Elinor Mackey is cleaning out her purse, trying to lighten her load, wondering how a broken sprinkler head wound up among the contents, when she first learns that her husband, Ted, is having an affair.
As she putters in the warmth of her dimly lit laundry room, she tries to gather the energy to sort more than a hundred work e-mails on her laptop. (Russian Teens with Tiny Tits! are stuck in her spam filter. Should she let them out? Do men consider this a good thing?) Maybe she'll make spanakopita for her book-club potluck. Yes, everyone should make Greek dishes, since they're reading The Iliad. Lately, Elinor's brain wanders like this-like the hand of a child who can't color within the lines, jerking across the page, making the trees blue and the sky brown. She squeezes the sprinkler head, remembering that she had planned on taking it to the hardware store to buy a replacement. This is a trick her father taught her: Take the broken part along, and usually a clerk will help you find a new one and explain how to fix the thing. Elinor picks up the phone to call her friend Kat to tell her about the Greek dinner. Then she hears Ted's voice on the line.
"Gina, Gina," Ted whispers. Elinor holds her breath. She looks up at the boxes of Bold and Cheer on a shelf above the washer.
"I miss you," whoever this Gina is says softly. Elinor drops the sprinkler head on the floor, stands up, turns off the dryer. Ted? An affair?
"What's that noise?" Ted asks. "I don't hear anything," Gina says.
Or maybe someone's borrowing the phone? It could be that weird phenomenon where you accidentally break in on a stranger's phone conversation. This happened to Elinor once. She started dialing, and the next thing she knew she was listening in on what sounded like a student bargaining with his teacher for a better grade.
"We can't see each other so often," Ted says. It is definitely Ted, talking to a sniffly Gina. Ted, who hates parties and meeting new people! Ted, who sleeps in torn flannel pajama bottoms that have cowboys and Indians on them.
Elinor exhales, tilting her mouth away from the phone, as though blowing out smoke.
"We should talk about this in person, tonight," Gina says. "I get off at six. I want to cook for you." She moans the word cook as though it's a lascivious act.
"Okay," Ted concedes. Elinor swears she hears dread in his voice. An affair. Elinor waits for jealousy to enrage her. Instead she feels pity. For Ted, for their marriage. And fatigue. It creeps up her spine, pushing her head forward.
She hugs her empty purse to her chest. The contents are spread across the dryer. In college, she carried a bag large enough to smuggle a six-pack into a rock concert. Now her big purse holds an expensive leather wallet bulging with charge cards and receipts, a Palm Pilot, reading glasses, a cellular phone, migraine medication, a tube of under-eye concealer touted as "forgiveness in a bottle," and a huge ring of keys, some of them mysterious.
Ted and Gina hang up. Elinor presses the phone to her sternum. Ted, an affair. Their marriage, unraveling.
Run and tell him you need to talk, she tells herself. Then schedule a session with the marriage counselor. This is the calm, take-care-of- business sensibility that carried Elinor through college, law school, and fifteen years as an employee relations attorney at various hightech companies in Silicon Valley. But lately this competence has been replaced by an overwhelming urge to lie down. By an exhaustion that lingers in her bones like a flu.
The malaise seemed to come on after she and Ted stopped trying to have children. They tried for a year on their own with no luck, then succumbed to two years of tests and treatments, including three intrauterine inseminations and two in-vitro fertilizations. Elinor got pregnant once, but she miscarried early on. Still, this gave them the hope to continue. She longed for two boys-she loves boys. Instead she wound up with a diagnosis of "unexplained infertility"- probably due to her age, the doctor explained-twenty extra pounds, and hormone insanity. By the time her fortieth birthday rolled around, she felt like a malfunctioning farm animal that needed to be put down.
"Mind if I go to a testosterone flick?" Ted shouts down the hall, startling Elinor. She realizes she's just standing there, dumbfounded, holding up a stray sock.
"Uh," she says. Sometimes she and Ted go to the movies separately. She likes art-house movies and period films, while Ted prefers shoot-'em-ups. Confront him about the affair! The sock trembles in her hand.
"You there?" There's worry in Ted's voice. "A movie!" Elinor shouts back to him. "Sure. Have fun!" She sounds too enthusiastic, overly cheerful. "Wait," she says more softly. She hears Ted's footsteps as he ambles down the hall and through the kitchen. The garage door rumbles and creaks. Do something! She drops the sock and runs down the hallway. Follow him. Heading for the garage, she remembers that her car is in the shop. She turns and crashes through the back patio doors and between the bushes to her neighbor friend Kat's house to borrowher minivan.
"I'll explain later," she pants, grabbing the keys from Kat. "You're barefoot." Kat peers out from under a baseball cap pulled over her short black hair and points to Elinor's feet. Elinor appreciates the lack of judgment in her voice as she states this simple fact. Kat is the least judgmental person she knows.
Elinor catches up with Ted at the stop sign at the end of their street. She snatches Kat's sunglasses from the visor and ducks behind the steering wheel. The car is stuffy with August heat, and she punches on the air-conditioning. The Lion King plays on a little TV screen in the back of the van. Elinor can't figure out how to shut the damn thing off. "It's gonna be King Simba's finest fling!" the animals cheer as she jabs at the buttons.
