Friendship Heirlooms Series:
Return to the quaint little town of Peaceful, Wisconsin, from Karen Wiesner's award-winning Family Heirlooms Series, where you first met and fell in love with these colorful, lovable friends. Now you can read the stories of those secondary characters in an all-new spin-off series. Nuggets of faith can be passed down as heirlooms from friend to friend, heart to heart, soul-mate to soul-mate.
Book Six Friendship Heirloom: Maturity
"I'm the kind of girl who is quiet in large groups or around people I don't know; you only see the real me if we're close. I smile and laugh a lot, especially at the most inappropriate times. I'm a hopeless romantic. I trip over air, up stairs, and over people's feet. I am the hardest person to offend, but it is all too easy to make me feel horrible. I'm awkward, clumsy, shy, strange... but this is me. Take it or leave it."
I have a secret: I frequent clumsy blogs--you know, places where people who are clumsy tell their horror stories. I suppose these are funny... if you're not the one currently bleeding, bruised or humiliated beyond ever showing your face in public again, that is. I have trouble laughing at the wild antics because I know too well that clumsy people like me aren't in control of these things. We literally can't help it. It's as if our bodies are out of sync with gravity, with the laws of motion and stability. I frequent these blogs to learn what to avoid, where to steer clear, who to run in the opposite direction from. One town can't support more than one of us. Seriously, having two clumsies in one place at the same time is akin to global catastrophe. Who knows what delicate balance we may inadvertently screw up?
I can't walk down my own sidewalk in winter because that's an accident waiting to happen. Heck, I can't walk down my sidewalk in summer because I've been known to trip over a blade of grass or stumble over the smallest stone. Full body armor wouldn't help me any more than a bib would. I need constant supervision and even that wouldn't really help because the fact is I'm lucky to be alive. Or I'm cursed. Maybe a little of both.
Every day of my life, it's a struggle because I'm the pinball in the machine, bouncing through life and in constant pain because I smack the walls, hit the deck, smash cruelly against the guard rails of life. I'm the awkward fashionista-opposite who gets a paper cut putting on perfume samples from a magazine. I split my very first pair of Calvin Klein's. I'm the oblivious floater through reality who drop-kicks an infant's sippy cup to the ceiling in a mall because I'm in my own world and not paying attention to anything around me. I snort drinks (and occasionally even food) through my nose because sometimes you just have to laugh even when it's not a good time for it. Daily, this clumsy girl pours her heart out into her 'diary cartoons', weeping as she does so, and all her friends think she's Carol Burnett on paper!
I'm the unlucky one who upends salt, pepper, sugar, gasoline, you name it into everything good in life. I ruin things. Normal people don't want me around or they're just plain scared of me. Those are the sad facts.
But sometimes the most amazing things happen and a boatload of sugar becomes the best cup of tea ever. That's what happened almost five years ago when I recommitted my life to the Lord, and, boom, the macho Italian prince who dumped the finger-in-a-socket, fire-engine red-haired stick figure for a big-breasted Bon Bon with more curves than a Bezier surface realized he made the biggest mistake of his life. Curt came back to me groveling and bet the whole pot in the gamble of the century. Luckily, his risk paid off and he made two peas in a pod happier than they've ever been.
Still, fairytales can have ripped-out-of-bliss moments. That's reality. Life isn't always a fantasy, even when two people are striving single-mindedly toward their happily ever after, the way Curt and I have been all these years. You get older, smarter, crazier, touched and sometimes even changed, a little jaded and worse for the wear. All around you families, relationships, friends, couples, parents and kids, even cats are in upheaval. No one, not even Christians, are indefinitely content and settled. In everyone's life, some doubt and cayenne pepper must fall, to the point that sometimes even you don't know who you are, should be, what you want or need--all you know is, you can't take one more uncertainty, let alone another doozy of a sneeze.
In these in-between stages of life, sometimes you manage to progress forward a single step for each dozen you're punted back. That in itself is a lesson, and one that needs to be learned, preferably not the hard way. Maturity is about accepting that life tends to happen in a big sprawling, awkward, shocking mess. You get bumped and bruised. Everyone you know and a few you don't (and hope to never meet again) get to see you with your legs cycling up in the air, your skirt around your neck, and your backside exposed to the corrosive elements. I know, it's hard to accept in a moment like that that the world doesn't center around you and your cringing bum. Yet it's in times where you're most exposed and made small that you realize God is working with you, that you're advancing, that you can go on--you want to and can't wait to--and what's up ahead may be your greatest adventure yet.
No matter what, you can't be afraid...even if the only thing life has to offer you is embarrassing stories of hands, feet and eyes crossing and sending you sprawling, toilet paper stuck to your shoe and trailing in your wake with your dress tucked into your tights, and love throwing you off the highest precipice and either catching you so you soar or dropping you splat on the hardest cement.
This is me, Zoe Rossdale-Bertoletti.
Take it or leave it.
"Story writers say that love is concerned only with young people, and the excitement and glamour of romance end at the altar. How blind they are. The best romance is inside marriage; the finest love stories come after the wedding, not before."
Lately, I'd been going to my mother-in-law's house almost every day after I got off work. First, I went home to get my female Maine Coon, Nutmeg, and my husband's male Maine Coon, Cayenne, and of course grabbed a sizeable snack for myself. Then I drove over. Mamma Cara, Curt's mother, wasn't actually Italian, but she'd been around Italians for so long, you'd never know she wasn't one--and not just because she spoke Italian fluently. Jennifer was loud, never failing to say what was on her mind on any and all occasions, fluctuating between moodiness and devotion, encouragement and impatience, bossiness and a blasé attitude, and always she believed she was in the right.
