Trying to keep my eyes on the road after I arrived in California last week, I groped in my handbag for my cell phone. With a thumb, I scrolled to the entry for Matt. A lot of people in Pleasant Valley go to sleep at ten or earlier, and I prayed as I listened to one, then two, then three rings, that Matt and his wife weren’t among them.
“Hello?” It was a woman’s voice.
“Hi!” I tried to sound cheerful. “You must be Penny!”
“I’m Matt’s step sister! Maybe he mentioned that we ran into each other a few weeks ago.”
“Oh, Anne! Yes. How are you?” She sounded as if she were greeting an old friend. One whose name she had somehow forgotten.
“Adrienne, Adrienne, I’m sorry. Matthew isn’t home right now, he’s still at work.”
My car swerved with disappointment.”
“I’m holding down the fort. He’ll be so happy that you called. If he doesn’t call you back tonight, it’ll be first thing tomorrow.”
A second of hesitation and I blurted, “I’m in Pleasant Valley!”
“You are? How wonderful! When will we get a chance to see you?”
“I’m… I don’t know.” Obviously I couldn’t stay there if Matt was out. “I’ll call tomorrow.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I’m actually not sure.” My face heated the darkness. “I’m looking for a motel.”
“A motel? You should come here!”
“I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Adrienne, it’s not imposition!” Her voice rose an octave. “You’re family! And I’ve been dying
to meet you ever since Matt said he ran into you at the Plaza. Do you have our address?”
I paused three beats more, then gave in to what I wanted. Her manner made it all sound so normal, so natural. She and Matt lived in a new development that didn’t even exist when I left Pleasant Valley. So Penny launched into some of the most detailed directions I’ve ever gotten.
An older woman
In half an hour I was standing on the doorstep of their condominium, with my head half turned to catch any motion from the two slumbering kids in the backseat of the Escort.
The woman who opened the door looked less frowsy than her photograph, and older. I guessed she was Matt’s senior by at least five years. Somehow a dead oak leaf had entwined in the neglected swirls of her long gray-brown hair. Square jaws gave her face a heavy-duty heft that was only slightly softened by her grandmotherly spectacles. She wore a man’s T-shirt – obviously one of Matt’s because it had the GenTron logo on it – that hung to her knees. Her tan, unshaved shins and her feet were bare beneath that, so it wasn’t immediately clear whether she had anything else on at all. Moist eyes searched me over. “Arianna!” She held the door open with a hand too large for her body. “Come in!”
Embarrassment nailed me to her doormat as I realized I had forgotten to mention the kids. “Actually my kids are sound asleep. I don’t know. You probably don’t have room for us all.”
She sucked a gasp of air. “You brought your kids! Matt will be so pleased!” Where are they?”
She peered past me. “Bring them in!”
Penny’s and Matt’s place was a narrow townhouse with three internal staircases; instead of stacking units one on top of the other, the architect had wedged them side-by-side, so the garage and master bedroom were on the first floor, a living room open to the kitchen on the second, and a spare bedroom that Penny and Matt used as office and laboratory on the third.
Before a test tube breaks
Outside was clean white stucco and neatly trimmed ice plant. Inside was something else. Penny and Matt had combined antique ottomans, armoires and stained glass lamps inherited from Penny’s grandparents with colorfully upholstered modern pieces for an effect that would have been dizzying, even if the rooms were tidy.
But when I arrived, every table top and counter was heaped with text books, student papers, photographs, dirty soup bowls, bottles of acids, preservatives, staining agents. I couldn’t picture my kids in that space for even one morning, and carrying Chloe in, I almost turned right around again.
Penny had already relieved the sofa bed of its stack of academic journals. “How’s this,” she asked, hoisting an oscilloscope. “Will they be comfortable here?” She caught my expression.
“Uh oh. Is something wrong?”
A wave of exhaustion hit me. We’d leave first thing in the morning, I told myself, before a test tube could get broken. And at that moment, I just didn’t have the strength to find my way back to the highway.
“No, nothing. You have really remarkable stuff.”
“Thanks.” She twinkled, amused at my faint praise. We laid the two kids out. Chloe remaining limp, Dante’s eyes opening only enough to see my face over him before he slipped back under. Penny, who had disappeared upstairs, came back down with a stack of blankets which we spread over them. “Now,” she said. “I promised you tea didn’t I? And then I want to hear all about you and growing up with Matt and your childhood together. Only a mile or two from here, isn’t that right?” She turned the flame on the stove.
“Thanks,” I said. “What time will Matt be home?”
“I don’t know. It depends on how the work is going.” Penny was opening the kitchen cupboards one after another. “I used to have some cookies in here, but every time I bring sweets into the house Matthew throws them out. It’s the most maddening thing, this Dean Ornish stuff.”
“You should have seen him as a kid!”
“Yes?” She came over and sat down next to me on the edge of the sofa bed, her eyes smiling into mine. “I want to hear about that.”
I started to describe him when the kettle whistled. Penny got up. “Maybe I’ll just lie down for a minute,” I said. I never heard her answer.