“Did you love her?” she asked, even though she’d asked him before.
“No,” he said, and she realized that a small part of her must have still been very worried, because the rush of relief she felt at his denial was surprising in its force.
“Do you miss her?”
His voice was softer, but it was sure. “No.”
“Did you hate her?” she whispered.
He shook his head, and he sounded very sad when he said, “No.”
She didn’t know what else to ask, wasn’t sure what she should ask, so she just waited, hoping he would speak.
And after a very long while, he did.
“She was sad,” he said. “She was always sad.”
Eloise looked up at him, but he did not return the glance. His eyes were on Marina’s portrait, as if he had to look at her while he spoke about her. As if maybe he owed her that.
“She was always somber,” he continued, “always a bit too serene, if that makes any sense, but it was worse after the twins were born. I don’t know what happened. The midwife said it was normal for women to cry after childbirth but that I shouldn’t worry, that it would clear away in a few weeks.”
“But it didn’t,” Eloise said softly.
He shook his head, then harshly brushed one dark lock of hair aside when it fell onto his brow. “It just got worse. I don’t know how to explain it. It was almost as if . . .” He shrugged helplessly as he searched for words, and when he continued, he was whispering. “It was almost as if she’d disappeared. . . . She rarely left her bed. . . . I never saw her smile. . . . She cried a lot. A great deal.”
The sentences came forth, not in a rush, but one at a time, as if each piece of information were being brought forth from his memory in slow succession. Eloise didn’t say anything, didn’t feel it her place to interrupt him or to try to inject her feelings on a matter she knew nothing about.
And then, finally, he turned away from Marina to Eloise, and looked her squarely in the eye.
“I tried everything to make her happy. Everything in my power. Everything I knew. But it wasn’t enough.”
Eloise opened her mouth, made a small sound, the beginnings of a murmur meant to assure him that he’d done his best, but he cut her off.
“Do you understand, Eloise?” he asked, his voice growing louder, more urgent. “It wasn’t enough.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said softly, because even though she hadn’t known Marina as an adult, she knew Phillip, and she knew that had to be the truth.
“Eventually I just gave up,” he said, his voice flat. “I stopped trying to help her at all. I was so sick and tired of beating my head against a wall where she was concerned. And all I tried to do was protect the children, and keep them away when she was in a really bad spell. Because they loved her so much.” He looked at her pleadingly, maybe for understanding, maybe for something else Eloise didn’t understand. “She was their mother.”
“I know,” she said softly.
“She was their mother, and she didn’t . . . she couldn’t . . .”
“But you were there,” Eloise said fervently. “You were there.”
He laughed harshly. “Yes, and a fat lot of good that did them. It’s one thing to be born with one dreadful parent, but to have two? I would never have wished that on my children, and yet . . . here we are.”
“You are not a bad father,” Eloise said, unable to keep the scolding tone out of her voice.
He just shrugged and turned back to the portrait, clearly unable to consider her words.
“Do you know how much it hurt?” he whispered. “Do you have any idea?”
She shook her head, even though he’d turned away.
“To try so hard, so damned hard, and never succeed? Hell—” He laughed, a short, bitter sound, full of self-loathing. “Hell,” he said again, “I didn’t even like her and it hurt so much.”
“You didn’t like her?” Eloise asked, her surprise pitching her words into a different register.
His lips quirked ironically. “Can you like someone you don’t even know?” He turned back to her. “I didn’t know her, Eloise. I was married to her for eight years, and I never knew her.”
“Maybe she didn’t let you know her.”
“Maybe I should have tried harder.”
“Maybe,” Eloise said, infusing her voice with all the surety and conviction she could, “there was nothing more you could have done. Some people are born melancholy, Phillip. I don’t know why, and I doubt anyone knows why, but that’s just the way they are.”
He looked at her sardonically, his dark eyes clearly dismissing her opinion, and so she leapt back in with, “Don’t forget, I knew her, too. As a child, long before you even knew she existed.”
Phillip’s expression changed then, and his gaze grew so intense upon her face that she nearly squirmed under the pressure of it.
“I never heard her laugh,” Eloise said softly. “Not even once. I’ve been trying to remember her better since I met you, trying to recall why my memories of her always seemed so strange and odd, and I think that’s it. She never laughed. Whoever heard of a child who doesn’t laugh?”
Phillip was silent for a few moments, then he said, “I don’t think I ever heard her laugh, either. Sometimes she would smile, usually when the children came to see her, but she never laughed.”
Eloise nodded. And then she said, “I’m not Marina, Phillip.”