Fiction

Tropical Dreams, digital art (made with procreate) by Susan Pollet

Sea Change

As soon as I wheeled into the driveway that soft April evening and found the faded blue Escort in my parking spot, I knew my husband was out somewhere with Amy and her adorable three-year-old Camilla. I pulled off to the side, got out, and slung the carryall onto my shoulder. Reassured the car seat wasn’t in the Escort, my next breath came easier; Camilla was with them. In my kitchen, I dropped the weighty bag beside the door and kicked off my sensible teacher pumps. It would be just perfect, I thought, for Kate the clairvoyant to call right now. Even though my phone remained silent, I got my sister-in-law’s message loud and clear: “You can’t say I didn’t warn you.”

 

* * *

Last summer, the Escort had appeared in our driveway, steam rolling from under the hood. The driver turned out to be a girl wearing a cropped tee and a pair of shorts barely covering the essentials as she hefted a screaming child out of her car seat. I stopped deadheading my daylilies as an old sense of loss enveloped me. Had my baby girl Rebekah lived, she would have been twenty-one, about the age this young mother looked to be. Bruce shut down the lawnmower, and together we approached the pair. The little girl stopped thrashing and tucked her face into her mother’s neck.

  It was impossible to tell if the young woman was ready to cry or just plain mad: “My phone’s dead, so no GPS, and I can’t even call my uncle. And I can’t find my charger.”

Bruce and I shared a look and I heard myself saying, “Come in out of the heat.”

Inside, I rummaged through a kitchen drawer where all the phone chargers we’d ever owned lay in neat coils. One worked, but Amy’s call went to her uncle’s voicemail.

Sliding the phone into her waistband, she took in the custom cabinets, hardwood floors, and high-end furnishings and blurted, “Man, look at this house. You guys must be loaded.”

Bruce laughed, teeth showing white in his sun-darkened face.

Her face, also tanned, took on a rosier shade: “Me and my big mouth.”

To ease the moment, I handed her a glass of iced tea. “Maybe Bruce could take a look at your car.”

Without complaint, Bruce returned to the scorching driveway as I pulled lunch staples from refrigerator and cupboard. A few sips of her mother’s tea and the air-conditioned comfort worked wonders on Camilla, and she wandered freely through the open, airy rooms. Amy perched on a bar stool and picked up a spear of cucumber from the relish plate. “My uncle owns Southgate Apartments. He says Camilla and I can live there cheap if I help him out.”

To my mind, Southgate was little more than a dump, but I kept my mouth shut as I placed sandwich makings and chips on the bar. Missing the sound of small bare feet, I asked, “Where’s Camilla?”

The little girl lay on the sectional in the living room, round cheek pressed against the damask, thumb in mouth. “Just let her sleep,” I said. Again, that tug in my belly as I laid a light throw over her.

In the driveway, the hood on Amy’s Escort slammed shut.

“Not many people would take us in like this,” Amy said.

“It’s only the decent thing to do,” I replied.

* * *

That wasn’t the only decent thing we did that summer. I unearthed pieces of furniture from our attic, a box of dishes I’d never opened, a lamp or two. Noticing the dearth of toys and books for Camilla, I raided second-hand shops and bargain barns and delivered my goods to her Southgate apartment while Bruce was at work, knowing his eyebrows would shoot skyward if he saw the bounty. But Bruce had done his part, too, installing a new radiator in the Escort and extending an open invitation to our backyard pool.

Afternoons when Amy’s uncle gave her a break from cleaning up after messy tenants or repainting apartment walls, she and Camilla came over and splashed around in the shallow end of the pool. Later, while Camilla cuddled her Pooh Bear on my lap, growing sleepier by the minute as I read The Velveteen Rabbit or Goodnight Moon, Amy swam laps and lay in the sun, darkening her body to a deeper bronze. It was during these times that I felt the indefinable pull toward both girls, and I knew Amy had begun to trust me when she admitted that she’d never finished high school.

“You know you can get a GED,” I told her. “If you want, I can set you up with everything you need.”

Her eyes fell to the long-fingered hand holding her Pepsi can. “I don’t know. I’ve got it pretty good right now, for someone like me. Thanks to you guys.”

Every now and then, I ran into this attitude at the college, and I knew where it was guaranteed to lead. A million responses raced through my mind, among them, “This cushy deal won’t last forever” and “Don’t you want to be independent?” I settled on the least offensive rejoinder: “Think it over. Maybe you’ll change your mind.”

