Caitlin drove past Jana’s house, turning her head to take in its wide lawn, fieldstone facade and three chimneys. She parked her beat up Nissan down the street, then lifted the potted red geranium. that had looked so perky on Trader Joe’s rack. Sighing, she got out of the car.
Once Jana had been the scholarship girl borrowing clothes from Caitlin’s stuffed closet. Back then they had typical college arguments about goals. Caitlin insisting that love mattered more than money and Jana answering, “That’s because you have it. Someday I will too.”
Well, she sure did now. The roommates had lost touch in the ten years since graduation until the alumnae grapevine posted Jana’s husband was taking over the factory at the edge of town. On the phone Jana had sounded like herself, organized and forceful. She gave Caitlin directions and told her not to dress up.
Now Caitlin looked down at her TJ Maxx blouse and Guess jeans and shook her head. Mitch had bought her a gorgeous silk shirt for her birthday, but the price tag was shocking. She returned it to Macy’s, buying the twins nice school outfits with her refund. Mitch, who loved the grand gesture, was hurt, but he’d get over it.
She used to love his optimistic outlook. He had a plan — tour with his band until they made it big. Meanwhile, move pianos to pay the bills. She didn’t fall for the plan as much as for his warm smile and brown curls. Everything could have worked out. Only the band never got more than local gigs, and hefting pianos had wrecked Mitch’s back.
From the sidewalk, Caitlin saw a trampoline and playhouse behind the iron fence. She bet there was a pool somewhere. Her roommate had landed exactly where she’d planned to be. Jana had nixed grad school and “wasting time” in the Peace Corps. She took her Summa Cum sheepskin and blonde good looks to a New York office, accepting the position of receptionist. That’s when Caitlin had lost track of her. If Jana hadn’t married her boss, she must have snagged one of his friends.
It would be fun reminiscing about college – long nights of studying fueled with No-Doz and caffeine, comparing notes after blind dates. Once Jana went out with a crazy guy because his father was a billionaire. He took her to bars, ordered drinks and before she could lift her glass, had her back in his Jag speeding to the next bar. “I couldn’t even get drunk!” she lamented. “Oh Caitlin, why don’t you have a brother?”
Because in those days Caitlin’s family was rich. Her dad’s hedge fund was super successful until the day he was indicted for insider trading. Then hello jail and goodbye luxurious lifestyle. These days her mother just had enough to pay her retirement home bills. Next month Mitch’s unemployment ran out, and Caitlin’s job as a social worker wasn’t enough for them to live on. Loving her family didn’t keep her from feeling worn and worried.
A curtain, or should she say a drape, twitched at one of the front windows. Probably a maid wondering what charity this woman was collecting for. The wilting plant in her hand looked too pathetic. Squatting, Caitlin shoved the geranium into a clump of grass.. Oh damn, now she’d gotten dirt on her freshly ironed green and white shirt, a brown smear right across the front.
I can’t face it, she decided. Can’t stand watching Jana’s sympathetic eyes sliding from my cheap haircut to my dirty blouse down to my Payless sandals and sloppily painted toes. A migraine, I’ll say I got a migraine. Nobody can argue with that.
From her hiding place behind the striped curtains, Jana watched her friend turn and walk slowly back in the direction she’d come from. She wanted to run out yelling, “Caitlin, don’t go! Don’t go!” But the sunlight might reveal the bruises she’d so carefully hidden with makeup or a breeze rearrange the lock of yellow hair combed over her forehead where Spencer’s ring had broken the skin. In the safety of her house, she kept the curtains pulled and the lights low. “Helps with the heat,” she’d say if Caitlin looked at her funny. “Remember how I hated the heat?”
They’d be fine if they stuck to reminiscing. How Jana had insisted, “I’m going to marry a rich guy or die trying.” Well, she hadn’t died, had she? Actually, it had been all right the first two years. Spencer could be okay when everything was going his way. He liked showing off his beautiful wife to his friends as he moved rapidly up the corporate ladder.
Caitlin was out of sight now. What had changed her mind? The big house? But Caitlin’s family house had been bigger than this. That first weekend when Jana went home with her freshman roommate had been a real eye opener. A living room with French doors opening onto a wide terrace, a bar stocked with every kind of booze, and three woofy retrievers who followed Caitlin everywhere.
Jana moved to the bar in a wood paneled alcove at the other end of the room. She had all that now. Except the dogs. They couldn’t have dogs because of Spencer Junior. You never knew what he was going to do. She took the cork out of the bottle of good sherry, Spencer wouldn’t buy liquor if it wasn’t the best of its kind, and poured some in a glass. Not a wine glass. A whiskey glass. She didn’t have to be careful now. Nobody home but her and Spencer Junior. His father never showed up the day after he lost his temper. Ashamed, he’d say. More like didn’t enjoy seeing what he’d done.
Holding the glass near the light, admiring the amber glow, she tried to imagine the guy Caitlin married. A love match, she bet. Her roommate had never wavered on that. “Gotta be head over heels,” was her mantra. Caitlin’ s dates were usually out of work actors, artists with attitude and baristas with tattoos. She wouldn’t even have coffee with a corporate type. “Met plenty of those with my dad,” she’d say shaking her curly head. “They’re not for me.”
A violent thumping came from upstairs. Jana took a defiant swallow of her drink. She was sure Caitlin had kids. They’d be freckled with reddish hair like their mother. A boy and a girl maybe. Nice kids. Something crashed upstairs, then came furious shouting. No words, of course. Spencer Junior didn’t have words. The specialists didn’t hold out much hope that he’d ever acquire them. Spencer, at his worst would rage, “Kid’s an animal. That’s all he is. An animal.” Now her son was bumping down the stairs, making garbled sounds.
Jana put down her glass. “I’m coming, hon.” She ran into the hall. He stopped yelling and stared at her. Eight years old. Dark haired and handsome like his father. When he was furious he was a mirror imagine of his dad in a rage. Spencer thought they should try again, see if they could have as he so charmingly put it, “a normal child.” But Jana had heard of couples who had two kids like Spencer Junior. She wasn’t taking that chance. Obviously her marriage was a disaster. But she wasn’t leaving.. Wouldn’t leave the money that paid for her son’s therapy, his school aides, his doctors. If she was really honest, wasn’t about to leave the feathered nest she’d settled into.
She held out her hand to Spencer Junior who stared at it for seconds, before putting his hand up to meet hers. She led him to the kitchen. He was a big boy and he loved to eat. She made waffles with whipped cream and strawberries. He wolfed them down, some bites falling from his mouth onto the floor.
Jana’s mind wandered to the spring day when they hauled Caitlin’s Laura Ashley quit to a hill outside of the college grounds. They’d taken a bottle of wine, plastic cups and Italian cookies with anise seeds.
Caitlin crunched a cookie, then said with her mouth full. “So in ten years, you’ll be living in your mansion with your rich guy and me, where do you think I’ll be?”
Jana rolled over, closing her eyes against the sun. “Oh, you’ll be living in a rose covered cottage with your Mr. Wonderful and we’ll both have gotten exactly what we wanted.”
Smiling Caitlin raised her glass and drained it.