A dissatisfied wife is tempted by another man in this novel by the New York Times–bestselling author of Out of the Blue: “A wonderful writer” (Luanne Rice, author of The Secret Language of Sisters).
After seventeen years of marriage, Maggie Hollander seems like she has it all. Her husband, Matthew, still loves her deeply, and two irrepressible children complete the picture-perfect family in their elegant New York apartment.
But at thirty-eight, Maggie has questions about herself that grow deeper and more disturbing. Once a promising artist, she decides to return to art class in search of answers. It is there she meets a sculptor who rekindles her talent—and her passion. David Golden will expose Maggie to a tenderness that is as liberating as it is dangerous, and will carry her toward an unforeseen choice . . .
“A living, breathing portrait of a truly contemporary woman . . . A lovely read.” —Barbara Taylor Bradford, New York Times–bestselling author of Voice of the Heart
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That day Margaret Hollander saw two people dressed as chickens on Manhattan's Ninety-first Street. A young man and a young woman with great yellow-feathered bodies and heavy chicken feet sat on a bench by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum smoking cigarettes. Later, even years later, the strange creatures would come to mind as the harbingers of the unexpected in what was once an orderly life.
Morning started out as always. Matthew, Fred, and Susan sat around the table, each absorbing the shock of a new dawn in his own fashion. The children ate in silence, Fred consuming prodigious amounts of cinnamon toast in an effort to fill his ever-yawning twelve-year-old stomach, and Susan extricating the raisins from her cereal and leaving the bran flakes to grow soggy. Matthew pored over the first pages of his New York Times as if he feared that confronting today with yesterday's data vitae would be to venture forth unarmed.
Maggie stood propped in her usual spot at the counter, waiting for the caffeine rush from her first cup of coffee. She was a tall, slim woman, five-feet-ten in her bare feet. Even now, still groggy from the warmth of her bed, she stood very straight. For Maggie, mornings were always wrenching. Nearly two hours would have to elapse before her senses fully awoke. Until then, sounds and images seemed fuzzy to her as if filtered through a gauze screen.
Suddenly the sunny room erupted in a jumble of requisitions. Matthew's deep baritone won out. "My blazer hasn't come back from the cleaners, has it, Mag? I need it for tomorrow night."
"You didn't tell me."
"Yup. And I need longer laces for my black wing tips. Think you could get hold of a pair today?"
"Haul that barge, tote that bail," chimed Susan. Her grin flashed a mouthful of braces.
Matthew reached out with his folded newspaper and tapped her on the head.
"I suppose you don't have a single item to add to my list, Suzie Q," Maggie said.
"As a matter of fact ..." Susan began.
Maggie interrupted her. "I'm to pick up your costume and drop it at rehearsal at three, and Fred, you forgot to buy Michael a present and his party's this afternoon."
Fred's tongue was rendered helpless by half a banana. "Mrthma bmp?" he asked.
"You want me to get him something."
Fred nodded and took a gigantic swig of juice. "The new Corpse tape would be sensational."
"Oh God, all right. It'll be with Sue's stuff this afternoon. I'm here till seven. Otherwise, feed yourselves. There's lamb in the fridge."
Matthew sent crumbs flying as he opened the Metropolitan section. "I ought to be home by nine. Want to wait and have dinner with me?" he asked with nose buried.
Maggie envied him his powers of concentration. She had once dreamed that she set fire to a corner of the Times at the breakfast table. Matthew had simply read faster and faster, racing the flames to the bottom of the page. He held the charred paper between his fingers gingerly until the words fell into ashes. Without comment, and without glancing up, he merely swept the soot away and began the next section.
"Mom's not going to be here to take care of you, Daddy," Susan said. "Hey, maybe you guys'd like my famous hamburgers au roquefort."
Fred clasped his stomach and gagged convincingly.
"Not here?" Matthew asked.
"Jeez, you're out of it sometimes," Susan complained. "It's Tuesday night. Bridge night."
