DAWN OF CHANGE
Susan saw her through the pines and had one moment of panic. She turned to retrace her steps, but made herself stop. For over two weeks, she had been making this solitary walk along the narrow river and had not even glimpsed another human being. City instincts had taken over for a moment. She was alone and a long way from help. But she had spotted this woman before, last weekend. She had been at nearly the same place, doing the same thing. Throwing rocks into the river while a large golden dog splashed in and out, chasing them.
Instead of quietly turning around, like she'd done the last time, she decided she would continue on and with any luck, this woman wouldn't even notice her, and she could get on with her thinking. That was why she was here, wasn't it? To sort out her life?
But before she even took two steps, the wet dog bounded across the river to her side. He cocked his head with ears raised, then ran up the trail to her. He barked once, then shook himself, splattering Susan with cold river water.
Susan raised up both hands and backed away from the wet dog, her plan to walk by unnoticed shot to hell.
"I'm so sorry. He usually has better manners than that," the woman called from across the river.
Susan peeked around the pine tree to the other side and met warm, friendly brown eyes and forced a smile to her own face.
"It's okay," she said, glancing down at her perfectly pressed jeans and spotless white athletic shoes, now splattered with muddy drops of water. She stepped around the dog, intending to disappear down the trail, but stopped. She had never been intentionally rude and she would not start now. She looked back at the woman, searching her muddled brain for normal conversation. "I'm actually surprised to find anyone out here. You're the first person I've seen in weeks."
"I'm camping," the woman said from across the river. She had both hands tucked under her arms and she pulled one free to brush at the hair hanging in her eyes. "I'm Shawn Weber."
Susan lifted one hand in greeting. "Susan . . . Sterling ," she managed. Would she keep the name, she thought suddenly.
"Well, nice to meet you, Susan. Again, sorry about Alex there." With that, she patted her thigh and whistled. "Come on, Alex."
With one quick look at Susan, the dog plunged into the cold water, hopping across boulders to the other side. This time, he shook cold water all over his owner.
"Thanks a lot," she heard the woman mutter. Susan felt an involuntary grin slash across her face as she watched the woman attempt to avoid the wet dog. Without another word between them, Susan watched as they walked back down the river, taking in the woman's worn jeans and hiking boots, so unlike her own attire.
She finally continued with her walk, silently acknowledging that this was the first person she'd spoken to in two weeks, unless you counted the token conversation with the checkout girl at the grocery store down in the village. Well, she'd come up here to be alone. And early May was the perfect time of year. Most of the other cabin owners didn't venture up into the mountains until Memorial Day.
She shoved her hands into the pockets of her light jacket and walked on. She knew she couldn't hide up here for long. The troops would come looking for her soon. And she should really call Lisa. Her daughter was the only one who knew where she was, but she hadn't called her since the day she left.
She wondered what they were thinking. Especially Dave. He was probably out of his mind.
"Good," she said. "I hope you're worried sick."
She sighed, the anxiety over her uncertain future nearly choking her. She never thought this would be happening to her. They had gossiped about others at the Country Club, but she never would have thought she would end up like them.
But she wasn't really like them, she told herself. The Country Club setting was all so pretentious, something she never would have called herself. But twenty years of playing the game, anything could rub off on you. She let out a deep breath, depression threatening to settle over her again, but she refused to think about Dave and . . . the girl.
She suddenly turned and retraced her steps along the trail. She slowed when she came to the spot where the woman and dog had been. There was no sign of them. She walked on to the trailhead where her car was parked. She admired it from the trail. A gift from Dave just this Christmas. Black, sleek. Nothing she would have ever chosen for herself. And right now, it represented everything she hated about her life.
Susan jumped, her hand going to her chest as the woman and dog materialized beside her.
"Sorry. I thought you heard us."
"No, no, it's okay. I was . . . deep in thought, apparently." Susan gathered her composure and tentatively reached out a hand to brush the dog's fur. "Going on a walk?"
"I'm following Alex around. We just drove up a little while ago and he's got a lot of energy to burn." Then Shawn Weber motioned to the car. "Yours?"
"Nice. But you don't look like you're camping," Shawn said, glancing at Susan's white athletic shoes and neatly pressed jeans and blouse. "You must belong to one of the cabins in Grant Grove."
Susan wondered if she should divulge information like that, then told herself she was being silly. This woman meant her no harm. "Yes. My husband . . . we have a cabin there. I'm living up here, temporarily," she said. Until she decided what to do with the rest of her life, she added silently.
"Living? Must be nice." Shawn she reached down and patted Alex's shoulder. "I'm only lucky enough to snatch a few weekends here and there," she said.
"Are you from Fresno , too?" Susan asked.
"Yeah. I have a house there, but I love it up here in the mountains. I come up to camp every chance I get."
"Surely not alone," Susan said.
Shawn smiled. "Well, there's Alex." She again reached down to pet the dog.
Susan shook her head. "I've been in the city too long, I guess. I'm having a hard time staying alone at the cabin." She regretted her words as soon as she said them. This stranger had no business knowing that. Susan looked at her, really looked at her for the first time. Short dark hair that was lightly windblown, flannel shirt tucked into faded jeans, scuffed hiking boots, hands shoved casually into pockets. She was stereotyping perhaps, but a lesbian, nonetheless. Susan tucked her own hair behind her ears, shoulder length and still styled for the Country Club, and she quickly looked away.
Shawn shrugged, ignoring Susan's appraisal of her. "I prefer to be alone, actually," she said. "It's kind of an escape from real life out here, isn't it?"
