"It's just me," Wyn called through the patio door.
"Come on in." Nina answered from the kitchen where she was finishing up the supper dishes.
Wyn slid aside the screen and came in. She flopped down in the chair at the end of the dining room table. "I need a drink. Got any wine?"
"Sure. I have a nice bottle of merlot and a nice, cheap chardonnay in a box in the fridge."
"Hmmm, the merlot sounds good but red wine makes me puff up. I'll take the nice, cheap chardonnay."
"We'll use the good glasses, that way we can at least look like it's good stuff." Nina looked in the cupboard for the nice wine glasses and got two. She filled them from the box wine tap in the fridge. "Come on, let's sit outside."
Wyn groaned as she pulled her weary body up out of the chair. "We're taking the good glasses out on the patio? Since when is that allowed?"
"That rule is for men and children, us ladies can do whatever we want. Say, my hands are full, maybe you should grab the box out of the fridge, we may not want to get up for refills."
"Good idea." Wyn slid the screen open for Nina and went back to get the wine tap before coming outside herself.
"Where are Evan and Izzie?" she asked.
"Out for a walk with the stroller. They should be back pretty soon. You look worn out. How was your day?"
"Work wasn't bad, I'm still working on sorting out the mess with the Mills area, back taxes on the property and trying to figure out who was actually the last owner. You know that story, about how my grandfather wanted more than anything to buy that land? Well, when I finally sort out this mess the property is going to go to the highest bidder plus payment of the back taxes. It's kind of fun, like figuring out a puzzle, there are some records missing from when the courthouse was built and all the records were moved from the old building. I'm actually glad I'm just doing research right now instead of having to meet with clients, it helps to keep my mind off Josie for a while. Marc's taken over most of my workload, he's been so good about all of this."
"So the Mills area is going up for auction, huh? Where are all those kids going to go to hang out when it gets developed? Why don't you and Marc buy it, fulfill old Fred's dream?"
"We can't, conflict of interest, we're doing the research for the county so that rules us out of bidding on it. It's funny, you know, I'm working on this land deal and Josie ends up there trying to kill herself. Sort of Fellini, and depressing, don't you think?"
"Yeah, the coincidence is pretty creepy. I suppose whoever develops it will cut down the trees at Four Pines Bend. There ought to be a restrictive covenant on the property, that you can't cut down those trees, you have to let them live out their natural lives before being removed. Can you do that, don't you think that the pines are a landmark worth preserving?" Nina was half serious, the wine was going down easily, she had to admit that she was tired, too.
"The trees are on their own, there isn't anything I can do. Did you go see Josie today?"
"I was there for a couple of hours this morning. You know they're talking about putting a more permanent feeding tube in her chest instead of the one down through her nose. Who has to make these decisions? What's Josie's legal position, she obviously can't make any decisions for herself."
"I'll talk to Ethan, he's going to come up here anytime, since the parents don't want to have anything to do with her Ethan is the closest family member. He would have power of attorney and he could pass that to me since I'm right here. I'll call him and talk to the doctors about what should be done." Wyn sighed and looked down at the pattern of terra cotta stones of the patio. "I'd cry but I don't think I have the energy."
"I know what you mean. So how come you're here, why have you abandoned your family to sit out here and get drunk with me? Not that this isn't fun, I've missed you. We haven't seen each other a lot since Izzie was born."
"Hey, you needed time to bond with your baby. But I was thinking today, remember the letters we wrote to ourselves the night before high school graduation? Do you still have them, do you know where they are? Maybe it doesn't mean anything at all but I thought if we could read them, maybe Josie's might give us a clue about something. It's probably nothing but we don't know anyone she's close to now, I've just seen her sporadically over the last few years. When I saw her last winter there didn't seem to be anyone around but people that she worked with and people who worked for her. There was one deranged fan that she had to get a restraining order for because he'd found out where she lives and was leaving gifts and hanging around to try and take pictures of her. I just wish we could figure something out."
"I'm sure I have them somewhere. The letters, I mean. I'll look around. When was it that we were supposed to open them, sometime when we would all be together."
"Seems to me it was going to be when we came back for our ten year reunion. I was back by then and you've been here the whole time. But Josie didn't make it back. She was somewhere on location for that awful movie about aliens that actually looked like frogs but they could disguise themselves as humans."
"I remember. It's running on cable now, I saw part of it last week, I forgot to tell you. Did you know that they're negotiating to use it on Mystery Science Theater 3000? That would be funny. I wonder what Josie would think of it, I've always wondered if she takes her acting seriously or if she realizes how bad most of it is."
"She knows what she's doing. It took a while to find her niche but she surprised me, she executive produces Silicon Valley Girls. Haven't you ever noticed in the credits, Executive Producer, J. Parker? She knows she can't parade around in lingerie forever, she knows the business side of things pretty well. She seemed so together, you know, when I was out there." Wyn's voice trailed off and she closed her eyes. "I should have noticed that something was wrong. I've known Josie practically my whole life and I should have gotten a clue about something."
