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What Burns Away

What Burns Away

by Melissa Falcon Field
What Burns Away

What Burns Away

by Melissa Falcon Field


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"A debut novel with a bighearted sensuality and a bull's-eye precision on a par with our best working writers today. A must-read." -Jan Elizabeth Watson, author of What Has Become of You and Asta in the Wings

Good wife, good mother. That's all Claire Spruce is trying to be, but the never-ending snow in this new town and her workaholic husband are making her crazy. Even the sweet face of her toddler son can't pull her out of the dark places in her head.

Feeling overwhelmed and alone, she reconnects with her long-lost high school boyfriend, Dean, who offers an intoxicating, reckless escape. But Dean's reappearance is not a coincidence. He wants something from Claire-and she soon finds that the cost of repaying an old favor may lead to the destruction of her entire life.

What Burns Away is a story of loyalty, family, and the consequences of the past's inevitable collision with our future.

"This novel is moves fast, doesn't let you catch your breath, and leaves you shaken." -Sarah Braunstein, author of The Sweet Relief of Missing Children

"A new mom's fiery first love is back, and he challenges all she's built for herself, revealing the fragility of suburban dreams." -Bill Roorbach, author of The Remedy for Love and Life Among Giants

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781492604570
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 01/27/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 369,943
File size: 1 MB

Read an Excerpt



If I'm honest, I can admit that even before the flash point, all was not well. Even back during Miles's cardiology fellowship and my own research on the gouged ozone layer over Antarctica, back when I was considered an expert at something, back when Miles and I were still in the infancy of our marriage-even then the past had begun to instigate trouble.

Because weather patterns are the way my mind delineates time, I know it was two days into the Blizzard of January 2005, a Category 4 storm with Arctic conditions that lasted three days and dumped thirty-six inches of snow over New England. Maybe the storm itself brought on the memories, but I'll never be sure.

What I do know is that throughout the day, I'd grown lonesome at work the way I always do after a snowfall, the isolation made worse by impassable roads. Miles was stuck at work too, so I stayed at the lab to wait it out, where, hunched over satellite depictions of a warmed and brutalized troposphere, the recollections penetrated my concentration like meteoroids ripping through the atmosphere.

And there in the lab, seven years ago now-before our son, before the move-came sensations like flashes of light. The snapshots were from my girlhood when, had I been braver or more attentive, I could've helped stop things before they spun out of control. The first images were my mother setting Dad's beer can back on the table, the slam of the door, the memory of her slight frame running out into the early dark, the starless night, and fog so dense it left dew on my teenage skin. Then, out in front of her, the outline of the big, white house, 101 Quayside Lane, rising from the haze like a vessel.

I could feel the impression of my moon boots across snow-covered sand, could hear the panting of my breath. I sensed my arms pumping while I chased after my mother. Next, I saw the gravel footpath to the house, then my mother's profile before she disappeared beyond the enormous oak door. As I waited, the wind grew wild off the water; I could feel it in my hair. The snow squalled, and behind me Long Island Sound thrashed at my heels.

To stop more of the visions from coming, the horror of what I knew followed, I left my bench at the lab, abandoned the ozone reports I was working on, and ran outside into the blizzard, where I stood as an adult-not that frightened teenage girl, but the woman she had become. I let the cold fill my lungs and exhaled deep smoky breaths; flakes soaked through my lab coat and sopped my hair. I stood there who knows how long, while snow whipped up from the drifts until everything went numb.

And from that moment forward, I tucked away the magnetism and loneliness encased in those memories, hiding them from Miles, from myself even. But over time, the power of that indiscernible past escalated, and my longing to right it became comparable, I estimated, to the desperation of the little girl in an old Khoisan legend I've always loved. Under the dark seclusion of the Kalahari sky, the girl grew rash after years of isolation. One day she reached into a blazing fire, grabbed a fistful of red-hot embers, and tossed them to the heavens, delivering the Milky Way galaxy from her fist. Its twinkle of light became her rescue, making the desert around her passable for travelers in southern Africa and forever saving the girl from her solitude.

After talking through it with Miles and my counselor, Anna, these past twelve weeks, I see now that my loneliness gained quiet momentum in the same hushed way our marriage began falling apart. I had grown unrecognizable to myself, invisible in my own darkness-and yes, like the little Khoisan girl, I stuck my hand into a fire, wanting desperately to be found.

