"Jamie?" Elizabeth said, waiting for the waspish, "Yeah, what?"
She knew what she wanted to say, but not how to say it. With Jamie, a serious conversation was like driving on the Los Angeles freeway. You had to change lanes with extreme caution. "Do you think you want to quit swimming because you’re depressed about Grandad?"
It took Jamie a moment to answer, and when she did, her voice was soft, trembling. "I miss him all the time."
"Me, too. I still talk to him, though. It helps a little."
"You live by yourself right now. I’m surrounded by thousands of students–tons of whom are probably psych majors. They’d lock me up if I went around talking to my dead grandfather."
"You’ve never cared what other people think. Don’t start now. But if you’re embarrassed, talk to him at home. Stephie won’t laugh."
"Stephie who?" she said bitterly.
So, that was part of the problem, too. Stephanie was busy getting ready to graduate; Jamie hated to admit that she’d miss her big sister. "She’s too busy to spend much time with you, I take it?"
"Tim the wonder boy practically lives here. And he brings her flowers when she aces a test. Flowers. Hell, she’s aced every test since they asked her to recite the alphabet in kindergarten. Our apartment looks like the flower store in Little Shop of Horrors. It makes me sick."
"You mean jealous," Elizabeth said gently.
A pause. "Yeah. Now they want me to tag after them on spring break. Barbie, Ken . . . and Skipper. Yee-ha. The only thing worse would be to stay in the apartment by myself and watch her stupid flowers die."
"Why don’t you come home, hang with me?" Elizabeth said automatically. Then she realized what she’d done.
I’m getting the house ready for renters. Could she say it out loud, face to face?
"Home? And where’s that, with you or Dad? And speaking of that, when are you moving to New York? Dad sounded lonely the last time I called him."
These were dangerous waters, especially with Jamie swimming alongside. "As soon as we find suitable renters."
"Who are you waiting for, the British Royal Family? Just rent the sucker to some poor schmuck who likes mushrooms that grow overnight and rain that hits you in the head like a hammerblow."
"You don’t like it here?"
Jamie laughed. "Actually, I do. But it’s just a house; we’ve lived in tons of them."
Elizabeth sighed. That was one of the by-products of her life with Jack. They hadn’t given their children a sense of roots, of home. "You’re right," she answered.
"So, what would we do? If I remember, March is a particularly sucky month. We probably wouldn’t see the sun once."
Elizabeth couldn’t help smiling at that. "We could rent movies and play board games."
" ‘Be still, my heart.’ Board games with my mother over spring break." She laughed. "I’ll think about it, Mom. Truly. But I gotta run now. Michael is picking me up in an hour."
"Is your sister home?"
"Sorry. This is her day for curing Alzheimer’s. I’ll have her call you tomorrow. Love you."
"Love you, too. Bye."
After Elizabeth hung up, she stared down at the phone. Her first thought was: Call Jack.
He needed to know what was going on with Jamie. A heads up would make the I-want-to-quit-swimming conversation run a lot smoother.
Elizabeth had always greased the wheels of Jack’s relationship with his daughters. He . . . missed things sometimes, overlooked the important moments. It had been her job–or one she’d taken on, at least–to facilitate a good father-daughter bond.
Without her guidance, she was afraid he’d inadvertently hurt his daughter’s feelings.
She dialed his number.
Jack was in a meeting with Sally. "He actually threw a punch after the match was over–and broke the guy’s jaw?"
She nodded. "Every second was caught on tape. The question is this: Is it assault and battery because the match had ended? Or does assumption of the risk cover everything that happens in the ring?"
"That’s always been a question with far-reaching implications. Late hits in football, and forget about hockey. With this new interest in–"
The phone rang. He waited for his secretary to answer, then remembered that she’d gone to lunch. "Just a second." He picked up the phone and answered, "Jackson Shore."
"I almost hung up." Elizabeth’s laughter sounded forced, nervous.
"Hey, Birdie," he said after a stunned pause.
Sally’s smile faded. She glanced at the door.
"Am I catching you at a bad time?" Elizabeth asked.
Her voice sounded different, uncertain, though it didn’t surprise him. In a few short weeks, they’d become strangers. He wouldn’t have thought it possible, after twenty-four years of living together, but it was true.
The silence between them stretched out, grew uncomfortable. It was all so unexpected; she’d always been his compass, his true north; or so he’d thought. He’d imagined that without her, he’d be lost. But that hadn’t happened. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was now afraid that he’d be lost with her.
"I’m here." He didn’t know exactly what she expected him to say. Worse, he didn’t know what he wanted to say. Maybe nothing at all. He was afraid suddenly that she’d called to reconcile; now he was the one who wanted time.
Sally stood up. "I’ll leave you alone for a minute," she whispered.
He nodded, mouthed, "Thanks."
"Who’s that?" Birdie asked.
He felt guilty suddenly, though there was no need. He and Sally hadn’t done anything unprofessional. "It’s just my assistant. We were in a meeting."
