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The last time I saw Braydon Gauthier alive he was still my husband. We were in the bedroom of our three story walk-up in Chelsea. I was throwing clothes into a pair of battered suitcases that had seen more moving than traveling. He was perched on the end of the bed, worrying at the corner of our duvet--in the last possible moment that it would be our duvet--with one long-fingered hand. It was a habit he had--the fabric thing--and it didn't drive me crazy, but I knew it would if I hung around much longer.
"It's the car, isn't it," he said. "I know it's the car."
"It's not the car."
"Well, not the car. I mean, I know it's not the car itself. But the accident. You still haven't forgiven me."
I thought about it, though I didn't miss a beat in my packing while I considered his words. Finally I stopped, dropped onto the bed next to him and looked straight into his deep-set, hazel eyes.
"It's not the car, Braydon. And it's not the accident. More like what the accident represents."
He squinted at me and I could see he didn't get it. "We can fix the car, Mad."
I sighed. Tried again. "It's you, Braydon. Not the car. Or maybe that's not right. It's you and me. Together. We were just doomed from the start."
"Now you're being melodramatic."
I smiled at him then, because he was right. Which didn't actually make him more correct.
"Okay," I said, "melodrama aside, we're just too different, Bray. I mean, look at me," and I wasn't just indicating my pin-striped suit, or my careful chignon, but a whole lifestyle. Or, rather, the lifestyle I was, at twenty-five, just trying to put together. "When's the lasttime I left for the office later than 6:30 a.m.?"
He shrugged, yet we both knew the answer. It had been a long time.
"And you," I went on, "there could be a kitchen fire at Quiver and your sous-chef could get hit by a bus, but if it was your day off, you wouldn't bother going in."
"Oh, come on," he chided, "if Arnie got hit by a bus, maybe I'd go in."
He saw me, I think, notice the light in those eyes when he smiled at me. And notice the way the skin at the corner of his eyes crinkled slightly when he did. He covered my hand with his own, and I enjoyed, for a second, the warmth of his strong, soft touch. A touch as familiar to me then as the touch of my own hand. It wouldn't have taken much, in that moment, for me to let go of my resolve. I moved his hand. Gently. Got up. Addressed myself again to those suitcases.
"Okay. I get what you're saying. You're all about work and I'm...not. Isn't that our balance, though? Isn't that what we bring to each other?"
"I thought so for a while," I said, tossing a sweater into one of the suitcases. "For a long while, really. But it's more than that, Braydon. It's not just work, it's life philosophies. It's how we approach the world. And, like I said before, it's not about the car, yet you could have killed yourself that day. You could have killed both of us. And Curt for that matter, too."
"There's that melodrama again."
I stopped my packing for a moment. Looked at him.
"I don't think so. What was it I overheard you say to Curt the other day? You said, "Madeline lives for work." You said it critically, but it got me thinking, Braydon. I'm not so sure you were wrong."
"Madeline, c'mon. I didn't mean it that way."
"But Braydon, you were right. I do. I live for my work." And here I pulled myself to my full height, which at five feet eleven inches is not inconsiderable, and looked right into his eyes, my back straight. "I want to be the best stockbroker in the city of New York, ergo the known universe." I was twenty-five, so I was able to say this completely without irony. And mean it. "I will be the best stockbroker in New York. I am prepared to do whatever it takes. Work all the hours necessary. Step on whoever gets in my way. You laugh," I said, "but I'm serious. And hearing you say that to Curt crystalized it for me. It's what I want, Braydon. It's all I want."
"It didn't used to be," he said, somewhat petulantly, I thought.
No," I said gently, "it always was. It's just that, for a while, I thought there was a place in my life for that balance you mentioned. That is, I thought we balanced each other. But we don't, Bray. And we never will. I will be at the top of my profession." Later I wouldn't be proud of it, but I met his eyes and said, "And you'll just hold me back."
Thinking about it now--thinking about his face--it was like I'd kicked him in the solar plexus, or some other highly sensitive spot. I'd hit some kind of mark. Maybe one I hadn't even known was there.
"I can change," he said, but there was no real resolve in his voice.
"We don't change, Braydon," I said from the wisdom of the quarter century I'd been granted to that point.
"No one ever changes. We are what we are."
Sometimes, now, I wonder about it all. I wonder about what would have been different in our lives if I'd stayed. If, that day, he'd offered me some compelling reason not to go. When you see where it ended up, it's like we changed places. And I have to claim my part in that, I guess. I have to acknowledge at least some small edge of responsibility for what, in the end, happened to Braydon Gauthier. My husband. If only for a short time.
