EXCERT FROM A NOVEL:  Smarter Than That


I always assumed I’d write a novel someday; I just never figured on penning a memoir. But let me assure you, dear reader, this modern-day tragedy will be all the more juicy for its truthfulness. As it happens, today is my 55th birthday. What better time to relay my admittedly schmaltzy tale of woe?

Though I suppose I should apologize for multitasking. My husband, Rodger, always cautioned me to stay focused while I cook. But I promise I can still whip out a simple meal while recalling what is in reality a not-so-simple story. I’m robotically flipping burgers as I mutter to myself like a crazy person, envisioning you, my reading audience, right here in my tiny kitchen.

Don’t worry, I’m still sane enough to know you’re merely inside my head—that once this is finished, you’ll judge me from the arrogant comfort of your easy chairs and Serta Perfect Sleepers, hiding behind paperbacks or reading devices. As for Rodger, he really is gone and won’t be coming back any time soon. So who cares what he thinks? I married that narrow-minded man—seven years my junior—practically out of spite. Together we contentiously raised a transgender child nearly to adulthood. I lost said husband and child—born male and whom we’d raised as a boy for her entire short life—in a car crash two-and-a-half years ago. If that wasn’t bad enough, in my grief, I made a delusory foray into the world of online dating where I fell hook, line, and stinker for a scoundrel named Mario, whose five-year-old daughter (or I should say “fraud-ter”) he used as bait to lure me in. Oh, and up until today, I taught high school honors English to tenth- and eleventh-graders. Today, I unceremoniously quit after ten years of faithful service. So what else better have I got to do than transcribe my pathetic tale for posterity?

By now, you’ve probably pronounced my story maudlin and over-the-top after a mere page-and-a-half. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I should quit while I’m ahead, because whatever I might have to say on the above topics, I’m apt to offend someone. But after all I’ve been through, why should I care?

Shuffling around my kitchen, I have to remind myself that Rodger will never again roll up to Benson Polytech High School to pick up our child—not today or any other day. Nor will my irreplaceable baby ever again emerge from that old brick building—not even one last time. I can still picture Rodger waiting in his truck with the engine running (global warming be damned) while Louise bounded down those steps, an imposing backdrop of stately pillars receding at her back. She couldn’t get away from that place fast enough. At school, to her dismay, Louise was forced to live as Lewis, so named at birth after Rodger’s late brother. Rodger had insisted on it. Rodger, who’d been the head of Benson’s annual homebuilding program for five years running. Good ol’ Rodger, who couldn’t bear to be embarrassed by his kid.

But that left me squarely in the middle, between a “son” who identified as female, and a husband who refused to believe it. By her senior year, Louise had insisted I address her in the feminine, knowing full well I could never do so in front of Rodger, much less let slip our child’s gender identity in public. Besides having a somewhat prominent role in our community as a real estate developer, Rodger took such pride in leading Benson—one of only three Portland high schools (the other two being Canby and Forest Grove) in building a single-family home for some poor family each year. Even though it was a part-time, volunteer post, Big-Man Rodger had gotten his “oddball son” preference for being a “faculty child,” bypassing the lottery. Good thing they’d abandoned the admissions exam a few years back, because Louise never would have sat for an entrance exam at a school that mostly caters to future electricians, construction workers, nurses, and techies. She might not have known exactly what she wanted to be when she “grew up,” but any idiot could see that Benson was a poor match for our imaginative, post-gender teen.

Now I smell smoke—excuse me a moment while I deal with a trio of charred rolls. Fragile as ash, they remind me of spent coals on a dead campfire. Except they’re smoldering in my ancient toaster oven that didn’t ding when it was supposed to. I’m practically choking, covering my nose and mouth as I grab a white dishrag and wave it like a flag of surrender. Rodger promised to look at that damned thing ages ago, but never mind. He left far more significant unfinished business when he departed this Earth.

I’m not off to a very good start, am I? Jumping all over the place in the telling. Although I’d struggled for years to be a writer, I realize now that writing from the heart is difficult business. In truth, this is all new to me. I suppose step one is to sit my ass down at a computer and focus. But I can’t sit still long enough to do anything besides zone out in front of the television. I know you must be asking yourself, “What is wrong with this woman?” And I suppose you’re right. There is something very wrong with me. But maybe after you hear my story, you won’t blame me quite so much.

You see, I’m only trying to make this evening like any other evening prior to the accident—before misguided college visits and unchecked road rage. Before Mario (or, as I have come to think of him, “Marifaux”) and my sister destroyed what little faith I’d had left in humanity. If only this were an ordinary night where, ten minutes from now, my hungry little crew of two would pull in the driveway, burst out of Rodger’s light utility truck, and spring into action—sweaty, tired, combative—their perspiration (and Louise’s subtle perfume) blending with the burgers’ smoky bouquet. What wouldn’t I give to see them tumble through my kitchen doorway, their pent-up strife coloring the day’s news. Rodger talking his guy-speak, the subtext apparent; me throwing our offbeat teen sideways glances, wordlessly offering college as her unwelcome salvation; Louise instantaneously silenced, the unfortunate pawn in our marital class warfare.

This prologue is reprinted with permission from the author of “Smarter Than That,” by Sheryl Sorentino.

Copyright © 2017 Sheryl Sorrentino
All rights reserved.