Is it possible for nine months and three days of your life to haunt you forever? Can memories become like restless spirits—their long, thin fingers always reaching, and tugging, and grabbing? Their fingernails, in my case, would be some variation of floral pink and nicely manicured. Perfectly matched to a shade of lipstick and possibly a purse or some other accessory. Undoubtedly, this is not the norm for personal demons, but try telling them that. They won’t listen, I promise.
There is no escape from those graceful Moses Lake ladies, with their embroidery-adorned pantsuits and their languid Southern drawls. When they whispered in my mind, their sentences rose and fell and rose again, filled with long vowels, padded and powdered with cheerfulness they couldn’t possibly be feeling all the time. They became the stuff of my darkest recurrent nightmares—the kind that reprised the most awkward teenage years and found me wandering the halls of Moses Lake High School with no idea where I was supposed to go, suddenly aware that I’d arrived in my Pooh Bear pajamas. Or even worse, I’d forgotten the pajamas altogether. Yet, somehow, I was just then noticing. . . .
Even from thousands of miles away, after the passage of season after season, the high school dream lingered, along with the feeling that somewhere in the tiny town of Moses Lake, Texas, the ladies were still talking about me. Such an odd little thing, they were saying, a purposeful twang morphing the last word into tha-ang. All that eyeliner and that tacky, tacky purple lip gloss. Why, those black T-shirts didn’t help her figure one little bit, I’m tellin’ ye-ew. But how much can you expect, considerin’ what happened?
I wondered if their conversations turned darker, then---if the women whispered behind their hands about things I was never allowed to know. Did they debate theories or did they discuss facts as they sat at Lakeshore Community Church, making greeting cards or knitting scarves for orphans or boxing cans for the food pantry? Did they know what happened?
In my dreams, sometimes I was running toward a door. I heard the ladies on the other side, whispering amongst themselves. I recognized the door---large, white, with intricate molding. A double door. It was made to open inward, to allow the crowds to funnel through.
Then the door grew smaller, and it was a cellar door. It was plain and brown. There was a spider on a web in the corner. I reached for the handle.
I’d awaken in a sweat at that point, still hearing the echoes of the ladies chattering in the dusty corners of my mind.
Their voices found ways to carry into the daylight, sometimes. Occasionally, I heard them talking to me, those Moses Lake ladies. Suga’, now, sit up straight, they’d admonish as I hunched over the table in some meeting, bleary-eyed while watching a computer render a building in 3-D from an electronic blueprint I’d been tweaking all night. Oh, Heather, hon, put that foot down. A lady never crosses her legs at the knee. Darlin’, don’t swing your toe like that. Some boy might think you’re a hussy. Mercy! Didn’t your mama teach you any-thang?
How, I wondered, is it possible for such a small part of your childhood to linger so persistently? Do we choose the ghosts that haunt us, or do they choose us? And if we choose them, shouldn’t we be able to banish them?
The questions were scrolling through my head again as I sat in a meeting room, watching Mel generate a virtual walkthrough of a big-box retail store. He was explaining how customer traffic would flow, how the layout allowed for excellent point-of-sale potential. He laughed and said, “It’s about capturing those impulse buys.”
Leaning across the table, he inclined his head toward the Japanese contingent on the client side, as if he were sharing valuable trade secrets with them. “Of course, we all know that sixty-six percent of buying decisions are made in the store, and of those, fifty-three percent are pure impulse buys. Our research shows that with this layout, your percentages could increase to . . .” He paused, looked down at his notes, tapped the tabletop with his pencil.
I was only vaguely aware of the glitch in his presentation. I’d had the Moses Lake dream again last night. The past was floating in front of me like a cellophane overlay, scenes dripping and blending with the reflections from the conference room windows. It was raining outside again, typical for Seattle. Not the best weather for a critical presentation that could mean millions.
I’d dreamed all the way to putting my hand on the cellar doorknob last night. I’d curled up on a yoga mat behind my desk to catch a couple hours’ sleep before the office came to life, and suddenly there were the doors. The white ones, then the brown one.
It had been a while since I’d seen the door. Maybe a year or more since I’d awakened with a start and moved through the day wondering what really happened at the bottom of those cellar steps.
“Heather, did you pull together the rest of that research?” Mel glanced my way expectantly, as if he hadn’t already been given the numbers. My boss was slipping. Seven years ago, when I’d started at CTI, Mel was a lion.
