Whenever I hear of someone else’s tragedy, I do not dwell on the accident or diagnosis, or even the initial shock waves or aftermath of grief. Instead, I find myself reconstructing those fi nal ordinary moments. Moments that make up our lives. Moments that were blissfully taken for granted ---and that likely would have been forgotten altogether but for what followed.
The before snapshots.
I can so clearly envision the thirty-four-year-old woman in the shower one Saturday evening, reaching for her favorite apricot body scrub, contemplating what to wear to the party, hopeful that the cute guy from the coff ee shop will make an appearance, when she suddenly happens upon the unmistakable lump in her left breast.
Or the devoted young father, driving his daughter to buy her first-day-of-school Mary Janes, cranking up “Here Comes the Sun” on the radio, informing her for the umpteenth time that the Beatles are “without a doubt the greatest band of all time,” as the teenaged boy, bleary-eyed from too many late-night Budweisers, runs the red light.
Or the brash high school receiver, full of promise and pride, out on the sweltering practice field the day before the big football game, winking at his girlfriend at her usual post by the chain-link fence, just before leaping into the air to make the catch nobody else could have made --- and then twisting, falling headfirst on that sickening, fluke angle.
I think about the thin, fragile line separating all of us from misfortune, almost as a way of putting a few coins in my own gratitude meter, of safeguarding against an after happening to me. To us. Ruby and Frank, Nick and me. Our foursome --- the source of both my greatest joys and most consuming worries.
And so, when my husband’s pager goes off while we are at dinner, I do not allow myself to feel resentment or even disappointment. I tell myself that this is only one meal, one night, even though it is our anniversary and the first proper date Nick and I have had in nearly a month, maybe two. I have nothing to be upset about, not compared to what someone else is enduring at this very instant. This will not be the hour I will have to rewind forever. I am still among the lucky ones.
“Shit. I’m sorry, Tess,” Nick says, silencing his pager with his thumb, then running his hand through his dark hair. “I’ll be right back.”
I nod my understanding and watch my husband stride with sexy, confident purpose toward the front of the restaurant where he will make the necessary call. I can tell, just by the sight of his straight back and broad shoulders navigating deftly around the tables, that he is steeling himself for the bad news, preparing to fix someone, save someone. It is when he is at his best. It is why I fell in love with him in the first place, seven years and two children ago.
Nick disappears around the corner as I draw a deep breath and take in my surroundings, noticing details of the room for the fi rst time. The celadon abstract painting above the fireplace. The soft flicker of candlelight. The enthusiastic laughter at the table next to ours as a silver-haired man holds court with what appears to be his wife and four grown children. The richness of the cabernet I am drinking alone.
Minutes later, Nick returns with a grimace and says he’s sorry for the second, but certainly not the last, time.
“It’s okay,” I say, glancing around for our waiter.
“I found him,” Nick says. “He’s bringing our dinner to go.”
I reach across the table for his hand and gently squeeze it. He squeezes mine back, and as we wait for our fi llets to arrive in Styrofoam, I consider asking what happened as I almost always do. Instead, I simply say a quick prayer for the people I don’t know, and then one for my own children, tucked safely into their beds.
I picture Ruby, softly snoring, all twisted in her sheets, wild even in her sleep. Ruby, our precocious, fearless firstborn, four going on fourteen, with her bewitching smile, dark curls that she makes even tighter in her self-portraits, too young to know that as a girl she is supposed to want the hair she does not have, and those pale aquamarine eyes, a genetic feat for her brown-eyed parents. She has ruled our home and hearts since virtually the day she was born --- in a way that both exhausts me and fi lls me with awe. She is exactly like her father --- stubborn, passionate, breathtakingly beautiful. A daddy’s girl to the core.
And then there’s Frank, our satisfying baby boy with a cuteness and sweetness that exceeds the mere garden- variety- baby cute and sweet, so much so that strangers in the grocery store stop and remark. He is nearly two, but still loves to cuddle, nestling his smooth round cheek against my neck, fi ercely devoted to his mama. He’s not my favorite, I swear to Nick in private when he smiles and accuses me of this parental transgression. I do not have a favorite, unless perhaps it is Nick himself. It is a diff erent kind of love, of course.
The love for my children is without condition or end, and I would most certainly save them over Nick, if, say, all three were bitten by rattlesnakes on a camping trip and I only had two antivenin shots in my backpack. And yet, there is nobody I’d rather talk to, be near, look at, than my husband, an unprecedented feeling that overcame me the moment we met.
