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Philadelphia ... in the summer ...
Alexandra stood on the wide front porch of her Wynnfield-section home and breathed in the thick night air. Her clothes stuck to her skin and her normally neat executive bob haircut had become a profusion of unruly, damp ringlets each going in its own direction. The sound of cars and the laughter of youth from the streets in the distance made her hold her keys in her hand and sit down on a wicker porch chair.
She remembered youth, and the excitement of summer freedom and hormonal bursts, singing to the radio and smooching with a boyfriend on Belmont Plateau, and dancing till she sweat, and trying to sneak into clubs. Yes, she remembered the freedom of "Hot Fun in the Summer Time," at a "Stone Soul Picnic" and "Grazing in the Grass" ... can you dig it, dig it, baby ... and learning about your breakup as you "Heard It Through the Grapevine" ... forgetting all the "Reasons," till a new boyfriend sang "Summer' Breeze" into your ear while you slow-dragged and he did a sexual awakening grind against your thigh at a blue-light-in-the-basement-party.
But it was all becoming a hazy memory. The joy of it was about as far from her now as Fairmount Park, just a stone's throw and a few blocks away, but invisible from where she now sat, nonetheless. Maybe it was because the music was different these days?
Fatigue clawed at her shoulders forcing her to drop her purse on the porch floor and set her briefcase down with a thud, but that wasn't what had brought tears to hereyes or had made her sit down. It was the thought of crossing the threshold, and of going inside where she'd literally suffocate.
Alexandra closed her eyes and stretched her legs out in front of her as she discarded her shoes with a plop on the wooden floor. The house inside was dark, and she wished she could wave a magic wand to make the glaring exterior floodlights also eclipse. The best she could do was to find the chair that was furthest away from the bright intrusion to her senses. How had it come to this?
She chuckled sadly as she thought of what her grandmother always used to say, "Be careful of what you pray for, because you just might get it." Perhaps that was it indeed. Hadn't she prayed to remarry after her divorce? Hadn't she prayed for a house filled with children? Didn't she go after her dream career as a television producer with a vengeance? Hadn't she worked for five long years without spending a dime to recover from the financial devastation that the separation, then divorce, created? Oh yes, she'd gotten what she'd prayed for. But, somehow, it hadn't worked out like she'd ever imagined.
She peered up at the expansive six-bedroom house that had become her new home, allowing her eyes to scan the tastefully painted structure and manicured landscaping that graced the front of it. Then she glanced at her aging black Volvo in the driveway and thought briefly about her current husband's refurbished BMW safely stowed in the garage. They had a good life. They had as much, if not more than, most. She should and would be thankful.
Sudden guilt washed over her as she recalled the miscarriages she'd grieved so heavily over during her first marriage, and remembered how happy she'd been when she conceived her daughter, even though she and her ex-husband had been separated from each other at the time. That weekend of love's last glimmer had been worth the outcome, even though it didn't save her marriage. Lauren was still their gift, just as the new children in her life were hers and her new husband's to share. Alexandra's gaze went to the windows on the upper level where her blended family of four children and a new husband now slept.
Yes, she'd wanted a house filled with children and love and companionship and respect, something her first marriage couldn't provide. Yes, she loved every single one of her unwieldy brood, as well as their nuances, differences, and very individual personalities. She even loved that crazy Golden Retriever puppy, Rex, who had been sequestered to the kitchen until he was paper-trained. And, yes, her husband, Edward, was a gift from On High.
Her new husband was tall, and handsome, and clean cut with a beautiful dark bronze complexion that set-off the silver coming in at his temples within his jet black, short-cropped hair. She loved his body, which was basketball-player-lean and muscular. But, it was his intense, serious, dark eyes that played contrast to his dashing smile that created those dimples. Hmmm. She knew that was what had drawn her to approach him at the university function that her television station was covering when they first met.
Moreover, she had been granted a plethora of gifts within the relationship that went beyond him being a proficient lover. Edward Michael Wingate was a decent soul, a good father, had a great career as a top financial administrator for an area university, plus he never disrespected her, and he loved her dearly. Edward was serious, predictable, and constant. He never deviated. He could be counted onanother significant luxury her first marriage hadn't provided. So, what was her problem?
