What You Don’t Know
Filles Vertes Publishing
Coeur d’Alene, ID
Copyright © 2019 by Merry Jones
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, without prior written permission.
Merry Jones/Filles Vertes Publishing PO Box 1075
Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
Book Layout © 2019 Filles Vertes Publishing Book Cover Design © 2019 Filles Vertes Publishing
What You Don’t Know/ Merry Jones. -- 1st ed.
E-BOOK ISBN 978-1-946802-45-3
To Robin, Baille, Neely, as always
What You Don’t Know
Table of Contents
About the Author
Also by Merry Jones
Friday, August 10, 2018
he screams came from Sophie, and they were serious, not the kind that happened in a game, or even in a fight. These were the kind that happened when someone severed a digit, when their hair caught fire. Nora jumped to her feet,
slamming her coffee mug onto the table, noting the dark splash on the placemat, the stain that was already forming.
“Girls?” she bellowed as she ran to the playroom, images
pulsing in her head. A finger crushed, an arm broken. An intruder at the sliding doors. With a knife, with ; a gun. Oh God.
Nora swung around the newel post, flew down the half-flight of stairs, took the left past the laundry room into the den. Her socks had no traction, so she skidded over the hardwood floors into the room. Her eyes darted left to right, right to left, searching for blood, for damage, for a stranger. Only when she saw her
children intact and uninjured did she allow herself to breathe.
“What?” she panted.
At the sight of her mother, Sophie stopped screaming. She halted her stomping and flailing on the sofa as if only now
remembering that she might get scolded for jumping on the furniture. Hopping down, she crashed into the coffee table and knocked her plastic tea set onto the floor.
Nora thought Sophie would barrel into her arms, but no, she stopped beside Ellie, who was crouching behind the sofa’s armrest, eyes gleaming and intense like Tommy’s. Seeing how much Ellie resembled Tommy was disturbing. Nora almost heard him chuckle.
“Mom! Do something!” Bug-eyed, Sophie raised a hand and pointed at the floor near the sliding glass door.
Nora blinked Tommy away and stepped farther into the room, her gaze following the trajectory of Sophie’s finger, unable to understand the panic.
“Goodness,” she began. “What’s the big—”
Nora stopped mid-sentence, her blood halting its circulation, her skin erupting in goose bumps. Some primal sense took over, some paleo-revulsion, and she recoiled, stepping backward, stumbling over her own feet.
The spider was huge.
Nora’s shoulders hunched and her throat tightened. Damn. Her knees dissolved, so that for a few seconds, she couldn’t move.
Sophie shouted, begging her to kill it.
Ellie hugged herself and stared.
Of course, yes. She would have to kill it. But, God, it was ugly. And as big across as Sophie’s hand, with long pointed spindly legs. Looking at it made Nora’s stomach wrench and her skin writhe, yet she couldn’t look away.
“Kill it, Mommy!” Sophie screamed. Or maybe it was Ellie. It could have been either of them.
For a few heartbeats, the playroom was silent, electric with tension. Six eyes gawked at the spider. And then Ellie burst into a high-pitched constant keening that reverberated in Nora’s bones.
“Get it, Mom!” Sophie yelled, covering her ears to muffle
Ellie’s wails. When had her daughters become so casual about killing? Was it too much television? She’d have to monitor what the girls were watching and talk to Dave about it. Then again, he’d only tell her she was being overprotective, that the girls had to be prepared for the world they’d live in.
“It’s coming closer!” Sophie cowered behind Ellie, hands still over her ears.
“Ellie!” Nora barked. “Cut it out. I can’t think with that noise.”
“Mom said cut it out!” Sophie yelled into her sister’s ears. “Be quiet!”
“Sophie, don’t yell in her ears,” Nora yelled, then softened her voice. “In fact, don’t yell period. And Ellie, hush.”
Finally, Ellie stopped screaming. She stood up, rapt and silent.
The spider didn’t move.
Nora edged over to the bookshelf and retrieved a wad of drawing paper. She held her breath as she rolled it up and held the makeshift tube at the ready—a slugger waiting for the pitch.
“Mom, hurry. It’s going to get away!”
Nora half hoped it would. She watched it. An alien being without bones, without a brain. Was it even aware that it existed? That it was in danger? She stepped closer, her body wracked with disgust. And definitely, without a doubt, she didn’t just see but felt the spider tense, preparing all its several limbs for battle. Oh God. How did it know? Could it hear her heartbeat? Was it watching her?
A vague memory surfaced about spiders’ eyes, that they were made up of dozens of smaller eyes scrunched together, compressed into one organ. Or maybe that was insects, not spiders. Bees, maybe. Tommy would have known. God, the thing was ugly. Her nerves pulsed with the urge to crush it. Why was she resisting? Killing it was no big deal. It was just a damned spider.
The girls were losing it. Sophie’s pigtails had come loose, her curls dangling over one ear. She clutched Ellie with both arms, hugging her, comforting her sister when, really, it was she who needed comforting. Ellie stared, white-faced, chewing her lip. Her hands grasping Sophie’s.
“Kill it, kill it,” their little voices chanted.
Kill it, Nora’s mind repeated. She imagined herself a bullfighter—the spider, her toro. Or no. She was more like a Nazi, and the spider some arthritic old Jew. No, what was she thinking? She was neither torero nor Nazi. Her victim was a spider. Nothing.
So why was she hesitant to kill it?
Maybe she should let it go. She could find a jar to capture it and then dump it outside in the garden. That would show the girls that all creatures have a right to live, that the spider was nothing to be afraid of, that he was just being a spider. Yes, that’s what she should do. And it’s what she would have done if the spider had given her the chance.
Instead, it made its move.
It jumped. It leapt through the air, landing inches from where it had been. And it didn’t stop. It took off running on all eights across the hardwood floor.
The girls’ shrieks shattered the air. They glommed onto each other in terror, Ellie bellowing, Sophie squealing. Nora grimaced. Why hadn’t she just killed the damned thing? Why had she
allowed the situation to heighten to this level?
She jumped into action, overcoming her fear, chasing after it like a mama bear protecting her cubs, stooping to the floor, pounding the thing with the roll of drawing paper. She struck once. Again. And again, and again, sending pieces of spider legs skittering across polished wood. Spider insides pasted the paper. The corpse itself shriveled to a tiny ball, its remaining legs curled up as if trying to protect themselves.
For a moment, there was silence. Nora stood, panting.
Ellie scurried over and gripped the back of Nora’s jeans,
peering at the small mess. “Ew.”
Nora asked Sophie to get a tissue. Sophie dashed from the room and brought back a handful. Nora tried to stop shaking, to act casual as she scooped up the remains, took them to the toilet, and flushed them. She watched the tissue swirl around the bowl and disappear.
“That was gross.” Sophie’s giggle was high-pitched and tight.
“It was this big!” Ellie spread her arms a foot apart, unsteady, unsure. Measuring herself by Sophie’s mood, imitating it.
“I think it was furry,” Sophie added. “And it had teeth.” She bared hers, making spider faces that were less than scary since she was missing her front teeth.
“This is how Mommy smooshed it.” Ellie imitated the moves, slashing the air. Again. And again.
The killing was already becoming family lore. Nora would be the hero of the story, and the spider, the hideous villain.
The coffee Nora had been drinking came back up. She swallowed, forcing it down, hugging the girls and pushing away memories. Wondering if bullfighters felt sick after a kill. But never mind. It was done. On some level, she marveled at how easy it had been. How, at the moment of impact, she hadn’t felt any resistance, might as well have been striking the empty floor. She wadded up the piece of drawing paper, stained with spider remains, and tossed it into the trash can.
“Girls.” She steadied her voice. “Clean up your toys and wash your hands.”
It was almost dinner time.
Saturday, July 19, 1993
ora’s tongue pushed against her upper lip as she concentrated on bending the red string behind the blue. She tied a knot and repeated the step with the red string behind the black. Red behind yellow and then purple. The row looked good.
Before starting a new one, Nora leaned back and gazed out the sliding doors. In the yard, the leaves of the apple tree and dogwoods were perfectly still. Nothing moved, not a squirrel or a bird. Even her mother’s wind chimes hung limp and silent. Earlier, she’d heard the boys next door shooting baskets in their driveway, but not now. Now, it was too hot even for them. Nora stared at the trees, wondered if they felt the heat. Did they get thirsty? Lonely? Bored? Did trees feel anything at all?
Canned laughter drew her attention to the TV, a Saved by the Bell rerun that Nora hadn’t really been watching. She had seen the episode tons of times. But she liked the show, the way all the kids got along, the ease of their friendships. Their acceptance of Screech even though he was annoying. Not to mention that Zach was so cute. And sweet—like now, when his arm was around Screech’s shoulders, reassuring him that he wasn’t a total loser.
A commercial came on. Nora went back to bracelet weaving. Checking the tape that secured the finished end of her bracelet to the coffee table, she repositioned herself on the hardwood floor, her back against the sofa, her legs sprawled out. Holding four strings taut, she worked the fifth through them, following a pattern she’d learned at camp. Blue behind black, knot. Behind yellow, knot.
She was tying blue behind purple when Tommy clumped down the stairs. She hesitated mid-knot, tensing.
Shoot. Why did he have to come down where she was? Why couldn’t he stay upstairs in his dark room developing his bug pictures, or in his dark stuffy bedroom doing whatever he did in there with the door closed all by himself? She steeled herself, preparing. If he messed with her, she’d ignore him. This time, she would pretend he wasn’t even there until he got bored and went away. She wouldn’t get mad: that’s what he wanted.
“Yo, pissface.” Tommy never called her by her name. Mostly, he used a variety of terms reflecting bodily waste. If she reacted, he got encouraged and even more obnoxious. So she didn’t react.
He joined her, plopping his skinny annoying self onto the sofa, setting his ant farm smack on top of the tape that secured her strings, taking his camera out of its case.
Nora tried not to cringe. Why why why had he brought his stupid bugs with him, let alone dumped them exactly and precisely where she was knotting? Stupid question. He did it because he was Tommy. Her older brother lived to bother her, gross her out, scare or make fun of her. Well, she wasn’t going to let him. She would ignore the farm and concentrate on her knots. Where was she? Yellow behind purple?
But Tommy wouldn’t let her ignore him. Holding his camera, he climbed off the sofa and hunched on his knees right beside her, so close that she could feel his body heat and smell his peculiar odor, a combination of sweet and stale, musk and warmth. She could even smell his breath. He must have had bologna for lunch.
“I know you don’t like them.” He aimed his lens at the plexiglass case. “But I don’t get why. Look at them. See how nice they are? Nobody’s stuck up or thinks they’re better than anybody else. Nobody gets in fights. Not like people. Ants are actually
better than people.”
Only her brother would say a thing like that. The more odious they were to others, the more Tommy loved them. He watched his ants the way she watched Saved by the Bell.
She kept knotting, sorry that she’d looked at them. They made her itch, the way they never stopped moving, scurrying through their tiny tunnels, digging, crawling with all those legs. Yuck. But she couldn’t let Tommy know that. If he knew, he’d stick them in her bed or her underwear drawer. Tommy
repositioned himself, shooting their pictures from various angles.