Our dinner and check arrive moments later, and Nick and I stand and walk out of the restaurant into the star- fi lled, purple night. It is early October, but feels more like winter than fall --- cold even by Boston standards --- and I shiver beneath my long cashmere coat as Nick hands the valet our ticket and we get into our car. We leave the city and drive back to Wellesley with little conversation, listening to one of Nick’s many jazz CDs.
Thirty minutes later, we are pulling up our tree-lined driveway.
“How late do you think you’ll be?”
“Hard to say,” Nick says, putting the car into park and leaning across the front seat to kiss my cheek. I turn my face toward him and our lips softly meet.
“Happy anniversary,” he whispers.
“Happy anniversary,” I say.
He pulls away, and our eyes lock as he says, “To be continued?”
“Always,” I say, forcing a smile and slipping out of the car.
Before I can close the door, Nick turns up the volume of his music, dramatically punctuating the end of one eve ning, the start of another. As I let myself in the house, Vince Guaraldi’s “Lullaby of the Leaves” echoes in my head where it remains long after I’ve paid the babysitter, checked on the kids, changed out of my backless black dress, and eaten cold steak at the kitchen counter.
Much later, having turned down Nick’s side of the bed and crawled into my own, I am alone in the dark, thinking of the call in the restaurant. I close my eyes, wondering whether we are ever truly blindsided by misfortune. Or, somehow, somewhere, in the form of empathy or worry or a premonition deep within ourselves, do we feel it coming?
I fall asleep, not knowing the answer. Not knowing that this will be the night I will return to, after all.
Valerie knew she should’ve said no --- or more accurately stuck to no, the answer she gave Charlie the first dozen times he begged her to go to the party. He had tried every angle, including the “I don’t have a daddy or a dog” guilt trip, and when that got him nowhere, he enlisted the support of his uncle Jason, who was longer on charm than anyone Valerie knew.
“Oh, come on, Val,” he said. “Let the kid have a little fun.”
Valerie shushed her twin brother, pointing toward the family room where Charlie was building an elaborate Lego dungeon. Jason repeated himself verbatim, this time in an exaggerated whisper as Valerie shook her head, declaring that six years old was too young for a sleepover, especially one outdoors in a tent. It was a familiar exchange as Jason habitually accused his sister of being overprotective and too strict with her only child.
“Right,” he said, smirking at her. “I’ve heard that bear attacks are on the rise in Boston.”
“Very funny,” Valerie said, going on to explain that she didn’t know the boy’s family well enough, and what she had gleaned of them, she didn’t much like.
“Lemme guess --- they’re loaded?” Jason asked teasingly, pulling up his jeans, which had a way of sliding down his spindly frame, exposing the waistband of his boxers. “And you don’t want him mixing with that kind?”
Valerie shrugged and surrendered to her smile, wondering how he had guessed. Was she that predictable? And how, she wondered for the millionth time, could she and her twin brother be so different when they had grown up together in the same brown-shingled house in their Irish- Catholic neighborhood in Southbridge, Massachusetts?
They were best friends, sharing the same bedroom until they were twelve when Jason moved to the drafty attic to give his sister more space. With dark hair, almond- shaped blue eyes, and fair skin, they even looked alike, often being confused for identical twins as babies. Yet according to their mother, Jason had come out of the womb smiling, while Valerie emerged scowling and worried --- which was how things remained throughout their childhood, Valerie the shy loner, riding on the coattails of her popular, outgoing, older-by-four-minutes brother.
And now, thirty years later, Jason was as happy as ever, an easygoing optimist, flitting from one hobby and job to the next, utterly comfortable in his own skin, especially since coming out of the closet just after their father died during their senior year in high school. A classic underachiever, he now worked in a coffee shop on Beacon Hill, making friends with everyone who walked through the door, making friends wherever he went, just as he always had.
Meanwhile, Valerie still felt defensive and out of place much of the time, despite all of her accomplishments. She had worked so hard to escape Southbridge, graduating at the top of their high school class, attending Amherst College on a full scholarship, then going to work as a paralegal at a top Boston law firm while she studied for the LSAT and saved money for law school. She told herself that she was as good as anyone, and smarter than most, yet she never truly felt a sense of belonging after leaving her hometown. Meanwhile, the more she achieved, the more she felt disconnected from her old friends, especially her best friend, Laurel, who had grown up three houses down from Val and Jason.
This feeling, subtle and hard to pinpoint at first, culminated in a complete falling- out one summer during a barbecue at Laurel’s house. After a few drinks, Valerie had made an off handed remark about Southbridge being suffocating, Laurel’s fiancé even more so. She was only trying to help, even suggesting that Laurel move into her small Cambridge apartment, but she regretted it as soon as the words were out, doing her best to suck back the comments and apologizing profusely in the days that followed. But Laurel, who had always been quick-tempered, summarily wrote Valerie off , spreading rumors of her snobbishness among their old circle of friends --- girls who, like Laurel, lived with their high-school boyfriends- turned-husbands in the same neighborhoods they’d grown up in, frequented the same bars on the weekends, and worked the same dreary nine- to- five jobs their parents held.
