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The Ardors

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Briana and I fell in love young. We were both still in high school and we were each other’s first. It felt like life was bright and full of meaning, and we had a whole world of possibilities in front of us. She was blonde, beautiful, and loved to have fun. We married at nineteen without a dollar to our names, but it didn’t matter. I was starting a computer programming degree and she was working as a hostess at the Far Harbor restaurant. A year later, she became pregnant and I couldn’t believe how happy I was every second of every day. That was about when my whole world fell apart for the first time.

I found her with him. I will never forget how humiliating, how shattering it felt to come early to our apartment, having left class sick, and hear her moaning as Taylor Ardor had his way with her. Taylor was a waiter at the Far Harbor, a guy I had only met once. He was tall, strong-looking. It wasn’t hard for him to seduce my wife. She always did go with her gut and throw caution to the wind. And now he was with Briana while she was already big with a child that I no longer knew was mine.

He didn’t even have the decency to pretend he was afraid. He just casually pulled himself upright, found his clothes, and left at a slow saunter, pushing past me with the words, “Hey, it is what it is, man.”

I knew the baby was Taylor’s the moment she was born. She had his blue eyes. I despised her for looking at me with his blue eyes. It wasn’t until years later that the paternity test confirmed what we all already knew. But first Briana and I had to go through the awful, hateful, drawn out process of sorting through the blame until our mutual resentment and recriminations broughts us to an inevitable divorce. I was too much of a little boy, she told me. I never grew up or manned up. She moved in with Taylor immediately and took Miranda, his daughter, with her. They married soon after, about the same time I was finishing my degree.

I was drunk on a Wednesday, sitting in a cloud of self-hatred when I first saw Marion. She was behind the bar, asking if I wanted another beer. She was a brunette, pretty, with glasses and a tattoo of a half-open door on her shoulder. But it was her forearms and clothes that struck me the most. They were covered in small splotches of clay and paint. That, along with her tomboyish demeanor made her seem like a Rosie the Riveter type character come from working the construction site. As I would learn later, she had just arrived from the studio to do her “job” job behind the bar. She was a potter, maker of elaborate and colorful pieces of ceramic artwork that never ceased to impress me. Every time Marion showed me a new piece, it was like she had just created life with her two clay-stained hands.

We didn’t mean to conceive, but she was pregnant within a year. We hurried to get married before our son was born, but the hurry was mostly because of how crazy in love we were. And as our boy, Montana, grew like a weed, our lives grew together just as fast. I took a job as a software pendik escort coder and her ceramics slowly became a regional sensation. Soon she was showing her pieces all up the east coast where they brought in hundreds of dollars each, and my company was bought out by Vale Computing, causing the value of my stock to blow through the stratosphere. It was the most unbelievable decade of my life as every year brought new and unexpected triumphs.

But the one triumph we never seemed able to achieve was to give Monty a baby brother or sister. No matter what we tried, Marion couldn’t seem to become pregnant again. Then, on my thirty-fifth birthday, the doctor gave us the news that broke something inside me forever. Ovarian cancer, already spread to other parts of her beautiful, precious body.

It was like plunging into a void. I couldn’t see the way forward anymore. All the familiar landmarks were gone. And sometimes when the panic was at its worst it felt like I couldn’t even breathe. I went through the motions at work whenever I wasn’t sitting with Marion in a tiny aseptic hospital room. She lost her hair, then she lost her shape, gradually deflating like an air mattress with a pinhole somewhere in it. When Marion finally died she was too tired and spent to feel scared anymore.

For the next few years, the world felt like I was only experiencing it indirectly, as though someone else was breathing and walking and eating and writing code but I was just sitting numb inside myself, barely aware that any of it was happening. Montana started high school, I changed jobs and moved out of the house Marion and I had shared, and all of it passed without me paying much attention. Then on a hot day in late spring, Monty came home with a girl from school. He was a charming kid, and he had had little girlfriends before, but this one introduced herself as Casey Ardor. Something fizzed in my brain when I heard the name, and in that instant I woke up from a nap I must have been taking since Marion left. Casey Ardor. She was the daughter of Taylor and Briana Ardor. Well I’ll be damned.

Monty and Casey became very close over a long hot summer, spent eating strawberry popsicles and sitting together on the hood of the car he inherited from his mom. As a matter of course I ended up talking to Briana on the phone, eventually meeting her and her husband in an attempt to “set the record straight” or “make up for lost time” or whatever it was. Both she and Taylor had put on a lot of weight in the years since I’d last spoken to them, ballooning into comically unrecognizable forms. Amazingly they were still doing the same thing they were before: working at the Far Harbor restaurant. Taylor owned the place now, but its fortunes had waned a lot since the nineties. A place called the Brickhouse Grill had opened across the street and lured away most of their customers. I could see the lines of worry carving their faces and I smelled almost two decades of cigarettes hanging in the air between us. And, even though maltepe escort it seemed improbable, despite the long years of absence and despite Marion and despite Montana and despite seeing them at their lowest point, somehow I was able to hate them. It had been a long long time and I had forgotten, but now I remembered, and hating Taylor and Briana Ardor relit the fire in my guts. It gave me a reason to live again, and for that I couldn’t help but feel grateful.

