Several years ago, I read an article about a man who’d kept a secret family for years without anyone’s knowledge. I was fascinated that someone could and would actually do this. That one small article lived in my subconscious for years, emerging occasionally as I considered how a person might achieve this, the effects on the primary family as well as the other family, the pain, the grief, the anger, the emotional, financial, and psychological entanglements between the two, and the ultimate question; which was the real family? I became so engrossed with the emotion of the situation that I knew I had to create my own characters and my own story and so emerged, A Family Affair.
I have received many emails from readers who are wondering about Charles and Gloria Blacksworth. Who are they? How could they do what they did? The weakness? The commonness of it? The selfishness, especially for Charles and his secret life, which appeared to benefit him most of all. One of my first drafts contained a narrative in which Charles thinks about his life and his choice and is simply not strong enough to make that tough call. An integral part of his backstory is his sister, Ellie. He loved her, yet couldn’t save her from the illness that killed her. She is the one who leaves him with a parting message that propels him to enter a daring relationship with Vivian when she pleads, Live. Live for me.
And Gloria? Well, when I read her backstory, I am saddened and want to tell her ‘Wake up, don’t sell yourself!’ But wait, I’ve created Gloria, so I guess this is how I saw it play out. Two more tidbits before I post the narratives of Charles and Gloria Blacksworth. A Family Affair was initially titled Four Days a Month. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know why. And second, the ending was different for the first several drafts. I’m glad I didn’t choose it because doing so would have changed the entire dynamics of the story. Still, I want readers to know what almost was.
Four Days a Month
From Charles Blacksworth’s viewpoint
He sat in the dark, staring at the slit of moon illuminating her hair. She was asleep, the slow methodical rise and fall of the chenille spread taking her dreams away from him, safe, protected, while he hung caught between sleep and wakefulness, too afraid to close his eyes lest he miss these last few hours with her. It was always like this, the dread mixed with the longing, pulling at him, shredding his sanity.
God. He ran both hands over his face, settled his gaze once again on the tiny arc of wheat chenille. She deserved better, more, certainly more than this. For ninety-six hours a month they were a family, doing family things; peeling potatoes for mashing, changing light bulbs, raking leaves. And then he left, returning to his other life, moving through the days in his hand-tailored suits and starched white shirts, CEB monogrammed in bold block letters on the right cuff as though he were in someone else’s body, speaking someone else’s thoughts, wearing someone else’s clothes. Living someone else’s life, and all the time waiting…
Timing is the key to a good life, his father had told him. Of course, he’d been referring to the stock market, getting in, getting out, capitalizing on the deal, making money. His father, Randolph Ellis Blacksworth, had known about that all right; he’d started Blacksworth & Company Investments of Chicago in 1957 with a handful of investors and a sublease on a second story suite on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago—a dingy, faded red brick building with leaky plumbing and cracked plaster. But by year five, he’d paid back all of his investors and rented the first and third floors. By year fifteen he owned the entire building. Year twenty-five, he’d expanded his properties to include two more buildings, and by year thirty, Randolph Ellis Blacksworth graced the covers of Fortune, Forbes and Money, a commanding presence puffing on a cigar in a pinstripe suit, his much-coveted pocket watch visible to the world.
But timing was about more than cashing in on an investment. Charles knew that, had always known that, even if his father had not. It was timing that brought joy or misery to a person’s existence; ten years could make an oldest child a youngest, shed him of duty and responsibility, strip family titles, permit him to follow his destiny, not that of his father’s. Timing granted freedom, to live, to love, to choose… or it claimed that same freedom, imprisoning it in duty, demands, and expectations.
Those who knew him through business or country club functions would say that he, Charles Edwin Blacksworth, was both fortunate and blessed. Fortunate to be the eldest, heir to the prestigious firm of Blacksworth & Company Investments, fortunate to sit on the board as its CEO, blessed to have a beautiful wife, a gifted daughter, fortunate to own a 7,000 square foot Tudor in Essex Estates, a membership to Silver Leaf Country Club, two Mercedes. Blessed to have his family close to him. Fortunate and blessed. But Charles knew better.