The curse of fair skin kept me indoors most days when the girls were playing in the pool, but I watched and listened from inside, contemplating how to inspire self-reliance in Amy. But other concerns took precedence—one far more serious than the beginning of a new semester. My dad had finally given in to my nagging to have his stomach problems checked. Given the prognosis, I sometimes wished we had remained ignorant. The coming winter would be a doozy: doctor visits, tests and more tests—and who knew how long he might be hospitalized. We had lost Mom years ago in a freak accident on icy roads. I learned then that an only child faces a kind of loss someone with siblings can’t imagine.

Less than a week before I returned to work, Bruce’s sister Kate dropped by, bearing a hefty box of tomatoes from her garden, the red fruit so ripe the skins were beginning to split. Processing tomato juice was nowhere on my priority list, but I made sure I didn’t sigh as I thanked her.

At the sound of a splash from the pool, Kate moved to the patio doors and watched Amy’s exquisite form rise to the surface through glistening water. “Where’d you pick up the stray?” Kate asked, dark eyes scrutinizing my face, then Bruce’s.

“She just dropped in one day—a kid on her own,” Bruce said. “You know Sara’s soft spot.”

Kate looked at me, and I shrugged—guilty as charged.

Just then, tiny footsteps crossed the hardwood floor, delivering a tousle-headed Camilla to the kitchen, small fists rubbing sleep from her eyes. I patted my hands dry to take her, but seeing her Mommy in the pool, she stretched her arms toward Bruce. He complied, and they joined Amy poolside. I went back to rinsing dishes, attributing the stinging in my eyes to all those hours at the computer.

Tall and broad-shouldered like her brother, Kate watched the scene I could see from my kitchen window. Bruce sprayed Camilla with a light mist from the hose. Amy, a T-shirt over her bikini, stood within arm’s length of Bruce, laughing.

Kate turned toward the kitchen. “What a tantalizing little dish.”

Usually, I took Kate’s blunt assessments with a grain of salt. This time I didn’t want to go where she was headed. I finished filling the dishwasher and flipped the switch to start. The mother of three strapping boys, Kate would never understand what the loss of Rebekah, along with the hope of future pregnancies, had cost me. In each new wave of girls at the college, there were always a few who made me catch my breath—tall, dark-haired, graceful as ballerinas—just the way I imagined my Rebekah, all grown up. And just the way Amy was right now. Add to that Camilla, certain to trigger Granny-lust in any woman lacking grandchildren, and there I was: caught—hook, line, and sinker.

Whether I desired it or not, Kate’s solution was already gift-wrapped and ready to hand off: “Here’s what you need to do. Make up a care package and send her and the kid on their way. Let her mooch off some other do-gooders. Anybody but you and Bruce.”

Outside, the three had returned to the pool, Camilla on Bruce’s shoulders, clutching fistfuls of dark hair. Kate’s voice softened, and she laid one of her large, hard-working hands on my arm. “You’ll have to be the one to do it, honey. Bruce won’t know there’s a problem until it’s too late.”

On that note, Kate left.

Later, though, when Amy’s Escort chugged up the road and Bruce came into the kitchen, he nuzzled my neck invitingly. I tossed the dishtowel onto the counter and burrowed into his damp embrace. See there, Kate, I told her lingering presence, which diffused like steam from the dishwasher. But the aura of foreboding she had introduced never completely left.

* * *

The cool spring evening grew dark, and even through closed windows and doors, I could hear the spring peepers singing of warm weather and pink-blossomed lily pads. I turned on a lamp, illuminating the painting I had splurged on in Cancun, a seascape dominated by massing clouds ranging in color from innocent violet to sinister puce. During the previous long winter, I’d counted on clean white beaches and moonlit strolls to soften Bruce’s displeasure over my new job as head of the English department. “You take on too much,” was his standard line. But instead of pitching in to alleviate the housework, he just spent more hours in his workshop, fiddling with wooden gadgets.

* * *

The winter just passed had also tried Bruce’s patience. The end to my father’s battle was fast approaching; during the miserable month of January, after a full day at the college, I often drove an additional forty miles to the hospital and came home aching with exhaustion. What I wouldn’t have given to find Bruce waiting with kind words and a cup of chamomile tea sweetened to my taste; but he was either peacefully snoring in his recliner or grousing about how late I was.

Now and then, evidence that Amy and Camilla had been there came to light—extra dishes in the sink, hair fasteners under sofa cushions, toys stuck beneath chairs. If I asked why they’d been there, he had an excuse—Amy needed a babysitter while she went here or there, or she thought she might take the GED after all and needed help with the math. Each excuse made sense on its own, but altogether the chain was developing weak links. At night, though, I was too tired to think clearly; the next morning, too rushed to care.

