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Princeton, New Jersey
When Molly Chamberlain's husband Robert called to say he wanted to come home, she thought her prayers had been answered. Robert had been living in Manhattan for two months now, ever since the day he'd told her it was over between them. But Molly knew better. All he'd needed was some time to come to his senses, and apparently that moment had finally arrived.
Molly sat down on the edge of their brand-new sofa in their brand-new living room and held the phone as close to her ear as she could. She didn't want to miss a single word when he told her how much he loved her, how much he wanted to make things right again. It didn't matter that she couldn't remember the last time he'd told her he loved her. All that mattered was that he was coming home to stay.
"I want to get the rest of my things," Robert said, and for a second she thought she was upstairs in their bed, having one of those nightmares where he told her he'd never loved her at all.
"I'm sorry," she said, cupping her hand over her ear and closing her eyes. "There's a lot of noise in here. What did you say?" Okay, so there really wasn't all that much noise inside the house, but somebody in the neighborhood was mowing his lawn. Those riding mowers could drown out a jumbo jet. "Robert? Would you repeat what you said?"
"I found a place, Molly. I want to come by and get the rest of my stuff." He'd nailed a great apartment within walking distance of the office and he was ready to set up housekeeping with the woman of his dreams.
Robert said he would come over the next afternoon, and Molly said that was fine because she'd be at the obstetrician's office, making sure the baby in her belly--his baby--was healthy and developing on schedule.
"Great," he said. He didn't sound embarrassed. He didn't even sound as if he cared. "I'll be out of there before you come home." Then he said something about not wanting to disturb her, which they both knew was a lot of baloney, because if he really hadn't wanted to disturb her he wouldn't have left in the first place. He would have stayed in their house where he belonged. She wouldn't even have asked him to stay forever. Just until the baby was, twenty-one or married or ready for retirement.
But, of course, she didn't say that to him. Why bother? She'd said everything there was to say the night he told her he was leaving her for a judge's daughter with a law degree of her own and a nice fat trust fund that would keep them in Saabs and Land Rovers in perpetuity.
Sometimes in the middle of the night when she sat alone in the family room watching Mary Richards muster up the courage to ask Mr. Grant for a raise, she could hear her own voice coming at her from out of nowhere. Don't go, Robert, please ... I'll do anything ... don't leave me ... tell me what you want, Robert, and I'll never ask you for anything else. That was the biggest humiliation of all, the way she'd turned into someone she didn't recognize the second he told her he was leaving.
She'd begged him to stay, begged him like some pathetic fool who couldn't live on her own without a man to protect her. It scared her to realize that she would do it all over again if she thought there was even half a chance that he would come back to her and they could pretend they were happy.
Molly had no problem with pretending to be happy. Pretending was a good thing. It was better than chain-smoking marriages the way her parents had been doing for the last twenty years.
But Robert didn't want to pretend he was happy. He said he'd found the real thing with Diandra, that what he and Molly had shared was nothing compared to it. Nothing, he said. Those years they dated in college. The first time they made love in the park behind the lake. The night she told him she was pregnant with their first baby.
"So what are you saying?" she'd asked him, hearing the edge of hysteria in her own voice. "That nothing before Diane mattered?"
"Diandra," he'd corrected her and said no more. When you came down to it, what more was there to say?
Their almost ten years of marriage had been nothing to Robert but filler, something he did to pass time while he waited for his real life to begin.
That was two months ago. Her only communication with him since then had been through his lawyers, and their conversation a few hours ago, when he asked about coming over to pick up the rest of his stuff. She'd thought it was strange he'd bypassed his attorneys, but she chalked it up to Robert's natural arrogance--one of the many things she'd been foolish enough to love about him.
She couldn't sleep that night. She knew not sleeping was the worst possible thing for the baby, but every time she closed her eyes she saw visions of happier days, and they came close to breaking her heart. Finally she got up, slipped a robe over her T-shirt, then wandered downstairs to the kitchen. When she and Robert first moved into the house, they'd joked about needing a map to find each other. Ten rooms, two stories, full basement. They'd fill it with children, she'd said. Why hadn't she realized that Robert said nothing at all?
