First in the Series
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” ~Coco Chanel
My father would never have asked me to take a leave of absence from my job in New York City if he could have handled my sister’s wedding, and the “Jezebel” plotting to pre-empt it without me.
By default, I can fix anything. My name is Maddie, well, Madeira—not that my mother had to get drunk to conceive, she just had to learn to relax. I’m the polar opposite of my mother. I’m so relaxed that I act then I think. Mom and I came from different planets—neither of which is inhabited by my father. Dad lives on the planet Academia, a world best appreciated by other English Lit Professors who still use words like “Jezebel” without cracking a smile.
I’m the oldest of four and I’m about to face the ultimate wake up call. My youngest sister is getting married before me. Her name is Sherry. Don’t get me wrong. I love the brat. She’s the baby of the family who’s enjoyed every privilege attached to the title, which is partly my fault. For all intents and purposes, I became her mother when she was two, and I was ten, but who’s counting?
Yes, Sherry and my father need me, but I have a problem of my own. Sherry’s engagement has somehow embedded a prompt, like a pesky splinter, beneath the tender skin of my ticking body clock, hourly reminding me that I don’t have a life. Not that I need a man, mind you, just a life. A little forward momentum wouldn’t hurt either.
Speaking of which, the big-ass orange pimpmobile I rented sat in bumper to bumper traffic, me steaming with it.
The rising tide of my frustration calmed when the masts of Mystic Seaport’s Charles W. Morgan—the last American wooden whale ship—came into view, an icon calling me back to my roots.
I turned to my passenger. “I’ll save you!” we said together.
Eve Meyers and I have been friends since we toured the Charles Morgan in kindergarten. That day, I accidentally dropped my beautiful new red velvet purse into the water and dove in after it. Hey, it matched my jumper, and even at five, I was an impetuous fashionista.
On that tour, Eve had shouted, “I’ll save you!” and followed me into the briny deep.
Twenty three years later, she’s still saving me . . . mostly from myself.
Inching the pimpmobile forward as summer tourists crossed route twenty-seven to tour Mystic Seaport, I turned off the AC, powered down the windows, and let a bold sea breeze scramble my hair. “I love feeling free and alive behind the wheel of a moving—well—crawling vehicle.”
New Yorkers don’t own cars. Everything we need is a short walk away.
“I want a car,” I said.
Eve’s wild copper curls danced in the wind. “Big surprise. You’ve been threatening to leave ‘Bulimics R Us’ for months.” She understood my dissatisfaction with designing cutting edge outfits for praying mantis models. She’d been sharing my Manhattan apartment since she started her grad work in computer science at Columbia—a comfortable cohabitation soon to reach its inevitable end.
I sighed. “I’m not cut out to be a fashion designer, pun intended.”
“You’re a great designer,” Eve said, “but you suck at kissing up to the feral feline puppet master pulling your strings.”
I did a double take. “I’m taking that as a compliment.”
“You should, and while you’re home planning your sister’s wedding, you should think about what you want to be when you grow up, and whatever it is, consider putting yourself in the driver’s seat for a change. You know what Fiona says; 'We make our own magic'.”
Eve’s acuity called for another hundred-calorie cheesy fry from the box on the storage console between us. We each took one and raised them in a toast to her wisdom. In sync, we made the obscenely enthusiastic noises we’d created for great food or great sex—the former being the usual substitute for the latter.
“You’re right. It’s time,” I admitted. “I knew that.”
“Past time,” Eve said. “Indecision is not your style. Your twenty-ninth is looming and I’m moving back here to teach at UConn thanks to your dad.”
“My dad . . . the real problem.”
“Your dad is a problem? Since when? Harry Cutler is a mature, mild-mannered professor who makes coeds drool. If he raised his voice, I’d faint from shock.”
“Yeah, well, quiet disapproval is a heavy burden.” I sighed. “He paid big bucks for my degree in fashion design, and he’s proud of me. I don’t want to disappoint him.”
“Maddie Cutler, you could never disappoint your father. He’d be the first to tell you that life is too short not to be happy.” A lesson Dad learned the hard way.
