Distant Shores Page 48

Jack eased his way up the bleachers and sat down. His narrowed gaze studied the Georgetown team.

There she was. His Jamie.

She stood head and shoulders above her teammates. She had her hands at her mouth; she was yelling encouragements to a woman in the pool.

He felt a bittersweet ache at the sight of her, so tall and grown-up. Only yesterday, she'd been seven years old, a water baby who once dove into the pool when it wasn't even her race.

I just wanted to swim, Daddy.

He'd been so proud of her then. Why hadn't he pulled her into his arms and whispered, Good for you, instead of telling her to wait her turn?

Suddenly the race was over. A new group of swimmers was walking toward the edge of the pool.

Jamie stepped into place, stretched, then bent into position.

It was the 200 IM. Never her best event.

The horn blared, and the swimmers dove into the water.

Jack couldn't yell. Slowly, feeling as if he were the one in deep water, he got to his feet.

She was in second place at the first turn.

"Come on, Jamie," he said.

By the second turn, she'd fallen into fourth place. In the old days, he would have gone to the pool's edge, bent down, and encouraged her to try harder.

He'd thought that winning was everything. Now he knew better.

At the final turn, she picked up speed. Her strokes were damned near perfect.

He moved down the bleachers, stepped onto the floor. "Come on, Jamie," he said, still moving.

The finish was close.

She came in third, with a time of 2:33. If it wasn't her personal best, it was damned close. He'd never been so proud of her.

When she got out of the pool, her teammates clustered around her, hugging and congratulating her.

Jack stood there, waiting for her to notice him.

When she finally looked up, her smile faded. In that moment, across the crowded room, everything blurred and fell away. Only the two of them were left.

He was the first to move. He closed the distance between them, mentally preparing for her anger. God knew, it could hit you like a hammerblow. Sometimes, you had to duck fast. "Hey, Jamie. Good race."

She crossed her arms and jutted out her chin, but there was a softness in her eyes that gave him hope. "I came in third."

"You swam your heart out. I was proud of you."

She immediately looked down. "Why are you here? Business in town?"

"I came to watch you swim."

Slowly, she looked up. "It's been a long time." She obviously meant to sound tough, but her voice cracked.

"Too long."

In her eyes, he saw a flash of the girl who'd once followed him everywhere, afraid he'd get lonely without her. "Well. Thanks for coming. I'll tell Stephie you were here. She's finishing a big paper." She turned and walked away.

For a minute, he was so shocked he just stood there. Then he called out, "Wait!"

She stopped, but didn't turn around.

He came up behind her. "Forgive me," he whispered, hearing the desperate harshness in his voice. "I spent too much time looking at my own life."

"Forgive you?"

His voice fell to an intimate whisper, "Remember when you had that bad start at the state meet when you were a junior in high school? I took you aside and told you you'd had your stance wrong. But you knew that, didn't you?"

"Of course."

He stared at her back, wondering if he dared touch her. "I should have hugged you and told you it didn't matter. What you do is nothing compared to who you are. It took me too long to figure that out. I'm sorry, Jamie. I let you down."

Slowly, she turned around. Her eyes were moist.

"Please don't cry."

"I'm not. What about you and Mom?"

"I don't know."

"What happened? I don't get it."

"Think about you and your boyfriend, Mark."

"Michael," she said.

Damn. "Sorry. Anyway, imagine marrying him. You live with him for twenty-four years. Day in and day out, you're together. You raise children together and change jobs and move from town to town. Along the years, you bury parents and watch your friends divorce and say good-bye to your daughters. It's easy, in all that time, to forget why you fell in love in the first place." He took a step toward her. "But you know what I found out?"

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"You can remember if you want to."

"Do you still love her?"

"I'll always love her. Just like I'll always love you and Stephanie. We're a family." He said the word gently, with a newfound reverence. "I don't know what's going to happen with me and your mom, but I know this: You're my heart, Jaybird. Always."

She looked at him then, her eyes watery with tears that didn't fall. "I love you, Daddy."

He pulled her into his arms.

By the time elizabeth returned to the house from the airport, it was almost completely dark outside. Night coated the trees; they stood in black relief against the neon pink sunset. When she opened the door and went inside, she opened her mouth to call out for Anita.

I'm home.

But Anita was on an airplane, flying east.

Elizabeth took a deep breath and went up to her bedroom, where the papers Meghann had sent to her were stacked neatly beside her bed. She picked them up, stared down at them. Letterheads blurred before her eyes. Columbia University . . . SUNY . . . NYU. All New York schools. Near Jack.

Pretty subtle, Meg.

She tucked the papers under her arm, then grabbed a yellow legal pad and a pen. Downstairs, she took a seat at the kitchen table and began filling out the forms. When she'd finished that, she picked up the phone and called Meghann.

