The woman her husband had married after he left her was the last person Jean expected to hear from. When the phone rang she thought it would be her daughter and her grandchildren, calling to wish her a happy birthday. She was buttering an English muffin and boiling an egg, treating herself to a hot breakfast. Today she was sixty-three years old, a fact that seemed impossible, a fact that scared her. She would have liked to ignore it, but she knew from experience that ignoring things came back to bite you in the ass. (It was a phrase she would not have said out loud, but she enjoyed listening to it in the privacy of her own mind.)
Outside, it was already eighty degrees. Her pool had been open for a week now and she had not yet swum this season, but maybe today was the day. Her grandchildren thought she must be rich to have a swimming pool in her backyard, but that was because they lived in the Northeast, where such a thing might be true. She had explained to them that in Arizona, a lot of people owned pools. The children, a boy of eleven and a girl of nine, had only been here once, a few years ago, but it was at Christmastime and the pool had been closed. Her daughter kept saying she would bring them during a summer, but so far it hadn’t happened because the kids had camp, tennis lessons, and friends. Usually, Jean went to them.
Picking up the phone, Jean looked forward to hearing her grandson’s voice – still sweet and high, not yet coarsened by hormones – saying Happy Birthday, Grandma with an affection she assumed he would tire of revealing someday soon, but which she intended to relish in the meantime. So when instead there was a pause before the other person spoke, Jean almost hung up. But then came the woman’s question: “Is this Jean?”
“Yes,” Jean said. “What is it?” She felt annoyed and disappointed that it wasn’t her grandson. She didn’t want her egg or her muffin to get cold. She didn’t feel like talking to a stranger.
“This is – Patsy.” The woman’s hesitation implied that the name would mean something to Jean, but it didn’t.
“Patsy who?” Then, of course, she realized – and as she did, she couldn’t help taking in a breath, and she cursed herself because she knew the other woman had heard it.
“I’m sorry to call like this. I know this is out of the blue.” There it was, that slight Southern accent Jean remembered from the tennis courts when they all lived outside Chicago and used to play mixed doubles, round-robin-style, at the town park on summer Saturday nights. Patsy had been the only one who ever came to play without a male partner, so the women all took turns sitting out. Cheeky, they said about her when she couldn’t hear them, but they all – Jean included – admired her audacity; she wanted to play tennis, and she didn’t let the fact that she was single stand in her way. They had all come of age on the pages of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. They understood that Patsy behaved as they themselves would aspire to, if fate had not granted them husbands. That she possessed a stronger backhand than any of them, and the courage to poach balls at the net, also kept them less catty than they otherwise might have been. They accepted her into their circle – a confidante to the women, a cheerleader to the men — and when she left to return to Florida, it was with one of their own.
It was Jean’s turn to say something, but she couldn’t fathom what it should be. Perhaps sensing this, Patsy continued. “I don’t know if Merry would have told you. That I was sick?” Patsy’s backyard near Citrus Park bordered a pretty marsh; Jean’s daughter had shown her photographs the first time she came back, as a teenager, from visiting her father in his new home. Jean wondered if the other woman was looking out over birds in the water, as she was, at the same moment, watching a cardinal skim across the surface of her pool.
“I don’t call her Merry, but yes, she did mention it.” It had been a few weeks ago, during their usual long-distance Sunday conversation, routinely initiated by Jean after she got home from church and before one or both of Meredith’s kids went to play on some kind of team. Listen, I know you don’t like to hear about her, Meredith began, but she is a part of my family and I think you should know. She had never been skilled at tolerating conflict, and when she tried to muster defiance, she sounded as if she might cry. Which softened Jean’s heart a little, even in the face of her resentment at Meredith’s referring to Patsy as “family.” She has cancer, Meredith said. It’s bad, in the bones. When Jean didn’t say anything, Meredith faltered, repeating herself: I just thought you should know.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Jean had told her daughter finally, though she was not sorry, not at all. Later, after hanging up, she asked herself (not for the first time): What kind of a person am I? And within an hour, she managed to put it out of her mind. Meredith had not mentioned it since then. So this morning, with Patsy calling to tell her she was dying, it felt like news to Jean.
