- Winter in Paradise
She misses her father. He was a man of few words but he loved her; she is named after his favorite song, “Goodnight, Irene.” Irene even misses her mother, though her mother had turned bitter and hard after Olga left the house on Clark Lake to Aunt Ruth. Irene’s mother had never forgiven Olga or Ruth; her last words to her sister were at Olga’s funeral. Irene has often wondered why Olga made the decision to leave the house to one daughter instead of the other. Did she, in fact, love Ruth more? Or were they simply closer, the way Irene is closer to Cash and Russ was closer to Baker? Or did Olga feel sorry for Ruth because she was single and childless, while Mary had a husband and a daughter? Maybe the house was meant to be an attempt to make up for the bad luck life had dealt Ruth. Irene, of course, will never know, just as she will never know why Russ engaged in such a tremendous deception. It’s newly astonishing to Irene that as much as we know about the world, we still can’t see into another person’s mind or heart.
Irene remembers when she introduced Russ to her parents. His ardor for Irene had been on grand display, and Irene wondered how her emotionally reserved parents would view a man who was so outspoken about his feelings. Mary, Irene recalls, had said, “That young man certainly wears his heart on his sleeve.”
Before the cataclysmic revelations of this past week, Irene had agreed with that statement: Russell Steele was a man who wore his heart on his sleeve. But, as it turned out, it wasn’t his real heart.
Russ loved Rosie. To deny this in the name of self-preservation is folly. Fine, then, Irene thinks. She can accept it but she is allowed to be hurt and angry.
And now, for the next revelation.
Maia is Russ’s daughter.
Irene had looked at the picture on Huck’s phone and she had very nearly fainted. The girl, although only twelve years old and half West Indian, was Russ. She looked exactly like him. She looked more like him than either of the boys did.
That’s Russ’s daughter.
It can’t be, Huck said. It was years before…
Huck had calculated back. Maia was seven when his wife, LeeAnn, died, and the one thing he knew for sure was that Rosie started seeing “the Invisible Man,” Russ, after LeeAnn died. The other fella, Maia’s father, was years before.
That’s Russ’s daughter, Irene insisted. She showed Huck the photograph she’d found wedged under the mattress in the master bedroom, but in that photo, Russ was wearing sunglasses, and so Irene had pulled up a picture from off her phone. She had to scroll all the way back to the summer before, a picture of Russ and Irene at the magazine’s annual cookout. Before handing the phone over, Irene marveled at how normal they looked—Russ with his silvering hair and his dad shorts, Irene with her braid, wearing the very same dress she had on right then. Did she remember anything peculiar about that cookout? Not one thing. The cookout was always potluck. Irene brought her corn salad with dill, toasted pine nuts, and Parmesan, and people raved over it; she told them the secret was just-picked corn. Go to the stand just off I-80, she said. It’s so much better than the Hy-Vee! She drank the fruity sangria that Mavis Key brought in an elaborate glass thermos with a nickel-plated spout and a cast-iron stand. Irene had gotten a little tipsy. She and Russ had danced to the bluegrass band; Irene fell asleep on the way home. It was one night of a thousand nights where she was just a regular married woman, maybe one with a grudge against the shiny, newfangled ways of Mavis Key.
When Huck looked at that picture, he pressed his lips into a straight line.
Irene swims until it feels like her arms might break and then she heads for shore. She staggers out of the water, wraps herself in a towel, and bends over, staring at her feet.
Maia is twelve, born in November. The story that Rosie told Huck is that the Pirate came in on a “big yacht” over Valentine’s weekend and stayed for four nights. Rosie was working as a cocktail waitress at Caneel Bay. She served the Pirate and his “friends,” the Pirate took a liking to her, things went from there. The Pirate left on Tuesday morning, never to be heard from again, according to Rosie. A month or two later, when Rosie discovered she was pregnant, this was the story she told. She had never given the man’s name. Huck said that, on the birth certificate, the father’s name was left blank. I was at the hospital when Maia was born, he said. I was there.
Thirteen years ago next month. February. Irene squeezes her eyes shut and tries to concentrate.
When had Russ taken the job with Todd Croft? Thirteen years ago? Irene and Russ had bumped into Todd in the lobby of the Drake Hotel in Chicago. They had been in the city for the Christmas party given by Russ’s biggest corn syrup client. So that would have been December… and Todd had called Russ up a few weeks later.
