What if your croque-monsieur turns out to be just another bologna sandwich?
Susie Page-Winthrop’s life in upper-class suburbia is unraveling. Not only is she hopelessly inept at her yoga poses and edged out of the kitchen by the hired cook, but her husband has had one too many affairs for her taste. The only remedy for her discontent is her brother’s cramped-but-homey city apartment and a new job as French chef for a family of five – although she hasn’t cooked much since losing her parents to a cement mixer almost twenty years ago.
Susie’s break from the superficial existence of her past doesn’t mean her struggles have ended. Someone is intercepting her letters to her deeply-missed son, widening the already considerable gap between them. Her boss is interested in more than her croquembouche. And when Susie falls for a man with a dubious history (and who also happens to be a clown), her circumstances go from complicated to treacherous as she faces an unreasonable use of nanny cams, and a store-bought birthday cake that wreaks havoc in one decisive hour.
In the face of an indefinite future and after the loss of a dear friend, a note appears that might alter the course of her life – and Susie finds herself residing in that sweet spot between instability and hope, where a girl might sit awhile and catch her breath. A place where vagrant sunflowers grow in the trimmed hedgerow, and compassion is more than just a word to say at dinner parties. Where even a three-headed hell hound might not be so bad, after all.
Susie’s pre-party bread and cheese melt
1 loaf crusty bread
1 small wheel of Brie or Camembert
Extra Virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 cup yearning for sofa and bad television
1 party, disagreeable and obligatory
3 teaspoons persistent husband
1 Tablespoon complacency
3 cups disengagement
Place wheel of cheese in the center of the bread and cut around it. Scoop out the bread until you have a cheese-sized hole in the center – much like the center of your sofa, where you wish you could convalesce with the bread and cheese dish and a glass of Cabernet or two. And some stupid, junky show that will make you feel superior. Wonder why you have to feel superior. Wonder if you might be better off going to party, like persistent husband says you would.
Cut the bread almost to the bottom, in a grid-like pattern, so that you are left with small square pieces. Brush inside of cut bread with olive oil, and sprinkle rosemary, salt, and pepper over it. Place cheese wheel in center and bake bread in oven for 15-20 minutes, until bread is crispy and cheese melted. Wish you could actually make bread and cheese dish. Realize that you probably never will, what with Chef Josef Tomas hanging around kitchen preparing things for breakfast. Wish Chef Josef Tomas wasn’t preparing things in kitchen all the live long day. Wish you could cook something. Anything. But it ain’t gonna happen. Suck it up.
Bang your head on the bathroom sink while searching for the last sliver of your favorite vitamin E cucumber soap. Wonder if the head-banging incident is a portent of things to come. Rub your head and consider the crest of soap in the palm of your hand. Dream of your silk throw and stupid, junky television.
Mentally prepare yourself for idiotic party, which persistent husband continues to sell to you. Squeeze yourself into a tight dress and throw on some heels. Decide you look ridiculous, but isn’t that the way the night’s going, anyway. Mentally prepare yourself for the Studebaker’s customary madcap bash. Make a rock and roll face in the mirror. Wonder if you might have hit your head harder than you had initially suspected.
No one declined an invitation to a Studebaker party. They were a couple who held semi-royalty status around town. Their house wasn’t far – a few neighborhoods away – so distance wouldn’t be an excuse for abstaining. Last year, the Studebakers had hired little people dressed as wrestlers. The year before, break dancers, and Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Boy George impersonators (“Tribute artists,” Merilee Studebaker had stipulated over the phone). One memorable year, they had employed nude servers, made less shocking by strategically applied body paints. Susie had taken an apple-crab potato nest from one of the servers, only to discard it later in the Studebakers’ prized Clytemnestra bush near the illuminated fountain. Eating an amuse-bouche served by a naked man with an Egyptian headdress seemed unsanitary – risky. She’d gotten too drunk that night, declining the food – instead dousing her appetite with rounds of Mojitos – and ended up with the hazy and somewhat arbitrary mission of rubbing the head of every bald man at the party, Merilee egging her on as if it were an Olympic sport and Susie in clear reach of winning the gold medal.
The fall bash was robust, mushrooming, as Susie and Richard arrived, their car taken from them by the valet and placed in the sardine can that was the Studebakers’ driveway by the tennis court. They entered through the front, although clearly most of the party guests were out in back, laughter and music whipping around the side of the house – a long, thick snake of sound winding itself into their ears. Susie watched her husband’s shoulders as he walked ahead of her into the west entrance of the house and through the pool room to the vast rear lawn.
