I wasn't due for another month when my water broke. Neal and I lay there naked and shocked in a puddle of amniotic fluid. We were an hour from the hospital, at Neal's house in Beach Haven. The bedroom was warm but my teeth chattered.
"Oh, God," I said. "I ruined the mattress."
A contraction doubled me over.
"Stay calm. This won't be a problem," I heard Neal say, his voice tinny and distant.
Once the contraction passed, I did feel calm, almost buoyant. My baby was coming. Neal was right, there didn't have to be problems. He brought me a towel for my sticky thighs and checked the mattress. The scalp beneath his thinning gray hair was tanner than the rest of his compact, ropey body.
"Just the sheets," he said. "Easy fix."
We crammed the sheets in the trunk and raced up the Parkway. Wind gusted around the car. I panted through each contraction--taut belly tauter, fists clenched, white spots dancing in my periphery. Labor with the first baby was supposed to take hours. Neal would help me check in before he left and I called my family. No one would know.
By the time we reached the hospital exit ramp, my contractions were thirty seconds apart.
"Give me your phone," I gasped when I discovered mine was dead.
"That's not a good idea--"
"Just do it!"
My hands were shaking. Neal dialed and held the phone for me while he steered. He was good in a crisis. My mother listened silently, then asked who was driving me. A client, I said.
Of course she was waiting at the emergency room entrance. She must have driven like a maniac to beat us. I almost smiled picturing her hunched at the wheel, cyclists and squirrels scattering as she bore down.
Another contraction hit.
"I couldn't track down Daddy," she said as she opened my door. The wind lifted her headscarf, revealing a bit of downy scalp. Her hair had fallen out again, from the last round of chemo. "George is on his way."
George. My husband.
Neal jumped out to help. "Margaret, right? I'm Neal Larch. Jeannie and I ran into each other at a Viewcrest open house--"She didn't even glance at him. She just gave me that focused stare she used on my father whenever she caught him in a lie."Get rid of him, Jeannie," she said.
My mother became a fixture at our house as soon as I brought Kyle home from the hospital. So I could ease back into work, she said, playing on my competitive nature. It was the height of the real estate craze, when I sometimes sold houses within hours. On good days she vacuumed, cooked, and watched Kyle while I made calls or showed a house. Her cheeks took on an almost-healthy sheen. Other times she was too tired to help much. The chemo was still in her system. On her bad days, her hands trembled putting the teapot on to boil; sometimes she got forgetful, disoriented, a side effect of the full brain radiation she'd had the previous year. Those days, my father took off work--unheard of--and came over too. It was strange seeing him take care of her. Once, he caught her heading shoeless down the icy front path. Through the bay window I watched him grab her arm, look hard at her. He is tall like me and usually trim, but he had developed a gut, as if his body were absorbing the pounds melting off my mother. Even her bulky sweater couldn't hide how she had become all hollows. "Don't touch me," I heard her say, but he held her until she stopped struggling and let him lead her inside. Maybe she was just getting the mail. Maybe she didn't recognize him. I didn't ask.
No matter how she felt, she tracked me around the house like a drug hound intent on a million dollar stash. She didn't trust me, which I deserved. It drove me crazy anyway. If I used the bathroom, she knocked after a few minutes--"Everything okay in there?"--as if making sure I hadn't crawled out the window. If I grabbed the ringing phone before she did, she stood there listening while I talked.
She reached the phone first the day Neal's wife Abigail called.
George and I were bathing Kyle in the kitchen sink. George shaped Kyle's thick hair into a soapy Mohawk while I clutched his slick little body. Baths made me nervous. Kyle could slip underwater so easily. He was heavy for six weeks old, and wiggly. I barely looked up when my mother walked in with the phone.
"For you, George," she said. "Abigail Larch."
I almost dropped Kyle.
"Hon, you okay?" George's hands were immediately there, helping me hold the baby. He's a big man, bigger than my dad even, with a broad, homey face that hid nothing. "Let's finish up. I'll call back. It's probably just something about the house."
I'd sold Neal and Abigail their Beach Haven house the previous year, just after my mother's diagnosis. It was the first house George and I built as solo contractors. Problems could arise, even after a year.
"You look pale." My mother raised the phone as if to talk to Abigail.
"I'm fine," I said. "Take the call, George."
After he left, my mother looked at me. "She sounded nice."
