Distant Shores Page 23


Elizabeth paid the cabdriver and stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of the Nashville airport.

It was cold out today. The air smelled of incipient snow; the skies were gray and bloated.

She wheeled her carry-on bag behind her. It bumped over the threshold as the electronic doors whooshed open. The United Airlines ticket counter was crowded with travelers, so she went instead to the bank of computers along the wall. It took a few minutes to find the departures terminal. She scanned through the flight numbers.

She found hers--989, Nashville to Detroit to Kennedy. While she was reading the gate number, the information changed.

The flight was delayed by two hours.

Groaning, she got in line, inched her way forward amid a chattering crowd. Finally, she reached the counter. The agent checked her ticket and confirmed that the flight was delayed; then she gave Elizabeth a meal voucher.

As if you could eat lunch in an airport for five dollars.

Thanking the agent, she left the counter. She dragged her suitcase behind her as she wandered up and down the aisles. In the bookstore, she bought a copy of the newest novel by Anne Rivers Siddons and the latest House and Garden magazine.

Finally, she'd seen everything there was to see, so she went into one of the restaurants, found a table by the window, and sat down. She stared out across the runway, watching the planes take off and land.

There's a place in Costa Rica, sugar beet, called Cloud Mountain--or some damned thing--that speaks right to m' heart.

When was the last time you traveled someplace exotic? Or scared yourself silly? Or took up some crazy thing, like hang gliding or skydiving?

She'd been working to keep the memories at bay, but now they flooded her. She couldn't forget . . .

You're missin' out on your own life. It's passin' you by.

Just 'cause my glasses are thick as Coke bottles doesn't mean I can't still see my little girl's heart. I hear the way you talk to Jack . . . and the way you don't talk to him. I know an unhappy marriage when I see one.

If only she could do something to change it. Maybe get on a plane and go wherever it took her. Land in a strange country and be someone else.

But where would she go? Machu Picchu, Paris, Nepal? She didn't even have a passport.

She wasn't that kind of woman. Unlike her father, she didn't dream of scaling Mount Everest or hang gliding down cliffs. There was only one place on earth she longed to go.

Home.

Her place by the sea. She remembered the night she'd gone down to the beach at midnight and seen the whales swim past. Their haunting, elegiac cry had seemed drawn out of her, pulled from that sad, hidden place in her heart where she stored the dreams she'd set aside.

She'd done so much of that in her life, put her dreams aside.

. . . your own life . . . it's passin' you by.

It was true. Still, it hurt to realize that her father had known it, too. That he'd looked into his grown daughter's eyes and seen unhappiness.

What would it be like, she wondered, to look in the mirror and see a whole and happy woman staring back at her?

And now, in less than an hour, she would board one of these planes, find her seat, and fly to New York. There, she would move into that trendy, impersonal apartment and once again trim her life to fit Jack's.

"I don't want to go." She whispered the words aloud, looking up. A sad, tired-looking woman mouthed the words back to her. She stared at her reflection, wondering when exactly she'd lost her looks. Had they gone the way of her dreams? And how had she gotten here, to this place so entrenched in the ordinary?

It hadn't been until she'd lost her youth and finished raising her children that she'd bothered to wonder what came next. More important, when it was her turn.

Now she was consumed by the question. It was a brushfire, burning out of control, and she was terrified that it would char her beyond recognition.

Every little decision had been a brick that had built a wall between the woman she was becoming and the one she imagined she could be.

If that girl don't spread her wings, one day she's plumb gonna forget how to fly.

That was the crux of it. Somewhere along the way of all those ordinary years, she'd forgotten how to fly. Wife-and-motherhood had kept her too close to the ground.

No, that wasn't fair. It wasn't the job she'd done that clipped her wings; it was the way she'd chosen to do it. All across this country women who were good wives and good mothers remembered to become their best selves as well. Elizabeth simply hadn't been one of them.

Maybe it was a weakness in her, a fear of failure that made safety seem more important than fulfillment. Or maybe it was simpler than that. Maybe she'd just . . . gone on, done what needed to be done for the day and been too tired by nightfall to reach for something else. There had been days--years even--when she hadn't been able to find ten spare minutes in a day. In those days, when Jack had been playing ball and the kids had been busy all the time, her biggest dream had been a quiet bath in the evening.

She glanced down at her watch.

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Her flight would be boarding soon. Nashville to Detroit to New York.

And she decided.

No more waiting and praying for change to occur like some chemical reaction.

She got up, paid for her lunch, and walked back down the busy aisle toward the newsstand. There, she purchased a box of stationery--the only one they had. At the top of each sheet was a line drawing of Graceland and the words: elvis welcomes you to wild and wonderful tennessee.

She went back to the restaurant and reclaimed her seat. Without thinking--or worrying--she began to write.

Dear Jack:

I love you. It seems important to start this letter with those words. We say them to each other all the time, and I know we mean them. I also know it's not enough anymore, is it? Not for either of us.

