By Emily Listfield Atria Copyright © 2009 Emily Listfield
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781416576716
I lie in bed watching the numbers on the digital alarm click in slow motion to 6:00 a.m., 6:01. My right hand, curled tightly beneath my head, is cramping, but I don't want to risk moving it. I lie perfectly still, listening to the birds chirping noisily outside, a high-pitched chorus wafting rebelliously through the harsh geometry of Manhattan. Nervous I would oversleep, I had tossed fitfully until dawn. Now, as with most missed opportunities, the only thing I long for is another chance at the night.
The lightness of the chirping fills me with a yearning I can't quite place, for unabridged land, for air, for my own childhood forty miles north of here, though I wanted desperately to escape the precisely gridded suburbs with their overriding promise of safety. Still, it's hard not to feel nostalgia for a time when I thought predictability was the worst fate imaginable.
I shut my eyes, willing the thought away.
It is a morning for fresh starts, after all.
Sam grunts softly in his sleep and rearranges his long legs, his left thigh brushing against mine under the sheets. I flinch unconsciously at the brief interlude of skin on skin and hold my breath, trying not to disturb him -- he has been up most of the night. He settles into his new position, letting out an aborted sigh from somewhere deep within his dream, and I exhale,secretly disappointed that he hasn't woken, turned to me. I look down, studying his face in the pale sunlight. Always handsome, he is more defined now, his edges sharper, as if everything soft and extraneous has been carved away, leaving his most essential self exposed. I run my fingertips gently through his matted dark-blond hair -- I've always loved him best this way, disheveled, unguarded.
His skin is warm, almost moist.
I try to remember the last time we made love in this fragile sliver of time before the girls wake up. I try to remember when we stopped trying.
I reach over and shut off the alarm so it won't wake him. All through the night I felt his agitation roiling his attempts at sleep, infiltrating my own. I'd turned to him once around two a.m. and asked what was bothering him.
"Nothing, just the story I'm working on. The pieces don't jibe, a source won't call me back," he said, curving away from me, though whether it was to avoid disturbing me further or a desire to be left alone, I wasn't sure. I've seen him like this many times before at the beginning of an assignment, waiting for a clear narrative to form in his head. He is a man who likes order and grows steeped in anxiety until he can impose it. Perhaps that's all it is.
For months, though, all through the summer, Sam has seemed restive for reasons I can't quite place. It has grown contagious, a malaise that has metastasized between us into a desultory low-level dissatisfaction, nothing I can touch, nothing worthy of accusation or argument, and yet. I hope the cooler season will wipe the slate clean, bring a new semester for our marriage.
I miss him.
There are moments, unexpected, unpredictable, when there is a sudden flash, a brief illumination in a look or touch, and we are us again, connected. They are hard to manufacture, though, no matter how hard I try. Sometimes I can feel him trying, too, missing me, too.
I slide carefully out of bed and pad barefoot down the hallway, bending over to pick up a crumpled gum wrapper, poorly hidden evidence of Claire's latest habit, the cloying sweet smell of imitation strawberry, grape, watermelon, vanilla emanating from her like cheap perfume, the noisy snapping and chewing deeply annoying, even more so because it is surely interfering with the six thousand dollars' worth of braces that encase her teeth, correcting a supposed crookedness that only an Upper East Side orthodontist can discern. Seizing the parental high road, I've taken to hiding my own gum-chewing habit, one of the pretenses I've recently felt it necessary to assume. I open the front door carefully, hoping its creak won't wake the children, take the papers into the kitchen and make a pot of coffee.
I can feel their breath, Sam's, the girls', in their separate corners of the apartment, surrounding me, grounding me even as they sleep. I have twenty minutes before I have to wake them and make breakfast, which, as per first day of school tradition, will involve pots and pans rarely seen on weekday mornings, scrambled eggs with chives snipped from the shriveling strands of the window herb plant, toast slathered with strawberry rhubarb preserves from the farmers' market, hot chocolate made from unsweetened cocoa and sugar rather than packets, ballast for whatever schoolyard intrigues, new teachers' quirks, algebraic conundrums, vertiginous swings in popularity lie ahead. I turn on the radio and listen to the weather report, which predicts a humid Indian summer day, the temperature threatening to hit the high eighties.
I dip my finger in the jam and lick it absentmindedly. Long ago, when the girls were still young enough to need supervision at the breakfast table, Sam and I developed a tag-team approach. I would get them up, put the food on the table and then dress while he ate with them. Though Phoebe is eleven and Claire thirteen, the habit remains, one of the unexamined rituals of family life that you realize only later are its very glue.
