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Wife Living Dangerously
By Sara Sussanah Katz
WARNER BOOKSCopyright © 2006 Debra Kent
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt starts benignly. Mixing glass bottles in with the plastic, dropping a year off my age, fudging on my expense report. I download Joni Mitchell off the Limewire, not just one song but a whole album. I stop correcting cashiers when they make mistakes in my favor. I read a copy of Good Housekeeping from cover to cover in the cafe at Borders, accidentally stain page 31 with coffee, and never pay for it, just put it right back on the shelf and walk out of the store. By the end of the year I'm having sex with a professor of medieval literature who thinks that my husband is a fool.
How do I go from Good Housekeeping to good sex with Evan Delaney? I wish I could say I am pulled into this vortex of moral delinquency by some gravitational force beyond conscious control, but that would be a lie. I know exactly how I got here.
This is our third trip to Frankie Wilson's beach house on Ocean Isle in North Carolina. We call ourselves, with only a little irony, the Beach Babes. All of us live in the same Indiana college town, in the same suburban subdivision, all are married, all are mothers, all of us hovering apprehensively near our fortieth year. It is 1:34 in the morning and after too many Tequizas, tortilla chips, and peanut M&M's, it is time for the game AnnieElliot has named Dirty Deeds. I'd rather play Pictionary, to be perfectly honest.
"I light the Candle of Truth," intones Annie, lifting a lit wooden Strike 'Em Anywhere match to the thick celadon pillar. The blue-gold flame swiftly engulfs the match head and races toward Annie's fingertip but just as it's about to make contact with skin she drops it into a wet saucer where it lands with a satisfying sizzle.
Annie Elliot was the only neighbor in Larkspur Estates who marked our arrival with any fanfare. My immediate next-door neighbors hadn't even waved or lifted their eyes when our old blue van pulled up to the curb behind the Greenway moving van. The Skaffs to the west kept on digging out crabgrass. To the east the Gilchrists continued hosing down the driveway though in truth there was no dirt to hose away, just clean Irish brick the color of desert clay. Hosing driveways, I have since discovered, is a popular pastime in Larkspur Estates, a hypnotic activity that holds homeowners in its sway for thirty or forty minutes at a time, long after the work of clearing debris is done. It is like masturbation with no climax or reward except perhaps for the deep black shine of the wet asphalt or, in the case of the Gilchrists' four-thousand-dollar driveway, the glow of red Irish brick.
But Annie Elliot sprinted all the way from Azalea Lane to personally welcome me. Nearly six feet of lean muscle with merry blue eyes and a smirky kind of smile, Annie had apologetically handed me a thermos of Starbucks coffee and a box of Little Debbie snack cakes, explaining that she hadn't had time to bake anything from scratch but thought it would be wrong to ring my doorbell empty-handed.
"We moved here last year and nobody even stopped by." She thrust the snack cakes toward me, Little Debbie's cherubic yet oddly authoritative young face grinning up at me. "I figured, if your neighbors are anything like the misanthropes on Azalea, you'll need all the friends you can get. And don't worry about returning the thermos, I have a million of them. I buy them at yard sales. Thermoses and picnic baskets. I don't know why considering we never go on picnics. My husband isn't a big fan of the great outdoors. Last time we went on a picnic we drove out to Maplewood State Park and ate lunch in the van. My kids were like, Mom, why can't we sit outside in the grass like the other people? I said, Your father hates nature. You know that. Good grief. Anyway. Welcome to the neighborhood." She gestured toward the box. "I stuck my number in with the Little Debbies. Call me when you need a break from unpacking or whatever."
I did, the very next day, and we have talked almost every day since then.
Annie lowers her voice and assumes the exotic tone of a fortune-teller. "When the Candle of Truth is passed to you, please reveal something you wouldn't dare admit in any other context but this one." The lush scent of sandalwood lifts and blends with the briny air. "As always, nothing leaves this room."
The room in question is a sprawling expanse of white pickled maple and white leather perched above the Atlantic Ocean, with extravagant windows and two sets of sliding-glass doors that open onto a sun-bleached wraparound deck and the twenty-six evenly cut cedar steps leading to the beach. A sandstone hearth embedded with shells and sea creature fossils sits at one end of the room and at the other, an extravagantly large entertainment unit with the biggest screen TV I've ever seen, but why would anyone want to watch it when the best view is right out the window?
The water is as black as the sky now, waves thwacking rhythmically against the hard-packed sand. As a landlocked Midwesterner who must settle for Lake Michigan or, embarrassingly, the Big Kahuna Wave Maker at Willy's Water Park, I enjoy no greater luxury than these brief, voluptuous vacations at Frankie Wilson's beach house. I love everything about it, everything except this game.
Annie edges the candle toward Frankie, who is about to snap off the last of her New York Naturals glue-on French-tipped fingernails. The pile of discarded plastic nails looks like a mound of onion slivers in the thin light of the dimmed-down candelabra.