“Sure. Of course.” I flipped through the paperwork to save face for Mel. In reality, the numbers and I were on intimate terms. “The consumer research indicates a potential seventeen percent increase in impulse purchases, as compared with your existing stores. Considering that we’re discussing stores that are already running at a brisk average of three hundred and fifty dollars in gross sales per square foot, that increase would be . . .” Mel caught my eye and gave me a look that warned me not to start running calculations in my head and spouting figures. This was his meeting. Letting the papers settle back into place, I finished with, “Significant, of course.”
Mel took over again, but two of the principals were clearly more interested in hard facts than Mel’s sales talk about Environments that perform and brand iconography. Mel was pushing hard, borderline desperate, but after seven years of paddling in the man’s wake, I understood his nuances. It was hard to know how to feel, sitting there watching him struggle to revive the old magic. On the one hand, he had plucked me off the bottom rung of the ladder. On the other hand, every time I tried to climb the ladder, Mel’s foot was squarely on my head. I wanted to move up, to eventually achieve what he had achieved---project leader, junior partner, partner. I’d never get there with Mel in the way.
My cell phone vibrated in my pocket. I slid it out and glanced while everyone was watching virtual customers move through checkout lanes. The customers started at a normal pace, then gradually sped up, buzzing by like bumblebees exiting a hive, having sacrificed nectar for shopping carts filled with fifty-three-plus-percent impulse buys. They were moving so fast, they never even knew what hit them.
The text message was from Richard. Problem. Call me ASAP.
The phone vibrated with an incoming call as I was tucking it away. Surely that wasn’t Richard. He knew how long these meetings could take. One advantage of dating a guy who was in the real estate business was that he understood. When clients come to town, the clients come first.
I took a peek at the screen. I didn’t recognize the number, but I knew the area code. 510. California. My mother, undoubtedly. Suddenly Richard’s text message made sense.
My foot vibrated under the table as the meeting worked toward a close. When it was over, I gathered my files and politely excused myself from the room. Somehow, Mel and I ended up on the elevator together anyway.
“They left quickly.” He leaned into the corner, his head falling against the wall as if he couldn’t hold it up one more second.
“It was a long meeting.” But we both knew what a quick exit usually meant. “They won’t find a more comprehensive proposal than ours, though.”
“Let’s hope.” His eyes slowly closed, like he was already trying to figure out how he’d survive if we didn’t get this Itega contract.
The doors opened. Watching him there, crumpled against the wall, I felt the need to say something more. I held the doors open with the button, so as not to be ferried to the executive suites along with Mel.
“It’s a good proposal,” I offered. “We’ve got a slick design. Perfect fundamentals.”
He didn’t react.
Like a puppy, I stood there pathetically waiting for a pat on the head, for some acknowledgement of the countless hours I’d put into the proposal, of the devotion I’d given to managing all aspects of the design package. Finally, there wasn’t much choice but to step through the door onto my floor. The one nicely above the designers in their Spartan cubicles and squarely below the posh executive level.
“What’s going on with that thing in Texas?” Mel’s question followed me.
I turned and pushed the button to open the doors again. “What?”
“The thing in Texas. The processing plant . . . Proxica Foods. What’s happening with that?” Mel cracked an eye open. “Your project.” Was it my imagination, or did the emphasis on your come with an underlay of resentment—an insinuation that I was overstepping my bounds by insisting that, if I could bring this project in, I would be the project leader.
“Everything seems to be right on target. The principals at Proxica are happy with the design concept. The property deals are in the final stages. They’re looking at a state-of-the-art processing plant and eight corporately-owned production farms---six for poultry and two for grain crops.” The phone message from Richard crossed my mind, and an uncomfortable sensation settled underneath my favorite blue blazer. The biggest event in my career, and I was banking on something that involved my mother. . . .
Mel’s lips pursed, smacking slightly, as if he were tasting the potential of the deal. Maybe now that the Itega bid had soured a bit, Mel was looking to take over my Texas project. Would he really do that?
“Keep me apprised,” he said, rubbing his chest as I exited the elevator.
“Aye-aye, Cap’n.” The words were a thin attempt at lightness. The second the elevator doors closed, I raced toward my office, muttering to myself and thinking of the Texas deal and my mother.