"Stop. You have to stop beating yourself up about this, it's not your fault. I don't know how she's been recently but in high school everything was right there on the surface. She couldn't keep a secret or tell a lie to save her life, it always showed. If something was going on you would have seen it, Wyn, you're too sharp an observer for something that big to get by you. Remember how she always joked about the bad blood in her family? How she was a pure spirit who was going to make up for all the wrongs? I think she just took on too much, more than she could handle. And it got to her. Who knows what makes people do what they do."
"But this was so horrible, so violent, like she was trying to make a point about something, like she came back here to do it for a reason."
"When you think about it, Josie's always been into some sort of self destructive behavior. Did you ever wonder if she was an alcoholic? I mean, she was always able to put away a lot of booze, and look at her mother, there could be a genetic factor."
"I guess. I just wonder where you draw the line. She did drink a lot but she was always in control, she never seemed plastered and she showed up for work on time. Sometimes I wondered about other drugs, if she was into anything like that. She didn't seem to eat at all, she was so thin. And I hate to say it, but I always wondered about her father. He's such a lecher. I wonder if her ever did anything to her."
"Oh, God, that is too disgusting to think about. But he's definitely creepy, always was. Sometimes I think about my own father, how I never knew him. Never knowing your father is a whole lot better than having Gus the Molester for a father."
"We don't know that about him Neen, but I know what you mean. Did you ever think about that, how all three of us had father stuff unresolved? My father died when I was four. I remember some little things about him, that he was very tall and sort of formal, I don't think I ever crawled up in his lap. He ignored me, he pretty much ignored all of us, I guess. Mom said I used to sit outside his study in the hall, leaning on the door, and sometimes I'd fall asleep there. It was like, there were all of us girls and Mom and Grandma Winnie and he was always on the other side of this imaginary line. Things didn't change much when he died, he just didn't show up for dinner anymore."
"Poor Josie, she really did think she needed to make up for her wayward siblings to please Gus. Then when she fell from grace she did it in a big way, dropping out of school and sleeping with whoever she drug home from the bar. Once she told me that to make up for Annie she wanted to stay a virgin till her wedding night, so her father would get to walk her down the aisle and give her away. And that she liked to drink but that because of what happened to Ethan she'd never use drugs. Everything about Josie was so, I don't know, hopeful. She wasn't always happy but she was optimistic, you know, that we'll get through this if we just hang on to each other."
"Absolutely. She took care of us, she was like our little mother hen. And then when she took on too much there was no one there to get her through the bad time. Don't look at me like that! I don't feel responsible. I just feel bad."
"Me too. Only now I'm feelin' pretty good. This box wine isn't bad once you get used to it."
"Can I sleep on your couch? Or how about right here, I'm comfy here."
"If my husband ever brings our daughter home I'll have him give you a ride home. Unless you think you can defend drunk drivers better if you have the experience yourself."
"You said husband. Nina, is there something you're not telling me."
"Oops. Slip. But how would it be different? If he was legally mine? We'd still live here, we'd still have a beautiful daughter. I'd still do his laundry. I feel like we're married."
"That's not enough, especially now that Isabella is here. I'm going to call you from the office tomorrow and set up an appointment. If you and Evan aren't going to get married at the very least you both need to have wills. In case, well, to provide for your daughter if something were to happen to the two of you."
"Okay, okay. Josie's certainly showed us how unpredictable life can be. I could be unpredictable. I could ask Evan to marry me. And he just might say yes. Even after all those nasty things I said to him when I was in labor. Or he might figure that it's his turn to say no to me. When he asked me to marry him we nearly broke up."
"That's right. And he missed out on the party of the year when he didn't come to my wedding. But I seem to recall that you weren't lonely."
"Oh, yeah, him. He shows up every ten years or so and leaves me again. He's overdue! Oh,
God! He's coming up here, isn't he?"
"Mm-hm. You're not going to.."
"No! I'm not going to. Anything. Do anything. Well I'm not!"
"Hey, I'm not the one you have to convince."
"Who, then. Or whom. Do I have to convince."
Wyn pointed her finger directly at Nina and then shook it at her for effect. "Think about it. He's one of those magnetic sort of guys. And now he's a famous sculptor. I'll bet he has women throwing themselves at him right and left."
"I wonder if he's still cute. No, I don't. I don't think about Ethan Parker at all, not one little bit."
"I'm calling you tomorrow. And you have the two to four shift with Josie tommorow afternoon." Wyn got up to leave. "You may be drunk but I'm fine. I'm going home, now."
"Okay. See you tomorrow. And I don't think about him."
"You're protesting too much."
Wyn got in her car and waved after she started the engine. "Bye."
"Bye." Well, maybe she thought of him a little, now and then. But not all the time. Certainly not frequently.
Nina sat at the far, deep-end corner of the Parker's swimming pool with her feet in the water. She was leaning back on her elbows and alternating long, slow kicks that caused her toes to just break the surface of the water before moving back to rest momentarily against the concrete and tile side of the pool. Her eyes were closed in contemplation of the smooth feeling of the water against the skin of her calves. She had shaved her legs the night before and had forgotten how lovely and slippery the water could be. Her excuse to Wyn and Josie was that school was starting next week and she was tired of explaining why she wasn't shaving her legs. Her quiet moment came to an abrupt end as she heard the gate click open and shut. They couldn't be back already, she thought.
