Ms. Mae & Lara sat at the table together, sipping on some ice cold lemonaid.They’d just finished washing up the dishes together, the mood was bright, the weather hot and sticky. Clara & Sophie were sprawled out on the floor, putting together a puzzle. Connor played with the cats, one of which he’d put to sleep across one of his legs. Lara & Ms. Mae sat for a moment in silence, watching them play. “So how are the little angels doing?” Ms Mae always referred to Lara’s children as her “angels” which Lara found remarkable endearing or annoying demanding on how the day had been. “I think they’re doing well,” said Lara as she looked at them “really well” she repeated as her eyes lifted to meet Ms Mae’s “This place has been so good for all of us.” and it really had been.
The explosive outbursts that Lara had been coping with from one child or another had become a thing of the past and they really, truly seemed to be happy and thriving. Ms. Mae smiled, breaking into Lara’s thoughts “Lara, you do realize that at some point you are going to have to make a choice, don’t you? Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or even next week, but soon.” Lara only sighed. “Are you going to register them for school here? Or will they return to the school that they attended last year? I don’t think the bus stops at my sister’s hotel. Summer is almost over. You’re going to have to make a choice, sooner or later.”
Just then the screen door slammed and Matt walked in the back door. “Hello, dear.” Ms. Mae called out. “So, what are y’all talking about?” Matt kissed the top of his mother’s head and winked at Lara as he reached into the fridge for the pitcher of iced tea “I was just asking Lara if she would be registering her children in school here locally, or not.” Matt glowered at his mother, just a bit. Lara got the feeling that this had been a topic of conversation between the two of them and Matt had probably told his mother to leave it alone. Lara’s heart swelled with love for this woman who had taken her in like a stray half-drowned cat and had practically treated her like family, who was now trying to give her some motherly advice. Matt kissed the top of his mother’s head again “Ma, don’t meddle.” he chided, half jokingly as he set his plate of food down on the table across from Lara, grinning. Lara smiled back. “Matthew, I will meddle. I am a mother, that’s what mothers do.” “Well, your mother’s right." said Lara laughingly "Living a day at a time is good and all, but you can’t really live like that, at least not with school-aged children. Eventually I’m going to have to face the music.” “Have you thought about finding a place around here?” asked Ms. Mae “the schools here are excellent and you’d be near enough to the beach you could go nearly every day if you really wanted to. Then you could visit me as often as you liked.” Lara hesitated Matt piped up casually “If you want, I’d be happy to show you a couple places in town.” Lara’s eyes brightened. “I hadn’t even thought of that!” and suddenly a wave of relief washed over her. Matt & Ms. Mae smiled at each other. “That sounds really wonderful” Lara had to swallow hard to keep the tears back. Maybe she didn’t have to leave after all.
Lara’s mother, Betty-Jo Bryan swooped down from Atlanta, bringing Lara’s sister, Aimee, with her and a flutter and commotion of activity. Every day there were places to visit, things to do and it was all-consuming. Betty-Jo was in full-on Grandma mode and while she may or may not have had alternative motives, she made it very clear that she was here to spoil her grand-babies rotten. Leaving Lara barely time or space to breathe much less think.
It was towards the begining of the second week of her mother’s visit, Lara was in her room, finally alone for a few minutes to work. It was a swelteringly hot night and in the middle of what had turned out to be one of the hottest weeks of the summer. Her mother and sister had taken the kids down to the pool for a before-bed swim after dark. Lara sat, wearing pajama shorts and a tank top, on the pull out sofa-bed eating cereal in front of the a/c unit. If her mother had suddenly returned Lara would have been certain to be on the receiving end of an extremely disapproving look. But they’d really only just left a few minutes ago so it was unlikely. In between bites Lara typed out notes on her laptop. Lara wanted to sketch out a few rough drafts to send to Marliegh, her editor. Suddenly the fan sputtered and slowed to a stop. Lara got up and checked to see if it had somehow inadvertently come unplugged. She turned it off, waited a few seconds, turned it back on again, fiddled with a few nobs and then she realized that she had absolutely no idea what she was doing.
Lara picked up the room phone and pressed the button to speak to the front desk. Mrs G answered with her characteristically cheerful greeting “Sorry to bother you,” Lara began "but it seems our AC has given up the ghost.” “Oh dear,” said Mrs. G. sympathetically “no problem at all, Matt is here fixing the air in one of the other rooms, I’ll just send him right up when he’s through.” “Oh, wow. That’s really nice. I hope it’s not any inconvenience to - “ Mrs G cut her off ”oh, it’s the heat. Don’t you worry dear. these units blow left and right during a heat wave like this. He’ll be over in a jiffy and you’ll be good as new.”
