“Give a girl a chance to breathe, won’t you?”
“You’re breathing,” he said quietly. With those two words, and the look in his eyes, she knew it all.
“Okay,” she said, and this time she had to force herself to look at him. “Why are you here?”
“I was in Atlanta. From there, this was nothin’.”
“Atlanta?” she said, but she knew what was in Atlanta. Every journalist did.
“CNN. They’ve offered me my own show. In-depth world stories.” He smiled. “I’m tired, Neens. I’ve been gallivantin’ for decades now, and my bum leg hurts all the time and I’m tired of tryin’ to keep up with the twenty-year-olds. Mostly, though . . . I’m tired of being alone so much. I wouldn’t mind the globe-trottin’ if I had a place to come home to.”
“Congratulations,” she said woodenly.
“Marry me,” he said, and the earnestness in his blue eyes made her want to cry. She thought, absurdly, I should have taken more pictures of him.
“If I said yes,” she said, touching his face, feeling the unfamiliar smoothness of his cheek, “would you forget CNN and stay in Africa with me? Or maybe go to the Middle East, or Malaysia? Could I say on Friday, I need good Thai food, and we’d hop on a plane?”
“We’ve done all that, love.”
“And what would I do in Atlanta? Learn to make the perfect peach pie and welcome you home with a glass of scotch?”
“Come on, Neens. I know who you are.”
“Do you?” Nina felt as if she were falling suddenly. Her stomach ached, her eyes stung. How could she say yes . . . how could she say no? She loved this man. Of that she was sure. But the rest of it? Settling down? A house in the city or a place in the suburbs? A permanent address? How could she handle that? The only life she’d ever wanted was the one she now had. She simply couldn’t plant roots—that was for men like her father and women like her sister, who liked the ground to be level where they stood. And if Danny really loved Nina, he’d know that.
“Just come back to Atlanta with me for the weekend. We’ll talk to people, see what’s available for you. You’re a world-famous photojournalist, for fuck’s sake. They’d be crawlin’ all over themselves to give you a job. Come on, love, give us a chance.”
“I’m going to Alaska with Mom and Meredith.”
“I’ll have you back in time. I swear it.”
“But . . . the fairy tale . . . I have more research to do. I can’t just leave the story. Maybe in two weeks, when we’re done. . . .”
Danny pulled away from her. “There will always be another story to follow, won’t there, Neens?”
“That’s not fair. This is my family history, the promise I made to my dad. You can’t ask me to give that up.”
“Is that what I asked?”
“You know what I mean.”
“ ’Cause I thought I proposed marriage and didn’t get an answer.”
“Give me more time.”
He leaned down and kissed her; this time it was slow and soft and sad. And when he took her in his arms and made love to her again, she learned something new, something she hadn’t known before: sex could mean many things; one of them was good-bye.
Meredith hadn’t been on a vacation without Jeff and the girls in years. As she packed and repacked her suitcase, she found her enthusiasm for the trip growing by leaps and bounds. She had always wanted to go to Alaska.
So why had she never gone?
The question, when it occurred to her, made her pause in her packing. She stared down at the open suitcase on her bed, but instead of seeing the neatly folded white sweater, she saw the blank landscape of her own life.
By and large, she’d been the one who planned family vacations, and she’d always let someone else choose the destination. Jillian had wanted to see the Grand Canyon, so they’d gone camping in the summer; Maddy had always been the Tiki-Girl, and two family vacations in Hawaii had cemented that nickname; and Jeff loved to ski, so they went to Sun Valley every year.
But never had they headed north to Alaska.
Why was that? Why had Meredith been so ready to bypass her own happiness? She’d thought there would be time to unwind those choices, that if she put her children first for nineteen years, she could then shift course and be the one who mattered. As easy as changing lanes while driving. But it hadn’t been like that, not for her anyway. She’d lost too much of herself in parenthood to simply go back to who she’d been before.
As she looked around her room, there were mementos everywhere, bits and pieces of the life she’d lived—photographs of the family, art projects the girls had made over the years, souvenirs she and Jeff had bought together. There, right by the bed, was a photograph she’d looked at every day of her life and yet not really seen in years. In it, she and Jeff were young—kids, really—a pair of newlyweds with a bald, bright-eyed little girl cradled between them. Jeff’s hair was long and wheat-blond, blown by the wind across his sunburned cheeks. And the smile on his face was breathtaking in its honesty.
She’s us, he’d said to Meredith on that day, all those years ago, when they’d held their daughter, Jillian, between them. The best of us.
And suddenly the thought of losing him was more than she could bear. She grabbed her car keys and drove to his office, but once there, when she looked up at him, she realized she was equally afraid of losing herself.
