It was disorienting. Checking into a hotel as if undercover. Using a last name she hadn’t used in nearly a score of years. Being in a hotel, alone, for the first time in over the same duration. No children. No spouse. No delicate circle of diamonds on that significant finger. No responsibility aside from following where her desire led and that was directly towards a glass of Veuve Clicquot.
Pushing open the louvered doors leading out to the balcony, she felt before she saw. A glorious ochre sunset descending below what seemed to be the edge of the world. Warming her inside. How she had longed to be in a such a place so many, many times. But never gave that want voice. Never felt the right. Everything had stood in her way then. Now there was nothing except her person and her small valise which held all she’d felt she need for a solo fortnight on a tropical island at the end of what had been the longest summer of her life.
How had it happened?
She’d done it all correctly. Been a good girl. From lower middle class beginnings, through a private girls school attended as a ‘Day Student’ and an Ivy both paid for by scholarships then to an undemanding job at a museum, establishing a home and motherhood. And never felt she’d missed much. She had essentially accomplished what she’d set out for herself as young girl introduced to the society pages while reading The New York Times at her public library, her after-school refuge. Words were her friends. And she had nothing to fear from them and nothing to despise.
Like the Edith Wharton heroines she felt such kinship with words helped her change her circumstances.
But words ultimately failed her when it came to expressing what she felt. And her brain was no better at actually figuring out what she felt. She harbored the thought she couldn’t feel as well as the simultaneously relief as what use were feelings anyway? They were an unreliable economic barometer she could not afford and were swallowed down until no longer recognizable. This proved to be just one of many bad decisions reflexively made to alleviate fear in her adolescence which had led unravelling of her middle age.
She’d assured her own ruination, as well as resurrection.
She worked diligently to figure out the rules of the society she aimed to join and she obeyed them with exactitude. To put others - her husband, her children, her aging parents generously ensconced in separate extended care facilities, the pets, the PTA, the house whose management made it so seem like another child, before herself. Content that in a macro sense all the i’s were dotted and all the t’s crossed in her small section of suburbia, her days passed. She was well aware she existed in a place others envied; imagining her life was full and satisfying. Her annual Holiday card photo attested to as much, didn’t it? Her children’s achievement at sport, school and social lives spoke of her success at motherhood, something she never accepted as a job. Surely it was a vocation? Her reward? The sanguine marriage to her college sweetheart. He’d been head of his Ivy League eating club; she of hers. Destiny. Of a kind anyway.
A fate unlike she’d anticipated three prior months to this September day on which she stood overlooking the palm enclosed strip of white sand encircling an azure blue bay.
She’d called her husband, away on a business trip which he had averaged one of roughly every month of their marriage. Most husbands in similar financial industry jobs followed the same pattern. She’d called for advice on operating their very complicated home theatre system so she could screen “The Help,” for her “Page to Screen” book club. There had been a small power cut due to electrical work on a McMansion renovation on their cul-de-sac and the electronics always acted up after such an event. Try as she might, even relying on her notes, she could never remember the exact sequence of buttons to push to initiate a restart.
She’d first called his mobile and receiving his voice mail, left a polite, unhurried message. Waiting several response-less minutes she texted. Again waiting a reasonable time without reply she decided she’d try the hotel, something she rarely did. There was never anything she needed of any urgency, that she could not manage, but her fellow book club members were becoming restless and she disliked when anything did not run close to plan. And besides, her husband liked to put out these small sorts of fires. It made him feel he actually inhabited the house, she thought.
Checking her smartphone for his itinerary and finding the hotel’s number she placed her call, poised in front of the system anticipating a quick download of information. Greeted by the operator, she requested to be put through to her husband’s room. Due to a time difference she was certain he’d be in his room doing his evening preparation. Ringing an interminably long time, the phone was about to be set down when on the other side a female voice answered.
Wait. A woman? Surely this was the wrong room. She made a small nervous laugh, and never being one to hang up on even a telemarketer said she had been calling for Mr. Sunday and the operator must have incorrectly connected them. After a pause which felt like a year, the woman on the distant end of the call responded that this was in fact the correct room and then inquired after her name. Had the maid answered the phone?
