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Husband and Wife
By Leah Stewart
Copyright © 2011 Leah Stewart
All right reserved.
My name is Sarah Price, and I'm married to a fiction writer.
He's published a couple of books, and one of them did quite
well, so you might recognize his name if I told it to you,
which I won't, because I don't want you thinking, Oh yeah,
that book, I read that, it was good. This is not about that.
I amor maybe wasa writer, too. For a long time I
called myself a poet. As a child I concentrated on rhyming
fun and sun, and then in high school I devoted my-
self to metaphors featuring storm clouds and the moon.
For college workshops I wrote sonnets about what I saw
as the real subjectstime and death and the end of love,
although what did I know, what did I know, about any of
that. Both my notions and the poems that emerged from
them were ludicrously abstract. By the time I went to grad
school I'd given up the effort at profundity and gone back
to writing free verse that was more or less about myself.
That I proved to be good at. I published in Poetry, won a
prize and a grant, got a note that read, "Try us again" from
the Paris Review.
Now I'm thirty-five, and these days most people would
call me a working mother, a term I don't much like. That
I have a job and two small children is a better, if less
succinct, way to put it. Someday I'll look back and thirty-five
will seem much younger than it does now. I don't feel
old, exactly, though I do, at times, feel weary. But in the
last couple of years I've begun to experience the signs of
impending age. The stray white hair and the inability to
drink more than two beers without a hangover. The bad
knee and the cracking in my hip joint and the desire to say
"Oof " when I sit down in a chair. The whims of my
increasingly agitated hormones. And, most disturbingly, the
dawning conviction that such infirmities will only increase
in number. Judging by the way these things surprise me,
I must have believed age would never happen to me. For
a long time, perhaps longer than I should have, I thought
of myself as young. My adolescence was prolonged, in the
way all the magazines have been insisting, by the fact that
I waited until my thirties to get married and have children,
that I waited so long to get a regular job and start worrying
about my credit card debt. I'm a grown-up now. There's
no disputing that, especially not to the two small people
who call me Mommy.
I take back my claim that at twenty and twenty-one
I knew nothing of time and death and the end of love. I
shouldn't offer up such a commonplace untruth. It's easy,
isn't it, to fall into the trap of devaluing what we once knew
and felt, as though the complicated and compromised
experiences of adulthood are somehow more authentic than the
all-consuming ones of youth. Certainly I knew the pain and
vulnerability of the end of love. Of course I did. Most of us
learn that early.
We were late for a wedding, or if not late yet, in imminent
danger of being so. And as usual I was ready and my husband
was not. I'd been ready for half an hour, during which
time he'd spent twenty minutes worrying about a small red
wine stain on the tie that matched his suit, and ten minutes
locating one of his shoes. The children were in the kitchen
with the babysitter, a teenager whose blank youthfulness
made me nervous. I could hear the baby crying, and I was as
clenched as a fist, because I was still breast-feeding and the
hormones made it painful to hear him cry. I wanted to go
get him, but I knew if I picked him up he'd want to nurse,
and I was wearing a dress alreadya silk dress, at that, easily
stained by breast milkand besides I'd been thinking
for half an hour that surely my husband would be ready to
go any minute and I didn't want to hike up my dress and
settle down with the baby only to have him say, "Oh, you're
not ready to go?" and then disappear to his study to read
music reviews online.
So I was annoyed with my husband, and getting more
annoyed by the minute, but I was trying to keep that in
check because I'd been looking forward to this wedding. I
didn't want to fight in the car all the way there and then
spend the whole wedding struggling against the urge to
make dire comments to the other guests about life with a
man. Life with my man, in particular, which at that moment
consisted of crawling around on the floor in my dress,
searching for his missing shoe under the furniture and the
discarded clothes and the pile of New York Times he'd left
there since Sunday. Meanwhile he sat on the bed holding
the one shoe he'd been able to locate, staring blankly at the
wall. I remember thinking, Why in God's name doesn't he
put that shoe on?
"Sweetie," I said. "Why don't you go ahead and put that
He didn't appear to have heard me. I sighed. Let's just
get out the door, I told myself. Let's have a good time. On
the floor in front of me I saw one of my daughter's make
makeshift baby bedsthis one holding her tiny stuffed pig, whose
name, inexplicably, was Hemp All. I felt a rush of amused
motherly affection. After a moment I realized that I was
looking at my husband's shoe, transformed by a burp cloth
into a bed for a pig.
I dislodged the pig, jumped up, and presented the shoe to
my husband with a flourish. He took it, still with the blank
expression, looking like he had no idea what the thing was
for. "Let's put the shoes on," I said. "Let's go, let's go."
"Sarah," he said, "I have to tell you something. Something
about the book."
When you live with a writer you know what he means
by the book. He means his book, the one he's working on, or,
as in this case, the one he recently finished, the one that had
arrived that very day in the form of advance reader copies.
Three of them in a big padded envelope, with shiny covers
and my husband's picture on the back. We'd exclaimed over
them. We'd showed them to our daughter, and laughed at
how little she was impressed. We'd high-fived, only half
joking, over the note from my husband's editor: "This is
going to be the big one!"
"What about the book?" I asked.
He took a breath. "Not all of it is fiction."
