Happiness at someone else’s expense came at a price. Tia had imagined judgment from the first kiss that she and Nathan shared. All year she’d waited to be punished for being in love, and in truth, she believed that whatever consequences came her way would be deserved.
She felt vaguely queasy from the late Sunday lunch she and Nathan had just shared. They'd ordered far too many courses; buttery appetizers, overdressed salad, and marbled meat roiled in her stomach. Black Forest cake had left her mouth pasty with sugar and chocolate. Each time Nathan patted his thickening middle with chagrin, she worried that she’d become Nathan’s accomplice in more than one sin.
Since childhood, she’d hated heavy food. Instead of sharing this lunch, she wished they could have waited until tomorrow to see each other, when they could sit on a blanket watching fireworks explode on the Esplanade and listening to the Boston Pops. The Fourth of July was a holiday without the burden of expectations; a perfect celebration for them.
Nathan squeezed her hand as they walked toward her apartment. His obvious pride delighted her. She was twenty-four, he was thirty-seven, and this was the first time she’d been loved by a man of substance. Each time they met, she discovered new love-struck traits—details she’d never admit to anyone, like the way his hands seemed more like a cowboy’s than a professor’s. Qualities that might seem ordinary to someone who’d grown up with a father, Tia added to her list of Nathan lore.
Last week, he’d seemed like Superman when he came over carrying a toolbox, planning to install a showerhead that sprayed more than a weak stream. Attached to the handle was a card where he'd written, “This is for you to keep here.”
The words made Tia feel as though he’d use it again.
No present could have pleased her more.
Mostly, she found Nathan perfect. Muscled arms. A wide back. His sardonic New York edge, delivered with a crooked smile—worlds away from the street humor of the South Boston boys of her youth—cracked her up, while his innate competence wrapped her in a thick blanket of security. Nathan’s too-rare presence oxygenated her blood. When she ran her thumb up and down each of his fingers, the universe existed in that physical connection. Her life had shrunk to being with him.
She’d spent many hours crying during this year of Nathan. A man with a family couldn’t spare a whole lot of attention.
When they reached the two-family house where she lived, Nathan circled her from behind. She leaned back and caught his kiss on the side of her neck. He ran his hands down the length of her body. “I never tire of touching you,” he said.
“I hope that never changes.”
“People always change.” A look of discomfort crossed his face as he disengaged from her. “You deserve so much.”
Did he think she deserved having him with her always? Tia put the key in the door. She comforted herself with the thought that he believed her worthy.
The moment they entered her apartment, Tia raced to the bathroom; lately she always needed the bathroom. Afterward, she spent a long time drying her hands and straightening an out-of-place antique perfume bottle he’d bought her. She was constantly rearranging things, trying to make the pink crystal fit in with her Ikea-ware and her mother’s castoffs. Tia’s apartment became a stage set when Nathan visited. She spent hours before he arrived seeing every book, decoration, and poster through his eyes.
• • •
Nathan offered her a glass of wine when she joined him in the living room. “Listen to this one,” he said. “I used an old Groucho line today—‘I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member’—to illustrate a point, and a student asked me who Groucho Marx was.”
Tia put out a refusing palm for the wine. “No thanks. I’m not in the mood.”
“It made me feel about a hundred years old. Now, tell me the absolute truth: You know who Groucho Marx was, right?” He pushed the glass toward her. “At least taste it. It’s probably the smoothest Merlot you’ll ever have.”
When she didn’t have wine at lunch, he hadn’t commented. “I’m in the mood for a Pepsi,” she’d said. Maybe he thought she was acting like a teenager and he found it cute. Sometimes it bothered her, the things he found cute.
“You Bet Your Life,” she said. “Duck Soup. A Night at the Opera.”
“Thank you. My faith in young people is restored.”
“There aren’t that many years between us.” She hated when he dwelled on their age difference. “God knows I’m older than your students.”
“And sharper,” he said.
“That’s right—don’t forget.”
The moment she shared her news, their romance would change forever, not that it had ever had been sustainable as it was. From the first time they slept together and he’d blurted out, “I’m crazy about you,” she’d wanted more. First she’d wanted him in her bed all the time, and then she wanted the ring on his finger to be from her. When her need for him hit full throttle, she wanted the crease in his pants to be put there by a dry cleaner she’d chosen, his shirt to smell of detergent she’d chosen.
Tia looked straight at him. “I’m pregnant.”
He stood with his hand still extended, the wine sloshing against the edge of the glass like a riptide.
Tia reached for the glass. “You’re going to drop it.” She put it next to his on the coffee table.
