Distant Shores Page 28

There were two empty chairs at the table.

Elizabeth could have done it; she knew that suddenly, certainly. She could have tilted her chin up and walked through the whispering crowd and taken her single place at that double opening.

But why?

This wasn't her life. It was the one she'd taken on by default. The by-product of Jack's life. That was why she had so many acquaintances in this room and so few friends.

Long ago, when the girls had been small and money was tight and they'd moved to a new town every two years, she'd discovered that the quickest way to make friends was to volunteer for everything. Town by town, her pattern had stayed the same. Move in, start volunteering, make fragile friendships, move on.

In Echo Beach, she'd automatically shoehorned her life into Jack's footprint without bothering to question her choices.

Now she did just that.

She didn't want to be the woman she'd been before. Wasn't that the whole point of what she'd done? She didn't want to melt into this crowd, talk about the usual things, and become good-old-Elizabeth, the one to turn to in a pinch. Jack's wife.

She backed away from who she'd been and turned around. Like Cinderella, she ran down the stairs with her shawl fluttering out behind her and got into her car.

A quick glance at the dashboard clock told her it was six-forty.

The Passionless women meeting started in twenty minutes.

She started the car and hit the gas. It was seven-fifteen when she reached the community college.

Wrapping the shawl tightly around her, she walked briskly through the empty corridors and stepped into the classroom.

"Elizabeth!" Sarah Taylor said when she walked into the room. "We were afraid you weren't going to make it this week."

Amazingly, Elizabeth laughed. The welcome was what she'd needed. "I got lost."

Mina chuckled. "We're all lost, sweetie. Come on in."

Elizabeth wound through the circle of women and sat in an empty chair beside Kim.

Kim didn't smile. "You should have stayed away. This group'll just drag you down."

Elizabeth looked at the faces of these women who knew exactly how she felt right now. "I've been dragging myself down lately."

"Really? You look happier," Kim said.

Before Elizabeth could answer, Sarah started the meeting. "Who would like to begin tonight?"

To her own amazement, Elizabeth raised her hand. She felt a flash of fear when everyone looked at her. "My husband and I separated."

"And how do you feel about that?" Sarah asked gently.

Once Elizabeth started talking, she found that she couldn't stop. The whole story came tumbling out. She ended with, "Tonight I tried to go back to my old life, but that's not right, either. I need a new life, but I don't quite know how to start. So I came here."

Mina leaned forward. "I was thinking about you this week. Maybe I'm psychic." She gave Elizabeth a sad smile. "Anyhoo, yesterday, I was reading the college catalog, looking for classes I could take now that I can drive, and I noticed that a painting class is starting soon."

Elizabeth felt a little spark of something. Hope, maybe. "Really?"

Mina reached into her leather-patchwork handbag and pulled out a floppy catalog. "I saved it for you." She walked through the middle of the circle and handed the catalog to Elizabeth.

"Thanks," Elizabeth said, surprised to realize that she meant it.

After that, the discussion moved around the circle, dipping time and again into the kind of intimacy that was marked by sudden emotion--tears or laughter.

The only one who didn't speak was Kim. Throughout the whole meeting, she sat stiffly beside Elizabeth, fiddling with a half-empty cigarette pack, snorting derisively every now and then.

Finally, the meeting broke up. Elizabeth stood around for a few minutes, talking to the women; then she went back to her car.

She was almost to the parking lot when she noticed Kim, standing off by herself, smoking a cigarette.

Elizabeth hesitated for a moment. In her previous life, she would never have ventured into another person's pain. She would have kept her distance, been respectful.

Across the darkness, in the blue-white glare of a streetlamp, she looked at Kim. Their gazes met.

Elizabeth went to her. When she was closer, she saw tear tracks on Kim's pale face. "You want a cigarette?"

"No, thanks."

They stood there, silent, each one staring out toward the parking lot. Smoke scented the cool air.

"You ever go to the sand castle competition on Cannon Beach?" Kim asked, exhaling smoke.

"Sure." She knew the competition well; every local did. People came from miles around to build exquisite, intricate sculptures. Everything from castles to mermaids. Each entry looked beautiful and permanent, but by morning, the sea had taken them all back.

She understood. Kim had thought, as Elizabeth once had, that marriage was solid ground. But it was all sand. Here one minute, shaped into magical forms, and gone the next.

Kim looked at her. "Sarah thinks I'm scared. That I'm afraid to hope."

"We're all afraid."

"I guess." Kim tossed her cigarette down and stomped it out with her boot heel. "Well. See you next week."

"I'll be here."

Kim walked away, got in a pretty blue Miata, and drove away.

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Elizabeth followed her. Out on the highway, their paths diverged.

Elizabeth drove down the highway. On Stormwatch Lane, she stopped, pulled her mail out of the box, and then continued down the road for home.

By the time she parked, it was raining again.

Inside the house, she tossed her shawl on the kitchen table and flipped through the mail. There was a big manila envelope from Meghann.

