Set amidst the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll of 1960’s Tucson, when Caro Mills earns recognition as a budding playwright, and then later in the 1980’s New York suburbs, when she’s married and her creativity is buried beneath the demands of motherhood, Deborah K. Shepherd’s debut novel, SO HAPPY TOGETHER, is a moving exploration of friendship and love, acceptance and tolerance, forgiveness, and honoring our authentic selves. Kirkus Reviews said, “Shepherd’s novel contains entertaining details of the ’60s and ’80s, deftly capturing the atmosphere of both time periods….the tale explores many weighty topics relating to life’s transitions with insight and grace. From sexual orientation to personal ambition, grief, friendship, and self-esteem, the author dives deep.” Enjoy this preview of the novel, due out April 2021 from She Writes Press.
Tucson, Arizona, 1967
Peter never stuttered when he was on stage. Framed by a proscenium, he was as eloquent as Sirs Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, and Alec Guinness put together, and could vanquish those plosives and fricatives and bilabials like Hamlet dispatching his duplicitous mother and murderous stepfather with a thrust of his sword.
Offstage, Peter MacKinley (first name starting with a plosive, last name with a bilabial) couldn’t even introduce himself without grimacing and grunting and repeatedly pursing his lips. At first, it was painful to watch, but I got used to it. Except for that stuttering and his surprisingly wry sense of humor, you might not even notice he was there. He was a sweet, shy, soft-spoken, self-effacing church-going college boy who blushed easily, was good to his mother and rescued stray cats.
But somewhere between the green room and the wings, he transformed. It wasn’t just the makeup or the costume or the lights or all the theatrical abracadabra that I knew was just an illusion. It happened every time he stepped on stage. To me, he seemed broader and taller and more at home in his own skin. And did I mention brave? He didn’t just play the part, he was alive in it.
That blossom in my heart, I’ll fling to you—
Armfuls of loose bloom! Love, I love beyond
Breath, beyond reason, beyond love’s own power
Of loving! Your name is like a golden bell
Hung in my heart; and when I think of you,
I tremble, and the bell swings and rings—
‘Roxanne! Roxanne!’ …Along my veins, ‘Roxanne…’
Each night, I hovered in the wings and held my breath as he declaimed these words to my stage rival. Each night, he could have had me right then and there, on those floorboards, curtain up or down, audience be damned.
And then, after the bows and the adulation, the cold-creamed makeup removal and the costume change, swashbuckling Cyrano de Bergerac became sweet, shy, stuttering Peter MacKinley again.
I loved him in both his personas
Westport, Connecticut, 1987
I don’t remember exactly when it started— it had been awhile since I’d given Peter much thought–but then, there he was, dropping by with increasing frequency and always at the most inconvenient moments, distracting me from one chore or another, until I had to shoo him away so I could get the kids to basketball practice or take my husband’s suits to the cleaners or put dinner on the table. I took his visitations as a sign of my unhappiness, until the nightmare, and after that, I knew there was more to it. I just knew he was in trouble. And so was I.
It was right out of the awful last scene of that Stephen King movie, Carrie, when Sissy Spacek’s bloody arm reaches up from under the ground to grab Amy Irving. Only this arm was skeletal, and it was Peter’s. I woke up screaming my head off, just like Amy, but I was in our bedroom and it was Jack who reached out to comfort me.
“Honey, what is it? Bad dream? Shh, shh. It’s alright. Everything’s alright.”
He wrapped his arms around me, still making those “shh, shh” sounds, and then started rubbing my back. And, against my better judgment, I snuggled into him for comfort. And he kept rubbing. “Shh, shh.” Rub. Rub. Rub.
And then, because my back is my second most erogenous zone, and despite the fact that I had not desired my husband for months, and he had pretty much given up on trying, we were there.
I knew Jack’s contours as well as I knew my own, maybe better, and we were moving to our bodies’ shared memory of so many years, so many couplings.
But it was Peter who made me come.
And once I had committed adultery in my heart, in my husband’s embrace, I knew it would only be a matter of time.
But the next morning, I started doubting myself. Maybe the bad dream was just another manifestation of the spring, summer, fall, and winter of my discontent? There was a simple way to find out. Peter’s number was indelibly printed on my brain. I could just pick up the phone and call him and ask him if everything was okay. Wait, no, I couldn’t, not after the life-altering debacle of our last time together in Tucson, not to mention it had been 20 years since I had laid eyes on him. He was probably fine, and I would look like some kind of idiot, still connected to him after all these years, despite everything I had learned. It would be humiliating and so painfully awkward. I wouldn’t know what to say. Neither would he. I would beat myself up for months afterwards (maybe forever), and I would still be stuck in my stultifying marriage and I just couldn’t bear it.
I put it out of my head and filled the empty space with plans for my father-in-law’s surprise sixty-fifth birthday party. But it was Peter who reminded me to order both a chocolate and a carrot cake, because my mother-in-law is allergic to chocolate. Uh uh, not taking dessert orders from someone who separated his Oreos and licked the icing before dunking the plain wafers in milk. And I rejected his ideas for redecorating my daughter’s bedroom. Pretty nervy of him, suggesting color schemes and telling me what kind of wallpaper to buy. Yeah, as if I would take the advice of someone whose apartment looked like it came straight from the pages of “Trends in Tacky Motel Décor, circa 1958.” I found Peter looking over my shoulder while I was leafing through garden catalogs for next spring’s perennials. He told me not to buy the rose bushes I was coveting because they attracted Japanese beetles, and pointed out some stunning orange dahlias, instead. I had to tell him that here in the Northeast, dahlias were not technically perennials, that the tubers had to be dug up in the fall, stored through the winter, and then replanted in the spring, and stunning though they were, I didn’t have time for such labor-intensive flowers. He insisted that their beauty made them worth it. Easy for him to say.
And yet, and yet…I’d have given anything to have him here in the flesh, my partner in crime, just like he used to be.
© Deborah K. Shepherd 2021
Deborah K. Shepherd was born in Cambridge, MA and spent much of her early life in the New York area. Before retiring in 2014, she was a social worker with a primary focus on the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault, and the provision of services to survivors. During an earlier career as a reporter, she wrote for Show Business in New York City and for the Roe Jan Independent, a weekly newspaper in Columbia County, New York. She also freelanced as a travel writer. She graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, Michigan, and holds a BFA in drama from the University of Arizona and an MSW from the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service. Deborah lives with her husband and two rescue dogs in mid-coast Maine, where she gardens, cooks, swims, reads, entertains her grandsons, volunteers in her community, and tries to speak French. Find her online at deborahshepherdwrites.com
Photo by Henry Wyatt