Why couldn’t he go hang out with his friends and leave her alone? Oh. Right. Because Tommy didn’t have any friends. Because he was the weirdest, most annoying, dorkiest kid ever. And he had nothing better to do than torment his younger sister.
Tommy stopped shooting and frowned. He put his camera down and, without asking, peeled Nora’s tape off the table. Nora held onto her strings with one hand and smacked him with the other.
“Don’t—Tommy, leave that alone!”
He reattached the tape a few feet away. “Your string’s ruining my shots.”
“So? Go take your stupid pictures someplace else. I was here first.”
“Tough. The light’s good here.”
Nora reached for the tape, peeled it off, and replaced it where it had been.
Tommy didn’t comment. He watched until she was finished, then unfastened the tape and moved it away again.
Okay. So that was how it was going to be? A silent move-the-tape fight? Should she engage? Escalate things by moving his farm? Nora’s heart pounded out her anger, but she resumed
knotting, determined not to lose track of her pattern, refusing to get distracted by her older brother, his tense bony frame, his thick matted curls with the permanent cowlick on the crown of his head, the angry pimples blossoming on his fuzzy, bristly, unshaven chin, the strange musty sweet smell of his body, his clicking camera. Nora concentrated on strings, on colors, on pattern. She knotted black with yellow, purple, red, and blue. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t ignore the persistent movement of hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny swarming creatures just a few feet away. Their motion nagged at her, and the nagging grew until she felt them crawling—not just on her skin, but under it—as if she herself, her body, was the ant farm and the tiny things were swarming inside her.
Ridiculous. She needed to ignore them. But the itching wouldn’t stop. Nora held the strings in one hand, scratched her arms and legs with the other. She stretched her neck, took a breath, and assured herself that no bugs were on her, let alone in her limbs. She couldn’t let Tommy get to her. One of her mother’s homilies rang in her head: Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Or an anthill?
Tommy knelt, adjusted his f-stops, clicked the camera again and again.
Nora wove the next row with purple, forming fours and tying knots. But—oh God—her neck tickled. Her back. Cripes. Holding her threads in place, she checked the farm. It was intact. No bugs had escaped. She’d just had a tingle. An unrelated itch.
Tommy nudged her arm, leaning over her to take a shot. She shimmied away, swallowed the urge to pound him, and tied red behind blue. Wait, that wasn’t right. Shouldn’t it have been purple behind red? Crap. She’d messed up her strings, all because of Tommy with his stupid camera and ants. What was he doing? Why was he so close?
She looked up, came face to lens with Tommy’s camera. “What—are you taking my picture? Don’t.” She turned away.
But Tommy scooted around the table, tracking her movements and clicking pictures. “That’s great. You look really annoyed. Now look at the ants. I want to get your expressions.”
Nora took a breath, closed her eyes. Do not react, she told herself. Do not let him see that he’s getting to you. She made her face placid and calm, opened her eyes and focused on her string.
“I said, look at the ant farm.”
Tommy stopped taking pictures. He picked up the television remote and turned off Saved by the Bell. Aiming the camera at her, he clicked a few times. He was trying to provoke her into making faces so he could take embarrassing photos, but Nora was on to him. She ignored him, sorted her strings, and began a new row of purple.
Tommy picked up the ant farm and held it up to Nora’s face. “I told you to look at the ants!”
Nora closed her eyes but sensed thousands of tiny legs, their incessant motion. She heard Tommy breathe in his bologna breath. And without looking, she pushed the farm away.
Tommy pushed back, harder, crouching now, pressing his weight against hers so that the farm was caught between them.
Nora dropped her string and used both hands, thrusting her weight against his. Tommy leveraged his position, using his whole body to shove the ant farm into her face. He was taller, weighed more. She couldn’t resist for long. The muscles in her arms trembled, her shoulders burned. Finally, she simply let go.
Tommy fell forward against her. They rolled backward, Tommy half on top of her. The ant farm, launched by the force of his weight, flew across the family room and crashed into the bookshelf, slamming onto the hardwood floor. For a moment, neither of them moved. They lay stunned, out of breath. Then Tommy’s eyes went wide.
“No!” He bellowed and ran to the farm. “Look what you did, you little shit! Go get a jar or something!”
Nora looked across the room. The plexiglass wall of the ant farm had come loose, spilling sand and a legion of ants out onto the floor. Tommy was frantic, trying to block their progress, to scoop them up and force them back into the broken farm. But it was no use. They were free, their line heading directly toward Nora. She clambered onto the couch.
“Nora! Get me a fucking jar.”
When she didn’t, he spun around, swinging his fists, pummeling her arms and torso. Nora curled into a ball, protecting herself until, finally, he stopped pounding, grabbed a fistful of ants, and dashed upstairs. Nora fought tears. The punches hurt, but she wouldn’t let Tommy make her cry. Damn him and his stupid bugs. Eyeing them, she backed toward the stairs, but stopped as Tommy ran down with a saucepan. He brushed past her and, kneeling over the ants, he cupped his hands, trying to recapture them and drop them into the pot. Ants crawled all over his arms.
“Tommy, they’ll get all over the house.”
“I know that. Don’t you think I know that, you fucking turd?” He swung the pan through the air, yelling, “Look what you’ve done!”
“What I’ve done? You’re the one who shoved—”
“Shut up! You just shut up!”
The ants were halfway to the coffee table. Nora’s knees felt weak; she hugged herself, toes curling.
Tommy was wild eyed. He dropped some more into the pot. Brushed a few from his arms, scrambling to rescue them.
Nora eyed the advancing column. Soon, ants would be up the walls, on the shelves, the table, the sofa, the stairs. Tommy sat defeated, watching their escape. But only for a moment. In a flash, he was on his feet, clicking his camera, recording the shattered ant farm, the parade of survivors.
Nora had no choice. She’d have to fix this herself. Grimacing, she leapt off the sofa and didn’t stop, didn’t look down. She dashed out the sliding doors into the heat, past the silent wind chimes and motionless trees, to the garage where she grabbed the bug spray, and hurried back into the family room, dreading what she’d find. She expected Tommy to fight her, but he didn’t. Tommy was fully engaged, hopping and kneeling around the room, bending low, capturing shots and snapping images, while bugs crawled onto and over him.
Stomach churning, Nora held the can high and aimed. She blasted them all, even the ones on Tommy, who kept shooting, recording the slaughter as one by one, ants shriveled and died, including the big, gross, fat one still in the broken farm that must have been the queen.
When she was finished, Nora took a deep breath and counted until her mind went blank. She deposited the broken farm into the trash and brought back a broom to sweep up the corpses before their parents got home from work. Tommy didn’t help. Without a word, he took his camera and went upstairs to his room.
In the commotion, Nora forgot all about her bracelet. Hours later, she found it on her pillow. All that was left of it was an
unraveled, tangled wad of string.
Friday, August 10, 2018
hen her phone rang, Nora ran up the steps to the kitchen and grabbed it off the counter. Her hands were still shaking as she checked the caller ID.
Early in their marriage, he’d call without a reason. He’d talk about nothing in particular, saying he just wanted to hear her voice. Back then, they’d been more connected. Now when Dave called, it was most likely to say he’d be home late. He had client appointments, partner meetings, depositions, trials. Lots of reasons to miss dinner.
“Nora, what’s wrong?”
How had he known something was wrong? All she’d said was his name.
“Nothing.” Adrenaline still pumped through her body, but she wouldn’t take up his time talking about a spider. Not while he was at work.
“So, don’t count on me for dinner tonight. Depositions to
prepare for the Langdon case. It’s a nightmare.”
Nora knew Dave’s voice as well as she knew her own, and she recognized the lie. The almost undetectable tensing of his vocal cords was as clear to her as a fire alarm. Nora bit her lip. She held the phone, not speaking, and gazed out the kitchen window. She could almost see the heat. The children’s swings hung completely still. The weeping willow drooped; the oak tree’s leaves didn’t rustle. The lawn needed mowing. And moss covered the slabs of slate along the garden path. Theirs must be the most unkempt yard in all of Bryn Mawr. When were the mowers coming?
She remained silent, deciding not to make it easy for him.
“I’ll be as early as I can.”
Nora still said nothing. She remembered other times that he’d lied. Painful and pointless confrontations had resulted from calling him out. Havoc caused by some trivial fib like a bill being paid late, or a doctor appointment that wasn’t kept. And then came the bigger lie, the one when she’d been pregnant with Ellie. Afterward, he’d sworn he’d never cheat again, so this lie wasn’t like that one. This lie, whatever it was about, had to be
insignificant, not worth cornering him.
The girls stampeded into the kitchen. Sophie’s curls had come completely free of their elastic bands and bounced as she ran.
“Nora? Okay?” Dave asked. As if it mattered what she thought. As if her opinion could alter his plans.
“I’ll try to make it home before bedtime. If not, kiss the girls for me.”
Nora told him that of course she would and hung up,
Almost five-year-old Sophie stood beside her, tilting her head and blinking her wide, quizzical eyes. Sophie often looked at Nora this way, wordlessly asking, “What’s wrong?” As if Nora would define the world for her, explaining the significance of each individual incident that occurred. At that moment, Sophie’s eyes were a mix of violet and red, matching her purple T-shirt. In the morning, they’d been yellow like her pajamas. Her eyes were chameleons, constantly changing, mirroring whatever was close to her.
“Were you talking to Daddy?” she asked.
“Why are you mad at him?”
Lord. Had she sounded mad? Was she that transparent? She’d have to be more careful with her voice.
“I’m not mad.” Nora made herself smile. “Why would I be mad at your daddy?”
“Because I bet he’s not coming home for dinner again,”
“Daddy never comes home for dinner.” Ellie’s voice was
matter of fact, disinterested. Her eyes were brown, like Nora’s. Steady and deep, they seemed the opposite of Sophie’s, not emitting light but sucking it in, drinking it.
“He comes home when he can, pumpkins. He works hard to take care of us, and he wants to be here for dinner. But tonight, Daddy has to work late. I’m disappointed, not mad.” Nora
continued to smile as she wiped her hands on a dishtowel.
“You looked mad when you were talking to him.”
Christ. Couldn’t she let down her guard for a single moment? Why did Sophie always have to be watching her, missing nothing? She tossed the dishtowel onto the counter.
“Sad and mad. Mad and sad,” Ellie repeated in singsong. A year older than Sophie, she often sounded younger.
Don’t count on me for dinner tonight.
Why was she so bothered that Dave wasn’t coming home? Probably she wasn’t. Probably she was still upset about the spider and its eight long leaping legs.
“So. Supper.” Nora cleared her throat and gave a cheery grin. She tried not to think of arachnids or where Dave would be at dinnertime. “Go wash your hands.”
“Chicken fingers?” Ellie sat on one knee, chewing her
“Ellie, stop that.” Nora raised an eyebrow. Ellie’s hand shot away from her mouth and stayed behind her back as she followed Sophie to the powder room.
Nail biting was only one of Ellie’s issues. She also was afraid of the dark, of being alone, of bad dreams—so much so that she couldn’t sleep in her own room and instead stayed in Sophie’s. Ellie didn’t mix easily with other kids, often preferring to play by herself. Nora assured herself that all of these behaviors were merely developmental, nothing to worry about. After all, the girl was not yet six years old.
