Her eyelashes could be longer, Danielle mused as she stared into the mirror and covered the brittle hairs in black mascara. But this had always been the case. What had changed as she approached thirty bothered her most: wrinkles that didn’t disappear after she furrowed her brow; blonde hair less lustrous and bouncy than it had been; lips that stayed light pink and chapped more often than she’d like; chin hairs damned and determined not to be plucked, sometimes white, sometimes grey, tricky hairs—flaws she could remove or cover up, and Danielle did. In her early twenties the mirror smiled back at her, but now the woman in the mirror averted her eyes like a mistress confronted by the wife.
Critical, Danielle. So critical. Her ex-husband of a month had often called her this when they were not happily married. Misery limbo is what she termed it. He refused to go with her to marriage counseling because, Danielle concluded, he didn’t want to hear her definition of misery limbo. That place where he didn’t touch her, glance at her, tell her kind words. That place where no sex for seven months was the norm, and when it did happen, Jefferson acted like he was on a treadmill marathon. Their married friends never suspected a fissure. “It all seemed well,” they’d admit later when they scheduled dinners with Jefferson and Danielle separately. Danielle and Jefferson were excellent at playing nice in front of friends and family, but even then he rarely held her hand or put his arm around her.
Marriage counseling, she had said when Jefferson stopped yelling that morning at the mountain cabin, their final day of the week long getaway sponsored by his law firm. Danielle had been so drunk that she passed out on his partner. Naked. She would’ve never slept with Brett if Jefferson hadn’t ignored her so much. Danielle wanted to take it back, but she also wanted to take back all the years of loneliness in her marriage. Divorce, replied Jefferson the divorce lawyer. He couldn’t work with his partner anymore. He drew up the papers and filed them away in a matter of six months. During that time he started at Broderick and White. Six months later Danielle and Jefferson were officially divorced. After seven years, counting the first two years of dating and engagement at the University of Virginia, she had finished a marriage. It sounded like an achievement. Like finishing the Appalachian Trail.
Danielle still thought of Jefferson because they shared custody of Brian, their four-legged child and the only remaining connection between them. Neither party wanted to give up the golden retriever, though Danielle debated about giving up custody as conciliation. But she couldn’t bear it. The dog had been her only companion when Jefferson went to work at 7 AM and returned at 11 PM. The dog ate dinner with her and snuggled in the bed. She needed Brian, so they shuffled him between homes every other week. As Danielle finished applying her makeup in the tiny bathroom of her one bedroom apartment—she did miss her steam shower and Jacuzzi tub in the home she owned with Jefferson—the dog rested at her feet.
Her iPhone, resting on the toilet lid, chimed. She had three new voice messages: the first, from Andrew, said, “Hey there, Sweets. I’ll swing by in an hour to pick you up. Be ready with a kiss. I’ve got the rest.” Danielle smiled as she cradled the phone and glanced at the digital clock on her nightstand. If they left in exactly one hour that would put them home in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, right at supper time. The second message, from Jefferson, followed with, “Danielle. It’s Jefferson. I’m picking up Brian in thirty minutes. I know you’re headed out of town with that guy. It’s not any of my business, but Kara told me some about him and how old he is but—well—look never mind. I’ll be there shortly.” Danielle’s palms began to itch and her face flushed red. Jefferson had no right to speak about her personal life anymore. And now she’d lost another friend. How could Kara talk about meeting Andrew behind her back? She hung up the phone, and it chimed, reminding her she had one last voice message.
Seeing her ex-husband never did anything good for Danielle’s self-esteem, but she did feel better once she slipped into the Vera Wang dress and Manolo Blahnik shoes Andrew gave her last week. He was an excellent gift giver, and though Jefferson could afford to, he never bought lavish presents for her. Things are no replacement for time, but if he had nothing else to give, Danielle would’ve happily accepted these things in place of his company. Except for adopting the dog, Jefferson never attempted to make up for his absence in their relationship. But Andrew had the time and the money for these random acts of kindness.
