Single Mom Seeks Roommate
Moving mechanically down the aisle, Amanda sighed in frustration as she yanked the cart straight once more. She'd picked the one with the squeaky wheel again; of the seven carts in the tiny organic grocery store, she'd managed to find the one that set her teeth on edge. Despite her guiding hand on the handle, the cart strayed across the aisle as she reached for the canned salmon.
Halfway to the can, her eye brushed over the price, and she stopped. The $7.95 price tag had never struck her before. She'd always swept six five-ounce cans into her cart without a moment's hesitation. And now she stood, hand brushing the air in a pointless salute, while her mind quickly calculated that her habitual purchase of salmon had cost her, each week, just about fifty dollars.
Amanda looked down at her cart. Baby spinach, vine-ripened tomatoes, organic sweet corn, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, rice-flour crackers, Mexican dark chocolate, soy milk…one by one, the prices of each item surfaced from the heretofore undisturbed corner of her mind. It was too much. Already—even after all the resolutions of that morning—she'd managed to accumulate over $200 worth of groceries. It would have been more…but she wasn't shopping for Thomas anymore. It was just Alexis and her in the house how.
Although that would change. The house's title had always been in Thomas' name, and when he came back from his business trip in Bangalore, the terms arranged between Amanda's lawyer and his for their temporary occupancy in the house would come due. She'd been fortunate to have the extra three weeks…but she had no idea where the two of them would go on Tuesday.
The pressure in her chest from the unexpected burden of groceries increased until she was gasping for air. How was she going to afford rent on a new home for them?
She abandoned the cart, moving furtively for the store's exit, feeling like a thief though she had left all her loot in the aisle behind her. But just as quickly as she'd started, Amanda stopped. Alexis. She'd promised to cook her favorite tonight; spiced lamb stew with raisins and plums. Alexis hadn't responded to her promise—when her face was hidden by her phone, she responded to very little—but Amanda couldn't bear to break her promise. After having ruined so much else…dinner was an infinitesimal gesture, but Amanda knew she couldn't bear the guilt if she went home without it.
So she began a long journey of shame through the store; returning vegetables to their sweet-smelling bins, placing cans back on shelves, and finally shoving crackers on the shelf next to the gluten-free cereal because she couldn't remember which aisle they'd come from.
After a quick loop back towards the butcher's block, she assembled the significantly smaller number of items in her cart and headed for the register. Heather waved to her from behind the till and waved her over. Amanda felt her steps falter as she saw that familiar, friendly face, but a quick thought that avoiding her regular cashier would look even stranger than the markedly different items in her cart on a regular grocery day saved her. She dragged the cart into the line and started unpacking.
"How are you today, Mrs. Miller?" Heather began, efficiently swiping her items and entering her member ID number with a few well-remembered keystrokes. "You and Alexis okay? Your husband?"
The "Mrs." stabbed a needle's jab into her ribs. The "husband" made Amanda turn swiftly to the cart again to avoid the other woman's seeing the uncontrollable shine of tears that welled up at the thought of Thomas. She fumbled for her credit card, cleared her throat, and threw a "Fine, just fine," over her shoulder until she had gotten herself under control again.
"And your children?" Amanda rejoined, forestalling any comments Heather might make on the items she was bagging.
"Oh, just fine," Heather said, brown ponytail bobbing jauntily as she heaved the paper sacks over the conveyor belt and into Amanda's cart. "Molly managed to draw on the walls in the upstairs bedroom—in permanent marker—before anyone noticed. Mother was not happy. I tried to get it out, but I think painting over it's gonna be the only option. Guess I know what I'll be doing this weekend," she laughed, shaking her head, "What about you? Supposed to be nice weather…are you going to head to the lake?"
The lake house. Three stories, wraparound porch with a swing, and an interior that had taken Amanda nine years to get just the way she wanted. Pastel walls, soft, neutral furniture, and dark woods…she swallowed bitter regret that burned on the way down, and answered, "No…not this weekend. I have something to do."
"Yes," the lie formed word by word on her lips, "See, we're going to have to move into a temporary house in the area; ours needs some structural renovations. The problems of historical homes, you know," she smiled, relieved. It was a plausible invention. "And Thomas is in Bangalore, again, and I have no idea where I'd find house-renting information. I really have to get down to it this weekend. Any tips?"
"Well," Heather totaled the order and rested one hand on her keyboard, "I've never had to rent a house, but any apartments I ever found were posted on Craigslist. I know they have house-renting information too…" she trailed off, and shrugged. "I don't think that's probably where you'd want to go. Too low rent, probably. $98.18," she said.
Amanda swiped the card before she remembered. "Oh no!" she moaned, "I wasn't supposed to use that."
"No problem," Heather said, resetting the menu, "It doesn't go through until you sign. What's wrong?"
Amanda buried the card with her husband's name in the depths of her bag. Even to her strained ears, she knew her voice sounded harsh and pinched as she replied, "Oh…we're just trying to cut down on our card balances. Thomas is worried about interest rates going up." This lie was nowhere near as plausible, but Heather just nodded and replied:
"Okay, no problem. Debit or cash then?"
She fished out two fifties and handed them over, feeling more than ever her ridiculous choice to come to this store. It would be hard to break the habits of the past twenty-three years, but she would have to. She and Alexis were going to have to manage without salmon and organics for a little while…but she swore—as she carefully tucked the $1.82 into her wallet instead of leaving it in the "Feed America" box at the end of the register—that it would not be forever. She would fix this.
"You said Craigslist, right?"
Heather had started ringing up another customer's order when Amanda tossed her the question in a studiously nonchalant manner, and she paused a moment to give the older woman a puzzled look.
"Yes," she said, slowly resuming scanning her new client's items, "But I don't think you'll find what you're looking for."
"Well," Amanda said, shrugging, "anything's worth a try, right?"
"I guess," Heather replied. "Good luck!"
Amanda gave a silent thank you as she dragged her frustrating cart out of the store. She would need it.
Hours after dinner, Amanda retreated to the study and turned on Thomas's computer. She thought of everything in the house that way, more or less. Thomas's chair, Thomas's TV…there was so little in the place that was hers, bought and paid for either before or during the course of their marriage. Certainly nothing in this room was hers. It had been planned out and decorated by a woman from the company. It even smelled like a boardroom; cold metal, varnished woods, and the static smell of too many electronics.
The computer hummed softly on the soft leather blotter on the desk. Amanda felt the vibration in her flat palms. It shivered the silver-plated picture frames on the desk. She looked at her face, smile wide and white, as she stood between Thomas and Alexis. Next to that was herself, so much younger and holding a bundle of pink cloth. Alexis had weighed six pounds, two ounces. She remembered how light she had felt, the first time she'd held her.
