Commitments

When Tabitha’s mother decided to do something, she did it all the way. It was a trait that Tabitha, who did most things part-way, or in nervous emulation of others, occasionally admired. Not, however, in this instance. Her mother had decided to fall in love, and now, one month later, here she was, in love. Her mother was in love with a man named Rich von Waldingham. They were passionately in love, Tabitha’s mother proclaimed. And yet Tabitha’s mother and Rich von Waldingham had never actually met.

“Details!” her mother said, flicking her hand through the air as if to brush away an annoying cobweb. “You always get so caught up in your own cynicism.”

“But his name,” Tabitha said. Maybe she was cynical, but she was also smart. Two sides of the very same coin. “Rich von Waldingham?”

“It’s a very handsome name. He’s the CEO of his own business.”

“You’re proving my point, Mom.”

“I’m embracing modernity.”

“Or some lonely weirdo using a stock photo and a made-up name.”

Tabitha’s mother threw her hands in the air and walked out of the kitchen.

“He treats me wonderfully,” she called over her shoulder. “Don’t be bitter, darling!”

Tabitha was bitter. She had reason to be. She was back home with her mother now, sleeping under pink polka dot sheets in her childhood bedroom. Her hometown, which had been small when she’d been growing up, was even smaller now. Hardly anyone from her graduating class had stayed here. The mill had moved overseas, then corporate headquarters had shut down the huge brewery. Everything else toppled slowly but surely, with the steady click of dominoes: Chinese restaurant, Family Dollar, florist. Five gas stations had dwindled to two. It was a dying town, a soon-to-be ghost town.

The town was a sad metaphor for her life, Tabitha thought. Crumbling, shuttered, shrinking day by day. Pathetic fallacy. This was her life, her mother’s too. But it wasn’t stopping her mother. Tabitha’s mother was marching forward, defiant in new lipstick, even as doors were slamming, even as the long-awaited Applebee’s never arrived, just like so many other dashed hopes and unkept promises. But with Rich Von Waldingham, none of that mattered. Such was the power of a fake boyfriend.

Chet Worthersley, Dillon Bradlington IV, Luc Sauvignon-Sinclair, Jean-Paul St. Laurence, Haysworth Chalmers, Grayson St. Clair

She scribbled Rich-Von-Waldingham-inspired names in purple pen on the back of a Wal-Mart receipt. She was supposed to be above such hurt, such dwelling—fierce and independent and filled with a tenacious, unsinkable self-love. The cheating? It was a thing that happened. To amuse herself, she could come up with alternate Rich von Waldinghams all day long. These, the fake boyfriends, did sound handsome, and very rich, the sort of men who managed a kind of well-groomed yet rugged masculinity, all Superman-jaws and thick hair with the muscled, golden forearms of tennis pros peeking out from the rolled-up sleeves of their dress shirts. Businessmen, all. MBAs who regularly read The New York Review of Books. Classy men, gentlemen, who knew facts about fine wine but who could still figure out what was wrong with your car. Tabitha preferred Luc Sauvignon-Sinclair, a wine importer of French extraction who had an affinity for poker and medium-rare steak.

In real life, she debated being set up with Bill Philbeck, a recently divorced plumber who was ten years older and had a slight paunch. Bill Philbeck was her mother’s suggestion.

It was unseemly, Tabitha thought—unmodern, even— to be so caught up on the question of a man.

“Rich has a lot of business interests in Malaysia,” Tabitha’s mom remarked, her voice casual but proud the next morning. She stirred nonfat half and half into her coffee dreamily. “That’s why he ends up spending so much time there.”

“And what exactly is so-called Rich’s business?”

“Software,” her mom said smugly. They were both ignorant enough on this topic as to make it unassailable.

“You’re being catfished, Mom,” Tabitha said.

Her mother took a long sip of her coffee.

“Don’t be so sour,” her mother said. “You’re getting frown lines.”

Tabitha took a sip of self-punishing black coffee and winced.