These traits were the opposite of my own mother, whom I'd lost when I was teenager. Yet from the first time I'd met Mamma Cara, the gaping hole inside me that my mother's death caused had felt less fatal. Jennifer had been my champion, wanting Curt to choose me over a voluptuous fantasy who'd never given him the time of day unless she needed something. Since Curt and I got married, Mamma Cara had been "keepin' him in line" for me, though I'd actually asked her not to do that anymore. I'd come to the conclusion that it wasn't physically possible for her--or any one of Curt's numerous siblings, for that matter--to mind her own business.
Not long after Curt and I got married, I'd encouraged my husband to pursue his dream of setting up a branch of the successful family restaurant, Ciatti's Italiano. He had a business degree from college and he'd worked in the restaurant all his life. He could perform any duty required, from head chef to order facilitating to front of the house and managerial stuff. Getting his brothers and sisters to agree to a branch in another location hadn't been easy. He was the baby of the family, and his siblings teased and ridiculed him relentlessly, making it hard for him rise above his station--the one they'd crammed him into all his life because they always assumed he'd screw up.
While it'd been my shove in the back that convinced Curt to do this, in retrospect I realized I hadn't thought the idea all the way through beforehand. I didn't realize doing this meant him going away, finding a good location, and staying there, far away, until the place was up and running. In this case, it'd also meant having the physical restaurant built on location from the ground up.
In the nearly five years since he started this whole thing, Curt had been coming home less and less as slowly he made this major thing he'd dreamed of happen. He was involved in every single aspect because his family had given him the money and they expected him to do all the work. Curt's plan had been to get the new restaurant to the point where it could be opened for business, then to have one of his brothers or sisters step in and manage on a day-to-day basis.
Another damning retrospect realization: The further along Curt got in this process, the less likely his end goal seemed capable of coming to fruition.
Curt's family could be described as nothing less than entrenched homebodies. They needed to be surrounded by everyone they were even vaguely related to as if constant, relentless nosiness (and, frankly, noisiness) in each other's lives was a foregone conclusion. Maybe I wasn't that family-oriented myself--not since my mother died--but I was a homebody in the worst sense of the word. I was born and would die in Peaceful, Wisconsin, end of story. Traveling for me amounted to going to La Crosse, the nearest big city about an hour from charming, small-town-of-old Peaceful. Even my exposure there was limited because, without a doubt, I hated big cities, hated having so many people and cars and buildings surrounding me, so I truly wondered if I'd suffocate because of the lack of wide open space.
Unfortunately, Curt chose Minneapolis, Minnesota as the place to set up the branch. Sure, for multiple reasons it made sense to put it there, but more than once I'd wondered what he was thinking. My husband had to know I would never leave Peaceful for anything or anyone, even him. This was home, where all my friends were, along with my job at Feldmann Divorce Counseling--a job I'd worked so hard to keep. This was where Curt's family and my own--albeit one I wasn't close to--lived, where I needed to be to survive. Curt had promised me that one of his siblings would step forward and take charge of the new restaurant, but stubbornness wasn't simply an Italian way of life. It was the only way for them.
The closer the day of the restaurant opening, the more I was acknowledging that the big moment could come down to a choice for Curt--me or his dream. I didn't want him in that position any more than I wanted to be in the same. My panic attacks in big cities would forbid living there. I couldn't exist sanely in a city that size. Curt had to know that. So what was he going to do when the time came?
I might never have gotten myself to wonder and worry about this scenario if not for something that'd happened six months ago. I was having a sleepover with some of my friends. One of them responded to my rants and laments about my marriage ending if Curt couldn't leave Minnesota once Ciatti's Italiano II was open. Her comment was one I was still reeling over. Elaina had said something like, "You're acting like a scared little mouse that's lost even though the cheese is right there outside your hole. Curt is the cheese. Do what you have to do to ensure a future for the two of you. It'll be worth anything you risk." The implication was that I should be the one to compromise and go live in a place that would choke me to death, although I'd made it clear to Curt from the start who I was and what I could handle in regards to my future living arrangements. He'd agreed to my terms and said he felt the same way anyway. Maybe he'd realized the opposite in the time since.
How was I supposed to face what I was sure was lurking up ahead of me? Sure, I'd like to be a proactive doer instead of a hole-hider, and Elaina was right. But I'd always been a shivering mouse waiting passively instead of facing and making decisions. How does someone just stop being who she is, even in the face of losing everything she wants? Literally, I could wait something out for years and years, hoping the need to make a choice would simply go away. Inevitably and eventually, the trap would snap shut just when I thought I had that delectable cheese in my paws. I should have known better than to think anything else might happen.
As Curt's "visits" home became less and less frequent, I couldn't hide from the knowledge that it wouldn't be long before he would tell me what he'd decided about our marriage. I fully expected him to unceremoniously chuck our vows the way he had eight years ago--when he'd dumped me on my answering machine. I'd picked up his call nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine times and he'd hung up every single one of those times. True, it took me awhile, but I got tired of saying, "Hello?" and just let the machine get it that last time. That was when he announced our relationship was over, done, kaput. A part of me died that day and I thought I'd never recover. But when he came back, begging me to forgive him, my love for him was still too insurmountable to deny. But I won't let him hurt me like that again...