Thomas hadn't changed his password yet, at least. She navigated the computer slowly, feeling the mocking eyes of her daughter and husband as she typed the address and started to browse through the listings. Heather had been right; there were dozens of house rental options. The prices varied widely—it took her ten minutes of random scrolling before she saw the "low to high" sorting option. Then she started to see places in her price range.
As she looked at the costs (mostly a number followed by three to four zeroes) she felt her stomach begin to churn. Alexis's child support payments would be generous, but a private house within a few miles of her school was not to be had for a price Amanda could afford. It would be a while until she could find a job, and in the meantime…she had nothing. Selling her clothes and jewelry would bring something, but no more than enough to cover a month or two.
Maybe she was being too ambitious. A shared house or…or even an apartment would likely be better. They wouldn't need much space; a room or two would do for Alexis, and she could sleep in a closet for all she cared.
Searching through the other options yielded some results. She wrote a few emails with enquiries of when she might stop by to look at the rooms, and shut the computer down. Sitting in the dark she was shielded from the too-happy faces in the pictures before her. The dark gave her a moment's peace; a private instant to feel as exhausted as she was. Amanda put her elbows on the blotter and leaned forward, burying her face in cold fingers.
A sob wanted to escape; she swallowed it. Yet why should she? Thomas wasn't there…he wouldn't be there any more to frown at her tears and tell her how much her sorrow bothered him. If she wanted to cry because Alexis hadn't once looked up from her phone at dinner or answered a single one of her questions, she could.
She tried to relax, to breathe deeply, to coax the long-suppressed tears to the surface. They refused to come, frightened of the eyes that had shut them out once too often. Amanda sighed and straightened up. What good would moping around in the dark do? She was thirty-eight years old, not a teenager.
On the way to her bedroom, she saw the light under Alexis' door and heard her daughter's muffled voice. It was 11:17, long past bedtime. Amanda put her hand on the doorknob and felt familiar words rising to her lips.
She stopped. Guilt tore at her heart, soured her stomach. What right had she to be a mother, anymore?
Walking softly, she crept past the door and shut her own behind her.
The house was a shabby Colonial, a leftover from the years before the town had begun to gentrify. Its faint blue paint might have been vibrant once, but it had long since started to peel from years of wind, rain, and snow. The roof didn't look too new, either. But it was three miles away from Princefield Academy and within walking distance of a few grocery stores, a laundry, and all the bus lines. Maybe the last wasn't a concern at the moment, but Amanda doubted she could afford the insurance on her BMW for very long.
Maple Street lived up to its name; dozens of the trees lined the road, their roots pushing up underneath the paving stones of the sidewalk. Their spreading branches covered the whole road in cool shade, even in the full noon sunlight. Amanda parked in front of number 17 and got out. The street was a pleasant place; she heard children laughing in their backyards and smelled the summer barbecues already warming up. She hadn't been back to her New Jersey neighborhood in decades, but this street brought it before her eyes. She remembered the little model ranch houses, her best friends Susan and Jessica three and five doors down. Maybe this place would be good for Alexis. A look outside the cocoon she and Thomas had wrapped her in.
She climbed the steep lawn and up the three front steps to the wide porch. The doorbell was rusted solid, so she pulled back the screen door and knocked. There were screams from inside—the ad had said the house was home to two small children—and a gravelly voice hushed them firmly before the door opened.
"Mrs. Dale?" she asked. The woman stood a head shorter than she and was two times wider, but underneath her salt-and-pepper hair and copious wrinkles shone two vigorous brown eyes unclouded by time.
"Yes," she said, stepping back to let Amanda in. "My daughter told me you'd be coming by. She's been held up at work, but will be here soon. Let me take you around."
Amanda smiled at the two kids—a doubtful-looking girl and a boy young enough to suck his thumb—and they both fled to the back of the house.
"This is our living room," the woman began, gesturing to the shabby sofa, coffee table, and TV. "You have a third room upstairs that's already set up for cable. You also have your own bathroom," she set off down the hall, past three open bedroom doors, "you also have your own kitchen; we just set it up. There isn't much storage space though, so you can use half of the pantry down here. I'm almost always at home, so you can come down anytime to get what you need."
As she spoke they came into the kitchen, a wide bright room with one window looking out over the driveway. There was a dishwasher underneath the counter, and a dinette set in the corner. A small room in the back was a walk-in pantry; half the shelves were bare.
"And how do we get up to our rooms?"
"Stairs in the back," she replied, pulling open the door at the end of the kitchen. A cobweb-encased stairway was on their left. Amanda made a mental note to clean it before letting Alexis even have a look; she hated spiders.
Mrs. Dale unlocked the door at the top of the staircase and opened it into a slope-roofed living room. "Cable hookup," she pointed to the white wire coiled on the floor. A narrow hallway connected them to the kitchen, via the first of the bedrooms and the bathroom on the right, and a long second bedroom stretching the length of the house on the left. The living room and second bedroom were both quite dark, but that hardly mattered. There was plenty of room, and everything looked clean and well-tended.
"And the rent?"
"$850 plus shared expenses. Internet would be half $37 a month, and if you use the cable that'll be half $85. Electricity runs about $120, more if you use air conditioning, which we don't. No water or sewer charges."
Say $1000 for rent and expenses. Perfectly reasonable for the space in this area. Thomas would undoubtedly have something to say about them not offering use of the driveway or better storage in the kitchen, but Amanda liked it. She liked the old gentility of the neighborhood and the brusque old woman who must keep the place going and raise her daughter's children.
The front door downstairs opened and closed, and a lively voice greeted the children's screams.
"That's my daughter," Mrs. Dale said, "you'll want to meet her."
They retraced their steps down the musty smelling staircase into the kitchen, where Miss Dale was having a glass of juice. She turned around as the door opened.
"Mrs. Miller!" the girl gasped, "I had no idea it was you."
Amanda thought she was going to faint. "You sounded so different on the phone."
For a moment they gaped at each other in stunned disbelief. Amanda felt her throat working, but her mouth was dry and the words would not come. Finally, Heather summoned a strained smile and said:
"So…what do you think of the rooms? I know they're small, but—"
"No!" she interrupted, "No, they're very nice. This—this neighborhood reminds me of where I grew up, a bit."
Heather nodded. "Not what you're used to though, I'd bet. Oh, my God," she gasped, "please forget I said that."
Amanda murmured something polite but had no idea if the words came out in anything resembling sensible order. "I'll take them," she said, feeling as though she'd stepped off the edge of a cliff.
"Oh, okay," Heather said, "Uh…lemme just get the application."
"I'll do it," Mrs. Dale said, heading down the hallway.
The two women stood avoiding each other's eyes.
"So, uh, is this for a friend of yours? A relative?"
"No," she replied, softly, "This will be for my daughter and me. My husband is divorcing me; I need to be out of the house by Tuesday."
"Oh. I'm—I'm so sorry. How—how is Alexis taking it?"