She replied that she was Mrs. Sunday, wondering why the maid had picked up the phone. Her response was a sharp, hollow breath pulled in across the fiber optic cables, through the ocean and into the throat of this other woman. Silence. Hello? Then a voice, unmistakably her husband’s, asked honey who was on the phone. So; clearly not the maid. A hand flew to her mouth along with a quickly uttered Oh! More silence. Assuming the static she heard was the sound of the phone being passed to her spouse, honey responded with, it’s your wife. Wife immediately hung up, turned to her assembled friends, informed them that as her husband was cuckolding her and would be unable to assist in reviving the system, and did anyone feel they might like to take a glass of the chilled Riesling on the verandah? To her deep shock and even deeper relief all but one of her 8 guests replied in the affirmative.
The rest of her house of cards had fallen down in quick succession. She refused to speak with him, communicating solely via the lawyer she’d immediately hired and rather fortuitously was a fellow book club member. There were certain things which she would not tolerate. Mendacity was the single most tantamount amongst them. Being made to look a fool running a close second.
At such times she was glad she’d mastered serenity as her main virtue. She’d required no anesthesia at the birth of either child. She’d require no protracted emotional display at the death of her marriage. The end of a life she realized had been a lie would not be mourned.
She was free, well-funded. She was . . . good. Which really was something to marvel at after all. Finishing her champagne whilst slipping off her dress and sandals and freeing her hair from the loose chignon at her nape, she thought she’d like to feel the sand, allow the warm water to cleanse her, prepare her for a new life.
Having been raised to adhere strictly to “The Protestant Work Ethic,” and never having given much heed to the organ responsible for pushing blood through his veins, he’d followed the path set out by previous generations of his family. His legacy, more than any actual intellect, guided him from all-boys prep boarding school through the Ivy undergrad (major: American History) and MBA’s he’d earned. He had never questioned the steps. “Logic is the only reliable compass,” Great Grandfather had informed him the first time he’d been invited to dine at his members-only club. A club to whose entry was his birthright.
His one mistake was not listening to his mother. He had married below his station. He had married a woman with an unstable foundation. A woman with wants. A woman most importantly who would have to convert from Roman Catholicism to Episcopalianism, lest any grandchildren not gain entrance to the same heaven as herself. But when that girl with the sun-touched brown hair had focused her Taurean gaze on him during Freshman seminar, he had lost himself. There was no guide for the way he felt but just as he’d attained everything else of even the most trifling desire in his life, he knew he would have her. Once the goal was achieved, however, he had little idea what to do with her.
She had worked to fit in, but it hadn’t seemed a struggle. And she’d been rewarded well for her efforts. And she was a fantastic asset. Attractive, intelligent, unencumbered by her own family who had proven unwilling, or perhaps more charitably unable, to ameliorate to a higher status. She was a skilled hostess and homemaker. Thrifty and cultured in a sensible manner. Their children had arrived and with them a sense that he had fulfilled the debt to his lineage by producing a son and his debt to his wife for allowing her the opportunity to be the mother of the bride.
External elements changed their playing field along the way, however. Things over which he had no control. His son favored musical instruments to Lacrosse and refused to even consider attending his parents - and grandfathers for over 250 years - alma mater. That his daughter did matriculate summa cum laude as well as captain the female Lacrosse team to 2 championships was little consolation.
He worked his way through the family firm and when following the repeal of Glass-Steagal, it seemed reasonable to merge with another, slightly larger family firm went along with the decision made by his father and uncle. But his father, a lifelong cigar smoker, had died of cancer of the larynx before experiencing their supposedly equal partners conquest of the board and then the disastrous year of 2008 which found his uncle in his garage seated in his beloved Rolls Royce with the engine running, garage door closed and not a breath coming from him. He was well-regarded and remunerated but as he walked the halls under portraits of his ancestors he couldn’t help but feel they felt him lacking.
He’d never been taught to seek comfort nor did he ever recall falling into his mother’s arms. She tucked away maternal embraces as one would an errant shirttail. He could not remember ever holding her hand. It was made clear that in his family to need in any way was an outright weakness. A public display of a weak moral center.
