"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Story Merchant Books Launches Ms. Brae MacKenzie - A Romance of Mythic Identity



purchase on Amazon.com


The fog, on this chilly July morning, lingered at the Golden Gate. Brae was oblivious to everything except the sea below. Her eyes, dark green in sunlight like the sea now was in the fog, were at this moment a shrouded gray. She stared down from the bridge, hypnotized by the water, dizzied—her elegant figure swaying to the alien rhythm of its own inner tide.
The passing tugboat whistled its warning; a huge back crow shrieked at eye-level; a trans-ocean jet droned above. But Brae, on that bridge, heard nothing. The bright red of bulwarks, cables’ steel blue, golden reflections from windows and glass buildings on crowded hills, sun rising to dismiss the fog—a night cloak with no color, just gray, a precise match to her hooded eyes. Which was the source, which the reflection? Her vision was failing.
A motorist touched his brakes in alarm, then, looking in his mirror, was relieved to see the striking young woman with auburn hair wasn’t about to jump after all. She seemed authorized, standing at the forbidden railing to accomplish a licensed purpose. He lost sight of her in his rearview mirror but kept her eyes in mind until lunchtime, an alluring image of mysterious intent.
The spell was broken for her now. Brae reached down into her straw bag and removed what looked like an ancient lace handkerchief, carefully folded. She opened it quickly, cupping its contents in her hand: two gold rings, intertwined. She turned the rings to catch the tentative rays of sunlight and, when none obliged her, bit her lip, kissed the rings, and without hesitating further, flung them from the cloth into the crow’s air. Holding her breath, she ignored his raucous outcry, watched the rings hit the surface of the water and disappear. She breathed deeply as though an immense barrier, whose shape and purpose were still unknown, had now been crossed.
She cocked her head to one side, holding her left arm at the wrist with her right hand in the gesture she knew she had inherited from her father. She heeded the crow now, heard the tugs, and registered the jet— all on their ways to organize the day the way they needed to. The clue she sought was not in them, and she tilted her head, filtering out their sounds again as she had already filtered out the sounds of the traffic on the bridge.
The ceaseless traffic. Surely that was the problem. How could you hear what you needed to hear through this infernal clamor that had claimed the paradise of San Francisco for its own? The noise of the traffic washed over her now, washed through her, threatening to make her fall. It was overpowering. Of course she wouldn’t hear anything in this cacophonous place.
Brae looked at the imaginary patch of water where her immediate past had disappeared so readily, and walked slowly toward the Sausalito shore. The noise of the traffic, the tug boat’s whistles, even the crows and the jet were gone. She didn’t  smell the fumes from the double-trailer truck roaring by her or feel the rude wind of its passing. Does sensation fade with memory? Then why do I remember my childhood now? Tears started to sting her eyes. Something broken inside her told her that the past she had discarded was not her true past. She didn’t even notice the sun had vanquished the fog.
“I don’t know what’s wrong.” She handed Tommy his lunch bag. “But it’s all on me, not you, honey. Just ignore your silly mother, and have a good time.” Her voice was cheerful.
The seven-year-old boy looked at her with his dark blue eyes and blinked.  He gave her a quick kiss and darted off to the waiting van.
“See you!” he shouted.
Brae held back her tears until the day-camp van pulled away. What was wrong with her? She’d done it now. Now it was supposed to be better. Symbols require action—and she had taken the action they required this morning on the bridge. She should be free now. People die, other people survive their deaths. I’m not the first young widow—even on my block. Marita’s husband, three years ago—killed absurdly in the Colombian consulate because he happened to stop that hour for a surprise visit to his old buddy the Consul General. But Marita had soldiered on. She was living a happy, normal, productive life. She still had purpose.
After a year I still feel nothing, care about nothing, understand nothing about why I don’t feel and don’t care. Was it Tom or is it me? Brae recited her daily litany of self-criticism as she started the mechanical chores of the morning: arranging old brushes, arranging new brushes, stacking and restacking cardboard and canvas squares and triangles and oblongs. I’m losing it, losing my mind, losing my friends, losing my son, and losing my life—because no one wants to hear it any longer. Even my psychoanalyst dismissed me. Imagine that, in California! “Excessive and self-indulgent and unwilling to help yourself.” Damn. She threw a dishtowel at the neighbor’s tabby who, still licking his lips, jumped nimbly across the spilled milk glass that Tommy’d left undrunk.