Ted surprises her, turning into the parking lot of their gym. Elinor makes the turn too suddenly, thumping over the curb. A woman waiting on the sidewalk out front waves to Ted. Elinor recognizes her from her own infrequent trips to the club. The woman works there, as a trainer. She's in her early thirties, slim and fit, with long, light brown hair down to her ass-an ass that Elinor envies, small, hard, and round, like an apple. Sometimes the girl wears a coastersize pin on her tight black T-shirt that says ASK ME ABOUT THE ZONE! Elinor pulls to the back of the lot and watches the trainer climb into Ted's car, tossing her gym bag in back.
Elinor follows them onto the freeway ramp heading south. They turn off a few exits down, then wind through an unfamiliar neighborhood. Ted pulls into a Healthy Oats grocery store and parks. The woman-Gina, this must be Gina-jumps out and does a little leap, as though she's been taken to Tiffany's. As she squeezes Ted's hand in hers, he looks around furtively. Ted! Holding hands with your fling in broad daylight? Ted pulls his hand away, but Gina doesn't seem to notice. She bumps up against him as they head into the store. Elinor turns off the minivan and waits. There's a Healthy Oats in her neighborhood, too, but Elinor's only been there a few times, buying chalky protein shakes and balking at the produce prices. Maybe this would explain the flax. About a week ago, when she was fishing for an umbrella, Elinor found a one-pound bag of pungent grain in the backseat of Ted's car. It was from the health food store where they rarely shopped. Upon closer examination, Elinor saw that the mixture was tiny, honey-colored seeds, shiny and slippery through the plastic. Another bag was filled with a fine golden powder. WHOLE GROUND FLAXSEED MEAL.
"What're these for?" she asked Ted, setting the bags on the kitchen counter.
When Ted turned from the sink and saw the bags, he flinched with surprise. His face flushed red.
"It's flax," he stuttered. "Okay." Elinor laughed. "Didn't mean to pry." Sheesh. He'd reacted as though the bags were porn or cigarettes.
Ted launched into an unnecessarily long explanation of how flaxseeds and flaxseed meal were the healthiest way to get your grains. Flax was rich in fiber, omega-3 fats, and lignans, whatever those were. That's what Dr. Edmunds had said. If you were going to eat carbohydrates, they needed to be complex.
"That sounds good," Elinor replied. "When did you see Dr. E?" Again, she didn't mean to launch a flax inquisition; she was just trying to talk to her husband. They talked so little lately.
"Last week," Ted said. "While you were at the conference in Monterey?" A podiatrist, Ted had spent all of the previous week at a conference with his podiatry colleagues. But Dr. Edmunds was a GP.
"On the golf course."
Ted hated golf. Usually he managed to get out of it at conferences. Still, maybe he'd started playing again-and eating flax. "I'll make you some flax pancakes," Ted offered, finally turning off the water and drying his hands.
"Okay," Elinor said. "Flax jacks." Her head hurt. Now the relentless honking of a car alarm makes Elinor want to drive Kat's minivan through the serene pyramid of apples and strawberries just outside the store. Call the marriage counselor, she thinks, and schedule an appointment for tomorrow. But her cell phone's at home, with her wallet and shoes. She likes the cocoon of the counselor's sunny office, the Oriental carpets, the shelves of books, the dust motes floating lazily through the air. When she and Ted discussed how infertility had ruined their sex life, the counselor- Dr. Brewster-nodded sympathetically and insisted this was common. When Ted lamented how the treatments made Elinor angry and distant, Dr. Brewster explained that the hormones caused these mood changes. Elinor couldn't help it.
During those early months of procedures and doctor's appointments, Elinor had managed to fight off the hormone horrors. She practiced yoga and visualization, took watercolor classes. She imagined OshKosh overalls and tiny cowboy boots. The lab evaluated the quality of their two embryos during the first in vitro and gave them a grade A, the best you can hope for. Elinor wanted a bumper sticker: MY EMBRYOS ARE GRADE A AT STANFORD HOSPITAL! But that cycle didn't work.
"Something's wrong with me," Elinor insisted. "It's not your fault," Ted replied, taking her into his arms. "I love you. Let's take a break from all this. Let's go to Paris."
Elinor pushed him away. "Non, merci," she said glumly. During the second in vitro, somewhere around the twentieth injection Ted gave Elinor, the hormones engulfed her. She slammed doors and snapped at him. Everything was his fault. Raining? Flat tire? Tedious meeting at work? Chalk it up to Ted.