"Oh, she's—" the word "fine" refused to be said. Heather's face was nervous, but sympathetic. Any single mother would understand what Amanda needed to say. So the words came. "She's a wreck; she blames me. I don't think she's talked to be about anything other than when she needs a ride and what she wants for breakfast since Thomas told her."
"But she's not staying with your—with Mr. Miller?"
"No. It was her decision, and she wanted to stay with me."
At Heather's look, she shrugged. "Believe me, I don't understand it either. Her father's furious."
"Well, she can't be too mad at you," Heather said, shrugging. "You know how kids are; they let you know when you've pissed them off. Molly can throw a fit for days if she's mad. But…" she sighed, "I guess Max is like your girl. Once," she laughed weakly, "once he didn't eat anything for two days before I apologized and bought him another Transformer when I stepped on the other one."
Amanda smiled. "But they seem like good kids."
"I think so. I try—I hope they will be."
Mrs. Dale returned with three photocopied pages. Amanda rolled them in her fist, twisting them as she spoke.
"I just need to know…what are my chances? I'm sure you have other people looking at the rooms, especially since you're so close to campus. I don't have the time to wait for a phone call."
Mrs. Dale frowned. "We do have other people interested. Just because you know my daughter doesn't mean—"
"Mom," Heather interrupted, "you know we were talking about getting out of the college racket anyway. Too much hassle…for every good one, you get two more who trash the place." She hesitated, cleared her throat. "All the same, we do need to know you can afford this, Mrs.—Ms. Miller. I don't think you work?"
It was painful how hard Heather was trying to distance Amanda from her own marriage. "It'll be Ms. Spinoza from now on, Heather. No, I don't have a job currently, by child support payments will be more than enough to cover rent and expenses. I can get my lawyer to fax you a copy of my financial statements if you want proof."
"No, no," she said, "that's fine. I think we should give it to her," she turned aside to her mother, "she needs somewhere to be."
"I'm not raising another fatherless child," her mother replied firmly. "Two is more than enough."
"I wouldn't ask you to do that," Amanda snapped, "my daughter has me and I don't intend to leave her to strangers. I will pay the rent in full and on time; neither Alexis nor I will disturb your family. And unlike most college students, we're not in the habit of drugs, drinking, or loud parties."
The woman cracked a smile. "Okay then, Heather. If you want."
"Good," she said, smiling widely at Amanda, "so, Ms. Spinoza, if you'll just fill this out for our records, you can move in whenever. Monday?"
"I'll start bringing some things over on Sunday, but yes," Amanda felt herself almost sweating with relief, "most of our things will be in on Monday. Will you be here?"
"I've got a shift, but Mom will be. I'll give you her number."
"Thank you both," she said, "truly. I had no idea what I was going to do."
Mrs. Dale humphed and went back down the hall. Heather shrugged.
"It's been hard for her. She never much liked kids when they were her own, and I didn't give her any time to enjoy her freedom when my brother and I left. Molly came around a year later and Max was a year after that."
Amanda opened her mouth to ask, changed her mind, and closed it.
"Yeah. It's not a story either of us like telling. She's happier when the kids go back to school; summer vacation's always the worst."
She made a faint sound of agreement. Heather smiled and shook her head.
"You don't want to talk about this right now. I bet you've got tons of stuff to get on with. I'll text you Mom's number and you can let her know when you'll be by."
They passed the children playing with racecars on the dining room table, and Amanda stepped out on the broad porch again, wondering how so little had changed outside when her life was surging under her feet. They said empty goodbyes, and she started home.
Amanda felt uncomfortably full, and on top of the work of the day—lifting box after box up the winding, narrow stairway—the mushu pork, vegetable lo mien, and rice churning in her stomach made her want to vomit.
"This was disgusting," Alexis said, still working away at the lo mien with a grimace. "We haven't had Chinese in years. Not from a take-out place, anyway."
Amanda had to control her excitement over Alexis' voluntary speech, as well as her irritation. "I thought it would be a nice treat; we worked so hard today. And I remember how much you used to love it."
"Yeah, when I was five. You didn't know how to cook back then; it was the best I could get."
"Well, after your father got on that health kick, he didn't want to eat out anymore. I had to learn how."
Alexis dropped her chopsticks in the paper box. "So he said "cook" and you said "okay"?"
"It was important to him. You probably don't remember—and he took away most of the pictures of just after you were born—but he was a little pudgy. He wanted to get in shape."
"And he couldn't do any of the work himself? Dad doesn't know how to scramble eggs."
Amanda shrugged. It wasn't a time she liked to think about; they had been happy then. "You'll understand when you have someone you love. It was important to him, so it was important to me. It wasn't a matter of doing extra work, not at all. You do so much for the ones you love that doesn't feel like work."
Her daughter didn't reply. She picked at the edge of the frayed lace tablecloth.
"So I was thinking," it was so nice to hear Alexis' voice after so many days that she couldn't bear to let the silence build again, "if you help me unpack the kitchen," their dishes were still in boxes stacked next to the sink, "we could take the night off and watch a movie afterwards."
"I was gonna unpack my room," Alexis got up and walked down the hall.
Amanda had to wait for her throat to clear so she could breathe. It took several long moments—it felt like her heart had burst and was drowning her in blood. Mechanically, without even feeling the greasy boxes as she held them, she packed up the remains of dinner and stowed them in the fridge. The shelves inside were totally bare; she hadn't even taken a bottle of orange juice with them.
"Must go to the grocery store," she murmured. But she stood there, staring at the empty shelves with cold air shivering against her skin. Everything she had to do jostled before her eyes; should she unpack the kitchen, set up the living room, or put the sheets on her bed? She had no idea. What was the most important?
Tomorrow was Tuesday. Real Housewives—which version she couldn't remember—came on at seven. For such a smart girl, Alexis did have junk food taste in TV. But she wouldn't want to miss it.
Amanda threw out their paper plates and headed down the hall. Alexis had already hooked up her laptop and Florence and the Machine was blaring under her door. She heard muffled sounds of boxes opening; the grate of corrugated cardboard sent shivers down her spine. If she knew her daughter at all, she would have her whole room set up exactly the way she'd left the old one in two hours or less.
Alexis got the anal-retentive streak from her, not Thomas. After six months of marriage, she'd given up on him ever learning to put his ties away from where he slung them over the bannister, or pick up his wet towel from where he dropped it in the morning. When they had both been working, it had been a frequent bone of contention and argument starter between them. Once she'd retired, she'd almost enjoyed the daily straightening-up rituals that sprouted up around him. It gave her something to do in the empty hours between his leaving the house in the morning and coming up the driveway in the evening.
The living room was pitch black and Amanda spent a few minutes feeling the wall to find an outlet to plug in the lamp. She found it at last behind the sofa; her first task was to drag that thing to a better location, underneath the window. At least she didn't have to move it far. It had taken two men from the Salvation Army store to help her lift it into the moving van.
