Chapter One – Chasing Stardust







Stretching her body out to its full length, Merrilee Hennessey dreamily studied every angle of her newly chiseled shape while paying close attention to the smoke curling upward from her cigarette.  As the smoke floated surreally above her slender form, she squinted at the images around her.  Fascinated with the play of light and shadow against a backdrop of black and white framed prints, she gazed slowly around the room.  Her thrift-store furnishings looked somehow inadequate, but viewed through the scintillating haze of cigarette smoke and candlelight, the stark images appeared soft and even somewhat seductive.  She smiled gleefully, pleased that she had finally achieved her sought-after goal.  Her very own space.  And what would a bachelorette pad in the sixties be without that aura of sexual ease?  At that thought, she cringed inwardly, recalling the parental home from which she’d escaped.

Shoving aside the sudden influx of childhood images that always threatened to disrupt her pleasure in her newfound independence, she concentrated instead on the slender stem of her wineglass as she slowly sipped the chilled Chardonnay.  She cocked her ear toward the sounds emanating from her stereo, swaying slightly as she listened to Elvis crooning one of his ballads.  As she hearkened to the words…“I can’t help falling in love with you”…something seemed to grip her heart and squeeze.

In just a few moments, Royce Winslow would come through that door.  She couldn’t wait.  For weeks now, she’d been falling for him…hard.  Shuddering, she imagined him holding her, caressing her…She practiced puckering up for that soft and seductive greeting, picturing her body melting into his.  If only…She stood up then, floating toward the door, anticipating the ring of the bell…And right on cue, she heard his staccato knock, just as she was remembering that he seldom pressed the doorbell, choosing instead to flaunt his machismo by tapping emphatically.
She stood poised near the door, spinning around slightly, enjoying the lightness-of-being so foreign to her.  Glancing through the door that separated this room from her bedroom, she caught a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror on the opposite wall.  So eerily unfamiliar, this new body of hers.  After years of burying herself under layers of fat, she teetered breathlessly each and every time she saw the new shape reflected back at her.  As if she were someone else, she giddily spun around to answer the door.

“Hi, baby,” Royce crooned, cocking his head to one side and scanning her with his coal black eyes.  Over his brow, that rakish lock of curly dark hair turned him into a devilish mixture of Elvis and James Dean.

Her face flushed from the unaccustomed admiration.  Being desired was still a new feeling, and although Merrilee wanted to enjoy every second of it, she felt awkward suddenly.  Remembering her manners, she motioned him into the room and then cringed as he slouched across the shag carpet toward the beat-up sofa, shoving aside her grandmother’s soft blue and white throw.  But as he lowered his muscular yet lanky body down onto the cushions, she forgot the momentary chagrin.

Pretending she didn’t care about his reckless disregard for her possessions, she approached as sexily as she could.  She’d practiced the sliding, seductive walk countless times in front of her mirror.  She was sure she had it all down pat.  But even as she sidled toward him, she felt a slight stagger in her movements.  Too much wine?  It was all such a finely honed skill, learning how to seem casually yet expertly seductive.  She always drank a little wine to blur the edges, but if she drank too much, she risked falling on her ass.  She felt the giggle bubbling up from somewhere deep inside and her nervous laughter erupted just as he reached out his arms to enfold her.

As their bodies meshed together, she sighed.  At last.  Now she could totally relax.
*     *     *

Hours later, Merrilee stretched her arm out to encounter the big empty space on the other side of the bed.  She tried to recreate the evening, but her head hurt; instead, she struggled to fill the gaping holes in her memory.  What had happened, anyway?  She recalled drinking more wine and then smoking a little dope.  Had she popped those pills that Royce had given her?  She must have.  That would account for the slipping and sliding images that flashed in and out of her head, along with the incredible pounding in her temples.  And where had Royce gone?

