THROUGH THE HEART Excerpt:
Nora: Tammy's Prediction
The day Tammy made her prediction was a normal day—normal for me anyway.
When she came by the house, I was in the kitchen, about to make a grilled cheese sandwich for myself.
My mother was upstairs, locked in her bedroom. We’d had another fight.
That morning we had made the long drive up to Kansas City for her fifth chemo session. Second round.
I think my mother actually enjoyed our fights. I wish I could say I did. The problem was, they got in the way of what Tammy called my Florence Nightingale delusion. I thought I’d move home and even though the cancer would be awful, it would also be a sort of miraculous thing that would bring us together. I would take care of my mother, and we would become close in a way we never had been when I was growing up.
It hadn’t quite worked out that way—not by a long shot. I was in the kitchen, heating the skillet, when I heard the front door slam and then the familiar holler, “Nora? Hellooo? Anybody home?”
Tammy had been coming in this way since we became best friends in second grade, and Tammy was not one to give up habits easily.
I went to the kitchen door and motioned her inside with a finger to my lips. As if that would do any good.
“Oh, is it puke-your-guts-up day?” Tammy asked.
That was Tammy. She liked to say shocking things. I never did find the thing that Tammy wasn’t willing to laugh about. Other people might say they laughed about the bad things, but you always reached the one thing that sobered them up, the thing that made them say, “No, that’s just not funny.”
That wasn’t Tammy. She laughed.
“You know she can hear you,” I said, as Tammy crossed the living room.
“You think she’d be surprised?” Tammy shot back, a little louder than necessary, so I knew it wasn’t just for me. It was a small house. You could hear everything, especially if you had my mother’s ears.
“You’ve got a point,” I said.
That was part of Tammy’s magic—my mother had heard the kinds of things Tammy said, and though she always pretended to be outraged, strangely she never gave me a hard time about our friend- ship. I think it might have been the one and only thing that was important to me that my mother hadn’t tried to take away or ruin. I didn’t understand it, but I wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“You want a grilled cheese?” I asked, closing the door firmly behind Tammy.
Tammy flopped down on one of the rickety wooden chairs with caning so old it squeaked every time you moved.
“God, yes. I’m starving. Robbie had absolutely nothing at his place.”
“Robbie?” I asked, starting to butter the bread. “Do I know about this one?”
“Put a lot of butter on mine,” Tammy instructed. “I told you about Robbie last week.”
“Wait a second. Don’t tell me,” I said, turning around, my hand still poised in the air as if the bread was in front of me. “You didn’t! Not the boy who bags your groceries at the Price Chopper?”
“That’s the one,” Tammy said.
“Is he even legal?”
“You’re asking me that with a knife in your hand?” I looked at my hand holding the knife, then at Tammy.
“Tammy, it’s a butter knife. Don’t get dramatic.”
“Anyway, he’s nineteen,” Tammy said. “Oh, to be nineteen again.”
"You have no shame,” I said, turning back to the sandwiches.
“None,” Tammy agreed. “It’s a useless emotion, along with guilt
“Hey, you’re knocking my staple diet there. Guilt, regret, and
grilled cheese.” I peeled slices of cheese out of the package. “How many slices of cheese. One or two?”
“Three,” Tammy replied.
“Did you tell him how old you are?” I asked
“Yes,” Tammy said. “I told him I was twenty-four.”
“Oh, that’s good.” I was the same age as Tammy: we were thirty-three.
“Well, it’s how old I feel,” Tammy replied.
“It’s certainly how old you act.”
“And how I look,” she shot back.
That was true. But a big part of it was that Tammy hadn’t changed her look since high school. She had long blonde hair, which she wore most of the time in a ponytail. And she wore the same makeup, the most important item of which was pink lip gloss. But it was mostly her height. Tammy was tiny. She was barely over five feet, tiny all over except one place—her chest. It was comical to watch men when they met her. They’d try to look at her face, but their eyes would be drawn like a magnet down to her chest.
“You’re just jealous I’m gettin’ some,” Tammy said.
“You’re absolutely right.” I slapped the sandwiches in the pan with the heat turned high.
