D. W. White
Elizabeth stood in the shower and wished for a drink. It really was too bad, that one couldn’t bring the glass along with, but even mediocre Merlot could be washed out by bathwater. Of course there would be wine at dinner, but it would have to be managed with care—a second glass already, Lizzie, oh my—to avoid early catastrophe. Although one could hardly expect otherwise, really, than that the shrill, disembodied voice of one’s mother, hanging like a Shakespearean skull amongst intemperate Casa del Mar water and fine-packed Casa del Mar tiling, would accost one even now, as a phantom, in the shower, about wine.
But it would be there, at dinner, and that was the important thing, something to facilitate the evening, to dim the light of prying eyes.
The water switched maniacally between hot and cold (much like Mrs. Wallace, on consideration), now making it difficult to expose more than a forearm. Elizabeth hung around in the back of the shower, looking a bit put out, face arranged in a tight, somewhat strained collection of muscular contortions. After a moment, she ventured forward towards the unknown.
She flexed a damp knee. Here it was at long last, the weekend, coming when life, like an impertinent patron in a bustling restaurant (much like Mrs. Wallace, on consid—no no, be nice), was finally demanding answers. So it would all be played out in the regal, stately Casa del Mar, with its soap like the bright dawn and its water like the capricious whims of angry Poseidon. Quite the vacation.
But perhaps it was time. Because, even now, as she stood lathering soap and observing bubbles, she was separated from herself, had been for so long, and true Elizabeth had become lost, stranded on some distant shore, a barren outcropping, a white and stony Ithaca, all while this Elizabeth, blown so far off course (who could have known that life would move so quickly after college, spending one’s days working upper crust L.A. offspring through interminable French lessons and always assuming time hadn’t yet begun to tick), tried and struggled to get back to her. She did exist, she had been born, that headstrong and rather capable Elizabeth, years ago with Michael in college making great plans for the years to come. And so she lived. Ipso facto.
It was there, her hoped-for future, a truly independent life, if she could get to it—after all she’d gotten into a doctoral program, of all things (it was so very hard, to focus on the positives), and Michael—well, he was here, wasn’t he? Elizabeth stretched and limbered, the slickness all around not offering much help. But it would prove difficult (impossibly so?), if she had to go it all alone, without the practical help of her parents (how vexing it was now, their owning her apartment), or the daily help of Michael. Because despite what Kelly said (oh, E, why don’t you live together yet), they’d always been a team, a pairing, an alliance, ever since those first nights so long ago now, and even if they’d always preferred their own brand of romance, unconventional and understated, it nonetheless would be daunting indeed to go it without him, should it come to that. But she was being ridiculous—it was just a weekend, granted a long, dangerous one, weighed down with the matrimony of the younger sister married first … so disappointing, Elizabeth was. Anyway it all had to happen eventually. Why did they never tell you, when life began?
While now the time had come. Elizabeth considered the rich Casa del Mar lather, the color of the skies each morning from her apartment’s exquisite balcony (only a few miles away!—how far it felt, even in sight of its welcoming facade, just down the coast), and exhaled. In some ways then maybe it was good, a hidden positive, a silver lining, good that it was all coming up now, that her mother was determined to lock Elizabeth into a wedding of her own, that her fiancé was perhaps drifting away from their dreams in that silent, inscrutable, grinning way of his, that Kelly with her loving, dubious help, and Mercury with his intractable mass, were coming, that it would all be here, in the grand hotel on the fine Santa Monica shore, where it would play out, life itself, those decades of her future yet to be realized, set in motion after such a delay. Elizabeth darted her face into the water and felt painfully alive. Yes, perhaps one had to navigate the treacherous waters of those they loved in order to find their way back to themselves.
The steam came off the jet of water to dust her forehead with sweat-like beads, the way one presoaks a particularly stubborn spot before tossing the whole shirt into the wash. Where had the time run off to? Just moments before she’d been drifting around their hotel room (how expansive it was, more suite really, all the better for Mercury’s impending arrival and ongoing concealment), drinking that cheap California Merlot and waiting for the evening to begin.
Elizabeth scrubbed a cuticle with vigor, marshaling the dual forces of ceaseless water and opposing nail. Best to build up parental immunity, though—after all it had been, what, six, seven, months since she’d last seen them, those stately Wallaces? And even then only for a few hours. Now she began an entire weekend, of all things! And one swelled beyond all reason in order to properly encompass the retinue of daily festivities that simply must come with Leslie’s wedding. Elizabeth tried again the touchy dial. It seemed impossible that it was still only Thursday, had only been perhaps a half hour before that they’d checked in and began the clock that would wind with treacherous, impossible leisure to Sunday, finally leaving all these dreaded days transmuted into the past.
Elizabeth recoiled as the water dropped in temperature, chilling her like the audacious waves of Malibu. She hastened back to the corner. But the distended weekend was not merely to be survived—there were, impossibly, definite goals to achieve. Her mother’s creeping approaches to her apartment (would they really sell?, sell that home she’d made, that place she’d come of age these last ten years, holding out against expectations like so many drunken men at a run-down bar? No, impossible), Michael’s creeping drift from any conversation about the practical or the future. And, of course, her doctoral thesis proposal, that thrilling and daunting thing, it all had to be wrangled. Elizabeth smirked to herself—if only Mrs. Wallace knew, just as one daughter was finally getting married, the other (older!) one was going on about graduate school, of all things! It was a shame that one had to be so careful with life, could never let it play out unfettered. What a moment that would be, to tell her all! Disastrous, fatal, no doubt—but nevertheless.
She inched forward and held the back of her head for a moment under the stream, water thunderous in her ears and surely knotting her hair in wild, simply unacceptable patterns. Perhaps it could wash her out to sea with the tides, leaving her sister’s monumental wedding and her mother’s incessant problem-finding and her father’s oh so happy nonchalance and her fiancé’s impenetrable mental state and her apartment’s threatened status and her grad school’s unwritable thesis (still without a title! Impossible, that she’d left it for so long) for some other as-yet-still-unmarried-and-of-fading-fertility-elder-daughter to manage.
Elizabeth watched the last of the day rinse off her and into the drain, the bottom of her feet growing rather tired of the rigid bathmat. Of course it was a ridiculous notion, the engagement was undoubtedly a happy development, but at times it seemed the pleasure of the thing had been doled out in greater portions to those on the periphery than to Michael or herself; her mother, certainly, chief among them.
Yes, the weekend (weekend, indeed, starting on a Thursday), would need to be handled with care, delicately, like a porcelain bowl placed by a furtive child back atop an imposing bookshelf. Elizabeth tapped the hot water dial with careful movements. Perhaps it would have been best to tell Michael about their designs on the apartment before Leslie’s wedding arrived, but how difficult a thing it proved, every time Elizabeth’d nearly done it, and besides who knew if Mrs. Wallace wasn’t bluffing once more? And with Michael’s increasing, what was the word, reticence, reluctance, second thoughts?, as of late, as his belief in their childless, independent, non-Wallacian future seemed to for the first time be in doubt (nonsense—all in the mind!), now, when they were so close to finally taking the leap (but how delicious a scene would that be, why no Mother not pregnant in fact I’m going back to school, in fact I’ve already begun …), how could she have told him now, of Mrs. Wallace’s latest, last-ditch maneuvers? E, Kelly’s voice rang, ever-present in her mind, how can you not have told him yet? Your fiancé! How wonderful, how tenacious one’s closest friends could be.
