A woman comes to terms with her past after the death of her lover.
After All That By Cristina Van Dyck Tess’s heart was heavy as she drove northward, carefully navigating slippery roads through steady snowfall. The afternoon had crept by, and the light was fading. It seemed like she’d been in the car for an eternity, rather than just a few hours. She’d forgotten how long the drive to the cabin was. She hadn’t been there since she and Frank were together, and on this particular occasion she wasn’t sure her presence was appropriate. Mourning the death of a loved one should be an affair of peace and solitude, and Tess was concerned that her arrival at the cabin would dredge up old anger and doubt. Not just among Frank’s family members—his eldest daughter, for example—but within herself, as well. It was her right as much as anyone else’s to mourn Frank’s death without acrimony, but Sarah had insisted that Tess attend the small post-funeral gathering. If it meant so much to Sarah, then Tess supposed she should be there. When she’d arrived at the funeral parlor the day before, her entrance did not go unnoticed; the covert stares of Frank’s family were heavily palpable. She felt the quiet blanket of silent disapproval thrown over her again, and she wanted nothing more than to escape its stifling staleness. Hadn’t she had enough? Across the room, Frank’s casket stood open and momentarily free of viewers, and Tess walked steadily forward to peer within. The body lying there hardly resembled the man who had once been her lover, best friend and most intimate confidante. The face she had gazed at so many times while he’d slept was flat, the eyes sunken behind rigid lids. Those hands, which had once been so strong and warm and had caressed her with such tenderness, were cold and stiff. There was stubborn grime stuck beneath the fingernails. During their brief time together, she’d spent countless hours crouched beside him, handing him tools, while he worked under the chassis of a new project. She thought that, if there were an afterlife, Frank would likely spend it beneath a newly rebuilt classic auto, fine-tuning it to perfection. Tess reached into the coffin, and a part of her expected him to come to life, smiling gently and reaching out to hold her in his arms. But of course, he remained still as she touched his hand, his cheek, his lips. Repulsed by the unforgiving texture of his skin, she withdrew her hand. Revulsion was not an emotion she associated with Frank. Tears filled Tess’s eyes. He wasn’t real. This man before her, still and cold and rigid, was not the Frank she had known. Her Frank did not belong to this lifeless body. * * * Frank and Tess met one evening her sister’s art opening. Tess stood gazing at one sculpture, attempting to understand the insight that led her to create such an aberration of alabaster and barbed wire. The wire twisted around and through itself, forming a sort of chain. The “chain” was wrapped around the alabaster figure, full and curving, with a gaping hole through its center. “The Essence of Feminism” read the plaque beneath the sculpture. Somewhere in the background, she could hear Stacy’s voice rising above the crowd, loud, challenging, somewhat abrasive. A different sound indeed from Tess’s own soft-spoken nature. “That’s quite a statement,” spoke a deep masculine voice behind her, his small gesture indicating the contradictory sculpture. Tess smiled, turning slightly to glance at the speaker. “I suppose you could say that.” The man studied the sculpture, a slight frown creasing his brow. “Now that I look at it a little more closely, it reminds me a bit of my wife.” Tess looked at him again. He wasn’t smiling. He seemed serious. “Stacy likes to cause trouble, but I doubt my sister had your wife in mind when she made this one.” He laughed softly and offered her a glass of wine, hooking it from the tray of a passing waiter. She took it, letting her fingers lightly brush his. She looked at him from beneath her lashes as she sipped from the glass, admiring his tall, athletic physique. He had dark hair touched with grey, deep brown eyes, and wore what appeared to be an expensive tailored suit. Armani? She suspected so. He was visibly older than Tess and very handsome; she found herself very attracted to him. “Forgive me. That was inappropriate. I shouldn’t have said anything.” He paused a moment. “You said Stacy’s your sister? She’s quite a character, from what I understand.” She flipped her long brown hair over her shoulder and smiled. “Yes, she is—my sister and a character, both—for better or for worse.” She held out her hand, “I’m Tess, by the way.” He smiled. “Hello, Tess. I’m Frank,” he said, taking her hand and holding a bit longer than necessary. “So, tell me, Frank. How do you know my sister?” “I don’t, but I know Ian, and he tells me the wildest stories about her. I said the next time she has an opening, he had to invite me along.” “Ah yes. Ian. They are pretty close, those two.” She let him guide her to the next display as he lightly touched his hand to her back. “You’re not disappointed, I hope?” Frank looked into her dark brown eyes. “Not at all.” A frisson swept through Tess’s body. This is dangerous ground, she thought. I’m flirting with a married man. In spite of her better intentions, however, Tess