"So it is," Matthew declared. "Whose house?"
Matthew grimaced. He had never liked Phyllis, but Maggie always asked him not to exhibit his antipathy in front of the children.
"She thinks she's seventeen, the way she dresses," Susan said.
Maggie shot Matthew a look that said: See what you encourage? But he was reading again.
"She's got great legs," Fred remarked. "I don't see why women have all those rules about what they should wear and what they shouldn't wear. If you've got it, flaunt it, I always say." As he warmed to his subject, Maggie poured herself another cup of coffee and smiled at him. She enjoyed Fred's speeches. Even when he was tiny, he used to deliver solemn lectures to her about why it was advisable to sleep with twenty- two stuffed animals or why the pink gelatinous canned spaghetti was so much better than home-cooked pasta.
"You're all slaves to the fashion industry," he went on. "If some old bag wants to wear something young and sexy, why shouldn't she? You won't catch us men ..."
Susan cut him short. "Mother, that's your third cup! You drink too much of that stuff!"
"Why don't you lay off, motormouth?" Fred said, stung at the interruption. "God, you're going to be such a nag when and if you ever grow up. I was right in the middle of a sentence."
"You don't even care if Mom gets breast cancer and maybe even dies."
"You think you're the big medical expert just because you got an A in your Personal Health report." Fred's round face was beginning to redden. "Besides, I care about Mom's breasts as much as anybody."
"Hoo hoo!" Susan howled.
Fred half-rose from the table to lunge at his sister. She leapt up and flattened herself against the refrigerator, out of reach.
"That'll do," Matthew said. "Your mother's breasts are in no immediate danger as far as we know."
"Well, maybe not from cancer anyway," Susan said with a smirk as she sat down again.
"You're disgusting," Fred said. "She doesn't have one iota of class. You know what she did in lunchline yesterday?"
"Don't you dare," Susan whispered.
"She farted. Everybody heard her, a real ripper. Loverboy Bobby Posner looked right at her and said, 'Can't hold what you don't have in your hand, right, Sue?' It was classic."
"Mom," Susan asked sweetly, "when do little boys stop worrying about castration?"
"Never, babe," Matthew muttered. He stretched, stood up, and embraced Maggie. "Take care of 'em, will you?" he asked. Maggie wondered if he meant the children or her breasts.
Susan and Fred traipsed out of the kitchen after him with Susan making a running commentary of Matthew's attire.
"Daddy, look how preppy you are with the button-down collar. Tres Reaganesque, you know, like you've been embalmed in the fifties or something. Next thing you'll be wearing plaid pants ..." Her voice disappeared down the hall.
Good, take on your father for a change, Maggie thought. She slumped into Matthew's vacant chair with a sigh. A few moments later, Fred called, "Don't forget Mike's present, Mom!" The front door slammed and they were gone.
Maggie sat with her chin in her hands. She had what her mother always told her were "good bones," which Maggie supposed meant that she was homely. "You'll grow into your face," Mother said, and at age thirty-eight, Maggie was still waiting.
Normally she sat for half an hour after breakfast and skimmed the Times. But this morning the silence seemed hollow, as if she were entombed in a cavern so vast that the ceiling could barely be seen for the shadows. She got up and began transporting dishes to the sink. Her body moved automatically, with a kind of swaying grace. She remembered Fred's remark about Phyllis's legs and poked one of her own through her robe. Not bad, she determined. If the face was lacking a certain Hollywood panache, she was still all right from the neck down. She knew the power of an attractive body. At cocktail parties, she was accustomed to men speaking to her chest rather than to her eyes. Sometimes she would amuse herself by recapturing the attention of a distracted male by crossing her legs or moving her shoulder in a certain way. Men were so preoccupied with her breasts or her knees that she wondered if anyone would notice if she were to unscrew her head and place it next to the salted nuts.
