Part I – How it was
I love my life.
Those were the exact words floating through my head as I walked up to the little house I’d been living in for the past twenty years.
Our beautiful craftsman house, painted in a muted green that Dan and I had endless discussions about. At one time, there’d been samples on so many patches of the house that it looked like a rainbow, and my mother had been horrified. She told us to paint it white but we just laughed, and in the end we decided on a sage green with white trims.
Around my feet our two dogs were bouncing happily, for once behaving, or almost behaving at least. The sun was shining from a clear blue sky, and through the windows I spotted my husband in the kitchen.
On the front porch my daughter waited, sitting idly on the swing with a book on her lap and a glass of what most likely would be lemonade in her hand.
“Hey there, sweetie,” I called out, and the girl raised her head.
Just seeing her made my heart fill with pride. I did that, I thought. Maybe I didn’t do anything special with my life. I married my high school sweetheart, never left my safe little hometown. I’m living an average life in an average house. But I did that.
I hate my life.
When I heard Mom calling out to me, those were the exact words that flew through my mind. I raised my head slowly, wondering why I never, ever, could be left alone. Dad had been unusually cheerful and after an afternoon of him telling lame jokes, I’d managed to get away by claiming I had homework. Now, I just wanted to be alone for a while and I was hiding in plain sight on the front porch because Mom usually brought the dogs in through our back yard after a walk.
“I’m doing homework,” I said, hoping that this would be enough to make her continue into the house.
“Well, good for you honey. Is Josh coming over later?” Mom asked, and I swallowed. Better get it over and done with.
“We broke up,” I said, dreading the drama I was sure would come.
“Oh no, sweetheart…”
Mom’s voice was low and she sounded sad. I knew I’d disappointed her.
My mother adored Josh. She always lit up when he came over, and chatted easily with him in that cheerful, happy, voice. My mother married her high school sweetheart. My mother still lives in the same small town she grew up in. I’m going away to college after summer, and I broke up with Josh.
I didn’t quite know what to say that would comfort my girl, so I stayed silent. I could see on her face that she was heartbroken, but I was so happy I could scream. I hated Josh. He was too good looking, too affable, too… smarmy. He treated my wonderful girl like she should be grateful that he was with her, and I did not like how he looked at other girls. My best friend Beebs and I would have called him a sleazy-cheezy-greaseball back in the day.
“How do you feel?” I asked gently and moved to sit down beside her.
“Mom, look, I have homework,” she replied, and moved as if to block the seat.
It stung that she so clearly didn’t want to talk to me, wouldn’t let me help, but I understood. The days when a Band-Aid and an ice cream helped just about anything are long gone. But now, standing there and feeling so helpless, I wished we were still there.
“Okay, sweetie. Will you go over to Ashley’s later?” I said, hoping that she would and that talking to her best friend would help.
“Maybe,” she replied, and looked down at the book.
“Okay, sweetie,” I repeated. “I’ll tell Dad,” I added, thinking that she shouldn’t have to do that. Dan really liked Josh and he would be disappointed. Not knowing what else to do, I just walked into the house and closed the door gently behind me.
“Well, crap,” I murmured silently to myself.
I’d already told Dad I broke it off with Josh and he’d just grinned crookedly, and asked if I wanted pork chops for dinner. I knew offering chops, his number one comfort food, was Dad’s way of saying he felt sorry for me, and that felt nice because I also knew that he hated Josh.
Mom must be really mad at me, though, walking off like that, wanting me to go away for the evening. She didn’t even slam the door, and when my mom is annoyed, she totally slams doors. I guess we’re lucky Dad’s a carpenter, and a good one, because there used to be plenty of door repairs in our house when I was younger.
Then I called my best friend in the whole world.
“Hey Ninsie, you ok?” she asked, knowing it was me, and knowing why I called.
Ash and I grew up together, three houses apart on the road with the silliest name in the whole state. Probably in the whole world.
Who the heck comes up with a name like that? And who the heck moves to a street with a name like that?
Except that my parents did, and so did Ashley’s. They all went to school together, best friends forever and all that crap. I can’t understand how they could settle for so little, never seeing anything else, no curiosity about the world outside. But they just stayed here, on friggin’ Sweet Street.