"I suppose," Susan said. Wasn't that why she was here? To escape from her life?
"Well, I'll let you get going," Shawn said. "I need to tire Alex out a bit more or he'll keep me up all night." She patted her leg for Alex to follow her.
"Wait," Susan called. "I don't suppose you would like to have dinner or something?" she asked, surprising herself as much as this stranger.
"Dinner? Like tonight?"
"I'm sorry," Susan said. "I guess you came up here to be alone." She pulled her eyes away. "It's just that I haven't actually . . . talked to anyone in two weeks or so and I'm about to go crazy, I guess," she finished in a rush.
Shawn laughed, and Susan gave an embarrassed smile.
"Okay. Dinner would be good, as long as you don't mind Alex," Shawn said.
"No. Of course he's welcome. Do you know where the old lodge used to be?"
"It's right off the main road, isn't it?"
"Yes. Turn there. I'm two roads down that lane. Take a right on Nuthatch. It's about four or five cabins down," she finished, her habit of talking with her hands getting the best of her and she shoved them into the pockets of her jacket to still their motion.
"Okay. About . . . six?" Shawn asked.
"Yes, that would be good," Susan said. She watched Shawn and Alex walk away, back toward the water and she walked to her car, thankful she had gone into town yesterday and stocked up on groceries. She frowned. What in the world could she and Shawn Weber possibly talk about? Well, it didn't matter. Any conversation would be better than her forced solitude of the last few weeks.
She had skipped town so suddenly, she hadn't realized she would miss people. She laughed quietly. She was having a woman to dinner, a stranger and a lesbian, most likely, and she was as excited as she'd been when she and Dave had their first dinner party.
"No," she murmured, turning her smile into a frown. She would not think about Dave. She had spent two weeks thinking about Dave and . . . the blonde. She shook her head, instead planning the meal. Steak and baked potato were safe. She would serve a vegetable, too, something safe like green beans. Maybe sauté some of the mushrooms she had picked up. Oh, and a good bottle of wine. She smiled. For the first time in weeks, she wouldn't be spending the evening alone.
Shawn and Alex hopped rocks across the river and hiked back to the tent. She had been coming out for the last three weekends. April had been cold, a mix of snow and rain some days as winter still hung on. But this first weekend in May, the sun had dominated, and she had escaped early and headed up the pass to Kings Canyon National Park , a small bit of heaven she had found a few years back. She usually camped at the same spot this time of year, but when the tourists started coming in the summer, she would move higher up, packing most of her gear on her back, just for some peace and quiet.
She wondered why she hadn't declined Susan's dinner invitation. Shawn had seen her on the trail last weekend. Both days, she had silenced Alex and let the woman pass by, but today Alex had slipped away before she could stop him. Susan had seemed so anxious for company that Shawn hadn't had the heart to say no. And it might be nice to make a new friend. It wasn't like she had a lot of them. A handful, at best.
"What do you think, Alex?" She patted his head then reached for the dog bone that he patiently waited for. She relaxed in the lawn chair, staring into the giant trees, seeing nothing, just listening to the sounds of the forest. For some reason, her mother's image flashed across her mind. She was startled. She had not thought of her in a very long time. She closed her eyes, trying to recall some happy moment from her childhood, but the memories were elusive. There was always pain, crying. No laughter.
Even now, as an adult, joyous occasions were few and far between. She didn't think she was an unhappy person. She would not label herself that way. She was . . . content. Her solitary life with Alex was all that she desired. But she wondered if ten, twenty years from now, she would again try to recall happy moments in her life? Would there be any? Or would she always carry this pain with her?
Alex nudged her hand and whined, his intelligent eyes staring into hers. She smiled and gently rubbed his head. No, she would have happy memories. Like the first day she brought Alex home and he'd kept her awake that night, whimpering until she'd finally let him into her bed. He had snuggled up beside her. Not much had changed. He was still a bed hog.
She laughed quietly. "You were such a baby," she told him. He cocked his head to the side, listening. "Don't act like you understand me." In reply, he laid a big paw on her leg. "Want to walk?" His ears perked up and he practically danced around her until she got out of her chair. Yes, she would have happy memories.
Susan hadn't realized how starved she was for another's company. She had last spoken to her daughter two weeks ago. Since then, only a brief conversation about the weather at the grocery store yesterday. Frankly, she was sick of her own company and her own thoughts. She knew that was why she had invited a perfect stranger to dinner. It was something she would never have done in her previous life.
She tidied up the cabin, even bringing out the vacuum to run across the already clean rug in the living room and stacking the magazines she had bought yesterday. She seasoned the steaks and got everything ready, including emptying the charcoal from the grill and putting in fresh.
By five, she had everything ready to go and she took a magazine out to the deck and made herself relax. She flipped through the pages, seeing nothing, again wondering what she and Shawn Weber would talk about. She finally put the magazine down and glanced around the deck, finding solace in the familiar trees that surrounded the cabin. She watched birds flitter high up in the branches and closed her eyes, trying to relax.
By five-thirty, she found herself listening for the sound of a car and she realized that if Shawn Weber were not coming to dinner tonight, she might very well be on the verge of a breakdown.
At last, she spotted a black truck creeping along the road. She got up and hurried to the back deck to put a match to the charcoal, then walked down the drive and waited.
"You came," Susan said, uttering the first thing that came into her mind when Shawn stopped.
"Did you think I'd get lost?" Shawn asked through the open window. Alex climbed over her lap when she opened her door, tail wagging as he sniffed Susan, then turned to inspect the cabin.
