That Monday, Sharon finally found time to go to lunch with her sister Susan. They met at a brasserie close to the Kennedy Center, where Susan was working.
“Thanks for suggesting this,” Sharon said as soon as they had ordered. “I needed a break. It’s all education, all the time, at work right now.”
“Oh, right,” Susan replied. “That big bill coming up. You’d think it would be a slam dunk.”
Sharon’s eyebrows rose. “You know about that?”
Susan laughed. “Who knew? Apparently, living here in D.C. means you’re going to hear about these things whether you want to or not. And…, uh… That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. But first, have you talked to Maman since this past weekend?”
“I think the last time I talked to her was shortly after things blew up for me in Belgium. What’s up?”
“Just the usual jockeying over the holidays.”
Sharon frowned. “I thought we were going over to Grandma Wheatly’s.”
“Well, Maman wants as many of us to go as can because she and Dad can’t make it. Dad’s got a potential major restoration and retro-fit project down in Mexico, and they want the presentation on Thanksgiving Day.” Susan grinned.
Sharon nodded. “Or they scheduled the meeting for Thanksgiving because Aunt Charlotte is getting difficult again.”
“You can’t blame Maman,” Susan said.
“Oh, I don’t.”
While Aunt Charlotte got along very well with her brother’s children, the older woman still resented Madeleine for taking Charlotte’s brother away from their family’s dairy in Wisconsin. It had made for some very strained holidays, as Aunt Charlotte was prone to taking offense at the least little thing.
“What set Charlotte off this time?” Sharon asked.
“She’s on a big home-made kick and wants everyone to bring something they made themselves rather than ordered from a restaurant or something. So Maman offered to bring some decorations and Charlotte took it as saying that her decorations weren’t going to be good enough.”
Sharon snorted. “It couldn’t possibly be that Maman is so fed up to death with cooking that she’d rather go to Mickey D’s than bring a covered dish. Poor Daddy. He hates it so much when Charlotte gets her nose out of joint.”
“Not much we can do about it,” Susan said with a shrug. “So, are you going?”
“Unless something blows up at work, I’ll be there. You?”
Susan paused and winced. “That’s kind of the problem. I can’t go.”
“Michael said he’d be able to bring a portable ramp for you so you can get in the house without being carried.”
“It’s not that.” Susan blushed. “I’m actually going to Thanksgiving dinner with my new boyfriend’s family.”
Sharon gaped, then grinned. “A boyfriend? How wonderful. How long has this been going on?”
“Since September. And we really don’t know what we are, except that it’s probably permanent. I’ve been living at his place pretty much since we first hooked up. He keeps joking about how we’re doing this all bass-ackwards. But it’s really been working. He wants me to meet his mom. We’re going to her place in Chicago.”
“I know.” Susan sighed, but with a happy grin. “It’s absolutely all the wrong ways to go about this. We’re not kidding ourselves on that one. But we can really talk and it’s really fun being together. We like the same movies, food. We both grew up in Europe.”
“When do I get to meet this wunderkind?”
“Uh, that. You’ve actually already met him.”
Sharon frowned. “I have?”
“Yeah. You two dated last spring.”
Sharon burst out laughing. “Max Epstein? You’re shacking up with Max Epstein?”
“I wouldn’t call it shacking up.” Susan grimaced. “Or maybe I should. It’s like I said. We can’t figure out what to call what we’re doing. You’re not mad?”
“Why would I be mad? He’s a decent guy.”
“You were dating.”
“Barely. We went out three times, and I met him someplace each time. He never even kissed me goodnight.” Sharon suddenly frowned. “He was pretty controlling when we went out. Not in a mean way. And he acknowledged it when I finally called him on it.”
“He hasn’t been controlling at all.” Susan giggled. “In fact, he sometimes calls me on it. But, see, that’s the thing. Max thinks we work because he’s lousy at dating and we’ve never dated. I don’t know. He just gets me and I get him. It’s all the good things about being comfortable.”
“Well, I’ll be. I’m so glad for you, Susan. Does Maman know?”
