THE FIRST THING I do is offer them candy. I keep a jar of it, well-stocked, right there on the coffee table.
In my experience, people are one hundred percent less likely to tell a lie with a Hershey’s Kiss tucked into the side of their mouth. So while they’re unwrapping their chocolate or caramel or whatever, I lob the easy questions at them: How long have they been together? Do they have any kids?
And then, once they’ve relaxed a little, settled into the beige couch across from my blue chair, I probe: What do they want out of our meeting? If I sense from one of them a certain reticence, as I did that Tuesday morning, I repeat the question.
I’ve found it helpful, when pressing for the truth, to lean forward and hold eye contact. So I employed this method as I posed the question once more to both Scott Jacoby and his wife, Helene.
“What. Do. You. Want?”
Helene—a tiny, feminine woman with the brash voice of a New York City traffic cop—stared back at me with an electric gaze. “To save our marriage.”
I’m not sure how I developed this particular niche, but usually the couples who I meet with in counseling sessions aren’t in need of mere tune-ups. No one asks me for tips on how to stoke an already ignited passion or to help mediate a dispute so that both parties feel sufficiently heard. My clients come to me in full-on crisis mode, swinging from the broken rope bridge of their marriage—the point at which they’ll either let go into free fall or scramble to safety.
Scott was still silent, his arms crossed over his navy suit jacket. I hadn’t yet determined whether he was annoyed at having to leave work in the middle of the day or if his body language was a symptom of greater marital fatigue.
He stared across the room in the direction of the photo I’d hung on the wall. It was a picture from my wedding two years before, not that my clients could tell this, because it was of our midsections and taken from the back: my white silk veil, the dark block of my husband Dave’s tux, our interlocking forearms. I hoped it was generic enough that people would see in it their own happier times, but Scott’s unfocused eyes indicated that he wasn’t envisioning anything so hopeful.
“What do you really want, Scott?”
Waiting for his response, Helene leaned so far forward in her chair that she appeared to be praying. I’ve seen a lot of heartache in my office, but it took my breath away—those troubled eyes in the middle of that frozen, perfectly made-up face.
“Scott?” My voice was as gentle as it could be.
Finally, Scott sighed, then rubbed his cheek with his right hand. “I don’t know what I want.”
“Okay.” I took care to sound appropriately neutral. “Take some time. Try to think about it.” I pushed the candy jar toward him. It should be said that I buy only the good stuff: Hershey’s Kisses, Werther’s, Reese’s Minis—none of those nubby little mints or hard candies with wrappers in the image of strawberries to help you associate the flavor.
Although I know better than to take it personally whether my clients’ marriages work or not . . . I can’t help myself. I take it all very personally.
Dave had pointed out the irony of this when I came home one day and declared I was a failure. (I was right on that count; the Guinetts did not make it.) “You ask them what they want, right?”
“Yes.” He’d left out the second part, the “why,” so I reminded him. “It’s like an oral contract. They commit to wanting the marriage to work in that initial moment and it’s helpful later, when things get tough.”
“But if you keep having to remind them what they want, how do you know it’s still truly what they want?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” I had said. “It’s a very intimate environment in my office.” I didn’t have a good response right then, but two days later, when I heard his key in the lock, I met him at the door with a spatula. “Listen,” I said.
He’d stepped back, out of the range of the spatula, which had dripped marinara sauce in a large splotch in the entry hall. “Listening.”
“If people come to me, they want to protect their marriages. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help them—okay?”
He’d leaned down and kissed my head. “Okay.”
As I explained to Helene and Scott how we could proceed, that was the undercurrent I tried to convey: that I respected their step toward protecting the sacred and that I would help them as best I could.
I will always remember that—the three of us sitting in the office, clustered around the candy jar, as we pledged to resuscitate their marriage, me just the tiniest bit smug, totally oblivious to the fact that at that exact moment, my own marriage had begun to fall apart.
July chapter one
ALTHOUGH IT WAS only three o’clock in the afternoon when the Jacobys left my office, I was done for the day. I really wanted Helene and Scott to hire me. I respected their marriage, yes, but I was also salivating at the thought of an additional Tuesday or Thursday session.
Dave had had a brutal few months at the office: seven-day workweeks and late nights. The summer was not unfolding as we’d planned back in February, when we’d optimistically rented a house in Quogue that we’d seen online. Quogue was not one of the scene-y Hamptons towns, and the house itself was just what we could afford—modest and far from the beach, but it looked adorable. Three tiny bedrooms upstairs, a bright yellow kitchen with big white-knobbed fifties-style appliances and a sweeping tree with a rope hammock in the front yard. Dave had been too busy with work, so my mom had helped me narrow down the search. “Charming,” we’d both proclaimed at first sight of the Quogue cottage. “That’s it!”