And found I was again, on the morning of my fortieth birthday, when Miles and I were barely unpacked from a move to Madison, Wisconsin. Then, too, the snow fell fast. But I was spared the worst of my memories by the rousing call of my sixteen-month-old son.

• • •

It was six thirty, maybe seven, and Jonah's voice woke me. Gravelly and amplified through the baby monitor, he shouted: "Come!"

In my half sleep, I suppose it was the word that conjured up the image of my estranged mother who, in her own fortieth year, thumped a rose-colored roller bag, the same color as her lipstick, down the front stairs and out the door.

I was fourteen when she stepped from our stoop, a long, thick ponytail swinging behind her, while my father, my sister Kara, and I watched her hurry along the brick walk to the end of our charred driveway still tagged with yellow crime scene tape. Waiting for her, a car we had never seen before idled in front of our house. Mom paused once she reached it, turned to face us, and waggled her fingers good-bye.

The gesture suggested something playful, and although her expression was veiled by the haze, I remained hopeful, expecting her to retrace her steps back to us, imagining the warmth of her lips blotting my cheek and the collapse of her thin frame into the meaty arms my father held out to her. His voice had already gone hoarse from hollering, over and over again: "Kat, come back!"

But she went. Ducking into the passenger's seat, she clutched the rose-colored bag to her chest, while the driver of the car stole her away. From the steps, Kara and I watched as the taillights disappeared into the haze, while Dad called our mother home long after she was gone. Once he went silent, Dad slid down the doorjamb and quietly wept into his hands.

• • •

Jonah beckoned me back into real time and out from that reminiscence of my father with his plea: "Come! Mama, please?"

I kicked off the down comforter and studied the snowy Midwestern dawn, noting the cumulonimbus clouds that rolled past my window.

Jonah hollered again, his breathing gone fierce: "Mama! Come!"

I tied my hair back, wondering where my own mother was that morning, briefly considering what I would say if I ever saw her again. Then I eyed my husband through the open bathroom door, watching as he tapped his razor against the edge of the sink.

Miles kept his back to me. A new breadbasket of weight pooled at his waist, and I studied his face in the mirror. His steady surgeon's hand took a straight edge to the beveled cleft of his chin.

All desperation and hysterics, Jonah screamed. "Please, Mama!"

Miles turned to face me as I stood, a dollop of shaving cream above his lip. "Claire, go get the baby."

And as I shrugged into my robe, I wondered if my fortieth year would be the one during which I would leave Miles, finally surrendering to a dissatisfaction I could never quite explain, assuming it was better to go while Jonah was still so small he'd never remember.

But I pushed that impulse away, not allowing myself to imagine the ways that scenario could play out, still haunted by my own mother's departure, her act of selfishness the first domino in what became a chain reaction with inescapable fallout.

In my slippers I shuffled across the master bedroom, running my fingertips along the dark wood paneling lining every wall of our cold, dim rental house. Passing the angular built-in dressers that boxed us in, I felt the loss of the sunny, newly renovated home Miles and I had sold back East only months before, a place we surrendered for a mere quarter of its worth, when our faith in each other seemed to collapse right along with the housing market.

My husband, the steadfast Dr. Miles Bancroft, stood shirtless and toweled his face dry. Leaning through the bathroom door frame upon my approach, he stopped me for a kiss. "Claire Elizabeth Spruce," he said. "Forty! Have a perfect birthday."

Apathetic in response, I continued past him toward the nursery. There, Jonah shook the rails of his crib like an angry convict, settling once I hoisted him into my embrace.

"I'm here, baby," I whispered.

We nuzzled against each other, and I remembered how hard he was to bring into the world, how my overwhelming love for him had unhinged me for a time. I wondered, as I still often do, how I had managed to live an entire life without my little boy.

Jonah clasped his arms around my neck, pressing his feet against my ribs.

I kissed each one of his ears, our morning ritual.

"Look," I said. We swayed a minute, and I pointed out the nursery window to the mounting snowfall. With the cold front moving off Lake Mendota, I estimated that there would be even more accumulation for Madison and south-central Wisconsin than the weather stations had predicted.

Lacking my interest in the elements, Jonah furrowed his brow and patted my face, demanding breakfast like he still does nearly every morning: "Mama, yummies!"

We headed downstairs to the kitchen, and with Jonah tight in my grip, I recounted all my non-fortieth birthdays-the years of Carvel ice-cream cakes, their pink and white frosting, and that one redundant wish for the things that could never be brought back.