The water, having overrun the drain, pooled slightly around her feet, giving her pointless steps a childlike splash. Still, it was grating, to hear Mrs. Wallace slyly, with equal parts amusement and self-congratulation, discuss the engagement as if it was the first step on the path she had laid out for them, for her; but Elizabeth shouldn’t let such trivialities malinger so. The engagement meant only that their future, on their terms, was all the stronger. After all, hadn’t he always been in support of her graduate plans? To think! Soon (if she got the proposal done, of course), she’d be immersed in the world of Gaskell and Thackeray, Austen and Forster, Lawrence and James, crafting precise arguments on obscure topics, on her way to being something beyond herself, beyond the mere flesh and hair that Mrs. Wallace so diligently scrutinized. Certainly, yes, the gap between Elizabeth and her mother in visible excitement was due only to differences in personality—Mrs. Wallace, of course, had not been the only one who’d wished for it.
Elizabeth stepped out of the shower and reflected. I said to my reflection let’s get out of this place. It would’ve been wise to leave some Merlot by the sink. Radio waves slipped under (through?) the door from the main room. And now, continuing our summer-long evening Kurt Cobain retrospective, About A Girl off the album Bleach. Michael, thoughtfully leaving it on for her—as he did with Mercury, in fact. Fair haired Cobain. Had it really been five months? Elizabeth sighed, let down her chestnut, rather ambitious hair (having only had time to rinse, not to wash, could prove fateful in extended proximity to Mrs. Wallace), and flipped it across her brow, covering the fine scar running down the left side of her face, waiting as the mirror cleared up. The bathroom smelled heavily of soap and tardiness. Expansive was the word, too, a heavy countertop running the length of the wall, little rivulets of snow-white caulk forming right angles with military precision. A window to one’s soul, or at least the living room, was cut between small swinging doors, offering a view of a place still unoccupied by Michael. Both mirror and faucet wore the remnants of the shower, fine beads of moisture pooling on their reflective surfaces to give a textured, nearly palpable look, one that bore a striking resemblance to the frosted glass of office windows—nearly identical, in fact, to those at Michael’s office. The light over the mirror was vexingly dim, given off by an ancient bulb, the kind that had to heat up to do anything worthwhile. Incandescent, was that the word? There were so many mundane things to keep in one’s head. But then the dark was all the better to prepare for one’s reflection.
The fog finally cleared off her watch and she checked the time. Naturally, she was running late to meet them, those stately Wallaces, for the capital-d Dinner, the opening act, overture preamble prelude, she and Michael up against them all (and of course with him everything still lay open, there was no reason to fret, after all they were finally going to do it, the applications were already out and remember Michael always nervous always equivocal let’s see, m’dear and so on, really no reason not to believe him…but it certainly hasn’t been all in my own head regardless of what Kelly says what does she know about it love her and all but not the best resource but no, ridiculous, really have to stop this nonsense especially now can’t afford added stress). The hours would be a tricky thing to navigate, all the way until Sunday, until she could once again reach her beleaguered apartment, slipping around both her impatient parents and restless Michael. Surely it wasn’t possible that Leslie’s wedding was already here…had to be some trick of the light. Leslie, the good, unquestioning Wallace daughter, was finally getting married, but reality seemed insistent, and what was one to do? Evidently, the moment was upon her, out of the recesses of her mind, where it’d been resting as do any number of mundane or unimaginable events, true of course in a literal sense that it would come, but never now, surely. How had it actually happened? How quickly it all had come and here it was, and here she was, starting off running behind.
The mirror began to clear and there was Elizabeth staring back at her, grey eyes fogged like long ago mornings out the childhood window in the Forest Hill house. Grey eyed, Pallas-eyed, indeed. Lacking a bit in the foresight, then. Her slim silver necklace hung around her slim tan neck, the sharp script bold against her skin. Nostos. Back when Michael, infatuated both with Elizabeth and his own Classics major, used to be spontaneous. And on time.
Her hair appeared, darker than usual and, yes, really not its best. Mrs. Wallace would have quite the remark if it couldn’t be tamed a little—all the usual easy tricks of beauty seemed not to apply when she and those ever-appraising eyes were present. The hair flipped and riled but did not stay, and the mirror now showed all. Oh, Lizzie, why didn’t you spend a little more time on it dear I swear you do these things just to hurt me…but there was nothing so wrong with a nice hat, it could in fact really be something to accessorize one’s look. One’s appearance really is an incredibly difficult proposition—easy for Michael, his decisions boiled down to which shade of black shirt he’d wear. But now, as a woman, one has to look so intentionally casual, don’t give any appearance of caring of course, how gauche that would be, but then always look one’s best, hide enough of the age and show enough of the skin, not too much in either direction, naturally, and that was really the word, when it came down to it, natural, innate inborn intuit intuition, all the effect and none of the effort. If not, downright tragic. Think of what people will say Lizzie.
Elizabeth fixed a strand. Yes, these people were everywhere one looked, and all the time they must have and did you hear about that Elizabeth Wallace I heard she was at her sister’s wedding wearing flats can you imagine to have no regard for her mother or anyone else upsets me just thinking of it poor Carol how does she manage at least she has Leslie—what a life it is, to sit around clucking at secondhand news. It must be incredibly dull. Elizabeth shook her head and wrapped a towel and opened the door. In the main room Michael was still not back, even though the clock said the hour had grown precarious.
But, then again, perhaps the weekend would prove a balm on the unspoken burns of late. These real, adult discussions, the hard conversations, were best done in person, and the interminable wedding, all of them locked together like so many rivals in the palace, would bring it all out. When was the last time that she and Michael had spent four straight nights together, if he stayed over Sunday after Kelly’s party—Chicago? So they would resolve, clarify, disentangle, sort out all the silent months (surely just nerves, surely it was all in Elizabeth’s own head) that’d preceded it. She’d make it home with everything finally settled, once and for all. No doubt, a propitious weekend indeed. Because it was all here now (time, that demanding liaison, pressed on, requiring further attentions the more one grew wary of it), and everything would be settled by Sunday—that, at least, was a benefit.
Her suitcase sat in the main room, on the mint colored couch, attended closely by cushion and tassel. Water came off Elizabethian hair in a fine point, splashing on the carpet. Through sliding double doors was the bed, no doubt soon to be Mercury’s domain, and a chair with one of Michael’s endless sweaters, always hanging about, rarely actually worn. Elizabeth poured a second glass and felt a chill.Through the window the wind was up. So quick, the evenings came on these days, clouds awake with the dawn and the sharp wind coming off the ocean (September already, twenty-nine in less than a month now, what had Michael said, the final months of her receding youth coming into focus? Lovely, thanks), bringing along a swift night, now chilling her and forcing further wine-postponement to close the window. Elizabeth shut it with regret—it was nice to have the air.
