She couldn’t believe he’d done this to her now, in the wake of her father’s death and in the midst of her mother’s meltdown. She wanted to latch on to that anger, but it was ephemeral and hard to hold. She kept imagining one scene, over and over and over.
They would be at the dining room table, she and Jeff and the girls. . . .
Jillian would have her nose buried in a book; Maddy would be tapping her foot, asking when they could go. All of that teenage impatience would disappear when Jeff said, “We’re breaking up.”
Maybe that wasn’t exactly how he would say it, or maybe he’d chicken out and let Meredith say the poisonous words. That had certainly been their parenting pattern. Jeff was the “fun” one; Meredith laid down the law.
Maddy would burst into uncontrollable sobbing.
Jillian’s tears would be the silent, heartbreaking type.
Meredith drew in a deep, shuddering breath. She knew now why unhappily married women stayed in their marriages. It was because of the scene she’d just imagined and the pain of it.
In the distance, she could see the first copper glimmer of dawn. She’d been out here all night. Tightening her robe around her, she went inside, milled throughout the house, picking up objects and putting them down. The crystal award Jeff had won last year for investigative journalism . . . the reading glasses he’d recently begun to use . . . the picture of them at Lake Chelan last summer. Before, when she’d looked at that photo, all she’d seen was that she was getting older; now she saw the way he was holding her, the brightness of his smile.
She put the picture down and went upstairs. Though bed beckoned her, she didn’t even go close to it, not to that king-sized mattress where his shape lingered, and his scent. Instead, she put on her running clothes and ran until she couldn’t breathe without pain and her lungs felt like jelly.
At home, she went straight to the shower, where she stayed until the water turned cold.
When she was dressed, she knew that no one would be able to look at her and know that her husband had left her in the night.
She was holding her car keys, standing in her kitchen, when she realized it was Saturday.
The warehouse would be dark and freezing. Closed. Oh, she could go to work anyway, try to lose herself in the minutiae of insect and pruning reports, of crop projections and sales quotas. But she would be alone, in the quiet, with only her own thoughts to distract her.
She went out to the car and started it up, but instead of driving to town, she drove to Belye Nochi and parked.
The living room light was on. A plume of smoke rose from the chimney. Of course Nina was up. She was still running on Africa time.
Meredith felt a wave of self-pity. With all her heart, she wished she could talk to her sister about this, that she could hand her pain off to someone else who might find the words to soften or reshape it.
But Nina was not that person. Neither would Meredith tell her friends. It was humiliating and painful enough without the addition of becoming a bit of town gossip. And besides, she wasn’t the kind of woman who talked about her problems; wasn’t that part of the reason she was alone now?
She yanked open the car door and got out.
Inside the house, she noticed the lingering smell of smoke. Then she saw the dirty dishes piled in the sink and the open decanter of vodka on the counter.
It pissed her off. Suddenly. Sharply. Disproportionately. But it felt good, this anger. She could hold on to it, let it consume her. She attacked the dishes so loudly that pans clanged together as she threw them in the soapy water.
“Whoa,” Nina said, coming into the room. She was wearing a pair of men’s boxer shorts and an old Nirvana T-shirt. Her hair stuck out like a black Chia Pet and her face crinkled in a smile. She looked like Demi Moore in Ghost; almost impossibly pretty. “I didn’t think pot-tossing was your sport.”
“Do you think I have nothing better to do than clean up your messes?”
“It’s a little early for high drama.”
“That’s right. Make a joke. What’s it to you?”
“Meredith, what’s wrong?” Nina said. “Are you okay?”
Meredith almost gave in. The softness of her sister’s voice, the unexpected question . . . she almost said, Jeff left me.
And then what?
She drew in a deep breath and folded the hand towel in precise thirds before draping it over the oven’s handle. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t act fine.”
“Honestly, Nina, you don’t know me well enough to say that. How was Mom last night? Did she eat?”
“We drank vodka together. And wine. Can you believe it?”
Meredith felt a sharp pang at that; it took her a moment to realize she was jealous. “Vodka?”
“I know. Shocked the shit out of me, too. And I found out her favorite movie is Doctor Zhivago.”
“I don’t think alcohol is her best bet these days, do you? I mean, she doesn’t know where the hell she is half the time.”
“But does she know who she is. That’s what I want to know. If I could just get her to tell us the fairy tales—”
“Screw the fairy tales,” Meredith said, more sharply than she should have. At Nina’s surprised look, she realized she might even have yelled it. “I’m going to start packing her things for the move next month. I think she’ll be more comfortable there if she has her stuff around her.”
“She won’t be comfortable,” Nina said, and now she looked angry. “It doesn’t matter how neat and tidy and organized you are. You’re still putting her away.”
