At least that is over, Rhonda thought, falling into bed. What was supposed to have been Rhonda’s forty-seventh birthday celebration had turned into something else once the ladies had gotten wind that her divorce was final. Who were these friends? There must have been more than thirty of them, these ladies of the Sonoran desert, ascending in their golf carts and SUVs to reach the sprawling house that clung to the highest peak of the Catalina mountainside, bearing gift baskets of Grey Goose, chocolates, and all that silly lingerie, as if Rhonda were some cliché. And yes, she had humored them, these friends for whom she’d done so much over the years, these friends whom she might not call friends in another life, because in that other life there had been no real need for such friends. But her sister was no longer of this earth, and so perhaps Rhonda had gotten a little carried away with it all tonight, regrettably now, letting loose in the name of solidarity, of womanhood, a “we will not be beaten” kind of thing.
It might not have been so regrettable had Rhonda’s daughter, Olivia, not chosen to walk into the Great Room at exactly the wrong moment—Rhonda parading around in that powder-blue silk robe (over her clothes), having just guffawed to her friends some irrelevantly snide comment, “A half of a lot is a lot,” what was followed by a cacophony of hyena-like laughter, the pop of another bottle, and Rhonda turning around to see Olivia marching out of the room.
The vision woke Rhonda, buzzed and drifting off, with a start. She looked at the clock—just before ten p.m.—and automatically pushed herself from bed. Her daughter still needed her, even if she refused to admit it. Olivia, well into her second year at the University of Arizona, had been popping in of late, surprising Rhonda at all hours of the day and night. Little forewarning. She could no longer concentrate at the sorority or at the college library, she had assured her mother, code for: her daughter wasn’t getting along with anyone. Code for: her daughter, who couldn’t seem to be anyone but herself, had said the wrong thing to the wrong person, again.
Black from the inside out was the desert this time of night, and Rhonda had to feel her way along the walls of her bedroom in order to get to the hallway, where a light beamed via sensor. A few yards further another light beamed, then another, as if the world came to life only as Rhonda walked through it. And so it went along the endless corridor, as Rhonda liked to call it. She’d clocked it once: thirty-six seconds exactly to walk from her bedroom, past her office, the formal living and dining rooms, the wine cellar and guest suite, to reach the Great Room (“Great,” as christened by the architect because it was the place in the house where great times were to be had by all at all times), where cathedral ceilings stretched out over an expansive living area and kitchen, with a fireplace big enough to camp out in.
From the Great Room, where Rhonda stood now, a wall of French doors opened up onto an indoor/outdoor patio, where plush couches sat large gatherings comfortably under a timed spray of cool mist. An infinity pool poured water over the edge of a jutting cliff, where manicured fairways sloped and curved. In the distance, a saguaro-studded valley.
Daniel, Rhonda’s newly crowned ex, had designed the house himself, sparing no expense to ensure that it exuded the aura of its natural desert surroundings. Wood beams from an old Sonoran ranch, corrugated-steel walls from an Aztec Indian reserve, arched windows from a burned-down adobe church—most of the fixtures and furniture were sourced from antique salvage shops. Rhonda was never quite sure if the result was gaudy or sublime.
Certainly now, she looked around and thought, I have my answer.
The ashes in the wood-burning stove were still smoldering. The caterers had cleaned up after the party, but there were stray pieces of lingerie draped over chairs, ravaged boxes of chocolates splayed about the kitchen island, a few empty bottles of wine exhumed from the depths of Daniel’s cellar, errant glasses left here and there. Amongst them she spotted a bottle of water, which she grabbed and guzzled.
She gasped when she was done, the water bottle empty. It took her a minute to catch her breath. What remained was a tomb of silence that always unnerved her. Never would she get used to the stillness of these late hours. And, just like clockwork, the curtains began motoring to their closed position. What shouldn’t be startling always was.
After the curtains came the shades.
Ten p.m., every night, the house went into lockdown. Daniel used to go to bed at nine thirty without fail, Rhonda being “Just a few steps behind, dear!” In actuality, she never went to bed before midnight. She hadn’t had the heart to tell Daniel this when he’d programmed the various timers to accommodate everyone’s living patterns, because that would mean pointing out the fact that he’d not even missed her in bed beside him; she didn’t want him to miss her. Her timer had never been in sync with his, and vice versa, made so evident by his departure, that timer having been up for some time. He’d not salvaged one antique on his way out the door. He took a few trinkets from his world travels, the framed blueprints of his first golf club designs, but the rest? Who ever wanted all of it anyway? He’d moved into one of those cookie-cutter fairway villas scattered about the base of the craggily mountainside, temporarily, he said, until he and Brie figured out what they wanted to do.
Rhonda plucked a black thong off the floor and stuffed it under a couch cushion, then began treading lightly down the opposite hall, toward the beam of orange light she’d spotted outside the theater room, which signified a warm body. This side of the house was considered the children’s wing; the “treading lightly” was an old habit Rhonda had been unable to break even after the “children” had grown up and moved out. Mostly moved out, that is.
Once there, Rhonda took a moment to study her daughter through the double-glass doors of the room where no movie was playing, just Olivia, sitting there in the dark, swallowed up by an oversized leather chair, knees up, her hair looking more platinum than it a had a week ago, and longer, snaking down the sides of her face (forbidding anybody to see the tiny birthmark under her lip) and over her breasts, pooling on her belly, where she studied her iPhone.
