge cicada when hitting the windshield. First, the sound of the splat, then the guts and gore, blood and bodily fluids everywhere. But before Nancy took a step forward, the thought of a child witnessing her messy death had stopped her in her tracks.
Nancy looked around, and saw that there were several children on the same subway platform as herself. On her left, was a cute toddler sitting in his stroller eating from a small bag of goldfish crackers while simultaneously swinging his leg to an imaginary tune. On her right, stood a little girl with curly, black hair who was holding onto her mother’s hand. She’d occasionally look up at Nancy and smile.
Standing directly behind Nancy was a young mother who was gently cradling the vulnerable spot at the back of her newborn’s head as she slept peacefully in a BabyBjorn carrier, strapped to the new mother’s generous chest.
Nancy quickly terminated the ideation for the moment. Just then, the A train whizzed by, the loud sound of its brakes braking enveloping her. Nancy’s blonde, wavy hair whipped frantically about her head. Not today, she’d thought to herself.
Nancy was still attractive, and could easily pass for a decade younger than her fifty-three years. And like Stella, she, too, wanted her groove back. The first thing a scorned woman must do, to get her groove back, was cut her hair, and Nancy was no exception. She had her long, blonde hair cut into a short, stylish shag.
Next, she traded in her brightly-colored, Lilly Pulitzer wardrobe for one that consisted of mainly black clothing. The patron color of perpetual sadness seemed to resonate more with the new Nancy.
Nancy had run into her upbeat neighbor, Allison, and her four-year-old daughter, Oona, in the lobby of their co-op building, located across the street from Central Park. Mother and daughter had just left the park in time for Oona’s afternoon nap when they ran into Nancy while walking Sonora.
Oona loved Sonora, and was surprisingly gentle with the frail-looking dog with its missing front teeth, slight limp, and god-awful breath. Out of all the residents in their upscale building, Nancy was the friendliest with the single mother and her beautiful daughter with the jade-colored eyes. Maybe it was because she’d always had a soft spot for children. But Nancy had also felt a comradeship with Allison, although their stories couldn’t be more different. Where Nancy had married into money for financial stability, Allison had earned it. She’d gotten her Masters degree in finance, then later became a chief financial officer at an esteemed investment bank, pulling in a big salary to support herself in one of the most expensive U.S. cities, second to San Francisco.
Just like Nancy, Allison’s body began to long for a baby. At forty-one, she’d gotten pregnant via a sperm donor, and had given birth to a baby girl, whom she named after the daughter of American playwright, Eugene O’Neill. Allison loved to write, and thought about getting an MFA in creative writing, but had abandoned those aspirations for a more sensible, high-paying career. Allison sometimes second-guessed her decision.
“Hi, Nance,” said the bubbly Allison, who’d walk with a slight bounce.
Just then, Oona bent down, and began to pet Sonora on the top of her head as the dog panted in the little girl’s face.
“Well, hello there,” said Nancy as they greeted each other in the lobby.
“What are you doing right now? Do you want to come up to our apartment? Oona’s about to go down for a nap, and we can catch up over some wine,” Allison suggested.
Nancy thought that sounded nice. Allison had a large terrace that faced the east side entrance of the park. She liked to sit out there whenever she was cat sitting Otis, Oona’s big, orange tabby cat. Nancy was the only one whom Allison trusted with the keys to her apartment, and was her designated cat sitter. Allison would repay the favor by watching Sonora whenever Nancy had to go out of town, which wasn’t often.
“Sounds great,” Nancy replied, “Let me drop off Sonora, and then I’ll meet you at your place.”
Nancy’s apartment was five floors below Allison’s, who had way better views of the city. Her apartment was painted in neutral colors, except for Oona’s bedroom. Allison had hired a professional artist to paint a mural of the Central Park Zoo on one of the walls. Oona loved to visit the two “barking” seals that lived in a gigantic pool near the front entrance of the zoo. Their playfulness reminded her of puppies. And Oona loved puppies.
Nancy pushed the small round doorbell and could hear the echo of its chime.
“Hello, Ms. Nancy,” said Oona.
Nancy immediately looked down after hearing a little, sweet voice.
“Hello, sweetheart. I have a little gift for you.” Nancy reached down into her purse, and pulled out a stuffed animal puppy that was black and white with a pink ribbon on its head. Oona’s sparkling green eyes grew extra big with excitement.
“Thank you, Ms. Nancy,” she said before giving her a hug. She cherished every one of Oona’s hugs, and would often breathe in the apple scent of her hair. How she longed for a daughter like Oona.
Just then, Allison appeared in the doorway holding two wine glasses, one in each hand, filled to the rim with merlot.
