(Continued from Chapter 18.1 – Drowning in Motherhood – to start book, scroll to “Chapters” in right side bar.) Shirley has pretended not to notice when Veronica combs the ads or races out the door. In fact, since this search began, she has said mysteriously little. When Veronica enters a room, she scuttles away. Rich, on the other hand, has shown signs of an inexplicable thaw. Two weekends in a row, he’s brought Veronica a copy of the Sunday paper. One morning, he peered over her shoulder as she circled ads and asked coyly, “So what are you up to, anyway, kiddo?” Her explanation drew a respectful nod. The next day, when she told him that she’d just spotted an underpriced gem of an apartment in Hackensack, he looked her squarely in the eye and said, “If you need any help, just say the word.”
The rare tinge of empathy in his voice made her long to gush, I do! and to confess how frightened, how daunted, she’s felt by the uncertainty looming ahead even as she’s continued pushing toward it. But—wary of repeating old mistakes and landing right back at square one—she steadied herself instead and answered, “Thanks, but I don’t think so.” This earned her a two-fisted noogie.
On a Thursday morning toward the middle of April, she pulls into the lot of Homestead Manor, a sprawling apartment complex in Hackensack, New Jersey: the address of the underpriced gem. Seeing the complex’s half-acre manicured lawn and its serene, two-story, brick exterior resembling an enlarged version of a regular, single-family home, her heart clenches anxiously the way it did the day she showed up at Didier’s office unannounced five years ago. Tidy rows of shrubs edge the brick. White colonial-style shutters flank the windows and a pillared portico frames the entrance, beckoning her to come in and kick off her shoes. Like the bronze plaque on the façade of 73 rue Espariat in Aix, it stirs a latent yearning yet intimidates her slightly, frightens her: it’s probably out of her league, too good to be true.
A slender, sixty-something woman dressed in gardening overalls and a purple fleece jacket opens the door. “Now who have we here?” she asks, squatting to face Luc and Céleste who, to Veronica’s embarrassment, are busy swinging around on the portico’s pillars like tetherballs circling poles.
Luc and Céleste dash ahead as the woman, Rose, leads them down the carpeted hallway lined with identical red doors. In an articulate accent that sounds as if it’s from someplace wholesome like Connecticut, or Vermont, she explains that the apartment belongs to her son, a hotel manager who’s just been transferred to Cleveland on a yearly, renewable contract. He has a wife and two small children not far in age from Veronica’s twins. They’ll eventually come back to New Jersey, but they don’t know when. “So we can only commit to one year at a time,” Rose says. “That’s why we’ve priced it on the low side.”
Veronica nods and steps into the living room, freshly carpeted and furnished with a new, pine futon and matching end tables. A year is the shortest lease she’s come across, yet it’s far longer than she banked on when she started this search. At the same time, given the sliding glass door in the back, the spanking-clean kitchenette beside it, flooded in an entire Provençal summer’s worth of sunshine and the scent of Windex and rug shampoo, a year seems like nothing.
To the left of the living room, two bedrooms, identical in size, each have a roomy closet and a window looking out onto a cluster of maples. The beds, like the futon in the living room, appear new. She can easily picture herself tucking Luc and Céleste in at night and then sitting down at the kitchen table to experiment with colored pencils and a sketch pad. The maple leaves outside must explode with shades of orange, red, and yellow as vivid as Provence’s firethorn berries in the fall. She lifts her chest, breathes deeply. “One year at a time is fine with me.”
Beyond the sliding glass door, a picket fence encircles a square of grass the size of a porch, just right for a compact swing set and a bouncaline or a blow-up pool. Spotting it, Luc and Céleste press their fists and noses to the door. “Hey, off the glass, pronto!” Veronica orders, glancing apologetically at Rose.
“Can’t blame them,” Rose laughs. “They’ve found the best part. Well—almost.” She squats beside them and steers their shoulders to the left so that they face three shallow steps leading down to an unfurnished, rectangular space. “The playroom.”
The kids race down the steps and throw themselves to the carpeted floor, shrieking with glee as they attempt somersaults and wave their feet in the air. Veronica frowns sternly, smiles, frowns again. All the other apartments she’s visited have had warped linoleum floors. The kitchens have been dingy and ill equipped, the furniture stained with God knows what, the windows scant or nonexistent. There’s been no space for somersaults, no space for shrieks of glee. Some landlords or realtors have turned her away immediately upon seeing that she has toddlers.
She’s always left with a sigh of relief. No good, won’t do, she can continue searching without having to worry about next steps, which she hasn’t yet considered. Now, however, the yearning that clawed at her chest when she rang the doorbell has expanded into hope, galloping alongside apprehension: how can she possibly pull this off?
“These ground-floor units are the best,” says Rose, sitting down on the steps and rubbing her dry hands together. “Great for children. All wrong without them, in fact.” A side of her mouth curls upward in satisfaction; the web of lines encasing her pale blue eyes proliferates auspiciously. “And it looks like these two feel right at home. Don’t you think?”
NEXT INSTALLMENT, 18.3, COMING IN A WEEK. MEANWHILE, MORE BACKSTORY BLOG ON THE WAY