THE FOLLOWING WEEK Francesca was insanely busy. She went to three artists’ studios, reorganized the racks where she stocked the paintings, returned old work that hadn’t sold to several artists, in order to make room for new pieces. And she made a list of the group shows that she wanted to do for the next year. It was always a challenge trying to figure out which artists to show together so that their work would enhance one another and not conflict. And in the midst of everything else she was doing, four of her artists dropped by that week just to hang out and visit. She always tried to be welcoming, as she was with her clients, but she was pressed for time and had a lot to do. And in the midst of all the activity in the gallery that week, she made several sales. Much to her amazement, the dentist of the weekend before called her and bought three paintings. New clients appeared, referred by other clients, two art consultants called her with big jobs, and a well-known interior designer stopped by and liked what she saw. Francesca was pleased. She got home late every night, and scarcely saw her roommates. And she was touched to find little notes in the kitchen from Marya, telling her what was in the fridge. It was Friday night before Francesca had time to breathe. Her mother had called her several times during the week, to comment about her roommates, but Francesca didn’t have time to talk to her, which was a relief.
She lay on her bed on Friday night, grateful that she had to work only one more day, and was thinking about spending Sunday in bed with a good book. There was nothing she wanted to do, and no one she wanted to see. And most unusually, that weekend, she knew that all of her tenants would be gone. Chris had said he was going away. Eileen announced on Friday morning that she was going skiing with a new man, and Marya had decided to go to Vermont for the weekend to check on things at her home. On Saturday night when she got home, Francesca was entirely alone. At first it felt wonderful, but she was startled to find on Sunday morning that she was lonely and depressed. Their presence on a daily basis was a shield from the ghosts in her past, the most alive of which was Todd. She hadn’t heard from him in more than a month, which told her that he had made the adjustment better than she had. In quiet moments, she still missed him. She was beginning to wonder if she always would. When she thought about it, she didn’t want their life back, but she missed him anyway.
And by Sunday afternoon she was feeling seriously sorry for herself, and missed her roommates. She couldn’t help wondering if Chris had had a date, although it was none of her business. He never brought women home and was extremely private.
By seven o’clock Sunday night, she was still alone. It made her realize what a blessing it was to have them there. She would have been miserable in the house on her own, with no one to talk to, and no sign of life.
She was making herself scrambled eggs for dinner, thinking about Marya’s delicious cooking, when she suddenly noticed a steady drip. She wasn’t sure where it was coming from, and looked around the kitchen. It was coming through the ceiling at a rapid rate. There was a powder room above the kitchen, and when she went upstairs to check, she saw that there was a torrent coming through the ceiling from the floor above, where Chris’s bathroom was. They had had leaks from there before. She ran up the stairs, and there was water everywhere, it was coming right through the wall, probably from a broken pipe. She ran downstairs at full speed to grab a wrench and Todd’s tools, and panicking, she grabbed her cell phone and called him. He answered on the second ring.
“What do I do?” she shouted into the phone, and he tried to tell her. She put the phone down, tried what he had suggested, and nothing worked. The water was gushing harder than ever.
“Turn off the water!” Todd was shouting at her. He told her where the valve was, and she was soaked from head to foot as she tried to get to it, just as Chris walked in, and looked startled by the scene in his bathroom. Francesca was soaked to the skin, they were up to their ankles in water, and there was a geyser coming from the broken pipe in the wall. She looked at him frantically, and he gently pushed her aside, grabbed the wrench from her, and turned off the water. Instantly, the shooting spray stopped, as she stared at him.
“I’m sorry. Thank you,” she said, pushing her hair out of her eyes. He was smiling at her, and looked amused.
“Have you been in here all weekend?” he teased her, and she shook her head.
“I just discovered it. The water was coming through the kitchen ceiling,” and as she said it, she shrieked, “Oh my God, I left my eggs on the stove.” She raced downstairs, and her eggs had been incinerated to ash. Marya had come in, and she was quietly scrubbing the pan. “I’m so sorry,” Francesca apologized. She was totally unnerved by the runaway leak, and then remembered Todd on the phone. She had left it on Chris’s sink. Todd had hung up by then, but answered immediately when she called him back.
“Do you want me to come over?” he asked helpfully.
“No, I’m fine. My tenant turned the water off. I’ll have to get the plumber here tomorrow.”
