On her right cheek was a terrible rug burn from her terrible night.
Her flight to Chicago left at 7:00 a.m., a detail she’d overlooked anticipating brunch with Walter.
The ugly abrasion in the mirror reminded Amanda of her mother.
Among other things, Cheryl’s fate compelled her to chase any man who made the mistake of showing interest. Now, in turn, Amanda saw she would always want Walter, not as he wanted her, as an unofficial daughter, but for real. Adult Amanda wanted what she’d always wanted—Walter’s undying passion.
Considering what he’d been through, however, she was grateful he didn’t hate her. He had actually seemed elated by the sight of her. Or maybe just happily surprised. Amanda couldn’t know and shouldn’t guess. Any attempt to cover the rug burn worsened it.
She had packed for Charlottesville nearly rapturous, bringing a raspberry-colored knit dress and matching tights for today. Also, waxy brown lace-up boots, a gift from Caroline.
After paying her hotel bill, she wondered if the antique grandfather clock ran fast. Otherwise, she was late. Yet, there she stood (not lost in thought—just lost) until a bird flew into the window. Then she raced: returned the rental car; ran to the terminal, and stomped her feet to hasten the airport’s pneumatic doors. But she’d missed her flight. Practically alone in the impersonal expanse, her languor resumed. She stared at the distant ceiling, unaware, and turned in a circle.
Alarmed, she jumped, catching her sunglasses. “Um—Walter! What? What time is your flight?”
Not until late. He’d been waiting at the airport for two hours, hoping to catch her before she got away. “Now we have all day. The next plane to O’Hare leaves after eight tonight.”
She popped her sunglasses back on and held her anxious hands behind her back. But he loosened one arm and slipped his through hers. She stood by while he exchanged her now unusable ticket for the Delta flight at 8:20 p.m.
“Aisle or window, Amanda?”
“Either.” Her mind drifted and without her knowing, he upgraded her seat.
They ambled away, his hands always reassuring or steadying her. In a pool of brighter light, he said, “Amanda, those sunglasses don’t hide the eruption on your cheek.”
“I know.” She touched the spreading inflammation.
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone you stayed up all night squeezing a pimple.”
“Walter!” She laughed and swatted his arm. “I don’t squeeze pimples. How could you think that?”
“I thought everyone did.” He held her shoulders. “Let me see.”
“No.” She turned away. “It’s a spider bite.”
Reeling her in, he whispered, “Spider bite, it is then.”
Lowering her sunglasses, she caught his eyes. “Used to be, I was the sly one.”
“You’ll have to excuse me. Seeing you so grownup—and so—it’s bewildering.”
In his rental car, he suggested they spend the day downtown. Nobody would stop them. “Sterling’s friends have a full itinerary.” The newlyweds, giddy as drunks, had left early.
Deciding on brunch at The Nook, he requested a booth. Amanda chose blueberry pancakes. Walter asked for buckwheat. Juice, coffee.
Leaning back, he wrapped his legs loosely around her ankles underneath the table. Her boots limited any sensation and Walter’s stillness was unfailing. Yet, to her, his legs holding hers felt profoundly intimate. His smile doused her with such fondness, she lost her caution.
He moved as if not moving when he removed her sunglasses. “I’m the one who needs forgiving, honey.”
She kept her forceful voice low. “You saved me, Walter! You must know that.”
“I have hoped so, but regret my selfishness.”
“Don’t you dare say that.” She listed her good fortune, attributing every accomplishment to him.
She had loved the U. of C. and its core curriculum that had taught her, not just the classics, but how to learn whatever she might want. Her slightly older, very worldly roommate had remained her best friend.
He knew about the university and had—“ages ago—”considered the school for himself. Not noticing he was preparing to talk about his parents, she interrupted, pushing two photographs toward him on the table.
“Evie’s six and Vanessa’s five.”
“You had Evie when you were eighteen?”
“A blessing for me, their grandparents, and my ex.”
“Not quite. But we get along and my mother-in-law loves me, Walter. She does.”
He studied the photographs. “Yes. Evie and Vanessa.” He said their names as if he’d known them forever.
“Being their mother fulfills me. If you hadn’t loved me exactly as you did, when you did, Walter, I’d never have risked having children. I wouldn’t know how to relate to people, not really.”
“Your daughters look very bright and high-spirited.” Walter looked at her, stirring joy and contrition and—every kind of love. “Are they?”
“Are they what?”
“Bright and high-spirited.”
Yes, of course. She hoped so much they could meet him. But—she pressed her fork into a blueberry that popped open. “How can you forgive an isolated eleven-year-old girl who did everything she could to seduce you?”
“Any child as quick as you would have seized on the unnatural situation. You’re wrong to blame yourself. Nobody on earth blames the child in these things.”
“That’s them,” she said. “They believe children’s innocence means they have zero sexual awareness. A few might be like that, same as a few adults. But most healthy children—unless an adult interferes—privately enjoy their bodies so much they half-fear growing up.”
“Amanda.” He gently squeezed her legs and set them free. “Are you sure my internal conflict never upset or disturbed you? I selfishly maintained our unnatural situation as long as possible. Being with you, and usually being frustrated, made me guilty but happy. I loved you too much to hurt you—I believed that. So that unnatural phase between you and me—we were a world unto ourselves.”
“Cleansing my love for you almost killed me. Near the end, though, I conquered my demons. I cannot go back, Amanda.”
“Shit. I forgot you’re married.”
“No, I’m not.”