She wandered from room to room, sipping a glass of milk and trying to outdistance her thoughts. She tried to place Robert in the kitchen, the dining room, the huge family room with the stone fireplace and wall of windows, but couldn't. If he hadn't left his books and records and clothes behind, she'd have wondered if he'd ever lived there at all.
The house had been his choice. The neighborhood came highly recommended by one of his colleagues, and it carried with it a certain cachet. Cachet was important in Robert's world. More important than she'd ever realized. You wanted the right firm, the right house, the right car, the right wife.
She'd never had any doubt she was the right wife, not even when their sex life started sliding downhill around the second year of their marriage and neither one of them seemed to notice or care. Sex had never been the defining force in their relationship. Robert wasn't at all like her friends' husbands who demanded sex morning, noon, and night, They made love weekly--sometimes not even that often. And it was all right with Molly. Her parents had had one of those fiery, sexually passionate marriages and see where it had gotten them. To divorce court, that's where.
So she'd never worried about their lack of passion. Their friendship had turned into love, and love had somehow developed into a partnership. That's what a good marriage was, wasn't it? A partnership of the best possible kind, where two people worked toward a common good, a common goal. Maybe they didn't light up the skies in bed, but so what? What they had together was better than momentary passion.
Too bad she was the only one who'd actually believed that.
"Your blood pressure's elevated," Dr. Rosenberg said as he took the cuff off her arm in the examination room the next afternoon. "I'm not crazy about your rapid pulse either."
She forced a smile. "And I'm not so crazy about your tie."
"I can change my tie," the doctor said. "It's going to take a little work to bring down that pressure."
"Give me time, Doc," she said, noticing the goose bumps running up and down her arms. "All I need is a good night's sleep and I'll be fine."
"I was sorry to hear about you and your husband," he said, scribbling a few notes on her chart.
"So was I." For once she didn't reach for the easy joke. "He's at the house right now, picking up his golf clubs and law books."
"You're not serious about that, are you?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" she countered. "He called yesterday and asked if he could drop by. He said he'd be long gone by the time I got home."
"Did you speak to your attorney about this?"
A sense of unease danced across the back of her neck. "Robert called me out of the blue and--" She stopped and regrouped. "It was after business hours. I meant to call a lawyer this morning, but ..."
The doctor capped his pen and slipped it back into the pocket of his white lab coat. "Robert's not on your side anymore, Molly, and the sooner you realize that, the better off you'll be."
"You sound like my neighbor Gail," she said, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
"If your neighbor Gail is telling you to protect your interests, then I'm in agreement."
"I promise," she said. "As soon as I get home, I'll call my attorney." What she didn't say was that she had to find one first.
"Get dressed," he said. "We'll talk in my office."
But I don't want to talk in your office, she thought as she ducked behind the screen. She was so tired of hearing all the divorce horror stories. Being pregnant and alone was bad enough. If she had to worry about Robert doing something terrible behind her back, she'd go crazy. Besides, he'd already left her for a younger woman. What more could he possibly do to her after that?
She pulled on her perfectly tailored black maternity pants, the cream-colored silk blouse, the beautiful sapphire blue jacket. They felt more like a suit of armor than clothing, which was exactly the effect she'd been looking for. "Put your best foot forward," her mother used to say, back when Molly was a little girl with a mouthful of braces and bad skin, "no matter how bad you're feeling about yourself."
She wondered what she was going to do when her belly outgrew her current wardrobe. Her part-time income as a first reader for a New York publishing company was barely enough to pay the utility bills on her house. Unless Robert paid his fair share of the mortgage and upkeep and obstetrician bills, she and the baby would end up living in her Jeep Cherokee.
She used to believe she knew exactly where her future would take her: the two-story suburban home, the family car, the baby, the golden retriever, the husband who came home the same time every night and left the same time the next morning; stability, security, someone to grow old beside.
She had the house and the car and pretty soon she'd have the baby. Beyond that it was anybody's guess.
Dr. Rosenberg didn't spend much time instructing Molly in the fine art of divorce negotiation. He had other more important issues to discuss with her.
"I'm concerned about your pressure, Molly. We have to bring this down to a more acceptable level."
"It's stress," she said, placing her hands over her belly, as if to shield the baby from bad news.
"I think it's more than stress, but I won't know for sure until we run some more tests."
"Tests?" She met his eyes across the desk. "I can't afford tests, Doctor."