Moving into the monotony of our morning routine, the breakfasts and lunches yet unmade, I recollected the bent light of tiny wicks over four decades, noting that it was twenty-six years since my mother left, her actions changing everything, and how it was Dean who lit my candles once she was gone, before he went south, his warm breath in my ear, singing, "Happy, happy birthday, Claire!"

• • •

Dean D'Alessio, my first love, lived one block from my family on the other side of Willard Street, in a blue raised ranch identical to my parents' except for the aluminum awnings his mom had added as a bonus. From our cookie-cutter back porches, we grew up listening to Long Island Sound erode the Connecticut coastline while gulls barked above the power lines that stitched his side of the street to mine.

I noticed Dean for the first time on a November snow day in 1985, following Thanksgiving break. Having grown tired of the surplus turkey stew and stuffing that lined our refrigerator in Tupperware, I left my eleven-year-old sister, Kara, behind to watch Bugs Bunny and headed out to Micucci's corner store with a pocket full of change.

I sank deep into the snow along our footpath and, as I trudged by, I watched Dean. He glanced up at me while busting apart the last of the ice in a bank blocking a neighbor's driveway. He launched a shovel into the bed of his pickup truck, then pulled his winter cap low over his brow, just above his eyes. His frame was taller, bulky even, in comparison to the sinewy boys in my freshman class, and he stood with an air of resilience.

Shivering at the curb, I waited for the light at the crosswalk.

"Hey!" he shouted in my direction, moving closer to where I stood.

I peered over my shoulder, and his chiseled features vaguely hidden under the start of a beard came into view.

"What's your name?" he asked, locking me into the intensity of his stare.

Unnerved and excited, I answered in a near whisper, "Claire."

"Pretty name." He nodded. "For a pretty girl."

And just then, as the walk signal beeped, he turned back toward his truck, jumped in, and drove off.

I glided across the street, and the twinge of something triumphant welled up inside me. Unable to stop myself, I glanced back, just once, to catch only the red taillights of his truck.

But as I finished my slice of pizza a few minutes later under the corner store's awning, listening to Mr. Micucci belt out a baritone version of "Come Back to Sorrento" while he tossed pies into the air, Dean looped the block, rolled down his window, and hollered my name.

I gave him a tiny, awkward wave, holding in a giggle, and from that moment forward, Dean D'Alessio became my secret crush, until nearly two months later, the morning of January 28, 1986.

On that January day, as I carried my papier-mâché model of Halley's comet through the slushy brown snow, headed to science class to watch the space shuttle Challenger launch from Kennedy Space Center, I was thinking about letters. There was the letter I stole off my father's dresser and the letter I'd received from Christa McAuliffe, the thirty-seven-year-old high school teacher from New Hampshire selected from 11,000 applicants to be the nation's Teacher in Space. I had one of the letters in each of my coat pockets and had just dropped my sister off at middle school when Dean D'Alessio pulled up to the curb and offered me a ride.

"Claire," he called. "Give you a lift? You don't want to ruin your project in the snow."

His acknowledgment of my science model made me feel childish. "I guess," I said. "Sure."

Dean got out of his truck, took the sequined comet from my hands, and held open the passenger door.

I had just turned fourteen that January, and my parents had begun lecturing me at the dinner table about never getting into a car with an older boy. Knowing full well that they would disapprove, I climbed inside with my face flushed, glitter falling everywhere.

As he set the model back in my lap, Dean rested his hand on my knee, and the heat of his touch unlocked something inside me.

I chewed my cuticles and asked him, "Are you in school?"

"Quit when I was sixteen. Been out a year, just got my GED. I don't miss any of that bullshit." Dean lit two cigarettes off a match. "Smoke?" He held one in my direction.

I rolled the filter between my fingers but never brought it to my lips. I had smoked before, behind the public library with my neighbor Staci DiMaggio and her big brother Tony, and I knew I didn't like the way it made my mind go tippy. I cared more about the teardrop shape of the match's flame and the smell of the rolled paper's first burn. But instead of saying no to Dean, I toyed with the ember he'd handed to me, flicking it against the ashtray like Dad did when he gambled at cards.

Ahead of us the light was faint, a muted winter sun. I arrived at school two hours late that January day because Dean took me to the creek, the place we would go to park until the end of winter, when warmer days changed the places we could be alone together.

The creek varied in width and revised its course over the months we spent beside it-cutting wider with the spring thaw and rains, then leaving an actual bank come summer across which the blue crabs would scurry as we sunbathed.