“You really should go out with Bill,” her mother added. Her mother knew Bill from church. “Just once, at least. Get out of the house! He’s a very nice man. Everyone in town likes him. We were all appalled at his wife for what she did.”

“Mom,” Tabitha said. “Please.” She hated her unfortunate symmetry with Bill Philbeck.

“He’s a good businessman, too,” her mother added. “Does well for himself. Not like Clark, but. . . He does very well. That’s important, especially with you being out of work.”

Tabitha flinched at her husband’s name. The one name she hoped to forget. And she was not out of work, not technically. She was freelancing, emphasis on free. Too little work and too much free time.

“I do work, Mom,” she said. “I’m working.”

“It’s time to bounce back, sweetheart. No more sulking.”

“I’m bouncing,” she said sullenly. A bald-faced lie.

Her mother was no longer listening. Her mother was texting Rich von Waldingham.

 

Tabitha’s husband, Clark, had apologized. He had apologized and apologized. The redhead had been his junior associate. He was power-drunk, he explained. Drunk on having made partner, drunk on their new apartment, drunk on having married a beautiful woman (what kind of backhanded hybrid compliment-excuse was that?). Luck simply whets a man’s appetite, Clark had explained. Luck makes a man ever hungrier rather than satiated. So when a fresh law school graduate with Manga eyes gazed at him worshipfully, well—he’d thought of it as a one-time thing, a lark. No one would find out; he would hurt no one. Get the craving out of his system once and for all and be done with it.
He’d been wrong.

Clark’s transgression suddenly clarified to Tabitha all of her failures. What a fool. There she was, writing silly, knowing articles for women’s magazines, testing out new blow-dry bars and skin treatments. There she was, meeting her silly deadlines, then meeting her silly friends for silly happy hours, then sweating away the next morning in penance at spin class. There she was, meeting Clark for a fancy work party in a cocktail dress, kissing him on the cheek, proud of how handsome and smart he was. There she was, dutifully trudging to an Upper East Side Fertility Clinic which gave out expensive sparkling waters and high-end, low-glycemic energy bars, consolation prizes to wealthy, Pilates-toned women bereft of babies.

A failure, she could see now. She was pitiful. Thirty-nine years old, and her life was over. Her ovaries and her man were giving up on her; if she were a town, she wouldn’t have an Applebee’s, either.

The redhead, L’aura, was no longer in the picture. Clark swore to it. Yes, they remained coworkers—long hours, shared cases, knees surely touching beneath the table as they hunched together over files, billable hours—but the whole affair, it had been a huge, mutually recognized mistake. Yet now, the damage was done. Tabitha could not stop picturing them together. Her Clark, with L’aura—beautiful, red-headed L’aura, of the pretentious and unnecessary apostrophe. Serious, brilliant, irresistible L’aura.

“At least she’s very beautiful,” Tabitha had replied dully, stupidly to Clark’s apologies. “You’ve always had such good taste.” And he did have good taste, exquisite taste, her Clark, with his $100 dollar t-shirts and thick head of glossy brown hair and Yale law degree and gorgeous, red-haired mistress—not Laura, but L’aura.

You’re very beautiful, sweetheart,” Clark had insisted. “She was a mistake. It was like I was in a fever-dream. I can’t explain it.”

“Oh, you don’t need to explain,” Tabitha had said. “I get it.”

The next morning, she’d simply left. She hadn’t even bothered to pack. Her beautiful clothes, her tasteful bags, her elegant clutches, her expensive moisturizers and creams—they were all back in their well-lit New York apartment. Clark’s apartment. She’d fled to her mother’s and found her old high school swim team t-shirts and sweatpants tucked away in her drawers. Sweatpants suited her now, an outward manifestation of her spiritual state.

She had the eerie feeling that she was submitting to a certain caricature but found a kind of comfort in it.

“This is temporary, right?” her mother had asked the first night she’d shown up. “Until you and Clark make up?”

Tabitha had shrugged. Who knew? Wasn’t everything, by some definition, temporary?

