"I won't be long. My house is just down the road," Jonathon said as he pulled into the Great Neck station, its parking lot nearly deserted this early on Saturday. "You're sure you don't mind? It's just that it'd be sort of awkward, with Rebecca and all." He eyed Jessie anxiously.
"Really, Jon, it's okay." She flashed him her best we're-in-this-together smile.
They'd discussed it, and she'd told him she didn't mind waiting at the station while he picked up his kids at his ex-wife's, so as to avoid a possible scene. The truth was she did mind, but only a little, and why rain on the parade? He'd arranged this outing so she could meet Zach and Sara. She wasn't going to dwell on his calling it my house, which was only technically true. Nor would she think about the message it would send his kids, that Daddy's girlfriend wasn't quite kosher. She must avoid even using such words as kosher -- his family didn't need any reminders that she wasn't Jewish. Like the other day, when she'd mispronounced his Uncle Chaim's name, to rhyme with shame, and Jonathon had corrected her, saying it was Hiy-am.
"Thanks, Jess." His eyes were soft with gratitude, and she felt an answering tingle, reminding her of why she'd fallen in love with him in the first place. Besides looking like he'd stepped from the pages of GQ, he was caring and sensitive, with just enough of an edge to make him interesting. Now all she had to do was pass muster with his kids....
"No problem." Her mother had raised her to be a Good Sport, which meant that unless you were bleeding to death or having a heart attack, you sucked it up. Noting the flicker of uncertainty in his eyes, she placed a hand on his wrist, adding, "It's easier for everyone this way."
She was unbuckling her seat belt to get out when a wave of panic swept over her. "What if they don't like me?" She twisted around to face Jonathon, her stomach executing a slow cartwheel at the thought.
He frowned in consternation, absently brushing back the adorable Clark Kent comma of dark hair that was in the habit of falling over his brow. "It's bound to be a little awkward at first," he said in that slow, thoughtful way of his that let her know he was taking her concerns seriously. "But once they get to know you, I'm sure they'll love you as much as I do."
She wasn't so sure. Her stomach did another lazy half turn. "Still...I wonder if this is such a good idea." They were driving up to his parents' house in Rhinebeck. Jonathon saw it as a chance to kill two birds with one stone -- introduce her to his kids and his folks all at once -- but she was afraid she was biting off more than she could chew. Her best friend, Erin, back in Willow Creek, had advised against it, but when Jonathon first suggested it, Jessie had been so excited to be taking this next step, to be a part of his life, not just the faceless Girlfriend tucked away in the wings, that she hadn't thought it through at the time.
"Relax, it'll be fine. Mother and Dad...they're not your run-of-the-mill parents, I'll admit, but they're great people. You'll like them."
Yes, but will they like me? She forced herself to smile, more afraid of appearing neurotic than of the possible ordeal ahead. Lately it seemed she'd been focusing less on being herself than on how not to be like Jonathon's ex-wife. "I'm sure you're right. I'm just a little nervous, is all." Who hadn't heard the joke about the Jewish mother with her head in the oven because her son was dating a shiksa?
She thought back to when she and Jonathon had first met, six months ago, at the salad bar in her neighborhood Korean deli. She was spooning garbanzo beans over her greens when some internal radar caused her to glance up. A tall, dark-haired man stood in front of her. All she could see of him were his broad shoulders and the back of his head, but she felt a humming awareness, like when her cell phone was on vibrate mode. He must have sensed her presence as well because he turned around just then, as if looking for some salad fixing he might have missed while he surreptitiously checked her out. It was all she could do not to stare. This wasn't your average good-looking guy, just flawed enough to keep you from peering obsessively in the mirror, wondering what he saw in you. This was the kind that made you go limp all over, as if you'd been punched in the stomach.
He looked to be around her age, well over six feet -- he towered over Jessie, who was tall herself. His wavy hair was the glossy black-brown of molasses, flecked with gray at the temples, his eyes the blue of Van Gogh's Starry Night. His face had the planed, architectural look of a Ralph Lauren model's -- sharply defined jaw and cheekbones, full lips that curved enticingly, just begging to be kissed. Only there was nothing fey about him; he exuded testosterone.
She eyed the modest pile of greens in his plastic clamshell before her gaze dropped to his left hand, with its pale band on the ring finger where a wedding band must have been. Divorced, she thought. Recently, from the looks of it.
She realized she was staring when he flashed her a quizzical little smile, as if to say, Do I know you from somewhere? She became so flustered, the garbanzo beans went sliding off the spoon onto the floor, scattering every which way. Great, just great, she groaned inwardly. The cutest guy she'd seen in ages, and she'd blown it without even opening her mouth. But to her relief Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome only made a joke of it, breaking into a soft shoe routine as he nudged beans out of his path with the toes of his loafers.
She cast a sheepish glance at the store owner, busy ringing up another customer's purchases. "I suppose I should offer to sweep up."
The man smiled, showing an adorably crooked front tooth. Another point in his favor -- she had an unreasonable distrust of men with perfect teeth. "Are you always this considerate?" he asked.
She shrugged. "It must be in my DNA."