The flat screen was light enough. She could lift it on her own to the stand in the corner. She plugged it in, screwed in the TV cable, and went through the set up menu. The sounds of Single and Desperate almost blew out her eardrums before she found the mute button. She started to unpack with the sound of the show in the background. She tossed her crocheted afghan across the back of the sofa—the green and beige looked well together—and brought out her curtains. The gold was a bit ostentatious in so small a space, and they reminded her forcefully of the room they had come from. This fifteen by twenty-five space was a good deal different from the spacious size of her last living room. The low ceilings made her feel trapped, like the air was too close. And it was warm without air conditioning. She pushed aside the blinds and—after a struggle—opened the windows.
It didn't really help. The late July air was thick as a sauna and it smelled like the hot asphalt and gasoline of the driveway. But she enjoyed hearing the sounds of the neighbors as she worked. She hung the curtains, unpacked the coffee table, set up the knick-knacks, and started to fill the bookcase.
The feeling of claustrophobia didn't ease. One bookcase took up the wall to the right of the door; the other took the wall to the left. The TV spanned the wall in front and the sofa stuck out much too far under the window. There was only a very narrow passage left between the bookcase and the coffee table to get down the hall to the bedrooms and kitchen. Everything fit, but…
Amanda stopped herself from thinking and instead returned to the kitchen to find the Windex. Almost everything had a fine coat of dust on it from the move, and she didn't want Alexis sitting in that.
With so little to the room, she'd set it up and cleaned it by 10:30. But after the work of the day, it felt like 3 AM. Tossing out the last soiled paper towel, she plunked down on the sofa and—what the hell?—put her feet up. There was a Single and Desperate marathon, apparently, but she didn't have the energy to find the remote and change the channel. So she watched; watched the stories of attractive, accomplished women who just couldn't seem to pin down a man. Though they were all in their late twenties at most—and one girl was just twenty-two!—they certainly fulfilled the "desperate" part of the title.
"Trust me ladies," Amanda muttered, "Marriage..." she couldn't even finish the cliché. She'd believed every one of them when Thomas had proposed.
She had loved Thomas, and still loved him…in a way. The worst part of her divorce was finding out that love didn't end with marriage. If she could hate Thomas, or even be indifferent to him, that would be something. And she didn't see how she could have loved him to the extent she did without marrying him. But except for Alexis, she took nothing she loved away from the nineteen years she'd spent with him.
Had it been worth it?
She fell asleep with that question buzzing between her ears.
Amanda started. She hadn't seen Heather until the other woman greeted her. She forced a smile and stopped on the stairs.
"How are you?"
"Oh, fine," Heather replied, shrugging, "Late shift. What about you? How are the rooms suiting you? I know it must be a tight fit."
"Oh, no, they're great," she set down the bag of trash she held to give her arm a break. "It's cozy with just the two of us; I miss Alexis when she's working."
"Yeah, I heard when she got the job at the theater. It's good for a kid, to get experience like that."
"Well, I'd have preferred something a bit less late; the buses run, but the neighborhood's not the best. It'll be another few weeks till I can buy another car." The BMW had gone back to Thomas; she had forgotten until the lawyers served her a notice that the car's title had never been in her name, after all.
"I worked in that area when I was her age; it's not too bad," Heather shifted and put her key in the lock. "She down there tonight?"
"Yes," she said, "so it's just me and the TV keeping each other company. I'll get a job when Alexis goes back to school in another few weeks, and I'm sure all this leisure will be missed."
"Hmm. Well, I shouldn't keep you. Dinner's in the oven waiting for me."
She unlocked the door and shoved it open, the heat-swollen wood grating against the frame. Amanda edged past her, face already falling back into what she called her screensaver mode. Even the few moments of smiling made her realize just how rarely she did it.
"What were you watching?"
"The Discovery Channel has a documentary on penguins," she replied, not knowing whether to be flattered or bothered that Heather was so familiar.
"Oh, that sounds great! Want to come down and watch it while I eat?" she seemed to feel her own forwardness, because she shrugged and added, "If you want to. I get lonely too, getting home this late. Mom and the kids go to bed at 8:30."
"That sounds nice," the words were the easy voice of habit speaking for her, but once spoken she couldn't take them back. "I'll be in in a few minutes."
"Great!" Heather didn't look particularly happy. Amanda almost smiled again as she threw out the trash that they were both being so careful of each other's feelings, when it would have been best to just acknowledge that their loneliness wouldn't be cured by sitting awkwardly on a sofa and letting the narrator fill the silence.
What was the point of a fresh start if she was just going to fall into the same habits? She stopped herself from slamming the trashcan shut and hated that she did it. Thomas had commanded her by asking favors instead of giving orders, and Alexis had cold-shouldered her into accepting every decision she made. For years she had accepted acceptance as her duty, but was it anymore?
I should just tell her, she thought frantically, hating that her heartbeat pounded in her chest at the thought of asserting her will against Heather's, I should just tell her no. Or I could lie. I'm tired, I'm not feeling well, I need to have Alexis' dinner ready for when she gets back…
But she turned and walked back into the house, knocking on Heather's door and staring wistfully at the staircase.
"You could have just come through," she said when she opened it. "We're neighbors; you don't have to knock."
Amanda murmured something about not presuming and followed Heather down the hall, where the TV was turned to penguins and Amanda's spaghetti and boiled mixed vegetables were already on the coffee table. None of the lights were on and the TV shone ghostly in the room.
"Have a seat," she gestured, and she did. Heather parked her plate on her lap and started twirling pasta around her fork. Amanda ignored the sight and smell of her eating and tried to focus on the screen. After a moment, her back started to hurt at the small, and inch by inch she leaned back.
They listened together in silence, the sound of narration and penguin chirps broken only by Heather's chewing. She finished in five minutes, but still they sat, not looking at each other, not speaking.
Amanda's back still hurt; the pain was spreading to her shoulders. She looked at Heather in quick stolen glances, wondering when it would be appropriate to thank her for the company and head upstairs. Beside her, Heather sighed.
"I actually wanted to ask you something," she asked. Amanda pulled a smile and nodded.
Heather sighed again. "Did your daughter ever…seem to hate you, growing up?"
She hummed in agreement. "I mean, I try to do the best I can for her, but for some reason, Molly…" she sighed, "I don't even know how to explain it."
"She stares at you and won't talk?"
"Exactly. Did your daughter ever do that?"
"When she was six. I didn't know what was wrong, like you. I still don't. But for a while, I thought she was planning how to kill me. She'd only talk to Thomas, and she played us against each other all the time. I'd say no to something and she'd just go to him. It wasn't his fault for agreeing to what she wanted, but I got so angry. Is she treating your mother the same?"
