Brianna has a history of complicated relationships. Is it her family legacy?
Freshly out of college and possibly in love, Brianna Bell, aka Bean, worries that she’ll never be able to have a normal relationship due to her screwy upbringing. Her parents form a perfect triangle: Mom, Dad, and her mother’s lover—who also happens to be her Dad’s twin sister. The animosity between the twins is a valley of landmines. When her mom, Maye, is threatened with a rare and possibly fatal illness, she begs Bean to help heal the rift between brother and sister. Reluctantly, Bean tries. But the more Bean finds out about her parents’ complicated history, the more she realizes how little she knows.
A story of love, longing, and family.
Trapped. Row twenty-two, center seat, Mexicana airbus roaring thirty thousand feet above the Earth. Occupying the window seat to my left is Joe Dude Laptop Junkie returning from his “vacay in Me-hi-co.” He’s blowing up digital aliens while rocking out to some heavy metal blasting from his earbuds, his elbow occasionally ramming my ribs. On the aisle: Miss Dorito-Smacking Everything’s-So-Cheap-I-Couldn’t-Stop-Myself who’s crammed the surrounding overhead compartments so full with her “deals” there’s no room for my backpack. She’s gabbing with her BFF sitting across the aisle. I offered to switch seats with one of them, but apparently they like their conversation spewing out for everyone to hear. I lift my face to the spray of cool air shooting from my vent. Miss Dorito Breath has mentioned to her BFF several times (for my benefit I’m sure) how chilly she is. But if she gets the aisle and the overhead compartment, and Laptop Junkie gets the window and the armrest, I get my vent.
I should be honest. If I weren’t afraid of being apprehended as a terrorist, I’d leap from my seat and start shrieking in tongues, or screaming nonsensical obscenities. Anything to relieve this pressure. But it’s not due to my current neighbors. They aren’t making a dent in the tornado of emotions whirling inside me.
I’m about to see my family.
I slip my itinerary from between the Sky Mall magazine and puke bag to check my arrival time. An hour and seventeen minutes left. I stare at my legal name at the top of the document: Brianna Cleo Bell. But nobody will be calling that for a while. Oh no. Once this plane touches ground, I’ll be back to being Bean. Please God, if you even exist, don’t let me revert along with the name change. Let me retain some shred of maturity.
I touch my fingers to my tongue. I can still taste Serena.
I sure didn’t see that coming.
We took off for Mexico as friends. Not even good friends. Our relationship consisted mostly of pulling weeds and hosing off aphids. (We both just graduated the apprenticeship program at UCSC’s garden, land of organic farming and agroecology studies.) And sure, I liked her all right, but she seemed, I don’t know, too emotionally stable for me? Then at our graduation potluck, she mentioned she was looking for someone to share the rent of the palapa she’d lined up in a place called Sayulita, and seeing as the three thousand dollars my dad gave me as a graduation present was burning a hole in my pocket, I thought, why not? My life was going nowhere.
When I told Mom that a friend and I were going to the small town of Sayulita, Mexico, for an undetermined amount of time, she was not enthused. She accused me of squandering my graduation money, of tagging along on Serena’s trip. Which of course was true. Not only had Serena already secured a job serving up “Real Fish Tacos” and “Talapia Mexicanos” at one of Sayulita’s prime tourist restaurants, she’d also enrolled in a local yoga class.
We were only five days into the trip when I got the call to come home. Serena was asleep, her soft cheek resting on my shoulder. I was thinking about how crazy it was that we’d made love. It was so out of the blue; we weren’t drunk or anything.
She was teaching me to play cribbage at the sturdy wooden table in our palapa. I was resistant. My mom loves to play games, and I’m not talking about the Hasbro kind. I’m talking the mess with your head kind, where a person thinks they know what’s good for you and goes about manipulating it to happen. Suffice to say, my childhood left me with a decided dislike of any kind of scheming. I crave truth, transparency.