“Where was it?”
“Same one you could never get right either. The library bath.” It was Chris’s bathroom now.
“One of these days you’ll have to replumb that house, and it will cost you a fortune. You should sell it before that happens.” She was annoyed by what he said. He might not love the house anymore, but she did. She thanked him for his willingness to help and hung up. Chris helped her dry the floor. He was pleasant and calm despite the mess, unlike Todd who complained bitterly every time something went wrong in the house, particularly in the last year. He had been totally fed up with it. Chris had a more tranquil nature.
“Old houses do this kind of thing. I had an old house too a long time ago, when Ian was born. I loved it, even if it was a pain in the neck, but it was fun to work on. I did most of the work myself.” It was the most he had ever said about his previous life, and he never talked about Ian’s mother. He was an incredibly private person, and Francesca liked that about him. He was infinitely discreet, often to the point of seeming taciturn.
“We did the same thing here,” she said. “The place was a mess when we bought it. I loved it. The man I lived with didn’t.”
“It gets old, but I still think it’s fun. When I was younger, I used to restore old houses for a living. It was terrific, but the real estate market got too high to turn a profit. I still miss it.”
“Well, you can play with this house anytime you want,” she said, as they stood barefoot in two inches of water, and he laughed.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” he said kindly.
She wanted to ask him how his weekend was, but didn’t dare. She didn’t want him to think she was prying. His weekend was none of her business. He was her tenant, not her friend. She reminded herself of that as she went upstairs to her own room and heard Eileen come in a few minutes later. She stuck her head in Francesca’s door and said she’d had a fantastic weekend with a great guy. She said that Doug was history, now that she’d met this one. Francesca thought it was a little quick to run off with him for a weekend, but who was she to judge? Eileen was young, and with a dozen years between them, Eileen was of a different generation. She was essentially a nice girl, even if she was more liberal than Francesca had been at her age. But she considered herself a slow starter. Todd had been her first real love, at thirty, although she’d had relationships before.
Francesca was just happy to hear that Doug was gone and wouldn’t be back. She wondered what the new one was like, and didn’t have long to wait. She didn’t hear Eileen let him in late that night, but he was at breakfast with them the next morning. He looked preppy and pretty square, and slightly embarrassed to be there. Francesca approved, and then laughed at herself, feeling like her mother, passing judgment on everyone around her.
She had another busy week. She went to two events at other galleries, and the opening of a major show at MOMA, which was very exciting. She met a photographer at the museum event. His name was Clay Washington, and much to her own surprise, when he asked her out to dinner, she accepted. She was trying to make an effort, and Avery was right, she couldn’t stay locked up on Charles Street forever. He took her to a Chinese restaurant on Mott Street and they had a good time. He was interesting to talk to. He had traveled extensively in Asia and lived in India and Pakistan for several years. He was intelligent and attractive, and she tried not to be put off by how different he was from Todd. Clay, the photographer, was much more like her. He would have qualified as bohemian to Todd. He was just new and different. He dropped her off at her house in a cab after dinner, and she didn’t invite him in. He promised to call her. She hadn’t been swept off her feet by him, but it had been a pleasant evening, and for now that was enough.
He called her three days later, as promised, and invited her to lunch. He came by the gallery, admired the show that was up, and was impressed when he realized her father was Henry Thayer. Everything about him seemed right, except that she wasn’t attracted to him, but maybe that would come in time. He kissed her on the lips after lunch at a restaurant called Bread, and she let him, but she felt nothing. She felt dead inside, or numb. Maybe Todd had taken her heart with him.
She tried to explain it to Marya in a quiet moment that night.
“It was so weird. I felt like I was cheating on Todd.”
“It takes time to disengage from someone. It was a long time ago, but I was engaged to someone else before I met my husband. He was killed in a boating accident. I didn’t look at anyone else for two years. I just couldn’t. I even thought about going into a convent.” She smiled as she said it. “I was very young. And then I met John and fell madly in love, and I came alive again, more so than ever. We got married a year later. Give yourself time. And even because someone is a good person, that doesn’t make him right for you. You’ll know it when you find it. Maybe you and the photographer can be just friends.” It sounded like a better idea to Francesca, and she was grateful for Marya’s wisdom and perspective. She was sure that she was right.
