“I DON'T KNOW what happened, Ms. Garcia,” a student might say, holding up a vocabulary test marked in Amanda’s signature green pen. “It was like I’d never even seen the words before.” Amanda understands—words are tools; they can hurt you. First came Addiction. Irreconcilable. Divorce. Then, just as she got to Readjustment, came Chemotherapy. And, finally, Remission. Except it turned out to be partial remission. Her brainy, red-haired hematologist explained that with 60% of her cancer gone, Amanda can now consider it a chronic condition. Irony was everywhere, wasn’t it, when you taught English? (Amanda doesn’t say this is actually paradox.) Partial remission, concludes Dr. Ashby, will suffice. An old-fashioned word, suffice is a perennial on Amanda’s vocabulary tests. The Frost poem flashes through her mind. High-school juniors easily grasp his metaphors. Desire and hate, the end of the world, glow stark white in the black light of teen angst. Bitterly, Amanda remembers Ben’s desire for other women, and how she hated him. His epilepsy plus her cancer made an equation Ben couldn’t solve. Signing the decree dropped the curtain on the drama that was Ben. Detachment is neither kind nor unkind. If blowing up her marriage was the only way to save herself, she’d fight for the life she’s patched together. So, when the doorbell rings, Amanda ignores it. Bernina manual in hand, she’s ready to operate her magnificent, very expensive new sewing machine. Today, she’ll stitch out her embroidered center panel design for a quilt, using the new embroidery software. With a deep breath, Amanda presses start. She’s transfixed by the glossy green satin stitch forming a monogram against a sunny primrose. And the sunlight, shimmering on her sewing table in just the right spot, is pure poetry. Curving backward, the needle moves rapidly up and down. Amanda makes sure the unbleached linen from Cloth Dublin is perfectly stretched in the hoop, taut and smooth, sandwiched between stabilizers. When the Bernina pauses, she changes thread, to watermelon pink. The colors strike a harmony as her elaborate blooms and scrolls come to life, exactly as she’d hoped. Swallowing the last of her coffee, Amanda sighs with pleasure. She can almost hear her Saturday morning unfold with the joyful thump-thump-thump of a bolt of cloth about to be cut. A summer Saturday, too, with no papers to grade, no lesson plans to write. Suddenly, someone is banging on the door. Maybe it’s a gas leak or something. Amanda’s long legs make short work of her satiny wood floors. Without breaking stride, she flings her arms through her faded Michigan sweatshirt. No sense giving some city worker a free show, in her white tee and no bra. In the front hall, the banging grows louder. Now, she’s pissed. Before turning the door knob, Amanda catches her breath, taking a moment to stroke the glossy new paint. Aegean Teal. She smiles, savoring the pop of color. “Hey, Manda. It’s been a while.” Ben’s on her porch — as if the Bernina, still humming in her studio, had conjured him up. Six feet of trouble, from bedhead to boot scuffs. His sandalwood soap can’t disguise the stale beer, meaning he’s still a little drunk from last night. “It’s 8:45. Why are you here?” “I wanted to see you. Come on, Amanda. Please.” With new lines around his mouth and eyes, he’s too old for that boyish grin. Like the skinny pines across the street behind him, Ben sways a little. Maybe he’s drunker than she thought. “Did you take your meds, Ben? Did you?” Amanda’s seen him like this, just before a seizure. Pulling him inside, she searches his eyes — bloodshot, a little glassy — easing him to the sofa. “Nice place,” he mumbles, eyes closing. “Is that my sweatshirt?” “Ben? Your meds?” Maybe it’s not too late. He holds up the hem of his jacket, shakes the right pocket. Amanda finds the amber bottle. Depakote, same as before. She runs for some water. “Take this.” She watches him swallow. Sinking into the couch, Ben covers his face with his hands. “I didn’t mean it, Amanda. I just—” “It’s all right. Really.” She lays a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Then Ben gives a sharp cry, like a door slamming shut. His back arches, and he shakes, making small sounds. Amanda opens her phone’s stop watch. She leaves him leaning sideways, one leg touching the floor. At fifty-seven seconds, he’s quiet, breathing normally, and his body relaxes. He’ll probably wake up in twenty minutes, asking what happened. Laying her head on his chest, Amanda breathes him in. One beat. Two. Standing up, she remembers her last writing workshop: Don’t just say ‘She remembered loving him desperately.’ Let your character show us. Next fall, Amanda will add one section of Creative Writing, keeping three of AP English. How has your protagonist changed? She doesn’t tell students that in real life, people don’t learn from experience. Almost no one makes the hard choices that transform lives, and you might not be able to save the person you love. An ex might not stop drinking, or a close friend might stay with her no-good, cheating husband. Painstakingly, Amanda guides them toward the beauty in all their narratives. They might invent someone — might be someone — who pieces a life together after a rough childhood, stitching loving friends into a patchwork of family. Workshopping stories, Amanda often says people are complicated; that’s why we need fiction. The Bernina pauses again, with a message to change to blue thread. Resisting the urge to hang her head and cry, Amanda gathers herself, and presses start one final time. She looks up at the quilt on her design wall, at the vivid colors and shapes she’s cut and sewn into blocks, and the blank center space where her new monogrammed panel will go. She runs through some vocabulary, hoping to find an end in a beginning. Character. Irony. Denouement. Match each word to its definition. Pick up your pencils. Begin. — MADELEINE FRENCH
Madeleine French has been telling stories since she was a girl. A dedicated sewist and avid Janeite, Madeleine knows sometimes it’s okay to let a passionate impulse take over. Once, she actually dated a law student who approached her at a party in Ann Arbor and asked, “Do I know you?” They’re still married. She and Mr. Madeleine divide their time between Florida and Virginia.