Richard gave Merilee Studebaker the European double-kiss that everyone did around town, and shook Marcus Studebaker’s hand as they yakked it up about the game, poker night, Toby Olson’s new Jag. Richard exploded in laughter at something Marcus said. He gave her a side glance, and she smiled back automatically.
“Susie!” Merilee brought her cheek to Susie’s, and they performed the kissing ritual. “It’s been too long. How is Chris? Has he started at Williams, yet? Does he adore it? I know that school will work for him. He’ll respond to their holistic learning principles. I know my Duncan did. It’s a gateway school to Foster Dunn, you know. Everyone’s kid is going to Foster Dunn. And the chef there is fantastic. None of that shitty cafeteria food I grew up with.” Merilee stuck out her tongue. “Frigging awful. But, how are you? You haven’t uttered a word to me in almost three weeks. Was it something I said? Although, come to think of it, we were away for almost a month, so maybe that’s it. Turks and Caicos can be such a goddamn bore, I swear, I almost pulled out all my hair from sitting around staring at the ocean.” Merilee stopped, presumably to come up for air.
Susie looked across the lawn. “I’m fine. We’re fine. I…”
“God, I’m glad. When I hadn’t seen you for so long…well, I guess we’ve established that was because I was away, haven’t we? Did you get a drink, at least? Oh my God, have a champagne cocktail. What the hell is wrong with me? What kind of a hostess am I?” Merilee whisked a hand toward a passing tray being carried by a man dressed as a police officer. She handed the glass to Susie, who eyed the man as he retreated.
“We’ve got them dressed as the Village People,” Merilee said. “There’s also a cowboy. Come on.” She pulled Susie away from Richard, who remained deep in conversation with Marcus. Susie waved a hand toward him, almost desperately, but he was too absorbed; she caught one last glimpse of the back of his head as Merilee pulled her into the rush of chaos that constituted the onslaught of guests funneled into the expanse of the back lawn.
Susie noted that, besides the Village People, there were girls in go-go boots dancing in cages, and one girl in roller skates passing out chocolate roses. An authentic rose lay between her teeth, her constant smile barely containing a grimace as she scooted around the masses, her teeth blazingly white against the green, thornless stem.
“Susie – you remember Felicia, don’t you?”
Felicia James wore a perfectly-rendered red jumpsuit. Susie managed a smile and a handshake. “So good to see you again,” she said. “It’s been way too long. How are your boys?” She thought she remembered that Felicia had twin boys, but wasn’t sure, suddenly, if Felicia had any children at all.
“Fine,” Felicia said. “They’re in Southampton for the weekend, with their father. He’s there for the summer. Although, it’s not summer anymore, is it?” Her smile was casual, almost apologetic. “Well, not really. I always imagine summer’s over once September hits. But it isn’t, is it?”
“No. I suppose not.” Susie had completely lost track of the conversation. She wanted to find Richard, but it seemed impossible.
“Anyway. I hope you enjoy the party. Be well. Excuse me.” Felicia nodded and wandered off into the crowd. Susie turned toward Merilee but she had, apparently, found a new victim for whom she could perform her typical Merilee-monologue, sinuous in protestations and self-deprecation and a sprinkling of profanity; a monologue that emasculated the life of privilege while still firmly holding onto its root. Susie touched her unruly hair, a hand running down the side of her dress that she had bought off the rack the day before. She pressed her fingers around the champagne glass and emptied the contents in one smooth finish. And set out to find Richard.
“Where’s Richard?” she asked Marcus a half hour later. He was entertaining a group of men near one of the go-go girls’ cages, their talk peppered with glances at the blonde in the short dress gyrating above them. It was a reasonable assumption they were sneaking glances up her skirt. Susie wondered what Merilee would think of her husband ogling a twenty-year-old (about the age of the girl in question – certainly no older than Susie’s age of twenty-six) but thought maybe Merilee had witnessed her share of such a thing and had long ago made peace with her husband’s flirtations – had accepted them as an inevitable part of their marriage contract, like neglecting to turn the driver’s side mirror back into place, or setting a dirty dish on top of the dishwasher, rather than inside it.
“I don’t know,” Marcus said. “Why don’t you join us instead of looking for that uninteresting husband of yours? Keep us company.”
