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All That Matters: A Novel

. 1 .

It had all gone wrong, of course.

No one was supposed to notice her there in the sand on the Venice, California, beach at sunset. Why would they? A human circus of all shapes, hair colors, and states of mind gathered along the shore to witness the orgasmic reds and resplendent golds at the end of each day. A five-foot-three mousy-haired, slightly built young woman in this crowd was like a rerun in the middle of television's new fall lineup--who's going to bother tuning in? It was a perfect plan.

Thing was, Jennifer had reasoned with a cynic's clarity, anybody could end her life behind closed doors. But why wade through the morass of possible distractions that her indoor suicide might occasion? Prolonging the inevitable with one more late-night movie on the tube. Stumbling on yet another marathon chat session among similarly depressed individuals on the Internet. The temptation to humiliate herself with pitiful phone calls to the living heartache who'd once masqueraded as her soul mate.

Everything up to that point--

the brisk twenty-minute walk to the beach;

the glorious farewell sunset;

the tying to her waist of her ever-present camcorder with the simple 411 that, in the cool, dispassionate adding-up of her life, the minuses simply outnumbered the pluses;

the slightly hyperventilating intake of drugs and alcohol, allowing her to drift off on a cloud of Xanax and tequila--

all of it had gone just as Jennifer had envisioned.

But then the one thing that was not supposed to happen actually did. Some time after she had laid her head down and passed out, the truck hauling the large metal comb used for grooming the sand nearly ran over the inert object in its path and, just like that . . . someone noticed.

Afterward, a flurry of doctors, nurses, and medical assistants floated around Jennifer's bed. Hours passed in which she was in and out of consciousness. At one point she looked up through the haze of her stupor to see her father's face bobbing overhead. How does he do it--the question poked through her fog--even now, not a hair out of place? She hadn't known he could cry. Where were you when I could have used some of this attention? her brain shouted. She wished he would go back to his little wife and his baby, leave her the hell alone. He used to do that so well.

And then he was gone, leaving her with her failure.

Later, amid the lights, the voices, and the churning within her, Jennifer fell into a fitful sleep and dreamed of her mother. In the dream, Lili stood on a massive rock overlooking a body of water. From this stone formation she appeared to be throwing something out into the sea. But Jennifer couldn't recall having ever been to this place she saw now in her dream. Why was her mother on this strange rock? And what was she discarding?

When Jennifer awoke the next morning she was still groggy and confused. But confusion was about to meet its match.

. 2 .

Jennifer stared at a worn and wrinkled face. the flesh was age-spotted, mere wisps of hair stood in for eyebrows, and the head was crowned with a floating halo of white hair, looking as ethereal and comic as Einstein's. Nevertheless, the blue eyes twinkled with life and the face was as animated as a child's. Jennifer felt a brief tug of emotion, an ache to reach out to the safe haven of arms that had once soothed the wounds of a broken home. But these feelings quickly disappeared and Jennifer recoiled, shrinking back from the figure before her. She was facing the only person on earth who she knew truly cared about her. That made her grandmother the last person Jennifer wanted to see.

"Why are you here?" she demanded.

"My granddaughter is in a hospital. Where else should I be?" the old woman replied, reaching out to cup her granddaughter's wan face in a delicate, vein-laced hand.

"No, you're not supposed to," said Jennifer, pulling back like a cornered animal looking for a way out.

The older woman hushed her with the nod of a head and the twinkle of her hope-filled eyes. But the optimism slowly drained out of her face, as if Jennifer's gaze had pricked a hole in it, as the two stared at each other. Jennifer could read the pain in her nana's face and hated her for it, for being there in her room, for laying eyes upon her. She stared dispassionately now at the tired old woman. She noticed her nana's eyelids were crusted over and her cheeks were covered with a clownlike goop that tried to pass itself off as rouge. No, this wasn't the nana she remembered. A corrosion had taken place in the five years since Lili's funeral. Maybe this is why Nana had stayed away, Jennifer thought to herself, to keep me from witnessing the disintegration of someone who meant so much to me. That and the fact that--the horrible thought flashed in her mind--my nana should have died, not my mother.

"You really shouldn't be here, Nana. Who told you, anyway?" Jennifer complained, shaking her head with contempt.

The old woman shook her head. She was certain this was the depression talking, a sickness that had taken root in her granddaughter's soul.