Brae’s tears slowed as she poured boiling water into her favorite teapot, its oak-leaf gilding nearly worn away. The one relic—aside from the lace handkerchief—she owned of her Scottish grandmother. Thank God I decided not to cancel the London exhibit. Even if it doesn’t help me, it will be a relief for Tommy, Jason, Marita, and the few other friends she still saw. She felt like her work was an illusion done with mirrors, but as long as Jason was able to make a living pushing it, it gave her something to do. What a laugh. One more Sunset on the Golden Gate and she would throw up. She kept painting what she could no longer see—perhaps had never really seen. Brae wrenched the curtain closed, shutting out the radiant engineering and tourist marvel. She bit her lip.
Her iPhone rang.
“Yes?” she answered, with a tentative relief that, she was sure, made her callers laugh to themselves. It was Marita.
“I’m fine.” Brae bit her lip again, determined to sound fine. “I’m over it finally—on my way.”
Marita, who didn’t sound like she believed her, didn’t press the matter this morning. She was, for once, more business than counsel. Yes, she was still willing to take care of Tommy for three whole weeks after camp. Jeff would be overjoyed for the company. Yes, she could manage quite well, thank you—and would have plenty of help, since Brad, her trial spouse, had just announced he was taking children more seriously and wanted to see how they worked at close hand.
“How ingenious of him,” Brae remarked.
Marita’s silence put her back on track.
“Sorry. I was just joking, you know. Brad is perfect for you—and this is a major shift in his position.”
Marita’s voice accepted Brae’s retraction. She could leave for New York with full assurance that Tommy would be safe and sound.
“I didn’t say sane,” Marita added.
Brae laughed. Saturday morning would be fine.
On the way to SFO, with the boys wrestling in the back of Marita’s station wagon, Brae was grim; her silence the only defense she knew against the future that she feared was shaped by the failure of last week’s determination. Marita could do without one last sob session anyway. Silence was a much better going away present.
Marita accepted it until they passed Candlestick Park. “Look,” she demanded, reaching across to touch her old college roommate on the shoulder. “I am alive. I am young. I am beautiful. I have a son. I have time. I am wonderful. Say it after me.”
“I am selfish. I am spoiled. I am superficial. I am a mixed-up bitch.” Brae recited, brushing angrily at her eyes with her sleeve. “I know your catechism by heart. I wish with all my heart it were mine. It sounds so good—“
“You think it’s nonsense?”
“No,” Brae said softly, smiling at her earnest little friend. “If one thing in my dense inner fog is visible, it’s that you do not speak nonsense, your life is not fake, and your advice is the real thing. It’s me—I’m the fraud. I don’t belong on this planet with real people.”
Marita’s reply was a look of long-suffering understanding, and she shook her head to show that words failed between them. Silence was better.
Here was a woman who—despite the admitted tragedy of losing the perfect husband to cancer—had the whole wide world at her feet. At her still quite delicate and pretty feet. Brae was well-off, both from her husband and from the untold holdings that would someday come to her as Davis Mackenzie’s only child. She was enviously attractive—Marita’s gnawing envy was the proof. Her self-image had become resigned from the very day they decided to room together at Bryn Mawr. No matter what she ate, Marita’s body came out looking not quite properly balanced in the runway image. Thank God they were starting to outlaw ridiculous body-fat ratios. Brae’s healthy complexion and trim figure never really changed, whether she was starving herself for a role in a stage production or stuffing herself with designer pizza when the production ended.
Now Brae was one of the most popular and talented painters in the Bay Area—in all of California—with a Knightsbridge exhibit only two years after her first showing at MOMA. Brae was selfish, Marita thought. Unbelievably selfish, when you stopped and thought about it. How could you possibly sympathize with a woman who, with all these riches, insisted on feeling that she somehow missed the boat? Sorry over something that, while it lasted, was beautiful and happy.
