By Jane Green
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Jane Green
All rights reserved.
Back then, when life seemed so simple, before she knew what life was capable of throwing at her, Sylvie was a natural worrier. Anxiety followed her around like a small dank cloud, convincing her that something terrible was just about to happen. As a child, she worried about her mother's rages, which didn't stop them coming. As a young woman, she worried about making enough money as a textile designer, which meant she had to supplement her career by painting houses. As a young mother, she worried Eve would roll onto her front and never wake up, and when Jonathan was late home from work, she worried something had happened to him.
She wasn't worried, however, the morning he sat on her side of the bed, leaning over to tie his cycling shoes before rolling gently on top of her and kissing her, tiptoeing his fingers up her inner thigh as she gave up all pretense of being asleep and giggled, shoving his hand away.
"Nice ass," she called out, opening one eye as he reached the doorway, causing him to spin and adopt a model pose before blowing her a kiss and clomping down the stairs.
Thirty minutes later, she was cutting a piece of toast into slices for Eve, who was meticulously nibbling up to the crusts before giving each crust a name and personality, dancing them around her small purple melamine plate.
When a police car pulled up outside the window, Sylvie froze. Evie, sensing something, climbed onto her mother's lap, curling up and sucking her thumb. There was no way they could have known, and yet, they both knew.
Moments later, the doorbell rang; she knew the police were on the other side. Before she even opened the door, she could see their expressions of sympathy, knew they would gently ask her if she knew a Jonathan Haydn; when she said she was his wife, they would look down at the ground for a second, their faces racked with sadness, wishing they didn't have to tell this young wife and mother that her husband would not be coming home, wishing right now they were anywhere else but here.
* * *
For years, she wasn't able to say the words that now come so easily, without her throat closing, or her eyes pricking. My first husband died. Brain aneurysm. Yes. It was a tragedy.
Fourteen years later, she can say the words without feeling a wave of loss wash over her. She can, and does, stop suddenly while walking down a street, or in a store, because she has seen someone who has his walk. Or smell. Or hair. But now she can stop, remember, and keep moving, without being engulfed by loss, and grief, and pain.
She moved to La Jolla, found friends through Eve's kindergarten, was building a new life in which she was, if not happy, content.
She worked in an art gallery part-time, occasionally exhibiting and selling her paintings in one of the cafés in town. She had stopped worrying, waiting for the worst to happen, because it had already happened and she had survived.
On her own for three years after Jonathan's death, she had become self-sufficient, a tight unit with Eve. Dating didn't interest her, despite the kind offers to fix her up; neither did the prospect of merging her life with someone else's. Dating, kissing, making love with someone other than Jonathan would have been a betrayal she wasn't willing to make.
When she did make it, it didn't feel like a betrayal. It felt right, as if Jonathan had given her his blessing. Eleven years after meeting Mark, Sylvie does not often indulge memories of Jonathan. As the years have passed, she has, largely out of respect for Mark, allowed them to fade. She was so young when she was with Jonathan, so unaware of the enduring nature of marriage, of the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the work required to keep you in the game.
She had only four years with Jonathan. When he died, they were still in the honeymoon period, never having a chance to reach the stage where they irritated each other, fought over nothing, simply passed each other in the house, barely speaking a word.
Until she met Mark, and for some time afterwards, Sylvie always felt Jonathan was watching over her. She would talk to him in the car; ask him a question, and turn on the radio and find it would be answered by the lyrics of a song; pick up a book and turn to a random page, to find the words that were exactly what she needed to hear.
There is no such thing as coincidence, she would think, blowing a kiss of thanks to the heavens. This is Jonathan, as loud and clear as he is able to be.
* * *
When Mark came along eleven years ago, she knew Jonathan had sent him to her, that it was no coincidence their worlds kept colliding, that this was somehow meant to be.
Even the fact that Mark has always traveled extensively has been a positive. It has allowed her to keep the close bond with Eve, to be present for her in a way she isn't able to do when Mark is home.
This marriage is entirely different from her first. From the beginning, this felt less like a fairy tale, more real. She and Mark have never lain in bed whispering fantasies about their lives together, shared the wonderment of giving birth; they have not had time together without children, lazing in bed all weekend making love, going out only to run to the deli on the corner for panini and chocolate.
What they do have is what Sylvie now thinks of as grown-up, proper love. She is, still, fiercely attracted to him, respects him enormously, adores how kind he is, how he takes care of them.
