Marcia lay on a lounger along the shady side of the pool with the latest copy of People magazine. She’d almost finished the gin and tonic she’d carried out with her. Through half-closed lids, she could see the sparkle of sun on water as a light breeze caressed her skin and then the pool itself. She was reading an article about a film star who’d given up hope of having a baby of her own and so, had recently adopted a baby boy. Minutes later, the magazine slid off Marcia’s lap onto the hot concrete paving.
Her mind drifted as she thought about the life the celebrity child would have. It was so much easier these days. No one cared if a single woman raised a child by herself. Marcia was never sure she’d been right to give up her own newborn son, but her father had made it clear that, if she didn’t, her life would be ruined. So would the child’s. She wondered sometimes about the people who’d given him a home, though she didn’t try to find out. Knowing might have been too painful, and her feelings for her baby had been tamped down for so many years that now only fear of exposure survived.
She’d been a few days past her seventeenth birthday when she and Frank became engaged in 1977, twenty-two years earlier. Before he went abroad on a one-year assignment, he’d given her a ring – the diamond solitaire catching the sunlight on her left hand now. She’d agreed they would marry when he returned, though she hadn’t been quite sure he was the one.
That party. She’d regretted going almost immediately. She’d had too much to drink, and flirted with Peter Schultz, the handsome quarterback she’d had a crush on at school. He’d seemed so charming, though some girls had warned her he was trouble. She should have listened.
She wound up in a bedroom, with nothing but hazy memories of protesting, being slapped, then held down, then… her mind went blank. Just that one time. That one, fateful, time.
All she knew was that after, she felt broken, and too weak to fight either him or what came later.
She missed a couple of periods and realized, with a sense of nausea that might not have been due to her condition, that she was pregnant. Her father, a rigid pro-lifer, wouldn’t countenance an abortion, and sent her away to her aunt, insisting the baby be put up for adoption. When her fiancé came home, she played the happy bride people expected. After all, if anyone found out, no one would ever marry her. That’s how it used to be back then.
The only way to put her son’s birth behind her had been to let him go. She believed her parents when they said the son of a single mother would never stand a chance. She’d be shunned, and so would he. So what she did was best for the baby too. So she had to keep his existence safely in the past, where her husband wouldn’t find out. Frank might forgive a lot, but never a lie of that magnitude.
They never had children. Frank blamed her; she had no way to explain why that couldn’t be her fault, so she remained silent. He wouldn’t even discuss adoption, and she felt the universe was punishing her for having let her own baby go to someone else. She wondered, occasionally, what her child looked like now. Was he blond, like her? Did he manage to do what she’d never done – stand up for himself? Was he happy?
Was that the doorbell? Sliding her feet into the sandals she’d kicked off outside, she walked through the cool house to answer it. She opened the door and took a step back, a feeling of nausea washing over her as she recognized the man standing there. What the hell was Peter doing on her doorstep? Had she conjured him up? How had he found her after so long?
She shook her head to clear it. There must be some mistake. Of course this couldn’t be him. He’d be her age now, and this guy was much too young. Surely it wasn’t…
Marcia brought the visitor into focus again. He was a carbon copy of Peter, with his father’s dark good looks—so there could be no mistake. She swayed slightly on her feet, still unwilling to believe it.
“I’m your son, Troy,” he said and waited for her response. He even had his father’s colorless voice, and she shivered involuntarily.
His handsome face was pale and his cold eyes seemed somewhat unfocused. Was he sober? She couldn’t read his expression, though she imagined, if he were to smile, he might be as hard to resist as his feckless dad. She hoped he was less callous. They stood, silently staring at each other for a moment, as succeeding emotions surged through her. Curiosity. Anxiety. Fear.
She was struggling to feel something maternal for this familiar-looking stranger. She wished she could, but confused questions buzzed in her head, along with a sense of dismay, because she felt nothing for him. Only as if a rock had settled in her stomach.
What if Frank found out? He was away on a business trip, thank God, but he’d be back tomorrow. He would never accept this. It might even be grounds for divorce.