“Oh, ha ha. No, thanks. I mean, I’ve got to go find Richard, so…”
“All right. You win. Go find him. Remind him what a lucky guy he is.”
“Of course. But only if you remind Merilee what a wolf her husband is.” Susie performed her phony party laugh impeccably, her top lip curling in a canine grin, baring her teeth. Marcus laughed with her, the other men joining him, and Susie escaped up the stairs to the back patio and into the house, trying without much success to curtail the unavoidable swing of her backside, feeling their eyes on her as she went.
The back room consisted of a grand piano and sitting area. Susie made her way into the hall, turning toward the bathroom so she could sit by herself and re-group. The party was turning out as she had expected, and she was exhausted already. The thought of another two hours or so made her want to stick her head under the faucet of the sink and turn the cold water on full-speed. She wondered if the problem could be solved with another champagne cocktail. Or three.
She opened the door to the bathroom and stepped inside. It was a large room, almost bedroom-sized, with a slight hall that led to the Jacuzzi tub and sink. Susie remembered the Studebakers having a bidet, which made her oddly anxious. She turned the corner toward the tub, thinking she should check her makeup in the mirror after all that kissing, when she realized she wasn’t alone.
A red jumpsuit lay twisted up on the floor. Richard was behind Felicia James, and she was bent over the sink with nothing on but silver stilettos. Richard was fully dressed with his pants unzipped, moving against her; he hadn’t seen Susie yet, hadn’t even glanced her way. Susie stood at the tub, her chest still and solid, as if she had ceased taking in air and was, in all likelihood, dead.
“Richard?” she managed. It wasn’t that she needed to reaffirm his identity – or that she even wanted him to acknowledge her in any way. It was simply the only thing she could think of to say.
Felicia straightened and covered her breasts with her hands. “I told you the lock didn’t work,” she said.
Susie almost answered, but realized the comment wasn’t directed at her. Of course, Felicia was correct. The lock didn’t work. It was undeniably broken. It needed to be replaced with a new, probably shinier lock. Maybe a padlock. So that people could have more privacy to re-group, if they needed to; so that people wouldn’t catch their husbands in the act of intercourse with naked women in silver heels and eyes skirting over the room with feigned indifference, red jumpsuits crumpled on the floor – brilliant, fashion-forward road kill in the center of an alarming bout of foot traffic. The Studebakers would have to call a locksmith, as soon as possible. Susie would suggest it to them on the way out. Just in case the situation ever happened to arise again. She formed the word “out” in her head, almost saying the word aloud – although that would have been ridiculous. Out. She needed to get out.
She stumbled backward and tripped, landing in the Studebaker’s Jacuzzi, catching herself so her head wouldn’t smash into the solid, high-gloss acrylic side of the tub. She lay there, a sharp pain in her wrists from the fall, her dress bunched up around her hips. She brought her legs toward her chin in the fetal position, struck with the idea that she could stay curled up there until the bathroom was empty, until everyone had left, at which time she could pull herself up and slink away, incognito, the significance of “out” hanging over her as she fled toward some semblance of home.
Chris had fallen asleep during the cab ride to Boston, and Susie didn’t want to wake him. But the time ticked away on the meter, and she only had so much cash. “Chris,” she said softly. “Wake up. We’re here.”
Chris opened his eyes and started crying as Susie paid the driver and pulled her luggage from the back seat, heaving Chris out in one motion, shifting him to her left hip and hauling her bags onto the sidewalk. Seven steps led up to the front door of Josh and Adam’s building on Prospect Street, and Susie wasn’t sure she would make it. She pulled out her cell phone.
“Josh? I’m here. On the sidewalk in front of your building with a crying child and two lead-filled suitcases. If someone wanted to drown me, all they’d have to do is chain these suitcases to me and throw me in the river.” She glanced at Chris, who had stopped crying and looked back at her in a kind of fright. “Oh, honey,” she said. “I’m only kidding.”
He began to cry again, and she cursed herself for being such a horrible mother, for transporting Chris across two states via public transportation to her brother’s tiny Boston condo – discarding the idea of taking anything that Richard owned, her stupid Mercedes remaining locked away in their garage. She felt like crying, herself. She had been crying for two days straight, it seemed; two days of weeping, of sleeping alone, of ruminating back and forth – should she leave, should she stay, should she dig a hole in the backyard and bury Richard in it. And after the decision to leave had been made, she hadn’t thought she’d ever cry again. All her tears had seemed used up. It was inconceivable that her tear ducts were opening again, her sorrow stinging her cheeks, her misery trumping her will to conquer it.