A few minutes later Matt knocked on Lara’s door. Mrs. G had told him who was was in room five-oh-seven and he was grinning like a teenager when Lara opened the door. Suddenly Lara wished she was wearing something a little nicer and had thought to pick up a bit, instead of finishing her cereal on the deck. She offered him a glass of water. These Floridians knew how to handle the heat like champs but Matt looked like he'd taken a quick swim on his way over. “Ma sure has missed you, at the farm” he said as Lara poured some water from a pitcher in the fridge into an ice filled glass. “My mom and sister have been visiting.” Lara replied “Yeah, Ma told me.” said Matt with a smile as Lara offered the glass. His fingers lightly brushing hers as she handed him the water, sending a tingle down Lara’s spine “I’d hoped to bring her over” said Lara looking away “but I haven’t had the chance, my mom loves to stay busy.” Lara realized she was headed over the fine line between small talk and babbling and decided to just stop before she said something really embarrassing. “Well now,” said Matt “let’s get that cold air runin’ again.”
He quickly found, and resolved, the cause of the unit’s malfunction. Lara had rarely felt such a mix of relief and disappointment at the sound of cool air flowing into her room. “Well, now,” said Matt "There you go.” “Thank you” said Lara. Matt was in no less of a hurry to leave than Lara was to have him go. Matt gathered what few tools he’d needed saying as he headed towards the door “so, anytime you want me to take you by those houses in town, just give me the word.” “Sure, yes, of course.” replied Lara “I’m sorry, I was meaning to set up sometime to do that. I’ve been kind of distracted, you know, with my mom and all.” “Yeah, sure. Of course.” said Matt kindly “Maybe you can bring your family to the farm for dinner.” Matt was at the door, looking back at Lara “I’d like that.” she said with a smile. “Okay, see you soon then.” said Matt and he heard out the door.
Not long after Clara, Sophie & Conner burst through the door, loud and excited, with their grandma and aunt close behind. Lara switched into baths and bedtime mode and before long the room was quiet again. Aimee was in the shower and Lara & her mother were folding up the day’s laundry. “So I was thinking” Lara's mother began “I think it would be best if we leave on Saturday. That will give us another four days here with you, you can pack up and come home with us, then.” She dropped the bomb on Lara casually but she watched her daughter carefully to see how she would take it. “I didn’t know you were expecting me to come home with you.” said Lara, timidly. “I was thinking of maybe staying longer.”
“What? Another week? Surely not another month?”
“Actually I was thinking about maybe finding something, I don't know maybe more permanent.”
"Yes, you know, a little house somewhere nearby. Maybe in the next town over. Mrs. Garrard has a sister there - “
“How could you possibly even consider an idea as fanciful, as far fetched, as that? Think of your children.” and her tone was scolding more than pleading, “They need a stable home environment. You’ve had your little summer vacation. Don’t you think it’s time to get back to your life?”
“I have a life, mom.”
“Here? In a hotel? Practically living out of a suitcase? For months on end for what? What kind of a life do you intend to lead here? Hmm?"
Lara’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m going for a walk”
"Is this how you choose to face your problems? By running away from them?” her mother scolded
"I'll be back in a bit." said Lara and she shut the door behind her, trembling.
There was no way to win this argument with her mother. She was stubborn and usually saw things only from one point of view, her own. Lara could be equally stubborn, when she wanted to. She didn’t want to allow her mother to control her but suddenly everything about the last three months became unclear. Something inside her, deep in her core, had begun to crumble.
Over the next couple of days all Lara wanted to do was sleep, her body felt a hundred pounds heavier than the day before and her thoughts were all in a fog. What did she really want? Had she made a huge mistake coming here? Did she want to go back to the life she had before she came here? Did she want to start over here? What was best for the kids? To be here, where their mother was happy, or to be in her hometown where they’d have the support of family surrounding them?
It was the uncertainty of it all that had undone her. Lara knew how to stand up and fight for what she wanted and she knew how to give way to her mother. The one thing she had no idea how to do was make up her mind.
Lara took long walks on the beach by herself. She spoke less, exerted less effort, avoided making decisions, even trivial ones. Her mom and sister had almost completely taken over anyway, her sister was the fun aunt and their grandma gave the kids presents and took them places, and the kids were, for the moment, completely disinterested in their mother, and so Lara, simply sat on the sidelines, or sat, starting out in the ocean. Lost.
Matt sat in the office with his aunt, cooling down in the heat of Friday afternoon. He was helping her out with some last minute repairs. Matt found himself experiencing intense inner turmoil at the moment. Lara hadn't called him or his mother. His aunt had barely seen her, it was like she had dissappeared from their lives in an instant and Matt was pouting, slouched over his egg salad sandwich. "One minue she's planing on moving to town," he complained "promising to go house hunting with me, the next I'm completely invisible. Who does that?"
"House hunting with you eh?" joked Mrs. G raising an eyebrow.
"You know that's not what I meant."