Even so, Nora did worry. Because, before the nasty, mean-spirited, teenage Tommy, there had been a young, shy, quirky and quiet Tommy who had been a loner, playing by himself, never having a single friend that she could remember. Unless she counted insects.
Never mind. Ellie was nothing like Tommy. God, no. Nora took chicken fingers out of the freezer as Ellie, back from washing her hands, began folding dinner napkins into perfect rectangles, seams straight, corners aligned.
No, it wasn’t the spider. It was Dave. The lie in his voice. Don’t count on me for dinner. What was he lying about?
Nora needed to relax. She handed Sophie forks and knives to set out and asked Ellie to get a box of macaroni from the
cupboard. She filled a pot with water.
While they waited for the water to boil, she and the girls washed nectarines and grapes. They peeled and sliced bananas and cut a cantaloupe for fruit salad.
As supper took shape, Nora was oddly conscious of her movements. Kneeling, reaching, lifting, turning, slicing. She held her stomach tight and her shoulders erect as she took out a bowl for the fruit salad. She dumped macaroni into bubbling water, performing her role as mom even as she kept hearing Dave’s voice with its subtle tautness. Don’t count on me for dinner tonight.
“Why didn’t you tell Daddy about the spider?” Sophie watched the macaroni boil.
Nora saw it again, leaping through the air, scampering over the floorboards. Her back rippled and arched. “He was busy.”
Her hands trembled as she stirred milk and powdered cheese onto the noodles. How absurd to be so affected by a smashed spider. People killed things all the time. Mosquitoes, flies. Mice. And how about meat? Eating a chicken finger required killing a chicken. Killing was a normal part of daily life. Carefully, Nora opened the oven and took out the cookie sheet. She placed pieces of chicken onto plates. When she turned off the stove, she heard the gasp of an expiring flame.
There was no deposition. Dave had lied. In fact, lately he’d been lying a lot.
Nora dished out fruit salad with a sprinkling of shredded coconut. If she were less sure of Dave, she might suspect that her husband, whose intense gazes could still roast her flesh, was having another affair.
But he would never. Last time, he’d wept. For a full six months he’d begged her forgiveness, promising his eternal love, fidelity, and honesty until she’d finally taken him back. Knowing what was at stake, he wouldn’t risk cheating again. No. It had to be something else. She and Dave were fine.
Even so, the syllables burned: af-fair. Nonsense. Not possible. Dave was devoted to her.
She poured two glasses of milk. Sophie asked for ketchup, so Nora squirted some onto her chicken.
Don’t count on me. Don’t count on me. Don’t count on me. Don’t count on me.
When was the last weeknight Dave had been home for dinner? She couldn’t remember. Damn. Nora stood at the kitchen counter, her mind taking off, showing her pictures of Dave pressing himself against some other woman, kissing her, unbuttoning her shirt, reaching inside and sliding his fingertips under lace. Acid spread through Nora’s throat, burning her lungs and stomach, dissolving her marriage, her life. Don’t count on me for dinner—
“More mac and cheese, please!” Ellie called. “Mac and cheese, please!” She pounded her fists and rattled the dishes, laughing and yelling. “Mac and cheese, please!”
“Ellie! For God’s sakes, stop!” Nora’s voice sliced the air. She spun around, her eyes narrowed. She’d been louder and shriller than she’d intended. Her hand rose, grabbed a chunk of her hair.
Ellie went silent and pale.
Sophie stared at Nora, stunned, as if she’d been slapped.
Oh God. What had she done? Nora ran to hug them, first one, then the other. “Sorry. I’m sorry, Ellie. I didn’t mean to yell.”
No. She hadn’t meant to yell. Not at them, never at them. She kissed Ellie’s cheeks and held Sophie’s head to her chest, inhaling the blend of herbal shampoo and kid sweat. She assured them that Mommy loved-loved-loved them and was just tired. Everything was fine. Of course they could have more mac and cheese. Only next time don’t bang the table. And guess what? After supper, they could have ice cream from the truck when it came by. Nora made herself sound cheerful as she released them. She pushed her hair behind her ear and gave Ellie a wink. Watched her girls eat with gusto.
What had she just done? Inventing scenarios that got her upset and then snapping at her children? Dave’s late nights were legitimately about work. He was a lawyer with a demanding practice. She’d overreacted because his phone call had come right after she’d battled that hideous arachnid. She’d transferred her adrenaline-soaked fury onto poor, over-worked, loyal, lovable, sleep-deprived Dave.
Yes, that was what had happened. Silly woman.
Nora got herself a fork and put the extra mac and cheese into a cereal bowl. She sat with her girls and chatted about camp, swimming lessons, and mosquito bites. She refilled their glasses of two percent and smiled, not letting on that she kept seeing a grotesque creature dodge and contort as it tried to escape her blows, or that she kept replaying the actual kill, wondering at how easy, how darkly exhilarating it had been.
Tuesday, July 22, 1993
as that Craig Treschler? Oh God, it was.
Nora slumped down in her seat, trying to be invisible. What was Craig doing there, on the day camp bus, wearing a Main Line Tadpoles T-shirt? Only counselors wore those. Wait, was he a counselor? At her camp? How? Why? She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. Yes, it was him, for sure, sun-tanned and muscled, looking chipper even now at the end of a long, blistering hot day. Chatting with the driver before starting down the aisle.
Don’t sit with me. Don’t sit with me. Don’t even look at me. Keep walking. Why was he stopping? Oh God. He was grinning, baring his big white teeth. The better to eat you with. What was he grinning at? Was it her? She froze, dreading what he’d say or do. Had he recognized her? Would he mock her? “Why, look who’s here, it’s the scumbag’s sister!”
Nora clung to her camp bag and looked out the window. Was he still standing there? What if he grabbed her camp bag? What if he taunted her?
Out in the parking lot, parents had lined their cars up to collect campers who didn’t ride the bus. One or two at a time, the camp director escorted kids into back seats and buckled them in, their faces red from exertion or their hair damp from the pool.
Nora stared but didn’t see the kids, their mothers in their cars, or even the bus. Instead, she saw herself on her bike after school on a June day. She had stopped at the corner before crossing the street as a bus growled slowly up the hill, spewing black exhaust. It was the Lower Merion high school bus—Tommy’s bus. As it passed, she heard shouting and saw a commotion inside, something zooming over the kids’ heads, arms reaching to grab it. Were the kids playing catch? On her bus, everyone had to sit still and be quiet. They couldn’t shout, let alone play games. Was it different in high school?
Something flew out a window and crashed onto the bushes along the curb. A book? It couldn’t have been. Who would throw a book? She turned, saw that it was, yes indeed, a book lying open on top of an azalea bush. As the bus chugged up the hill, another book tore through the air, pages flapping and fluttering until it flopped into the gutter in front of Mrs. Carlson’s house.
What was going on? In the excitement of playing catch, had someone’s books fallen out the window? Puzzled, Nora rode up the steep street, racing the bus, so she could tell the driver that someone had lost their books.
“How’d you like soccer today, dude?” Craig’s voice startled her, brought her back to the present. He was standing next to her, talking to a little boy in the seat directly in front of her.
The kid wasn’t scared though. He beamed, telling Craig about his game, how he’d scored a goal and almost scored another one. Nora kept her head turned toward the window, told herself that Craig wouldn’t recognize her. And if he did, he wouldn’t pick on her, not here, not in front of the little campers. Not with the bus driver able to hear.
Although the bus driver had done nothing for Tommy.
And there it was again, the memory. Nora had waited at the bus stop to tell the driver about the books, out of breath from racing her bike uphill.
The bus doors folded open and the driver yelled, “No more roughhousing, you two. Next time, you’ll walk home, the both of you.”
And, oh God, Tommy tumbled out backwards into the street, landing on his butt and scuttling backwards like a panicked crab as Craig Troeschler jumped off and followed after him, swinging Tommy’s empty backpack. Tommy raised his hands, protecting his head. The doors closed and the bus chugged away with a dozen noses pressed against the windows.
Nora tried to stop remembering. She concentrated on the parking lot. On the yellow Volkswagen door opening for a girl about seven years old, dressed in magenta and white striped leggings and an orange tie-dyed tank top. Focus on those stripes, Nora told herself. On colors and patterns. On mismatched clothes. Or cars. But while the Volkswagen’s door closed, her memory played on, and Craig’s voice boomed at Tommy.
“Don’t ever take my seat again! Hear me, you sorry piece of shit? Next time you see me standing on the bus, what are you going to do?”
Craig whapped the backpack at Tommy’s hands and head, and Tommy turned away, dodging and cowering. His face flushed crimson, even darker where black fuzz grew in unshaven patches along his jaw.
Tommy muttered something.
“What? I didn’t hear you.” Craig’s grin gleamed, vicious. He kept swinging the canvas bag.
“I said I’ll get up and give you the seat.” Tommy hunched, arms protecting his head.
“You’ll give me the seat?” Slap. “What else will you do?” Whap. “Say it.”
“I’ll go away.”
“Wrong!” Craig bent over him, growling. “What will you do?”
“Crawl. I’ll crawl away.” Tommy’s voice was husky. A swallowed sob.
Craig stopped smacking and jeered. “That’s right, crybaby douchebag. You’ll get on the ground with the rest of the dirt and crawl out of my sight.” He threw the book bag at him, spit at the ground, and sauntered off across the street.
Nora didn’t move, couldn’t. What had just happened? Craig Troeschler was an older kid who lived in a red brick house up the street. What did he have against Tommy? And the driver—he and all the other kids on the bus must have seen what Craig was doing. Why hadn’t they stopped him? Unless—
The realization hit like a slap. It appeared like a rewind, like scattered shards unshattering and reconnecting into an unbroken whole. In a short, silent moment, Nora knew that the game she’d seen on the bus hadn’t been catch. It had been kids playing keep-away with Tommy’s books, tossing them back and forth and, finally, out the window.
It was why he hid in his room and never invited anyone over. Why he slunk around without making a sound. She’d known he wasn’t popular or cool. But the truth was far worse: Tommy, her big brother, was the brunt of jokes. He was a wimp who got bullied. A loser. A freak.
Nora’s whole body went numb. She wished she hadn’t seen what happened. It wasn’t her business. She wasn’t part of it, had nothing to do with it, had stumbled into it by chance. What should she have done? Intervene? Stand up for her older brother and confront an even older, bigger Craig who had just acted meaner than anyone she’d ever seen before, who even on that warm spring day was wearing a black biker leather jacket that matched his greased-back shoe-polish-black hair? Nora didn’t know what her role should be, how she should act, so she did nothing. Even when Craig walked right up to her, standing at the bus stop with her bike, she said nothing. For a flickering heartbeat, she thought, oh God, he was going to pick on her for just standing there, witnessing, or for being Tommy’s sister. Did he know she was his sister? But he passed her by without the merest glimpse, not even a grunt.
Tommy looked up, then, probably to make sure Craig was gone. For an endless, permanent, never-to-be-forgotten moment, brother and sister stared at each other in silent recognition of Tommy’s humiliation, his perpetual victimization, his tormented hopelessness. When finally Tommy wiped his eyes and climbed to his feet, Nora didn’t go to him. When he brushed himself off and started down the hill to reclaim his books, she didn’t help. Later, at home, they didn’t tell their parents what had happened. Neither of them mentioned it, not ever.
