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fiction by Ellen Umansky

The A-Train to Scotland

Lizzie noticed her shoes first. Dr. Karen Brown, fiftyish, wiry gray hair cut into a pageboy, no-nonsense dark shirt and trousers, greeted her at the door of her tiny office, offering a hand and a seat. Her open-toed heels were surprisingly stylish, a bright canary yellow peeking out beneath those sensible trousers. Lizzie immediately fell in love with those shoes. She decided this was a good sign.

“I’m going to ask you some questions about your family history,” Dr. Brown said in a kind but not overly familiar tone. “Let’s start with your parents.”

“My mother died of breast cancer, young.”

“How young?”

“Forty-one. Well, almost forty-two. She died three weeks before her birthday,” she added, a distinction that was becoming increasingly important to her. Though she had always been horrible at math and vastly preferred that someone else figure out the restaurant check, it took Lizzie a nanosecond to tell how many years she was away from turning forty-one.

“That is young,” Dr. Brown murmured. She was sketching a family tree on a pad of paper over a cluttered desk — a collection of framed photos sat next to a high, precarious pile of folders (patients’ files? containing what sort of news? Lizzie wondered). She gazed out the window onto the fat silver tubes of the ventilation system, spouting smoke, looking menacing, practically medieval. Dr. Brown’s office was located in the Atran building of Mt. Sinai, which Lizzie well knew how to pronounce, but privately, she called the A-train, greatly preferring this jaunty, jazzy variation.

It had been Lizzie’s idea to test for the BRCA mutation. She had read an Op-Ed in The New York Times on the subject. Lizzie had heard of the genetic test before — the knowledge floated in the recesses of her brain along with so many scraps, like how to change a flat tire or how the word “corn” technically referred to a country’s biggest import — but she had never considered taking it. Reading the piece in the Times, written by a woman who had also watched her mother die of breast cancer, a woman, bone-chillingly to Lizzie, very much like herself — Ashkenazic Jew, mid-thirties, single, professionally successful, wanting a family — well, that factoid shot to the front of her brain and refused to budge. She read the article again and again — phrases like “genetic legacy” and “predisposition to cancer” and “preventative mastectomy” lodged tightly beneath her rib cage. She reminded herself that she was a lawyer; her livelihood depended on facts. She had always placed her faith in them, professionally and personally. If a mutation was found in the 39th amino acid position of a protein of hers — if this indeed was her genetic inheritance — well, then. Unlike her mother (dead at forty-one) or her great-aunt (fifty-three), she could be the first woman in her family who could actually do something about it.

Lizzie’s gynecologist had given her two names of genetics counselors — Karen Brown at Mt. Sinai and someone at Sloan- Kettering. But Sloan was where her mother had been treated, and for the more than fifteen years that Lizzie had been living in Manhattan, she had done her best to avoid York Avenue and 68th Street, the site of the cancer center, so forget about walking through its doors. Plus: how could bad news be delivered by someone whose name was as unmemorable and innocuoussounding as Dr. Karen Brown?

So she had called Dr. Brown’s office. Close to two years ago.

The cancellation of her first appointment was legitimate, Lizzie liked to think. It came during a mad crush at work — a dizzying close where she and a handful of other associates lived in the conference room around the clock. By the time she came around to rescheduling, it was autumn, what she later dubbed the fall of her fall from Ben, a time during which they were still engaged, but all she could think about was: Oh God, I’m making a mistake. This is no time for more bad news. Then suddenly she was single and then she turned thirty-five and then it was her mother’s birthday and then the anniversary of her death, and all of those times felt so horribly wrong too.

Now here she finally was, after the fourth rescheduling. Dr. Brown was explaining about percentages and probabilities. Lizzie’s chest hurt. She glanced at the photos on Dr. Brown’s desk. Two little girls, one light-haired, one dark, yet unmistakably similar, clearly sisters, mugging for the camera, dressed in fuzzy monkey costumes. They must be her grandkids, Lizzie thought. Dr. Brown must have had kids in her twenties, the age you’re supposed to have them.

She found herself asking, “What about children?”

“What about them?” Karen Brown asked, although now she was the one nodding.

“I want children,” Lizzie said. “I want to have children,” she clarified absurdly.

“Then you will,” Karen Brown said, in such a crisp authoritative voice that Lizzie felt, if only for a moment, reassured. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves. You’ll have your bloods drawn; you’ll come back for the results; we’ll talk more then.”

