We clung to each other tightly, as two people who have just lost or gained a lot will do. We had done both, I suppose. The embrace takes me back to earlier, simpler, happier times. The warmth of Veronica’s body envelops my frail and lonely frame, and I stroke her silky, long brown hair as she cries. “Shhh, hunny, everything is going to be okay,” I tell her, although I’m not really sure that’s true. Her embrace prevents me from spilling on the floor.
Veronica finally pulls herself from me enough to look me in the eye. “What happened, mom?” she manages to stammer. I remove myself from her embrace – from the security of something to hold onto – and stir the hot chocolate, which has begun to acquire a milky film. I plop some marshmallows in each cup, wondering how to tell my sixteen year-old daughter that her father no longer loves her mother.
“Why don’t we sit down?” I ask and motion to the breakfast nook. Veronica follows. I almost wish she would put up a fight, refuse to listen, be as uncompromising as she has been these past few months here in Fairfield. Something must have happened to her tonight, I think, but I’m not going to pry. She deserves to know, and God knows I can’t rely on Richard to tell her. God knows I can’t rely on Richard.
I take a sip. I take a breath. I take a chance. “Your father is in love with someone else,” I say. My voice is steady, my gaze is fixed, my heart is pounding. My life is broken, I think. Veronica’s eyes grow wide, then teary, then pierced with anger. Comprehendible words do not exit her mouth. A series of “whats,” “whys,” and “hows” escape and become slightly audible between heavy breaths, with her hand over her mouth, then holding up her head, then reaching for the hot chocolate. I can sympathize with her inability to react coherently. I have spent the past year and a half acting like a goddamn crazy person.
So I take the plunge, I go further. I destroy her. “Your father began having an affair back home in Wilmington,” I begin. “I heard about it through the grapevine, as the saying goes, and I approached your father. He denied it at first, of course, but I knew too much. He knew that I knew, and the space between us became set.”
I pause, to gauge Veronica’s reaction, but she patiently sits and waits. She has probably been waiting for an explanation - something to assure her that this isn’t what love looks like.
“God, so much happened – and didn’t happen – but the gist of it is that we went to marriage counseling, attempted to cover the perpetual severance between us from our friends and family. From you…”
I trailed off. Where to go from here? I knew where everything had gone. Nowhere. How can I tell Veronica that we had gone nowhere, that we couldn’t fix it? I know that a child becomes an adult when she learns that her parents are imperfect beings.
“All of those business trips your father takes?” I take a breath. “Lets just say that it’s more pleasure mixed with business, rather than the other way around. I thought that if we moved here we could fix it; that a fresh start could make him forget everything. Could make me forget everything. But it just drove us farther apart. I was not only alone in my marriage, but I was without the support of grandma, the girls – and you.”
Ouch, I shouldn’t have said that last part, I think. But Veronica doesn’t argue. She just says, “I’m sorry,” in a small, childish voice. She begins to choke up. She drags the mug across the table with her pinky finger, tracking the movement with her glassy eyes.
“I should go to bed,” she finally says. I can tell that she’s not sure if she wants to stay or go. I understand the feeling. I let her go. She walks up the stairs slowly. I have broken her.
I put the mugs in the sink and dump out the remaining hot chocolate. I soap up a sponge, turn on the hot water, and clean. I think. Not about Richard, but about Veronica, who I have neglected during my mission to save a marriage that was already lost. Who had Veronica become? I had only met her friend, Margaret, or Chicky, or whatever the hell her name is, a few times, and only in passing. Veronica had basically lived at Margaret’s house over the past few months, which had left this big house feeling really big. And empty. I would often ask Veronica if she and Margaret would like to hang out here, but I could have tried harder. Or demanded that she stay home. Or done something. I’m her mother, for Christ Sakes. I could have done something.
I turn off the water, dry the mugs, and put them away. I turn to the liquor cabinet and grab an open bottle of Pinot Noir. I notice that two bottles of Kettle One are missing. I don’t drink vodka, and God knows that Richard hasn’t been home to even have a cup of tea, never mind a cocktail. I know now isn’t the time to lecture Veronica on drinking, and who knows how long they have been missing? How bad will I look if she had taken them weeks ago?
I take a deep crystal glass from the hutch. I sit back at the breakfast nook and sip. So many nights had been spent like this, sipping and thinking, cleaning and regretting.
Veronica had broken up with John, I knew that much, at least. But I only knew because I was friends with Mrs. Marshall from the old neighborhood, and she had told me during one of our chats. I approached Veronica and asked her about it, petting her like a wild animal to soothe her. She shook me away, saying she was fine, and then hopping on her bike to Margaret’s. I remember looking out the window and watching her pedaling figure disappear into a place I wasn’t.
Richard was coming home late from one of his trips that night. I don’t know what overcame me, but I decided to cook him his favorite meal, roast lamb. Having her parents split would devastate Veronica, right? I had to try and fix this – at least for her sake, right? So I went to the corner store and butcher in town and picked up a fresh cut of meat, along with some vegetables and potatoes. Richard was a meat and potatoes kind of guy.
I spent hours chopping and checking the oven, setting the table and pouring glasses of our favorite Zinfandel blend. I saw headlights in the driveway. Later than expected but not later than usual. I felt a surge in my nerves as though this could be it. I could save my marriage tonight! Then Veronica will want to hang out here with her friends, and I won’t spend my nights scrubbing dishes until the water runs cold.
The thud of the suitcase on the marble floor breaks the surge. It breaks me, really. “What is all this?” Richards asks, as he throws his jacket on the kitchen chair.
“Oh, I thought you could use a nice meal after a long flight.” I say, in my best attempt to act as though we always enjoy nice meals together.
“I ate on the plane,” he replies. “I’m tired. I’m going to take a shower and get to bed. See you up there after you clean all of this up.”
And as I watched him climb the stairs, something in me – that part he broke – shatters.
I washed the dishes that night until the water became bitter ice cold. I swore that my daughter wouldn’t feel the chill of her father; I wouldn’t allow it. I went back to the corner store the next day and bought hot chocolate. The butcher asked how the lamb turned out. I told him that it was perfect. Exactly what I needed.