Even though my calendar had Quogue written across each weekend (as well as the last two weeks in August), we had yet to see it in person. All our friends were already out there, and Dave had pushed me to go alone—someone should enjoy it, he said—but he hadn’t had a single day off since Memorial Day, and it would’ve felt disloyal. I didn’t want to resent his work schedule; I wanted to fill mine, but it was difficult to drum up clients in the summer months on the emptied-out Upper East Side.
I puzzled over this as I walked the five blocks home from my office, that instead of using my free time productively, the opposite was happening: the less I worked, the less I did. I should have been catching up on billing. I should have been focusing on business development: talks, articles, blogs. By Sixty-eighth Street, I’d resolved to contact my master’s program administrators to see whether they knew of any volunteer opportunities. By Seventy-second Street, I realized that I should not be passively waiting for opportunities; I should create one. How hard could it be to write a grant proposal? I would single-handedly bring marriage counseling to an underserved neighborhood. Maybe Mott Haven? By the time I reached my block, Seventy-sixth street, I was imagining being notified of the award I’d receive for my dedication in having started All Hearts, which is what I’d name it. Or For All Hearts.
I was picturing myself approaching a podium in that navy sheath I’d seen online when I pushed open the door to my apartment and was stopped short by the inside chain. I stepped backward to make sure that I’d gotten off on the right floor, because all the hallways in my building were identical, but our neighbor Jake Driver’s kindergarten scrawl, Welcam, Scotch-taped on the door across the hall, was confirmation: I had made it home.
“Hello?” I called into the sliver of space between the door and the entryway. I could only see the wall, but I heard the TV, the sound of it being switched off and, eventually, the shuffling of feet down the hall and then the pushing closed of the door, a breeze puffing in my face and the rattling of the chain.
Then the door opened and there, at three twenty in the afternoon—or, as he would call it on any other day, “lunchtime”—was my husband, Dave, his face streaked with tears.
HE SPOKE FIRST. “You’re home this early every day?”
I reached out slowly, put my keys on the entry table. “On Tuesdays, yes.”
“Wow. No wonder you have so much time to work out.” He turned and walked away from me, back into the living room.
I followed him. “Dave?”
He had slumped down on the couch. “What?”
I controlled my stream of questions—why was he home and, more important, acting like a total asshole?—and sat down next to him. “Did something happen?”
He held up a palm, like a celebrity deflecting paparazzi. “No quack talk, please.”
“No, of course not.” Quack talk?
“I really don’t want to get into it.”
“Did you get fired?”
“Is someone . . . hurt?”
“No.” He slouched down farther. “Not physically. I’m not getting into it.”
I stood up. “Okay.” I could tell that his diffidence was an act; he was watching me, curious about what I’d do next. If I’d said what I really wanted to say, we would’ve started fighting, so I worked hard, very hard, to lift my shoulders in a shrug. “Just tell me when you’re ready to talk.”
What now? I walked back down the entry hall and picked up the bag I’d left in the corner of the hall. My hands shaking, I unpacked my wallet and sunglasses and placed them on random shelves in the entry hall closet. How serious could it be if no one was hurt? Maybe something had happened with one of his clients or there was fallout from an office power play? Eventually, Dave shuffled back down the hall.
“I was suspended from work,” he said. “For two weeks. They wouldn’t tell me why. I didn’t do anything wrong, and I don’t want to talk about it yet.”
“Okay.” It may sound callous, but I felt instant relief. Dave’s law firm was a notorious hotbed of internal politics, and being temporarily ousted for a mysterious nonreason seemed in line with the other horror stories I’d heard from Duane Covington, like getting summoned back from your vacation when you were standing in line to board a plane to Europe, like being bullied into signing over to a more powerful partner the client you’d worked so hard to land, like pretending you hadn’t billed as much as you had so that same partner could take credit for your work. A suspension explained Dave’s reaction (he was a workaholic and would be understandably freaked-out by this) yet was easily remediable. He didn’t need to stay with Duane Covington; his clients would follow him anywhere. I waited for Dave to tell me more, but all he did was stand in the hallway with a spaced-out expression that was disturbingly similar to Scott Jacoby’s.