“So that’s why you didn’t drink with lunch,” he said.
He delivered the words slowly, so slowly it terrified Tia. Despite knowing how unlikely it was, she wanted to see a shy smile—a TV smile followed by a movie-style kiss. She put a hand over her still-flat belly, nausea welling again. She pushed away thoughts of Nathan’s wife. Much as she tried, Tia couldn’t stop thinking of Juliette—where she was, where she believed her husband had gone—but early on, he’d made it clear that topic was off-limits.
“How long have you known?” he asked.
“A few days. I wanted to tell you in person.”
He nodded, finished his wine, and then sat. He laced his fingers and leaned over until his arms rested on his legs. He glanced up at her, looking stern, like the professor he was. “You’re going to take care of it, right?”
Tia sank into the armchair across from the couch. “Take care of it?”
“Of course, take care of it.” He closed his eyes for one moment. When he opened them, he sat up straighter. “What else can we do? What else makes sense?”
“I can have it.” She wouldn’t cry. If nothing else good in this damned world happened tonight, she’d keep from crying.
“Alone? Like your mother?” Nathan ran his hand over his chin. “You of all people know what a hard road that is, right, sweetheart?”
“Where are you going to be? Are you planning to die? Disappear?” Behind her brave front, Tia shrank to walnut size. She knew where Nathan would be. He’d be in his beautiful house with Juliette. The wife. The wife she’d once spied on. The wife who looked like sun and sky, whose blonde shine had blinded Tia.
“I’ll pay for whatever you need to take care of . . . ”
“ ‘Take care of, take care of,’ ” Tia mimicked. “Take care of what?” She wanted to force him to say the word abortion.
“My sons are so young.”
Tia clutched the arm of the chair. She craved the forbidden wine.
“I can’t stretch between two families. Please. Look at what this means,” he begged.
Dry skin peeled from her cracked thumb as she wrung her hands. Already this pregnancy had changed her, somehow drying her out while also making her pee twice an hour.
Nathan came and put his arms around her. “Pregnancy makes women romanticize things. You think after seeing the baby, fatherly love will overwhelm me and I’ll change my mind. But I can’t. I’m not leaving my family. Wasn’t I always straight about that?”
Oh God. He was crying.
She’d thought she was having his family.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Finally she spoke. “I can’t do it, Nathan. What you’re asking—I can’t.”
Nathan drew away. “I’m sorry, but there’s no possible way we can be together, Tia. Please. Take care of this. It’s the best thing for both of us. Honestly.”
• • •
By her sixth month of pregnancy, discomfort had become Tia’s new normal. Once upon a time so skinny that people pressed milkshakes on her, now she lumbered. She stuck a cushion behind her as she sat on the couch, surrounded by begging letters, photos, and essays from couples hungry for her baby.
Tia had refused to “take care of this,” as Nathan wanted. St. Peter’s nuns and Tia’s mother had done too good a job. She couldn’t rid herself of the pregnancy for fear of being haunted into the afterlife, and she couldn’t find the courage to hold her child in this life, so here she was, six months pregnant, choosing a mother and father for her baby.
Picking adoptive parents, she was faced with impossible choices. She sorted through hundreds of letters from men and women desperate for the baby growing inside her. Potential mothers and fathers swam before her until she could barely remember who was the librarian from Fall River and which was the couple reminiscent of her scariest Sunday school teachers. They all promised nurturing love, backyards the size of Minnesota, and Ivy League schools.
After three cups of sugary mint tea, missing coffee more with each sip, Tia narrowed the choices to the three most likely couples. She sifted through their pictures and letters, and then laid them out like tarot cards. Then, with the fear of continuing to face this task hastening her decision, she picked the man and woman she deemed most likely to be good parents. She balanced their photos on her big belly and then moved them around like paper dolls, acting out everything they’d said during the phone conversation she’d had with them, both of them sounding so sure of themselves, so smart and together.
“Hello, Tia,” she imagined Paper Caroline’s voice squeaking. “I want your baby. I’m a pathologist researching children’s cancer. My husband has a very large family, and he’s always been drawn to children.”
“Tell her about being a counselor at Paul Newman’s camp. What’s the name? You know. The one for kids with cancer?” Paper Peter laid a gentle hand on saintly Paper Caroline’s arm.
“The Hole in the Wall Gang.” Paper Caroline bowed her head so as not to appear boastful.