But that was New York, in the long ago. Now I live in L.A.--in Malibu, actually--and my life is very different.
The phone rings a lot at Tasya and Tyler's house. She's a busy actress, he's an important director and, to top the whole deal off, there's Jennifer, Tyler's teenage daughter. I can't imagine another house where the phone would have so much reason to be ringing all the time.
The phone doesn't ring that often for me. I'd been staying in the guest room at Tyler and Tasya's Malibu cliff house for three months. Before that I'd been renting a cute little apartment fitted neatly under the main deck of their house. That ended when the apartment--with all my stuff inside--was blown up by a madman. My car got blown up around the same time. Both of those things are a different day's story. But on this day I was homeless and carless and pondering my options.
While being their tenant, I'd become as close to Tyler, Tasya, Jennifer and their dog, Tycho, as family. Since they have a big house with a lot of empty rooms, Tyler and Tasya insisted I stay with them while I contemplated my next move. Living there was not a permanent enough arrangement that I'd added my own phone line, but my best friend, Emily, had surprised me with a mobile phone when she'd given up on me ever breaking down and getting one for myself.
"At least this way," she said when she presented me with the tri-band cell, her dark eyes flashing with pleasure when she gave me her gift, "you'll be able to redirect your personal calls to your very own phone. And I won't have to bug Tyler or Tasya every time I want to talk to you."
I'd been half pleased, half irritated. She was right, of course. I did need a phone, and it really hadn't looked as though I was ever going to get one on my own. I seldom admit it, but I can be a bit of a Luddite. Still, I'd thought. Still. Sometimes it seems as though I spend my life being a little sister. Even when I'm not.
So the ringing of the house line did nothing to alert me. And, since I'd made some friends since moving to Los Angeles from New York, it didn't even alarm me when Tasya let me know the call was for me. Not everyone had my cell number yet. I took the call on the land line in my room.
I did become alarmed when I heard the voice on the phone. And even though it was one I hadn't heard in a while, I could detect the distress in it instantly.
"Maddy, it's Anne-Marie." Anne-Marie is a very nice lady. She lives in Canada and is my ex-sister-inlaw. I would have been less surprised if my caller was the president. Well, maybe not, but you get the idea.
"Anne-Marie, what is it?" We hadn't spoken since Braydon and I split up close to a decade before. Anne-Marie and I exchanged cards at Christmas and sent each other the occasional joke in e-mail, but we didn't talk as we had when I was her brother's wife. It just hadn't fit the program. So hearing from her, after all this time and sounding alarmed as she did now, I knew right away it wasn't a social call.
"It's Bray, Maddy," she said without preamble.
I sank onto my bed without realizing I was doing it, vaguely aware that I was glad the bed was there to grab me. It wasn't that I fell, exactly, but my legs had just suddenly ceased being interested in holding me.
"Oh, no, Anne-Marie. I can't believe it." I could almost feel her nod, but she didn't say anything. "When did it happen?"
"Three days ago. Oh, Madeline, it's terrible." Emotion choked her voice. I had the feeling that she'd used up her current supply of self-control in calling me. That whatever reserves she'd had were now gone. "He killed himself."
I got through the balance of the conversation with Anne-Marie with surprising calm. Some type of otherworldly calm, really, because all of it is still so clear in my mind. I didn't feel anything, but every other sense seemed to be working overtime.
It was midafternoon and the stock markets had been closed for only a short time. I'd had a good session and had been chewing on the satisfaction of a day's work well done when Anne-Marie's call came.
Tasya, an international film star of unsurpassed beauty, was in the kitchen. Tasya was born in a Soviet Bloc country when there was still a Soviet Bloc. She was making some sort of soup that day--some homeland dish--heavy on the onions and cabbage. The smell of it--warm, comforting, reassuringly homey--was all around me. To this day if anyone says the word suicide I think of cabbage soup. And vice versa.
Sunshine was slanting through the half-open blinds in my room. Partially filtered light illuminated the dust motes that trailed through the air. The sun that reached me warmed evenly spaced bands on my forearm.
Anne-Marie was telling me my ex-husband was dead. Dead by his own hand. Yet it wasn't the least bit real to me. When I tried to make a picture of it in my head, all I could see was Braydon laughing. It's still difficult for me to imagine him without a smile on his face.
I made myself focus on Anne-Marie's words: she'd said something that required a response.
"You can stay at my place while you're up here." She made a sound that came out half laugh, half sob.
"I've wanted to invite you so many times. I wish I had...before."