“I know you’re going to think this is crazy,” Patsy said, and Jean did not feel the alarm these words might otherwise have evoked, because with an uncharacteristic surge of prescience, she knew what the other woman was going to say. “But I was wondering if there was any way we could see each other before – “ She interrupted herself to start a different sentence.
“Did you know today was my birthday?” Jean realized this was an odd thing to say, but it had occurred to her suddenly that Patsy may have been keeping track of Jean’s life in some way, for some reason, since stealing her husband or since burying him three years ago next to her own parents in a cemetery on a bluff overlooking the gulf. Jean had not gone to Walter’s funeral, but she imagined the quadruple plot laid out under palm trees, waiting for the fourth stone.
“Uh – what? No. Well — happy birthday.” Patsy sounded farther away now, and Jean wondered if she were taking pills to smooth out the pain.
The cardinal was back, pecking at the top of the pool. It seemed not to understand the concept of water, of something not solid under its feet. “Anyway, you can’t be serious,” Jean said into the receiver, and this time she was the one who heard the breath pulled in quick on the other end. “You’re the last person I want to see.”
“I can’t believe you said that to her,” Meredith told Jean on the phone the next day. She’d called her mother on a Friday rather than waiting until the weekend, which was how Jean knew her daughter felt it was important.
“I can’t believe she told you I said it.” It had gotten warmer outside, but she still hadn’t tested the pool. She wasn’t quite sure what she was waiting for. She knew that swimming alone was a risk – you heard it all the time – and yet it had never bothered her before. Maybe it was her recent birthday; maybe she was, it occurred to her, losing faith in the ability to save herself.
“Why shouldn’t she? It bothered her. It made her feel bad.”
“She should have thought of that when she waltzed off with your father.”
“That’s not how it happened, and you know it.” Meredith spoke with such conviction that Jean wondered what her husband and Patsy had been telling her, all those years. She didn’t want to fight with her daughter, but she felt she had something to preserve, here – her own self-respect, and the way her only child thought about her.
“I think I know a little more about it than you do.” She tried not to sound condescending, but wasn’t sure she succeeded. “I mean, really, Meredith, you were thirteen.”
“That’s old enough,” her daughter said calmly. “To know what was going on.”
What was going on? It wasn’t that Jean didn’t recall the arguments with Walter – the tension over money in the early days, over whether Jean should get a full-time job and who would take care of Meredith if she did. She complained that he didn’t help enough with Meredith or the house, and he spit back that it was because he had to work such long hours. And of course there was so much more that couldn’t be categorized or described, those moments in a marriage that made you wonder how on earth you ended up with each other, and how you will make it through.
She remembered it all too well, and yet there was also something missing about that time, when she thought of it now. She couldn’t quite identify what it was, the vapory poison that had seeped into their marriage when neither of them was looking, a toxin without a scent. Though she couldn’t have labeled it, she recalled the distinct sensation that she, and not Walter, was its source.
Not anger exactly, and not anger only. Not even anger at all – if she were honest, she’d have to admit this. But it was easier to feel anger than fear or sadness, and easier to turn it against Walter than herself. From this distance she found it hard to reconcile all she’d felt, back then, with the simultaneous and comforting vision of those Saturday nights at the park, the tennis courts alive under yellow lights, the pleasure of everyone’s agile, confident exertion as they all distracted themselves from the obligations of jobs and bills and children, anticipating the drinks and camaraderie they’d share afterward at The Gold Crown in the center of town.
They had been winners then, all of them, and not just on the court. They were young, with houses and families no one could take away from them, and people hadn’t started getting sick yet, let alone dying. Untouchable, Jean thought now; that was the right word. Only later was it possible to understand how dangerous it could be to feel that way.
On the phone to Meredith, she said, “I suppose she also told you that I said what I did in response to her saying she wanted to see me?”
She could tell from the surprised silence that in fact, this was news to her daughter. “What about?” Meredith asked.
“She didn’t say. But I’m sure she wants to apologize.” She had to hold on for a moment while Meredith excused herself to say something to Jean’s granddaughter.
“Sorry,” Meredith said, coming back on. “Somebody said something mean to her on the bus today. I never had this kind of thing with Max. What is it with girls?”