• • •
A month later, when Caroline and Peter learned it was a girl, they told Tia they were naming the baby Savannah. An idiotic name. Tia called the baby inside her Honor, her mother’s middle name—also an idiotic name, but it wasn’t meant to be used out of utero, and besides, idiotic or not, it certainly beat Savannah. Why not simply call her Britney and be done with it? If she wasn’t so busy caring for her ailing mother, she’d choose new parents for her daughter.
Tia stumbled as she fumed over the choice, bumping into a food cart in the hall of the hospice that had become her mother’s home. Clumsiness was Tia’s companion. Clumsiness, the constant need to pee, and a life of seclusion. She’d gone from existing for Nathan’s visits, to carrying a relentless reminder of him. Each time she stroked her stomach, she felt as though she were caressing him. Hard as she tried, she couldn’t replace sadness with hate.
Her mother was the only person with whom she spent time. Every other friend from her past—except for Robin, in California, too far away to visit—thought she’d gone to Arizona for a year to work on a master’s in gerontology, based on her work with the elderly. In reality, she moved to Jamaica Plain, an entirely different sort of neighborhood from Southie.
Unlike her old neighborhood, where she’d see people she knew on every street, Jamaica Plain was always in flux—a mix not just of ethnicity and race, but of class, culture, and age. Her only acquaintance was the librarian, with whom she had a nodding hi, how are you, relationship. JP was an easy place to remain anonymous.
She’d wanted to be where nobody knew her name. Being the object of gossip or pity wasn’t in her plans. Her mother’s savings supported both of them—Tia rarely left the house. Life became mainlining novels, watching TV, and caring for her mother, who’d moved in with Tia until her pain overcame Tia’s nursing ability.
She crept into her mother’s room on angel feet. That’s what her mother had called it when Tia the child tried to sneak into the kitchen for extra cookies. “Sweet one, mothers can hear their children, even when they use their angel feet.”
Though Tia tried to pretend otherwise, her mother lay dying as Tia’s baby grew.
“Mom?” she whispered.
The room remained silent. Tia dug her nails into her palms and bent over the bed, watching until she saw the slight rise and fall of her mother’s chest. Her mother was only forty-nine. Liver cancer had overtaken her in a matter of months, although Tia suspected her mother had hidden the truth for some time.
Her mother had been in hospice for twenty-three days. Maybe the younger you were when you became sick, the longer you held on, or maybe twenty-three days was average, normal—whatever you’d call the amount of time from entering a hospice until you died. She couldn’t bring herself to find out. Perhaps if she had a sister or brother who’d team up with her, she’d have the courage to ask such a vulgar question, but it had always been just the two of them, Tia and her mother.
Dying could be such a long process, which surprised Tia. You’d think that working with the elderly would have taught her more about death and dying, but she’d provided senior recreation, not counseling. Word games were her specialty. In her work world, a client didn’t show up for Scrabble, and the next thing you knew, he or she was dead.
You didn’t see the person die.
Losing her mother seemed impossible, as though someone planned to cut the string that held Tia to earth. She’d be floating without ballast. Tia had none of the usual family: no aunts, no uncles, no cousins—her mother filled all those roles.
Tia settled into the chair next to her mother’s bed. She wondered why, when they so stressed comfort, the hospice didn’t provide chairs where a pregnant woman could sit pain free. She slipped a paperback from her tote: a mystery so simple that even if she retained only a quarter of what she read, she could still track the plot. Her mother’s copy of Jane Eyre, complete with the magical happy ending, was in her bag, but she saved that to read aloud to her mother after supper.
Her mother opened her eyes. “Been here long, sweetheart?” She reached for Tia’s hand. “Tired?”
Tia ran a hand over her large belly. “Always.”
“You don’t have to come here every night, you know.”
Her mother repeated this daily. It was her version of “I’m worried about you.”
“Tired isn’t life threatening.”
“When you’re pregnant—”
“When you’re pregnant, it’s what you are. Remember?” Tia asked. “Was it like that for you? Did I drive you crazy even before I was born?”
Her mother struggled to sit up. Tia offered a hand for leverage and then tucked pillows behind her mother’s back. Her mother’s skin, once such a pretty, pink-tinged white—pale Irish skin that burned with one wink from the sun; that was how her mother described herself—now looked mean yellow against the sheets.
“I remember everything about being pregnant,” her mother said. “Are you going to be able to forget?”
“Mom, please don’t,” Tia said.
“I have to, honey.” Her mother retrieved her glasses from the metal tray attached to the bed. Once the wire rims were firmly in place, she looked healthier. Glasses, jewelry, and other accoutrements seemed like totems against death. Tia constantly bought bright trinkets to cheer her mother. Electric blue beads threaded onto silver cord clanked around her mother’s wrist. “They match your eyes,” Tia had said, after buying them the previous week.
