The Ever After
SO THIS IS HOW you discover your husband is having an affair, Josie Moore thought.
She stared through the windshield of her Toyota Sienna, toward the glass door of their neighborhood Starbucks. Inside, her husband, Frank, was swirling two packets of sugar into his latte and a generous sprinkle of cinnamon into hers. In the backseat, their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Isabella, dozed with her head lolling sideways, and their seven-year-old, Zoe, played on a Nintendo DS.
Josie gripped Frank’s iPhone more tightly in her hand.
If she were better organized, she might never have found out, Josie realized. But she was forever leaving something behind.
An hour or so ago, when they’d left to run errands and drop Zoe off at a birthday party, she’d been grateful that she’d remembered the wrapped gift and a packet of fruit gummies to bribe Izzy to stay contained in her seat.
What Josie had forgotten was her cell phone. It was probably on the kitchen counter; she remembered setting it there when she’d gone to grab the gummies. But even though they’d driven only a few blocks by the time she’d realized it was missing, she hadn’t asked Frank to circle back. He’d
masterfully wrangled Izzy into her seat as she’d arched her little back in protest—he’d sung “Mary Had a Little Lamb” but substituted in “rhinoceros,” which had made her giggle and relax—and it didn’t seem worth the effort.
Besides, Josie was with her husband and daughters, cocooned in the car they’d owned for six years, the one with Magic Tree House books tucked into the seat back pockets and Goldfish cracker crumbs wedged so deeply into seams that no vacuum cleaner could extract them. If an emergency occurred—if one of the people she loved most was hurt—she wouldn’t need to be summoned by a phone call. She’d be right here.
Time was behaving strangely.
Josie felt as though she’d been suspended in this parking lot for hours, but surely only a few minutes had passed since Frank had dashed under that green awning and through the glass door.
Frank had been the one to suggest coffee. He’d asked what size latte she wanted as she dug through her purse, checking again even though she’d known it was futile. “Um, a Grande. No, just a Tall—I already had coffee this morning. Shoot, I forgot to order a refill on Izzy’s EpiPen.” They’d never needed to use the EpiPen, but after Izzy had eaten a few almonds and developed hives, the pediatrician recommended they carry one. “Give me your phone, okay?”
Frank had already found a parking spot and had turned off the car engine by then. He’d paused, his hand on the door, one leg already out of the Sienna and planted on the pavement.
“My phone?” he’d repeated.
“Yeah. Her old EpiPen expired. I need to get her refill.” She’d stretched out her palm.
Frank had frozen. Not for very long; just for the same amount of time as it had taken for her heart to contract in a single, powerful beat.
What happened next was curious: the day seemed to slam
on its brakes, and Josie’s senses grew acutely heightened, allowing her to notice and catalog minute details of everything that followed. Her skin prickled, and her heartbeat quickened.
She’d experienced this sensation a few times in the past, such as when a strange man had followed her onto an elevator and had stood too close, and another time when she’d found herself alone on a shadowy subway platform late at night.
Her brain was signaling a warning: danger.
She’d watched as Frank had begun to move again. He’d bent over his iPhone, shielding it from view. He tapped on the screen seven or eight times. Then he handed it to her.
“Here you go,” he’d said, his words sounding rushed. “Venti, right?”
“Yeah . . . no . . . Tall,” she’d said.
Frank’s eyes had darted to the phone she was now holding. Zoe had sighed and rested her feet on the seat back in front of her. A crumpled brown napkin had teetered on the edge of the trash can next to the coffee shop entrance. Josie had taken it all in, feeling oddly numb.
She hadn’t mentioned the sprinkle of cinnamon. After twelve years of marriage, he knew how she took her coffee.
“Want a cookie?” he’d asked. “Or, like . . . a, ah, a scone or anything?”
One of his legs was still out the door, but he’d seemed reluctant to leave.
“No,” she’d said.
“You sure?” he’d asked. Then, without waiting for her reply, he’d climbed out and jogged into the shop.
The glass door she’d been staring at for the last five minutes pushed outward, but the person who emerged wasn’t Frank. It was a woman holding a cardboard tray filled with drinks. She clicked a key fob at the Pathfinder nested next to their spot. Josie watched as the woman came closer, put her tray on her roof, then opened her vehicle’s door. It clanked into the side of the Sienna.
The woman whipped around, her mouth making a little O of surprise. “I’m sorry!” she said, her words carrying clearly through Josie’s open window. “I hope I didn’t dent it.”
Josie waved her off. “No problem!” she said. “It’s an old car!”
“Are you sure?” the woman asked.
“Absolutely,” Josie said. She gave the woman a big smile, despite everything. Maybe because this was such an easy problem to solve.
She tried to think about what she should do next. When Frank returned, he’d want his iPhone. She wasn’t going to give it back to him yet. But she didn’t want to make a scene in front of the children.
What she should do is hide it, she decided. She started to tuck it in the console between their seats. But it would be too easy for Frank to find there. She bent down and pushed the phone beneath her seat, then drew in her legs, so that even if it began to slide out, her feet would block it.
“Why is Dad taking so long?” Zoe whined. “I’m going to miss the party.”