found herself covertly watching him through the evening, the way his broad smile lit up those deep eyes, creasing the corners in a way she found terribly sexy. Every now and again, their eyes would meet and they’d exchange slow smiles, hiding them with their drinks or a discreet turn of the head. As the event neared its end, Frank approached her again. “Why don’t we get out of here?” Tess swallowed nervously, graceful hands fluttering at her long white throat. “I, uh, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. I mean, your being married…” He smiled. “I meant for coffee.” “Coffee? Well, if it’s just coffee, I guess we can do that.” “What else did you have in mind, Tess?” She felt the heat rising to her face and didn’t answer. She let him help her with her coat, and followed him out the door. Soon, they wandered into an all-night café where they each ordered a cappuccino. “How would your wife feel about you sitting in a dark, empty café with another woman?” Tess asked, pointing to the gold band around his finger. He toyed with it uneasily. “We’ve been married a very long time. Thirty years last November.” He frowned absently, suddenly lost in thought. Tess fidgeted in her chair. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—” “No, no. It’s all right. Really. Caroline and I haven’t been happy for a long time.” “Have you ever cheated on her?” Frank looked at her intently. “Not yet.” Tess looked away. He looked down at his hands again and took a deep breath. “I also have two daughters, Veronica and Sarah,” he told her. “Veronica is 29, and Sarah is 23. I don’t know if they realize Caroline and I are in trouble. Sarah, probably does. She’s pretty perceptive. But Veronica…” he shook his head. “Veronica would hit the roof, I think, if we ever separated. She’s very volatile, and very… possessive. She likes things just so.” Tess swallowed. She herself had just turned 30, and to think this man had daughters her own age... She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She spoke some generic reassurances, patted his hand, smiled sympathetically. She couldn’t offer any real comfort, but it seemed to make him feel better just to talk to someone. It made her feel good just to be there for him. It made her feel… necessary. “I had a friend in college named Veronica,” she volunteered, trying to change the subject. Frank nodded, listening patiently. “We used to hang out together a lot in our Senior year,” Tess continued. “Thursday-night bar hopping. Hot, sweaty frat parties. Giggled hysterically in the library, sometimes, too. Even got thrown out one time. We were really close. Best friends… for a while, anyway.” She paused a moment, the memory still hurting. “Then I started dating this guy, and she accused me of stealing him from her. She’d talked all the time about this one guy in her Trig class, whom she’d gone out with a few times, but I’d never seen him. So when David asked me out, I had no idea it was the same guy. “I’d met him down at the computer lab one night. It was late, I was tired and trying to finish up this paper that was due the next morning, so David’s name didn’t even register. I never guessed they were the same person. We got in a huge fight, and she wouldn’t speak to me after that. It was a good thing we didn’t room together. We graduated and that was the last I’d ever seen her.” “Yes. I’ve heard stories like that from both my girls. I don’t remember the details; that’s Caroline’s territory. It happens, though. You get over it. Grow older. Move on.” He seemed distracted, and Tess fidgeted with her napkin. “Yeah,” she agreed a little wistfully. “Yeah, you do. For the most part anyway.” They left the café and walked through the city streets, shoulders bumping and hands grazing in conversation. Too soon, they found themselves at the door of her apartment building. Why have I spent my whole evening with this man, she wondered. I should be home in bed, watching When Harry Met Sally for the thirtieth time. “What will you tell your wife?” Frank shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never been out so late without her.” They laughed softly at the adolescent turn of conversation. “I’ll tell her that I met up with an old friend. I feel as if I have.” Tess smiled. “Me too.” “Can I call you?” he asked her. “You know… just to talk?” She hesitated. Although she was attracted to him and found him pleasant company, she knew now was the time to make a break for it; she knew she shouldn’t get involved with him. However, a small, secret part of her felt she had found a kindred spirit and was reluctant to let the feeling go. “I don’t know, Frank…” He reached for her hand. “Just to talk, Tess. No more.” She sighed and hoped she wasn’t getting in over her head. She really did like him. “Okay. But just to talk. No more.” She started digging through her purse for a pen, and he put his hand on her forearm. “Just tell me your number.” She smiled and gave him her phone number. “You won’t forget it, will you?” “Nope.” He recited it over a few times and winked. “I’ll call you soon,” he said. She stood on the front steps and watched him walk away. When he reached the corner, he turned around and looked back, calling out her number. Tess laughed and waved, then went inside. In the next days, Tess stared at the phone