You wake twisted up in the doona on a chill grey morning. Like a pupa in silk. First, ignore the line of light under the bathroom door, ignore the cascade of water behind it; shut your eyes, try to slip back to sleep; summon a fragment of the dream just broken, something to do with safety and peace.
He emerges from nowhere, haloed in golden light, steam rolling with him, then parting, then closing up behind him. He switches off the light and fumbles in the dark.
Say, “Never mind, Robert. I’m up,” and climb out of bed.
Face him in his towel, damp skin smelling of Safeguard, hair dripping. He pulls off the towel, dries fast.
In the bathroom, you brush your teeth. Your reflection in the mirror is invisible behind a layer of steam. Draw a smiley face and see pieces of your image appear where your finger has touched the glass. He stands beside you, erases the smiley face with a broad swipe. There you are, nudged aside, moving back and forth as the cabinet opens, shuts. Watch him lather his face and peel the foam away as if he’s paring fruit.
You say, “I’ll make some coffee.”
In the hall, you trip over a suitcase. Hop on one foot while you hold your toe. Say, “Damn!” – but whisper so you don’t wake the kids.
When he comes down, the sky is brighter, showing the outline of trees against an indigo banner. The kookaburras are boisterous in the trees.
Hand him a cup of coffee. “Are you hungry?”
Hear him say, “I’ll grab something at the airport.”
At the desk, he scans his emails. Watch him tap the keys. He has nice fingernails. Let your eyes drift to the back of his hands and to the crisp white shirt you ironed the day before. See the silver cufflinks you gave him for his last birthday and the pale blue-patterned tie in a perfect Oxford knot. The shave has exposed his pallor; you notice a brown arc under each eye.
He turns away from his coffee cup on the bench, still half full but forgotten, and takes up the briefcase and the suitcase, ready to go. Offer your lips to his and wish you’d thought to brush your hair.
“What are you going to do all day?” he asks as an afterthought.
Think of a creative answer. Imagine saying, “The kids and I plan to dig a hole to China and ramble all day on the Great Wall. We’ll stop in Hong Kong on our way, so look out for us.”
He’s not really listening, though, so you say nothing.
It makes no sense. But this is your goodbye.
Watch his back with a stab. Down the steps of the terrace house, into the parked car, tail lights swallowed by the mist. He flattens in your mind, transforms into a two dimensional image, like someone from a black and white movie, like Gregory Peck, maybe, in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit: elegant, inaccessible.
When he returns a week later, he’s tender. He caresses your hand, tells you about the conference, kisses the back of your neck when you chop vegetables for dinner. He kicks a ball around the back garden with the boys until it grows dark. He even gives the baby her bath.
After dinner, in a tableau of domesticity, you tuck the boys into bed together; he reads them a story while you rock the baby.
A short time later, he stands in the doorway and asks, “Is it almost my turn?”
Throw him a smile and say, “It depends. What do you mean by turn?”
You make love.
Afterwards, you lie on your back, an arm tucked behind your head. He traces patterns over your warm skin with his fingertips.
“I bought you a present.”
He jumps up naked and lopes across the room to the unpacked suitcase. Dirty clothes spill onto the floor. In the dark, they look like puddles. Try not to think about his laundry.
“I found this in a shop in one of those filthy alleys behind the hotel.”
You arch a brow and smile. “What a nice recommendation.”
“I think you’ll like it.” He hands you a beautifully wrapped package in technicolour paper with a frilled bow. He puts his head in your lap, watches while you open it.
Be cheeky. Pull off the bow and toss it onto his head, then undo the wrapping, taking care not to damage the paper, and place it on top of his head, too. Laugh when he looks up at you like an eager child in a party hat.
Open the box. Exclaim when you see a journal bound in embroidered silk. The pages smell faintly spicy. Tell him how much you love it.
“I thought it would be good for the lists you’re always making,” he teases.
Wriggle the blue bow on his head and tease back, “It’s much too pretty for everyday lists.” Be mysterious, “I’m going to use it to write down all my secrets.”
He shakes off the paper and the bow, reaches behind him. Another package materialises. A small black and white duty free bag.
“Wear this when you write your secrets.”
Peek inside. It’s Coco, your favourite perfume, .05 fl. oz. and very expensive. Throw your arms around him, squeal (softly, so you don’t wake the kids), kiss his forehead, his temple, his cheeks and neck. Linger over his lips.
Make love again and, when you’re lying in his arms, don’t wonder about this sudden attention. Don’t think anything at all.
When you were little, because of a song you sang in nursery school, you thought wife meant something to be taken. Now that you’re older, you know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to be taken.