Valerie did her best to counter these accusations, and managed to fix things on a surface level, but short of moving back to Southbridge, there was really nothing she could do to return to the way things once were. It was during this lonely time that Valerie started acting out in ways she couldn’t explain, doing all the things she’d vowed never to do --- specifically, falling in love with the wrong guy, getting pregnant right before he left her, and jeopardizing her plans for law school. Years later, she sometimes wondered if she had subconsciously tried to sabotage her own efforts to fully escape Southbridge and create a different kind of life for herself --- or perhaps she just didn’t feel worthy of the Harvard Law School acceptance letter she hung on her refrigerator along with her ultrasound photographs.
In any case, she felt caught between two worlds, too proud to crawl back to Laurel and her old friends and too embarrassed by her pregnancy to maintain her college friendships or forge new ones at Harvard. Instead, she felt more alone than ever, struggling to make it through law school while caring for a newborn. Jason understood how tough things were for her during those early months and years of motherhood. He could plainly see how overwhelmed she was by constant exhaustion and work and worry, and had endless respect for how hard his sister worked to support herself and her son. Yet he couldn’t understand why she insisted on walling herself off , sacrificing any semblance of a social life except for a few casual friendships.
Her excuse was lack of time, as well as her devotion and singular focus on Charlie, but Jason didn’t buy this, constantly calling his sister out, insisting that she used Charlie as a shield, a way to avoid taking risks, a way to avoid more rejection.
She thought about her brother’s theory now, as she turned back toward the stove, pouring a dozen perfectly symmetrical silver- dollar pancakes. She wasn’t an accomplished cook, but had mastered all breakfast dishes thanks to her very fi st job, waitressing at a diner, and her infatuation with one of the short- order cooks. Th at was a long time ago, but to Jason’s point, she still felt more like that girl refilling coffee than the woman and successful attorney she had become.
“You are such a reverse snob,” Jason said, ripping off three paper towels to use as napkins and then setting the table.
“I am not,” Valerie retorted, turning the term around in her brain, sheepishly admitting to herself how often she drove past the stately homes on Cliff Road and assumed that the people inside were superficial at best, and at worst, unflinching liars. It was as if she subconsciously equated wealth with a certain weakness of character and shifted the burden of proof on these strangers to show her otherwise. It wasn’t fair, she knew, but there were a lot of things in life that weren’t fair.
In any event, Daniel and Romy Croft had done nothing to prove her wrong the night she met them at the open house at school. Like most families at Longmere Country Day, the private elementary school in Wellesley that Charlie was attending, the Crofts were intelligent, attractive, and aff able. Yet as they skimmed her name tag and made adroit small talk, Valerie had the distinct feeling that they were looking past her, right through her, scanning the room for someone else --- someone better.
Even when Romy spoke of Charlie, something rang false and patronizing in her tone. “Grayson just adores Charlie,” she said, purposefully tucking a strand of white-blond hair behind her ear, then pausing, hand in the air, seemingly to showcase the mammoth diamond on her ring finger. In a town full of big rocks, Valerie had never seen one quite this impressive.
“Charlie really likes Grayson, too,” Valerie said, crossing her arms across her flamingo- pink blouse and wishing she had worn her charcoal suit instead. No matter how hard she tried, how much money she spent on her wardrobe, she always seemed to choose the wrong thing from her closet.
At that moment, the two little boys ran across the classroom hand in hand, Charlie leading the way to the hamster cage. To even a casual observer, they were best buddies, unabashed founders of a mutual admiration society of two. So why, then, did Valerie assume that Romy was being insincere? Why couldn’t Valerie give herself --- and her own son --- more credit? She asked herself these questions as Daniel Croft rejoined his wife with a plastic cup of punch and rested his free hand on her back. It was a subtle gesture she had come to recognize in her relentless study of married couples, one that filled her with equal parts envy and regret.
“Honey, this is Valerie Anderson . . . Charlie’s mother,” Romy prompted, giving Valerie the impression that they had discussed her prior to this evening --- and the fact that there was no father listed in the school directory alongside Charlie’s name.
“Oh, sure, right.” Daniel nodded, shaking her hand with boardroom vigor as he made fleeting, apathetic eye contact. “Hello.”
Valerie returned the greeting, and a few seconds of empty chitchat ensued before Romy clasped her hands and said, “So, Valerie, did you get the invitation to Grayson’s party? I sent it a couple weeks ago?”