"Maybe I should call back . . ."
He wanted to say, Yes, do that, and then avoid her future call. But such a maneuver would be pointless. With a heavy sigh and a heavier heart, he watched Sally leave the room, then said, "So, Birdie, what’s going on?"
"How’s your job?"
He didn’t know what he’d expected her to say (maybe, Oh, Jack, I love you, I can’t live without you) but certainly not a question about his job. "Honestly, Birdie, I love it. I feel twenty years younger." He heard the defensiveness in his voice and tried to soften it. "I’d forgotten how it felt."
"To be a star, you mean?"
She knew him so well. "Yes."
"I’m proud of you, Jack. I knew you’d be good at it. That was never the issue."
He smiled. Her opinion of him had always mattered more than anyone else’s, more even than his own. He’d never owned success completely until Elizabeth kissed him and said, You did it, baby.
What he hadn’t known until now–this second–was that even with all that had gone wrong between them, he still needed that from her. "Thanks. How about you, how are you doing?"
"I’m taking a painting class."
To his amazement, he felt a spark of jealousy. He’d tried for years to get her to paint again.
Or had he only meant to encourage her? Now he couldn’t separate the intention from the act. Still, when he said, "That’s great, Birdie," he meant it.
They spoke at once, then both laughed. Jack said, "You first."
"I just talked to Jamie. She’s having a hard time. You know . . . school, swimming, Dad’s death, Stephie’s graduation. It’s a lot for her to deal with by herself."
"And she’s always had you before."
"That’s probably part of it. Anyway, she’ll be calling you for advice. Be gentle with her, okay? Listen before you talk."
Whatever the hell that meant. He was a great listener with his girls. "Okay."
"Good." Then, "I’m . . . having a hard time lying to them. Are you?"
"Lying? What do you mean?"
"You know . . . telling them I’m getting the house ready for renters. Jamie won’t accept that forever. Pretty soon, I think we’ll have to tell them the truth."
Jack felt as if he’d been sucker punched. As much as he loved his new single life, he wasn’t ready to contemplate the end of their family.
In the time it took to draw a breath and push it out, he remembered the whole of their life together, the good times and the bad.
The one thing he’d always counted on, the bedrock of his life, was that Elizabeth loved him. Her plea for a short-term separation hadn’t actually altered that belief. But now, he wondered.
All bullshit and adolescent dreams aside, could he live without her love?
"There’s a chance for us, isn’t there?" he asked.
It took her a moment to answer. When she did, her voice was barely above a whisper. "I hope so."
He smiled, relieved. "I hope so, too, baby."
Another silence fell.
At last, Elizabeth said, "Don’t forget about Jamie. She’s fragile right now. Be gentle."
She’d said that twice now. "I’m always gentle with her."
Elizabeth sighed . . . or was that a muffled laugh? He couldn’t be sure. Either way, it was vaguely irritating. "I can’t keep you and your daughters on track anymore, Jack. Your relationship with Jamie is up to you."
He had no idea what she meant by that. "Okay."
"Well, I’d better let you get back to work."
"Yeah. It was good talking to you," he said, and they were strangers again.
"Good talking to you, too."
He realized he was waiting for her to say, I love you, when he heard the dial tone.
Elizabeth felt a sudden urge to call him back and say, We can’t be this far apart.
But they were distant now, emotionally as well as physically. That was what she’d wanted. It was why he’d sounded so confident and happy when he answered the phone–and so guarded and awkward when he realized who’d called.
After twenty-four years of sharing every moment of life, they’d drifted to separate coasts and picked up separate lives. Their conversations came in a kind of Morse code; hurried sentences punctuated by elongated pauses.
She tried to cull through the rubble of her emotions to find the truest one. Only a few days ago, she’d seen an old photograph of them and thought, There’s still a chance for us. But every day took them farther away from the love that had once bound them together.
She was at a crossroads suddenly; one she hadn’t even seen approaching. And yet, here she was, standing at the corner of what she’d dreamed of and what she’d left behind.
If she picked up the phone and called Jack, she would turn back into who she’d been.
Someday (and, yes, she knew she still held that hope close) she would feel strong enough, sure enough of herself, to call Jack and say, I love you; let’s try again.
But not today.
That conversation we had the other day has stayed with me. As usual, you’re holding your troubles close to your chest, thinking I can’t understand. Me being the wicked stepmother and all.
For years, I’ve let you run the show on who we are. I’m tired of that. Maybe it’s because I’m old and you don’t scare me like you used to. Or maybe it’s because I’m alone now, and life looks different to me.
Believe me, honey, I know what it’s like to be unhappy in your marriage. One disappointment feeds on another until one day you leave him. You become the trapped wolf who eats her own foot to be free.
But if you’re like me, you discover that the world is a big, dark place. And love–even if it isn’t what you’d thought it would be–is the only light for miles.