The next time Clay called her, she told him she was busy. She was planning to go to an art auction at Christie’s and had thought of asking him, but realized she didn’t want to. So she went alone. It was easier than going out with the wrong man. She had a fairly decent time talking to assorted people after the auction, which had been lively, and was just leaving when she saw a familiar form in the distance. She recognized the way he walked and moved, and she saw him lean over and talk to someone as her heart took a leap. It was Todd, talking to a very pretty young woman. She had her arm linked into his, and he was smiling as he spoke to her, just the way he had looked in the beginning with her. Francesca wanted to drop to the floor and hide or crawl out of the room before he saw her. She felt like she was spying on him. She wasn’t, but she was mesmerized by what she saw, and she felt her heart sink to her feet. She was unable to feel anything for another man, and he was with this very pretty woman, looking completely enamored. There were tears in her eyes as she ran out of the gallery and lunged into a cab, and gave the driver her address on Charles Street. She cried all the way home, and wanted to hide when she got in. She didn’t want to see anyone. She just wanted to climb into bed and die.
It was a wake-up call for her. She was mourning a man with whom she had been profoundly unhappy for a year, a man she had loved but who was wrong for her. They had been wrong for each other, even if they loved each other. They had broken up, he had moved on, and she was still hanging on to something-memories, the ghost of him, the relationship they wanted and couldn’t pull off. His reaction was much healthier. He was living his life-she wasn’t. She suddenly felt as though someone had thrown cold water on her. She wondered if he was in love with the girl she’d seen him with, but whether he was or not was irrelevant. He no longer belonged to her, and never would again, nor should he. She didn’t want the agony they’d shared in the end any more than he did. The message of that night was clear: she had to move on. It was over.
She still didn’t want Clay Washington, the photographer she had met at MOMA, but somewhere out there was a man for her, and she had the right to find him. No matter how sweet it had been for a while, Todd wasn’t it. She was going to have to find her dream somewhere else. Maybe he had already found it. But whether or not he had, she knew she had to start living again, and not just between the gallery and 44 Charles Street. She needed a new life and a broader world. But seeing him with another woman had definitely smarted. It had been excruciatingly painful. She thought about it for a long time that night, and was haunted by the look on his face when he turned to the woman he was with. She was still shaken by it when she went downstairs the next morning and sat at the kitchen table, staring into space. She didn’t even hear Chris come in.
“That bad, huh?” he said, teasing her, as he started a pot of coffee. No one else was up yet.
“Hm?… What?… sorry…” She looked ragged and exhausted. She had slept badly and looked it.
“You look hungover,” he said honestly, and handed her a mug of coffee a few minutes later. They were developing a casual camaraderie as roommates.
“Just haunted by the ghost of Christmas past. I saw my old boyfriend last night, with a new woman. I guess it shook me up more than it should have. It was a reality check for me.”
“Who sets the rules for that? About how long things take,” Chris said as he sat down across from her. “Who decides how upset you’re going to get? If it shook you up, so be it. You have a right to your feelings. That’s a pretty upsetting thing to see.” She had the impression he’d been there, from what he said, but she didn’t ask him. She was grateful for his kind words and thanked him as Marya walked in, looking bright and cheerful as usual. She always seemed to be in a good mood. It was a sharp contrast to the way Francesca was feeling, as she reached for the computer that was sitting on the table. Chris never touched it, Marya had no idea how to use it, and the one who used it most of the time was Eileen, who still didn’t have her own.
Francesca had just turned it on when it sprang to life, and the next thing she knew, there was an incredible scene on the screen. Two women having sex with three men, and the intricate combinations were stunning as they all watched in disbelief, and Francesca realized what had happened. Eileen had been watching porn, probably with her new boyfriend, and Francesca had never even imagined the things they were doing, as she finally came to life and switched it off, still looking shocked. Chris was laughing loudly, and Marya gave a little giggle. They were all adults, Francesca knew they shouldn’t have been horrified, but it was pretty amazing to see it. Chris looked vastly amused, although he didn’t look like the type to watch porn, but he thought the incongruity of it on their breakfast table was very funny.
“I guess Little Bo Peep is not quite as innocent as she looks,” he commented. He thought it was harmless, and it didn’t bother him, although he wouldn’t have thought it so funny if Ian had been in the room. That would have upset him deeply.
