As a founding member of what the Oregonian has dubbed Portland’s “hottest writing group” (members include Chuck Palahniuk, Chelsea Cain, Lidia Yuknavitch, Monica Drake and Cheryl Strayed), Suzy Vitello’s name has graced the acknowledgement pages of many a book. Her own award-winning writing has appeared in Mississippi Review, Plazm, and other journals. She holds an MFA from Antioch Los Angeles, and when she’s not writing novels, does freelance copywriting, editing and teaching. The Moment Before (Diversion Books) is her debut novel, and a second novel, The Empress Chronicles, will be out at the end of summer 2014. Suzy lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Kirk, and son Carson. Find out more about her on her website.
The Moment Before zooms up close to the life of a family after the death of one of their children. The filter for the book is the other child in the family–the younger sister, Brady, who at seventeen is battling the usual obstacles faced by a quiet teen who is more artsy than outgoing. Moment has also been selected by the Junior Library Guild as an older teen book for 2014.
Brady and Sabine Wilson are sisters born eleven months apart, but they couldn’t be more different. 17-yr old Brady is an artist, a bit of a loner, and often the odd-girl out. Her older sister, a senior, is the center of attention at Greenmeadow High. After Sabine dies in a horrific cheerleading accident, grief unravels Brady and her family. Suddenly an only child, Brady finds herself questioning the value of everything she once held dear. Her best friend betrays her. Her parents’ marriage is crumbling. And Connor, the boy everyone blames for the accident, seems to be her only ally in the search for answers in the wake of her sister’s death. With Connor’s help, Brady uncovers a truth that nobody wants to believe.
Chapter Six (excerpted from The Moment Before)
© Suzy Vitello 2014
The summer before my freshman year, after Sabine’s first year of high school, Dad had a midlife crisis. In family therapy we refer to that summer, three years ago, as Johnsaffair. As if the entire season, the June, July, August of it had been replaced by a ninety-day month called Johnsaffair. An anomaly, like a leap year that only happened once. But Mom will not let it go. Nothing in our house has been the same since.
The woman who had a starring role in Johnsaffair was a fitness model for Nike, where Dad and pretty much everyone in suburban Portland work. She was seventeen years younger than Dad, but without makeup she was plain, sort of mannish. Her golf game was better than Dad’s, and she was a ranked tennis pro. Her name was Natalie.
When Mom found some weird receipts in Dad’s wallet, he confessed right away. I can still hear the scream that came out of the kitchen that night. The shrill piercing of a cat being squashed by a linebacker wearing an army boot. Sabine and I were watching The Bachelor reruns in the family room, and then all hell broke loose. Casserole dishes against cupboards. An entire closet of sports jackets flung out the front door. Mom and her Italian temper. Dad’s car keys hurled against the big living room window and the spider crack that happened because of it.
Sabine came over to my La-Z-Boy and we squished in together like kittens, while above us, a flurry of angry words.
Mom’s voice: Never. Fucking. Believe.
Dad’s voice: The girls, Sonia.
Mom’s voice: Get used to it.
Dad’s voice: Talk. Love. Calm.
Mom’s voice: Out. Never. Don’t think that.
Dad’s voice: Reason. Work this out. For the best.
Mom’s voice: Cheat. Lies. Dead.
And on it went, Sabine and I quiet until she said, “I knew about it.”
I still didn’t know what they were fighting about. I thought maybe Dad had lost money in the stock market, or something was wrong with Nona and Dad had been insensitive. But they’d never fought this way before. “About what?”
“Natalie,” she said. “I saw them out together. They didn’t see me. But I saw them, you know, kissing.”
“Natalie? Who’s Natalie?”
“Dad’s girlfriend. His lover.”
The word lover rolled off my sister’s tongue like a foreign thing. As though she’d said Amiga, over pronouncing it with a fake accent.
“Mom’ll kick him out,” Sabine said. “I know it.”
That night was like when I was eight, the only girl in second grade who still believed in Santa. Cathi Serge set me straight on the jungle gym when I asked her if she’d written her letter to Santa Claus yet. The steely hard truth clunking down from a cloud to smash the fancy dream apart. “Oh, Brady, you don’t still believe, do you?”
That early June night, it was another betrayal. My parents had other lives besides being parents. My heart felt pried open; moths flew out. I put my hands over my ears like the “hear no evil” monkey as the crashing and shouting and sobbing above us continued into the night. Sabine put her arm around me. We tugged Nona’s black afghan tight around us, making an Irish twin cocoon, my fingers and toes crossed for luck.
Our little beach house is slicked with moss when we get there late Friday afternoon. That’s what I notice before anything else. A green slime coating glows from the wood steps and the deck that wraps around the cottage. The ancient iron gate to the hot tub, styled with four daisies on top—one for each of us—hangs off of a hinge. A pool of rust marks the concrete beneath it. My parents sigh in tandem as we pull to a stop in the drive.
