Understanding Green
David Appell

"All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience."
--Henry Miller

When I returned from lunch there were two messages on my desk. One was from my mother, calling no doubt to tell me about her latest adventure with my father. The other was from Joyce, my older sister. Joyce calls me perhaps four times a year, as if to give me a quarterly report on her life, but rarely when I am at work. I called her back immediately to see if her balance sheet had made it to the black.

As soon as I said hello she asked, "Did she call you yet?"

I knew she meant our mother. I pretended I didn't get my mother's message. This was sneaky but not really a lie, since I didn't actually speak to our mother when she called. Besides, this way I thought I could find out a little about what was going on.

"Well, we're invited to the house. For dinner. All three of us. This Saturday. They have something to tell us." For an English professor, she sometimes speaks in remarkably incomplete sentences, especially since she doesn't have tenure. "In August. Can you believe it? It's not even a holiday. Something's up." Jumpy Joyce, we called her as teenagers. Always nervous, always the first to conjure up suspicion.

"I for one wouldn't mind getting out of the city on a weekend day in August. At least it will be green."

"Right," she said.

"Besides, she probably just wants to show us a giant zucchini in her garden. Or maybe she converted the den to a hydroponic farm."

"Right, Marc," she said somewhat coldly. I get a great deal of pleasure out of showing my sister what it is like to be normally weird. It is something she never got the hang of.

"Well, I think something's up. But you obviously couldn't care less. I guess I'll see you there then," she said.

"Not if I see you first," I said as straight as I could. I heard her sigh loudly before she got the handset back in its cradle.

When I arrive at my parents' house on Saturday afternoon Joyce and Pam are sitting on the back deck above the swimming pool. Joyce is drinking an iced tea and Pam has a glass of wine. The reverse might make the day go a little smoother, I think. Our little sister Pamela can get pretty wild.

"Where are they?" I ask.

"Upstairs," Pam says with a bored toss of her head. "I think we might have caught them in the middle of something." Since when did she find sex boring, even if it was between our parents?

I pull up a chair. We are each alone, two by choice. I'm separated for nearly a year, after three years of marriage. We are going through the legalities now. Pam is by herself today, but she could have her choice of nearly any man, as beautiful as she is. She usually sees three or four of them at once, and no doubt they are all wondering where she is today and which of the others she is with. I think she enjoys that. Only Joyce resents the whole of mankind because someone had once fallen in and out of love with her. Of course, it isn't that simple. She hadn't liked it a lot before then -- mankind, that is -- but the experience hastened her quest to find the worst in everything. Now bitterness is turning her into a frump. It is not easy to watch your sister turn into a frump, especially when she is in her early thirties. She isn't unattractive, when she tries.

But she has stopped trying. Perhaps she doesn't even realize it. I would like to tell her this, but I don't know how to begin.

I sit next to them and wait for our parents to come down. Joyce is reading the Times, and Pam gets up to go into the house and pour herself another glass of wine. "Need anything?" she says to me.

"Yeah. Peace, happiness and eternal life."

She pauses for a few seconds, just the right amount. "Well, how about a glass of white zin instead?"


She gives me a wink as she opens the sliding glass door.

Pam comes out and hands me the glass and sits next to me. "So how's it doing?" she asks. I know she means my heart. After Laurie left suddenly for another man, Pam helped me more than anyone -- listening, supporting, encouraging. She worked gently but steadfastly to cushion me, then to pull me up, to reassure me, and to help me through the last wintry year. A deep hole opened in my life when Laurie left, and the trees dropped their leaves and stood leaning into the brisk wind, so the landscape seemed barren -- scorched and defoliated. I am still adjusting -- hurting, lonely, but working now to be content with myself first. I can feel small green shoots beginning to break through the black ground, thanks mainly to my younger sister. She is the strongest person I know.

