Summer Island Page 35

Ruby couldn't avoid the question any longer.

“Okay, so I know why you left Dad, but why did you stay away?”

Nora gazed at her steadily. “The leaving ... the staying away ... to you, these were the beginning of the story. To me, it was deep into the middle ... ”

Nora took a deep breath and dove in. The waters of the past were as cold as she'd expected, even in the heat of this gorgeous summer morning. “Everyone thought Rand and I were the perfect couple.” She curled her hands around the porcelain of her coffee cup and let it warm her. “I was young then, and I cared about appearances more than substance. Living with an alcoholic will do that to you. You grow up hiding, flinching, protecting the very man you should expose. You make sure that none of the ugliness that goes on inside your house ever spills into the streets. That was a lesson my mother taught me before I was old enough to brush my teeth. Pretend and smile ... and cry behind closed doors. I suspected your dad of having affairs long before I got hard proof.” She glanced at Ruby. “No pun intended.”

Ruby almost spit up her coffee. “How can you make a joke about it?”

“What is it they say about comedy-it only hurts when you laugh?” She smiled and went on. “It... hurt me to suspect him, but that wasn't the worst of it. The worst was his drinking. He started drinking after dinner-on the nights he came home. You girls probably didn't even notice. A few beers, a scotch and soda here and there. By ten o'clock he was wobbly, and by eleven he was stumbling drunk. And he got... mean. All his insecurities-you remember how hardGrandpa was on him-and his disappointments came tumbling out, and everything was my fault. Every time he yelled at me, I heard my dad's voice, and though Rand never hit me, I started expecting it, flinching away from him, and that only made him madder. How could I think he'd hit me, he'd scream, stomping out of the house.” She looked up at Ruby. “So, you see, I was at least half of the problem. I couldn't separate my past from my present, and the harder I tried, the more the two braided together. I was terrified I'd become like my mother-a woman who never spoke more than two words at a time and died too young. But I was handling everything okay until Emmaline Fergusson told me about Shirley Comstock-”

“My soccer coach?”

Nora nodded. “You remember how much your dad suddenly started liking soccer?”

Ruby gasped. “He didn't ... not with my coach.”

“It's a small island,” Nora said ruefully, "there weren't a lot of women to choose from. I told myself it didn't matter. I was his wife, and there was honor in that. But he started drinking more and coming home less, and I fell apart.

“It started with insomnia. I simply stopped sleeping. Then the panic attacks hit. I got a prescription for Valium, but it didn't help enough. I would lie awake at night with my heart pounding and sweat pouring off me. Every time I picked you up from soccer I went home and threw up. Finally, I started to black out. I'd wake up lying on the kitchen floor; and I couldn't remember huge chunks of my day.”

“Jesus,” Ruby said softly. “Did you tell Dad?”

Nora gave a shaky smile. “Of course not. I thoughtI was losing my mind. All I had to hold on to was the pretense of a marriage. You and Caro were the center of a world that kept shrinking around me.”

Nora looked up, wondering if it was possible to make a single twenty-seven-year-old woman understand how stifling marriage and motherhood could sometimes be. “I couldn't handle it all-your dad's drinking, his screwing around, my insomnia, my sense of being overwhelmed and trapped. It was a combustible mix. And then ... ”

Nora closed her eyes. The day she'd worked so hard to keep at bay welled up inside her. It had been a gorgeous early summer day, not unlike today. She'd gone to the soccer field early to drop off cookies... and she'd seen them. Rand and Shirley, kissing, right out in the open as if they had every right. “I took too many sleeping pills. I don't remember if I meant to or if it was an accident, but when I woke up in the hospital, I knew that if I didn't do something quickly, I was going to die. I don't know if you can understand that kind of depression; its debilitating, overwhelming. So, I held my breath, packed my bag, and ran. I only meant to stay away for a few days, maybe a week. I thought I'd come here, stay a few days, get some rest, and be healthy.”


Nora drew in a deep breath. She wanted to look up, but she couldn't. Instead, she stared down at the cup in her hands. “And I met Vince Corell.” “The guy who sold the pictures to theTattler.”

"He was a photographer; taking pictures of the is lands for a calendar. Or so he said; I didn't care about that. All that mattered was the way he looked at me.

He told me I was the most beautiful woman in the world. By then, your father and I hadn't been intimate in a long time, and I wasn't beautiful. I was rail-thin and I trembled all the time. When Vince touched me ... I let him. We had a wonderful week together photographs and all. For the first time, I found someone I could talk to about my dreams-and once I'd said them aloud, I couldn't go back to the way I'd been living. And then ... he was gone.

“I was devastated. I knew your father would have heard about what I'd done; Vince and I made no secret of our relationship. Maybe I even wanted Rand to find out. I don't know, but when the affair was over; and I realized I'd thrown my marriage away and lost my girls, I took too many sleeping pills again. This time it was serious. I ended up in a mental institution in Everett.”

