On Mystic Lake
From Part One
The true voyage of self-discovery
lies not in seeking new landscapes
but in having new eyes.–Marcel Proust
Rain fell like tiny silver teardrops from the tired sky. Somewhere behind a bank of clouds lay the sun, too weak to cast a shadow on the ground below.
It was March, the doldrums of the year, still and quiet and gray, but the wind had already begun to warm, bringing with it the promise of spring. Trees that only last week had been naked and brittle seemed to have grown six inches over the span of a single, moonless night, and sometimes, if the sunlight hit a limb just so, you could see the red bud of new life stirring at the tips of the crackly brown bark. Any day, the hills behind Malibu would blossom, and for a few short weeks this would be the prettiest place on Earth.
Like the plants and animals, the children of Southern California sensed the coming of the sun. They had begun to dream of ice cream and popsicles and last year’s cutoffs. Even determined city dwellers, who lived in glass and concrete high-rises in places with pretentious names like Century City, found themselves veering into the nursery aisles of their local supermarkets. Small, potted geraniums began appearing in the metal shopping carts, alongside the sun-dried tomatoes and the bottles of Evian water.
For nineteen years, Annie Colwater had awaited spring with the breathless anticipation of a young girl at her first dance. She ordered bulbs from distant lands and shopped for hand-painted ceramic pots to hold her favorite annuals.
But now, all she felt was dread, and a vague, formless panic. After today, nothing in her well-ordered life would remain the same, and she was not a woman who liked the sharp, jagged edges of change. She preferred things to run smoothly, down the middle of the road. That was where she felt safest–in the center of the ordinary, with her family gathered close around her.
These were the roles that defined her, that gave her life meaning. It was what she’d always been, and now, as she warily approached her fortieth birthday, it was all she could remember ever wanting to be. She had gotten married right after college and been pregnant within that same year. Her husband and daughter were her anchors; without Blake and Natalie, she had often thought that she might float out to sea, a ship without captain or destination.
But what did a mother do when her only child left home?
She shifted uneasily in the front seat of the Cadillac. The clothes she’d chosen with such care this morning, navy wool pants and a pale rose silk blouse, felt wrong. Usually she could take refuge in fashionable camouflage, by pretending to be a woman she wasn’t. Designer clothes and carefully applied makeup could make her look like the high-powered corporate wife she was supposed to be. But not today. Today, the waist-length brown hair she’d drawn back from her face in a chignon–the way her husband liked it, the way she always wore it–was giving her a headache.
She drummed her manicured fingernails on the armrest and glanced at Blake, who was settled comfortably in the driver’s seat. He looked completely relaxed, as if this were a normal afternoon instead of the day their seventeen-year-old daughter was leaving for London.
It was childish to be so scared, she knew that, but knowing didn’t ease the pain. When Natalie had first told them that she wanted to graduate early and spend her last quarter in London, Annie had been proud of her daughter’s independence. It was the sort of thing that seniors at the expensive prep school often did, and precisely the sophisticated sort of adventure Annie had wanted for her daughter.
Annie herself would never have had the courage for so bold a move–not at seventeen, not even now at thirty-nine. Travel had always intimidated her. Although she loved seeing new places and meeting new people, she always felt an underlying discomfort when she left home.
She knew this weakness was a remnant of her youth, a normal by-product of the tragedy that had tainted her childhood, but understanding her fear didn’t alleviate it. On every family vacation, Annie had suffered from nightmares–dark, twisted visions in which she was alone in a foreign land without money or direction. Lost, she wandered through unfamiliar streets, searching for the family that was her safety net, until, finally, sobbing in her sleep, she awoke. Then, she would curl into her husband’s sleeping body and, at last, relax.
She had been proud of her daughter’s independence and courage in choosing to go all the way to England by herself, but she hadn’t realized how hard it would be to watch Natalie leave. They’d been like best friends, she and her daughter, ever since Natalie had emerged from the angry, sullen rubble of the early teen years. They’d had hard times, sure, and fights and hurt feelings, and they’d each said things that shouldn’t have been said, but all that had only made their bond stronger. They were a unit, the “girls” in a household where the only man worked eighty hours a week and sometimes went whole days without remembering to smile.
She stared out the car window. The concrete-encrusted canyons of downtown Los Angeles were a blur of high-rise buildings, graffiti, and neon lights that left streaking reflections in the misty rain. They were getting closer and closer to the airport.
She reached for her husband, touched the pale blue cashmere of his sleeve. “Let’s fly to London with Nana and get her settled with her host family. I know–”
“Mom,” Natalie said sharply from the backseat. “Get real. It would be, like, so humiliating for you to show up.”
Annie drew her hand back and plucked a tiny lint ball from her expensive wool pants. “It was just an idea,” she said softly. “Your dad has been trying to get me to England for ages. I thought…maybe we could go now.”
Blake gave her a quick look, one she couldn’t quite read. “I haven’t mentioned England in years.” Then he muttered something about the traffic and slammed his hand on the horn.