That vow was why I'd gone back on birth control these last few years. We'd been actively trying for a baby after we got married, but there were unresolved medical issues preventing pregnancy and, without him here on a daily basis, I wasn't ready for something so life-changing.
I guess that was why I'd been coming to Mamma Cara's so often. She knew I couldn't handle life in a big city. She accepted who I was--the way I assumed Curt had when we got married. She allowed me to stay in my mouse hole and, if the dilemma came down to sides, she would champion my cause. A part of me needed to believe Curt was in the wrong, not me. Yet I couldn't dodge this much longer. I had to make a change, had to face this and not allow the situation to drag out indefinitely the way my shivering vermin heart wanted to let it.
Instead of going up to the porch and knocking on the front door, I walked around the big house to the backyard, where I knew Mamma Cara would be, fruitlessly tending her spring flower garden. Truthfully, she wasn't a great gardener, but she tried. She liked doing this, liked the busywork involved. Since Curt's dad died--during the years we'd been broken up--she'd been lonely and trying to fill her day with restaurant work, gardening, caring for her numerous grandchildren. None of those things were enough to fill the void in her life left by the loss of her very heart.
She was covered in dirt but at least wearing long gloves, a heavy-duty apron, and a straw hat as she re-planted a section she'd either neglected or over-tended, which was usually the case. She rose up on her kneepad to kiss me hello. It'd taken me years to get used to all the affection bestowed in an Italian family. Even when I'd thought Curt's relatives hated me, they'd kissed and hugged me as both greeting and goodbye. I haven't had a lot of that since my mom died.
Mamma Cara bent back to her patch of dirt. "I just planted most of these. The weeds. Dear Lord, the weeds! Who has time for 'em?"
She still lived in the sprawling two-story Italianate Old World estate her husband had built when they were just starting their family. The house was just outside of Peaceful, and the backyard was immense with rolling hills and grassy fields that Curt and his siblings had loved as children. While she'd closed off the second floor of the house and many of the rooms on the main floor, she had lots of sons, sons-in-law and nephews to help her with all the mowing and landscaping outside. None of them would think of refusing her either.
"How are youse?" Mamma asked in her heavy Italian-American delivery.
I shrugged as my cats went to settle on the sun-warmed brick patio, where they liked to snuggle in the late afternoon and catch a nap.
"Talk to Curt?"
"Not yet. Probably later."
I wasn't in the mood for conversation. I'd come for the companionship between us that was there even when we didn't talk. While she worked and I walked around, noting a particular patch of flower bed that was in dire need of weeding, I wondered what my life would be like if I lived in a city where the next person was so close to me, he might as well be a coat I was wearing. How could I ever live in a place that didn't have all this clean, fresh air where I could stand in a vibrantly colorful field and see trees and plants and sometimes even deer?
From what little I'd seen during my short time there, Minneapolis was a freeway, people packed together as claustrophobically close as seedlings. Sure, Curt and I could live out in the "country" of that, but doing so would strand me because my driving skills were moot to begin with. I got my license when I was sixteen, but years later a panic attack behind the wheel of my ancient bug mobile involving a family of "Sunday-slow" ducks crossing the road had led to my inability to get in a car and drive...which was actually good timing because I was broke and selling my car had allowed me to have a few more meals.
Curt had coaxed me into taking driving lessons (from him) and eventually getting my nerve up again. Now I drove around Peaceful with its single stoplight and, even then, I never went over forty-five miles per hour. There was no reason to, panic attacks notwithstanding. But the point was that I got myself to work, could get groceries, stacks and stacks of books from the library, and anything else I needed without being terrified of what accident was waiting to happen in my near future.
I can't live there! After Curt dumped me, I promised myself I would never allow myself to fall as far as I did back then. I was living in a rat- and roach-infested apartment, eating cat treats because I couldn't afford anything else and I knew I was going to be fired soon. Again. I couldn't take care of myself and that was the worst part of my life. I refuse to be helpless, refuse to ever again rely on someone else because I can't function. My life is everything I dreamed of now--and I did that on my own. I made good choices for once. I pay my own way for the most part. I'm not helpless, even without my husband. I take care of myself. But if I let Elaina's advice guide me, I'll be dependent again. How can Curt not know that? Not understand who I am and why I was so wary about getting involved with him after he dumped me? I haven't regretted taking him back. But how much longer will that be the case?
I picked up a squat little stool that I'd seen Mamma Cara use to weed and stabilized it as much as I could on the uneven ground of the grassy hillside near the flower bed that required weeding. Then I sat down on the stool and got to work, immediately content because the air smelled like lilacs, the day was sunny and warm, and one of my favorite people in the whole world was nearby.
The weeding didn't even feel like work, and I probably wouldn't have noticed my exertions if not for my growling stomach and the sounds of car doors slamming. Frequently, Mamma Cara had visitors. I wasn't sure I wanted anything to disrupt my serenity, but I glanced up toward the house and saw Valenti, Tere and Elisabetta, Curt's three sisters with the middle brother's wife, Pia, coming around to the backyard. At this time of day, they were usually at the restaurant with their children, since the dinner service was the most important and they liked to have all hands on deck.
While the family had now accepted and even kind of embraced me, at the moment I wasn't sure how I felt about having so many big personalities in one place. Hearing the rapid Italian flying back and forth between them (and not understanding a word of it), I decided to make my exit...only my legs were half-asleep and, consequently, uncooperative from the bending over and weeding. How long had I been sitting? I was too stiff to be graceful.