"No, I just . . . never mind," she said. Shawn had changed into black jeans and a sweater and Susan sighed. She had been so busy getting everything ready, she had forgotten to change herself. Mother and Ruth would have had a fit had they known she was entertaining this way! She dismissed her thoughts and waved at the cabin with her hands. "What do you think?"
"Beautiful," Shawn said. "I love the stone work."
They walked to the porch and Susan held the door opened. "I'll show you around, then we can sit on the deck in the back. It's still warm enough."
They walked inside and Shawn's mouth dropped.
"This is by far my favorite room," Susan said. The front of the cabin was made up of nearly all windows, save the front door. The vaulted ceiling, supported by natural wood beams, eventually gave way to skylights. Nearly as many windows adorned one wall, while a stone fireplace shared space with a built-in bookshelf on the other.
"Jesus," Shawn muttered, bending her head back to gape at the skylights.
"I know. It's a bit much," Susan said. "But my husband . . .well, let's just say that he hated to be outdone." She led the way down a short hall, Shawn's hiking boots clicking on the hardwood floors. "There're just two bedrooms," she explained.
Shawn stuck her head in the guest room, then followed Susan into the master bedroom. Each room, including the living room, was impeccably tidy. It was hard for her to imagine that someone had been living here for two weeks straight. Her own house, after just one day, looked more lived in than this. Hands on her hips, she turned back to Susan. "Nice," she said, hoping it sounded sincere.
Susan nodded, not being fooled for a minute. Shawn hated it. "Let's sit outside," she said and led the way through the rest of the house.
The kitchen was Shawn's favorite room. Large and spacious, two skylights overhead brought the forest inside. It, at least, looked lived in. A bar separated the kitchen from the dining room and four stools were shoved neatly underneath.
"I like this. It's comfortable," she said of the kitchen.
"Yes. I've always enjoyed cooking. So much less of a chore up here," Susan said.
Shawn caught just a glimpse of pain in her eyes. Her husband, no doubt. Either she was going through a divorce or he had died and she was grieving. Her guess was the divorce, but she said nothing.
Susan motioned to one of the chairs, then took the other. "I have steak," she said. "I hope that's okay."
Shawn smiled. "Steak would be wonderful. I usually get by on cheese and crackers or just sandwiches. It'll be nice to have a real meal up here."
Susan nodded, relieved. One less thing for her to worry about. But she felt uncomfortable. She had forgotten how to entertain. She was searching her mind for conversation when Shawn stood.
"You want a beer? I've got some iced down in the truck," she said.
Susan brought a nervous hand to her throat. "God, I forgot to offer you something to drink," she murmured. "I'm sorry. I'm out of practice, I'm afraid." She stood herself, her hands talking for her. "Sit. I've got wine. Is that okay?"
Shawn laughed at Susan's nervousness. "Let's save the wine for later. I'll bring you a beer," she said easily.
Susan watched her bound effortlessly down the steps and disappear around the cabin, dog right at her heels. She tried to remember the last time she had a beer and couldn't. Dave had kept some at the house, but she had not actually considered drinking any. And the country club, Lord! The ladies didn't ever order beer!
"Fuck the country club," she murmured.
Shawn came back with two bottles, still coated with crushed ice and Susan watched a piece melt and slide down the bottle and her mouth watered. Beer's good, she thought.
Shawn twisted off the top and handed it to Susan, then relaxed again in the chair. She could tell by the way Susan held the bottle that this was a new experience for her and Shawn wondered again what she was doing at this woman's house. Out of the corner of her eye she watched Susan tip the bottle and drink. She was surprised by the sound of pleasure that came from her.
"Oh, God, that's good," Susan said. "No wonder men drink it all the time."
Shawn laughed. "You know, they allow women to buy it now."
Susan grinned, too. "How long have you been coming out here?"
"Only the last couple of years, to this area anyway. I camp often in the summer. When a place gets too crowded, I'll search for someplace new."
Susan waited for the question she knew would be next.
"What about you? You don't look the outdoorsy type, really," Shawn said.
"No. I don't suppose I do," Susan agreed. "I don't know what type I am," she continued and the words seem to fall from her. "I used to be a mother, but Lisa grew up and is now in college." She paused only briefly before continuing. "And I used to be a wife, but David apparently likes twenty-year-old blondes now."
The breeze brought the sounds of birds as they foraged for food before dusk and the sweet smell of the forest, and they both looked above them as a squirrel chewed a pine cone and dropped bits around their chairs.
"I'm sorry," Susan finally said. "That just . . . came out."
"Recent?" Shawn asked.
Susan nodded. "That's why I'm up here." She tried to smile. "I couldn't stay there and this seemed the logical place to come to . . . to sort things out."
Shawn leaned forward and frowned. "You haven't talked this out with anyone? With him?"
"No. I stopped by Lisa's dorm and told her, that's all."
"How long ago?" Shawn asked.
"Two weeks yesterday," Susan said.
Shawn leaned back, thinking it was none of her business, but since when had that stopped her? "Listen, it's not any of my business, but I don't think it's very healthy to keep something like that bottled up. I mean, you probably need to discuss this with someone . . . a family member, if not a professional."
Susan laughed bitterly. How dare this . . . woman . . . offer her advice?
"And you're an expert on failed marriages?" Susan's hands waved to make her point. "Forgive me, but I was stereotyping, and I doubt this has ever happened to you," she said quickly.
Shawn tried not to be offended by Susan's remark. "Your stereotype was correct, but that doesn't mean I'm unfamiliar with failed relationships. I see it every day," she said. "At the Fresno Women's Center."