We live only twelve blocks apart on the Upper East Side, though we see each other more often at my parents' than we do in the city. We are both busy. But when my marriage ended I found myself seeking her out, for companionship, but also because I wanted to be with someone who understood me instinctively. I missed that most of all when Laurie left, and yet now I'm not sure we even had such an understanding, only having been together for a few years. Perhaps I missed simply the idea of it. At night, when the sun went down and the city became closed and cold, and all I felt was loneliness, I would call Pam and leave a message on her machine. I then waited until she came home, and within seconds I would begin to pour out my pain to her. She would listen and then ask why didn't I come over and spend the night at her place? I would always joke and ask her if she was sure she was going to be alone that evening -- with Pam you could never be sure. And then I would jog the twelve blocks to her building as fast as I could. Every time I stepped into her apartment it felt in some ways like I was coming home.

We would talk far into the night. She was a wonderful listener, and when she felt the time was right she would give me her thoughts. Laurie was selfish and wrong, she would say, you deserve better, and you need to remember that. Get through this, and you'll come back stronger for it. I needed to hear that, and I wanted to believe her. She made it sound so simple, like she had all the answers, as though life was a chess game and she was a grand master. Just take care of yourself, she said, and the rest will fall into place.

"Be like a tree," she said once. "Keep your roots in the ground and spread your branches and let your leaves soak in the sun."

"And what about when autumn comes?" I asked.

"Accept it. But most of all, don't forget that spring is just around the corner."

I began to stay at her place four or five nights a week, sleeping on her couch. In the mornings I would rise early and walk back to my own apartment to get ready for work. One morning, as I walked sleepy-eyed into her elevator, I pressed the wrong button and found myself on the floor that led to the roof instead of the lobby. I decided to go out and look at morning coming over the city. As I stood at the edge in the early November sun and listened to the city wake up, as I felt the chill and light in the air, I glanced to my side. There, next to a ventilation shaft, pushing out of the gravel and tar on the dirty rooftop, was a small sapling. It had perhaps a dozen leaves, the tips of which were just beginning to turn yellow. The leaves in the park had already turned and dropped, and yet here, in the most unlikely of places, a small, lonely tree struggled for life and clung to its green.

I stood and looked at that tree for half an hour, and I decided that maybe things would be all right. I rarely stayed overnight at Pam's after that.

We are in the middle of a conversation about whether Pam should be wearing blush on such a hot day. Pam has worn blush since she was eight years old. Joyce, who asked the question, has taken the negative. "Especially out here," she says.

"It's Long Island, for Christ's sake, not the Yukon," I reply.

"Besides, there's a lot of pain in this face that I need to cover up," Pam quips.

Joyce takes her seriously. "You? Pain? Ha."

Pam opens her mouth to reply, but I put my hand on her knee and say quietly, "Don't get her started." Suddenly our parents show up. They smile and hug and kiss us while we exchange greetings. Even my father, who usually shakes my hand. Then he lingers around Pam. She was always his favorite.

"So what's up?" Pam asks.

"You're not pregnant, are you?" says Joyce. Pam rolls her eyes, but I think it might be Joyce's way of trying to make a joke.

"Of course not," our mother says, laughing. "We just have something we have to tell you. But it can wait until after dinner."

"Well, I'm certainly wet with anticipation," Pam says. Joyce shoots her a glance. It seems the wine might be starting to go to her head.

I help my father get the barbecue going. He is wearing his tall chef's hat and his apron. It has an inscription on the front, a paraphrase of Descartes: "I cook, therefore I am." He loves it. Cooking now gives him more joy than anything else in his life, except my mother.

Joyce insists we eat inside, "because of the flies." After we are seated my father brings the food to the table: teriyaki chicken, asparagus polonaise and a chardonnay he has picked. Joyce has a glass, but Pam and I decline and stick to the zin. My father pretends that he is upset at our lack of manners, and my mother smiles to herself.