I didn't get a chance to check the time because the instant I moved, the stool shifted beneath me on the uneven ground. In one, slow-mo domino effect, the tiny chair tipped and I started rolling down the hill like a barrel, picking up more and more speed, or would have if not for a wheelbarrow filled with weeds and grass clippings standing in the middle of the slope. Instead of checking my tumble, the cart contributed to it. My legs got tangled up with the barrow legs, and pretty soon I was dragging that down to the bottom of the hill with me.
When me and my unfortunate sidekick reached the base, I laid with one leg tangled around the barrow's leg, my foot stuck in the brace, dried grass all over me and in my bush of red hair. I could imagine that I looked like some weird Christmas tree.
"Zoe?" Tere called, sounding shocked and worried. But, like the others, she was also on the edge of raucous laughter. I tended to give all of them plenty to laugh about, but they always asked if I was all right in the same way you'd ask a kid to say something to make sure he wasn't choking.
I twisted around to see all of them standing at the top of the slope, looking down at me. "I'm okay!" I insisted, as usual, ignoring the ankle sprain, the bruises and bumps and bangs. Could've been worse. And usually was.
I turned over again and lay motionless for a long moment while they all drifted back to Mamma, leaving me to my own disentangling. Their voices were loud and they spoke in rapid-fire Italian, so I had no idea what was going on--beyond that it was serious--until I limped up the hill, glaring at the evil, innocent-looking stool still lying near the flower bed where it'd tipped me off like rejected detritus.
I approached the group surrounding Mamma, who'd removed her gloves and was listening to her family speak as if the end of the world had happened. All Italian sounded like that to me anyway because they tended to be a passionate race, so I wasn't concerned until I noticed Abelie wasn't there. She was the wife of Curt's oldest brother, Ciatti, named after the grandfather who'd started the restaurant. Abelie almost always went where Pia went. The two of them were so tight, it'd come as no shock that they'd timed the births of their last children to within minutes of each other.
While I might not speak the same language, I somehow figured out what was going on without anyone translating for me. Abelie had finally caught her pig of a husband cheating on her. The man was dirty, no two ways about it. I'd believed it all the time I'd known him because Curt had told me he was compulsively unfaithful to his wife. Usually, it was with the non-family waitresses and staff at the restaurant, but sometimes he would go after Abelie's acquaintances outside the clan. That Mamma didn't know about this was an out-and-out miracle--she wouldn't have put up with his disloyalty to his marriage vows for one blessed instant. Beyond that, the fact that Abelie had never caught her husband in the act before this was another miracle, considering how long it'd been going on. Every other family member had known about his cheating almost from the start. There was no need to inform Abelie of it. She knew as well as we did, but she wanted to pretend she didn't. She preferred to believe the man she loved so much she was willing to give up her own self-respect to keep would never betray her. She considered her blind eye to his disgusting practices a small price to pay for his love.
Truthfully, I'd never fully accepted this situation. I'd wanted to tell her from the moment Curt informed me. Why should we all let him get away with this? It was wrong, horrible. He was making a fool of her. She had to be told that! But, when I really got to know Abelie, I understood why the family hadn't forced her to confront the situation, why everyone kept it hidden from Mamma. Abelie was too weak and soft to handle the truth. She didn't want anyone to tell her she had to do something to change Ciatti's behavior. She was too convinced he'd leave her if she--or any of us--forced the issue. Maybe he would. I didn't know whether he would, but I equally didn't know whether this woman could live without the man she was so stupidly in love with. She was that type of woman, which was a total one-eighty of the rest of her female relatives. Their husbands wouldn't dare cheat on them for fear of being unmanned in every sense of the word. Any one of them would chop off the offender without blinking an eye, too.
I could imagine Abelie now, scrambling for a way to make all of this go away so she could keep her sad marriage intact. Poor Abelie. Who could be as strong as these sharks? From one mouse to another, I really felt for her. I knew her sisters, Mamma, all the females in this great big Bertoletti famiglia were going to be strong-arming, pushing and shoving, and trying to make decisions for her. While I myself thought Ciatti should be strung up and shot at sunset, the only thing this helpless woman had was a choice. I didn't want to see her robbed of it because her sisters and mother-in-law wouldn't let her make 'the wrong one'.
Mamma Cara looked at me while they were all shouting and ranting for their own brand of justice and said as a forgone conclusion, "Curt's gotta come home. That's all there is to it. He's gotta. We have to deal with this."
One thing I'd learned when I married into an Italian family was that there were no private relationships and situations, let alone the handling of them. Everything was a community issue, even if one member was four hours away. Everyone had to be a part, had to be vocal, not silent. Each had to have an opinion. All suffered the blows. Together, they celebrated the victories. Only outsiders like me (and, amazingly, Curt because he'd said he'd spent his life kicked around as "the runt of the litter") felt embarrassed about the whole, public, floggingly-shameful display of these debacles that should have been kept private.
Mamma Cara held her hand out to me, and I knew she was requiring my cell phone to call Curt right this moment.
"Oh, Mamma, can we just talk to him later...?" The unrelenting look on her face answered my pleading question. I acquiesced without another squeak.
From that point, Mamma couldn't have given my husband a second to orient himself before she was shouting the gory details to him over the receiver. Curt would forgive me for allowing my phone to be used for such a crime. Eventually.
"You talk to your wife, grissino," she said, calling him the too thin breadstick she'd dubbed him when he suddenly lost so much weight more than five years ago. "You talk to Zoe and tell her when you're comin' home this weekend. The family needs you. Don't disappoint us."
