If only she knew that, maybe then she could make it all right again. She’d spent the past twenty years putting her family’s needs first, and yet somehow she had failed, and her failure had left her alone, wandering around this too-big house, missing a daughter who was gone and a husband who was in love with someone else.
Somewhere along the way, she’d forgotten what she should have remembered. It was a lesson she’d learned early in life—one she’d thought she knew well. People left, and if you loved too deeply, too fiercely, their swift and sudden absence could chill you to the soul.
She climbed into her bed and burrowed under the covers, but when she realized that she was on “her” side of the bed, she felt as if she’d been slapped. The wine backed up into her throat, tasting sour enough that she thought she would vomit. She stared up at the ceiling, blinking back tears. With each ragged breath, she felt herself getting smaller and smaller.
What was she supposed to do now? It had been so long since she’d been anything but we. She didn’t even know if there was an I inside of her anymore. Beside her, the bedside clock ticked and ticked . . . and she wept.
The phone rang.
Annie woke on the first ring, her heart pounding. It was him, calling to say it was all a mistake, that he was sorry, that he’d always loved her. But when she picked up the phone, it was Natalie, laughing. “Hey, Mom, I made it.”
Her daughter’s voice brought the heartache rushing back.
Annie sat up in bed, running a weak hand through her tangled hair. “Hi, honey. I can’t believe you’re there already.” Her voice was thin and unsteady. She took a deep breath, trying to collect herself. “So, how was your flight?”
Natalie launched into a monologue that lasted for a steady fifteen minutes. Annie heard about the plane trip, the airport, about the strangeness of the London Underground, and the way the houses were all connected together—like, San Francisco, you know, Mom—
“. . . Mom?”
Annie realized with a start that she’d lapsed into silence. She’d been listening to Natalie—she truly had—but some silly, pointless turn in the conversation had made her think of Blake, of the car that wasn’t in the garage and the body that wasn’t beside her in bed.
God, is that how it’s going to be from now on?
Annie squeezed her eyes shut, a feeble attempt to escape. There was a white, static roar of sound in her head. “I . . . I’m right here, Natalie. I’m sorry. You were telling me about your host family.”
“Are you all right, Mom?”
Tears leaked down Annie’s cheeks. She didn’t bother to wipe them away. “I’m fine. How about you?”
A pause crackled through the lines. “I miss you guys.”
Annie heard loneliness in her daughter’s voice and it took all of her self-control not to whisper into the phone, Come home, Nana. We’ll be lonely together.
“Trust me, Nana, you’ll make friends. In no time at all, you’ll be having so much fun that you won’t be sitting by the phone waiting for your old mom to call. June fifteenth will come much too quickly.”
“Hey, Mom, you sound kinda shaky. Are you going to be okay while I’m gone?”
Annie laughed; it was a nervous, fluttery sound. “Of course I will. Don’t you dare worry about me.”
“Okay.” The word was spoken so softly Annie had to strain to hear it. “Before I start crying, I better talk to Daddy.”
Annie flinched. “Dad’s not here right now.”
“He loves you, though. He told me to tell you that.”
“Yeah, of course he does. So, you’ll call Monday?”
“I love you, Mom.”
Annie felt tears flood her throat again, squeezing until she could hardly talk. She suppressed a fierce urge to warn Natalie about the world, to tell her to watch out for lives that fall apart on a rainy spring day without warning. “Be careful, Natalie. Love you.”
And the phone went dead.
Annie placed the handset back on the base and crawled out of bed, stumbling blindly into her bathroom. The lights came on like something out of an Oliver Stone movie. She stared in horror at her reflection. She was still wearing her clothes from the airport, and they were wrinkled into something she didn’t recognize. Her hair was stuck so tightly to her head it looked as if she’d used Elmer’s glue as conditioner.
She slammed her fist onto the light switch. In the blessed darkness, she stripped down to her bra and panties and left the wrinkled clothes in a heap on the tile floor. Feeling tired and old and swollen, she walked out of the bathroom and crawled back into bed.
She could smell him in the fabric of the sheets. Only it wasn’t him. Blake—her Blake—had always worn Polo. She’d given him the cologne for Christmas every year; it came already wrapped for the holiday in a green gift box at Nordstrom. She’d given it to him every year and he’d worn it every day . . . until Calvin Klein and Suzannah changed everything.
Annie’s best friend showed up bright and early the next morning, pounding on the front door, yelling, “Open up in there, goddamn it, or I’ll call the fire department.”
Annie slipped into Blake’s black silk bathrobe and stumbled tiredly toward the front door. She felt like hell from the wine she’d drunk last night, and it took considerable effort simply to open the door. The expensive stone tiles felt icy cold beneath her bare feet.