“Can we rehash it tomorrow?”
“Of course.” I put down my bag. This was a work issue, separate from us, and the best I could do was avoid a major fight by stepping back and listening. Everyone craves being understood. We need it; we work for it; we exhaust our vocabularies to make sure we’ve properly communicated our viewpoints. But we don’t put in one-eighth of that effort trying to understand others. I swear it’s physiological, because even knowing this, I’d felt it myself thirty seconds before—an ember in the pit of my stomach driving me to push back at Dave’s adolescent sulk.
“I’m sorry for being a dick.”
I waved my hand, magnanimous and a little proud of myself for my measured reactions. It wasn’t ever easy.
“I’m going to set up an office in the guest room.”
“Yeah?” One of the summer projects on which I was already behind was renovating the guest room. Ian, our decorator, and I had a big meeting planned for the following week, and by then I was supposed to have cleared out everything Ian had tagged during our last meeting. “Creating the canvas,” he’d called it, because Ian was a person who said such things without irony. “You’re not going to work in the office alcove?”
“That’s not really an office. It’s more like a desk in the kitchen.”
“I think I’ll need more space.”
“Fair point.” Dave and I were a little out of our league with Ian; we’d have never been able to command an audience with him if he hadn’t just completed a huge job for my parents. I was already on thin ice; last month Ian had not at all been happy when I changed my mind about the window shade fabric. He and I had only just recently reestablished our delicate rapport—a sensei-protégé dynamic that worked best when Ian spouted wisdom and rattled off designer names and I listened, wide-eyed, trying to think of good questions to ask that would prove I’d been paying attention.
I couldn’t imagine how long I’d pay the price if I canceled next week’s meeting. Nor, I realized, could I explain to Dave that my decorator anxiety meant no home office for him.
“There’s a lot of crap in here.” Dave had walked to the door of the office. “And what’s all this tape everywhere?” He ripped off a long piece from a lampshade and held it up for my inspection.
“It’s for the renovation.” I opened the closet to a solid wall of boxes that we’d stacked up to the ceiling when we first moved in three years before. Honestly, I’d forgotten they were there. The mess was apparently the last straw for Dave, who slid down along the wall until he was sitting in a heap on the floor.
“Don’t worry. I’ll get rid of all of it. I’ll move the boxes to the bedroom and we can put the renovation piles in here.” Right at my eye level was a box labeled in my mom’s slanted handwriting: Paige, Childhood. Seeing it, I felt a fresh, perhaps overly dramatic, wave of urgency. Like many therapists, I had a keen awareness of the unhealthy family dynamics that I would not pass down to the next generation. There would be no secret-filled box for Dave and me.
“Dave,” I said, “we have to air the ugly things.”
He saw me looking at the box and nodded, realizing what I was thinking. “It’s not like that,” he said. “I’m just tired.”
So I helped him plug in the cords, clear off the desk and shove into the closet anything that might distract him from his work. After a half hour of item shuffling, we surveyed the room. “This looks good,” I said, although it didn’t.
“Yeah. Well.” He sat down gingerly, fidgeting around before extending his arms like a virtuoso pianist. “I should probably get some work done.” And then, before I was out the door, he started typing, his fingers scrambling in constant motion across the keyboard as though they were being chased.
WHEN I WOKE up the next morning, Dave had already gotten out of bed. I found him in the living room, his posture incongruently rigid for someone watching television on the couch in boxer shorts. The anchor of the financial news channel—the woman with the last name that sounded like a Mediterranean island—leaned forward, and Dave did too: “FBI agents swarmed and arrested thirty-one-year-old Louis Gallent in the parking lot of his San Francisco hedge fund yesterday on insider trading charges.
“Gallent, who founded the Elmwood Fund last year, is alleged to have received a tip alerting him to massive imminent layoffs at Lifeblood, Inc. Authorities charge that he traded on that information to avoid losses of one hundred fifty million dollars. Gallent, the latest in a string of arrests linked to financier Gerald Rocher, worked for Rocher until 2012. So far it’s unclear whether authorities have found any direct link to Rocher, known in some circles as Jellyfish for”—she lowered her eyelids knowingly—“the toxic reach of his tentacles.”
“One percent scum.” I was trying to be funny. Dave and I frequently growled that expression when his banker clients got demanding. Because it was morning, though, my voice emerged in a croak. Dave, startled, pressed the remote and diminished the screen into a small blip. “So,” I said, clearing my throat, “did he do it?”
