03 – The Particular Problem with Parents and other Random Pensées on Marriage, Love and Family

Continued from L’affaire du Collier, or the Affair of the Necklace

“Never rely on the glory of the morning nor the smiles of your mother-in-law,” Japanese proverb

*******

At least the night of the Gilbert Foundation party, Sara hadn’t had a heck of a lot of time to be nervous. With work what it was, she’d barely had enough to shower and dress and make herself look at least halfway presentable. Besides, as her husband was to meet her there after what was now their typical several weeks apart, she was looking forward to at least that part of the evening.

Until she’d arrived only to find her husband hadn’t — and wasn’t.

Honestly, part of her hadn’t been all that surprised. She loved that man, had loved him nearly as long as she could remember, awkwardly, sometimes even angrily, but she loved him all the same. Of course that didn’t mean he didn’t do things that drove her absolutely crazy and all the time.

But Sara, not all that keen on exercises in futility, had no intention whatsoever of changing him. Besides, he was perfectly capable of change all by himself.

However there were times when married or no, Gil Grissom was still Gil Grissom. Which meant he still had his obsessive, absent-minded tendencies. Not calling his wife to tell her he wasn’t coming until after she was already at the event they were both supposed to be attending being a perfect case in point. Although judging from their connection — or lack thereof — perhaps that hadn’t entirely been her husband’s fault. Still —

If only his absence had been the worst of it. That she could have easily rolled with.

Except it was a little hard to just roll with it when the way too attractive, smart, successful and very much adored by your mother-in-law woman you hadn’t known was your husband’s former lover turns up at a murder scene.

Sara genuinely hadn’t known about Julia. Not that that had come as all that much a surprise either. Nor did it have anything to do with them needing to know each other better, as Betty had doggedly maintained. Grissom hadn’t volunteered up information on his relationship with Heather Kessler either. Perhaps there was some comfort to be found in the fact that her husband wasn’t the sort to kiss and tell, but Sara really wasn’t all that keen on being blind-sided.

And blind-sided didn’t begin to cover it.

Even Julia Sara probably could have handled — eventually. But man was it hard not to feel inadequate after such an introduction. With the professor just as distinguished and highly respected an expert in her field as Grissom was in his, no wonder Betty couldn’t help but gush over her. Obviously, Julia Holden was the woman the elder Mrs. Grissom thought her son should have married all along. Unfortunately, it was equally plainly and painfully obvious that Sara was most certainly not.

And Sara had to admit Betty had a point. Confident, uninhibited, accomplished and already part of the world Grissom had grown up in, she couldn’t have come up with a better match. And that was neglecting the fact that Julia was definitely pretty.

Okay, pretty was a gross understatement, and Sara knew it. She certainly hadn’t needed Nick’s Well, she’s really pretty to tell her so. Not that she wanted or had ever wanted Stokes to think of her in that way, but no woman wanted to hear that about her husband’s ex, true or no.

For hard as it was to concede, if only to herself, there were still times, even after all these years, after all Grissom had said and done, when Sara had a hard time fitting herself into the fabric of his life.

She knew he loved her. She did. Didn’t doubt it — or him — for a minute. It was in the way he looked at her, took her hand, kissed her, even when they weren’t alone. In how he touched her when they were. In the most ordinary things on the most ordinary of days. That wasn’t the problem.

It was the why she didn’t always get. Why after all those years, all the women he’d come across, all the choices he’d had, Gil Grissom had chosen her of all people. Sara didn’t understand it. Probably never would. But he had.

Only a few days before, in a bout of self-conscious candor Sara had confessed as much to her husband. That morning, Grissom’s first back in Vegas, the two of them had been curled up together in bed talking in that quiet, comfortable postcoital way of theirs.

And in reply Grissom had said sans preamble, quotation or explanation, “I married you. I only ever wanted to marry you,” with such matter-of-fact frankness, she’d been stunned and simply stared at him for what was probably an inordinately long moment. Something which didn’t seem to disconcert him in the least.

Though he had laughed and Sara, too, when having finally regained some semblance of composure, she had said, unable to resist the tease, “Well, apart from Nicole Daley.”

“And you say I never forget anything,” he’d rejoined with a smirk. But soon his face softened into tenderness as he added in that ever utterly arresting way of his, “Sara, you may not have been my first, but you’ll always be my last.”

No, Sara didn’t doubt it or him for a minute. And she’d certainly never had anyone love her the way Grissom did, however clumsy, messy and problematic as that love had been for so long or how sure, so completely and yet imperfect it still remained.

So it wasn’t the husband or his unexpected and highly inconvenient absence which had bothered Sara. Dead bodies, nearly being blown up twice, that didn’t much faze her either. After nearly fifteen years as a crime scene investigator, those things she could do. True, Julia had been an unpleasant surprise — or at least learning precisely on how intimate a terms the woman had been with Grissom had been — but in the end, Betty Grissom had been worse, far worse.

