My mother puts her lemonade down on the coffee table and then crosses to me. “You’re right, Mallory. It’s not fair for me to have done that, and I’m sorry.”
“Are you kidding me?” I ask. “That’s it? You harangue me for months about how Karl’s cheating was my fault and now you say you’re sorry and I’m just supposed to forget it ever happened?”
“Not forget,” she tells me. “But I hope you can understand. I told you those things because they are what I’ve been telling myself for the past twenty-seven years. That if I had just been prettier or better put together or made better meals or never argued with your father, then he wouldn’t have cheated on me.”
Her voice breaks on the last word, and I hate that it makes me feel sorry for her. And I hate even more that it makes me forgive her. “Mom, you don’t have to—”
“Yes, I do.” She puts a hand on my cheek. “I appreciate that you’re trying to spare me this, my dear, beautiful girl, but I do have to do this. I do owe you an apology of epic proportions. And I do need to talk about it with you because I need you to understand.”
Again, she glances over toward Nick’s house. “I don’t want you to make the same mistakes with Nick that you made with Karl and I made with your father.”
“Karl cheated on me, Mother. When we most definitely were not on a break.”
“I know. And he is scum of the first order. I won’t even try to tell you otherwise anymore. He deserves whatever he gets and more.” She tries to pull me into a hug, but I’m still too raw to accept the embrace. “But you stopped being honest with yourself a long time ago, Mallory. Long before you found out he was cheating on you.”
“What do you mean?” I ask her.
“You were unhappy for years,” she answers, her gaze steady on mine. “But you had a terrible role model in me of what a real marriage should look like, and for that, I’m sorry. I should have shown you how to stand up for yourself, how to ask for what you need”—her voice breaks—“how to love yourself enough to not be afraid to rock the boat. And how to know when to leave.”
Tears slide unchecked down my cheeks. She’s right in that my marriage just repeated the mistakes of hers. I did what I thought I was supposed to do. But it’s not entirely our fault, and I can’t let her take the blame for everything. “You were great, Mom. In the end, I married a selfish prick. I didn’t want to quit law school. He made me feel guilty if I didn’t. I didn’t want to just build his practice, but he made me feel like it was how we were a team. And I sure as hell didn’t want to work for beans and have to ask every time I spent his money. But he was a master at making me feel that my wants and needs were just me being selfish. I can take the blame that I let him treat me like a doormat and should have fought for myself, and I probably would have acted that way even if he’d been a great guy. Sacrificing for your man was my role model.” I give her a shaky smile. “But at the end of the day, sometimes you just married an asshole.”
“This guy sounds like a tool beyond measure,” Sarah adds. Then she winks at me. “Do you want me to tell his girlfriend he gave me herpes?”
I chuckle. She’s totally kidding, obviously, but I love what her words really mean. My chest tightens. I have family in my corner. I have a sister.
“Thanks, sis, but I say good riddance. Hell, his girlfriend will someday wish his worst trait was herpes.”
We all chuckle for a minute, but then my mom is zeroing back in on me again. “So what are you going to do about Nick?”
I shrug. “There’s nothing to do. I broke up with him this afternoon, told him I’d work until he found a replacement for me at the office.”
Sarah’s eyes go wide. “Now, why on earth did you do that?”
“Really, Mallory.” My mom shakes her head. “Are you ever going to learn?”
Well, what the fuck? I thought we’d just had this beautiful moment and now she’s back to telling me I don’t know what’s best for me. I square my shoulders. “Yes, Mother. I’m quite capable of learning. I’ve learned that I too easily give up my power to men, let them take control of my life. And what I need right now is a little alone time to figure myself out and then a nice, healthy relationship with a man who listens to me.”
“Oh, I had no idea Nick was such a controlling man.” She makes tsking noises.
I can’t let that stand, though. To be fair to Nick. “He isn’t a controlling person. Not really. I mean, yes, he did sometimes just take charge, but only to help me and never in a way I would object to. He also pretty much always gave me time to say no to his help, too.”
“Well, then he shouldn’t have made you feel weak, dear. That’s never good in a partner.”
And again, I feel myself rising to Nick’s defense. “He didn’t make me feel weak at all. In fact, if anything, he made me stand up for myself and gave me the power to do it myself.” And he did. From letting me try to mow that devil lawn by myself before answering my literal SOS in the grass to letting me interview Gina before deciding to work with her. He gave me options but ultimately, everything was my decision. How did I not see that before?
“Then I don’t get it,” Sarah says. “What’s so bad about Nick?”
“He said he needed me.” I swallow. Hard. Then admit, “And I said I needed him back.”
My mom’s face lights up with a smile. “That’s wonderful, Mallory! It’s good to need someone and be needed in return.”
“Umm, no, it’s not. After Karl, I never want to need another man again.” Fact.
“Honey, then you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life.”
Her words are like a kick to the stomach, stealing my breath. “Wh-what do you mean?”
She leans over and squeezes my hand. “Because, dear, everyone needs love. With someone who loves them back just as much.”
“What does love have to do with needing someone? I don’t want to be with another man who needs me to do things for him, Mom. Like, seriously, ever again.”
“What has Nick asked you to do for him? That man actually seems pretty self-sufficient, if you ask me.”
I open my mouth to list all the things—but nothing comes to mind. In fact, the only thing I can think of that Nick needs from me is the same thing I needed from him…his company. I just liked spending time with him. Cooking dinner. Watching movies (well, almost watching). Talking about Aunt Maggie. Even working together is something we want to do, not need to do.
Something he said in his office comes back to me… Someone who makes you realize that—before her—you weren’t really living. That you’ve just been existing in a world without color since your wife died.