She walked into their backyard. The overgrown lemon tree nearly touched the roof. She hadn't the heart to prune it or cut it down. The tangy crisp scent in the cool night air gave her an added impetus. It was all fresh. Like the fresh start she was going to make. Away from the silences and glances filled with loathing.
"Is there something that I've done wrong?" Roma asked Rix when she stood in front of the tree. The solid trunk behind her gave her support. She felt brave shaded by its branches. He stood about five paces from her. A far cry from the days when he would stand with his arms around her waist, pressed against her like they were one unit.
"No." Rix jammed his hands in his pockets and began shuffling his feet, looking down. That to Roma, meant he wanted to leave.
"Rix, look at me!"
"I don't WANT to Roma!" He roared. Roma fell silent in shock.
Recovering, she said,"I want to know exactly why you've turned so cold? You keep saying that it's nothing. I feel like an unwelcome guest in my own home. The man I married isn't there. I don't know you Rix. You hate me now don't you? You can't stand the sight of me can you? Well, that's just fine then! Because I'll have you know that I don't feel any differently. I can't stand the sight of you either. I thought I married a man. You're just his shadow. I've carried this thing in me that I've wanted to share...share with you and find a moments peace in your arms. I have this huge big secret and you're not there for me to say a word about it! I want to talk to you. Ask about what's going on in your life. About why our money is going so fast. Why you look so angry all the time. Who in heaven's name is your partner? What sort of man keeps his wife away from everything? Takes her money too and keeps her shut out? Where are you RIX?" She shoved him as she said this last.
Rix had stood through her tirade with his arms at his sides, palms and jaw clenched. When she shoved him, he grabbed her wrists and nearly shoved her down but the look on her face stopped him.
A door slid shut in the neighbor's yard. Their black cat perched herself on the dividing wall and watched them, tail curling in anticipation.
Rix took a deep breath and in a voice that came from a pool gone dry of emotion, said, "Just sit the heck down." She sat, tears trailing silently down her cheeks. He looked at her, shook his head once and threw it back to look at the stars. Then he sat and said, "Just don't interrupt. I wanted to spare you everything. But you can't let it go. You can't do your best. I'm falling apart and there you go trying harder to fall apart faster! I need you to be strong and you shrink away. Look at this!" He picked up the hem of her frock. It had stray threads and had faded from a bright clover green to a dusty grey. She opened her mouth to say something and he said, "I said don't interrupt. Please."
He dropped the hem and continued, "You don't know who you married? Think I recognize the woman who climbed Mt.Whitney ahead of me? Think I recognize the woman who had to change her work route to keep admirers from hounding her? The woman who read and laughed and sang? Where is SHE Roma?"
She kept silent.
He looked enraged. An inner dam had burst. "Do you want to know what I've been hiding from you? Do you want to know why you've never met my partner? Well, you can share my sleepless nights now. My "partner" as you call her..." Roma started and he continued looking into her eyes, "my partner is a woman I knew long before I met you."
Roma sat very still. "She and I dated as teenagers. I've always loved risks and she seemed exciting to be around. I didn't realize I got into an organized crime ring when I hung out with her other friends. She just seemed edgy and a little raw. Well, remember the day we drove back from the doctors' separately? After the fertility tests? Well, I stopped at the mall to get some supplements the doctor had recommended and ran into her. She looked awful. She pulled me aside and threatened to tell the police about..." he stopped, dragged a deep breath as Roma lay on the sand, sleeveless arm coated with mud, "a hit and run we were involved in. Only, I didn't know what I was doing. I was bloody stupid. Stupid. She asked me to drive blind folded on a deserted road. On a bet. I didn't think anything could go so wrong. Apparently the ringleader had pushed a guy in front of the car as it went forward. I heard a scream and a thud. I tried to tear open my blindfold but her hands were like a vise on my face. She took the keys out of the ignition and a couple of guys drove us back. Later, I begged her to tell me what exactly went on that night. She just laughed and said that I'd solved a problem for all of them. Better yet, I didn't even know the details. I left her then. I was seventeen and was frightened for my life and what I had done."