Thick, salty fog hugs the house, and us, as we make our way inside, lugging overnight bags and groceries from New Seasons. Mom has iPod buds in her ears like a sullen teenager as she shepherds a Ziploc baggie filled with a handful of Sabine’s ashes to the gas stove mantel. Dad sets the sack of staples on the counter, and before even putting them away, he pours a glass of something amber-colored. I scramble up to the loft, to the futon room, where there’s an array of DVDs and a bookcase full of romance novels. “Want a drink?” I hear Dad call. Mom doesn’t respond.
The only other time I’ve been the single daughter here is when Sabine was away at cheerleading camp a couple of Augusts ago, and my parents and I came out for the week. It was a work week—Mom was determined to erase any trace of Natalie from all surfaces. She brought new linens, paint. She even swapped out the dishes, claiming we needed an upgrade. But I knew it was about punishing Dad. She cracked the whip the entire time, presenting list after list: clean the gutters, empty and refill the hot tub, scrub the deck. We were vanquishing Johnsaffair the way people burn sage. But more first-gen Italian American wife than Native American. Penance beyond a Hail Mary. A new bed was delivered to the master. One with fancy controllers to dial in firmness. Sleep numbers.
“Sunset in twenty minutes,” calls Dad now, on this Good Friday. Sunset. Hardly. Maybe a tiny sliver of red on the horizon, but it’s a ritual, walking the strip of beach to town and back as afternoon sinks into evening. Sun or no sun, it’s what we do. And this evening we’re going to do it with some of my sister’s cremains.
Seagulls screech, and a curved line of pelicans descends into the surf when we get to the ocean. It’s a herring run, and the three of us stop to watch the big, brown birds dive and scoop up the tiny fish into their pouchy bills. Dad points to a young bird that is pick-pocketing an adult. “Spring,” he says. “The season of generosity.”
I nod. “Easter bounty.”
Dad holds up the baggie of shards and fragments, as though lifting a young child for a better view of something.
Mom hugs her ribs. She’s wearing a shearling jacket and matching deerskin hat. She says, all wistful, “What would it be like. To be a seabird?”
We’re quiet for a few moments, gazing out at the spectacle of feeding frenzy. The pelicans lift and lower. Like cheerleaders. All together. Choreographed perfection. Riding the tide, then beating their massive wings, and rising, rising, hovering, and then crashing down again, the “U” of them. Standing at the water’s edge with my parents, I decide that my sister has joined those birds. If it’s true what Nona says, and she’s waiting for her call from God from that green room limbo place, knowing Sabine, she’s not just sitting there. She’s with these pelicans, one eye on us, her former family. Maybe she sees the baggie of ashes dangling from Dad’s fingertips. Her bill full of herring. Hungry, as always.
“I imagine,” I say, answering Mom’s rhetorical question, “it’s like being a cheerleader.”
I feel the breath of Mom locked in her throat. The shards of her own heart just like the ashes in Dad’s grip. My words hit her ears different than I meant them to. “Brady,” she says under her breath.
“Shall we?” says Dad, unzipping the bag with a fingernail.
Mom puts her hand on top of Dad’s. Not in a loving way. “No.”
“We have to do it sometime, Sonia. Bit by bit, like we discussed.”
Most of my sister is still in the Asian urn in our living room. This is just a start. Somewhere to begin. “Why not, Mom? Isn’t this why we’re here?”
Mom turns to face me. “I’m not sure why we’re here, exactly.”
“We need to all be in agreement,” Dad says, resealing Sabine.
The pelicans lift again, and fly off in a brown curl. Full from fish, ready to head to their nests for the night. The fog has lifted too, as it often does at the edge of the evening.
“It’s getting late,” says Dad. “Almost 7:30. I’m starving.”
“Fish on Good Friday,” I offer. “Should we go to the Clam Shanty in town?”
Nobody agrees out loud, but our footfalls continue on, leaving a pattern in the wet sand behind us. Waves lap near our feet. Rising tide will erase us soon. Then, out of nowhere, the image of Connor’s face shrouded in hoodie forms in my mind. The glimmer of Sabine’s crucifix earring against the fold of cloth. I close my eyes and can smell him, Sabine’s best friend. Her partner. The boy who knows. The boy my parents blame.
By the time we reach the main drag, it’s dusk. We wander up Laneda Street with the few tourists and second-home people who have come to spend Easter weekend at the coast. There’s the cheap taco place, the expensive taco place, and the local watering hole. Three espresso shops, all closed for the night. A grocery store. The library. A used bookstore and a bakery. Realty offices with their laminated photos of beachfront in the windows. We always stop and browse the enticing descriptions, mostly so Dad can see if the beach house he got such a great deal on is still appreciating. The second-home market is in the ditch, the economy below water, still. Dad sighs as we pass the evidence: New Low Price, Owner Motivated, Short Sale, all typed in red block letters under pictures of custom beach homes. Ours is a shack by comparison. Not really an investment. More like a retreat.