Reaching up to turn on the lamp, she cringed at the sight of the disheveled blankets and sheets crumpled on the floor, the overflowing ashtray on the nightstand, and the prevalent odor of souring booze, cigarettes, and sweaty flesh.  Ugh.  Not exactly a scenario for a romantic novel, she thought as she tried to recapture the earlier feelings.

As the feelings eluded her, she slid out of bed, stumbling with distaste through the detritus left after an evening of hot and gritty sex.  She shouldn’t even be standing, considering all the substances she must have imbibed.  And what had happened to the beautiful seductive fantasy?  As she asked herself this question for the hundredth time in the past few months, she turned away from the answer.  Her persistent fantasies were fueled by her fertile imagination and the plots of her romance novels…No wonder she so often fell short of her mark.  And poised at the beginning of the sexual revolution, new rules were being written with each passing day.  Nobody she knew, not her friends or even her enemies, had the market cornered when it came to finding love in this, the new decade, filled with more problems than solutions, more questions than answers.

As the darkness of her mood descended, Merrilee padded across the bare floor to the stereo, lifting the needle to position it carefully over the record she and Royce had been playing last night.  As the aching sounds of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” filled the space, she closed her eyes.  Allowing the sounds to flow over her body like streams of crystal clear spring water, she felt renewed by the poignant feelings that sprang up with each lyrical note.  Her strength seemed to blossom with each mournful phrase.

No matter what life threw at her, she held fast to one unwavering belief.  Love would win out.
*     *     *

Sprawled across the chenille bedspread, Merrilee twisted her hair around her right forefinger.  With her other hand, she reached into the box of chocolates, frowning as she tried to ignore the intruding sounds outside the locked door of her room.  Concentrating harder on the book in front of her, she followed the story of the poor but proud heroine who had just met the handsome rogue from the wealthy side of town.  Suddenly, with just that one electrically charged glance between them, they both knew that destiny had turned the tides in their favor.  And the hero, transformed by the love of the beautiful heroine, put aside his crass desires, turning his life around…All for true love.

Sighing with satisfaction, Merrilee closed her eyes and flung herself on her back.  She stared up at the ceiling, imagining the stars overhead at night and hearing that familiar tune:  “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, save it for a rainy day…” Forcing its way through the beautiful lyrics, her father’s loud voice intruded discordantly…He’s drunk again, she thought, covering her ears with the pillows.

Reaching over, she turned the dial on her small radio to find her favorite station with Elvis playing something.  Careful to keep the volume down, she hummed along with it while staving off the thoughts of self-disgust.  Now in her senior year of high school, in the year 1957, she had once again fallen short of her goal to look like the models featured in the monthly issues of Seventeen magazine.  She knew that her dreams for the future…her fantasies of love and romance…would not come true unless she changed the way she looked.

Disgusted, she stood before the mirror on her grandmother’s old dresser.

Turning from side to side, she couldn’t ignore the bulges that protruded even though she’d carefully chosen a long black shirt, hoping to hide the most glaring of her figure flaws.  She focused instead on her face, smiling a little and dimpling coyly.  She could hear the whispers of her aunts as they said things like:  “She has such a pretty face…too bad about her figure…”  As the rage bubbled up from somewhere deep inside, she picked up the half-empty box of chocolates and flung it toward the wastebasket.  Too late, she thought, regretting every pleasurable bite she’d taken.

As much as she knew intellectually that self-discipline was absolutely necessary if she were going to achieve the goal of losing those thirty pounds, the empty hole inside craving to be filled seemed to win out every time.  It just felt so delectable when the sweet goodies passed between her lips.  Especially since her miserable home life promised nothing but more emptiness and fear.

Joseph and Grace Hennessey seemed like the All-American stable couple to the outside world.  Their home, a middle class bungalow in downtown Modesto, California, was painted every three or four years; the regularly manicured green stretch of lawn circling the house held no hint of the violence that hid behind closed doors.  And, in fact, Merrilee herself did everything she could to help maintain the family secrets.  She would simply die if any of her friends could see or hear her parents during one of their drunken brawls.  After all, they didn’t always behave that way.  Sometimes, their lives even resembled those on the TV sitcoms.