But months later, Craig was on her camp bus, a counselor where she was, at twelve, just a counselor-in-training. He wore no gel in his hair and gave cheerful high fives to a little kid. Would he recognize her from the bus stop? Connect her to Tommy? Taunt her for the whole ride home?
Nora pictured her brother hunched in the street, promising to crawl in the dirt for Craig. Letting Craig defeat him. Something surged in her belly, searing and sharp. She sat straight and looked directly at Craig, catching his eye.
“How ya doin’?” He winked and took a seat across the aisle.
She narrowed her eyes. Nora wasn’t like Tommy. Just let him mess with her. She wouldn’t cower. No, if Craig picked on her—if he said one mean word, she’d fight back and make him bleed.
“Wait, don’t I know you?” He sat back, half smiling.
She ought to tell him who she was and what she’d seen. Her hands went clammy and her belly somersaulted.
“Don’t think so,” she said instead, half-smiling back.
“I’m Craig.” His smile broadened, revealing straight white teeth. He was actually kind of cute. Dark and hunky. Mischievous sparkling eyes.
Tommy had groveled at Craig’s feet. But she wasn’t like Tommy, didn’t want to be like him. Silently, she counted. One, two, three… until she shoved her nerves aside.
“Nora,” she said, as if she didn’t even know Tommy or anyone else with that name.
Friday, August 10, 2018
he girls had been fed, bathed, tucked in, and read to. Their bathing suits had been washed and the dishes were done. Nora was in bed, reading. Well, not really. Really, she was staring at page thirty-something, picturing Dave in various sexual positions with the Other Woman, who she’d again imagined might possibly exist. She wondered how late he’d be and whether she’d work up the nerve to ask him about it. She imagined that conversation, what he would say. He’d be surprised, of course. Would he deny it? Or would he laugh at the absurdity of the idea and reassure her? More likely, Dave would be baffled by her suspicion but flattered by her jealousy. He’d take her in his arms and hold her, promising that he was hers and hers alone, that she could trust him.
But what if he didn’t? What if his eyes grew somber and his shoulders slumped, silently admitting it? Would he beg for forgiveness again? Or pack a bag and leave? Lord. Nora closed her eyes, told herself to stop being ridiculous and dramatic. She had no reason to imagine such a dire and unlikely scene. Dave was neither having an affair nor leaving. Their marriage was solid. Nora clutched her book, and stared at the words, the letters shimmying on the page.
The girls were still awake, whispering and giggling in Sophie’s room across the hall. Nora hoped they’d continue to be close, no matter who got custody. Good Lord. Where had that come from? She was out of her mind. Had she really imagined a divorce? She needed to stop. There was no other woman. End of story.
Bullshit. If he really loved Nora, he’d have come home for dinner not just tonight, but all the nights he’d stayed out late. She’d forced herself to be cheerful, meal after meal, while his seat at the dinner table remained vacant. She’d pretended, for the girls’ sake, that it was normal for daddies to stay at work into the night, that everything was fine. But the girls weren’t stupid. They sensed something was off—after all, Ellie was biting her nails and Sophie was always asking questions, picking up on Nora’s moods even when Nora tried to hide them.
Across the hall, Sophie shrieked.
“Sophie,” Nora called. “Quiet down.”
“But Ellie said another spider might be here.”
“Don’t worry. There’s no spider in there.”
“There might be.” Ellie sounded certain.
“Mommy!” Sophie shouted. “What if one climbs in my bed?”
Nora took a breath and set her book on Dave’s side of the bed. She got up and crossed the hall. Her daughters made her turn on the light. They got out of bed and huddled behind her while she examined their sheets, the floor under both beds and dressers, the closet, shelves, curtains and windowsills. Finally, as she tucked them in again, she heard the front door close.
It was barely eight-thirty. Very early for a passionate date. Unless his girlfriend had to get home. Maybe she was married, too. Maybe she had kids. Who the hell was she?
She wasn’t anybody, damn it. She didn’t exist.
“Hello?” Dave’s baritone barreled up the stairs. “Where are my girls?”
“Daddy! Daddy!” Ellie and Sophie jumped out of bed, screaming, ran to him and leapt into his arms.
Nora stepped back, watching, caught off guard by the open affection of her family. Obviously, she was wrong about the affair. Dave really was working extra hours. Without thinking, she offered her cheek for him to peck as he passed. The girls trailed as he tossed his suit jacket, briefcase, and phone onto their bed. Sophie and Ellie chattered about their day at camp, about Sophie doing big arms in the pool and Ellie learning the frog kick. They pulled his hands, dragging him to their room. Dave glanced at Nora long enough to shrug and roll his eyes in feigned helplessness, a captive of his manic, adoring daughters.
Nora smiled, not so much at Dave as at the delight the girls took in capturing their father. Who could blame them for being so excited? It was a rare night when daddy was home before they were asleep. For a moment, she listened as they each offered to read to him, vying for his attention. Then she went back to bed, climbed into her side, and picked up her book.
And noticed his phone lying beside her on the crimson floral comforter.
Tuesday, July 22, 1993
arm water poured over Nora’s head, rinsing pineapple-coconut scented shampoo bubbles over her eyes. As she soaped her legs, she wasn’t thinking anymore about Craig, how friendly and outgoing he’d been on the bus, or how awkward she’d been in her hesitant response. Nor was she thinking about her two best girlfriends, Natalie and Charisse, who were both away at sleepover camp for six whole weeks, leaving her alone with her pathetic counselor-in-training job and her dorky brother, whom she also, for sure, was not thinking about. No, as Nora stood sudsy in the shower, the single thought in her head focused on the evil-demon poison ivy rash above her ankle. It raged and itched like a plague from hell even after a whole week. Nora could deal with being friendless for a summer. She was okay with being a CIT, herding four and five-year-old kids back and forth to the pool, playground, bathroom, arts and crafts room, or bus. She didn’t even mind that she wasn’t getting paid one single dime. But poison ivy? That, she minded.
Her ankle screamed to be scratched, but she wouldn’t give in. She had learned that scratching made it worse. So she held the rash directly under the shower spray, hoping that the water might soothe and quiet the itch. Instead, the pulsing aroused it. The itch surged to life, exploding into a furious rampage. Even then, Nora resisted. It took all her will power, but she didn’t scratch. She turned the knobs and made the water hotter, with any luck, hot enough to scald the rash and sear the itch away. How could she have known that the rash would feed on the heat, guzzling and swallowing it, licking its lips, swelling, burgeoning, intensifying until finally, it crushed Nora’s resolve. She squatted, her fingers hungry like talons, reached for her ankle, tore at her flesh.
Beyond the shower curtain, something clattered.
Nora stopped scratching and listened, heard only the splash of water against the tub. Something—maybe her hairbrush—must have slipped off the counter. Except brushes didn’t just fall on their own. Nora leaned forward and peered around the shower curtain. The mirror, clouded with steam, showed no reflections. Her towel was draped over the counter, and a clump of dirty clothes remained on the floor. Her hairbrush was beside the sink.
She turned the water off, reached for her towel. Watched the last soapy bubbles swirl around the drain. Her ankle no longer itched, but blood dripped where her nails had ripped skin.
Something clicked. A door closing?
Nora whisked the shower curtain open. Steam fogged the room, dimming a shapeless damp ghost that blurred her brother’s form. Nora screamed and, in a heartbeat, covered her body with the towel.
Tommy wore his idiot grin, amused.
“What the hell, Tommy?” she shrieked, securing the towel.
“It’s about damn time you get out of there.”
“Get out!” she sputtered. “What are—Why are you in here?”
“Why do you think? I’m waiting for a bus?” Clutching the strap of his camera case, he took a step back. “I needed to piss.”
She could always tell when he was lying. His eyes shimmied and his lips pursed ever so slightly.
“Are you kidding? While I’m in the shower?”
“I had to go.”
“Bullshit.” She clutched the towel.
“Why else would I come in here? To sneak a peek? What, at you?” He forced a laugh. “Don’t make me puke.”
“Wait—” She eyed his camera. “Were you taking pictures?”
“I’d rather eat glass than look at your flat chest and skinny butt. You’re insane.” He stepped toward the door, his hand tight around his camera strap.
She didn’t move, just stood there holding up her towel. “Where are you going? I thought you needed to use the bathroom.”
He stopped, didn’t look up. “I did.”
“What? While I was in here? Liar. You didn’t. You spied on me in the shower. Admit it.”
“You’re full of shit.” His smirk failed, and his face reddened. “So what if I came in? I had to take a piss and couldn’t wait three hours for you to get done with one of your Guinness book showers.”
Something hot and furious erupted in Nora’s chest. She wasn’t a little kid anymore. She was twelve years old. She’d already had two periods and owned a training bra. How dare he?
Nora charged into her room and slammed the door. Her mother would be home from work any minute, so she practiced what she’d say. She phrased it carefully so that her mother wouldn’t dismiss her as a tattle tale, pronouncing that everything was okay, and Nora was just overreacting. That Tommy hadn’t done anything wrong, that family was family and Nora had to be flexible. She rehearsed in front of her mirror, revising and rewording until she came up with lines that she thought worked.
“Mom, I’m uncomfortable about something and need to ask you how to handle it.” Starting that way didn’t blame Tommy for anything, might even flatter her mom because Nora was asking her advice.
By the time her mother came home from work, though, Nora had begun to doubt herself. Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe she really did take long showers and Tommy really had needed to use the toilet. Maybe he hadn’t sneaked a peek or taken pictures. Maybe she was going to get him in trouble for no reason.
She replayed her shower, the itching, the steamy heat, the unexplained sounds. The look on Tommy’s face when she’d opened the curtain and found him standing there, tongue-tied for an excuse. No, she wasn’t wrong. For sure, he’d done something sneaky. Nora took a last look in her mirror, practiced her lines once more, and headed down the hall to deliver them.
Her mother was in her bedroom, still in the rumpled clothes she’d worn to work. Her rose-colored slacks matched the paint on the walls, the print on the floral bedspread, and the tones of her nail polish and lipstick.
“Mom?” Nora began. “Something’s bothering me.” She hesitated when her mother didn’t look up.
Her mom stood beside her dad’s open closet, one of his suits draped over her arm and a piece of paper in her hand. She stared at the paper, her shoulders wilting, hair hanging limp around her cheeks. Nora couldn’t see her face.
Nora began again. “I need to ask your advice.”
Still her mother didn’t move, didn’t answer. What was so important about that piece of paper? Was it a phone message? A receipt?
“Mom, Tommy spied on me. In the shower.” Well, so much for rehearsing. The words had burst out on their own.
Her mother looked in Nora’s direction but seemed to be looking into the distance, not at her. Her face was gray, her mouth slack. Her hand grasped the paper.
Nora’s chest fluttered. “Mom? Are you okay?” Had something bad happened? Had someone died?
“What? Yes. Of course, I’m fine.” Finally, her mother registered Nora’s presence. She stuffed the paper into the pocket of her slacks. “Take my advice, Nora. Don’t look for trouble unless you’re prepared to find it.”
Nora blinked. Was her mother trying to say that by telling on Tommy, she was looking for trouble?
“I’m not the one looking for trouble, Mom. Tommy is. Can you talk to him?”
