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A Gecko in the Umbrella

Charlie Hudson

“What is this damn thing?”

Serena didn’t hurry in response to Flora’s, oh right, Elaine’s, shriek. “Probably the gecko. He’s larger than most and has adopted the upper ring of the umbrella. I’m surprised you didn’t see one or two in your bedroom last night,” she explained as she carried a wooden tray with glasses, a pitcher of orange-pineapple juice and a small plate of banana nut muffins. A stained white thermal carafe filled with coffee, a chipped blue sugar bowl of raw sugar crystals and two mismatched mugs were already on the tile-topped table. Serena had bargained for the thirty-six inch round piece with a wrought iron base and a large seahorse mosaic in the center. A slightly bent leg and a cracked tile on the seahorse’s tail reduced its sales value and the artist needed a car while his was in for repairs. Serena threw a week’s worth of prepared meals into the deal made late one night after closing time at the bar.

Her daughter shoved her chair, although the heavy wrought iron scooted more than shoved. “In my bedroom? Those? Why don’t you get an exterminator for God’s sake?”

Serena reached up and tapped the side of the umbrella to send the greenish-gray reptile skittering away. “These are the islands. For starters, geckos eat bugs. They won’t hurt you and they’re cute if you give them a chance.” She set the tray down and settled onto the faded hibiscus motif cushion.

Elaine, as she insisted upon being called, inched back, disgust lingering on a face both too pale and tense. Angular features inherited from her father were accentuated by tightness that had nothing to do with revulsion of lizardy animals. Everything about Elaine screamed urban stress.

“They’re gross,” she replied from a down turned mouth. “When you said you had a cottage with an ocean view, I didn’t realize you meant you were a caretaker.”

Serena chose to ignore her implication. “It’s a common arrangement for a lot of people. Owners who don’t want to use a management agency swap a place to live for someone to keep an eye on things. The Hamiltons are a lovely couple, although they aren’t going to be able to spend much time here this year.”

Absent owner houses could be found in every section of the island, dwellings either routinely rented or used only by owners and select friends or family. Management of properties was a full-time business, but the less formal understanding was especially common in houses that incorporated separate guest quarters. The house Serena watched over was a soft yellow, two-story stucco residence set on an acre of land on North Shore, between popular Davis and Cane Bays. The Hamilton place had an unobstructed water view across the two-lane road from the second floor balconies off both upstairs master suites. Elevation partially obscured the ground floor patio view.

A two-car garage was tucked to the right side, barely visible from the road and the guest cottage was detached with its own small patio left of the main house, connected by a short, flagstone path. It matched the pale yellow with white trim and shutters and boasted two bedrooms, one bath with an airy den and galley kitchen. Not a spacious gourmet kind Serena had in her former home, merely a manageable galley with a serviceable microwave, a compact three-burner stove and a small oven that did fit a cookie sheet. A dinged refrigerator and single porcelain sink completed a look reminiscent of an efficiency apartment she’d shared in college. There was a pass-thru from the kitchen to outside, three sides of the patio surrounded by low growing greenery. Hers was a place where people gathered to slap chicken, a slab of ribs, fish or whatever onto an aged black charcoal kettle grill as bottles of iced Caribe beer or rum drinks were passed around.

Four different varieties of palms provided height and shade among red and yellow hibiscus shrubs, clusters of ferns, expanses of purple bougainvillea and clumps of other flowers. Hummingbirds and butterflies were daily visitors and dozens of geckos like the one Elaine shuddered at helped keep bugs under control.

Serena’s minimal duties were a fair exchange for free rent. It wasn’t worth trying to explain to Elaine – old-fashioned bartering might not even have been discussed in business school.

“How long are you planning to stay?” she asked instead. “I wasn’t sure what you might want to do or see. Do you want tours, outdoorsy things? My work is flexible this week.”

Elaine shrugged and spoke in a voice suspiciously close to sullen. “I’m booked out Sunday morning and I don’t have any real interest in tromping around amongst snakes and such.”

“We don’t have snakes, but three days doesn’t give us much time,” Serena laughed. “How about sailing and snorkeling? Or maybe kayaking? Oh, I know. We’ll go up to the rain forest to see the beer-drinking pig.”

That prompted a semi-glare. “Mother, please. How inane. And probably cruel.”

Serena wasn’t going to allow Elaine’s thinly veiled disdain to interfere with her attitude. “It’s non-alcoholic beer. Okay, if you don’t want to go sightseeing or enjoy the ocean, what did you have in mind? Considering those circles under your eyes, long naps might be best.”

Elaine lifted her hand to her face and stopped before she touched the darkened areas beneath blue eyes that seemed to have grown disturbingly hard. Had her breakneck success in a New York advertising firm come at higher price than Serena thought? Elaine had always been the serious one, far more like Gerald, a competitive streak deepening during high school. She pursued academic achievements like other girls pursued romance and dominated tennis courts with powerful serves and a strong backhand. Not a team player and an uncompromising competitor.

