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Adam and Sophie Dean's good-enough marriage could easily have lasted forever. But Adam succumbs to pressure from his mistress to leave Sophie, and in the course of his carefully prepared farewell speech, Sophie has a revelation: unless she leaves him in the family home in the role of primary caregiver, he'll have a severely diminished role in the lives of their two sons.
So while Adam continues to live in the suburban house he despises-with his two children and his angry ...
Adam and Sophie Dean's good-enough marriage could easily have lasted forever. But Adam succumbs to pressure from his mistress to leave Sophie, and in the course of his carefully prepared farewell speech, Sophie has a revelation: unless she leaves him in the family home in the role of primary caregiver, he'll have a severely diminished role in the lives of their two sons.
So while Adam continues to live in the suburban house he despises-with his two children and his angry mistress, who'd never planned for this turn of events-Sophie sets out alone into an alluring new life nearby, close enough to see her sons every day, but far removed from her former life of domestic drudgery. As she and Adam grow into their new roles, they discover what it actually means to act in their children's best interests, and that the end of a marriage can be a beginning.
"Alexandra Whitaker takes the tried-and-true story of man leaves wife and kids for other woman and gives it a refreshing twist. LEAVING SOPHIE DEAN succeeds brilliantly as a comedy of manners because of Whitaker's pitch-perfect depictions of human foibles and graceful renderings of awkward situations. But the book works on a much deeper level too: as a meditation on marriage, solitude, personal freedom, and parenting that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining."—Meg Mitchell Moore, author of The Arrivals and So Far Away
"Alexandra Whitaker's LEAVING SOPHIE DEAN is smart, clever, moving, and surprising at every turn. Funny and wise, this is a tale of modern love about parents who love their children more than they don't-love each other."—-Laura Zigman, author of Animal Husbandry and Piece of Work
Agatha Weatherby longed to be a principal player in the drama of Life, or at very least to play the lead in the story of her own life—which was not much to ask, surely. Yet at the age of thirty-nine, she felt herself still relegated to the role of loyal sidekick, wise confidante, and catalyst in the lives of other more glamorous and charismatic people, chief among them her friend Valerie Hughes.
If Agatha had failed thus far in her quest for stardom, it was not for want of trying. With that aim in mind, beginning in childhood, she had adopted the device of narrating to herself lively accounts of her daily life and viewing herself as if through hidden cameras, creating in her head a sort of perpetual slice-of-life documentary of which she was the undisputed witty and winsome protagonist.
She was engrossed in that mental exercise one September day when she arrived at the Back Bay café where she had arranged to meet Valerie for lunch. Agatha was early. That was important; she needed to prepare the setting.
Choosing a table in the bay window, she angled her chair so that she was visible both to the passersby on Newbury Street and to the other patrons of the café. By turning her head just so, she could also get a good three-quarters view of herself, reflected in the window glass. Peeking out the corners of her eyes, she surveyed her fine Roman nose and gave her head a tiny shake in order to admire the swing of her severe black Cleopatra-cut hair. Then she blew out a sigh, checked her watch, rolled her eyes, and tapped her fingernails on the table, all this broad mime of impatience for the benefit of anyone who might be watching—just in case an attractive man, for example, might have noticed her there and mistakenly supposed she had no one to lunch with. She couldn’t bear for anyone to think she was sitting there all alone without a date. And seeing her check the time might even give the man an opening for a conversation. “Is he always late?” he might ask, as a way of finding out if she had a husband, and she would feign surprise, as if she hadn’t noticed him there. She would blink and arch her eyebrows—she practiced that now in the window—then she’d correct him dryly: “She. And yes, she always is.” That would make him smile, and then he might try to charm her by saying something like—
“You’re early again,” a voice interrupted. Valerie had arrived, and in just doing so she had attracted all the attention that Agatha’s elaborate pantomime had failed to draw. She swung a shopping bag onto one empty chair and slid into the other. “Do you have any idea how bad that looks?” With two quick dips of her straight, bony shoulders, she shrugged off her jacket. “Like an old lady with nothing to do but feed cats.”
Agatha almost turned to give an exasperated look of You see what I have to put up with? to her new friend, the man—but remembered just in time that she’d made him up. Sharply, she said, “I think you mean that being late on purpose in order to make an entrance is a very sad attempt to impress. It’s a well-known fact that genuinely busy and important people are meticulously punctual.” She smiled brightly. “So what’s in the bag?”
Valerie held up a smart black jacket with a plunging neckline. “Think it’ll do the trick?”
Agatha fingered the material and frowned intently, her pique forgotten. Clothes and shopping were important matters to her; she took objects and their acquisition seriously. “Yeah. Yeah, they’ll sign. They may not be sure what they’re buying, but they’ll sign.”
Valerie gave a short laugh, and hearing the annoyance in it, Agatha added, “I mean, obviously, they’ll be impressed by your proposal, too.”
“I know they will. Because it’s brilliant. Now, come on, let’s order. I have a plane to catch tomorrow and a million things to do before that. What’ll it be? My treat.” Valerie flashed a smile at the waiter, who held out a menu to her, right on cue.
Of the two types of lunches Valerie ate, it was hard to say which was more irritating. Either she had something pretty and skimpy, one of those dishes that are 93 percent ornamental, 7 percent edible, and which she managed to eat without staring hungrily at Agatha’s more laden plate, or else she had an absurdly rich meal and tucked into course after course with the gusto that looks life-embracing and sexy only when skinny people are doing it. Somehow a heavier person packing it away never has quite the same appeal, and Agatha couldn’t eat that much without making self-conscious jokes. Not that she was fat—no, she was not fat—but she had been fat in high school until Valerie, bless her, had taken her in hand, and now the Ghost of Fatness Past seemed to hover over Agatha, threatening to reassert itself unless she remained vigilant. It was tempting to wonder whether Valerie’s slenderness might not arise from some kind of eating disorder, but Agatha didn’t think so. All she could draw from Valerie on the topic was a smug, “I just listen to my body.” Today Valerie’s body was telling her to have a small salad, and Agatha bitterly ordered the same, but the difference was that she kept sneaking glances at the passing cake trolley. Of course she wasn’t going to have any cake, but the trolley still snagged her attention each time it creaked past, causing her to lose track momentarily of their conversation.
“He wishes he were coming with me on this trip,” Valerie was saying when Agatha tuned back in after a Black Forest cake had sailed by, “but he can’t, of course. We worked so hard on this project together, it’s ridiculous that he can’t do the presentation with me. God, he’s suffocating in that marriage! He says the only time he feels alive is when he’s with me.”
Agatha snorted contemptuously.
“Oh, come on now, Agatha. Just because it didn’t work out for you doesn’t mean—”
“Don’t be naïve. Married men don’t leave their wives.”
“Of course they do. They do it every day.”
“They do not. Look at me and Howard. He was—”
“We’re not talking about Howard! God help me, will I never stop hearing about Howard? I mean, the name alone—Howard, Agatha—did that not tell you anything? I’ve had to put up with Howard stories for years, all throughout your affair and every day since, and I’ve listened because I’m such a goddamned good friend, but now you listen to me for a change. The guy was a dope, you were a dope, and that’s all there is to say about Howard. And don’t you dare compare him to Adam, because they have nothing whatsoever in common!”
“Except that they’re both married men having affairs and not leaving their wives,” Agatha finished, unruffled. “But I know it’s hard to see the bigger picture when you’re so involved. You’re too close to make out the pattern, but someday you’ll see it all in perspective.”
“Oh, now that’s a relief!” Valerie struggled for a breezy tone. “I appreciate your concern for me, of course, but you’re wrong about Adam. It’s obvious you don’t know him. He’s a serious and conscientious man, not the type to leave his wife and children on a whim. I wouldn’t love him if he were.”
“Wow, is that a hoot! I have to hand it to the guy. He’s really conned you, hasn’t he? Let’s see, he’s made it so that his not leaving his wife is the reason you love him. What a master!”
“Shut up and let me finish, would you?” The breezy tone was hard to maintain, but Valerie tried again. “I know—I’m certain—that someday he and I will make a life together, but not—”
“How do you know that? Has he actually said so? In words? Ha! You see?”
“I know he’s desperately unhappy with her.”
Agatha studied her poised, queenly friend, and an amusing idea came to her, a little way of paying her back for that measly salad. “If you really believe that, Valerie, if you really think he’s so unhappy, then you’ll do him and yourself a favor and you’ll give him an ultimatum—today. ‘It’s me or her, buddy.’ Make him choose. That’s the only way to find out what’s really going on between you. And damn it, it’ll show him you still have some self-respect!”
“I have far too much respect for myself to give my lover an ultimatum. That’s just the kind of adolescent, drama-mongering idea I would expect from you. Adam just needs a little time, and I’ve got plenty. I know he’ll choose me in the end.”
