Nora wanted to weep at what they’d thrown away.
“You should have called. I was alone, too.” She paused, then said, “It’s too bad.”
She reached out, brushed the hair from his eyes in a gesture as natural to her as breathing. “But you’ve gone on now. Married. I’m happy for that.” She realized how true it was. Those few small words-I’m sorry-had released her, turned Rand into what he was: her first love. Her great love, perhaps, but there would be another one for her someday. She smiled and arched one eyebrow.
And are you being a good boy, Randall?"
He laughed, easy with her now. “Even a stupid dog doesn’t get hit by the same bus twice.”
“Good. You deserve to be happy.”
“So do you.”
She flinched, unable to help it. “You screwed around on your wife. I abandoned my children. It’s not the same thing.”
He gazed at her. She saw the heavy lines around his mouth and eyes, grooves worn by years in the sun and wind. “I told Ruby the truth.”
“The truth. About us.”
Nora felt sick. “That was a foolish thing to do.”
“I thought you’d be pleased. It’s something I should have done a long time ago.”
"Perhaps, but when you didn’t-when I didn’t-we buried that little piece of family history. You shouldn’t have dug it up. It won’t make a difference now.
“You deserved it, Nora,” he said. “After all these years, you deserved it.”
“Oh, Rand. She believed in you. This will break her heart.”
“You know what I learned from us, Nora?” He touched her face, smiled tenuously. “Love doesn’t die. Not real love. And that’s what Ruby’s going to discover. She’s always loved you. I just gave her a reason to admit it.”
Nora couldn’t help thinking that, for a grown man, he was incredibly naive.
After two hours of waiting in the line for the ferry with two hundred eager tourists and a few beleaguered locals, Ruby remembered why she’d been so eager to move off island. Timing your life around a state-operated transportation system was miserable.
The last thing she needed was time to think. The conversation with Caroline repeated relentlessly through her mind. Even when she turned on the minivan’s cheesy radio, she heard the singers" voices moaning the words Everyone knew.
“Except me,” she said bitterly.
She still couldn’t get over that.
Finally, the ferry pulled in-late, as usual-and she drove aboard, following the orange-vested woman’s directions to a spot at the very back of the lane. As the ferry pulled out, she adjusted her seat to a more comfortable position and closed her eyes. Maybe sleep would help.
She opened her eyes and stared up at the van’s puffy, velourlike ceiling. She still felt shaky, as if the foundation of her life had turned to warm Jell-O and was slowly letting her sink.
I slept with other women.
It changed everything.
That was the sheer hell of it. Ruby couldn’t hold the ramifications of the day in her hands and study them.
One thing she knew: her novelization of the past, with Dad cast as hero and her mother as villain, wouldn’t work anymore.
The world wasn’t as she’d thought it was. Perhaps she was late in making that elemental and yet monumental discovery. She felt as if she’d been a child all these years, walking through a land that she alone had devised.
And now something was changing inside of her; growing. It was nothing as cliche’ or readily definable as her heart. Rather; it was the bones themselves; they were shifting, pressing against her sinew and muscles, and deep down inside, there was a new ache. She reached under the seat and pulled out the pen and legal pad she’d packed in the morning. After only a moment’s hesitation, she started to write.
I was sixteen years old when my mother left us. It was an ordinary June day; the sun rode high in a robin’s-egg-blue sky. It’s funny the things you remember. The Sound was as flat and calm as a brand-new cookie sheet, and a gaggle of bahy geese were learning to swim on the McCuffins’ pond.
We were an average family, just My father, Rand, was an islander through and through, a commercial fisherman who repaired boats in the off season. He went bowling with his friends every Saturday night and helped us girls with our math and science homework. He wore plaid flannel shirts in the winter and Lacoste golf shirts in the summer. It never occurred to any of us, or to me anyway, that he was anything less than the perfect father.
There was no yelling in our family, no raging arguments, no nights where my sister and I lay in our side-by-side twin beds and worried feverishly that our parents would divorce.
After we’d all gone our separate ways, I often looked back on those quiet years. I was obsessive in my search for an inciting incident, a moment where I could say, Aha! There it is’ the beginning of the end.
But I never found one. Until now.
Today, my parents pulled back the curtain, and the Great Oz-my dad-" revealed to be an ordinary man.
I didn’t know that then, of course. All I knew was that on a beautiful day, my mother dragged a suitcase into the living room.
I’m leaving. Is anyone coming with me?" That’s what she said to my sister and me. I heard my father in the kitchen. He dropped a glass into the sink, and the shatter sounded like bones breaking.
That was the day I learned the concept of before and after. Her leaving sliced through our family with the bloody precision of a surgeon’s scalpel.
At the time, we assumed it was temporary. A vacation getaway that should have been with “the girls,” only my mother had no girlfriends. Maybe all kids think things like that.
It’s hard to say when my feelings about my mother changed from guilt to anger to disgust to hatred, but that was the arc of it.