A pair of interns, chatting as they ferried mailing tubes, stopped talking and sidled to the wall as I passed, clutching the tubes like Roman shields. I had the momentary pang of regret that comes from knowing someone finds you humorless and slightly frightening, but it quickly passed. Interns rotated through the firm constantly. If they were here to learn architecture and design in the real world, they might as well see how things really were. No point filling them with the warm fuzzies. It was a long, hard climb before you got to take on a project of your own. Those fresh-faced college kids were better off seeing the truth now and then deciding how badly they wanted it.
I dialed Richard’s number while rounding the corner into my office. “Hey, what’s up?” I asked, an odd little singsong in my voice. Maybe I just felt the need to be girly and cute, so as not to send him scurrying, like the interns. In the dating world, intimidation is not considered a desirable quality. Normal men tended to see me as slightly work-obsessed and hyperfocused. Or, as my friend and former roommate, Trish, liked to put it, married to my iPhone.
But Richard was as normal as they came. Normal and successful, and he liked me. He didn’t have a string of failed marriages behind him, and he was with a respectable law firm. An especially rare find among the over-thirty set, where pickings became slim.
He sighed, and I knew the news was not good. I loved him for hesitating a minute, as if he felt the need to break it to me gently. In general, Richard hated conflict, which was probably why he was in real estate law and not prosecuting murder cases. “Well, I know you said she was unpredictable, but . . .”
I didn’t even wait for him to drag through the rest of the sentence. “What happened? Did she sign the offer?” Poor Richard. I should never have brought him into this. My mother was probably lighting incense in his office, hanging crystals, or reciting dark, dramatic, obscure poetry by some writer only English professors had heard of.
“She’s not here. Not coming . . . Well, not today, anyway.”
“What?” My voice echoed into the corridor, and I closed the office door, keeping the conversation inside. No one knew about the Texas project except Mel, Richard, and the commercial broker who was quietly shopping for land he would then resell to Proxica for their new facilities. Proxica had insisted that their expansion plans be kept confidential. Strange things happen when communities find out that a company with deep pockets is sniffing around. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I wish I were.” Richard sounded frustrated, tired, and uncharacteristically irritable. He’d put in countless extra hours on this real estate deal and managed to get my family an offer of more than the property was worth. He’d sorted out the convoluted deeds for the land that had been in my father’s family since just after the Civil War. Once the property was in Proxica’s possession and the feasibility studies were finished, my part of the project came in---designing Proxica’s new flagship facility, where big pieces of raw meat would become little pieces of cooked meat, neatly sliced and packaged in deli bags for people like me, who don’t like to think about where meat actually comes from.
“Where is she?” Within reach,I wished. If my mother were within reach, I would . . . I would . . . What? What, exactly, would I do? Talking to my mother was like talking to one of those gauzy, diaphanous scarves the street vendors sell in India. Anything I said would go right through, my breath barely creating a ripple in the fabric.
“In Texas, apparently.” I could hear Richard typing on his computer as he replied.
“In Texas? Why?” My mother hated Texas—especially Moses Lake and the portion of the family farm that had passed into her hands after my father’s death. “Is Uncle Herbert all right? Uncle Charley?” A mental scenario materialized in which my dad’s uncles had driven to the family farm, fifteen miles outside Moses Lake, and were holed up with shotguns in hand. Even though they both now lived at Uncle Herbert’s place in town, they had grown up on the farm and were still sentimental about it.
“As far as I know, your uncles are fine. Your mother is down there with them, apparently. She said they are ‘talking about some things.’”
“What things?” Inside my brain, I heard the high-pitched whistling sound of a pressure cooker about to blow. No wonder Richard was irritated. He’d worked so hard to convince the broker to take not only the farm property, but to make a package bid for my uncles’ other properties, as well. Altogether, they owned four plots of land and two businesses. Uncle Herbert ran the Harmony Shores Funeral Home in town, and Uncle Charley was famous for the fried catfish at his floating restaurant, Catfish Charley’s.
Now that both of my great uncles were in their eighties, the family farmland and businesses had to go. That was all there was to it. Uncle Herbert and Uncle Charley had made plans to relocate to Oklahoma to be near Uncle Herbert’s son Donny and his progeny. Selling the property all at once would allow them to leave Moses Lake behind in one clean sweep.
