Anita touched her arm, but still said nothing.
"Say something. Please."
"I was never this beautiful," Anita said in a throaty voice.
"Yes, you are."
"Lordy, I wish your daddy could see this. He’d put it up on the wall and make sure everyone saw it. ‘Come on in,’ he’d say to our guests; ‘see what my little girl did.’ " Anita finally turned to her. "I guess now it’ll be me sayin’ that."
On the first thursday in april, Elizabeth drove to the community college. She found a spot close to the entrance and parked. Light from a nearby streetlamp poured into the car, gave everything a weird, blue-white glow.
From the passenger seat, Anita shot her a nervous look. "I don’t know about going to this meeting, Birdie," she said, wringing her hands together. "I’ve never been one to air my troubles in public."
"It’ll help, Anita. Honest. I used to call these women passionless, but they’re not. They’re just like us."
Anita didn’t look convinced. "Okay."
They got out of the car and walked down the long, shadowy concrete pathway, then pushed through the orange metal double doors. A wide, linoleum-floored hallway stretched out before them, dotted here and there with blue doors.
Elizabeth took her stepmother’s hand and squeezed it gently. She remembered the feeling with perfect clarity; it had been only a few months ago that she herself had been afraid to walk down this corridor. Now she did it easily, eagerly. "Come on."
At the closed door, she looked at Anita. "Ready?"
"Do I look ready? No, I do not"–Anita tried to smile–"but my stepdaughter doesn’t care about that." She puffed up her ample chest and tilted her chin up.
Elizabeth recognized the gesture. She’d done the same thing herself that first time, tried–like a frightened bird–to make herself seem larger. She opened the door and went inside, pulling Anita along beside her.
The first thing she noticed was the balloons. Pretty, helium-filled "good luck" balloons hung in the air, tethered to chairbacks. A few rebels had freed themselves and now bumped aimlessly along the ceiling.
"She’s here!" someone cried out, and all at once, the women in the room came together in a crowd. They were clapping.
Elizabeth looked down at Anita. "I guess they like it when you rope in a new member."
Sarah Taylor pushed through the group, smiling broadly. In a bright yellow dress, she looked like a ray of sunshine against the drab gray walls. "You tried to keep it a secret, Elizabeth. Quite naughty."
Elizabeth had no idea what Sarah was talking about.
Joey pushed forward. "I saw it in the newspaper. I couldn’t believe it. You never told us."
Mina was next. "Joey called me right away. I drove down to buy myself a paper and there it was. I called Sarah immediately."
Fran smiled. "When I saw it . . ." Her face twitched, as if she were about to cry. ". . . I went right out and joined that choir. My first concert is next Sunday."
The only one who had nothing to say was Kim. She hung in the back of the room, by the coffeemaker, wearing her usual mortician’s garb, fiddling with a pack of cigarettes. Every once in a while she looked up, then quickly glanced back to the table.
"What in the world are you all talking about?" Elizabeth asked when there was a break in the conversation.
"The art show," Joey said, her voice reverent.
A hush fell over the room.
Elizabeth’s cheeks heated up. "Oh. That."
Anita squeezed her hand, steadied her.
"We’re so proud of you," Mina said. "It took real guts to sign up for that."
"Balls of steel," Fran agreed.
Joey smiled up at her. "You gave me hope, Elizabeth. I signed up for a dental hygienist class. I thought, if you can do it, so can I."
"But I’m scared to death," Elizabeth said.
"Don’t you see?" Fran said. "That’s what makes us so proud of you."
Elizabeth’s emotions suddenly felt too big for her body. "Well . . . thank you."
"Who’s your friend?" Sarah asked.
Elizabeth turned to Anita. "This is my stepmother, Anita."
"Welcome to the group, Anita," Sarah said.
"I lost my husband recently," Anita blurted out, as if she’d been scared of her "turn" and wanted it out of the way. She laughed nervously. " ‘Course I didn’t actually lose him. He’s . . . dead."
Mina stepped forward and slipped her arm through Anita’s. "Come sit by me. I’ll tell you about my Bill and how I’m learning to find a life of my own."
Elizabeth talked to the women for a moment longer, then went back to the food table. Kim stood by the coffeemaker.
"Hi," Elizabeth said.
Kim stared at her through narrowed, heavily made-up eyes. "How will it feel to fail?"
It was the question Elizabeth had chewed on at every meal. For weeks, she’d worried about it. Every time she dabbed on a bit of paint, she second-guessed her choice and her talent. "I expect to fail," she said at last.
"And you’re doing it anyway?"
Elizabeth shrugged. "For years, I failed by omission. I don’t think anything can be worse than that."
Kim hitched her purse strap over her shoulder. "I don’t know, Elizabeth. Every time I think life can’t get worse, my husband sends me a new set of papers. But good luck. I suppose good things have to happen to someone."
Elizabeth was still trying to fish out a response to that when Kim walked past her and left the meeting.
The lure of the distant and difficult is deceptive.
The great opportunity is where you are.
