Thank you for the gift… The text flashed across Vlad’s screen, and he smiled down at it, his work entirely forgotten. Truthfully, he’d been scared about sending them the book. His heart had hammered in his chest the whole time he’d been doing it, right up until the mail courier came and took it away. But Vlad’s therapist had told him to do something nice and meaningful for himself, and Vlad had realized with staggering clarity that he had no idea how to do that.
So he’d done something nice for them instead.
It was a work in progress.
You’re welcome. Vlad texted back. I hope you like it.
We love it, the reply came back instantly, this time from Nathan with a picture attached of Ursula curled up on a sagging couch, her nose buried between the pages and a soft smile fixed to her beautiful face. It made Vlad’s heart clench in his chest.
It’s too special, Ursula’s text flashed up next. You shouldn’t have sent us this.
If you don’t want it, I’ll gladly take it back, Vlad replied, adding a winking smiley face to show that he was kidding. He was rewarded by another picture, this time of Ursula hugging the book close to her chest, attempting to hide it under the lapel of her fluffy bathrobe.
You may have to come and take it lol, Nathan replied, and Vlad’s fingers tapped out a response before his brain had a chance to filter it.
Well then, maybe I will.
It wasn’t until several hours later when he was getting into the elevator to head home that he realized what he’d said and his soul left his body.
“Oh, you’re home.”
Vlad looked up from his phone to find Elizabeth watching him from the kitchen doorway, her stance poised with surprise as she set her keys and purse down on the counter. He felt caught under her stare, like an intruder who didn’t belong, but he pushed the feeling down.
He quirked a curious eyebrow at her. “Should I not be?”
“Of course,” Elizabeth said, gliding past him, retrieving a bottle of sparkling mineral water from the refrigerator. It hissed loudly when she cracked the seal, and Vlad was suddenly put in mind of a fuse being lit. “Honestly, I’ve just hardly seen you these past few weeks. You’ve been so busy with work. I was starting to think you’d moved out.”
Thought about it, Vlad mused silently, his attention already back on his phone, which was vibrating non-stop. He’d finally replied to Riya after several weeks of ghosting, and she was filling his inbox with demands to know where the hell he’d been. Ursula, on the other hand, wanted to see if he had Netflix (of course he did) and whether he’d like to watch something with them again this weekend.
He replied to both of them, tapping out words of apology and agreement in rapid-fire succession.
“I said—” Elizabeth began again when he didn’t respond, and Vlad replied without looking up.
“I heard you.”
“Well,” Elizabeth rallied, ignoring the shortness of his tone. “No matter, you’re here now, that’s the main thing. I’ve wanted to talk to you, actually…” She glanced at the phone, which was still vibrating in his hand. “But Lidle said you were too busy to take any of my calls.”
“What about?” Vlad asked, suddenly very much aware of the pulse point at the base of his throat. Panic was a conditioned response to being told someone needed to talk to him; it never ended well.
“Why, about your party, silly,” Elizabeth said, as though it should have been obvious, and the only thing they needed to talk about. “Now, I know you told Lady Margarete you didn’t want to do anything, but I’ve shopped around, and I think I’ve found the perfect venue…”
She blinked, unused to being interrupted. “What?”
“I said, no,” Vlad repeated firmly, willing himself to look her calmly in the eye.
“You’re really going to be stubborn about this, aren’t you? All right, no party.” Elizabeth held her hands up. “We’ll just stock up the pool bar and have some friends round. Now, about the cake—"
“What part of ‘no’ are you not understanding?” Vlad asked, setting his phone aside and giving her the full measure of his attention. “I do not want a party, Elizabeth. I do not want to invite people round for drinks, or cake, or anything. I can, in fact, think of nothing I want less than to spend time with any of the people we have the misfortune in common to call friends.”
Vlad swiped his phone up again, more for something to do with his hands than anything else. He couldn’t make sense of any of the words in front of him, but he knew they’d be there waiting for him later.