One morning Elinor tried to smash a home pregnancy test stick with a hammer, a task that's impossible, it turns out. She whispered to the stick, Just give me the second. Pink. Line. Setting the stick on a paper towel, she washed her hands, then closed her eyes. She opened them. Nothing. Then she flew to the utility room, yanked the hammer out of the toolbox, returned to the bathroom, and smashed the stick. Or tried to. One swift hit did nothing. The second blow chipped the sink, but barely dented the stick. She became a whirling storm of rage and sobs and repeated strikes with the hammer. Her face burned, and she saw a silvery strand of drool hanging from her mouth. Finally, she collapsed on the floor cross-legged, cradling the hammer. Ted pushed open the door. He gaped at Elinor on the floor as though she were a stranger on the street you'd definitely want to steer clear of. She'd never felt so unattractive. It was then that the fatigue draped her, as heavy as an X-ray smock.
The marriage counselor encouraged Ted and Elinor to take a break from the treatments: go on vacation, go out to dinner, get massages. They were supposed to take a break together, but Elinor has really been taking a break on her own, recoiling from Ted, retreating from the fury, into the laundry room. It's comforting to wash and fold clothes-a task that's easy to complete. She runs small, unnecessary loads, just to be lulled by the sound of the dryer. She especially likes the clinking of buttons and zippers-a metal-againstmetal metronome that brings calm as she stares into the blue screen of her laptop, never actually doing any work. As her energy has waned, she's quit separating loads by color. Now all of their clothes are a purplish gray reminiscent of bad weather. Ted doesn't seem to notice. He's always grateful, never picky. "Let me help you," he'll insist whenever he finds Elinor in the laundry room. "You shouldn't be doing this."
"Why not?" Elinor will ask defensively. How did she get to a place where it's weird to wash her own underwear?
Ted brings flowers, fixes pots of homemade soup. Elinor doesn't thank him enough. Their sex life has faded to nil. Sex only leads to disappointment. Elinor obsessively does the laundry and reads novels, burrowing back into the comforting familiarity of the classics she read in college-Anna Karenina, The Age of Innocence. Meanwhile Ted obsessively works out at the gym. Or so Elinor has thought.
What's taking Ted and Gina-from-the-Gym so long? Are they in there kissing by the bulgur bin? SUVs clog the store parking lot, everyone shopping for dinner. Elinor's not sure what she'll do when they come out of the store. She tries to muster rage. Anorexic juicehead bitch!
Finally, Ted and Gina emerge, each hugging a bag of groceries. Paper, not plastic. For the first time, Elinor sees how much weight Ted has lost. He mentioned the fifteen pounds before, but now she notices how his pants hang at his waist. Her husband is aging-highschool- football-star handsome-stocky, with a broad chest, sloped shoulders, boyish face, endearing crow's-feet. Gina smiles up at Ted and blows a strand of light brown hair from her face. Elinor realizes that she has not let go of the steering wheel the whole time these two were in the store. She grips it as though turning into a sharp curve. Gina's black leggings outline firm calves and a circle of tanned skin above her white ankle socks. Elinor reaches in for the anger, tries to coax it. Hey, Sandy Duncan! Put some fucking pants on! For a moment she imagines a public scene, Ted's worst nightmare. Anything to avoid a scene. Ted, you jackass! she could scream across the parking lot. But that would only bring them both humiliation.
Elinor follows Ted and Gina through the winding streets of a strange neighborhood. Ted seems familiar with the route. He and Gina don't appear to talk on the way. She gazes out her window and Ted looks straight ahead, never checking his rearview mirror. Elinor manages to mute The Lion King, but the animals flicker on the back windows of the minivan. "Did I mention that I'm mortified by this car?" Kat, a stay-at-home mom, asks Elinor on a daily basis. The two became fast friends when they discovered that they share a dry sense of humor, and they're both former English majors who partied a little too much in college. Elinor thinks of Kat as her road not taken-the mother of three boys who love to play touch football with her in the front yard. Kat says Elinor is her road not taken-a successful lawyer whose husband beams when he talks about how good Elinor is at her job. Of course, most of their friends pull off both the well-paying career and the terrific kids. But Kat and Elinor have confessed to each other that they've never felt capable of both.
Finally, Ted pulls into a town-house complex. Elinor wonders what to do next. Until recently, she's been an ace problem solver- settling compensation disputes, fending off litigation, handling dif- ficult employees. One employee who hadn't been taking his meds insisted that the CFO was talking to him through his car radio. Another woman tried to claim her wedding cake in her expense report. Now Elinor wants an easy solution to the Gina Problem. She imagines busting out a whiteboard in their living room at home, Ted sitting before her on the sofa. Gina, she'd write on the whiteboard, breathing in the chemical smell of the erasable marker. Then she'd draw an X through the name.
She drives past Ted and Gina as they park, observes which unit they hurry into, then pulls into visitor parking. The gravel walkway is cold and sharp under her bare feet. The whips of a sprinkler sting her calves as she makes her way between buildings to Gina's backyard.
Hunkering behind a low row of newly planted poplars, she peers out over the deck and through the sliding-glass doors, hoping Gina won't draw the curtains. The condo is a split-level deal with a combination kitchen/living room/dining room on the first floor. Ted sits at the kitchen table, drumming his fingers. Gina bounces down the stairs in a short kimono robe, wet hair slicked back. No makeup, no blow dryer necessary. Long sleek legs. Elinor runs a hand over the pooch of her belly.
