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After the Reunion
By Rona Jaffe
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Rona Jaffe
All rights reserved.
The bright sunlight of another California morning woke Emily at eight o'clock. She moved around and stretched in the large bed and felt the familiar little pinch of desolation, as if she'd been deserted, that she felt every morning. Ken was gone again, off to his interesting day, without even saying good-bye. He would have called it consideration. He was the phantom of the house, and she should be used to it after all these years. But still, like a child, she ran to the hall window to look down at the driveway, to see if his little sports car was still there. It wasn't. There was nothing but her own two-seater Mercedes, all alone. She hoped no one would drive by with robbery or worse on his mind and know there was only one person in the house. That's why she hadn't wanted to sell the station wagon, but Ken said it was silly to keep it now that the kids were living on their own, and besides, he had to buy them cars, and neither of them would be caught dead driving around in something as square as a station wagon.
Somewhere out of sight she could hear the voices of the men who worked on the grounds of other people's houses—Mexicans, Japanese—and the sound of someone clipping a hedge. Otherwise all was stillness. A bird squawked. A car drove by, very fast; someone on the way to work. Far away, soft in the morning smog, she could see Los Angeles, where all those other people were starting their day. She might as well start hers, before Adeline came, or she wouldn't have a moment's peace.
It was too late. Engine growling, exhaust smoking, there was Adeline's enormous, ancient convertible, low to the ground like a boat. She got only nine miles to the gallon on it, as she never tired of complaining to Emily, even though Ken paid for her gas. They should have given her the station wagon. But Ken, who adored Adeline, said Emily was crazy to think of it. Why not, Emily asked, since other people bought cars for their housekeepers, and the station wagon was old and not worth very much? He'd just blown up at her. Ken, who had been the most generous of men, had started to act stingy about the strangest things. He'd go out and order cases and cases of the best, most expensive wine, because someone had recommended it, and then he'd glare if Emily bought a dress, which she hardly ever did anyway as she wasn't much of a shopper. She didn't like it when Ken called her crazy—it reminded her of when she had been, and she wished he would think of anything else to call her but that when he got annoyed. He knew how she felt about it, and she had the terrible feeling he did it on purpose, which again was just so totally unlike him. Maybe they could sit down and talk about what was happening, if she could ever catch him when he was alone and not harassed.
Adeline was sitting at the kitchen table having breakfast and reading the morning papers when Emily came down. The smell of fried bacon hung like a reproach and a challenge in that abstemiously red-meatless house.
"Good morning, sweetie!" Adeline sang out.
"Good morning, Adeline. Don't bother, I'll get my own, you just finish your breakfast," Emily said. She poured a cup of coffee and dropped a slice of diet bread into the toaster. Adeline had come to work for them five years ago, and had gradually exerted her power to where she ran everybody. She had Emily absolutely cowed and behaving like one of the children. Half black, half American Indian, huge, willful, and inscrutable, she seemed ageless and she wasn't telling, but Emily had to pay her in cash to stay. Adeline did all the cooking now, and Emily went to the supermarket with a list—she who had been such a gourmet cook and had taken so many courses in the cuisine of any country you could name was now allowed into her own kitchen only on Adeline's days off. Ken thought Adeline was a gem, Kate and Peter liked being spoiled by her, Emily couldn't stand her but no longer could do without her, and nobody ever knew what Adeline thought.
The kids were coming for dinner, and Emily could already see the long shopping list on the kitchen counter, and the cookie sheets laid out in readiness. She wished at least she could make the cookies. Cookies were love.
"You better go early before Gelson's get too crowded," Adeline said.
Oh, God, Thursday! Coupon day. The day when there were all those ads about specials in the newspapers. Adeline should have sent her yesterday ... or she should have remembered and insisted.
"Maybe I'll go somewhere else," Emily said timidly.
"I like Gelson's," Adeline said, in a voice that clearly meant Emily was making a big mistake. Emily remembered that voice from her childhood, when she'd gone to buy clothes with her mother. Was that why she was so afraid of losing Adeline's good will that sometimes her throat closed up with anxiety when Adeline didn't agree with her? After all those years of analysis, wouldn't you think she'd be over her compulsive need to please everybody? She was the good child, the good wife, the good mother, and the invisible person.
"All right, I'll go to Gelson's."
By the time she'd taken a shower and washed her hair and dressed, and put on a little makeup because you never knew if you'd run into somebody who'd tell people you were looking awful, Emily knew it was already too late. She drove around and around the underground parking lot beneath the giant market, looking desperately for a space, and finally found one so far away it belonged to another store. Then the endless walk through thick carbon monoxide fumes from all those cars, trying not to breathe, knowing it would seem twice as long on the way back with a loaded cart. Adeline remembered everything Peter had ever liked to eat or drink and had put it all on the list, planning to send him home with a CARE package. Kate ate very little because she wanted to stay thin, and although she always very politely took cookies home, Emily was sure she gave them away.