Ethan came around the corner of the house and waved hello. Nina tried to appear calm as her heart took on its wild thumping routine that occurred whenever he was in sight. Please, she thought, go straight up to your little apartment above the garage and don't stop to talk to me, I have nothing to say to you. He came around to her corner of the pool and removed his tennis shoes and socks.
"Mind if I join you? That water looks good to my tired old feet."
"Suit yourself." Ethan plopped down just around the corner from her and dangled his legs in the water.
"Where's my goof-off sister? In the house?" he asked.
"Nope. They've all abandoned me to go pick up the pizza we ordered. Italian Vista doesn't deliver and it's the only pizza Justin will eat."
"How come they left you here, didn't you want to go along?"
"I just wanted some quiet for a while. You know, when Justin is here with Wyn and Kirby's here with Josie I feel a little weird. Fifth wheel isn't exactly a coveted role."
"Why don't you just make friends with a guy and invite him along. It might be fun, you must have met at least one interesting fella since you moved here last winter."
"Boys my age don't interest me, for the most part I find them dull and lacking."
"Lacking. Lacking what? Near as I can remember guys don't change much mentally after the age of twelve. The only real difference between a guy who's a senior in high school and a guy
my age is that I've had the benefit of being trained by a few girlfriends who have found it necessary to put me in my place when I needed it. That must be what they're lacking. They haven't been whacked in the head by enough women to have learned how to behave properly."
Nina laughed. This is how it always was. The familiar churning in her gut when she saw Ethan and how he made it subside by making her laugh. "That's not all. I guess I'm just more attracted to someone older, someone who's been whacked in the head enough so I don't have to train him. How well-trained are you?"
"Not well. Even my mother has given up on me, God knows she tried."
Nina laughed again as she studied the sagging neckline of his t-shirt. It was old and faded from its original turquoise color and the neckband was missing allowing the shirt to reveal more skin than was intended. She absently wondered where the hair that was showing continued to and possibly where it ended and took up again. As if on command Ethan stood up and emptied his cut-off jeans pockets of their contents and pulled the shirt off over his head.
"This is too good, I've just got to go all the way in." he said as he dove into the water. Nina felt an audible gasp tear loose from her throat and was thankful that Ethan's head was underwater and he couldn't hear her reaction to his near-nude appearance. There goes that damn churning again. Ethan turned under the water at the opposite end of the pool and swam back, surfacing half-way and floating on his back. Why does he have this effect on me, she thought. I've seen men in swimming trunks before and thought nothing of it.What's the matter with me.
Ethan drifted lazily toward Nina's end of the pool and pulled himself out. She was fascinated with the complex coordination of muscle against bone and tendon that allowed that particular maneuver to take place. Seated approximately where he had been before swimming his single lap Nina noticed the long, vertical scar on the inside of his left knee.
"What happened to you, that's some scar."
"Yeah. A guy knifed me in Boston."
Nina leveled a wordless stare in his direction with one eyebrow slightly raised. "A really short guy."
"Okay, so he was a doctor, a surgeon. I messed up my knee in a fall and Dr. Gillespie put it all back together again."
"Can I touch it?" Nina asked.
"I like scars. I think they're cool. Evidence that you've lived, experienced something that you'll never forget."
"Sure. Okay. But that's all. I don't want you getting fresh with me or getting any ideas about what kind of person I am." he declared with mock prissiness as he moved closer to her so she could inspect his scar.
"It's so smooth, hair doesn't grow on it. Does it hurt?"
"No. But it hurt like hell when it happened. And after the surgery, too. Like you said, it's evidence of something I'll never forget, one of the three stupidest I've done so far."
"You're planning to do more stupid things, then?"
"You never plan to do stupid things, they don't seem as stupid at the time as they do in hindsight."
"That must be them," Nina said as they heard a car in the driveway, "I should go help carry stuff."
"That must be my cue to head for the shower and let you kids have your pizza."
That he included her collectively with "kids" was like a knife through her heart. They both stood up on the edge of the pool to head in separate directions when Nina momentarily lost her balance on the wet concrete. Facing each other Ethan neatly caught her in an unintentional embrace. His skin was cool and wet from his dip in the pool and Nina liked the feel of his body against her own. Feeling steady once more she looked up into those impossibly blue eyes that nearly matched his discarded t-shirt. His lips couldn't be more than six inches from hers. Likely that's as close as they're ever going to get, she thought. I'd better take a good, long look while I'm here.
"Thanks, you saved me from a nasty bump on the head." she said as she moved away.
"No problem," he replied as he released her and they started once again in opposite directions. "By the way," he called from the first step on the way up to his apartment over the garage,"The hairless look suits you, I'd recommend sticking with it."
So he had noticed. She shot her phoniest ingratiating smile in his direction. Turning away she rolled her eyes toward heaven and muttered about what an idiot she was. For your information Mr.Ethan Parkerknowitall I didn't shave for you just in case you were thinking I had. You could use another whack or two to that thick head of yours. Maybe I'm just the girl you need to deliver them.
