A Window Opens
In my book, January and February are just frozen appetizers for the fillet of the year, which arrives in March, when you can finally wear a down vest to walk the dog. That’s when I commit to my annual resolutions: become more flexible in all senses of the word, stop snapping at my family, start feeding the parking meter, take wet laundry out of the machine before it mildews, call my mom more, gossip less. Throughout my thirties, the list has remained the same.
On this particular sunny and tentatively warm day, I was driving home from spin class, daydreaming about a pair of patent leather boots I’d seen in the window of a store near my office. They were midheight and semi-stylish, presentable enough for work, with a sole suited for sprinting through the aisles of the grocery store. Maybe I recognized a little bit of myself in those boots; after all, I fit the same description.
When I stopped for a red light in front of the high school, my phone lit up with a photo of Nicholas. The snapshot was three years old, taken on wooden bleachers at the Y while we were waiting for our son, Oliver, to finish basketball practice. Splayed across Nicholas’s chest was the paperback edition of The Cut by George
Pelecanos; while he grinned at my then new iPhone, our daughters, Margot and Georgie, each leaned in and kissed one of his cheeks.
“Hey, what’s up? I’m just driving back from Ellie’s class. Since when does ‘Stairway to Heaven’ qualify as a spin song?”
Silence on the other end. I noticed a spray of white crocuses on the side of the road, rearing their brave little heads. “Nicholas? Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Nicholas? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just—”
I watched as a group of high school kids trampled the crocuses with their high-tops and Doc Martens. The light turned green.
“You just . . . what?”
“Listen, Al, I’d rather not have this conversation on speaker while you’re driving. Can you call me when you get home?”
I felt a slow blossom of anxiety in my throat. When someone starts talking about the conversation in the third person, you know it’s not going to be pretty.
“Nicholas. What’s going on?”
“I can’t . . . You know what?” I heard a noise in the background that sounded like a big stack of papers hitting the floor. “Actually? I’m coming home. I’ll be on the 11:27 train. See you soon.” There was a strain in his voice, as if someone had him by the neck.
“Wait—don’t hang up.”
But he was gone.
Suddenly, I felt chilly in my sweaty clothes. I distractedly piloted my minivan down Park Street, past a church, a temple, a funeral home, and a gracious turreted Victorian we’d lost in a bidding war when we first started looking for houses in Filament.
My mind raced with possibilities: Nicholas’s parents, my parents, his
health, an affair, a relocation. Was there any chance this urgent conversation could contain good news? A windfall?
What was so important that Nicholas had to come home to say it to me in person? In the seven years we’d lived in New Jersey, he’d rarely arrived home before dark, even in the summer, and most of our daytime conversations took place through an intermediary—his secretary, Gladys, doyenne of the Stuyvesant Town bingo scene.
I called Nicholas back as soon as I pulled into the driveway of our blue colonial. When the ringing gave way to voice mail, I suddenly felt dizzy, picturing the old photo pressed to my ear. The girls had grown and changed since then—Margot’s round face chiseling down into a preteen perma-scowl, Georgie’s toddler legs losing their drumstick succulence. But what struck me was Nicholas’s jet-black hair. It had been significantly thicker in those days, and a lot less gray. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him kick back with a book, let alone look so relaxed.
I was about to find out why.
• • •
I spent the next hour repairing damage wrought by the daily cyclone of our kids eating breakfast, getting dressed, and supposedly cleaning their rooms but really just shoving socks, towels, and Legos under their beds. Eggshells in the garbage disposal, Leapin’ Lemurs cereal in the dustpan, Margot’s tried-on-and-discarded outfits directly into her hamper even though I knew they were clean. I filled out class picture forms—hadn’t I already paid for one round of mediocre shots against the backdrop of a fake library?—and called in a renewal of the dog’s Prozac prescription: “His birthday? Honestly, I have no idea . . . He’s not my son! He’s my dog!” Cornelius lifted his long reddish snout and glanced lazily in my direction from his favorite forbidden napping spot on the window seat in the dining room.
I kept checking my phone, hoping to hear from Nicholas, but the only person I heard from was my dad. Ever since losing his vocal cords to cancer, he’d become a ferocious virtual communicator. His texts and e-mails
rolled in at all hours of the day, constant gentle taps on my shoulder. The highest concentration arrived in the morning, while my mom played tennis and he worked his way through three newspapers, perusing print and online editions simultaneously. Many messages contained links to articles on his pet subjects: social media, the Hoyas, women doing it all.