I could hear Curt saying, "Ma, what do I have to do with Ciatti and Abelie's marriage?"
But Mamma was already shoving the phone at me like a gun to my head. I took it, walking away to get the cats. Then I waved to everyone and got out of there, tucking myself into the privacy of my car where I could talk to Curt without anyone gaping or shouting. I locked the doors just in case anyone decided to join me. Only then did I respond to Curt's repeated, "Zoe?"
"Guess this has been coming for years."
I reveled in the sound of his voice. Curt had forever been embarrassed about his family's bad language--youse
guys, what's-a matter for you? and goomba-ing all over the place. He'd made a point of unlearning all the bad habits when he was young, much to his family's ridicule. When he spoke, the richness of his accent was transformed into something elegant and sexy. I loved his voice. Closing my eyes, I soaked in the familiarity of it. I didn't want to talk, the way Mamma and I hadn't all that time before the sisters barged in. I wanted to know he was there, that he was with me. That was all. But then he shattered the little fantasy I was constructing when he said, "This isn't a good time."
I sighed, my eyes wide open now. "It's never a good time to come home. Is it?"
He must have heard something in my tone. He demanded, "What does that mean?"
Why should he be surprised that I wasn't happy? I accepted now that I'd been doing the same thing Abelie had from the beginning of her marriage--whatever it took to keep the peace, to prevent the marriage from becoming upset or worse.
"Zoe? What do you mean by that?" Curt asked again, pointedly.
"Home isn't home anymore. Not for you." My mouse hole was so close, I wondered if I could make a run for it. "Look, I'll talk to your Mom and sisters. They'll handle this family crisis without you. No big deal. No reason to call in the police. I better go. I'm hungry. Love you."
With my last inhale, I raced to the finish line and hung up once I got there. I was shaking, not quite sure what'd just happened, if I'd made tremendous waves or what. Setting my ringer to vibrate, I tucked my phone into my full-to-bursting bag. Then I started the car and backed slowly and carefully out of the driveway filled with how many other cars on the opposite side of the approach. I drove home only slightly faster than usual, wanting to eat.
My friend and co-worker LeeAnn Fremont was always sending me home with meals she prepared a little extra to give me some. She knew I couldn't cook, that my attempts were disastrous, that I couldn't afford to eat out every night and had a policy about the Bertolettis feeding me, especially since Curt and I still lived in the apartment above the family restaurant. It wasn't like me to refuse food, but I didn't want his family to think I couldn't take care of myself while he was gone. Accepting food from LeeAnn was different somehow. That didn't make me feel like I'd broken any important vows.
My phone vibrated my bag, and I couldn't just ignore Curt when I knew he was 'paging' me. So I stopped by Pet Park to walk the cats, leaving my phone in the car. Though I could hardly stop thinking about the overly generous portions of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, and buttery peas waiting in my fridge with a slice of homemade cheesecake big enough to knock down the puny kind from the Big Apple, I wanted some time to think about what I would say to Curt later.
I longed to have him come home this weekend, just as Mamma did. But I wanted him to be with me because he chose to be, not for some family crisis that'd been fifteen-twenty years in the making. Call me selfish, but when he was finally back where he belonged, I didn't like sharing him, even knowing there was no way to do anything else in a family this scary-close.
Besides that, I had the feeling Abelie might be here in the park. I'd noticed that when she couldn't take another second of frustration, she insisted that their three big dogs needed walking but she'd only bring her middle child along with her. Italian families had babysitters galore, so she didn't need to worry about the rest of her and Ciatti's immense passel during these rare times she needed to get away. They had nine kids together, ranging in ages from nine months to seventeen years old. I couldn't even imagine having one, let alone nine.
I found Abelie and Isabella on the paved trail with their terrifying-looking Cane Corsi that were only slightly bigger than Nutmeg and Cayenne. Luckily, it wasn't their first experience with my cats, so they barked but didn't attack.
"You don't look surprised to see me," I commented, noticing how red Abelie's eyes were. I was still limping from my hillside tumble and tangle with the wheelbarrow, but I could walk.
"I'm not. I assume..."
"Yeah," I told her in a word that everyone was talking about her situation.
"Well, I hoped it'd be you and not them."
I didn't blame her for not wanting to deal with anyone in the family but, if she had to, I was glad she could tolerate me. "Mamma's demanding that Curt come home. But...it's not a good time."
"Not a good time? Don't you wanna see him?" she asked, looking astonished.
"Of course I do. But lately it seems like he doesn't want to come home. Like it's an inconvenience for him."
"No!" She seemed equally scandalized and greedily intrigued. This family didn't bother hiding their love of gossip and muckraking. "What do ya think is goin' on?"
"I don't know," I mumbled, wondering if I should have kept my mouth shut. My friends are always saying I should pray about it. I do that all the time, but I should have done that instead of coming here. Once again, the way I live my life can be described in terms of belated realizations.
I gaped at her. "No. Just...this restaurant is the culmination of his dream come true, you know? He wants to see it through. Maybe all the way to the end."
"You won't go there, will you? You ain't gonna move?"
"No. Did you think I would?" Does everyone? Do they think there's something wrong with me--with my love for their baby brother--if I won't?
"If he says ya gotta..."
Once more, I goggled at her following her archaic sentiment. "I'm not a mindless robot or a child. I have a mind of my own. A life of my own. I have a choice. And I would never choose to live anywhere else but Peaceful. Curt knows that."