Josie, Nina, and Wyn stood in the student parking lot leaning on Wyn's car. The final bell was about to ring and they were in no rush to get to home room. They were seniors now and even though school had been in session for only three weeks they were already suffering from a serious case of senior-itis. There were other laggards heading into the building, most of them smokers who were infusing that last hit of nicotine into their lungs so they could make it through morning classes.
"Let's go, girls." said Wyn. They sauntered toward the building and as if on cue all three girls pushed their sunglasses to the tops of their heads when they came through the door. They had it timed down to the second, they went their separate ways to their assigned home rooms and slid into their desks just as the bell rang. Their timing would require adjustment when the weather cooled and they had coats and such to deal with, but for now the Virgins Club was primarily interested in soaking up every last available ray of sunshine the waning summer had to offer.
So far, things had been okay. No big surprises, they had gotten into all of the classes they had registered for. And all three had managed to get the same lunch break for the entire fall semester. There had been that one interesting incident last week when a number of students had been locked in the library for nearly an hour after the last lunch break. It still wasn't known what Lennie Childer's motive had been but as of last Friday he was on a six week suspension. Maybe it had been some sort of club initiation or possibly just a twisted prank, Lennie hadn't been quite right in the head since he had fallen asleep in his family's garage with the car running last winter. It hadn't been a suicide attempt, at least that was the official story. He had been at a beer party and was just going to sleep it off in the car, it was late and he was being considerate, he didn't want to wake anyone up finding his way to his room in his drunken condition in the dark. Unfortunately he had either passed out or dozed off after closing the garage door but before shutting off the car. Anyway, most kids steered clear of Lennie after that, you couldn't quite put your finger on it but something was a little askew. You just knew better than to accept a ride on his motorcycle or to dare him to do anything. Most likely the library incident had been a dare, probably from one of the jocks who were merciless with him, but nobody was talking.
Nina had been in the library that day, she was back in one of the study carrels getting a last minute once over to be sure she had the trig functions memorized. She had looked up briefly when she heard the commotion in the hall but was soon focusing once again on the trig functions. When the bell rang she had gathered her books and was leaving when she encountered the crowd of students at the library doors. They had been chained together through the handles on the hall side and padlocked together, the doors could be pushed open only a crack. Later on Nina learned that the commotion she had heard was the rattling of chains as Lennie Childer barricaded the library doors from the back of his motorcycle. This was quite an accomplishment considering that the library was on the second floor. Apparently he had ridden his motorcycle in through the main doors and had scaled the main stairs near the lunchroom after gaining momentum in the long corridor. He had stopped just long enough with the engine idling and stinking up the hallway with its exhaust to chain closed the library doors. Then Lennie had roared off and commandeered the freight elevator containing one surprised maintainance worker for his ride back down to the main floor. He had exited the building through the gymnasium, leaving black skid marks on the gleaming floor and a very surprised girls' PE class just beginning a game of volleyball. It took the local police more than an hour to catch up with Lennie, they found him near the outskirts of town at a rest area, he was casually sitting at a picnic table with his feet up drinking a beer. He was taken into custody without incident without understanding why everyone was making such a big deal of out of his little escapade.
At first they had tried in vain to jimmy the lock with a screwdriver and then a wrecking bar. It took two janitors some time to locate a large enough pair of bolt cutters to incise the stainless steel chain. The principal was out for the day attending a conference so his very capable secretary, Mrs. Lindermann had kept things on track for the duration of the lock-up, first determining that there was no foul play taking place in the library, then dispatching any stray students to their next class so attendance could be taken. It had been kind of exciting, this entertaining and unexpected little break in routine in the middle of the week. Lennie Childer had immortalized the Class of 1975 in a way no one could have predicted
Nina wrote a first-person, humorous piece for the school newpaper about the incident for which she earned a journalism prize later on in the year. Recognizing her talent, the newspaper advisor asked her if she would be interested in writing a weekly column. Nina enjoyed working on the school newspaper even though she found the deadlines and editing of her work tedious and exasperating. It was during this tenure as a writer that she discovered she'd rather write for her own amusement than vocationally. This was something of a disappointment to her, she had hoped to study journalism in college and work in the world of publishing. Maybe she should take up something totally impractical and useless, like French Poetry or anthropology. Then she could have a fabulous career making cheeseburgers at McDonald's. Wyn was so lucky, she knew she wanted to study law, she'd known it for so long it was practically a mission to her. What Josie wanted to do after graduation was a mystery, she'd probably follow in her mother's footsteps and be Homecoming Queen and then retire to a life of marrried leisure. Who knew what was in store for any of them.
Josie, Nina, and Wyn embarked on their senior year with all of the essentials. They had looks and brains and the savvy to know which would give them advantage in a given situation. Most important, though, they had each other, best friends are indispensible at any time in life, but your coming of age best friends are the ones you laugh and cry and learn with. They are the ones that leave indelible marks on your soul, and good or bad, the ones you will never forget.
I should know better than to come to the grocery store without a list thought Nina. She meandered up the cookie and chips aisle where everything looked much too good. I have no list, I haven't planned dinner and here I am in the cookie aisle. Oh, yes, and I'm going to be forty tomorrow. She tossed the package of fudge stripe cookies into the cart. Well, it's okay, they're Evan's favorite cookie, I'm not going to eat them. I'd rather eat these. Nina grabbed the bag of chocolate Milanos off the top shelf and told herself not to read the nutrition facts but read them anyway before tossing them into the cart, too.