Why had my mom suddenly decided to swirl her big toe in the pool, muddying the waters? She couldn’t possibly have gotten wind of Proxica’s plans to acquire the farm property, and quite frankly, I couldn’t imagine why she would care. She’d hated Moses Lake even before we lived there, and she never wanted to see it again after we left. If my father’s portion of the family farm hadn’t been squarely landlocked between Uncle Herbert’s portion and Uncle Charley’s, it would have been gone shortly after my dad’s passing sixteen years ago. Now the old dairy farm would be quietly recommissioned as a Proxica location, I would get my first design project, and the town of Moses Lake would see sorely needed new jobs. It was a win-win, if you didn’t count the fact that everything hinged on my mother’s cooperation.
“I’ll call and talk to her about it,” I said, and then apologized profusely to Richard, privately admiring his composure. He was accustomed to issues like this. I’d met him while testifying as an expert witness in a case. He was a lawyer for the opposition. My side won. He didn’t hold it against me, fortunately.
“I’ll take care of it. I’ll have her here tomorrow.” My words brought on that feeling you get on your first ski trip when you realize you’ve accidentally turned onto a double black diamond slope.
“The drop-dead date is eight days away. The broker offer expires February fifteenth.”
February fifteenth. February fifteenth . . .
The day after Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day was a week away, and Richard and I hadn’t even talked about it? That was odd, considering that Richard was a planner, and in Seattle, restaurant reservations on Valentine’s Day were a must. Maybe this little silence wasn’t purely accidental. Maybe Richard had something special in mind, a surprise.
Could there be a certain little trinket attached to the hush-hush Valentine’s Day . . . maybe something that comes in a little ring-sized box? We’d been dating six months. Having turned thirty-four last month, alone in my apartment with a cat that wasn’t even my own, I was feeling the nudge. Richard was six years older than me, ready to find someone and settle down. He’d said so sometime early in our relationship. It was one of the things I liked about him. Neither of us had time to play the games that went with dating.
I found myself staring out the window, idly picturing an upscale apartment, two kids. . . . Would they have dark hair like Richard’s, or auburn hair like mine? My caramel-brown eyes, or Richard’s gray ones? Short and stocky, like Richard’s family, or lanky like mine? Wavy hair like mine, or straight hair like Richard’s? They’d be good at math. Both Richard and I were good with numbers. . . .
I realized he was waiting for me to reply on the broker issue. “So the offer expires the day after Valentine’s Day, then, right?” Hint, hint.
He didn’t pick up on the nuance, unfortunately. “Yes. Right. February fifteenth.”
“Got it.” First things first. Right now both of us were focused on the property deal. Between all the confusion about easements, ancient surveys, and my mother’s failure to update the deed after my father’s death, we’d come way too close to letting the offer expire.
I took a deep breath, then exhaled. “Don’t worry.” Which, of course, is what people say when they are worried. “If I have to go down there and drag my mother back here myself, I’ll do it.” The words held the false bravado of a schoolyard bully who’s really afraid to fight. The last, last, last part of my life I ever planned to revisit was that terrible high-school year in Moses Lake. I’d shaken off the Texas dust sixteen years ago, and nothing short of the apocalypse would ever drag me back there again.
Truths are first clouds; then rain, then harvest and food.
—Henry Ward Beecher
(Left on the wall of wisdom by Andrea Henderson, new Moses Lake resident, and Mart McClendon, local game warden)
Famous last words—nothing like planning a last-minute trip to Texas to make you eat them. One should never underestimate the power of twisted family ties and well-meaning church ladies bearing casseroles. Apparently, the Moses Lake ladies had discovered my mother at Uncle Herbert’s place, and they’d pulled out the frozen funeral casseroles and the slice-and-bake cookies. They had shown up at Harmony Shores armed with food, ostensibly because widowed men like my uncles shouldn’t be trying to cook for company. In reality, of course, they were there to figure out what, exactly, was going on at the former funeral home, and in what way it involved the town’s ex-pariah, my mother.
The story, as my mother related it on the phone, grew more bizarre from there. Apparently she’d flown in on a whim, after arranging for a graduate assistant to cover her classes. It sounded like she’d been in Moses Lake overnight with the uncs(suddenly she was using the family pet name for my great uncles, to whom she had never given the time of day before). I wanted to ask her what she was thinking,taking off for Texas the day before she was supposed to be in Seattle. But trying to understand her thought processes was like contemplating infinity. It tied your brain in small, painful knots. Her actions were typically based on vague feelings, a sense of karma, or the advice of some spiritual advisor she’d met on the Internet.