I realized suddenly that she'd flinched--as if I'd said the words to her, accused her of being all or any of those spineless things. Quickly, I tried to repair the damage. "I'm just saying, I love him, but he knows I would rather die than live anywhere else, especially in a big city. So...I don't know. I don't know what to do. I guess I've been hoping not to have to do anything. Hoping the situation would resolve itself in the best possible way all on its own." Foolish. No wonder everyone says I live in my own world. I don't come out and face reality often enough.
Abelie looked sober and on the edge of tears. "I guess so've I."
Her eyes met mine, and we shared a long look of total understanding over her daughter Isabella's dark head. So this was the crossroads in both of our lives. I suspected she was feeling the same way I was upon reaching this place: All I wanted to do was turn around and run back the way I'd come. Unfortunately, the path behind was completely blocked and it was too late to return to familiar ground. All that was left was to go out and meet whatever lurked around the next bend.
"When a woman says nothing's wrong, that means everything is wrong, and when a woman says everything's wrong, that means everything is wrong."
"Home isn't home anymore. Not for you."
Zoe's out-of-the-clear-blue-sky words floored Curt over and over as he drove to his temporary apartment in the city later in the evening. He'd called more than once, but she'd been letting his messages go to her voicemail instead of responding.
He'd realized abruptly that he hadn't been home in weeks. Three, at least. That hadn't happened ever in the almost five years he'd been trying to get a second Ciatti's Italiano set up. At first, he'd gone home every weekend. Then it'd been every other. Three weeks was too long. No wonder his wife was upset, though she wouldn't admit it easily. He knew saying he'd gotten so busy that the only time he'd looked up in the time was when he entered his one-bedroom apartment with few amenities would set her off. But that quiet loneliness reminded him poignantly he was missing the best part of his life by pursuing this dream. He was thirty-five years old. All of his siblings had gotten married in their early twenties and started inordinately large families. He was the only one who'd gone to college, waited until he was thirty to marry the love of his life. Starting a family...
Curt threw his briefcase and mail on the coffee table as he lowered himself to the sofa. Ironically, he was the one who wanted to start a family immediately after he and Zoe got married. She hadn't been entirely sure about the idea, and maybe with good reason. Zoe Rossdale could easily be considered a klutzy ditz--and at one time, he would have described her that way himself. But now...
Now I love everything about her, even her clumsiness. She's adorable and unique and I can't imagine my life without her fiery spice.
She's also the first person who believed in me and encouraged me to expand the family business with a second restaurant. Is she sorry she did that now? Without her, I never would have had the guts to do this. Who expected it to take this long though? I know I've been too careful, taking too much time advancing because I wanted everything to be perfect. Zoe and I were newlyweds when I started this. That's five years of our marriage I've all but missed. But maybe, just maybe the project is almost done now. But is it too late? Too late to convince Zoe I'm finally ready to get back to the life we intended to be living together all this time?
The big problem with that was what'd been riding him like a chittering monkey for weeks, as he got ever closer to opening the doors of Ciatti's Italiano II. There was no way on God's green earth that Zoe could be convinced to move to a big city, even one as green and vibrant as Minneapolis. She would never, ever leave Peaceful. Nearly five years ago, Curt had been convinced one of his six siblings would manage the restaurant as soon as he got it up and running. He hadn't wanted to move out of Peaceful himself and he didn't really want to now. But he'd faced the facts recently: Getting one of his brothers or sisters to move here had been wishful thinking. They all considered this his project. They weren't going to relieve him of his responsibilities to it now--mostly because they expected him to fail and they didn't want to be active participants if and when that happened. They wanted to be able to blame him a hundred percent in the event of ruin.
Everyone in his family knew the restaurant business, but Curt had become increasingly aware that few ran their restaurant the way they did. Literally, everyone in his family had grown up in the restaurant. They all worked in whatever capacity was needed, front and back of the house. Each and every one of them were gourmet chefs--trained by their elders--bakers, managers, hosts, waiters. There wasn't a single role they couldn't fill so whatever needed doing got done. Their method of making the restaurant work and run on a day-to-day basis was a co-op one, and, in some ways, it was telepathic. Somehow nothing was ever lacking. They got paid as needed, but, for the countless hours they put in at the restaurant, well...they could never be paid what they were truly owed. Ciatti's Italiano in Peaceful was a raving success. Young and old, their dedication had made them rich. To do the same thing here wouldn't be possible. Curt couldn't hire one or more workers to do what his family did to make the original restaurant a success. It would be financial disaster to even consider that if one or more of his relatives didn't agree to come to Minnesota and devote themselves to making the second branch an equal success.
Dear God, how is all of this going to work out? I don't see how. Was it all for nothing? Have I risked my marriage on a grand dream that's ultimately doomed to failure? His plea for help was a daily event, not necessarily associated with his devotional times with his lord and savior. Surprisingly, the one area of his life that had only grown stronger in the past half-decade was his commitment to Christ. Up until about five years ago, his faith has been sporadic, centered around whatever was currently obsessing him, and back then it'd usually been sex and Bonnie Magnoli--a selfish, overly curvaceous fantasy Zoe called Bon Bon Magnífico in her cartoon diaries. Thankfully, Bonnie had gone away after Zoe put her in her place and Curt rarely thought about her anymore.
The one woman he did think about until he ached was his wife. He missed her so much sometimes when he was in this apartment, the separation frequently felt like some kind of purgatory he'd inflicted on both of them.