Danielle sat on the balcony of her apartment overlooking the parked cars, and beyond that, streets busy with Charlotte school buses. She couldn’t trust anyone, Danielle decided. She thought the dinner at Kara’s and Doug’s had gone well. Andrew brought multiple bottles of limited edition Bordeaux wine from Chateau La Conseillante, and they drank it up, gladly, and they laughed at his stories and by the end said they hoped to see him again. But Danielle wasn’t totally surprised by Kara. When they had walked in holding hands, as she and Jefferson had never done, Kara first looked at Andrew and her mouth turned downward like a slingshot and she continued slicing a mozzarella ball and let Doug do all the welcoming. Kara seemed gracious throughout the evening and seemed genuinely interested in the entrepreneurial ventures that had made Andrew millions. Kara’s little hair bow making business didn’t operate past the first year. So who was Kara to judge? Andrew made Danielle happy. Why did an age discrepancy matter?
Jefferson parked his new silver Lexus under a blooming dogwood tree. Probably a gift to himself for finalizing the divorce. He didn’t get out immediately, and she wondered who he was talking to on his cell phone. She said, “Come on, Brian, Jefferson’s here.” Brian did not rise, a sign of his devotion to her. Or a sign of his confusion since in the past she called Jefferson “Daddy.” Danielle gave Brian a nudge with her ballet flat. Shortly thereafter Jefferson knocked on the door and Danielle opened it. No matter how often she had to see him, it still annoyed her that he was so good looking. He had a perfect jaw line and a stately brow. Thick brown hair and dreamy blue eyes. Not a visible wrinkle, not a single grey hair. If only his face would start to defy him, as Danielle’s had.
Without removing his Ray-Bans, Jefferson kneeled down and said, “Come here, Buddy,” with arms wide open, and Brian did not hesitate. Traitor. Jefferson had always been so affectionate with the dog as if human flesh was less desirable. Jefferson’s a robot. A kog. An uncreative bag of bones. These little coping phrases helped her maneuver the brief exchanges with him. Jefferson stood up with Brian in his arms. Danielle handed him the dog’s bag for the week.
“Are his pills in here?”
“Yes,” said Danielle.
“Great,” Jefferson said. “How’s work?”
Danielle hesitated. “Fine,” she said, though she had been passed over for a promotion as head of development with their biggest client yet. Her plans for the new uptown night club “didn’t have as much energy” as Rick’s. Rick designed everything inspired by French Moroccan. He had such limited range. But that’s what the clients wanted. “Everything’s fine,” she added.
“Have a good time at your folk’s,” Jefferson said.
“Oh, Andrew and I will,” she said. If he winced at the sound of another man’s name, she couldn’t tell since he refused to take off his sunglasses. Her parents approved of Jefferson, and she wasn’t sure how they’d react to Andrew. Danielle couldn’t be sure of anything. Sureness, surety, security—all she had relied on, all had failed her. Jefferson was her soul mate, she had been sure, and their marriage would last a lifetime, like her parents, she was sure, and though his affection might change, Jefferson wouldn’t stop adoring her, she was sure. She had been so sure of the vows, of the clarity. The holy matrimony. And what had it gotten her?
Jefferson attached the leash to Brian and whistled to get him moving. He seemed happier, and neither of them looked back. Danielle shut the door.
Andrew arrived at her apartment, punctual as ever. He chose the black convertible BMW for their weekend getaway home. Danielle wasn’t sure how Moncks Corner would react, but she didn’t care what other people thought of her anymore. A year ago she had called to reveal her divorce to her parents, and immediately her mother placed Danielle on the prayer list at church. Talk spread like poison ivy. Danielle cheated on her husband, Danielle lost her handsome lawyer husband, Danielle moved out of her fancy mansion, and so on and so on in Brenda’s Beauty Parlor and Edward’s Eatery on Main Street, places her parents didn’t visit anymore. What could Andrew and a convertible possibly do to her reputation now?
When Danielle opened the door for Andrew, he rushed in and hugged and kissed her, just as he said he would. “You look fantastic,” he said after he released her. He opened Danielle’s arms and motioned for her to twirl. She did. He leaned against the back of her leather couch, the one she had purchased on her own before she joined finances with Jefferson. It was an emblem of her independence, a survivor of the marriage and divorce.