That day, in my state of anticipation and dread, I was happy for the distraction.
Dad: Dear Alice, do you read me?
Alice: I do!
Dad: Just wondering, are you familiar with Snapchat?
Me: Sorry, not sure what this is.
Dad: Reading about it in WSJ. Like Instagram, but temporary. Pictures only. No track record.
Me: I’m not on Instagram either. Have nothing to hide anyway.
Dad: I can educate you. These are great ways to stay connected.
Me: I’m on FB. That’s all I can handle.
Dad: Yes, but why no cover photo on your timeline?
Dad: Hi, are you still there?
Dad: OK, TTYL. Love, Dad
We live four houses from the station, so I headed over as soon as I heard the long, low horn of the train. By the time I’d walked by Margot and Oliver’s school and arrived at the steep embankment next to the tracks, Nicholas was already on the platform. He looked surprisingly jaunty, with his suit jacket hanging from his shoulder like a pinstriped cape.
He kissed me on the cheek—a dry nothing of a peck that you might give to someone who baked you a loaf of zucchini bread. He smelled like the train: newsprint, coffee, vinyl. I shivered inside my vest and pulled him in for a tight hug, wrapping my arms around his neck.
“What is going on?”
Nicholas sighed. Now I smelled mint gum with an undernote of—beer? Was that possible?
The train pulled out of the station and we were the only two people left on the platform. I was vaguely aware of a gym class playing a game of spud on the school playground behind us. “I called it and he moved!” “I didn’t move, she pushed me!” Nicholas leaned down to put his leather satchel on the ground. It was a gift from me for his thirtieth birthday: the perfect hybrid of a grown-up briefcase and a schoolboy’s buckled bag. As he straightened his back, his green eyes met mine. He put his hands through his hair and I thought of the photo, my chest tightening.
“Alice, I didn’t make partner.”
At first, the news came as a relief. A problem at work was small potatoes compared to a secret second family or an out-of-control gambling problem or the middle-age malaise of a friend’s husband who said, simply, “I don’t feel like doing this anymore,” before packing a backpack and moving to Hoboken.
Just a backpack!
Then: the lead blanket of disappointment descended gently but firmly, bringing with it a sudden X-ray vision into our past and our future. The summer associate days when we dined on Cornish game hen and attended a private Sutherland, Courtfield–sponsored tour of the modern wing of the Met; the night Nicholas’s official offer letter from the firm arrived, when we climbed a fire escape to the roof of our apartment building and started talking—hypothetically, of course—about what we would name our kids; the many mornings I’d woken up to find him, still dressed in clothes from the day before, with casebooks, Redwelds, and six-inch stacks of paper scattered willy-nilly across the kitchen table. You don’t know how big a binder clip can be until you’ve been married to a lawyer.
What next, if not this?
But first, why?
“Oh, Nicholas. I’m so sorry. I mean, just . . . Really. Wait, I thought the partners’ meeting wasn’t until November. Why are they—”
“It’s not. Until November, I mean. But I had a feeling—”
“You had a feeling? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Alice, I don’t know, okay? I’m working with Win Makepeace on this bankruptcy—the one I told you about with those bankers who wanted to go out for karaoke? And he let slip that it’s not going to happen for me. Actually, he said it, flat out, as if I already knew. Should have known.”
I pictured Win in his spindly black chair with its smug Cornell crest, how he would have smoothed a tuft of sandy hair over a bald spot that was permanently tanned from a lifetime of sailing on Little Narragansett Bay. Who names their kid Win, anyway? Not Winthrop, Winston, or Winchester, just Win. I was proud to come from a family where all the men are named Edward.
Then I snapped back into the moment, shaking my head as if to dislodge a pesky thought. “So, wait, he just said, ‘Nicholas Bauer, you are not going to make partner at this law firm’?”
“No, not like that. I made a tiny mistake on a brief—a comma instead of a period—and he said, ‘Bauer, let’s face it, you’re not Sutherland, Courtfield partner material.’ ”
“He did not.”
“Nicholas, is this even legal?” I grabbed his hand and pointed us in the direction of home.