In the early days people had expected him to accept his wealth and opportunities with casual graciousness, as one who is used to, even anticipates the best possible outcome. But expectation quickly overrode anticipation, beating it to the ground, squeezing the breath from it until there was nothing left but what others thought he should do and he himself knew he must do. And for years he did just that; bowed to expectation. It hadn’t mattered that his first love had been medicine or that he possessed a driving passion to study cell proliferation, find a cure for cancer, change the medical world. You’re a Blacksworth, his father had said, when Charles told him the week before he graduated from MIT that he’d been accepted to Georgetown Medical School. You’ll run the company one day, make a difference, change the way people think about money… So, Charles had walked away from Georgetown, buried his dream and studied stocks and commodities instead of micro-organisms and disease processes. And he was successful, a born leader many said, a natural. This is where you belong—his father’s words remained buried deep in his skull for the next twenty years—here, in the boardroom, not in some cramped lab squinting at germs under a microscope.
Expectation presented itself again six months after graduation in the form of a young socialite named Gloria Elizabeth Canstell, daughter of Ernest Canstell, president of MidCity National Bank, and a close friend of Randolph Blacksworth. Gloria had studied international finance at Vassar, planned to work abroad, London was her first choice. But Ernest Canstell and Randolph Blacksworth had other plans; they foresaw the potential for a great merger between families, one that would boost their companies’ strongholds in the market, make them undefeatable. A union of this magnitude would be incredible, especially during these times… you’d be doing the family a great service… and she’s not bad to look at either… Charles had only nodded and seven months later, he and Gloria married and bought a house in the prestigious Essex Estates where she busied herself with decorators and landscapers and never again mentioned London or the value of the euro.
Timing… what if Gloria had accepted her aunt’s invitation to visit London right after graduating from Vassar, spent the summer in Europe instead of succumbing to her father’s urgent request to share one last season with him before embarking on her future? What then? Would Charles be sitting here now, in this chair, staring at the slit of light so hard his vision blurred, willing the morning not to come?
He didn’t blame Gloria. She’d been a victim of other’s expectations, their desires so enticing, so real, making them plausible, even predictable. She’d gotten caught just like him, trapped in her own weakness.
How could it be that after all these years he was still trapped, still bound by that same sense of duty and expectation that had determined his life as a young man? His father had been dead for years yet his presence was not, nor was the steady reminder of the company, or its employees. Then there was his daughter… and Gloria. Everyone wanted something from him—a piece, a promise, and he could not disappoint them. He couldn’t, so he continued to sit at the head of the company, attend board meetings, pull his lips into a faint smile, shake hands and nod. He did all of this in exchange for ninety-six hours a month.
Ellie would be furious if she could see him now, know what thoughts were running through his head. Stop! Stop it now, Charlie, she’d say. They’re not worth it, none of them except Christine. You don’t owe them anything; you know that, don’t you? Well, don’t you?
But the truth was he didn’t know that. People had depended on him for so long that even his younger sister’s words could not appease the guilt and lacking that gnawed at him like the leukemia that had taken her from him almost fourteen years ago. The pain of losing her still sat wedged in his chest like a tumor the size of a grapefruit. Ellie, christened Eleanor Ruth Blacksworth, had been thirty-nine, five years younger than Charles when she died, yet bound to him tighter than anyone. He sometimes thought he’d continued in the business for Ellie, to carry forth her vision. She was the one who loved the business, let it pull her from day to day with a passion he both admired and regretted. Blacksworth & Company was her life and there’d been no one else, no husband or child to garner blocks of time, love, or affection. Only the Company and himself.
Charles missed Ellie, missed her throaty laugh and sharp tongue, missed the way the sunlight spilled over her cap of curly brown hair as she studied projections, sipping black coffee from a bone china cup. Until chemotherapy yanked the lustrous strands from her head, leaving in their place a few dull wisps which she hid under a yellow bandana.
Chemotherapy. It had to kill in order to save and then sometimes, it still couldn’t save. It hadn’t saved Ellie. She’d died on a Sunday afternoon in mid-July. It had been so god-awful hot, and all she’d wanted that day was a taste of peach ice cream. He’d found nine gallons of Peaches n’ Cream, bought them all and rushed to the hospital, desperate to show her he wasn’t ready to let her go, not at least until she’d worked her way through all nine gallons, and then the other ten he had on order from Lee’s West End Market. She’d managed two teaspoons before she fell back on her pillow, tears rimming her eyes, falling down her sunken cheeks.
I can’t do this any longer, Charlie.
No. No, Ellie.
I’m so tired.
You’re a fighter. You’ll beat this.
Charlie… you have to let me go.
Please. Ellie. Please don’t leave me.
I love you, Charlie.
Live. Live for me.
She died that night, lifted from the cracks of a gaunt shell, shriveled and grayed from deficient white blood cells and massive doses of chemotherapy. But the essence of Eleanor Ruth Blacksworth lived on, beside him, within him, every day. She was the reason he was here, sitting in this chair. Live. Live for me. And he was living; ninety-six hours a month, he was breathing full-out, open, free. The other days, he just existed.