Serena was wearing a green and blue sarong and had her curly black hair knotted on her head and huge gold hoop earrings in her ears. She’s exotic looking, her skin the color of toasted almonds, her eyes, accentuated by bold black eyebrows, are a brilliant green. Her lips are full and love to smile. As for me, I had on brick-red cargo shorts, a white bikini top, and my new favorite leather-strand choker with a small shell. Both of us were glowing from days at the beach and swimming in the warm, warm water. On the table next to the cribbage board was a brightly painted clay plate holding mango slices and jicama sprinkled with lime and chili powder. A balmy breeze was picking up on the ocean and blowing through the faded paisley cotton curtains over the sink. For some reason, we started cracking up about what you say when your hand contains a jack with the same suit as the start card: “One for his nob.” It’s stupid in retrospect, but at the time it was hilarious. The next thing I know she leaned across the table and kissed me on the lips. It was an awkward kiss because I didn’t expect it. I was reaching forward to move my peg and her lips brushed against mine just as I was settling back in my chair. But that brushing of lips ignited in me a blaze so strong that my body jumped into action before my mind had a chance to consider if it was prudent to have sex with someone with whom I’d signed a month’s lease. I dropped my cards, pushed the mango and jicama out of my way, and crawled up over the table for more. Then everything went crazy. We started pulling off each other’s clothes, stumbling from the table to my bed by the wall. I was kissing her eyes, her neck, her small breasts. She had her legs locked around my waist and was tugging at my hair, nipping and sucking my ears.
I’ve had sex with friends before. A lot actually. Some friendships survive it. Some don’t. But one thing is always true. It leaves me feeling unsatisfied, like a dry, tasteless carob bar, making the next morning, if I even spend the night, rather awkward. This was different. It was rich, sweet, creamy, dark chocolate sex that left me simultaneously buzzed and wasted. Serena was amazing—is amazing—and as I lay there listening to the ocean waves slapping against the sand, her sleeping cuddled in my arms, I thought I might love her.
At some point I must have fallen asleep because I woke to the sound of my phone’s ring tone. I pried myself out of bed and padded across our small palapa, hoping to turn it off before it woke Serena. I fumbled around until I found the phone in the pocket of my cargo shorts. When I glanced at the readout I knew I had to pick up.
“I’m sorry to be calling so early,” Aunt Jen said, her voice all business. “But it’s about your mom.”
I was immediately suspicious. Mom loves drama, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my twenty-three years of life, it’s to hold out jumping onto her drama-mobile until I’ve heard all the facts.
Serena sat up in bed, her mango-scented breasts exposed. “Everything okay?”
“Don’t know,” I mouthed then turned my back to her. What can I say? I’m not good at multi-tasking.
“She’s come down with something serious and it seems to be getting worse,” Aunt Jen continued.
A gecko dropped from the wall onto the kitchen counter.
“You need to come.”
I pull my backpack from beneath the seat in front of me and rummage through it for the slip of paper where I wrote down what Mom’s got. It’s got some weird French name that I keep forgetting. Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I’ve never even heard of it. Which is just like Mom to get something no one’s ever heard of. In the airport I did a little research on the Web and learned that it causes temporary paralysis for up to two weeks—and that it can kill a person if the paralysis moves into the respiratory system. Which is the worry with Mom. She’s on day four and supposedly can’t move her arms and legs at all. Aunt Jen said it all started with Mom getting one of her sinus infections. Now she’s in the ICU.
I swear, if this turns out to be one of Mom’s fake-outs I’m going to kill her myself.
Aunt Jen made the six-hour drive from Santa Cruz to Shasta two days ago.
Of course she would. She’s still in love with Mom. That’s my opinion. For all I know, Dad’s still in love with her too. He’s dated other people. So has Aunt Jen. So has Mom, for that matter. But somehow none of their dates ever lives up.
No wonder my love life has such a disappointing history. It’s in my genes.
I rub my tired face. Did I remember to brush my teeth? Everything this morning happened so fast: getting the call, barely catching the bus to the airport in Puerto Vallarta, getting on the standby list, a seat, and now flying thousands of feet above the earth and breathing fake air.
Dad and I are meeting up at the airport in Redding, California. His flight from Philly arrives about the same time as mine. This is going to be so weird. Mom must have made Aunt Jen call him. Actually, knowing Aunt Jen, she e-mailed. But the fact that Dad agreed to come is mind-blowing. He hasn’t been in the same room with Aunt Jen for fifteen years. They despise each other.