"Your father may not be the world's finest human being," she replied with a knowing smile that reflected she knew all too well the truth of her remark, "but he still knows enough to inform the people who matter. He's out there in the hallway now. He tells me he's married, Cynthia, I think her name is, with a baby, no less. I had no idea. But then, who would there be to tell me such things?" Nana chided gently.

"Look, I don't need the guilt, all right? I'm not the goddamn news service for my father's reinvented life. What's he doing out there anyway?" Jennifer pursed her lips in defiance and stared at the door.

"I'm sure he's worried about you. We are all worried about you," Nana whispered softly.

The only thing he's worried about is how much this will set him back, Jennifer told herself. That and whether or not the publicity will affect his next film project. Having a daughter try to take her life might scare off investors. Jennifer shook her head, mind racing at the possibilities. Then again, the man is an opportunist. He's Harvey Weinstein in a size 40. He'll no doubt play this for PR he couldn't buy in this town.

"He's probably out there right now giving an interview. The concerned parent pulling at the heartstrings of every reporter he can corner," Jennifer blurted out. "Barry Stempler in his glory!"

Her grandmother turned her head away, stunned by the pain and despair in the young woman. Jennifer was like a stranger to her. And yet, in spite of her granddaughter's grimace and the hurtful words, Nana glimpsed her daughter's face there. She was reminded of the sweet-faced girl Jennifer once was, one who, on a visit to New York City years back, had surprised everyone by clambering atop a display case at Macy's and launching into a spectacular tap dance. That little dancer had a grin that filled her pixie face and her eyes had lit up brighter than the ball dropped on New Year's Eve.

Gabby reached out to stroke her forehead and Jennifer closed her eyes tightly, as if the touch of her nana's loving hand brought more pain than she could bear.

"You know, meydele," Nana said softly, "I came all this way and flew on that plane where they shoehorn you into a seat meant for a small dog, not a person, just so I could tell you something . . . that I love you. Do you hear me?"

Jennifer clenched her fists and turned her face away. Nana eased herself onto the far end of the bed as her granddaughter remained cocooned in her silence. The elderly woman exhaled sharply and, with a raspy groan, drew in a labored breath. Then, holding her frail hands together as if in prayer, Gabby whispered, "I came so you should know, and this I want you to remember even in this bad place in which you find yourself right now--you are not alone, Jennifer. You are never alone."

Gittel "Gabby" Zuckerman was the kind of woman you wanted in your corner when the chips were down--in fact, especially if they were down. From her outward appearance, of course, you would never guess this in a million years. Short, her once robust frame shrunken with age, she walked slightly hunched over, both from sheer mileage and the physical strain of drawing breath. She had moxie and a thirst for living that at times annoyed her more sedentary peer group. Her husband, Itzik, dead these past twenty-one years, used to say Gabby could outsmart half of New York and outrun the other. And yet there was a softness about her, especially when it came to family.

At seventy-six she still managed to get around. The effort, however, was now hampered by serious damage to her lungs, the result of a lifelong vice--smoking. While he was living, Itzik had urged her to give up the habit long before not smoking was fashionable. But Gabby had remained characteristically stubborn--in this case, to a fault. In the last year, she'd had to bow to the inevitable as the hacking, the wheezing, and the bouts of breathlessness, all courtesy of her emphysema, forced her to agree belatedly that the condition was killing her. Though the damage had already been done, she resolutely refused to give in to the verdict. Gabby preferred to see her condition as an opportunity to test herself, a challenge to be met. She might have to slow down some, but she would not be stopped.

And it was this indomitable inner core one might never suspect passing her on the sidewalks of the West Side of Manhattan, an area she had called home for thirty-seven years. Inside this ruddy, wrinkled skin beat the heart of one of life's true survivors.

Gabby's heart ached for Jennifer, who had become a bundle of rage. It was a grandmother's pain, one that reached the deepest part of her, a place where the memory of lost family resided. She yearned to share with Jennifer the tale of her own pain, of how she had once begged for her life to end. But her granddaughter was not ready to hear the story. Gabby conjured up the face of her younger sister, Anna, who had been robbed of the opportunity to reach her later teen years, much less her twenties. And here was Jennifer at twenty-three, balled up in her bed, her knees drawn up in a fetal position. A sudden anger spiked in Gabby. Why should her granddaughter so callously dismiss life?

But the sight of the troubled girl melted Gabby's resentment. Her eyes took in her granddaughter's pale arm where the IV needle fed life-giving fluids. Gabby's forehead creased with worry and beads of sweat formed in the furrows of her brow. And there in that hospital room she swore on Lili's memory that she would help Jennifer find her way out of the darkness and back into the light.

