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She was thinking of ways to kill her husband.
Martha Hart, called Mattie by everyone but her mother, who regularly insisted Martha was a perfectly lovely name -- "You don't see Martha Stewart changing her name, do you?" -- was swimming back and forth across the long, rectangular pool that occupied most of her spacious backyard. Mattie swam every morning from the beginning of May until mid-October, barring lightning or an early Chicago snowfall, fifty minutes, one hundred lengths of precisely executed breaststroke and front crawl, back and forth across the well-heated forty-foot expanse. Usually she was in the water by seven o'clock, so that she could be finished before Jake left for work and Kim for school, but today she'd overslept, or rather, hadn't slept at all until just minutes before the alarm clock went off. Jake, of course, had experienced no such trouble sleeping and was out of bed and in the shower before she'd had time to open her eyes. "Feeling all right?" he'd asked her, already dressed and out the door in a handsome blur before she was able to formulate a response.
She could use a butcher knife, Mattie thought now, pushing at the water with clenched fists, slicing the imaginary foot-long blade through the air and into her husband's heart with each rise and fall of her arms. She reached the end of the pool, using her feet to propel herself off the concrete, and made her way back to the other side, the motion reminding her that a well-timed push down a flight of stairs might be the easier way to dispatch Jake. Or she could poison him, add a sprinkling of arsenic, like freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to his favorite pasta, like the kind they had for dinner last night, before he supposedly went back to the office to work on today's all-important closing argument for the jury, and she'd found the hotel receipt in his jacket pocket -- the jacket he'd asked her to send to the cleaners -- that announced his latest infidelity as boldly as a headline in a supermarket tabloid.
She could shoot him, she thought, squeezing the water as it passed through her fingers, as if squeezing the trigger of a gun, her eyes following the imaginary bullet as it splashed across the pool's surface toward its unsuspecting target, as her errant husband rose to address the jury. She watched him button his dark blue jacket just seconds before the bullet ripped through it, his dark red blood slowly oozing into the neat diagonal lines of his blue-and-gold striped tie, the boyish little half-smile that emanated as much from his eyes as his lips freezing, fading, then disappearing altogether as he fell, facedown, to the hard floor of the stately old courtroom.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached your verdict?
"Death to the infidel!" Mattie shouted, kicking at the water as if it were a pesky blanket twisted around her ankles, her feet feeling unexpectedly heavy, as if newly attached to large cement blocks. For a second, Mattie felt as if her legs were foreign objects, as if they belonged to someone else and had been grafted haphazardly onto her torso, serving no other purpose than to weigh her down. She tried to stand, but the bottoms of her feet couldn't find the bottom of the pool, although the water level was only five feet high and she was almost eight inches taller. "Damn it," Mattie muttered, losing the rhythm of her breathing and swallowing a mouthful of chlorine. She gasped loudly, throwing herself toward the side of the pool, her body doubling up and over the edge of the pool to rest against its border of smooth brown stone, as invisible hands continued to pull at her legs, trying to drag her back under. "Serves me right," she muttered between painful coughing spasms. "Serves me right for having such evil thoughts."
She wiped some errant spittle from her mouth, then burst into a fit of hysterical laughter, the laughter mingling with her coughing, one feeding off the other, the unpleasant sounds bouncing off the water, echoing loudly in her ears. Why am I laughing? she wondered, unable to stop.
"What's going on?" The voice came from somewhere above her head. "Mom? Mom, are you okay?"
Mattie brought her hand up across her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun's harsh rays, focused on her like a flashlight, and stared toward the large cedar deck that extended off the kitchen at the back of her red-brick, two-story home. Her daughter Kim was silhouetted against the autumn sky, the sun's glare rendering the teenager's normally outsize features curiously indistinct. It didn't matter. Mattie knew the lines and contours of her only child's face and figure as well as her own, maybe better: the huge blue eyes that were darker than her father's, bigger than her mother's; the long, straight nose she'd inherited from her dad; the bow-shaped mouth she'd gotten from her mom; the budding breasts that had skipped a generation, moving directly from Mattie's mother to her child, and that were, even at the tender age of fifteen, already a force to be reckoned with. Kim was tall, like both her parents, and skinny, as her mother had been at her age, although her posture was much better than Mattie's had been at fifteen, better, in fact, than it was now. Kim didn't have to be reminded to push her shoulders back or hold her head up high, and as she leaned against the sturdy wood slats of the railing, swaying like a young sapling in a gentle breeze, Mattie marveled at her daughter's easy confidence, wondering whether she'd played any part in its development at all.