He must not find out.
“Come in,” she said, grasping Troy’s arm and almost pulling him into the hallway. This wasn’t the kind of neighborhood where strangers walked up to people’s houses. If her neighbors saw him, they’d wonder – and gossip. Maybe she could talk to him for a minute and he’d leave.
The social graces her mother had instilled in her took over. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she indicated a chair and began to behave like any hostess.
“Won’t you take a seat?”
He raised an eyebrow but didn’t resist.
“So – your name is Troy?” Marcia tried to smile.
“It’s what my parents called me.”
Parents. Of course. She ought to ask about them. Something was preventing her from forming clear thoughts. She must concentrate.
“They’ve been kind to you?”
“Kinder than some.”
Marcia sensed an accusation hanging in the air. He was right, of course. They hadn’t given him away.
“Have you had a decent life?” Her voice sounded stilted even to her.
“Not as decent as this one,” he said, studying the room as if appraising the expensive antiques and oriental rugs. He stared at the swimming pool through the glass that formed one complete wall.
“Well, yes…” She didn’t know what to say. Materially, she’d done well, as her parents often reminded her. The fact that she felt trapped in her marriage was her own fault. She’d always been too weak.
She needed to steer the conversation elsewhere.
“So why have you come?” This was the crux of it. What did he want from her? What could she give him?
“To see you. Get to know you a little. Ask you…”
She could guess what he wanted to know.
“Why I gave you up?” Her heart stopped beating for a moment, and she sank further into the white leather sofa, unmarked by any childish fingerprints. He said nothing.
“I…” She hesitated. She owed him an explanation, at least. “I was too young, and promised to someone else. I made a mistake…”
He interrupted her, his face hard.
“And he married you anyway?”
“He never knew.” Why had she said that? It was one thing to tell the truth at last, and another to expose herself to being judged.
“He still your husband?”
She nodded, biting her lower lip.
“I can see why you’d want to hang onto him. This setup must be worth a pretty penny. Looks like he keeps you in style.”
Marcia thought she’d recovered from the shame, but now it was seeping back. She lifted her head to look at him. This wasn’t how she’d visualized such an encounter. His voice had a distinct edge to it. Was that just his manner? Or was he trying to frighten her? She shivered.
“I’m guessing it’d be worth something to keep your dirty little secret quiet.” He jerked a thumb toward his chest. “What do you reckon it would take, huh?”
She could understand he might be angry. She’d heard adopted kids sometimes were. But he wasn’t trying to blackmail her, was he? She rejected the thought.
Though she tried to sound casual, her voice came out as a croak. “You’re not my dirty…”
He interrupted again, impatient.
“Oh, I think you might be glad to keep me out of the picture. I don’t think hubby would be too thrilled to be financing me, do you?”
What did he mean? He wasn’t Frank’s responsibility.
“Financing you? Like through college?”
He laughed. It was an unpleasant sound.
“Nah. I’m thinking a little something to make my life easier right now.” He stood and picked up a crystal decanter from the end table, holding it up to the light.
“Nice vase,” he said. Then he dropped it.
Marcia flinched as she saw it shatter. The shards winked at her as a sunbeam danced across them. This was all so wrong. She had to do something.
“Say, a thousand bucks?”
A thousand. Could she manage that? If he told Frank, that upright church-going citizen, her marriage would be over. And then what?
“No!” The word escaped her mouth before she had time to think.
“Really? I thought, being my real mother an’ all, you’d agree. After all, what have you ever given me? Don’t you think you owe me?”
Did she? She’d only done what her father wanted her to do. Troy had said his parents had given him a good life. Yet his voice made her shiver, and the rock under her heart turned to ice.
“Don’t you? Owe me?” His tone reminded her of Peter’s that night.
A drop of sweat rolled down her back.
“Well, yes, I suppose so, but I can’t…”
In a matter of seconds, he was standing in front of her, and his hand was twisting her hair into a knot, jerking her head back. She felt herself falling before she passed out.