We walk on. Mom’s shearling beaded with the dew of nightfall. The kite store. The pet store. The whimsical jewelry place where Sabine and I once shoplifted a necklace, and then, guilt-ridden, secretly returned it.
Manzanita is the one beach town on the Oregon coast that runs perpendicular to the ocean rather than boardwalk parallel. Which is, according to my parents, what makes it special. There’s less college kid hooligan cruising. Less cotton candy and tee-shirt hucksters. Unlike the towns slightly north—Cannon Beach, Seaside—Manzanita has a dearth of saltwater taffy for sale.
But there’s the Clam Shanty. Known for razor clams and chowder and oyster shooters with handcrafted hot sauce. Sabine could eat a dozen-and-a-half in one sitting. A whole lemon sliced up thin, the way you do for tequila. She’d squeeze that lemon all over the jiggly oyster, dollop of sauce, then, raise the oval shell high, as though proposing a toast. The face she made when the fish slid down her throat. Repulsion and elation all at once. The same face she had when, one night, high on weed, she described what it’s like to give a boy a blowjob.
The fish place is clearing out when we get there. The sidewalks roll up early in Manzanita. A disgruntled counter girl sighs as the bell on the door announces us. She’s Saran-wrapping the deli goods, and I watch as her head sinks into her shoulders. No doubt she has after-work plans. I feel sorry for her, but annoyed. Last summer, when I worked at the Grill and Scoop in Beaverton, I never let it show how pissed off I was when last-minute customers came in. My waitress smile was solid. Professional. Poker face Brady.
Besides, we know what we want. This won’t take long. Chowder and sour dough.
“For here or to go?” says the counter girl whose nametag claims she’s Sam.
“We’ll eat here,” says Dad, and the girl lets out another sigh.
She’s already put the chowder in the walk-in. She marches off, behind strips of plastic, and comes out bearing a steam pan between two thick mitts.
We sit down at one of the red-checkered oilcloth picnic tables, a waxy cup of fountain soda wedged in my hand. Mom and her herbal tea. We hear the beep-beep-whir of the microwave being engaged. The sawing of our bread. Dad twists the metal cap off of a Hefeweizen. “Cheers,” he says.
Later, back at the beach house, alone on my futon and wrapped up in a Nona quilt, the gulls’ screeching keeps replaying in my head. I can see those pelicans on the vast horizon, the gray and foam Pacific that goes on forever. On canvas, I’d choose thick, burnt gobs of sienna. Umber. English red. The tiniest stroke of cadmium yellow. Indigo and warm gray and a dab of French ultramarine. And then, a different painting. Azaleas, like the ones from earlier, all quinacridone magenta, sap green foliage against the cerulean sky. And Connor, half-hidden, but not. Connor Christopher, interrupting my vision of the ocean and the bushes and springtime. The earring, Sabine’s dangling jewel.
Sabine. All my meanderings come back to her.
We’re too far from the beach to hear the waves crash against sand and rock, but in my head, they do. The rhythm of it all is my heart. I want to hear her voice again tonight. Just once.
I reach for my phone. Press 3 on the speed dial. I want to hear the This is Sabine. Have a great day.
Instead, what I hear is the computer-voice of a robot saying, “The voice mailbox of the person you’re trying to reach is full.”
All the messages falling in the forest. Hanging out in limbo, never to be heard by Sabine. I don’t know her voicemail password. Why don’t I know it? All of a sudden, in the deep night of my thoughts, I have a mission. To unlock Sabine’s voice mailbox. To know who is still talking to her. What they’re saying. Is Martha still calling her up? Is Nick? Is Connor? Mom? Dad? Nona?
I press in her number again, and follow the prompts. Try a code. Another code. Her birthday. Nick’s birthday. Our address. Still, it’s the computer voice telling me that the mailbox has reached its capacity.
I get up and climb down the loft ladder to use the bathroom, but the door is closed and I hear the whispering voice of Mom inside. Why is she in the guest bathroom? Who is she talking to? I sink down against the wall, crouched there, curious. My ear against the hollow door. “That’s really sweet of you,” I hear her say. “Yes, I’d love that.”
Then, Dad’s snoring from the master bedroom. Lately, it’s like a buzz saw with Dad. Mom whispers, “Maybe Wednesday. Or, if I come home early Sunday.”
Then, “I’m not sure.”
And, “Can’t wait.”
I tip-toe back up the ladder to the futon, the phone cradled in my hand like a brick I want to hurl through glass. I am sick to death of secrets. I am tired of never knowing the truth. I wish I had the nerve to call Connor is what I’m thinking as I drift off to sleep.
One reviewer said, “The twists are entirely organic…what’s expected isn’t what happens, what’s believed isn’t necessarily true.” What are your criteria for a favorite page-turner?