Valerie felt her face grow crimson as she replied, “Yes, yes. Thank you very much.” She could have kicked herself for not RSVPing, feeling certain that not responding in a timely manner to an invite, even to a child’s party, was among Romy’s chief pet peeves.
“So?” Romy pressed. “Can Charlie come?”
Valerie hesitated, feeling herself caving to this impeccably groomed, endlessly self-assured woman, as if she were back in high school and Kristy Mettelman had just offered her a drag of her cigarette and a ride in her cherry- red Mustang.
“I’m not sure. I’ll have…to check the calendar…It’s next Friday, right?” she stammered, as if she had hundreds of social engagements to keep track of.
“That’s right,” Romy said, her eyes widening, smile broadening, as she waved to another couple just arriving with their daughter.
“Look, honey, April and Rob are here,” she murmured to her husband. Then she touched Valerie’s arm, flashed her one last perfunctory smile, and said, “It was so nice to meet you.
We hope to see Charlie next Friday.”
Two days later, holding the tent- shaped invitation, Valerie dialed the Crofts’ number. She felt a surge of inexplicable nervousness --- social anxiety, her doctor called it --- as she waited for someone to answer, followed by palpable relief when she heard the automated recording prompting her to leave a message. Then, despite all of her big talk to the contrary, her voice rose several octaves as she said,
“Charlie would be delighted to attend Grayson’s party.”
This is the word she replays when she gets the call, only three hours after dropping Charlie off with his dinosaur sleeping bag and rocket- ship pajamas. Not accident or burn or ambulance or ER or any of the other words that she distinctly hears Romy Croft say but can’t begin to pro cess as she throws on sweats, grabs her purse, and speeds toward Massachusetts General Hospital. She cannot even bring herself to say them aloud when she calls her brother from the car, having the irrational sense that doing so will make everything more real.
Instead, she simply says, “Come now. Hurry.”
“Come where?” Jason asks, music blaring in the background.
When she does not answer, the music stops and he says again, more urgently, “Valerie? Come where?”
“Mass General…It’s Charlie,” she manages to reply, pressing the gas pedal harder, now going nearly thirty miles over the speed limit. Her grip on the steering wheel is sweaty and white-knuckled, but inside, she feels an eerie calm, even as she runs a red light, then another. It is almost as if she is watching herself, or watching someone else altogether. This is what people do, she thinks. They call loved ones; they speed to the hospital; they run red lights.
Charlie would be delighted to attend, she hears again, as she arrives at the hospital and follows signs to the ER. She wonders how she could have been so oblivious, sitting there on the couch in her sweats with a bag of micro wave popcorn and a Denzel Washington action flick. How could she not have known what was happening at the palatial home on Albion?
Why had she not followed her gut about this party? She curses aloud, one lone, hoarse fuck, her heart filled with guilt and regret, as she peers up at the looming brick and glass building before her. The night becomes hazy after that --- a collection of disjointed moments rather than a smooth chronology. She will remember leaving her car at the curb despite the no parking sign and then finding Jason, ashen faced, inside the glass double doors. She will remember the triage nurse, calmly, efficiently typing Charlie’s name before another nurse leads them down a series of long, bleach- scented corridors to the PICU burn unit. She will remember bumping into Daniel Croft on their way, and pausing as Jason asks him what happened. She will remember Daniel’s vague, guilt- filled reply ---They were making s’mores.
I didn’t see it --- and her image of him typing on his BlackBerry or admiring his landscaping, his back to the fire and her only child. She will remember the first horrifying glimpse of Charlie’s small, motionless body as he is sedated and incubated. She will remember his blue lips, his cut pajamas, and the stark white bandages obscuring his right hand and the left side of his face. She will remember the beeping monitors, the hum of the ventilator, and the bustling, stone-faced nurses. She will remember her raw appeal to the God she has all but forgotten as she holds her son’s good hand and waits. But most of all, she will remember the man who comes to examine Charlie in what feels like the middle of the night, after her worst fear has receded. How he gently uncovers Charlie’s face, exposing the burned skin beneath the bandages. How he leads her back to the hallway where he turns to her, parts his lips, and begins to speak.
“My name is Dr. Nick Russo,” he says, his voice deep and slow. “And I am one of the leading pediatric plastic surgeons in the world.”
She looks into his dark eyes and exhales, her insides unclenching, as she tells herself that they would not send a plastic surgeon if her son’s life were still in danger. He is going to be okay. He is not going to die. She knows this as she looks in his doctor’s eyes. Then, for the first time, she considers how Charlie’s life has changed. How this night will scar him in more ways than one. Feeling a fierce determination to protect him no matter what the outcome, she hears herself ask Dr. Russo if he can fix Charlie’s hand and face; if he can make her son beautiful again.