willing it to ring, and when Frank hadn’t called by midweek, she decided to let it go. He was a married man, after all, and getting mixed up with him was asking for trouble. One Sunday evening, however, as she was settling down to a quiet night in front of the TV, the phone rang. Her heart pounded in her chest. “Hello?” she answered. “It’s Frank. From your sister’s art opening?” “Yes. How are you?” she said, swallowing hard. “Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I have a valid excuse, though.” “I thought you’d forgotten my number,” she admitted. “Either that, or you decided you never wanted to see me again. You know how it goes. Too much drink, too little food, stressful day, bad marriage…” She stopped suddenly. “Oh I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” She felt her face turn red in the flickering-blue darkness. He laughed. “It’s okay. The truth is, I did forget it. Well, not really. I tried calling, but transposed a couple of numbers. Anyway, I had to get it from Ian, and we ended up playing a lot of phone tag.” Now it was Tess’s turn to laugh. “Are you sorry I called you?” She was silent a moment, then said very quietly, “Not at all.” Their friendship had grew and deepened. The time they spent together was affable, even affectionate. It happened more and more frequently, however, that Tess would catch him watching her, a half-smile on his full lips, a soft look in his dark eyes. Sometimes she’d smile back, but more often than not, she’d quickly look away, bashful and awkward, blushing. One evening in late spring, Frank asked her to his cabin up north. “It’s a beautiful place,” he explained. “It where I go to unwind and relax. I’d like you to see it. Trees, hills, walking paths, and even a lake right behind—” Tess laughed. “You don’t have to convince me! I’d love to go!” However, after a moment’s thought, Tess wondered if that was a wise decision. Why didn’t I just think, first? she berated herself. Tess wasn’t sure whether he’d asked her to the cabin for simple companionship, or as a prelude to something more serious. She decided not to think about it until she absolutely had to. She was taking a mini-vacation, she reassured herself, relaxing in the woods with her best friend. That’s all. Never mind age differences. Never mind wives. Never mind… Well, just never mind. That weekend, they met at her apartment. “Are you all set?” he asked her, excited and slightly flushed from the jog up the stairs. “Yep,” she said brightly, pointing to two small bags, and a cooler near the door. “My stuff is right there. …And I even packed a picnic lunch.” “Brilliant! We’ll stop along the way and take in the view.” He slung the bags, one over each shoulder, and hefted the cooler, grunting with the effort. “Let’s go!” “Hey,” she said, putting a hand on his arm. “Don’t overdo it, okay? Let me take something.” “Are you kidding? I’m as strong as an ox!” “But you’re no spring chicken, old man!” “Who are you calling old?” He said, huffing his way down the stairs. “You. Now be careful!” He muttered something unintelligible and Tess shook her head. Outside, they packed the car, laughing together, eager to be on the road. She wondered how he’d gotten the whole weekend free to be together, then pushed the thought out of her mind. She just did not want to know. They drove northward, taking long, winding roads overhung by trees and cut rock. After a couple of hours, they stopped for lunch. They were nearly half-way to the cabin. “So tell me more about this place of yours,” Tess asked. “I call it Villa Nova,” he told her over the wine and cheese she’d packed. With obvious love of the place, Frank described in exquisite detail his cabin and the wooded land that surrounded it. Holding her hand, he explained, “To me, it’s like the North Star. It’s like this beacon of light in my mind, guiding me to peace and solitude through the murk of my life. Every time I go there, it’s like a spiritual homecoming.” Cupping her face in his hands, he added, “Now I have two bright stars to guide me.” He leaned forward and kissed her for the first time. The kiss took Tess by surprise and she pulled away from him, raising the plastic cup she was holding to gulp down the last of her wine. She cleared her throat nervously, then stood and walked back to the car on shaky legs. Frank packed the remains of their picnic and followed her. “Tess, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” “Hey, no problem, okay?” she said, though it was a problem. “We should be going. It’s getting late.” As they continued their drive, Tess and Frank were silent, carefully searching for signs that everything was okay again, that the kiss was a mistake—or had never happened. But it had happened, and Tess wasn’t bound to forget it soon. Her insides quivered from his nearness, from the memory of his soft lips warm against hers. She wrapped her arms about herself and looked out the window, wondering again—fearfully, hopefully—what their weekend at the cabin held in store. The Brie they’d eaten, the Gewürtztraminer they’d drunk and the soothing movement of the car soon lulled her into a helpless sleep. Her head dropped, then lolled heavily to the chest strap of the seatbelt. Her neck soon became stiff, however, and the pain returned her to consciousness. She forced her