“How long has it been?” Tammy asked.
“You know exactly how long it’s been. Don’t make me say it aloud.” I pressed the spatula on top of each sandwich.
“What about the guy in Chicago last spring?” “No.” “I thought . . .”
“No,” I said again. “How is it you can find so many men in a
town the size of a pea, and I get nothing?”
Our town was actually not so small by midwestern standards,
since something like 90 percent of the towns in the Midwest have fewer than three thousand people. Apparently, everyone was leaving the small towns—they called it the rural exodus. I fervently wished I could be a part of it.
“You get nothing because you’re not approachable,” Tammy said. Then she added, more kindly, “And I’m obviously not picky. You actually want to like the guy. I just want to be entertained.”
“What do you mean, I’m not approachable?”
“You’re not. You’re actually a bit intimidating.”
“Me?” I said. “Give me a break.”
“You’ve been stuck in this town too long. You don’t even know
what damage you could do somewhere else. You’re not bad-looking, you know,” Tammy said.
“Gee, thanks.” I flipped each sandwich. The undersides had turned a perfect golden brown.
“Okay, you’re beautiful. You happy?”
“I know, my hair . . .”
My mother always said my hair was my beauty. It was a color you
don’t usually see: dark red, straight and thick. I never felt like I was beautiful, just my hair.
“No, I’m not talking about your hair,” Tammy said.
“You’re full of it,” I said. “I’m not ugly, but I’m not beautiful.”
“You didn’t use to be,” Tammy agreed. “You were cute. But you’ve changed.”
“That’s true. I’ve become miserable. I guess it must be the drawn,
“That’s exactly what it is,” Tammy said. “Speaking of suffering,
how’s it going with,” and she rolled her eyes up to the ceiling.
“Not so good.” I checked the other side of the sandwiches, but
they weren’t done yet.
“Worse than usual?” Tammy asked.
Tammy knew me too well. She didn’t buy the understated re-
“Oh no. What happened?”
“I asked her again if I could come into the hospital with her.”
“Oh, the horror,” Tammy drawled, pressing a hand dramatically
to her chest. “Wanting to go into the hospital with your sick mother instead of waiting in the car—how could you?”
I checked the undersides of the sandwiches again. They were done. I forked them onto the waiting plates and brought them over to the table and sat down. The chair creaked in protest. Nothing in this house was stable.
“Well, that’s pretty much what she said,” I admitted. “But you know she doesn’t mean it.”
Tammy couldn’t answer right away because she’d taken a huge bite of her sandwich while it was too hot and now had her mouth open, fanning the air ineffectually with her hand. But she looked like she was about to choke, she wanted to talk so badly.
“Of course I know that,” Tammy said. “But do you? She’s playing you, honey.”
“What would you do? Seriously . . .” I paused, as if Tammy could be serious. I decided to rephrase it. “I mean, if she were your mother.”
“If she were my mother, she wouldn’t have gotten cancer, because I’d have killed her long before this.”
Some people might have found Tammy’s reactions to be a bit, well, unsympathetic. But I loved them. Tammy said all the things you weren’t supposed to say. I remembered when I first told Tammy that my mother had leukemia, and Tammy said, “It figures your mother would get a kid’s disease. It’s perfect, because she acts like she’s five.”
I said, “She’s not that bad.”
Tammy gave me a look.
“Don’t give me the pity look,” I said.
“Hey, if the pity fits,” Tammy said, taking another bite. Some-
how she’d managed to eat almost all her sandwich in three bites. I hadn’t even started mine. I picked it up, sighed, and put it down again.
“Okay, fine. It fits,” I said.
“Face it, Nora, your life sucks.”
“I’ve been facing it. If you could tell me how I could run away
from it, that would be great. Now, that’s some advice I could use.”
“Leave,” Tammy said bluntly—and not for the first time.
“But how would you get by without me?”
“Please. Abandon me here. I’d love to see you do it.”
“All right. Maybe I will.”
Tammy rolled her eyes at me. “That wasn’t exactly convincing.”
“I could surprise you,” I said.