"You work there? The shelter?"
"Women's shelter is such a negative term. It's much more than a shelter, but it is that. It's an educational center, most of all."
"Are you a counselor?" Susan asked.
"Well, sort of, I guess. I'm not actually on the payroll. I volunteer there. I help out wherever is needed; the crisis line, finding jobs, finding housing, and yes, counseling. I try, at least," she said.
"You think I need counseling?"
"This isn't any of my business, really," Shawn said. "I'm sorry I said anything," she apologized.
"I'm asking for your opinion," Susan said.
Shawn leaned back and crossed her legs. "It appears you're running away, maybe hiding up here," she said gently. "It's not healthy. It won't make the problem go away. It's just going to escalate."
Susan cleared her throat and looked away. "My husband and I haven't had sex in over a year," she said quietly. "And do you know when it occurred to me that we hadn't had sex? Not until a couple of days ago," she continued. "I hadn't even missed it." She turned to Shawn. "Isn't that strange?"
Shawn didn't say anything, and Susan continued.
"I was supposed to be in San Francisco until late. I had gone shopping with Mother and Ruth, but we came back early. I found them in our bed," she said quietly. She tapped her chest. "My bed. And I couldn't believe my eyes. They were . . ." She took a deep breath, then made herself continue. "Anyway, do you know what he said to me?"
Shawn shook her head.
"This isn't what it looks like." She tried to mimic his shocked tone, but her voice cracked. Susan tipped the bottle and drained the beer, then laughed lightly. "I told him it looked like he was fucking a teenager. And this girl took her hand off of her mouth long enough to tell me that she was twenty now." Susan set the empty bottle on the deck and sighed. "That's how I found out my husband was having an affair."
Shawn started to speak but Susan stopped her.
"Please don't say you're sorry," Susan said. "I couldn't bear it," she whispered.
"Okay." Shawn fished out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and shoved one between her lips. "How long have you been married?" She watched Susan watching her as she struck the match and she inhaled once before offering the cigarette to Susan.
Susan stared at the cigarette for a moment, then reached for it. What the hell? She had smoked before, when she had first gotten married, but Dave had put a stop to that. She inhaled and the smoke seared her lungs, but she smiled.
"Twenty years," she said as she blew smoke through her lips.
"Long damn time," Shawn murmured.
"Yes. A very long time," Susan nodded. She rolled her head slowly toward Shawn. "Got any more beer?"
"Sure." Shawn got up but, Susan stopped her.
"I'm sorry. I'm being a terrible hostess." Susan stood, too. "I haven't offered you anything to drink and you brought your own beer and now I'm asking for one . . ."
Shawn laughed, and eased Susan back into her chair. "Relax, will you?"
Shawn disappeared again around the corner and Susan got up to check on the charcoal. It was nearly ready, so she went to fetch their steaks. She was just putting the second one on when Shawn came back with fresh beer.
They both settled back into their chairs, stared quietly out into the now darkening forest, and sipped their beer.
"You don't smoke, do you?" Shawn finally asked.
"No," Susan laughed. "I don't drink beer, either," she said as she tipped the cold bottle to her lips.
"So, you've been up here two weeks, have you decided anything?"
"I've decided that I don't miss my former life," Susan said after only a moment's hesitation. "I mean, I don't miss David in the least, but that could just be because I'm still so angry. I was hurt at first, of course. Betrayed . . . who wouldn't be? But now I'm just angry, I think." Susan gripped the bottle tighter, but continued. "It's funny that it took something like this to make me realize how unhappy I've been." Susan turned to Shawn, about to apologize for the conversation, but Shawn stopped her.
"I'm a good listener," Shawn offered.
Susan smiled, silently thanking her. She needed this, she realized. Two weeks of keeping these thoughts bottled up inside of her had taken its toll and Susan was thankful for this stranger's company tonight.
Susan cleared her throat before speaking. "I think that I have just been going through the motions of marriage for twenty years. I got pregnant immediately. I was a new wife and then a mother and that was that," she said. "That was all. I took care of the house, took care of Lisa, and in my spare time, hung out at the country club with the other wives, including Ruth - she's my sister - and Mother," Susan said. She leaned forward now, arms resting casually on her thighs. "I mean, that was all I knew so it seemed perfectly normal to me," she said. "I just . . . never evolved into anything," she admitted quietly. "I was a wife and mother."
"A lot of people are," Shawn said. "There's nothing wrong with that."
"Oh, I know," Susan said. "It's just that . . . there should be more," she whispered. "I'm thirty-nine years old and feel that life has just passed me by, and I don't have a whole lot to show for it. I mean, I have a wonderful daughter, extremely bright, but I'm talking about me," she said, clutching her fist and pressing it to her breast. "I gave up my youth, I gave up college to become a wife. And then suddenly I was a mother and that was enough for eighteen years. But when Lisa left home and started college, suddenly I wasn't a mother anymore. I was just a wife. And that's when I realized that nineteen years had gone by and David and I were suddenly thrown together again, alone and practically strangers and we didn't know how to handle it. Or I didn't," she clarified.
"Did you have a good marriage?" Shawn asked.
Susan shrugged. "It wasn't a bad marriage," she said. "We didn't fight, if that's what you mean. And I never wanted for anything. There just wasn't much passion involved. And I don't think David and I were really partners and friends in our marriage. I was the wife who took care of the house and Lisa and he handled everything else," she finished sadly.
Shawn stood to tend to the steaks and Susan didn't stop her. She was very near tears, and she took the time to gather herself. She had no business crying in front of this stranger.