"What do you mean?" I asked. I asked, but I already
knew. I knew what he meant, though that knowledge was
contained not in my brain, not yet, but in a space that began
to open inside my stomach, slowly, a black circle, expanding
like an aperture. I'd read the book. I'd edited it, for God's
sake. I knew it intimately, word by word. But I wouldn't
even have had to read it to know what he meant. It was
right there in the title: Infidelity. I knew what he meant
before he said it, and knowing, I would have liked to stop him,
but he said it before I could.
He said, "I cheated on you."
"What?" I said, because knowing is different from
believing. And then, "We have to go to a wedding." That
seemed relevant at the time.
And there you have itthe beginning of the end, as
people like to say, as though there were such a thing, as
though the beginning and the beginning of the end weren't
one and the same.
I was not a stay-at-home mother, in case all this talk about
feeding the baby and dressing my husband has given that
impression. I was, in fact, the primaryor at least the most
consistentbreadwinner, working as the business manager in
the Department of Neurobiology at Duke. We'd managed,
since the kids, to cobble together a schedule that gave my
husband time to workMattie went to preschool in the mornings,
so he had the baby's naptime to himself, and I took the kids all
day Sunday and sometimes on Saturdays so he could write.
The plan had been for him to write in the evenings, too, but he
was often too tired, so we were looking for someone who could
come in a couple mornings a week. He was frustrated by how
much his progress had slowed since the babies came.
He was frustrated, yes, but he was nevertheless a good
stay-at-home parent. He was good with the kids, and he did
a lot around the housefar, far more, he liked to tell me
with a self-righteous air, than most men. Why, spending so
much more time in the house than I did, he could never
find anything that was in itthat was a mystery neither of
us could solve. But let's stay focused, for now, on his
transgression. On my own strange reaction: "We have to go to a
wedding." You keep thinking you have a life together, you
know, a life whose primary story and struggle is parenthood
and its pleasures and difficulties. You keep thinking that
even when you've just been told differently. It turns out you
go on thinking that for quite some time.
He said, "I cheated on you," and I said, "What? We have
to go to a wedding."
"I don't deserve you," he said. "I don't deserve for you to
find my shoe." And then he started to cry. He looked small,
and faintly ridiculous, hunched over at the end of the bed,
clutching his shoe. He's a slender man, my husband. You
might say skinny. This gives him an unfairly boyish appearance,
that and the fact that he wears his hair a little on the
shaggy side, and that it curls at the nape of his neck in a way
I'd always found adorable. I could see those curls clearly at
that moment because his head was bowed, and I wondered
if she'd liked them, too, this unnamed woman whose name
I never wanted to know. He wears glasses, but he wasn't
wearing them then, because he'd put in his contacts in
anticipation of going out, and on the whole he looked very nice in
his suit and the blue shirt I'd bought for him. His eyes are the
sort that can look blue or gray or green depending on what
he's wearing, and I'd bought this shirt specifically to bring
out the blue. The hair on his neck was a little overgrown,
and I wondered if he even knew that. If he knew that he
had a mole on the lower left side of his back. If he knew that
his lips moved slightly when he was thinking about something
he was writing. I knew his body better than he did. I'd
known him a long time. He was my husband.
He was really, truly crying, his whole body shaking. I
shushed him, worried about the children, but he couldn't
hear me over the sounds he was making. Sentimental to the
core, he'd been known to tear up at movies and weddings
and, after we had the kids, commercials with babies. But
the only time I'd ever seen him cry like this was when his
grandmother died. The sound he was making was a death
sound. That alarmed me even more than his admission. He
was crying like this was the end. I wasn't. I thought how
easy, how obvious, the response to this sort of news seemed
when you were watching guests on a talk show, when you
weren't the one receiving it.
"So which one was it?" I asked, and when he looked at
me like he didn't understand, I said, "Which story is about
you?" The bookthe bookwas about three extramarital
affairs among a group of interconnected people. It was the
kind of book that inspired reviewers and fellow writers to
words like generous and genuine and human and heart. The
endorsements had poured in, all of them raves. And he'd
been delighted, of course, and so had I, and his editor, and
his agent, everyone. It was his best book yet, we all agreed.
Here's what we were thinking: glowing reviews, big sales,
movie deal. From here on out a better life. All because my
husband, as one blurb had said, possessed a deep understanding
and, so possessing, granted his characters the full
range of their humanity. Well, good for him.
"They're all about me, I guess," he said.
There was a blanket chest at the end of our bed. An antique,
likely brought to America on a boat from somewhere.
He'd given it to me one year for my birthday. I sat down
on it, and it creaked under my weight. "You had
"No, no, no," he said. "Of course not. I mean, none
of them are strictly true. It's just that what . . . what happened
. . . I guess it informed . . . it went into all of them."
"Oh, of course, you didn't have three affairs. Of course
not," I said. "Just one. One teensy little one."
He was mute.
"And it inspired you, is what you're telling me. You're
telling me where you got your 'deep understanding.' I
guess I should have realized you didn't just pick it up at the
Still mute. He sat there and endured me. He probably
would have let me knock him down. How could he have
done this to me, when I'd chosen never to do it to him? How
much force would it take to knock him down? "So when
did this happen?" I asked. "This inspirational affair?"
"Summer before last," he said. "At the conference. I was
drunk. I know that's no excuse, but I was drinking way too
"She's a writer?"
Excerpted from Husband and Wife by Leah Stewart Copyright © 2011 by Leah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Harper Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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