 

In the evenings, Tabitha could hear her mother tittering over the phone with Rich von Waldingham. Her mother giggled, giddy and delighted by him. Tabitha had never known her mother gleeful like this. She had never known her mother in love. She had seen the photo of this Rich—a distinguished older man with a sweep of thick hair. He looked the way you would expect a Rich von Waldingham to look—a silver fox, a late-career Richard Gere.

Tabitha had been impressed when she walked into the room and saw the same distinguished-looking man speaking to her mother over Skype. But these catfishers were crafty; Tabitha had watched a show about them. All they needed was a handsome photo, an invented identity, and a little bit of savvy. She knew who this guy really was: at best, a desperately lonely person; at worst, a con artist.

While Tabitha was growing up, her mother hadn’t dated. Tabitha’s father had died in a car accident when she was barely one, and her mother had always said to her, “It’s just us, monkey. You’re all I need,” which had seemed very sweet at the time, a kind of comfort. As she grew older, though, Tabitha had realized the truth: there were no appealing options. Who would her mother have chosen? There was no one she could have imagined her mother dating. Her mother had had friends, of course; friends from the department of social services where she worked, friends from church circle, friends who were the parents of Tabitha’s classmates. But that was it. And maybe it had been enough; maybe it had been plenty.

When Tabitha had met Clark and first brought him home, her mother had been thrilled, cooing over him, basking in his healthy, masculine glow. She took a vicarious pleasure in the perfection of their match. Clark was a fine specimen of manhood, modern yet old-fashioned in his appeal. “It’s like he walked out of an old movie!” her mother had exclaimed when meeting him. Her mother had actually said that, in front of Clark! An articulation of what Tabitha had secretly been thinking all along. The universe had rewarded Tabitha for the loss of her father. Here was this classic-Hollywood leading man, this kind, thoughtful, high-powered attorney who ran marathons—a man you would hardly have believed in until you met him. Her mother spoke about Clark with adulation verging on awe.

If someone had described Clark to Tabitha before she’d met him, she would have scoffed. Too good to be true. Like Rich von Waldingham. Or Luc Sauvignon-Sinclair. But not like Bill Philbeck. She would have believed in Bill Philbeck’s existence.

Bill Philbeck was very real. And it was Bill Philbeck she was meeting for a blind date. She had relented, tired of hearing her mother titter and preen in the next room, tired of lonely frozen meals eaten over Netflix.
They were meeting at a chain restaurant about twenty miles away near a low-slung, putty-colored outlet mall. It did a brisk business. The restaurant was called Fatz. A terrible name, Tabitha thought. She couldn’t imagine a more unappealing name for a place intended to encourage the consumption of food. Her magazine-writer friends, all former prep school girls from the northeast, would have grimaced in mock horror.

But Bill had suggested Fatz, and there were few other options. Tabitha found an old skirt and shirt in her closet and put on mascara for the first time in months. In the mirror, she looked different—both younger and older, innocent yet stricken, like a sad child who’d just witnessed her dog getting hit by a car. Her face was tired and lumpy, a slept-upon pillowcase of skin.

It was only when she walked into Fatz that she realized she still somehow managed to appear like a snob from outer space here. Too New York, even as lumpy and off as she felt. It had seeped into her somehow so that now, here, even at her worst, she no longer appeared native to this place. Two heavyset women in denim looked up at her from their booth near the doorway and smirked. She couldn’t meet their eyes. She felt stiff, absurd. An impostor everywhere she went.

Bill waved to her from a stool at the bar. She recognized him even though she hadn’t seen him in years.

“Hey,” he said, smiling. He did have a nice smile. He reminded her of the plump, mustachioed gym teacher she’d had in middle school.

“Hi,” she said, leaning forward for an air kiss until she realized that she’d thrown him off. People did not air-kiss here. That was a New York thing. Kissing was reserved for serious intention. She flushed slightly and slid onto the stool next to him.

He was wearing a pair of khaki pants and loafers that looked new, a button-up shirt that was still a little stiff from its hanger. He had dressed up—she could tell, and this touched her.

“What can I get you?” he asked.