I take one last sip of coffee and walk into Phoebe's room first, stepping carefully over the huge shopping bag of new school supplies from Staples that have spilled across the floor, a kaleidoscope of colorful binders, highlighters in seven colors, six of which are totally unnecessary as far as I'm concerned, a new hole punch, index cards for book reports, neon-pink Post-its in the shape of hearts and arrows. Phoebe possesses a unique blend of laserlike focus and forgetfulness -- she can concentrate on an assignment for hours but will leave it on the bus. It is one of the things -- not just the forgetfulness, but her lack of concern about it -- that she has promised, albeit halfheartedly, to work on this year, though when I suggested buying a memo pad for to-do lists, she refused. "I'm eleven," she reminded me indignantly, as if lists were one more odious thing waiting for her in adulthood, along with mortgages, insurance claims, cholesterol readings. "Writing things on the back of my hand works just fine."
I lean over to kiss her cheek and she rolls sleepily into me, burying her face in the crook of my neck, her eyes fluttering open and then closing again.
"You have to get up, sweetie," I whisper as I run my fingers underthe blanket and tickle her, her body at least nominally still mine. Thesoftness of her neck, her arms makes the walls of my heart constrict.No one really tells you how much it is like falling in love over andover, how physical and encompassing it will be. Or that you willnever feel completely safe and relaxed again.
"Not yet." Her breath is heated, musty but sweet.
Since they got home from camp, the girls have grown used to lounging in bed till noon, especially in the last few weeks, when, like a final indulgent binge before a diet, we all lost the will for discipline of any sort.
"I hate school," Phoebe groans.
"It's too soon to hate school."
"It's never too soon to hate school."
I smile, knowing the words are hollow. Phoebe is by nature an easygoing child who, despite her carelessness, is generally anxious to please her teachers and popular with her friends. "Get up, my little misanthrope."
She looks at me suspiciously and is about to ask what the word means when she thinks better of it, knowing I will tell her to look it up, something she has absolutely no intention of doing. "It's not too soon for me to get a cell phone, either," she calls after me.
I leave without answering. I have decreed, repeatedly, that twelve is the age of consent for that particular piece of technology, my desire for being in constant touch, for being able to place her, outweighed by my certainty that Phoebe will lose at least a dozen phones within the first month. I make my way to Claire's room, where every available surface is lined with ornate boxes, jewelry cases, embroidered journals, the artifacts of her life stashed in tiny drawers, a Chinese puzzle of secrets and mementos. There is no one on earth quite as sentimental as a thirteen-year-old girl. In the rare moments when I am alone in the house I sometimes go through her drawers, scan her Internet history, her notebooks, looking not for evidence of crimes but for clues to who she is becoming. When I lean down to wake her, Claire shrugs away, curling deeper beneath the stained pale blue quilt she refuses to part with. It takes three increasingly strenuous shakes to get her to at least raise her head temporarily, her face hidden by a tangle of thick brunette hair almost the exact color as mine. If Phoebe is Sam's daughter, lighter in coloring and temperament, Claire, with her olive skin, her broodier nature, is mine. Claire's chosen outfit for the day -- a loosely knit pale-pink cable sweater, denim mini and leggings -- is carefully laid out on her desk chair. She spent a few days last week in East Hampton with a school friend shunning the beach to shop on Main Street and Newtown Lane, Claire suddenly one of those tanned, long-legged girls of indeterminate age still so alien to me with their giddy sense of entitlement apparent in every avid stride. I wonder if strangers, seeing Claire, assumed she was one of them, with an enormous shingled house and a credit card of her own.
"Honey, I think you may need to rethink your outfit," I say gently. "It's going to be too hot today."
Claire shakes her head at the ridiculousness of the notion. The outfit can't be rethought -- the skirt is too short for the school's restriction that hems be within four inches of the knee to wear without leggings and the sweater is, well, perfect. Any dolt can see that.
"I'll be fine," Claire insists. Under the best of circumstances, she has a certain rigidity that, though frustrating at times, I nevertheless hope will serve her well later in life when self-doubt, frankly self-reflection of any kind, has a tendency to impede progress, if not happiness. I have come to see the benefits of having blinders on. Anyway, when it comes to clothes Claire is particularly ironclad. It's useless to fight, though that doesn't always stop me from trying. It's a hard habit to break -- thinking you can control your own children.