Dave’s brow rose high as if he didn’t know whom I was talking about. “Did who do what?”
“What they arrested that guy for—the insider trading thing?”
I hoped Dave would sink against the couch, rub his hands together and provide an impassioned point/counterpoint analysis on the man’s guilt. Instead, he shrugged and headed for the other room.
I followed him into the kitchen. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Paige.” He scooped out the coffee beans and put them in a single French press, not even asking if I wanted any.
“You seem better than yesterday.”
“Sure.” He turned on the kettle, took out the milk and slammed the refrigerator shut.
My eyes narrowed at his back. “So when are you going to fill me in?”
His palm wrapped in a death grip on the refrigerator door, he pivoted toward me. I braced myself for the fight; by this point I was twitching for it to be honest—mutual understanding be damned. Then his shoulders sagged. “Now’s fine. Let’s go out.”
“Okay. Bagels and Joe?”
“I’d rather go to the Patty Melt.”
“Okay.” I shrugged. “The Patty Melt.”
The Patty Melt was only three blocks from our apartment, but it was perpetually empty. The last time we’d eaten there, I’d pulled a hair from my hash browns. Long and red, it was so obviously from neither of us that we’d both recoiled, pushing our plates away in silent agreement (I had thought) that convenience aside, we should not let the restaurant’s perpetual fried onion smell and tasty-sounding name trick us into even mediocre expectations ever again.
Our waitress, undeterred by the mood of our booth, floated over, her eyes glazed. Her name tag read BELIZE. Ordinarily I would point this out to Dave and he would run with it and I would laugh, corny as it was. Ketchup, pelize. When you get a chance, pelize.
“Can you come back later?” I smiled in a way I hoped transmitted that, as Belize no doubt sensed, we were going through something here.
Belize ignored me, stopping nibbling on her pen to gaze up at the light fixture.
“Coffee.” Dave pushed his cup forward as though it were the only thing between him and insanity. “Please.”
I shook my head. “None for me, thanks.”
Belize glided away, hands clasped behind her back like one of Degas’s ballerinas. Dave concentrated on stacking two forks, intertwining their tines in such a focused manner that I knew I was going to have to start off the conversation. “What does ‘suspended’ even mean?”
“I get paid; I work. But I can’t go in.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I have no idea.”
“They didn’t give you any explanation at all?”
Belize twirled over, two coffees in hand, and set them down in front of us. I smiled at Dave about the extra coffee, but he missed it, focused as he was on stirring milk into his.
“They said something,right?”
He shrugged listlessly. “Not really. Herb told me that they had to do a little investigation over the next week and I needed to stay out of the office.”
I frowned at Herb’s name. “That’s who suspended you?”
“I know.” Dave stuck out his lower lip. “It’s bad.”
Dave thought this was bad because Herb was his mentor. I had grimaced, however, because I was remembering the last time I’d seen Herb. Dave and I had been standing with him and his wife, Brenda, in a tight little cocktail cluster at Denise Bellavoqua’s retirement gathering. Egged on by Dave’s many questions, Brenda was providing a detailed report of the technical difficulties in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman.
Dave had appeared genuinely interested in her story. (“Not even remotely,” he’d assured me in the cab home.) I had been wondering, vaguely, if I could ever be that passionate about something cultural, when Herb asked how my practice was going, and then the next thing I knew, we were sectioned off against a wall, his body blocking me from Brenda’s explanation of how a broken flying wire had resulted in the bass-baritone’s sprained ankle.
I babbled on nervously about my work, aware of Herb’s glazed eyes locked on my neckline. In the first pause, he said something gruffly. I didn’t hear what exactly, but it sounded a lot like You’re a nice piece. Or You got a real nice piece. Neither phrase seemed particularly appropriate. I hadn’t had the heart to tell Dave about it.
“Did he seem mad?”
“Not at all. He seemed . . . apologetic. Like he knew it was ridiculous.”
“But you didn’t demand an explanation?”
“Of course I did, but he said it was best not discussed.”
“That’s just weird.”
“Well,” I said, “obviously they want you at the firm. If you leave, so do your clients. All it takes is one phone call to—”
Dave clutched my arm. “Paige, you cannot tell them about this. Promise me.”
“Why? My parents could fix everything.”
“They’ll make it worse.”
“You have nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“No parents, no friends. No one, Paige.”
“Just promise me.”
“Fine. So then for tonight—”
I waited for him to remember that my parents, about to leave for Nantucket for the week, had insisted on a “farewell dinner.”
