Drew’s house has a wood-burning fireplace. I picture him kneeling before it, stacking wood and getting the tinder ready. Is he there now? Is he with Gray? God, I hope so. The idea of Drew being alone makes my heart physically hurt. I take an extra large bite of pumpkin cheesecake and try not to choke on it.
“What is going on with you, Anna?”
I nearly jump in my seat. I hadn’t noticed Mom studying me. Though I shouldn’t be surprised. Even if she doesn’t always act like she’s paying attention, she usually is.
I run the tines of my fork through the burnished cheesecake. I could evade, divert attention, but telling the truth is the quickest way with Mom. Like ripping off an especially sticky bandage. “I broke up with someone.”
“I’m sorry to hear it, sweetheart.”
My fork stabs deep.
“It didn’t get too far. We weren’t really right for each other.” God, the lie chokes me. I’m going to throw up my Thanksgiving dinner right here on the living room floor. I take a deep breath. “But I think I hurt him, and I’m sorry about it.” I might have also done some irreparable internal damage to myself, but we don’t need to talk about that.
Mom wisely says nothing but simply rises to go make me a cup of espresso. It gives me enough time to control my erratic breathing and quivering lip. When she returns, I’m composed.
“With a little extra crema on top,” she says, setting a tiny white cup down on the table before me. “Just as you like it.”
“Thanks.” The rich, deep scent of espresso is a needed comfort.
“Mom,” I say after a welcome sip, “did you think my father was… well the one? You know, when you first met him?”
As usual, mention of my dad makes her expression go blank and cool. She takes a sip of her own coffee. “Hard truth?”
Since I was a child, she has always asked if I want the watered down version or the harsh one. It depresses me to realize how often I’d asked for the easy tale. Not today.
“The plainest,” I say.
“Not really,” Mom says with a sigh.
I sit up. “Then why did you marry him?”
She runs a hand through her artful hair, a true sign of distress; she’d never risk ruining it like that. “Because I wanted him to be the one. And maybe…” She shrugs slightly, her dark hair sliding over her shoulder. “Maybe if he had stayed, he might have been.”
The taste of coffee turns bitter in my mouth. I set aside my cup and curl my feet under me. “But if he was the one, he would have stayed. And you would have known he was from the beginning. Right? I mean, it would have felt perfect.” It’s a lame protest but the very idea that my dad could have grown into her true love baffles me.
Mom’s light laugh fills the room. “You think love doesn’t take work? That it doesn’t need to grow?” Her hair swings as she shakes her head. “Of course it does.”
I sit back against the pillows with a huff. “Honestly, Mom? I’m shocked that you even believe in love at all.”
“Why?” Her eyes narrow to dark slits.
“Because you…” I take a frustrated breath. I don’t want to hurt her, but my unthinking mouth already started the ball rolling. Now I can’t take it back. “All these guys…” I trail off, looking away. The heat of the flickering fire tightens my cheeks.
Mom’s eyes are on me, burning my skin further. “Because I fail at love?”
Dully, I nod. And she drinks her coffee as she too looks off into the fire. The clink of her cup against the saucer breaks the silence. “Why do you think I keep trying, Anna?” Sadness weighs down her soft voice.
And when I dare to look at her, I see the lines deepen around her eyes.
“No, I haven’t found love,” she says. “Not the kind that lasts. Not yet. But it’s out there. And it hurts me to think that, because of my mistakes and fumbling, you have become so cynical.”
My entire face prickles with heat and the urge to cry. Fucking hell, I’ve never cried so much in my whole life than I have in these past few weeks. I hate that. Hate the tight ball of regret and ugliness that’s taken residence in my gut. Drawing my knees up to my chest, I wrap my arms around myself. Yet I still feel cold and unbalanced, as if something essential is missing from me.
Mom’s voice grows sharp. “I rather hate to tell you, but you remind me of your father right now.”
It’s like a punch to the gut. I exhale in a burst of breath. “That’s low. And unfair. I am nothing like him. Nothing.” I’ve worked hard to be like neither of them.
Her lips purse as her brows rise. She knows she’s cut me off at the knees. I’m paying for what I’ve said to her. Even if she won’t admit to it.
“Well,” she says, “he too gave up when it became difficult. He never wanted to try. Only to take the easy way out.”
“If you think I find any of this easy,” I grind out, “you’re wrong.”
Mom sets her cup on the coffee table. “Maybe so. But you’re still safer in your misery than going out onto that unknown limb.”
I’m on my feet before I can think about the action. “I’m going to bed.”
My feet eat up the plush carpet, propelling me away from my mother’s claws. But her reach is far, and I cannot block out her final remark. “That’s fine, Anna. Run away. But you’ll only feel worse for it.”
Sometimes I really hate my mother.
I return to campus Saturday night and come to the realization that I need to quit my job. I decide this the moment I open an email from Dave and read the catering schedule. I’m signed up for the football game tomorrow night. What the hell?