Sara wasn’t sure what she’d actually expected Betty to be like. However Catherine hadn’t been far off the mark. Like mother like son, indeed. Except there was just something about Betty’s persistent criticism that rankled in ways Grissom’s gentle suggestions never had. Or maybe it was just the newness. Or Sara’s seeming inability to do a single thing that didn’t somehow serve to vex her mother-in-law.

“That’s the problem with marriage,” Doc Robbins had once intoned in that sage way of his, when in response to finding Sara having taken sanctuary down in the morgue, she had provided him with the terse one-word explanation of Betty. “You don’t just marry one person, you marry the whole family.”

As Robbins and his wife Judy had been married, and for all intents and purposes happily so, for more than a quarter of a century, Sara should have gone to him in the first place. If there was anyone she knew qualified to give marital advice, it was Doc. And it wasn’t as if her other coworkers were any real help. Catherine seemed to find the whole thing hilarious. Hodges was just Hodges, there was no helping that. And avoiding Nick, whom Betty had taken quite a shine to for some reason or other, had been part of the reason she’d retreated to the morgue in the first place. That and to cool off and clear her head. After telling off her mother-in-law in the courtyard of Desert Palms, she’d sorely needed it.

“Parents worry,” Robbins supplied as over cups of his illicitly brewed coffee, Sara finished giving him the Cliff Notes version of her latest trials and tribulations of the querulous mother-in-law variety. “It’s normal.”

Sara had a hard time keeping the incredulity out of her, “Even when their children are over fifty?”

“Even then.”

She sipped at her coffee for a minute, appreciating the fact that her husband had indeed been right, big surprise. Apart from Greg’s occasional outside offerings, the M.E. did have the best coffee in the building.

“You get along with Judy’s parents okay?” she asked after a while.

“We’ve had our moments,” Doc freely admitted. “Mostly it was her father with the problem. Kept asking when I was going to start being a proper doctor with proper patients.

“Asked pretty much every time we met until the day he died. But it stopped being a problem after a while. Selective hearing,” he supplied at Sara’s inquiring look. “Comes in handy. Works with spouses, too,” he added with a grin.

Sara smiled in reply, until Doc ever solicitous asked, “Gil, get along with your family okay?”

Really not wanting to open that can of worms, she hastily replied, “Yeah, fine.”

Mercifully, Robbins didn’t press. Instead, putting down his cup and picking up his scalpel in preparation for a y-incision on a recent hit-and-run victim, he said, “Sara, just don’t try too hard.”

To which she let out a nervous chuckle. “You’ve met Betty. I’m not sure that’s possible.”

Having lately and repeatedly been on the receiving end of Betty Grissom’s disapproval, Sara was only all too acutely aware of just how pervasive it could be. No wonder Grissom had grown up to be an almost obsessive workaholic. Not that Sara could exactly talk, but still.

“Just give it some time,” insisted Doc gently. “These things usually work out.”

Sara was almost afraid to ask. “And if they don’t?”

“Be glad Christmas only comes but once a year.”

Thankfully, it hadn’t gotten as bad as that. Though what exactly had precipitated Betty showing up at the lab African violets in hand, had left Sara in some ways equally baffled. But she wasn’t about to complain.

By that time, she had and in rather quick succession too, been flagrantly wrong about Julia Holden’s role in Dr. Lambert’s murder and in a fit of frustrated pique, not so gently told off her mother-in-law. All in all, none of it had been one of her finer moments.

She’d certainly never wanted for her husband’s good counsel more. Marbles only went so far. And he’d been utterly incommunicado for nearly the better part of a week.

Of course by the time they were finally able to catch up, Sara hadn’t exactly been in a hurry to confess to the mess she had made. Listening to her husband detail his entomological finds from 2,000 plus year old Mochican mass graves was, while granted a little gruesome, way, way more interesting. And Sara had the distinct feeling that if Betty hadn’t shown up at just the moment she had, Grissom’s comment of Good, you kept busy, would have only served as a preamble to a significantly longer and probing Q & A.

And she really hadn’t been in the mood for any more questions.

Frankly, she was tired of them, all the questions and the probably well meant, but definitely misplaced, worry. She didn’t understand the big deal. Never had.

She didn’t worry. Grissom didn’t worry. That was what mattered.

Or at least what should.

Didn’t quite work out that way.

Still, it had been fairly easy to laugh off the faintly concerned and curious questions of her coworkers, even Greg’s rather pointed Sometimes I wonder if you two are really married. The same from her mother-in-law, not so much.

Did she miss being with her husband?

