We were just starting to clear the table after dinner when the doorbell rang, and Connie ran to answer it.
"I'll wash, you dry?" Mom tossed a dish towel at me, and I snatched it out of the air.
"Sounds good to me!"
She rolled up her sleeves and plunged her hands into the sudsy water.
Covering her left forearm was an enormous bruise, all blue and purple, fading into a sickly shade of yellowish green in the center.
My eyes locked on hers, and she jerked her sleeve back down, grimacing.
"Mom, what happened?"
"Did Ricky do that to you?"
Ricky had been her boyfriend for as long as I could remember. He was some kind of big-shot producer she'd met at an audition back in the day. He had a bit of a temper at times, and he was used to getting his own way. My mind flashed back to the nights when he'd come back late and drunk. I would lock myself in my room and pretend to be asleep, but I could hear everything that happened.
She shrugged. "It's fine. Really. Just a little bruise, that's all."
"I wouldn't call that little. Mom, if he's hurting you—"
"Just…let it be. Okay? Now let's—"
"But Mom, I—"
"I mean it, Jules!"
"Fine." I heaved a heavy sigh. "I just… Never mind."
We finished the dishes in silence.
When we were done, I wandered into the living room and flicked on the TV, wondering what had become of Connie. A movie came on, and I microwaved some popcorn.
"Want some?" I held the bag out to Mom, who had come in and sat in the recliner chair on the other side of the room. "If you come sit over here, we can share." I patted the space next to me on the couch.
"Sure. Thanks." She dug her hand into the bag and pulled out a handful of popcorn. "You know," she said between munches, "these rom-coms are all the same. Give me five minutes, and I'll be able to tell you what the whole plot's going to be."
"I know. But you know you love them anyway."
She rolled her eyes and laughed. "Yeah, you're right."
And just like that, we were carrying on like nothing had happened. But I couldn't shake the gnawing ache in the pit of my stomach.
When the movie paused for a commercial break, she turned her attention toward me.
"Everybody at Whit's End seemed nice."
"Yeah, they are. They're all kind of like my family now." The words came out before I realized what I was saying. An uncomfortable smile twisted her lips, and she changed the subject.
"That Buck's cute."
I rolled my eyes. "Don't get any ideas."
"Come on, don't tell me you don't think he's adorable," she persisted.
"He is, Mom, but…"
"But what? I saw the way you two look at each other."
I heard the front door creak shut and hopped up off the couch, thankful for the distraction.
"There you are, Connie! I was wondering where you went. Who was at the door?"
We were just starting to clear the table after dinner when the thought crossed my mind that I should probably give Penny a call. I'd been so busy all day that I hadn't really had time to think about it. But I figured I should at least apologize to her for my abrupt exit the day before and congratulate her for real; see how she was doing, if she needed anything and all that.
Then the doorbell rang and I ran to answer it, the thought quickly forgotten.
I flung the door open, expecting to see a package of something or other that either Jules or I had ordered for Christmas. Instead, I was startled to see Jeff standing there.
"Hi, Connie!" He waved cheerfully, if not a bit awkwardly. My heart made an unexpected thump.
"Jeff? What are you doing here?" I asked, smoothing away the unruly strands of hair that had escaped my ponytail. I was suddenly aware that it had been hours since the last time I'd looked in a mirror.
"You asked me to come by and drop off my copy of the book for small group Bible study. Did you forget?"
"Oh! Yeah—Right, the book! I ordered it… It's just, uh…Amazon…" I was babbling.
"I know. You told me."
He smiled, holding the book out to me. I grabbed at it clumsily, desperate for something—anything—to do with my hands.
"Yeah…So, uh…thanks again for letting me borrow it. Mine should be here in a couple days, so…" I was babbling again. Help me.
"So how's everything going with Jules's mom?" he asked in a confidential tone.
"It's been alright so far." I stepped out onto the front porch, closing the door behind me. "But I have this feeling that there's more going on than I know about. It's making me nervous. I feel like she's here for more than just a visit, if you know what I mean."
His brow furrowed thoughtfully. "You mean you think she's here to stay?"
I shook my head. "No…I mean…I think…I think she's here for Jules. To take her back to California, I mean."
"Hmmm." He cocked his head. "Has she said anything about it?"
"Well, no… But I just have this feeling…"
"Hmmm," he said again. "Maybe you should just ask her about it. You know, get it all out in the open."
"I thought about that. It's just…I'm scared, Jeff. I can't lose Jules. Not after everything we've been through together."
Tears welled up in my eyes, and I blinked them back as hard as I could, annoyed at myself for showing so much emotion.
"Aw, Connie…" His dark eyes flooded with concern, and he touched my shoulder soothingly. "It'll be okay."