"No, she talks to her. And Mom's asked her what's up, and she refuses to say. Molly's about that age…she'll be six in October."
"Was she close to your husband?" Amanda bit her tongue and followed with, "I mean, does she remember her father?"
Heather smiled. "We were married; it didn't last long. I think the problem is that she was close to her mom. She was three when they divorced, and I know she still remembers her." She swallowed, drawing up her knees and wrapping her arms around them. "She still doesn't call me "Mom"."
"I'm so sorry," Amanda couldn't think of anything else to say.
The other woman shrugged, her ponytail slipping over her shoulder. "I can't blame her. Well, not now, anyway. Derek lied about his first wife; said she was crazy. Turns out that she was a lovely person…he was the psychopath. Sociopath, rather."
Amanda gaped, bit her tongue, and swallowed. "I…I'm sorry. If that's the case, didn't his first wife get custody of Molly?"
"She didn't want it. And since his medical history didn't come up in the divorce papers, the courts didn't assign it to her. No fault divorces can be a menace. And then, well…he says she died, but who knows, really."
They sat in silence again. The program ended and switched to something about earthquakes. Amanda shifted gently and cleared her throat.
"Thank you for inviting me," she said, softly, sliding forward on the sofa, "I hope that she starts talking to you again. Alexis outgrew that phase."
"When exactly did she outgrow it?" In the pale light from the TV, Heather's face looked almost skeletal. Her tired eyes looked out from pitted sockets, and her smile was thin as bone.
"I'm sure it's different for every child," she stood.
"I'm sure it is. Just tell me she doesn't still do it to you."
"She stopped just before she turned seven."
Heather sagged back against the sofa and closed her eyes. "Good to hear. Goodnight, Ms. Spinoza."
"I think you should call me Amanda," she replied, wanting to reach out but not sure how. "We're neighbors, after all."
Amanda was still awake when the door squeaked open and Alexis was home. The light from the TV—another mindless reality show marathon—was the only illumination in the apartment. It washed the two women in pale colored swathes, and left the rest of the place in deep darkness. Alexis shrugged off her bag and stood, one hand on the door, staring at her mother.
"It's almost 3 AM. I thought I told you to stop waiting up for me."
Amanda had to swallow a mixture of shame and resentment so strong it burned her throat like acid. "Oh, I couldn't sleep," she said, shrugging, "and you know I worry."
"Well, you don't have to," she walked down the dark hallway and didn't look back as she finished, "I never asked you to."
A light went on down the hall, briefly. It went out again when she closed her bedroom door.
Left behind in the living room, her only company empty-headed morons parroting their obviously scripted lines to the camera, Amanda put her face in her hands and sobbed silently. The trick of it was many years old; she had hated to cry in front of Thomas, and then Alexis when she came along. The secret was to let her body move—her shoulders heave, her hands shake—and it helped her keep her mouth shut.
She stayed there, in the dark, close silence of her hands' embrace, shaking and breathing raggedly. Whatever Alexis did, whatever she said…she knew it wasn't her daughter's fault. It was hers. She'd ruined everything, and deserved to take all the pain for it.
Amanda smoothed the hot tears and cold sweat down her clammy face. She knew she deserved this, deserved every day to lie on this bed of coals. But dealing with the agony was exhausting. Her years of silent torture, married to Thomas, had not prepared her for Alexis' icy anger. In all those years, Alexis had always been on her side. She had never been as blind to Thomas' affairs and indiscretions as Amanda had wished her to be. Alexis had always been as coldly furious with her father then as she was with her mother now.
Why did Alexis stay? Was she now only considering how best to live with the lesser of her two disappointing parents?
She sat up, then started back against the sofa. Alexis was staring down at her, face half in shadow and the rest of it looking pale and severe as a corpse. Amanda wiped her wet palms on her skirt, on the cushions, and fumbled to find an excuse for them.
"I—I'm just tired, that's all," was what she came up with, a dry laugh sticking in her throat, "Silly. I'm sorry if I bothered you."
"Stop it," she said, slashing the air with a stiff hand, "Mom, just stop it."
Amanda stopped. Despite her daughter's trembling lips and harsh voice, her heart still swelled with joy to hear the word "Mom" again. She waited, not daring to reach up and wipe away the marks of her sorrow.
Alexis swallowed, and lost some of her steel. "Why do you always do this? You don't talk to me, about anything, and then I find you crying. Do you know how many times…" she choked off in a sob of her own but reeled back from Amanda's reaching hand. "How many times I've seen you cry?"
"Oh, darling," a fresh tear ran down her cheek and she couldn't stop it, "I never wanted you to see—"
"Well, I did. I was six, the first time, and I thought you were dying, or Dad was dying. I couldn't imagine what else could make you cry. It was only when I was older—when I realized what Dad was doing—that I understood. But," she started crying, tears as delicate as spring raindrops, "you never talked to me."
She folded inward, hands crossing over her chest to cradle her slumped shoulders, and cried. Cried the way Amanda had never heard her cry, but the same way her heart had done for years in silence.
Oh God, her mind screamed, I did this. I gave her this pain—this is my crime, not her father's.
All she could think to say was what she'd already said. "I never meant for you to see any of that. I tried to keep it all from you. I—" she ran out of air and whispered, "I'm so sorry."
Alexis straightened up in a movement so harsh it was mechanical. "I know. Even Dad's sorry, I'm sure. But did you ever stop to think that "sorry" isn't enough? Was "sorry" enough when Dad brought home his "colleagues" for the fifth time? But I forgot," she sniffed loudly, swiped out her nose, "he never apologized for anything."
Years of habit made her say, "He wasn't as bad as that."
"Yes, he was!" she shouted.
No, he wasn't, she wanted to repeat.
Don't let them hear, she wanted to beg.
I loved him…I can't stop, her heart wailed.
"You're right," she said, softly, extending a pleading hand. "He was."
Alexis sighed; the sound trembled. She sat down at the edge of the coffee table and buried her face in her hands. The gesture was so familiar it made Amanda want to scream her throat raw or beat her hands bloody. How could she never have seen Alexis seeing her? But she had no energy for more, no idea what to say to make things better. They sat in silence, bathed in the white noise from the still flickering TV.
Alexis sniffled again and spoke through her fingers. "I just don't understand," she said, "I never did. Why did you love him? Why did you stay with him?"
"Do…do we have to talk about this now?"
"Yes. We do. If we don't," she hesitated, but Amanda saw the thin-lipped smile nonetheless, "I have enough friends who can help me stay away from both of you."
The threat made Amanda's stomach go cold and her heart go still. It was true; Alexis had often told her of letting one or another of her friends sleep on her bedroom floor when family pressures had been too much. She didn't doubt her daughter could effectively disappear for weeks if she wanted to.
"All right," she swallowed. "Just…just give me a minute."
"And a drink, I think," Alexis stood. "Even if you don't need one, I do."