Twenty-nine! Supposedly prime years, some intersection of knowledge and vigor—but age had never been anything but a useful demarcation, a way to measure the time that went by, and now all at once there was weight attached. Life, so long viewed as if behind glass, from some other room, now had begun, seemingly all at once, the partition shattering and time surging through as if a great rush of water, flooding the days and threatening to drown one’s thoughts. When had those sharp edges of life, once so far away, shimmering in the distant, adult world been filed onto her own life, when had her own future been shaped to the specifications of others? For so long she’d been able to stand off to the side, unnoticed and un-commented-upon, watching time encroach on the world but surely not on her, not on the old watch with its worn leather, certainly never growing old herself. But while they were still around, if one knew where to look, it was undeniable that they were fewer and fewer now, those moments of her own, when she could slip into a sliver of a day and relax, hiding from the rest of it and hoping not to be found.
Elizabeth compared outfits as her future unfolded. She pulled taut the band (fading, one had to admit) on the watch her father had given her, over a decade now, off to Los Angeles, Lizzie, keep an eye on the time. Her life was a clapboard house, a model home put together for appearances and able to withstand no sort of scrutiny. It was so very difficult, that expected task of converting outward indicia of happiness to the real thing. One had to be diligent against those ruinous moments of casual foolishness, such as the other day on the phone with her parents (sharing a line, Dad in the library—if a stiff gathering of pristine books could properly be called such—and Mom in the living room, Mr. Wallace lingering at the edge of the conversation, leaving Mrs. Wallace to do the heavy hitting), leaving somehow an impression of heightened seriousness towards Elizabeth’s own wedding yeah Mom Michael and I have been talking more promise maybe the spring even, we’ve really been discussing things and how sloppy, to slip into her mother’s own vernacular, with neither warning nor intention, during moments of distraction or unusually elevated spirits, and how had such a thing happened? It was a disconcerting mystery, to hear herself speaking her way down the very path Leslie was on (and where was Michael, they really had to get going), with nothing like the same destination in mind. It certainly would do her no favors now, as well, with Mrs. Wallace’s domesticity turned up to eleven at Leslie’s wedding—Elizabeth would perhaps wake up to find a surreptitious ceremony already performed on her behalf.
She felt the plush carpeting massage cold, bare toes; not quite painted right, naturally. The thing was to get through the weekend, only a few days and everything would be in front of them. She settled on black pants. The thesis proposal had to be squeezed in as well; she made sport, apparently, of causing herself the maximum possible stress. It was so hard to keep an eye on life when it stepped forward only one day at a time, slow hands on a watched clock. That was the bottom line, as Mr. Wallace might say—survive without ruin and with thesis to the end, to get back home. First, wine.
Elizabeth reached for her glass on the coffee table as the door banged open to admit a hastily composed Michael, swinging in through the frame and smiling at some joke he’d told, evidently, to himself. His dark, floppy hair bounced along in after him, almost of its own volition. His appearance brought to mind a wayward dog coming across a bounty of chicken on a county road; an admittedly over-developed metaphor, but seven years of unchanging aesthetic had provided the time to refine it. He came forward holding a neatly torn ticket stub before him like a torch in a cave. Elizabeth set down her glass. Just when it seemed he’d never arrive, too. En parlant du soleil, on en voit les rayons, as the Québécois say.
“Here, I got you this.”
Elizabeth took it and turned it over. Welcome to the Casa del Mar. Parking valid for 7 days. This ticket expires at 4:49pm on 9/7/94. “A parking receipt?”
“For a bookmark!”
“Ah. Excellent.” Elizabeth slipped the ticket into her pocket. One could never have too many bookmarks, preventing as they did the abhorrence colloquially known as dog ears.
“How long do we have until dinner?” Michael asked, throwing his jacket on the chair and making for the window, gaze transfixed across the parking lot.
“I’m not sure, let me call them. Why do you always slam the door like that?”
“I don’t tell it what to do.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “When did we go to Québec, again?”
“Three … I think … years ago?”
“No, I was just thinking about it. No reason.” Elizabeth returned to staring at her suitcase. It was doubly important, giving the deteriorating hair situation, to determine which outfit would draw the least amount of commentary from her mother. She unfortunately did not own much pink. “I really wish we had a better view of the ocean. You’d think my mom would’ve been able to manage that with all her planning.”
From the other room, Michael made sounds indicating agreement. “I’m actually a bit surprised they didn’t just buy the hotel, seeing as it’s Leslie’s wedding day!”
Elizabeth picked up a rather complicated top she’d recently bought—white and clean as the dress Leslie would don, on advice of custom and in flagrance of propriety—but no, too much work, too little time. Now Leslie’s wedding was here, with the treacherous scrutiny of family for Elizabeth to endure, and all within sight of the apartment. These things had a way of building on each other, a procession of weddings moving of their own volition. It was, of course, all too ridiculous to discuss such a thing with Michael now, but how long could an engagement go on without lapsing into ennui? Without limping, stale and dusty, to a state of lukewarm complacency? Her mother saw life as a series of social obligations, performed in intricate detail for an unascertainable them. Leslie, devoid of the will and the thought to question it, ate ravenously this spoon-fed view of life. Even allowing for her sister’s mysticism (gullibility, in Michael’s rather uncharitable term), this clarity about the future, this simple domesticity, buying a life off the rack without regard to the fit—it was altogether alien.
“Well Leslie’s finally paying it off.”
“How old is she again?”
“She … just turned twenty-five, a couple of months ago.”
“God, that is so young. He’s older, right? What’s his name?”
“Phil, Michael. You know his name.” Michael looked up with decreasing innocence and Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “Anyway, yes. I think he’s a few years older.”
“What’s he like?”
“I’ve told you about him.”
“Yeah, but you’ve only told me conversationally.”
Elizabeth looked up from the suitcase she was returning to order. She’d opted for all black; perhaps she wouldn’t even be seen in the inevitably dark restaurant. “As opposed to…?”
“You know, I wanna be able to talk about him in front of your sister.”
“Talk about him?”
“I don’t know,” Michael said, rapidly and repeatedly opening and closing his wallet. His little habits were so wonderfully odd. “You know, it’s one thing when you’re just telling me about this person in the abstract, but now that your sister’s coming I don’t want her to think I don’t know anything about her fiancé and—”
Elizabeth carefully slipped the leather band of her watch through the clasp. “You’re actually listening?”
Michael’s expression broke as waves upon a stone. “I guess. I mean no, I listened to you before. Just not with the fevered intensity that I am now.”