Yes. Irene raises her head. Russ flew down for an interview in February. The meeting was at Todd’s office, which Irene understood to be in southeastern Florida somewhere—Miami, Boca, Palm Beach. It had been over Valentine’s Day, which also fell during President’s weekend; they had planned to drive up to St. Joseph, Michigan, to ski. Irene had ended up taking the boys alone. Baker met a girl and vanished, Cash took half a dozen runs with Irene the first morning, and then he went off to snowboard. Irene had headed back to the hotel, wishing she were in Vail or Aspen and that she were returning to a lodge with a roaring fireplace instead of the Hampton Inn. She had wished she could get a hot stone massage instead of taking a lukewarm bath in a cramped, fiberglass insert tub. She had indulged these longings because Russ was away, interviewing for a new job, a whole new career. Irene had prayed he would get an offer. She had prayed so hard.
The following Tuesday or Wednesday, Russ had come home, with the first of many suntans, triumphant.
They’re going to give me a bonus just for signing the contract, he said. Fifty thousand dollars.
Irene had let out an uncharacteristic whoop. Her entire view of Russ had changed in that moment, because of the money. Their struggle was over. Irene could throw away the envelope stuffed with grocery store coupons in the junk drawer; she didn’t have to steel herself for Russ’s reaction when the Visa bill came and he saw that Irene had bought Cash a new pair of ski goggles for fifty-five dollars.
That was what she had been thinking of thirteen years earlier—her liberation from coupon clipping, the dread she felt every time she handed her credit card to a merchant. She hadn’t asked Russ how his weekend was, where he went, what he did. She didn’t ask if he’d sailed to the Virgin Islands on a yacht, met a cocktail waitress, and impregnated her.
But that, apparently, is what happened.
What Irene does not want is to become a slave to her rage and her jealousy. She does not want to become her mother.
I will forgive them, Irene thinks once again. If it’s the last thing I do. And it might be the last thing. Because the burden keeps getting heavier.
A daughter. A twelve-year-old daughter, Maia Rose Small. In sixth grade here on St. John at the Gifft Hill School. A good student, Huck said, and an entrepreneur. She’s starting a bath bomb business. She’s making them in tropical scents to sell to tourists.
Russ had never wanted a daughter. He had been hoping for a boy both times Irene was pregnant, and both times he got his wish. The person who had wanted a daughter was… Irene. Irene had wanted a daughter.
She climbs back up the eighty steps, wrapped in just a towel; her legs are so fatigued they’re shaking. Both the boys are in the kitchen, but Irene walks right past them, up to her room.
She had told Huck she wanted to meet the girl, Maia. Please, she’d said.
He told Irene he would think about it. Give me a couple days, he said. Which Irene knows was the right answer.
She pulls up in front of the Gifft Hill School just as Maia is emerging. Maia sees her and breaks into a shy smile. Ayers lets go of the breath she has been holding since she pulled out of town onto the Centerline Road. She thought she was going to be late, late for her first sleepover with Maia, late because of some incredibly handsome, charming, and sexy tourist.
But no. She is here as she said she would be. She is a reliable, steady force during this tumultuous time for Maia.
Another mother—Swan Seely is her name; Ayers has served her at the restaurant—comes over to Ayers’s open window and squeezes her forearm. “You’re here to pick up Maia? You are. Such. A. Good. Person.” Swan’s eyes shine. “I asked Beau just last night: Who is going to be the female influence in Maia’s life? She needs one, you know—every girl needs a positive role model. Especially. These. Days. I’m so glad it’s you, Ayers. Rosie was lucky to have a friend like you. This community is lucky to have you.”
Ayers blinks back her emotion. Secretly, Rosie found the other mothers at Gifft Hill a little too touchy-feely for her taste, although it was unfair to criticize them because they were all. Just. So. Nice. They wore no makeup, bought organic produce, dressed in natural fabrics in neutral colors, volunteered at the animal shelter, lobbied for more efficient recycling, and were generally tolerant and thoughtful. Every so often, one of these mothers would show up at La Tapa and have a couple of glasses of wine and loosen up, and that was when Rosie liked them best. Swan Seeley, Ayers happens to know, even enjoys the occasional Marlboro.