Elizabeth watched him in stony silence, her lips pursing together as she rocked back and forth on her heels. It was almost as though she’d never seen him before. Eventually, she clucked her tongue, rolling her eyes up to the ceiling. “Look, if this is about that night at the club…”
Vlad scoffed, looking up at her incredulously.
She threw her hands out wide. “It was just one night!”
“No, Elizabeth, it’s not. It’s never just one night. Not with you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“I think you know fine well what it means,” Vlad fired back, and Elizabeth had the grace to flush under his stare. “There will be no party,” he reiterated. “No party, no people, no cake, and no drinks. Is that clear?”
Elizabeth stared at him; her nostrils flared, and her eyes hard as flint. “So, is this it?” she demanded, gesturing to the empty void of space between them. “Is this how things are going to be from now on?”
“No,” Vlad replied, walking past her on his way out the door and allowing himself a chilly smile. “But it’s a start.”
He was halfway up the stairs when Elizabeth caught up with him. “Who is she?” she demanded, a wild, frantic note in her voice he’d never heard before.
“Don’t give me that shit,” she spat. “The person you keep texting. What’s her name, do I know her?”
Vlad regarded Elizabeth quietly. He was suddenly very aware of just how tired he was of all this. “No, you don’t know them.”
“Oh them,” Elizabeth veered back, swallowing his admission of infidelity whole and using it to find ammunition to spit back at him. “We’re playing the pronoun game, are we? All right, what’s his name?”
“None of your business,” Vlad replied curtly, turning to leave and snatching his arm away when she tried to pull him back.
“Wait, you’re serious…” Elizabeth laughed incredulously, a hand going to her mouth before moving to plant both of them on her hips. “Well, color me surprised. I didn’t know you still had it in you. I am curious, though, aren’t you a little old for that sort of thing?”
Vlad narrowed his eyes. “What sort of thing?”
“Going down on your knees like that,” Elizabeth retorted, a malicious grin spreading over her face. It froze a moment later when Vlad began to laugh.
“Oh, Lizzy.” He gave her a pitying look. “What bothers you more? The idea that you’re not the only one in this marriage blowing another man? Or the idea that I might be better at it than you?”
Elizabeth spluttered, and Vlad allowed himself another hollow, brittle laugh.
“Ah, I thought so. Good night Lizzy.”
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” she yelled after him. “I’m not done talking to you!”
“That’s too bad, cause I’m done talking to you,” Vlad replied without looking back. It was only when his bedroom door was firmly shut that he allowed his knees to buckle, a manic, shaky laugh escaping his chest as he leaned back against the door and stared unseeing up at the ceiling.
He wasn’t entirely sure, but he was reasonably certain he’d just torpedoed his marriage.
“I spoke to Elizabeth the other day,” Lady M said hesitantly, hovering nervously over the breakfast table while Vlad sat drinking coffee next to his father.
It was another beautiful Saturday morning, and the French doors were open, allowing a cool breeze to circulate around the room. Apparently, his father was supposed to get more sunshine, and this was about as far as he was willing to go.
“Oh?” Vlad asked lightly.
“Yes, I called, wanting to talk to her about your party… You didn’t mention she’d gone to see her sister.”
“Oh, is that where she is?” Vlad reached across the table for a sugar donut, breaking it up into bitesize pieces on his plate.
He’d woken the morning after their fight to find Elizabeth’s bedroom door open, and the suitcases above her wardrobe gone. He’d stared at it for a moment, knowing that she’d staged the scene deliberately so it’d be the first thing he saw when he woke up. Vlad was sure it was supposed to prompt him into frantic phone calls and texting, but all he’d felt was relief. That had been Wednesday; he hadn’t even bothered to try calling her.
“Yes, she um, she sounded a bit peeved, to be honest.”
Vlad snorted. “I’m sure she did.”
“I’m sure whatever is going on, it’s not too late to fix. Try calling her, bring her home,” Lady M urged, and Vlad raised a quizzical eyebrow at her.
“Now why the hell would I want to go and do a thing like that?”
“Bring who home?” Vlad’s father asked, moving painfully slow as he ate.
“Elizabeth,” Lady M replied, reaching over to cut up the slice of toast he was struggling with.