eyes open and lifted her head, wincing at the pain, and complained. “Here, let me,” Frank said, reaching behind Tess and massaging her neck as well as he could while driving. She gave in to the pleasure of his touch, his strong fingers kneading out the stiffness. “Mmmm. That feels so good.” He smiled at her and they drove on. “Wow, this is really nice,” Tess breathed when they pulled up to the cabin. It sat neatly in a clearing at the end of a long drive through thick pine forest. It was a small, two-story house that looked like it had been shipped directly from the Bavarian Alps. Built of pine and assiduously preserved to keep its pale color, the cabin squatted compactly beneath a sloping red-tiled roof. The ground floor sported a narrow porch across the front, and the second floor a balcony, both painted dark green. The windows had functional shutters, also painted green. There were red poppies growing in the all the window boxes. She could see the shimmering blue water of the lake in the back. “I mean, this is really beautiful.” “I like it, too,” Frank said with pride, climbing the porch steps. “I have a caretaker who does a wonderful job when I’m away.” He led her inside and gave her the grand tour, which took them up a flight of stairs. “This is your room, here,” he said, pointing to a small bedroom simply furnished with a twin bed and a dresser beneath a single, plaid-curtained window. “The bathroom is down the hall, and the master bedroom is right here.” He gestured to the door across from her room. “You can shower first, if you like. I imagine you might like to freshen up or something.” Tess tried to keep her face neutral. Once unpacked, and showered, they met downstairs again and prepared a modest candle-lit dinner. They talked quietly, enjoying their solitude. Midway through the meal, Frank set down his fork and nervously cleared his throat. “Tess, there’s a reason I brought you here. There’s something I have to tell you.” Tess looked up, the smile fading on her lips. “What is it?” she asked, cautiously. Frank breathed deeply. “I’m divorcing Caroline.” She looked at him, the food caught in her throat. She swallowed dryly. “Oh my God…” He looked at her very closely. “That’s why I brought you here. You know I love you, Tess…” He let the statement hang in the air. Tess was incapable of response and for the second time that day, they fell into a strained silence, picking at their meal without eating. She didn’t know what to say. Her feelings for Frank had been withheld for so long, she had no idea how to share them with him. What do I do, now? she wondered. But the tiny little spark of light and warmth that had flickered to life the night they first met almost seven months ago—ages ago, it seemed—had grown into a quiet flame, fanned into recognition after his kiss that afternoon. Still silent, Tess collected the dishes and piled them in the sink. As she filled the sink with water, Tess gazed out the window above, lost in thought, gathering her emotions. Above all else, the disparity in their ages concerned her. He was older than she, much older, with children her own age. What would they think? And then she felt Frank’s arms snake around her waist. Tess leaned into him, her body taking over where her mind remained frozen. He lowered his face into her hair and nuzzled her neck. She turned around and he met her mouth hungrily. In that moment, she didn’t care anymore about their differences in age and experience. She didn’t care what his daughters would think. All that concerned Tess was his lips on hers, his fingers entangled in her hair, the warmth of his body against her own. They’d made their way to the bedroom when she broke away from him with a cry of alarm. “What’s the matter?” he asked. She ran out of the room, laughing and cursing at once. “I forgot to turn off the water!” Frank’s laughter followed her down the hall. Shortly after their trip, Frank moved into a condominium located further uptown from Tess’s own apartment. The divorce proceedings had not been pleasant, but for all intents and purposes, it could have been worse. Because Frank was so eager to have it over and done with, he’d conceded on most issues and agreed to give Caroline everything she wanted. If she had asked him to sign the divorce decree in blood, Tess didn’t doubt that he would have. Through it all, he’d managed to maintain his dignity and equilibrium, and the divorce was final by the end of summer. One evening in late fall, he invited her to meet his daughters over dinner. “Frank, I don’t think that’s a very good idea.” The suggestion made Tess uneasy. “Why not? You’re adorable. Sarah and Veronica will love you!” he assured her. “We’ll do it next week.” “Oh Frank, I don’t know.” “Come on. You can’t hide forever. Besides, they’re very excited to meet you.” “Are they really?” she asked doubtfully. “Of course they are.” Tess caught something flash across Frank’s features which didn’t leave her reassured, but she sighed in resignation. “Okay. What time?” “Be there at six.” Tess’s hands were sweating so profusely she left damp prints on the steering wheel of her car. When she arrived at his condo, Frank met her at the door with a kiss then ushered her into the living room, where his daughters had already gathered. “Am I late?” Tess asked, worried. “Not