Distant Shores Page 3


But he'd been wrong.

Nothing was worse than the slow, continual erosion of his self-esteem. Times like this wore a man down.

Finally, he stood up. It took all his strength to smile and say, "Well, thank you for seeing me."

Although you didn't, you officious prick, you didn't see me at all.

Then he left the office.

Elizabeth sat in the dining room, with fabrics and paint chips and glossy magazine pages strewn across her lap, but she couldn't concentrate on the task at hand.

Maybe tonight, she kept thinking.

For years, she'd listened to daytime television talk shows. The shrinks agreed that passion could be rekindled, that a love lost along the busy highway of raising a family could be regenerated.

She hoped it was true, because she and Jack were in trouble. After twenty-four years of marriage, they'd forgotten how to love each other; now, only the barest strand of their bond remained.

Their marriage was like an old blanket that had been fraying for years. If repairs weren't made--and quickly--they'd each be left holding a handful of colored thread. She couldn't keep pretending that things would get better on their own.

She had to make it happen. That was another thing the shrinks agreed on: You had to act to get results.

Tonight, she'd give them a new beginning.

She kept that goal in mind all day as she went about her chores. Finally, she came home and made his favorite dinner: coq au vin.

The tantalizing aroma of chicken and wine and spices filled the house. It took her almost an hour to get a fire going in the living room hearth (flammable materials were Jack's job, always, like taking out the trash and paying the bills). When she finished, she lit the cinnamon-scented candles that were her favorite. Then she dimmed the lights. By candlelight, the yellow walls seemed to be as soft as melted butter. On either side of the pale blue and yellow toile sofa, two dark mahogany end tables glimmered with streaks of red and gold.

The whole house looked like a movie set. Seduction Central.

When everything was perfect, she raced into her bathroom and showered, shaved her legs twice, and smoothed almond-scented lotion all over her body.

At last, she went to her lingerie drawer and burrowed through the serviceable Jockey For Her underwear and Calvin Klein cotton bras until she found the lacy white silk camisole and tap pants Jack had bought her for Valentine's Day a few years ago. Maybe more than a few. She'd never worn them.

Then, she'd dismissed them as a gift for him. Now she saw the romance in it. How long had it been since he'd wanted to see her in sexy clothes?

She frowned.

It looked awfully small.

And her ass was awfully big.

"Don't do this to yourself," she said, starting to put it back.

Then she caught sight of herself in the mirror. A forty-five-year-old woman stared back at her, wrinkles and all. Once, people had told her that she looked like Michelle Pfeiffer. Of course, that had been ten years and twenty pounds ago.

She looked down at the lingerie in her hands. Size ten. A size too small. Not so much, really . . .

If only she could surgically remove the memory of once being a size six.

Very slowly, she slipped the camisole over her head. There was only the slightest pull of fabric across the breasts.

Maybe it was even sexy.

Besides, it was dark in the house. Hopefully, she'd get naked quickly.

Not that that was a particularly comforting thought.

She stepped gingerly into the lace-trimmed tap pants and breathed a sigh of relief. Tight, but wearable.

She looked into the mirror.

Almost pretty.

Maybe it could happen. Maybe a few little changes in habit could turn it all around . . .

She went to her closet, found the vibrant blue silk robe that had been another long-ago gift and slipped into it. The fabric caressed her smooth, perfumed skin, and suddenly she felt sexy.

She applied her makeup with exquisite care, adding a little Cleopatra-tilt of eyeliner and a shining layer of lip gloss.

By the time she'd taken all those years off her face, it was six-thirty, and she realized that Jack was late.

She poured herself a glass of wine and went into the living room to wait. By the time she'd drunk a second glass, she was worried. A quick phone call to his cell phone didn't help; no one answered.

It was a long drive from here to Seattle--at least three and a half hours. But if he'd gotten a late start, he would have called . . .

By eight, dinner was ruined. The chicken had fallen off the bone, and the onions had cooked down to nothing. There wasn't enough sauce left to taste.

"Perfect."

Then she heard his key in the front door.

Her first reaction was a flash of anger. You're late were the words that filled her mouth, but she took a deep, calming breath and released the air slowly, evenly. So what if he should have called.

For this one night, she wanted to be his mistress, not his wife. She poured him a glass of wine, and headed toward the door.

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He stood in the doorway, staring at her.

And she knew.

"Hey, honey," he said without smiling. "Sorry I'm late." He didn't comment on anything--not the fire, the candles, her outfit.

She moved toward him, feeling suddenly self-conscious in her silk robe.

"I didn't get the job."

"What happened?" she asked softly, knowing what the answer would be.

"Wilkerson didn't want to gamble on a guy who used to do drugs." Jack gave her a smile so sad it broke her heart. "Some things don't ever go away, I guess."

She could see how badly he was hurting, but when she reached for him, he pulled away. He walked into the living room and stared into the fire.