To his credit, he did not flinch or act surprised when she asked simply for whiskey, neat. Nor when she asked for another, and another. They shared a plate of nachos, food not intended for any first date, and maybe it was the whiskey, but she found she didn’t care. She laughed, stringy nacho cheese stuck to her chin, her fingers greasy. He laughed, too, and they were getting along famously, especially considering they had nothing in common other than cheating spouses.

Later, Tabitha found herself making out with him in his truck, which was white and had Philbeck Plumbing written neatly in purple letters on the side. His fingers were thick and a little clumsy against her, but she didn’t mind. The whiskey had made her feel loose-jointed and whimsical. What an adventure, this life! He had such an unfamiliar smell, this man, and it occurred to her it had been a long time since she’d been close enough to really smell someone other than Clark. Clark! Thinking of him made her want to laugh. One minute, you were in your perfect apartment with your perfect CrossFitter husband, and then the next, you were having an old-fashioned makeout session with a pudgy plumber. Somehow, the very whimsy (or was it the whiskey?) added to her passion, and she found herself pulling him closer, grabbing at the crotch of his khakis, feline and desperate in her energy.

“Whoa,” he said, laughing a little and pausing to take off his smudged glasses and place them on the dashboard. He managed to shift himself away from her so that her hand was not quite against his crotch any longer. “You’re a firecracker, aren’t you?”

Tabitha laughed uproariously at this because no one, not a single person in her entire existence, had ever, accusingly or complimentarily, called her a firecracker. But maybe she was one now. Maybe this was her new identity.

The laughter was good because it slowed her down from whatever mad mission she’d been on. She pulled up one of her bra straps.

“What was it like when she left you? Your wife?” Tabitha asked.

He frowned slightly. His eyes without the glasses seemed tender and raw, too small for his face.

“Oh, what is it always like?” Bill Philbeck answered. “That’s what country songs are for. Listen, I should get you home. You’re not driving.”

“I’ll be fine,” she said, and indeed, she did feel very sober all of a sudden. “In a minute. Let’s just sit here.”

He put back on his glasses and started up the truck. She had killed the mood, but Bill was a nice enough person not to hold it against her. They sat, listening to the radio in peaceable silence. When finally she felt clear-headed enough to go, he smiled at her.

“Take care,” he said, holding onto her hand for a few seconds too long as she stepped out of his truck, “I had fun. I’d really like to see you again. You’re something else.” And it felt a little bit like true affection, the very thing she was starving for—but maybe she could have been any woman in the world, really, and he could have been any man in the world, and it would have felt the same way.

 

The morning after her first date with Bill started like any other morning in her new, firecracker existence. First, there was coffee, then a few bites of oatmeal, followed by leftover Halloween candy. Then, the opening of her laptop to work on her current assignment, which would of course quickly devolve into watching online episodes of reality television. Kardashians, Real Housewives, etc. But today she couldn’t find her laptop charger, buried somewhere beneath piles of dirty clothes in her childhood bedroom, and so she ventured to her mother’s desktop out in the living room.

She was lost in the tooth-aching sweetness of a peanut butter cup when she was interrupted by a ringing, whirring notification. A chat icon from “RVW” popped up. Skype? he asked. She found herself typing yes.

When the connection came through, she found herself looking at the distinguished-looking silver-haired man. Rich von Waldingham.

“Gloria?” a male voice asked. “Where’s Gloria?”

“I’m her daughter,” Tabitha said. “Who are you?”

“Your mother’s boyfriend.”

“No,” she said. “Who are you really?”

The image on Skype flickered and froze for a moment. There was a delay, and then the handsome silver-handled gentleman ran a hand through his hair.

“I love Gloria,” the voice said. “We are in love.”

Was it her imagination, or did she detect an accent? Rich von Waldingham was, as far as Tabitha knew, supposed to be an American.

Onscreen, the gentleman shifted his weight in the chair slightly, leaning forward as if preparing to listen intently.

“Tell me,” the voice said. “Tell me more about you. Gloria’s daughter. She speaks of you often.”

His speech was oddly formal, Tabitha thought—and yet, well, polite. Gracious, even. He sounded vaguely embarrassed by what she thought of him.