at all. We still have another hour or so before dinner.” Tess shuddered inwardly. An hour? God. As they approached the living room, the din of its two female occupants quieted abruptly. “What’s going on in here?” Frank asked. A slim brunette with big hair shook her head. “Nothing, Dad.” She’d spoken to her father, but was looking at Tess, staring. Tess’s jaw had fallen open in surprise. She closed it and swallowed. “Tess, I want you to meet my daughters,” he said and motioned to the brunette. “This is my oldest daughter, Veronica.” “We’ve met,” Veronica said flatly. “Hello, Veronica,” Tess said, smiling nervously and extending her hand. Was this a joke? Veronica ignored Tess’s outstretched hand. Her eyes were serpent-cold as she regarded the other woman. “We meet again. How nice.” Tess frowned and turned to Frank, who looked confused. “Remember that guy I told you about? The one from college and my friend Veronica?” He paled. “Uh oh…” He hesitated, flustered. Then, impatient to get the introductions over, he turned to the younger woman seated nearest to them. “This is Sarah, my youngest daughter.” He paused, smiling uncertainly. “I don’t think you two have met. …Have you?” Tess smiled wanly at the feeble joke. “Umm, no, we haven’t.” Sarah waved cutely from her position on the floor. “Hi, Tess. Dad’s told us all about you. I couldn’t wait to meet you, tonight.” Veronica exhaled loudly and sat down heavily in a chair. “Oh God…” She rolled her eyes and looked pointedly at her sister. Frank shot her a warning glare, which went unnoticed. Tess and Sarah spoke briefly. She learned that Sarah was just out of college and working as a receptionist until she found something more challenging. Sarah was open and friendly, and easy to talk to. “Well,” Frank said, rubbing his hands together. “You girls don’t need me hanging around. I’ll leave you to get to know each other… again. I’ll be in the kitchen.” He scuttled out of sight. Left to her own defences, Tess found herself struggling beneath the weight of Veronica’s hostility, and it wasn’t long before she was sneaking into the kitchen to take refuge there. Frank looked up in surprise. “What are you doing in here? You should be out there having fun.” He stared at her face, its features tight and drawn. “You look funny. Is everything okay?” She breathed deeply. “It’s not going very well out there.” He stopped chopping the green peppers and looked at her again, his face serious. Then he smiled and put his arm around her. “Nonsense,” he said and kissed her on the forehead. “All that was a long time ago. You’re just being sensitive.” He shooed her out of the kitchen. “Now scoot!” Tess quelled her irritation. Frank was denying the tension between her and Veronica. Why wouldn’t he see her discomfort? But then she remembered how important this evening was to him, and she didn’t want to spoil it for him. She sighed, and said, “You’re right. I’m being silly. I’ll see you in a bit?” Frank beamed at her. “Yes, my love. Dinner should be ready soon.” Frank finally called the girls to the dinner table. “You’ll think your taste buds have died and gone to heaven,” he claimed. “Can we help with anything?” Tess and Sarah offered. “Absolutely not!” he insisted. “Sit down. Relax. Enjoy.” The girls ate in silence, listening to Frank ramble on in rare form, his monologue marked in counterpoint by scraping silverware. When Tess asked Veronica for salt or wine, she was blatantly ignored. Forced to reach across the table, Tess managed to knock over a candle and once dipped her sleeve in the gravy boat. Lost in his own excitement, Frank was oblivious to his lover’s predicament. She felt degraded and humiliated. Midway through the meal, Tess excused herself and escaped to the bathroom, unable to bear the throbbing in her head any longer. She’d quit smoking two or three years before, and in all that time, she couldn’t have craved a cigarette more than she did that evening. She knew Frank didn’t smoke, he never had, but Tess combed the medicine cabinet and the vanity drawers for something, anything, to keep her hands busy and her mind off the abysmal evening. She found a bottle of ibuprofen and struggled with the cap before dumping three tablets into her hand, dry-swallowing them. She sat on the closed toilet seat for a few minutes, trying to calm her frazzled emotions, waiting for the pounding in her head to pass. Was she imagining things? Could it be as bad out there as she perceived? Was she really just being sensitive? A few minutes later, Tess emerged and walked back down the hall toward the dining room. Before she came within view of the others, however, she heard Frank scolding his older daughter. “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with you,” Tess heard him say. “The problems between your mother and I preceded Tess, and absolutely exclude her. Her presence in my life has helped me through a rough period. You should respect that, and be happy for me. My God, you’re acting like a jealous teenager. You’re embarrassing me.” “Daddy,” Veronica interjected, “it’s obvious you’re not seeing things as they really are. That woman isn’t interested in you; she’s interested in your assets, not your ass. She’s my age, for chrissakes. What could she possibly want with someone old enough to be her father? And don’t