Prologue | NOBODY REALLY LIKES SURPRISES
I KNEW THIS WAS a really terrific idea, if I didn’t say so myself, surprising Paul for lunch at his office down on Pearl Street.
I’d made a special trip into Manhattan and had put on my favorite “little black dress.” I looked moderately ravishing. Nothing that would be out of place at the Mark Joseph Steakhouse, and one of Paul’s favorite outfits, too, the one he usually chose if I asked him, “What should I wear to this thing, Paul?”
Anyway, I was excited, and I’d already spoken to his assistant, Jean, to make sure that he was there --- though I hadn’t alerted her about the surprise. Jean was Paul’s assistant after all, not mine.
And then, there was Paul.
As I rounded the corner in my Mini Cooper, I saw him leaving his office building, walking with a twenty-something blonde woman.
Paul was leaning in very close to her, chatting, laughing in a way that instantly made me feel very ill.
She was one of those bright, shiny beauties you’re more likely to see in Chicago or Iowa City. Tall, hair like platinum silk. Cream-colored skin that looked just about perfect from this distance. Not a wrinkle or blemish.
She wasn’t completely perfect, though. She tripped a Manolo on a street plate as she and Paul were getting into a taxi, and as I watched Paul gallantly catch hold of the pink cashmere on her anorexic elbow, I felt like someone had hammered a cold chisel right into the center of my chest.
I followed them. Well, I guess followed is too polite. I stalked them.
All the way up to Midtown, I stayed on that taxi’s bumper like we were connected by a tow hook. When the cab suddenly pulled up in front of the entrance to the St. Regis Hotel, on East 55th Street, and Paul and the woman stepped out smiling, I felt an impulse rush from the lizard part of my brain to my right foot, which was hovering over the accelerator. Then Paul took her arm. A picture of both of them sandwiched between the storied hotel’s front steps and the hood of my baby-blue Mini flashed through my mind.
Then it was gone, and so were they, and I was left sitting there crying to the sound of the honking taxis lined up behind me.
THAT NIGHT, instead of shooting Paul as he came through the front door, I allowed him one chance. I even waited until we were eating dinner to talk about what he’d been up to at lunchtime at the St. Regis Hotel in Midtown.
Maybe there was some logical explanation. I couldn’t imagine what it would be, but in the words of a bumper sticker I once saw, Miracles Happen, Too.
“So, Paul,” I said as casually as the liquid nitrogen pumping through my veins allowed me. “What did you do for lunch today?”
That got his attention. Even though I had my head down as I nearly sawed through the plate under my food, I felt his head bob up, his eyes lift, as he looked at me.
Then, after an extended guilty pause, he looked back down at his plate.
“Had a sandwich at my desk,” he mumbled. “The usual. You know me, Lauren.”
Paul lied --- right to my face.
My dropped knife banged off my plate like a gong. The darkest paranoid possibilities flooded through me. Crazy stuff that wasn’t really like me.
Maybe his job wasn’t even real, I thought. Maybe he’d had letterhead made up, and from day one he’d been betraying me when he went downtown every day. How well did I really know his co-workers? Maybe they were actors hired to show up whenever I was planning to come by.
“Why do you ask?” Paul finally said, ever so casually. That hurt. Almost as much as seeing him with the stunning blonde in Manhattan.
I don’t know how I managed to smile at him, with the cat-five hurricane roaring through me, but somehow I managed to pull the tight muscles of my cheeks upward.
“Just making conversation,” I said. “Just talking to my husband over dinner.”
THERE WAS HEAVY TRAFFIC on the Major Deegan south and more on the approach to the Triborough that night, that crazy, crazy night.
I couldn’t decide which was making my eye twitch more as we crawled across the span --- the horns from the cars logjammed in both directions around us, or the ones honking from our driver’s Spanish music station.
I was heading to Virginia for a job-sponsored seminar.
Paul was going to apply some face time to one of his firm’s biggest clients in Boston.
The only trip we modern, professional, go-getting Stillwells were going to share this week was the ride to LaGuardia Airport.
At least I had one of the great views of Manhattan outside my window. The Big Apple seemed even more majestic than usual with its glass-and-steel towers glowing against the approaching black thunderheads of a storm.
