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LAce Posted Monday, March 19th, 2007
The Bargain
Katharine Coldiron

Oh, it's her! I haven't seen her in so many months, and there she is, driving up in her car. Ew, she hasn't gotten that dent fixed.

"Hi, sweetie! It's so good to see you!" We hug. "You look great! I love your hair."

She shrugs. "It's the same as it always is."

We drive to her little house, two towns away from where I'd been speaking that weekend, and her boyfriend and his parents are there. "It's so nice to meet you," says her boyfriend's mother, and hugs me. She's tall and well-dressed. "Peg has told us so much about you."

I wince at the nickname. So common. "Yes, Margaret's told me a lot about you, too."

Margaret has made us an amazing brunch casserole. I feel secret relief, and jealousy, that my rotten-cooking genes haven't been passed to my daughter. When I compliment her, she smiles shyly. She gestures to her boyfriend's mother and says that it's Liz's recipe. Liz smiles and says, "You left out the onions, though."

"Well, you said to make it the way I'd want to eat it, and damn the guests," says Margaret, and laughs. Liz laughs too. I watch this, and feel something tug in my stomach.

"You never have liked onions," I add, and laugh. They all look at me.

"True," says Margaret, and eats another bite. She is perched on a stool at a corner of the tiny square table, where her boyfriend, his parents, and I sit on folding chairs. The dishes are lovely and the silverware matches the glasses. "Target," she will tell me later, smiling, with her eyes downcast.

As we eat our way through Margaret's casserole, she and her boyfriend tell me about their jobs, about the things they do on the weekends, about themselves. It comes through that they eat at her boyfriend's parents' house just about every weekend, that her boyfriend's parents buy them tickets to the theater in the city, that they couldn't possibly make the house payments without the help of her boyfriend's parents. They laugh together, they refer to things they've seen and trips they've taken, they make in-jokes. There's a twanging somewhere behind my diaphragm, and I'm finding it harder and harder to swallow Margaret's delicious casserole.

"So, Jana," says Liz, picking up her water glass, "Peg's told us you just started a new job."

"Yes," I say.

"What made you decide to do something different?"

"I wanted stability," I say. "I've been working so hard in the past few years, and…" I look around, and I think of something that is almost true at this moment. "I think my work has been taking over the other things. I want to relax, and reprioritize." I look at my daughter. "I'm missing so much of the things that really matter to me."

Margaret looks at her casserole, her face without expression. "Hmm," says Liz, impressed. "I know what you mean. When I retired, it was a huge adjustment." She launches off into a story about what it was like when she retired. My eyes are still on Margaret. Hers are on her casserole. What is she thinking about? The left-out onions? Or does she know of my bargain, is she thinking of my bargain?

"…but then I started actually going to the board meetings, and since then I've been busier than I was before retirement," says Liz, and she laughs. Liz's husband laughs a little too. Margaret's boyfriend is looking at her.

"Peg, are you all right?" he asks, quietly.

"Yes," she says. "I was just wondering if everyone had enough to eat."

She gets up from the table and offers us mimosas (Mimosas! She's only twenty-five!), and after only Liz and I take her up on it, she pours one for herself. The ratio is rather skewed toward champagne. Is she drinking too much?

I happen to be looking at Margaret a half-hour later when the doorbell rings, and I see her face fall. I look at my watch, and surely not, the Blue Van is an hour early, it can't be. But it is. And the look on Margaret's face, mingling contempt and relief and anger and sadness, tells me that she knew it would be early, she knew it. How did she know that would happen?

She hugs me, and I get teary right at the end there. Over her shoulder I see that the little garden surrounding her front door is weedy and overgrown. She should really take care of that; it's the first thing visitors will see, and they're not all as generous about appearances as I am.

"Bye, sweetie. I'll see you next time. Don't forget you can always come visit me."

Her face tightens. "Sure, Mom."

She waves for a short time as the van pulls away. I'm looking out the back window, and I see her fold her arms and go back into the house with her shoulders falling a little. She's going back in to them, to her boyfriend's parents. They are waiting for her.

In the van I'm thinking about the bargain. I agreed with myself that she was an adult, now, and I could focus on my work and it wouldn't hurt either of us. I was not missing the stuff that mattered, the stuff where I could make a difference: I was there every minute until she was twelve. We didn't need to see each other so often, talk to each other so often, now that she was grown up. Now that her face was unfamiliar, now that she was lean and short-haired and had cares I did not know, now that her boyfriend's parents were making her laugh and there was only room for four at her table.

It occurs to me, now, that I should have asked her to sit in my chair.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Donna Levy [ ] on Monday, April 2nd, 2007 at 5:44 PM
Reading your story brought up hurts too deep to discuss. So very well done. Love, Donna

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