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My world changed with one phone call on a Tuesday evening in May as my family and I were finishing a casual dinner of leftovers and bits and pieces from the fridge. My daughter, Emma, had dumped reheated sauce over a bowl of pasta, and my husband, Michael, had picked at the remains of a roast chicken, then washed it down with a beer. I was scraping the soggy end of a salad out of my bowl and into the garbage disposal when the phone rang and Emma bolted out of her chair to answer it. A fifteen-year-old girl's response to a ringing telephone is alarming until you get used to it, and I remembered enough about being fifteen to smile at her crestfallen face when she handed the phone to her father. Her swing of dark blond hair fell across her cheek, and she looked bored.
"Dad, it's for you."
"Who is it?" Michael asked, squinting at the newspaper he'd spread on the table and frowning.
Emma rolled her eyes. If it wasn't Jesse, the boy she was crushing on, she clearly didn't care. "Some woman. She didn't say."
He glanced up then, wrinkling his brow, and took the phone into the living room. I heard his curious "Hello?"
before he was out of earshot, and a minute later I heard the heavy thurik of something falling to the floor.
It wasn't him, at leastI rushed in to find that he'd stumbled into the ottoman stationed in front of the huge old club chair that I intended to reupholster, knocking a stack of books onto the carpet. But his face was white, blank, his eyes as wide as I'd ever seen them, and as I watched, he sank onto the sofa wordlessly, the slim black portable phone still held to his ear.
To get the news out of him after he'd hung up took a little while. Heinsisted that Emma head upstairs to start her homework, a pronouncement that was met with a dramatic pout and more rolling of eyes. She usually studied at the dining-room table, with her books spread out and the wires of her brand-new iPod snaking out of her ears, while Michael and I puttered in the kitchen or sprawled in front of the TV. I never went down to the basement darkroom until after Emma was upstairs for the evening.
When she was in her roomthe phone glued to her ear, I was sure, lamenting the unfair whims of parents to her friendsI replaced the phone in its base and motioned Michael out to the patio. He followed me through the French doors off the kitchen, and I winced as one of the doors screeched shut. The hinges needed oiling, one of dozens of small household repairs we'd both put off.
The sun had just set, a faint pink-gold smear on the horizon, and our generous yard was bathed in the dusky light of a suburban New Jersey spring evening. Emma's outgrown swing set crouched at the far end, neglected. I settled in one of the Adirondack chairs facing the lawn, which Michael hadn't cut lately, pulled my bare feet onto the seat and waited for Michael to settle in the other. Instead, he paced the length of the worn gray flagstones, hands jammed in his jeans pockets.
His silence was terrifying, and I couldn't imagine what was wrong. His mother had called just that morning, and at sixty-seven she was sometimes more energetic than I was. Michael's sister, Melissa, lived in California with her family, but we'd heard from them just a week ago, and if the news concerned my family, I assumed the person on the phone would have asked for me.
There was nothing to do but wait, though. When Michael's upset, he turtles up instinctively, and trying to yank him out of the safety of that shell is impossible. With his shoulders hunched and his dark forehead creased in a frown, I recognized the look of my husband of eighteen years deep in contemplation. He could turn an idea over in his head for hours before sharing it. He'd kept me hanging about the living-room paint color for more than a week, and that had involved only a choice between two shades, Velvet Morning and November Skies.
This was more serious. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen Michael's face so unnaturally pale. I realized I was twisting my thick gold wedding band around my finger as I waited, one of my own nervous habits, and folded my hands in my lap with effort.
When he finally spoke, his voice faltered over the words, and he didn't meet my gaze.
"That was Sophia Keating," he said, and my stomach clenched. I didn't know that name. That couldn't be good.
I could hear the first of the crickets striking up out in the grass, and the faint thump of the bass from Emma's stereo was just audible from her open window. The familiar sounds were something to focus on, because the rest of the world seemed to rush past in a dizzying blur when Michael continued, his face in profile against the last of the sun, a vague shadow.
"I well, she's the mother of my son," he said, and drew in a lungful of evening air. His jaw was set in a hard line, as if he had to force the words out. "I I have a twenty-year-old son named Drew, according to her. And he wants to meet me."