“I wanted to remind you that we’re leaving tomorrow,” she said after what had to be the longest silence in the world.
“I know that.”
“You’re staying at the house, right? The girls are going to be calling you every day, I think. They’re sure you can’t live without me.”
“You think they’re wrong?”
He was close, so close she could have touched him with only the slightest eff ort. She longed suddenly to do it, but she held back. “Are they?”
“When you come home, we’ll talk.”
“What if—” slipped out of her mouth before she realized even that she was going to speak.
“What if what?”
“What if I still don’t know what to say?” she finally said.
“After twenty years?”
“It went by fast.”
“It’s one question, Mere. Are you in love with me?”
How could the whole of an adult life funnel down to that?
As the silence expanded, he reached for a framed picture on his desk.
“This is for you,” he said.
She looked down at it, feeling the start of tears. It was their wedding picture. He’d kept it on his desk all these years. “You don’t want it on your desk anymore?”
“That’s not why I’m giving it to you.”
He touched her cheek with a gentleness that somehow communicated more than twenty years of being together, of knowing each other, of passion and love and the disappointments that came with both, and she knew he’d given her the picture so that she’d remember them.
She looked up at him. “I never told you I wanted to go to Alaska. I think there were a lot of things I didn’t say.” She could tell by the way he was looking at her that he understood, and all at once she was reminded of how well he knew her. He’d been at her side through graduation and childbirth and her father’s death. He’d been the primary witness to most of her life. When had she stopped talking to him about her dreams? And why?
“I wish you had told me.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“Words matter, I guess,” he said finally. “Maybe your dad knew that all along.”
Meredith nodded. How was it that her whole life could be distilled down to that simple truth? Words mattered. Her life had been defined by things said and unsaid, and now her marriage was being undermined by silence. “She’s not who we thought she was, Jeff. My mom, I mean. Sometimes, when she’s telling us the story, it’s like . . . I don’t know. She melts into this other woman. I’m almost afraid of finding out the truth, but I can’t stop. I need to know who she is. Maybe then I’ll know who I am.”
He nodded and came closer. Leaning down, he kissed her cheek. “Safe travels, Mere. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
It was one of those rare crystal-blue days in downtown Seattle when Mount Rainier dominated the city skyline. The waterfront was empty this early in the season; soon, though, the souvenir shops and seafood restaurants along this street would be wall-to-wall tourists. But now the city belonged to locals.
Meredith stared up at the giant cruise ship docked at Pier 66. Dozens of passengers milled around the terminal and lined up for departure.
“You guys ready?” Nina asked, flinging her backpack over one shoulder.
“I don’t know how you can travel so light,” Meredith said, lugging her suitcase behind her as they made their way to the bellmen waiting by the exit doors. They handed off their luggage and headed for the gangplank. As they reached it, Mom stopped suddenly.
Meredith almost ran into her. “Mom? Are you okay?”
Mom tightened the black, high-collared wool coat around her and stared up at the ship.
“Mom?” Meredith said again.
Nina touched Mom’s shoulder. “You crossed the Atlantic by boat, didn’t you?” she said gently.
“With your father,” Mom said. “I don’t remember much of it except this. Boarding. Leaving.”
“You were sick,” Meredith said.
Mom looked surprised. “Yes.”
“Why?” Nina asked. “What was wrong with you?”
“Not now, Nina.” Mom repositioned her purse strap over her shoulder. “Well. Let us go find our rooms.”
At the top of the gangplank, a uniformed man looked at their documents and led them to their side-by-side cabins. “You have places at the early seating for dinner. Here’s your table number. Your luggage will be brought to the cabin. We’re serving cocktails on the bow as we pull out of port.”
“Cocktails?” Nina said. “We’re in. Let’s go, ladies.”
“I will meet you there,” Mom said. “I need a moment to get organized.”
“Okay,” Nina said, “but don’t wait too long. We need to celebrate.”
Meredith followed Nina through the glittering burgundy and blue interior to the jutting rounded bow of the ship. There were hundreds of people on deck, gathered around the swimming pool and along the railing. Black-and-white-uniformed waiters carried bright, umbrella-clad drinks on sparkling silver trays. Over in an area by a food stand, a mariachi band was playing.
Meredith leaned against the railing and sipped her drink. “Are you ever going to tell me about him?”
“He was totally hot, by the way, and he flew all the way out to see you. Why didn’t he stick around?”
Behind them, the ship’s horn honked. People all around them clapped and cheered as the giant ship pulled away from the dock. Mom was nowhere to be seen. Big surprise.