"This looks delicious!" Patty exclaimed as she took the fragrant Bundt cake from Veronica, who was wearing one of her hippie skirts, which swayed in time with her cascade of honey-hued hair and the musical stack of bangles on her arm. For years, her dearest, oldest friend had smelled like lavender and sounded like a wind chime, while Patty herself favored tailored yet flippy and flirty skirts and dresses, outfits she admired from the windows of Marshall Field's or the pages of Cosmopolitan, a magazine she tried to hide from her nine-going-
on-thirteen-year-old daughter, Karen.
"It felt like a gingerbread kind of day," said Veronica, and her friend's familiar smile was such a relief after the day she'd had.
It had started well enough. The morning had been cold and blue-sky crisp, and she and the kids had sung along to "I'll Be There" when it played on the radio as they drove to St. Thomas the Apostle. Then the four of them-Patty, Karen, Junie, and Tad-had crunched over the last of the fallen leaves from the car into the cathedral for Sunday mass. Matt had skipped today. He was doing that more and more recently, always using work as an excuse not to go to church, or the PTA cocktail party, or Karen's ballet mini-recitals. Patty was getting worried; he'd never checked out like this before, and she was constantly stopping herself from wondering, as she had during mass, what might be keeping him.
Once church was over, the many hours of the day had been a forced march of chores. It was impossible to overstate the relief Patty felt on welcoming Vee and Doug and Kate into her home; tears of relief needled her eyes. It had been so long since she'd seen Vee. Too long. More than a month, which was unusual for them.
Thankfully, Matt was also happy to see them, and the kids were always glad to add Kate to the mix. As the little ones ran off, Matt said to Doug, "Beer?"
"I need one after that game this afternoon," said Doug.
The Bears to the rescue. Patty was glad Matt could relax into some guy time, but . . . she missed him. There were no two ways about it.
Alone in the kitchen, Veronica said to Patty, "Are you okay?"
"Is it that obvious?" Only to such an old friend, I hope.
Patty didn't think they'd be friends now if she and Vee hadn't forged such a strong bond in that anemic seventh grade production of Macbeth, where the two of them had stolen the show from Rachel Livingston and Ben Milliken, cackling over their lobster pot of dry ice and scaring the bejeezus out of everybody when they chanted "Double, double, toil and trouble / fire burn and caldron bubble." Eighteen years later, Veronica and Doug lived in the rapidly changing neighborhood of Hyde Park, and Patty and Matt in the more traditional enclave of Kenwood-geographic choices that said nearly everything about them. If she and Vee had simply met at a mixer for Lab School parents, where Kate and Junie had been nursery school classmates, they would have eyed each other with suspicion. Too patchouli, Patty would have thought. Too uptight, Veronica no doubt would have thought. But there was something fierce in the friendship they had grown as young women dabbling in the small freedoms and transgressions to be shared at soda fountains and football games in what they both perceived to be the suspicious sameness of the then-shiny-and-new suburb of Park Forest, where their fathers had swept their wives and children into the postwar dream of peace and prosperity.
Patty had almost lost Vee once in the very early sixties, when her friend's increasingly radical views-she'd tried to become a Freedom Rider, for Pete's sake!-made it hard to find anything to talk about at dinner parties. But then Vee got pregnant with Kate at the same time Patty found herself pregnant with Junie, her second, and Vee had needed help: the advice, comfort, and solidarity only one young mother can give another, which reminded them both of what they'd shared as teenagers. Patty would always think of their serendipitously timed two girls as rescuing her friendship with Vee. Dear, dear Junie and Kate.
Now, seven years after those girls' births, Veronica knew exactly where to find the cake knife and dessert plates in Patty's kitchen even if a new distance had begun to settle in between them.
Veronica cut a slice of the cake, put it on a plate, and pushed it toward Patty. "You know what Aunt Martha always says. Life's short. Eat dessert first."