Her mother’s eyes jolted, refocusing on the clothes she was gathering. “Nora, can we talk later? I’ve got to get your father’s suits to the cleaners.”
“Mom. He came in while I was in the shower.”
“I’m sure he had a reason, dear. Don’t be so dramatic.” She rifled through the closet, removing a blazer. She paused for a
nanosecond before reaching into its pockets.
“Dramatic? Tommy follows me around with his stupid camera. I get no privacy—”
“Nora, stop.” Her mother tossed the suit and blazer onto her bed and ran a hand through her hair, exposing the gray roots. “I work all day and come home to cook and do chores. All I ask of you is that you get along with your brother. You’re not little kids anymore, I can’t referee and solve all your petty disagreements. If you and Tommy have a problem, you’re old enough to work it out yourselves.”
Nora’s mouth hung open. Was her mother serious? “He doesn’t listen to me—”
“Why doesn’t he? If you want him to work with you, Nora, try being nicer to him. You aren’t exactly an angel here.”
“What did I do?”
“Really? You want a list? How about breaking his ant farm?”
“But I didn’t—”
“A word to the wise: you can’t catch flies with vinegar.”
No, Nora supposed that she couldn’t. But she didn’t want to catch flies. And neither vinegar, nor fly-catching—nor Tommy’s ant farm—had anything to do with her problem.
“I just want him to respect my privacy.”
Her mother seemed harried, distracted. She scooped the clothes off the bed and drew a deep breath. “Nora honey, it’s time you learned. In a relationship—any relationship—you have to pick your battles.”
“Your brother has a brilliant, inquisitive mind. He’s not your average kid, he’s unique. You need to appreciate him and stop wasting energy on small stuff. Communicate. Compromise. Always be willing to give more than you get. That way you can coexist in peace.” Promising to be back in half an hour, Marla hurried out of the house. The edges of that piece of paper peeked out of her hip pocket.
Nora, riddled with advice, was on her own.
Friday, August 10, 2018
ora set her book down and eyed the phone, half-hidden in rumples of rose floral comforter. From across the hall, she could hear Dave reading Dr. Seuss. He’d be busy for a while.
But no, she wasn’t going to be that kind of wife, one who checks up on her husband, who monitors his phone calls. If she did that, soon she’d be reading his texts and email, or stalking him when he went out.
Don’t look for trouble unless you want to find it.
How many times had her mother given her that warning? A thousand? If it wasn’t the most frequent Marla Quotation, then it was definitely in the top three. Nora could see her, her crimped chin-length hair dyed medium ash-brown, her nails filed into rose-colored ovals, and her lips painted a shade of rose, always rose, never a deeper red or lighter pink.
A memory surfaced of Marla standing in her bedroom with a piece of paper clutched in her fist. “Don’t look for trouble,” she had breathed, “unless you want to find it.”
At the time, Nora had been, what, eleven years old? Twelve? She’d walked in on her mother examining the paper, had watched as her mother’s fingers tightened around it, crushing it. What had that paper been? A receipt for a hotel room? For jewelry? A love note? Nora couldn’t imagine. Her father, Philip, had been a pharmacist, a balding guy with glasses and a voice like talcum powder. Not a player.
So why had her mother’s nostrils flared and her eyes glowered? Why had she sighed so deeply before uttering her advice? Don’t look for trouble.
Probably she hadn’t glowered, sighed, or slumped. It was more likely that Nora had embellished the memory, turning it into some unsolved parental mystery. Besides, her advice was hardly unusual. Marla had had tons of adages: If you expect nothing, you won’t be disappointed. Let well enough alone. Don’t cry over spilt milk. Don’t rock the boat. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Things can always get worse. No matter what, family comes first.
Nora rattled through half a dozen more before realizing how utterly sad they were. Had her mother been depressed? What had Marla been like as a young woman, before she’d been a mother spouting tired adages? Back in the ‘70s, as a teenager, had she been popular? Had her heart ever been broken? Or had Philip been her first love? Had she been happy in her marriage?
What had she found in his pants pocket?
Across the hall, Ellie pleaded, “Now read this one, Daddy. Please?”
“No, Ellie! My turn to pick!”
Dave explained that it was already past their bedtime and overruled their argument that, in summer, they had no bedtime. The girls begged and cajoled, not letting him go.
But he was finishing up. Time was running out. Nora eyed his phone. All she had to do was pick it up, turn it on, and press an icon or two to see if anyone was habitually calling or texting him. And if the habitual caller/texter was a woman, Nora would find out who she was and what she was texting.
Don’t look for trouble, Marla’s voice echoed.
But her mother hadn’t followed her own advice. She’d taken the paper from her husband’s pocket. Besides, wasn’t it better to know the truth?
Nora picked up Dave’s phone. Pushed the button that lit the screen saver. Younger versions of Sophie and Ellie popped up. They were standing in front of a Christmas tree wearing Santa hats, Sophie’s mouth open in laughter, Ellie’s stretched into a clownish grin. The shot had been taken by a professional photographer a few years ago, back when they’d still sent Christmas cards. How old had the girls been then? Two and three? It was sweet that Dave had this picture as his screensaver, with Sophie’s curls pressed into Ellie’s cheek and their eyes catching the light. Nora’s finger went to the picture, tracing the line connecting their faces, gently touching their noses, their chins.
Raucous laughter erupted across the hall. Dave’s baritone growled, playing a monster. Were the girls out of bed again? Would they scamper into her room, trying to escape bedtime by hiding under her covers?
If she was going to learn anything, she had to act now. She punched in Dave’s password. She’d known it since Ellie had been a baby, since the day a car had run a stop sign and T-boned them, crushing the driver’s side door. Ellie, in her car seat, had been unharmed. Dave had taken the brunt of the impact—a dislocated shoulder and a cracked rib—so Nora had used his phone to call for help. Where had they been going that day? The mall? The grocery store? Nora didn’t remember, but she remembered the password: Stolilime.
Bingo. Dave’s phone came alive. Now, all she had to do was press an icon.
She hesitated, fingers shaky. How harmless the phone seemed, tiny enough to fit in a pocket. Looking at it, no one would guess that this sleek, skinny rectangle could be life-shattering. At least, marriage-shattering.
Don’t—her mother’s rosy lips whispered—look for trouble.
Nora took a breath. Her mother was wrong. Finding trouble was different than causing it. If Dave was cheating, his cheating was the trouble, and it would still be trouble whether she found out about it or not. Wouldn’t it?
Maybe not. Didn’t she already know everything she needed to know about Dave? He was home now, earlier than she’d expected. His presence meant something, didn’t it? Even if he was having an affair, which he wasn’t, not after last time, but even if he was, he wasn’t letting it keep him from his family. It must only be a phase and it would pass.
After all, Dave was committed to Nora. He depended on her. She’d helped him prep for his bar exam, picked out the suits he’d worn to interviews. She’d given birth to his children, after laboring and popping hemorrhoids and enduring his peppy relentless coaching for twenty-three and seventeen agonizing hours. When his father died, he’d clung to her, weeping. No flimsy affair would be enough to destroy or even dent their marriage, that’s how closely their shared history bound them.
They’d barely recovered last time. It had taken years. After that, after what they’d been through, he would never. She was almost absolutely sure.
Nora clutched the phone, her hand stiff like a crow’s claw. Her throat closed, refusing to take in air. Her children’s voices faded, sounded far away.
Thunder rumbled outside. Nora turned toward the window, surprised to see rain slashing at the pane. The day had been cloudless. Where had the storm come from?
Across the hall, Dave’s reassuring voice was saying goodnight. “Remember,” he said, “you’re safe. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Nora glanced at the phone, the doorway, back at the phone. Just before Dave walked in, she pressed the off button and put it back exactly where he’d tossed it. Instead of snooping, she would simply muster the nerve to ask him straight out. She had a right to know. She was his wife.
When he walked into the room, Nora made herself smile. “What a storm—”
“They told me what you did.”
What? Her eyes went to the phone. How could they know?
Dave scowled as he unbuttoned his shirt. “What were you thinking? Were you trying to scare them?”
What was he talking about?
He sat on the bed and took off his shoes—shiny black slip-ons with tassels. “For God’s sake, Nora. You didn’t have to slaughter it.”
What? Oh. The spider?
Lightning flashed, overpowering the lamplight and for a moment turning the room and Dave ghostly white.
“They said you freaked out.”
She’d freaked out? The girls had been hysterical, screaming for her to kill it.
“It was really big.”
“They showed me how you kept pounding it after it was dead. They said pieces of it were flying everywhere.”
Well, that was true. Nora cringed, remembering. “It took all my nerve, Dave. You should have seen it. It was gigantic. It
actually jumped, and then it ran. I was afraid it would get away.”
“You should have let it go,” he said. Dave stepped out of his slacks, hung them up. If she looked in a pocket, would she find an upsetting piece of paper? Nonsense. Dave’s side of the closet was open, displaying his suits, hand-made and expensive, arranged in a neat row, organized by color and fabric. Nora’s favorites were the charcoal pin stripes that complimented his graying temples. But today, in the heat, he’d worn a taupe shade of summery
wrinkle-free linen. He hung the jacket over the pants.
“I should have let it go loose in the house? Are you kidding?”
Thunder clapped outside, sharp and followed by another flash of lightening.
“No, I’m not kidding. Why kill it? It was only a spider.” His face was severe. Gravely serious. Why did he care so much about a stupid spider?
“Only? Oh my God, Dave. It was huge. You weren’t there. The girls were screaming—”
“Oh, come on, Nora. We’ve talked about this. We agreed to teach the girls respect for animals—all animals.”
He had nothing on now but his briefs. Some men looked silly, but Dave looked good in underwear. His shoulders were wide and muscled. His abs were still discernable under a belly just soft enough to be considered mature. His chest and legs were solid and dusted with just the right amount of soft brown hair. Best of all, though, was his butt. Tight, round, and not too narrow. Nora wondered if the Other Woman appreciated that butt. And thinking of her, how was Nora supposed to broach that subject while Dave was fixated on the assassination of a spider? Maybe this wasn’t the right time. Besides there was no Other Woman. Dave’s persistent lateness was because of depositions and various client meetings, just as he claimed, and his crankiness was due to stress.
Dave’s phone lay exposed on the comforter beside the briefcase, feigning innocence.
“Nora, seriously. You know how sensitive and impressionable they are. Ellie’s so nervous she bites her nails and won’t sleep in her own room.”
“Dave. The girls are fine.”
“Really? Can’t you see how your behavior today affected them?” He stood beside the bed with his arms extended, as if
arguing a case before a jury in his Jockeys.
Nora kept her voice low so the kids wouldn’t hear. “Of course I see. I showed them how to face up to fear and take charge even when they’re scared.”
Dave smirked. “I don’t think so. I think you showed them that it’s okay to slaughter an innocent creature.”
What? Why was Dave seriously making an issue out of a dead spider? Nora wasn’t going to apologize. Nor was she going to defend herself and mention that she’d actually considered setting it free until it jumped and scared the bejeebies out of her. She ran her hand through her hair, and a lock flopped into her eye. “Dave. Get over it. It was a spider.”