. 3 .

The supervising nurse on the ward reported to Barry Stempler that what his daughter needed now more than ever was love and support. There must be no confrontations, absolutely nothing that might provoke her. This warning Barry had taken to heart by showing up in Jennifer's room the following morning with his second wife, Cynthia, and their baby girl in tow. Gabby, who had arrived minutes earlier from the motel down the block, exchanged perfunctory niceties with her ex-son-in-law and Ms. Beverly Hills Aerobics. Instinctively she reached out to pinch the cheek of the chubby infant clinging to Barry. But Gabby's eye caught her granddaughter's and saw a flicker of betrayal. She pulled her hand away from the baby, quickly moving to the side of the room.

Jennifer observed her father. He was, as always, incapable of standing still, a human windmill: hands gesticulating, bouncing on his heels, zigzagging the room, eyes moving from face to face to make sure he had everyone's attention. Here he was now, playing with his new daughter, hoisting her onto his shoulders, then twirling her back into his arms as the infant cooed happily. The kid reminded Jennifer of a Chihuahua. All the while, Barry's attention bounced back and forth from his baby to Jennifer, as if to say, "Hey, Jen, check it out. You don't have to kill yourself to get my attention. I'm here for you, see? I can do this." You narcissistic bastard, she thought, turning away.

Off to one side, Ms. Beverly Hills Aerobics was blathering about some exciting new fitness program that would soon have Jennifer "back in the swing of things" where she belonged. There was only one problem--Jennifer didn't want to get back in the swing of things. In fact, the only thing she felt like doing was getting that annoyingly cute baby out of her face.

After twenty minutes, this farce was interrupted by the buzz of Barry's beeper. He examined the message in the tiny window as if it were life and death. "Bastards," he muttered, glancing up and catching Gabby's look of disapproval. "If I'm not on the set supervising, then you can be sure everything goes straight to hell," he offered in his own defense. "Nice of you to fly all this way, Gabby. I'm sure Jen appreciates that. Right, Jen?" Jennifer stared out the window. "Look, I gotta run, but I'll catch you later. That's a promise." Gabby thought Barry looked relieved as he waved good-bye and quickly ushered his new family out the door.

With Barry, the wife, and the Chihuahua gone, the room suddenly felt very still. It was as if a tornado had swept through and left nothing but silent wreckage in its wake. Gabby watched as Jennifer closed her eyes and leaned back against the pillow, releasing air from deep within her. Is it possible, Gabby thought, that Jennifer has been holding her breath the entire time her father was in the room? Gabby noticed how the muscles in Jennifer's neck and jaw loosened, as if a belt cinched too tightly around a waist was now being let out.

Gabby looked on curiously as Jennifer eyed a small case sitting on a side table next to her bed. It rested there alongside a pitcher of water, plastic glasses, and a well-thumbed copy of the latest People. Jennifer seemed to have just discovered it, though Gabby had seen it there when she arrived a day earlier.

Jennifer leaned over and grabbed the case. Reaching in it, she pulled out the camcorder. She remembered how she had tied it to herself on the beach. She opened the cartridge window and checked for the tape. It was still in there. Jennifer wondered if the doctors or her dad had seen it. And if so, why had they given it back to her?

"A gift?" her grandmother inquired, startling Jennifer. Gabby had been so uncharacteristically quiet Jennifer had forgotten she was in the room.

"It's mine," Jennifer answered curtly.

"Is this a career choice or a hobby?" Gabby ventured, looking for a way into any conversation.

But Jennifer ignored her. As Gabby observed from across the room, Jennifer idly panned without recording the bare walls, the sterile plastic IV bottles lying on a nearby counter, the bedpan atop a chair by the wall. When the camera found Gabby, leaning awkwardly against the windowsill, Gabby attempted to catch her granddaughter's eye through the glass lens, trying to comprehend where and who Jennifer was. Jennifer relentlessly pressed the zoom button, snapping Gabby's image into a warped, disfiguring close-up and then pushing her away with a jarring zoom out. Through all this, Gabby's gaze did not falter, even though the open eye of the lens staring unblinkingly at her was causing her discomfort.

What was it Jennifer saw through this machine? Gabby wondered. And what, if anything, did she hope to see?

All That Matters: A Novel
by by Jan Goldstein

  • paperback: 198 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 1401307523
  • ISBN-13: 9781401307523