“Oh god. Dinner.” The farewell dinner was not to be confused with the “welcome back dinner” and the “bought new socks dinner.” We saw my parents frequently—once every two weeks or so—but instead of just calling it dinner, my mom liked to imbue the meals with a greater purpose. She thought it made everything sound more “fun.” Dave didn’t even smile.
“So don’t go.”
“Then they’ll know.”
“Know what? I can cover for you. I’ll say you don’t feel well.”
He closed his eyes, considering. “Nope.” He shook his head. “Nope. I have to go. I always go. Don’t I?”
“I can do this.”
“Dave, it’s not a Navy SEALs mission.”
He dragged his top knuckles over the growth on his cheeks, and I heard the sound of roughness, like scratching sandpaper. “You go first, meet them there and I’ll come later. We’ll say . . . We’ll say that I came from the office and was working late. You think they’ll buy it?”
“I think that only a crazy person wouldn’t.”
This was his cue to say that we were in trouble for sure because my parents were in fact crazy people, but he didn’t. It should have been a relief, not having to respond to one of his predictable jokes, but by then I felt a small surge of alarm. Teasing my parents was low-hanging fruit to Dave, basic nutrition; he should have grabbed it, swallowed it whole, his eyes scanning for the next crop.
I leaned back in the booth, watching him as he gnawed on his cuticles, one-day-old stubble spreading over his chin like a rash, and for one horrible, stomach-sinking moment, I thought, What if he’s like this forever?
I immediately hated myself. “We could fight it, you know. Get in Herb’s face, demand an explanation.”
“How?” Based on his drooping eyelids, he didn’t have much enthusiasm for the idea, but I pressed on.
“Hire a lawyer.”
“That was my first thought too. But then I burn the bridge forever.”
“The bridge to Herb? You still care?”
“I just want it back to normal. To go to my office and have it be like this never happened.” He pushed his hand across the table toward me and spread his fingers out. I put my hand on his. “Are you mad?” he asked.
“Mad? Why would I be mad?”
“I don’t know. I wish I had more answers for you.”
“Dave, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s going to be fine.”
He looked skeptical. “You think?”
“By the end of the summer, this will all probably feel like it happened to someone else.”
“Thanks.” He swallowed and focused on his empty plate. “I was thinking today. My work used to be everything and it’s still a big deal, but I now have you. Without that . . . I’d probably be falling apart.”
Expressing vulnerability made him uncomfortable, I knew, so I just grabbed his hand tighter. “Hey,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Get back to work.”
“I meant, get out of here. Like to Quogue.”
He lowered his eyebrows but didn’t say anything.
“The house?” I palmed my phone. “I’ll cancel my clients if you cancel yours?”
Dave’s mouth yanked up into a forlorn smile, and I knew his answer before he said anything. “Dave,” I said, trying not to sound accusatory, “you could tell me, no matter what it was.”
“I mean—” The Patty Melt? The bloodshot, glassy eyes? Both indicated he had something to hide. “Is this like the last time?”
“I told you.” He met my eyes dead on. “I will never do that again.”
I kept my hand on his back as we walked out of the Patty Melt and stood for a moment on the sidewalk outside. And then, instead of settling into a hammock with divided-up newspaper sections and fresh-baked croissants, we went our separate ways—me to work to wait for my ten fifteen and Dave back to the former guest room to try to convince his clients that he was calling them from a fifty-floor skyscraper in the middle of Manhattan.
Dave had lied to me once before.
On a Saturday night a few months before our wedding, we were out with Stan and Irene Blakesey. Dave and Stan had started together at Duane Covington as first-year associates and were now the only two left from an original group of twenty-three. They had a survivors’ bond, Dave had explained to me. It was like being foxhole buddies, you know, without having actually feared for their lives.
Irene, who read restaurant reviews with a religious zeal, had secured us an eight o’clock table at some new Italian place with dimmed lights and dark walls and floors. I could barely see my food, but I didn’t even really care because Irene had us on our second bottle of something and was starting to dominate the conversation in a voice already too loud and rising. The four of us went out every few months, so I knew that by dessert, Irene would be doing a fairly decent impression of Jack Nicholson.
“The gravy’s not right.” Irene was half Italian and called all red sauce “gravy,” something that had been an initial source of confusion to me. She dipped in the tines of her fork and held the red sauce up to Dave’s mouth. “See?”
Dave was the least likely of all of us to enjoy being spoon-fed gravy by Irene, but he opened his mouth gamely, if somewhat stiffly. “Yeah,” he said. “Way off from my childhood in Tuscany.”