Perhaps, this month he’d find the strength, expose the lies, merge past with present … He fell back against the soft cushion of the overstuffed chair, closed his eyes. Perhaps this month …
From Gloria’s Blacksworth’s viewpoint
Gloria Blacksworth had developed an aversion to morning years ago. She much preferred the darker tones of night—muted, calming, less transparent. Summer was the most unbearable. There were full days in the heat of July when Gloria remained in her bedroom, blinds drawn, the chenille afghan tucked around her legs as she reclined in bed, a small mountain of carefully arranged pillows behind her back, a carafe of Starbuck’s Columbian at her side, the Crown Royal that she ‘splashed’ in her coffee hidden in the bottom drawer of the cherry nightstand.
Thank God it was January. Why did everyone dislike winter, complain that the air was too cold, the sun too sparse, the skies too bleak? Couldn’t they see that winter provided the perfect camouflage for those who chose not to be seen, who preferred to blend into days, weeks, months, not under the harsh light of the sun’s illumination but in the gray sameness of a winter landscape?
Life had cheated her, stripped the grace and agility from her body; one freakish accident with her prized mare had left her with a broken back and pain so fierce, that not even the Vicodin in her bedside drawer could completely erase it. Too many years and countless tablets hadn’t stopped the pain, neither had the Valium or the Percodan that her friend, Roger Leone suggested. He was an orthopedic man, he knew about pain, what worked, what didn’t, what might. The pills helped smooth out the rough edges, cast a haze over the excruciating debilitation seizing her body.
She turned toward the nightstand. A stab of pain shot down her spine. Good God. Gloria slid a pack of Salem Lights from the top of the nightstand, fished out a cigarette. No one knew what she put up with every day, had lived with for the past sixteen years. Arthritis they called it, tangled around the length of her spine, knotty and coarse, pinching and throbbing, all because of one stupid second when she’d lost her concentration, forgotten about the steep jump that required an extra lift from Madame Bovary’s hind quarters. She’d been thinking about telling Charles she wanted to take a trip to London, just the two of them. At the time, she’d even considered broaching the subject she’d been obsessing with for the past three weeks—joining the firm and becoming Blacksworth & Company’s liaison for its international clients. She was qualified, capable, and ready. Christine had been eleven at the time and Gloria knew she couldn’t spend one more afternoon with the Junior Women’s League discussing draperies and low-fat diets.
London would have been wonderful, filled with endless opportunity, maybe even a second chance for her and Charles to get… reacquainted. Maybe. But the possibilities never left her thoughts, never formed themselves into words that Charles might hear and respond to, whether a yes or no. None of it had happened because one crisp October afternoon Gloria forgot to pull up on Madame Bovary’s reins, and the mare had stumbled, fallen forward against the fence and then down, taking Gloria with her, the shrill scream of rider and animal blending as they hit the ground. Madame Bovary’s weight crushed Gloria into the black dirt, killing the possibility of London and international liaison. Killing everything.
Gloria blew out a faint puff of smoke, set her cigarette in the ashtray. Charles didn’t like the fact that she smoked. Do you think perhaps you could give these up? he’d asked right after their honeymoon, holding a pack of cigarettes between his tanned fingers. Maybe try? That was all he had to say, so polite, unassuming, but she would have done anything to capture his smile. She’d snatched the pack—Virginia Slims at the time—and tossed it into the fireplace, watched the cellophane darken and shrivel, the gold letters singe to black. It had been hard but she’d done it, she’d quit on the spot, though for weeks after she’d stood by her friends as they puffed on their cigarettes, Kools, Salems, Benson & Hedges, and she’d inhaled deeply, trying to suck in gulps of tobacco smoke, anything to breathe nicotine into her body. Eventually, the craving waned or perhaps it was smothered by Charles’s disappointed look one night as he watched her sidle up to a group of women ringed in gray smoke and open her mouth wide, drawing in puffs of exhaust, greedy, starving for one more fix. The why hadn’t mattered, nothing had but staying away from the nicotine rush… to please her husband.
She’d started again fourteen years ago. It was really quite innocent, the starting again, sparked by nothing in particular, at least that’s what she told herself. It might have been the beauty of her friend Elsie’s cigarette case, an artful needlepoint bouquet of slender pink and red roses set against black that drew her to pick it up, take a quick peek inside. There’d been six Salems in the pack. She’d lifted the case to her nose, inhaled so deeply even today she still remembered the nicotine filling her lungs. Then she’d sat down at the kitchen table and smoked all six.