The girls are dressed, Phoebe in capris and an Urban Outfitters T-shirt she pulled out of her dresser at the last minute, Claire in precisely the outfit she had planned, and at the table, pushing their eggs around with the tines of their forks when Sam stumbles out. He looks momentarily surprised at the presence of actual cooked food before recognition dawns on him. "Ah," he says, smiling, "the first day. The anticipation, the dread, the scramble for good seats." He bends over and kisses the top of the girls' heads. He has an informal, easygoing manner with the kids, who accept the undertone of irony as part of his makeup, like one's particular scent or way of walking. It is the same relaxed, loping charm I fell in love with nineteen years ago when we sat next to each other in the back row of a class on Hawthorne and James during our junior year in college: the smile that even then creased the sides of his cheeks, the tatty burgundy wool scarf draped casually around his neck in a way that only prep-school boys can ever truly pull off, his sly running commentary about professors, his baritone that entered my pores and stayed there like smoke. Sam seemed to have an innate sense of belonging and yet not take it seriously -- a lethal combination to someone like me. My own family had struggled into the middle class, there was nothing effortless about it, every move, every emotion was splayed out, picked over, vociferously debated. The very notion of privacy was alien, suspect. Sam's cool distance was as deeply attractive to me as my lack of it was to him. Then, anyway.
I watch Sam, yawning as he takes his first sip of coffee, breaks offa piece of Claire's toast and gets his hand slapped, a shopworn routinethat nevertheless tangles me up with comfort and affection.
This is what we have created, this family.
Sam flips through the stack of newspapers in front of him, quickly scanning the front pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post before turning to the business sections. There is an unmistakable testosterone-induced anxiety -- has anyone gotten a juicy story he has somehow missed? -- and poorly concealed relief that there is only the usual stock market pabulum and speculative opinion. An observer by nature, he has a talent for intuiting shifts in mood and influence, the way power movesaround the city. It's what makes him a good business journalist. Still, two weeks ago, Sam's latest competitor at the magazine, Peter Borofsky, a reporter six years younger and ten times as hungry, broke a story about how the board of a Fortune 500 company spied on its own president, bugging his phone, getting his financial records. The report made it onto the evening news and Sam can't help but grit his teeth every time he hears it mentioned. This morning, at least, he is safe. So far. I know that the moment I leave he will race to his laptop to check an ever-expanding list of Web sites and blogs. There are so many more ways to be bested now.
"What kind of day do you have?" he asks, glancing up from the paper.
"Some forms to fill out at school..."
"What forms?" Claire demands, suspicious.
"Nothing, just the class trip consent things."
"Didn't you do that? They were due weeks ago."
"I thought I had, but apparently not. I got an e-mail from the school on Friday."
Claire looks at me disdainfully.
I shrug. There are so many forms, a new batch every day, and newsletters and invitations and updates and e-mails, as if the school is worried parents won't feel they are getting their money's worth if their mailboxes aren't constantly overflowing. "It'll be fine," I insist. I turn back to Sam. "Then I'm having breakfast with Deirdre."
Sam nods and as he flips the page of his newspaper the corner dips into his coffee and threatens to fall off into soggy little islands of print. The three of us went to college together on an upstate campus so snowy that ropes stretched like cat's cradle yarn across it for students to pull their way to classes. In recent years, though, my friendship with Deirdre has come to exist largely outside of a broader social context, a skein that binds us from our early days in Manhattan, when we shared a loft in the East Village. For fifteen years we have been meeting once a week, or close to it, though what had oncebeen late-night drinks in cheap dive bars has morphed into early-morning breakfasts. "This is the most long-term relationship I've ever had," Deirdre often jokes. I have Sam, of course, but I know just what she means.
"You'll see her at Jack's dinner tomorrow night," I remind him.
"How could I forget? The big birthday celebration."
"Who's Jack?" Claire asks.
"Someone we went to college with."
"How come I've never met him?" Any pre-child life is suspect and murky by default; neither of the girls truly believe in its existence.
"He lives in Boston."
"You're going to Boston?" Phoebe asks, perplexed.
"No. He has a job interview in New York and asked us all out to dinner," I explain. "We haven't seen each other in years."
Jack Handel was Deirdre's college boyfriend, a scholarship kid from northern California. From the start, he and I shared a special empathy; we were both outsiders on that hilly, privileged campus, though our reactions were quite different. If I wanted -- a little too desperately -- to fit in, Jack wore his interloper status defiantly. It's not that he had a chip on his shoulder, but his sense of direction set him apart; he was sharper, faster, more strategic, while the rest of us were still a little soft, unformed, blurry around the edges. I still remember one Christmas vacation, when the four of us met up in the city almost every night. For Deirdre and Sam, who both grew up here, Manhattan was already a checkerboard of memories: There was Trader Vic's at the Plaza, where Deirdre swore they let her drink at sixteen -- we got plastered on Scorpions, with their sickeningly sweet floating gardenias and two-foot-long straws, Deirdre and I in our thrift-shop fifties cocktail dresses wobbling out into the cold night; we went to Sam's favorite jazz club downtown and were scolded for talking during the sets; we ended up at three a.m. at Brasserie, where Deirdre's father had a running tab and we could charge enormous breakfasts, though I asked repeatedly to the point of annoyance if she was sure it was okay. I was barely able to afford a diner on my own and couldn't imagine anyone being that cavalier about money. And there were the places that they avoided. Deirdre wouldn't go to Serendipity because it was where her father used to take her to drown her parents' divorce in Frozen Hot Chocolates; she centered her life downtown as much as possible. Sam had written off all of Park Avenue on principle. The city was a game of Twister to them, and if I would never catch up I would also never risk falling into one of their valleys. That winter break, though, Jack and I were along for the ride, giddy, exuberant, lucky to be chosen. For that brief moment, opportunity, the future itself, felt boundless.