Maybe she could get Evan to grill some hamburgers, that would be quick and it would keep the cooking heat outdoors. Her mental list now had several items on it. One large tomato, one pound 90% lean chopped sirloin, whole wheat buns. Were there pickles at home? She knew there was a chunk of cheddar in the fridge so she didn't need to buy cheese but she couldn't tell if that jar in her mental picture of the refrigerator contents held more pickles. Vinegar and peppercorns in the bottom was all she could visualize. Better go back to aisle three to get a jar, a cheeseburger just wasn't a cheeseburger without the pickles.
Nina had pulled the afternoon shift with Josie. It was now seven weeks in and nothing had changed. Josie seemed to be shrinking, every time Nina saw her she appeared to be smaller and more frail than before. In the middle of reading Tom Sawyer to her Nina felt uncomfortable and had skipped the part where Tom and Huck eavesdrop on their own funeral. It was beginning to feel hopeless, if Josie would only show some sign of improvement it would help. Ethan would be arriving next week and then the decision would be made about moving her to a nursing home. Her condition was stable and her insurance company was encouraging the move to save costs over the hospital.
Nina didn't feel like celebrating her birthday. Normally she liked to carry it out as long as possible, even planning her own party down to the last detail. Last year she had been pregnant on her birthday so she had forgone the customary bottle of champagne and now she didn't care if she had a drink or not. She was going to have lunch with Wyn tomorrow but she was planning to have a quiet dinner at home with just Evan and Isabella. She had made her mother and everyone else promise not to make a big deal of her birthday, she thought they should wait to celebrate until Josie showed some sign of recovery. And please, God, not a surprise party. Anything but a surprise party. Nina would rather sit through a local beauty pageant talent segment or be locked in a room with a dozen two-year-olds pushing corn-popper toys than be forced to take part in a surprise party.
Walking out to her van she wondered how she could possibly have spent twenty-eight dollars on two quite light bags of groceries. Driving home she wondered if she would suddenly sprout gray hairs overnight or if she would wake up in the morning to find that her butt had fallen victim to the dreaded gravity syndrome. Pulling up in the driveway Nina was annoyed to discover that the garage door opener wasn't working. She got out to activate the switch just inside the door and
was further annoyed to find the door locked. They never locked that door. Leaving the groceries in the car she proceeded to the front door and was seriously annoyed to find that it was locked, too. To her surprise it wasn't latched and the door swung wide open. Just as she was going to turn and retreive the groceries from the van the stereo sprung to life blaring the Beatles birthday song.
"Very funny," she hollered, "my birthday isn't until tomorrow."
"Surprise!" The resounding shout echoed through the house accompanied by the music on the stereo. The door that led into the garage flung open and people poured into the living room and dining room. Another stream of people was coming down the stairs led by Evan who was carrying Isabella. He had a sheepish grin on his face as he came toward her.
"You're all in big trouble!" shouted Nina. "You promised not to do this on my birthday."
"Technicality, my love." said Evan as he kissed her. "We promised no party on your birthday,this is the day before your birthday."
Nina groaned. "I should have known to be more specific with a bunch of linear thinkers. I'll forgive all of you and let you stay if there's a cold bottle champagne in the house and if I don't have to cook dinner for you." Applause and laughter resounded. "Oh, and if someone would get the groceries out of my car before they melt I'd really appreciate it."
Evan escorted Nina out to the patio where she was seated in the swing. It had been converted for the occasion into a throne of sorts that was festooned with balloons and streamers. Wyn's daughters Peri and Maddy placed a crown on her head that they had decorated. It was made of cardboard that had been spray-painted gold and was covered with beads and plastic jewels and bore the words Birthday Queen. Nina thanked them profusely. Soon her mother and step-father and Evan and Wyn were before her bearing champagne and strawberries, Godiva chocolates, red roses, and a shrimp cocktail. All of her favorite things. And the guests. Nina wondered when they had managed to pull all of this together without her being aware of it. A dozen of her co- workers, including her boss, her mother and Stan, Wyn and Marc and the girls, Evan's brother and his wife and their daughter, neighbors from up and down the block, Wyn's mother Miriam, there must be nearly forty people. This surprise party business wasn't nearly as bad as she had anticipated. The earlier tensions of the day melted away as she was entertained by a number of age joke presents and cards, many of which weren't appropriate to share with the children who were in attendance.
The obligatory cake appeared with forty candles ablaze on top. Nina was pleased and touched that they had remembered her preference for fudge marble cake with cream cheese icing. She sat back and reflected on her great fortune to have such good friends as she shared tiny bites of vanilla ice cream with Isabella. The curious expression on her six-month-old face as she experienced the cold sweetness on her tongue was soon replaced by an approving smile and then an open mouth that plead for more. What had Josie been thinking on the eve of her own fortieth birthday, Nina wondered. How long had she planned ending her own life, what triggered the
need to come home to stage her failed suicide. Would Josie be better off dead than lying in that hospital bed. Had she really wanted to die or was it a last, desperate cry for help. Psychiatrists say that all suicides are a cry for help. You just don't get an opportunity to try to heal the ones who succeed.
