I thought about my father and Sonya. About my mom staying with him, even knowing what he’d done. Her insistence that she’d thought it was over.
Well, why did it ever start? I’d demanded in the car before she had taken up her mantra: I can’t talk about it; I won’t talk about it.
But the truth was, I had a good guess right away.
In the seventh grade, my parents had separated. Briefly—just a couple of months—but he’d gone as far as to stay with some friends of theirs while he and Mom waited to see if they could work things out. I didn’t know the whole story. They’d never gotten to that screaming-match level most of my friends’ divorced parents had reached, but even at thirteen, I had seen the change in my mother. A sudden wistfulness, a proclivity for staring out windows, escaping to bathrooms and returning with puffy eyes.
The night before Dad moved out, I’d cracked my bedroom door and listened to their voices carrying up from the kitchen. “I don’t know,” Mom kept saying tearfully. “I don’t know, I just feel like it’s over.”
“Our marriage?” Dad had asked after a long pause.
“My life,” she’d told him. “I’m nothing but your wife. January’s mother. I’m nothing else, and I don’t think you can imagine how that feels. To be forty-two and feel like you’ve done everything you’re going to do.”
I hadn’t been able to wrap my mind around it then, and obviously Dad hadn’t either, because the next morning they’d explained everything to me while the three of us sat in a row on the edge of my bed and then I’d watched his car pull away with one suitcase in its back seat.
I’d believed life as I knew it was over.
Then, suddenly, Dad was back in the house: proof that nothing was unfixable! That love could conquer any challenge, that life would always, always work out. So when he and Mom sat me down to tell me about her diagnosis, and everything else in our lives changed, I knew it wouldn’t be permanent. This was just another plot twist in our story.
After that, the two of them seemed more in love than ever. There was more dancing. More hand-holding. More romantic weekend getaways. More of Dad saying things like, “Your mother has been a lot of people in the twenty years I’ve known her, and I’ve had a chance to fall in love with every single one of them, Janie. That’s the key to marriage. You have to keep falling in love with every new version of each other, and it’s the best feeling in the whole world.”
Their love, I had thought, had transcended time, midlife crises, cancer, all of it.
But that separation had happened, and when I’d yelled at my mother that day, I’d wondered. If those three months were when it had begun. When Dad and Sonya had reconnected. If, when he’d found her, he’d just needed to believe everything could be okay again. If, when Mom had taken him back afterward, she’d just needed to pretend it already was okay.
Julie-Ann shook her head slightly when her gaze settled on mine.
“Does that make sense?” she asked. “I just needed to be okay, and I could do the wrong thing if it had the right end.”
I thought about Jacques and our determination to have a beautiful life, my desperation to end up with someone Mom had known and loved. I thought about my mother’s diagnosis and my father’s infidelity, and the story I’d been telling myself since age twelve to keep from being terrified about what might really happen. I thought about the romance novels I’d devoured when the cancer came back and I lost my shot at grad school and thought my life was falling apart again. The nights spent writing until the sun came up and my back hurt from needing to pee but not wanting to stop working because nothing felt more important than the book, than giving these fictional lovers the ending they deserved, giving my readers the ending they deserved.
People clinging to whatever steadfast thing they could find?
Yes. Yes, that made sense. It made perfect sense.
When we left that night, I texted my mother, something I hadn’t done much of in months: I love you. Even if you can never talk about him again, I’ll always love you, Mom. But I hope you can.
Twenty minutes later she responded: Me too, Janie. All of it.
ON SATURDAY WE walked down to the beach. “It’s not very creative,” I said as we picked our way over the root-laden path. Gus opened his mouth to reply and I cut him off. “Don’t you dare make a joke about my genre of choice being unoriginal.”
“I was going to say it’s stupid we haven’t come down here more,” Gus answered.
“I assumed you’d gotten sick of it, I guess.”
Gus shook his head. “I’ve barely used this beach.”
“Root,” he warned as I looked up at him, and I stepped carefully over it. “I’m not the world’s biggest beach guy.”
“Well, of course not,” I said. “If you were, you’d be wearing a T-shirt or a hat that advertised that.”
“Exactly,” he agreed. “Anyway, I actually prefer this beach in winter.”
“Really? Because in winter, I’d just prefer to be dead.”
Gus’s laugh rattled in his throat. He stepped off the wooded path onto the sand and offered me a hand as I hopped off the slight ledge. “It’s amazing. Have you ever seen it?”
I shook my head. “When I was at U of M, I pretty much stayed at U of M. I didn’t do much exploring.”
Gus nodded. “After Pete and Maggie moved here, I’d visit them for my winter break. They’d buy my plane or bus tickets as presents, and I’d come for the holidays.”
“I’m guessing your dad didn’t mind.” A sudden burst of anger at the thought of Gus as a kid, alone, unwanted, had forced the words out of me before I could stop. I glanced cautiously at him. His jaw was clenched a bit, but otherwise his face was impassive.
He shook his head. We’d fallen into step along the water and he looked sidelong at me, then back to the sand. “You don’t have to worry about bringing him up. It wasn’t that bad.”
“Gus.” I stopped and faced him. “Just the fact that you have to say it means it was way worse than it should’ve been.”
He hesitated a second, then started walking again. “It wasn’t like that,” he said. “After my mom died, I could’ve gotten out. Pete wanted me to come live with her and Maggie. She was always trying to get me to—to talk about the fights he and I would get into, so she could get custody, but I chose not to. He had all this heart medication. Daily pills. He’d only take them if I asked him, like, three times, but God forbid I asked a fourth. He’d pick a fight. An actual fight. Sometimes I thought …” He trailed off. “I wondered if he wanted me to kill him. Or like, get himself so worked up his heart would give out. I dropped out of school to work so we could afford his prescriptions, but when I was out, he stopped doing anything for himself. Eating, bathing. I could barely keep him alive. Maybe he thought that would be my punishment.”
“Your punishment?” I choked out. “For what?”
Gus shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe being on her side all the time.”
He nodded. “I think he felt like it was Us against Him. It was Us against Him. He’d blame her for everything that went wrong—dumb shit, like, she’d forget to put gas in the car one night and he’d realize he needed to stop for it on his way to work, so he’d be late. Or she’d throw away a receipt he wanted to keep, dump leftovers out of the fridge a few hours before he finally decided he wanted them.