Deena wasn’t a drinker, but she unearthed a bottle of vodka
from under the sink and a bottle of cranberry juice from the
back of the refrigerator. By the time Martin got home from
work she was well into her third Crantini. Wednesday was
his early night, so it was still light outside when he walked
through the back door. Deena was sitting at the breakfast bar
they’d installed when they thought that they were rich. Her
glass left a pale pink ring on the granite counter.
“This came today. I guess we’d better start looking for an
apartment.” She took another long swig of her Crantini and
held up the final notice from the sheriff’s department. She felt
as though she were looking at her husband through the wrong
end of a telescope. He appeared small and light years away.
His eyes were red rimmed and puffy, his skin hung on his large
frame like a suit too big for his bones. He was only forty-five,
but he had the washed out, done-in look of someone already
defeated by life.
Martin took off his coat and hung it in the entry, ignoring
the paper dangling from her hand. She stood up, waving it in
front of him. “Take it. Read the fine print.” She wasn’t going
to let him look away from the mess that he’d created.
He took the notice, glanced at it briefly, then set it on the
counter. “Where’s Elliot?” He filled a glass with tap water and
stood holding it without drinking.
“He’s still at the pool. We’ll have to tell him when he
gets home. I think he’ll be OK, but I don’t know about Lauren.
She’s such a drama queen.” Deena collapsed back onto
the stool and put her head down on the granite, allowing the
cool stone to soothe her hot cheeks and overwrought emotions.
What was the matter with her? They weren’t going to
be out on the street. They’d just move into a perfectly decent
apartment. God knows, she’d lived in worse, a lot worse.
Martin seemed to read her thoughts. “It’s not the end of
the world. No one’s being marched off to a death camp. We’ll
get through this.”
If her head hadn’t been swimming in grief and confusion
and vodka maybe she’d have said something consoling, something
brave and insightful, but she didn’t have it in her at the
moment. She felt his hands on her shoulders and stood up
abruptly, moving away so she couldn’t see the expression on
his face. She wanted to hold onto her anger awhile longer and
couldn’t risk seeing the pain in her husband’s eyes. She’d just
wind up forgiving him again. “I’d better pick Elliot up. Swim
practice is over at six o’clock.”
“You’ve been drinking, I’ll go get him.” Martin reached
over and took a quick swig of her Crantini and made a face.
“What is this?”
“Hemlock.” Deena opened the refrigerator and pulled out
a package of ground meat and some corn tortillas. Tacos were
Elliot’s favorite; maybe they’d soften the blow. “We’ll have
to find something in Shaker Heights. There’s no way we’re
making him change schools his senior year.”
Elliot arrived home with his hair still wet and smelling of
chlorine. He sat at the table, numb and slack mouthed, staring
at his plate, his big hands helpless in his lap as Martin
tried to conjure consolation from the things that they could
keep, things that wouldn’t be lost on the auction block. “Your
mother and I still have our jobs.” Martin’s voice sounded
strangled; Deena could see the cords bulging in his neck. This
was costing him, but he deserved it. “We’ll get a nice apartment
and you’ll graduate with your class, you can still compete
with the swim team. Your mom and I would have sold
the house when you went off to college anyway.” This was a
lie. She and Martin had planned to spend the rest of their natural
lives in the snug colonial, mortgage free, hiking through
the small park down the street and puttering in the garden.
“I don’t understand. If you’re making all this money, how
can we be bankrupt? It doesn’t make sense.” Elliot was his
father’s son: logical, deliberate, and responsible to a fault, but
he was only seventeen. Deena watched as he struggled to wrap
his mind around the mess that was their new reality. High risk
real estate speculation wasn’t part of his vocabulary; it was a
violation of everything he’d been taught, everything he knew
about his parents. Deena wanted to defend herself, to say, it
wasn’t me. I warned him. I told him not to. He signed those
papers without my permission, but she held her tongue while
Martin floundered, searching for the right words. Finally, all
he could say was, “I’m sorry. I did the math. I crunched the
numbers. It looked like a sure thing.”
“What are you talking about? This is crazy. Who gambles
away a whole house? I can’t deal with this right now.” As
he shot up from the table, Deena was, as always, amazed by
his height, six feet two inches of beautiful, raw, gangly adolescence.
Martin looked as though he’d been struck in the face. He
tried to shout, but his voice came out a thin, high pitched
whine, “Don’t you ever talk to us like that.” Deena waited for
the rest of the speech. "We’re your parents and you’re to treat us
with respect," but Martin didn’t say another word.