"That's not something I like to hear."
"Then we're even, because it's not exactly something I like to say. I don't have insurance." Check and mate. Now she'd see how concerned he really was about her pressure.
"I've known you a long time, Molly. I'm not going to let this stand in the way of your health."
Tears filled her eyes. "Damn," she murmured, blinking quickly. "I wish you wouldn't be nice to me. Yelling at me I can handle, but this"--she waved her hand in the air--"does me in every time."
He let her cry for a few moments, until she managed to pull herself back together.
"I won't tell anybody about this if you won't," she said, forcing her usual cheerful grin. The one Robert used to love so much. Unless he'd lied about that, too.
"Maybe you should be telling somebody about this," the doctor countered. "Your parents. Your divorce attorney."
"My parents don't know Robert is gone," she said. "Let's keep it that way."
Dr. Rosenberg sighed loudly and leaned back in his plush leather chair. "Pregnancy isn't the time to decide to go it alone, Molly."
"I didn't decide to go it alone. Robert decided it for me."
"Point well taken, but you don't have to be alone. You have a family. Let them help you. This isn't just about you, Molly. There's the baby to consider."
She sat there and nodded, pretending that every word he said made sense. He meant well. She had no doubt about that. Dr. Rosenberg was a good man, and he wanted the best for her. It was something they had in common.
Molly stopped at the supermarket for milk, eggs, and bread. Three items, she told herself as she pushed the cart up the cereal aisle. She wasn't going to be swayed by the seductive displays of ruby red raspberries or the leafy green Boston lettuce or the plump containers of creamy chocolate ice cream that cost more than a phone call to Tokyo.
Robert used to look at her as if she were crazy when she came home from Super-Fresh with radicchio and ice-cold plums and without the milk she'd meant to buy in the first place. Other women didn't make those mistakes. They drew up lists, organized their coupons, and set forth to do battle. No random radicchio for her stalwart neighbors. They bought what they needed and turned a blind eye to the rest. Maybe that was the problem in her marriage, she thought as she pushed the cart up one aisle and down the other. She was too scatterbrained, too disorganized.
What was it her Grandma Jean always used to say to her? "You've got to quit listening with your heart, Molly, and start listening to your head." Her heart was always getting her into trouble, rescuing stray cats, nursing injured birds, hanging onto a husband who no longer loved her. Her neighbor Gail wouldn't have made that mistake. Gail had a sharp eye for reality. Gail would have recognized the signs right from the start and set out to save her marriage.
Molly hadn't a clue until it was too late.
She paused in front of a display featuring imported Belgian chocolates. The packages were beautifully wrapped in navy blue foil with silver stars. Two of them leaped into her shopping cart.
Milk, eggs, and bread, she told herself again, staring down at the chocolates. That was what she needed and that was all she'd buy. Except for the chocolates.
Robert used to tell her they couldn't afford Belgian chocolates, not until he got himself settled in with a good law firm. Well, he was all settled in at Dannenberg and Silverstein now, wasn't he? She should be able to buy any damn thing she wanted. By the time she reached the checkout counter, she had added two containers of Haagen-Dazs, imported feta cheese, balsamic vinegar, and double-thick lamb chops. She didn't have enough cash to pay for her purchases, so she fished her wallet out of her enormous tote bag and pulled out the handy-dandy plastic rectangle that made all things possible.
"Swipe it again," the checkout clerk said. "It didn't go through."
Molly dragged the magnetic strip through the reader once again. "I probably had it upside down," she said by way of apology to the five people on line behind her. "I'm always doing that." She was always apologizing. Once she'd apologized to a step stool for bumping into it. She got as much of a response from the step stool as she had gotten from Robert near the end.
The woman closest to her, the one with the full shopping cart and two small children tumbling together on the sticky tile floor, sighed loudly. Molly turned away. It could have been worse. She could have been on the eight-item-only express line with her two dozen items. That would really have given the woman something to sigh about.
The Clerk motioned for Molly to swipe the card a third time, which she did. She hoped the sighing woman didn't notice that her hand had started to shake. She wouldn't want anyone to get the wrong idea.
"I use that card so often it probably has whiplash," she announced to no one in particular. "I'm surprised steam isn't rising from it."