When she first started to feel this way, she'd chalked it up to work-related pressures ... then PMS ... then ... a potential mid-life crisis ... then possible early menopause ... then, she ran out of excuses. That's also when she became afraid. Afraid if she dared to tell any of her girlfriends or family members how she was really feeling, that they'd offer prescriptive advice, and resent her for even having the gall to complain about her life.
In their minds, she'd arrived, by having survived a divorce, beaten the odds on African American female statistics to get a good second man, become a "career woman," and still had a baby girl before she was forty. Not to mention, sporting a house full of pre-teen girls and a four-and-a-half-year-old son. They'd probably all tell her that she was insane, then close the case on her issues, and dismiss her. After all, that's what her stepmother and aunts had done when she merely grazed the subject.
Anyway, by now, most of her single girlfriends had taken exception to the new, non-spontaneous, homebound lifestyle she'd acquiesced to. They didn't understand that Edward went to work, came home, did yard work, went to Home Depot upon occasion, went to the gym, or carted kids around to their activities, and had a small circle of friends with whom he had pre-planned sports-related interfaceand was happy with doing just those things.
They didn't understand how much of a gift that such constancy was after having been emotionally charred by a philandereror why she had to respect Edward's hot-buttons to keep the peace. He didn't ask for much, so reducing her free-spirited, flamboyant nature a little seemed reasonable to her. She had many friends, colleagues, and associates, and he only had a few. Opposites had attracted, and she'd said for better or worse, so had he. Unfortunately, in this relationship, she was the one who felt like she was the worst half of the two. This was also new.
But none of her single friends could seem to grasp that her new husband was usually at home, unlike the first one. So, no, he didn't understand an unplanned girls-nite-out. Nor, could he fathom spending money on a group shopping extravaganza, or going to a day spa with a buddy, or spending a weekend morning at a coffee house, or going to the theater, or doing any of the things she used to do before she was married, or when she was separated. Plus, they were out looking for men, and she clearly was notwhich led to a disconnect of goals and a growing apart. She was no longer a single mother, no longer a single girlfriend, no longer her own entityshe had gone back inside the female-freedom-hostile territory called home, to the other side to become a working wife.
Some of her married girlfriends might have understood, but they had much more serious issues of their own to contend with, so, she didn't bother them with idle chatter about her miniscule problem of needing personal space. What was that? None of them had personal space anymore. It went with the job, and everybody knew it, so why discuss it? That reality came across in the mommy looks they shared with each other while taking kids from activity to activitythe deep sigh, followed by that nod of fellow-indentured-servant-look. Besides, when was there a quiet moment, sans husband and children, to really have a true-confessions conversation without being overheard?
She was just being silly, she told herself, as she contemplated going into the house. The order of magnitude of her world had shifted, and getting that across to her dear friends, without having to listen to them ridicule her mate, seemed impossible. And getting a baby sitter for one child had been hard enough, but getting someone to watch four kids was ridiculous. So, she went to work, and came home and chauffeured children to extra curricular activities, and ran errands. Yet, lately, she had to admit to finding little, obscure reasons to stay later and longer at work than was necessary. Alexandra peered down at her briefcase and let her breath out slowly.
Initially, she'd told herself that working so late so often was related to nothing more that her driving ambitionfor the good of the whole family. And, initially, Edward had bought her explanation. In fact, she'd really believed her own rhetoric. But, as she sat in the quiet hours of the night, it became clear that work was her only escape. She was certain of that tonight when even her boss told her to go home, and she'd refused, feigning a complexity in the production schedule for the morning show that she needed to close the loop on. That frightened her, because she was beginning to sound like her ex-husband within her own head, and he was a person who had it all and threw it all away, simply because he couldn't give up some measure of spontaneity or assume basic household responsibilities.
A shiver ran through Alexandra, and she wrapped her arms around herself and began to rock. If there was just someone to talk to, someone to hash it out with and to give her some good advice on how not to mess up her marriage due to selfishness. Someone whom she could tell the things she was even afraid to admit to herself ... someone whom she could tell that she hadn't had an orgasm with her new husband in over six months ... and who would help her understand why not.
