Authors: Elaine D Walsh
As she watched her father and sister lazing in the comfort
of their spouse’s company, her mind kept drifting to Ben. After sharing a
second sherry, she excused herself and hoped her exodus from the sentimental
scene would chase away thoughts of him.
She went upstairs to her old bedroom, which had been
converted to a guest bedroom. A bouquet of fresh gladioli sat on the dresser.
It was Hillary’s touch. Whenever Tess returned home for a visit, there were
always fresh cut flowers in her room. She stroked one of the gladiolus stems.
Ben probably brought his mother Thanksgiving flowers.
Although she didn’t know him completely, she knew him well
enough to consider him sensitive and sentimental, the kind of son who would
bring his mother flowers on special occasions. He’d given Tess roses just for
opening a door into her soul to him; his mother had given him life. And love.
Lots of it. Tess bet his gift bouquet had at least one orchid in it. And
daisies. They were fun flowers, simple yet playful. She wanted to call and
ask him and tell him what her guesses were before he answered.
She wandered to the bed and sat down, wishing she had a
picture of Ben she could gaze at while she purged herself of missing him. If
she didn’t expend these feelings now while he was twelve hundred miles away
instead of only fifteen minutes, she’d find him in her arms when she returned
to New York, and God knows what things she might say to him that would
complicate her life.
She flopped back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling.
Love. It was an awkward-sounding word. She couldn’t possibly say it to him.
It was too soon, too much. Besides, she wasn’t sure she loved him; then again,
she’d never loved any man, only desired.
But there was more to the feelings gripping her than just
desire. Maybe she should chance it; go ahead and allow whatever was building
up inside her to come pouring out.
She thought of Cassie. She’d found a way for love to
multiply and not divide. Even her father managed to love again. He’d found
someone to complement him. As a successful Realtor, Hillary found security in
her own identity and led a busy, independent life. When time was theirs to
share, they didn’t waste it arguing over lost opportunities; instead, they
delighted in each other’s company when time permitted.
Tess closed her eyes and cringed at how she’d dismissed
her father’s relationship with Hillary all these years. They were in love.
Deeply and passionately. Even she could see that.
She sat up, reached for the phone on the nightstand and
dialed Ben’s number. Three simple words—I love you—held the most complex
consequences for her life. She paced the small area by the bedside while the
phone rang interminably. His answering machine clicked on. Shit! Ben
deserved hearing this from her lips to his ear, not on some machine. She’d
been enough of a machine, planned and programmed.
No, he deserved the live version, the one that exposed her
to the full measure of his immediate response even if it was to tell her to get
Ben’s voice directed callers to leave a message. She’d
tell him in person. At the very least, she should make herself available for
retribution for how she’d punished him for loving her. She deserved that, not
his love. Maybe she’d get lucky.
She hung up the phone just as the machine beeped.
The next evening, Tess and her father sat on the front
porch swing rocking gently in the subtropical evening’s cool November air. Her
father wore an ivory cardigan to ward away the chill, but she shunned her
sweater and found her long sleeves sufficient. The time had passed up in New
York when she could venture out into the evening without something warm to bundle
up in. She enjoyed a moment she wouldn’t experience again in New York until
They both stared lazily at the scene in front of them
painted with the muted shades of evening. The plants and bushes in the front
yard cast shadows on the gray grass. Nighttime dimmed the bougainvillea’s
brilliant magenta flowers. Street lamps dropped dollops of light on the
sidewalk and street. The light cast its strongest glow directly beneath the
lamp, but like a ripple chasing over the water, the light slowly faded as it
spread out. Strands of Christmas lights trimmed the windows of the house
across the street.
“I’ll miss you,” he said.
“I’ll miss you, too.”
“The house is so alive when you kids are here. Sometimes
I wonder why we still need such a big house for just Hillary and me.”
“Because we all can’t fit in a condo when we come back to
visit. And toddlers need a lot of space. I have this feeling Cassie will be
raising a brood of them.”
“I like having you all in one place at the same time,” he
mused with a smile. “I’m a fortunate man.”
Instinctively, she gave him a questioning look she wished
he hadn’t noticed.
“I have three beautiful children,” he went on to explain,
“who’ve grown into marvelous adults. I have a wonderful wife. I’ll soon have
a grandchild. My career has allowed me to make a difference in people’s
lives. Yes, I’m a very fortunate man.”
“I’m relieved to hear you say it.”
He patted her thigh. “Now you don’t have to worry about
“I guess I thought you viewed your life as somewhat tainted.”
He sighed and tucked his hands into his sweater’s square
pockets. “Parts of it were, but I don’t live in those parts any longer.
Thankfully, time travels forward and not in a circle.”
“I still miss her.” Tess smirked and shook her head.
“No, I miss who she was because I don’t know who she is.”
“I know it’s been hard on all of you.”
“My own struggles I can handle more easily. My children’s
pain has been my biggest burden.”
“No.” His voice was resolute. “You have nothing to be
sorry for. A child’s pain is always the hardest for a parent to bear. That’s
the way it’s supposed to be.”
“If she would’ve died instead, I could’ve missed her
without this cancer hanging over my head. I think I could’ve dealt with that
“Then you would’ve been angry with God instead of with
Randall Wright for taking your mother.”
Tess blanched hearing her father say his name with such
ease. She thought he’d expelled it from his vocabulary and at the very least
would struggle uttering the name of the man who’d stolen his wife.
“I don’t think you would’ve had an easier time with it,
just a different experience,” Glen said. “It’s your nature. You were the
logical child. Growing up, you were the child who took everything to heart,
internalized it and demanded it make sense, then fell out of sorts when it
“I found it ironic because you were so creative and I
didn’t realize creativity and logic could co-exist. It was quite a revelation
for someone as left-brained as I am. I always pictured your right brain and
left brain dueling each other for control.”