High school was when Serena could no longer ignore the widening chasm between them – nothing ugly, sighs of exasperation rather than open conflict; a focused intent that broadcast no desire for mother-daughter closeness. Not that it was solely Flora – she still permitted the use of the name among family – who drew away. Serena was gasping then, her mind sucked so deeply into suburbia stereotype that she felt she might never re-surface. Depression was barely kept at bay and it was irreverent Jake, two years younger than Flora, who would elicit smiles and laughter. His casual athletic feats, his average academic performance, his eclectic social circles. How did two children raised in the same household branch onto opposing paths? Probably the same way a married couple pulled apart. Then why didn’t Jake take after his father instead of her? Wouldn’t it have been more logical for mother and daughter to be alike and father and son?

“Mother, you haven’t heard a word I’ve said.”

Serena yanked away from musing about generational puzzles. “Sorry, I was thinking about you and your brother in high school. What was it?”

Elaine sighed with no pretense. “I was saying that I have the papers ready. Dad signed last week. I finally tracked Jake down and he said he would have a week between expeditions and I could overnight the documents. He promised to get them back to me before he left for Colorado.”

“What papers are you talking about, dear?” Serena vaguely recalled the rushed conversation when Elaine called to say she was on her way to St Croix.

“Great Grandmother Harper’s cabin and land. Remember that she made us equal owners? We all have to agree on disposition. It looks like land values are peaking and the time is right to sell.”

Serena pursed her lips slightly. The cabin on the lake. My God, how long had it been? A small, picturesque cabin, meant as a getaway, built by her mother-in-law’s parents. A one bedroom, one bath clapboard structure with a tin roof down a gravel road, but a beautiful view of the lake, a wooden pier and a small skiff for rowing.

She stared at her daughter who showed not the tiniest sentiment at selling a piece of family history. “My Lord, why would we want to sell it? We used to have wonderful times there.”

Elaine shrugged. “I can barely remember the place and it’s really not much more than a shack. Didn’t great-grandfather and a couple of friends build it? The whole area is being completely redeveloped and it’s perfect timing to turn a nice profit. I mean, Dad doesn’t care about it, I certainly don’t plan to spend my vacations there, it’s not adventuresome enough for Jake and I can’t imagine you going back.”

Elaine’s posture was exaggerated in an attempt at nonchalant; her left hand gripping the chair arm out of proportion to a boring discussion of a routine business transaction.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Serena said breezily. “As you can see, I don’t require much these days, sort of like when your father and I started out. I love being here, but if I decide I want a cooler climate, the cabin would be a good choice.”

Elaine’s forehead wrinkled although she kept a frown from her lips. “Mother, I still don’t have a clue as to why you came here, or why you and Dad don’t either reconcile or get a divorce like normal people. This deal, however, is good for all of us. I made a quick inspection before I flew over and quite frankly, the cabin is so rickety, you can’t stay in it safely and it would be cheaper to tear it down and start over. I’m telling you, it’s a smart idea to sell now before market conditions change.”

So much for coming to St Croix on impulse. Serena lifted her eyebrows. “So, after not having time to visit for over a year, you do have time to come make a good business deal?” She kept her voice light. She could tell she was correct – how sad.

“That’s not fair,” Elaine protested. “You know my schedule has been brutal. I’ve been working practically seven days a week for I don’t know how long and I was overdue a vacation. Yes, I’m combining business with personal, but it’s not like I was never going to see you again. I mean, we didn’t think you’d stay here.”

“Oh, that subject again.” Serena smiled benignly. “I explained everything to your father.”

Elaine’s attempt at patience bordered on comical and Serena was almost ready to give her a break.

“Mother, you came here for a month with the Wallaces when Dad had to cancel the week he was going to take. You called home to say it was a wonderful place and that you were going to stay on for a while longer. Then you called, asked him to sell his share of the company and move here permanently. When he understandably refused, you told him you had no idea when you might come home. That wasn’t a very detailed explanation. I’m certainly still mystified and Dad is too.”

Nope – no break yet; her tone was too supercilious. “Jake thought it was a terrific idea,” Serena continued. “He was here in the spring with a group. Oh, that reminds me – would you like to take scuba diving lessons? Everyone says we have fabulous diving and the people in the shop next to the restaurant will give you a special deal.” That should break through her little façade.

Elaine set her cup down hard. “Oh for God’s sake, Mother! I’m not the least bit surprised that Jake agrees and no, I don’t want to take scuba lessons and you have totally changed the subject. Could we please deal with one thing at a time?”

A small gecko craned his head over the edge of the table, his suction feet easily allowing the contorted position.

Elaine snatched her hand back into her lap. “Can you get rid of that thing?”

Serena couldn’t restrain herself any longer. Laughter erupted, although she stopped before it grew into full-blown guffaws and she shooed the gecko from sight. “Elaine, they’re harmless and I really wish you would try and relax a little. This is why people come to the islands, you know. Look, you have a few days and we both know I don’t need to sign papers this very second. Take advantage of being here, let’s find something you’ll enjoy and maybe we’ll talk about other things too. Fair enough?”

Elaine opened her mouth, shook her head as if to retract a comment and gave a half-smile. “Okay, we don’t have to settle anything right now. I’m not going to climb one of these peaks like Jake probably did, but I did see a section on shopping in the airline magazine. How about that and lunch in town?”

