Startled, Olivia turned to stare at her mother who stood with one hand stirring the turkey’s gravy for their Christmas dinner. Her other hand was fisted at her waist and by the way her eyes searched her daughter, she’d been telling her something.
“Are you okay, honey? Does it hurt? Maybe I can fetch you your pain killers.”
“What? Oh, no.” She patted the cast with her good hand.
“I am fine. My mind must have wandered, I guess. You were saying….”
However, Sylvia couldn’t help but worry the way mothers do when they notice their kids have something troubling them. It still brought a jolt of shock every time she looked at the cast or at the fading bruise on her temple. What her daughter had done and how by sheer miracle, she was here at her childhood home’s kitchen pretending to help her with dinner, was to Sylvia enough to fill her heart with gratitude but chill her blood at the same time.
Ever since leaving the hospital and being allowed to skip the rest of school to recover, Olivia had been distracted. More than that, she’d been absent, like she was struggling to let go of something. At first, Sylvia assumed it was the aftershock of realizing how close she’d been to dying. But as the days passed by, Olivia’s mother knew her daughter was hurting even if she tried to hide it from the rest. And not from physical pain.
Carefully, her gaze descended on the engagement ring that shone from her right hand. Olivia had told both her and John at the hospital. As a mother, she hadn’t been able to hide her happiness but when both she and her husband had a time to themselves, they were puzzled behind the real reasons for their daughter’s important announcement.
They knew this would happen. They’d been together for quite some time. Although, she’d begun to have second doubts after Thanksgiving when she’d noticed Noah wasn’t too thrilled to discuss such plans. There was also another little detail. After meeting Michael at Tracy’s wedding and noticing the palpable sparks flying between him and her daughter, Sylvia had begun wondering if there could be more than just the alleged friendship Olivia assured her was all there was between her and Michael. It had been both a pleasant and unexpected shock to watch the way Olivia blossomed into the woman Sylvia knew her daughter could be, while in Michael’s arms.
Despite that, Olivia was old enough to make her choices. Sylvia had been convincing herself that she should trust her daughter and the reason why she and Noah were finally engaged.
“I was asking if you’d heard anything about Camie. Poor kid, she looked really stricken with guilt when we ran into her at the hospital. Such a sweet girl.”
“She is sweet. I guess she’ll never ever text again, at least until the shock of all of this passes. But I did hear from her, before coming down here. She emailed telling me they were keeping up with the assignments I passed on to my temporary replacement. And that she would be spending Christmas at her grandparents’ and New Year’s at her mother’s.”
And, Olivia added silently, those small subtle bits of information about Michael. How her uncle Michael would be taking her on a trip before the holidays, or how uncle Michael had insisted they buy a bigger tree for the house. Small, inconsequential everyday details that were meant to tell Olivia that despite all, Michael was doing fine, or at least pretended to when everyone was around. God knew she’d been trying to do the same ever since getting out from the hospital.
Camie had also written that Michael had begun to spend more time at his office and coming back home really late during the weekdays. Sadly for Olivia, she hadn’t been able to count on work as a distraction. It would’ve been a blessing to have to deal with her students and not with the twisted mess in her life. However, her choice had been made and she and Noah would begin making plans in January. By that time, she would finally feel what she’d said to Emilia, that this thing with Michael was not meant to last nor had it been anything serious.
“I met her dad.” Sylvia cut through Olivia’s musings.
“Charming man. Too bad about his divorce. Although if you ask me, he’ll have no hard time finding someone else. Good looking genes in that family. Camie is going to knock them off their socks in a while and poor Jerry will have to stand guard outside with a bat to keep them away.”
“Maybe it is something dads do.”
“Oh, now honey, you father was not that paranoid. He had me to keep him in line. Anyway, speaking of boys, how is Michael doing? I was disappointed when I missed him at the hospital. Such a nice man.”
Bingo! Sylvia thought. Here was the source of all of her daughter’s current worries. Because she was looking at her intently, she noticed the light in her eyes, the slight blushing of her face, the only sign of color on her otherwise pale face since the accident, and then the sadness that washed it all away.
“He…uhm is fine, I really wouldn’t know. I saw him at the hospital. I guess he, too, was in a state of shock after what could’ve happened to Camie. He loves that kid as if she were his own. You should see the way his face brightens up whenever he tells even things that he swears annoy him about her. There is so much love in there. That kid will get through anything life throws at her just because of that.”
Interesting how her daughter’s own face brightened as she said this about Michael, Sylvia concluded.
“I saw you had a great time with him at Tracy’s wedding. I don’t think I ever saw you sit down or stop laughing. It is nice when a man manages to bring that inner glow from inside us. Makes us feel more beautiful, don’t you think?”
She couldn’t keep having this conversation with her mother. Already the words he’d said to her while unconscious and before leaving her room at the hospital were wrapping themselves like a fist around her heart. The grip was so tight she had to shut her eyes and will the pain away.
“I think I was just happy for my best friend, mom. Nothing more.”
Sighing, Sylvia gave the gravy one last stir before turning down the heat to let it simmer for a little while more. She circled around the counter and went to wrap her arms around her daughter’s shoulder.
“Olivia, I am running out of subtle ways to get you to tell me what is wrong.”
Man, she was good.
“I forgot it was hard for any of us to cheat on your exams. You always had this sixth sense.”
“Well that and that I can see misery plastered all over your face. Did you and Noah have a fight? It is perfectly normal, especially when you are about to get married.”
“Oh, mom.” Undone, Olivia turned to her mother’s embrace and held on tight. God, she was a mess. She couldn’t hold this any longer, she had to tell someone. She had to have someone tell her she had made the right choice.
“It’s okay.” Sylvia patted her back. “It’s okay.”
Olivia pulled away and said.