"God, how I hate these things," she says, prying off the pinkie nail and flicking it to the heap. Frankie's real fingertips are gnawed beyond the quick. They have the flat, pliable look of frogs' toes. "Someone needs to make fake nails that don't make you feel like you slammed your fingers in a car door, you know?"
The first time I noticed Francesca Cavendish Wilson she was staffing the pop bottle ring toss at Twin Pines Elementary's annual school carnival. She had black curly hair and black eyes and she was wearing a black T-shirt that proclaimed in bright yellow letters: I EAT CARBS. SO SUE ME. Frankie, I came to discover, is queen of failed business ventures such as her unself-conscious magazine for plus-sized women called Fat Lady (she misjudged her audience's willingness to claim the title with pride), her disposable frying pan liners (which were great, except for the bursting into flames part), and Pet Pebbles (like pet rocks but smaller).
I finally introduced myself to Frankie at the Cambridge County Women's Leadership Club, a sort of alternative Rotary for "professional gals." Phyllis Bagley, president of First Cambridge Bank, had started the group because she was tired of being snubbed at the testosterone-laden Rotary events. Bagley's intent was to create a network of savvy businesswomen who could break the good old boy tourniquet on this town. Unfortunately Bagley hadn't realized that all the arteries of influence here lead to the same hardened heart. This calcified organ wasn't the university as many self-inflated academics would have you believe, but Copley Machine Parts and its thirty-five subsidiaries, founded, built, and managed by fifty-three-year-old Arnold Copley who has no heirs but many foot soldiers who serve on every significant board, foundation, commission, and council in the city. It has been said that no new project, however worthy, will succeed without Arnold Copley's blessing-and money. Phyllis Bagley set out to disprove the theory. So far she has not succeeded.
I was plucking pale lettuce leaves from the lunch buffet when Frankie appeared at my side and heaved a fat slice of strawberry cheesecake onto her plate.
"I only come for the dessert," she said, ladling extra strawberry compote on top of the thick wedge.
She joined me at my table and I marveled at the unself-conscious way she enjoyed her food. She pressed her spit-moistened finger to the plate to gather up the last of the graham cracker crumbs and bring them to her mouth.
At some point in the middle of Phyllis Bagley's exhortations, Frankie passed me a note: "Do you have a kid in Twin Pines?"
Next note: "Me too. Where do you live?"
I took her pen and wrote: "Larkspur Estates." I passed the pen and paper back and waited for her response, already burbling inside because I knew I was making a friend.
"Me too! On Periwinkle," she wrote. And then: "Do you hate living there as much as I do?"
I made a face and by tacit agreement we slinked out of the meeting room and regrouped at the Starbucks next door where we spent the next hour drinking the house blend and complaining about our neighborhood.
Frankie stares into the flame and I can see that she's sorting through her options. The last time we played this game she admitted to spying on the housepainter as he played with himself behind the garage. He was on a lunch break and apparently had packed a copy of Great Big Butts along with his tuna sandwich.
"Category, husbands." She runs her fingers through her capriciously coiled hair. "Oh, boy. You guys are going to think I'm crazy."
"Nobody's going to think you're crazy," says Annie. "Remember? No shame, no blame."
Frankie darts her eyes to the vaulted ceiling and sucks in her breath. "I convinced my husband that Angelina Jolie is really a man."
We stare and wait for details.
"Jeremy has always had the hots for Angelina Jolie. He thinks she's a knockout. The boobs, the lips, whatever. Okay. So I told him that my mother's cousin Denise was the head surgical nurse during Angelina's-I mean Angelo's-sex-change operation. I threw in a bunch of believable details-the name of the surgeon, the brand of collagen they used for her lips, her first words when she came out of anesthesia."
"Which were ...?" I ask.
"Which were, 'Can I see my penis one more time before you throw it out?' Okay. So. Now Randy thinks Angelina Jolie is some kind of freak. And I never have to hear about her again." She smiles exultantly. "Do I pass?" Everyone agrees that Frankie's confession qualifies.
It is Annie's turn. "Oh, this definitely falls under the miscellaneous category," she says, putting her knuckle between her teeth. "Oh, God. I hate to admit this. Please don't think I'm awful."
"Just say it," Frankie demands.
"Okay. Here it goes." She takes a deep breath and cringes in anticipation of our response. "I don't pick up after Schatzi. Ever."
"Wait a second. I've seen you pick up after your dog," I say. This really was a revelation. All residents of Larkspur Estates are bound by a subdivision covenant that states, explicitly, that you've got to clean up after your dog. Other regulations include the proper storage of trash cans (out of view), parking of cars (never on the street), use of yard signs (prohibited except for the two-week period before election day). Annie was president of the neighborhood association for three years straight. She knew the dog poop rules better than anyone.