Susan rolled her eyes. “She knew before we did, as usual.”
“But is she happy about it?”
“Totally. Oh. You mean, like not saying anything, like she did when Michael and Cameron got together?”
Sharon’s siblings were convinced their mother was psychic, especially about relationships. But while Sharon didn’t believe it, she did know that Madeleine Wheatly-Fauvrillet had an uncanny grasp of what made her children happy and which relationships were good for them and which weren’t. But Madeleine also knew when to say something and when not to. Michael’s sisters had known all along that Madeleine did not think much of his relationship with Cameron. They also knew that Madeleine had expressed her concerns only once and was otherwise very gracious and warm toward her former daughter-in-law even after the divorce.
“Like that,” Sharon said.
Susan frowned. “No. She’s said a couple times that we’re good for each other.”
“Flat out said it? You didn’t ask her?”
“Flat out said it.”
“Huh. That’s a good sign.” Sharon mused.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you remember Oscar, right?”
“Your last boyfriend. I remember hearing about him. Maman did not like him at all.”
“I had no clue she didn’t like him until after we broke up,” Sharon said. “Or, actually, I sort of did. She never said anything, but if the subject came up, she would listen, but she wouldn’t say anything about him. She never asked about him. She just wasn’t interested in him. After we broke up, I realized that and she just said that there wasn’t anything to say because he didn’t make me happy. So I asked why she didn’t say so when we were dating and she said she didn’t have to because she knew I’d break up with him in good time.”
Susan rolled her eyes and laughed. “And you say she isn’t psychic.”
“It isn’t psychic to trust that I would eventually come to my senses about somebody,” Sharon said.
Susan suddenly frowned. “Has Maman said anything to you about me?”
“No.” Sharon paused and thought. “She’s hinted that you’re doing well, and it did sound like she knew something I didn’t. But I got the impression that she was going to let you tell me. I mean, she didn’t say anything about Michael and Inez until they were ready to tell us.”
“That sounds about right.” Susan suddenly giggled. “Well, I’m glad I got this one over with. Max will be, too.”
“Tell you what. Why don’t I have the two of you over for dinner soon?” Sharon said.
“That sounds like fun.”
And the two continued their lunch quite pleasantly. Sharon briefly debated telling her sister about her secret boyfriend, but then realized, she wasn’t ready for people to know yet. And even Susan would admit that she wasn’t the best at keeping secrets, although Sharon was reasonably confident that Susan would keep the secret, and if she didn’t it would only be by accident.
Telling anyone would be like the relationship was no longer Sharon and Mark’s own, and for the moment, that’s what Sharon wanted. So that’s what she told Mark the next night as the two made dinner together.
“You’d tell your sister about us?” Mark stiffened and frowned.
“Maybe in the future, but not right now, for certain,” Sharon said, puzzled by his reaction.
“Sharon, we can’t let anybody know. I’m not even telling June or Roy or Eddie.”
“Okay. I won’t.”
Mark glared at her. “Seriously, Sharon. We agreed.”
“I get that. But I thought the idea was to keep it from your mother. It’s not like my sister is going to be talking to her.”
“You don’t get it, Sharon.” Mark began pacing. “We can’t let anyone know. Period. I don’t understand why you’re taking this so casually. Don’t you care about us?”
“I care a lot.” Sharon peered at him. “And I agreed, we’re not telling anyone. So, why are you so upset?”
“We made an agreement.”
Sharon folded her arms. “I did not break that agreement. In fact, the very point I was making was that I didn’t want to.”
“But you were talking about possibly telling in the future, and as if it didn’t matter.” Mark’s agitation grew.
“Wait.” Sharon shook her head. “This isn’t about any agreement or even telling.”
“Yes, it is!”
“All right, then, what is it about possibly letting people in on our relationship that has you so wound up?”
“I’m not wound up!”
“Yes, you are. In fact, you’re way more wound up than you would be if it were just about possibly letting something slip to a loved one.”