At least Brae never denied the perfection of her marriage to Tom. He had been the dream husband—dashing genes, perfect teeth, a politician’s smile but the conscience of a judge, a smooth dancer—and one of the most capacious hollow legs in the Irish Catholic drinking community of Marin County. Tom and Brae were the perfect couple—the beheld of all beholders. When their son was born—Tom had ordered a male heir—Marita felt the old pangs of jealousy for what she, and everyone else, considered the enviable fate of Brae Mackenzie. Even her goddamned breasts were the perfect size—not too flat, and not too ample like her own. It wasn’t fair for one woman to have the whole shooting match.
Especially one woman who could not seem to appreciate her own good fortune.
“In one way,” she tried to explain to Brae two months after Tom’s celebrity funeral, “even Tom’s death adds to the beauty of your life.” Brae looked startled at this declaration. “I know it sounds terrible, but it gives you depth, a touch of tragedy.”
Brae began to protest that she didn’t feel Tom’s death was a tragedy, didn’t feel it had anything to do with her at all, any more than this admirably cluttered life had to do with her life. Because her life, not Tom’s death, was the tragedy. 
Marita wouldn’t listen. “Look at it this way,” she explained, trying another tack. “If he’d lived, with his kind of high-pressure pace, you’d have probably ended up in divorce like everyone else in this screwed up society. This way no one can ever take the memory of your perfect marriage away from you.”
Brae didn’t argue with Marita then, because it was futile. Marita was a die-hard romantic.  How could she make anyone understand that Marita was right for the wrong reasons? The memory could never be taken from her, true enough. Because the reality was never hers, never a real part of her, in the first place. She had kept silent then, as she did now as they approached the airport.
Marita commended herself, as she had more than once since becoming Brae’s good friend, on her own simplicity. “You can have your brooding complexities,” she told Brae once. “They’re all that stand between you and what, by anyone else’s standards, should be an extraordinarily happy life.”
The trouble was, Marita did feel sorry for her friend. Sorry because Brae couldn’t appreciate herself, couldn’t enjoy the beauty of her life and art as much as those around her did. She’d known Brae long enough to know her friend wasn’t faking her unhappiness. Baffling it might be, but not an act like the anxiety of every other neurotic at a given cocktail party. Brae was different from those around her, different even from Tom, Marita knew. She acted perpetually at a loss. Tom—a gregarious optimist from the word hello—seemed like he’d always just discovered something or someone terrific.
Even the shrink Marita sent her to last fall couldn’t help. She terminated Brae’s visits—rare even for a Berkeley psychotherapist—because, she concluded, the patient wasn’t willing to help herself. The funk Brae fell into after Tom’s death turned her into an empty shell of her former self. Made her question the validity of that self. From the day they’d met in the Bryn Mawr dorm room, when she showed up lugging every imaginable form of luggage except a normal suitcase, Brae seemed like a whirlwind that would cut its path through life without opposition, touching earth only rarely to make a friendship or accept a marriage. But at Tom’s funeral Marita could see the wind go out of her friend. “I thought I knew where I was going,” Brae had commented enigmatically, refusing to say more.
Even though she claimed she was now a zombie inside, Brae looked the same. If Marita hadn’t heard what Brae’s self-talk was like, she wouldn’t have guessed in a million years at the uncertainties that dogged her. How could any number of sessions be enough to unravel it?
“My life is flashing before my eyes all the time,” Brae moaned, “and it’s nothing but a blur!”
“It’s natural to review the past at times like this,” the stout psychotherapist remarked. “It’s how we deal with death, reorganizing life by putting the dead away from us, in their proper place in memory.”
That made Brae protest all the louder. “You don’t understand. My life is what I’m reviewing, not Tom’s. Not ours. I know he’s dead, dammit, and I know the marriage is over.”
“You feel you’re dead, too?”
“I realize I’ve been that way all my life,” she nearly shouted. It’s why she married Tom, hoping for a fix. All this prime-time confession was no help at all.
Once she’d gotten over the annual disappointment of childhood Christmases, when the tree never matched the splendor of what she expected a tree might be, Brae awaited adulthood instead of the annual holiday; going for the gold ring she called it, knowing—trusting—in her heart that maturity would bring her the satisfaction she longed for. While she waited, she learned to draw, then to paint, throwing her spirit into her fingers to distract herself from the darkness gnawing at its root. People encouraged her “art,” saying she had “vision.” Brae knew they were wrong. She had accurate observation, not vision. She hungered for vision. Adulthood brought her California, Tom, fame, and then Tommy.