What kind of a fool question was that? Hell, yes, of course she did. Everyday.

Would she rather have him home with her or to be wherever he was? Not to have to spend nights and days and weeks apart? Of course she did.

For one, despite Grissom’s cover stealing and snoring, she always slept better with him in the bed beside her. And two, well Betty didn’t need to know about two — or three or four for that matter. Sara wasn’t about to intentionally tell tales about their sex life to anyone, particularly not her mother-in-law and from the way he practically bolted off the phone when his mother merely mentioned the subject, her husband wasn’t about to either.

Ultimately though, she simply enjoyed being with him. Had nearly always had — all those months they were actively avoiding each other at all costs all those years ago notwithstanding. At work his presence had made some of the worst crime scenes a bit more bearable. Outside of work, beyond the lab, he’d enriched her life in ways she couldn’t even begin to measure.

Albeit after more than half a lifetime alone, it was still strange sometimes, sharing a life together. Still strange to want — to need — someone beside you when you slept. To look forward to seeing that familiar smile from across the table. To have someone to note and notice the minutia of the day for in order to relate it later.

And no, it wasn’t about just knowing you weren’t alone. It was knowing you were in this life together. Even when together these days frequently involved being four to six thousand miles apart at any given time.

True, it was never the same as being in the same place, but in that voice on the other end of the line, in the email waiting in her inbox, in the brief and fleeting chime of a text, they were together then, too.

It was unconventional. This Sara knew; would and had frankly admitted as much.

She was just tired of feeling as if they had to justify their choices to the rest of the world, particularly when all she wanted was to love and be loved by him in all the imperfect ways they knew how.

Besides, who gets to decide what marriage is anyway?

When she and Grissom married there hadn’t been the usual promises to love, honor and obey, mentions of in sickness and in health or for richer or for poorer, not even till death do you part, because those weren’t the words either of them needed to say that day. Instead they promised harder things.

Absently fingering her wedding band, Sara recalled that evening, bright and beautiful as it had been. Remembered him saying as he’d slipped it on her finger, “With this ring, I promise to believe in you, dream with you, hope and trust in you.

“I promise to be there with you to celebrate the good times, but also to be a light and comfort in the dark ones, as you have been for me.”

Good thing she had gone first. There was no following that. Not that she could have. There just weren’t words. And if there had been, her mouth at that moment lacked the ability to move. Merely breathing had been an accomplishment, dumbstruck as she’d been.

And while she had sworn she was not going to fall prey to the cliché and cry, there had been happy tears then. They’d begun to itch at the corner of her eyes when she’d taken up his hand; blurred her vision in earnest as she’d said, “Gil, I love you and I will always love you, support you, dream and hope with you, grow with you.”

Then there was no blinking them back when easing the simple gold band over his knuckles, she added, “With this ring, I give to you what has always been yours: my heart and all that I am and all I will become.”

Yes, those were the promises you wanted not just to make, but keep. And for the most part they had.

Two, three, four, five, six thousand miles or more between them didn’t make them any less married, any less committed to each other or the life they were working to build together.

Anyway, it was all just supposed to be temporary, her going back to work in Vegas. A few weeks to help out. But then a few weeks quickly became a few months. And those few months, a year and then nearly half that again. What else was there to do, their grant perpetually stuck in pending limbo? But then bureaucracy always did have a timing all its own and one which seldom had anything to do with real time. Already Grissom’s tenure at the Sorbonne had come to an end, and yet they were still waiting.

So Sara continued at the lab and her husband took whatever consulting work came his way. Not that there was a dearth of it, quite the contrary. Grissom had never been so popular, or so Sara frequently teased. Sadly, none of the assignments were local and most kept him away for weeks at a time. It wasn’t exactly the most optimal situation. Nor the most romantic. Practical though. And truth be told, the two of them tended more to the practical than romantic, with a few rather notable exceptions.

And of course they both would rather be together. Sara certainly didn’t relish having him away three weeks out of four or more. But there was no way in hell she was going to ask him to give up his work, his career for her. He’d done that once already. And that was more than enough. She wasn’t about to ask him to do it again. And she knew he wasn’t about to ask her either.

Besides, it was just far too good to see Grissom excited as he was these days. Good to see his whole face light up, his eyes twinkle again, him beam, vibrant, enthusiastic, alive like he hadn’t been when she’d left him and Vegas that second time. Now that irresistible boyish wonder of his, the one she’d fallen in love with all those years ago, was thankfully and wonderfully back.

And somehow it worked. It did, their life together apart.

So until their grant came through they Skyped or spoke or texted everyday or tried to. Saw each other once a month. Yet even continents apart, they shared mealtime discussions, regaled each other with anecdotes and incidents from their days, confessed setbacks and frustrations all in ways not unlike how they did when they lived under the same roof. Thanks to the Internet, they’d even been able to listen to baseball games together, something Sara had been surprised to discover she rather enjoyed.