That last night at the hospital, I left Dad in his usual state of semi-awareness. Five miles from home, my phone tinged, and the text message said he had died. Back at the hospital, the tears I hadn’t shed during the long ordeal gushed out with tsunami force. Bruce would have come had I called, but why drag him out in the middle of the night? At dawn, I left the couch in the nurses’ lounge, forewarned Bruce with a text, and drove home, craving quietude.

Instead, I was met by the roar of the vacuum cleaner, the splash and clunk of dishes going into the washer, and Camilla ricocheting off surfaces as she scooted around the kitchen floor astride her miniature trike. When Amy spotted me, she flipped off the vacuum and corralled Camilla. At the cessation of bedlam, Bruce turned from the dishwasher, dribbling leftover milk from the bowl he was holding. A cold speculation rose like Titans freed from Tartarus. I signaled Bruce to follow me down the hall. “Exactly what is she doing here?”

Bruce tried shushing me. “She’s helping out. Can’t you be a little bit gracious?”

“I don’t have to be gracious!” I hissed, my words slurring from exhaustion. “My father just died and I’m tired enough to drop dead myself!” I slammed the bedroom door, swallowed two sleeping pills, and tumbled into bed. Surely, he’s got sense enough to send her home, even if he is a man. Before sleep completely overtook me, I heard a tapping on my door and a muffled conversation on the other side: Amy wanting to apologize and Bruce telling her I’d get over it. Or, maybe, I just dreamed the whole thing—along with the sounds of laughter fading as they moved farther down the hall.

Amy had yet another surprise for me. I would never have guessed she would show her face at the funeral after my blow-up. But there she was in a brief denim skirt and the patent leather stilettos I’d let her wear to a Christmas party. Out of her element and cut by my coldness, she sidled up to Bruce seeking support, but he was busy doting on me as a good husband should. Even so, questioning glances passed among the smattering of cousins, aunts, and uncles. They would have plenty to talk about as they traveled home.

* * *

There wasn’t time during spring break for another Cancun vacation, and I wasn’t in the mood for one anyway. But a weekend at Burr Oak Lodge was doable, and I wanted a neutral environment for the serious talk I needed to have with Bruce. It wasn’t as if I planned to accuse him of anything; I had let my desire for a make-believe family get in the way of good sense. I wanted Bruce to agree that it was time to move on—without Amy. My greatest regret, of course, would be the loss of Camilla, collateral damage, unintended, but no less painful.

Of course, the weather turned rainy, so we couldn’t take walks through the woods to lighten the mood. Bruce spent Saturday afternoon napping; his head tilted awkwardly against the back of the chair. His neck will kill him later, I thought, watching mallards huddle among tall reeds in the duck pond below our steamy window. Sunday morning, I slipped into his arms as he was waking, encouraged by the nourishing warmth of his response. But the moment passed, and the rest seemed forced. His attempt to apologize afterward only made it worse.

Driving home later, I knew it was now or never: “Bruce, I’m not comfortable with a young woman like Amy being so involved in our lives. What if the tables were turned and an attractive twenty-something guy hung around demanding my attention?”

Bruce, eyes on the road, put a hand on mine. “Roughly half of the student body fits that description. You don’t really think I’d have a fling with a kid. Or do you?”

“This thing with Amy is a far cry from my interaction with students, and you know it.”

“I also know there’s nothing wrong with kindness,” he said. “And unless I’m mistaken, you’re the one who started it.”

As I had known she would, Amy called not long after we pulled into the garage. I heard Bruce pick up the house phone, and I pushed “talk” on the bedroom unit. “Are we still on for this evening?” Amy asked. Their Sunday night ritual involved a Netflix kiddie flick and popcorn. I usually did bookwork at the kitchen table where I could monitor the hilarity but not feel obligated to participate.

“That’s probably not a good idea,” Bruce said.

“I know you guys just got back from a weekend.”

Bruce seemed oblivious to her tone: “Sara isn’t feeling well.”

“Oh.” I detected a sigh. “Tell her to feel better.”

I waited until they hung up to replace the receiver. I didn’t feel one iota of guilt.

* * *

Bruce’s truck pulled in just as I returned from my last trip to the Escort. He poured milk for Camilla, who was working up a tantrum, having been awakened and carried into the bright kitchen. I sensed constraint and uneasiness, but for once it wasn’t mine.

Amy held out a wilted bouquet of early wildflowers, her hair windblown and tangled, her chin set for a challenge. “Camilla and I picked these for you.”

