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Finding a new wife for my husband was not going to be an easy task. Keeping Reilly a secret from my new fianc� was going to be an even greater one. This sounds just awful, I'm sure. While it's true I've gotten myself in a rather sticky situation juggling a husband and boyfriend, it doesn't automatically make me a bad person. I'll be the first to admit I handled things poorly last weekend. I plead temporary stupidity. All right, permanent selfishness. But all I have is today, and today this is the reality I'm dealing with. I could dwell in regret over my mistake, which does no one any good. Or I can do something to repair the damage I've done.
I read somewhere that forty percent of women cheat on their husbands. Nowhere have I ever heard of a soon-to-be ex-wife finding her own replacement so her husband isn't lonely after the divorce. That's got to count for something, doesn't it?
I knew my plan was a bit unusual. The good news was that so were the three friends I would enlist in my mission. Jennifer, Sophie and Chad would surely understand why finding a new wife for Reilly was something I needed to do.
My friends in Ann Arbor had a hard time accepting that I'd fallen in love with my college boyfriend over the course of one homecoming weekend. Cindy was morally outraged by my infidelity, as if it were her I cheated on. Eve was more demure in her contempt, but she was equally disappointed by my transgression. Both were too busy judging me to bother asking how I felt about the whole thing. As the cheater, the only feeling I was apparently entitled to was guilt; of this, I had plenty. But along with my remorse, I had an intense need for a friend to ask me how I was doing. How I felt about the fact that my marriage had became a straw house. If I had any conflicted feelings over divorcing Reilly. Or marrying Matt.
As I walked in the door of the Monkey Bar, our favorite midtown lunch spot, Jennifer's cab pulled up to the curbside and I watched her long brown legs make their exit. A full minute later, Jennifer followed. Even at noon, wherever she went, it was evening. Jennifer was the kind of woman who seemed to be always accompanied by a sultry saxophone soundtrack written just for her. Jennifer gets out of cab. Jennifer walking. Prelude to Jennifer. She would've been great as one of those femme fatales in a film noir flick if only they were casting black folks as leads in those days. She was sexy, powerful and, oddly enough at six feet tall, dainty.
Chad and Sophie were already inside exchanging stories over stubby glasses. Both elbows of Chad's powder blue suede jacket rested on the table as he whispered to Sophie, conspiratorially. Sophie threw back her head of wavy black hair as she laughed, then softly patted Chad's hand. I felt like I was missing something.
Sophie moved to New York last year after her divorce. Last year, she sold her house in the suburbs, packed up her kids and drove five days straight from San Diego. She no longer works thanks to a case she won representing eighty-four plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against a chain of Chinese restaurants in Southern California called Lo Fats. The cooks put quite a bit more fat into the recipes than the calorie count indicated on the menu. Sophie was able to convince a jury that the misrepresentation of calories and fat grams contributed to four fatal heart attacks among cardiac patients who thought they were eating light, and eighty cases of depression among women who couldn't understand why they weren't losing weight on their strict Lo Fats diet. She won a $49 million verdict, and was able to collect half for her clients before the chain ultimately filed bankruptcy.
Jennifer raised her eyebrows as if to cue my announcement. "So what's your big news?" she asked.
She's the creative director for Ogilvy and fancies herself the queen of marketing. Over the years, she's gotten me into the annoying habit of comparing things to advertisements. She shops at Off Broadway's Back, a boutique in the theatre district that sells used costumes from shows. Usually, people shop there when they're planning to attend a masquerade party, but Jennifer actually wears these getups as her everyday attire. She's shown up at work wearing the gold-sequined top hat from A Chorus Line. She's attended meetings with major clients dressed as Aida. Jen is attractive enough to get away with these outrageous clothes, and her agency's clients assume that anyone who dresses this way must be some sort of mad, creative genius.
"I know this is going to sound kind of weird, but, well, as you know I went to Ann Arbor this weekend, and I ran into an old boyfriend," I began.
"And?" Jennifer coaxed.
"You're what?" asked Chad.
"Engaged," I said, softer this time.
"Engaged in what?" he quizzed.
"Engaged, engaged. You know, getting married."
"Prudence, I'm confused. You are married," Sophie added.
"Good Lord," Chad said. "You're not serious, are you Prudence?"
I nodded tentatively, my eyes wide for their approval. I told them I'd fallen in love with Matt and the two of us planned to marry this summer after he sold his house in Los Angeles and found a job in New York. "This is my soul mate, you guys," I said as a preamble to recalling my weekend. "I'm completely and madly in love, so can you just be happy for me?"
"I'm not following this," Jennifer said. "Why did you tell, what's his name, Mike? Mark?"
"Matt," Jennifer corrected herself. "Does he know about Reilly? Does he know you're married already?!"
"Not exactly." I hesitated, knowing this was the cruelest part of my weekend of lies. "I never actually said this, but Matt kind of thinks Reilly's dead."
They stared incredulously.
"Look, I know this sounds bizarre, even to me," I explained. "You know I don't ever do flaky things like this. Isn't everyone entitled to a screw-up every now and then?"
"I'd say this is more than a little screw-up," said Chad. "Pretending your husband is dead so you can fool around with an old boyfriend is a tad vile, dear."
Chad owns the gallery under the loft that Reilly and I bought when we first married. He's a good fifteen years older than us, and was one of those starving young painters who had the good sense to buy a few warehouses dirt cheap in SoHo in the 1970s. He was one of the original artists who helped transform the area into an upscale creative oasis. His partner Daniel is a sculptor who bares a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Clean with multiple earrings. Both are huge fans of pop culture, so they nearly keeled over from delight when they found a computer program that would morph art and inject them into the scene. They created a gigantic American Gothic, using themselves as the farm couple, which hangs over their white velvet sectional. Daniel has been transformed into The Scream with the background changed to the Barney's half-yearly sale. Chad did himself as a colorful Lichtensteinesque figure, gasping, "What would Judy do!" Chad and Dan's room is modeled after the inside of Jeannie's bottle, complete with six thousand pillows, sashes in every shade of pink that fan out from the center of the ceiling to the floor periphery, and a fat mannequin that the guys painted light brown and put a turban on. They hugged me when I was the only one who got that the dummy was supposed to be Cousin Hodgie.
"I know it's vile," I conceded with a mix of humility and impatience. "But this is where I am now, so I've got to work with what I've got. Telling me that the situation is screwed up helps no one. I already know I fucked up, but I'm going to fix everything. I'm getting to that. Everyone's going to end up better off in the long run, I promise. Even Reilly. Especially Reilly."
"Since when are you and Reilly unhappy, anyway?" Jennifer asked. "You never even said anything was wrong."
"Have I ever said anything at all?" I asked.
"Okay, here I can add the voice of experience," said Sophie. "There doesn't have to be anything wrong for there to be something wrong with a marriage, if you know what I mean."
By the expressions on Chad and Jennifer's faces, clearly they did not.
Sophie sighed through her nose and tried again. "There doesn't have to be anything terribly wrong with a marriage for it to be over. There doesn't have to be a big drama. The fact that there's no drama is probably one of the reasons that Prudence felt a need to shake things up a bit."
Chad rolled his eyes and listened to Sophie's philosophy on the erosion of the drama-free marriage. "Prudence, you know we love you, darlin', but there's a big difference between shaking things up a bit and getting engaged to an old lover who thinks your husband is dead. Dead, Prudence. That's not your garden variety self-aggrandizing fib. You didn't just lie about your weight, you told a man that Reilly is dead. You know he's not really dead, Prudence, don't you?"
Copyright © 2004 Jennifer Coburn