“You were crying.”
The voice, expected yet still surprising, came from her right, and she couldn’t immediately see the person who spoke. From her current vantage, in fact, she couldn’t see anything except for her shoes. She knew that eventually they would find her. “I was sniveling. Could you hear me?” She unconsciously rubbed her nose and took a deep breath, trying to steady her voice. The crying wasn’t over with yet, but she didn’t want her brother to be present during it.
“I was talking more about the makeup streaks running down your face. You look like a cross between a jezebel and a clown. A dangerous combination.”
She couldn’t contain a small laugh and shook her head, looking up to see her brother. He was tall, a full eight inches above her 5’8” frame, and skinny. From her position sitting on the edge of a fountain only two feet off the ground he seemed quite imposing. “You brought Lyle?” Lyle was her only grandchild, and seemed unperturbed by the situation. When he saw his grandmother sitting on the stone below him, he reached for her and clenched and unclenched his little fists. Victoria pretended that she didn’t notice.
Luckily, and for her sake, Andrew pretended the same thing. “I offered to watch him while they went searching. A full-fledged rescue party. They called in the extended family, and even Mirna and Fred are out looking for you. Can you imagine that? Eighty years old, driving ten miles an hour with four-inch thick glasses. Fred is no doubt crouched behind the steering wheel peering suspiciously into the trees. No way can you stay hidden for long.”
“You were watching Lyle, but you came looking anyway,” she said, her tone resigned.
“No,” the answer surprised her. “I wouldn’t dare look for someone who doesn’t want to be found.” Andrew lowered himself to the fountain to sit next to her, positioning Lyle on his lap. Lyle squirmed and tried to free himself, but Andrew knew that if the two-year-old found his feet planted on the ground it would be all they could do to keep him from disappearing into the park. Maybe that would be for the best, Andrew pondered: release a kid for Victoria to chase. Give her something important to do so she could escape her self-pity. But that would be a temporary fix, patchwork, and would only serve to make Lyle happy. “I offered to hold down the fort in case you stumbled back in.”
“You knew I would come here?”
“I had a hunch.”
“I’m thirty-nine years old.”
“You can try to catch up, but I’ll always be older than you.”
“Is this what I’m supposed to be? I’m a mother, a grand-mother, and all I do is watch people. I’m a caretaker, forgotten and wasted. I don’t…why does everything seem to go wrong? No matter what I do, it’s wrong.”
“It depends on how you look at it.”
“We had to throw Lindsey out of the house and now she treats me like I’m the worst person in the world. She told me she hated me and wished I was dead. This, in a park at midnight, is the first time I’ve seen Lyle in two months.”
“He peed on me earlier,” Andrew said. “At least you get to be the doting grandmother and not the creepy uncle. You don’t even have to flirt with your nephews’ girlfriends or wear short shorts at the beach.”
“I’m being serious Andy.”
“I know,” he answered quickly, lowering his head and sighing. “And I don’t have any answers. But I do know how painful life can get. When Desiree left, I didn’t want the world to go on. Nothing mattered anymore and it took years for me to finally get over it and accept that some things just aren’t meant to be. I had the truth of my own sterility and abandonment, and even I wouldn’t trade places with you. Those hormones terrify me.”
“It’s selfish of me. I shouldn’t…be unhappy.”
“And why shouldn’t you be? When’s the last time you and Rick went to see a movie? Or out to dinner? Don’t lie to yourself. You are unhappy. Face it.”
“Is that supposed to cheer me up?”
“I don’t know…is it working?”
Victoria sighed. “I feel…I feel like the only thing I do is exist. When one of my children asks me to do something, I feel like I have to do it or I’m a bad mother. I always get the sense that I’m doing things wrong when it comes to my kids.”
“You haven’t done anything wrong. As far as anyone knows, there is no right way to do anything.”
“Lyle was born, and god knows I love him. But Lindsey isn’t even eighteen. How could I not have failed her?”
“She made a mistake. We all make mistakes, but this was her mistake.”
“I was seventeen when I had her, was she my mistake?”
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. Victoria was taken aback. “You messed up, but you accepted responsibility. This is her mistake, and there is no reason for you to keep piling blame on yourself.”
They were silent as Victoria tried to calm her emotions. He was right, and rational as usual, and she decided that she would work hard to see things that way. It was an easy decision to make, to look at things logically, and it worked for almost a minute. But, making the decision to be rational and actually being rational are two completely different scenarios.
“You are a woman,” Andrew said. “I don’t envy you. But please, for my sake, don’t dismiss what it is to have a family.”
“They are stupid.”
