Read Save Johanna! Online

Authors: Francine Pascal

Save Johanna!

Save Johanna!
Francine Pascal

For my brother Michael Stewart


I would like to thank my husband and mentor, John Pascal, who taught me my craft, who motivated, encouraged, supported, edited, suggested, criticized, and aggravated me into my career, and whose own rich talents always define for me the highest standards of perfection to be achieved. I will miss him with every word I ever write.

I am grateful to Maria Guarnaschelli, who is the editor all writers dream they will one day find, a person who will edit your manuscript with intelligence and respect, and then get it out to the public with the power and drive of a Sherman tank.

I also want to thank my friend Mike McGrady for consistently encouraging me to believe in myself.

Chapter One

Tonight’s party is a celebration with me playing hostess and chief celebrant. Four of my dearest friends are coming, plus David, my lover and about-to-be-husband in three months and four days, and of course Roger, the Pigeon Supreme, primed for plucking at the after-dinner poker game. It’s a perfect group: bright, witty, successful people who like each other and me too, I hope. Of course they do. Why else would they drag themselves out on a sleepy Saturday night, struggle through the warm spring evening and pretend to enjoy baked clams, guinea hens,
tarte aux pêches,
and a lovely, not too fruity Beaujolais Primeur?

It’s only noon, but I’m well under control already. The apartment is in order with the exception of my office, an area that seems perpetually under hurricane attack. Easily solved with a closed door. Ditto for my bedroom, not because it’s messy, which it is, though only gently so, but because it’s too personal. Except for David, I always feel uncomfortably exposed when even my closest friends wander into my bedroom. The night table alone, posing as ordinary furniture, has shelves that spread like an open pocketbook revealing scraps of my private self, more bits and hints of me than I care to give. And, of course, the top is hopelessly cluttered with other revealing trivia: Valium to relieve the anxieties of a single, thirty-three-year-old woman beset by hypochondria and the assorted dreads and fears of contemporary urban life; Maalox for the more mundane ailments; and a salve for an allergy rash that is almost certainly psychosomatic but itches maddeningly all the same. All the trappings of a perfectly normal, happy, healthy, successful writer. And nobody’s business but mine. That door stays closed too.

My guests will be here soon, so I make a last check on the dining room. As always, it’s exquisite. The table, a beautiful specimen of eighteenth-century country French refectory, one crack away from total collapse but still the best piece in the house, is arranged to perfection. My perfection anyway. The decidedly English Robinson silver sparkles next to heavy hand-blown stemware from Provence; ultraformal Rosenthal china lies elegantly under the most sentimental of Irish lace napkins blossoming gracefully from hand-painted china rings that nip in their centers; tiny delicate rose-shaped salt cellars; and two bronze candelabra, each holding four fifteen-inch candles, add the final crowning touch. All enough to take away the appetite of your average high-tech decorator, but I love it, every bit of it. It’s my weakness, my grown-up toys, and as a result of this extravagance, I could never afford to furnish the room beyond my fabulous table and eight chairs. Fortunately for me, the building itself, a seventy-five-year-old Stanford White creation on Central Park West in Manhattan, has lovely carved ceilings and oak-paneled walls, handsome enough to substitute for furniture any day.

I’ve carried my eclectic taste into the living room, another potpourri of English, French, and Spanish stolen at bargain prices from auction galleries and then most casually combined, all in subtle tones of blues and golds with an occasional burgundy accent. The effect is soft and comfortable and warm. The rest of the apartment includes a good-sized old-fashioned kitchen, a bathroom, and, of course, the two verboten rooms.

It takes me a few minutes to straighten up the kitchen and put it in order for David, the true perfection of my life. David, the man I think I’ve been waiting for all my life even though I married someone else years ago, but that was when I was twenty-two, and the whole fiasco actually lasted only three years, including the waiting time for the divorce. I can hardly remember anything about Jack except that he was a decent guy. A nice boyfriend. Then suddenly, one day, there was a lovely old watch that had belonged to his mother, then an engagement ring and
peau de soie
veils and bridesmaids, ushers, and the time for decisions was lost, and onward was the only direction left.