Elliot knocked over his chair as he backed up, set it right
without slowing down and headed for the door. “Sorry, I
didn’t mean that, but I need some time to think. I’ll be at
Deena blinked back tears. “Elliott, please we only meant...”
The door slammed and she and Martin were alone in the
kitchen. As furious as she was at Martin, Deena was glad Elliot
had been spared the sight of his father pleading with her
to sign the papers. That argument had been so out of character,
so unexpected, that Deena had been blindsided. Her
careful, conservative husband, a man terrified of letting time
run out on a parking meter, had decided to play at high stakes
real estate. A pharmacist who measured everything to the
milliliter, he’d ultimately gone behind her back to guarantee
a construction loan with the equity in their house and all their
savings. The funny thing was, Martin didn’t even care about
When Danny first came to them with a business proposition,
he said he was giving them the opportunity of a lifetime.
Florida real estate was booming and developers couldn’t build
fast enough to keep up with demand. At the beginning, it was
simply a matter of Martin trying to close an old wound from
adolescence. His cousin had been a big shot in high school,
a star athlete, popular with the girls while Martin had always
been on the outside looking in. There’d been a brief period in
college when Martin outshone his cousin, making the Dean’s
list and winning biking marathons, but then Danny married
into a Cleveland building dynasty and went into high end real
estate leaving Martin in the dust. So, when Danny offered
Martin an equity position in River Parc Mall, he mortgaged
the house and their life savings, delighted that his cousin had
finally dealt him in. Neither of them had been savvy enough
to realize that becoming equity partners in River Parc Mall
meant they were also buying its debt. That awful realization
Deena wrapped a sheet of foil over Elliot’s uneaten dinner.
The muscles in her shoulders were so tight that her head was
beginning to throb. “That didn’t go too well.”
“No,” Martin’s voice was as hollow as his eyes.
“Well, what did you expect? We just ripped the kid’s house
out from under him.”
“I said I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. What do
you want me to do, put a gun to my head?”
“No, don’t do that.” Deena softened at the sight of the
large man hugging himself and rocking back and forth in the
kitchen chair. She put her arms around his shoulders. “It’s
not all your fault. Danny put you up to it.”
“How about if I shoot Danny. Would that make you feel
“Maybe.” She kissed him on top of his head. “ How about
just setting fire to his yacht? How many years would we get
“Don’t bother, the yacht’s gone. His father-in-law repossessed
all his toys.”
Deena shook her head. “Don’t worry about Danny; his wife
may have him on a short leash but he’s still sitting pretty in
a big house in Moreland Hills. I guarantee he’s not worrying
“You’re too hard on Danny. Honestly, he thought he was
helping us out. How could he predict that both our main tenants
would go bankrupt?”
“It was his business to know, due diligence or whatever.
Losing both your main tenants to bankruptcy isn’t just bad
luck it’s incompetence or criminal negligence or...I don’t know
what. But he should have seen it coming. He should have
“No, it’s my fault. I should have protected us.” Martin
turned to look out the window where twilight was already
obliterating the maple and the forsythia hedge. ”I should have
listened to you.”
Deena sat back down and looked across the table. The
man who’d once been her rock, the source of everything good
and orderly and predictable in her life had become a puddle of
remorse. “Do you want some salad?” She held out the wooden
bowl as a sort of green peace offering.
Martin stabbed a cherry tomato and stared at it glistening
at the end of his fork. “It’s a nightmare. Everyone involved in
the deal got burned.”
Deena glanced around the kitchen with a sense of nostalgia
for everything they’d have to leave behind. “What did Allen
tell you? How much has to go and what do we get to keep?”
“You know attorneys, they always give you the worst case
scenario, but it looks bad. What really hurts is that we’re being
punished for being so damned responsible and paying things
off. If we didn’t have so much equity in the house and cars we
could probably keep them.” He raked his fingers through his
thinning hair. “This should never have happened. The deal
was fail-safe, guaranteed. There was no way we could lose.”
“Well, we lost, now what do we get to keep?” Their house
was being sold at auction in one month and she didn’t have
time for a pity party. They had to make plans, and they had
to move fast.
“We can keep most of the furniture and personal stuff.
Theoretically, you should turn over your jewelry but Allen says
to just keep it. Your wedding ring is exempt and the other stuff
isn’t that valuable. We can keep your car, but the Honda goes.”
“How will you get to work? You have to have a car.”
Deena looked up in alarm, the impact of their situation hitting
her full in the gut. “What about our savings? What about
the kids’ college fund?”