Josh jogged down the stairs and scooped Chris away from her, plucking one of the suitcases from her grip. He kissed her cheek. “Come on up,” he said. “There’s Shepherd’s pie.”
“I can’t remember. Do I like that?”
“I don’t know. It’s Adam’s secret recipe.” Josh slogged up the stairs, and she followed him inside. They crammed themselves into the old elevator, and Josh pulled the wrought-iron door closed. She watched as they ascended, the ancient, cranky cables groaning, the side of the shaft visible in front of them and moving down as they went up. It was unnerving to watch their climb from floor to floor, the jerking walls, the creaking sounds of the tired mechanisms accompanying them as they lurched higher. Luckily, Josh and Adam only lived on the second floor. Susie didn’t know if she could stand going any further.
“Here we are,” Josh said, and yanked on the handle of the sliding door, following behind her with Chris as they walked to the apartment, number 2C. Adam pulled open the front door as if he’d been standing there the entire time waiting for them. Susie suspected he probably had. She kissed him and set her bag down on the front mat. The condo was on the small side, with lots of tiny rooms leading off from the one larger one. It was filled with original art Adam had collected along the way – paintings, sculptures, sketches of random faces and cityscapes. It was a mini-museum, but terribly messy. With furniture involved. The Shepherd’s pie smelled divine.
“It feels good to be here,” Susie said, and exploded in tears.
Josh led her to the sofa, and Adam took Chris’ hand, bringing him into the kitchen, chatting to him about helping to set the table and wouldn’t Chris like to pick out the salad dressing and what did Chris think they should have for dessert. Josh sat beside her and took her hands. She cried for a few more minutes, wiping her nose on the back of her sleeve. He jumped up and disappeared into the bathroom, returning with tissues. She grabbed a handful and blew.
“What an asshole,” Josh said. “Sorry. Did I just say that out loud?”
Susie laughed. “You’re right,” she said. “He is an asshole. Please, feel free to call him any name you like. Jerk, dog, hell-fiend. I don’t mind.”
“No, no,” Josh said. “It’s not right. He’s Chris’ father.” He looked away toward the kitchen, where Adam and Chris could be heard singing the Thomas the Tank Engine theme song at the top of their voices.
Susie squeezed his hands. “Thank you.”
“For letting us be here.”
“Come on. You’re my sister. You’re welcome here, anytime. Especially when your bastard of a husband cheats on you. Especially then.”
“Again, I’m sorry.”
“No, no, it’s okay. It’s just that…” Susie looked out the window into the street. A family walked by the building, a mother, father, and two kids. The mother held a leash with a fat, furry dog at the end of it. A golden retriever, she thought. What a load of crap that is. I’ll bet the kids fight all the time, and the wife makes out with the mailman, and the husband takes extended vacations by himself. I’ll bet the dog shits on their Oriental carpet and bites the guests under the table when they have dinner parties.
“It’s just,” she went on. “I should have known. I mean, it’s happened before. Remember, when Richard and I were in college, when we were first dating? Remember that exchange student, Carmen, who was in our dorm? The signs were there. And I chose to ignore them.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re considering that this could be your fault.”
Susie extracted her hand from his grip and wiped her eyes. “Yes,” she said. “I am. I caught him face to face with Felicia, before. It was in the hallway at Chris’ school, if you can believe that. I don’t know why she was there. It was an open house, or something, but her kids are older. He looked like he was about to kiss her when I found them. I suppose I should have known. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know if I can go back.”
“Don’t think about it right now,” Josh said. “Especially on an empty stomach. No good can come from worrying about something on an empty stomach. Eat. And then think about the rest later, with a glass of wine.”
“Red or white?”
“Does it matter?”
“No,” she said. “Not much.”
After dinner, she tucked a sleepy Chris into the bed in the guest room, and sat with Josh and Adam on their skimpy balcony with a glass of Merlot, admiring the moonlight and listening to the sound of traffic and talk, unused to night sounds. The most noise she heard at night in her own house was an occasional cricket or the whirring of someone’s sprinkler system.
