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Book Jacket

0764227289
Trade Paperback
368 pages
Oct 2003
Bethany House Publishers

If I Gained the World

by Linda Nichols

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

One

1988

Everyone wondered why he had chosen her. Lenore thought about that as she peeled the potatoes, a sloppy job she usually rushed through, taking off half the potato along with the skin. She hated peeling potatoes, but Scott had asked for French fries, and Daniel said he would make them from scratch if Lenore would peel the potatoes. She would rather peel an onion than a potato any day of the week. The misery was sharper, but it was over more quickly.

Their own friends didn’t wonder, she told herself without conviction, watching the thick brown chunks of skin fly off and stick to the sides of the sink. She should be doing this over the garbage can. She cut her eyes over to see if Daniel was noticing her sloppiness. He was busy prodding the electric can opener with a screwdriver. He looked like Scott when he frowned like that. Lenore went back to the potatoes. It was mostly Daniel’s actor friends and the people he worked with at the restaurant who thought they were an odd couple, but what did they know? Still, her stomach twisted as she remembered how their eyebrows would arch up a tiny hair, a millimeter or so, when Daniel made the introductions, smoothly and without hesitation.“This is my son, Scott, and this is Lenore.” Letting them draw whatever conclusions they might after a quick look at Daniel, tall and fit and gorgeous, and then at her—thin, pale, too much plain brown hair, a weird chin. Not beautiful. Definitely not beautiful. Then would come the look—a slight squint, a clouding of the eyes with confusion. It was followed, if they were kind, by a swift recovery, an extension of the hand, a rolling on of the social stream, the wake from the slight ripple easily smoothed. But they wondered. And she knew it. It bothered her and made her even more insecure, sent her to the mirror, where she inspected her frail ribs, her flat chest, her too wild hair with something between resignation and despair. It made her feel hollow inside, hungry for something only Daniel was serving.

It was probably just the visit to her mother’s this afternoon that had put her over the edge, she told herself, regretting again that she had consented to wear one of her sister’s cut-down dresses to the party. The party. Her stomach began twisting at the thought of it even though it was weeks away. Movie stars would be there, agents and producers. Daniel had somehow gotten an invitation, and she had the suspicion that he had been planning on going alone. Had invited her only because she had overheard him discussing it with his agent. But maybe not. Maybe she was just being insecure again. A permanent condition with her, it seemed, and one that the visit with her mother and sister hadn’t helped.

“Hey, Lenore, let’s do your hair.” Her sister had clacked the scissors open and shut.

Lenore’s only reply had been to twist the thick rope of hair around her hand.

“Hold still.” Her mother had frowned up from the hem, the mouthful of pins making her lips an even thinner line than usual. She seemed exasperated, as if Lenore had failed in some moral responsibility by not filling out the dress.

“I’ll fix you right up. Give you a little style.” Leslie spoke up again from where she was lolling on her mother’s bed. She clacked the scissors once more, then began cutting threads from the chenille spread.

“Knock it off, Leslie!” her mother barked without even looking up.

Leslie grinned, unperturbed. “When’s he gonna marry you, Lenore? You know, you ought to have more self-respect.”

“Your sister’s right,” her mother chimed in, looking at her critically. “You want to live with a guy? Fine. You want to have kids? You get married. That’s the right way to do things.”

As if Mom, who had had three husbands, and Leslie, who would never have any, were authorities on morality.

“Ask him, Lenore,” Leslie urged. “I know why you don’t,” she put in without even waiting, as if the possibility that Lenore might agree to pop the question were miles away from being even remotely conceivable. “You don’t want to know. You’d rather not ask than ask and get shut down. I know I’m right.” She lifted an eyebrow and smiled, as satisfied as a cat.

Lenore stayed stoically silent, enduring Leslie, telling herself that her sister didn’t understand about her and Daniel. Leslie was wrong. Plain wrong. That was all there was to it. She looked at Leslie lolling on the bed and felt a stab of pain, as if she were seeing herself in all her homely glory. She and Leslie looked just alike, except for their hair, of course. Leslie had cut hers short in tousled layers. Lenore inspected her sister: rail thin, straight nose and mouth just like her own, white skin—kitchen appliance white, with not even a hint of flush in the cheeks. And then there was the jutting chin with the huge dimple or cleft or whatever it was, the family curse that was visited on all the Vines.