“They start early,” Jean said, “and it never ends. Don’t you remember wishing Brenda Tate was your sister one day, and the next day you hated her guts?” She almost laughed, remembering it herself – the outraged contortions of her daughter’s little face as she described the latest injustice committed by her best friend. But she refrained at the last minute, realizing it might irk Meredith, and returned to the original subject. “Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be flying to Florida anytime soon, thank you. Can you imagine? Her and me in a room together?” She was pretty sure this wasn’t grammatically correct, so she hastened to pile on more words. “Not exactly my idea of a good time.”
Another pause, and she knew Meredith was thinking. She also knew better than to prompt her daughter; ever since childhood, Meredith had bristled against being expected to say anything before she had figured out what it was she wanted to express. It used to drive Jean crazy, though Walter had always implored her to be patient. “We’re lucky she isn’t one of those people who just likes to hear herself talk,” he said, and Jean tried to agree with him. On the phone, though, it was difficult to wait until Meredith was ready. Finally, with the receiver hot against her ear, Jean could stand it no longer. “Are we done, honey?” she said, and on the other end Meredith made the clucking noise that meant she didn’t want to be hurried.
“Not yet.” Jean pictured her daughter standing in her family room, surrounded by the paraphernalia of daily life. Though at one point in her life the idea would have made her laugh, the truth was that she missed this – having people to keep track of, rooms getting messy faster than she could pick them up. For a moment, before her daughter spoke, she felt intensely sorry for herself. Then her daughter’s next words wiped the feeling away. “I can imagine how hard this must be for you,” Meredith said. “What if I went, too?”
It was complex, what followed – the series of emotions Jean felt when the sentence registered. One feeling was excitement at the prospect of seeing Meredith; another was jealousy that her daughter would make such a trip to see her stepmother, when she’d told Jean she couldn’t see getting away for a visit to Arizona “in the near future.”
But more than either of these, she felt – what was it, exactly? Not quite dread at the idea of coming face to face with Patsy again, but apprehension. Before she could think about how it would sound, she asked her daughter, “Why would I want to do that?” knowing intuitively that Meredith understood the real question: What’s in it for me?
“Mom.” Now her daughter’s tone was chiding, as if it were her own child she spoke to instead of her mother. “Like I said, I know it’s hard. But the woman’s dying.”
“Well, I’ll be dying someday, too. Just because she’s doing it first doesn’t mean anything.” But already she could see that she was going to have to make this trip, not because she felt she owed it to the woman who’d married her husband, but because her daughter would hold it against her if she failed to grant Patsy’s wish. It wasn’t fair, of course, but very little was, she’d learned, when it came to what adult children expected of their parents.
“Just a sec,” Meredith said suddenly, before Jean could give her answer. “Cara’s having a meltdown. I’ll call you right back.”
Jean replaced the receiver slowly, after holding its heat to her cheek. She picked up a pencil and jotted a list of things that would need taking care of while she was gone. Plants. Pool. Newspaper. Mail.
It wouldn’t be any more than a couple of days, right? How long could it take, whatever it was that this woman wanted from her?
Outside, the reading in the thermometer slid above ninety. Peering through the window she saw what she thought was a dead bird on the far side of the patio, then realized it was only a clump of mud left over from the rain of the night before. Relief hit her so hard that she had to sit down, and she was still sitting ten minutes later when the phone rang again, and reluctantly she began to make plans for a journey she would not have chosen to take.
At the airport, Meredith rushed to greet her, late to the gate, apologizing; she’d been picking up the rental car, she said. But Jean knew from the smell of her daughter’s breath that although she may have indeed picked up the car, she had then stopped in at one of the terminal bars for a glass of wine, or maybe even two – her plane from Rochester had landed an hour before Jean’s own.
She felt annoyed by this, but wouldn’t say so. Now she’d have to be the one driving on unfamiliar roads. Besides, what did Meredith feel she needed fortification for? She wasn’t the one who should feel nervous about seeing Patsy. She and Patsy got along. Patsy was part of Meredith’s family – Meredith had said so herself. The thought of it chilled Jean’s skin, but at least it wouldn’t be that way for too much longer. When Patsy died, that would be it. Walter was already gone; once Patsy was out of the picture, Jean could pretend that their marriage had never existed, if she wanted to. She could pretend that she was, in fact, a widow. It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch, because everyone she knew in Arizona believed this, anyway.
“Do you have directions to the hospital?” she asked, once they had settled themselves on the highway.