Oh God, college just can’t start fast enough, I thought, and I meant it, but I felt a faint fluttering of butterfly wings deep in my gut. What would it be like?
“Nin, hey, are you there?” I heard Ash’s voice calling for me over the phone, and I winced.
“Yeah, sorry, zoned out for a bit. I’m good. Mom’s not.”
“I can’t believe it! Why would she not be on your side in this? Do you want me to talk to Mom?” Ashely’s voice went up as she talked and she started to sound really angry, but I stopped her immediately.
“No Ash, don’t. I can’t deal with the whole Louise and Beatrice thing right now. Let’s just leave it, she’ll get over it.”
Louise and Beatrice, my mom and Ash’s mom. Best friends forever, just like me and Ash. I wonder what they were like when they were seventeen, almost eighteen. Probably the same as now. Responsible, mature… good girls. They wear stupid pearls and twin sets in soft, neutral colors. Who the heck wears twin sets?
I walked into the kitchen and sat down by the breakfast bar, just as Dan was about to walk out to the back porch with a covered dish in his hand. Heading for the grill on a Thursday? Well, someone is in a good mood, I thought.
“Daniel –” I started, but he turned and interrupted me.
“I know Louise, Nin told me about Josh.”
“Oh.” I was glad that she’d told him, but at the same time an ugly sting of jealousy hit me. Had she talked to her dad about this instead of me? “What happened, do you know?”
“Nope. She just said it was over and I didn’t ask. She’ll talk when she’s ready,” Dan replied and turned to walk away.
“I know you’re disappointed honey, but –”
“What?” he interrupted me again, and when he turned back to me, he was frowning.
“What?” I repeated his question, and we stared at each other.
Before either of us could try to sort out the confusion, Dan’s phone rang. He looked at the display and his eyebrows went up.
“Huh. The big boss,” he said and held the meat out towards me. “Grill.”
So I did. I can grill, it really isn’t all that difficult, but I rarely do. Dan loves it and he spends endless hours with Patrick, discussing how to glaze just about anything.
Patrick is my best friend Beatrice’s husband and Dan’s buddy. These days everyone else calls him ‘Coach’, but Dan and I have known them since always and we still call him Patrick, or Pat. They left for college but they came back again, as soon as they could, and we ended up living three houses apart in our hometown.
The four of us used to be young and crazy together, but now I suppose we’re neither. Sometimes I think back on how it used to be and I miss it, but we live good lives. Our families meet for dinners, we go camping together, and our daughters are best friends.
I stood there on the porch, in front of our humongous grill, and looked at my husband while he was on the phone.
Dan is handsome, very much so. He wears his years well, grew up from a tall gangly boy to a solid, strong man. His hair has started to turn gray at the temples, but it’s still thick and still a bit too long, so it curls around his ears and by the neck. There are lines around his blue eyes, but they don’t make him look old. They look like the lines you get from laughing a lot. A few weeks ago, I overheard some of Nin’s friends talking, telling her that her dad had the sexiest smile in the county.
I was pretty when I was younger, never beautiful, but cute. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to be cute when you have an almost grown daughter, but I try hard. I think a lot about what I eat and do yoga to keep in shape. I get my hair done and I make sure I use just the right makeup remover, and toner, and night cream. And the all-important eye cream. Secretly, I think it’s kind of ridiculous, but who knows what I would look like if I used regular soap and any old kind of moisturizer so I continue to use the expensive products.
I look at my husband, and I worry. Maybe I’m not so cute anymore?
I didn’t want to hide out on the front porch any longer, it just felt silly and childish, so I walked into the kitchen and I smiled when I smelled the grill. Dad’s chops and green beans were the best.
To my surprise, Mom was at the grill, expertly flipping the meat around. I don’t know why this was such a surprise, because really, my mom does everything like an expert.
It’s just that on 47 Sweet Street, Daniel Malone grills.
Mom was looking at something in the living room and she had a strange look on her face, almost like she was angry. I turned and peeked through the door and Dad was there, on the phone. He was mumbling a low, “Uh-huh,” every now and then but not really saying anything, so I looked back at Mom. Yeah, definitely angry now. What the heck is wrong with the woman, I thought. Is it really such a bother to grill a few chops, to let Dad take a phone call?
