Killing the Unicorn

Chapter 1: Fake it until you feel it

Confused? The Third: The Opening of a Marriage has been revised and expanded, and will be published as a novel titled Killing the Unicorn on August 18.

I smelled his musky aftershave before I felt his embrace. His arms wrapped around me, and his lips found the soft, tender skin on my neck. Out of habit, I leaned into his hard, sculpted chest. At six-feet and change, he was nearly a foot taller than me. Once upon a time, his muscular frame had made me hot and wet with liquid joy.

“The kids are finally asleep,” he rumbled, nuzzling my ear. “Let’s have some grown-up time.” His hands roamed from my bulky waist to my overstuffed thighs.

I closed my eyes and pictured my husband Mann just a few weeks past his thirty-ninth birthday. He might have been a movie star or a model if he hadn’t fallen for technology first. His hair was a deep chestnut, subtly salted with gray. His eyes were a deep, thoughtful brown. His nose, broken in a lacrosse accident many years ago, was a few endearing millimeters away from perfection

He was the father of my adorable, two-year-old twins, and he still wanted me, with all my lumps and flaws. I should have melted into him. I should have burned with longing. I should have desperately wanted to shuck off my clothes, to be vulnerable and intimate and seen.

But I felt nothing but a bone-deep exhaustion, lightly tinged with irritation. I had just finished putting our two cherubs to bed after a grueling day of attachment parenting. All I wanted was to savor the quiet of the house. Besides, sex in its most traditional form was painful for me, a side effect of an unspeakably difficult pregnancy.

“C’mon, honey,” he whispered, pressing himself into me. “We don’t have to do anything that will hurt. I just want to be close to you. It’s been so long.”

He was right. It had been a long time, longer than I care to say. I decided I had to try. I had been a half-assed sort of wife since the girls were born, and he deserved more. We deserved more. I half-moaned, half-sighed as his hands found my round, flaccid belly. I would fake it until I felt it, or something like that.

But the shock of his hungry hands slipping under my bra band made me cringe. I imagined how my droopy, blue-veined breasts and crenelated belly would look in the bright, unforgiving light of our white-walled living space. And I flinched.

A less attentive man wouldn’t have noticed. A more selfish man wouldn’t have cared. But Mann, exquisitely attuned to my needs, stopped. He put his hands on my shoulders and turned me around, so I was gazing into his kind, brown eyes. He pressed his lips gently against mine.

“I’m sorry. You must be exhausted. The girls were wild today, and I had to take that stupid investor call. Let’s order some sushi and open a bottle of something. Would you like that?”

I smiled and nodded guiltily. I didn’t deserve a husband like him. I wasn’t nearly grateful enough.

The plastic takeout containers and half-empty bottle of cabernet on the coffee table told the story of a peaceful evening. I rested in the crook of Mann’s arm while we watched a reality show about pudgy bankers trying to survive in the Australian Outback. Of course, if they got into trouble, their guardian-angel producers were waiting in the wings.

As the credits rolled, Mann kissed me goodnight. “I’m going up to my office and read a few startup proposals. I have a huge, ridiculous backlog.”

I smiled. Despite his discreet, carefully invested near-billion dollars, Mann was a disciplined worker. He drove himself as hard as he drove his employees. Harder even. I was the slacker in our relationship, drifting aimlessly in a job I despised.

“Don’t work too hard,” I said, kissing him back. “I love you.”

He smiled. I scanned his face for signs of disappointment that we had spent the evening on the couch and not in the bed. All I saw — all I wanted to see — was his open, guileless face.

“Love you, too. Get some sleep.”

As soon as Mann disappeared up the stairs, I poured myself another glass of wine. I pressed a few buttons to bring up our home entertainment network and conjured the video feed from our baby monitor. My two daughters, Briar and Rose, one light and one dark, curled in their cribs like quotation marks. Their faces were calm, their breathing even.

I exhaled a long sigh of maternal relief, minimized my children, and switched to a biker drama. It was stupid and soapy, but it reminded me of the feral, jagged-edged woman I used to be. I remembered one of the last times I rode my old bike — a light vintage Harley I named Lucy — down route 1.

It was a beautiful weekend ride that cleaved open my soul. My fears dissolved in the roar of the road. Flying around the curves and looking into the endless ocean, I believed I was free. In my mind, I was leaving my tedious job, my tiny apartment, and my thrillingly awful boyfriend Karl. It was a glorious illusion until I heard a loud hiss, and my bike sputtered and lost power.

I pulled off the road and onto the shoulder, muttering curses. It had to be a flat. I removed my helmet and fished my toolkit from the saddlebag. I lay the bike gently on the ground and inspected the tires. The culprit was obvious. A rusty screw poked from the rear tire, accompanied by the soft whistle of leaking air.

Satisfied I had found the problem, I paused to savor the moment. I looked over the guard rail, towards a rocky bluff that melted into clear blue water. The air was fresh and salty. A light breeze ruffled my hair. I felt like floating. The braying honk of a pickup truck brought me back to Earth and my quotidian task.