“We’re not going to the hospital.” Meredith turned to give her a puzzled look. “We’re going to their house.” When she saw Jean’s reaction, she let her voice get away from her, as she had done all her life every time she felt someone had wronged her. “Mom, I told you that!”
“I don’t think you did,” Jean said, though it was true that she had not written down everything Meredith had told her in their final phone conversation of the day before. “I thought she was dying,” she added, to divert Meredith’s pique.
“Well, eventually.” Meredith clucked and looked out at the palms lining the highway, which made Jean feel all the more that she was in a foreign place. “But she might still have months yet.”
“I thought she was on her deathbed, more or less.” Jean was surprised at the relief she felt to learn this was not the case; she had been imagining an awkward scene in which a pale Patsy with matchstick arms – the same arms that used to send those crosscourt backhands over the net with such force – groped at her to beg forgiveness, before flopping limp and weakened onto the bed. And because the other woman was so frail, Jean would have to feel guilty when, no matter what she managed to say for appearance’s sake, she still hated her.
“No. She’s not driving anymore, and she doesn’t get out much. But you can’t tell just by looking at her that she’s sick.”
Jean wanted to ask how Meredith knew this, but before she allowed herself to do so, she realized that it might prompt an answer she wasn’t prepared to hear. Had Meredith seen Patsy recently? Had she kept secret from Jean another, earlier trip to Florida? How dare she?
Meredith seemed to understand what her mother was wondering. “She sent us some pictures a few weeks ago. Some friends of hers threw her a party when she finished the last round of chemo. She’s a little thinner, but otherwise she looks pretty much the same.”
“Does she still wear her hair in that silly way?”
“You mean, long?”
“Yes, I mean long. Long hair looks silly on a woman her age.”
“Actually, Mom, she’s lost her hair.” Meredith didn’t even need to adopt a shaming tone; the words themselves contained their own rebuke. Jean let the comment sit between them for a moment or two, recognizing that her daughter would want to savor it, before reaching to turn on the radio. They listened without speaking until they were almost there, when Meredith directed Jean to pull into a strip-mall parking lot.
“I think we should stop here and use the bathroom. I don’t want to be rude by having to pee the minute I get there.”
Rude. It was all Jean could do to purse her lips, nod, and follow Meredith into the store. When they came out of the restroom, Meredith caught sight of a stuffed-animal bin. “Maybe I should get the kids some souvenirs,” she murmured, fingering an orange platypus.
This was too much; Jean couldn’t hold it in. “Maybe you can find a T-shirt that says ‘My mom went to visit the woman who broke up her family, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt,’” she said.
Meredith’s fingers froze in the animal’s fur. “Forget it,” she said, then started walking toward the exit without looking back to see if her mother was coming too. They got into the car and Meredith gave terse directions to Marsh View Drive, which led straight into Patsy’s development. Jean tried to imagine Walter living here, and couldn’t. And yet he had. Happily, from all reports. She wondered where the cemetery was – likely, not too far. Would there be any point in visiting his gravesite? Probably not, since she hadn’t attended his funeral or, in the last five years of his life, talked to or seen him except when he’d called to say how sorry he was to learn that her mother had died. Speaking to him then, it had been all Jean could do not to start crying on the phone. She’d hung up too soon, then started to call him back before she made herself stop.
She parked in front of the house Meredith indicated, then had to bend over the steering wheel to catch her breath. “What’s the matter now?” Meredith asked, as if Jean were feigning something. When she saw that it was real, she reached to put her hand behind her mother’s back. “It’s okay, it’s okay, Mom. We’re not in a hurry. Take as much time as you need.”
But her daughter’s solicitude had the opposite effect of what Meredith intended. Instead of calming Jean down, it irritated her. She did not like being vulnerable, let alone having someone else witness it. She stepped out of the car and squared her shoulders.
“Let’s do this,” she said. She thought it might have been a line she’d heard in a movie once, from soldiers or a SWAT team.
She let Meredith go in first, looking away when her daughter hugged Patsy, then stepped forward with a huge, unnamable swelling in her chest. Her husband’s second wife stood in front of her, hands at her sides, looking as if she wanted to offer a bigger smile but unsure whether it might backfire.
