Before dinner, Todd had placed a pair of white candles on the table, each held up by a kitschy ceramic pilgrim. The man had big buckle shoes, the gold on which had faded to sickly yellow after decades of use. The woman wore a white apron that tightened around her waist in a little grove that you were supposed to tie with ribbon. Todd sat at one end of the table, and I sat at the other. His two children, Amy and Cam, flanked his right and left. The three of them talked about the way the beach had changed in the three years since they had last been to this house. I had no knowledge of the details — the new restaurants, the changing cost of firewood on the shore — so I listened and watched the candles flicker and the wax melt. I knew the big changes anyway, the ones that Todd, Amy and Cam, did not mention. Three years ago, Stephanie, Todd’s wife, had died. Two years after that, he had somehow found me.
Dinner finished. Amy and Cam got up to clean the table. The candles’ flames had sunk deep into the wax. Through the window, the sun floated inches above the ocean. Todd reached his thick fingers around each candle and blew it out. The thought that he and I had “somehow” found each other, I had to admit to myself, was one of those little lies we allow ourselves. We had met online — a fact that did not bother me, but which, I later discovered, bothered Todd. He believed in serendipity. He had pretended that I was the first woman he had dated after his wife had died. That set up our first fight, when I had discovered in him a native desire for purity, a virgin-like impulse to be faithful and true. And when we fought, I realized that for 20 years, and maybe longer, I given up on such things. All I want is companionship, I had told Todd — no myths, no lies, no fantasies. Now, sitting at the table, I wondered when I had somehow changed my mind.
Todd walked over to me, placing his hands on my shoulders. “Do we have to?” I asked. “Of course,” he whispered. “Things are going perfectly.” He took the ring from his pocket and slipped it onto my finger. As if on cue, Amy and Cam walked back into the dining room. Todd held my hand in his. “It’s been long enough,” he said. “I love Anne, and I’ve asked her to marry me.”
“After a year!” Amy said. Cam said nothing, joining the group hug, but not making eye contact.
“Now,” Todd said. “That’s done. Let’s go down to the beach.”
* * *
“Why now?” Amy asked. It was the morning of Thanksgiving. She sat on a chair by the marble-top island in Todd’s kitchen. She wore a canvas jacket and blocky black glasses, which did little to hide the fact that she always seemed to squint.
“That’s what the recipe says,” I said. “‘After crisping the skin, turn down the heat in the oven.’ I’m not sure. I don’t really cook much.”
Amy had driven in from Silver Lake, where she volunteered at a Montessori school. After Todd and I admitted to each other that we were dating — as high school as it sounded — he finally introduced me to his daughter. She had just graduated from Occidental and took us a movie in an old Eagle Rock theater that smelled of pot and cheap beer. Afterwards, she needled Todd and me with questions: where we had met, how we had met. Amy had managed to get at everything I was anxious about — to pick at all the scabs I’d ignored. After the movie, when we were alone, she had told me she liked me and that I was nicer than the other women he had dated. That night, Todd and I had our first fight.
“Thanksgiving was a very big deal for the Brennan household,” Amy said in her deadpan drone. “I just want to make sure it’s good.”
As we worked, Amy started to recite the history of the house. She spoke without conviction but with the same certainty of fact I had seen in her father. He, she pointed out, always had a special love for the beach, growing up in Orange County, surfing and swimming along the shore. He earned his money in the real estate boom of the ’90s, fitting people into subdivisions that iterated like river deltas. To his buyers, he promised happily ever afters that, as Amy pointed out, were 40 years out of date. But that money had been enough to buy a beach house the year she was born. They had lived there full-time until Cam, the younger sibling, had moved away to college.
Amy asked why I had moved to California. I told her what I had told Todd on our first date: I had moved for work when I was 28. I had just finished law school, and I realized there were more openings in California. The more complicated answer, which I had told Todd only weeks into dating, was that I had discovered that my boyfriend was cheating on me and I had needed to escape.