Son. The word didn't make any sense at first. We had a daughter, Emma. Where had a son come from? And who in sweet hell was Sophia Keating?
And then I did the math, feebly, my mind tripping back over the years, and figured it out.
"Oh." It was hardly a reply. It was barely a word. But I couldn't get anything else past my lips. Not with my heart clattering like a broken jackhammer in my chest.
"Tess?" Michael crouched beside me then, taking my hand. His dark eyes had gone even darker now, had always seen right through me. Michael knew me too well.
"I'm cold." It was possibly the most inane thing I could have said. Plus it was still warm out. But Michael didn't question me, and we went inside together. His hand in mine felt as it always had, warm and strong and slightly rough, the way men's hands usually seemed to, and I was grateful to cling to it.
We carried a bottle of red wine and two glasses up to the bedroom, heedless of the workday to come. I needed something to smooth the raw edges of my nerves, and to soften the tension strung between us, taut enough to snap.
"Talk to me, Tess," Michael said, setting down his empty wineglass and fixing me with a troubled, deep brown stare.
I wasn't sure I could. Despite the wine, which had numbed my tongue and my emotions a little too well, I was still stunned. Our bedroom was familiar in the evening shadows, the bed the same cozy, rumpled nest we'd slept in for nearly twenty years, but I couldn't shake the feeling that my life, so long sturdily set on its foundation, had suddenly been shoved to the edge of a cliff. That, possibly, it had been built there all along, held up with masking tape and toothpicks and a few ancient rubber bands. I knew exactly when this childyoung man, nowwould have been conceived, and what was more, I understood my part in it. Neither fact made the news any easier to bear.
Once, Michael had said to five-year-old Emma, who was pawing through our wedding photos at the time, sprawled on the wide blue field of our bed, her hair still damp from her after-dinner bath, "I knew I was going to marry Mommy the day I met her."
I hadn't corrected him, since it was probably true, even though the roots of our relationship were much more tangled than that. Even at seventeen, Michael had been confident about what he wanted, and since then what he'd wanted most was me. It was romantic, certainly, and as comfortableand comfortingas a favorite sweater, something I could wrap around myself, grateful for its warmth, its texture, its very familiarity.
But sometimes it was overwhelming. When Michael turned the high-powered beam of that love on me, its light, its heat, could be blinding. Then again, I'd certainly never doubted it.
And I didn't really doubt it now. At least, I didn't want to. I took Michael's hand, holding it hard even though I couldn't face him. My gaze was drawn to the line of framed photographs on my dresser, Michael and me, Michael and Emma, Emma alone. Moments in time, most of them caught with my own camera, and in all of them we were smiling. I recalled the story behind each picture, toothe piece of birthday cake Michael and Emma had shared before I snapped them sitting at the kitchen table, their lips still sticky with frosting; the bright fall day Michael and I had signed the papers to close on this house, both of us terrified and elated and exhausted all at once.
Each picture offered its own truth, a testament to love and laughter and family. Even if there were dozens of other moments that hadn't been captured, it didn't make those happy faces a lie. I pulled Michael's arm around me as I settled back into the pillows, grateful for the dim light, and for the free pass I believed twenty-five years of loving Michael bought me.
"Tomorrow, okay?" I whispered, turning my head just far enough to speak over my shoulder. "We can talk tomorrow."
Because no matter what had happened twenty years ago, I needed to believe that there would be always be a tomorrow for us.
As I lay in bed that night, drifting uneasily toward sleep, I let my memory lead me back in time, to twenty-five years earlier, when Michael had appeared in my life out of nowhere and changed it forever.
I might have created him, given the right tools. His resemblance to the man I'd dreamed of, danced with, spoken to in the fantasies that occupied me while I did my barre work or ran in the mornings before school was so unnerving that, from the beginning, I found myself obsessed with touching him. A dream made flesh, or so it seemed, I wanted the reassuring proof of bone beneath skin, the rhythmic pulse of a heart that beat.