“Charming, charming.” Elizabeth redoubled the assessment of her outfit. “Well, basically he’s just sort of there. Perhaps not the most…erudite person I’ve ever met.”
“Oh, I don’t know, you know what I mean, you can just tell.”
“Let me ask you this,” Michael said, his voice growing louder as he turned on the sink, full blast as was his custom, “if you told him you thought he wasn’t the most erudite person you’ve met, would he know it was an insult?”
Elizabeth carried her response over the positive roar of water, tucking black blouse into slim black slacks. “No, I don’t think he would.”
“So, what does your sister see in him?”
“You don’t have to be so polite. They’re perfect for each other. I just wonder if she’s already pregnant. I’m sure they just can’t wait to start.”
Elizabeth spun her hair into a tight chignon. Wild, indeed. She leveled a gaze at the mirror that defied its intimidations. How many hours she’d spent, screwed into place atop the sturdy wooden chair in the Forest Hill bedroom (boudoir, Mother), Mrs. Wallace standing over eight-, ten-, thirteen-year-old Elizabeth (no blemish to divert the eyes back then), hands firmly on the shoulders (the nails, always done), offering dissertations on outmoded hairstyles. The way you present yourself is vital, Lizzie! Refreshing, to only see one reflection in the mirror! “What’s wild is that this wedding is already here.”
“Oh it’ll be fine,” Michael said, “we just gotta get through it.”
If only he knew (but of course not yet), just how fraught the way through was. Everything always fine, nothing to worry about—everything was simple in a modicum of platitude! “Yeah, I suppose,” Elizabeth said (for what else was there? What else besides pithy little comments, made in haste and saying nothing at all that mattered? The endless fight to keep things going, keep up appearances, for an indeterminate time and against an indeterminate enemy? After all, the Michael of a year prior, assuredly of three years prior, he could be talked to rationally, man to man as he’d put it, about how to best talk to her parents with real honesty, real conviction—but the modern Michael, the recent one, who wore his hair the same but who showed worrying signs of second thoughts, of potential amenability to a life of rote Wallacian society and bland Wallacian grandchildren, could not be told until they’d committed themselves, locked into grad school and a life of true meaning. For it was not all in her head, the reticence, the reluctance, that Michael had displayed as of late, despite age demanding more of her thoughts; but of course it was all absurd, Michael, naturally—yes, naturally, it was a natural thing, certainly—was only showing his typical ambivalence about anything that locked him, them, into an event more than a month away. He was only, surely, acting weird, as Kelly might say, about starting grad school because it made it real, finally moving forward after seven years of standing still. The reason had nothing to do, of course, with any great changing desire, any wish for that terrible word normalcy, any Wallacian view on life…but, still, he couldn’t be faced, just yet, about the future), crossing to the nightstand only to realize there wasn’t a phone. She looked over at the coffee table and again was met with disappointment.
“There isn’t a phone in here? The most expensive hotel in the city doesn’t have a phone?”
“Oh yeah,” Michael said, leaning in from the bathroom door and retracing her steps with his eyes. “There isn’t. Weird.” He switched off the ancient light and tapped the last drops of water on to his forehead, a deranged preacher offering self-absolution. “Why do you have to call them if we’re all staying in the same hotel? Just go to their room.”
“One would think. My mom told me that she and Leslie simply cannot be disturbed before dinner. Apparently, it’s a veritable Manhattan project in there. So, I’m just gonna call, maybe I’ll get Dad. Besides, face-to-face before wine is never a good idea.”
Michael took an ambitious step through the sliding doors and launched himself towards the bed. He bounced modestly. “Man, your parents are really crazy.”
Despite the water still beading from her brow, Elizabeth felt a fresh wave of fatigue wash over her. “It’s really just the one who provides the insanity…I’m going down to the lobby.”
“Don’t miss me too much.”
Elizabeth slid her empty glass across the table with daring bravado. “Course, m’dear.”
Elizabeth heard the door bang closed behind her as she walked out. Her steps padded on the thick carpeting, much the way Mercury’s ears flapped against the sides of his head in brief moments of excitement (had to remind Michael again not to mention his coming, if Mrs. Wallace discovered that a dog of all things, was being smuggled into the room at Leslie’s wedding, the Manhattan project would be quickly dwarfed in output—and Michael with his conversation would go off and bring it up, like nothing at all). The hallway was decked in warm, muted colors and set off with miniature chandeliers next to each door. It matched the feel of the room, dimly lit and barely wide enough for two people, like the ancient European hotels her parents had always preferred, insisting that they stay somewhere authentic, a word, in the Wallacian nomenclature, synonymous with grandeur.
Elizabeth stepped with care down the slick marble stairs. Because it had become increasingly clear that her parents—Mrs. Wallace taking the lion’s share of parents for her own—were primarily concerned with both their daughters being well put away and established. Now the future seemed to be arriving, after so many years away, yet whenever the soft middle distance of the horizon came into view, the only recognizable thing was her own vision, long cultivated and involving nothing of the wifely duties her mother would never articulate but so deeply cherished. And hadn’t it been Michael, after all, who’d helped such dreams to flourish into the reality of expectations? The dream of being something besides Leslie—and their mother before her—simply borne along through the headstrong winds of youth to settle a home and fill it with sequels? Now, in under-breath statements and glancing looks, it was silently made clear that the Wallaces kept up the apartment, supported their French-tutoring-eldest-daughter, allowed the interminable stasis to continue, only with the expectation that she would not long need nor have the time to work, to live alone, to be herself. Now she was to fall in line. Now she was to be smoothed over by those twin forces of acquiescence—time and routine—and ground into ordinary stone.
And now, to be burdened with all those trappings of the contented, pleased, and pleasing young fiancée whose body she had merely tried on in youth’s dressing room. These conversations, discussing her future with those who knew what was best, were the most difficult, they seemed the only events in life that grew more difficult with practice. It was too late to go back; what was left was to assert what she truly wanted, and to act.
Elizabeth swept through the lobby, pulling a few glances along with her as she did so. They ranged, as always, from the bashful to the obvious, from the ones that made her feel sorry for the onlooker to those that made her embarrassed for him. She barely noticed such things anymore—rather, the noticing had become muscle memory, a thing that was done, and she would find herself feeling the looks and observations without having asked herself to care. She would grow old, presumably, but not yet; for now, the fatigue of youth carried on.
The phone was set off in an alcove of sorts, the partition jutting out from the wall offering privacy less in any physical divide but in a reminder of politeness, a grandmother’s manners in the shape of a half-formed corner. The lobby was old in decor and, it seemed, in its customs. On her way Elizabeth took an apple from the basket at the front desk.
There was no one waiting—her first stroke of telephonic luck all day—and she was quickly met with her mother’s voice.
“Now we have reservations for six-thirty at Tritogeneia on…” Elizabeth could hear Mrs. Wallace read a scrap of paper, (from just upstairs! She was utterly ridiculous), “Melrose. Do you know where that is?”
“That’s far, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know, Elizabeth! Your sister wants to go there. It’s Greek, I suppose. Will you be able to find it?”
