Girls of Summer: Chapter 2
It seemed to Ellen that everyone in town watched her make the two mile drive from Hall's house to her condo. She felt like a float in last week's Memorial Day parade, rolling slowly down the main street clad in nothing but one of Hall's dark green bath towels. Since when did the entire town hit the street by six-thirty in the morning anyway? Ceil, the checker at Yankee Shopper looked up from the ATM at the corner of Harbor Road and Shore Drive. Fred Custis from the hardware store nodded as he popped out of Dee Dee's Donuts with a sack and a cup of coffee. The Fontaines and their Bernese Mountain Dog named Lola actually stopped dead in their tracks and watched while she waited for the town's one traffic light to turn green.
Mary Sweeney, head of the Artists Co-op, waved at her from the back of her motorcycle then roared by en route to her daily swim at the beach near the lighthouse and Ellen was sure she saw her fishing buddy flash a thumbs-up as she disappeared around the curve.
It wasn't like she had broken a local ordinance or violated any zoning rules. All she had done was sleep with her boss then leave her car (the only fire-engine red PT Cruiser in Shelter Rock Cove) in his driveway overnight. Fortunately, stupidity wasn't punishable by law, even if it should be.
She wasn't sure what had happened between the bathroom and the hallway, but the moment she saw him standing there with that glass of orange juice in his hand, she had wanted to deck him. Before that she had been hurt but calm about the whole thing, embarrassed but not even the slightest bit angry. And then she saw his face and a wild surge of anger almost knocked her off her feet.
A few moments before she had been worried only about her dignity. Standing there in his foyer while he buttoned her dress, she had been worried about getting out of there without causing him bodily harm.
Up until last night his unavailability had been one of his most attractive assets. What could be better? A warm, witty, accomplished man with more baggage than LAX the day before Thanksgiving. The kind of man you could watch, observe, commiserate with, and lust over and never have to worry about it going anywhere at all.
In other words, her perfect man.
Nothing like a night spent in the arms of harsh, cold reality to show a woman the error of her ways. It was easy to fool yourself when you were home alone with a bag of Oreos and When Harry Met Sally in the DVD player but let's see how good you are when the man you've been dreaming about is dreaming about someone else.
It was time to say so long to those elaborate fantasies of showing up at the hospital one day to find her office awash in red roses or waking up to the sound of Hall serenading her from the parking lot of her condo. Oh, she was an expert at conjuring up scenarios worthy of Hollywood in its heyday, where the women were witty and the men were wonderful and everyone knew exactly when to say goodbye. No awkward slips of the tongue. No red-faced embarrassment. No explanations a woman could go to her grave without hearing. Worthless fantasies that she could pack away with yesterday's newspapers and chipped dinner plates and toss into the trash.
She wasn't quite sure when she had stopped looking at him simply as her colleague and started looking at him as a man but it had been fairly early in their association. He was warm, funny, charming, and gorgeous. A woman would have to be made of stone to resist him, as his track record would attest. She had heard chapter and verse about his way with the ladies but up until last night she had seen little evidence of a social life. It seemed as if he spent most of his time at the hospital, at the office, or with his two younger kids. If he had been seeing anyone the last few years, she was the best kept secret in town and they all knew how tough it was to keep a secret in Shelter Rock.
"There you are." Mary from next door popped out onto her porch just as Ellen fit her key into the lock. "Somebody's been looking for you all night, hon. She said you wouldn't mind if I let her in, but since you didn't mention anyone, I wasn't about to give her the spare key."
"Did she give a name?"
Mary frowned. "Dorothy? Doris? Dee Dee! That's it. I think she said her name was Dee Dee like the donut shop."
Ellen rested her forehead against her front door. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "A small blue-eyed woman with curly red hair like mine?"
"Yes," said Mary, "and the loveliest hands I've ever seen."
"That's my sister Deirdre." Deirdre who floated from job to job and town to town like a soap bubble on the breeze. Deirdre who never answered her email, her snail mail, or her phone calls until she needed something.
"Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle. And here I thought you were an only child!"
"Nope," said Ellen, trying to stand in the shadows so Mary wouldn't she was still wearing the same garden party dress that the elderly woman had admired the previous afternoon. "Actually I have two sisters. Mary Pat and Deirdre." Half-sisters but Mary could do without the full version of the story. She looked surprised enough as it was. Ellen knew exactly how she felt. She had been every bit as surprised to learn about them herself.
