Category: Angst-fest. Some implied 'ships.
Summary: Andy and Nina. The breaking point.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything. But can I please keep Ephram? ;)
Note: Blame Everwood withdrawal. Definitely a moody piece.
It's Andy's turn to drive the kids to school today. She holds her mug of coffee and watches from the doorway as her son, Andy and his daughter wave goodbyes with their distinct happy smiles. When the car disappears from her view, she turns around. The sight of her living room greets her back. Her living room, kitchen, and dining room, all tidy and immaculate. Nothing is amiss, yet she is puzzled by the silence that seems to be at every corner of her house.
Without Sam begging for her attention or the laundry machine to attend to or the phone calls that let her know she has an extra shift at the diner, she suddenly finds herself thinking about life. Not her son's, not her husband's, not her family's. Hers. She has most things in life she has wanted: white picket fences, red brick walls of the house, a small garden, a hyper son who misses his dad, a husband who is not here.
One of the frames proudly decorating the living room walls is slightly skewed. She pushes it up so it would be perfectly balanced against the other photos on the wall. Her son and her husband always smile in the photos.
She is not sure which is worse, finding that there will be no phone call this morning or that she'll get a belated birthday present, no doubt something extravagant from wherever state he is at this point with a note of profound apology for forgetting to call. She isn't sure which would be more hurtful.
She knows she'll find out soon enough, though.
When she looks back, the silence of her own house might be the only thing she truly has.
Looking back, it is rather incredible how simple life can become in a year. Andy is only human, and time and again he might have regretted turning away from the vocation of his life and New York. But he comes home, takes one look at his kids, then this is his life. It is that simple, and he's fascinated by this simplicity, intrigued. Comforted. He slips into this life like it's an old, well-worn clothing, the memory of its first ill-fitting discomfort long ago forgotten.
"A book festival?" Andy asks, opening up the pizza boxes and taking out the coke bottles. These two activities are becoming a permanent part of his simple life, although he does feel slightly guilty that whenever it's his turn to cook up a dinner for both families they end up having a pizza night. Every single time, guilty as charged. At least Nina doesn't seem to mind.
"Mm-hmm," Nina hands out plates to the kids, dutifully acting out her seemingly self-assigned task of explaining every little mishap about this town, "An annual event, one of many festivals Everwood is famous for."
"Notorious, you mean," Ephram answers absently from his corner of the table, already chewing on a slice of pizza. Something is obviously weighing down on his son's mind lately. Well, more than usual, and his answers are, in accordance, grumpier.
"Ephram, maybe you can go, too," Andy suggests, already knowing the answer but trying nonetheless. He's beginning to learn that this is what parenting is all about, bracing the no's as well as humanly possible. "It could be fun, you know."
As predicted, Ephram makes a face that's distinctively a 'no'. "Not unless your definition of 'fun' is equivalent of a pit torture. I'm sure that's the case, and I'm sure it'll be jolly good."
"Hey, give the books some chance," Nina, a god-send, intervenes cheerfully, "A lot of kids go to check them out, amazingly enough. I remember your friend was a big part of it last year."
There's an alarm in his son's eyes. "What friend?"
Ephram freezes, all so subtly. The name that seems to have a strange hold on him. Amy, Amy. Andy watches his son in his self-induced agony and tells himself that he doesn't miss being a teenager. The passion. How everything was so serious, how everything was life-and-death. Love, love. He had that once, too.
He doesn't miss it at all. Andy Brown is now in love with this simplicity.
"Even Bright went the last time," Nina continues, "They won some books, if I remember correctly, at one poetry reading or such."
"Okay," Ephram is now obviously imagining Bright at a poetry reading, "that's all the reason I need to avoid it at all cost."
Nina draws out her index finger. "Ah, but see, I haven't mentioned the best part yet."
"There's a best part?" his son dubiously asks, his attempt to act disinterested a failing grade.
"Well, it's considered the best if you like manga," Nina informs his son casually. And rather craftily, in Andy's opinion, because he's mentioned several times to Nina about his son's love of manga.
"You're kidding me. Manga, in Everwood?" Ephram is incredulous.