Then came Miranda. I found her after work one day, playing video games with her younger sister and Monty on my living room couch. “Hi Mister Joplin!” she turned and said over her shoulder with a smile. “It’s nice to meet you. Again… I guess.” So even if she couldn’t remember, she knew the story. The girl I once thought was my daughter was now someone else entirely. As an infant she may have had Taylor’s distracted gaze, but as a young woman she occupied the same slender but shapely body her mother once had in another lifetime. I found myself seeing her in my dreams at night, putting my hands on her while she looked on with a wordless smirk, lifting Miranda up like she was a trophy in my arms that I had somehow earned.

Then one day soon afterward I came home to the sound of two people gasping in the throes of sex. For an instant I was standing in the doorway of the old apartment that Briana and I had shared, hearing Taylor grunting in my bed, feeling the anger and pure defeat flood through me all over again. But this was now, and what I was hearing was my son and Casey making love in his bedroom. A grin overtook my face. I waited silently until they came to a finale too full of unexplainable joy to be anything but that of kids, aroused despite myself. Then I quietly opened the front door again and slammed it hard enough to hear, dropped my briefcase and announced, “Monty, I’m home! Where are you? You finished with your homework?” It seemed a little too late for “the talk” with Montana anyway and I decided to let it slip my mind.

He came to me with his head hung low a few weeks later and broke with shaking and sobs when he told me Casey was pregnant and he didn’t know what to do. I pulled him to my chest, loving him as much as I’d loved anything in my entire life, and I told him I wanted nothing more than to welcome her and her child to our family.

Casey was already showing a little bit but wasn’t even all the way to her full belly yet when she came to my door with a black eye and a pink bookbag hastily filled with her clothes. Her dad had blasted into a rage when she told him, and Briana was too drunk to stop him. I didn’t even bother making her up a bed in the spare room, as I knew that wasn’t where she’d end up sleeping. She was Montana’s now, and he was hers. When my son saw the bruise on her face I had to wrestle him to the floor to stop him from flying out the door and killing Taylor Ardor right then.

Casey settled in, eating waffles with us in the mornings, filling a whole bathroom with her girl kartal escort things, and growing bigger by the week, and somewhere inside I knew that I had already won. If this whole thing was a game between myself and the Ardors then I had already put the score well beyond the point of any doubt. But there was one final victory lap I simply had to take.

Soon afterward Miranda came by again, to comfort her little sister and try to act as a go-between for Casey and her parents. Things were hard in the Ardor household just then. It took a little maneuvering, but I managed to get Monty and Casey out of the house during the fourth time Miranda came to visit. I surprised them with tickets to dinner and a show downtown, the perfect thing to take their minds off of all the discord their love had stirred up. When she knocked on the door expecting to find her sister, I told her I was sorry but they were out.

I offered Miranda a drink and she accepted. We sat across from each other, resting our elbows on the kitchen counter with dripping bottles of cherry soda in our hands, feeling even more natural with one another than I’d expected. Then she did something I never saw coming and pulled a little baggie of weed from her purse. It had been years since I’d smoked, a habit that Marion had turned me on to. But when Montana grew older and my wife and I grew up, we gradually stopped. Feeling the familiar burn of smoke flowing into my lungs, I couldn’t help but think that she was somewhere in this house, behind that corner maybe, quietly laughing at me and rolling her eyes while I tried to seduce an eighteen-year-old girl.

I took her around to the den while our high settled over us. I showed her the chair I still owned, the big wide easy chair where Marion used to rock back and forth on my lap when we were still trying to conceive, before everything else happened. Without meaning to, I told Miranda. A door flung wide in my heart, like the door Marion had marked on her shoulder, always hanging halfway open until now. I told her everything my heart still held that once was Marion’s while tears streamed down my cheeks. And Miranda looked at me with her father’s blue eyes knitted with curiosity and incomprehension. And she pushed me back into the chair and straddled me with her mother’s body now restored to its youth. And she whispered to me with a thoughtful compassion that I only then realized was somehow Marion’s own. As soon as I was in her it was clear I was exactly where I belonged. I lifted Miranda up high into the air and laid her softly down on the rug, then thrust through her with a lost abandon until I finished deep inside.

The three of us – Miranda, Montana, and me – stood side by side in the labor and delivery wing when we saw Casey with my granddaughter in her arms for the first time. I gripped both their hands as tight as I could when I heard her say the girl’s name. By that time, Miranda’s belly was already much too big not to notice. How in the world did I get here? What stupidly crooked road did I take? I asked myself that while I drove my family home from the hospital. Monty and Casey sat together in the back, cooing to their new baby. Miranda took my hand from the wheel and held it to her belly, and I felt our child move for the first time.

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