“Why don’t I get you some ice water?” Tia said.
“Don’t run away. Listen to me. You need to face how sorry you’ll be if you go through with this.”
This was the word her mother used to describe Tia’s plan to give up her baby for adoption.
“I’d be a horrible mother,” Tia said.
“You think that now. Wait until you hold your baby.”
Each skirmish in her mother’s battle to stop the adoption made Tia feel worse. Every reason Tia laid out sounded lamer than the last.
“I’ll be a bad mother.”
“I don’t have enough money.”
“I’m too ashamed of not knowing who the father is.”
Rather than telling her mother the truth, Tia pretended to be a woman who’d slept with too many men and, thus, didn’t know the identity of her baby’s father. The horror of that lie was still better than the truth. She couldn’t bear telling her mother she’d been sleeping with a married man—and had tried to steal him.
Everything she said sounded ridiculous. Maybe she’d be a bad mother, God knows she had no money, and immature should be her middle name, but if that were all it took to give up a baby, the world would be filled with orphans.
Tia caressed her belly. Sweet little baby, I’m sorry.
Tia had grown up in the wake of her father’s vanishing. In a vacuum of knowledge, her mother assumed he’d chosen a life with another woman—living a life with more fun and liquor than Tia’s puritanical mother would accept. In her mother’s estimation, sleeping with a married man was a sin only exceeded by abortion.
Without the truth, Tia could offer no reasoning that would make sense. How could she admit that she was giving up a child whose existence would remind her of a man she loved, but could never have? How could Tia say this to her mother when Tia had no idea if she was being the most selfish she’d ever been, or the most selfless?
“The baby will have a better life than I’ll ever be able to give her,” Tia said. “Really, Mom. You saw their letter, the pictures. The baby will have good parents.”
Her mother’s eyes watered. Tia’s mother never cried. Not when Tia broke her leg so badly that the bone stuck out. Not when she found out about the cancer. And not when Tia’s father left—at least, not in front of Tia.
“I’m sorry.” Her mother blinked, and the tears disappeared.
“Sorry? God, you’ve done nothing wrong.”
Her mother folded her arms and clutched her elbows. “I must have done something awful to have you believe your baby will do better without you. Do you think your life at this moment is as well as you’ll ever do? Don’t you see that your future lies in front of you?”
Tia shrugged as though she were a child shutting down against shame, aching at the thought that she might let her mother die thinking she’d failed in raising her.
“Mom, it’s not that.”
“I just don’t think it’s my path.” Tia covered her belly with both hands. Every lie she told felt as though she were pushing her mother further away, now when they needed closeness more than ever. “I don’t think she’s meant to be mine.”
“Please don’t make your decision yet. Something’s tormenting you, and I know it’s not what you’re telling me. That’s okay. But believe me, if you pick giving in to your pain over choosing your baby, you’ll never recover from either.”
Juliette usually listened to music while she worked, but not today. She was stealing from Sunday family time—and a sunny Sunday at that—while the boys watched a video downstairs. Silence ensured she could hear her sons.
Guilt kept her company, even though she and Nathan had devoted every second of the morning and early afternoon to the boys. They’d taken a short hike at Beaver Brook Reservation, and then eaten a picnic lunch prepared by Juliette, complete with the Rice Krispies Treats she’d stirred up at six that morning, and then played an hour of goofy softball. Afterward, Nathan left for an afternoon of correcting papers, and she snuck up to get in a few hours of paperwork.
It wasn’t as though they weren’t having togetherness; tomorrow night they’d drive into Boston and watch the fireworks. Still, she worried. Bright light poured in the windows, and her boys were in the living room staring at the television.
Terrific. Juliette hoped her kids appreciated all the unlined women on the street, knowing that their mother had traded their brains, health, and security for furrow serums.
Furrow had tested better as a problem to be solved than wrinkle. Maybe furrow sounded like a woman crinkling from thoughts rather than age.
Perhaps they should call it crinkle serum. Crinkle sounded kind of happy, right?
Sure. She pictured her business partner Gwynne hooting when Juliette shared that the next time they had one of their creative meetings. Juliette and Gwynne had met in Mommy and Me swim classes, drawn to each other through a shared mutual head-exploding boredom with the minutiae of motherhood, coupled with tendencies to over-worship their children. They’d fallen in love with one sardonic glance, the way that best friends sometimes do, recognizing a kinship of lonely childhoods.
