Distant Shores Page 47

"You deserve more than I can give you."

"No, I don't."

"Then you should." He saw how hard she was trying to appear calm, but her lips were trembling. She thought she loved him; that had never occurred to him before. How had he been so blind? He reached out, covered her hand with his. Suddenly he felt every one of the years between them. "I'm not The One, Sally. Believe me." He remembered the first time he kissed Elizabeth, how she'd cried. "When it's right, you know it."

"Fuck." Sally sighed. "You know what the really shitty thing about that confession is? It only makes you more attractive. What about my job?"

"Tom thinks you'd make a great associate producer."

"Great. I've become one of those women who sleep their way up the ladder." She downed the rest of her wine. "I'm outta here. A girl's self-esteem can only take so much honesty. Bye, Jack." She took a few steps, then turned back around. She wasn't smiling. "I'll take the promotion, by the way."

"You earned it."

"I guess I'll always wonder about that, won't I? Good-bye, Jack."

He watched her walk away, afraid of what he'd feel. In the old days, it would have been regret.

It was relief.

He paid for the drinks and went outside. The portico of the hotel was crowded with people--tourists, guests, liveried bellmen. He barely noticed them.

As he reached the street, rain hit him in the face and made him think of Oregon. Of home.

He understood his love for Elizabeth now. It wasn't a skin-deep emotion like so many others. It was in his bones and sinews; it was what had kept him standing straight and tall for all these years.

They'd said the words to each other every day for years, but they hadn't meant it often enough.

He knew where he wanted to be right now, and it wasn't in his empty apartment, surrounded by too many regrets. He'd already lost the ability to see his wife whenever he wanted. He didn't want to make that mistake again. Once, he'd imagined that the opportunities in a man's life were endless; now he saw how easy it was to make a wrong turn and lose everything. There wasn't always time to make amends.

For the first time in years, he prayed: Please, God, don't let it be too late.


Elizabeth sat on her favorite beach rock, staring out at the view that owned such a piece of her heart. She was alone out here today. There were no seals lazing on the rocks along the shoreline, no otters zipping back and forth. No birds diving down into the water. Waves washed forward, a foamy white line that pushed her back, back.

All last night she'd tossed and turned in bed, unable to find the sweet relief of sleep. She'd thought of so many things. Her mother and the terrible price she paid for love. Her daddy, her children, her marriage, her art.

Her whole life had been in bed with her, crowding her with memories of times both good and bad, of choices taken and roads not taken. For the first time, perhaps, she saw the big picture. She loved Jack. True, she'd let weakness in, and loss and regret, and those emotions had tainted her view of herself, but her love had run deep and been honest.

Her biggest failure had been an inability to love herself as well as she'd loved her family.

Then she'd finally taken the wheel and changed her course. She'd put her needs first and left Jack and dared to dream her own dream. She'd worked hard for it, painted until her fingers cramped up and her back ached.

But at the first bump in the road, she'd crumpled, pure and simple.

One little setback and she'd folded into the old Birdie. She'd considered quitting. As if the point of art could be found in supply-and-demand economics.

That pissed her off.

She stood up, walked forward. The tide tried to stop her. Water lapped over her rubber gardening clogs; icy water slid inside, dampened the hem of her pants. But nothing could push her back anymore. She'd never quit painting again. Even if no one ever liked her work. It would be enough that she did.

She ran forward suddenly, splashed into the freezing cold surf. It wasn't until the very last moment, when the water hit her full in the face, that she realized she wasn't going to turn around.

She dove headfirst into the next wave--something she'd never had the courage to do before. She came up on the other side, where the water was calm.

Life, she realized suddenly, was like this wave. Sometimes you had to dive into trouble to come out on the other side. That was what she'd learned at her failed art show: perspective. She needed to work harder, study more. Nothing in life came easily; it was time she said okay to that.

A big wave scooped her up and sent her tumbling toward the beach. She landed spread-eagled on the shore and burst out laughing.

When elizabeth came home, soaking wet and freezing cold, the house smelled heavenly, of vanilla and cinnamon and freshly brewed coffee. It reminded her of her childhood. Anita had always made wonderful Sunday brunches after church.

She kicked her wet clogs into a corner, where they hit with a splat. "Breakfast smells great," she said, shivering.

Anita was at the stove, cooking. Her face was flushed from the heat. "What happened to you?"

Elizabeth grinned. Water ran in icy squiggles down her forehead. "I started over. Again."

Anita smiled back. "Well, start for the stairs and change your clothes. I'm starving. And don't give me any of your new calorie crap, either. I've been dying for French toast."

"I'll eat anything someone else cooks, you know that."

Elizabeth ran upstairs, dried off, and changed into a pair of fleece sweats, then hurried back downstairs. By the time she got to the kitchen, Anita had already dished up--French toast soaked in Grand Marnier, fresh strawberry slices, and soft-boiled eggs--and was sitting at her place. Half of Anita's toast was missing.

