When my college girlfriend broke up with me, the first thing I did was go tell her mother. My relationship with Audry was probably as important to me as the one I had with her daughter. In fact, the day I met Beth was also the same day I met Audry. Beth I found on the beach, and by the end of the day I had finagled my way into a cold drink beside the pool of her family's oceanfront home. It was late in the afternoon when Audry appeared with her husband, Neil, home from a barbecue in Avalon. Audry wore a pair of tan summer slacks and a silk short-sleeved top. Her bearing was regal, but her smile, like her pale green eyes, was warm and ingenuous. Except for the nearly inconspicuous crow's-feet, she looked nothing like the middle-aged mother she was. I knew instantly where Beth had gotten her looks.
I got off the lounge chair and politely shook both parents' hands, a reflection of the manners my own parents demanded and a good way to earn brownie points from the get-go. We talked, Beth's parents and I. I told them where I was from, how I happened to be visiting the Jersey Shore, and what my general prospects in life appeared to be at that time. I was a scholarship athlete attending Syracuse University. In other words, big-time football. But I liked school too, always an important detail to relate to the parents of a potential girlfriend. Three years later, Audry would remind me that I also disclosed the fact I was an adopted child. I have no recollection of that, but it would become obvious, because of the impact it had on her, that I did indeed tell them.
Not only did I impress the parents that day, I impressed Beth as well. It was destiny that she was to attend Cornell thatcoming fall. Although, the truth be known, Cornell was not an uncommon destination for well-heeled girls from New Jersey. While my relationship with Beth was often tumultuous, her family was a different story. They embraced me, especially Audry. By the following year, I made it my business to secure a summer job in Manhattan so I could actually live with Beth and her family in Englewood during June and July.
On weekends, we would retreat, like one big family, to their palatial summer home on the Jersey Shore. Her sister was younger and pleasant, although too like Beth in her independence to dote over me. But she liked me enough to show it. Neil, the father, was an operator. He owned a Mercedes dealership as well as a couple of restaurants around Englewood. If there was a hot car, he had to have it, and it didn't have to be a Mercedes. Whenever the bill came after dinner? He carried a fat roll of hundred-dollar bills in his pocket that he'd peel off like the leaves of a cabbage. But while Beth's father and younger sister clearly approved of my presence, it was Audry, more than even Beth herself, who seemed delighted.
During the summer weeks, I worked a soft PR job at the firm of a prominent SU alum who was more concerned with my progress in the weight room than in public relations. After the joband three hours of hard training at the gymI'd end up back at Beth's. It was Audry, not Beth, who would break into the refrigerator and whip together a meal. I'm talking about real food: pasta with homemade sauce; veal cutlets sauteed in white wine; or a fat steak cooked on the grill, served with french fried potatoes. It never seemed to matter to Audry that she'd spent her day working at one of Neil's restaurants. She was that kind of woman. Despite their money, Audry did all the cooking and all the cleaning. Every day she did the work of at least two, if not three, normal women. Looking back now, I suppose this was one of the ways in which she punished herself. Then, I had no idea that she felt she should be punished. In my mind, her exacting work ethic and blind devotion to the rest of us made her the perfect wife. I fully expected Beth to mature into that same role.
Of course, I tried to stay on my best behavior those summers, but when I inevitably slipped into my worst, drinking too much beer on a Friday night or wrecking a jet ski out of carelessness, it was Audry again, not Beth, who was my champion. She seemed to revel in my recklessness and was always quick to remind Beth that, in general, I was a model young man. Over the three years that I knew them, it became clear to everyone in Beth's family that Audry gave me preferential treatment. If Beth and I had a dispute, Audry would come down on my side of the argument. If there was only one Dove bar left in the freezer, she wanted to make sure I didn't want it first. She was my mentor as well. While my own parents never left me short on manners, I had no sense of style. It was Audry who went out of her way to buy me nice clothes and instruct me how best to get by in the social setting of the well-to-do.
It wasn't unusual on a Saturday night for the two of us to stay up later than everyone else, talking at the kitchen table about books or politics or psychology or just the people we'd been with that day at their summer house. Under an old brass hanging lamp, we'd sit, separated from the night by only a sliding screen door. The hypnotic sounds of the surf carried in to us on the ocean breeze. If the wind was stiff, the heavy old fixture would gently sway, leaving the shadows to dance a slow tango across the floor. An easy current ran between the two of us in those moments, as if we were coconspirators in some secret but noble cause. I understood her and she understood me. When we talked, we looked into each other's eyes with the comfort of two old friends, unafraid to expose our thoughts and ideas.
It was there, alone in her kitchen, that I read aloud my first piece of fiction, a short story I'd cobbled together during the week at my PR job in the city.
"I'm going to be a writer," I explained, finishing off the bottle of beer I'd begun for courage. Nothing in her voice or expression that night told me that I couldn't.
When it became late, my eyes would sag and my words would wander aimlessly. Audry would get up from the table, kiss me on top of my head, and tell me to go to sleep.
"Tomorrow's another day," she'd say. Then she'd make off to bed with an impish smile and a spring in her step that suggested she had no need of sleep herself, that rest was only for the young.
During those summer months of my college days, I became a real part of Beth's family, and I grew to love her mother. All that time, I attributed Audry's unusual kindness to the fact that I was a guest. The real reason was never even a suspect, until the day I went to say good-bye.