Juliette listened for disaster. When she worked, she worried about Max and Lucas. When she devoted herself to them, she worried about business. Nathan tried to solve the problem by telling her to r-e-l-a-x. “Concentrate on where you are,” he’d say, as though she could will herself out of worrying. Perhaps a male genetic pattern similar to male pattern baldness allowed Nathan to go to work and be at work. He couldn’t imagine life any other way.
She knew Nathan wanted to help. He tried to solve every problem that came his way; he always had. Taking care of people pleased him, so much so that she sensed it disappointed him that she asked for so little when it came to her work, but how could he help with a business built on balm for women’s skin? Nathan taught sociology at Brandeis University and researched the plight of the elderly, which, in his mind, she was certain, did not include their crinkles or furrows.
This was the year that her balancing act would pay off. She just knew it. Years of investing every free moment in work—even as she pretended her preoccupation with cosmetics and skin care barely broke from being a hobby; concocting potions until three in the morning and then making breakfast for everyone at seven—would be worth it.
The kids came first. Nathan’s schedule, second. Then came cooking, cleaning, birthdays, Halloween, Passover, Chanukah, and Christmas—anchoring her family. That’s how she thought of it. Juliette loved her work to an unholy degree, but she worked equally hard to hide her obsession, always a bit ashamed of how much passion she felt about her business.
Creating organic skincare and makeup couldn’t be compared with saving lives. juliette&gwynne was even potentially an unkind business, building on women’s fear, though she and Gwynne kept it clean and honest. No promises of unborn-sperm-cell-laden cream guaranteed to eliminate wrinkles or furrows were offered, just assurances that their products would make the best of what nature had given. They didn’t tout faces frozen in time, but faces and bodies smoothed gracefully. Nothing depressed Juliette more than seeing older women with wind-tunneled faces wearing the Juicy Couture label emblazoned on their behinds.
juliette&gwynne had a place in the world, she and Gwynne assured each other, even writing lists of the ways they helped women:
• Bought shea butter (only grade-A) from women’s collective in Ghana.
• Packaging made by a women’s collective in Appalachia.
• Donated products to a battered women’s shelter.
Gwynne took an extra long pull from her beer last week, when they’d added that last one, and then said, “Are we really comforting ourselves with this? Providing moisturizer and lipstick to battered women? Jesus, Jules, wouldn’t they rather have a check?”
“I know, I know.” Juliette had leaned back in the cracked leather chair donated from Gwynne’s husband’s law office. Two rooms in Juliette’s falling-apart Waltham house served as the offices for juliette&gwynne//flush de la beauté. “When we make a ton of money, we’ll give a ton away.”
Maybe someday they’d be rich. She never told anyone, not even Nathan, how she hungered for money. It made her seem like her mother. God save her, Juliette loved things. Well-cut clothes. Thin china. Fat comforters.
All this and healthy, happy children.
First, always first, please, healthy, happy children.
In reaction against her own childhood, Juliette guarded against showing pride. Her mother’s devotion to the sheen of one’s skin and the drape of one’s clothes had resulted in Juliette’s impersonating a woman without narcissism. In truth, it was the opposite. Juliette lacked her mother’s self-confidence, and a shameful amount of her mind was preoccupied with her appearance.
At least, in the case of juliette&gwynne, her secret vice had value. The business was borne of Juliette’s vanity. After giving up her Looks column at Boston magazine to stay home with Lucas, and then Max, her addiction to high-end products became impossible to sustain. Nathan’s professor’s salary covered only the basics. She experimented at home, mixing moisturizers from ingredients ranging from frankincense to chamomile, and inventing body scrubs made from sugar, oats, and even coffee grounds.
“Mommy!” Five-year-old Max flew in and leapt on the battered sofa, dislodging papers and product samples. “I’m hungry!” He nestled close to Juliette.
Lucas appeared at the door. “I told you to stay in the playroom.” He grabbed his brother by the shirt collar. “Come on. I’ll get you a granola bar.”
Babysitting money fueled her older son’s enthusiasm, but his attention to the job impressed Juliette, even as she feared that in his zeal he might detach Max’s head from his body. She uncurled Lucas’s fingers from Max’s shirt and smiled. “It’s okay. Let’s all go downstairs. Daddy will be home soon. You guys can draw in the dining room while I make supper.”
Juliette took out the chopped onions, sliced mushrooms, and diced carrots and cauliflower she’d prepared at seven that morning while Nathan and the kids slept, in anticipation of making mushroom barley soup for dinner. With chicken. Now she took out the plastic containers and lined them up in the order in which she’d sauté them before she added chicken stock.