Gina gets to work chopping vegetables. As she tosses them into a wok, a huge cloud of steam billows toward the ceiling. She speaks as she cooks, nodding her head with determination, then shaking it with uncertainty, then wiping her cheeks and nose with the sleeves of her robe. An argument? Ted looks glum. Elinor can tell by his posture. Shoulders curling toward his chest. He doesn't love you, Gina! Elinor tells the poplars. Surely they are about to break up.
But then Ted gets up from the table and ambles up behind Gina. He pulls her away from the stove, his arms circling her waist, his hands sliding up under the V of her robe and across her breasts. Gina closes her eyes and tips her head back against his chest. Ted kisses her neck, kisses her shoulders, and the robe falls away. Then they fall away, onto the kitchen floor, where Elinor can't see them anymore. Making love on the kitchen floor while the wok blows steam at the ceiling. The special effects affairs are made of.
Elinor covers her face with her hands and falls to her knees. The mud beneath the grass seeps through her jeans with a disturbing sucking noise. She wants to go back, to erase the past two years. It seems that the spam filter for their life has broken, and all kinds of junk is pouring through: painful medical procedures, negative test results, sleepless nights, and now this bimbo in leotards.
The next day, Elinor finds a book tucked under layers of undershirts in Ted's drawer while putting away the laundry. Live Healthy in the Zone. Inside the paperback, there's a date and an inscription: Dear Ted, Congratulations on reaching your goal! I knew you could do it. Here's a reminder of some of your favorite dishes. Love, Gina.
Elinor flips through the pages, which are smudged with ingredients. Corners are turned over and hearts are drawn beside some recipes. The hearts seem to be a grading system, like stars for rating movies. "Soybean Croquettes" gets only one heart, while "Rainbow Vegetable Saut?" is worthy of three. "Creamed Tomato Soup with Cognac" gets four and a half.
The night she finds the cookbook, Elinor fixes Lean Cuisines for dinner. Rushed and tired, she and Ted often resort to frozen foods, grilled cheese, or scrambled eggs.
"These things are mostly carbs," Ted says, poking his fork at the too-bright green beans. He pushes away the dinner. "I'm trying to cut carbs. Stick to complex carbs, anyway."
"Oh? Since when?" Elinor asks. Why don't you cook us a Zone dinner! she wants to holler. "Since when?" she repeats. The anger hisses and clanks, like the radiators in an old house when you turn on the heat on the first cool day in the fall. A slight burning smell. The house trembling and creaking all over.
Ted shrugs at his little black tray of pasta and beans. "Dunno." "I think you know." The inscription in the cookbook was dated June 1. He and Gina have been having their low-carb trysts for at least two months.
Ted cocks his head and frowns.
"I know..." She wants to say I know about Gina. I know about the affair, but suddenly she has the uncontrollable urge to flip the table over on Ted. She presses her palms against her thighs to stop her legs from shaking; she pictures herself becoming less and less attractive in Ted's eyes as she rants and raves and threatens and forbids. She cannot find the means to confront her husband with the firmness, grace, and composure she had hoped for.
Finally, she gets up from the table, carries her unfinished dinner to the sink, and stuffs it down the disposal. "Sometimes," she says, unable to look at her husband, "I find complex carbohydrates a little too complex."
Elinor awakens the next morning to the shrill whine of a table saw. It's Saturday, but Ted is up already, out in the garage working on the cherry hutch he's building from a kit. Save for the hours he's fled to the gym, he's been holed up in the garage working on this project for weeks. They do not need a cherry hutch. But the buzz of the power tools and the pages of detailed directions seem to soothe his nerves. "Perhaps this makes Ted feel as though he's able to fix something," Dr. Brewster gently suggested during their last session. Elinor kvetched about Ted only caring about the hutch. She knew this was an odd complaint, since all she seemed to care about was the laundry. But when Ted quit trying to make Elinor feel better and retreated to the hutch and the gym, she began to miss him-to realize that she'd been taking him for granted. She wondered what kind of madness would make her irritated by her husband when he was attentive, and then resentful when he stepped back to give her room.
Now she lies in bed, clammy from a restless night's sleep. Her reading glasses and her heavy copy of The Iliad are tangled in the covers. She fell asleep reading again. While she found The Iliad impenetrably boring in college, now she likes escaping into the bloody tragic mess. She's rooting for handsome Hector, who's stuck in a war simply because his cocky brother fell for a beautiful girl who wasn't his.
Elinor composes a Saturday-morning to-do list in her head. 1. Get rid of husband's lover. She will deal with Gina herself. Forget the counselor, forget confronting Ted. She'll go straight to the source of the problem. This is what she does at work. Call in the perpetrator and lay the cards on the table. She doesn't want this Gina problem to be overly complicated, to be dramatic. She's had enough drama in the past two years. She rehearses what she might say to the girl: I know you're sleeping with my husband. Please stop. He and I have had our troubles but we're going be fine... No-Elinor certainly doesn't owe Gina any explanation of her marriage.