"Oh, or isn't it?" she laughed a little to herself and then sobered
"You know, her mother came to visit her, right?"
"and does she seem to be herself lately?"
"I don't know, Aunt G. I was right there I spoke to her, I waved, it was like I'd turned invisible, like she didn't even see me."
"Maybe she didn't " said Mrs. G matter of factly
"How could she have not seen me? I was right there."
"And how did she seem to you?"
"I don't know." Matt scratched the back of his neck "awe, come on now, Aunt G. Go ahead and say whatever it is you've got to say."
"All I'm saying," said Mrs G gently, "is that if you left us you ma, well she and I would march right up to wherever it was you'd run off to and we would drag you back home, if need be. So now what do you think Lara's ma has been saying to her? Do you honestly think that poor woman could stand on her own against her own mother, calling her home? Think about if you were in her place."
"Do you think she'll leave?" Matt asked quietly, eyes on the floor
"No." said Mrs. G quickly "I think not. Rarely have I seen someone so in love with a place, so positively changed by living here, but you never know, really, what someone will do when they're depressed"
The word hung in the air between them.
"Depressed?" Matt asked
The two of them had seen enough depression to last a life time. Between Mr. G's PTSD and his own father's manic depressive disorder, not to mention his own season of darkness ater the death of his wife and their unborn son. "Maybe she just needs a friendly remnder of why she wants to stay." said his aunt.
Later that night Matt found himself at Lara's door for the second time in a week. The sun had set a couple hours ago and the night had cooled down considerably, Matt shivered slightly in the cool ocean breeze. He knocked and the door opened, an older woman standing in the doorway. Died brown hair, deepset eyes, tight strait lips. "Yes?" she asked, in a manner that was neither friendly nor fierce.
"My names' Matt, er Matthew Bartlett and I just came by to speak to Lara" he said, feeling a bit like the boy with the baseball asking if his friend can come out and play catch. Lara's mother hesitated a moment. "She's out on the balcony at the moment. I'll go get her." "Oh, no ma'am, I'll just go out and sit with her a minute." He wasn't so much as asking permission so much as stating a fact and he walked past her easily. "All right then." she said as he walked through, she stared at him blankly, moving slightly to one side as he passed.
Matt stepped out onto the balcony where Lara sat, alone, staring out at he ocean, unseeing. Matt sat down in the empty chair next to hers. The night breeze blew cool, a welcome to the swealtering heat of the past few days. Matt sat there, listening to the crash of the ocean, the call of the last few birds and the symphony of crickets and frogs far below, looking at Lara, who seemed to have changed, like in the last three days she had aged. Yet somehow, she also looked like a little girl, unsure of herself.
Lara started lightly when she realized it was Matt sitting there in the chair beside her, their shoulders nearly touching.
"Are you leaving?" Matt asked, he hated himself for always speaking so directly.
Lara turned her gaze back to the ocean.
"I don't know" Lara said, like it was an admission she did not like to make.
He wanted to blurt out "Please don't" but he bit his lip and stayed quiet.
"I've been thinking a lot lately," Lara spoke softly "about what I really want to do with the rest of my life."
There was a pause like Lara din't know how to finish her thought
"And I just don't know."
Matt hesitated for a moment, trying to pull his most encuraging thougt from the jumble crashing around inside of him at this moment.
"That's okay." he said
There was another long pause
"What do you think?" Lara sighed "Was I silly? Was it selfish of me to try to live here. What kind of a life is that?"
Matt wanted to reach across, to comfort her, to let her know it was okay, that she was going to be okay.
Matt put his hand on the armrest of the chair, his hand next to hers, nearly touching.
"I think you're one of the bravest women I've ever met." he said, quietly. simply.
Lara looked up into his face, tears in her eyes "Really?"
"But what do you think I should do?"
Matt took a deep breath. Eyes out to the ocean. Searching for the right words. Words that answered her question unselfishly.
"I think you should be happy again."
He could feel Lara's eyes on him but he kept his gaze fixed on the crash of the ocean waves on the shore. "Not just for a moment or even a day but happy, really, truly happy. And if that means that you live here or there, well, no one can answer that question but you."
Lara sat in silence.
Happy? She had got a little taste of what that might feel like here, in the peace of this place, in the sunshine, at Aunt Mae's Farm with her garden and her cats, laughing with Matt in the evenings.
"But I don't know what to do." said Lara weakly
"That's okay," replied Matt reassuringly "I know you'll make a good decision,"
"You do? You don't think I'll screw it up?"
"Oh, I'm sure sometime or other you'll mess up" replied Matt laughingly, "but then, you'll see your mistake, learn from it and move on."
Lara smiled and laughed softly, almost to herself.
"Thank you" she said softly.
And they sat in silence, listening to the ocean.
The next day Lara's mother and sister left.
And Matt felt like he could breathe again.