Whatever humor I might have been able to see in her pelting Don with empty Ensures-and it was funny, no question-left me as she said this.
She sniffled again, and clenched her fingers around mine, holding on tight. “What now?” she said, waving her Kleenex in a helpless way, the white blurring past my vision. “Where am I supposed to go from here?”
My ulcer, long dormant, rumbled in my stomach, as if answering this call. Here I was, so close to my getaway, and now my mother was adrift again, needing me most. I felt another flash of hate for Don, so selfish, leaving me with a mess to deal with while he slipped away scot-free. I wished I had been here when it all came down, because I did have a good arm. I wouldn’t have missed. Not a chance.
“Well,” I said to her, “first, you should probably call that lawyer. Mr. Jacobs. Or Johnson. Did he take anything with him?”
“Just one bag,” she said, wiping at her eyes again.
I could already feel it happening, the neat click as I shifted into crisis management mode. It wasn’t like it had been that long since Martin left. The path might have grown over a bit, but it was still there. “Okay,” I continued, “so we’ll need to tell him he has to set up a specific time to come back and get everything. He can’t just come whenever he feels like it, and one of us should be here. And we should probably get in touch with the bank, just to be safe, and put a freeze on your joint account. Not that he doesn’t have money of his own, but people do weird stuff in the first few days, right?”
She didn’t answer me, instead just staring out the window at the backyard, where the trees were swaying, just slightly.
“Look, I’ll find that lawyer’s number,” I said, standing up. “He’s probably not in, with it being a Saturday and all, but at least we could leave a message, so he’d get back to you first thing-”
I stopped, midbreath, and realized she’d turned her head to look at me. “Yes?”
“Oh, honey,” she said quietly. “It’s okay.”
“Mom,” I said. “I know you’re upset, but it’s important that we-”
She reached over for my hand, pulling me back into my chair. “I think,” she said, and then stopped. A breath, and then she said, “I think it’s time I handle this myself.”
“Oh,” I said. Weird, but my first thought was that I was somewhat offended. “I just thought-”
She smiled at me, very weakly, and then patted my hand. “I know,” she said. “But you’ve dealt with enough, don’t you think?”
I just sat there. This was it, what I’d always wanted. The official out, the moment I was finally set free. But it didn’t feel the way I’d thought it would. Instead of a wash of victory, I felt strangely alone, as if everything fell away suddenly, leaving me with only the sound of my own heart beating. It scared me.
It was almost as if she sensed this, saw it on my face. “Remy,” she said softly, “it’s all going to be all right. It’s time you worry about yourself, for a change. I can take it from here.”
“Why now?” I asked her.
“It feels right,” she replied simply. “Don’t you feel it? It just feels… okay.”
Did I feel it? Everything seemed so tangled, all at once. But then in my mind, I saw something. The country, spread out so wide, with my mother and me separated not only by our difference of opinions, but also by miles and miles of space, too far to cross with just a look or a touch. My mother was down, but not out. And she might have denied me some of my childhood, or the childhood I’d thought I deserved, but it wasn’t too late for her to give something in return. An even trade, years for years. Those passed for those to come.
But for now, I scooted closer, until we were touching. Knee to knee, arm to arm, forehead to forehead. I leaned into her for once, instead of away, appreciating the pull I felt there, something almost magnetic that held us to each other. I knew it would always be there, no matter how much of the world I put between us. That strong sense of what we shared, good and bad, that led us to here, where my own story began.
In the hour before Chris and Jennifer Anne were due to show up for dinner, I gathered all the Ensure cans from the front yard and various spots in the house, depositing them with a satisfying clank in the recycling bin. My mother was taking a shower, having insisted we go ahead with our family dinner, despite what had happened. While I was doing my best to adjust to my new hands-off role in this separation, some habits died hard. Or so I told myself as I took down the big naked woman off the kitchen wall, sliding it behind the refrigerator.
After our talk, my mother had filled me in on the gruesome details. Apparently the Patty thing had been going on for a while, since even before my mother and Don met. Patty had been married, and the affair had been a series of breakups and makeups, ultimatums and backsliding, finally ending with Don saying if she wasn’t serious enough to leave her husband, he was moving on. Don’s marrying my mother, however, was a catalyst for her subsequent separation, and while they’d tried to stay apart they couldn’t, in Don’s words, “fight the feeling.” My mother winced as she repeated this phrase: I was sure I winced hearing it. It was Patty who’d sent the picture, fed up with waiting. Don, according to my mother, hadn’t even denied it, instead sighing and walking into the bedroom to pack a bag. This, I felt, said a lot. What kind of car salesman doesn’t at least try to talk his way out of things?
“He couldn’t,” my mother said when I asked her this. “He loves her.”
“He’s an asshole,” I said.
“It was unfortunate,” she agreed. She was taking it so well, but I wondered if she was just still in shock. “Everything, in the end, comes down to timing.”
I considered this as I piled the steaks onto a plate, then went out to the fancy new grill, opening it up. After struggling for about fifteen minutes with the high-tech, supposed-to-be-moron-proof ignition system, I decided I liked having my eyebrows intact and instead dug out our old Weber grill from behind a stack of lawn chairs. A few handfuls of charcoal, some fluid, and I was in business.
As I poked at the coals, I kept thinking about Dexter. If once he had been a loose end, now it was a full hanging string, capable of pulling everything apart with one good tug. Chalk it up to another bad boyfriend story, one more added to the canon. It was where I’d intended him to be, all along.