“I live in New York,” she said, relishing the old thrill this statement used to conjure back when she was nineteen.

“With your lawyer husband,” he said, nodding, and she was a little unnerved that he did know things about her. “You are visiting?”

Her mouth twisted for a moment, and she decided against explaining.

“Yes,” she paused. “What do you want? Money? My mother doesn’t have any. She’s not rich. She’s also not a moron.”

The Skype screen froze again. When the connection returned, RVW ran a hand through his hair again—a nervous tic, Tabitha thought. He then shifted his weight and leaned closer, intent, listening.

It was a loop, Tabitha realized. It was a video on repeat. A shiver surged through her. She was outing the trickster, outfoxing the fox. It was what she’d known all along—her mother was a dupe, just as she’d been, lured in by the promise of something too good to be true.

“We are in love,” the voice said, plaintive this time. Was she imagining it or was there a note of resignation in his voice?

The image went out, and she waited. There was nothing. She had run him off. She felt a sinking feeling—disappointment?—that the whole thing was over so quickly. The catfisher knew she was on to him and had slunk off to some other hole of the internet.

Then, he was back. The silver-haired gentleman, running a hand through his hair again. He was very handsome, Tabitha had to admit.

“We are in love,” he repeated, the refrain sounding plaintive now. “You are so beautiful, too. I’ve heard so much about you.”

The grainy image flickered and froze again, but there was something soothing about his voice, his careful and attentive interest—a perfect replica of the sincerity that Tabitha no longer believed actually existed.
And it occurred to her that maybe her mother’s online romance with this person, whoever he was, might not be the worst thing in the world. Of course her mother was never going to meet any actual Rich von Waldingham, but why not allow the promise of one to exist, at least for a little while? Even if it could only exist in the theoretical universe of the Internet, even if only short-lived, wasn’t that a solace of sorts?  Wasn’t that worth something?  The idea of Rich von Waldingham—it was magic.  So what if he was actually the virtual manifestation of some sad, sweaty agoraphobe in rural Idaho? So what? When Tabitha thought of it this way, she felt a fierce protectiveness, a desire to preserve the illusion.

“Don’t hurt my mother,” Tabitha said. “I’m onto you.”

“I would never,” the male voice said. “It’s not like that at all.”

And Tabitha, overcome with a great feeling of fatigue, disconnected at that point, letting Rich von Waldingham’s voice die abruptly. She sighed. Everything wearied and saddened her. Maybe she really should just leave it alone, let her mother dream of Rich von Waldingham. After all, people were conning one another all the time; there might as well be some occasional joy that came from it.

 

Tabitha was going to Bill Philbeck’s house for dinner that night. He was cooking. She could imagine him, plump cheeks flushed, leaning over a pot of noodles, trying his best.

Clark had been excellent in the kitchen— a know-it-all and a subscriber to Cook’s Illustrated. He kept an elaborate collection of expensive spices and laughed at people who bought certain wines. But the food! It had been delicious.

When Tabitha arrived at Bill’s house, she stepped out of her mother’s car and paused. It was a pleasant ranch house with pots of geraniums at the entrance and a sign reading “Welcome” at the front door—leftover touches from his wife, she assumed. The lights were on, and she could see him setting the table inside.

She knocked on the door and waited, her heart stuttering in her chest. Why was she nervous? Bill Philbeck, with his mustache—he was sweet, and she didn’t want to say she was doing him a favor, but, well, this was not her real life. This was something else. A time of metamorphosis, a time of good deeds, a surreal time where nothing truly counted, a time before she would return to her New York City world, triumphant and restored—

“Tabitha!”

When he opened the door, she saw that he was wearing an apron that read “Mr. Chef” He was a little flushed, but she liked the way his eyes turned up when he smiled.

“Bill!”

She was warm and buzzy, having had a small glass of wine before she’d left. She was glad to see him. It warmed her to see him, glad to see her.
This time she knew better than to air-kiss, so she simply handed him the bottle of wine she’d brought and followed him inside.