forget what she did to me in college. I know what kind of person she is.” “I don’t think Tess meant to hurt you, back then. If you would only talk to her—“ There was a loud thud on the table. Silverware rattled on plateware. “I was in love with him and she knew it! Don’t tell me she didn’t! And this affair with you,” she spat out the word, “isn’t any different. I know how she is!” There was a permeable silence. Tess couldn’t discern Frank’s low reply; she only knew that the deep rumble of his voice did not bode well for his eldest daughter. She tip-toed back down the hall, then opened and closed the bathroom door loudly. When she entered the dining room again, she stepped carefully around the silent table and reached for her purse beneath her chair. “I’m, uh, suddenly not feeling well. I think I should leave…” Frank rose. “Tess, please… Don’t go.” He looked worried, and a little bit guilty. Tess looked at the faces around the table. Frank’s lovely brown eyes pleaded with her. Sarah was contrite. Veronica avoided Tess’s direct gaze. They knew she’d overheard, and that was enough. “I really think I should be going,” she said quietly. “Yes, maybe you should,” muttered Veronica. “I’m sorry, Veronica, do you have something more to say?” Frank challenged. “I do,” Tess interjected, and turned to face the other woman. “You know, Veronica, this argument is so old, it’s pathetic. But I’ll say it again. I had no idea David was your boyfriend. I’d never met him before that night in the computer lab. If I had known he was your David, I would never have gone out with him, and you know it. It was a freak mistake, that’s all. And if he went out with me while dating you, then he was the loser, wasn’t he? “It was seven years ago. Don’t you think it’s about time to get over yourself? This blown-up sense of pride is not an attractive quality in you.” She paused a moment to looked at Frank. “But if I had known when we met a year ago that Frank is your dad, I am quite sure that I would still be here tonight as his lover. Nothing could take away the love I have for him. Not even you, this time.” Veronica remained silent. “I really wish things could be different between us,” Tess said softly, placing her hand on Veronica’s shoulder, who flinched slightly at the touch. “I really do. We had such a good friendship.” At the door, Sarah gave Tess a big hug. “It was so nice meeting you.” Tears stung her eyes as Tess hugged Sarah in return. “We’ll do something together, soon,” the younger woman said. Frank walked Tess downstairs and through the parking lot. “Tess, I’m so sorry,” he said, guiding her into the car. “Frank, don’t. I don’t want to discuss it. Really.” “I didn’t know she could be so cruel. I had no idea she felt that way.” “How could you know? She’s your daughter. You’re only supposed to see the good.” She kissed him lightly on the lips as he wiped the tears from her face. “I’ll call you,” he said. “I love you.” “I love you too, Frank.” Tess closed the door and drove home. Because Tess’s relatives were scattered across the country, it was rare that all managed to gather in the same place at the same time. So, when the holidays arrived, she was left to spend them with Frank and his extended family, who for one reason or another, found it almost as difficult as Veronica to accept the new young woman in Frank’s life. Around tight smiles and discreet glances at one another, they tried, unsuccessfully, to hide their disapproval. And through it all, Veronica encourage their disapproval, whispering and nodding in Tess’s direction with gleeful conspiracy. By the end of the holidays, she felt drained and unwanted, relieved to see the festivities pass. Where did these people come from? she wondered. How could Frank—and Sarah—belong to any of them? To her, the whole sorry family was like one out of a bad Gothic horror novel, and she was glad to be rid of them for the time being. One day in early spring, nearly a year after their first visit to Villa Nova, Frank and Tess had gone to the natural history museum. As they stood side-by-side gazing upon the knightly armour, Frank slipped a small object into her hand. She opened it to find a beautiful Tanzanite ring, the stone nestled in a cluster of small diamonds and set tastefully in platinum. “Oh, you remembered,” she mused, recovering from her shock. After a quiet evening together the week before, they’d strolled through the city, idly window shopping to walk off their late dinner, when Tess had innocently admired the ring. And now, there it was, slipped so casually into her hand by the one man she had ever truly loved; the man in whose life her presence had brought conflict, unhappiness, and a veritable scourge of the soul. “How could I forget? You loved it so much when you saw it, I wanted you to wear it. Always.” Tess looked at him and he turned his face from the gorget behind the glass to meet her questioning gaze. He smiled and touched her face. “Marry me, Tess.” Tears welled in her eyes. Her lips quivered. He leaned forward to wipe the tears away and gently kissed her. “Marry me,” he said again. Later that evening, they found themselves back at his place. “I have to tell the girls,” he said. “Sarah will be thrilled, but I wonder who else will come to the wedding?” Tess joked, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. Frank smiled tightly, his face too sad for her to bear. She laid her head on his chest, the soft hair there tickling her cheek. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” He kissed the top of her head, and stroked her hair. “It’s okay.” “How do you think she’ll take it?” Tess ventured after a moment of silence. He shook his head. “I don’t know.” His voice rumbled pleasantly behind his ribs. “Not very well, I suspect. If Veronica hasn’t gotten over it yet—any of it—I don’t know if she ever will. I just don’t know what’s gotten into her.” He left the bed to stand near the window. He parted the blinds with one finger and looked out at the night-time cityscape below. Months of frustration and humiliation welled to the surface, and Tess was suddenly unbearably angry with Frank’s passivity. “Well, I can’t keep going on like this forever!” She threw off the sheets and stalked to where he stood, naked and dejected-looking. “I just can’t take this, anymore. You know how much she hates me. You know how miserable your whole family makes me feel. I know I shouldn’t let it affect me, but I just can’t help it! It makes me feel horrible. I can’t handle it, anymore, Frank. I just can’t—” She stopped, struck by his vulnerability. She forced herself to quell her anger and wrapped her arms around him. It hurt her to see Frank like that, obviously suffering from the estrangement from his daughter, the disapproval of his family, however wrong they might be. Tess desperately wished she could suck out all the hurt and anger from him—from the whole sorry situation—and spit it out, like emptying a wound of snake venom. In all consciousness, she could not allow this situation to continue. It had turned into a case of Tess v. Veronica, et al, and it was unfair to make Frank choose sides. She pulled his robe from a nearby chair and wrapped it around him. Her decision made, she took a deep breath and spoke. “Frank, I have to say something.” He looked at her quizically as she covered herself with his large chambray shirt, which had been tossed to the floor in their hasty lovemaking. “I can’t stand to see you torn up between me and Veronica. I can’t stand that I’m the reason for all of this grief—” “You aren’t the reason—” “I am,” she insisted. “Sooner or later, you’ll resent me because I was the one who caused all this… this discord. And I couldn’t handle it if you ever felt that way about me.” “I would never—” She held up her hand to silence him. “I don’t think we should get married,” she blurted out before she lost the courage. Tess worked the ring off her finger and placed it in his hand. “Tess, don’t do this…” Her voice quavered. “Please don’t make this any more difficult for me than it already is. I can’t go on like this, knowing it was me who caused this rift in your life. I can’t do that to you. I can’t do that to myself.” He was silent. It was useless to argue; he knew the truth of the matter. He turned the ring over and over with shaking fingers. She reached out and brushed the hair from his brow. He took her hand in his and drew her to him, enfolding her in his warm embrace. She could smell his aftershave lingering in the terry-cloth robe. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so, so sorry. Please forgive me!” Tess sobbed into his chest. “I don’t want you to go.” “I can’t do this anymore.” He took her tear-swollen face in his hands. “I love you so much, Tess.” She reached up and wiped the tears from his face. “I love you, too, Frank. I’ll never stop loving you.” “Then don’t go!” “Please understand.” She desperately tore herself away from him and searched for her clothing in the dark room. When she was dressed, she walked into the living room to gather the rest of her things. A few minutes later, Frank found her sitting in the dark, pulling at the nubby fabric of the sofa, not quite able to make herself leave. She looked up at him. He took her hands and pulled her up and held her tightly. “Stay with me, Tess,” he whispered urgently. His breath was warm and moist against her ear. She kissed him softly and eased herself from the security of his embrace. “Goodbye, Frank. Veronica needs you. You need each other. ” She opened the door and walked out. It was the most difficult thing she’d ever done in her life. * * * Tess stepped away from the casket and turned around. Her vision blurred by tears, she nearly bumped into Sarah, who was standing close by. She looked up at Tess, who could see the grief marring Sarah’s delicate features, making her paler than usual. “Tess…” “Hello, Sarah. It’s good to see you again. I’m sorry it has to be under such unfortunate circumstances.” Ignoring Tess’s formality, Sarah took the other woman’s hand and hugged her warmly. “I’m so glad you’re here. Dad would be glad to know you came.” “He knows I’m here,” Tess said. They sat together on one side of the room, looking at each other closely, silently examining the other’s face for signs of passing time. “It’s been nearly five years, hasn’t it?” Sarah asked. Tess nodded. “Yes, it has.” She felt awkward, not sure where to begin. “How did he die?” she ventured a moment later. “Heart attack.” “Oh… How ironic.” Sarah paused. “I really am glad you’re here, Tess. It means a lot to me. And despite what you think, it means a lot to Veronica, as