“Of course it is. He just stood there in his fucking houndstooth vest and basically told me I had no future there. That, in fact, the partners decided last November, and they weren’t going to tell me until a year from now—”
The swings on the playground were empty, swaying lazily in the breeze by their rusted chains. Sadness kicked in at the sight of them. Hadn’t Nicholas given up enough for this law firm? How many times had I watched him knot his tie, lace his dress shoes, and board the train on a Saturday? How many vacations had been interrupted by urgent calls from clients and arbitrary deadlines from partners?
Nicholas kept going, spelling out the logistics of how these decisions are made and the arcane, draconian methods law firms use for meting out information to their unsuspecting workhorse associates. But I already
knew the drill. My dad was a retired partner at another midtown law firm; I grew up hearing about the personality quirks and work ethics of candidates who didn’t quite make the cut. There had been eighty aspiring partners in Nicholas’s so-called class at Sutherland, Courtfield; by the time they were officially eligible for lifelong tenure—the proverbial golden handcuffs—they would be winnowed down to five, at most. Even knowing this, I’d never imagined Nicholas would be part of the reaping.
By this point, we were in our kitchen, where Cornelius wove among our legs, whimpering anxiously as if he sensed the tension. I made a fresh pot of coffee that neither of us would drink. Nicholas and I were rarely home alone without our kids, but my mind didn’t go where it normally would in such a situation.
Only two weeks before, my parents had taken the kids for the weekend, and before their car was even out of the driveway, we’d raced upstairs to our room. Suddenly, Georgie had materialized at the foot of our bed, looking perplexed. “Wait, why are you guys going to sleep?”
Nicholas and I leapt apart, and he grabbed a book from the floor and made a show of reading it. I tucked the sheet under each arm and reached for her hand, which was dwarfed by a plastic ring from the treasure chest at the dentist’s office. “Georgie! You’re back so soon?”
“Pop brought me back. I forgot Olivia.” Olivia is a pig in striped tights; she came with a book by the same name, and she’s a key member of Georgie’s bedtime menagerie, which also includes Curious George and a stingray. “What are you two doing?”
Nicholas put down the book: Magic Tree House #31: Summer of the Sea Serpent. “We’re . . . napping.”
Georgie chewed the end of her scraggly braid, beholding us suspiciously with hazelnut (her word) eyes.
“Okay, well, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” She turned on her heel and ran downstairs. The minute we heard the front door close, we picked up where we’d left off.
• • •
Now Nicholas leaned against the counter, absentmindedly peeling the clear packing tape we used to hold our cabinets together. Our kitchen was in dire need of a facelift—the black-and-white checkered floor was so scratched, it looked like the loading dock at a grocery store. We’d been saving up for a renovation.
“But at least you can stay at the firm until you find a new job, right?”
“No, that’s another thing.”
“What?” I envisioned sand pouring through a sieve: vacations, restaurant dinners, movies, a new car, college savings, retirement— every iota of security spilling out and away.
“Alice, I can’t stay there.”
“What do you mean you can’t stay there?”
“Oh, come on. You know how it is. ‘Up or out.’ ” Nicholas’s shoulders slumped and I rubbed his back in wide circles, as I did when one of the kids threw up on the floor in the middle of the night. It’s okay. It’s okay. He unbuttoned the top button of his shirt with a defeated air. “Now that I have this information, I really need to move on. It would be humiliating to stay—I’m a dead man walking.”
I pictured Nicholas in an orange prison jumpsuit, shackled at the ankles and cuffed at the wrists. “I get that.”
“So, I’ve been thinking—and this isn’t the first time it’s crossed my mind—now might be the time to hang out a shingle. Bring in my own clients; run my own show.”
“Really.” Nicholas leaned over the sink, turned it on full blast, and threw water at his face in little cupped handfuls. Then he turned back to me with glistening cheeks, shiny droplets clinging to his eyebrows. He looked ashamed instead of refreshed. “Alice, I have to tell you, I didn’t react well to the news.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean . . .” Now Nicholas opened the fridge and grabbed a bottle of beer. After he flicked off the cap, he lifted it by its brown neck and tilted the bottom in my direction in a gesture that telegraphed both “What have
I got to lose?” and “Here’s looking at you.” I raised an invisible bottle of my own, although my mood was anything but celebratory. Even though he was a borderline teetotaler, I didn’t need to be told that this wasn’t Nicholas’s first beer of the morning.