“My humble abode,” Bill said, sweeping his arm across the space to indicate a living room with a beige couch and a flat screen TV. “It’s not much, but it’s mine. Come on in, the pasta’s almost ready. I’ll get you a drink.”

She followed him inside, marveling at how normal his house was. Cozy and normal. A clutch of split-spined John Grisham paperbacks on a shelf, coffee table with fanned issues of Southern Living (addressed to his ex-wife), a large, flat-screen TV mounted on the living room wall like a portal to somewhere. . . . She picked up a squat cranberry-apple scented candle and took a whiff. Back when she’d been together with Clark, normal had become a shorthand for something plain or pedestrian or foolishly quaint. Entire dinner parties, decorating schemes, and personalities could be summarized and dismissed with that word. How was it? Fine, fine—normal.

Bill poured them both glasses of wine and began chattering about a large project he’d been working on that week—a huge leak over at the Comfort Inn, right there in the meeting room used by the Kiwanis Club. Tabitha sipped her wine and marveled at what a good talker Bill was. His words flowed over her and put her at ease. He was good at keeping a conversation going. Easy. Her cheeks were flushed and she felt an expansive feeling of generosity and forgiveness. She thought of her mother at home Skyping with Rich von Waldingham, who in reality was someone else entirely, a desperate con artist an ocean away. Everyone was desperate for something. Simply overlooking that fact was an act of charity, an act of kindness.

Bill paused and looked at her questioningly.

“What?” she asked, blushing, aware that she’d been drifting off. She put her wine glass down and smiled at him.

“Nothing,” he said, smiling and looking down, smoothing the tablecloth. “You’re just so pretty. And you’re different. You’re not like the other women around here.”

She glowed at that—he’d articulated her very hope for herself. She felt her heart light up and throb like a sun inside her chest. She smiled at him, wondering if they would sleep together tonight. Probably, it seemed. She wouldn’t mind it, not really. It had been so long, and why not? It would make him happy.

Bill prompted her with questions throughout dinner, curious to know about her writing, her life in New York, her travels. She answered, appreciating how much more interesting his questions made her seem. They ate pasta (a little overdone) with sauce (a little too sweet) and drank the entire bottle of wine and started the next one. When, later, they moved to the couch in the living room for an after-dinner drink, Tabitha felt ready for Bill—his sweet, unassuming dough-face, a true all-American man. It would be a relief really, after all Clark’s brittle perfection, his knife-edged torso and abs.

They were laughing, their heads together, as they sat on the couch when Bill leaned in very close to her, face serious. She paused, aware of a pounding in her head, as he lifted her chin up to study her.

She took a deep breath. He was going to kiss her now, then sweetly, awkwardly, usher her back to his bedroom, which would be plain and neat and bachelor-sad. A creeping heat was rising from her neck—she was nervous! Actually nervous!

“I want you to know,” he began slowly, shyly, carefully, and she braced herself to hear something sweet and bashful. I want you to know you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever been with, or I want you to know you can tell me anything, tell me what you like. Her chin was still in his hand, and he tilted her head gently, appraising her face.

“I want you to know,” he continued. “That after Becca left me, I committed myself to something. I made a renewed pledge.”

She waited, the pounding in her chest diminishing slightly. His hand drifted from her face, and she shifted, better to look into his kindly, hound dog eyes.

“I’ve made a pledge to save myself,” he continued. “Again. A pledge to purity. Becca was my first love, my high school sweetheart, and I truly never thought I’d be in this position. . .” His voice trailed off, and he looked away, swallowing. “But I am, and, especially after what she did, it’s important to me. To be steadfast. Committed. So I’ve made a commitment to celibacy. Until marriage.”

He blinked, and she realized he was blinking away tears.

She had a sudden, intrusive memory of the purity pledge many kids from her high school had made, gathering together in an auditorium for singing and weeping and terrifying speeches about the perils of promiscuity, the little promise rings they’d worn proudly afterwards. The pasta sauce and wine roiled in her stomach queasily.

“You don’t want to have sex with me,” she said flatly.