The water ran from the tidal marsh into Long Island Sound and separated our neighborhood beach, Hawk's Nest, from the bird sanctuary and the private strand on the other side. From the cab of Dean's truck, I learned to spot the piping plovers bobbing on the branches of ocean roses before they buried themselves amid the sea grass to nest. At low tide, when the weather warmed, we rolled up our jeans, darkening the cuffs of our pant legs in our attempt to wade across. At high tide, the creek was over my head, up to Dean's chest. But on that first day, it was frozen along the edges, glazed with a thin layer of ice that would have cracked like peanut brittle under the slightest pressure.

Before my classes that first morning together, he'd simply asked, "Can I kiss you?"

In my moon boots, with a papier-mâché comet in my lap, I looked up to the sky as if the answer could be found there and said nothing.

Dean took my chin in his fingertips and guided me toward him for a kiss. He smelled like menthol cigarettes, Juicy Fruit gum, and the coffee he sipped from a thermos that made him seem old.

In the cab of his truck, we shed layers of our clothes and kept the heater on high as our bodies drew close. Beside him, my pulse banged against my wrist, my chest, inside my ears, and I wondered if Dean could hear the noise.

But unlike my previous sloppy make-out sessions with other boys among the National Geographic magazines at the public library, I lost myself beside the creek with Dean.

His touch somehow emancipated me from my insecurities and left room to fill that space with desire. With him, I grew gutsy, not just about skipping class, but also about what it meant to yearn for more. I had not known that feeling before and it came as a surprise to me. But Dean knew. He was older and understood what girls wanted, even when they didn't.

From the moment his calloused palms slid over my skin, I wanted it to happen again. His touch was like a small lamp illuminating a big house of dark rooms-and I wanted, desperately, to feel my way back to that light.

• • •

The morning before Dean picked me up, I had been struck by an unfamiliar and blooming emptiness after discovering a sealed letter left on top of my father's dresser. The envelope had Dad's name, Peter, written in Mom's loopy cursive. It was unusual for her to correspond with any of us in writing, and given the weighted silence between them, my curiosity rose. So, I had folded it in half and slipped it into my coat pocket, opening it after I escorted Kara to school. The letter read:

January 28, 1986


Last night was just another example of how, even when you are in the room, I feel deserted. I need someone who makes me feel wanted and less alone. I'm very sorry, but I just can't do this anymore. I'll try my best to make this easy on you and the kids. We can work out the details later. I plan to talk to a divorce attorney sometime this week, but I don't want there to be any surprises.


My stomach had churned with fear and hurt. I'd taken my mother's words to mean that if she didn't want my father, then she didn't want any of us. From the second I crumpled the note and stuffed it back into my coat pocket, the entire world became suspect.

But there in Dean D'Alessio's truck, with the defrost blowing a hot stream of air on my face and feet, I wanted to get closer to the center of something that felt good, to move away from the injury of my mother's letter and the fear my stomach sickened with upon reading her words, so I took his hands and held tight as he guided our interlocked fingers down the front of his jeans.

• • •

And as chance would have it, while eating cereal with my husband and son in Madison on my birthday, an entire lifetime since that moment, I logged into my Facebook account for the first time in months. Among the birthday wishes, I was shocked to find a brief message and accompanying friend request from that old love, Dean.

Claire Spruce, is it you, after all these years?

After reading the message, I studied the thumbnail image of a man I'd never dared search for, always stopping myself from imagining his hulking frame, but there he stood on a mountain summit, something familiar in his posture, thrusting a ski pole into the air.

Crosswise from me sat Miles, who slurped his coffee and studied stacks of EKGs without any awareness that our son had dumped his milk across the kitchen table.

I closed the lid to my computer, searched for paper towels to sop up the mess, and pulled Jonah into my lap. The smell of his hair suggested maple syrup, and I nibbled the sticky finger he held to my lips, thinking about that photograph of Dean.

Tempted to send Dean an immediate response, I considered the time. Story hour at the public library was in twenty minutes, and getting there would take longer than usual with the falling snow, so I would wait to give the correspondence my full attention, when I wasn't rushing-once Miles was gone and Jonah was down for his nap. Eager to respond, I read the request again, lingering a second longer over the words. "Is it you, after all these years?" And with that one question, I envisioned Dean D'Alessio removing me from all that had frayed between Miles and me.

