Read Husband and Wife Online

Authors: Leah Stewart

Husband and Wife

Husband and Wife

A Novel

Leah Stewart

For my parents

Contents

Chapter One

My name is Sarah Price, and I’m married to a…

Chapter Two

I think we’re very confused, Americans, about the whole idea…

Chapter Three

Before Nathan’s confession, my primary concern about the wedding, besides…

Chapter Four

I woke alone. I had a hangover, which made me…

Chapter Five

I knew my husband. I was confident of that. No…

Chapter Six

Why’d you do that? That’s what we asked Mattie when…

Chapter Seven

“Are you sure you want me to go?” Nathan asked,…

Chapter Eight

Kate Ryan. An unremarkable name, one that brought up 2,530,000…

 

Chapter Nine

The morning after Nathan left, Mattie woke at six, an…

Chapter Ten

Nothing lasts, so the poet says, and what can we…

Chapter Eleven

In the morning, after I called every hotel and hospital…

Chapter Twelve

I put the kids to bed at six o’clock—one of…

Chapter Thirteen

I meant to go to work on Monday. I really…

Chapter Fourteen

Thursday as I pulled up to the house Nathan was…

 

Chapter Fifteen

Mattie wanted to stop. She wanted to go home. She…

Chapter Sixteen

Helen had cut her hair. The last time I’d seen…

Chapter Seventeen

In the morning Helen found me on the couch with…

Chapter Eighteen

It had been so long since I’d lived outside the…

Chapter Nineteen

“Maybe,” I said to Mattie, “I’ll write a villanelle.”

Chapter Twenty

There are distinct categories of what a person will do…

Chapter Twenty-One

In the morning I woke alone. No Nathan, no kids.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Nine days since his wife’s car had disappeared around the…

Chapter Twenty-Three

We packed up our things, searching under beds and couch…

 

My name is Sarah Price, and I’m married to a fiction writer. He’s published a couple of books, and one of them did quite well, so you might recognize his name if I told it to you, which I won’t, because I don’t want you thinking, Oh yeah, that book, I read that, it was good. This is not about that.

I am—or maybe was—a writer, too. For a long time I called myself a poet. As a child I concentrated on rhyming
fun
and
sun
, and then in high school I devoted myself to metaphors featuring storm clouds and the moon. For college workshops I wrote sonnets about what I saw as the real subjects—time and death and the end of love, although what did I know, what did I know, about any of that. Both my notions and the poems that emerged from them were ludicrously abstract. By the time I went to grad school I’d given up the effort at profundity and gone back to writing free verse that was more or less about myself. That I proved to be good at. I published in
Poetry
, won a prize and a grant, got a note that read, “Try us again” from the
Paris Review
.

Now I’m thirty-five, and these days most people would call me a working mother, a term I don’t much like. That I have a job and two small children is a better, if less succinct, way to put it. Someday I’ll look back and thirty-five will seem much younger than it does now. I don’t feel old, exactly, though I do, at times, feel weary. But in the last couple of years I’ve begun to experience the signs of impending age. The stray white hair and the inability to drink more than two beers without a hangover. The bad knee and the cracking in my hip joint and the desire to say “Oof” when I sit down in a chair. The whims of my increasingly agitated hormones. And, most disturbingly, the dawning conviction that such infirmities will only increase in number. Judging by the way these things surprise me, I must have believed age would never happen to me. For a long time, perhaps longer than I should have, I thought of myself as young. My adolescence was prolonged, in the way all the magazines have been insisting, by the fact that I waited until my thirties to get married and have children, that I waited so long to get a regular job and start worrying about my credit card debt. I’m a grown-up now. There’s no disputing that, especially not to the two small people who call me Mommy.

I take back my claim that at twenty and twenty-one I knew nothing of time and death and the end of love. I shouldn’t offer up such a commonplace untruth. It’s easy, isn’t it, to fall into the trap of devaluing what we once knew and felt, as though the complicated and compromised experiences of adulthood are somehow more authentic than the all-consuming ones of youth. Certainly I knew the pain and vulnerability of the end of love. Of course I did. Most of us learn that early.

 

We were late for a wedding, or if not late yet, in imminent danger of being so. And as usual I was ready and my husband was not. I’d been ready for half an hour, during which time he’d spent twenty minutes worrying about a small red wine stain on the tie that matched his suit, and ten minutes locating one of his shoes. The children were in the kitchen with the babysitter, a teenager whose blank youthfulness made me nervous. I could hear the baby crying, and I was as clenched as a fist, because I was still breast-feeding and the hormones made it painful to hear him cry. I wanted to go get him, but I knew if I picked him up he’d want to nurse, and I was wearing a dress already—a silk dress, at that, easily stained by breast milk—and besides I’d been thinking for half an hour that surely my husband would be ready to go any minute and I didn’t want to hike up my dress and settle down with the baby only to have him say, “Oh, you’re not ready to go?” and then disappear to his study to read music reviews online.

