It was my mother’s lie that brought me back home that July day. Not some inconsequential fib, the kind she occasionally told when my sister and I were young, like saying that Grover’s was out of chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream when the truth was, she’d forgotten to put it on the shopping list. This was different. She said her health was failing fast and that she needed to be with her girls. It didn’t matter that I was thirty-eight and Mariel thirty-five. We were still her girls.
Of course I believed her. Why wouldn’t I?
It was a Monday morning and I was at my desk, working on the arrangements for the fall senior-management meeting. Two hundred fifteen people converging on Scottsdale, Arizona, to hear the company’s plans for the coming year, get face time with one another, take jeep rides into the desert, have dinners around bonfires, eat too much, drink too much, and, if all went well, leave with a good feeling about Kelly Thompson Pierce Financial.
I’d just looked up from my computer and was gazing at the traffic on Lake Shore, wondering where all the sailboats in the harbor were off to, when my cell phone rang. It was Mom. Her voice sounded weak, shaky. And strangely distant, as though she were calling from someplace much farther away than Connecticut.
You have to…come home…right now,” she said, breathy spaces between the words. “Before it’s too late.”
Before what’s too late?”
I’m ill, Sara. Very, very ill. I can’t explain it…over the phone. I need to see you. Just come home.”
Every nerve ending in my body stood at attention. “I’ll get an afternoon flight from O’Hare.” I was already searching the internet, my hands trembling, my fingers clumsy and numb when I needed them to be efficient.
Your sister’s coming” was the last thing she said, spoken as though it were a footnote.
It should have been the title.
I tried not to think about that as I booked the flight. Tried not to imagine Mariel packing. It wasn’t even seven o’clock in Los Angeles, but I was sure Mom had called her first. She always sought her out first. After eighteen months of not speaking to my sister, I didn’t want to think about the two of us being in the same place at the same time. Somehow, I’d survived last New Year’s Eve, the first anniversary of the night I’d realized there was something going on between her and Carter. The night that ended my relationship with him. And with her. But I’d always thought I’d have a choice about whether to see her again and on what terms. I was wrong.
On the plane, I stared out the window at the clouds while my brain kept grinding away, wondering what was happening to Mom. I was prepared for the worst when I pulled into the driveway in my rented Jetta, a little after six that evening, Jubilee and Anthem hanging their heads out their stall windows, the late-day sun casting a faded glow on the white clapboard house.
In the mudroom, music drifted from the ceiling speakers, the last few bars of “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line. A stack of newspapers sat in the recycling bin, an edition of the Hampstead Review on top, and sun hats were piled on a shelf. Mom even kept those sun hats there through the winter, displayed as hopeful harbingers of spring. A black-and-white photo of my parents at the Broadway opening of Right as Rein stared down at me, the last play my father produced before his death from a cardiac arrest almost five years ago.
In the hallway, I charged past Martha, the housekeeper, who was carrying two boxes wrapped in silver-and-white paper. She looked surprised to see me.
How is she?” I asked, but instead of waiting for an answer, I raced toward the stairs.
Your mother?” Martha called out. “She’s in the kitchen.”
The kitchen? I thought she’d be in bed. But I was heartened that she was up. As I got closer, I could smell food. Something cooking. Tomatoes and onions, garlic, red wine. It smelled like spaghetti sauce, although I couldn’t imagine Martha cooking spaghetti sauce for my mother—or cooking anything, for that matter. She broiled or boiled the taste out of any food, and Mom had stopped letting her near the stove.
Still, I expected to find Mom at the table, looking peaked and wilted, cloaked in a bathrobe, a little cup of tea in front of her. But she was standing at the Viking range, her back to me, seeming as fit as ever in a pair of pale gray pants and an ivory sweater, an apron around her waist. Her light brown hair shone as though she’d had it washed and blown out no more than a few hours before. And she was singing along with Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”
She held the lid of a large pot in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. Empty cans of tomatoes and tomato paste were strewn across the counter. A chunk of onion and a clove of garlic rested on a chopping board. This was not a woman who was on her way out of the world.
She spun around. “Oh, there you are!” She put down the lid and spoon and hugged me, squeezing me tight. She hadn’t lost any strength, and her weight appeared unchanged from when I’d been there in March. “I’m so glad you made it.” She studied me. “You look a little tired. Long flight?”
Mom, I thought you’d be—”
Well, you can catch up on your sleep here. And see? I’m making one of your favorite meals. I also picked up a peach pie from the Rolling Pin. I know how much you love their pies.”