She has watched marriages all around them fall apart in the last couple of years. The words "midlife crisis" are whispered in knowing tones as husbands are discovered sleeping with their secretaries, wives having affairs with neighbors or simply leaving to "find themselves."
Sylvie knew she was safe. Whatever else might come between them, Mark would not have an affair. He was appalled and dismayed each time another couple came undone at the hands of someone else.
"Thank God you, at least, take your marriage vows seriously," Sylvie's friend Angie had said, narrowing her eyes as she glanced sideways at her husband. "Him on the other hand? Not so sure. But he knows what'll happen to him if he even thinks about it."
They had all laughed, Sylvie with the security of knowing her marriage was sacred. Nothing would ever go wrong.
And yet for the past few months, a lot feels as if it's not so much going wrong as not going exactly right. Eve will be leaving home to go to college in September, and Sylvie isn't ready, is starting to feel abandoned, even though rationally, of course, she knew this day was coming, knows Eve has to leave.
Six months ago, her job at the bookstore ended, and the last six months have been spent attempting to look after her mother, doing the odd bit of painting, which no longer holds the thrill it once did, and worrying about what on earth she will do when Eve leaves.
She knows her hormones are playing a part, for her periods are erratic, and Mark has started referring to her PMS as OMS, for "ongoing menstrual stress," which Sylvie finds either hilarious or infuriating, depending on the day.
She is going through changes; they are going through changes, significant ones, ones in which they will need to support each other, but Mark seems utterly disconnected. He isn't working out more, hasn't bought himself a new Ferrari or a new haircut, but he is distracted and unsupportive.
As a result, they have started squabbling in a way they never had before.
After years of knowing exactly where she stood, Sylvie finds that insecurity has pushed its way in the door. Who is she supposed to be if not a mother? If Mark didn't travel all the time, she would be fine, because she would have the role of wife. It didn't matter before, because she held the role of full-time mother. With Eve leaving, and no job, how is she supposed to define herself?
Sylvie needs her husband, but he is away more than ever. Sylvie is starting to wonder if her mother's right: if Mark is having an affair.
Until very recently, Sylvie would always joke that Mark didn't even know how to flirt, let alone conduct a full-blown affair.
Despite his looks, his obvious charisma, the fact that women flocked to him, he never seemed to realize it, which is why Sylvie noticed him in the first place.
Her cart got away from her in the parking lot of the grocery store. This tall, good-looking, athletic man caught it before it reached the traffic. A laughing thank you, where you couldn't not gaze a little at his boy-next-door looks, his gleaming teeth, the dimples that gave him a cuteness that made his looks accessible rather than intimidating.
She didn't think about him again until two days later, standing behind him at Starbucks. He turned to see her, and laughed. They chatted briefly, about nothing in particular. What a small world it is! Had she any more runaway vehicles she needed help with?
Once coffee was ordered and collected, they stood awkwardly, before wishing each other a great day and walking off in different directions. This time, he left an impression. Could it mean anything, running into him again? If it did, surely they would have ended up having coffee together, or perhaps him asking for her phone number.
He was not, physically, what she thought she liked, although objectively Sylvie knew he was the type of man most women would swoon over. She had never liked the big, blond jock-type. She was drawn to thin men, dark, olive skinned. Intense and funny. Like Jonathan.
Classic good looks had always intimidated her. As pretty as people tell Sylvie she is, she has never felt pretty, nor worthy of the men everyone else wants. She has instead been drawn to interesting rather than handsome, flawed rather than perfect. The men she dated in high school were artists, and poets, and musicians. The Starbucks man, whom her mind kept coming back to, looked like the quintessential football star.
She was struck by his comfort in his skin, and his lack of arrogance. He seemed open and easy, and hadn't attempted to flirt, which she appreciated.
After the Starbucks meeting, she thought of him sporadically throughout the day, each time finding herself smiling. She had never seen him before, and would likely not see him again. She knew nothing about him, other than—now—his name.
Ships that pass in the night.
Later that week, she and Angie were having lunch at Nine-Ten, both chatting animatedly, Sylvie vaguely noticing three men, besuited, at the table next to them, awaiting a fourth to fill the empty chair.
She didn't see the fourth arrive, but she heard him, heard a familiar voice. Faltering, she wasn't going to disturb his lunch, until he looked up and caught her eye, stopping his "hellos" in midflow before apologizing to his colleagues, explaining there was someone he had to say hello to.
This time he left with her phone number.
