“Do you love him?” Nora asked gently.
Caroline went pale. Her lower lip trembled; hands in her lap tightened into a bloodless knot. “So much … ”
Nora’s heart felt as if it were breaking. Here was another legacy of her motherhood: she’d taught her children that marriages were disposable.
“Let me tell you what it’s like, this decision you think you’ve made,” she said to Caroline. “When you leave a man you love, you feel like your heart is splitting in half. You lie in your lonely bed and you miss him, you drink your coffee in the morning and you miss him, you get a haircut and all you can think is that no one will notice but you. And you go on with a broken heart, you go on.” She took a deep, unsteady breath. “But that’s not the worst of it. The worst Is what you do to your children. You tell yourself it’s okay; divorces happen all the time and your children will get over it. Maybe that’s true if the love is really gone from your marriage. But if you still love him, and you leave him without trying to save your family, you will … break. You don’t just cry in the middle of the night, you cry forever, all the time, until your insides are so dry there are no tears left, and then you learn what real pain is.”
Nora knew that what she was saying wasn’t true for all marriages, all divorces. But she was certain that Caroline hadn’t tried hard enough, not yet, not if she loved Jere. She closed her eyes, trying to think of Caroline … but then she was thinking about her own life, her own mistakes, and before she knew it, she was talking again. “You walk around and get dressed and maybe you even find a career that makes you rich and famous. You think that was what you wanted all along, but you find out it doesn’t matter. You don’t know how to feel anymore. You’re dead. Somewhere, your daughters are growing up without you … . You know that somewhere they’re out there, holding someone else’s hand, crying on someone” else’s shoulder. And every single day, you live with what you did to them. Don’t make my mistake,“ Nora said fiercely. ”Fight. Fight for your love and your family. In the end, it’s all there is, Caroline. All there is."
Caroline didn’t look up as she whispered, “What if I lose him anyway?”
“Ah, Caro,” Nora said, stroking her daughter’s hair; “what if you find him again?”
Ruby felt as if someone were pounding a drum insideher head. Though she was exhausted, she couldn’t sleep. She’d tried turning the light on, hoping Caroline would wake up, but no such luck. Her sister had obviously lapsed into a tequila coma.
After their evening of margaritas and tears, she and Caro had finally stumbled up to bed. They’d lain in the darkness for hours, talking, laughing; sometimes they’d even cried. They’d said all the things they’d gathered up in the years between then and now, but finally, Caroline had fallen asleep.
Ruby closed her eyes and pictured Mom as she’d been a few hours earlier … sitting on the dirty rag rug like a kindergartner; with her casted leg sprawled out to the side, a half-finished margarita beside her thigh. In profile, with the firelight haloing her face, she’d looked like an angel carved from the purest ivory.
She had been talking quietly to Caroline.
They’d held hands, Mom and Caro, and whispered about marriage, about how it wasn’t what you expected. Their two voices had blended into a music that Ruby couldn’t quite comprehend. At first, she’d felt left out, a child eavesdropping at her parents’ closed bedroom door.
She had been right there, sitting beside them, and yet she’d felt isolated and alone. Unconnected. Never in her life had Ruby felt such an intense sense of her own shortcomings.
She’d been unable to join in the conversation because she’d never made a commitment to another human being; she’d never tried to love someone through good times and bad. In fact, she’d purposely chosen men she couldn’t love. In that way, her heart had always seemed safe. And always, it had been empty.
She’d had the realization before, but this time it struck deep.
Caroline and Mom had been talking about love and loss, and most of all, commitment; about how love was more than an emotion. In the end, Mom had said, sometimes love was a choice. Like the tide, it could ebb and flow, and there were slack-tide times when a woman had nothing to believe in except a memory, nothing to cling to except the choice she’d made a long time ago.
Mom had looked at Caroline and said softly, “I let the bad times overwhelm me, and I ran. It wasn’t until I’d gone too far to turn back that I remembered how much I loved your father; and by then it was too late. For all these years, I’ve been left wondering, ”What if?"
Ruby closed her eyes. The darkness pressed in on her. She heard the whispering of the sea through the open window.
Do you believe in second chances?
Dean’s question came back to her, filled her longing.
“I do,” she said out loud, hoping that tomorrow, when they went sailing, she would find the courage to say the same words to Dean.
Before tonight, it would have seemed impossible to expose her heart so openly, so boldly. To admit she wanted to love and be loved. tonight, life seemed different.
As if anything were possible.
The next morning, Nora woke feeling refreshed and . Almost young again. She thanked God that she’d sipped a single margarita all night.
She pushed back the coverlet and limped into the bathroom. When she was finished with her mom. routine, she dressed quickly in a pair of khaki walk shorts and a white linen shirt.
In the living room, she saw the relics of last night blowout three glasses, each with at least an inch of slime green liquid in the bottom; an ashtray filled the cigarettes Caroline had furtively smoked; a pile of discarded record albums.
For the first time this summer, the house looked lived in. This was a mess made by Nora and daughters, and she’d waited a lifetime to see it.
She put a pot of coffee on, then limped upstairs. The bedroom door was closed. She pushed it open. Caroline and Ruby were still sleeping.
In sleep, they looked young and vulnerable, the sight of them, she remembered her own nights in this room, nights she’d slept in this bed with her husband, more often than not with two small, warm bodies tucked in between them.
And now those babies were women full grown, sleeping together in the bed that had once held their parents. Caroline slept curled in a ball, her body pressed close to the mattress’s edge. Ruby, on the other hand, lay spread-eagle, her arms and legs flung out above the bedding.
Nora walked to the bed. Slowly, she reached down and caressed Ruby’s pink, sleep-lined cheek. Her skinwas soft, so so … .
Wake up, sleepyheads."
Ruby groaned and blinked awake, smacking her lips together as if she could still taste the last margarita. “Hi, Mom.”
Caro blinked awake beside her; stretching her arms. She saw Nora and tried to sit up. Halfway there, she groaned and flopped backward. “Oh, my God, my head is swollen.”
Ruby didn’t look a whole lot better; but at least she could sit upright. “Obviously E.D. here should have done a little alcohol training before last night.” She squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her temples.
“Do we have any aspirin?”
“Aspirin?” Caroline moaned. “That’s an over-the counter medication. I have prescription-level pain.” She scooted slowly to a seated position, and slumped against Ruby. “I’m never listening to you again. Oh, shit, I’m gonna puke.”
Ruby slipped an arm around her sister. “Aim at Mom. She looks way too happy this morning.”
Ruby’s laughter rang out, and Nora felt a sharp tug of nostalgia. My girls, she thought. Suddenly it seemed like only yesterday they’d begged for Disco Barbies for Christmas.
Nora clapped her hands. "Get a move on, girls.
We’re going sailing today with Dean and Eric remember; Ruby? Lottie has dinner planned for us around seven."
Caroline turned green. “Sailing?” She rolled out of Ruby’s arms and dropped onto the floor; landing on all fours. She crouched there a minute, breathing shallowly, then she crawled toward the bathroom. At the door; she grabbed onto the knob and hauled herself upright. She turned and gave Ruby a pained smile. “First in the shower!”
“`Shit.” Ruby sagged forward, buried her face in her hands. “Don’t use all the hot water.”
Nora smiled. “It’s like old times around here.”
Ruby angled a look at her; gave her a pathetical sloppy smile. “I don’t remember tequila in grade school or all of us dancing to ”Footloose,“ singing at the top of our lungs, but-yeah.”
“’You and Me Against the World,“ ”Nora said, her smile fading at the suddenness of the memory. was our song.
Nora wanted to move toward her, but she remained still. Last night, Caro had come back to Nora completely, but even in the midst of their laughter-a sob-fest, Ruby had held herself back. “Well, I’m going to start breakfast and pack us a light lunch. Dean’s supposed to bring the boat around eleven.” She waited for Ruby to say something, but when the si lence stretched out, Nora turned and headed downstairs, thumping down each step.
She was halfway down when she heard a car drive up. A quick glance at her watch told her it was nine thirty. Not dawn, certainly, but pretty early for the local islanders to be visiting.
Nora tried to hurry down the stairs, but with her cast, it was difficult. She felt like Quasimodo hurrying down the bell tower.
She made it into the kitchen just as a rattling knock struck the front door. She finger-combed her hair and opened the door.
Standing on her porch was one of the best-looking young men she’d ever seen. He had the kind of beauty that made old women long for youth. Though she hadn’t seen him since the wedding, she’d recognize her son-in-law anywhere.
“Hi Jeremy," she said, smiling.
He looked surprised. “Nora?”
I guess it’s a shock to realize you have a mother-in-law." She took a step backward, motioning for him to come inside.
He smiled tiredly. “Given my other shocks in the past twenty-four hours, that’s nothing.”
Nora nodded, unsure of how to respond. “Caroline is upstairs. She’s not feeling real well.”
He looked instantly concerned. “Is something wrong? Is that why she left?”
“Tequila. That’s what’s wrong.”
He relaxed, even grinned. “So, you met Ed.”
“It wasn’t a pretty sight. Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
“That would be great. I missed the final ferry last night, so I slept in my car on the dock. My body feels like it’s been canned.”
Nora went into the kitchen and poured him a cup of coffee. “Cream? Sugar?”
She returned with the coffee, and handed him a cup.
“Thanks.” He glanced toward the stairs. “Is she awake?”
The look he gave Nora was so utterly helpless that she said, “I’ll get her. You wait here.”
Nora and Jere both spun around. Caroline stood in the living room. She was wearing the same silk and linen clothes from last night, only now they were wrinkled beyond recognition. Her hair was a tangled mess. Flecks of caked mascara turned her eyes into twin bruises. “Hi, Jere,” she said softly.“I heard your voice.”
Ruby came stumbling down the stairs and rammed into her sister. “Sorry, Caro, I-” She saw Jeremy and stopped. Her laughter dwindled into an uncomfortable silence.