She remembered her mother inspecting Scott in the hospital just after his birth. “He doesn’t look like a Vine,” she’d said doubtfully.

“Ma, you might be a little confused about who the father is, but the mother is a pretty sure thing,” Leslie had smarted off.

But her mother was right. Scott didn’t look like a Vine. She could see him in the living room, watching cartoons, even at four a small copy of his father. The same dark hair, though Scott’s was cut in a bowl shape. The same brown eyes and golden skin. He looked like beautiful Daniel.

Lenore looked at Daniel again now, sidelong, and he was still deep in concentration, poking the little gears of the can opener with the point of the screwdriver. She felt a stab of pain and wished he were not so beautiful. She wished that Daniel, the real Daniel, could have been packed up inside some other wrapping, a nice package, but only nice enough. Now, as she peeled the last potato—surely six would be enough with only the three of them—she wondered again why he had chosen her and if he would move on.

Love is blind, she told herself, and beauty is in the eye of the one who sees. She washed the grimy potatoes and set them on a paper towel beside the sink, unearthed the pan—from the bottom of the stack, of course—poured a good amount of oil into it, and turned the burner on high.

“You put everything on high,” Daniel said, not looking up. “Then you go off and forget about it.”

“You’re watching,” she reminded him and began slicing the potatoes.

There was no reason to worry, she reassured herself. As she sliced, she began to hum, determinedly, to keep her mind from her fears. She picked one of the hymns Mrs. Larsen had played. Mrs. Larsen, the odd little baby-sitter her mother had employed the summer they’d lived in Hood River, Oregon. She’d been the organist and soloist at the Lutheran church, so every day after school as Lenore and Leslie had eaten cookies and drunk milk and watched cartoons, they’d listened to Mrs. Larsen’s reedy voice warbling out hymns to the windy accompaniment of the Hammond organ she kept in the corner of her living room. Leslie had hated it, but not Lenore. Rather than being a distraction, the music had comforted her somehow. She’d liked listening to those songs, even though she hadn’t understood them. She still didn’t, really. But they had grounded her, made her feel that something somewhere was solid and immovable, even if nothing in her world was. Mrs. Larsen’s world was a good world, a solid, heavy world, where things stayed where you put them. Mrs. Larsen didn’t wake up every morning and wonder if today would be the day Mr. Larsen would leave, and once again she felt a familiar twist of insecurity over that unanswered question.

Maybe Daniel would feel differently about marriage now. Her pulse sped up just from coming near the subject in her mind. They had discussed it, of course, especially when she’d found out she was pregnant. But she had been the one who had objected then. “I don’t want you to marry me because I’m pregnant,” she had said, hoping he would say he loved her and would insist it had nothing to do with her pregnancy. He hadn’t. He’d just nodded and left the subject. And later when it came up again, he had joked about it. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” he had quipped, then kissed her. But that had been at least a year ago. Things changed, didn’t they?

She watched him as he worked, as she waited for the oil to heat. His skin had a healthy glow, and he had that smudged, dark-around-the-edges look that made Lenore think of the Middle East. But he was from middle-eastern Kentucky, and even though he had the looks of the movie star he wanted to become, that wasn’t what she loved about him. In fact, after having lived with him for six years, the thing that made her break out of her little bubble of control, that made her wager everything—now, right in the middle of getting supper—was the wrinkles around his eyes. She certainly wasn’t planning on changing their lives while she peeled potatoes and Daniel worked on the can opener. But those tiny lines reminded her of marriage and old age and grandchildren, and hope sang out to her. She had a sudden rush of memories of their life together, as if it were played on fast-forward for her audience of one. She saw him putting the Big Wheel together last Christmas Eve, the two of them afterward, sitting on the couch sipping mulled cider. She thought of Scott’s face on that Christmas morning when he’d found the toys they’d scrimped and saved to buy. She thought of all the Christmas Eves and Christmas mornings and of Daniel’s kindness to her on the other days. She remembered how he had brought her tea and crackers before she got out of bed when she was sick and pregnant with Scott, and even now the way he cared about little things like fixing the can opener. She hesitated, teetering between fear and longing.

“Come on, Dad,” Scott called from the living room. “Come play cars and trucks.”