She was fighting for air when she came to in an unfamiliar room. As her breathing slowed, she could hear a murmur of voices nearby, punctuated by the occasional shriek of laughter. Where was she? Who were these people? She couldn’t make anyone out in the dim light.
The smoke cleared a little and there stood Peter, twenty years old, laying siege to a blond girl in a scarlet dress, leaning into her. Marcia felt a little nauseous. How had she ended up back here again? She stared at her hand, which was gripping a glass of something. She sniffed and wrinkled her nose as the unmistakable tang of vodka and orange juice brought back memories; it had been her favorite tipple until that night.
Peter glanced in her direction and smiled.
Whatever happened, she mustn’t respond. She turned her head away, hoping he wouldn’t recognize her. The blonde was laughing at something he’d said. If she stayed out of their way, maybe he’d end up with that girl. And maybe that girl would find him easier to resist. All Marcia had to do was keep very still – blend into the background. She thought about leaving right now. But she had to be sure Red Dress had distracted him. She’d wait a few more minutes.
Peter was grabbing the girl’s hand and making his way up the stairs. Marcia allowed herself a sigh of relief. She began to relax; she’d be all right now. That girl looked like she could take care of herself. Marcia scanned her surroundings for someone to talk to, but couldn’t catch anyone’s eye. She sipped at her cocktail, determined not to let it go to her head this time. It didn’t taste so bad, after all. Although she was feeling a little lightheaded. Not drunk, precisely, just somewhat detached from her surroundings.
Then all her senses were on alert. She sat up straight and checked her watch. Ten minutes had gone by, and there, coming downstairs, ahead of the blonde, was Peter. The girl, with the look of a rabbit who’d barely survived an encounter with a hawk, followed several steps behind. Unmistakably a teenager, face flushed, hair tousled. Her eye makeup had run, leaving her looking like a raccoon. She wasn’t laughing now, poor thing. And her fire-red dress was torn. Exactly like the one Marcia had thrown away the day after the party.
But no. It couldn’t be. Marcia gasped and stared, horrified, at her seventeen-year-old self. An acid taste rose in her throat. She shook her head. This wasn’t right. If the girl was Marcia, then who was she?
She started. Who was this? Against the sun, now lower in the sky, the face of the man in front of her was hard to make out. He leaned down and kissed her forehead.
Frank. She could smell his familiar aftershave. Her eyes fell on the broken glass which had contained her drink. She must have let it drop when she fell asleep.
Had she been dreaming? Was she safe?
“I came back early to surprise you,” said her husband.
So everything was okay. Thank God.
“Just as well I did,” he went on. “I found a young man on the doorstep, asking for you. He’s waiting inside.”
It was time to tackle the garage. I’d been meaning to do it for some time, ever since we’d finished painting the new house, in fact. I found the light switch and blinked as the glare of neon replaced the furtive gloom of the late afternoon. I looked around and wondered where to start.
I sighed as my eyes finally came to rest on the small mahogany cabinet. It was at the back of the garage, leaning rakishly to one side. The shelves that should have been inside were stacked next to it, probably preventing the cabinet’s complete collapse. I considered what to do with it. The cabinet had been stored in the garage for about eight months, ever since we’d moved from our big house into the cottage. I had thought it would be perfect for the cottage because it was small, and yet I hadn’t managed to find a spot for it in our new home. The cottage had turned out to be even smaller than I had imagined.
I picked my way across the garage, trying to avoid tripping over the assortment of objects that had been deposited there “just for now” over the last few months. An empty toolbox, two rolled-up rugs, a pile of flowerpots that had fallen over, and various plastic shopping bags, filled with god knew what, littered the floor. Half-empty tins of paint jostled for space with cardboard boxes labeled mysteriously “special occasions”. I had no idea what was in there. I reached the cabinet and checked it from several angles to see whether it looked any better. I noticed the small brass handle on the front, looking rather discolored now. One of the doors was hanging open, and the thin stripe of walnut inlay was covered with a layer of builder’s dust. I ran a finger over the top of the cabinet, drawing a heart, then an arrow, then my and Jay’s initials.