I felt as though I’d just walked into a Twilight Zone episode and Rod Serling was about to appear by the refrigerator: You’re looking at Sara Harrington, product of a dysfunctional family. Her sister has betrayed her; her mother has lost her mind. Sara thinks she’s come home. But in fact, she’s just entered The Twilight Zone.
Mom, what’s going on? You call sounding horrible and tell me to come home because you’re ill. ‘Very, very ill’ is what you said. So I tell my boss I’ll have to be out for a week, maybe longer. I scramble for a flight. I pack. I get here as fast as I can, and you’re cooking dinner? I thought you were at death’s door.” Maybe all actors were overly dramatic, especially the ones with a few Tony Awards under their belts. But this was going too far.
Mom dipped a spoon into the pot and tasted the sauce. “Needs a little salt.”
I never said I was at death’s door, sweetie.”
There was a name for the crime of killing your mother…was it matricide? I wanted to have the correct term because I felt I was getting close to committing it. “Yes, you did. You said your health was failing fast. You implied you were terminally ill.” My voice was ratcheting up a few decibels with every syllable. “You said you needed your girls here.” I glared at her until I knew she felt the burn.
She dropped the spoon into the sink. “Well, my health is failing fast. My mental health. It’s failing very fast, and that’s because I worry all the time about you and Mariel and why you two can’t make up.”
I’d been frantic for an entire day, missed an important meeting, and spent my three-hour flight next to a guy who snored and drooled the whole way. For this. “You made me come back to reconcile with Mariel? I can’t believe it.”
She took a step closer, her hand outstretched.
I backed away. “No, you can’t bring us together. And look at you, doing it under false pretenses. You made it sound like you were dying.”
Mom put her hand on her chest. “Well, I am dying…of a broken heart. Two weeks, Sara. Your sister is getting married in two weeks, and you refuse to be a part of it.”
Of course I refused to be a part of it. She was marrying my guy, for God’s sake. The man who used to look at me as though I were the most fascinating and fabulous person in the world—the only person in the world. The guy who knew how to make me smile no matter how bad my day or his day had been. The one who understood what I needed and gave it to me—a sympathetic ear, a funny story, a bit of advice, some silence and a gentle touch. The man I could count on to calmly steer the way through any stormy crisis. My rock.
How could Mom forget the big deal she’d made about Carter being my boyfriend when she’d first met him? After I introduced her to him in LA, she’d said, Oh, Sara, I adore him. He’s so easy to talk to. I feel like I’ve known him for years. No wonder he’s such a successful lawyer. And he’s clearly smitten with you. I think he’s going to be the one. You make the perfect couple.
Mom, stop the dramatics,” I said. “You tricked me to get me home. I know very well when Mariel’s getting married. And I’m not staying.”
She grabbed my hand. “Oh, honey, come on. You girls have got to put this behind you. I’ve seen you inflict the silent treatment on each other plenty of times, but this situation’s gone on way too long. You two haven’t talked in forever.”
Forever wouldn’t be long enough.”
You don’t understand what it’s like to be a mother and be in the middle of your two daughters not speaking with a wedding coming up.” She pulled a box of penne pasta from the cabinet. “I love you both. I just want you to act like sisters again. Why can’t you put the past aside and get back to the way you used to be?”
Mom continued to labor under the delusion that Mariel and I had once been close. I wondered if all parents had blind spots when it came to their children. True, this was longest we’d ever gone without speaking, but there were always old wounds just beneath the surface that never seemed to heal.
And had she seriously asked why I couldn’t put the past aside? She made it sound as if it were the kind of tiff Mariel and I had gotten into as kids, like arguing about who would sit in the front seat of the car or which restaurant Mom and Dad should take us to for dinner. My sister had stolen Carter Pryce, the only man I’d ever really loved, and in two weeks she was going to marry him. I felt as though my heart was about to shatter all over again.
I wanted to rewind the clock and do everything differently so they would never meet. Rewind it back to the day I’d met Carter, when I was still living in LA, working for Spectacular Events. I’d gone to Santa Monica to see a bank CEO who had hired us to plan a birthday party for her husband. I left her twelfth-floor office and stepped into the empty elevator, stuffing notes in my briefcase as the car descended and stopped on the seventh floor.
A man got in. Tall, tan, with a full head of blond waves, he looked as though he should have been out racing a sailboat. Except he was wearing a bespoke charcoal-gray suit and carrying a red stapler. The door closed; the elevator descended again. Then the car stopped with a loud clunk. I waited for the door to open, but nothing happened. I pushed the button for the lobby, but the button didn’t light up. Several more pushes produced no result except my heartbeat gathering speed.
