Authors: J. Courtney Sullivan
His hand brushed hers as he refilled her water glass, and he left it there until the glass was full.
“What do you and Pat like to do for fun, other than come here to the club?” he asked.
She told him the usual—they drove out to Maine a lot, where they had a cottage. They took long walks and played tennis in the summertime. Then she told him about her dollhouse. Maybe she had had too much champagne, but she found herself getting as worked up as she might if she were talking to a fellow enthusiast.
“I’ve just ordered a tiny set of Hummels for the mantelpiece,” she said. “They’re very rare. Antiques.”
“Miniature miniatures,” he said with a smile.
“What got you interested in all of this?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“My grandchildren,” she said. “Or maybe it goes back further than that. Do you remember when Jackie Kennedy redecorated the White House, and then she led the camera crew through?
This is the gold room, this is the green room …
” She was using her best breathy Jackie voice.
He chuckled. “Yes! I remember that.”
“It made me want to design my own perfect house someday,” she said, only now realizing the connection. “Don’t get me wrong, our real house is lovely, but with a dollhouse, everything stays pristine; there’s no worrying about kids spilling grape juice or getting shoe scuffs on the floors.”
“Well, that’s really neat,” he said. “Linda likes those little light-up porcelain houses at Christmas—you know the ones I mean?”
She felt slightly distressed at the sound of his wife’s name, and she almost wanted to say that dopey porcelain Christmas figurines had nothing in common with dollhouse design. But she only smiled in response.
A few days later, a card arrived. It was a thank-you note addressed to both her and Pat. Inside, Steve had written:
Thanks for vouching for us at the club, you two. We promise not to make you regret it! Next dinner is on us. P.S. For your research on the gold room, the green room …
Inside the envelope was a magazine, no bigger than a postage stamp. It was a miniature issue of
from 1962, with a photograph of the young first lady smiling radiantly in a pillbox hat on the cover, over the caption “Mrs. Kennedy’s White House Makeover.”
Ann Marie held the magazine between her thumb and index finger, and felt herself tingle with excitement. She placed it on the side table in the dollhouse living room. She didn’t mention it to Pat when he got home.
Ever since, when they hugged hello, even in front of their spouses, Steve always held on a moment or two longer than seemed natural. He never failed to compliment her dress or to ask her about her charity work at the church, and he was genuinely interested, not just making conversation like everyone else. Sometimes in the afternoon, when she was cleaning the house or about to start dinner, Ann Marie would pour herself a glass of wine, go to the computer in the home office, and type in the website address for Steve’s law firm, Weiss, Black, and Abrams. When the page loaded, she knew exactly where to click—the staff directory on the left. There was his picture, a broad smile on his face, above the words
Stephen Brewer, partner
. Below that was a description of his areas of expertise, which she had practically memorized by now:
Stephen Brewer is a partner in the firm’s Boston office. He has extensive experience with securities offerings and transactions in the United States by non-U.S. companies, representing issuers as well as underwriters
“What does your husband do?” a new neighbor had asked Linda at book club one night.
Linda had responded, “He’s a lawyer.”
“Oh? What kind?”
Linda shrugged. “The kind that works all hours.”
Everyone laughed, but Ann Marie rolled the words around in her head as if they were part of some secret language she shared with Steve—
Securities offerings and transactions, that’s what he does. His experience is extensive
Ann Marie had been looking forward to their annual Cape Neddick trip for months. At some point in the dead of winter, she had written the word
on a Starbucks napkin and stuck it up under the visor in the Mercedes, so that all she had to do was flip the mirror down and there it would be, a reminder of what awaited her.