Terri Spencer stood in the doorway, wearing a baggy pair of faded denim overalls. Her thick, curly nimbus of black hair was hidden by a wild scarlet scarf. Bold gold hoops hung from her ears. She looked exactly like the gypsy she played on a daytime soap. Terri crossed her arms, cocked one ample hip, and eyed Annie. “You look like shit.”
Annie sighed. Of course Terri had heard. No matter how much of a free spirit her friend claimed to be, her current husband was a dyed-in-the-wool lawyer. And lawyers gossiped. “You’ve heard.”
“I had to hear it from Frank. You could have called me yourself.”
Annie ran a trembling hand through her tangled hair. They had been friends forever, she and Terri. Practically sisters. But even with all they’d been through together, all the ups and downs they’d weathered, Annie didn’t know how to begin. She was used to taking care of Terri, with her wild, over-the-top actress lifestyle and her steady stream of divorces and marriages. Annie was used to taking care of everyone. Except Annie. “I meant to call, but it’s been . . . difficult.”
Terri curled a plump arm around Annie’s shoulder and propelled her to the overstuffed sofa in the living room. Then she went from window to window, whipping open the white silk curtains. The twenty-foot-tall, wall-to-wall windows framed a sea and sky so blue it stung the eyes, and left Annie with nowhere to hide.
When Terri was through, she sat down beside Annie on the sofa. “Now,” she said softly. “What the f**k happened?”
Annie wished she could smile—it was what Terri wanted, why she’d used the vulgarity—but Annie couldn’t respond. Saying it out loud would make it too real. She sagged forward, burying her puffy face in her hands. “Oh, God . . .”
Terri took Annie in her arms and held her tightly, rocking back and forth, smoothing the dirty hair from her sticky cheeks. It felt good to be held and comforted, to know that she wasn’t as alone as she felt.
“You’ll get through it,” Terri said at last. “Right now, you think you won’t, but you will. I promise. Blake’s an a**hole, anyway. You’ll be better off without him.”
Annie drew back and looked at her friend through a blur of stinging tears. “I don’t . . . want to be without him.”
“Of course you don’t. I only meant . . .”
“I know what you meant. You meant that it will get easier. Like I’d trust your opinion on this. You change husbands more often than I change underwear.”
Terri’s thick black eyebrows winged upward. “Score one for the housewife. Look, Annie, I know I’m harsh and pessimistic, and that’s why my marriages fail, but remember what I used to be like? Remember in college?”
Annie remembered, even though she wished she didn’t. Terri used to be a sweet little Pollyanna; that’s why they’d become best friends. Terri had stayed innocent until the day her first husband, Rom, had come home and told her he was having an affair with their accountant’s daughter. Terri had had twenty-four hours’ notice, and then wham! the checking account was gone, the savings had been mysteriously “spent,” and the medical practice they’d built together had been sold to a buddy for one dollar.
Annie had been with Terri constantly back then, drinking wine in the middle of the day, even smoking pot on a few occasions. It had made Blake insane. What are you doing still hanging around that cheap wanna-be, anyway? he used to say. You have dozens of more acceptable friends. It had been one of the few times Annie had stood up to Blake.
“You stayed with me every day,” Terri said softly, slipping her hand into Annie’s and squeezing gently. “You got me through it, and I’m going to be here for you. Whenever you need me. Twenty-four hours a day.”
“I didn’t know how much it hurt. . . . It feels like . . .” The humiliating tears burned again. She wished she could stop them, but it was impossible.
“Like your insides are bleeding away . . . like nothing will ever make you happy again? I know.”
Annie closed her eyes. Terri’s understanding was almost more than she could bear. She didn’t want her friend to know so much; not Terri, who’d never held a marriage together for more than a few years and couldn’t even commit to owning a pet. It was terrifying to think that this was . . . ordinary. As if the loss of twenty years was nothing at all, just another divorce in a country that saw a million breakups a year.
“Look, kiddo, I hate to bring this up, but I have to. Blake’s a hotshot attorney. You need to protect yourself.”
It was bruising advice, the kind that made a woman want to curl up into a tiny, broken ball. Annie tried to smile. “Blake’s not like that.”
“Oh, really. You need to ask yourself how well you know him.”
Annie couldn’t deal with this now. It was enough to realize that the past year had been a lie; she couldn’t fathom the possibility that Blake had become a complete stranger. She stared at Terri, hoping her friend could understand. “You’re asking me to be someone I’m not, Terri. I mean, to walk into a bank and clean out the money, our money. It’s so . . . final. And it makes this about things . . . just things. I can’t do it to Blake. I can’t do it to me. I know it’s naive—stupid, even—to trust him, but he’s been my best friend for more than half my life.”
Annie touched her friend’s plump hand. “I love you for worrying about me, Terri. Really, I do, but I’m not ready for this advice. I hope . . .” Her voice fell to a whisper. She felt hopelessly naive when she looked into Terri’s sad, knowing eyes. “I still hope I don’t need it, I guess.”