Not working?” the sailboat racer asked, pushing the button on his side.
I began to sweat. “I think we’re stuck.” I could hear the tremble in my voice.
The sailboat racer seemed to hear it too. “Don’t worry,” he said, laying a hand on my arm. “We’ll get out of here soon. It’s no big deal.”
He pressed the red emergency button on the elevator panel, and a few seconds later a woman’s voice came floating down from a speaker somewhere above us. “Can I help you?”
Yes, I’m trapped in an elevator,” Sailor said. “It’s not moving, and the doors won’t open.” He glanced at me. “And I’m with a lovely lady who looks like she wouldn’t mind getting out of here as soon as possible.”
Oh God, I hoped I didn’t have sweat stains under my arms.
The woman told us she’d contact the fire department, but she couldn’t say how long it would take for them to come.
It’s okay,” Sailor told me. “We’ll be out before you know it.” He lowered his voice to a whisper and said, “Actually, I didn’t even need to make that call. I have special skills learned from watching years of MacGyver reruns. And I can get us out of here with just the objects I have on hand.”
It took me a moment to realize he was kidding, and I laughed in spite my damp armpits and shaky knees.
Let’s see what I’ve got.” He held up the stapler. “One Swingline. Red.” He handed it to me and then emptied his pockets, reciting the contents as he displayed them: “One pack of Doublemint gum, one set of keys on a key ring.”
What’s that other thing on the key ring?” I asked. He told me it was a flashlight. That was very MacGyver-like. Maybe he wasn’t kidding.
One black leather wallet stuffed with credit cards,” he went on. “One brown lacquer and gold Dupont fountain pen. One cell phone. And one book of matches. With these, I can create an explosive device that’ll blow the door right off this thing.”
I laughed again. He had beautiful eyes, deep blue, and I sensed there were some well-toned muscles under his suit. “I’m so relieved. How do we start?”
You don’t think I can do it. I find that a bit insulting, Miss—uh, are you a miss?”
Yes, I am. Harrington. Sara Harrington.”
Carter Pryce,” he said. “I’d shake your hand, but I’m holding the key components to an explosive device. I don’t want to trigger it accidentally.”
I liked his sense of humor. “I understand.”
He wadded up a couple of pieces of gum and stuck them between the elevator doors and the jamb. “That’s the first step. We need a good seal.”
Right. And you’re telling me you learned these skills from watching MacGyver?”
I didn’t want to tell him I wasn’t really a MacGyver fan. I listened to him recount the plot of an old episode, something about a Bigfoot-type creature, and I stopped thinking about the elevator walls closing in on us. All the while he added things to the wad of gum—credit cards, the ink barrel from his Dupont pen, the battery from the miniature flashlight. “Now all I have to do is set it off with this.” He held up the book of matches. “Are you ready?”
Fortunately, he didn’t have to do it, as firefighters from the Santa Monica Fire Department began calling to us from the other side of the doors. Within twenty minutes, we were out.
I remembered the feeling of relief when the doors opened and I saw the foyer stretching in front of us with its creamy interior and silvery recessed lights, the receptionist busy behind her desk as if nothing were amiss. But I felt something else as well: the sense that I might have been able to stand being trapped in that elevator a little longer just to be with Carter Pryce.
Two days later he called and asked me out. We went to Balboa Island and walked around eating frozen bananas like tourists. We talked about the elevator rescue and I told him I’d been a lot more afraid than I’d let on.
You’re a pretty good actor, then,” he said.
I thought that was funny, because of the four people in my family, I had the least amount of dramatic talent.
I knew when I woke up that morning something good was going to happen,” he told me. “I don’t know how I knew, but I did. And then we met.”
I remember being surprised, not knowing how to respond. Here was a guy who spoke his mind, wasn’t afraid to say what he felt, wasn’t playing games. How refreshing. I was the luckiest girl in the world. Or so I’d thought at the time.
Mom dumped the box of penne into a pot of boiling water. “Can’t you, Sara?” she asked.
Can’t I what?” I watched the steam rise.
Put the past aside.”
She made it sound as though Mariel stealing Carter was ancient history, but it had been only a year and a half ago. I’d given a New Year’s Eve party at my place in LA, the bungalow with the blue door I rented in Venice. I’d hired a caterer and a bartender, gone all out. My Christmas tree was still up in the living room, the scent of evergreen hung in the air, and a piece of mistletoe decorated the kitchen doorway. I’d dimmed the lights; candles flickered everywhere. The place was packed with guests, and Carter was there, of course. We’d been dating for almost two years by then.