"There's nothing going on anymore." There wasn't. I had stopped returning Neal's calls. I was the nucleus of a brand new family. I was somebody's mother.
Her mouth stayed tense, but she watched quietly while I trickled water over Kyle's stomach, as tightly round as a tennis ball. He crooned and batted his arms. Yearning shot through me, so strong it felt like pain. I hadn't expected to love my son with such a consuming need. Carefully I lifted him from the sink and swaddled him in a towel. My mother let herself smile. I kissed Kyle's nose.
"Let's find your daddy," I said.
My mother followed me to the office, where George sat on the couch, staring at his clasped hands. Usually he's in constant motion; even when he's on the phone he paces. I caught something fleeting in his expression--knowledge? anger?--but as soon as he noticed us he gave his usual optimistic grin.
"There's my guy." He held out his arms.
I handed him Kyle and sat behind the desk. My mother stayed in the doorway.
"What did Abigail want?" I asked.
George touched the baby's cheek. "The Bradfords bought that house across from the Beach Haven place. Abigail wants to recommend us for the remodel, if we're interested. Which we are, right?"
I stared at him. "Kyle's not even two months old."
He stood and walked to the desk, opposite me. With the baby on his hip, he searched for some blank paper. A few swift, confident strokes and he'd sketched an oversized cottage with a generous deck: the house across from Neal's but with a facelift. He glanced at me. "I'll write up the bid, deal with the subcontractors, the materials, everything you usually do. You can jump in later. A chance like this falls in our laps, we can't just pass it up."
"We can if I'm not ready."
He kept sketching like he hadn't heard me. Like he knew I'd say yes if he waited me out.
I grabbed his hand. "Listen to me. I don't want this job."
"Jeannie." My mother's flushed cheeks looked garish in her otherwise pallid face. "You should decide something this important together."She was so emphatic, as if she and my father lived by that philosophy.
Kyle wouldn't go to sleep that night. George and I finally put him in his car seat and drove south on the empty Parkway. Usually, we headed home once the car's motion lulled him asleep. This time George kept driving, braking only for the Beach Haven exit. I didn't protest. I wanted to see the house.
Kyle stayed asleep even after we stopped. Neal's house looked majestic and abandoned. If I squinted I could imagine the way it was at the start, how its framing had stood as stark as bleached bones against the dunes. I had chosen the whitewashed maple floors, the fluted wall sconces and swooping faucets; I had been the first to pace the empty, echoing rooms and envision them filled with furniture.My breath made white puffs in the dark as I eased open the car door and sat on the hood. In the house, a dim light shone from an upper window. Abigail kept a lamp on a timer to ward off burglars. She was overcautious, which drove Neal crazy. "You don't sweat every little thing like she does," he said once. "You know how to take risks." Abigail is small and pear-shaped and ten years older than I am. Her long straight hair is dyed black, which highlights every wrinkle she's earned being married to Neal. He'd had a vasectomy after a previous mistress's abortion. He told Abigail it was to avoid putting her through another miscarriage.
My hair is red and wiry, clipped short to minimize frizz, and I'm tall, with sturdy limbs and a muscular trunk. I still ran ten miles a day, the way I had since high school. "A woman should be strong like you," Neal said sometimes as he undressed me hurriedly, tracing my biceps and abs. We're the same height, matched crown to toe when prone.
Behind me the driver door clicked. The car rocked slightly as George slid onto the hood and drew me close, nestling my head beneath his jaw. His body emanated a steady heat. One foot tapped a slow, unconscious rhythm. He gazed at the ramshackle house across from Neal's.
"We could build a wraparound porch like the Larches'," he said, his hands drawing patterns in the black sky, "but curve the corners for some visual interest. Your mom could help redesign the kitchen, to keep her mind off things." His voice dropped. "It's the push we need."His dream was for us to form a mom and pop that built custom vacation homes like Neal's. Mostly we both worked for my dad, who's the biggest developer in South Jersey. George oversaw my father's McMansion enclaves; I was his top sales agent. Before, I had liked the idea of our own company, the personal risk a more immediate rush than outselling my dad's other agents. But now, leaving Kyle for more than a few hours seemed unimaginable. If George got this job, he would do it without me. I imagined him striding around the skeletal remains of the Bradfords' house, Abigail and Neal waving from their deck. Neal would swirl his drink as he watched my husband. Abigail would watch Neal and picture me nursing Kyle with Oprah blaring. I won, she would think. Game over.