"I wouldn't dream of flouting Aunt Martha's advice," Patty said, picturing Veronica's flamboyant kimono-wearing maiden aunt who'd been a fixture at every event of their growing up together-plays, recitals, graduations, weddings, showers-to which she'd brought what seemed like an impossibly chic urban glamour, like perfume from her city apartment. Patty often wondered what it would have been like to be her, a teacher who'd never married and who traveled as far away as Egypt on vacations. Aunt Martha's life in Chicago was in no small way part of the reason both of them had wound up living in the city rather than in one of the fancier suburbs to which their own parents had gravitated as Park Forest became, in Patty's late mother's words, "too different."
"Didn't she just get back from Sweden?" Patty asked.
"A few months ago. Now she's in India. I'm so jealous."
"I don't think I could stomach all the poverty," Patty said, feeling vaguely ashamed of herself, as she tended to when she confessed something like this to Vee. And yet she felt compelled to be honest with her oldest friend; with anyone else, she'd keep her mouth shut.
"It would be hard to see." Veronica nodded. "But necessary. And there's so much more to the country than that."
"I suppose. Well, anyway. I am not surprised at all that Aunt Martha is making the best of her retirement." Patty pulled the plate with Veronica's cake on it toward her and took a bite. It was perfection, like everything that had ever come out of her friend's oven. Patty shoveled bite after spicy, crumbly bite into her mouth. "This is so good."
Veronica smiled. "Hey, have you . . . Have you heard from Eliza at all?"
Patty shook her head. "The last I heard was that postcard from Toronto, like three or four months ago?" On the back of a rectangular card with a bright red Canadian maple leaf on the front, Patty's sister had written:
The band's playing almost every night. Want to come for a show?
And that was it. Even if she'd wanted to attend a show, there was no way to contact her sister to find out where to go. Patty sighed the same sigh she'd been sighing ever since Eliza had left the letter with their father three years ago saying:
I'm not missing. I'm on the road with Christopher, and you don't have to look for me. I'll be in touch.
She'd graduated from high school six weeks before. Patty knew she'd only stuck around that long to get her usual check of $250 on her eighteenth birthday.
"Although . . ." Patty trailed off. She didn't want to sound paranoid.
"Well," she admitted, "I have been getting some hang-up calls lately, and I keep wondering if they are Eliza. I've gotten three so far. I pick up the phone, say hello, and there's a short silence, then a dial tone."
"It's definitely not one of Karen's friends prank calling?"
Patty laughed. "God, no. Those are so obvious. 'Is your refrigerator running? Then you better go catch it!'" Patty faked a kid voice.
Veronica laughed and then shrugged. "Well, if it is Eliza, I hope she speaks up soon. Has your dad heard anything?"
Patty shook her head. "No. And we had lunch last week, like we always do on the first Wednesday of the month, when Linda's getting her monthly massage and facial." Patty huffed. "I don't get it. I mean, I love a good facial, but Mom . . . She was nothing like that."
"I remember. If she couldn't create it herself, she didn't do it. Remember that summer you made all those soaps?"
Patty recalled the mint and peony scents that had mingled with the other waxy, burning aromas of soapmaking that summer. She and her mom-and kindergarten Eliza, too, now that she thought of it-had laughed so hard, then cried, and ruined so many ingredients, but in the end, they had a stack of fragrant, jewel-toned bars of soap to show for their labors. God, she missed her mother. And losing Eliza so soon after her mother's death had only enlarged the hole in Patty's heart. She hoped so much it was Eliza calling, that there could be another chance for them.
"And how are your parents?" Patty asked.
"June and Ward Cleaver in the Everglades? Oh, the usual. I don't call after five, though these days it's getting closer to four, so I don't have to hear Mom slur her words or repeat the same conversation from the day before. And I can't call before lunch, or Dad will be on the golf course."
"Well, that's at least a few-hours-long window," Patty joked.
"So," said Veronica in her resolutely subject-changing tone, "weren't you going to tell me why you look so stressed out today?"
Patty took another fortifying bite of cake, then said, "I don't know where to start. Junie had to go to the bathroom during the homily, and she took forever, and when we got back, Karen and Tad were practically in a full-out brawl in the pew. I was mortified." Another bite.