"Ah, just as suspected. You're not from around here." He regarded her with bemusement, his head cocked to one side. "Let me guess -- Ohio? No, Minnesota."
Jessie mock-groaned. Though she'd lived in New York City the better part of fifteen years, her naturally blond hair, peaches-and-cream complexion, and body that looked equally suited to pitching hay or riding down Main Street on a parade float, screamed corn-fed. She was, as her darling landlord, Clive, had once wryly observed, "sooooo west of the Mississippi."
"Consider it a compliment," the man said. "You look like the kind of person who means it when she says, 'have a nice day.'"
She grimaced and made a shoveling motion to indicate that he was only digging himself in deeper. But the ice was broken, and maybe something else as well...the firewall she, like most single women in Manhattan who'd been dashed against the rocks of their romantic aspirations, had erected around herself. They chatted for a minute while they helped themselves to salad fixings. When he finally got around to introducing himself, "Jonathon. Jonathon Silver," holding her gaze a beat too long and giving her hand a little squeeze, as if to let her know that he didn't make a habit of hitting on strange women, she felt as if she'd known him all her life.
Now, seeing the love and concern in his face, she felt her reservations melt away. On impulse, she leaned over, taking his face in her hands, and kissed him full on the mouth. He responded greedily, putting his arms around her and pulling her in tight, reminding her of what a sacrifice it'd been dragging herself out of bed this morning just after dawn, instead of making slow, luxuriant love as they usually did on weekend mornings.
She thought of last Sunday, at her place, when he'd surprised her with breakfast in bed. The pancakes were a little soggy, but the raspberries on top more than made up for it. She'd pointed to them, asking, "Where did these come from?" She couldn't remember the last time she'd bought raspberries, they were so pricey out of season.
"From the corner market," he'd told her. He'd looked so adorable, with his hair as rumpled as the bed, it was all she could do not to drag him back under the covers with her, breakfast be damned. "Sorry they're a little squished. It was the last box." She'd looked out the window and seen that it was sleeting outside. He'd gone out into that to buy her raspberries, knowing how much she loved them. There was something so sweetly old-fashioned about it, tears came to her eyes. It'll work out, she told herself. It has to...
Leaving the box of chocolates for his parents on the front seat, she climbed out of the car. "Be back before you know it," Jonathon called cheerily out the open window, his frozen breath trailing vapor as he pulled away from the curb.
She settled on a bench, wrapping her arms around her to ward off the cold. It was January, a month when even the English ivy along the embankments waved in tattered surrender. She shivered as a gust of wind sent crumpled wrappers and dried leaves scuttling along the tracks below. She wished she'd worn her down jacket instead of her more fashionable, but lightweight, suede one. Sensible boots, too, not the J. Tod loafers she'd splurged on with the check from Atlantic Monthly.
Jessie fished her notebook from her shoulder bag and began jotting down some thoughts on a plastic surgery piece she planned to pitch next week to Kate, the senior editor at Savvy magazine. By the time she glanced at her watch, twenty minutes had gone by. She frowned. There must have been some sort of last-minute holdup. Or maybe Rebecca had decided to throw a fit regardless. Wasn't Jonathon always saying she could make a Shakespearean tragedy out of a missed bus? Oddly enough, Jessie felt she knew Jonathon's ex-wife, a woman she had yet to lay eyes on, better than people she'd known all her life. But of course she only knew what Jonathon had told her.
Twenty minutes stretched into half an hour. Jessie began to worry that something was really wrong. But wouldn't Jonathon have called? She checked her cell phone to make sure it was still on, her worry turning to irritation. What could be so earth-shattering that she had to be kept shivering in the cold without so much as a courtesy call?
After what seemed an eternity, she heard the toot of a car horn and looked up to see Jonathon's midnight blue Nissan glide up to the curb. She jumped to her feet and began walking toward it, only to come to an abrupt halt a few yards away. A teenage boy with Jonathon's blue eyes and wavy dark hair occupied the seat in front. But it was a girl peering out the window in back, her eyes red slits in her tear-swollen face, that set off a trill of alarm.
A train rumbled in the near distance, and for a wild moment it seemed the deus ex machina Jessie's creative writing teacher in college had labeled the province of cheap fiction. The screech of brakes as it slid into the station was a siren call, urging her to jump on board -- she'd be at Grand Central in less than an hour, with the whole rest of the day to do as she pleased. Coffee and Danish at Le Bergamot with Clive, if he was around, followed by the new Muriel Spark novel she'd picked up yesterday. Or, if the rain that was threatening remained at bay, the El Greco exhibit at the Met she'd been wanting to see.
Only a sense of obligation, along with a spark of hope that the day might be salvaged yet, kept her from bolting. She paused just long enough to take a deep breath before climbing in the backseat next to the damp, crumpled heap that was Jonathon's daughter.
"Hi, I'm Jessie. You must be Sara." She put on her friendliest west-of-the-Mississippi face as she stuck out her hand, from which Sara recoiled as if from a dead fish before turning her back.