"I don't think I ever saw your sisters around here before, did I?"
She took a deep breath. Most families were dysfunctional to one degree or another. Why should hers be any different? Funny how after all these years, the embarrassment still ran deep.
"We're not the closest family," she said. "Mary Pat has her hands full with her five kids and Deirdre –" She shrugged her shoulders in a gesture she hoped conveyed benign bewilderment.
"She had a harp in the back of her car."
"A harp!" The last time she'd seen Deirdre, her sister had been carting around a tenor sax and a pair of bongos.
"And a dog."
"What kind of dog?"
"A big one," Mary said, spreading her arms wide. "The kind that slobbers. Let me tell you, that windshield was a sight. I don't know how she could see the road."
A minor sex scandal, a harp, and Cujo, and it wasn't even eight o'clock yet. The day was off to a great start.
She glanced around the quiet parking lot then back at Mary. "Do you have any idea where she went?" Deirdre's plans often did a 180 while she waited for the traffic light to change.
"Sorry, honey, but I didn't ask. I heard her ring your bell again around midnight. She stayed a few minutes on your front step then drove off. Maybe –"
Mary's thick grey brows knotted in a frown. "Hope you don't mind me asking, but isn't that the same dress you were wearing yesterday?"
Hall's cell rang as he was pulling into his parking space at the hospital. He angled his Rover into position and grabbed for the phone.
"Dr. Talbot speaking."
"What the hell were you thinking?" Susan Galloway Aldrin's melodious tones launched themselves straight into his cranium. A cold shower and black coffee had restored his equilibrium but nothing short of full-body anaesthesia could have protected him from Susan on a rampage.
"Care to ratchet it down a few decibels, Suze? I'm in a hospital zone."
She tried. He had to admit she gave it her best shot but she could still be heard in three counties.
"You slept with Ellen!"
He neither affirmed her statement nor disavowed it. "I take it you saw her car in my driveway."
"Everybody in town saw her car in your driveway. I saw it there last night when we were driving home from Annie's and Ma saw it there this morning on her way to six o'clock mass."
"She had car trouble."
Susan was his oldest friend and confidant but she didn't suffer fools gladly, if at all. "Save that crap for the rest of the world, Talbot. This is me you're talking to, the woman who held your hand through both of Annie's weddings."
That was the trouble with living in one town all of your life. Your secrets were public knowledge and you were never allowed to forget them. "I don't have time to get into this with you right now. I have to prep for a C-section."
"Right," said Susan. "Every time I try to say something you don't want to hear, you conveniently have a C-section planned."
"Don't push it, Galloway."
"What? You mean there's no population explosion in Shelter Rock?"
"You know damn well Jamie McIntyre was scheduled for her C-section. I saw you talking to her at the party yesterday."
"Apparently it slipped my mind."
"Good thing it didn't slip mine. That baby's ready to see what he's been missing. Looks like Jamie's going to pop an eight-pounder."
Hall wasn't a fool. Mention a newborn to Susan and she turned to mush. "I'll let you go deliver Jamie's son," she said with obvious reluctance, "but don't think this is the last you'll hear about this. You screwed up big time, friend, and you'd better be prepared to take the heat for Ellen. The least you could've done is park her car in your garage."
He disconnected without saying goodbye. He was Shelter Rock Cove born and bred. The rhythm of the small town was in his bones, a part of who he was and how he saw the world, but there were times, like today, when he wished he lived in Boston where nobody knew his name.
"Hey, Doc, how's it going?" Marie at the reception desk waggled her fingers at him as he crossed the small lobby. He had delivered her twin daughters nearly three years ago.
"Not bad for a Monday, Marie." He smiled at her desk mate Leandra who was manning the phones. Leandra was one of Ellen's patients, a high-risk primagravida who required careful observation and a gentle hand, two of Ellen's specialties.
Was he imagining things or did Leandra lean over to Marie as he was passing by and whisper something that sent Marie's finely-plucked brows arching skyward? He felt the heat of embarrassment rising up his neck. He hadn't reddened since he was fourteen and his voice changed halfway through his recitation of the Gettysburg Address in Assembly.
