Despite the house being spotless, Mary couldn’t help going into several cleaning frenzies. She cleaned like mad when she was anxious or upset. When she decided to make Phoenix’s birthday a small, private, family affair, she was happy to invite John because she knew it would make their daughter happy. However, it didn’t occur to her until the morning of the party that he would actually be stepping foot in the house. Apart from making the phone call to invite him, the last time she spoke to him was when they made the co-parenting arrangements, and that was done over the phone. She hadn’t seen his face since the night he left. Between realizing she still wore her wedding ring and seeing John again, her nerves were frayed, but why? Did it mean anything? She didn’t think she still had feelings for him; the divorce was her idea after all. Maybe it was too soon. Perhaps she needed to get used to him not being around before interacting with him again, but it was too late. He was on his way.
The guest would be arriving within the hour, and Mary was a nervous wreck. She tried to turn her attention to Phoenix, but she knew her behavior would seem forced and hokey.
“Are you excited about your teen birthday, my darling?” she asked in a voice nearly an octave higher than usual.
Luckily for her, Phoenix was super excited and matched her energy.
“I am soooooooooooo excited! I’ve been waiting allllllllllll week for this!”
Mary was glad she was excited…and that she didn’t hear any more about Kaiden not coming.
The side door opened, and she knew it was the other children.
“Hi Susie,” Phoenix yelled.
“Hey. Happy birthday,” Susie said casually.
“Hello, darling,” Mary said. “Where is Tim?”
“Excuse me,” Susie said and squeezed past Mary.
“Oh,” Mary said as her body was pushed out of the spot it occupied. She tried to maintain her smile, but it was difficult not to retaliate.
Phoenix struck up a conversation with Susie, and Mary took the opportunity to walk away with her hurt feelings. Even if she did not completely understand why she was never in Susie’s good graces, there was no cause for rudeness. She was taught better, but she made Mary feel like she thought good manners weren’t necessary at home.
There was a knock at the front door. Both Mary and Phoenix gasped for different reasons.
“DADDY’S HERE,” Phoenix shouted and bolted toward the door.
Mary took a few moments to gather herself while she had the time.
“Daaaaddyyyyyyyyy,” Mary heard Phoenix yell from the porch.
“Happy birthday, my love,” John said.
His voice frayed her nerves even more. For a split second, she wished she would have let Phoenix invite her friends. The party would have cost more than Mary wanted to spend, but at least the house would have been full of people with fewer opportunities to run into him. She still wasn’t quite sure what she was feeling.
She heard the door open again and knew she couldn’t hide in the kitchen forever. Despite all the objections she had, there was no way she was not going to be a good host. That would be un-Mary-like. She took a deep breath, cleared her throat, threw on The Mary™, and headed to the living room to greet him. He was already taking a seat next to Susie when she crossed into the living room.
“Hello, John,” she said as pleasantly as she could.
“Hello, Mary,” he said equally as pleasant.
She sat on the sofa across from them, and Phoenix did the same but not without a stern warning to her mother.
“You better behave,” Phoenix warned as she crossed in front of Mary.
“Phoenix,” Mary whispered. “I always behave!”
“Susie come sit next to me!” Phoenix grinned at her mother mischievously.
To Mary’s surprise, Susie did get up, so Mary had no choice but to take the seat next to John.
“Daddy, what’d ya bring me?”
“Lots of love,” he said and blew her a kiss.
She wasn’t looking for it, but Mary just happened to notice that John still wore his ring as well and wondered if his reason was the same as hers. They were married to each other for their entire adult lives, and routines were difficult to undo. At least she hoped that was the reason and not some subliminal sign that he wanted her back. That was also the moment she noticed she put hers on yet again and promised to stow it away somewhere so she couldn’t see it anymore.
“You’re looking well,” he said to her.
She wondered why he sounded nervous. Was he struggling like her?
“So do you.” She cleared her throat. “Things going well at work?”
He nodded. “As well as they can.”
He looked like he wanted to say more but was holding back. Instead of sharing, he returned a similar sentiment.
“I hear you’re working with the mayor. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
He sounded genuine. She hoped he was. He was very good at turning compliments into snide remarks. Needless to say, there was never a question where Susie got her attitude from.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Mary said. “Just a bit of luck.”