“Oona-girl, it’s time for your nap,” said Allison as she handed Nancy one of the glasses of wine.
Oona turned and gave Nancy one more hug, before skipping off to her bedroom with her new stuffed animal she’d immediately named “Oreo.”
Nancy had noticed that Allison’s hand began to tremble while holding her glass of wine. She looked around and saw that her apartment was a mess. There was unfolded laundry on the sofa, scattered toys and paperwork on the floor. Dishes were piled high in the sink. Allison usually kept her apartment clean and tidy.
“Hey, do you want to sit out on the terrace? It’s such a beautiful day.”
Nancy nodded in agreement.
Once outside, Nancy followed Allison over to the brick ledge, and they both looked down at the street below.
“Thirty floors down is a colossal fall. I’d imagine it’s one big splat, then perfect peace. I don’t think I’d feel any more pain,” said Allison.
Nancy turned and looked at her. For a moment, she thought she’d caught a vacancy behind her eyes, a sort of glassy gaze. It concerned her. But it was just a flash, before bubbly Allison re-emerged.
“So I think I found the perfect guy for you. He’s our HR director. His wife passed away about a year ago. The rumor around the office is that he’s on Tinder. What do you think?”
Nancy shook her head no.
“I have no interest in dating anyone right now. You know I’m still not over Bill.”
“But he’s over you,” snapped Allison, before quickly apologizing.
“I’m sorry, Nance. I don’t mean to sound insensitive. It’s just you still have some good years left, and you seem to be wasting time on a ghost. He’s long gone. Better to accept it, and move on.”
Allison grabbed at her hair in mild frustration, before saying, “I can’t stand weakass, wishy-washers.”
Nancy began to feel a little uncomfortable.
“I should be going now. I just remembered that I have an appointment with Dr. Welner in an hour,” lied Nancy.
Allison apologized again, and awkwardly tried to hug Nancy over the small, terrace table where they were having their wine. In the process, Allison’s chair fell backwards, making a loud clanging sound.
Allison, now feeling badly, walked around the table to where Nancy was standing and for a moment they’d locked eyes before Allison leaned in and kissed her. After the initial surprise, Nancy just let go, and went with it, enjoying the kiss. It had been three years since Bill had kissed her or touched her, and Allison was a good kisser. But Nancy pulled away first before Allison apologized again.
“I’m so sorry, Nance.”
“It’s really okay, Allison.” Nancy said, reassuring her. “It was sweet.”
“I don’t know why I did that. It just seemed like the right thing to do in the moment.”
“I better go,” she replied.
As Nancy was walking out, she’d noticed a bunch of orange pill bottles on the kitchen counter.
The next few days, Nancy kept subconsciously touching her lips, thinking about Allison’s soft kiss. They’d become friends when Allison and Oona moved into her building shortly after Nancy’s divorce three years prior. Oona was one years old at the time, and she loved Sonora at first sight.
Soon after meeting, Allison had surprised Nancy with two tickets to see Alanis Morissette at the Beacon Theatre, where both women would stand up with the crowd, before belting out the lyrics to “You Oughta Know.” Caught up in the rapturous moment, it felt like she was screaming at Bill, shifting the power from him back to her again, and it felt damn good:
‘Cause the love that you gave that we made
Wasn’t able to make it enough for you
To be open wide, no
And every time you speak her name
Does she know how you told me
You’d hold me until you died
‘Til you died, but you’re still alive
For Christmas that year, Nancy had bought Allison a leather-bound journal with her initials, AW, embossed in gold on the front cover, along with an expensive fountain pen. She knew Allison loved to write, and thought she could start off the new year writing in her own personal journal. There had always been a mutual respect between Nancy and Allison, and lots of laughter and, of course, a shared love for Oona. Allison was like a younger sister Nancy never had.
Nancy texted Allison before she left for a planned visit with Sylvia, her good friend and previous Greenwich neighbor.
Going to Sylvia’s for the weekend, bringing Sonora along. Let’s do dinner sometime next week – my place or yours, either one is fine with me. Give my sweet Oona a big hug from Sonora and me. See you both soon. ❤️
She brought Sonora along as she knew her friend wouldn’t mind. Sylvia, unlike Nancy, was born into wealth. Her property consisted of tennis courts, an infinity pool, and a separate guest house where she and Sonora would stay whenever they’d visit Sylvia. It was there that she got the news. She’d heard banging on the front door. Nancy opened it and saw a worried-looking Sylvia standing in front of her.
“Turn on CNN right now,” she urged.
“Why? What’s going on?” Nancy asked, thinking the country was under attack like on 9/11.
Sylvia turned on the television and both women saw a pretty, blonde reporter standing in front of Nancy’s co-op building with a pained expression on her face. Yellow police tape could be seen behind where the reporter was standing, which looked to Nancy like the east side of her building.