Elizabeth mildly inspected her fingernails while she adjusted the weight of the phone, feeling the mild protest from the spiraling cord, taut against the base. “I know where Melrose is. I’m sure the cab driver will know it.”
“Well, I just don’t want anyone getting lost dear. You know not allof us decided to live down here and never come home.”
Elizabeth ran a brief permutation of possible responses and their outcomes. Best to wait to bite on anything until there was wine to wash it down. She ripped from the apple, the color of straw, or a middle-of-the-road sunset (goldenrod, the term might be), her teeth striking it like serving a tennis ball. It was not the way to present oneself to the world, gnawing on fruit in full view of the lobby, an impression uncouth and unconcerned. “We’ll get there, Mom, don’t worry.”
“It’s a nice place dear. Your father used to go there, I believe, on those work trips he took. You two are dressing up, I hope I don’t have to ask.”
“She asked …”
“And try to fix your hair a bit nicer this time. The last time you had that old hat on!”
“It was a beret, Mom. From Paris?”
“Yes, a rather worn one. You only wear them when you haven’t fixed your hair nice. I’m only being helpful. I hope you can find the restaurant alright.”
Perhaps such conversations had, in fact, been the inspiration for inviting wine. “We’ve got it all under control, Mom.”
“I do hope it’s not too crowded, though. I want to hear all about Michael’s work.”
Elizabeth nodded to no one. “It won’t be bad on a Thursday.”
“Oh, it’s so exciting is all!”
“Lizzie! Are you speaking with food in your mouth?”
“Just an apple! For health.”
“So impolite.” The lobby bustled as if it agreed.
“I’m only multitasking.” Elizabeth ran a slice around with her tongue.
“Well! Aren’t you just so excited! Your sister’s wedding! I remember when your Aunt Lorraine got married. I was just beside myself, so nervous!”
Elizabeth wasn’t entirely convinced that nervous had been the prevailing emotion on that auspicious occasion but she went along with it, shifting from one foot to the other and becoming rapidly aware of how hot her ear had become. “Yes, indeed, quite mad.”
“And there’s so much still to do before Saturday. I don’t know how it’ll all get done!”
Elizabeth exhaled, hearing her own breath come through the phone in a rather unflattering echo. “But is it quite necessary, all this what you call a whirlwind?”
“What areyou saying, dear?”
“Only a bit of literary flair, nothing too serious.” Elizabeth with effort checked her volubility. North and South, indeed…Forest Hill to the Casa del Mar strained the capacity of the simple compass rose to indicate disparity.
At the mention of literary Mrs. Wallace seemed not to hear. “Of course, Leslie won’t turn out like Lorraine did. Such a shame. But, not the time to dwell on that, dear! I better get going, you know how your father is in getting ready. Now remember the reservations are for Tritogeneia at six-thirty…”
ELIZABETH WALKED into the room and there was Michael, abrupt and scrubbed Michael (Michael coming through a door in twenty, forty, years; whips and shouts of grey in his hair and still-extant Mercury along with him), coming out of the bathroom, bumping into her, dripping water on her feet, sharp with cold on fine skin.
“Hey. Where’d you go?” he asked.
“I told you, to call my mom.”
“Oh. Right.” Michael collapsed on the chair, jacket folded at rough angles beneath him, put his feet up and opened a beer. Amazing, how odd he could be. To sit on one’s jacket, the very jacket to be worn imminently now, with no regard for crease or time.
“We don’t have time for a beer. Are you ready?” Elizabeth asked, reaching for a hand towel. Wonderful things, hotel towels, available in all the sizes one always sought in vain. Thick, tightly wound loops of cotton, here dyed a green (sea-foam green?), here bleached impeccably white. If only one could buy them oneself, to stroll right in to the distributor and place a modest order yes I’m sorry miss but you see we only sell in bulk to hotels perhaps Bed, Bath, and Beyond but don’t you understand I am a hotel what with Michael staying over all the time and bringing Mercury along do you have any idea how much sand a dog of his size manages to carry into my apartment intentionally too I’m quite sure he’s got some sort of agenda every day I need these towels just the same as your esteemed Casa del Mar oh and bleach if you have it. Elizabeth set the towel on the sink and turned the water on. “What took you so long, earlier, by the way?”
“Yes. Nothing. Went down to the bar for a bit after I parked, looked around. Now just waiting for you.”
“Let’s go.” This rankled, suddenly. Everyone, it seemed, was waiting for her, waiting for a return or apology or mistake, while she was left to the find answers. She looked again, could not reserve, had to know. “Why are you sitting on your jacket?”
Michael hopped up. “Damn, didn’t notice. Did you get the plans?”
How very odd he could be.
“I did,” Elizabeth said. He was always so relaxed, at the most surprising of times. It was, of course, still possible he only pretended. He had been so brilliant, long ago, in that first year when Elizabeth had, like a Soviet intellectual making a bid for freedom during an international conference, first informed Mrs. Wallace that she wouldn’t been returning to San Francisco after college. Incredible, really was the word, it had been to have an ally, someone in her corner, to ensure that her life should be lived only for herself. The revelation had been so inspiring, then. “We’re going to meet them at the restaurant in half an hour or so. And it’s way over on Melrose so we gotta go. Just have to wash my hands quick.”
Michael performed a series of movements with the jacket that Elizabeth couldn’t identify. “Excited?”
What sort of a question to ask, now with the clock running low and the hair not—never, never, when really needed—falling quite right. The beret, full of opprobrium, would be ideal. She looked up, looked up flatly and searchingly into a face of pure Michael optimism. “Excited? I’m not sure that’s quite the word I’d use.”
“Oh, come on, it’ll be fine. I know she gets on your nerves but I think she’ll just be happy this weekend.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Michael grinned, evidently in solidarity, stole some water from the faucet, dropped it again on his hair, and said, “well, I’m not too worried about it.”
Elizabeth nodded. Of course, he was not too worried about it, he never was. It was not Michael who had to sit on his own Zagat’s-rated trial, to once more be discussed in half- and quarter-asides with eyebrows raised to precipitous heights. Mrs. Wallace would not be scrutinizing his appearance, hair to foot (always the hair, how often about the hair, so much trouble about something already dead); it was not his face that was marred by a positively infinitesimal scar (marred—that was the word Mrs. Wallace used, had actually used, only once, but sincerely and without genuine retraction, despite what she’d later said, about the scar given to her only by childish accident and as thin as angel hair), which nonetheless always, always, wound its way into conversation (she had chased Leslie once though the dining room). It was not Michaelwho was not getting any younger you know, Lizzie, I mean just look at your hair, was not Michael who had to defend diminishing returns on fertility, was not Michael who had caused things to go out of order—the youngest married first!—to be improper. And it was certainly not Elizabeth who was refusing all at once to engage in any real discussion about logistics for grad school or how they’d explain it to her parents. Everyone, it suddenly seemed, were so sure of how to get what they wanted—when, how, had she been left behind? “Well, that’s nice,” Elizabeth said, drying her hands thoroughly and putting the towel back just so. “I also have to worry about this thesis proposal. No idea when I’ll find time for that.”
