It all started with a second martini.
“Come on,” Meghann said, “have another drink.”
“No way.” Elizabeth didn’t handle alcohol well; God knew that had been proven conclusively back in 1976 when she’d been at the University of Washington.
“You can’t refuse to drink at my forty-second birthday party. Remember how drunk I got last spring when you turned forty-five?”
What a debacle that had been.
Meghann sensed hesitation, and like any good attorney, she pounced on it. “I’ll have Johnny pick us up.” “Are you sure Johnny’s old enough to drive?”
“Now, that hurts. All of my boyfriends have their driver’s licenses.”
“And I thought you had no standards.”
“I keep them as low as possible.” Meghann raised her hand and flagged down the waitress, who hurried over. “We’ll take two more martinis. And bring us a plate of nachos-heavy on the refried beans.”
Elizabeth couldn’t help smiling. “This is going to be ugly.”
The waitress returned, set two elegant glasses down on the table, and picked up the empties.
“Here’s to me,” Meghann said, clinking her glass against Elizabeth’s.
For the next hour, their conversation drifted down old roads and around old times. They’d been friends for more than twenty years. In the two decades since college, their lives had gone in opposite directions-Elizabeth had put all her energies into wife-and-motherhood; Meghann had become a first-rate divorce attorney-but their friendship had never wavered. For years, as Elizabeth and her family had moved from town to town, they’d kept in touch via e-mail and phone calls. Now, finally, they lived close enough to see each other on special occasions. It was one of the things Elizabeth loved most about living in Oregon.
By the time the third round was delivered, Meghann was laughing uproariously about the sound the cash register made.
“D’ya see tha hunk o’ burning love in the corner over there?” Meg glanced slyly at a college-age boy sitting by the window. “He looks lonely.”
“And look-no braces. He probably got them taken off last week. He’s just your type.”
Meghann dug through the nachos, looking for one with a lot of cheese on it. “Not everyone is lucky enough to have married their college sweetheart, kiddo. Besides, I don’t have a type anymore. I did once. Now I’ll stick with what makes me happy.”
Happy. The word hit Elizabeth hard.
“I wonder if a big ole wet one from a birthday girl-Birdie? What’s the matter?”
Elizabeth pushed the martini away and crossed her arms. It had become her favorite stance lately. Sometimes, she found herself standing in a room alone, with her arms bound so tightly around her own chest that she couldn’t draw an even breath. It was as if she were trying to trap something inside of her that wanted out.
“It’s nothing, really.”
Meghann lowered her voice. “Look. I know something’s wrong, Birdie. I’m your friend. I love you. Talk to me.”
This was why Elizabeth didn’t drink. In such a weakened state, her unhappiness swelled to unmanageable proportions, and the cap she kept on her emotions wouldn’t stay put. She looked across the table at her best friend, and knew she had to say something. She simply couldn’t hold it all inside anymore.
Her marriage was failing. Thinking it was hard; saying it was almost unthinkable.
They loved each other, she and Jack, but it was a feeling wrought mostly of habit. The passion had been gone for a long time. More and more often, it felt as if they were out of step, dancing to different pieces of music. He wanted sex in the morning; she wanted it at night. They compromised by going months without making love, and when they did finally reach out, their passion was as tired as their need.
Still, they were the envy of their friends. Everyone pointed to them and said, Look, a marriage that lasts. She and Jack were like the final exhibit in a museum that had been emptying for years.
She couldn’t possibly say all of that. Words had too much power. They had to be handled with fireproof gloves or they’d burn you to the bone. “I’m not very happy lately; that’s all.”
“What is it you want?”
“It’ll sound stupid.”
“I’m half drunk. Nothing will sound stupid.”
Elizabeth wished she could smile at that, but her heart was beating so hard she felt light-headed. “I want . . . who I used to be.”
“Oh, honey.” Meghann sighed heavily. “I don’t suppose you’ve talked to Jack about this.”
“Every time we get close to talking about something that matters, I panic and say nothing’s wrong. Afterward, I want to hit myself in the head with a ball peen hammer.”
“I had no idea you were this unhappy.”
“That’s the worst part of it. I’m not unhappy, either.” She slumped forward. Her elbows made the table rattle. “I’m just empty.”
“You’re forty-five years old and your kids are gone and your marriage has gone stale and you want to start over. My practice is full of women like you.”
“Oh, good. I’m not only unhappy and overweight, I’m a cliché, too.”
“A cliché is just something that’s commonly true. Do you want to leave him?”
Elizabeth looked down at her hands, at the diamond ring she’d worn for twenty-four years. She wondered if she could even get it off. “I dream about leaving him. Living alone.”
“And in those dreams, you’re happy and independent and free. When you wake up, you’re lonely and lost again.”