“You are just so stunning, Dannie,” Andrew said. She wasn’t fond of the nickname, but she never corrected him, hoping it would grow on her. “You’re luminous, really.” Andrew loved poetry. Blake, Whitman, Eliot, Dickinson: unexplored territory for Danielle. He quoted lines for her, and his passion made him more alive than most people she knew. So what if his upper body had little definition and his hair was more salt than pepper? None of it bothered her. He absorbed a room with his fiery energy, and that was handsome.
“Are your bags ready?” he asked as he bent down to pick up the Louis Vuitton luggage he gave her last month. An April present, for it is the cruelest month, he had said.
“Mathilde booked us a bed and breakfast in downtown Charleston,” Andrew said and walked out of her apartment. Danielle’s parents probably expected them to stay at their house. Her mother would be disappointed, but since their two bedroom ranch was so cramped, Danielle assured herself it would be better this way. She’d just explain it to them when they got there.
Andrew added, “Mathilde swears by this place.” Andrew smiled back at Danielle. His Parisian house manager had great taste. She had helped Andrew pick out all of Danielle’s monthly presents, of course, but that didn’t make the gifts less thoughtful. Just more chic.
On 77 South riding away from Charlotte and listening to the Rolling Stones, Danielle thought about Andrew before she knew him, about how he lived and worked out of his mother’s old Volvo station wagon before he made his millions designing interfaces and chips. Mathilde first came to Danielle’s work place to remodel Andrew’s kitchen and wine cellar, and afterward, Danielle scheduled a home visitation to discuss Andrew’s ideas in person. She had been inside many beautiful homes in Charlotte, but nothing quite as grand as Andrew’s. Driving through the gate, Danielle thought of Bruce Wayne and wondered if they’d meet in the bat cave.
Andrew took the meeting in his library, and as he drank whiskey and smoked a joint, he explained his vision for the new kitchen. Clean, modern lines. Minimal. “Really, it’s just a project to keep my house manager busy,” he admitted. Danielle smiled politely and wondered why he referred to his very attractive French mistress as his house manager. “She just manages the house. Why does every woman in a man’s house have to be his mistress? Why can’t she just be an employee?” Andrew said after Danielle denied his invitation to dinner and cited Mathilde as her reason not to go. Once convinced, she agreed to a date, though this decision disqualified her from his remodeling project. After their first dinner together, he tied her up and they had great sex. Five months later, they were headed home.
Two and a half hours later on the two lane road into Moncks Corner, they drove with the top down and Danielle could reach the Spanish moss hanging from the trees. The air smelled of honey suckle and sand, and the grass looked like straw. They passed raised houses with large porches and swings on both ends and ceiling fans overhead. She hadn’t been home since she brought Jefferson to meet her parents, yet when she returned, she was still ten-years-old riding her pink Schwinn down Marsh Lane.
Andrew said, “This place is so quaint. I love the coast.” He was originally from nowhere Ohio, so he didn’t know much about the South except that he loved the weather. Danielle smiled and stroked the coarse hair on the back of his hand. It was harder taking Jefferson home that first time, especially after they visited his parents’ home first. The Donalds had a modern house on a horse farm in Tennessee with hundreds of acres, a lake, a tennis court, and campgrounds. Danielle didn’t grow up like Jefferson. Though Andrew now had more money than any of them could imagine, he grew up poor and started his business from his car and this made him less intimidating. Danielle hoped her parents would feel the same about him.
Andrew followed the GPS directions to Marsh Lane. He pulled the BMW behind her father’s Ford truck, and when Danielle stepped out of the car, her stiletto wobbled in the sandy driveway. She looked up at the live oak she named Libby, and it was so much fuller than she remembered, and beyond its branches, plants sprouted from the gutters and the trim peeled away from the house. When Andrew had asked about her childhood home, she talked of fruiting fig trees, blueberry bushes, and lemon meringue pies on the counters in the kitchen. A small house, but cozy, she promised.