Others see you differently now that you’re taken, now that you’re a wife and a mother and no longer a practising intellectual property lawyer. Men look through you, as if a baby in a Snugli is an invisibility cloak. On those rare twenty-minute excursions when you’re out alone, dashing to the convenience store for milk or juice, you sense something of the old interest in the eyes of the men you pass. More than once, you notice a swift glance to your left hand. You can read their thoughts as they register the meaning of the rings on your finger: taken.
His work is gearing up, demanding, very important right now, in the middle of a critical deal, unrelenting, too much for one person, a slog, something he can’t do anything about at the moment. But it will all change very soon.
Hold off serving dinner for as long as possible; when the boys begin bickering, feed them. Tell yourself you and Robert will eat together later. He won’t be too much longer. Bathe the boys, read them a story, tuck them in bed and kiss their sweet cheeks. Settle the baby. Change into fresh clothes, brush your hair, dab on some Coco.
Downstairs, set the table for two, light candles. Wait. A car slows outside and you’re sure it’s him at last, but it isn’t. Take a carrot from the fridge, and wait.
Technically, you’re still a junior associate at Street, Edmund, Kelvin and Byrne, but the last time you were there, for Christmas drinks, you were 38 weeks pregnant and might as well have been from a foreign country. It didn’t matter that you shopped all morning for just the right outfit, something sedate that contained your dimensions, something a professional might have worn to argue an important case. You were obviously no longer professional.
Attending had been a mistake. It only served to remind the partners how wrong they’d been about you. They’d made a bet and lost. Even with your great CV and excellent references, you had the unfortunate capacity to breed; you were the type to want a hand in raising your children.
The women were the worst. You were a fertility goddess in plonked in their midst, bursting with maternity, sweating in a too-tight dress and shoes that pinched.
Robert drank too much and flirted; first with Annette, a secretary from the fourth floor, which was bad enough; then with Patricia, who had a new haircut and a red skirt that showed off sturdy calves. Patricia, who had taken over your caseload when you fell pregnant for the first time, five years ago now.
He called you over. “Carrie, Carrie, Patricia here has just returned from a skiing holiday in Utah. Doesn’t that sound fun? Why don’t we ever do things like that?”
You were holding a canapé in a napkin that all but rested on your belly. “I don’t know, Robert. We should definitely go skiing one of these days. Bundle up the kids and hit the slopes. We should take up scuba diving and hang gliding, too.”
Robert shot you a look: a stony scowl behind a complacent half-smile.
You excused yourself. You went to the lobby and sat on a divan, kicked off your shoes, waited for Robert to find you and take you home.
Technically, you’re a mother at home with young children. At playgroup, when it comes out you used to practice law at a big firm in the city, silence falls.
“What kind of law?” someone finally asks.
Everyone nods. There are murmurs of appreciation. But no one asks anything more.
It’s a double-edged failure. Your old associates are suspicious of you for being a mother; your new ones for having once had a profession. Catherine, however, likes you. You remind her of her sister, the Carmelite nun.
“That’s ridiculous, Catherine,” you say, “I’m as opposite to a Carmelite nun as you can get.” Point to the baby.
Catherine laughs, nodding, “Yep, that’s just what my sister says and in that same way.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Catherine says. “The emphasis on the word ridiculous and that strand of hair tucked behind your ear.”
You make a list on a notepad left over from the years at Street, Edmund.
Street, Edmund, Kelvin and Byrne:
Ask Catherine to afternoon tea
When Catherine offers to take the kids for a morning, accept.
Go to the city. Get your hair styled. Shop.
Around lunchtime, call Robert, but don’t worry when he doesn’t answer. He’s busy. Work is all-consuming.
Browse in a used bookstore. Find nothing you want until you spy a copy of Self-Help by Lorrie Moore. You’ve always wanted to read Moore’s short stories, but there had never been time. Eat at a sidewalk cafe. Order a glass of wine and feel a little guilty.
You eat and read and sip your wine, enjoying the surprise of solitude in a throng. When it’s time to leave, happen to glance across the street. Imagine you see a man who looks like Robert walking with a woman who looks like Patricia. A bus passes. When you look again, there’s no one you recognise. Decide you must have imagined it.
Street, Edmund, Kelvin and Byrne
Cupcakes for playgroup
When you hear the car pull up, call to your children, “Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!” Finish diapering the baby, scoop her into your arms, rush downstairs.
Over the boy’s bouncing heads, their arms thrown around his legs, their excited shrieks, meet Robert’s eyes. Ignore that he looks away.
Casually say, “I ate lunch in town today.”
“I called to see if you wanted to join me but got your voicemail.”
“Yeah, today was full-on.”
“I had lunch on Albert. At one of the sidewalk cafes.”
He looks up from the mail he’s been sorting through.
“I thought I saw you. With Patricia.”
“Patricia from my firm.”
“Well, your firm is only a block away from Albert. You might easily have seen Patricia at lunch hour. But you couldn’t have seen me. I ate in.”
Nod. Give a little laugh. “It’s just that I felt certain about it being you and only a little about it being Patricia.”