“I will do everything I can for your son,” he says, “but I want you to remember something. Will you please do that for me?”
She nods, thinking he will tell her not to expect miracles. As if she ever dared to do so, even once in her whole life.
Instead, Dr. Russo holds her gaze and says the words she will never forget.
“Your son is beautiful,” he tells her. “He is beautiful now.”
She nods again, both believing and trusting him. And only then, for the first time in a very long time, do her tears come.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I awaken to the solid warmth of Nick beside me. With my eyes still closed, I reach out and run my hand over his shoulder, then down his shirtless back. His skin smells of soap from his usual post-work shower, and I feel a wave of attraction that is quickly expelled by an even greater dose of fatigue. Par for the course since Ruby was born --- and certainly since she was joined by Frank. I still love having sex with my husband, as much as ever once we’re under way. It just so happens that I now prefer sleep to most everything else --- chocolate, red wine, HBO, and sex.
“Hi there,” he whispers, his voice muffled against his pillow.
“I didn’t hear you come in…What time is it?” I ask, hoping that it’s closer to midnight than to the kids’ automatic seven o’clock wake- up, more unforgiving than any alarm clock and without a snooze option.
“Time to see a dentist,” I murmur.
It is one of his endearing exchanges with Ruby: What time is it, Daddy? To which Nick grimaces, points to his mouth, and replies: Tooth hurty. Time to see a dentist. A real crowd- pleaser.
“Uh- huh,” Nick says distractedly, clearly in no mood for conversation.
But as I open my eyes and watch him turn and stare intently at the ceiling, my curiosity gets the better of me. So I ask, as casually as I can given the nature of the inquiry, whether it was a birth defect --- which comprises a significant portion of Nick’s work.
He sighs and says no.
I hesitate and tentatively guess again. “A car accident?”
“No, Tess,” he says, so patiently that it gives away his impatience.
“It was a burn. An accident.”
He adds this last bit as a disclaimer. In other words, it was not child abuse --- sadly, far from a given; Nick once told me that aboutten percent of all pediatric burns are the result of child abuse.I bite my lower lip, my mind racing with the usual possibilities ---a boiling pot from the stove, a scalding bathtub, a house fire, achemical burn --- and I’m unable to resist the inevitable follow-up.
The question of how. It is the question Nick resists the most, his typical reply going something along the lines of: What difference does it make? It was an accident. Accidents are just that. They happen.
To night he clears his throat and resignedly gives me the facts. A six-year-old boy was roasting marshmallows. He somehow fell into the fire and burned his hand and cheek. The left side of his face. Nick’s speech is rapid and detached, as if he’s simply relaying the weather forecast. But I know that this is only an act --- a well-practiced cover-up. I know that he will likely be awake much of the night, unable to fall asleep from the adrenaline of the night’s events. And even tomorrow morning --- or more likely, afternoon --- he will roll downstairs with a remote expression, pretending to be engaged with his own family, while he dwells on a little boy’s hand and cheek.
Medicine makes a jealous mistress, I think, an expression I first heard during Nick’s first year of residency, from a bitter doctor’s wife who, I later learned, left her husband for her personal trainer.
I vowed then that I would guard against ever feeling this way. That I would always see the nobility in my husband’s work --- even if that meant a certain measure of loneliness.
“How bad is it?” I ask Nick.
“It could be worse,” he says. “But it’s not great.”
I close my eyes, searching for the silver lining, knowing that this is my unspoken role in our relationship. Nick might be the eternal optimist at the hospital, brimming with confidence, even bravado. But here at home, in our bed, he relies on me to bring the hope --- even when he’s silent and self-contained.
“Are his eyes okay?” I finally muster, remembering that Nick once confided in me the enormous complexity of repairing what everyone believes to be the window to the soul.
“Yeah,” he says, as he rolls onto his side, toward me. “His eyes are perfect. Big and blue…like Ruby’s.”
His voice trails off as I think that this is a dead giveaway --- when Nick compares a patient to Ruby or Frank, I know he has begun to obsess.
“And he has a pretty decent doctor, too,” I finally say.
I can hear the smallest of smiles in Nick’s voice as he rests his hand on my hip and replies, “Yeah. He does have that going for him, doesn’t he?”
The following morning, just after Nick has returned to the hospital, I am making breakfast while I endure the standard mealtime whineapalooza, compliments of my firstborn. To put it mildly, Ruby is not a morning person, another trait inherited from her father. In fifteen minutes, she has already complained that Frank is “looking” at her, that her banana is too mushy, and that she prefers Daddy’s French toast from the griddle to my toaster variety.