George's arms tensed around me. "Hey, you're crying."
"I have a bad feeling about all this," I said.
He caught my chin, wiped my tears with his calloused palm, its familiar roughness. He looked at me for so long that I thought, He knows."She's hanging in there, hon," he finally said. "Your mom's a fighter."
Abigail and Neal would stroll to the job site, Abigail smiling as the men shook hands. George wouldn't question why she winced when Neal asked how Kyle and I were doing. He wouldn't dare acknowledge a flaw in his vision of the world. He was like my mother in that way."It's time to feed Kyle." I slipped away from him and off the hood, even though the baby wasn't due to eat for hours.
Growing up I spent summers in Beach Haven. It's just over the Long Beach Island causeway, flanked by Manahawkin Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and close enough to our home in Cherry Hill for my father to commute. We only stayed a week when I was little, in tiny, damp rentals that my mother spent hours scouring to get rid of the mildew smell. In my memory she is always young, still plump and energetic, her freckled nose slathered with zinc oxide, her red hair coppery from the sun and salt. Memories of my father are less clear. He rarely rode waves with me the way she did. He preferred chatting up people on the beach. You never knew who was looking to buy. I remember him coming in late once, supposedly after drinks with clients, and joining us under the covers to watch TV. My mother wouldn't look at him. "It's vacation," she said. He took her hand and kissed each knuckle until she smiled.
As I got older, my mother and I stayed all summer and my father visited on weekends. We rented bigger, nicer houses, always bayside so my father could watch the sunset from the dock. My mother and I would have preferred beachside. We liked to walk along the shore in the morning, searching for tiny air holes massed at the tide line. That's where we dug for baby clams, barely as big as my pinky nail, with tender, pastel shells. We scooped up sandy handfuls and giggled as the baby clams burrowed into our palms, tickling us with their insistent tongues. They thought they were still on the beach, my mother explained. "What do they know?" she said once, the summer before I left for college. "They're like men, all muscle and impulse."
The morning after our midnight drive, George put together a bid on the Bradford renovation. I told him to. Immediately he starting calling subcontractors. "You'll see," he said, punching numbers into the phone, "we're on our way." Later that day I called Neal. If George was going to be blind, I was going to give him something not to see.
A week later I was back at Neal's beach house. Abigail didn't like coming down off-season, which made it the perfect winter meeting place. The mattress in the master bedroom was the same, the sheets different. I could hear Kyle sucking his fist in his stroller.
"God, you feel good," Neal moaned. His tongue flicked my nipple. What did I taste like, I couldn't help wonder, and thought of the watery milk that pooled in my nursing bra whenever Kyle even sighed. I tried to focus on Neal's weight and heat against me.
I grabbed his hips. "Tell me you missed me."
He groaned. Kyle whimpered across the room. Milk clotted my breasts, like pebbles under cloth. Neal didn't seem to notice. He grimaced, almost a smile.
"Missed you," he murmured and thrust inside me until he came.
Kyle's mewling rose. Neal collapsed against me.
"The baby," I said.
Obediently, he rolled away.
Being with Neal wasn't about love. I love my husband. We were middle school sweethearts and had been married ten years. But George acted like I was inches away from the opinionated eighth grader who beat him by a hair in the fifty yard dash; like he could predict my every move based on that girl. Neal wanted to know me solely in the present. There was a freedom in that. No future to agonize over; no life or death contemplations.
My mother had just started full brain radiation when Neal and I met during a closing. His legal practice is mostly commercial properties, but he does occasional residentials. Afterward, he told me he admired my cordial yet aggressive style, which was much like his own. "Actually, I'm on the market," he'd said, pausing and stepping in too close. "For a vacation place." He was more my father's age than mine. A cliché of a man. A smokescreen.
In his stroller Kyle looked up at me, his mouth open, needful. Neal checked his messages while I settled cross-legged and naked on the rug to feed Kyle. He grunted softly while he ate. A worshipful pang hit me. It happened whenever I nursed him and it still startled me.Neal snapped shut his cell phone. He straddled me, his dick nestled against my ass, and rested his chin on my shoulder. "He's got your eyes," he said. "That gorgeous, hazy green." We watched my baby suckle. Then he said, "She wants me home soon. Jack and Marney are coming for dinner."