“They are not stupid!” Andrew said, picking Lyle up and spinning him. Lyle cheered with glee and starting putting random fingers in his mouth in happiness. “Okay, maybe a little.” Andrew paused, staring at Lyle, who was staring at Victoria. “You never understood what it was like...”
When he spoke, his voice was soft and she had to strain to hear him. The emotion in his voice was thick and she thought for a second that he might cry. She strained for a, looking also at Lyle and waiting for her brother to continue. But he didn’t, and she realized that this was a sore spot in her brother, something he didn’t want to discuss. “What? I never understood what?”
“Lyle loves you unconditionally,” Andrew said after a pause, with a nod toward the two-year old. “They all do. No matter how many times you mess up, they will always love you and come home. That level of…faith…in another human being is incomprehensible. Really, it doesn’t even make a little bit of sense. I wish…” His voice faded and she saw moisture at the edges of his eyes. “I wish that I knew what that kind of love was like.”
“You do,” she said, leaning a little closer to him. “We all love you the same way that you claim they love me.”
“No,” he said, this time without hesitation. The moisture was gone, replaced by his normal stoicism. “The love is there, but it is not the same. It can never be the same. And I accepted that a long time ago. They love me as their uncle, as a man and a blood relative. It’s different, and it will always be different.” The vulnerability was gone, and she realized that it was an act. He was manipulating her: the pain was real, but allowing her to see it was a conscious choice. He was forcing her to understand what he was telling her. Andrew knew exactly what made his sister tick, and he knew just how to push her buttons in the right way to make her feel guilty.
It worked, she realized, and when she looked at Lyle she felt a longing to reach out to him, to touch him, to nurture him and love him. It was her love that Andrew had been talking about, not there. Her unconditional love that no matter what happened, she would always support them and care for them. Part of her craved it, would always crave it, and part of her felt stifled by it.
“I do love them, no matter what situations they force me into.”
“Some situations are more interesting than others,” Andrew said, then laughed. An elf?”
Victoria couldn’t contain the glimmer of a smile. “It took three hours explaining before he agreed not to press charges.”
Her oldest son, Jeff—or Jeffie to the family—was autistic. He spent his entire twenty-five-year lifetime with his parents and could function well around the family. But his autism kept him confined from the rest of the world. Victoria definitely loved her son unconditionally, but she had to admit that there were times she wanted to strangle him.
“Did you hear what happened?” she asked.
“Rick wouldn’t stop laughing long enough to tell me and no one else knows enough to explain. Jeffie kept asking where the elf went and if he needed more skittles.”
Victoria chuckled now, shaking her head. “I was at work, and I got a call from home. It was Jeffie, and he kept telling me to ‘Come home, Mom, just come home.’ I was petrified. He never acts like that, so I rushed. When I got home, Jeffie was frantic, and he led me to his room breathless. I knew something was wrong when I saw the dresser pushed in front of the closet and skittles all over the floor.”
“He caught an elf?”
There was a long pause. “The UPS driver came by earlier with a package, a fully grown 4’6” dwarf. And well…I’m sure you can figure out the rest. Let’s just say he wasn’t happy.”
It was a long moment before Andrew could stop his laughter. Even Lyle laughed, though he had no idea why. Finally. Andrew wiped a finger across his eye and took a few deep breaths. “You should have put a note to leave the package in the garage.”
“I realize that now.”
“Why the skittles?”
“Ever see the movie Elf?”
“Touché.” They sat in silence, listening to the fountain behind them and the occasional car horn as people maneuvered through the city. It felt good for Victoria to talk to someone, especially her brother. They grew up together, knew each other. Not the way she knew her husband, but they were little kids together. They had been through the same situations, the same environment, and both come out relatively unscathed. She started to realize that she barely knew why she was out here at all. She had finally been pushed over the edge, but…by what? She wasn’t even sure what made her so angry, so frustrated anymore.
Andrew waited for Victoria to talk, and Victoria couldn’t decide what to say. Lyle fell asleep in Andrew’s lap, snoring softly and sucking his thumb. Finally, the silence became unbearable for her. “It was overwhelming.”
“All of it…just so much happening and so little of it involved me. I’ve never known what time to myself was like, and it made me feel excluded and unwanted. I felt like furniture. It just seemed like…I didn’t know if I could take it anymore and I was afraid. I thought I wanted to leave, to run away and then I realized I just wanted to escape. If only for a time.”
“It makes sense.”
“Then a minute turned into an hour, an hour turned into a day and…here I am. I just always pictured doing something different with my life. I always thought I would have the courage to do something. At this age, I thought I would be busy with interior design and people all around the world would know my name. Now even Lyle calls me Grammy Victor, and I look back at it all and realize I haven’t done anything with my life and it makes me worry because I’m getting older…”
She was crying again. Andrew said her name softly, slowing her down, and he reached out and gently put his arm around her shoulder. “And now I feel so bad,” she finally continued, sniveling. “I feel horrible that I lost it and just…just left.”