“It happened about an hour ago. What we know right now is that a mother jumped from her thirtieth floor terrace while holding her four-year-old daughter. They are both deceased. The police are not releasing their names until they notify the family.”
Nancy’s heart began to sink under the weight of what if. It couldn’t have been Allison and Oona, she kept thinking to herself. Just then, Sylvia said out loud what Nancy had been thinking:
“You don’t think it’s Allison and Oona?”
“Allison adores that child. She would never—”
But every time Nancy would close her eyes, she’d see brief flashes of Oona’s smiling face just like Brad Pitt in the movie Seven, after he learned that his beloved wife was murdered by a self-righteous psychopath.
“Why don’t you call someone in your building?” suggested Sylvia.
“Where’s my phone?” Nancy asked, beginning to worry.
Sylvia handed Nancy her phone from the bottom of her purse. She began to frantically scroll through her list of contacts until she stopped at Ginny Macon. Ginny was their building’s resident gossip. She had the lowdown on everyone. No one escaped her radar.
Nancy clicked on her number. During each subsequent ring, she began to internally plead to a higher power:
Please, God, don’t let it be them.
Please, God, don’t let it be them.
Please, God, don’t let it be them.
“Hello,” said the slight, southern voice at the start of the fourth ring.
“Hi Ginny, this is Nancy from the twenty-fifth floor. I’m in Greenwich visiting a friend, and we see on CNN that something happened in our building today. Do you know who died?” asked Nancy.
“It’s dreadful, dear,” said Ginny. “It’s that unstable mother you pal around with and her little girl. She jumped with the baby in her arms, and both have died.”
“No!” Nancy shrieked, before falling to her knees. Sonora limped over, and began to lick Nancy’s face. Sylvia shooed the dog away, before scooping Nancy up in her arms as they rocked back and forth in unbelievable grief.
The next few days were a blur.
The day after the memorial service, the superintendent had let Nancy and Sylvia into Allison’s apartment and told Nancy to take all the time she needs. Unbeknownst to Nancy, Allison had listed her as a next of kin. Allison, for all intents and purposes, was a mystery.
Nancy began to walk from room to room, looking for clues as to what would drive Allison to do the unspeakable. The Allison she’d known would’ve never hurt Oona. She loved that child deeply, or so it seemed. Nancy found a bunch of medications in the kitchen cabinet, above the sink, including Lithium and Lamotrigine. She’d Googled the medications, and learned they were mood stabilizers, most likely for a bipolar diagnosis.
Nancy took a few items with her, including “Oreo,” the black and white stuffed puppy she’d given to Oona the last time she’d seen her alive. Other items included photo albums and Allison’s journal that she’d given her some time ago. Nancy decided to take in Otis, Oona’s cat, to Sonora’s dismay. Otis had provided some connection to the child, however slight.
In regards to Allison, Nancy would vacillate between intense love and extreme hatred. This caused her cognitive dissonance. She had began seeing Dr. Welner several times a week, working through the stages of shock, grief, and feelings of betrayal. Nancy was still in the shock stage, and hadn’t fully grasp what Allison had done. It would take time.
After the tragedy, Nancy’s ex-husband had allowed her to switch residences from the Upper East Side apartment back to the English Tudor in Greenwich. What if she’d gone with Sylvia’s choice all along? Would that had made a difference? Would Allison and Oona still be alive? These were the new thoughts ruminating in Nancy’s mind.
Before Nancy left New York for Greenwich, she’d stopped by the Central Park Zoo to say goodbye to the seals, for Oona. Everything she did, moving forward, would be for Oona, the little girl she’d wished was her own.
Nancy would go on to create several scholarships in Oona’s name at her private Montessori preschool, and make annual donations as well to the Central Park Zoo and local ASPA. Oona’s preschool would even go on to name their new playground in her honor.
Nancy spent her evenings reading Allison’s journal with Otis curled up at her side, and Sonora curled up at her feet. Allison was a gifted writer, filling most of the gold-lined pages with witty anecdotes and observations on her “Oona-girl,” her job, creative aspirations and even Nancy, at times. But she’d noticed a change in Allison’s writing towards the end of her journal, a disconnect of voice, perhaps. It was as if two different people had written the same journal.
The day before their deaths, Allison had written a short poem:
The wind howls
my hollow places.
Nancy closed the journal.
Carolynn Kingyens’ debut book of poetry, Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound (Kelsay Books), can be ordered through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Greenlight, Book Culture, Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop and McNally Jackson. In addition to poetry, Carolynn writes narrative essays, book reviews, micro/flash fiction, and short stories. She resides in New York with her husband and two amazing daughters.