“Exactly,” he gestured grandiosely, exhibiting his biceps and triceps. “A living thing that had just as much right to live as a
parakeet or puppy—”
“So, what would you have done, Doctor Doolittle? Pick it up and pet it? Invite it to tea?” She crossed her arms, tilting her head up to meet his eyes.
“I’d have picked it up, yes. I’d have carried it outside and let it go free. I certainly wouldn’t have gone postal on the thing.”
Nora fumed. “Fine. Next time I see a mosquito biting you, I won’t swat it.”
“I’m just saying you could have made an object lesson out of it.”
“So, I guess we’re vegans now. You wouldn’t want to encourage the slaughter of an innocent chicken.”
“Come on, Nora. All I’m saying is you should try to set an example, okay?”
Another clap of thunder. A flash of lightning spilling through the windows.
Nora’s brows furrowed. What was Dave doing? Why was he so being critical? He couldn’t really care that she’d killed a spider. She listened to the water running, to the brushing of his teeth, the rinsing, the spitting. She waited, preparing. When he finally came to bed, she’d plain out ask him. She practiced the words in her mind: Are you having an affair?
Rain pelted the windows. Lightning flashed yet again, casting stark light over the room. In an eyeblink, Nora saw the rumples in the comforter, Dave’s shoes on the floor, the doorway out to the hall. The phone.
No, she couldn’t ask him outright. Maybe she should rephrase her question. What’s the real reason you were late tonight? Or, Dave, are you hiding something from me? No. Both were too accusatory. However she phrased it, Dave would react poorly. Already irritated about the spider, he’d declare that he was working his ass off and that, instead of appreciating the stress he was under and encouraging the effort he was making to support their family, his wife was accusing him of hiding things from her. He’d turn it around, blaming her for being suspicious. “Dammit, Nora,” he’d snap. “I’m doing my best. I love you. Why isn’t that good enough?”
But what if, as he proclaimed his love, she detected a dishonest quiver to his voice? What if she saw a lie in the small muscles around his eyes, a minuscule twitch or twitter?
The toilet flushed, the water ran again. In a moment, he’d come in.
Nora lay back against her rose-colored pillowcases, closed her eyes, breathed deeply, and told herself to stop inventing trouble and trust him. She waited to feel his weight on the mattress, to share a goodnight kiss.
Nora lifted her head. Sophie stood at the door, her eyes wide, head tilted as if asking, “Mommy, what should I think? How should I feel? What’s going to happen?”
The storm had frightened her, she said. But Sophie was intuitive, and Nora suspected that the storm that scared her daughter wasn’t the one raging outside.
Nora guided Sophie back to her bed and stayed with both her frightened girls until their eyelids drooped and their breathing steadied. When she came back to her own room, Dave was on his side, softly snoring.
In the morning, Nora recalled that his phone had rung sometime deep in the night. Dave had taken the call into the hall, whispering so he wouldn’t disturb her. Or so she wouldn’t hear.
Friday, August 6, 1993
he first time Annie asked Nora to her house, Nora stopped breathing. Her face got hot and her heart somersaulted so violently that she was almost unable to answer. It wasn’t that Nora had never been to another kid’s house. She’d gone to Natalie’s or Charisse’s a hundred times, ever since first grade. But Annie? Annie was the coolest girl going into sixth grade, if not in the whole middle school.
Annie had long, straight, dishwater-blonde hair, usually French braided. She was taller than Nora and could do cartwheels. She had neon pink braces on her upper teeth. And—how cool was this—she wore a regular bra. Most of the girls at school were jealous of her. Every single boy had a crush on her. Nora hadn’t been in her class last year, but she’d ridden the same school bus, never imagining that the last week of camp where they were both CITs, Annie would notice her and want to be her friend.
Somehow, Nora had managed to articulate the word, “Sure.”
And, once at Annie’s house, Nora did her best to cement a friendship. She acted like Annie, mimicked Annie’s hushed way of speaking, laughed when Annie laughed, even took almost an hour to fix a French braid just like Annie’s. Her efforts seemed to work. Annie began confiding in her, gossiping about other girls, telling Nora what boys she liked, complaining about her strict parents and three older sisters. Annie even admitted that her bra was filled with tissues and gave Nora one of her sister’s bras so Nora could do the same.
As weeks passed and middle school started, Nora began to trust the friendship. She shared homeroom and English class with Annie and spent less time with Natalie and Charisse, who, by comparison, were dull and immature. But when she was at
Annie’s house for the fourth or fifth time, Annie said a few words that threatened to ruin everything.
The visit had started off fun. Annie’s sisters had friends over too, and while everyone was distracted, Annie motioned for Nora to accompany her upstairs. Nora followed Annie into a long white-tiled bathroom that reeked of hairspray and was cluttered with brushes, hair dryers, toothbrushes, lotion bottles, deodorant, nightgowns, and damp towels. She felt a pang of jealousy, imagining what it must be like to live there, to have sisters—normal siblings who got along, who she could actually talk to, or even have fun with. Annie opened a cabinet and took out a jazzy pink razor and a spray can of foam.
Nora watched with trepidation as Annie pushed the shower curtain back, sat on the side of the tub, slathered her legs with shaving cream, and ran the razor along her skin. She rinsed and dried her legs under the faucet and then held out the can of shaving cream for Nora.
Annie’s laugh was the tinkle of a bell. Light glowed in her eyes. “Your turn.”
Nora heard her mother scolding. What’s your hurry? You’re too young. Don’t rush things.
But the situation was clear. Nora had to choose: Did she want to be cool like Annie or not? She pictured Tommy, alone with his bugs and his camera, friendless, the butt of jokes.
With the sense that she was doing something terribly wrong, she took the can and sprayed foam onto her leg. It tickled, especially around her poison ivy. She tried to keep her hand steady as it slid the razor up her leg like a plow through snow, leaving a bare track.
She told herself that her mother wouldn’t notice. When was the last time she’d looked at Nora’s legs? And Annie was laughing, saying how sexy Nora’s legs were. They slathered on skin lotion and ran their fingers up and down each other’s smooth, silky skin. Giggling, they checked under each other’s arms to see if there were any hairs there to shave. They discussed the other hair sprouting between their legs, even peeked into each other’s panties to compare.
“I’d be dead if Heather found out I shaved my legs.” Annie put the razor away.
“You call her Heather?”
“That’s her name, isn’t it? My father is Kirk. Why? What do you call your parents, Mommy and Daddy?” She asked it as if the idea were absurd.
Nora imagined calling her parents by their names. Marla and Philip? They would freak if she addressed them that way. Still, why shouldn’t she? Those were their names, weren’t they?
“I’m serious,” Annie went on. “I’m the baby, and you wouldn’t believe how strict my parents are with me. Thank God they’re so clueless.”
They went back downstairs and were eating fresh banana bread when Annie said those few unexpected, devastating words. “Next time, let’s go to your house.”
Let’s go to your house. The words hurdled at Nora, bashing her face, ricocheting inside her skull. Nora stopped chewing. Banana bread stuck in her throat, almost choking her. She should have anticipated this situation, should have been prepared. All these weeks she’d pretended to be just like Annie, when really, she was nothing at all like Annie, whose house was always full of cool kids and noise and the aromas of cakes baking and roasts roasting.
What should she say? Sorry, no. I don’t want you to see my brother? What would Annie think? She’d think Nora was weird and creepy. She’d stop being her friend. Nora fumbled, didn’t know what to say. So she said, “Sure.”
Annie gulped milk and asked her to describe her room. She asked what her house looked like, what it was like to be an only child. Nora’s stomach twisted, and she stumbled over her words, changing the subject before she had to tell Annie that she wasn’t the only child, that she had a brother. Talking instead about boys, a topic Annie never tired of. Making up a story, that she’d heard Luke liked Christine. Anything to change the subject.
It worked, for now. But sooner or later, she’d have to figure out a reason that Annie couldn’t come over.
Cripes, it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t her fault that Tommy was so embarrassing that she’d never even mentioned him to Annie. If Annie came over, Tommy would sneak around, peeking and snapping their pictures. Annie would hear all of Tommy’s gross names for her, like Pissface. He’d barge in with his disgusting bug collections. Or he’d just slink around with his musty smell and unshaven, zitty face, and uncombed hair, showing Annie that Nora wasn’t her caliber. That she was the sister of the neighborhood loser, the kid everybody picked on no matter what, always had, always would. The kid that got tossed out of the school bus. It wasn’t right, wasn’t fair that Tommy was her brother. He’s unique. He has a brilliant mind. He’s not like average kids. But she wanted him to be average. Or at least not so embarrassing. Why should she have to miss out on a normal life just because of him?
By the time she got home that night, Nora was determined to set things right. Her mother—no, Marla—was dipping pieces of flounder into milk and breadcrumbs. Nora didn’t hesitate. After all, her cause was righteous.
“I want to invite my friend Annie over.”
Marla kept dipping. “Okay.”
“But I don’t want Tommy around.”
“Well, that’s kind of unreasonable.” Her mother turned to her, holding a limp piece of fish. Milk dripped onto the floor. She lowered her voice. “Your brother lives here, too—”
“Tommy Tommy Tommy Tommy.” Nora’s voice was too loud. “Everything’s always about Tommy. Let’s build him a dark room. Let’s buy him a freezer for his bugs. What about me? Can’t I ever have anything just for myself, without Tommy ruining it?”
“Nora, what’s got into you?”
“He’s weird. Face it. Nobody likes him.”
“Nobody. But he doesn’t like them either. He just likes his bugs.”
“Kids make fun of him.”
But Nora couldn’t stop. “He smells bad. He doesn’t use deodorant—”
Upstairs, a door slammed. Had Tommy been listening? Well, tough if he had.
“And I don’t want people judging me because of Tommy.”
“Okay, that’s it.” Her mother slapped the fish onto the plate, sent breadcrumbs flying. “Who exactly do you think you are, some perfect, flawless princess? Too good for your family? Let me remind you something, Miss Fancy Prima Donna. Tommy is different because he has a unique and brilliant mind. More important, he’s your big brother. Your blood. Which means you stick up for him no matter what. Friends come and go, but family is forever.”
“Why should I stick up for him? He only cares about himself.”
“How can you say that? Tommy loves you.”
“No, he stalks me. He pinches me and calls me names.”
“That’s how he shows affection. He’s at an awkward age, Nora. He’s having a rough adolescence and doesn’t know how to act. But he’ll grow out of it and be amazing. Besides, who are you trying to impress? I don’t know this girl Annie, but if she’s really your friend, she’ll accept your brother the same way Charisse and Natalie do.”
Nora rolled her eyes. “Charisse and Natalie are so lame.”
Marla’s eyebrows rose. “Oh? Since when? You’ve been friends forever.”
“Not for ages. I’ve outgrown them.” The conversation wasn’t going as planned. Nora’s eyes filled with tears. “Look. All I’m asking is to have a friend over without Tommy messing it up. Why can’t he schedule a driving lesson that day? Or stay in his room with his bugs.”
“I’m not banishing him, Nora. Invite your friend over, she’s welcome in our home. But it’s Tommy’s home, too.”
“That is so not fair!”
“Hello? Life isn’t fair.” Breadcrumbs caked her mother’s
fingers as she picked up a towel and glared.
From his room upstairs, Tommy thumped on the floor, doing God knew what.
