Back then, when life seemed so simple, before she knew what life was capable of throwing at her, Sylvie was a natural worrier. Anxiety followed her around like a small dank cloud, convincing her that something terrible was just about to happen. As a child, she worried about her mother’s rages, which didn’t stop them coming. As a young woman, she worried about making enough money as a textile designer, which meant she had to supplement her career by painting houses. As a young mother, she worried Eve would roll onto her front and never wake up, and when Jonathan was late home from work, she worried something had happened to him.
She wasn’t worried, however, the morning he sat on her side of the bed, leaning over to tie his cycling shoes before rolling gently on top of her and kissing her, tiptoeing his fingers up her inner thigh as she gave up all pretense of being asleep and giggled, shoving his hand away.
“Nice ass,” she called out, opening one eye as he reached the doorway, causing him to spin and adopt a model pose before blowing her a kiss and clomping down the stairs.
Thirty minutes later, she was cutting a piece of toast into slices for Eve, who was meticulously nibbling up to the crusts before giving each crust a name and personality, dancing them around her small purple melamine plate.
When a police car pulled up outside the window, Sylvie froze. Evie, sensing something, climbed onto her mother’s lap, curling up and sucking her thumb. There was no way they could have known, and yet, they both knew.
Moments later, the doorbell rang; she knew the police were on the other side. Before she even opened the door, she could see their expressions of sympathy, knew they would gently ask her if she knew a Jonathan Haydn; when she said she was his wife, they would look down at the ground for a second, their faces racked with sadness, wishing they didn’t have to tell this young wife and mother that her husband would not be coming home, wishing right now they were anywhere else but here.
* * *
For years, she wasn’t able to say the words that now come so easily, without her throat closing, or her eyes pricking. My first husband died. Brain aneurysm. Yes. It was a tragedy.
Fourteen years later, she can say the words without feeling a wave of loss wash over her. She can, and does, stop suddenly while walking down a street, or in a store, because she has seen someone who has his walk. Or smell. Or hair. But now she can stop, remember, and keep moving, without being engulfed by loss, and grief, and pain.
She moved to La Jolla, found friends through Eve’s kindergarten, was building a new life in which she was, if not happy, content.
She worked in an art gallery part-time, occasionally exhibiting and selling her paintings in one of the cafés in town. She had stopped worrying, waiting for the worst to happen, because it had already happened and she had survived.
On her own for three years after Jonathan’s death, she had become self-sufficient, a tight unit with Eve. Dating didn’t interest her, despite the kind offers to fix her up; neither did the prospect of merging her life with someone else’s. Dating, kissing, making love with someone other than Jonathan would have been a betrayal she wasn’t willing to make.
When she did make it, it didn’t feel like a betrayal. It felt right, as if Jonathan had given her his blessing. Eleven years after meeting Mark, Sylvie does not often indulge memories of Jonathan. As the years have passed, she has, largely out of respect for Mark, allowed them to fade. She was so young when she was with Jonathan, so unaware of the enduring nature of marriage, of the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the work required to keep you in the game.
She had only four years with Jonathan. When he died, they were still in the honeymoon period, never having a chance to reach the stage where they irritated each other, fought over nothing, simply passed each other in the house, barely speaking a word.
Until she met Mark, and for some time afterwards, Sylvie always felt Jonathan was watching over her. She would talk to him in the car; ask him a question, and turn on the radio and find it would be answered by the lyrics of a song; pick up a book and turn to a random page, to find the words that were exactly what she needed to hear.
There is no such thing as coincidence, she would think, blowing a kiss of thanks to the heavens. This is Jonathan, as loud and clear as he is able to be.
* * *
When Mark came along eleven years ago, she knew Jonathan had sent him to her, that it was no coincidence their worlds kept colliding, that this was somehow meant to be.
Even the fact that Mark has always traveled extensively has been a positive. It has allowed her to keep the close bond with Eve, to be present for her in a way she isn’t able to do when Mark is home.
This marriage is entirely different from her first. From the beginning, this felt less like a fairy tale, more real. She and Mark have never lain in bed whispering fantasies about their lives together, shared the wonderment of giving birth; they have not had time together without children, lazing in bed all weekend making love, going out only to run to the deli on the corner for panini and chocolate.
What they do have is what Sylvie now thinks of as grown-up, proper love. She is, still, fiercely attracted to him, respects him enormously, adores how kind he is, how he takes care of them.
She has watched marriages all around them fall apart in the last couple of years. The words “midlife crisis” are whispered in knowing tones as husbands are discovered sleeping with their secretaries, wives having affairs with neighbors or simply leaving to “find themselves.”
Sylvie knew she was safe. Whatever else might come between them, Mark would not have an affair. He was appalled and dismayed each time another couple came undone at the hands of someone else.
“Thank God you, at least, take your marriage vows seriously,” Sylvie’s friend Angie had said, narrowing her eyes as she glanced sideways at her husband. “Him on the other hand? Not so sure. But he knows what’ll happen to him if he even thinks about it.”
They had all laughed, Sylvie with the security of knowing her marriage was sacred. Nothing would ever go wrong.
And yet for the past few months, a lot feels as if it’s not so much going wrong as not going exactly right. Eve will be leaving home to go to college in September, and Sylvie isn’t ready, is starting to feel abandoned, even though rationally, of course, she knew this day was coming, knows Eve has to leave.
Six months ago, her job at the bookstore ended, and the last six months have been spent attempting to look after her mother, doing the odd bit of painting, which no longer holds the thrill it once did, and worrying about what on earth she will do when Eve leaves.
She knows her hormones are playing a part, for her periods are erratic, and Mark has started referring to her PMS as OMS, for “ongoing menstrual stress,” which Sylvie finds either hilarious or infuriating, depending on the day.
She is going through changes; they are going through changes, significant ones, ones in which they will need to support each other, but Mark seems utterly disconnected. He isn’t working out more, hasn’t bought himself a new Ferrari or a new haircut, but he is distracted and unsupportive.
As a result, they have started squabbling in a way they never had before.
After years of knowing exactly where she stood, Sylvie finds that insecurity has pushed its way in the door. Who is she supposed to be if not a mother? If Mark didn’t travel all the time, she would be fine, because she would have the role of wife. It didn’t matter before, because she held the role of full-time mother. With Eve leaving, and no job, how is she supposed to define herself?
Sylvie needs her husband, but he is away more than ever. Sylvie is starting to wonder if her mother’s right: if Mark is having an affair.