Jonathon twisted around to give Jessie a rueful little grimace. "Sorry we're late," he apologized. "Sara couldn't find her sneakers." As if the real reason for the delay wasn't painfully obvious. In a misguided effort to smooth things over, he announced brightly to no one in particular, "Jessie's a writer." When neither child remarked on the fact, he went on, "Sara's our budding author. Sweetie, maybe Jessie could give you some tips."
Sara shot her father a murderous look. From the photos Jessie had seen of Jonathon's ex-wife, Sara took after her mother. She had Rebecca's straight, honey-colored hair and wide-set brown eyes, her petite build. In low-rise jeans and a pink Hello Kitty sweatshirt she looked younger than her age, and at the same time old beyond her years.
"Zach's our resident athlete," Jonathon went on in that fake hearty tone as he edged the Nissan into traffic. "He holds the school record in the hundred-yard dash and took second place in the regionals."
"Daaaad," Zach groaned.
"You should hear how he talks about you behind your back," Jessie said.
Zach turned to give her a halfhearted smile that showed a mouthful of metal. Jessie's hopes were briefly buoyed, until Jonathon, after they'd gone several miles without a peep out of Sara, called over his shoulder, "You okay back there, sweetie?"
Sara went on staring mutely out the window. Jessie couldn't help thinking that if it'd been her at that age, she'd have felt the flat side of Beverly's hand. If there was one thing her mother refused to tolerate, it was rudeness, especially toward adults.
But could Jessie blame the girl? Divorce was hard enough on kids without their parents' love lives complicating the matter. And what could Jonathon have been thinking, forcing them to sit together back here? He should have insisted that Zach sit in back.
When the silence became too much, filling the car like some noxious emission, Jessie took another stab. "You must be anxious to see your grandparents," she said, addressing the wall of Sara's resolutely turned back. Jonathon's parents, both retired professors, traveled extensively, so according to Jonathon the kids didn't see much of them.
Sara swung around to face her. "I was when I thought it was just us."
"You knew she was coming. Dad told us," Zach reminded her.
"I know what he told us," Sara shot back. Clearly, she hadn't believed her father would actually go through with it.
She has a point, Jessie thought. I was crazy to agree to this.
"Guys, please. You're making me look bad here," Jonathon cajoled. "What happened to your manners? Jessie's our guest."
"But Mom said..."
"Your mother has no say in this," he cut her off, gently but firmly.
Sara lapsed back into mutinous silence.
The spark of hope went out like a guttering wick exposed to an icy blast. Be careful what you wish for, Jessie thought. She'd been fooled by her closeness with her fourteen-year-old goddaughter into thinking this would be, if not a piece of cake, then at least the first step toward a meaningful relationship. But Sara wasn't anything like Kayla. And in all fairness, in her shoes would Jessie have been any happier about the situation?
The drive to Rhinebeck seemed endless. Jessie and Jonathon's joint effort to lighten the atmosphere was about as effective as rubbing sticks together to make a fire. Sara remained mute, and Zach only grunted from time to time. After a while, Jessie subsided into silence as well. When Zach turned on the radio, tuning it to a rock station, the blare came almost as a relief.
Jessie's nerves were frayed, tiny muscles twitching under her skin, when they finally pulled up in front of the Silvers' house, a starkly modern cube on a block of older Tudor-style homes. As she made her way up the front path, lined with stiff spears of juniper that cast zebra stripes of shadow across the winter brown lawn, Jessie thought there was a greater likelihood of her winning the Pulitzer Prize than of being welcomed into this family.
They were met at the door by a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman with wavy silver hair that dipped over his forehead exactly like Jonathon's. After greeting Jonathon and the children, he extended an elegant, long-fingered hand to Jessie. "You must be Jessie," he said. "I've heard so much about you." His eyes twinkled, as if he knew something she didn't.
"Same here. It's nice to meet you, Professor Silver," she said.
"Leonard, please. My days of terrorizing undergraduates are long past, I'm afraid," he said with a chuckle, taking her arm as he ushered them inside.
He took their coats and hung them in the hall closet. As they stepped through the arched foyer into the living room, an older woman, large and formidably handsome, wearing some sort of caftan and jangling with heavy ethnic jewelry, sailed over to greet them, hugging her son and grandchildren as if she hadn't seen them in years. She offered Jessie a cool, beringed hand, introducing herself as Ruth. "Pardon the mess," she apologized, gesturing about the room, which was tidy except for a few boxes stacked in one corner. "Len and I just got back last night. We haven't even unpacked."
"Did you have a nice trip?" Jessie inquired.
"Divine! Everyone should be required to go to Africa at least once in their lives. There are simply no words to describe it. Len must've taken at least two hundred pictures." Jessie found it a bit unsettling, Jonathon's blue eyes looking out at her from Ruth's lined face framed with crisp iron hair.
"Not everyone can afford to, dear," Len reminded her.
"Nonsense," Ruth scoffed. "It's not as if we stay in four-star hotels." Their sense of adventure bordered on the extreme, Jonathon had told Jessie, which had led to disaster on more than one occasion -- like the tent-cabin in Costa Rica that was infested with scorpions and the "quaint" Parisian pension that was next door to a whorehouse.