One by one we finish and wait, as if a show is about to begin. But first my father must serve strawberries and cream. Halfway through my mother puts her spoon down, and we know that is our cue to begin listening.

"Your father and I have made a decision," she says.

I look at Pam, then at Joyce. The last time my mother said this they completely redid the interior of the house. We were all still living at home then. We made it through that, but barely.

She looks at my father. "Do you want to tell them, dear, or should I?"

"Go right ahead, dear."

She looks us each in the face for about a second and says, "Your father and I are going to get a divorce."

I start to laugh but nearly choke on a strawberry. Pam raises her eyebrows, trying to figure out the joke. Joyce reaches for her glass of wine. My parents wait and watch us, but nobody moves.

"I told you they wouldn't believe us," my mother says to my father.

"Really, Mother," Pam says. "We would have come out just for a visit -- you didn't have to make up some lame excuse to trick us."

"Darling, we're serious."

"Right," says Joyce. "You've been married for thirty-three years, happier than any couple I've ever seen, and now you're going to get a divorce?" It is, for her, quite a long sentence.

"Yes. Why not?"

"Why not? Because people don't do that, that's why not! I thought you loved each other."

Finally my father says something. "We do love each other, Joyce, very much." Simple.

My mother embellishes. "Of course we love each other, sweetheart. We always will. You can't stop that."

"You're serious, aren't you?" I ask.

She looks straight at me and her eyes ask me to believe her. "Yes, Marc, we are."

I stumble for a word. I ask a question, some combination of how and why.

"Well," she says, "we've decided that it would be best if we stopped being husband and wife and simply remained friends. Now that you all are grown and we're both older, we want to do different things. As you know, I've always wanted to take a few years and travel around the world. Now finally I have the time and the money. I might even settle in France. Who knows? We've thought about it and talked about it for quite some time now. It feels right."

"And what about you, Daddy?" It is Pam.

"Well, I have a chance to open a restaurant in California with a partner. I think I'd like to sell the business and give it a try. Maybe write my cookbook, finally."

"How splendid!" Pam exclaims, too enthusiastically.

Joyce interrupts. "But aren't you going to miss each other?"

"Of course," says my mother. "It's not like we'll never see each other again. It is possible to love someone without being next to them every day. But after spending half your life with someone, even someone you love, well... sometimes a change is appropriate. Who knows what will happen? Maybe we'll each meet someone and fall in love. Maybe we'll have dinner three years from now and decide to get married again." She pauses, then adds, "Wouldn't that be romantic?"

None of us says anything. Finally my father speaks.

"This may be hard for you to imagine at your ages, but a person gets tired of chasing security their entire life. The familiar can become the despised, if you're around it too long. The best hitters go out on top."

"What a terrible analogy," I say. "This is life, not a game." If nothing else, my own divorce is teaching me that.

"Well, I don't know if it's an analogy," my father says, "but it's certainly like an analogy." He smiles. It is one of his oldest jokes.

After a short pause Joyce asks him, "Aren't you afraid of dying alone?"

"No," my father says, becoming serious. "I'm more afraid of dying without doing all the things I want to do."

After the dishes are cleared my parents tell us they are going on a walk. I think they want to give us time to talk. We drift to the den, where Pam begins to shoot pool. She has graduated from wine to vodka and soda. I take a cue stick and join her. Joyce keeps to one side of the room and paces.

"I just can't believe it," she says.

"I know." I don't know what else to say.

"I mean, look at us. They were our last hope."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Pam asks.

"Well, look at us," Joyce says. "None of us has ever had a successful relationship. At least they did. I always found that comforting."

"I resent that," says Pam. "Speak for yourself."

"I didn't mean this week," Joyce sneers. Pam glares at her, but having scored a quick point, Joyce keeps going. "I thought they would never split up. I mean, of all the people in the world... it's like they were made for each other." Joyce sits down, and suddenly she looks very weary. It seems that she is taking this the hardest of anyone. I suppose it is because she has the strongest need to believe that things can work out between two people. Misanthropes always do. She hides it extremely well, but it only convinces me more. I know her too well.

