Fiction Benilde Little Acting Out: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780684854809

Acting Out: A Novel

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9780684854809: Acting Out: A Novel

Benilde Little, the beloved bestselling author of Good Hair and The Itch, is a writer whose works are touchstones for legions of people because they reach deeply into readers' lives. Her new novel will do that again. Acting Out is the probing, poignant, and ultimately uplifting story of a woman caught between the life she thought she was supposed to lead and the dreams she gave up long ago. Ina West grew up independent and solitary, raised by an artistic, unavailable mother and a reliable, loving father. As a twenty-something photographer, Ina landed in Manhattan's bohemian art scene after college, at the same time that she started dating the devoted, hardworking Jay Robinson. When her mother's mental state began to deteriorate, her closest cousin became dangerously ill, and her free artist's lifestyle put her in some vulnerable situations, Ina found comfort in Jay's trajectory into the safe, privileged world of the African-American upper middle class. Forsaking her independence and creativity for the joys of family life and material wealth, she married Jay, had three children, and moved to the suburbs; gradually, Ina gave herself completely to motherhood and the upkeep of their increasingly luxurious lifestyle. And they had it all: the SUV, the lavish home, the expensive but casual wardrobe. Then one day, after twelve years, Jay comes home from work and announces that he's leaving. Amid her shock, grief, and fear, a single clear truth emerges: though still physically present, Ina herself had checked out of the marriage long ago. As she struggles with single motherhood, reduced financial stability, and the emotional roller coaster of her breakup, Ina undertakes a journey of self-discovery with no sure destination. She moves to a smaller house, rekindles an old love, and takes up photography again. The old adventuresome, independent Ina begins to resurface, tempered by a self-knowledge borne of experience: she has learned how to look unflinchingly into her past and to determine what she wants for her future. Little delves into some of the most private and difficult questions people face. This moving, ambitious, and accomplished novel explores the fallout -- and the healing -- that can occur when the African-American dream crumbles, and when a woman is torn between divergent lifestyle choices. Ina's story of loss and courageous self-revelation will resonate for any woman who has struggled with finding her path in life.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Benilde Little is the bestselling author of Good Hair, which was selected as one of the ten best books of 1996 by the Los Angeles Times, and The Itch. She lives in a suburb of New York City with her husband and two young children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

When I married Jay I was sure he'd never leave me. I was certain that he loved me more and that he loved the life we'd made together. If anyone was going to do the leaving it was going to be me. I'm convinced I thought about it more than he did -- looking at my softening face in the mirror as I sat in the beauty salon; sitting in the car wash tempted to open the window and let in that nasty soapy water inside the white Range Rover he'd insisted on buying; strolling down the aisle of Grant's mindlessly putting butter, eggs, cereal, and ground turkey in the cart. I'd imagine myself going home, setting the groceries on the kitchen floor and leaving. The idea rolled around my head like a pebble in my shoe. Too big to ignore, but eventually I did and the feeling went away, or I should tell you I made it go away. I deaden those feelings with my will and when that stalled I ingested a little blue pill. The pill also rid me of those knavish thoughts that took up residence in my mind for as long as I can remember. The pill let me let go.

Jay had wanted, and he literally said this, a real family that would look good in the Christmas card. Why hadn't I just packed up when he said that? He had actually considered the vision of red plaid-donned children on a damn Christmas card important. Jay was a good father, but I was the one in charge of the reality of three kids -- the daily doling out of hugs, support, information, monitoring homework, scheduling doctor appointments, play dates, lessons, teacher conferences and on and on and on. But now he has left me and I hate feeling like a damn cliché, but I am, we are. He left me, I'd later learned, for a younger, thinner, better-credentialed woman who he'd met at a traffic light. I'd become the aging suburban housewife who wore jeans six days out of seven and lived my life inside the demands of a carpool. But I wasn't frumpy or unattractive, although like most I'd gained an extra few pounds with each kid, which now amounted to ten to fifteen that I could stand to lose. I dressed the way that was appropriate for the kind of life I lived -- shuttling kids, taking care of a baby and a house and cooking and organizing all of our lives. That's what I did.

I didn't start out wanting the kind of life we ended up having. I had wanted to own my life, but that concept was amorphous, and then I got hurt and scared and there was Jay who knew exactly what he wanted and said he wanted me to be with him, so I figured why not. I knew he knew what he wanted to do and maybe along the way I'd figure out how to live the life I wanted. My instinct had told me that I needed to marry myself first, cleave to a clearly defined self first, but Jay was nice enough, successful enough, handsome enough, good enough in bed, my friends liked him enough and I remember thinking, during the rehearsal dinner, This is enough. There was some wow to have found this person who is right for me, even if I didn't quite know what that was. He's good enough. I didn't listen to myself back then -- I was twenty-six and self-knowledge was still more than a decade away. What I did know about myself scared me. I knew I didn't want to be like the women who came before me -- my mother and grandmother and aunts -- wild, untamable women who at one time were fierce and lively but seemed to practice a kind of antilove. They were vivid, hard and often joyless. They scared the shit out of me. What I convinced myself of was that I wanted to be sedate and reserved, which I'd decided was normal, and to let someone else worry about personhood.