It’s the family geometry. Begin with a love triangle. Not the kind you usually hear about, because those aren’t true. Those are love Vs, because two of the points never connect. Maybe the lover and the betrayed one stand awkwardly across the room from each other at a party or pass each other on the street, but the thing that draws them together is hate, not love. Mom, Dad, and Aunt Jen make a true love triangle. That final line between lover and betrayed one is connected by blood. Mom’s lover, Aunt Jen, is Dad’s twin sister.
Mom says there was a time when the Bell twins were freakishly close. Indeed, Jake and Jen Bell look so similar it leads one to wonder if a boy and a girl can’t be genetically identical. They are both tall and angular with walnut-colored hair and penetrating hazel eyes. Mom loves them both. She also feels guilty that she came between them.
Aunt Jen will say she isn’t the one who came between Mom and Dad; it was Dad’s drinking, but I know she feels guilty too.
Which brings me to the next geometric shape: the square. This is where I come in. I’m situated in the corner between Mom and Aunt Jen with Dad clear across on the other side. True, I’m genetically closer to Dad, but Mom and I moved from Philly to live with Aunt Jen in Santa Cruz, California, when I was only eight, so I have only vague memories of him as a father. I never get the feeling that Mom wants to get back with him, but there’s some deep connection between Mom and Dad that makes Aunt Jen a little crazy.
At least Mom and Aunt Jen aren’t together anymore. That should make a difference to Dad. Right after I graduated from high school their relationship blew apart. Mom moved six long hours up the state of California to Shasta. Aunt Jen stayed in Santa Cruz, as did I, only I moved up the hill to the UC Santa Cruz campus and stayed so busy I didn’t have much time for any of them.
I turn toward Miss Dorito and tap her on the arm as she’s chatting it up with her BFF across the aisle. “Excuse me.”
She twists around in her seat and takes me in through her beady, overly made-up eyes.
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
She sighs at the imposition then heaves herself up out of row 22. Now the only obstacle is the seat directly in front of me, which is fully reclined. After a bit of contortion, I extricate myself and head down the aisle.
Once inside the claustrophobic wash station, I go through the motions of peeing, even though barely anything comes out, then sit there a few seconds imagining my pee falling to earth in one of those blue ice balls and crashing into someone’s living room. I get up, splash water on my face, and stare at myself in the mirror. I definitely resemble Mom’s side of the family, the Parfreys: small but strong, kind of scrappy-looking actually, with wavy blond hair, and a mouth almost too big for my face when I smile. Mom’s and my looks differ when it comes to our eyes. We both have the same color, gray-blue, but hers have this perpetual soft focus as if she’s gazing at auras instead of concrete matter. Which may be true. When she remembers an event, she never has a clue what anyone was wearing or where the event took place, but she can recount, accurately, everyone’s emotional state. Whereas my eyes fix on their target. I’ve been told I could stare down a skyscraper.
I lean over the sink and shake my head hoping to free some of yesterday’s sand. The seawater gluing my short curls together makes it look like I’m trying for dreadlocks. (Yah, mahn.) My favorite turquoise “Question Reality” T-shirt, which gives me that extra-tan sheen and brings out the blue in my eyes, is rumpled, but I don’t care. I wore it to remind me of yesterday. Anything to help me hold on to the life I’ve created for myself.
Walking down the caterpillar tube that connects the plane to the terminal, my anxiety hits epic proportions. Seeing Dad is always so difficult. The last time was when he flew out for my graduation a few weeks ago. Of course he didn’t actually attend the event. He couldn’t do that; Aunt Jen was going to be there. He just flew in, took me to dinner, gave me three-thousand dollars, and flew home.
I took him to my favorite Greek restaurant, and over lamb souvlaki, freshly baked pita bread dipped in tadziki, and a massive Greek salad with feta and olives, we talked politics—a subject normal families avoid. He liked Obama all right, but he loved the blue-collar Joe Biden. We also talked briefly about my future, a topic that makes me want to break out in hives. He was curious what a person did with a degree in Environmental Studies. Eager to avoid the discussion of my employment plans (I had none), I told him about my work in agroecology and sustainable farming, how this was the wave of the future. “It has to be,” I said. “We’re running out of resources.” But even as I said this, I knew Dad would be just as happy eating at MacSquander’s or Waste King. To his credit, he tried to look enthusiastic and wished me luck, then we moved on to movies we’d seen.