“In the end, exactly! But how far off is that? When his kids are in college? You don’t have that kind of time. Or is that what you had in mind, a golden-years romance, conducted on the golf course? Or maybe you’re supposed to wait for the wife to die of natural causes? Tricky, since she’s so much younger than you.”
“Three years,” Valerie said tightly.
Agatha changed her tone from challenging to persuasive. “Think about it, Vee. This is the perfect time to do it, while you’re away on this trip.” Agatha was warming to the idea now, almost wishing she had thought of it in time to use it on old Howard. Not that it would have worked, but it would have gotten her out of that no-win situation faster. “Give Adam an ultimatum and just go! You’ll be gone for a couple of days, right? So let him sweat. For forty-eight hours. Give him a little taste of what life’s like without you. Of course”—this was the clincher, and Agatha had to stifle a laugh as she thought of it—“ it would be pretty scary for you to run a risk like that.”
“Oh, don’t be absurd.” Valerie glanced at the bill, tossed down some money, and began gathering her things.
Agatha pressed on, enjoying herself. “But if you honestly think that being with you is what he wants, you’ll muster the courage and seize this chance to find out!”
Valerie glanced at her watch, appearing not to have heard. “I’ve got to run.” As she stood up, Agatha clutched her arm. “Take the chance, Vee. Listen, why in God’s name should he ever choose between the two of you, as long as he can have you both?”
Valerie pulled herself free. “I have a lot to do this afternoon. I appreciate that you’re looking out for me, but I assure you I know Adam, and I know he loves me.” She blew Agatha a quick kiss and turned to leave.
But Agatha hadn’t quite finished. In a crude imitation of Adam’s English accent, a voice more reminiscent of a monocled colonel in India, she boomed, “You know I love you, old girl, but it’s not that simple!” Then, more loudly, after Valerie’s retreating back, “She’s my wife, gawd demmit!”
Forks froze in midair as lunchers turned at long last to look at Agatha, who, basking in their attention, demurely pretended not to notice it. She crumbled some bread and smiled to herself, feeling so gratified by the outcome of the lunch that after a moment’s thought she lifted her finger and gestured for the cake trolley.
Normally when Valerie peered out the window of a plane during takeoff, she felt a delicious sense of self-congratulation and superiority to the earthbound wretches who lived in the tiny houses below and circled boringly in their poky little cars. Clearly, all the dynamic, vital people were up here in the clouds, sipping champagne and plotting their next professional triumph. She never felt more confident than when she was on a business trip, and this was due in part to the excellence of her luggage and its contents, for she traveled blissfully unencumbered, with just one small leather bag neatly packed with good clothes and the finest toiletries. All very chic, very expensive, and very compact.
It was only when she was flying to a fresh project and the promise of another victory, feeling reassured by the quality of her luggage, that Valerie allowed herself to think about her dreary childhood, and then only as a measure of how far she had come. She and her mother had owned sacks and sacks of clothing, all of it unfashionable or ill-fitting, tight or bunchy or scratchy or missing a button, the wrong color or the wrong material. But they could never throw any of it away, because “it might be useful one day.” Valerie’s mother had had the knack of making what was actually a sufficient income feel like abject poverty, and their kind of poverty was not having too little, it was having too much—too much crap that they didn’t dare throw out because they might be grateful for it someday. Some evening, if her mother wasn’t too tired after work, she might get out her sewing machine and “do something with that skirt.” But she was usually too tired, and even when she did alterations, they were never quite right, so Valerie had to learn to dress carefully, cleverly combining and layering to conceal the defects in her clothing. From the day that her adored father walked out on them until the day Valerie left home, she and her mother lived shackled to their junk, dragging bags and boxes of useless stuff from one rented apartment to another, lugging their bulky, humiliating poverty around with them from one New England town to another until they settled near Boston in the gray suburb of Burlington when Valerie was in high school.
There she had met funny, angry Agatha, and a lifesaving friendship had sprung up between the two girls, the one funnily dressed, the other chubby, both of them outsiders because the qualities they shared—intelligence, irreverence, originality of thought—were not qualities valued in their high school. Valerie had found her salvation in saving someone else, in the form of Agatha’s Great Makeover. By dint of firm coaching and unflagging encouragement over many months, she had transformed a homely fat girl into a striking and passably slender jolie laide. And in gratitude Agatha had taken Valerie shopping for her first really good outfit, which Valerie had subsequently worn, with variations, nearly every day and hand-washed at night to keep it perfect. Yes, to own little, but of excellent quality, was what Valerie had craved all her life. And now, thank God…
But this particular trip was failing to produce the usual euphoria, in part because there was no first class on this busy intercity flight to Newark. After shifting restlessly in her seat, Valerie ordered champagne but found it tasted tinny. Clouds obscured the view, so there was nothing to look down on, and her fellow travelers seemed a particularly ill-favored bunch, all sniffling and coughing, with ugly mottled complexions. And was it her imagination or did the headrest cover feel slightly oily? Oh, ugh, could that oil be seeping into her clean, shiny hair? Like fog rolling in, a strange ickiness—no other word quite fitting the case—was settling over everything, and it was all Adam’s fault, of course. Instead of soaring free, she felt anchored to the ground by a tether that was stretching uncomfortably tight the farther she got from him. “Going the wrong way” was how it felt. Scary and dangerous, hurtling at hundreds of miles per hour in the wrong direction. What a bore. He should be by her side where he belonged, and instead he was down in one of those very suburban houses she despised, with those kids and that wife of his. One of the more galling aspects of being involved with a married man was that when you were apart, you were alone, but he was not.
Valerie’s spirits recovered a bit during the presentation of her project—designs for a new petrochemical factory—which went well, as expected. She was adroit and charming as always, dynamic and professional, with just a dash of sexiness she could toss in, or not, à choix, like a packet of condiments in an airplane meal. “Our best hustler,” Masterson, the boss, always called her. An old hustler himself, he valued the ability to sell over creativity, because, “What’s a good idea? I’ll tell you what a good idea is—it’s the one the guy just bought.” The client had sent a committee of three to meet Valerie, and if she got over this hurdle, there would be a meeting the next morning with their boss, more of a formality; the real test was here. The committee consisted of a tough young woman, the type who broadcast her high personal standards by being hard to please when evaluating other people’s work; a middle-aged man who didn’t say much—clearly the important one; and a youngish man whose eyes wandered ceaselessly between Valerie’s breasts and her thighs, like an unusually meticulous nomad scouring the same patch of sand over and over for the very best place to pitch his tent. Valerie was free to make these observations because she was becoming such an old hand at this business that the glib patter of her sales pitch did not require her full attention. “… creating a space ideally suited to your needs. The work areas are specifically designed in terms of the technological requirements of your enterprise, as well as the physical and psychological well-being of your staff. Our vision reflects your company image: progressive, approachable, and above all ecologically minded.” That last was the clincher; the committee’s butts shifted uneasily in their chairs, and their eyes shifted, too. Their business was anything but green, and the pretense that it was formed the cornerstone of Valerie’s argument. The tough woman kept insisting it was over budget, and Valerie responded by hammering home the green thing. The addition of the atrium was what pushed the project over budget, but the atrium was essential. “Envision it, the impact it will make on your clients. Step inside and your immediate impression is of greenery, lushness, tall trees, flowering shrubs, water splashing in the fountain—a fresh and magical place. By bringing Eden right into your factory, you are demonstrating louder than any words ever could how completely your enterprise and the forces of nature are in harmony.” Take that, ya bastards, she added to herself. The company had had complaints from local ecologists; Adam had found out about it, and the atrium was his response. “Trees,” he’d said to Valerie with a weary wave of the hand. “Fill it with trees. It’ll be a case of ‘We’re green because we say so.’” And how right he had been. The two men were sold on it, and even the woman relented with a taciturn, “Well… so long as Valvassori approves it.” The older man glanced with irritation at the younger, who was still gaping at Valerie and who happened to be his son-in-law. “We’ll see what Valvassori has to say tomorrow.” They rose and shook Valerie’s hand.
Over lunch with the son-in-law—there was no getting out of it—Valerie explained a point of architectural layout with the aid of her napkin, a dessert spoon, and her water glass, being consciously charming, because pretending that Adam was watching and making him jealous was the only way of injecting any interest into the meal. There had been a time when she’d considered flirting with business contacts one of the perks of her job, when clients had provided a good source of lovers, and this type of bantering after work had been great fun. But now that seemed trivial at best, at worst downright sordid. Thank God all that was over. Thank God she was no longer “available”—an odious word. How grateful she was for that, and how soul-destroying it would be to have to go back to fishing for sex and romance in pools where fish like this one swam—bottom-feeders, ghastly blind fish that dwell in the slime. She looked in disgust at his plump, freckled hand.