She gets up, brushes her teeth, then sits on the edge of the bed, squeezing the cordless phone. Finally, she dials information and is connected to the gym. A woman's voice breaks into the Muzak on the line. Elinor asks to make an appointment for a fitness consultation with Gina. The woman cheerfully announces that Gina has a cancellation in an hour, which is really lucky, because Gina's very popular.
"Oh, I know." Elinor has the urge to smoke, something she hasn't done since college. "Sign me up!" She tries to sound cheerful. She looks anxiously into her closet. What should she wear for this encounter? She's never mastered the breezy casualness of gym attire. Most women in her suburban town dash from their workouts to the grocery store in stylish velour sweats with matching hooded tops, somehow looking trim without ever seeming to perspire. But Elinor always feels dumpy.
She showers and chooses jeans, a white V-neck sweater that shows off her tan from working in the yard, and red high-tops, which she hopes convey that she has the self-confidence not to care about trends. She wore Converse high-tops all through high school. Petite and funny, Elinor was voted "cutest" in her yearbook, a title she secretly loathed. She didn't want to be cute. She wanted to be beautiful. But her blond hair, upturned nose, little Chiclet teeth, and apple cheeks would never be deemed movie-star sexy. In the 1980s, she tried to shed any hint of cuteness by spiking her hair and donning rubber bracelets and torn sweatshirts. Now when she sees photos of herself during this era, she has to laugh. It looks like she's wearing a Halloween costume. By the time she entered the corporate world, she succumbed to slacks and flats and a tidy French braid.
Hurrying through the kitchen, Elinor spies Ted's bag of flaxseeds on the counter. He's been spooning out two level tablespoons every morning and sprinkling them on his fruit and plain yogurt. She slides the bag off the counter into her purse. Maybe she'll return it to Gina. You left your damn flax in my husband's car.
Elinor glances at her day planner as she picks up her keys. Twelve noon is circled with pink highlighter. In an hour she's due to have lunch with Phil, the CEO at her company, to discuss the details of a merger. Phil wants to outsource the employee relations part of the merger to an outside law firm, a blow to Elinor's impeccable track record of keeping everything in house, thereby saving the company money. But Phil has grown wary of Elinor's absences and missteps, which got worse as her infertility appointments wore on. Elinor's afraid she's about to be demoted or let go or God knows what. This luncheon is Step 1 of her Corporate Comeback. The venue for the I'm-your-man speech.
For what? Who cares? She's tired of always working nights and weekends because she doesn't have children. She grabs the phone and dials the CEO's admin, who's always strapped to her desk on weekends.
"Food poisoning," Elinor says. "He canceled his golf game to meet you," the admin admonishes. Being sick is never an excuse for missing meetings at Elinor's company. You're supposed to show up in a medicated haze and breathe germs on your colleagues.
"I'm vomiting." She wishes this were the case, rather than my husband's having an affair.
"Dry toast," the admin replies coolly. "Right." Elinor clutches her car keys, snaps her bag shut. The heft of it tugs at her shoulder as she heads out the door.
She waves to Ted as she backs out of the driveway. He looks up from his table saw and waves back, smiles-a flash of white teeth and faint dimples. Elinor closes her eyes for a moment and imagines his smell-sawdust and Mountain Spring deodorant-and wishes they could lie side by side on their comforter for the rest of the day. Stripped of passion. Down to just love.
More than anything, Elinor loves her husband's face. A big, handsome Irish face. Boyish, yet slightly jowly with age. Pools of brown chocolate for eyes. Thick lustrous hair she'd clutch and hang on to when they made love. She hates her husband and loves his face and hates herself and . . . thump, thump, she backs over the curb at the end of the driveway. Ted looks up, waves his hand for her to steer to the left, smiles. She waves back, pausing under the shade of the big oak tree in their front yard.
After the second in vitro, Elinor would lie under the tree, trying to calm herself. It was hot that spring. In the evenings after work she'd drag an old sleeping bag outside and take refuge on the cool grass, reading and dozing. Ted would join her, grabbing a beach chair from the garage. "Can I get you anything?" he kept asking Elinor. He'd nervously tap his palm against the arm of the aluminum chair, his wedding ring making a little clinking noise that made Elinor want to scream. She felt bad for being so irritated. What was wrong with her?
Now, as she heads for the gym, Elinor flips down the visor to look in the mirror. She runs her fingers through her shoulder-length hair, which she's decided to wear down for once. As soon as she gets rid of her husband's girlfriend she's going to get a new haircut. Maybe whiten her teeth. She snaps the visor back into place. Today Gina's going to evaluate Elinor's health and fitness needs and develop a workout plan for her, the receptionist who scheduled the appointment explained. Gina and Elinor will work together to accomplish these goals. Except that Gina's goal is to sleep with Ted, and Elinor's goal is to make Gina go away.