well. She doesn’t show it, though… Her pride seems to have gotten in the way of her heart a long time ago.” Tess hushed her. “Don’t. It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not here for her. I’m here for Frank. And you.” She paused. “Look, Sarah, I’m really sorry I never contacted you all this time. I just… Anything or anyone connected to Frank… It just hurt too much.” Sarah looked at the older woman through sooty lashes, so like her father’s, and smiled. “I know. It’s okay. Really.” She took Tess’s hand in her own. “It means the world to me to hear you say that.” She inhaled deeply. “We’re having a gathering at my dad’s place up north tomorrow. Sort of a retreat. It’s for family only, and I want you to be there. Will you come?” Now it was Tess’s turn to hesitate. A retreat. Her own retreat, just a few years back, had been from this family. And now Sarah was inviting her to venture once again into that nest of vipers. She said as much to her. “How can you ask me to do that,” she asked, finally. Sarah nodded, conceding the difficulty. “I think it might help put things to rest, though. To bury the past, so to speak.” “Yes, well, I’ve already pretty much gotten it behind me. I’m perfectly fine with not seeing these people again. Especially your sister.” “That may be true , but I don’t think it’s completely over for her…” “Well, that’s her problem, not mine, don’t you think?” Sarah looked at Tess, the sadness so evident in her eyes. “Please come. I really want you to be there.” Sarah told her that Frank had forgiven Veronica’s cruelty, as all parents forgive their erring children, but he still seemed incomplete. It was as if a piece of him were missing. And everyone had noticed. “You were the missing piece, Tess. He loved you so much. He never ever let you go.” Tess looked down at her hands, twisting them together. “I did what I thought was right. I just couldn’t take the abuse, anymore. I couldn’t let things get to where I would have to say, ‘It’s her or me! Choose!’ And I think it was the right decision, though it cost me a lot.” Sarah nodded. “It cost both of you a lot. There were no winners here. Not you. Not Veronica. And certainly not Dad. We saw the hole it tore in him after you left. He was never the same. I think we’ve all come to realize the value you held in his life. Veronica has always been blinded by love for Dad. She knew you once and was close to you and identified with you, and your closeness with dad threatened her terribly. She couldn’t stand it, she was so jealous… And of course what happened with David back in college…” Tess nodded, and they sat in silence for awhile. Sarah put a hand on Tess’s arm. “So, will you come to the cabin with us? It think it would be meaningful to everyone if you were there.” Tess sighed. “I’ll be there.” And so, the following day—the funeral ended, Franks’ body waiting for the ground to thaw before eternal interment—found Tess wending her way northward along the tree-enshrouded back roads, the twists and curves familiar to her even through the heavy snowfall and failing light. Somewhere just ahead, she and Frank had picnicked that warm spring day, as they drove together to his north woods cabin for the first time. When she finally pulled into the driveway of Villa Nova, she was filled with dread and consternation that had little to do with the slippery roads. It was hard to accept that Frank was gone and that she should be at the cabin without him. She imagined him as part of the cabin, integral to its particulate makeup and amplifying its inner warmth and brightness, felt but not seen. She could almost see his warm loving soul dispersed into a million bits of energy and light and love, everywhere and nowhere at once. She imagined him collecting himself around her. “My love,” he whispered in my ear. He was still vibrantly alive within Tess and that was a great comfort, as he always had been a comfort to her. She wrapped his light around herself, securing her safety and well-being, and stepped from the car to brave the snow and the cold, crunching up the driveway to the front door. She stood there a moment collecting herself, the snow swirling around her, chilling her face with its soft wetness. She doubted that, after all the anger and jealousy and pain, things could finally be put to rest. But, in deference to Sarah’s wish, Tess lifted her hand to knock on the door. Before she could strike, the door opened and Veronica stood in the threshold. “Tess…” Her rigid face softened into a gentle smile and she took Tess’s hand, leading her inside. “Come on in. Sarah and I have been waiting for you. We were getting worried.” Tess stepped, blinking in the brightness of the entryway and Veronica’s unfamiliar warmth. She realized in that instant just how tired and soul-weary they were. She didn’t want to fight—neither of them did. With that realization, Tess felt the trepidation of this meeting—and the anger of years past—fall away. Veronica slid her hand from Tess’s to close the door. “Come,” she said and turned away, still smiling. Tess looked down at her hand and opened it. There lay the blue Tanzanite and diamond ring, catching the light in its depths. She kissed the ring gently and slipped it on her finger, then followed Veronica into the house. © 1998, 2001, Cristina Van Dyck