A deep breath, and Rhonda pushed open the door and stood there. How best to start, when your daughter was not speaking to you? She finally just slid into a seat in the second row, released the recliner, plopped her feet on the rest, and spoke to the back of her daughter’s head. “You didn’t tell me you were coming home, Olivia.”
“Next time I’ll send out an alert.”
“I wish you would use the front door like I asked.”
“I have to ring the bell to enter my own home?” She looked back at her mother and, with no small amount of horror, said, “Mom, why are you still wearing that?”
Rhonda looked down. Bit her lip. She’d forgotten. “Oh, it’s that silly movie,” she said, waving it off with a hand.
Olivia faced forward again and said nothing.
“That movie with Joan Allen and Kevin Costner. I forget the name.” She paused a moment to think of it. “Joan Allen’s husband abandons her, just takes off with his secretary one day and doesn’t come back, doesn’t call. Nothing. Anyway, she takes to drinking Grey Goose for breakfast and wandering around at all hours of the day in a long, powder-blue silk robe not unlike this one.” Rhonda gave herself another once-over. “Joan wore it better, as you can imagine.”
“I can imagine,” Olivia said, which Rhonda interpreted as an opening. She slid forward and draped her arms over the seat in front of her. “You’ll never see a more pissed-off housewife in your life as you will Joan Allen in this movie. A cliché, perhaps. But hilarious, nonetheless.”
She let go a little laugh, and Olivia said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Maybe you need to see it.”
“Maybe I do.”
“Upside of Anger. That’s the name of it.”
“But that’s the thing, Mom. What I’ve finally figured out. You’re not angry.”
No. Not angry, Rhonda thought. Embarrassed perhaps, but not angry. “I will be no cliché, Olivia,” Rhonda said in a voice of dead calm. “You must know that I was humoring those women tonight. And while I loved Joan Allen in that movie, that woman is not me.”
“And here I was feeling all sorry for you,” Olivia mumbled. And then she said something Rhonda didn’t catch.
“What did you say?”
“I said you’re happier with him gone.”
Rhonda sat back and sighed.
“It’s like you wanted him to meet Brie and leave.”
They sat in silence for some time, until it occurred to Rhonda, “You’re not worried about me, are you?”
Olivia didn’t say anything.
“This isn’t why you’ve been coming home, is it?”
Some kind of strangled huff.
Rhonda got up and went and stood before the projection screen. All this time she’d assumed that Olivia had been having problems at the sorority. Well, this wouldn’t do. She cleared her throat. “Olivia. Honey. You absolutely do not need to worry about me. What happens to your father and me is irrelevant. You are what’s relevant. You need to keep focused on yourself and your dreams and your future. Nothing changes, Olivia. Your father and I both love you, and we will continue to be there for you, no matter what. You do not need to worry about anything but yourself.”
“Did you ever love Dad?”
After a pause, “What?”
“Did. You. Ever. Love. Dad?”
Rhonda, thrown by the question (which was so not the point), not to mention her daughter sitting there waiting, and so innocently, for an answer, could barely pretend to give it thought. “Your father and I have always respected each other, Olivia.”
“I get that people fall out of love, or whatever, but you must have loved him in the beginning? I mean, right?”
She smiled, tightly, “Like I said, Olivia, our relationship has nothing to do with anything that you need to worry about.”
“Oh, does it really matter?”
“Holy crap, of course it matters!” Olivia jumped out of her chair, startling Rhonda, who stumbled backward against a wall speaker. The way her daughter’s eyes were bearing down on Rhonda suddenly, well, it might as well have been Evelyn there, swimming around in that sea of deep green. Love, above all else. “God, you remind me of her sometimes.”
“Who? What?” And then, “Oh, please. Mom. Don’t . . . ”
“Your Aunt Evelyn asked me that same question once, point-blank and knowing the answer.”
Olivia fell back down into her chair, looking defeated, pushed aside, what happened whenever Rhonda chose these rare moments to exhume her sister’s ghost.
“So you never loved Dad.” Olivia’s was not a question this time, but an answer. “Not even in the beginning.”
“I don’t believe in that kind of love,” Rhonda responded, in a tone so even and empty that Olivia’s face drained of color, then turned red when Rhonda didn’t waiver, couldn’t waiver, not about this. It was the hard, cold truth and if her daughter was going to ask the question well then fine, she needed to be ready to hear the answer.
And she’d heard it—shoulders up, chin down, phone out—Olivia was back in lockdown mode.
A minute went by. “So what? Now you’re never going to look at me again?”
Olivia looked at Rhonda, but from so far away it was like she was hardly there.
“Oh, come on, Olivia. You really think it works like that?”
“You, Olivia,” came barreling out of Rhonda’s depths. “You are living proof that it doesn’t work like that.”
Olivia looked up, alarmed.
“If your biological parents had been remotely responsible adults, instead of acting like high school sweethearts, they wouldn’t have had to give you up!”
Olivia’s mouth fell open, while Rhonda had to keep from visibly shaking.
A moment passed.
“I thought you said my birth parents were high school sweethearts.”
Never have a conversation with your daughter half-drunk, Rhonda reminded herself. “Isn’t that what I said?”