"She’s beautiful," Elizabeth said.
The next picture was of a different woman. Someone with intense, flashing eyes and curly black hair that hung in a tangled curtain to her heavy hips. She looked like an Italian peasant, earthy and hot-tempered. In every way the opposite of her delicate, aristocratic mother.
All of the remaining pictures were of the other woman. At the beach . . . on a white-painted porch . . . at a county fair . . . flying kites.
Elizabeth frowned in disappointment.
At last, she picked up the cardboard tube, uncapped it. Inside was a rolled-up canvas. She eased it out, spread it on the coffee table.
It was a painting of the dark-haired woman, done in vibrant acrylics. She was reclined on a mound of red pillows, with her black hair artlessly arranged around her. Except for a pale pink shawl that was draped across her ample hips, she was nude. Her br**sts were full, with half-dollar-sized brown n**ples.
The detail was exquisite. It reminded her of an early Modigliani. Elizabeth could almost feel the angora of the shawl and the velvet softness of the woman’s tanned skin. There were hundreds of pink and yellow rose petals scattered across the pillows and on the woman’s flesh.
There was a sadness to the work. The woman’s black eyes were filled with a desperate longing. As if, perhaps, she were looking at a lover who’d already begun to leave her.
Elizabeth glanced at the signature. Marguerite Rhodes.
Time seemed to slow down. She could hear the thudding of her own heart. "Mama was an artist?"
There it was, after all these years, the link between them, the thing that had been handed down from mother to daughter, a talent carried in the blood. Elizabeth looked up. "Why didn’t Daddy tell me?"
"That’s the only painting there is."
"So? He knew I dreamed of being a painter. He had to know what this would have meant to me."
Anita looked terribly sad. For a frightening moment, Elizabeth thought her stepmother was going to draw back now, too afraid of what she’d revealed to go forward. "Remember when I told you that your mother had run away from Edward? That was in 1955."
Elizabeth noticed the date on the painting: 1955.
Anita sighed heavily. "The world was different then. Not as open and accepting of things . . . as we are now."
Elizabeth looked at the painting again; this time she saw the passion in it. The falling-snow softness of the brushstrokes, the poignant sorrow in the woman’s eyes. And she understood the secret that had been withheld from her all these years. "My mother fell in love with this woman," she said softly.
"Her name was Missy Esteban. And, yes, she was your mother’s lover."
Elizabeth leaned back in her seat. Dozens of vague childhood memories made sense suddenly. The closed door to Mama’s bedroom; the sound of crying coming from within. "That’s why she was depressed," Elizabeth said aloud. Her whole life seemed to settle into place, a puzzle with all the pieces finally where they belonged. It felt as if it should matter more, as if she should feel more betrayed. But she’d never really known her mama; that much was painfully clear. "That’s why Daddy wouldn’t talk about her. He was ashamed."
"You know your daddy; he thought he was better than other men. The whole danged town treated him as if he owned the patent on fresh air. To have his wife run away was one thing. He could handle that because she came back. He could laugh with his friends about how spirited his little filly was, but when he found out that she’d fallen in love out there–and with a woman–well, there was no handlin’ that for Edward. So he shut it up tighter than a drum. Pretended it had never happened."
"How did you find out?"
"Twenty-year-old bourbon. Your daddy got liquored up one night and spilled the beans."
Elizabeth sat back. It all made sense. The silences, the lack of photographs, the missing family stories. Mama had inflicted a terrible blow to Daddy’s self-esteem. No wonder he clung to Anita so tightly.
"But why don’t I have any memories of her? She didn’t die until I was six."
"She loved you, Birdie, somethin’ fierce, but after she got back, she was broken inside. Lost. She couldn’t care for you. She would hold you close one day and then lock herself in her bedroom and ignore you for weeks at a time. It almost killed your daddy. ‘Course, she was on serious medications. Back then, a woman who did a thing like that was crazy. Everyone would have thought so–especially her. And she was from a good, church-going family, don’t forget. Good girls just didn’t have sex with other women."
That sparked a sudden memory. On the day after her fourth birthday, Elizabeth had gotten up early and run into Mama’s bedroom. She found her mama sitting on the floor, with her knees drawn up to her chest, crying. Elizabeth couldn’t remember exactly what she’d said, but she remembered Mama’s answer. Don’t you be like me, little Birdie. Don’t you be afraid.
Anita reached out, touched Elizabeth’s hand. "Your mama found what she wanted in life, but she turned away from it. She let family pressures be more important than what was in her heart. She walked away from her love and her talent. And it killed her. I know you, Birdie. You were up in your bedroom, thinking of quitting, telling yourself you were a fool to think you had talent."
Elizabeth felt transparent suddenly. "When did you get to know me so well?"
"Don’t you dare give up on Elizabeth Shore. You’ve come too far and worked too hard to go back to your old life because you’re scared. If you give up, you’ll be making the same mistake as your mama. It might not kill you, but it’ll break you, Birdie."