But maybe it hadn’t been the case or the desire for the nicotine rush at all. Maybe, and this was a possibility she didn’t dwell on too often, she’d been driven by the incessant magazine ads, the beautiful men and women dressed in Halston and Blass, talking, laughing, smiling, fingers touching, caressing, slim cigarettes dangling from well-manicured nails. Gloria had wanted to be like these people, not just to look like them, because in truth, she was more beautiful than many of the overdone women in the glossies. No, she didn’t want their sun-streaked hair, their tummy tucks, Botox injections, or red acrylics. What she wanted was more elusive.
She wanted what hid behind the smiles. She wanted their intimacy, their joy. There were too many spaces in her life, too much emptiness with nothing and no one to fill them, not husband, child… not even self.
Where had it all gone? Was it the chronic pain that had stripped her sense of self away, stolen her happiness, replaced it with a beautiful, fragile sculpture that could not touch or be touched without hurting? And was the pain physical in nature, or more visceral, brought on by an injury to her innate being, heart, mind, soul?
It didn’t matter, not really. She filled the house with lemon air fresheners and bowls of cinnamon hard candies and kept the only ashtray in the house, a small, blue ceramic dish Christine had made in art class, in the bottom drawer of her nightstand. And of course, she only smoked four days a month when Charles was out of town. Even her clothing was carefully aired to dispel the clinging acridness of cigarette smoke. It all required planning and thoughtfulness but the subterfuge was minor compared to secrets many husbands and wives kept from one another.
She leaned forward, slid open the bottom drawer of her nightstand and eased out a half-empty bottle of Crown Royal. A smile slid across her face. Charles would be home tonight. Greta was most likely busy in the kitchen already, preparing the meal for this evening; lamb with sage and roasted garlic, asparagus in a light hollandaise sauce, heavy cream upset Charles’s stomach, roasted potatoes, apple strudel. She ran a hand through her hair, felt the tangle at the back of her head. She had an appointment with Oliver at Mon Ami’s in two hours, a ‘color lift’ as he called it. Oliver said she had gorgeous hair, like ‘sun shining on a field of wheat.’ And like the wheat, every now and again her hair needed a bit more ‘sun’ to turn its natural hue. You are a most gorgeous woman, he said with an assessing smile every time she stepped into his chair, his French accent molding his words into a liquid body massage. Exquisite. Your husband is a very fortunate man.
Yes. Charles was a very fortunate man. She took another drink of coffee, enjoyed the whiskey burn as it traveled down her throat. Fortunate, indeed.
She set the cup down, picked up the cigarette and sucked hard. What to wear tonight? Perhaps the beige Armani silk dress. No, that was too drab unless she dressed it up with pearls or the diamond marquis necklace Charles had given her for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary; two carats, everyone commented on it. Yes, that’s what she would wear tonight. She snubbed out the cigarette and reached for the bottle of Vicodin, flipped the top open. Some women took no pride in their appearance. They went shopping in shorts, faded and stained no less, and oversized shirts and flip flops, especially the young mothers. Didn’t they know they looked slovenly with their hair tossed up in a barrette or worse yet, hidden under a ball cap? A woman should act like a woman, dress like a woman, not some advertisement for the athletic department. And then there were the overweight ones, hiding underneath smocks large enough to fill in as a circus tent with nothing to constrict or remind them that they needed to reconsider their dietary regime. The only reminder would be the mirror and it was doubtful any of them relied on that, overweight or not.
Even Christine, a professional woman, childless, husbandless, traipsed around in sweatpants and sweatshirts. Why? What was wrong with her? With all of these women? No wonder more than half of all marriages failed. What man would want to come home every night to a woman who dressed like a man? And then served him macaroni and cheese out of a box or worse, pizza from the delivery boy? Gloria tapped out a Vicodin, popped it in her mouth and swallowed.
When Charles came home at night she made sure she was dressed accordingly—Chanel pantsuit, Claiborne dress, Blass pants and blouse. When Charles came home she served him Chateaubriand or veal scaloppini with new red potatoes drizzled with butter and sprinkled with chives.
When Charles came home… tonight…
Four days a month wasn’t so bad; it was actually quite tolerable. She took a healthy sip of coffee, then another. Some women’s husbands were gone for weeks at a time or at least every week, even had apartments in other cities across the country, and only spent Saturdays and Sundays at home. Not Charles. Her husband was gone four days a month—ninety-six hours and then he was home, sleeping right beside her in their four-poster king size bed.