Ignoring the offering, I turned my back to her and forced Bruce to meet my eyes, but only for a second. Recapping the milk jug, he turned to put it away.

Amy laid the flowers on the counter and recited the pat excuses: “I came by this morning to borrow a ladder, but Bruce said it was too nice a day to paint. I wish you could have come along, Sara. We rented a boat at Seneca Lake. Camilla loved feeding the fish.” She looked to Bruce for back-up, and it took her a moment to realize any explaining was up to her.

Camilla finished her milk and began sniffling and rubbing her eyes. Her back stiff, Amy gathered the child into her arms and headed toward the door. She looked back at me once, excluding Bruce, and made what may have been an honest apology: “I hope you’re not mad. We shouldn’t have been so late.”

Bruce opened the door for her and stood just behind me in the doorway. When she got to the Escort, Amy stopped and looked back toward the house before securing Camellia’s car seat in the only space I’d left. It was too dark to read her expression, and I was thankful for that. She belted in a tired and cranky Camilla, got behind the wheel, backed slowly down the drive, then turned onto the road. I heard her shifting gears as she climbed the grade above our house and watched until her taillights disappeared beyond the curve.

We hadn’t moved from the door, and I waited for Bruce to tell me that it wasn’t what I thought, that I was overreacting. Because he had to have seen it, everything I had piled in her car. All the toys I had given Camilla, including the trike that Amy said was too big for the apartment. It fit just fine in the hatchback. Camilla’s water wings for the pool and the booster seat for the kitchen. Books and magazines Amy had borrowed and returned the worse for wear. The GED manual, a calculator, and plenty of yellow wooden pencils. Every article of clothing I had ever lent her, including the stilettos she had worn to my dad’s funeral. Urged on by Kate’s suggestion, and certain I could hear her chuckling as I did it, I wedged in cans and packages and jars and a couple of bottles of tomato juice from the summer. Altogether, it made quite a haul.

Of course, Bruce had seen it. It had been impossible to miss in the illumination of the dome light. And his presence behind me was impossible to ignore, as was the warmth of his hands as they came to rest on my shoulders.

Author's Comment

“Sea Change” has seen numerous revisions over the course of several years, but it never quite made the grade. Then, a single comment from another Vintage Quill (see Bio, below) revealed its fatal flaw: “No married woman would put up with that.” How could I have missed the obvious—and for so long? There’s no way to measure the value of honest friends who double as fellow writers.

Night at the Musée d’Orsay: Poems of Paris & Other Great European Cities
by Judy Wells
Night at the Musée d’Orsay: Poems of Paris & Other Great European Cities is a vibrant memoir of travel poems centering on Judy Wells’ appreciation of well-known European painters, architects, writers, and musicians associated with great European cities. Her poems explore artists in France, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Spain, from Van Gogh, Chagall, Matisse, and Balzac in Paris, to Velázquez and Goya in Madrid, and Gaudí in Barcelona. Wells interweaves her own personal life into her poems, which illustrate her creative responses to her travels at different times—from young adult in France to older woman confronting aging in Barcelona. Her poetry encompasses various poetic styles—lyric, narrative, and surprisingly for a book on European travels, haiku. Night at the Musée d’Orsay   If the curators knew I, a moth, was in the Van Gogh room they’d be shocked! But what do they expect— I love light and I’m particularly attracted to a painting of stars—globs of light reflected in a river.   I’ve sat on top of these yellow blobs and survived though I can feel the heat of these stars right through the paint. Light bulbs are cold by comparison though I’m not singed by Van Gogh. I’m transformed and waves of ecstasy wander through my wings.   I rest on Van Gogh’s stars all night. In the morning I flit to a cottage and settle on a deep blue iris. The tourists think I’m part of the painting. I laugh. I’m just a moth with grand taste. Available from Amazon, Bookshop.org, and www.regentpress.net

Bios

Lois Spencer’s stories have appeared in Persimmon Tree, Women Speak, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, The Poorhouse Rag, Change Seven, Northern Appalachia Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel Literary Journal, and the Ohio Writers Association’s House of Secrets Anthology. A life-affirming writers’ group—The Vintage Quills—keeps her laughing and learning.

Susan Pollet is a visual artist whose works have appeared in multiple art shows. She studied at the New York Art Student’s League and lives in New York City. She has published in multiple genres (11 books and 70 articles) including three children’s books which she both wrote and illustrated. She creates all of her book covers as well. A former public interest lawyer who worked primarily in family court, and a past and current leader in bar associations, she brings that background to her artwork and writing. She writes, “I've seen the darker sides of humanity, but always search for the light.”

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