“Jean,” she said. “You made it. It’s so good of you to come.” With a labored inhalation she added, “When was the last time?”
“I don’t know,” Jean told her, but like so many other things, this was not true: she was perfectly aware that the last time had been New Year’s Eve, 1989 – or, more precisely, the first hours of 1990 – at a party thrown by someone in their tennis group. Later that spring, just after the nets had been put up again for the season on the park courts, Patsy moved back to Florida, where she’d grown up. A few months after that, Walter followed.
More than twenty years — closer to twenty-five. Startlingly, Patsy looked to Jean almost exactly the same as she had back then, except instead of long hair (which she used to tie back for tennis), she wore a scarf on her head. Even as Jean hoped Patsy would think she hadn’t changed, either, she knew it wasn’t the case – her face carried the deep lines that had begun appearing during the divorce, and since she’d had to stop playing tennis because of her knee problems, she’d gained more weight than she cared to keep track of.
But of course, Patsy didn’t mention any of this as she led them into the house. Meredith said, “You switched the furniture around. I like it.” She took a seat at one end of the couch while Patsy took the other, allowing Jean to sit by herself in one of the two accent chairs. The coffee table was spread with what Jean would have called appetizers, but which Meredith and Jean referred to as “tapas.” At the end of the table stood bottles of wine and seltzer; Meredith poured herself a glass of merlot, while the two other women chose water. Leaning back to drink, trying to settle in, Jean looked around at the modern décor and marveled again at the notion that Walter could have felt at home here. She’d always thought of him as preferring a more traditional style, but either she’d been wrong about that, or he’d changed along the way.
On the mantel was a framed photograph of Walter and Patsy with Meredith when she was in high school, wearing a sundress Jean had never seen and a Rays baseball cap, also unfamiliar. Anyone who didn’t know better would have thought it was a picture of Meredith with her parents.
“I appreciate your both being here,” Patsy said, after a silence so awkward – so literally breath-taking — that it occurred to Jean to stand up and announce that she was calling a taxi, because this was just all too much. “I always thought I’d be the one who’d go in a car crash – I’m a really bad driver, do you remember that, Jean? – and Walter would be the one with the slow death, some disease.” She shook her head and smiled, as if amused. “It just goes to show.”
“Dad would have made a terrible patient,” Meredith said. To Jean’s consternation, she was already reaching to top off her glass. She felt like telling her daughter to slow down, but she didn’t want to embarrass Meredith, and – more — she didn’t want to come off as a shrewish mother to Patsy, who was no doubt much more tolerant, and cool, than Jean had ever been. “Remember that time he thought he had pneumonia, Mom? He made you drive him to urgent care, and insisted on them taking an X-ray, and when they told him it wasn’t pneumonia, just a bad cold, he said they must have mixed up his X-ray with someone else’s?” She chuckled — a little longer than what might have been expected – and wiped a tear from each eye.
“Oh, I know,” Patsy said, smiling. “He was like that with me, too. If I had a headache, he worried it was a brain tumor. Indigestion: a heart attack. He was the worst.” The smile bloomed into a full laugh as she looked out the window at the marsh edging the backyard, as if she thought Walter might be out there, lifting his hand in a wave.
Jean did not recall the urgent-care visit Meredith had described, but her dismay over this evaporated when she heard Patsy’s story, which triggered a memory of the time she’d been whacked in the eye by a tennis ball, playing the net. Walter was about to serve, three courts over, when he saw that Jean was crouching, her hands to her face. He sprinted over to her so fast – weaving around net posts, jumping over purses and bags — that later someone said it had been like watching O.J. Simpson running through the airport in the Hertz commercial. Because her eyes were covered, Jean had smelled her husband before she saw him – she recognized his sweat. Inhaling it, she’d relaxed, even though her eye hurt, her vision wavered, and she was scared.
On the way home from the hospital, bandaged and suffering a headache, she thanked him. “You have nothing to thank me for,” he’d said, looking sideways at her in surprise. “Don’t you know that? If you get hurt, we both do.”
Now, she wished she had remembered this line when he’d told her he was leaving her – and not only leaving her, but going to Patsy. If I get hurt, we both do, remember? she would have liked to have said, but it hadn’t occurred to her at the time.