Meghann leaned toward her. “Look, Birdie, women come into my office every day, saying they’re not happy. I write down the words that will tear their families apart and break a lot of hearts. And you know what? Most of them end up wishing they’d tried harder, loved better. They end up trading their homes, their savings, their lifestyle, for a nine-to-five job and a stack of bills, while hubby-dearest waits ten seconds, then marries the salad-bar girl at Hooters. So, here’s a million dollars worth of advice from your best friend and divorce attorney: If you’re empty, it’s not Jack’s fault, or even his problem, and leaving him won’t solve it. It’s your job to make Elizabeth Shore happy.”
“I don’t know how to do that anymore.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Birdie, let’s be martini-honest here. You used to be a lot of things-talented, independent, artistic, intellectual. In college, we all thought you’d end up being the next Georgia O’Keeffe. Now you organize every city fund-raiser and decorate your house. I got a law degree in less time than it takes you to choose a fabric for the sofa.”
“That’s not fai-”
“I’m a lawyer. Fair doesn’t interest me.” Her voice softened. “I also know that Jack’s job has been hard on you. I know how much you wanted a place where you could put down roots.”
“You don’t know,” Elizabeth said. “We’ve lived in more than a dozen houses since we got married, in almost half that many cities. You’ve lived in Seattle forever. You don’t know what it’s like to always be the stranger in town, the new wife with no friends or résumé of your own. Hell, you started college at sixteen and still managed to fit in. I know I’ve let my house become an obsession, but it’s because I belong in Echo Beach, Meg. Finally. For the first time since I was a child, I have a home. Not a house, not a condo, not a place to rent for a year or two. A home.” She realized she was practically yelling. Embarrassed, she lowered her voice. “I feel safe there. You can’t understand that because you’ve never been afraid.”
Meghann seemed to consider that. Then she said, “Okay, forget the house. How about this: I can’t remember the last time I saw you paint.”
Elizabeth drew back. This was something she definitely didn’t want to talk about. “I painted the kitchen last week.”
“Very funny.” Meghann fell quiet, waiting for a response.
“There wasn’t time after the kids were born.”
Meghann’s expression was loving, but steady. “There is now.”
A subtle reminder that the girls were at college now, that Elizabeth’s reason for being had moved on. Only a woman with no children would think it was so easy to begin again. Meg didn’t know what it was like to devote twenty years of your life to children and then watch them walk away. On shows like Oprah, the experts said it left a hole in your life. They underestimated.
It was a crater. Where once there had been flowers and trees and life, now nothing but rock remained.
Still, she had to admit that the same thought had occurred to her. She’d even tried to sketch a few times, but it was a terrible thing to reach for a talent too late and come up empty-handed. No wonder she’d poured all of her creativity into her beloved house. “It takes passion to paint. Or maybe just youth.”
“Tell that to Grandma Moses.” Meghann reached into her handbag and pulled out a small notepad with a pen stuck in the spiral column. She flipped the pad open and wrote some- thing down, then ripped off the piece of paper and handed it to Elizabeth.
The note said: Women’s Passion Support Group. Thursday, 7:00/ Astoria Community College.
“I’ve been waiting almost a year for the right time to recommend this to you.”
“It sounds like a meeting of porn stars. What do they talk about? How to keep your lipstick on during a blow job?”
“Funny. Maybe you should try stand-up. And God knows a blow job has saved more than one marriage.”
“Listen to me, Birdie. I have a lot of clients in Grays County, and I send them to this meeting. It’s a group of women-mostly newly divorced-who get together to talk. They’ve all given up too much of themselves, and they’re trying to find a way back.”
Elizabeth stared down at the note. She knew that Meg was waiting for her to say something, but she couldn’t seem to find her voice. It was one thing to get drunk and complain about her unhappiness to a best friend; it was quite another to walk into a room full of strange women and declare that she had no passion in her life.
She hoped her smile didn’t look as brittle as it felt. “Thanks, Meg.” Still smiling, she flagged down the waitress and ordered another martini.
Echo Beach, Oregon
The bedside clock dropped one blocky, red number after another into the darkness. At 6:30-a full thirty minutes early-Jack reached over and disabled the alarm.
He lay there, staring at the slats of light sneaking through the louvered blinds. The bedroom was striped in bands of black and white; the horizons of darkness made everything look strangely unfamiliar. He could make out the barest hint of rain falling outside. Another gray, overcast day. Normal early December weather on the Oregon coast.
Elizabeth was asleep beside him, her silvery blond hair fanned across the white pillowcase. He could hear the soft, even strains of her breathing, the occasional muffled snore that meant she would probably wake up with a cold. She’d probably caught a bug last week when she’d gone to Seattle.
In the earlier days of their marriage, they had always slept nestled together, but somewhere along the way, they’d started needing space between them. Lately, she’d begun sleeping along the mattress’s very edge.