"No, you've seen me pretend to pick up after my dog. I just bend over and move a tissue around here and there so it looks like I'm picking something up but I always just leave it there. Oh, big deal. He's a miniature dachshund. You can hardly see his shit. Besides, it's all organic, isn't it? Well, isn't it? Will someone say something? Oh, God, I'm horrible!" Annie sighs heavily. "Well, friends. There you have it."
"Good grief," says Frankie, "this game used to be fun. Dog poop, Annie? For the love of Jesus and Mary." She tears open another bag of peanut M&M's. "Julie, please tell me you can do better than dog poop." The candle's small flame wavers as a sudden warm gust muscles through the screen door.
"Don't be so sure." I search my memory in futility for some transgression that might satisfy my friends but what's the point when I have never had an overdue library book, when I always correct cashiers when they make mistakes in my favor, and I don't lie, unless you count the white ones like telling Lala Townsend she looked great after she'd lost all her hair from chemotherapy. I had preserved my virginity until Michael and I were engaged, and even then I felt a little guilty. I suppose I could mention the time I told the pizza guy that yes, my eyes really were that green when I knew it was the tinted contacts that impressed him. Or I could tell them about the time I switched a store-bought pecan pie from its original foil tin into my own glass pie dish so other parents at the Brownies pot luck might think I'd baked it myself (although if anyone asked I would have told them the truth).
"I've got one," I say, finally. "Category: sex. I guess." I dip my pinkie into the hot wax that pools at the top of the candle and watch it harden on my finger. I am stalling. "Well, it was a Wednesday. No. Thursday. I was expecting a UPS delivery. My mother had told me to expect a package, some gifts for the kids. So, you know that UPS guy. The cute one?"
"Yes. The one with the ponytail," Frankie says.
"And that amazing ass." Annie smiles beatifically.
"Uh-huh. That's the one."
I ask you, is there a woman in this town who doesn't know this particular UPS driver? His hair is the color of butterscotch syrup, the ponytail unexpected and thrilling. He wears shorts even in the winter and the curly blond hair on his legs shimmers in the afternoon sun as he races up the walk and you wish he'd slow down just a little as he jogs back to the truck. Sometimes he waves as he's pulling away from the curb. No one knows his name.
I pick out four blue M&M's that, contrary to popular belief, will absolutely melt in your hands if you are nervous enough.
"As I was saying, I knew he'd be coming sometime that day, so ..." My friends lean in. The room is quiet as a mausoleum. "I'm saying I made a special effort to look nice. I looked like crap all day but when I knew he was coming I put on makeup. Just for him. That's a big deal for me, you know? I'm married, remember?"
Annie is shaking her head as if I am the most pathetic excuse for a woman she has ever known. I blow out the candle. "Game over. I don't know about you guys but I can hardly keep my eyes open."
"That's it? That's your whole story?" Frankie is frowning.
"What else did you want to hear? That I met him at the door wearing a swimsuit? That I told him I liked his package?"
"That would be a start." Annie sucks an ice cube into her mouth and pops it back into the glass. "Were you thinking you might try to seduce him?"
Why would I want to seduce the UPS guy when I've got a husband whose lovemaking is as much an expression of adoration as it is an act of sexual impulse. Michael knows my body's idiosyncrasies the way Yo-Yo Ma knows his cello, approaching me with intuition, touching me with devotion and also precision. It's true that Michael and I haven't found much time for sex. He seems to be toiling longer and later at work and sometimes we go full days without more than a few words between us, let alone physical contact.
"It's just that," I continue, lamely, "I think he's good-looking. And I wanted to look nice when he stopped by."
"Why?" Annie asks.
"I don't know. Just because he's cute, I guess."
"Let's review the facts as we know them," Frankie says. "You put on lip gloss so you'd look nice for the UPS guy. He gives you a package, you sign for it, you close the door. End of story?"
"Not just lip gloss. Blush too."
"Jesus, Julia, you are a fucking bore." Annie delivers this line with the finality of a game show host. I'm sorry. That's incorrect. You're out of the game. Annie has always said that I give off clear and indisputable married vibes. Even the meter-reader, widely known in our neighborhood for his glib lechery, will not flirt with me. "You work for the Bentley Institute, for Christ's sake, and this is the best you can come up with? Good God, woman."
Yes, that's right, I work for the Bentley Institute. As in, Eliza A. Bentley, the first American scientist to study, quantify, and demystify human sexual behavior. As in "The Annual Bentley Report on Sexual Behavior." As in the Bentley Museum, the world's largest collection of erotica and sexual artifacts, available for viewing by appointment only, and only if you have the appropriate academic credentials. You can't just walk in off the street and ask to see the Egyptian dildos.
Excerpted from Wife Living Dangerously by Sara Sussanah Katz Copyright © 2006 by Debra Kent. Excerpted by permission.
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