Authors: Eileen Goudge
” she said in a voice soft with wonder.
Byron didn’t have to ask who she was referring to. Since she was little, he’d been the only one she could confide in. Now he put his arms around her, rocking her gently from side to side. “I gathered as much. Are you okay?”
“I think so,” she said with more conviction than she felt.
“What did she want?”
“For us to meet.”
He drew back slightly. His green eyes, flecked with gold and brown like specks of mineral glinting in a riverbed, studied her calmly. “You’re going to, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know.” She could hardly think straight.
“Aren’t you curious?”
Curiosity didn’t begin to cover it. But … “You know my parents. It’d kill them.”
She’d been five when they told her she was adopted. They’d kept it vague, saying only that she’d been the answer to their prayers, the child they’d never thought they would have. When Claire asked who her mother was, Millie’s eyes had welled with tears. “
am,” she’d said in a soft, trembling voice that carried a faint note of defiance.
Claire had known, even at so young an age, that the subject was closed. That was how it was in their house, everyone always tiptoeing around one another’s feelings. As careful as they were about knocking first and saying please and thank you. They didn’t know where their own needs began and someone else’s left off.
At the same time, she loved them dearly and knew they loved her. If at times the house on Seacrest had seemed the loneliest place on earth, her parents weren’t to blame. They’d been in their forties and set in their ways by the time she came along. She’d had to learn to adapt to them rather than the other way around.
“When are you going to stop thinking of them and start thinking of yourself?” Byron asked.
“Probably when they’re dead and gone.” She managed a tiny laugh.
“I don’t see the harm in just meeting her.”
“It’s not as simple as that.”
“Look, I know they love you,” he said, just then sounding exactly like his father when Dr. Allendale was making a perfectly logical point that somehow left you feeling two feet tall. “But that doesn’t give them the right to keep you at their beck and call.”
“They never ask for anything!”
“They don’t have to. It’s always just expected.”
Claire looked about at the apartment she’d taken such unreasonable pride in. The furnishings were spartan—an antidote to the house she’d grown up in, where there was no such thing as too much—her collection of antique bottles glittering jewel-like along the sills in the pale winter sunlight slanting in through the windows. Where had she gotten the idea that she was independent? What fool’s paradise had she been living in? Byron, damn him, was right: Her parents’ gratitude kept her tied to them as much as any demands.
“You can’t make them happy,” he said. “You’ll only end up making yourself miserable.”
She felt a surge of resentment. Byron’s weren’t exactly model parents, either. Gaylord and Persa Allendale had been so busy making sure their children were informed, educated, and evolved, it hadn’t occurred to them to just let Byron and his siblings
If hers, on the other hand, were overprotective, it was only because she was all they had.
“I don’t have to decide right now,” she said. But wasn’t her mind already made up? She couldn’t go behind her parents’ backs. And to drag them into it would be needlessly cruel.
Byron didn’t argue. He just looked at her sadly, as if she’d disappointed him somehow.
They finished making the pie, and moved on to other topics while waiting for it to come out of the oven: Byron’s fellow residents at Stanford Medical and the current rotation he was on—pediatrics, a department headed by an autocratic older woman he’d come to loathe; a particularly thorny trust Claire was working on involving several generations of beneficiaries; and last but not least how many weeks, or months, before they’d see each other again.
When they finally got around to making love, Claire’s heart wasn’t in it. She couldn’t get her mind off Gerry.
Are we anything alike?
And what about her father? Was Gerry still in touch with him? Would he want to see her as well?
When it was time to go, Byron walked her to her car, a five-year-old Escort with fewer than twenty thousand miles (didn’t that say it all?). She kissed him good-bye.
“Call me,” she said. He was leaving first thing tomorrow, which would put him on the road about the time she arrived at work. They would tell each other stories about their respective Christmas dinners, which always seemed funnier in retrospect.
“How can I refuse? I’m a kept man.” He grinned, brandishing the cell phone.