So when the phone rings, I happily retrieve it, feeling relieved for civilized adult companionship (the other day, I was excited when a pollster called) and even more so when I see Cate’s name light up my caller ID. Cate Hoffman and I met nearly sixteen years ago at an off-campus party the first week of our freshman year at Cornell, when we were formally introduced to the collegiate world of beer pong, quarters, and “I never.”
Several drinks into the night, after being asked too many times if we were sisters and acknowledging a certain full-lipped, strong-nosed, blond-highlighted resemblance, we made a pact to look out for each other --- a promise I made good on later, saving her from a leering frat boy, then walking her back to her dorm and holding her hair out of her face as she puked in a bed of ivy. The experience bonded us and we remained the best of friends for the next four years and beyond graduation. Since our mid-twenties, our lives have diverged --- or, more accurately, mine has changed and hers has stayed very much the same. She still lives in the city (in the same apartment we once shared), is still serial dating, is still working in broadcasting. The only real difference is that she is now in front of the camera, hosting a cable network talk show called Cate’s Corner, and, as of very late, has achieved a modicum of fame in the New York area.
“Look, Ruby! It’s Auntie Cate!” I say with exaggerated cheer, hoping that my enthusiasm will rub off on my daughter, who is now in mourning because I will not add chocolate syrup to her milk. I answer the phone and ask Cate what she’s doing up so early.
“I’m headed to the gym…on a new fitness regime,” Cate says.
“I really need to drop a few.”
“Oh, you do not,” I say, rolling my eyes. Cate has one of the best figures I’ve ever seen, even among the childless and airbrushed. Sadly, people no longer confuse us for sisters.
“Okay, maybe not in real life. But you know the camera adds at least ten pounds,” she says, and then changes the subject with her usual abruptness. “So. What’d you get? What’d you get?”
“What did I get?” I ask, as Ruby moans that she wants her French toast “whole,” which is a radical departure from her usual demand that her toast be unveiled to her in “tiny square pieces, all the same exact size, no crust.” I cover the phone with one hand and say,
“Honey, I think someone may have forgotten the magic word?”
Ruby gives me a blank stare, indicating that she does not believe in magic. To this point, she is the only preschooler I know who has already questioned the veracity of Santa Claus, or at the very least, his travel logistics.
But magic or not, I hold my ground until she amends her request.
“I want it whole. Please.”
I nod as Cate eagerly continues, “For your anniversary? What did Nick give you?”
Nick’s gifting is one of Cate’s favorite topics, perhaps because she never graduates beyond the “thanks for last night” floral arrangements.
As such, she says she likes to live vicariously through me. In her words, I have the perfect life---words she delivers in what vacillates between a wistful and an accusatory tone, depending on her latest dating low.
It doesn’t matter how many times I tell her that the grass is always greener and that I’m envious of her whirlwind social schedule, her hot dates (including a recent dinner with a Yankee outfitelder), and her utter, blissful freedom---the kind of freedom you take for granted until you become a parent. And it doesn’t matter how often I confide my standard complaints of stay- at- home motherhood --- namely, the frustration of ending a day no further ahead than where you started, and the fact that I sometimes spend more time with Elmo, Dora, and Barney than with the man I married. None of this registers with her. She still would trade lives with me in a heartbeat.
As I start to reply to Cate, Ruby unleashes a bloodcurdling scream: “Nooooo! Mommy! I saaa-iiiid whole!”
I freeze with the knife in midair, realizing that I’ve just made the fatal mistake of four horizontal cuts. Shit, I think as Ruby demands that I glue the bread back together, even making a melodramatic run for the cabinet where our art supplies are housed. She retrieves a bottle of Elmer’s, defi antly shoving it my way as I consider calling her bluff and drizzling the glue over her toast --- “in a cursive R like Daddy does.”
Instead, I say with all the calmness I can muster, “Now, Ruby. You know we can’t glue food.”
She stares at me as if I’m speaking Swahili, prompting me to translate for her: “You’ll have to make do with pieces.”
Hearing this bit of tough love, she proceeds to grieve the toast that might have been. It occurs to me that a pretty easy fix would be to eat the French toast myself and make a fresh piece for Ruby, but there is something so thoroughly maddening about her expression that I find myself silently reciting the advice of my pediatrician, several how- to books, and my stay- at- home- mother friends: do not surrender to her demands. A philosophy that runs in marked contrast to the parenting adage I normally subscribe to: choose your battles--- which I confess is secret code for hold your ground only if it’s conve-nient; otherwise, appease the subject in order to make your life easier.
