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the slow pace of geologic time

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Alicia Zimmermann is in the back garden, taking advantage of the cool summer morning to pull a few weeds and tidy up, when her phone rings. The screen tells her it’s her son, Jack, and even now, so many years later, an unexpected call from him sets her pulse racing.

“Jack, honey.”

“Maman.” His voice is deep and quiet. Jack texts; he doesn’t call unless he has to.

“What’s wrong?”

She can hear him take a deep breath and clear his throat before he stutters, “It’s...not really…it’s not me, Maman. I’m fine.”

Alicia is already shedding her gloves and walking back to the house. “That’s good.”

“Papa’s still at that golf tournament, yes? Are you busy this week?” he asks, in an uncharacteristic rush.

Alicia’s heart is racing now. She mentally checks through her upcoming week (contracts meeting with Alain, board meeting on Wednesday, reading two scripts, lunch with Carine, all easy to cancel or move) and tries to keep her voice steady. “Nothing I can’t change. What do you need?”

She hears another release of breath in her ear (like when he was still small enough to climb into her bed with a nightmare, and he would breathe out his relief when she snuggled him close) and then his man’s voice. “Could you come down here? At least through Friday?”

Alicia is through the French doors, trying to keep her composure. (Injury? Anxiety? Drugs? Oh god, break up?) “To Providence? Of course I can, Jack. I can be there on the next flight.”

“Merci, Maman. Merci.” He sounds so old, her baby.

“Jack, what’s going on?”

“It’s...Eric. I have to go to Chicago for that charity kids’ camp. He’s staying with me and he doesn’t want to be alone.”

“He’s not in Georgia?”

Pause, then, “No.”

“Is he all right?” Alicia has met Jack’s sweet boyfriend Eric many times now, including their recent week-long visit to Montreal in June.

“Not really. Can you get here?”

“I’m already buying a ticket, honey.”

*

Alicia On my way to Providence

Alicia Don’t worry. Jack just called and wants me to come down.

Bobby Well. I’m worried.

Alicia I know. Me too.

Alicia I’ll call you when I know more. He said he’s fine.

Bobby I can be there in five hours if you need me. Love you.

*

Sitting on the plane, sipping her sparkling water and trying to focus on a crossword puzzle, Alicia’s foot won’t stay still, tapping out her fears in an endless rhythm, memories of her last panicked flight towards her son still as clear and fresh as if it were yesterday, not seven years in the past.

Jack’s fine, she repeats to herself. He’s fine now.

Her foot keeps tapping.

*

Jack is waiting outside the entrance to his building as the car pulls up to drop her off, and it’s such a relief to see him, she almost gasps. He’s got his hands deep in his jeans pockets, and he’s pacing the curb, and it could be thirty years ago, Bobby impatiently waiting for her to get out of the cab on her return from Rome.

“Honey, you look so much like your father today, my goodness!” she says as greeting, and Jack gives her a brief kiss on the cheek. On close inspection he looks pale, eyes red-rimmed like he’s been crying.

“Thank you for coming, Maman.” Jack is pulling her small travel case out of the trunk.

“Tell me,” she says, as the car pulls away.

He looks at her, and then puts her luggage down and leans in, grabs her into a full-body hug, right there on the sidewalk, holding her so close. She can’t remember when he last hugged her this hard. “He told his parents. About being gay. About us,” he says into her shoulder. “They were awful.”

Oh. Oh no.

“Oh, honey. Oh I’m so sorry.”

Jack releases his grip. His eyes are welling with tears. “He’s okay, just shocked I think. He was supposed to be visiting them all week, but he just...I don’t want to leave tomorrow, but I can’t back out. They are counting on me for all of these kids…”

“I’ll stay with him. We’ll be fine, Jack.”

Jack nods and hefts her bag again and ushers her towards the door.

Alicia walks on ahead, but her heart is thumping, because she doesn’t have a clue how to make what she’s said true.

*

Eric acts his usual smiling self when they walk into Jack’s apartment, but she can see when she looks closely that his jaw is tight and his eyes are swollen. He hugs Alicia and asks about her flight and then swarms her with questions about the auction she’d just chaired (he’d texted twice last week to ask her how the planning was going, the sweet boy). She gets the familiar grateful lump in her throat that Jack has this wonderful person in his life.

