Fall With Me
“Everything is fine,” I say. “I fit right in here. Who would’ve thought, right?”
“I’ve actually got some business meetings in San Francisco coming up,” he says. “I was thinking of leaving a day or two ahead of schedule and coming down there.”
“Yes. Would you be available?”
“What, for like a lunch date or something?”
“Sure, Griffin, I’ll take you out to lunch.”
“Well, I’ve got a job now, so maybe I should take you out to lunch.”
Still, he doesn’t laugh. If anything, his voice is tight and he sounds tired.
“It might be better to talk in person,” he says finally.
“I met this girl,” I say. “Her name’s Jill. She works here, too. She actually helped me the night I washed up on the beach. Romantic, right?”
“Sounds absolutely Hallmark.”
“Looking back on it, it kind of was. Or maybe more Lifetime movie or something. But she’s great. You could meet her if you came out here. And the funny thing is, she didn’t like me at first—like, at all—but then, I don’t know. Something changed. Something happened. And . . . I know how corny this sounds, but she’s really like no girl I’ve ever met.”
“I think I’m about to vomit.”
“I know, I know how it sounds! It’s hard to explain. I mean, I’ve met a lot of girls, and they’re all great and everything, but . . . there’s just something about her.”
“Listen, Griffin, I’m ecstatic that you’ve discovered true love, but that’s not why I’m calling. And watch yourself with women, especially the ones that you think you might actually have genuine feelings for. Mostly, that just leads to trouble and more trouble. Anyway, I’m going to try to get a little sleep, so I’ll let you know about my travel plans, okay? It’ll just be easier to discuss this in person.”
“Sounds good,” I say. “I’ll make sure my calendar’s clear.”
We hang up, and the sleep I was so close to falling into before he called is suddenly miles away. It’s funny, I think. Cam thinks that I know something, but it’s pretty obvious he’s the one that’s got all the info. Maybe he just doesn’t realize it yet.
Chapter 18: Jill
Birthdays had always been Dad’s thing. He loved any reason to celebrate, but especially birthdays.
“Your birthday in particular,” he’d always say to me.
But Dad was good at making everyone feel special, and though he never saw the need to spend much money on a party, lots of people were always invited, he’d dedicate the whole day to making all sorts of good food, and the festivities would go well into the night, with everyone reluctant to leave because they were having such a good time.
I’ve been so caught up in other things that it doesn’t occur to me that this is my first birthday without Dad until I wake up in the morning and realize I’m not going to hear him say happy birthday and give me a hug.
We have an afternoon cookout, and some of the campers have made a cake for me, which is cute. Karen gives me a haphazardly wrapped gift of bubble bath, and Simon gives me a bouquet of flowers he picked himself. I catch Griffin’s eye across the picnic table and he winks.
I drive up to Mom’s some time in the later afternoon. “Here’s the birthday girl!” Sharon says when I come through the door. She gives me a hug, and as she does so, she whispers in my ear, “Your mom’s having a bit of a rough day today. She was up waiting for you, but she decided she wanted to go back to bed.”
I nod. “Okay,” I say. “I’ll just go in there and see her.”
“Oh, and a young man stopped by earlier, also.” Sharon turns and goes to the counter. There’s another orchid, this one a lurid magenta, like someone had colored it in with a marker. “He was very sweet, and he was asking when you’d be by. Sean, I think he said his name was?”
I grit my teeth but try not to let my annoyance show. “How long was he here for?”
“He visited with your mom for a little bit. It actually seemed to brighten her spirits quite a bit.”
“Great.” I sigh and look back at the plant. “Want an orchid?”
Sharon looks at me uncertainly. “Oh . . . should I have not let him in? Your mother was so happy to see him, I just . . . I didn’t even . . .”
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “You couldn’t have known.”
I say goodbye to Sharon and go sit in the wingback chair. “I see Sean was here,” I say.
“He remembered your birthday.” Mom has dark circles under her eyes, her skin seems thin, papery. Any happiness she was feeling earlier has clearly vanished without a trace. “Uncle Nate sent a card. It’s over there on the coffee table.” She sighs. “It was nice to see Sean. I told him he was welcome to stop by after we got back from dinner. Except I don’t think I’m going to be able to go out, sweetie. I just don’t think I have it in me. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, Mom.” Though actually it isn’t; the fact that she told Sean to stop by later makes my skin crawl, but I don’t say anything. “We can stay in. I’ll make you something. Do you feel like eating?”
“No, not really. And you shouldn’t have to make yourself something on your own birthday. Why don’t we order takeout. Maybe from that Thai place you like. Or whatever you want.”
So we order Thai food and watch a movie. And while I sit there with a plate of spring rolls and pad thai balanced on my lap, I try not to think about what sorts of things we might be doing if Dad were still alive, I try not to think about how much better everything would be, in every possible way, if he hadn’t died.
Mom has a few bites of spring roll and watches maybe half an hour of the movie before she falls asleep. I finish eating, then I go over to the coffee table and open the card from Uncle Nate. It’s a generic Hallmark card, which he’s signed his name to. A folded piece of paper flutters to the ground—more money—and I don’t bend down to retrieve it.