Roma said nothing. She saw a dandelion grow through the cracks in the pavement. Her mind wandered to some strange recipe that called for dandelion steeped in hot water as a remedy for a cold.
"Roma?" he asked and brought her back. He talked to her. Not at her. Strange, he sounded like the old Rix. But who was the old Rix? She hadn't known that man either! She looked at him saying nothing. Lying in the same fetal position she had taken on.
"Well...well...when she saw me again, she insisted that I take her to a restaurant. She was haggard from drinking. Lost all of her youthful charm and was on welfare. An old woman at twenty-nine. She ate a huge meal. Then she dropped a bombshell. She told me that...that I have a daughter. That she had been pregnant when I left her and had thought nothing of it. That she would always find some one to marry and that her family would take her back. Only, she couldn't leave the ring those many years ago. She was sworn to secrecy and threatened with dire consequences if she ever attempted a new life. She moved a lot since then but lived in constant fear. She said she had tried reaching me. She told me that I had to start supporting her and her daughter. I told her that I wanted no part of it. But she held that night of the stupid blind folded drive over my head. She said that she knew the victim and that if I didn't help her, we'd both go to jail. She expected that she would be treated better there anyway!"
He leaned against the trellis post now. His nostrils flaring as he took great gulps of air through his nose and mouth. The choke hold that he had on him eased. He spoke, more out of compulsion and relief than anger now. "She...she demanded a lot. That I stay with them. Her and her daughter. I eventually worked it out so that I could spend the day with them and come back home at night. She had spied on us, you and me, when we shopped and she threatened to harm you if I didn't cooperate. I told her that there was no way that I could do that. She told me that I could have one of two choices and that there was no more to discuss. So I quit my job. I started working from home. Her home. I don't even know if the child is mine. But she's caught in this trap as much as I am. She's scared of her mother and her mood-swings. Scared of the men who come home at night. She locks her bedroom door and her windows because she knows that they are up to no good. I help her out. The girl. Her name's Stacey. She's a strong kid."
Roma pushed herself up now, propped on one arm and asked, "How old is she?"
"She's about twelve years old."
Roma nodded, thinking back, counting. It made sense.
"So you stayed in her house all day?"
Rix answered the underlying question. "We never had a physical relationship if that's what you mean. But I did everything else and continued to work from home at coding. I cooked, cleaned, took Stacey to school and gave Mara money. That's her name. The woman. Mara. That's why all the money disappeared. She...she used it for some pretty extravagant things. But she looked..." he looked at Roma and sighed, "I guess that's why I was upset when I came home. She was sick and dressed like she didn't care. Bought designer labels just to throw away the money we had worked so hard for. But she never wore them. She tried to be wifely initially. We even went to malls pretending that we were a family. She would make Stacey miss school so we could go on a "pretend family trip" as she called it. I wouldn't let her near me. And old habits die hard. She went back to being herself soon enough."
He looked at her huge serious eyes ringed with dark circles of stress and worry. Affection and sympathy washed over him. He held out an arm to hold her. She hesitated, then went to him. her body tense. He began to pat her back like he used to. Falling into the same rhythm like nothing had changed. Roma found herself gradually letting the tension seep out.
"It's terrible." she said. "But it's got to be stopped."
"Yes." Rix held her shoulder tight. "I should've just gone to the police sooner."
Roma nodded. "Yes, probably. But you were afraid." She looked up at him. "But it's okay now isn't it Rix? I know and we'll do whatever we can to get us out of it. Even if it means having to leave here. I'm here Rix, I'm with you. Remember I told you that you were my whole future? That's why I fell apart. I saw my future going to pieces. I didn't know what was wrong. I realize that you thought that you were protecting me. But you ended up hating me for a burden I never knew I caused you to carry."
He looked at her, eyes moist and said, "You didn't do anything. I was a fool and I should've seen it. We'll go to the police tomorrow." He frowned, "What secret have you been keeping from me?"
Roma drew herself up. She looked at the ground. Well, it seemed to be a night for confessions. It had to be dealt with.