No hand could be more unlike Adam’s—refined yet manly, like Adam himself. At first he had seemed unattainable. Always polite and charming, but reserved and removed from Valerie’s sphere. His voice was what she had first loved about him, a cultured English public-school voice, saying wonderfully amusing and self-deprecating things. “Classy” was how she secretly thought of it, aware that finding things classy was itself déclassé. But to an erstwhile poor girl—well, lower middle class actually, but “poor” was gutsier—it was irresistible, and so was he: the prize, the prince for Cinderella. He had education and talent, tempered charmingly by fatherly traits: He was protective and concerned, teacherly and encouraging, sometimes disapproving and admonishing. His drooping frame, his graying temples, even his slight tendency toward fuddy-duddiness enchanted her, as they seemed to be proof of his pedigree. Once she had sensed his submerged desire for her, overcoming his reticence became an erotic experience in which she found her boldness as arousing as he did. The challenge of seducing such a man required all her skills and guile, and in the throes of frustrated longing she even made a pact: Dear God in heaven, if you give me this man, I promise I will never ask you for another single thing. When Adam at last succumbed, his guilty anguish intensified her sexual pleasure—as it did his own—and fueled her fiery sense of triumph.
Valerie spent the afternoon trapped in her hotel, downtown Newark being no place to go out shopping. She passed the time in her room rereading the same paragraph of a dull novel, in the gift shop buying herself trinkets that failed to raise her spirits, and wandering the halls, glancing anxiously into mirrors.
Back in her room at dusk, after a solitary drink in the bar, she sat wishing she could light a cigarette and looking at her phone. No one had called. Was there someone she could call? Agatha? To hell with Agatha. That asinine “dare” of hers—that was how Valerie viewed the idea of the ultimatum—had rankled all day, and so had Agatha’s insinuation that she was afraid to do it, for as Agatha knew damned well, Valerie was brave enough to do anything… except pass up a dare. One particular line had been running through her head in Agatha’s taunting voice: “Why in God’s name should he ever choose between the two of you, as long as he can have you both?” Just another case of sour grapes, nothing to get worked up about. So. No calling anyone. Not Agatha, not Adam, not anyone. That’s that. She glared at the phone. Oh, perfect. As if the day hadn’t already been crammed full of adolescent humiliations, now she was going to spend the evening staring at the phone, hoping it would ring. No, to hell with that. Enough moping, thank you very much. She tapped in Adam’s office number—he didn’t like her to use his cell phone. It rang, once, twice, and again. Now that she had finally made up her mind to call, she was sick with worry that he wouldn’t be there.
He was, but only just. When the phone began to ring, he was already on his feet, organizing papers on his desk, getting ready for the next day. His jacket was lying neatly folded over his sports bag on the chair. It was Tuesday, the day he really played squash with James after work—on Thursdays he only pretended to and went to Valerie’s apartment instead for his weekly dose of sophistication and lovemaking—and James had been talking all day about the thrashing he was going to give Adam in revenge for Adam’s victory the week before. Adam was so nearly out the door when his phone rang—once, twice, and again—that he considered not answering; after all, it was past six, and his workday was finished. But then it occurred to him that it might be Sophie needing him to pick something up on his way home. Ever since he’d become unfaithful to her, he’d been punctilious in small matters concerning her, so he glanced at the caller ID, ready to agree cheerfully to bring home a carton of milk. But it wasn’t Sophie. He lifted the receiver on the sixth ring. “Hello, Valerie.” At the sound of his mannerly English voice, its precise diction and well-modulated tone, Valerie felt a stab of longing for him.
“Well, they ate it up!” she said, her voice artificially bright. “Just like we thought. We won’t know for sure until tomorrow, but my guess is we’ve got it in the bag, partner!”
“Ah, wonderful.” Adam frowned at James, who had appeared in the doorway and was waggling his squash racket impatiently. “Well done. That’s good news. Congratulations.” James, first sensing Adam’s discomfort and then guessing who must be on the phone, made an operatic mime of excusing himself and tiptoeing to close the door and let Adam speak in private, then grinned back at him through the glass. Embarrassed, Adam muttered, “Bravo.”
“What’s wrong? Is somebody there?”
“No. Not now.”
“Do you miss me?” Valerie had not meant to say that, or anything resembling it, but the words were already out of her mouth. There was silence on the other end of the line as Adam gestured to James to go downstairs and wait there. He mouthed, Five minutes, with one hand in the air, five fingers outstretched.
“Adam,” Valerie prompted. “Adam?”
James looked puzzled and mouthed back, What?
“Yes, of course,” Adam said sharply, in exasperation with James. “Always. Keep up the good work and let me know what happens. All right, then? Speak to you tomorrow.”
“Adam, wait!” The brush-off? “I just…”
“I wanted to know if… you love me.” What? What was she saying? Stop it, for God’s sake, stop this drivel!
There was a breathy sound on the line that made Valerie stiffen; it was very like a weary sigh. She sincerely hoped that it had not been a weary sigh. “Of course I do,” Adam said. But there it was in his voice: that hint of weariness.
“No, I mean… really,” she said, meaning that she really, honestly needed reassurance; this wasn’t just some stupid little game. To keep herself calm, she thought, Don’t worry, it’s okay to miss your lover, okay to show him that you do, okay to express your insecurities. None of this is uncool, it’s all right, it’s natural, he’ll understand.
“What do you mean, ‘really’? Come on, Valerie—you’re not the ‘Do you love me? Really?’ type!”
There was a short silence. Then Valerie asked in a dangerously even tone, “Oh, no? What ‘type’ am I, then?”
“Valerie, what is the matter with you? You know I love you.”
Said impatiently. Irritably.
James could lip-read well enough to catch Adam’s last three words—as who cannot? He knew about their affair, of course; it was pretty hard to work in the same office and not know, so now he gave Adam a big, knowing wink. Adam’s left cheek pulsated with annoyance. It was high time to wind up this tiresome call. “Look, I’ve got to go,” he said. “Let’s leave this for some other time, shall we? We’ll talk when you get back.”
It was his tone of voice that did it. That brisk, harassed tone, as if after a long day at work it was just too much to have to put up with the hysterical neediness of his mistress, when all he really wanted to do was get home to a nice, relaxing dinner with his two small sons and his wife. It was the long-suffering quality of it that made anger shoot through Valerie like an electrical charge, and when she spoke, her voice was low and forceful. “Oh, no. No, that won’t do at all. We need to talk right now. That’s why I’m calling, in fact. I’ve thought things over, Adam, and I’ve realized I’m not ‘the type’ to sit around waiting for you to decide who you want to spend your life with. Time’s up, I’m afraid. You have to choose. Who’s it going to be, Adam, your wife or me?”
She was as shocked as he was by what she had said. She felt a queasy jolt in her stomach, as if she were careening down a roller coaster, but also that same reckless elation. She betrayed nothing of her vertigo, however, as she continued in a firm voice, “I’ll be back in the office on Thursday. That gives you two days to make up your mind. During the next forty-eight hours, you can do one of two things: either tell your wife you’re leaving her, then call me and tell me you’ve done so, or else tell your wife nothing, in which case it’s all over between you and me.”
“Valerie, you must be joking. This is infantile!”
“I know what I want, Adam. Now it’s your turn to decide.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but the line buzzed dead; she had hung up. He sat staring at the receiver in his hand. It was no good now wishing he hadn’t answered the phone.
James came back in, shifted his weight from foot to foot, cleared his throat twice, and then whacked a few imaginary squash balls in slow motion, supplying the sound of the distant crowd’s roar of approval, but none of this succeeded in rousing Adam from his reverie, so at last James broke the silence with a tentative, “Trouble in paradise?”
A slender, blondish woman with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a cotton dress, flat shoes, and no makeup, made steady progress through the aisles, frowning thoughtfully as she chose a cabbage, oatmeal, some Bosc pears, fruit juice, raisins, milk, cereal, fish, piling things and more things into her cart until it was so heavy she could barely steer it. She paused over two bottles of jam and read the ingredients carefully. “No added sugar,” one label promised in big letters, but in smaller letters it admitted to aspartame, which was worse. Such an astute jam buyer, a little voice in her head mocked, a voice she had come to think of as “the imp.”
In the supermarket Sophie Dean was sometimes assailed by doubts, although about what, exactly, she would be hard-pressed to say: her life, herself, something fundamental; which was puzzling, because this was, after all, the life she had chosen, with much care and forethought, in every detail. She had reflected at each fork in the road before selecting her path, her decisions had been sound, and yet sometimes she felt bewildered by the unfamiliarity of the countryside in which she now found herself.
She caught sight of her face in the reflection of a gleaming chrome freezer and she was surprised by the ferocity of her expression. Her four-year-old son, Hugo, wouldn’t approve at all. “Hairbrowns” was what he called eyebrows, and he used them to gauge whether a person was good or bad. Bad people frowned harshly, so their eyebrows were straight lines pointing down to the bridge of their nose, whereas good people’s eyebrows rose in high, perky half circles. This was true of the illustrations in children’s books, and it was also a reliable way of judging real people and their moods. “Why do you have those hairbrowns?” he would sometimes ask his mother when she was looking worried or angry.