“You going to stay, Nina? Forever? Because if you are, I’ll cancel the reservation.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Yeah. Right. You can criticize but you can’t solve.”
“I’m here now.”
Meredith glanced at the sinkful of soapy water and the now-clean dishes in the strainer. “And what a help you’ve been to me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get some boxes from the garage. I’ll start in the kitchen. You’re more than welcome to help.”
“I’m not going to pack her life into boxes, Mere. I want to open her up, not close her away. Don’t you get it? Don’t you care?”
“No,” Meredith said, pushing past her. She left the house and walked over to the garage. While she waited for the automatic door to open, she had trouble breathing. It swelled up in her, whatever the feeling was, until her chest ached and her arm tingled and she thought, I’m having a heart attack.
She doubled over and sucked in air. In and out, in and out, until she was okay. She started into the darkness of the garage, glad that she’d controlled herself and that she hadn’t lost it in front of Nina, but when she turned on the light, there was Dad’s Cadillac. The 1956 convertible that had been his pride and joy.
Frankie’s his name, after Sinatra. I stole my first kiss in Frankie’s front seat. . . .
They’d gone on a dozen family road trips in old Frankie. They’d gone north to British Columbia, east to Idaho, and south to Oregon, always in search of adventure. On those long, dusty drives, with Dad and Nina singing along to John Denver, Meredith had felt all but invisible. She didn’t like exploring roads or making wrong turns or running out of gas. It had always seemed to end up that way, too, with Dad and Nina laughing like pirates at every escapade.
Who needs directions? Dad would say.
Not us, Nina would reply, bouncing in her seat and laughing.
Meredith could have joined in, could have pretended, but she hadn’t. She’d sat in the back, reading her books and trying not to care when a hubcap flipped off or the engine overheated. And whenever they stopped for the night and camp was set up, Dad would always come for her; while he smoked his pipe, he’d say, I thought my best girl would like to take a walk. . . .
Those ten-minute walks were worth a thousand miles of bad road.
She touched the shiny cherry-red hood, felt its smoothness. No one had driven this car in years. “Your best girl would like to take a walk,” she whispered.
He was the one person she would have told about what happened last night. . . .
With a sigh, she went to his workbench and looked around until she found three big cardboard boxes. She carried them back into the kitchen, set them down on the hardwood floor, and opened the cupboard closest to her. She knew it was too early to start packing, but anything was better than being alone in her empty house.
“I heard you and Nina fighting.”
Meredith slowly closed the cupboard and turned around.
Her mother stood in the doorway, dressed in her white nightgown with a black woolen blanket draped like a cape around her shoulders. Light from the entryway shone through the cotton fabric, outlining her thin legs.
“I’m sorry,” Meredith said.
“You and your sister are not close.”
It was a statement rather than a question, as it certainly should be, but Meredith heard something sharp in her mother’s voice, a judgment, perhaps. Her mother wasn’t looking past Meredith for once, or beside her; she was staring right at her, as if seeing her for the first time.
“No, Mom. We’re not close. We hardly ever see each other.”
“You will regret this.”
Thank you, Yoda. “It’s fine, Mom. Can I make you some tea?”
“When I am gone, you will only have each other.”
Meredith walked over to the samovar. That was the last thing she wanted to think about today—her mother’s death. “It will be hot in a moment,” she said without turning around.
After a while, she heard her mother walk away, and Meredith was alone again.
Nina planned to wear her mother down. If Meredith the martyr’s performance in the kitchen had proven anything, it was that time was of the essence. With every rip of newspaper or clang of a pot, Nina knew that another piece of her mother’s life was being wrapped up and put away. If Meredith had her way, there would soon be nothing left.
Dad had wanted something else, though, and now Nina wanted it, too. She wanted to hear the peasant girl and the prince in its entirety; in truth, she couldn’t remember ever wanting anything more.
At breakfast, she’d gone into the kitchen, stepping carefully around her ice-cold sister. Ignoring Meredith, she made Mom a cup of sweetened tea and a piece of toast and carried them upstairs. Inside her mother’s bedroom, she found Mom in bed, her gnarled hands folded primly on the blanket over her stomach, her white hair a bird’s nest that hinted at a restless night. With the door open, they could both hear Meredith packing up the kitchen.
“You could help your sister.”
“I could. If I thought you should move. I don’t.” She handed her mother the tea and toast. “You know what I realized when I made your breakfast?”
Mom sipped tea from the delicate silver-encased glass cup. “I suppose you will tell me.”
“I don’t know if you like honey or jam or cinnamon.”
“All are fine.”
“The point is, I don’t know.”