There was a weird disconnect going on in Vlad’s head, between the father he’d known growing up, and the one in front of him now, who gummed his way through a bowl of applesauce and struggled to hold a knife. It was hard to reconcile the two. Harder than Vlad ever thought it would be.
“Is she not back from Paris yet?” The Count asked, looking up at Vlad with eyes that were a little too bright to be focused on reality. “I thought she was home for the semester?”
Vlad hesitated, his eyes circling round to Lady Margarete, who shook her head discretely. Apparently, it was one of those days.
“She is,” Vlad replied carefully. “But we’re not talking at the moment.”
“Aha,” his father laughed shortly, giving Vlad a shrewd look. “Fallen out again, have you? No matter, she’ll come around. Women always do. Your mother and I used to fight all the time, you know.”
“Yes.” Vlad took a diplomatic sip from his coffee. “I remember.”
“Her and her Jefferson Airplane.”
Vlad frowned. “What?”
“Hmm?” His father looked up. “What’s what?”
“Oh, speaking of which, Vlad dear, I was clearing out the attic, and I found some things you might want.” Lady M disappeared from the kitchen, reappearing moments later carrying a heavy box. “There’s more in the hallway, but here look.”
Vlad stood up, peering into the cardboard box with interest. “Records?”
“They were your mothers,” his father said, his mind briefly touching down again into the present. “Damn things. She’d spend hours listening to them…”
Vlad reached down into the box, picking up one of the albums at random and pulling the vinyl disc from its sleeve. A rectangular card fluttered out when he did, and Vlad stooped down to retrieve it. His heart stoppered in his chest when he realized it was a polaroid, sun-damaged, and faded, but Vlad would have known that smile anywhere. He’d spent nearly three decades missing it.
“I thought all these were destroyed,” he said softly, staring down at the picture of his mother.
“There’s more, like that,” Lady M said, sounding apologetic. “A lot of the boxes were open and under one of the sunroofs, but I kept them… just in case. There’s an old record player too. I think it works. I thought… well, I just thought.”
Vlad turned to face her, his mouth opening and closing uselessly as he tried to find the words for the devastating wave of gratitude that had just rolled over him. “Thank you.”
“Oh, it’s nothing dear,” Lady M waved him off. “As I said, I was just clearing things out—oh!” She laughed, hugging him back and giving him an affectionate pat on the head he’d have never tolerated in his youth. But then again, he never would have embraced her then either. “There now, don’t be silly,” she fussed him away, turning her face up to the ceiling as she dabbed under her eyes. “You’ll make my mascara run. Oh!” She looked around suddenly, her face transforming into an expression of alarm. “My tarts!”
Left alone together, Vlad resumed his seat next to his father, distantly listening to the sound of Lady M fussing in the kitchen as he peered more closely at the photo. Turning it over, he read the date: ‘Spring of ’76’. She’d been so damn young…
Slight and pale with gray eyes, Vlad’s mother always had an ethereal look about her, as though she didn’t quite fully belong in this world. Changeling, his father had called her. Vlad, too when it had become apparent he would grow into her slim proportions, the same angular features, and gray eyes. Same smile.
Same melancholic nature too.
“She was beautiful,” his father said, and Vlad started, looking up to find his father also looking at it. He reached for the photo, and Vlad handed it over reluctantly, fearful of that spark of temper he knew always lingered under the calm of his father’s façade. But the old man just looked sad, trailing his bony fingers over the faded image. “I always wondered what I did to make that smile go away…”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Vlad said, purely out of reflex.
“Oh, I’m sure I did plenty.” His father chuckled darkly as he handed the photo back to Vlad, his milky-blue eyes fixing on him and mapping Vlad’s features with sudden unspeakable sorrow. “You’re just like her…”
“I hate it.”
The silence hung between them, a lifetime of pain, and mutual resentment cradled within it. After a while, his father said, “She found out then, Elizabeth…” and Vlad sighed. There was no point denying anything. Not now.
“Get a lawyer,” his father said brusquely, pragmatic as ever, even when his mind was wandering. “You’ll need one.”