He embraces you, ruffles your new hairdo. “What are you worried about, Carrie? You know I love you. Right?”
On a rainy day, while the baby naps, put on a DVD for the boys. Take the journal Robert gave you to the window seat in the front room, where you can watch the downpour and write your secrets.
After a while, you realise you have no secrets. The only thing you’ve written is: The man in the grey flannel suit. You have no idea what you planned to say. You’ve never even seen the movie.
Put the journal away in the bottom drawer of the desk. Join the boys on the sofa and watch the end of Finding Nemo.
Sort the laundry into three piles. Start with whites. Slip your hand into Robert’s shirt pocket and pull out two folded bits of paper.
One is an itemised receipt for lunch at Ruby’s, a new restaurant at the expensive end of Albert Street. You read words: oysters, duck, salmon, eye fillet, chocolate mud, sauvignon blanc, cognac, espresso. With the GST added, the total is $311.85, more than a third of which is alcohol. For lunch. For two.
You unfold the second slip of paper.
Street, Edmund, Kelvin and Byrne
1) Jim Spellman
3) Mike Marchica
4) Old Mr. Kelvin (I’m kidding!!)
5) Franco L.
6) R (lucky # 6!)
You don’t recognise the names or the handwriting.
Invite Catherine for lunch. Listen to her gossip about a friend. She bounces the baby while you cut her a second slice of banana bread.
“That’s terrible. I feel sorry for her,” you respond. “I thought women knew better at our age.”
Catherine nods and changes the subject. She mentions her plans for the summer. But you aren’t really listening. You’re thinking about the receipt from Ruby’s on Albert and the list of men on Street, Edmund notepaper.
You’re thinking, Patricia’s a friend. We’ve worked together. She knows us as a family. I even ran into her by chance when the baby was only a couple weeks old.
Act like that means something.
He stands before you staring at the receipt. When he looks up, his eyes are sad, patient. He replies as if you’re a child.
“Carrie, you know lunches like this are part of my job. It looks extravagant, I know, but that’s how business is done. It was an important meeting, if I remember correctly.” Then he sighs heavily, “Two weeks. That was a long time ago already.”
“Two weeks. Not that long ago.”
He’s angry, you can tell, but he speaks calmly: “Actually, I was looking for that receipt. I need to give it to Felicity in order to get it reimbursed.”
“What about this? Were you looking for this, too?” Hold out the list of names. Watch his face as he squints and thinks.
“I have no idea what that’s about. Is it yours?”
“Does it look like my handwriting, Robert? And it’s not yours. So I’m wondering where else you would get Street, Edmund notepaper.”
He thinks. “Obviously, Carrie, I wrote something on one of your pads here at home, then shoved it into my briefcase. Someone at work must have used it to jot down some names. Come to think of it,” he squints hard, “it does look like Felicity’s handwriting. I probably saw it on her desk and figured it had to be mine and stuck it into my pocket without thinking.”
Stand there, not speaking, hating yourself.
Street, Edmund, Kelvin and Byrne
Don’t forget trash day
Rent The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit
Book unit for school holidays
Lie awake, aware of every passing truck, bus, motorcycle, car. Feel grey and lumpy, like a pupa hanging off the end of a twig. When an engine slows, then stops, hold your breath.
A car door slams. You hear a jangle of keys, the front door opens, then shuts. Turn on your side, towards the wall, so you don’t have to see him. There are footsteps on the stairs, quiet at first, growing louder.
Remain motionless in bed while he hovers in the doorway. Don’t breathe.
He disappears into the bathroom. You note the line of light under the door. It’s funny, but in the inky darkness, it looks like an arrow. Or maybe it’s just your swollen eyes.
He switches off the light as he opens the door; the room is briefly illuminated and then swallowed by blackness. Feel him pull off his shoes, his socks, his shirt and pants. Feel him climb into bed next to you.
Imagine your back is laced in razor wire. Imagine you’re a piece of burning wood enveloped by dancing, licking, white-hot flames. Dare him to touch you.
He lies stiffly on his back. He sighs. You smell alcohol and smoke and something else you can’t identify. The scent invades the room and chokes you. It seems to be coming from his pores.
After a couple of minutes, his breath is heavy, rhythmic. A truck roars past as the digital clock on the bedside table changes to 4:18.
When you see Robert’s BlackBerry in the hands of your youngest son, gently take it from him and hand him a book.
“Go ask Daddy to read to you.”
You’ve never used a BlackBerry. You stopped working before they became commonplace. It feels solid in your hand, heavy with authority. Put it on the dresser out of reach of the kids, then think, I wonder if her number is in it.
It’s confusing to know which buttons to push. Select Archive by accident. Try to go back, but the symbols are unfamiliar, and instead you go forward. A list appears and, yes, Patricia is there at the top. Press Open.