“That’s a wonderful idea. We’ll wander into Christiansted.” Serena smiled at the effort she suspected Elaine’s offer had taken. No problem. A leisurely day in town, a stroll among holiday-minded tourists and lunch at a harbor-side restaurant would penetrate Elaine’s shell. Serena had served more Bushwhackers and pina coladas than she could remember to people who mellowed as they sat in the open-air bar, bemoaning their inability to let go of multi-tasking lives. It was just a matter of letting them talk as she kept mixing. Her big city, business savvy daughter had no idea of the power of rum drinks and tropical ambience.

Elaine’s determination to not enjoy herself was a trait she unquestionably inherited from her father’s mother and lasted longer than Serena expected. A pretty woman not yet approaching thirty should have embraced turquoise water, beach bars, shimmering sunsets and proffers of attention from bronzed men. What wasn’t provincial, was boring; music not to her taste, temperature too hot, island attire not designer-label and she was astounded that her mother found it to be a charming retreat from her previous life. No, she didn’t want to talk about work. Bryce, the young man she’d been dating, had taken a job in Washington, D.C. and if her mother would simply sign the papers on the cabin, that would be taken care of.

By Friday night, Serena decided strong intervention was required. She promised she would sign the papers on Saturday if Elaine would come with her to dinner and not criticize her surroundings. She sweetened the bribe when she withdrew a gauzy, ankle-length sleeveless dress with swirled shades of blue. Elaine grudgingly slipped into it and then saw herself in the mirror. The close-fitted, scoop neck bodice flared into a billowy skirt. With that, a set of larimar earrings and necklace, her wavy blonde hair released from a too-chic bun and a pair of woven leather sandals, she could have posed for the cover of Island Living.

She smiled at the image and was very nearly buoyant when she accompanied Serena into Pelican’s Perch. The restaurant-bar was on top of a dive and kayak shop. The kitchen and bathrooms were enclosed while the rest was a large covered room, open on three sides to watch the waves and catch sunsets. Tables around the perimeter rails were subject to soakings if rain came in at a slant, but interior tables, the small stage and the long bar were protected from all but strong squalls. A population of house cats varied and were well-fed enough not to snag food from plates. Bruno, the bar dog, was a black mixed breed with a disposition that entailed mostly sleep and occasional wanderings among patrons for pats and scratches behind his ears. Live music started at nine p.m. Wednesday through Saturdays. Tourists were welcome, but not actively courted, most drawn instead by an island atmosphere where a lack of urban conveniences and frustration of local bureaucracies were considered fair trades for year round beach weather and floral-scented breezes.

Serena led Elaine to a round table between the end of the bar and the stage, greeting the early part of the regular Saturday crowd and introducing Elaine to ones she’d either not met or promptly forgotten. People moved fluidly between tables and bar, laughingly recounted weekly events, delicious gossip and delivering unsolicited advice. Serena ordered Coconut Kisses for Elaine; a smooth mixture of orange and pineapple juices, two shots of coconut rum, one of citrus rum and splashed with grenadine with a pineapple wedge for garnish. No miniature paper umbrellas were allowed. It was a deceptively easy drink that Serena told Alex and Crystal, the bartenders on duty, to keep pouring until she gave the signal to stop. She put a bowl of salty nuts next to Elaine’s elbow and got three drinks down her before dinner arrived. Ah, the value of booze and grilled grouper!

Whether it was multiple Coconut Kisses or that Elaine thought the papers would be signed, it was the kind of evening Serena had hoped for when she found out Elaine was coming for a visit – a visit that meant more than she wanted to admit. It was the kind of evening she naturally had with Jake – no pretense, no cajoling – automatic acceptance of her surroundings and no questions asked about her decision.

Evening flowed into midnight and a couple of desirable candidates obliquely inquired if Serena would be offended if they put the make on her hot-looking daughter. She non-judgmentally dissuaded them from more than polite flirtation. Despite Serena’s suspicion that a good lay would be in order, Elaine needed to be moderately sober to make that decision. At official closing time of one a.m., Serena left the core after-hours quartet and gently assisted a drowsy, decidedly more pleasant Elaine home into bed. Shoes were left in the car and she was mumbling something that sounded like, “stupid, stupid, don’t care”, as Serena picked the dress up from the floor. Elaine’s stomach seemed to be intact, however, so Serena slipped into her own room, sleep coming quickly and deeply.

She was up the next morning at her usual hour, not surprised that Elaine’s door was closed. She was barely ensconced onto the patio with her morning carafe of coffee when Elaine appeared in the doorway, dressed in sapphire linen drawstring pants and a short sleeve matching printed top. Befuddled with hangover, Serena expected. The look of anger stunned her.

Elaine stalked forward and clutched the back of a chair. “Well, I hope you’re happy. Did I make enough of a fool of myself to amuse you and your friends?”

Serena half-stood and sat heavily. “What?”

“Wasn’t that the idea?” Elaine’s voice crossed snarl with harsh. “Get me drunk, have me act like an idiot? See if you could get the uptight daughter to behave more like your fun-loving son? Was that it?”

Serena recovered and motioned for Elaine to sit. “My God, do you really think that? Why on earth would you?”

“Because you…” Elaine’s arms began to tremble and her face reddened as tears spurted from her eyes.

Serena jumped up and reached for her, Elaine too weepy to jerk away. She pried her fingers loose, set her into the chair, dashed inside for tissues and a glass of water.