"It'll have to be," I sniffed, taking a step backward and blinking my eyes dry. "Anyway, thanks for listening. I'm sorry for being such a spaz on you."
"Never." He chuckled, smiling softly. "And anytime."
"Well, I should probably, uh…" I turned and reached for the doorknob.
"Wait—um… there's something I wanted to ask you."
My heart jumped into my throat. "What?" I croaked.
"The pilot association I'm a part of is having a Christmas banquet at the Connellsville Convention Center Friday night, and I was wondering if you might want to be my plus-one."
"This Friday night?" I almost choked.
"I'm sorry it's so last-minute. It's just that I wasn't even sure if I'd be able to make it until a few days ago, and I…" He went on, fidgeting with the buttons on his jacket, but I didn't hear a word he said. I just stood there staring at him, blankly, for who knows how long.
"So…will you come?"
"Come where?" I blinked and shook my head as if I'd just been startled awake.
"Earth to Connie. Earth to Connie. Come in, Connie." He cupped his hands around his mouth, using his best space commander voice. "The pilot association banquet? This Friday? Will you come with me?"
"Oh…uh…yeah, sure." I blundered, still struggling to catch up to reality.
"Great!" He brightened. "I'll pick you up at 7."
I giggled nervously, finally recovering myself a bit. "That sounds great. Thanks, Jeff."
He smiled. "Well, uh…I'd probably better let you go. Have a good night, Connie."
"Thanks. You too." I returned his smile and slowly closed the front door as he walked away down the sidewalk.
Stepping back into the house, it seemed like everything shifted into slow motion, like I was under water. Jules and Gigi were in the living room watching TV. Jules shot up soon as I entered the room.
"There you are, Connie! I was wondering where you went. Who was at the door?"
"Oh, uh, it was just Jeff…"
"Jeff?" She raised an eyebrow mischievously.
"Yeah, uh…he was just bringing over a book for small group." I held it up like it was a piece of evidence or something.
"Oh, okay." She seemed satisfied with my answer. The commercial break ended, and she plopped back down on the couch. "Wanna watch with us?"
"Sure, but, uh…"
"What, Connie? You look like you just saw a ghost."
"It's just that he…uh…he asked me to go to a banquet with him on Friday for the pilot association he's in."
She let out a shriek. "Connie! That is so exciting!"
My cheeks flushed, and I stared down at the carpet. "It's not that big of a deal."
"Oh, come on! I've only been waiting for this for…oh that's right—FOREVER! Do you have a dress to wear? Nope—nope, we'll need a new one. It has to be perfect. Mom, where did you get that one dress? You know, the one you wore to the gala for that charity Dad's company sponsors?"
She was talking a mile a minute. Gigi sat plastered to the couch, a look of bewilderment in her eyes.
"Slow down, Jules." I flopped down in the big armchair that used to be my mom's favorite. "We can talk about this later, but I'm exhausted and just want to veg out for a while."
"Whatever you say," she sighed, turning up the volume on the movie.
It was one of those generic rom-coms that if you've seen one of them, you've seen them all. And I was sound asleep in minutes.
No matter how used to travel you are, it's always strange staying in someone else's house. It's not like a hotel where everything is a pre-packaged one-size-fits-all. Instead, everything still seems to belong to someone else, even if it's been reserved especially for you.
I surveyed the nice little array of fresh towels and toiletries Connie had set out for me in the guest bathroom, making a mental note to thank her later. I yawned, realizing how thoroughly exhausted I was. It had been a long day.
I selected the fluffy white washcloth on top of the stack of pristine linens and began to wash my face. As the warm, damp cloth moved across my skin, I watched the layers of makeup disappear until there was nothing left of the mask that I wore to pretend I was something better than I really was. Leaning over the sink, I stared at the blank, unremarkable features in the mirror. Nothing special. Nothing desirable.
My forefinger traced the splotches of patchy blues and purples that covered the skin of my left arm. The bruises would heal like they always did. But the words cut deeper.
"You are nothing without me," he'd said. "You wouldn't survive a day on your own." And he was right. I couldn't. No matter how many times I had tried to run away, I always came crawling back.
And this time would be no exception. I had come here to avoid the inevitable, but deep down inside, I knew it was just a stall tactic. In a week or two, I'd be back there in the same mess of a life I'd been living.
I was terrified to go back there alone. But if I knew my daughter, I wouldn't have to. I knew she would jump at the chance to come back with me—get out of this sleepy little town and back to the world of glamour and excitement. Or so I thought.
Instead, I barely recognized the beautiful, confident young woman Jules had become—a far cry from the lost little girl I once knew.
She'd made a home for herself here. Without me. I envied her. And Connie. They both seemed so happy in their simple, uncomplicated little world.
If only I could go back. Start over. Fix all the things I'd done wrong. Make her stay.