"Alexis, you're sixteen," she gasped, "How long have you—"
"Oh," she sighed, "Don't worry. I know my limits. And I know where you keep the bourbon."
This is going to be a night of revelations for both of us, I suppose, she thought, numbly rising and following her daughter down the dark hallway to the kitchen. Alexis had switched on the light, pulled the bottle from behind the olive oil in the pantry, and poured them each a half tumbler full by the time she came in. She took a long swallow from hers, grimaced, and sat in the flimsy folding chairs around their plastic kitchen table. Amanda did the same, but limited herself to a sip. The bourbon burned like a banked fire in her chest, but at least it scalded away her tears.
They drank in silence for a few minutes.
"I don't know what made me love him," she spoke to her hands rather than her daughter. Alexis' face was still too twisted to bear looking at for long. "We met when he was my patient. I was a resident at Greenbriar, in Ridgewood; it was my first year. He was…" it was hard even for her to conjure a memory of Thomas back then, but she had told herself this story so often her rote words surfaced without effort, "funny, smart…he knew so much about the world and I felt like such a kid next to him.
"When he got better, we started dating. I never, not once back then, suspected how many other women he…well." She swallowed hard and took another sip, wincing as the fire spread to her stomach. "We dated for eight months before he asked me. I thought that was enough. I thought I knew him. Why would someone like him go through all the effort he did, spend all the money he did, if he wasn't serious? That's," she smiled ruefully, "what I told my parents when they doubted. When they wanted me to break up with him. I left the hospital when he asked me to—when he moved to the city to take control of the board. He didn't want me to go back to work, and I was pregnant with you. It…it didn't seem to matter."
Amanda sighed, shaking her head. "It did, of course. But I thought I would go back when you were in school…either that, or we'd have more children. I even thought I would teach you myself, at home. Thomas didn't like that idea, though. He thought a private school would be better for you and me."
"And then I was born. And you couldn't have any more kids."
She still remembered the terrible, terrible pain. Everything had gone smoothly until the last moment. Then it was blood and unconsciousness and waking up, cold and aching hours later to find a sympathetic nurse with poison—the truth—in her mouth. Thomas had left the hospital and only came back late that night to tell her it would be all right.
It wasn't the first lie he'd told her, but it was the first she remembered catching right when he told it.
"Yes," was all she said in reply, "It…it hurt both of us terribly, of course. But you were—are—such a blessing. You don't remember, but your father spent hours with you. He'd be the first one up, whenever you cried. Especially when I was still hurting."
"I'm sorry." Alexis had finished her drink, and pressed the empty glass with fingers so brittle they looked likely to shatter around it.
"What? My…" she couldn't breathe, "my God, do you think we blamed you? Alexis," she flung both hands across the table and closed them over her daughter's, "you are the best thing that ever happened to either of us. Ever. There is nothing I would take back—no pain I'd erase—if it meant losing you. Nothing."
"I know," Alexis turned her hands up to clutch her mother's, and fresh tears ran down her cheeks, "I know. That's why you stayed with him, isn't it? Because you thought it would be better for me."
Her lips were numb, but the words she'd comforted herself with still spilled out, "So many children of divorced parents have…problems. Especially if the parents split when the children are young."
Alexis nodded, "So you thought: stay together. Let Dad bring his sluts into the house when he thinks I'm not around, let him hide what he's doing when his daughter finds him fucking someone on the sofa. It'll be better for her in the long run. That's what you thought."
"Let me tell you how that "better" turned out, Mom," her anger was growing and her words bit deeply as a knife, "I drink. I swear. That's the least of it; every teenager does that. But after I tore my ACL, I hoarded Codeine, Percocet…everything they gave me to deal with the pain. Meds got me through every day for five months after the surgery. You know who noticed, who stopped me? My history teacher. Someone I spend less than five hours a week with.
"You know why? Why a stranger helped me avoid totally fucking things up?"
She stared at her mother, eyes wild, voice raw. Amanda flinched but had no answer.
She laughed. "I'd be surprised if you did. It took me weeks to figure it out. Weeks. I thought about it in school, at soccer, at the meetings Mr. Foss made me go to. Here it is," she leaned forward, put her palms flat on the table, and whispered, "Because you were too busy being a martyr to notice anyone else's pain."
Tears were gone. Fire was gone, warmth was gone. Amanda was only aware of herself as a cold, silent, dead thing, destroyed in an instant by the truth from her daughter's mouth.
She licked her lips, and felt nothing. She cleared her throat; it was dry and frigid as barren tundra.
"You…you were thirteen when you hurt your knee. It was…" she remembered that day, driving up to the field and seeing her daughter on the benches, waving one-handed as the other struggled with a huge icepack. "It was your first year of high school."
"Yeah," all the anger leeched away, and she sat as taciturn and icebound as her mother. "It was."
They were so quiet that Amanda could hear the wheezing ticks of the clock over the sink. She wondered what time it was, but did not turn her head to see. Did it matter? They were in a place so far beyond the meaning of time that it had no significance and no purpose. What did it matter that in a few hours another day would dawn? What did it matter, when they were staring over the wasteland of the past?
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry, sorry, so sorry," she heard noises coming from her mouth, but could make no sense of them. After a while, she realized that they were nothing more than jagged sobs, fragmented pleas, and shards of prayer.
You're getting hysterical, some still center of her murmured, shut your mouth and breathe.
She thought she'd drown on the cries that still begged to tear free from her throat, but she shut her mouth and forced herself to breathe, rasping in through the nose and out from the mouth.
When she was calm, and not a moment before, she tried again. Alexis' eyes had softened, but she had not moved.
"It's true," she said, stamping down on the thoughts that screamed for the opiate of self-deception. "It's true. I was…I was proud of standing it; I thought that anything that hurt me was fine because it didn't hurt you. Even," and this was bitter to admit, bitter as drowning in a dark ocean, "even when I knew you knew…"
"Tell me," she was inexorable. "Tell me the truth."
"It's not that I didn't care," she said, fingertips reaching for the warm, understanding pressure of her daughter's withdrawn hands, "I did. It's just that…if you knew, then it was all for nothing. Everything…"
She bowed her head.
Why was the clock still ticking? How could that maddening sound still go on when everything inside her had stopped?
The violent sound of Alexis' chair hitting the floor almost made her scream. Her daughter kicked it aside as she started to pace, restless hands pushing her black curls back and back against her flushed forehead.
"I hate him," she snarled. "I hate him. If I could—"
"Dad," she replied, "God, I hate that that's the only name I have for him. I hate him, but…" she clutched her shoulders again, hugging herself tight and tearing at her shoulders.
"You hate…him?" It seemed too horrible, too wonderful to believe.