She cut up chicken breasts, leaving on just enough skin to add depth to the soup without overwhelming Nathan’s heart.
He’d had her heart from the first moment they’d met, when Nathan moved from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, where Juliette grew up. He’d come for his first teaching job, working in the sociology department at Bard College. Her father headed the Political Science department.
They’d met at her parents’ annual holiday party at their house in Rhinebeck, a Hudson Valley town that attracted former New Yorkers. Musky men’s cologne vied with the heavy scents of Chanel and Joy. The women either sparkled or were romantic in dusty velvet. Their men wore suits or reindeer sweaters. Juliette stood out in her midthigh-length sapphire dress.
Nathan walked up to her as she stood drinking eggnog and watching her mother work the room. His tie, which from afar looked like blended tones of blue, had Stars of David woven into the cloth.
She reached out and traced one. “Pronouncement?”
“Chanukah gift from my parents.”
“Are they marking you?”
“I’m too far from Brooklyn: they’re warding off shiksas bearing tiny gold crucifixes.”
Juliette touched the empty hollow of her throat in some odd reflex. “Lucky me. I’m only half. Shiksa, that is.”
He swept his arm toward her parents’ light-crusted tree, so tall that it brushed the ceiling. Garlands laced with red ribbons and crystal snowflakes were intertwined with evergreen on the staircase, visible from where they stood. He touched a soft blonde wave framing her face. “Where in God’s name does your family hide the other half?”
Juliette took his hand. “Come. I’ll show you.”
She took his hand and led him to the quiet library, mercifully free of glitter.
“See?” She pointed to the library mantel where a cobalt glass menorah sat between matching dreidels.
“I don’t imagine you ever played with those.”
Juliette placed a careful finger on the glass. “No.”
She’d rarely played with anything outside her room as a child. Her parents’ home, cared for as though it were a sacred object, was her rival for her parents’ affection, and to Juliette it usually seemed as though the house won. Juliette’s parents seemed to think the house represented them more than their daughter. Why else would she get only benign neglect, while every corner of the house received unremitting attention?
“Do you live here with your parents?” he asked.
“Not since I came home on college vacations.”
“You don’t like Rhinebeck?” he asked.
“There’s not much here, unless you’re involved with Bard.” His hair was thick and straight. Hollywood black.
She slept with him that night.
“You’re besotted,” her mother said the next day when Juliette returned from Nathan’s apartment.
Besotted. Her mother had found the perfect word. The night with Nathan had been explosive before slowing to billowing softness. She’d been struck and so had he, the two of them barely able to separate that afternoon. The moment Nathan dropped her off, she’d wanted to be back with him.
Juliette smoothed her rumpled party dress. “You’re right.”
Her mother removed lint from Juliette’s hem. “Don’t let him see that—not now. It gives them too much power when they see how much you care.”
Juliette thought how sad those words were as she poured olive oil in the pan. How could you hide your love? Did her mother still do that, even as she closed in on forty years married? Her parents were knotted to a degree Juliette envied and hated, but she refused to believe it was built on tricks. Her father and mother loved each other so completely and unreservedly—except for Dad loving a bit more, just as Mom wanted—that Juliette never had a chance. Growing up, their marriage had seemed a two plus one to her, with Juliette the plus to their tight couple. All her life, she’d danced on the outskirts of her parents’ love.
• • •
Oil sizzled. She threw in the onions. Nathan walked in. Juliette grinned wide, as she did each time he appeared. She still loved him to distraction. Maybe even more. Having children together struck her as the sexiest possible thing you could do with another person.
They kissed. He touched her back with a light hand. His fingers rested on her shoulders in a way that years of marriage told her bore no good. Something troubled him.
“Where are the boys?” he asked.
“Arts and crafts in the dining room.” She threw in the garlic and mushrooms when the onions reached peak translucency. “I think I heard Lucas sneak on the TV, but I’m being a bad mother and not noticing until I finish making supper. Now that you’re home, feel free to go in and chastise him.”
After wiping her hands on the towel tucked in her waistband, she turned and hugged him. The rigidity of his muscles under her hands frightened her.
“What’s wrong?” She pushed him away, so she could look at his face. His eyes held emotions she couldn’t read, except for the fear. “Your parents? Is your father okay?” Had his father suffered another heart attack? Worse?
Nathan shook his head.
“Work? Did something happen?”
“No.” Nathan took a deep breath.
“What then? You look awful. Are you sick?”