Merrilee had ready excuses for not inviting any of her friends home.  Her parents were very busy.  Their demanding jobs required that they have quiet in the afternoons and evenings.  And, as far as Merrilee knew, everyone seemed to buy her fabrications.  Gratefully, she visited regularly at her friend Teddi’s house, or alternately, at Vicki’s home.  None of the parents seemed to mind.  Merrilee had the reputation of being a perfect guest.  She had learned many skills at her parents’ knees…How to charm and manipulate everyone in her life, hiding from the truth and living in a fantasy world.  Sometimes, Merrilee even believed her own propaganda.  Her father did have an important and stressful job, as did her mother.  Joseph Hennessey headed up a sales staff in an insurance company, and Grace Hennessey maintained the very busy schedule of the executives in her office, proving herself ultimately indispensable.

Years later, Merrilee would read about “functional alcoholics” and would immediately cry out:  “Ah-ha,” as she recognized that quality about her parents’ drinking.  But during her teens, she only knew that her parents were unpredictable and embarrassing, and she would do anything she had to do to hide the truth from everyone.

She didn’t make any connection between her parents’ behavior and her tendency to bury herself in romance novels or large boxes of chocolates.  Nor did her burgeoning weight suggest any relationship between her parents’ behavior and the depression that seemed to hover on the edges of her awareness.  Instead, she often glared at her image in the mirror with self-loathing, blaming her own poor self-discipline as she viewed the evidence of her own failures reflected back at her.

Last month’s issue of Seventeen had featured a great diet, though, and except for today’s fiasco with the box of chocolates, she’d been doing better.  She’d lost five pounds in one week.  Of course, she felt the hollow emptiness inside most of the time.  But if she concentrated hard on one of her books, ignoring the empty spaces within…Or even if she smoked cigarettes, a recent trick she’d learned from Teddi Costello, her new best friend…Well, it worked!  Most of the time, anyway, she thought, as she brushed her teeth rigorously to remove every trace of the chocolate.  Then sinking back onto her bed, she reached inside her woven bag and pulled out the pack of Winstons.   Of course, she had to be careful not to arouse her parents’ suspicions.  She knew, without a doubt, that they would frown on this habit.

Her parents smoked, though, and she was counting on their desensitized olfactory glands to help conceal this particular new fad of hers.  She inhaled deeply, watching the smoke curl up.  Then she practiced making smoke rings, another clever thing she’d learned from Teddi.  She laughed out loud as she thought about her friend, whose father was a minister.  Wouldn’t he be astounded at his daughter’s latest departure from the strict guidelines of the church?

As she stomped out the cigarette, she hastily sprayed the room, hiding all traces of her habit.  She sank back onto the bed and slowly felt, like magic, the receding hunger pangs that she suspected were not about real hunger at all, but about something else she couldn’t name.  Loneliness?  Fear?  Longing?

Momentarily satiated, Merrilee picked up her book, once again burying herself in its pages.
*     *     *

Recalling that dark time in her life, Merrilee quickly restored her messy apartment to its almost obsessively well-organized state.  She prided herself on bringing order to chaos.  She equated a neat home, well-chosen outfits, and her new, slender shape with maintaining control over her life.  She had fought too hard over the past few years to let any of her self-imposed controls slide.  She maintained them with a zealous fervor matched only by her adolescent longings for romance and happily-ever-after.

Sometimes she could look into the inner recesses of her psyche and see the unrealistic expectations she lived by.  Mostly, she shoved aside all the thoughts and feelings that intruded, threatening to compete with her carefully wrought illusions.  She needed her fantasies and her dreams.  What would she be without them?

In these occasional moments of reflection, she focused on the events in her life that coincided with those illusions.  Like meeting Royce all those months ago…six months, now…And how she had gradually come to believe in their destiny together.