Martin looked at her with eyes that floated out of focus
beneath a pool of tears. She watched him try to speak, then
simply swallow and shake his head. So that was that. She
couldn’t think straight; all she could feel was the cold fear that
they’d wind up living in a derelict house with no plumbing and
broken windows. After a lifetime of doing everything possible
to escape, she was being sucked back into her mother’s world.
Maybe she’d been marked from birth for a life of poverty and
chaos. Maybe it was hubris to think she could elude her fate.
Deena visualized her mother squinting at her, sizing her
up then shaking her head in disgust. In memory, Rain, as
Leah Marcus had renamed herself, was still the rebellious hippie
of her youth. She stood barefoot, arms akimbo, her blond
curls alive in the spring wind blowing off the Sangre de Cristo
Mountains. “Well, Miss Harmony, you finally got what you
had coming.” Deena cringed beneath the imagined rebuke.
“What did you expect, trading your family for a bunch of
junk? Hope you remember how to cover your windows with
old newspaper when it gets cold this winter.”
Deena got up and staggered to the powder room they’d
updated when they still had money, and threw up in the environmentally
conscious, low-flow, gravity assisted toilet.
As predicted, Lauren freaked. She wanted to drop out of
school and come home the minute she heard there was no
money for next year’s tuition. It took all of Deena’s strength
to convince her to stay in Boston and finish the semester.
“What’s the point?” Lauren whined while Deena clenched
her teeth. “Why torture myself studying for finals? It’s not
like I’m going to graduate.”
“You’re going to graduate.” Deena had been firm. She’d
been reasonable. She hadn’t screamed back, you spoiled little
twerp. What about us? Can’t you think of anyone but yourself?
Instead, she’d said, “You might not be going back to Brandeis,
but you’ll go somewhere and those credits will transfer.
So help me God, if you leave early and throw away a whole
semester I won’t let you in the house. I’ll lock the door. Do
you hear me?”
Lauren was crying. She was twenty years old, but still a
baby. “OK, I’ll finish the semester, but I’m not coming home.
I don’t even have a home.” Deena heard a strangled sob, then,
“Oh, my God, are you and Daddy going to be homeless?”
Deena closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Why couldn’t
Lauren have taken after her father? The entire maternal side
of the family was nuts. Without ever setting eyes on her grandmother,
Lauren managed to channel her every gesture, mannerism,
and vocal intonation. The only difference was that
Lauren was boy-crazy and her grandmother was a lesbian.
There was a long pause as Deena exhaled slowly to the
count of ten. Lowering her voice as though she were talking
to an injured child she tried again. “We’re not going to be
homeless. We’ve found a nice apartment on Van Aken Boulevard.
Your dad and I still have our jobs. Elliot will graduate
with his class. We’re going to be OK. It’s not the end of the
“Good, I was scared you were going to wind up living under
a bridge or something.” There was a pause while Lauren
sniffled and blew her nose. “But, honestly, I’m not moving
back home. I’ll help you pack, but then I’m going back to
Boston. I’m twenty years old and I can live wherever I want.”
Deena’s heart clenched with the old, familiar fear that Lauren
would disappear from her life the same way she’d run
away from her own mother. Losing Lauren was her nightmare,
the feared retribution for her own defection. Lauren was her
darling, her best friend. Until Lauren left for college they’d
shared the same wardrobe, attended the same yoga classes,
cried at the same movies. Losing her would be unthinkable.
“We’ll be done packing before you’re done with finals, but it
will be great to see you. As for staying in Boston, you’re a big
girl; you can live wherever you want as long as you can pay
the rent. I just want you to know that there’s still a place for
you with us.”
“Thanks, I really mean it, but I’ve had a better offer. I’m
just going to pick up a few things then move back here.”
“Where are you moving?”
“That’s all I’m saying for now. I’ll see you in three weeks,
as soon as I’m done with my exams.”
“What better offer?”
“Bye Mom. Tell Elliot I said Hi.”
“What better offer?” but there was no one on the line.
The day appraisers from the Sheriff’s office walked through
her home, violating her most private spaces, inventorying and
tagging items that resonated with her family’s history, their
daily rituals, their very DNA, had left Deena shattered. She’d
opened the door to admit the two very polite and efficient
women, pointed out the pieces she’d be keeping, then quietly
slipped into her bedroom closet, buried her head in an old
tweed suit, and bawled her eyes out.
Most of the good stuff, the appliances, the oriental rugs,
and the oil painting over the sofa were being auctioned off.