“You don’t really need to, you have two weeks.”
“No, I have twelve days. And I’ve got work next week. New client, actually.”
Michael leaned against the door frame, now patting his own hands on his shirt.
“You just like to be ahead of schedule.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“I thought you might.”
Elizabeth smiled, checking the folds of the hand towel.
“I believe in you. Have you made any more progress on it?”
She exhaled. “No, not really. I’m just stuck. I know, I think, I want to center it around society and how literature is used to study, or I guess really critique, custom. But, that’s not really a thesis. It’s just a subject.”
“You need an argument. I assume that’s why you brought an entire petite libraire with you for a three day trip two miles from your house.” Michael indicated the closet, door jammed around Elizabeth’s stack of books.
She followed his look across the room. “Little bookseller?”
Michael rubbed his hands as if they were new. “Damn, that’s what I said? I was going for library.”
“You’ll get there. I believe in you,” Elizabeth said, winking. Middlemarch rested precariously across Gaskell and James. She placed it at right angles on the corner of the nightstand, flush within a millimeter. “I maintain the vain hope that I’ll be able to get something productive done this weekend.” She slipped Michael’s fresh bookmark to fall a neat inch above the page. The little things were always the hardest to manage.
“You’ll figure it out. You know the best ideas come from the wine.”
Elizabeth laughed. “In vino veritas?”
“Precisely. We’ll come up with something.”
“Course. You, me, wine. The whole gang. I dabble in the Victorian.”
“That’s a comfort.”
“Anytime.” Michael shook unruly water from sponging hair.
Elizabeth drained the last of the stiff red into her glass. Perhaps wine would be the necessary accelerant. How reckless it had been, to put it off so long! And now, at the worst possible moment, the thing needed doing. Maybe Mrs. Wallace would have the key idea, the way precious elements are formed from the implosion of stars. Such a scene could never be allowed to happen, but the imagining was delicious all the same you know Mother I’ve been meaning to tell you something I thought here at Les’s wedding was the place really oh Lizzie you’ve finally set a date well in fact see I’m going to grad school and I’m working on this thesis proposal I wondered if you had any ideas perhaps about a study of hyperbolic mothers in Victorian literature I dunno just a thought. But Lizzie! the only proposal that matters is an engagement! So foolish of her, to have crafted her own dreams. Elizabeth finished the Merlot and dropped the bottle in the barren can near the door. If only such a scene were possible!
The wine went down like bad news. But, god, it was invigorating to have something of her own, something to work at besides serving as overcaffeinated Virgil for children of the beachfront aristocracy laboring through translations of exotic vacation itineraries into passable French. Refreshing to worry about something that mattered. A whole lifetime unwound up ahead, considering abstract ideas with nothing like solutions. To be able—to be required—to discuss Eliot and Trollope at length, to be immersed in the esoteric, the arcane, the recondite, to have an audience beyond affably unconcerned Michael, or wide-eyed Kelly, or snoozing Mercury, to dive into her subject fully and totally—how incredible it was! It was here, finally, they were really doing it (Michael’s own law school acceptance was certainly already in the mail), and neither Mrs. Wallace nor all her hyperbole could interfere. The ice had been broken, and if the water was shocking it was all the better for the blood. It would be satisfying, rich, to have made something of her own, something she’d wanted—far indeed from the pressed miniature of herself that Mrs. Wallace sought to sculpt in both daughters. Elizabeth tracked Michael’s movements across the room. Yes, how wonderful it would be…if she could manage to come up with her proposal, to come up with some way of presenting her life as harmonious within the frames of others.
“So, you really think she’s knocked up?”
“Mhm,” Michael offered, swallowing.
“I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all.” Elizabeth watched the black of Michael’s shirtfront deepen with water and shook her head. His actions only occasionally bore any semblance of reason. “I mean the wedding was rather sudden, don’t you think?”
“I suppose that’s true. What do your parents say?”
Elizabeth switched off the light and checked the pockets of her jacket (still beautiful, after so many years) for her sunglasses. “I don’t know. I kind of danced around it when I was talking to Dad a couple weeks ago, but he either didn’t catch it or just didn’t want to talk about it—which is probably what it was. I have no idea what my mom thinks other than she’s downright thrilled. If Leslie is pregnant, she probably would have told her a while ago.”
“She wouldn’t have told you?”
“No. If she is, it’ll come out this weekend. Maybe at the reception. It’s tough to tell with Leslie.”
“That means she’s gonna be drinking right? Or not drinking?”
“Damn, that’s right. Absolutely. Dad will order wine.” The dinner suddenly had entertainment. Brilliant, he could be, at the most unexpected times! “Yes, we’ll have to keep our eye on that.”
“Wouldn’t Leslie telling you just depend on what she thinks you’d think about it? You know, whether you’d approve?”
Elizabeth gave her hair a final flip. The thought, all at once obvious and elementary, winked at her from some vestibule of the mind, chiding her for not discovering it herself. “Actually, yeah. Maybe that’s it.”
Michael drained his beer. “That would be wild.”
“It certainly would be.” Elizabeth stepped out to the hall.
“Don’t worry, m’dear, I’ll keep close eye on the bottle for you.” Michael said, wringing his shirt once more and letting the door slam closed behind him.
THE AIR WAS relentless, hanging about them like a small child dragged along through a museum (the endless, overheated afternoons pulling discarded raincoat across the quiet floors of the Legion of Honor, yes mama I’m looking I don’t think you pronounce the S), as they walked outside. What a nice scene they must make, waiting like that in the sideways bent of day, haphazardly folded between afternoon and evening, a facsimile of the American couple in the American century. Michael pulled a toothpick out from a mysterious pocket, poking Elizabeth on the arm with a schoolboy grin. “I was wondering; why aren’t we just having dinner in the hotel? That bar area looked righteous when we checked in.”
“I dunno, Jay’s been saying it—I kinda like it.”
“All right.” Elizabeth slid in after Michael along the cab’s smooth backseat as it finished bouncing against the curb. “And, because Leslie went to Tritogeneia once about four years ago and ever since has gone around calling it her favorite restaurant like some West Hollywood socialite.” She again tried her hair (how vexatious it was, on the most inconvenient of evenings) while Michael told the driver their destination. She met with little success as the cab sped off.
Michael patted her knee, almost father-like, leaving his response for Elizabeth to remember rather than hear anew. Some mockup of his nonexistent nerves. No, he was never ill-at-ease in such moments; all nervousness was left for her. Of course he did pretend, evidently for her sake—surely there was something in that.