I do the dishes and fold up the take-out containers. Sharon is sitting at the kitchen table, working on a crossword puzzle.
“Are you hungry?” I ask. “There’s plenty of food leftover. I’m sorry; I should have asked you when we ordered.”
“Oh, I already ate,” she says. “And I was trying to make myself scarce, at least for the time being. It’s so good for her when you’re around.”
It’s still early, so I go and sit back in the chair and finish watching the movie. Sharon comes in and wakes Mom up and has her take about half a dozen pills. After she’s done washing them down with water, she looks at me, as though she’s surprised to see me still sitting there.
“Is it still your birthday?” she asks.
I nod. “Still my birthday.”
A sad look crosses her face, and I realize she’s just as eager for this day to be over with as I am. The movie credits are scrolling up the screen and I watch them for a minute, before I realize she’s crying.
“Mom,” I say. I reach over and take her hand, which feels limp and fragile, like toothpicks in a silk sack. “Don’t cry, Mom. It’s okay. I know today is hard. It’s hard for me, too.”
“I hate to hear you say that. I hate that this is how we have to feel now. I don’t want to feel this way, but it doesn’t seem to matter what I do. The only time I feel better is when I get my medication, and that’s because I don’t really feel anything at all.” Her fingers twitch, and then her grip tightens, momentarily, on my hand. “Please see Sean when he comes by later.”
I resist the urge to pull my arm back. “Why?”
“At least just talk to him for a few minutes. Could you do that for me?”
“I don’t understand what difference it makes to you.”
“I want to know that things are going to be okay for you,” Mom says. She blinks and wipes at her eyes. “I just don’t know how long I’m going to be around for—”
“Oh, Mom,” I say. “Please don’t talk like that.”
She sighs and rests her head against the pillow. “I never used to understand the people who thought life was such a hassle to live. People that never seemed happy, no matter what happened to them. But I get that, now. I’m in pain every day. Even the simplest task is either impossible or near-impossible to do on my own. Do you know how hard that is? I just want to be realistic about things.”
I press my lips together and take a deep breath. “Mom. I’m not saying I think what you’re going through is easy. I know it’s not. But . . . but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to enjoy things, too. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to have good times.”
“I’m in pain all the time. I’m on eight different medications that make me feel like I’m underwater or wrapped up in gauze. Like there’s this constant fog in my brain. Is that any way to live?” She wipes at her eyes again and then forces a smile. “I’m sorry, Jilly. I didn’t mean to get into all that. Some days are harder than others.”
I swallow the ache in my throat. “I wish I could make it better for you.”
“You are. Just knowing that you’re out there, working toward what you want. It makes me happy to think of you out there, going to school, working with the campers, hanging out with your friends. Your father’s gone. I’m practically gone. Sean cares about you. He remembered your birthday! I don’t want to think about you being out there all alone. Not that I don’t think you can’t be happy on your own, of course, but everyone should have someone. Someone to come home to.”
“There’s plenty of time for me to meet someone,” I say. “Sean and I . . . we gave it a good go. But I don’t think he’s the right guy for me. Don’t you think it’s more important that I wait and find the right guy?”
“Yes. But sometimes I wonder if you’ve set your standards too high.”
“Is there such a thing?”
“There is, Jilly. You know that. You can be hard on people sometimes. And am I saying that I just want you to be with any old person? No, of course not. But I remember how happy you and Sean used to be together. It reminded me of the way things were between your father and I.”
I do my best not to groan. “Mom, my relationship with Sean was nothing like what you and Dad had. I’m kind of too busy for that now, anyway. Once camp is over I’ve got to get back to school and actually graduate. And eventually, maybe, I’ll meet someone.”
“I know you will. And you’re right—there’s no rush. I’ve just been missing Dad. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a year since we last saw him, isn’t it?”
“I keep thinking about that last weekend we spent together. It’s really like my last clear memory I have from before the accident. When he took me on the helicopter ride in Napa?” She laughs. “I’d always wanted to do one of those helicopter tours, and I never thought it would happen because your father was so afraid of heights.”
I laugh too, thinking about the way Dad used to psych himself up before ascending the ladder to clean the gutters out every fall, before he finally hired our next-door neighbor’s son to do it.
“But your father knew how much I wanted to go, and even though he kept his eyes squeezed shut half the time, by the end, I think he had a pretty good time. I know I did.” Her smile fades a little. “It really was beautiful. I’d love to relive that day, over and over again.”
I swallow. “I wish you could, Mom.”
He’s just as handsome as I remember him, slightly more filled out. He’s tanned, and he looks genuinely happy to see me, so when he asks if I will just give him five minutes and hear him out, I agree.
“God,” he says. “Look at you.” He glances over his shoulder toward the kitchen, where Sharon is still sitting at the table. “Could we talk somewhere a little more . . . private?”
“Is that really necessary?”
He pauses as though actually giving consideration to the question. “No, but I would appreciate it if we could talk privately for a few minutes.”
If he had said yes, it was necessary, I probably would’ve walked out the door right then, but I relent and we walk upstairs.
We stand there for a moment, not saying anything.
“So what did you have to tell me that you couldn’t say down there?”