I saw what her absence did to my father In the span of a few short days, he became hardly recognizable. He drank, he smoked, he spent the day in his pajamas. He ate only when Caroline or I cooked for him. He let the marina business go to hell and by the next spring, he had to sell land to pay the taxes and keep food on the table.
I formed an image of my mother that summer; From the hard stone of everything that happened, I carved the image of a woman and called it mother. For all these years, I’ve kept it on my bedside table; it was no less real for being visible only in my own mind. The statue was a collection of hard edges selfishness, lies, and abandonment.
But now I know the truth: My father was unfaithful to my mother.
Unfaithful; A cold, detached word that gives no hint of the heat involved in passion. He wore a wedding ring and f**ked women other than the one he’d sworn to love, honor, and protect.
That says it better for me. The vulgarity of the sentence matches the obscenity of the act.
I know it changes everything, but I can’t seem to follow where it leads. My childhood, I thought naively, was mine alone, those memories painted in vibrant oil strokes on the canvas of my years. Now, it seems that Barbra Streisand was right. Memories are watercolor,; and a heavy rain can wash them away.
My father is not the man I thought he was.
Even as I look down on this sentence I have just written, I see the childishness of it, but I can’t think of another way to say it. I don’t know how to look at him now, this father who has proven to be a stranger.
My mother didn’t leave him-and us-for fame and fortune, but simply because she was human, and the man she loved had broken her heart.
I know how it feels when someone you love stops loving you back. It’s a kind of mini-death that breaks something inside of you.
This knowing, this understanding … it should make me want to forgive my mother shouldn’t it?
I think I’m afraid to love her, even the tiniest bit. The hurt she caused me is so deep that my bones have grown around it. I wonder perhaps who I am without it –
Before she could finish her sentence, the ferry honked its horn. They were docking on Lopez. Ruby looked up. She knew that as soon as it had unloaded a few cars, it would turn to Orcas Island. Summer was the last stop before the boat turned back to the mainland.
Ruby made a snap decision. She didn’t want to see her mother yet. They would have to talk about this new information, and Ruby wasn’t ready.
She started the car and pulled out of line, speeding down the empty lane. Ferry workers shouted at her, waving their hands. No doubt they thought she was a tourist, getting off on the wrong island. She didn’t care. She sped forward, bumped over the ramp, and drove off.
The Sloan house was only a few blocks from the ferry terminal. It was a big, gingerbread-cute Victorian mansion placed on a breathtaking promontory overlooking the bay.
She pulled the minivan into the driveway and parked. It was twilight now; a purple haze fell across the garden, still impeccably tended. A newly painted white picket fence kept everything neatly contained. Just the way Mrs. Sloan liked it, although she probably hadn’t set foot on this island in years.
Ruby walked up the crushed seashell pathway that led to the front door. There she paused, gathered her courage, and knocked.
Lottie opened the door. She looked just as Ruby remembered her-puffy cheeks, eyes that disappeared when she smiled. “Ruby Elizabeth!” she said, clapping her plump hands together. "Lordy, it’s good to see you.
Ruby grinned. “Hello, Lottie. It’s been a long time.”
“Not so long that you can’t give me a hug, you upstart.” She reached out and grabbed Ruby, pulling her against her ample breast. Ruby noticed that Lottie still smelled of the lemon hard candies she kept tucked in her apron pockets.
Ruby drew back, trying to maintain her smile when she said, “I came to see Eric.”
“He’s upstairs. Dean had to fly to Seattle-something about business.”
Ruby was relieved. Now that she was here, she wasn’t ready to talk to Dean, either. She glanced past Lottie, into the living room. “Can I go up?”
“Why, I’d beat you with a stick if you didn’t. I’ll make you some tea if-”
“No, thanks. I’m fine.”
“Ali. Run along with you, then.” As Ruby passed her; Lottie reached out, touched her shoulder. “Don’t be afraid, Ruby. He’s still our boy.”
Ruby took a deep breath and released it, then slowly mounted the stairs. At the upper landing, she turned toward Eric’s old room. The door was closed.
She gave it the tiniest push to open it. “Eric?”
“Ruby? Is that you?”
She heard how weak his voice was, how different from the melodious baritone of old, and she swallowed hard. “It’s me, buddy.” She pushed past the door and walked into his room.
Only sheer willpower kept her from gasping. He looked thin and tired. His beautiful black hair was practically gone, there was only the barest film of it left. Bruise-dark shadows circled his eyes; his cheek bones stood out in pathetic relief above the pale, sunken flesh.
He gave her a smile that broke her heart. “I must be dead if Ruby Bridge is back on the island.”
“I’m home,” she said, looking away quickly so he couldn’t see her shock. She strode over to the window and opened the curtains-anything to get her composure back.
“It’s okay, Ruby,” he said softly, “I know how I look.”
She turned back around. “I missed you, Eric,” she said, meaning it, hating herself once again for how easily she’d been able to leave this place, these people.