Gina meets Elinor in the lobby at the club. She doesn't seem to know who Elinor is. A blank-yet-pleased expression passes over Gina's face as they shake hands. Is Elinor as unrecognizable as all of the other drooping, middle-aged women at the gym? Gina's fingers are long and thin. She's wearing black warm-up pants and a collared shirt. Her long, light brown hair is pulled into a high ponytail, with bangs that fall into her eyes. She's lithe, buff, but not exactly beautiful. Her face is a bit flat and her eyes set far apart, reminding Elinor of a flounder. These cheekbones certainly wouldn't break a man's heart.
They sit at a table in the snack bar. Gina asks a list of questions, filling in the answers in small, square handwriting. She is all energy and spunk. Nimble fingers, spry ovaries. Beautiful eggs. A group of retired men share a pitcher of beer at a table next to theirs, even though it's not even noon. This is the quirky thing Elinor loves about their gym: The snack bar serves brownies and beer alongside the smoothies and salads. Elinor would like to join the gentlemen. Give in to gravity and Father Time.
"Age?" Gina asks. Her lips shimmer with rosy gloss. "Thirty-nine," Elinor lies. While she had no problem turning forty, she does have a problem saying forty, especially in the company of Gen-X fitness Nazis who are romancing her husband. "The real problem may be your age," the doctor had gently explained when Elinor first couldn't conceive. While she hadn't looked forward to turning forty, she never thought her birthday would constitute a medical emergency.
"Really? You look great," Gina says without looking up. I lost my ass, Elinor wants to say, as though it might actually be here at the gym's lost-and-found. She wishes for a moment she were consulting a fitness expert for real. It's a shallow, vain thing to fret about, but what she hates most about aging is the southern migration of her buttocks after two decades of sitting on her duff for corporate America. Somewhere along the way she lost her figure- the small-framed size 4 build she'd had all her life. Then the infertility treatments made her belly bloat, like an overripe melon. Elinor doesn't mind the two coppery age spots forming on her hands, or the crow's-feet crinkling at the corners of her eyes, but she wants her body back.
Gina says she's going to weigh Elinor and give her a stress test and body fat analysis after they finish the paperwork. Then she'll recommend classes, such as spinning and yoga!
The flax in Elinor's purse on her lap is heavy in a comforting way, like a cat curled up there. She'd been all riled up driving here, but now she can't think of a single thing to say to Gina. She's too tired. She figures she hasn't had a good night's sleep in about two years. While she can barely keep her eyes open during office meetings and conference calls, she lies awake at two AM cataloging a dizzying inventory of worries: donor eggs, adoption (foreign or domestic?), mounting medical bills and insurance forms.
"What would you say your overall fitness goal is?" Gina asks. Once, while walking on the beach in Hawaii, Elinor saw a woman fishing. At first she thought the woman was a man. But when she reached the fisherman, she realized he was a woman, with beautiful white hair cropped short and blown back in the wind. The woman wore khaki shorts and a black T-shirt, and her legs were muscular and tan. She was solid and as beautiful as the scenery. Yet she was sort of genderless-not really feminine or masculine, just a person, smiling up into the sun, the ocean a sparkling carpet before her. Just fishing. She looked at peace. Not worrying anymore about crow's-feet or how her rump would look in a tankini. Elinor wants to tell Gina that this is her fitness goal.
Gina leans across the table and looks at Elinor intently. Her wide-set eyes are green and almond-shaped and her skin is flawless. The bangs-falling-into-the-eyelashes look is definitely sexy.
"To lose fifteen pounds," Elinor says. "And firm up my . . ." everything, Elinor wants to say. But she doesn't want to admit this to her husband's lover. She clears her throat. "To firm up my butt. I don't get to the gym much. I'm too busy." I am successful, she wants to tell Gina. Okay, maybe not at the things that matter now. But at the things that mattered before. Did you know, if you live in Holland and your pipes freeze, you legally get the day off with pay? Elinor is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to international employee relations law.
"First thing?" Gina says. "If you'll let me? I'm going to come to your house and clean out your cupboards."
Elinor laughs. "And mop the floors?" "I'm going to purge your carbs," she says firmly. "Your pastas, breads, and cereals?"
"Cereal?" Elinor asks. "Cereal is the worst!"
"Uh..." You're taking my husband and my Frosted Mini-Wheats? Elinor considers this unlikely scenario: Gina, at Elinor and Ted's house, cleaning out the cupboards. Gina and Ted sweating under the bright lights in the kitchen. The whole thing out in the open.
Remorse. An apology. More important: an agreement. Gina will never come near them again. "Okay," Elinor finally tells Gina. "But it'll have to be in the evening. I work during the day." "Sure," Gina says.
"My husband will be there. Is that okay? He wants to cut carbs, too. Well, he already is. He started without me." Elinor hates the bitterness in her voice. Maybe after they give Gina the boot, Elinor and Ted can take a trip to a tropical resort. Eat steamed fish and brown rice and soak in a tub for two. Run on the beach and have sex on the marble bathroom floor of a luxury hotel room. Elinor will catch up with Ted. Lust and exercise. They don't sound bad at all.
"Great," Gina says. "I can fuck both of you." But Elinor is sure she said help. I can help both of you.