"Then I spent the afternoon trying to convince Karen and Junie to finish their homework and clean their rooms, and to keep Tad entertained without making another enormous mess. And . . ." She lowered her voice. "Matt's been in a mood all day. He got into it with one of his partners last week about something to do with the office space or taxes or . . . oh, I don't know, I can't keep track. He spent the entire day raking leaves and listening to football, so he wasn't helpful at all. Why he doesn't hire someone to rake the damn leaves, I'll never understand."
Veronica gave Patty an all-too-familiar smile: it was sympathetic, but a little patronizing, too.
"What? What's with the smile?"
"There's no smile, Patty."
"Oh, yes, there is. It's the same one you used to put on back in college when I moaned about my grades and you knew full well I spent more time at Alpha Phi than I did studying. Until you finally just told me I couldn't get by on charm anymore and actually had to crack open a book."
Veronica laughed. "Okay, okay. But truly, I don't think there's a simple solution here. This is your husband we're talking about, not your midterms."
Patty pushed the empty plate aside, craving another huge slice, but she reminded herself of the way her jeans had fit the day before and put the dessert away. "I mean, I get it, it's stressful to be a cardiologist, but . . . Doug must get like this sometimes, right?"
"Rarely. Sometimes he stays at work until after I'm asleep, but he always leaves it at the office."
Sometimes Patty didn't know what to make of them. Veronica never complained about Doug, her shaggy but handsome former-piano-prodigy now rising-star-lawyer husband. With her other friends, woes of and about the husbands were prime topics of conversation. Was Veronica really that content, or was she hiding something? "Enough about me," Patty said emphatically. "What have you been up to lately? I feel like I haven't seen you in ages."
"Weeeellll," Veronica drawled. Patty could practically see the gears grinding in her friend's head. "I'm pregnant."
Patty clapped her hands together, squealed, and went to hug her. "I'm so happy for you!"
Veronica smiled and hugged Patty back. "Thanks. Please don't say anything to Doug, though. I mean, he knows. But we're not ready to talk about it with everyone yet."
"I understand," Patty said. Her poor friend. What a nightmare her miscarriage two years ago had been-and in the fifth month, too. Veronica, usually so full of life, had barely left her house for three months. Patty had done much of her laundry and cooking through the worst of it. "Of course you want to make sure everything's okay. How are you feeling so far?"
"Pretty good. I'm seeing a doctor and a midwife this time, to cover all my bases. The midwife is great. Very focused on staying healthy and tuning in to my body."
"Whatever makes you feel good. And I'm glad you're seeing a midwife."
Veronica cocked an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Don't look so surprised. Matt might be a doctor, but I think women-and midwives are all women, right?-know a lot more about childbirth than men. Even the doctors."
"You sure I can't entice you to join the Union?"
Patty rolled her eyes at the mention of her friend's radical feminist club. The women of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union didn't shave their legs, and she'd heard they were even proponents of abortion. Patty was all for birth control, despite what some of her more conservative friends at St. Thomas thought. For heaven's sake, preventing a pregnancy was certainly better than the alternative. "I draw the line at the Junior League."
They laughed together, an acknowledgment that they could have a sense of humor about where their similar views ended. Fizzy as this moment of shared confidence made her, Patty couldn't shake the sense that there was something else Veronica wasn't telling her about why she'd been so busy lately.
Still, Veronica's surprise news changed the whole mood of the night. In between snippets of conversation and serving and clearing dinner, Patty imagined fun games for a baby shower. She'd have to reach out to Veronica's friend Siobhan to see if she wanted to throw it together with her, which she wished she didn't have to do, because Siobhan was such an enigma. She was a painter whose pictures Patty found hard to decipher, and she was divorced from that lovely man Gabe, Charlie's father. Why are they divorced? Patty often wondered. Why put your kid through the ringer like that unless it was absolutely necessary? It didn't appear to have been necessary; Siobhan herself had once said, "No one cheated." And Veronica had refused to tell Patty what had happened, which really annoyed her; they used to love sharing other friends' secrets while holding each other's tight. But now Veronica apparently felt that Siobhan's secrets were worth keeping.
Copyright © 2023 by Kerri Maher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.