A saucer slammed against the rim of the sink and chipped. In the nine years since she had bought the set, this was the first time she had broken anything. The jagged edge of the plate cut her thumb. She found a Band-Aid but as she tried to apply it, she noticed that her hands were shaking. It frightened her to injure her hands. Though it had been years since she had held a paintbrush, there was the wistful notion that someday she would stand in front of an easel again. She flexed her fingers and tried to still the trembling. Maybe Susan was right: too much coffee.
Moving around would help, the faster the better. It was a good day to attack her closet, get out her summer things, clean the shelves, and make a list of the clothing she needed to buy this season. That would take care of the morning. Then there were plenty of errands. Besides the directives she had received with breakfast, there was a note to her ailing father; Mother's Day gifts to decide on; groceries to order; medical-insurance forms to fill out for Fred's persistent ear infections.
She marched toward the bedroom, keeping her eyes averted from the other rooms with their curiously eerie quiet. They had bought the place just before the up-swing in cooperative market prices would have barred them from the market forever. It was a pleasant two-bedroom apartment in a brick prewar building on Seventy-ninth between Lexington and Third avenues. It had Maggie's two prerequisites: the ceilings were high and there was a fireplace in the living room. The children had flipped a coin for the extra bedroom. Susan won, relegating Fred to a small maid's room near the kitchen, but it had worked out fine. Fred liked his privacy, and also his proximity to the refrigerator.
Maggie had taken pride in decorating the place on her own in a comfortable not-very-contemporary style. The living room faced south, and was a rain forest of palm fronds and ferns. Maggie often played the stereo for her plants, maintaining they were partial to Debussy. The color green was evident throughout the apartment. Matthew theorized that Maggie was unconsciously trying to reproduce the lush atmosphere of her Stafford, Connecticut, childhood.
Maggie opened her closet door, grabbed an armful of dresses, and hauled them to the bed. She flopped down with them, and found that the dress on top of the pile was her old madras shirtwaist of lilac-and- green plaid. It was hopelessly out of fashion and so faded now that the colors were barely distinguishable. Every year she told herself to quit being foolish and get rid of it, and every year she retrieved it from the giveaway pile and hung it back in the closet.
With the soft fabric between her fingers, she felt her anxiety succumb to a pleasant dreamlike sensation that she had experienced several times in the past week. It was as if periodically she were checking out of the present in order to take a long walk in the past. It had happened in the supermarket waiting in line at the deli counter. That time she was transported back to her wooden desk in the first grade where she could swing her legs without her feet touching the floor. It happened again yesterday in Bloomingdale's giftware department. Suddenly she was in Rockport, walking along the beach with her father as he tried to explain to her about menstruation. A store clerk had startled her by asking if she was ill.
The dress sent her back to that first afternoon with Matthew. It was the beginning of senior year at Radcliffe and the air was so crisp that it almost hurt her eyes. The trees had begun to turn; Harvard Square was littered with awed freshmen and brilliant leaves. Maggie was dashing to the subway for a trip to Filene's, and as she rounded the corner of Boylston Street, she suddenly found herself hooked to the elbow of Matthew Hollander.
"May I have this dance?" he asked. He seemed to have materialized out of the shimmering autumn light. "My name's Matthew Hollander. You're Maggie Herrick."
"I know who you are." Everyone knew Matthew Hollander's earnest handsome face and the lean body that performed athletic feats with simple ease. Like every other woman at Radcliffe, Maggie had enjoyed watching the sheen of sweat on his back and shoulders as he leapt into the air to hurl a basketball through the hoop with a decisive swoosh. But she wondered how he knew her. Surely he hadn't recognized her from the only class they had shared, Renaissance Art, which was a glorified slide show occurring mostly in total darkness.
"Come have a cup of coffee with me," Matthew urged. He still held onto her elbow. Maggie looked down at her watch to hide a burning face. "And a hot fudge sundae. I know you like those." She glanced up at him. "I saw you in the window of Brigham's one afternoon with Phyllis Jacobson," he went on. "You shoved the whipped cream off but ate the cherry."