Nora spun around and left the kitchen, stomped up to her room.
Her mother’s voice followed, telling her to wash up and set the table. Dinner would be ready in fifteen minutes.
Later that evening, Nora called Annie and said she was sorry, but when they’d talked earlier, she’d forgotten that her house was being renovated and men were working inside. So, it wasn’t a good time to have friends over and wouldn’t be for a few months. Nora stopped breathing, waiting for Annie’s reaction. Annie accepted the lie, suggesting they go to the mall instead. Still, angry tears blurred Nora’s vision.
Saturday, August 11, 2018
n Saturday morning, Dave dropped the girls in Gladwyne at his mother’s for their weekly visit and went to his tennis match. Despite having a heart condition, Edith loved having the girls, baking cookies, setting out good china for tea parties, making ragdolls, helping them dress up in her old clothes and high heels. Nora didn’t go along, respecting her motherin-law’s time with her grandchildren.
Instead, Nora welcomed these mornings as time for herself. Usually, she tackled chores or hit the gym before going to book club or brunch with friends. But that day, she sat on the sofa doing nothing. Just listening to the faint electric hum of the house, its appliances, its air conditioning. Watching rays of light pour through the windows onto a sea of tiny floating flecks of dust. Staring at the rich hardwood floors, the Persian area rugs and baby grand that had been her grandmother’s, the pristine crystal and porcelain pieces that had been handed down through generations. Replaying Dave’s departure.
He’d rushed the girls out the door, shouting an abrupt goodbye. Had he taken his racket case? Of course, Nora had seen it in his hand. But had she caught a whiff of his cologne? Why would he wear cologne to a tennis game? He wouldn’t. She must have imagined it.
Good God, was this her new normal, doubting Dave’s every move?
No. She wouldn’t. She wasn’t going to be that kind of wife. She would take her husband at his word. Dave said he was playing tennis, so he was playing tennis. He loved tennis, played every weekend with Ted Oliver, his doubles partner. She needed to stop fixating on this imagined infidelity, get off the sofa, and stop watching dust settle. Get dressed. Exercise before book club.
Fine, yes. She’d do all that. But first, maybe she’d just call Ted’s house and check to see that he was playing today. She could pretend that Dave’s phone was turned off and she had a message for him—like she wanted him to pick up some milk on the way home. Except, no. She couldn’t do that. It was embarrassing, underhanded. She didn’t need to check up on her husband.
Nora headed into the kitchen, telling herself that she was going for a cup of coffee, not for her phone which happened to be on the counter beside the coffee pot. But as long as it was there, she picked it up and punched in her code.
Don’t look for trouble, her mother hissed. But Nora ignored her, imagining the conversation instead.
“Hi, Jeanie,” she’d say when Ted’s wife answered. “Hey, did Ted leave yet?” And when Jeanie said, yes, he’d gone, Nora would say, “Okay, sorry, never mind. It’s nothing important.”
But what if Jeanie said, “Leave? No, he’s right outside washing his car.” Or mowing the lawn. Or sleeping. Or whatever.
In that case, Nora would stutter and fumble, having uncovered a heart-swallowing lie.
Better if she didn’t call. Better not to know.
Nora set her phone down and poured coffee, carried the mug to the table, sank onto a chair. Eyed the remnants of breakfast. Half a bowl of soggy corn flakes afloat in two percent. A crust of toast smeared with grape jelly. An empty juice glass.
A banana peel.
Nora’s shoulders eased. Her stomach unknotted. Dave always ate a banana and a granola bar before tennis. The banana peel testified that he hadn’t lied, that he was indeed playing tennis. That there was no affair. Which of course she’d known all along.
Nora danced around the kitchen, clearing breakfast dishes, arranging them in the dishwasher, wiping jelly stains off the counter. She took comfort in the mundane normalcy of chores, the way they underscored her roles as wife, as mother. When she finished, she headed upstairs.
In the shower, she scrubbed until her skin was ruddy. She would not be the kind of woman who suspected her husband was cheating. She would be proud, confident, self-assured. She would not doubt Dave. His word was gospel. His love, a given. Nora blow dried her hair, carefully dabbed foundation onto her face, applied eyeshadow, mascara, and just the right shade of plum lip gloss. She selected a bright floral print sundress that covered her still-after-almost-five-years-not-totally-faded stretch marks and showed off the definition in her upper arms, the muscled length of her legs. She stepped into strappy sandals. Ensemble complete, she stood in front of the full-length bedroom mirror, pretending to meet herself for the first time. What would her impression be of the woman in the mirror? Was she too noticeable in bold yellow, magenta, green, and purple? Was the fabric too flimsy for a strong body with ample breasts? She stepped closer to the mirror, examining the chin-length, almost black hair, the occasional strands of white. The deep brown eyes. Were they too intense? Were the eyebrows too thick? The nose too thin? And the lips—were they just a tad too wide? What did all these parts add up to? Was she pretty? Would women admire her? Would men find her attractive? Would Dave, if he saw her for the first time today?
Nora stood straight, twirled, struck a pose looking over her shoulder at the mirror. Turned, stuck her hip out and posed again, pretending to be saucy. She practiced a broad smile that would seem confident and proud. The secure smile of a woman adored by her husband, children, relatives, and friends. When she was sure she could be convincing, she grabbed her bag and phone and hurried downstairs.
Saturday, August 11, 2018
he bloody mary at Don’s Firehouse was a meal in itself—rich with horseradish, a big stalk of celery, and juicy, fat olives skewered on a toothpick. Nora checked the time on her phone. Where was Dave now? Had he finished with tennis? Was he having a beer? Calling his girlfriend? Stop it, stop it, she scolded herself. What’s wrong with you? Be with your friends.
Barbara was disheveled, having arrived late. She sat across from Nora, all harried and flushed and apologetic. Barbara stood out in the group, partly because she wore a diamond ring the size of an avocado pit and looked like a runway model, but mostly because her husband was a newly-announced candidate for the U.S. Senate. Barbara didn’t flaunt it though. If anything, she seemed to treasure the company of her run-of-the-mill suburban mom book club friends.
“Sorry.” She swung her highlighted hair behind her shoulder. “It was Oliver’s fault.”
Oliver, their new seventeen-hundred-dollar Welsh Corgi puppy, had chewed up a pair of Paul’s fifteen-hundred-dollar Italian loafers. Paul had been furious, yelling and threatening to turn the poor thing in to the SPCA. The kids had cried hysterically, and the nanny had been unable to calm them. It had been a complete meltdown with little Colin and Harry locking themselves in the bathroom with the puppy until Paul relented. He ended up promising on his mother’s life not to get rid of Oliver. After that, she’d had to fight traffic on the Schuylkill to get into Philadelphia. Barbara ordered a mimosa, thought about it, then called to the waiter to bring two.
Nora tried not to stare at Barbara or let on that she doubted her story. But she did doubt it. She didn’t know Barbara’s husband, Paul, very well—he was always out of town for business or, lately, his campaign—but she doubted that a public figure like him would so easily lose his temper. And, from what Barbara had said, Paul had been raised on a Main Line estate where he’d had menageries of animals—horses, cats, dogs. Surely, he’d know how to deal with a puppy and wouldn’t have allowed it near his good shoes. But why would Barbara go to the trouble of concocting such a story?
Nora studied Barbara’s strong cheekbones, her freckled, sunburned, surgically-perfected nose. Her sparkling, highlighted hair. Her jingling, gold bangle bracelets.
Barbara must have felt Nora’s stare. She turned to her with twinkling eyes and a startlingly cheerful smile. Nora smiled back and looked away, refocusing on the conversation, preparing to say something about this month’s book.
But no one was talking about Where the Crawdads Sing. It had been Katie’s choice, and Katie wasn’t even there. She was home with a sick kid. But it didn’t matter, because club members seemed disinclined to discuss the book. They were more interested in discussing some television series that Nora hadn’t watched. Nora positioned her lips into a pleasant smile and let go of the conversation. She scanned the half-full restaurant, looking especially at couples. Were they on dates? Married? Had one of them ever cheated? Were they cheating now? A man noticed her and met her gaze. She averted her eyes as if she hadn’t been studying him. Overhead, a huge wooden rowing shell was suspended with—she counted one, two—eight extended oars. Under it, the front walls of the restaurant had been folded back, opening the place to tables on Fairmount Avenue. Nora wondered how they kept the heat from flowing in. She thought of Dave, playing tennis in that heat. Where was he now?
“Bottom line, I just can’t stand her acting,” Patty said. “She’s totally flat. Her face never changes. She never shows emotion or raises her voice.”
“You want your lemon?” Alex plucked it from Nora’s drink before she could answer.
“That’s deliberate. She keeps a poker face so no one can tell where she stands.” Barbara spread cherry compote on a corn muffin.
Patty nodded. “Well, she’s doing a good job. You can’t tell if she’s happy or sad, telling the truth or lying, guilty or innocent, friend or enemy.”
“But that’s her character,” Barbara said. “She’s a lawyer. They’re all like that.”
Nora raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean, ‘they’re all like that’?” She looked from one face to another. They all knew her husband was a lawyer.
“She’s talking about the show.” Patty dismissed the question. “She didn’t mean real lawyers.”
“You’d get it if you’d watched the show.” Barbara crinkled her perfect nose, scrunched her shoulders. Nora didn’t understand the body language. Was Barbara trying to be cute?
Alex reached over and gave Nora’s hand a squeeze as if to say, “Hang in there, we’ll be done with television talk in a minute.”
Meantime, they discussed the upcoming series finale, predicting which plot points would be resolved and what the cliffhanger might be. Nora only half listened. She sipped another bloody mary and chomped a piece of ice. Did her friends really think lawyers were dishonest? Did they think Dave was? Was he? Would he have been more honest if he hadn’t become a lawyer, if he’d been, say, a dentist? She pictured him in a white jacket, probing a patient’s mouth with an instrument. The patient became a woman, and the instrument his tongue. Nora shut her eyes, shivered just a little. She was being irrational, beginning to obsess.
“I wish she’d dump him,” Alex said. “How many affairs has he had now?”
What? Who? Was everyone thinking about affairs? Smiles and nods.
“Too many to count.” Patty began listing the women.
Barbara sipped mimosa number three. “His wife is just about the only one he doesn’t screw.”
Everyone laughed, then paused to chew biscuits and corn muffins, to sip drinks.
Nora toyed with her wedding ring. “So, you’re saying she should divorce him?”
Three heads turned to her.
“Catch it on Netflix, Nora.” Patty swallowed her biscuit. “You know the actor—Steve Harding.”
Nora wasn’t sure who that was. She pictured someone tall and handsome who strongly resembled Dave.
“The guy has political ambitions, and he uses everyone,
especially his wife,” Patty said.
Nora glanced at Barbara whose husband also had political
“But she can’t divorce him,” Patty continued. “I mean, deep down he loves her.”
“Seriously? He doesn’t love anyone. He loves power.” Alex reached for another muffin.
“No, he loves her,” Patty insisted. “He always comes back to her.”
“Because he can. Because she doesn’t have the balls to
confront him.” Alex bit off a chunk of celery.
“She knows he’s cheating?” Nora asked.
Nobody answered. Patty munched. Alex scowled. Barbara shrugged.