I wondered whether to take it to the furniture repairman who had refinished it for me ten years before. He was Italian, and a terrible flirt. I decided that repairing the cupboard wasn’t worth the exhausting banter I would have to put up with.
Maybe someone at the charity shop could glue it back together. It only needed some wood glue, surely. I visualized the enthusiastic young man’s face as I presented him with this antique that only required a bit of work. So – not the charity shop, then.
My daughter wouldn’t want it, I was pretty sure. If I asked her, she might think she wanted it, because she’d grown up with it. When she was a little girl, it stood behind the kitchen door in our London flat, where it housed the canned and dry goods. It also housed the biscuit tin. She might think back to the times when she’d sneaked a biscuit, thinking I hadn’t known, and she’d want the cabinet. She might even imagine herself gluing it back together. But I knew that, with a cottage smaller than mine, a husband, and two small children, she would never get around to it.
I brought my thoughts back to the cabinet, as I reached for a dusting cloth and wiped the cabinet down, erasing the heart on the top. I must stop being so sentimental, I chided myself. Looked at with dispassionate eyes, what was the cabinet, really? Some nice pieces of mahogany that a Victorian cabinet-maker had assembled into a piece of furniture. That was the way to look at it. Just pieces of wood. And surplus wood should be taken to the town dump.
There was that nice Jamaican man at the dump, I remembered. Whenever I took cardboard containers to be recycled, we would exchange a few words about the weather (not as nice as Jamaica) or the number of reggae stations you could find on the radio (more than in Jamaica). Now there was someone who could probably use a cabinet, and who was always finding things he could fix up. Look at the way he had put that broken stool together, so he had somewhere to sit while he operated the crusher. I would ask him whether he would like it.
I had lived with the cabinet for at least thirty-five years, but had seen it long before that. It used to stand meekly in my spinster great aunt’s house. I’m not sure what else she kept in it, but whenever my sisters and I went to her house for afternoon tea, she would open the cupboard door and extract a small tin of Harrogate toffee. Then she would present one of us with the small silver toffee hammer. The lucky girl would strike the toffee as hard as possible and distribute the shattered remains to the rest. I could still recall the way that toffee stuck to the roof of my mouth.
When she died, some years later, she left me this little cabinet. I was sorely in need of furniture, since I had married young and had no money to spare for luxuries. Victorian furniture was in fashion then, and the neat lines of the cabinet appealed to me. I polished its rich mahogany with beeswax, and used it to store my collection of long-playing records, which fitted perfectly. A glass vase glinted on top of it. Later, it had been moved to the kitchen, and when I moved to America, the cabinet had come too. It had seen service in the dining room, where we rearranged the shelves to hold wine glasses and bottles. Later it migrated to the children’s room, where a collection of half-made model planes found their way into it, and untidy piles of school papers drifted across the top. Just before our most recent house move, I had found it in the basement, filled with old letters and photographs. I’d moved the documents into a plastic bin.
It was no good thinking like this. I gripped the top of the cabinet, and braced myself to lift it. As I did so, the top of it came away in my hand and the sides fell apart. I stared at it for a second, before making a small pile of the remains, and loading them into the back of my car. I tried not to look into the rearview mirror as I headed for the town dump. Driving through the gates, I looked around for my Jamaican friend. He wasn’t there. Slowly, I maneuvered the car towards the gaping jaws of the compacting machine. I parked, opened the back, took out the wooden pieces and walked over to the compactor. I was finding this very difficult. I couldn’t just throw this piece of my history away. I turned away from the compactor and made for the chain link fence nearby. I leaned the mahogany shelves against the fence. Then I revved the engine of the car and accelerated out of the dump. Glancing into the rearview mirror for one last look, I saw the dump attendant at the chain-link fence. He was collecting the wood. He would glue it together. Wouldn’t he?