They were silent, the three of them, the wine rendering them sluggish. The Shepherd’s pie turned out to be more of a pot pie, with various incongruous ingredients thrown in. Susie had forgotten Adam’s penchant for investigational cooking. Sometimes his dishes were successful, and sometimes he produced idiosyncratic combinations that were more experimental than not. Fortunately, the Shepherd’s pie a la pot pie had a pleasant, albeit unique, taste – satisfying in a starchy, comfort-foody way. Adam insisted on doing the dishes so Josh and Susie could plow it out some more. But she was tired of talking about Richard. She wanted him out of her head. He was a malignant tumor needing to be extracted. A cavity-filled molar.
“Stay as long as you like,” Adam said. He took a sip of wine. “Really. We love to have you here. And Chris.”
“Isn’t he in some fancy-shmancy school, or something?” Josh asked. “Like, the kind where the kids wipe their asses with gold-leaf, and get spoon-fed caviar pizza? What was the name?”
“Yeah. He’s at Williams.”
“Oh. Yes. Williams.” Josh rolled his eyes. “God forbid the boy should ever set foot in a public school. He might spontaneously combust.”
“Back off,” Adam said, smacking his arm. “She’s grieving.”
Susie brought her shoulders up in a small surrender. “No,” she said. “He’s right. It’s pretentious. Like every other damn thing. And, as far as grieving goes…” She looked down into her glass of Merlot. “That’s accurate. I feel like someone, or something, has died. Like my sanity.”
Josh stood up. “I’m going to call him right now, just to let him know what I think of him. I don’t care how much money he makes.”
“Sit down.” Adam looked mortified. “No one’s calling anyone.”
Josh sat back down. “I could,” he said after a minute. “I’m not stopping because you want me to. I’m stopping because I’m too angry, and I’m not sure what I’d say.”
“I know.” Adam leaned over and took Josh’s hand.
Susie watched them, wondering how it was that some people were capable of deep love, and others so far from the center of it, it was pathetic. Richard had attempted to drive their intimacy to unimaginable heights, had – successfully at times – managed to suck her into him like he was inhaling her through a straw. “Oh, Susie Q,” Richard would sing to her, a song he had made her own. Sometimes he sang it when she was in the shower, his face pressed up against the insubstantial glass, looking to her like a fiend, a vagabond thief, or worse. “Susie Q,” he’d sing, showing his teeth in a wicked smile, and she’d bang on the glass. “Go away,” she’d say. “I need to shampoo.”
He’d sung it to her when they were first engaged, and again after they had Chris, Richard’s soft twang the soundtrack to her nursing, the blurred days she stumbled through in her sleep-deprived brain, and the times Richard kissed her nipples, inadvertently receiving a mouthful of breast milk. It became his mantra to her; her opus, a gift of infinite proportions that she alone recognized. She knew what it meant to him, this simple song about a girl named Susie who talked and walked and was loved because of it.
And, after all of that, she was sucker-punched. She supposed that she possessed a denial so rich and deep, it would take a severe excavation to get to the core of it. She supposed that, whenever Richard said, “I love you,” or, “You’re my baby,” or sang her anthem to her, she blocked out how she’d been wronged in the past, every small incident that screamed foul, every questionable action that composed the essence of Richard.
It wasn’t only the song that had (erroneously) solidified her confidence in him; it was the small moments, the ones that stuck with her long after she’d gone to bed, outstretched under their sheets listening to Richard’s breathing, deep and barely self-possessed. Moments when he’d lay his hand on her back while she twisted off the lid of a jar of green olives, a kiss on the tip of her ear as they embraced at the bottom of the stairs, a rose from their garden that he left on the dresser while she slept in. They had spent their lives together like vagrants – not concerned with time or space, but simply breezing through. It was as if the past and future held no significance, and all that mattered was the fraction of time they had in front of them.
She swept up her hair and stood, her wine glass empty. “I’m going to bed,” she said. “Exhausted. Maybe the morning will be illuminating.”
“As mornings can be,” Adam said, standing with her and giving her a hug. “See you then.”
“Yes, you will.”
“I love you,” Josh said. “Fuck him.”
“I love you too,” she said. “And, no thank you.”
The next morning, Richard stood in the lobby ringing the buzzer. After answering the initial ring, Josh ignored him. Richard rang the buzzer once every couple of minutes, to no response. Then he rang it every few seconds. After a while, he gave up, and laid his forehead against it, one long buzzing sound emanating from the tiny speaker on the wall. He finally lifted his head, immediately assailed by Josh on the other end.
“Go away,” Josh said.
“I want to see Susie.”
“She’s unavailable. Go away.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Josh made a whooshing noise. “Bastard,” he said.
