Leslie Headrick looked out her kitchen window at the old summerhouse in the back. Now, in early fall, the vines and twisted stems of the old roses nearly covered the building, but in the winter you could see the glassed-in porch well. You could see the peeling paint and the cracked glass in the little round window above the front door. One of the side doors was hanging on one hinge, and Alan said it was a danger to anyone who walked past the place. In fact, Alan said that the whole structure was a danger and should be torn down.
At that thought, Leslie turned away from the window and looked back at her beautiful, perfect kitchen. Just last year Alan had gutted her old kitchen and put in this one. “It’s the best that money can buy,” he’d said about the maple cabinets and the solid-surface countertops. And Leslie was sure that it was the best, but she missed her ratty old Welsh dresser and the little breakfast nook in the corner.
“That table and those chairs look like something kids made in a shop class,” Alan had said, and Leslie had agreed—but their perspective of what was beautiful differed.
As always, Leslie had given in to her husband and let him put in this showplace of a kitchen, and now she felt that she was ruining a piece of art when she baked cookies and messed up the perfect surfaces that scratched so easily.
She poured herself another cup of tea from the pot, strong, black English tea, loose tea, no wimpy tea bags for her, then turned back to again look out at the summerhouse. This was a day for reflecting because in three more days she was going to be forty years old—and she was going to celebrate her birthday with two women she hadn’t seen or heard from in nineteen years.
Behind her, in the hallway, her two suitcases were packed and waiting. She was taking a lot of clothing because she didn’t know what the other two women were going to be wearing, and Ellie’s letter had been vague. “For a famous writer, she doesn’t say much,” Alan had said in an unpleasant tone of voice. He had been quite annoyed to find out that his wife was friends with a best-selling author.
“But I didn’t know that Ellie was Alexandria Farrell,” Leslie had said, looking at the letter in wonder. “The last time I saw Ellie she wanted to be an artist. She was—”
But Alan wasn’t listening. “You could have asked her to speak at the Masons,” he was saying. “Just last year, one of my clients said that his wife was a devotee of Jordan Neale.” Everyone in America knew that Jordan Neale was the lead character that Ellie, under the pen name of Alexandria Farrell, had created. Jordan Neale was someone women wanted to imitate and men wanted to . . . Well, the
series of romantic mysteries had done very well. Leslie had read all of them, having no idea that the writer was the cute young woman she’d met so long ago.
So now, in the quiet of the early morning, before Alan and the kids came downstairs, Leslie was thinking about what had happened to her in the last nineteen years. Not much, she thought. She’d married the boy next door, literally, and they’d had two children, Joe and Rebecca, now fourteen and fifteen years old. They weren’t babies any longer, she thought, sipping her tea and still staring out the window at the summerhouse.
Maybe it was the letter and the invitation from Ellie, a woman she hadn’t seen in so very many years, that was making Leslie think about the past so hard. But, as Ellie had written, their one and only meeting had had an impact on Ellie’s life and she wanted to see both Leslie and Madison again.
Yes, Leslie thought, that meeting had had an impact on her life too. Since that afternoon nineteen years ago, she’d often thought of Ellie and Madison. And now she was going to fly all the way from Columbus, Ohio, to a tiny town in Maine to spend a long weekend with the other two women.
But what was it about the summerhouse that was holding her attention this morning? She’d been so restless that she hadn’t been able to sleep much last night, so, at four A.M., she’d got out of bed, dressed, then tiptoed downstairs to put together the ingredients for apple pancakes. Not that anyone would eat any of them, she thought with a sigh. Rebecca would be horrified at the calories, Joe would come down with only seconds to spare before he made the school bus, and Alan would only want cereal, something highfiber, low-calorie, low-cholesterol, low . . . Well, low-flavor,
Leslie thought. Attempts at gourmet cooking were wasted on her family.
With another sigh, Leslie picked up a warm pancake, folded it, and ate it with pleasure. Last week when she’d received Ellie’s letter, she wished she’d received it six months earlier so she would have had time to get rid of the extra fifteen pounds she was carrying. Everyone at the Garden Club said they envied Leslie her figure and how she’d been able to keep it all these years, but Leslie knew better. Nineteen years ago she’d been a dancer and she’d had a body that was supple, muscular, and hard. Now, she thought, she was soft, not fat really, but her muscles were soft. She hadn’t thrown her leg up on a ballet bar in years.
Overhead she could hear Rebecca’s quick step. She’d be the first one down, the first one to ask why her mother had made something that was guaranteed to clog all their arteries with one bite. Leslie sighed. Rebecca was so very much like her father.