“Yeah, right. Okay. Let’s settle this once and for all.” Tammy wiped her fingers on her napkin and held out her hand,
waiting for me to put my hand in hers. We had been doing this since middle school. It started when Tammy read a novel in which a psychic was able to tell a person’s future by taking their hand and asking a question.
Tammy decided that she was a psychic, and she wanted to try it with me as her guinea pig. We tested it by asking when I was going to get my period (Tammy had already gotten hers. It seemed she always managed to hit the important life milestones before I did). Tammy had taken my hand and asked the question, and then, she told me, it was as if a date appeared in her head, like it was written on a piece of paper. The date was February 2, five months distant, which when you’re in seventh grade feels like forever. So I proceeded to completely forget about it—until February 2 came around, and I got my period that morning in the middle of social studies class. I missed all of the Boer War in the bathroom. I still don’t know what it was about.
Tammy had been predicting for me ever since. She predicted my first kiss and my first boyfriend. She told me where I was going to go to college, where I was going to grad school, that I wouldn’t finish
grad school, and that I would move home. (I remember how much I laughed at that one when she predicted it.)
It didn’t work every time. There were days when she didn’t get anything; she said it was just like a blank. That’s what happened the few times she tried to predict for a couple of other friends. She said it was just a blank. But for some reason it usually worked with me, and when she made a prediction, it was never wrong. Not once.
This should have scared me. I don’t know why it didn’t. Maybe it just seemed like part of my friendship with Tammy. Her mother was always a little different, what people called “crunchy,” with long skirts and always talking about horoscopes and Mercury in retrograde.
But I think it didn’t scare me because, deep down, I didn’t really believe in it. In some ways, I can’t really blame myself for it. Who would believe it—even with all the evidence Tammy had provided over the years? Believing it would mean that nothing is really what we think it is. So instead, in the face of the evidence, I chose to believe that the world is solid and ordinary and familiar. Like everyone does.
As I put my hand in Tammy’s, I said, “We’ve tried it before. It doesn’t work for this question.” We had already attempted to find out when I might be leaving; Tammy always came up with a blank.
“It hasn’t worked yet,” Tammy corrected me as she took my hand. Her palms were dry and warm.
We both closed our eyes, and the heat seemed to intensify like an oven as Tammy pressed my hand between hers.
I felt it—or I thought I did—the little spark of electricity going from me to her. It was as if I had all the information about my own life, and I was just passing it along for her to decode.
I opened my eyes. She opened hers at the exact same time.
And she said, “Don’t go.”
“Don’t go? What do you mean, don’t go? Don’t go where?”
“Don’t leave. Stay here with your mother.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You spend the last three years telling me
to go, and now you’re telling me not to? Are you saying I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life trapped here?”
I was half joking, but Tammy didn’t even crack a smile. Her eyes looked far away, as if she was still looking at my future.
“No, that’s the problem—I see you leaving.”
“On a long journey, right?” I joked.
That’s when Tammy said the words I never thought she’d say:
“It’s not funny. It will look like you’re getting everything you thought you wanted. But it’s not safe. Listen to me, okay? It’s not safe.”
“Aw, you care,” I said, teasing her.
Tammy scowled at me.
“Come on, you are not the kind of girl who worries,” I reminded her.
Finally, at that comment, her eyes refocused on me, and she
snorted—and the Tammy I knew was back.
“Oh, that’s right,” she said. “I forgot for a second—I’m the kind
of girl who doesn’t give a shit. Thank God. It must be this house. The atmosphere of caring and obligation is suffocating. I’ve got to get out of here.”
She stood up, brushing the crumbs off her shirt—and onto the floor.
“Wait a second. You mean you’re not going to tell me any more than that?”
“Not today,” she said. “Let’s see what happens. Maybe I’m wrong, and you will be stuck here forever. In that case, it won’t matter.”
“You’re such a comfort to me.”
“Call me tomorrow, and let me know if anything happens,” she said.
“I call you almost every day anyway. But nothing ever happens, so I seriously doubt anything interesting is going to happen by tomorrow.”
But I was wrong about that.