As the evening advanced and guests dwindled away a few at a time the party was reduced to just Nina and Evan and Wyn and Marc. Isabella had been spirited off to bed two hours earlier and Miriam had taken the twins home with her even though they had insisted that they were old enough to remain until after dark. Wyn reminded them that this time of year it was light until nearly ten o'clock and that they needed their sleep before swimming lessons in the morning. Nina picked at the cake crumbs that were strewn on the platter. Evan and Marc had taken up their long standing debate over which was the superior computer operating system, Mac versus DOS. Typically this would lead into their other amiable difference of opinion, the Glades golf course versus the newer municipal course. Wyn and Nina listened in bemused silence. They were too tired and full to make their usual deprecative remarks so instead they sat and listened patiently as they finished off the last of the champagne.
When the doorbell rang Nina and Evan looked at each other questioningly and they both shrugged, indicating that neither of them knew who it could be, everyone who had been expected for the party had already been and gone. Nina went to answer it, kissing Evan on the top of his head in passing, insisting that he had done so much already that she could manage this one little thing. On her way through the kitchen she set down her empty wine glass and plucked one more strawberry from the bowl on the table. She opened the front door and nearly choked on the bit of strawberry she was about to swallow.
"Ethan." she said while trying to avoid coughing strawberry bits all over him. "I thought you wouldn't be here till next week."
"I managed to get things tied up earlier than I expected so I took a flight out this afternoon. Don't you have knaves or minions to answer the door? What's this world coming to when the Queen has to take care of such menial tasks herself."
Nina felt the invisible blush begin to creep up her neck as she reached up and removed the crown. "Just queen for the day, you're crashing the end of my birthday party. Come in, we're all out back on the patio."
"Thanks. Did you save some cake for me?"
"I think I can find a piece for you. Of cake I mean. Come on in." Ethan followed her through the house and outside once more to the patio. Wyn squealed in surprise and jumped up to embrace Ethan. Marc and Ethan shook hands and Nina mumbled an introduction as Evan stood up to shake hands with him. As always she was stymied over how to refer to Evan. The father of our child? The man with whom I live and share my life? My POSSLQ? She was equally undecided over how to refer to Ethan. Honey, this is the man who deflowered me twenty-two years ago. My first love? The man who had the pleasure of breaking my heart for the first time?
Ethan fell comfortably into the golf course conversation as if he was one of the regular crowd and he had just dropped in because he happened to be in the neighborhood. Nina's annoyance from earlier in the day returned full throttle as she cut a piece of cake for Ethan. What was he doing here a week early? And how did he know to come to her house. What business did he have being so comfortable here when she felt flustered and embarrassed? She heard the words, something to drink? coming out of her mouth as she handed the plate to him, their hands touching in passing. Water, coffee? Milk, he had asked and she left for the kitchen with Wyn in tow.
"What's he doing here?" she demanded of Wyn in hushed tones.
"I don't know, when we talked two days ago he said it would be another week before he could get here. Why are you acting so weird? He's just here early. It's not a big deal. Is it?"
"It shouldn't be. It was just such a shock to open the door and see him there. God, I felt like I was seventeen again, everything rushed back and I'm reduced to a blithering idiot. Was it that bad?"
"I'm probably the only one who noticed. Don't worry about it. Take a couple of deep breaths and two aspirin and call me in the morning." Wyn pinched her cheeks granny style. "It'll be fine, just relax."
Nina managed to regain her senses and felt mostly normal. After an hour had passed Marc stood up and announced that some people have to work tomorrow and unlike the rest of you he was one of them. Ethan was staying at Winbrook so he left with Wyn and Marc. Nina saw them to the door and Evan excused himself to check on Isabella. Everything was fine until Ethan said goodnight to her. He took her hand and kissed it and before she knew it he had caught her up in an unexpected hug. She relaxed and hugged him back. He smelled wonderful, a mix of Ivory soap and a trace of musky cologne. Wyn reminded her of their lunch date tomorrow. Then she was standing alone on the front steps. Her feet hurt. She slipped off her sneakers and the cool concrete of the stoop was soothing. When am I going to get over him. If I really wanted to, I could, she thought with annoyance.
Upstairs Evan was brushing his teeth clad only in paisley print boxer shorts. He looked cute despite the fact that he no longer held his stomach in for her. Wearily she sprawled on the bed while dropping her shoes on the floor. "I'm too tired to be alive." Evan leaned on the bathroom door jamb and observed her with love and amusement. "I mean it. Just throw something over me and I'll sleep right here."
"Oh, no. People in their forties should brush and floss before they go to bed. You need to get your little fanny in the bathroom before you succumb to gum disease." He sat down next to her and moved a stray strand of hair from across her face.
"Little? Fanny? Really?"
"Cutest little fanny west of the Mississippi."
"Yeah. Wait till it falls."
"I can do that. It'll still be cute, even when you're dragging it after you like an old dog on a leash."
"I love you. Thank you for the party. It was nice, I tried not to but I had a good time anyway."