Despite this bitter thought, Jean also recognized the impulse to thank Patsy for reminding her of the comfort she had taken that day in her husband’s – their husband’s? – words; for reminding her of how close she and Walter had been then, and of the fact (one she forgot all too often these days) that she had been loved. She didn’t know how to go about conveying such an oblique gratitude, though, so instead she asked Patsy about her illness, the treatments, side effects, and whether she had any family in the area.
At the last question, Patsy shook her head. “No, it’s just Merry now – “ she smiled at Meredith, who smiled back as she reached again, blurrily, for the wine bottle — “and, of course, Fidel.”
“Excuse me?” Jean said.
“Oh, our cat. You didn’t know about him?”
Our cat. Walter had been allergic, the last Jean knew. She did not have to ask where the cat’s name from. It would be Walter’s idea of a joke.
“I’ll get him!” Meredith said, getting up suddenly and bumping her shin against the couch. She swore, rubbing her leg, and limped away from them down the hallway.
“How does she know where he is?” Jean said.
“Well, he always sleeps in the same place. The night I came home from the police station after Walter died, I found him curled up on a pile of Walter’s T-shirts in the corner of our closet. It was like he knew, somehow. That sixth sense cats have. I haven’t been able to bring myself to wash the shirts since.” She paused, and Jean tried but failed not to make a face at the idea of three-year-old unlaundered shirts lying around. “We got him when he was a kitten, but he’s really old now, so all he ever does is sleep.” They waited for Meredith to appear with the cat, Jean filling her mouth with stuffed olives so she wouldn’t have to talk. When Meredith still hadn’t come back after several minutes, Patsy eased herself to a stand – watching, it was hard for Jean to imagine that this frail woman was the same one who used to ace men with her serve — and began walking slowly in the same direction Meredith had taken.
When she returned, she had a different kind of smile on her face – amused, but also (it pierced Jean to acknowledge) maternal. “She fell asleep,” she told Jean in a low voice. Gesturing with her head at the wine bottle, she added, “I don’t think she’s used to drinking so much. This whole thing must be stressful for her.”
“She’s not on the floor with the cat, I hope,” Jean said. She did not want to talk with Patsy about her daughter’s stress.
“No. On the bed. She’s doing that rubbing thing with her finger on the side of her nose.”
“She’s been doing that since she was a baby,” Jean said, stabbed by the sudden memory of watching her infant daughter asleep in her crib.
Patsy sat down again slowly, adjusting her scarf, which had started to slide down on one side. “Listen, Jean, I’m just as glad. It’s you I really wanted to talk to.”
Jean had the impulse to call for her drunken daughter to wake up and come back to join them. But she could also feel an under-used muscle inside her psyche wanting to flex itself, so she resisted calling for rescue. Though she understood that she was on the verge of something she had not anticipated, she could not yet tell whether it would be welcome or not, and she trembled down to her wrists.
Patsy leaned forward. “I’ve been having some phone sessions with this fellow who helps people die. A coach, kind of,” she began, and Jean burst out laughing. When Patsy looked taken aback, she said, “I’m sorry. It was the word coach. I just had this image of some guy with a whistle screaming ‘You can do it!’ in somebody’s ear just before they – well, you know.” Even as she spoke she wanted to take back the words, but really: it was too much.
Patsy had recovered herself. “I know what you think of my beliefs,” she said quietly. “I know you think I’m a kook.”
“I wouldn’t use that word,” Jean said, though in fact it was the exact word she had used about Patsy to Meredith more than a couple of times.
“I know your spirituality is more – traditional. Sometimes I wish mine could be, too.”
Jean tried not to let show, in her face or her body, the guilt that Patsy’s words evoked in her. When she’d moved to Arizona, she’d thought about not going to the trouble of finding a new church, but ended up picking one because she knew that this was what her mother would have expected of her. She went most Sundays, but it was more out of habit than anything else.
“Walter felt that way about it, too. Jealous. He wished he could have faith in something.” Then Patsy blushed, as if worried she had offended Jean. “But you already know that.”
Jean didn’t know it, though. And she didn’t understand why Patsy would mock her now, why she would spend the energy to call Jean all the way down just here to make fun of her, when she needed all her reserves to fight for her own life.
“No, he didn’t. Want to have faith.” Though only a moment ago Jean had vowed to respond charitably – because all along, she’d assumed an effort at atonement might be forthcoming – she heard herself deliver these words with defensive scorn.