“Ex-act-ly,” said Irene, and Dave mini-shrugged at me and widened his eyes in an expression of I have no idea what I’m talking about.
“What?” Irene caught the look and whapped Dave in the shoulder with her napkin. “Gravy is the linchpin. You need good gravy, Davy. Ha-ha! Gravy Davy!”
Dave held up both hands. “I’ll take your word for it.”
“You need good gravy.” Irene was insistent. “Try the meatballs. The meatballs are sublime, and you need . . . You need a fun evening, Dave! We gotta do something nice for Dave. All of us,” Irene said.
“Why for Dave?” I said.
“We need to cheer him up.” She reached out and pushed the forked meatball right in his face. “Poor Dave.”
I leaned across the table to scoop some truffle oil risotto from the communal plate. Irene always ordered too many sides. “You mean that they were out of the branzino special he wanted?”
“Yeah, right.” When Dave failed to bite the meatball, Irene put the whole thing in her own mouth, talking as she chewed. “You must be pissed.”
Across the table, Dave’s face had drained of color. “What are you talking about?” I said.
“It’s criminal. You’ve given them everything, and they screw you like that. And you can’t go somewhere else now. It’s too late for that!” Irene’s brown eyes softened. “I just can’t believe they did this to their golden boy.”
Dave shrugged and said something under his breath about not being worried; it would all work out just fine.
“I still don’t get it.” Only Irene met my eyes.
“Partnership. Of course, it will work out fine—it will.” Irene said this primarily to the plate of meatballs before spearing another.
I didn’t make a scene, just smiled tightly and looked past Dave’s pleading eyes at the couple at the table behind us. The man was talking animatedly, and the woman nodded at him in utter agreement as they tore off hunks of bread and dabbed them in their bowls to sop up the extra sauce. Apparently their table had no problems at all with the gravy.
Dave spilled it all during the cab ride home. Apparently, he’d been up for partner that year. Herb had been assuring him for four years that he was a shoo-in. About a month before the committee made everything official, though, Herb had taken him aside and told him that it wasn’t Dave’s year. The department’s numbers were bad and they needed a sacrifice. He had to think long term: Everyone would notice that Dave was the kind of guy who would take one for the team. They would reward his loyalty and patience if he could just have a little faith.
I could barely compute what he was saying. “Who,” I finally asked when we got home, “doesn’t tell his fiancée that he’s up for partner?” I screamed it so loudly that I heard the words reverberate through our apartment, bouncing off our walls and broadcasting through the space under the front door. For several months afterward I was embarrassed to see my neighbors in the elevator.
Dave said nothing. He stood there in the hall, sad and guilty, as if he’d been as helpless in creating this moment as he was to stop it.
I slipped off my engagement ring, left the apartment and walked two miles down to Penn Station. My parents, wrapped in robes in the front seat of their station wagon, met me at the other end. Even though it was past midnight, they drove me straight to Walmart to buy underwear and a toothbrush.
Dave rented a car and drove out to New Jersey every day for a week. He had been so nervous about partnership that he didn’t want to speak about it out loud, he explained. He’d pictured dropping the announcement at my feet like a puppy with a newspaper and was beyond embarrassed when he had failed. Maybe, he admitted, he had planned the dinner as a passive way to come clean. When Irene Blakesey blurted it out, he’d felt only relief.
“It’s so uneven,” I said. “I tell you everything. And I’m not really looking to have a master-puppy kind of dynamic with my future husband.”
We wouldn’t, he swore. And we didn’t; I knew we didn’t. He begged me to be patient with him. He told me his childhood fears and insecurities that week: his mediocre fourth grade IQ score his mother had carelessly left out on the kitchen table, not quite high enough for the gifted program; the football team he didn’t make; the junior high school bully who targeted him by waiting at the water fountain and slamming his face in the spigot and the horrible things his father had said when Dave came home with a gash above his eye.
He was raised, Dave explained, to expect that other people laughed at your failures. It broke my heart, both the fact of it and how fundamentally I understood him.
The following year, when he did make partner, Dave told me all about it: the little snippets of gossip, the passing encouragements from near strangers, the thirdhand reports of what happened in the committee meetings, the promises from Herb. In truth, it was a little too much detail; I could have handled a summary or two, but I was grateful for the opportunity to listen, to model a little unconditional love and support.
I told him it didn’t matter what happened. I only wanted him to make partner, I promised him, because it was so important to him.