We thought it would always be that way.
Sam turns another page of his newspaper. "Who is Jack interviewing with?"
"He wouldn't tell me. He signed a confidentiality agreement."
"I can't see him moving to New York."
"It's easier to be a big deal in Boston. Is Alice coming?"
"I don't think so. He'll only be here overnight. His actual birthday is next weekend, so I guess they'll do their own thing up there."
Jack is the first among us to hit forty. Deirdre's birthday is in seven weeks, Sam has six more months, I have eight.
"You'd think Deirdre would be the last person he'd want to spend his birthday with."
"It was all so long ago," I remind him.
Claire listens intently. She worships Deirdre, scavenging for clues to a life so much more captivating than anything we could possibly offer.
Sam shrugs without looking up and runs his hands lazily down his flat stomach -- he still runs three miles most mornings, though his knees have lately begun creaking with alarming regularity. At thirty-nine he considers this a decidedly premature development that he plans on ignoring for as long as possible. Like most men he is determined to deny the physical signs of aging to the same degree that women obsess about them. "By the way, I may be late tonight."
"Late as in don't hold dinner?" For years, Sam and I ate after the girls, but reading numerous dire magazine articles has convinced me they will be hooked on heroin by the age of fourteen if we don't change our evil ways. Lately I've been making a concerted, if erratic, effort for all of us to eat approximately the same thing at approximately the same time. There have been spurts of upstart rebellions from various involved parties ever since.
"I'm not sure. I'll call you as soon as I know. I'm hoping to meet with someone about the Wells profile. I'm waiting to hear back from him."
I study Sam, weighing my options. It would never occur to me that being late on the first night of school is even a choice. Still, I don't want to fight this morning. And I know how much he needs this profile.
Sam has recently been assigned to write a cover story on Eliot Wells, the founder of Leximark. An early innovator in Web functionality, he is supposedly about to introduce some breakthrough cross-platform first-step artificial intelligence something or other -- I don't quite get it, though I pretend I do rather than suffer through one more excruciating explanation. All I know is that the most controversial thing that has been written about Wells in recent years, aside from allusions to his cataclysmic temper, is that he has a proclivity to skip showers -- though it seems to me this is said about any number of Internet gurus, as if a lack of personal hygiene is in and of itself a sign of genius. Sam is hoping to uncover something grittier and has convinced himself -- though not, as yet, his editor, Simon -- that there is dirt lurking in Wells's background. Of course, the great inverse law of journalism is that the further you bring someone down, the higher you raise your own profile.
"All right, let me know." I get up to dress.
I turn partially around. "Yes?"
"There's something I want to talk to you about." His face, still hatch-marked with indentations from his pillow, is earnest, almost nervous.
I look at him quizzically.
He glances over at the girls. "Later. Tonight."
As I pass, he reaches over and grazes my forearm with his fingertips.
I will feel it there for the rest of the day, he can still do that to me.
I leave the three of them in the kitchen and go to shower, letting the hot water pour down my face, thinking of the day ahead, what to wear, my schedule at work, wondering, too, what Sam might want to talk to me about and why he thinks he needs to reserve my time. I mean, where else would I be?
When I get out I notice that his cell phone, charging on the night table, is flashing with a message.
I wrap the towel tighter about my chest, shake out my shoulder-length hair, the thick, dark waves not yet expanding from the heat into the total unruliness that had me wearing a ponytail most of the summer. I open the top drawer of my dresser, consider three different versions of a white V-neck top that to the naked eye look identical but which are in fact each completely necessary for varying levels of bloat. I can hear Sam and the girls clearing their plates. I glance at the door, still closed.
I don't know why I pick up the phone. I have never done anything like this before. It would be easy to say it is intuition, but we always claim that in retrospect.
With it still charging, I push "voice mail" and listen to his message.
It is a woman's voice, she does not leave a name, she does not have to, judging by the intimacy lacing through her tone. "I'm going to be a little late tonight," she says, the words slightly muffled by the whoosh of traffic in the background. "Can we make it six thirty? Same place."
I press the button to save the message as new and sit down on the edge of the bed, a cool sweat beading along the back of my neck and trickling slowly down my spine.
Copyright © 2009 by Emily Listfield
Excerpted from Best Intentions by Emily Listfield Copyright © 2009 by Emily Listfield. Excerpted by permission.
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