I was mingling, going from the living room to the den, making sure everyone was having a good time, occasionally dashing into the kitchen to confirm that things there were under control. Once an event planner, always an event planner. Carter and I were pulled in different directions, but every now and then we’d make eye contact. At eleven forty, I went into the kitchen to check on the caterers and get ready for the champagne toast and the cake. The bottles of Veuve Clicquot were on ice, and my old stainless-steel Waring blender was whirring, mixing up a fresh batch of margaritas. Then, suddenly, it was almost midnight.
The guests began screaming, “Two minutes to go!” At eleven fifty-nine, they started counting down the seconds. I looked for Carter, and I couldn’t find him. I almost went outside, but it was a cold night, and I knew he wouldn’t have wandered out there. Finally, I saw him standing in a darkened corner of the den with Mariel. They were talking, but I could see, even in that crowded room, that something more intimate was going on. They stood too close, smiled too much. Their gestures seemed too familiar; their eyes never strayed from each other. Something had happened between them. Or was about to.
I walked out of the room, trying to steady myself. Carter. My Carter. With Mariel. My sister. I’d thought they barely liked each other. God, how wrong I’d been. I felt dizzy as I left the house. Outside it was fifty-five degrees, and I shivered in my sleeveless dress. In a daze I headed down the street, a video running in my head: Carter and Mariel, Mariel and Carter.
When I got to Abbot Kinney Boulevard, it was more hectic than ever, people driving by, honking horns, tooting party blowers, leaning from car windows to yell, “Happy New Year,” all a blur of sound. I walked on through the noisy, drunken crowds, passing places I’d seen a million times. Now they looked foreign to me. Finally, I stopped and leaned against the wall of a café, hugging myself in the cold, wondering how all these people could go about their night as if nothing had happened.
Eventually I went home. After the guests were gone and the caterers had cleaned up and I was left with a pile of tattered party hats and blowers, I confronted Carter. Part of me wanted him to deny it, to convince me I was way off base. But he didn’t. He told me they hadn’t planned it, never wanted to hurt me, that it had been going on for only a couple of weeks, that they were waiting for the right time to tell me.
When would the right time have been? That’s all I said before I told him to leave.
I saw them together once, a couple of months later, in Beverly Hills. I was in my car at an intersection, and they crossed the street in front of me. He held her hand, laughed at something she said, gave her a little tug as if she were a child. Four months after that, Mom told me they’d gotten engaged.
You want to know why I can’t put the past aside?” I asked my mother now as she gave the pasta a stir. “I can’t put it aside because it’s not the past. They’re together. It’s the present and the future.”
That’s why you have to move on. Or you’re going to stay stuck right where you are. I’m sure Mariel would be willing to put it aside.”
Of course Mariel would be willing. She wasn’t the one who’d been betrayed. “She’s got nothing to lose. She’s got Carter. She’s not the victim here.”
Mom turned down the burner under the sauce. “Sweetie, do you know where the word compromise comes from?”
Oh no. I’d just landed in the world of etymology again. Mom never let me forget she had a degree in English from Yale. Language is everything, she liked to say. Theater, which she’d minored in, was the area she ended up pursuing as a career, but she’d never lost her obsession with words.
Well, it includes the word promise,” I said, “so it’s probably something about making promises.”
It comes from the Latin compromissus.” She took a colander from a drawer and put it in the sink. “Past participle of compromittere. ‘To make a mutual promise.’”
Yes, okay, fine.”
Pity you never learned Latin.”
I’ve survived so far,” I said. “And I’m not compromising with Mariel in any language.” Didn’t she see how awful this was for me? I’d thought I was going to have love, a wedding, and children with Carter and now here I was, almost forty, without any of it.
Mom let out a breath like a deflating balloon. “But I know she would forgive you.”
Forgive me for what? I didn’t do anything.”
For not speaking to her in such a long time.”
I haven’t spoken to her because of what she did to me,” I said. “I feel like we’re having two different conversations here. Did I ever tell you you’re like a walking non sequitur?”
She placed a bowl of salad on the table. “Now, there’s a great Latin phrase! Non sequitur. ‘It does not follow.’”
That describes you perfectly,” I said. “Nothing follows with you. You refuse to hear what I’m saying. You always side with her.”
Oh, Sara, there must be a way to make this better. It wasn’t really your sister’s fault.”
That was it. “I can’t talk about this anymore.” I held up my rental-car key. “I’m leaving. You lied to me. There’s not a thing wrong with you.”