But today, things were going to get better. Finally, at forty-six, he was going to get another chance. A Seattle production company was starting a weekly sports program that would cover the highlights of northwest sports; it had been picked up by the NBC affiliate. If he got the anchor job, he’d have to commute three days a week, but with the extra money, that wouldn’t be such a hardship. It was a hell of a step up from the pissant local coverage he’d been doing.
(Not where he should be, of course, not where he belonged, but sometimes one mistake could ruin a man.)
He’d be someone again.
For the last fifteen years, he’d worked his ass off, making progress in steps too small to be seen by the human eye. In a series of shitty little towns, he’d paid for his mistakes. Today, finally, he had a decent opportunity, a chance to get back into the game. There was no way in hell he was going to drop the ball.
He got out of bed and immediately winced in pain. This damp climate played hell with his knees. Grimacing, he limped toward the bathroom. As usual, he had to walk over fabric samples and paint chips and open magazines. Birdie had been “redoing” their bedroom for months now, planning every move as if she were the defensive coordinator in a Super Bowl game. It was the same story in the dining room. Stuff heaped in every corner, waiting for that rarest of moments: his wife actually making a decision.
He had already showered and shaved when Elizabeth stumbled into the room, tightening the thick cotton belt on her bathrobe.
“Morning,” she said with a yawn. “God, I feel like crap. I think I’m getting a cold. You’re up early.”
He felt a flash of disappointment that she’d forgotten. “Today’s the day, Birdie. I’m driving up to Seattle for that interview.”
A tiny frown tugged at her brow; then she obviously remembered. “Oh, yeah. I’m sure you’ll get the job.”
In the old days, Birdie would have pumped up his ego, assured him that it would all work out in the end, that he was destined for greatness. But she’d grown tired in the past few years; they both had. And he’d failed to land so many jobs over the years, no wonder she’d stopped believing in him.
He’d tried like hell to pretend he was happy here in Oregon, that all he wanted out of life was to be the noon sports anchor, covering mostly high-school sports in a midsized market. But Birdie knew he merely tolerated living in this nothing town on the edge of a barely-there city. He even hated being a mid-level celebrity. All it served to do was remind him of who he used to be.
She gave him a perfunctory smile. “More money will be great, especially with the girls in college.”
“You can say that again.”
Then she looked up at him. “Will the job make everything better, Jack?”
Her question sucked the air from his lungs. God, he was tired of this discussion. Her endless quest for the answer to what’s wrong with our lives was exhausting. Years ago, he’d tried to tell her that all her happiness shouldn’t depend on him. He’d watched as she’d given up more and more of herself. He couldn’t stop it, or didn’t stop it, but somehow it had become all his fault. He was sick to death of it. “Not today, Elizabeth.”
She gave him the sudden, hurt look that he’d come to expect. “Of course. I know it’s a big day for you.”
“For us,” he said, getting angry now.
Her smile was too bright to be real. “I picked a place for us to celebrate your new job.”
The sudden change in subject was their way of smoothing over the rough spots in their marriage. He could have stayed angry, forced a discussion, but what was the point? Birdie didn’t fight back and there was nothing new to say. “Where?”
“There’s a bear camp in Alaska. A place where you fly in and stay in tents and watch the grizzly bears in their natural environment. I saw an interview with the owner-Laurence John-on the Travel Channel.”
He unwrapped the towel from his waist and slung it haphazardly across the edge of the bathtub. Naked, he turned and headed into the walk-in closet, where he grabbed a pair of underwear, stepped into them, and turned to her. “I thought you were going to say dinner at the Heathman and dancing in the Crystal Ballroom.”
She moved hesitantly toward him. He noticed that she was twisting her wedding ring-a nervous habit from way back. “I thought maybe if we could get away . . . have an adventure . . .”
He knew what she was thinking, and it wouldn’t work. A new location was no more than a different stage upon which to act out the same old scenes, say the same old lines. Still, he touched her face gently, hoping his cynicism didn’t show. There was nothing he hated more than hurting her, although she’d grown so fragile in the past few years that protecting her emotions was an impossible task. “The bear camp sounds great. Do we get to share a sleep- ing bag?”
She smiled. “That can be arranged.”
He pulled her against him, holding her close. “Maybe we could celebrate right here in our own bed when I get home.”
“I could wear that Victoria’s Secret thing you got me.”
“I won’t be able to concentrate all day.” He kissed her. It was long and sweet, a kiss full of promise. The kind of kiss he’d almost forgotten. For a split second, he remembered how it used to be between them, back in the days when sex was unbelievably good. When spending the day in bed seemed like a perfect idea.
As he pulled back from her, he looked down into her beautiful, smiling face. Once, not all that long ago, they’d loved each other unconditionally. He missed those days, those emotions.
Maybe everything really could change for them today.