That summer when I first became Elliot Hull's pretend wife, I understood only vaguely that complicated things often prefer to masquerade as simple things at first. This is why they're so hard to avoid, or at least brace for. I should have known this—it was built into my childhood. But I didn't see the complications of Elliot Hull coming, perhaps because I didn't want to. So I didn't avoid them or even brace for them, and as a result, I eventually found myself looking out of a broken window in winter watching two grown men—my pretend husband and my real husband—wrestle on a front lawn amid a spray of golf clubs in the snow—such a blur of motion in the dim porch light that I couldn't distinguish one man from the other. This would become one of the most vaudevillian and poignant moments of my life, when things took the sharpest turn in a long and twisted line of smaller, seemingly simple turns.
Here is the simple beginning: I was standing in line in a crowded ice-cream shop—the whir of a blender, the fogged glass counter, the humidity pouring in from the door with its jangling bell. It was late summer, one of the last hot days of the season. The air-conditioning was rolling down from overhead and I'd paused under one of the cool currents, causing a small hiccup in the line. Peter was off talking to someone from work: Gary, a fellow anesthesiologist—a man in a pink-striped polo shirt, surrounded by his squat children holding ice-cream cones melting into softened napkins. The kids were small enough not to care that they were eating bits of their napkins along with the ice cream. And Gary was too distracted to notice. He was clapping Peter on the back and laughing loudly, which is what people do to Peter. I've never understood why, exactly, except that people genuinely like him. He's disarming, affable. There's something about him, the air of someone who's in the club—what club, I don't know, but he seemed to be the laid-_back president of this club, and when you were talking with him, you were in the club too. But my mind was on the kids in that moment—I felt sorry for them, and I decided that one day I'd be the kind of mother not to let her children eat bits of soggy napkin. (I don't remember what kind of mother mine was—distracted or hovering or, most likely, both? She died when I was five years old. In some pictures, she's doting on me—cutting a birthday cake outside, her hair flipping up in the breeze. But in group photos, she's always the one looking off to the side, down in her own lap, or to some distant point beyond the photographer—like an avid bird-_watcher. And my father was not a reliable source of information. It pained him, so he rarely talked about her.
I was watching the scene intently—Peter specifically now, because instead of becoming more comfortable with having a husband, after three years I was becoming more surprised by it. Or maybe I was more surprised not that I was his wife but that I was anybody's wife, really. The word wife was so wifey that it made me squeamish—it made me think of aprons and meat loaf and household cleansers. You'd think the word would have evolved for me by that point—or perhaps it had evolved for most people into cell phones and aftercare and therapy, but I was the one who was stuck—like some gilled species unable to breathe up on the mudflats.
Although Peter and I had been together for a total of five years, I felt like I didn't know him at all sometimes. Like at that very moment, as he was being back-_clapped and jostled by the guy in the pink-_striped polo shirt, I felt as if I'd spotted some rare species called husband in its natural habitat. I was wondering what its habits were—eating, chirping, wingspan, mating, life expectancy. It's difficult to explain, but more and more often I'd begun to rear back like this, to witness my life as a National Geographic reporter, someone with a British accent who found my life not so much exciting as curious.
The ice-_cream shop was packed, and the two high school girls on staff were stressed, their faces damp and pinched, bangs sticking to their foreheads, their matching eyeliner gone smeary. I'd finally made my way to the curved counter and placed my order. Soon enough I was holding a cone of pistachio for Peter and waiting for a cup of vanilla frozen yogurt for myself.
That's when the more beleaguered of the two scoopers finished someone else's order and shouted to a customer behind me. "What do you want?"
A man answered. "I'll have two scoops of Gwen Merchant, please."
I spun around, sure I'd misheard, because I am Gwen Merchant—or I was before I got married. But there in the line behind me stood a ghost from my past—Elliot Hull. I was instantly overwhelmed by the sight of him—Elliot Hull with his thick dark hair and his beautiful eyebrows, standing there with his hands in his pockets looking tender and boyish. I don't know why, but I felt like I'd been waiting for him, without knowing I'd been waiting for him. And I wasn't so much happy as I was relieved that he'd finally shown up again. Some strange but significant part of me felt like throwing my arms around him, as if he'd come to save me, and saying, Thank God, you finally showed up! What took you so long? Let's get out of here.
But I couldn't really have been thinking this. Not way back then. I must be projecting—backwards—and there must be a term for this: projecting backwards, but I don't know what it is. I couldn't have been thinking that Elliot Hull had come to save me because I didn't even know I needed saving. (And, of course, I'd have to save myself in the end.) The only conclusion I can draw is that maybe he represented some lost part of myself. And I must have realized on some level that it wasn't that I'd been missing only Elliot Hull. I must have been missing the person I'd been when I'd known him—that Gwen Merchant—the somewhat goofy, irreverent, seriously un-wifely part—two scoops of her.