"I waited for you like one pig waits for another."

Elizabeth laughed and sat down. "Daddy used to say that."

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"I dreamed about him last night."

Elizabeth looked up. "Really? What was he doing?"

"Sitting in that white wicker rocking chair on the porch--the one he always bitched about bein' too small for a real man's ass. But he wasn't complainin'. He was smokin' one of his cigars and staring out at his fields. I sat down at his feet and he squeezed my neck just like he'd done a million times. 'Mother,' he said, 'it's time.' "

Elizabeth could picture it--picture him--perfectly. "He was probably mad because the corn didn't get planted this year."

Anita set down her fork. "I don't think that's it, actually. I think he was talkin' about me."

Elizabeth took a bite of her French toast. "This is sinful it's so good. So, what did he mean?"

"It's time for me to go home," Anita answered gently, "time for me to get on with my new life. I've been hiding here long enough. I had a long talk with Mina that night at the meeting. She convinced me that I need to start living again. We talked about going on a cruise together."

Elizabeth set down her fork. She was surprised at how much she wanted Anita to stay. "Are you sure you're ready?"

"I left Sweetwater because I couldn't stand to be so alone. But now I have you."

"Yes," Elizabeth answered slowly, "you do."

"Will you be okay alone?"

"Yes. I guess that's something we both learned. It's okay to be alone. But I'll miss you."

"Do you love Jack?" Anita asked suddenly.

Elizabeth was surprised by the question, but the answer came easily. "Yes."

Anita smiled broadly. "Well, honey, I'm not one o' those women who hand out advice as if it were hard candy, but let me say this: True love is a rare thing. We lean on it for years without botherin' to look at what's holdin' us up. It lasts forever, as the poets say, but life doesn't. One minute you're in bed with your husband, and the next second you're alone. You'd best think about that."

Elizabeth knew her stepmother was right. In her months away from Jack, she'd been waiting for her new life to unfold in a line that was straight and true. No hairpin turns, no sudden drop-offs. She'd wanted certainty.

But life wasn't like that.

I love you.

Those were the words that mattered. She'd been six years old when she'd learned that you could wake up one sunny Sunday morning and think that everything was right in your world, and then find out that someone you loved was gone.

She loved Jack. Needed him, though not in the desperate, frightened way of before. She could live without him. She knew that now. Maybe when all was said and done, that was the truth she'd gone in search of.

She could make her way alone in the world, but when she stared out over the rest of her life, she wanted him beside her, holding her hand and whispering to her that she was still beautiful. She wanted to watch his hair turn white and his eyes grow dim and know that none of it mattered, that their love lived in a deeper place. Whatever else she would search for in life, he would always be at the center of it. The place she came home to.

Anita was watching her closely.

"I'll miss you," Elizabeth said again, feeling her throat tighten.

"The planes fly east, too, you know." Anita stabbed a piece of French toast and popped it into her mouth. "Now, what about your painting?"

"What do you mean?"

"You won't give up, will you?"

Elizabeth smiled. "Because of one little old failure? No. I won't give up. That's a promise."

Years ago, when Jack's life had been falling apart the first time, he'd been called on the carpet by his network boss. He'd begged for a second chance, but it hadn't worked.

He'd been young then, still swollen by his own importance. Begging had felt unnatural and vaguely unnecessary; it wasn't surprising that he'd done it poorly.

Now, all these years--and losses--later, he knew better. Some things, once lost, were worth dropping to your knees for. Even if your knees were made of glass and might shatter on impact.

He sat in his rental car, thinking about all the mistakes he'd made in his life. Of this extensive list of wrongs, nothing had been as bad as taking his family for granted.

He got out of the car.

The Washington, D.C., weather was bitingly cold. The promise of spring felt distant today, even though the winter air was thick with tiny pink cherry blossoms.

As he walked up the concrete steps toward the building, he realized that it was the first time he'd been here.

Shameful, Jack.

He pushed through the double glass door and stepped into the chlorine-scented humidity. The familiar scent and heat immediately reminded him of long ago. So many family hours had been spent sitting on wooden bleachers, cheering Jamie on.

At the front desk, a green-haired kid sat in front of a computer screen.

"Are the ECAC Championships here today?" Jack asked.

The kid didn't look up. "They're almost over. Go through the men's locker room. Take the first door on your left."

"Thanks." Jack took off his suede coat and slung it over his shoulder as he walked through the busy locker room. He emerged into the hot, damp world of an indoor pool.

The bleachers were full to capacity. Along the back wall, dozens of women in Speedo bathing suits and bright rubber swim caps stood clustered together, talking to one another.

A sound blared. Instantly, a row of swimmers dove into the pool and raced for the other side.

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