As you read, be glad you’re sitting on the bed. Your feet are dangling over the edge of a canyon. You sense this, but you don’t exactly notice it. You are too busy reading.
Hey beautiful boy…
Read everything, dozens of messages, messages that include earlier messages, even those from the beginning, months ago, before the baby was born, before last year’s Christmas party at Street, Edmund when Patricia talked about skiing in Utah.
“What’s wrong?” he says.
From the edge of the canyon, wave the BlackBerry. In tones the children won’t hear, hold up the BlackBerry and say, “It’s all here. The whole story. Everything.”
When he asks you to give it to him, take up a pen from the nightstand and hold it as if it’s a knife. Laugh when he asks if you can talk about it.
“Okay, Robert, let’s talk.” Try not to be sarcastic.
“Carrie. I wasn’t looking for anything. Please believe me. It just happened.”
Be angry, but stay calm. “I’m curious, Robert. How does something like infidelity ‘just happen’? How do your pants just happen to unzip? How do her clothes just happen to get off? How do you just happen to lie to your wife day after day?”
“It’s not what you think.”
“What do I think, Robert? Tell me. I’m interested in how you presume to know what I think when I don’t even know what I think.”
The hours pass.
Weep. Let him hold you. Kick him away.
Ask questions: “Do you love her?”
“Then, why? Why Patricia of all people?”
He shrugs. “She made a pass. I felt flattered.”
“Patricia,” you wail, “took over my cases at Street, Edmund. And now she’s taking away my family.”
He holds you, kisses away your tears. “She’s not taking anything away. She means nothing to me. It’s over.”
Believe him even though you don’t believe him. Believe him so you can get through the night.
In the morning, ask him to leave.
Get out of the house while he packs. Take the kids on a picnic.
Watch the boys run and climb trees. Watch your daughter sleep on a blanket through the slow afternoon. She has Robert’s mouth. Her hands spread out over the picnic rug are small and helpless, her fingernails perfect.
With a pang, you think, She’s done nothing.
She hasn’t picked a flower or played in the dirt or made a finger painting.
Look at your son’s smiling face as he brings you an iridescent beetle. Swallow the sob that threatens to choke you. Smile back.
Later, when the kids are in bed and the house is quiet, take his call.
Hear him say, “I don’t want this.”
Hear yourself say, “Why didn’t you think of that earlier?”
“I’m sorry. I made a mistake, Carrie. A huge mistake.”
Let him beg. Let him tell you how Patricia means nothing to him. How he can’t figure out how it happened. Listen to him say he doesn’t find her attractive. He doesn’t even like her, thinks she’s cold and unkind. The affair was really about you, anyway, it must be a midlife crisis or something. He talks and talks. About how work has been stressful and unfulfilling and how the economic situation is getting worse and having a third child frightened him and he thought you didn’t love him—all that and a million other things.
In the end, you let him come home. You owe it to the two boys asleep in their bunk beds and the baby in her bassinette.
Dial Patricia’s number. When you hear her voice, think, She’s answered the phone like this a hundred times when it was Robert calling.
Hang up. When the phone rings a few minutes later, curse yourself for not using your cell phone and blocking the number, but answer anyway.
Force yourself to be fresh, innocent, breathless, “Hello?”
Listen to her breathe, then hang up.
Sit down with your hand pressed to your breast to keep your heart from flopping out of your body and onto the floor. It dawns on you she’s doing the same. It might have been him calling after all, but then you answered. She now knows for certain that you know. And that you have her number.
The days fall fast, one after the other. They whistle past in flashes and scuds and little explosions. The earth is potholed, scarred.
Even the picture of you on the day your daughter was born, a photo you loved so much. Exhausted from labour, no makeup and mussed hair, but so happy.
You take the photo out of the frame and replace it with one of the three kids. Then you stick the unframed photo under the journal in the bottom desk drawer and think, The woman in that photo wasn’t loved.
The day the baby takes her first steps, you remember a joke you once heard: What do you call a woman who marries a man with no arms and no legs? Carrie.
You now have secrets. Take out the journal and write:
You are a fool, an idiot, an imbecile—don’t forget it
Resign officially from Street, Edmund (and throw out leftover notepads!)
Protecting the children means protecting their father
Never believe a word Robert says
and never ever refuse him sex
The truth is not what you expected. It isn’t some movie from the 1950s. It’s not larger-than-life, candy-coated technicolour; but it’s not all noir either. Robert isn’t Gregory Peck, and your story is nothing like The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, with a war to blame for the husband’s betrayal, the long separation, the fear of death. No. This isn’t a drama worthy of any note. Someone happened to make a pass and someone else felt flattered. That’s all it took. And this isn’t going to end with a Hollywood kiss, a swelling soundtrack, and rolling credits. This is real life. And there’s nothing you can do.