"I guess you hadn't suspected an affair," Shawn said from behind her.
Susan shook her head. "I should have, I suppose. I think back now . . . his style of dress changed, business dinners where there used to be none, late hours. And of course, our own sex life had dwindled to nothing." She turned away when Shawn sat down again. "I think I was secretly thankful that he wasn't wanting sex." She looked back at Shawn. "Isn't that awful?"
"No. But then, I've never been married. I don't know what it's supposed to be like."
"Surely you've had some kind of long term relationship," Susan said. "You're what? Early thirties?"
"Thirty-three and no, there's been none," she said.
Susan watched her for a moment then looked away. "I won't pry."
"What does your daughter say about it all?" Shawn asked, dismissing Susan's comment.
"She wasn't surprised," Susan said, "which surprised the hell out of me. Lisa told me that I shouldn't blame myself, that it wasn't my fault. That was probably the best thing that she could have said."
"She's right, you know. He can blame you and he may. But still, we all make our own decisions and rationalize them however we feel we need to. If he needs to lay blame for the decision he made, you're the logical choice," Shawn said. "I know you've heard this before: It takes two to make a relationship work, but it just takes one to destroy it when one becomes disinterested."
Susan frowned and nodded. "But I sometimes think that I was the one who became disinterested," she said quietly. When Shawn started to speak, Susan stopped her. "Let's eat," she said. "The food is not nearly enough to pay you for the therapy session I seem to be getting."
"I'm sorry," Shawn said.
"No, don't," Susan said, rising. "You were right. I needed to talk. I'm just sorry that it's turned into this," she said, waving her hands, "when all I intended was a casual dinner."
"I don't mind," Shawn assured her. "And I've seen enough women hide their feelings to know that it is not at all healthy."
Shawn held the plate while Susan lifted the steaks from the grill. Susan met Shawn's eyes and smiled.
"Ruth would shit a brick if she knew the invited guest was helping with dinner."
"Everything proper and by the book?"
"Very," Susan nodded. "Country club rules can be a little rigid, you know."
Shawn laughed. "I wouldn't know." She stopped Alex at the kitchen door when he would have followed them inside.
"I told you he was invited, too," Susan said.
"He'll beg," Shawn warned as Susan opened the door again to let him in.
"And then I'll give him part of my steak," she said.
They made their plates buffet style and Susan went back for the wine. "If you ever meet Ruth or Mother, don't you dare tell them what a terrible hostess I was tonight."
Shawn grinned. "I'm not used to having a hostess." Shawn cut into her steak, then stopped. "Are you close to them?"
"Ruth and Mother?"
Shawn nodded and groaned as she took her first bite of steak. "Good," she murmured.
"We pretend to be close," Susan said, cutting into her own steak. "Ruth is ten years older than I am, so we don't have a lot in common." She paused with the fork to her mouth. "Actually, I guess we do have a lot in common. We both live in the same community, same friends, same country club. Same mother." Then she grinned. "Ruth has two perfect children. Perfect angels and perfectly boring," she said. "And I have Lisa."
"And she's what?"
"A free spirit," Susan said. "But I wouldn't have it any other way. Lisa has a mind of her own and I'm not afraid to let her use it."
"She's just now in college?" Shawn asked. She reached for the wine, chasing down the steak.
"Second year. She'll be twenty," Susan said. "And she has no idea what she wants to be, but I'm just thankful she's in school." Susan drank her own wine and nodded when Shawn went to refill it. "I don't want her to make the same mistake I did and marry right away and not finish school."
"Why did you get married? Were you pregnant?" Shawn asked.
Susan stared, amazed at her directness. For perfect strangers, they were sharing quite a bit. Well, Susan was sharing. Shawn had divulged nothing about her own life.
When she didn't answer, Shawn looked up with a mouthful of potato and grinned.
"What? Too personal?"
"I got pregnant on our honeymoon, I suppose." Susan trimmed off a piece of her steak and offered it to Alex, who Shawn had been patiently ignoring. Susan dismissed Shawn's objection with a wave of her hand and then offered him a piece of bread.
"You've done it now," Shawn warned. "He'll never leave you alone." To prove her point, he laid one large paw on Susan's thigh and whined. Their eyes met and Susan's dared Shawn to speak. She didn't.
Susan decided she would not be satisfied until Shawn shared something about her life, even if it meant prying a little. After another piece of bread to Alex, she said casually, "You said you volunteer at the women's center. What do you do . . . you know, for a living?"
Shawn tilted her head slightly and thought about ignoring her question, but Susan must feel nearly stripped of her layers of protection at all she'd revealed tonight. She lifted one corner of her mouth in a smile.
"I don't do anything, really," she said.
Susan laughed. "You're independently wealthy, huh?"
Shawn shrugged. "Pretty much."
Susan stared. "I was joking."
Shawn shrugged again. She always had a difficult time with this question and it was why she normally avoided it. She met Susan's eyes and they told her that she was not getting off without an explanation. She lifted an eyebrow, Susan raised both of hers, and they both grinned and reached for their wine.
"My father left me a very profitable business when he died," Shawn said. "Then my mother left me a rather large sum when she died."
"I'm sorry," Susan said automatically.
"No. It was a long time ago," Shawn said, dismissing her apology. "They had divorced when I was twelve, so I wasn't really close to my father."
"But to lose your mother, too," Susan said, shaking her head. "Was it recently?"
Shawn shook her head, this conversation fast approaching the off limits sign. "It was just a couple of years after him," she said quietly. "I was nineteen."
Susan watched her, then decided that she had nosed enough. The subject was still obviously painful for Shawn.