“You’re not going to miss the party,” Josie said evenly. If this were any other day, she might have answered in a tone of reassurance, or perhaps one of annoyance, depending on how stressful the morning had been. But now she felt herself gathering inward. Her voice contained no inflection, because that was what required the least amount of energy.
She could see Frank so clearly in her mind’s eye: At this very moment, he was wearing a long-sleeved, dark gray shirt and jeans. Not a dressy shirt; it was the thick, comfortable kind that was good for yard work or for lounging on the couch watching football. He was five foot ten and broad-shouldered, with a booming voice and a full head of light brown hair. He didn’t have great teeth; they were a bit crooked, and frankly, they could use whitening. And his nose was beaky. But his eyes had sucked her in from the moment they’d met at a mutual friend’s party a few years after she’d graduated from
college. They were the warm, rich shade of root beer. When they’d first fixed on her, she’d thought they were the kindest eyes she had ever seen.
Would her husband look different when he finally emerged through that glass door?
• • •
When you had children, you made rules not only for them but also for yourself.
One of Josie’s steadfast rules was: No fighting in front of the kids.
Bickering, sure. She and Frank squabbled over his driving (too fast) and hers (he felt she was too timid when it came to changing lanes). Like every other couple she knew, they argued over the thermostat setting. They debated which movies to see (he loved Woody Allen; she hated him, and had even before the whole marrying-his-almost-stepdaughter situation). They never could agree on which restaurant to choose on their rare date nights, or when was the right time to leave a dinner party, or whose fault it was that Zoe’s school permission slip hadn’t been signed.
Come to think of it, they bickered quite a lot.
The glass door opened. Frank approached the car. Interesting, Josie noted in a detached sort of way: he looked exactly the same.
“One Venti latte,” Frank said, handing it to her with his crooked-teeth smile.
She accepted it without comment. Without meeting his eyes.
She saw Frank look at the empty cup holders, where they usually stuck their phones while driving. She saw him look down at Josie’s lap. She turned to stare straight ahead.
He didn’t ask for his phone back. It was another detail she cataloged.
He knows that I know, Josie thought.
“So, to the birthday party?” Frank asked. Josie nodded.
“It’s at Sky Zone, right?” he said. This Josie ignored. Frank knew exactly where the party was. They’d discussed it before pulling in to get lattes.
She didn’t want to speak to him, not at the moment. Nor did she want a sip of her latte. It all required too much energy, and on some instinctual level, she was aware she needed to stockpile hers for what was coming.
“Zoe Boey Boom-Ba-Booey,” Frank suddenly burst into song. He banged his palms against the steering wheel, like it was a drum. “How’s my girl?”
“Good,” Zoe said, still focusing on her Nintendo DS.
“Why don’t you put that away?” Frank suggested. He glanced at Josie out of the corner of his eye. She remained silent.
“Tell you what, after the party, how about I make a fire and we do a cookout dinner?” Frank suggested. “Get some hot dogs and marshmallows and roast them in the fireplace?”
Frank was good about making dinnertime fun, Josie noted, as if she were a judge considering a felon, weighing his character references. He made breakfast for supper, he created living room cookout nights, he bought dough from Trader Joe’s and stretched out crazy shapes for the kids to decorate with sauce and cheese. “Circle pizzas are so last year,” he’d say. “Here’s a sunflower for you to decorate, madam.”
Frank kept sneaking glances at her. He still hadn’t asked about his phone.
He opened his mouth, then shut it. His hands tightened on the wheel. Zoe continued her game on her device. Izzy made a kind of grunting noise in her sleep.
Josie pressed her feet harder back and imagined she could feel the phone against her heels.
The email she wasn’t meant to see was directly beneath a promotion from their local bookstore, offering a 15 percent
off coupon. There was a new Thomas the Tank Engine book Izzy wanted, mostly because it came with a little track and toy train.
Josie had touched the wrong line.
There were so many ifs that could have changed the course of this day, and of her life, Josie thought as she watched the pavement disappear under the car’s spinning wheels.
If her index finger had landed a few millimeters higher, she would be blithely sipping her latte right now and asking Frank to swing by the bookstore on the way home.
If Frank had been quicker in Starbucks—say, if that woman who’d ordered four drinks hadn’t been ahead of him—he might have made it out to the car before she’d finished calling the pharmacy. She never would have glanced down at his email in-box, which had popped up when she’d closed the phone screen.
If Izzy had woken up before she’d touched the wrong line, if the pharmacist had put her on hold, if Zoe hadn’t been silently engrossed in her game and instead had distracted her with a question . . .
Frank braked at a red light. He glanced at Josie, then reached for the radio and rapidly flipped through a half dozen stations before shutting it off. His posture was rigid.
The bookstore had sent that coupon to their house by snail mail, too, as part of a bigger flyer advertising new releases.
Josie had gotten the flyer just last week. She’d flipped through it and had pulled out the little plastic coupon. She’d meant to put the card in her wallet, but she’d forgotten it in the stack of mail they kept in a basket on the dining room table.
Josie was forever leaving things behind.
If need be, she thought, she was capable of leaving her husband behind.