"For some reason, yes. I don't know exactly what kind of collection they have, since they all look the same to me anyhow, so you'll have to go check out yourself," Nina pauses for a moment, thoughtful. "Well, how about a deal? I'm kind of busy tomorrow, but I know Sam wants to go. And I bet Delia does, too. If you take them to the festival, I'll pay for all the expenses."
"You don't have to do that," Andy objects right away, "Ephram would be happy to be of service, wouldn't you Ephram?" He shoots his son a look, hoping like hell that his father authority that never works can possibly work this time.
Ephram doesn't look impressed, however. "I--"
Nina shakes her head firmly. "Can't do that, Andy. I'm taking Ephram's valuable time, and he deserves to be paid. Anything that the kids ask for, plus one manga. Take it or leave it, Ephram."
His son obviously knows he's losing the game, more so because of the not at all surreptitious puppy-dog looks Delia and Sam are giving him from the end of the table. Ephram is not entirely unaware of Nina's devious tactic. "You should've been a lawyer, Nina."
"I almost did," she grins.
"Ephrrram," Delia begins, but the battle's won before the second round. Ephram puts up his hands before Delia gets into the full whine voice.
"All right, all right, I'll go. We'll go. Happy?"
The answer is yes, as evident by the beaming looks on the children and a kiss that Delia gives to Ephram at the end of the dinner.
"Thanks," Andy tells Nina when they are left to do the dishes. He feels honestly grateful.
She doesn't have to ask, 'For what?' She smiles instead. "He's a teenager. They wear emotions on their sleeves."
"So you noticed."
"So I noticed."
"Women are so better at this. He'd have eaten me alive if I suggested it."
"The trick is to make him believe he can still come out looking cool." At his blank stare, she smiles. "Yes, it just works better if we do."
"You know, I'm getting really envious about that. Men are at disadvantage without this life-saving skill."
"Hey, if we have to go through nine months of definite discomfort and overweight and all the crankiness that follow, think we're due for some compensation."
He thinks for a second. "There's no way I can win this argument, is there?"
"You learn fast, Doctor Brown."
All the dishes are dried and put back on the cabinets. Tea and hot water are ready. They sit around the dinner table, watching their children in the living room playing piano and coloring drawing books.
"You really wanted to be a lawyer?" Andy asks, suddenly remembering. He is beginning to realize that he doesn't really know much about his neighbor besides her son and husband.
Nina nods, nursing her cup of tea. "First year law school, came home for the summer, rekindled with the high school sweetheart, got married and had Sam."
An idyllic life, it seems. Nina is smiling a little, remembering.
He watches her and thinks, this is what life is about. It's not fake, and at least he has this. This simple life. It has to mean something.
It means everything.
She's baked a cake for herself. She used to be a terrible cook, and baking has never been her strong suit, but domestic life has its tool. She can now bake a cake if she's willing to put some time into it, and today she has been determined to do so.
When she comes back home with Sam from the dinner at Andy's, the cake is waiting for them. She's alarmed at the growing number of candles that are to be used, and for a second she entertains the idea of telling Sam to skip that part of the ritual. But he is quick to grab matches and candles before she mentions anything, this being his favorite part, and she swallows a bitter taste in her mouth when she blows off the lit candles.
Sam gives her a present (a picture of the family on an imaginary picnic) and she hugs him, telling him that this is exactly what she's wanted.
The next morning, the picture decorates the front of their refrigerator.
Andy Brown gets the surprise of his life when his daughter steps down to the kitchen wearing a dress. A full grown flowery dress. Voluntarily. And it's pink.
He blinks furiously for a long moment, checks for the theme music of the Twilight Zone, then checks his eyes. Nope, no theme music, and his eyes are actually open and working. When he's certain that nothing is supposedly out of place and he hasn't been displaced into another house that is not his, he lets out a squeaky "Delia?"
"Yes?" his daughter beams, steps down the stairs completely and does a little 360-degree turn. "Do you like it?"
There is no way that he is going to answer in anything remotely negative to her question, yet Andy is finding a hard time finding right vowels. Or consonants, for that matter. "I, well, wow, it's...I've never seen you wearing that dress before."