Dinner was weirdly quiet. Mom usually kept the conversation going, asked questions about what we’d done, how we liked our day or what we were planning to do later. This evening she barely said anything at all while we ate, and neither did we. It felt strange and I wondered if we’d gotten so used to Mom chatting happily that we didn’t quite know what to say when she didn’t.
The sounds of knives and forks scraping across the plates were grating on my nerves, and I got more and more uncomfortable. Dinners at our house were always happy, comforting, that’s just how it was. What the heck was going on?
“Nin, can you take the dogs for their walk?” Dad suddenly asked, surprising me. Mom had walked them just before we ate, and Dad usually took them for a short stroll later in the evening.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Nothing really, just want to talk with Mom about a thing,” Dad replied. He looked strange, fidgety in a way that I’d never seen my calm, strong, dad act before.
“What’s going on, Dad?” I asked again. I’m not a baby anymore, and they really needed to stop treating me like one. If there were important discussions, then I should darn well be included.
“Okay then,” Dad sighed.
Mom still said nothing. She just looked at him and waited for him to start speaking.
“The boss called. Not Joe, the one from our new owners, Billy Stevenson?” Dad said, ending it with a question so both Mom and I nodded.
The small building company Dad had worked for since he quit high school was bought out by a bigger corporation last summer. I knew Dad had worried that they’d be shut down, because of the economy but mainly since Joe, the current manager, was not exactly good at his job. I’d heard Dad talking about work schedules not being done properly, and promises made that they couldn’t keep.
“They are thinking about getting a new manager here, and they’ve talked to Joe. He doesn’t want to do it anymore, wants to be the senior carpenter instead…” Dad said. He kept his eyes on Mom, and she nodded slowly.
Senior carpenter. Dad’s job. The job he loved so much and was so good at. What would he do? Being a carpenter wasn’t just Dad’s job, it was who he was.
“They’re considering me for the manager position,” Dan said.
He was still looking at me and as our gazes held I started smiling, wanted to laugh out loud. I could see that he was nervous, thinking that he was nothing more than one of the guys, the handy man who was beyond good with his hammer. I knew differently, knew about all the long evenings he’d spent correcting Joe’s mistakes, how the others always turned to him when there were problems. Apparently, the company headquarters knew too, and I wondered who they’d talked to.
“Dan –” I started, meaning to tell him that he would be great, that I knew this was what he’d wanted for years, but he interrupted me.
“Their manager up in Maine had a heart attack, he’ll be fine, but he’s out for a while. They have the office up there covered, but he headed a project, a big one for one of their national customers. It’s important and they want me to go to Maine and lead it through the final stages. If that works out they want me to come back and take over as manager here.”
I just stared at him. Maine? Of course we would go to Maine. This was such an opportunity for Dan, and I had never been to the East Coast. Then my brain kicked in and I understood. He said for him to go, not us. And how could I go? Nin had school, I had my job, and who would look after the dogs?
“I won’t go if you need me here,” he said, and he looked nervous but excited at the same time. I could see clearly that he was yearning to go, but I also knew that I could stop him with one single word. Suddenly I felt humbled, knowing he would give this chance up if I asked him to.
“Don’t be silly, Daniel. We’ll be perfectly fine. You should go, absolutely,” I said.
Our eyes met and I wished Nin wasn’t there. I wanted to tell him how proud I was, how much I wanted to go with him, but these were words for Dan and me. Later, I thought, maybe we’d find time to talk later.
“Are you sure, Dad?” Nin said suddenly. “You’re really good with your hands, but being a manager takes so much more. There would be a lot of administration for you to handle then, and you’re a carpenter,” she added.
I stared at my daughter, wondering what the hell she was doing. Why would she put her father down like that?
“Caroline,” I said sharply and pulled in a breath, preparing to set the girl straight.
“You’re right sweetie. Maybe that’s all your dad is, a carpenter, but I’ll try anyway,” Dan interrupted, and turned to me, “Louise, you know I have to try, right?”
“Oh, Dan, of course I know,” I said. “You’ll be exactly what they need up there, and what they need here afterward.”
I tried to sound calm and confident, and hoped that he would listen more to me than to our daughter.