Elaine was sobbing full force now, gulping noisily.

Serena let her pluck tissues and set the box in front of her. What was going on? She waited motionlessly for the few minutes it took Elaine to regain her voice; the snarl replaced by a moan.

“My life is a wreck, a total wreck and now you….”

“Elaine.” Serena leaned forward, her hand extended, not touching for fear of rejection. “Please listen to me. I’m here for you – I am your mother, remember? Whatever this is about is okay, but last night was just for us to have fun. You didn’t dance on the tables or anything like that if you’re worried about it. You were enjoying yourself and I really can’t believe you thought I meant anything else by it. What’s the real problem here?”

Elaine blew her nose loudly, her face a mass of emotional pain. She opened her mouth twice without speaking before she got a coherent sentence out. “It’s a long story.”

Good, a wounded voice and long stories Serena could deal with. She inhaled deeply. “Sweetie, we’ve got plenty of time. Look, I know we haven’t talked much for way too many years, but I really do want to help. Let me get you a cup of coffee and you can tell me what’s going on.”

Elaine nodded without speaking and picked up the glass of water. When Serena returned with a full mug, her daughter accepted it, a leftover tear glistening on one cheek. Her shoulders shuddered and she inhaled deeply. “I don’t know where to start.”

Serena sat, poured a fresh cup for herself. “Is it work, Bryce, all of the above? None of the above?”

Elaine sipped tentatively and either took courage from the caffeine or decided to quit stalling. “I lost my job last week,” she said firmly.

“Ah.” Ah was the right word to use. “That’s a start point.”

It wasn’t an unusual story and Serena reigned in her urge to wrap her arms around her high-flying daughter, who like Icarus, had ignored warnings about getting too close to the sun. Or was leaning too far forward for the brass ring a better analogy?

Elaine’s quick rise in the advertising firm had not been accomplished by being Miss Congeniality. When she jumped from one project to pursue a lucrative client, it was on the brink of being a coup – slick presentations, convincing her boss to extravagantly woo the potential multi-million dollar account that she would be responsible for bringing in. The day before the deal was to be signed, rumblings of impropriety swelled within hours to yet another corporate scandal of cooked books, deceived investors, a looming investigation; all the corporate ugliness one avoided, not sought. The effort the company wasted, the embarrassment and inevitable piling on of firm members she had alienated. Technically she quit, but she wasn’t strongly enough established to have competing companies clamoring for her.

Her apartment simultaneously going cooperative and not being in a position to take the financial risk, her investment portfolio suffering from a down market, her reluctance to ask her father for assistance. And Bryce! Bryce, for God’s sake, telling her to let it roll – roll off and come to D.C. to be with him. Say the hell with New York and start over. How was she supposed to respond to that? It was too much, too much!

“So I thought about the cabin and how Dad had mentioned it might make sense to sell soon. I went up, checked out the situation and realized it would be a great short-term fix. And I really had meant to come visit you before now. The cabin wasn’t the only reason.” Elaine’s voice was edged with defiance on the last sentence.

Serena held back both tears and glib advice. Bryce was probably right, but it wasn’t what Elaine needed to hear.

“You’ve been under a lot of stress,” she said calmly.

Elaine massaged her temples and chewed her lower lip for what seemed longer than it was. She lowered her hands and looked directly into her mother’s eyes.

“Yeah, no shit.”

It was the sardonic delivery that started the laughter. Serena clamped her hand to stop; Elaine’s giggle was weak at first and she allowed it to replace her tears; a combination of release and resignation to out-of-control events.

Elaine wiped her eyes with the back of one hand and reached her other to allow Serena to clasp it loosely. “Oh God Mom, I am so disconnected from my usual self. Is this how you felt when you left?”

Mom! She used Mom again instead of the Mother that too often conveyed a less than affectionate message. Serena’s pleasure at hearing Mom almost obscured the probing question. She sat up straight. How much honesty was required?

“Uh, well. I’m not sure how to answer that. I thought we were talking about you.”

Elaine inhaled deeply, held her breath as with yoga and released, although perhaps not with a totally cleansing effect. Her eyes were clearer now, anger dissipated.

“Aren’t they connected though? Our lives, I mean? I don’t know where we came apart – I can’t even remember now. To be honest, I probably never knew. I mean, none of my girlfriends got along with their moms very well so I didn’t think much about that you and I didn’t do a lot together. I was totally busy with classes, tennis, honor society and other stuff and you and Dad never acted like you were having trouble. I called Jake after Dad announced you were on extended vacation and he was his usual everything’s cool, let it hang self.”

Oh God, here it was without warning. Shit, she’d prepared countless speeches; a half-pleading/half dramatic speech for Gerald if he’d been willing to listen; a slightly different one, less judgmental for the children if she had broken away while they were still at home; a heated one for her cold-blooded, interfering, detestable mother-in-law if she’d found nerve enough to deliver it.

“Mom, can we talk about this? About all of it? Maybe if I can understand what happened to us, to our family, I mean, it might help. I just feel at such loose ends right now. I honestly don’t know what to do.”

