So, Birdie, darlin’, I understand.
I don’t have any advice for you. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered in this life it’s that deep truths are uncovered alone.
My prayers are with you and Jack and those beautiful girls.
P.S. Don’t bother writing back. I’m taking your advice and heading to the beach!
Elizabeth read the letter three times, then carefully folded it up, slipped it back into its violet-scented envelope.
She walked over to the French doors and stared out at the ocean. In those few words, Anita had managed to shake Elizabeth up, to cause a subtle shift in perception.
For years, she had monitored the progress of women–friends, strangers, celebrities–who’d left their marriages. Often, she’d watched with envy as these women picked up stakes and started over. She imagined them living shiny new lives, as different from her own as a quarter from a bottle cap. And she’d thought to herself, If only I could start over.
She’d never paid much attention to the women who stayed in their marriages, who hacked through the jungle of ordinary life and found a different kind of treasure.
At some point, Anita had left Edward. She’d packed a bag and moved away from Sweetwater. What had she been looking for . . . and what had brought her back? Had it really been as simple, and as infinitely complex, as true love?
Elizabeth felt a spark of kinship with her stepmother. She wished they could sit down and talk about their disparate and now oddly parallel lives.
She picked up the phone and dialed Anita’s number. The phone rang and rang. Finally, an answering machine clicked on.
Her father’s slow, drawling voice started. "Ya’ll’ve reached Sweetwater. We aren’t here right now, but leave a message and we’ll return your call." There was a muffled sound on the tape–Anita’s voice–then Daddy went on: "Oh . . . yeah . . . wait for the beep. Thanks."
Elizabeth was so rattled by the sound of her father’s voice that she hung up without leaving a message.
Tears stung her eyes. She didn’t bother trying to hold them back. It was a thing she’d learned in the last weeks. Grief would have its way. If she gave in to it, wallowed around in the loss for a while, she could go on.
She sat down on the edge of her bed. On the bureau, she saw a framed photograph of a little girl in a frilly pink dress, white tights, and black patent Mary Janes.
Her seventh birthday party. Later that night, Daddy had taken her to see the musical South Pacific in Nashville.
After the show, when he’d tucked her into bed, he’d said, Sugar beet, you were the prettiest girl in the theater tonight. I was danged proud to have you on my arm. Then he’d pulled her into his big strong arms and made her feel safe.
She needed that–needed him–now.
She sat there a long time, talking to her daddy as if he were sitting right beside her.
The week flew by.
After years of trudging through a gray, wintry landscape of other people’s choices, Elizabeth had finally emerged onto a sunny blue day of her own.
Each morning she woke with a sense of expectation that made her smile, hum even, as she went about her daily chores. Then, at noon, no matter what else pressed at her to be done, no matter what was on her mental To Do list, she ignored everything and painted.
At first, she’d tried to fix her class project. She’d added brushstrokes and dabs of color, layer upon layer, trying to add a complexity to the image that she couldn’t quite achieve.
Unfortunately, the old saying was true. You couldn’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
The problem with the orange was that it wasn’t hers. The best in art revealed something of the artist’s soul, and Elizabeth’s soul had never cared much for fruit.
When she trolled around for something else to paint, she saw possibilities everywhere–and only one true choice.
She started slowly, methodically stretching the canvas in the way she’d been taught more than two dozen years ago. It came so easily, this beginning of it all, that she wondered if, for all these years, she’d been painting in her sleep, dreaming of primed and stretched canvases, of mixing medium and pigment, of colors slurried on a well-used palette.
The sun had been bright and shining on that day she began to put her love of the sea on canvas. She took her new easel and primed canvas and her paints and brushes out to the edge of the yard. There, she laid out an eight-by-ten sheet of thick blue plastic and set up the easel on it.
The sleeping blue ocean stretched out as far as the eye could see. Today, she saw it in tiny increments, in slashes of hue and texture, in light and shadow. She saw each component that comprised the whole; and just that, seeing it as she’d once been able to, made her feel young again–hope-filled, as opposed to the lesser, more common, hopeful.
She held a brush in her now steady hand and stared out to sea, noticing the blurry shapes that came forward and those that remained background. She studied the various tints of light that coalesced into sand and water, rock and sky, then, very slowly, she looked down at her palette and chose a base color.
The color of Jack’s eyes.
The thought came out of nowhere and surprised her.
She dipped her paintbrush into the color and began.
Day after day, she returned to this very spot, dragging her easel with her, setting up her work. Each day she added a new layer of color, one atop another, until it was impossible to tell that she’d started with the cobalt. Gradually, she’d felt it return, her own potent magic. The painting–her painting–revealed everything that she loved about this view, and everything that she longed to be. Dangerous, rough-edged, vibrant.
Tonight, at last, she would take her work to class. She couldn’t wait to show it to Daniel.
She had worked her ass off–though all that hard work had produced not a pound of weight loss (there was something cosmically wrong with that)–to get a piece ready for tonight. It had been the homework assignment. Begin a work of your own. Any work.