Emily was sort of sorry both her children were coming to dinner on the same night, because when they were together they seemed to have secrets from which she and Ken were excluded. Elusive, smoky-voiced Kate, whose eyes held you at a distance ... Emily had often wondered who, if anyone, was ever let into Kate's world, except for Peter, and she wasn't even sure about him. Peter was unfailingly polite and respectful to his parents because he felt that was the way one should be. It had little to do with feelings. Sometimes Emily wondered if he had any feelings at all, so deeply were they hidden. He refused to admit fear or vulnerability or even doubt of any kind. If he asked you a question, and he asked many, it was to learn. He was careful to tell you often that he wanted to learn as much as possible. He wanted to learn so that he could become a success. Neither Kate nor Peter ever touched their mother if they could help it; they never kissed her. They of course allowed her to hug and kiss them if she wished to. That was the only polite way to treat one's mother. But they slapped each other on the back, they laughed and winked and cast each other shorthand looks covering a whole life from which other people were excluded. They were like two children who had to hold on to each other to keep from drowning....
Two little wet heads, sleek as baby seals, bobbing above the surface of the water. A turquoise swimming pool ... bare little tan arms, the bright orange life jackets locked away in the utility closet ...
And a mother who never came when Kate screamed ...
Emily cleared the visions from her mind and marched determinedly across the underground parking lot, pushing her heavy grocery cart. Tonight there would be a delicious dinner, and everyone would have a really nice time. All of that was a long time ago, when she was almost a child herself. Maybe they didn't even remember.
How could they not remember? Kate had been the one who told Ken. And then Ken had gotten a baby-sitter and driven Emily to the mental hospital and made her sign herself in. The children certainly remembered she had left them; she'd been gone six months. After that Emily had been so busy with her own problems, trying to get well, that it had never occurred to her to find out if what had happened had really hurt them. She'd been so busy being a good mother, driving Kate and Peter to the events of a crowded Southern California day; school, lessons, social life, sports—and trying to work out with her analyst why she still resented them, until she didn't resent them at all, not a shred of resentment remained.
Except for those few moments when she realized they had their whole lives ahead of them and hers was over. And that they were so much braver than she had ever been.
Back home, Adeline helped Emily unload the car. "God, it's hot," Emily said.
"Sure is. I can't stand the heat."
In the kitchen Emily drank a can of artificially sweetened iced tea and glanced through the mail while Adeline finished putting the groceries away. She didn't know why she always felt she had to stay in Adeline's presence, instead of having the tea by the pool or in her room; but something, that same unnamed guilt perhaps, made her follow Adeline around, trying to get on her good side.
"I forgot to write down butter," Adeline said.
Emily sighed. "Do I really have to go back?" "Can't cook without butter. I'm sorry, sweetie."
Emily drove back down the winding road resentfully. She does this all the time. I don't know why she does this to me. And I like my cookies better than hers anyway; hers are all greasy. Mine are soft and chewy and wonderful ... She stopped at the superette that was closer than the market and bought two pounds of butter, making sure it was Adeline's favorite kind, even though it wasn't her favorite kind. She didn't want to risk being fixed with Adeline's gimlet-eyed glare and listen to her banging pots around for an hour. By the time Emily got back to the house it was time to rush off to her job at the hospital.
Children's Hospital was new and beautiful, decorated in cheery primary colors to cheer up little children whose lives were filled with sickness and pain they could only partly understand. The other volunteers were mostly Emily's age, the nurses were young, and the Play Lady, Suzanne, who was Emily's boss, was twenty-eight. The Play Lady was allowed to wear street clothes, but Emily had to wear a silly pastel pinafore. The Play Lady was almost twenty years younger than she was. It was the kind of authoritative job Emily had had years ago, when she was first married to Ken and had been a psychiatric social worker, respected. Now she was just the general flunkey. But still, it made her feel fulfilled for a few hours to help the children act out their fears and anger, and to hope she'd made life a bit more bearable for them. They liked her and she got along well with them. If one was missing she always got frightened—you knew if they were going to be allowed to go home because they talked about it beforehand, but if they just disappeared you knew something terrible had happened. She was relieved today to see that everyone she knew was still here. There was one new small scared face, under a baseball cap pulled way down. Bald: chemotherapy. Cancer. She glanced quickly to see if he still had both legs.
"Hi! My name is Emily. What's yours?"
A sad little mumble. Emily hugged him.
