Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 6


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Before she left Los Angeles, Jill had gone shopping for a new pair of boots. She wanted something fun, sexy, kicky. Something to turn heads and make people jealous that they hadn’t left Ohio and become a fashionista on the West Coast. A pair of tall brown leather boots, lined with flannel, little bit of a heel, designed to mold to her calves, beckoned to her from a shop window. They were a splurge, but Jill had been in the mood for some retail therapy.

That was what she should have been wearing today, to see Heath at the garage. But it had been snowing ever since the day she arrived. People shook their heads and said that there had never been such a December for snow. It was slushy and dirty and deep. And it was cold. The first day Jill had worn her boots outside, her toes had been chilly. The second time, they’d been numb. After the gift exchange and her walk with Garrett, she’d peeled off her boots and spent twenty minutes soaking the blocks of ice that had been her feet. Today, she was in an old pair of Del’s boots, found on the back porch at Mother’s house. They weren’t kicky, and they sure as hell weren’t sexy, but they were functional and warm, and pretty much nothing could ruin them.

Anyway, why should she care what Heath thought was sexy? They’d never really gotten along well when they were teenagers. They had nothing in common then, and even less now. He was a married man, for God’s sake. It wasn’t as if she wanted to rekindle their relationship. So why did she want him to flirt with her? 

Because it’s a pulse, she thought, with a flush of shame. It’s a sign that I’m still alive and relevant. All these years I’ve advanced in my career, I’ve paid my own way, I’ve given lip service to women’s rights and feminist ideals, and yet I don’t really feel like I matter unless a man seems attracted to me. And Heath definitely used to be attracted to me. So maybe if he’s not interested anymore, I don’t have it anymore.

But what did I have in those days? Heath was mean. He was controlling. And he scared me sometimes. I felt wanted, but I didn’t feel loved. We drove each other crazy, in every way. We threw sparks and tantrums. He was a status symbol, the hot edgy guy only I could handle. He used me, and I used him. Oh my god, we were so young. 17 and 18, driving around town in trucks, drinking beer, having sex that didn’t bring us any closer to each other. Where were my parents? Why didn’t they put their foot down? But I probably would have done what I wanted anyway. Heath and I never cared what people thought.

We aren’t the kind of old friends who just get together. We always wanted something from each other before. What does he want now?

And I killed his dog, so that’s going to make this a real fun meeting.

***

Daddy had built the garage away from downtown, in a more rough-and-tumble neighborhood. He’d liked the people he knew there, and they’d liked him. As Jill pulled up to the garage, the first thing she noticed was that it had been maintained. It wasn’t fancy or state-of-the-art, but unlike the Luxembourg Inn, the garage was in basic repair. 

Jill was prepared for Heath to look as he did at 18, in a mechanic’s coverall, grease under his nails, with a day or two of stubble and sweat glistening on his biceps. But the 30-year-old Heath that opened the door for her was in a respectable sweater and khakis, freshly shaven, with his curly hair slicked neatly in place. He looked managerial. He greeted her professionally and offered her to make her a cup of coffee. 

Jill had had her share of bad gas station coffee, but she accepted to be polite. To her surprise, the shop had a Keurig machine and a mini-fridge with bottled water.

“The shop looks great,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind sitting here for a few hours while you changed all my tires.” 

“That’s exactly what I’m going for,” Heath said, presenting her with a steaming cup. “I want my customers to feel welcome here. They shouldn’t want to complain about the waiting room right off the bat.”

Jill took a sip of the coffee and raised her eyebrows. “They won’t be able to complain about the java, at any rate. This is gourmet. Three flavors of creamer, even. I hope you’re getting a return on your coffee investment.”

“Sure. Look, you’re hard up, you have a lousy job, it’s your week with the kids, and your car starts acting up. Where do you go — the dirt-cheap, bare-bones cinderblock garage, or my place with free coffee and nice chairs and kids’ table with activities that might occupy your kids while you look at your phone in peace for a minute? When people feel respected, that builds loyalty.”

“Okay, you’ve converted me,” said Jill, caught off guard by his earnestness. “This is a new side of you — the big-hearted businessman.”

“It isn’t new,” said Heath slowly, refusing to be teased. “It’s been a long time since we saw each other. I’m not the same person I was when…”

“When I killed your dog.” 

“Oh my god,” Heath said, blanching. He passed his hand over his eyes.

Years of therapy to practice thinking about what she was going to say before she said it, all thrown out the window. Why did she need to bring that up out of the blue? Was she angrier than she thought she was? Was it a need to throw stuff at Heath, an old relationship habit? Was it a defense mechanism because she thought he might want to get too close? 