Didn't she know he was just as unhappy about their situation as she was? If he'd never started this project, they could have already had a child. But, while he was here and she was there, he hadn't considered starting a family a viable consideration. Zoe couldn't be alone with pregnancy. That wasn't safe or wise. Not at all.
And who would feed her if he wasn't there? The thought made him smile. His wife was so thin, no one would ever guess she could out-eat a race of giants. He often wondered how she managed since she didn't cook and refused to go downstairs and be fed at the restaurant every day. She was family--she could have done that and he knew his relatives expected it and wondered why she didn't. She'd seemed so intent on doing everything on her own, not relying on anyone but herself, these past five years.
"Home isn't home anymore. Not for you."
Curt tried to remember if Zoe had seemed upset when they video-called last night. He couldn't say she'd seemed any different than usual. She missed him, he missed her. Other than that, she'd been normal, for her, for the craziness of their lives. But was she just putting on a good show? That would be just like her. There wasn't a single other human being on the face of the earth who did a better imitation of a turtle than Zoe Rossdale did. When she went inside that hard shell of hers, there was no getting her out until she was good and ready.
How long has she been inside it? How long have I been oblivious to anything but getting the restaurant set up?
Curt blew out such an immense blast of air, the thick waves of his dark hair blew up from his forehead. The fact was, he hadn't planned to go home this weekend. There were a million loose ends at the moment. Too much going on. Final pieces of equipment and furnishings were still coming in and needed installing or setting up. He and Giovanni, the executive chef he'd hired to run the back of the house, were training the full staff, setting the menu, getting the final designs for the bill of fare finalized and printed, ordering food and supplies, and Curt knew soon he'd have to get going on promotion and the grand opening. But first they'd have a soft opening, inviting a few carefully selected diners who would hopefully spread the word and test their readiness for the big kickoff.
And to have to go home over his oldest brother's stupidity... Ah, Ciatti, where's your brain been since you took your marriage vows? I already know the answer to that. Didn't help that Abelie made it so easy for you to cheat. But what does Ma want me to do anyway? It's not like any of my brothers or sisters looks up to me or takes me seriously, so what help can I be in this situation? Why does every problem have to involve our whole family's "community" intervention anyway?
Despite the fatigue Curt felt in asking himself these questions, he knew he didn't have a choice about going home. When his mother put her foot down, no one dared question her decision. It was just the way their family worked. She was their head and their heart, their conscience and soul.
So I'm going home. Giovanni can handle things for the weekend.
Curt tried calling his wife, then video-calling. She didn't respond to either. He glanced at the clock. Zoe was almost always home by seven-thirty unless she was seeing one of her friends, and she always told him in advance of those times. So where was she?
As affectionate as her clumsiness made him, he also worried constantly about her little mishaps--that one of them would become something serious. The first week he'd been gone, she'd had to call in the fire brigade because the toaster had caught on fire while she attempted to make her own toast. Despite her sudden need for autonomy, she required both a watchdog and a caretaker.
Since his mother had been the last to see her, that he knew of, he called her. His mom was always busy with one thing of another, but Curt knew without his father to be her constant companion, she was lonely to the point of grief even years after his dad's death. As much as possible, his siblings tried to spend time with her, and he knew Zoe loved his mom like she had her own.
"Ya must've talked to Zoe by now. So you're comin' home this weekend?"
"I'll see what I can do, Ma. Is Zoe there?"
"So she left?"
"Yeah, she left. You haven't talked to her since I handed the phone to her?"
"No. She...well, she didn't seem like she had time to talk and she hung up. Hasn't answered her phone since."
Ma made an unconcerned sound. "So maybe she had plans."
"Like anything. She might be doin' somethin'. Don't assume she don't got a life just 'cause you ain't here, grissino."
"I don't assume she has no life without me, Ma." He paused, doubts attacking him. "But...what life?"
"Just call her."
"I want to. I can't find her, Ma. Haven't you been listening to me?"
"Well, I'd like to help ya, but... Ah, Curt, how much longer can youse two do this?"
Curt frowned. "What? What do you mean?"
"I mean, that restaurant. You used to make more of an effort to come home and be with your wife."
Defensiveness rose up in him. "Ma, there's no one else to do what I have to do to get this going. All right? Being away from Zoe isn't my choice."
"We all make choices."
"Okay. So it's my choice because it's the only way. But Zoe has choices, too." Even as he said this, he remembered how she'd reacted the first time she tried to visit him here in Minneapolis. She'd been a wreck. That'd been a thirty-six hour panic attack she hadn't recovered from even weeks after she'd gotten home and rooted herself so deep in Peaceful soil, he'd realized he might never get her out again. No, Zoe didn't have a choice about where she lived. Her body and mind wouldn't allow her one without doing serious damage. He didn't want to hurt her by forcing a life on her she didn't want anything to do with.
Sighing, Curt asked, feeling humbled again by a problem he didn't know how to solve, "How's Ciatti, Ma?"
"You need to come home, talk some sense into that monkey-brain brother of yours."
Curt laughed in disbelief. "Me? How am I supposed to do that? He doesn't listen to me. He doesn't give me the time of day. You know he doesn't."
"He does. You just don't know it. Come home. 'sides, Zoe's birthday's comin' up."
He'd forgotten, though he didn't doubt he would have remembered long before the day. Or maybe not, what with how hectic things have been here lately.
"How are you, Ma?"
"Eh," she dismissed. "Same as always. Now, you comin' home or am I gonna have to drag you back here myself?"
She'd do it, too. "I'm coming home this weekend."
