I woke up the day after I arrived here because Chloe, crosswise on the bed, had put her foot in my mouth. Daylight filtered through beakers and vases on the windowsills. I sat up.
“Good, you’re awake,” said Matt.Turning to take in his round head, his old familiar blinking eyes, I felt a gush of relief. “Matt!” I crossed quickly to the kitchen and grabbed onto him. “It’s so good to see you!”
“You, too.” He hugged gently. “Kind of a surprise, though.”
“I know it is. I’m sorry to parachute in on you like this. I just… We’re having kind of a disaster at home.”
“Is Sibyl okay?”
“No, not Mom. I mean, she’s fine, as far as I know. She’s in Sierra Leone. It’s Charlie, Charlie and me.” And suddenly, even with Penny sitting there at the kitchen table in front of a bowl of Grapenuts, my troubles spewed like lava. I gave them the whole story – how I found the secret correspondence, my suspicions, Charlie’s denial, the confrontation at Zulya’s place, how I’d fled across the country only to find my mother in Sierra Leone. I looked away from their eyes as I spoke, but kept talking without waiting to hear their responses. “I just couldn’t stay there, in our apartment, knowing that Charlie would come home and knowing that I couldn’t trust anything he said anymore, that this person who used to be my husband was a total stranger to me.”
For a moment, they both just stared at me, and I knew I’d gone too far. Who was I to Matt after all, but someone he’d known in childhood? He opened his mouth and closed it again. “Well, I’m…” He turned to Penny.
“So happy you did,” Penny finished. She covered my fist in her warm manly hand, and I felt a gush of relief. “It sounds absolutely horrible, what you’re going through. And we’re glad you came to us.”
“Yes,” Matt agreed. “You’re welcome here. As long as you like.” He smiled at Penny and she back at him.
“Thanks. So much.” Standing before them, I shivered as if I’d thrown off all my clothes.
Penny moved to cover me with hospitality. “Well how about some breakfast?” She began opening cupboards and setting on the counter boxes of cereal, bread, jam. “What would the kids like? I almost went to the store, but I realized I didn’t know what you eat.” She set a grapefruit on the counter, along with an orange and a basket of strawberries. “No butter, I’m afraid. Juice? Coffee? Tea?” She set out a bag of French roast in front of me as if I could eat it raw.
“I’d love a cup,” I said. She dished me a bowl of strawberries, set the coffeemaker going and turned the topic to her work. “Algae,” she said sitting down opposite me at the little table in their eat-in kitchen, “specifically cytokinesis in algae. When I say that, it makes most people’s eyes glaze over. But it’s absolutely fascinating. Did you know that algae is becoming one of the world’s most important food sources? You’ve probably had some in the last twenty-four hours and didn’t even know it.”
She filled the space between us with warm bubbles for a quarter of an hour while Matt sat by until suddenly she looked at her watch and jumped up. “I’m going to be late!” She turned her eyes on Matt. “I trust you can entertain our guest until I get back?” He nodded, she pecked him on the cheek and then was gone, letting silence flood into the townhouse.
“What time do you have to be at work?” I asked.
“Whenever,” he said. “I was there until one a.m. last night, so I thought I just might take the day off.”
“Not on my account, I hope.”
He shrugged. “I could use a rest.”
Our eyes met for a moment, then I looked away, feeling a surge of gratitude I couldn’t express. I pulled my Blackberry from my purse. “You know, I really should check in for messages.”
He directed me to the upstairs office, a room furnished with computers, peripherals, file cabinets and an Ikea desk covered with pungent Petri dishes. There were six messages on my phone. As I suspected, the first was from Charlie. “Adrienne,” he had said at 8:30 p.m., while my plane was somewhere over the Rockies, “Okay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I know what I did hurt you.” A huskiness roughened his baritone. “What I want to tell you, what I need to tell you, is that I never wanted to do it. I don’t know why I did. I was, somehow, trying to get your attention I guess. Trying to make you see me again. It was the wrong way of doing it. But we can work this out.” Hearing that, the tremor in his voice, I weakened. I wondered where he’d be right then, how I could reach him.