When I called, she was walking along the lakeshore, “ . . . just thinking,” she said, as I rummaged around my office, stacking the Itega files all in one place, just in case I had to fly out of town to round up my mother. “Uncle Herbert found some boxes in his basement that were ours. Apparently, they’ve been stored here all this time. I wanted a few days to check it out, and then there’s the estate sale issue. It’s not easy for the uncs, having so many memories tied to the place. . . .”
She trailed off, and I thought we had a dropped connection, but then she started talking to someone who was there with her. I gathered that the pastor from Lakeshore Community Church had just dropped by to say hello and to pass along the phone number of a mortician who might want to buy the surplus caskets, casket stands, skirts, and various other funeral equipment in Uncle Herbert’s basement.
“But . . . I thought all of that had been cleaned out. Uncle Herbert and Uncle Charley are supposed to be moving this week.” Right after the papers are signed. It was a sad fact of this entire process that Uncle Herbert and Uncle Charley had to relocate closer to younger members of the family. They seemed to be handling it well enough, though, and as people age, difficult decisions have to be made. I needed to get my mother out of there before Uncle Herbert’s son Donny found out she was meddling and a family war ensued. Donny and my mother had practically come to blows over the Moses Lake property numerous times in the past.
“Listen, Mother, the plans have already been made. You said you didn’t want to handle your portion of the paperwork via fax, so Richard made arrangements for you to do it here, in person. He waited all morning for you to show. I don’t understand why you’re holding things up. You know that Uncle Herbert and Uncle Charley need the money, and you know they can’t stay in Moses Lake by themselves any longer. You’re just making things harder for everyone.”
“Oh, they’re fine. We played Chicken Foot last night.” As usual, Mother was floating around somewhere in the fluffy cumulus nimbi. She sounded alarmingly relaxed. Not at all like someone about to head for the airport. “They’re enjoying the casseroles. We’ve been writing down a few of the family stories, even.”
“You’re doing what?” The last thing we needed was everyone hanging around the funeral home, waxing nostalgic about the good ol’ days. “What do you mean, you’re playing dominoes? There’s supposed to be almost nothing left in the house, and . . .”
I was momentarily at a loss for words. I imagined my mother camped out with my uncles in the massive Greek Revival house, where back in the day, you could turn a blind corner and unwittingly bump into coffin stands and body boards. My mother hated Uncle Herbert’s place on Harmony Cove as much as she hated everything else about Moses Lake, which was why she’d fought like a banshee when my father had been offered the opportunity to supervise the construction and implementation of the Proxica plant upriver from Moses Lake, near the little Mennonite town of Gnadenfeld.
Mom had finally given in and let my dad accept the transfer---but only because my grandmother was in a nursing home, in the final weeks of her life, and my grandfather had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. My dad was needed in Moses Lake, and so we picked up our lives and went. For me, a math-and-art-class-loving chick accustomed to a big-city high school in Philadelphia, it seemed like the end of the world. I’d long since lost interest in going with my father on his cross-country trips to visit his family in Texas, and all of a sudden I was being told I’d have to spend my senior year of high school and graduate from tiny, podunk Moses Lake High. I hated my father for subjecting me to such a hideous reality. I made sure to communicate that in every selfish, immature way I could.
Sometimes, life turns upside down, and you never get the chance to say you’re sorry.
“Listen, the offer on the property expires next week.” I pointed out.
“I know,” Mom answered, and I wondered at the strange, melancholy rhythm of her voice. Was Moses Lake wrapping its watery veil around her again, dragging her down the way it had in the months after my father’s death? “So there’s not any rush, really.”
“Except that Richard did a ton of the work on the deeds as a favor to me, and he was expecting you today.”
Mom exhaled. “Oh, Heather, men are always doing you favors. They love to do favors for you. It makes them feel like they might have a chance of cracking that shell.”
“Richard is different.” I refused to slide into yet another relationship conversation with my mother. I really did. She was the one with men bobbing in and out of her life like horses on a carousel. She was always holding court—discussing art, or literature, or theater with men from grad-student age on up to those with full professorships. She’d been in and out of love more times than I could count, the only constant being instability.