“I screwed up. I……slept with him, mom. I didn’t mean to, it just happened. No, wait, “She shook her head. “That sounds lame. But it is the truth, I just…….it took me by surprise. God, that sounds even worse.”
“And was Michael only fooling around, is that why you are hurt?”
Olivia froze as she stared open mouthed at her mother.
“That you slept with him, no. But that there was something there, I noticed since Thanksgiving when you sat at this same kitchen getting all revved up when I started asking you about Michael.”
“And here I thought I was keeping it all tucked away. Mom, the reason I was acting weird that day wasn’t because me and Noah had a fight, it was because Michael had kissed me the day before.”
“And you liked it.” It wasn’t voiced as a question but more as an assumption.
“I….yes. How did you know?”
“Honey, I saw you that day at the wedding. I saw him, too. When a man can’t take his eyes off from you, it shows and when he is brave enough to stand a small interrogatory from that woman’s mother, he is willing to go through anything for you. That and the fact that you looked like you were on cloud number nine the entire time you were together.”
“Wait. Isn’t this the part were you lecture me for kissing a strange man, for taking him as my date to my best friend’s wedding and most important, for sleeping with him?”
“Were you safe?”
Olivia let out a shaky laugh at her mother’s bluntness.
“Well, your lack of common sense in that area would’ve called for a lecture from my part. But as for the moral issue here which was that you cheated on your boyfriend,” Olivia winced, but Sylvia carried on, “I know you know you did something wrong or you wouldn’t be beating yourself up for it. I also know that you didn’t set out to harm Noah on purpose. When you do things…”
“I know, even if they seem impulsive there’s always an underlying reason for them. Yeah, heard that one before.”
“Which is why you and your dad bumped heads with each other so often when you were a teenager. He just thought you were being careless when in truth you knew why you had to do certain stuff, even if the reason was plain young stupidity. It’s normal, it’s part of the process of growing up. And even as a grown up, you’ll still make a stupid thing or two. Which, I don’t think is the case here, Olivia.”
“He said he loved me.”
“And do you love him back?”
“I don’t know! How can I? It’s too soon. Besides, what about Noah? If we’ve been together for this long, it’s because of something.”
And that, to Sylvia’s mind was the same as her daughter admitting she did love Michael. Time for some motherly anecdotes.
“Did I ever tell you about Charles?” Sylvia went back to the stove and turned off her gravy. She grabbed a pot of freshly boiled water and ignoring her daughter’s protest she took two tea bags out from one of the kitchen’s drawers, found two clean mugs and filled them with water.
“Well, Charles was my boyfriend for eight years. I met him a little bit before finishing high school and like you and Noah, we just developed this long lasting relationship we assumed would one day flourish into marriage. Then I met your father and it was like being punched in the stomach. Definitely not what Charles and I had together, which was why I was so scared at the beginning.”
“You never told me this. You have always said that you met dad on your first day at work and that was it.”
“Because it was. Mind you, he was, still is as every bit as good looking as that Michael, with a better ass I might add.”
“Anyway, before teaching at the school I found a job as a temporary secretary at the notary’s office down on Harbor Street. You know, just next to the soccer field?”
“Yeah.” Intrigued, Olivia forgot it was tea and sipped, making a face the minute she tasted the earthy and sweet flavor of the chamomile.
“Your dad just came in one day and shook my hand and I was a goner. I swear, sparks flew around us. I was afraid we would set the small office on fire. Of course, I ignored him because of Charles. But then one day, after wearing me down, and I must admit because of my own growing curiosity, I accepted his invitation to the Yacht Club’s annual Sailors Ball. And I just knew that even if I stayed with Charles for another eight more years, I would never feel what I felt as your dad held me close when we were dancing. It wasn’t easy to just walk out on an eight year relationship but I think it would have made us both miserable if we would’ve stayed together.”
“I always thought dad was your first love.”
“He was, sweetie. It took me that dance to realize that what I had with Charles wasn’t love, it was friendship. I cared for that man, the way you do a friend. And I am grateful he was with me for those eight years because we both helped each other grow and get through the tough times, just as best friends do.”
“Mom, that doesn’t mean it is the same with me.”
Sylvia grabbed her daughter’s face and kissed her on the forehead before saying.
“I know. And your choices must never be an imitation of mine. What I am trying to tell you is, if you want to be with Michael because you love him, too, then be honest because if you don’t, then you will always be cheating on Noah even if you never see Michael again. If you’re staying with Noah to spare him or you the hurt, then don’t. You shouldn’t settle for him nor he for you.
“But if what you feel for Michael can’t stir anything inside you aside from basic lust, and you are sure deep inside your heart that you want to spend the rest of your days with the guy out there talking sports with your dad, then just accept that you made a mistake and move on.”
She should’ve known this woman standing before her wouldn’t judge her. All she ever did, even since Olivia had been a little girl, had been to make sure her daughter wouldn’t wallow in self pity and instead, face life with her head held high. And her mother would never have to tell her she screwed up. Her way of dissecting Olivia’s problems was always enough for Olivia herself to admit she’d screwed up, or would do so if she wasn’t brave enough to face what she had to do to make things right. No wonder the woman was the best teacher Olivia had ever known.
“Hey.” Noah poked his head into the kitchen and watched with wary eyes Sylvia’s hand stroking her daughter’s hair. He walked to Olivia and took her good hand.
“Are you in pain, Ollie?”
“I don’t…..” She nodded her head. “Yes, a little. Why don’t you help me find my medicine? I think I packed it in your bag.”
“Sure.” Noah replied and helped Olivia up and together they left the kitchen.
If her daughter, Sylvia mused, still hadn’t had the guts to tell Noah she hated being called Ollie, then no wonder she was in such a state.