For twenty-four years, I've been your wife. When we began, I never wanted to be anything else. I guess it became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Now I can't remember the dreams I once had, but I miss them, Jack. I miss me.

I hope you'll be able to understand.

No more cheerleader years for me. I need to get in the game. I'm afraid if I don't do it now, I never will, and I can't be this shadow-woman anymore. I can't.

So--and here's the punch line--I'm not following you to New York. Not this time.

I should have had the guts to tell you this in person. I wish I had that kind of strength. It's funny, I could lift a bus to save your life, but I can't find the courage to say out loud that I've forgotten how it feels to love you. My voice is one of the things I hope to find.

In all our years together, there has only been one place that was mine, and I don't want to leave it. I don't want to follow you again.

I'm going home. I need some time alone. I need to find out who I am and who I can become.

I pray you'll understand. I love you, Jack.

E.

She didn't even reread the letter. She folded it up, put it in an envelope, stamped and mailed it.

Then she went looking for a flight to Portland.

FIFTEEN

After only a few days at the beach, Elizabeth felt rejuvenated. She slept late, until almost eight-thirty, when the cawing of the shorebirds invariably wakened her; then she made herself a cup of decaf tea, had a bowl of granola, and went outside.

The days had been gloriously sunny, the kind of crisp, winter days that invariably drew tourists to the Oregon coast. She'd spent hours walking up and down the beach, just plain breathing. That simple gift had been granted her again from the moment she first saw the sea.

She spent the barest minimum time on chores and errands. She'd reinstated mail service and arranged for the furniture to be redelivered, and she'd purchased enough heat-and-eat dinners to last a week. That was it. No contacting friends, no checking on the multitude of volunteer activities that used to munch through so much of her time, no cleaning or cooking. Definitely no To Do lists. She'd even put off scheduling the telephone reinstallation and kept her cell phone turned off.

Instead, she walked on the beach. Her beach. It had been there for the two years she and Jack had lived here, just twenty-six steps below her patch of land, and yet, except for that one night with the orcas, she'd never gone down there. The stairs had frightened her, as had the tides. On the first day they'd visited the property, Jack had cautioned her against using the stairs--too rickety, he'd said--and the tides. I grew up near the beach, remember? A big wave can come up out of nowhere and pull a full-grown man out to sea.

But it was fear that had swept Elizabeth out to sea and left her drowning. No more. Now she tramped up and down the steps like a local and kept a portable tide chart in her back pocket. In her walks, she'd come to know every inch of Echo Beach. She'd found "her" rock, a flat, gray stone, rubbed to velvet softness by the tides. Sometimes, she'd sit there for an hour or more, just staring out to sea.

She'd begun to dream again. Not ethereal visions that came and went with sleep, but real hopes and aspirations. Although she hadn't found the courage to try painting, she'd dug through her belongings and found an old sketchbook and a worn-down bit of charcoal. She'd discovered that her fingers worked better in the sea air; the stiffness that had plagued her for years had gone. Drawing, came--not easily yet, not like it once had, but it came. After all the sagging middle years, simply picking up a piece of charcoal felt like a triumph.

This new life of hers held a freedom she'd never known before. She went to bed when she felt like it, got up when she wanted, and spent the entire day doing whatever popped into her head.

Yesterday she'd gone to town early and walked from store to store. She hadn't even brought a purse with her. Shopping wasn't the point. Seeing was the point. She couldn't remember the last time she'd done that, simply experienced town. After a while she'd felt almost like an alien, noticing people's faces . . . their mannerisms . . . the easy way a child smiled when the ice cream shop opened its doors for business. The tourist shops were full of beautiful art and crafts; she hadn't known that. As a local, she'd bypassed the trendy shops and blown through the others in a rush, clutching a To Do list. She'd missed so much.

And yet, throughout it all, Jack was never far from her thoughts.

By her calculations, he'd received her letter yesterday. That was why she hadn't reconnected the phone; she didn't want to talk to him yet. He'd always had an ability to erode any position she'd taken until it--and she--crumpled beneath the weight of what he wanted.

She looked down at her sketch pad, wondering what to draw this morning. Inspiration was everywhere.

She saw a blue jay perched on a broken, leafless branch. The deep jeweltones of its wings were a stark, beautiful contrast to the weather-grayed bark.

The colors jumped out at her; it felt suddenly as if a veil had been lifted, one she didn't even remember donning, and now she saw the world in all its vibrancy, instead of the pale, shadowed version she'd come to expect. The gray-white sky . . . the concrete-colored sand . . . the evergreens . . . the ocher cliffs . . . the white-tipped curl of the waves.

For the first time in years, she needed to paint.

The first raindrop hit her forehead. It landed with a cold splat and squiggled down her cheek.

She opened her eyes and saw that clouds had rolled in. The sky was charcoal gray now, underscored in strands of ominous black.

She flipped up her hood, shoved all her supplies into the canvas bag at her feet, and ran for home.

By the time she reached the stairs, it wasn't just raining. It was raging. Wind swept up the jagged cliff and slapped her backside.

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