What an idiot I’d been, taking off my ring and storming out of the house, so ready to throw away my future with Dave. All it had taken to get past the shock was listening for one moment.
THE WONDERFUL, WARM, liquid-muscle feeling from my early-evening workout disappeared about five minutes into our family dinner. I felt it leave my body, floating away like a spirit as my father slathered butter on his bread. My dad and I were alone at the table with the chafing silence that accompanies him to all social gatherings when he cleared his throat in that middle-aged man way: sputtering car ignition.
He grabbed another roll. “You’d think I’d have enough influence to spring Dave from the office.”
“He’s usually stuck working for those clients who aren’t, you know, family.” Our tired tones would have let any eavesdropper know we’d had this exchange many times before.
“I don’t know why he even needs those others. You’d think the guy was ambitious or something.”
I aped my dad’s smile—half of my mouth pushed up—and lifted my glass. I was a little worried that Dave had gotten lost in our apartment. The real estate agent hadn’t divulged that there was a Bermuda Triangle between his office/guest room, the couch and the bathroom, but there had to be one. It was the only explanation for his not having picked up or responded to even one of my four telephone calls throughout the day.
My dad continued the butter slathering and I sifted through e-mail on my phone until my mom’s voice floated over to our table from the front door of the restaurant. I could guess what she was doing without even turning around: sweeping in; kissing Mario, the maître d’, on both cheeks and asking about his new granddaughter by name in a way that would make Mario feel warm and special; assessing the antipasto table and commenting to whoever was stationed behind it about how something—the sardines, the eggplant—looked delicious.
When I smelled tuberose and powder behind me and felt her lips graze my hair, I was relieved—I was sure our table was more desperate for her stream of conversation than Mario would ever be. She eased into her seat, which was pulled out by my father in one fluid move, and paused. “You look gorgeous.”
“Thank you, Mom.”
“I wonder.” She leaned in close. “Maybe, with that dress—I don’t know, a strapless bra? I feel like it would be so empowering to stand against wearing that lady-of-the-night look. Be strong! Just say no to showing your undergarments at dinner.”
My dad and I responded to the comment solely with our eyes: his were averted as though he’d accidentally found himself in the women’s dressing room and mine were rolled. Still, I subtly patted my twisted bra straps into submission under my sundress. My dad reached out for another roll, but my mom beat him to it, catching his outstretched hand.
“Frankie.” She shook her head slightly and removed the butter knife from his hands. “Enough.” She sat back, exhausted from the effort of corralling us, and smiled her appreciation at Mario, who had brought her a seltzer and cranberry juice without being asked. He had put it in a wineglass, and if I squinted, it looked like a watered-down Shiraz with a lime plopped in it.
“The usual for everyone?” My mom glanced around the table, and we nodded. I ordered the ravioli special for Dave, and Mario winked an of course before sweeping off. My mom lifted her drink and pointed it to the empty chair next to me. “And where is the Boy?”
The Boy—that’s what she had called Dave since I first brought him home, like he was the missing piece: he replenished the number of family members back up to four; he had the whole good job/steady/responsible/respectful thing down; and, most important, he was a “bootstrapper.” Dave, just like my mom, had taken on the power of his own catapult, journeying from nothing to something.
“Dave’s working late,” my dad explained.
My mom nodded her approval. It was “very bootstrappy” to work late. “When do we expect him?”
“Soon.” They looked at each other and then at me. “What?”
“Tell her.” My dad picked up his butter knife again before putting it down.
She mashed her lips together as though blotting lipstick. “Later.”
“What? Just tell me now.”
“We got an e-mail.” My mom used a spoon to retrieve the lime and squeezed it over her drink. She sat back as though this were a major announcement.
“Um. Congratulations? You’re a little behind the rest of us, but it’s good you’re getting comfortable with tech—”
“Oh, for godsakes.” My dad picked up the butter knife again. “Tell her from whom.”
“Yes, from whom?” I leaned forward as I awaited their answer.
My mom ignored me and sat up in her seat, her face brightening. “Ladies and gents, here he is.” She waved her arms as Dave approached the table.
He bowed. “I’ll be here all night,” he said. “A funny thing happened on the way to the restaurant.”
“Ba-dum dum,” said my mom.
“Wow.” I’d been expecting Hamlet from act five, and Cary Grant had shown up, showered and shaved. “Nice suit.”
He shot me a look, half smile, half warning.
“It is a nice suit,” my mother agreed in all earnestness. “Very becoming.”
