Trivial Pursuits {?} - Chapter 17, Part 2

At least his eyes aren’t open while he says these things, she thought. If Greg were awake, he’d be making the kind of eye contact that made her squirm; it was so unbearably naked and bold. He’d be staring unflinchingly at whoever he was confronting with all of his conviction and all of his vulnerability, because he was brave enough to show both. She knew—she’d been the recipient of that stare before. It was an unrelenting, hard-working stare, insistent on nothing but honesty. She’d rarely been able to outlast it.

But mercifully, his body was busily locked in a battle with his 103-degree fever. It was with some simulacrum of himself, some dream version of his clear, reckoning blue eyes, that he was staring down his listener, and no doubt forcing them to look away.

“You know, I’m always trying to get the answers right, but I’m never asking any of the questions, am I?” His voice was plaintive but steady as he directed the question into the general proximity of the abandoned dent in her side of the bed. “Maybe I’m too much of a coward to ask the questions.”

So he was talking to her, then, or to some version of her that he’d assembled from the scraps of his unconscious. And oddly enough, it seemed that in the dream Amy was somehow answering him. There were appropriate-length pauses in between his statements, and she saw the signs of interaction play across his face as he spoke: a somber nod, an ephemeral frown, the beginnings of a polite interruption. It frustrated her that she couldn’t even hear what her dream persona was saying, much less control it. She felt as though she were spying on herself, and doing a poor job of it. And really, it was kind of true; she couldn’t say she knew what she was up to, anymore.

She knew she should be getting ready to leave soon. Here she was, preparing to meet P.J.’s birth mother, and she couldn’t tear herself away—couldn’t shake the feeling that what Greg was saying to her was somehow more important than what she was planning to tell the girl. After all, Greg was possibly providing clues to the present, to the current state of his emotions, and their relationship. The news she had for Ashley was not only unspeakable, it was irreversible, solidly and forever in the past.

“If we could just get past all the blame, we might be okay,” Greg continued, unknowingly casting another vote for the present, reasserting the force and the lifeblood of things that still existed, or were yet to exist. “I really still believe that.”

And in spite of all the things she’d done to corrupt and compromise what she wanted to say, she decided to say it anyway. “I hope so, Greg,” she muttered, surprised by the heavy sadness of her own voice. “I do want us to be okay.”

The intrusion of her voice seemed to disrupt Greg, whose body perhaps contracted into a defensive coil. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Amy was now seeing things, as well as hearing them.

P.J’s birth mother, Ashley, was in her second semester at UC Santa Cruz—she’d barely even arrived at what would someday be her Alma Mater. Amy knew it was cliché to think she’s hardly more than a kid herself, but in this case, she really did believe it to be true. She’d recently seen Ashley’s high school portrait, which the agency had provided. And even in the soft portrait lighting, with Ashley’s stubby little hands clutching a rose, it had been heartbreaking. No amount of harmonious backdrop or portrait studio magic could possibly edit out this girl’s misery.

Amy couldn’t help being surprised that P.J.’s birth mother wasn’t attractive. She’d taken it as a given that the young woman who’d produced her beautiful daughter would also be beautiful. Maybe it was also the name—for some reason, Ashley evoked in Amy images of all-American youth and vitality, the quintessential blonde beauty.

Ashley was blonde, but not in a sun-kissed, honeyed way; her hair was a washed-out shade of beige, the color of control-top pantyhose. It hung lank and stringy to her shoulders, which were slumped in what appeared to be permanent resignation. Her skin, which was probably at the peak of its youthful resilience, nevertheless had an unhealthy cast, an almost metallic gray undertone, as if she’d been faintly shaded in with a #2 pencil. Her mouth was small and packed with too many teeth, which abutted each other awkwardly like subway passengers. Along her chin and jaw was a bloom of late-adolescent acne, which she’d clearly been picking, scratching, mining for the pain and self-loathing it never failed to deliver.

Her eyes, a placid light green, were arguably her best feature, but their almost invisible blond lashes detracted from them, caused them to sink inconspicuously into the bland character of her face.

Looking at the picture, Amy had felt she could cobble together the back-story fairly easily. Ashley had clearly had a terrible time in high school; probably, P.J.’s father had taken advantage of her loneliness and insecurity to score an easy conquest. Amy doubted that the affair had ended well; the flat, deadened tenor of terminal disappointment had already settled into the disingenuous smile in the senior portrait. And now, Ashley was off at college, attempting to make a fresh start, to put the whole thing behind her. Really, Greg was probably right: it was in the best interest of everyone to put this in the past. So why were she and Ashley insisting on meeting today, on digging this up?