He went to the cabinet and pulled out a bottle of brandy. Nathan, never the type to drink when he got home, poured a double shot.
Juliette put down her long wooden spoon. Her parents? Her father? Had her mother called Nathan so that he could break some awful news to Juliette? Bubbles of dread flipped around her stomach. He dropped into a kitchen chair. She sat facing him, so close their knees touched.
When she took his hands, they were cold. She lifted one to her cheek and ran it over her warm skin. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
He lowered his face, his hands covering hers. His shoulders shook as he began to cry. Everything inside Juliette froze.
“I had an affair, Jules. Oh my God, I’m so sorry.”
After five years of marriage, Peter still made love to Caroline as though realizing his life’s dream. Being the object of his lust never failed to rouse her own. Exercising on the treadmill, Caroline labored through work problems, scratching ideas in tiny journals she kept in her pockets. Riding the train to work, she caught up with medical journals; driving to visit her parents, she listened to audiobooks. Only with her husband did she remember her corporeal being. There was no other time she left her mind and lived inside her body.
Peter thought her beautiful, he thought her sexy, and he made her believe it, if only for the moments she lay with him. She didn’t live under illusions. Much of her belief system boiled down to “What it is, is.” Caroline knew she was more wholesome than bombshell. Before Peter, she’d limited her relationships to men who marched to the same beat as she did: quiet songs, gentle dances. Peter unlocked her fervor.
“Come on, you’re incredible,” Peter declared when she scoffed at his compliments. Where her honest doctor eyes saw wheat-colored hair not dramatic enough to call blonde, an easy-to-forget face, and a slat-like build, Peter declared her graceful and pure, and then delineated how those qualities turned him on. She knew it was her difference from every woman he’d grown up with that excited him: she was his upper-class unattainable woman—just as his unrestrained fervor, so different from the boys she grew up with, provided the same thrill for her.
After, they lingered in the bedroom, as they did every Sunday. Coffee cups, plates covered with crumbs, and orange rinds littered their bedside tables.
“Listen to this, Caro.” Peter cleared his throat and, using his public voice—the one he used at investor meetings—read aloud from his laptop:
“Forecasters believe the strongest economic growth in two decades is in front of us. Businesses are investing in new plants and equipment and rehiring laid-off workers. Most economists predict 2004 should be an excellent year, and that this should be a predictor for years to come.”
“Mmm,” Caroline responded, the words not really registering. Peter grasped financial concepts instantly, while she found economic analysis so dry that it crumbled before it traveled from her ears to her brain. “Online news?” She pulled up the covers a bit.
“Yes, but it’s a well-regarded site. Do you know what this means?”
“Not a clue, actually, beyond the facts as presented. But I’m sure you do.” Caroline smiled, waiting for Peter to spill his theories. He shared his thoughts as they occurred to him. Peter tended to think out loud, while Caroline let ideas percolate for days, weeks, or longer before opening them to question.
“It means folks will be investing like crazy,” Peter said. “They’ll think they’re hopping on the money train. Do you know what that means?”
She leaned her head on his shoulder. They were close to a match in height. “No.” He did their accounting; she kept their space in perfect order. Having disparate interests freed each of the boring and baffling portions of life. “Do you want to watch the fireworks tomorrow night?”
“Yes, and don’t change the subject. Listen, we’re in a perfect-storm place. The naïve of the world—meaning most—will believe, once again, that uptrends in stocks and real estate will continue forever—exactly the mythology which leads to insanity in the market.”
“Ah. Interesting. The masses moving in lockstep.” She picked up Pediatric Blood & Cancer.
Peter pushed down the journal. “Caro, I’m not just commenting. This could be important to us.”
Like the obedient student she’d always been, Caroline let the magazine drop in her lap and turned to her husband. “Okay. I’m listening.”
“If we time this right, we’ll have an opportunity.”
She nodded as though she’d have some part in this, when in reality, we meant Peter, who meshed with money. Building a pile of cash excited him beyond the security and buying power it represented.
“When the business goes public next year, I’m betting our company stock prices will soar. Everyone wants . . . ”
Her attention wandered a little, knowing what she was going to hear: Sound & Sight Software, Peter’s company, would provide a platform for X and integrate Y, etc., etc.
She nodded and picked up her coffee cup, trying to read the journal lying in her lap.
“That’s why we should start looking for a baby now,” Peter said. “Do you see what I’m saying?”
Now Caroline looked up. She clutched the handle of her mug. “What?”
Peter put a firm hand on her knee. “Were you listening?”
She shook her head. “Not closely enough,” she said. “Say it again. The part about the baby, not the money.”