"Remember when you blew out your knee?" she said, following him. "We closed all the curtains in your hospital room, and I climbed into bed with you, and--"

"That was a long time ago, Birdie."

She stared at him, feeling lost. He was less than an arm's length away, but it might as well have been miles. Twenty-four years of marriage and here they stood. Both of them unsure; neither able to offer the other a steadying hand. In crisis, they'd become strangers. She didn't know what else to say, or even if she should speak at all. In the end, she took the safe route, and yet, as she spoke, it felt as if her bones were cracking. "Here. Have a glass of wine."

He took the glass she offered and sat down, then opened his briefcase and pulled out a stack of papers. Without looking up, he said, "Can you turn on the lights? I can't see a damned thing here."

"Sure." She turned away from him quickly, before he could see how much he'd hurt her. Then she tightened the wrap of her ridiculous robe and headed toward the kitchen. "I'll get you something to eat."

"I love you, Birdie," he said to her back.

"Yeah," she answered softly, walking away from him. "I love you, too."

THREE

The next morning, Elizabeth sat on a stool at the kitchen counter, with her hands curled tightly around a mug of chamomile tea.

"Coffee?" Jack asked, pouring himself a cup.

"No, thanks. I'm trying to cut down on caffeine."

"Again?"

"Yeah, again." She set her cup down on the granite countertop. Her fingertip traced the rough, striated ceramic surface of the mug, the slightly bent handle. This cup was one of her many relics, a memento from her pottery period. She often thought that when she died, an anthropologist would be able to visualize who she was from the trail of her hobbies. Pottery. Stained glass. Hooked fabric rugs. Jewelry made from antique silver spoons. Macrame. Photography. Photo and memory albums. And then there were the endless classes she'd taken at local community colleges. Shakespearean literature, art history, political science. Once she'd lost her ability to paint, she'd gone in search of a substitute, something that would light a fire of creativity inside her. Nothing had ever taken hold.

Jack rinsed out the coffeepot and placed it gently back in place. He looked tired, and no wonder. He'd tossed and turned all night long.

"Why don't you stay home today?" she said. "We could go out to lunch. Maybe take a walk on the beach. Or go Christmas shopping in town. The stores are all decorated."

"It's too cold."

She didn't know what else to say. Once, it wouldn't have mattered if it were raining or snowing. Being together was the point. Now, even the weather came between them.

He moved in beside her, touched her shoulder and said softly, "I'm sorry."

The shame in his eyes almost undid her. It took her back in time. For a second, all she could see in the man standing beside her was the boy she'd fallen in love with all those years ago. "You'll get another chance, Jack."

"I love you, Birdie."

This time, she knew he meant it. "I love you, too."

"So, why isn't it enough?"

Elizabeth wanted to look away. "What do you mean?"

"Come on, Birdie, this is the discussion you always want to have, isn't it? The perpetual, burning question: What's wrong with us? Well, now I'm asking it. Why isn't what we still have enough?"

"I want it to be."

"It shouldn't be this hard," he said in a voice so soft she had to strain to hear it.

What she said next mattered; she knew that. They so rarely dared to approach the truth of their unhappiness. But she couldn't imagine being honest, saying I'm afraid we don't love each other anymore. "I know," was all she could manage.

Jack's shoulders sagged; his mouth settled into a frown. "You exhaust me, Elizabeth." He drew back from her. "You moan and whine about how unhappy you are, but when I finally try to discuss it, you clam up."

"I didn't say I was unhappy." She wished instantly that she hadn't said that, that she'd been truthful. But it was so . . . big . . . what they were circling now, and it frightened her.

"Of course not. You never actually say anything."

"Why should I? You never listen anyway."

They stared at each other, neither one certain of where to go from there. Woven into the silence was the fear that one of them would finally admit the truth.

"Okay, then," Jack said finally. "I'm off to work. Maybe today I'll score that big story."

With that, they merged back onto the comfortable highway of their lives. Jack might have briefly hit his turn signal, but in the end, no lane-changing was allowed.

Jack stood in front of the stadium, freezing his nuts off. A chilling breeze whipped through the parking lot, kicking up leaves and bits of fallen debris.

"There you have it," he said, giving the camera one of his patented PR smiles. "The two teams competing for this year's State Boys B-8 football championships. They might be small in size and number, but they more than make up for it in spirit and determination. From downtown Portland, this is Jackson Shore with your midday sports update."

The minute the camera light blinked off, he tossed the microphone to his cameraman. "Shit, it's cold out here," he said, buttoning up his coat. With a quick wave good-bye, he walked back to the station. He could have waited for a ride, but the techies were taking forever breaking down their equipment.

Once inside the station's warmth, he got a double tall mocha latte and headed into his office; then he sat down at his cheap metal desk and tried to think of something to do. Nothing came to mind. He got up and went to the window. Outside, the day was as gray as pipe metal. A drizzling rain fell in strands almost invisible to the naked eye. Stoplights threw beams of red and green light onto the wet pavement.

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