One Cold Night
Tuesday, 6:33 a.m.
Perched on a kitchen stool in her yellow chenille robe, Susan Bailey-Strauss listened as a loud creak announced the opening of Lisa's bedroom door. Her little sister took seriously her new status as a ninth grader at the city's top performing-arts high school and had been waking up even earlier than she needed to. Susan looked at the round clock that hung on the wall beside the fridge; a quick calculation told her that Lisa would probably be half an hour early to her first class if the subways weren't delayed. Her footsteps receded into the hallway bathroom and the door banged shut.
Dave, Susan's husband, sat beside her at the loft's black-granite kitchen counter, preoccupied by something in the morning paper and oblivious to the peal of noise. Normally she enjoyed Dave's gentle morning silences, the long arc to full awakening he required before he could begin his day. But today she felt a low hum of nervousness beneath the comfortable surface of their routines. She had something difficult to say and didn't know where to begin. She wanted him to look at her, to pull his mind out of world events and talk about the bedroom door whose hinges he had neglected to oil as promised, to compare their schedules for the day, to thank him again for the beautiful birthday gifts he had given her last night: the teardrop diamond necklace and fist-sized bloodred roses and orchestra seats to the Broadway show it was impossible to get tickets to. She wanted the distractions of meandering chatter so she could find the exact right moment to tell him"Dave, I want a baby"and to experience with him the relief of his happiness, as he had practically begged her for children since they were married a year and a half ago. The problem was, she had something else to tell him first.
She had a confession to make. To Lisa, in private. Then to Dave.
But early morning on a workday and school day was the wrong time to begin any important discussion; she knew that, and as she thought it throughfor the hundredth timeshe reminded herself that it would be best to get them alone, separately, preferably when the other was out of the house. One thing at a time, the little voice in the back of her mind restrained her impatience; it's only fair for Lisa to know first. Susan was just so anxious for Dave to know that he would soon get his wish!
She took a sip of her orange juice, then thumbed her BlackBerry to see if any new e-mails had come in since she'd last checked five minutes ago. Nothing. It wasn't unusual, though, for her electronic lifeline to bleep alive this early. The first shift of workers arrived at her small factory at six to begin making the basic daily chocolates and accept early deliveries. The intimate chocolaterie she started three years ago had grown faster than she had ever imagined, and now Water Street Chocolates was supplying fancy treats to some of the best restaurants in New York. Since Lisa had come to live with them last year, Susan had started the nerve-racking habit of letting her most trusted apprenticelike Susan, a graduate of the French Culinary Instituteopen her business without her so she could stay home until Lisa left for school. Passing on a measure of control was the natural progression, and she shouldn't have worried, having come up the same ladder of apprenticeship to a somewhat startling early success when she'd branched out on her own, but worrying was in her nature. She checked her e-mail again; again, nothing.
Dave peered over a folded-down corner of the paperfinallyand a smile flourished on his handsome, unshaven face. "Anything now? How about now? Better check again. Watch out! I think I feel an e-mail on its way in!" He mock-rubbed the side of one arm. "I think that one grazed me. Got a Band-Aid, sweetie?"
"Ha, ha, Dave." She kicked his foot with her fluffy pink slipper. "I have to make up for you never checking your e-mail."
The corners of his dark brown eyes crinkled up. "In the cosmic balance, you mean?"
"Yin to your yang."
He leaned through the space separating their breakfast stools and kissed her. They had made love in the predawn darkness and his salty lips lingered now. She ran a hand down the back of his soft black T-shirt and slipped two fingers through a belt loop at the back of his jeans. The taste of his mouth reminded her of the moment they had first met, three years ago, during a work shift at the Park Slope Food Coop. "Taste," he had told her, offering one of the garlic-stuffed green olives they were bagging for sale. It was that moment, the tangy taste, she still recalled as a life-altering talisman. They kissed each other again, pulling away at the sound of the bathroom door opening and Lisa's footsteps padding up the hall.
She appeared, barefoot on the wooden floor, and went straight to the refrigerator. She had already put on some makeup and brushed her long hair, which made a pale blaze down her back. The outfit today was borderline: tight low-rise jeans and a cropped tie-dyed camisole exposing a rhinestone belly-button stud. Susan knew that if she were a teenager now, she would have body piercings, too. But she wasn't a teenager anymore; she was the adult entrusted with Lisa's care.
"I realize it's a style," Susan said as soberly as she could, "but you're only fourteen and I'm not sure it's a good idea for you to dress so . . . provocatively. Especially in the city."
"Thanks for the tip, Suzie. Did Dave mention you looked pretty hot in those hip-huggers you had on yesterday?" Lisa swung open the fridge door and gazed inside.
Dave was staring at the newspaper again, but Susan heard his gentle snort and saw the right side of his mouth pucker.
"'Mama never told me . . .'" Lisa's honeyed voice trailed into a hum. Another nascent song. She grabbed a plastic bottle of drinkable peach yogurt and shut the fridge door. "I hate to say it, Suzie, but . . ." She shrugged, uncapped the yogurt and shot the blue plastic coin across the narrow kitchen into the garbage can. "Score!"
Were all teenagers masters of the half-finished sentence? The loaded opener, the unspoken refrain? Generally set to music? Susan could hear the rest of the lyric: But you're not my mother. Lisa took a long swig of the yogurt drink, leaving behind a pale ghost that hovered above her upper lip. Susan held herself back from reaching over with a napkin and wiping clean Lisa's awkward but achingly lovely face.
"You know what I just remembered?" Lisa took another drink of yogurt. "When you were eighteen and I was around two?"
"Three," Susan corrected her, then sealed her lips, not saying what she was thinking: that no one could remember that far back.
"I remembered how you used to fight with Mommy about your clothes . . . I thought you got to sass her because you weren't adopted, and since I was, I had a whole other set of rules."
"I never knew you thought that."
Just last weekend Lisa had announced that she was considering a search for her birth parents. It worried Susan. The triangular relationship between Lisa, Susan and their mother, Carole, had always suggested faults. Carole had worked hard to conceal them, and Susan had followed suit, but Lisa wasn't the type to conform. What she wanted, she sought.
© Katia Lief