I'd told Dave everything—my dad's drinking, my mom's fragility—and Dave was sensitive, nonjudgmental, insightful. His first wife was a severely disabled schizophrenic: the bar for normal behavior was set reassuringly low. Whenever I called home to check on my parents, Dave held my hand while I shouted into the phone. He even talked to my father a few times. We'd been dating only a few months, and I was temporarily living in another state, but Dave and his sons felt like my family.
Everything was all planned out. My father lived by the airport: we'd drive by his house and the boys could go for a swim in his pool; we'd have a quick lunch. Fred would want to toast to something, so we'd have drinks, play cards, then go up to my mom's for dinner. She was making a roast, shrimp, four vegetables— corn, green beans, beets, carrots—and pies. "I know midwestern men," she'd said. "And I know you don't make pies yourself, Heather. Men like pie. I know you don't like for me to tell you helpful little things, but it wouldn't hurt for you to learn a pie or two."
We'd spend the night at my mom's house. She was setting up pallets for the boys on her living room floor. I'd assured her Dave wouldn't mind a cot in her study; I'd be happy in the guest room. The next day, we planned to take her to Disney World with us. I could see us on the Mad Hatter teacups, spinning, screaming our heads off, ecstatic. The Mad Hatter had been my favorite ride when I was a kid, and later, when I worked at Disney. No ups and downs, no scary things jumping out at you as you churned through dark water tunnels with strangers. You just spun.
Then maybe the boys would go swim in the Atlantic while I stole away to give my speech on the writing process. My speaking engagement was how we were paying for the trip, but I was keeping the talk a secret from my mother: I didn't want her to come.
The last time she'd seen me speak in public was when I was a graduate student and she visited a class I was teaching on Hemingway's short fiction. She'd promised to sit quietly in the back, but she raised her hand anyway. "Didn't Booth Tarkington sell more copies that year? By a long shot?" That evening, she supplied me with a numbered list of twenty-three items "to work on." Make more eye contact. Learn the students' names. She'd tallied the number of times I'd said um.
I felt bad about it, but I didn't want my mother in my world. I was never sure what she would do.
Dave felt it was important I work hard on getting along with her, let her have her way. "She's seventy-three years old," he kept reminding me. "Value the little time left."
So we'd have quality time with her, I'd do the speech in Winter Park on the sly, then I'd take the boys and Dave to my twentieth high school reunion. Dave felt this was too much for one trip, but to me it felt like success, redemption. I wanted my parents and my entire high school to see that everything was okay, that I'd turned out great. Anyway, to be around my parents, we needed a schedule, plenty to do. We had to keep moving. This was the extent of my worry. I was proud of this handsome man who was in love with me, and I was in love with his kids, whose grades had gone from Ds to mostly Bs since I'd come into their lives. As the four of us walked into the airport together, I felt, for the first time in my life, normal.