Jay's work, or I should say success, allowed me to not have to work and the freedom to volunteer on the PTA, work out, see my friends for lunch and shop. I shopped when I was happy and when I was not. I shopped for me, for my kids, their friends, the house, my friends' houses. I had been happy enough. Happier than I'd been in my own birth family -- where my mother was never home and when she was, she was only happy in our garage, which was her studio, covered in paint and working on a canvas. She had had a passion that didn't have anything to do with my father or me. She was frustrated by a lack of creative opportunity and had never settled in her work as a high school art teacher, but still labored in that garage long after she stopped showing or being represented. She had artist and writer and musician friends who we didn't know well, who she seemed to need to breathe. She'd leave for days at a time, leaving Daddy in charge of braiding my hair, helping me with my schoolwork and Girl Scout projects, all the things mothers and daughters were suppose to do. Daddy loved my mother with a childlike devotion. He used to say he had three things in his life that mattered: running -- he'd been a sprinter in college who became a high school gym teacher, my mother and me. I believed the running was a distant second to Mother and I came in, maybe, third. It didn't really matter, though, because I wanted my mother to help me with my homework and my Girl Scout projects and to do my hair. When I was pregnant with Malcolm, it was my dad who called up some friends and hosted a shower for me. When I had Malcolm I thanked God that I'd had a boy and wouldn't have to deal with a daughter who'd force me to deal with all the anger and lack I'd had with my own mother. Then I had another boy and I took that as a sign of God's grace. Then one night after one of Paula Sweet's perfect dinner parties and me having too much wine, which was the only way I got through them, Jay and I came home, fell into bed without my diaphragm. We made Ivy and I seriously considered getting rid of it. If RU486 had been available I'm sure I would have. Then I found out that it was a girl and spent the rest of my pregnancy petrified, although some part of me knew I needed to deal with my mother issues. I named her Ivy because it is strong, constantly growing and resilient, my hope for her.

Ivy was five months old, I was feeding her rice cereal mixed with breast milk when Jay said he was leaving me. Cereal was on her fingers and face and in both of our hair. She was in her high chair laughing and I felt unrestrained happiness only a baby's laughter can provide. Even with breast milk running down my T-shirt and onto my overalls, and cereal on the red bandanna that was supposed to hold up my hair, I felt glamorous. I often did, in my jeans or overalls or khakis, like I was one of those cool stay-at-home moms you see in computer ads. I didn't understand feeling unattractive, like I overheard other women at my kids' school complain about. My body and hair were in good enough shape and my makeup was in some evidence. I had to keep reminding myself that I would be forty on my next birthday. Of course, I didn't look like the women, I should say girls, in fashion magazines, or the ones who Jay worked with, those real estate women who drove Mercedes wagons, wore gold Rolexes with diamonds, got their hair blown out twice a week and were acquainted with Botox. But I didn't want to look like maintaining my looks was my job.

Jay walks in, through the back door that was always unlocked. It was too early for him to be home for lunch, but not unusual for him to drop by the house during the day if he was working out of his Pomona office. A year ago, he'd set up an office in Harlem, and in this hot market his workload had doubled. He checked the mail, which sat as it always did in a basket on the granite kitchen counter, grunted something about his shirts having been delivered, went and got them from the hall closet and then, as if he'd asked "what's for dinner?" said, "I'm leaving you." Just like that. No "we've got to talk" or "I've been thinking" or even "you know I'm not really happy." Nothing. Just I'm leaving you. I sat there for a moment, still feeding Ivy, thinking, I think he just said I'm leaving you, but telling myself, No, you're wrong, he couldn't have said that, what are you, crazy? He can't leave you; you have kids, three kids, a mortgage, an SUV and a station wagon and a swim club membership. I put the tiny rubber-tipped spoon down in to one of the two sections of the peach-colored plastic bowl and turned around to look at Jay's face. It was clinched and stern and I couldn't tell whether he was trying to hold back tears or if he was furious and trying not to show it.

"What did you say?"

He looked down and started babbling about life being a one-shot deal and having to make the most of it and being back in the city...and...lonely...and then my ears stopped working and I thought, well, I'll stand up -- maybe if he sees me, he'll snap out of this lunacy. He'll see me and Ivy and he'll snap out of it.