Jack and Marney Bradford were Neal and Abigail's best friends, the ones who'd bought the beach house across the street. "Any lower bids?" I shifted Kyle to my other breast.
"I doubt it. George really lowballed. He must want this."
My husband's determination seemed to annoy him. He kissed my neck before standing to dress. Without him, my back felt cold. Kyle had fallen asleep, a milk bubble on his lips. Once Neal's tie was knotted, he draped a blanket over my shoulders. He looked imposing in his thousand dollar suit, powerful in a way he didn't look naked. The opposite of George, who is the same--strong, literal, protective--naked or clothed. "You'll just get hurt," he said when we were twenty and I found some woman's number in my father's briefcase. I wanted to confront my dad, throw the number in my mother's face. "You can't fix this for them," George said. I listened and did nothing, even though I couldn't help think he was wrong.
Neal pressed a key into my hand. "Stay as long as you want."
His footsteps receded down the stairs. I stared out at the beach, deserted and bleak in the weak winter light, and clutched my sleeping son.
A month after I started seeing Neal again, I came home to find both my parents in the kitchen. One of her bad days. She was smoking at the table. My dad was making himself a sandwich.
"Nobody answered, so we let ourselves in," he said. He took the car seat and gently chucked the baby under the chin. "Look at that grown-up face." At nearly three months old, Kyle had the thick eyebrows and shapely nose of a much older child."You're going to wake him," my mother said.
"He's fine." I kissed my father. There were several butts in my mother's ashtray. I took her cigarette and stubbed it out. "The doctor know you're smoking again?"
"The doctor," she said and relit the snuffed cigarette, "couldn't tell his ass from his elbow if I pointed them out on an X-ray." Her skin looked pasty beneath her freckles but her hands were steady. She took a drag before she put the cigarette out again. She never smoked around Kyle.
"With that attitude it'll be a wonder if the tests come back clean," my father said.
"I don't need a lecture, Dominic, I need a cigarette."
She fiddled with the ashtray. He put down the car seat and retrieved his sandwich. We avoided looking at each other. My mother had developed an edge that mystified my father. This wasn't the woman he knew, this sharp-tongued person who rarely let a mistake pass unnoticed.
"Where've you been?" she asked.
I started cleaning up the sandwich stuff. "Down the shore, checking out some properties."
"That's my girl," he said. "Getting back into it. We miss you at the office, sweetie."
"You could have left him with us." She took off Kyle's cap and fluffed his hair. "He's out in the cold too much."
Through the kitchen window, I saw George pull up in his truck. He got out and jogged to the house.
"You're home early," I said when he walked in.
"Wasn't there an emergency with the Glendon cabinets?" my father asked.
"It's been handled, Dom," George said. "Big news, Jeannie. The Bradfords accepted the bid." He hugged me.
"Hon, wow." I didn't hug him back.
He stepped away. "Congratulations to you too. What's wrong? Open house didn't go well?" He opened the pantry, shuffled through its contents. His back was a long, rigid line.
"What open house?" my mother asked.
"Canceled," I said. "The idiot office boy forgot to post the listing."
The pantry doors slammed. George was looking at me.
"Second time this month," he said. "You should fire that guy."
"Really?" My mother crossed her arms.
"Yup," I said and stared her down. I barely noticed George still watching me.
Mornings I ran. I dressed in layers, my thinnest, rattiest t-shirt over an even rattier jog bra, shorts in warm weather, tights and a fleece in frigid. Then out into the streets, the day too far from dawn for any brightness on the horizon, my running shoes slapping the pavement, everything else silent and still. Before Kyle, this had been my time to focus on my pumping arms and legs as the seconds clicked forward, heedless of thought. Ten miles in sixty minutes, slower than college but respectable.
After Kyle, I couldn't find my stride. Sixty minutes stretched to sixty-five, then seventy. Thump thump crash thump thump crash was what I heard in my head, not the steady pulse of my heart driving my lungs, pushing me toward my mark.
When he was four months old, my mother started using a walker. She kept falling without it. The brain tumors were growing. The doctors recommended a third round of chemo. Lucky patients lasted through five rounds, according to my internet research. Her doctors were noncommittal. There had been the two brain tumors the previous year, then a tumor in her rib and one in her bladder. The doctors couldn't identify the primary, which meant they couldn't predict whether, or where, another would emerge.
