Part I: THE AGE OF INNOCENCE
"....how shall I explain? I - it's always so. Each time you happen to me all over again."
~Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Wendy Thomas sighed as soon as she exited off the interstate, anticipating how good it would feel to get out of the confines of her car and really stretch. She'd been on the road for the better part of the day with minimal stops.
Better yet, I'll just shower and hit the sack, and unpack tomorrow. Yeah, much better plan.
Something caught her eye in the rearview mirror, and she turned to look over her right shoulder to see a car barreling past her on the exit ramp toward the turn lane. She edged her car farther to the left protectively. "What...?"
The car passed and entered the turn lane, barely stopping to check traffic before speeding on.
"Idiot," Wendy said under her breath, clenching her jaw in anger and disbelief.
One thing I didn't miss--Milwaukee's insane, defensive driving. More like offensive! She'd lived in Milwaukee all her life and she'd learned to merge, dodge, edge out, rev on the line like a race car driver, shoot forward and barrel down with the rest of them. But it'd been nice for a little while to be in a town where everyone drove the speed limit, sometimes slower, and actually obeyed safety and traffic laws instead of creating their own, like those in Milwaukee, so they'd become the rule instead of the exception.
This morning, in the cabin, while she and the other female counselors had packed their things, she'd felt a twinge of sadness at the end of her summer job. She'd been away from home for a little more than a month, teaching at a camp for blind children in a small town in Nebraska. At eighteen, she'd been the youngest counselor in the program, but she'd garnered a lot of high recommendations from her previous volunteer work.
Even now, remembering the children and her peers, Wendy smiled sadly. She would miss everyone. They'd formed a strong bond, even though she'd learned from experience to detach herself slightly or drown. She'd helped the kids, in some small way, to lead more productive, happy lives. In a way I can never help those I know, she added to herself, her thoughts on her mother and her best friend, Jessie Nelson.
She put her mind back on that hot shower and sleep as she neared her home. No more thinking today. Too soon she'd be back into the old groove. Right now she didn't want to experience guilt for feeling that sometimes she'd just like to be Wendy, the daughter, the friend, the individual.
The streets she knew so well brought her closer to the two-story home she'd grown up in. While the front exterior was classic Georgian, the inside and back were ultramodern. As she zipped onto the three-car garage approach, she sighed again.
Home. Yeah, this is good.
Turning off her car, she forced her cramped muscles to cooperate in getting her out and on her feet. When Grace, the Thomas' long-time maid rushed out, Wendy started to smile in greeting. But then Grace thrust a yellow slip at her. "Can you pick up the dry cleaning? Your daddy needs his tuxedo for tonight. Your mother's got me doing half-dozen things at once. Quisdale annual cocktail party, you know. Insanity."
In shock, Wendy watched as Grace scurried toward the house. She stopped and turned back before reaching the front door. "Oh."
Wendy waited expectantly for a real greeting.
"Can you also stop by and grab a bottle of wine? I already called it in and they know you. They shouldn't card you."
Well, glad to see you, too! Wendy wondered why she was surprised. But then Grace rushed back and hugged her, just as quickly as she'd run out and dropped a load of errands in her lap. "It's good to see you home again, hon. I don't know how this house runs without you."
Grace smiled at her, her plump, familiar face too sweet for Wendy to remain wounded.
"Your mom has been asking all day if you're home yet. I'm sure she'll want to see you right away when you get back."
Grace zipped back into the house, and Wendy scolded herself for frowning at her parting words. People needed her. She'd rather have that than the alternative. Not being needed or wanted by your own parents was something her neighbor and life-long friend Jessie had faced all her life.
With a heavy sigh of disappointment, Wendy opened the door of her car again and slid back into the cramped confines.
Well, I'm glad to be almost home, she thought with good-natured acceptance.
* * * *
"Tuxedo. And Chablis," Wendy said when she stepped into the kitchen from the garage door.
Grace looked up from folding laundry. "You're an absolute doll."
Wendy smiled as Grace took the offerings from her. Despite knowing Grace most of her life, she hadn't always noticed how different she was from other people. Grace reminded her of Nana, the housekeeper in Disney's animated cartoon 101 Dalmatians, or Edith Bunker. Grace didn't walk. She rushed, scurried, darted. Wendy wasn't sure if she'd always been that way or if the mistress of the Thomas' house caused it with near-constant needs. Wendy's mother had a subtle way of making it seem that if something didn't get done, she'd suffer excruciating torment inside her own body at the prospect.
"She asked for you again while you were gone," Grace imparted, and Wendy nodded.
"I'll get my luggage out of my car and head right up." Another fifteen minutes, and you'll be standing under a steaming spray that'll work all these kinks out, she told herself as she lugged her three, oversize duffel bags up the winding staircase.
With an "Uh", she hefted the bags off her shoulders outside her bedroom door, without entering, and headed toward her parents' room at the end of the hall. Her neck, shoulders, back and legs all ached horribly, yet she put on a smile after she tapped on the bedroom door and her mother called out a welcome.
"I can't even dress myself without you," Felicia--as she'd insisted on being called by her children--looked at her reflection in the mirror of her vanity. "I spent the whole social season looking like a frumpy old maid."
Wendy shook her head as she glanced at the pile of cocktail dresses on the bed. Her mother sat in a satin slip. "Ah, so Dad locked you in the closet the whole while, huh?"