"Ruth and I aren't your typical tourists," Len informed Jessie with a wink, as she settled into a chair by the fireplace, where a welcoming fire crackled. She could have guessed as much from the artifacts scattered throughout the room -- an intricately tooled leather ottoman, carvings of various animals and religious deities, a large Japanese scroll on one wall. No tacky giant sombreros or painted conch shells for this pair.
"That reminds me, I have something for you two," Ruth said, beaming at Zach and Sara. She disappeared into the next room, returning moments later with a rumpled shopping bag. "Good thing I got these in extralarge. You've each grown a foot!" She produced a pair of bundles wrapped loosely in brown paper tied with string. "They're dashikis," she explained when the children had opened their gifts and stood staring in bewilderment at what no self-respecting adolescent would be caught dead in. Remembering the frilly dresses Grandmother Holland used to send her every birthday, which were always a size too small, Jessie felt a pang of sympathy.
"Thanks, Grandma," Zach said with forced enthusiasm. "It'll go good with the congo drums you got me last time." He nudged Sara with his elbow, and she thanked Ruth, too.
"I understand you're originally from Arizona," Ruth remarked to Jessie when they were sipping wine in front of the fire, the kids off in the den watching TV. Before Jessie could reply, she added, "Our friends, the Rosenblatts, have a house in Sedona. We were there over the holidays. You remember Al and Esther, don't you, darling?" She turned to Jonathon. "Their daughter was in Becca's class at Princeton." He nodded, looking vaguely uncomfortable, while a distant alarm went off in Jessie's head, like the sound of an approaching siren. Ruth brought her pleasant, smiling gaze back to Jessie. "Do you have family there?"
"My mother," Jessie told her.
"Well, in that case, you must visit often."
"Actually, it's been a few years."
"Ah." Ruth gave her a sharp look, and Jessie realized how it must sound.
She felt she should explain, but what was there to say? The plain fact was she and Beverly were all but estranged. Years ago, her mother had made it clear she'd never forgive Jessie for her role in the accident that had claimed Jessie's father's life. In one way or another, Jessie had been a disappointment to her ever since.
She was relieved when Ruth changed the subject. "I enjoyed your piece in The New Yorker," she said. "I found it rather remarkable, actually." She arched a brow, her expression making it clear she was more amazed that Jessie had managed to infiltrate Williamsburg's tight-knit Hasidic community than by her writing ability.
"Thanks." Jessie warmed at the compliment nonetheless. "I wasn't sure I could pull it off."
She'd spent months befriending several Hassidic women, who couldn't have had less in common with her -- wives who wore the traditional marriage wig and who sat in a separate part of the synagogue from their husbands and sons. At the time, she couldn't have known her foray into Judaism would one day prove useful in more ways than one. That is, if Jonathon ever got around to popping the question.
"Did you study journalism in school?" Len asked, leaning back in his club chair and sipping his wine.
"Not really. I sort of picked it up along the way." Jessie scanned the collection of framed photos on the mantel. There were ones of Zach and Sara at different ages, and of Jonathon and his two brothers, including one of Jonathon in a cap and gown posed against an ivied brick wall -- he'd graduated from Yale before getting his master's in journalism at Columbia. She thought better of mentioning that she'd gone to Arizona State.
"Well, you've obviously done well for yourself," Ruth said.
"I'm lucky. Most writers don't make a living at it."
"What counts most is that you're doing what you love. And how nice that you and Jon have that in common." Jessie detected a note of irony in Ruth's honeyed tone, or had she just imagined it?
"I'll toast to that." Jonathon raised his glass. One of the things she loved about him was that he didn't differentiate between his position as New York bureau chief of CTN and her considerably less-well-paid career as a freelance journalist. They were both equally worthy in his eyes.
"Of course, it was different in our day," Ruth went on. She and Leonard exchanged a coded glance. "We did what we thought was right, not just what struck our fancy. Take divorce, for instance. It was practically unheard of. Couples simply worked things out. You think it's luck that your father and I have been together all these years?" Her voice remained mild, but now the honey was laced with arsenic.
Jonathon was visibly pained.
The awful realization swept over Jessie that she'd been duped. The warmth with which his parents had welcomed her had been nothing more than a false front hiding their true feelings: They wanted no part of her.
She barely managed to get through lunch. The Silvers made small talk that excluded her, while Zach ignored her and Sara darted evil glances at her across the table. Jonathon's encouraging little squeezes did nothing to alleviate the dull ache in her belly that had little to do with the stringy corned beef and leaden potato knishes.
"All right, I admit it wasn't a roaring success," he acknowledged in the car on the way home, after he'd dropped off the kids.
"That's putting it mildly," she said coolly. "The town stocks would've been preferable."
"Come on. It wasn't that bad."
"I felt like a party crasher."
"You could've fooled me. It looked like you were enjoying yourself."
"What can I say? I was raised by a woman who, if there was a cockroach in her soup, would sooner eat it than risk offending her hostess."
"Well, you were spared that at least," he said with a chuckle.
Jessie hadn't meant it as a joke, but she was too drained to get into it right now. All she wanted was to be home, in her pj's, curled up in front of the TV with her cat purring on her lap.
"Give it time," he added, more gently. "They'll come around." But she thought she detected a note of uncertainty in his voice.