Gloria smiled. He’d be here by seven as usual. And of course, Christine would come, and that ridiculous fool Charles called a brother. Harry Blacksworth was nothing but a drunk living off of his family’s good name. But Charles insisted Harry be invited and damn that man, Harry always came. He had gall coming to their home, laughing, talking to Charles as though he deserved to be there, as though nothing had happened. Sometimes she wanted to just open her mouth and let the words fall out in one screaming jumble, let Charles know the truth about his little brother, Harry. But she wouldn’t, she’d never tell. And Harry Blacksworth knew that.
Januarys in Chicago were bleak, the mornings marred by the previous night’s swell of ice or snow. Years ago, she’d welcomed the wet darkness with its cold harsh winds, thought it would be the perfect test for what was to come when she moved to London… Now the mornings brought pain to her back, the arthritis tightest during damp weather like a fist gnarled around her vertebra, squeezing. Still, she preferred dark winter months to summer’s brilliance. There was too much symbolism in the white light, too many lost possibilities.
She’d suffered her first miscarriage three months before her first anniversary, during a scorching July fourth weekend. Fireworks split the sky as splotches of bright red stained her white shorts, doubling her over in cramped spasms. The doctor said she’d barely been pregnant. Eight months later she lost another child, this one five months along, much more than barely pregnant. It was August eighth,, she’d just stepped out of the shower and reached for a towel when the pain ripped through her uterus, buckling her knees, slumping her to the floor. She gripped her belly with one hand and clamped the other low, trying desperately to stop the blood that oozed between her legs. So much blood, too much for the baby, a boy she named Charles Edwin. They buried him in St. Thomas’s Cemetery two days after Gloria was discharged from the hospital with a new pint of blood flowing through her veins and a prescription for Valium.
There was another barely pregnant loss the next year which kept her in bed three months afterward, too listless to comb her hair or shower, or even eat. What was the point? But eventually Charles coaxed her into seeing a doctor who prescribed more Valium and life was once again back on a steady, slightly tilted track.
And then, just after her fourth anniversary, a horrible time when she wondered if there would be a fifth, she found herself pregnant with Christine.
Living could be such a difficult proposition. Thank God for pills to smooth out the rough spots, blend the hours like an artist dipping his brush in water and smearing it on a canvas dotted with paint. Everything ran together—the beginning, the end, the edges, the middle—it was all the same, all even, all tolerable.
Gloria stared at the white tablet in her hand. Life really was an ugly undertaking, stripped naked with bruises and scars that could make even the most adventurous individual reconsider the trek unless he chose an easier route, a way to get through it, or maybe around it, whether it be with another person, a pill, a bottle, even a charge card could suffice at times. She popped the pills in her mouth, took a sip of Crown Royal.
She was doing quite well considering the circumstances, had made it through the calling hours, the service, the small gathering after the funeral, the hundreds of bodies hugging her, shaking her hand, kissing her cheek, mouthing the same words, So sorry, Charles was such a wonderful man. We’ll all miss him, over and over. She’d pasted the half-smile on her face, forced herself to reply, Yes, we’ll all miss him, and Harry, standing in the background, watching her. She fished another Vicodin from the bottle, swallowed it, noticed there was only a third of a bottle left. She’d have to call Roger, talk to him about upping the dose, the damn stuff just didn’t work like it used to. Of course, he’d tell her that wasn’t a good idea, that’s what he’d said when she’d been on Percodan. He’d said she should consider alternative therapy in conjunction with the pills—acupuncture, bio-feedback, massage. But in the end he’d pulled out his prescription pad and written her name on it. He’d do the same now, tonight actually, when she saw him and Astrid for dinner.
And tomorrow she was meeting with Beverly and Rita to start planning the Women’s Auxiliary Spring Fashion Show. They’d thought she wouldn’t be interested in chairing the program this year, that she might need time alone; to recover, reorganize, regroup. Oh, God, if they only knew.
Charles was dead. How was she to move forward? Thirty-one years together wiped out with a single phone call. What did women do when the other half of their existence was brutally erased?
What would she do?
Christine was all she had now and she was leaving for the Catskills in two days. Gloria supposed it was her daughter’s way of dealing with her grief; going to the last place her father had been, perhaps even locating the spot where his car had flipped and he’d taken his last breaths. Why would a person torture herself like that? The knowing should be enough without the details. Details killed people’s souls, drove them mad. It was better not to know, not to ask question after question, prying apart truth from lie. It was better just to accept.
And ignore the details.
Stay tuned for A Family Affair:Spring…coming late 2013!