Waiting in the checkout line beside her heaped cart, Sophie noticed a woman of her own age in the next line who was buying a container of yogurt, some frilly lettuce, and a bar of plain soap. Three things. So easy to carry that she didn’t even need a basket. She was a woman who, without appearing disdainful of her surroundings or standing out in any definable way, still managed to look markedly out of place in a supermarket. Only five years ago, right up to the time Matthew was born, it was still rare for Sophie to go into a supermarket. When she was single, and later, her first year with Adam, she had lived in a little studio on Marlborough Street between Exeter and Fairfield, and she would pop into DeLuca’s for one or two things on her way home—some cauliflower, a carton of eggs—and then off she’d go, clipping briskly down the street toward home, swinging her shopping bag. Now things were very different. Living in the suburbs meant she had to take out her car and drive a long distance, specifically to the supermarket, not on her way to or from anywhere, but on a trip of its own. Now she had to drag a giant shopping cart around a chilly, fluorescent-lit cavern and pile it high, the cart growing so unwieldy that she had to throw her whole body into the task of moving it. Grunting and shoving, buying more food than she could push, let alone lift. It was obscene. But the alternative was worse: buying less and coming more often, thereby ruining several mornings a week instead of just one. Seized by a sudden doubt, Sophie hunted for a mirror, found one on top of a stand of sunglasses, and studied herself anxiously. She looked all right, but… But! Her suspicions were confirmed: She did not look out of place in a supermarket. Not anymore. Those days were over. What hideous process of degeneration was this, then, more insidious than aging and so much more damning? Could it be reversed? What fashion makeover, what corrective surgery, what course of psychological overhauling could be required? She pushed her groceries across the parking lot, head down, muttering to herself, struggling to keep her side-winding cart on track to the car, and planning the rest of her day.
After a morning of domestic industry, she would drive to the Montessori school with a snack of cheese sandwiches and Bosc pears, her sons’ favorite fruit. It was a warm mid-September day, so they would go straight to the park and picnic there. Hugo, the younger of the two boys, had been in school for only a couple of weeks, so this routine was still new to Sophie, as was the vertiginous freedom of having both children occupied from nine to two-thirty. Time to herself at last—or not, as it turned out. With nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum, her timetable quickly filled up with other chores; the illusion of freedom vanished, and only the strangeness of separation from the children lingered. She usually got to the school early and sat by the gates, enjoying the feeling of anticipation before the bell rang and the schoolyard overflowed with shrieking children, among them her own two. She would kneel to hug them, relishing the strength of their small arms around her neck, their flattering shouts of joy at seeing her, and their breathless accounts of the days they now spent away from her. It was the happiest moment of her day and theirs, this reunion, and thinking about it now as she toiled across the parking lot, she wondered how she could be so churlish as to resent the supermarket that supplied her children’s favorite fruit.
The sight of the pears in her cart transported her to her Marlborough Street studio one rainy Sunday morning several years before. She and Adam had been sitting looking out the bay window at the garden and eating pears and Roquefort when she was reminded of a favorite poem. She found the book, opened a bottle of white wine, and he read “A Late Aubade” by Richard Wilbur aloud to her while the rain and wind dashed the blossoms off the little cherry tree out front.
Her memories were interrupted by a beggar in the parking lot asking for spare change—and then something unaccountable happened. While she was digging in her purse, her unattended shopping cart began to roll. The man took his coins, grinned toothlessly, and pointed at her cart, which had picked up a little speed, but not much. In a few quick steps, she could easily have caught and stopped it, but she didn’t move. She just watched. Feeling strangely detached, she stood watching as the cart rolled across the asphalt—slowly, slowly—gaining just enough momentum to smash the left taillight when at last it crashed into her car.
Adam was sitting on the chesterfield, his eyes closed, his hands covering his head as though to shield his thoughts from scrutiny. It had not been a good day, even discounting that hysterical call from Valerie—which was no joke, he knew. It had been a taxing day of tension and conflict, with that partnership looking more unlikely all the time. And now some nonsense about a shopping trolley.
“But I don’t understand. How fast was the bloody thing moving?”
“Not fast at all. That’s the funny part.”
“Then why didn’t you stop it, for heaven’s sake?”
“I don’t know. The whole thing seemed… predestined.”
“Christ Almighty, Sophie!” Adam felt that it was vulgar to compare his mistress and his wife, but good God, here he had on the one hand a woman pulling off a multi-million-dollar deal and, on the other, someone who couldn’t even— “What good would you be in a crisis? Really, with reactions like yours, who needs danger? Through your sheer inertia, the most trifling incident could eventually become life-threatening—given that it has all the time in the world to evolve!”
“It’s very strange, I know.” She handed him his drink and went into the kitchen.
At Adam’s feet Matthew and Hugo were playing with toy airplanes, using part of the design in the Oriental rug as a runway and expertly re-creating with their mouths all the sounds associated with air-traffic control, takeoff, then engine failure, the triggering of the alarm system, generalized panic aboard, a forced landing in the jungle, the leading of the passengers to safety, and the subsequent explosion of the aircraft. Once the heroic crew had pulled one another to safety from the burning wreck and doused the flames, the boys wanted to play the game all over again, this time with their father as admiring spectator. There were cries of “Daddy, Daddy, look at this!” from Matthew, taken up by Hugo, and much eager tugging at Adam, resulting in Hugo’s knocking over his whiskey.
“For the love of God!”
Sophie dashed in from the kitchen, dishcloth in hand, ready to protect Adam from his offspring’s exuberance and them from his indifference—well, no, not indifference; she didn’t mean that. “Here we go,” she said gaily, mopping whiskey off the rug. “All clean.” Matthew stood by uncertainly, holding his airplane. “Matthew, honey, Daddy does want to see your planes, but not right now. He’s had a hard day at the office, and he needs to rest. You can show them to him later, how about that? Now, run up and play in your room until dinner. Go on.”
“Daddy never wants to play,” Matthew muttered, and taking the cue from his older brother, Hugo hung his head, too, and left dragging his feet.
Adam sighed, contemplating his empty scotch glass, a symbol of all he had to put up with. Sophie looked from him to the children trudging resentfully up the stairs and frowned as she played back in her head something she had just said: “Daddy’s had a hard day.” Where had she dredged up a hackneyed line like that—from some obscure Leave It to Beaver rerun? She smiled apologetically at Adam. “They’re crazy about those airplanes.” When he didn’t respond, she sat next to him, looked at him with concern, and stroked his hair back from his forehead. “You do look tired. Things all right at the office?” Without opening his eyes, he reached up and stopped her hand. Surprised, she took it away, then looked at his impassive face for a moment, stood up, and went back into the kitchen, raising her voice to be heard over the clanging of pots and pans. “The plumber finally showed up today. Three hours late! I was stuck in the house waiting for him. Did a pretty sloppy job. I think it’s still leaking. Should I get him to come back, do you think? Or try somebody else?”
Adam massaged his forehead, his eyes resolutely closed.
“Adam? Do you think I should call the same guy back or try to get someone better?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, can’t you work it out for yourself?”
Sophie came to the doorway and looked at him in astonishment.
“I’m sorry,” he said crossly. “It’s just that…” He waved his hand in a broad gesture that meant a hardworking man deserved to return home to something better than toy planes and plumbers.
“No,” Sophie said quietly. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I look forward so much to having a grown-up to talk to, and then when you get home, I have nothing more interesting to say than, ‘The plumber came.’” She laughed uncomfortably. “I don’t blame you for finding it boring. I do, too. Sometimes I almost don’t recognize myself, you know, in my… in my life now… as wife and mother. This funny thing happens to me sometimes, Adam. It’s a mocking voice inside me, like a little imp that leaps out and jeers at me when I’m just going about my business. It happened in the supermarket this morning, and again right now when I told the kids you’d had a hard day. It’s a little voice that makes fun of me for doing things that I actually want to be doing. I mean, I’m happy, really. I am happy. I don’t like waiting around all day for the plumber, of course—who would? But the sink can’t leak, so someone has to get the plumber here, and for the time being, while the boys are little and I’m not working, that person is me. That’s how we decided to do it, and I’m glad we did. I am. But you know, I find it every bit as boring as you do, believe me. Actually, more than you, because I’m the one who has to do it, so…” Up to then Sophie had been addressing her speech to various corners of the room, anxiously twisting her wedding ring, but now she turned to Adam, who was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped on his bowed head in an attitude of concentrated listening that gave her courage to continue on a firmer note. “So I think you could sympathize with me for having spent such a dull day doing something that was for the good of all of us, instead of reproaching me for it. I was bored—it’s unfair to also make me feel boring.” She smiled at him, ready to accept his apology with a careless wave of the hand, feeling more like her old self for having told him about that evil imp. Now they could laugh about it together and exorcise the demon.