The warm and open-armed reception she had imagined dissolved when no one answered her knocks at the screen door leaning on one hinge, or her calls as she navigated through their home with Andrew trailing behind her. Clutter choked the hallway and staircase—stacks of magazines, shoes, pencils, old check books. She remembered her parents’ room being messy, but nothing like this. Was this the right house? Had they moved? Surely they would’ve briefed her when she called. The air was humid and smelled like turnip greens. As she approached the den, Andrew tripped on a stack of old phone books and said, “Whoa,” loud enough that her parents muted the TV and her father said, “Who’s there?”
“It’s just me, Papa.”
Her mother shouted, “Danielle, that’s you?”
Danielle opened the accordion door leading into the den, and her mother sat in one rocking chair in a purple Moo Moo dress she’d had before Danielle was born and her father reclined in the Lay Z Boy with the remote on his chest like a dead turtle. “Hi,” she said, and her mother put aside her needlepoint and stood up.
“Did you call and I missed it?” she said. “The phone doesn’t always work like it used to.”
“No, Mama,” she said. “I just thought you’d remember we were coming like I told you on Wednesday.”
“We remembered,” her father said. His bald head had more brown sun spots and less white hair than Danielle recalled. He pushed his chair upright and stood. “Jefferson,” her father said and extended his hand to Andrew.
Quickly Danielle said, “No, Papa. This is Andrew. Mama, this is Andrew.”
“Oh, OK,” her father said and squinted as if staring into the sun. They shook hands.
Andrew said, “It’s really a pleasure to be here. Dannie’s told me so much about you both.”
Sitting in his chair, her father furrowed his brow, as if trying to figure out what Dannie this stranger referred to.
“Is that right?” her mother said and she sat back down. With a smile she added, “Danielle hasn’t visited in so long, I can’t imagine what she’d tell you.”
Danielle removed all the newspapers from the couch and she motioned for Andrew to sit next to her. She tucked the stuffing back into the hole at the corner.
“You look nice,” her mother said.
“Thank you. Andrew gave this dress to me as a present.”
“I thought so,” Danielle said and smiled at Andrew.
Her father stared at them both and then finally asked, “Are you a lawyer, too?”
“No, sir,” Andrew said. “I’m not a three piece suit kind of man.”
“What kind of man are you?” her father said.
Andrew looked at his hands and then said, “Just a creative business type, you could say.”
“I don’t know what that is,” her mother added. “Sounds nice though.”
Danielle had seen her parents happier, more jovial before. The one time she brought Jefferson home they offered Cokes and Lays. Danielle said, “We’re not staying tonight, Mama, so I hope you didn’t go through any trouble. We have reservations in Charleston.”
“I figured,” her mother said and tucked her dress behind her legs. Her ankles were swollen.
No fuss. No negotiation. She wasn’t exactly sure what she had expected from them, but this wasn’t it. Danielle said, “What’s for supper?”
Her father said, “We can have hotdogs.”
“I could boil those quick,” her mother said.
“Why don’t we take you to dinner?” Andrew said.
Danielle closed her eyes and waited for them to deny his offer. She had wanted to come home because Andrew asked about her childhood, and as she tried to recall it for him, she began to miss swimming in the lakes with the alligators and eating the oysters her father roasted and helping her mother wash off their lab, now dead, after he rolled in mud. It wasn’t Andrew’s idea. She had pushed for it. He was more than happy to go, but she didn’t have a specific reason. Maybe Danielle just wanted to show her parents who she was after Jefferson. They didn’t know who she was with Jefferson since instead of visiting her parents, they always went to Tennessee. It was more comfortable there.
“OK,” her father said to Andrew. Danielle opened her eyes.
“I’ve got to change and drop off my canned relish for the bazaar on Sunday,” her mother said, “but then we can go.”
“Sure,” Andrew said. “Whenever you’re ready, we’ll follow you.”
Her mother left the room and her father swiveled in his chair just in time to see the hunter on his favorite television program point a rifle at a buck. He shot the animal in its skull and its front legs kicked out straight as if leaping over a fence. The camera shook and the hunter threw up his fist in triumph.
Andrew counted how many churches they passed on the way to Main Street. Then he tallied how many were Baptist, one of which Danielle attended when she was younger. “Seven Baptist churches,” Andrew said as they idled in the parking lot. Her mother, who had changed into a yellow skirt and blue blouse, trailed behind her father who carried a flat of jarred cucumber relish into the church. Her mother’s signature at the bazaar. “I didn’t think there were enough people living here to fill that many churches.”
