“You spilled juice in my hair.”
Bobby giggles at that. “Mommy said you looked like an alien with purple on your face.”
Daniel’s gaze is as soft as velvet, yet it hits me hard. I’ve never seen a man who looks at his son with such unabashed love. Once Bobby sees that, he’ll know he’s safe in this world. “You were too little to get on the bumper cars.”
“You said they were a dumb ride anyway.”
“Aye. And so they were.”
For the rest of the meal, they trade memories and stories. By the time we head back to the truck, they are smiling at each other.
On the way home, we listen to the radio. It’s Randy Travis’s whiskey-velvet voice singing “I’m Gonna Love You Forever and Ever.” As the words float through the cab, I find myself looking at Daniel.
When we get back to the lodge, it’s almost seven o’clock. Bobby immediately runs to the television and puts a DVD in the machine. He’s chosen The Santa Clause.
I start for my room.
“Where you going, Joy?” Bobby says.
“You and your dad need some time together. I’ll see you to . . .”
“No.” He turns to Daniel. “Tell her, Daddy. Invite her to watch the movie with us.”
I draw in a breath, waiting. I know he will release me and keep Bobby to himself. It’s not even the wrong thing to do.
“Please,” Daniel says softly, smiling my way. “Stay with us.”
It isn’t until then, when I hear his velvety brogue wrap around those three small words, that I realize how much I wanted Daniel to ask me to stay.
“Sure,” I say, hoping I don’t sound as desperate as I feel.
Daniel and Bobby sit on the couch together. I curl into the red chair, opposite them.
As I sit here, listening to Bobby’s laughter, I consider how quiet my own house has become. If I’m to be honest—and why would I lie now?—our house was quiet long before Thom left me. Before he started sleeping with my sister. When I look back on my marriage, the truth is that it was too quiet from the beginning.
On that last night in Bakersfield, Stacey was right. My marriage had been falling apart long before she came into the picture. It’s a truth I can finally admit.
“He’s getting fat ’cuz he’s Santa!” Bobby yells, bouncing in his seat.
His happiness is infectious; in no time, Daniel and I are laughing with him.
When the movie is over and Daniel says, “Time for bed, boyo,” and Bobby grumbles and whines that he’s not tired—even though he can’t keep his eyes open—I am sorry to see the evening end, sorry to face the prospect of going back to my room.
Daniel picks Bobby up and carries him toward the stairs.
“ ’Night, Joy,” Bobby calls out sleepily. “See you in the morning.”
“Good night, Bobby.”
I mean to get up and go to my room. I really do, but somehow I don’t move. I sit there, curled like a cat in the chair, staring at the fire. The family photographs on the mantel seize my attention. I go to the mantel, pick up the pictures, and pour over them like an archeologist looking for clues from the artifacts of a life. Who was Maggie? Why did their marriage end?
Later, when I hear Daniel’s footsteps on the stairs, I realize I’ve been waiting for him.
He comes into the room, stands in front of the fire. In the combination of orange light and dark shadows, he looks drawn and tired. We are close enough that a movement either way and we’d be touching. “I promised Bobby I’d come back down. I’m supposed to talk to you, don’t you know?”
“I’m glad,” I dare to answer.
“I’m not much of a talker these days.” His voice is so soft I have to lean toward him to hear. “The funny thing is, I used to be a real loudmouth, back in the pubs in Dublin, when I was a lad. I could talk till I was blue in the face and falling-down drunk.”
“It’s funny how things slip away, pieces of us, even.”
Daniel sighs. Nodding, he reaches for the single photograph left on the mantel, tucked now behind the Christmas village, and holds it close. It’s a picture of Maggie, looking young and vibrant and beautiful.
I have no idea what to say or do. He looks so raw right now, so utterly broken, that I’m afraid to speak.
He puts the photograph back and sits down on the hearth. “So, Joy.” He makes a sound that’s almost a laugh. “Maybe you could help me, too. It seems I was a bad father and a worse husband. I didn’t even think about putting up a Christmas tree. All I thought about was getting Bobby out of this place where the memories are so bad.”
“Moving won’t put his heart back together.” This is a truth I know; I learned it firsthand. I sit in the chair opposite him and lean forward. In a daring that’s completely foreign to me, I touch his thigh. “He needs you for that.”
A frown darts across his forehead. “What the hell . . .”
I draw back, instantly contrite. “I’m sorry.”
He gets to his feet. “The doc said I should talk to you, for Bobby, but . . .”
I get up and go to him, unable to stop myself.
We’re close now, almost face to face. I feel the softness of his breathing, smell the hint of wood smoke scent that clings to his T-shirt. “Daniel?”
“I feel like a bloody fool. How in the hell am I supposed to talk to you?”
I step back. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have . . .”
What? Touched him? Said anything? Come here in the first place? I have no idea what to say to him, what I did that was so wrong.
