JOANNE OPENED HER EYES and saw raindrops sliding down the windowpane. She pulled the duvet over her head and sighed under the goose down comforter.
The bedroom door flew open.
“Are you going to come to my swim meet today? It’s my turn to be team captain.”
Bare feet slapped across the hardwood floor and stopped next to the king size bed.
“I can’t make it today, Orsina.” Joanne listened for the sound of retreating footsteps, but heard water running off the tile roof instead.
Her daughter pulled back the duvet. “Why not?”
Joanne sat up and studied the delicate features that mirrored her own, and wondered how one explained the need for therapy sessions to a second grader. “Because I have a doctor appointment.”
Tiny arms crossed over Cinderella pajamas. “Barbara likes to watch me swim.”
“Please, don’t call your grandmother Barbara.”
“She told me to.” Orsina frowned. “Why you don’t like to watch me swim?”
“I do, sweetie, but I drive you to ballet class. That’s our special time together.”
“I don’t like to dance.”
Joanne stared into her daughter’s deep set, hazel eyesthe only physical trait Orsina inherited from her father, and eased back against a mound of pillows. Just like Alex, the color seemed to change from green to gray, depending on her little girl’s mood. This morning, they matched the ashen sky beyond the window.
A heavyset woman knocked on the doorframe. “Sorry to interrupt, but Sina needs to hurry or she'll be late for school.”
“Did you find my kick paddle, Sylvia?” Orsina ran up to their live-in housekeeper. “If I don’t bring it to swim class, I can’t be in charge of my friends.”
“I didn’t know it was missing.” The housekeeper steered the seven-year-old out of the room. “If you’ve misplaced it, we better go and…”
Joanne listened to their conversation fade down the hall until a rush of wind whipped around the house, causing braches to scratch against the window. Passing storms reminded her of Venice and a ferry ride along the canal she shared with her husband sixteen years ago. A bitter chill had caused her to tremble aboard the boat that day as ancient churches and palaces towered overhead, and then Alex drew her into the warmth of his embrace, protecting her from the cold. His simple gesture made her feel truly loved for the fist time in her life.
Joanne studied the row of framed photographs arranged on her nightstand. The pictures showed her and Alex holding hands during their wedding ceremony on the shore of Lake Como, sunbathing in Sardinia on their honeymoon, and after years of wedded bliss, returning to their centuries old apartment in Milan with their baby, Orsina, wrapped in her arms. Her favorite image showed her standing beside Alex during a fashion shoot in Rome while their daughter played close by. Her career switch from working as a fashion model to assisting Alex as his wardrobe stylist allowed both her and Orsina to accompany her husband on most of his photography assignments. All three lived a dream existence until the Maldives job two years ago.
Joanne shoved the duvet aside and crossed the room. She stared blindly out the window and let in vivid memories of sitting next to Alex at his studio in Italy. They had been viewing slides for a perfume campaign when Alex received a phone call confirming the swimwear job. His handsome face lit up with excitement as he grabbed a notepad to figure out a schedule that would allow them enough time in between photo sessions to swim in the shallow turquoise waters surrounding the islands and walk along the beach.
“No.” Joanne buried her face in her hands, wanting the past to stay buried, but her story continued to unfold in agonizing detail.
A day before their scheduled departure, Orsina woke with the flu. Alex made arrangements to leave their daughter at home with relatives, but when the taxi arrived the following day to take them to the airport Joanne could not let go of her sick child. The decision left her in tears.
There is no reason for sadness, tesoro. I understand. Take care of our little girl and stay calm.’ Alex left her with a kiss on the forehead and what would be his final words to her. I think of you every minute I am far from you.’
The commuter plane her husband booked for the final leg of the journey crashed eight hours later. The unimaginable call came that night, letting her know her soul mate had died. Inconsolable and tormented with anguish, it took months before a scar of apathy formed over her heart, making it possible to get out of bed and manage her days with a minimum amount of emotion and effort.
Tires crunched on the gravel drive below.
Joanne pulled the curtain away from the window and saw a petit figure exit a maroon Jaguar. “Sylvia, could you get the front door?” she called out. “My mother is here and I’m not dressed yet.”
Silence greeted her request.
Joanne slipped into a silk robe and walked down the hall to enter a princess themed bedroom. The housekeeper and her daughter were rummaging through the walk-in closet, arguing. “My mother is here,” she repeated.
Sylvia stepped out of the closet, holding a swimsuit in one hand and a nose plug in the other. “Again?”
“I’m afraid so.”
They exchanged a wary smile.
“Where’s my kick paddle?” a tiny voice demanded from the closet.
A Teddy bear flew across the room.
“Go ahead and help Orsina find her things,” Joanne said. “I’ll go down.”
“Are you sure, Mrs. Santi?”
“Yes. I’ll be fine.” Joanne left the bedroom and peered over the second floor railing of the home her parents had bought for her to live in after she returned from Italy. Her mother stood boldly in the entryway, holding the front door key in her hand. “Good morning.”
Barbara Brooks looked up and frowned. “Sleeping in again?”
“I had another bad night.” Joanne resisted the urge to retreat and descended the stairs. “It’s Orsina’s turn to be team captain for her swim class today. If you’re close to the gymnasium this afternoon, you might want to stop by and watch her for awhile.”