"Are you all right?" Kim asked again, craning her long, elegant neck toward the pool. Her shoulder-length, naturally blond hair was pulled tightly back against her scalp and twisted into a neat little bun at the top of her head. Her Miss Grundy look, Mattie sometimes teased. "Is someone there with you?"
"I'm fine," Mattie said, although her continued coughing rendered the words unintelligible, and she had to repeat them. "I'm fine," she said again, then laughed out loud.
"What's so funny?" Kim giggled, a slight, trepid sound seeking inclusion into whatever it was her mother found so amusing.
"My foot fell asleep," Mattie told her, gradually lowering both feet to the bottom of the pool, relieved to find herself standing.
"While you were swimming?"
"Yeah. Funny, huh?"
Kim shrugged, a shrug that said, Not that funny, not laugh-out-loud funny, and leaned further forward, out of the shadow. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine. I just swallowed a mouthful of water." Mattie coughed again, as if for emphasis. She noticed that Kim was wearing her leather jacket, and for the first time that morning became aware of the late September chill.
"I'm going to school now," Kim said, then didn't move. "What are you up to today?"
"I have an appointment this afternoon with a client to look at some photographs."
"What about this morning?"
"Dad's giving his summation to the jury this morning," Kim stated.
Mattie nodded, not sure where this conversation was headed. She looked toward the large maple tree that loomed majestically over her neighbor's backyard, at the deep red that was seeping into the green foliage, as if the leaves were slowly bleeding to death, and waited for her daughter to continue.
"I bet he'd really appreciate it if you were to go to the courthouse to cheer him on. You know, like you do when I'm in a school play. For support and stuff."
And stuff, Mattie thought, but didn't say, choosing to cough instead.
"Anyway, I'm going now."
"Okay, sweetie. Have a good day."
"You too. Give Dad a kiss for me for good luck."
"Have a good day," Mattie repeated, watching Kim disappear inside the house. Alone again, she closed her eyes, allowing her body to sink below the water's smooth surface. Water immediately covered her mouth and filled her ears, silencing the white noise of nature, blocking out the casual sounds of morning. No longer were dogs barking in neighboring yards, birds singing in nearby trees, cars honking their impatience on the street. Everything was quiet, peaceful, and still. There were no more faithless husbands, no more inquiring teenage minds.
How does she do it? Mattie wondered. What kind of radar did the child possess? Mattie hadn't said anything to Kim about her discovery of Jake's most recent betrayal. Nor had she said anything to anyone else, not to any of her friends, not to her mother, not to Jake. She almost laughed. When was the last time she'd confided anything in her mother? And as for Jake, she wasn't ready to confront him yet. She needed time to think things through, to gather her thoughts, as a squirrel stores away nuts for winter, to make sure she was well fortified for whatever course of action she chose to follow in the long, cold months ahead.
Mattie opened her eyes under the water, pushed her chin-length, dark blond hair away from her face. That's right, girl, she told herself. It's time to open your eyes. The time for hesitating's through, she heard Jim Morrison wail from somewhere deep inside her head. Come on, baby, light my fire. Was that what she was waiting for -- for someone to light a fire under her? How many hotel receipts did she have to find before she finally did something about it? It was time to take action. It was time to admit certain indisputable facts about her marriage. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, at this time I would like to submit this hotel receipt into evidence. "Damn you anyway, Jason Hart," Mattie sputtered, gasping for air as her head broke through the surface of the water, her husband's given name feeling strange and awkward in her mouth. She hadn't called him anything but Jake since their first introduction sixteen years ago.
Light my fire. Light my fire. Light my fire.
"Mattie, I'd like you to meet Jake Hart," her friend Lisa had said. "He's that friend of Todd's I was telling you about."
"Jake," Mattie repeated, liking the sound. "Is that short for Jackson?"