Plus, did I really even know Elliot all that well? We'd met at a freshman orientation icebreaker—a dismal event really—at Loyola College, the one in Baltimore, and then, in the spring of our senior year we had an intense, messy, short-lived relationship—three weeks of inseparableness that ended when I'd slapped him in a bar. I hadn't seen Elliot Hull since a cookies-and-punch reception after the English Department's awards ceremony at graduation ten years earlier.
Regardless, I found myself feeling emotional—a welling in my throat and my eyes stinging with tears. The air-conditioning was pressing my hair flat. I stepped out of the gust and pretended that I wasn't sure it was him at all. "Elliot Hull?" I asked. I did this, I think, because I was terrified by the tide of joy in my chest. Also, I remembered enough about our relationship that I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of immediate recognition. He was the type to notice something like that and be a little smug about it.
He looked older, but not much. In fact, he had the lean body of a man who would age well—who, in his seventies, might be described by the word spry. His jaw was more set. He wasn't clean shaven. He was wearing a faded pale blue T-shirt that was fraying at the neck, a Red Sox ball cap, and shorts that were way too baggy. "Gwen," he said, his voice tinged with sadness. "It's been a long time."
"What are you doing here?" I asked. This is only Elliot Hull, I tried to remind myself. I didn't remember why I'd slapped him, but I did remember that he'd deserved it. We'd been at a bar in Towson, just a few miles from this ice-cream shop, in fact.
"That sounded like an accusation," he said. "I'm an innocent man. I'm ordering ice cream."
The girl behind the counter said, "Um, sir, we really don't have that flavor? Do you want to pick a real flavor or something?" Kids today can be very earnest.
"Double chocolate with marshmallows and peanuts and hot fudge and some caramel." He leaned toward the chalkboard mounted on the wall and squinted. "And whipped cream and three cherries."
"Three?" the girl asked, disgusted by the gratuitous demands of humanity, I assume—a professional hazard.
"Three." He turned back to me.
"Really," I said. "Three cherries."
"I like cherries," he said.
"So, are you a rapper now?" I asked, pointing to his baggy shorts. This was an obnoxious thing to say. But I suddenly felt obnoxious. I'd once been an obnoxious flirt, who'd turned into a more refined flirt, but Elliot was causing me to regress—or return to some more elemental part of myself.
"I could bust a rhyme," he said. "Do you want me to?"
"No, no," I said, knowing he just might. "Please don't."
There was a lull then, and I let it lull there, lullingly. Why further engage Elliot Hull? I was married now. Was I going to become friends with him? Married women don't suddenly befriend men with whom they once ended a relationship by slapping them in a bar. But he carried on the conversation. "I'm a philosopher, actually," he said. "I philosophize. And I'm a professor, so I sometimes also profess."
"Ah, well, that fits," I said. "You're the brooder. That's what my friends called you in college. So now you brood, you know, professionally. Don't philosophers brood?" My father was a professor—a marine biologist—so I knew how professors could be the brooding type. As a child, I was hauled to numerous potluck faculty dinners—the air stiff with all of the brooding and professing.
"I wasn't a brooder. Did I brood?"
"By the end of college, you'd really honed the art."
"Brooding hasn't really taken off the way I'd hoped—as a national trend."
"I think contentment is all the rage," I said. "Blind contentment."
"Well, there's an Annual Brooder's Convention coming up, though, and I'm keynoting so . . . What are you doing these days?"
"Me? Well, I just started something new. Sales. Interior design, kind of. It's a mishmash," I said. I had a history of swapping one job for another, something I wasn't proud of. My resume was buckshot. I'd just quit a job in admissions at a boarding school. I claimed that I was tired of the elitism, but then I took a somewhat soft part-time job working for more rich people as an assistant to an interior designer who mainly staged upscale homes for sale. I was the one who talked to prospective clients about the nuts and bolts—quoting possible profits from staging a house before selling, using charts—while my boss, an ethereal, wispy woman in billowy outfits, would walk around the house feigning artistic inspiration. Her name was Eila, but a few days into the job, she told me that her name used to be Sheila before she dropped the Sh. "Who would trust an artiste named Sheila? You have to do what you have to do." Then she sniffed her scarf. "Did that last place smell like Doberman or what?"
"Interior design?" Elliot said, intrigued. "I don't remember your dorm room being overly feng shui. Didn't you bolt a hammock to the walls in the minikitchen?"