She had just begun round three when I started meeting Neal at a nearby café instead of running my full ten miles. Usually we drank coffee in his car. Occasionally I convinced him to go inside. We had never met in public before. That early the café was empty, but he still jumped whenever the coffeemakers beeped. It made me laugh. "The balls on you," he'd say and squeeze my knee under the table. I was feeling daring. Let someone see us. Worse things could happen.
Afterward he always dropped me off several blocks from home. I was barely sweating when I walked in, but George was too preoccupied to notice. Since he'd gotten the Bradford renovation the previous month, he'd been obsessed with their plans. When he wasn't working on my father's projects, he was making calls for the Bradfords, or poring over blueprints, sketching ideas, revisions, scribbling them out, starting over again.
He walked up behind me one morning when I was putting on my t-shirt. He kissed my neck, massaged my breasts in slow circles. His touch felt good, familiar. We hadn't made love since he'd put in the Bradford bid. Since I'd called Neal.
"Kyle will be up soon. I'll miss my run." I tried to pull away, but he held me tighter.
"We never see each other." He pressed against me.
"Cut it out!" I elbowed him. He grunted, let go. "You're the one working all the time," I said and put on my fleece.
"And you're the one who doesn't seem to give a damn!"
I stared at him. He took a breath.
"We need some time together," he said. "Kyle needs us to be happy."
"Who says we're not happy?" I said and kissed him goodbye.
I looked over my shoulder as I jogged down the driveway. He was watching from the bedroom window.
Halfway under a footbridge I stumbled on a tree root and slammed face-down in the dirt. Burning palms, aching ribs, my mother's brittle optimism: Nothing was wrong, Daddy hated missing my track meet (my tennis match, my birthday party), but work was so busy. "Stop pretending," I yelled after my second All State ceremony, "you know he's out with someone." Her stunned look, the quickly pinned-on smile. "No, Jeannie, his intentions are good," she said with such conviction.
I should have been angrier with him. But she was my mother. She was supposed to show me how to be in the world. I could never be like her. I would be anything other than her.
Who says we're not happy?
I stood and raced along the path and didn't slow down for a mile. Finally I doubled over, gasping. As the horizon paled, I hunched against my knees and coughed bile onto the frozen earth.
It was still cold out a month later when my mother had an MRI, but spring had sent out feelers: scattered buds on trees, ashen lawns shot through with green.
The brain tumors seemed to have shrunk, and there were no new growths. The doctors were cautiously optimistic. But no one was talking cure. Still, my father and I acted certain that she'd be with us the following year, bossing us around and wiping Kyle's nose with her headscarf.
To celebrate, my father and I took her to lunch at her favorite restaurant, which she claimed had the best blackout cake in the tristate area. Kyle was in his stroller at the head of our booth. My mother's walker was pushed discreetly out of eyeshot. It was late afternoon. The restaurant was almost empty.
My father took her hand after the waiter cleared our plates. "You're kicking it, Maggie."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," she said, but she kissed my father and toasted me and Kyle, who spit out his pacifier and squawked.The waiter returned with her cake.
"I'm sorry, I don't eat dessert," she said.
The waiter looked uncertain. "It's the blackout cake, Mrs. Delgatto. Your usual."
She paused. "Of course. I love the blackout cake."
My father scowled. I pretended to search for Kyle's pacifier. My mother made a show of tasting the cake. After the waiter left, my father turned to me.
"So, Jeannie," he said, "the Terryloo estate upped its asking price."
I kissed Kyle's head, which smelled faintly musky. I was still afraid to bathe him much.
"You promised no business over lunch," my mother said.
"It's dessert. I want to catch her up. She's back fulltime soon. Although you should take all the time you need, sweetie. You know that."He sounded sincere, but I heard a challenge, too: Get back in the game.
"Right," I said. "Dad, there's no way we should pay more for that property--"
We were off. Kyle started fussing. I picked him up and bounced him gently and kept talking. My voice quickened in response to my father's brisk growl. Occasionally his eyes settled on a young waitress here, a pretty hostess there. My mother picked at her cake and tracked his gaze.
She put down her fork.
"I'll be back," she said. The walker rattled as she crossed the room.
My father watched her. "Make sure she's not--" he mimed puffing a cigarette.
"It's just going to piss her off."
In the women's lounge, my mother smoked on the sofa with the walker pulled close. I sat to nurse Kyle. She sighed and ground out her cigarette.