"Who, your parents or your kids?"
"My parents liked you," he said, a bit defensively.
Was he delusional? "Yeah, like pilgrims liked the Indians."
"There were Jewish pilgrims?" He cast her a wry, sidelong glance.
Jessie glared at him. If he thought he could jolly her out of this, he was sadly mistaken. "I wouldn't know. Not being Jewish myself."
pardThe storm that'd been threatening all day had finally broken, and rain was pouring down in sheets, drumming on the roof and sizzling off the windshield. Jonathon slowed as they sloughed through a puddle the size of a small pond. "Look, okay, they weren't exactly rolling out the red carpet," he admitted, "but it didn't have anything to do with you. They're still upset about Rebecca and me splitting up -- she's the daughter they never had."
"It would've been nice if you hadn't left me swinging in the wind. And I don't mean just with your folks."
He grimaced. "I'm sorry about the kids. They weren't on their best behavior."
"It didn't help that I was stuck in the backseat." Jessie had sat up front on the way back, but she was still smarting from this morning's ordeal.
He shrugged. "Zach climbed in before I could stop him. I didn't want to make a big deal of it."
"Well, it was a big deal to me. And to Sara," she was quick to add.
He looked chagrined, but she didn't know if it was because of her or Sara. Probably a little of both. "I never said it would be easy." He strained to see past the torrent that had made a waterfall of the windshield, his body angled forward against the steering wheel.
"I didn't expect it to be," she told him.
"It's nothing against you. They're just not used to the idea of their father having a girlfriend."
"Is Rebecca seeing anyone?"
Jonathon shot her a look that seemed to say, Get real. But was it so out of the question? His ex-wife was an attractive woman. Or was it that the idea made him uncomfortable? Was he, like his children, hanging on to the shell of his former life?
"I can see it from their point of view," she said, struggling to be fair. "On the other hand, they should know you have a life outside of them."
"Maybe if we hadn't met so soon after Becca and I separated..." His voice trailed off and his expression turned inward for a moment. Then he shook himself free of whatever memory he was caught up in and flashed her a contrite smile. "They don't call us the walking wounded for nothing."
She snorted. "I wasn't exactly twisting your arm, as I recall." A week after their serendipitous meeting in the Korean deli, they were sleeping together.
"All I'm saying is that you've never had to go through a divorce. You don't know what it's like."
"I have a pretty good idea," she said. She'd been engaged once and still carried a residue of guilt for all but leaving Mike at the altar. "I know what it's like to hurt someone you love. I know about waking up at 2:00 A.M. feeling like you've swallowed a handful of razor blades. If I don't know what it's like to get divorced, it's only because I've never been married. And at this rate, it's not likely I ever will be." Her voice rose on a trembling note. She was dismayed to realize she was on the verge of tears. Until now, the M-word had been only vaguely alluded to, something that might occur in the distant future. But she could no longer hide her true feelings.
"I'm not sure where you're going with this," Jonathon said cautiously.
"I'm not sure, either. Why don't you tell me." He might have all the time in the world, but she didn't have that luxury. She was thirty-five years old, with rapidly aging ovaries and a well-meaning gynecologist who frequently reminded her of that fact. She took a deep breath, all thoughts of snuggling with her cat on the sofa eclipsed by her rising emotion. "Okay then, let me put it another way: Where do you see us in six months?"
She waited for the answer that could change her life, a breath trapped high in her chest like a small, quivering bird. At last, in a flat voice that didn't exactly inspire confidence, and that even sent a small chill up her spine, he answered, "Still together, I hope."
"Can you think of a reason we wouldn't be?" She struggled to keep her tears in check, not wanting him to see how much she had invested in this.
They plunged into the shadow of an overpass, where he navigated his way through another pond-sized puddle. "Is this a trick question?" he asked, with the faintest edge in his voice.
"All I want is an honest answer."
He sighed. "I love you, Jess. You know that. And I don't want to lose you, but..." His face was a pale mask in the glare of oncoming headlights. As a newsman, Jonathon dealt only with facts. His biggest drawback was also his greatest asset: He'd never lie to her. "I can't make any promises. I don't know when, or if, I'll be ready for more than this."
"We hardly see each other as it is," she reminded him.
"I know," he said. "I wish it didn't have to be this way, but my children come first. For now, at least."
Jessie was doing her best to understand, but right now she was too upset. What would Erin do? she wondered. But Erin, with her adoring husband and perfect child, might as well be in a different universe. How could she possibly know what it was like to have the man she loved slip through her fingers?
Not that it was over. She knew Jonathon had been telling the truth when he'd said he loved her. But was it enough? She wasn't sure how much longer she could stand being in limbo.
They drove in silence the rest of the way. The rain had tapered off by the time Jonathon pulled to a stop in front of her building, a converted brownstone in Chelsea, on the corner of Twentieth and Ninth. Glancing up at the third floor to see her windows ablaze, she realized that she'd forgotten to turn out her lights as she was dashing out the door, hours ago that seemed more like a lifetime. Damn. As if her overdue Con Edison bill wasn't already enough to bankrupt a Third World nation, more than most people paid in rent in her hometown of Willow Creek. It served to remind her of her career slump, which at the moment seemed to mirror the state of her love life.