Her grandmother’s Waterford and sterling would go on the
block along with the Rosenthal china, but not the silver menorah
or the candlesticks that had arrived from Belarus with her
grandparents in 1938. Those were hidden away in a bundle
of blankets beneath the bed, silent and still, like hidden Jews
concealed from Nazis pounding on the door.
Deena had used a week of her vacation to pack up what
they’d take and to discard the rest. It was the most exhausting
and soul wrenching work she’d ever done. How could
they have accumulated so much stuff? Every drawer and
closet bulged with outdated insurance records, manuals for
appliances they no longer owned, flashlights without batteries,
pens without ink, coats the kids had long outgrown and
a sequined dress she hadn’t worn since college. There were
pots without lids and lids without pots, endless computer
cords, a trove of ancient floppy disks and a lifetime of books.
Deena picked up The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
and started to open the cover, but stopped herself and tossed
it into a box being donated to the library.
When had she become the Countess of clutter, the Duchess
of debris, the Raja of rubbish? The...she looked around and
realized it was true. Why had she accumulated all this junk?
What was it for? Then with a sudden painful clarity she knew
the answer. This crap was what she’d gotten in exchange for
her mother and New Moon. She’d traded them for the house,
the clothes, the gadgets, the makeup, the matching dishes and
fondue pots she was tossing in the trash or leaving for the
Martin wandered through the house in a daze as if he’d
been dropped from another planet. He was clearly slipping
into a depression, but Deena was too exhausted and angry to
haul him out. He needed detailed instructions to purchase
strapping tape and bubble wrap, couldn’t find his hammer in
the tool chest or butter in the refrigerator. A simple request to
assemble a few boxes was met with confused dismay as though
he’d been asked to fold them into origami swans.
At least Elliot pitched in on the week-ends. He drove back
and forth to Goodwill with load after load of things not good
enough for the sheriff’s sale, but too good for the growing
mountain of trash bags looming behind the house. What did
it mean to own things anyway? Something she remembered
her mother saying, came back to her. Do you know who’s rich?
A person who’s happy with what he has, that’s who.
For someone who was so organized and meticulous Deena
had amassed quite a collection of worthless paper. It was
mostly trash, but something forced her to give each sheet a
cursory glance and a quick trial before its summary execution.
Old to-do lists, expired warranties, recipes clipped from
magazines: toss, toss, toss. Then a red folder emerged from
a bureau drawer, a relic from her childhood. It held report
cards, term papers, the program to her high school prom and
brochures from several universities. Deena riffled through its
pages, deciding to let it go after one last nostalgic look. As
she buried the folder in a large trash bag two sheets slipped
out and landed on the floor. She recognized them at once.
Had those incriminating pages been lurking in her dresser all
these years? Thankful that no one else was in the room, she
smoothed the two pieces of paper across her lap and began to
Application for Undergraduate Admission
October 18, 1987
Personal Essay: An Experience That Changed My Life
I was born on the New Moon Commune just outside of Santa
Fe in the summer of 1970. My Mother named me Harmony—just
Harmony, one word, like Madonna or Prince, the same way she’d
named herself, Rain. I would have been Harmony Marcus if my
mother hadn’t jettisoned her last name along with her four poster
bed, her color TV, and her college fund.
My father was some guy hitchhiking to Berkeley who had gone
his merry way before my mom knew she was a lesbian. Everyone
called him Dante, but that’s probably not his real name. I don’t
know his real name and neither does my mother.
My mom’s partner, Casey, had inherited the house and some
land when her parents were killed in a car accident the summer she
turned fifteen. She lived with her aunt in Albuquerque for a while, but
she got pregnant and didn’t want to raise her baby in a city so she left
for Santa Fe and moved back into the farmhouse where she’d grown up.
Her son Paz was a baby when she met my mother and a big guy named
Buddha at a Grateful Dead concert.
They all moved in together and named the place New Moon
Commune. New Moon started out as a normal three bedroom farmhouse
with a garage, a tool shed and a chicken coop, but when I was small there
was usually no electricity or gas because no one paid the bills. We got
water from a hand pump in the yard and flushed the toilet with water
from a bucket. A woodstove kept the kitchen warm in winter, but the
bedrooms got so cold we could write our names in the frost that spread
across the floor.
Casey’s son, Paz, and I were the only two kids in permanent
residence if you didn’t count the Rios clan next door. The New Mooner
with frizzy blonde hair sticking out from under an old cowboy hat was
my mother who never, not for a single minute, behaved like the mothers
you read about in books. Casey came closer, but you couldn’t exactly take
either one of them to a mother-daughter tea. I’d go to Daffodil Days by
myself each spring and lie to my teachers about my mom being sick. It
was awful going alone, but it was better than letting the other kids see
what my life was really like.