"I'm sorry, Shawn. I didn't mean to pry," she said.
Shawn met her eyes for a moment and knew in an instant that if she ever wanted to talk to someone about it, Susan would be the one. But after five years of therapy, she felt like she had talked the subject to death. It wasn't as if it was still a part of her.
"I don't think about it much anymore," Shawn said. "At least, I try not to."
"I'm sorry," Susan said immediately.
"No, don't." Shawn lightly rested her palm on Susan's arm in reassurance. "I didn't mean it like that. It's just . . . a very long story," she finally said. "Maybe I'll share it with you sometime." Then she smiled, trying to lighten their mood. "If I ever run into you again, that is."
Susan smiled, too. "I've enjoyed your company."
"Well, after two weeks, anyone's would have done," Shawn teased.
Susan laughed. "Now I didn't mean it like that and you know it."
Shawn insisted on helping with the dishes, then, by silent consent, they again sat on the deck and finished the wine. Shawn lit two cigarettes and handed one to Susan, who took it without thinking. They sat together quietly and Susan thought that this must be one of those comfortable silences that she had heard about and never experienced. She glanced over at Shawn who was holding wineglass and cigarette in one hand and rubbing Alex's ear with the other. When Shawn looked up, Susan smiled and looked away again, content for the first time in two weeks.
"I better go," Shawn said finally.
Susan nodded, not wanting her to go, but knowing that she would.
"Thanks again for the meal," Shawn said.
They stood facing each other for a moment, then broke out into identical smiles. Susan followed Shawn around the cabin to her truck and petted Alex on his back before he hopped in the front.
"Thank you for . . . listening to me talk," Susan said.
Shawn nodded. "Dinner was well worth the price," she said with a grin.
"Well, maybe we'll run into each other sometime," Susan said. She wanted to invite Shawn over again, maybe tomorrow, maybe next weekend, but she felt foolish. They were two women who had absolutely nothing in common. Why in the world would Shawn Weber want to see her again?
"Yeah. Probably," Shawn said. She got inside and rolled down the window and said what she had been thinking about all evening. "Susan, don't hide up here and think everything will just go away," Shawn said softly. "If you need to talk to a professional, I can recommend a good one."
Susan blushed and looked away. "Thanks. I'm not going to hide, I'm just sort of gathering myself," she assured her. "Talking it out with you has helped, too."
Shawn saw that Susan was uncomfortable and wished she had not pressed. It really wasn't any of her business, anyway.
"Well, goodnight then. Thanks again." She waved once as Susan stood staring after her.
Shawn tossed the rest of her coffee into the fire and mentally planned her day as Alex waited patiently for their walk. It was warm. Maybe she would pack a lunch and hike up into the mountains today. She could always go by and ask Susan if she wanted to go, but Shawn shook her head. She liked Susan well enough, she supposed, but they had little in common. Susan just looked so . . . married. And middle-aged, although Shawn would never have called thirty-nine middle-aged before. Maybe marriage does that to you. Well, it didn't matter. Susan had a lot of baggage to sort through and Shawn really wasn't the one to help her with a failed marriage. As Susan had said, what in the world would she know about that?
Susan washed the lone coffee cup, then proceeded to vacuum the already clean living room before she realized what she was doing. Her obsession was getting the best of her. She stared out through the windows towards the forest. Was Shawn Weber right? Was she hiding? Perhaps. She turned off the vacuum and let her shoulders sag just a little. Was she ready to face the rest of her life?
With determination, she walked out of the cabin and to her car, not stopping until she retrieved her phone from under the seat. She had shoved it there two weeks ago, not wanting to talk to anyone.
She leaned back in the seat and clutched the phone to her. She should call Lisa, at least. She punched out the numbers, then glanced at her watch. Barely nine. Lisa was probably still sound asleep and her whispered hello made Susan want to slam down the phone.
"It's Mom," she said.
"Mom? Are you all right?" Lisa asked, suddenly sounding wide awake.
"Of course," she said quickly. Then she apologized. "I'm sorry I'm calling so early." She could hear the covers rustling and she smiled, picturing Lisa sitting with her knees drawn to her chest.
"They're driving me crazy. Aunt Ruth wanted to file a missing persons thing with the police and . . . "
"Good Lord! What did you tell them?"
"I didn't want to tell them you were at the cabin . . . I knew they would be up there immediately . . . so I told them you were staying in a hotel to sort things out," Lisa explained.
Susan let out a sigh of relief. "Good girl," she said. "Have you talked to . . . your father?"
"Yes," Lisa spat. "Do you know he had the nerve to deny everything? Then when I told him you had already called me, he got pissed off at you for telling me. The nerve!"
"Don't I know," Susan muttered. "Listen, Lisa, he's still your father," Susan started, trying to find the proper words to say without sounding too insincere.
"Don't start, Mom. I know he's my father. I love him because he's my father, but I still have the right to be angry with him," she said.
Susan nodded, thinking Lisa was sounding all grown up suddenly. "Can you hold them off another week?"
"You better call him," Lisa said. "Or at least Aunt Ruth. She's afraid you've been kidnapped or something."
"Okay, but I'm not quite ready for company yet."
"And take your phone inside," Lisa said. After a pause, she asked, "Mom, are you okay?"
"I'm . . . better," she said. She thought of Shawn's words, but denied them again. "I'm not really hiding," she said, as much to Lisa as to herself. "Just trying to decide what I'm going to do."
It was a couple of days before Susan got up the nerve to call Ruth. She immediately regretted her decision.