Joe was more like his mother, and if Leslie could get him away from his friends long enough, they could sit and talk and “smell the roses,” as she used to tell him. “Like your wallpaper,” he’d said when he was just nine years old. It had taken Leslie a moment to figure out what he was talking about, then she’d smiled warmly. In the summerhouse. She’d put up wallpaper with roses on it in the summerhouse.
Now she remembered looking at her son on that long ago day and seeing his freckled face as they sat across from each other in the old inglenook at one side of the sunny kitchen. Joe had been such an easygoing child, sleeping through the night when he was just weeks old, so unlike Rebecca, who seemed to cause chaos and confusion wherever she was. Leslie wasn’t sure if Rebecca had yet slept
through a night of her life. Even now, when she was fifteen, she thought nothing of barging into her parents’ bedroom at three A.M. to announce that she’d heard a “funny noise” on the roof. Leslie would tell her to go back to bed and get some sleep, but Alan took “funny noises” seriously. The neighbors were used to seeing Alan and his daughter outside with flashlights.
Leslie looked back at the summerhouse. She could still see some of the pink paint on it. Fifteen years later and remnants of the paint were still there.
Smiling, she remembered Alan’s expression when she’d bought the paint. “I can understand if you want to paint the place pink, but, sweetheart, you’ve bought five different shades of pink. Didn’t those men at the store help you?”
Alan was a great believer in men taking care of women, whether it was at home or in a paint store.
At that time Leslie had been five months pregnant with Rebecca and she was already showing. She didn’t know it then, but Rebecca was going to be early in everything, from letting her mother know she was there to . . . well, letting the world know she was there.
Laughing, Leslie had told Alan that she planned to paint the summerhouse using all five shades of pink. Now, fifteen and a half years later, she could still remember the look on his face. Leslie’s mother had said that Alan didn’t have a creative bone in his body, and, over the years, Leslie had found out that that was true. But, back then, when they were both so young and so happy to be on their own, the colors she wanted to paint the falling down old summerhouse had been cause for laughter.
It had been Leslie who’d persuaded Alan to buy the big Victorian house that was in an old, unfashionable neighborhood. Alan had wanted something new, something that
was white on the outside and white on the inside. But Leslie couldn’t stand any of the houses that Alan had liked: perfectly square boxes set inside a bigger perfectly square box. “But that’s what I like about them,” Alan had said, not understanding her complaint.
It was Leslie’s mother who had given her the strength to stand up to her new husband. “The house belongs to the woman,” her mother had said. “It’s where you spend most of your time and it’s where you raise your children. It’s worth a fight.” In her family, her mother had been the fighter. Leslie was like her father and liked to let things find their own solutions.
Later Leslie said that it was having Rebecca’s fierce spirit inside her that had given her the courage. She played her trump card: “Alan, dear, we are buying the house with money my father left to me.” Alan didn’t say anything, but the look on his face made her never, ever again say anything like that.
But then she’d never before or since wanted anything as much as she’d wanted that big, rambling old house that needed so very much work. Since her father had been a building contractor, she knew what needed to be done and how to go about getting it done.
“That has to go,” Alan had said when he’d seen the old summerhouse, hidden under fifty-year-old trees, nearly obscured by wisteria vines.
“But that’s the most beautiful part of the house,” Leslie had said.
Alan had opened his mouth to say something, but Rebecca had chosen that moment to give her first kick, and the argument about the fate of the summerhouse was never completed. Later, whenever Alan had said anything about the house, Leslie had said, “Trust me,” so he’d left it to her.
After all, Alan had just started selling insurance and he was ambitious, very, very ambitious. He worked from early to late. He joined clubs and attended meetings. He was quite happy when he found out that the most fashionable church in town was within walking distance of the horrible old house that Leslie had persuaded him to purchase.
And it was at church that he found out that people were pleased with him for having the foresight to buy “the old Belville place” and restore it. “Sound invest, that,” some old man said as he clapped Alan on the shoulder. “It’s unusual that a man as young as you would have that much wisdom.” Later the man bought a big policy from Alan. After that, Alan took as much interest in the house as Leslie did. And when Leslie had her hands full with two babies under the age of three, Alan took over supervising the restoration of the house.
At first there had been fights. “It isn’t a museum!” Leslie had said in exasperation. “It’s a home and it should look like one. Joe’s going to ruin that expensive table with his trucks. And Rebecca will draw on that silk wallpaper.”
“Then you’ll just have to keep them under control,” Alan had snapped.
