“The terrible thing about being 50,” she announced to her daughter over the phone, three weeks later, “is that you get to be so very wise.”
“I thought wise was good,” Clarissa said, settling in for another meandering exploration of her mother’s drama.
“It is…and it isn’t.” Charlotte leaned on the counter and drummed her fingers. “It is good because it protects you. It isn’t good because…it protects you.”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“It means…” Charlotte screwed up her face as though she were serving her daughter a cold, hard truth, when really she was just feeling sorry for herself. “It means that you prevent yourself from getting hurt, which is good. But not getting hurt requires not taking chances. Sometimes, though, the pleasure a chance brings is worth the hurt that could come with it. The trick is knowing which is which.”
There was a pause before Clarissa said, “And did you know which was which?”
“I have no idea,” groaned Charlotte.
“You know, I think there’s not a lot of difference between young people and–”
“Between people in their 20s and people in the 50s,” she finished cautiously.
“Nice save, dear. And why do you think there’s not a lot of difference between people in their 20s and people in their 50s?”
“Well, I think you’re right that 20-somethings will take more risks, which means sometimes we make stupid choices. But 50-somethings maybe take fewer risks, which means sometimes you make stupid choices too.”
The bell over the bakery’s door rang.
Her heart jumped to her throat. She felt her body flood with adrenaline, heart rate and respiration rate increasing, attention sharpening. Her body was ready to protect itself. There he stood, in jeans and a sweatshirt, looking for all the world like an ordinary human being.
“What’s going on?” Clarissa demanded over the phone.
“He’s here again.”
“Yeah. Wanna say hi?”
“No! God! What’s he doing there?”
“What are you doing here?” Charlotte asked Oliver, phone still to her ear.
“Is that Clarissa?” Oliver said.
“It sounds like he wants to talk to you,” Charlotte told her daughter.
“I came to tell you that I’m an idiot,” Oliver said.
“Oh. Well, that’s true,” Charlotte answered.
“I was stupid.”
“I was a coward.”
“But you were impatient.”
“You were ready to be hurt, expecting it, and when it happened, you bolted.”
Charlotte dropped her shoulders a little.
“And was it wrong for me to fear that? When I loved you so much it–”
“Sweetheart I think I gotta go.”
“Call me when you–” Charlotte hung up.
“Why are you here?”
“To make the right choice.”
Charlotte looked at him. His lips were dry, his voice was trembling, but his eyes were steady.
“Last time, I hid the truth from you to protect my job, and I lost you. This time, I am choosing you. I have left my job. I gave up my lease on a rent stabilized apartment. I put everything I own in storage. The cat’s in my hotel room.”
“Why,” said Charlotte, “the hell,” her voice rising in volume and pitch, “would you do,” her heart pounding in her ears, “such an insane,” breath constrained, “and self-destructive,” face full of disbelief, horror, shock, and, to her eternal shame, hope, “…” her eyes flicked around the room, seeking a word to describe what he had done, but ended with a lame squeak, “thing?”
“Because,” he answered calmly, “this is your home. This is your life. After 20 years of meeting other people’s needs, here, at last, you are meeting your own. And there is nothing I can offer you in New York that is worth more than that.”
“But,” he continued, stepping slowly towards her, “What do I have to offer you here?” He continued to approach her. “What needs can you not meet on your own? I think I know. In fact I’m more or less betting my life.” He reached the counter that separated them.
“Can I borrow your phone?” He took it from the counter without waiting for an answer. Charlotte was staring at him in bewilderment. He dialed Clarissa and put her on speakerphone.
“What happened?!” she answered.