As she scrubbed the last ashtray and fluffed up the pillows on the sofa, she tossed the throw at a casual angle across its back.  Standing aside, she checked the room from every perspective.  Then as she moved this or that until she finally felt that familiar sense of completion, the feeling that reassured her about the rightness of her world, she finally relaxed.

Glancing nervously at the clock, a niggling doubt intruded.  Where had Royce gone, and why hadn’t he called?  It seemed so out of character for him to just disappear like that.  But then she had to admit that he had done that very thing on several occasions in the past couple of months, and she’d simply been loath to look at it.  Ignoring the signs and symptoms, that’s my specialty, she thought grimly.  As if to suppress these very insecurities, she quickly turned the record over, placing the needle at the beginning of her favorite song:  “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.”

She tried to remember what Royce had said last night, straining for any clue.  He had been a bit aloof toward the end of the night, she now vaguely recalled.  He’d said something about a family get-together today, hadn’t he?  That would explain it, then, she thought with relief.  But then, almost immediately, the self-doubt returned.  Why had he never invited her to meet his family?  And what did this omission mean in terms of their future?  Or did they even have a future?

No, I can’t wallow in this negativity!  Commanding her thoughts in this way helped redirect her toward the beliefs that would ultimately win preeminence in her mind.

Here it was, four-thirty on a Sunday afternoon.  She needed to think about the upcoming work week.  Another depressing thought!  When she allowed herself to think about her job, she had to fight against the waves of nausea that seemed to engulf her.  Tedious, boring, demeaning…All of these adjectives could be brought into play when describing her daily existence.  She knew she should be working harder to extricate herself from the rut into which she’d fallen.  She’d taken the job in the county schools’ library right out of high school.  Going to college had been a dream of hers, but without a specific vocational or professional goal, she’d been unable to persuade her parents of its feasibility.  She’d read enough books to picture the perfect dream jobs of the characters.  Of course, many of the characters magically seemed to have loads of money without too much exertion.  They’d inherited it or fallen into it through some stroke of luck.

Merrilee had a tight enough grip on reality to know that life didn’t work that way.

Studying college catalogs, she allowed her mind to traverse the possibilities.  But so far, nothing really reached out to grip her.  She’d signed up for a few night classes…English Literature, Creative Writing, and Art History…Sometimes she toyed with the idea of writing down her own fantasies.  In moments of clarity, she visualized a life of interior design.  Didn’t she have a flair for it, after all?

As if to validate this view of herself, she glanced around her rooms again.  Yes, she did seem to have a way of putting things together…Didn’t everyone say so?  So why couldn’t she manage to find something…A new job…that would allow expression of this creative side?

But she knew the answer to that one.  If she focused on career, she would have to let her fantasies of romance fall by the wayside.  Those dreams required all of her attention right now, and she just had to find a way to make them come true!
*     *     *

Standing beside the counter at work, Merrilee struggled to fasten the tape on the package.

A wave of dizziness washed over her again, and she put out her hand to steady herself.  What was going on, anyway?  Suddenly, the door burst open, and Jack the deliveryman entered, calling out his familiar boisterous greeting.  “Hey, there, Merry Contrary, what do you have for me today?”

He strode across the room, his cap at a rakish angle on his head.  Short and balding, he nevertheless seemed to exude self-confidence, a trait owned exclusively by the male of the species, Merrilee had come to believe.  How many females with less-than-perfect exteriors could expect, and even demand, the attention of the opposite sex in the way that Jack seemed to?  And right on cue, she could feel her face breaking into a smile.  How could anyone resist that brash and easygoing demeanor of his?

“Hey, Jack, here’s another one for you,” she murmured, tossing the newly wrapped package onto the counter near the door.