An older man in a gray fedora laughed. Encouraged, Molly met his eyes and smiled. See? her smile said. There's nothing to worry about. This kind of thing happens all the time.
The clerk reached for the telephone receiver adjacent to her register and said a few words into the mouthpiece.
Molly's smile faltered for an instant. "What now?" she asked, keeping her tone light. "Am I over my Haagen-Dazs limit?" When in doubt, make a joke. Make fun of yourself before anyone else has the chance.
"The manager will be here in a sec," the clerk said, avoiding her eyes. "Just wait."
Her mind went blank. She could almost hear the air whooshing between her ears. She told herself to take a deep breath, but her lungs refused to cooperate. Things like this didn't happen to her. They happened to other people every day of the week, but not to her.
The manager, a harried-looking man with an overgrown mustache and tired eyes, approached. His khaki trousers rode low over an enormous belly that strained against his white cotton shirt.
"Your card was rejected," he said without preamble. "We've been asked to confiscate it."
Her backbone stiffened in response. This used to happen to her mother every time her father's outgo outstripped his income. It was always an error, the kind that a call to the bank rectified one, two, three. "There must be some mistake. I just used it yesterday, and there was no problem."
"There's no mistake," he said. "We'll be keeping your card."
"No!" The word shot from her mouth like a bullet. "You can't do that."
"We have no choice," he said, sounding bored, as if he'd done this a thousand times before. "Now, if you'd like to pay cash for your groceries, we can all get back to work."
Pay cash? If she could pay cash, why would she have whipped out her plastic?
"I can give you a check."
"We'll need two forms of ID." He paused. "A driver's license and something other than a credit card."
"I don't have anything other than a credit card."
"Then you'll need cash."
Her eyes burned, and she felt the telltale twitch in her chin. Oh, God, she was on the verge of crying. And not just crying, but sobbing like a baby. She had to get out of there fast.
"I'm afraid paying by cash is impossible," she said in as calm and cool a voice as she could manage. She placed her hands on her nearly flat belly and let her gaze sweep over the manager and the clerk and the nosy people on line behind her. "I didn't think I'd need cash when I went to see my obstetrician today." It was a cheap shot, and she knew it, but it was the best she could come up with on short notice. They wouldn't embarrass a pregnant woman, would they?
Head high, she turned and walked slowly past the pimply-faced clerk at Express Line 1, paused a half second until the electronic door swung open, then strode through the parking lot to her car. She couldn't let her control falter for an instant, or they'd see right through her.
Her hand shook so hard that it took three tries to fit the key into the ignition, "Damn," she whispered, keeping her head down. The key had worked a half hour ago. There was no reason it shouldn't work now. She almost cried with relief when the engine started up.
Her mind was a tangle of questions. Had she paid last month's credit card bill? Come to think of it, she wasn't sure she'd paid the mortgage or the phone bill or the other utilities. Hadn't Robert said not to worry, that he'd take care of everything? For all she knew, she'd get home and she'd have no phone or electricity. What on earth was the matter with her? She wasn't a stupid woman. How could she have let this happen?
She backed out of her parking space and headed for home. Robert had said he would take care of everything, and she'd believed him. Same as she'd believed him when he said he'd love her forever and always, until death did them part. A horn honked behind her, and she realized she'd been stopped at a green light. "Get with it," she muttered, moving forward again. "Pay attention."
The last few weeks had been an endless loop of Robert's voice telling her he'd never really loved her at all. She heard him saying those words when she went to sleep at night, and he was still saying them to her when she woke up in the morning. But no matter how badly he wanted out, he wouldn't turn his back on his own child. No decent man would.
And Robert was a decent man. No matter what else he was, she knew that for a fact. "It's a mistake," she said out loud as she tried to concentrate on the road. Computers were only as good as the people operating them. A payment must have been overlooked or posted to the wrong account. She was getting herself upset over something that would probably turn out to be nothing more than a minor blip on a computer screen.
Still, the episode in the supermarket had managed to shake her up, and maybe that was a good thing. She'd been in a state of suspended animation since Robert walked out on her. The baby was the only reason she got up in the morning and washed and dressed and ate well. Sleep was a tough one, though. Sleep eluded her for days at a time, until she was punchy with fatigue. She felt as if she'd been living inside a glass bubble, and the slightest movement would shatter the only barrier between her heart and unbearable pain.