After I crossed the Historic Mystic drawbridge, I turned right, after Mystic Pizza, and drove into the weedy parking lot of the huge, weather-worn building at the opposite corner of West Main and Bank. Doors and windows now cross-boarded, the building once housed the county morgue and finished life as a carriage house for the long-defunct Underhill Funeral Chapel.
“I love this place,” I said. “It has so much potential.”
“So you’ve often said, but stop salivating. It's a shack, not a vintage Versace.”
“I wonder what I could do with it.”
Eve gave me one of her horrified “I’ll save you” looks. “You can do nothing with it,” she said. “It’s spookarama, Mad, not a family problem you can fix with logic and love, nor a vintage outfit that you can bring to life with your own brand of magic.”
“You think I can work magic?”
Eve rolled her eyes. “On vintage clothes, yes. On shacks, no.”
Nevertheless, I couldn’t take my eyes off the place. Neither could I forget the recurring dream I'd had last night, because it always seemed to presage a significant change in my life. In it, I'm a toddler bouncing in my mother's arms and loving it. Mom and Aunt Fiona are laughing and dancing by the river at night, and singing nonsensical songs about the moon.
Change. “Eve . . . what would I do if I wasn’t a fashion designer?”
“Leave New York?”
“In a New York minute, which is all your fault.” I wagged a finger her way. “You spoiled me. I won’t like the Big Apple without you. Who’ll protect me from the worms?”
I started the pimpmobile and headed down West Main to the Phantom Coach Road and Mystick Falls, the close-knit community of my birth. The houses stood grander and farther apart than in Mystic’s historic district. Here, mature Victorian Ladies dressed in bright paint trimmed with wraparound porches, seasonally-vibrant flower beds, and lush sprawling lawns.
“You’re coming over to say ‘Hi’ to my dad before you go home, right?” I asked as I passed Eve’s parents’ house.
“I guess,” Eve said looking back.
Pulling into our long circular drive, I could barely find a place to park with so many cars out front. “Looks like dad’s got a houseful. I hope everything’s okay.”
“No worries,” Eve said, searching for the black bag she used to accessorize her Hell’s Angels jacket and combat boots. She pulled her head out of the car and slung the clunky canvas backpack over a shoulder. “It’s probably a get-together that your dad forgot to tell you about, again. There must be free food in the offing, too, because Nick’s here.” Eve winked. “Your Nick. Are you wearing your lucky panties?”
“Nick’s not mine,” I said, leaning over to grab my ‘Diamond in Bondage’ eighties disco bag by Mugler. “Nick’s a gift to womankind. If you don’t believe me, ask him.”
My on again/off again, Nick Jaconetti, and I have been toying with our charged relationship, like kids and fire, since junior high. Though we’ve both matured, our relationship has not, unless you count the way in which we now express ourselves, which can only be compared to rare flashes of spontaneous combustion.
A fixture at our house since the day I first brought him home, Nick is now my brother Alex’s FBI partner and might as well be a member of the family.
A rush of anticipation shot through me, and my face warmed at the thought of seeing him after so long. Annoyed with myself, I slammed the car door on my own insanity.
The next move should have been his, the toad, yet he’d been silent as a pond stump for months.
I decided to keep it cool. Give Nick the cucumber. Focus on coming home, I told myself.
I looked up at our renovated old stagecoach stop and tavern, a stoic two-hundred-and-fifty-plus-year-old Connecticut Yankee—depending on which section of the tri-structure you stood in—that had spent the better part of its life on the old Boston Post Road. Contrary to so many claims, George Washington did, indeed, sleep here. So did Benjamin Franklin. At different times, and early in their separate careers as land surveyors.
Amazingly, this is where I grew up, across the River from Mystic Seaport, where the old Yankee had been deposited early in the last century. I loved to look across the river at the historic village within the Seaport, its lighthouse and array of ships, including the Charles Morgan and a riverboat whose passengers never failed to wave.
The house welcomed me with a sunny windowpane wink—or a ghost walked by—hard to tell which. I'd been able to see our otherworldly inhabitants from the cradle, but the day my brother called me a liar for pointing one out, my mother took me aside.
She could see them, too, she said, but most people couldn't and wouldn't believe me, so they'd have to be our little secret, a bond I cherish to this day.
No, we had never lived here alone, but we did live in peace . . . more or less.