Besides, I think, as I prepare for an ugly gridlock, I am trying to avoid carbs, starting this morning. So, my cellulite settling the matter, I purposefully set Ruby’s plate on the table before her and announce, “It’s this or nothing.”
“Nothing then!” Ruby says.
I bite my lip and shrug, as if to say, Bring on the hunger strike, then exit to the family room where Frank is quietly eating dry AppleJacks --- one at a time---the only thing he’ll touch for breakfast.Running my hand through his soft hair, I sigh into the phone andsay, “Sorry. Where were we?”
“Your anniversary,” she says expectantly, hungry for me to describe the perfect romantic evening, the fairy tale she clings to, aspires to.
On most days I might hate to disappoint her. But as I listen to my daughter’s escalating sobs, and watch her attempt to roll her toast into a Play Doh–like ball in order to prove that I am wrong, and that food can indeed be reassembled, I delight in telling Cate that Nick got paged in the middle of dinner.
“He didn’t switch his call?” she says, crestfallen.
“Nope. He forgot.”
“Wow. That sucks,” she says. “I’m so sorry.”
“So you didn’t exchange gifts? Not even when he got home?”
“No,” I say. “We agreed not to do presents this year . . . Things are kind of tight these days.”
“Yeah, right,” Cate says, refusing to believe something else I tell her about my life --- that plastic surgeons aren’t loaded, at least the ones who work at academic hospitals helping children rather than in private practice enhancing breasts.
“It’s true,” I say. “We gave up one income, remember?”
“What time did he get home?” she asks.
“Late. Too late for s-e- x . . .” I say, thinking that it would be just my luck for my gifted daughter to memorize the three letters and spout them off to, say, Nick’s mother, Connie, who recently hinted that she thinks the kids watch too much television.
“So what about you?” I ask, remembering that she had a date last night. “Any action?”
“Nope. The drought continues,” she says.
I laugh. “What? The five-day drought?”
“Try five weeks,” she says. “And sex wasn’t even an issue…I got stood up.”
“Shut up,” I say, wondering what man would stand her up. Beyond her perfect figure, she is also funny, smart, and a huge sports fan, rattling off baseball trivia the way most women can recite Hollywood gossip. In other words --- she is most guys’ dream. Granted, she can be high-maintenance and shockingly insecure, but they never glean that at the outset. In other words, she’s break- up- able, but not stand-up-able.
Ruby preaches from the next room that it’s not nice to say shut up as Cate continues, “Yeah. Before last night, I always had that going forme. Never been stood up and never dated a married man. I almostthought the former was my reward for the latter. So much for karma.”
“Maybe he was married.”
“No. He definitely wasn’t married. I did my research.”
“Wait. Was this the accountant from eHarmony or the pilot from your last trip?”
“Neither. It was the botanist from Starbucks.”
I whistle as I peek around the corner and catch Ruby taking a surreptitious bite of French toast. She hates to lose almost as much as her father, who can’t even make himself lose to her at Candy Land.
“Wow,” I say. “You got stood up by a botanist. That’s impressive.”
“Tell me about it,” she says. “And he didn’t so much as text an explanation or apology. A simple, ‘Really sorry, Cate, but I think I’d rather curl up with a good fern tonight.’ ”
“Well. Maybe he just…forgot?” I offer.
“Maybe he decided I’m too old,” she says.
I open my mouth to refute this latest cynical tidbit, but can think of nothing particularly comforting to say other than my usual standby that her guy is out there somewhere --- and she will meet him soon.
“I don’t know about that, Tessa. I think you might have gotten the last good one.”
She pauses in such a way that I know what’s coming next. Sure enough, she adds a wry, “Correction: the last two good ones. You bitch.”
“Any idea when you’re going to stop bringing him up?” I ask, both of us referring to my ex- fi ancé. “Just a ballpark estimate?”
“Hmm. How about never?” she says. “Or…let’s just say when I get married. But wait --- that’s the same thing as never, isn’t it?”
I laugh, and tell her I have to run as my memory is jarred back to Ryan, my college sweetheart, and our engagement. And by engagement, I don’t mean that Ryan had just proposed. Rather, we were mere weeks away from our wedding day, knee- deep in honeymoon itineraries, final dress fittings, and first- dance lessons. Invitations had been mailed, our registry completed, our wedding bands engraved. To everyone in my life, I was a typical, glowing bride-to-be---my arms toned, skin tanned, hair shiny. Literally glowing. Everyone but my therapist, Cheryl, that is, who, every Tuesday at seven o’clock, helped me examine that blurry line between normal wedding anxiety and commitment issues stemming from my parents’ recent, bitter divorce.