While he loaded up his dolly, Jack chatted about various and sundry topics, none of which really mattered much to anyone.  But he seemed so cheery, despite his obviously less-than-thrilling job.  If I think my job is boring, his must be too, Merrilee thought.  But at least he gets out and about, meeting all kinds of people.

Just as Merrilee was about to say something else, Julie Wells literally floated into the room, her eyes glowing.  Watching her, Merrilee felt the familiar envy, along with the equally compelling admiration.  Julie personified the realization of all the dreams she herself had ever had.  Two months ago, she had arrived at work flashing the huge diamond solitaire from Kirk Ames, the son of a wealthy local businessman.

Everyone had known they were dating, but none of the others, including Merrilee, had believed that he would actually propose marriage.  For despite her petite figure, heart-shaped face framed by dark curls, and effervescent personality, Julie was still from the wrong side of the tracks.  Everyone had whispered that Kirk was just using her, or protesting his parents’ values. For when all was said and done, everyone had believed that Kirk would go back to one of his own kind.

But just last week, their picture had appeared in The Modesto Bee, announcing the upcoming nuptials.  Even though Merrilee had caught glimpses of Kirk when he’d come to take Julie to lunch, seeing them together in the photo had somehow crystallized the reality of the duo.   They’d looked like a fairytale prince and princess: he with his tall, blond good looks contrasting with her petite brunette beauty.

Now Julie bantered casually with Jack, exuding her friendly and charming ease.  Nobody would ever accuse her of flirting.  She was simply a very sociable girl.  In fact, in the beginning, Merrilee had watched her carefully, seeking the flaw that would detract from her perfect image.  Finding none, she had happily wished her well, enthusiastically entering into the prenuptial festivities.  Like the romantic heroine, Julie was good to the core, and therefore, deserving of all that life had to offer.

Sometimes in moments of gloom, Merrilee examined all of her own flaws, polishing off each and every one of them and adding them to the list of reasons why love had eluded her.

Lately she’d started to believe again that she could find love…Because of Royce.

As she moved forward, though, ready to join in the lighthearted repartee, she felt the waves of nausea again.  Fighting the feelings, she gripped the side of the counter.

“Are you okay?”  Julie asked.

Merrilee nodded feebly while grinning and pretending that none of this was happening.  As she thought about the series of symptoms she’d been ignoring for awhile, her heart sank with the realization.  Her missed period, a symptom she’d chalked up to anxiety…Well, she didn’t have to check any books or manuals for the answer.  A couple of years ago, she’d watched her friend Teddi go through the same thing.  In the end, Teddi and her boyfriend had eloped, scarcely missing a beat.   She’d also known plenty of girls who had simply disappeared mysteriously in the wake of hushed whispers about unwed mother’s homes in Southern California.

As quickly as the nausea and dizziness had overcome her, the feelings disappeared.

But unable to dismiss the fears, Merrilee spent the rest of the afternoon in subdued silence.  When she left at the end of the day, cheerfully waving good-bye to everyone, she was no longer able to ignore the very real possibility that her life as she knew it was over.
*     *     *

She sat near the edge of the examination table watching Dr. Murphy set aside his instruments, a grave expression crossing his face.  “Get dressed and come into my office,” he spoke in that distant, professional voice.

Struggling into her jeans and sweater, Merrilee glimpsed the unfamiliar reflection in the mirror.  Her face seemed white and thin while her deep green eyes stood out like sharp emeralds against her pale complexion.  Pulling her red curly hair back into a ponytail, she checked the mirror again for any telltale signs of the terror she felt.  She then slipped down the hall to the doctor’s inner sanctum.

She waited for the words.  And then they fell into the silence between them like a pronouncement of some kind.  “You’re pregnant, dear.”  He spoke with a congratulatory note that must be part of his repertoire in situations like these.  But surely Dr. Murphy must know from her marital status that congratulations were not in order.  Not even in 1960.