Jack orders dinner in, but Alicia notices that Eric doesn’t eat much, that he seems to have burned the last of his energy on her arrival. After supper, he leans against Jack on the sofa and just stares.

“When is your flight, Jack?” Alicia asks quietly, bringing in mugs of chamomile tea for Eric and for herself. Eric looks up and smiles, but just for a moment.

“A car is coming at 7:30 tomorrow morning,” he says. Alicia watches his hand rub slow circles on Eric’s shoulder.

“Okay. I’ll be up before then.” She doesn’t sit, doesn’t want to intrude. “Eric, you and I can talk tomorrow and decide what we want to do with ourselves.”

But Eric’s eyes have drifted closed and he’s sagged against Jack’s side.

“That’s perfect, Maman,” Jack says quietly.

Alicia retreats to the guest room and shuts the door.

*

She’s not tired at all; her mind is whirling.

It’s funny, Alicia thinks, that Jack never actually made a formal declaration to them; he’d brought Kent home, his good friend, and then one day he and Jack were holding hands, and the next day Jack called Kent his boyfriend in conversation and that was it. It had been a shock for Alicia, not because it was a problem for her in any way; her life in fashion was filled with people of every possible sexual orientation (identifying as straight was certainly dull and practically frowned upon). No, it was a shock because there had been no hints, no suspicions. She’d been away so much, and Jack had always been so bottled up and focused on hockey, that she’d forgotten to even wonder.

It had taken her a few days to get used to this new idea, to rethink what she knew of Jack’s personal relationships, trying to sort out if she even had any clue who her son really was. Bobby had needed some time as well, mostly to deal with the knowledge that Jack’s life as a professional athlete would be even more of a struggle (and all this before everything that came later). But to reject him? Her heart hurts even imagining it.

Alicia gets out her phone and looks up Suzanne Bittle’s number, saved there from the last summer when Jack was down in Georgia visiting, thinks about what she might say to the woman, but then quickly dismisses that idea. She doesn’t know what's actually happened, and it’s not her place to interfere. She pulls up her texts instead.

Alicia I’m staying with Eric for a few days while Jack’s in Chicago.

Bobby Everyone okay?

Alicia Eric came out to his parents and it went badly.

Bobby Well, shit.

Alicia Yes. My thoughts exactly.

*

Jack is awake and in a handsome grey suit, sipping coffee by the big window when Alicia emerges from her room in the morning.

She’s already showered, made herself up, and dressed. Even now, when no one cares anymore, she finds it difficult to appear unpolished, even at home. Too many candids in the tabloids back in the day; moisturizer, foundation, powder, brows, and mascara come before food or coffee. She forgets what she looks like without her face on, sometimes. Older.

“Maman.” Jack hugs her again, and sighs against her hair.

“Did he sleep?”

“I think so. I’m not sure I did, though.”

“Sweetheart.”

Jack grabs a blue tie from where it’s draped over a chair, gets it settled under his collar. “He’ll pretend everything is okay.”

She raises her eyebrows and gives him a look. “I’m familiar with that technique, honey.”

Jack huffs a little laugh and then kisses her cheek again. “There’s all sorts of food. Coffee is hot. I’m going to go say goodbye.”

Watching Jack shut the door behind himself a few minutes later, hair slicked back, leather travel bag, eyes red and tired, tie just right, Alicia’s heart hurts again. His father’s son.

*

Eric doesn’t come out of the bedroom until almost eleven. She hears him in there occasionally, water on and off, shower, the sounds of drawers opening and closing. She settles onto the sofa with the first of the two scripts her agent sent over last week (indie film, small role as a socialite mother; could be a fun few days) and tries not to worry.

When he does appear, Eric is dressed in shorts and a flattering purple t-shirt, his hair carefully styled and set, and Alicia thinks maybe he needed to put his own polish on this morning, for her. Or maybe for himself.

“Good heavens. Sorry I’m such a lay about!” he says with a big smile. “Hope you weren’t waiting for me.”

Alicia marks her place in the script and sets it down. “Not at all, honey. There’s no rush.”

“Did you have breakfast?”

“Granola and berries.”