Just as she was working up what, undoubtedly, would have been some critical analysis of Richard, formed during their limited phone and email conversations over the real estate deal, I heard laughter in the background. A man’s laugh. A familiar laugh.
“Mom, who’s there with you?” My mind raced through the connections. My mother wasn’t in Moses Lake alone. “Is Clay there? Is that Clay?”
Mom didn’t have to answer. Suddenly the trip to Moses Lake made some sense.
Clay was there. He’d found out about the sale of the property and seen fit to involve himself, and now he was in Moses Lake, hanging out and giving Mom advice. My stomach clenched at the thought. Clay’s involvement in the deal could be a game changer, and not in any good way. My little brother had been floating idly through college and law school for a decade, while taking occasional breaks to climb Mount Hood, or get his scuba-diving certification, or spend a semester in some tiny South American country, working with an earthquake relief team. So far, Clay seemed perfectly happy to move at his own aimless, relaxed pace, while Mother contributed financial support from the nest egg left behind by our dad’s life insurance policy. At twenty-seven, Clay didn’t seem in any rush to take care of himself.
“I’m coming down there,” I said, but the show of bravado was intended only to make my mother snap to her senses. Surely she knew that Moses Lake, in terms of emotional stability, wasn’t the best place for her to spend time. “Really, Mother. It isn’t good for you to be there. What could you possibly be hoping to accomplish?”
“Maybe putting some ghosts to rest.” Suddenly the lightness was gone from her tone. She sounded gravely serious. “They don’t just go away on their own, you know.”
A sick feeling leeched from the pit of my stomach, darkness spreading over me like a splash of ink. How was it that she could still do this to me? It was as if she knew where the painful spots were, and she could probe them whenever she wanted. “I’ll be there tomorrow. I’ll help you ship whatever boxes you want to ship, and then we’re coming back here and doing the deal as planned.”
A long pause left me hearing my own pulse thrumming, and then she finally answered, “Well, if you must know, there’s another offer we want to look at, Heather. There’s really nothing you can do here. I’ll call you in a day or two.”
My insides were rolling now, my mind whirling ahead. “What offer? An offer from whom?” There was no way that could be true. No one else was going to come along and pay the price the broker was offering.
“I really can’t explain it all. . . .”
“I’ll be there in the morning.” Rubbing the ache in my forehead, I tried to think through the details. It was Wednesday. I could tell Mel I needed a couple personal days to see to the family matters related to the land sale. Mel wouldn’t be happy about it, as personal wasn’t really in his vocabulary, but I had enough unused vacation stacked up to last me until spring.
I mentally fast-forwarded through the Mel confrontation, then considered the practicalities. I’d have to book a flight, arrange for a rental car, look at a map, and figure out the route from the airport to Moses Lake. It would probably be easier to fly to Dallas and drive from there, rather than taking a commuter flight to Waco. . . .
“You’re not bringing Richard along, are you?” Mother’s question collided with my thoughts like an asteroid, leaving a fiery trail. Why would she care whether Richard was coming along? Unless . . . Unless she’d already made up her mind to bug out on the land sale, and she was afraid I might use Richard to try to strong-arm her into it. Maybe my brother was giving her some sort of amateur legal advice. Exactly how far had Clay gotten in law school before his last side trip on the highway of life?
The question nagged and nipped as I reiterated that I was coming down there to straighten things out, then said good-bye.
Within an hour and a half, I’d cleared my impending absence with Mel, booked a flight, returned to my apartment, and thrown together a carry-on bag.
I ran into Trish as I was lugging my carryon and laptop case down the stairs. She was ferrying a pizza box to the three-bedroom unit she’d moved into after she fell in love with the guy down the hall and got married. Now she was on the fast track to family life, having had three kids in four years. Since she’d given up ergonomic building design for mommyhood, we had most of our conversations in the stairwell at odd hours.
“Whoa, where are you headed?” she asked, holding the pizza like a platter.
“Texas,” I grumbled, feeling pathetic and like I needed someone to feel sorry for me. I would never have let anyone see that but Trish. We’d met while working long hours at our first jobs out of college. She’d ridden the merry-go-round of family issues with me before.
Leaning against the stairway railing, she rested the pizza on the banister. “Your mom didn’t show, huh?”
“Of course not.” I gripped my forehead. I already had a headache, and my mother was still hundreds of miles away.