She watched him saunter off to his car, an old blue Hyundai with a scratch on its rear end from accidentally backing into her father’s garbage cans, before climbing into hers. The pie, wrapped in a clean dish towel, at once filled the confined space with the rich scent of cinnamon and freshly baked apples. She thought about stopping at Kitty’s on the way, but her friend would be busy with her own Christmas dinner. Claire pictured three-year-old Maddie on a step stool patting out dough for biscuits while Kitty puttered about the kitchen, rearranging the table Sean had set. Kitty’s two sisters, Daphne and Alex, would be there, too, along with her nieces and nephew. But however much they’d welcome her, she’d only be intruding.
Five minutes later, she was pulling up in front of her parents’ house. All the houses on Seacrest looked basically alike: boxy, shingled post-Victorians with gabled roofs and deep porches flanked by squat posts at either end. What made this one different was its lack of specialness, of any detail that would make it stand out. The neatly trimmed boxwood hedge stood at perfect angles to the front yard, in which only the most inoffensive plants grew: juniper and bayberry and hydrangea, and here and there a severely pruned rosebush. Behind the front door, hung with an evergreen wreath, the uniformity was even more pronounced. Here time was measured in teaspoons, the thermostat perennially fixed at sixty-eight, and coffee never consumed after eleven a.m. She steeled herself as she climbed out of the car and started up the path—the grown daughter of doting parents who’d never spoken a harsh word, nor raised a hand against her—feeling more than a little guilty for her thoughts.
Claire noted the pulled window shades that gave the feel of a darkened stage with the curtain about to go up. A feeling that only intensified when the front door swung open before she could even knock, as if her mother had been standing watch.
“Sorry. It took longer than I thought,” Claire said, stepping up onto the porch. It was only a little after five, but she knew how Millie fretted when she was even a few minutes late.
“You’re here now. That’s all that counts.” Millie held her pale blue cardigan clutched about her thin shoulders like an old peasant woman’s shawl. “Dinner’s ready. We’re just waiting on you.”
Claire handed her the pie. “I’ll go wash up.”
The house smelled of roast turkey and stewed onions. In the living room the wrapping paper had been cleared away and only a scattering of needles remained under the tree. Claire padded over the thick patterned carpet that cushioned her like an egg in its crate. As she washed her hands in the guest bathroom down the hall, with its matching powder-blue rug and toilet seat cover and seasonal hand towels embroidered with reindeer, muffled voices drifted toward her, familiar and comforting.
The dining room table was set with Grandma Brewster’s good Spode china and silver. Millie, an only child herself, was particular about such things, while Lou, the youngest of five boys—one of whom had died in infancy, another in combat in World War II—would happily have eaten off paper plates every day of his life. The china sparkled as if new, and Claire saw that the extra leaf had been added to the table. With the three of them clustered at one end it looked like a raft in danger of capsizing.
As they bowed their heads in prayer, Claire felt a gratitude that had little to do with the meal.
was her family. People who loved her. Who knew that she was allergic to down pillows, that she loved Mozart and sailing and anything made with coconut.
“White meat, anyone?”
She eyed in dismay the platter her father was passing her way, with its slices of dry, splintery breast. “I’ll have the dark meat, please.” She wouldn’t choke on it, at least.
Until she’d left for college, Claire had done most of the cooking. Not that her mother wasn’t as conscientious in that regard as she was in all aspects of her housekeeping. It was just that everything she cooked came out exactly the same: bland and tasteless. Even now that she had her own place, Claire visited several times a week, often staying to prepare a meal. Her efforts were always lavishly praised, even the more experimental dishes—like last week’s quinoa casserole, the remains of which she’d discovered in the garbage can this morning when she’d taken out the trash—for the simple reason that it kept them from having to eat alone.
She helped herself to a thigh, watching her father, a large man whose meaty frame had in recent years surrendered almost entirely to gravity, heap his plate. His jowls melted into his jawline, which had joined the downhill slope of his chest, ending in the substantial roll overflowing his belt. She’d really have to speak to him about his weight, though ironically it was her mother, who barely ate enough to keep a bird alive, she worried about the most. Millie didn’t look at all well.
Claire helped herself to the brussels sprouts. “How’s the picture on that TV, Pop?” Her gift to her parents this year had been a brand-new television to replace their ancient Zenith.