Gazing out, I remembered the cute apartment Paul and I once had on the Upper West Side. Saturdays at the Guggenheim or MOMA; the cheap hole-in-the-wall French bistro in NoHo; cold chardonnay in the “backyard,” our fourth-floor studio’s fire escape. All the romantic things we did before we got married, when our lives had been unpredictable and fun.
“Paul,” I said urgently, almost mournfully. “Paul?”
If Paul had been a “guy guy,” I might have been tempted to chalk up what was happening between us to the inevitable. You grow a little bit older, maybe more cynical, and the honeymoon finally ends. But Paul and me? We’d been different.
We’d been one of those sickening, best-friend married couples. The let’s-die-at-the-exact-same-moment Romeo-and-Juliet soul mates. Paul and I had been so much in love --- and that’s not just selective memory talking. That was us.
We’d met in freshman year at Fordham Law. We were in the same study and social group but hadn’t really talked. I’d noticed Paul because he was very handsome. He was a few years older than most of us, a little more studious, more serious. I actually couldn’t believe it when he agreed to head down to Cancún for spring break with the gang.
On the night before our flight home, I got into a fight with my boyfriend at the time and accidentally fell through one of the hotel’s glass doors, cutting my arm. While my supposed boyfriend announced he “just couldn’t deal with it,” Paul arrived out of nowhere and took over.
He took me to the hospital and stayed at my bedside. This, while everyone else promptly hopped on the flight home to avoid missing any classes.
As Paul walked through the doorway of my Mexican hospital room with our breakfast of milkshakes and magazines, I was reminded of how cute he was, how deep blue his eyes were, and that he had fantastic dimples and a killer smile.
Dimples and milkshakes, and my heart.
What had happened since then? I wasn’t entirely sure. I guess we’d fallen into the rut of a lot of modern marriages. Neck-deep into our two demanding, separate careers, we’d become so adept at meeting our individual needs and wants that we’d forgotten the point: that we were supposed to be putting each other first.
I still hadn’t confronted Paul about the blonde woman I’d seen him with in Manhattan. Maybe that was because I wasn’t ready to have it out with Paul once and for all. And, of course, I didn’t know for sure if he was having an affair. Maybe I was afraid about the end of us. Paul had loved me; I know he had. And I had loved Paul with everything I had in me.
Maybe I still did. Maybe.
“Paul,” I called again.
Across the seat of the taxi, he turned at the sound of my voice. I felt like he was noticing me for the first time in weeks. An apologetic, almost sad expression formed on his face. His mouth started to open.
Then his blasted cell phone trilled. I remembered setting his ring tone to “Tainted Love” as a prank. Ironically, a silly song we’d once danced to drunk and happy had turned out to aptly describe our marriage.
Glaring at the phone, I seriously considered snatching it from his hand and flinging it out the window through the bridge cables into the East River.
A familiar glaze came across Paul’s eyes after he glanced down at the number.
“I have to take this,” he said, thumbing open the phone.
I don’t, Paul, I thought as Manhattan slid away from us through the coiled steel.
This was it, I thought. The final straw. He’d wrecked everything between us, hadn’t he?
And sitting there in that cab, I figured out the exact point when you call it quits.
When you can’t even share a sunset together.
OMINOUS THUNDER CRACKED in the distance as we pulled off the Grand Central Parkway into the airport. The late-summer sky was graying rapidly, bad weather was approaching with speed.
Paul was jabbering something about book values as we pulled up to my stop at the Continental terminal. I didn’t expect him to do something as effort-filled as kiss me good-bye. When Paul had his low “business voice” going on the phone, a bomb couldn’t make him stop.
I reached quickly for the door when the driver switched the radio from the Spanish station to the financial news. If I didn’t escape, I feared the insectile buzz of investo-speak in stereo was going to make me scream.
Until my throat bled.
Until I lost consciousness.
Paul waved from the back window without looking at me as the cab pulled away.
I was tempted to wave back with one finger as I rolled my suitcase through the sliding doors. But I didn’t wave to Paul.
A few minutes later, I sat in the bar, waiting for my flight to be called, thinking very heavy thoughts. I took out the ticket as I sipped my cosmopolitan.
From the overhead speakers, a Muzak version of the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” was playing. How do you like that? The folks at Muzak had discovered my childhood.
It was good that I was feeling so manic and upbeat, because normally that realization might make me feel old and depressed.