"Jay, Jay, Jay. Wait. What? What're you trying to say? What's this? What are you talking about?"

I touched his forearm and he stepped away from me. He rubbed his eye with one hand, exhaled in what seemed to be frustration.

"I'm just not happy anymore, Ina. I haven't been for a long time and it's just, I think better, it'll be better like this. I can't, I just can't keep this going."

"Keep what going?"

He blew out again, this time seeming less certain of his position.

"This," he said and looked up, his hands up, waving toward the ceiling. "All this. I just don't want this anymore."

"Okay, so all what? What's wrong?"

He practically whispered, "I don't know you anymore."

He looked at me and quickly looked away. "You're not who I married." He opened the door and walked out. Just like that, just like he had every morning for the past thirteen years. He just walked out. Now Ivy was chanting "Da-Da...Da-Da...Da-Da." The only word she says. They all say it first, Mama, Mommy comes way later, a year sometimes. A more complicated and deeper expression, I guess, takes more time to master. Once they do, of course, you wish they didn't because they must say it six-hundred times a day. My head felt like someone was standing on it. I wanted to go upstairs and get into my big, feathered bed, feel the smooth 380-thread count sheets against my body, the goose down on top of me and under my head. I needed a nap; I needed to sleep like Aurora, only longer, like Rip Van Winkle. I need to sleep so long that when I wake up all the pain, all the explaining, the messes, the fights, the bouts of self-loathing that will come, would be over.

I called my neighbor Paige to watch Ivy and maybe even the boys when they got home from school. She had four kids, her three younger ones around the same ages as mine. She had an au pair and a live-in housekeeper. It was never a problem having three more kids in her large, rambling house. I gathered Ivy out of her high chair, wiped cereal from her hair, face and hands with a wet paper towel, put her socks back on, pulled on a knit hat and sweater and carried her next door. My neighbor was in her kitchen watching the Food Network on her wide-screen TV that was built into a wall; she was cooking along with the TV and talking on the phone. She waved a wooden spoon at me and Ingracia appeared, as if summoned by spoon, and took Ivy from my arms.

"Gracias," I said to her and smiled. She smiled back and immediately began removing Ivy's hat and sweater while cooing to her.

My neighbor got off the phone and said, in her usual sarcastic way, "You look great! Big party tonight?"

I just breathed in and out deeply and thanked her for rescuing me, again.

"I'm exhausted. I've gotta lay down."

"Go, get some rest. You know we love having her. You want the boys to come here after school?"

"Malcolm and Marcus'll be home around five, after soccer practice..."

"Fine, I'll look out for them. They like meatloaf? That's what the kids are having."

"Yeah, that'll be fine. I need to lie down. My head is..."

"Go, go, and rest. If you don't feel any better later, they can just sleep over. We love having them, don't even think about it, go..."

My look hugged her and I hoped she could feel how totally, truly grateful I was.

"The back door'll be opened if they wanna come home," I said wearily as I left.

I let the screen door close behind me, scribbled on a Post-it and stuck it to the door, instructing the boys to go next door for dinner. I breathed in the silence of my house. I couldn't recall the last time it had been this quiet, when the last time was that I was alone in it. I used to love to be alone with my thoughts, daydreaming for hours as a child and then sharing some of it with my cousin Zackie, who would remain my confidant into adulthood, who'd listen to my dreams with his eyes closed, as if visualizing pictures of what I said.

It was fall and chillier inside than it was out. We hadn't turned the heat up yet. I went to the thermostat -- it was at fifty-six degrees. I moved it to sixty-nine and looked around my family room. Every detail of this house I'd put my soul into making sure was just right. The khaki duck fabric on the sectional for family viewing of our large-screen TV, for which I had an armoire built; the perfect coral-colored chenille throw over Jay's brown leather arm chair; the ficus I'd nurtured since it was a baby bush. Our black-and-white family photos in gallery frames, shot and framed and hung by me just so, chronicling all the children through gummy drool stage to toddlerdom to school age. I knew women who complained about getting lost in taking care of everyone but themselves, but I didn't feel that way. It was the common lament of the women who made up the mommy's group I'd been in when we lived in Brooklyn, when Malcolm was a baby. All the women were powerful used-to-bes: a banker, several lawyers, a journalist, but I'd never really had a career to miss. My photographer's assistant days had been short-lived. Of course, I would come to see I did give up something, but that'd come later.

Wasn't my book club, my volunteer work, shopping, something? I had things to do; I had a life, didn't I?

Copyright © 2003 by Benilde Little

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

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