My Mom and Casey are probably still there. I was going to say
that I might still be there too if circumstances had been different, but
that’s a lie. I would have left one way or another. I would have tunneled
my way out of there with a teaspoon.
Deena couldn’t read another word. She folded the papers
in half and looked away. Old memories blurred her eyes as
she remembered those early years. She’d shown the essay to
Bubbe, her grandmother, not sure how she’d react. Bubbe
had handed it back as though it was treif, something unclean.
“Your mother’s dead. She’s dead to both of us. Throw this
away. Write about something else.”
So Deena had written a different essay and buried her past
along with the old papers. But why hadn’t she thrown them
away? Anyone, Martin or her kids, could have found them and
discovered that the whole story she’d invented about her childhood
was a lie. The lie had started with Bubbe, but that was over thirty
years ago. Deena felt a hollow ache at the center of her being.
Nothing she’d said or done had been completely honest since the day
she’d left New Moon. She’d yearned for her mother with an orphan’s
longing, yet she hadn’t called or written and her mother hadn't
With a flash of anger, Deena knew that if Lauren had run away
she’d have followed her to the gates of hell. But her own mother,
her universal love and peace hippie mother, had simply let her move
Why hadn’t she ever told the truth? How had her life become
so twisted? She tore the papers into narrow strips, and
then ripped the strips into tiny squares, before burying them
all at the bottom of a bag bound for the recycle bin.
Her mood swings were manic but her hands kept moving.
She went at the task of dismantling her life like the librarian
that she was: organize, classify, shelve, toss, donate, pack,
until the final drawer was emptied and the last room swept
out. That moment was the worst. She collapsed half way up
the stairs and surveyed the bare room through the wrought
iron banister. It was the home of a family that had failed,
that was forced to vacate the premises under a court order.
There was no evidence that she’d created a neat, orderly home,
that she’d been responsible, law abiding and paid her bills on
time. Or, at least, she’d paid them on time until Martin’s one
financial fling had cost them everything they owned.
Descending the last few stairs, she walked over to the large
bay window and pressed her head against the glass. Fernway
Road was lined with maples, honey locusts, and a few remaining
elms. A golden aura hung over the old slate roofs as the
afternoon sun dipped toward Horseshoe Lake a few blocks to
the northwest. Iris and peonies bloomed behind tidy vibernum
and boxwood hedges. A scattering of sparrows hopped
across the lawn. A pair of crows pecked at something in the
grass then looked up, staring back at her through the window
with shrewd, discerning eyes.
The houses were architectural gems, smaller versions of
the great mansions that stood along Eton and South Park
Boulevard. Most were nearly a century old, but they’d aged
well. A few needed paint or a bit of tuck pointing, but overall
the neighborhood remained gracious and welcoming. The
original owners, the old guard Protestants of British ancestry,
had given way to a diverse mix of religions and ethnicities.
Children named Sasha, Kumar, Huan, and Jamal ran back and
forth between the yards while their parents chatted companionably
across the drives and hedges.
There’d been cookouts, coffee klatches, summer evenings
spent chatting on front stoops, and yet there were no close
friends. Something always held her back. Why hadn’t she
opened up to her neighbors, laughing, gossiping, and sharing
stories? Blushing, she knew the answer. The sense of alienation
she’d carried from her youth still haunted her. Even
now, a marriage and two grown children later, she still felt
like an outsider. Growing up on a hippie commune had made
her a freak, an alien at school. When other kids had talked
about TV shows or computer games she’d withdrawn and become
silent. When they’d shown off their boom boxes, permed
hair and fancy sneakers, she’d made herself invisible. She’d
learned to keep her distance and to distrust people who might
have become friends. Even now, normal people still seemed
vaguely dangerous. They asked questions, made assumptions
and forced her to tell lies. It was hard enough keeping the
truth from Martin and her children, deceiving the rest of the
world was just too great an effort.
She took off the bandana tied around her hair and used
it to wipe her eyes. How was it possible to lose so much so
quickly? Is this how it starts, she wondered. Is this how people
lose their grip on their carefully constructed lives? She felt
vulnerable and naked, like a turtle without its shell. The old
ache returned and she knew it wasn’t just the loss of her house.
It was the longing for a home and family that had always felt
just beyond her reach. “Oh Harmony,” she whispered to herself,
“What have you done now?”