And Leslie had backed down, as she always did at a confrontation. Like her father, she’d rather retreat than fight. Which is why her mother had ruled her childhood home and Alan ruled their home. So Alan had filled the wonderful old house with too many antiques that no one could sit on or even touch. There were three rooms in the house that were kept tightly closed all year, only being opened for cleaning and for Alan’s huge Christmas party for all his clients.
The kitchen had been the final holdout, but last year Alan had had his way on that room too.
Leslie finished her tea, rinsed out her cup, then looked back at the summerhouse. That was to have been hers. It was to have been her retreat from the world, a place where she could keep up with her dancing, or curl up and read on rainy afternoons.
Now, looking at the building, she smiled. Before she had children, a woman thought of what she wanted to do on rainy afternoons, but afterward, her hours filled with “must” instead of “want.” She must do the laundry, must get the groceries, must pull Rebecca back from the heater.
Somehow, Leslie had lost the summerhouse. Somehow, it had gone from being hers to being “theirs.” She knew exactly when it had started. She had been eight months pregnant and so big she’d had to walk with her hand under her belly to support Rebecca’s constant kicks and punches.
They’d just torn out the living room in the house and there was a leak in the roof. Alan had invited his brother and three college friends over for beer and football but it was raining that day, so there was nowhere for them to sit and watch the game on TV. When Alan had suggested that he set the TV up in the summerhouse for “this one afternoon,” she’d been too grateful for the peace and quiet to protest. She’d been dreading a house full of men and smoke and the smell of beer, so she was glad when he said he’d take the men elsewhere.
On the next weekend, Alan had taken two clients into the summerhouse to discuss new life policies. It made sense, as the living room was still torn up. “We need a place to sit and talk,” he’d said, looking at Leslie as though it were her fault that the roofing materials still hadn’t arrived.
Two weeks after that, Rebecca was born, and for the next year, Leslie hadn’t been able to take a breath. Rebecca was insatiable in her demands for attention from her tired
mother. It was three months before Leslie could get herself together enough to get her squalling baby out of her pajamas. By the time Rebecca started walking at ten months, Leslie was pregnant again.
When she was three months pregnant with Joe, Leslie made the trek out to the summerhouse. In the months since Alan had first set up a TV in the place, Leslie had almost forgotten that her retreat still existed. But from the first day, Joe was an easier pregnancy than Rebecca, and Leslie’s mother had started taking her granddaughter on short jaunts about town. “There’s nothing more uninteresting than a nursing baby,” her mother had said in her usual forthright style. “When she starts walking and looking at something besides her mother’s bosom, then I’ll take an interest in her.”
So, on her first afternoon of freedom, for that’s the way it felt, Leslie had made her way out to the summerhouse. Maybe this time, she’d be able to stretch out on the wicker chaise lounge she’d found in an antique shop and read a book.
But when Leslie pushed open the door, her breath stopped. Vaguely, she’d wondered why Alan had used the summerhouse only a few times, then never said anything about it again.
Someone had left the doors open and it had rained in on her furniture. Before she was first pregnant, she’d made the slipcovers for the little couch and the two chairs. She’d made the matching curtains and hung them herself. But now mice were nesting in the stuffing of the couch, and it looked as if a neighboring cat had clawed the arms of the chairs.
Turning away, she felt tears come to her eyes. She didn’t even bother to close the door as she ran back to the house.
Later, she’d tried to have a confrontation with Alan, but he’d expressed such concern that her anger was going to harm the baby, that Leslie had calmed down. “We’ll fix it up after you’ve had the baby,” he said. “I promise. Scout’s honor.” He’d kissed her then and helped her with Rebecca and later, he’d made sweet love to her. But he didn’t fix the summerhouse.
After that, Leslie had been so busy with children and helping Alan establish himself within the community that she wouldn’t have had time to get away even if she’d had a place to go. And as the years followed each other, the summerhouse became a storage shed.
“So how’s my old girl this morning?” Alan asked from behind her. He was two months younger than Leslie and he’d always found jokes about their age difference to be amusing. Needless to say, Leslie didn’t see the humor.
“I made pancakes,” she said, keeping her face turned away to hide her frown. She hadn’t yet come to terms with the idea of turning forty. Hadn’t it been only last week when she’d boarded a bus and headed to big, bad New York City, where she was going to turn the town on its ear with her dancing?
“Mmm,” Alan said. “Wish I had time, but I have a full schedule today.”