I tapped the ticket against my lip, then very dramatically tore it in half before I finished my drink in one shot.
Next, I used the bar napkin to dry the tears in my eyes.
I was going to move on to Plan B.
It was going to be trouble, for sure. Big troubles, no bubbles.
I didn’t care. Paul had ignored me too many times.
I made the phone call that I’d been putting off.
Then I rolled my suitcase back outside, climbed into the rear of the next available taxi, and gave the driver my home address.
The first drops of rain hit the windows as we pulled out, and I suddenly envisioned something huge slipping under dark water and beginning to slide, something monumental, slowly, irretrievably sinking. Down, down, down.
Or maybe not --- just maybe, I was heading up for the first time in a long while.
IT WAS FULL-OUT POURING by the time I stepped back into my dark, empty house. I felt a little better when I switched my wet business suit for my old Amherst gym shirt and a pair of favorite jeans.
And a lot better when I put Stevie Ray Vaughan on the stereo to keep me company.
I decided to leave the lights off and crack open a dusty case of calla lily–scented candles from the front-hall closet.
Pretty soon, the house was looking like a church, or maybe a loopy Madonna video, given the way the drapes were blowing around. It inspired me to scroll my iPod down to her pop highness’s “Dress You Up” and to crank up the sound.
Twenty minutes later the front doorbell rang and the baby lamb chops I’d ordered on the cab ride home arrived.
I took the small, precious brown-paper package from the FreshDirect delivery guy, went into the kitchen, and poured myself a glass of Santa Margherita as I chopped the garlic and lemons. After I put the red potatoes on for the garlic mashed, I set the table.
I took my Santa Margherita upstairs.
That’s when I noticed the insistent red blink on my answering machine.
“Yeah, hi, Lauren. Dr. Marcuse here. I was leaving the office and just wanted to let you know that your results haven’t come back yet. I know you’re waiting. I’ll let you know first thing after we hear from the lab.”
As the machine clicked off, I pulled back my hair and gazed into the mirror at the faint wrinkles on my forehead and at the corners of my eyes.
I was three weeks late with my period. Which normally wouldn’t be a concern.
Except that I was infertile.
The results that my ever-helpful gynecologist, Dr. Marcuse, was referring to were from the blood work and ultrasound he’d urged me to get.
It was a race at that point. A neck-and-neck downhill heat.
Which would fail first? I thought, lifting my glass.
My marriage or my health?
“Thanks for checking in, Dr. Marcuse,” I said to the machine. “Your timing is impeccable.”
AT THIS POINT, my heart was starting to race. Dinner for two --- and neither of them was Paul.
After I finished my glass of wine, I went downstairs and did the only sensible thing under the circumstances. I found the bottle and took it back upstairs with me.
After I had filled my third glass, I carried it and my wedding picture onto my bed.
I sat and drank, and stared at Paul.
At first, I’d been pretty resigned to Paul’s change in behavior after his latest and most pressure-filled promotion at work. I definitely thought it was unhealthy for him to be so stressed out all the time, but I also knew that investment finance was what he did. It was what he was good at, he’d told me many times. How he defined himself.
So I let it slide. His distance from me. The way he’d suddenly begun to ignore me at meals, and in the bedroom. He needed every ounce of concentration and energy for the office. And it was temporary, I told myself. Once he got up to speed, he would ease back. Or, at the very least, he would fail. I’d lick his wounds, and we’d be back to normal. I’d get to see those dimples again, that smile. We’d be back to being best friends.
I opened the night table drawer and took out my charm bracelet.
On my first birthday after we were married, Paul had bought it for me from, of all places, the preteen store Limited Too. So far I had six charms, the first, and my favorite, being a rhinestone heart, “for my love,” he’d said.
I don’t know why, but every year, each chintzy, puppy-love charm meant a million times more to me than the meal in the fancy restaurant he always took me to.
This year, Paul had gotten us into Per Se, the new white-hot spot in the Time Warner Center. But even after the crème brûlée, there was no gift.
He’d forgotten to get me a charm for the bracelet. Forgotten, or decided not to.
That had been the first sign of real trouble.
The Times Square neon billboard for trouble came in the form of the twenty-something blonde outside his office on Pearl Street --- the one he’d taken into the St. Regis.
The one Paul had lied to my face about.