“How long were you there?” Ruby's voice was whisper soft.

“Three months.”


“Time wasn't real there. In those days, in that place, they were still doing electric shock therapy. We all lined up at eight forty-five in the morning for medications. After a week, I'd forgotten most of the outside world. It was Dr. Allbright who saved me. He came every day and talked to me ... just talked until I could breathe again. I worked so hard to get better, so I could come home. But when I Idid ...”

“Oh, God,” Ruby said softly. “That was the day.”

Nora felt tears sting her eyes and it surprised her She thought she'd spent all her tears for that day long ago. “It's not your fault,” she said, and she meant it

"But Dad should have let you come home After what he'd done to you-“

“I didn't ask Rand to take me back,” Nora answered. “I was too screwed up to take care of my children, and I knew it. I didn't want my marriage back I wanted ... me. It's a horrible thing to say, a horrible thing to have done. But it's the only truth I can give you.” She longed to reach out, to take her daughter into her arms, but she was afraid. They were moving toward each other now, stepping over the hurts that had accumulated like boulders on the road between them. “The world is full of regrets and times where you think if only. We have to move past that. Your dad was angry and arrogant. I was frightened and fragile. You were heartbroken. And on that one day, we came together, and we hurt each other Mistakes,” she said. Just ordinary human mistakes. But I want you to know this, Ruby, and it's the only part that matters. I never stopped loving you or thinking about you. I never stopped missing you."

Ruby stared at her a long time. Then, softly, she said, “I believe you.”

And Nora knew the healing had finally begun.

Chapter Nineteen

Ruby retreated to her bedroom.

I'd wake up, lying on the kitchen floor, with huge chunks of my day gone. I don't know if you can understand that kind of depression.

Mom must have been so afraid, so alone ...

Ruby knew how it felt. It was the worst, she knew, in the middle of a long, dark night, when ,the man you lived with was in bed beside you. If he smelled of another woman's perfume, that hand-span between you could feel like the North Atlantic.

She opened the nightstand drawer and pulled out her legal pad. She'd learned that it calmed her to write down her thoughts, and God knew she needed to relax.

She sat down on the bed and drew her knees up, angling the pad against her thighs, and began to write.

I'd always believed that the truth of a person was easily spotted, a line drawn in dark ink on white paper. Now, I wonder. Maybe the truth of who we are lies hidden in all those shades of gray that everyone talks about

My mother was in a mental institution. This is her newest revelation. One of them, anyway; in truth, there have been too many to count.

Tonight, Mom painted a portrait of our family, and through her eyes I saw people I'd never imagined-a drunken, unfaithful husband and a depressed, overwhelmingly unhappy wife.

How is it that I saw none of this? Are children so sublimely oblivious to their own world?

She was right to hide this truth from me. Even now, I wish I didn't know it.

Sometimes, knowing where we come from hurts more than we can stand.

The phone rang.

Ruby was startled by the sound. Tossing the pad aside, she leaned over and answered. “Hello?”


It was Caroline's voice, soft and thready. Ruby immediately felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. “What's wrong?”

“Wrong? Nothing. Can't a girl just call her little sister?”

Ruby leaned back against the headboard. Caro sounded better now; still, that feeling of wrongness lingered. “Of course. You just sounded ... ”


“I don't know. Tired.”

Caro laughed. “I have two small children and a cat pukes up ten thousand hairballs a day. I'm always tired.”

“Is that, Caro? Does motherhood suck something out of you?”

Caroline was quiet for a minute. “I used to dream of going to Paris. Now I just want privacy when I use the toilet.”

“Jesus, Caro. How come we never talk about things like that?”

“There's nothing to say.”

Ruby tried to sculpt an amorphous realization into words. "That's not true. When we talk on the phone, it's always about me. My career. My worthless excuse for a boyfriend. My thoughts on comedy. It's always about me.

“I like to live vicariously.”

Ruby knew that was a lie. The truth was, Ruby had always been selfish. She didn't form relationships; she collected photographs of people and then cropped away the edges of anything that didn't fit with what she wanted to see. But those edges mattered. “Are you happy Caro?”

“Happy? Of course I'm-” Caro started to cry.

The soft, heartbreaking sound tore at Ruby's heart.


“Sorry. Bad day in suburbia.”

“Just one?”

“I can't talk about this now.”

“What's wrong with our family that we can't talk about anything that matters?”

"Talking doesn't change things. Believe me. It's better to just go on.

“I used to think that, but I'm learning so much up here-”

“Ruby!” It was Mom's voice. She must be standing at the bottom of the stairs, yelling up.

Ruby held the phone to her chest. “I'll be right down. Hey, Caro,” she said, coming back to the line.

“Why don't you come up here? Spend the night.”

“Oh, I can't. The kids--”

“Leave them with the stud muffin. It's not like you're stapled to the house.”

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