The Last Romantics - Tara Conklin Page 0,1

was someone named Luna.”

I straightened my spine and heard the bones crack, a minor internal disruption. I wasn’t often put on the spot. At home I had a gardener, a personal assistant, a housekeeper, a cook. I lived with my second husband, Henry, but I ran the house and gave the orders. Some might say I’m imposing. I prefer to think of it as self-assured. This girl was also self-assured, I could see it in the set of her shoulders, the purse of her lips.

How to describe the first Luna? I met Luna Hernandez only once. On a night when the wind threw tree branches onto the road and leaves whirled in crazy circles. Decades ago, a lifetime ago. That Luna had grown and changed in my mind until I hardly saw her anymore. Were her eyes brown or gray? The mole, was it high on the right cheek or the left? Had it been remorse I saw on her face that night or merely dismissal?

“I wrote a poem about love,” I began, addressing the crowd. “But there are certain limitations. There are certain failings. I’ve always been wary of love, you see. Its promises are too dizzy, its reasons too vague, its origins murkier than mud.” Here I heard a chuckle from the audience. “Yes, mud!” I called in the direction of the laugh. “When I was young, I tried dissecting love, setting it up on a table with a good strong light and poking, prodding, slicing. For years I believed it possible to identify the crux, the core, and that once you found this essential element you might tend it like a rose and grow something beautiful. Back then I was a romantic. I didn’t understand that there’s no stopping betrayal. If you live long enough and well enough to know love, its various permutations and shades, you will falter. You will break someone’s heart. Fairy tales don’t tell you that. Poetry doesn’t either.”

I paused.

“You’re not answering the question,” Luna said; her arms were now crossed against her chest, her chin down.

“Let me tell you a story,” I said. “In these difficult times, stories are important. In a sense, stories are all we have to tell us about the future.”

Luna moved away from the microphone. She was listening intently, everyone was, shoulders pitched just slightly forward, curious and alert.

“Once upon a time,” I began, “there was a father and a mother and four children, three girls and one boy. They lived together in a house like any other house, in a town like many other towns, and for a time they were happy.” I paused, and all those faces in the auditorium stared down on me, all those eyes. “And then—” I stopped again, faltering. I sipped my glass of water. “And then there was the Pause. Everything started there. Our mother didn’t mean for it to happen, she didn’t, but this is a story about the failures of love, and the Pause was the first.”

Part I


Chapter 1

In the spring of 1981, our father died. His name was Ellis Avery Skinner, thirty-four years old, a small bald lozenge at the back of his head that he covered every morning with a few hopeful strands. We lived in the middle-class town of Bexley, Connecticut, where our father owned and operated a dental practice. At the moment his heart stopped, he was pulling on a pair of blue rubber gloves while one of his afternoon patients, a Mrs. Lipton, lay before him on the padded recliner, breathing deeply from a sweet mask of chloroform.

“Oh!” our father said, and toppled sideways to the floor.

“Dr. Skinner?” Mrs. Lipton sat up. She was unsteady, groggy, and afraid as she looked down at our father on the floor. He twitched once, twice, and then Mrs. Lipton began to scream.

The look on his face, she later reported to our mother, was one of surrender and absolute surprise.

Our mother was thirty-one years old. She’d never held a full-time job and possessed a degree in English literature from Colby College in her home state of Maine that sat unframed in an upstairs closet. Her dark hair hung like two pressed curtains framing the window of her face. Her eyes were wide and brown, with sparse lashes and narrow lids that gave an impression of watchfulness and exposure. Her name was Antonia, though everyone called her Noni, and it was decided long before my birth that her children should call her Noni, too.

The day of our father’s funeral