He turns away from me and goes to the fireplace. When he’s put out the fire, he goes about the business of closing up the lobby for the night, locking the doors and drawing the curtains shut, until the lobby is jet black. He disappears down the hallway, then returns.
I wait for him to look at me, and try to figure out what I’ll say when he does. How I’ll explain being an idiot for a second, a woman caught and blinded by her own needs. I try to make out his face in the dark. Is he smiling? Frowning? I can’t tell.
When everything is dark and quiet he goes toward the stairs. I can hear his hushed footsteps on the carpet and the cadence of his breathing. I wait for him to pause on the stairs, to say something, but in this I am disappointed. He makes his way up the stairs; later, I hear a door open and close, and then I am left alone, standing by the fire, staring at the photographs of another woman’s family.
* * *
The plane is going down.
“It’s burning . . . don’t touch . . .”
I’m in the air, tumbling, screaming . . . we’re going down . . .
I wake up, screaming in the dark of my room. My chest is crushed, my face smashed. I can’t make my legs move.
No. I’m dreaming.
I touch my chest, press the skin until I can feel my heart beating. It’s fast but steady.
“You’re fine.” The sound of my voice calms me, coming as it does from the darkness of my room. On shaking, weak legs, I walk to the window, push it open. The pine-scented air caresses my cheeks, grounds me instantly.
I’m here. Alive.
Tiny raindrops flutter on my face and the windowsill, cooling my skin. Gradually, I feel myself calming down.
The images fade, slink back into my subconscious.
I stand there, watching the shiny combination of rain and moonlight until my hands stop shaking and I can breathe evenly again.
I hear footsteps upstairs, pacing. Someone else can’t sleep.
I wish I could go to him, say simply, “I can’t sleep, either.”
Instead, I turn away from the window and return to my thin, empty bed.
* * *
Mist, as translucent and flimsy as a layer of silk organza, floats across my window, blurring the forest beyond. Everything is obscured by the haze; two-hundred-foot trees appear strangely fragile. Even time seems elastic; the days and nights are passing with near impossible speed. I know that it is because I want time to slow down that it is speeding up.
This morning, as I stand at my window and look across the yard, I see shadows moving in and out among the trees. It doesn’t surprise me that Bobby sees his mother in all this softness. There is an otherworldliness to the forest here. I also know how easy it is to see what you want to see.
For almost the entire year before Thom betrayed and left me, I knew he was unhappy. I was unhappy. But we did what people do—we closed our eyes and thought it meant we didn’t see.
I knew he was talking to Stacey about our troubles.
If I’d looked instead of merely seen, I wouldn’t have been so surprised by how it ended.
This is my resolution for the New Year. I will be honest with myself. I’ll keep my eyes open. I’ll see what’s there, not just what I want to see.
After my shower, I redress in my old clothes and get my camera.
The lobby is quiet, steeped in tea-colored shadows.
I walk past the cold dark fireplace.
Daniel’s truck is gone. No wonder the place is so quiet.
That’s what the quiet is here. Unlike in my home, where for the last year the silence has been like the indrawn breath before a scream.
The quiet and the mist draw me outside. I stand in the yard and stare at the silvery lake beyond. Through the haze, the dock looks almost translucent, a charcoal line against the gray-tipped waves.
I need a photograph of this. Maybe several.
I lift the camera to my face and work to put a blurry world into focus. It’s not until I’ve taken several shots that I realize how cold I am. Disappointed, I return to the warmth of the house. But I feel the need to walk in that pearlescent mist.
I could borrow a coat.
Why not? I checked myself in; I eat their food. I’m certainly making myself at home. Besides, they’re gone. I’m sure neither would begrudge me the use of a jacket for an hour or two.
It takes some searching, but I finally find a coat closet near the back door. In it is a jumble of coats and sweaters and yellow slickers. I pull out a bulky, beautifully knit aqua-blue fisherman’s sweater and slip it on. It’s huge on me, but warm.
For the rest of the day, I explore this magnificent corner of paradise and take seventeen photographs—of the sunlight on the lake, of a swan taking flight, of a spiderweb turned into a necklace by dew drops. By mid-afternoon, I have begun to imagine how I will frame these prints and display them.
In my living room, I think, above the sofa. Every day of my real life, I will look up and remember this adventure. Finally, at around two o’clock, hunger sends me back inside.
I am just finishing a sandwich when I hear the truck drive up. Quickly I clean up my mess and run to the living room to greet them. It’s silly, I know, perhaps even stupid, but I don’t care. I’ve missed them today.
Bobby rushes in. “Joy!”
I love the way he says my name; it’s as if he’s been missing me all day. “Hey, Bobby,” I say, looking behind him for Daniel, who comes in a moment later, looking so handsome that I catch my breath.
Bobby runs at me. “It’s beach night.”