“But they’re very related, hon. Look: soon I’ll need to focus on business in a different way. I feel it. Now’s the time to concentrate on getting our baby. Before work explodes, before everything crashes, when I can be the one to pick up all the work left from guys who got lost in the wreckage.”
Peter shared her love of work: both of them were busy puritans turning the wheels of life. However, to Peter, life included a family—preferably a large one. He would be a spectacular father. Caroline couldn’t imagine a better man for the job, but she didn’t long for motherhood. That twenty-four-hour-a-day enthusiasm for the activity of children wasn’t in her.
Her own mother’s passion for Caroline and her sisters had always been evident. Caroline didn’t want to offer her own children anything less, but she lacked the instinct for self-sacrifice. Once home, she didn’t want anyone forcing her to put down her journals or interrupting her studies.
Becoming a mother terrified her so much that Caroline could barely hide her relief when she couldn’t get pregnant, and Peter’s sperm had turned out to be the problem.
But then Peter, in his usual style of Okay, how do I solve this problem, and how quickly can I make it go away? began investigating adoption. She’d left all the research and decision making to him, a stance he’d always accepted. Peter liked being in charge. That’s why he’d chosen identified adoption, deeming it safer. He wanted to see the mother for himself, not leave their life decisions to anonymous social workers. “Better the devil you know,” he’d declared.
Peter researched while Caroline did something totally out of character: she went into denial. Now, once again, the truth of every matter faced her: what was, was.
“Now?” she asked. “Really now?”
He sat up straighter and crossed his legs, pushing away the blanket. “It’s not that I’m saying now or never, but now is the best time.”
“I’m not sure. It’s so busy at work, and—”
“Honey, we’ll always have a reason to say ‘Not now.’ We’ll always be busy. But we can make time, and we’ll make room.” He scanned their cramped bedroom. “Though we’ll need more space. We might as well do it all up at once, eh? Look for the right neighborhood, right schools. Find the right house. My guess? Real estate will also drop soon.”
Caroline—calm, always-good-in-an-emergency, hard-to-ruffle Caroline—felt as though she’d have an anxiety attack if he said one more word. “No,” she said.
“I love our apartment,” she said. “I love our neighborhood.”
“We need to find a place with great schools.”
“We can find private schools,” Caroline insisted. “Like you said, we’ll have the money. I won’t do well in the suburbs.”
“That’s just fear talking. I know how much you hate transition, but really, you’re going to be a wonderful mother wherever we are.”
No she wouldn’t.
“You’re perfect. Calm and loving. Smart. You’re always grounded. I adore that about you.” He stroked her arm.
“Grounded? How romantic.”
“And funny. Did I mention funny?”
She managed a smile. “No one ever described me as funny.”
“Oops, I meant that I was funny. And that you were smart to marry me.”
She had been smart to marry him. He lightened her, he cosseted her, he made her into a better person—more aware of the world beyond her boundaries. But she didn’t want to change anything. Their life: she loved the way their life was now. A baby would ruin everything.
The Comfort of Lies
Five years ago . . .
Tia fell into obsessive love with a man she could never have. When she became pregnant, Nathan disappeared, and she gave up their baby for adoption.
Caroline reluctantly adopted a baby to please her husband. Now she’s questioning whether she’s cut out for the role of wife and mother.
Juliette considered her life ideal: solid marriage, two beautiful sons, and a thriving business. Then she discovered Nathan’s affair. He promised he’d never stray again, and she trusted him.
Now . . .
When Juliette intercepts a letter to her husband that contains pictures of a child who deeply resembles him, her world crumbles once more. How could Nathan deny his daughter? What other secrets is he hiding? Desperate for the truth, Juliette goes in search of the little girl, and before long the three women are on a collision course with consequences that none of them could have predicted.
THE COMFORT OF LIES by Randy Susan Meyers
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the epigraph of the novel, and whether you agree with this statement. Over the course of the novel, are lies shown to be a comfort to the person telling them or to the person hearing them? In general, do you think that there are situations in which telling the truth provides more comfort to the person delivering it rather than the person hearing it?
2. Of the three female protagonists, which did you most identify with, and why?
3. As you were reading, did you feel compelled to take sides between Juliette or Tia? Did you empathize more with one or the other?
4. On p. 82, Caroline describes her experience of her father’s love, saying, “No one in the family resented that his deepest energies were saved for his work. They didn’t confuse his love and his energy.” Do you think the same kind of parenting style can be as effortlessly achieved by a mother? Must one parent be “stay-at-home” for this to work?