At four o’clock, though it wasn’t yet done, she checked that the paint had dried–it had–then wrapped the canvas in cheesecloth and carefully placed it in the backseat of her car. She took a shower, brushed her hair until it shone, and dressed in a black jersey tunic and straight-legged pantsuit that she’d bought from Coldwater Creek’s last catalog. A chunky turquoise-and-silver necklace was her only accessory.
All in all, she looked good.
She got to the classroom and found it empty. When she looked down at her watch, she saw that she was almost twenty minutes early.
"Idiot," she said aloud. Now she was trapped. If she walked away, she might meet up with someone from class, or worse, Daniel, and then have to explain why she was leaving. If she stayed, however, Daniel might come to class early and wonder how long she’d been standing there by the door like a bridesmaid waiting for her turn.
"Did you say something?"
And suddenly he was there, standing in front of her, filling the open doorway. His smile seemed too big for his face; it crinkled his blue eyes and carved leathery quotation marks on his cheeks.
"I came early," she stammered.
"A great quality in a woman, coming early." His smile broadened, showcased a row of white, even teeth. "Do you have something to show me?"
Elizabeth couldn’t tell if he’d meant that "coming" comment as a sexual innuendo or not. She might have asked him, but when she looked up into his handsome face, her mind went blank. "Huh?"
"I asked you if you brought me something."
He knows, she realized. He knew she was trembling and sweating like a teenager trapped beside the best-looking boy in school.
No wonder he was smiling. What young man wouldn’t be amused by a middle-aged woman’s runaway lust?
"The painting," she said quickly. "You told us to paint something that moved us. I chose the view from my house."
"Let me see."
She waited for him to turn and go inside, but he just stood there, arms crossed, smiling down at her.
Finally, she turned sideways and sidled past him, hoping her ass didn’t skim his hips. She went to the blackboard, where an empty easel waited.
Her fingers shook as she set her canvas on the easel.
Daniel came up beside her, moving so quietly she didn’t hear his footsteps. Suddenly, he was just there.
"It’s Tamarack Cove," he said, not smiling anymore. "I used to kayak down there with my grandfather. There a great tide pool, over–"
"By the black rocks, yes." When she realized that she’d finished his sentence, she wanted to smack her own face. "I didn’t know that was the name of my cove. I should have known, I guess, since I live there, but I don’t spend a lot of time reading maps. Although I’m interested in tide charts."
Shut up, Birdie.
She clamped her teeth together. They hit with an audible click.
"You really don’t know how talented you are, do you?" His voice was soft as beach sand.
The compliment filled her up inside, made her feel about twenty years old. "You’re nice to say that," she said, praying her cheeks didn’t turn red.
He took a step toward her, came so close she could see a thin scimitar-shaped scar on his temple. She had a sudden, stupid urge to reach up and touch it, to ask him when he’d been hurt.
That’s it, no more romance novels.
"Come have coffee with me after class," he said.
She stepped back so fast her butt slammed into a desk. "I’m married." She lifted her left hand, wiggled her fingers. "I mean, I am. We’re separated right now, but that’s not a divorce. Though he said ‘divorce,’ I don’t think he meant it. So, yes, I’m married." She tried to shut up, but couldn’t. The silence would be horrible, awkward. "I have two daughters. With my luck, they’re your age. Oh, God, maybe you know them. Stephanie is–"
His touch stopped her.
"Oh," she sighed.
"It’s just coffee," he said.
If possible–and frankly, she doubted it–she felt more idiotic. "Yes. Coffee. It’s a beverage, that’s all. You don’t care if I’m married."
"Not for coffee."
Her cheeks were on fire; she was certain of it.
"I don’t know what got into me. I’m sorry."
"Don’t be sorry. Just meet me after class. There’s something I’d like to discuss with you."
She nodded. He undoubtably thought she was a moron. Mrs. Robinson after a head trauma. "Sure. Coffee would be great."
Jack had received one of the coveted tickets for the opening night premiere of Disney’s newest blockbuster movie. He’d dressed carefully, chosen a black Armani mock turtleneck sweater and charcoal gray wool slacks. According to Sally, dark colors set off his newly blond hair and tanned skin to perfection, made his eyes look "Paul Newman blue."
He was just about to grab his coat when the phone rang. It was probably the car service, letting him know that the car had arrived. He answered quickly. "Hello?"
Jamie. He’d been missing her calls all week. "Hey, baby, how’re you doing?"
"You didn’t return my last call."
"I know. I’m sorry, too. I’ve been so busy lately. How about you, how’re things going? I meant to call after last Saturday’s swim meet, but you know me. I can’t remember why I left the house half the time."
"Yeah, Dad. I know."
He glanced at the clock. It was 6:37. The car service would be here any second. Damn. "Look, honey, I’ve got–" His second line beeped. "Just a minute, I have to put you on hold." He depressed the button and answered. "Hello?"