Looking back, the answer was obvious, the mere inquiry suggesting a problem, but there were so many factors clouding the issue, confusing my heart. For starters, Ryan was all I really knew. We had been dating since our sophomore year at Cornell and had only ever slept with each other. I couldn’t imagine kissing anyone else, let alone loving someone new. We had the same circle of friends with whom we shared precious college memories I didn’t want to taint with a breakup. We also shared a passion for literature, both of us English majors turned high- school teachers, although I was about to start grad school at Columbia with the dream of becoming a professor.
In fact, just a few months before, I had talked him into moving to the city with me, convincing him to leave his job and his beloved hometown of Buffalo for something more exciting. And although it was exciting, it was also scary. I had grown up in nearby Westchester, making frequent trips to Manhattan with my brother and parents, but living in the city was a different matter, and Ryan felt like my rock and safety net in the uncertain, scary real world. Reliable, honest, kind, funny Ryan with his big, boisterous family and parents who had been married for thirty years and counting---a good sign, my mother said.
Check, check, check, check, check.
Finally, there were Ryan’s own sweet assurances that we were perfect for each other. That I was just overthinking things, being my usual neurotic self. He truly believed in us --- which on most days was enough for me to believe in us, too.
“You’re the kind of girl who will never be completely ready,” he told me after one session with Cheryl, the details of which I always divulged to him with only the most minor edits. We were sitting at an Italian restaurant in the Village, waiting for the gnocchi special, and he reached his long, lanky arm across the table and patted my hand. “It is one of the things I love most about you.”
I remember considering this as I surveyed his pragmatic expression, and deciding, with a certain degree of sadness and loss, that he was probably right. That maybe I wasn’t hardwired for the sort of all- consuming, unconditional passion that I had read of in books, seen in movies, even heard some friends, including Cate, describe.
Maybe I would have to make do with the cornerstones of our relationship --- comfort and compatibility and compassion. Maybe it was good enough, what we had, and I might look for the rest of my life and never find better.
“I am completely ready,” I said, finally convincing myself that it was the truth. I still wasn’t sure whether I was settling, but in my mind at least the issue was settled. I was going to marry Ryan. Final decision, last word. Until three days later, that is, when I first laid eyes on Nick. I was on the subway, during my crowded morning commute to school, when he walked onto the train two stops after mine, holding a tall thermos of coffee and wearing blue- gray scrubs. His dark, wavy hair was longer than it is now, and I remember thinking he looked more like an actor than a doctor---and that maybe he was an actor playing a doctor, on his way to a TV set. I remember looking into his eyes---the warmest brown eyes I had ever seen---andfeeling overcome by a crazy, gut feeling that can only be describedas love at first sight. I remember thinking that I was saved by a moment, by a person I didn’t know and probably would never know.
“Hello,” he said, smiling, as he reached out and held the same pole I was gripping.
“Hi,” I said, catching my breath as our hands touched, and we rattled our way uptown, making small talk about topics we’ve both,
At one point, after we had delved into a few personal matters, including my Ph.D. program and his residency, he nodded down at my diamond ring and said, “So when’s the big day?” I told him twenty- nine days, and I must have looked grim when I said it, because he gave me a knowing look and asked if I was okay. It was as if he could see straight through me, into my heart, and as I looked back at him, I couldn’t stop myself from welling up. I couldn’t believe I was crying with a complete stranger when I hadn’t even broken down on Cheryl’s tweed couch.
“I know,” he said gently.
I asked how he knew.
“I’ve been there,” he said. “Of course, I wasn’t on my way to the altar. But still…” I laughed through an unattractive sob.
“Maybe it will be okay,” he said, looking away, as if to give me privacy.
“Maybe,” I said, finding a Kleenex in my purse and gathering myself.
A moment later, we were stepping off the train at 116th Street (which I would only later learn wasn’t Nick’s true destination), the crowd dispersing around us. I remember how hot it was, the smell of roasted peanuts, the sound of a soprano folksinger crooning from the street above. Time seemed to stand still as I watched him remove a pen from the pocket of his scrubs and write his name and number on a card I still have in my wallet today.
“Here,” he said, pressing it into my palm.
I glanced down at his name, thinking that he looked like a Nicholas Russo. Deliciously solid. Sexy. Too good to be true. I tried it out, saying, “Th ank you, Nicholas Russo.”
“Nick,” he said. “And you are . . . ?”
“Tessa,” I said, feeling weak with attraction.
“So. Tessa. Give me a call if you ever want to talk,” he said. “You know…Sometimes it helps to talk to someone who’s not…vested.”
I looked into his eyes and could see the truth. He was as vested as I was.
Excerpted from HEART OF THE MATTER © Copyright 2011 by Emily Giffin. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.
Heart of the Matter