His interest surprised her.
“Eliza connected me to the mayor’s assistant.”
John’s eyes went wide and flicked toward Phoenix–probably to see if she was listening in case he needed to guard his tongue.
“Well…that is a bit of luck,” he said.
“No one was more surprised than me, I assure you,” Mary said.
As the conversation went on, she was glad her nerves settled along with the anxiety. They fell into step like old times when they were forced to have civil small talk except for this time there seemed to be genuine interest on both sides. She hoped it wasn’t wrong to wonder how he was doing. After being with him for so long, she couldn’t be expected to divorce him and immediately forget about him.
She heard the clanging of porcelain against the counter in the kitchen. “That must be Tim. Excuse me.”
She got up to greet her son. He was sitting at the island preparing to devour a plate of the Caprese salad she prepared for them. He had on an outfit even more hideous than the last one he wore, and she wondered what was going on with him. He was always a bit strange, and she never completely understood him, but something was off.
Phoenix interrupted her thoughts.
“Mom, can I blow out the candles now?”
“Don’t you want us all to eat dinner together first?”
“We can eat lateeeer,” she whined. “Pleeeease?”
“Ok, why not,” Mary said and lit the candles.
The family gathered around, sang the birthday tune, and made a ruckus in celebration of the next chapter of her life. She blew on the candles with all her might and stared at the whispy smoke rising from the wicks as if she were making an extra effort to solidify her wish before the age-up powers overtook her.
Mary hoped with all her might that Phoenix’s teen years would be smooth sailing and nothing like her sister’s.
When Phoenix came out of the spin, she laughed.
“These glasses are funny! I think I might keep them.”
Mary hoped she wasn’t being serious.
In teen-like fashion, Phoenix took a quick selfie of her pre-makeover look to place it in the annals of Phoenix Jones history.
John chuckled. “I don’t know, Mary…the glasses are kind of charming, don’t you think?”
She looked at her child who was snapping her picture. As tacky as they were, she didn’t look horrible in the glasses. She thought Phoenix was a beautiful young lady and was proud of her despite not having accomplished anything yet. She was the spitting image of herself minus her father’s eyes, just like her brother. Mary stifled a laugh as she considered how terrible John was at being a husband yet how grateful she was for his assistance in creating such good looking children.
Despite how clueless she acted in regard to Susie’s issues with her, there was one thing she did recognize. She hadn’t been very supportive of what her children wanted to do when it was in opposition of what she wanted them to do. If she had any hope of not repeating the past, she needed to try to be more accepting of Phoenix’s choices.
“Well…” She cleared her throat. “If Phoenix wants to wear them…she…should do that.”
She couldn’t believe those words came out of her mouth. Neither could Susie.
“Are you serious?” Susie asked.
Mary conveniently ignored the question and grabbed a plate of salad. She was also saved by Phoenix playfully berating Tim.
“Hello, stranger. You show up to my party just in time for cake? Not cool!”
“Happy birthday, Phoe.”
Everyone grabbed a plate of whatever they were going to eat and settled in their seats except Phoenix. She stood between her mother and brother smiling. Mary grinned for she knew she had succeeded in making her happy. Despite all the drama she inflicted on herself previously, she was glad to have just the five of them.
The evening was smooth sailing for the rest of the night. Everyone was on their best behavior despite still feeling quiet angst from Susie. Mary even had a short conversation or two with John that didn’t feel forced. She was proud of herself. She kept her opinions to herself, her birthday girl was happy, and she didn’t freak out about anything anyone said or what they were wearing. She was proud and hoped everyone else was too.
After everyone finished eating, Mary happily collected the plates to wash. John and Tim were talking, and the sight warmed her heart. She never felt they connected as a father and son should and hoped they were having a better relationship now that they were apart.
Phoenix got up. “Well…not that I don’t look totally awesome in this outfit, buuuuuut it has ta go!” She slipped into the bathroom.
Mary breathed a sigh of relief. Thank the Watcher!
Minutes later, Phoenix emerged with a new, interesting outfit.
She stepped toward her mother sheepishly. “What do you think?”
“Uhhh…it’s…it’s cute,” Mary said. “But…why the hat?”
Phoenix shrugged. “Because it’s funny!”
Oh dear Watcher…please don’t let me now be raising a clown!