When she turned around, he was looking down at the newspaper, absorbed with the financial section. In the seventeen years that they’d been married, Alan hadn’t changed much. Not physically anyway. His hair was now gray, but on him it looked good. He said that an insurance agent was considered more trustworthy if he looked older. And he kept in shape by going to the gym regularly.
What had changed about him was that he no longer seemed to actually see any of them, not his wife, not his
two children. Oh, Rebecca could throw one of her look-atme fits and she could get his attention, but Joe and Leslie, with their easygoing ways, were mostly ignored by him.
“You ought to leave him,” Leslie’s mother said, even more outspoken now than she had been when her husband was alive. Widowhood agreed with her. “If you left him, he’d find out how much he needs you. You need to shake up his perfect little world. Show him what matters.”
But Leslie had seen what happened to women her age who left their handsome, successful husbands, and Leslie had no desire to live in some dreary little apartment and work at the local discount store. “Mother,” Leslie often said in exasperation, “I have no skills to make my own way in the world. What would I do? Go back to dancing?” That she had failed at her one and only attempt at success in the world still haunted her.
“Where did I go wrong with you?” her mother would moan. “If you left him, he’d fall apart. You’re the man’s entire life. You do everything for him. If you left, he’d—”
“Run off with Bambi,” Leslie said quickly.
“You were a fool to let him hire that little tart,” her mother had snapped.
Leslie looked away. She didn’t want her mother to know how she’d fought her husband’s hiring the beautiful, young girl. “You hired a girl named Bambi?” Leslie had said, laughing in disbelief, at the dinner table the first night he’d told her. “Is she over twelve?”
To Leslie, it had been a joke, but when she looked at Alan’s face, she could see that he didn’t think his new secretary was a joke. “She is very competent at her job,” he’d snapped, his eyes drilling into his wife’s.
As always, Joe had been sensitive to any disagreement
and he’d pushed his plate away. “I got some homework to do,” he’d mumbled, then left the table.
Rebecca never seemed to see anything outside her own realm. “Did I tell you what that dreadful Margaret said to me today? We were in chemistry class, and—”
Leslie had at last looked away from her husband’s eyes, and she’d never again made a snide remark about Bambi. But Leslie had been curious, so she’d called a woman she’d gone to high school with who worked in Alan’s office and invited her to lunch. After lunch, Leslie had gone home and made herself a strong gin and tonic and taken it to the bathtub with her. She’d been told that Alan had hired Bambi six months earlier and that she was more than just his secretary, she was his “personal assistant.” Paula, who’d been on the cheerleading squad with Leslie in high school, warmed to her story and seemed to enjoy “warning” Leslie. “If he were my husband, I’d put an end to it, I can tell you that,” Paula had said with emphasis. “That girl goes everywhere with Alan. All I can say is that it’s a good thing we don’t have one of those unisex bathrooms or she’d—”
“Would you like to have some dessert?” Leslie had said rather loudly.
Now Bambi had worked for, with, “under,” if the gossip were to be believed, Alan for over a year. And, quite frankly, Leslie didn’t know what to do about it. Every friend she had had an opinion and freely gave it to Leslie.
One day Rebecca had overheard some women giving Leslie advice about this young woman who worked so closely with Alan, and later, Rebecca had said, “Mother, you ought to tell them to go to hell.”
“Rebecca!” Leslie had said sternly, “I don’t like that kind of language.”
“It’s possible that your husband is having an affair with
his over endowed secretary and you’re worried about bad language?”
Leslie could only stand there and blink at her daughter. Who was the adult? How did her daughter know—?
“It’s all over the church and at the club,” Rebecca said, sounding as though she were thirty-five instead of just fifteen. “Look, Mom, men stray. They get itchy pants. It’s normal. What you ought to do is tie a knot in his—”
“All right, go ahead and live in the nineteenth century. But that Bambi is a bitch and she’s after Dad and I think you should fight!”
At that Rebecca had left the room, and all Leslie could do was stare after her. Leslie hadn’t the least idea of how to deal with a child who had just said what her daughter had, so Leslie pretended that it hadn’t been said.
In fact, that’s what Leslie seemed to be doing a lot of lately: pretending that nothing was wrong, that nothing bad had happened. She couldn’t go so far as to, say, call Alan’s office and tell his assistant to remind him of so and so party. No, instead, Leslie just worked around the whole idea of Bambi by pretending that the young woman didn’t exist. And when the women at church or the club tried to warn her, Leslie perfected a little smile that let them know that she was above such low suspicions.