After Pat announced that the Brewers were coming along, her vision for the trip shifted, and now she was excited in new ways. Nervous too. She had already bought four new Lilly Pulitzer dresses and a white cashmere cardigan, imagining Steve’s face when he saw her in them. She pictured herself and Pat riding caravan-style with Steve and Linda Brewer close behind. The four of them would stop at the Press Room in Portsmouth for a glass of wine and a lobster roll, and then they’d drive on until they reached the cottage, with its familiar old wood beams and the smell of the ocean drifting through the window screens. Later, while Pat and Steve drank a beer and got settled, she and Linda would drive to the gourmet grocery a couple miles up the road in Ogunquit and load the cart with white chocolate cookies, Brie and salami and olives and water crackers, croissants and organic apple juice, raspberries, and a case of champagne. She would make her signature trifle, even though it wasn’t the right season. At the neighborhood Christmas party several months back, Steve had said it tasted like heaven.
They weren’t supposed to go to Cape Neddick until July first, four weeks from now. But a few days earlier, their plans had changed. More to the point, her sisters-in-law had shirked their responsibility and somehow, as usual, Ann Marie was the one who got left holding the bag.
On the previous Friday, Alice called to chat after supper.
“Clare’s ignoring me,” she said.
Ann Marie was sliding plates into the dishwasher. “What? Why?”
“I don’t know! I was watching that
series on PBS and there was a whole piece on the history of gays in the theater. Terribly interesting. Apparently there are lots of them, even that one who wrote
West Side Story
. So I happened to mention this to Clare—”
Ann Marie poured herself a glass of wine from the open bottle on the table. This was not a topic she wanted to discuss. She didn’t much want to know what Alice thought about having a gay grandchild.
At least she figured that was where her mother-in-law was going. Clare’s son, Ryan, starred in all those musicals. Sitting through a single one of his performances, knowing that Clare usually saw his plays several nights in a row, Ann Marie thanked God that none of her children had gotten the acting bug, but had instead gravitated toward sports (Little Daniel) and Irish step dancing (Patty and Fiona). You could bring your knitting along to a hockey game and not seem rude, and she loved the sound of Irish music; it was a connection to her ancestors that stirred something in her heart.
“Anyway,” Alice went on, “I asked her—joking really, that’s all—I asked if she ever worries about Ryan being exposed to that, and you know, getting it. She snapped at me, ‘Mother, homosexuality is not asbestos; you don’t get
to it, you don’t
“Plus, Ryan has that sweet girlfriend,” Ann Marie said. “He’s been with Daphne since freshman year. I wouldn’t worry, Mom.”
Little Daniel jokingly referred to Ryan as a “fairy boy.” But he was just kidding around. It was because Ryan had worn green tights in a production of
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“I know it,” Alice said. “That wasn’t even what I meant. But since then, I’ve called Clare twice and she hasn’t called me back. I realize it’s her busy season, with all the First Communions and confirmations. But still, is it too much to ask that my own daughter return my calls?”
She was getting riled up now. It made Ann Marie nervous when Alice acted that way. Best to change the subject.
“How are things up in Maine?” she asked.
“Chilly, but nice,” Alice said. “There are four bunnies living under the cottage porch, I think. A mother, a father, and two babies.”
“Sweet my foot. They’re eating my tomato plants, and the green beans,” she said. “I’m trying everything I can think of to get rid of them. My garden is gorgeous this year. I don’t want them wrecking it.”
“Better than last year?”
“Yes! I finally tried that fertilizer poop spray of Kathleen’s. God help me, I think it actually works. Though why can’t they come up with a snazzier name for it?”
Ann Marie laughed. For years, Kathleen had been sending Alice her fertilizer products and Alice had been hiding them in a box in her basement rather than use them, because she didn’t understand how worm feces could be a step up from Miracle-Gro.
“Good question,” Ann Marie said. “When do Maggie and Gabe get there?”
Ann Marie wasn’t fond of her niece’s boyfriend; he seemed a bit too slick for her. And she had heard from Alice, who heard from Kathleen, that he might be mixed up in drugs. She had always been glad her own children had the good sense to date decent people. Patty had married a sweetheart, Josh. And Little Daniel had found Regina, a real doll.
Her youngest, Fiona, was almost thirty and still off in the Peace Corps in Africa. She was a passionate girl, serious in her convictions, which had always made Ann Marie proud, though in recent years she had begun to think it was high time for Fiona to come home and settle down.