Serena searched her daughter’s face and felt a press of tears she rubbed away with her fingertips. “Oh dear, I’m afraid you’ve taken me completely by surprise. Look, I’ll be glad to explain what I can, to answer your questions, but why don’t we do this the right way? Let me make a pitcher of something cold and non-alcoholic, slice up a mango and get some cheese and crackers and then we’ll take all the time we need.”

Elaine smiled, her face softened. “I think I’d like that. Can I help?”

“Sure, come on. It won’t take but a few minutes and I’ll unplug the phone so no one disturb us.”

Fifteen minutes later, they resumed their places on the patio, Serena not sure how strong the bridge was that Elaine had thrown over their emotional river. Perhaps not a river, after all, perhaps only a stream they could splash across. Enough already.

“Shall I start or would you like to ask a question?”

Elaine pierced a piece of mango with a fork and lifted it toward her mouth. “Tell me about going back to Hartford. I was what, seven?”

“Yes and Jake was five. It will make more sense though if I explain about California.”

Elaine nibbled mango delicately, not objecting.

“I know you don’t remember my parents. They died in a car wreck when you were five years old. I don’t suppose the word hippie means much to you and it wouldn’t be accurate in the sense of caricatures you often see. Our family was more attuned to peace and harmony than to materialistic gains. Some people view that as lacking ambition; others as not being trapped in a rat-race world. My father was a musician, my mother worked in different jobs; mostly retail in places like organic stores, boutiques – artsy sorts of places. I was home-schooled part of the time; we moved around so it depended on where we lived. We always rented and never owned a home. I was an only child and got along okay with most kids. There was the usual group at the top who looked down on the rest of us and the wild ones, but I sort of floated at the in-between level; no problems with grades, not really very noticeable. I had a very open view of lifestyles and had been hanging around in bars listening to my father from as early as I could remember.”

Serena kept her focus, the result of her upbringing was more important than the details. “Anyway, when I finished high school I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do, so I enrolled in college, a small school in the town. That’s where I met your father.”

“Why did he go to college in California if he wasn’t going to Stanford or UCLA?”

“It was his one attempt at rebellion,” Serena said fondly. “His family wasn’t wealthy as in millions, but quite well-to-do and very structured. As you know, your grandfather was second generation in his business and had expanded it from what his father started. He opened the fourth furniture store during Gerald’s senior year of high school. I know this will be hard to think about, but your father had a talent for art.”

“Art? Dad?”

“Yes, but your grandparents felt that was a waste of time and since he was the oldest of four children, he was expected to go to business school and become a junior manager. Ooh they had everything planned out for him to include the girl he was supposed to marry.”

Elaine raised her eyebrows and didn’t interrupt.

“The college we were at had a well-known interior design department and your dad thought that if he could pursue interior design, it would allow him to work on his art without interference.” Serena smiled for a moment, the memory of the boy who was barely a man – God, he was younger than Jake. Where in the hell had the years gone?


“Oh, yes. Well, he convinced your grandfather that with the way the economy was poised to go, having an in-house, upscale interior design capability would attract a whole new level of clientele and he promised to major in business with only a minor in interior design. He also picked this school to get as far away as possible, but managed to win a tennis scholarship on top of it. They agreed, although I’m sure reluctantly. It was truly like he had entered a different world. I can’t describe how open he felt, how …”

“Liberated?” Elaine’s voice was politely skeptical.

Serena didn’t mind. “Yes. We met his first week on campus, sitting next to each other in a class. I thought he was cute and he had this sweetness about him – like a sense of wonderment combined with awe at the difference in California and New England. It was endearing and of course I was such a….” Hmmm, how much to explain?

“Free spirit?” Elaine prompted with a not easily readable expression.

“That’s a good term.” After all, surely Elaine knew something of too-young and in-love college students.

“Anyway, it wasn’t as if your father lost all sense of direction, as his mother tends to tell it. He was focused on school, did well and without getting into detail that I suspect you don’t want, we became much more involved than I expected us to in a very short time.”

Elaine drew back slightly. “You mean I was…”

“Oh no, not that,” Serena said quickly. “Well, that is, not exactly.” Was she blushing? Her face felt warm. “Your father was adamant about the proper sequence of relationships. I meant that he proposed to me very quickly.”

“Oh.” Elaine relaxed her shoulders.

Serena searched for the right words; so much of what happened later depended on accurately explaining those years. “I suppose the best way to describe it is that your father and I miscalculated the reaction of his family. My family was quite accepting of him and even though he thought they were a bit off-beat, as he called them, they were conventional enough for him to be comfortable. And in fairness, I suppose it was the distance that caused your father to forget how rigid his family could be and I was incredibly naïve. It became apparent they were opposed to our engagement and rather than try and resolve it, your father said the hell with it and we got married in a lovely little ceremony without his family.”

Elaine briefly pressed her fingertips against her temples and shook her head as if to clear an image. “Mom, I can’t see this. It’s so different from what I remember.”

