The Film Student and Me
The day it all begins, the sunlight gleams off my daughtersâ€™ butter-blond hair as we run to catch a cab downtown. They are smiling and Iâ€™m happy, too. They remind me of young colts, skinny and pretty, their long, knobby-kneed legs not quite fitting their young bodies.
Ahead of me, the girls motion for a cab to stop. They open the door and shout, â€œMommy, hurry!â€
Belle and Lily, my ten-year-old twins, still like being with me. Iâ€™ve been told by many moms that they wonâ€™t like me very much anymore by the time theyâ€™re thirteen or so. But in this moment, when they are still so young, I feel that I live an enchanted life with them and my husband, Caleb. Our Upper East Side town house is so large it embarrasses me; our beautiful daughters attend one of the best schools in the city; and my marriage is still wonderful after all these years.
Caleb may not be exciting, with his preppy reserve and his unwavering routines, but heâ€™s solid, a loving provider. At fifty, ten years older than I am, heâ€™s already graying and balding, and has adopted a supershort haircut in response. But heâ€™s still very handsome. Sometimes I ruffle his remaining hair, and he grins at me and says, â€œGet it while it lasts.â€
But we both know that heâ€™ll still be attractive even when heâ€™s bald. The smile lines on his tanned face become him, and heâ€™s as fit as a man half his age. In the summer now, playing tennis or squash every day without fail, Caleb practically vibrates with health.
Caleb loves me, and I love him. Just as we always have, ever since we met. That is what we say to each other, and that is what I believe.
And then the cab drops us off in SoHo. Just as the girls and I get out, I see Caleb. Heâ€™s standing at the other end of the block, next to a twenty-something woman.
I instantly recognize her from Calebâ€™s financial firmâ€™s annual holiday party. Her name is Jill, and she joined the firm straight out of business school. Sheâ€™s pretty in an annoying, perky, overly blond kind of way, like an actress in a detergent commercial. And I remember, from talking to her at the party, that sheâ€™s relentlessly, irritatingly upbeat. I also recall that sheâ€™s a â€œquantâ€ with an economics degree, the kind Caleb most respects. (He sees my English degree as useless, a costly indulgence.)
I assume that theyâ€™ve simply run into each other and started chatting, or gone out for a cup of coffee. When Jill joined the firm, Caleb told me he planned to mentor her. He told me that women sometimes had trouble finding mentors in his office, and said, â€œIsnâ€™t that a shame?â€ And I agreed; it was.
Calebâ€™s office isnâ€™t far from here, and he told me this morning that heâ€™d be working today even though itâ€™s Saturday. So I am just about to go up to them and greet them with the girls in tow.
But then I see Jill give my husband a kiss. A very passionate kiss. And everything suddenly freezes inside me, on this hot summer dayâ€”my body, my heart, my thoughts.
A few panicked, paralyzed seconds pass as my mind refuses to believe what I have just seen. Then, remembering my daughters, I make myself move quickly, and I hustle Belle and Lily into another cab.
â€œIâ€™ve changed my mind. The shopping will be much better uptown,â€ I tell them.
Belle whines, â€œMy favorite stores are here!â€
But Lily, who doesnâ€™t miss a thing, understands what is going on.
She asks me, â€œWho was that lady with Daddy?â€
And I lie to my daughters for the first time ever.
â€œThat wasnâ€™t Daddy,â€ I tell them. â€œIt was just a man who looked like him. I thought it was Daddy, too, for a minute, but it definitely wasnâ€™t.â€
As I lie, my heart breaks. I wonder if Lily will ever trust me again, or whether this moment will define her young life, marked forever as the day she stopped believing what I say.
I saw no choice, though. Lying meant that at least I could still protect Belle from knowing the truth. And maybe I could keep Lily from being absolutely certain about what she saw. For as long as I could, I would keep my girls from knowing that their dad is an adulterer; that he soon may leave.
As the cab takes us uptown, hatred and fear rise up inside me. Did he see me and the girls? Does he know I saw him kiss Jill? Will he be waiting for me at homeâ€”wanting to apologize, begging me not to leave? Or will he tell me that he wants a divorce, that heâ€™s leaving me for Jill?
But when I get home, Caleb isnâ€™t there. Only our maid, Teresa. Sheâ€™s finished cleaning, and as I pay her, I canâ€™t stop my hands from shaking.
Teresa notices and says, â€œYou okay, miss?â€ (Iâ€™ve told her many times to call me Rebecca, but she wonâ€™t; sheâ€™s old school.)
I assure her that Iâ€™m fine, but my heart feels like itâ€™s cracking apart.
I realize that itâ€™s actually a good thing that Caleb isnâ€™t home. If he had been, my first instinct would have been to confront him. But I would never have forgiven myself if weâ€™d had a fight with the girls here. My parents never worried if I overheard their fights, and I hated it. And Iâ€™ve always been proud that Caleb and I have never fought when the girls were in the house. Itâ€™s been one of our most important rules, and I still want to abide by it nowâ€”even with everything falling apart around me.
I try Caleb at the office, and on his cell, but he doesnâ€™t answer. Unable to confront him, I take the girls shopping as I promised. Itâ€™s hard for me to focus, but I force myself to give an opinion on the dresses and jeans and shoes they try on. Usually I emphasize that we have a budget; I donâ€™t want them to grow up spoiled. But today I veto nothing; I simply hand over my credit card to the store clerks. Today, anything goes.
Once weâ€™re back at the town house, I watch the girls try on everything theyâ€™ve bought, matching their new items with clothes they already have. I almost forget the ugly reason for the spree when I hear their giddy laughter as they compliment each otherâ€™s choices. For a moment I am happy, because they are happy. For a moment I can almost forget what I saw.
That night when Caleb comes to bed, sometime after midnight, I pretend that Iâ€™m asleep. When Iâ€™m sure that heâ€™s asleep, I sit up and stare at himâ€”my handsome, unfaithful husband. Heâ€™ll leave me soon, I can feel it. A wave of sickness sweeps through me as I think about whatâ€™s in store.
I think about our wedding day, how happy I was. I was just out of college; Caleb, just out of business school. We married barefoot on a California beach, near his parentsâ€™ house. My dress was made of simple white cotton. Our ring bearer was a golden retriever. The ring was tied with a blue ribbon to the dogâ€™s collarâ€”our â€œsomething blue.â€ I still have it in my jewelry box.
We were the couple who made up goofy vows to replace the standard ones: I promised Iâ€™d always make Caleb pancakes on Sundays; he promised heâ€™d always instantly fix everything that broke in our house. But what can I do now, when heâ€™s broken our marriage?