Dave brushed off his shoulders, valet-style. “Thank you, madam. I try my best. Frank, did you get my e-mail?”
“I did, thanks. I forwarded it on to Bill.”
“How was work today?” My mom winked at Dave. “They let you out kind of early.”
“It was fine,” said Dave. “No drama.”
“I got you the ravioli.” I looked at Dave carefully, searching for a sign that he was the same guy who had frozen at the thought of this very gathering, but his face betrayed nothing. No flinching, no rapid blinking, no quick look to the left, or right, or whichever way it is that liars are supposed to look.
“I love ravioli,” he said. “How is everyone?”
“Fine,” I said. “They were just about to tell me about some big e-mail they got today.”
“No, we weren’t.” As she spoke, my mom’s brow furrowed as though I had completely misunderstood her. “I was just going to ask what you two think about the West Indies for Thanksgiving.”
“I prefer turkey,” said Dave.
We all laughed a little too hard.
“Right on the beach, complete with a yoga studio and a live-in cook!” She was crowing, as she usually did when discussing such spoils. That’s the thing about being invited to the Rich Party in middle age—apparently, you get thrilled every time you look in the goody bag.
“No golf course?” Dave asked. I marveled at the casualness of Dave’s teasing little smile.
“I don’t know.” She shook her head. “Who cares about golf?”
“Would this be the prevailing attitude over the vacation, or would a guy be allowed to go play?” He was humoring her; we all were. Even in a normal world, he’d never take a vacation during the fourth quarter of the year, his busiest time.
My mom laughed. “I’m sure there is a wonderful, world-class—who is the best golf course designer?”
“Arnold Nicklaus,” I said, as Dave said, “Donald Ross.”
“That”—Dave indulged me with an overly patient smile—“is not even a person.” His work phone rang and he reached into his pants pocket, glancing at it to see who it was. “Sorry—work. Please don’t wait if the food comes.”
“Go, go.” My dad waved his hand. “By all means.”
As soon as he was out of earshot, I looked between them, back and forth. “What’s the big drama?”
“We didn’t want to talk about the e-mail in front of Dave.”
“So I gathered.”
They both looked grim. “It’s from Sloane,” my mom said.
My dad nodded. “Your sister,” he said helpfully, as though I had forgotten all about her in the two decades since I’d last seen her. And I had, largely, mostly because I was shushed anytime I mentioned her name.
As part of my master’s program, we had been encouraged to discuss our motivation for becoming therapists. The most compelling explanation someone could give was that therapy had been and remained a powerful tool in his or her own life. I’d tried therapy once, and it had been a total disaster, so I had no idea how I found myself pursuing “the calling,” as one professor called it.
My stock line was that I was interested in the “inner workings of people,” but it felt like a hollow rationale, as if I believed people could be tuned and wound like pocket watches, which I didn’t. I had once confessed this to Beth Fishman, my therapist during the first eighteen months of my program. I had also told Beth about Sloane.
Counseling wasn’t mandatory for the students, but the program encouraged us to participate, so I’d copied Beth’s name from a creased list that the school receptionist had given me with the inspiring title of “Counselors within Ten Blocks of Campus.” I’d had a brief moment of hope that Beth’s late and bumbling arrival to our first meeting—the wet hair streaming down her blouse that left dark streaks on her sky blue silk blouse, the endless searching for her glasses in her bag—heralded an absentminded genius. It didn’t, as it turned out; she was just distracted.
For the first seventeen months of my sessions, Beth and I chatted like buddies about television shows and our favorite restaurants. I’d regale her with my blind-dating stories, and she’d offer sympathy and incredulity the way my friends in relationships did, but that was about it. Then one morning, she rushed in five minutes late as was her norm, drip marks on her shirt, and announced, “I’m moving to Kansas City.”
“What?” I said, completely taken aback.
“Kansas City,” she repeated, and stuck out her tongue. Blech. “I don’t really want to go. My husband got a great job, though. I won’t even have to work.”
It was the type of admission I had grown to expect from Beth Fishman, and even though I was technically her work, I was not offended. “I bet it’ll be nice when you get there.”
“It’s probably a great place to raise kids, heartland values, the whole deal. Blah, blah-blah, blah-blah. Anyway, you and I have three sessions left, and that’s it.”
“Oh.” There was an intriguing new edge to Beth Fishman’s voice. “Okay.”
“So let’s get to it,” she said. “When’s the last time you talked to your parents about your sister?”