As Elinor sprinkles tarragon over three chicken breasts, she feels the need to prove to her husband and his lover that she can cook. Gina is due to arrive at their house in forty-five minutes. Elinor's fixing a low-fat, low-carb dinner-broiled seasoned chicken breasts, zucchini split and stuffed with ricotta cheese and chopped mushrooms and onions, butter lettuce salad sprinkled with the ubiquitous flaxseeds, and fresh berries for dessert with just a dollop of whipping cream. She begins setting the kitchen table for three.
Ted turns the channel on the little TV in the kitchen to a Nova show about coal. "Too fine to use in the steel-smelting process, the coke is sold for heating and cooking on small stoves," the narrator says.
"What do you know?" Ted says. He's mostly interested in factual things. Details that don't require you to form an opinion. "How come three?" he asks, looking at the place mats.
"A gal who might join my book club is coming over." Elinor sets out the napkins and silverware. Soon this will be a part of the past. They'll get their lives back. Ted regards the TV.
Elinor sprinkles more thyme and tarragon on the chicken breasts, worrying that they're going to taste bland-as bland as sex became with Ted before they quit making love altogether. She wonders if Jerry Hall's mother ever really uttered those infamous words: "In order to keep a man you must be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen, and a whore in the bedroom." Gina's a whore in the kitchen. Innovative, Elinor will give her that. Meanwhile, Elinor's become a lump in every room: in the bedroom, in the kitchen. Maybe because she had to become a numb lump on the doctor's examining table to ward off the pain of all those procedures. "Just a little pressure," the doctor would say. Why couldn't they use the real P-word? Pain. This might hurt. Instead there were euphemisms: pressure, a pinch. Once, when Elinor had an outpatient procedure to remove cysts on her ovaries from the drugs, they let Ted accompany her. "Squeeze my hand," he whispered sweetly. Elinor grimaced, a flame of pain shooting toward her hip. Ted's hand was solid and warm, the only comforting thing on the planet.
The doorbell rings. Elinor drops a tin of white pepper clanging to the floor. She wipes her hands and heads into the hallway. Before opening the door, she pulls her apron over her head. Too suburban and matronly.
Gina stands on the porch wearing a long tie-dyed skirt, a tiny white T-shirt, and leather thong sandals. A strip of her flat tan belly peeks out above the skirt's low-cut waistline. Elinor would like to slam the door.
"Come in," she tells Gina. Ted turns off the TV and saunters into the hall, being the polite husband. His head jerks back when he sees Gina. Gina's eyes pop open, but then she narrows them, redirecting her alarm into a smile, her expression making a U-turn.
"Gina, this is my husband, Ted," Elinor tells her. Ted limply shakes Gina's hand. "Nice to meet you." He opens the coat closet door. "May I take your coat?"
Suddenly Elinor's embarrassed by the coat closet. It's jammed full of junk, much of it a testament to her athletic failures. The tangled jump rope, the dusty hiking boots, the too-small ski suit. "She doesn't have a coat," Elinor tells Ted. Still, Ted lingers with his head in the closet, as though he'd like to dive in. "Can I get you a drink?" Elinor asks Gina.
"Do you have tomato juice?" Gina asks. Bracelets tinkle on her wrists.
Ted closes the closet door. He and Gina are busy not making eye contact. So far, Elinor would give them an A-minus on this notknowing- each-other thing.
"No tomato juice," she tells Gina. "Diet Coke?" "Oh, artificial sweeteners," she says. "That's one of the things we're going to have to purge." Clearly she's trying to be firm, but nervousness bubbles under her sentences.
You're one of the things we're going to have to purge, Elinor thinks as she motions Gina into the kitchen.
"Hey, I recognize you," Ted finally says to Gina. "From the club." Perspiration darkens his armpits.
"Yeah." Gina cocks her head and squints her eyes. "You work out a lot."
Gina places a little food scale and a spiral notebook on the kitchen counter. Elinor hands her a glass of orange juice. If orange juice has any evils, she doesn't want to hear about them.
"You get to have artificial sweeteners on Weight Watchers," she tells Gina while looking at Ted accusingly. "What's the deal with that?" Her jaw hurts. Now that she's found anger again, she wishes she could reel it in. Her hatred for the fickle diet gurus. Her loathing of the world.
"Well, ladies," Ted says. "I have some work-" "I was hoping the three of us could eat dinner together," Elinor tells him. "Talk about things."
Ted freezes in the doorway. "Oh, I can't stay for dinner." Gina places her untouched juice on the counter.
"Really? But you two like to eat together," Elinor says. Suddenly she's dizzy from the intensity of this encounter. She wants to sit on the floor. Call this crazy intervention off.
Ted rests a hand on the doorjamb, turns halfway toward Elinor and Gina.
Gina giggles nervously. "What?" "Sleep together? Eat together? All that good stuff." Elinor pulls the Zone cookbook from its hiding place in the bread drawer (Ted would never look there!) and waves it at them.
"Elinor," Ted says. He faces Elinor with his back to Gina, his eyes pleading. Suddenly he looks old-slim from his newfound athleticism, but in a gray, gaunt way, not in a rosy, happy way.