“I’ll ask her not to watch that stuff on the house computer,” Francesca said quietly, thinking of Ian too. He liked playing with the computer and was good at it. She didn’t want him happening on any scenes like that, and she didn’t want to see them either. She liked Eileen, but she felt like a house mother in a college dorm a lot of the time. Some of the men Eileen went out with looked worrisome to Francesca. But Eileen breezed right through it, went out with them a few times, and then moved on to the next one. The one she was seeing for the moment seemed like a good guy, and he had lasted longer than the others, but some of the previous ones had seemed unsuitable and downright crude. Eileen didn’t always notice the difference. She was a small-town girl in the big city, excited by everything.
Chris was still chuckling over the porn incident when he went back upstairs to work. And Francesca mentioned to Eileen discreetly that evening not to watch things like that on the house computer, in case Ian came across it on the weekends.
“Oh, I would never do that!” Eileen said, looking horrified. “We just watched it because we thought it was funny. I guess I forgot to turn it off when we went to bed. I had kind of a lot to drink last night. I’m really sorry, Francesca.” She looked so contrite and like such an innocent child as she said it that Francesca felt sorry for her. It made her suddenly grateful that she didn’t have children. She hated telling anyone what to do, or scolding them for their behavior. It wasn’t her place to tell Eileen how to behave. But she didn’t want porn on the kitchen computer. Eileen hugged her after she apologized, and Francesca sighed as she watched her bound up the stairs. Francesca was beginning to feel like her older sister, and wasn’t sure she wanted the role. But Eileen’s sweetness was hard to resist.
Chris was still chuckling about it the next night when he, Francesca, and Marya ate dinner in the kitchen. Marya had made them a wonderful roast beef, with vegetables and Yorkshire pudding. Eileen was out on a date with her new friend. “Maybe we should buy them porn DVDs instead,” he teased. He was in a good mood and chatted more than usual as they reached dessert. Marya had shared one of her better wines with them, and it had been a delicious meal.
Marya had made baked Alaska and had just lit the flames when Chris’s cell phone rang, and he took it out of his pocket and answered as he admired the spectacular dessert. It was like living in a four-star restaurant having Marya there, and she loved cooking for them. She alternated old favorites with new recipes.
The two women were chatting as Chris got up from the table with a suddenly serious face. He walked into the hallway, still holding his cell phone, and Francesca could hear him asking questions in a terse voice, and a moment later he rushed into the room and grabbed his jacket with a panicked look.
“Are you okay?” Francesca asked him, looking worried. Even though they weren’t close friends, their lives had become intertwined from living under the same roof.
“No, I’m not,” he said as he struggled into his jacket and headed for the stairs.
“Is it Ian?” Francesca asked as she hurried after him.
“No… yes-I don’t have time to explain it. That was the police. I have to go get him.”
“Oh my God…” She didn’t waste his time with any more questions, and just prayed the boy wasn’t hurt. She and Marya sat staring at each other at the table, and no one touched the beautiful dessert. All they could think about was the little boy they had come to love.
Marya quietly cleaned up the remains of dinner and Francesca helped her. Neither of them knew what to say or do. Chris’s face had been sheet white as he ran out of the kitchen. He was obviously terrified for his son, and the two women were desperately hoping the child would be okay. They had no idea what had happened to him. Francesca had sensed for a long time that there were frightening things in the boy’s life that Chris worried about, probably related to his ex-wife’s illness, which Ian occasionally referred to, or something even worse.
They both went to their rooms after dinner, and were thinking about Chris and the boy. All they could do was wait. At midnight, Chris still hadn’t come home, and he hadn’t called either of them. Francesca knew that he owed them no explanations. He rented rooms from her, and he owed her nothing except rent. The details of his private agonies were none of her business, but it explained a lot about him, why he was so quiet and introverted, shared nothing about his past, and said very little. She suspected Chris had a great deal on his mind.
She fell asleep at two A.M. and had left her door open so she could hear him come in, in case he needed moral support or help of any kind. But she heard nothing. All she knew was that his door was closed the next morning, and he hadn’t come downstairs when she left for the gallery at ten-thirty. She had no idea what had happened to Ian, or how the crisis had resolved itself, or even if. She thought about him as she walked softly past his door and hurried down the stairs. Whatever had happened to panic him the night before was a mystery. They each had their private griefs and traumas to deal with that had nothing to do with the others, and belonged only to each of them.