Book Excerpt: 'The Reluctant Daughter' By Lesléa Newman

Book Excerpt: 'The Reluctant Daughter' By Lesléa Newman

As part of our effort to profile more authors within the LGBT community, we present Lesléa Newman. Lesléa is the author of 64 books for readers of all ages including the children's books, Heather Has Two Mommies and Donovan’s Big Day, the poetry collections Nobody’s Mother and Still Life With Buddy, and the novel, The Reluctant Daughter. She has received poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. Nine of her books have been Lambda Literary Award finalists. Her most recent book, a young adult poetry collection entitled October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard, will be published by Candlewick Press in September 2012. A past poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, Lesléa is a faculty member of Spalding University's brief-residency MFA in Writing program.

Get more information on Lesléa and her work by visiting her website. Check out the excerpt from The Reluctant Daughter below:

Why did the man throw the clock out the window? He wanted to see time fly. It was the very first joke I ever learned, and I remember repeating it to my mother, my father, my school bus driver, even the mail carrier, but despite my enthusiastic delivery, the silly question with its even sillier answer never got a laugh out of anyone. And I certainly don’t find it funny now as I lie still as a stone and stare through the darkness at the red numbers of the digital clock on the night stand next to my bed. Two-twelve… two-thirteen… two-fourteen… It feels like an infinity passes between each minute and the one that follows it, and I am absolutely convinced that this night will never end.

It’s no surprise that sleep is impossible to come by, three-thousand miles away from home in a strange hotel room without Allie nestled beside me and Mishmosh slumbering at my feet, using my toes as a pillow for his great mottled head. Still, I’d do anything to make time fly, even carry the damn clock across the room out to the balcony and hurl it over the railing with all my might, if I thought that would do any good. In my sleep-deprived state, I imagine I’d get a great deal of satisfaction watching the instrument of my torture sail through the air in a graceful arc before plummeting seven storeys to smash into a hundred pieces on the sidewalk below. If nothing else, at least the act would kill some time—a minute, maybe two—before I’d crawl back into bed and resume my lonely vigil, waiting for morning to come.

I rotate the clock away from me so its obnoxious little numbers are facing the wall, try a different pillow, roll onto my belly, squeeze my eyes shut, and after what seems like an hour, open my eyes and pull the clock toward me to check the time again. Two-nineteen… two-twenty… two-twenty-one… As I moan and groan and toss and turn and stare through the darkness at the maddening red numbers of the digital clock, I remember another time I found myself wide awake when I should have been sound asleep, staring at something glowing and red:

I am standing in the doorway of our dark kitchen sometime after midnight, my pudgy eight-year old body encased in flannel feet pajamas, my small hand reaching up along the wall in search of the switch that turns on the light. I have come downstairs for a drink of water, but the glowing red circle, small as a Cheerio is like a tiny stop sign, freezing me in my tracks. The small sphere blazes for an instant like a summer sun whose color intensifies right before it sinks below the horizon. Then it moves through the darkness, tracing a narrow arc down, up and back down again. I stand silently and watch it for a moment, until thirst wins out and I turn on the light. But I still don’t move because what I see now roots me to the spot: my mother, sitting at the kitchen table wearing her blue fuzzy bathrobe and a white protective hairnet that encircles her head like a cloud.  A cigarette is held between the second and third fingers of her right hand which rests on the table between a green overflowing ashtray shaped like a leaf and a shiny silver lighter. Our eyes meet and we stare at each other, my mother’s gaze fixed, serious, and slightly curious as if I am a strange creature that she’s never seen before. I feel a nervous giggle start to form in my belly and I’m afraid I’m going to laugh the way I always do when Colleen and I have staring contests on the school bus, which try as I might, I always lose. But I know laughing right now would be a big mistake, so I swallow hard, forcing myself to remain still, still looking deeply into my mother’s eyes. I wait for her to say something or do something or simply look away. But she remains just as she is: unmoving and silent as the chair she is sitting on. Even the cigarette at her side seems to be holding its breath.

Finally my hand, as though it is something separate and apart from the rest of my motionless body, wanders up the wall again and pulls the light switch downward, returning the room to darkness. The red circle of my mother’s cigarette travels upward and glows more brightly as she brings it to her lips once more. Quietly, I remain where I am for another minute before backing out of the room on tiptoe and then turning to make my way down the hall, up the stairs and into my room where I crawl between the sheets and pull the covers over my head. I know I have seen something I shouldn’t have, like the time last year when bored with my Sunday morning cartoons and impatient for breakfast, I opened my parents’ bedroom door and caught a glimpse of them thrashing about on their big king-sized bed. “What the hell is wrong with you?” my father yelled, yanking the blankets around himself and my mother as I backed away and pulled shut their bedroom door. Tonight I have done something wrong again, though I don’t know what it is. I do know, however, that it is not something to mention to my mother. Ever. I don’t have to be told that I am not supposed to know my mother sits by herself at the kitchen table in the middle of the night staring into the dark. Once upon a time this was her secret. Now it is ours.

I haven’t thought about this in years, but now that the memory has surfaced during my own sleepless state, I can’t help but wonder. What did my mother think about, sitting all alone in the dark kitchen while her husband and child slept upstairs in their respective beds? Did she daydream about what could have been and what still might be? Did she regret the choices she had made and consider other options? How did she feel, sitting there with no one keeping her company except a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and a sky full of stars? Was she lonely? Sad? Angry? Or unlikely as it seems, content? Maybe she was just enjoying a little peace and quiet in the middle of the night when there was no one making demands of her: Mommy, can I have a drink of water? Will you play Chinese checkers with me? Doris, where are my good shoes? Have you seen my blue-and-white striped tie?

I roll over and glance at the clock again. Two-thirty-three… two-thirty-four…

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