He leaned over and kissed her warmly. "I love you, too. Now get in the bathroom and brush those teeth. And woudja put on that little black silk thing that's on the back of the door? If you do I'll give you another present." He laughed a mock-evil little laugh.
Nina rolled her eyes up and sighed. "Anything for you, darling." She got up and padded to the bathroom. In the bright light she searched for crow's feet and gray hairs as she brushed her teeth. Not bad for forty. In fact pretty good for having had a baby six months ago. And I still have a great butt. What more could a girl ask for.
* * * * * * *
I'm late. Nina willed the light to turn to green as she sat impatiently waiting for the cross traffic to get its turn at a red light. I should have called the restaurant but I thought that the call would just slow me down that much more. If I had a brain in my head I would have had Evan call. The light turned green but the three cars ahead of her weren't responding quickly enough. Nina resisted the urge to honk them into action.
She hadn't slept well. She should have known better than to drink coffee so late the night before. Like clockwork she had woken up precisely four hours after she had drunk the coffee. Had that ever happened before she had read the article explaining how caffeine affected the body? It had said that caffeine reaches its peak effectiveness usually about four hours after consumption. She was a victim of her own knowledge. Once awake she couldn't find a position that was just right and it didn't help that her brain was going ninety miles an hour. Fluffing pillows and shifting around she tried to keep her eyes closed. The insides of her eyelids then became miniature movie screens where the Ethan and Nina show played out without a satisfying conclusion causing her eyes to once again fly open. She had enviously watched Evan as he slept unaware of her caffeine-induced crisis.
"You look like shit." observed Wyn as Nina plopped down in the chair opposite her.
"All that money spent on your fine education and that's all the better vocabulary you have? I'd leave my sunglasses on but I can't read the menu."
"Let's start over. Happy birthday, Nina, you look radiant. Did you sleep at all last night? I'm sorry but you look awful."
"Thanks. I feel awful. Coffee at eleven at night doesn't agree with me." The waitress arrived to take their beverage order. "Coffee for me. Black and in copious quantities. And water."
"Same for me," said Wyn. The waitress bustled away. "Don't try to hide behind that menu." Wyn had never seen Nina look so sad. "Oh, no. I know this look. It's him. Isn't it." Wyn look expectantly at the top of Nina's head until she finished digging in her purse and looked up. "What are you looking for in there, anyway?"
"I don't know. I guess I thought I had some Motrin in there and I can't find it. My head hurts."
"God, Nina, don't do anything stupid. You can't possibly think that you can just conveniently zip back to twenty years ago and ride off into the sunset with your knight in shining armor!"
"Just when I think everything is fine and I have my life in order I get dropped into the middle of this melodrama. Just slap me up and tell me that it's impossible to love two men at the same time. I may never sleep again."
"I'd be happy to slap you. Here and now is what's important. You have so much to lose." Wyn searched Nina's face and saw the evidence of too many nights with too little sleep. She looked weary. Wyn softened and felt a smile creep over her face as she realized what was going on.
"What are you grinning about?" asked Nina.
"I get it. I know exactly what this is." Wyn laughed and leaned forward earnestly.
Nina sat back and folded her arms defensively. "You want to spit out that canary before you choke on it? Okay, miss smarty-pants what exactly is this?"
Wyn laughed again and slapped her hands down on the table. "He's your tire!"
"He's my tire." Nina repeated flatly. "That's your brilliant conclusion? He's my tire?"
"Yup. Ethan Parker is your tire. He is the steel-belted radial in your emotional landfill." Wyn sat back looking smug and triumphant.
The waitress returned with coffee and ice water and recited the lunch specials for their consideration and waited partently for them to reply.
"I need a few minutes." said Nina.
"Me. too." said Wyn. The waitress once again retreated.
"I know I'm going to regret this. Why is Ethan my tire? And it better be good or I'm just going to have to get a new best friend."
Wyn doctored her coffee with sugar and took a long sip before she continued. "Landfills are fascinating. Not just the fact that they're archeological and anthropoligical gold mines, you should really know about this, it's more your field than mine. Anyway, from an ecological standpoint the laws governing solid waste disposal are very specific to protect groundwater and run-off, it's really very technical, the refuse is compacted into the earth in a clay lined pit and every few feet another clay layer is pressed over the top so that everything is stable and sealed off. And this works really well for almost every sort of trash except for tires."
"Will there be a point soon? I'm hungry."
"Oh, yes. Yes." Wyn was in full courtroom mode, addressing her jury of one. "Tires. They get compressed and crammed and squashed down and they build up all this incredible tension. They're like tightly wound up springs and when they let go, they let go with a vengeance! They plow right up to the surface through layers of garbage and clay caps. Boom! They pop out. No matter how hard they try to keep them buried some of them just won't stay put. Ethan's your tire. No matter how deep you bury him he works his way to the top." She poked her spoon in Nina's direction for dramatic emphasis. "What do you think?"
"I think I need to cut him up in little, tiny pieces before I bury him again. You'll defend me, won't you? Use that tire thing for my defense." They both laughed. "So, how does my tire seem to you?"