I fashioned a tire plug with a small knife. It took me a few tries, but I wedged the plug into the space the nail used to be. The telltale whistling stopped. I was about to retrieve my collapsible pump, the gadget Karl was always telling me was useless weight, when a red car pulled in behind me.

Its tires scraped against the sandy asphalt, but the engine was silent. I know now it was a Tesla, one of the new breed of quiet, electric cars. A man got of the car. He was tall, model-handsome, and dressed like a haute geek in a blue button-down and khakis.

“Hello there,” he said, struggling to speak over the traffic. “Do you need some help?”

I smiled at this pretty, clean cut man. Although he was the polar opposite of the rangy, scruffy types I thought of as my type, something about him drew me. His posture was casual but confident. Even from a distance I could tell he didn’t have the soft body and slumped posture of an office drone.

“Nope,” I said, holding up my pump. “Thanks, but I’ve got it covered.”

The man blinked, as if he couldn’t believe a woman could cope with a simple flat tire. “Are you sure? I’d hate to leave you stranded. It would haunt me for the rest of my days.”

I laughed at the formal and yet overdramatic way he spoke. Every syllable was clearly enunciated. “Yeah,” I replied, letting my voice lapse into an inland drawl. “It’s just a flat. No big deal.”

I knelt beside my hog and filled the tire while my heart flopped and revved. I reminded myself I had a boyfriend waiting for me at home, no doubt sprawled on my double bed, smoking something or other. Karl was kind of an asshole. And maybe he drank a little too much and our fights got a little too violent. But he was unpredictable and exciting. He distracted me from the future we didn’t have. He tugged on the worst and most familiar parts of my soul.

I waited for the Tesla and its strangely attractive owner to slip away. But they didn’t. When I finished testing the tire, he was still there. Smiling like the sun. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said. “I’m Mann Gottlieb.” He paused as if I was supposed to recognize his name. When I gave him a blank look, he shrugged and added, “You know, I’ve always wanted to date a woman who could fix a flat.”

I grinned. “And I’ve always wanted to date a huge nerd.” It was my turn to pause. I have a self-destructive streak, nurtured since birth, and it told me Mann was too good to be true. ‘Go home to Karl,’ it whispered. ‘That’s where you belong.’ I winked at Mann and hauled my bike off the ground.

“But I’m not going to,” I said. “I have a boyfriend.” I started my Harley and drove away, both disappointed that I would probably never see Mann again and weirdly excited that I had rejected him. That I had the upper hand.

I smiled at the memory and poured myself a little more wine and told myself I had changed. The bikers onscreen had their sordid little affairs and love triangles. But that wasn’t me anymore. I was a mom. A good, normal person. I pressed another button so my sleeping daughters and the biker drama appeared side by side.

Present and past. Good and bad. I closed my eyes for a moment. I told myself I should go to upstairs, so I would be in bed, keeping it warm for Mann. But I didn’t. I remained on the couch and fell into a deep and selfish sleep.

My eyes were sticky and hard to open when I heard the babble of my children and the subtle sounds of someone cleaning quietly, so he wouldn’t wake me up. I realized I was lying on my side, on a smoother than usual surface.

Oh no, I passed out in the couch.

Rose, my explorer, hauled herself onto me as if I were an especially intriguing mountaintop. “Mommy, get up! Get up!”

Briar put her hands on my face as I blinked the world into existence. “Mommy feel OK?” she queried, her golden head cocked to the side.

They were adorable, the apogee of my existence, and yet I wanted to steal another five minutes of sleep. I yawned and stretched, careful not to unbalance Rose. “Let Mommy sleep another minute,” I sighed, allowing my eyes to flutter close.

“No!” howled Rose in protest. “Mommy get up now! Now!”

I could feel Rose reaching her hand into my tangles nest of hair when, suddenly, her weight was gone. I opened my eyes, and Mann was holding our squirming child in his arms.

“Let Mommy rest, Rosie,” he said, carrying her into the kitchen and tempting her with a snack.

Briar stayed by my side, stroking my hair and looking concerned. “Mommy get up?” she asked quietly. “Please?”

I levered myself into a sitting position and hugged my small, fearful girl. Rose romped around the kitchen, opening and closing cabinet doors under her father’s watchful eye. I had lingered in sleep for too long.

I picked up Briar and padded into the kitchen. Rose detached from her collection of pots and threw her arms around my knees. Mann threw his arms around me, and we spent a blissful moment, suspended in loving togetherness. Rose was the first to squirm away. Mann, ever the doting father, followed her.

I gently placed Briar on the floor. “Who wants pancakes?” I asked in what I hoped was a suitably cheerful voice.

“Me! Me me me me me!” chirped the girls.

Mann stroked my arm. His face creased with concern. “Are you sure? I could make breakfast.”

I remembered the last time Mann tried to cook and the charred, tragic remnants of a grass-fed steak. “Oh yes,” I said, smiling wryly as he scooped up the children.