Serena couldn’t stop the sigh. It came softly, yet with a sadness she couldn’t disguise. “I know, dear and that’s why I’m going as far back as I am to explain. It was a different life; practically alien in one sense, or as your father’s family tends to say, ‘Gerald got out there and went off the deep end for a while.’ Not surprisingly, they refused to provide extra financial support and probably would have cut it off altogether except they didn’t want to go that far. I dropped out of school and worked for a while and between the scholarship and that we did okay. We didn’t have much and we didn’t care. We weren’t planning to have children right away, but well, these things happen and after you were born, we didn’t want to wait too long for the second one. Even though your father’s family still disapproved, they couldn’t deny the fact they now had grandchildren. They made one trip for your father’s graduation. I tried, I really did, but it was an awkward weekend and your father and grandfather got into an argument when he discovered that your father had been offered a job in Monterey. He assumed we would move back east and your father wasn’t ready to do that. It was hard on everyone.”

“I’m beginning to understand how I got Flora as a middle name. What happened next?”

Serena recalled the harsh words, irresponsible hippy ideas, utterly disappointed, no way to raise children, come home where you belong countered with for once in my life, you’re not giving her a chance and more. Too many words said in icy control. A strained parting at best. Bridges scorched without being burned.

“Your father took the job in Monterey and tried to sell his watercolors – that was his preferred medium. He was quite good, although it’s not like there was a shortage of artists. He had a little success, but certainly nothing to make a living at. We had great times though with picnics on the beach and things like that.”

Elaine’s mouth turned down. “Yeah, but weren’t we in this ratty apartment?”

Serena shrugged. “Housing costs were rising a lot faster than salaries and then there were problems with the company. We were better off than some people even though it became obvious your father was going to have to change jobs or me go to work or something. He was beginning to feel like he was failing us no matter what I said.”

“That’s why back to Hartford?”

“Too many events happened close together. My parents were killed and I became depressed. The money got tighter, your father’s water colors sold infrequently and then not for what they were worth. His mother switched tactics from outright criticism to telling us how nice it would be to have the grandchildren closer, how if we wanted to move back east we could always return later. Then your grandfather had a mild stroke and the doctor wanted him to either retire or at least cut back work drastically.”

Serena had been over the memories so many times as she sat at this very table watching hummingbirds and butterflies or as she perched on a rock outcropping on the beach.

“We told each other it would be temporary; we would go to help with the stores until one of the other brothers could step in and I suppose we may have believed it. Your grandfather was shaken by his illness and went out of his way to treat your father as the returning hero. They brokered some kind of deal so we could afford a house in a neighborhood they considered proper. Your father plunged in and it seemed like he could do nothing wrong. Not only did he take the burden from your grandfather, he nearly doubled the revenues within less than three years. He expanded the business, branched off into other areas, was working a tremendous number of hours. Your grandmother introduced me into the correct circles, you were thrilled with your school and I don’t know, suddenly five years passed. I was a model suburban wife with a Mercedes and a husband so busy with work that we hardly ever had time for ourselves. Our social life revolved around the country club where I would find myself alone with other wives while the men made deals or whatever else they did over cigars and brandy. It was as if the man he’d been in California had been like someone on holiday – a break from the real world and now back to action. It’s the same kind of drive you have, you couldn’t have been more than twelve when that became apparent.”

Elaine let that comment go and tilted her head. “Look, I admit Jake and I didn’t know there were problems. You seemed okay, you and dad never fought and if you and Grandmother didn’t get along, we couldn’t tell it.”

“Don’t you see? That’s the point. You weren’t supposed to be able to. Polite, well-to-do families don’t discuss such things. Everyone avoids unpleasant conversations and messy discussions. If everyone sticks to the rules, it’s a very well-ordered, establishment existence.”

“Couldn’t you and Dad have worked through this? Didn’t you try?” At least her voice hadn’t reverted to sharp.

Serena tapped the top of her cup. “It’s funny how you think of things to say, how you plan to clear the air, get the romance back, and then somehow, the timing never is right or you try and it comes out all wrong.”

“So you ran away because you couldn’t get Dad to sit down for a candlelight dinner?”

“Is that how you feel? Like I ran away? Elaine, how often did you come home once you left for college? You can’t pretend you needed me for anything and once Jake was gone, the house was so empty that I practically rattled around in it. I was lucky if your father was home three nights a week for dinner.”

The younger woman had the grace to almost blush. She shrugged instead. “Okay, that was fair. I guess we didn’t exactly have the kind of relationship where we knew each other very well. What are your plans though? What are you and Dad going to do?”

Serena exhaled a long stream of air before she answered gently. “If you want the truth, we don’t know.”

“Don’t know? It’s been over a year. How can you not know?”

“Do you have reason to believe your father wants a divorce?”

Elaine paused, apparently startled by the question and her forehead wrinkled. “Well no, not really. If you’re asking whether he’s involved with anyone, I’d say no.”

Serena shook her head slowly. “I can just about guarantee he isn’t. This is hard to explain, but your father and I are still in love. We simply can’t seem to manage to live together right now.”

Elaine smoother her forehead by rubbing it with one hand. “Can’t you see this is part of why I’m so screwed up? I can understand falling out of love, deciding you made a mistake, growing in different directions, but this? This makes no sense at all. Is this what I have to look forward to?”

How to get the point across? What was the point? Hadn’t she asked herself the question countless of times since her impulsive telephone call to a husband who must have thought she was joking when she told him to drop everything and join her on the island?