"I spoke to my mother around a year and a half ago about us trying to have children." Rix looked on, his attention completely focused on her. So unusual, so new, yet so familiar. Roma continued, "Actually, I told her right after we had the tests for fertility, that we'd tried for a year and nothing happened. She came over that day you know. You were gone for so long. Of course now I know why."
She turned into his chest and spoke. "She...she told me something that I didn't know. That my siblings didn't know either. Years ago, when my mother volunteered at a hospital, she helped a young girl in the delivery room. For some reason, the single mother to be wished desperately that she wouldn't have a boy. She had been young. About eighteen or nineteen. She didn't want a boy because she said that all the boys in her family died young from a muscle wasting disease. Apparently it's transferred from mother to son. A girl was born and the young mother decided to give her up for adoption later as she couldn't take care of her. My mother had been so moved by the girl's agitation and guilt that she told her that she would adopt the girl."
She sat up and looked at the compassion and understanding in Rix's eyes. Her own eyes soft and voice trembling, she said, "I'm the girl my mother adopted."
Rix enfolded her in his arms and they sat, in wonder and silence.
Roma said, her voice muffled by his shirt, "She didn't tell me about it. She thought that I was healthy and happy and there was always a chance that the children we would have would be healthy. I think we're lucky that nothing happened when we tried. As soon as my mother told me, I went ahead to get tested and sure enough, I have the gene and very high chances of passing it on to a son. If we were to have a daughter, she would carry it to the next generation. Things between us were so bad by then, I decided that I was better off without a child to bring into the bitterness."
Playing with the buttons on his shirt, she said, "I don't think I want to have babies at all. It wouldn't be right. You're lucky you have a daughter."
"I don't really know if she's mine." Rix said slowly.
"Does it really matter?" Roma asked sitting up. Rix looked at her and the many terrible days of the past. A weaker woman would have broken for sure. Here she had handled her own tragedy without an ounce of support from him. Did it matter that Stacey, whom he helped every day with math and bully trouble may not be his biological daughter? No. No it didn't really. Life had strange ways of offering solutions.
Speaking in measured tones, he made their to-do list for the next day.
"Okay. So first, I call up my old boss and ask if he'll take me back. I left on good terms. I don't think it'll be a problem. Then we go to the police station and I confess. Once they handle Mara, we let them know that we're open to adopting Stacey. I don't think Stacey will object. She is terribly afraid of her mother. Do you know I went to the doctor with her when she had the flu? She told them that I was her father. She held my hand and sat scared when the nurse brought out a shot. She hates needles."
Roma touched his cheek tenderly. "You should have told me. It's all water under the bridge now. But there's nothing in the world more important than how safe and loved we are in our own homes. I had that all my life not realizing the double blessing it was in my case. I would never hold it back from my husband."
"We'll do our date night more often now." Rix said seriously.
"Well, it can't be a date night with an almost teenager can it?" Roma asked
"No. Not really. It'll be a family night." Rix said.
"That sounds about perfect." Roma said.
They confessed the next morning in the police station. The first few days were extremely stressful. They gladly stayed up, stressed out and sleepless together. When it was ruled that Rix could not be held accountable, Mara was taken away for blackmail and drug possession. The accident was never brought up as she refused to testify against the ring leader. He was magnified into a myth of gigantic proportions by the alcohol that addled her brains. He had apparently been locked up for years in some small town jail cell. He would only rarely see the light of day for many decades to come.
Stacey was in a children's home for a brief three days during which time Rix and Roma visited her everyday bringing candy, books and games. The authorities allowed her to go home with them even before the adoption papers were signed. She went, basking in warmth and security for the first time in her twelve years. Rix and Roma also registered themselves as foster parents for any children who might need a home.
They continued to have a "backyard night" for many years with Stacey and then later, with Ronald and Davey. They were twin boys who at four refused to be separated.
During back yard night, they played, "Guess my secret."
Rix and Roma nearly drew the line when Stacey declared, when no one could guess, that she was no longer a virgin.
Again, they only "nearly" drew the line.
The communication channels, no matter how ghastly at times, were steadfastly kept open.