"Mom said I should wear it for a special occasion." There's a little shadow at the word Mom, but it quickly disappears from her face and Delia is smiling broadly again. "And today's special."
Andy's still sputtering, "Wow, well, may I ask why?"
"It's for the book festival," Ephram informs him, stepping down behind his sister. He's somehow suppressing his amused glint in his eyes with an utterly serious expression.
"Wow, I want to be the festival," Andy gushes like a proud father he is, although he's beginning to think maybe it isn't the festival itself that's getting his daughter (his daughter!) to abandon her favorite baseball caps. And he's not sure whether he should be thanking or hitting whatever (or whoever--okay, there's a frightening idea) that has changed her mind.
"So you like it, then?" Delia blushes, and God, his daughter is just plain adorable. At this moment, he can punch anyone who says otherwise.
Ephram, who has more experience with Delia and therefore slightly more eloquent, turns her to face him. "It's pretty, Delia, and so are you."
"Yes, yes," Andy hastily agrees, "You look real pretty, Delia. And we mean it."
She beams happily. She comes up to him and plants a kiss on his cheek.
He graciously accepts it, but just as soon as she's out of earshot, he grabs Ephram by his collar. "Okay, tell me that wasn't a dress she was wearing."
"Okay, it wasn't."
He imagines himself choking his son. Not a pretty picture. "Ephram."
His son sighs dramatically. "I thinks she has a crush."
For a second Ephram looks like he's enjoying Andy's bewilderment, but only for a second. "A crush. Someone who's going to be at the festival. I haven't figured out just who yet. She wouldn't tell me."
"Oh my god."
"I know," Ephram is sympathetic.
"I don't know what this is."
"I don't think I'm ready. This is...I mean, she's not even ten yet!" Shouldn't she at least be a teenager before this happens? Andy has been fully prepared to prepare for this sort of situation once they have Delia's tenth birthday party, but not before then, and certainly not now.
"She's precocious," his son says by a way of explanation.
A little by little, Andy Brown is sinking into the horror that levels with Hell. "Oh god, I don't think I can handle this."
"You know what, Dad?" Ephram puts a hand on Andy's shoulder, his expression grave. "I don't think I can either."
Andy sends off Ephram with a mission to find out the object of Delia's affection. He ponders about this for an entire hour, and deciding he needs guidance, goes in search for his usual adviser.
"That is entirely too cute!" Nina gushes, leaning over the diner's counter. She is apparently not seeing the graveness of the situation, and she is decidedly Not Helping. "Oh, Sam's going to be so crestfallen. He thinks Delia is the prettiest girl in the world. Besides me, of course."
"No, no, no, I can't take this, Nina. My daughter has a crush! Apparently, on a boy!"
"It was eventually going to happen, Andy," Nina's voice resonates with a barely suppressed laughter. "The phrase 'Take it like a man' comes to mind."
"But what am I supposed to do in this situation?" his voice cracks along with what's left of his sanity, "Just sit and watch as Delia goes through the (terrifying and extremely horrifying) transformation?"
"What else are you planning to do? Go find the boy who stole her heart and beat him up?"
The light bulb. "Now that you mention it..."
"All right, all right," Andy grumbles, "Just tell me how I should deal."
"Can't help you there yet--mine has yet to hit puberty. I'm still worrying about how to pass Sam's seventh year without seriously breaking anything, and the concept is already too frightening."
He smiles wearily. "I thought you knew everything."
"Ah, that's what I led you to believe. Seriously, though, Andy, you want an advice?"
He nods bravely. "I'll take what I can get."
"If she begins to bring home Seventeen magazines, then it'd be the time for a girl-talk. Until then, reserve any radical actions."
He ponders the point. "Am I allow to at least think about radical actions?"
Nina smiles. "Thinking is free in this country."
She moves away when a customer impatiently asks for a glass of water, and watching her work, he oddly feels better.
He never had a friend, someone who he could call a true friend outside work. Her presence is stable, like a sofa in his living room, comfortable and reliable and always there. He wonders when he's let her slip into his simple life and become a part of it without a question. It must have been out of necessity -- someone had to teach him how to use the laundry machine without breaking it. But now?