"What can I say? I've always had an eye."
In the distance, I heard one of the scoopers say, "Ma'am, ma'am?" Of course, I didn't really register it, because I'm not old enough to be a ma'am. But then Elliot said, "Um, ma'am," and he pointed to the scooper. "Your ice cream."
"Here," the scooper said, handing me my cup of vanilla frozen yogurt.
"Thanks," I said. "A lot." I shuffled down to the register, preparing to slink away. "Well, it was nice to see you, Elliot," I said in my summarizing voice.
"Wait," he said. "We should get together. I just moved back to town. You could show me what's changed."
"I think you'll get a feel for it," I said, paying the cashier. "You're a clever boy."
He smiled at me then, his clever smile—it was always so much a part of him that I assumed he was born smiling cleverly. "How about tonight?" he asked, nudging past people so that we were side by side now. "I could take you to dinner and then you could take me sightseeing."
"I've got plans tonight," I said. "Sorry."
I hesitated. "A party."
"You could take me. Introduce me to people. Pawn me off on them, having done a good deed. You were always the good-deed type. Didn't you do a cookie drive once? I remember buying cookies from you with some poster board involved."
He looked so hopeful that I was suddenly afraid he was going to ask me out. "Look, I'm married," I told him finally.
He laughed. "Funny."
"What's funny about that?"
"Nothing . . . It's just . . ."
"Just what? Do you think I'm unmarriable or something?"
"You're just not married."
"Yes, I am."
"No, you aren't."
"I'm Gwen Stevens now." I lifted up my hand, showing the ring as proof.
He was stunned. "You're really . . . married?"
"That sounded like an accusation," I said. "I'm an innocent woman. An innocent wife."
"It's just that I didn't think people really got married anymore. Marriage is so barbaric. It's like a blood sport."
"See, that's the kind of insulting thing you say that makes people slap you," I told him.
He raised his eyebrows and kicked his head back a little. "You didn't really slap me," he said. "You just grabbed my face. Very hard. It didn't do any good anyway," he said, his arms outstretched like he was some proof of a failed face-grabbing.
"Weren't you engaged to that girl, Ellen something?" I asked. Her name was Ellen Maddox. I could still see her face. "I thought you two got back together . . ."
"She left me right after college for a flight attendant, a male flight attendant." He said male flight attendant as if it was worse than a female flight attendant. "Anyway, I stick by what I said to you that made you grab my face. I stick by it, because it was the truth."
I must have looked at him questioningly. I couldn't remember what he'd said exactly, but I didn't have time to ask. One of the scoopers handed him his gargantuan cone and he was fumbling through his wallet just as Peter surfaced. "Hello!" he said, looking at Elliot in a very well-mannered way. Peter can turn on these impeccable manners—like a boy who went to boarding school in the 1950s and is now trying to compensate for a lack of parental love by asserting a chin-uppedness about life. This humility was an act. Peter was raised to be confident in all things—perhaps most of all in love.
I handed him his cone. "This is Elliot Hull. He once bought a cookie from me in college to help raise money for sea otters."
"Ah, poor sea otters!" Peter said, extending his hand. "I'm Peter."
Elliot shook it and shot me a look that seemed to say: Look at this guy! You are married! And he's tall! And then he said, "Gwen just invited me to the party tonight. I'm new to town."
"Great idea!" Peter said, and before I had a chance to clarify, he was giving Elliot directions. I was still stunned that Elliot Hull was back in my life, and that it had happened so quickly. See, it was simple. That's what I mean: I hadn't done anything to start it. I was just standing in line at an ice-cream shop one minute and then suddenly I was watching Peter make some gestures that might indicate that Elliot would have to make a turn out of a rotary, and then he pointed to his left, his arm straight out at his side, and I thought of the word wingspan again. Peter is tall. He has an excellent wingspan.
But there was Elliot Hull, standing next to him, and he was not tall and he was not at all impeccably mannered and he was barely paying attention. He was being Elliot Hull, thinking his brooding thoughts, no doubt. Had we kind of thought we were in love with each other a decade ago?
When Peter was finished, he said, "Got it?"
"I've got it," Elliot said, and then he looked at me. I was about to wave a noncommital good-bye, but then Elliot said, "Gwen Merchant, huh, after all these years." And suddenly it was as if I were the rare bird. I felt a little self-conscious. I might have even blushed and I couldn't remember the last time I blushed. "See you tonight!" he said, then took a bite of his abundant ice cream and walked out of the shop, one hand in his baggy shorts.
From the Hardcover edition.