When it dawned on Adam that silence had fallen over the room, he roused himself and stood up, saying, “Feel like some music?” She stared, her confidence trickling away, then returned slowly to the kitchen while the imp taunted her triumphantly: You burbling ass! First you bore him out of his skull, then you make it worse with all that whimsical crap! Can’t you just shut up if you have nothing interesting to say?
But why reproach herself? It certainly wasn’t her fault that having the plumber in wasn’t interesting! What was she supposed to do—check every comment for suitability for his lordship’s ears? However, it was also possible that Adam was right. It was her duty, a sacred duty to herself principally, to make her days interesting, and it could be construed as unfair to punish him with her failure to do so. Best, she thought, not to express her anger until she was sure it was justified. So instead she launched into a nervously high-spirited account of the children’s doings, speaking disjointedly, but loudly enough to be heard from the kitchen, in a kind of parody of housewifely prattle that the imp enjoyed heartily.
Matthew’s painting… plenty of movement… get it framed…
Barely listening, Adam searched through their music in the vain hope of discovering something new and exciting there.
… had the sniffles… took him to school… a touch of hay fever…
No. Nothing new or exciting. Stepping back from the stereo, Adam stumbled over a basket of clothes that Sophie had stashed behind an armchair. “Jesus!” he said, staggering to regain his balance. Sophie raced out of the kitchen and scooped up the basket.
“I’m sorry, darling, Milagros is off sick, and I haven’t had time to do the ironing. But I will get your shirts done, I promise.” They stood for a moment staring at each other; Adam looking offended by his close call with the laundry and Sophie, basket on hip, earnestly promising to iron. Then she threw back her head and laughed, a deep, healthy laugh that felt good. “Oh, Adam, my darling, isn’t life rich? So full of the funny and the unexpected! Here I am, haunted by the specter of Mrs. Cleaver, begging forgiveness for the ironing! And you’re standing there like the lord of the manor, looking peeved and accusing!” She leaned forward in a fresh burst of laughter and squeezed his forearm to steady herself. “Oh, honey, this is one for the annals!” After which, as far as she was concerned, the air was cleared.
The boys thundered down the stairs, now in hot argument.
“Daddy, Matthew broke my elephant!”
“I did not! It broke itself!”
“You did too! Daddy, can you fix it?”
But Sophie was on the job. “I’ll do it, honey.” She snapped the trunk back onto his elephant, a service she performed often, and gave both boys a quick hug before pushing them gently away. “There, all fixed, off you go.” She looked tenderly at Adam. “Can I get you a fresh drink, sweetheart? Dinner will be ready in a minute.” He nodded, and, exceptionally, she poured one for herself as well and sat next to him, wisely opting this time for companionable silence. Whatever troubles he was having at work, he would tell her about them in his own time and way. The first sip of her drink, a well-watered scotch, made her shudder, although not unpleasantly, raising gooseflesh on her arm. She had fallen out of the habit of drinking, first with pregnancies, then breast-feeding, then all those months of broken nights when she was too tired for anything. Gazing into the pale golden liquid, she marveled at having a drink again, just like a grown-up.
Then the boys were back, full of outrage. Hugo threw himself into Sophie’s lap, spilling her drink on her dress. “Matt pushed me down!” Adam cursed and held his glass up high, out of danger.
“It’s not true, Mommy! He just fell down! And he took my—”
Adam cut them off with a roar of, “Quiet! Quiet, both of you!” They stared at him round-eyed. “Not another word! Do you understand, Matthew? Hugo? I’ve had enough!” They crept back a bit, Hugo’s mouth trembling, Matthew pale. “I’ve had enough,” Adam repeated, quietly this time, and to Sophie, with a hint of apology in his voice.
She looked with regret at her empty glass. “It’s well-engineered, isn’t it? Parents are protected from becoming alcoholics by their young children knocking the drinks out of their hands.” But he didn’t smile, so she went on in a lower voice. “Honey, it’s hard now when they’re so young, but this won’t last forever, and soon we’ll be looking back on this time wishing they were little again.” She smiled tentatively but still got no answering smile. To the boys she said, “You must be tired and hungry. Let’s have some supper.”
But Adam got to his feet. “I’m going out. Carry on without me. I… Just carry on without me.”
When the door closed behind him, the children turned questioning eyes on their mother. “Well!” she said brightly. “Daddy had to go out. Come on, let’s eat!”
Valerie had dinner alone, having dodged the son-in-law’s persistent invitations to join him. Back at the hotel, she reminded herself that it was too soon to expect to hear from Adam. Unless… There was one scenario she had been playing in her head that would account for a call this early. It went like this: Adam had felt braced by her ultimatum, grateful for that little push, and he had marched straight home to have it out with his wife. Not terribly likely, perhaps. Somberly, Valerie rode the elevator up to her room, and as she was opening the door, her phone began to ring. She pawed in her bag for it, then gasped into it, “Hello? Hello?”
“So how’d it go, gorgeous?”
“Oh. Agatha. Hi. Look, can I call you back? I’m expecting a call.”
“This is a call.”
“But I just got in. I need to— I’ll call you back, okay?”
“No, not okay. You have call-waiting. But it’s nice to know you’re so glad to hear from me. Listen. I’m going out tonight. I have a hot date for once—what do you think of that? Valerie? Valerie. Vee, are you okay?”
Valerie didn’t answer. Hearing the concern in her friend’s voice had made her suddenly afraid of bursting into tears.
“Is something wrong?” Agatha insisted.
“No. I’m fine.” She gave a shaky sigh. “Just tired. Long day. I’m not really in the mood to talk right now.”
“I’m not hanging up this phone until you tell me what’s wrong.”
Valerie took a deep breath and said as calmly as she could, “I did it.”
“Congratulations! I knew you would. Now, answer me this. Do you think they would have signed if you’d been wearing… uh, let’s say… a big, hairy, hand-knitted pullover? Come on, tell the truth.”
“No, I mean I told Adam. You know… to make up his mind.”
“You know. I told him to choose between us. Her or me.”
“Oh, my God! I can’t believe you really did that!”
“What do you mean? It was your idea! ‘Make him choose, give him forty-eight hours, stop wasting your life!’ Remember?”
“You did that? You gave him forty-eight hours? To leave his wife?”
For a moment Valerie found herself poised at a fork in her emotional pathway. In one direction lay Stark Panic, brought on by the realization (belated) that Agatha had not been serious, had just been trying to get her goat as usual, and that Valerie had fallen into her trap, wantonly jeopardizing her love affair and possibly her entire future—in other words, Valerie had just ruined her life. In the other direction lay Defiant Anger, as in, how dare that bitch try to make a fool of her? For a moment she hung undecided, staring into the faces of both possibilities: panic and anger.
She chose anger. “What’s wrong, Agatha? Don’t you have the courage of your convictions? Are you all talk and no action, is that it? Well, I’m not!” It felt good, and it solved another problem: Ever since Valerie had decided to take this drastic step (or, more accurately, ever since Valerie had found herself taking this drastic step), her pride had suffered from the knowledge that the idea hadn’t been hers in the first place. Feisty and daring, it was the sort of thing she normally attributed to herself. There was something lowering about merely following the advice of others, and particularly of Agatha. But here was an opportunity to appropriate the idea, and quite rightly, for who did it really belong to—the person who had idly dreamed it up or the one capable of seizing it and boldly acting upon it? “I’d always meant to do something of the kind,” she said airily, “and now seemed as good a time as any.”
“Well, obviously, it was the only thing to do under the circumstances,” Agatha countered smoothly. “I only wish I had come up with the idea sooner—in time to use it on old Howard. I was just surprised to hear you’d gotten up the courage, that’s all.”
“Were you indeed?”
“I mean, it’s not an easy thing to do. Bravo. At least this’ll cut your suffering short. Better to learn the truth right away and get on with your life than screw around for years, like I did.”
“Not that there was ever the remotest chance of my doing that.” It had not escaped Valerie’s notice that Agatha wasn’t even considering the possibility that Adam might choose Valerie over his wife. Valerie would get her for that one day. “Listen, I have a big day tomorrow, and I need some sleep. So I’ll let you—” But she broke off abruptly, imagining the long, lonely night ahead and thinking that under the circumstances giving her friend the brush-off wasn’t in her best interest. So hey, she could be magnanimous. To hell with pride and scoring off Agatha for once. She dropped into an armchair with a sigh. “Oh, shit, Agatha, I’m scared.”
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Agatha gloated, but she did derive quiet satisfaction from the fittingness of Valerie’s suffering for something that was entirely her own fault. It all came down to that salad; there would have been no need for revenge if only Valerie had eaten a decently caloric meal. Spooky, though. It just goes to show how great events can hinge on small ones: You order the wrong thing, you lose your man. Sobering.