"Actually, it's short for Jason, but nobody ever calls me that."
"Nice to meet you, Jake." Mattie glanced around the main room of the Loyola University library, half expecting one of the more studious-minded patrons to jump up and ssh them into silence.
"And what about 'Mattie'? Short for Matilda?"
"Martha," she admitted, sheepishly. How could her mother have saddled her with such an old-fashioned, unattractive name, more suited to one of her beloved dogs than her only daughter? "But please call me Mattie."
"I'd like to...call you, that is."
Mattie nodded, her eyes focused on the young man's mouth, on the wide upper lip that protruded over the thinner one on the bottom. It was a very sensual mouth, she thought, already projecting ahead to what it would be like to kiss that mouth, to feel those lips brush lightly against her own. "I'm sorry," she heard herself stammer. "What did you say?"
"I said that I understand you're majoring in art history."
Again she nodded, forcing her gaze to his blue eyes, roughly the same shade as her own, except that his lashes were longer, she noted, something that didn't strike her as altogether fair. Was it fair that one man could have such long lashes and such a sensual mouth?
"And what exactly is it that art historians do?"
"Beats me," Mattie heard herself say, her voice a touch too loud, so that this time someone did say "Ssh!"
"You feel like going somewhere for a cup of coffee?" He took her arm and led her out of the library without waiting for her reply, as if there were never any doubt what her reply would be. As there was no doubt later when he asked her if she wanted to go to the movies that night, and then later, when he invited her back to the apartment he shared with several of his law school classmates, and later still, when he invited her into his bed. And then it was too late. Within two short months of that first introduction, two months after she enthusiastically surrendered to the seductive fullness of his lashes and the unspoken gentleness of his overbite, she discovered she was pregnant, this on the very day he'd decided they were moving too fast, that they needed to slow down, cool down, call the whole thing off, at least temporarily. "I'm pregnant," she offered numbly, unable to say more.
They talked about abortion; they talked about adoption; ultimately they stopped talking and got married. Or got married and stopped talking, Mattie thought now, emerging from the water into the brisk fall air and grabbing at the large magenta towel folded neatly on the white canvas deck chair, sprinkled liberally with fallen leaves. She used one end of the towel to dry the ends of her hair, wrapping the rest of it tightly around her body, like a straitjacket. Jake had never really wanted to get married, Mattie understood now -- as she'd understood then, although they'd both pretended, at least in the beginning, that their marriage would have been inevitable. After a short break, he'd have realized how much he loved her and come back to her.
Except that he didn't love her. Not then. Not now.
And truth be told, Mattie wasn't sure that she'd ever really loved him.
That she'd been attracted to him was beyond question. That she'd been mesmerized by his good looks and effortless charm, of that there was never any doubt. But that she'd actually been in love with him, that she didn't know. She hadn't had time to find out. Everything had happened too fast. And then, suddenly, there was no time left.
Mattie secured the towel at her breast and ran up the dozen wooden steps toward her kitchen, pulling open the sliding glass door and stepping inside, dripping onto the large, dark blue ceramic tile floor. Normally, this room made her smile. It was all blues and sunny yellows, with stainless steel appliances and a round, stone-topped table, decorated with hand-painted pieces of fruit, and surrounded by four wicker-and-wrought-iron chairs. Mattie had been dreaming of such a kitchen since seeing a picture layout in Architectural Digest on the kitchens of Provence. She'd personally supervised the kitchen's renovation the previous year, four years to the day after they'd moved into the three-bedroom house on Walnut Drive. Jake had been against the renovation, just as he'd been against moving to the suburbs, even if Evanston was only a fifteen-minute drive from downtown Chicago. He'd wanted to stay in their apartment on Lakeshore Drive, despite agreeing with all Mattie's arguments that the suburbs were safer, the choice of schools better, the space unquestionably bigger. He claimed his opposition to the move was all about convenience, but Mattie knew it was really about permanence. There was something too settled about a house in the suburbs, especially for a man with one foot out the door. "It'll be better for Kim," Mattie argued, and Jake finally agreed. Anything for Kim. The reason he'd married her in the first place.