Maggie laughed and fell into rhythm with his long stride. She hoped she would pass someone she knew. All the way to Brigham's, she kept saying to herself: Here I am with Matthew Hollander. She wanted to remember exactly how it felt.
Pain brought her back to the bedroom. She had been clutching the old dress so tightly that her shoulders ached. With a sigh, she stood and hung it back in her closet. She would keep it a while longer, even though the wonder and excitement it evoked had faded along with its once-bright colors.
She walked across the carpeted floor toward the window. It was Maggie's habit to poke her head out over Seventy-ninth Street and appraise the air firsthand before dressing for the day, but this morning she felt an odd reluctance. She regarded the window thoughtfully for a moment, then threw it open and looked down.
The air was cool and thick with moisture from an early-morning shower. It washed around her like a gentle whirlpool. The traffic noises rose in bubbles that popped to release their sounds just under her face. The vehicles and pedestrians below were like bizarre sea creatures, their shapes distorted by the glassy surface of the water. Maggie swayed, seaweed drifting. How pleasant to dive into the soft transparent waves. She closed her eyes against a sudden lurch of nausea and stumbled away from the window. Cold sweat clung to the fringes of her hair and plastered it to her forehead as if she had indeed been immersed. Perhaps she was drowning. Perhaps as the water closed over her head, she would continue to relive the years, newsreel style, except that it would take weeks for her to submerge completely.CHAPTER 2
Maggie was on her way out the door for her bridge game when Fred and Susan arrived home.
Susan looked at her closely. "You getting your period?" she wanted to know.
Startled, Maggie shook her head.
"Well, you look weird." Susan moved past her, and Maggie heard the pile of books crash down on the bed.
"Thanks," Maggie murmured.
"I don't think you look weird, exactly," Fred said, leaning against the wall. "But something's wrong."
Maggie felt a lump growing in her throat. "Not a thing," she said. "Gotta go. Don't forget your leafy greens."
Fred gave her a quick kiss. "Knock 'em dead, Mom."
Phyllis's apartment was within easy walking distance, but Maggie dawdled. She remembered last night's television advertisement touting a disaster film about an airplane that plunged into the ocean and sank to the bottom. In the film clip, flames raged, waves crashed, wounded and dying passengers screamed with terror. A stout-voiced fellow, presumably the hero, shouted from the midst of the maelstrom, "Don't panic!" Maggie likened the voice in her brain to that stalwart person; she had been hearing the same command all day. Except that there was no disaster in her life. Everything was perfect, really perfect.
She shook her head and half a dozen tiny seedlets fell to her shoulders. The spring trees were shedding in a strong breeze from the south. A pair of joggers passed, a man and a woman wearing matched shorts. They were laughing. Were we ever like that, Matthew and I? Maggie wondered, and she was off again, back in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He had called her that same night and asked her out for dinner Saturday night. Maggie refused, because of her long-standing Saturday commitment to Frank Pearson. She felt as if she had just turned down the Nobel Prize, but ten minutes later Matthew called again, this time to ask if she could see him on Sunday. She agreed.
Frank Pearson and Maggie used one another for sex. At first, Maggie had tried to convince herself that she was in love with him, but her roommate, Phyllis, had set her straight.
"He's a good lay, that's all. Don't make it into the romance of the century."
"But he was my first and only," Maggie protested.
"My first was my thirteen-year-old cousin. Think I should marry him?"
Matthew took her to Nick's Place, known at Harvard as the Greasy Greek's. Neither of them spoke much at first. Matthew watched her while under the table Maggie rolled and unrolled her napkin.
"Why are you staring at me?" she asked finally.
"You have an interesting face."
Maggie smiled. "Good bones, my mother says."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Portrait of a Married Woman"
Copyright © 1986 Sally Mandel.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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