Barbara removed a Burberry raincoat and draped it over the banister, revealing an elegant skirt suit. “I’ll never get used to that name. Orsina. It sounds like a kitchen appliance. And a cheap one at that.”
Joanne stopped on the last step and gripped the newel post. Alex chose the name after seeing their infant’s sweet face at the hospital. Mi bella, piccolo orso, he had whispered. My beautiful little bear cub.
“You should address her by her middle name, Elaine. It’s more suitable for a young lady living in Malibu.”
“I like Orsina. It’s unique.”
“It’s foreign,” Barbara said. “Some of her friends tease her about it and call her a maid. Is that what you want for your only child?”
The unexpected revelation surprised Joanne. “She never said anything to me.”
“Never mind. I came to talk to you about something else. Do you have coffee made?”
“Yes. Why don’t you sit in the den? I’ll bring it out in a minute.” Joanne headed toward the kitchen.
“What do you have planned on your schedule today?” The agitated tap, tap of her mother’s heels hit the parquet floor behind her.
“I have a two o’clock session with my therapist.” She passed under an arched doorway and aimed for the stainless steel coffee machine.
“You don’t need to pay anyone two hundred dollars an hour to tell you what your problem is. I can do it for free.” Her mother stopped next to her. “You have too much time on your hands.”
Joanne removed two china cups from the cupboard and set them on the granite counter.
“You need to get out of the house and do something. That’s why I’m here. To help you find a reason to put on nice clothes and apply make-up everyday instead of walking around like that.” Her mother eyed the robe and slippers she wore. “My friends are constantly asking me what you’re doing with your life. What am I suppose to say? Nothing? It’s embarrassing to have to sit through lunch after lunch and listen to them drone on about how wonderful their girls are doing.”
“I would prefer it if you didn’t talk about me at all.” She placed a silver sugar bowl next to the cups.
“I try to avoid it, but your name keeps coming up in conversation.” Her mother pushed the sugar away. “Our Ladies League President, Phyllis, told me her daughter is willing to invite you out for lunch to discuss various volunteering opportunities.”
“I did that last year for the PTA and spent my time listening to a group of mothers argue over trivial concerns like what time assemblies should begin, or what color to paint the handball courts. I couldn’t wait until those meetings were over.”
“Then do something constructive with your academic knowledge. Rachael Horowitz’s daughter used her law degree to benefit children.”
“That woman harassed the school board until they fired the best teacher at Cabrillo Elementary. And this was after Ms.Wang explained that making her students do homework in class instead of letting assignments go home where parents got overly involved made it difficult for her to properly assess the children's needs.”
“Rachael’s granddaughter ended up with a C in English and was removed from the Honor Roll because of that rule. Something had to be done.”
Joanne picked up the coffee carafe and filled both cups. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Then let’s discuss your father. He’s offered to set you up in an appropriate business for a woman of your caliber. What do you think about interior design?”
“That requires training and experience I don’t have.”
“I suppose it does.” Her mother took a sip of coffee while appraising her. “You could become a contributing editor for a magazine. You used to write such lovely pieces when you attended USC.”
“My degree is pre-law not journalism.”
“Then why don’t you…”
Joanne willed Orsina to find her pool gear and run downstairs, giving her a reason to end the conversation.
“…If you don’t participate in your community, you’ll never meet a man.”
“What?” The statement snapped Joanne out of her thoughts. “Is that what this is really about? Me finding another husband?”
“You can’t wait much longer. You’re thirty-seven. The older you get, the less options you’ll have.”
“I’m not interested in falling in love again.”
“Love is for teenagers and idealistic fools. You need to meet someone who can buy you your own home and be a father to your little girl. My neighbor, Sophie, told me her nephew is getting a divorce. He’s shy like you so a dinner party would have to be arranged.”
“My husband died in a plane crash.” Joanne opened the cupboard and reached for a prescription bottle of Clonopin. “Am I supposed to forget about that?”
“Of course not.” Barbara set her cup on the counter. “Alex was a nice man, but it’s time you put on a happy face and get back out there.”
Joanne struggled to open the safety cap.
“I don’t expect you to do everything at once.” Deep lines of disapproval pressed into her mother’s brow. “You can start with something simple like attending a brunch tomorrow hosted by the Grossman Foundation. The Malibu Ladies League has been asked to assist them in spreading the word about a new art gallery they want to build. I’m the publicity chair. It’s my responsibility to find people to pass out brochures. I’m choosing you.”
“I can’t go. I have to take Orsina to ballet.” She removed the cap and upended the container. A dozen yellow pills slid onto her palm.
“The brunch begins at eleven. The dance class starts at three-thirty. You have plenty of time to attend both, and…” Her mother smacked her hand. “Stop running away from your life.”
The pills flew in the air and landed on the floor.
Barbara ground them into the tile. “You’re not the only person living with disappointment. You need to find a way to get over it, or at least find a better way to deal with it.”
Flip flops slapped down the stairs followed by the steady march of the housekeeper.
“I’ll pick you up at ten.” Her mother exited the kitchen and greeted Orsina and Sylvia in the entryway.
The front door opened and shut on the conversing trio.
Joanne knelt down to wipe up the crushed anti-anxiety medication and noticed one of the pills had rolled under the dishwasher. She scooped it out with her index finger and wiped off the dust before swallowing it.
<Prologue <Chapter 1 <Chapter 2 <Chapter 3
© 2014 Lori Jones. All Right Reserved