"See you tomorrow?" Jonathon said hopefully.
"I don't know. I'm going to be pretty busy," she hedged.
"You're not still mad at me, are you?" He shut off the engine, turning to regard her gravely.
"Mad? No." More like crushed.
"What about Tuesday then?"
"Don't you have therapy?"
"Right. I forgot." Tuesday evenings he and his ex-wife and children had family therapy. Until she'd started seeing Jonathon, Jessie hadn't even known there was such a thing, postdivorce.
"Just as well," she said airily. "I promised Drew I'd help him go over the photos for his show." Let Jonathon wonder if her upstairs neighbor was more than just a good friend.
He took hold of her arm as she was climbing out of the car. In the glare of a streetlamp, through the rain dribbling down the windshield, his face was cast in a queer, undersea glow. "I'm not saying it'll always be this way," he said softly. "I just...I want to be honest about where things stand."
"I think I have a pretty good picture," she said in a low, quivering voice.
"I'm not going to lie to you, Jess."
"All right then, since we're being so honest," she said, "don't count on me sticking around until you make up your mind." Unlike Erin, who never had any trouble speaking her mind, Jessie usually found it hard to express her feelings. But this time the words came easily. The hard part, she knew, would be following through.
He arched a brow. "Is that an ultimatum?"
"No, just the way it is."
With a sigh, he let go of her arm. "Look, we're both tired. Can we talk about this tomorrow?"
"Fine. Whatever." She was getting out of the car when her foot bumped up against something on the floor -- the box of Teuscher chocolates she'd meant to give to his parents. With the excruciating trip to Rhinebeck, she'd forgotten all about it. Now she snatched it up and tucked it under her arm. Just as well. They didn't deserve it anyway.
Dashing up the brownstone steps, rain mingling with the tears that trickled down her cheeks, she thought about Erin, the days when they'd console each other with chocolate chip cookies and ice cream in times of heartbreak. Jessie couldn't wait to call her. Just talking to her best friend would make her feel better. Erin's perfect marriage shimmered in her mind's eye, the touchstone that had been a constant throughout her string of failed relationships, reminding her that such happiness did exist, that it wasn't just in fairy tales. Though at the moment it seemed unlikely that she'd ever find it.
Jessie trudged up to the third floor to the lush strains of La Bohème -- she wasn't alone in her misery, it seemed; Clive always listened to Puccini when nursing a broken heart. She unlocked the door to her apartment and before she was all the way inside Delilah began twining in and out between her legs, meowing piteously. Jessie picked her up, burying her face in Delilah's thick black fur, thinking, At least someone's glad to see me.
Glancing about, she took in the marble fireplace and parquet floors, the French windows that opened onto the street below, telling herself how lucky she was to have this place, that she could be living in a dump or one of those sterile high-rises where you'd get a nosebleed going up in the elevator. But tonight there was no consoling herself. Even the homey touches -- the worn Oriental rug, the deep sofa with its scattering of bright throw cushions, the fifties atomic lamp, an oak bookcase displaying her collection of vintage Nancy Drew titles -- served only to remind her that she had no one to share it with.
She sank down on the sofa, not even bothering to take off her coat, which was probably ruined from the rain. Delilah leapt off her lap at once; the only thing she hated more than being left alone all day was getting wet. Jessie remembered the box of chocolates and pried it open. She was starving after having choked down only a few bites at the Silvers'. But instead of truffles in neat rows, there was only a gluey chocolate sludge; the floor heater in the car must have melted them. With a low cry, she hurled the box at the wall, where it stuck for a moment, then slid halfway down before plopping unceremoniously on the floor, leaving a brown snail trail on the yellow paint. She stared at the mess, then let out a burbling sound halfway between a sob and a laugh. She couldn't even manage a grand gesture without it looking ridiculous.
Erin will make it better. She always does. Slumped on the sofa staring into space, Jessie found herself remembering the day they'd met, in the girls' bathroom at Yavapai Elementary. The day she climbed aboard the supercharged V-8 engine that was Erin D'Amico, and never looked back.
It was 1980, and Jessie had just moved with her mother from Pasadena to the small town of Willow Creek, Arizona, in the mountains north of Phoenix. And if the worst thing that had happened to her thus far was her father dying, entering the sixth grade at Yavapai Elementary was a close second. As the New Girl, she was an easy target. It didn't help that she was an inch taller than the tallest boy in the class, with strawberry blond hair so pale it was almost pink and translucent skin that showed every blush like a stain. Everything about her was wrong -- her clothes, even the lunches her mother packed. Instead of regulation peanut butter and jelly or bologna on Wonder Bread, Beverly, on some kind of health kick then, made her sandwiches with wholesome brown bread glopped with hummus or runny egg salad. Her first day, in the cafeteria, Jessie had taken no more than a bite of her sandwich when Amanda Coolidge wrinkled her nose and pronounced loudly, to the snickering amusement of her friends, "Eeww. It looks like diarrhea." Jessie thought she would die on the spot.