“I don’t care what you think of me. I need to talk to Susie.”
“Josh, for Christ’s sake. I came all the way from Connecticut.”
“So go back.”
“I want to see Chris, at least. He’s my son, for God’s sake. Please.”
There was silence on the other end. “You had to play the Chris-card, didn’t you?” Josh said quietly. “All right.”
Richard stood staring at the speaker, his arms limp at his sides. He was tired, having driven non-stop for three hours, even though he had to pee for the last half hour of the trip. But he’d pressed on, the thought of Susie in Boston by herself, probably wanting to break off with him, prodding him along the highway at dangerous speeds. He’d flown through the tolls, unconcerned with police, laws, obedience. Nothing mattered but getting to Josh’s, as quickly as possible. She hadn’t told him where she was going – hadn’t even left him a proper note, other than the three words scribbled on the back of their gas bill – “Need some space. S.” But he had known she would flee to Josh’s, the only place she would think to go. And he couldn’t give her space. Not then. Not ever.
The thought of losing her seared through his mind – a hot spice of a thought. Memories of her flooded him. The first time he had seen her, the top of her blonde head dipping down in front of the cafeteria at the university, the part in her hair straight and fine; a group surrounding her as she wept. A longing so deep that he needed to leave, to ponder the new feeling of a fresh desire that took everything he had not to go back and wrap her up in him, carry her off and make her sadness end – whatever the cause of it. He’d finally finagled an introduction by a mutual friend, and tried to seduce her subtly by steadily gazing at her, once allowing his eyes to flicker down her body while she was watching. Another time, he placed a finger lightly along the side of her cheek. Days later, after hanging around her dorm room, catching glimpses of her, the way her breasts moved underneath her cotton jersey, the tightness of her jeans, he finally had the chance to hold her while she shared her sorrow with him as they stood on the covered bridge separating their dorms from the college woods. He could barely contain an emerging erection, half-burying his desire in the name of inappropriateness, as her shoulders jerked toward him in misery.
“Talk to me.”
She shook her head.
“Talk to me. About the accident. Come on.”
She looked up at him, her eyes stark. “The thing is,” she had said. “I’m trying to get my head around this orphan business. I can’t find the feeling, like it’s here somewhere, something I should be feeling. But I can’t find it.”
“Aw, Susie. I’m here for you.”
“I mean, I’ll always be here for you.”
“You will? That’s good.” She had arranged her head against his neck, the feel of her chin jutting into his shoulder blade unexpectedly arousing. “I can’t even process what dead means. I hate that word, dead. One minute here, the next gone. Erased, like an Etch A Sketch. Quick. That quick.”
He held her a while longer, and then they had kissed. He didn’t know how it happened, but the feel of her tongue on his lips pulled him to her, the rush of heat in his groin inexorable as they sank down behind the bushes and made love, almost violently. She had pushed him down first, had pulled up her skirt and secured his hand between her legs. He was ready to oblige her, glad for her fervent body on his, even though it seemed to him a sort of desperation on her part, as if it wasn’t him she wanted, but the close feel of her skin against another person – any other person. A person who could take back the last month, someone who would undo the fact that her parents were gone from her – parents who had taken a number and gone to the meat counter, exiting the earth irrefutably.
But afterwards she had accepted him, and his presence in her life. He took care of her, held her hand at parties when she wanted to bolt away, and had bought her groceries, cartons of Chinese food from “Lotus Garden” when she couldn’t get out of bed, her new status of orphan rendering her frozen and helpless. She shared her body with him, shared her wit and her intelligence and her beauty, her legs stretched out across the sheets as he watched his hand, ruddy and rough-looking by comparison, stroke her smooth silk of a thigh. She began to suggest things, little things, like should they go to a concert, and how about the new Indian place on the corner – and he knew that he had helped her through to the next point, whatever it was. She still held his hand at parties, still opened her legs for him. And he stood in awe of her, a tragically flawed mortal with his feet planted on solid ground, gazing up at a crystal moon.
As he stood in front of the buzzer, the need to urinate began to cause him pain, the pressing in his bladder urging him to get in the building almost as much as the thought of seeing Susie, of talking to Susie. He was also hungry – but not hungry – as if his mind had outweighed the feeling in his stomach; aware of his hunger through an isinglass curtain, semi-transparent but present, just the same.
Josh opened the front door and stopped in the doorway. “Richard,” he said. “I’d ask how you are, but I really don’t care. Susie’s agreed to see you, but she’s coming down. She doesn’t want you up.”