Abruptly, Heath asked, “Would you like to sit down?”

Jill felt a little shaky as she followed him into Daddy’s old office. For years she’d dreamed what she’d finally tell Heath Albany when she had the chance — about his immaturity, his controlling nature. She’d wanted to hurt him as he’d hurt her. Now she’d brought up the subject without thinking it through, blurting things out as usual, and all her carefully rehearsed phrases were slipping away in the face of the man himself. 

She sat in Daddy’s swivel chair with the velvet cushion and watched him settle himself carefully across the desk.

“I can’t blame you for still being angry about that dog,” he said. “I had hoped… I’d wanted to move on and just forget about it, but that’s not really fair to you.

“I’m not angry, I think,” she said, appalled by his sincerity. “I didn’t mean to bring that up like that. You know how I just say stuff without thinking. I know you loved that dog…”

“I was scared of that dog,” said Heath, looking down at his tightly clutched hands. “I thought it made me intimidating to have this big unmanageable animal, but I didn’t know how to train him or handle him. I thought it was funny that you would hide behind me when he was around. When I was angry because you were going away, I wanted to you to feel threatened by him. And when he charged you, I was terrified because I didn’t know how to stop him.”

“But I ran him over,” protested Jill. “I murdered him, because I hated him and I wanted to show you.”

“He attacked you, Jill. I was honestly afraid he’d kill you.”

Jill suddenly relived the moment when she screamed that she was leaving, and the dog pushed out of the door and charged at her. She felt the adrenaline rush as she sprinted for the truck and slammed the door, snarling jaws snapping at her heels. She jammed the key in the ignition and rocketed forward, catching the animal under her wheels. And then she’d lurched back and felt the nauseating thump a second time. In the background, Heath was screaming her name, but in her memory’s newly attuned ear, the rage in his voice was transposing itself into fright.

Heath was wilted before her now. The last vestiges of the smouldering teenage boy melted away, leaving a middle-aged man weighted with regrets and responsibilities. She saw him now as someone else’s husband and father.

“I go to church now,” he was saying. “I’ve been saved, I’ve accepted Jesus’s forgiveness. But it’s hard for me to believe it sometimes. It’s hard for me to shake the burden of all the ways I’ve hurt people over the years. I look at myself in the mirror, and I can barely see myself. I can’t believe I used to think that nothing I did would have any consequences I couldn’t handle. I was so wrong.”

“I’m sorry, Jill. I’ve needed to tell you that for years. I was a bad person for you to date — for any girl to date. I have a daughter now, and I think about how I’d feel if she met someone as screwed up and demanding and violent as I was then. If I were a better person I’d have realized that about myself on my own, but sometimes you just can’t see yourself clearly until a kid sees you. I pushed you too hard because I wanted to control something. I couldn’t control myself.”

Jill had her hand on her mouth, but the sobs were bursting through. Heath knelt down in front of her and put his arms around her. “I’m sorry,” he repeated as he gently rocked her. “I’m so sorry.”

After a moment she felt herself able to breath again, and her back was starting to seize up from the awkward position. She shrugged him off, and he stood up and took a step back as she squeezed past him to the bathroom to wash her face. In the harsh white light, she looked at her face in the mirror. Could she see herself as she was? Could she see herself now? Was there any continuity between all the Jills she’d ever been? Which Jill was she now? What did this unfamiliar humble Heath want from her, and did she have anything to give him?

When she came out, he was sitting at the desk again, nudging some papers around. “I’m guessing,” he said, with a feeble attempt at lightness, “that you’re not going to be interested in talking about selling me the garage.”

“What?” said Jill. “Yes! Of course I want to talk about that.” She took in the carefully arranged papers and Heath’s business casual attire, and suddenly her perspective on the whole encounter rotated and came to rest upside down. “Is that why you wanted to see me?”  

Heath shifted in his chair. “Yes, but we don’t have to do it now. Maybe you still hate me. Maybe after our history, you don’t want me to have your Dad’s garage.”

Jill grabbed a tissue from the box on the desk and blew her nose with purpose. “Stop right there. Look, I know we had a dysfunctional relationship as teenagers. But I don’t hate you. And even if I did, I’ve spent most of the past twelve years valuating businesses. I think I can be professional about this. It’s what I do.”

Heath took a moment to grapple with their changing dynamic. “You want to do business with me?”

“Business is what I do.” 