But when Lizzie did indeed return, there was no need for conversation. Karen Brown looked at her file, and cocked her head to the side. Thankfully, she did not sigh. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking at Lizzie with startlingly limpid brown eyes.

On Tuesday she flew for Chicago for the day for a meeting. Wednesday found her in Boston. On Friday she left again, this time for Maddy’s wedding in Scotland. All this travel was more than fine with Lizzie. She wanted to keep moving.

After a four-hour delay at Heathrow, she finally got off the plane in Aberdeen, as north as north could get (“the Scottish ‘sticks,” her ex-stepmother had cheerfully had called it). In the cab, she passed stolid oil rigs presiding over a glum, graying sea, and undistinguished apartment complexes and squat shopping centers, nothing like the Scotland of her imagination.

She was hungry — well, she was tired, which always made her hungry — and she was tempted to tap the squat-necked driver on the shoulder, ask him to turn around and pull into the Pizza Hut they’d just flown past, and devour several pies on the spot.

Out the window, the Aberdeen streets turned curvier and narrower, more picturesque. Soon the taxi pulled into a cobblestone driveway, leading to an old stone house that might have looked imposing, save for the front double doors painted a bright shade of blue. She paid the driver, collected her things. She headed up the walkway, curtained by blooming roses. The air smelled fragrant and clean. It was past nine p.m., but it remained light outside, the sky a lovely silvery glow.

She checked into the inn, and the fair-headed porter who looked twelve led her up the polished, uneven stone steps, telling her about the daily tea and the small bar just downstairs. Her room was small, but nicely appointed, with high ceilings and a beautifully carved bed facing a small fireplace. Charming but tasteful, Maddy’s taste through and through.

Lizzie kicked off her shoes, a pair of Italian round-toed heels she’d bought on eBay in a fit of panic post-Karen Brown. She lay stomach-down on the bed. She couldn’t believe she was here. She couldn’t believe much of anything these days.

For nine days she had been nursing the fantasy: Maybe it was a ludicrous mistake at the lab somehow? For nine days, she had told no one of the results: not her father; not Claudia, to whom she used to declare as a teenager, “I’ll just cut them off by the time I’m thirty; I’m not going through what my mother went through”; not her sister, who had a fifty percent chance of carrying the faulty gene too. How was she supposed to discuss the matter when the thought of that mutant gene made her feel as if she were being buried alive?

Though her entire body buzzed with exhaustion, she forced herself off the bed, splashed water on her face, crammed her tired feet back in her heels. Time to keep moving.

The small bar off the lobby looked more like a study than a watering hole. It sported a gold patterned carpet that was too soiled to be cheerful and a handful of leather seats beneath a neon sign heralding Woodpecker cider. Lizzie ordered a beer and, from the few food options, an egg salad sandwich. She took up residence at a small table that enabled her to gaze at that enormous, implacable sky, which still hadn’t turned to night. The place was empty save two older women, one pear-shaped and short, the other tall and hardened, drinking pints of lager.

“You’ve always been much too hard on Tom,” she heard the taller one say.

“Easy for you to say.”

A young guy ambled in then, thin and wiry, gingery hair clipped short, wearing dark pants and a wrinkled white shirt. For a moment, Lizzie assumed he was a waiter, but he went up to the bar and ordered a drink in a brogue she barely understood.

Lizzie was about halfway done with her beer and her sandwich that tasted much better than it looked when she heard the shorter woman say, “He’s been like this for years, Nicola — years!”

“Why can’t you be on my side?”

“I am on your side.”

“No, you’re not; you’ve never been. It was like this with Michael. Your own sister. It’s like Skye all over again.”

“Jesus, I was eight years old!” She glared at her sister, her face heavy with recrimination, a lifetime of it, it seemed to Lizzie. They were sisters? Lizzie thought as she watched the women hurry out of the bar.

“Watch out for women with too much time on their hands,” Lizzie now heard a voice say. It was the ginger-headed guy, the only person left in the bar, looking right at her.

“Really?” Lizzie said into her empty pint glass. She felt like it was men who were always stirring up trouble.

He walked over to her tiny table as if she had offered up the most gracious of invitations. “May I?”

She nodded. He seemed far too young to be so confident.

“You’re not from around here, yeah?”