Looking across the seat at her competent and contented friend, Brae wondered why life had culled her out as the butt of one of its lousiest jokes. Marita had so much less—and so much more. She enjoyed life and herself, coming to terms with both almost instinctively. Like Tom. No questions: just embrace it and love it to death. Brae’s longing for the depths of experience was probably just a perversion of her nature, a suicidal delusion. What made her think those depths existed or that, finding them, she would be any happier than Marita and Tom were on what she called the surface? Marita loved her paintings, ones Brae considered mechanical and thin. Marita loved them because “they’re vibrant and uplifting.” Brae thought them flat and soulless. They depressed her, and she was always happy to see them go out the door.
Well, what did she know? Her work was wildly successful by any struggling artist’s measure. Who was Brae to say all those happy buyers were wrong? Maybe they see something that she doesn’t. Or was it enough that the colors complimented their designer sofas?
As the car pulled up in front of the United terminal, Brae snapped herself out of it. She pressed Marita’s hand.
“Hey, you’re the best. I don’t know how you’ve put up with me all these years. I want you to know two things. I appreciate you and—”
She was interrupted by a tumbling body as Tommy hurled himself into her lap from the back seat. He is hysterical, Brae thought, in a sudden panic. She loathed departures.
Tommy was not hysterical. He was giggling, from Jeff’s latest tickling assault.
“Will you be okay, honey?” she asked her son.
His bear hug was answer enough.
“Bring me—and Jeff—a Bobby from London,” he yelled, as she passed her luggage to a baggage attendant.
Brae laughed, and looked at Marita with relief.
“Don’t worry about us,” Marita shouted. “We won’t go crazy, but we can’t promise sanity either!” She waved and pulled the station wagon into traffic.
Brae’s window seat allowed a last glimpse of the tips of the Golden Gate rising above the fog as the jet climbed into yet another cloud layer. Then the city, like her life, seemed no more than the final wisps of an uneasy dream.


She was remembering a time when she was four years old, and the fog across Long Island lured her away—until her frantic father called for the police. His daughter was missing! They located her in a willow tree less than a half-mile from the cemetery. She put up no resistance when they brought her back to where the long, sleek limousine awaited and her father paced under the huge oak tree. When he saw her, he rushed her into his arms and, without a word, tipped his hat to the policeman and bundled her into the dreadful car.
Brae awakened with a start. Her plane was making its final approach to JFK and, according to the flight attendant whose hand was still on her shoulder, it was time to fasten her seatbelt. Brae dreaded the hour to come. Once she was safe at her father’s penthouse on Sutton Place, she loved being back in New York. But she hated the transition that began at the airport.
“Sorry I couldn’t meet your plane,” Davis Mackenzie was saying. He took her bag from the doorman first, then turned to her with a smile. “Get your fanny inside, young lady.”
She laughed. Davis would never change. She adored her father’s presence—for that’s what it was, an almost tangible presence. Intensity and eternity rolled into one, as though everything important in her life was happening right now, in his immediate vicinity. And as though, regardless of what that important thing might be, he would handle it as easily as he handled all the important things before.
The transition forgotten, Brae allowed herself the luxury of burying her head in her father’s strong shoulder, holding on a moment longer than they both knew was socially acceptable.
“Where’s Valerie?” Brae asked.
“I know you’ll be broken-hearted, dear, but she’s in Connecticut and couldn’t make it back. She sent you her very best.”
They both laughed because they both knew what the other was thinking.
“Besides,” Davis added, “we have much to talk about.” He looked into his daughter’s green eyes. “Don’t we?”
Brae nodded. It was great to be home, but the last thing she wanted to do was talk. Her father understood that without words, and lugged her bags into the same bedroom she’d always slept in when she visited Manhattan. The narrow cot underneath the window that looked out at the East River and the 69th Street Bridge had as firm a place in her imagination as Heidi’s loft, and Brae saw with satisfaction that Valerie’s touch had not extended here: the room and the cot remained unchanged.
That’s a laugh, she corrected herself. They didn’t look changed. But they were now part of Valerie’s territory and, of course, that changed everything. There’s always more than meets the eye. Brae felt again the deep pang that came from recognizing, in a part of her being that knew nothing of reason, that she would never marry her father—her longest-lasting childhood fantasy.

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