The three thousand bucks was shocking. He’s always given me money for birthdays and such, but usually just fifty bucks. Mom said the money was because he feels guilty for not being more a part of my life and that he’s trying to make amends. Then again, she gave me an IOU for “something special” she’s making me. What does that mean? Aunt Jen’s was the only gift from my family that didn’t need deciphering: a newly refurbished iBook. It was a great gift, and so her. She can’t imagine anyone getting through life without a state-of-the-art computer. It’s in my backpack right now as I walk through the crowded terminal.
I can’t stop imagining this place from a bird’s-eye view. It’s like we’re all on a game board—one with multiple paths we must negotiate, each one leading to a different fate. Do you follow the flock? Strike out on your own? Or go charging down the hall waving your arms like a chicken?
Great. I haven’t even seen Dad yet and already I’m jumping out of my skin.
I head past the security checkpoint into the un-secure area of the airport. (Or should I call it insecure?) I spot Dad. As usual, he’s towering over everybody. He’s dressed in his casuals: khaki trousers and a crisp, light blue, short-sleeved button-down.
He sees me and waves.
There’s no going back now. Like it or not I’m heading into the complicated jigsaw puzzle of my family. The problem is there’s no box with a picture on the front, so there’s no telling what it’s supposed to look like. What’s more, there are pieces missing. They’ve been swept under rugs, kicked under the sofa, caught in the cuff of a pant leg and transported to who knows where.
I take a deep breath and break away from the crowd. “Hey, Dad.”
Henderson has a way with oddball families. Her previous novel, “Spanking New”, (narrated by a fetus) mixed gay and straight folks anticipating the arrival of a feisty, gender-curious newborn.
In this well-wrought novel about a young woman’s uncommon upbringing, narrator Brianna is called home from a vacation—and newfound lesbian love—when her mother falls ill. Also brought to mother Maye’s bedside: Brianna’s long-gone father, Jake, who has been estranged from his daughter ever since Maye fell in love with Jake’s twin sister, Jen—who Jake hasn’t spoken to in years—and “Aunt Jen,” who was Brianna’s second mom but who has since moved on.
All in all, it’s an uneasy reunion of an unorthodox family, further complicated by a shocking adolescent secret that Jake has been keeping from Jen for decades. The novel’s serious subject matter—shattered families, religious fundamentalism, emotional instability—is balanced nicely by Henderson’s flair for lighthearted prose that carries the narrative without undercutting the serious issues she explores.
Sam Martino, Out in New Jersey
Maye’s Request is simple; she wants the healing process to begin for herself and her family, but like all processes, it’s not going to happen overnight. It is after all, a process, and at the moment Maye is hospitalized with a severe illness, and is unable to speak or move, her prognosis is grim.
Like all humans, Maye has had her fair share of successes and failures, but the one success and constant is her daughter Brianna Bell, aka “Bean” who has just arrived in Mexico and is about to embark on a new relationship with the girl of her dreams, until her trip is cut short.
Jen and Jake are twins, but unlike some twins, the only thing they have in common is Maye. Now with the two of them forced to come face to face at Maye’s bedside, the twins can either deal with their deep-seated issues, or continue on their path of denial. Guess which path they choose?
Clifford Henderson takes the reader on a frightening journey of physical, emotional and spiritual illness to a place of love, enlightenment, healing and forgiveness. There are times in this story that will be difficult to read, but you will feel no choice but to continue because the writing gently nudges you forward to come out the other side, hopefully unscathed.
Maye’s Request is Clifford Henderson’s third novel, and like the others before, she continues to excite, enthrall and entice.
Bibliophilic Book Blog
I read this sweet and heartbreaking story in one sitting. Bean has no idea of the depth of the rift between her parents – all three of them. Bean’s mother, Maye, fell in love with Jake Bell and later with his twin sister Jen. Now that Maye’s illness (Guillain–Barré syndrome) has brought them all back together, will the time together heal the rift or only rend them further apart? The story splits between the present and the twins’ past giving the reader the full picture of how the relationships formed and fractured. Unfortunately, Bean was caught in between. I truly laughed out loud at some passages and cried at others. A beautifully written and touching story of love, healing, family, and truth. Ms. Henderson has made me an instant fan!