The one person who might have understood, and whom she could tell anything to, had passed years ago, well before the divorce. God, how she missed her Mom, and how clearly she now understood just what a sacrifice her mother had made for their family during all those dutiful years. She'd never live up to that standard of excellence.
New tears filled Alexandra's eyes as she shut them tight and thought of the kitchen conferences she and her mother had once shared. Just to be able to talk to someone, confidentially and without judgement, and without having to go into the full family history. A therapist wasn't even the answer. For such a person, in her view, didn't have the perspective of knowing that there weren't any ugly past family dramas to uncover, or any childhood abuses.
Conversely, only her mother would have understood just how much she wanted this marriage to work, just how fiercely protective she was of it, and how deeply afraid she was to create any waves that could make it go under. Divorce had never even entered her mind as an option the first time she'd married, and now, having been given a second chance at love, it was unthinkable. Failure at this was out of the questionand the first honest failure in her life had been at a marriage once before. This time she wasn't going to rock the boat.
Talking about it was pointless, just as mentally belaboring the issue had become. It was probably best to just pick up her briefcase and purse and go into the house. No one, but her mother, would have been able to interpret just how emotionally invested she was in all of the children's lives and in creating a traditional family unit. A therapist would be looking for answers in all the wrong places, which, in the end, would take up precious, intimate time.
Time. Alexandra opened her eyes and immediately glanced at her watch. If Edward were awake, he'd be worried, and become stoically crosstight jawed. He had never come to understand how her job in television entailed reacting to a series of mini crises, real or imagined. His profession fit his personality to a teehis hours were regular, steady, and rarely deviated. And, unlike her from time to time, he always called to say if he was going to be late and was precise about the moment he could be expected to walk through the door. She'd told him to expect her around ten, creating a problem by not calling a second time to say that she was going to be even later than expected. It was a missing courtesy that he would have extended to her. Now, it was past midnight, and she knew that when she went into the house, she'd have at least two hours of her real job in front of her before she could really rest.
It was a ritual. First she'd set down her briefcase and kick off her heelsbut place them carefully under the radiator, per Edward's explicit instructions about the dangers of a child tripping over them. Well, at least, she noted, her shoes were already off.
Then, she'd walk through the house and pick up behind every living soul that had wreaked havoc. Then, she'd make her way through the destruction to the kitchen, rinse and put away the dishes and leftover food to keep her family from getting ptomaine poisoning. Next on the agenda would be to defrost the following night's dinner that had been prepared and frozen in Ziplock storage containers and labeled, by day and contents, the Sunday prior. Then, she'd make six healthy lunches for each family member to take to work and school. Then, she'd clean up after the puppy, which was still in the worming stage. That was the job of the last adult person in the kitchen, which always seemed to be her. Then, she'd lay down fresh newspaper after mopping the floor with bleach and take out the Hazmat trash.
Then, she'd go upstairs, kiss and again tuck in each child who had inadvertently kicked off their sheets, make sure that both little onesher five year old daughter and four-and-a-half-year-old sonhadn't peed their beds, make sure that her seven and eight-year-old daughters were truly asleep, check alarm clocks in all rooms, and lay out school clothes.
Then, she'd make sure everything was in order for her work routine the following day, by clearing off and double checking voicemail at home and at work, checking the status of any last minute e-mail sent from work, and throwing in a load of laundry while the system booted up. Then, she could finally go into the bathroom, take off the day's make-up, and get ready for bed, and try to slip into the sheets for approximately four good hours of sleep before her alarm sounded at six o'clock a.m., without waking Edwardwho, if awakened, would want to make love during the only quiet time they seemed to have to themselves these days. After all, it was a Wednesday night.
But, afar living with a man that ran the streets and cheated on her without shame, the last thing she would do was complain about her steadfast new husband's desireregardless of how routine it had become.
Alexandra pushed herself up to stand, and bent slowly to grasp her briefcase, shoes, and purse. There was nothing to complain about. This had all been discussed and agreed upon before she and Edward had married. They talked about the way things would be handled this time around. Their courtship was brief, and the sex was explosive, then. Alexandra sighed and heaved her purse onto her shoulder to counterbalance the weight of her briefcase and shoes. Why was her mind causing trouble now? Especially after they had both been through almost three years of abstinence just waiting for the right partner ... which had deliciously added to the fireworks of their lovemaking during their initial courtship? Edward was a kind man. They hadn't been married a full year, and their anniversary was coming up. Maybe things would get better, then. It was just the first year adjustment blues. Wasn't that to be expected?