“I lost it when Win told me I wasn’t going to make partner.”
“Lost it . . . how?”
“I threw my laptop across the room.” He crossed his arms and closed his eyes briefly, as if to block out the reality of what he was saying, which was horrifying and surreal. An angry Nicholas was a silent Nicholas, icily folding laundry or staring straight ahead at the road for hours while driving. In all our years together, I’d never seen him throw anything except a ball and once, when we took a pottery class together, a tragically misshapen bowl.
“Wait . . . what? I’m sorry. Did you just say you threw your laptop across the room?” My mind flashed on the possibility of having my own beer, but I thought the better of it—the last thing I wanted to do was arrive at school pickup with alcohol on my breath. A spark like that could ignite a firestorm of gossip whose fug would follow me for years; I’d seen it with a mom who was spotted at the Scholastic book fair with a tiny bottle of something in her satchel purse. It could have been hand lotion or hair spray (this being New Jersey, after all), but the die was cast. The woman was never invited to be a class parent again.
Nicholas fiddled with the refrigerator magnets, arranging the unused alphabet letters in a little line at the top of the freezer door. QPITZLSF. “Yes, I threw my laptop across the room. But we were in a conference room, and there was a lot of space. And the laptop was closed, so . . . well, I guess that doesn’t make it any better, but at least it didn’t shatter.”
“That’s something.” No mess to clean up, no injuries. Still, I felt a little light-headed. I closed my eyes and pressed my index fingers onto their lids until I saw orange kaleidoscope patterns.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Did it . . . make a lot of noise?”
Nicholas looked sheepish. “Yes.”
“Well. At least . . . you’re going out with a bang?”
We both laughed, halfheartedly. Nicholas tilted his head back and took a long swig from his beer. His neck looked smooth and young; he might have been twenty, pounding a Natty Light in the office of the college newspaper.
“Glen—remember him from my basketball team?”
“He has space I can rent in North Caldwell. I think I might have a few clients who would jump ship, and I’ve been coming up with ideas for bringing in new ones. I want to give it a whirl.”
“Wow. Nicholas! You’ve really thought this through.” I didn’t believe this, not for a minute. Nicholas and I are hardly models of perfect communication, but we keep each other in the loop when it comes to major decisions.
“I guess. I won’t miss the commute, or feeling like a minion all the time. But it’ll take a while to get up and running. That’s what scares me.”
“Are you worried that you’ve burned a bridge?” (I really wanted to say: Aren’t you worried these people will think you are out of your mind?)
“Maybe? But for me that was a bridge to nowhere.”
We were quiet for a minute, both standing there like characters on a movie set. I knew what my line was and I delivered it without hesitation: “Nicholas, we’ll make it work.”
“I know. I’m sure it will turn out to be a good thing, I just—”
“It’s already a good thing. Nobody should have to stay in a place where they want to throw something across a room. We’re going to figure this out. I’ll find a new job. Full time. We’ll survive.”
I tried to sound cheerful, game for anything, but the truth is, I was petrified. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to up the ante on the work front. Our kids were still little. I loved my part-time job at You magazine. I worried that it would take years for Nicholas to start his own firm and that he was now unemployable thanks to this understandable but completely uncharacteristic violent outburst in his past.
Nicholas unthreaded his cufflinks—little elastic knots that he had in every color of the rainbow. “Actually, that’s not a bad idea.”
“You working full-time.”
And just like that, the page turned. We were
on to a new chapter.
• • •
At bedtime, Georgie picked Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which I can read with my eyes closed. Normally, it’s only the two of us for stories; Oliver and Margot like to read to themselves in their own rooms. But tonight they were shoehorning their bodies into Georgie’s single bed by the time I finished the first line: “Sylvester Duncan lived with his mother and father on Acorn Road in Oatsdale.”
If March is the fillet of the calendar, this is the fillet of parenthood: that one, brief part of the day when lunchboxes are unpacked, bickering is suspended, and everyone smells like toothpaste. Margot didn’t move away when my thumb found the cleft in her chin, and I didn’t flinch when Oliver’s bony shoulder wedged painfully into my spleen. Georgie pulled her knees underneath her stretchy Tinker Bell nightgown and sidled further up the bed to make more space.