She has made his life a little easier, a little happier.
He's not sure if it's entirely welcome.
The phone call comes a day late. She only half listens.
That night she reads Sam the books he got from the festival and tucks him into bed. After he's fast asleep, she goes out to the kitchen, staring at his drawing.
It has to mean something.
He stares at the pink dress in the laundry basket. It's smeared with dark stain that he presumes to be from ice cream, probably chocolate. He can't remember when Julia bought this for Delia. He cannot ask.
"You seem morose," Nina comments over the shared morning coffee session.
Andy forces a smile onto his face. "Just thinking."
"Ah," she says.
He tilts his head. "'Ah'?"
"As in 'Ah, he's now going through examine-how-you-lived-your-life session.'"
All right, so women definitely do read minds. Andy tries not to gape.
"It's the weather," she explains, then smiles faintly at his expression. "Really, it is. So, what is it? Do you miss being a surgeon?"
He shakes his head. "No, I wouldn't change what I have now with anything else in the world."
"Yet?" her voice is soft, gentle, never pushing.
"Yet, the normalcy, the simplicity..." It's not ease he feels from them, not anymore, and there's no comfort. "I guess this is loneliness," he finishes lamely.
Nina seems to understand. "You have Delia and Ephram."
"You have Carl and Sam."
"I have Sam," she concedes.
He stops, looks up. He's not surprised at what he's hearing, but at that she is telling him this.
There's a little self-deprecating smile on her face. "You're possibly the most intelligent man in this town. What does it say about the husband who never comes home?"
They are honest with each other, but it doesn't mean she tells him anything that really matters. She has not said a single bad word about Carl, yet he knows by now how her expression changes when Sam looks for his daddy, and it's not the one of happiness. "I'm probably not intelligent enough for that question," he says, finally.
She looks away. "What does it say about the wife who does not just pack the bag and follow him?"
"You love this town, and Sam needs a stable environment." He hates the doctornese in his tone, but it's at least familiar, easy to fall back to, and it's the only thread he can hang on to right now. Cowardly, but there it is.
She smiles, knowingly. "At least we have the kids."
They don't talk about the fact that their children will soon grow up and there might be nothing left except this simplicity, this normalcy that is never normal. Instead, Nina begins to talk about the pancakes in shape of cactus, and he knows this topic has ended. Just as well, because he isn't sure what he can tell her.
She tucks a strand of stray hair behind her ear. He notices her hand that does not remind him of Julia's. Not as delicate, not as gracious. This is the hand of a mother and a waitress. Strong, agile, and yet again, delicate. When their eyes meet, she smiles faintly.
The frightening part is, when every little thing in the world still reminds him of Julia, Nina, somehow, doesn't.
He will not think about this.
The gifts arrive two days later, via FedEx. She restrains the urge to throw them into garbage. She lies to Sam ("The mailman made a mistake so it arrived a little late, but we shouldn't blame him, right? After all, he has to make a lot of runs."), opens them with him, and says all the right, appropriate things when Carl calls her that night.
Now she knows which is worse.
It's the silence of the house that greets her when she wakes up at night.
His son is inspecting his new collection of manga with all the concentration in the world. At least Andy remembered to knock this time.
"Delia tells me Amy invited both of you for her birthday party," Andy comments offhandedly, picking up the strewn comic -- or manga, as his son heatedly corrects him -- books without real interest.
Doesn't work, however. "Not going," Ephram answers curtly, his eyes not leaving his precious manga about some futuristic bounty hunters.
"Delia's dying to go."
"She can go by herself."
"You know she won't."
"Well, she will have to."
This is going to be difficult. Andy swallows annoyance. "So you don't want to go."
Ephram contemplates for a moment or two before answering, "I do."
"Then why won't you go?" Andy asks, feeling like the most impotent father alive.
"Because I want to go."
There has to be some kind of logic there. Andy struggles to find it and almost grasps it. When he does, however, his son does not ask for his advice.
Andy thinks about the pink dress and Ephram's hard, determined expression.
His children have grown up, and he hasn't even been there to witness it.