Amy was still talking about Orange County — a bland, white, conservative paradise, she called it. Some of her high school classmates, she said with disgust, still lived in Huntington Beach. They’d moved back after college, or hadn’t gone to college at all, choosing instead to nibble at their trust funds. I guessed these weren’t her close friends, but the bigger demons of high school — cheerleaders, football players (from what I can imagine — I was sent to boarding school.) Todd once mentioned that in high school, Amy had stopped eating — he was not clear on the details, her mother had dealt with that.
I stacked a set of smeared glass bowls in the sink and turned on the faucet. I told Amy how my older sister had married at 25. She laughed at the idea of marrying at her own age, and for once, she seemed to admit me into the kinship of the oppressed. Or as I hoped, maybe we had found some deeper recognition, a bond between women who had both practiced the art of turning yourself off.
“I read that all the big mansions in Orange County are sinking into the ocean anyway,” she said, flicking a butter knife with her index finger and sending it spinning in circles across the marble. “Global warming. Comeuppance, I guess. Better us than Bangladesh.”
* * *
When Cam came into the kitchen, I was alone, picking plates out of the dishwasher and trying to find their respective drawers. Cam had promised to make pumpkin pie, as he had done every year — excepting that three-year gap which they all seemed to ignore — since he was 10. He had blonde hair and delicate, but definite, features, which looked like they’d been drawn with a sharpened number 2 pencil.
Cam was polite, but didn’t want me to say anything, really. If I struck up a conversation — asking about his drive or his graduate research in physics — he answered in one or two syllables. But if I made a move to leave, he would pause, and ask me a simple question: “How is your work?” “Hasn’t it been dry this year?” So I sat at the countertop, skimming through my phone, nodding as Cam made his own sort of conversation, full of fastidious insights. “This is a how to beat the eggs, you see?” “Most people use too much nutmeg, but really, the secret is in the allspice.”
It must have been in a protected environment that Cam had time to perfect this rhythm, speaking and pausing for reassurance on the reality of his thoughts. Stephanie — mom, I guess — had been the one he talked to before. He never spoke about her, Todd told me that Cam had taken her death the worst of all the family, but I could feel the space that he was working around. Where there must have once been a partner in these little thoughts — someone who knew what to say besides “uh huh,” who could comment on spices and maybe even astrophysics — Cam had a hole in his life.
Stephanie had been the kind of mother who dedicated everything to her children. My sister had done that too. She had given up her job to live at home in Connecticut just after I moved to California. I used to find excuses to ignore her on holidays — work, travel for work, whatever I could muster. I did not want see her. I did not want to spend my time watching her bend over backwards for her children or making excuses for her husband — Terrible Harry, I called him. When I visited, he always used to disappear. My sister would tell me he was stuck at work or in traffic or something oddly generic. And then I’d have to spend my time helping out, as she asked, “Anne, could you possibly…?” “Anne, could please…?”
When I was 28, I had learned that my sister’s life was never going to be mine anyway. I can’t have kids. I hadn’t been planning on having them either — not for several years, at least — but the discovery somehow shocked me. I fell into a depression that was punctured only when I came home to our second-floor walk-up early one August afternoon and discovered that Jason was cheating on me.
Cam was still talking. I wasn’t paying much attention, cleaning utensils with an old rag and saying “uh-huh” every few phrases or so. It was comfortable, I had always known, to play mom. There are moments when this — just sitting here, listening — seems like all it takes. And there are other moments, too — when you hold your sister’s months-old son, for instance, his hand grasping the air as if testing whether the whole world is made of something as soft as he is. But if this is all so easy, those moments remind you, why haven’t you made them on your own? Why do you only witness them as a substitute?
Cam held a pie in front of me. The pumpkin mixture in the center sloshed back in forth inside the shell. “It will congeal in the baking,” he said. “It’s mom’s recipe. She used to say that this way the texture is unbeatable.”
Read part 2 here.