“He thought only idiots believed in God,” she told Patsy. “We almost didn’t get married over it.” The minute she’d made this confession, she regretted doing so.
“That may have been true, once. But you didn’t know him, later on. He told me he wished he could convince himself something was out there. He said he didn’t feel as if what was here was enough.” There was no hurt or rancor in Patsy’s voice. She adjusted the pillow behind her, as if it might help her get the next words out. “Anyway, this coach – his name is Sanjit, even though I admit he sounds more like a Brad to me – says you should take care of unfinished business, if you can. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Jean prepared herself to hear remorse. She had already decided that she would tell Patsy she forgave her, even though it was not the case. She cast about for what she hoped was a magnanimous tone. “If you have something to say to me, I’m ready to hear it.”
Her premonition (only days later would she find the courage to identify it as, instead, her hope) was this: Walter and Patsy had had a fight on the day he died, shortly before he peeled out of the driveway and, turning onto the main road from Marsh View Drive, miscalculated the speed of the van hurtling down the same lane. What they’d been arguing about: Walter had realized, after all these years, that he’d been right the first time – it was Jean he’d always wanted to be with, not Patsy, and if she’d take him back, he’d go.
Across from her Patsy tried to smile, though it turned into a wince when something invisible passed through her. “Oh. Well, this is awkward. I thought you might have something to say to me. I thought you might want to let me have it.”
“Let you have it?” Jean failed to parse the sentence in the way Patsy intended. She couldn’t think of what physical object she might be expected to want Patsy to have.
“You know. Yell at me. You never did.” Patsy struggled to adjust herself against the couch pillows. “You must have hated me.” Jean was surprised to see this thought seemed to pain her. Shouldn’t Patsy have thought of that before she began sleeping with Walter? “I’m sure you still do.”
“Oh, please.” The words slipped out before Jean could stop them. “Are you going to apologize, or not? I’m not looking for therapy. Especially from you.”
“Not therapy.” Patsy insisted as forcefully as she could, when speaking made her breathless. “Just — unfinished business.”
“Well, I don’t know what that means. We never had any ‘business.’” She was using what Meredith called her “snappy” voice, which Jean had vowed to try to get rid of, but she didn’t care now. “Whatever we had was as personal as you could get. I was married to someone, you met him, you took him away.” Yet even as she spoke, Jean knew there was something wrong with the scene she had imagined. Blaming Patsy absolved Walter of any culpability in the matter, and gave Patsy too much power.
“I understand why you feel that way.” Patsy nodded, as if to some internal voice of her own, and Jean thought she might scream at the condescension of it. But she saw that it was as much of an apology as she was going to get, and in the next moment she understood what she had been trying not to, which was that Patsy was not to blame for Walter’s leaving.
Why had she agreed to come here? She had not wanted to realize that.
They sat without speaking for a few minutes, Patsy’s breath making noise on its way in and out. Finally, she managed to quiet it. “I’d like you to take something of Walter’s,” she said. Reading Jean’s expression she added, “It would be a favor to me.”
“Why would I want something of his?” Jean said. She knew she should be a better person, or at least pretend to be, but at this point that goal was a distant glimpse. “Whatever he was going to give me, I got a long time ago.”
Patsy responded as if she hadn’t heard what Jean said. “Don’t get your hopes up — it’s not like there’s all that much, and nothing valuable. I thought you might want something from his office, or a book, or a piece of his clothing. Don’t worry, I know you don’t want one of the T-shirts Fidel sleeps on.” She smiled and closed her eyes, and it was a few moments before she was able to open them again.
“When I knew you were coming, I put a bunch of his things in the guest room. On the card table. Whenever you’re ready, you just take what you want.” She smiled again, and yawned, and Jean watched with fascination as even in the middle of trying to form and say something further, Patsy dozed off, her head dropping to her shoulder. She hugged the pillow supporting her, then gave in completely to sleep, her features relaxing for the first time since Jean and Meredith had arrived an hour before.