“I don’t know when you’re going to learn not to expect anything from her.” She punctuated the sentence with a disgusted smack. “Can I do anything for you while you’re gone? Want me to water your plant?”
“I’ve already killed the plant. I watered it. Really. I mean . . . I think I watered it.”
Trish rolled her eyes and opened the pizza box. “Here, take a slice of pizza, so you don’t end up like the plant.”
I thanked her, we hugged good-bye, and I transported myself to a flight bound for Texas, by way of several irritating layovers. Oddly enough, I didn’t even think of calling Richard until I was high in the skies over Idaho. I dialed his number during a layover in Denver. He took the news well, which actually disappointed me a little. I was tired, frustrated, and irritated, and I suppose I wanted him to get manly and protective, maybe tell me it was brave of me to try to deal with this alone but he was hopping the next flight out.
Then again, why would he? Richard had no idea of the history that lay in Moses Lake because I’d never told him. No one in Seattle knew, except Trish. The best thing about living halfway across the country from the past you’d like to forget is that you’re not obligated to reveal it to anyone. You really can leave it all behind. As far as Richard knew, Moses Lake was just an ancestral family place to which I had little attachment, sentimental or otherwise.
“I have a boatload of work to catch up on this weekend, anyway.” Richard’s words brought another unexpected letdown---as if I were dangling over a cliff, sinking a little lower and a little lower as he let out the rope. Maybe it was the whole Texas thing, but I was feeling uncharacteristically needy. The sensation was foreign and unwelcome.
I cradled the phone on my shoulder, juggling my laptop, purse, and carryon as I took a seat at the gate for my next flight. Outside the window, a Colorado moon shone on new-fallen snow. I wanted to walk out the door, catch a cab, and head for the mountains—lose myself in their cottony peaks and have a vacation. “I know. I’m sorry my mom wasted your time today. It’s her world, and we’re just living in it.”
Richard chuckled, and I fell into the warm sound of it. He had such a nice laugh. “I like your mother. She’s . . . artsy. A free spirit.”
I was momentarily silenced. I like your mother? Traitor. “Thanks for being so nice about it.” He wouldn’t like her if he knew her better, would he?
“It’s fine, really. I can understand her attachment to the family home.”
He could? Richard understood my mother? “It isn’t even her hometown. It was my father’s. She never wanted to spend time there when I was a kid. She and my grandmother hated each other.” I sounded like a harpy, like one of those bitter family members on Dr. Phil.
“Well, you know, the older people get, the more sentimental they feel about things. They have that sense of time slipping away.”
I blinked, watching snowflakes swirl in the pocket of protected space near the Jetway. This didn’t sound like Richard at all. “Are you okay?” I leaned away as a guy in a rumpled business suit took a seat next to me.
“Yeah, it’s the birthday thing, I think.”
Birthday . . . Oh, smack, I’d forgotten all about Richard’s birthday. Friday. The day after tomorrow. Forty. Six years older than me. We’d talked about it, like, a month ago while watching the waiters at Chili’s bring out a birthday cake and sing to an embarrassed customer. Richard made me promise I wouldn’t take him anyplace with singing waiters on his birthday.
“Ohhh, your birthday. I’m sorry. I should be there. If I didn’t have to get to Texas and straighten out this family thing, I’d turn around and fly right back.” Forty had to be hard. I was glad I was a long way from forty.
“It’s all right.”
“No it’s not.” In all the talk back and forth about the land deal this week, I hadn’t even mentioned his birthday. Because I hadn’t thought about it. “I’m a really bad girlfriend.” A flight attendant moved to the microphone behind the service desk, and a line began to form in anticipation of boarding. I stood up, grabbing my things.
“You’re just you, Heather.” There was a flat quality to his voice, a matter-of-factness, like The grass is green or The air is invisible.
It stopped me where I was.
The flight attendant announced that due to wind sheers associated with a storm moving over the mountains, all flights had been delayed.
I sank down in my chair. Is that me? The girl who forgets people’s birthdays and kills houseplants, and it doesn’t even surprise anyone? They just expect it?
Plans flashed through my mind---a tidy little suitcase of them that I’d been unpacking during these past months with Richard. Richard and I had a lot in common. We got along well. We were both nearing that age where it seemed like it was time to . . . well . . . fish or cut bait, as the uncs in Moses Lake would have said. Not having settled down hadn’t bothered me in my twenties, but at thirty-four, you feel the fork in the road coming on. . . .