The torment continued, day after day, forcing her to spend lunch recesses holed up in a bathroom stall. She was perched on a toilet seat one day, absorbed in Jane Eyre, when a piece of the apple she was nibbling on went down the wrong way and she was seized by a coughing fit.
"You okay in there?" called a loud, raspy voice. Unmistakably that of Erin D'Amico, a wisecracking girl in her homeroom who was always getting in trouble with Mrs. Ahern for mouthing off in class.
Jessie gave a last explosive cough that sent her pitching forward, the half-eaten carton of yogurt on her lap tumbling to the floor with a splat. After a stricken moment, when it became clear that Erin wasn't leaving, she crept from the stall. Thankfully, they were alone. Erin's gaze dropped to the mess on the floor, then traveled slowly back up. What kind of weirdo eats lunch in the bathroom? her eyes seemed to say. Jessie's face was on fire.
But to her relief Erin merely shrugged and grabbed a handful of paper towels. Together they cleaned up the mess, Erin chatting away as if they were old friends. Before she knew it, Jessie found herself confiding about Amanda. She didn't know quite what to expect -- sympathy seemed too much to hope for in her currently beaten-down state -- but she was startled nonetheless when Erin let out a laugh.
What would have been truly amusing, had years later they come across a snapshot of that moment, was the odd pair they made -- Jessie, a great pink-cheeked girl with legs to her armpits, and Erin, small but perfectly formed, a miniature replica of her adult self, minus breasts, with hair the color of root beer that fell in a glossy wedge over one eye. But back then, certain she was being made fun of, Jessie only ducked her head to hide her brimming eyes.
"Screw Amanda," Erin said. Jessie's head jerked up to meet her own astonished reflection in the mirror. "She's so dumb her brains would fall out if she sneezed." The bell rang, and Erin linked arms with Jessie on their way out. "Tomorrow you'll sit with me."
The following day Jessie's heart sank when she found Erin seated at Amanda's table in the cafeteria. Then she caught the twinkle of mischief in Erin's eye and knew she had something up her sleeve. When Amanda, frowning in puzzlement, pulled something lumpy wrapped in waxed paper from her lunch bag, the mists began to clear. Amanda's face reddened as she unwrapped a fat chunk of salami and wedge of runny cheese. Those around her fell silent, everyone staring. Amanda turned even redder as the stinky cheese smell rose around them, as if someone had farted. The stink hung in the air even after she'd stuffed the offending items back in the bag, muttering about some kind of mix-up. But Jessie knew that Erin had put it there, and she gave a silent cheer.
Amanda left her alone after that -- perhaps not wanting to remind anyone of her own brief descent into social pariahdom -- and things began to look up for Jessie. She stopped feeling so shy and began noticing things about other people rather than simply praying not to be noticed. More importantly, she had Erin. They had a lot in common, it turned out. They were both only children, though Erin lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods while Jessie's house was on a shady street lined with gracious homes. And if Erin didn't know what it was like to lose a parent, she knew how to fend for herself -- her dad was a bus driver and her mom a waitress, and their shifts often overlapped.
It wasn't until their junior year of high school, when Jessie caught the notice of popular senior, Mike Delahanty, that she and Erin stopped spending almost every free moment together. Looking back years later, Jessie knew it must have been hard for Erin, though she never let on. She occupied her time running for student council and taking a cooking class at night -- in self-defense, she claimed, since both her parents were hopeless in the kitchen.
After they graduated, Jessie went off to Arizona State and Erin to UC Davis. Jessie and Mike were still dating -- he'd gotten a job on a local construction crew -- so she often came home on weekends. Her senior year, when Mike presented her with a diamond engagement ring, it seemed the inevitable next step. In many ways, it was like they were married already. She was closer to Mike's family than to her mother, especially his younger brother Skip, who'd been in her class at Yavapai High and who'd palled around with her and Erin.
Jessie was so over the moon at first she scarcely noticed how out of sync she was, a diamond solitaire on her finger while other girls on campus sported nose and belly rings. Between term papers and exams, she tried on bridal gowns and flipped through binders of sample invitations. It wasn't until she and Erin were both home on spring break that she became aware of just how out of step she was. Taking in Erin's newly pierced eyebrow and shredded jeans, her spiky hair dyed the color of rooster feathers, Jessie was suddenly and acutely aware of the gap between them. As Erin chattered on about various student groups she was involved in, and her plans to house-sit for her roommate's parents in New York City that summer, Jessie felt the gulf widen. A year from now I'll be throwing Tupperware parties, she thought, gripped by a strange, new panic.
Erin told her about the summer job she had lined up at a restaurant in Greenwich Village owned by friends of the Shapiros. If it worked out, she planned to stay on in New York and fulfill her dream of becoming a chef.
"You'll be so far away," Jessie moaned.
"I'm not the one getting married," Erin said, giving her a long, assessing look.
As the Big Day drew near, Jessie's uncertainty grew. Often she became short of breath for no reason, or found herself bolting awake from a sound sleep, drenched in sweat. The only other time she'd felt this way was in the weeks after her father's death.
One day, Jessie fainted while being fitted for her wedding gown. Mike's mother insisted on taking her to a doctor, who diagnosed it as an acute anxiety attack. He wrote out a prescription for a mild sedative, which Jessie didn't fill. It'll pass, she told herself. Besides, what would it mean if she had to medicate herself in order to march down the aisle?