"Well, I can sure as hell understand it," Pam says. She puts her head down and takes a quick shot, hitting the ball hard. "Thirty-three years is a long time. Things would get pretty boring after that long. Imagine sleeping with the same person for thirty-three years. What could you possibly do that would be new and exciting?"

"They seem to suffer through it okay," I say.

"Sure, but they must wonder about other people. They must want the excitement of meeting someone, kissing them for the first time, doing it with someone new."

Joyce always responds to Pam's remarks like this, and she's looking to score another point. "Not everyone thinks about sex, you know."

"True," Pam replies, as she sees an opening. "Some people actually have it, too."

Joyce leaves the room.

With Joyce gone I try to sort through some of what has happened today. I am still shocked about my parents. Like Joyce, I too have often compared our parents' relationship to our own. Either we missed something crucial, or they simply found the secret. I am upset at them -- though proud too, in a way I can't quite explain. But after a while I realize I also feel something about Pam -- she has not said much about all this. She has been too cavalier, too flippant. At the same time, I sense a tightness in the room that seems to come from her.

I have always been the only one who could ever really talk to Pam. We are only a year apart, which is a big reason for our closeness. I was her big brother -- not that I could ever teach her much, because she always seemed to know more than I did, about everything. But I could protect her or rescue her, depending on the situation. Joyce was never able to do that, for either of us. Joyce is four years older than me, but she has always seemed like she was somewhere else, like she was from another generation. Even now, when four years is not as long as it once was.

"Pook," I say, "aren't you the least bit surprised?"

Now that we are alone I can use her nickname. She made me stop using it in front of others when she was eleven, but she's never objected to my using it in private. It is my way of letting her know it is only me.

"No," she says, acting tough. "Why should I be?"

She seems prepared to dig in deep if I pursue this particular line of the conversation, so I make a slight shift. "Well, you certainly were surprised when I announced I was getting a divorce."

"That was different."


"For one thing, you called me every night for a month and cried."

Pam has been slippery like this for all of her adult life. She is the kind of person everyone wants to be around -- always fun, with a twinkle in her eye. But if you ask her something deep, if you get too close to her core, she jabs and darts and ends up behind you, arms back down at her sides, smiling while working to catch her breath. Everyone gives up at this point. But today I feel that I should pursue her across the ring.

We play nine-ball for several minutes, exchanging brief phrases so that the game proceeds on course. I can tell she is thinking. After she misses an easy shot she stands up and looks at me.

"What was the first thing you thought of when Mother said they were getting a divorce?"

"I don't know. Disbelief, I guess."

"No. I mean what was the first image that came into your mind?"

I pause.


What had flashed into my mind was how bitter I felt when she left, and how much it hurt. It hurt because after everything that happened I still loved her in many ways and yet I almost hated her, and I didn't want to do that. And I missed her and I wanted another chance, and I knew that was gone forever. It hurt because I wanted exactly what my parents had, and yet every day I wondered if I would ever find that or if I was the type who would bounce through life without it, making do, bucking up, falling down. I wondered how my parents could willingly give it up. I still thought about her fifty times a day. I feel afraid to try again. I didn't know how to get what my parents had, let alone ever think about giving it up. It is strange that a single name can come to symbolize so much.

Pam pauses to let my feelings soften. Finally she says, "You know what I immediately thought of?"


"Miss Flowers."

"Dad's secretary?"


"Why?" I am surprised. It has been years since we had last seen her. On summer days when we were bored my mother would put Joyce in charge and give us train fare to go to my father's office for lunch. Miss Flowers was always the first and last thing we saw there. She was a large woman who smelled funny -- in a former time she would have been called a spinster. Even children could tell she was lonely. She doted over my father, and she doted over us because we were his children. Pam, especially, had never liked her.