The first time he'd been unfaithful was just after their second wedding anniversary. She'd stumbled on the incriminating evidence while going through the pockets of his jeans before putting them in the wash, extricating several amorous little notes, the i's dotted with tiny hearts. She'd ripped them up, flushed them down the toilet, but pieces of the pale lavender stationery had floated back stubbornly to the surface of the bowl, refusing to be dismissed so easily. An omen of what lay ahead, she thought now, though she'd missed the symbolism at the time. Throughout the almost sixteen years of their marriage, there'd been a succession of such notes, of unfamiliar phone numbers on scraps of paper left lying carelessly around, nameless voices lingering on the answering machine, the not-so-quiet whispers of friends, and now this, the latest, a receipt for a room at the Ritz-Carlton, dated several months ago, around the time she was suggesting the possibility of a second child, the receipt left in the pocket of a jacket he'd asked her to take to the cleaners.
Did he have to be so blatant? Was her discovery of his indiscretions necessary to validate his experience? Were his conquests somehow less real without her, even if she had thus far refused to acknowledge them? And was acknowledging his affairs precisely what he was trying to force her to do? Because he knew that if he forced her to acknowledge his infidelities, if he forced her to actually confront him, then that would mean the end of their marriage. Was that what he wanted?
Was that what she wanted?
Maybe she was as tired of this charade of a marriage as her reluctant husband. "Maybe," she said out loud, staring at her reflection in the smoky glass door of the microwave oven. She wasn't unattractive -- tall, blond, blue-eyed, the stereotype of the all-American girl -- and she was only thirty-six years old, hardly old enough to be put out to pasture. Men still found her desirable. "I could have an affair," she whispered toward her gray, tear-streaked reflection.
Her image looked surprised, aghast, dismayed. You tried that once. Remember?
Mattie turned away, stared resolutely at the floor. "That was only that one time, and it was just to get even."
So, get even again.
Mattie shook her head, drops of water from her wet hair forming little puddles at her feet. The affair, if you could properly call a one-night stand an affair, had taken place four years ago, just before they'd moved to Evanston. It had been fast, furious, and eminently forgettable, except that she hadn't been able to forget it, not really, although she'd be hard pressed to recall the details of the man's face, having done her best to avoid actually looking at him, even as he was pounding his way inside her. He was a lawyer, like her husband, although with a different firm and a different area of expertise. An entertainment lawyer, she recalled his volunteering, along with the information that he was married and the father of three. She'd been hired by his firm to buy art for their walls, and he was trying to explain what the firm had in mind before he leaned in closer, told her what he had in mind. Instead of being shocked, instead of being angry, as she'd been earlier in the day when she'd overheard her husband on the phone making dinner plans with his latest paramour, she'd arranged to meet him later in the week, so that on the same evening her husband was in bed with another woman, she was in bed with another man, wondering, with joyless irony, if their orgasms were simultaneous.
She never saw the man again, although he'd called several times, ostensibly to discuss the paintings she was selecting for the firm. Ultimately he stopped calling, and the firm hired another dealer whose taste in art was "more in keeping with the sort of thing we had in mind." She never said anything about the affair to Jake, although surely that had been the point -- where was the sweetness of revenge if the injured party remained unaware of the injury? But somehow she couldn't bring herself to tell him, not because she didn't want to hurt him, as she'd tried to convince herself at the time, but because she was afraid that if she told him, she would be handing him the excuse he needed to leave her.
And so she'd said nothing, and life continued as it always had. They carried on the pretense of a life together -- talking pleasantly over the table at breakfast, going out for dinner with friends, making love several times a week, more when he was having an affair, fighting over anything and everything, except what they were really fighting about. You're fucking other women! she screamed underneath her rants about wanting to renovate the kitchen. I don't want to be here! he shouted beneath his protests that she was spending too much money, that she had to cut back. Sometimes their angry voices would wake up Kim, who'd come running into their bedroom, immediately taking her mother's side, so that it was two against one, another joyless irony Mattie doubted was lost on Jake, who was only there because of his daughter.