“I have to use the bathroom.”
“Oh. Well. I think there’s one down the street, at the gas station on the corner.”
“Or you could run out back and pee in the bushes. Mrs. McGillicutty, next door, has a view of our backyard, but I don’t think she’s around at the moment. If she is, I’m sure she’ll look away.”
Josh rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he said. “Wait here.”
He disappeared into the elevator, the sounds of the old cables squeaking and groaning; and several minutes later the elevator came creaking back.
“Come on,” he said, waving him forward wearily, as if Richard’s bodily functions were the bane of his existence. “But be quick about it. And, it’s right back down, after – no arguments.” They stood without speaking as the elevator shifted and trembled up to the second floor, and traipsed out and down the hallway to number 2C. Josh pushed open the door, motioning in the direction of the bathroom.
Richard emerged five minutes later, but instead of heading to the front door, ran the opposite way and flung open the door to the guest room, where Susie had been sitting, drinking coffee and biting her fingernails clean off.
She jumped from the bed, spilling the mug of coffee on her lap and shoes. “Richard!” she yelped. “Get out of my room!”
“Your room? This is not your room. Your room is where we live, in Hayden Heights, in our house. Your room is my room, where our bed is, where you belong, where we belong.” He sank to his knees. “You have to come with me,” he said, his voice choked and thin. “I need you to come home with me.”
“Get out of here,” she said, brushing off her jeans. “Look at the coffee stains on my pants. I just bought them.”
“Your pants? Your pants? What about our life together? What about that?”
“Oh? You’re concerned about our life together? Really?”
“Susie. Susie Q.”
“What? What could you possibly say that will make any damn bit of difference? You’re sorry? You want me home? You can’t live without me? What? I know what I’d like to hear. I’d like to hear you say, Hey, Susie – dear, dear Susie Q, that wasn’t me – that was some other guy. I would never, my dear, darling, sweet wife, never cheat on you. Never.” She looked at him, and then at the floor. “That’s what you could say – you know, if you wanted to make a damn difference. But I doubt you can say that, now, can you?”
“Daddy?” Chris stood at the door.
Adam swooped in, picking him up. “Sorry. He escaped while I was making the croissants. Chocolate chip. They’re about to go in the oven, if you…” He shook his head and turned back to the kitchen while Chris howled.
“Daddy!” he yelled, his hand outstretched, curved in a small question mark, his little finger pointing toward Richard as Adam whisked him away. “What’s wrong with Daddy?”
Susie gazed down at Richard. He knelt on the floor, his face scrunched up, the beginning of tears. She didn’t care. His tears meant nothing to her – if anything, they were satisfying. She realized it had been ages since she’d seen him cry. It was refreshing, as if his tears would wash away all the filth and make everything new and shiny. “Damn it,” she whispered. “I wish he hadn’t heard that.”
“Chris,” Richard said. “Jesus, Susie. Think of Chris.”
“I am thinking of him,” she said. “I think of him every second.”
Josh and Adam watched as Susie and Richard talked outside in the backyard, their heads bent in to one another.
“Mrs. McGillicutty is having a field day,” Adam said. “I’m sure she’s relishing every word. Is that her in the window, there?”
Josh’s expression was tight, a face of straight lines. “I hope she does the right thing,” he said.
Adam tied a bib on Chris, who tugged at it in protestation. “And what might that be?” he asked.
Josh stared out the window, lost in the white pines that subjugated their yard, seeing the trees but not seeing them. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’m not sure what the right thing is. I’m so goddamned angry at the guy. But he’s the father of her kid, isn’t he? And that’s what matters, most of all, right? How much does she have to take, though? When is enough, enough?”
Adam shook his head as he poured Cheerios into a bowl and dumped them out in front of Chris, who crunched them down as he stared at the TV on the kitchen counter. Sesame Street was on, and would apparently be followed by Clifford the Big Red Dog. “To err is human,” Adam said. “I’m just saying.”
Chris looked at him, his little pointed chin jutting upward, his eyes brilliant. “Two erris himmin,” he said.
“That’s right, little dude,” Adam said. “You know it.”
Chris nodded in agreement, satisfied with the resolution they had made between them, and shoved a handful of Cheerios into his open mouth.