She marveled at his insight. While she was growing up,
he’d worked long hours and spent more time with other people’s children, yet
here he was sharing his detailed observations. She wondered when he’d had time
to notice these things, but he had. In whatever time he’d culled away from his
practice, he’d noticed more than she’d given him credit for.
In the self-absorbed world of childhood and adolescence,
she hadn’t noticed him noticing her.
“I sometimes imagine you moving back here,” he said.
“There’s not a lot of work for art conservators in St.
“I imagine there’s not, but I still can’t help wishing you
were back home.”
“I have a home.”
“You live in New York City by yourself. You don’t have a
“I like it there.”
“Then why Florence?”
She shrugged. “Why not? The world turns and time passes;
I might as well spend it somewhere interesting. I can see the world without
joining the military. I might as well do it while I’m young, before I get
“I think I’d feel better about it if I could believe
“Believe you’ll ever settle down.”
She thought about mentioning Ben to her father and giving
him something to hope for, but she wasn’t sure herself what would become of
them and decided it might be cruel rather than kind. The “I love you” she was
saving for Ben could change her future and chalk Florence up to a wish that
never came true.
But until she spoke those words and heard them repeated
back to her, she wouldn’t know. And so, her future lay in Florence, Italy, and
not with Ben Elliot.
“My heart will rest easier knowing you have someone to
lean on in life. It’s a fatherly thing,” Glen said.
She poked his side. He sounded too morose. “This could
be my lucky break. Italy’s a romantic place. Maybe I’ll meet some nice
“That’s another fear of mine. I can handle an ocean
separating us if it’s only for a few years. Hillary was trying to convince me
last night that Florence would be a great place to vacation next year.”
“Did she convince you?”
“I’m getting there.”
He smiled. “Now who’s conspiring against whom?”
“I’m glad to have her help.”
“She’s happy to help you. In fact, she’s thrilled.”
Tess bowed her head, embarrassed with herself. “I’m glad
you have each other.”
He tilted back his head and smiled. “Thank you.”
“I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to say it.”
Tess wrapped her arms around her father’s neck, squeezed
and kissed him, knowing he wouldn’t try to coerce an explanation from her or an
examination of her feelings like her sister would.
He patted her arm and leaned forward to kiss her hand.
“Taking Cassie and Brad to the airport tomorrow?”
“Yes, around two.” She freed her father from her arms.
“I think I’ll swing by the mall in Tampa while I’m over that way and get some
Christmas shopping ideas.”
“There you are.” Cassie poked her head out the front
door. She held the portable phone with her hand over the receiver.
“Telephone, Tess. It’s Neil.”
She hastily departed her father’s side and held out her
hand for the phone, but Cassie drew it against her chest and eyed her sister
curiously. “Neil? What happened to Ben?”
“It’s work,” Tess said impatiently.
“Work? That’s a bit rude. Tell them you’re on vacation.”
“The phone, please.”
Cassie grudgingly handed it over.
“This is Tess,” she said while slipping into the house and
leaving her father in Cassie’s company.
“Tess, Neil Palmer.”
“Did you have a good Thanksgiving?”
Her limbs were tingling in anticipation of what he might
say. She didn’t want to delay it with small talk. Curtly she answered, “Yes,
“Me, too. Okay, here’s the deal. Randall Wright’s agreed
to be interviewed. We’ve been cleared for one o’clock on Monday afternoon.”
“I’ll need to change my flight back to New York to the
“Yes, because we can’t change this. We’ll need to leave
by nine. I can pick you up at your father’s.”
“No.” She paced a tight circle and dragged her fingers
through her hair. She peered out the front window. Cassie stood behind the
porch swing draped over her father’s shoulders, talking into his ear with their
gazes fixed on the street in front of them. She lowered her voice.
“Pick me up at the airport. I’ll drive there, drop off
my rental car and wait outside the blue-side terminal for departing flights.”
“Okay, one last detail. Go to the newspaper’s main office
tomorrow morning at eight-thirty. Melanie Stalt, the HR director, will meet
you there. We need to get you photographed and your credentials issued. And
be pleasant; she isn’t too happy with me right now. I’ve worked up a long list
of people to pay back for this caper.”
“My heart breaks for you.” She watched her sister and
father easily chatting.
“I didn’t think you’d be sympathetic.”
Tess wondered what her sister and father were delighting
in. Talk of her impending child or perhaps how nice the November nights are in
St. Petersburg. Whatever it was, she wanted to be a part of it.
“Tess, are you still there?” Neil asked.
“I have to go. I’ll see you Monday.”
She pressed the phone’s off button and continued watching
her father and sister through the window. This trip home had stirred a
nostalgic yearning for her family; one not grounded in the picture-perfect
image she often fantasized about that included her mother. Tess found herself
enjoying them as they were and not as she wished them to be, even if her sister
and brother irritated her at times. They were all still together, yet she
anticipated missing them.
Tess slipped back out onto the porch to soak up what
little time they had left together.
Neil Palmer steered his silver Camry along Interstate 75
that cut through Florida’s interior. Unlike the natural beauty of the state’s
coastline, the landscape here was flat and less interesting, and the miles
repeated themselves with the same tired view: wispy blond and green grasses,
stubby palms and gangly pine trees. At least they were near Ocala now where
Tess could gaze out the window and pretend to be absorbed in the horse farms
they sped by.
“Ever go to the track in New York?” Neil attempted to engage
his stoic passenger in yet another conversation.
“Not a gambler?”
“Treat yourself to a trip to Saratoga next summer. The
track only opens for one month of racing. It’s a park-like setting. You could
spend an entire day there enjoying the atmosphere and never even see a race.”