"Emily, go get the paper and paints," Suzanne said. "We're going to play Matisse today. Or Star Wars. Depending." Emily went to the wall of cupboards and brought out the supplies. "Oh, we'll need a lot more than that," Suzanne said.
"I'm getting more," Emily said, trying to sound pleasant. Why did everybody order her around? But still, she was so lucky to be healthy and to have healthy children, and to be out of the house, she shouldn't complain about anything.
The hours passed quickly. The new little patient told her his name and she painted gold stars all over his baseball cap. She let him paint a monster on her arm and hair on her hand and claws on her fingers. Soon he was laughing. After the play session was over Emily and Suzanne went into the lounge to have coffee.
"Hey," Suzanne said. "One of the women told me you're Kit Barnett's mother."
"Yes." This was the first time anyone at the hospital had spoken to her in a tone of respect.
"I didn't know. The name's different."
"It's still Kate Buchman. She calls herself Kit Barnett professionally."
"I think she's terrific," Suzanne said. "I saw her in a couple of things on TV. When I read she's going to be in something I try to watch it." This was also the first time the Play Lady had spoken to Emily at such length. "What's she like?"
"In real life. What's she like?"
I'm not sure I know. She's my daughter but I don't really know her either. "Just a normal young woman," Emily said lightly. "Hard-working, dedicated. I'm very proud of her."
"Well, when you see her, tell her she has a fan."
"As a matter of fact," Emily said, "I'm going to see her tonight."
"Hey. Well." Suzanne nodded and smiled, and Emily nodded and smiled back, and then they went their separate ways. "'Night, now," Suzanne called after her.
In the car, creeping along with the rush hour traffic, Emily thought: I'm famous. I'm Ken Buchman's wife and Kit Barnett's mother. My freshman advisor back at Radcliffe would be thrilled.
The kitchen smelled delicious. "Doctor Buchman called," Adeline greeted her. "He has to meet somebody and he says to start without him and save him something."
Emily's heart sank. "Did you remind him the children are coming?"
The last several times Ken had had "meetings" they'd lasted until ten or eleven o'clock, and he'd come home surly and refusing to make conversation. She'd been so sure all that with his women was over, but now she wondered. What else could it be? Dermatologists didn't have meetings, and they didn't work until eleven o'clock at night. Maybe he was just having a drink with another man at the Polo Lounge, the way he sometimes did; but it was inconsiderate of him to do it when the children wanted to see him, too. They always ate at seven so Adeline could get home. A person could certainly have enough drinks by seven o'clock. Well, she wasn't going to argue with him. She would do her best to make it a pleasant evening for everyone.
"Hi, Mom! Hi, Adeline!" Peter, her tall, tanned, handsome son, smiling.
Adeline put her palms together and bowed the way Ed McMahon did on the Johnny Carson show. "The Little Prince!" Adeline said, and bowed again. Peter laughed and hugged her. He let Emily hug him.
"You're looking beautiful, Mom," he said. "What's for dinner?"
"Your favorite things and a surprise," Adeline said before Emily could answer.
"I saved you all the copies of The Wall Street Journal," Emily said.
"I have my own subscription now," Peter said cheerfully. "The Little Prince is going to be the little tycoon. Or big tycoon someday, I hope. Where's Dad?"
"He's going to be late," Emily said.
"Something I said?" Kate asked, smiling, slipping into the room like a wraith. A head taller than Emily, but still fragile-looking, with a froth of dark hair and big gray eyes, she looked a lot like Emily did at her age, minus the fear. The shrill voice of her babyhood was gone—that piercing, demanding little voice that had driven Emily to distraction so many years ago—replaced by an interesting husky tone. That was one of the things that distinguished her from other young actresses, but even more importantly it was her eyes; something mysterious and withheld, a challenge; even though her manner was friendly. Emily was aware of this on the screen, as was everyone else, but she also saw it in her own home, and she knew it was Kate's look; there was a place beyond which you could not go.
Kate gave Adeline a quick hug, suffered her mother to hug her, and put her arm around her brother. "Let's have some wine out by the pool," Emily said. "It's so pretty this time of the evening."
They marched out with a carafe of white wine, glasses, and a cooler, and arranged themselves in front of the sunset. Emily noticed for the first time that there was a bruise on the side of Kate's face, as if someone had struck her. "What's that?" she asked, alarmed.
"Your face. It looks as if you hurt yourself."
"Oh, I have no idea," Kate said calmly. Her voice made it quite clear that she was not going to discuss it.
"How's work?" Emily asked quickly.
"I'm up for something, but if I tell anybody I'll jinx it," Kate said.
"Well, I have my fingers crossed. You tell me just as soon as you know."
Excerpted from After the Reunion by Rona Jaffe. Copyright © 1985 Rona Jaffe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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