“Not sure,” Alex said. “I mean, she should. But like they say, the wife is the last to know.”
“Bull,” Barbara spoke with authority. “If wives don’t know, it’s because they prefer denial to facing the truth. If your husband is cheating, you’ve got to know something’s off.”
“But on the show, she doesn’t see it even though it’s right in her face.” Patty popped the rest of a biscuit into her mouth.
“The only reason she doesn’t dump him is that it’s a television series and they need to keep the tension up for like, thirteen episodes. In real life? She’d have sent him packing three seasons ago.” Alex crossed her arms.
“Is anyone else cold? Think they’d turn the air down?” Barbara asked.
No one else was cold. Patty told Barbara that being cold was her punishment for being thin. She needed to put on weight like the rest of them. Body fat would keep her warm. Barbara gave Patty the finger. Alex gave Barbara her cardigan.
Nora finished the bloody mary and watched drops of red juice slide over the last of the melting ice. “Let’s say it wasn’t a TV show. Would you still think she should kick him out?” She
directed the question to Barbara.
Barbara blinked. “But it is a TV show.”
“Right. But in real life, should an affair end a marriage?”
“Oh God, Nora. You’re not having one, are you?” Patty gasped.
“You can tell us, if you are.” Alex lowered her voice. Her eyes seemed hungry.
The three of them leaned forward, resting their elbows on the table, blinking at Nora like starving crows. None of her friends had any idea about five years ago, what Dave had done, what Nora had forgiven.
“Of course not.” Nora made herself laugh. “I’m just asking.”
“She’s thinking about it,” Barbara told the others. “Well, take my advice, Nora. Don’t do it.”
“How can you tell her not to?” Patty grinned. “You of all
Wait, was Patty joking? Had Barbara had an affair?
“Shut up, Patty.” Barbara slapped Patty’s arm. “Don’t be a bitch.”
“Seriously,” Nora pressed on, facing one friend, then another. Smiling to make her questions seem harmless. “I mean, Barbara, if Paul had an affair, would you kick him out? Patty, would you divorce Ronny?”
The women started tittering.
Patty scoffed. “Ronny? No mere woman could lure him from his beloved recliner.”
Alex said that, between his plastic surgery practice and training for marathons, Ed had no time for one woman, let alone two. “Plus, he’s too disorganized to make a haircut appointment. How could he arrange secret trysts?”
“Paul would never.” Barbara’s husband was campaigning for the Senate, so despite his good looks and opportunities, he wouldn’t risk bad publicity. Besides, he openly doted on Barbara, sending her flowers and love notes, calling her several times each day even when he was out of town.
“Fine, so none of them would cheat,” Nora said. Was she the only one whose husband had strayed? Was she a chump for
staying with him? “But what if they did?”
The others looked at her, losing their laughter as if they sensed her urgency. Patty’s eyes narrowed. Alex stared at Nora, brow furrowed. Barbara sat at attention, studying her drink.
“I wouldn’t want to know,” Patty said. “I’d hope Ronny would make sure I didn’t find out.”
“Really? You’d want to be lied to?” Nora’s chest tightened. “Because for me, the lying would be even worse than the
cheating. How could you ever trust him again?”
“If I didn’t know about it, it’d be the same as if it weren’t happening. At least as far as I was concerned. What’s the old saying? What you don’t know can’t hurt you?”
Alex shook her head. “I’d want to know. If Ed’s keeping
secrets that big, the marriage is over. Isn’t it?”
“That’s what I’m asking.” Nora tried to make her voice sound playful. “I mean, could a marriage survive?”
“Not mine,” Barbara said. “Paul would never cheat. And if I did, the marriage wouldn’t survive, and neither would I. Paul would kill me.”
Alex laughed. “For sure, murder would be involved at my house too. I’d kill Ed’s ass.”
“Not me,” Patty said. “What good would Ronny be if he’s dead? I’d divorce him and take every cent he ever earns.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Barbara said. “You’d never divorce Ronny.”
Patty folded her hands and sighed. “You’re right. I’d stay with him and make his life hell. He’d spend the rest of his days trying to win my forgiveness.”
The waiter delivered two Caesar salads with grilled chicken, a barbecued brisket sandwich, and Nora’s black-eyed pea soup. They ordered more drinks. Around them, the room buzzed with conversation and the clinking of utensils on plates.
As they ate, Patty told them to come clean. Had any of them ever cheated?
Nora set down her soup spoon, wondering. Her gaze moved to Patty’s familiar round face and heart-shaped mouth. She’d known Patty since high school. Patty would never cheat, could never keep secrets, especially big ones. Alex was a tennis player, a golfer, a dieter. A stickler for the rules, so she was also a no. What about Barbara? Nora wasn’t sure. Barbara was an unknown, with her perfect hair, enhanced breasts, elegant jewels, and perfectly manicured nails. She’d met Paul when she’d been a dealer at a casino, mingling with high rollers. Hmmm. Maybe.
Nobody volunteered anything.
“Okay, so no one’s admitting actual cheating,” Patty went on, “but has anybody been tempted?”
Alex sat back and straightened her arms, as if pushing the question away.
Barbara studied the remains of her salad, folding her hands on her lap. “Don’t you guys think we should talk about the book?”
“Screw the book,” Patty said. “Don’t dodge the question.”
Alex cleared her throat. “Of course, I’ve been tempted. Who hasn’t? Hot men are everywhere. I mean, have you seen the butt on our waiter?”
Laughter. Nods. Admissions. Flicks of hair and bites of lunch.
Nora put on a grin but didn’t say anything. Her friends probably wouldn’t believe her, but she’d never been tempted to cheat on Dave. Sure, there were men she considered sexy—Barbara’s husband, Paul, for example. But Paul’s sexiness was merely a fact, like his eye color or profession. It didn’t involve her.
“So, if we’re playing truth or dare,” Barbara swallowed mimosa, “I’ll need a few more drinks.”
Everyone laughed, maybe nervously.
“With Paul around, why would you ever look at anyone else?” Patty asked. “He’s a heartthrob. It’s like he stepped off a GQ cover.”
Patty and Alex listed bellies, baldness, hairy shoulders, and other reasons as to why their husbands would never adorn
magazine covers. Barbara remained silent.
They all had too much to drink. By the end of lunch, Nora was shocked to learn that Patty had lost her virginity to Mr. Kohl, their high school swim coach. Alex had had an abortion sophomore year of college. And before Paul, Barbara had partied with her share of high rollers and done lots of cocaine.
When Nora’s turn came, she searched for a secret that would match the level of their confidences. Tommy shot into her mind. “Why not tell them about me?” But Tommy was a secret she would never share. So, she had nothing.
Her other secrets were mundane—shaving her legs even though her mother had said she was too young. Or junior year of college, getting an extension on a term paper because of her dog’s death when she hadn’t had a dog. Yawn. Boring. Nora needed something juicy. But what? She thought of Dave and his secrets. He must be done playing tennis. Was he in a hotel room with another woman, his tennis racket lying beside the bed? Stop it, she told herself. Just stop.
Finally, she told a partial truth about experiencing serious post-partum depression after Ellie. Nobody seemed impressed so she embellished, telling them of a day when, exhausted, sore from breastfeeding, and drowning in diapers, laundry, and baby throw-up, she’d thought seriously of suicide.
Patty’s mouth dropped. “God, Nora. Why didn’t you call me?”
Nora’s face got hot. She’d gone too far, made her story too extreme, made herself sound over-the-top too different. Weirdo. Freak.
Patty looked stunned and hurt that Nora would have kept such a big secret from her. She promised that she would have been there and made Nora get help. Nora wanted to back up and erase her story, replace it with something more normal. But she was committed to it now. She reached across the table and took Patty’s hand, explaining that, back then, she hadn’t been able to articulate her feelings. By the time she could, her depression had lifted and there was nothing to talk about.
Patty’s face relaxed. Nora’s remained hot, flushed with shame for lying. But she’d wanted to fit in with her friends, to provide a story that made her seem as interesting as they were. And her contemplation of suicide had worked, because afterward, they started telling stories about their own lowest moments.
They shared who’d taken antidepressants, which ones, and for how long. Discussed seasonal depression, light therapy, hormones and PMS. Going to work or staying home with the kids. Nora drifted, offering occasional comments so that she’d appear to be engaged. Lifting the corners of her mouth so she’d seem light-hearted. Glancing at her phone to check the time. Eventually, Alex reminded them that they had yet to discuss the book they’d read, and everyone laughed.
“I liked it,” Barbara said.
They’d all liked it.
“Good. Anybody got anything else to say about it?” Patty asked.
No one did.
“Next time, we should stay on topic,” Alex said.
Patty reminded everyone what the next book was and where they would meet.
Nora got home around three, after three bloody marys. Dave’s car wasn’t there. The girls were still at Nana’s. Alone with floating dust particles and faint electric hums, she put her handbag on the table in the foyer. She didn’t allow her face to relax and her shoulders to slump until she was upstairs, in the privacy of her room.
Thursday, September 23, 1993
ome. Finally. Alone. No need to say the right thing, hang with the right group, or stand, walk, sit, smile, yawn with the right attitude. Hot, crampy, and eager to lie down, Nora lugged her book bag up the front porch, past the empty, unused, wicker rocking chairs and the wind chimes that made no sound in the stillness of the simmering, unnaturally exhausting, late September afternoon. She unlocked the front door, went straight to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator for a drink. The lemonade pitcher was empty. Of course it was. Stinking Tommy must have finished it and been too lazy to wash it out. She left the pitcher there. Maybe Marla would be annoyed when she saw it. Maybe she’d even scold him for once, though probably not. Tommy was her angel. He’s brilliant and unique, not like other kids. Nora settled on water. She took out the ice while dreading her math homework, a full page of stupid repetitious multi-digit problems of division and multiplication, same kind they’d had to slog through last year. It was an annoying, boring, waste of time that the teacher justified as review. She gulped the water so fast that her brain froze, and while she waited for the pain to pass, she considered calling Natalie and doing the problems together, splitting them up the way they had last year and all the years of math homework before that.
Except no, she couldn’t call Natalie. Something fundamental and irreversible had occurred that day and because of it, Nora knew she would never call Natalie again, not ever. She started upstairs, lugging her bag, her throat tight, chest roiling with sorrow, or maybe guilt. But why should she feel bad? She hadn’t done anything wrong. True, she and Natalie had eaten lunch together all through elementary school, but this was Welsh Valley Middle School. And she hadn’t asked Natalie to save her a seat. Neither had she asked Annie to. But both of them had, on opposite sides of the cafeteria aisle. She’d had to make a choice on the spot, in a flash, a heartbeat. And now she couldn’t stop seeing the look on Natalie’s face. Shattered. Deflated like a leaky balloon. Bereft like an abandoned puppy. God. What had she done that was so awful? It wasn’t like she and Natalie had been going steady and Nora had cheated and left her for a new love. So why had it been such a big deal? Why did she have to feel guilty about making a new friend? Why was it her fault that Natalie wasn’t cool enough to fit in?
And why was her bedroom door open?
Nora dropped her book bag, stepping toward her room. She always shut her door when she left for school. Someone else had opened it, and her parents were at work. So it had to be Tommy. He’d gone into her room. Was h