“You’re scared, huh?” Agatha asked, and she decided to knock it off, too. “Well, of course you are, and no wonder. Look, let’s think this through. I think you’ve done the best thing, but we’ll hash it over until you feel good about it. Or if you don’t, we’ll come up with something else you can do. Either way, we won’t stop talking tonight until you feel okay. Okay?”
“I’m listening,” Valerie said in a small voice, feeling comforted already. Then she remembered that Agatha was going out. She didn’t suppose it mattered, but for form’s sake she thought she should ask, “But what about your hot date?”
“You’re more important right now.”
Valerie snuggled up in the chair and tucked her feet under her, all ready to be calmed and reassured.
Agatha cleared her throat and assumed the tone of someone making a formal address. “Now, uh, very briefly, I would just like to begin by saying that— Check… check… testing… one… two… Is this microphone working?”
Before beginning her dissertation, Agatha glanced at the clock and saw that she should really be leaving the apartment now, on her way to her date. “Fine. Okay… ah… oh, yes. Let’s see, you two have been sleeping together for six months now, more or less. That’s a key moment in a clandestine affair. You’re probably at the pinnacle of your relationship—sexual attraction has turned into love, but familiarity has not yet bred contempt. So you had two options with Adam: to go along as you were, or to bring about a change. If you had gone along as you were, what would have happened? One: Very soon, Adam would have begun to grow comfortable with his double life, no longer tormented with guilt about the lying and betrayal involved. He would have lost that feeling of ‘I can’t possibly go on like this!’—which is so useful to us in forcing his hand. Two: He would have come to see you as someone willing to accept the role of the ‘other woman,’ and deserving nothing better. If after six months you still seem satisfied with the crumbs from the marriage feast, believe me, that’s all you’ll ever get. Three: As his estimation of you drops, your resentment of the situation will rise accordingly. You’ll become bitchy and nagging, which will make him like you even less, which will make you even bitchier—and so you will spiral, down, down, down, down.”
“But what if—”
“Quiet!” Agatha wasn’t allowing interruptions, not when she was being so damned self-sacrificing. “What I conclude is that if you’d done nothing, your affair would have burned out on its own.”
“But wait,” Valerie insisted. “What about this—I do nothing, he sees how perfect I am for him, and in his own time, without unseemly pressure from me, he makes the adult and lifesaving decision to be with me?”
“No. Don’t forget, it’s easier to stay married than to get divorced. Newton discovered that. Objects in motion stay in motion, and those at rest stay at rest, and that means that staying in a marriage is the natural thing to do. We’re talking about the Energy Well here. Listen, Valerie, he would have to pack up every one of his books. Had you thought of that? All those architecture books, every one of them, he has to put them in boxes and lug them somewhere. And his other stuff—tennis rackets, high-school yearbooks, possibly some old sporting trophies—”
“Are we cleaning Adam’s closet now?”
“I’m making the immensely valid point that breaking up your home and marriage is an enormous move, incredibly difficult to do, and not a thing someone is likely to undertake unless there’s a real emergency. And what’s more, we’re dealing here with a fundamentally ‘nice guy.’ No, he will not, of his own accord, just walk out on his wife and two small children, definitely not.” Agatha paused for effect before adding, “Not unless you make him.”
By now her poor date would be standing on the street corner, looking around hopefully for her, the wind ruffling his— well, no, he didn’t have enough hair for that, but still, it was awfully hard on the poor guy. Nevertheless, she plowed on dutifully.
“And that brings us to the second option. You force his hand, which is what you’ve done.”
Nervously, Valerie began to twist a lock of hair. “Go on,” she said.
“Well, basically he still thinks you’re the bee’s knees, and he still feels guilty about lying to his wife—probably still feels at this point that cheating on her is worse than leaving her. Deep down he agrees that he has to choose between you, so it’s good you hit him with this while he still has a conscience to torment him.”
Valerie’s finger twirled faster around her hair. “So you figure he’ll leave her?”
“No! Haven’t you been listening? The chances of his leaving her are nil if you don’t force his hand, and very poor even if you do. Face it, Vee, you’re going to lose him. The question is, now or later, and how much will it hurt? If he’s very important to you, then it’s worth risking the heartbreak of losing him now, just on the infinitesimal chance that you might get him. But if he’s not, then you’re better off calling him back and apologizing, telling him you lost your mind, and letting things peter out of their own accord, since that way, by the time you lose him, you won’t care. If you ask me, that’s what you should do. The no-pain option.”
“But I do want him.”
“Really? I mean, really? Is he… you know… The One?”
Dear God in heaven, if you give me this man, I promise I will never ask you for another single thing. “Yes. He is.”
“Oh, wow. Well, in that case you’ve done the right thing.”
Valerie closed her eyes and savored those words for a moment. Then she snapped into action. “Right. I have a big day coming up, and I need some sleep. Call you tomorrow.”
Click. The dial tone buzzed in Agatha’s ear. She was an hour late for her date.
Despite Agatha’s reassurances, Valerie jerked awake in the middle of the night and lay staring into the darkness of her hotel room, her heart thumping with terror at what she had done.
And the next morning she was like a person recalling with mingled horror and defiance a rash act committed during a drinking binge. She dressed and applied her makeup carefully before going down to the lobby to drink cup after cup of black coffee, just as if she had a real hangover. She was jumpy all morning, listening out for The Call that would change her life. Call, Adam, call, she chanted in her head. She couldn’t bring herself to switch off her phone, even during her meeting with Valvassori. The question of whether or not this man would buy her plan for his factory seemed ludicrously unimportant now, and her utter indifference to the matter allowed her to deal with his hedging with impressive firmness. He was going to capitulate, she knew, but she hardly cared, which only went to prove, she thought grimly, that when the prize didn’t matter to you, you won it every time, but… she couldn’t bear to think what this would mean about Adam should the reverse be true. Nor could she imagine a sadder future than that of a rich and successful architect with no one to talk to when she got home. The appalling waste! Would she one day look back on this as the defining moment of her life, the day that Valvassori said yes and Adam said no, condemning her to a life of professional success and personal failure? Oh, Adam, Adam, don’t let me go to waste. Call me. Call.
Obediently, the phone in her bag began to chirp. At first she was unable to credit it, wondering in confusion if she had somehow caused it to happen. Then she wrenched open her bag and dug frantically, but her overeager fingers were too clumsy to find the phone, so she tipped the contents out onto the table and caught the phone as it nearly skidded over the edge. “Hello? Hello?” she panted, her back turned rudely on Valvassori.
“Hi there, you daredevil. Has lover boy called yet?”
“No.” Valerie had to unclench her teeth to get the word out.
“Ooh… that’s too bad. Well, never mind. You’re doing the right thing. Bye-ee.”
Valerie’s face acquired an expression that further impressed her client. She put away her phone and pointed the face at him. “Sorry about that, Mr. Valvassori. Where were we?” A few minutes later, he had bought the factory, and Valerie was almost sorry he had, now that she had equated professional gain with romantic loss. But there was one bright aspect: It gave her an excuse to call Adam—made it necessary, in fact, to call him. As her project partner, he had the right to know.
“Hi, it’s me,” she told him briskly, and raced on, not wanting to linger dramatically. “He bought it. Just a few last details to hammer out tomorrow morning, and then I’m coming home.” She let that sit there.
“Excellent work,” Adam said, nervously jovial. “Well done. The… uh… atrium. They fell for it, then?”
“Well, they hedged a little, over budget and all. But I gave them your ‘in harmony with nature’ line, and they didn’t dare disagree.”
“You pulled it off. Congratulations.”
“Well… you, too. We did it together.” The silence that followed sounded pathetic and pleading to her, so hesitantly she filled it with, “Remember… please remember what I said yesterday, Adam.”
“Yes.” Adam frowned, because James had just poked his head around the door to ask a question but broke off short when he saw that Adam was on the phone, signaling, No problem, take your time. James would wait.
“I love you,” Valerie said.
“Me too,” Adam answered quietly, and he hung up. James grinned at him, knowing what “Me too” was in response to—as who does not?
“I don’t know what you’re up to, pal,” James said with a chuckle, “but I sure hope you know what you’re doing!”
Adam’s left cheek pulsated.