Get used to it, he thought darkly. If Susan was right, and to his dismay she usually was, he was going to be fielding arched brows and quizzical looks all day. If you think this is bad, try walking in Ellen's shoes this afternoon. She was closing on her purchase of Claudia Galloway's house on the hill and would have to face everyone from Claudia to Susan to a battery of attorneys over a conference table. He had the sinking feeling she was going to be fielding a whole lot more than a few raised eyebrows.
Damn that bottle of champagne. Damn the loneliness that filled his nights. Damn the way Ellen had looked with her auburn curls tumbling over her shoulders and those big eyes watching him across the table at the Spruce Goose, the way her own loneliness mirrored his, the way he had wanted her so badly that nothing else seemed to matter.
And damn him for taking advantage of that fact.
On the other side of town Susan Galloway Aldrin was taking out her aggressions on an innocent pan of scrambled eggs.
"Lighten up, Susie," Jack said as he poured two mugs of coffee then set them down on the kitchen table. "Those eggs didn't do anything to you."
She turned around, spatula aimed like a semi-automatic. "What was I thinking, Jack? Can you tell me what in holy hell possessed me to tell my mother Ellen spent the night with Hall? I might as well have handed her a loaded gun."
"At least you called to warn him."
She leaned against the side of the counter and aimed the spatula right between her eyes. "I swear to you the words popped out before I knew what hit me. I never meant to tell her I saw the car there last night."
"You're your mother's daughter, all right."
He was trying to be funny and she knew it but she wasn't in the mood for levity. "Meaning what? That I'm controlling or nosy or gossipy -- feel free to stop me any time, Jack."
The poor man looked like he would rather be anywhere else but, trouper that he was, he didn't try to escape. "You knew something she didn't and you couldn't resist passing it on."
"After I told her, she asked me if I knew what Ellen was doing there! Can you believe that? The woman's seventy-six years old. I think she knows what it means when a woman spends the night with a man."
He poured at least a half cup of sugar into his coffee cup, tasted it, then added a half cup more. "Did you ever think she was trying to protect Hall and Ellen."
"Oh please. She was the first one to tell all of her friends that Eileen was pregnant when she got married and that was her own daughter."
"You asked my opinion, I gave it to you. I don't know what else you want from me, Susie."
"I don't know how that man made it through med school," she fumed, moving the terrified eggs around with the business end of the spatula. "Everyone knows you don't sleep with an employee."
"She's not an employee."
"Oh yes she is. He owns the practice. She's just a junior partner."
"I thought she was a full partner."
"Nope," said Susan. "Not yet. At least I don't think so."
"Tell him it's like getting married. He doesn't seem to have a whole lot of trouble with that."
"Not funny," Susan said. "Maybe I should call him back and –"
"It's not your business," Jack warned. "Stay out of it."
"Then I'll call Ellen," she said, lowering the flame beneath the pan. "Maybe we—"
"—can screw things up even more? Great idea."
She gave him one of the withering looks that had worked much better in the earlier years of their marriage. Over twenty years of cohabitation had dulled the impact considerably. "I want to remind her about the walk-through at Mom's house this afternoon before the closing."
"You reminded her three times yesterday at the party."
"Only once," she corrected him. "Ellen's a doctor. She has a busy life. It's my job to make this easy for her."
"If you really want to make it easy for her, stay out of whatever's going on between her and Hall. They're both adults. Believe it or not, your old high school buddy doesn't have to run his girlfriends by you for approval."
Now that hurt. She and Hall had been best friends since grade school. When it came to his private life it was all public knowledge as far as Susan was concerned. If she didn't know about it, it hadn't happened yet.
"Damn," she muttered, scraping at the pan with the tip of the spatula. "Stupid eggs." She hadn't been paying attention and the moist yellow morsels were turning dry and brown. She pulled cream cheese from the fridge and dropped a good-sized blob of it into the pan, swirling it into a regular cholesterol festival. Welcome to the cardiac care unit.
"You've got to quit this matchmaking," Jack was saying as he slathered blueberry jam on a slice of toast. "The guy's forty-five years old. He's been married three times. I don't even want to speculate about how many women --" He shrugged. "Maybe the white picket fence isn't in the cards for him."