“You’d be surprised,” Danielle said. “They all emerge on Sunday mornings.”
He laughed and said, “I don’t doubt it.” He drummed his hands on the steering wheel.
Andrew was so patient and so positive, considering her father called him by her ex-husband’s name and didn’t even apologize. “I’m sorry,” Danielle said.
“For how they are.”
“They’re your parents. You don’t need to apologize,” Andrew said. “They’re just trying to figure out your new life.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek.
“A better life,” Danielle said.
They followed her parents’ truck to The Palmetto, the only restaurant with dinner specials and salads with blue cheese and nuts. Her mother’s suggestion. Her parents had never taken her there before, but in high school Danielle saved up her babysitting money and treated her friends to four course meals. Danielle stepped out of Andrew’s car and waited for her parents to mosey over to the restaurant entrance. Her father sported a smile on his tanned and wrinkled face to the other townspeople walking out of The Palmetto, the people who knew him as their neighborhood postal carrier for thirty years, but he didn’t once smile at Danielle.
Andrew held the door open for her parents and Danielle thanked him. Inside, the smell of fried okra and collards permeated the fresh air trailing behind them. Andrew said, “Smells good.”
The young hostess smiled and then asked, “How many?”
“That’ll be four,” Andrew said, and Danielle’s father nodded at the waitress.
“Follow me,” the waitress said and turned to escort them, her blonde braid falling down her back.
“Ladies first,” Andrew said.
After Danielle’s father held out the chair for her mother, Andrew did the same for Danielle. They sat next to a wall of mounted rainbow trout. Complimentary biscuits came first from a bus boy, and then the waitress arrived. She had a head full of tight curls and her pudgy arms overflowed from her black button up t-shirt. “Mr. and Mrs. Jennings, so good to see you two,” the waitress said and put a hand on her mother’s shoulder.
“You too,” her mother replied. They were so familiar, as if her parents were regulars.
The waitress looked at Danielle with big eyes and said, “That is you Danielle. I thought so. You look so different.”
“You too,” Danielle said and smiled, though she couldn’t place her. Did they go to school together? Church? She looked so much older than Danielle.
“And is this your husband? I don’t think I ever met him,” she said and hugged her notepad to her chest. “I’m Tiffany. Danielle lived right around the corner from me. So nice to meet you.”
“I’m Andrew,” he said.
Her father said, “That’s not her husband,” a little more loudly than Danielle had wanted. When he turned his head to the side to check the other tables, Danielle saw a brown hearing aid in his ear. He’d never worn one before, not that she could remember anyway. Her mother patted his forearm.
“Well, OK,” Tiffany said. “What would you folks like to drink tonight?”
Waters for Andrew and Danielle. Diet Cokes for her parents. “Be right back,” she said. Her father sliced open a biscuit and buttered it. Her mother did the same.
“You’ve been married before, Andrew?” her mother said in the sweetest voice to blanket her obviously probing question.
“No, Mrs. Jennings, I have not,” he said. He straightened his silverware.
“Why not?” her father said.
“Haven’t had the opportunity, Sir,” Andrew said.
“You know Danielle’s been married before, I assume,” her mother said, and then she bit into her biscuit.
Danielle interrupted: “Yes, Mother, of course he knows about Jefferson.”
“He was such a nice boy,” her mother said to no one in particular.
Danielle said, “We’ll need to change the subject.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” her mother added, and when Tiffany returned with water, Danielle drank half a glass.
Her parents ordered the fried catfish special with greens and macaroni and cheese, and Danielle and Andrew ordered the crab stuffed red snapper with green beans and salad.
Andrew said, “Mrs. Jennings, how does a bazaar work exactly?”
God bless Andrew. Her mother could talk for an hour straight about church functions. And as her mother talked about fig preserves and scuppernong grapes, Danielle could see her mother, twenty years younger, standing at her foldout table in a white dress and floppy straw hat, directing all the bazaar goers to the tables that would interest them most. She took her duties as president seriously. “It’s what a woman does,” she explained to Danielle, who at ten loved going to the bazaar just so she could escape into the pine woods surrounding the church and play tag and spin the bottle with dirty brown longnecks buried under the brush. What her mother really meant to say was, “It’s what a wife does.” Her parents had wanted that life for her. But the divorce and a man like Andrew guaranteed she’d never have a life like theirs.