But now, looking at Alan as he bent over the newspaper, she wondered if he wasn’t eating her pancakes for fear that he’d put on weight and Bambi wouldn’t like that.
“So, Mom!” Rebecca said as she came into the room, “what are you old ladies going to get up to this weekend? Think you’ll have an orgy with lots of bronzed young men?”
Part of Leslie wanted to reprimand her smart-mouthed
daughter, but another part, the woman part that was separate from being someone’s mother, wanted to joke with her daughter. “Ellie is bringing Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford,” Leslie said as she glanced at her husband.
But Alan didn’t seem to hear. Instead, he looked at his watch. Even though it was only seven A.M., he said, “Gotta go.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like a pancake or two?” Leslie asked, knowing that she sounded whiny. What she wanted to say was, “You can damned well spend an hour with your family before rushing off to your bimbo.”
But Leslie didn’t say that. Instead, she tried to smile invitingly.
“Sounds good, but I’m meeting some clients this afternoon and we have lots of paperwork to go over before the big meeting.”
Even though the name was hardly ever said, all of them knew that “we” was Alan and Bambi.
Alan walked over to Leslie and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I hope you have a good time,” he said. “And, about your birthday . . .” He gave her a little-boy look that years ago she’d found irresistible.
“I know,” she said with a forced smile. “You’ll get me something later. It’s all right. My birthday isn’t for three days anyway.”
“Thanks, hon,” he said, kissing her cheek again. “You’re a brick.” Grabbing his jacket off the back of a chair, he left the house.
“‘You’re a brick,’” Rebecca mimicked as she ate a spoonful of some cereal that looked like extruded sawdust. “You’re a chump.”
“I won’t have you talk about your father like that,” Leslie said, glaring down at her daughter. “Or me.”
“Nice!” Rebecca said, coming out of her chair. She was as tall as her mother, so they were eye to eye across the breakfast table. “All you care about is nice! Nice words, nice manners, nice thoughts. But the world isn’t nice, and what Dad is doing with that leech isn’t nice.”
Suddenly, there were tears in Rebecca’s eyes. “Don’t you know what’s going to happen? That woman is going to break us up. She wants what we have, not the family, but the money. She wants the silver tea set and the . . . and the fifty-thousand-dollar kitchen that you hate but were too cowardly to tell Dad that you didn’t want. We’re going to lose everything because you’re so damned nice.” With that, Rebecca ran out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
And in the next moment, a car horn blew outside and Leslie knew that the shuttle bus that would take her to the airport was there. For a moment, she hesitated. She should go to her daughter. Her daughter was upset and needed her, and a mother always gave, didn’t she? A good mother was always there for her children, wasn’t she? A good mother—And a good wife, Leslie thought. That’s what she was: a mother and a wife.
Suddenly, Leslie didn’t want to be anyone’s wife or anyone’s mother. She wanted to get on a plane and go see two women she hadn’t seen since she was very young, since before she was anyone’s wife or mother.
Leslie practically ran out of the kitchen, grabbed her handbag off the hall table and her two suitcases from the floor, then opened the front door. She yelled, “Good-bye. See you on Tuesday,” up the stairs to her two children, but she didn’t wait for an answer. A minute later and she was in the van, the driver was pulling away, and it was then that Leslie realized that she hadn’t brushed her teeth. She doubted if she’d missed an after-meal brushing of her
teeth since she was three years old, and she almost told the driver to stop and go back.
But then Leslie leaned back against the seat and smiled. Not brushing her teeth seemed to be a sign that she was about to start on an adventure. In front of her were three whole days that were hers and no one else’s. Freedom. She hadn’t been on a trip by herself since she’d gone to New York nineteen years ago. What was it going to be like to not have people asking, “Where’s my tie?” “Where’s my other shoe?” “Hon, could you call down and order me something to eat?” “Mom! What do you mean that you didn’t bring my red shorts? How can I have any fun without those shorts.”
For a moment Leslie closed her eyes and thought of three days of freedom; then a laugh escaped her. Startled, she opened her eyes to see the driver looking at her in the mirror, and he was smiling.
“Glad to get away?” he asked. They were the only people in the van.
“You can’t imagine,” Leslie said with feeling.
“Whoever takes care of you better not leave you alone too long,” the man said, still looking at her, his eyes flirting.
Leslie knew that she should give him her best “Mrs. Church-Lady look,” as Rebecca called it, after the comedian on TV. But right now Leslie didn’t feel like giving that look. The driver was a good-looking young man and he’d just paid her a compliment. She smiled at him, then leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes, feeling the best she’d felt in a long, long time.