“A real detective.” But she was looking at him when she said it, looking at his hands in particular. She had always been a sucker for nice hands. His were strong, expressive, with tapering fingers and clean squared-off nails cut so short she could barely make them out at all. She was looking at his hands too, to avoid looking at his attractive face. He was so young! A good ten years younger than she.

“Neither am I.”

“Really? Now that I wouldn’t have guessed.” And this she meant. He had a thick brogue that to her ear sounded undeniably Scottish, undeniably of this place.

“You think all Scots are alike, yeah? I grew up outside of Glasgow. Nowhere near here. It’s as if I assumed that you knew New Mexico just as well as New York, where I’m guessing you’re from.”

“I am. And I’ve never been to New Mexico.”

“You should go, if only for the sky. I was there last winter, and I fell in love with the sky.”

For some reason, this made her blush, this simple declaration of love by a Scotsman for a part of her native land she’d never seen. But instead of asking why the sky, which was what she really wanted to know, she asked, “What were you doing in America?”

“I was in New York, yeah, apprenticing, supposedly, to this cabinet-maker who makes these intricate pieces…” He trailed off, looking at her. “What brings you to Aberdeen?”

“A wedding, a friend’s wedding.” At this point, who was Maddy if not a friend?

He simply nodded, murmured something about being here for a celebration too. Could he be here for Maddy’s wedding? Could her luck be that good? But when she asked what kind of celebration, he seemed not to hear — or at least pretended he hadn’t — and she didn’t press the matter. He wasn’t asking her questions, for which she was glad. Soon they ordered whiskey. He told her how much he liked New York and Queens in particular, not Woodside, where he lived (“a shit, kind of boring neighborhood”), but places like Long Island City. The guy he apprenticed with was a real asshole, who constantly sent him out to pick up his dry cleaning. But he biked all over and he got to know New York that way, the exhaust mingling with the smell of the water, even fish, as he went over the Brooklyn Bridge …

Maybe it was this reference to biking, maybe it was this small flash of Ben who loved to do the same that fueled Lizzie on, or maybe it was the fact that she was older, more seasoned — there were things she simply wanted to know. She reached out, brushing his knuckles. “Wait,” she said, as if he were just out the door. “What’s your name?”

“Rory.” This made him color, ducking his head. “I’m Rory. And you?”

“Lizzie.” She held out her hand like the direct American that she was.

“And where do you live, Lizzie?” He dropped her hand and downed the last of his whiskey. Now he was looking out the window.

“Manhattan, the Upper Upper West Side.”

“I didn’t spend much time there,” Rory was now saying, “Went to Central Park, biked through it, went up to the Cloisters, that type of thing. But Long Island City — for some reason, I just fell in love with Long Island City. It reminded me of Glasgow, all those factories and the industrial look of it, the empty streets. There’s a beauty to it, a ferocious unkind beauty — ” He looked up at her now, his pale eyebrows arching high, his wide fresh face so animated. “Have you been to the Noguchi museum, the sculpture museum? That has to got to be my favorite place.”

Lizzie nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been there, once.” She tried to say it lightly. She and Ben were supposed to get married nearby, in a loft, an airy space run by a charmingly odd woman. The first time they saw the space, they went to the Noguchi museum afterwards. There they had an epic fight. “Why would we get married somewhere so out of the way?” Ben had asked, adding (in a strategic error, Lizzie had thought, if only from a pugilistic point of view) that his mother was going to freak out that her friends would have to find their way to Queens. Lizzie was embarrassed to recall how she’d lost it, saying shrilly, who cares what their parents thought; they were getting married for themselves, who wanted a lot of their parents’ friends there whom they barely knew? Blah blah blah. Finally, Ben had sighed and said, “If this is where you want to do it, let’s do it here. I just want to marry you.” It was a sweet, simple statement, the type of thing she had always longed to hear. And yet, it made her jaw tighten as if she were in imminent danger. They had been together almost two years at that point; Lizzie loved him, she knew that. They were nearly thirty-three, old by many people’s standards. (Her grandmother loved to remind Lizzie, “When your mother was your age, she already had two children.” Lizzie considered it a triumph that she didn’t respond: “Yes, but she was also on the cusp of divorcing.”)