“Oh good.” He starts rummaging around in the kitchen (looks so at home in there, and Alicia thinks it’s his kitchen too). She hears the gentle patter of cereal hitting a bowl, and is grateful to know he’s going to try eating something.

He wanders out into the living room with his bowl and spoon. She’s been thinking about what they might do to pass the time together, trying not to panic. “After you eat, I was wondering if we might want to do some baking today?”

“No.” Eric says it so quickly and in such a firm voice that it startles Alicia a moment. She’s never heard that tone from him before.

“Okay.”

Eric sits down in the leather chair next to the sofa and eats his cereal on the coffee table. It's quiet for a moment, and she realizes that in all of their visits together, it’s never been quiet. Eric has always filled the silences.

She clears her throat. “Do you want to talk?”

He stares at his bowl of cereal for a moment. “No, thank you. Not now.”

“I can just let you be, honey. Whatever you want.”

Eric looks up at her then, big eyes wide, and says in a that same firm voice, “We should go out. Do somethin’. If ever I’ve needed a distraction, today’s the day. Can we do that?”

Alicia smiles, sits up. “Of course! I don’t know much about Providence, though. We’d have to be tourists.”

Eric grabs his cereal bowl, takes a big bite. “Yes. Let's do that.”

*

They spend the next hour looking up touristy things to do near Providence and making a list. Eric finishes his cereal and then pops into the kitchen to eat a banana as well, and Alicia hopes that means she’s on the right track.

“So, the RISD Museum this afternoon,” Alicia says. “Then walk Benefit Street. And dinner up on College Hill after?”

“Sounds good,” Eric says. His phone has been buzzing all morning, but he has hardly checked it. He does now, frowns at the screen, scrolls a little, and then taps something in. After that, he does something she’s never seen him do. He turns it off.

“I'm ready to go.”

*

Jack Is Eric’s phone off?

Alicia I think so.

Jack Good. But tell him to check in later?

Alicia I will. How is the camp?

Jack Adorable kids. But I’m trying to work the schedule to get home one day earlier.

Alicia We’re doing fine, honey.

Jack Okay. Keep me posted.

*

Once they are out of the house, Eric starts talking. It’s like a cork has been pulled and he’s his usual verbose self the moment they shut the apartment door. He wants to hear about every detail of the auction (raising more money for a community youth mental health program in Pittsburgh; Alicia’s been supporting them for years) and they spend over an hour sitting on a bench outside the RISD Museum looking through the on-line catalog from the event on Alicia’s phone. They chat all about the art; Alicia takes a photo of Eric in front of a Roman frieze and sends it to Jack. Walking past historic homes and up the hill through the Brown campus, she gets recognized a few times (even with sunglasses and a hat). Eric asks all about the script she’s reading, and in the end she tells him the entire story in minute detail, he’s so curious. That gets them going on movies and acting until it’s hours later. They are settled into a private booth with a bottle of wine and two plates full of pasta, laughing at some silly memory Eric has of Jack and this street corner, when it’s like the air goes out of him all at once.

He sets his fork down and sighs, closes his eyes.

Alicia swallows, sets down her fork as well. This is the part she’s no good at. “Eric, honey, how are you feeling?” she asks, cautious.

He runs a finger along the butter knife resting alongside his plate. “Angry,” he says, and then he starts eating again and she doesn’t ask more.

*

Eric retreats to the bedroom (Jack’s bedroom? Their bedroom?) with his laptop when they get home.

“Say hello to my sweet boy,” Alicia calls after him.

Eric turns back, halfway down the hall, and says, “I’m real glad you're here, Alicia.” Subdued and sad.

“You talk to Jack and then get some sleep, honey.”

The door clicks shut behind him.

*

Eric is up before Alicia the next morning, humming away and making pancakes in the kitchen.

“Smells delicious,” she says. It sounds too enthusiastic, even to her, but she’s so happy to see him in the kitchen.

“I want to go down to Newport today. You up for that?” Eric asks without a pause in his batter assembly line. “Thought we could hit the road early.” (He actually sounds a little like Jack, Alicia thinks.)

“I’ve never been. I do like an adventure,” she says.

She texts Jack a picture of the stack of pancakes Eric makes, and he sends her back a text that just says thank god.