He sat back in his chair and breathed out the tension in his shoulders and face. Then he gave a laugh of relief. Jill realized he’d been as nervous about this meeting as she’d been. It hadn’t been open-ended for him as it was for her — he’d known what he wanted, but not if she would be willing to sit down with him.

“When your dad was alive, I loved working for him,” said Heath. “I know he was a little dirty with the accounting, but he had a head for the books and the management and the human side. I’m not any good at the accounts. I need someone to run that side for me.”

“Have you talked to my mom about hiring someone?”

Heath became very cautious. “Your mom is… not a business woman. I had a hard time making her understand how I needed to manage the garage.” 

Jill was nonplussed. “But Mother has run the hotel for years. That’s a very complex business.”

“Yes,” Heath admitted. “But she is not easy to work with, and I would never feel secure at the garage knowing that she had the final authority over my decisions. I can’t talk business with her the way I can with your dad, or like we’re doing now. Everything is so personal with her. ”

This was the second time this week that Jill had heard this assessment of mother, and she had to acknowledge its justice. Mother seemed to be tearing down the things she was trying hardest to preserve. Of course Heath would want to be free to run the garage his way without Mother trying to run interference.

“Now I think I’ve got the financing secured,” he was saying, fishing papers out of a file and lining them up neatly for her inspection. The meeting became a brisk and professional discussion, two colleagues working on a mutual strategy. 

The shop door opened, and little voices called for Daddy. Heath brightened.

“It’s Angie and the kids,” he said. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.”

Angie was a forceful woman in scrubs, managing Happy Meals for the two children hanging on her legs. “Daddy, you take Jaxon,” she said, thrusting the boy at Heath. “Make sure he eats his dinner. They’re so wound up after school,” she explained to Jill. “It gets dinner time and I can’t get them to settle long enough to get anything down. Hon, I’ve told you before that you have to put the straw in the milk. When you just give him the open carton he spills it all over.”

“I want screen time,” fussed the little girl, slightly older than Jaxon. “Mommy, you said I could have screen time.”

“After dinner, honey,” said Heath, balancing Jaxon on his knee as he scrubbed him with napkins. 

“No, Heath, we’ve discussed this. Jayden is not having screen time until she’s checked everything on her chore chart. We have to have a checklist,” Angie explained again to Jill, who was backing toward the door. “That way everyone knows what I need from them. Hon, I just said no screen time. Don’t let her take your phone.” 

Jill had never spent much time around small kids, and she didn’t know if the fussing now was normal, or was the result of a long day, or of spoiled children, or what. She was glad it wasn’t her problem to deal with.

“I’d better go,” she said, edging toward the door. “I don’t want to interrupt your family time.”

“Here, let me gather up all that paperwork for you,” said Heath. He stepped into the office. Jill stood awkwardly with Angie and watched the kids bicker over their chicken nuggets.

“I’m really glad to meet you,” said Jill. “Your kids are adorable.” 

“They’re spoiled rotten,” said Angie. “All these electronics, you know? Screens in the car, phone time. I told Heath I didn’t want a TV in this waiting room. That’s one place the kids aren’t going to be sitting in front of a screen, and then he goes and lets them have his phone.” 

“I guess it’s hard to raise kids anytime,” ventured Jill.

“Heath is a good father,” said Angie, with fierce protectiveness. “He works so hard so that I only have to be part-time. Lots of men out there wouldn’t care who watched the kids as long as their ladies were bringing in money. I know you only knew him a long time ago, so you can’t know how much he loves this family. The kids are his life.”

“I believe it,” said Jill, fervently wishing to be anywhere but here. “You guys have a lovely family.”

She repeated that to Heath as she stood by the car with him. “Your family is lovely. I’m glad I met them.”

“Angie really wanted to meet you,” said Heath, eager for her approval. “I know she can be kind of intense. I hope you didn’t think she didn’t like you.” Jill had felt that way, but she was willing to credit Heath’s superior knowledge of his own wife. “She’s about to go on a twelve-hour shift, so she’s a little stressed. There’s administration problems at the hospital, and they’re always short-staffed, and she has this one co-worker who’s always pulling passive-aggressive bullshit…”

He probably would have gone on, detailing to Jill the dramas that affected his life intimately and hers not at all, but she took the file from him. 

“I’m so glad you’re doing well,” she said, and she meant it. “Merry Christmas. Give your family my best.”

“Yours too,” said Heath, opening the car door for her. “Hope your holidays are peaceful.”

They would not be, but she accepted the thought in the spirit it was given. 

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1 comment:

Peggy said...

I am SO enjoying this! My only regret is that it is not a movie that I can put on while I carve out my mountain of Christmas cards today after Mass. Thank you!