"Daddy sent you," she said. "Now he worries about me, when it's too late."
"He doesn't want you taking unnecessary risks."
She snorted. "He should talk. The way he was scouting out that restaurant. He could at least restrain himself while he's at lunch with his dying wife of thirty-four years."
"You're not dying. And if it bothers you so much, say something. For once."
"You really think it's that easy."
We avoided each other's eyes. I heard her tap out another cigarette.
"You need to give him up, Jeannie," she said. "He's got a wife. Think about her."
I think about her all the time, I wanted to say, how she has chosen blindness over knowledge, the easiest path, the least resistance. I think about her and I tell myself that no one will ever do to me what I have done to her because I have acted first, preemptively. I think about her and I feel powerful and sensual and conquering and jubilant. But mostly when I think of her, I feel a deep, numbing sadness because she reminds me of you.
I studied my child. At five months old, he looked more like George than ever: jet black hair, pale skin webbed by bluish veins. His nose was his father's, and his full bow lips. Only his heavy-lidded eyes and saucer ears were mine. He stopped sucking and looked at me with infinite patience, as if to say, I'm what matters now. And he did matter most, I knew without hesitation. This was how my mother used to love me, with unwavering devotion.
I straightened my shirt, patted Kyle. "Dad's waiting."
My mother stood unsteadily and guided her walker through the lounge into the bathroom. I heard the sound of running water, a shuddered sigh.
"You should know better," she said in a quiet voice that carried. "You of all people."
I was fifteen the first time I followed my father. It was preseason, the weekend before Memorial Day, the start of our summer in Beach Haven. He and I drove down to get the keys from the realtor. My mother stayed home to grocery shop, supposedly because our markets were better, but really to give my father and me "some bonding time," she whispered when she hugged me goodbye.That year's rental was a newish split level near the mouth of a canal leading into the bay. The kitchen cabinets were a then-stylish lime green. A glass wall overlooked the water. There was a weathered dock and a pool with a smooth concrete deck. A castle compared to our previous rentals.
My father was restless once we arrived. He kept bouncing on the balls of his feet while we watched the sunset bleed across the bay. As soon as it was dark, he grabbed the car keys. There was something about the way he said, "I think I'll go for a drink," that made me wonder. He didn't sound guilty, exactly. It was more an eagerness in his voice that I wasn't used to.
I gave him a few minutes head start before setting out. Just a quick run, I told myself. I had to keep in shape if I wanted to make the All State track team a second time.
There was a crab shack a few miles north on the main strip. Not much else was open yet. His car was parked in front. I could have turned around and jogged home, none of my suspicions relieved but none confirmed either.
I wiped my face and climbed the fence into the dunes.
Several yards down I found a spot with a view of the crab shack porch. Some couples sat by the rail. I lay belly-down in the sand. The breeze chilled my sweat to a salty paste. A woman emerged, a plump, bottle blonde with low breasts and an upturned, piggy nose. She didn't look much younger than my mother; she could have been the same age. My father followed with two wine glasses. I closed my eyes. Count to ten and Daddy will be sitting at one table, the bottle blonde at another, separately gazing at the ocean. I wanted to keep my eyes shut forever. She wasn't even pretty. They stayed an hour or so, an eternity, the whole time touching--fingertips, elbows, knees.After they left, I watched another couple take their spot, then another, until there was only a waiter wiping tables. I should have felt something, I remember thinking, hatred or anger or hurt, but then I would have stopped loving him. The cool grit of sand against my shins, the wind hissing through the dunes. The crashing tide. I lay there until my teeth were chattering and a bright rim had formed along the ocean. At the house I fell asleep in a deck chair. When my father nudged me awake to help my mother bring in groceries, I pretended everything was fine.
"How dare you," she said when I told her, after he left for the week. "You had no right to follow him."
We were eating dinner in the kitchen. The lime green cabinets were so bright they made my head throb. She washed the dishes by hand despite the brand new dishwasher and ignored me the rest of the night. I felt like something was splintering inside me. She was supposed to hug me and make me feel better. She was supposed to stop him.
The last tumors were in her liver. Kyle was ten months old. He had just started walking. She insisted on staying home to spend time with him. "He's going to be tall like his daddy," she said once as she watched him careen around his playpen. Her speech was slow by then, and slurred. There was a morphine drip in her arm. I was curled next to her in the hospital bed that we had moved into her den. Her bald head was bare, her skin dry and papery.