"We've been worried sick! Have you lost your mind?" Ruth demanded.
"I just needed some time alone," Susan muttered weakly.
"Well, you've had time. Now you need to get back here and pick up the pieces and talk this out with Dave. I've never seen a man more distraught," Ruth said.
"Distraught! What? Is his young blonde not enough to console him?"
"Oh, Susan, don't be catty," Ruth said. "Men go through these things. What do we know about it?"
"Good Lord! This isn't the Dark Ages!"
"So he had an indiscretion? Don't you think you've punished him enough?"
"An indiscretion?" Susan yelled over the phone. "I caught him in my bed with a twenty-year-old blonde and you call it an indiscretion?"
"Just calm down," Ruth said.
"I will not calm down," Susan said between clinched teeth. "I'm angry, Ruth. Angry! I've been lied to, cheated on and basically made to look the fool. I will not calm down."
"So what? You're going to hide out in some hotel now? Come to your senses! You've got a twenty-year marriage on the line!"
"Fuck the marriage," she muttered and had the pleasure of hearing Ruth gasp as she hung up.
She tossed the phone on the sofa and leaned back, her fingers massaging her throbbing temples. Ruth was something else. As if Susan would go running back and pretend nothing had happened? Well, Ruth would, obviously, but David could kiss her ass!
She got out a bitter laugh, although not quite as bitter as last week, and poured a glass of wine. She would have it on the deck and try to relax. Then maybe a walk. And something quick for dinner. It was too pretty an evening to be inside cooking. Then she would relax on the sofa with the novel she had started Sunday.
"Life is good," she muttered and she smiled at her blatant attempt at humoring herself.
But by Friday, she really was feeling better. She had given Lisa permission to tell everyone that she was at the cabin and that she would now be answering her phone should anyone have the desire to talk to her. That did not include Dave.
She finished her customary glass of wine before her walk, then she wondered if Shawn was up for the weekend. She may not even be camping at the same spot, but Susan would welcome company. She had a need to talk this out and Shawn seemed the obvious choice. With a lightness in her step that had been missing, she grabbed her keys. She told herself that Shawn probably wasn't even there and then she would just go for a drive or something. Anything to get away from the cabin for awhile. But she spotted the black truck parked close to the river and suddenly she wasn't sure she should be here. Shawn came up here camping to be alone. She had told Susan that much herself. Susan would be intruding on Shawn's private time.
With every intention of driving past, thinking that Shawn might look her up at the cabin tomorrow, she very nearly ran over Shawn and Alex as they walked down the road. She slammed on her brakes, eyes meeting the warm, friendly ones that she remembered from last weekend.
"I nearly hit you," Susan stated unnecessarily when Shawn walked to her window.
"No shit," Shawn said with a laugh. "Looking for me?"
Susan thought of denying that very thing, but it was obvious that she had been. "I was in need of a therapy session, I'm afraid . . . I thought I could bribe you with dinner again."
Shawn crossed her arms and nodded. "I'm a good listener," she said. "Although there's no need for a bribe." She motioned toward her tent with a toss of her head. "Got a campfire all ready. Why don't you join me for a beer?"
Susan smiled with relief and nodded eagerly. "I'd love to."
She turned her car around on the dirt road and followed Shawn the short distance to the campsite, parking behind the black truck. Susan got out and stretched, surprised how at ease she felt already. And comfortable. Shawn motioned her towards the only lawn chair and after handing Susan a beer, Shawn sat cross-legged on the ground. She struck a match to the pinecones in the campfire ring and soon the smaller sticks caught.
The evening air was cool with the sun having dipped below the trees, and Susan welcomed the warmth of the fire.
"Have a good week?" Shawn asked.
Susan watched as Shawn struck a match to the two cigarettes between her lips and she accepted one without question. "I had a . . . better week," Susan said. She took a drag and closed her eyes, letting the smoke out slowly. "I called Lisa," she said.
"Was she worried?"
"Not so much Lisa as Ruth . . . and apparently David."
Shawn was quiet, waiting for Susan to continue. She nudged Alex away before he could settle in her lap.
"Jesus, this whole thing," Susan said, waving her hands in the air. "Ruth thinks I'm insane not to go running back to David with forgiveness in my heart." Susan frowned and stared at Shawn. "Can you believe that?"
Shawn nodded. "Sadly, yes. I see it all the time. Some women think that regardless of what the man does, they are somehow responsible and should feel grateful that he even wants to continue a relationship with them. Most leave out of anger for a few days, then go crawling back as if they did something wrong."
"Exactly! And I refuse to just dismiss this as a middle-aged crisis or something. I've been faithful," she said, pounding her chest. "And I deserve better," she finished in a whisper.
"Yes, you do."
They were quiet for a moment, then Susan tossed what was left of her cigarette into the fire. "I feel so guilty, though."
Shawn looked up, surprised at her words. "Why should you feel guilty?"
Susan stared into the fire, almost afraid to speak the words out loud. "Because now I have a reason to leave." She sighed and pulled her knees to her chest, tucking her heels on the edge of the chair. "I've been unhappy," she said softly. "And I've been lonely." She turned her head and finally looked at Shawn. "And it wasn't really his fault."
Shawn nodded, waiting for Susan to continue.
"I don't want to think that I drove him to this, but perhaps I did," she said. "I just wasn't interested in sex or him, and . . . God, we never talked anymore." She sighed again, wondering what it was about Shawn that made it so easy to say these things. "I don't know that we even liked each other very much."
"You must have been in love with him at one time," Shawn said.
"I suppose I thought I was. Why else would I have gotten married?"