“It is about that.” Mark stopped pacing and sighed deeply. “There’s a big spread in one of the news magazines about the past attacks on Lady Beverly’s research. The implication, of course, is that it wouldn’t keep happening if there weren’t some reason for it. Another source is implying that her rumored attachment to me is a distraction for both of us. I heard a rumor that Johns Hopkins is looking twice at her appointment.”
“You think your mother is behind all that?”
“I know she is. Plus, there’s another fat shaming campaign going on through social media.”
“Terrific. Beverly’s getting it from both sides.” Sharon put her arm on his shoulder. “Have you talked to her?”
“Yes. She’s laughing it off and said that no one at Johns Hopkins seems to be worried about it. If anything, her classes are filling up first.”
“Then all’s well, except that you’re upset.”
Mark sighed again. “I keep worrying about my mother getting her claws into you. Sharon, I really don’t want to lose you. And I don’t want you promising you can handle it because you don’t know how bad it can get, and I don’t want to do that again.”
“Do what again?”
Mark noticed that the chicken cutlets on the stove were getting a little overdone and he reached over and turned off the heat. He turned to Sharon.
“Have someone promise she can handle it, and then she can’t.”
“I had a feeling that has happened at least once.”
“And only once, but it damned near killed me.” Mark sniffed. “And I wasn’t nearly as invested in her as I am in you. I mean, we were engaged, but it wasn’t like this.”
“You’re right. This is different.” Sharon frowned and gave the salad greens an extra vicious spin in the salad spinner. “I wish there was a way I could reassure you, but I can’t. I don’t know how much I’m able to take and we don’t know how bad it could get.” She looked at him, blinking back tears. “But I don’t want to lose you, either. I don’t think I’ve ever been in love like this before, and, yeah, sometimes that scares me. And I don’t even want to think about the future and people finding out and everything. I know at some point, I’ll have to. But I don’t want to right now.”
Still shaking, Mark took the salad spinner from her, set it on the counter, then pulled her close to him.
“The worst of it is,” he said slowly, “June is still mad at me over the whole Lady Beverly thing.”
“And she’s worried about me,” Sharon said. She sniffed. “We’ll probably have to tell her at some point just so she doesn’t freak out.”
“If anybody knows what’s at stake, she does,” sighed Mark. He let her loose and went back to fixing dinner. “Sharon, I want you to know that I do trust you. It’s just that, while you’re as understanding as you can be, you don’t really know what June and I have been through. And thank God, you don’t. I could tell you everything that happened, and you still wouldn’t get it entirely because you have no frame of reference for it. You grew up in a healthy family. You have no idea what it’s like growing up with all that abuse. A couple times some of my friends have noticed that I don’t really talk about my mother or like being with her, and I’ve heard the old ‘you’ll miss her when she’s gone,’ routine.” He took the cutlets from the pan and put them on a plate, then turned to Sharon. “And I am trying to stay open to the possibility that there might be a reconciliation or that I’ll still have some grieving to do. But when my mother dies, I strongly suspect that all I’ll feel is relief.”
He put the cutlets in the oven to keep warm and turned to making the sauce.
Sharon smiled softly. “Is it my imagination, or do you feel guilty about that?”
Mark winced. “I do and I don’t. It’s like I said, it’s really hard for people from healthy families to understand. My experience of mother is completely counter to what everything in our culture says it’s supposed to be. So, my feelings about my mother are not what they’re supposed to be, and, yeah, there was a time when I felt guilty about that.” He shook his head as if trying to banish that particular thought. “It’s taken a lot of years and, yeah, some therapy to get to the understanding that because my feelings are going to reflect what I experienced, and because that’s not what most people experience, I’m not going to feel about my mother the same things most people feel about theirs. In fact, given what happened, if I did feel normal feelings of love for my mother, there would probably be something wrong with me.”
“Yeah, I guess there would be.” Sharon frowned and sighed. “You’re right. I don’t understand as well as I’d like to. But I want to keep trying, which means you’re going to have to help me.”
He reached over and took her hand. “I’ll do the best I can.”
“That should be pretty darned good, then.” Sharon smiled. “Maybe I can help you understand what it’s like being part of a healthy family.”
He smiled softly back. “I’d like that.”