*

It’s a bit of a drive to get to Newport. Eric jokes that they will have seen every square inch of the the state by the time Jack gets home. Alicia tells him about her friend Matt from her Samwell days, who’d walked all the way across Rhode Island in one day, from the Connecticut to the Massachusetts border, with some friends, just to see if they could.

“They didn’t even need to jog,” she says, and Eric laughs a little, which is like a little ray of hope for Alicia.

Eric is quieter this morning, though. He turns music on in the car, so they can’t talk much, and when Alicia looks at him closely, his cheeks are hollowed and there are dark circles under his eyes.

Eric has an entire agenda plotted for them when they arrive in Newport (he must have been up in the night researching, is all Alicia can figure). They do two mansion tours right away, gargantuan explosions of opulence which make Alicia feel slightly less guilty about the size and extravagance of her own home (“Well, at least we don’t have any gilded ceilings. Or a carriage house.”). Eric suggests a Greek restaurant for lunch, then the Cliff Walk in the afternoon.

They stop into a bookshop for a while after eating, and Eric picks up a booklet about the geology along the walk.

“It’s real ancient round here, I guess, rocks-wise,” he says, flipping through the pages. “I’ll read this as we go?”

“I didn’t know you were interested in geology,” Alicia says, as they get back into the car.

“I didn’t either. I’m just in the mood to think about something bigger than me, I suppose. I mean, good lord, 250 million years? Today ain’t nothin’.”

*

It’s a perfect day on the coastal path; blue sky, hint of a breeze from the ocean. There are a lot of other visitors, but everyone is either distracted by the views or willing to leave her be; no one bothers Alicia for a picture or an autograph.

The geology booklet turns out to be fascinating. They read about the metamorphosed landscape, eroded roots of mountains, identify garnets, stand on slate slabs as flat as a kitchen counter. Alicia has to remind herself to occasionally look landward to admire the huge mansions they are striding past in order to get to the next point of geologic interest.

At the very end of the walk, they are standing on a dull pink granite outcropping facing the sea. Bitty reads the booklet.

“Seems this same exact rock has been found in parts of West Africa. When all of the continents were connected together, way back, this place here where we’re standing was latched right onto Africa.”

Alicia looks at the modest rock beneath their feet and shakes her head. “Amazing.”

“Nothing's permanent,” Eric says quietly.

Alicia follows his gaze out across the Atlantic, feeling for a moment as if she can see the coast of Africa moving away from them, just at the horizon. “No, honey. Nothing’s permanent,” she echoes.

*

Eric asks Alicia if she’d be willing to drive back to Providence. Once they are on the road, he opens the window and let's his head rest where the wind can hit his face, eyes closed.

When they cross into Massachusetts to get onto the interstate, he rolls the window up and sits back, but he doesn’t turn music on and he doesn’t speak. Alicia watches him out of the corner of her eye, lets the silence settle into the car.

When Eric finally starts talking, he’s so quiet she almost misses it.

“My daddy told me that college must have gotten me all confused.” His voice is tight and thin. “And mama said I needed to think about how embarrassed I was gonna be once I got straightened back out. She actually said straightened back out without irony.”

Alicia keeps her eyes on the road, even though her heart starts beating hard.

“I always knew Coach would be tough, but I thought…” Eric is quiet for long enough that Alicia thinks he might be finished, but then he pulls in a long breath and says, “I thought she knew. I was a competitive male singles figure skater, for Christ sake. She sewed on the sequins. I asked for a KitchenAid mixer for my last birthday. I’m pretty damn gay.” He’s louder now, there's an edge to his tone. He lets out a shuddery breath. “They’ve been having folks text me to say how they’ll be there for me when I’m ready to come back home and get 'help'. Auntie Kay. My cousin Eliza. Their minister. Mrs. Rask, my fourth grade teacher…” His voice cracks on the last one.

It gets quiet in the car again for a few miles. Blood is pounding in Alicia’s ears, and she finally recognizes her reaction for what it is. She’s furious.

“I didn’t want children.” Alicia hears herself before she even knows she’s ready to speak. “It almost ended things between me and Bobby. The only compromise that I could live with was one. One child. How much effort could one baby be, I thought.” Alicia shakes her head, and she can see Eric huff out a little, confused laugh.