For Ashley, the news would only be a setback to moving on; it would reopen her old wound and create an unfathomable new one. She wants to put this behind her, Amy thought, but she has no idea what’s still ahead.

As she sped along the freeway, toward the restaurant where they were scheduled to meet, her hands started to shake. She tried to comfort herself by reviewing her plan, rehearsing what she was going to say. But the more she thought about this horrible confession, the more violently her hands trembled. Even as she pressed down on the accelerator, she could feel her emotions tugging her back, telling her to stop the car, to turn around, to go home.

She’d been grimly steeling herself for this confrontation, certain that the brave thing to do was to tell Ashley the truth, to come clean. She needed to purge it, to get the truth out, and move on. It was a sort of emotional test she’d set up for herself, and she’d promised herself she’d pass it.

But was testing her personal bravery really the priority here? After all, this wasn’t just about her. There was another person involved; it wasn’t just about Amy proving herself to Amy. Was it wise, was it even fair, to be guided solely by some promise she’d made to herself?

She thought about the girl in the picture, gamely trying to force a smile through her despair. Was Ashley really coming here today to find out the baby she’d given up was dead? Was that why she’d set up this meeting? Of course not, Amy thought, gripping the wheel harder to quell the shaking. She just wants to know that everything is okay. And instead, for no other reason than that the girl had initiated a status-quo meeting, Amy was about to dump this horrific confession on her. .

And who was the confession really for? It couldn’t really be for this sad, confused girl, who most likely would be unraveled by one more piece of bad news. No: she knew exactly who she needed to confess to, even before she allowed herself to think it. Suddenly, the depth and the weight of the lies she’d been telling made her dizzy, and she almost had to pull over. Instead, she took the next exit, and re-entered the freeway going the other direction. She needed to go home and talk to Greg; it was long overdue. She still wasn’t ready to tell him about Lynette, things were still entirely too fragile to own up to that treacherous mistake. But she could start by telling him about Ashley. It was time they stopped having separate conversations.

She pulled into the driveway, worn out from the emotional rigors of the past hour, her hair frizzed in the lost battle with the late morning humidity. But she also felt a sense of rare calm, of peace; she felt she’d uncovered and faced something of the truth, and she was going to act on it. She was going to take the first step toward letting Greg back in, and hopefully he’d reciprocate.

She dug halfheartedly through her purse for her phone; she’d been unable to find it in the car to call Ashley and cancel, and had had to stop and call from a pay phone. But even after disgorging several loose coins, crumpled receipts and an empty makeup compact, the phone was nowhere in sight. She sighed, but collected herself resolutely; she’d deal with that later.

The house was eerily quiet, something that would have been odd under normal circumstances (Greg was a habitual and effusive greeter), but hardly surprising today. She figured he was still asleep and then found herself wondering if maybe he was well enough to tolerate some food today. Maybe she’d make him some dry toast, get the BRAT diet together for him. Yes, it was time to do something for Greg for a change.

She almost didn’t see him, or more precisely, she wasn’t prepared to see him, as she walked purposefully toward the kitchen. But there he was, in the living room, sitting on the couch, wide awake. His look was unflinchingly direct, singularly focused, as if he’d somehow been staring at her even before she’d shown up. This stare—a current of pure rage tempered by a control that was somehow even more frightening—was distinctly personal and could not have been directed toward anyone but her. You, it said.

What had happened? Could he have found out about her meeting with Ashley? Clearly, he seemed to know something.

“How’s it going?” she asked inanely, her nervous chuckle sounding exactly like the plea it was.

“You left your phone here,” he said, holding up the slim green-metallic thing, so insubstantial and frivolous.

So, there it was.

Such a worthless bauble, it was, really, the thing that was about to ruin her marriage. The muscles in Greg’s jaw were clenched in anticipation; he obviously needed Amy to say something. He needed her to address what he hadn’t actually said.

“I guess I did.” She sighed heavily, and sat down across from him on the favorite love seat.

“Some interesting text messages came in, from your friend Lynette,” he said. “I’ll admit: I went ahead and read them, Amy. I violated your privacy. So, maybe I deserved what I got.”

“I don’t know,” she said blankly, staring out the picture window at her neighbor, Jeannette, who was lugging her empty trashcan back from the curb. At one point, Jeannette swerved the wheels of the trash can over her toe, and obviously cursed. “I don’t know what either of us deserves anymore.”

Was it pointless to tell him about what she’d sped home to tell him? Maybe it would mean something to him, the resolution she’d made to try to share an honest life with him again. But without even looking at him, she knew. She knew his face, and she knew what it was saying right now, and she knew that it was pointless.

All she felt now was tired. She tore her eyes away from the window, faced Greg, and began slowly to come clean.

Check out previous chapters of Trivial Pursuits {?} right here.

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