"He did this to you. It all comes back to him. I'm mad at you too, don't get me wrong, but," Amanda's own shoulders sagged, but her defenses had been shattered and she welcomed the searing truth, "it all comes back to him. He cheated dozens of times. He let you know he was doing it too. But the one time, the one time you do it, it's over. How fucked is that?"
She could have screamed. "You know about that?"
Alexis shrugged. "Who do you think told me? He," she laughed, "he didn't understand why I'd rather live with you in an attic than with him in a mansion. He told me the day we moved out. As if it would change my mind."
Amanda had to stand knowing herself an adulterer as well as Thomas, but her crime was different, and she couldn't bear Alexis not understanding that. "Greg was an old friend. He saw that I wasn't happy. It started out as a friendship, but…" any excuse sounded weak, a flimsy shield to hide her many sins. "It was wrong."
"Are you kidding? You wanted to feel happy again. If it made you feel that way, then it was right."
"It was something your father would have done," she would not have Alexis defending her.
"No," she shook her head emphatically. "Dad did what he did because he couldn't love, and he was mad about it. He had you, and he didn't love you enough not to torture you. He had me, and he never loved me enough even to try. You…you were just lonely. You loved me, but you couldn't be honest with me. You were looking for love and truth."
Alexis romanticizes it, she thought. Because I also remember thinking how wonderful it was to be touched. To be wanted. It had been so long.
Alexis sighed, bent over and picked up her chair; straddling it, she rested her chin in her crossed arms on the back. "What a pair of clichés we are."
The laugh came despite her firm conviction that no such thing as laughter still existed in the world. Her brilliant, brilliant daughter.
"A woman cheating in an abusive marriage, and a daughter coping with white collar drugs," she went on. "Oh, and an emotionally distant power executive father. Throw in a strange uncle and we'd win the unhappy family bingo."
"Well," she hedged, almost unwilling to speak in case her daughter's goodwill evaporated in a flare of rage, "I suppose clichés exist for a reason."
"I guess they do," she nodded, "And now I want my cliché, Lifetime TV movie happy reconciliation, okay?"
"Okay," she whispered, blinking hard.
"Just don't lie to me anymore, all right? I missed you," she pulled her chair closer and rested her head against Amanda's arm. She felt the familiar feathery curls, the sticky sweat that pooled at her temples. She could smell her mint shampoo, her powder-fresh deodorant. She could smell popcorn, soda syrup, and the chemical edge of the bleach she used to clean the counters at the theater. Amanda pressed trembling lips against the crown of that precious, beloved head, and tears came regardless.
"I promise," she answered. "Never again; no lies. But you have to promise me too. If you…if you ever struggle with something like that again…"
"That's over," she said, and something like a spasm flinched through her shoulders, "but…but I'd like it if you'd come to meetings with me. I'd like you to know what…what it was like."
"Of course," she cried, "of course. Oh my darling, you could have—"
"No, Mom, I couldn't. It was—I was mad at you, because you couldn't see what was going on, but I was punishing myself, too."
She hesitated for a long moment; Amanda felt her breath hitching as she tried to get the words out. "I could have stopped it. I could have talked to Dad, could have told him. But I was a coward. And I…I didn't understand—"
She didn't finish; Amanda didn't want her to. "It's okay. It's okay. It's over now, and it's not going to happen again. We're going to be honest with each other, and anytime you want to tell me about it, you can. But you don't have to now."
"Okay," she murmured, pressing Amanda's hand between her own. "I just want to go to bed."
"You should. We should. It's only two weeks until school starts; you need to get your rest while you can."
They stood, uncertain, leaning against each other like flowers stretching uncertainly for a clouded sun. Amanda wouldn't stand another moment of separation; she pressed her baby to her with arms so shaky they could barely hold her. Alexis' grip was far stronger, more certain. She pressed her face to the crux of Amanda's shoulder and breathed some quiet tears.
When Amanda finally assured herself that all this had truly happened and she would never have to face another day like the ones that had made up their summer, she let go. Alexis stood, face red and shiny. Her eyes were clear and calm.
"I love you Mom."
"I love you too."
"I'll make chocolate chip pancakes tomorrow."
"Switch it to blueberry and I'll be there."
"Blueberry it is. More chocolate for me, anyway."
The front door was wide open and the screen door did nothing to stop Molly's screams from piercing the quiet air like a lance. They were ear-splitting, skin-prickling, and interrupted only by ragged, gurgling gasps for breath. Mingled among them were orders—one from a voice worn to tears itself, the other stiff with anger—to be quiet, to stop right now, to just shut up.
Amanda sneaked by them, hoping the rustle of her plastic grocery bags was quiet enough to escape notice. Up and down the street, neighbors were sticking their heads outside, shaking at each other, shrugging. Amanda felt shame by association, but tried to ignore it. This was not the first time their house had been a scene, and she knew it would not be the last.
The cries had broken into (barely) recognizable words. Molly's hatred—for her mother and brother, especially—was a black cloud in the clear sky. Amanda winced on Heather's behalf. Her reconciliation with Alexis was only three weeks old, barely enough time for their wounds to scab over. She could easily remember a time when her daughter's every look showed the disdain that Molly felt no shame in voicing.
She got her last two bags and crept around the house to the back door. Just as she reached it, it slammed open and Heather ran out, face set in a rictus of furious agony. She ran blindly against the trash bins, bashed her knee, swore, and kicked both of them over. Only after this did she notice Amanda standing there, frozen like a turtle with her shoulders hunched as though she could disappear between them.
Her face was almost gray. "Sorry, so sorry," she gasped. "Mom, get her out here!"
Mrs. Dale, carrying the squalling girl under one arm, panted down the stairs. "You need," she huffed, "to get this child a doctor."
"Just take her, please," Heather replied, hands closing around her own neck like a noose, "Janine said she was gonna call the cops again."
"Mrs. Nosy," her mother growled. In a feat of athleticism Amanda could hardly believe, the woman yanked open the car door, threw Molly inside, fastened the wriggling girl into her car seat, and slammed the door again. Inside the older model car, her tantrum was only slightly muffled, but anything was a relief to Amanda's nerves.
Heather groaned and sank to her knees in the grass beside the driveway. "Thank God."
"No," her mother snapped, "thank me. Again. You know, I said nothing when you brought another man's brat home with you, but this girl is not yours. You need to start thinking about your own blood first. What good does it do your son—your real son—to sit through this every few weeks? What good does it do me? Or you?"
"We've talked about this," Heather's mouth thinned and she gripped her knees with wiry fingers, "I am not giving her away."
Mrs. Dale threw her hands up, turned sharply on her heel, and got into the car. A moment later, it was squealing down the street.
Amanda—frozen to the spot during the confrontation, not daring to move lest she be dragged in—edged towards the stairs. At the door, she paused for an instant to look back at Heather, still on her knees with her head bowed almost to the grass. They weren't quite friends, but they were both mothers, and Amanda felt an obligation to do…something. Anything.