“Elaine, I wish it was different. I suppose the best way to describe it is that I keep hoping one cold, icy day your father will think back to what we had in California and decide he wants that again. Andrew is more than able to take over the business and we’d be financially secure. It’s as if he wants to pretend he never had the break with the east coast and hopes that I’ll get tired of no shopping malls and come home again. Your father is a good man, a man well worth loving, but he’s lost himself in a life that deep down, he knows he doesn’t want.”

She leaned forward, aching to reach through to her daughter. “We aren’t ready to give up. I agree it isn’t conventional and I have no doubt your grandmother and others take every opportunity to point that out, but your father and I are still trying in our own way. That’s why I don’t know what’s going to happen, or what we will do. If we can work it out we will, because what we had once was so good that we don’t want to believe we can’t find it again. Is that part of why you’re reluctant to accept Bryce’s offer? Are you afraid of making the move and then regretting the decision? I suppose I should ask if you love him.”

Elaine ran her fingers through her ponytail, the hair flowing between her digits. “If this is what love gets you, maybe it isn’t worth bothering with,” she said glumly.

“If we’re not throwing in the towel, you certainly shouldn’t be. Tell me about Bryce. All I know is that he’s a little older than you and in computers.”

Elaine’s mouth softened. “Information management actually. He took a job with the Smithsonian and that’s why he’s in Washington. It doesn’t pay as well as where he was, but it’s a project he was really excited about. He’s…, he’s a cool guy. We met at a party last year. He’s attractive and smart and we like a lot of the same things.” She paused and dropped her voice, but Serena heard a hint of longing that she was listening for. “He truly didn’t mind when I would break a date at the last minute because of work and he would go out of his way to do little things when he knew I was having a rough week. Like he’d bring a terrific take-out meal along with a single red rose instead of us going to dinner. When a former boss of his called him about the Washington job, he asked if I would consider coming with him.”

“He proposed?”

“No. But in all fairness, I’ve been pretty strident about my independence and how I had all sorts of goals I wanted to meet before I got serious about settling down. I suspect I didn’t leave him much opening if that’s what he had in mind.”

“How long has he been gone?”

“Only a few months. I flew down for a weekend and he’s been up once. We’ve both been so busy though, it hasn’t seemed long.”

“Ah.” Serena didn’t want to interrupt her. It didn’t sound as if she had anyone to confide in and she probably hadn’t talked much about Bryce.

“It’s just that…, that it was tempting when he told me to say the hell with New York. He’s living on Dupont Circle, knows a couple of firms that are looking for someone like me and says he misses me.” She twisted the ponytail loosely around her index finger. “If I agree, is that tucking my tail and admitting defeat? Does he think I need him to take care of me? Am I going because it’s a good idea or because I don’t want to face what’s happened to me?”

“Did you ask you father his opinion?”

A flicker of a smile touched Elaine’s lips. “He said the people I worked for were assholes and whether I stay in New York or leave has nothing to do with my talent. He hasn’t met Bryce.”

“Do you like living in New York?”

“It’s exciting, but there’s nothing magical about it for me. D.C. is a fun place and despite what happened with the firm, they’ll give me a good reference.”

She was avoiding the pertinent question. “Do you love Bryce?”

Elaine stopped playing with her hair and turned her full gaze. “Isn’t that what we’ve been talking about? That whether I love him, and him me, it may not be enough?” Her eyes blurred without tears falling and she sniffed loudly. “If you and dad can’t manage to hold a marriage together, can I? How am I supposed to know?”

Serena felt her heart twist; droplets of guilt dripped into her stomach. My God, who would have thought Elaine was capable of raw emotion?

“I would give anything in the world to be able to answer those questions, but the truth is that love gets complicated or we make it complicated,” she said finally. “If there’s a job that’s right for you, why don’t you go to D.C. for a change of scenery and see how things develop with Bryce? It doesn’t sound as if he’s pressing you.”

Elaine rubbed her forehead again. “I don’t know, Mom. I’ve never hesitated about anything in my life and I can’t seem to make my mind up about this.”

Serena choked back a laugh that would have been misinterpreted. Elaine was all of twenty-six years old. It wasn’t as if she’d faced a great number of life altering decisions.

One of the tiny geckos darted across the placemat and Elaine watched it disappear over the edge of the table. “I guess you do get used to them,” she acquiesced and almost smiled. “Look, the truth is that I’m totally wiped out. Maybe I should take a nap.”

“That’s a good idea. I hadn’t planned anything for us today and if you can sleep for a while, maybe we’ll do a sunset cruise this afternoon. Then we’ll decide what to do about dinner.”

Elaine stood up, her face calmer that it had been since she arrived and yawned. “And you’ll sign the papers?”

The papers. No reason to let a tender moment pass without dragging in something practical. “Yes, of course.”

Elaine turned, walked to the cottage, paused in the doorway and turned her head. “Uh thanks, Mom. I still don’t understand, but at least it makes a little more sense now.”

