"Thank God," she said. Taking her coffee, she went upstairs, walking
past her daughters' bedrooms and toward her own. It was still early. Maybe
she would wake Michael with a long, slow kiss. An invitation.
How long had it been since they made love in the morning? How
long since they'd made love at all? She couldn't remember. Her birthday
seemed a perfect day to change all that. She opened the door. "Michael?"
Their king-sized bed was empty. Unmade. Michael's black tee shirt
the one he slept in lay in a rumpled heap on the floor. She picked it up
and folded it in precise thirds and put it away. "Michael?" she said again,
opening the bathroom door. Steam billowed out, clouded her view.
Everything was whitetile, toilet, countertops. The glass shower
door was open, revealing the empty tile interior. A damp towel had
been thrown carelessly across the tub to dry. Moisture beaded the mirror
above the sink.
He must be downstairs already, probably in his office. Or maybe he
was planning a little birthday surprise. That was the kind of thing he
used to do...
After a quick shower, she brushed out her long wet hair, then twisted
it into a knot at the base of her neck as she stared into the mirror. Her
facelike everything about herwas strong and angular: she had high
cheekbones and heavy brown brows that accentuated wide-set green
eyes and a mouth that was just the slightest bit too big. Most women her
age wore makeup and colored their hair, but Jolene didn't have time for
any of that. She was fine with the ash-gold blond hair that darkened a
shade or two every year and the small collection of lines that had begun
to pleat the corners of her eyes.
She put on her flight suit and went to wake up the girls, but their rooms
were empty, too.
They were already in the kitchen. Her twelve-year-old daughter,
Betsy, was helping her four-year-old sister, Lulu, up to the table. Jolene
kissed Lulu's plump pink cheek.
"Happy birthday, Mom," they said together.
Jolene felt a stinging, burning love for these girls and her life. She
knew how rare such moments were. How could she not, raised the way
she'd been? She turned to her daughters, smilingbeaming, really.
"Thanks, girls. It's a beautiful day to turn forty-one."
"That's so old," Lulu said. "Are you sure you're that old?"
Laughing, Jolene opened the fridge. "Where's your dad?"
"He left already," Betsy said.
Jolene turned. "Really?"
"Really," Betsy said, watching her closely.
Jolene forced a smile. "He's probably planning a surprise for me after
work. Well. I say we have a party after school. Just the three of us. With
cake. What do you say?"
"With cake!" Lulu yelled, clapping her plump hands together.
Jolene could let herself be upset about Michael's forgetfulness, but
what would be the point? Happiness was a choice she knew how to make.
She chose not to think about the things that bothered her; that way, they
disappeared. Besides, Michael's dedication to work was one of the things
she admired most about him.
"Mommy, Mommy, play patty- cake!" Lulu cried, bouncing in her seat.
Jolene looked down at her youngest. "Someone loves the word cake."
Lulu raised her hand. "I do. Me!"
Jolene sat down next to Lulu and held out her hands. Her daughter
immediately smacked her palms against Jolene's. "Pattycake, pattycake,
baker's man, make me a . . ." Jolene paused, watching Lulu's face
light up with expectation.
"Pool!" Lulu said.
"Make me a pool as fast you can. Dig it and scrape it and fill it with
blue, and I'll go swimming with my Lu- lu." Jolene gave her daughter one
last pat of the hands and then got up to make breakfast. "Go get dressed,
Betsy. We leave in thirty minutes."
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