Maybe this was exactly what she needed, a small reminder that it was time she started to pay attention to her own life, before she found herself in real trouble. She'd get out her checkbook as soon as she got home and take stock of her situation, no matter how much the thought scared her.
Traffic was light on Route 206. She sailed through Princeton proper and made her way to the pricey culde-sac she and Robert had called home. Their house sat on top of the rise called Lilac Hill, a nice blend of stone and shingles and high expectations. Her neighbor Gail called Lilac Hill a corporate ghetto, populated with doctors, lawyers, and scores of executives from Johnson & Johnson and AT&T. Molly hadn't paid too much attention to Gail's assessment of the neighborhood. All she'd cared about was her home and the family she and Robert would raise there.
They'd planned to build a life together in that house. That house was where the hard work and long hours would finally pay off. She'd found out she was pregnant the day before closing and she'd sailed through the afternoon on a cloud of wonder and excitement. Every single thing they'd dreamed about, every miracle they'd dared hope for was coming true. Could life be more perfect than this? She told Robert over supper in their old apartment, and you would have thought she was announcing the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. His face closed in on itself, and he didn't talk to her until they went to bed.
"Are you sure?" he'd asked under cover of darkness as the air conditioner clanked in the background. "Could there be a mistake?"
"There's no mistake," she'd whispered. She'd told herself that he was worried, that's all. Not unhappy or disappointed or angry. "I'm positively pregnant."
He'd thrown back the covers and left the room, and she didn't see him again until the next afternoon when they met at the real estate office to close on the house. She should have known then. She should have seen the signs, made changes, loved him more before it was too late.
Maybe that was one of her problems. She'd spent her early childhood with her head buried in the sand. She pretended she couldn't hear her parents arguing late into the night. She told herself that all families lived in deep silence. The only thing that mattered was that they stayed together.
The sun was beginning to set as she pulled into the driveway, but it was still light enough for her to see everything that was wrong with the place. Dandelions speckled the front lawn like an old man's whiskers. The azaleas and rhododendrons were overgrown and leggy. The property looked neglected and in need of tender loving care. If Robert hadn't walked out on her, she would have called the landscaper and had him send out a crew to mow and weed and trim, but those days were gone. Right now she couldn't even afford to pay for her groceries.
Next time she'd drive up into Hillsborough and shop at Edward's, where nobody knew her. She could even use coupons without having her neighbors laugh at her or speculate about her fiscal health. Maybe this embarrassment wasn't such a bad thing after all. Not if she learned something from it.
Her neighbor Gail had left a stack of self-help books on her doorstep the day after the news of Robert's defection became public. Most of them were a waste of paper, but the one message they all had in common was learn from your mistakes. Molly wished someone would write a book about how to avoid making those mistakes in the first place. Now, that would be a book worth buying.
Gail was standing in her front doorway. Molly lifted her hand to wave, but Gail apparently didn't see her. She slipped back inside and shut the door after her. At least one thing had gone right today. Root canal rated higher than a friendly chat with Gail.
She pressed the remote control and waited for the garage door to roll up. When it didn't, she pressed it again. Still nothing. Robert used to see to it that their electronic devices always had fresh batteries in them. Another thing she'd have to get used to doing on her own. She shut off the engine and climbed out of the car. Okay, no big deal. She'd go in through the front, then open the garage from the inside.
The front door was unlocked. That hit her as strange. Robert was as fanatical about locks and alarms as she was. She couldn't imagine him forgetting to lock up when he left. She pushed open the door and stepped into the foyer. The faintest hint of sweat and aftershave lingered in the cool air. Lagerfeld, she thought. Robert's scent. The sweat, though, puzzled her. Robert didn't sweat. Not even at the gym. And never in bed.
She was about to chalk that up to imagination when she moved into the living room and what was left of her world came crashing down on her.
Posted January 20, 2003
This is a magnificent book. The author Barbara Bretton out did herself. It's in no other words, beautifully written. The story is not only interesting but filled with passion and love. There's no way you would be able to put this book down. Matter of fact I read this book in one day.
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Posted September 26, 2000
here is a story out of the ordinary. Not one of your 'same old' kind. It was sweet and touching. But, without getting too sappy.The author style is different. I hope to read more of her books in the future.
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