Her mother laughed as she removed the necklace she'd apparently put on with the last discarded dress. As much as she said she hated social activities, Felicia constantly thrust herself into them with her charity activities. Wendy understood why she volunteered so much, but her attempts to feel better about herself rarely worked. The only thing she really enjoyed, just for herself, was her work at Nelson Cosmetics. She worked in the lab, creating fragrances. It was where she'd met Wendy's father, who was vice president of the company.
The annual Quisdale cocktail party was an event put on by one of Nelson Cosmetics' biggest clients.
"I just don't have your confidence and poise for these things," her mother said, and Wendy temporarily took the comment in the way she initially would a skipping record. Let it go and maybe it would fix itself. "I wish you could go, too, like you did when you were little. You were so sophisticated in those velvet cocktail dresses. You captivated everyone."
Wendy remembered those times clearly. She'd felt like a super-computer on display. Show them how smart you are, Wendy. You can out-think anybody here. Isn't she amazing? And she's only seven!
She'd been glad when her parents allowed her autonomy to decide pretty much her whole life at the age of eleven. The first thing to go had been attending those ridiculous, outshine-the-Jones' cocktail parties.
Shuffling through the stack of dresses on the bed, Wendy chose an off-the-shoulder, white one that shimmered like diamonds. It brought out the sparkle in her mother's beautiful eyes and emphasized her shining, dark hair. As soon as she held it out, Felicia stood, took the dress and put it on immediately.
While she dressed, Wendy chose jewelry, knowing her mother would ask her to pick that out for her, too.
"Is Dad still at work?" Wendy remembered how she'd watched her mother get ready for a party when she was a little girl. To Wendy, her mother had always been the most beautiful creature on two legs. She still was. Her name fit her perfectly. Felicia, tiny, lovely and so very, very fragile.
Her mother nodded, turning her back so Wendy could put the multi-tiered, diamond teardrop necklace on her.
"I think he's having an affair."
The only thing that surprised Wendy about the admission was that her mother had said it so soon. She'd uttered the words so often in the past, there were times Wendy wanted to shake her and scream, "You're the one who's paranoid. You're creating a delusion with it because you're so insecure. Dad would never, ever cheat on you. He's too good a man. And what woman could ever compare to you?"
Felicia seemed to think every other woman in the world was more attractive and a better catch. Wendy's father treated his wife like royalty and loved her more than anything else in the world. In his daughter's mind, he was the perfect man.
Wendy could never confront her mother about her misconceptions though. Felicia would probably shatter if Wendy ever thrust a psychological microscope on her. Instead, she turned her mother toward the full-length mirror and said, "Why would Dad ever want someone else? Look at you. You're absolutely stunning. Every other woman turns to dust in your wake."
Wendy had said the one thing that could temporarily subdue her mother. Felicia's need for reassurance was chronic. She had no inner strength at all.
Felicia smiled slightly. "Do you really think so?"
Swallowing hard at the ache of realizing every fix was temporary and she could never help her mother permanently, Wendy nodded with tears in her eyes. "With all my heart."
Her mother turned to her, kissing her cheek and hugging her with a long sigh. "It's good to have you back. I missed you, sweetie. I don't know what I'd do without you. You're my stronghold and guardian angel."
Wendy took a deep breath, seeing herself in the mirror as if from multiple déjà vu angles. As long as she could remember, she'd been supporting her mother emotionally and building her back up. Felicia couldn't let go and help herself in any way. It'd been hard enough for her to finally concede to allow Wendy to start school--months from the age of seven. She'd been a mother to her own mother all her life.
When Felicia backed up, she said, "Well, I better finish getting ready or I'll give your father another reason to look elsewhere for companionship."
Knowing her mother felt a twinge of embarrassment for her own neediness, Wendy left the room without comment, her chest heavy with the need to cry or roar her frustration. Her father came down the hallway toward her with his tuxedo in hand. Relieved to have something to distract her from her own sense of helplessness, she grinned at him widely.
Her parents really did make a gorgeous couple. She'd spent her life thinking her father was the most handsome man in the world, though she'd outgrown that in favor of guys closer to her age--ones a little less clean-cut, a little more wild. She still thought he looked better the older he got, with the silver streaking his temples and his smile buried in deep, attractive grooves around his mouth.
"Is your mother ready?"
He hugged her lingeringly, allowing her to relax for the first time since she got home. "It's good to have you back, sweetheart. Among the dozens of reasons why is that we're never late for anything when you're around."
"I run a tight ship," Wendy said, laughing.
He pulled back slightly. "You're welcome to join us tonight."
She shook her head. Positively, she wasn't going. "I'll probably have a hard enough time getting Steve to relent in throwing me a welcome home party. I really just want to sleep."
At the mention of Steve, Wendy's brother and his own son, her father's face darkened. Trying not to let his ridiculous disapproval of Steve's choice of college and his class load of music courses instead of business annoy her, she bent to pick up her duffel bags one by one, hoisting them over her shoulders again.
"Would you mind calling the limousine service to confirm, sweetheart? I didn't get a chance to yet, and I still have to get ready."
He handed her the phone number and time of arrival, and Wendy took a deep breath before letting the heavy bags slide off her shoulders once more. "Sure. No problem."
He started off down the hall, tossing back almost carelessly, "Have some fun, Wendy. Sleep tomorrow. You work too hard. You deserve a night out once in a while."
"Look who's talking," Wendy called back, and he laughed before entering the bedroom and closing the door behind him.
Wendy looked down at the scrap of paper in her hand. Get this over with and then maybe I can at least shower.
As she went to the phone on the pickled pine table in the hall, she realized no one had even bothered to ask her how her summer went.