When he hung up, he dialed Zoe's number again, surprised when her voice came on the line almost immediately. "Where were you? I was getting worried," he said, sounding as winded as he felt.
"I met up with Abelie at the park. We had dinner."
"How is she?"
"What you'd expect. Mad and scared and wishing the whole thing would go away."
If anyone could bury her head in the sand, it was Abelie. She'd been stupid in love with his brother from the beginning, when they'd break up once a week and she'd take him back no matter how stupid he was--or she was.
"Can we switch to the computer? I want to see you," Curt said.
"Hold on. Let me get the laptop."
While she did it, she left their phone connection active. A moment later, he heard her cry out in pain. "Zoe, are you all right?" he called.
On his laptop, the video-call from her came in and he connected to see her holding her face in her hands. "Zoe?"
"I hurt myself. I went to get the laptop and, when I knelt on the floor to plug it in, I stepped on my hand, my fingernail bent over backwards, and then I ended up kneeing myself in the face."
Curt didn't bother asking how she managed something like that--likely, all in succession, like dominoes falling. He'd seen things like this happen to her, and, even after watching them take place, he never understood how they'd come about in the first place. With Zoe, somehow they were all possible, a mathematical certainty.
"I've missed you, Habanero," he said softly, sitting close to the laptop so he could see her better. She had a bruise on her creamy white face and, when he asked about it, she muttered, "The garden stool at your mom's spilled me off and then a wheelbarrow beat me up."
"Never mind." She brushed back one side of the bright red, frizzed-out hair that she had to have frequently straightened to keep from becoming a nest. At the moment, Curt was glad she hadn't gone to Zsa-Zsa Wu Ling for awhile. She looked more like that adorable wreck he'd fallen in love with and rarely saw anymore because she tended to be so well-put together these days. Well, as much as a person like Zoe could be. Her friends had gotten her a makeover five years ago, with the hair straightening, contacts and a new wardrobe befitting a successful receptionist. She'd finally stopped wearing the shapeless broom skirts, stained blouses and old-fashioned, hot red, high top sneakers with the thick shoestrings that had been her mother's.
"Is everything all right, Zoe? Are you mad at me? How could you say your home isn't mine anymore?"
"I'm mad," she admitted with obvious reluctance. "At the situation."
"What situation, specifically?"
"I know you feel obligated to run the new restaurant because you put all the time and effort into it. But that wasn't what we talked about in the beginning and you know it. That wasn't an option or...well, none of this would have happened."
"I know you can't live in Minneapolis, Zoe."
"You...you know that? Because my friends, family, my job...they're all here. I know you don't think I need a job, but I do. I love my job. I worked hard to get to this point."
"If we started a family, would you insist on keeping your job?" he asked, not sure why he was pursuing what could be a volatile topic beyond that they needed to talk about all this. They'd avoided it for too long already.
"Starting a family, Curt? That hasn't been an option in a long time for us, has it?"
"Eventually. Right now, it's not practical."
"But moving to Minnesota, where the big city would swallow me up and I'd become even more of a skittish mouse, is somehow practical?"
"Maybe you just reacted that way because you weren't used it. Maybe you'd get used to it if you tried."
"I did try, Curt. I wouldn't have bothered for anyone else, but I did try for you. And I knew immediately that it would never be an option for me."
"So you're mad at me."
"Yes! You said you'd get one of your brothers or sisters to run the restaurant when it was set up. You never said you'd be the one who handled everything when the time came and ever after."
"Have any of them expressed an interest to you? No. Because if this venture fails, they want it to be my failure alone."
"How do you know? Have you talked to any of them about it?"
In truth, the thought had made Curt feel nauseous to the point of sharp u-turn avoidance. "No."
"Well then!" She went from high with her first sentence to low in her quiet second. "I'm not mad at you. Not really."
"You're not?" he asked in surprise, feeling like he was on a whirling carousel.
"I miss you."
All his impulsive defenses crashed down around him at her words. "I miss you, too, honey."
"You keep saying that."
"I say that every night because it's true. I do miss you."
"Yet you haven't been home for more than three weeks."
"I guess you noticed that, too."
"I wasn't sure you did."
"I did." Not all the time, not when he was up to his ears in work. But here, where the loneliness was like a suffocating shroud, he always noticed. Here, he also had to face he was the one breaking promises and trying to alter original premises. She hadn't changed in those regards. Softening, he said, "I'm coming home."
"This weekend? Do you have plans?"
She laughed, though his mother had acted offended for considering that Zoe didn't have a life without him or that she might not want to break any plans she'd made just for him. "What would I do? All my friends have families, or will soon. I don't fit in anymore. Not that they think that. I just can't help feeling it whenever I'm in the group."
Maybe Curt shouldn't have been relieved she was always available when he came home so they could spend every minute together, but he was sad that their married life hadn't gone the way he'd worked so hard to convince her it would when he proposed. Zoe had claimed she planned to live out her life as a nun outside a convent--and quite happily, too! But Curt had cajoled her into giving marriage a shot. He'd even tried to convince her he'd live without sex, if that was what she wanted. Luckily, she'd changed her mind about that. The first year of their marriage had been nothing short of amazing, everything he'd ever wanted. She'd said the same.
And now everything had changed. Instead of being blissfully happy with a perfect life awaiting them, they were both lonely, unsure of what the future held for them.
"We need to talk, honey. Face to face. We need to make some decisions."
At the very least, he knew the two of them were on the same page about one thing: They wanted to be together. How to get one they'd both be happy with would be the tricky part.