“Yes, the thought had occurred to me.”
His father grunted in response, eyeing Vlad out the corner of his eye. “Is she worth it?”
“The girl you’re throwing everything away on.”
Vlad sighed. “I’m not getting a divorce for someone else.”
“Oh?” His father asked, sounding skeptical.
“No. I’m doing it for me. I’m tired of the way things are between us. And Christ knows I’ve tried to make things work.” And he had, Vlad thought, he really, really had. Flawed as he was, he really had tried. “But it’s like she enjoys how broken things are, and I’m just…” He sighed again, slumping wearily in his seat. “I’m so tired.”
His father said nothing for several moments, then reached across with shaking hands to pour Vlad another cup of coffee. It was quite possibly the nicest thing he’d ever done for him.
“And how does all of this make you feel?” Dr. Lestrange asked, her pen held poised over the notepad in her lap.
“Tired,” Vlad replied succinctly, wishing not for the first time that it was still legal to smoke in public places. She’s taken pity on him though and had kindly offered him a pen to fidget with. Vlad had resented the implication that he couldn’t sit still for their sixty-minute appointment, but the relief of having something to do with his hands was almost more than he could bear.
He wondered what that said about him.
“I’m… relieved too. But mostly, I just feel… Like I haven’t slept in years.”
Dr. Lestrange quirked an eyebrow at him. “Have you?”
And he had. In fact, Vlad had slept better in these last few months than he’d done in years. Ever since, he’d start Skyping with Ursula and Nathan…
“You mean since you stopped engaging in nightly arguments with your wife and found other means of socialization?”
“You make it sound so simple when you say it like that.”
Dr. Lestrange shrugged. “It is. But simple doesn’t always mean easy. Especially when it sounds like she went to great lengths to keep you isolated.”
“I…” Vlad opened his mouth, frowning. “I’m not sure that’s accurate.”
“Isn’t it?” She glanced down at her notes. “We talked briefly about your sister, but it sounds like your wife did everything to discourage you two from talking after she moved.”
“Did I say that?”
“You said you only call her while at work because you knew it annoyed your wife to do it from home. You said over the years, your friends have mostly drifted away, and the only people you see are her friends and the people you see at AA meetings. Your family is…” She leafed through another notepad on her lap, and Vlad cringed at how full it was. “Your family is its own trauma…”
And that was another word Vlad was struggling to reconcile himself with. Trauma. Trauma.
That was the sort of thing that happened to brave people. He’d said as much and had very nearly crawled out of his skin at the compassionate look Dr. Lestrange had given him. Apparently, things had been a lot more fucked than Vlad had realized, which brought them to the night before when Vlad had sat on the living room floor with oil on his hands, and his mother’s old record player belting out the powerful vocals of Grace Slick’s unapologetic demands.
“Don’t you want somebody to love? Don't you need somebody to love? Wouldn't you love somebody to love? You better find somebody to love…”
He’d always rather liked Jefferson Airplane. He had fond memories of listening to the albums in his mother’s art studio, back when she’d still been well enough to paint. It had seemed at times, that she was a person possessed, dancing in vibrant swirls of colorful emotion that the paintbrush never seemed able to catch. He’d smoked his first joint in that attic, the sound of Jefferson Airplane hammering out the beat of his heart as Grace Slick’s voice dipped and rose over the thud of the drum and the snarl of the guitars while his mother sat across from him, staring up at stars only she could see. He’d been twelve.
Christ, was it any wonder he was such a mess.
“I actually think you’re doing fairly well,” Dr. Lestrange countered.
“Am I?” Vlad asked, incredulous.
“You’re here, aren’t you? You’re sober. You’re making steps toward leaving your abusive partner. It all adds up.”
“I just want it all to be over.” Vlad lamented, and Dr. Lestrange gave him another one of those spearing looks she was so good at.
“Recovery never ends. You know that. But eventually, it changes shape. And sometimes that can feel like the same thing. Now,” she smiled at him, a slow patient smile. “About getting you to try and do something nice for yourself again…”