She ripped it open. College catalogs fell out onto the table. Columbia. NYU. SUNY. Three of the graduate programs that had accepted Elizabeth all those years ago.

A Post-it note read: you can't say you don't have time now.

Elizabeth avoided talking to her daughters. She carefully called during school hours or when swim practice was going on, and left cheerful messages that sounded as if everything were unfolding as it always had. Dad was doing great in New York, lighting up the airwaves; Mom was working hard to get the place ready for renters. Lies that stacked like a house of cards.

She glanced at the mantel clock. It was one-forty-five.

Four-forty-five in Washington, D.C.

They'd be in swim practice right now. Saturday was the big meet against UVa.

Coward, Elizabeth thought as she punched in the number. She was so busy devising her pert, upbeat message that it took her a moment to realize Stephanie had answered.


Elizabeth laughed nervously. "Hey, honey, it's good to hear your voice. I've been thinking about you guys a lot lately."

"Hey, Mom." Stephanie sounded tired. "Your uterine-radar must be working. I'm sick."

"What's wrong?"

A pause slid through the line, and in that split second, Elizabeth imagined the worst. Motherhood was like that; it pushed you out on a ledge and then said, Be careful. Don't look down.

"Don't call nine-one-one or anything. I just have the stomach flu. Everything that goes down comes right back up."

"Is Jamie taking care of you?"

"Oh, yeah, that's her specialty. This morning she said, 'If you think you're going to puke, aim away from my new shoes.' "

Elizabeth laughed. It was so Jamie. "I'm sure you'll be back on your feet in no time."

"I hope so. Hey, Mom, I'm glad you called. I need to talk to you about something. Tim's parents invited Jamie and me to go skiing over spring break. They have a place in Vermont. It's the second week in March."

Thank God.

Elizabeth had been worrying about how she and Jack would handle the separation with the girls at home. It was one thing to avoid the truth by phone. It was quite another to lie to your children in person. "That sounds great."

"It's kind of expensive. Lift tickets--"

"Your dad can afford it." Elizabeth winced. She should have said We can afford it.

"It'd be the first spring break we haven't come home. Are you okay with that?"

Sweet Stephie, always worried about hurting people's feelings. Elizabeth had a sudden urge to say, Break a few eggs, honey, be courageous, but instead she said, "I'll miss you, of course, but you should go. Have fun."

"Thanks, Mom. So, how's it going with the house? You must be going crazy. Every time I call Dad, he sounds so amped about Manhattan. You must really miss him."

"I do," Elizabeth said, flinching at her word choice.

"How much longer will you be in Oregon?"

"I don't know. Nobody seems to want to live this far out, and we can't leave the house empty." She glanced down at her left hand, curled in her lap. The diamond ring was still there. Everything about it, her wearing of it, was both a lie and the deepest truth. Looking at it now, all she saw was the lie.

"So, how're classes going?" she said to change the subject.

It worked. Stephanie told several funny "Jamie stories" about how her sister had gotten into and out of trouble. "As usual," Steph said, "Jamie caused the social equivalent of a ten-car pileup and didn't even notice. Tim says she needs a rearview mirror to see her own life."

Elizabeth laughed. "She gets that from my dad. He never once looked before he leaped. He said it ruined the surprise." Her voice snagged on the thought: He's gone.

"Are you okay, Mom?"

"I miss him."

"I know. Jamie's having a hard time with it. She and Grandad were so close. I think it's affecting her swimming. And she's not sleeping well."

Elizabeth sighed. Her poor little girl. Jamie might be all hard shell on the outside, but inside, she had a soft candy center. "Keep your eye on her for me. I'll call her tomorrow after her physical anthro class."

"I tried getting her to see a counselor on campus, but you know Jamie. She told me to butt out."

"You're a good girl, Steph," Elizabeth said. "Do I tell you that often enough?"

"Yes, Mom."

Elizabeth chose her next words carefully. "Just don't forget how to put Stephanie first. Sometimes, you have to be selfish or life can slip through your fingers."

"Are you okay, Mom?"

"Sure. I'm just a little tired, that's all."

Stephanie was quiet for a moment. In the background, a television was playing. There was a swell of applause. "Is there something you wish you'd done, you know, like besides having kids and getting married?"

It was the kind of question a woman usually came to too late in life, after she'd chosen one road and realized it was a dead end. "What makes you ask that?"

"I'm watching this program about a woman who killed her kids. It seems she always wanted to be a policewoman. Like that would have been a good choice. Anyway, the shrink is blabbing about how women sublimate their own needs. He compares it to loading a weapon. Someday: bang."

Bang, indeed.

It would have been easy to deflect, but she didn't want to take the easy way. There were things she should have told her daughters, advice she should have given them. Unfortunately, some truths she'd learned too late. "Not instead of; then I wouldn't have had you and Jamie. But in addition to, maybe. I used to love painting. It got lost somewhere along the way."

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