Scarcely hearing the litany of details, from her calculated due date to the series of prenatal appointments she would have to schedule, Merrilee sat in a trance.  She then felt herself standing, shaking his hand, smiling and nodding…And at the front desk, she heard the nurse tell her the date of her next appointment, handing her a card.

It can’t be real, she thought, her mind desperately protesting the unassailable facts.

She managed to find her old Chevrolet in the parking lot, turn the key in the ignition, and drive slowly toward her apartment.  Across from the community college campus, the space she had chosen for her first apartment suddenly looked flat and dismal.  How ugly these buildings seemed now as she imagined living here, raising a child, all on her own.  When this place had been like a temporary way station on the road to the perfect life of her romantic dreams, she’d reveled in it.

But maybe she wasn’t giving Royce enough credit.  He could turn out to be happy about all of this.  He might just be waiting for this very event to push him off the fence and in the direction of the perfect life together that she’d been envisioning.

She closed the door of her apartment behind her, staring ahead at the blank wall.  Her eyes turned toward the phone, and then as if some Hollywood type were directing this melodrama, it rang.  She reached out for the receiver, speaking clearly; she heard her voice as if from a distance, while on the other end Royce’s greeting seemed programmed.  Like a perfectly written script, she listened while he asked to come over.  Her response sounded almost normal.  Afterwards, she sank down on the floor, cradling her body while she rocked back and forth.
*     *     *

“Are you sure?”

When Merrilee heard those words coming from Royce’s lips, she felt the illusions slipping away, toppling at her feet.  He wasn’t supposed to say that, was he?  But then she quickly chattered something that later she would recall as nonsensical.  “I know we didn’t plan it,” she effused, “but we can work it out, can’t we?  I love you, and I think you must love me too.  Isn’t that all we need?”  She hated the desperation in her voice.  Someone, somewhere should have written better lines for her.  A nervous laugh choked itself out, and she watched Royce’s face closely for any sign that he might be feeling happy about this.

But he was glowering instead.  Frowning, he started pacing up and down the living room.

Anxiously, she trotted along behind him, grasping at his arm.  Oh, no, she thought suddenly.  I mustn’t seem clutching or desperate.

Predictably, he shook her hand off of his arm, pulling away.  Just as a part of her had known all along that he would do.  Had been doing for awhile now.  Pulling away.  Extricating himself from this relationship, if that’s even how he thought of the two of them.  Maybe it had all been just a rebellious act on his part.

She suddenly recalled all the little clues along the way.

Hurt, she crawled up onto the sofa, huddling under her grandmother’s afghan.  And wishing.  For something, anything that might turn things around.

Apologetic, he suddenly knelt down next to the sofa.  “I’m sorry, Merry, I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.  I guess you’re pretty disappointed in me, huh?”  Like a little boy trying to charm his way back into the good graces of his mother, he flashed that crooked grin of his.

Merrilee smiled back.  “It’s okay.  You’ll get used to the idea after awhile.”

But then he was shaking his head again.  “You don’t understand,” he explained.  “This can’t happen.  My father has certain expectations.  If I don’t toe the line, he’ll cut off my funds.”

Smiling bitterly through her tears, Merrilee completely understood.  No, this wasn’t the scenario from one of her romance novels.  This was real life, and none of it was working out the way she’d planned.  But ever the good girl, she just smiled and nodded and tried to ignore the fear in her gut.  And kept pleading in that voice that sounded shrill and whiny, even to her.

And when nothing she said or did seemed to have any effect on him, she suddenly turned into something she’d seen played out many times at home, a whirling bundle of rage.  She screamed and hurled a pillow across the room at him.  Even as it thudded gently against his chest, as ineffectual as anything else she’d said and done, she turned away, crying out:  “Just go, then.  Please.”

Standing there as if he were now the hero with his hat in his hands, he hesitated.  For just a second.  But then, as if released from involuntary imprisonment, he turned quickly and hurried through the door, glancing back toward her briefly as he closed it firmly behind him.

And then he was gone.  Forever.