The phone rang.
Elizabeth swooped down to answer it. "Did you get laid tonight?"
"Uh . . . Birdie?"
Elizabeth winced. Damn. "Hi, Anita, sorry about that."
"I’m sorry to call so late. It’s just that . . . you said you’d call."
Elizabeth heard the quiver in her stepmother’s voice. It was a sound all women knew, that desperate attempt to appear strong. She curled up on the sofa. "I’m sorry, Anita. Things have been a little crazy here. How are you doing?"
Anita laughed. It was a fluttery, sorrowful sound. "Oh, honey, I try not to think about myself too much."
Elizabeth felt a spark of kinship with her stepmother. "That’s what we women do, isn’t it? We push our lives underwater and float on the surface. Then one day you realize it’s someone else’s pool."
"What in the Sam Hill are you talkin’ about?"
"Sorry, Anita. The truth is I’m half drunk right now. It makes me philosophical." She mangled that word pretty badly.
"I noticed that in your letter. I figured there was a whole bushel of a story I wasn’t gettin’."
"You’ve got enough on your plate, Anita. You don’t need my mess piled on top."
"You just can’t do it, can you, Birdie?"
"Share your life with me. I thought now, with Edward gone, we might change things between us."
"I was trying to protect you," she answered, stung. "Jack and I have separated. But the girls don’t know, so don’t say anything."
"Oh, my." Anita released a breath; it made a squeaking sound, like a child’s toy. "But y’all seemed so happy together. What happened?"
"Nothing. Everything." Elizabeth took a big swallow of wine. How could she explain her own formless dissatisfaction to a woman who’d wanted so little from her own life? Anita might understand the high and low tides of a long-term marriage, but she couldn’t understand how the ebb tides could erode a woman’s soul. And she sure couldn’t understand the yawning emptiness of a nest that had lost its chicks. "It’s just a bump in the road, Anita. I’m sure we’ll be fine." And tonight–three glasses of wine later–she could almost believe that.
"Someday I’ll quit expectin’ you to grow up, Birdie. They’ll probably bury me the next day." She laughed, but it was a bitter sound, not her laugh at all. "Well, I’m sorry y’all are havin’ problems. That’s what you want me to say, isn’t it?"
Elizabeth decided to move onto easy ground. This was getting too personal; it was ruining her good mood. "Enough about me. How’ve you been? I’ve been thinking about you." That much was true, at least.
"This big ole house has a lot of ghosts," Anita answered. "Sometimes it’s so quiet I think I’ll go crazy. Then I remember that I was crazy to start with."
"You know what’s helped me? Sitting on the beach. Maybe a change of scenery would do you some good."
This was definitely better. The scenery was a safe topic. "There’s something magical about sitting on a beach all by yourself. It’s funny, I was scared of the beach for years. Now I can’t be away from it too long." Her voice snagged on a suddenly exposed shoal. "I always wanted you and Daddy to see it."
"I know, honey. We thought we had time."
Time. It was the rack everything hung on: life, loss, hope, love. So often, it seemed to slip through your fingers like silk. But sometimes, you could reach back into what was and take hold. "I took a painting class tonight," she said softly.
"Oh, Birdie, that’s wonderful. I hated it when you gave up on your talent."
Elizabeth was surprised by that. "You thought I had talent? You never told me that."
Anita sighed, then said, "Ah, honey, I told you. Well. You take care now, y’hear?"
"You, too, Anita. And think about sitting on a beach."
"I’ll do that, honey. I surely will. I could use a change of scenery."
If there was a still a sun out there, tethering the earth in its orbit, you’d never have known it. The midday sky was as thick and heavy as granite.
On a day like this, neither stormy nor clear, there was nothing to do except build a fire, curl up on the sofa with a cup of tea, and call your best friend. So, that was exactly what Elizabeth did.
"Who’s dead?" Meghann answered gruffly.
Elizabeth glanced at the clock. It was nine-forty-five on a Saturday morning. "I’m guessing that my slutty best friend got lucky last night."
"Lucky is a relative term. I got laid." Meghann paused. "You know it’s not gonna be a long-term relationship when foreplay lasts just under ten minutes and that’s twice as long as the sex itself. Hang on. I’m getting coffee." The phone clunked down on a tabletop. A minute later, Meghann picked it up again. "So, how was the class?"
"I did it. I painted."
"I knew you could do it. How was it? Are you still great? Oh, and did you get the college catalogs I sent you?"
"Slow down, Counselor. One step at a time. I painted again. That’s enough for now."
"I’m proud of you, Birdie."
"I take it you didn’t listen to your messages last night. My instructor is a hunk."
"No shit? A hunk in nowheresville? That’s just my luck. They’re probably leaving the cities in droves. How old is he?"
"Perfect for you. He’d have no idea what a Pet Rock is."
Meghann sighed dramatically. "You’re forty-five, not ninety-five. Did you feel a little twinge?"