So I was annoyed with my husband, and getting more annoyed by the minute, but I was trying to keep that in check because I’d been looking forward to this wedding. I didn’t want to fight in the car all the way there and then spend the whole wedding struggling against the urge to make dire comments to the other guests about life with a man. Life with
my
man, in particular, which at that moment consisted of crawling around on the floor in my dress, searching for his missing shoe under the furniture and the discarded clothes and the pile of
New York Times
he’d left there since Sunday. Meanwhile he sat on the bed holding the one shoe he’d been able to locate, staring blankly at the
wall. I remember thinking, Why in God’s name doesn’t he put that shoe on?

“Sweetie,” I said. “Why don’t you go ahead and put that shoe on?”

He didn’t appear to have heard me. I sighed. Let’s just get out the door, I told myself. Let’s have a good time. On the floor in front of me I saw one of my daughter’s makeshift baby beds—this one holding her tiny stuffed pig, whose name, inexplicably, was Hemp All. I felt a rush of amused motherly affection. After a moment I realized that I was looking at my husband’s shoe, transformed by a burp cloth into a bed for a pig.

I dislodged the pig, jumped up, and presented the shoe to my husband with a flourish. He took it, still with the blank expression, looking like he had no idea what the thing was for. “Let’s put the shoes on,” I said. “Let’s go, let’s go.”

“Sarah,” he said, “I have to tell you something. Something about the book.”

When you live with a writer you know what he means by
the book
. He means
his
book, the one he’s working on, or, as in this case, the one he recently finished, the one that had arrived that very day in the form of advance reader copies. Three of them in a big padded envelope, with shiny covers and my husband’s picture on the back. We’d exclaimed over them. We’d showed them to our daughter, and laughed at how little she was impressed. We’d high-fived, only half joking, over the note from my husband’s editor: “This is going to be the big one!”

“What about the book?” I asked.

He took a breath. “Not all of it is fiction.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. I asked, but I already knew. I knew what he meant, though that knowledge was
contained not in my brain, not yet, but in a space that began to open inside my stomach, slowly, a black circle, expanding like an aperture. I’d read the book. I’d edited it, for God’s sake. I knew it intimately, word by word. But I wouldn’t even have had to read it to know what he meant. It was right there in the title:
Infidelity
. I knew what he meant before he said it, and knowing, I would have liked to stop him, but he said it before I could.

He said, “I cheated on you.”

“What?” I said, because knowing is different from believing. And then, “We have to go to a wedding.” That seemed relevant at the time.

And there you have it—the beginning of the end, as people like to say, as though there were such a thing, as though the beginning and the beginning of the end weren’t one and the same.

 

I was not a stay-at-home mother, in case all this talk about feeding the baby and dressing my husband has given that impression. I was, in fact, the primary—or at least the most consistent—breadwinner, working as the business manager in the Department of Neurobiology at Duke. We’d managed, since the kids, to cobble together a schedule that gave my husband time to work—Mattie went to preschool in the mornings, so he had the baby’s naptime to himself, and I took the kids all day Sunday and sometimes on Saturdays so he could write. The plan had been for him to write in the evenings, too, but he was often too tired, so we were looking for someone who could come in a couple mornings a week. He was frustrated by how much his progress had slowed since the babies came.

He was frustrated, yes, but he was nevertheless a good stay-at-home parent. He was good with the kids, and he did a lot around the house—far, far more, he liked to tell me with a self-righteous air, than most men. Why, spending so much more time in the house than I did, he could never find anything that was in it—that was a mystery neither of us could solve. But let’s stay focused, for now, on his transgression. On my own strange reaction: “We have to go to a wedding.” You keep thinking you have a life together, you know, a life whose primary story and struggle is parenthood and its pleasures and difficulties. You keep thinking that even when you’ve just been told differently. It turns out you go on thinking that for quite some time.

He said, “I cheated on you,” and I said, “What? We have to go to a wedding.”

“I don’t deserve you,” he said. “I don’t deserve for you to find my shoe.” And then he started to cry. He looked small, and faintly ridiculous, hunched over at the end of the bed, clutching his shoe. He’s a slender man, my husband. You might say skinny. This gives him an unfairly boyish appearance, that and the fact that he wears his hair a little on the shaggy side, and that it curls at the nape of his neck in a way I’d always found adorable. I could see those curls clearly at that moment because his head was bowed, and I wondered if she’d liked them, too, this unnamed woman whose name I never wanted to know. He wears glasses, but he wasn’t wearing them then, because he’d put in his contacts in anticipation of going out, and on the whole he looked very nice in his suit and the blue shirt I’d bought for him. His eyes are the sort that can look blue or gray or green depending on what he’s wearing, and I’d bought this shirt specifically to bring out the blue. The hair on his neck was a little overgrown,
and I wondered if he even knew that. If he knew that he had a mole on the lower left side of his back. If he knew that his lips moved slightly when he was thinking about something he was writing. I knew his body better than he did. I’d known him a long time. He was my husband.

He was really, truly crying, his whole body shaking. I shushed him, worried about the children, but he couldn’t hear me over the sounds he was making. Sentimental to the core, he’d been known to tear up at movies and weddings and, after we had the kids, commercials with babies. But the only time I’d ever seen him cry like this was when his grandmother died. The sound he was making was a death sound. That alarmed me even more than his admission. He was crying like this was the end. I wasn’t. I thought how easy, how obvious, the response to this sort of news seemed when you were watching guests on a talk show, when you weren’t the one receiving it.

“So which one was it?” I asked, and when he looked at me like he didn’t understand, I said, “Which story is about you?” The book—
the book
—was about three extramarital affairs among a group of interconnected people. It was the kind of book that inspired reviewers and fellow writers to words like
generous
and
genuine
and
human
and
heart
. The endorsements had poured in, all of them raves. And he’d been delighted, of course, and so had I, and his editor, and his agent, everyone. It was his best book yet, we all agreed. Here’s what we were thinking: glowing reviews, big sales, movie deal. From here on out a better life. All because my husband, as one blurb had said, possessed a deep understanding, and, so possessing, granted his characters the full range of their humanity. Well, good for him.

“They’re all about me, I guess,” he said.

There was a blanket chest at the end of our bed. An antique, likely brought to America on a boat from somewhere. He’d given it to me one year for my birthday. I sat down on it, and it creaked under my weight. “You had three affairs?”

“No, no, no,” he said. “Of course not. I mean, none of them are strictly true. It’s just that what…what happened…I guess it informed…it went into all of them.”

“Oh, of course, you didn’t have three affairs. Of course not,” I said. “Just one. One teensy little one.”

He was mute.

“And it inspired you, is what you’re telling me. You’re telling me where you got your ‘deep understanding.’ I guess I should have realized you didn’t just pick it up at the mall.”

Still mute. He sat there and endured me. He probably would have let me knock him down. How could he have done this to me, when I’d chosen never to do it to him? How much force would it take to knock him down? “So when did this happen?” I asked. “This inspirational affair?”

“Summer before last,” he said. “At the conference. I was drunk. I know that’s no excuse, but I was drinking way too much, and—”

“She’s a writer?”

He nodded. How easily the scenario unfolded in my mind. He’d spent two weeks that July at a writers’ conference, one of those places they go and booze it up and sleep with each other, and then go home and write their he said, she said poems or terribly delicate little short stories with epiphanies both beautiful and sad. I knew all about it. He’d been drunk on alcohol, yes, and also the heady conversation and the free-floating romantic yearning, and she’d looked
at him with eyes awash in profound understanding, she’d seemed to appreciate the beauty of his language, which the reviews had never mentioned. And so my husband—all right, his name is Nathan—had fucked another woman. That was what he’d done, and in doing so he’d doomed us to become characters from a book. But would we be characters out of his novel, with the full range of our humanity intact? Were we characters out of his novel already, and if so which ones? Or were we perhaps figures out of a contemporary short story by a middle-aged writer of the male persuasion? He could be the divorced dad who’d admit he screwed up and yet resent me, the ex-wife, for dating my inevitably dull new boyfriend, and for folding my arms and leveling at him a look of weary contempt when he arrived late to pick up the kids for the weekend. And then he’d ply them with pizza and amusement parks and express regret in that self-righteous manner that suggested really it wasn’t his fault, because he was a man after all, and what can you do? Meanwhile I’d be the ex-wife. The ex-wife, that figure of longing and resentment, that personification of promises betrayed. I’d barely gotten used to being the wife. “Hi, I’m Nathan’s wife.” After four years it still seemed like a strange thing to say.

His name, his full name, is Nathan Bennett. I kept my own, my original, name, in part because I’d published a few poems under it. In part because I just wanted to. I wanted to stay myself, though it was hard to say what I meant by that, or whether I succeeded, or whether that was even an achievable goal in the first place. “I don’t feel like myself,” my friends said, after motherhood. “When am I going to feel like myself again?” When Nathan and I married, I was a poet. When we met, I was a poet. When Nathan confessed, I was a mother,
a business manager, a wife. I’m not saying I held this against him. I’m saying he held it against me.

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