After the blessing, her mother continued to talk as they ate catfish and red snapper, and her father spoke only once after Danielle asked if his dinner was good. “It is,” he said and continued to dismantle the fish before him.
Danielle’s mother finished her dinner last since she occupied them so long with her conversation. Tiffany finally cleared her plate, and Andrew asked for one check.
“You don’t need to do that,” her father said to Andrew.
“But I’m buying, Papa,” Danielle said.
When Tiffany returned, Danielle handed over her card without glancing at the check.
“That’s so sweet of you, Honey, but you didn’t have to,” her mother said.
“I want to.”
A few minutes later Tiffany returned with the black booklet and said, “Now, I’m sure this is just our machine being finicky, but do you have another card, Danielle, cause this one won’t go through?”
Danielle accepted her card back and said, “I just used my card yesterday.”
“Oh, I’m sure. The machine is wonky sometimes. I can try another card.”
Blood pooled in Danielle’s cheeks. She hadn’t brought any credit cards for the trip. She looked at her father who brushed away crumbs at his place setting and her mother who folded her napkin in different patterns. These matters had always made them uncomfortable. She never once heard them discuss money growing up. And this was just another reason for them to be embarrassed of who Danielle had become. Danielle said, “I don’t actually have another card. I’m sorry. Could you try my card one more time?”
Andrew said, “That’s not necessary, really.” He handed Tiffany cash and asked for no change.
Tiffany left without answering Danielle. “Will you excuse me?” Danielle said and walked out of the restaurant.
Outside Danielle sat on a white iron bench and called the 800 number on the back of her debit card. She hit 0 immediately to speak with customer service. Finally, after Danielle answered security questions, the woman asked how she could help. Danielle said, “My card was just declined at a restaurant in South Carolina even though I know my funds are sufficient.”
“It looks like someone made a few large charges on your account in Seoul, South Korea, and we left a message to notify you that we froze your account temporarily. You need to speak to the fraudulent claims department. I can transfer you.”
“Thank you,” Danielle said.
Someone in the world was walking around as Danielle Jennings and spending her money and Danielle could only wonder why they’d want to be her. Why would anyone want to claim her life? Her parents didn’t treat her like their daughter. It had been five years since she last came home to introduce them to Jefferson, and she thought they’d be happy to have her back and be a family again. But she was unwanted. Danielle was so tired of being rejected.
While the elevator music played, Andrew and her parents walked outside of The Palmetto. “Everything OK?” Andrew said, and Danielle closed her cell phone. She’d deal with the fraud department after the weekend.
Danielle stood up and took Andrew’s arm. “Just a mix up on the account. Someone stole my identity, but the bank took care of it.”
Her father looked right into Danielle’s eyes and said, “That’s how your life is now, I guess.” His words were as exact as a leveler, and she believed right then and there that he had changed, that he disapproved of her and just didn’t like her.
Andrew said, “Fraud is pretty common these days.”
“Well, you two better get going to Charleston,” her mother said. “It was very nice to meet you, Andrew, and thank you for dinner.”
“Nice to meet you,” Andrew said to her father and they shook hands.
Her mother patted Danielle on the back and said, “I know you’ve got a busy life, but don’t be such a stranger.”
Her father escorted her mother to his truck without saying goodbye to Danielle, as if she was someone he’d stumbled upon in a restaurant he frequented once. At his funeral six months later, Danielle would sit in the pew beside her mother, without Andrew, and she wouldn’t remember how her father raced her around the yard in a wheelbarrow or how he taught her to skin a rabbit but only of that last day she saw him, and how it all unfurled, how he so feebly shuffled away without embracing her. If only she’d known about his weak body or the pneumonia to come, Danielle could’ve visited them more often, she could’ve apologized for leaving and never wanting to return. She might’ve spoken to him one last time and explained how she’d become the woman she was in a way he could accept, and her last memory could’ve been of his kind words and not his disappointment.