Elizabeth didn’t know why she was surprised by that question. For years, Meghann had interrogated her about her so-called fantasy life. Meg had been unable to believe that Elizabeth wasn’t attracted to other men.
I’m not saying you’d do anything about it, Meghann used to say, but you can’t tell me you haven’t fantasized.
The conversation had always left Elizabeth feeling vaguely abnormal, but the truth was she hadn’t been attracted to other men. Oh, every now and then she’d see a man on television and think, There’s a good-looking guy. But she’d never brought mental images to the bedroom. God knew, she’d never considered being unfaithful. She still couldn’t imagine it. Truthfully, sex with Jack had always been more than good enough. It had been only recently that they’d begun to lose their passion. "Yes, actually," she answered, surprising herself. "Then I remembered what size my underwear is."
"You’re pathetic, you know that? If you hadn’t had an eating disorder for half of your life, you’d realize that you look good."
"I never had an eating disorder."
"Exactly what Flockhart and Boyle say. The point is, you’ve put on a few pounds–only a few. You’re still beautiful. Brad would be lucky to get a shot with you."
This discussion had turned south faster than a prison escapee. "Yeah, right. I think–Oh, just a second, my other line is beeping." She checked her Caller ID. "Meg? This is the girls. I need to take it. I’ll call you later, okay?"
"Okay. I’m proud of you, Birdie. I hope you’re proud of yourself."
"I am. Thanks." Elizabeth hung up one call and answered the other. "Hello?"
It was Jamie. "Hey, Sunshine," Elizabeth said, "it’s good to hear your voice. How did the meet go?"
Jamie burst into tears.
"Honey, what’s the matter?"
"I h-hate swimming. I’m wet all the time."
"That can’t come as much of a surprise. You’ve been swimming since grade school." Elizabeth honestly tried not to smile, but it was difficult. Her drama queen younger daughter’s crises were as dependable as a tropical rainstorm and lasted about as long. She must have lost her races at Saturday’s meet.
"I know, but I’m sick of it. And I’m about thirty seconds away from flunking out."
Now, that was new. Elizabeth sat up straighter, pulled her knees toward her chest. "What about that tutor we hired for you?"
There was a short pause; then Jamie said, "I’m dating him. Michael. He is soooo cute. He plays the saxophone in the college’s jazz quartet. How sexy is that? He’s the first guy I’ve ever dated who doesn’t talk about ball handling and go gaga over Dad."
It was so Jamie-like to fall in love with her tutor. There was no point asking the serious questions until new love had been discussed. "Okay, tell me about him."
As usual, Jamie had no lack of stories to tell about her new beau. It had, apparently, been impossible to study with Michael because of his eyes–so brown, Mom, they’re like, amazing–and his voice had presented a problem as well–He kind of whispers, like some old jazz guy. It’s totally sexy.
Finally, when she’d run down the battery on new love, she came back around to the point. "Anyway, I don’t need a tutor anymore. I need time to study. That’s why I want to quit swimming. Dad’s making buttloads of money now–he told me that–so you guys can afford my tuition, right?"
"One point at a time, kiddo. Don’t even try to smoke me about study time. Do you want to quit so you can spend more time with Michael?"
"Get real, Mom. I’ve been balancing boys and sports since Little League."
"So, what’s really going on here? Why do you want to quit?"
"Bottom line?" There was a pause, then, "I’m not good enough."
Elizabeth’s heart ached at those softly spoken words. She wanted to argue the point, to tell Jamie that of course she was good enough . . . that being good enough wasn’t the point anyway, trying was. But that was the easy road. A childhood answer to an adult question. "Go on."
"These girls have talent, Mom. Hannah Tournilae is Olympic material. To be honest, I might have quit a long time ago, except Dad came to every swim meet, and when I won, he acted like I’d cured cancer. But he’s not on the sidelines anymore. He doesn’t even call and ask how I did."
"Your dad loves you. You know he does. Neither one of us cares if you swim. We just want you to be happy."
"So, you’ll tell him I quit?"
Elizabeth laughed. "No way. You’ll have to talk to Dad about this yourself, but I’ll tell you this, honey, it’s dangerous to quit something because you think you’re not good enough. That can be an ugly pattern that repeats itself throughout your life. Believe me, I know."
"You want me to finish out the season." Jamie came to the conclusion so quickly Elizabeth knew the answer had been there all along.
"I’m sure your coach would appreciate it."
"I hate it when you do that."
"Pretend to agree with me and then lob some grenade of common sense."
Elizabeth smiled. It was a perfect description of motherhood. "I’ll support whatever decision you make."
"All right. I’m quitting at the end of the season." Jamie tried to sound strong and self-assured, but hesitation caused a little vibrato in her voice. "I don’t suppose you’d tell Dad that for me?"
She knew her daughter was angry with her, just as she knew that the anger wouldn’t last. Jamie was like her grandfather, a volatile, larger-than-life personality. She could hate you one minute and adore you the next.