Mom followed me out of the kitchen, her kitten heels clicking on the hardwood floor. “Sweetheart, come on. I’m sorry I brought you here under false pretenses, but this really does break my heart. I wish you’d stay. And not just for Mariel. For me. I want to catch up a little, do some mother-daughter things.”
Some other time,” I said. “When she’s not going to be around.”
I walked down the hall, my mother’s voice trailing behind me as I passed the photos on the wall. Mom in a summer-stock production of A Little Night Music in upstate New York. Mom in The Importance of Being Earnest at a regional theater in Connecticut. Mom in Dragonfly Nights on Broadway. There were dozens of photos. Her wall of fame.
I stepped into the mudroom, relieved to be getting out of there. I wondered if the Duncan Arms, which was right here in town, had any rooms available. And then the door opened and in walked Mariel. For a second, I didn’t recognize her. Gone was the bohemian look of beaded tunic tops and woven handbags; she’d swapped those for a pair of skinny white jeans and a coral-colored top that looked stunning against her tan skin. Four-inch heels had replaced her flat leather sandals.
She’d also cut her hair, which for years she’d worn in one length, down past her shoulders. Now it was up to her chin, in layers, and blonder than it had ever been—platinum. But she could get away with it. She could get away with anything. She’d inherited the beauty gene. When she walked into a room, everyone—men and women—noticed her. And now there was one more thing to notice: that rock she was wearing. Even the plastic stones on the rings I’d worn as a kid during my Disney-princess stage weren’t as big as the diamond she was sporting.
I stood there feeling like a wilted flower in my wrinkled clothes, my hair frizzy from the July humidity, wondering how she could look fresh after traveling all day from the West Coast. For a second, we just eyed each other like a couple of feral dogs.
So you’re here,” she said, a little scowl on her face as she pushed a Louis Vuitton suitcase into the room.
No more nylon zipper bag for her. She’d moved up in the world with Carter. I wondered who’d designed the clothes she was wearing. And the shoes. Jimmy Choo? Prada? I was sure Carter had paid for all of it. At thirty-five, Mariel had never supported herself. And now she’d moved her dependency from the Bank of Mom to the Bank of Carter. She’d never have to stand on her own two feet. “Actually, I’m leaving.”
She planted her hands on her hips. “What? You’re running out on Mom?”
I stepped toward the door. “She’s not dying. Not even close.”
What are you talking about? She called me and said—”
It was a lie. Go ask her. She’s in there making dinner.” I nodded in the direction of the kitchen.
Why would she lie?”
Why do you think? You’re getting married in two weeks to the guy you stole from me, remember? Mom wants us to reconcile so I’ll go to the wedding. Which I refuse to do.”
I didn’t steal him,” Mariel said. “Carter wasn’t in love with you anymore. Why can’t you believe that?”
He was in love with me until you stuck your big nose in the picture.”
She flinched, then touched the side of her nose. “It’s not big. And he started it.”
See, this is why I can’t even talk to you. I told Mom she was wasting her time.”
I tried to apologize. I called you, I texted you. I wrote you a letter. You sent it back to me with spelling corrections.”
You never could spell.”
That wasn’t the point.”
It was my point. He’s way too smart for you and someday he’ll figure it out. He’ll realize he’s bored, that he needs more than arm candy, and he’ll go on to someone else. Then the shoe will be on the other foot.” I glanced at her four-inch heels. “And don’t try to tell me you didn’t steal him. You’ve been stealing guys from me since you were in middle school.”
What? That’s so not true.”
Robbie Petler? Does that name sound familiar? He lived on Apple Ridge?”
That kid? He just helped me with my homework.”
As soon as he thought you were interested in him, he didn’t want to have anything more to do with me. He said you looked like a movie star. How could I compete with that?”
Oh, get over it, Sara. If it did happen, it was ages ago.”
That didn’t matter. It was still relevant. “It proves your history of stealing boys from me.”
She cocked her hip. “Like you were so perfect. Throwing my Barbie into the pond? Cutting up my favorite jeans?”
I didn’t remember the jeans, although I had a vague recollection of the Barbie incident. “You could have gotten her out.”
She landed next to a snapping turtle, Sara.”
Well, you shoved my sneakers down the storm drain. And they were brand-new.”
You stuck that rubber snake in my backpack. Scared the hell out of me.”
Right,” I said. “But you got Carter.”
If she had a response to that I didn’t wait around to hear it. I sidestepped her Louis Vuitton suitcase, opened the door, and walked out.