That evening Adam stood in his front yard contemplating his house and trying to summon inner calm and courage for the task ahead: the leaving of his wife, Sophie Dean. It was a pleasant-enough house. A family dwelling of a style that could best be described as “rectangular.” Spacious rooms, big windows, plenty of light. A practical eat-in kitchen large enough for a living area at one end. Located in a residential area chosen for its mature trees, big gardens, and proximity to good schools, it was a sensible place for an “upwardly mobile” young family to live—an expression that set Adam’s teeth on edge. Not close to downtown, it was true; not, indeed, within the city limits at all. In the suburbs, in fact. In Milton. To put it bluntly, it was a suburban house in Milton. And that was okay; that was no crime. Ironic, though, that the idealistic young domestic architect he had once been, devoted to the creation of ideal spaces for people to grow and develop in, should end up living in anodyne suburbia. He and Sophie had talked about moving back into the city—to Back Bay, if they could afford it, or the South End—when the boys reached adolescence, but for the time being this was the practical solution. The children could ride bikes on quiet streets, play in their own yard, and run in and out of neighbors’ houses in safety. (They had even had a puppy for a few days, and what a mistake that had been. Another suburban dream gone sour. The dog kept running into the street with Matthew right behind it, not looking out for cars, risking his life to save the dog’s, until after a close call involving much squealing of brakes the puppy had been returned to its former owner. No more pets, they decided, until Matthew’s survival instinct was stronger.) Inside, the house wasn’t decorated to their taste; they had laughed at the previous occupants’ color sense, but what was the point of redecorating with the boys still so small and scribbling on walls? Little boys are hard on a house. Better to save the money and give them free rein. Of course. Viewed separately, all the decisions that added up to Their Life were logical and sound. But put all the parts together and… This house, for example—yes, spacious; yes, schools; yes, pleasant, but… But it was a boring goddamned suburban house that he didn’t want to live in! A house that was “perfectly good,” as Valerie’s mother used to say (poor Valerie), as in “a perfectly good jacket” or “perfectly good food,” meaning that it was ill-fitting or bad-tasting, but it would have to do. “Perfectly good” was no good at all, and here was Adam, forty years old and living a “perfectly good” life! Bloody ironic when you considered that he had gone to the trouble of uprooting himself and crossing the Atlantic in search of adventure—all to wind up in the American counterpart of Twickenham, for God’s sake!
The evening ahead seemed impossibly difficult. Simplify your goal, Adam told himself, pare it down to one achievable task. All he had to do was utter one sentence. All he had to say was, I’ve fallen in love with someone else. I’m leaving. All right, two sentences. It would take four seconds. And then it would be done. Adam walked slowly up the steps to his house, concentrating. The whole thing hinged on finding the right moment to introduce those four seconds. He pushed the door open, and Sophie was in his arms. “Oh, Adam, I thought I heard you. I’ve missed you so much today! I couldn’t wait for you to get home. Boys, look! Daddy’s home!”
“Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!” they shouted eagerly.
This wasn’t the moment.
After dinner he lay in the tub, staring unseeing at the ceiling for so long that Sophie called to him softly from the bedroom. “Honey, have you fallen asleep in the tub? Honey?”
“Coming.” But he didn’t move, just continued to stare at the ceiling. This wasn’t the moment either. Damn it, why didn’t she help him, give him an opening? Why couldn’t she say something like, What’s the matter, darling? You seem so unlike your normal self. Are you in love with someone else? Would you like to move out—is that it? But she was too damned tactful to pry into why he was so touchy. He groaned aloud.
Her voice wafted in sweetly from the other room. “Come to bed, sweetheart, and I’ll rub your shoulders.”
The Moment, he was beginning to suspect, his eyes fixed unblinkingly on the overhead light fixture, existed only in a parallel universe. There was no place in this world for that four-second announcement.
Later still, after Sophie had fallen asleep, he was sitting alone downstairs in his bathrobe, scotch in hand, when the telephone interrupted his brooding. He snatched it up after the first ring—the children were asleep!—who in the hell… ? “Hello?” he said softly, and then in a harsh whisper, “What? What in God’s name are you doing calling me here? Have you gone mad?”
Prior to placing this rash call, Valerie had been sitting curled up in her hotel room with the lights off and the curtains open, hugging her kimono around her knees for protection, looking out over the twinkling city lights and feeling like the smallest and loneliest thing in that vast panorama. Alone, unloved… and in Newark, New Jersey. She had even begun to wonder where her father was, and that was an impossibly bad sign. She had put him out of her mind years ago. Agatha was wrong, of course, about men never leaving their families. Valerie’s father had. The charming, boyish father she’d worshipped had left home without a backward glance. The mystery wasn’t why he had gone but how he had stuck it out for so long, until Valerie was eight. Not that her mother was a bad person. She was just… no fun. Muted, pale, tentative, round-shouldered. Everyone said that pretty, vivacious Valerie took after her father, but clearly she hadn’t been attractive enough, because he had run off with a pretty woman who worked in a travel agency. At first he sent birthday presents (never money, as Valerie’s mother pointed out repeatedly), but after a few years the presents stopped coming. End of story with Daddy. Valerie had no idea where he was now, whether he was still with that woman, or whether he’d had other children. Once, in a weak moment, she had tried searching for him on Google, but his name was so common that without any other clues it was hopeless. And anyway, if he were alive, wasn’t it up to him to search for her? Never mind. He might have been run over crossing a street years ago. All she knew about him for certain was that he was a man who had put love first, and she had tried to console herself with that thought throughout her lonely childhood. But all that pain was behind her, she reminded herself firmly. And indecisive, weak-willed Adam was not going to force her back through the squalor of memory lane. Enough already! Defiantly, she tried his cell phone once, twice, three times, but it wasn’t switched on.
She leaped up and began to stride around the room, her kimono swishing against her trim calves, glad to be moving and angry instead of curled up and miserable. If only she could talk to him! She couldn’t call his home phone, of course. No, wait! Why not? Why not just call him at his goddamned house, wake everybody up, and let him know how unhappy she was, alone and cast off in a distant city, her whole future at stake? It was “against the rules” to call him at home, but whose rules? And wasn’t it against the rules for him, a married man, to sleep with her in the first place, make her fall in love with him, and then jerk her around with his weak-assed inability to leave a woman that he himself said was incapable of making him happy? Wasn’t it against the rules to raise her expectations and then break her heart? Why should she be the only one to respect the rules? Had her father respected the rules? There were no damned rules, except the ones Adam invented to protect himself and keep her at a disadvantage! Her hands shaking with self-righteous anger, Valerie swooped on the phone and punched in his home number, which she’d memorized long ago, just in case. But when he answered on the first ring, his “Hello?” sounding hushed and concerned, “It’s me,” was all she could say.
“What?” he whispered harshly. “What in God’s name are you doing calling me here? Have you gone mad?”
She burst into tears.
“What if Sophie had answered the phone? What damned game are you playing now?”
“I’m so sorry, Adam! Have I ruined everything? Say I haven’t, please!”
He held his hand over the receiver and cocked his head toward the upstairs, listening for signs that the telephone had woken Sophie. Nothing. He put the receiver back to his ear.
“Adam? Adam? Are you there?”
“I’m just so afraid you won’t tell her. I’m so afraid you’ll abandon me. I need you so much, Adam, and I love you so much. It’s so hard for me to trust anyone. I’m always so afraid they’ll let me down.”
“I won’t let you down.”
“Oh, if only I could believe that! I know, Adam, I know how hard this is for you. Don’t think I don’t. Don’t think I’m a monster.”
“I don’t think that.”
“Really?” Valerie sniffed and wiped her face with the flat of her hand. “You know…” She swallowed her tears and sniffed again, and a hopeful note began to creep into her quavering voice. “You know, when you have something hard like this to do and it seems impossible… it’s just like looking out the window of a train.”
“It seems like such a huge thing to do, so scary, but once you do it, it’s gone. Finished! Like when you flash through a town on a train and you see all those little houses and backyards and a quick swatch of this and a quick flash of that, and then whoooomp! You go into a tunnel, and when you come out the other side, everything’s different. It’s a wasteland, the town’s gone, those little houses have disappeared as if they never existed. And you don’t exist for them anymore either. Only seconds have passed, but they’re already miles and miles behind, in a different world. It’ll be like that when you tell her—really hard, but only for an instant… and then it’ll be done.” Her voice wobbled again as she whispered, “You’ll be free.”
“Darling, lie down now and go to sleep.”
“You won’t abandon me?”
“Shhh. No, I won’t. Now, go to sleep.”
Adam tiptoed into the bedroom. Sophie was asleep. Silly to tiptoe when his intention was to wake her. “Sophie?” He sat down gently on the bed and touched her hair. “Sophie?” He couldn’t bring himself to speak above a whisper. She stirred, made a little sound, reached out and took his hand, still asleep. Adam looked gravely at their joined hands. After a moment he eased himself off the bed and crept out of the room.