Having a child is one way to save the world
, she had written in a letter to her daughter last year. She told Pat this after she mailed it, and he said affably, “White wine and letter writing might be a bad mix for you.”
Then, this past winter at Christmastime, Fiona had asked Ann Marie and Pat if she could take them to dinner, just the three of them. Ann Marie was delighted. It seemed a very grown-up thing for Fiona to do, and she could be terribly childish at times. Ann Marie wore her sweater with the poinsettias embroidered across the front. She imagined Fiona was going to tell them she was coming home at last, but instead she uttered those unforgettable words: “As you probably know, I’m gay.”
She had thought over the events of that night so many times since—had she been naïve not to know what was coming? At the table after Fiona’s announcement, Pat had said he had suspected as much, and that he was happy for her. Just like that. Ann Marie had cried. She felt awful about it now, even all these months later. Back at home, Pat cried too. But at least he had the good sense not to let Fiona see.
“I don’t know when Maggie will be here,” Alice had continued. “Kathleen basically told me to mind my own beeswax when I asked her that simple question. Should be any day, I suppose.”
Then she casually mentioned that Maggie was coming up to Maine for only the first two weeks of June. After that, Alice would be by herself until Ann Marie and Pat arrived in early July.
Ann Marie was peeved. She had been told early in the spring that Maggie was going to be there for the entirety of June. (Who had said so? She couldn’t recall.) A huge part of the reason Pat had created a schedule for the cottage was so that Alice would never have to be alone up there for long. It wasn’t simply a pleasure, going to Maine; it was a responsibility that they all ought to share. Alice was an old lady, whether her daughters were willing to accept this fact or not. Her memory was failing. She didn’t always remember to turn off the television or take her keys out of the ignition. She needed looking after.
“Mom, let me call you back,” Ann Marie said.
She was booked to the gills that second half of June. She had to make the arrangements for a luncheon she was helping to organize at the club. There was a meeting of the Lucky Star Fund on the twenty-seventh. She had purposefully overbooked herself in June so that she could be at the cottage in peace in July. She wasn’t sure she’d have the time to go up to Maine and check on Alice.
Two whole weeks. What kind of women left their aging mother alone for two whole weeks?
At the end of June, Clare and Joe would be on their annual buying trip in Taiwan. (Who knew Taiwan was the place to go for vestments, statues of the saints, and crucifixes on silver chains? And how could two atheists run a business based on peddling sacred objects? If you asked Ann Marie, there was something blasphemous about it.)
A ball of anger lodged itself in her stomach. She didn’t usually do things like this, but without thinking, she dialed Kathleen’s house in California.
“Hello,” Kathleen said flatly. She had probably recognized the number on her caller ID. Ann Marie was surprised that she even picked up.
“Hi there, it’s Ann Marie,” she said, feeling uncomfortable, wanting to lighten the mood even before there was a mood to lighten. “How are you, good?”
“Sure,” Kathleen said. “I’m good.”
“Great. Well, I wanted to call because Alice told me that she’s going to be alone up in Cape Neddick for the last couple weeks of June, and I feel like that’s a long stretch of time for her to be by herself. It’s bad enough she’s alone all May, but Pat and I have at least tried to see her on the weekends this past month. I have a very busy June ahead of me and I can’t be going back and forth.”
“Who asked you to?” Kathleen said.
She tried again, putting it simply. “Alice will be all by herself for two whole weeks.”
“Ann Marie, she’s by herself all year long.”
“Well, yes, but it’s different when she’s here in Massachusetts, close by us. I worry when she’s all the way up there at the beach.”
“It’s an hour and a half drive,” Kathleen said. Then, her voice intensifying, “Why are you calling me with this?”
“Technically June is your month at the cottage. I thought maybe we could come up with a plan to—”
“You realize I live three thousand miles away,” Kathleen said, like this absurd fact might have slipped Ann Marie’s mind.
“Yes,” she said. “But I thought maybe Maggie or Christopher could go, even if it’s only for a couple extra days to break things up.”
“They have lives. They can’t pick up and go to Maine for half the month.”