Elizabeth closed her eyes. She wanted to deny it, but there was no point. She knew.
What had she said to Kim that day? For years, I failed by omission. It was true, and each untried thing had left her emptier.
Now, at least, she’d tried and failed. But she’d tried. She could take pride in that.
She managed an uneven smile. "You’re something else," she said softly, remembering so many times Anita had reached out to her and been turned away.
"You, too, Birdie."
"All these years I thought I had no mother," Elizabeth said. "I was wrong, wasn’t I? I had two. I love you, Anita. I should have told you that a long time ago."
Anita’s mouth trembled. She made a don’t-you-worry-about-a-thing gesture with her hand. "Your daddy always told me you’d figure that out someday."
In the hotel ballroom, waiting for his turn to speak, Jack couldn’t think about anything except Birdie. It surprised him, actually. Every time he tried to consider his great new job offer or the upcoming People magazine shoot, he wanted to pick up the phone and call his wife. None of his triumphs were quite as sweet without her beside him, saying softly, You did it, baby.
That was the thing about sobriety. It cleared the mind, scrubbed away all those blurred edges, and left everything standing in a bright, true light.
Since his conversation with Warren, that light had been particularly unflinching. He saw the whole of his life.
Every day had been a search for more. Nothing had ever been enough. Not even Birdie. He could admit that now. There was no point in lying to himself anymore.
Because of the man he’d been, he was alone now. A husband estranged from his wife, a father estranged from his daughters. Except for work, he had no responsibilities beyond the ones he chose.
But freedom wasn’t what he’d thought.
For years, he’d imagined Starting Over. In his endless fantasies, he’d gotten a second chance at all of it–fame, youth, adoration. And mostly (be honest, Jack) what he’d dreamed of were other women. Younger women with firm bodies and skimpy dresses who climbed in bed with a man and wanted nothing more than his hard cock. That had been his dream. A faceless, nameless woman who loved his body and never asked him to put down the toilet seat or to buy tampons on his way home from work.
Now he had that. The affair with Sally was front-burner hot. The sex was great–physically satisfying, anyway–and afterward was perfect. She got up, dressed quietly, and left for her own apartment. No scenes about staying over, no pretense about love.
No sharing, no laughter, no warmth.
Warren had been right; Jack had made a bad trade. True warmth for false heat.
The dream–that lights, camera, action life–wasn’t full. It was frighteningly empty.
Now, as he sat in the middle of his so-called exciting life, all alone, he realized at last that he, too, was empty.
"Jack?" Sally tapped his elbow.
He came stumbling out of his thoughts. The audience was clapping. A quick look at Sally told Jack he’d missed his introduction.
He got to his feet and threaded his way through the crowded ballroom of the hotel. The place was filled with white-clothed tables.
He stepped up to the microphone and gave the same speech he’d given at least a dozen times in the past few months. A plea for athletic accountability and good sportsmanship. The local chapter of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America applauded wildly when he was done. Then he spent the next hour posing for photographs, answering questions, and signing autographs.
Sally came up beside him. "Thanks for doing this for me. My brother-in-law owes me one now. Everyone thinks he’s a god for getting you to speak."
"It’s always nice to help out kids." Jack couldn’t believe that canned response came out of his mouth, and to Sally, of all people.
A tiny frown pleated her brow. She took his arm and led him out of the ballroom and down to a quiet corner table in the bar. "I’m confused." She kept her voice lowered, pausing only long enough to order a glass of white wine.
"Why are you confused?" He knew, of course.
"You’ve been avoiding me all week. I didn’t put any pressure on you, did I? I know you’re married. So, what’s wrong? I thought we were on the same page."
In the dim light, she seemed impossibly young. It made him feel even older. "For the last fifteen years–until you–I was completely faithful to my wife. But I counted and remembered every woman I’d denied myself."
"You kept score?"
It was an ugly way to phrase it, but true. "I was so proud of every woman I didn’t sleep with. I thought, ‘Good for you, Jacko, you’re strong as steel.’ Every night, I went home and crawled into bed with my wife and I told her I loved her. I meant it, too."
"What does this have to do with me?"
The decision that had been rolling obliquely toward him was suddenly crystal clear. "I don’t want to be that guy anymore. I don’t want to be sleeping with a woman simply because I can."
"That’s a shitty thing to say. I know we aren’t head-over-heels in love, but I thought we were friends."
"Come on, Sally. Friends talk. Get to know each other. They don’t crawl into bed together and wake up alone."
"You never wanted to wake up with me." Hurt crept into her eyes. "Whenever I offered to spend the night, you changed the subject."
"You’re a great woman, Sally."
"Another quick-change remark, Jack. What you’re trying to say is I’m not Elizabeth. I know that. But I was the one who followed you to New York. She didn’t."
"I’m still in love with her," he said gently. "I didn’t know how much until I lost her."
Sally looked at him. "Are you saying it’s over between us? Just like that, you’ve changed your mind, and who cares how Sally feels about it?"