Across La Cienega the radio prattled on about the traffic and the wind sliced in through cracks in windows. To her right Elizabeth caught a passing grin, that most Michael of expressions. He was coming to life in front of her very eyes—but of course he was, that was always how it went, on the eve of any familial event. Still reassuring, nonetheless, that even the most trying of times seemed to exert little influence on this ability of his; and what of it, anyway, the last few weeks, months? She was being ridiculous; it was bound to be stressful, his finally applying to law school after years of only talk. It certainly didn’t mean Michael was having second thoughts about what he wanted, didn’t mean his sensibilities had become aligned with Mrs. Wallace’s. No, it was foolish, to suspect such things—even if he had been stiffer, more calculated, than before. It was only natural; they’d spent so many years waiting, in happy stasis, telling each other they had the time to spare, that now, with things actually happening, it made all the sense in the world that everything would tighten up. Yes, it was only to be expected.
After all it had been Michael, so long ago, who’d pushed her to take charge of herself, to tell her mother that she wasn’t coming home after college, and would she have done that otherwise? They’d shared so many nights of Wallace family dinners and events, and here he was still. Just one more weekend to get through, Sunday shimmered, large and portentous, in the immediate future.
As the taxi crossed the 10 over the 405, Elizabeth stared out the window into the sea of red snaking its way south. It had all seemed incredible, otherworldly, all those years ago when she was a little girl accompanying her father to L.A. for some obscure business trip, the details hidden by youth’s haze. The interchanges had been alluring, a concrete embodiment of chaos. They had lodged in her mind, had been the first great pull of L.A., even more than the ocean (odd, now, to think on one’s childhood mind and all the strange little notions it files away), those great meetings of road, all directions leading to someplace vast and alien and faraway. Now of course it was the ocean that held all the romance, all the appeal.
Michael’s fingers traversed lightly up Elizabeth’s forearm. She turned to take in his profile, framed against the dying light of the window one of his faded Greek statues. He had been so indispensable, through all the dinners and stuffy events, in floor-waxed ballrooms and finely-manicured gardens, taking the spotlight off her and seeming to actually enjoy it, too, that was the thing of it, the trick that made it all so effective. From the outset he’d had the gift to take the standard Mrs. Wallace scrutiny and redirect it into some banter-type activity that her mother had no power to resist. Yes, he was a miracle worker, performing his services for the most privileged of paupers.
Elizabeth leaned forward by slight degrees to let her jacket fall unencumbered down her back, the epaulets settling on thin shoulders. It smelled richly of worn leather, a warm tan color which had much in common with the fur running down Mercury’s broad, muscled back. How quickly that smell reminded her, how surely it brought back to life, the first time she’d ever really worn it. Had it really been almost seven years since Michael, shouting from that impossibly cramped back bedroom, navigable only via treacherous hallway fraught with towering stacks of clothing and footfalls dug out of the beat-up carpeting, had implored her to wait just a sec, babe to her repeated reminders of the time (how little things change, in the end), tripping his way out with jacket hastily concealed behind lean back and wide grin as the January sun wormed its way through the dilapidated blinds, here torn like tissue paper, there bent like a compound fracture, to splatter that intolerable three-legged coffee table in the muted light of winter? Things rush to the past with such determination. Elizabeth adjusted the jacket around her, the color still Mercurian and the fit still exact.
The cab stubbornly rolled ahead, refusing to blow a tire or snap some mysterious belt. Oh sorry we never made it, Mom, the taxi broke down and…Elizabeth leaned an inch farther into the rough leather backrest. On thin wrist the watch ticked, matching the pulse found beneath bone and tissue, life and time entwined like lovers. She adjusted the band, unadorned nail (a little manicure now and again wouldn’t kill you, dear) slipping between leather and skin. The watch itself, too, would annoy Mrs. Wallace should she ever discover its real origin. Elizabeth traced a finger around the face. Yes, Mother, in fact I got it…she smiled out the window. Dad had been so clandestine, all those years ago. Here, Elizabeth, come over here a moment. Now don’t mention this to your mother. The cab crawled over Pico in the encroaching dark even while the great lawn on campus was clearly visible, ten years on, through the window.
Mrs. Wallace had stood in the morning sun, latte clutched like a life raft. “You know, Lizzie, it’s not too late to change your mind!”
Elizabeth nodded curtly, treading the line between acknowledgement and agreement, shifting her weight. “Come on, Mom, it’s not that bad. At least it’s sunny here … I’ll be able to work on my tan.”
Mrs. Wallace inhaled sharply. “I suppose that’s true. Your hair always looks so much nicer with a bit of sun.” She looked around the expanse of lawn, seeming to assess the suitability of every passing student as if they were show dogs, prancing before her with wagging tail and clipped fur.
Elizabeth began a response but stopped herself, (she had once chased Leslie through the halls); it certainly wasn’t worth it now, so close to actually moving away to college.
Mr. Wallace came striding back towards them, turning keys around his finger. “I moved the car, dear,” he said, coming to rest beside Mrs. Wallace. “But we can only leave it there for precisely twenty-four minutes, I believe it was. An odd exactness, I must say.”
A pothole jolted the cab’s plastic price sheet and knocked Michael’s shoulder into her as Elizabeth stood, a bit awkwardly next to Kelly—had she been there? Yes, it was certainly her…a miracle that she hadn’t run off right then—waiting for Mrs. Wallace to compose herself. Finally, blinking moisture from her eyes, she looked at Kelly.
“What was your name again dear?”
Mr. Wallace perked up. “It was Ms. St. John, I believe.”
Kelly laughed rather lushly. “Well you can just call me Kelly.”
“Oh yes that was it.” The hard edge of a seatbelt grazed Elizabeth’s cheek as she turned with silent apology toward Kelly. It had taken a full day for Mrs. Wallace to embarrass her in front of a new friend. Coming in a bit behind schedule, mother. She had been so nervous that Kelly would be put off by Mrs. Wallace’s disregard—how strange a thought it was, how drastically some things change.
“You’ll look after her, won’t you?” Mrs Wallace said, looking at Kelly and nodding inexplicably. “I know you…” what had it been? “—said your family is from close by right?”
Kelly nodded, a bit bewildered by the looks of it. Of course, it had been harder to tell then.
“I’m sure she’ll take great care of Lizzie, dear.”
Elizabeth smiled thinly. It would prove to be an interminable process, to excise that horrid diminutive from Kelly’s lexicon. The bright autumn morning, spread out comfortably across a decade-old sky, decelerated harshly and snapped into modern twilight, rushing Elizabeth forward. She steadied herself and had been saying something in response to her father. What did it matter, however?
There was a sharp turn. The thick, hazy window framed the loose collection of friendly clouds hanging above the quad as Mrs. Wallace turned with teetering step in the direction of the parking lot. Rather quite brave of Kelly, really, to accompany the full Wallacian parental unit to breakfast (only slightly hungover; best not to mention that, Kel, by the way) the fresh morning after meeting Elizabeth; always so brave. Elizabeth waggled her eyebrows and performed an abbreviated shrug to Kelly, hopefully indicating something like yeah, sorry, she’s just like that as they followed Mrs. Wallace towards her insisted-upon Cadillac (I won’t ride in a German car, James!). The drive down had been endless, cramped, laden with ostentatious Elizabethian possessions and furtive Elizabethian hopes. As they walked, Mr. Wallace’s gradual loss of speed smoothly opened up a gap between him and his wife, Kelly brilliantly chatting her up.