Their first date—Sylvie wasn't entirely sure it was a date—was a hike from the cove to the shore. They talked nonstop, accidentally brushing hands as they walked, with an obvious chemistry that didn't explain why Mark was so reticent.
He didn't call for a few days after their walk. Just as Sylvie decided she wouldn't hear from him again, he phoned. They met for coffee, and this time he told her his story.
He was divorced. No children. No serious relationships since. At first he threw himself into work as a welcome distraction, which then became a habit, swiftly taking over his life. He was still finding his way when it came to women, and he wasn't at all sure he was ready for dating, let alone a relationship.
He hadn't expected to feel this way.
It explained why he was holding back. Sylvie, who hadn't been looking for anything or anyone either, suggested they become friends.
For five months they were friends, each attempting to ignore growing feelings, neither willing to confess, until Mark showed up at her house at lunchtime, a carton of chicken soup in hand because she was getting over a cold.
He sat on the bed to chat, bending his head to kiss her during the heavy silence, with a tenderness and sweetness that reminded Sylvie of Jonathan.
That was all that reminded Sylvie of Jonathan.
Mark's body was smooth, and golden, and strong. It was like having a Greek god in her bed. Everything about him was solid and reliable, golden and good. So very different from anything and anyone she had ever experienced before.
When he suggested Eve have a sleepover elsewhere on Saturday night, Sylvie arranged it, luxuriating in the entire night with Mark. The next day, he disappeared briefly only to return with a toolbox, putting up all the paintings that had been propped up against the wall since Sylvie moved in.
He was too good to be true. Except he wasn't. Everyone loved him. Women wanted to be around him—oh, how they wanted to be around him!—men wanted to be him. Sylvie, not the jealous type, teased him about the effect he had on women, who did indeed appear to simper when he was around.
All these years, Sylvie thought she was fine on her own. An independent woman and single mother who not only could do it all, but did it all. She had had brief relationships, but never allowed herself to fall for anyone. The men she had been involved with were all poor facsimiles of Jonathan. None were right. None permanent.
Here, suddenly, was the very opposite of Jonathan, the only similarity being that people reacted to Mark in much the same way as they had to Jonathan, but for different reasons. Jonathan made people feel special by listening to them, drawing them out. Strangers were surprised at how good he made them feel, found themselves telling Jonathan their most intimate secrets.
Mark made people feel good just by his presence. People were drawn to him, vied for his attention, while he quietly stood at the edge of the party, waiting for the crowds to gather, as they always did.
Trite to say it was simply because of his looks, but his looks were impossible to ignore. Admirers were drawn to him, like moths to a flame, with the hope that some of his magic would rub off on them.
In 2000, almost a year after they met, Sylvie, Mark and Eve, Sylvie's mother, Angie and Simon as witnesses, stood before a judge and were married, going home to a luncheon in the garden that Angie had prepared, under a white canopy with gardenias at each corner and mock orange spiraling up the pillars.
Eve, then seven, danced around the table in a froth of organza and tulle as the grown-ups watched her adoringly. She alternated between Sylvie and Mark, covering both with kisses, climbing on each of their laps, sitting on one and taking the hand of the other. Simon made an impromptu speech commenting on the fact that Eve was perhaps the happiest person in the garden today, which brought much laughter.
It was true. They were a family. Meant to be. Eve adored him from the outset, and had been calling him Papa Mark long before they discussed marriage, refusing to listen to an embarrassed Sylvie when she tried to suggest another name.
* * *
Eve may have been happiest, but Sylvie too was happy. She loved Mark, was content with Mark. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed having a partner until she had one again.
This wasn't the life she'd thought she was going to have, but it was, nevertheless, a wonderful life. She and Jonathan had plans to travel, to see the world, to live in Thailand, Australia, India; to bring Eve with them and squeeze every last drop out of life.
Her life with Mark includes little travel, and little seeking, on any level. She had loved that Jonathan was a seeker, but loves, now, that Mark is not: he may travel coast-to-coast for work, but his lack of adventure makes her think of him as grounded, steady, secure. She knows where she is with him, is grateful for the security—even sameness—at this stage in her life.
In many ways they have a perfect relationship. The amount of time Mark travels hasn't, until recently, worried her. Sylvie kept busy. A part-time job, until a demanding and unwell mother forced her to give that up.
They had all thought life would be easier once Clothilde, Sylvie's high-maintenance French mother, entered the assisted living facility after rehab, but her mother had never been easy, and the car accident was hardly going to change that. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Family Pictures by Jane Green. Copyright © 2013 Jane Green. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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