“Crisp as a new dollar bill,” he said, chuckling a little as he added, “Now I’ll know which team is scoring a touchdown.”
“The old one was good enough,” Millie said sharply, then caught herself, casting a sheepish glance at Claire. “Not that we don’t appreciate it, dear. Just that we’d rather see you spend the money on yourself. We have everything we need, don’t we, Lou?” She lifted the lid from a covered casserole. “Stuffing anyone?”
Lou passed his plate. “You find a spot for the toaster oven?” he asked Claire.
“Not yet,” she told him. “I’ll have to rearrange a few things first.”
Her parents exchanged a look, and she knew what they were thinking: What could she have to rearrange? After a year her apartment was almost as bare as when she’d moved in.
Millie cleared her throat and said brightly, “Did you notice your father’s wearing his new tie?”
“It looks nice on you, Pop,” Claire replied dutifully. Every year at Christmas his former district manager sent the retired managers of Food King a spectacularly hideous tie—this one in a loud zigzag pattern that made her think of the picture on the old Zenith.
“Forty-two years,” he said, shaking his head, a forkful of mashed potatoes poised just short of his smiling mouth. “Some days I still can’t believe it’s all behind me.
“You and Mom should take a trip,” Claire told him. For years she’d been trying to get them to book a cruise, like the Alaskan one old Mrs. MacAfee down the street had gone on last year and been talking about ever since.
“Sure, one of these days,” Lou said in a tone that suggested he was as likely to climb Mount Everest.
“I’ve been thinking,” Millie said brightly, as if it had only just occurred to her. “Why don’t we rent a cabin up at Pine Lake next summer? Just like the old days.”
Claire felt her heart sink. Even as a kid, she’d hated being stuck in those drafty old cabins far from her friends, whiling the evenings away playing Parcheesi with her parents. “Sounds good, Mom, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to get the time off. You know how it is …” She shrugged, hoping Millie wouldn’t press the point.
“Especially if you make partner.” Lou flashed her a look that told her he understood and was doing his best to get her off the hook.
Claire’s mind flew back to last week’s Christmas party, when one of the senior partners had taken her aside, confiding that there was talk of making her a junior partner. They’d discuss it after the holidays, Glenn had said with an expansiveness that probably had much to do with the two double scotches under his belt. Normally he didn’t give her the time of day. But instead of its having the desired effect, she’d suddenly and quite unexpectedly felt as if the walls were closing in on her. Was this what she wanted, she’d wondered, to spend the rest of her life juggling wills and trusts and squabbling relations … and the likes of Glenn Willoughby?
“Even if they offer it to me, I’m not sure I’ll take it,” she said.
“Am I hearing right?” Her father cupped a hand to his ear, smiling the way people did when they knew you were only kidding.
Claire braced herself. She’d planned on breaking it to them, just not this soon. She hadn’t even told Byron. “Actually, I’m thinking of leaving the practice altogether.”
“You mean you’ve had an offer from another firm?” Lou looked intrigued.
“Not exactly,” Claire said, picking at a loose thread in her napkin. “The thing is … I don’t particularly like being a lawyer.”
Millie stared at her in disbelief. Her face, round and dimpled in its youth, now seemed to fold in on itself like dough that had been left to rise too long. “You’re not serious?” she said.
You don’t know the half of it,
Claire thought. What would her mother say if she knew about Gerry? “I haven’t decided yet,” she said, feeling cowardly.
Her father chuckled weakly. “For a second there you had me going.”
“All those years of school—how could you even think of letting them go to waste?” Millie’s voice held an edge of reproach. It wasn’t just Claire’s time and effort. Didn’t they have a stake in it as well?
Claire felt a surge of rebellion. Sure, they’d helped supplement her part-time income from Tea & Sympathy. But law school had been
dream, not hers. A dream fueled mostly by envy. Hadn’t Lou’s older brother, Ernie, a hot-shot litigator who was nothing more than a glorified ambulance chaser, in her opinion, been rubbing her father’s nose in his success for years? The day she’d graduated from USF, Uncle Ernie had been the first person Lou called.