She stared at his feet. He had worn his Oxfords, for whatever reason. They looked markedly out of place amid the grass and brown leaves, more suitable for the board room, or lunch downtown. She would never have suggested he wear Oxfords for such an occasion, if she had happened to be in the room while he got dressed. Oxfords were the wrong choice for begging his wife to come home with him. If anyone had asked her, she would have suggested that when pleading to save one’s marriage the logical choice would be a good pair of running shoes. Thick soles, laces tied in double-bows, sure to stay put on the feet in the event of an unexpected dash after a woman making a break for it. She would have recommended to him that he be certain he was in shape and ready to run, perhaps for miles; that he understood the probability of a wife, having been played a feminine cuckold, bolting out the door. Without as much as a backward glance.
“You wore your Oxfords.”
“No. I can’t hear you. Your Oxfords have drowned out all reason.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“Please, please come back with me. I need you. I love you. I don’t know why I did it. I just did. I have a problem.” He cleared his throat. “With women. I know I have a problem. But, you. You are the one. I can’t be without you.”
“I think you’ll manage.”
“No. I won’t.” He took her hands, and she didn’t pull them away. “Come home with me. We can work it out. Think of Chris.”
She gazed at his hands over hers, stroking hers.
“I’ll do therapy. I’ll do anything.”
She looked at him, at his face. He was pale, shrunken, as if he had, in his earnestness, become smaller, melted into something weaker. His head was tiny, a bird’s head. Sallow and full of remorse.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll come home. For now.”
He breathed out, and brought her fingers to his lips. “That’s all I ask,” he said. “That’s more than I could ever ask.”
“Don’t be too happy. I didn’t say I would stay.”
“I would never presume that you would.”
“As long as we’ve got that straight.”
He kept his lips on her knuckles, his eyes on her face. She looked away.
“By the way,” she said. “There’s a woman smoking a cigarette over there, in that window, in the next house over. Watching our every move.”
“Mrs. McGillicutty,” he said. “You could pee out here, in the bushes, and she’d look the other way. Or so I’m told.”
“A somewhat random fact,” she said. “But good to know.”
Susie stood on the sidewalk at the bottom of the front stairs, her bags at her feet.
“Are you sure?” Josh’s voice was barely audible. He glanced over at Richard, who held Chris, waiting by the car. “What if…”
Susie grabbed his hand. “There are a lot of ‘what ifs,’” she said. “Too many. What if I step off the curb and get run over by a bus? What if we get home and our house has been taken over by pygmy monkeys? What if Chris goes through life with a broken home? See how that works?”
Josh grunted. “Yeah. I see. I’m not sure I like it, but I get it.”
“You don’t have to like it. I do.”
He laughed a little. “True enough,” he said. “But if he ever…”
“I’ll know where to go.”
He paused, scrutinizing her. “Are you okay?”
“Fantastic. Never better.”
“Sarcasm is a sign of intelligence.”
“Then I must be a genius.”
They embraced, and she realized how much she’d miss him. How much she missed Josh’s recalcitrant nature, the way he always stuck up for her; his fondness for clothing, how he liked to read aloud from Book of Dreams by Jack Kerouac; how he loved ancient Greece, loved the myths, how he always compared her to Athena, goddess of wisdom and intelligence, with gray eyes, like hers. He would take care of her, and always had. They played in their small back yard in the city, and made up games that only they knew. When Susie fell out of the London planetree in the front of their building and broke her arm, it was twelve-year-old Josh who called emergency 911. It was Josh who taught her how to play guitar, letting her strum away at “Blowing in the Wind” on his twelve-string; who encouraged her when she wanted to try out for Maria in West Side Story at their high school, and consoled her when she only got a part in the chorus. He helped her pick her wedding dress, and she stood by him when he told their parents he was gay, held his hand as their parents’ faces fell into something like panic – fleetingly, but she had seen it, and had held his hand tighter as their parents regained control, molded their expressions back into what was meant to be understanding, acquiescence, open-mindedness.
She pulled away from him, her suitcases heavy and awkward as she yanked them forward, and turned to Richard, who had opened the back door of the car. Josh noted that Richard buckled Chris into his car seat and got into the driver’s seat, popping the trunk without an offer to help her with the bags – but he said nothing. He stepped over to help her hoist the bags in. She got in the passenger side and they drove away, Susie’s hand small and white through the glass as she waved goodbye. Josh stood on the sidewalk long after they left. Adam came down and stood with him, taking his hand, after a while, and leading him inside again.
“She’ll be fine,” he said. “She always is.”
“Well,” Josh said. “Not always.”