Some Michael comment about the weird traffic for a Thursday ran across the sidewalk like a loose dog as Elizabeth fell into lockstep with her father. What was it he said to begin? No no, it had been sunnier—the clouds evaporated in an instant. Yes, that was it. It had been something about the blueness. How blue it was. It’s always so blue down here.
“What’s that, Dad,” Elizabeth said, having been fixated on Kelly.
“Nothing really, dear, just that I always remember L.A. being so blue. The sky, you know. We of course don’t have that back home. Don’t tell you mother though, she’ll ban cloud cover for the entire Bay.” Mr. Wallace chuckled, shaking his head a bit the way he did at some particularity foolish op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
“Dad!” Elizabeth said, turning to him. To talk so candidly about Mom!
Mr. Wallace smiled. “Well, Lizzie…” He tossed out two fingers to Elizabeth’s forearm, above the hair tie she always kept on her right wrist (she rolled it against the lock of seatbelt, cool and firm like well-formed convictions), the lightest pressure slowing them by a half step. The gap between them and the Kelly-Mrs. Wallace pairing widened a bit, jumped into the back of the cabbie’s head (rather reckless, really—he could certainly take his time in bringing them to the start of this doubtlessly exhausting weekend, no reason to dash over every rough patch of pavement), and settled back down. The sun was brighter, yes, with no clouds.
Elizabeth looked down at her father’s fingers. No, it had been the left arm. The elbow. Elizabeth and Mr. Wallace switched places, Elizabeth was walking now with one foot, the right foot, nearly on the grass, kissing the line of cement like an expert tennis player (she still did that now—funny, for it to start then!), allowing Mr. Wallace to allow frenetic collegiate passersby to dart past him.
Elizabeth looked down at her father’s fingers. They were certainly removed by then. It had been almost no time at all.
“Well, Lizzie,” he said (yes, removing his fingers, leaving a patch of warmth there for ten, twenty steps), “your mother is wonderful, you know, but she has certain ideas about certain things.”
Elizabeth laughed to her father, laughed too against faded seatbelt in speeding cab, laughed at her own long-ago laughter (certain ideas!). “I know, Dad.” Sensing something greater, she went on. “But this is definitely what I want to do, go to college here. I mean, didn’t you ever want to just get away a bit when you were my age?”
Mr. Wallace held his look (ruminative, would that have been the word?), looking rather out of the place without a scarf. The weather must’ve been too hot. “Yes, Lizzie, I think I probably did.”
The walk to the parking lot was surely farther—the car was in the far lot, at the edge of campus. Mrs. Wallace had complained, stopping.
“Go on, dear,” Mr. Wallace said, ushering her forth into the great world. How carefully he’d planned it, then, to have a moment without her.
They continued a bit more, silent, as some dubious conversation between Michael and the cabbie screamed through the bright morning. Elizabeth recrossed her legs against the back of the driver’s seat while she walked, matching strides with her father. Always making small talk, expertly.
The parking lot came into view, Mrs. Wallace’s rundown of the Forest Hill social register, aimed at Kelly but given for her own benefit, leaked out in fragments and asides back towards Elizabeth and her father. The latter pulled up at the end of the pathway, stopping his daughter by implication.
“Here, Lizzie, I want to give you something,” he said, almost shy (bashful, of course, not found in the Great Wallacian Lexicon), if one squinted.
Elizabeth stopped, glanced towards oblivious Mrs. Wallace, faced her father.
He followed her gaze. “Don’t, ah, don’t tell your mother, you know.”
Elizabeth looked at him in near-complete shock (how rarely her parents did anything out of the ordinary, unexpected, different), his face lit up by the lights of Melrose coming through the taxi window. “Wha—”
Mr. Wallace reached into the pocket of his blazer like a man who rather enjoyed that particular maneuver. Elegant, indeed. “Now I know your mother’s been a bit….well rather upset, by your coming here to college. But don’t worry too much about that, Lizzie. She simply…she doesn’t much care for Los Angeles.” Mr. Wallace shook his head as the morning slowed down near the restaurant. He pulled a box from his pocket between smooth and straight fingers . “In any event, I wanted to give you something, a little present, to start college with.”
Elizabeth took the box he handed her as Michael rustled in the seat, saying something or other about arriving. “What’s this, Dad?”
“Just open it,” he said, slyly.
Elizabeth carefully folded back the top half on the minute hinges, revealing an ornate watch. Her watch. The rich black leather of the band (not at all worn, back then) sat wonderfully offset by the deep blue felt of the box as it rested against her skin, grazing the seatbelt as she undid it. There was the fine silver face, Roman numerals running round and the smooth seconds ticking off, ever moving, ceaselessly forward. She turned it over and read the inscription, a tight cursive that mirrored the circular body. The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have. She looked up at Mr. Wallace at the edge of the parking lot, coming to an abrupt halt in front of the restaurant, her parents no doubt waiting (must she always be late to meet them?) inside.
“Dad, this is beautiful!”
“Yes well, I just wanted you to have something. Something to remember us by after you become a famous Los Angeles scholar,” he said, chuckling a bit.
Elizabeth laughed and shook her head and wrapped him in a quick hug (Mrs. Wallace was sure to turn) as she smile-and-nodded to the cabbie and walked around the car to where Michael stood waiting. “Dad! Thank you!”
Mr. Wallace, seemingly a bit taken aback, returned the embrace and extricated himself. He no doubt had already perused the wine list, waiting to order until Elizabeth and Michael arrived. “Well, Lizzie, just wanted you to have a little something, you know. You’re welcome.”
Elizabeth turned with him towards the parking lot, slipping the watch into her purse as Mrs. Wallace and Kelly stopped to wait for them and the morning sky over campus collapsed into a warm evening hanging over Tritogeneia and the cab sped off and Mr. Wallace made one more little comment about life and time and youth but who could remember anymore and Elizabeth checked her hair and after all he’d say something similar after a glass or two tonight no doubt and Michael observed her as if from a distance and the sidewalk came running down Melrose a bit sparse for the dinner hour traffic or no traffic and here they were another long weekend to be survived and Elizabeth centered her watch on the thin wrist and checked the time. Only a few minutes late.
▪ ▪ ▪
D. W. White is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at Otis College in Los Angeles and Stony Brook University’s BookEnds Fellowship. He serves as Fiction Editor for West Trade Review, has work appearing in, among others, Chicago Review of Books, The Rupture, Fatal Flaw, and On The Seawall, and is currently seeking representation for his first novel. A Chicago ex-pat, he has lived in Long Beach, California, for seven years, where he frequents the beach to hide from writer’s block. Read the author’s commentary on his story.