His ears pinkened, and he clenched his eyes shut for a moment.

“No, no,” he said. “It’s not that. I’m waiting for the one. I want it to be right this time.”

“Why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t want that? With me?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “I do. I mean, possibly. Eventually.” His ears were a brilliant red now, and he could barely look at her. Poor, earnest Bill Philbeck.

“I’m waiting for the real thing. True love,” he said, looking at her now, his kindly face was so pained and embarrassed that she could hardly be mad, but rather pained and embarrassed also.

She rose from the couch.

“I’m sorry,” he continued. “Please. This is coming across the wrong way.”

“I understand,” she said, her voice thin. She was sweating. Why was she sweating so much?

He paused for a moment, considering, then stood as well. “You know, there’s a breakfast tomorrow. At church. Ten o’clock. A prayer group I’m in. I’d love for you to join us. And then maybe I can try again—to explain. We could start over.”

“Let me help you clean up,” she said coldly, in lieu of an answer. “And then I should leave.”

Before she went to bed that night, feeling hollowed out and shaken, she wondered if at the very least there might be a compelling personal essay in all of this. The revelatory first-person anecdote could get you everywhere these days. Her widowed mother catfished by god-knows-whom, a cheating husband, a first date with a re-virginized virgin: true life, it happened to me. A redemption story, somehow. She would figure out the redemption part.

Once she finally fell asleep, she dreamt not of Clark or Bill Philbeck but of the silver-haired Rich von Waldingham peering from the computer screen at her, wanting her—no, wanting her mother, who promptly disappeared, and then she found herself chasing them both down a long hallway, shouting for Rich von Waldingham, shouting for her mother, shouting for anyone, wondering where they had gone, why they had left her all alone.

 

The next morning, Tabitha woke with a headache. Too much cheap red wine, too much bad pasta. The thought of Bill Philbeck was excruciating.

She went downstairs to make coffee and found her mother, rumpled, sitting at the kitchen counter, forehead balanced in her hands, looking like the aftermath of something.

“Oh, Tabitha,” her mother said, voice breaking as Tabitha walked in. “It’s Rich. Something’s happened.”

“I’m sure he’s okay,” Tabitha said blearily. She hugged her mother perfunctorily and began making the coffee.

“He’s disappeared. I was up all night talking to one of his business associates. They’re trying to find him.”

Tabitha blinked slowly. Her mother grabbed her arm, beseeching.

“He was mugged,” her mother continued, sobbing. “Attacked. Lost everything. His wallet, his passport, his credit cards. We were going to meet…But then he disappeared again, and…I don’t know anymore…”

Her mother was openly weeping now, her face blotchy and swollen.

Tabitha murmured something vaguely comforting and poured herself coffee. Her head was still heavy, heavy with the humiliation of last night. Her phone dinged, and Tabitha’s mother startled. Tabitha looked down and saw a text from one of her New York friends who worked in publishing. Another life. She glanced at the carefully worded message—kind, solicitous. They hadn’t forgotten her, at least not yet. Her headache clanged.

Her mother looked at her expectantly, nervously, waiting.

“What was that?” her mother asked.

Tabitha sighed.

“No one,” she said. “A friend in New York. Saying hi.”

“Oh,” her mother said, fingers worrying her neck into red, itchy splotches, a nervous habit she had. “I thought it might be someone else.”

Tabitha frowned at her.

“Who?”

Her mother bit her lip but said nothing, then began weeping anew.

“Who?” Tabitha asked again, more urgently.

“Clark,” her mother admitted. “He’s flying into Charlotte today. I asked him to come here. I’m going to pick him up. I need his help, Tabitha,” she said sounding doleful, rubbing her hands together as if trying to remove a stain. “Because I love Rich. I loaned him money. It started with a little bit here and there, but it began to add up. . . . I knew you would think I was stupid. But what we have is real. It’s real. And now, he’s disappeared. I had to ask Clark for help.”

Tabitha stared at her mother while her mother buried her face in her hands.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know who else to call besides Clark.” She shook her head.