No parting is easy, but this marriage had so little depth that the leaving was more embarrassing than angry. We split up possessions. I kept the CPW apartment that he never liked, and we went our own ways. At first we spoke often, consulted each other, and held on like once-close cousins. Then he met Rita. Within six months they were married and off to suburbia. Jack calls me occasionally when he’s had a few too many drinks, and we reminisce. It gets harder and harder because I can’t seem to remember more than five minutes of our whole relationship. And most of those moments took place when I decided to tell him I wanted out.

On the other hand, with David, the decision making has been going on for four years. We’ve examined every reason for not getting married and overcome them all. That doesn’t mean it’s a sure winner, but it does increase the odds in our favor. It’s all a deep risk anyway when you’re the child of an unhappy marriage, as I am. Somewhere hidden deep down inside the psyche are the tapes that will repeat the misery of the only example you’ve ever known.

I watch carefully to see that the tapes don’t start spinning. I watch for the warnings, the familiar muffled sounds of the angry spits and hisses or the roars of my childhood. Nothing is ever allowed to get past six on the decibel scale. Fortunately David is low-keyed, a man whose own self-respect gives him a confidence that doesn’t easily threaten. I love him dearly. And I’m ready to take the chance because I want to get on with my life. I want commitments, a husband, children, a family around me that I can be part of and love and complain about and take for granted.


The phone rings.

“Johanna?” It’s my David.

“Hi, love. What’s up?” I say, taking him completely for granted.

“I’m done. It went faster than I expected so I can be on my way in about a half hour. I’ll pick up the wine, the bread, and what kind of cheese?”

“Should we try the goat cheese this time?”

“Sure. And what about a Camembert?”

“Good idea.”

“Anything else?”

“I’m thinking . . .”

“Meantime I’ll get ready. Give me a call if you come up with anything else. Johanna …”

“Yes, love.”

“. . . I’m hurrying.”

I hang up and smile because it’s so incredibly glorious to be in love with someone so perfect and loving and consistent. Not dull, expected consistent, but strong, dependable, comfortable consistent. I’ve driven my friends into near-coma listing David’s good qualities, but they’re all genuine. He’s all those things, and the best part is he doesn’t even know it. And he loves me. And that’s pretty good too, because he knows me fairly well. Oh, I’m not a monster. But I’m not a David either.

Then who am I? I’m me, Johanna Morgan, a woman who writes for a living. I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to encapsulate a description of myself in one paragraph, or one page, or one anything. I can’t, because though the basic pattern is pretty consistent on the outside, the inner contours keep changing. This part grows, that part shrinks. There’s a blurring and fading and then a sharpening into focus that sometimes surprises even me.

I guess the physical part isn’t that difficult to describe. Bare statistics: five foot six; wavy dark-blond hair kept light by the marvels of science; my best feature, greenish eyes ever so slightly almond shaped. Good if modest figure. Small feet. Long fingers and neck, and other features that take me well into the territory of the physically advantaged. Someone once made a study of physically attractive children and found that they enjoyed benefits far beyond those that befall the less lustrous child. It’s true. I always have, but I’ve never allowed myself to exploit them because it’s too dangerous to depend on an advantage so accidental, so transient, so unearned. But it does make much of life easier and smoother, sort of the equivalent of being born with money, except that sometime around the late middle of your life you lose it all. I’m not near losing it all yet, and I’ve developed enough other resources so that I’m well ahead of the game.

Reduced to the easily graspable, you’re dealing with a good-looking woman on the edge of a risk. Not only am I about to change my life-style completely with marriage to David, but after at least a year of agonizing indecision I’ve decided to give up a lucrative magazine-writing career and plunge into the unexplored, uncertain, insecure world of the novelist.

Until about three years ago I worked full-time for
magazine. Since then I’ve free-lanced for numerous magazines—
New Yorker, Vogue,
and a few other well-known publications. The free-lancing was only a preparatory step to the big one—the novel.

I think I’m being fairly well organized about it. I have about $20,000 saved. Most of it came from my last magazine piece—a profile of Avrum Maheely, the cult leader who murdered Ambassador Lyndon’s debutante daughter Caroline and four of her jet-set girl friends in San Francisco two years ago. The crime itself and the trial of Maheely and his weird coterie made sensational headlines, you’ll remember, for a good five months. It was a long three-part series, and I got $15,000 for it. After taxes and expenses I figure what’s left of the money should carry me at least five months, and by then I will be safely married to David, and he’s not likely to let me starve. Then all I have to do is finish the novel (I’ve given myself a ten-month deadline), and my agent Neil Waxman sells it, and poof!—best-seller list. Or, no poof!—and back to the magazine jungle to gather enough coconuts to try again.