Still: Lizzie couldn’t breathe. Not when they talked to wedding photographers, not when she tried on dresses, not when they tried to decide if they should hire a DJ or a band. As the wedding date drew closer, Lizzie felt worse. She began to resent Ben’s loud, boisterous way of telling stories, the way he constantly had to be the center of attention (God, like her father!) She began to hate the way he over seasoned and put garlic in nearly everything. She went running late at night, offered to be put on a closing at work. Even his hand on the small of her back made her want to scream. (Was this how her mother had felt?) That afternoon, at the Noguchi museum, walking among those strange, monumental forms of polished stone, Lizzie could remember thinking, distinctly and with clarity, I don’t want to be in this relationship anymore. I don’t want to be on this planet anymore. Two months later, after the engagement party on the sixteenth floor of his parents’ Lake Shore apartment, but before the invitations had gone out, she had ended it altogether.

Now Lizzie was looking at the freckles scattered across Rory’s eager face, the blond wisps of eyebrows, the few light hairs above his left cheekbone he’d missed shaving. Ostensibly this was the reason she had called off the engagement, wasn’t it? For the freedom to do what she wanted? But it was exhausting, the prospect of starting over, the thought of learning someone else’s history. This had been the lesson of the past year, the dates that went nowhere and hook-ups not regretful, exactly, but unsatisfying. The few that charmed her weren’t charmed by her. No one was as funny as Ben.

Just then a passel of well-dressed people came into the bar, laughing, chatting, ordering drinks, bringing with them a loud welcoming heat. It took Lizzie a moment to realize that Maddy, in a silky green top, pulsed at the center.

“Excuse me,” she said to Rory, rising, “I have to — ” but as she was saying this, as Maddy was enfolding her in a tight hug, she saw that Rory too was being exclaimed over and hugged, Rory was being clapped on the back by Graham, Maddy’s fiancé, of all people.

“You made it!” Maddy exclaimed. “I can’t believe you actually came!”

“I wouldn’t have missed it,” she said, as she watched Graham smile and laugh at something Rory said.

Maddy took note too. “Oh, so you’ve met Graham’s nephew Rory?”

“That I did,” Lizzie said, still processing. She would see him tomorrow then; this was not the end.

“He’s a sweetheart,” Maddy said, and Lizzie was moved to hug her again. It had been more than a year since she had seen her ex-stepmother, and it heartened her, suddenly, to see such a familiar presence in such unfamiliar surroundings, so clearly besotted. She told Maddy about her flight delays, she apologized for missing the rehearsal dinner.

“I’m just so glad you made it. You look gorgeous! I like your hair — it’s shorter, isn’t it? And your shoes!”

“Thanks,” she said, grinning. “eBay.” She knew Maddy would appreciate them. She still thought of her when she went shopping, tried to imagine, when she was hemming and hawing over a purchase, whether Maddy would approve.

Maddy asked her how long she was staying. “Only until Sunday? But you’ve come all this way!”

“I’ve got to get back to work.” Lizzie said, not thinking of work at all, but running in Riverside Park. It had been a mild June so far, but Lizzie found herself longing for the feel of a good humid New York summer evening, the pale glow of the river, the lush canopy of the trees above, as her feet hit stone after uneven stone and she concentrated so hard that breathing was all that mattered.

“Ah yes, work,” Maddy gave her a gentle smile, touched the beads of the choker nestled at her throat. “You’ve been working hard, haven’t you?”

Lizzie only nodded, gazing at Maddy’s necklace. It was gorgeous, Lizzie thought, nearly painstakingly so, the ivory beads delicately etched and punctuated by tiny silver nubs. It seemed, suddenly to Lizzie, the way it grazed Maddy’s neck, nicely offsetting her silky green top, like the epitome of style.

“Too hard.”

Lizzie nodded again, flushing under the attention of Maddy’s steady eye. Her ex-stepmother didn’t miss a thing. If Lizzie spoke, she might cry. The necklace was nothing. She found herself on the verge of telling Maddy the news that she had been trying so hard to tamp down for more than a week now. I don’t know what to do., she wanted to whisper: Please. Tell me what I should do.

But instead, Lizzie found herself saying: “You look so beautiful, so happy.” And she didn’t try to cover the wistfulness that crept into her voice.

Maddy laughed, hugged her again. “Well, I am happy, I am.”

Lizzie kissed her cheek, feeling so tired and raw, feeling as if the roles were reversed: She was the older, divorced one, and her ex-stepmother a woman in her prime, with all the time in the world.

Ellen Umansky’s fiction has been published in Playboy, Jane, Tablet, and the anthologies Sleep Away and The Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge.