When she finally came back into the house, her hands black with dirt, her fingers bleeding, her face streaked by mud and rain, she didn’t even look at Meredith, just walked up the stairs and closed her bedroom door.
They never spoke of that day again. And when Dad came home, Meredith threw herself into his arms and cried until he said, What is it, Meredoodle?
Maybe if she’d said something, told him the truth, it would have changed things, changed her, but she couldn’t do it. I just love you, Daddy, she’d said, and his booming laugh had grounded her once again.
And I love you, he’d said. She wanted that to be enough, prayed for it to be enough, but it wasn’t, and she felt her own sense of failure blossom, take over, until all she could do was try to stop loving her mother.
She closed her eyes, rocking just a little. Nina was wrong. Dad would understand. . . .
A thump sounded nearby, and she looked up, expecting to see Luke or Leia in the room, tail thumping a quiet greeting, begging for a little attention.
Jeff stood in the doorway, still dressed in the worn Levi’s and blue crew-neck sweater he’d put on yesterday morning.
“Oh. You’re home.”
“I’m going,” he said quietly.
She didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed that they wouldn’t be together tonight. “Do you want me to hold dinner?”
He took a deep breath and said, “I’m leaving.”
“I heard you. I don’t—” It sunk in suddenly and she looked up. “Leaving? Me? Because of last night? I’m sorry about that. Really. I shouldn’t have—”
“We need some time apart, Mere.”
“Don’t do this,” she whispered, shaking her head. “Not now.”
“There’s never a good time. I waited because of your father, and then because of your mother. I told myself you still loved me, that you were just busy and overwhelmed, but . . . I just don’t believe it anymore. There’s a wall around you, Mere, and I’m tired of trying to climb it.”
“It’ll be better now. In June—”
“No more waiting,” he said. “We only have a few weeks before the girls come home. Let’s use the time to figure out what the hell we want.”
She felt herself falling apart but the thought of giving in to that scared her to death. For months now she’d been burying her emotions and God knew what would happen if she ever stopped. If she let herself cry she might wail like a banshee and turn to stone like one of her mother’s fairy-tale characters. So she held it together and nodded, said in as even a voice as she could muster, “Okay.”
She saw the way he looked at her then, the disappointment, the resignation. His gaze said, Of course that’s what you’d say. It hurt her almost more than she could stand, letting him go, but she didn’t know how to stop him, what to say, so she stood up and walked past him, past the suitcase at the front door (the thump she’d heard) and went into the kitchen.
Her heart was actually missing beats as she stood at the sink, staring at nothing. It was hard to catch her breath. Never in all their years of marriage had it occurred to her that Jeff would leave her. Not even last night when he’d let her sleep alone. She’d known he wasn’t happy—and neither was she, really—but that seemed separate somehow, an ordinary bad patch.
But this . . .
He came up behind her. “Do you still love me, Mere?” he asked quietly, turning her by the shoulders until they were facing each other.
She wished he’d asked her that an hour ago, or yesterday, or last week. Anytime except now, when even the ground beneath her felt unreliable. She’d thought his love was a bulkhead that could hold back any storm, but like everything else in her life, his love was conditional. All at once she was that ten-year-old girl again, being dragged out of the garden, wondering how she’d gone so wrong.
He let go of her and started for the door.
Meredith almost called out for him, almost said, Of course I love you. Do you love me? but she couldn’t make her mouth open. She knew she should grab the suitcase from him or throw her arms around him. Something. But she just stood there, dry-eyed and uncomprehending, staring at his back.
At the last minute, he turned to look at her. “You’re like her, you know that, don’t you?”
“Don’t say that.”
He stared at her a moment longer, and she knew it was an opening, a chance he was giving her, but she couldn’t take it, couldn’t make herself move or reach out or even cry.
“Good-bye, Mere,” he finally said.
She stood there a long time, was still there, at her sink, staring out at the dark nothingness of her yard, long after he’d driven away.
You’re like her, he’d said.
It hurt so much she couldn’t stand it, as he must have known it would.
“He’ll be back,” she said to no one except herself. “Couples take breaks sometimes. It will all be okay.” She had to figure out how to fix it, what needed to be done. She went to the closet and grabbed the vacuum and dragged it into the living room and turned it on. The sound drowned out the voices in her head and the erratic beating of her heart.
When Nina finished showering and unpacking, she went downstairs. In the kitchen, she found her mother already seated at the table, where a cut-crystal decanter waited. “I thought we’d have a drink. Vodka,” her mother said.
Nina stared at her. It was one of those moments when you glimpsed something unexpected, like a face in the shadows. In all her thirty-seven years, Nina had never been offered a drink by her mother. She hesitated.
“If you’d rather not . . .”
“No. I mean yes,” Nina said, watching as her mother poured two shot glasses full of vodka.
She tried to see something in her mother’s beautiful face, a frown, a smile; something. But the blue eyes revealed nothing.
“The kitchen smells of smoke,” Mom said.
“I burned the first dinner. Too bad you never taught me to cook,” Nina said.
“It is reheating, not cooking.”
“Did your mother teach you to cook?”
“The water is boiling. Put in the noodles.”
Nina went to the stove and poured some of her mother’s homemade noodles into the boiling water. Beside them, a saucepan bubbled with stroganoff sauce. “Hey, I’m cooking,” she said, reaching for a wooden spoon. “Danny would laugh his ass off right now. He’d say, Watch it, love. People’re goin’ t’ eat that.” She waited for her mom to ask who Danny was, but all that rebounded was silence, and then a slow tapping.
She looked back, saw her mother tapping a fork on the table.
Nina returned to the table, took a place opposite her mother. “Cheers,” she said, lifting her glass.
Mom lifted the small heavy glass, clinked it against Nina’s, and downed the vodka in a swallow.
Nina did the same. Minutes passed in silence. “So what do we do now?”
“Noodles,” was Mom’s reply.
Nina rushed back to the stove. “They’re floating,” she said.
“Another cooking lesson. This is awesome,” Nina said, pouring the noodles and water into a strainer in the sink. Then she dished up two plates, grabbed the salad, and returned to the table, carrying a bottle of wine with her.
“Thank you,” Mom said. She closed her eyes in prayer for a moment and then reached for her fork.
“Have you always done that?” Nina said. “Prayed before dinner?”
“Quit studying me, Nina.”
“Because that’s the kind of thing a parent generally passes on to their children. I don’t remember praying before dinner except at the big holidays.”
Mom began to eat.
Nina wanted to keep questioning her mother, but the savory scent of the stroganoff—rich beef chunks, perfectly browned and then simmered for hours in a sauce of sherry wine, fresh thyme, heavy cream, and mushrooms—wafted up to her, and her stomach growled in anticipation. She practically dived into this meal that so represented her childhood. “Thank God you have enough food in the freezer to feed a starving nation,” she said, pouring them both some wine. When silence answered her, she said, “Thank you, Nina, for saying so.”
Nina tried to concentrate on the food, but the silence got to her. She had never been a patient woman. It was strange; she could sit still for hours waiting for the perfect shot, but without a camera in her hand, she needed something to do. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. “Enough,” she said so sharply that Mom looked up. “I’m not Meredith.”
“I am aware of that.”
“You were too tough for us when we were girls, and Mere, well, she stuck around and she never changed much. I left. And you know what? You don’t scare me or hurt me so much anymore. I’m here now to take care of you. If Mere has her way, I’ll be here until you move into Senior World, and I’ll be damned if I’ll eat every meal under a cone of silence.”
“We must have talked at dinner when I was a kid. I remember talking. Even laughing.”
“That was the three of you.”
“How come you never really look at me or Meredith?”
“You are imagining things now.” Mom took a drink of wine. “Eat.”
“Okay, I’ll eat. But we are going to talk, and that’s that. Since you are a lemon in the conversation game, I’ll start. My favorite movie is Out of Africa. I love watching giraffes move across the sunset in the Serengeti, and I’m surprised to admit that sometimes I miss the snow.”
Mom took another drink of her wine.
“I could ask about the fairy tales instead,” Nina said. “I could ask about how it is that you know the stories word for word or why you only told them to us with the lights out, or why Dad—”
“My favorite author is Pushkin. Although Anna Akhmatova reads my mind. I miss . . . the true belye nochi, and my favorite movie is Doctor Zhivago.” Her accent softened on the Russian words, turned them into a kind of music.
“So we have something in common after all,” Nina said, reaching for her wine, watching her mother.
“What is that?”
“We like big love stories with unhappy endings.”
Her mother pushed back from the table suddenly and stood up. “Thank you for dinner. I am tired now. Good night.”
“I’ll ask again, you know,” Nina said as she passed her. “For the fairy tale.”
Mom paused, took a slowed step, and then kept going, around the corner and up the stairs. When her bedroom door thudded closed, Nina stared up at the ceiling. “You’re afraid, aren’t you?” she mused aloud. “Of what?”
Bundled up in her old terry-cloth robe, Meredith sat out on her porch, rocking in a wicker chair. The dogs lay beside her feet, tangled together. They appeared to be sleeping, but every now and then one of them whined and looked up. They knew something was wrong. Jeff was gone.