"Hey, Meg," she said without preamble. "I need you to write a letter of recommendation for me. I'm applying for grad school."

Meghann screamed into the phone. "Oh, my God! I'm so proud of you. I'm hanging up now; I have to draft a letter that makes my best friend sound like da Vinci in a bra and panties."

Elizabeth hung up, then called Daniel, who had pretty much the same reaction. She spoke to him for a few minutes, gave him the schools and addresses, then hung up. A third call to the University of Washington had her dusty transcripts sent out.

There were only two things left to do. Photograph her work so that she'd have slides to put in a portfolio to be included with the application, and write her admission essay. Three hundred words on why they should let a forty-six-year-old woman into graduate school.

She poured herself a glass of wine and returned to the kitchen table.

She opened the yellow pad to a blank page and began to write.

Right off the bat, I should tell you that I'm forty-six years old. Perhaps that's relevant only to me, and then again, perhaps not. I'm sure your school will be inundated with applications from twenty-one-year-old students with perfect grades and stellar talents. Honestly, I don't see how my record can compete with theirs.

Unless dreams matter. I know a dream is a dream is a dream, but to the young, such a thing is simply a goal to reach for, a prize to win. For a woman like me, who has spent half a lifetime facilitating other people's aspirations, it has a whole different meaning.

Once, years ago, I was told that I had talent. It seemed an insubstantial thing then, not unlike hair color or gender. Something that had traveled in my DNA. I didn't see then--as of course I do now--that such a thing is a gift. A starting place upon which whole lives can be built. I let it pass me by, and went on with everyday life. I got married, had children, and put aside thoughts of who I'd once wanted to be.

Life goes by so quickly. One minute you're twenty years old and filled with fire; the next, you're forty-six and tired in the mornings. But if you're very lucky, a single moment can change everything.

That's what happened to me this year. I wakened. Like Sleeping Beauty, I opened my eyes, yawned, and dared to look around. What I saw was a woman who'd forgotten how it felt to paint.

Now, I remember. I have spent the last few months studying again, pouring my heart and soul onto canvas, and have found--miraculously--that my talent survived. Certainly it is weaker, less formed than it was long ago, but I am stronger. My vision is clearer. This time, I know, I have something to say with my art.

And so, I am here, sitting at my kitchen table, entreating you to give me a chance, to make a place for me in your classrooms next fall. I cannot guarantee that I will become famous or exceptional. I can, however, promise that I will give everything inside me to the pursuit of excellence.

I will not stop trying.

Jack maneuvered his rental car down Stormwatch Lane. It was full-on night now, as dark as pitch as he pulled into the carport.

The house glowed with golden light against the onyx hillside.

He went to the front door and knocked. There was no answer, so he let himself in.

She was in the living room, dancing all by herself, wearing a long white T-shirt and fuzzy pink socks. She held an empty wineglass to her mouth and sang along with the record, "I can see clearly now, the rain is gone." Her butt twitched back and forth.

She turned suddenly and saw him. A bright smile lit up her face, and it was an arrow straight into his heart. Now he knew what the poets meant when they wrote about coming home.

In the old days, when he'd come home after a long absence, she'd run full tilt into his arms. They'd fit together like pieces of a puzzle; another thing he'd taken for granted.

Now they stared at each other, with the whole of the living room stretched between them. There was so much he wanted to say. He'd practiced the words all the way across the country, but how much would she want to hear?

"You won't believe what I did tonight," she said, coming toward him, doing a little dance.

"What?" It threw him off-balance, seeing her so shiny and bright. She looked happier than he could ever remember. Maybe it was because she liked being away from him.

"I applied to grad school."

"Grad school?" Whatever he'd expected, it sure as hell wasn't that. He felt a rush of pride that immediately turned cold. "Where?"

"Oh, I thought I'd try . . . New York." She smiled up at him. "That's where my husband lives. I didn't see any reason to go to school somewhere else."

He could breathe again. "I'm proud of you, baby. I always knew you had talent."

"They might not accept me."

"They'll accept you."

"If they don't, I'll try again next year, and the year after that. Maybe I'll go for the Guinness Book of Records." She smiled.

"They offered me the NFL Sunday show."

"That's great. When do you start?"

"I haven't given them an answer. I told them I needed to talk to my wife."

"You're kidding?"

He dared to reach for her. When he took her hand, she let him lead her to the sofa. He thought about all the words he'd come prepared to offer. I love you, Birdie. Those were the ones that mattered most of all; everything else was frosting. Somewhere along the course of two dozen years, they'd let that simple phrase erode into rote. Now he wanted to have it back, all of it. "I don't want to live without you anymore."

"You don't?" Her easy smile faded away. There was a new look in her eyes, something he didn't quite recognize. It frightened him a little, reminded him that she had Changed.

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