I don't have any photos of the day we met, of course. We were just seventeen when we did. The school year had ended the day before, and Lucy, Cath and I had piled into Lucy's ancient Beetle to drive to the Jersey shore. Sandy Hook was only forty-five minutes away, and the weather was perfect for ithot and clear, with a wispy breeze. Not that bad weather would have kept us at home; the senior class had graduated the previous night, and most of them would be at the beach today, nursing hangovers and kicking off their last summer of freedom before college with sunburns, volleyball and an endless rehash of grad-night parties.
Lucy was fiddling with the radio, which was notoriously temperamental, and Cath was still half-asleep behind an enormous pair of sunglasses, her long dark hair riffling out the open window. I was curled in the backseat, my bare feet propped on the stack of beach towels, and was watching out the rear window as the crowded lanes of the parkway unwound behind us.
The summer stretched ahead, and I wasn't sure I could face it yet. Cath would spend the weeks sleeping until she couldn't take the heat in her attic bedroom any more, and then haunt the library and the record store downtown most afternoons. Lucy's job at the day camp would begin next week, and she had already informed us that she intended to paint her bedroom, too. Both Cath and I knew that she would also plow through every book on the senior reading list, and probably volunteer at the children's hospital in Mountainside, as well. Lucy, a one-girl compendium of achievements, had anticipated college applications for two years now.
And for the first time since I was twelve, I not only needed to find something to fill the months before school started again, I also had to consider applying to college. To study what, I had no idea. Nothing appealed to me. College didn't appeal to me. I wanted to spend the summer in bed, with the blinds drawn against the sun and the fan spinning in lazy circles above my head. Secretly, spending the rest of my life just that way didn't sound awful.
I looked down at my knee as Lucy pulled in to the crowded parking lot at the beach, and examined the scar that cut through it. It was still angry, a jagged pink arrow pointing to the fact that my life had changed irrevocably in one afternoon. My parents liked to remind me that I was lucky to be able to walk, but I didn't care much about that. If I was going to be curled up in bed for weeks at a time, hypnotized by daytime TV and drinking diet soda by the gallon, two functional legs probably wouldn't be necessary.
"We're here," Lucy said, jerking on the emergency brake as the car shuddered to a halt. "Cath, wake up."
"I'm up," Cath mumbled, shoving her sunglasses on top of her head and squinting out at the sparkling water. "God, it's bright."
I climbed out of the back when Cath got out, stretching her arms over her head before lighting a Marlboro, and threw the others their towels. I was hauling my backpack over my shoulder when Lucy nudged me.
"Look at that," she whispered, cocking her head toward Billy Caruso's Jeep, parked just five spots away. "Who is he?"
"He" was beautiful, tall, with dark, slightly unruly hair and large dark brown eyes, his lean body delicately corded with muscle. I swallowed and felt the blood rushing to my face when he glanced up and saw me looking at him.
Westfield wasn't a small town, but there was only one high school. By the time you arrived there, you either knew everyone, or someone you knew had gone to grammar school or one of the two junior highs with the people you didn't. For Billy, a freshly graduated and enormously popular senior, to show up at the beach today accompanied by a strange boy who looked the way this one did was a social error of fantastic proportions. He was fresh meat, a new face, a walking possibility.
Lucy wasn't waiting, either. She and Billy had been on the newspaper together, and his social credentials didn't faze her even slightly. Tucking her gingery hair behind her ear and pushing her glasses up on her nose, she hefted her beach bag and marched toward him. I followed, nabbing Cath by the hem of her black T-shirt as I did.
"Congratulations on graduating, Billy," Lucy said, raising up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek, her lips landing on the hard line of his jaw, instead. "The paper won't be the same without you."
"I'm sure you'll marshal the troops, Luce." His voice was light as he inclined his head at me and Cath. He was every inch the suave upperclassman, his baggy plaid shorts riding low on his hips, his Ray-Bans perched on top of his cropped blond hair. "Tess. Cath."
"Who's your friend?" Lucy asked, sticking her hand out to the stranger, who was watching the interchange with amusement.
"This is Michael Butterfield," Billy said, busy scanning the people down on the sand. "Just moved in next door to me."
"Hi." Michael shook Lucy's hand as he nodded all around. "Caruso said the beach was the place to be today."