“I’ll be there in a minute, buddy,” Daniel said, and that was when the scale tipped.

She dried her hands on the towel, never taking her eyes off those little wrinkles, those little Y-shaped lines, those tiny forks in the road, those little signs of imperfection, reminders that they were alike, really, under the skin. She went to him. She moved the can opener and wound her arms around his waist.

“What?” He gave a half smile. She could feel the ropy muscles of his back. He pulled her close and rubbed the top of her head with his chin. It was bristly. He laced his fingers together and rested his hands in the small of her back, and she laid her head on his chest.

“What?” he asked her again. She could feel his voice vibrating under her ear.

“I love you, Daniel. I love you so much.”

“I know you do.” He sounded a little surprised. “I love you, too.”

“Daniel, will you marry me?”

Silence.

His body tensed. She stayed perfectly still, though, somehow hoping his words would make things right. But no words came. She knew then what his answer would be, and she knew she had taken everything, everything, and in one foolish gesture she had wagered it and lost.

He finally spoke, too kind to let that silence go on any longer. He gave her a little squeeze, a small chuckle. “Do I have to give an answer right now?”

“No,” Lenore said too quickly and disentangled herself from him. She returned to the potatoes, but she couldn’t see them anymore, and everything, the walls around her and the walls inside her head, had gone slick and white and blank.

Scott came in and leaned on Daniel’s leg. “Come play with me, Dad.”

“I’m coming, buddy.” Daniel’s voice was smooth. “You go pick out some cars for me.”

Scott scuffed away in his gorilla slippers. Daniel came behind her and put his arms around her waist. She could feel his rough cheek next to hers. “You caught me by surprise,” he said in a whisper. “That’s all.”

She nodded and laid her arm across his, reached back and stroked his face with the other hand, but it seemed as if only their two bodies were here and that something precious had already flown away and left them.

Daniel finally went off to play with Scott, came back and fried the potatoes Lenore had washed and peeled and sliced. She overcooked the hamburgers. They were hard, crisp little pellets, islands in the middle of a huge sea of bun.

“I burned the burgers,” Lenore said and felt the full sponge inside her getting ready to squeeze itself dry.

“It’s no big deal,” Daniel said quickly and took a big bite, eyeing her, flashing her an encouraging smile. Scott didn’t seem to notice anything. They finished supper and watched television, then put Scott to bed. All the normal things of a normal day. Daniel stepped around her carefully for the rest of the evening, as if feeling his way on ice after a thaw.

When it was time for bed, Lenore went into the bathroom to change clothes, unwilling to be near him, to let him see her. She suddenly felt ashamed. What was she doing here, after all? Living here, giving herself to this man who wasn’t who she’d thought he was. She pulled off her jeans and hung them on the hook on the bathroom door. They were still hanging in the shape of her body—half a body—the seat gently rounded, knees slightly bent, as if poised for flight. She put on her nightgown, barely able to take in the fact that the arms and legs she moved belonged to her.

She went inside the bedroom. Daniel was sitting on the bed, and when she saw him, the wound inside her got wider, as if its edges were being pulled apart. She began to cry. He looked helpless, and yet he wouldn’t say the words that would make the edges come together and start to heal.

She sat down on the bed beside him and covered her face with her hands. It would be so simple, really, for him just to say, “Of course I want to marry you. You’re the mother of my child, aren’t you? You’re the one I’ve lived with all these years, aren’t you? You’re the one I come home to every night, who knows what kind of socks I like and that I sleep on my back and that I like grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup when I’m sick. Of course I’ll marry you.” And even if he couldn’t say that he loved her in quite that open-souled, end-of-the-world way she had always loved him, just to say he loved her would be enough. Maybe it wouldn’t have been enough an hour ago, but it would be now. Anything to put a stitch into that gaping wound. Say it, she willed. Say “Of course I’ll marry you.”

But he didn’t say it. “Don’t go,” his only words.

She got up, went into the bathroom, and stayed there until there was no more creaking and adjusting on the bed, until there was no more sound at all. She came out, then stood in the dim room for a moment, taking in his still face, his closed eyes. His mouth was slightly open, his chest rising and falling with the lightness of his life. So easy, in and out, but such a vapor. So precious. So easily lost.