Maybe Kim was right, Mattie thought now, glancing at the phone on the wall beside her. Maybe all that was needed was a little show of support, something to let her husband know that she appreciated how hard he worked, how hard he tried -- had always tried -- to do the right thing. She reached for the phone, hesitated, decided to call her friend Lisa instead. Lisa would know how to advise her. She always knew what to do. And besides, Lisa was a doctor. Didn't doctors have an answer for everything? Mattie pressed in the first few numbers, then impatiently dropped the receiver back into its carriage. How could she disturb her friend in the middle of her undoubtedly busy day? Surely she could solve her own problems. Mattie quickly punched in the proper sequence of numbers, waited as Jake's private line rang once, twice, three times. He knows it's me, Mattie thought, trying to shake away the annoying tingle that had returned to tease the bottom of her right foot. He's deciding whether or not to pick up.
"The joys of call display," she sneered, picturing Jake sitting behind the heavy oak desk that occupied a full third of his less-than-spacious office on the forty-second floor of the John Hancock Building in downtown Chicago. The office, one of 320 similar offices making up the prestigious law firm of Richardson, Buckley and Lang, had floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Michigan Avenue, and stylish Berber carpeting, but was too small by half to contain Jake's growing practice, a practice that seemed to be skyrocketing daily, especially since the press had lately turned him into something of a local celebrity. It seemed her husband had a knack for choosing seemingly impossible cases, and winning. Still, Mattie doubted that even Jake's considerable skill and formidable charm would be enough to win an acquittal for a young man who'd admitted to killing his mother in an act of undeniable premeditation, and then proudly boasted of the killing to his friends.
Was it possible Jake had already left for court? Mattie glanced at the two digital clocks on the other side of the room. The clock on the microwave oven said it was 8:32; the clock on the regular oven below it read 8:34.
She was about to hang up when the phone was answered between the fourth and fifth ring. "Mattie, what's up?" Jake's voice was strong, hurried, a voice that announced it had little time for small talk.
"Jake, hi," Mattie began, her own voice delicate and tentative. "You were out the door so fast this morning, I didn't get a chance to wish you good luck."
"I'm sorry. I couldn't wait for you to get up. I had to go -- "
"No, that's fine. I didn't mean to imply -- " Not on the phone ten seconds, and already she'd managed to make him uncomfortable. "I just wanted to wish you good luck. Not that you'll need it. I'm sure you'll be brilliant."
"You can never have too much good luck," Jake said.
Words to write on a fortune cookie, Mattie thought.
"Look, Mattie. I really have to get going. I appreciate your call -- "
"I was thinking of coming to court this morning."
"Please don't do that," he said quickly. Far too quickly. "I mean, it's not really necessary."
"I know what you mean," she said, not bothering to disguise her disappointment. Obviously, there was a reason he didn't want her in court. Mattie wondered what the reason looked like, then pushed the unwelcome thought aside. "Anyway, I just called to wish you good luck." How many times had she said that already? Three? Four? Didn't she know when it was time to say good-bye, time to exit gracefully, time to pack up her good wishes and her pride and move on?
"I'll see you later." Jake's voice resonated with that fake, too-cheery tone that was too big for the thought being expressed. "Take care of yourself."
"Jake -- " Mattie began. But either he didn't hear her or he pretended not to, and the only response Mattie got was the sound of the receiver being dropped into its carriage. What had she been about to say? That she knew all about his latest affair, that it was time for them to admit that neither was happy in this prolonged farce of a marriage, that it was time to call it a day? The party's over, she heard faint voices sing as she hung up the phone.
Mattie moved slowly out of the kitchen into the large center hallway. But her right foot had fallen asleep again, and she had trouble securing her footing. She stumbled, hopping for several seconds on her left foot across the blue-and-gold needlepoint rug while her right heel sought in vain to find the floor. She realized she was falling, and even more frightening, that she could do nothing to stop it, ultimately giving in to the inevitable, and crashing down hard on her rear end. She sat for several seconds in stunned silence, temporarily overwhelmed by the indignity of it all. "Damn you, Jake," she said finally, choking down unwanted tears. "Why couldn't you have just loved me? Would it have been so hard?"
Maybe the security of knowing her husband loved her would have given her the courage to love him in return.
Mattie made no move to get up. Instead, she sat in the middle of the hallway, her wet bathing suit soaking into the fine French needlepoint of the large area rug, and laughed so hard she cried.
Copyright © 2001 by Joy Fielding