She looks at me but is silent.

"Why, Pook?"

She puts her cue stick back in the rack and goes behind the bar to mix herself another drink. She says nothing, and I look at her but decide to wait. Finally she looks back and says what she has been thinking. "Because she was an old maid who wouldn't leave Daddy alone."

Before I can respond she adds, "And because she didn't like me either." I am surprised to hear her say this.

"She liked you," I say. "She was just an old lady. She never meant you any harm."

"Like hell!" she says in a sudden burst that surprises me. "Like hell she didn't. She never liked me because I was pretty."

"Pam, really."

"She didn't. She was a lonely old bat, and she wanted other people to be unhappy too. Just like Joyce. I'll bet Joyce ends up like her someday...."

She is rarely so blatant. Suddenly I feel sorry for Joyce.

"At least Joyce acts like she cares," I say coldly.

"What other choice does she really have?"

I am able to restrain myself. I let it pass and wait a minute. "Pam, come on, this isn't about Joyce. It's not about you being pretty either. What's the matter?"

She swirls the ice in her glass, but it is clear she is only stalling. I walk over near her and sit gently on a stool. Her head is down. The room is growing dark as the day begins to end. Quietly I say, "What is it, Pam?"

She looks at me, and her eyes are moist. She starts to say something, then stops. Then, quietly, she says, "I thought she wanted Daddy for herself."

"Miss Flowers?"

"Yeah. I thought she wanted to take him away from us. And I thought he was going to leave us for her, especially after he and Mom would have a fight," she says. "In fact, I expected it." Then after a pause during which she seems to go somewhere far away, she adds, quietly, "They all leave you in the end anyway." She looks away and says, "Every single one of them."

I don't know what to say. Pam has always been so together that I've never really had to comfort her before. She always seems so happy that I thought she was, that she was living the way she wanted to. I have always admired her because I thought she made her choices for the right reasons, not out of fear like so many other people. And now suddenly it is clear to me that she struggles inside as much as the rest of us.

After a speechless minute I get up from my stool and move behind the bar toward her. She lets me hold her. At first her body is tense and it feels awkward. But slowly she softens in my arms and I feel her body begin to shake. I feel her fight it too. Finally she lets out a long, soft moan and begins to cry, slowly at first, then harder. For a moment I imagine it is Laurie I am holding. I let her cry into my shoulder until she is finished, until her eyeliner runs down her cheek so that she looks like a sad clown. She looks up at me and I try to smile, but then I realize that for the first time ever she is looking at me for an answer.

"Be like a tree, Pam," I whisper.

She wipes her cheek and purses her lips and tries to smile. "Marc, I'm so damn tired of autumns and winters and springs. Whatever happened to summer?"

All this time, I thought she had it all figured out. "It will be okay, Pook," is the only thing I can think of to say. I am not completely convincing, and I know she knows it.

Just then we hear some shouting in the back yard, followed by two quick splashes. Pam wipes her eyes and we leave the den and go to the sliding glass door that leads to the deck. Joyce is already there. The three of us stand beside one other and look out -- the misanthrope, the clown and the... I don't know. The wounded, maybe. The wounded who wants to heal.

"Mom and Dad are back," Joyce says vacantly. "They're skinny-dipping."

We look out into the dusk at my parents. Their clothes are hanging on the trellis, which stands among the lush, green foliage of their yard. They do not even seem to think that we might be watching. They splash and laugh and seem oblivious to the world, as if only the two of them are in it. I wonder when they will file the papers.

David Appell (appell@nasw.org) is a freelance writer determined to exist outside the corporate paradigm. His work has appeared in Audubon, The Seattle Review, Sycamore Review, Hawaii Review, and other magazines. He currently lives in central New Hampshire.

InterText stories written by David Appell: "Understanding Green" (v7n2), "Baby Glenn" (v9n1), "The Posticheur" (v9n4).

InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 David Appell.