NEA Literature Fellowships

Kathy Leonard Czepiel

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from "A Good Regret"

The nursing home blares its constant light into the night, hiding all but the brightest stars from view. This late she needs her key card to get in. She chooses a side door where the night attendant won't notice her and paces herself mounting the stairs to the second floor instead of taking the elevator. Her knees still hurt, and there's a funny racing in her heart. But she makes it to the second floor and stealthily down the hall to room 206. She leaves her boots just inside the door and her jacket and bathrobe over the pink vinyl visitor's chair. Marjorie's bed is narrow, but so are she and Marjorie. It isn't difficult to nudge her over just a bit and slip under the covers beside her.

She doesn't smell like Marjorie anymore. She smells of nursing home disinfectant and perspiration. But Trina burrows her nose into her love's hair anyway. When she gently rests her hand on Marjorie's hip, Marjorie stirs and gives a little moan, and for a moment Trina feels guilty to be taking her space and disturbing her sleep. Who knows what she's dreaming? The dreams, perhaps, of a baby, but a baby who has lived a woman's life.

The air shifts, and a sliver of fluorescent light slips across the covers. Trina lifts her head and hisses at the night nurse, "Privacy, please!" The nurse straightens her back and exhales sharply through her nose. Then she closes the door, and Trina blinks in disbelief. Perhaps she is dreaming, too. She lowers her head to the pillow again and closes her eyes.

This dying. It's a terrible, terrible blow. She can't help feeling if she'd done something differently, she might at least be able to face this inevitability with greater serenity and grace. Younger people imagine they'll reach an age at which death won't be so unwelcome, but it's not true, not for her. Imagine writing a Christmas letter to her friends in which she describes how bitter this feels. She cannot do it, of course, but neither can she cheerfully, or even stoically, write the news of the year. She's not sure she can even sign and address the cards.

She feels herself rolling over the lip into sleep -- something about the beach -- and flashes her eyes open again. That damned conversation. What good does it do to talk about things you can't change? She wonders if Dewey really feels better now that he's unloaded his sixty-year-old story on the rest of them. He was certainly sleeping soundly when she left. And what sense does it make to regret dying now? Think how many of her friends and colleagues have already gone, some of them so terribly long ago. Would she rather end up here, like Marjorie?

As if she knows she's being thought of, Marjorie makes a strange gurgling sound, and Trina sits up on her elbow to look over Marjorie's shoulder and see that she's all right. Then she realizes -- Marjorie is trying to sing. She hears it in the clipped way she's making those sounds. There's a rhythm to them. She can't make it out, what the song might be, but she is certain that Marjorie is singing in her sleep. This should make her desperately sad, she thinks, but it doesn't. In a funny way, it cheers her because somewhere, in there, is still Marjorie. "You funny girl," she murmurs into Marjorie's hair as she lays her head back on the pillow. They are all still themselves. She is still thirty-two years old and

setting up a tent on the beach at Rocky Neck. We dug for clams and tried to cook them right in the coals, and Patsy burned her wrist.

It's warm under the covers with Marjorie beside her. Trina works one bare foot out and rests it on top of the cotton blanket.

Why should any of them go easily through this passage? What's regrettable is that she ever expected she could. Somehow, she'd always imagined that if she lived to old age, she would face her own death differently. More like Ethel Barrymore, whose last words were something like, "Is everyone happy? I know I'm happy." A Hollywood death scene, with herself as the Oscar-winning actress. A low laugh rolls in Trina's chest, and she can't contain it -- it bursts out in a huff, and Marjorie jumps in her sleep. Trina moves her hand from Marjorie's hip and lightly rests it on the mattress against Marjorie's back. Just so they'll be touching. "Oh, God," she sighs, trying to calm the laugh still fluttering above her ribs. "I'm a piece of work." Marjorie, she knows, would agree if she could.

Trina breathes in deeply, then out, and she feels sleep creeping close again. It's all right. Or, it's not all right, but there is nothing to be done about it. Telling the others wouldn't change anything. And it's all right now, in this moment, because she is lying beside her Marjorie, which is the place she would most like to be. She closes her eyes. She imagines she can hear the snow settling on the ground. It's snowing everywhere. She's on the beach, but not on the beach, because there's a bench in Washington Square Park, and her boyfriend is standing next to it. She is so relieved to see him there, because she has been wanting to apologize to him for how terribly she behaved at his formal. She is wearing a blue dress, off the shoulder, and he is wearing a gray woolen sweater. There are very tall candles burning next to the bench, and she moves closer to them for the warmth. He stands there and listens as she apologizes, and when she is finished, he kisses her so sweetly that she thinks maybe, if she just tried, she could fall in love with him after all. After all. But it is Marjorie who is kissing her. So beautiful in a gray woolen sweater with snow in her hair.

Trina is stiff as starched linen when the morning nurse helps her out of Marjorie's bed, and Marjorie is still asleep when Trina pulls on her bathrobe and her jacket and her boots and walks home to have breakfast with Dewey.

(Permission granted by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. "A Good Regret" was originally published in Cimarron Review.)

Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the author of A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster, 2012), a historical novel set on a Hudson Valley violet farm on the eve of the 20th century. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, the Pinch, and Brain, Child among others and has been a finalist for the Iowa Review Award in Fiction. Since 2004, she has taught in the first-year writing program at Quinnipiac University. A graduate of Dickinson College, Czepiel holds an MA in English and American literature from New York University. In 2011, she was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and their two daughters.

Photo by Mark Stanczak/Quinnipiac University

Author's Statement

With a nearly full teaching load and a family at home, over the past decade I have found it nearly impossible to write and teach at the same time. Fall, winter, and spring were for teaching. Summer and school breaks were for writing; I wrote my novel over the course of four dedicated summers. I love teaching, and I would never want to give it up. Both my students and my colleagues fuel my brain and enrich my life, and I hope I do the same for at least some of them. But a summers-only writing schedule creates a very slow career trajectory. On a purely practical level, this grant from the NEA will allow me to drop some courses from my teaching load and translate that time into writing, a schedule I have already practiced for one semester thanks to a grant from the state of Connecticut. The NEA grant buys me a stunning amount of time -- enough, I hope, to finish my second novel. It also marks a subtle but powerful shift in who I am professionally: no longer a teacher who writes, but rather a writer who teaches. Most important of all, it affirms that writing is something I should be doing. That affirmation is priceless.