"He's his same old smart-ass self on the outside but he's really broken up over Josie. I went with him to the hospital this morning to see her and it was pretty rough. I think he was going over to see his parents this afternoon. That's really going to be tough, he's pretty angry over how detached they are from the situation. It's like they've completely disowned Josie. Remember how pissed August was when she changed her name? I don't think he ever got over that."
"I thought he was going to blow a gasket. You know, I need to put this in perspective. Ethan's here to see Josie, not to make me miserable. If I let him make me crazy it's my fault and I prefer to not be crazy. Now, let's celebrate my birthday by ordering nutritionally devoid food that's bad for us. Fried things. And chocolate. Suppose they have any fried chocolate?"
Nina resolved to be logical and practical where Ethan was concerned. He was so difficult to read. She never had been able to figure out what was going on with him, not even when they had been involved. She had been so crazy over him that it hadn't mattered to her that they had hurt others in the process. He had such a cool exterior. It was only when they were alone together that he dropped that facade and showed his sensitive, caring side. There was that brief period between her eighteenth birthday and when he told her he was leaving that they had gone out in the open with their relationship. Two months. Just a little less than two months. It was in that short episode of her young life that she got to know what she had always believed was the real Ethan. They had been so happy, so connected, and then he had dropped the bombshell on her. He was leaving for New Mexico, he had a college buddy down there who had convinced him that what he needed was a winter full of sunshine, so he was going down there to visit. He'd only be gone a week, he wanted to check things out before he made the big leap. But she had known, deep down inside she had known that it wasn't for just a week, that if he left it would be for good. He was running away. Not from cold winter weather but from her. If she could just hang onto that now. He had left her, not just once but twice, and she had to keep that in mind. Ethan was someone who left, that was what he did and she had no intention of throwing her current life out the window for him. She had wasted too many hours on him already, especially after the second time. He was nothing but an opportunist, he had breezed in the weekend that Wyn and Marc got married and taken advantage of her when she was afraid Evan was leaving her. She had trusted him and poured her heart out to him and then just like before he was gone. Then not only did Evan take her back, he had forgiven all. Evan was the one who deserved her devotion, not Ethan. Just the similarity of their names was some sort of cruel, Freudian trick. I'm living in a soap opera, Nina thought, I'd rather be watching one instead. Is The Young and the Restless still on?
Wyn was explaining how Ethan had managed to get away from his new gallery opening, he had decided to put it off until after the trip. There was some big hush-hush over the centerpiece of the exhibit and how large it was and how difficult it had been to transport it from his studio to the gallery. He had left his business manager to sort things out, the only instructions he had left concerned this mysterious sculpture. No press allowed, no photographs, it had to remain draped until the show opened. Ethan's trip to Walsh River had complicated matters, his critics claimed that it was an unfinished piece, that he was fast becoming a hack artist. There was no masterpiece waiting to be unveiled upon his return, they said,he was just buying time to come up with an excuse.
Ethan had left so quickly that he hadn't called Wyn until he had arrived in Walsh River. Miriam had just gotten home with the twins and had directed him to Nina's so he'd taken a taxi. They had stopped by the airport for his bags after they left. No agenda, no intentional infliction of discord upon Nina, it was all perfectly reasonable. Wyn and Ethan had sat up for another two hours talking about Josie and their work and her kids and his family.
"The big news is," said Wyn, "is that Ethan has been in touch with Annie."
"Annie? Their sister?"
"Yes, it's so incredible. She saw all the news about Josie, and she had been following her career and all but she didn't want to call home. I guess she's never forgiven her father for how he treated her, like her being pregnant was some sort of crime against the family. Anyway, she's sort of kept up on her famous brother and sister and has kept scrapbooks of news clippings on both of them. As soon as she found out about Josie's suicide attempt she started to try to get in touch with Ethan. Then it ended up taking weeks of phone calls and trying to get through to him. Finally she got his home phone number from someone who slipped up at the EPIc office. So last week the phone rings at home and he answers and it's Annie. He hasn't convinced her to come up here yet but he thinks it could happen. Isn't that amazing?"
"Josie never talked about her very much but you could tell that she really missed her. So what happened with her baby, did she give it up for adoption?"
"No. And this is so sad. When she ran away she went to California and was hanging out with other runaways on the street in LA. She got into drugs really bad, heroin, so when the baby was born he was addicted. He was really tiny, too, and he only lived for a few days. Then she just kind of wandered for a few years and ended up in Oregon. It's a happy ending, though, she got clean at some point and met this nice guy and she's been a farm wife all these years. Three kids, all grown now, and she's a grandma as of last fall."
"Do you remember her, how old were you and Josie when she left?"
"Yeah, I do remember her. We were ten or eleven, and she and Josie look so much alike they could be twins. I hope she does come out here, at least to see Ethan and Josie. I don't hold out any hope that she wants to make amends with August and DeeDee but who knows. We could use a miracle or two about now."
Nina agreed. The focus on something other than her little problems had lifted a weight off of her. She even gracefully allowed Wyn to pay for the meal without wrestling over the check first. This turning forty might be okay, she thought. If she could gain some wisdom or insight from all this turmoil around her it might be worth a couple of gray hairs.