I think I’ve got a good idea for the novel. It grew out of my interviews with Avrum. The man is more than fascinating. He is an enigma of extravagant cruelty and explosive violence juxtaposed with a most numbingly ordinary middle-class mindset. That combination seems to provide a unique mulch for the growth of the most riveting, extraordinary presence I have ever encountered. That’s only a thumbnail sketch. It would take a whole book to unravel the mystery of Avrum Maheely, his purpose, his power, his drive, his needs, and that’s what I intend to do for the next ten months.

I have enough material left over from the profile to do a full-length nonfiction book, but I feel the natural mode for this story is fiction. That way I can have the freedom I need to explore Avrum completely. I was held back by the finite limitations of facts when a deeper explanation required the freedom of the imagination. I also plan to interview his followers, especially the two women in prison. I saw them at the trial, but they would never allow any communication. Now they’ve both agreed to talk to me. Understanding Swat and Imogene is crucial to knowing Avrum. I want to trace their indoctrination from its very beginnings. I have to know why the brutal crime happened and what holds them even now when it’s all over, when they’ve all been convicted and their leader’s power should have ended. Avrum’s closed himself off to the press, and these people are the only way into him. I must get there deeper than before. I want to feel the essence of him, make myself a part of it, and then write from the inside outwards. Am I sounding obsessive? I don’t think I am, but I admit to being inordinately fascinated. One day, at my leisure, after the book is a brilliant success, I might examine the elements of my own deep fascination, but right now suffice it to say, it’ll make a good book. And a good ten months of labor.

Not even David knows about the book. He thinks tonight’s dinner is only to announce our marriage. It’s my surprise gift to him. I can’t remember ever feeling so high about my life. The anticipation is delicious, enhanced by just the slightest hint of preproject panic. Both projects.


David arrives at four-thirty loaded down with French breads, wine, and cheeses. He is witty and intelligent, with a sincerity and generosity that are utterly charming, and a totally undeveloped judgment about things like goat cheese. I can freeze the breads, but I’ll be eating goat cheese for weeks. Another area where his judgment tends to slip a bit is his wardrobe. He has never conquered the art of matching stripes or plaids or even knowing what colors go well together, so he figures that the safest way is to stay with the same numbing monotones. His feeling is that you can’t go wrong if the pants and shirt are both the same basic color. Today is a perfect example. He’s a festival in navy blue. All he needs is an emblem on his shirt and he could be Navy Man, protector of all truth and goodness. He would make a wonderful Navy Man because he’s so damned nice. And besides, he has a great body.

“The guy in the store said to take the cheese out about an hour before you serve it,” David says, unwrapping one of the four packages for me.

“It seems very ripe,” I say. “Will it hold till tonight?”

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You’re just not used to goat cheese. You’ll love it.”

“I know I will,” I say, and he kisses me and I kiss him and there’s goat cheese between us and he’s right. I’m starting to love it already.

“Can you take some time out?” David whispers to me, and his body feels warm against mine and all that could possibly touch is touching.

I shake my head yes and take his hand, and we go into my bedroom.

It’s lovely making love with David. A kiss, a touch, the feel of his smooth body is all I need to ease me into that other dimension, that sensual level where one feeling melts into another and everything is tingly and hazy and feels so good.

“I love you, Jo, my God, I love you. . . .”

“Oh, David, darling.” The feel of his fingers lightly teasing me, our mouths lost in each other, and the hardness of his penis sliding along the inside of my thighs all send me racing faster than I want to go, aching with a need that only the feel of him pushing deep inside me will soothe.

“Now, David, come into me. . . .”

“Easy, baby . . . play a little. . . .”

But I can’t. I’m rushing forward and I can’t slow it down. My body is arched against his and my arms tightly wrap around his waist. By twisting and turning my hips I force him to slide into me, and for an instant he hesitates, wanting to prolong the foreplay, but my body needs his power, it needs the hard rhythm of the pounding, the thrusting, and the driving that send me soaring up, up, up, almost to that cosmic height I want desperately to reach—but I don’t. Something scares me off. Some last second fear snatches it all away from me and I come sailing down, slowly, nicely, but somewhere far behind my eyes—a tear.

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