She opened her mouth, expecting a clever retort to fly out, but nothing happened. He was right. She didn't want him to be right. It hurt her to think her dearest friend might never find the happiness he deserved, the happiness she had spent the last twenty-five years of her life trying to manufacture for him, but she couldn't deny the truth.
She thought about Hall, about his ex-wives, his former lovers, his kids. He was a wonderful father, and the best ex any woman could possibly ask for. He went into each new relationship determined to make it work, confident that this time he could be everything his partner deserved, but somehow it never turned out that way. Sooner or later the woman involved began to realize there were three people in the marriage and that she would never be number one.
When Hall realized what she had done, he was going to be furious. She should have kept her big mouth shut when Claudia called and let her mother think Ellen was making an early morning visit to think of a way to back out of the house closing that afternoon. Claudia's leaps of logic had always gotten under Susan's skin and this morning, with too little sleep and too much on her schedule, she had been eager to point out the error of Claudia's ways.
If only it hadn't been at Hall and Ellen's expense.
How was she going to face the woman during the walk-through later that morning, knowing that she had helped spread the news far and wide like some kind of town-crier on commission?
Not that the gossip would be fatal. Oh, tongues would wag furiously for awhile and they just might lose a few patients to other doctors, but when the smoke didn't turn into a fire, the furor would subside. Unfortunately most of the damage would be to Ellen's reputation because this was a small town and she was still, in many ways, an outsider, but it was nothing she couldn't repair with time.
Give it a month or two and some other hapless couple would be caught slinking out of the Cozy Cottage Motor Court outside of town and Hall and Ellen would be relegated to the back burner.
It couldn't happen fast enough for Susan.
Simon Andrew McIntyre was born at 8:32 a.m. and weighed in at over nine pounds. Hall congratulated both parents then quickly set about closing up the mother so the McIntyres could embark upon the important business of becoming a family.
"Good job," he said to his surgical intern as they elbowed out of the delivery room. "You're catching on quickly."
She was a wide-eyed brunette with a smile that managed to glow from behind a face mask. "It's so unbelievable," she said, stumbling over her words. "I mean, to be there when a new life begins –" She shook her head and he caught the glitter of tears in her eyes. "Tell me it never becomes routine, Dr. Talbot."
"If it ever does," he said, "then it's time for a new specialty."
He thought about that a little later in his office. That was one of the many things that had made him choose Ellen as his partner. He had seen her dead tired at the end of an exhausting day, so wiped out that she could barely drag herself from the office to her car, and then her pager would go off and she'd find out one of her patients was in labor and the exhaustion and everything that went with it all fell away right before his eyes. All it took was the thought of being present for one more miracle, being there for that moment when the newborn sees the world and lets out with that first glorious cry – it was all there each time in Ellen's eyes.
Sometimes the fates weren't so kind. If he had the power, he would make sure no woman ever endured a stillbirth; that no husband had to hear the words, "I'm sorry but we couldn't save her." Every baby would be as perfect as the babies in magazines and on television, plump and rosy with ten of this and ten of that, all in the proper places. But life was inherently unfair and sometimes terrible things happened to the finest people and it was often his job to carry the news. It took its toll over the years. He whispered a quick prayer before each delivery, for the ease of the mother and the health of the child, for the wisdom to make the right choices. Still the sharp claws of dread clutched his heart every time.
They had fallen into the habit of touching base after every delivery. A quick acknowledgment of the everyday miracle of life. Sometimes a silent moment that marked the passing of hope. It had become a ritual he looked forward to, even counted on to mark the importance of it all.
On any other day, after any other delivery, he would been on the phone to her with the news. Nine pounds, two ounces, he would say. Twenty-four inches long with lungs to match.
Another day, another miracle, she would say and they would both laugh softly then sink back into their daily routines.
All he had to do was pick up the phone and dial her number, same as he had done hundreds of times over the last three years. A few words exchanged between them and everything would be back the way it had been this time yesterday before he made the biggest mistake of his life.
But he didn't pick up the phone because he couldn't say the words. The words he needed to say were the ones she didn't want to hear, the ones that would only make things worse between them than they already were.
"Damn it, Elly," he said out loud to his empty office. "What the hell have I done?"