• • •

But things weren't always unhappy between Miles and me. We used to laugh together until we were breathless on the stretch of coastline down the lane from our turn-of-the-century farmhouse in Mystic, Connecticut. The expansive front porch and gorgeous framework of the place were obscured under a peeling, gray hide against which we leaned twenty-four-foot ladders and from which we skinned a hundred years' worth of paint. We were newlyweds and new homeowners, blissful and madly in love.

Those hot days of late August 2005, only a few weeks into our marriage, I was thirty-three years old, and while I stood on the top rung scraping a chisel over the clapboards, Miles steadied himself on the rooftop. From my vantage point, I studied his meticulous doctor's hands reconstructing the pebble chimney as a gentle rain fell over us. Knowing the surface beneath Miles's work boots had grown slick, I worried he might lose his footing and slip down the steep pitch of the copper roof, believing wholeheartedly that I would go undone if I had to live one moment of my life without him. I had found, I believed, the person I was meant to build not only a home with, but also a life, and it seemed I could never hold him close enough.

Through the year of restoration, my love for Miles only grew stronger, and I could feel the ache of it somewhere at the center of me, my desire for him throbbing like the exhausted muscles under my skin. All day, wearing tool belts and climbing ladders, we encouraged and challenged each other, resting only for lunches, devouring sandwiches a yard long, gulping down gallons of iced tea. We were a solid, unyielding team, and the house became an example of what we could accomplish together.

One freezing Sunday morning a month before Christmas, our goal, overly optimistic, was to have the kitchen primed and ready for a holiday meal. But watching Miles fuss over the base coat, dabbing the tiniest crevice with bristles, I saw his detailed process as a complete waste of time.

"At the rate you're working, we'll have the primer done by St. Patrick's Day," I teased.

Miles turned to me, brush in hand, and painted a white splotch on my nose.

"Watch it," he warned.

Responding to the threat, I ran a roller drenched in paint over the side of his face and grinned wickedly.

In retaliation, Miles chased me, half a gallon of primer in hand, hollering, "You're about to get it, my dear!"

Protecting myself, I pulled the drop cloth out from under Miles's feet, which sent him to the floor and the can into the air, splattering both our faces with white.

Stunned, blinking like two characters in a pie scene from an old television sitcom, we tumbled to the floor, giddy with laughter.

After a moment, Miles stood, drenched in paint, and ran his fingers over my lips, searching for a clean spot to kiss before he picked me up and carried me over the threshold and into the bathroom shower he had tiled himself.

With a pair of shears, he cut me from my paint-soaked clothes. Under the warm water, the paint ran from my hair in a milky stream. He pulled my body against his, kissed my neck and shoulders, and moved his hand between my legs, both of us frantic with desire.

"I love our life," he whispered, and I paused, hoping I could forever love it back.

I whispered, "It's the perfect life. Let's take good care of it."

Then, I eased us into the basin of the tub, straddled his lap, and moved him inside me, while the water rained over us. In that moment, I never wanted the house to be finished or the days constructing it to end.

But by the close of that second summer in Mystic, the house was completely prepped, everything but the trim painted sage green. With extra time on our hands, we started taking morning swims, running barefoot past the swing on the portico, and racing beyond my raised gardens filled with tomatoes to the sandy lane where the sea grasses had thickened alongside the dunes, out onto our private stretch of shore.

And there, as predictable as the tide, we'd encounter a pair of pugs always dressed in seasonal attire headed toward the surf. Our middle-aged neighbors outfitted their dogs, Pansy and Sebastian, as daisies in springtime, complete with petal headbands. Then, as the days grew long and muggy, they refashioned the pitiful little animals into gigantic bumblebees, with black-and-yellow T-shirts and battered wings bobbing behind them until Labor Day. Come fall, the dogs had their final metamorphosis, turned into apprehensive-looking jack-o'-lanterns who scuttled after sandy tennis balls in orange cable-knit sweaters.

Every time Miles and I caught a glimpse of them, pink tongues hanging from their dark lips, we debated how much humiliation a dog could stand and then how much humiliation we might one day tolerate from each other. For us, during that first year of marriage, the absurdity of Pansy and Sebastian was the worst we could ever imagine.

Standing on that stretch of beach, Miles told me, "I love how you just get it. Why I find those damn dogs so ludicrous." He was drying his tanned face on a towel after a swim. "And you'll get this one too," he said, as the pug twins darted by us in yellow-and-black T-shirts. He gestured toward the dogs' owners, Ned and Sheila Whitaker, wielding metal detectors over the sand.