As I mixed the pancake batter, I thought about my father, who never once tried to cook, and my mother’s elaborate culinary offerings, all calculated to impress him. I was so lucky to have Mann, who would try anything, do anything, to make me happy.

Somehow after we had met on the road, he found me. He texted exactly one day later.

I still want to date a woman who can fix a flat.

I’ve never been the cheating type. But he caught me at a weak moment. Karl and I had fought the night before. We got too drunk and shared too much. We drifted into a confused, inchoate violence. Me reaching for him. Him shrugging me off. Me clutching at his chest. Him pushing me onto the floor, kicking at my thighs. Stay down.

The next morning, I was tender all over. I had resolved to leave, but I wasn’t sure how. Mann’s text was a lifeline. Karl was still snoring when I texted back:

I still want to date a massive geek.

I watched Briar and Rose eat their blueberry pancakes slathered in organic syrup. Mann drank a revolting concoction of coffee, clarified butter, and vitamin supplements — he believed food was purely fuel — and I downed a low-fat protein shake.

My girls were happy and imaginative. Rose pretended to be a blueberry pirate, and Briar was a fairy, turning rocks into blue fruit. While Rose was fiery and Briar was cautious, neither one trembled with fear. I was proud that both girls expected safety and kindness from their world. I was thrilled that they might someday look back upon their childhood with fond memories instead of anger and fear.

My childhood was the opposite of what I want for my girls. My father was a wrathful, Old Testament god; my mother and I were his reluctant acolytes. Even now, I remember cowering in my room, listening for sounds of my father stomping through his domain, looking for someone to sop up his rage.

He was just a computer hardware salesman with an anger problem, frustrated by the limits of his life. But, to my younger self, he was the ultimate judge. And he always found me wanting.

“Helen, is that pancake burning?”

I snapped out of my trance and noticed the blackening disk on the griddle. Yes, it was starting to hiss and smoke. “Sorry,” I said, transferring the crispy mess to the sink.

The girls giggled. Mann hugged me and kissed my mouth. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure I would have burned all of them.”

I brushed Mann’s cheek with my lips and poured another cup of batter onto the griddle. He was the opposite of my father. An angel. A benevolent spirit. I resolved to be more grateful for him, my children, and my calm, peaceful life.

Arranging an outing to the park with two two-year-olds was as fraught as planning a military invasion. I gathered snacks, toys, pacifiers, diapers, extra clothes and special plastic bags for diaper disposal. Mann chased the girls and wrestled them into shirts, pants, socks, and shoes. Together we strapped them into car seats.

As we closed the rear doors to my trusty white minivan, Mann and I shared a look. It was a wistful thing, a nostalgia for the silence we used to share. A wry smile crept across his face. I smiled back and then looked away. I cursed myself for not holding his gaze a few moments longer.

I drove us to the park while Mann kept us a steady patter with the twins. My hands were sweaty. My heart fluttered in my chest like a sick bird. I was sure something terrible was going to happen. Maybe I would have a stroke and collapse behind the wheel. Maybe a truck, driven by an aging alcoholic, would jump lanes, and kill us all.

I took long, slow breaths, trying to focus on the traffic and not on my telltale heart. I’ve had occasional panicky episodes since I gave birth to my girls. I’m not sure if the cause was the sudden realization of my children’s utter vulnerability or plain old hormones. Either way, I was glad that Mann was here, pretending he didn’t see the light sheen of sweat on my face.

As I brought myself back under control, he pointed out cars for Briar and made fart noises for Rose. His posture was relaxed and his smile effortless. He loved his children in an artless way I couldn’t, despite my best efforts, replicate.

Yes, I envied him even as I loved him. He gave our girls emotional as well as financial stability. He was the embodiment of the secure attachment style: a man who loved and accepted love as if it were water. He was the fun one and the stable one. I was the mercurial one, at once anxious and avoidant. I enforced bedtimes and evening routines.

When we arrived at the park, the girls cheered, and I wiped the sweat from my hands. As I freed my children from their car seat prisons, my eyes kept drifting to the dent on the door. It was a long depression with scrapes lines like claw marks. Briar followed my eyes with concern. “Car have an owie?”

I kissed the top of her head, and a disloyal thought flew through my brain. Mann and I kept our finances rigorously segregated. We each spent our money in separate domains. I took care of the children and their daycare, my minivan, and all our meals. Mann paid for everything else. And yet, because everything in Palo Alto was insanely expensive, I was too broke to fix the damned dent. Mann literally had millions at his disposal. Why couldn’t he help? Why couldn’t he see that I needed his help?

“Mommy!” yelled Rose, pulling my hand as I shrugged the diaper bag over my shoulder. I scooped up Briar with the other arm, and we all converged upon Mann, who greeted us with a grin.

I shook my head, willing my ungrateful thoughts to float away. No relationship was perfect. I certainly wasn’t perfect. Why should I expect Mann to be perfect? I watched him lift Rose on his shoulders, and the hard knot in my head softened. He loved us. I just needed to let him.