Some of our conversations had clued me into the fact Richard felt the same way. Maybe that was the reason for the melancholy sound in his voice when he mentioned the birthday. I wanted to believe it was, but really, I was afraid that I was the cause. Who wants to be dating the girl who takes off for another state right before your birthday and doesn’t even realize it?
“Well, listen, I’d better let you go,” he said, and I felt myself sinking lower.
Don’t, I wanted to say, Don’t let me go. But the words felt too vulnerable, too raw. I’d never been good at hanging my heart on my sleeve. But this was where so many relationships ended—with the old, You’re an amazing person, but we just want different things conversation. Sometimes I was on the delivering end of that line, sometimes on the receiving end.
“Hey, Valentine’s Day is next week.” As soon as I said it, I felt pathetic, like I was pushing—fishing to see if he had something planned. The ring box I’d been contemplating earlier suddenly seemed miles away. “We could do dinner at the Waterfront Grill, take a walk through the sculpture park if the weather’s all right.”
“Let’s talk about it when you get home. I haven’t really thought that far ahead.”
Let’s talk about it when you get home? That wasn’t the response I wanted, not at all what I expected.
Or was it? Maybe I’d been feeling the cooling air around us for a while---like evening setting in, but when you’re busy, you don’t notice. Then you look up, and suddenly it’s almost dark. Chilly. Was that why I was trying to superimpose visions of a Valentine’s surprise—because I was afraid yet another relationship was dying for lack of regular watering and feeding? “Oh . . . okay. We can figure it out when I get back.”
“Have a good trip, Heather.”
“Richard, are we okay?” As soon as the words were out, I wanted to stuff them back in. What was wrong with me tonight?
His hesitation was an answer, even if it wasn’t. “Let’s talk when you get home.”
A wound, raw and deep, cracked open. On an architectural rendering, it would have been on Layer 1—the layer upon which everything else is built. “I’m sorry I asked.” The words were bitter, hard-edged. “But you could have just told me . . . if there was a problem with you and me. You didn’t have to pretend.”
He sighed. I pictured him leaning forward, his short, thick fingers wrapped over his forehead, rubbing, trying to drum up the right words, trying to avoid a confrontation. “Listen, I know you’ve had a lot going on with all the family and the property sale. I didn’t want to add any more . . . stress.”
“I’m fine,” I said. “It’s fine.” But, really, my head was ringing like I’d just had a hard right cross to the jaw. The fact that he was trying to be kind about it only made it worse. Is a gentle smack in the head better than the abrupt kind? It’s still a smack in the head. “It’s not like we were engaged or anything, Richard. We were just dating, right? It’s not like there was any commitment.”
He didn’t answer at first. Clearly, I’d shocked him by being so blunt, but it was like a knee-jerk reaction, impossible to control. It’s so much easier to reject than to be rejected.
“Sure,” he said, and he sounded like I’d disappointed him in some way.
“I’d better go, okay? It’s time to board my flight.” It wasn’t, but the rip inside me was widening. The only thing to do now was pull it back together before anyone saw.
We said good night, leaving things strangely open-ended, and I dropped the phone into my purse. Beside me, the guy in the business suit ventured a sympathetic glance. He’d heard the relationship drama, of course. He looked like he might be conversational, and there was a dangly fish-shaped luggage tag---the Christian kind---on his carry-on bag, so I grabbed my things, headed for the bathroom across the hall, and locked myself in a stall. The last thing I wanted at that moment was well-intentioned counseling---spiritual or any other sort. I just needed . . . a few minutes alone.
To figure out why.
I could never get.
This one thing.
After twenty minutes of standing with my back to the stall door and my eyes closed, I still didn’t have the answer—what’s the likelihood of a profound personal discovery happening in an airport restroom, anyway—but I had pulled myself together. After all, Richard hadn’t exactly said we were breaking up. He’d just said we needed to talk, and then he hadn’t argued with what I’d said.
I went back to the waiting area by my gate and took a seat along the windows, away from the man with the Jesus tag on his luggage. He looked my way a couple times, but I just leaned my head back against the metal frame and closed my eyes, letting the cold of the Denver night seep through my body as the stewardess announced an indefinite delay.
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers;
For thereby some have entertained angels unaware.
(Left by Ruth, who’s seen the proof)