After a few minutes, not knowing what else to do, Jean stood. She walked down the hall, looking first into the wrong bedroom – the one Walter and Patsy must have shared, which contained a hospital bed now – and shut the door, so she wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Across the hall, she found her daughter asleep on a bed with the cat stretched across her feet. Though Patsy had referred to it as “the guest room,” Jean saw that this was where Meredith had stayed when she came to visit; the wallpaper was nearly identical to that of the room she occupied in the house Walter and Jean, and then Jean alone, had raised her in, and a poster of Madonna still hung on the wall, faded and curled with age.
The table Patsy had mentioned was set against the window. Jean approached it warily, both curious and apprehensive about what she would find. A tennis racket leaned against one of the legs, but not the one Walter had used all those years ago, the steel model Jimmy Connors had made famous; that, Jean would have liked to have had. She thought of the way the men wore their shorts so short back then – what had they all, as a sport, as a society, been thinking? — and it made her smile.
Some books about history. A watch with a black band she didn’t recognize. The blotter from his desk at work, the leather one Jean had given him when he got his first promotion, just after Meredith was born. She fingered it and remembered, but did not pick it up.
A glass paperweight containing a pressed flower – definitely not Walter’s style, or at least the style Jean had known him by. A humidor containing cigars, which she did not know he’d smoked. Patsy had been right: there wasn’t much. Or, more likely, there were other things somewhere, but these were the items Patsy was willing to let go.
Jean felt annoyed all over again by Patsy’s arrogance. She’d asked Jean to come all this way — put Jean through this — so that she could feel better about herself on her deathbed knowing that the first wife had claimed a desk blotter?
She was about to turn from the room without selecting anything when, among several loose items in a shoebox, she caught sight of an old billfold, which she didn’t recognize at first. When she did, she had to stifle a cry as she picked it up — He saved this — as she rummaged to find a faded pair of old train-ticket stubs. Penn Station to Boston, an April morning in 1974, after the weekend she’d accompanied Walter to Manhattan when his new company sent him down to meet the people from other branches he would be working with. Jean had never been to New York, and during the days she walked miles, going into stores without buying anything, eating pretzels from street vendors, sitting on a bench in Central Park holding a book on her lap but not opening it because there was so much to see. She remembered thinking, I can’t believe I get to live this life. As they rode Amtrak back to Boston, she sat next to the window and, as it hurtled past stations in New York and Connecticut and Rhode Island, she put her hand over her heart, feeling the need to contain something as people outside turned to wave at the passing train. When she turned to call Walter’s attention to it, he leaned close to notice the tears in her eyes, and asked why she was crying.
“I just love the fact that people still wave at trains,” Jean told him. “I can’t help it. It just makes me happy.”
He reached to take her hand and squeeze it. “That’s why I love you,” he whispered, putting his mouth close to her ear. “Reason eight hundred and seventy-six.” Two months later, Jean learned she was pregnant, and they were convinced that the child had been conceived during that magical weekend. It seemed to Jean that no one deserved to love her own life as much as she did, and immediately she found herself waiting for the bad news to come, the other shoe to drop. She had almost stopped waiting when Patsy moved into their lives.
Standing in the bedroom listening to the soft sounds of her grown daughter – a mother herself now — sleeping, Jean closed her eyes and had to lean against the wall to hold herself up. When had it happened? When, and how, had she stopped being the kind of person who cried to see people waving at trains? She did not know, except that with her hands closed hot around the old ticket stubs, she understood for the first time that it had been before Walter left, and not after. Not because he left. Months after this visit, she would be able to admit to herself that it was why. He missed, too much, the woman he’d married.
Jean missed her, too, though the gauze she’d pulled over her heart hid the grief of it. After the divorce, she had been tempted to feel those things again, but there was no one to tell them to. She did not trust her women friends in the way she had once, and she knew enough not to make Meredith her confidante.
Forget it, she told herself (not for the first time) as she backed away, moving to close the door behind her. Fidel dropped down from the bed and followed her into the hallway. In the living room, he seemed to consider jumping up to join Patsy, who was still sleeping against the couch cushions. But he thought better of it and took Jean’s chair instead. Jean slipped the ticket stubs into her pocket, went over to the empty loveseat, and removed the afghan draped across the top. She tucked it across Patsy, who murmured “Thanks, hon,” and burrowed underneath. In the marsh across the backyard, a swallow swooped down and then soared again, seeking something. Jean watched it as she waited for the other woman to wake up.