That spring, some four months earlier, Adam and Valerie had had the incredible good luck to be sent together on business to Paris. It was just at the time when it was becoming clear that their sleeping together was not an aberration but rather the beginning of a love affair. The month was May, the city was sublime, and Adam had marveled at finding himself cast in the role of clandestine lover. He had never felt so lucky or so daring before. Valerie had insisted they get a few pictures of them together so she would have something to remember him by. For her long, solitary nights, she had joked, something to slip under her pillow. Adam had felt flattered by her insistence, enough so to override his native caution, and after a delicious, boozy lovers’ lunch on the Île Saint-Louis he offered no objection when she asked the waiter to snap them. She had mugged for the camera, hugging and kissing him, dissolving into laughter for the final shot, looking vibrantly happy and beautiful. Later she made copies for him. “Don’t think I’m going to be the only one pining,” she’d said. “You’ve got to sigh for me, too—otherwise it’s no fun.” He had been uneasy about accepting them but felt it would be ungracious or, worse, unsophisticated, to refuse them. That night he had hidden them in a book on a high shelf in his study at home, feeling like a naughty child, excited by the knowledge that Valerie’s image dwelled secretly in his house, trapped between the dusty pages of an old textbook on building materials, their weight-bearing properties, and their responses to torsion and stress—something he felt fairly sure Sophie would not be dipping into. Now he retrieved the photos from the book and stood with them in his hand, looking around vaguely, wondering where to leave them… somewhere the children would not happen upon them. Then he thought of a place. He crept back up to the bedroom, eased open the drawer where his shirts were kept, slipped the photos in, and carefully slid the drawer shut again. Tomorrow when Sophie finished the ironing, she would open the drawer to put his shirts away, and then…
But his imagination balked at what would happen then.
“Valerie.” Adam’s voice was crisp and businesslike as he spoke into his office phone the next morning. He was closely shaven, immaculately dressed, keen-eyed: a man who was at last taking his destiny into his own hands. “She knows. Yes. Yes, last night.”
Waves of joy rippled through Valerie. She was in a taxi on her way to the airport, having wound up the last details of the deal over breakfast. She threw back her head and laughed with sheer relief. Out the sunroof the tops of trees were zipping past, their leaves sparkling in the dappled sunlight. Gazing up at them, she vowed to remember, all her life long, the perfection and joy of that moment.
“I’ll see you tonight, darling,” Adam said. “We’ll have dinner. Call me when you get in.”
“Adam, wait!” She needed to prolong her happiness. “You’re a perfect man. How could I ever have doubted you?”
“Just see to it you never do again.” God, it felt good saying that!
Valerie introduced a note of concern into her voice. “How did she take it? What did she say?”
Adam frowned and fiddled with a pencil on his desk, half expecting James to appear at the door in time to witness this latest awkward exchange. The doorway was empty, but James would still serve. “I can’t talk now. James is here pestering me. We’ll talk this evening. Yes… Yes, me too, darling. Yes, all right. Good-bye.” Adam hung up, drummed his fingers for a moment, then called his secretary. “Odette, has my wife rung this morning?… I see. Well, put her straight through, will you, when she does.… Thank you.” There shouldn’t be long to wait. Sophie would doubtless telephone when she… ah… found the… He cleared his throat and got on with his day’s work as best he could.
Humming, Sophie whipped into the laundry room with the basket of clean, crumpled shirts in her arms. She found that the dullness of ironing was compensated for, to a degree, by the hot, clean smell of it and the satisfying steamy hiss of the iron, things she had first experienced from the low angle of childhood, gazing up at her mother while she ironed, occasionally sighing and brushing a strand of hair out of her flushed face with the back of her hand. A strong and capable woman she had seemed then, a household goddess. Her young daughter noted her perpetual busyness and fatigue with approval, savoring the grown-up importance of it.
Sophie shook out the first shirt and got started on it, doing only a passable job. Milagros, on the other hand, ironed beautifully, and, what’s more, she believed in ironing. It seemed to be a moral tenet of her native Spain: Good ironing equaled clean living. (Sophie pondered this. Was that because good women ironed, or was it the act of ironing that imparted goodness to women?) In the beginning she had struggled to curb Milagros’s ironing, for Milagros believed that everything needed ironing, including bath towels and underwear. “It preserves the fabric,” she insisted. It was not unusual in the early days for Sophie to discover Milagros holed up in the laundry room, having raced through the other chores in order to do secret extra ironing. “If I don’t iron this, it will rot!” In the end Sophie gave in. Milagros could iron even the oven gloves if she wanted to (and she did), because you can’t give someone work to do without relinquishing some power as well, and after all, Milagros was kind to the boys, she cleaned so thoroughly that it felt like an accusation, and she made succulent chickpeas with spinach—so she could iron anything in sight.
Milagros had come to work for the Deans when Hugo was born. With a one-year-old and a newborn to take care of, Sophie was glad to have someone come in to clean and leave supper on the stove. Her mother had suggested she get help with the boys, but that was the wrong way around to Sophie’s way of thinking; she’d rather take care of the children herself and have someone else wash the floor. Adam was also in favor of their raising the children themselves and not hiring others to do it. When Sophie was pregnant the first time, he had talked movingly about the importance of a heavy investment of the parents’ time and attention in a child’s vital early years, and Sophie agreed completely. She quit working as a freelance editor without regret in her eighth month of pregnancy, disillusioned with editing anyway—all frenzied deadlines and wrestling in solitude with other people’s verbal tangles—and feeling exhilarated by the much more important task ahead. Adam earned enough for them to live on; they would simply scale their life to his income, and Sophie could work again later on, maybe at something new, maybe with people instead of words. Alternative medicine interested her, and shiatsu in particular after she had tried it for recurrent headaches. The treatment had been so successful, not only curing her headaches but making her feel well inside and out, that she had considered becoming a practitioner herself, but Adam had discouraged her, the whole thing seeming “rather fey” to him and a waste of her education. She would go back to work at something eventually, but in the meantime she pored over piles of books on childbirth and babies and toddlers and discussed them with Adam in the evenings. He was as enthusiastic as she was in those days, when it was all still theoretical. Matthew was born, and then, startlingly, when he was only five months old and Sophie was still feeling her way, she got pregnant again. Well… so much the better. More diapers, more late-night feedings, more snapping up of tiny garments, more kneeling on the bathroom floor supporting grapefruit-sized heads with one hand while splashing warm water over gyrating limbs with the other. More toys and books and bibs, more walks with the double stroller, and more first smiles, first teeth, first steps and words. In those early years, making it through each day was a challenge that sapped all Sophie’s energy and resourcefulness. She kept her head down and worked. But as the boys got older, the pace relaxed and the stardust began to settle. She was able at last to look around herself, and when she did, she made an unsettling discovery: She was alone with the children. Adam had not followed her into this new phase of their adventure together. He was standing off on his own, eyeing them with a blend of wistfulness, boredom, and irritation; somehow or other he had gotten left behind. It was hard to say how it had happened. Of course, as eager future parents, snuggled in bed among their toppling towers of child-raising books, they hadn’t foreseen how much his work would interfere with his fathering. It had been unrealistic to imagine that their parenting would be of equal intensity and importance. Inevitably, if he was at work all day and she was at home, the bulk of the work—and the rewards—would fall to her. Her commitment to raising their children was continuous and real; his could only be occasional and academic. She told herself regularly that as the boys grew up, he would become more involved with them. In a few years, they would have more in common, share more activities, grow closer. She reassured herself of that once again as she finished ironing the last of his shirts, and if there was a hollowish ring to it, she resolutely ignored it, not in the mood today to deal again with that mocking inner voice. Good, the sun was coming out; she could do a bit of weeding after lunch and plant those cuttings before they wilted. Then vacuum downstairs and make some little treat for after school—banana bread, must use those overripe bananas. Then get their sports clothes ready for tomorrow.
Mind buzzing, body taut, mood upbeat although slightly harassed, Sophie gave a pat to the last shirt, set down the iron, which heaved a steamy sigh of relief, switched it off, placed the shirt on top of the others in the basket, picked up the basket, nudged the light switch off with her elbow as she opened the door with her foot, leaned into the kitchen to yank two wilted dishcloths off the rail by the sink, flung them back into the dirty-clothes hamper, caught the basket as it slipped off her hip, hiked it up again, and switched on the teakettle as she passed, thinking that if she had just tea and a sandwich for lunch, she’d have time for a quick shower after the gardening—she could scrub the sink and fold the towels before she jumped in. But first she would put these shirts away. On her path through the living room, she scooped up some teddy bears—it was a rule of hers never to take a trip up or down the stairs without carrying a full load—and her step was springy as she headed down the hall to the master bedroom, the laundry basket bouncing on her hip. As she passed the boys’ door, she tossed the bears into the toy box with perfect aim.
It was nearly the last action she would perform as a happily married woman.
Excerpted from Leaving Sophie Dean by Whitaker, Alexandra Copyright © 2012 by Whitaker, Alexandra. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 8, 2012
Alexandra Whitaker's modern domestic fable blends crystalline interpersonal observations. Unusually, I found myself rooting for both the wife AND the other woman, as the viewpoints of both women protagonists were presented in a very heartfelt way. A tour de force -- I wanted to stand on my chair and cheer.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 4, 2012
The genus of "Leaving Sophie Dean" is that it is so funny and so clever that you think of it as lighter fare. Yet by the time you finish it you have begun to consider all the failed relationships in the "Sophie Dean" context. It becomes your new perspective.
It is a difficult book to leave unfinished.