"Twelve. Junior was only a year younger than me, and he wouldn't mind me. Joleen, she was a couple years younger than him, so she'd've been eight, I guess, and she cried for a whole day. I never saw anybody cry like that before or since," Zoe said with a sigh. "Mazie, the baby, was five, so she didn't really understand what was going on, but she knew something was up. I couldn't hardly take my eyes off her for a minute. I didn't know what I was going to do if we ran out of food or money to buy more."
She shifted to sit in the chair, dangling the wineglass between her knees. "But she came back. I remember thinking how tired she looked, and how hard. But she was going to look more tired, more hard before it was done. She did her best for us. She did all she could, but I don't know that she ever loved us again. I don't know if she could."
She looked up at him then. "Those are the people I come from. I wanted you to know."
"Are you telling me that because you think it'll change my feelings for you? That if I find your parents irresponsible and selfish I'll stop loving you?"
Wine sloshed over the rim of her glass when her hand jerked. "Don't say that. Don't say something about love when you don't even know me."
"I know you, Zoe. Do you want me to tell you what I know? What I see, what I feel?"
She shook her head. "God. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I don't know how to make you understand how this twists me around. How I'm afraid if I let go again, I could end up dried up inside, too."
"The way you let go with James Marshall?"
She sighed. "I loved him. Bradley, I loved him so much. It was like being inside a crystal bowl, where everything was so shiny and bright. It wasn't just something reckless, something careless between us."
He sat down with her. 'Tell me. I need to know," he said when she hesitated. "And if that's not enough, going back over it, with me, might be one of the steps toward the key."
"I'm not ashamed." She spoke quietly. "It's not that I'm ashamed, but that some of it—the things that happened, the things I felt—have always been just for me. But you deserve to hear it."
He touched the back of her hand, then let her go. "How did you meet him?"
"I guess you could say it was through our mothers. Mrs. Marshall, she had my mama do her hair. Sometimes she'd have Mama come out to her house before a party, or before she was going somewhere special, to do her up. Maybe I'd go along, give Mrs. Marshall a manicure, or do the shampoo. She was nice to me. She was always very kind, and not snooty. Well, not very," she corrected.
"She would talk to me, and she'd answer questions if I asked about the pictures on the walls or the flowers on the dresser. She'd ask me about school, or boys. And she'd always slip me an extra five dollars when my mother wasn't looking.
"James was off at school. I'd see him once in a while, but he never noticed me. And I'd look at his pictures on Mrs. Marshall's bureau. He was so handsome, like a knight or a prince, so maybe I fell a little bit in love that way. Girls do."
"So do boys," Brad added.
"Maybe. They gave a lot of parties in the big house. Mrs. Marshall, she loved giving parties. She hired me to help with the serving for some of them, and even bought me a good black skirt and a white blouse so I'd look nice. They had a party in the spring, and James was home from school. He noticed me."
She looked down at her wine as if she'd forgotten it was there. Gathering her thoughts, she took a slow sip. "He followed me back to the kitchen, and he was talking to me, flirting. I was so shy, and he made me clumsy. But he was so sweet about it. After it was over, and things were cleaned up, he drove me home."
She lifted her shoulders, let them fall. "I wasn't supposed to take rides from boys, so I shouldn't have let him drive me. I knew his mama wouldn't like it if she found out. And mine? She'd've skinned me. But I couldn't help it. Just like I couldn't help seeing him again. Sneaking out to see him, because his parents and my mama, they wouldn't have allowed it. That only made it more exciting, more wonderful. Like Romeo and Juliet. I was young enough, and so was he, to think like that. To slide right into love without thinking about anything else."
She looked at Brad, and could read his thoughts. "You're thinking he took advantage of me, that he was using me, but it wasn't like that. Maybe he didn't love me, not the way I loved him. But he thought he did. He was only nineteen, and caught up in the romance of it the same as I was."
"Zoe, at nineteen, with his background, his lifestyle, he knew a lot more about… life than you did."
"Maybe. Maybe that's true, especially since I didn't know much of anything. But he didn't push me, Bradley. I don't want you to think that. He didn't insist or demand, and he wasn't any more to blame than I was. It just happened."
"And when you told him you were pregnant?"
She took a breath, long and slow. "I didn't even know I was for over two months. I wasn't very smart about that kind of thing. It was September before I was sure, and he was away at college. When he came home one weekend, I told him. He was angry, and he was scared. And I guess, looking at it from here, I can see it was already fading for him. Here he is, off at college with all those exciting things happening, and some girl at home he's already losing interest in comes up pregnant."
"Yeah, his bad luck."
She had to smile a little. "You're awfully hard on him."
"A hell of a lot harder if I had the chance." Annoyed, he got up to pour another half glass of wine. "Maybe part of it's jealousy. But the bigger part is knowing he let you go through this alone."
"He said we'd do the right thing, that he'd stand by me. I believe he meant it, even though he was scared and angry. I believe he meant it when he said it."
"Words are cheap."
"Yes, they are." She nodded slowly while Brad wandered around the room. "Someone like you, you'd have meant them, and you'd have followed through with them. Not everyone's built the same. And sometimes the right thing isn't what you think it is. I'm where I am because he didn't follow through, so it was the right thing. For me and for Simon."