They both wanted a family with a reasonable, disciplined person to share a home with. She said those words in her head like a mantra as she made her way to the front door. It was simple; they both met shortly after she'd had Lauren, who was three, and her ex had begun another affair. They'd paced themselves and became friendsfirst. Then, slowly, only after she saw Edward's steadfastness and honor over a period of a little more than six months, did she allow it to go to the next level, and he'd accepted the time she needed to heal and trust again. Edward had travailed with her through the divorce processwhich thankfully was over quickly, because she'd already been separated and her husband was ready to sign. Edward even loved her through the arduous task of losing thirty pounds of pregnancy fatjust as she'd supported him through the last vestiges of a custody battle that had begun well before she'd met him.
She didn't have to deal with the whims of a free spirit any longer; she could depend on Ed. So, how could she complain?
Alexandra pulled her fingers through her frizzy hair and tried to think of the last time she'd gone to the hairdresser instead of the barbet to keep it trimmed and blunt-cut. But, that was unimportant, and vain, she reminded herself. Just like shopping at the malls for herself was out of the question, and going out on a dinner date alone with Edward was out of the question ... just like he said, it was a waste of money that could go to the household or the children's needs.
He'd set the example with five, classic Brooks Brothers suits, seven white shirts, a few basic ties, two pairs of Wingtip shoes that he rotated like a military uniform, a solid pair of running shoes, and a pair of heavy construction work-boots to use when he did the yard. Alexandra inserted the key in the lock. His side of the walk-in closet took up one quarter of the space that hers did, and his dresser drawer contained neatly folded casual wear from K-Mart. She, on the other hand, had an embarrassing designer collection of fashionsalbeit from yesteryear, and had a shoe rack that would make Amelda Marcos take note. The only thing that had made him relent was that most of her items could be tied to "the needs of her profession" in television. So, he'd left that subject alone, but she knew she'd dare not bring a bag home, lest it would open the floor for serious closet-clean-out negotiations.
As she turned the key in the lock, she heard the puppy's friendly bark, and she also smelled the need to hasten her steps toward the kitchen. What could she say? All kids should grow up with dogs, her husband had said, because it taught them responsibility. Then why was she the one getting more responsibility, she wondered, as she rushed to kiss the friendly little face that was wagging its tail and trying to jump over the baby-gate prison door to greet her.
When she stepped over it, the puppy playfully grabbed at her toes and pulled the end of her stocking, which sent a wide run up her leg in the process. Piles of poop nowhere near the paper were her welcome home gift, and she steered clear of them in search of a paper towel.
Counting to ten as she saw a lonely child's slipper in shreds, she tore off a big wad of towel and began the unpleasant task of cleaning up behind the dog. Her gaze traveled around the kitchen like a government inspector, and she knew that the kitchen was ground zero. She could only imagine what the rest of the house looked like. Oddly, it seemed that it was always more chaos when the king of neat watched the kids when she had to be late. However, on the rare occasion that he had a conference, or needed to stay later, he walked into a house that was in perfect order. Why was that? Alexandra tried to force herself to be calm, and she swallowed down the rising fury that seemed to be her constant companion lately. It wasn't the kids' fault, or the dog's fault.
The puppy stage wouldn't last forever, she reminded herself. Just like the kids wouldn't be little people forever. One day they'd grow up and give her space enough to breathe. Besides, she and Edward both knew it was going to be tough at first, and had even agreed that a housekeeper, or person to watch the children, was an unnecessary expense. They were going to do it the old-fashioned way, by super-imposing Ozzie and Harriet on top of two demanding careers. The only problem was that, just like that Nineteen Fifties sitcom, it seemed like The Mister got to go to work unencumbered by much else.
Excerpted from After the Vows by Leslie Esdaile, T. T. Henderson, Jacquelin Thomas. Copyright © 2001 by Leslie Esdaile, T. T. Henderson, Jacquelin Thomas. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.