“Um, Dad –” Nin started, but then she stopped talking. Maybe she caught the look on my face, maybe she saw how her father’s shoulders slumped, but she remained silent.
“When do you leave?” I asked.
“Oh. Yes, of course, they need you there right away. How long …?” I didn’t want to tell him how awful it would be without him, needed him to know that I had his back, that I’d be taking care of everything here so he wouldn’t have to worry.
“Six weeks. They have six weeks left to complete the project, but it’s eight weeks’ worth of work and the budget is already stretched. I don’t think I’ll manage to get weekends off. Some half days maybe, but no full days,” he said, and my heart clenched.
We’ve known each other since we were kids, been together since we were teenagers. We’ve never spent any time apart, ever, and now I wouldn’t see him for six weeks.
I knew I should say something cheery and supportive, but I just couldn’t make my mouth form the words.
“Louise…” he started, and it looked like he wanted to say something more. Then he sighed and got to his feet. “I’ll walk the dogs, clear my head.”
“Caroline Amelia, what is wrong with you?” I asked when Dan had left, and I couldn’t keep the exasperation I felt out of my voice.
“What?” she replied, sounding surly but looking astonished.
Had she not sat at the same dinner table as me for her whole life? Did she not listen to her father?
“Your father has wanted an opportunity like this for more years than you have lived, and when it finally comes then you try your best to make him even more nervous than he already is?” I asked, heavy on the sarcasm.
“What?” she repeated, sounding less sure of herself.
“You clearly need to think this over, Nin. I’d like for you to go to your room, and stay there,” I said.
I knew that she was too old to be treated like this and that it was harsh, too harsh, but I was worried about Dan and I was so mad at her. She glared at me and I thought she would protest, but then she just sighed, flipped her hair, and stomped out of the room. Then I picked up the phone.
“Beebs?” I said when my best friend answered, and in a rush, I told her about what had happened.
“Great news! I know Dan’s been working so hard to get this chance. I’m so happy for him! We all know he’s done most of Joe’s work for years, anyway,” she shouted happily, and I laughed, finally, because she was right. This was great news. I had forgotten that in my worry for Dan and my anger with Nin.
“Look, I’ll call you tomorrow, we’ll talk more then,” I said, “I called mostly because of what Nin said, and I know Daniel was nervous about it all even before she decided to add her view. He’s walking the dogs right now, and I think he’ll want someone to talk to. Maybe Pat wants to walk your monsters too, give Dan a pep talk?”
“Okay,” Beebs replied, and she was silent for a while before she continued, hesitantly, “you’re sure you want Pat to go?”
“Absolutely,” I replied, but I wondered about what she’d said. Why wouldn’t I want Pat to go? Dan needed someone to vent with, someone who would tell him how great he would be. Someone who would say all the right things.
It wasn’t until later, much later when I was in bed, that I understood what Beebs meant. Why wasn’t I the one who’d go after Dan? Why didn’t I talk to him?
I turned to my side and looked at him. He was on his back, with one arm tossed above his head and his mouth half open, snoring lightly. He’s a grown-up, an adult, and I knew this well because I saw it every day. But there in our bed, asleep, he looked so young. He looked like the boy I fell in love with all those years ago.
Why didn’t I talk to him?
Oh, God. I was in bed, but I couldn’t sleep. The words Mom said kept echoing in my head.
“…you try to make him even more nervous than he already is…”
I never meant that. I knew very well that Dad could be the manager of that company, heck, he kind of was the manager already. Several of the guys in my class had worked there in the summers, they talked, and a lot of it was about Dad. How he always sorted everything out, how he managed the customers, the schedules, how he was the coolest guy, how he listened to everyone but set everyone straight.
I just hadn’t realized he wanted to be the manager. I thought he wanted to be a carpenter, he was always so happy hammering away on our house. I’d seen that Mom was keen on the idea, and I’d thought he didn’t want it, so I had tried to help him. I’d tried to be friggin’ supportive.
“…you try to make him even more nervous than he already is…”
I hated admitting it, I really did, but Mom was right. I’d heard Dad talking a lot about what he’d do if he was in Joe’s shoes, and he was mostly doing it already.
What had I been thinking?