"Slow down," she said.
She died soon after. Neal called with condolences. We hadn't talked in ages. I miss you, we told each other, but our hearts weren't in it. I stopped running. I stopped sleeping. I cleaned instead. Closets, cabinets, the basement, the garage. One day I was sorting toys in the nursery, where George was reading to Kyle. When I put a giant stuffed chick shedding feathers in the "discard" pile, George looked up.
"Your mom gave him that," he said.
"It makes a mess. He won't even notice it's gone."
"You count on that. People not noticing."
"I'm sorry. You know I am." I tensed for him to say something else: That's not enough or How could you? Things he said sometimes late at night, when his resolve to keep loving me was weakest.
"Not in front of Kyle," he said, then started reading again. They looked so snug together in the oversize corduroy chair, one of my mother's many gifts. It's a bright, lemony yellow, surprisingly resistant to stains. An enduring, determined color. I understand, I should have told her. You were right to tell.
The Saturday after my mother's celebration lunch, George and I bundled Kyle into his car seat and drove down to the Bradfords' house. Construction was supposed to start within the month, and George wanted to walk me through the plans. As we parked, I glanced across the street. Neal's driveway was empty, the blinds drawn.
We walked around back to the beach. George carried Kyle, who kept touching his daddy's nose and smiling. Behind us, the waves crashed.
"Just think, when this place is done, Kyle will be racing around." George put his arm around me. I stiffened. "Christ, Jeannie, you've been acting like I've got the plague--"
I touched his lips with my chilled fingers. "Don't."
He started to answer but instead looked beyond me to the beach. Motion flickered in my periphery. A woman jogged toward us along the shoreline, her pace jerky yet brisk. Her long black hair was tied in a flowing ponytail. She approached purposefully, as if she expected us to be there. It was jarring to see her in person again.
I pressed my face against George's jacket, then forced myself to look up. Abigail had reached the path leading past us to the street. Her hands were on her hips and she was breathing low and deep, resting. Please go home, I prayed, although I knew she wouldn't. By the time she reached us, her breath was even.
"Jack and Marney mentioned you'd be down this weekend," she said, adding, "I'm Abigail Larch," as if we wouldn't recognize her. "Of course," George said. "I can't thank you enough, Abigail. This is a great opportunity."
"Don't make me regret it. Remember, I'm just over there." When she turned to me, I wanted to bury myself in the sand. She glanced at Kyle.
"He's darling. You're Jeannie, right? It's been a long time. Neal said he sees you sometimes at closings."
I mumbled something affirmative and fought the urge to blurt out everything. George would be devastated; Abigail's face would be imprinted with pain, and relief: Finally, the truth in the open. Or maybe not relief. My mother's face, the lines etched beside her mouth, the knowledge aging her, planting itself so deep that the core remained hidden, spawning malignant offshoots that even she couldn't deny. You had no right. None.
Abigail extended her hand to George.
"I should get back to Cherry Hill," she said as they shook. "Neal's waiting."
As she walked away, she pulled at her ponytail and let her hair sway in a shiny column down her back, like the waving of a flag signaling anything but surrender.
She stopped, turned. "By the way," she said to me, "tell your mother I say hello."
"She called last week as part of a cancer fundraiser. We got to talking."
I knew my mother had betrayed me. My throat felt tight with anger and shame. But there was something else, a flickering pride. Finally, she had acted.
"She said you're a good runner." Abigail lunged to stretch her legs. "How about a race to the jetty?"
"I've never been more serious."
She was slim, but beneath her sweats her quads and gluts were soft. I could beat her to the jetty and barely break a sweat, I knew it with the certainty that I knew my mother was determined to make my marriage into something besides an inverse of her own. Adrenaline surged through me. I wanted to win.
I was about to take off my shoes when I noticed George studying me. And I knew my mother had told him, too. Maybe he'd known all along. It occurred to me: He could leave. Which had never been what I wanted.
He kissed Kyle's forehead, held him close. There was something in that gesture, a resolve that gave me hope. He believed in our family. Whatever his doubts he would try to stay because he believed I could redeem myself. He was the risk-taker, I was the coward. I could only stand to risk everything because I assumed I would be forgiven.
"Go ahead," he said. "Run."
I love you, I wanted to say. But Abigail had already taken off down the beach. I kicked off my shoes and raced after her.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun