By Janice Weber
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Other books by Janice Weber:
The Secret Life of Eva Hathaway
Frost the Fiddler
Publisher's note: This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1996 by Janice Weber
All rights reserved.
Warner Books, Inc.
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017
Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com
First eBook Edition: October 2009
I believe that my wife is having an affair. No, she hasn't bought thick, new perfume or leopard print lingerie, hasn't revamped her hair ... There's just an energy about her that I can't place. She's restless at night and leaves our bed to sit in the atrium, where I find her staring at the pale moon beyond the glass. Sometimes she even falls asleep on the couch out there. I rarely wake her then; instead, I pour myself a scotch and sit across from her on the white wicker chair, waiting, studying, wondering what dreams could occupy that lovely head. I am fairly sure she is not dreaming about me, not in a starring role anyway. We've been married too long for that. Her face is so still that she could be dreaming of nothing at all ... But why leave the bedroom, leave me, to dream about nothing? No, she dreams, Emily definitely dreams. Suddenly her face contracts and she sighs. It is a sexual and exquisite sound, so full of longing that I can almost feel another man there with her in the shadows. When she wakes up afterward, sees me sitting across the way, she stares at me a tiny second as if trying to remember my name. "Ross," she recollects finally. "What are you doing here?"
Good question, darling.
Could another man be running his hands, his gross thumbs, along my wife's legs? Opening her mouth with his own? No, never, I think; then she sighs again from the cold couch and I realize that this woman remains the great enigma of my life. After fifteen years, I still adore her. How many husbands could say that? None that I know. My more domesticated colleagues at the office regard their wives as permanent fixtures, dull but constant as the earth; the restless types see their wives as useful insulation against demanding mistresses; the hard-core libertines like Dana think of their wives in terms of live-in alimony. Very few of my friends have actually divorced, however; that would be economic suicide, for what? A little breathing space? Hell, we promised for better or worse. Those who ended up worse volunteer for the projects in Alaska.
I never liked being away from Emily longer than a week. At the beginning of our marriage, when she really wanted children, she'd come with me on the long-term jobs. We spent almost a year in Seoul while I was working on an art museum. She's come with me to Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul, not for days but for months on end. While I coaxed a building from a tremendous hole in the ground, Emily wrote articles for magazines and even began a book, which I was not allowed to read; she eventually burned it, so I never got to know what was on her mind all those long days so far from home. When she stopped writing, Emily began studying the local cuisines, saying it was easier to slice vegetables than mince words.
I watch the soft rise and fall of her robe as she sleeps. Over the past hour, as she's tussled with her dreams, the sash has come undone. Soon the white lace will slide from her hips. I want to wake her, take her ... but I am a coward. If she turns me away, then I'll know there's someone else. I'm not ready for that yet. No, I'll watch, wait, try to stifle my morbid imagination. Maybe I should go back to bed, let her wake up shivering and naked alongside the rubber tree. She doesn't want to see me spying on her like this, asking anxiously what she's doing out here again ... or does she? Maybe she comes here on purpose, forcing me to question fifteen years of conjugal harmony. Maybe she's unhappy with everything I am and do. She's going to say she's frustrated, emotionally dehydrated, bored. It happens: I know two men at the office whose wives told them just that, out of the blue, right about the time they were making their final mortgage payments. Sorry, honey, no more interest: Will Emily be telling me the same thing? If s crossed my mind. For all I know, she wants to start over again with someone who understands her better, someone with a little more pizzazz than an architect. Maybe she could have children with another man.
Maybe she's already tried. She could be pregnant now, wondering what to do about it. She wouldn't lie to me, I think. She'd not tell me a baby were mine if it weren't. Emily has more class than that. Would she have an abortion, at her age? I doubt it, not after all those years of trying. She'd have the baby no matter who sired it. Wouldn't she? I'll have to keep better track of her menstrual cycle. See if she suddenly begins wearing sanitary pads. That would be a dead giveaway: sanitary pads and no sex for three weeks. I think that's what my partner Dana said when his girlfriend had an abortion. I should have listened better.
Am I out of my mind? Why am I even thinking this way? Emily and I do not argue. She knows I love her madly. I have denied her nothing. And I have been entirely faithful to her. Could fifteen years of absolute devotion mean nothing? Would she feel no reciprocal obligation? Of course she would. That's why she'd keep an affair discreet. Wouldn't want to ruin my concentration at the office, destroy my fragile male ego.... She wouldn't want to make a cuckold of me, would she. Cuckold: I hate the thought, hate the word. Cuck, so close to cock. And old. Cock-Old. "Ah, poor Ross. He's been cuckolded." God! Have I?
Let me think. Who could it be? Any damn man at all! My wife is still beautiful. She's very smart, very elegant, and she's tough. She has a laugh that breaks men's hearts. I've seen conversations stop when she laughs. Men pause—no, freeze—and look at her lips with a mixture of intense animal lust and pure helplessness. It's a laugh you just ache to put your mouth over and try to swallow: half virgin, half smoldering ruins. She doesn't laugh often, though. That's why it catches everyone so off balance. Even me, even now. Two things might make her laugh: private jokes and embarrassing situations, the type you can't foresee and usually can't avoid. Dropping a hundred-dollar bottle of wine, for instance. When was the last time I heard her laugh? Months ago. We were at a backyard fundraiser on Beacon Hill. She wore a black sheath with tiny straps, architecturally perfect: left nothing and everything to the imagination. It was the first real spring night of the season and the air was perfumed with lilacs. Emily was talking to Guy Witt en, her boss, on the veranda. He was standing as close to her mouth as socially acceptable, as if he had a hearing problem. He looked at the hostess in the garden, muttered something, and Emily laughed: Every man within ten feet turned his head. Later that night, I asked her what Guy had said. She couldn't remember.
Could it be Guy? He's obviously infatuated with her. She sees him five days a week. But an affair with the boss? She wouldn't. Too tacky. She likes her job too much anyway. Nice restaurant. The kitchen is her fiefdom. She wouldn t jeopardize that for a few muscle spasms, would she? Guy's been married twice. Emily wouldn't settle for being number two and a half.
No, it's someone else. I hope it's not someone I know. If it's a friend, I might have to kill him: I am a man of principle, after all. Would I divorce Emily? I doubt it. Forgive her? I doubt that, too. The moonlight has crept up her leg, past her knees, minute by minute approaching those shadowy places I consider my very private property. No trespassing there; violators will be prosecuted. Is she guilty? Even if she isn't, I might have to punish her a bit. Move out for a few nights. I may occasionally neglect her, but she has now caused me much anguish. There's a big difference in liability here.
Silly old man, you imagine things! She's not involved with anyone else. How could she kiss me good morning, sit with me at breakfast, answer my calls at lunchtime, spend her evenings with me, and at the same time be sleeping with another man? Could she be capable of such duplicity? I just dont the hell know. Duplicity might run in the family. Look at her twin sister, Philippa, the actress: voracious and cunning as a panther. Underneath, is my wife just like that? Impossible. When would Emily have time for an affair? She works hard. She's tired when she gets home. Weekends she spends with me. If she's seeing anyone, it would have to be during afternoon rush hour. Or when she says she's running a few errands. I'll have to take more notice of those errands, inspect what she's actually brought home. She's been doing a lot of clothes shopping lately—and returning empty-handed. Strange that I never thought it unusual before. I should start asking exactly where she's been shopping, who waited on her, why she bought nothing. I'll have to watch her eyes when she replies.
Is something the matter at work? Does she have a medical problem she's not telling me about? Ordinary midlife crisis, perhaps? I should suggest a long vacation far away from Boston. She doesn't have to work. Hell, if she insists on getting out of the house, I could buy Emily her own restaurant. Maybe that's what I should suggest, a cozy little number on the Wharf or in Back Bay. No, right down the street, at the foot of Beacon Hill. I'd design the interior for her. She could hire her own staff and not worry about Guy on her back anymore. Would she like that, no more Guy? I definitely would.
Her breathing is so deep and regular now, like an innocent child's. I should go back to bed, try to sleep. It's getting chilly out here. Where does she keep the spare blankets? I don't want her catching cold. Ah, that face, those secret dreams, they drive me mad. I'll have to pull myself together by breakfast.
Ross Major, the architect, preferred to have his morning coffee on the balcony of his Beacon Hill home, where he could watch the sunrise tinge Boston's skyline first a tender pink, then a fiery red: God blessing his work. On overcast days like this one, however, he drank his coffee inside, comforted by the reflection of halogen lights on his polished marble countertop. Today he was just finishing the sports pages as his wife came into the kitchen. Almost six-fifteen: she would be late for work. "Sleep well, love?" he asked cheerfully.
She had dressed in a business suit rather than jeans; on her lapel was the pearl brooch he had bought for her in Tokyo as a tenth-anniversary present. Pouring her coffee, Ross glanced at his wife's face. Unusual makeup today, particularly around the eyes. She had outlined them with black pencil; the mascara looked way too thick. And she had never worn slate blue shadow to work before. Her eyes were still a little puffy from lack of sleep, or hyperactive dreams. Ross intuitively decided that this was not the time to mention her night on the couch; he might get a straight answer. "Toast?" he asked.
"Sure." Emily peeled a banana, chewing pensively as Ross returned to the newspaper. "What's new in the world?"
"Nothing at all. The rich are getting poorer and the poor are having triplets." He scanned a few obituaries. It was always interesting to read how people had died. Cancer and cardiac arrest got most of the old ones. The young and foolish had drowned, contracted AIDS, or tried to ride motorcycles. Ross read through to the last paragraphs, checking if he knew any of the survivors: none today. When Emily's toast popped up, he passed her the marmalade. "What's on your agenda?"
"Food." Cafe Presto, where Emily worked, was one of the busiest eateries in the financial district.
"That's all? You look very businesslike. I haven't seen that blouse before."
"I've been reading a book on power dressing,"she said.
"Oh? You look pretty powerful in your regular gear."
"Aprons and T-shirts are not powerful, Ross."
"You're a chef, honey. No one expects you to look like a stockbroker."
"Just give it a chance, all right? I wanted a little change." Emily concentrated moodily on her toast as Ross waited for her to elaborate. "Busy today, sweetheart?" she asked after a few moments.
He sighed; she had deflected the conversation away from her clothing and makeup and mischief. "George Kravitz is coming in to see sketches of his new office park."
"Think hell like them?"
"For two hundred thousand bucks, let's hope so. Then I'm taking Dagmar Pola out to lunch."
Emily stopped chewing. "Who's that?"
"Pola's Pretzels. Or should I say, the widow of Pola's Pretzels. Good old Joe checked out last week. Now Dagmar wants to build some sort of gallery for his art collection."
"What did he collect?"
"Nudes, I hear."
"Male or female?"
"Female, of course. Joe was never without a woman on his arm."
"Wife, you mean."
"No, Dagmar was his only wife. We're talking about the five hundred mistresses. All those salty pretzels must have affected his libido."
"Maybe Dagmar did." Emily brushed a few crumbs from her lapel. "By the way, you haven't slept with me in three weeks."
Eh? How did she get from pretzels to their sex life? Did she really count the days in between? He must be better than he thought. "We'll go to bed early tonight. Catch up."
"We have theater tickets tonight."
"Oh." Done with the newspaper, Ross put it aside. "Do you think you could arrange a table for Dagmar and me at lunch today? I'm sure she'd like the fish chowder you serve on Thursdays."
"Then she should have made a reservation two weeks ago." Emily didn't need to remind her husband that Cafe Presto was always packed from eleven till two. "I'll see what I can do."
He followed her to the bathroom, watching as she vigorously brushed her teeth and applied a second layer of that heavy eye shadow. When she began painting her lips vermilion, he considered following her to work. "Are you all right?"Ross asked. "That's such strange makeup."
Finally she looked at him. "What's so strange?"
"Its a little tarty."Whoops, mistake. "Well, not tarty. It's a little strong. For the morning, anyway."
"Do you mind? I'm turning over a new leaf."
"What was the matter with the old leaf?"
"Just that. It was old."Emily again checked her watch. "Like me. Have fun with Dagmar, dear."
She grabbed her raincoat and hastily left, obviously not wanting him to walk downtown with her. As Ross was thinking about that, the phone rang. "Hello?"
Hang-up. Ross called his wife around noon, wondering if a table for two had unexpectedly turned up at Cafe Presto. The pastry chef told him that Emily had left at eleven and would not return until three.
Emily stepped onto Joy Street just as the thick, warm air coalesced into drizzle. It had been a cloudy, listless summer and she was glad it was almost over. Seven out of ten weekends had been wet, soddening getaways to their cabin in New Hampshire; by the middle of August, even Ross refused to drive two hours north to stare at a fogged-in lake and a cupboard of wilted jigsaw puzzles. Instead, they had flown to New York to see a matinee and a few exhibitions; that weekend turned out to be the sunniest of the season, of course.
Emily ducked into the subway at Park Street, avoiding the stagnant pools blotching the steps. The station smelled of yesterday's sweat and today's doughnuts. Not having slept well, she felt heavy and slow, stalked by a headache. Several commuters looked up from their newspapers as she walked to the center platform; maybe these bluish lamps fluoresced her makeup. As a wayside musician pipped into his flute, she watched a mouse scurry along the third rail. Behind her, two men discussed a local bank failure. Only as her train rumbled in did Emily finally focus on the poster across the tracks. It was a provocative closeup of Philippa, her twin sister, eating a green olive. CHOKE HOLD, the title of Philippa's new movie, splashed across the poster in green letters matching the olive. Philippa's name floated under-neath in red letters matching her lipstick. Opening next week.
Emily smiled wanly; she had been thinking about her sister last night. They hadn't talked in a while. Philippa had just divorced her fifth husband. Five! Was she already considering a sixth attempt at Everest? Emily hoped not. Philippa was not made for marriage. Made for men, yes; marriage, no. Not that Philippa hadn't made a sincere attempt. In each case she had tried very hard to be a perfect wife, like Emily. Then temptation, usually in the form of another man, had tripped her up. Too bad; Philippa's first husband had been fairly decent. Thereafter, she had chosen less and less wisely. The last challenger was a total loser, all eyelash and mustache, zero brain. She had tossed him out after a few weeks. But no man held on to Philippa for long. She was a bonfire, born to emit millions of cinders, burn a few fingers ... and move on. Ever since they were children, Philippa had attracted men who were a trifle too handsome to be reliable. And they always swallowed that line about her mother dying in childbirth, as if it explained and excused everything.
Several months ago, the last time the twins had seen each other, Philippa had been very blond. She had not been a brunette for years, perhaps in a tacit, merciful gesture to Emily, who was constantly mistaken for her famous sister. The confusion was understandable; they had the same face, the same graceful figures, the same enunciations. But their lives had taken very different paths, mostly because of the men they had met. Philippa's first lover had been an actor in soap operas; Emily's had been her aesthetics professor. On his account, she had stayed in school, earning a master's degree in art history. She had fiddled around Europe in his wake for another two years before realizing that academics rarely divorced wives to marry their pupils. Crushed, she went to New York and worked in a museum. One overcast March afternoon, she met Ross in front of a Whistler. After their first date, she knew this man could become Permanent. He was very intelligent. He worked hard and aimed high. He came from an accomplished family and was not too shy, not too confident, not too poor, not too rich, neither plain nor perilously handsome; he was one boiling mass of superb potential, in need only of a woman's refining hand. And he adored her. Marrying him had been the most positive move of her life. It wasn't a flamboyant life, like Philippa's. It wasn't a particularly fearless life either, not compared to Philippa's. Ah, always back to that famous sister. Now that their hair was different, people were always telling Emily that she reminded them of someone else, but they couldn't quite figure out whom. She had finally learned to accept it.
So Choke Hold had made it to the box office; last time Emily had spoken to Philippa about it, the film was throttling its third director. Emily resolved to call her sister that evening. Maybe they could meet at a health spa and exchange a few secrets, give the other a little bad advice ... forget men for a while.
The oncoming train screeched to a halt. Emily took a seat and pulled the September issue of Gourmet from her briefcase. Most other commuters were reading about the Red Sox, who had startled the bejesus out of everyone last night by almost holding on to a four-run lead through the bottom of the ninth inning. Across the aisle, an Asian student was reading the Wall Street Journal; off in the corner sat a woman with a few bags from Filene's Basement. She was probably going to charge the Returns line the second the store opened. Emily skimmed through some recipes and left the car after two stops.
The drizzle had now amplified into rain. Along State Street, a legion of umbrellas jousted for space six feet above the narrow sidewalks. Emily could smell the ocean. She took a deep breath: This was going to be a good day, damn it. In two hours her life was going to make an abrupt about-face. Stepping over the puddles surrounding Quincy Market, she noticed that the Yuppies seemed to have stopped wearing seersucker suits; summer's lassitude was perhaps over.
As she entered the kitchen of Cafe Presto, the familiar aroma of yeast and cinnamon enveloped her. "Hi, Bert,"she called to the pastry chef as he eased a tray of scones from the oven. "Everything under control?"
"You're late."He had deeply resented all eight minutes. "Start grinding the coffee. There's just so much one person can do all by himself around here."
In the seven years since she had taken over, Presto had gone from a sleepy muffin dispensary to one of the busiest cafes in Boston. Emily's pistachio twists, a recipe she had brought back from Turkey, had put Presto on the map; thereafter, hers was the typical seventy-hour-week success story. Whipping off her jacket, Emily donned an apron and prepared to face the first rush of die-hard workaholics. That was the danish and black coffee crowd. Afterward, the bran muffin and decaf contingent would start filtering in; then came the cheesecakers, who usually felt compelled to explain that they were combining breakfast and lunch. Lois, the cashier, arrived at seven-fifteen and dove into the ladies'room to apply her final two coats of hair spray and face powder; like Mass, it had been part of her morning ritual for the last umpteen years. She emerged just in time to open the registers.
"Where are Lucy and Randall?" she called, counting dollar bills.
The counter help had been fairly reliable until a month ago, when they had started sleeping together. Now they were either both late, both in a snit, or speaking a slobbery goo-goo to each other. Their co-workers, not in love themselves, were losing patience with the couple, who kept blaming everything on Not Enough Sleep Lately. "They're not here yet?"Emily cried, up to the elbows in pancake batter. "Call them at home."
"They went to the Cape yesterday," Bert reminded her. "Right now they're probably screwing on the beach as they look for whales. They couldn't care less about serving breakfast to people with clothes on."
"Call them up," Emily repeated. "Maybe they got home early."
Lois tried both numbers. "No answer."
"Then call Guy at the gym," Emily said, mounding croissants into the display cases. "Tell him to get over here and start pouring coffee."
"The boss? He's going to be furious! You know what he said last time we interrupted his workout!" Lois became so upset that she slammed the cash drawer shut on her finger. "Goddamn it!" She began dancing profanely behind the register, snapping her injured hand through the air.
The man standing first in line outside of Cafe Presto knocked on the glass and pointed at his watch. "Unlock the door,"Emily ordered Lois. "You can serve, can't you? I'll take the register." As the first wave of customers tumbled in, Emily called the gym and was put on hold. She was still on hold twenty danishes later.
A fortyish woman in exhausted jeans came to the register. Her graying hair looked as if it had been blow-dried by a Boeing 747. Maybe she had been trying to polish hubcaps with the front of her sweatshirt. Odd face, disproportionately small for her neck. Emily looked again; no, the face was all right. The neck was too thick. The woman had the shoulders of an ox. "Three scones, two milks, one coffee," she rasped.
Emily's ear was beginning to burn from clamping the phone to her shoulder. "Seven-fifty, please."
The woman paid and left. Soon she was back at the register with corn muffins and orange juice. Now a dot of raspberry jam gleamed on her sleeve. She leaned toward Emily. "Aren't you usually in an apron behind the counter?"
"I got promoted." Emily finally heard Guy's voice on the phone. "Get over here,"she hissed. "Romeo and Juliet are late again." She slammed the handset down, rubbed her neck, and stared at the food on the woman's tray. "That's four dollars."
The woman fished some damp bills out of her sweatpants. "Do I know you?"
"No." Emily looked pointedly at the next person's tray. "Five twenty-five."
Soon the woman was back with a couple of bagels. "Me again. When are you going on break?"
Come on! Why didn't any of this crap happen when Lois was at the register? "Never," Emily said.
Sighing, the woman placed a red business card on the counter. "Do you know the restaurant Diavolina?"
"Vaguely," In the South End. It served things like lobster with blueberries.
"We need a new chef. Tonight."
"What happened to your old chef?"
"He blew town."
- On Sale
- Sep 26, 2009
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Grand Central Publishing