This does not necessarily have to be shared. This sort of thinking, dark and elusive and definitely not that healthy, is better kept to himself. He used to keep them all to himself. He can do this.
But he is no longer capable of not sharing. Not any more. So after work, his steps inevitably lead to the house next door.
Her living room is clustered. Boxes everywhere. Flowers. Balloons. Nina is staring at them with an odd expression.
"From Carl?" He remembers that Nina's husband sends her gift whenever he's in a different state. "Where is he now?" he ventures a guess, "Disneyland?"
She turns to him, snapping out from whatever odd mood she seems to be in. "No, he's in Seattle. These are for..."
She doesn't have to finish, because he sees several birthday cards on top of the TV. "It was your birthday?" One look at her face, and he knows the answer. Guilt is probably marked on his face like stigmata right now, and he feels incredibly bad. "Oh, I'm sorry. We didn't even know."
She smiles, slightly admonishing in tone, "Andy, you're not supposed to worry about that. It's not your responsibility."
"I feel like such a bad neighbor. I didn't even know, and I have this feeling you probably have my kids' birthdays all written down somewhere."
"Only because I have a bad memory," she says lightly.
He smiles back apologetically. "Let me make it up to you."
"Oh, seriously Andy, don't worry about it. You don't owe me anything."
"I do," he says, and it's true. "I owe you a lot."
"At least a movie and a dinner. Then we're even."
They are silent almost immediately. There was something wrong in what he's said.
But why should it be?
She reaches for him, "Andy--"
He catches her hand, stares at it for a moment. It looks delicate, yet, still, it in no way reminds him of Julia's. He can't understand why.
He is not thinking about what he is doing. He won't, because she has made his life a little easier, a little happier.
And now, a little harder.
Maybe it's not so simple any more.
"I left something on the stove," she says, after a long moment. She untangles her hand slowly from his and disappears into the kitchen.
When he walks out without a backward glance, he catches a glimpse of himself on the mirror. He sees a man wearing a look of someone who has just ruined one of very few good things he had.
You are living a lie, he thinks.
She puts down the kettle from the stove. She doesn't turn around when the door closes and the echoing sound of the footsteps disappears.
Sam has drawn another picture, this time of the blue sky and green mountains, no stick figures that represent him or his parents. This one replaces the one on the refrigerator spot.
She is strangely relieved.
The joint dinner sessions are carried on as usual, with polite smiles and laughs shared with their children.
One unremarkable evening, he finds her in the porch. They listen to Ephram's piano and the younger children's chatter in compatible silence.
She does not make any excuses. She does not say, I love Carl.
Instead, she says, "I'm not Julia Brown."
"I know that."
"Do you?" Her question is quiet, yet it is loud enough for him to be shaken by it.
He cannot think of an answer, because he does know that Nina is, in fact, not Julia Brown, and of course that is the source of the problem. Because if he does answer, everything will become clear. And that is not what he can have. Not in exchange for the pink dress and his son's hard, grown-up expression. The impossibility of this situation is not even ironic.
After a moment, after another of her faint smile that isn't really there, she leaves.
Spring is around the corner. Things have to be done. Winter clothes to be packed in, summer ones to be taken out. Blankets. Bed sheets. Laundries. Vacuuming. The garden. The flowers begin to bloom. The lawn to be mowed. The gutter and the drains to be cleaned.
The spring rain slips into her roof. A leak. She watches the stains on the floor and the walls with despair.
Andy inspects the damages with her. "Wow."
She sighs. "I know. I'm wishing I could just move into a new house."
He checks the wallpapers that are completely wet. Then the carpet. "You know, maybe that's not a bad idea, moving into a new house rather than fixing all this."
If it isn't a bad idea, then what is it?
"It is," she says, even though it might not be. Even though it doesn't have to be.
It will not happen.
"Yes," he agrees after a long moment. "I guess it is."
Andy fixes her rooftop, as if it's just something to be done, without making a big deal out of it, without anything in return.
She watches him and thinks that the little things are the ones to pay attention, to take joy in, these little things.
She imagines that she has more than the silence of her own house.
But she doesn't.