"Check out Ned's shorts," Miles whispered. "He and Sheila are even worse off than the pugs."

We watched Ned stroll ahead of us, a cascade of pocket change falling from some forgotten hole in his tartan shorts and onto the sand. A few feet behind him, his wife, oblivious, whirled her metal detector over his path, sending the thing into the computerized song of a slot machine and her down on hands and knees, digging for treasure.

We watched our neighbors cackling like seagulls, amused tears welling in our eyes, as Sheila called to Ned. She wanted to show him her riches, not a clue in the world that they'd come from his pocket.

Miles reined me in to kiss the joke from my lips. "That's gonna be us," he said. "And I wouldn't want to grow demented with anyone but you."

As he held me close, the cold coming off his body from a swim, I let Miles's wet trunks soak through my clothes. I was happy then, happier than I had ever been in my life. I trusted that the strength of our love propelled not only our laughter, but also our mutual career successes-both Miles's clinical accolades and research distinctions at UConn's medical center, and my frontline investigations into global warming at the school's Atmospheric Resources Laboratory. Our combined honors were more than we had imagined for ourselves, or each other, and like the house, those achievements were something we worked at building together.

But somewhere in the seven years of our marriage, Miles and I stopped finding each other. We stopped working cooperatively; we stopped encouraging each other professionally; we stopped rejoicing in the ridiculous. As soon as our laughter vanished, so did our casual everyday intimacy-the way we reached for each other in the morning, shuffling through sleepiness to the coffeepot, or how we brushed up against each other on the way back from the mailbox. That kind of routine touch had become mislaid.

After we moved into our modern rental house in Madison, Wisconsin-where there were too many floor-length windows and doorways to keep the cold out, where Miles stood waiting in his lab coat and his mismatched socks, awaiting the kind of send-off I was too lonely and homesick to give him-the awkwardness of what was missing between us brought forth a deep sadness in me. There was no argument, no unforgivable exchange of words, no discussion, just a sense that what held us together was coming unstitched. Fraught with uncertainty about what that meant, I couldn't bring myself to move toward him.

Maybe because Miles had become so preoccupied with his work, he failed to recognize how hard the relocation for his clinical research and job prestige was for me-the way I craved the stimulation of my own former career, or simply how I longed for the sound of foghorns over the bay. He never once asked about my deep morning breaths as I sought out any hint of salt in the Midwestern air. Instead we went inward, silently tucking ourselves away from each other, not uttering a single word, pretending for a long time that everything was okay.

It was different back East in our green farmhouse before the pregnancies, before three years of attempting to conceive, before I gave myself over to Jonah, to motherhood, when in those happy early years of our marriage, I would carry Miles's coffee mug into the breezeway and block the exit.

"You're not going anywhere yet, Dr. Bancroft," I'd tease.

Miles would often start the day hiking my skirt over my thighs, and many mornings we'd find ourselves pinned against the pinewood door, stripped naked, both of us wanting each other, as Miles whispered, "What do you predict for us today, weather girl?"

But after the baby and the move, I couldn't quite imagine showing off my legs, or Miles finding the time to help me rediscover the missing parts of myself. I found my loneliness blooming-missing not only that regular touch, but also our former life, who I was before I became a mother, my job, my brain, my research, my body, and who Miles and I used to be together. I started living my life looking backward, seeking out the past and longing for familiarity because nothing in our new life was recognizable to me. I wondered, of course, if Miles was lonely too, though it scared me how most days that thought left me feeling almost nothing.

• • •

On that morning of my fortieth birthday, I did not reach for Miles when he left. I did not block him at the door and encourage him to pull me from my clothes, nor did we make promises to each other about the day. Instead, I stayed seated at the table with Jonah, to whom Miles blew a kiss, our mutual love for our son the one thing holding us together when he walked out the door.

Once Miles was gone, I announced in as singsong a voice as I could muster, "Library time!"

Jonah smiled at me with all ten of his teeth and ripped the bib reading "Hung like a five-year-old" from his neck, a gift from my mother, who has never known the lines of what's appropriate, and, to my chagrin, a token Miles continued to salvage from the trash and use, no matter how many times I threw it away.

"Bye-bye time!" Jonah shouted, letting me know he was in agreement with the plan. And after stuffing his wide toddler feet into a pair of snow boots, I logged on to Facebook once more to read Dean's message, wondering how my life might've turned out if I had ended up with him, recollecting all he had once protected me from.

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