“I never was any good at it. Parenting. I could bore you trying to list all of my mistakes. It’s messy and hard. I’m the first to admit I was quite the narcissist when Jack was small. We hired French au pairs, and they raised him. He didn’t hardly speak a word of English until he was almost nine, and much of that time we lived in Pittsburgh. I was out of the country for half of his childhood.”

“I didn't know that,” Eric says. His eyes look less clouded. Alicia goes on.

“But the surprise was...I loved that funny little baby so much. More than anything. I’d thought I could just create him and then send him out into the world. Turns out it doesn't work quite like that.”

Alicia knows why she’s started talking, what she needs to say, but the next words are hard to make come. She plows ahead. “When Jack overdosed, for twenty-three minutes we thought he’d died.” She can’t look at Eric, but it’s very quiet; she can hardly even hear the roar of the road. “I remember every second of those minutes. I can feel them in my arteries, Eric. There’s part of me that is still sitting there, in that waiting room, believing that he’s gone. That will always be sitting there.” She’s both glad and sorry that she can't look right in Eric’s eyes. “So, honey, if your parents are foolish enough to lose you when they don’t have to, when you are still right fucking here…”

She can’t go on. Her blood feels hot. She has to focus on driving.

Alicia is surprised when Eric speaks to hear how calm his voice is, like he’s actually curious to know what she thinks. “But what if they do? Lose me?”

“Well, then I suppose,” here she sneaks a peek over at the young man next to her, this beautiful young man who loves her son enough to even be in this mess. “Then I suppose you’d still have me.”

"I would?"

"Yes."

Eric doesn’t say anything for several minutes, and Alicia is just about ready to admit this entire conversation has been a disaster, when he says, “Some things take 250 million years to change.”

"I know."

They drive on.

*

They stop at a big chain grocery store and buy a roasted chicken, a container of garlic mashed potatoes from the deli, and a big bottle of wine, then pick a rom-com from the RedBox at the exit. The don’t even talk about comfort food or a night in, it’s just obvious. Standing in the check-out line, Eric hugs Alicia from the side, just for a moment, squeezes hard. Alicia doesn’t even have time to hug him back before he steps away, but she hopes that might mean she hasn’t completely bungled everything.

*

Eric doesn’t retreat to the back rooms of the apartment to call Jack this time. He calls him right from the kitchen where he’s putting the food onto plates, and she can hear his side of the conversation perfectly.

“Sweetheart. No. I’m good. It was a good day. Better, honey. And me and your mama are so into geology now, you would not believe.” His laugh is so clear and bright. Alicia sips her wine and breathes.

“We’re settlin’ in for a movie and some supper. I know. It’s wild round here. No, don’t do that. You need to get some sleep, honey. Jack. I’m okay.”

Eric comes around the corner with the phone, meets Alicia’s eyes. “Do you need to talk with her? She’s right here. Oh. Okay, that will be...Are you sure? You did that? Now don’t you go makin’ me cry, Jack Zimmermann. I’ll text them. Yes, we will.” He looks away, towards the window, and his voice changes entirely. “I know, sweetheart. I love you, too. I just love you so much.”

A deep red flush rises up Eric’s throat as he sets his phone down (still on, Alicia notes; he’d been scrolling through and deleting texts during the last leg of their drive) and dashes off to grab their plates without looking at her. When he comes back, he says, hesitant, “Hope that wasn’t too...you knew that, didn’t you?”

Alicia nods.

“And it doesn’t bother you at all?”

“Eric, hearing you say that is my favorite thing in the entire world.”

The flush reaches his cheeks, but he just looks down and starts into the details of what Jack said, that their friends in Boston want to come down tomorrow if more company is welcome, and what should they plan? But Alicia hears that I just love you so much echoing in her head, and against all odds, she can’t stop smiling.

*

Bobby How was everything today?

Alicia Eric is sound asleep on the sofa. Jack’s coming home tomorrow evening, a day early. I think a group of their friends is joining us in the morning. Right now everyone’s exhausted. Even me.

Alicia You’d think in 26 years of parenting I’d have learned to at least get enough sleep.

Bobby Have we actually learned anything in 26 years of parenting?

Alicia Well, today I learned that 250 million years ago you could stand in Africa at the tip of Rhode Island.

Bobby So that's a yes?

Alicia Oh Bobby. That's a yes.