"Is there—" she began, gently.
"No," Heather was less gentle. "Just ignore it. Sorry to keep you waiting."
She wanted to contradict her, assure Heather that she understood, but the other woman looked too fragile to bear small talk. She almost ran upstairs, heart aching on her behalf—yet silently, hysterically grateful that she and Alexis had never, and would never, be that bad.
Halfway through unpacking the groceries (they had frozen vegetables now instead of fresh and non-organic fruit filled the bowl on the table) a knock came on the door, rapid as gunfire. Amanda knew who it was, and took a moment to fill the kettle and put it on the stove. If she needed it, there would be a steadying cup of tea ready.
She didn't wait for Heather to second-guess herself. "Please, come in," she put a soft hand on her forearm and tugged her inside. Heather looked around with heavy-lidded, dull eyes. She let Amanda sit her on the sofa like a child.
"Would you like some tea? Coffee?"
It took her a few moments to process the words. "Um…I don't want to bother you," she said.
"It's no bother. I was about to have some tea myself," a lie, but one that might not be in another minute or two. This was a conversation she knew she would need help to get through. "How do you take it?"
"One sugar, please," as Amanda started back towards the kitchen, she added, "It's so pretty. The way you've done things here," she gestured vaguely around herself to encompass the room.
"Thank you," she kept her voice soft and even, as she had always spoken to the children standing by bedsides or sitting in the waiting rooms of the hospital. The tone even calmed her nerves. "I'll be right back."
The water wasn't quite hot yet, so she cheated and popped two mugs into the microwave. She hurried, steeping the tea with quick jerks of the bag. Every moment Heather sat alone was another moment she might decide to bottle everything back up and forge on with her life, supported only by the heroism—and the myth—of self-sufficiency. True enough, when she returned to the living room, Heather was sitting at the edge of the sofa, nervous hands chafing up and down her thighs as she stared at the door.
"I'm sorry," she stood immediately, "I don't want to bother you."
Amanda moved to the door. "It's no bother. Sit, please. I'm sure you need a moment after…all that."
Despite her experience, she had never been good at breaking bad news to children. And right now, with her shining, wide eyes and slumped, defeated shoulders, Heather reminded her of nothing more than a frightened girl.
She slumped backwards, accepting the tea with limp hands and sipping it automatically. "I'll need more than a minute after another scene like that," she sighed. "Every time I think things are getting better for us, they just go crazy again. I'm sorry, you shouldn't have to deal with any of this."
"Anything I can do to help," Amanda settled on the sofa at the other end and let the sentence trail off. She had no idea how to finish it. What good could she do, really?
Heather set her mug down on the coffee table and braced her palms against her knees. "My mother thinks it's so easy. Just give Molly up for adoption. That's what her father would have done. What she doesn't understand is that's what her father would have done. She has a right to expect something other than rejection all her life, doesn't she?"
"So…" Amanda was fumbling at the edges of the puzzle but she had no idea how the pieces connected, "Molly blames you for her parents' divorce?"
"He told me she changed after they had Molly," she smiled tightly, "whether that's true or not I only started to question after he left me. It would have been the easiest thing for him to lie to her the same way. But then she died. If he was lying, neither of us will ever know now."
"Where is your husband now?"
"Not dead," she grumbled, "I know it because I haven't gotten any life insurance payouts."
Amanda held her breath. Heather's words were only half-joking. But how could she blame her? Surely a single mother with two young children could do with more money than a cashier's job brought in. And perhaps…perhaps the absentee father deserved her anger.
"I'm sorry," she said again, after a pause. "I don't mean that. It's just…with a kid like her…it's not easy. The school has a psychologist who recommends extra sessions and medications and it's all…it adds up. And I want to give it all to her, I do—she's a good girl when she forgets to be angry—but sometimes it's just…"
She rubbed her forehead and stared into the cage of her fingers.
"It gets overwhelming," Amanda finished gently. "Believe me, I know."
"Yeah, but you don't," she shook her head without looking up. "Your grocery bills were nearly $400 every week. That's as much as we spend in a month—six weeks if I can manage it. If your girl had needed therapy or anything, you could've given it to her, no problem. It's different for someone like me."
"That's true," she admitted, "but you know some of the things I've struggled with in my daughter. It was only three weeks ago that I found out she didn't despise me. She was angry at me, of course, but it was her father that she blamed."
"Yeah, I noticed that things had gotten warmer between you two," Heather sat up and fixed her with a narrow-eyed stare. "I'm glad for you."
"Well," she took shelter behind her mug, "things are still fragile. After so many years of relying on herself for everything, she's struggling to let me do things for her. And for all many things were his fault, I don't want her blaming Thomas for everything. She'll be glad for her father many times during her life, I hope. But there are years of secrets between us to overcome, and that won't happen in a day. We're," she breathed a soft laugh, "we're polite roommates now, who just happen to be mother and daughter."
"But things are better," Heather's voice was hard, "and after just a month or so. I'd take that in a heartbeat."
"Things will get better for you too," she insisted, "because you're doing the right thing. One day, she'll realize that. And she'll realize that her father was the one who abandoned her, not you. You just…"
"Have to hang on until then?" she finished, shaking her head. "That's the only thing to do, isn't it?" she drained her mug and stood. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." There was nothing else to say. Amanda sat stiff on the sofa, trying to ignore the feeling of having been slapped. But how would she have treated anyone who had tried to tell her how to handle Alexis? Probably much worse than Heather had just treated her. She offered one last straw to grasp at. "Anytime you need to talk, please come up."
Heather rested her hand on the doorknob. "I will," she said at last, looking back. Amanda bit her lip at the sight of her tears. "Thanks." She opened the door, paused, and said, "I mean it. Thanks."
Amanda heard her heavy steps heading slowly to the silent downstairs. She leaned back when she heard Heather's kitchen door open and close, and closed her eyes. In the darkness behind her eyes, she saw the future.
Heather would struggle on with a daughter who was screaming for the parents she remembered, who didn't understand why they weren't there, and who blamed the woman who gave her everything she could.
Amanda would keep reaching out to a daughter who was reaching out for her, and keep feeling as though her every effort to touch her was somehow off the mark. Alexis was so different from what she remembered. How could she connect with someone she barely knew?
Still, there was nothing left except the effort. Perhaps that was all there ever was. However, just as every effort became easy with time, Amanda had to believe that one day, she and Alexis would no longer struggle to reach over the space of years and silence that divided them now.
And then sometimes, Amanda thought as Alexis came in, a wide smile on her face, arms out for a hug, sometimes, the people we least expect make the struggle easy for us.
She stood and hugged her daughter, feeling her heart swell for the joy the embrace brought. It was a joy she had never thought to feel again, and a joy she wished Heather—sitting downstairs wrapped in the black fog of her self-reproach—would know again soon.