"All of your friends were getting married, your family thought he was just perfect for you and so on," Shawn offered.
Susan gave a bitter laugh. "Exactly. Hell of a reason, isn't it?"
"And twenty years have gone by . . . "
"Yes," Susan murmured. "And I don't want twenty more to slip away as well."
They were quiet again, then Susan walked to Shawn's cooler and took out two more beers for them and she smiled when she saw two cigarettes hanging from Shawn's lips as she lit them.
"Why the shelter?"
Their eyes met across the fire and Susan held Shawn's gaze as she took the offered cigarette.
"I needed it once," Shawn said quietly. "It's my way of repaying."
"You were in an abusive relationship?"
Shawn shook her head. "My mother was. I just happened to be the punching bag whenever she wasn't around."
Susan didn't miss the pain in Shawn's voice although this obviously happened years ago. She wished she hadn't pried now.
"It's okay," Shawn said, as if reading Susan's thoughts. "I don't think about it much anymore and I certainly don't talk about it. I spent five years in therapy." She made herself smile. "I think that's quite enough."
"May I ask what happened?" Susan asked gently.
"It's a very long story," Shawn said slowly, quietly. "One I've not ever told to anyone, except my therapist." She wondered why she was considering telling this woman now, this stranger. "Sure you're up to it?"
"If you want to tell me," Susan said quietly, leaning to put another log on the campfire. She watched Shawn's face, wondering about what pain this woman had endured so many years ago. A long moment passed before Shawn finally spoke.
"When I was a kid, I just thought my father had a nasty temper. I was slapped often enough to learn when to hold my tongue. But as I got older, and I'm talking nine, ten, I realized that he would simply look for reasons to hit. Not just me, but her, too. Mostly her."
Shawn frowned sadly and Susan wished she had not bought up this painful subject. It made her own problems seem so minute.
"I was eleven when my mother finally left him. She had carted us off to the shelter, both of us bloody and bruised," Shawn said, her voice cracking with remembered pain and fear. "And I was so afraid she would go back to him," she whispered. "But this lady, this counselor, stayed with us, talking to my mother the whole time, helping with the police, getting us a place to stay, getting my mother some counseling."
"I'm sorry I brought this up," Susan whispered. "You don't have to tell me."
Shawn wiped at an errant tear, embarrassed. "That was eight months before she met Bobby." Shawn looked up and tried to smile. "You want the whole story or are you ready to stop?"
"I don't want you to go through this if it is painful," Susan said. "I only asked because . . . "
"Because you had revealed so much about yourself and I was still clean," Shawn finished for her.
Susan nodded, wondering how it came to be that they were so attuned to each other's thoughts.
"Some women are just attracted to abusive men. My mother was one of them. Bobby was . . . evil," Shawn whispered.
"Did he sexually abuse you?" Susan whispered back.
"I was sixteen when the hitting turned to touching. At first, I was just glad that he stopped beating me. But, the day that he tried . . . to rape me, I fought him with everything I had. Oh, God, and I hated my mother," Shawn said. "I hated her for putting me there, I hated her for being weak, I hated her for working nights and leaving me with him." Shawn paused, then added quietly, "And I hated her for allowing him to beat her, too."
"What did you do?"
Shawn shrugged. "Stayed with friends, slept on the streets. I would go home when I knew he wouldn't be there and get clothes and money and maybe a meal. I would beg her to leave him. She had a good job, she was a nurse at the hospital, she didn't need him. But I'm not sure she believed me. He always denied that he'd ever touched me."
Shawn looked up and Susan saw her tears by the light of the fire and she was saddened by Shawn's pain.
"You know what she said? She said, 'But he loves me.'"
Susan didn't know what to say, so she said nothing. After awhile, Shawn continued.
"Anyway, I managed to get through school with help from her and a job flipping burgers. I graduated early and went so far as to enroll in the community college. All I wanted was to be able to get a job and get the hell out of town. But I hadn't even turned nineteen when I got the news that my father had died. He had never remarried and he had left me a house that was paid for, a business and a very nice life insurance policy."
"That was big of him," Susan said dryly.
"Yeah. I wanted to tell the lawyer to shove it up his ass," Shawn said, remembering what a hothead she had been that day. "But I came to my senses. I figured he owed it to me."
"Let me guess," Susan said. "You quit school."
Shawn grinned. "It was party time, all right," she said. "But I didn't quit school. Not just yet," she added, her voice changing again.
"What else happened?" Susan asked quietly, knowing already it had to do with her mother's death.
"It was barely a month later," she said slowly. "I got a call from my mother. She said that she was tired of it all. She couldn't take it anymore."
Susan sat quietly, hand drawn to her throat, afraid of what was coming.
"She said that she loved me, that she was sorry for everything, and that she didn't want to die alone," Shawn finished in a whisper. "The next thing I heard was a gunshot," she murmured.
"Oh, God," Susan said. "Shawn, I'm so sorry." She got up and moved to Shawn's side, wrapping both arms around her in comfort, hearing Shawn's quiet tears.
"When the police got there, Bobby was already dead. She had killed him before she called me."
"Enough," Susan said. "That's enough for tonight," she said quietly. She rocked Shawn in her arms as she had done Lisa many times in her life. If nothing else, she still knew how to give comfort as a mother would. As Shawn wept, it struck her that they were really strangers, two women whose paths had crossed. But she had told Shawn secrets that she would never dream of telling anyone else, anyone that she actually knew. And Shawn had just told her things that she had kept buried from the world for years. How was it that two strangers could just fall together as if they were old friends?