"Ted," Elinor says. Please, his eyes say. I'm sorry, and please. "I better go." Gina picks up her food scale and notebook.
Elinor looks at Gina's impossibly small waist, remembers how easily Ted crossed the room in Gina's condo, how quickly his hands slipped up under her flimsy robe to touch her breasts. He made the first move. Suddenly she can't stand being in the kitchen with these two. She can't stand being in her own house. For the past few days Elinor fantasized about going away with Ted to Hawaii-skinnydipping and stargazing and oversleeping. She even surfed the Web and chose a resort on the Big Island, sighing at the thought of the last time they visited the Kona Coast and left blissfully worn out from too much sun, sex, and rum. Yet now she wants to go away by herself. Leave these two with the carbohydrate charts and bland chicken breasts. Maybe before you can fix something, you have to let it break completely.
"I have to go," she tells Gina. She opens the cupboard, yanks out the bags of flaxseed and flax meal, and shoves them into Gina's arms. Gina flinches as though Elinor's going to deck her, then looks curiously at the bags.
"Flax at it!" Elinor races up the stairs to pack. Just like in the movies. There is something liberating about being the first one to leave in a situation like this-sort of like being the first one up in the morning or the first one to dive into a cold swimming pool. What does she need? A few work outfits, hose, shoes, comfy pajamas, slippers, toilet articles, bubble bath, magazines, The Iliad. She folds the things into her little black suitcase. She's a pro at packing quickly for emergency business trips. She'll drive to the Fairmont downtown. Order room service. Pancakes with real maple syrup. Elinor nearly crashes into Ted on her way down the stairs. She lunges past him for the front door, her legs and knees suddenly rubbery at the sight of him.
Ted reaches for her bag, trying to stop her. "Don't leave," he says. Gina appears to be gone.
Elinor turns to look at her husband. He's as tired as she is. She can see that. Many nights when she thought he was sleeping and he thought she was sleeping, neither one of them was. They'd discover this in the morning as they tripped over each other in the kitchen. Instead of watching the indifferent blue numbers on her clock radio click toward dawn, Elinor wanted to roll over and hold Ted, talk to him. But despite her inability to sleep, or maybe because of it, she was too exhausted to move.
"She's gone," Ted says now. "Listen, I know we can work this out." Elinor squeezes the handle on her suitcase and tugs it past Ted. "I love you," Ted says, his voice rising with desperation. I love you, too, Elinor thinks. I did. I do. But that's beside the point! Isn't it?
"What are you going to do?" Ted asks as Elinor opens the door. "What am I going to do, Ted?" She pictures him unbuckling his pants and sinking to Gina's kitchen floor. "What am I going to do? I'm going to call the Dalai Lama. Do you think he's listed under D or L? I'm going to lie on my yoga mat and rub soy milk in my third eye, and weave baskets out of turkey bacon. I'm going to spend a week in the Zone."
Ted steps toward Elinor. Elinor backs away from him out onto the front porch. Maybe she'll finally get a good night's sleep at the Fairmont. She looks away from her husband toward her car in the driveway. She closes her eyes for a moment and imagines sliding between crisp white hotel sheets. What do they use to make them so clean? That crisp white cleanness of starting over. Starch? Whatever it is, it seems less pedestrian than starch. More otherworldly.
She opens her eyes. Ted hovers in the hall, not wanting to step over the threshold. He doesn't like to leave the house in his bare feet. Not even to retrieve the newspaper from the driveway.
"Excuse me." Elinor reaches around Ted for the door handle. She wants the satisfaction of closing the door behind her. As she pulls it shut with a thump and a click, the image of Ted's drawn face disappears. Good-bye, then. She steps off the porch. But then she stops halfway down the driveway to her car. Life is never like it is in the movies. Not her life anyway, because she has left her car keys inside, on the kitchen counter. She takes a deep breath of cool, moist air and tries to gather the gumption to walk back in. Then she remembers her hide-a-key. A few years ago, when she slid the thin, magnetic box under the driver's side of her new car, she wondered if she'd ever lock herself out. She tried to picture such a scenario: rushing in the parking lot at work, or spacing out while loading groceries. She never would have imagined this night.
She continues down the dark driveway, halting again when a shooting star streaks across the horizon, just above the trees. It's big and bright, followed by a greenish tail. The Perseids. The meteor shower is marked on Elinor's calendar so that she and Ted can make their annual trek to the backyard, with lawn chairs and blankets. "I saw one!" they usually shout to each other, almost competitively. Last summer she wished on every meteor for a baby. Although she's not a superstitious person, Elinor has always taken wishes seriously. As a kid she would hover over her birthday cake candles until islands of wax pooled in the frosting. While trying to get pregnant, she wished on everything from found pennies to stray eyelashes. Now Elinor tips her head to look up at the sky. According to the newspaper, tonight there will be up to 150 meteors per minute. The next neon green streak makes Elinor gasp. She squeezes her eyes shut. For the first time, she's not sure what to wish for.
Happiness Sold Separately
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- ISBN-10: 044669939X
- ISBN-13: 9780446699396