Elizabeth was a wreck.
She hadn’t slept more than two hours last night. She’d tossed and turned and sweated. She’d even cried, although whether out of fear or frustration, she didn’t know. What she did know was that the Stormy Weather Arts Festival officially started in less than an hour, and she–fool that she was–had agreed to show her paintings to the world.
"Was I drunk?" she muttered, changing her clothes for the third time.
The decision of what to wear was simply too big.
She slumped onto the cold wooden floor in front of the sofa. She couldn’t remember when she’d been this scared. She would fall face-first today. And then what? She’d fought so hard for this new life of hers. She’d walked out of her marriage and forged her own path. She’d picked up her old paintbrushes and done the unthinkable: she’d dreamed.
"Get a grip, Birdie."
She went up to her bedroom and changed into an ankle-length black knit dress with a boldly patterned leather belt. She left her hair down (in case she needed to hide behind it) and peered into the mirror.
Her face was the size of a volleyball. Hello, Wilson.
She stifled the urge to groan aloud and focused on one thing at a time. Foundation first. She put on more than usual, then added blush and mascara. By the time she was finished, she looked nearly human again.
The phone rang–as expected, at eight-forty-five. Elizabeth briefly considered not answering it, but knew such an evasion would be pointless. Meghann would probably send the National Guard down to check on her.
"Hello?" she answered, hoping she didn’t sound as brittle as she felt.
"I was afraid you wouldn’t answer," Meg said. "Are you okay?"
"I’d rather pull out my own toenails than go to the gallery today. I can’t believe I agreed to do this."
"God, I wish I could be there. I’m so sorry."
"Actually, I’m glad you’re busy. I’ll call you when it’s over."
"You’re my hero. You remember that. I’m so proud of you. Today is going to change your life."
Unfortunately, that wasn’t easy to believe right now. "Thanks, Meg."
They talked for a few more moments; then Elizabeth said good-bye and hung up the phone. She scouted through the bureau drawers for the right necklace. Finally, she found what she wanted: an ornate turquoise squash blossom that Jack had bought her when he got the job in Albuquerque. This means good luck, baby, he’d said.
After she put it on, she took one last look in the mirror. Then she went downstairs.
Anita was already there, standing by the front door. She was dressed in a pretty lavender rayon pantsuit. Her snow-white hair was coiled into a huge bun at the base of her neck. "How are you doing?" she asked.
"Shitty. Maybe I won’t go. Art should sell itself, right? There’s nothing more pathetic than a middle-aged woman crying in public. Oh, God, what if I throw up?"
Anita came forward, grabbed her by the shoulders. "Breathe."
Elizabeth did as she was told.
"In and out, in and out."
Elizabeth relaxed a little. "Thanks," she said, still shaky.
Anita reached down into her pocket, then held out her hand. In her palm lay a small gray stone, polished to a mirror sheen, striated with rust and black and green. "This was your daddy’s worry stone. It was always in his pocket. He used to joke that when you were born, it was the size of a bowling ball and he wore it down to the nub."
Elizabeth couldn’t imagine her father afraid of anything, let alone carrying a worry stone around in his pocket.
"We’re all afraid," Anita said. "It’s the going on that matters."
Elizabeth took the stone. It settled in her palm like a kiss. She could almost hear her daddy’s booming voice: Fly, Birdie. You can do it. It calmed her down, reminded her of what mattered. "Thanks," she said, pulling her stepmother into a hug.
When she drew back, Anita said, "We’d better get going. We don’t want to be late."
All the way to town, Elizabeth concentrated on her breathing. The roads were closed off in a lot of places, but she found a parking place in front of the Hair We Are Beauty Salon.
Echo Beach was dressed for a party. Banners and balloons were everywhere. The weather was surprisingly good; steel-gray clouds and cold breezes, but no rain. Every storefront was decorated in bright colors. A few hardy tourists, dressed in down parkas and knee-high boots, walked along the narrow main street. The beach was littered with people flying kites, dogs chasing Frisbees, and kids building sand castles.
Elizabeth stood on the sidewalk across from Eclectica. A white sign filled the window. It read: meet local artist elizabeth shore.
"I think I’m going to be sick."
"You most certainly are not," Anita said. "You’re Edward Rhodes’s daughter. There will be no vomiting in public. Now, get movin’."
"Elizabeth!" Marge was standing by the gallery, waving her arms. She wore a drop-waisted raisin-colored corduroy dress with open-toed sandals. Her hair had been tamed into a pair of thick braids. A stunningly beautiful cloisonne necklace hung between her br**sts. "Hurry up," she yelled, then disappeared inside.
Elizabeth walked across the street. At the gallery, she stopped. Her feet refused to move forward.
Anita said, "Good luck, honey," and shoved her into the gallery.
Inside, the Women’s Passion Support Group was waiting. At her entrance, they burst into applause.
Elizabeth stumbled to a halt. "Hey, you guys," she said, hating the tremor in her voice. "It was nice of you to come."