All in all, even with them so much apart, it was a far better life than she could have ever managed to imagine for herself. Sure, it wasn’t all wine and roses. But then Sara wasn’t all that much into either wine or roses. And no, things weren’t perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. But it was a good life, a sweet life, la dolce vida as the Italians were wont to say. And one she valued accordingly.

Acceptance. Hope. Love. Home. Family. Perhaps against all odds, she’d found that with him and he with her.

And family wasn’t a word Sara bandied about lightly, not really having one since she was twelve and even then her family hadn’t been a family in any conventional sense of the word. And that had been gone in barely the space of a heartbeat and a scream.

She and Grissom, they were a family, and if only a family in a very small way, a family all their own all the same.

But Sara had no real way to tell Betty this. Not beyond what she’d already angrily, despairingly tried to convey that day at Desert Palms.

Of course that hadn’t kept her mother-in-law from asking anyway. During one of their lunches, one of those which she had, as Grissom had reminded her only minutes before, survived just fine, Betty had not unsurprisingly asked after her daughter-in-law’s family.

Grissom obviously hadn’t told his mother anything of Sara’s history. He hadn’t told anyone as far as she knew, ever holding as he did to the belief that it was her story to tell or not and when she was ready. That afternoon at lunch, Sara hadn’t quite been, but not because of all her usual reasons: hurt, fear, shame, all her decades of secrets.

Later, Sara had awkwardly signed after a long moment of silence and stillness.

Then taking a deep breath, she’d said, giving the neatly dressed translator Betty had brought along a hesitant smile, “When my signing is better. I want to tell you myself.”

Strangely, Betty seemed to understand and like Doc, hadn’t pressed. She only nodded and giving her daughter-in-law a soft, sympathetic smile, very much like Sara had seen Grissom wear from time to time, she squeezed her hand in a way Sara recognized as one of her mother-in-law’s rare gestures of genuine affection.

Maybe these things really did have a way of working out given time.

Perhaps, Sara thought, life was a little like that amber necklace Grissom had given her. What ultimately gave it its real value turned out not to be its perfections, but rather its imperfections. And ultimately it was the moments, small as they were, which mattered most and lasted longest.

Okay, maybe that hadn’t been the message her husband intended. Probably he meant no meaning at all. He’d simply seen the pendant and thought it would suit her, just as he’d said. Though knowing her husband as she did, Sara was fairly certain there was more to it than he was telling. There usually was with him.

Still, she could almost hear him intone in that airy, yet erudite way he reserved for quotations, “Sometimes a necklace is just a necklace, my dear.”

Then as if the mere thought of him could conjure him into being, there was Grissom standing in the doorway to their bedroom, coat donned and hers in hand saying, “Sara, it’s nearly seven. If we don’t hurry –”

But the rest of his admonishment was and without warning, cut off with a kiss.

Even though he soon and almost instinctively relaxed into it and her, when they eventually broke apart, he couldn’t keep the surprise out of his stammer of “What was that for?”

“I love you,” was all Sara replied.

Which was ever answer enough.

He beamed and tugging her to him, readily returned her kiss with equal ardor.

Sara almost sighed. But then a kiss was never just a kiss with him. It never had been.

“So are you ready yet?” he asked after a time.

“Just need you to zip me up.”

His fingers dawdled about the nape of her neck before slipping slowly down her spine then lingered overlong over the tab.

“Gil,” she actually did sigh, busying herself with the unnecessary straightening of his tie, “You keep looking at me like that and we really will be late.”

For his eyes had deepened, softened into that openly affectionate, intimate sort of gaze.

“Need I remind you,” he said above the obedient rasp of the zip, “you kissed me first.”

Though he was the one who leaned in to kiss her a third time.

“Speaking of kissing,” Sara laughed, rubbing the telltale traces of lipstick from his face. “Although, maybe I should have left it. Give your mother ideas.”

Genuinely at ease for the first time in hours, she grinned. Inexplicable and sudden as it was, the butterflies were gone and Sara found herself not nearly nervous or worried or even concerned.

Perhaps both her husband and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had a point. La vie nous a enseigné que l’amour ne consiste pas en regardant à l’un l’autre mais en regardant à l’extérieur ensemble en même direction. Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.

And that, that Sara could do. Even when it meant dinner with Betty.

Grissom having already helped her on with her coat, Sara extended her hand, insisting, “Keys. I’m driving. You two can gossip all you want in the back.”

*******

A/N: Want to find out what happens when Grissom takes Sara up on her challenge about the dress? See “A Team Effort.”

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