The day before the wedding Jessie awoke while it was still dark to discover she'd been buried in her sleep by an avalanche. Each breath was like sucking in air through a straw, and when she tried to sit up she found she could barely move.
Somehow she managed to pull herself upright. In the darkness, her bridal gown, hooked over the closet door in its plastic shroud, seemed to hover ghostlike. She extended a trembling hand to pick up the phone on the nightstand and punched in Erin's number.
"I'll be right over," Erin told her.
Half an hour later, huddled over mugs of coffee at Denny's, it all came pouring out -- the doubts Jessie had been having, the panic attacks. Erin listened, her forehead furrowed in consternation. It wasn't until Jessie slumped back in her seat that Erin said calmly, "You don't have to go through with it, you know."
"Of course, I do. It's all planned!" Jessie didn't see a way out. Besides, this was probably nothing more than a severe case of cold feet.
"I know. It's too bad it got this far before you realized..." Erin's frown deepened, and she took a sip of her coffee as if to keep from saying what was really on her mind. "Not that Mike isn't a great guy, but you haven't had a chance to be on your own, to live a little. How can you know this is what you want if you have nothing to compare it to?"
It was what Jessie had been thinking without being able to express it. Softly, she asked, "Even if you're right, what other choice do I have?"
"Come with me to New York. At least until you know for sure if this is what you want."
"New York," Jessie echoed in disbelief, as if Erin had suggested a canoe trip down the Amazon.
"You can stay with me," Erin went on in that maddeningly calm voice. "I'll ask the Shapiros, but I'm sure they won't mind."
Jessie's heart raced, and she felt slightly sick to her stomach. How could she do that to Mike? None of this was his fault. Besides, she knew in her heart that if she postponed the wedding, there'd be no turning back. She wouldn't just be burning her bridges, she'd be torching them.
She was opening her mouth to refuse Erin's offer when a clear, cool wave of sanity washed through her, banishing all but the shining reprieve Erin held out to her. Instead, she asked, "How soon can we leave?"
"Right now, if you like."
Jessie had only a vague recollection of what came next. She dimly recalled throwing clothes into a suitcase back at her house. She didn't even take the time to shower; she wanted to be gone by the time her mother woke up. Some instinct told her that if she were to linger any longer than it took to scribble a note to Mike, and one to Beverly, she'd lose her nerve. Later, when she and Erin were well on their way, the full impact of what she was doing, the hurt she was causing, would sink in. But at that moment, as she was flying out the door and across the dew-damp lawn to where Erin's orange VW bug, aptly nicknamed the Pumpkin, idled at the curb, the guilt that in the days and weeks to come would consume her was but a distant voice faintly heard amid the roar of blood in her head. She felt like a thief making a getaway. Not until years later did she realize she'd only stolen what was rightfully hers: the destiny she was meant to fulfill.
Whatever that was.
Now, fifteen years later, what did she have to show for it except a bunch of articles in magazines growing dog-eared in doctors' offices? That, and a string of failed relationships. The only thing that allowed her to keep the faith that she'd one day find her soul mate was knowing that Erin had found that kind of happiness with Skip. If he had yet to forgive Jessie for what she'd done to his brother, he was good to Erin. They had the kind of marriage other couples envied. Despite the odds against them -- they'd been so young, with Kayla on the way and Erin still reeling from the deaths of her parents -- they'd made it work.
Briefly, Jessie wondered what would've happened if she'd married Mike. Would it have been so terrible? True, he was nothing like his brother. Where Skip was the still-waters-run-deep type, Mike was white-water rapids. Yet she knew that Mike had truly loved her and that she'd wounded him deeply. Maybe this was her punishment, to be forever disappointed in love.
She stared at the chocolaty ooze on the floor, which Delilah was tentatively sniffing at before she roused herself, as if from a deep sleep, and reached for the phone. She punched the speed dial button for Erin's number.
"Darby Inn," Erin answered after several rings.
After all these years Jessie still hadn't gotten used to the crisp, professional voice Erin used at the inn. "It's me," she said. Jessie waited for Erin to say something in her normal voice, low and smoky, with a little laugh waiting to break out, but there was only a choked sound at the other end.
Instantly, Jessie forgot her own troubles. "Erin, what is it? What's wrong?"
There was a long pause, then Erin answered in a low, trembling voice, "It's Skip. He's left me."
Copyright © 2005 by Eileen Goudge
Jessie Holland is in search of a hot story for Savvy magazine when her editor poses a compelling question -- can you ever really go home again? Jumping on the idea, and with her love life currently at a crossroads, Jessie plans to return to her Arizona hometown and follow the path not taken -- with a twist. Her best friend back home, Erin Delahanty, is dealing with a crumbling marriage, a teenage daughter, and the demands of running a bed & breakfast. Needing to take stock of her life, she agrees to Jessie's offer: she'll live in Manhattan for six months, while Jessie steps into Erin's shoes. But the choices and challenges they face take them by surprise...and what began as a daring magazine article will change both women forever.