“Everyone is terrified.” Andrew said softly, rubbing her shoulder.
“And I felt…sort of…vindicated. Like they finally had their lives interrupted by me. Does that make me a horrible person?”
“No.” She couldn’t help but look up at him. He was staring across the park in the distance and didn’t meet her eyes. “The life of the mother is to be second-fiddle. You will always be important to the world through your children, but you’ll never be instrumental. Not through them. At some point you just have to let go.”
“I’m trying …”
“And you’re succeeding, but it leaves emptiness. Where your children used to be, you feel alone and unused. You have free time that makes you realize that you have nothing to fill it with.”
“And what am I supposed to do? Bear my burden silently, hide my tears, and pretend to be a good little grandma?”
“If you want. But that sounds awful stupid to me,” he replied. “Do whatever you want. You love Lindsey, and that’s why it’s important to let her go. Let her make her own mistakes, and go make some new ones of your own. You feel trapped, but the only person with the ability to trap you is yourself. I know you, Vickie. You don’t handle alone time very well. You need to be busy, so find things to busy yourself with.”
“Does that mean I can go be a stripper?”
“God knows there are worse ones out there. Everything looks better in dim lighting anyway.” Victoria giggled, and it felt good. She felt young again, as free as she did before her children came. When she didn’t have all of the responsibility. Maybe Andrew was right. Maybe that responsibility had been lifted and she could go back and pick up the lost strings of her life. Pick up where I left off, she thought, and couldn’t contain a smile. Just where, exactly, was that?
Andrew let out a sigh. “People don’t vary much in the way they live their lives to this point. This is the cutoff point. Go turn yourself into an excellent grandmother or an excellent woman. Or both. Either way, self-pity doesn’t accomplish much.” And there it was, the accusation she dreaded. The idea floating in the back of her mind that made her cry. She was afraid that to worry about her own affairs would be a treachery against her family, and so she collapsed into self-pity. And even though she knew it, now the words were spoken. Now they were alive. “It’s terrifying to face yourself in the mirror and be honest, but the alternative is worse. I could never have kids, which wasn’t my fault. But I let that problem keep me from adopting too. I accomplished nothing. I failed twice.”
“It’s never too late for some things.”
He hesitated. “And for some things, it is too late,” he said.
She turned to look at him, and he met her eyes. “So I should abandon my family?”
“You should make a decision. Making decisions isn’t easy. For me it is, but that’s because of the reproductive organ I was born with. I don’t usually have a problem making a decision and not caring about the consequences. You are a woman though: born with instincts, hormones, and insanity enough for both sexes. I know what you are dealing with is, but I don’t know what gives you the strength to deal with it. I don’t think I could. Or at least I wouldn’t want to.”
She chuckled sarcastically. “It’s the knowledge that I’m stronger than you that keeps me going.”
“Good, keep that knowledge safe and strong. Men have no problem feeling superior; it comes natural to us. I don’t want the world to administer testosterone shots to women just to keep the playing field fair, so force yourself to think you’re strong. I’m not a fan of bearded, muscular women.”
“Pfft, we should start administering estrogen to men.”
“Nah, you’d hate it when my silky skin was smoother than yours. And I wouldn’t be as wrinkly as you are.”
“Shut up,” Victoria said, laughing. She punched Andrew on the arm, waking Lyle up. He looked around, popped the thumb out of his mouth, and started crying.
“Uh oh, looks like I better take him home,” Andrew said, standing up and rocking Lyle gently in his arms. “I’ll put him to bed and pretend I’m reading a book until everyone comes home.”
Their eyes locked for a moment, and the silent question hung in the air. “I won’t go to one of our childhood hangouts if you come looking for me again,” Victoria said slowly. She was torn, and part of her wanted to find the first bus and disappear.
“I won’t look again,” Andrew said. “I would have brought Rick here if I thought your husband could give an unbiased opinion of the situation. But he can’t. It’s not his decision to make. I’m only here to tell you that, no matter what decision you make, we all love you.”
Without hesitation, Andrew turned and walked down the path away from his sister, disappearing through the park gate and down the side walk toward his home. Victoria sat for a while longer, trying to decide what home was. Was her home where she raised her children, all of which were leaving to pursue their separate lives? Was home the city she grew up in, and where she had lived to this point? She thought for a long time, realizing that she didn’t have an answer.
Silently, she stood up and started the slow trek back to her house.