Serena nodded wordlessly and waited quietly until she heard the bedroom door click shut. She went into her room, changed into a pink cotton short set, slipped on beach sandals and grabbed a wide brimmed straw hat. She scribbled a quick note in case Elaine awakened while she was gone, grabbed a frozen bottle of water from the tiny freezer compartment and strolled across the road to the patch of land that separated two ocean front houses built along the rocky edge. The short piece of property was too small to build on, but had a cluster of rocks that made a perfect sitting spot to watch the ocean. The wind stirred faintly, the waves running only a foot or two, excellent boating conditions and she saw half a dozen small crafts strewn within her vision. A mix of sail boats and power; a lumbering cargo ship at the greatest distance. Serena had spent more time than she could count on the weathered stone surface, asking many of the same questions Elaine had.

How much easier it had been with Jake! His immediate enjoyment of the island, of her presence there. His lack of query and unconcerned acceptance of his parents’ separation. She should have known Elaine’s demands would be greater. A brown pelican circled above the water, then plunged head first in pursuit of a fish, cleanly slicing into the azure depth. He bobbed to the surface floating in profile, too far away to tell if he had been successful.

Serena swigged the melting ice and chastised herself. Elaine had mixed motives for her visit, but she was right to want an explanation, to wonder why their lives unraveled.

The answer had come to her recently, startling in clarity once she admitted the simplicity. Trying to change people. Always an attempt for the other person’s own good, of course, just as she harbored the desire for Elaine to have stayed Flora, to be more like her brother. She wanted to wrest Gerald from his surroundings and her mother-in-law wanted her to embrace a stultifying role without question. Where did compromise enter the danger zone of losing oneself to others? How often did change within oneself emerge without external tinkering?

She sat, shaded by her hat, sweaty rivulets coursing in the folds of her body, damp spreading into her clothes. Sand crabs determined she was no threat and scuttled about the beach, gulls and pelicans wheeled in and out of view as boats passed. Serena gave herself to the heated quiet and wondered if Elaine was correct. Was it time for her to press Gerald for answers? Should she return and see if her sabbatical from suburbia had imbued her with more tolerance than she realized? Perhaps she could persuade Gerald to buy a small vacation property; a ready escape when she required it; a proffered haven when he was willing. And what of Elaine? Did she want to heal a breach that had grown unintended between them like thorny bougainvillea not cut back into manageable shapes?

“Is there room for two?”

Serena twisted and lifted her face, footsteps having made no noise on the sand. Elaine slipped off her sunglasses. A harmless swath of thin white clouds drifting across the sun reduced the glare. She held two cold bottles of orange juice in her hand and passed one to Serena as she patted the rocks.

“I couldn’t handle any more booze at the moment.” Elaine sat gingerly, not sure of her balance. She hadn’t slept long, but the puffiness was gone from her eyes and her color was better.

“Move your butt a little to the right, the indentation is smoother than it looks.”

Elaine wiggled into place. “I’m not sure I’d want to spend several hours here.”

“On the rock, or the island?”

Elaine hesitated and pointed toward the curve of land barely visible at Davis Bay. “It’s pretty how the green covered peaks come all the way to the water.”

“Yes, it is.”

She inhaled deeply and spoke so softly, Serena hoped a gull wouldn’t shriek and drown her out. “Mom, I’m sorry I blew up the way I did and I guess I was being pretty shitty.”

Serena reached out and patted her knee. “Let’s meet halfway and agree that I could have handled the whole business better myself. What are you going to do about Washington, D.C?”

“Get a good night’s sleep before I decide anything. Make sure there’s a job I want so it doesn’t look like I’m taking a step down.”

Serena smiled involuntarily. “I guess throwing caution to the wind and rushing into Bryce’s arms would be out of the question? With the money from the cabin, you’d have enough to relocate and not have to go to work immediately. You’d have a chance to look around.”

Elaine twisted the top from the bottle of juice. “I’m not you and I’m not Jake. I don’t do impulsive. I’ll line things up first.”

“You’ve got guts, though. More cutthroat that I care for, but at least you go for what you want.” Had that been so difficult? Her daughter’s drive wasn’t her son’s easy charm, yet it was central to her being.

Elaine moved her mouth toward a smile. “I’ll take that as a compliment. And since we have that out of the way, is there any chance you’ll come home soon? Or you and Dad with at least get together and try to talk through this?”

“Actually your father plans to come for a few days next month. If something more important doesn’t come up.” Serena was able to make the comment without bitterness.

Elaine shifted to look directly at her. “I think I’ll have dinner with him and tell him to make sure he doesn’t cancel.”

Serena nodded. “That would be nice.”

“Mom, smooth or not, this rock is hard. Let’s go back to the house and decide what to do for my last night. I don’t know that I’m up for a boat.” Elaine was already on her feet. “We’ll go anywhere you like, but you have to promise to take it easy on those rum drinks. I’ve had enough to last me for this trip.”

She extended her free hand and Serena grasped it while rising with stiffened, creaky knees. How young people took their litheness for granted!

“You need a spectacular sunset before you leave. We’ll go the west side. The Sunset Grill is a great beach restaurant between Fredricksted and Spratt’s Hall and I haven’t been in ages.”

Elaine squeezed Serena’s hand before she let it drop. “Even though I’m swearing off rum, I bet a glass of champagne would be okay.”

Serena smiled as they walked across the road. “It’s the best way to watch a sunset.”

She’d have to remember that if Gerald kept to his promise to come. Maybe sharing champagne on a beach at sunset was what they both needed. It had been too long since they’d seen one together.

The End