His wife learned quickly to account for her own wants and managed their lives with superior skill, and without him. She seemingly had no desires of her own which could not be met with an American Express Card. As he faced the evening of his career and had much less work to pretend to perform and a worrisome amount of undirected timed, he discovered a hollowness lurking in his midsection. He’d tried more bourbon. He’d tried more golf. Neither filled this emptiness. He wondered if anything would.
When he’d run into the girl on the street it had seemed so genuine. ‘Organic,’ as the junior staff might say. It was an innocent invitation to ask her to join him for coffee. To catch up. He hadn’t seen her in some years. And she’d truly grown up. A girl blossomed to a woman. A woman with a weary air about her. Her facade matched his interior. Their conversation had been light, her gaze direct. She had touched his arm several times as they sat in the midtown Starbucks. Did she know what that did to him? When they parted, the hunger inside him seemed to have multiplied. And now knew in which direction to seek satiating.
He started going out around the same time each day, hoping he might see her again on a break from her temp job. Feel the ease of her company for just a minute. Give her melancholy a brief respite if he could. When he did see her again it was at Bergdorf Goodman where he’d gone to get a birthday gift for his wife. She had taken a job selling handbags, one of which he presented to his wife later that evening over dinner at the 21 Club. It was a bag he knew she wouldn’t like. Outre, she’d insist, which translated as too expensive. But he’d wanted to ensure his new friend the highest commission so had gladly approved the price tag rather than the bag’s style. Mrs. Sunday had smiled graciously all the while visibly calculating the bag’s cost and adding a mental ‘To Do’ to her Filofax to return it her earliest possible return to ‘The City.’ Now would have been a natural time to inform his wife who had sold him the purse, but he remained mum, merely hoping the girl would not be present for the exchange.
Succumbing to what seemed manifest destiny, he went back to Bergdorf’s the following Monday at his earliest opportunity. He invited her to meet him for lunch that day at Harry Cipriani; bait he suspected she’d bite. He’d intended to launch into a discussion about how they might help each other but looking in her eyes over their third Old Fashioneds, he knew he need not. Neither returned to their place of employment that afternoon. He’d informed his secretary he was experiencing severe digestive distress.
He found their sex, of a nature he’d never known with his wife, satisfied his sense of feeling adrift in his own life. The affection of this much younger woman, who was nothing like his wife had ever been, had moored him. And as much as he railed against the stereotype of their relationship he felt things with her. Stirrings of what he knew to be his soul. Love. A love which paled in comparison to the politely agreeable version he shared with his wife. Once he’d acquired her, he stopped seeing his wife as anything other than anything else but his property.
The first trip his lover had accompanied him on had been his way of signifying the depth of his feelings, for what else had he to offer her? It had turned out to be so much more than he could ever have wished. He assumed the rent on her 4th floor, East Village walk-up and found that being in that neighborhood was exhilarating. He feigned late meetings after which he would have stayed at his club to be with her, and amongst the many categories of people who surrounded them, their age difference didn’t seem an issue.
He did sometimes wonder if she was with him simply because of the financial stability he provided but would suppress such dissonant thoughts by trying to live in the moment as her yoga teacher friend often instructed.
They had been together for nearly 3 years when, thinking it was room service calling back to inform them of what whiskeys they had available, she had answered the phone to his wife’s call. It was a day he knew would come. After she broke it off in favor of dating someone her own age only to reconcile less than a month later, they had become less careful. And a nagging sense of wanting this to become his real life took root inside him.
He had been afraid she would not want to legitimize their union. He had been wrong. She felt healed by his love. He felt freed by hers. In his relief that his mistress wished to become his wife, he instructed his lawyer to be extremely generous with the woman who had essentially been made redundant. Through very little fault of her own. His children, with whom he had little contact nowadays - or to be quite honest, ever - save the odd email, sided appropriately with their mother, the woman he had scorned but had never truly loved or been loved by. But he was aware of the fortune and fertile promise of this new version of his life and wished his former wife nothing but the same.