“Oh, Mom,” Tabitha said. Clark was competent in all manner of things. Clark understood the law. Clark had money. “How much money?”

Tabitha’s mother’s face tightened and went pale. She didn’t answer. She merely shook her head and looked down. Taking a breath, she muttered something, and then, clenching her fist, turned to Tabitha, face tear-streaked and defiant.

“What do you know?” she asked. Her voice was tight, close to breaking. “I never had someone like Clark.” Her mother’s mouth twisted angrily and she shook her head again before continuing. “I would have let your father sleep with a thousand women. . . .” Her mother was whispering now, a vicious whisper that was worse than yelling.

Something felt like it had ripped open inside of Tabitha. She couldn’t breathe. She had to get out of that kitchen.

Tabitha turned and fled, leaving her mother sitting at the counter, seething. She couldn’t bear to be there when Clark arrived. She wasn’t ready for that. She couldn’t bear yet another apologetic look. She got into her mother’s car and turned the key in the ignition.

She drove, breathing hard, blinking back tears. She drove, guided by an automatic force. Her chest was heaving, but she kept a tight grip on the steering wheel. Where was she even going? It wasn’t until she pulled into the parking lot that she fully knew. In her pajama pants and t-shirt, hair unbrushed and wild, she marched forward into the fellowship hall of the church.

A group of about twenty people were gathered at a long table over plates of waffles and pancakes and eggs. The smell of coffee and bacon mingled in the air. The people were all dressed plainly but neatly. She was a mess. She didn’t care. Who was she trying to impress?

They were holding hands, eyes closed in a kind of blessing or communion. They were singing. She saw Bill among them, eyes closed, mustache quivering, lost in the song. It was a song she knew from her youth group days and had always thought was very beautiful, unfairly beautiful, a song that seemed to promise more than it could ever make good on.

Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true….

What would he think when he saw she’d shown up, a wild woman in pajamas? A firecracker? Would he look up at her with astonishment? Longing?

She walked towards them, and the two people on either side of Bill opened their eyes briefly and saw her, it seemed, with a sort of understanding. They closed their eyes again, singing. Bill opened his eyes, too, but he held her gaze. He looked not surprised, not relieved, not gratified, but rather as if he’d expected her to show up all along. He smiled and rose discreetly from the table while everyone else continued singing, their voices humble and grateful and normal, so normal. Tabitha moved toward him unsteadily with her lank hair and sour breath. Bill gave her his arm and led her as if he was leading a child to the table. He pulled up an extra chair for her beside him, and she sank into it. The people around her kept singing with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living. . . . Their singing voices wafted upward while the woman next to Tabitha took one of her hands and held it and Bill held the other.

It was all so empty, Tabitha thought. Everything was so empty and broken and disappointing; the whole shiny world with all its polished treats was merely one slick feat of false advertising. A long con. She wept.

But if any of those at the table had looked up and seen the tears on Tabitha’s cheeks, they might have mistaken them for proof that she’d been moved by something beautiful, something holy and pure.

Joanna Pearson

Joanna Pearson

Joanna Pearson's short stories have recently appeared (or are forthcoming) in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Carve, Copper Nickel, The Hopkins Review, Joyland, The Mississippi Review, as well as others, and one of her stories has been noted a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 2015 and anthologized in Best of the Net 2016. She is also the author of a book of poetry, Oldest Mortal Myth (Story Line Press, 2012), winner of the 2012 Donald Justice Prize and the 2014 Towson University Prize for Literature, and a young adult novel, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011).
Joanna Pearson

Latest posts by Joanna Pearson (see all)

Author: Joanna Pearson

Joanna Pearson's short stories have recently appeared (or are forthcoming) in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Carve, Copper Nickel, The Hopkins Review, Joyland, The Mississippi Review, as well as others, and one of her stories has been noted a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 2015 and anthologized in Best of the Net 2016. She is also the author of a book of poetry, Oldest Mortal Myth (Story Line Press, 2012), winner of the 2012 Donald Justice Prize and the 2014 Towson University Prize for Literature, and a young adult novel, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011).